Saturday, September 22, 2012

Geeshie Wiley, "Last Kind Words": blues in a minor key.

We think of blues as sad, and associate sadness with music in a minor key. Truth is, almost all blues is in a major key. I suspect the reason is that, while blues addresses life's hardships, it typically has a "we shall overcome" undercurrent; a sense that the singer is up to the challenge. An exception is "Last Kind Words Blues", recorded in 1930 by Geeshie Wiley, about whose life, according to this Wikipedia entry, little is known.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

"Framingham" by Nice Strong Arm and "Maddox Table" by 10,000 Maniacs: contrasting visions of mid 20th century America.

This video was made in the late 1980s by a band that broke up in 1990, so I may fairly be accused of exhuming a dead horse to flay it. In defense I offer first, it's so screechingly awful (I've never liked the Heartland Records/ Sonic Youth/ "noise metal" genre) that I couldn't resist sharing it (OK, call me a sadist); and second, it unfairly maligns a small city (technically a "town") with which my admittedly tenuous connections are all pleasant.  The only time I ever spent there, apart from traversing its outskirts on the Mass Pike, was when I had Thanksgiving dinner in 1969 thanks to a delightful young woman, then a Harvard senior, who worked on floor staff at the now lamented Lincoln's Inn, and her parents, who shared their table with me and several of my law school friends. My continuing connection is through two friends, one of whom grew up entirely (the one who introduced me to Dogfish Head 90 Minute Imperial IPA), and the other partly (the one who introduced me to the Brooklyn Bridge cactus), there.

Framingham, Massachusetts (population 68,318 as of the 2010 census) sits roughly halfway between Boston and Worcester (a city with which my connection is even more tenuous).  It's been designated one of America's 100 best small cities by CNN. It has its normal share of annoying inhabitants, both human and animal, but it's certainly no hellhole. It was at least for a time the home of Crispus Attucks, considered by some the first casualty of the American Revolution. In the years leading up to the Civil War it was, in common with my adopted home, Brooklyn Heights, a center of the antislavery movement. It has a large Brazilian immigrant community, so you can probably get good bacalhau and feijoada there.

The video starts, over a portentous repeated strum, with an aerial view of a treeless suburban spread of Malvina Reynolds' ticky-tacky houses, evidently somewhere in the high plains or desert, certainly not New England. Then, with a hissing snare crescendo, we're transported down to one of these houses, where the protagonist lies asleep, at first still, then agitated. Cut to the band, shot in near darkness, appearing to be the spectral figures who disturb his sleep. A voice begins a droning chant:
He was a company man, on the lifetime plan,
He gave them forty years; they gave him a watch...
What follows are evidently stock scenes from 1950s movies or Father Knows Best style TV sitcoms, as our protagonist has breakfast with his pretty wife and adorable toddlers, then leaves for work. We then get, as the droning voice continues, scenes of factory workers lining up to punch their time cards and views of huge industrial plants, mostly of kinds that never existed in or anywhere near Framingham. As we shift to the interiors of these plants and see workers doing repetitive tasks, and the voice drones on, we do get one glance of what appears to be an auto assembly line, something that Framingham actually had for a time. The voice shifts out of its monotonous drone into a shriek, then a bellow:
This is what I DO! This is what I AM! I want to LIVE FOREVER, in FRAMINGHAM! 
What, no retirement home in Florida? No, Framingham forever! Then the yelling ends, and we get keening guitar as the workers leave the plant, our protagonist arrives home, his darling daughter removes his shoes and puts on slippers as he reads the paper, and the family goes to the dinner table. There, Dad seems glum as he picks at his food, perhaps contemplating the Meaninglessness Of It All, or mulling over the gambling debts he's run up without his wife's knowledge, or both. The kids are excused, and Mom looks concerned. Cut to exterior, where we see the bedroom light going out. Nothing like a roll in the hay to chase away those existential blues, but we suspect it ain't in the cards. 

What seems odd about this product of the late 1980s is that it mocks an America that was, if not entirely a thing of the past at that time, well on its way out: an America of plentiful manufacturing jobs that paid well enough to provide middle class comfort, and gave a reasonable expectation of lifetime employment.

Nice Strong Arm came from Austin, and moved to New York after the success of their first album, Reality Bath ("Framingham" is from their second, Mind Furnace). What made them pick on Framingham? I suspect they just needed a three syllable name to fill out the measure of those last shouted lines. Allentown would have done as well, but Billy Joel had already claimed it.

And now, for something completely different:

Jamestown, New York is a city about half the size of Framingham (2010 population 31,146). I got to know it well in the 1970s when, as a LeBoeuf associate, I did work for a client there. Jamestown was a furniture manufacturing center, and Maddox Table was one of its largest employers. If you follow the link immediately above to the first installment of my LeBoeuf saga, you can read about my first visit to Jamestown and find the "Maddox Table" video embedded there as well.

"Maddox Table" is from 10,000 Maniacs' first album, The Wishing Chair, which was produced by Joe Boyd, who had produced albums by several English folk-rock groups, including Fairport Convention. This should tell you we're a long way from noise metal. The lyrics, by Natalie Merchant, tell of the drudgery of factory labor ("The legs of Maddox kitchen tables/ My whole life twisted on a lathe") by an immigrant worker ("My first English was/ 'Faster, boy, if you want your pay'"). As in "Framingham" we have a contrast with after work life, but here it's a tale of courtship, with Vaudeville, movies, and Sunday trolley rides to Bemus Point, then an amusement park, now a more upscale attraction.  Ms. Merchant does give us some inscrutable lyrics: whatever does "Oh, my Dolly was a weak/ Not a burdened girl" mean?

Perhaps the most important contrast with "Framingham" is that "Maddox Table" recognizes the role of unions in factory workers' lives:
To your benefit we strike or bargain,
With the waving fist a union man,
Not just for
Smokes, spirits, candy, and cologne,
But for
Automobile keys,
Cash in the bank,
And the deed
On a place called home.
Then, there's the video. Instead of stock stuff from various repositories, we have scenes from the real Jamestown, from 1940 according to the text accompanying the video, though apart from the vehicles it looks as if it could as easily be from the 1950s. It shows the people of Jamestown at work and at play, and some of the scenes (particularly of the shirtless guy in the newspaper printing plant) show people who actually seem to be enjoying their work. I'm guessing this was a Chamber of Commerce production, intended to display the city's best side.

"Maddox Table" is a song about a real place, made by people who knew it well. It doesn't shy from the hardships of factory work, nor overly idealize what's to be enjoyed outside of work. The accompanying video may present an airbrushed version of Jamestown as it was, but at least it takes us there.