On June 8, 1936, the Carter Family went into the studio to record a song that surveyed the hardships of our world and contrasted it with the joy of the sweet hereafter. “For fear the hearts of men are failing,” the song began, “For these are latter days we know.” 79 years and 13 days later, Annie Crane sang these exact same words as the final song performed at Make Music New York’s show at Wagner’s Cove, a picturesque corner tucked away deep in the center of Central Park along the 72nd Street parallel. You won’t find it on any map – I passed by it three times and asked several clueless park rangers before the popsicle man directed me up Cherry Hill, from which I found the secret rustic path that led down to the shaded grove that borders the park’s Lake. Standing at the water’s edge is a small wooden shelter, built in memory of a Mr. Wagner, from which the Cove gets its name.
Folksinger Annie Crane and Antifolk singer Elizabeth Devlin were drawn to this spot when they each signed up for Make Music New York, a program that organizes musicians to play free shows all around the city every year. Pooling their time together, Crane and Devlin landed the coveted Wagner’s Cove, and decided to fill out their allotted three-hour timeslot with Eric Wolfson, Rachael Benjamin, Soft Black, Frank Hoier, a fermata, Dan Costello, and other friends and surprise guests from New York’s folk and antifolk scenes. What follows is one performer’s account of the show, in estimated real time.
5:30 PM: Some people find their way through Central Park to Wagner’s Cove for the show’s scheduled 6 o’clock starting time; most people remain lost in the endless tangle of the Morgan Chase company marathon that is also happening that day.
6:34 PM: Dan Costello steals a Gatorade bottle from the Chase company marathon’s table, but is disgusted that the lemon-flavored “water drink” is not simply water.
6:46 PM: Enough people have now arrived for the show to start, but rain starts instead. Everyone gathers the blankets, instruments, and bags into Wagner’s Cove’s small wooden shelter. Bemused by the idea of a bunch of musicians’ outside concert getting rained on, I dub the show “Wagstock.” It sticks.
6:59 PM: Bets are placed for how long it will take for the rain to let up; Annie Crane wins with eight minutes.
7:07 PM: Wagstock co-founders Annie Crane and Elizabeth Devlin introduce the show and each sing a song to start the show. Annie plays it strait, singing a lilting folk ballad called “Seneca Falls,” while Elizabeth calls up her sister Rachel to sing a song that uses the names of sea creatures in the place of regular nouns and verbs. At first I was getting Elizabeth’s jokes, and then I lobster.
7:23 PM: Dan Costello follows the Devlin sisters’ carefree lead and climbs onto the large diagonal tree trunk at Wagner’s Cove and sings about a land where corporations only want to hire a rich son of a snob and vice presidents ignore their duties to go on hunting expeditions where they accidentally shoot people. In other words, America.
7:38 PM: During my set, one of the two random hipster kids who followed us down to the Cove laughs at my esoteric “I talked to Grover Cleveland two non-consecutive times” joke in “Talking Dead President Blues.” I decide he’s the smarter, although not necessarily the cooler, of the two hipsters.
7:51 PM: Rachel Benjamin opens her set with a protest song – about how her husband won’t let her get a dog.
8:01 PM: I search in vain for a vendor selling Gatorade before deciding to grab two Gatorade bottles from the company marathon – one for myself and one for Frank Hoier. I never ask Frank what he thinks of the liquid, but I don’t find it nearly as repulsive as Dan did. Although I would have preferred the “Frost” flavor, the “Free” flavor is ultimately the best.
8:10 PM: Soft Black comments how beautiful everything is and how he wishes he could think of a beautiful song to play; I suggest “The Light in My Eye” and he complies with a smile. It’s a lovely moment, but I still wish I could remember that hilarious joke he had made a few minutes earlier making fun of the Morgan Chase company marathon. Not that Soft Black can remember it now either…
8:15 PM: Debe Dalton follows up her bittersweet ballad of unrequited love, “Anytime,” with a rousing version of “She’ll Be Coming ’Round the Mountain,” a song that was popularized by railroad workers in the 1890s, first published by Carl Sandberg in the 1920s, and sung by Pete Seeger in the 1940s, before being recorded by Barney the Dinosaur in the 1990s. Happily, Debe drives the song back to its roots by including a verse that Barney never sang: “We’ll have to hide the liquor to make her leave even quicker!”
