Hear Wade in the Water: An Unprecedented 26-Hour-Long Exploration of the African American Sacred Music Tradition

Photo of Mahalia Jackson by Dave Brinkman, via Wikimedia Commons

It may well be a truism to say that American music is African American music, but that doesn’t make it any less true. And when we reduce truths down to truisms they lose the granular detail that makes them interesting and relevant. Everyone knows, for example, that there would be no rock and roll without Robert Johnson at the crossroads and Little Richard in his sequined jacket and pompadour. But how many people know that without North Carolina-born Lesley Riddle, A.P. Carter’s onetime musical partner, folk and country music as we know it might not exist?

Likewise, Negro Spirituals and the black gospel tradition are legendary—birthing such towering figures as Aretha Franklin and Sam Cooke. But that history has often been turned into stereotype, an easy reference for down-home authenticity. Divorced from their roots, easy evocations of African American gospel glide over a complex tapestry of syncretism and synchronicity, innovation and preservation, and the building of local and national communities with a global scope and presence.

Black sacred music touches every part of U.S. history. To hear this history in granular detail, you need to hear NPR’s just-re-released audio series Wade in the Water: African American Sacred Music Traditions. First released in 1994 by NPR and the Smithsonian, the 26-part documentary details “the history of American gospel music and its impact on soul, jazz and R&B.” The series begins with a conceptual overview and carries us all the way through to the contemporary gospel scene.

Along the way, we learn about regional scenes, the growth and worldwide popularity of the Jubilee singers who so inspired W.E.B. Du Bois, the lined hymn and shaped-note traditions, and the use of gospel as a documentary medium itself, chronicling the sinking of the Titanic, the Depression, World Wars I and II, and more. Sacred music supported Civil Rights struggles, and movement leaders like Fannie Lou Hamer sang as they marched and organized, a powerful sound folk singers like Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan picked up and emulated.

Talking about music can only take us so far. Wade in the Water succeeded by keeping music at the center, even releasing a four-CD set, with extensive liner notes. This time around, the digital release comes with Spotify playlists like the one above in which you can hear a sampling of songs from the series. Here you’ll find the usual crossover gospel greats—Aretha, the Staple Singers, Billy Preston, Mahalia Jackson, BeBe and Cece Winans. You’ll also hear unknown community groups like a Demopolis, Alabama Congregation singing “Come and Go with Me” and the Gatling Funeral Home singing “Gatling Devotional.”

The series was researched, produced, and presented by Bernice Johnson Reagon, who is both a living example and a historian of the African American musical tradition. A founder of the SNCC Freedom Singers during the Civil Rights movement, she went on to found and direct Sweet Honey in the Rock, who appear in Wade in the Water and the playlist above. Reagon earned her Ph.D. from Howard University and published several scholarly books on the history she explores in the documentary series. Learn more about her (and hear more of her music) here, and hear all 26 episodes of Wade in the Water at NPR.

via metafilter

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Watch The Velvet Underground Perform in Rare Color Footage: Scenes from a Vietnam War Protest Concert (1969)

There are many reasons to think of The Velvet Underground forever in black and white: Nico’s Nordic monotone; John Cale and Moe Tucker’s monochromatic drones; Lou Reed’s perpetual invocation of rock and roll’s black and white 50s origins. White Light/White Heat and its stark black-and-white cover; “The Black Angel’s Death Song,” from their debut; pallid, sun-starved faces and a penchant for black sunglasses; an indelible association with Warhol’s black and white Factory scene….

Then there’s literally the fact that we’ve almost aways seen the band filmed and photographed in black and white, until now. “Yes, you read that right,” announces Dangerous Minds, “previously unseen color film of the Velvet Underground has been discovered!” and boy is it groovy.

Always walking an avant-garde line between proto-punk and psychedelic folk/rock, this footage from 1969 seems to catch the band leaning in the latter direction for Dallas Peace Day, a Vietnam War Protest held on the grounds of the Winfrey Point building overlooking White Rock Lake.

