Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit,” Is the Greatest Song Ever Recorded

In a few simple lyrics and one magnificent performance, the track tells the story of endless struggle struggle, of boundless pain, and ultimately of resilience. It is everything music can be and should be, all in three minutes.

To ask the question of the greatest song of all time will often leave many music fans scoffing and claiming the question to be unanswerable. To some extent, they’re right. This question, as with anything else in music, does come down to personal opinion, and though there is some understanding that one’s choice aught to be historically important and maybe even performed by fairly well known artist, there’s no agreement as to what balance should be struck between cultural significance and sonic quality, let alone what role one’s personal taste may play into the decision. All of this being said, I have come to the position that one song in particular is uniquely poised to be chosen. I’m speaking of Billie Holiday’s 1939 masterpiece, “Strange Fruit.”

It’s difficult to know where to begin on this track, but we’ll start with an understanding of the pedigree involved with the song’s recording. The Cafe Society Band handles the brunt of the instrumental load. They’re one of the most revered African American jazz bands of the era, accompanying the likes of Nat King Cole and Miles Davis, along with many more. Their main gig came as the house band for the Cafe Society, which was known for political cabaret performances and for being the first integrated nightclub in New York.

Of course, the real star is Billie Holliday, who likely needs no introduction, but will receive one nonetheless. She has six singles and two albums inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame, in addition to 23 Grammy Awards, all given after her tragic death in 1959. She had a horribly difficult upbringing in 1920’s Philadelphia, including surviving an attempted rape at the age of 11 and losing her father to a treatable lung disorder for which he was refused care on the grounds of his skin color just a few years later. In spite of this, she went on to release some of the most popular and influential music in the entire history of Jazz music, sell out Carnegie Hall in the 1948, and is now regarded as one of the greatest vocalists in American history. And she simply has no better performance than that which she gave on “Strange Fruit.”

On the song, Holiday’s command of silence and subtlety is simply breathtaking. The emotion conveyed in her twisting, spinning vocal mannerisms is absolutely haunting, and when she uses the full extent of her vocal power, there is no listener in the world who wouldn’t feel a chill striking directly to the bone. Buried in the many facets of her voice is the howling cry of an oppressed people that simply can’t be ignored. Unimaginable anger, unfathomable anguish, and unbreakable resolve all ring through her voice. This is to say nothing of the lyrics.

Taken from a poem written by American songwriter and poet Abel Meeropol who used the pseudonym of Lewis Allan at the time for fear of anti-semitic bigotry, the lyrics focus on lynching in the American South. He was inspired by the infamous and horrendous photo of two men, Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith, being lynched in front of an excited crowd in Marion, Indiana in 1930. It isn’t only the topic of the lyrics but the fearless way in which the lyrics describe the “Strange Fruit,” as “black bodies, swaying in the summer breeze.” They go on to speak to the state of the decaying bodies much like rotting fruit, touching on smells and horrific imagery. It is, genuinely, one of the most powerful pieces of writing put to paper and there are very few ways to describe the sense of horror and disgust it inspires without simply reading the lyrics, which I must insist that anyone reading this piece do, immediately.

Most important of all, however, is the history surrounding the song and Holiday’s performance of it. While reports vary on how she came across the song itself, she debuted it at the Cafe Society in 1939, which was, as previously mentioned, New York’s first integrated night club. The song quickly became a regular for her along with rules for it’s performance. She would close with it, the waiters would stop all service in advance, and the room would be completely dark, except for a spotlight on Holiday’s face. There would be no encore. During the musical introduction, Holiday stood with her eyes closed, both praying and preparing herself for the performance.

She had extreme difficulty getting the track recorded as her label, Columbia, denied her, fearing repercussions from record retailers in the South. She also faced great fear of retaliation for even performing the song, though she chose to keep performing it as the imagery reminded her of her father and his unfair treatment from the medical community. Holiday went to her friend, Milt Gabler, who owned an alternative Jazz label called Commodore. She performed the piece a cappella and moved him to tears, convincing him to record the track with the help of the Cafe Society band and pianist, Sonny White. Holiday’s recording of the track eventually sold one million copies upon release, which was extremely rare for the time. It would be a large hit for Holiday throughout her career and was named as the “Best Song of the Century,” by Times Magazine in 1999.

All this being said, strip away sales, political importance, and historical pertinence, and “Strange Fruit,” is still the greatest song of all time. It is the most harrowing cry of pain ever put to record.

In a few simple lyrics and one magnificent performance, the track tells the story of endless struggle, of boundless pain, and ultimately of resilience. It is everything music can be and should be, all in three minutes.