8:17 PM: The rain comes again, this time longer and harder as the night grows colder and darker. Many of the performers and listeners retreat into the Cove’s wooden shelter; Soft Black stands contently under an umbrella, a fermata sits contently under the open sky, and Frank Hoier stands contently by the trees with an open bottle of wine, drinking from a plastic cup with Feral Foster.
8:21 PM: Frank Hoier and Feral Foster perform blues rags in the rain, as the water soaks into their clothing and the wine soaks into their livers.
8:29 PM: A fermata asks to use my guitar to play his own set in the rain – “Sure, just don’t get it wet,” I tell him. He proceeds to play some of the most mystical and beautiful music my guitar has ever made, with lots of fancy chords that my guitar will probably never feel again.
8:37 PM: Elizabeth Devlin plucks a haunting song on her autoharp while Costello shelters her with Dalton’s umbrella; “The rain is up to my lips,” she intones as the water laps right up to the edge of the Cove’s small wooden shelter, “And I’ve gone and left my raincoat at home.” Somewhere, in New Orleans around 1927 – or 2005 – a woman lives these words out in a way that I can only begin to comprehend them.
8:57 PM: Annie Crane closes the night with the old Carter Family song “No Depression,” leading everyone in the redemptive chorus that contrasts the earthly hardship of the song’s verses. Little does Annie know she’s minutes away from her own dose of earthly hardship when she learns that while she was performing, someone accidentally kicked her cell phone into the Lake.
9:03 PM: The musicians and their friends pack up to leave. Among the people left listening is a homeless man who has been sitting in Wagner’s Cove’s small wooden shed for the better part of the night, with a suitcase that holds his worldly belongings. On top of the suitcase rests a wrinkle-paged Bible that the elements have kept open throughout most of the show. As far as I know, nobody asks the man what his name is, even as we say goodbye and leave him alone in Wagner’s Cove, but then again, nobody bothered to see which page his Bible was opened to either.
9:07 PM: It’s still drizzling as the performers walk away from what they decide will be the first of many annual Wagstock shows. When Greil Marcus covered Woodstock for Rolling Stone some forty years before we held our little festival in the rain, he wrote that “It was a confused, chaotic founding of something new, something our world must find a way to deal with.” Time will only tell if the same can also be said about Wagstock, but one thing is for certain – everyone left the show with a smile on their face and a song in their heart, as their mind softly played a Depression-era tune about looking ahead to heavenly joy in the bleakest of worldly conditions, be they wind or rain or obnoxious corporate marathons.
(Originally published in Urban Folk, Issue 12, Summer 2007)
“To die, to sleep – To sleep, perchance to dream.” – Hamlet, Act III, Scene I
“Sleeping is a sucker’s game.” – Anticomp Folkilation, Disc II, Song I
In my younger and more vulnerable years my sister gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since. “Everything good happens to you,” she told me, “after you should’ve already gone to sleep.” She was referring to my upcoming summer as a camp counselor but, eight years later, I found myself in New York living these words out. Night after night, I stayed out too late at an open mic or a show; day after day, I sludged through the day at my retail job, running on iced chai and apathy.
When you work retail and there’s no line at the register, your mind starts to wander, searching for something, anything, to stay fixated on, if only to fight your body’s natural inclination to sleep. I have a very religious coworker who recites prayers to himself; myself, I sing songs – sometimes my own, sometimes someone else’s. One thing I sang a lot when I was first adjusting to the music life in New York City was a song by Star Star Quarterback called “Singing Is a Sucker’s Game.”
I had always found the song odd and cloying, but now, as I spent my late nights watching a revolving door of five-minute acts to play for people waiting for their own five minutes in the spotlight, something about the situation’s futility brought me back to the melancholy falsetto of the song’s refrain: “And singing is a sucker’s game/Such a shame/To put yourself out on a limb like this.” Maybe it was fate, maybe it was destiny, maybe it was that I, too, was beginning to feel like a sucker. I became obsessed with “Singing Is a Sucker’s Game” by Star Star Quarterback (a friend of mine who asked only to be referred to as “one Mr. Brooks of Boston”) – it was as though everything that I wanted to say at that time was summed up in those five words. I began to play with the phrase, plugging in different words to try to make it my own. Them: “Hey, Eric, do you wanna go to the movies?” Me: “Man, going to the movies is a sucker’s game.”