“There were likely between 600 and 3,000 people in attendance,” and the performers that day included Lou Rawls and groups like Velvet Dream, Stone Creek, and Bradley & David. “The VU were in town for a week of shows at a Dallas club.... These were the first concerts they ever played in the south. It’s unknown how the group became involved with Dallas Peace Day.” They were a band in transition. Bassist Doug Yule had recently taken over for the departed John Cale. They were leaving behind their Warhol/Nico/Factory days.

The unearthed film here includes some performance footage, at the top. The band plays “I’m Wating for the Man,” “Beginning to the See the Light,” and “I’m Set Free.” There's also an interview with Sterling Morrison, who talks about the “tone of anarchy” at New York anti-war rallies and the violence in Chicago the previous year. Above, see some silent B-roll and below, a little more footage, with some unrelated, overdubbed music. All of this film comes courtesy of the G. William Jones Film & Video Collection.

The footage “was uncovered only by chance and the archive doesn’t know the original motives for recording it, or even know how they came to obtain the film.” It’s a side of the band we don’t often see. While hardcore fans may be familiar with the post-John Cale—and post-Lou Reed—years, most people tend to associate The Velvet Underground with black leather and white… um… substances… not paisley and peace rallies.

via Dangerous Minds

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Queen Guitarist Brian May Is Also an Astrophysicist: Read His PhD Thesis Online

Photo by ESO/G. Huedepohl, via Wikimedia Commons

Queen couldn't possibly have been Queen without Freddie Mercury, nor could it have been Queen without Brian May. Thanks not least to the recent biopic, Bohemian Rhapsody, the band's already larger-than-life lead singer has become even larger still. But its guitarist, despite the film's surface treatment of his character, is in his own way an equally implausible figure. Not only did he show musical promise early, forming his first group while still at school, he also got his A Levels in physics, mathematics, and applied mathematics, going on to earn a Bachelor of Science in Physics with honors at Imperial College London.

Naturally, May then went for his PhD, continuing at Imperial College where he studied the velocity of, and light reflected by, interplanetary dust in the Solar System. He began the program in 1970, but "in 1974, when Queen was but a princess in its infancy, May chose to abandon his doctorate studies to focus on the band in their quest to conquer the world." So wrote The Telegraph's Felix Lowe in 2007, the year the by-then 60-year-old (and long world-famous) rocker finally handed in his thesis. "The 48,000-word tome, Radial Velocities in the Zodiacal Dust Cloud, which sounds suspiciously like a Spinal Tap LP, was stored in the loft of his home in Surrey." You can read it online here.

According to its abstract, May's thesis "documents the building of a pressure-scanned Fabry-Perot Spectrometer, equipped with a photomultiplier and pulse-counting electronics, and its deployment at the Observatorio del Teide at Izaña in Tenerife, at an altitude of 7,700 feet (2567 m), for the purpose of recording high-resolution spectra of the Zodiacal Light." Space.com describes the Zodiacial Light as "a misty diffuse cone of light that appears in the western sky after sunset and in the eastern sky before sunrise," one that has long tricked casual observers into "seeing it as the first sign of morning twilight." Astronomers now recognize it as "reflected sunlight shining on scattered space debris clustered most densely near the sun."

In his abstract, May also notes the unusually long period of study as 1970-2007, made possible in part by the fact that little other research had been done in this particular subject area during Queen's reign on the charts and thereafter. Still, he had catching up to do, including observational work in Tenerife (as much of a hardship posting as that isn't). Since being awarded his doctorate, May's scientific activities have continued, as have his musical ones and other pursuits besides, such as animal-rights activism and stereography. (Sometimes these intersect: the 2017 photobook Queen in 3-D, for example, uses a VR viewing device of May's own design.) The next time you meet a youngster dithering over whether to go into astrophysics or found one of the most successful rock bands of all time, point them to May's example and let them know doing both isn't without precedent.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

