Friday, January 28, 2011

The Rage May Surface: An Op-Ed Piece

Original text by Alan Abramowitz, 1978
Introduction by Robert Barry Francos, 2011

This opinion piece was originally published in FFanzeen No. 3, dated Winter / Spring 1978-79, which was the first newsprint version of the ‘zine. Art Editor of the issue Alan Abramowitz discussed the then-current state of music and the cultural milieu in which it existed. During the 1980s, Alan would go on to create the music and arts-centered cable access show Videowave, which is not only still on the air in the tri-state area, but new shows are in the process of being created.

Some further commentary from me follows the piece. – RBF, 2011

“Oh, get off!” you cry. “You don’t think music; you just listen to it.” I scream back, “Oh! The poor little angel. Thinking burns up too many calories.” That’s right, don’t try to reason out the lyrics, just enjoy it. Just because you spent hours spinning records backwards… “Paul is dead… Paul is dead… Paul is…” Wouldn’t it be nice for once to think about where you’re going? Radio is about as interesting as sidewalk cracks. Most of those kids out there are most lost than the Pepsi generation.

This is the age of diversity. There is southern rock, acid rock, punk, d***o, jazz, MOR, pop, R&B, new wave, and so on. Not only is the music scene fragmented, but the fragments are fragmented. And most groups or soloists stick to more than one style. What is the trend for the next decade? Will music continue as it is or merge like the Beatle era?

Sixties music dominates the airwaves, along with d***o, pop, and ‘50s revival music. Listeners still look at the last decade trying to recapture that lost sense of purpose. We in the ‘70s are dissatisfied. The nostalgia we admire not only includes periods 20 or 30 years ago, but recent times such as the early ‘70s. Something in modern music is missing so we look to the past. Oldies sell like hotcakes. Frozen into a trend since 1969, music begs for a revolution; but people have to change their attitudes first. The issues of the war years have changed – for the worse. Alienation and dehumanization are still here. Your draft number doesn’t bother you but your Social Security number does. The revolutionary tirades of the hippie age have become the complacent tunes of the ‘70s. Crosby, Stills & Nash sing of “Dark Star’; gone are “Nixon’s soldiers.” Music only appears to be rebellious when really it’s as conformist as you can get. People tend to forget the shock of the flower people, long hair, the Beatles, the Mod look, miniskirts, protest marches and living together – the counter-culture. Today’s sound reflects that. Gone is the controversy. No more daring on the airwaves. Just complacency.

Look at the past. That’s where the future lies. Every 20 years a new generation must face new truths and tear up old lies. Like a snake, we shed our skins of old values. Occasionally the skin sticks and we have to rip it off with a vengeance. A fit of rage. It’s the kids who see it first. They view the world from a vantage point. In the ‘20s, they broke from the past with the Charleston, the fast cars and flappers. Most of their parents still lived in 1896, mentally and morally. People changed and the music changed. In the ‘40s, the war kept the kids preoccupied; nevertheless, in the ‘50s, their culture, such as the “Fonz’s,” like rock’n’roll, existed mostly in the cities. This rock’n’roll was an omen for the ‘60s. It said being involved was like torture. It said your parents are a hassle. It said, look around you; isn’t it all stupid? Then it all broke open on the Ed Sullivan Show. And there was turbulence. But like before, it was absorbed. When the Beatles arrived in America, reports mentioned how long their hair was. It covered the tops of their ears! By 1972, Lyndon Baines Johnson had hair down to his shoulders. And again, the omen has arisen. It is the new wave. Since 1967 is still fresh in our minds, the next explosion will resemble the last.

Music… rock needed some earthiness. Blacks were then welcomed into the pop scene. Their music dealt with the reality of day-to-day life (until then, they had mostly been left out of the mainstream). It was called soul music for a reason. But now, look around you. Is there any soul in d****o? The music creates money – the money creates music. No meaning; the turbulence is gone.

Vietnam made all our standards obsolete. The rat race was just what it described: people reduced to a groveling state, not a description told at cocktail parties. Mr. Businessman was a square. All we were taught wasn’t true. Nothing else made sense anymore. War wasn’t glory. Suburbia wasn’t living. College wasn’t an education. Frank Sinatra wasn’t music. Sgt. Pepper’s heralded the total experience. Rock metamorphosed from jukebox tunes into a view of life – the “trip.” Other movements long in the sidelines moved into the forefront. Elvis came in with rockabilly, Joan Baez with folk, and the Supremes with R&B. Violence, sex, love, frustration, alienation, were now part of the art. The art was alive. To those on our side of the generation gap it was “the living are dead and only the dead are truly living.”

Music always changes. We must deal with confusion, compassion, rejection, and reflection. That is the way music appeals to us. Unconscious emotions play in the sound and the lyrics confirm it. What we’re thinking becomes popular music. You live the sound. You like it because you think, “Hey!... that’s part of me!” But a culture can be forced down your throat through radio, television, records, and elevator Muzak(t). That is the mellow sound. That is imposed music. ‘Sixties-ish rock has lost much meaning in the last few years. Issues and talents are ignored. The roots of pop rock have been forsaken for the derivative R&B.

As rock’n’roll outraged the generation of Ozzie & Harriet, new wave upsets the modern Archie Bunkers. It seeks publicity and seeks to astound. Absurd realities that are accepted as fact of life because all they are is old, worn-thin ideas. Like rock’n’roll, new wave reveals the dumb.

