DCPLive is a blog by library staff at the DeKalb County Public Library!

Music

Dec 10 2012

Festival for the Souls of Dead Whales

by Amanda L

If you look at one of those calendars that mention all of the festivals and celebrations within a particular month, today is the Festival for the Souls of Dead Whales. I was so intrigued about what that day was about that I went off searching for information on the Internet and found an online article from the National Geographic. The author of the article, Hillary Mayell tried to research the importance of this festival to the Inuits of Alaska. Although she could not find where this festival is still celebrated, she talked to some Inuits and found that there are several celebrations throughout the year that give thanks for the whales gift to the Inuit people. According to this article, sixty to seventy percent of the northern Inuit diet is whale. Today there is limited whaling available in order to preserve the species.

I have always been intrigued by the historical whaling industry. I think my first love came from the whale song performed by the Limeliters:

I read Moby Dick when I was in middle school. Even though I did not really understand the whole story, it furthered my fascination with whaling. Finally, when I was in high school my father received a handwritten journal from a distant relative who served on a whaling ship in the 1800s. I poured through that journal until I had to reluctantly give it back. Not only was it about whaling, but it was a personal account written by a relative. What better way to bring history alive?

The Library has a book about the historical commercial whale trade titled, On the Northwest: commercial whaling in the Pacific Northwest, 1790-1967. Another general history on the whaling industry is Men and Whales. There is even a book about African-Americans and the whaling industry titled Black Hands, White Sails: the story of  African American whalers.

Besides Moby Dick there are several stories about whaling. The Widow’s War by Sally Gunning tells the tale of Lyddie Berry who lost her husband in a whaling accident. She becomes dependent upon her son in-law who tries to take everything she and her husband have acquired. The Journal of Brian Doyle: a greenhorn on an Alaskan whaling ship by Jim Murphy is told in journal form about fourteen year-old Brian Doyle’s trip from San Francisco to a whaling ship in the Arctic and the many adventures he experiences.

Even though this festival is not observed in Alaska anymore, it is a great time to remember and learn about our history.

{ 0 comments }

Dec 7 2012

The Gift of Song

by Jnai W

My favorite thing about the holidays is the festive seasonal music. While I’ve become pleasantly acquainted with Wham!’s “Last Christmas” and Paul McCartney’s “Wonderful Christmas Time” over the years (thanks to B98.5’s standard holiday rotation) my heart belongs to the sacred songs and traditional Christmas caroles. This holiday season my biggest Christmas wish is to be wandering around the mall as a Christmas flash mob of carols and hymns erupts around me.

Have you witnessed one of these, Reader? The closest I’ve ever come is viewing a YouTube clip of an especially thrilling flash mob from two years ago in a Redondo Beach mall.  I have to say I was intrigued and spent half an hour online searching for more clips of talented vocalists in public places bursting into song, like a Rodgers and Hammerstein production come to life (minus fleet-footed choreography).  While these fits of musical merriment may or may not be completely spontaneous, they are incredibly fascinating. The best part of a flash mob, especially one that boasts holiday songs, is the reaction of unsuspecting passersby swept up in rousing choruses of “O Come Let Us Adore Him” and “O Holy Night”. The expressions of bemusement, accompanied by the clicking, tapping and raising of smartphones, soon give way to mallgoers chiming in, clapping along or gazing wistfully at the flash mob singers.

The beauty of the lyrics, the nostalgia of being gathered together with others in song—even for just five out of the ninety minutes devoted to gift shopping and errands—is undeniable and vital at a time of year that’s subsumed by hustle and bustle, hurry and worry.

I will attempt to embed this blog post with my favorite flash mob clip. I hope this makes you smile as much as it has made me.

{ 1 comment }

Nov 23 2012

Grandma’s Hands

by Veronica W

Bubbe. Nonny. Ona. Abuela. Grammy. Ya ya. Big Mama. Mee Maw. Grandmother. Bill Withers, on his album Live at Carnegie Hall,  says, as an introduction to one of my favorite tunes, “People walk up to me and say ‘I loved my grandmother too.’ ” On the album, when he says that, the audience claps and cheers, because they know what’s coming—one of his signature songs, Grandma’s Hands.

