MARCH

Featured

This seems like a good time for a book review.

A few months ago, US Congressman, and well known Civil Rights activist, John Lewis passed away. Just prior to his passing, a biography of his life was released in the form of a graphic novel trilogy, appropriately titled, MARCH. For someone like me, who professes to know and love History, it was an eye-opening memoir. I am very thankful to the friend who recommended I read Mr. Lewis’ story. Not only did MARCH deepen my understanding of how systemic racism has kept people of colour in a state of oppression for generation after generation but, it has heightened the sense of justice that many are feeling right now because of how the recent US Presidential election has played out; particularly, in the state of Georgia.

The story of Mr. Lewis’ life often focuses on that day when, alongside other Civil Rights leaders, he attempted to cross the Edmund Pettis Bridge in Selma, Alabama and was met with armed resistance from law enforcement officers. The incident was broadcast on national television and is generally acknowledged as the tipping point in the creation of The Civil Rights Act in the United States.

As people, we tend to like our myths, our national stories, to be simple and easy to understand. Sometimes, injustice IS easy to understand but, more often than not, the background of the stories that shape nations and that go down in History are multi-faceted and slow in forming. John Lewis would be the first to tell you that he was not solely responsible for The Civil Rights Act coming to fruition. He would tell you that the journey to freedom and justice for people of colour in the US was long and hard and filled with many desperate and dangerous times. He would, also, tell you that racial equality is still more a dream than a reality.

In MARCH, Mr. Lewis demonstrated how deeply engrained the inequities faced by people of colour were in America. Many of us, as white people, are familiar with stories such as Rosa Parks purposely sitting in the “white” section of the bus and being arrested for refusing to give up her seat. Her actions led to the Montgomery Bus Boycott that saw people of colour refuse to use public transportation for over a year. Many of us, as white people, are familiar with the iconic photo of little Ruby Bridges, a Grade 1 student, being escorted into a formerly segregated school by US Marshalls, as angry white parents hurled vitriol upon her. The hatred from white adults to that black child is palpable. The de-segregation of schools is widely seen as one of the biggest accomplishments of the Civil Rights Movement. Of course, it would be difficult to find anyone who doesn’t possess, at least, a passing familiarity with Martin Luther King’s famous, “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington, DC.

These are the stories we know. As a white person, I was quite familiar with the broad details of each of these stories. As someone who believes in racial justice and equal rights, I always have nodded my head and smiled whenever the stories of Dr. King or Ruby Bridges or Rosa Parks or Jackie Robinson or Billie Holiday are told. Then, I read all three books in the MARCH trilogy. I have to be honest and say that I am ashamed at how little about these stories I ever really knew. The mythic nature of sitting on a bus or walking into a school or crossing a bridge were never just about those, specific moments. Instead, they were the culmination of years of effort by scores of dedicated, courageous people. As Mr. Lewis would tell you, You can’t climb a mountain by starting at the top.

What I learned from reading MARCH can be boiled down to a few main points: 1- Systemic injustice means living in a society with laws and policies purposefully enacted that favour one group over another. Furthermore, it means that the oppressed party is often blamed and punished for actions that others are not and/or they are denied access to opportunities and freedoms that the other group enjoys without question. This is a textbook answer, on my part. But, what MARCH showed so clearly was how so many aspects of living life as a person of colour was difficult and unfair. For example, I read a book a few months ago called The Yellow House by Sarah Broom. It showed how the City of New Orleans had enacted bylaws about the zoning for housing that made it harder to purchase homes in certain neighbourhoods for people of colour and then, once neighbourhoods began to form that contains mostly people of colour, by-laws enabling industrial development in those areas were enacted thus, lowering the value of the homes and creating unsafe living conditions because of chemicals, pollution, etc. “Lower class” areas of the city became places where folks with few options ended up. What systemic injustice does is create conditions that eliminate options in life for whole groups of people. As a result, an oppressed group ends up struggling for basic rights throughout the whole of their lives.

2- The second thing I learned from reading MARCH was that one of the driving forces behind the entire Civil Rights movement was voter registration. In a democratic society, having the right to vote enables each citizen to have their say in how things are run and by whom. As a white person, I have usually only dwelled on the fragility of my right to vote on such occasions as Remembrance Day (here is Canada) when we pay our formal respects to the men and women of the Armed Forces who fought in wars for “our freedom”. I am privileged beyond belief to assume that I will be able to vote every time there in an election in my area. In MARCH, Mr. Lewis showed quite clearly how many jurisdictions in the southern US had formal policies in place that made it difficult, if not impossible, for people of colour to register to vote. Things like having criteria for registration that contained clauses that most people of colour couldn’t pass or else, having very limited registration hours so very few aspiring registrants could be processed. Sometimes, people of colour were given academic tests, with questions on them that were impossible to answer correctly. Many people of colour were intimidated with physical reprisals if they attempted to register to vote. In those days, the Ku Klux Klan was very active and had many ways, subtle and otherwise, of letting a black family know that their actions were being monitored. One of John Lewis biggest roles in the Civil Rights Movement had to do with helping people of colour register to vote. This was because, in a democratic society, if you want to change the way things are being run where you live, you vote for change. For people of colour, one of the best chances they had to change the laws of racial injustice which so marked their lives, was to register to vote. Registering people of colour to vote was dangerous work. People like John Lewis were often the subject of physical abuse. Mr. Lewis often served time in jail for his actions. He famously called this, “good trouble” because of the importance to him and so many others, of this cause.

3- The third major thing I learned to appreciate more after reading MARCH was the importance to this cause, and to any other, for that matter, of being organized. It is difficult to affect change when you are one person, alone. But, in numbers, many people can make great things happen. This point was brought home, again and again, in MARCH. Mr Lewis talked repeatedly about organizational meetings held in churches and in the basements of safe homes and in the jails where he and his colleagues were so often incarcerated. Not only was having an organizational approach important when it came to the number of people involved, it was, also, clear that those on the front lines needed certain intangible qualities such as courage, determination and a positive outlook on life. Love trumps Hate every time but, sometimes, Hate holds sway for awhile and it isn’t always easy to keep willing oneself to fight the good fight when Hope is in short supply. One of the over-arching themes of MARCH was how relentlessly bleak things seemed much of the time….how difficult it was to make even the slightest bit of progress….how much of a struggle it was to remain optimistic….how easy it would have been to simply give in and give up in the face of such violence, hostility and systemic injustice from those tasked with being our leaders.

John Lewis would be proud today.

In the tradition of activist organizers like Mr. Lewis, I present a lady named Stacey Abrams. Ms. Abrams has been involved in the civic life of the State of Georgia for most of her life. A few years ago, she ran on the Democratic ticket, for Governor of Georgia. She ran a highly respected campaign but, in the end, she lost her election to her Republican rival. Throughout this contest, there were accusations of voter suppression. Her rival was white. He was acting Governor at the time and was accused of enacting laws that made it more difficult for Georgians of colour to vote. If you can’t vote then, you have a much more difficult chance of enabling change to occur. At the time of Ms. Abrams defeat, it seemed like “business as usual” for people of colour in the southern US. This was especially ominous because of how supportive the US President was, at the time, of white nationalist policies. Undaunted, Ms. Abrams dusted herself off and re-dedicated her efforts to register as many voters as possible and, as well, make sure there was an organized effort, all across the state to get that vote out to the polls.

It is possible that her drive to register voters may end up being the reason that President Trump loses the 2020 Presidential election. At this moment, Georgia has been declared “too close to call” because the vote tallies for President Trump and his challenger, Democrat, Joe Biden, are nearly deadlocked. Georgia has always been viewed as a safe Republican state, in large part, because of laws that limited the ability to vote of people of colour. If, in fact, Georgia does end up being declared as a victory for Joe Biden, it will push his Electoral College totals over the threshold for victory in this election. If so, a large share of the credit for this dramatic turn-around will be accorded Stacey Abrams. When asked, I am sure she will say the exact same thing that Mr. Lewis would have said….she didn’t do it alone. Being organized, being courageous and possessing an unflinching sense of determination are all necessary ingredients in helping to secure racial justice.

So, as Georgia prepares for its moment in the national spotlight, I think back to all that I learned while reading MARCH by John Lewis. The journey to the top of the mountain has been long but, on this day, the summit appears within reach. And, from high up above, I reckon that Mr. John Lewis is smiling.

My Hana’s Suitcase Story

Featured


Have you ever had a book change your life? I did. This is the story of a book that gave me my favourite experience as a classroom teacher ever!!! Please enjoy. 🙂

Prologue: Hana’s Suitcase by Karen Levine, is an award-winning story that is actually two stories in one. The story begins by introducing us to the Brady Family and, in particular, the two Brady children; George and Hana. As we meet them, they are blissfully unaware that they are about to be swept up into one of modern history’s darkest chapters: the Holocaust. In the next chapter, we fast-forward sixty years and meet a Japanese teacher named Fumiko who has organized a peace club. In order to help her students understand the true nature of the Holocaust, Fumiko knows that children usually learn more deeply when they have actual materials and objects to hold rather than simply looking through photographs. So, she sends requests to Holocaust museums all over the world for any resources that they could spare to help her in her lessons. She received rejections from every museum except for one.