Corporate America has taken over. Imposed culture means stable, predictable profits. Rock once protested big business; now it is big business. Hype creates the event. Hype creates the group. Talent becomes an insignificant part of the formula. Groups like KISS rely on mystery, action and gossip, but little originality. “Record companies are run by accountants and lawyers,” David Crosby* admits. Being profit seekers, they have little contact with the artists. They control radio, TV, magazines, etc. Radio, as a medium of expression, is incredibly conservative. The trend has gone from Top Forty stations to Top Ten. What upsets people’s preconceived notions of music simply is not aired. The real meat is sacrificed for dough. What makes money is what reaches the most people. The gold record, which was a rarity, is now a common thing. The music of the ‘60s was incorporated into Muzak(t). When you hear “She Loves You” by Percy Faith, you wonder how long it will be before there is “Sheena Is a Punk Rocker” by the Ray Coniff Singers. The creative artist is at the mercy of administrators who think in terms of feeding the machine. The machine is shocked by the Ramones, Television, Blondie, Dead Boys, Iggy Pop and the Adverts. The machine loves only $$$.

Sex is money to the corporations. If it appeals, it can be exploited, is their motto. What is Donna Summers Selling? Music? Talent? No, it’s sex]. “Move it in / Move it out” (that well played d****o single [“Disco Lady” by Johnny Taylor:]) isn’t about dancing. It manipulates your emotions. Is there any soul in Barry White’s moaning? You become programmed to like what you hear. If you don’t believe the sex part, just pick up a popular album and look at the cover.

Do you notice how big stars are touted? Not to say they have no talent, but you can tell by the push behind those concert tours. Hype pushes it and talent is used up. It pushes the Wings, Elton John, the Stones, Fleetwood Mac and Barry Manilow. They push the groups who’ve lost their glory, like Led Zeppelin. They are illusions of the past. “He who is first, he will be last / The times they are a-changing.”

And what does this add up to? Violence, turbulence, and change are building up. Rock and roll led to “1-2-3-4 / We don’t want your fuckin’ war.” Music isn’t answering the questions of life anymore. New wave does. What will this new wave lead to? How dynamic it is depends on the resistance to change. Kids are angry, unemployed and pissed off. They see dad work for 50 years only to get laid off. Is England 1978 an omen for American 1984? Will this anger lash out? The music reflects the times. And the frustration is overwhelming.

If there is turbulence, rock’n’roll will take in elements of new wave, jazz, reggae, punk and folk. Like pre-Beatle America, today’s music is in pieces. From cause, it became a taste or preference. Turbulence would merge elements of all music. D****o will be revealed as a fad. In social upheaval, it would be tossed aside as “not relevant.” Country will - and is - becoming institutionalized Muzak(t), MOR and pop. A new wave comes in hard times (i.e., U.S. –> Vietnam, England –> depression).

Jane Fonda once said, “It is the age of nothingness. Even with the problems of the “60s, there was this moral issue that got kids off their feet. Below the layer of apathy, in today’s young people, is a tremendous amount of rage.”

The rage may surface…

While I don’t agree with everything Alan said (e.g., sex always sold rock’n’roll, which itself is named for a blues term for sex), his argument is pretty solid, and only proven to be more so in retrospect. There have been other commentaries about much of what he brought up back then, such as the commercialization of music; check out The Mansion on the Hill: Dylan, Young, Geffen, Springsteen, and the Head-on Collision of Rock and Commerce by Fred Goodman, for example. As for “hype creates the event,” I recommend reading Daniel J. Boorstin’s 1962 book The Image: A guide to Pseudo-events in America.

At the same time saying it’s the “age of diversity” of style and about the stagnation in experimentation sound like opposites, it is actually an oxymoron, in that it’s opposites that work. While the genres are splintered, there is also a dummying down and overlapping that make event the difference minimal, despite the shards. Country is more pop than bluegrass these days; rock by groups like Slipknot, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Kid Rock have incorporated rap into its sound. And don’t get me started with the auto-tune making it all a lie on top of a lie. It seems all the shards of genres have pretty much the same sharp point, but no edge. To add to when Alan said, “What we’re thinking becomes popular music,” now in the 21st Century, popular music becomes what we’re thinking.

That is why independent music is more important now than ever. What used to take a whole studio of equipment to produce can now be done on a laptop. What took factories to make a physical product can be done with a disk copying program (if hard copies are needed at all).

Every type of music has been co-opted at some point. The scary Elvis, Chuck and Little R. are turned into Pat Boone, Frankie Avalon and Fabian. The Beatles resurrected it with the Mersey Beat, which became muddled in its own use of technology, causing it to cease with
Sgt. Pepper’s. The Last Poets and Public Enemy turn into Lady Caca and Christina Arugula. The Byrds and the Yardbirds lead into hair bands like Poison. The Ramones and Television get bought out by the disco (aka d****o) of Blondie. Sadly, in many cases, the compromised get a larger market share than the originals, because unlike the indie groups that started it, there is more control, therefore more money in the homogenization.

Someone once said to me after I had commented about how much better the Heartbreakers from New York were compared to Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, “Oh yeah, then how come Tom Petty outsold that other group by so much?” My response was, simply, “Look how many people voted for Nixon.” Just because something sells more, does not mean it is better. I’m
still waiting for that rage to surface, all these years later.

