Delighted to report some of the worthy winners in tonight’s Grammy Award competition. The main categories that interest me are the traditional ones. And I’ve already featured blog posts about most of the 2007 winners when these recordings were initially released. But it’s worthwhile highlighting them again now that they’ve achieved new status as Grammy winners. If you’re interested in folk or world music and don’t yet own these albums, do yourself a favor and follow my links and buy one. They’re all excellent albums.
South Africa has an extraordinary male vocal choir tradition from which the Soweto Gospel Choir derives (though it appears gender integrated). On first hearing, I thought the song choices on Blessed seem designed to curry favor with a western audience. In fact, it has “crossover” written all over it. While songs like Asimbonanga, Biko, Oh Happy Day and the South African National Anthem are all lovely beyond measure, how many covers can they bear? If you have something striking or riveting to say musically, then by all means do a cover. But just for the sake of building crossover appeal? Nah-ah. But then I read this passage from a concert review at the Choir’s website:
“Blessed, the second show in this choir’s repertoire, was specifically created to celebrate and mark 10 years of democracy in South Africa. The production is about remembering the past and looking ahead to the future.
Then the song choices made perfect sense. But I’m still with the NY Times reviewer who wrote this about the group’s Carnegie Hall concert:
Well aware of it’s foreign audience, the choir…sang devout Western songs including “Amazing Grace,” Many Rivers to Cross” and “Oh Happy Day.” It didn’t need to be so cautious. The familiar songs were neatly sung, but the South African songs were both spirited and spectacular.
But lest you be put off by anything above, don’t give up on this album. It has several songs that make it worth springing for the whole thing. Mibube (hear it) is an updated adaptation of Solomon Linda’s song of the same name which later became Wimoweh and In the Jungle. The Gospel Choir’s cover is, as I wrote in the post linked above, absolutely astonishing. The arrangement takes one’s breath away and the solo performance of Sipokazi Luzipo is gorgeous beyond belief. I’ve heard Pete Seeger’s version and almost all the others including a snippet of Linda’s original. But the Gospel Choir’s is the real article. Perhaps the best performance of this song ever.
Cross the Klezmatics, an alternately traditional klezmer band and avant garde jazz ensemble, with Woody Guthrie lyrics about domestic life among Coney Island’s Jewish community and what do you get? An astonishing piece of cross-cultural flowering. Here The Forward’s music reviewer waxes rhapsodic about the record:
…Not many know that from 1942 until his slow decline into Huntington’s disease in the 1950s and ’60s, Guthrie lived with his family in the Coney Island section of Brooklyn, mixing with New York City’s vibrant folk and blues scene…marrying a Jewish dancer (and daughter of one of those activists) named Marjorie Greenblatt, [and] becoming a part of the Jewish community of 1940s Brooklyn…
…The synergy between the Klezmatics and Guthrie’s songs is immediate…One can imagine Guthrie himself: a folkie settled in Jewish Brooklyn, bringing together the political and personal ethos of the American heartland with the values and flavors of immigrant Judaism.
“Mermaid Avenue,” the second track, is the catchiest and the easiest to quote as to why “Wonder Wheel” is such a natural:
Mermaid Avenue, that’s the street
Where the lox and bagels meet,
Where the halvah meets the pickle,
Where the sour meets the sweet
…What the Klezmatics have done with “Wonder Wheel” is what great revisionist art always does: make the new seem familiar, and the familiar seem utterly new.
It was hard to choose which song to feature here because several were especially lovely. But ultimately I chose Headdy Down (hear it) because it is a tender lullaby which infuses tender Yiddish phrases and an Eastern European melody into Woody’s playful lyrical inventiveness.
I’ve reviewed Springsteen’s The Seeger Sessions here. I think it is an extraordinary homage by one of America’s iconic popular musicians to the Johnny Appleseed of 20th century American folk music. Truly an amazing musical document produced with an eye to history and Pete Seeger’s legacy in it. For a taste, give a listen to We Shall Overcome.
The Dixie Chicks are back with their first album since they spoke the truth about George Bush in an English concert hall. And boy do they have an attitude! What a wonderful one it is too. Full of guts and gumption. They’re mad as hell about how the world seemed to turn its back on them and they’re gonna sing about it. To those who wanted them to “shut up and sing,” the Chicks have an unprintable four letter word reply. Not Ready to Make Nice (hear it) pretty much sums up the sentiment. Here’s my review.
There may even be a little too much bile in these songs. They have a lot of “stuff” to work out. Country music basically left them high and dry. Fans dropped them like hotcakes. They were made to feel like pariahs. I don’t think they or their careers were ever in much danger. There’s too much talent there for them to be beaten down by the Clear Channels of the world. But man, this was personal and they ain’t gonna let anyone off the hook.
Congrats to the Chicks for sweeping the Grammys with awards in all five categories for which they were nominated. How’s that for vindication?! Take that, George. Take that country music establishment. Take that you unbelievers and fair weather fans. The Chicks look like they’ll only be going from strength to strength after this coronation. What goes around does indeed (sometimes) come around.
I haven’t written yet about Modern Times here. Nor have I heard much of the album. But Dylan is the iconic American roots musician. He’s plumbed the depths of the blues and brought it to us on a steaming hot plate piled high with delectable treasures. So here’s to you, Bob. Yet another well-deserved Grammy.