Friday, August 20, 2010

Life Vs. Death: Kenny Ball and His Jazzmen: "Midnight in Moscow"

And so we are in 1962; a year when the past infiltrates the present and thus, the future. This is, after all, a traditional song played in a relatively traditional way; but it would be a mistake to think this as some kind of throwback to an older, perhaps wiser time in the midst of show tunes, pop music and so on. The traditional music (known as trad, as opposed to modern, jazz) craze was tied quite specifically in the UK to the anti-nuclear movement, a movement which grew out of the late 50s dismay with the Cold War and in the UK's involvement in the production of nuclear weapons. Every rebellious movement needs music of some kind, and trad jazz - for reasons that will become apparent - was the choice of the campaigners and followers of the CND - Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. The world in 1962 was on the brink; people sensed that the arms race was getting far worse and much closer to home than they would like, and everyone alive knew about Hiroshima, Nagasaki, not to mention the newly built Berlin Wall. Post-war peace was beginning to look more like the run-up to yet another war.

"Anyone who doesn't like jazz has no real feeling for music, or people." This was first heard onstage in 1956, and it pretty much sums up what many young people (not teenagers, but not thirtysomethings either) felt, particularly those who were restless, rebellious, tired of the old UK and all it stood for and represented. Jazz was a simple wordless refutation of it all, representing staying up late, getting buzzed this way or that, and above all not conforming to whatever the 'establishment' thought was proper. Trad jazz nights went on into the wee hours, people took drugs and danced, flirted and fell in love - all with that special intensity of people who want to have a good time in the face of what looks like eminent destruction, not to mention madness. An insistence of life over death, ultimately; and if the CND is still in existence now, it is due to the failure of successive governments to see how pointless nuclear weapons are, not the CND's quiet and persistent efforts to get Trident, for example, stopped.

So trad's rise to number two here shows that the public is starting to catch on, whether or not they knew (I think they must have known) the context of the song - the nuclear clock is poised minutes before midnight, and a guy is missing his gal.

"Stillness in the grove, not a rustling sound/Softly shines the moon, clear and bright/ Dear, if you could know/How I treasure so/This most beautiful Moscow night."

Is this a song of not just love but solidarity? Written by and treasured by Russians in the 50s (and loved ever after), covered by Kenny Ball and His Jazzmen here, but I can well imagine a slightly older Jimmy Porter playing it to himself on a lonely night, to give himself some solace one cold Midlands evening. It is music that transcends and laughs in the face of danger and meaninglessness; it is the reason jazz meant so much to those born in the 30s. That it was such a hit everywhere shows that maybe things were going to be all right, after all.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Of Sausages and Self Sacrifice: Jimmy Dean: "Big Bad John"

A man and his son look at the marble stand near the new mine, in silence; it is a quiet, nearly windless day somewhere in Tennessee, perhaps West Virginia or Pennsylvania. Mining country, a place of stoicism and endurance. They look at the inscription and the boy blinks and then the father begins to recount the story. Was he a bad man? Well, you wouldn't want to cross him, there were rumors...about New Orleans, but New Orleans is a place, a world away from the green grassy hills here. He came here to get away from all that. Maybe he did something so bad he needed to get away from the world, to literally go underground. The pitiless labor of the mine is not something you do on a whim. But he did it, and he did it well, and nobody bothered him much and everything was fine...until...that day. Like that one, dad? he asks. Yes, much like it. John just stood there and held that roof and everyone scrambled up to the sky for their lives. And he remained? Yes, and he remained. A slight pause. Was he a good man after all that? Yes, he was. Was he happy? A longer pause. I read a man once who talked about mining, in his way. The labor, endless labor of it. "The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man's heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy." He wasn't in the habit of quoting Camus out loud, but the Algerian knew what he was talking about. Was Big Bad John's life absurd? Not in the least. He didn't treat it that way. But yes, he died as happy as a man could be expected to, in such a short time. Self sacrifice, you know, is a tricky thing. To give your life for others is the most profound thing of all. They walked away slowly down the road.

It is absurd, in its way, to know that Jimmy Dean went on from this and other country hits to being a maker of sausages; but perhaps after positively existential hits like this one, the more tactile and solid world of food appealed to him. A quiet, shy drifter comes to town and saves many men (courtesy of Lee Hazelwood, of course - this is a soul record of sorts, by the way); an amiable Texan starts a food company to give literal nourishment to the U.S. Dean's voice is authoritative and yet admiring; and yet another bad-man-comes-good story is added to the many that America has already given the world. 1961 comes to a close, on a note of seriousness of purpose, as if something is about to happen. And in a way, it is.