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Super Bowl LIII’s Halftime Show: A Story of Missed Opportunity

If all else fails, I’ll also accept a large screen at the fifty yard line that will play the entirety of Spongebob’s “Sweet Victory,” and the episode it came from for the adoring crowd.

I think I’ll need to begin this piece with something of a prolonged throat clearing of all the things I’m not saying. I’m not saying that Maroon 5 gave the worst super bowl performance of all time or that they were inherently bad choices to headline. I thought that their performance was fine and, though I don’t love a lot of their newest music, it did send me careening down memory lane as I quickly pulled up and revisited their excellent 2002 debut, Songs About Jane. I’m also not here to complain about the absence of Spongebob’s “Sweet Victory,” and the way it was used as an intro to “Sicko Mode,” although I am genuinely irate about this and could easily write another piece all about it.

Most importantly, I’m not headed into the territory of the many controversies which were ignored here. Put simply, Maroon 5 is not the band to salute Colin Kaepernick, speak out about the president’s many scandals, or make any other gesture of political dissidence. They aren’t Rage Against the Machine and they shouldn’t try to be. When Maroon 5 was chosen, they were expected to play a few hits, put on a light show, and finish out with a shirtless Adam Levine, all of which they accomplished with admirable precision.

The real missed opportunity has to do with location of this year’s Super Bowl, which was only ever so briefly made relevant by the ATLiens jerseys that appeared during Big Boi’s performance. While older hip-hop fans will remember the East and West coast feuds of 90’s hip hop, the 2000’s and on have been defined by a North and South dichotomy far more. Specifically, this has centered in two cities, Chicago and, to a much larger extent, Atlanta.

Just a short list of possible hometown choices would include Migos, who’s last two albums have gone platinum and double platinum respectively, Childish Gambino, who’s recent track “This is America,” has become an international sensation, or 21 Savage, who is nominated for two Grammys at the moment. This is just in terms of current acts.

As far as legacy artists, icons like Cee Lo Green, T.I, Lil Jon, Killer Mike, Future, Gucci Mane, Soulja Boy, and Usher are all on call and ready to electrify a hometown crowd. These are people who forged an entirely new brand of hip-hop and R&B into existence, taking a budding scene to the MainStage with flair and power and all but creating modern rap in the process. Of course, there are two glaring omissions from this list and it’s here where I start building my dream line up for Super Bowl LIII.

Headlining and masterminding the Brendon’s Beats halftime extravaganza is the single most important group in southern hip-hop, Outkast. Of course, we got half of Outkast with Big Boi, but the absence of his partner, Andre 3000, who is often named among the greatest rappers and most brilliant musical minds of all time, can’t be overstated. They could even bring a few Dungeon Family alumni with them. Reuniting one of hip-hop’s greatest groups would be enough, but it’s Atlanta. We can do better.

Travis Scott’s admittedly energetic performance of “Sicko Mode,” could be much better replaced by an appearance from the Migos performing their quadruple platinum smash-hit, “Bad and Boujee,” maybe even with a verse from 21 Savage in place of Lil Uzi Vert’s section on the original. It’s a performance that would excite young fans as much as Scott’s if not more, and the dynamic between the two rap groups from different generations, but the same city. So who is our rock/pop artist to act as an olive branch for non-rap fans?

There is none. I’d personally enjoy a legacy act like T.I. or Lil Jon, though a Gucci Mane or Soulja Boy would be fascinating in a chaotic way. The key is that this show should be a tribute to Southern hip-hop from the epicenter of it’s mainstream success and headlined by it’s most infamous pioneers.

I’ll be the first to admit that this dream lineup could probably never translate to the real world, especially as the odds of reuniting Outkast are slim to none, but the spirit could remain intact. There has never been a rapper or rap group headline the Super Bowl, despite the fact that rap music is, without a doubt, the most prevalent genre of music in the world and has been for nearly 20 years. It’s time for that to change, and baring the possibility of a super bowl in Compton, there is no city in America which is more historically apt to host this ground breaking show than Atlanta.

If all else fails, I’ll also accept a large screen at the fifty yard line that will play the entirety of Spongebob’s “Sweet Victory,” and the episode it came from for the adoring crowd.

Thoughts on J. Cole’s Claim to the Rap Throne

Jermaine Cole is, undoubtedly, one of the best artists of the day. However, his work is still ahead of him when it comes to carving his niche amongst names like Biggie, 2Pac, Jay Z, Eminem, Andre 3000, and more.

