Saturday, February 7, 2009

The Day the Music Hides

On January 18, 2008, Pete Seeger joined Bruce Springsteen and grandson Tao Rodriguez Seeger to honor President Barack Obama in the finale of his Inaugural concert (click here for video). With this patriotic gesture, Seeger celebrated a new chapter in American history and closed a chapter in his own. Out of the millions that watched his performance, few might have recalled that fifty years back, Seeger had been labeled anti-American and banned from public performances and radio airplay.

Sixty years before Seeger took the stage in Washington DC, he and three other musicians calling themselves The Weavers landed their first gig in the Village Vanguard jazz club in New York City. Shortly after, the group had landed a contract with Decca Records and by 1949 had a hit song with Lead Belly’s “Goodnight Irene”. Over the next decade, Seeger, Ronnie Gilbert, Lee Hays, Fred Hellerman popularized traditional folk songs, inspiring the “folk boom” that followed in the 50’s and 60’s which included The Kingston Trio and Peter, Paul and Mary. Hit songs included labor songs and folk classics like “On Top of Old Smoky” “The Wreck of the John B” “Follow the Drinking Gourd” and “Pay Me My Money Down.” Their inspirational performances were typically sing-alongs, with Seeger shouting out the lyrics before each line.

Led by the witch hunts of Senator Joe McCarthy, the Red Scare of the 1950’s included the investigation and blacklisting of many performing artists suspected of touting anti-American believes. As the Weavers had a history of singing protest songs and folk songs with a leftist and pro-Union slant, they soon came under scrutiny. When the group shied away from their more controversial material, they were criticized by the left-wing press for selling out. Meanwhile, right-wing and anti-Communist groups protested at their performances. Soon, the Weavers had found themselves under FBI surveillance and were blacklisted by the entertainment industry. No longer able to play large venues or get radio airplay, the Weavers lost fans. In 1953, Decca terminated their recording contract and deleted their songs from its catalog.

In 1955, the group reunited to perform a sold-out concert at Carnegie Hall. As a result, the Weavers were signed by the independent Vanguard Records and a recording of the concert was released. By this point in time, folk music was gaining popularity and the effect of McCarthy’s extremism was fading. While the Weavers found renewed success, however, Seeger left in bad terms. After the group was hired to provide the vocals for a cigarette commercial, Seeger – who was opposed to tobacco – left the group after fulfilling his commitments in 1958. Seeger went on to have a fulfilling solo career.

Given McCarthy’s history of exaggerating his accusations, it’s difficult to condemn Seeger and The Weavers. Though Seeger had become a member of the Young Communist League at the age of 17, he had drifted away from the Party after the war. While with The Almanac Singers, Seeger sang: “Now, Mr. President (Roosevelt)/We haven’t always agreed in the past, I know/But that ain’t at all important now/What is important is what we go to do/We got to lick Mr. Hitler and until we do/Other things can wait.”

Seeger spent a lifetime merging music and political activism and despite differences in opinion, he honored the American system by exercising the right to free speech. Whether or not Americans have become more or less forgiving of the uncommon viewpoint half a century later, today’s controversial artists are undeniably free from political persecution. Artists with agendas (think of recent statements by Eminem and Kayne) will continue to enjoy the freedom to strike a chord with some and discord with others. And a man who was once marked as a political enemy can play the stage at the inauguration of a president.

The Weavers were honored for their struggles during the 2006 Grammys. After receiving the Lifetime Achievement Award, group member Fred Hellerman recounted the persecution for the crowd, declaring: "If you can exist, and stay the course -- not a course of blind obstinacy and faulty conception -- but one of decency and good sense, you can outlast your enemies with your honor and integrity intact.”

Monday, February 2, 2009

What We're Listening To This Week

Just a little sampling of the artists that have been looping on our iPods this week...