Elvis Costello’s List of 500 Albums That Will Improve Your Life

Photo by Victor Diaz Lamich, via Wikimedia Commons

Ask a few friends to draw up sufficiently long lists of their favorite albums, and chances are that more than one of them will include Elvis Costello. But today we have for you a list of 500 essential albums that includes no Elvis Costello records at all — not least because it was put together by Elvis Costello. "Here are 500 albums that can only improve your life," he writes in his introduction to the list, originally published in Vanity Fair. "Many will be quite familiar, others less so." Costello found it impossible "to choose just one title by Miles Davis, the Beatles, Joni Mitchell, Dylan, Mingus, etc.," but he also made room for less well-known musical names such as David Ackles, perhaps the greatest unheralded American songwriter of the late 60s."

Costello adds that "you may have to go out of your way" to locate some of the albums he has chosen, but he made this list in 2000, long before the internet brought even the most obscure selections within a few keystrokes' reach with streaming services like Spotify--on which a fan has even made the playlist of Costello's 500 albums below.

And when Costello writes about having mostly excluded "the hit records of today," he means hit records by the likes of "Marilyn, Puffy, Korn, Eddie Money — sorry, Kid Rock — Limp Bizkit, Ricky, Britney, Backstreet Boys, etc." But when he declares "500 albums you need," described only with a highlighted track or two ("When in doubt, play Track 4—it is usually the one you want"), all remain enriching listens today. The list begins as follows:

  • ABBA: Abba Gold (1992), “Knowing Me, Knowing You.”
  • DAVID ACKLES: The Road to Cairo (1968), “Down River” Subway to the Country (1969), “That’s No Reason to Cry.”
  • CANNONBALL ADDERLEY: The Best of Cannonball Adderley (1968), “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy.”
  • AMY ALLISON: The Maudlin Years (1996), “The Whiskey Makes You Sweeter.”
  • MOSE ALLISON: The Best of Mose Allison (1970), “Your Mind Is on Vacation.”
  • ALMAMEGRETTA: Lingo (1998), “Gramigna.”
  • LOUIS ARMSTRONG: The Complete Hot Five and Hot Seven Recordings (2000), “Wild Man Blues,” “Tight Like This.”
  • FRED ASTAIRE: The Astaire Story (1952), “They Can’t Take That Away from Me.”

How many music collections, let alone lists of essential records, would put all those names together? And a few hundred albums later, the bottom of Costello's alphabetically organized list proves equally diverse and culturally credible:

