A Quick Vote

Hey, guys. I will have a more substantive post up later in the day, but this is actually a request to help out a friend of mine. Some of you have heard the work I’ve posted of JP Corwyn. He’s an incredibly talented musician and friend and competing to have one of his songs featured on Vampire Diaries.

If you feel so inclined, head over to the Facebook page and vote. You don’t have to vote for Corwyn, but take a listen to his song, Free, and decide whether you think it’s worth it. Will only take a couple minutes of your time, but he’s really close to that top spot and you might be the person who pushes him over.

Thanks, everybody. Will get to work on something insightful in a little bit.

Two Christmas Songs

So, busy celebrating the holidays with my parents. Tonight I watch more films (Die Hard the major traditional one for Xmas Eve), and since we’re Italian it’s seafood for dinner. Lots and lots of seafood.

But I wanted to take a moment and share a little about two of my favorite Christmas carols. I suppose the second is more of a ditty than a carol, but it has meaning to me. So, away we go.

Good King Wenceslas

This has always been my absolute favorite of the Christmas carol canon. A simple tune with an uncomplicated rhythm and chord pattern, but a story about a genuinely good man doing a genuinely good thing because…well, because he could, damnit.

As a historical figure, Wenceslas was not a king, but rather the Duke of Bohemia. The “king” bit was appended later because it made him sound more impressive and, to an extent, it reflected his “kingly” behavior. By the time of his death around 935 CE, a number of almost cult-like followings of the man had already cropped up, and his reputation for goodness and just leadership was a major driver of the rex justus concept of the High Middle Ages. In many ways he (or the myth of him) set the standard for kind, noble leadership in the common conception of the thought.

To paraphrase The Princess Bride, “People in hats cannot be trusted.”

The song itself is a wonderful story about our eponymous hero seeing a poor man gathering wood from the parapets of his castle. This being the Feast of Stephen (the 2nd day of Christmas, or December 26th), Wenceslas calls forward a page to ask about the man. The page tells his monarch (well, his Duke, but we’ll pretend that he’s really a king) that he’s a poor man who lives in the forest. The king calls forth a feast to be prepared that he then carries with him to the poor man’s house through a snow storm. When the page, helping him carry, says it’s too cold, the king insists the page walk in his footsteps so that Wenceslas can block the wind with his body, making it easier for the page to move.

That sort of charity always struck me as what was important about the messages of the holiday season, much more so than any specific religious message. I remember hearing of the great sacrifice God made in the Incarnation during homilies and wondering why it was even necessary. I know why it was necessary for Wenceslas to go feed that man he saw collecting firewood: the man was hungry. He was cold and starving and needed food and heat that the king had in plenty. I also know why it was necessary to deliver the food and whatnot himself: it was a holiday and there was a snowstorm. Wenceslas didn’t want to make anyone else have to go through that if he could avoid it, and made as much accommodation for his page as he could. It’s a story that stuck with me as a result.

The actual music is an interesting story as well. Wenceslas is actually a filk of a 13th century song called “Tempus adest floridum” (“It is Time for Flowering” or, sometimes, “The Flower Carol”) written in a Finnish songbook called Piae Cantiones. The interesting thing about Piae Cantiones is that it was written as a book of secular children’s songs to be used in schools, a fairly unique thing for the time.

Anyway, here’s one of my favorite versions from fellow SCAdian and all-around awesome person Heather Dale, along with the Flower Carol.

La Befana

Like I said, the second isn’t really a song so much as a ditty, but it’s something I remember my grandmother singing to me as a small child and, as her Dementia set in and her perception of my age became less clear, in my mid-20’s. She passed away a couple of years ago, so this little thing makes me think of her as I sing it to myself.