That museum sent a collection of artifacts that included a suitcase with the name Hana Brady on it. And so begins a detective story than ended up spanning the globe as Fumiko and her students attempt to discover who this “Hana Brady” really was.

Karen Levine constructed her book by alternating the story lines every other chapter. So, as Hana and her family move through the well-known stages of the Holocaust process culminating in being sent to the concentration camps, Fumiko and her students move closer and closer to discovering what eventually ended up happening to Hana and her family members by the end of the book.

As a father, I completely and wholeheartedly endorse the notion of surrounding young children with rich literature. In my home we have books about every conceivable topic imaginable on bookshelves in our living room, in both of my daughter’s bedrooms and in our basement playroom, too. My daughters are growing up surrounded by, literally, thousands of books. Not surprisingly, they are both growing up to have a love of reading and to view reading as an enjoyable way to spend time during their day.

As a teacher, I have attempted to create the same kind of literature-rich environment for my students. There were, again, thousands of books in my classroom; available for students to read for pleasure, to use for research purposes, to listen to being read aloud and much more. The books in our classroom spanned a wide range of reading levels and subject areas so, there was something for every student to successfully read and enjoy in our classroom. Having good books in a school classroom is important so that students can hear wonderful writing and fascinating stories; stories that may inspire anything from flights of fancy to calls for social justice and beyond. Hana’s Suitcase by Karen Levine is an excellent book and I highly recommend it. It is well-suited to students who are in the 8-11 age range. But, I thoroughly enjoyed it as an adult, too. However, my reason to singling this particular book out has nothing to do with remembering the Holocaust or giving a shout-out to Karen Levine. My reason for writing about this book is that Hana’s Suitcase was the book that helped me experience my favourite and most profound reading experience with a student in my entire career. Here is my Hana’s Suitcase story…..I hope that you enjoy it. 🙂

My classroom was loaded with books. I had them sorted into bins and baskets usually based upon topic or genre. For example, I had a bin of “dog” stories, bins of “outer space” books, bins of “Halloween” books and so on. My standard classroom practice was to set these book bins/baskets out and make them available for students to access all throughout the year as interest or need arose for them. However, whenever I started a new Unit of study in the classroom, I would pull those books out from wherever they were and place them in a location of prominence near where our class meeting place happened to be. As I pulled these books out, I would hold a book talk with the students and go over each book so that they became familiar with them.

My Hana’s Suitcase story starts as we approached the special Canadian day known as Remembrance Day. In Canada, Remembrance Day is used to honour our soldiers who have fought in wars all over the world, as well as, those who are presently involved in peacekeeping duties in such hotspots as Afghanistan. As you all can appreciate, war can be a very grisly topic when you explore it in detail so, as a general rule of thumb, when getting Remembrance Day Units of Study prepared for Primary students, keeping things on a very general, basic level is the preferred route to go. So, in this context, I began my book talk with my class of Grade 2 students in Bowmanville, Ontario. I pulled out books such as The Butter Battle by Dr. Seuss and proceeded with the book talk as planned.

Now, I would be remiss if I didn’t stop here to tell you that this class of Grade 2 students was one of “those” classes. When a teacher usually talks about their class being one of “those” classes, they often are referring to classes that are not that well-behaved. The old adage is that every teacher will have one of “those” classes before their career is over. I’ve had mine and I survived my trial by fire. But, this class was not one of “those” classes because it was a bad class. In fact, the exact opposite is true. This class was a class that was full of keeners who all got along well together and who were all very eager to learn. They loved sitting on our carpet meeting place and talking about everything under the sun. They particularly enjoyed book talks. So, as I went through all of the primary-level books that I had in my collection, a young girl put up her hand and said, “My mother told me a story once about a little girl who……….I’m not exactly sure if I remember it right but……the girl and her family had to live in a closet or a basement for two years during the War.” Although she couldn’t remember the exact details, I knew at once that she was referring to Anne Frank. So, as she spoke, I debated with myself as to whether or not I really wanted to go where she was leading me. In the end, I did, as I often do. I decided to listen to the students and follow their interests. So, I told the class that the young lady in question was Anne Frank and I told them the broad outline of her story. I had the actual Diary of a Young Girl book in a cupboard (where I kept books that I liked but that I didn’t feel Grade 2s were ready to handle). I took it out and showed it to the class. This sparked a whole new round of questions and, in the end, they asked me if I would leave the Anne Frank book out with the other Remembrance Day books. I said that I would.

And since they liked Anne Frank, I told myself that there was no reason to keep Hana’s Suitcase tucked away either. So, I pulled that out and talked about Hana’s story in basic terms, too. I stressed to the kids that I thought both books were too hard for Grade 2s to read but that if they wanted to look at the books during reading time, I would answer any questions that they had as a result of what they were able to read themselves or see in the pictures. I concluded the book talk and life went on in our room as it normally did.

Two days later, a young girl in my class named Kaicey, came up to me during our Language time with Hana’s Suitcase in her hand. She asked me if I would help her read the book because she was interested in finding out what happened to Hana. Now, at that moment, I had 26 other students engaged in a variety of reading, writing and spelling tasks. There was a lot of activity going on and, to be truthful, after having told the class that I thought this book was too difficult for Grade 2s to read, I really didn’t want to sit down and slog our way through this 102-page book about the Holocaust. But, Kaicey continued to stand there. ”Will you help me read this book, Mr. MacInnes. Will you help me, pleaseeee!” I truly didn’t want to go down that road but that tiny voice inside my head reminded me that I was a teacher and that helping kids learn to read is my job and that I should just get over myself and help this child who has had her interest sparked by a book. Soooo, I took a deep breath, sighed a little and told Kaicey that I would help her read the book. But, she needed to know that we would not be able to finish it in one day because it was over 100 pages long and that it wasn’t a happy story, either, that I expected her to do most of the reading, that I would only help her with the big words and be there to answer her questions about what she was reading. She looked at me and smiled and said that we had a deal. So, in the middle of a bustling Grade 2 classroom, Kaicey and I sat down on the carpet, with our backs against a wall of cupboards and we began to read Hana’s Suitcase.

That first day, she read three and a half pages. We talked about what she had read so far and what she thought was going to happen to the, then, carefree Hana Brady. She answered. I, then, asked her if she felt like this was a book that she wanted to continue to read. I half expected her to say that the book was too tough, thank me for my time and tell me that she would move on to something else. But, she said that she liked the book so far and was excited to read it again tomorrow. In my mind, I was still not convinced that she would still be as interested the next day but, come the next day, Kaicey was right there with the book in her hand, ready to continue to learn about a little girl named Hana Brady. So, in that fashion, reading 3-5 pages at a time, we started getting deeper into the book and I began to enjoy my time spent reading and talking about Hana with her. She read almost all of the words by herself, with me filling in with only words such as the names of the towns and cities, for example.

Well, we were about 20 pages in, when Remembrance Day came and went. Kaicey knew that my routine was to put the “theme” books back in their bin or basket once our Unit of Study was over and get new books out for the next Unit. So, she came to me of her own initiative and said that she knew Remembrance Day was over and that the Remembrance Day books were going to be put away but, would it be ok if we continued to read Hana’s Suitcase. I told her that, of course it would be ok and that, perhaps, she would like to keep the book in her desk until we were through. She liked that idea.

So, over the next few weeks, reading a few pages here and a few pages there, amid the learning commotion in my classroom, we managed to reach the end of the book. Normally, under such circumstances, an event like this would be cause for celebration. It isn’t everyday that a grade 2 student can read a tough book like that, mostly on her own. But, as we discovered what happened to Hana and her family and to Fumiko and her students, neither of us felt like celebrating at all. In fact, we both felt somewhat sad that our experience had come to an end. While not as intense a bond as a father-daughter bond, we had shared a unique experience none-the-less and it brought us closer together in a way that normally doesn’t happen with a teacher and a student in the course of our academic affairs. So I said to her that, if she wanted, she could keep my copy of Hana’s Suitcase so that she could always remember Hana and remember our time together reading about her and learning about the Holocaust. I expected her to take the book. But instead, she gave me the book back and said that it was such a good story that she wanted to make sure that I would share it with other children in my other classes to come. So, reluctantly, I took the book back.

The story would have ended there if not for some fortuitous timing. Two weeks later, I attended the Ontario Library Association Annual Conference in Toronto. One of the workshops at this conference involved award winning children’s authors discussing their work and, as luck would have it, one of the authors was Karen Levine! I sat in the workshop, spellbound, as she regaled the audience with tales of how she came to be involved in this book project and how she felt as it came to its’ gorgeous conclusion. At the end of the presentation, the authors took questions from the audience. Someone asked Karen what the most satisfying consequence of writing the book was for her. Without missing a beat, she replied that she enjoyed the letters that she received; especially from young students who found Hana to be inspiring and her story to be important.

