It’s been a little over two years since I left Frank Sinatra all forlorn and lonesome on that empty city street well after closing time, cigarette in hand, gazing absently into a blue fog, mourning his deteriorating marriage to Ava Gardner.
My review of In the Wee Small Hours was published on Independence Day 2018, my last review of an American artist before I launched a boycott of music exports from the USA. My modest protest lasted eighteen months, and during that time, my greatest regret was leaving my readers with a one-sided impression of Sinatra. While I completely agree with the characterization offered by Terry Teachout in the documentary Sinatra: All Or Nothing at All (“He was the poet laureate of loneliness; his songs were haunted by it.”), we also hold the image of Frank Sinatra as a man who loved the high life, the guy who clowned around with his Rat Pack buddies in Vegas, the singer with one of the most beautiful smiles I’ve ever seen, one that radiated joy and optimism.
Sinatra was also a hopeless romantic, in constant search of agape (unconditional love). His well-documented philandering can be interpreted in two ways: one, he was a typical dude on the make who viewed women as sex objects, blessed with the fame and fortune that makes getting laid a snap; or two, he was constantly searching for the all-consuming merger of body and soul and the women in his life were simply incapable of meeting both needs over the long haul. As he crooned in his first mega-hit:
All or nothing at all
Half a love never appealed to me
If your heart never could yield to me
Then I’d rather, rather have nothing at all
And as is often the case with Frank Sinatra, both interpretations are probably 100% on the money.
Songs for Swingin’ Lovers, an album that celebrates the joys of love through Sinatra’s interpretations of songs from The Great American Songbook, was the fourth in a series of collaborations with arranger-conductor Nelson Riddle, recorded less than a year after In the Wee Small Hours. The creative synergy so obviously manifested on the darker album continues unabated here, the two albums forming a yin and yang of heartbreak and happiness. While critics agree that the two works are equal in terms of quality, In the Wee Small Hours gets the lion’s share of critical attention because it is considered “serious.” This bias towards gloom and doom is part of the human condition; Shakespeare wrote seventeen comedies, but we spent most of our time in lit class on four tragedies: Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth and King Lear. Most of the history we study focuses on war, pestilence and disaster; what passes for news today is largely bad news; clips that describe the good things humans do are diminished by the adjectives “heartwarming” and “light” and stuck at the end of the newscast.
Though the same bias exists in music criticism (Beethoven’s symphonies are considered “superior” to Schubert’s lieder), popular music has often served as an antidote to our obsession with the bleak. Although I don’t have exact figures (though it’s possible that someone out there looking for something to do while riding out the pandemic may already be on it), I think it’s a safe bet that most of the popular songs written over the centuries are about love and that most love songs are more “I love my baby and she loves me” than “My baby left me.” The need to love and be loved is also an essential facet of the human condition, and love songs capture many of our most cherished hopes and dreams. Love brings out the best in us and in each other; automatically dismissing love songs out-of-hand as “nice,” “sweet” or “soft stuff” should be considered absolute sacrilege.
Great philosophers have a gift for the pithy statement that cuts through our mental meandering and captures the essence of the matter of hand, and one of the greatest philosophers of the 20th Century, holographic Vegas lounge singer Vic Fontaine (portrayed by James Darren on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine), put it this way:
“It’s love, baby. Nothing better than that.”
Songs for Swingin’ Lovers is Sinatra and Riddle at the top of their game, working with the best studio musicians and recording engineers in the business, swinging with force and finesse.
Nothin’ better than that, baby.
I specifically mention the engineers because the quality of the recording knocks my socks off every time I take Songs for Swingin’ Lovers for a spin. I have a similar reaction after listening to Masterpieces by Ellington, so part of my delight can be attributed to the sheer warmth of analog recording on the Ampex 200 series tape machine used for both albums. The other factor affecting my perception is a rather snooty, probably millennial attitude towards the primitive recording techniques of the time and a quickly-becoming-archaic belief that better technology means better outcomes. Any DIY software today has a thousand times the recording capability of a 50s set-up, but the little recordings of the piano-flute duets my mother and I come up with don’t come close to the quality and crystal-clarity of Songs for Swingin’ Lovers—and the Capitol engineers had to deal with a full swing band with up to thirty-six musicians (not to mention a very demanding vocalist).
As a highly informative piece I found at Sound on Sound conclusively proves, ingenuity + collaboration + persistence can overcome any and all technological limitations. Engineer John Paladino related some of the challenges facing the crew, the musicians and the arranger:
Having experimented as to where the sound really came from on each instrument, I found that miking lower — maybe two-and-a-half to three feet above the floor, shooting straight under the music stands — provided a nice fullness to the saxes. You see, on stage the sax section would play standing up, but even when they addressed the microphone full-on they still wouldn’t get the boost that the floor provided. Sometimes, that was very difficult to handle because the woodwind guys would have to play multiple instruments: after playing a sax, a guy might then have to play a flute, and we didn’t have extra mics [to accommodate different setups].
This was educational for the arranger. He had to know some of the pitfalls of recording, and that he couldn’t all of a sudden just go from a full sax section to a little old flute solo. He had to somehow work it into the arrangement so that the guy could, perhaps, quickly get up and go to another microphone. In the beginning, someone like Nelson Riddle didn’t know how to write for a recording . . . and we didn’t know how to record for a recording! We were all learning at the same time. I’d tell him, ‘Nelson, I can’t do this. You’ve got the strings here against the brass and it won’t work.’ Well, Nelson became very adept at that — he was very good — and all of the on-call arrangers got wise to that, too.
And at the center of it all, you have the man George Will described in a centennial piece on Sinatra as “unquestionably . . . the greatest singer of American songs.” Many of Mr. Paladino’s challenges had to do with Sinatra’s insistence on recording with a live band, but Sinatra also challenged everyone in the studio to achieve an exceptionally high level of craftsmanship, including and especially himself. Paladino remembered, “Frank knew his own voice pretty well, and when he wasn’t singing well, he’d walk out of a session. I’ve got to give him credit for that. In fact, I’ve got no criticism of Frank at all. His criticisms of the musicians’ playing were really top-notch, because they locked in with what he was doing. He knew what he was doing, and he knew what he wanted the band to do.”