It sounded hip and cool, yet self-consciously so, the same way that once only the hippest kids I knew said “hot,” and then, suddenly, it’s coming out of Paris Hilton’s mouth every other word. If used at just the right time, it could maybe even be picked up by all of those snobby hipster princesses who rode back and forth endlessly between Manhattan and Brooklyn on the L Train, too distracted by themselves to ever notice me. When Dante summoned Virgil, his muse for the Divine Comedy, Dante found him in the mildest level of the Inferno, his only sin being that he was born before Christ, his only punishment being that he lived eternally without knowing the light of hope. In other words, Virgil lived in the blissful ignorance of a gray underworld not all that different from the tunnels of the (hel)L Train. Like Virgil, the hipster princesses who formed my collective muse never saw the light of day where I strutted around with the cool boys in the East Village. We were the ones wearing denim jackets, acoustic guitar in hand, raping and pillaging songs until they became our own; we were the ones reaping the fruit of the labor at a late-night gig, slouched in the back and singing the words that we knew. There were four of us to be specific: Vin, the quintessential folksinger-songwriter who would be soon only performing with an electric rock band, Somer, the mysterious newcomer who was about to become one of the central people in the scene, Mike, one of the central people in the scene who would soon all but disappear without a trace, and myself, fresh off stage but still feeling restless enough to have a beer with the usual crew as we watched our mentor onstage, Lach, and sang along.
There’s something about a sing-a-long – whether it’s political, like the one in Casablanca, or sentimental, like the one in Almost Famous – that holds a unique power, pulling together the meaning of a moment better than a thousand words of explanation could ever begin to do. I went back to an eight-line stanza that I had written months before about all the hipster princesses and stole the chugga-chugga rhythm of Jonathan Richman’s “Pablo Picasso” – a song about how women could not resist Picasso’s stare as he walked down the streets of New York – which made my song’s words snap right into place (Richman had stolen the riff from the Velvet Underground’s “Sister Ray”; Picasso, of course, stole from everybody). Using the sing-a-long scene as a pre-chorus, I brought things full-circle by putting in my own chorus to be sung along with, something just catchy enough for the hipster princesses but tough enough for the cool boys in the East Village.
“We are young!” sang Pat Benetar, in another great “…Is a…” song, “Love Is a Battlefield.” Well, I don’t know about that, but what I do know that right around when Ms. Benetar was singing those words in the early ’80s, my Mom was putting me down for my afternoon nap. I lay there, as I did every afternoon, sometimes even for as long as ten minutes, before I got up and silently played Legos in the dark once I knew she was out of earshot. Why sleep when you can stay up and play? It was all so clear to me then, even before I had the life experience to articulate it: Sleeping is a sucker’s game.
(Originally published in Urban Folk, Issue 11, Spring 2007)
America is big – too big to fit into the confines of a song. Luckily for our country, the record album was introduced in the early twentieth century, soon followed by the long-playing record, which gave its musical artists what Americans have always needed: space. Countless artists have used the forty-five minutes or so that the record album allows to explore and work out the limits of America, digging into its deep and intertwined layers of land, history, music, and myth to remake the land into their own image, or their own version of America. Excluding all multi-artist compilations (which was often tough – no Harry Smith Anthology, no collections of prison ballads) and single artist compilations (which was often arbitrary – Best of Muddy Waters didn’t make the cut while the essentially parallel Howlin’ Wolf did, largely based on its title), what follows is a list of the original albums that most capture that quintessentially American feel – albums in which you can most find America, if you were ever looking for it.