Now, I do have a brain and it normally functions well. But, the thought of writing to Karen Levine and telling her of my experience in the classroom with Kaicey and her book had never occurred to me until that very moment. So, my next immediate thought was that if Kaicey would’t accept my own copy of Hana’s Suitcase, perhaps she would accept a new copy if I got the actual author to autograph it for her. So I rushed out to the nearest bookstore and bought a brand new copy. However, Karen Levine had left by the time I got back to the conference hall. So immediately, I contacted her publishing company and explained what I wanted to do. Luckily, they were very understanding and were only too happy to help. I sent them the book and they said they would contact Karen Levine on my behalf and have her autograph the book.

About a month and a half later, a parcel arrived at school. It was the book. Karen Levine had, indeed, autographed the book but had gone one step better and wrote Kaicey a personalized note. The note read: ”Thank you for taking such an interest in someone that I have come to view as very special. Reading such a book at your age makes you very special, too. Keep up your interest in reading. Yours truly, Karen Levine.

I contacted Kaicey’s mother and told her what I had done and that I wanted to give Kaicey the book as soon as possible and would she, Kaicey’s mother, like to be there. She was very pleased that I had done what I did. I gave Kaicey the book after school a few days later. Mom smiled. I smiled. Kaicey smiled and accepted the autographed book.

That experience happened many years ago, prior to the advent of social media. At the time, having message boards and chat rooms on my school network was as close to experiencing the interactivity that has come to characterize our use of social media nowadays. At that time, the following Fall, a teacher from another school posted a question asking for good book recommendations for our upcoming Remembrance Day. A good book recommendation!? Did I ever have one for her. So, I posted a letter describing the experience that Kaicey and I had with Hana’s Suitcase. I had never written anything for an audience before so I was unprepared for the avalanche of overwhelmingly positive feedback that poured in from all over the school board. One teacher even asked for permission to print our story off and give it to her mother who collected “Teacher stories”. I had never thought of writing about my experiences as a teacher before but, all of this feedback gave me food for thought.

So, I started my own blog and the first story I wrote was the one you are reading. Back in those days, I had only just joined Facebook and Twitter and was just learning how to link my blog posts up to social media and share them with the world. Before I did this though, I wondered about contacting Kaicey (and/or her family) and letting her know what I was hoping to do. Several years had passed by this point and I was able to find both Kaicey and her mother on Facebook. They were both delighted that this experience had meant as much to me as it did them and that I wanted others to know about it, too. They were enthusiastic in granting permission for me to go forward.

So, I linked my blog post up to Facebook and waited for another avalanche of glowing feedback. I waited. I waited some more. Eventually, a few friends chimed in and said it was a good story and thanks for sharing. But, that was it. I have to admit to being somewhat disappointed. So, I decided to give Twitter a try.

I was new to tweeting and using hash tags. So, I simply posted that I wanted people to know about an amazing experience I had had in class with a great book and an eager student. I hash-tagged it #teacherstories, #HanasSuitcase and sent it out into the world.

A day or two later, I received a reply………from Fumiko, herself! The same Fumiko who was profiled in the book. The same Fumiko who had discovered who Hana really was and who helped her family reclaim her suitcase. That same Fumiko had read my post and reached out to thank me for sharing the story of my experience with Kaicey and for helping to introduce Hana Brady to the world. Needless to say, I was star struck. Immediately, I contacted Kaicey via Facebook.

I told Kaicey what had happened. She was excited, too. Then she floored me by telling me that she still had ever single part of the package Karen Levine had sent. She had the book, the personalized letter, the book mark and, even, the original shipping envelop, too. Then she sent me the photo you can see to the left. Always Remember, Karen Levine had written and Kaicey said she remembered everything we experienced and shared and that she always would.

Thanks to sites such as Facebook, I have been able to maintain contact with Kaicey and her Mom. In fact, when I recently had my birthday in January, she was one of the first to send along birthday wishes “to my favourite teacher EVER!!!!!!!!!” A day or two later, her mother emailed me to say that her daughter’s birthday wish wasn’t mere flattery and that she still regards our experience reading Hana’s Suitcase as being her favourite moment in her whole school career.

Even though this experience happened many years ago now, it still touches my heart every time I think about it. Having opportunities to make an actual difference in the lives of our students is why teachers teach. It is my single-most favourite and treasured memory of a 30 year teaching career. Good books are important. A good book called Hana’s Suitcase helped to give me and a young Grade 2 student named Kaicey, a memory that we will cherish forever. Do you have a special memory of reading with a teacher or adult that you cherish? If so, do share. I’d love to hear your stories, too

KEXP: The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History…Song #92: Waltz #2 by Elliott Smith.

This list of songs is inspired by a list published by radio station, KEXP, from Seattle in 2010, as well as, the latest poll taken in 2021 by Rolling Stone Magazine. For the most part, I will faithfully countdown from their lists, from Song #500 to Song #1. So, when you see the song title listed as something like: “KEXP: Song #XXX”….it means that I am working off of the official KEXP list. “RS: Song XXX” means the song is coming from the Rolling Stone list. If I post the song title as being: “KTOM: Song #xxx”….it means I have gone rogue and am inserting a song choice from my own personal list of tunes I really like. In either case, you are going to get to hear a great song and learn the story behind it. Finally, I am not a music critic nor a musician. I am a music fan and an armchair storyteller. Enough said! Let’s get on to today’s song.

KEXP: The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History.

Song #92: Waltz #2 by Elliott Smith.

My father passed away when I was eleven years old. That meant that I then inherited the title of “Man of the House”. But, truth be told, I could barely make my own bed in those days, let alone, assume any sort of leadership position within our household. That responsibility, fair or not, fell almost completely on my mother’s shoulders. I cannot imagine how heavy that burden must have felt. But, the grace with which she handled that situation forever coloured my life and that of my sister. Because, no matter what happened, from that dark day forward, my sister and I have always felt completely loved by our mother. She loved us, even after working a full shift as a nurse at the hospital and coming home to be our “Ma”. She loved us, even though we transformed into teenagers who felt that we possessed more of Life’s answers than she did. She loved us even when other gentlemen callers came knocking upon our door. Whether it was true or simply the perceptions of a sheltered child, it always seemed like she was our mother, first and foremost; a professional nurse, second and then, with whatever time and energy she had left over, she was a woman.

After my father died, My mother ended up getting married twice more. Part of her willingness to marry another man hinged upon his ability to care for us, as well. How my sister and I were treated by the men who carried the title of “Step-father” was everything. For the most part, we survived ok. But, if we were being honest, neither man really cared that much about us. Both guys were there because of my mother; my sister and I simply came with the scenery. But, the one thing that made it all tolerable for us, as kids, was that, even if our step-fathers never really loved us, our mother always did. No amount of romance from other men ever dimmed her love for us so, in that light, I view my childhood as being very warm and, my sister and I, very lucky.

I tell you all this because, as you know, not every family situation turns out as rosy as did ours. Whether, by way of death or divorce, once the players in any family drama start to change and move about, the potential that emotional damage may happen becomes very real. The song, “Waltz #2” by Elliott Smith tells that side of the story. Like my sister and I, Elliott Smith’s childhood memories were coloured by the absence of his biological father (for him, via divorce) and the impact of the man his mother chose next. “Waltz #2” is a richly written story of what it was like to, in essence, lose his mother, even though she was still his parent, if that makes any sense. Through Smith’s words, we watch as his mother seemingly allows herself to be absorbed into her new man’s life, leaving her own past behind; a past that included her son, Elliott. As he grew up, he did so as a captive to the new world his mother and step-father were creating; a world that he was forced to be involved in but, one in which he was never truly welcomed.

There are whole industries devoted to the creation of books and movies that chronicle the impact of broken homes on the lives of those who live within them. In “Waltz #2”, Elliott Smith uses the craftsmanship of a poet or playwright to paint a picture of the bleak world in which he grew up. The writing is brilliant. His pain is very real. As much as I admire how well written “Waltz #2” is, it is, at the same time, a devastating song to listen to when you truly listen to the words. Elliott Smith has been profiled in this countdown before. His stature in the Alt-Rock music genre is unparalleled. HIs influence is widespread. You may recall that he was even nominated for an Academy Award for his song, “Miss Misery”, from the movie, “Good Will Hunting”. However, like me, his childhood experiences coloured his adult life but, unlike me, those experiences set him off on a path to addiction and mental health challenges that, ultimately, saw him take his own life at age 34.

“Waltz #2” was a very personal song for Elliott Smith. So, it is not surprising that this beautifully-written song was very painful for him to sing live. There were many instances when he actually stopped singing the song, midway through, because of how it made him feel. There are many videos of this happening that you can find on YouTube, if you are so inclined. I am not so inclined. It gives me no pleasure to watch another human suffer. So, for the only time in this entire countdown, I am not going share a video of the artist, in question, singing their own song. Instead, I am going to share with you, a beautiful cover, sung by Christ Thile on his podcast/show, “Live From Here”. Because this song is not from his own life, Thile is able to focus on the beauty of the lyrics and the delicate construction of the music. The result is a wonderful, wonderful rendition of “Waltz #2” which is, for my money, as well written as anything produced by the pen of Springsteen or Dylan or any of The Beatles.

