Keepin’ It Classy: Composition #31/50: The Rite of Spring by Igor Stravinsky

Mandatory Credit: Photo by Matteo Chinellato/Shutterstock (7450793a) The cemetery of San Michele is located in the homonymous island in the Venetian Lagoon, located between Venice and Murano The San Michele Cemetery, Venice, Italy – 22 Nov 2016

The city of Venice, Italy is divided into six districts or sestieri. The northernmost of these is called Cannaregio. This district got its name because it contained the main canal that formed a transportation corridor in and out of the city proper to the mainland. Cannaregio is Italian for “Royal Canal”. In a lagoon just outside of Cannaregio lies the Isle of San Michele. Several centuries ago, the Isle of San Michele was designated for use as a cemetery. Over the years, many famous people have been buried there. One of those whose gravesite can be found there is Russian composer Igor Stravinsky. Not far from his gravesite is another one that contains the remains of Russian Arts impresario Sergei Diaghilev. Forever united in life, they remain united in death as well. Today we shall learn the story of how they came to know each other and how that relationship resulted in one of the most famous moments in modern music history: the Paris Riot at the premiere of Stravinsky’s symphonic opera, “The Rite of Spring”.

Sergei Diaghilev

In the late 1800s, the Diaghilev family was one of the most prominent families in all of Russia when it came to their involvement in The Arts. They hosted concerts at their estate every other Tuesday. They funded new ballets, symphonies and exhibits by all of the most popular writers, poets, painters and sculptors that Russia had to offer. In this environment, young Sergei Diaghilev grew up. He was encouraged to learn to play the piano and was giving public recitals of his own original works by the time he was only fifteen years of age. But more than possessing a love of music, Sergei Diaghilev possessed an amazing ability to organize the exhibits and concerts that happened at his family’s estate. In time, Diaghilev took his organizational talents beyond the walls of his home and began organizing concerts and art exhibitions throughout Russia. In doing so, he came into contact with a large group of talented young dancers, composers, writers and artists. In order to help promote the work of his new-found friends, Diaghilev founded an influential Arts magazine called Mir iskusstva or World of Art. Diaghilev became known as one of Russia’s leading promoters of The Arts, which earned him the protection and support of Czar Nicholas II. In time, Diaghilev wanted to extend the reach of Russian Arts so he began organizing art exhibits in Paris, France. When those went well, Diaghilev decided to bring Russian music into the cultural heart of Europe. To do this, he contacted one of the young, rising stars of Russian classical music, his friend Igor Stravinsky. Stravinsky accepted Diaghilev’s commission and began work on a symphonic opera/ballet that came to be called “The Rite of Spring”. What happened next did nothing less than change the course of modern music.

As the early 1900s progressed, the Arts scene in Russia was filled with young artists in all disciplines who possessed a thorough grounding in Arts theories and traditions but who also wished to bring their own unique vision to bear in the new works that they were creating. It was a time of great creative innovation in the Arts, regardless of the discipline in question. Igor Stravinsky, along with fellow composers Dimitri Shostakovich and Sergei Prokofiev, formed the new vanguard of compositional thought when it came to creating symphonies, operas and ballets. Stravinsky believed that his work should be steeped in history but performed with unbridled imagination. Thus, the creative vision of Igor Stravinsky seemed a perfect match for the promotional vision of Sergei Diaghilev.

In composing “The Rite of Spring”, Igor Stravinsky drew upon cultural folklore for a story about the coming of spring and the rebirth of nature that accompanies the change of seasons. As you may remember from a previous post (which you can read here), the song “Carol of the Bells” was originally based upon a Ukrainian folk song called “The Little Swallow”, which also heralded the coming of spring and offered blessings for a good growing season and harvest to follow. So, by tapping into the coming of spring as the foundation for his new work, Stravinsky was bringing forth one of Russia’s most cherished and time-honoured aspects of its folklore. There was nothing controversial in this at all.

Composer Igor Stravinsky

However, Igor Stravinsky had no intention of simply creating a peaceful, pastoral composition for his own debut in Paris. In his mind, this was his golden opportunity to make a bold artistic statement. So, Igor Stravinsky decided to create a musical work called a symphonic opera ballet. What this means is that his work would have a unified theme running over two acts. The first act would be a traditional symphony and opera combination. In the second act, the visual element would change into a ballet. Both acts would tell a continuous story about the birth of spring. As he began his work, Stravinsky surrounded himself with the most creative people he could find. Thus, Maria Pavlova and Vaslav Nijinsky were hired as dancers and choreographers. The stage design and costumes were made by a man named Nicholas Roerich. The world of opera in Paris at the time was one in which tradition and refinement were the orders of the day. However, these young Russian artists had something else in mind when they created all aspects of “The Rite of Spring”. It was decided early on that this production would turn everything the world knew about music and dance inside out and upside down.

These dancers don’t look like ballet dancers to me! They didn’t look that way to Parisians, either.

With the luxury of retrospection, the term avant-garde would come to be coined to describe what Igor Stravinsky and his friends unleashed upon an unsuspecting Parisian audience that day. There was almost nothing about “The Rite of Spring” that conformed to any preconceived notions of what a symphony, opera or ballet should be like. Stravinsky believed his work to be grand and glorious. Fellow composer Giacomo Puccini, who was in attendance that evening, called it “a cacophony of noise”. The other members of the audience didn’t know what to make of a score in which notes clashed and competed for attention instead of working together in harmony as they were used to hearing. “The Rite of Spring” was not what they were expecting, which was exactly what Igor Stravinsky and friends had intended. Although this debut performance of “The Rite of Spring” was met with boos and jeers and with objects hurled toward the stage (which resulted in the Paris police being summoned), the concert never stopped for a single second. In the end, what saved Stravinsky’s performance, as well as Diaghilev’s promotional reputation, was that there were enough savvy Parisians there who came to realize that what, at first, seemed to be nothing more than noisy confusion was actually a revolutionary way of producing music as Art. While traditionalists balked at what Diaghilev, Stravinsky and company had achieved, history would render a more flattering judgment. “The Rite of Spring” is now viewed as a turning point in the world of modern music because it was the moment when someone proved that the “rules” of musical composition needn’t be confining and limiting. In fact, the exact opposite was possible. The foundational aspects of composing operas and ballets could be used to springboard in all sorts of new and interesting directions. Throughout the history of music, there have been moments of courage such as this (think about Bob Dylan going “electric” at the Newport Jazz Festival). Doing what is comfortable and expected is often the easier route for creators to take when creating new work. It takes courage to go against the grain on principle, but that is what Sergei Diaghilev believed was the necessary next step for Russian Arts at home and around the world. His sponsorship of Igor Stravinsky’s seminal work was to be just the beginning of a brave new world for Art everywhere. It was a revolutionary idea. But then came the real Revolution back home in Russia, and everything changed for people like Diaghilev and all those involved in the Russian Arts community.

As we saw in a previous post, the rise of Lenin and then Stalin to the top political post in Russia cast a pall over everyone who had enjoyed free rein under the Imperialist regime of Czar Nicholas II. Those who opted to remain in Russia were expected to follow the exacting dictates of Josef Stalin or, as happened to Dimtri Shostakovich, face the consequences. Personal creative freedom quickly gave way to The Arts being used to promote patriotic nationalism. Directors of The Bolshoi Ballet stopped performing anything remotely artistically innovative and original and instead, only put on shows that were deemed to be “good Russian productions”. If you stayed in Russia, like Sergei Prokofiev did, you created new work that conformed to what was expected and nothing more. Avoiding the wrath of those in positions of power was now the primary motivating factor behind most artistic decisions made by the Arts community in Russia under Stalin.

Not long after Stalin assumed control, Sergei Diaghilev was summoned home. He refused to return. As a consequence, he was officially condemned as a “bourgeois intellectual” in perpetuity, meaning he could never return to his homeland while Stalin was in power. Now considered an “artistic refugee”, Diaghilev centered his promotional efforts around The Ballets Russes and lived out the remainder of his days arranging for new works to be brought to international stages. One of the consequences of living in exile was that acquiring financial backing became difficult. He was no longer able to count on the support of patrons such as Czar Nicholas II (who had been killed during the Revolution). One of the people he would come into conflict with because of financial considerations was his friend, Igor Stravinksy.

A poster advertising a recording of the concert Stravinsky conducted at Massey Hall at age 85.

Like Diaghilev, Igor Stravinsky refused his own summons back to Russia. He knew that he could never put the necessary shackles on his creativity that would be required in order to return home. So, he remained abroad for the remainder of his days as well. Unfortunately, Stravinsky’s income dwindled to almost nothing after losing access to Diaghilev’s patronage. Diaghilev never wanted to cut off Stravinsky’s income, but he could barely afford to mount the small productions that he was doing, let alone continue to provide his friend with an allowance. As a result, Igor Stravinsky spent the rest of his days adrift. He lived in Switzerland for a while and then moved with his family into the home of Coco Chanel in France. While there, he agreed to sell the rights to all of his piano-based compositions to the Pleyel Piano Company for inclusion in their line of player pianos. (It was a Pleyel piano that Frederic Chopin had shipped to the island of Majorca when he stayed there with writer/partner, George Sand. You can read a post about that here). Eventually, Stravinsky immigrated to the United States and became a U.S. citizen. His final opera featured the poet Dylan Thomas as librettist. Igor Stravinsky’s final public concert was as conductor of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra during a performance at Massey Hall. It is a small world.

Sergei Diaghilev and Igor Stravinsky

As the final wish of both Igor Stravinsky and Sergei Diaghilev, they were buried in the “Russian corner” of the cemetery on the Isle of San Michele near Venice, Italy. The Isle of San Michele is now their home. Even in death, the pair continue to make bold artistic statements.

The link to the video of the composition “The Rite of Spring” by Igor Stravinsky can be found here.

The link to the official website for Igor Stravinsky can be found here.

The link to the official website for Les Ballets Russes, founded by Sergei Diaghilev, can be found here.

The link to the official website for the Isle of San Michele can be found here.

***As always, all original content contained within this post remains the sole property of the author. No portion of this post shall be reblogged, copied or shared without the express written consent of the author. ©2023

Reader’s Choice: Song #26/250: Puff the Magic Dragon by Peter, Paul and Mary

Paul Stookey, Mary Travers and Peter Yarrow

“Puff the Magic Dragon” was a #1 hit song for the 1960s folk group Peter, Paul and Mary. It is a children’s song about a dragon and a small boy who maintain a strong friendship until one day when the boy leaves (by death or simply by going on with his life). It is a song about memories and sadness and loss, but, as well, it is about the happiness and joy of knowing someone whose heart you hold dear. I could end the post at this point. Perhaps I should because throughout the history of their career as a singing group, the members of Peter, Paul and Mary have been asked a lot about this song. The questions asked have always implied that there must be more to the story of this song than simply being about a rascally dragon named Puff. But, no matter who was doing the asking, the answers were always the same…”Puff The Magic Dragon” is an innocent children’s song. And thus, it must be so.

