Thursday, January 21, 2010

Phil Ochs

One of the most distinctive voices of the protest folk music of the 1960s, Phil Ochs is pretty much forgotten now. The song I was talking about in the last post, "The War is Over," starts about 6:10.

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Saturday, December 26, 2009

Jeff Burke as Black Santa: a phenom

It's been a mixed bag of a holiday for my family, but this holiday blog post helped push my mood towards the good side.

Jeff Burke is a friend of mine whom I not only like but have always respected as an original. His steadiest musical gig is as a busker in the Toronto subway system. He's now popped up in a TTC Busker Profile at BlogTO. I must congratulate interviewer Jennifer Tse for letting Jeff be himself. Here's my favorite part of an excellent article:

Any final thoughts you would like to share?

While I'm playing, people who used to play the bassoon will run into me, telling me they stopped because they had other things to do with their lives. Other people will give me this wistful look and tell me they miss making music. Someone once said to me they weren't good enough, and that they weren't going to be a professional so they thought they shouldn't waste their time.

It's always sad to hear about people letting music go because they think they aren't going to be good enough. To me, doing creative things with music doesn't have to be about being the virtuoso or the expert. It's something you have fun with that opens up your heart and your spirit, and you can share it with people one way or another.

I want people to give their spirit a chance to breathe, and do some of those things. While they may not make you money, they can make you happy, and you have to find some way in your life to squeeze those things in. It enriches your life.

This applies to more than music.

Take it away, Jeff!

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Sunday, November 15, 2009

Taqwacore: The birth of punk Islam (2009)

Last night I saw this movie at the Windsor International Film Festival. Taqwacore is supposed to be a combination of "taqwa" ( God consciousness) and "hard core punk." I think the word is an invention of Michael Muhammed Knight, a young Muslim from New York State whose immediate family is Roman Catholic. At some point in his life he thought, "What if a bunch of musicians got a house together and lived the true Muslim/punk life?" He wrote a novel called Taqwacore about the possibilities, and soon enough he was the center of a network of American Islamic punks who wanted to do it for real. Taqwacore the movie tells the story of what happened next, in the USA and Pakistan.

One of the most memorable scenes in the movie shows the band, of course called Taqwacore, playing for a convention of middle-aged, mainstream American Muslims in Chicago, who are so offended by the hard-core presentation, and the use of a female lead singer, that they call the police to eject the band. At the same time, all the 15-year-old daughters, dressed in hijab, are giggling and smiling and grooving to this rebellious music.

And then there is the confidence that these Americans have that they can take the true spirit of Islam to Pakistan, again with mixed results.

I found the whole thing as American as... Walt Whitman and Jack Kerouac. It's one more version of On the Road.

The trailer is here. Do have a look.

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Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Dixie down

I feel compelled to post most of the material following from Brad DeLong's blog, because "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" is the only depiction of the Civil War, historical or fictional, that has ever made me feel any sympathy for those who fought for the Confederacy:

Thus Robbie Robertson [member of "The Band" who wrote the song in 1969] incites the ire of Ta-Nehisi Coates, who believes that we have very different memories of the Winter of '65, and don't need to invent Robertson's particular one:

Ta-Nehisi Coates: What you see above is the train of Rebels fleeing the city, as the Union troops enter from the other side. I was thinking about the Richmond yesterday, and The Band's "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down."... I'm told that it's a great song, and I don't so much doubt this, as I doubt my own magnanimity. I'm reminded of one of my father's favorite quotes, "The African's right to be wrong is sacred." Or Aaron McGruder's line, "I reserve the right to be a nigger." I can no more marvel at The Band then a Sioux can marvel at the cinematography of "The Died With Their Boots On." I wouldn't fault the man who could, but it's not me My empathy is a resource to be rationed like all others. My right to be wrong is sacred. My right to be a nigger is reserved. I started to play the song yesterday, and stopped myself. Again, I was angry. Again, another story about the blues of Pharaoh, and the people are invisible. The people are always invisible....

The expectation that someone else will tell your story for you, will write your ballads for you, will reconcile your history for you, is foolish and vain.... I'm no Robbie Robertson, but I do carry the words of my old, magical people:

I have just returned from the city of Richmond; my regiment was among the first that entered that city. I marched at the head of the column, and soon I found myself called upon by the officers and men of my regiment to make a speech, with which, of course, I readily complied. A vast multitude assembled on Broad Street, and I was aroused amid the shouts of ten thousand voices, and proclaimed for the first time in that city freedom to all mankind. After which the doors of all the slave pens were thrown open, and thousands came out shouting and praising God, and Father, or Master Abe, as they termed him. In this mighty consternation I became so overcome with tears that I could not stand up under the pressure of such fullness of joy in my own heart. I rested to gain strength, so I lost many important topics worthy of note.