La Befana, the legend goes, is an old woman who was visited by the Magi on their way to Bethlehem. Of course, Italy is very, very far off the map for people coming from Persia and Africa, but maybe they were actually following a star. Or whatever. It’s a myth, just run with it. Either way, they show up and ask around town for a place to stay, and everybody tells them that La Befana is the best housekeeper in town, but has been incredibly sad since she lost her son many years before. Some stories say to sickness, some say he was kidnapped, my grandmother never specified. The townspeople direct the Magi to La Befana, hoping that visitors will help her.

La Befana lets them in and treats them well. They explain that they are following a star to visit a child who was born to be the savior of all the world and ask her to join them. She refuses and they head out the next morning. But after a day has passed, she begins to regret her decision and even starts to think that this baby being born is actually her own son. So she grabs some toys and heads to Bethlehem, where she gives the toys to Jesus who is so pleased that he makes her mother of all of the children of Italy. So, on Epiphany Eve, La Befana visits the children of Italy to give them presents, filling their stockings with toys and candy if they’re good and coal if they’re bad, and sweeps the floor on her way out (she’s a good housekeeper, after all). If you catch a glimpse of her at work, she will know and smack you with her broom.

The “witch” archetype image is what is most often associated with La Befana. There are some who suggest that her legend derives from an old Roman goddess, Strenua, that was appropriated in true Christian fashion because they liked the idea of a woman who brings toys to good children, but didn’t like the raucous partying and sexy-times associated with La Befana’s less crone-like forerunner.

La Befana dolls (via Wikipedia)

Anyway, the song was a children’s ditty, usually sung in a simple, bouncy inverted iambic fashion.

La Befana vien di notte
Con le scarpe tutte rotte
Col vestito alla romana
Viva, Viva La Befana!

A quick translation, making no attempt to make the syllables fit.

La Befana comes at night

With shoes that are falling apart

Dressed like a Roman

Long live La Befana!

It’s not Donald MacGillavry by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s a fun tradition and one that I remember warmly. When I sit by the tree, I still can clearly hear my Nonna singing this with me.

Before I sign off, two more things I want to share. The first, a lot of secular organizations like to put up a specific holiday banner in public spaces around this time of year. It’s designed to be offensive to an extent in order to encourage public spaces to just stop endorsing religion at all, and I get that, but it never sat well with me, as confrontational as I tend to be. Libby Anne discusses this and, while I am less inclined to assume the best from culture warriors on the other side than she is, I agree with most of what she says. Which is why I like this message from Richard Wade at Friendly Atheist and I want to share it with you, my wonderful, brilliant, and kind readers.

Imagine that I had my photo editing software installed and “(fill in your atheist or humanist organization)” is replaced with “ReasonableConversation.Wordpress.Com”

And, finally, as I go to enjoy more traditions with my family, I leave you with the profound music of Tim Minchin, sharing a really beautiful Christmas song.

Happy holidays to all of you, and I look forward to a wonderful new year with my friends, my family, and my loved ones. And most especially, I hope to share it with all of you. Goodnight, one and all.

Another Song Post: Life on Mars?

So, I’m having a really wretched day, feeling down, and don’t have the energy for any Very Serious Topics, so you’re getting another music post. I’ll get back to telling you why I’m very, very angry at somebody or who/what I think is stupid another time.

Today, thanks to Slacktavist, I’m going to be discussing the David Bowie song Life on Mars? and several of its covers. The reason why is that it’s not only an amazing song on its own, it’s amazingly versatile.

So, let’s start with the original:

One thing to watch for in this is some classic David Bowie stuff. Bowie is known for the very cinematic way he performs, and the physical comes through in the sound of the song. Life on Mars? sounds like Bowie’s costumes and movements: precise in their own way, but totally out of the mainstream. Look at the way Bowie looks in his: it’s nuts, but the baby blue suit, white shirt collar, and tie with just a hint of red are not particularly radical on their own, yet it becomes provocative when matched against his white face, blue eyeshadow, and bright red hair. Similarly, he doesn’t move a lot, but does a lot of pointing and accusatory looks. He’s blaming us for what he’s describing. The song blames us too, but in a more flippant way. Part of the genius of David Bowie is how he doesn’t just write songs, he puts on a consistent show, much like Alice Cooper only much more subtle.