Sure, all these guys (and the three gals in the band) were paid for their efforts, but it is clear from the result that their work was a labor of love. Sinatra would accept nothing less the best from himself and the people around him, and his high standards became their high standards.
Nothin’ better than that, baby.
The album kicks off with the perfectly thematic “You Make Me Feel So Young,” a song lifted from the positively dreadful film “Three Little Girls in Blue” and transformed into a swing masterpiece by Sinatra and Riddle. The arrangement is split into three parts: the two repeated verses and a coda. After a healthy opening from the horn section, Riddle tones it down a bit to establish a relaxed, happy-go-lucky mood for the first verse. When Frank enters in marvelous voice, he mirrors that happy-go-lucky feeling so well that you can picture him with his hat at a jocular angle, hands in his pockets, a girl at his side, “Running around the meadow/Pickin’ up lots of forget-me-nots.” Prior to the start of that verse, muted horns handle the counterpoint, but right after Sinatra delivers the fanciful lines “I wanna go and bounce the moon/Just like a toy balloon,” Harry Klee takes over those duties with light responses from the flute that complete the meadow-scape with images of flittering butterflies. I feel like squealing with delight when Harry executes a perfect rising glissando to introduce the “Pickin’ up lots of forget-me-nots” line and then harmonizes with Sinatra’s voice. While all this is going on, Riddle has followed up on Sinatra’s suggestion for a continuous string background, providing a subtle watercolor wash to the overall picture. As we move forward, the attention shifts entirely to Sinatra’s delivery, phrasing and astounding breath control as he executes what turns out to be a modest crescendo. I don’t know how he managed to avoid taking a breath after belting out the line “And a wonderful fling to be flung,” where he extends the high-register note of the word “flung” and then immediately drops an octave to deliver “And even when I’m old and gray” without a pause. He then shows us he still has plenty left in the tank with his sinuous yet powerful delivery of the closing lines.
Following his lead and anticipating the denouement, the full band returns with a more muscular swing, cueing Frank to repeat the verse, albeit in a more jazzy, finger-snapping style. I can’t describe the build and crescendo of the second part any better than Will Friedman did in Sinatra! The Song Is You: A Singer’s Art: “Even more effective are the ways he increases the emotional, no less than the musical, pitch within a single track: “You Make Me Feel So Young” modulates from mere cheerfulness to exalted rapture so overpoweringly it could make a statue want to fall in love.” The flute then returns for the gentler coda, this time reflecting those little kisses we give our lovers when all passion is spent. Once you get past the ecstasy the song generates (if that’s possible), you might realize that the Sinatra-Riddle take on “You Make Me Feel So Young” serves as a masterclass lesson in vocal command and the art of musical arrangement.
Technically speaking, “It Happened in Monterey” doesn’t fit with the album’s theme since Frank left the girl and “threw away the key to paradise,” but Riddle and Sinatra deserve medals for transforming the patently odd original into a serviceable swing number. Of the two competing versions of the original, Ruth Etting (of “Ten Cents a Dance” fame) wins out over Paul Whiteman, but even Ruth couldn’t overcome the molasses-level slow tempo set in 3/4 time nor the lame attempt to “Mexicanize” the song with Spanish guitar. The reconstruction eliminates one of those tedious lyrical introductions that often accompanied popular numbers in the 20s and 30s (Al Jolson’s discography is full of them), replaces it with an attention-grabbing flurry of horns, strings and flute, and shifts the time signature to 4/4. The structure of the new arrangement is similar to that of “You Make Me Feel So Young,” with the harder swing in the second verse marked by sharp punctuations from the horn section and sexy bursts of solo trumpet.
The metaphor of love-as-addiction is familiar to everyone who has seen the video version of Robert Palmer’s “Addicted to Love” with the five leggy, red-lipped broads undulating to the song’s thrusting rhythm or to fans into the Huey Lewis and the News hit “I Want a New Drug.” The Songfacts entry on Palmer’s number is remiss in that it identifies the trope as a purely ’80s phenomenon, failing to note that “You’re Getting to Be a Habit with Me” initiated this micro-genre way back in 1932. The original sort of appears in the film 42nd Street (vocalist Bebe Daniels performs a quick run-through that is interrupted by dialogue); the version that went to the top of the charts came from Bing Crosby and Guy Lombardo. The Crosby version is rather stiff and formal, befitting the sexless elegance of Lombardo’s music, and though Riddle and Sinatra chose a slightly slower tempo for their rendition, the song flows nice and easy, and the combination of strings, celeste and flute in the instrumental passage turns the song into something approaching sweet and cuddly, though not cloyingly so. The images of addiction are far less harsh than Palmer’s “Your heart sweats, your body shakes,” as the only substances mentioned are coffee and tea . . . not the cigarettes and booze one would expect from Frank Sinatra, who often changed lyrics to suit his taste.
Maurice Chevalier (who sang much better in his native French) turned “You Brought a New Kind of Love to Me” into a hit, his version earning the honor of satirization via the Marx Brothers in Monkey Business. The lyrics caught the attention of this kinky broad due to the ambivalent expression of male submissiveness:
I’m hip that I’m the slave, you’re the queen
Still you might understand that underneath it all
You’re a maid and I am only a man
That verse only makes sense if you remember that most men are in denial about their desire to serve the superior sex. Sinatra is relatively restrained in this piece, with the band contributing the subliminal oomph. Apparently the boys in the band were more enthusiastic about the possibility of engaging with a dominatrix.
You may be familiar with the Johnny Mercer-Richard Whiting song “Too Marvelous for Words” via Jo Stafford’s version that appears in the Bogie-Bacall vehicle Dark Passage, or, if you go back aways, the runaway hit rendition by Der Bingle. I’m not all that hot on Crosby, but Jo Stafford is one of my favorite singers and I absolutely love her take on this marvelously crafted song.