Among the densely crowded concourse there were parents looking for children who had been sold south of this state in tribes, and husbands came for the same purpose; here and there one was singled out in the ranks, and an effort was made to approach the gallant and marching soldiers, who were too obedient to orders to break ranks.We continued our march as far as Camp Lee, at the extreme end of Broad Street, running westwards. In camp the multitude followed, and everybody could participate in shaking the friendly but hard hands of the poor slaves.

Among the many broken-hearted mothers looking for their children who had been sold to Georgia and elsewhere, was an aged woman, passing through the vast crowd of colored, inquiring for one by the name of Garland H. White, who had been sold from her when a small boy, and was bought by a lawyer named Robert Toombs, who lived in Georgia. Since the war has been going on she has seen Mr. Toombs in Richmond with troops from his state, and upon her asking him where his body-servant Garland was, he replied: "He ran off from me at Washington, and went to 'Canada. I have since learned that he is living somewhere in the State of Ohio." Some of the boys knowing that I lived in Ohio, soon found me and said, "Chaplain, here is a lady that wishes to see you." I quickly turned, following the soldier until coming to a group of colored ladies. I was questioned as follows:

"What is your name, sir?" "My name is Garland H. White." "What was your mother's name?" "Nancy." "Where was you born?" "In Hanover County, in this State." "Where was you sold from?" "From this city." "What was the name of the man who bought you?" "Robert Toombs." "Where did he live?" "In the State of Georgia." "Where did you leave him?" "At Washington." "Where did you go then?" "To Canada." "Where do you live now?" "In Ohio." "This is your mother, Garland, whom you are now talking to, who has spent twenty years of grief about her son."

I cannot express the joy I felt at this happy meeting of my mother and other friends. But suffice it to say that God is on the side of the righteous, and will in due time reward them. I have witnessed several such scenes among the other colored regiments.

Late in the afternoon, we were honored with his Excellency, the President of the United States, Lieutenant-General Grant, and other gentlemen of distinction. We made a grand parade through most of the principal streets of the city, beginning at Jeff Davis's mansion, and it appeared to me that all the colored people in the world had collected in that city for that purpose. I never saw so many colored people in all my life, women and children of all sizes running after Father, or Master Abraham, as they called him. To see the colored people, one would think they had all gone crazy. The excitement at this period was unabated, the tumbling of walls, the bursting of shells, could be heard in all directions, dead bodies being found, rebel prisoners being brought in, starving women and children begging for greenbacks and hard tack, constituted theorder of the day. The Fifth [Massachusetts] Cavalry; colored, were sfill dashing through the streets to protect and preserve the peace, and see that no one suffered violence, they having fought so often over the walls of Richmond, driving the enemy at every point.

Among the first to enter Richmond was the 28th U.S.C.T. better known as the First Indiana Colored Volunteers. . Some people do not seem to believe that the colored troops were the first that entered Richmond. Why, you need not feel at all timid in giving the truthfulness of my assertion to the four winds of the heavens, and let the angels re-echo it back to the earth, that the colored soldiers of the Army of the James were the first to enter the city of Richmond. I was with them, and am still with them, and am willing to stay with them until freedom is proclaimed throughout the world. Yes, we will follow this race of men in search of liberty through the whole Island of Cuba. All the boys are well, and send their love to all the kind ones at home."

Chaplain Garland H. White,
28th USCI, Richmond, Virginia,
April 12, 1865; CR, April 22, 1865

White's letter can be found in the book A Grand Army Of Black Men (p. 175.) For the serious civil war nerd, this book, a massive collection of letters written by black soldiers during the War, is indispensable.

Then again, maybe Robbie Robertson is saying something else. Virgil Cain may say so, but we all know that the real killer of Cain's brother Abel wasn't no Yankee stranger from afar, was he?

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Saturday, May 16, 2009

Fleetwood Mac, Big Love

I've never been that much of a follower of Fleetwood Mac, but I heard this on the car radio while crossing Michigan and the guitar part just struck me.


Saturday, February 07, 2009

Canterbury Tales Prologue: as it really was?

Someone over at the MEDIEV-L mailing list alerted me to this piece of art, which reminds me of the early adventurous days of rap, when I would not have been surprised to hear Plato's Republic on the radio.

It is my personal opinion that since Chaucer was 14th century writer, addressing a 14th century audience, that there is some real chance that this is the original form of the Canterbury prologue. They were weird back that, almost as weird as we are.

There's that much misused "we" word. You know what to do with such statements...

