Friday, January 28, 2011

My first country song

I composed these lyrics over the past year, completely while singing in the shower. (It started with "I need caffeine to wake me up" and then evolved from there.) For the melody on the verses, I used "Slipping Around" from 1949 by country music hall-of-fame artist Floyd Tillman. For the chorus, though, I just winged it. I'll record it soon and post it here.

"Killin’ Time"

Lyrics © Bryan Mangum

Verse 1
I need caffeine to pick me up
In the mornin’ get me out of bed
Whiskey at night
To put me down and clear my head
And in between adrenaline
Keeps me goin’ throughout the day
So weeks and years pass and I’m still outta gas
Still tryin’ to find my way

Chorus 1
Just killin’ time while time kills me
There must be more to life than what I see
They say what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger indeed
But I’m just gettin’ older; time is killin’ me

Verse 2
I scrape for every dollar and dime
‘Cause nothin’ comes for free
Then everybody wants some of what I got
‘Til there’s nothin’ left for me
And then at work, my boss is a jerk
I don’t get credit for what I done
But I’m too damn tired to get myself fired
So I just bite my tongue

Chorus 2
And keep killin’ time while time kills me
Is there more to life than what I see?
They say what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger indeed
But I’m just gettin’ older; time is killin’ me

Verse 3
Women come, but mostly go
I still haven’t got ‘em figured out
And I keep sayin’ every time’s the last
Until the next one comes about
I pay my bills and I deserve some thrills
So what else can I do?
And hey, you look alright here in this bar tonight
Maybe I’ll kill some time with you

Chorus 3
Yeah, I’m killin’ time while time kills me
Can you show me more to life than what I see?
They say what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger indeed
But I’m just gettin’ older; time is killin’ me
Time is killin’ me

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The bowl is half empty - part 2

Congratulations to the Auburn Tigers, winner of last night's so-called "National Championship Bowl" and holder of this year's mythical NCAA football crown. I say "mythical" because, while I believe they have a good claim to the title, for some reason we still don't have a true playoff system to definitively settle the matter. So, as I did last year, I'd like to imagine a world in which we had been treated to a month of playoff-level excitement. A world where we had gotten to see 16 of the season's top-ranked college football teams battle for the ultimate, indisputable title.

Here is what it might have looked like. I have bracketed and seeded the teams according to their final regular-season BCS rankings, with some consideration given to tradition (e.g., SEC champion in the Sugar Bowl bracket) and geography. I also used the rule of no more than one team per conference in any given bracket.

Rose Bowl Bracket

1st seed Oregon (12-0, Pac-10) vs. 4th seed Oklahoma State (10-2, Big 12) -- winner: Oregon

2nd seed Arkansas (10-2, SEC) vs. 3rd seed Boise State (11-1, WAC) -- winner: Boise State

Rose Bowl: Oregon over Boise State. Arkansas had a solid season, but lost its bowl game. Boise State had an even more solid season and won its bowl game. Oregon was two seconds away from the title.

Fiesta Bowl Bracket

1st seed TCU (12-0, Mountain West) vs. 4th seed Nevada (12-1, WAC) -- winner: TCU

2nd seed Ohio State (11-1, Big Ten) vs. 3rd seed LSU (10-2, SEC) -- winner: Ohio State

Fiesta Bowl: TCU over Ohio State. The Buckeyes and Horned Frogs both looked impressive in their bowl games, but I have to give the nod to TCU. Ohio State’s only loss in the regular season was to Wisconsin, which got beat by undefeated TCU in the Rose Bowl.

Sugar Bowl Bracket

1st seed Auburn (13-0, SEC) vs. 4th seed Connecticut (8-4, Big East) -- winner: Auburn

2nd seed Oklahoma (11-2, Big 12) vs. 3rd seed Michigan State (11-1, Big Ten) -- winner: Oklahoma

Sugar Bowl: Auburn over Oklahoma. No brainer.

Orange Bowl Bracket

1st seed Stanford (11-1, Pac-10) vs. 4th seed Virginia Tech (11-2, ACC) -- winner: Stanford

2nd seed Wisconsin (11-1, Big Ten) vs. 3rd seed Missouri (10-2, Big 12) -- winner: Wisconsin

Orange Bowl: Stanford over Wisconsin. Wisconsin lost a squeaker in the Rose Bowl, but could have taken Missouri, which lost to Iowa in its own bowl. Meanwhile, Stanford looked unbeatable in the Orange.

Final Four

Eastern Semifinal: Auburn over Stanford.

Western Semifinal: Oregon over TCU.