The origins of this song date back to a poem written by Ogden Nash entitled “The Tale of the Custard Dragon”. The story goes that one evening a friend of Peter Yarrow’s named Leonard Lipton was heading over to attend a dinner party. Arriving too early, Lipton stepped into a public library to kill some time. While there, he decided to browse some books of poetry. In doing so, he came across the poem by Nash (which you can read here). Lipton found the poem amusing. The storyline of the poem caused Lipton to begin thinking of his own dragon verse. When he finally arrived at the home of Peter Yarrow, he told his host about the idea for a poem. Yarrow invited Lipton to use his typewriter so as to “get the poem out of him”. So Lipton typed away and felt better for having done so. He left the paper in the typewriter and proceeded to have a smashing time at dinner with his friends. By the time the dinner party was over, Lipton left for home, leaving behind his hurriedly cobbled poem in Yarrow’s typewriter. The entire incident would have merely been fodder for a future dinner party anecdote if not for the fact that Peter Yarrow was a singer/songwriter. When he saw Lipton’s poem in his typewriter, the cadence of it struck him as possessing musical possibilities. So Yarrow tucked the poem away but always kept it in the back of his mind. Then one day, when Peter and his friends Paul Stookey and Mary Travers were writing songs for their second album, Yarrow pulled the poem back out, added some lyrics and created the song that we have all come to know as “Puff the Magic Dragon”. When the group actually recorded the song and placed it on the album, Yarrow was sure to add Lipton’s name for a songwriting credit. To this day, Lipton has earned royalties from his nearly forgotten poem. In addition to “Puff the Magic Dragon”, Peter, Paul and Mary had numerous hits as the Folk era exploded across America. They had Top Ten hits with songs such as “If I Had a Hammer”, “This Land Is Your Land”, “Blowin’ In The Wind” and “Leaving On a Jet Plane”. The trio was awarded a Lifetime Achievement award in 2006 from the Songwriters Hall of Fame.

But to this day, there are many who insist that their most famous song, “Puff the Magic Dragon”, has to be a song about marijuana. The strength of this myth is so powerful that it was even mined for comedic gold in the movie Meet the Fockers (you can watch the scene here). But really, truthfully…the boy being named Jackie Paper has nothing to do with rolling papers. The character of a dragon named Puff has nothing to do with taking a “drag” or a “puff” on a joint. The fact that the dragon lives on the island of Honahlee and that there is an actual Honalua in Hawaii where marijuana has been known to be grown, has nothing at all to do with making this a song about drug use. It is just a children’s song about a boy and a dragon who are friends. That’s it. That’s the story according to Peter, Paul and Mary.

Today’s song was nominated by my friend, JoAnn Kropf-Hedley. She is a grandmother and no doubt, believes this to be a wonderful children’s song, too. I am fairly confident that “Puff the Magic Dragon” is a song that she shared with her daughter back in the day and again with her grandchildren today. It really is a lovely song and I am happy that it has been shared in such a way. I have always been an advocate for introducing children to poetry and music as early as possible when they are growing up. Teaching children to read doesn’t always have to be about books. There are many wonderful poems that have been written with children in mind. The imaginative language used in poems such as “The Tale of the Custard Dragon” by Odgen Nash is but one example. Reading is reading, no matter what form the words take. Beautiful, lyrical language is something to be treasured and shared. I thank JoAnn for sharing this song choice with me so that I can share it with all of you. If you happen to have a poem or song that made an impression on you as a child or as a parent, please feel free to let me know all about it in the comment box below. Until then, thanks for reading this post. Have a wonderful rest of your day.

The link to the video for the song “Puff the Magic Dragon” by Peter, Paul and Mary can be found here. ***Lyrics version is here.

The link to the official website for Peter, Paul and Mary can be found here.

***As always, all original content contained within this post remains the sole property of the author. No portion of this post shall be reblogged, copied or shared in any manner without the express written consent of the author. ©2023

Truman Sleeps by Philip Glass from the Original Motion Picture Soundtrack to the Film, “The Truman Show…Song #33/250: The Stars of Stage and Screen

In my previous post concerning The Big Lebowski, I mentioned that the movies I find most interesting are ones that make me think and that have a quirky element to them. Today’s cinematic selection is a perfect example of what I was talking about. The Truman Show was released in 1998 and starred Jim Carrey, Laura Linney and Ed Harris in the main roles. Originally written as a science fiction movie about alternate realities, The Truman Show is most noted for accurately predicting the reality TV show trend that would come to dominate the airwaves in the decades since. It also predicted our fascination with social media and living our lives in the spotlight’s glare, even if it is just to share photos of our cats on Caturday each week. Much like how The Big Lebowski was made, The Truman Show is a movie told in layers. It is the attention to detail that helps to elevate this movie from merely being good to being a great film. One of the keys to understanding the organizational structure of the storyline is by how music is used throughout the film. So, grab your popcorn, put your cell phone on silent and get ready to learn all about one of the most thought-provoking films of the last quarter century, The Truman Show.

Seahaven, Florida

In the movie, Jim Carrey plays a man named Truman Burbank. Truman has lived his entire life in the idyllic community of Seahaven, Florida. Everything is perfect in Seahaven. All of the homes are neatly painted and have manicured lawns and small gardens in the front. Everyone who lives in Seahaven is friendly and neighbourly. Truman has grown up surrounded by love and the friendship of many other children. He has found love and gotten married (to Meryl, as played by Laura Linney). He has a good job. His colleagues are all pleasant. The weather is consistently good most days, only raining when the “lawn needs a drink”. The only thing about life that has created a bit of an empty space in Truman’s heart is that he had always wanted to travel and seek adventure. But, no matter how hard he tries, who he talks to about it or where he turns for help, he is always told that he is best off staying exactly where he is in Seahaven, Florida. Eventually, as Truman settles into adulthood, he begins questioning certain aspects of his life. SPOILER ALERT!!! At a certain point, he begins to realize that something is actually wrong with the people in Seahaven, which leads him to attempt a dramatic escape from there to anywhere else beyond the limits of his town. This escape attempt leads him to learn that Seahaven isn’t actually a real place. It is a television studio set and that his entire life has been staged for television audiences and controlled by a director named Christof (played by Ed Harris). Everyone he thought he knew…his parents, his childhood friends, his wife, his work colleagues, his neighbours, the citizens of Seahaven…were all paid actors! Everything he thought was real was revealed as being fake. Every aspect of his life was a lie. And now, at the end of the film, Truman has learned the first real, true thing in his life, and it leaves him shattered and disappointed, and yet he is now free, so those emotions are at play as well.

Behind the scenes, Philip Glass plays the piano while Ed Harris caresses the onscreen face of a sleeping Truman, whose face was airing “live” on TV.

When you watch the movie The Truman Show, you are really watching a play within a play. We are a movie audience who, in turn, are watching other people (a television audience) watching characters on a TV show. The entire storyline is built upon a foundation of how we perceive reality. What is real and what is fake, and how can we be sure that we know the difference? Twenty years before a reality TV star named Donald Trump cried about “fake news” and successfully blurred the lines of what the media promotes as news, The Truman Show was taking us behind the scenes and showing us how easy it was to trick people into investing their hearts and minds into something that was manipulative and phony in all regards. Not long after The Truman Show aired, Fox TV aired one of the very first reality shows entitled The Joe Schmo Show which was a Big Brother-style competition set in a house in which all of the competitors competing for a prize turned out to be actors and only one person….Joe Schmo…turned out to be really playing the game. From there, we had the debut of Survivor, Big Brother, The Bachelor, The Real Housewives series, The Kardashians and so on. All of these shows are completely staged and totally fake, and yet we have willingly become that audience shown in The Truman Show. We are no longer one step removed, as we were as a film audience for a movie. Now our perception of real life comes to us from staged shows and from social media “friends” we have never met and from online influencers who act as the new “Christofs” of our time.

When we watched the actual movie in 1998, the producers knew that they had to let audiences in on the secret of what was going on. We weren’t just seeing the movie unfold in Seahaven through Truman’s eyes, we were shown the television control room where Christof presided over Truman’s world. We saw the building facades. We listened as the television director voiced instructions to the onscreen actors. We knew what Truman didn’t know. What helped us to be able to differentiate between the movie we were watching and the fake television show being aired within the movie was how music was used throughout the entire film. The Truman Show movie employed two different composers named Philip Glass and Burkhard Dallwitz. These two composers were tasked with the job of using music to create two versions of reality. So one composer (Burkhard Dallwitz) wrote music for the onscreen, in-movie “TV show”. His compositions tended to reflect the inner emotions of what the character of Truman was feeling or experiencing at any given moment in the reality show that was his life. Philip Glass, on the other hand, composed the music used in scenes in which we, as a film audience, are taken into the confidence of the movie’s producers and allowed to know that we are watching a play within a play. One of the most touching of Philip Glass’ compositions was one entitled “Truman Sleeps”. It is an instrumental composition that is played as we watch Christof, in the control booth, watching Truman sleep in his bed. The scene is relatively short, but it allows us, as an audience, to realize that even though Christof has dedicated his life to manipulating the existence of another human being, he still possesses an ounce of humanity because we can clearly see that he has come to care for Truman based on his actions while Truman sleeps (much in the same way that a parent lovingly looks in on a sleeping child at night).

Because he was constantly being observed in real life, Jim Carrey felt that he understood the character of Truman Burbank.

The Truman Show was a major career turning point for Jim Carrey. Leading up to this film, Carrey had starred in a series of comic hits including The Mask, Ace Ventura: Pet Detective and Dumb and Dumber. He had gone from being a comedian on television to a major Hollywood movie star. He was making millions of dollars per movie and was living a pretty wild life at the time. However, Jim Carrey was always more of a cerebral guy than he was being given credit for. While his career was exploding, and he was on his way to becoming one of the biggest movie stars on the planet, he agreed to play Truman Burbank for one particular reason. Having read the script prior to signing on to join the cast, Carrey knew how the movie was going to end for Truman. Carrey understood that the adulation, the talk show appearances, the social media gossip, the paparazzi…all of it, was making his own life not that much different from the staged world inhabited by Truman Burbank. So, Carrey decided to pull a “Truman” and opted away from the bigger budget movies going forward. His next movie was another quirky movie called Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Jim Carrey was now a dramatic actor. He felt freer to follow his heart and be who he really wanted to be…just like Truman Burbank did, too.

I will close by relating a discussion my wife and I had on the weekend. Like many people in the world, there was a time in our relationship when there was no social media. When we first met, if we wanted to know how someone was doing, we picked up the phone, we wrote a letter or we went for a visit. Since 2007, when I joined Facebook (Keri signed on a few years later), we have been immersed in the social media scene. In the past year, I have begun to deal with my own social media addiction by deleting my Twitter account. I used to have an Instagram account, too. Both are now gone. This past weekend, my wife and I talked about the news that Facebook may start charging to use its service. We agreed that if/when that time comes, we will say goodbye to Facebook, too. As part of that discussion, we both agreed that since we were actually able to maintain friendships with real people prior to the introduction of social media into our lives, that we assumed the same would be true for us in a social media-free world, too. That social media has become so integrated with our version of what real life is all about says a lot about how fully we have been pulled into the world portrayed in The Truman Show. I have lots of online friends that I chat with and support with my words. However, I would probably not be able to recognize most, if any, of them if they sat beside me on the bus. I have never heard the sound of their voice. I have never shaken their hand or had a hug. Are they real people or have they been computer-generated entities all along? I would like to say that I know the answer to that question, but do I? Truman Burbank didn’t know the answer to that question until the very last moments of the film. Then he walked away into a completely new and uncertain future. Perhaps that is what awaits all of us, too. Good luck with your decision-making process as your boat hits a wall that you always believed was sky.