1. Smile, Brian Wilson (2004)
When Brian Wilson finally released Smile after a 38-year delay, he released an album that captured the American Dream. The album did so in a manner that was twofold: first, there was the American Dream of its actual creation, with Wilson playing the young visionary driven by the highest levels of inspiration to create, as he famously put it, “a teenage symphony to God,” only to lose his way into the greatest depths of American failure, and then miraculously resurrect himself to transcend even his own lofty ambitions. But secondly, and more importantly, Smile plays out like an American Dream itself – that is, the album serves as a free-associative dream of America where time and space hold no boundaries. The Pilgrims arrive at Plymouth Rock and run into Hawaiian natives singing on the Sandwich Isles; pioneers looking to build a home on the range are cut off by the iron horse; the church of the American Indian is chased across the land by the bicycle rider on a ribbon of concrete. The Grand Coulee Dam goes up and Chicago burns down; the chickens sing in the barnyard and the crow cries by the cornfield; the innocent girl brought down by a rain of bullets rain of bullets still dances unafraid in a town filled with heroes and villains. Tying it all together is a kaleidoscope of American sound: wordless prayers and patriotic marches, work songs and sea shanties, children’s tunes and cowboy ballads, plunking banjos and carnival organs, crunching vegetables and construction tools, wind chimes and fire sirens, and voices – voices that become pious choirs, voices that become barbershop quartets, voices that become doo wop groups; an intermingling of vocal sounds and harmonies that suggest both the expanse of the country as well as the people who inhabit it. The result is a whole that, like America itself, hangs together with a ramshackle beauty – odds and ends that lie together somewhere between the antique shop and the junk store, or maybe just the divine inspiration of Heaven and the strange realities of the land.
2. The Band, The Band (1969)
The sepia-toned black-and-white photographs that adorn the cover of the Band’s self-titled second album (the Band staring out from a rainy road on the front cover; the Band posing with traditional American instruments in a wooden cabin on the back) is the perfect match for the music inside: there is a sense of rustic timelessness, which sounds far more like 1869 than it does 1969, something much closer to the deep woods of the nineteenth century than it does to the psychedelic wonderland of its own time. There are tall tales (“Jawbone”), lonesome ballads (“Whispering Pines”), and dirty stories (“Up on Cripple Creek”); songs of unfaithful servants and seasick sailors, grandfatherly advice and dire weather forecasts, filled out by music that captures both the good times of the festive season (“Rag Mama Rag”) and the toils of harvest (“King Harvest (Is Sure To Come)”). But most timeless of all is the Civil War ballad “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” sung by a confederate veteran named Virgil Cane. “Now I don’t mind choppin’ wood,” he cries at one point with equal parts pride and regret, “And I don’t care if my money’s no good.” If Virgil Cane’s story cuts the deepest on an album that itself is nearly bottomless, it’s only because he has the most at stake: unlike the harvester forced to give up his crops or the servant forced to give up his job, Virgil Cane is forced to give up his America, and by extension, his identity – to lose the Civil War is to lose himself in the piney backwoods of nineteenth century America.
3. What’s Going On, Marvin Gaye (1971)
All Marvin Gaye had to do for inspiration for his artistic breakthrough, and in turn, the artistic breakthrough for modern African American music, was open his eyes. “I looked at what was happening at Woodstock and thought to myself, here’s a whole generation of people about to travel a new path,” he later explained, “I understood musically I’d have to go on a path of my own.” Slapping the slick-and-polished, single-based mentality of his parent company Motown Records in the face, Gaye grew a beard, smoked a lot of pot, and delivered the state of the union circa 1970 in one of the oldest forms of American communication, the sermon. Using the weary protest of the title track as a starting point, the album builds in piety, banishing the sins of drugs (“Flyin’ High (in the Friendly Sky)”), finding hope in the children (“Save the Children”), and trouble in the environment (“Mercy, Mercy Me (The Ecology), before shifting to the second side where secular love turns to divine love (“Right On”), leading to a sacred incantation (“Wholy Holy”) – all over countless layers of sounds, instruments, and voices that give the album the warm, multi-colored glow of a stained glass window. The album’s finale, “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler),” delivers us back to a very secular world, as it takes the most archaic form of the blues, the work holler, and brings it into the modern urban wasteland. In bridging the wilderness of the land with the wilderness of the city over one of the deepest of grooves laid down, Gaye provides the album’s clearest – if starkest – answer to the album’s titular question.
