Ska: Ain’t bad!

In the not-so-distant past, a group of people got together and decided on a few things that the internet would universally malign. Right under Nickelback was ska, a genre whose legacy is as much associated with its dubious fashion choices as the music itself. At least, I assume that’s how it played out. In reality, the progenitors of the so-called Third Wave ska are probably to blame, with their checkerboard suspenders and fedoras and repressed band geekdom that led trombonists the world over to declare, I’m a punk and a rude boy to boot.

Stereotypes aside, there are plenty of reasons that the ska punk of the late ’80s and ‘90s turned so many people off. It led to abominations like Christian ska, stoner ska, and this little number. But I’m here to tell you that ska—and you might want to sit down for this—ain’t bad. Am I a skapologist? Maybe. Mostly I’m tired of consorting with folks who think that Less Than Jake and The Mighty Mighty Bosstones are the cornerstones of the genre. That’s a disservice to the swinging, summery sound of ‘60s Jamaican ska, a genre that blended calypso, R&B, and even Southern American blues. In addition to capturing artists such as Prince Buster, Andy and Joey, and The Skatalites at the peak of their powers, the original ska movement also featured artists like Lee “Scratch” Perry, The Wailers, and The Maytals, who would go on to become staples of slower styles like reggae, rocksteady, and dub in the following decades.

Another tenet of ska’s three-tiered history is referred to as Two Tone ska, the ska-punk style that emerged out of Britain in the late ‘70s. The second wave is named after the independent label Two Tone, founded by Jerry Dammers of the Specials, perhaps the most important band to come out of the country’s nascent scene. Though the Specials’ Elvis Costello-produced album remains the Ur text for Two Tone ska, the genre also produced groups like Madness, Bad Manners, and The English Beat. The groups offered a punchier, more pop-oriented approach to the music of their Jamaican forebears, and many of their hits were covers of Jamaican classics. Madness even went so far as to name their band after the eponymous Prince Buster song.

While ‘60s ska and the ‘70s revival are accessible for anyone fond of Jamaican music or the sunnier side of post-punk, Third Wave ska is a little more impenetrable, requiring a certain amount of nostalgia to fuel any sort of genuine affection. I—and, I’m sure, many others—cut my teeth for ska on a little video game called Tony Hawk Pro Skater. Did I know that Goldfinger or The Suicide Machines belonged to a genre called “ska punk?” Did I know that said genre had a predilection towards checkerboard garb and something called skanking? No, but it was energetic, joyful, and fun as hell to (pretend to) skateboard along to. I hope that we as a society are close to abandoning ska shame for fear of the internet’s scorn, that we can appreciate the weird time in the ‘90s that punk circles embraced their inner marching band weird. But maybe we can leave skanking behind.

Julia Selinger is a writer and rapscallion living in Brooklyn. She was first in her class at Princeton, has an I.Q. of one hundred and eighty-seven, and it’s been suggested that Stephen Hawking stole his Brief History of Time from her fourth grade paper. The young genius is on twitter @julialena_.

Waitin’ on a Sunny Day: ‘Dust Bowl Ballads’ and Springsteen’s ‘The Rising’

Huntington’s Disease may have stolen Woody Guthrie before we got his take on the Bush presidency (though not, thank goodness, on the Trumps), but on The Rising, a spiritual descendant of Guthrie’s opus Dust Bowl Ballads, Bruce Springsteen channels Guthrie as a means of excavating the tumult of his own generation’s tragedy: 9/11 and its aftermath.

Both thematic albums tell the stories of people affected by these catastrophes, and seek to make sense of the generation-defining impacts on the both the world and their own local communities.

Dust Bowl Ballads

Written in 1940, Woody Guthrie’s Dust Bowl Ballads could be considered the original concept album. Guthrie’s first real commercial release, written and recorded after he himself had fled the Dust Bowl, focuses on the pain of losing a home and a community, the challenges of moving across the country, and what people are pushed to do when they can no longer provide for themselves.

A little over 60 years later, Bruce Springsteen released The Rising, an intimate reaction to the terrorist attacks which devastated the New York metro area and reverberated through the country. Songs on The Rising discuss the sacrifice of firefighters on 9/11, the emotions of those who lost loved ones, and the hope that kept people going following the attacks.

As similar as the messages are, the instrumentation and performance of these songs could not be more different. The Rising featured the nine-person E-Street Band, and nine other musicians or groups. Springsteen uses three different cello players, a whole band of horns, and a man on the hurdy-gurdy (real instrument) for a well-produced album with a sweeping and cinematic feel. In contrast, Guthrie is alone on Dust Bowl Ballads, just a man, his guitar, and his stories.

These differing means seem to parallel the different responses to these disasters. After 9/11, it seemed the entire world rallied around New York. The government stepped up to help in the recovery effort, and supported the city and the people affected. By contrast, during the Dust Bowl, migrants found no sympathy in their homes, and even less support when they traveled to other states in search of jobs. Springsteen’s huge backing band serves as a reflection of the world coming together, while Guthrie’s solitary album perfectly captures his lonely travels out of Oklahoma.

