Thursday, February 26, 2009

"Marrakesh Express" - Crosby, Stills, & Nash, 1969 (folk rock)

Looking at the world through the sunset in your eyes,
Traveling the train through clear Moroccan skies
Ducks, and pigs, and chickens call,
animal carpet wall to wall
American ladies five-foot tall in blue.
Sweeping cobwebs from the edges of my mind,
Had to get away to see what we could find.
Hope the days that lie ahead
bring us back to where they've led
listen not to what's been said to you.

Wouldn't you know we're riding on the Marrakesh Express.
Wouldn't you know we're riding on the Marrakesh Express,
they're taking me to Marrakesh.
All aboard the train.
All aboard the train.

I've been saving all my money just to take you there.
I smell the garden in your hair.
Take the train from Casablanca going south,
blowing smoke rings from the corners of my m m m m mouth.
Colored cottons hang in the air,
charming cobras in the square.
Striped djellebas we can wear at home.
Well, let me hear ya now.

We haven't talked about any trains lately, so I figured we're about due. This little number by Crosby, Stills, & Nash (but no Young) was inspired by a train trip that Graham Nash took in 1966 while he was visiting the country of Morocco. The train was the Marrakesh Express and it ran to the city of Marrakesh from Casablanca. This little number is merely a cultural reflection of the sights Nash saw during his travels. He obvjiously enjoyed his journey immensely, as he wrote a song about it, and in that song he says he can't wait to take us there!

Here are some things that Graham Nash may have experienced while he was there:

While today we recognize Marrakesh as a city within the country of Morocco, the entire country of Morocco was historically known as The Kingdom of Marrakesh, and this particular city, just north of the Atlas Mountains, was historically known as Morocco City. So, Morocco used to be Marrakesh, and Marrakesh used to be Morocco. Get it? Marrakesh is fondly known as "the red city" because of the red color of its buildings and walls. While many Arabs reside in this country, Morocco maintains its heritage as a Berber people. The name "Marrakesh" means "Land of God" and is a derivative of the Berber root, "mur". Since the word "mur" means "dirty orange", the people thought it in poor taste that the "land of God" should be described as being "dirty orange", so they simply chose the nearest color, red.

In the song, Nash mentions colored cottons hanging in the air. What he sees are Moroccan "kilims". These are tapestry-woven rugs or carpets; however, they're not meant to be walked on (those kind come from the capital city of Rabat). A kilim is a decorative piece of tapestry, tightly woven and pulled tightly downward so that the vertical strands are almost hidden. While kilims often hang in entrance ways and from windows, they are also often used as prayer rugs. Moroccan kilims feature bold colors and equally bold geometric shapes, and this makes them increasingly collectible, and are readily seen while lost in the labrynth of the suuqs. A suuq is a living sales network where different laborers gather together in quarters to perform their century old professions (and onlookers are appreciated).

The next bit of lyrics has someone charming cobras on the city square. Snake charming is a form of street performance. Snake charming is the practice of allegedly hypnotizing a deadly snake simply by playing an instrument. While it is heavily practiced in India and other Asian countries (with the intent to deceive the public), it is still found on the streets of Northern African Morocco; however, many performers continue to practice this tradition as merely a street show of slight-of-hand. The performers are never in any danger. They sit far enough away that the serpent could not bite them, should it lunge. Besides, since the snake is not threatened, it doesn't need to bite, anyway and is sluggish to do so. Also, many who continue this ancient practice have the venom glands removed from their snakes. Since one of the must-see tourist sites in Marrakesh is Djemaa el-Fna (a bustling open-air market square), many snake charmers will turn out here, putting on their shows and preserving this ancient practice that may soon disappear.

We know what Graham Nash is wearing while he's at home...or do we? He says he wears a striped djellabas. What's a djellabas? It's a long robe with long sleeves and a hood. These robes are often woven with many joyful colors. The hood (the 'cob') is very important because the country of Morocco sits between the western Sahara desert on one side and the Mediterranean Sea on the other. Being so close to 0 degrees latitude means that the sun is very bright and very hot in Marrakesh. The hoot is thickly woven to protect the face and head from the rays of the blazing sun. Traditionally, the hood would also be widely woven to sheild the face from the blowing sand of the Sahara. Typically, the men usually choose to wear the darker colors with the plainer weaving. Women traditionally wear lighter colors; however there are many vibrant colors which they also wear.