I didn’t know my grandmothers and I always listen enviously when my older sisters talk about Gramma Ella’s pies or something she said, did or believed. My own granddaughter is blessed with not only two grandmothers but also two great grandmothers. As a self absorbed teenager, she probably doesn’t appreciate all the advice, virtual cheek pinching and general minding of her business that she gets—except at Christmas and on birthdays, of course.

In his song, Withers chronicles some of the things his Grandma’s hands—as extensions of her heart—used to do: “clapped in church on Sunday morning, picked me up each time I fell, soothed a local unwed mother, though they ached sometimes and swelled.”

Looking in the library’s catalog, you’ll find there are about 980 hits when you search the word “grandmother.” In fiction and nonfiction, grandmas are something special; according to Withers, “great, big ole love machines.”  Because there are too many books to number, I will highlight only one exceptional book, Grand Mothers: Poems, Reminiscences, and Short Stories About the Keepers of Our Traditions. Edited by Nikki Giovanni, this book is filled with the memories, the traditions and the love of grandmothers, as recalled by many well known authors.

I love the part of the title which says grandmothers are “keepers of tradition.” In a world which often dismisses tradition as unnecessary or obsolete, our grandmothers draw us close, rub our backs and remind us of the relevance of the past. Perhaps you have some favorite books or memories you would like to share; perhaps, like Withers’  enthusiastic audience, you can say “I loved my grandmother too.” And how do we know that we were loved in return? As Toni Morrison says in this wonderful book, “What you talkin’ bout, did I love you? Girl, I stayed alive for you!” What an awesome gift.

 

{ 3 comments }

Nov 5 2012

Remember That I Love Kimya Dawson

by Jnai W

In preparing this blog post I’ve turned to my go-to source for inspiration: my iTunes library. There are certain artists whose music gets me in a great frame of mind for writing and thinking creatively. There’s Norah Jones, whose charming voice,  superlative musicianship and simple, elegant songwriting are always inspiring and soothing. There’s Marie Digby, an artist who became a YouTube sensation with sweet, acoustic covers of pop hits by the likes of Britney Spears and Rihanna (Digby’s full-length album Unfold is lovely and worth a listen).

But today I’ve click-wheeled over to another of my all-time favorite singer-songwriters,  Kimya Dawson. She’s an artist who keeps a special place in my heart for a number of reasons. I fell in love with her music like many folks did—by watching the film Juno and downloading, buying or borrowing that film’s wonderful soundtrack, featuring solo songs and songs from her work in The Moldy Peaches. Her voice is earnest to the point of being childlike, her guitar-playing is folksy and unadorned and her lyrics are honest, open and plain-spoken with the occasional well-placed eff-bomb to drive home a point (her song “Loose Lips”, with her eviscerating anti-war message is a great example).

Usually when I reach for the Kimya Dawson albums, I lean towards her 2006 album Remember That I Love You. Today, however (perhaps in fit of thumb-clumsiness) I happen upon her 2008 album Alphabutt. Many reviews and articles about this album refer to it as a children’s record and I suppose it is (even though my iTunes library categorizes it as folk). It boasts a lot of incredibly creative, kid-friendly tunes like “Little Monster Babies”, “Bobby-O” and its title tune, a scatological masterpiece. But there is also the gently passionate and political “Sunbeams and Some Beans” which ends in a profound yet down to-earth flurry of lyrics that I’d like to quote right now: “if you only have one bean and you meet someone with no bean/ you should give them half your bean/ ‘cuz you will be less hungry if you eat just half a bean/ than if you eat a whole bean in front of somebody with no beans”.

The beauty of Kimya Dawson is that she’s brilliant in speaking to the child in every adult and, as in Alphabutt, she gives a nod to the adult in every child. I could write a blue streak about some of my favorite works of hers—”My Mom”, with Dawson confronting her mother’s harrowing battle with cancer and the existentially astute “I Like Giants”—but I’d rather you click here for a great tune from Dawson’s 2011 album Thunder Thighs (doesn’t look like the Library has this album but it’s wonderful).

{ 1 comment }

Oct 22 2012

Quiet Time

by Jnai W

I take my quiet time, my moments of relative solitude, any way I can get them.  Often my me-time takes place as I’m commuting to work. Usually that means MARTA, with a commute time that clocks in at just under 3 hours. ( I know that seems crazy and unreasonable—well, it is but nothing gets the blood flowing like chasing a bus or weaving around idlers-on-the-subway escalators at the crack of dawn.)

