I was about to drive home today in the oppressive heat of my adopted state and when I flipped on my car the radio was set to the local jazz station. This station plays mostly instrumental pieces, heavy on standards and classics with some great programs that highlight new jazz, Brazilian jazz etc. from time to time. So, I was a little surprised when the piece playing was just an upright bass.
Ron Carter stretches, rocks, rolls and massages out of “You Are my Only Sunshine” a timeless lesson in the relationship between a standard, a musician, and the audience. I can’t stop listening to or thinking about this number.
Ron Carter’s performance of “You Are My Only Sunshine” absolutely floored me. I didn’t want to stop driving. I didn’t care that my car was registering triple-digit temperatures. Just listen to this track: he voices chords, he slams between the melody and absolute madness, he leads us into the intervals between the notes, breaks rhythms, moves through the history of jazz straight through something fused and beyond and takes us right back to the melody.
(And just listen to the audience on this track–they are on the edge of the seats for this journey. They clap for the virtuoso moments; they let the performer guide them and positively exhale delight when the most chaotic flourishes resolve back into that deceptively sweet melody.)
One of the reasons that this song struck me most strongly today is that I just started teaching a summer course on myth and literature (and the relationship between the two, their definitions and so forth). Over the past two days I have pushed students to see myths not as details but as variants on possible narratives whose power comes from what they do for different audiences; I have also encouraged them to think of literature not as marks on a page but the thing that is created by an audience making meaning out of the marks on the page.
Ok, I might have lost some people there, but all of this also goes back to what I find so powerful about music. I have written on several occasions about cover songs and the degree to which repetition is a key component of music; but what I haven’t isolated for these moments (and the thing which teaching my class reminded me of) is that audience knowledge of the piece for covers and standards changes the nature of the performance itself.
Carter’s cover, for example, works because the audience knows the simple and sweet “You are My Sunshine”–our knowledge of that song makes the flourishes possible because they (and the performance) are deviations from or variations on a theme. Just as an individual telling of a myth is a contextually relevant version of a story whose details can change but whose identity is dictated by core features, so too the performance of this song is built upon prior experiences of performances of that core melody.
To add just a bit more: imagine listening to Carter’s piece if you came from Mars or some place with no access to western music. You might recognize the impressive talent of the musician. If you knew anything about music (or weren’t deaf), you’d recognize the return of a simpler melody and could appreciate the artistry in the manipulation and the alteration of those themes. But you wouldn’t experience it the same way as this audience because you don’t know the words and you don’t have the prior associations of saccharine simplicity and love.
So, for the hell of it and for those Martians who have no knowledge of the song, here are some other covers.
I really hate the backing music in this version. It is the worst kind of overproduction. I listened to Carter’s version twice as some sort of soul-colonic.
I needed a little more life and soul after that last one. So, I went and found myself some Ray Charles. He barely preserves the melody and the lyrics. Oh, and he adds so much more. But, this is on variation and theme, right? I could lose the horns…
I could feel the reggae version of this song until I found it. I don’t know shit about Gregory Isaacs and Cool Sticky (the performers here) , but I plan to play this version for my children. No dub-step, right?
This version is not for children or the faint of heart. I am having a bit of a high blood pressure moment after listening to it. This is some satanic sunshine shit. Terrafolk. From Slovenia. Only Eastern Europeans could do this.
I’ll end with a little Hollywood produced bluegrass. old-timey stuff. “O Brother Where Art Thou” is allegedly based on the Odyssey. This is, of course, partly a joke. Yet, it does provide variations on many of the themes Homer holds so dear–family, homecoming, identity and, of course, the shape-shifting nature of narrative, music and art.
Happy weekend, my brother. Rock your own bass and the free world.