Tuesday, 30 October 2012

I Hear My Train A-Coming

Nothing deeply profound here, no big questions, just one small one: why are there so many great songs about trains?

Take Jimi Hendrix waiting acoustically on the platform here, determined to make it big.  And he's not alone in singing on the station platform.  Jimi's leaving home, but when Paul Simon wrote his tune he was Homeward Bound, and these folk from Belgrade are making a return visit back home on a Sentimental Journey (stick with it, some lovely performances there).

Perhaps that's part of the answer: the emotional journey.  For the songwriter scratching for a theme, the train is a natural choice: a big journey that marks a transition in life, an emotional peg on which the song can be hung. In fact as Paul Simon explains in Train in the Distance, it's all about the hope that comes with a journey, real or imagined: "The thought that life could be better is woven indelibly into our hearts and our brains". (Aside - there is no-one quite like Paul Simon for writing literate lyrics that look like prose but still work as song).

Then, for some train songs it's all about the rhythm: Choo choo ch'boogie - "I love to hear the rhythm of the clicketty clack". How about Chattanooga Choo choo, not to mention the shuffling madness of Locomotive Breath, or the skiffling Rock Island Line?

Hmm, did I hear a train whistle in that?  It's not the only song to want to emulate that evocative sound.  I'd include in my count, Night TrainTake the A Train, and many more. 

But of all these train songs, for my money, there is none more moving or expressive than Hugh Masekela's Stimela.  It has it all: the emotional journey, the rhythm, and a very fine train whistle.  

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Nina Simone: Little Girl Blue

No other place to start but here: My Baby Just Cares For Me.  Hearing this for the first time was my introduction to the work of Nina Simone.   Go on, watch it through to the end.  And then once more if you like, I can wait.  Seeing this perfectly crafted little movie I too wanted to watch it over and over again.   Knowing a little more about music now, I can feel/hear the structure of it, how the solo matches the tune in length, tempo, and chord progression.  Knowing more, helps me understand more.

I can also marvel at how Nina crafts her solo: how she builds up from very, very simple phrases, increasing in complexity with complete precision and assurance until it feels like she is about to run out of road, but in in the nick of time she pulls up and returns to the simplicity.  Not once, but twice in that very short solo.  A trivial song? - yes, maybe - but done with poise and panache: beautifully sung and craftily performed.

Now look at/listen to this one: Love Me or Leave Me.  Such intensity - such a look!.  She plays with great precision, and I just love how that solo very soon morphs into something with very clear baroque influences, almost Bach-like.  

Here's a contrast: Summertime.  I am in awe of her jazz musical sensibilities here.  This is just so delicately judged, dark, almost hypnotic.  Some people see "Summertime" as an optimistic piece: I don't - I see it as ironic, the reassuring lyrics undermined by the melancholy melody.  As Nina Simone plays it, her piano work allows me to feel the atmospheric heaviness of the building up of a summer storm: even summertime has its dangers.

And perhaps this is the key to why I find her music so fascinating.  There is a sense of depth there, of complexity - even in the simple tune we started with, the frivolity of the tune is tackled with complete professionalism.  In other tunes there is a sense of the strength born of survival, the joy that comes from pain endured:

Try this: Feeling Good.  "It's a new dawn / it's a new day / it's a new life for me ... and I'm feeling good".  Of course these are optimistic words, but her voice doesn't quite tell the same story - it's a voice that has just been through a trial:  it's a new life because the old one has had to be left behind ...

This blog is about the music, but of course Nina Simone was also very involved in the civil rights movement: how could she not have been, being Young, Gifted and Black at that time and place?

What engages me especially in her music is that throughout all these tunes, whatever the style, there is evidence of an intensity, an intelligence, a willingness to tackle everything, even playfulness, with complete seriousness of intent: Like these: Ain't Got No ...,  How it Feels to be Free and of course Little Girl Blue

Inspiring stuff: may it never be forgotten.

PS. Just found  this and this: "it's meant for a queen, and I am a queen."  Yes indeed.