Thursday, February 26, 2009

The Dawning World: Harry Belafonte: "Day-O (Banana Boat Song)"

It may seem ironic - at first - that it took a Manhattan-born, partially-raised-in-Jamaica-when-young aspiring actor to bring music from the Caribbean to the UK charts, but that is how things stood in the winter of '57. (This isn't to say that the recent immigrants from Jamaica, Trinidad & Tobago, etc. weren't already playing live, recording and so on - they were, of course, but they hadn't crossed over yet to the UK charts.)

This song well precedes itself. Few songs are as memorable on first hearing as this one; from the proclamation "Day-O!" to the more than understandable refrain "Daylight come and me wan' go home" to the pleading/swaggerific "Come Mr. Tallyman, tally me bananas" - this is the song of a man who is proud of his work, as arduous and dangerous as it is (what other song mentions the "highly deadly black tarantula"? - none, I'm guessing). But he is at the end of his shift, he wants to get his pay and get some sleep after a long night on the docks, broken only by the odd swig of rum and dodging those darn spiders. "Day-O! Daaaaay-O! Day-is-a-day-is-day-is-a-daaaaay-ooooo" he sings, grateful for those rosy fingers of dawn; there is no sign here of the weary fatalism & murderousness of "Sixteen Tons." It could well be that the dockworker in question has relatives now living in England (I can see him now, reading his post in the early afternoon when he wakes up) and feels alternately happy and wistful, depending on their letters. Is hauling a six-foot or seven-foot bunch of bananas in the middle of the night better than living somewhere cold, rainy and, well, different? Perhaps it is, for him; but he might just go see for himself, and visit them too, one day. He knows he can't be a dockworker all his life, after all...

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Add Water And Stir: Pat Boone: "Don't Forbid Me"

As soon as it was obvious that the youth of the US were interested in what was called "race music," and some profit could be made from it (if it was re-recorded in a properly sanitized for your protection fashion) up popped Pat Boone, a clean-cut reasonably cute lad, to do the job. He was instant mashed potatoes in comparison to anyone else (for this song, esp., Elvis but also Charles Singleton, who wrote it); again, for this song he tries as hard as he can (with his own sorta-kinda Jordanaires) to sound just like Elvis. Clearly this worked, as it was a success, but the idea of Pat kissing me (to keep my lips from freezing, you see) let alone holding me does not, so to speak, spin my propellers. That many girls did respond to his warm pleas is proof that there has always been, and always will be, a big segment of the record-buying population that likes the safe, secure and square guy over the daredevil dirt dude every time. And yet no matter how much you may enjoy instant mashed potatoes, they are soft mush compared to the real thing. I am far from done with Mr. Boone, but in the meantime I must note that the song which kept him from number one was "Young Love" by Tab Hunter - not even in the arena of cute American boys could Boone win out; and next time we meet him here, his competition won't even be American. It's 1957 now, and things are starting to accelerate.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Someone Somewhere Is Having A Good Time: Winifred Atwell: "Let's Have a Party" and Frankie Vaughan: "The Green Door"

And now, some more housekeeping. In the rush to get through 1953 I omitted an important number two, perhaps knowing somehow it would happily sip its figurative drink until I got to it years later.

We are now entering the Age of Meek; the boy from the Forest of Dean has been puzzling over recorded and transmitted sounds for 24 years now - and is an engineer, by occupation, though his energy is so strong that he is, in fact, a producer for both these songs. (This is certainly a good case for the number two songs being more representative of what was going on than the number ones.) Meek innovated, he obsessed, and with these records he did what he could to enchant and bend the ear of the listener.

Atwell's medley (side one: "If You Knew Suzie/The More We Are Together/That's My Weakness Now/Knees Up Mother Brown" side two: "Daisy Bell/Boomps a Daisy/She Was One of the Early Birds/Three O'Clock in the Morning") is a deliberate and giddy throwback to the saloons of old, her piano treated and thus altered as much as John Cage's were across the ocean. It sounds as if there is a drummer on the song but he just keeps time; the rest is Atwell's loose player-piano style, providing bass and guitar, in effect, if not voice. However a guitar does come in on the second side, sounding sor all the world not like a guitar at all but the bleeping bloops of a machine - a very primitive synth. If you ever wondered what the precedent was for the cantina scene in Star Wars, this is it. Atwell would have fit in fine there, just as she did in post-war UK.

Three years later and another party is being held: one, I suspect, even more avant-garde or off-limits than Atwell's come-one come-all shindig. With "The Green Door" we have a party we are not allowed to join, one maddeningly interesting (to the point that our hapless and excited narrator can't sleep) but mysteriously forbidding. There's a "hot piano" behind the door, and laughter, but there is a sense that these are just the start of the intrigue, and not the point. That "Joe" sent him is met with derision (a nice coincidence there and yes, ironic as can be, too) points to the fact that our narrator may not be as pitiable as you might think. He seems to enjoy the whole frustrating ordeal (whenever he sings "door" it's as "doo-orr-AAAH!" as if some vital part of his anatomy was being, um, squeezed). The song is quiet and swinging at first, then big band brassy, then quiet again as he is once more sleepless (does he live nearby? The green door in question seems to become more and more figurative as the song goes on). Then it ends abruptly with the cry "Green door!" in longing and happy frustration. There are no proto-synth moments in the song, but Meek - a gay man in a resolutely straight world, which in 1956 meant that he was, in effect, illegal (or to be more accurate, he could be who he was as long as The Man was ignorant of the fact) gave this version of the song an extra dose of oomph that goes beyond the va-va-voom recording itself. I am not a Meekologist, but I cannot help but see this as the first in many songs produced by him that are full of longing and anger; joyous here, but increasingly darker and deeper, far from the aroused insomnia of Vaughan.