Deep Waters: ‘Wade in the Water’

[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

The Count Five ‘Psychotic Reaction’

[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

Continue reading

Lost One Rainy Morn: Ian & Sylvia’s “The French Girl”

[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

A Quiet Explosion: Deep Purple’s ‘Hush’

(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

Gone But Not Forgotten: ‘Picture Me Gone’

(originally appeared in Shindig! issue #103)

‘Picture Me Gone’ is a sassy, bold ‘60s tune, on the timeless theme of “you’re thinking about dumping me? Yeah? Well, think about me dumping you first”. The most recent version of it appears to have been released in ’92, which is a shame; this gem is just waiting to be rediscovered.

‘Picture Me Gone’ was written by Chip Taylor and Al Gorgoni in the early ‘60s, when they were working at a New York music publishing company based across the street from the renowed Brill Building. The first artist to record the song was Continue reading

After the Dark: Teddy Vann & Akim’s ‘Santa Claus Is A Black Man’

[originally appeared in Shindig! issue #86]

The late ‘60s and early ‘70s were a time of social unrest in the United States, and black Americans were a major part of the uprisings against systemic discrimination and inequality. While many black activists were challenging the societal norms that perpetuated racial oppression, they were also reclaiming pride in their own heritage – and producer and songwriter Teddy Vann was one of those activists. His ’73 single ‘Santa Claus Is A Black Man’, featuring his five-year-old daughter Akim, has been rightly described as “merging African-American empowerment with the spirit of the holiday”.

Vann was astoundingly prolific and multi-talented; although largely self-educated, he was Continue reading

Procol Harum….in Canada: The Making of “Procol Harum Live: In Concert with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra”

(originally appeared in Shindig! issue #77)

Ask a Canadian to describe the city of Edmonton, Alberta, and the two words you are likely to hear are “cold” and “boring”. Edmonton is the northernmost large city in North America, sitting on roughly the same latitude as Moscow – and, as your correspondent discovered while living there, Edmonton can indeed be cold. Very cold. Like “outdoor temperature of -35C and windchill” cold.

However, despite its nickname of “Deadmonton”, Edmonton is not boring. Its winters are long and dark, but many of its residents grew up in small Prairie towns where, if you were bored, you made your own fun. So when Edmontonians get an idea, instead of thinking of reasons why it won’t work, they figure out how to make it happen. That adventurous attitude of “hey, this could be fun” led to the ’72 album Procol Harum Live: In Concert with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra – a significant milestone in Procol Harum’s career, and a huge influence on the city where it was recorded.

By the late ‘60s, the potential for crossovers between classical music and rock music had already been demonstrated by Continue reading

You Don’t Own Me: 1968 and Women in Music

(originally appeared in Shindig! issue 75)

To understand “women in music” in ’68 – and to understand why that’s even a thing worth talking about – we have to look at what was going on during that time with women in society. In ’68, women in music and women in society were second-class citizens, and they were angry. That anger laid the groundwork for change that would happen in subsequent years.

But before we go there: why “women in music”? Why not “everybody in music”? Men were, and are, the majority in the music business, so looking at women in music does have the effect of making them the outsiders, the oddities, the exceptions. But that separation is necessary to fully understand those women’s experiences, and to assess their impact on music then and now.

So roll back, Father Time, roll back, to the early ‘60s – when father knew best, when mother was at home, and when women only stayed in higher education or the workplace until they found a husband.  In ’63, Betty Friedan’s book The Feminine Mystique started turning all that on its head. For many women, the book was Continue reading

Reachin’ To Be Free: The Supremes and The Temptations’ ‘A Place in the Sun’

[This article has been updated and expanded in the book Song Book;  it originally appeared in Shindig! issue 75]

1968 was a time of upheaval and change at Motown Records. The company had moved its Detroit headquarters into a soulless commercial building, and founder and president Berry Gordy was spending much of his time in Los Angeles. Gordy was also being criticized for his relative silence on racial inequality – which was not an abstract issue for the company; among other things, many Motown artists were regularly subjected to racist threats or attacks while on tour. Other Motown acts were expressing frustration at the company’s focus on entertainment rather than on social commentary.

But amongst that uncertainty came ‘A Place in the Sun’, a song that spoke profoundly both of struggle and of hope for a better world. Although it was first recorded in ’66, more than a dozen artists –including, jointly, The Supremes and The Temptations – covered it in ’68, which indicates its relevance to those troubled times.

Ron Miller and Bryan Wells, the song’s co-authors, both came to Motown through quirks of serendipity. Miller, delivering pizzas to pay the bills, happened to bring Continue reading

Maybe It’s the Best Thing: Jimmy Webb’s ‘The Worst That Could Happen’

[This article has been updated and expanded in the book Song Book; it originally appeared in Shindig! issue 73]

Hearing that your true love has married someone else is a devastating experience that you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy. (Unless you are a nasty, miserable excuse for a human being, in which case you should probably be reading a different magazine.)  As music fans, we tend to want our favourite artists to be happy – but we also recognize that an artist’s personal misery often results in great art. And so it is with Jimmy Webb’s ‘The Worst That Could Happen’: a song that draws on Webb’s own life events to brilliantly encapsulate the torment of someone else’s happiness becoming your sadness.

By the time Webb wrote ‘The Worst That Could Happen’ in the mid-60s, he had already Continue reading