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Liam

1,001 songs to listen to before you die...

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There are many a collection of books that talk about the myriad different things you should or could do before you die. Now, most of them involve an element of time that is beyond me (I like a book, but 1,001 Books... would take about a bajillion years), or money that I just don't have (Golf courses, I'm looking at you). However, I thought the best way for me to engage with one of the books was to try and complete one. With 366 days in 2020 and 1,001 things to do, that works out at just over 2.7 things per day. What can I do around three times a day (no rude answers)? Why, listen to music, of course...the clue was in the title of the topic you clicked on to be fair.

Working chronologically, my plan is to post my thoughts about the 1,001 songs that you should listen to before you die, according to the Cassell Illustrated, the company who created a lot of this style of book. It starts in 1916 and goes all the way up to 2010. Now, I'm not a musician or a music critic, so I'm not professing to this being deep and meaningful insight on each song, but some comment that sums up my thoughts in around 100 words. I'll include Youtube links to all the songs I can find (I'm assuming all of them?) and you can play along at home if you want. Enjoy.

1.      

‘O Sole Mio’, Enrico Caruso (1916)

This could be the best song in the world to have ever existed, but it won’t ever get past the fact that it was famously adapted for a Cornetto advert when I was younger. This does the song a disservice as Caruso’s voice is very dynamic, especially during the move from verse to chorus. A pleasant way to begin my musical odyssey; one that touches upon something I already was vaguely aware of whilst grounding me in the actuality of the piece of music.

2.      

‘St Louis Blues’, Bessie Smith (1925)

The first song that I have honestly no foreknowledge of. Smith has a wonderfully soulful voice for singing the blues, though the coronet (played by Louis Armstrong) isn’t always the most welcome addition personally. I appreciate that it is an element of the sound of the genre, but Smith’s mournful lament could have worked without its discordant overlapping of the lyrics. It works best when used as an interlude to bridge into the next section for me. Personal preferences aside, you can see why this might have been a song that earned the songwriter the type of money that effectively would have made him a millionaire during this time period.

3.      

‘Allons à Lafayette’, Joe e Cléoma Falcon(1928)

In the initial stages of this process, I feel there will be a number of songs that depend entirely on whether I enjoy the genre of the song and all of the conventions that come along with it. This is the first ever recording of Cajun music and whilst I enjoy the jaunty accordion work, I’m less enamoured about the singing. It feels very much of a specific style and place and audience; none of which are me. As a representation of a culture and its music, I can see why it is included, it is just the least of the music I have heard so far.

Edited by Liam
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I like this, keep it up! I like those three songs and I actually knew all of them because I'm really cool. It would probably be more appropriate to call this 1001 recordings you must listen to before you die though. There were tons of good songs before 1916.

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5 minutes ago, metalman said:

I like this, keep it up! I like those three songs and I actually knew all of them because I'm really cool. It would probably be more appropriate to call this 1001 recordings you must listen to before you die though. There were tons of good songs before 1916.

I was just going off of the title of the book more than anything, though you are completely accurate - they are all focused on recordings, so miss out a lot of stuff that is earlier than 1916.

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I've actually been slowly working my way through 1,001 Albums to Listen To Before You Die over the course of the last year and a half, currently up to 1979. I did a lot of 1,001 Songs a few years ago but fell off at the start of the '80s in part because I was checking it out from the library and didn't do it frequently enough that I was able to remember where I left off. It's a fun exercise, really; you'll get a lot of "I don't like this but I understand that it's here to represent a genre" stuff in both, which can sometimes get exhausting but can also broaden your horizons.

I love "St. Louis Blues" even though I think it gets held back a little bit by the dated nature of the  and orchestration. I've heard multiple versions of the song and a lot of them are better in that regard but none of them really can sing it like Bessie Smith does.

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4.