The truth of the matter is that I rather like mass transit. It’s not perfect but it affords me some time to do things that nurture my creative streak while preparing for the day ahead. While I’ve taken my people-watching down to the barest minimum—just enough to keep an eye out for the shiftier of my transit mates—I can still take the time to journal, read or listen to music.

I’ve been reading the book Quiet: The Power of Introverts In a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain. I’m reading a book about being a quiet type in a loud type society. Lately, and I’m not sure why, I’ve been reading this book while listening to decidedly extroverted, noise pop like M.I.A, Sleigh Bells or someone else. Oddly enough I listen to it as loud as I can within reason—loud enough to overcome the roar of the bus’ engine but soft enough to not be called out by the bus driver/noise ordinance cop who’s in no mood to hear for my “teenager music”. (“Whaddya mean you don’t wanna hear my Dizzee Rascal, sir?)

I find myself relating to alot of my fellow introverts featured in this book. I land on passages about Don, a Harvard Business School student who worries that his mild, reserved demeanor is losing him ground in the aggressively extroverted culture of his school. While reading, I’m hearing the catchy synthy dance pop of singer Santigold singing a lyric to her song “L.E.S Artistes”—”Fit in so good the hope is that you cannot see me later/ You don’t know me I am an introvert, an excavator”. It’s an apropos lyric that swirls around me, inculcating me for a moment in time in a cubicle of communal solitude, if that makes any sense.

{ 0 comments }

Sep 10 2012

On Nina Simone

by Jnai W

Of late, I’ve become a bit of an enthusiast for jazz, particularly for jazz vocalists. Not an aficionado yet but someone who appreciates the beauty, the verve and the mastery required of the jazz greats. Lately I’ve been reading fascinating biographies of some of my favorite performers.

One of these singers is jazz great Nina Simone though, in her autobiography I Put A Spell On You, she denounces the designation of “jazz singer”, feeling that such a label didn’t fully describe her music. The late Simone, nee Eunice Kathleen Waymon, was possessed of prodigious piano talent from a very young age and classically trained ever after, aspiring to a career as a concert pianist. Not to disparage the genre of jazz, she viewed herself as a classical musician who, if anything else had more in common with the folk and blues musicians coming up alongside her during the 50s and 60s. In listening to her song choices, as diverse as show tunes like “I Loves You Porgy”, blues such as “Trouble In Mind” and art songs like “Pirate Jenny”, one can see that her repertoire boasts many different musical influences besides jazz.

But still a great case is made for her classification as a jazz musician in the way she describes how she arrived at her distinctive musical style. In I Put A Spell On You she describes the song-craft of her earliest musical performances.

“I knew hundreds of popular songs and dozens of classical pieces, so what I did was combine them: I arrived [at a gig] prepared with classical pieces, hymns and gospel songs and improvised on those, occasionally slipping in a part from a popular tune.”

While Nina Simone bristled a bit at being clumped casually by music critics into the same box as other great though quite different performers as Billie Holliday or Sarah Vaughan, there is no doubt in my mind that her musical style was (is) the epitome of incredible jazz.

I Put A Spell On You offers incredible insight into the life and talents of Nina Simone. Written with Stephen Cleary, Simone describes in plain-spoken detail her advent from concert-hall bound, Julliard-trained prodigy to international music sensation and all the trials and triumphs along the way. I found quite interesting the fact that she fell into pop music stardom almost by accident. She played dive bars and supper clubs by night while teaching piano by day all in an effort to earn money for continued study at Julliard (she even aspired to return to Julliard well into a successful pop career).

She was an incredibly gifted though complex woman, it would seem. Simone was confident in her craft but racked with severe stage fright. She was a woman with a disdain for pop music (and for the pop-listening public at times) but who, through pop music success, found a platform for joining the Civil Rights Movement and addressing social inequality. She loved her family, financially supporting her mother throughout her career, but a devastating falling-out with her beloved father hardened her against visiting him on her death.  Her music was her battle-cry, her comfort and her gift to the world.

