14 December 2017

Love me, love my music

Smokey Robinson's song in gapfill form.

The video I showed in class after the gapfill exercise.

Another gapfill exercise. Audio (YouTube) here.
I don't like you but I love you
Seems that I'm always thinking of you
Oh, you treat me badly
I love you madly

You really got a hold on me
You really got a hold on me, baby

I don't want you but I need you
Don't want to kiss you but I need to
Oh, you do me wrong now
My love is strong now

You really got a hold on me
You really got a hold on me, baby...

(from "You've Really Got a Hold on Me," by William "Smokey" Robinson.)

For many of my classes, I ended the class period with something lighter than the main agenda for the day. On the chalkboard, I had lyrics for a song, but with words missing that the students would fill in as they listened to the track. Naturally, blues and soul were one of my sources, along with interesting songs I found on allmusic.com and other sources. Gospel and peace songs, and old standards from Eva Cassidy, also made it on the list. You can sample them here. (Some of the audio links only work in Russia.)

On the day I played "You've Really Got a Hold on Me," one of my favorite tracks from the film Standing in the Shadows of Motown, it finally struck me how the lyrics didn't really stand up to close examination -- at least not as advice for a healthy relationship. I hadn't allowed time for any discussion during that first period, but I had planned to use the song for two more classes. In those later periods I timed it so we had a chance to talk about what the singer's relationship was like, and how the students would feel and act if they found themselves in such a relationship.

You can probably think of some other songs that have similar messages -- "Chain of Fools," just off the top of my head, and "A Fool in Love." I didn't necessarily avoid such songs, but now I was better prepared to go deeper.

There's a corner of the blues and soul world that can get pretty grim. In class, however, I was never tempted to use some of the songs of domestic abuse and murder in my collection. (Robert Nighthawk performing Joe Clayton: "I went down to Ely / to get my pistol out of bond. / When I got back home / My woman had gone. / Gonna murder my baby ....") We did occasionally use songs that got close to that edge, like "Joliet Bound" and "5-O Blues," because they shone a spotlight on particular times and places.

Many of these songs hardly seem to qualify as "entertainment" -- they seem more like raw data about evil and cruelty. I was not tempted to sentimentalize this music, especially after  hearing some of the nightmarish stories collected by my sister Ellen, after her time in the Audy Home, the juvenile jail in Chicago, and later in protective custody at the state's Medical Center Complex. (As you may already know, she escaped from that facility and a few days later was kidnapped and murdered.)

The dilemma for the blues audience, especially for someone like me for whom the musical qualities alone reach to a very deep place of pain and ecstasy, is to differentiate between that raw data and the danger of its normalizing influence. For example, when are we hearing honest testimony and when are we hearing masculine swagger? These days, when we're starting to count the cost of that swagger publicly, it's worth thinking about.

It's only fair to point out that the blues and its derivative genres have as much emotional range as any lyrical genre of music, from plaintive ("Eisenhower Blues") to utterly sweet ("Sweet Little Angel," obviously), and much more. After fifty years of listening to this music, I understand Willie Dixon's words, "The blues is the truth. If it's not the truth, it's not the blues." Or as Russian blues singer Olga Ponomaryova said, "I did not choose the blues, the blues chose me. That's the way it is.... I compare it to when I go to church for confession. The situation is exactly the same: you can't lie."



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