‘Lagrimas Negras’, Trio Matamoros (1928)

A key group in the development of Cuban music, Trio Matamoros are more my jam. Not that I’ve listened to a lot of Cuban-style music in my life, but the simple acoustic guitar sounds has always been one that I have personally enjoyed. For a song that is about a break up (‘Lagrimas Negras’ meaning ‘black tears’), the music is somewhat at odds with the subject matter and the delivery of the lyrics. Still, as a combination it works wonderfully, with a catchy melody that eventually builds to a suitably downbeat ending.

5.    

         ‘Pokarekere’, Ana Hato (with Deane Waretini) (1929)

The book talks about this song being an unofficial anthem for New Zealand as well as being exploited for political and commercial reasons. Unfortunately for me, it is a mixture of a singing style I don’t particularly enjoy mixed with lyrics that I can’t engage with due to them being sung in Maori. I believe that either one can overcome the other, but with both lacking for me, it makes the song significantly less enjoyable. Both Ana Hato and Deana Waretini (her cousin) are undoubtedly talented, just not in a way that works for me.

6.      

 ‘St. James Infirmary Blues’, Louis Armstrong and his Hot Five (1929)

Having already popped up playing on ‘St. Louis Blues’, we get a second taste of Louis Armstrong though this time he is front and centre, backed by his Hot Five. I don’t think it is a stretch to suggest that Armstrong has one of the most distinctive voices in musical history, whilst the instrumental backing introduces and fades us out, yet never seeks to overpower the lyrical delivery. Not that it would be able to – Armstrong’s soulful rumble would be the most important feature of this song no matter what. Simple, yet very enjoyable

Edited by Liam
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7.     

‘El Manisero’, Don Azpiazú & Orquestra do Cassino Havana (1929)

This a perfect example of context being everything, as well as my general lack of musical historical knowledge. What I hear is a pleasant, up-tempo song that doesn’t inspire much more out of me then a little bit of a shimmy and a shake here and there. However, this song was seemingly a significant Latin influence on American Jazz alongside its promotion of the rhumba as a style of dance. Good for it – I’ve listened to many a poorer song in my time on this earth.

8.      

‘Minnie the Moocher’, Cab Calloway and His Orchestra (1931)

The very definition of a crowd pleaser, incorporating a direct address by Calloway from the opening seconds, a tale of a ‘hoochie’ who had a big heart, and a call and response to his backing vocalists that was always liable to get people singing along. It is funny to think that it was his inability to remember lyrics and his subsequent skill in improvising that sparked his career with this song. Still a fun enough listen to this day.

9.      

‘Need a Little Sugar in my Bowl’, Bessie Smith (1931)

A return to Bessie Smith, though this time the only blues she has is over a lack of sex it would seem. What starts of as a lament to lost love, things take a turn for the sexy when Smith complains about her desire for a hot dog between her rolls. This was apparently an example of the ‘dirty blues’ and it was interesting to hear of a black woman in this time period talking quite openly – though metaphorically – about a desire for sex. A simple music arrangement, a simple sentiment, a simple pleasure to listen to.

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I only know the Cab Calloway and Louis Armstrong ones but I like them.  I really love that sinister muted trumpet sound you get in late 20s/early 30s jazz. This one is my favourite and is genuinely one of my favourite songs ever:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4TUjk7Ejx2M

I also quite liked the Maori one. But I only listened to it for about 30 seconds so who knows for sure.

If that's us into the 30s now I've got to say I'm a bit surprised that we're not getting any more early jazz songs, although the ones that are featured are good. I'm v curious to see what will be there for the 30s. Probably some French stuff and some Gershwin, Cole Porter and Kurt Weill. 

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There isn't a huge amount pre-fifties. It takes us up past number 36 of the 1,001. There is definitely a shift towards musical numbers, whilst there also does look like the odd foreign song, though can't guarantee French.

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10.      