{ 1 comment }

Sep 5 2012

Mozart’s Last Aria

by Ken M

I recently had a few days vacation, and on one of them, I found myself in a bookstore. At the end of an aisle, I saw a paperback called Mozart’s Last Aria. Right above the title were three sinister words meant to hook fans of the film: Amadeus is over. A recommendation from Tess Gerritsen hung above the portrait of a woman in a dress with a large flowing skirt, whose back was to the reader.

I was intrigued, and browsed a little. After getting home, I went straight to the library catalog to place a request on it. I’ve just finished it, and if you love the film Amadeus, or Mozart, you should read this. The main character is Mozart’s prodigiously talented sister, Nannerl, who traveled throughout Europe, performing with him when they were children. The novel is an imaginative theory of how Mozart might have died.

While I usually enjoy historical fiction, sometimes I don’t enjoy fiction based on the lives of classical musicians because authors misuse musical terminology, their portrait of a famous musician contains factual errors that put me off, or the depiction rings false. For me, Matt Rees (also the author of a popular series of  Omar Yussef crime novels ) gets it right from beginning to end. His descriptions of performances are completely credible. His musical references always serve to enhance the story, but they won’t bog down a reader who hasn’t studied music.  The mystery of who might have been responsible for Mozart’s death is the main event.

Readers of cozies should give this a try too, if the subject matter grabs you. There’s not a lot of violence here, no gore, and hardly any language which would offend. There is a well developed mystery which does in some way seem to me like a sequel to the Milos Forman film (whether or not this was the author’s intention). I expect I’ll be reading more about Mozart and his family in the months to come. Best of all, I know I’ll be listening to more Mozart.

{ 2 comments }

Aug 13 2012

On Jazz

by Jnai W

I’m thinking about my new favorite jazz standard (perhaps new isn’t the word I should use–how about song I’m newly aware of?)–the song “Nature Boy” sung by Nat King Cole, Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald and Nicole Chillemi among others. It’s a beautiful song with very few words and a haunting, delicately challenging melody. I’m drawn to songs like these that remind me not only of what singing is all about but also of how much of an art, an exact science songwriting is. Songwriting, like any other writing, is not just about putting words on a page or over some chords. It’s about placing the right words on a page, the right words over an instrumental, the perfect lyric to express everything we’ve ever wanted to say.

Jazz music has always been in my peripheral view for as long as I can remember. Growing up WCLK, Clark Atlanta University’s incredible radio station, was always in the background of every car ride. My mother had an amazing multi-CD jazz anthology that introduced me to the likes of Charlie Parker, Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk (although my favorite song in this set was John Coltrane’s “Naima”—a song that I’d literally loop for hours, listening with my eyes closed).

But now as I think of jazz, I’m reminded of a few key things:

1) The voice can be as potent, as dynamic and as masterfully wielded as a trumpet, a piano or a double bass (and all of those instruments can sing and hum as beautifully as a voice). No one proves this point, in my opinion, quite like jazz vocalist, pianist, iconoclast Nina Simone—my favorite singer in the universe (Please don’t get me started!)

2) One impeccably placed lyric is worth a thousand pictures.

3) Jazz music is about understanding the rules and conventions of musical theory while respectfully playing within or outside of these rules…or breaking them altogether.

{ 1 comment }

I’ve been allowing myself to splurge on one album a month (or rather, I’ve allotted myself a budget of one album a month). Sometimes, to help myself decide which music to check out, I’ll visit a website like Metacritic, a great site that gives you an overview of new releases and how they rank among leading critics. Now if you were a teenage girl in the 90s like I was (or just a fan of wonderful music in general ) you can probably imagine my delight when I noticed that Fiona Apple is releasing her fourth studio album this month.

“Squeeeeeeaallll!” I squealed.

I resolved in that moment that that album would be my monthly music expenditure…but then I remembered that I’d just purchased The Notorious B.I.G‘s Ready To Die remaster from iTunes. But shortly on the heels of that realization I decided that I would simply break my rule and purchase Fiona Apple’s new album anyway, fiscal responsibility be doggoned. Just as I was about to search for Apple’s new album through my phone (as of this writing it’s not available yet) I read the name of the new album —The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than The Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do—and decided that I would not download but instead walk into my nearest music retailer (or, more likely, Target) and purchase the actual CD for the music and the liner notes.