The link to the video for the composition “Truman Sleeps” by Philip Glass can be found here.

The link to the video for the trailer to the movie The Truman Show can be found here.

***As always, all original content contained within this post shall remain the sole property of the author. No portion of thispost shall be reblogged, copied or shared in any manner without the express written consent of the author. ©2023

The Great Canadian Road Trip: Song #34/250: The Springhill Mining Disaster by Luke Kelly

Today’s pit stop on The Great Canadian Road Trip takes us to the small town of Springhill, Nova Scotia. Springhill was formed over two hundred years ago. It sits adjacent to the New Brunswick border in the northwest quadrant of the Nova Scotia mainland. It boasts a population of approximately 2500 people today, but at one time well over 5000 people called Springhill home, including its most famous citizen, singer Anne Murray. However, today’s post is not about Anne Murray. Today’s post is about the one thing that put Springhill on the map, and that was coal. At one time, Springhill had multiple working coal mines, employing hundreds of workers from Springhill and the surrounding towns and villages of Cumberland County. The coal mining industry was the town’s biggest employer and was the engine that drove the local economy for well over a century. But, as with many things in life, there is balance. What the coal seams gave to the people of Springhill in the form of a resource-based economy, they took away in terms of loss of life. Springhill is the site of three of the world’s biggest mining disasters with well over two hundred husbands, fathers, uncles, sons, brothers and grandfathers killed in a flash of fire and/or under a wall of stone. The writing of today’s post (Feb. 21st) marks the 132nd anniversary of the very first Springhill mining disaster in 1891. There were two others: one in 1956, and then two years later in 1958. The song we will be discussing is aptly titled “Springhill Mining Disaster” and is specifically about the third and final Springhill disaster. Today’s post is about the history of these mining tragedies and why the third one in 1958 caught the attention of the world, including several famous Irish folk singers who have ended up making this song as much a part of Irish musical culture as it is about the coal miners and citizens of Springhill, Nova Scotia. So, pour yourself a cup of “hot”, settle in and get ready for a musical history lesson that is steeped in heroism and loss. Welcome, everyone, to Springhill, Nova Scotia.

A coal chute in the side of a house.

Like Springhill, my hometown of Glace Bay, Nova Scotia, was built upon rich seams of coal. Even though Glace Bay is almost a four hour drive east from Springhill, we share the same geological foundation. For those who may not be aware, coal is a stone that can burn and give off heat. All through my childhood, many homes in my hometown were heated by coal. These homes would have coal chutes built into the sides of their foundations. These coal chutes resembled cellar doors or, in some cases, mailbox flaps. Homeowners would order a delivery of coal and then would heat their homes accordingly. However, because coal is a non-renewable resource and, more to the point, because it is considered a “dirty” fuel in terms of pollution, coal production in Nova Scotia has become almost non-existent. But at one time, coal was every bit as important an industry in Nova Scotia as the fisheries were.

Coal miners underground at the face of coal seam, the fruits of their labour at their side.

It was also one of the most dangerous industries. Most coal mines are underground mines. These mines often extend for miles beneath the surface of the land (or in the case of my hometown, out under the Atlantic Ocean). Needless to say, hollowing out the earth is an exercise that requires a lot of engineering expertise in order to manage the incredible stresses caused by the weight of the bedrock that remains above the excavated tunnels. Not only are there thousands of tons of weight above the heads of the miners as they work, but another danger lies in the form of the coal itself. Coal gives off methane gas. In such a confined space, methane gas can build up. One spark from an electrical wire or an excavating machine, drill, shovel, etc. can cause the methane gas to ignite which can cause a huge explosion. As well, the air in a coal mine is filled with coal dust, which fills the voids below like a fog. The same sparks that can ignite methane gas can also ignite the airborne coal dust and cause a calamitous explosion, too. So, proper ventilation is critical to the safe operation of any mine anywhere in the world.

Families wait for news in 1891

The first Springhill Mining Disaster in 1891 was caused when coal dust ignited. 125 miners (including child laborers) perished in the blast. This was one of the worst disasters of its kind in the world at the time. The subsequent commission that looked into the cause of the 1891 explosion was one of the first to recommend improved gas monitoring devices within the mine, as well as the importance of proper ventilation and the safe removal of coal dust to the surface where it could dissipate and/or be disposed of properly.

Springhill mine after the explosion in 1956.

The second mining disaster in 1956 occurred when a train load of coal dust was being taken out of the mine to the surface. En route, two of the coal dust cars came loose and derailed. The derailment caused an electrical line to arc. The sparks from the line ignited the coal dust causing a massive, forceful explosion that damaged many buildings at the entrance to the mine. Because the derailment happened closer to the surface than it did to the working face of the mine below, the death toll was minimized somewhat with only 39 miners losing their lives. The bulk of that day’s shift were working further from the surface and survived. They were eventually rescued by specialized rescue teams called dragermen.

Dragermen prepare to mount a rescue in 1958. Many of these men were awarded medals of heroism for their efforts in saving nineteen lives.

The final explosion happened in 1958 and was the result of something that sounds rather innocuous called a “bump”. In coal mining parlance, a bump is “an underground seismic event” which essentially causes the floor to heave upwards and the walls and ceiling to lose their structural integrity. A bump basically destroys the tunnels in a mine and buries those working there under tonnes of stone, or else traps them on the other side of collapsed, clogged tunnels. The 1958 bump killed 75 miners instantly and trapped many others. However, there was a new, external factor at play in 1958 which caused this final Springhill mining disaster to receive worldwide attention, and that was the advent of live television broadcasting. In 1958, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (the CBC) covered the mine disaster and subsequent rescue attempts live. It was the first time the network had covered a news event in real time before. Their reporting was shared internationally with television networks in the United States as well as the BBC in England. And what drama there was to cover! As it turned out, two separate groups of miners who had been working far underground at the face of the coal seams had survived and were huddled in air pockets behind tonnes of fallen rock that had collapsed and blocked their escape routes. While a nation watched with bated breath, dragermen (rescue crews) descended into the wrecked mine and, after five days of searching, made contact with the trapped men. The discovery of these men so many days after the initial bump sent a wave of relief but also confusion into the community. In a small town like Springhill, all of the trapped and missing miners were known to everyone. They were all someone’s father or son or brother or husband. But, with so many men trapped or unaccounted for, no one could be sure who these trapped miners actually were. Emotions ran high on the surface as everyone waited for news regarding their loved ones below. After a week of being trapped, the miners who had survived the bump ran out of water and food. They were also running out of breathable air. As the world watched, rescue crews bore thin holes through the rock that was blocking the tunnels and managed to slide pipes from one side of the cave-in to the other and were able to pump in fresh air. Soon thereafter, enough of the rock was cleared away that the two groups of trapped miners were able to be rescued. Nineteen men were rescued in all. Nineteen families had a happy reunion with those they loved. The nineteen rescued miners became the first instant celebrities in the world of modern broadcasting. Their names and faces were beamed across North America and Europe. The men were given awards for heroism and offered jobs as pitchmen for various companies such as the makers of 7Up pop (which was how one rescued miner answered the question posed to him by CBC reporters as to what was the first thing he wanted to do now that he was back on the surface). The tale of what happened before, during and after the bump was chronicled extremely well in a book called Last Man Out by New York Times reporter Melissa Fay Greene. For a more indepth account of this mining disaster and the impact it had on those involved and the community of Springhill, as a whole, I highly recommend Greene’s book. Check it out here.

Peggy Seeger

As mentioned, the CBC broadcast this event live to the world. While living in Ireland, a singer/songwriter named Peggy Seeger was watching, too. Seeger was greatly moved by the story. To her, it conjured images of men literally digging their own graves. Because she possessed a lyrical mind, Seeger took pen to paper and wrote the lyrics for a song that was simply and aptly named “Springhill Mining Disaster”. At the time that she did this, Seeger was part of the emerging Folk music scene that was enveloping the world. Her brother was famous American folk singer Pete Seeger. Her husband was famous Irish singer and activist, Ewan McColl. The story of what happened in Springhill to the families and to the community, itself, resonated with the Irish who had known their own share of disasters (mainly due to political violence) so they took to Peggy Seeger’s song right away. “Springhill Mining Disaster” became a popular song in Irish Folk circles and was soon covered by anyone and everyone who was part of that scene. One of the most popular versions of the song was the cover sung by Irish singer Luke Kelly. Kelly was one of the original members of the popular Irish group called The Dubliners (named after the James Joyce book). In any case, Luke Kelly possessed the singing voice of a balladeer and was able to best capture the anger and anguish experienced by all those involved in Springhill. It is his version that I will present to you on this day. But just to show you how important a song “Springhill Mining Disaster” became in Ireland, in the mid-1980s, when Irish supergroup U2 was touring in support of their award-winning album, The Joshua Tree, they included Peggy Seeger’s song on their set list at fifteen of their concerts.

Luke Kelly of The Dubliners

When you live in a mining town, you have to be prepared for that inevitable time when something goes wrong underground. To those of us who lived on the surface, the only way we ever knew that the worst had taken place was by way of a siren that would wail at the entrance to the mine in the event of an emergency. One day when I was just a teenager, the shrill whistle of the mine siren sang in my town. There had been an explosion at a mine known as No. 26 colliery. It is hard to explain how the mere sounding of such an alarm can send a chill through an entire town, but it did that day for all of us who lived there. To this day I can still remember the shocking sight of a mass funeral at our hockey arena and how deathly silent it was all throughout the town for days and days afterward. Glace Bay is a chatty town most days, but after the mine whistle sounded, there was no more somber place in the world. I didn’t lose any family members that day, but many around me did. Sometimes it takes tragedies such as the explosion in Glace Bay or the various disasters in Springhill or the one in Westray (sung so eloquently by singer Sarah Harmer when she was just starting her career in a band called Weeping Tile. That song is here.) to make you realize what the word community actually means. We all felt the loss of our miners. However, such events often bring people together. Acts of charity and kindness abounded. We all stood up and reached out to our neighbours in the wake of the No. 26 explosion, just as those families in Springhill did in the 1950s and 1890s. (The Glace Bay choral group The Men of the Deeps sang about the disaster in my hometown. You can listen to it here). I suppose the Irish know a thing or two about community, too. Thus we have the definitive account of a Nova Scotian mine tragedy from a woman in Ireland watching the CBC news.

Although it often goes unsaid, there is nothing more important in the world than family. So hug and kiss and hold close those who make your heart beat. Nothing else truly matters.