4. America, Johnny Cash (1972)
I always had the theory that if America had a voice, it would probably sound like Johnny Cash. So when I stumbled upon Cash’s America album in the weeks following his death (Could Johnny Cash really die? Did that mean that America could really die too?), it was like discovering a Holy Grail that I didn’t even know I was looking for in the first place. So what does an Autobiography of America as a musical book on tape sound like? Well, it’s the bicentennial and school’s in session and Johnny Cash is the teacher. As could be expected from Cash, the curriculum is largely focused on Western expansion (he has one song for the road to Kentucky, one for the Alamo, and one for Big Foot; in the spoken passages that link each song together, he literally names every state as it joins the Union), but he finds enough time to hit events as crucial the American Revolution, the Battle of New Orleans, and the Civil War. And for those who find the album too forced or hokey, all I have to say is that it’s worth the price of admission just to hear Johnny Cash reading the Gettysburg Address.
5. The Midnight Special and Other Southern Prison Songs, Lead Belly (1940)
The idea was an obvious and simple one: with the sudden interest in “authentic” American folk music, why not get someone who lived the songs they sang, instead of, say, Burl Ives, who took traditional folk songs and scrubbed them up to sing them in an “inauthentic” (re: bland) way? And with prison songs as one of the areas folklorists were most intrigued by, why not find a prison convict? Enter Lead Belly, a twice-convicted murderer who was able to sing his way out of prison both times. The fruit of his labor was captured in his first album, The Midnight Special and Other Southern Prison Songs, an album that, for all of its ambitions for authenticity, is most fascinating in the manner in which it fails: instead of recording Lead Belly at prison with fellow convicts backing up, the powers that be allowed him to be backed up by with a polished African American gospel group, the Golden Gate Quartet. Sin and salvation become one as the Golden Gate Quartet provide the slickest of choruses to the grittiest of work songs, all carried upon Lead Belly’s ringing twelve-string guitar. As a result, call-and-response dirges like “Alabama Bound” and latter-day slave songs like “Pick a Bale of Cotton” become bouncy numbers that transcend their hard labor roots. The title track lends itself to this unique sound the best, telling the story of a convict whose entire life is built around the light of a train that shines its light through his prison bar window every midnight.
6. Love and Theft, Bob Dylan (2001)
Bob Dylan didn’t really name his 2001 album; he stole it from Eric Lott’s book Love and Theft, which tells the history of the blackface minstrelsy, a tradition that itself is based on stealing – whites blackening their faces to steal from African Americans, who in turn blackened their faces to steal from the whites, and so on, continuing in an endless circle. Bob Dylan reached into deep into this circle to deliver Love and Theft, an album that tangles the music of whites and African Americans into a continually shifting sound where rockabilly romps sit comfortably next to swing sessions, which in turn give way to raucous blues and lilting vaudeville numbers. The result is Bob Dylan’s most distinctly American album, a cryptic thing filled with songs that come out of everywhere and nowhere at once, where every note and word feels like a borrowed allusion to something you that you never meant to remember – but still can’t come up with anyway. Filled with tall tales, jokes, and riddles, some of the music is Dylan’s most heartbreaking (“Mississippi”), some of it is his funniest (“Po’ Boy”), some of it is his coolest (“Summer Days”), and some of it is his most bad-assed (“Lonesome Day Blues”). And all is tied together by Dylan doing blackface – that is, the gruff rasp he employs on the album sounds eerily like that of Charley Patton, the earliest African American country blues singer that we know of to have recorded. And indeed, the most epic and ominous song on the album, “High Water,” is a rewrite of Patton’s “High Water Everywhere (Parts 1 and 2)” that Dylan subtitled “(For Charley Patton),” a rare instance on the album where he acknowledges his theft.
7. King of the Delta Blues Singers, Robert Johnson (1961)
Robert Johnson had been dead for over three decades when his first album, King of the Delta Blues Singers, appeared, containing essentially all of his known recordings at that time and little else – the liner notes only built up his legend in their vagueness (“A country blues singer from the Mississippi Delta…Robert Johnson appeared and disappeared, in much the same fashion as a sheet of newspaper twisting and twirling down a dark windy midnight street”), while a painting stood in on its cover for want of a photograph. However, the music inside was so strong and vivid that nothing else was really needed; it formed the bleakest interpretation of the American landscape that has ever been committed to record, an America where the road is always hard, the sky is always dark, and the singer is always alone. The songs are filled with images that are so strikingly simple that they become instantly unforgettable: there’s the sinner begging for mercy at the crossroads in “Cross Road Blues,” the jealous lover who can’t sleep with his gun lying on his chest in “32-30 Blues,” and the man who wakes up in the morning to find Satan knocking on his door in “Me and the Devil Blues.” There are hellhounds on the trail and stones in the passway, kindhearted women who practice evil all the time, and desperate men who roll and tumble and cry the whole night long. Johnson sings all of these tales with a tone of unsettled restlessness, backed by the rhythmic patterns of his intricate guitar playing, in a manner that is once terrifying yet seductive. “Hey, can’t you hear that wind howl?” he intones ominously in “Come in My Kitchen,” as he makes his icy slide guitar into the cold air, “Aw, can’t you hear that wind howl?” It is as though he is calling us in from the howling wind that is the rest of the album.
