Category Archives: protest songs

The Continuing Resonance of “Mississippi Goddam”

For reasons that should be obvious–and sort of rhyme with the words “Dump Conflagration”–I’ve been spending a lot of time this week thinking about protest music. And surprisingly, one of the songs that feels most relevant to our current (terrible) political situation is one that was written over 50 years ago, about a different (and even more terrible) political situation: Nina Simone‘s “Mississippi Goddam.”

It’s a testament to Simone’s brilliance as a songwriter and a performer–or maybe just to the world’s staggering shittiness–that a protest song as historically specific as “Mississippi Goddam” could have such long-lasting resonance. Simone wrote the song in early 1964, in response to two events from the previous year: the murder of civil rights activist Medgar Edvers in Jackson, Mississippi, and the fatal bombing at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. But despite its ripped-from-the-headlines inspiration, she continued to perform “Mississippi Goddam” throughout her life, using its righteous rage as a vessel to contain whatever new disaster had struck Black America in the interim.

My favorite version of the song, for example, comes from April 1968, just three days after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: an event, Simone tells the crowd, that “left me so numb, I don’t know where I’m at.” It’s a stirring version of the song, its middle section more devastating than ever: “Hound dogs on my trail / Little school children sitting in jail / Black cat crossed my path / I think every day’s gonna be my last / Lord have mercy on this land of mine / We all gonna get it in due time / ‘Cause I don’t belong here / I don’t belong there / I’ve even stopped believing in prayer.” As historically specific as the performance remains, its sense of hopelessness leapt out at me across the decades when I listened to it again this week. It’s hard not to detect a little of our present situation in the lines where Simone rages against the admonitions of moderate white liberals: “Don’t tell me / I tell you / Me and my people just about due / I’ve been there so I know / They keep on saying ‘Go slow!'”

mississippi_goddamBut if the rage Simone felt in 1964 and 1968 still feels relevant to 2017, then so, too, does the galvanizing purpose behind the song–which is the real reason why I found myself listening to it so much this week. “Mississippi Goddam” is about the terrible things that happen to marginalized people, but it’s also about standing up and demanding justice for those terrible things: not later, but now. Yesterday and today, reports of anti-inauguration protests, counter-events, and of course the Women’s March on Washington were the only things in the world that felt right, that made any sense at all. And, while I don’t know if the legendarily acerbic Ms. Simone would have been part of the Women’s March–though I will go out on a limb and say she wouldn’t have been caught dead wearing no damn pussy hat–I do think she would have approved of the many people taking to the streets. It’s going to be a long four years (Christ, I hope it’s only four years); but if we keep fighting like what I saw this weekend, I think we might be all right.

(This post is an expanded version of a blurb I wrote for my own blog. Come read my thoughts about 15 other songs of dissent on Dystopian Dance Party.)

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Filed under 1960's, civil rights, Donald Trump, Martin Luther King Jr., Nina Simone, political songs, protest songs

Prince: I Rock Therefore I Am

prince-symbol-guitar

Prince’s music enviably would end up being the Minneapolis sound. It turned out to be a rather variable form where soul,synth pop,blues,rock ‘n roll and even jazz would all combine through a particular sonic framework. Personally speaking,the basis of Prince’s sound was always funk. He did however grow up listening to a lot of Jimi Hendrix,Carlos Santana and Joni Mitchell too. Whether it be on electric or acoustic guitar,Prince also enjoyed rocking out. Be it on a possible hit single or to let his virtuosity on guitar have it’s way. So here are my personal favorite rock oriented numbers from ”

“I’m Yours” from For You (1978)

Prince always insisted that Carlos Santana was a major influence on him as a guitarist. Mainly because “Santana played prettier” to quote the man on the subject. With his use of sustains and Latin style melodies,this powerfully produced number from his debut album (with it’s heavy reverb and echo) is the earliest released example of his lead guitar chops.

“Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad” from Prince (1979)

It was Prince’s childhood friend and fellow band mate in his earlier touring group The Rebels, Andre Cymone, who played bass and sang backup on this tune. This is where Prince really showcased his ability to write and perform radio friendly,hook filled rockers. With this one having that sleek West Coast production flair of his late 70’s albums.

“When You Were Mine” from Dirty Mind (1980)

Warner Bros executives have been said to have commented that “we signed the new Stevie Wonder,and he’s giving us the new Ric Ocasek” upon hearing Prince’s third album for the first time. And it likely has a lot to do with his song. Prince’s brittle,low rhythm guitar pump and melodic keyboards have The Cars’s musical flavor written all over it. With it’s hook filled singability and classic new wave guitar riff (not to mention becoming a hit agai with Cyndi Lauper covering it four years later),this might be one of Prince’s very finest rockers ever.

“Private Joy” from Controversy (1981)

While not a guitar rocker,this song really showcased Prince and his band the Revolution evolving into itself with synth pop/new wave based dance music. It has a simple rock style melody performed on the Linn drum machine plus a few layers of synthesizers. So it showcased Prince’s ability to rock even without guitar soloing.

“Let’s Go Crazy” from Purple Rain (1984)

With it’s gospel style theatrics,fast tempo,brittle guitar and keyboard? This song might just be the moment when Prince’s rock side fully matured musically. With rock ‘n roll really being divided along racial lines after the late 60’s,this song finds Prince “bringing it back to church” by joining Little Richard and Jimi Hendrix in re-introducing rock ‘n roll with a very heavy black American musical subtext.

“I Could Never Take The Place Of Your Man” from Sign O The Times (1987)

Prince really bought out the hand clap powered,orchestral melodic guitar sound of Phil Spector via Bruce Springsteen’s E-Street band in this extraordinarily catchy heartland style pop/rock number. This is one of Prince’s catchiest rock songs since the days of “When You Were Mine”.

“Thieves In The Temple” from Graffiti Bridge (1990) 

Prince actually did something rather unique with this song. It has a mysterious,late 80’s arena rock flavor about it’s production and guitar sound during the main choruses. But the melodic construction has a theme similar to the type that a mid 60’s jazz musician might improvise off of. That probably has a lot to do with why Herbie Hancock did an acoustic jazz version of it on his The New Standard album seven years later.

“Cream” from Diamonds And Pearls (1991)

With it’s rhythmic mix of Southern soul and countrified blues rock, this Prince hit actually hits on a very similar musical vibe to Bonnie Raitt’s hit “Something To Talk About” from the same era. Prince also takes the instrumental sound he gets with the NPG and allows the melody to just drip with that rascally,old school blues sexuality.

“Cinnamon Girl” from Musicology (2004)

Been listening to this song lately. Since the turn of the millennium,Prince began writing hook filled protest rockers more than he ever had. This one has a similar acoustic texture to his more recent song “Baltimore”. This one tells a very significant story America is still dealing with today: post 9/11 racial profiling and discrimination against those with a Muslim back-round. Prince did himself a lot of good by being one of the view high profile musical voices taking a bold lyrical stance against America’s dog whistle heavy “war on terror” of the early aughts.

“Rock And Roll Love Affair” from Hitnrun Phase 2 (2015)

Actually a couple of years old at the time of it’s album release, this song has a similar vibe to “Cream” from a quarter century ago-in terms of it’s country/blues-rock approach. Prince adds dramatic Minneapolis style synth brass to this one though. Since there’s a good possibility this might’ve been among the very last rock numbers Prince recorded,it finds this element of his sound seeming to come full circle.