Perhaps this new release boasts lyrics just as intriguing as Apple’s previous albums, including another eccentrically-titled set like 1999’s (deep breath) When the Pawn Hits the Conflicts He Thinks like a King What He Knows Throws the Blows When He Goes to the Fight and He’ll Win the Whole Thing Fore He Enters the Ring There’s No Body to Batter When Your Mind Is Your Might So When You Go Solo, You Hold Your Own Hand and Remember That Depth Is the Greatest of Heights and If You Know Where You Stand, Then You’ll Know Where to Land and If You Fall It Won’t Matter, Cuz You Know That You’re Right (or When The Pawn for short).

Fiona Apple has been, since she thundered and sulked her way onto the musical landscape back in the mid 90s, an intriguing artist and one of my favorites. She spoke to the confused, soulful and angst-ridden idealist in many a youngster—that is, if you were a fan of hers. Her wise-beyond-her-years jazz-tinged vocals and her prodigious piano talent were a force to be reckoned with (still are).

I think about this impending Fiona Apple release and it reminds me of all the exemplary female talent that flooded the music scene in the 90s. I try my darnedest to not succumb to musical nostalgia that borders on snobbery (i.e “Music really went to the dogs after my generation came of age”). But, to me, the 90s felt like an incredible and exciting time to be a young woman with a song in her heart, a mic in her hand and something to get off her chest. I suppose lots of people feel this way about the music of their formative years but it was the work of young artists that were growing up right along with me that really fostered my love for music. Singer/songwriters  like Alanis MorrissetteSarah McLachlan, Lauryn Hill, Sheryl Crow, Jewel, Joan OsborneShawn Colvin, Tori Amos and Paula Cole made me wanna pick up a guitar and figure out how to set my journal entries to music. The list is, essentially, endless of great musical artists whose work spoke to me when I was young. I’m just grateful for their work…and for another Fiona Apple record. Now if we could just cajole Ms. Lauryn Hill for a new release (Please, L. Boogie?)

{ 1 comment }

Jun 11 2012

Got it Covered?

by Greg H

One of my musical passions is the cover song.  I love hearing my favorite musicians put their stamp on another artist’s song or, conversely, hearing my favorite musicians being reworked by other artists.  At times the results can be disappointing. Sometimes the artist performing the cover simply produces a note for note rendition of the original, bringing nothing fresh to the song.  On some occasions, however, the cover artist produces a version that meets or exceeds the original and makes the song a classic all over again. Joe Cocker certainly did that when he performed the Beatles “A Little Help From My Friends”, infusing the song with a passion and urgency that the Fab Four did not.  And have you ever heard Johnny Cash’s version of the Nine Inch Nails song “Hurt”?  I would not have guessed that the Man in Black was even aware of the Nine Inch Nails existence, let alone that song. Yet he takes that already disturbing song and finds a level of even deeper solitary suffering.

This may be sort of a golden age for fans of cover songs.  Tribute albums, audio valentines from one group of musicians to the bands and performers who influenced them, seem to hit the shelves regularly these days.  Matthew Sweet and former Bangle Susanna Hoffs are two musicians who have collaborated on two collections called Under the Covers on which they play their favorite songs from the 60’s and the 70’s.  Movie soundtracks also provide a rich source of cover songs. The problem for the cover song buff is finding out all the ways a favorite song might be available.

A nice solution to that problem is the Covers Project website.  Music fans from all over have pooled their musical knowledge to compile an alphabetical listing of recording artists and the songs that they have covered, as well as their songs that have been covered by others. Users can search by the group or artist’s name or they can search by the song.  For example, I love the old Townes Van Zandt song “Pancho and Lefty”.   A quick search reveals that Emmylou Harris, Dick Gaughan, Bob Dylan, Counting Crows, Steve Earle and Willie Nelson have all recorded versions of the Van Zandt classic. If you’re interested in more information or purchasing the tune, each song listed includes links to Amazon, iTunes, or MusicBrainz. There are also links to Facebook and Twitter if you just want to share.  And if you know of another version that they haven’t listed, you can add that to the webpage. (Delbert McClinton did “Pancho and Lefty” too!)

The Covers Project’s website is a lot of fun to snoop around on, and you might even learn that your favorite song by your favorite group wasn’t theirs to begin with.

{ 1 comment }