Comfort Music

September 20, 2004 | 53 comments
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I am not a connoisseur of music, I am an omnivore, and I think I recall Nietzsche pointing out that a person who will eat anything is a person who has no taste. That’s me. There are few kinds of music that I don’t enjoy. I like Palestrina, Bach, Pärt (Jim Siebach continues to be my “classicalâ€? conscience), Korean Buddhist meditation chants, Lyle Lovett, much Emmy Lou Harris, anything bluegrass, Bob Dylan, Dan Zanes, female jazz vocalists like Diane Schuur, Adrian Legg, blues, R&B, Janis Joplin, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Bonnie Raitt, and Black gospel music. I listen to these and others regularly. Probably because of my age and consequent inexperience, I don’t care very much for most contemporary popular music, but recently I’ve been playing over and over again two CDs by a French-Arab group, Dezoriental. Very interesting stuff. You should give them a listen. My daughter, Rebecca, has been trying to convert me to Uncle Tupelo—she may succeed; Mark Wrathall has made me think I should look more at U2. There probably isn’t some thread other than my listening habits that stitches all of these together, but it takes little observation to notice that much of my listening list can be explained by a variety of connections to my red-neck, border-state gene pool, that and the fact that I was a teenager and young adult in the 60s.

Lately I’ve also been listening a lot to Johnny Cash’s album, “My Mother’s Hymn Book.� I have mixed views on Cash’s music, more than the above list suggests that I should. But I really like this album. I think I enjoy it because it is like comfort food, not necessarily the best thing for me, certainly not the kind of thing for which I pay big bucks and go to a fancy concert, but music that relaxes, nourishes, and uplifts because it takes me back to times and feelings from my past and my parents’ and my grandparents’ pasts. Some of the doctrine in these hymns isn’t quite up to LDS snuff, but I don’t care. It touches and moves me as a friend might, even if we disagree on some things. The truth of our agreement is deeper than whatever disagreements we have. Listening to Cash sing these Protestant hymns and songs puts me back into the community from which I came without removing me from the community in which I now find myself.

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53 Responses to Comfort Music

  1. Kevin Ashworth on September 20, 2004 at 1:13 am

    Cash is king.

    Your comments make me want to listen to “My Mother’s Hymn Book.â€? I haven’t listened to the late great Johnny Cash all that much, but I own his “American Recordings” album, which is superb. There are a few religious and spiritual songs on it.

    You say, “Some of the doctrine in these hymns isn’t quite up to LDS snuff, but I don’t care.” Right. Who cares? Nobody, I hope.

  2. Clark Goble on September 20, 2004 at 2:57 am

    Johnny Cash is awesome, although he is an acquired taste. None of my friends can stand him, mainly due to his voice. But his cover of Hurt by Nine Inch Nails is amazing. His last three or four albums are by far my favorites. (Although “A Boy Named Sue” will always be up there as well)

  3. T. Wray on September 20, 2004 at 4:35 am

    That’s a great list of music you’ve got going. Cash is great and the only country artist that I can say I like; that is, if he even fits the “country” label as defined today. I’m just pleased to know of a fellow Dylan fan at T&S. I love Dylan! He’s one the many reasons for which I’m forever indebted to my Dad. I was raised on Dylan and Neil Young. My parents still laugh about the time they overheard me as a little kid telling one of my confused neighborhood friends that “Bob Dylan is the greatest singer-writer of all time,” repeating a phrase my Dad often used.

    As I read your list, (I can’t ever seem to help this) a few recommendations came to mind. Lately I’ve been listening to quite a bit of Tom Waits. He is absolutely excellent. He writes these beautiful jazz-type melodies with imaginitive lyrical storytelling and a gruff voice to go along. Based on your list, I think you might like him. Have you listened to any Tom Waits? If not, and you’re interested, I’d start off with “Mule Variations” or “Alice.” I’d be happy to mail you a copy(ies).