The link to the video for the song “Springhill Mining Disaster” by Luke Kelly can be found here.

The link to the official website for Springhill, Nova Scotia can be found here.

The link to the Springhill Miners Museum can be found here.

The link to the Glace Bay Miners Museum (where my wife and I were married, btw) can be found here.

***As always, all original content contained within this post remains the sole property of the author. No portion of this post shall be reblogged, copied or shared without express written consent of the author. ©2023

Keeping’ It Classy: Composition #30/50: Dance of the Knights by Sergei Prokofiev

Most weekday mornings I pour myself a hot cup of tea, fire up my laptop and begin to write the words that you read each day. I do so with a clear mind and a brave heart. I try my best to tell you stories that are interesting and true. I answer to no one (except my wife, of course) and my copy editor (who shakes her head daily at how feeble my grasp of proper punctuation and the rules of grammar actually seem to be). Not once since I have started writing on this blog has anything I have said caused there to be a knock upon my door by strong men with billy clubs in their hands. In that regard I am extremely lucky. Not every writer or artist in the world has the freedom to express themselves as I do each and every day. For some, what they create can sometimes be a matter of life and death. In a perfect world, freedom of expression should be an inalienable right for all of us. But all throughout history there are examples of people who have spoken their truth to power or simply undertaken an act of creativity and have found themselves persecuted by the authorities as a result. Today’s story is but one example.

Russian composer Dimitri Shostakovich

In the past century there have been three composers who are generally regarded as being the giants of the classical music scene in Russia. Those three composers are Igor Stravinsky, Dimitri Shostakovich and Sergei Prokofiev. All three men enjoyed periods of fame and respect throughout their careers. They all produced ballets and symphonies that were praised for their originality, creativity and flawless musical construction. But all three composers also plied their trade during one of the most dangerous periods in Russian history, which was the reign of Stalin as the undisputed head of the Russian Government. Josef Stalin’s reign was known for many things, but chief among them was the constant purging from the ranks of government or society of anyone viewed as potentially posing a threat to Stalin’s hold on power. Stalin demanded absolute obedience from everyone in Russia. For those who displeased him in any way, their lives would never be the same again.

In the decade or so after the Russian Revolution had come to pass, composers such as Stravinsky, Shostakovich and Prokofiev enjoyed great artistic freedom. Their symphonies were played in concert halls all across Russia and the world. Their ballets were danced by the best dancers that the Bolshoi Ballet Company had in their employ. Government officials heaped praise upon them. They all received medals of distinction and were granted positions of authority on cultural boards throughout the country. Those were heady days for Russian classical music and the Arts. But things changed as Stalin assumed control of the government and began his systematic purging of the ranks. A chill swept through the land. Suddenly, people began to change their behaviour so as to avoid offending Stalin. Government policies were changed to protect his position and to promote his views. Governing boards and committees were purged of anyone who didn’t follow Stalin’s decrees to the letter. It was not uncommon for those who fell out of favour to simply disappear to a prison gulag or to end up shot. Of course, there were those in Russian society who failed to heed the warning signs because they felt that what was happening to others could never happen to them, thinking they possessed some sort of immunity based upon past accomplishments. One who felt that way was composer Dimitri Shostakovich. His story has a lot to do with how today’s featured composition, “The Dance of the Knights” by compatriot Sergei Prokofiev, came to be.

Josef Stalin (in centre of photo) having a night at the opera.

Like Prokofiev, Dimitri Shostakovich had enjoyed a long run of success in the Russian Arts community. From his earliest days as a young boy, Shostakovich had shown a proclivity toward music and, more specifically, toward creating compositions that used music in new and original ways. Russian audiences waited with bated breath for each new ballet because they were guaranteed to see something new and innovative with every performance. However, politics was soon to become a factor in ways that Shostakovich could barely even begin to imagine. There came a time in the 1930s when Josef Stalin decided to personally attend performances of all current ballets, symphonies and plays. By this time, his reputation for cruelty was well known, and a shudder went through the entire Russian Arts community. Some composers and theatre directors automatically altered their performances in an attempt to please Stalin and survive his visit. Dimitri Shostakovich was not of that mind. He performed his latest ballet as created. The ballet was filled with light and colour and glorious music that was used in brilliant and imaginative ways. The ballet was so unique in the history of Russian ballets that Stalin did not fully understand it and grew frustrated as the performance went on. He ended up leaving before the third act was finished. Dimitri Shostakovich, who was very proud of his work, watched Stalin exit the theatre. According to eyewitnesses, he turned completely pale. His work had displeased Stalin. The repercussions for Shostakovich were immediate. A few days later he was publicly critiqued in the national newspaper, Pravda. The headline simply and devastatingly read: “Muddle Instead of Music!” Shostakovich fell into public disgrace at once. He was stripped of all committee appointments. He lost all commissions. No theatre or music hall would perform his work anywhere in the country. All other composers and other members of the Russian Arts community separated themselves from him. To further make his message clear that all Russian Art must adhere to strict nationalist policies, Stalin refused to imprison or execute Shostakovich. Instead, he publicly centred him out and demanded that he reform his ways and submit to Stalin’s authority by creating approved works in the future. For someone like Dimitri Shostakovich, having his creative freedom curtailed was akin to a death sentence. For a while, he kept a low profile and attempted to write some symphonies on the sly. But word got out that he was writing again, and Stalin demanded to hear this new work. By the time he was summoned, Shostakovich was a beaten man. He knew he could not tempt fate twice. So, before meeting with Stalin, Dimitri Shostakovich altered his new symphony. He streamlined it and simplified it in ways that he felt Stalin would be able to understand. He engaged in self-censorship as an act of self-preservation, and as a result, Dimitri Shostakovich lived to see another day. In fact, as history has a way of demonstrating its fluid nature, in time Shostakovich’s image was formally rehabilitated by the same government that had attacked him so unmercifully. But, when he was first attacked for his work, other composers took notice. One who managed to marry pragmatism with Art was Sergei Prokofiev. This is his story.

Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev

In the early days after the Revolution, Sergei Prokofiev was like many in the Arts community. He felt empowered to unleash his creative vision onto the world. In searching for a grand project upon which to build an entirely new ballet, he discovered that there had never been a full rendering of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet before. Even though this was an English play, Prokofiev was confident that Russian audiences would have been aware of it and would be receptive to seeing it performed in Russian on their own stages across the land. So he set about creating a faithful retelling of Shakespeare’s story of doomed lovers…well, except for one thing…in his ballet, the lovers were not doomed. Sergei Prokofiev took it upon himself to change the ending and make it a happy one instead. In fact, he even added an additional scene at the end that included a celebratory May Day parade. He created an entirely original score for the ballet, which included one composition entitled “The Dance of the Knights, Op. 64”. It was to be played the first time the Montagues and Capulets run into each other in the marketplace prior to the costume ball later that evening, where Juliet and Romeo would see each other for the first time. “The Dance of the Knights” is bold and brassy and conveys a sense of foreboding, as one might expect when two rival groups come into view in the same space. As time has gone on, “The Dance of the Knights, Op. 64” has become the most well known and well-liked composition of Prokofiev’s career. But, back in the time when he was first putting his ballet together, Dimitri Shostakovich’s public shaming was unfolding in real time. Suddenly the Arts community all across Russia was hurriedly re-examining everything it was promoting and performing. It was certainly not a time to be taking audacious artistic gambles. So, those around Sergei Prokofiev implored him to revise his version of Romeo and Juliet so that it fell into line with Stalin’s rigid vision. Being a creator, Prokofiev balked. But quickly enough, he was informed that the Bolshoi Ballet were refusing to perform it out of fear for what the reaction would be. Prokofiev believed in his artistic vision, but he was also a practical enough man to see what was happening to Shostakovich and realized that it would probably end up happening to him, too. So, Sergei Prokofiev censored himself and revised his ballet. In fact, just to add some insurance so that he could be sure of Stalin’s reaction, he debuted his new ballet in the Czech theatre in Brno. Once it was met with approval there, the newly revised ballet was performed in Russia.

While Dimitri Shostakovich was put through the process of public shaming and rehabilitation, Sergei Prokofiev emerged relatively intact through it all. He learned to temper his artistic enthusiasms and tailor his work to suit the formal policies of the government. Consequently, Sergei Prokofiev remained gainfully employed for the majority of his career as a composer. As someone who can afford the luxury of idealism, I would hope that everyone would understand and appreciate the importance of freedom of expression in a functioning society. But, as history has repeatedly shown, it is the artists and the creative thinkers who are almost always the first to fall under the hammer blows of repressive regimes all over the world. One of the hallmarks of Art is that it is not just a product to be viewed in a gallery or listened to from a stage. Art is a way of thinking about life. It is about using your imagination to see the world in new and different ways. It is about being able to reason without fear. So when you listen to “The Dance of the Knights”, with its tremendous, forceful sense of foreboding woven into the fabric of the score, know that Prokofiev wasn’t just talking about a scene from a Shakespearean play. This composition endures for a reason. That reason is because he was really talking about life and Art. He was talking about us. All of us. Freedom of expression is a gift to be cherished.

The link to the video for the composition “Dance of the Knights, Op. 64” from Romeo and Juliet by Sergei Prokofiev can be found here.

The link to an official website for Sergei Prokofiev can be found here.

***As always, all original content contained within this post remains the sole property of the author. No portion of this post shall be reblogged, copied or shared in any manner without the express written consent of the author. ©2023

We Are Family by Sister Sledge

Mary McLeod Bethune

It is a holiday called Family Day here in Ontario so what better way to celebrate than with the story of one of the most iconic songs about “family” ever, “We Are Family” by Sister Sledge. As some of you may know, Sister Sledge were an all-girl singing group that gained fame during the Disco period of the 1970s. All four singers are actually sisters and they are all named Sledge. The singers are Joni, Debbie, Kathy and Kim. The Sledge sisters grew up in Philadelphia in the 1960s. They were always a very musical family and regularly sang in their church. From a very young age, the Sledge sisters were mentored by their grandmother Viola Williams. Williams, in turn, was a close associate of Civil Rights leader Mary McLeod Bethune. For those who may be unaware, Bethune was one of the leading voices for female African Americans during the time of the Civil Rights Movement. Prior to that she was the founder of The National Council of Negro Women in 1935. She was also a special advisor to U.S. President Roosevelt and was the only African America woman involved in the creation of the United Nations Charter. So, needless to say, under the guidance of their grandmother, the Sledge sisters grew up in an environment where the term “Family” meant more than just your biological relations. “Family” was a term that encompassed whole groups of likeminded people. So, it should not have been a surprise to anyone who knew these sisters that they would go on to have one of the biggest hits of the year in 1979 with a song about unity called, “We Are Family”.

