Essential Songs and Official Positions

(Pictured: John Leventhal and Rosanne Cash in 2013.)

We are in pre-holiday mode at the blog this week. Longtime readers may remember that our pre-holiday mode is not much different than our regular mode, except we worry less about the things we should otherwise be doing that we are not.

Over the weekend, The Mrs. and I returned to our much-missed former home of Iowa City, where we saw Rosanne Cash and her husband/guitarist/collaborator John Leventhal perform live. The last time we saw Rosanne she had a full band; this time it was just her and Mr. L doing what she calls “the old soft shoe.” They performed several songs from her latest album The River and the Thread, and she interspersed them with stories about what inspired their creation. She noted that the grave of blues pioneer Robert Johnson, the store where Emmett Till ran into trouble with the people who murdered him (and helped spark the Civil Rights Movement), and the Tallahatchie Bridge, made famous in Bobbie Gentry’s “Ode to Billie Joe,” are located only a few miles apart—a testimonial to the mysterious and outsized influence of Southern culture on American history.

“Ode to Billie Joe” must certainly be on the fabled list of essential songs Rosanne’s father gave her when she was a teenager, and which inspired her 2009 album The List. It was one of her best individual performances Saturday night. (Hear a 2013 performance of it here.) So was “Blue Moon With Heartache,” one of her first hit singles over 30 years ago. “When I wrote this, I was younger than my oldest daughter,” she said. (2011 performance here.)

(Digression: although it will probably be shunted off to the Americana category at the Grammys in favor of a bunch of albums with nine producers and eight songwriters on each track, The River and the Thread should be nominated for Album of the Year, and it damn well ought to win.)

I think we’re gonna make a roundup of links that have appeared on my Twitter feed, which we’ve done here several times recently, into a regular thing. Whatever it takes to feed the content monster, and two dozen of you who are still reading this blog. Let’s get it on:

—Jimmy Ruffin, who died earlier this month, was never a particularly big star at Motown, but he did make one indelible single: “What Becomes of the Brokenhearted.” A writer for the Guardian‘s music blog says it’s the best single Motown ever made.

—Friend of the blog Tom Nawrocki used to have a blog called One Poor Correspondent; then he was part of a collaborative one called Debris Slide, which doesn’t update much anymore. I found out recently that he’s on Twitter, which I somehow didn’t know, and he wrote a piece for Cuepoint called “The Complete List of True One-Hit Wonders.” (Cuepoint is also the home of über-critic Robert Christgau, who is still reviewing records after almost 50 years at it.)

—Along the same line, Listverse (a fascinating site you should visit regularly) published a list of one-hit wonders who were influential beyond what you’d expect from acts that represent the definition of “ephemeral.”

—It’s the official position of this blog that the only biography of Elvis Presley anyone needs is Peter Guralnick’s two-volume work, Last Train to Memphis and Careless Love. That said, there’s another one coming out called Elvis Presley: A Southern Life by Joel Williamson. Salon published an interesting excerpt describing Presley’s death and the medical coverup that took place on the day it happened.

—It is also the official position of this blog that Christmas music shall not be heard in my house until the day after Thanksgiving. I broke my rule, however, to sample a holiday track from Lucinda Williams that sounds just great.

—One of the funkiest of Motown’s Funk Brothers backing band was bassist James Jamerson, who played on dozens of hits that made Berry Gordy and others into millionaires, but when it came time for the televised Motown 25 celebration in 1983, he had to buy a ticket from a scalper. Listen to his isolated bass line on Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On,” loud and repeatedly.

There will be a special holiday post here on Thursday, so stop back.

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