Friday Five: Homecoming

I’m on a funded leave right now, finishing work on a play based on the oral histories I’ve been conducting with Mexican American veterans of the Vietnam War.*  One of the sections I’ve been working on is related to “coming home” and so I’ve got that on my brain.  Well, rather haphazardly, last week I also came across these beautiful words from a Maya Angelou interview from 1990:

I never agreed, even as a young person, with the Thomas Wolfe title You Can’t Go Home Again. Instinctively I didn’t. But the truth is, you can never leave home. You take it with you; it’s under your fingernails; it’s in the hair follicles; it’s in the way you smile; it’s in the ride of your hips, in the passage of your breasts; it’s all there, no matter where you go. You can take on the affectations and the postures of other places and even learn to speak their ways. But the truth is, home is between your teeth.

I found the sentiment interesting and provocative, so much so that I was thinking about it as I drove to a conference last week.  Making my way up the California’s coast, in the dark of night, I was thinking about her words when the song “Baby Won’t You Please Come Home” by Ella Fitzgerald came on the radio.

So, out of fear of upsetting the fates, here’s my list of five “homecoming” songs:

5. “Homeward Bound” by Simon and Garfunkel (1972)
This live version of the song was released on the duo’s 1972 Simon & Garfunkel’s Greatest Hits, though it never specified when or where the recording took place.  I knew the song before 1992, but in the fall of that year, I boarded my 11-hour flight to study abroad in England (only my second flight ever!) and this song was on a British Airways playlist. I must have listened to it 4 or 5 times.  In the context, it suddenly seemed so profound.

4. “Home Sweet Home” by Mötley Crüe (1985)
No band better personifies the “glam metal” phenomenon than LA’s own Mötley Crüe. Much like the entire MTV-infused genre, there’s a lot of talent but a lot more effort at style than substance. Most songs are about drinking and girls. At the same time, the token rock ballad of each album comprised the love songs for a huge part of the 80s generation. This iconic song is the standard bearer for the lot of them. It follows in the grand tradition of rock bands singing about being on the road (“Beth” by Kiss, “Faithfully” by Journey).

3. “Can’t Find My Way Home” by Blind Faith (1969)
Eric Clapton, Steve Winwood, Ginger Baker, and Ric Grech made only one album, but it’s a classic. This song–a frequent part of soundtracks in films and TV–is one big reason.  There’s something about the romanticism of rock and drug use that’s a part of it’s greatness but it’s also balanced by the meakness and melancholy of the tune and the vocals.  It’s almost iresistable.

2. “Home” by Phillip Phillips (2012)
Phillip Phillips (his actual name) won American Idol back in 2012, years after we stopped watching. When this single was released, shortly after his win, I remember hearing it on the radio and thinking how it was going to be a hit. There’s something ephemeral about it, while at the same time it’s “rooted” to the building tempo and beat. It also sounds like the times, with acts like Mumford & Sons, the Lumineers, and Bon Iver hitting the charts around then, too.

1. “Baby Won’t You Please Come Home” by Ella Fitzgerald (1961)
Bessie Smith launched this classic jazz standard back in 1923 and through the years it’s been covered by everyone from Frank Sinatra to Louis Prima to the great Sam Cooke. This version is from Ella’s amazing live album Ella in Hollywood, a sampling of the greatest vocalist of the 20th century while at the height of her powers.

* I don’t want to just drop that casually like it’s something I just do–writing plays, that is–for a living. It’s a pretty unique and special opportunity for me and, I might add, something for which I have no real experience.  I’ll have to write about that sometime.
† The interview is by George Plimpton, “The Art of Fiction No. 119,” The Paris Review, Issue 116 (Fall 1990).

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My Happiness

Elvis Presley was born 83 years ago today. It’s a good time to take a little taste of what made the man special, musically speaking.

Here’s a recording of the song “My Happiness” made by Elvis on July 18, 1953. It’s his first ever recording, an acetate press made for $3.98 at the Memphis Recording Service at Sam Phillip’s Sun Record Company.

There’s no producer here. No technological tricks. No band even. No nothing, really, just Elvis and his guitar and a style made up of the diverse musical upbringing he had.

It’s a great example of Elvis in an unadulterated form. Maybe we can think of it as a “pure” Elvis, before he gets marketed as a “product” and long before that process makes it so that many other forces are involved in what his music is.

To put that specialness into context, here are some popular recordings of the song made before Elvis walked into Sun Studios. This is “My Happiness” by the Marlin Sisters, a 1947 recording that is believed to be the first:

Here are Jon and Sondra Steele, whose May 1948 recording was the first “hit” version of the song:

Competing versions by the Pied Pipers and none other than the great Ella Fitzgerald also came out in 1948:

There are elements of all of these in Elvis’ version. Perhaps he’s closest to the last two, which are a touch slower than the earlier ones. But Elvis’ phrasing and vocal shifts are his all alone. He’s more than an imposter, even at this early stage in his career. He was a hybrid, a part of this and that, mixed with something from here and something from there. The resulting style brought together white and black musical styles, along with specific trends from different genres (like country and gospel and rhythm & blues) and made them into something else.

Elvis certainly wasn’t the only one doing this. I’m willing to admit he might not even have been the best. But he certainly wasn’t something to be dismissed. The tradition of that hybridity, mixed with raw talent, and even mixed with the commodification of the marketplace, all that is the history of rock ‘n roll.

So happy birthday to the King!