Tuesday, August 18, 2009

top ten songs about legend

Woodstock posterElvis Aaron Presley: the king
There's two anniversaries falling around this time: the 40th anniversary of the Woodstock concert, and the 32nd of Elvis Presley's death. Woodstock and Presley have both gained a legendary status, and I thought I'd like to look at some music about matters of legend, whether they be fact, fiction or fantasy.

10 - Woodstock

The concert was conceived not in a commune but a boardroom - the "Aquarian Exposition" was, like many matters pertaining to the new age, a means of getting rich quick. Or at least that was the theory; in fact it turned out to be an unmitigated disaster. Its most celebrated troubadour, Joni Mitchell, wrote "we are stardust/we are golden/and we've got to get ourselves back to the garden..." Actually, she wasn't there. As the Telegraph's Mick Brown explains, she was waiting to be interviewed on the Dick Cavett show, and wrote the song while watching scenes from the concert on TV. Ian Matthews wasn't there either, but turned the song into high art and hit the #1 spot in the US in 1970:

9 - 1914 Christmas truce

The 1914 Christmas truce, started when Germans in their trenches at Flanders started singing Stille Nacht (Silent Night) exemplifies a real-world happening that has passed into legendary status. In Paul McCartney's Pipes of Peace we see the famous football game and hear the disquieting question he puts in the mouth of the two officers meeting in no-man's land: "Will the human race be run in a day?"

8 - Cinderella fellablonde bombshell: click to go to the Diana Dors Official Archive and Website

This is a reworking of the Cinderella myth by Adam and the Ants in which a male Cinders (Adam) is changed into Prince Charming by the fairy godmother. Mike Mansfield and the formic punkster, directing the video, played a blinder by casting Diana Dors in the latter role. She was a British version of Marylin Monroe, and her voluptuous figure perhaps caught the British imagination (aside from obvious reasons) in the 1950s due to rationing-fatigue. Look out for nods to Alice Cooper, Rudolph Valentino and Clint Eastwood's Man with no Name, among others.

7 - Beginnings

Scatterlings of Africa is Johnny Clegg's meditation on the beginning of our journey in a secular Eden, but he still wants us to think "who made us here and why - remember!" He sings of Olduvai, a gorge in Tanzania where naturalist Wilhelm Kattwinkel chanced upon ancient human remains, and a "personal space" he calls Phelamanga. He performs in the video with his reformed band, Juluka.

6 - Unicorns

click to go to the (unoficially) Peter S Beagle websiteIn the earliest instance of missing the boat, the unicorn was a fabled resident of the Garden of Eden which didn't quite make it to Noah's Ark. In his novel The Last Unicorn, however, Peter S Beagle envisions a unicorn in medieval times who embarks upon a journey to see if there are any other unicorns left. In the 1982 animated film the title song was written by Jimmy Webb and sung by America - the footage here is accompanied by Loreena McKenna's version of the song.

5 - In-a-gadda-da-vida

There are three versions of the Iron Butterfly classic's nomenclature: one that singer Doug Ingle got a little tiddled and slurred his words when trying to tell the drummer the song's name was In the Garden of Eden; another that drummer Ron Bushy's headphones were defective; and the third that Ingle, who wrote the song, didn't want to offend people with religious sensibilities. Anyhoo, I can't post the seventeen-minute version, so here's the standard single version played by the band in later years.

4 - Bringer of Joy

Manfred Mann nearly got into hot water with this prog rock adaptation of Jupiter - bringer of jollity, the fourth movement of Gustav Holst's Planets suite, because the suite was still in copyright. The composer's daughter Imogen, herself a composer and conductor, was originally opposed to a pop version of her father's music, but eventually relented on condition that Holst was listed on the credits. A devoted guardian of her father's work, she died in 1984 and was therefore spared the agony of hearing what mobile phone ringtones can do to good music.

3 - A Survivor from Warsaw

Would that all modern legend were occupied with joy. A Survivor from Warsaw is a cantata written by Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg, in which said survivor narrates the story of brutal Nazi guards rounding up a group of Jews; as the Sergeant becomes more abusive, the older men start singing Judaism's holiest prayer, the Shema, a curtailed version of which ends the piece.

2 - Did those feet...?

Fall of the Rebel Angels by Breughel - click to read Blake's poem, now known as 'Jerusalem'
Can there be truth in the legend that the young Jesus was shipwrecked while on a business voyage with Joseph of Arimathea to the tin mines in Cornwall, and visited the town of Glastonbury in South-West England? I don't know, I wasn't there. The legend is the kernel of the introduction to William Blake's epic poem Milton; originally called And did those feet in ancient time, it's now better known as the hymn Jerusalem, and with Sir Hubert Parry's 1916 score is an indispensible part of the Last Night of the Proms.

1 - An Elvis Trilogy

I remember the day when news of Elvis Presley's death broke, because my Mum, a huge fan, came into my room in tears to tell me. Over the following years our musical tastes would diverge somewhat, but we always agreed about the power of An American Trilogy, Mickey Newbury's arrangement of Dixie, All my Trials and Battle Hymn of the Republic. Listening to this, I can glimpse the garden far more clearly than through Joni Mitchell's proxy memoir. Enjoy.

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  1. I recently came accross your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.



  2. Thanks for your kind comment, Betty! I'm glad you like the blog - please feel free to leave a coment whenever you want, I love reading comments. PS I love your electric guitar site! - FD


Please feel free to leave a comment - Frugal Dougal.