That said, Frank really knocks this one out of the park. The key to Sinatra’s performance here is his remarkable gift for phrasing; as George Will put it, “For Sinatra, before a song was music, it was words alone. He studied lyrics, internalized them, then sang, making music from poems.” In the first verse, you hear Sinatra in a relaxed voice, taking time to savor the euphony of Mercer’s lyrics (“Like glorious, glamorous/And that old standby amorous”), maintaining his delight with rhyming phonemes while nailing the rare but brilliant middle-of-the-verse key change (“I mean they’re just not swell enough”). Song established, Frank takes a breather while the band launches into a hard swing featuring the trumpet section led by Harry “Sweets” Edison with two brief double bass solos adding dynamic and sonic contrast. The second bass solo cues Frank to step up to the mike, and baby, does that man know how to fly or what? His phrasing is now in perfect sync with the swing, riding the wave all the way to the thrilling crescendo where he closes his performance on a long, unbroken note at the upper reaches of his range. I like to imagine myself watching Sinatra performing “Too Marvelous for Words” in Vegas, where at the end of the performance I leap out of my seat to give him a standing ovation, rip off my bra and fling it onto the stage.
Yeah, I’m that kind of girl.
Speaking of striptease, ladies, if you’re into déshabiller érotique as a way of spicing up the foreplay, Sinatra’s version of “Old Devil Moon” would provide the perfect accompaniment. Unlike the semi-comic David Rose number that immediately jumps to climax while calling up images of sleaze and tawdriness, Sinatra and Riddle open with a playful dialogue between singer, flute, harp and trumpet, each providing an emotional response to the unexpected appearance of a beautiful vision in silky lingerie:
I looked at you and suddenly (rising harp followed by a quick trumpet burst—initial excitement)
Something in your eyes I see (flute slowly moving up the scale as the lovers make eye contact))
Soon begins bewitching me (swirling flute reflecting that delightful sense of vertigo when you shift gears from the rational to the irrational erotic urge)
Sinatra then goes full jazz singer, filling the tune with blue notes and the languorous phrasing of Billie Holiday. Meanwhile, the band responds with a combination attack featuring slow, hip-shaking rhythms, sudden punctuations and direct responses to Frank’s lyrics (the laughing trumpets that accompany the line “Wanna laugh like a loon”). And baby, they’re just warming up! The instrumental break is a striptease artist’s dream, the powerful horns providing hip-thrusting punctuation and “Sweets” Edison bringing the sass with his trumpet responses. “Old Devil Moon” is so hot that . . . well, let me borrow another phrase from Vic Fontaine. If this song doesn’t raise your temperature, “you’d better check the obituary column, because chances are you’re in it, pallie.”
“Pennies from Heaven” is another questionable thematic choice, as it’s one of those songs like “Happy Days Are Here Again,” a tune designed to sustain American optimism during the Great Depression. The core thought behind the song—you have to take the good with the bad—was already covered by Jolson in “April Showers.” What’s different is the strange use of a copper coin in a rain shower. Hey! Hail and sleet are bad enough, but a rainshower of pennies would surely leave dents in my skull! I’m also operating under the bias that I have never lived one moment in my life when a penny was worth a damn and I found it intensely annoying whenever the clerk tried to give me pennies in my change back when I lived in the States. I did some research and found that a penny wasn’t really good for much back in 1936. A candy bar, an ice cream cone, a bottle of Coke or a cup of coffee would set you back a nickel, and the only food item I could find that was close to penny value (other than the bad joke known as penny candy) was a pound of cabbage (1.5 cents). Perhaps it meant a lot more in 1936 when people had to save enough pennies to feed a poor family, but I can’t come up with a reason why people would want to be reminded of those days in a song twenty years later. It’s always nice to hear Sinatra sing, but I just can’t buy this song, no matter how many pennies you rain on my head.
“Love Is Here to Stay” was the last song George Gershwin wrote before his passing at the too-early age of 38. I have fond memories of this song because, well, it wasn’t the first song I learned on piano but it was the first song I played that earned a compliment from my piano teacher on my touch and rhythm (only took four years). It’s really a delightful song to play, filled with sixth, ninth and diminished chords and designed to be presented in “moderate swing time.” The melody is the ultimate expression of what it means to “tinkle the ivories,” a light, cascading flow of perfectly-arranged notes. Sinatra captures that feeling in his light, lilting vocal, and though it feels at times Riddle has the band swinging a little more intensely than “moderate,” it all works like a charm.
It took twenty-two takes and completely burned out the trombone player, but “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” remains one of the most exciting performances in popular music history. Astonishingly, the song was a last-minute addition to the album and Nelson Riddle had to come up with the arrangement in a hurry (in a taxicab on the way to the studio). “Go with what you know” is always a good starting point when panic sets in, and Riddle had spent quite a bit of time and energy studying the works of Maurice Ravel. Although “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” bears little rhythmic resemblance to Bolero and its 3/4 time signature with a triplet on the second beat, Riddle thought that its skeletal form of a repeating theme combined with a slow build leading to a veritable musical explosion might just work. The real challenge Riddle faced was Ravel spread his build over a period of eighteen or so minutes; Riddle had about three-and-a-half minutes to work with.
As in Bolero, Riddle established the repeating figure in the introductory passage that continues in the background once Sinatra launches his vocal (it sounds like a baritone sax, but biographer James Kaplan raised the possibility of a bass clarinet). Though the figure is not continuously repeated throughout the song (as it is in most of Ravel’s work), the figure re-emerges between verses, serves as a bridge to the instrumental break and makes a crucial reappearance in the fade. While most of the critical and popular attention justifiably focus on Sinatra’s vocal and Milt Bernhart’s once-in-a-millennium trombone solo, these tiny bits of repetition solidify the structure while giving the listener a satisfying sense of continuity and resolution. No wonder the band gave Riddle a standing ovation for this beautifully-designed arrangement.