National Championship Bowl: Well, we all know the answer to this one. Or do we? If we had actually gotten to see this play out, I wouldn't have been surprised in the least to see surprisingly strong TCU and Stanford in the big game. And Ohio State, Oklahoma and Boise State all sure looked strong in their own respective games. Sadly, for this season at least, we'll never know.


Mega Bonus

If we had five megaconferences, here is what the playoffs might have looked like…

Conference Championship Games
ACC: Virginia Tech over Florida State
Big Ten: Wisconsin over Michigan State
Big West: TCU over Oklahoma
Pacific: Oregon over Nevada
SEC: Auburn over South Carolina

Rose Bowl: Oregon over Arkansas
Fiesta Bowl: TCU over Ohio State
Sugar Bowl: Auburn over Virginia Tech
Orange Bowl: Stanford over Wisconsin
Eastern Semifinal: Auburn over Stanford
Western Semifinal: Oregon over TCU
National Championship: Bowl: Auburn over Oregon

Friday, January 7, 2011

Giants of American Music: Jimmie Rodgers

Milestone Jimmie Rodgers recordings from Three Perfect Minutes...

We don’t usually associated yodeling with country music these days, but there was a period of time where the two went hand-in-hand. Jimmie Rodgers wasn’t the first to yodel on record, but its great popularity can largely be credited to him, and listening to the following songs, it is not hard to see why. Like the Carter Family, Rodgers brought exquisite craftsmanship to his vocals, but he also brought unrivaled showmanship. He freely borrowed from the blues, jazz and vaudeville traditions, and managed to give his music a professional polish while still paying homage to its rural roots. He became country music’s first big star, and his influence continued to be felt long after his death from tuberculosis at age 35 in 1933.

Jimmie Rodgers
Blue Yodel (T for Texas)(Victor 21142, 1928)

“T for Texas” was Rodgers’ signature song, and it remains one of the greatest and most influential country records ever made. It owes a huge debt to the blues: it follows more or less the twelve-bar blues structure, and features a lone voice singing a tale of woe over a simple guitar accompaniment. But there is much more to the song than that. For one thing, even though the subject matter at times gets rather dark, his voice is rather upbeat. And it sings some truly great lyrics. At one point he threatens to shoot the woman who left him for another man, but other lines indicate maybe he’ll just move on: “If you don't want me mama, you sure don't have to stall / 'Cause I can get more women than a passenger train can haul.”

The most distinctive feature of the song, of course, is the yodel. This may not make sense until you’ve heard it, but it is a very bluesy yodel. Rodgers is a master at modulating his voice between a plaintive holler and a lonesome falsetto, and he is able to expresses more through those yodels than anything else in the song. Plus, they are just downright fun. (Although if you try to imitate them, you will soon get an appreciation for just how precise Rodgers’ vocal control was.)

Jimmie Rodgers
Away Out on the Mountain (Victor 21142, 1928)

The B-side to “T for Texas” was a wonderful song called “Away Out on the Mountain.” This is much slower, with a sweet melody and Rodgers’ trademark witty lyrics. I especially like the way he sings, “Where the wild sheep grows and the buffalo lows” in the second verse: his timing is perfect, and his voice is rich with character. And yes, there is more yodeling: this time reaching further and more consistently into the falsetto range in what turns out to be the perfect punctuation for this beautiful, whimsical song.

Jimmie Rodgers
In the Jailhouse Now (Victor 21245, 1928)

“In the Jailhouse Now” is another of Rodgers’ most popular compositions, and has been covered many times. This is a mellow song, buoyed by gentle banjo and guitar. Rodgers keeps his pleasant voice very moderated, and except for an easy-going yodel between each verse, he mostly lets the humorous lyrics do the heavy lifting. He tells a simple story about a friend who always gets into trouble with the law: “I told him once or twice to quit playing cards a and shooting dice / He’s in the jailhouse now.” In the end, however, the narrator gets himself in hot water, and the song brilliantly ends with the narrator “in the jailhouse now,” as another gentle yodel closes the song.

Jimmie Rodgers
Waiting For a Train (Victor V-40014, 1929)

In 1929, “steel guitar” (so called because of the steel slide used to play it) was seen as a novelty instrument associated with Hawaiian music. As with so many other things, we have Jimmie Rodgers to thank for making it a mainstay of country music, beginning with this classic recording. In fact, Rodgers loved to experiment, and also added jazzy cornet and clarinet backing. It turned out to be a stroke of genius, as the unusual mix clicked with listeners and made the record a hit. The entertaining lyrics and Rodgers’ pleasant, expressive voice didn’t hurt either. Rodgers’ trademark yodel is only heard briefly here, but yodeling wasn’t his only feat of vocal gymnastics: the opening train whistle sound is all him.

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Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Giants of American Music: Bessie Smith

Milestone Bessie Smith recordings from Three Perfect Minutes...