* In the original piece, this quote was attributed to Elton John, but an Internet search reveals it to be David Crosby.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Punk Primer #2: The British Second Wave

Text © copyright Robert Barry Francos
Images and recordings from the Internet

Recently, I was asked by some friends (who are about my age) to teach them a little about the history of punk. For the first class, I played them some proto-punk and influences (Shangri-Las, Iggy, Velvets, MC5, Dolls, etc.). For the second, I did the New York first wave (Televisions, Ramones, Hell, Dictators, Blondie, Heartbreakers, etc.).

The following is the list of records (both LPs and 45s) and CDs I played for them for a history of British punk, or the Second Wave, that are part of my collection. There is more I could have played, but I chose from my heart. Certainly, I could spin them all night, but I tried to keep it somewhat realistic. While many stories, both historical and personal, went with the airings, I will kept that to a minimal here. I have supplied videos for you, the reader, as many of the originals as I could find, with some exceptions (which will be noted). Feel free to leave comments at this blog about my choices, or alternatives, or additions.

1. Ian Whitcomb: Where Did Robinson Crusoe Take Friday on Saturday Night?
One aspect of British music that is generally missing from the US side is the dance hall sound that was a more risqué version of Tin Pan Alley. It is irreverent and usually bawdy with a lot of innuendo (much as some early Blues). As with British punk, this music was embraced more by the lower end of British working classes. Whitcomb, a musical historian, has written two books extensively on both this early period of music (After the Ball: Pop Music from Rag to Rock) and about the ‘60s (Rock Odyssey: A Chronicle of the Sixties, and I highly recommend them both.

2. Ramones: Beat on the Brat
The Ramones tour of England was important for spreading the minimalist anyone-can-do-it sound and initiative, but they also brought a level of (imagined) malevolence in the music, that would be interpreted as actual violence in many cases.

3. The Heartbreakers: Born to Lose (aka) Born Too Loose
The Heartbreakers’ tour of England also brought a nihilistic tone to music that was absorbed into the British scene. And, quite infamously, they also introduced heroin as the “cool” drug. Their other indirect import was Nancy Spungen, but that’s another story. The line I pointed out to the class was, “Living in a jungle, it ain’t that hard / Living in the city, it’ll eat / Eat out your heart.”

4. Nick Lowe: So It Goes
Despite being a strong pop tune, that it was the first release on Stiff Records makes it a turning point in the British punk movement, if not merely a touchstone.

5. The Damned: Neat Neat Neat
Getting signed before the Pistols is reason enough to put them here, but the fact their music was so interesting is a plus. I played three of their songs because (a) the length is short, (b) I saw them at CBGB’s a number of times on a double bill with the Dead Boys, and (c) it’s just so much fun.

6. The Damned: Stab Your Back

7. The Damned: Help
The song starts at 45 seconds:

8. The Sex Pistols: Anarchy in the U.K.
Do I really need to explain?

9. The Sex Pistols: God Save the Queen

10. The Clash: White Riot
The story goes that Joe Strummer was in the pub rock band the 101ers, heard the Pistols, and quit that band to form the Clash. Well, I liked the 101ers, but respect the early Clash as well. I played the singles version, as that’s the one I had and like best.

11. The Clash: London Calling
This is where the Clash end for me. Great song, but they went way too commercial and lost all appeal to me. Their releases Sandinista and Rock the Casbah were trifling.

12. The Adverts: One Chord Wonders
One of the bands I regret not seeing live. Always like their first few singles.

13. The Adverts: Gary Gilmore’s Eyes
This is slightly different than the Stiff single I played, and I feel this is a bit inferior.

14. Eater: Thinking of the USA
One of the first anti-USA songs in the punk canon, taking a shot at politics, and also at some of the musicians who brought punk over, including the Heartbreakers’ Walter Lure. This is not the single version I played, but rather a more sedate live version, with less bite.

15. Stiff Little Fingers: Suspect Device
Punk spread far and wide on the Isle, and here is one of Ireland’s great contributions, a band named after a song by the group the Vibrators. I’m proud to say that myself and Alan Abramowitz introduced bassist Ali to sushi after interviewing him at Irving Plaza. The staccato of this song's chorus is just stunning.

16. Stiff Little Fingers: Barbed Wire Love
Could only find the live video, but it’s accurate.

17. The Buzzcocks: Breakdown
I definitely like the Howard DeVoto years better than the Pete Shelley period.

18. Anti-Nowhere League: I Hate… People
As time went on, more thugs found punk as a way to vent their anger, and A-NL are a perfect example. Interesting music, a bit on the heavy side, but I had no desire to see a show. And my class audience were not “So Wot” kinda people.

19. Mo-dettes: White Mice
Much as Blondie co-oped NY punk into New Wave, bands like the Mo-dettes make the sound a bit more palatable. Still, it’s a fun song.

20. Adam and the Ants: AntMusic
And a final nail was the public acceptance of Adam and the Ants. Yeah, the song was a shit-and-giggle, but was it punk?

21. Plastic Bertrand: Ca Plane Pour Moi
Sheer joyous insanity and abandon, and perfect for pogoing. The only decent version was did not permit embedding, so here is the link:

22. The Descendants: I Like Food
As a preview to the next class, the third wave of American hardcore, I played this. But first, I read the lyrics out loud…

Some I brought, but due to time frame, did not play:

A. Eddie and the Hot Rods: Teenage Depression
Saw them at Max’s KC in 1977, and they were boring live, but I enjoy the single.