This may be the twenty-second take but Ol’ Blue Eyes sounds completely relaxed as he savors Cole Porter’s typically clever lyrics in the first two stanzas. Though there are moments when you feel he’s ready to shift to belt-out mode in a heartbeat, he remains true to Riddle’s build, easing off at just the right moments. At this point, Riddle fast-forwards the build (in comparison to Bolero), heralding the shift by allowing a slightly truncated version of the figure to serve as a foundation while the strings build in volume and pitch; eventually the baritone sax eases out of its moorings with a more muscular sound. Right at the peak of the building tension, we hear a flurry of trumpets followed immediately by Milt Bernhart’s trombone, a sound that defines the phrase, “let it rip.” Milt blows at a gale force level pretty much throughout the solo, but somehow manages to maintain complete control of his instrument, hitting those beautiful blue notes and moving in and out of the strong swing delivered by the band.
Given the energy, the power and the superb craftsmanship displayed by Milt and the band, someone who has never heard Frank Sinatra sing may wonder if Riddle made a serious faux pas in designing an arrangement that requires the singer to follow such a stunning display of musical talent. “How do you top that?” our naïve listener mutters to himself.
What follows provides complete justification for Sinatra’s demand for full band accompaniment as well as his insistence on complete takes. I think part of the reason that no singer has come close to matching Sinatra in the intervening years has to do with advanced recording technology that allows a singer to record a vocal several times and then let the engineers cherry-pick the best parts. While some editing and patching were indeed possible with the primitive recording tools of the ’50s, Sinatra understood that songs are holistic forms of communication and that to deliver a song in a pleasing fashion made certain demands on a singer that he gladly accepted as part of the craft. To put it simply, he wanted full artistic control over his work and the opportunity to capture the feeling of a live performance. To accomplish that, he needed to draw on the energy of a full band to replicate the stage experience.
Sinatra’s delivery of the verses leaned more towards the tender and romantic; in the thrilling final chorus he sounds like a man who has experienced a revelation. Though his excitement shines through with absolute clarity, he never comes close to losing command of the song. He delivers the first three lines in a tone of budding excitement, then makes a crucial change in the lyrics: “In spite of a warning voice that comes in the night/And repeats, how it yells in my ear.” He then shifts to full belt-out mode, adding lyrics that bring the narrative closer to conversational speech while adding some terribly exciting rhythmic variation to his vocal:
Don’t you know, little fool, you never can win
Why not use your mentality, step up, wake up to reality?
But each time that I do just the thought of you
Makes me stop just before I begin
The music stops briefly on “begin,” allowing Sinatra to flip back to warm-and-tender as he delivers the closing lines:
Cause I’ve got you under my skin
Yes, I’ve got you under my skin
I get the chills so many times during the final chorus that when I finally melt like butter to those closing lines, part of me feels like crying in gratitude. No, it doesn’t get any better than that.
After the positively orgasmic experience of “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” we need something a bit less taxing and the Van Heusen-Mercer composition “I Thought About You” fills the bill nicely. The hit version featured Mildred Bailey singing for Benny Goodman and His Orchestra, and I think Riddle’s decision to downplay the clarinet and pump up the horn section was a good call—you can’t top Benny Goodman unless you’re Artie Shaw. It’s followed by “We’ll Be Together Again,” the only performance on the album that doesn’t move my needle . . . I don’t know if it’s the song, the arrangement or Frank’s approach, but it doesn’t seem to be a particularly good showcase for Sinatra’s talents.
I’m not exactly sure why Sinatra chose to record a highly sanitized version of “Makin’ Whoopee,” the 1928 number made justifiably famous by Eddie Cantor. Cantor’s version is much more suggestive, maybe one step away from explicit. Sinatra’s version describes a man who is pussy-whipped; Cantor’s a man who’s cheating on his wife and eventually has to pay up in divorce court. Here’s a comparison of just the first two verses:
The countryside is all in bloom
The flowers and treezes, the birds and beezes are making whoopee
The chorus sings, “Here comes the bride.”
Another victim is by her side.
He’s lost his reason cause it’s the season
For making whoopee.
Another bride, another June
Another sunny honeymoon
Another season, another reason
For makin’ whoopee
A lot of shoes, a lot of rice
The groom is nervous, he answers twice
It’s really killin’ that he’s so willin’
To make whoopee
I hate to say this, but Sinatra’s version qualifies as (ugh) “cute.” A line like “The groom is nervous, he answers twice” is a bit of dialogue that scarcely qualifies for a titter on the laugh track. In contrast to the tepid lyrics, the band is on fire, perhaps in an attempt to compensate for Frank’s curiously missing libido; nonetheless, his delivery is as flawless as ever. Sinatra also plays it safe on the following track, “Swingin’ Down the Lane,” and once again, the band brings the fire with some seriously hot horn work.
There’s nothing like a sprightly Cole Porter tune to get the blood pumping, but I would argue that the 1934 original featuring Ramona Davies for the Paul Whiteman Orchestra was over-the-top sprightly with its herky-jerky high-speed tempo. Sinatra and Riddle executed a full rebuild on this one, dispensing with the oh-so 30s introduction, ridding the lyrics of era-specific references (FDR, Mae West, Vanderbilts and Whitneys), and, most importantly, reducing the tempo and smoothing out the rhythm (an approach Ella Fitzgerald would embrace a year later on Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Cole Porter Songbook). The reconstruction of the beat into something more foundational gives the band lots of room to add the punctuation that transforms the song into a hot swing number in the second go-round, inspiring Sinatra to yet another thrilling finish.
I also like what they did with the lyrics. Combined with Sinatra’s perfectly clear enunciation, the re-arrangement gives the listener a better opportunity to appreciate the witticisms that made the cut:
The world has gone mad today and good’s bad today
And black’s white today and day’s night today
When most guys today that women prize today
Are just silly gigolos
I agree with most of the cuts save one—I wish they would have found room for “When ev’ry night the set that’s smart is intruding in nudist parties in studios.” While the editing is consistent with the sanitization of “Makin’ Whoopee,” I’m now very curious to find out if the upper crust really and truly humped their way through the Great Depression, knifing their way through the bread lines to arrive on time for the orgies, the bastards.