The Sledge sisters: Joni, Kathy, Kim and Debbie

Initially, when the girls were all younger, they limited their public performances to their church. But, as they began to finish high school, one by one, the prospect of a career in the music began to appear as a legitimate possibility. So, they took their personal, family act and rebranded it. They were no longer the Sledge sisters but instead, they became Sister Sledge and headed out onto the road. As Sister Sledge, the girls travelled all up and down the eastern seaboard of the U.S. Their stage show was basically the same act that they used to perform in church except that they soon began to cover Soul and R&B classics such as Mary Wells, “My Guy”, too. In time, Sister Sledge began to develop a reputation as a talented quartet who knew how to sing and put on a good show. They were eventually signed to a record deal with a small local label called Money Back. From their first record, they had a moderate hit in the UK with a song called, “Mama Never Told Me”. Then, the following year, they hit in big in Japan with a song called, “Love Don’t Go Through No Changes On Me”. They were invited to tour Japan and while there they won a Silver medal in a song competition. That recognition caused them to be invited to travel to Zaire, Africa to be part of a bill, along with James Brown, that was part of The Rumble in the Jungle boxing match between George Foreman and Muhammad Ali.

Nile Rodgers, Bernard Edwards and Sister Sledge in studio.

However, once back in America, their career began to plateau. They had been signed by a new label which was a subsidiary of Atlantic Records, which was one of the biggest record labels at the time in the 1970s. While there, they were paired up with songwriters Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards of the hit Disco group, Chic. The story goes that while Rodgers and Edwards were confident writing songs for their own band, there were not so ready to work with bigger Atlantic acts such as Bette Midler so they asked to be assigned to a novice group to see what might become of their efforts. That “novice” group was Sister Sledge. When Edwards and Rodgers were first told that they would be working with the four sisters from Philadelphia, they asked for some background information on them. They took copious notes. After that meeting was over, they felt the notes that they took described a unified family and used their notes to create the lyrics to a song that they presented to the sisters the first time they met in studio. That song was “We Are Family”.

Pirates pitcher Kent Tekulve and sluggers Dave Parker and Willie “Pops” Stargell of the “We Are Family” Champion Pittsburgh Pirates in 1979

“We Are Family” was not the only hit Sister Sledge ever had but it has come to define them just as if it had been their only hit. “We Are Family” reached #1 on the charts and ended up being the #2 song for the entire year of 1979 (finishing second to Donna Summer’s “Hot Stuff”). Its theme of togetherness and unity struck a chord with audiences and with organizations. The song was adopted by the World Series Champion Pittsburgh Pirates in 1979. “We Are Family” has been selected for inclusion in The Library of Congress and having had a culturally significant impact on American society. The song was also performed at many benefits such as the post 9/11 fundraiser in NYC, as well as for the organization known as Feed The Children.

So, as you celebrate Family Day in Ontario or as you reflect on your own family and social connections wherever you happen to be, do so with the soundtrack of this peppy dance song playing in the back of your mind. “We Are Family” by Sister Sledge is one of those rare songs that is so uplifting, fun and positive that it is impossible to find any fault with it at all. It was a perfect song for the times in 1979 and has been a perfect song for all of the times that have followed, including this, day…Family Day in Ontario. Have a wonderful day wherever you are as this post finds you. Thanks for reading my words and for being a part of my blogging family. I appreciate your presence here very much.

The link to the video for the song, “We Are Family” by Sister Sledge can be found here.

The link to the official website for Sister Sledge can be found here.

The link to the video of Sister Sledge singing their hit song during the Pittsburgh Pirates championship season can be found here.

***As always, all original content contained within this blog post remains the sole property of the author. No portion of this post shall be reblogged, copied or shared in any manner without the express written consent of the author. ©2023

Reader’s Choice: Song #25/250: Shape of Things by The Yardbirds

The late, great guitarist Jeff Beck (Photo by C Flanigan/FilmMagic)

Today’s song choice was nominated by my pal, rawgod, and is a very inspired choice. “Shape of Things” is not just another song, and The Yardbirds are not just another band, and lead guitarist, Jeff Beck, is definitely not just another guitarist. With the recent passing of Jeff Beck, it seems like an appropriate time to take a closer look at a moment in musical history where Beck almost single-handedly transformed the course of rock n’ roll music with his virtuosic style of playing. But, in order to appreciate the depth of Jeff Beck’s talent and the impact he had on modern music, we must first take a step back in time and place into context the music world as it was when “Shape of Things” debuted. It was a world separated by geography, economical class and by race, but a world that Jeff Beck and others sought to bring together through their music. This is the story of Jeff Beck, The Yardbirds, the world of British Rock royalty in the 1960s and a song that exploded into the middle of it all and helped change everything. So get ready, this post is going to blow your mind!

Our story begins with a statement of fact. As creative and talented as the musicians who lived in the UK were in the 1960s, they were not the ones who invented rock n’ roll. The true origins of the birth of Rock happened across the Atlantic Ocean in places such as Chicago and Memphis and New Orleans, which were all home to a style of music known as The Blues. We can trace the evolution of Rock n’ Roll from those thumping notes that emanated from guitars of the originators such as Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Big Mama Thornton, Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry, Muddy Waters, B.B. King, Little Richard, Fats Domino and others of their ilk. The lived experiences of black musicians gave birth to a form of music that the powers that be found dangerous and primal. It was a sound of heat and sweat and sex and it came from the very souls of those who performed those first great Blues songs in America. White American singers such as Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash were quick to recognize where the future of music was headed and swiftly acted to co-opt these Blues classics and make them their own.

Fortunately for those who lived in the UK, the original Blues masters toured there, too. They brought that brand of primal energy and searing heat to audiences who had never seen anything like it before and who were completely captivated by it. Future stars such as John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, Ray Davies and Jeff Beck all have stated that they were inspired to become musicians because of what they saw Little Richard or Big Mama Thornton or Muddy Waters perform on their own hometown stages. As a result of exposure to authentic Blues, a localized Blues scene began to establish itself in England. At the time, in the late 1950s/early 1960s, much of the music scene was organized through a series of pubs. This music from this scene became known as Pub Rock and usually consisted of young upstarts like Mick Jagger and Keith Richards performing in house bands at a specific pub, or else, a band would form and would tour a circuit of pubs. In this way, young musicians got experience that enabled them to hone their skills, while at the same time, a formal Blues scene became established all across England and the UK. If a cinematic reference would help you, the Irish movie, The Commitments shows how the pub rock circuit worked in Ireland, as does the Elton John biopic, Rocketman. In fact, Rocketman showed how a young Reginald Dwight began to hone his musical chops under the mentorship of Long John Baldry and bands such as John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers, which were foundational members of Pub Rock Wave #1. Elton John’s experiences were part of the second wave of Pub Rock stars that included Dave Mason, Nick Lowe, Elvis Costello and many others. But, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Today’s story is found in the first wave of British rock stars, so let’s go back a decade in time and start there.

The Yardbirds: Reif, Dreja, McCarty, Samwell-Smith and Clapton

Not long after the original American Blues acts had come to England, young English musicians began to emulate them. Like-minded singers, drummers, guitarists and piano players all began to play as solo acts or in groups. Lennon found McCartney. Jagger found Richard. The Davies brothers already had found each other and so it went. Two friends who decided to pursue their musical dreams were a singer named Keith Relf and drummer JIm McCarty. They formed a local band called the Metropolitan Blues Quartet. They were soon joined by rhythm guitarist Chris Dreja, bassist Paul Samwell-Smith and lead guitarist Top Topham. They renamed their band The Yardbirds after Jazz legend Charlie “Yardbird” Parker. In this initial form, The Yardbirds gained attention for playing Blues classics by “Sonny Boy” Williamson, Howlin’ Wolf and others. As often happens to young bands, real life intruded and Top Topham had to bow out. His replacement was a young guitarist that you may have heard of called Eric Clapton. In 1963, Clapton was a strict devotee of The Blues as played by the masters. So when the band started writing original tunes, and The Yardbirds had a surprise hit with a Pop-Rock song called “For Your Love”, Clapton was not pleased. He wanted no part of what he termed “the watering down” of authentic Blues, and so, after just one album, Eric Clapton left The Yardbirds. He immediately joined a band that he believed played real Blues, and that was John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers. After a year or so there, he left to form Cream, and then Derrick and the Dominos after that (from which “Layla” would come). Finally, in the 1970s, Clapton became the solo artist that we know him to be to this day.

In 1964, after Eric Clapton left The Yardbirds, his spot in the band was filled by guitarist Jeff Beck. While Beck was joining The Yardbirds, The Beatles were releasing their first singles, The Rolling Stones were to follow shortly thereafter, along with The Kinks, The Who and a young singer from Scotland named Rod Stewart, who joined John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers. It was a wonderful time in the age of British music, for sure, and the most amazing thing was that as the 1960s reached their midway point, that music scene was just getting started.

As each of these great bands were beginning their careers, they often opted to do so by relying on Blues classics to hone their skills and help them to get a feel for this type of music when played live. After a period of exposure and exploration, all of these great bands began to create their own material and experiment with what was musically possible. Many of these great artists arrived at this period of exploration and experimentation around the same time. In 1966, The Beatles stopped touring after their disastrous American tour and became a studio band. This gave birth to a period of explosive growth and creativity that yielded innovative albums such as Revolver, Sgt. Pepper, the White Album and more. For The Rolling Stones, it was the time that innovative member Brian Jones brought sitars and mandolins into the studio and opened The Stones up to the world of eastern mysticism. For The Yardbirds, Jeff Beck was also experimenting with his music. For him, his guitar seemed like an untapped resource, so, in 1966, he spent time playing around with things like distortion, open tuning and fuzz boxes. His technical innovations in this area are not so important because they focussed on feedback per se, but more because Beck discovered new ways in which guitars could make and manipulate sounds. His work in this area opened up a world of sonic possibilities for others to follow. The first evidence of where this brave new world could lead was found in The Yardbirds song, “Shape of Things”.

The Yardbirds: Beck, Page, Dreja, Reif and McCarty

As 1966 began, The Yardbirds went on tour. Paul Samwell-Smith quit during the tour and was replaced by a popular London session guitarist named Jimmy Page. It was during this American tour that the song “Shape of Things” was written by Reif, McCarty and Samwell-Smith before he quit. The song was meant as an anti-war commentary against the ramping up of the Vietnam War and as a pro-environmental song. The lyrics were kept relatively simple and helped serve as a backdrop to a guitar solo employed by Jeff Beck that was the first time he really showcased all that he had learned about stretching the limits of his guitar’s capabilities. Many critics point to “Shape of Things” as ushering in the era of Psychedelic Rock. This form of music embraced the use of a variety of instruments such as the sitar and brought eastern style music to the forefront of the modern British scene. It also helped inspire the likes of Jimi Hendrix to know that audiences were ready to hear guitarists who played more than four basic chords. The era of the guitar virtuoso was dawning, and it all started with Jeff Beck and “Shape of Things”.