It never ceases to amaze me how razor-thin the margins of error are, that separate those of us who live happy lives, from those of us who suffer. “Waltz #2” shows what happens when family matters are decided in a certain way. My life, and that of my sister, show what happens when you are wrapped in a blanket of unconditional love your whole life through.

Even today, as I write these words to you, we still feel our mother’s love. I know that, even though she is 90 years old now, if I were to turn up at her door, the very first thing she would do is invite me in and make sure I was comfortable and then, she’d offer to make me a hot cup of tea. And I would let her. ❤

The link to the video for the song, “Waltz #2” by Elliott Smith, as covered by Chris Thile, can be found here.

The link to the official website for Elliott Smith, can be found here.

The link to the official website for Chris Thile, can be found here.

Thanks, as always, to KEXP, for always acknowledging all artists and genres. The link to their wonderful website can be found here.

KEXP: The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History…Song #91: One Love/People Get Ready by Bob Marley.

This list of songs is inspired by a list published by radio station, KEXP, from Seattle in 2010, as well as, the latest poll taken in 2021 by Rolling Stone Magazine. For the most part, I will faithfully countdown from their lists, from Song #500 to Song #1. So, when you see the song title listed as something like: “KEXP: Song #XXX”….it means that I am working off of the official KEXP list. “RS: Song XXX” means the song is coming from the Rolling Stone list. If I post the song title as being: “KTOM: Song #xxx”….it means I have gone rogue and am inserting a song choice from my own personal list of tunes I really like. In either case, you are going to get to hear a great song and learn the story behind it. Finally, I am not a music critic nor a musician. I am a music fan and an armchair storyteller. Enough said! Let’s get on to today’s song.

KEXP: The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History.

Song #91: One Love/People Get Ready by Bob Marley.

Earlier in this countdown, we discussed a song entitled, “People Get Ready” by the late, great Curtis Mayfield and his group, The Impressions. *(That post can be read by clicking on the link here.) “People Get Ready” was a spiritual song that was written during the time of the Civil Rights Movement in the southern U.S. during the 1960s. The song is built in the tradition of all great Gospel songs that offer thanks to The Lord for gifts given and strength provided. So, while “People Get Ready” is, sometimes, referred to as a Soul song or an R&B song, it is, first and foremost, a Gospel song. In “People Get Ready”, Curtis Mayfield gave those in the Civil Rights Movement a rallying cry to rely on when Life seemed to be at its darkest moments. It is a song that states that we are all equal in the eyes of The Lord and that those who work in his name do so in the name of all that is righteous and good. “People Get Ready” became one of Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions greatest hits. It inspired those working for justice, as well as, those who simply liked good music.

The power and influence of “People Get Ready” was felt around the world; even on the island of Jamaica, where it was heard by three teenage boys by the names of Bob Marley, Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer. These three young men had formed their own singing group called “The Wailing Wailers”. For their debut album, Bob Marley wrote a song that came to be known as “One Love”. This song was directly influenced by Mayfield’s own song, which can be seen in the fact that Marley cribbed whole lines and used them in his own song. In the late 1960s, there were no copyright laws, as we know them today so, no one felt any pressure to acknowledge Mayfield as the original source of the idea for the song. So, the song was simply released as, “One Love”.

Like “People Get Ready”, “One Love” is a song that begs for unity and that claims that we are all equal under God’s watchful eye. One of the more pressing reasons that Marley wrote the song was because of the political situation on his island of Jamaica. At the time, and especially as his career went on, Marley was a much beloved citizen of Jamaica. In fact, as it came time for local elections to be held, the popular opinion was that Bob Marley was the most respected man in Jamaica and that he could have easily won the Prime Ministership had he chosen to run. But, Marley did not wish to descend into the mudslinging chaos that characterized much of what passed for political discourse at the time so, instead of running for election, he wrote a song called, “One Love” to act as a gesture making his ideals and wishes known.

There are many people around the world who are convinced that “One Love” is actually Jamaica’s national anthem. It is not. But, never-the-less, it has become the unofficial anthem for Reggae Music around the world and is, in most cases, the first song one thinks of when thinking of Jamaica. It was not by fluke that the Jamaican Tourism Board selected “One Love” to act as the soundtrack by which they invited the world to come to Jamaica and experience the beauty of the island for themselves.

Bob Marley’s final album was called, “Exodus”. In preparation for this album, he decided to re-work “One Love”. But, by now, copyright laws had become standardized around the world and Marley could no longer claim sole authorship of his own hit. So, in order to prevent a lawsuit from those who worked for Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions, Bob Marley offered Mayfield a songwriting credit, as well as, a share of the song’s title. That was agreed to by those representing Curtis Mayfield. Consequently, the song that I always knew to be called, “One Love” is now, legally known as “One Love/People Get Ready”. In this way, two great men of peace and unity are recognized, along with two anthems that have brought Joy and Comfort to many around the world.

In 1981, Bob Marley passed away from cancer. A few years later, in 1984, a Greatest Hits album was released called, “Legend”. The “Legend” album reads almost like a greatest hits list for all of Reggae. The album sold in the tens of millions and is, by a long shot, the biggest selling Reggae album of all-time. Needless to say, the song “One Love/People Get Ready” is on that album. However, because of renewed interest in Marley’s career, along with a general upswing in the public’s awareness of Reggae music, it was felt necessary that a music video be made about the song. Unfortunately, with Bob Marley having passed away, he was, obviously, not available to participate. The makers of the video wanted something fresh so, they refused to simply pull out old concert footage and pass that off as new. No, they wanted something new that still managed to reflect the message of inclusion that “One Love/People Get Ready” espouses. So, they created a new video that stars a young dreadlocked boy, walking through the streets of London and area, smiling, singing and dancing with all manner of people he meets along the way. Everyone is welcomed by him and everyone is welcoming of him. There are numerous guest appearances by UK singers of note of the day. But, the biggest guest spot went to Bob Marley, himself. The producers of the video used archival footage of Marley walking through the streets as well so it seemed as though he and the young child were both walking together.

I hope that you all enjoy the video for “One Love/People Get Ready” by Bob Marley and that, having watched it, you “feel alright”. 🙂

The link to the video for the song, “One Love/People Get Ready” by Bob Marley, can be found here.

The link to the official website for Bob Marley, can be found here.

The link to the official website for Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions, can be found here.

Thanks, as always, to KEXP, for supporting the most uplifting music from around the world. The link to their wonderful website can be found here.

KEXP: The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History…Song #255: Blister in the Sun by Violent Femmes.

This list of songs is inspired by a list published by radio station, KEXP, from Seattle in 2010. For the most part, I will faithfully countdown from their list, from Song #500 to Song #1. So, when you see the song title listed as something like: “KEXP: Song #XXX”….it means that I am working off of the official KEXP list. If I post the song title as being: “KTOM: Song #xxx”….it means I have gone rogue and am inserting a song choice from my own personal list of tunes I really like. In either case, you are going to get to hear a great song and learn the story behind it. Finally, I am not a music critic nor a musician. I am a music fan and an armchair storyteller. Enough said! Let’s get on to today’s song.

KEXP: THe Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History.

Song #255: Blister in the Sun by Violent Femmes.

It is easy to think of the songs and bands/singers that comprise this list of the best music of all-time and tell yourself that their road to stardom was easy and that they were always successful. In some cases, like “The Beatles” or “The Rolling Stones”, success came to the band members when they were still in their teens. But, for many others, success came as a result of years of honing their craft in garage bands, playing in dive bars, releasing songs with lo-fi production values and, only ever gaining attention by chance meetings with influential people who saw a glimmer of potential within the dusty image being presented on stage. Violent Femmes are one such band. They were formed by singer/guitarist, Gordon Gano, bassist, Brian Ritchie and drummer, Victor DeLorenzo in the early 1980s in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

They were “discovered” busking outside of an arena where Chrissy Hynde and The Pretenders were scheduled to perform. The band was invited to play a short acoustic set after the opening act had finished. With that exposure under their belts, they decided to release their debut album which was simply called, “Violent Femmes”. One of the first songs they released as a single was “Blister in the Sun”.

“Blister in the Sun” was a huge hit right off of the bat for Violent Femmes. It sold almost ten million copies alone and ended up being one of the most recognized songs from the entire 80s Alternative music scene. The opening chords of the songs should be familiar to anyone who listened to radio at all in the 80s. As for what the song is about……

I always thought the song was about Homosexuality with lyrics sung by a man, “Hey, big hands, you know you’re the one!”.

Some people have thought that the song is about masturbation (because of lyrics about “Body and beats, I stain my sheets”.

But, according to Gano, the song is about the difference in social/sexual confidence between those who are physically-endowed or attractive, compared with most of the rest of us who are merely average in those regards.