Songs for Swingin’ Lovers closes with “How About You?” originally performed as a duet by Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney in the film Babes on Broadway. The piece follows the dominant format used in the album, with a gentler first go-round followed by a swingin’ finish and fade. Riddle again finds a place for the celeste in that sweet first section; by contrast, the second section is full band on fire with Frank happily riding the waves. What I love most about the song is Sinatra’s plunge into the lowest part of his register on the parting words, “How about you?” I can picture him lifting his head up after nailing that line with his big, beautiful smile lighting up the studio.
Songs for Swingin’ Lovers remains an exhilarating experience sixty-three years after its release . . . but I have to admit it left me feeling more than a bit sad. The craftsmanship demonstrated by Sinatra, Riddle, the band members and the production team has been sorely missing from the vast majority of popular music released in this century. Auto-tune can make a shitty singer seem like a diva; this song is indistinguishable from that song; drummers are becoming obsolete. Society has devalued the craftsperson, whether it’s the jazz musician who toils in obscurity or the people who struggle to make a living working with their hands. When I lived in the States, I remember my astonishment that software engineers were commonly paid in six figures to produce products that never fail to disappoint the user. The visual arts have become portfolio investments; the best-seller lists are filled with tell-alls and celebrities with ghost-writers; and yes, music has become a commodity, screwing music creators in the process. I don’t think a person can be nostalgic about an era she never lived through, but I’d give anything to live in a world filled with Sinatras, Riddles, Milt Bernharts and John Paladinos—people who really cared about, respected and cherished the opportunity to make great and timeless music.
Regular readers may remember that at this time last year both Dad and I had taken a rain check on Major League Baseball because it was depressing to watch anything of American origin with the country going down the fascist-racist path.
The George Floyd protests gave my dear father hope that the American people had finally come to their senses and that real change was in the air. Concurrently with those protests, polls also showed Joe Biden with a healthy lead over Voldemort and that the Democrats had a real shot at taking the Senate and booting Voldemort’s partner-in-crime-and-corruption, Mitch McConnell, out of the all-powerful majority leader role. And wild-eyed optimist that he is, Dad saw the visible support of professional athletes on behalf of the BLM protests as another sign that the United States had finally turned things around . . . and a great excuse for tuning in truncated MLB season and the NBA playoffs.
Note that his daughter does not share his optimism. Biden could be leading by 30 points and it wouldn’t matter. The COVID-19 numbers combined with Voldemort’s approval rating tell me that 40 percent of Americans think he’s doing a helluva job, and that’s more than enough cover for either another stolen election or a Reichstag fire coupled with a state-of-emergency suspension of all civil rights. Since I don’t think the fat fuck can physically survive for long, I fully expect Ivanka to be running the country sometime in 2021.
Still pretty sour on my former homeland (though I go through spurts when I can’t help but tune into the horror show called “news”), I initially refused my father’s invitations to come over and watch some baseball after I returned from vacation. But dad has a way of wearing me down and I finally agreed to watch the Giants-Dodgers matchup scheduled for August 26 (which we would watch via DVR on the 27th). Giants-Dodgers games were always the most intense, (even when the Giants sucked, as they do now), so I thought it might be fun to indulge in nostalgia.
“Sorry, Sunshine—game canceled.”
“What? In August? In California? There can’t be any wildfires that close to the Bay! Coronavirus?”
“No—I guess you haven’t heard the latest. The cops shot another black man in the back.”
“Both teams decided not to play in protest of the shooting.”
For a moment I was stunned that the Giants and Dodgers could be on the same side under any circumstances, but after my brain had time to process the news, I said, “That is fucking awesome!”
“It’s happening, sunshine. People aren’t putting up with this shit anymore. Protesting works.”
“Spoken like a true son of the 60s. But whether it works or not, I’m glad they did what they did. Maybe it will sink in somewhere down the line, but . . .”
“Hey. How’s that review of Freewheelin‘ you promised me? Maybe that will rescue you from your cynicism.”
“Haven’t started it yet. And by the way, cynicism is just a manifestation of frustrated idealism. I long for a better world but I don’t think most people give a shit—hence, cynicism.”
“Well, let’s see how you feel after Freewheelin’. May young Bob heal your soul.”
Bob Dylan’s first album sold so poorly that there was talk at Columbia about dropping him. Fortunately for posterity, John Hammond’s voice still carried a lot of weight, and with additional support from Johnny Cash, he managed to convince the nay-sayers that Dylan deserved another shot.
While Dylan’s début featured only two original compositions (both revealing the influence of Woody Guthrie), in the months that followed he found his muse and his voice. The muse in question was a political activist for the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) by the name of Suze Rotolo; you can see her “smile that could light up a street full of people” (according to Dylan) on the album cover. There is no question that his relationship with Suze motivated Dylan to shift his songwriting attention to more topical subjects involving culture and politics, but Dylan’s embrace of Woody Guthrie had already predisposed him to follow that path.
What’s important is what he admired about Guthrie: “The songs themselves had the infinite sweep of humanity in them.” Some protest songs are satirical, others paint the ugly truth with a grim brush, but some of the greatest protest songs express deep empathy from those suffering from injustice. Sometimes that empathy is captured in the lyrics (Phil Ochs’ “There But for Fortune”); sometimes it’s captured in the singer’s interpretation (Frank Sinatra’s performance of “Ol’ Man River” at Carnegie Hall). The fact that Dylan identified with Guthrie’s empathy meant he was capable of empathy himself . . . he just needed to let it come to the surface in his own compositions.
Dylan covers all the bases on The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan: the satiric, the bleak, the empathetic, the absurd and the self-pitying. This is the folk version of Bob Dylan; most of the songs are just Dylan with his guitar and harmonica. After listening to the layered and heavily processed recordings of the Beach Boys and immersing myself in the complex tunings and noise rock of Sonic Youth (review coming soon), I have to say that the sheer simplicity of the album was refreshing, reminding me that sometimes a simple arrangement of voice and guitar can have more power than a symphony orchestra or the loudest amp stacks.
“Blowin’ in the Wind”: What can be said about a song that is familiar all over the world, a song that people know so well that they’ve forgotten its meaning and sing it in rote like they do “The Star-Spangled Banner?” Quite a lot, actually. One sure-fire test of determining whether or not a creative effort qualifies as art is timelessness, and “Blowin in the Wind” is unfortunately timeless . . . depending on your sense of morality.
