Category Archives: Music

Thanks For All The Goats

I finished my article on biblical interpretation in the songbook of The Mountain Goats a couple of weeks ago, and since a couple of people from the tMG web forums had been very helpful and interested, I contacted one of them — Nigel — and asked if he’d like a squint at the final product. He liked the essay a lot, and suggested that I share it with the rest of the forum; I was a little abashed about putting up a post that said (to a longstanding forum constituency with a core group whose strong sense of mutual affiliation sometimes risks generating in-group vs out-group dynamics), “Hey, everyone, come read what I wrote.” Nigel thought it still ought to be shared with the forum, so he wrote a positive summary of my essay and suggested that other forum members contact me for a copy.
Since then, a steady stream of forum members has followed up with requests for copies, many more than I expected. I’m glad of that not just because I like it when people read my stuff, but also because “given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow”: I don’t know the tMG corpus well enough to survey all 500-600 of the songs in their repertoire, and some forum members have been listening to tMG since before their first recordings in 1991 — so by running the essay past a number of forum members, I could be spared the embarrassment of overlooking some important (but neglected) fact. Thus far, no one has had a complaint more problematic than noting the misspelling of the street name in one quoted portion of lyrics. Whew!
The forum’s approbation is all the more comforting to me because I’ve spent twenty-plus years learning how to write fluently as a biblical scholar/hermeneutician, but I’ve never publicly written a piece of music criticism. Having seen numerous occasions when academics produced articles or presentations which did little more than say, “Here’s a band I like ”n” I think this song is really good. You should listen to it. Oh, and this one too. Listen, she mentions Jesus in this one.” Since I’m fierce with my students about composing papers that make a real argument, I fretted a lot about whether my tMG paper would amount to much more than “You may not have heard of the Mountain Goats, but I think they’re really good, so there.” Again, the first readers have affirmed that the essay has a real argument and doesn’t fall into “Look, here”-ism.
Now I’m thinking about stretching out to cover some other topics — but not till after I finish the James commentary and begin, at least, to write out my most recent argument about hermeneutics. But it]s fun, as always, to have think-y thinks going on, and to sense an area where my observations can enrich a discourse by a little bit. Oh, and if you’d like a copy of my final draft, I’ll be happy to share it with you, too. (You know: my nickname at, or akm dot adam via gmail).

Great Moments in Popular Music

And by “moment,” I really mean “moment” — those transient little gestures that make so much difference. For instance, this morning, consider the piano roll-into-chords at the very beginning of the Temptations’ “Ain’t Too Proud To Beg” (I love the Stones’ cover version too, but I’m concentrating on the Temps right now). The at the end of first three lines, the piano rolls into supporting chords with a perfect seductive delight that counterbalances the voiced desperation of the lyric — and then that figure disappears from the rest of the song. Once the full arrangement kicks in, the bass (if I’m hearing correctly) strikes the notes of this supporting motif, and the piano recedes into the mix. But those first shimmering rolls are the kind of exquisite moment that I love about this music.
(In the Stones’ arrangement, the piano — Ian Stewart, or Billy Preston, I assume? I don’t have the album cover with liner notes here in Scotland — keeps the supporting motif and stands further forward in the mix. That works for me too.)

Multivariate Weighted Shuffle

After Apple had been propagating iTunes for a few versions, they (at length) released a version that allows its DJ function a binary option that instructs iTunes to “play higher rated songs more often.” Break out the champagne, everyone! Woohoo! The sad thing is that this still amounted to a large step forward in enhancing apple’s random Shuffle setting.
(“Random,” that is, unless you’re one of the believer’s in steve Jobs’s supernatural ability to dictate iTunes to play particular sorts of song more or less often. This used to crop up every now and then, when people who don’t distinguish pareidolia from non-random machine behaviour. Much as I am surprised by the occasions when the entirely separate shuffle routines of my home computer and my work computer turn up the same track on the same day — which really is quite striking, since each has a very, very large database of tracks to choose from — I do not suspect that Apple’s developers have figured out a way to associate my two computers, transmit data about tracks it would surprise me to hear from both, and keep those coincidences subtle and rare enough that they remain unpredictable.)
Still, one switch that assigns one (undefined) weight to one variable is very far from a twenty-first century solution to the “weighted shufflke” problem. Since there’s already an “Advanced” menu for the app, and a small “Settings” button in the iTunes DJ view, why couldn’t one of these options lead to a “weighted Shuffle” option that’s more like a Smart Playlist or a Spotlight search? Why, in other words, can’t I set my iTunes DJ to select songs with a one-to-five weighting of multivariate criteria? If a vanilla random track is weighted at “one,” I’d like
   Songs from the “Recently Added” list to have a weighted prominence of 3
   Songs by women artists* to have a weighted prominence of 2 (or 3)
   Songs that iTunes’s “Genius” function associates with the current track to have a weight of 4
   Songs from 1967 to 1985 to have a weight of 3
   Songs from 2000 to 2008 to have a weight of 3
   Songs from the last two years to have a weight of 4
   Songs from 1955 to 1966 to have a weight of 2
   Songs that have never been played to have a weight of 5
   Songs that have been played only once have a weight of 4
   Songs that have been played twice have a weight of 2
   Songs rated 5 stars have a weight of 5 (and so on)
    Songs by Scottish artists to have a weight of 2
So that a five-star track that I haven’t listened to before (let’s assume I already know that I like it from Pippa playing it for me), just released this year, that I’ve just downloaded from eMusic, by a Scottish woman artist would be very highly likely to turn up on my iTunes DJ in the near future — whereas a track that I’ve heard four or five times, that I don’t ever like that much (say, two stars), from the Dark Interval between 1986 and 2000, that I acquired a couple of years ago, by a male American artist, would be proportionately unlikely to come up any time soon.
The database operations to support that — and even more complex weighting — must be much less onerous than programming most of the eye candy visualizers that Apple distributes, and it would change the iTunes DJ from a mostly-random function to something much more like a personal genius-DJ. Since I listen to the iTunes DJ playlist almost exclusively, I’d like this upgrade a whole lot.**