    My wife, especially, and I also enjoy female jazz vocalists. Diana Krall’s latest album is nice. Cassandra Wilson is good too. I’ll have to look into Diane Shuur, I don’t know that I’ve heard her (unless unknowingly on the local jazz station).

    I love (I’m weird like that) listing the music I’m listening to lately on a thread like this. So, for anyone who cares:

    Medeski Martin and Wood – End of the World Party (Just in Case)
    -These guys are a stellar fusion-acid-progressive jazz trio.
    Bob Dylan – The Bootleg Series
    Chris Whitley – Hotel Vast Horizon
    Miles Davis – On the Corner
    John Coltrane – Impressions
    The Black Keys – Rubber Factory
    Tomasz Stanko – The Soul of Things
    Bill Frisell – Gone, Just Like a Train (this album is really excellent – very meditative and intriguing guitar jazz/blues)

    - Tyson

  4. Russell Arben Fox on September 20, 2004 at 9:09 am

    Kevin,

    “Cash is king.”

    Sorry, Elvis was the King. Cash was God. (No, wait: Clapton is God. Who was Cash? I don’t remember; some divine or semi-divine being, at any rate. His greatest recordings–”Drive On,” “Folsom Prison Blues,” “Ring of Fire,” “That Old Wheel,” etc.–may as well be American scripture.)

    Clearly, Cash was something of a “pop artist,” in the sense that rather than rigorously exploring and deepending his mastery of a particular form or style of music–folk, rock, blues, jazz in all its varieties, rockabilly, bluegrass, R&B, etc.–he tailored his talents for popular audiences. In other words, he sat down and wrote and recorded 3 and 4-minute songs designed for radio play and public consumption. Generally speaking, the critics and other taste mandarins don’t take such music-making very seriously; the bias is in favor of music which is more deeply grounded in some particular style or instrument–more “pure,” in other words, not a popularly-driven hybrid. The result is that, whatever your record sales, you generally don’t get much attention, unless your talent is obviously monumental (Bob Dylan) or the test of time lifts you into the critical consciousness (Cash).

    While I can see the point, and the critical usefulness, of focusing on purity, it’s a drag as far as appreciating music goes. There’s a special talent to being a minstrel, a showperson, to coming up with “hooks” that will give the great unwashed, musically omnivorous masses something grab on to and groove to or be inspired by. While obviously most pop music is disposable crap (just as most rock music is crap, just as most music made by most people most of the time is crap), many pop musicians, just by cranking out the hits (or trying to), have brought incredible artistry into the lives of millions who wouldn’t have had the chance to experience it otherwise. The Beatles made pop music; so did Frank Sinatra, Diana Ross and the Supremes, Fleetwood Mac, Willie Nelson, the Talking Heads, etc., etc. Cash was hardly a world-class guitarist or vocalist or arranger, but he made something–his redneck, vaguely isolationsist, anti-authoritarian, poor “outlaw” country sensibility–part of the soundtrack of America. No small accomplishment, that.

  5. danithew on September 20, 2004 at 9:40 am

    I appreciate the suggestions in the post and comments. Johnny Cash’s music has been growing on me lately, mainly because his cover of “Hurt” got a lot play and because snippets of his music have been playing in the press due to his recent death. There’s a commercial that’s been using his song lyric “I’ve been everywhere” and though I can’t name the product being touted I’ve enjoyed hearing that played.

    In recent years I’ve gotten a bit more into R&B music than I ever had previously (having grown up a “classic rock” fan. The documentary about “the Funk Brothers” titled “Standing in the Shadows of Motown” was worthwhile because it introduced the jazz session musicians who ended up playing behind almost all the Motown hits. I hadn’t heard of most of these men but had heard the songs and singers they played behind more times than I could count.

  6. Chris on September 20, 2004 at 9:47 am

    As a bridge into U2, I’d suggest a song they did with Johnny Cash called “Wanderer” on their album Zooropa. While the album itself isn’t their greatest, I think this collaborations is one of their best (Pavorotti being one of their worst).