8. Dust Bowl Ballads, Woody Guthrie (1940)
In “The Great Dust Storm,” Woody Guthrie chronicles all of the western states ravaged by the dust storms of the 1930s before honing in on what they meant: “And the families all were huddled into their little room,” Guthrie sings in his high nasal voice while dryly plucking and strumming his acoustic, “They thought the world had ended, they thought it was their doom.” It was as simple as that: the world turned black, the apocalypse came, and left a vacant wasteland in its wake. With “The Great Dust Storm” settling the scope of what the dust storms were, Guthrie uses the rest of the album to hone in on what they meant. In most cases, the song titles said it all – “I Ain’t Got No Home,” “Dust Can’t Kill Me,” Dust Pneumonia Blues,” “Dust Bowl Refugee” – this was the music of hard times, filled with outlaws vilified for helping the poor, men who rob you with fountain pens, and entire families forced to hit the road after waking up to find that all they have is gone. The latter is best captured in “Blowin’ Down the Road,” a song that has transient roots even older than America itself. “It was wrote by a colored slave that run off from his master and he went back up North – he was a Southern slave – and he run up North and it’s pretty cold up there,” explained Guthrie several months earlier, “So he worked ’round up there a little bit and stayed in jails and everything, and was treated like a dog and so, he wrote this song, or,” he adds with a wink, “Got it started…” By uniting the Dust Bowl refugee with the runaway slave, and in turn, Guthrie’s contemporary American rambler with the archetypal American one, the two become one in their journey on a road that has no end.
9. Bruce Springsteen, Nebraska (1982)
There had always been a big-hearted, optimistic sound that powered even the darkest of Springsteen’s music (check out “Badlands” or “Hungry Heart”) – that is until someone threw him a copy of Joe Klein’s Woody Guthrie: A Life. Before long, Springsteen had devoured Dust Bowl Ballads, which in turn inspired him to let his own brooding songs about Middle America stand naked. He traded in his studio for a bedroom, his Wall of Sound for a four-track machine, and his pianos, saxophones, and bells for a guitar, a harmonica, and a voice. The result was the starkest music of his career – a timeless, intimate affair that sounds as though it could have been dug up from the earth. Tapping into the same geographical and emotional territory as Dust Bowl Ballads (only this time the culprit was Reaganomics, not the Dust Bowl), Nebraska takes the American value system that the Midwest supposedly exemplifies and reveals it be nothing but a set of empty promises: hard work (the laid-off autoworker who can’t find work and goes crazy with a gun in “Johnny 99”), family (the man who goes to reconcile with his father, only to learn that he’s moved away in “My Father’s House”), and religion (the man who finds scathing humor in the way people hold onto faith in the pathetic situations of “Reason to Believe”). Over the near-familiar melodies, Springsteen paints vivid images of desperate people coping with hard times: the poor children watching the lights of the mansion on the hill; the desperate man driving through the night to try to stay ahead of the state trooper; the murderer sitting in the execution chair speaking his final words, which both explain why he’s done what he’s done and serve as an epitaph for Nebraska itself: “I guess there’s just a meanness in this world.”
