Uncommon Commoner

O Waly, Waly

This year the British Royal Mail is commemorating the contralto Kathleen Ferrier with a postage stamp in her honor.  Her early career began in piano competitions, while serving as a telephone operator, at one time auditioning for the voice of British Telecom’s “speaking clock,” before appearing professionally in a production of Handel’s Messiah.

She would later work closely with conductor Bruno Walter, particularly interpreting lieder by Brahms and Mahler.

With Benjamin Britten she would broaden her repertoire to include traditional folk music in concert recitals.

After her death at forty-one of cancer, her hauntingly unaccompanied version of the Northumbrian folksong Blow the Wind Southerly and What is Life?, from Gluck’s Orfeo and Euridice, continued to be very popular on BBC.

I include O Waly, Waly, a traditional folksong that has also been interpreted by Ewan McColl and The Pogues.


Sarah Martin Appreciation Day

Sunday’s Pretty Icons 



It is no secret to my few close friends that one of my favorite bands is Belle & Sebastian.  Sarah Martin, the multi-instrumentalist who has been with the band since their second album, If You’re Feeling Sinister, writes some of dreamiest infectious pop from the Belle & Sebastian catalogue:  Asleep on a Sunbeam, Heaven in the Afternoon, Waiting for the Moon to Rise, and  I Didn’t See It Coming, to name a few.  Her latest effort for the band is Sunday’s Pretty Icons.

Last Man of Letters

Gore Vidal died this morning.

Novelist, Playwright, Screenwriter, and perhaps most importantly, Essayist and Social Provocateur, Vidal was one of the last literate polemicists.

His charm and honesty will be missed.



“The great unmentionable evil at the center of our culture is monotheism. From a barbaric Bronze Age text known as the Old Testament, three anti-human religions have evolved — Judaism, Christianity, Islam. These are sky-god religions. They are, literally, patriarchal — God is the Omnipotent Father — hence the loathing of women for 2,000 years in those countries afflicted by the sky-god and his earthly male delegates. The sky-god is a jealous god, of course. He requires total obedience from everyone on earth, as he is in place not for just one tribe but for all creation. Those who would reject him must be converted or killed for their own good. Ultimately, totalitarianism is the only sort of politics that can truly serve the sky-god’s purpose.”

— from America First? America Last? America at Last?

Lowell Lecture, Harvard University, 20th April 1992

Pet & Glenn



Toccata in G minor, BWV 915

I am always a bit thrilled when I find two artists I admire to also have a mutual admiration. Or in this case half of that equation: Glenn Gould’s weakness for a good pop tune, as well as a certain singer: Downtown and Petula Clark respectively. After Gould ceased performing he did the occasional radio documentary for the CBC. In this broadcast, Searching for Petula Clark, he recounts his 1967 experience driving across northern Ontario listening to Top-40 radio. He takes awhile to get there and his musings are pure Gould. No pun intended. I do not think Ms. Clark’s response was ever noted.


Huevos Rancheros

While it has been a challage finding Trader Joe’s Gorditas ( I don’t know if they are in the process of discontinuing them, or if some stores simply do not stock them), but once procured, they make an excellent base for Huevos Rancheros.

Simply toast on an over rack, top with refried black beans, eggs over-easy, avacado slices, salsa and cilantro.

The Five-Percent-Solution: Half Sour Pickles


People should really do more canning and pickling.  This time of year is ripe with fresh ingredients and it actually takes so little time there is hardly an excuse not to.


Small pickling cucumbers

Enough water to cover said cucumbers

Salt (at a five percent ratio to water by weight)

Garlic cloves in quarters

Fresh dill

Pickling spices

Bring water and salt to boil.

Pour over other ingredients and make sure those ingredients stay submerged.

Cover and let sit for three or four days in cool shaded space.

Once they are “sour” to taste, you may refrigerate.

Give Us Your Poor

Give Us Your Poor is a project started by John McGah at the McCormack Graduate School of Policy and Global Studies at the University of Massachusetts Boston.  It is an ongoing campaign to bring awareness to the issue of homelessness.  I became involved while an undergraduate at the university, primarily as a documentarian and musical consultant.