* This would take some finagling with the current iTunes database, but I could use the “Genre” category (which I otherwise ignore entirely) to make a category for women artists, or could set up a playlist, songs that appear on which would be double-weighted. Same with Scottish artists.
** I realise I might be able to fudge an iTunes DJ list that came somewhat close to this function by rigging an elaborate network of interconnected playlists — I already do this to enhance the Shuffle function on my iPhone — but honestly, it would be vastly easier for Apple to make the database categories more useful than for each user to rig a work-around.

Weren’t No Kin

A while back I posted the lyrics to Washington Phillips’s “Denomination Blues,” since I was dissatisfied with the extant web resources for that song; this morning I was frustrated that I couldn’t find anyplace on the web that gave the lyrics to the song known variously as “Tell Me Why You Like Roosevelt,” “Sad About Roosevelt,” or “Franklin D. Roosevelt, The Poor Man’s Friend.” To redress that lack, I present that song here:

[Tell me] Why’d you like Roosevelt? Weren’t no kin
Why’d you like Roosevelt? Weren’t no kin
Why’d you like Roosevelt? Weren’t no kin
Lord God Almighty, he’s the poor man’s friend

Year of nineteen forty-five
A good president laid down and died
I knew how all of the poor people felt
When they received the message we lost Roosevelt
In his life there were all indications
At Warm Springs Georgia he received salvation
Listen friend, don’t you rush
Elizabeth Shoumatoff she grabbed the brush
She dipped it in water and began to paint
Looked at the president and began to faint
She never painted a picture for him at night
Knew that the president didn’t look right
The time of day it was twelve o’clock
Tell me that Elizabeth had to stop
Great God almighty she started too late
That’s why they call this that unfinished portrait
A little bit later, about one-thirty
Had a cerebral hemorrhage and the world looked muddy
They called Atlanta and Washington too
Like zigzag lightning the call went through
They called long distance to notify his wife
Dr Bruenn said he died at three thirty-five
Great God Almighty weren’t no bells to tollin’
But in less than thirty minutes the world was in mournin’
And I cried about Roosevelt (weren’t no kin)
I cried about Roosevelt (weren’t no kin)
I cried about Roosevelt (weren’t no kin)
Great God Almighty was the poor man’s friend
Only two presidents that we ever felt
Were Abraham Lincoln and Roosevelt
Way back yonder in the olden days
Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves
Roosevelt’s administration Congress assembled
First time in history ‘ppointed a Negro general
General Benjamin O Davis I’m trying to relate
First Negro general of the United States
After Dorie Miller had shown his skill
They kept sending him to sea until he got killed
Then Roosevelt said that “I’ll back the attack”
Appointed a Negro captain over white and black
This qualified man was Hugh Mulzac
Racial prejudice he tried to rule out
Invited Negro leaders into the White House
He advocated the fair practice of labor
To let the poor man know he was our emancipator
Made Madame Bethune the First Lady of the land
And made part of his will to Mr Prettyman
He endorsed inventions of Dr Carver
This is why that I say he was an earthly father
Cause he took my feet out of the miry clay
Haven’t had to look back at the WPA
That’s why I liked Roosevelt (weren’t no kin)
That’s why I liked Roosevelt (weren’t no kin)
That’s why I liked Roosevelt (weren’t no kin)
Lord God Almighty was the poor man’s friend
Well, Hoover’s administration Congress assembled
All of the poor folk began to tremble
The rich would ride in the automobile
Depression made poor people rob and steal
Well, look next door at our beloved neighbor
Wasn’t getting anything for their hard labor
But great God almighty they were moonshine stilling
Brought about a crime wave, robbing and killing
After Hoover made the poor man moan
Roosevelt stepped in, gave us a comfortable home
It was sad about Roosevelt
It was sad about Roosevelt
It was sad about Roosevelt
Well, I’ve told you the history of Roosevelt’s life
Now he’s done with his grief and strife
Great God Almighty but he left a sweet wife
Have been so worried since she was a girl
After Roosevelt’s death what would become of the world
She notified her son across the sea
“Don’t get worried about poor me
But keep on fighting for victory
Your father is dead boys, you all are grown
Wouldn’t worry ’bout your father but the world is in mournin’
It was sad about Roosevelt
It was sad about Roosevelt
It was sad about Roosevelt
Well, God Almighty knew just what was best
He knew that the president he needed a rest
His battle done fought, vict’ry done won
Our problems have just begun
Your burden get heavy and you don’t know what to do
Call on Jesus, he’s a president too
It’s sad about Roosevelt
It’s sad about Roosevelt
It’s sad about Roosevelt
Lord God Almighty was a poor man’s friend