Finally, in the beginning of the song, Nash mentions ducks, chickens, and pigs (yes, while riding on the train). There are no first class seats on the Marrakesh Express. Seating is 2nd class and 3rd class and is first come, first served. So, arriving at the station a tad early means that you get to choose your seat. Should you be so fortunate, you may choose a seat that should be considered first class. Nash was just so lucky as to get a first-class-equivalent seat. Ironically, though, he found it dreadfully dull and went to go sit in the back with the common people...and their ducks, pigs, and chickens that they had brought with them.

"Marrakesh Express" - Crosby, Stills, & Nash, 1969

~information gathered using an express, broadband internet connection and from sites like these:

Thursday, February 19, 2009

"My White Bicycle" - Nazareth, 1975 (classic rock)

Riding all around the street
Four o'clock and they're all asleep
I'm not tired and it's so late
Moving fast everything looks great.
My white bicycle, my white bicycle
See that man, he's all alone
Looks so happy but he's far from home
Ring my bell, smile at him
Better kick over his garbage bin

My white bicycle, my white bicycle
The rain comes down but I don't care
The wind is blowing in my hair
Seagulls flying in the air
My white bicycle

Policeman shouts but I don't see him
They're one thing I don't believe in
To find some charge but it's not leavin'
Lift both hands, his head in disgrace
Shines no light upon my face
Through the darkness, we still speed
My white bicycle and me
My white bicycle, my white bicycle

This little ditty was originally recorded by psychedelic rock band, Tomorrow, however it didn't become a success until it was recorded by Nazareth in 1975. The song was inspired by community transportation program attempt in Denmark, and was instituted by an organization that was not all that dissimilar to what happened in the movie "Fight Club".

The movement began with Dutch Provos. Provo was an anarchistic, counter-cultural movement during the mid-1960's that focused on provoking violent responses from the authorities all the while using non-violent bait. They borrowed their name from Wouter Buikhuisen who dissortated frequently on the subject, calling "young trouble-makers" 'provos'. Despite the tendency for anarchy, the movement was highly organized...tiered, as it were. First were the happeners. 'The happeners' were the masterminds behind the happenings around the cities of Amsterdam and Antwerp. They often employed absurd humor to provoke the police, who were an essential part of the disruption. The police's response to the non-violent provocation was so crucial that they were even known as co-happeners. Next were the beatniks and the hipsters. After this level came the thinkers, whose primary function was to publish Provos ideas in literary publications such as newspapers, pamphlets, via radio, and any other forms of mass communication possible. The thinkers were quite often those who were employed by these very conveyances. Finally, there were the activists. The activists were the street Provos that carried out the disruptive assignments and whose responsibility it was to influence public opinion.

In the early 1960's, Provos teamed up with Dutch social inventor, industrial designer, entrepreneur, and politician Laurens (Luud) Maria Hendrikus Schimmelpennink. Schimmelpennink was most noted for his work in sustainable transportation concepts. His work was aimed at the reduction of motor vehicles in cities and urban areas, which he believed would be better for human health and well-being. His primary goals were to contrive a means for which people may still get around the city with speed and ease...only without their cars and buses. Schimmelpennink and Provos "The White Bicycle Plan" (without the city's permission, of course, as was the Provos way).

The White Bicycle plan was simply this: Provos and Schimmelpennink went about collecting several hundred bicycles. Each bicycle was painted white. He and his colleagues then took the bikes into the city and just left them standing about. The concept was, if you were in need of transportation, then you could just hop on a bike, ride it to where you needed to go, and then just leave it there. Someone else who was in need of a ride could then use it, and in short you have this nice little curtesy ride system that didn't cost you a penny.

Although Schimmelpennink and Provos had originally designed this concept to provoke the authorities, the public actually liked the idea, and in 1967 Schimmelpennink was elected to the Municipal Council for the city of Amsterdam. His idea, however, did not last as he was unable to get the political financial support necessary to continue the effort.

While The White Bicycle Plan may have failed in Denmark in the 1960's, today Schimmelpennink is an inspiration to a new breed of politics that focus on reducing the carbon footprint on the environment. Because of today's environmental consciousness movement, white (and yellow) bicycle projects, as part of a New Mobility agenda, are springing up in cities all over the world, such as: Helsinki, Copenhagen, Lyons, London, Barcelona, Stockholm, and once again in Amsterdam.

