A Musical Exercise: 5 from the '50s.

Arranged by year of release, here are my five favorite songs from the ’50s. (See also the rationale behind all of this.)


1. Nat King Cole, “Red Sails in the Sunset”

There are two distinct periods to Nat King Cole’s long body of work: first, the pianist leading his swinging jazz trio; second, the “Unforgettable” crooner bringing his music to a bigger (and whiter) audience. My dad loved the latter Cole, his uncomplicated, unruffled songs now overlaid with strings and the most syrupy backing choral arrangements this side of, I don’t know, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. (Listen to his renditions of “Ramblin’ Rose” and “The Yellow Rose of Texas”, for instance; they’re irredeemably terrible.)

This was unfortunate, and I did not, in fact, find out that Cole actually played piano until the early ’90s! It was, however, the Nat King Cole I grew up with: the Cole of “Smile” and “L-O-V-E” (though the fantastic “A Blossom Fell” is from this era too); the Cole played over and over on the stereo and later, once technology permitted, on long road trips; the Cole whose enunciation was held up by my father as a paragon of good singing, “unlike the music you listen to — is he even saying anything?” he’d address me. (I might have been particularly obsessed with New Order’s mumbly “Ceremony” at that point.)

And so “Red Sails in the Sunset” is from the wrong Cole period, but it’s lovely nonetheless, and included here for all the right reasons: my dad sang me to sleep with this song, and I sing my daughter to sleep with it as well.

Amazon link for the compilation Unforgettable.


2. Frank Sinatra, “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning”
from the 1955 album In the Wee Small Hours

The song is cinematically, melodramatically, solitary from the get-go: the ironic lullaby-like notes in the beginning, with the strings gently nudging the weary Sinatra into an effortless recitation of his loss. The languidness of the song’s arrangement, and the odd, redundant juxtaposition of “wee” and “small” (but what the first few words do is shape the singer’s mouth not into a caress, but into a kind of tired, slackjawed mourning, i.e., no plosives or fricatives), are in perfect consonance with the resigned melancholy of the lyrics. But the almost somnolent haze of the song belies what’s most important: he is wide awake, he does not want to go to sleep, and he is waiting for a call which he knows will never arrive. And he is all alone.

Amazon link.


3. Billie Holiday, “I Thought About You”
from the 1956 album Lady Sings The Blues

For me it’s all about that purring lilt in her voice at the end of the line when she sings “The one going back to you.” Sometimes, though, what does it for me is the couplet that goes

And every stop that we made
oh, I thought about you

The “we” of course refers to her and the train’s passengers, but I like thinking she’s with someone else.

Amazon link.


4. Link Wray, “Rumble”

I mean, listen to it! It even sounds filthy and dangerous and about to stab you with a dirty knife.

Amazon link for the compilation Rumble! The Best of Link Wray.


5. The Teddy Bears, “To Know Him Is To Love Him”

Phil Spector was all of seventeen years old when he wrote this simple, straightforward philosophical equation of “to know” and “to love” (he also arranged it, and sang in the background), and it’s already a fully-formed marvel of adolescent longing from afar. (Though it’s really a tribute — like Bread’s “Everything I Own” — to Spector’s late father.)

But we don’t find out about the “from afar” part until we hear the second stanza, and we move from the present tense to the future conditional, and the bridge, when Annette Kleinbard finally lets loose, only accentuates the despair: “Why can’t he see me?” This three-part structure is mirrored as well in that fantastic opening line, progressing from “know know know” to “love love love” and finally to — what else, in 1958? — “and I do and I do and I do.”

Amazon link for Phil Spector’s box set Back to Mono.

movies music

Ethics and Music.

MacDiva writes about “loving the artist, hating the song” — in particular, Billie Holiday singing “Ain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do:”

…there I was, listening to a woman declare herself a willing candidate [of domestic violence] and almost singing along with the chorus.

I have no magical formula to offer in regard to this issue. Indeed, the answer may be that one learns to tolerate a degree of imperfection in artists one admires and each individual decides where to draw the line. I’ll delete “Ain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do” from my iPod because I find the song too irritating to continue listening to it. Other decisions about lyrics that make me uncomfortable will be made on a case-by-case basis. In some of them, I will keep right on loving the artist and hating the song.

Songs like that one probably constitute a fourth of Lady Day’s recorded output, but that’s how it goes. My very first Billie Holiday purchase was the live Billie’s Blues, which contains the classic “My Man:”

Two or three girls
Has he
That he likes as well as me
But I love him

I don’t know why I should
He isn’t true
He beats me, too
What can I do?

Oh, my man, I love him so
He’ll never know
All my life is just a spare
But I don’t care
When he takes me in his arms
The world is bright
All right

Later on MacDiva writes about “Sweet Home Alabama” — a retort to Neil Young’s “Southern Man” — and how the song’s “hot guitar riff” still won’t earn it a place on her iPod.

Let me take the topic a little further, because it’s something which has (or hasn’t) bothered me as well. As a voracious (and fairly omnivorous) consumer of music, I listen to a whole bunch of artists and groups associated with dodgy themes or politics, whether as window-dressing or (unfortunately) in real life. Michael Moynihan has made clear in the very good Lords of Chaos the very real connection between the Norwegian black metal scene and various acts of homicide and arson, among others. (Yes, I listen to Darkthrone.) And a lot of the early Industrial/noise groups also used graphically violent imagery as part of their shock tactics. (Yes, I listen to Whitehouse too. And Boyd Rice. I confess it all: behind the mild-mannered, defender-of-minorities facade, the Wily Filipino is a rabid, Satan-worshipping thug in jackboots.)

It reminds me of how one of my Filipino friends from New York shook his head in disbelief when I told him I was a big John Zorn fan; this was because Zorn had gotten into trouble from the Committee Against Anti-Asian Violence for the covers of the Naked City albums Torture Garden (naked Japanese women suspended and tied up in elaborate knots) and Leng T’che (Chinese man ripped apart in a public execution — you Bataille fans would have already seen that one). (Surely that hidden Araki photograph in Taboo and Exile would have gotten Zorn into hotter water, but it didn’t.)

(And probably my favorite film of all time is Apocalypse Now, which is deeply racist, but in an interesting way. Which may have been Coppola’s point, but I’m not sure that it is. But as Frank Chin writes: “We have to be able to accept Conrad and Coppola’s works as the white racist works they are and still recognize them as great white lit and film. And I think most writers from non-white peoples can and have been reading racist white lit and recognizing it as great lit.”)

MacDiva also brings up Miles Davis, which is funny because he’s always my primary example of how I conveniently ignore the musician’s personal background for the music. He was, by all the accounts I’ve read, extremely abusive towards women. (But his indefensible behavior is somehow “excusable” because the man is a genius. Is that the logic in operation here? Because I’ll be damned if I never listen to Miles again out of principle.)

In any case, it is an interesting quandary…