This amalgamates characteristics of the two versions I know, one by the Evangelist Singers and one by Willie Eason. The only word I’m flummoxed by occurs toward the middle, when Eason refers to a certain kind of neighbor; I used “beloved” to fit the meter, but I’m sure that’s not what he’s singing.
Several observations about this lovely tribute: Can you imagine a song like this today? The closest I can think of in recent history would be “Abraham, Martin, and John.” but that differs from Roosevelt in a number of ways. Dion’s song retains the comparison to Abraham Lincoln, but lacks the staggering avalanche of specificity with which the song recounts Roosevelt’s actions on behalf of African-Americans and the poor. (I know, and will remember, more about Roosevelt’s relation to Black Americans after hearing this song.) Dion’s song submits only that his heroes “freed a lot of people” and died young, a somewhat questionable claim relative to JFK (however good a president one might have thought him). If you want to argue about Roosevelt, though, be prepared to cite names and dates.
The other possible contemporary examples that come to minds are the painful ballads by John Ashcroft and Lee Atwater (I think), about how great America is and what a statesman Ronald Reagan was. Are you tempted to hum along with any of those? I have a hard time enduring hearing them at all, much less singing along.
This song rings true to me; it doesn’t sound like campaign publicity (which would, of course, be too late anyway) or partisan shillery. The fact that at least two (African-American) performers recorded it suggests that it appealed to more than just taste-impaired red-white-and-blue political climbers. I don’t subscribe to idealizations of any moment in U.S. history, but “Tell Me Why You Like Roosevelt” burnishes FDR’s standing in my imagination, and impresses me as a popular memorial to that poor man’s friend. (Has anyone been tempted to write, “George W. Bush, The Poor Man’s Friend” or “Ronald Reagan, The Poor Man’s Friend” or even “Bill Clinton, The Poor Man’s Friend”? I didn’t think so.)

Reference Note

I don’t think the full lyrics of Washington Phillips’s “Denomination Blues” appear anywhere online; three or four sites have a version of Ry Cooder’s performance of it, but that leaves out a number of verses, and I disagree with some of the interpretations of Phillips’s lyrics. So I thought I’d list the lyrics here, and we can refine my hearing of them, and perhaps you can nominate a few more verses.

I want to tell you the natural facts
Every man don’t understand the Bible alike
But that’s all now, I tell you that’s all
But you better have Jesus, I tell you that’s all (repeat after each verse)

Well denominations have no right to fight
They ought to just treat each other right

The Primitive Baptists they believe
You can’t get to heaven less they wash your feet

The only Primitive that has any part
Is the one that does the washing with fear in her heart

Now the Missionary Baptists they believe
Go under the water and not to wash his feet

Now the Indy Methodists they believe
Sprinkle the head and not to wash the feet

Now the African Methodists they believe the same
Cause they know denominations they the same but the name

Now the Holiness people when they came in
They said “Boy you can make it by living above sin”

Now the Church of God has it in their mind
They can get to heaven without the sacramental wine

You’re fighting each other and you think you’re doing well
And the sinner’s on the outside and going to hell

Now the preacher is preaching and they think they’re doing well
But all they want is your money and you can go to hell

Now, another class of preachers they’re high in speech
They had to go to college to learn how to preach

But you can go to the college, and you can go to the school
But if you don’t have Jesus you’re an educated fool

That kind of a man’s hard to convince
A man can’t preach unless’n he sin

When people jump from church to church
You know the conversion don’t amount to much

When Jesus come on that Divining Day
Gonna call the sheep to enter, turn the goats away

It’s right to stand together, wrong to stand apart
Cause no one’s gonna enter but the pure in heart

The fact that I begin teaching my summer preaching course next week does not, of course, have anything to do with the fact that I was particularly interested in the lyrics to this song. Perish the thought! (If anyone helps with the Phillips lyrics, I’ll edit the text in the main entry; additional verses will stay in the comments, unless I can’t resist).