While one may not think so, today there are new technological measures in place to keep these programs running and counter any misuse. For example, project bicycles have actually been designed to look much different from the standard bike. This ensures that if one is stolen and repainted, it is easy to spot because of its unusual design. In order to use the system, citizens must register. Upon registration, they are given a key card. The bicycles are now housed in prominently located parking garages. These garages are equipped with bike racks. The user slips his key card into a card reader, and the microchip inside releases a lock from the bicycle rack, allowing the user to take the bike. Because the world is much bigger than it was in the 1960's, to guarantee that bicycles are never short supply, these key cards also record the time the bicycle was removed from the rack. The user then has an allotted length of time to run his errand and return the bike to the rack. This makes sure that bikes are not monopolized for exceptionally long periods of time, and it also helps make sure that a bicycle is available for someone else to use. Because it is now typical for people to avoid commuting within the city, long-term subscriptions are also available.

So no matter what your inner-city travel needs, there would be a bike program subscription available to meet them! As traffic continues to increase in our cities, traffic patterns often become more hectic and more confusing, resulting in an increase in motor vehicle accidents, particularly accidents involving pedestrians. One must almost have a sixth navigational sense just to drive around downtown (and know which streets are one-way, when they become one-way, etc.) Bicycle projects are a very good answer to the trials of traffic in the big (and small) city. What a great idea!

"My White Bicycle" - Nazareth, 1975 (classic rock)

~information transported from here and there around the busy information superhighway.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

"The Battle of New Orleans" ("The 8th of January") - Johnny Horton, 1959 (country/bluegrass)

Well, in eighteen and fourteen we took a little trip
along with Colonel Jackson down the mighty Mississip.
We took a little bacon and we took a little beans,
And we caught the bloody British near the town of New Orleans.

We fired our guns and the British kept a'comin.
There wasn't nigh as many as there was a while ago.
We fired once more and they began to runnin'
down the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico.

Well, I see'd Mars Jackson walkin down the street
talkin' to a pirate by the name of Jean Lafitte
He gave Jean a drink that he brung from Tennessee
and the pirate said he'd help us drive the British in the sea.

The French said Andrew, you'd better run,
for Packingham's a comin' with a bullet in his gun.
Old Hickory said he didn't give a dang,
he's gonna whip the britches off of Colonel Packingham.

Well, we looked down the river and we see'd the British come,
and there must have been a hundred of 'em beatin' on the drum.
They stepped so high and they made their bugles ring
while we stood by our cotton bales and didn't say a thing.

Old Hickory said we could take 'em by surprise
if we didn't fire a musket til we looked 'em in the eyes.
We held our fire til we see'd their faces well,
then we opened up with squirrel guns and really gave a yell.

Well, we fired our cannon til the barrel melted down,
so we grabbed an alligator and we fought another round.
We filled his head with cannon balls and powdered his behind,
and when they tetched the powder off, the gator lost his mind.

We'll march back home but we'll never be content
till we make Old Hickory the people's President.
And every time we think about the bacon and the beans,
we'll think about the fun we had way down in New Orleans.

Well, they ran through the briars and they ran through the brambles
And they ran through the bushes where a rabbit couldn't go.
They ran so fast the hounds couldn't catch 'em
down the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico.

This song's original title is "The 8th of January". Traditionally, the tune is recognized as an American fiddle tune - a reel, to be precise. As such it is solely an instrumental tune; however, in 1936 a teacher from Arkansas found that using his guitar to teach history to his students had a profound effect on what they would remember about their lessons. (What a novel idea!) That teacher's name was Jimmy Driftwood. He took that American fiddle tune and wrote lyrics to it that would teach his students a lesson in American history - the war of 1812, specifically, the Battle of New Orleans. In 1959, Johnny Horton sang Jimmy's song and topped the charts with it. It remains at #28 of Billboard Music's All-Time Top 100 Songs and #1 on the Billboard's All-Time Top Country Songs list.

There were three stated causes for the War of 1812: 1.) Britain was at war with France and didn't like that the Americans were trading with the French, so they imposed a series of trade restrictions on the U.S.(which violated international law); 2.) Britain forcibly recruited U.S. citizens to fight France as soldiers of the Royal Navy (we were an independent country by now); and 3.) The British were giving military support to the Indians who offered armed resistance to the U.S.

The fiddle tune is called "The 8th of January" because it was on January 8, 1815 that The Battle of New Orleans. This was to be the final battle in the War of 1812.

