Tuesday, February 02, 2010

WUMB #s 111, 108, 107

For the last week or so, I have been listening off and on (including right now) to (#108) Elvis Costello's new CD, "Secret, Profane, & Sugercane." An Elvis Costello album is always a pleasure from the lyrics to the guitar playing to the singing.

And even though I can't go into details as this is a G-rated blog, his song "Sulpher to Sugarcane" is a lot of fun, in part because of a Pittsburgh reference. I always enjoy the mention of my adopted city of Pittsburgh in popular music: "But now I'm back in Pittsburgh, I might take them up again." Not quite as memorable as "Kathy, I said, as we boarded a Greyhound in Pittsburgh..." but still catches my attention. (I also recently was listening to Louis Armstrong's version of "Muskrat Ramble," and I thought he threw in a line about the "Pittsburgh Pirates" coming to town... but I couldn't find any confirmation of this afterward.)

I couldn't get an album by Steve Goodman (#111) out of the library, but I did get hold of a 2003 documentary on DVD, "Live from Austin City Limits" which mixes footage of two of his shows in Austin in the 70's and early 80's with interview footage of him--overlooking Wrigley Field and talking about his song "A Dying Cub Fan's Last Request." I have heard plenty of people sing "City of New Orleans" but never the writer himself so that was interesting. Other good stuff here--Goodman was known more as writer than a performer but he did have a certain stage presence.

And finally, I just got "The Dusty Road" out of the library which is a 4-CD set of recordings made by Woody Guthrie (#107) in the 1940s; much of the material was never released. The masters were left in a storage bin of a Brooklyn apartment building for decades and were only released a couple of years ago. Amazing stuff--Guthrie in his prime, a few years before his health began to decline; very clear recordings. If you know and love his music, you will love this collection and if you don't know his music this would be a great place to start. (And of course there is a mention of "Pittsburgh steel" in one of the labor songs.)

In the midst of all this good listening, I recently read this essay by J. Gabriel Boylan in the Nation on changes in the music industry. One of the things we are losing with the MP3-ization of music and the file-by-file purchasing (or stealing) that takes place are all the possibilities of what you can do with the album as material artefact (cf. the codex vs. the electronic book). The Elvis Costello album has liner notes with the lyrics, headed by the name of the song, followed by an old-timey topical sub-head, e.g. "Down Among the Wine and Spirits: Former-Champion Prizefighter Discovers His Name Printed Just Above the Liquor License." And the Woody Guthrie set comes in a little box that looks like an old suitcase, with a thick book explaining the recordings and containing an essay on Guthrie's travels during the Depression--and even two facsimile postcards. You can't get that kind of thing on Youtube.

Last but not least: I am having second thoughts about this whole WUMB project: how seriously should I take a "Top 120" list in which Woody Guthrie doesn't crack the top 100?