  7. Jack on September 20, 2004 at 10:24 am

    For me, when it comes to pop music the Beatles are king. I love the folk-pop mix of Simon & Garfunkel (spell?) too.

    In my opinion, Bach is the all time “king” with several others running a close second.

    However, I cannot tell a lie. I adore the scores to the Disney classic features up through Sleeping Beauty. There’s some good stuff after that period of course, but I think it looses some of its magic. My favorite Disney era in particular is pre-WW2 i.e., Snow White, Bambi, Pinoccio, Dumbo – Bambi being my favorite.

    I also adore the golden age of broadway musicals which in my opinion begins with Oklahoma and fizzles out somewhere around Camelot – though there is certainly some great stuff to be found before and after.

    I like the element of “delight” in this music which, for me, can be a source of great comfort.

    I think there’s something virtuous to be found in every genre of music, though one has to be a little more discriminating with some than others.

  8. danithew on September 20, 2004 at 10:35 am

    I agree with Jack about the Beatles and Simon and Garfunkel. Paul Simon’s solo album Graceland is one of my all time favorites.

    As for Disney soundtracks, I’ve always loved the jazzy Jungle Book songs.

  9. Kevin Barney on September 20, 2004 at 10:59 am

    Jim, you need to listen to Rebecca, and try some Uncle Tupelo. Of course, they don’t exist anymore, but were splintered into a couple of bands, including Wilco. But they gave rise to a whole genre of country-influenced rock, called “No Depression” music. (My wife gets a magazine called “No Depression” that is devoted to this genre.) If Rebecca likes Uncle Tupelo, she would also like the Jayhawks, a band out of Minneapolis. My wife runs their website, here:

    http://jayhawksfanpage.com/

    Also, based on your tastes, I think you should try some REM.

  10. TrevorHen on September 20, 2004 at 11:52 am

    Someone’s already mentioned Tom Waits, so I’ll nod to that. Lately, I’ve been listening to Roy Orbison. Talk about a soothing voice.

  11. greenfrog on September 20, 2004 at 12:13 pm

    Nietzsche was a picky wimp.

    If you like story-telling through songs, try the Indigo Girls.

  12. Silus Grok on September 20, 2004 at 12:25 pm

    I absolutely love the Jayhawks.

    Cash is King… Elvis is just dead.

    For the NIN cover that Clark mentions, check out the full-length (hauntingly beautiful) video here:

    http://www.markromanek.com/video/14.html

    Beyond Cash and the Jayhawks, I also enjoy Slaid Cleaves, Andrew Bird (and the Bowl of Fire), Squirrel Nut Zippers, Willie Nelson, Chris Isaak, and Anouar Brahem — among (many) others.

  13. Russell Arben Fox on September 20, 2004 at 12:49 pm

    Elvis isn’t dead Silus, he just went home.

  14. Greg on September 20, 2004 at 12:53 pm

    Speaking of music and Mark Wrathall, I must say that the day I saw a Clash album in his faculty office (was it “Super Black Market Clash or “Give ‘em Enough Rope”??) was one of those paradigm-shifting days for me — “You can read Davidson AND listen to the Clash??”

    And since we’re sharing favorites, here are some of my all-timers: Neil Young, Lucinda Williams, Dylan, Uncle Tupelo (and its progeny: Wilco, Son Volt, Golden Smog), Elliott Smith, the Flaming Lips, Iron & Wine, Will Oldham, Pavement, Radiohead, 80′s REM, Replacements, 70′s Springsteen, Ramones, Clash, Velvet Underground, Beatles, Jimi Hendrix.