Despite the heavy material, neither album sounds tragic. Each has many upbeat, major key songs, with catchy melodies that hide their more dour themes. On Dust Bowl Ballads, Guthrie’s sparse accompaniment and simple tunes hide the serious issues at their heart. The lilting, waltz-like melody of “Dusty Old Dust (So Long It’s Been Good to Know Yuh)” makes the exodus of an entire town feel positive, in contrast to the trauma dust bowl refugees were facing. Guthrie even makes time for happy young lovers in the song who “hugged and kissed / in that dusty old dark” who “instead of marriage / they talked like this / honey, so long, it’s been good to know yuh.”

“Mary’s Place,” one of the later tracks on The Rising, paints the same idyllic picture in the midst of a tragedy. A family out on the front porch, loud music playing, it almost makes the listener (and the singer) forget about the people they have lost in the September 11th attacks. Just like “Dusty Old Dust,” “Mary’s Place” allows for optimism, with both singers writing for the survivors striving to weather the aftermath of tragedies.

Messages of hope and better days to come can be found on both albums. “Dust Cain’t Kill Me,” a litany from Guthrie of all the people he lost to the storm is framed as one man’s steely resolve to continue in the face of seemingly insurmountable challenges. At times sarcastic, at times bragging, the song is about a man, much like Guthrie, who has suffered many storms, and come through intact.

“Waiting on a Sunny Day,” a staple of Springsteen live shows, is far from the breezy sing-a-long it sounds like. With lyrics like “it’s raining / but there ain’t a cloud in the sky / must have been a tear from your eye” and contrasted with the easy to sing chorus, this song is reminiscent of “Do Re Mi” by Guthrie, a jaunty tune with just enough wordplay to sneak a message about bribery and discrimination against Okies migrating to California.

At surface level, closing track “The Rising” is about a firefighter climbing to certain death in the Twin Towers, but the intimate chorus, “come on up for the rising / come on up, lay your hands in mine” also portrays the resolve of a people and a city to move beyond an incomprehensible attack and rebuild.

This sentiment is repeated in the downtempo album closer “My City of Ruins.”  Originally written about Asbury Park, the song was repurposed and became the anchor track of The Rising. Despite the slow pace, the song ends with a repeated mandate to “rise up,” and encompasses the feelings and theme of the entire album: Hope, support and sympathy for your fellow people.

Concept albums of every genre have been done so often that they’re almost played out (pun very much intended). But today, it’s rare to see a concept album that reflects so many different facets of a tragedy that a large number of Americans have experienced. While the form and style have changed, the basic message of hope over fear, and the resolve to continue are common across decades, across genres, and across tragedies in Dust Bowl Ballads and The Rising.

Bella Pori is a state government employee and co-founder of Call Them In, an email reminder service that makes it easy to call your Senators and support progressive legislation. She loves to talk about Bruce Springsteen, so talk to her on Twitter @BellaPori.

I want Vandi: “Come Along Now” and the golden age of bubblegum pop

Where were you when you found the tune “that [you] were searching for”? The tune that made your heart “beat like a drum”; the tune whose flavor became, well, your irresistible sonic “chewing gum”?

I borrow wording here from the Greek Eurodance songstress Despina Vandi. Vandi’s on the money when she compares a pop song to a stick of gum, slight and sugary. When you find a new one, you can’t help but really work it over, chew the juice out of its springy mass. Unfortunately, most pop songs feel made to dispose, to be sucked dry and tossed.

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Five Decades on the Dance Floor: Martha Wash, Izora Armstead, & 1979’s Two Tons O’ Fun

On his live recording of “You Are My Friend”, iconic disco diva Sylvester doesn’t hesitate to heap praise on Martha Wash and Izora Rhodes Armstead – the duo best known to the world variously as The Weather Girls and Two Tons O’ Fun: “Honey, your ear has to be in your foot to not hear that these women can sing. They don’t need these dresses, they don’t need them jewelries, they don’t need that hair. These women can sing, y’all.”  

Before their debut, the women met at an audition in mid-70’s San Francisco. Sylvester needed backup singers, and he was immediately hooked on Martha’s bright soprano and Izora’s resonant alto. Recognizing the duo’s preternatural talent, he wasted no time, hustling the two women from the audition to his touring van: En route to a gig, the backseat became the site of their first practice.  Sylvester’s disco star soared as they brought their undeniable vocal chops to hits like You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real) and Dance (Disco Heat). The women sang on three of his studio albums and one concert recording, both joined him onstage until 1979, and Martha appeared on his albums throughout the 1980s.   

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Five Decades on the Dance Floor: Martha Wash, Izora Armstead, & 1979’s Two Tons O’ Fun

On his live recording of “You Are My Friend”, iconic disco diva Sylvester doesn’t hesitate to heap praise on Martha Wash and Izora Rhodes Armstead – the duo best known to the world variously as The Weather Girls and Two Tons O’ Fun: “Honey, your ear has to be in your foot to not hear that these women can sing. They don’t need these dresses, they don’t need them jewelries, they don’t need that hair. These women can sing, y’all.”  

Before their debut, the women met at an audition in mid-70’s San Francisco. Sylvester needed backup singers, and he was immediately hooked on Martha’s bright soprano and Izora’s resonant alto. Recognizing the duo’s preternatural talent, he wasted no time, hustling the two women from the audition to his touring van: En route to a gig, the backseat became the site of their first practice.  Sylvester’s disco star soared as they brought their undeniable vocal chops to hits like You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real) and Dance (Disco Heat). The women sang on three of his studio albums and one concert recording, both joined him onstage until 1979, and Martha appeared on his albums throughout the 1980s.   

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