  • RICHARD WAGNER: Tristan and Isolde (conductor: Wilhelm Furtwangler; 1952); Der Ring des Nibelungen (conductor: George Solti; 1983).
  • PORTER WAGONER AND DOLLY PARTON: The Right Combination: Burning the Midnight Oil (1972), “Her and the Car and the Mobile Home.”
  • TOM WAITS: Swordfishtrombones (1983), “16 Shells from a Thirty-Ought-Six,” “In the Neighborhood” Rain Dogs (1985), “Jockey Full of Bourbon,” “Time” Frank’s Wild Years (1987), “Innocent When You Dream,” “Hang on St. Christopher” Bone Machine (1992), “A Little Rain,” “I Don’t Wanna Grow Up” Mule Variations (1999), “Take It with Me,” “Georgia Rae,” “Filipino Box-Spring Hog.”
  • SCOTT WALKER: Tilt (1995), “Farmer in the City.”
  • DIONNE WARWICK: The Windows of the World (1968), “Walk Little Dolly.”
  • MUDDY WATERS: More Real Folk Blues (1967), “Too Young to Know.”
  • DOC WATSON: The Essential Doc Watson (1973), “Tom Dooley.”
  • ANTON WEBERN: Complete Works (conductor: Pierre Boulez; 2000).
  • KURT WEILL: O Moon of Alabama (1994), Lotte Lenya, “Wie lange noch?”
  • THE WHO: My Generation (1965), “The Kids Are Alright” Meaty, Beaty, Big and Bouncy (1971), “Substitute.”
  • HANK WILLIAMS: 40 Greatest Hits (1978), “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” “I’ll Never Get out of This World Alive.”
  • LUCINDA WILLIAMS: Car Wheels on a Gravel Road (1998), “Drunken Angel.”
  • SONNY BOY WILLIAMSON: The Best of Sonny Boy Williamson (1986), “Your Funeral and My Trial,” “Help Me.”
  • JESSE WINCHESTER: Jesse Winchester (1970), “Quiet About It,” “Black Dog,” “Payday.”
  • WINGS: Band on the Run (1973), “Let Me Roll It.”
  • HUGO WOLF: Lieder (soloist: Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau; 2000), “Alles Endet, Was Entstehet.”
  • BOBBY WOMACK: The Best of Bobby Womack (1992), “Harry Hippie.”
  • STEVIE WONDER: Talking Book (1972), “I Believe (When I Fall in Love It Will Be Forever)” Innervisions (1973), “Living for the City” Fulfillingness’ First Finale (1974), “You Haven’t Done Nothin’.”
  • BETTY WRIGHT: The Best of Betty Wright (1992), “Clean Up Woman,” “The Baby Sitter,” “The Secretary.”
  • ROBERT WYATT: Mid-Eighties (1993), “Te Recuerdo Amanda.”
  • LESTER YOUNG: Ultimate Lester Young (1998), “The Man I Love.”
  • NEIL YOUNG: Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere (1969), “Down by the River” After the Goldrush (1970), “Birds” Time Fades Away (1973), “Don’t Be Denied” On the Beach (1974), “Ambulance Blues” Freedom (1989), “The Ways of Love” Ragged Glory (1990), “Fuckin’ Up.”
  • ZAMBALLARANA: Zamballarana (1997), “Ventu.”

Zamballarana, for the many who won't recognize the name, is a band from the Corsican village of Pigna whose music, according to one description, combines "archaic male polyphony with elements of jazz, oriental and latin music as well as the innovative way of playing traditional Corsican instruments such as the 16-string Cetrea, the drum Colombu and the flute Pivana." That counts as just one of the unexpected listening experiences awaiting those who fire up their favorite music-streaming service and work their way through Costello's list of 500 essential albums. It may also inspire them to determine their own essential albums, an activity Costello endorses as musically salutary: "Making this list made me listen all over again."


via Far Out Magazine

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

An Introduction to the Life & Music of Fela Kuti: Radical Nigerian Bandleader, Political Hero, and Creator of Afrobeat

I cannot write about Nigerian bandleader, saxophonist, and founder of the Afrobeat sound, Fela Anikulapo Kuti, with any degree of objectivity, whatever that might mean. Because hearing him counts as one of the greatest musical eye-openers of my life: a feeling of pure elation that still has not gone away. It was not an original discovery by any means. Millions of people could say the same, and far more of those people are African fans with a much better sense of Fela’s mission. In the U.S., the playfully-delivered but fervent urgency of his activist lyricism requires footnotes.

Afrobeat fandom in many countries does not have to personally reckon with the history from which Fela and his band emerged—a Nigeria wracked in the 60s by a military coup, civil war, and rule by a succession of military juntas. Fela (for whom the first name never seems too familiar, so enveloping was his presence on stage and record) created the conditions for a new style of African music to emerge, an earth-shattering fusion of jazz, funk, psych rock, high life from Ghana, salsa, and black power, anti-colonial, and anti-corruption politics.

He took up the cause of the common people by singing in a pan-African English that leapt across borders and cultural divides. In 1967, the year he went to Ghana to craft his new sound and direction, his cousin, Nobel-prize winning writer Wole Soyinka, was jailed for attempting to avert Nigeria’s collapse into civil war. Fela returned home swinging three year later, a burgeoning superstar with a new name (dropping the British “Ransome” and taking on the Yoruba "Anikulapo"), a new sound, and a new vision.