Dylan’s version is as simple as simple gets: a three-chord guitar song in I-IV-V mode. It might have been one of the first songs you learned when you were trying to get your head and fingers around the guitar. The popular version by Peter, Paul & Mary is more elaborate, with the choral melody established in the guitar intro and the emphatic shift to the V chord in the verse lines where Dylan returns to the root. PP&M also added a complementary minor chord that provides a pointed note of sadness. Placing them both in the same key for comparison, Dylan’s version is G-C-D and PP&M’s G-C-D7-Em. Easy peasy.
Dylan sings in a voice characterized by weariness and sadness, generally allowing the words to speak for themselves. PP&M made more extensive use of different dynamics (soft-LOUD) and Mary Travers’ heartfelt passion comes through loud and clear above the harmonies. Both versions work, confirming the truth that great songs allow for multiple interpretations. I think the difference between the two is that Mary Travers’ approach comes across as advocacy, a call to action, whereas Bob Dylan’s take is as an expression of empathy, a call to reflect on the suffering of the disadvantaged. The line “How many years can some people exist/Before they’re allowed to be free?” is clearly related to the Civil Rights Movement, and the weariness in Bob’s voice reflects the weariness of African-Americans who at that time had waited a century to achieve true emancipation. What’s truly remarkable is that this is Bob Dylan at twenty-one, fresh from the prairie, having spent most of his life in an area of the country where the population is as white as the winter snow, writing a song that captured “the infinite sweep of humanity.”
I think “Blowin’ in the Wind” is a beautiful and moving song . . . and I find it intensely frustrating. I feel the same way about “We Shall Overcome”— I resist the “someday” in that song as much as I resist “the answer, my friends, is blowin’ in the wind.” I want the answers to the rhetorical questions posed in the song to be expressed with crystal clarity. End war. Eliminate injustice. Give everyone the freedom to live their lives to their fullest potential. Transform the waste of hatred and fear into love and respect. Stop fucking around and do it now.
When “Blowin’ in the Wind” was published in the now-defunct folk journal Sing Out!, Dylan added some commentary about the meaning of the song. One statement stood out for me: “I still say that some of the biggest criminals are those that turn their heads away when they see wrong and know it’s wrong.” The corresponding line in the song is “How many times can a man turn his head/And pretend that he just doesn’t see?”
I thought about that comment a lot and came to the conclusion that it no longer applies to the United States. The people in the Trump administration don’t think separating children from their parents and putting them in cages is wrong: it is what it is. They don’t think using the power of their offices to enrich themselves is wrong: it is what it is. They don’t think . . . well, let’s skip down to the last verse:
How many ears must one man have
Before he can hear people cry?
How many deaths will it take ’til he knows
That too many people have died?
Narcissistic sociopaths can’t feel empathy, so the first question is moot. As for the second question, apparently 183,000 dead Americans (as of today) isn’t enough for Trump and the GOP. It is what it is.
The timelessness of “Blowin’ in the Wind” is dependent on listeners having a certain amount of moral fiber. The song fails the timelessness test in a post-morality, post-truth universe.
“Girl from the North Country”: When young Bob visited the UK, he hooked up with legendary folk artist Martin Carthy and learned a few tunes, including the song we know as “Scarborough Fair.” Bob borrowed some bits (plagiarism doesn’t apply to songs in the public domain) to tell a tale of love long past. As is usually the case with the gossip-obsessed music press, there was a lot of speculation about which of three former Dylan lovers was the girl in the song, to which I respond, “WHO GIVES A SHIT?”
The song is bookended by the “she once was a true love of mine” verses we all know, with the more interesting differentiation contained in the three middle stanzas. Bob is obviously describing a scene that took place in his northern Minnesota days (I’ve never heard of New York City referred to as “the north country”) and he paints a vivid picture of a memory that he carried with him to Greenwich Village:
If you go when the snowflakes storm
When the rivers freeze and summer ends
Please see if she has a coat so warm
To keep her from the howlin’ winds
Please see if her hair hangs long,
If it rolls and flows all down her breast.
Please see for me if her hair’s hangin’ long,
That’s the way I remember her best.
Men—always looking at the tits. I’m glad he cut off the verse before launching into a paean about her Minnesota-winter rock-hard nipples.
Seriously, this is a lovely little song and Bob sings it with tender feeling.
“Masters of War”: After that charming little interlude it’s back to the heavy stuff, and Dylan pulls no punches in this all-out attack on the merchants of death who profit from mass misery. Like “Girl from the North Country,” the tune is from an English folk song (“Nottamun Town”). I suppose you could say the two songs share similar themes, as both describe manifestations of insanity (though “Nottamun Town” is far more absurdist and has nothing to do with war). While I completely agree with Dylan’s attack on immoral beings who profit from meaningless death, I think it was a mistake to shape the song as a direct challenge, because a.) they’re never going to listen, b.) they don’t give a shit about saving their souls, only their profits and c.) it sounds more like an angry rant of one individual instead of a clarion call to join with the singer to end the travesty of profitable war. The last verse is really bitter (much like a few Woody Guthrie songs directed at the fascists):
And I hope that you die
And your death will come soon
I’ll follow your casket
On a pale afternoon
And I’ll watch while you’re lowered
Down to your deathbed
And I’ll stand over your grave
‘Til I’m sure that you’re dead
Oh, Bobby, try another tack. He’ll just be replaced by another greedy, ghoulish asshole.
“Down the Highway”: This is a little highway-and-suitcase-in-my-hand 12-bar blues featuring some energetic strumming as Dylan longs for Suze Rotolo, who had left New York for a while to study in Italy. The last lines “From the Golden Gate Bridge/All the way to the Statue of Liberty” are pure Guthrie. The song isn’t particularly memorable, but don’t worry—there’s a better song about his shaky relationship with Suze a few tracks down the highway.