  15. Matt Jacobsen on September 20, 2004 at 2:10 pm

    Well, here’s another who’s acquired the Cash taste. So have my daughters, but they’re more malleable than my wife. A while ago I bought a ‘Best of’ album and liked it so much I thought there must be more good stuff out there (there is). I was also intrigued by the fact that his first recording company, Sun, discouraged him from gospel music, which helped to convince him to jump ship to Columbia. He wanted to be able to tithe his music to the Lord, and he did up until he died. It’s great listening to his ‘pop’ albums and having some very personal, religious songs mixed in. My current favorite song is ‘The Man Comes Around’. Powerful. I’d like to do an elders’ quorum lesson using it somehow. (don’t worry, won’t happen)

    While Cash could be thought of as pop music, he’s still pretty unique. You’ve got the quaint ballad and country songs and then there are songs about war and prison and murder and drugs. Did he get a lot of guff for explicit lyrics like modern gangster rap artists do? Or does his underlying message of punishment and redemption soften the harsher lyrics?

  16. Mark B on September 20, 2004 at 2:24 pm

    And to think that I sat on the subway this morning, returning to my office happy after my clients were granted political asylum in the U.S., humming a tune which I realized was the quartet from the last act of Rigoletto–not necessarily a happy scene, but a stirring and beautiful tune.

    If I hadn’t been so nervous before court this morning, I probably would have been thinking of the Kyrie eleison from the Mozart Requiem, and if we had lost, it would definitely have been Verdi’s Dies Irae.

  17. clark on September 20, 2004 at 3:00 pm

    U2′s work with Cash is great. (Except for that pause at the end and the siren — what’s up with that?) I like the duet they did with Frank Sinatra though also. “Got You Under My Skin” It was done in Bono’s period where he was more than a little full of himself, but considering who he is working with, it kind of works. (Interestingly this was also the nadir of the group — consider the album Pop)

    With Cash there is this joint live album with Willie Nelson which is pretty amazing. It’s real low key and relaxed, but they do some great renditions of their classic songs. Nelson is actually a surprisingly versitile performer. In certain ways I think of him akin to Ray Charles in bringing in diverse styles. Not quite at that level, but really underestimated by a lot of people. Unfortunately a lot of his songs, especailly in the 80′s, are a little too overproduced and have that “poppy” feel that I don’t think Cash’s popular music had that often. But his live stuff is always great as it is much more gritty and simple.

    Speaking of Ray Charles he really is the master. He invented one genre – R&B – and mastered several others (Blues, Jazz, Pop) and even a style you wouldn’t expect (Country). Definitely one of the all-time greats.

    As for Elvis, he’ll always be the King. And Cash will always be the Man in Black. He transcended labels like “boss,” “king,” or so forth.

  18. anonymous on September 20, 2004 at 3:55 pm

    noticed the wilco shout outs (yankee hotel foxtrot is their best album, imho, but a ghost is born is worth a listen). other essentials i haven’t seen listed

    spoon – think the kinks meets wire and then multiply it by a cool factor of 10; any album great
    radiohead – kid a and hail to the theif are preferred albums
    before braille – mathy indie-rock, a la at-the-drive in, and they’re active members of the church
    nick drake – elliott smith before elliott smith
    coldplay – rush of blood to the head
    shins – any album. at the risk of pronouncing heresy, they might just be better than the beatles, mellow and melodic pop songs

    i’ll stop there. another nice blog would be “lds musicians (as opposed to lds music) who you should know but don’t yet . .

    before braille
    jimmy eat world
    aquabats
    genius

    etc

  19. Melissa on September 20, 2004 at 4:02 pm

    Jim’s thoughts remind me of a post I was going to write when I was a guest-blogger here entitled “In Defense of Country Music.” I ended up trashing the idea for fear of being heckled right out of guest-blogger status.

    In truth I love Gregorian Chant, Kathleen Battle and Kiri TeKanawa (from my serious vocalist days), Faure’s Requiem, Handel’s Water Music, and most everything written by Bach. I also like U2 (it reminds me of high school and I actually enjoyed high school) and John Denver (because my family used to sing these songs around the campfire). But, that’s not what I listen to most often. When I’m driving in the car somewhere between Cambridge and Providence and have had just about as much as Terry Gross or Tom Ashbrook as I can stand I turn the channel to KKAT. I admit it— I really like listening to country music.