B. Elvis Costello: Accidents Will Happen
Actually like his current stuff more than his old material.

C. Chelsea: Right to Work

D. Cortinas: Fascist Dictator

Then there are the Strangers, X-Ray Spex, the Crass, the Mekons, the whole Manchester scene, and so on, but we didn’t have all night, y’know! Oi!

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Bruno Arts Bank and All Citizens' Cafe, Jan 14, 2011

Text and photos (c) Robert Barry Francos, 2011
Photos can be made larger by clicking on them

I had passed the exit for the small town of Bruno, Saskatchewan, on the way to Muenster[,_Saskatchewan] a few times over a year ago. The name of the town always intrigued me, but as last winter was upon us, my car was removed from my life, and so I never had the opportunity to get out that way since. All I knew about Bruno was that it was small, that there was a big religious institution (St. Therese Hailing and Growth Center), they had an annual Cherry Festival, and some amazing musicians played in a small artists-run cafe.

Recently, our friend and neighbor Susan Shantz, who is an artist that also teaches art at the University of Saskatchewan, invited me along on a class trip to Bruno, where the same person who runs the music cafe also has an artists' residency on his property, and he and one of the artists would be giving a 20-minute talk apiece to the class. Sure, why not; I had been curious about the place for the past year.

Susan did not have any room in her car for me, so I rode along with a couple from North Battleford (about an hour west from Saskatoon, while Bruno in 90K / 55 miles east of SToon. He is Marcus Miller, who runs a couple of galleries in NB, and she is Mindy Yan Miller, an artist who works in textiles. Also along was their son, Charly, a really nice and intelligent 11 year old. Fortunately, we all hit it off, and the drive felt even quicker, despite the blowing snow along Highway 5.

When we arrived in Bruno, we had no problem finding where we needed to be since the business district of town is essentially a street's length, with storefronts lining both sides. When we arrived, Tyler Brett, the owner of the arts establishments, was giving his talk about his paintings and installations, followed by Kerri Reid, who discussed her found-and-copied work, and how she distributes it post-showings.

When they finished, myself, Marcus and Mindy (in that order) were asked to speak about our own art processes for about 5 minutes each. During the break that followed, I walked around town and took photos (i.e., one of my arts). It was a bitterly cold day and the wind swept through the relatively level area.

Afterwards, we all met back at the Bruno Bank Arts building (which, until recently, was the RBC Bank), where we all were given a tour of the place. It is a two-storey brick building and musicians are anxious to play to the small and enthusiastic crowd that comes from as far as Saskatoon. It seats around 30. Then we all headed over to the All Citizens Cafe, which is a small coffee shop, where we saw where the music started; it seats around 20.

Below is a tour of Bruno, and some of the events I've described above:

Standing at Hoffman Avenue, at the head of the main street, not surprising called Main Street, facing south.

This is the west side of the street...

...and this is the east side.

Standing at the south / opposite end of the business district now, this is a view of the west side, from the middle of the street in front of the town's hotel.

At the far south end of the street is the Bruno Hotel. Behind it is the grain elevator. Most likely there was a train station for the town located right near here at some point in time. The door on the right is the lobby, and the one on the left is the town's provincial liquor distributor.

Directly across from the hotel are great old store buildings, obviously among the earliest built in town.

One of the stores in this building is the Lucky Dollar (which is also the bus depot; it has buses to and from Saskatoon once a day), but according to the sign in the window, perhaps "lucky" is a misnomer?

It seems even in most small towns, and Bruno has a population of 500, there is a Chinese restaurant to go with it. I wonder about all the 7-Up signs, though.

And you know you're in Saskatchewan, because in the window of this drug store, the handmade sign in the middle is sure to tell you they have CFL Saskatchewan Roughriders' merchandise. Based in Regina, the team's biggest fans seem to be further north.

There are a number of business on the street including the following:
A lumber supply shop...

...a library...

... a furniture and cabinet maker...

...a fitness establishment (I'm guessing gym and massages)...

...and one of the grocery stores is the 100+ year old Pulvermacher Bros, which are still run by two of the Pulvermacher brothers (no, I am not trying to imply it is the same "Bros." that started it). It is attached to a Sears outlet store (you place an order from a catalog, and the item is delivered here).

For all your insurance and licence needs, there's Dust Agencies, the local SGI (Saskatchewan Government Insurance). Next to it is Renee's Hair Design. I'm not sure if the sign in the window indicates that it is for sale, or they are also the local real estate agents. I do like the Hair Design's storefront.

Next to the SGI is a very cool looking fire department building, which I am sure is voluntary. Despite it's appearance, it is not made by Lego(c).

This is Tyler Brett's new Arts Building. The archival photos of the town pre-date his ownership. As I stated above, it used to be the RBC (Royal Bank of Canada), but when they closed down, they sold the building to Tyler for use as an arts and performance space. The upstairs is now an artists' residency, with room for two or three at a time. Next to the Arts Building is the small greenspace called Pioneer Park.

In Pioneer Park are some benches, old tractors, and a one-time jailhouse.