10. From Elvis In Memphis, Elvis Presley (1969)
America loves its celebrity heroes – it loves to watch them rise and it loves to watch them fall. But the best is when they resurrect themselves to new heights after the fall, which is precisely what Elvis Presley did with his comeback special in 1968, after a decade of making terrible films in Hollywood complimented by even more terrible soundtracks in Nashville. In the recordings following his comeback, Elvis returned home, literally – he is at home in his city, Memphis, where he hadn’t recorded since the 1950s, and at home with himself, driven by a newfound confidence not heard since the beginning of the decade. “I had to leave town for a little while,” he sings at the beginning of the album’s first song, “Wearin’ That Loved on Look,” about a lover who’s been unfaithful, and it doesn’t let up from there – like Presley is with rock and roll, the singer knows he is caught up in a world that is no longer his own. But he does his best to make his way through it, guided by the words of his mother (“Only the Strong Survive”), his own determination for growth (“I’m Movin’ On”), and a longing for a better America (“In the Ghetto”), supplemented by music that blends the boundaries between rock, soul, blues, and country in a more mature version of the type of genre-bending that defined Presley’s music in the 1950s. And locking the whole thing together is “Long Black Limousine,” a four-minute rumination on fame and coming home, in which a girl who goes off to become a Hollywood star but promises to return in a long black limousine, and does, but only it is after she is killed in a car wreck: the limousine doubles as her hearse. When Presley sings the line about how the singer will never love another, you believe it because he believes it – it’s the finest singing of the finest twentieth century American singer on the finest album of his career.
11. Good Old Boys, Randy Newman (1974)
A tour-de-force of the American South in about 30 minutes or less, Randy Newman wisely began his finest album by getting out all of the stereotypes early in “Rednecks” – a song whose protagonist is “too dumb to make it in no northern town” and is “keeping the niggers down” – only to contrast this with the inherent racism of the North (sure African Americans are free, but only in regional “cages” such as Harlem and East St. Louis). From thereon out, nothing is simple: our redneck protagonist is touchingly fleshed out with a background in “Birmingham” and a wife in “Marie,” before dissolving into a greater tapestry of songs about history (“Kingfish”), politics (“Mr. President (Have Pity on the Working Man)”), and white millionaires who dress up as African American doctors (“Back on My Feet”). Transcending it all is “Louisiana 1927,” which looks at the Great Flood from that year as a punishment for everything that the South has done: “They’re trying to wash us away,” concludes the singer, “They’re trying to wash us away.”
12. I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You), Aretha Franklin
On Aretha Franklin’s breakthrough album, she drives the fervor of the church into the satin sheets of the bedroom by the sheer power of her voice. Songs such as “Drown in My Own Tears” and the title track are grounded upon the lilting piano chords of gospel music – less rock and roll than rock of ages – augmented by the searing backing vocals and luscious horn tracks of secular music. Elsewhere in the album, Franklin turns this uniquely American combination unto itself, investigating the work her country has left for itself, calling for the equality of the sexes (“Do Right Woman, Do Right Man”), improved racial relations (“A Change Is Gonna Come”), and, of course the empowerment of women (“Respect”). The result is soul music at its finest – sexy, self-aware, and ultimately uplifting.
13. Metal Machine Music, Lou Reed (1975)
A fuck you, a bold artistic statement, and the soundtrack for the Industrial Revolution all rolled up into one; the Tin Woodsman’s favorite album, not that he can get through side one of the first record either.
14. Howlin’ Wolf, Howlin’ Wolf (1960)
The sound of the Great Migration – ancient blues hollers backed by blasting electric guitars and drums – as told by a six-foot-three, two-hundred-and-fifty pound African American man who learned to play guitar at the knee of Charley Patton and learned to howl by trying to imitate Jimmie Rodgers’ blue yodels. On his self-titled second album, Howlin’ Wolf’s blues sound tough, defensive, and hard-earned, and are all told in his trademark sandpaper-on-gravel rasp. At times paranoid (“Moanin’ At Midnight”), at times suspicious (“Evil”), and at times bloodthirsty (“Forty Four”), all justified the legendary words of Sun Records producer Sam Phillips, who discovered Wolf: “This is where the soul of a man never dies.”
15. Odelay!, Beck (1996)
Americana goes postmodern with Stephen Foster on the turntables and William Burroughs on the mic; Beck wears the deadpan mask of American humor to deliver this album like a thriftstore cowboy doing a pawnshop inventory, taking two hundred years of American music, putting it into a blender, and then pouring the resulting mix into a cheesy synthesizer. His songs draw the lines between rambling and intransigence, dead-end tales of lazy drifters who have seen it all on roads that always seem to lead to one more juke joint. All this, and you can dance to it, too.
