Friday, June 07, 2013

30 Day Song Challenge (The Sequel), Day 7: A Song You Love From the 50's

The next several days of the 30 Day Song Challenge (The Sequel) are going to be a bit of a grand tour of musical history over the last 60 years. We start with the 1950's, particular interesting to me as the decade when country, folk, blues, and gospel hopped into bed (and sometimes business) with one another and, after an epically short gestation period, out popped their love-child: Rock n' Roll. There's a lot of good, a lot of bad, and a whole mess of ugly behind the the birth of rock n' roll, but every bit of that story testifies to the very complicated process of a mid-century America struggling to discover what it was to become and what it was to contribute to world-history as its little piece of homegrown art. 

The musical part of that story is one in which artists-- black and white, rich and poor, urban and rural-- sometimes worked with each other, against all odds and at great cost to themselves, their reputation as "authentic" producers of their art, and sometimes even at great cost to their safety.  They did all that, in ways that stymie the understanding, in the course of  and for the love of creating a genuinely history-changing sound.  But if that were the only story we told, we would be telling the Disney version of that piece of history. In reality, the story of rock n' roll is also one in which there were other times, too many times, that the more dishonorable, the more economically and socially well-placed, the more exploitative and (quite often, but not always) the less talented, used and abused the resources that this country's rich culture made ready-to-hand without paying back any of those riches.  It's a deeply complex story and, by virtue of being so, a quintessentially American one.

Almost as quintessentially American as rock n' roll itself.

To pick just one song from the 50's is an impossible task, of course, in part because the separate pedigrees that were to eventually constitute the mongrel species we now recognize as American popular music were still, generally speaking, separated.  They weren't "pure" (they almost never have been) but they also hadn't yet spent enough quality time with one another to justify putting them all in the same hat and picking from the group.  What is more, there are sooooo many songs from the 50's whose reach and influence is so potent and powerful, and which can still be heard in so much of today's music, that it's difficult to pick them for historic reasons alone.  I'm talking about song's like Big Mama Thornton's (1952) "Hound Dog" (or Elvis Presley's 1956 version of the same), or Chuck Berry's (1958) "Johnny B Goode," or Hank Williams' (1952) "Your Cheatin' Heart," or Buddy Holly's (1957) "Peggy Sue," or Howlin' Wolf's (1956) "Smokestack and Lightnin."  That's not even to mention Sam Cooke's (1957) "You Send Me," which would later pioneer what we now call "soul" music.  And the then-young Frank Sinatra was putting out some great tunes too, including what many white people still consider the "true" sound of the 50's, like his 1956 "I've Got You Under My Skin."

It's an embarrassment of riches, really.  But today calls for me to pick a "song I love from the 50's" and so, as hard as it may be to narrow it down to just one, I finally had to bite the bullet and make my pick.  Here it is, Johnny Cash's (1956) "Walk The Line":

Johnny Cash wrote this song for his first wife, Vivian Liberto, while he was stationed in Germany during WWII.  But everyone knows it as The Man in Black's lovesong to his lifetime soul-mate, June Carter Cash.  It's a simple (some would say "plodding") 3-chord country tune with a an even simpler (some would say "hackneyed") message.  I don't think it's simple, even less so plodding or hackneyed.  I think "I Walk the Line" is one of the greatest love songs ever written, partly because its whole message is a straightforward, unadorned and guileless promise of fidelity, but more so because nobody makes those kind of promises unless they're worried about their ability to uphold them. 

Who else says they keep a "close watch" on their heart except for those who worry about their heart being distracted?  Who else assures you that s/he "finds it very, very easy to be true" except, well, one who doesn't find it so easy?  And who else compares fidelity to an exercise like "walking the line," something only demanded by schoolteachers, drill sergeants, preachers and prison guards? Maybe I know too much of Cash's biography, maybe I'm projecting my own vices onto this song, but still, one of the best things about "I Walk the Line" for me has always been its straight-up promising-will-make-it-so determination.  For that reason, and so many more, it wins my pick for a song from the 50's.

Nostalgic? Check out my Day 7 entry from the 2011 version of the 30 Day Song Challenge.

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