“Bob Dylan’s Blues”: This not-much-of-song has some value as background material concerning Dylan’s self-image and fetishes (not the fun, naughty kind but standard neurotic obsessions). He depicts himself in boots, ready for the day a few years down the road when his boot heels will feel like wanderin’. The fetish is one he shares with Woody Guthrie: the outlaw armed with a six-shooter.
Well, lookit here buddy
You want to be like me?
Pull out your six-shooter
And rob every bank you can see
Tell the judge I said it was all right
Guthrie’s catalog is peppered with songs about greedy, cold-hearted banks (villains) and bank robbers (heroes). In “Pretty Boy Floyd,” he defended the murderer as a friend to the poor, crediting Floyd with paying off the mortgages of struggling farmers and buying Christmas dinners for families on relief. Dylan also expressed his admiration for sociopaths like Floyd, Billy the Kid, and of course, John Wesley Hardin (no g)—the mythical rob-from-the-rich-and-give-to-the poor crowd.
I will never understand the American fetish with guns, nor the romance attached to the outlaw.
“A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall”: Dylan adopted the question/answer format of “Lord Randall” (Roud 10, Child 12), an old border song dramatizing a conversation between mother and son where sonny boy eventually discloses he is about to croak off because his (lover, stepmother, or other mom-competitor) poisoned his fish soup.
Dylan’s tale is equally dark but far richer than an already-solved murder mystery. He described the sentiments that drove him to compose “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” thusly: “After a while you become aware of nothing but a culture of feeling, of black days, of schism, evil for evil, the common destiny of the human being getting thrown off course. It’s all one long funeral song.”
Try to tell me Bob Dylan’s work isn’t relevant today.
The song is NOT about the Cuban Missile Crisis (Dylan wrote it a month before that seminal event). Dylan explained it on the album liner notes: “‘Hard Rain’ is a desperate kind of song. Every line in it is actually the start of a whole song. But when I wrote it, I thought I wouldn’t have enough time alive to write all those songs so I put all I could into this one.”
Hell, he could have thrown the Cuban Missile Crisis in there had he known about it, as the song is about the perpetual low-grade fever the human race has suffered from since Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Living on the edge of imminent doom has shaped human consciousness for decades; the world continues to move from crisis to crisis, from one unsolvable problem to another, and we’re always waiting for the next hammer to drop. We’re addicted to bad news, which is why the media focuses on all the awful stuff rather than any of the good stuff. Addicts need their daily fix; encouraging addiction is profitable. The hard rain is not fallout rain, but the sense that “something big is coming”—symbolic of the dread we live with every day.
Bob Dylan understood that, and in an interview with Studs Terkel way back in 1963—long before the advent of news-as-entertainment and the blurring of fact and opinion—he commented, “In the last verse, when I say, ‘the pellets of poison are flooding the waters,’ that means all the lies that people get told on their radios and in their newspapers.”
Fox News, anyone? Again, try to tell me Bob Dylan’s work isn’t relevant today.
The poem is structured around verses that begin with five different questions:
- Where have you been?
- What did you see?
- What did you hear?
- Who did you meet?
- What’ll you do now?
The “Where Have You Been” question sets the scene by taking us on a tour through a world suffering from environmental damage and non-stop war: “I’ve stepped in the middle of seven sad forests/I’ve been out in front of a dozen dead oceans/I’ve been ten thousand miles in the mouth of a graveyard.” When mother asks the young man what he saw, the images come to life in all their ugliness—lynching, people working their fingers down to the bone, the lack of a safety net, the inability to communicate, the not-so-harmless toys that program children to believe that violence is not a bad thing:
I saw a black branch with blood that kept drippin’
I saw a room full of men with their hammers a-bleedin’
I saw a white ladder all covered with water
I saw ten thousand talkers whose tongues were all broken
I saw guns and sharp swords in the hands of young children
“What did you hear?” elicits a similar list of horrors, this time focused on human callousness:
Heard one person starve, I heard many people laughin’
Heard the song of a poet who died in the gutter
Heard the sound of a clown who cried in the alley
“Who did you meet?” results in more surreal responses. “I met a young woman whose body was burning” might refer to witchcraft and J. Edgar’s communist witch hunts. “I met a young girl and she gave me a rainbow” is easily the most hopeful line in the song. The two lines that grab me synthesize the truth of opposites, existential pain and the general sense of feeling wounded by life itself:
I met one man who was wounded in love
I met another man who was wounded in hatred
That last question was posed in similar fashion by Joe Strummer in “Clampdown”—“What are we gonna do now?” Dylan ends the song with a deeply-felt personal commitment to shine a bright light on the ugliness and devote his efforts to truth-telling, the only way out of the mess we created for ourselves:
I’ll walk to the depths of the deepest dark forest
Where the people are many and their hands are all empty
Where the pellets of poison are flooding their waters
Where the home in the valley meets the damp dirty prison
Where the executioner’s face is always well-hidden
Where hunger is ugly, where the souls are forgotten
Where black is the color, where none is the number
And I’ll tell it and speak it and think it and breathe it
And reflect it from the mountain so all souls can see it
Then I’ll stand on the ocean until I start sinkin’
But I’ll know my song well before I start singin’
You know, when I started this blog I really didn’t think all that much of Bob Dylan. I hereby offer the universe my heartfelt apology (at least up to but not including Blonde on Blonde).
“Don’t Think Twice It’s All Right”: The only self-help book I ever read that was worth a damn is Messages: The Communication Skills Book by McKay, Davis and Fanning (not a law firm). In the chapter covering Expression, they talk about a common phenomenon called “contaminated messages.”
Contamination takes place when your messages are mixed or mislabeled . . . Contaminated messages are at best confusing and at worst deeply alienating . . . Contaminated messages differ from partial messages in that the problem is not merely one of omission. You haven’t left the anger, the conclusion or the need out of it. It’s there all right, but in a disguised and covert form . . . The easiest way to contaminate your messages is to make the content simple and straightforward, but say it in a tone of voice that betrays your feelings.
—McKay, Davis and Fanning, Messages: The Communication Skills Book, 1995, Oakland CA
“Don’t Think Twice It’s All Right” is one big fat contaminated message. We’re talking criminal-level contamination here.