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Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Cheery music from the late 60s

This is one of the more memorable songs I listened to in those halcyon days. At least, I remember it clearly. Now, we all just sit back and laugh. Or not.

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Sunday, January 11, 2009

Stonehenge: No one who wasn't there can imagine what that music was like

But we can reconstruct and dream, can't we?

The Mail reports an acoustic-archaeological experiment:

Part-time DJ Dr Till, an expert in acoustics and music technology at Huddersfield University, believes the standing stones of Stonehenge had the ideal acoustics to amplify a 'repetitive trance rhythm' not dissimilar to some kinds of modern trance music.

Stonehenge would have had strange acoustic effects thousands of years ago

The original Stonehenge probably had a 'very pleasant, almost concert-like acoustic' that our ancestors slowly perfected over many generations. Because Stonehenge itself is partially collapsed, Dr Till, used a computer model to conduct experiments in sound.

The most exciting discoveries came when he and colleague Dr Bruno Fazenda visited a full-size concrete replica of Stonehenge, which was built as a war memorial by American road builder Sam Hill at Maryhill in Washington state.

He said: 'We were able to get some interesting results when we visited the replica by using computer-based acoustic analysis software, a 3D soundfield microphone, a dodecahedronic (12-faced) speaker, and a huge bass speaker.

'We have also been able to reproduce the sound of someone speaking or clapping in Stonehenge 5,000 years ago.

'The most interesting thing is we managed to get the whole space (at Maryhill) to resonate, almost like a wine glass will ring if you run a finger round it.

'While that was happening a simple drum beat sounded incredibly dramatic. The space had real character; it felt that we had gone somewhere special.'

Read the rest.

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Sunday, December 21, 2008

(Non-)Holiday music

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Why the 60s and 70s were a good era for generating medievalists

Read here.

Image: or it could be a Hendrix album.

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Friday, December 05, 2008

Got 15th-century armor? Fall of Constantinople video

I thought readers might be interested in this e-mail, especially readers near New York who own armor and love heroic last stands:

Hey folks. This is the last call for the "Fall of Constantinople" music
video shoot.

The project has gone very well so far (I portrayed Janos Hunyadi in a scene
shot last weekend, which required me dying my hair black), but they can
always use a few more people in armor to portray knights and soldiers on the
walls of Constantinople in 1453. From the research we have done, it seems
that the Italians came with their contemporary European armor, so anything
that can pass for mid-15th century gear will do nicely. They say everyone
who is part of the shoot will get face time on screen. This is a no-pay gig,
but they will provide food and a copy of the video once it is done.

The rehearsal is Saturday, June 6, in Astoria, Queens, and the shoot will be
Monday, November [December?] 8, also in Queens.

This is a 12-minute music video/short film for the Greek-American heavy
metal rock band Phoenix Reign ( and has already
been booked into a couple of film festivals.

If interested, contact Chris at

Image: Art from the Phoenix Reign site.

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Saturday, November 01, 2008

Sick of the American election?

You may need, to quote Atrios, a locked windowless room with a vat of vodka. Or this healthier alternative:

Thanks to Another Damned Medievalist for this.


Friday, September 26, 2008

Somehow seems appropriate for upcoming election debates the US and Canada.

Jethro Tull, playing The Clasp live in 1982 (first 4 minutes), studio track here, the lyrics here.

Synthetic chiefs with frozen smiles, holding unsteady courses
Grasp the reins of history high on their battle horses.
And meeting as good statesmen do before the TV eyes of millions
Hand to hand exchange the lie, pretend to make the clasp.
Jethro Tull was one of my favorite bands between 1968 and 1973, when I stopped following them. Someone gave me a whole collection of their later works about two years ago and the consistent quality they have maintained since 73 surprised me. Looking back forty years I can see why this band still appeals to me: Ian Anderson's personal mythology and mine overlap significantly. His use of symbolism in The Clasp really hits home.

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Sunday, September 14, 2008

Musical robots, 1967 and 1999: Along Comes Mary

Last night I was listening to Randy Bachmann's music show on CBC2. Bachmann, who comes across as a marvelously intelligent and informed person, plays a selection of popular music organized around various themes. This is not exactly an original idea, but he does it well.

Last night his theme was songs named after women. He happened to mention a song by the Association called Along Comes Mary. I was around in 1966 and 1967 when the song was popular and I remember it well, so I looked it up on the YouTube time machine. (That's how I think of it.) It was there all right, and I had a few minutes of appreciating how odd and how unfamiliar something I actually lived through could seem:

Then, just because it was there, a video of the 1999 Bloodhound Gang cover of the same song (does not embed but you can watch it here), with a curiously similar theme. Could it be that the Bloodhound Gang had access to this old film back in the 90s?