It’s also important to know that a few years before Bowie had written lyrics to be done over a popular French song’s tune. His version never came out, but Paul Anka also got the rights to the tune and turned it into the song My Way, made famous by Frank Sinatra. So Life on Mars? was partially made to mock the crooner style as a type of revenge.

So, what’s this song about? Well, again, let’s start with some historical context (not as much as we did with Donald, I promise). Life on Mars?  came out on the album Hunky Dory in 1971. This was a very proto-Ziggy Stardust album, and you see a lot of the elements that would later be associated with Ziggy when that album came the next year, such as the space-focused themes and the effort at androgyny. In fact, the latter is even more evident by the Hunky Dory cover art, inspired by a picture of Marlene Dietrich.

This is further complicated by the fact that Bowie’s in-song avatar is a young girl watching television and seeing the things going on around her. Bowie, in 1997, said, “I think she finds herself disappointed with reality … that although she’s living in the doldrums of reality, she’s being told that there’s a far greater life somewhere, and she’s bitterly disappointed that she doesn’t have access to it.”

I would actually go even one step further with this. The bitter disappointment isn’t just at not being able to be a part of this greater world, but also recognizing how far short the current world is. How do you look at humanity in this form and not have the realization that this is your race and it’s not good enough? The accusatory nature both cuts off the young girl from the rest of humanity and blames them for dragging her down by association.

So, we have an idea of what’s going on in the song now. Let’s look at some of the covers. h/t to Slacktavist for the links in this post.

The first is done by Robyn Hitchcock. This is probably the most pure of the covers that are provided here. This takes most of the same sound as the original, specifically focusing on the instruments and the minor progressions. The differences is that the Hitchcock version feels much more antagonistic, like it’s not just glaring at you but stalking toward you. It’s not just bitterly disappointed, it’s mad and it’s not afraid to let you know with much more staccato instrumentation. That it replaces the guitar run at the end with violins I absolutely adore.

The Eurhythmics version is much, much less aggressive, but also more epic. It takes the fairly paired down instrumental mix that Bowie used, focused mostly on piano with a drum just to keep the beat and some sound effects, and multiplies it by an orchestra practically. On one hand, this takes away from the small, simple feeling that the original had: one girl unable to stand against a world much bigger than she is. On the other hand, though, it transforms the song into an anthem, something that cries out to others who feel that same disgust and tells them to not stand for it any longer.

I should also point out that Annie Lennox has the stylistic chops to match Bowie and absolutely can match his way of singing, but she clearly doesn’t have his range, and range is a huge part of a Bowie song. His ability to go from a deep register to one-step-from-falsetto is what makes him unique, even among glam rockers.

The most surprising cover, I think, is Barbara Steisand’s cover for her 1974 album ButterFly. I will credit this as a really good version, no question, especially since the instrumentation is really epic, but Babs’s voice mainstreams the vocal sound, making it sound less like an iconic glam rock hit and more like a Broadway adaptation of same, and she can’t pull off the slur on “show”, though she does try. It’s much like how the Beatles’ The Long and Winding Road  was supposed to be just the four Beatles playing, and the orchestration was added late in the production. This is the polished, orchestrated version, but it loses the purity of the original by basically making a spectacle of it.

But of course, Bowie was not above covering himself. And there are significant differences when he does this song live in different times. In many ways, it’s almost like as time goes on he is refining the song more and more.

For example, in this version from 1980, we see Bowie responding to the bigger, more full versions that had come out in the past decade, especially the Steisand version. He tries adding more sound, relying on the synth to provide the vaguely spacey-sounding effects and making it much more guitar heavy. At least the drums remain a mostly background element, holding up the song but not driving it like the Hitchcock version.

This version from 2000 is probably my favorite. Just Bowie and a piano seems like the way the song was meant to be sung, the way it was crying out to be done. It’s a torturous song about watching the human race in all of its brutality and foolishness and painfully asking if there’s life on Mars, as if giving up on humanity and willing to try something else, but not happily.