The Jeff Beck Group (clockwise from bottom): Jeff Beck, Aynsley Dunbar, Rod Stewart and Ron Woods

Not long after this, The Yardbirds broke up. The members of the band went in three different directions. Lead singer Reif and drummer McCarty stayed together and formed a new band called Renaissance, which became popular in Britain and remains so to this day. Jimmy Page formed a new band by hiring a relatively unknown singer named Robert Plant. Plant recommended his friend John Bonham as drummer. Page knew of a fellow session performer who played the bass guitar named John Paul Jones. Together, these four guys initially toured as The New Yardbirds. But with threats of litigation hanging over their heads because of the use of The Yardbirds trademark, they decided to change the name of their band to Led Zeppelin. I think that turned out OK for the lads. Jeck Beck went on to form a band named The Jeff Beck Group. His lead singer was a man named Rod Stewart. His rhythm guitarist was Ronnie Woods. Woods and Stewart would subsequently leave The Jeff Beck Group to help form a band called The Small Faces, which arose out of the ashes of the original band, The Faces. From The Small Faces, Rod Stewart would embark on a successful solo career that still has legs to this day. Ronnie Woods would be asked to join The Rolling Stones, replacing Mick Taylor who, in turn, had replaced Brian Jones after his death by drowning. Ronnie Woods remains with The Rolling Stones to this very day as well.

Every generation enjoys the luxury of viewing their own lives through the rose-coloured lens of nostalgia. The Boomer Generation certainly claims that the music of the 1960s was “the Golden Age of Rock n’ Roll”. It is hard to argue against the ingenuity, the creativity and the musical success of those who found fame during those years. However, there is a temptation to view the 1960s in a hierarchical, pecking-order fashion starting with The Beatles and then The Rolling Stones and going on from there. But in actual fact, as this post clearly shows, there was a fully-integrated, highly organized music scene in which The Blues were venerated as a genre. There was also a system of stages made available through the pub circuit which allowed young musicians to gain the experience they would need to become stars later on. Just as importantly, there was a group of young, talented musicians who all shared a common vision of what music could be and then supported each other as they set about changing music forever. To think that the likes of Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page, Rod Stewart, Ron Woods, Keith Richards, Mick Jagger, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Van Morrison, Keith Moon, Pete Townsend, Ray Davies, Roger Daltry and others all knew each other and grew up in the same British music scene and played separately and together in the same decade, well, it is almost mind boggling! But that is exactly what happened during the 1960s in the UK. What a golden age, indeed!

I will close by thanking my friend rawgod for nominating such a stellar song. The importance of “Shape of Things” as a song in terms of the technical innovations employed by Jeff Beck cannot be understated. I am not saying that The Beatles would not still have come up with “Revolver” without hearing “Shape of Things”, but Beck gave all other musicians license to expand the range of what was musically possible with guitars, while, at the same time, still honouring the essential music of The Blues. As this post has also clearly shown, The Yardbirds were an essential band in the evolution of the British music scene. They proved to be the launching pad for many other bands and artists, as well as being a grand band in their own right while they existed as a unit. So, thanks again rawgod. I think this was one trip down Memory Lane that was well worth taking.

The link to the video for the song “Shape of Things” by The Yardbirds can be found here. ***Lyric version is here.

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

***As always, all original content contained within this blog post remains the sole property of the author. No portion of this post shall be reblogged, copied or shared in any manner without the express written consent of the author. ©2023

Today’s/Tomorrow’s Top 40: February 16, 2023…Neutral Milk Hotel, Young Fathers, Peter Gabriel, George Ezra, P!nk, Reve

Welcome to the latest edition of Today’s/Tomorrow’s Top 40. In this post I will talk about two new album releases, three songs that are actively climbing the charts, and I will introduce a new feature, too. That something new is box-set vinyl reissues. When I was looking for new album releases to talk about in today’s post, I discovered that there just weren’t that many new albums coming out this week. I haven’t been operating in this new blog format long enough to know the cyclical patterns of record releases, so I am not sure if this is just the post-holiday doldrums we are in or if there just wasn’t much new that was happening. What I did notice was a number of box sets, commemorative reissues and greatest hits packages were out in the musical marketplace, so I opted to share one that I found particularly interesting. I hope that you end up liking it, too.

So, let’s begin, shall we? Here is Today’s/Tomorrow’s Top 40.

Commemorative Box Sets

The Collected Works of Neutral Milk Hotel

Neutral Milk Hotel with Jeff Mangum in the front

It is almost presumptuous to release a commemorative box set when you are a band that has only ever released two albums, but when that band is Neutral Milk Hotel it seems highly appropriate. As many of you may know, Neutral Milk Hotel was an Indie-Alternative band who came to prominence in the mid-1990s. The band was fronted by singer/songwriter Jeff Mangum and promoted a sub-genre of music known as lo-fi. This meant that the band purposefully recorded their music in basic, simple ways and eschewed polished recording techniques and effects. Their debut album didn’t fare that well when it was released, but their second album, In The Aeroplane Over The Sea, is a different story and helped make the band one of the most interesting and important Indie bands of all time. While not completely a concept album, In The Aeroplane Over The Sea was inspired for the most part by the seminal book Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl. Singer Jeff Mangum read the book and was profoundly moved by the story it contained. Specifically, he became emotionally overwhelmed at the idea that someone as full of kindness and empathy and the potential for goodness as Anne Frank appeared to be could be taken away from us so cruelly. He postulated that if there was no future for someone as special as Anne Frank, then what hope did any of us have going forward? The songs he wrote while in this state are rough around the edges but possess an earnestness that we rarely see in music today.

When In The Aeroplane Over The Sea was released, opinions were split as to its worth. But, over time, fans and critics alike have come to view the album as being a classic of its kind. I have to tell you that the title track, as well as the song “Holland, 1945” are both songs that are incredibly unique and moving and stay with you long after the last note has been played. This album was released just as the Internet was becoming a thing. Suddenly, Jeff Mangum’s heartfelt thoughts were becoming the fodder for chat room critiques and debates. The weight of being so vulnerable in such a public manner was not what Mangum had intended. Finding himself in that position became distressing, and Mangum simply disappeared for almost a decade. No one knew where he went or even if he was still alive. The manner in which he vanished added an air of mystique to the band’s legacy which, in turn, caused their work to be viewed with greater interest and seriousness. It wouldn’t be entirely incorrect to say that In The Aeroplane Over The Sea became somewhat of a cult classic album. Then, about a decade ago, Jeff Mangum reappeared as if he had never been away. A reunion tour was held but no new music was recorded or released. This new commemorative box set is the first new offering by the band in almost twenty-five years.

If you have never heard Neutral Milk Hotel before then I offer you their two most well known songs. “Holland, 1945” is said to be about Otto Frank, who was Anne Frank’s father and the only member of the Frank family to have survived the Holocaust. The song is about how someone in that situation deals with survivor’s guilt and finds the strength to continue living when all that they have loved is gone. It is actually a peppy, all-over-the-place song that leaves a lasting impression because of the emotional wallop it packs. You can listen to this song here. “In The Aeroplane Over The Sea” is not specifically about Anne Frank and her life, but she certainly helped to inspire it. It is a slightly less jangly song as compared to “Holland, 1945”, but it is uniquely uplifting and passionate at the same time. You can listen to this song here.

New Album Releases

Heavy Heavy by Young Fathers

Young Fathers: Alloysious Massaquoi, “G” Hastings and Kayus Bankole

I have a new favourite band. Young Fathers are an absolutely incredible band from Scotland. Heavy Heavy is their fourth album. Two of their first three releases have gone on to be named Scottish Album of the Year. I am not sure why I had never heard of them prior to conducting my research for this post but now that I have found them, I have been binge-listening to their entire catalogue. They are soooooo good live! Young Fathers consists of three singers Alloysious Massaquoi (Liberian), Kayus Bankole (Nigerian), Graham “G” Hastings (Scottish) who perform in what can best be described as Hip Hop Gospel. Their performance style is not Hip Hop as we know it from America. It is a joyful world music style. Completely uplifting and emotionally energizing. I am going to try to bring you up to speed by giving you three videos to watch and listen to!

The first comes from a live in-studio performance at my favourite radio station KEXP-FM in Seattle. They play four older songs live in this set. They are so intense. You will be drained just watching it. So good. The link to that video is here. ***There is no lyric video.

The second video also comes from a live performance of a song called “Only God Knows”. This song was written for inclusion on the soundtrack of the Trainspotting sequel, T2. Again, the intensity of the performance is something else, especially the second half of the song. You can watch this video here. ***Because it is a live performance, there is no lyric video.

The third and final video is a lyric video!!! It is the lyric video for the latest single from their new album, Heavy Heavy, and is simply called “Rice”. It can be found here.

i/o by Peter Gabriel

Peter Gabriel

Peter Gabriel recently celebrated his 73rd birthday by releasing a new album called i/o. Over the course of his long and successful career, Peter Gabriel has released many hit songs such as “Sledgehammer”, “Big Time”, “Don’t Give Up” featuring Kate Bush, “In Your Eyes” featuring Youssou N’Dour, “Shock The Monkey”, “Games Without Frontiers”, “Solsbury Hill”, “Biko” and many more. He has also championed causes such as human rights, as well as protection of the environment.

His new album i/o is his first new album in twenty years. He released the first single from the album, “Panopticom: Bright Side Mix”, on the first full moon of this year. On the second full moon, he released “Panopticom: Dark Side Mix”. Gabriel plans to continue releasing new material as each full moon appears, giving each new song the “bright side/dark side” alternative versions as time goes on. Gabriel claims that the idea of the “Panopticom” is to create a global database of information and ideas that is controlled by ordinary citizens so that we have unfiltered access to the information necessary to understand what is happening to our world and make proper informed decisions accordingly.

You can watch/listen to the videos for “Panopticom: Bright Side Mix” here and “Panopticom: Dark Side Mix” here. ***There are no lyric versions.

Songs That Are Currently on the Charts

“Green Green Grass” by George Ezra (BBC Radio 1, Billboard and Spotify)

George Ezra

George Ezra burst on to the UK music scene in 2014 when he had a big hit with the song “Budapest”. In the time since, he is generally regarded in the same musical peer group as Ed Sheeran and Sam Smith. Ezra has had several #1 hit songs in the UK and was named the Best British Male Solo Artist at The Brit Awards in 2019.

He is presently climbing the Top 40 charts around the world with a song called “Green Green Grass”. The story behind the song is that he was vacationing on the island of St. Lucia with family and friends in 2018. As they were driving around the island they came upon what appeared to be a festival or street party in a small town. When they stopped to enquire as to what the nature of the celebration was, they were informed that it actually was a celebration of life for three different people at the same time. The music was so joyous, the colours so vibrant and the atmosphere so happy that everyone in Ezra’s party came to the conclusion that when their turn came to pass that they definitely wanted a sendoff such as the one they had just witnessed. “Green Green Grass” is about having such a party after you have died. Despite the subject matter, “Green Green Grass” is a peppy, upbeat tune that is a popular hit for a reason.

The link to the video for “Green Green Grass” by George Ezra can be found here. ***The lyrics version is here.

“Never Gonna Not Dance Again” by P!nk (CHUM-FM, Billboard, Spotify)


Despite the double-negative song title, “Never Gonna Not Dance Again” by P!nk is climbing the charts all across North America. This song was inspired by the George Michael and Wham song “Careless Whisper” and the line, “I’m never gonna dance again”. However, P!nk approached the song with the idea that, unlike what happened in the George Michael song, no one was ever going to take away her spirit and her willingness to express herself through music and movement and dance.