The logo for the Arts Building is a nod to the town's Cherry Festival, which is held every year. One can either buy locally grown cherries, or the actual cherry bush for one's own garden. The upper left window is the art studio for the residency, and on the right is one of two bedrooms.

After the artists' presentation, Susan Shantz (second from right) listens to her class's impressions about what they had heard, and if they are interested in an internship at the Arts Bank.

Tyler Brett (second from left) discusses the internship possibilities with four interested students.

Tyler Brett in front of some regional art work displayed in the lobby of the Arts Bank.

On the wall is a series of miniature buildings that represent the town of Bruno; the art is the work of Tyler Brett.

An old piano sits beneath the above miniatures, which is also now the stage for the musical acts.

The bathroom has flyers for future events.

The vault area is now also the green room.

Just a few doors down is the Senior Citizens centre, and the wisely and humorously named All Citizens Cafe.

Inside the cafe, the walls are filled with art, 'zines, and music for sale.

Also, some food and beverages are available, which is why they call it a cafe, of course.

Behind the counter is the kitchen.

Tyler Brett describes the building's history and how the stage used to be set up.

Susan Shantz gets a coffee before heading back to Saskatoon with the students.

Susan Shantz says farewell to Marcus Miller and Mindy Yan Miller, as the crowd begins to break up.

This is the space that used to be where the musicians performed. It is a very small area, and very intimate. Artists love to play here to the enthusiastic group, despite the audience size.

Charly Miller knows there will be no music on this day, so he works on the computer while his parents get ready to go.

I look forward to start seeing shows here, despite the 45-minute drive from home. This will hopefully be a very musical summer.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

DVD Reviews: Two of the America’s Music Legacy Series, Part 4: Folk, Dixieland Jazz

Text © Robert Barry Francos/FFanzeen, 2011
Images from the Internet

Part 4: This is just two of a series of six DVDs that have been released to promote a collection of television specials from the 1980s that highlight specific genres of music, with each disc focusing on a one at a time. Note that links to other performances are not present on these compilations.

America’s Music Legacy: Folk
Directed by Kip Walton
Cube International / Century Home Video, 1983 / 2010
120 minutes, USD $16.95

To be honest, along with the rock and roll one of this series, previously reviewed in this blog, the Folk genre is the one I have been looking forward to the most, and it certainly did not disappoint.

If this were recorded in this present time of the singer-songwriter, it would have been a completely different collection, but for the period it was, the scene was leaning more towards traditional folk. There’s no Dylan, Collins, Ochs, Havens, but they present a solid compilation of live performances by some top of their game artists.

Part of the reason for the level of traditional present here is due to the person who is both hosting and performing. Theodore Bikel is co-founder of the Newport Folk Festival, where Dylan would one day infamously go electric, and who I had the honor to see play at Kingsborough Community College in Brooklyn, around 1975. As is common in this series, as the host, he tells the story of folk music, and he gets to sing, but more on that later.

Opening the first of the two edited-together shows is ex-Limeliters singer Glenn Yarborough. He has a distinctive high tenor voice with a Melanie-esque vibrato. Yarborough starts with the light British ballad “Molly,” and goes into a rambunctious telling of “Frankie and Johnny” (you know, “Frankie and Johnny were lovers…”; a lot of British folk songs are about the death of a loved one, be it through murder [e.g., “Down By the River”], war [“Bonny Light Horseman”], or heartbreak [“Barbara Allen”], it seems). His version of this well-worn traditional piece has a high jazz percentage mixed in. Being an oral tradition, folk is open for many interpretations. Unfortunately, he pushes it arguable a bit too far when he returns later in the program doing a totally disco-ized “You Are My Reason.” I had no problem with Dylan going electric, but this is just bad for its own sake. Feh.

Buffy St.-Marie is from Saskatchewan, where I am currently living, and along with Joni Mitchell, she is highly regarded here. It’s no wonder, as the woman has many talents. I’d seen her on the Music Scene television show from the late ‘60s, doing an extremely earnest version of her “Universal Soldier.” Time moves on, and here she starts off with “Cripple Creek,” in traditional First Nations style. She sings while playing a large mouth harp string instrument in a wonderfully dexterous way (there is a small b-roll clip in the trailer, below). This is followed up by the modernized traditional “Starwalker,” which is distinctly Buffy St.-Marie, and shows of the range of her amazing voice. She is such a joy to watch on this program.

From profound to the perky as we are presented with the New Main Street Sing… I mean, the New Christy Minstrels. They open with “Charlottetown” (listed on the clamshell as “Liza Jane”) with the cheery chorus, “Charlottetown is burning down / Goodbye, goodbye.” Happy times. While the TNCM have amazing harmonies, they seem a bit soulless and totally whitebread and whitewashed, a folk equivalent of bland gospel, televangelist style. They may have done better with “Oh, Let Me Fly.” Think I’ll stick to “The Good Book Song” parody ( They come back later and do an upbeat (no surprise there) “Green, Green,” and a medley of six standards, including “I Dream of Jeannie,” “Camptown Races,” and “Oh Susannah.”

Luckily, the show is redeemed once again by Odetta (d. 2008), who I saw do a powerful set at the Calgary Music Festival in 1994. The power of the woman’s tone alone could slay a dragon. Most of her material has a strong gospel feel without a hit of patronizing. As she strums her guitar, incense stuck into the neck burns away. She also shows what a medley can be, combining “House of the Rising Sun,” “Old House,” and a touch of “Goodnight Irene,” all with a mournful quality.