Finally, we have this version from 2005. What I find most interesting about this version is that it most sounds like the crooner sound that the original was trying to mock. It has that same vocal up and down, that careless, tenuous connection between the lyrics and the music, and he manages to hold the note for “Mars” really, really well.

There are many, many more versions of this song. Some I like, some I don’t.  The Flaming Lips version, for example, sounds empty to me and the artistic choice to filter the lyrics like that just didn’t work. But the important thing to realize is that it’s still valid because Life on Mars? is a song with a lot to offer, and no limit to the ways it can be approached.

Donald MacGillavry, The Genius Hoax

It’s no secret that I love folk music. I listen to it, I play it, I try to sing it. And among my favorite in the folk genre is Donald MacGillavry, a Scottish Jacobite song meant to support either the Jacobite rising of 1715 or 1745.

Or is it?

That’s not to say, is it one of my favorites, because it most assuredly is, but rather is it a revolution-supporting Scottish Jacobite song? And the answer is absolutely not. It’s a hoax. But it’s a clever hoax, and one worth exploring.

So, before we dive into this, start by listening to the song. This is the Silly Wizard version, which is by far the most Scottish version I could find (also my favorite).

First, it’s important to understand the historical context in which the song was supposed to have been written. I suggest reading it all, but there will be a tl;dr at the bottom.

Really you could bring this all the way back to the Stuart kings, specifically starting with Charles I who is known for two things: trying to strengthen the monarchy at the expense of Parliament because he felt his position was divinely ordained, and being executed by an uprising in January 1649 which lead to an 11-ish year period in which England had no monarch and was under the control of Parliament and the military under the direction of Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell (or his son).

Cromwell served England as a member of the Rump Parliament and eventually the Barebones Parliament until they gave up this “Parliament” idea and just gave him dictatorial power. This period was known as the  Interregnum.

In 1660, Royalists returned a Stuart king to the throne, in this case Charles II. They also dug up a two-year-dead Cromwell, hung his corpse in chains, and beheaded it. Charles II pushed even more fervently for monarchal power, resisting calls for a consensual government, made even more potent because of Cromwell’s experiment with Commonwealth. Charles also re-established the Church of England and episcopal government in Scotland.

Eventually Charles dies and his brother James II ascends to the throne. There’s a lot of mucking about here with succession that isn’t important (and this preamble is long enough), suffice it to say James is not a popular king. He’s already part of a dynasty that is known for trying to take power from the people and place it in the crown, but he is also Catholic. This poses a big problem as he immediately started pushing for programs that would include Catholics, Protestant Dissenters, and even Quakers more fully in public life. Unsurprisingly, largely CoE England saw this as a direct attack on their faith (see? this is not a new argument), part of what eventually lead to Netherlander William of Orange (married to James’s daughter Mary, hence also the college name) taking the English throne in what is called the Glorious Revolution.

And all of that background leads us to the Jacobites, who were the supporters of the deposed King James and his children. They largely blew the deposed Stuarts up into mighty caricatures of themselves, almost mythical figures who represented everything they believed in (primarily the divine right of kings, that kings are answerable only to god, and that hereditary lines should always be respected). Of the political parties, they found their support with the Torys, who tend to be Royalists and were opposed by the Whigs, who felt that law should be based primarily on possession rather that “right.”

Tl;dr The Stuart kings tried to take power away from Parliament with often disastrous results. Eventually this lead to James II being kicked off the throne by his son-in-law, a Dutchman named William of Orange. The people who considered James the true king were called Jacobites.

However, none of this matters because this song was unknown to the Jacobites. In fact, it was first published in 1819 by a man named James Hogg.