Fela built a commune called Kalakuta Republic, a home for his band, wives, children and entourage. The compound was raided by the military government, his nightclub shut down, he was beaten and jailed hundreds of times. He continued to publish columns and speak out in interviews and performances against colonial hegemony and post-colonial abuse. He championed traditional African religious practices and pan-African socialism. He harshly critiqued the West’s role in propping up corrupt African governments and conducting what he called “psychological warfare."

What would Fela have thought of Fela Kuti: the Father of Afrobeat, the documentary about him here in two parts? I don't know, though he might have had something to say about its source: CGTN Africa, a network funded by the Chinese government and operated by China Central Television. Debate amongst yourselves the possible propaganda aims for disseminating the film; none of them interfere with the vibrant portrait that emerges of Nigeria’s most charismatic musical artist, a man beloved by those closest to him and those farthest away.

Find out why he so enthralls, in interviews with his band and family, flamboyant performance footage, and passionate, filmed interviews. Part guru and radical populist hero, a bandleader and musician as tirelessly perfectionistic as Duke Ellington or James Brown—with the crack band to match—Fela was himself a great propagandist, in the way of the greatest self-made star performers and revolutionaries. With force of will, personality, endless rehearsal, and one of the greatest drummers to come out of the 20th century, Tony Allen, Fela made a national struggle universal, drawing on sources from around the global south and the U.S. and, since his death in 1997, inspiring a Broadway musical and wave upon wave of revival and rediscovery of his music and the jazz/rock/Latin/traditional African fusions happening all over the continent of Africa in the 60s and 70s.

No list of superlatives can convey the feeling of listening to Fela’s music, the unrelenting funkiness that pulses from his band’s complex, interlocking polyrhythms, the serpentine lines his saxophone traces around righteous vocal chants and wah guitars. Learn the history of his struggle, by all means, and cast a wary eye at those who may use it for other means. But let no extra-musical concerns stop you from journeying through Fela's catalog, whether as a curious tourist or as someone who understands firsthand the musical war he waged on the zombie relics of empire and a militarized anti-democratic government.

Fela Kuti: the Father of Afrobeat will be added to our collection Free Documentaries, a subset of our collection, 1,150 Free Movies Online: Great Classics, Indies, Noir, Westerns, etc..

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Pink Floyd Drummer Nick Mason Presents the History of Music & Technology in a Nine-Part BBC Podcast

Image by Phil Guest, via Wikimedia Commons

If you’ve seen Pink Floyd in the news lately, it’s maybe because guitarist David Gilmour recently put up his collection of over 120 guitars for a charity auction, fetching “certifiably insane” prices like a whopping $3.975 million for the famous black Strat played on Dark Side of the Moon. (The guitar now “wears the crown as the world’s most expensive six string,” notes Enmore Audio.)

But there’s more going on with ex-Pink Floyd members than Gilmour’s guitars or Roger Waters’ political activism. Drummer Nick Mason, long renowned post-Floyd for his hugely expensive car collection, has taken on another role this month: as a podcast host and music historian in a nine-part series for the Open University/BBC production, The Documentary Podcast.

Titled A History of Music in Technology, Mason’s series covers an awful lot of ground, “charting the history of music and technology and exploring the world of legendary artists, producers and inventors. The series shines a light on game-changing innovations including the synthesizer, electric guitar, samplers, drum machines and the recording studio itself.”

A History of Music in Technology finishes its run tomorrow. Currently, you can stream all but the final installment at BBC News, Apple podcasts, and Stitcher. The first episode— “Sound Recording”—which you can hear above, begins in prehistory. Long before the technology for reproducing sound could be imagined, early humans showed keen interest in the acoustic properties of caves, as University of North Carolina professor Mark Katz explains.

“I think people have always had an infatuation with trying to hold on to [sound], to modify it, to capture it,” says Katz—whether that meant seeking out the best settings for prehistoric drum circles or building structures like cathedrals with specially-designed sonic properties. But for thousands of years, the only way to preserve music was to write it down in notation.