Unfortunately, Hoyt Axton (d. 1999) will probably be remember more for his role in the film Gremlins than for the writing of his music, much of which has become cultural lynchpins, such as “Joy to the World” and “Never Been to Spain” (heck, his mom co-wrote Elvis’s “Heartbreak Hotel”). But it was his lesser known (by much of my crowd, anyway) folk and country material that touch me the most. Here he does two of his own songs, starting with the great “Greenback Dollar” (original covered by the Kingston Trio, but a fine version was released by the Washington Squares). The other is a song about cocaine (surprised this one made it passed the censor in the early ‘80s) called “Della and the Dealer.” His rough-hewn voice is perfect for this material.

Introduced by Buffy St.-Marie, host Bikel takes the stage. He has a distinctive European patter to his voice that adds a flavor to his sound. He once did a great turn with Judy Collins dueting “Greenland Fisheries”: Here, he starts of with a stirring and zippy version of Phil Och’s “There But For Fortune.” Sadly, he follows this up with Jim Croce’s lame “Time in a Bottle” (as Kenne Highland once wrote in a song: “Jim Croce’s records never sold / But when he died they all turned gold”). My guess is Bikel was trying to show old school and (then) new, binding them together.

Speaking of really old school, the Blue Fame String Band presents some Appalachian style traditional sounds with “Aunt Caroline Dyer Blues,” using banjo, fiddle, two acoustic guitars, and an electric bass. This is the type of stuff Alan and John Lomax brought into the popular culture mindset, with images of fog on the mountainside, and moonshine, perhaps.

The first part ends with everyone coming back to the stage and singing Woody Guthrie’s (does any really need the last name?) “This Land is Your Land,” which Bikel refers to as “the unofficial national anthem of folk music.”

While Glenn Yarborough was once a member of the Limeliters, who hail from San Francisco, he is not included in the trio as the group starts of the second part. There are two original members, and a new third that picks up the high tenor gap Glenn left behind. Their first is a rousing version of a rousing song, “There’s A Meeting Here Tonight,” followed by Woody’s “Traveling Wayfarin’ Stranger” and the Weavers’ “Lonesome Traveler.” The trio have really close harmonies, with which they play with the melodies and the pacing in very entertaining ways.

Described as “a man, his guitar, and his talent,” Josh White Jr. proves he is quite the talent without familial associations (and yet he seems to be forever in his father’s shadow). Josh is backed by just his fingersnapping in the first tune, the spiritual a capella “I’ve Been Down” (“I’ve been down so long / getting up never crossed by mind”). With his guitar, he performs the playfully upbeat style blues of “Where Were You Baby When My Heart Went Out.”

While he may be blind, Doc Watson is a top finger-picker (no, I don’t have any idea what one has to do with the other, any more than he is from North Carolina). Also unrelated, in Watson’s intro, Bikel manages to give an indirect slam to electric music, i.e., Dylan and rock). But I digress… Getting back to Doc, he is an old-tyme country player, Woody-style, starting off with a lively cover of the moving “Fix Me a Pallet,” followed by the classic I-IV-V rhythm of “I Got the Blues.”

Bringing us back to the Appalachian Olde-English-based subgenre is music historian (and musician) Jean Ritchie, of Kentucky. With dulcimer in hand, she wails “March Down to Old Tennessee.” I particularly liked the very short background or description she gives explaining how it was illegal for women to dress like men, as in the next song, “They Call Me Jackero.” Of course, there are lots of songs of women following men into battle, such as “500 Miles” and the aforementioned “Bonny Light Horseman.” In this case, the protagonist fights beside her love and saves his life.

Dave von Ronk (d. 2002) is such a dynamic performer, it’s no wonder he mentored other great musicians such as Christine Lavin. As a leader of the urban folk movement (Dylan, Ochs, etc.), this Brooklynite belts some jazz blues with “Sunday Street,” for which he refers to himself as a “city-billy.” His second piece, “Garden State,” has a Brel-ish melody, while he shouts out the lyrics, consisting only of the names of towns in New Jersey (in rhyme, yet).

A jug band, led by Mary McCaslin and Jim Ringer, sails through the country bluegrass (I did say jug band, y’know) “Sunday Street.” Jim does all the singing and she plays, but for some reason, she still has a mic. Just an observation; go figure. They are quite joyous.

With a John Hartford (he would have been good to have here) banjo-pickin’ singing-talking style, John McEuen (of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band) plays “Old Man From Missouri,” only he mixes it up a bit with traditional stirred with a more modernized tone. Then he starts playing real fast. Punk banjo anyone?

To finish off as the second set began, the Limeliters come back for “That’s Just the Way It Goes,” giving it a modern klezmer twist.

There was a lot to enjoy in this collection, and it’s easy to recommend to any folker. And yet, there are so many others I would have loved to have seen, like Joe & Eddie (in clips, as Joe died in an accident in ’66;, The Allen-Ward Trio (, and Dana & Brown, among so many others, but that’s just me dreaming and being unrealistic about the time allotted, I guess…

* * *

America’s Music Legacy: Dixieland Jazz
Directed by Kip Walton
Cube International / Century Home Video, 1983 / 2010
95 minutes, USD $16.95

What is the difference between jazz and Dixieland jazz? The latter is a mix of Spanish, French, Caribbean and African influences. It also relies heavily on brass and woodwinds, and is generally an upbeat sound. Once a perennial Mardi Gras parade member, host and trumpeter Al Hirt (d. 1999) describes it as “happy music,” though it does share some of the blues.