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Monday, July 14, 2008

Time for some more Crown of Creation

The Jefferson Airplane on the Smothers Brothers Show.

I feel a desire to point out that the words of this song come, more or less, from an excellent post-apocalyptic novel by John Wyndham entitled The Chrysalids (UK) or Rebirth (US). This book was an assigned text in one Toronto high school for years, presumably until too many copies fell apart. Not a bad choice. Perhaps it led a few students to conclude "I've seen their ways too often for my liking" a little more quickly.

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Friday, July 04, 2008

Phil Paine on Sibelius

For some reason the software that Phil Paine uses at archives old posts without attaching a permalink. Thus sometimes my links to his posts become broken. I don't doubt that some readers have had frustrating experiences as a result.

Today for some reason I was poking around at and came across this post on the Finnish composer Sibelius. As Phil says, Sibelius has always been a great favorite of his; one of my earliest memories of our friendship is of walking to a park in Toronto's Annex to find a statue of the man.

I'm just going to copy this finely written piece here, in hopes that it will lure a few more readers over to enjoy Phil's site.

Sibelius: En Saga Throughout my life, Sibelius has remained unchallenged as my favourite composer. As much as I might love Mozart, or Dvorak, or Vaughan Williams, and take delight in even their minor compositions, none has the place in my heart, and subconscious, that Sibelius has. The first work of the granite Finn that I ever heard was En Saga, Op.9. It has usually been considered no more than a rousing showpiece, but I think it offers some depths to explore. Sibelius' approach to composing was dispassionate and scientific. Though much of his work is intensely emotional, it seldom gives the impression of being a spontaneous outpouring of his own immediate feelings. But En Saga, a work of his youth, apparently fits this category: "I could almost say that the whole of my youth is contained within it. It is an expression of a state of mind. En saga is the expression of a state of mind. I had undergone a number of painful experiences at the time and in no other work have I revealed myself so completely. It is for this reason that I find all literary explanations quite alien." [1]. Despite attempts by reviewers to relate it to either the Finnish Kalevala, or to the Scandinavian Edda, Sibelius seems to have meant the title in the sense of a personal saga. The work exists in three forms. The standard version is the one that Sibelius revised in 1902. By this time, his mastery of orchestration was without peer, and the revisions he made are justifiable improvements. But I possess, on a cd conducted by Osmo Vänskä, a performance of the original 1892 version. The improvements of 1902 smoothed away some of the ungainly vigour of the younger man's work, whic has its own merits. Sibelius' daughter Aino certainly thought so: "I like and have always liked the first version. Papa removed some violent passages from it. Now En Saga is more civilised, more polished." Thus, the work experienced a journey from the forest to the town, gaining and losing something along the way. A pastoral middle section was excised entirely, and it contains some rather advanced features, for the time, such as seventh inversions of ninths, proceeding in parallel motion. En Saga is supposed to have originally been conceived of as a chamber work, a septet, but the score of this was lost. In 2003, Dr. Gregory Barrett (Indiana University) published a reconstruction of the En Saga Septet, but I haven't heard it, or found a recording. It is rather hard to imagine, since the piece we are familiar with is like a miniature symphony, a fine example of how Sibelius could treat a large orchestra like it was a single instrument, that he was playing with his own hands. En Saga was not only my first exposure to the Music of Sibelius, but a piece that awakened me to the adventure of music. I was never the same after I heard it. Growing up among Canadian lakes and forests that are virtually identical to those of Finland, exposed to native speech and rhythms very similar to those behind En Saga, the work could reach me in a way that none had before. To this day, those rhythms echo in my mind at the oddest moments, and will always come to mind when I walk alone among shield rocks, birch and spruce.

Phil Paine.

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Saturday, January 19, 2008

Medieval Manuscripts on video

Dr. Richard Scott Nokes has posted links to two YouTube clips on his blog Unlocked
they are the product of one Raul Quintanilla from Nicaragua.

Raul's videos feature images from medieval manuscripts and the music of Hildegard von Bingen. The first shows many pictures of how such manuscripts were produced.


Image: Bede at work on a manuscript, borrowed from Medieval History.

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Friday, December 21, 2007

The challenges of cultural history

Students of mine who have struggled to make sense of ancient or Anglo-Saxon history, when the evidence is severely limited, may be interested or amused at what seems to be a controversy about the origins of heavy metal music.