‘Brother, Can You Spare A Dime?’, Bing Crosby (1932)

A song that very much caught the tone of the time period, ‘Brother, Can You Spare A Dime?’ came during the time of the Great Depression and told a story of a man who suffered through this moment in history. Written for a musical (Americana), the lyrics cleverly use ideas around railroads and towers, these bastions of industrialisation and perceived development, to add to the sense of melancholy as the narrator speaks of his involvement in the building of these, only to now be begging for a dime. Crosby’s voice is melodious, yet urgent as things progress, finely building a sense of what the character was and what he had become.

11.      

‘Mal Hombre’, Lydia Mendoza (1934)

Just looking at the thumbnail for the music video, you can tell that Lydia Mendoza was going to be good to listen to. She emanates a sense of cool in an image that translates to her music, especially her singing voice. In a story that translates to ‘Bad Man’ in English, you can imagine her being knowing enough of the type of ‘hombre’ that existed as she busked and toured to speak somewhat from the heart. Like many of the other ones so far, reasonably simplistic in nature but it allows her vocals to shine through in particular.

12.      

‘Hula girl’, Sol Hoopii (1934)

A song that almost sounds somewhat like a novelty to modern ears, Sol Hoopii was apparently a pioneer in slack-key guitar. This is most prevalent – as far as I understand it – in the solos that fall between the verses. These are actually the finest bits of the song for me, an interesting new wrinkle to the music that I’ve heard thus far and playful in their nature. Outside of the slack-key work, most of the song sounds somewhat dated whilst also oxymoronically having a timeless element to it; the tropes of what we might expect to hear when hearing ‘Hawaiian music’ are all present and correct. A fun addition to the list.

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"Brother, Can You Spare a Dime" is excellent. The first time I heard it I was just immediately sold on it and the older I get the more effective it is, since when I was a late teen hearing it I was just like "this is a song about the Great Depression" and now I can see how so much of it resonates even still. "Why don't you remember?/I'm your pal" in particular is a great line.

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I'm a fan of this although I don't think I'll know many pre-50s songs (possibly a couple songs in the 40s if there's any swing or doo-wop in there).

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1 hour ago, GoGo Yubari said:

"Brother, Can You Spare a Dime" is excellent. The first time I heard it I was just immediately sold on it and the older I get the more effective it is, since when I was a late teen hearing it I was just like "this is a song about the Great Depression" and now I can see how so much of it resonates even still. "Why don't you remember?/I'm your pal" in particular is a great line.

It was mentioned in the book, but the shift from Brother to Buddy is also a great touch.

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I'm wondering if Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys or Woody Guthrie appear on this. 

I'm gonna check some of these out, this is a pretty interesting thing you're doing. 

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13     

          ‘Can the circle be unbroken?’, The Carter Family (1935)

Another song directly influenced by the Great Depression which impacted upon the Carter Family to the point of Alvin and Sara, the husband and wife duo who worked alongside their cousin Maybelle, getting a divorce. They were apparently a significant influence on American bluegrass, but whilst the lyrics of this song are touching – adapted from a hymn, they tell a story of a son at his mother’s funeral – it doesn’t particularly stand out in any capacity compared to what has come before it. Guess it is a simple case of wrong place, wrong time, to enjoy it to the level that is suggested by its placement in the book. Pleasant, yet unspectacular.

14.      

 'Cross Road Blues’, Robert Johnson (1936)

This is a song that is as much about the mythology surrounding it as anything: to what extent was what appeared to be a simple story about a man struggling to catch a lift actually about Johnson selling his soul to the devil for the mastery of the blues? It was a good story to sell a song, though the song itself does a fine job of that itself with its driving, choppy guitar notes and Johnson’s soulful, yet somewhat tortured vocal. It is over before it really gets going in some ways, but arguably more impactful for its relatively short running time.

15.      