Yesterday, J. Cole set twitter and the music world ablaze with the release of his first single of 2019, “Middle Child.” Over a bass-heavy beat and between catchy hooks, Cole unloaded on a few topics, focusing mainly on his position in today’s hip-hop scene. While the entire track was extremely well written, the following verse in particular seems to have set off an all too familiar conversation across the hip-hop community:

“To the OGs, I’m thankin’ you now, was watchin’ you when you was pavin’ the ground. I copied your cadence, I mirrored your style. I studied the greats, I’m the greatest right now.” The question we’re left to ponder, of course, is simple. Is he right? Is J. Cole the top talent in the industry in 2019? He’s certainly attempted to lay claim to the title more than a few times over the years, but having just put his fifth platinum album under his belt with 2018’s KOD, the question seems increasingly persistent.

Firstly, it’s worth looking at Cole’s case. As I mentioned, 2018 saw the release of his fifth consecutive platinum album, which is no small feat. Only 10 artists in rap history have more than five platinum albums in a row and, of the ten, only Kanye West could still be considered at his peak. Additionally, though it’s become something of a meme in recent years, J. Cole’s last three albums have accomplished their certifications without a single feature.

On top of sales, he’s shown a remarkable amount of talent over his main run. Each of his verses is well crafted and his flow is slowly becoming iconic. Not only have his albums been impressive, but his non-album singles have been even better. “High for Hours,” is one of the best hip-hop tracks of the decade, “Everybody Dies,” was a perfect response to the rise of the soundcloud/mumble rap in recent years, and “False Prophets,” was a measured and thoughtful response to the outrages actions of Kanye West. It’s in these responses and commentary where we find him at his best. While his albums can often fall short, J. Cole drops better singles than anyone in the game.

He definitely has a strong case and it just keeps getting stronger with tracks like “Middle Child,” but on the other hand, the rap game is in an impressive place right now. When it comes to lyrical ability, artists like Aesop Rock and Open Mike Eagle are doing fantastic work, and of course, legends like MF Doom, Jay Z, and Killer Mike are still creating some of their best music, but Cole still stands unique among these artists in many respects certainly above them in notoriety. Unfortunately for Jermaine, there is still one artist who exceeds him in nearly every aspect, and that man is Kendrick Lamar.

Kendrick’s major label run at Top Dawg covers Good Kid M.A.A.D. City, one of the best breakout albums of all time, To Pimp A Butterfly, arguably one of, if not the best album in hip-hop history, and DAMN. which was one of the best albums of 2017. Of course the question is subjective, but for my money, Kendrick Lamar has long surpassed any artist in today’s scene and begun jockeying for position among the all-time greats.

Where Cole writes excellent verses and singles, Kendrick puts together full albums of breathtaking scale and sound, each wildly different than the one before. Where Cole’s flow is recognizable and strong, Kendrick plays multiple characters, each with unique flows, tones, and lyrical tendencies, characters which develop across his discography to act as metaphorical stand ins for a multitude of larger ideas. Where Jermaine is beginning to settle into his sonic identity, Kendrick’s instrumentals vary wildly in each record from a masterclass in West Coast boom-bap to a jazz epic helmed by Kamasi Washington to some of the best trap beats in the genre.

Coming into 2019, we’re all enjoying a fantastic era of rap music which will continue to draw comparisons to the golden age of the 1990’s and Jermaine Cole is, undoubtedly, one of the best artists of the day. However, his work is still ahead of him when it comes to carving his niche amongst names like Biggie, 2Pac, Jay Z, Eminem, Andre 3000, and more. On the other hand, Kendrick Lamar continues to be one of the best artists in the entire modern music industry with one album after another telling remarkable stories with unparalleled lyricism and he is, without a doubt, the best rapper in the game today.

HEAR MIDDLE CHILD: https://open.spotify.com/album/3XzSOIE6zGLliuqsVGLmUc

Thoughts on the Return of Tool

What it will sound like is anybody’s guess, but for my money, I expect nothing less than greatness from one of my favorite bands of all time.

April 28, 2006. George W. Bush was president, the second Pirates of the Caribbean film was gearing up to hit theaters, and the Saint Louis Cardinals had just won their tenth World Series. Of course, I don’t write about any of those things, I write about music, and in the music world of 2006, Tool had just dropped their long awaited fourth studio LP, 10,000 Days.

The album was sprawling, conceptual, and one of the band’s most personal to date. In many ways, it the final step in Tool’s transition from an especially impressive member of the West Coast alt-metal scene to a fully fledged, internationally successful, prog-metal outfit. Most importantly, it put an end to a five year wait for a follow up to 2001’s Lateralus. It was a gap that frustrated fans at the time, but would soon be dwarfed in the coming years.

To date, We’re coming up on 13 years since we last heard new Tool material, and the explanations are numerous. The most common reason given is legal issues as the band has recently been involved in two major law suits, each of which they won. Additionally, each of the four members have been quite active in side projects. Regardless of the reasons, the law suits are over, the side projects are on brake, and according to Keenan’s Twitter account, we could see new Tool music as early as mid-2019. 

This, of course, brings with it many questions, two of which are quite pressing. Firstly, what can we expect to hear? Second, will we be disappointed for the first time in Tool’s long and nearly perfect run? Neither of these questions will be answered until we’re holding the physical CD’s in our hands, but we can take a stab at them now.

When it comes to expectations, there is even less to go on for this record than for your average new album. Where as most bands provide fans with a litany of sneak peaks, updates, and interviews, Tool has, predictably, not done this. Instead, they’ve released only a few images from inside the studio, one of which showed Danny Carey’s elaborate drum kit, and sporadic messages of assurance that the record is in the process of being made and will release in 2019.

So, to know what we can expect, we can only look to a few sources for hints. First and foremost, at least one track, reportedly entitled, “Descending,” has been performed at a few live events, one of which I was lucky enough to see at Rock on the Range in Ohio. The track is entirely instrumental, uses heavy delay effects, and feels like a continuation of growing emphasis on a prog style that we saw on 10,000 Days. That and its tentative title lead me to believe that this may be an opening track to the new album, which could be another longwinded outing for Tool. 

On the other hand, the setlist of the recent tours have been almost entirely populated with the band’s earliest material. This could easily be something of a thank you to longtime fans for waiting as long as they have, but it could just as easily indicate that they aim to return to the simple, heavier sound that put them on the map.

Considering the new album also leads one to wonder how much the changing landscape of rock and metal will influence the sound. The waves of nu-metal which Tool rode in on though never falling in with are long gone. In their place, bands like Code Orange and Daughters have done their part to bring back a more brash, explosive form of metal. I, for one, would love to hear an older act like Tool take a few notes from the recent work of bands like these in developing a more primal, visceral sound. More than likely, though, we will be treated to the most lengthy and conceptual entry of the band’s catalogue, which, of course, raises questions of disappointment.

Even the most avid fan can’t be blamed for wondering if it’s still there; if the Tool we know and love has survived the long hiatus and can return without obvious rust or aging. A bit of hope can be found in side projects.

Maynard James Keenan’s work on the side has been the most public by far. In the time since Tool’s last release, he’s started a new band in Puscifer and released three original LP’s under the moniker, not counting the multitude of remixes and EPs. He’s also become a massively successful wine maker in Arizona, an activity which he has long credited with keeping him grounded in his writing. Not to mention the newest A Perfect Circle album, which did quite well. All of this work, though I can’t speak to the quality of the wine, has been quite impressive in its own right. Most importantly, his vocal melodies and lyricism don’t seem to have lost a bit of quality.

The rest of the band has been quite active as well. Danny Carey has played with the jazz-fusion band Volto! for several years including a fantastic 2013 album, Incitare. His work with the group is as complex and groove heavy as its ever been and the album serves as further proof that Carey is one of the greatest drummers in rock history. Justin Chancellor worked with his own side outfit, MTVoid to create the 2013 album, Nothing’s Matter, an underground, industrial metal record that relied heavily on his excellent bass work. He’s also had a rumored collaboration with the experimental hip-hop trio Death Grips in the works since early 2018. In short, there is far less rust on the joints of Tool than casual fans may think.

As far as disappointment, that burden falls squarely on the shoulders of fans and our ability to mitigate our expectations. If you’re waiting on an Earth shattering, world changing, metal record, then you’ll absolutely find yourself disappointed. On the other hand, if you expect a great metal album from a great metal band who’s discography is essentially without a blemish, then you’ll likely get what you want in spades.

Tool is one of the most enigmatic bands in rock history and so it’s unsurprising that we’re headed into a new album after a decade and a half of silence with little to no information. While rumors swirl, including the theory that, along with this release, the entirety of Tool’s catalogue may finally be available for online streaming and sales, virtually nothing is confirmed, and it will likely stay that way until the album is here. What it will sound like is anybody’s guess, but for my money, I expect nothing less than greatness from one of my favorite bands of all time.

Thoughts on My Mount Rushmore of Songwriting

This was written as a class assignment, but I thought it would make an interesting discussion piece!

Stephen Foster (1826-1864)

     Today, he’s likely the only name on this list that isn’t a household name, but with hits that include “Oh! Susanna,” “Camp Town Races,” and “Beautiful Dreamer,” his music is surely known by the vast majority of music lovers, even as we near the 200th anniversary of his death. While the influence of his songs alone can’t be ignored, Foster is best remembered for what he means to the industry as he is, according to most, the father of American songwriting itself.

Stephen Foster

   Much of Stephen’s life could only be described as nearly unbearable. He suffered from alcoholism for the majority of his rather short life, dying after in a hotel at age 37 with only 28 cents in his pocket. In addition, much of his success came on the massive popularity of minstrel theatre, a fact which seemed to trouble Foster as much during his life as it would his fans a decade or so later. Because of this, he constantly struggled with the fear that he was creating low art. In many ways, Stephen Foster was also the father of the troubled young artist archetype which would come to be exemplified by the likes of Kurt Cobain and Jim Morison.

   His feelings aside, however, his work will forever be held in the highest esteem as the work of the man who single-handedly forged the American popular music industry into existence. His memory has faced some racial controversy in the past few years, but may historians have pointed out that, relative to the culture of his time, Foster was quite generous and supportive of people of color.  Though he lived a hard and depressing life, history will forever remember him as a legend and that, better than any single song or work, sums up the true power of a wonderful songwriter.

The Beatles (1960-1970)

   The Beegee’s are often called “The Beatles of Disco,” The Ramones have been called “The Beatles of Punk,” and a few different groups, Wu Tang Clan and NWA most notably, have vied for the title of “The Beatles of Rap.” The truth is, however, that all of these titles are foolish because there never was and never will be a group like The Beatles.

   No one will ever captivate an entire nation the way The Beatles did upon arriving in the United States. There were massive advancements made to live sound technology solely so that The Beatles could be heard over the deafening screams of their fans. According to most people lucky enough to have attended these early shows, the advancements were not successful. One massive change that the band made to the songwriting world was writing their own music. The writing team of John Lennon and Paul McCartney is one of the most prolific of all time.

The Beatles

   An even more direct line can be drawn, however, to the explosion of album-centric writing which took over the 1970’s and lead to the most lucrative decade in the history of the music industry. Following the near constant frustration of loud fans drowning out all of their live performance, The Beatles chose to distance themselves from the touring world and become a studio band, spending all of their time crafting massive albums. Their seminole 1966 effort, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, is widely considered the first concept album and would inspire the likes of Pink Floyd, The Doors, and many more. Until The Beatles came on the scene, a “good” rock song came in around three minutes, featured a good hook, and got a lot of radio play. The Beatles encompassed what should’ve been three decades worth of genre evolution within a vigorous ten year span and likely changed the face of rock and roll more than any artists before or since. There will never be another Beatles.

James Brown (1933-2006)

   Possibly the most overlooked artist on my list, James Brown’s impact on the industry just doesn’t receive nearly the respect it deserves. He’s often referred to as the King of Funk and the Godfather of Soul, titles which he certainly earned, but which seems to sell Brown extremely short.

   James himself began as a particularly energetic R&B vocalist, gaining notoriety for fiery performances and a passionate vocal. He would go on to reach massive success and acclaim as his sound began to morph into something all his own. Upon the release of his hit single, “Cold Sweat,” he had become the King of Funk and forever changed the musical land scape forever. His sound was beat driven. It was something you could only feel, not count. He was, in many ways, the first artist who’s music focused heavily on the beat itself, laying the ground work for rap music, which would soon dethrone rock music as the dominant stream of the American popular music. This is why James Brown, and specifically his drummer, is the most sampled artist of all time.

   What makes Brown especially important in this sense is his involvement in this musical development. Where most band music, say that of The Beatles, must be attributed to the collective, James was also renown for his constant creative control when it came to his band’s performances. When James Brown stepped on a stage or into a studio, it was truly his creation which was on display, and it was his creations which forever altered the course of music history. It seems to me more than likely that, without Brown’s influence, rap music and the rise of African American music in the mainstream could never have happened.

Bob Dylan (1941-)

   The only member on this list who is still actively working, Bob Dylan will make the shortlist of nearly any well versed music listener’s Mount Rushmore. His catalog includes records like The Times They Are A-Changin’ Highway 61 Revisited, Blonde on Blonde, Blood on the Tracks, and Love and Theft. This very long list of albums, only a highlight selection from his nearly 40 studio releases, is one of the most accomplished in all of music history. 

   He was inducted to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988, received the presidential medal of freedom in 2012, and won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2016, the only musician to ever do so. Beyond this, he has 11 Grammys and, perhaps most importantly, it would be virtually impossible to assemble even a small group of famous musicians who weren’t heavily inspired by Dylan in some way or another. Even many infamous artists from the 90’s, during the rock renaissance, site Bob Dylan as a massive inspiration.

   Unlike the other artists on this list, Dylan was not able to hide behind long instrumental passages. Instead, he utilized a simple strophic scheme and basic instrumentation so that his lyrics were easily heard. What makes Dylan special is that he never failed to show up. He was a young, small man with a powerful creative voice, and just like his hero Woodie Guthrie, he never shied away from speaking his mind. When the time came, during the American Civil Rights Movement, Bob Dylan was there. And when the time kept coming, the Vietnam War in the 70’s, AIDS and income inequality in the 80’s, drug epidemics and disillusionment in the 1990’s, economic collapse and the rise of far right identity politics in the 20th century, Bob Dylan was always there to show us the undeniable power of three chords and the truth. He is, more so than anyone else in history, a testament to the art of songwriting.

Thoughts on the Tragic Tale of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land”

“This Land is Your Land,” may have had it’s teeth removed as a criticism of nationalism and a response to Berlin’s classic patriotic piece, but Woody Guthries spirit is that of complete devotion and reckless defense of one’s beliefs, and that spirit is inseparable from the history of music, regardless of political affiliation.

     In 2016, Budweiser announced that they would temporarily rebrand their flagship beer as “America,” with a can featuring the words “from the redwood forests, to the gulf stream waters, this land was made for you and me” on their label. They’re quoting one of the greatest songwriters to ever live, Woody Guthrie. Budweiser knows this, but what they, and most Americans, don’t know is that Guthrie would be rolling in his grave if he’d known about this usage of his writing. Why? To answer that question, we’ll need to get to know Woody Guthrie a bit better.

   Guthrie is one of the most infamous writers of all time, and the godfather of folk music. His very long list of famous fans includes Johnny Cash, Pete Seeger, Jerry Garcia, John Mellencamp, Bruce Springsteen, and most notably, Bob Dylan. He was a skinny, scruffy-haired man who rode trains from town to town brandishing a small, black guitar with the words “This Machine Kills Fascists,” emblazoned on the body. This was the early days of folk music, nearly a decade before the formation of classic groups like The Weavers, who were later ostracized after being accused of communist sympathies. For The Weavers, these accusations were false, but had they been made against Guthrie, they would’ve stuck.

   Woody wrote columns for a Communist magazine called The People’s World from the summer of 1939 through 1940 and became close friends with John Steinbeck, author of The Grapes of Wrath. He found a job for KFVD in California playing what was then known as “hillbilly music,” along with Maxine “Lefty Lou” Crissman on the radio. Late in 1939, however, after the outbreak of World War II and the Nonaggression Pact signed between Germany and the Soviet Union, American opinion became to shift heavily toward the patriotic, a trend that still reverberates today. Because of this, Guthrie’s Communist sympathies were seen as a liability by KFVD, who cut him loose soon after.

   Woody left California and landed in New York, sleeping on the couch of American activist and actor, Will Geer. It was here that he recorded his first LP, Dust Bowl Ballads, comprised of the protest songs he had played on the radio in California. While listening to the radio, Guthrie became annoyed by what he perceived to be an overplaying of Irving Berlin’s classic patriotic tune, “God Bless America.”

   The purpose of playing Berlin’s song was obvious. The goal was to inspire patriotism and a dedication to American ideals in response to the outbreak of the World War. This would come to be played even more often as the struggle went on and in the Cold War, the song would be used to encourage the dichotomy of America as a Christian nation as apposed to the “godless Communists” in the Soviet Union. Having been persecuted and driven across the country, away from his family still in California, for his political beliefs, Guthrie chose to double down. He did that through writing his own response to Irving Berlin in the form of his most infamous song, “This Land is Your Land.”

   To be clear, “This Land,” as it was originally titled, was not an anti-American song, far from it. It was, instead, a song meant to praise the beauties of the American land and criticize the  issues which Guthrie believed to be ruining this, namely private property laws and the US government’s disregard for the poor. There are two key verses, rarely, if ever, played today, which demonstrate this.

   “Was a high wall there that tried to stop me. A sign was painted said: Private Property, but on the back side it didn’t say nothing — This land was made for you and me.” This appears near the end of the song, which tells the story of Woody taking a long walk across the country, admiring the beauty of the land, only to have it interrupted by this wall. The final verse goes on to describe the other interruption to his walk.

   “One bright sunny morning in the shadow of the steeple by the Relief Office I saw my people . As they stood hungry, I stood there wondering if this land was made for you and me.” This verse originally ended, as did every other verse, with the line “God blessed America for me,” a more direct call to Berlin’s original track.