I was alerted to this debate by an article in the British newspaper the Guardian, in which Joe Queenan, commenting on a film documentary called Metal: A Headbanger's Journey, by Sam Dunn and Scott McFadyen, casts doubt on the filmmakers' contention that an obscure, one hit wonder band called Blue Cheer deserves to be recognized as the originators of heavy metal. I was flabbergasted that anyone should think this. We are talking about 1968, when I was about the age of many of my students now: in other words, the age when music really matters. I was a big fan of loud, "hard rock," "psychedelic" music and the San Francisco sound, and today when I read Queenan's article, I couldn't even dredge up the slightest memories of Blue Cheer (and no, it has nothing to do with my non-existent drug-taking). Though I remember their hit Summertime Blues, a cover of an earlier rockabilly (!) record.

But sure enough, you can find on the Web the many champions of the claim that these guys were the source of heavy metal (see, for instance, the Wikipedia entry for Blue Cheer). I don't buy it; if the patriarchs of metal are not Black Sabbath, then there are plenty of people in 1967-8 who contributed more to the metal sound. Let me cite only three: Jimi Hendrix, Jimi Hendrix, and Jimi Hendrix. (As this web-site points out, Blue Cheer were pretty derivative of Hendrix.) I'm not excluding any influence, but others surely were more influential (Iron Butterfly, even maybe the pretty laughable in retrospect Vanilla Fudge).

Why is this on Early History? It strikes me that if we can't agree on something this recent and well-recorded as this phenomenon, how well can we do for the 8th century, or the 8th century BC? How many jokes, to take one point, lie undetected in our sources?

Yet despite our problems with determining facts and influences, I still say, Blue Cheer, bah. Just look at that album cover.

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Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Heavy Metal Islam

Yesterday Led Zepplin reunited and performed in London and apparently they were great.

A couple of days ago, Al Jazeera ran a story on how Zep over the years has served as a bridge between East and West.

That never occurred to me before, and since journalists can say anything, I might have my doubts were it not for the fact that the article includes extensive interviews with two musicians, Salman Ahmed of Pakistan and Mark Levine from the USA. Musicians will say anything, too, but these two carry conviction. Ahmed caught my attention when he said:

I saw the band at Madison Square Garden during their last US tour in 1977 and it was a spiritual awakening. There was something deeply familiar in the music, but I couldn't place it until I returned to Pakistan for medical school.

It was then that I realised music - in good measure, their music - had led me home. Zeppelin channelled the Sufi music of South Asia through the blues to create rock 'n' roll at once more spiritual and more hedonistic than any before or since. Soon enough I traded in my stethoscope for an electric guitar, which seemed the better instrument to help heal my deeply wounded society.

Article recommended.

"Heavy Metal Islam" is the title of a book by Mark Levine.

Image: Jimmy Page and Robert Plant.

Update: Kashmir performed in London and the Sufi-like lyrics.

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Sunday, November 18, 2007

Shout a warning unto the nation that the sword of God is raised!

Long ago, I heard this song, Pride of Man by Hamilton Camp, on the first Quicksilver Messenger Service album; a friend heard a young Gordon Lightfoot sing it live. I put the lyrics here for my Ancient Civilizations students who worked so hard on Robert Wright's A Short History of Progress and Bryan Ward-Perkins's The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization. The students will see the connection, I think.

I've always had an ambiguous feeling toward this song. It's certainly powerful; but I can all too easily see Maximilien Robespierre and Osama bin Laden doing a duet. Classic imagery works, but it's all too easily adopted wholesale.

Pride of Man
by Hamilton Camp

Turn around,
go back down,
back the way you came,
Can't you see that flash of fire ten times brighter than the day?
And behold a mighty city broken in the dust again,
Oh God, Pride of Man, broken in the dust again.

Turn around,
go back down,
back the way you came,
Babylon is laid to waste, Egypt's buried in her shame,
The mighty men are all beaten down, their kings are fallen in the ways,
Oh God, Pride of Man, broken in the dust again.

Turn around,
go back down,
back the way you came,
Terror is on every side, lo our leaders are dismayed.
For those who place their faith in fire, their faith in fire shall be
Oh God, Pride of Man, broken in the dust again.

Turn around,
go back down,
back the way you came,
And shout a warning unto the nation that the sword of God is raised.
Yes, Babylon, that mighty city, rich in treasures, wide in fame,
Oh God, Pride of Man, broken in the dust again.

The meek shall cause your tower to fall, make of you a pyre of flame,
Oh you who dwell on many waters, rich in treasures, wide in fame.
you bow unto your God of gold, your pride of might shall be a shame,
For only God can lead His people back unto the Earth again.

Oh God, Pride of Man, broken in the dust again.
A Holy mountain be restored, and mercy on that people, that people

Here's a live performance of July 1, 2007, by the Jefferson Starship.

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