P!nk is terrific. She has such a powerful voice and such a charismatic personality. In her career, she has had many hits, such as “There You Go”, “Lady Marmalade”, “Get The Party Started”, “Just Like a Pill”, “So What”, “Sober”, “Bad Influence”, “Raise Your Glass”, “Perfect”, “Try”, “Just Like Fire”, “What About Us” and many more. She has also performed with other artists, such as Eminem, Cher, City and Colour, Keith Urban, as well as appearing at the recent Taylor Hawkins Tribute Concert in Los Angeles and singing with the Foo Fighters.

Her latest single is “Never Gonna Not Dance Again”. The link to the video for this song is here. ***The lyrics version can be found here.

“Whitney” by Rêve (Chum-FM, Spotify)


Rêve is the Montreal-based singer who broke onto the music scene this past year with the catchy hit song “Ctrl-Alt-Del”. She is back with a new song called “Whitney”, which, as you may suspect, is inspired by the late, great Whitney Houston. Rêve has stated that this song has two meanings for her. First of all, it is a tip-of-the-hat to Whitney Houston and to all of the other iconic performers who inspired Rêve to follow her own dream of becoming a singer in her own right. She says that having such impactful role models was the key to giving her the confidence to believe that she could write and sing hit songs, too. She also hopes that by being a successful woman who is supporting and applauding other successful women, that maybe, one day, some young aspiring teenage female singer with a dream will look to her as being an inspiration, too. The second point that Rêve is making with the song “Whitney” is that being a successful singer takes more than just talent; it takes a sense of self-confidence that allows you to develop a stage presence that catches the eye of the public. So, this song is Rêve’s way of thanking the likes of Whitney Houston for helping her to develop a sense of style and swagger to her on-stage persona.

The link to the song, “Whitney” by Rêve can be found here. ***The lyrics version is here.

That’s a wrap for this week. I hope that you found some new music to enjoy. I will be back next week with an all-new look at what is trending now, what may be trending in the very near future, as well as celebrating the very best of the past should there be box sets and reissues of note to pass along. Until then, take care. Thanks for reading this post. I appreciate your presence on my blog.

PS: The header photo was taken at the Cultivate Festival in Port Hope, Ontario this past summer. The link to the Festival website can be found here.

***As always, all original content contained within this blog remains the sole property of the author. No portion of this post shall be reblogged, copied or shared in any manner without the express written consent of the author. ©2023

I Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In) by The First Edition from the Original Motion Picture Soundtrack to the Film The Big Lebowski…Song #32/250: The Stars of Stage and Screen

When people ask me about what kind of movies I like to watch, I never reply with a genre like horror or comedy or drama, instead I always reply with a single word, “quirky”. I like movies that are slightly askew when it comes to the storyline. I appreciate being challenged to piece together what is actually happening as a movie unfolds. I enjoy mulling over the implications of what I have just watched long after the final scene has ended and I am alone again with my thoughts in the dark. Movies that flip convention on their ear such as Memento, Alien or Apocalypse Now are favourite movies of mine for this reason. I have watched each movie multiple times and still am finding new details or filming techniques that give me pause to think.

Another favourite film that falls into this category of being unique and highly original is Barton Fink. This movie was my introduction to the cinematic creativity of the Coen Brothers. Without going into too much detail, Barton Fink was a movie filled with contradictions that caused me, as a viewer, to question whether what I was seeing on screen was real or not. The contradictions were integrated everywhere into the fabric of the movie. The attention to detail by the Coen Brothers impressed me. This movie starred John Turturro and John Goodman which, in turn, introduced me to the fact that the Coen Brothers like to work with a familiar company of actors because in today’s movie, The Big Lebowski, Turturro and Goodman play prominent roles again. As with just about all Coen Brothers movies, The Big Lebowski defies convention when it comes to plot structure and character arcs. Most importantly, The Big Lebowski is built upon a foundation of contradictions and misdirections. The Coen Brothers don’t even attempt to hide the fact that they are deceiving you. Here is a simple example: Jeff Bridges is the star of the movie. His character’s name is Jeffrey Lebowski, but everyone calls him “The Dude”. If you were to conduct a Google search for this movie, I am certain that you would find movie posters or stills from various scenes that all show Jeff Bridges. All of these images would lay beneath the movie title of The Big Lebowski. So, you have the star of the movie playing a character named Lebowski smiling from beneath a title that says The Big Lebowski, which would lead one to the conclusion that Jeff Bridges’ character IS The Big Lebowski…but, he is not. The real “Big Lebowski” is someone else in the movie. The confusion over the identity of which Lebowski is which is the plot device used to start the action in the movie. But, if The Big Lebowski movie title isn’t actually referring to the “Big Lebowski” character, then what else about the movie is being made to seem obvious and upfront but is actually fake or a conman’s shell game? As it turns out, much of the movie is that way.

When The Big Lebowski premiered, it did so to mixed audience reviews. Part of the reason for this was that audiences were confused by the storyline. However, what this movie really needed was time. In the decades since its release, The Big Lebowski has become one of those movies known as a “cult classic”. One of the reasons that it has dramatically improved its popularity with movie goers is that people have had the time to study the film, peel back the layers of deceptions that are everywhere and discover the thematic truths that pin the whole premise of the movie together. So, let me illustrate the length the Coen Brothers went to in order to build a world riddled with deception. I will do so by talking about how music is used in two iconic scenes from the movie. At the end of the post, I will give my take on what I think The Big Lebowski is actually about, and we can see if you agree or disagree.

John Turturro….your own personal Jesus!

Scene one tends to be known as the “Bowling with Jesus” scene. Bowling plays a central role in the movie. In this scene, we discover that The Dude, his friend Walter (John Goodman) and their friend Donnie (Steve Buscemi) are on a team in a league tournament. We meet a rival team led by a man named Jesus (John Turturro, in a scenery-chewing scene if there ever was one). The contradictions start right away. In Southern California there is a strong Spanish influence based on its geographic proximity to Mexico. Almost every man named “Jesus” who lives there pronounces his name the Spanish way, with an “h” sound for the “J”, which causes the name to be pronounced in English as “Hay-seuss”. In this scene, Turturro plays a man who pronounces his name as if he was the Son of God. Unlike the biblical character, Turturro is a foul-mouthed convicted pedophile who talks tough to The Dude and his friends but who never actually does anything to back up his words. While Turturro struts in front of Bridges, Goodman and Buscemi, the song “Hotel California” written by The Eagles plays in the background. However, this version is a cover in Spanish by the band The Gipsy Kings. So, let me peel back the layers of deception that The Coen Brothers have built into this one scene by using this one song as they have, which again, I repeat, only plays in the background.

The Gipsy Kings

First of all, I am going to start with the assumption that you know the original version of this great song. (If not, click here to read a previous post about it). The Eagles are synonymous with the West Coast/California sound that took hold during the 1970s. But did you know that none of the original members of the lineup were actually from California. All were midwest boys who came to California in search of the mythical west coast laid back lifestyle. The song “Hotel California” is about the lifestyle they found themselves in once they started playing music there. It concerns addictions and false friendships and losing touch with the real world as it was once known. All throughout The Big Lebowski, there is a running gag in which The Dude hates on The Eagles because he views them as a fake California/fake rock n’ roll band. And yet, there is their biggest hit playing in the background of this iconic confrontation at the bowling alley. But wait, the layers of deception deepen further. The version used in the movie is sung in Spanish by The Gipsy Kings. The Gipsy Kings are an internationally known flamenco band who are not Spanish at all, but who actually come from France! So, in this one minor background moment, you have a French band that is often taken for being Spanish singing a song that is not their own about living a fake lifestyle as experienced by musicians in The Eagles who are not from California but are often credited with being one of the main bands that drove the momentum for the California sound back in the day. Now that is commitment to detail on the part of The Coen Brothers.

Here is just part of the set for the elaborate “Gutterball Dream Sequence”.

The second scene that illustrates this point is called “The Gutterball Dream Sequence”. On the surface, this scene starts when The Dude passes out after having consumed a spiked White Russian drink and evolves into a send-off of the old Busby Berkeley musical dance scenes from the 1940s and 50s. However, as always with The Coen Brothers, there is much more going on than meets the eye, and it all starts with a layer of musical duplicity compliments of The Gambler, himself, Mr. Kenny Rogers. In this fantasy scene, Jeff Bridges finds himself in a heavenly bowling alley filled with scantily-clad beautiful women whose costumes all have something to do with bowling. One of the women there turns out to be Julianne Moore, who plays the sister of the man who actually is The Big Lebowski in the movie. She is someone that The Dude is attracted to but who, so far, has completely rebuffed him in the film. However, in this drug-induced dream, The Dude teaches her how to bowl.

Kenny Rogers and the First Edition

Throughout this dream sequence, we hear the song “I Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)” by The First Edition. When this song was first released in the mid-1960s, it was believed that it was a song about the dangers of LSD. It was also a song that stood out for the band because it was a psychedelic rock song at a time when The First Edition was mainly known for folk and country music. But again, let me peel back the layers of deception that form the foundation of this movie scene. The First Edition was composed of members who mainly came from another well known band called The New Christy Minstrels. The New Christy Minstrels were a band that was inspired by a 1940s act called The Christy Minstrels, which was a group that performed in blackface. The New Christy Minstrels formed in 1960 and were meant to be a side project, mainly for session singers, as a way for them all to earn a few dollars while waiting for other projects to appear. On their debut album, they covered the famous Woody Guthrie tune “This Land Is My Land”, which unexpectedly became a hit for them. The record label who had released the album demanded that they go on tour to promote the single. Suddenly, this band, which really wasn’t a band, had to quickly become one. Many of the original members of The New Christy Minstrels dropped out because touring wasn’t something they had signed on for when they recorded the album. Thus, over the next few years, numerous members were added and deleted as time went on. Some of those members who quit went on to form The Byrds or, like Kim Carnes, to have a Grammy Award winning solo career or, as in the case of Kenny Rogers, drop out with several other New Christy Minstrels and form a new band called The First Edition. As many of you will know, Kenny Rogers emerged from The First Edition the same way that Diana Ross became the face of The Supremes. Soon the band was called Kenny Rogers and The First Edition, which had hits such as “Reuben James” and “Don’t Take Your Love To Town”. Again, like Diana Ross, Kenny Rogers eventually became a solo artist with dozens of chart-topping hits and Grammy Awards to his name. So, in this movie scene from The Big Lebowski, you have The Dude dreaming of sharing the thing he loves most (bowling) with the woman he desires most (Julianne Moore) all the while a song plays by a band who came from a band that was inspired by blackface actors pretending to be people they were not, all the while singing a song about the dangers of drugs in a musical style that was unusual for them in the whole course of their history.

It is a time, no doubt.