Hogg was a Scottish poet and novelist, as well as an early parodist. He was very popular for his time, but among his most well known works was  Jacobite Reliquesa collection of Jacobite (and some Whig) songs. Donald MacGillavry was among the Jacobite ones and described by Hogg as, “…one of the best songs that ever was made…a capital old song, and very popular.” He goes on to explain an entirely fictitious history for the song, hearkening back to the 1715 and 1745 Jacobite risings in Scotland, talking about two obscure soldiers in those wars with the last name MacGillavry, expounding on how because they were a minor sub-clan and not associated with powerful warring factions, they were used as a symbol for a united Scotland, etc. Seriously, read it yourself.

The thing that made this a particularly effective hoax was that it is really a fantastic song. Hogg had an excellent grasp not only of the political and social realities of the previous few generations from him, he also had a grasp on the nature of Scottish nationalism and identity and their evolution to that point. In the words of William Donaldson in his book The Jacobite Song: Political Myth and National Identity:

Donald Macgillavry is one of the best things in the collection, set to a lilting 6/8 in a minor key ideally suited to the repetition and word-play packed into the stanzas, and issuing an exuberant summons to resentful Gaeldom to deliver the nation from the thraldom of Whiggery…Successive verses elaborate the pattern established in the first. The initial four lines enlarge upon the Highlandman’s fury, and then he is invoked in various forms, as a weaver, tailor, cobbler, and so on, and this takes up the rest of the octave…But these prosaic concepts are translated in four brilliantly alliterative lines into fresh and highly concrete terms…

Let’s put the lyrics down here, since we’re about to get into some analysis of what they are and what they mean. Also, for those having trouble with some of the words, this is a non-authoritative but useful semi-glossary.

Donald’s gane up the hill hard and hungry,
Donald comes down the hill wild and angry;
Donald will clear the gouk’s nest cleverly,
Here’s to the king and Donald Macgillavry.
Come like a weighbauk, Donald Macgillavry,
Come like a weighbauk, Donald Macgillavry,
Balance them fair, and balance them cleverly:
Off wi’the counterfeit, Donald Macgillavry.

Donald’s run o’er the hill but his tether, man,
As he were wud, or stang’d wi’ an ether, man;
When he comes back, there’s some will look merrily:
Here’s to King James and Dnnald Macgillavry.
Come like a weaver, Donald Macgillavry,
Come like a weaver, Dnnald Macgillavry,
Pack on your back, and elwand sae cleverly;
Gie them full measure, my Donald Macgillavry.

Donald has foughten wi’ rief and roguery;
Donald has dinner’d wi banes and beggary,
Better it were for Whigs and Whiggery
Meeting the devil than Donald Macgillavry.
Come like a tailor, Donald Macgillavry,
Come like a tailor, Donald Macgillavry,
Push about, in and out, thimble them cleverly,
Here’s to King James and Donald Macgillavry.

Donald’s the callan that brooks nae tangleness;
Whigging and prigging and a’newfangleness,
They maun be gane: he winna be baukit, man:
He maun hae justice, or faith he’ll tak it, man.
Come like a cobler, Donald Macgillavry,
Come like a cobler, Donald Macgillavry;
Beat them, and bore them, and lingel them cleverly,
Up wi’ King James and Donald Macgillavry.

Donald was mumpit wi mirds and mockery;
Donald was blinded wi’ blads o’ property;
Arles ran high, but makings were naething, man,

Lord, how Donald is flyting and fretting, man.
Come like the devil, Donald Macgillavry,
Come like the devil, Donald Macgillavry;
Skelp them and scaud them that proved sae unbritherly,
Up wi King James and Donald Macgillavry!

Of the eponymous main character, Donaldson says, “His Highlandman is not a clownish barbarian, but a formidable character with a decisive political role…” which is a vast departure from popular depictions of the wild Scotsman of the time. Donaldson also points out that it’s irony that Hogg uses mercantile imagery to sing the praises of MacGillavry since he’s placed in opposition to the Whigs, who were by and large Classical Liberals who, unlike modern liberals, are noted for their support of an unrestrained free market and the supremacy of possession and contract over granted rights (i.e. much closer to today’s libertarian). Essentially, Hogg used the symbols of commerce to describe a person battling against their unchecked freedom.