While not exactly a one-hit wonder, Violent Femmes have made a career from this one song. Even though they have played it thousands of times, Gano and Ritchie both say that they still get a charge each time the opening notes are struck and the audience cheers and sings along. Gano and Ritchie formed the band, broke up, re-formed, gone solo and have reunited many times. One of their most acrimonious splits occurred when Gano sold the rights to the song to Wendys Restaurants for use in a commercial, without consulting his band mates. Ritchie was furious with Gano because he was one of those musicians who created music for the sake of the Art involved and didn’t want his Art to be used to sell fast food. Gano countered by saying that they were no longer busking for quarters anymore and that Violent Femmes was as much a business operation, as it was a musical cooperative.

Gano and Ritchie reunited long enough to create a new version of “Blister in the Sun” called “Blister 2000” for inclusion on the absolutely awesome soundtrack to the movie called, “Grosse Point Blank” starring Minnie Driver, Dan Ackroyd and John Cusack. The original version of the song was re-recorded by the Violent Femmes and can be found on the soundtrack album, too.

English singer, Jarvis Cocker of the band, Pulp once introduced his band’s most famous song, “Common People” this way,

“If people only ever know us for this one song then, I am ok with that. I think it’s pretty good.”

The same sentiment can be easily applied to “Blister in the Sun” by Violent Femmes. It was a huge hit that helped define the band, as well as, an entire musical era. I am, also, pretty sure that if you ask the young buskers from Milwaukee, they would echo Cocker’s remarks when it came to their big hit. If you are able to craft, even one perfect gem of a song then, that is something to be proud of. So, without further delay, here is a song I am sure you all know, “Blister in the Sun” by Violent Femmes. Enjoy.

The link to the official video for the song, “Blister in the Sun” by Violent Femmes, can be found here.

The link to the video for the song “Blister in the Sun”, as performed live by Violent Femmes, can be found here.

The link to an interview about the song by the band, can be found here.

The link to the official website for Violent Femmes, can be found here.

Thanks, as always, to KEXP, for supporting the best bands/artists of all-time. The link to their wonderful website can be found here.

KEXP: The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History…Song #256: Breathe Me by Sia.

This list of songs is inspired by a list published by radio station, KEXP, from Seattle in 2010. For the most part, I will faithfully countdown from their list, from Song #500 to Song #1. So, when you see the song title listed as something like: “KEXP: Song #XXX”….it means that I am working off of the official KEXP list. If I post the song title as being: “KTOM: Song #xxx”….it means I have gone rogue and am inserting a song choice from my own personal list of tunes I really like. In either case, you are going to get to hear a great song and learn the story behind it. Finally, I am not a music critic nor a musician. I am a music fan and an armchair storyteller. Enough said! Let’s get on to today’s song.

KEXP: The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History.

Song #256: Breathe Me by Sia.

As we have journeyed through the first half of this terrific song list, we have discussed many ways in which the greatness of a song can be measured. For many of the songs on this list, their legacy is told, in part, by record sales and chart positions. But, for some songs; especially songs like, “Breathe Me” by Sia, the true measure can be found in the emotional impact the song has on an audience. “Breathe Me” by Sia is one of those rare and special songs that come along and changes the lives of those who hear it. There are many versions online of this song being performed by Sia and, in each case, if you read the comments, you will note an, almost, cult-like devotion from those whose lives have been touched by Sia’s words. “Breathe Me” connects with those who felt alone and lost. It makes them feel seen. In more than a few cases, it has saved lives, too.

Sia has had an interesting life and career. She was born in 1975 in Australia under the name, Sia Kate Isobelle Furler. She always was a singer. In her teenage years, she sang in Jazz ensembles and was noted for her smokey, sultry vocalizations. In the early 2000s, she travelled to England and joined a cool, chilled-out, Trip Hop group called “Zero 7”. While that group was never “her” group per se, she became the de-facto lead singer and, as a group, the band enjoyed some moderate success on the UK charts. After a few albums with “Zero 7”, Sia released some albums of her own and had some minor hits with “Breathe Me”, “Little Black Sandals” and “Soon We’ll Be Found”.

While this was not her most commercially-successful period as a musician, many fans claim that it is their favourite period of her career. During this time, she was writing songs based on her personal experiences as a woman and as a human being. “Breathe Me” is a song about Depression and mental well-being (something that Sia has struggled with, on and off, throughout her entire lifetime). “Little Black Sandals” is about women who find themselves trapped in a destructive relationship/marriage and the courage it takes to eventually leave. “Soon We Will Be Found” is a song that Sia usually performs while signing the lyrics herself, as she sings them. In all cases, fans felt their life stories being sung aloud in her lyrics and the connection she made with them instantly became deep and very personal.

But, on the other side of the microphone, the more Sia gained fans and fame, the more she grew uncomfortable with it all. Eventually, she opted to retire from active performing and, instead, she decided to focus on songwriting. This is when everything changed for her.

Sia wrote a song called “Titanium” that was released by David Guetta and that went on to be a huge dance hit. She, also, wrote songs for Rhianna, Beyonce and Christina Aguilera. With DJ Diplo and singer, The Weeknd, she had a huge hit called “Elastic Heart” that appeared on the soundtrack to the wildly popular movie trilogy, “The Hunger Games”.

The more success she had behind the scenes, the more audiences clamoured for her to return to the stage again. But, instead of happily complying, Sia found the spotlight’s glare to be too bright. So, she reached a compromise that has served as one of her trademarks and that was, Sia agreed to tour again but, only if her face could be covered and only if she could stand in the background while others (mainly modern dancers) performed in front. Consequently, she is known my many who discvovered her in this second phase of her career as the singer who wears two-toned wigs that cover her face or masks. These new fans were, initially, unaware of what Sia actually looked like which provided Sia with a modicum of the privacy she deemed necessary in order to do what she does so well.

In addition to her unusual performing style, Sia has become a champion of modern dance; showcasing dancers who interpret her music as she sings. In particular, Sia has formed a bond with a young girl named Maddy Zeigler. Zeigler has appeared in some highly controversial music videos for Sia songs such as “Chandelier” (with actor Shia LeBeouf), “Elastic Heart”, as well as, the autism-inspired movie, “Music”, which drew criticism for casting non-autistic performers (like Zeigler) in autistic roles.

But, regardless of the ups and downs of her personal life and her music career, Sia has always been noted for her chops when it comes to being a writer and singer of songs. The lady has pipes! Sia’s voice is among the best in the business when it comes to the power she possesses and the emotion she is able to convey. In the video you will see for “Breathe Me”, you will note her still strong Aussie accent. I will share two videos; one will be a live performance by Sia of this song which, as I have mentioned, is from the first half of her career. She will appear unmasked, at the front of the stage. Her comfort and easy rapport with the audience is obvious. When she starts the chorus for the first time by asking, “Be my friend?”, you will see the audience react with genuine affection. “Breathe Me” is a song about lonely moments and the power of being seen. As mentioned, this song has rescued people at the brink of despair and has saved lives, for sure. The second video is from the terrific television series, “Six Feet Under”, which used “Breathe Me” to soundtrack the closing scene in the entire series.

I am a big Sia fan. Even though her performing style can appear off-putting to some, I value her willingness to shine a light on the darker segments of our lives and, as Paul Simon once sang, to go “where the ragged people go”. She is a champion of the underdog because she has always believed herself to be one. She is an introvert in an extroverted world; navigating her way with a powerful voice and a soulful manner. She is a flawed human but, in a word, Sia is as real as they come. That sense of humanity is what resonates most and what makes her such an important person to so many. So, without further delay, here is Sia with one of the most emotional songs of all-time, “Breathe Me”. Enjoy.

The link to the video for the song, “Breathe Me” by Sia, can be found here.

The link to the video for the song, “Breathe Me” by Sia, as used in the TV show, “Six Feet Under”, can be found here.

The link to the video for the song, “Elastic Heart”, featuring Sia and dancer, Maddy Zeigler, can be found here. ***Note how Sia has her face hidden and stays toward the back of the stage.

The link to the video for the song, “Destiny” featuring Sia and Sophie Barker from the group, Zero 7, can be found here.

The link to the official website for Sia, can be found here.

The link to the official website for KEXP, can be found here.

KEXP: The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History…Song #257: With A Little Help From My Friends by The Beatles (+) covered by Joe Cocker.

This list of songs is inspired by a list published by radio station, KEXP, from Seattle in 2010. For the most part, I will faithfully countdown from their list, from Song #500 to Song #1. So, when you see the song title listed as something like: “KEXP: Song #XXX”….it means that I am working off of the official KEXP list. If I post the song title as being: “KTOM: Song #xxx”….it means I have gone rogue and am inserting a song choice from my own personal list of tunes I really like. In either case, you are going to get to hear a great song and learn the story behind it. Finally, I am not a music critic nor a musician. I am a music fan and an armchair storyteller. Enough said! Let’s get on to today’s song.

KEXP: The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History.

Song #257: With a Little Help from My Friends by The Beatles (+) Covered by Joe Cocker.

