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The Student News Site of Stony Brook University

The Statesman

The Student News Site of Stony Brook University

The Statesman


    Pop Music as American History

    Welcome back!’

    I know that for many students, September’s traditional back to school activities tend to veer decidedly away from the academic. Like Asher Roth, we know why you love college.’

    But we professor types like to amuse ourselves by believing that we can encourage you to stretch intellectually outside your comfort zone, to try on new ideas, consider new or different possibilities.’

    So here are a couple of ideas for how to spend that money on something other than books.’


    Woody Guthrie: My Dusty Road (Rounder Records)

    Start with the oracle of folk.’ This four-CD set is a definitive best-of collection of Guthrie’s major recordings from the 1940s.’ Guthrie’s music is a kind of ‘American history in a jar’ anyway ‘- a compressed history of working people’s struggles, and the beauty and grandeur of the country.’ Just remember that Congress seriously considered adopting ‘This Land is Your Land’ as our national anthem, until they actually listened to the third verse:’

    As I went walking I saw a sign there

    And on the sign it said ‘No Trespassing.’

    But on the other side it didn’t say nothing,

    That side was made for you and me.

    (Guthrie wrote this as a riposte to the cloyingly annoying ‘God Bless America’, which Kate Smith had made into a hit in 1940, and which Yankee fans must now endure at every single home game.’ Need one say more?)

    Other songs include the tender ‘More Pretty Girls than One,’ the gospel-infused ‘Will You Miss me When I’m Gone’, and my personal favorite, ‘Pretty Boy Floyd,’ which is a whole course in the Sociology of Deviance in 3+ minutes.’

    You don’t need to listen to Bruce Springsteen channel Woody on ‘Ghost of Tom Joad.” Listen to the real thing.’ Gritty, nasal, angry, defiant, and passionate ‘- the entire array of human emotions.’ The American pageant.

    Bob Dylan: Together Through Life (Columbia)

    Bob Dylan was one of Woody’s first offspring, traveling from his native Minnesota to sit at the dying Guthrie’s feet and sing ‘Song for Woody’ for him, at roughly the same time that Dan Draper was busy climbing the corporate ladder.’ Dylan’s voice has mutated from a Midwestern twangy whine to a hoarse, gravely growl, and his lyrics have lost much of their political or psychological urgency on this, his 46th album.’

    There’s less social protest, or that sneering anger at cultural hypocrisy.’ At least not at first.’ But then, ‘It’s All Good’ creeps up on you, as a hell of a send up on American complacency.’

    But still, he is musically inventive, toying here with Norteno, big band, and rock-blues hues, in an increasingly monotonic musical palette.’ (Accordian frills by David Hidalgo of Los Lobos fill out the sound.)’ The actual music may not be as grand as the grandiose ‘cult of Bob’ might have it, but Dylan here proves he is still as restless and creative as ever.

    Peter Holsapple and Chris Stamey: Here and Now (Bar/None Records)

    They’ve been around, like, forever.’ Holsapple and Stamey were the original dBs, Continental Drifters and Golden Palominos, and played on early records of REM, Alex Chilton and Bob Mould.’ Their earlier CD, Mavericks, was among my Top 10 in 1992; this one is easily as laden with melodic folk-rock hooks, smooth harmonies, and sweet, if undemanding music.’ Think Lovin’ Spoonful busking on the streets of New Orleans.

    Indeed, there is a bit of an edge here, derived, perhaps from Holsapple witnessing Hurrican Katrina’s ravaging of his adopted city.’ He returned to North Carolina, teamed back up with Stamey, and fell back into these sweetly familiar grooves.’

    If you’ve grown weary of They Might Be Giants’ pandering to listeners in the single digits (my kid now likes them more that I do), give this a listen.’ The same lyrical playfulness, tight harmonies, and melodious grooves that come from a lifetime of playing together.’ ‘ ‘

    Jesse Winchester:’ Love Filling Station (Appleseed Records)

    Speaking of being around forever, Jessie Winchester burst onto the scene as a Woodstock mainstay around the same time as The Band, with his soft, country-inflected folk songs like ‘Yankee Lady’ and ‘Brand New Tennessee Waltz.” This guy still has the sweetest voice this side of James Taylor ‘- rich and melodious.’ At times, it’s thin to the point of evaporation, as on Ben E. King’s original fiercely yearning ‘Stand By Me.” But mostly, this is a collection of songs of weathered experience, but neither weary nor jaded.’

    And that posture, tempered by enthusiastic, ever hopeful in the face of the new ‘- well, how else to face the new school year?

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