As with many of the list style Prince articles I’ve written o Andresmusictalk,the erratic presence of Prince’s music via YouTube is still a factor. Songs such as “I Rock Therefore I Am” and “Fury” are not present here for that very reason. While they will be dealt with on this blog later,and in different ways? This is really about how Prince was able to evolve as a guitar soloist and pop songwriter through the rock oriented side of his artistry. Now that the man isn’t with us anymore,the seeds he planted as a guitarist from Lenny Kravitz to Gary Clark Jr. have strong potential to carry on this particular side of his legacy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Filed under 1970's, 1980's, 1990s, 2000s, 2010's, Blues, funk/rock, guitar, lead guitar, Minneapolis, Minneapolis Sound, New Wave, Prince, Prince & The Revolution, protest songs, rock 'n' roll, rock guitar, synth brass, synthesizer, Uncategorized, YouTube

Anatomy Of THE Groove Special Presentation for 5/10/2015: “Baltimore” by Prince

Having the police related murders of Michael Brown (in Ferguson,Missouri)and most recently Freddie Gray (in Baltimore) on the public consciousness so much of late? One of the major conversations among musically minded individuals was the almost complete lack of attention paid to the issue by contemporary you musicians. Especially black American musicians such as economic powerhouses Beyonce,Nikki Minaj,Jay Z and Alicia Keys. So were civil rights related protest songs truly a dead art form in the United States?

Apparently they were not. And as it turned out? It was going to come from a source that not everyone (including myself) would’ve expected it to. Throughout his career? Prince has shown himself,at best,to be extremely fickle and unpredictable in terms of what sort of sociopolitical benefits he chooses to become musically involved in. Considering his two decade personal mission of asserting a creative end of black power on his own terms? This purple icon recorded a new song. And as typical performed the instrumental parts by himself. Later bringing in young Chicago vocalist Eryn Allen Kane to sing on this new number he called simply “Baltimore”.

Beginning with Eryn’s gospel drenched vocal cry of the title, a drum roll opens the main core of the song. This is a very basic melodic setup on that level. It’s an acoustic guitar harmony with a smooth blues lead guitar riff. On the refrain, Prince is playing a pumping bass over a steady 4/4 pop/rock beat with more rock guitar accents. This pattern repeats itself in two or three variations and building in intensity as the lyrics do. On the bridge? There’s a thick drum/percussion rhythm over which Prince declares “if there ain’t no justice, then there ain’t no peace”.

Prince comes back with another powerful bluesy lead guitar before Eryn comes in with another powerful lead. The song ends first with a repeat of the bridge-this time with 80’s Minneapolis orchestral synthesizer before ending on a gentler  version of the chorus. The two beat drum pattern is accompanied by a synthesizer and Prince’s own falsetto vocal harmonies. This leads off the song, which concludes with what sounds like a news report “interrupting your regularly scheduled program about a developing situation in Los Angeles”.

Upon my first listen to the song? It actually didn’t come off as all that moving musically. Personally? It seems a bit more instrumentally fitting to use funk as a medium for a message song. That musical genre’s strong emphasis on rhythm makes it ideal accompaniment for a song about a real life event which needs to be dealt with positively. Prince actually decided to make a very bright and acoustically tinged pop/rock number here. The sometimes elaborate and percussive drum patterns really showcases the rhythmic mastery Prince has been able to transfer from drum machines to live drums over the decades.

Taken on it’s own terms? This is one of the more upbeat rock songs Prince has made in years. From an instrumental and compositional perspective. Lyrically there’s another kind of feeling eluded to. The man is looking at the present situation from a rather broad and historical perspective. He showcases how a day and place can make all the difference in terms of perceiving racially motivated human tragedy. He even paraphrases Albert Einstein by stating “peace is more than the absence of war”. That after asking for prayer for the murders of Michael Brown and Freddie Gray. So the song asks for heartfelt acts of kindness and social responsibility in a time where silent shock creates too much human inaction.

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Filed under 2015, Baltimore, bass guitar, Eryn Allen Kane, Ferguson, Freddie Gray, guitar, message music, Michael Brown, percussion, pop, Prince, protest songs, rock 'n' roll