It took until “the back half of the 19th century,” says Mason, “before credible attempts were made to bottle sound for the first time.” (Those very first attempts could record sound but could not play it back.) From the early technological achievements, it’s a long series of leaps, bounds, zig zags, stumbles, and circling back around to find ways not only to record sound but also to amplify and modify it and create it wholesale from electrical signals.

Above and below, you can hear Mason’s hour-long history of the electric guitar (Episode 3), the synthesizer (Episode 5), and samplers and drum machines (Episode 6). Mason dedicates two episodes, 7 and 8, to the development of the recording studio itself—unsurprising for a member of Pink Floyd, a band who, like Hendrix, the Beach Boys, and the Beatles, crafted the essence of their psychedelic sound from studio experiments.

“When sound recording first emerged,” says Mason in “The Studio Part 1” intro, “critics claimed it could be the end of music.” For the dozens of new genres recording and production technology has enabled, it was only the very beginning. Those of us who see computers killing the spontaneity of rock and roll, for example, or the very humanity of music itself, might reflect on how our reactions mirror those of some myopic early critics.

American composer John Philip Sousa, for example, saw recording as “reducing the expression of music to a mathematical system of wheels, cogs, discs, and cylinders,” language that sounds very like the complaints of current-day purists. Maybe artificial intelligence will never write a great love song, but it will most certainly help humans create music as unimaginable to us today as the syncopated thump of electronic music would have been unimaginable to Sousa, king of syncopated brass band marches.

Luddites and technophiles and everyone in-between will learn much from Mason’s series, and the kind of musical education he’s offering—replete with expert informed opinion from scholars and musicians like himself—will go a long way to preparing us for a musical future we might only dimly glimpse now in the most innovative technologies Mason is sure to cover in his final episode

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Hear a Previously Unheard Freddie Mercury Song, “Time Waits for No One,” Unearthed After 33 Years

Freddie Mercury, now gone for more than a quarter-century, seems to have become a star again in the late 2010s. It has happened in not just the England where he grew up and first hit it big with his band Queen, but in America (where Queen took longer to catch on) and indeed most of the rest of the world as well: the release of the Mercury biopic Bohemian Rhapsody last year renewed interest in him even in South Korea, where I live, and where anyone of the age to have listened to Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody" at the time of its release would have needed to pirate a copy. All this has naturally prompted a return to the studio vaults in search of more Mercury material, the latest find from that expedition being "Time Waits for No One."

Astute fans will recognize the song as a version of "Time," the title song Mercury recorded for the 1986 sci-fi musical by Dave Clark of the Dave Clark Five. Elaborately produced with 96 tracks in total, the version that came out at the time did well enough, but "Clark had always remembered that performance of Freddie Mercury at Abbey Road Studios from 1986," says Mercury's web site.

"The original had sold millions, and in his own words ‘worked.  But the feeling he had during the original rehearsal, experiencing goosebumps, hadn’t dissipated over the decades, and he wanted to hear this original recording — just Freddie on vocals and Mike Moran on piano." And so, three decades later, Clark brought Moran back into the studio to re-record his piano part for Mercury's original vocal track.

Like every big song of the 2010s, the stripped-down "Time Waits for No One" (the original title of "Time") needed an impressive video to go with it. Mercury, who died in the middle of the first music-video era, would surely appreciate the way that the internet has restored a certain vitality to the form. Clark, who still possessed the negatives from the original "Time" video shoot, used the material he didn't the first time around to create a previously unseen Mercury performance to go with this previously unheard — or at least not properly heard — Mercury song. Like few rock singers before him, Freddie Mercury understood the importance of the startling, the elaborate, and the operatic to his craft. But it takes a relatively simple production like the new "Time Waits for No One" and its accompanying video to reveal just why he has endured in a way so many of his contemporaries haven't.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

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