To begin, on December 12, 1814, a British fleet had anchored in the Gulf of Mexico and was intent on seizing the city of New Orleans and the western territories. While an American gunboat flotilla prevented the British from accessing Lake Pontchartrain and Lake Borgne, these gunboats were soon overcome by 10,000 British troops in rowboats (each rowboat was equipped with a canon). The American flotilla had been vastly out numbered. Now free to move about the area, British General John Keane assumed command of the troops, and they set up their garrison on Pea Island, which is about 30 miles east of their military target, New Orleans.

On December 22, General Keane lead 1,600 of his men to the east bank of the Mississippi River, which was 12 miles from the city. There he camped, waiting for reinforcements. This was the critical mistake that would cost the British the battle, even before the battle had begun. At that time, the eastern bank of the Mississippi was undefended all the way to New Orleans. Instead of what should have been an ambush, the British decision to camp gave American General Andrew Jackson enough time to develop a plan. General Jackson sent 2,000 men to a position north of the British camp, which thwarted the British advance.

While the British advance was held at bay, the rest of General Jackson's men quickly built an earthworks, which they fortified with heavy artillery. When British General Edward Pakenham arrived on the battlefield, he was outraged to see the position into which his army had been put. He reconnoitered the earthworks, and after a brief meeting with his officers, decided that the only solution was to directly attack the earthworks. The British had expected a rag-tag band of poor, untrained American soldiers. They had also expected to quickly destroy the Americans. All that they really accomplished was to "poke" at what the Americans had affectionately dubbed "Line Jackson". With each British retreat and regroup, the Americans added more earth and more artillery. This lasted until the British guns literally ran out of ammunition, resulting in General Pakenham cancelling the attack. What he didn't know was that General Jackson's entire left line had cut and run; they were shooting at nobody.

On January 1, 1815, the core of the British Army arrived. They should have just stayed home. British General Pakenham ordered a new attack on the Americans: attack the earthworks and attack along the river. What happened next made them a laughing stock.

First, Royal Navy commander Alexander Cochran and his men built a dam in an attempted to divert the river's flow into a canal they had dug. The dam and the canal collapsed. The Mississippi is famous for its mud, perhaps beginning with this battle. The British sailors were forced to carry and tow the assault force boats through knee-deep Mississippi mud. They arrived at the battle 12 hours late.

Second, the British may not be strangers to fog, but when the city you're attacking is six feet below sea level, the fog you'll encounter in New Orleans has nothing to do with weather. The British thought they had gotten a break and advanced under the cover of the early morning fog. However, shortly after sunrise, when the fog dissipated (as is what happens almost daily in low-lying areas) they suddenly found themselves a hail of American gunfire.

Third, call it a minor oversight, but British Lt.-Col. Thomas Mullins forgot to bring the ladders and fascines the British would need to scale the walls of the American bulwarks. Oops.

Because of all these failures, there was much confusion on the battlefield. British army General Pakenham was fatally wounded, which only added to the British chaos. General John Lambert quickly assumed charge and ordered a withdrawal. At the end of the day, the British forces suffered: 278 dead, 1186 wounded, 484 captured or missing. The American casualties amounted to: 13 dead, 39 wounded, and 19 missing. Even though a train with British reinforcements had arrived, General Lambert assessed his successes and losses of the day and decided that another attack on General Jackson and his earthworks was just too costly. British forces retreated altogether, boarded their ships and headed off for Biloxi, Mississippi.

Even before all of this happened, the Treaty of Ghent had been signed (on December 24). The city of Ghent is located across the Atlantic Ocean in Belgium. This was the treaty that ended the War of 1812; however, news of the treaty was a long time coming to American soil where the war was being fought. News of a peace treaty didn't reach the battle front until February of 1815.

"The Battle of New Orleans" (aka "The 8th of January") - Johnny Horton, 1959

~information reeled in, piece by piece via the Internet (in between power outages)

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

"Take The A Train" - Duke Ellington, 1939 (swing jazz)

In 1939, pianist Billy Strayhorn wrote a song that would soon become the national anthem of the New York City subway transit system. The tune became the signature number for Duke Ellington and his orchestra, as well as the official song of New York City.

The title of the song refers to the A line of New York's subway train service. At the time of the song's conception, this line ran from Brooklyn, up into Harlem, and then northern Manhattan where it used the express rails.