“With A Little Help From My Friends” is one of those songs that was great in its’ original form on the famous “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” album by “The Beatles” and equally as good when covered and re-worked under the hand of the raspy-throated one, Joe Cocker. It is the mark of a well-written song that it can be played and tweaked and delivered in various ways and always remain awesome to listen to.

The song was originally written by Paul McCartney and John Lennon. The intention, at the time of writing, was that the song would be sung by Ringo Starr. It was an unwritten rule among the members of The Beatles that Ringo would be given one song to sing on each album. This process resulted in songs like, “Don’t Pass Me By”, “Octopuses Garden” and “Yellow Submarine”. “With A Little Help From My Friends” was the second track on the “Sgt. Pepper” album and ended up being one of the most popular songs to emerge from an album loaded with notable songs such as “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”, “A Day in the Life” and “When I’m Sixty-Four”, among other stellar and innovative tracks. In many ways, “With a Little Help From My Friends” ended up becoming as much Ringo Starr’s signature song as it did, a Beatles song. After The Beatles broke up, Ringo Starr continued to perform and always ended up closing his shows with that song; usually, accompanied by an all-star cast of guest musicians which, on occasion, even included an ex-Beatle or two.

One year after “Sgt. Pepper” came out, “With a Little Help From My Friends” was re-recorded by singer, Joe Cocker” At that time, Cocker was known a more of a cover-singer than he was a singer of original tunes. But, none-the-less, his husky-voiced singing quality gave him a soulful singing sound and helped turn “With a Little Help From My Friends” from a Pop song, as The Beatles had intended, into more of a slower, soul-infused Blues song. Cocker’s version of the song is as powerful, as The Beatles version is playful. It is nothing short of a re-invention of a classic song into something new and fresh and completely his own. More importantly, Joe Cocker got to sing this song at the original Woodstock Music Festival and was recorded doing so as part of the official movie/documentary released about the festival. So, even though this song is definitely a Beatles song, it is the Joe Cocker version that helped shape the soundtrack of the times as “the Summer of Love” was dawning. His version of “With a Little Help From My Friends” also served as the theme for the popular tv show, “The Wonder Years”, too.

Joe Cocker went on to have a few other big hits including, “You Are So Beautiful”, “Up Where We Belong (with Jennifer Warnes)” and one of my all-time favourite songs, “You Can Leave Your Hat On” (from the original motion picture soundtrack to “9 1/2 Weeks”). Joe Cocker has earned Grammy Awards over the course of his career and was nominated to “The Order of the British Empire”. Ironically enough, Cocker has never even been nominated for induction to “The Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame”, let alone, inducted. He consistently ranks as one of the Rock Hall’s top omissions.

The Beatles, on the other hand, have done just fine in the aftermath of the release of their song, “With a Little Help From My Friends”. Their legacy as a band of unparalleled creativity and success is often stated as being cemented with the release of a series of tremendously important albums, of which, “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” is hailed as being one of the best and most innovative of them all. Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr still perform regularly to adoring audiences and Starr, in particular, still brings down the house with each rendition of “With a Little Help From My Friends”.

All in all, the story of “With a Little Help From My Friends” is one of the most positive stories in this entire countdown. It remains a song that is tremendously popular in all of its’ iterations; making it a winner for The Beatles, for Joe Cocker and for all of us, as fans. As you may have predicted, I have both videos for you. Please enjoy.

The link to the video for the song, “With A Little Help From My Friends” by The Beatles, can be found here.

The link to the video of the song, “With A Little Help From My Friends” as recorded live by Joe Cocker, can be found here. ***As covers go, this is one of the best of all-time! Wow! What a star turn for Joe Cocker at Woodstock.

The link to the official website for The Beatles, can be found here.

The link to the official website for Joe Cocker, can be found here.

Thanks, as always, to KEXP, for playing the best original and cover versions of all-time. The link to their website can be found here.

KEXP: The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History…Song #258: Pump It Up by Elvis Costello and the Attractions.

This list of songs is inspired by a list published by radio station, KEXP, from Seattle in 2010. For the most part, I will faithfully countdown from their list, from Song #500 to Song #1. So, when you see the song title listed as something like: “KEXP: Song #XXX”….it means that I am working off of the official KEXP list. If I post the song title as being: “KTOM: Song #xxx”….it means I have gone rogue and am inserting a song choice from my own personal list of tunes I really like. In either case, you are going to get to hear a great song and learn the story behind it. Finally, I am not a music critic nor a musician. I am a music fan and an armchair storyteller. Enough said! Let’s get on to today’s song.

KEXP: The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History.

Song #258: Pump It Up by Elvis Costello and the Attractions.

In the whole history of music being made, the way that people have listened to it has evolved to suit the times. This includes everything from Mozart giving private concerts in the Royal Court in Vienna, to the very first, scratchy grammophonic recordings at the turn of the century, to music played live over radio during WWII, to The Beatles making waves by appearing on The Ed Sillivan Show, to the digitization of music on CDs and now, to on-demand streaming via services such as Spotify and YouTube. The story of the song, “Pump It Up” by “Elvis Costello and the Attractions” is an interesting chapter in the evolution of how we interact with those we move and groove to; a story that stretches waaaay back to one of the legendary early figures in Rock n’ Roll and then, waaaay forward to the modern day songs of one of the cool new kids on the musical block. How we consume our music has constantly changed over time, as “Pump It Up” so aptly describes.

In the late 1970s, two men named Dave Robinson and Jake Riviera formed a partnership and started a company called, Stiff Records. This independent record label developed a reputation for discovering new, emerging talent from the Punk, New Wave, Reggae/Ska scene that was exploding in the UK. At one point, they were managing musical acts such as “Madness”, “Ian Drury and the Blockheads”, “The Pogues”, “Devo”, “The Damned”, “The Dubliners”, “Motorhead”, “Graham Parker”, “Nick Lowe”, “Lena Lovich”, “The Feelies” and many more. Arguably, the most successful act in their stable of talent was Elvis Costello. The song, “Pump It Up” was released from his second album called, “This Year’s Model” and became one of his signature songs and one of the biggest hit records released by Stiff Records.

One of the reasons this is noteworthy is that Stiff Records introduced/made popular a distribution concept that we take for granted these days but which, at the time, was quite revolutionary and that was the idea of releasing compilation albums. In essence, Stiff Records would package one or two songs each, from a dozen or so of their acts and release it all as one big album. The idea was based on how jukeboxes were constructed and stocked. In this way, record buyers could buy Stiff Records “best music” all in one album. To support these compilation albums, Stiff Records organized music tours by five groups at a time. These musical caravans became known as “The Stiff Tours” and were unique in their construction. Stiff Records would enlist five singers and sign them for the tour but, they would not sign their bandmates. This meant that a group of session players would often play with multiple singers during the tour in a standardized backup band format. In any case, the Stiff Tours that Elvis Costello appeared on were noted for the extent of the debauchery that occured. According to Costello, each concert on the tour would end with all of the musicians performing “Ian Drury’s” song, “Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll” together on stage. Costello noted that there was no shortage of sex and drugs and alcohol available on these tours and that, after awhile, he would become numb to the stimulation he was experiencing. The song “Pump It Up” is about having to work hard during these tours to maintain his emotional and physical sensory capabilities. The rhythm of the song is hard-driving; which is reflective of the effort it took to stay “up” as the tour unfolded.

But, the story doesn’t end there.

The lyrics to “Pump It Up” were modelled after the lyrics to Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues” (which you may recall was the song where Dylan stands with cue cards in a hotel alleyway, flipping them aside as he sings lines such as,

“Johnny’s in the basement,

mixing up the medicine.

I’m on the pavement,

thinking ’bout the government….”.

The lyrics to “Pump It Up” were built upon the multi-syllabic rhyming cadence that Dylan employed.

“I’ve been on tenderhooks,

ending in dirty looks.

Listening to Muzak,

thinking ’bout this and that.”

When asked about to similarities between the songs, Costello said that music is about “playing new games with old toys” and, as such, he was not upset when “Pump It Up” ended up being the song that became featured in a modern day lawsuit about copyright infringement from one of the biggest YouTube/Pop stars of 2021!

When my girls were a few years younger, they had an after-school routine that saw them come home from school, grab a few snacks and then, settle in to watch a series of half-hour comedies on the Disney Channel. One of the shows they liked to watch was called, “Bizaardvark”. The concept for this show was borrowed directly from the way in which many young people interact with music and media today. The show starred two girls named Olivia Rodrigo and Madison Hu. These girls, along with their castmates, were YouTube content creators. So, in each episode, there was always talk about how many “Views” their taped show has achieved, responding to viewer comments and, of course, the never-ending quest to create new and fresh content to air.

Fast forward a bit, Disney has a long tradition of cultivating stars across multiple media (think waaay back to Annette Funicello and Frankie Avalon or Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake). So, it was really no surprise when “Bizaardvark” star, “Olivia Rodrigo” suddenly released an album of songs and started topping the music and video charts. One of the songs she released was called, “Brutal”. I will play this song in the below. When you listen to it, after the first twenty seconds or so, you will note that it uses the exact same musical structure that “Pump It Up” does. It is brazenly obvious that the backbone of the song has been used before. Since sampling is an accepted thing, most people assumed that Rodrigo had received permission to lift the music from “Pump It Up”, from Elvis Costello and from Stiff Records. She had not. There was a lawsuit filed for copyright infringement against Rodrigo. The lawsuit was settled out of court. When asked for comment, Costello merely smiled and repeated his line about music just being “new games with old toys”.

So, as you can see, “Pump It Up” by Elvis Costello and the Attractions has been at the centre of much action when it comes to the evolution of how we consume our music. He was involved in first compilation albums and subsequent, supporting tours. His song, “Pump it Up” chronicles what those tours were like. And now, he found himself at the centre of a lawsuit filed against one of YouTube and Disney’s biggest stars, “Olivia Rodrigo”. That is a lot to digest for such a simple, hard-driving, boppy tune! Let’s get to listening, shall we?

Here is Elvis Costello and the Attractions with “Pump It Up”. Enjoy.

The link to the video for the song, “Pump It Up” by Elvis Costello and the Attractions, can be found here.

The link to the video for the song, “Brutal” by Olivia Rodrigo, can be found here. ***Note how she uses the same/similar guitar riff after the twenty second mark, as Costello uses in “Pump It Up”.

The link to the official website for Elvis Costello and the Attractions, can be found here.

The link to the official website for Olivia Rodrigo, can be found here.

Thanks, as always, to KEXP for helping to inspire the writing of this post. The link to their wonderful website can be found here.

KEXP: The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History…Song #259: Freedom by Beyonce.

This list of songs is inspired by a list published by radio station, KEXP, from Seattle in 2010. For the most part, I will faithfully countdown from their list, from Song #500 to Song #1. So, when you see the song title listed as something like: “KEXP: Song #XXX”….it means that I am working off of the official KEXP list. If I post the song title as being: “KTOM: Song #xxx”….it means I have gone rogue and am inserting a song choice from my own personal list of tunes I really like. In either case, you are going to get to hear a great song and learn the story behind it. Finally, I am not a music critic nor a musician. I am a music fan and an armchair storyteller. Enough said! Let’s get on to today’s song.

KEXP: The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History.

Song #259: Freedom by Beyonce.

“Freedom” by Beyonce is not so much a song as it is an exorcism; casting out the historical demons of racial injustice, martial infidelity and lack of control for women. “Freedom” comes from her multiple award-winning album, “Lemonade”, which was rated as being the #1 album of the entire decade from 2010-2020. It is a declarative statement of belief in herself as a singer in control of her music, a woman in control of her place in the world, a wife who offers fidelity to her husband and accepts nothing less in return and, finally, as a person of colour in a world where that has, so often, been seen as signalling a flawed character.

The album, “Lemonade” is an intense affair from the first track to the last but, it is the power of her personal beliefs that she pours into each track that raises it up beyond the norm. Each track on the album is borne from her own experiences or else, those of the women in her life or those of “her people”….Black people. The songs on “Lemonade” include spoken word poetry, snippets of recipes from her family, samples from a variety of songs made famous by white musicians that were originally written by Blacks (such as the opening salvo from “When the Levee Breaks” by Led Zeppelin), a combination of genres ranging from Funk, to Pop, to Soul and Hip Hop. I usually cringe when I hear an artist proclaim that their latest project is “deeply personal” but, in the case of Beyonce and “Lemonade”, she is absolutely correct and we are the richer for her having bared her soul as she had.

The impetus for this album came from her reaction to a bout of unfaithfulness from her husband, Jay-Z. The entire incident caused Beyonce to question her ideas about marriage and to examine, in her words, the inter-generational impact of racial injustice/slavery on the relationships Black men have with Black women. Needless to say, Beyonce did a lot of soul-searching in her past and her present and, as a result, she dedicated her future to being one where she was in positions of power, never weakness anymore. The song, “Freedom”, in particular, tackles the very notion of slavery, as a defining moment in American History but one that she refuses to allow to define her any longer. She performs this song with Hip Hop titan, Kendrick Lamar. He is Hip Hop’s version of a Leonard Cohen; a poet turned singer and musician, who speaks from the heart about concepts lofty and, at once, familiar to everyone growing up Black in America. The result of this collaboration is one of the most intense and ferocious songs you are likely to hear for quite some time.

The video that you will be seeing was when she and Kendrick Lamar opening the B.E.T. Awards. Beyonce, also, performed this song during her Half-time performance at the Superbowl. Afterwards, she found herself targeted by Right-wing media/talking heads for her support of Black Lives Matter, just as that Movement was starting to make its presence felt. Several Police Unions publicly called for a boycott of her album, “Lemonade”. They were unsuccessful. I doubt Beyonce gave their comments a single moment of her time.

Beyonce Knowles is, arguably, the most powerful and in control, woman in entertainment today. That she has risen to occupy that throne is not a fluke. She is a Queen in a singer’s clothing. Without further delay, here is one of the most incredible performances you are likely to see for awhile, “Freedom” by “Beyonce” from the album of the decade, “Lemonade”. Enjoy.

The link to the video for the song, “Freedom” by Beyonce, can be found here.

The link to the official website for Beyonce, can be found here.

Thanks to KEXP for, as always, helping to inspire the writing of this post. The link to their wonderful website can be found here.

KEXP: The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History…Song #260: Rock the Casbah by The Clash.

This list of songs is inspired by a list published by radio station, KEXP, from Seattle in 2010. For the most part, I will faithfully countdown from their list, from Song #500 to Song #1. So, when you see the song title listed as something like: “KEXP: Song #XXX”….it means that I am working off of the official KEXP list. If I post the song title as being: “KTOM: Song #xxx”….it means I have gone rogue and am inserting a song choice from my own personal list of tunes I really like. In either case, you are going to get to hear a great song and learn the story behind it. Finally, I am not a music critic nor a musician. I am a music fan and an armchair storyteller. Enough said! Let’s get on to today’s song.

KEXP: The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History.

Song #260: Rock the Casbah by The Clash.

“Rock the Casbah” was released from an album by The Clash called “Combat Rock”. The song is somewhat unique among Clash songs because of the way it was written. Normally, most songs released by The Clash were Joe Strummer/Mick Jones collaborations. But, in the case of “Rock the Casbah”, the musical structure was created first by drummer, Topper Headon. He found himself alone in the studio one day and started playing around with a piano segment and decided to record it. He, then, recorded his normal drum track and several other instrumental tracks as well. When everyone else showed up at the studio, Headon played them the completed instrumental version of, what ended up being, “Rock the Casbah”. The rest of the band liked what they heard but they rejected Headon’s lyrics, which were about his girlfriend at the time. Instead, Joe Strummer spent a few hours alone and wrote the lyrics to what is, arguably, one of the most well-known songs in the entire Clash catalogue.

Like many songs from The Clash, “Rock the Casbah” is based on real life events. In this case, if you can believe it, the lyrics for this song were inspired because of the way the winds of History were blowing in a country called Iran. Iran is located in the area of the world known as The Middle East. It has been an Islamic country for many centuries. If you know anything about the religion of Islam, you will be aware that there are many aspects to it that are quite beautiful. But, like all matters pertaining to religion, from all regions of the world,(including where we live), there are always those who take a harder line when it comes to their interpretation of the laws or rules for their particular religion. After World War II, Iran was lead by a man known in western society as The Shah of Iran. The Shah married a lady who presented as glamourous, in the mold of a Jackie Kennedy. The very broad strokes of the Shah’s reign saw Iran move away from strict orthodox Islamic teachings and laws, to a more western-influenced, secular nation. One of the most dramatic moments in this transformation occured when the Shah’s wife appeared at a function without wearing the traditional veil worn by all women in accordance with strict Islamic law. Soon, women were appearing in short skirts, men were wearing casual slacks and open neck shirts, schools were allowing women to enroll and so on. Iranian society was becoming cosmopolitan.

But, the Shah’s reign was also characterized by the manner in which he enriched his own bank account from the national treasury. As public opinion began to sour on the Shah and his family, Islamic fundamentalist clerics (who had been appalled at many of The Shah’s modernizations) started to actively campaign to overthrow him. If you know your History at all then, you may know that an uprising eventually happened, The Shah fled from Iran and an Islamic cleric named the Ayatollah Khomeini became ruler. In accordance with Islamic laws, all modernizations enacted by The Shah were declared illegal, as were, all activities of any type that contained any hint of influence from western civilizations. One of the big areas that faced a crackdown was in the playing/listening to music from the West.