The Big Lebowski is a movie that has transcended Hollywood. In the time since its initial release, The Big Lebowski has become studied and analyzed by academics of all subject areas from Feminist Studies, to English Literature, to Economics and History, too. There are yearly conventions in which academic papers are presented and debated as to the underlying message The Coen Brothers were attempting to give with this movie. The Coen Brothers have stated that they were only creating a comedic send-up of Raymond Chandler-esque film noir movies. But I took a different message from it. I think the main message of The Big Lebowski is about masculinity in these times of ours. Throughout the movie, the male characters are presented in ways that give viewers distinct versions of what being a man is like. The Dude is passive and avoids conflict and only seeks to bowl and get his rug replaced. His friend Walter is a Gulf War vet who presents as a right wing, hardcore rules enforcer for others but not for him. Their other friend, Donnie, represents those faceless, voiceless people whose opinion is never asked for nor is it respected if it happens to be given. Jesus turns out to be like those “Karens” of the world who threaten and shout down others to hide their own emotional deficiencies and lack of life successes. The Big Lebowski turns out to be a millionaire who measures his self worth in the form of the pretty/shiny things he surrounds himself with, including a trophy wife, but who, at his core, remains unhappy. There is also a mobster who is a porn movie director who spends his days making movies about fake intimacy that go straight to video when all he wants is to be a real filmmaker and tell real stories again. None of these men are truly happy nor feel complete. So, what is the nature of being a man? How does the answer to that question impact the women in their lives, as well as people of other races, religions and ethnic backgrounds that they come into contact with? I will leave the answer to that question to Sam Elliott, who stars as The Cowboy, an all-wise, all-knowing man who appears throughout the movie to offer clarity and point us in the right direction. He ends the film with his thoughts on this matter and on the story as a whole. All that I know for sure is that I have watched The Big Lebowski and thought it was a take on the state of masculinity in our world. But, I could be wrong and it is simply a comedy about a man whose rug gets peed on in a wacky case of mistaken identity. Therefore, let the hijinks ensue!

If you have watched this movie, what is your take? I am not sure there is a right or wrong answer to that question. In any case, I look forward to reading your thoughts in the comment box below. Have a wonderful day. Thanks for reading my words. I appreciate your presence on my blog.

The link to the video for the “Bowling with Jesus” scene featuring the Spanish version of “Hotel California” as sung by The Gypsy Kings can be found here. ***Please note, NSFW.

The link to the video for the “Gutterball Dream Sequence” scene featuring the song “I Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)” by The First Edition can be found here. ***Again, viewer discretion advised.

The link to the video for the trailer to the movie The Big Lebowski can be found here.

***As always, all original content contained within this post remains the sole property of the author. No portion of this post shall be reblogged, copied or shared in any manner without the express written consent of the author. ©2023

The Great Canadian Road Trip: Song #33/250: The Spark by William Prince

In 1986, William Prince was born in Selkirk, Manitoba.

William Prince

I have written many sentences over the years but few have been so rife with historical significance as the one that begins this post. While keeping in mind that this is a post about a singer and his songbook, it is impossible to separate William Prince from his lineage and the role his ancestors have played in several important events in Canadian history. His is a bloodline that has known its share of grand accomplishments and tragic heartbreak. His past informs his present in many ways but none more so that the philosophy of spirituality that guides much of his songwriting. William Prince is one of Canada’s most distinctive voices. The deep, rich timbre of his voice sets him apart from most singers. The hopeful, passionate tone of his lyrics resonates with all who are fortunate to hear him sing. William Prince has released four albums to date and has already received a Juno Award for Best Contemporary Roots and Traditional Album of the Year. He has also been named as Canada’s English Songwriter of the Year in 2020. But to fully appreciate the story of one of the rising stars in the Canadian music scene, it is important that we journey back almost two centuries to a time when Canada, as we now know it, didn’t exist. This is the story of William Prince. It is also the story of how Canada came to be.

Chief Peguis also known as Cut Nose.

William Prince is a direct relation to an Ojibwe chief named Cut Nose. Our history books have christened him as Chief Peguis. Cut Nose was the leader of the Saulteaux Peoples. Originally, the Saulteaux lived in what is now known as Ontario. But, with the westward expansion of English settlers across Ontario, Cut Nose moved his people to the Red River Valley in what is now known as Manitoba. Not long after the Saulteaux settled there, a man named Lord Selkirk appeared in eastern Canada. He found that there was money to be made in acquiring land and helping new settlers to build homes and set up farms. He began his business ventures on land found on Prince Edward Island. The success of his plans there encouraged Lord Selkirk to search for vacant properties to the west. He applied to the British Government to buy a tract of land in the Red River Valley of Manitoba but was refused because that land had already been granted to the Hudson’s Bay Company for fur trading. Undeterred, Lord Selkirk teamed up with Alexander McKenzie. Together they bought for themselves a controlling share of Hudson Bay Company stock. To further consolidate his position, Selkirk married the daughter of one of the Board members of the HBC. With his newly acquired authority, Selkirk assumed control of the Red River Valley and began the process of helping settlers to safely establish settlements there. At the time, many Indigenous Peoples had already been working in cooperation with the Northwest Company, which was a rival fur trading company to The Hudson’s Bay Company. In particular, the local Metis Peoples had a long and successful partnership with the Northwest Company and refused to cede the land to Selkirk without a fight. In the years that followed, there were many battles between the Metis and the forces of those who represented “The Crown” leading to, in time, the rise of Louis Riel and the battle known in history books as The Red River Rebellion. Caught in the middle of this political maneuvering were the Saulteaux led by Cut Nose. In order to limit the spread of Indigenous unrest, Lord Selkirk opted for a different strategy with the Saulteaux and the other Indigenous Nations in the area. He called for negotiations aimed at the formal establishment of peaceful relations between the new settlers, the Hudson’s Bay Company and the Indigenous Peoples of the land. These negotiations ended with the landmark signing of a peace treaty that is known in Canadian history simply as Treaty 1. In this treaty, the Indigenous Peoples of the land agreed to cede control of the entire Red River Valley area and beyond for all time. In return, they would be guaranteed an annual stipend and access to a parcel of land that would be exempted from any new settlement plans. One of those who signed away the rights to their land was Cut Nose on behalf of the Saulteaux. As many Indigenous Nations in North America were to find out, the Crown would soon use the same combination of armed force and negotiated promises to limit resistance across the remainder of the West. But, as they also found out, once these treaties were signed, the promises made were soon forgotten and those left on the newly created reserves often faced very hard economic and social times moving forward. In an attempt to ingratiate himself into the good graces of Lord Selkirk and his followers, Cut Nose agreed to convert to Christianity. In doing so, he gave up the use of his Indigenous name and adopted the name given to him which was William King. He was called “King” because he had been chief of his Nation. His sons and all descendants to follow were christened with the name “Prince”. This is how singer William Prince came to have his name.

Tommy Prince Stamp (CNW Group/Canada Post)

But William Prince’s family tree had yet another experience with the glory of proud accomplishment and the tragedy of failure. Cut Nose/William King had a great grandson named Tommy Prince. Tommy Prince would enlist in the Canadian Armed Forces and would go on to become one of Canada’s most highly skilled and decorated soldiers in our history. He earned his fame as a member of The Devil’s Brigade, which was a highly trained covert unit of soldiers who operated in WWII, as well as The Korean War. Despite earning multiple awards for bravery while in combat, when Tommy Prince was honourably discharged he returned to a Canada where Indigenous people were often faced with much discrimination. He found it almost impossible to get a job because his fellow employees would refuse to work alongside him because of his Indigenous status. He was also denied entry into The Royal Canadian Legion. Eventually, Tommy Prince developed addictions and suffered from mental illness. He died alone in a boarding house room no bigger than a jail cell. His death resulted in calls for a re-examination of how Canadians treat and regard Indigenous people. A Heritage Minute video was created about Tommy Prince’s story. Canada Post has subsequently honoured him with a stamp. Tommy Prince died in 1976.

William Prince was born in 1986 in Selkirk, Manitoba. Although he never met Tommy Prince (his third cousin) or Cut Nose/William King (his great-great grandfather), the historical weight of the past is something young William has carried with him his entire life. For some people, that weight would be viewed as a burden. But for William Prince, he has embraced his past and is determined to bring pride to his family and to his Peoples. One of the very first things that happened to William as a child was that he and his family moved from Selkirk to Peguis First Nation, which sits about 100 kilometres north of Winnipeg. Once settled there, William was introduced to the world of music by his father, who was a minister. As a teen, William tried his hand at singing in a grunge band (which was all the rage in North America in the late 1990s/early 2000s). Prince discovered that his voice was too deep to sing as fast and as high as he would have needed to in order to sound like his hero, Kurt Cobain. But, those who did hear him sing all commented that his voice seemed well suited for a slower style. That prompted Prince to buy an acoustic guitar. He abandoned his Nirvana-esque dreams and began to see music as a way to try and change the course of his family history. Thus, he took time to play and hone his skills as a guitarist. William Prince also took time to perfect the craft of writing songs that had meaning and that came from his heart. All through his twenties, Prince practised and played and wrote. It wasn’t until 2015, when he was almost 30 years old, that he felt he had enough skill and life experiences to warrant putting his music out to the world. His first album was called Earthly Days and was a mix of Gospel, Country and Folk. His work was well received by fans and critics alike, who were equally impressed by the sound of his voice as well as the maturity of his lyrics. Not long after Earthly Days was released and William Prince began to tour and play live in concert venues for the first time, he was approached to become involved in the Artist Development Programme offered by the folks who run Massey Hall in Toronto. In this programme, new artists are helped to secure bookings in venues that are an appropriate size for them during the early days of their career. In this way, an artist can be guaranteed of having bookings and can begin to develop an audience following that will grow with them as their career rolls along. What this meant for William Prince was that he eventually found himself on a bill at Massey Hall when it reopened in 2018 after having been closed for three years for renovations. He appeared at a show called The Songwriters Hall of Fame Gala. He appeared on stage with Inuk singer Elisapie to sing the song “Stolen Land” by Bruce Cockburn for Cockburn and the assembled crowd. The message of the song was clear to all in attendance. Since that performance, William Prince has continued to work with the folks at Massey Hall in an outreach programme for aspiring songwriters. He travels across the country, attending small festivals and appearing at local theatres and concert halls. At every stop along the way, William Prince continues to dazzle audiences with his beautiful singing voice and his message of hope, love and understanding.

The story of William Prince is definitely one of the most uplifting at play in the Canadian music scene today. His star is in ascendancy. His profile is becoming more well known across the country. His message of love and of hope is universal. He remains a proud member of Peguis First Nation. He has embraced his past and is striving to use his family’s experiences to inform his craft, and thereby, to inform all of us, too. Our world can be…and should be…a better place. William Prince is someone who is working tirelessly to make this happen. Let’s reply in kind and welcome him into our lives. He is a jewel of a human being. If this post is your introduction to him, then I am happy to have brought Mr. Prince to your attention. He is the real deal. Get ready to listen to some wonderful music. Enjoy.

The link to the video for the song “The Spark” by William Prince can be found here.

The link to the official website for William Prince can be found here.

The link to the Massey Hall Artist Development Programme can be found here.

The link to the official website for The Peguis First Nation can be found here.

The link to the Heritage Minute video about the life of Tommy Prince can be found here.

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