16. Hotel California, The Eagles (1976)
The Eagles’ most pretentious, popular, and artistically successful album finds them standing at the edge of the world with their backs to the sea, looking back across an entire continent from their native California. If the land they gaze their eyes on is the last chance for salvation, then California is the very last chance, a place labeled paradise less because it is than because it has to be. The title track shows us just how inherent sin is in this alleged utopia, while the album that follows shows us the parade of hotshot rookies (“New Kid in Town”), desperate scene-makers (“Life in the Fast Lane”), and jilted lovers (“Victim of Love”) who try to make it there anyway, almost all of whom crash and burn into endings that are as rigid as the Pacific coastline. But most fitting is the album’s own ending, “The Last Resort,” which puts everything in perspective in the best rock song ever written about Manifest Destiny. “People call it paradise, I don’t know why,” the singer confesses after watching centuries of generations making their way westward to the Hotel California, “You call some place paradise, kiss it goodbye.”
17. Van Lear Rose, Loretta Lynn (2004)
Loretta Lynn’s comeback album, Van Lear Rose, is a roots album about roots. She reaches far back into her life as a Kentucky coal miner’s daughter in songs filled with family legends (“Van Lear Rose”), regional sing-a-longs (“High on a Mountain Top”), childhood stories (“Little Red Shoes”), and oral histories (“Story of My Life”). Most striking is the album’s centerpiece: how “God Makes No Mistakes,” a song about deep-seated religious faith, segues into “Women’s Prison,” a murder ballad about a convict about to be executed. The final words she hears is her mother’s cry, which becomes “Amazing Grace,” a song of sin and redemption which also happens to be the earliest American composition that we know of. On this, like everywhere else on the album, Lynn employs her eerily timeless voice (she was sixty-nine at the time of recording, but could easily pass for sixteen) to plum the depths of myth and time to inhabit her story, as opposed to merely retell it; this is traditional American storytelling at its finest.
18. Will the Circle Be Unbroken, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band (1972)
No other album goes so far to push the limits of country music, if only to prove that there are no limits; this is country music, literally – music that evokes the expanse of an entire country as it stretches across three records, several generations of voices, and countless musical styles hidden within the genre, such as blues, gospel, folk, and bluegrass. Buried somewhere in the final side of the final disc is the title track, a gospel-turned-country standard with more than just a touch of the blues, which finds the artists, who themselves sound like an entire country – young and old, eastern and western, rock and country – negating its titular question through the sheer gesture of their action.
19. Absolutely Free, Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention (1967)
Beginning with the voice of the president of the United States (actually Frank Zappa as a mock Lyndon B. Johnson) and ending with a lounge singer at the end of the night (actually Frank Zappa as a mock Vegas entertainer), Frank Zappa’s fills the space in between with emptiness – a world of plastic people who, oh baby, are such a drag. He begs, borrows, and steals from everything, from “Louie Louie” and Motown to acid rock and free jazz, creating a jarring sound collage held together by his sardonically mocking singing. He dreams of a world where man and vegetable can live side-by-side, “Worshiping together in the church of your choice – only in America!” He takes a survey of everything plastic, from the high school football hero losing his status to the morbid toys of the Christmas season. But it’s the epic mini-opus of “Brown Shoes Don’t Make It” that goes the furthest, exposing the plastic emptiness of the American Dream itself. “TV dinners by the pool, I’m so glad I finished school,” indeed.
20. Reckoning, R.E.M. (1984)
R.E.M. summon their version of the Gothic American South (jangling guitars, folk-derived harmonies, and half-mumbled lyrics of half-remembered stories) and chase it across an entire continent, as though they were seeking a lost lover. Side one is all water – the old sailor’s legend of the seven Chinese Brothers swallowing the ocean; the man making his way through rivers of suggestion, washed away cities, and singing oceans; the girl who stands by a water tower – while side two is all land – the explorers who announce that they’re here, pioneers who promise that heaven is yours where they live, the jaded lovers who warn not to go back to Rockville. And concluding it all is the wonderful “Little America,” which unleashes all of the confusion contained within with a single refrain: “The biggest wagon is the empty wagon is the noisiest; a matter of course – Jefferson, I think we’re lost.”
(Originally published in 20/20 Proof, Issue 3, Winter 2005)