If you had been wondering why I asked you to watch a live music video of Jamiroquai’s 1999 funk/dance song “Canned Heat,” the answer is found in the audio-only YouTube clip immediately above, a remastering of the original “Canned Heat Blues” from 1928.
In the US between 1920 and 1933, the sale of alcoholic beverages was banned. People who could not afford to pay the prices demanded by bootleggers for alcohol that was illegal (but which was intended for human consumption, and therefore as safe as the alcohol that previously had been legal) sometimes drank wood alcohol, which could easily blind you, and over the course of time, would kill you. Squeezing the alcohol out of jellied cooking fuel and drinking it surely would give you the “Canned Heat Blues.” This performance is quite a harrowing document. More information, including lyrics, here and here.
(The small letters “VE” at the bottom of
the label show that this record was cut using
Victor’s then-new electrical recording process.)
About 40 years after the release of this 78 rpm record, a Los-Angeles-based blues/boogie jam band took the name “Canned Heat.” (They played at all the famous 1960s-1970 music festivals, and were an international success.) And about 30 years after that, the British funk/acid jazz band Jamiroquai had their second #1 hit with their dance song “Canned Heat,” which you should have recently watched a live-performance video of. More info here.
One of my watchwords (or mantras or Shibbolethim) is that the event horizon for our being able (sorry, I am going to sound like a refugee from the 1970s) to “get inside the heads of” past generations in an instinctive (but reliable) way is only about 75 years. A bass-driven, uptempo funky dance song from 1999 that includes the line “Got canned heat in my heels tonight, bay-bee” is far removed from the desperation of the 1928 original. So, cultural forms persist, but sometimes they mutate in a rather organic way.
Now, you may ask, what does this have to do with neural anatomy and functioning?
My over-arching rubric here is that music perception rides along on the neural wiring for our defensive and survival mechanisms. (And also, in the hierarchy of defensive and survival mechanisms, hearing is higher than vision. Because while you can close your eyes, you can’t shut off your hearing, and hearing works in the dark.)
Things like the Head-Related Transfer Function (HRTF) that enabled Ice Age Cave Mommy to know from which direction the sound of the twig snapping in the forest came from without having to “think” about it make music such a deep experience for us. The neural hard wiring that made Ice Age Cave Mommy drop everything to respond immediately and in urgent, fight-or-flight manner to the wail of a lost toddler is also the source of our response to Blues “wailing,” and to the climax of the soprano’s big melody (or the climax of the love duet) toward the end of Act I of an opera.
And this is not to put the cart before the horse, or to confuse effect with cause:
I do not think that there is a “survival” aspect to the undeniable fact that when elders are losing cognitive functions, memories of familiar music and the ability to connect with familiar music are among the last things to go (even when they can no longer recognize family members or even their own children).
But I do think that that is the case because recognizing sounds is a survival mechanism.
Furthermore, the “Canned Heat” saga is an excellent example of the issue of Cultural Literacy. Now, I think that your textbook’s coverage of music perception is very good; but it does not engage with some things I think need engaging with, even if those other things are more in the realm of esthetics and philosophy or anthropology; and even though in the end, those issues might retain a quantum of mystery.
Why do we find it hard to imagine a wedding ceremony or a wedding reception without music?
Quick, name a major world religion without a musical tradition.
Quick, name a nation without a national anthem.
Why is there only one country in the world with a national anthem in a minor key? And which country is that?
[CORRECTION: I was relying upon memory of a lecture I heard many years ago; in any event, Bob Ludwig pointed out to me that there are quite a few countries with anthems in minor keys. The one I had in mind was Israel’s “Hatikva” (The Hope).]
No need to send in answers to those questions, they were somewhat rhetorical.
Estimated time for all required activities (including reading this document): Less than 1 hour. To make things clear: the only “required” homework tasks are (1) to listen to the original 1928 “Canned Heat Blues” (above); (2) to read the linked-to Collectors Weekly article on the Nerdy White Guys, the Wisconsin Chair Factory, and Amanda Petrusich; and (3) to watch the embedded Jonas Kaufman/Julia Kleiter Die todt Stadt music video. (You should already have looked at my blog post about Abraham Lincoln as an opera lover; if you have not, please do so when you get to that link.) All other links are optional. But again, if you plan on making the subject of this course a part of your later doings, I think a deeper dive will pay rewards.
I now ask you to read a long-ish article and to listen to the embedded music samples.
I think this article is hugely important, not just on the issue of the perception of musical forms and the development of musical styles, trends, and fashions. I think it is (1) important for cultural literacy in general, and it is also (2) important for the courageous way the author Amanda Petrusich confronts several sensitive issues.
To explicate that:
(1) What we think of as the 1960s triumph of “Youth Music”—the “British Invasion” and the mainstreaming of rock-and-roll—could not have happened in the way it did without the influence of African-American Blues music, (2) as mediated by LP-anthology compilations for which nerdy (or downright weird) white guys were the only gatekeepers.
The Rolling Stones—started as a blues band; Led Zeppelin—started as a blues band (their iconic “When the Levee Breaks” is a straight cover of a blues song from 1927; Eric Clapton—came to fame in a blues band called the Bluesbreakers; Fleetwood Mac—started as a blues band. And on and on. A major slice of all the music on popular-music radio stations in the 1960s and 1970s (up to the point where synthesizers changed the sound of rock music) was influenced by the Blues and only by the Blues—not by Hawaiian music, or Polkas, or Celtic music.