Although traditionally played as an instrumental, 'Take The A Train' does have lyrics. Since most jazz pieces are centered more around instrumentalists, the lyrics are minimal. The following also only represents one version of what can be sung. As is typical of the genre, lyrics and even the instrumental parts often change from performance to performance and musician to musician.

You must take the A Train
To go to Sugar Hill way up in Harlem

If you miss the A Train
You'll find you've missed the quickest way to Harlem

Hurry, get on, now, it's coming
Listen to those rails a-thrumming (All Aboard!)

Get on the A Train
Soon you will be on Sugar Hill in Harlem

So, why are we taking the A Train, why are we going to Harlem, and why are we in such a hurry to get there?...

Happy Black History Month!

We're not just going to Harlem, today, we're going to Sugar Hill. Sugar Hill in Harlem, New York was the mythic hub of the Harlem Renaissance which took place between the two World Wars. Sugar Hill was the ritziest, fanciest African-American neighborhood in the whole United States. It wasn't just the place where Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn lived. No...Sugar Hill was "the good life."

During the early 20th century, Harlem was "en vogue". For many decades prior to the 1920's and 1930's, African-Americans from all over the country dreamed of living here. There were stately homes and apartments to live in, and the entire area had its own uptown, high-society quality about it, which is what gave way to the name 'Sugar Hill'. The 'Sugar' part refers to money and the sweet life.

As for the 'Hill', the Sugar Hill neighborhood is actually part of the Hamilton Heights, and sits on a bluff above the Harlem Plain. More specifically, it extends westward from Edgecomb to Amsterdam Avenues. The southern boundary is typically placed at W. 145th St. The heart of Sugar Hill, however, is found between 144th and 155th streets.

The area attracted many African-Americans who would later become famous; their fame and notoriety would aid in the advancement of colored people and open many doors for future generations. In these few short blocks lived:

~Civil rights activists - W.E.B. Du Bois, Walter White, Roy Wilkins, and the Rev. Adam Clayton Powell, Sr.
~Literary authors - Langston Hughes, Ralph Ellison, and Zora Neale Hurston
~Musicians - Cab Calloway and Paul Robeson
~Politicians - Thurgood Marshall

As the term suggests, the Harlem Renaissance was the rebirth of discovery, learning, and expansion for people of color, and Sugar Hill was the heart of it all. This new movement sparked change in urban centers from far and wide. This upswing taught intellectuals and artists alike to find new ways to explore the historical experiences of black America and black life in the urban North. Virtually no subject was left unexplored. This revolution took place across the cultural spectrum, appealing not only to performance artists (dance, literature, drama, visual art, music) but also to students of social thought (philosophy and sociology).

Some might say that this Harlem Renaissance was part of the original spark that caused the Civil Rights Movement. Following so closely on the coattails of the single greatest issue of the Civil War, the Harlem Renaissance allowed black Americans to focus on their past, as well as develop for themselves a unique identity for their future - a culture within a culture. This rebirth brought the people close to their roots, but also fostered the emergence of a new culture within America, hence the term "African-American". The residents of Sugar Hill would be a beacon to the rest of black America that the old European racist, paternalistic way was no longer acceptable. However, the Harlem Renaissance was not a time of hostility and violence. Instead, it urged dignity, creativity, and exploration of the intellect to help begin to transform us into a diverse but equal society.

During this time, history records what is called "The Great Migration". This term describes the result of the war effort's need for unskilled industrial labor on America's small black communities. During this time, hundreds of thousands African-Americans moved into more urban areas (like Chicago, Philadelphia, Cleveland, New York) seeking employment. The result was the sudden expansion of the black communities. With this sudden cultural explosion within America's big cities there came a greater market for what the black culture had to offer. It wasn't long before the black and white cultures began to intermingle, share, and trade. For example, the music of the South came north with the migrants, and soon the "black music" was ALSO being played by white musicians in night clubs and hot spots all around town (and the black musicians would play right along side WITH the white musicians and learn from each other). In fact, many white artists and patrons even offered African-Americans access to mainstream publishers and art venues.

So, now that we know a little more about what was waiting for us at the end of the line, we can see that that's why it was imperative that we Take The A Train (remember those Manhattan tracks are an express!) and get off at Sugar Hill, Harlem, New York! We just had to!! =D

"Take The A Train" - Duke Ellington, 1962

Here is an earlier recording of Duke Ellington's piano trio version

~Informatio track-ed down from places like: