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.


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.

My Thoughts on the Return of Twenty One Pilots

Gonna be out of Internet range for a few days, but I wanted to write something quickly about these new tracks! Let me know what you think in the comments, and keep an eye out for a lot of content when I get back, as I’ll be working pretty hard this weekend!

     Twenty One Pilots is a alternative pop/rock duo based out of Ohio and signed to the legendary emo-pop/punk label, Fueled By Ramen. Their debut, self-titled record was released in 2009, followed by Regional at Best in 2011. However, it was after signing to the aforementioned label in 2012, and the subsequent release of their major label debut, Vessel the following year that the band skyrocketed in popularity.

   Tracks like “Car Radio,” and “House of Gold,” took the mainstream by storm, and had the ears of every teen and young adult who had grown up on the music of  other Fueled by Ramen artists, like Paramore or Maroon 5, perking up. From here, the duo delivered with 2015’s Blurryface, along with several high energy, and quite impressive live tours. Since then, though, its been all quiet.

   That all changed with a cryptic email sent to fans which read, “Are you still sleeping?” Which was quickly followed by the release of two new singles.

   The first of these, “Jumpsuit” is dynamic and bass heavy. Tyler’s vocal is a bit mopey, but Josh’s drum work is a consistent highlight throughout, and the nocturnal production really brings out Tyler’s screams in the final chorus.

   The B-side of the pair, “Nico and the Niners” is rhythmic and features an interesting, lighthearted guitar part which changes the mood distinctly. The spacey mix takes away from Josh’s drum work a bit, and the lyrics are somewhat nonsensical, but Josh’s vocal, and short rap part is enough to make for another solid single.

   The real question is less one of the music’s quality, which won’t be answered until the albums release, but of whether this duo still has a place in the modern scene, or whether they’ve been already confined to their set fanbase after only two studio efforts. So far this year, two label mates, Fall Out Boy and Panic! At The Disco, have released their own albums, with the former being nothing short of mediocre and latter woefully sub-par.

   The harder turn toward incorporating rock and alternative elements, as well as the group’s general penchant for experimentation, is encouraging. While Blurryface was a bit too one-note for my taste, and I’ve found myself revisiting the project less and less over the years, their early work only seems to ripen with age. Wide instrument pallets and unique, drum-heavy mixes were staples of the first few albums, and could be utilized well on the upcoming project.

   However, the recent work, as well as the growing exclusivity of the fanbase, casts a long shadow. The trap of making music for the fans only, and settling into a comfort zone, is all too easy to fall for, and we’ve seen it happen with virtually every one of their label-mates, save Paramore whose most recent record was a pleasant surprise.

   In the end, I think Twenty One Pilots still has something to say. In a mainstream which finds experimentation and genre-bending increasingly palatable, the door is wide open for another hit record. To do this, though, they need to keep pushing themselves. If Blurryface showed us anything, it was the group’s worrying capacity for falling into their comfort zone, and if this record lands within that zone, it could be the end of any credibility they still have with the uninitiated. If Fueled by Ramen follows their normal format, we’ll likely hear more than half of the album as singles before its release, so I’ll keep my ears open, and so should everyone else, for another strong project from the young duo who’s fire may not be out just yet.