A cornerstone of the project was producing a CD pairing signed recording artists with previously homeless musicians.  Among the recording artists involved were Bruce Springsteen, Bonnie Raitt, Natalie Merchant, and in this promotional video, Dan Zanes and Kyra Middleton singing Leadbelly’s Boll Weevil.

The session was recorded at Dan Zanes’ home in Brooklyn, New York.

Power Pop 101: Big Star: In The Street

In The Street

A true teen anthem, In The Street expresses the joys and innocence of just hanging out with nothing to do.  Driving aimlessly around hoping to score a joint, or something exciting, but in the end just enjoying friends and singing along to the radio, as is seen by its later use as the opening theme to That ‘70s Show.   “From the opening guitar riffs to the cowbell at the bridge, it deserves repeated listening.  This is definitely one to listen to while driving.

As had been said about The Velvet Underground, “they didn’t sell many records while a band, but everybody who bought their records started a band.  Big Star, who do cover The Velvet’s “Femme Fatale,” on their third album would have a cult following and influence many bands for years after.

Though hailing from Memphis, and taking their name from the southern chain of grocery stores, Big Star would show more influences from the British Invasion than from Elvis Presley.  Although you could generally apply the term “power-pop,” especially to In The Street, it would not do justice to the broad range of their music: from straight rock and roll to ballads, it was more often a baroque chamber pop blending many elements in one song.

Started by primary songwriters Chris Bell and Alex Chilton (who had a number one hit in The Letter with The Box Tops at age sixteen) they would make only three albums. After the poor sales of their initial album, Chris Bell left the band, although he would contribute to some of the song writing.

The second album, Radio City, would feature a cover photo by William Eggleston, a friend of Chilton’s.

This is a band whose work was probably too eclectic to have been embraced by the public at large, but sharing the love of their music is luckily another precious secret that bonds hipsters and outsiders alike.

There are three essential elements to power pop. Keep in mind; if I were a musician I could probably explain this in better detail.

1) The songs are based on a simple and driving, most often guitar driven, chord structure—-although this can be varied; think Lady Madonna by The Beatles, which is piano based.

2) There are very prominent vocal harmonies that work with the chord structure.

3) There is “the hook.”  This can be any part of the above, usually in combination– even a bass line (think of Paul McCartney’s very melodic bass playing)– that is the thing you find yourself singing or humming all day after hearing the song: the infectious part of the song that is like nothing else you have ever heard and only by listening to it or recalling it are you satisfied.  You are hooked.

Most likely, the first Power Pop hit would be The Kink’s You Really Got Me.  One of the keepers of the flame are The db’s, who’s founder Chris Stamey recently curated a tribute to Big Star’s third album, titled: Big Star’s Third, which included this moving version  of Kangaroo with lead vocals by Brett Harris.

The Limitless Music of John Vanderslice


One aspect of the digital music download format, at least where Amazon and iTunes are involved is tying “like,” or seemingly similar artists together.  I can see the benefit from a marketing perspective, but unfortunately it does not give unique artist their due.  Like any label or Hollywood pitch, it is always reduced to a cliché of Die Hard meets The Hours, at least if the pitch is a revisionist narrative featuring Virginia Woolf as village-green-superhero—,but of course that title belongs to Miss. Marple.

So, while not to reduce, or even compare, Mr. Vanderslice’s work to other artists, he does however owe something to the school of songwriting that Bob Dylan and The Beatles pioneered: that of the opaque lyricist.  The success of this school is the freedom it provides the listener. By waltzing around the theme (or choose any other dance) in the end the opaque lyric does not play its hand, it simply folds and leaves the listener with work to do. Nobody knew who the Walrus was, or what it might imply, anymore than one can derive concrete meaning from Mr. Dylan’s image of  “jewels and binoculars hang[ing] from the head of the mule” in Visions of Johanna.  Understanding it is not entirely the point; getting it is.

This songwriting does not come without its risks.  Intelligent songwriting  such as this requires conjuring images that resonate.  Mr. Vanderslice does this extremely well, never hitting his subject directly; he creates poetry that conjures images and associations—a semiotic method of songwriting that pulls multiple triggers. The songs feel experienced and well traveled.

Mr. Vanderslice is not Bob Dylan or The Beatles, or even Brian Wilson. He does not,lyrically or sonically, confined himself to the usual rock or even pop restrictions that many artists cannot escape, and by doing so has accomplished what many artist can only envy.