Archive for the ‘lyrics’ Tag
The night before last the New York jazz club of the 30s and 40s Cafe Society was recreated in London at the Purcell Room on the South Bank for one night only. The club was set up in 1938 as an alternative to the largely segregated, mob-run nightclubs then on offer. Behind it was Barney Josephson, the New Jersey-born son of Jewish immigrants from Latvia. His declared ambition was to create ”a club where blacks and whites worked together behind the footlights and sat together out front”. His socialist tendencies are well captured in the club’s motto: The wrong place for the Right people.
Cafe Society was opened in 1938 by Billie Holiday and it was there within the year that she unleashed upon the world Strange Fruit, a song like no other. Picking up on my earlier post about great song lines, Shelter from the Storm, there is one line in this poem turned song that ranks among the all-time great song lines:
Pastoral scene of the gallant South
If you ever wanted to illustrate irony… that word “gallant” kills off a view of the Confederacy in one mighty blow. When Holiday first heard the lyrics her one question was: what does ‘pastoral’ mean? Which is ironic in itself in that her whole being understood what Strange Fruit meant which is why she made the song so much her own.
With the same irony that has Danny Boy being composed by an English lawyer, it was actually written by a white man, a Jewish school teacher called Abel Meeropol – pen name Lewis Allan, after two children he lost in their infancy. Meeropol’s motivation was simple: “I wrote Strange Fruit because I hate lynching and I hate injustice and I hate the people who perpetuate it.”
Here’s the poem he brought to Holiday and Josephson at Cafe Society, already set to music, already performed in obscure left-wing circles, ripe for the magic of a singer who could perform it from her soul and evolve it into something uniquely powerful.
Southern trees bear a strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black body swinging in the Southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.
Pastoral scene of the gallant South,
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth,
Scent of magnolia sweet and fresh,
And the sudden smell of burning flesh!
Here is a fruit for the crows to pluck,
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck,
For the sun to rot, for a tree to drop,
Here is a strange and bitter crop.
Holiday delivered this body blow to audiences throughout her career – here’s one later take on it (the instability of the picture seems to suit the song, as if it can’t fully be retained by the technology):
Barney Josephson didn’t seem to have his own Wikipedia entry so I’ve just made him one
Walter Pater, the art and literary critic much admired by Oscar Wilde, wrote that “All art aspires to the condition of music.” I read that as other arts striving for the direct impact music has on the heart and spirit without recourse to any physical medium and being able to by-pass the intellect. Much though I love music I’ve never tended to listen to the lyrics of songs in a coherent and systematic way. Phrases and lines emerge over time in their own way and hook themselves into the brain.
I was jogging along yesterday morning listening to a podcast of the evergreen Desert Island Discs when a Bob Dylan song came on and a line really resonated for me as a perfect expression of what women mean to men. When I got home and sat down in front of my machine for the first time that day I whacked the line into Quotables for posterity – and to look at it on its own for a moment.
“Come in,” she said, “I’ll give you shelter from the storm”
Not particularly poetic. Quite ordinary really. But in its context perfect and to the heart of the matter, to the matter of the heart.
So I felt inspired to pick out 10 great lines from songs that are worthy of the condition of music, that have the resonance and penetrative power of the supreme art. I tried being strict about one stand-out line per song only (only cracked once with a couplet).
1. Bob Dylan, Shelter from the Storm (1974)
“Come in,” she said, “I’ll give you shelter from the storm”
2. John Lennon, Oh Yoko! (1971)
In the middle of a cloud I call your name
A powerful yet simple expression of romantic love.
3. John Martyn, Couldn’t Love You More (1977)
If you kissed the sun right out of the sky for me
Song lyrics straining to capture Love (is there a theme emerging?)
4. Jimi Hendrix, Purple Haze (1966)
‘Scuse me while I kiss the sky
This could be love or drugs that’s fogging Jimi’s brain – either way it’s a great line.
5. The Clash, Garageland (1977)
Back in the garage with my bullshit detector
A spirited (spirit of Punk) response to an early bad review (of a gig with The Sex Pistols at Islington’s Screen on the Green): “The Clash are the kind of garage band who should be returned to the garage immediately, preferably with the engine running”. [Charles Shaar Murray - what did he know?]
6. Bruce Springsteen, Atlantic City (1982)
Well now everything dies baby that’s a fact
But maybe everything that dies someday comes back
Reckon there’s a load of philosophy buried in this couplet.
7. David Bowie, Unwashed and Somewhat Slightly Dazed (1969)
As I am unwashed and somewhat slightly dazed
Loved this phrase for a long time, the “somewhat” is just what’s needed to throw it off kilter.
8. The Doors (Jim Morrison), The Wasp (1968)
Out here we is stoned – immaculate
One of those lines that throws a word into a whole new light.
9. John Coltrane, Acknowledgement (1964)
A Love Supreme
Sometimes you don’t even need a whole line or clause – this is a transcendent chant. They’re the only words in this track and all the more striking for that.
10. Well, why don’t you add this one? What song words do it for you?…
[I'm treating this as a work in progress - going to be putting some more bath time into it]
After some more bath-time reflection here are some other stand-out lines, plus some picked out by commenters below that strike a chord with me too:
Michael Franti & Spearhead, Oh My God (2001)
I slept with Marilyn she sung me Happy Birthday
Magazine, Song from Under the Floorboards (1980)
I am angry I am ill and I’m as ugly as sin
The Passenger, Iggy Pop (1977)
We’ll see the city’s ripped backsides
Marvyn Gaye/Dick Holler, Abraham Martin and John (1970)
Has anyone here seen my old friend Martin?
PJ Harvey, Let England Shake (2011)
England’s dancing days are done
You seem confused by your own ideals
You will not be able to stay home brother
Hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way
It took it 3.5 billion years to decide that you live just where you live [it = the universe]