   Today, the song’s original protest roots have been all but lost. Guthrie passed away in 1967 at the age of 55 after suffering from Huntington’s Disease for many years, and living out the final years of his life in a psychiatric ward, having divorced his wife and left his family, including a young Arlo Guthrie, a few years prior. In 1961, he met Bob Dylan, who had privately fallen in love with Guthrie’s music and style and chosen to model his own career after Woody.

   Guthrie is one of the most iconic and controversial writers of all time, a devout Communist, and a staunch critic of the nationalism he saw developing in American media and discourse. Yet, he is often known to non-fans as the guy who wrote a patriotic folk tune that landed on the side of a Budweiser can. So, is Guthrie a failure? Absolutely not.

   While his name may not be in the mouths of everyday music fans, and his song may be misrepresented today, his style, his staunch commitment to his beliefs, and his decision to express those beliefs in his music live on today. Bob Dylan carried the torch and became a leading man in the cultural fight for civil rights, the rock and roll movement carried Guthrie’s torch to openly detest US action in Vietnam, and it still lives on in much of the politically charged rap music today.

   “This Land is Your Land,” may have had it’s teeth removed as a criticism of nationalism and a response to Berlin’s classic patriotic piece, but Woody Guthries spirit is that of complete devotion and reckless defense of one’s beliefs, and that spirit is inseparable from the history of music, regardless of political affiliation.

HEAR THIS LAND IS YOUR LANDhttps://open.spotify.com/track/7CNaYAdLyi86kofGafReiT

Thoughts on Toby Keith and the Downfall of American Culture

If Toby Keith can teach us anything about music, it’s the power it has over us, and the importance of being cognizant of just what ideas we are singing along to.

     The mid to late 1990’s are characterized by several interesting developments in the music world. Many remember the post-grunge and soft rock movements which brought us the likes of Counting Crows and The Smashing Pumpkins. Other’s point to the rise in West coast and gangsta rap which would eventually bring hip-hop to the zeitgeist of American culture where it remains today. Few, however, seem to remember the massive boom in country music from this time period.

   Garth Brooks, Tim McGraw, Trace Adkins and many more rose to popularity during this era, and country music enjoyed one of it’s biggest growth periods since the 1970’s. Unbeknownst to many, another country artist, one of the most prolific in the genre’s long and storied history, debuted and ’93 and enjoyed impressive success. That man was Toby Kieth.

   When Kieth’s name is mentioned, the general associations probably include cheap beer, burning grills, and late night bonfires. He mostly seems to appeal to a more hardcore section of the genre’s fanbase, and is usually a bit strong for casual fans, though a few of his more popular tracks have reached the mainstream in one way or another. He is, like the vast majority of modern musicians, considered to be wholly harmless, aside from a few unsavory political statements, but what if I told you that this perception is incorrect? What if I told you that Toby Kieth’s lyrics and musical career are heavily indicative of a low point of decency and discourse in American culture? You’d likely say that I’m being dramatic, and you’d be correct, but allow to be dramatic for just a bit.

   Toby debuted in ’93 with a self titled LP, but his early fame came from the success of the album’s lead single, “Should’ve Been a Cowboy.” This track is unique for it’s time, not only differing obviously from the popular grunge and hip-hop of the day, but differing from the trends of softer, stadium friendly country music which were rising during this era. Instead, the instrumental was far more orchestral, in the vein of Country’s golden age, and his lyrics called back to the once hugely popular Westerns and imagery which characterized the golden age.

   His next radio hit “How Do You Like Me Now,” the title track of his 1999 album, which tells the story of an “outsider,” boy, played by Toby, who’s more popular crush never acknowledged his advances in high school, most of which consisted of harassing and insulting her, which she did in turn to him. Now, with Toby’s fame and success, he uses his radio popularity to brutally mock the woman’s misfortunes, most of which could’ve been corrected had she simply chose him. It’s an infinitely singable track which uses catchy melodies and an infectious chorus to smuggle genuinely misogynistic ideas into the cultural mainstream. This is an extremely common topic in country music, but Toby is particularly brutal on this track. Again, this may seem like an overreaction, but the issue really come’s to a head just a few years after the track’s success, when he rose to the status of one the most successful musicians in the country.

   Any true Toby Keith fan will tell you that the peak of his career came in the early 2000’s, specifically during the three album run of Unleashed, Shock N’ Y’all, and Honkytonk University. The first two of these albums went quadruple platinum, with the latter reaching double platinum, and while this can be attributed to Toby’s coming into his own as a writer, it can be much more accurately attributed to one of the worst tragedies in world history. The attacks of 9/11 brought with them many cultural changes, among them a sense of mindless nationalism which manifested itself culturally in a sharp turn toward a far more shameless form of country music. No one filled this gap better than Toby Kieth. He filled it with catchy, if a bit gimmick heavy country music, but, as he did with his earlier singles, he used this music to smuggle in some pretty terrible ideas.