Moreover, part of what made this particular hoax so believable was that Hogg was careful to allude to pressing issues of the time in which it was supposed to be written. For example, the first occupation that MacGillavry has is that of “weighbauk.” British currency was in crisis at the end of the 17th and beginning of the 18th century, with the value of it going down due to clipping and counterfeiting. Part of the reason why Sir Isaac Newton was made Master of the Mint was that he was supposed to use his scientific and mathematical genius to try and deal with the fact that British money was becoming less and less reliable. So a weighbauk was a really important job: the person who made sure your money was worth something. It also allowed for the fantastic dig at William of Orange by stating “off with the counterfeit, Donald MacGillavry.” Obviously, “counterfeit” here is both fake money and the fake king.

A similar bit of word play is going on in the second stanza where we see a reference to an “elwand,” which is a measuring stick used to determine how much fabric to cut. However, we see Hogg using it here to also mean a bludgeon, and the pun in “give them full measure” painted a particularly gruesome picture if you really think about it. Similarly, I don’t see a whole lot of good in the next stanza when MacGillavry is encouraged to, like a cobbler,  “Beat them, and bore them, and lingel them cleverly.” As a cobbler, I’ve beaten and bored and lingeled, and none of those sound very healthy to non-shoes.

There’s a lot more to be said about the use of dialect, but I don’t feel really qualified to go into it. Suffice it to say, the brilliance of Hogg lies in his ability to create really vivid visual metaphors that were so much a part of the culture of almost 100 years before that he could have easily gotten away with claiming this was an authentic Jacobite song, rather than admitting it was a hoax. However, being a bit of a pain in the ass, Hogg admitted he made it up, delighting in making a book reviewer, Francis Jeffrey, look like a moron as a result. In the 1831 edition of his book “Songs,” Hogg wrote this about Donald (emphasis mine): 

…originally published in the Jacobite Relics, without any notice of its being an original composition; an ommission which entrapped the Edinburgh Review into a high but unintentional compliment to the author. After reviewing the Relics in a style of most determined animosity, and protesting over and over again that I was devoid of all taste and discrimination, the tirade concluded in these terms: ‘That we may not close this article without a specimen of the good songs which the book contains, we shall select the one which, for sly, characteristic Scotch humour, seems to us the best, though we doubt if any of our English readers will relish it’… After all, between ourselves, Donald M’Gillavry, which he has selected as the best specimen of the true old Jacobite song, and as remarkably above his fellows for ‘sly, characteristic Scotch humour’, is no other than a trifle of my own, which I put in to fill up a page.

Now, I know a lot of my friends are fans of the Empty Hats version, which is significantly different.

Instead of being about a Highlander fighting Whigs, it’s about a wild musician coming into “civilized” town and, with his uncontrolled and passionate music, leading the people astray. He’s condemned by the church, but just before he’s burnt at the stake, the children of the town lie down on the unlit pyre and the people see their behavior as a message from god, so he’s set free.

Basically, they took that same “lilting 6/8” tune and re-wrote the lyrics. And I should say that I don’t think it’s a bad version, per se, but ultimately it’s not one I generally care to listen to, despite its anti-clerical underpinnings. What I like so much about the original is the layers and layers of meaning, history, and implication, as well as the whole “it was really a hoax” thing, that is simply missing from the Hats version. Similarly, the straightforward storytelling strips the song of its puns and metaphor, and perhaps the most interesting bit of Donald is Hogg’s wordplay.

So, not a bad version, but not my preferred one. I still suggest listening to it, and basically everything done by Empty Hats ever.

So there’s a bit about one song. And I’m well over 2000 words talking about it. But I think it’s fascinating how the simple act of songwriting can be so complexly woven together, and some of the songs that last do so because, whether we realize it or not, there are multitudes within a simple frame.