They called Bessie Smith the “Empress of the Blues,” and for good reason. Like most female blues singer of the 1920s, Smith was more of a general songstress than a pure blues artist, and her accompaniment owed more to vaudeville than to traditional blues. But the emotion and power of her singing were pure blues through and through.

Bessie Smith
Downhearted Blues(Columbia A3844, 1923)

“Downhearted Blues” was her first hit and is considered by many to be the first authentic blues record. Listening to her sing, it is easy to forget that this was still a purely acoustic recording, without the benefit of an electronic microphone. Her voice is measured, even reserved, as is fitting for the subject matter, and yet such is the power of that voice that no subtleties are lost in the delivery. It is a moving and beautiful performance.

Bessie Smith
‘Tain’t Nobody’s Bizness If I Do (Columbia A3898, 1923)

As powerful as that record is, it almost pales in comparison to “‘Tain’t Nobody’s Biznesss If I Do.” With well-suited accompaniment from Clarence Williams on piano, Smith sings a tale of defiance and self-determination, proclaiming that no one can tell her what to do with her money, body and soul – even as her behavior becomes increasingly self-destructive. Williams knows just when to hold back, as he stops playing momentarily several times in the second half of the song to give further weight to Smith’s words.

Bessie Smith
St. Louis Blues(Columbia 14064-D, 1925)

W.C. Handy was the first great blues composer, and was responsible more than anyone else for standardizing the twelve-bar blues format that almost all blues songs now adhere to. “St. Louis Blues” is his most famous composition. First published in 1914, it has gone on to become one of the most recorded songs in history. This version, however, remains just about definitive. The song has been slowed down to a crawl and is essentially turned into a duet between Smith’s expressive voice and Louis Armstrong’s melancholy trumpeting. It is a genius pairing, and from Smith’s opening line (“I hate to see the evening sun go down”) to Armstrong’s final flourish, every moment is imbued with powerful emotion from one, the other or both.

Bessie Smith
“‘Back-Water Blues(Columbia 14195-D, 1927)

The Great Mississippi River Flood of 1927 was one of the worst natural disasters in the history of the United States and would inspire numerous blues songs. While this Bessie Smith song is usually associated with that flood, however, it was actually recorded earlier in the year and likely refers to one of the many smaller floods that happened in 1926. Nevertheless, it seems prophetic now, and struck a chord with the public after the Great Flood hit. As usual, Smith turns in a great performance here. Although she hits high, powerful notes at the beginning of each verse, she generally conveys a subdued tone, and by the end of the song even the high notes have mellowed considerably. James P. Johnson provides the excellent piano accompaniment, which in places sounds reminiscent of falling rain and thunder.

Bessie Smith
Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out(Columbia 14451-D, 1929)

This song is so good it floors me every time I hear it: Bessie Smith, voice strong and expressive as ever, delivers some of the most classic lyrics in blues history. In the beginning of the song, the narrator reminisces about the times when she had money: “I carried my friends out for a good time / Buying bootleg liquor, champagne and wine.” But as she falls on hard times, she finds that her so-called friends cannot be found: “It’s mighty strange, without a doubt / Nobody knows you when you’re down and out.” Every word is simply amazing. For the final verse, Smith repeats some earlier lines, and doesn’t even have to sing all of the words. The story was so memorable and expertly sung on the first telling that she can just hum through most of the line, sing the last few words, and the listener knows what she means. Those hummed lines capture more feeling without words than most songs can ever hope to convey.

Bessie Smith
Gimme a Pigfoot (And a Bottle of Beer)(Okeh 8949, 1934)

“Gimme a Pigfoot” shows Bessie Smith at her rawest and best. Vocally, she pulls out all the stops, hitting the typical highs with her powerful voice, but also unapologetically hitting all the lows with a snarling growl. By the time she sings, “He’s got rhythm – yeah!” there’s no doubt where the song is headed. The rest of the devil-may-care lyrics only add fuel to the fire as Smith calls for not just a pigfoot and a bottle of beer, but also for refer and gin as she demands a good time. The accompaniment reflects the bluesy rowdiness as well, with the lead piano (by Buck Washington) and trumpet (by Frankie Newton) parts played playfully and loose. Newton’s trumpet solo, in particular, is wonderful as it slurs through the meandering notes and slides drunkenly into the final verse. Also providing colorful touches are swing legends Jack Teagarden on trombone, Chu Berry on tenor sax and Benny Goodman on clarinet.

Unfortunately, the November 24, 1933 recording session that yielded “Gimme a Pigfoot” would be Smith’s last. The hard-hit economy and the public’s appetite for newer sounds left her behind, and she was killed in a car crash only a few years later (in September 1937 at age 43).

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