Despite the high toxicity levels, Dylan had a point when he wrote in the liner notes, “It isn’t a love song. It’s a statement that maybe you can say to make yourself feel better. It’s as if you were talking to yourself.” Dylan captured all the things we’d like to say after an episode of betrayal or abandonment. Sometimes we get over the hurt and approach the conversation in a more civilized manner; sometimes we just let it fucking rip. The closing lines are pure contaminated genius:
I ain’t saying you treated me unkind
You could have done better but I don’t mind
You just kinda wasted my precious time
But don’t think twice, it’s all right
The song’s melody is borrowed from a song in the public domain, “Who’s Gonna Buy Your Chickens When I’m Gone?” Dylan learned that tune from a guy named Paul Clayton who wrote an updated version called “Whose Gonna Buy You Ribbons (When I’m Gone?”). Neither comes close to Dylan’s masterpiece of self-pitying sarcasm nor expresses the weird, fleeting delight when we tell someone to go fuck themselves.
“Bob Dylan’s Dream”: Here Dylan borrows the melody and a couple of lines from yet another old folk ballad of uncertain origin (Ireland, Scotland or Canada, take your pick), “Lady Franklin’s Lament.” Lady Franklin lost her husband to that fruitless search for the Northwest Passage; Dylan uses the song to bemoan the loss of dear friends from his youth, “And each one I’ve never seen again.” Of all the songs written about the lost years of adolescence, this is one of the more touching and least sentimental:
With half-damp eyes I stared to the room
Where my friends and I’d spent many an afternoon
Where we together weathered many a storm
Laughin’ and singin’ till the early hours of the morn
By the old wooden stove where our hats was hung
Our words was told, our songs was sung
Where we longed for nothin’ and were satisfied
Jokin’ and talkin’ about the world outside
With hungry hearts through the heat and cold
We never much thought we could get very old
We thought we could sit forever in fun
But our chances really was a million to one
BTW, my favorite lost youth song comes from another Guthrie disciple: “912 Greens” by Ramblin’ Jack Elliott. I really need to do Young Brigham.
“Oxford Town”: I haven’t written about this, but over the last few years I’ve read dozens of books on American history, largely to answer the nagging question, “What the fuck happened to my homeland?” The unfortunate answer turned out to be “Nothing.” The USA has been a white supremacist state since its founding and has made astonishingly little progress over a period of two centuries.
Dylan actually wrote the song in response to an invitation by the leftist-labor folk music mag Broadside encouraging songwriters to submit works related to the Ole Miss riots that accompanied the efforts to enroll James Meredith at the University of Mississippi. Phil Ochs also submitted his take, “The Ballad of Oxford.”
Fortunately for Bob Dylan, the invitation did not involve any kind of contest. Phil’s you-are-there narrative and no-holds-barred language would have crushed “Oxford Town.”
“Talkin’ World War III Blues”: Dylan’s maiden attempt at a Woody Guthrie-style “talkin’ song” was allegedly created spontaneously in the studio at the end of Freewheelin’ sessions. I have no reason to doubt that—the story lacks both punch and punch lines. The best verse involves sex, for not even a nuclear holocaust can still the flow of testosterone:
Well, I spied me a girl and before she could leave
“Let’s go and play Adam and Eve”
I took her by the hand and my heart it was thumpin’
When she said, “Hey man, you crazy or sumthin’
You see what happened last time they started”
“Corrina, Corrina”: This old blues-folk number has appeared in various permutations throughout the years; Dylan brought it into the Folk Revival by borrowing the melody and a line or two from Robert Johnson’s “Stones in My Passway.” A full band appears in this piece, suitably muffled in keeping with the folk norms Dylan would smash at Newport a few years into the future.
I’ll take Dylan’s gentle, loping version over the Ray Peterson-Phil Spector melodrama any time.
“Honey, Just Allow Me One More Chance”: Dylan gets partial songwriting credit for his modification of this Henry “Ragtime Texas” Thomas number that dates back to the late 1920s. Thomas is also responsible for Canned Heat’s “Goin’ Up the Country,” The Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Fishin’ Blues” and helping Taj Mahal fill out his sets. Pretty good for a guy who only spent three years in the music business. All I can say about Dylan’s performance in this song is that he sounds unusually exuberant and exuberance really doesn’t work for Bob Dylan.
“I Shall Be Free”: Freewheelin’ ends with yet another adaptation, this one following a path from Leadbelly to Woody Guthrie. It’s essentially another talkin’ song that repeats some of the earthier testosterone-driven themes covered in “Bob Dylan’s Dream.” This time he chases a woman up a hill in the middle of an air-raid and has an interesting conversation with JFK:
Well, my telephone rang it would not stop
It’s President Kennedy callin’ me up
He said, My friend, Bob, what do we need to make the country grow?
I said my friend, John, Brigitte Bardot
I compliment both men on their excellent taste in broads, but alas, JFK only bonked one of the three (Ms. Ekberg). Some critics hated the song for being too lightweight, but I found the song a bit more humorous than “Talkin’ World War III Blues.”
Revisiting my father’s wish, Freewheelin’ didn’t exactly heal my cynical soul, but it’s always uplifting to find someone out there who validates one’s sense of right and wrong. I still think America is hell-bent on self-destruction, and recent developments confirm that belief.
I’ve always thought that American socialists were some of the dumbest people in the world, and now they’re proving it by inciting violence and destroying property, playing right into Voldemort’s evil designs. White supremacist brownshirts are asserting themselves, strengthened by presidential-level support. The GOP has spent decades perfecting the art of using fear to win elections—and if fear doesn’t entirely do the trick, they have the power to suppress voting and no compunction whatsoever when it comes to cheating.
I don’t have sufficient readership to have an impact on the outcome of the election, but if any of you reading this could remind the lame-brained violent lefties you happen to run into that violence is always counter-productive, I’d appreciate it. To help you soothe any feelings you may hurt in the process, give them this bonus gift of a mantra they can use to help them behave like rational human beings:
“And I’ll tell it and speak it and think it and breathe it
And reflect it from the mountain so all souls can see it”