“Rock the Casbah” is Joe Strummer’s take on the situation that was unfolding in Iran. “Rock the Casbah” deals with a King who seeks to ban music but, who ends up being defeated, time and time again, by those who believe in the power of Rock n’ Roll. The song is a little cartoonish but, the idea of the power of music to move the masses, as it were, is strong and forceful. As an ironic aside, several decades later, when the U.S. invaded Iran’s neighbour, Iraq, as part of a campaign known as “Operation Desert Storm”, the phrase “Rock the Casbah” was painted on to some of the bombs the US pilots dropped on Iraq. This action mortified Joe Strummer who always believed in the power of music to unite people, not hurt them.

In the historical DNA of many nations, there are cyclical spasms of individual liberty and freedom, contrasted with periods of societal restrictions that often appear, dressed in the uniforms of the religious and the pious. As you read these words today, the Taliban are re-introducing harsh Islamic law unto the citizens of Afghanistan. Just like in the Iran of the 1970s, all traces of western influences are being scrubbed clean from Afghani life. That includes Rock n’ Roll, too. So, as a symbolic recognition of what in Iran and what is happening now, in Afghanistan, I present “Rock the Casbah” by “The Clash”…..not as a way of putting down The Taliban but, in fact, the opposite, which is maintaining Hope via the power of music. Many blessings are given to all those involved. May they find safety and peace.

The link to the video for the song, “Rock the Casbah” by The Clash, can be found here.

The link to the official website for The Clash, can be found here.

Thanks, as always, to KEXP, for supporting the power of music to inspire others for the greater good. The link to their wonderful website can be found here.

KTOM: The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History…Song #261: Don’t Fear the Reaper by Blue Oyster Cult.

This list of songs is inspired by a list published by radio station, KEXP, from Seattle in 2010. For the most part, I will faithfully countdown from their list, from Song #500 to Song #1. So, when you see the song title listed as something like: “KEXP: Song #XXX”….it means that I am working off of the official KEXP list. If I post the song title as being: “KTOM: Song #xxx”….it means I have gone rogue and am inserting a song choice from my own personal list of tunes I really like. In either case, you are going to get to hear a great song and learn the story behind it. Finally, I am not a music critic nor a musician. I am a music fan and an armchair storyteller. Enough said! Let’s get on to today’s song.

KTOM: The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History.

Song #261: Don’t Fear the Reaper by Blue Oyster Cult.

If you tune into “Classic Rock” radio even a little bit, chances are that you will catch “Don’t Fear the Reaper” by Blue Oyster Cult being played. This song is easily one of the signature songs in the soundtrack of classic rock songs from the 1970s. The funny thing about “Don’t Fear the Reaper” is how misunderstood it was upon its release and how influential it became, in a cultural sense, as time went by in the 1980s and 90s. When Blue Oyster Cult first thought of this song, their classic lineup consisted of Donald “Buck Dharma” Roeser on lead guitar and vocals, Eric Bloom, also on guitar and vocals, Allen Lanier on keyboards, Joe Bouchard on bass and Albert Bouchard on drums.

The band went through many iterations when it came to their name before starting to achieve success as “Blue Oyster Cult”. Their sound was heavy and hard; causing them to be associated with other US rockers such as Alice Cooper and Ted Nugent. In the mid-1970s, they released “Don’t Fear the Reaper” which, although it never reached #1, it became their signature song and has gone on to be one pf the most popular classic rock songs of all time.

The song was written by “Buck Dharma” Roeser and was meant to talk about true love being something that goes on for infinity; even after death. The song was never meant as a love song per se but, instead, it was meant to discuess the eternal power of Love. However, “Don’t Fear the Reaper”, with its lines about “Romeo and Juliet” spawned a belief that the band was actually promoting suicide pacts as a way to make Love eternal for couples. During the backlash that followed, many Christian organizations, along with various government officials all took their turns accusing the band of promoting suicide with their music and, as such, sought to have them banned from the airwaves. It was only after much push-back from Roeser and the band that folks began to see the song differently and the tempest subsided.

In the years that followed, “Don’t Fear the Reaper” cast a long shadow over the cultural affairs of the US in two very profound yet, unique ways. The first instance came with the release of the book, “The Stand” by prolific author, Stephen King. If you have that book, open it to the front and you will see the lyrics posted there. There was something about the concept of the infinite nature of Love that helped King come up with the idea for, arguably, his most famous book.

The second time “Don’t Fear the Reaper” became a cutural touchstone was the result of the fact that it is one of the very few successful songs in modern music history to prominently feature the use of a cowbell. The use of a cowbell became the focal point in one of the most memorable sktetches ever on Saturday Night Live, in which comedian, Will Ferrell plays the cowbell player from Blue Oyster Cult who is continuously exhorted to “Play more cowbell”, much to the chagrin of the band as they attempt to play the song. I will include that clip in the videos below.

“Don’t Fear the Reaper” contains one of the most recognizable opening riffs in all of rock. Please enjoy every second of it as it plays and, of course, keep your ears tuned for that cowbell! Here is Blue Oyster Cult with “Don’t Fear the Reaper”. Enjoy.

The link to the video for the song, “Don’t Fear the Reaper” by Blue Oyster Cult, can be found here.

The link to the video for the Saturday Night Live comedy sketch, “More Cowbell”, can be found here.

The link to official website for Blue Oyster Cult, can be found here.

KEXP: The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History…Song #262: I’ve Been Loving You Too Long by Otis Redding.

This list of songs is inspired by a list published by radio station, KEXP, from Seattle in 2010. For the most part, I will faithfully countdown from their list, from Song #500 to Song #1. So, when you see the song title listed as something like: “KEXP: Song #XXX”….it means that I am working off of the official KEXP list. If I post the song title as being: “KTOM: Song #xxx”….it means I have gone rogue and am inserting a song choice from my own personal list of tunes I really like. In either case, you are going to get to hear a great song and learn the story behind it. Finally, I am not a music critic nor a musician. I am a music fan and an armchair storyteller. Enough said! Let’s get on to today’s song.

KEXP: The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History.

Song #262: I’ve Been Loving You Too Long by Otis Redding.

Otis Redding definitely rates as being one of the best Soul and R&B singers of all-time. He had a huge hit with “(Sittin’ On) The Dock Of The Bay”, as well as, “These Arms of Mine”, “Knock on Wood” (with Carla Thomas) and “Try A Little Tenderness”. He was inducted into the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame, along with winning two Grammy Awards. However, despite the accolades that are generally thrown toward him, Otis Redding had a far different career than most may realize. Here is his story.

Like so many Black musicians in the 1950s, Otis Redding cut his musical teeth singing Gospel songs in Churches. As he began performing on stage, he played The Chitlin’ Circuit, where Black performers were welcome and could feel safe on stage. Even when he began recording songs to be released as real records, the bulk of his work was with Stax Records, who worked with Black musicians. Booker T. and the MGs were the house band at Stax Records and, as such, they routinely filled in as session players for whoever happened to be the singer at the time. So, when Otis Redding recorded his song, “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long”, it was produced by Steve Cropper and backed by Booker T. and the MGs.

The thing about this was that, even though “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long” became Redding’s first hit, he never considered himself a singer for all of the people. In practical reality and, certainly in his mind, he was a Black singer who sang for Black audiences. Consequently, Redding never grew rich because of this song. In fact, when he was booked to perform with other Black performers at a concert to be recorded at The Apollo Theatre in NYC, the cost of the sheet music for his band outweighed the amount he and the band were being paid. They ended up staying at the cheapest, fleabag hotel they could find. Ben E. King even offered to help out financially by covering the cost of the sheet music for them.

The event that brought Otis Redding into the musical spotlight in all of its entirety was when he, along with Booker T. and the MGs appeared at The Monteray Jazz Festival. Commenting afterwards, Booker T. noted, with awe, that it was the group’s best ever performance but, more than that, they were awe-stuck at being so well-received by such a diverse audience which included many headlining musical peers such as Jimi Hendrix.

Not long after breaking through to the mainstream at The Monteray Jazz Festival, Otis Redding recorded a new song called, “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay”. This song was a departure from the ballad-heavy songs that had characterized his career to that point. Many of the folks at Stax Records felt that it sounded so unlike him, in fact, that recording it would be a mistake. Otis Redding felt otherwise. He stated that he wanted to expand his musical range and felt that this new song was just the vehicle to do that. Three days after recording “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay”, Otis Redding, alomg with several others, were killed in a small engine airplane crash in Wisconsin. He was 27 years old at the time.

“(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay” was released posthumously and became the very first such release to ever achieve #1 status on the Pop Charts. All of his Grammy Awards and inductions to various music Halls of Fame all came after he was dead, as well. Otis Redding was very much a performer whose career was on the rise. There is no telling what wonderful music he may have created had fate not intervened in such a cruel manner. Luckily, we have a list of excellent songs to enjoy and remember him by. Included in that list is his first big hit, “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long”.

Ladies and Gentlemen, here is the late, great, Mr. Otis Redding, with “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long”. What a soulful voice! Enjoy.

The link to the video for the song, “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long” by Otis Redding, can be found here.

The link to the official website for Otis Redding, can be found here.

Thanks, as always, to KEXP for playing the greatest songs by the greatest singers and bands of all-time. The link to their wonderful website can be found here.