‘Hellhound On My Trail’, Robert Johnson (1937)

If there is a song that is more likely to be an autobiographical take on Johnson’s life, it is this one. Reading around, Johnson’s short life is shrouded in a lot of mystery, but he did travel around a lot and cultivated himself relationships in many different places with different women. The song’s narrative of a man who had to keep moving before the devil got to him was a portent to what killed him if the legend is to be believed. Word told that he was poisoned by a jealous husband having flirted with a woman, though like all of his life, this is just as much up for conjecture. Though not massively different from the first song of his on the list, he definitely does sound more high-pitched in his delivery, selling the idea of the fear that he may soon end up going down below. An interesting cross section of a short-lived career.

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The Carter Family and Robert Johnson, I'm familiar with both (more so Johnson). 

Believe it or not I've often seen The Carter Family as one of those cited as a very early influence on rock and roll. Obviously it's a few years away before we get to rock and roll as we know it, but have to start somewhere.

And wow, listening to that Cross Road Blues. It sounds like so many great blues song that came after it. The most obvious to me is Elmore James "Dust My Broom". Elmore speeds his rhythm up a bit and utilizes some brilliant slide guitar work. Still, even in the 30s, Johnson is really a pioneer here. Hopefully we see more great delta blues appearing (which I imagine we will).

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Oh Cross Road Blues was the first of those old delta blues songs that I ever heard. Still the best.

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16.      

‘Strange Fruit’, Billie Holiday (1939)

This is a profoundly moving song. I’ve used the poem that formed the lyrics in a lesson on ‘Of Mice and Men’ to talk about prejudice and it is unsurprising that Holliday had some initial issues getting it released. The starkness of the arrangement, the cadence of Holliday and the wailing interludes between verses just add to an incredibly uncomfortable listen, considering the subject matter of white people lynching black people. Holliday’s vocals here still retain their power and even removed from the time of this horrific act, this still is an incredibly affecting few minutes.

17.      

‘Somewhere Over The Rainbow’, Judy Garland (1939)

In terms of focus, you couldn’t get much further removed from the systemic racism of society than musicals, but here we are with this list. This is also removed from the songs that punctuated the Great Depression era; a song of hope that is perhaps childish and naïve, but it is there and all the more beautiful for it. The vocals and melody work in tandem to create a song that rightly deserves a spot on the list. The number of covers that a song generates isn’t necessarily an indicator of merit, but the timeless nature of the song and its message cannot be underestimated.

18.      

‘The Gallis Pole’, Lead Belly (1939)

The tone is set early on in this song with the driving guitar (more frenetic and quicker on later recordings if my rudimentary research is anything to go by) leading us into a plea from a man due to hang for his family to provide money or jewels to save him. This is apparently modified from an old English folk song and it mixes some of the finest elements of folk music in my opinion: a tune to clap along to/tap your feet and a story about a man who done wrong. Lead Belly was clearly very talented, with rumours abound that he managed to sing his way out of prison earlier in his life. Doesn’t seem like the most far-fetched story to me.

Edited by Liam
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Oh three very famous ones here. Well, slightly less so in the case of Lead Belly but Led Zeppelin did a version of it too which is where I first heard it. I like them all (even the Led Zeppelin one 😕)

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Ooooh I love that Cab Calloway song (though I mostly know it through the amazing Betty Boop short*) and Robert Johnson is one of my favorite blues musicians so I'm gonna have to check out the rest of this and follow along!

I'm with Puke, hopefully there's some Woody Guthrie on here, if only because I'd be interested in what song they would pick.

 

 

 

 

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It probably would be, but I'd much prefer to see something like "Do Re Mi" or "Pretty Boy Floyd" as opposed to something that's so ubiquitous in the states

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Wouldn't it most probably be the most obvious/ubiquitous choice, considering the nature of the book? I'm expecting most choices to be fairly on the nose or logical in terms of being the person's biggest hits.

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That Lead Belly choice isn't the most obvious one, IMO, that would be "In the Pines" or "Goodnight Irene."

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