[originally appeared in Shindig! issue 115]
The graceful, emotional ‘Wade on the Water’ has been a stirring musical expression of faith and hope for more than a century. However, the oppression described in its lyrics is not just an artifact from the past. While this article was being written, two US state governments passed laws that will affect minority communities’ ability to exercise their right to vote, and a white US police officer is on trial for charges related to the murder of a Black man. ‘Wade in the Water’ is important not only as a classic piece of music, but as a representation of historical injustices whose effects still have not disappeared.
‘Wade in the Water’ originated in the southern US in the mid-1800s, as a spiritual sung by enslaved African-Americans. In those communities, spirituals were more than just expressions of religious devotion. Some spirituals would be sung to alert freedom-seekers when it was safest to escape, without slaveholders (“masters”) knowing that information was being communicated. The lyrics of ‘Wade in the Water’ reference the Biblical story of the Israelites crossing the river Jordan, but the lyrics Continue reading
[originally appeared in Shindig! issue 114]
When Lenny Kaye’s Nuggets compilation was unleashed upon the world in 1972, it blew the ears and minds of many listeners who had no idea that so much great music had been lurking in the 1960s US pop charts. Among the rediscovered gems included on that anthology was ‘Psychotic Reaction’ by Count Five. With its repetitive rhythms, nasally vocals, wailing harmonica, and piercing fuzztone guitars, it epitomizes the garage-punk sound that Jon Savage describes as “pure noise and texture”.
Count Five hailed from San Jose, just south of San Francisco. According to historian Paul Kauppila, the Bay Area’s mid-60s music scene was “polarized”. South Bay bands had the same psychedelic influences as bands in the more prominent San Francisco scene, but their material was more
I was very saddened this week by the news that music writer Johnny Rogan had passed away. It’s not an exaggeration to say that his biographies set a standard of quality and thoroughness that other writers can only dream of achieving. I first encountered his work when I chanced upon Starmakers and Svengalis, which is now one of my favourite books ever about the music industry. Not only did he tell amazing stories in that book, but writing it also required him to be familiar with complex court documents and financial statements, as well as the lives of the people he profiled. There are very few writers with the ability to draw on that many different types of sources and to spin them into compelling tales.
Rogan immersed himself in his book projects. He spent more than a couple of years writing many of them, but Continue reading
[originally appeared in Shindig! issue 111]
‘The French Girl’ is the musical equivalent of an Impressionist painting: sparse lyrical images weaving together to create an intricately detailed world. Three silver rings, a dark-haired woman, a cozy room, glasses of red wine…..and then she disappears, and no one knows who she was or where she has gone. It’s romantic, but with an underlying and somewhat unsettling sense of unreality.
Ian and Sylvia Tyson wrote the song in late 1965, during what Sylvia described to their biographer John Einarson as “a very transitional period for us”. As the duo of Ian & Sylvia, they were stars on the folk rock circuit, and had already released four albums on the Vanguard label. Songs like Ian’s ‘Four Strong Winds’ and Sylvia’s ‘You Were On My Mind’ had brought them acclaim as songwriters. But they were well aware that Continue reading
I had the great pleasure of interviewing author Graeme Thomson for Please Kill Me about his biography of Scottish singer-songwriter John Martyn. You can read the interview here.
(originally appeared in Shindig! issue #105)
More than 50 years after its creation, ‘Hush’ is a staple of bar-band playlists, ‘best of’ anthologies, and movie and TV soundtracks – and it damn well should be, because it’s so catchy. Who among us has not banged their head to its driving percussive beat, or joyously shouted along to a chorus of “na na-na na”? But as the past five decades have shown, ‘Hush’ is also a song that can flourish in many different types of interpretations and musical styles.
Joe South wrote ‘Hush’ in the mid-‘60s, but its origins may go as far back as Continue reading