   2002’s Unleashed kicks off this run and is, by far, the best of the trio. This album three number one singles, two of which went platinum. The first of these is “Who’s Your Daddy,” a catchy sing-along which tells the story of a man who offers a much younger woman who is down on her luck a place to stay, an offer which is blatantly laced with sexual implications. The second single is Toby’s collaboration with the legendary Willie Nelson on “Beer for my Horses.” This track is a staple on the backyard playlist, as it should be. This chorus is iconic and the gimmick is nothing short of hilarious. However, lines like “its time the long arm of the law put a few more in the ground,” among others, give clear support for capital punishment and violent law inforcement. And, of course, the album opens with Keith’s magnum opus, his ode to blind nationalism, and his biggest hit to date, “Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue,” which propagandistically lauds the freshly started “War on Terror,” and warns an indiscriminate group of enemy’s that “we’ll put a boot in your ass, it’s the American way.”

   Just a year later, Shock N’ Y’all was released to remarkable commercial success. The record featured “American Soldier,” a much more tasteful tribute to soldiers, as well as the opener, “I Love This Bar.” The latter is particularly interesting as it is uniquely apolitical for this period of his career. Another, often forgotten, but at the time very popular track on this album, is the wonderfully subtle and thoughtful “Taliban Song.” I am, of course, being sarcastic. This track not only mocks the Taliban, which should be relatively inoffensive to all, but cracks a few jokes at the poverty experienced by victims of the Taliban, glorifies George Bush in an almost fetishistic way, makes light of the bombing of the Middle East, and even, I’m not kidding here, takes a break for Toby to tell his live audience that “this is a patriotic love song. Y’all can salute if ya want.” This song is fascinatingly unsubtle, and ends up being less offensive and more laughably small minded than anything, but it is, again, a catchy sing-along.

   Honkytonk University rounds out the trio as the weakest of the three. It sports, essentially, one massive hit, “As Good As I Once Was.” Much of the tracks narrative, unsurprisingly, takes place in a bar, and Toby’s general message is that, even if you’re getting older, as long as you get into random fights and go home with more than one woman every now and then, you’re still a man. Again, the catchiness of this track masks the odd and unhelpful themes.

   From here, he largely fell off, though one of his most popular and most mind-numbing releases was yet to come: 2009’s “American Ride.” It is honestly fascinating how many bad ideas Keith can pack into this track. The first verse is four lines long. In the first, Keith expresses doubts about global warming. In the second he bemoans the “tidal wave comin’ ‘cross the Mexican border.” The third speaks to gas prices, and the final warns “just don’t get busted singin’ Christmas carols.” The chorus repeats his doubts on global warming, and the second verse complains about lazy women living off the hard work of their husbands. The third verse blatantly insults Ms. America winner Venessa Williams for losing her crown, claiming that she gained a few pounds and then scored an undeserved record deal. We’re treated to something of a bridge which, again, seems to suggest some kind of persecution of Christians in the US while making a fantastically uninformed statement on the infamous McDonalds coffee case and in support of tort-reform, before heading back into one last chorus. It’s almost exhausting to try and follow the barrage of bad ideas in this song, and yet, again, I find myself singing along to every uninformed word!

   So what’s the point? Should we all hold album burning’s for Toby Keith records? Are you a terrible person for not hating every Toby Keith song or even liking a few? Is it wrong even to agree with him a few political points? Absolutely not! In fact, I myself thoroughly enjoy the bulk of Keith’s catalog, and I’m sure when I’m of age to drink beer I’ll enjoy it even more.

   Perhaps I was a bit sensational in my headline, because, while Toby Keith’s success is illustrative of an interestingly vulnerable social and political era in our nation’s history, what he teaches us about our nation may be a bit less profound than what he can teach us about music in general. Art, and especially music, has been used to convey ideas for thousands of years, and that doesn’t stop with Toby Keith. He has an ability, as many artists do, to write incredibly catchy tunes which leave us singing along on the first few listens, but he completely abuses this ability by refusing to put any thought whatsoever into the statements he makes. Through these melodies, he’s able to smuggle in some very bad, or at least poorly conceived ideas. He doesn’t seem to do this intentionally, but by virtue of his character. Even if you agree with a few of his views, his wording is hardly eloquent, and certainly won’t be making anyone smarter.

   If Toby Keith can teach us anything about music, it’s the power it has over us, and the importance of being cognizant of just what ideas we are singing along to.