1. Apollo’s Child
This yet-to-be-official young phenome first hooked me with one of his cover songs posted on YouTube, a heartfelt rendition of Imogen Heap’s “Hide and Seek.” In that moment, nineteen-year old Sean Ryan had earned another fan for his solo project. He calls himself “Apollo’s Child” and is responsible for, as he writes, “everything you hear.” Ryan, who describes his music as a mesh between rock and electronica, has found his way into the modern fanbase by spreading his music across sites such as Myspace, PureVolume, YouTube and Ryan was born into a musical family, inspired by his father’s love for The Beatles and by singing alongside his mother in the choir. Throughout his childhood and early teen years, Ryan perfected his musical talents, learning the arts of both performance and production. Using Apple Garageband, Ryan put together his first multi-track album, titled Masquerade of Aspersions. Though it was originally intended for friends and family only, Ryan later offered the music for free download online. Currently, Ryan is working from the ‘home studio’ in his bedroom to develop vocal tracks and collaboration projects for his upcoming album.

I recommend:
“Let’s Be Honest” - well-produced toe-tapping electronica
“Better Left Unsaid” - you don’t want to miss this meditation-worthy multi-part harmony

2. Bon Iver
Following a helpful suggestion from iTunes, I was fortunate enough to discover the “Blood Bank” EP from Bon Iver. What set these tracks apart from all the rest was the astonishing variability – each song off the EP could be in a different genre of music altogether. Bon Iver is the brainchild of indie folk singer-songwriter Justin Vernon. The band’s debut album “For Emma, Forever Ago” was released in 2007. Much of it was recorded during Vernon’s three month stay in a cabin in Northern Wisconsin, a frigid experience which ultimately led to the band’s name – a translation from the French for ‘good winter.’ Bon Iver’s debut album has been highly reviewed in publications such as The Village Voice and The A.V. Club and its tracks have been featured on TV shows “Grey’s Anatomy” and “House.” Rolling Stone ranked the debut as number 29 on the Top 50 Albums of 2008 and on January 26 2009, album track "Skinny Love" was announced as the #21 song of the year by Australian national radio station "Triple J." “Blood Bank,” the new EP that iTunes brought to our iDoorstep, was just released on January 20 of this year. From what I’ve heard from these four little gems, I'm very much looking forward to what’s coming from Bon Iver this year.

I recommend:
“Woods” – a rich harmony of synchronized vocals that is masterfully a cappella
“Beach Baby” – the kind of music Dr. Meredith Grey and company would think to

3. Gonzales
Thanks once again to iTunes, a thirty-second sample of Gonzales’ piano soloing made the leap from my earbuds to my brain and got absolutely stuck in there. I have to admit, I wasn’t going to spend the money. But for some reason, I kept coming back. The music would not rest until it was tucked away on my iPod, and I think it’s because there something incredibly unique about this music. It’s hauntingly simple – just a solo piano against a fuzzy silence. But it feels as though Gonzales is discovering each track as he plays, showing me the beauty of something so casual as a well-placed triplet.

Gonzales, whose real name is Jason Charles Beck, is about as unbelievably unique as his music. Suffice it to say, despite being a gifted pianist who made his performing career as a jazz virtuoso, Gonzales is best known for his mic-jockeying and electronic albums. He has authored musicals, enjoyed a pop career in the nineties as the leader of alt-rock band “Son”, won an Emmy for soundtrack composition and then moved to East Berlin to become a “Jewish supervillain” as a lyric-spitting mic-jockey. His subsequent rap albums featured several instrumental tracks which highlighted his keyboarding skills, and in 2004 he crafted his first solo piano album (aptly titled “Solo Piano”) – which became his bestselling, and of course, the album I’m digging this week.

In 2008, having re-signed under Mercury Records, Gonzales shifted once again and returned to his pop vocal style. That is in addition, of course, to his continued role in the Berlin-based hip-hop band Puppetmastaz. (Seriously, I’m not making this up.)

I recommend from “Solo Piano”:
“Gogol” – if this were a movie soundtrack, someone would be sneaking around in the shadows
"Armellodie" - a slightly dark melodic exploration in the style of Schumann

Gonzales' performance of "Gogol"