Collectors Weekly always does a great job on deep dives into obscure subjects. I think this article is a great introduction to Amanda Petrusich’s wonderful book Do Not Sell at Any Price; her conversation with the interviewer does touch upon the sensitive issues I alluded to, such as, the paucity of female record collectors, and whether obsessive record collecting is related to testosterone and/or spectrum disorders… .jb
I am not about to require that you read Ms. Petrusich’s book; but if you are interested in music or cultural history, or race relations or gender studies, I think you will find the experience profitable. Or even if you just enjoy fine non-fiction writing—Petrusich is a great (and self-deprecating) storyteller. Her tale of getting sucked into the vortex of collecting 78 rpm discs to the extent that she feels compelled to learn scuba diving is… singular. BTW, a Charley Patton 78 rpm Blues record recently sold on eBay for $19,600. And the seller had the frammis to charge for shipping!
OK, now that you are all Blues’ed out, here’s a little bit of opera in the night.
Required: By now everyone should have taken a look at my blog post about Abraham Lincoln’s love of opera.
Abraham Lincoln was such a serious opera fan that he made a detour to New York on his way from Illinois to his first inauguration (1861), in order to be in the audience for the American première of Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera. (Which is an opera about a political assassination(!!!).) Lincoln attended the opera about 30 times during his presidency, prompting criticism from his detractors. The first opera singer ever to sing in the White House, Meda Blanchard, sang for Lincoln—and he sent her flowers. Awww.
That’s all because, before the invention of film-with-sound and television, opera was it as far as multimedia entertainment went. By “multimedia” I mean acting, costumes, sets, special effects, singing, and often dancing.
Required: I’d be tempted to ask you to watch a video of part of the first act of Puccini’s La Bohème, but the clip that moves me most is more than 60 years old, and anyway, that’s such a popular opera that it risks wearing out its welcome. So, to prove myself a true hard-core opera lover, I chose a clip from a recording session for one aria from an opera that is very rarely performed, and which most people have never heard of.
But that clip has the added benefit of showing that not all opera involves screaming or falling from parapets or being stabbed or set on fire.
The song portrays a broken man and a wounded woman caught in the inner war between pain and hope. The aria is “Glück, das mir verblieb,” which I translate as “Happiness, please stay by me” (or, “Joy, come back to me.”) The opera is Korngold’s Die todt Stadt (The Dead City)(from 1920), but it is not about zombies or vampires.
Without question, the action of Die tote Stadt is “modern,” somewhat hard to take in, and definitely, more than a bit creepy. In the Belgian city of Bruges, a widower named Paul has turned his apartment into a shrine or museum to his late wife Marie’s memory. Paul’s friend Frank visits, to try to reel Paul back in from the brink, only to learn that Paul had met on the street a dancer named Marietta, who looks exactly like Marie; also, that Marietta is to visit Paul. Here‘s a stick-figure stop-action animated summary of the plot that I for one find laugh-out-loud funny. (The maid says, “It is a perfectly healthy and normal shrine to his dead wife Marie.”)
And here we have Jonas Kaufmann and Julia Kleiter in a shortened version of the duet.
Below are the German lyrics, and a translation. Please remember that Abraham Lincoln’s favorite opera was in German, and that within 30 days before being shot, he had attended a production of Mozart’s Magic Flute, which must also have been in German. Perhaps it is also worth knowing that the original incarnation of Brown University (which was as a Baptist Divinity School) expected new students to have Latin, Greek, and some Hebrew. (I mention that because the fact that most of the operas sung in the US are in foreign languages, is often mentioned in the word associations.)
I highlight the sections they sing in this video. The musical setting of the final four lines is what ties rather directly into one’s limbic system. It’s the kind of thing that built the opera houses… .
By the way, Korngold wrote that opera when he was 23 years old (it was the third opera he composed). The reason so few people know it today is that it was suppressed by the Nazis. The New York City Opera revived Die todt Stadt in the US in 1975. And silly me, until I was researching this document, I had totally blanked on the fact that “Glück, das mir verblieb” (but of course not this recent performance of it) makes an appearance on the soundtrack for The Big Lebowski!
(I made the decision to embed this clip because I think it makes the best overall case for the music. If you don’t want to watch the facial expressions of the singers or if you want to hear the aria without cuts, there are lots of great performances on YT, but most of them are not live videos and they are also not duets; they are arrangements of the soprano part only. There aren’t too many singers around today on Kaufmann’s level. But here‘s great audio of a string-quartet-and-piano/soprano version, with more backstory on the opera.)
Glück, das mir verblieb,
rück zu mir, mein treues Lieb.
Abend sinkt im Hag
bist mir Licht und Tag.
Bange pochet Herz an Herz
Hoffnung schwingt sich himmelwärts.
Wie wahr, ein traurig Lied.
Das Lied vom treuen Lieb,
das sterben muss.
Ich kenne das Lied.
Ich hört es oft in jungen,
in schöneren Tagen.
Es hat noch eine Strophe—
weiß ich sie noch?
Naht auch Sorge trüb,
rück zu mir, mein treues Lieb.
Neig dein blaß Gesicht
Sterben trennt uns nicht.
Mußt du einmal von mir gehn,
glaub, es gibt ein Auferstehn.
= = = = = = = = = =
Joy, that near to me remains,
Come to me, my true love.
Night sinks into the grove
You are my light and day.
Anxiously beats heart on heart
Hope itself soars heavenward.
How true, a sad song.
The song of true love,
that must die.
I know the song.
I heard it often in younger,
in better days.
It has yet another verse—
Do I know it still?
Though sorrow becomes dark,
Come to me, my true love.
Lean (to me) your pale face
Death will not separate us.
If you must leave me one day,
Believe, there is an afterlife.
All for now. I invite questions, comments, or discussion.
And if you will not be able to get to sleep without knowing which one is my favorite La Bohème “O Soave Fanciulla” performance video, you can find Jussi Bjoerling and Renata Tebaldi in all their 1956 B&W TV glory here.
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