The sound is not as common now as when I was growing up, as jazz has become more codified, even in its freedom of expression. Just the white hair on so many of the musicians on this two-edited-into-one musical extravaganza shows that it is a sound that may have passed its time, like the related big band swing. I’m not saying it’s gone, just that it’s not as prevalent as it used to be. But again, as Hirt states proudly, referring to this music, “The south will rise again.”

The musicians used throughout this program is called the New Orleans Jazz All-Star Band, made up of Hirt’s and Woody Herman’s back-up, including at times such jazz luminaries as Bobby Havens, Eddie Miller, Ray Leatherwood, Gene Estes, Michael “Peanuts” Hucko, Ray Sherman, Fred Crane, Edward Huntington, and Colin Bailey.

Woody Herman and his band open up the show with a stirring “Jazz Me Blues” and “Basin Street Blues,” upbeat numbers with a rousing clarinet. As with most of numbers here, it is common for the lead musician to give way to the others in the band for a chance to shine. Dixieland is very magnanimous that way (and jazz tends to be in general; you really need to know what you’re doing and be able to improvise to play it well).

Much of the music and dialog revolve around trumpeter Louis Armstrong (d. 1971). Also known as Satchmo, or just Pops, he was a New Orleans native who brought the sound to the world in the 1920s. In later years, though, he moved to Queens, NY, and is buried there. Hirt reads off a short but informative bio of Armstrong, and shows some photos and clips.

It only makes sense that one of his musical offspring, instrumentalist Clora Bryant, a killer trumpeter in her own right. She plays “When It’s Sleepytime Down South,” a ballad she dedicates to Louis. Following is an interview clip of her describing the time she met Satchmo, who gave her a trumpet that she still owns.

Whipping up a fast-as-lightening banjo is Scotty Plummer (d. 1992 in a motorbike accident), who plays hardcore punk-speed Dixieland. The two instrumental tunes he strums, the standard “Waiting for the Robert E. Lee” and “The World is Waiting for the Sunrise,” almost sound like bumblebees surrounding the melody as his hand moves up and down so fast they’re a blur. He had quite the incredible technique.

Jazz-angel (sorry) Della Reese proves she’s more than an actress in a (gratefully gone) sappy television program, as she jazzes up and bops Irving Berlin’s “Blue Skies.” As fine as she is here, I enjoyed her second number, “The Man with a Horn,” a bluesy ballad accompanied by Hirt, much more. With “Horn,” she shows off more of her range and musical emotion.

Hirt finally does a lead with the chestnut “Bill Bailey,” joined by his quartet (stand-up bass, drum, piano), each of whom get a solo. After a brief film clip of Hirt describing his life and career, he actually sings on “Bourbon Street Paradise.” His voice is gravelly and raw, and sounds great to this style.

Playing a jellyroll associated with the likes of Scott Joplin and Fats Waller is Johnny Guarnieri (d. 1985), who is sort of the Carol Kaye (bassist of the famed Wrecking Crew) of the big band era, playing on thousands of recordings. Here he plays terrific versions of Joplin’s classic “Maple Leaf Rag” and Waller’s “Ain’t Misbehavin’.”

Where there is Dixieland, can “When the Saints Go Marching In” be far behind? Hirt and Woody Herman fulfill the necessity with a rousing rendition.

Bob Crosby (yes, the youngest brother of Bing; d. 1993) joins his old swing band, the Bobcats, for their big hits, “March of the Bobcats” and “Big Noise From Winnetka,” the latter which started as an improv way back when, before it was put to 78 rpm.

The married couple of Jim and Marsha Hession, aka The Hessions, follow a clip of Eubie Blake (who, like George Burns, died shortly after is 100th birthday). JIm plays a killer piano, and Marsha sings in a high, operatic voice. It’s quite lovely and she is able to reach four octaves, but at the same time I found it kind of disconcerting and forced (as operatic voices tend to be). They open with a lively version of Waller’s “This Joint is Jumpin’.”

Hirt is back with his band doing a jazz rendition of “Someday You’ll Be Sorry.” It’s a bit meandering in the way jazz can be, and it still swings. Again, everyone gets space to do their own thing.

At long last, Scatman Crothers (d. 1986) gets his chance. The man is more than a musician, he is a performer, and I’ve been a fan for a number of years (as I’ve stated in a previous review for this series). He plays with the audience for his comedic “The Gal Looks Good.” The song is more Harlem blues, and he shows off his amazing talent as he strums his guitar and, of course, scats.

Not to be confused with jazz musician Ted Buckner, jazz musician Teddy Buckner continues the Harlem-esque sound with the ballad “Struttin’ With some Barbeque,” which naturally leads into the swinging “Please Don’t Talk About Me When I’m Gone.” These songs would sound as comfortable in New Orleans as it would at the Cotton Club.

There is a full song clip, and rightfully so, of Fats Waller (d. 1943) performing his stride piano to his own “Honeysuckle Rose,” while a bevy of beauties lounge around him, Busby Berkeley bathing beauties style. Waller tended to lean towards comic, but he was highly talented as both a performer and writer. On the younger side relatively to the rest of this collection, and with some of the biggest hair (it was the ‘80s, y’know), is pianist Judy Carmichael. She plays a wild stride piano in a post-ragtime style, picking up on an instrumental version of Waller’s “Honeysuckle Rose” as the clip of him playing the same song ends. A joy to watch, indeed.

The New Orleans All-Star Jazz Band comes out and does the biggest jazz standard of the Roaring ‘20s, “Tiger Rag” (you would probably know it if you heard it). The way the song is played here, which is actually quite raucous, is based on the trombone as the central instrument, with Bobby Havens doing physical playing that is reminiscent more of Hendrix than Higginbotham. Quite smile-worthy

The last original artist up is Irma Thomas, who Hirt describes as “The Queen of New Orleans Soul.” She starts off singing her first recording from 1960, the humorous blues “(You Can Have My Husband But) Don’t Mess with My Man.” Her voice is deep, throaty, and honeyed (but not flinty). Hirt joins her in the second song, “Do You Know What it Means,” a love song to New Orleans, all the more poignant now, nearly 30 years later after Katrina, since there are film clips shown of the city shown as they sing that no longer exist.

For the finale, Hirt describes the how and why music at funerals in New Orleans is infamously played with a joyous tone. For the end, or “death” of the program, the whole band comes out again, and they perform “South Rampart Street Parade.”

Of all the collection of the American’s Music Legacy, this is by far the most spirited and joyous, and also with the largest number of people no longer with us. Am I seeing a correlation? No, but I am enjoying it while I can.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Celebrating Leo Francos on his 90th Birthday

Text (c) Robert Barry Francos, 2011
Photos credited where known
Photos can be made larger by clicking on them

If he had not passed away in 2006, my dad would have celebrated his 90th birthday on January 12, 2011. This blog is dedicated to him.

This little picture is from one of those Times Square kind of photo booths, just around the time he was enlisted into the army for Dubbya Dubbya Two. He would have been in his very early 20s. Funny thing is as time went on, he refused to smile for these kinds of pictures, especially official ones. Here, his amazing hair at the time

While my dad never had to go overseas during the war, he still had to go through basic training like anyone else. Despite the smile, this was not a happy period for him, being picked on by others because of his height (5'5"), weight (very thin), and his Jewish ethnicity. The other person in the photo is unknown.
Soon after the war, Leo I(right) ran into an old friend he used to know in the Bronx neighborhood in which he grew up, Ralph Schwartzmann (center), and they remained close friends for the rest of their lives (Ralph, who we called Uncle, passed on in the late 70s). The person on the left is unknown.
Leo, with his father (my grandfather), Benjamin Francos, who was fluent in many languages. He was born in Hungary and came to the States in 1910, and passed away in 1963 at age 80.
Leo and Helen Rosen's wedding picture from September 19, 1948.
My dad doing the dishes at their Brooklyn apartment in the very early '50s. [pic: Helen Francos]
Leo Francos, his elder sister Lillian, her then-tyke Stanley, and their dad, Benjamin Francos. I believe this was taken near Benjamin's apartment in the Bronx.
Ralph Schwartmann married Audrey, and they produced a daughter named Karin. During one Seder when the Schwartzmann's were over in the mid-'70s, Karin and I walked about a mile down to White Castle for a very inappropriate cheeseburger.
Leo was an auditor for Sperry Rand company in the government section, and he occasionally had the opportunity to travel, including to some bases.
Could be either one of Leo's sons giving him a hug, either Richard or Robert. [photo: Helen Francos]
Helen and Leo loved to throw (and attend) parties through the '50s and early '60s. Here Leo is in the living room dressed as a beatnik for a Halloween get-together. [photo: Helen Francos]
The parties were toned down by the mid-'60s, but they still happened. Here Leo helps two of the upstairs neighbors (Sandra was from one flight up, Joe from two). Her daughter Elise, and his step-daughter Julie Ann, were in my class [pic: Helen Francos]
At yet another living room gathering.
In 1962, older brother Richard attended sleepaway camp, and on family day was visited by Robert, Helen, Leo and Benjamin (sitting). [pic: Richard Francos]
For a while Robert and Richard attended camp at the same time. Again on a family visiting day, is Leo, Robert (wearing the camp's shirt), and Richard, who had a recent growth spurt. [pic: Helen Francos]
The day of Robert's Bar Mitzvah in 1968, Leo, Robert, Helen and a stylish Richard wait in the living room for everyone to show up. [pic: Audrey Schwartzmann]
Leo shakes Roberts hand after junior high school graduation, held at Brooklyn College. [pic: Helen Francos]
Leo and Helen at Robert's JHS grad. Helen wears her favorite beehive-style haircut. [pic: RBF]
Helen and Leo on vacation at Niagara Fall (Canadian side) in 1970. The Skylon tower can be see behind Leo. [pic: RBF]
Taken during the early '00s at Ken Laffer's house, more than 20 years after Helen's passing in 1981, Helen's sister Elsie Laffer relaxes with her brother-in-law. [pic: RBF]
This is the last photo of Leo with his sister, Lillian Weiner. She passed away about a year after this was taken.
Leo died on December 11, 2006, and was laid to rest beside my mom, who he never got over missing through the more than 25 years they were apart.