    Country music is not profound, sophisticated or artistic. I don’t even believe that it takes much talent to write a good country song since most of them follow similar musical and lyrical patterns. So, why do I like this trite, easily mocked genre? I have some musical training so I can’t plead ignorance. The simple reason is that country music is about moments in real life. There are country songs about motherhood and fatherhood, about happy marriages, about growing up and growing old. I recently heard a song about a woman whose husband has alzheimer’s. The song talks about how much she misses him and why even though he’s still beside her. One song talks about a father teaching his son to drive, while another explores a father’s grief at losing custody of his child. There are songs about lifelong love, finding and losing faith, doing anonymous good deeds, abuse, forgiveness, patience in grief, suicide.

    A lot of popular music when I was in college seemed to me to be about sex and drugs so I didn’t really go for it but there is a very different quality to country music.

    Now, I admit that I’m not a fan of the many pro-war lyrics or the too-frequent drinking songs (My Little Whiskey Girl, or Give Me Two Pina Coladas) in country music, but more often than not I like the other songs. In fact, I often find myself singing at the top of my lungs as I drive along (I’m the one in the beat up old green Saturn on 95 using her water bottle as a microphone). As much as I hate to admit it country music makes me laugh (Red-Neck Woman) and makes me cry (Remember When, Flies on the Butter). So there it is—I’m a fan. But, only in my car when the windows are rolled up tightly.

  20. Russell Arben Fox on September 20, 2004 at 4:39 pm

    “With Cash there is this joint live album with Willie Nelson which is pretty amazing.”

    That would be the VH-1 Storytellers album. They do some awesome numbers together: “Ghost Riders in the Sky,” “Me and Paul,” “Flesh and Blood,” and so forth. Definitely worth owning.

    “Nelson is actually a surprisingly versitile performer. In certain ways I think of him akin to Ray Charles in bringing in diverse styles. Not quite at that level, but really underestimated by a lot of people.”

    Absolutely. Willie Nelson is one of the great country performers in the history of recorded music. He’s written and performed songs in every country genre: folky bluegrass, Nashville pop, outlaw, even a little early alt-country (check out his work with Lyle Lovett on the album Borderline).

    “Country music is not profound, sophisticated or artistic. I don’t even believe that it takes much talent to write a good country song since most of them follow similar musical and lyrical patterns.”

    I disagree. Does following rather conventional “musical and lyrical patterns” make for music which is “not profound, sophisticated or artistic”? Well then, blues music also qualifies. As does most bluegrass and folk. And that point, you’re including an awful lot indisputable musical giants in your assessment: Robert Johnson, Son House, Dock Boggs, Leadbelly, Hank Williams, Woody Guthrie, the Carter family, etc. I’ll certainly agree that a lot of contemporary country music is dreck, quality-wise–but then, as I said before, so is a lot of contemporary rock, and every other musical genre. But that reflects upon the talent of the people making the music, not the restrictions of the genre itself.

    Lyric-wise, you’re absolutely right that country music is, generally speaking, a lot more humble and straightforward than most of which passes for rock and pop these days, and there’s a lot of appeal in that. But don’t apologize for the music itself. I think your average overproduced Nashville-sound album is just as likely to include engaging melodies as anything by, say, U2. (I mean, I like U2 as much as anyone, but any group capable of producing the atrocious Pop needs to come down off their pedestal.)

  21. danithew on September 20, 2004 at 7:01 pm

    I’d like to see some posts about music from Russell Arben Fox. Particularly about folks like Leadbelly, Son House, etc. It’s clear the man knows what he’s talkin’ about.

    On a lighter note, is anyone a fan of the country music yodelers? :)

  22. Clark Goble on September 20, 2004 at 7:22 pm

    Russell, I was right up with you until you put Leadbelly in the country genre. Isn’t he more early blues? Admittedly that whole area of music now designated as “roots music” which includes early country, early gospel, and early blues show that these different genres are actually quite related. However I just have a hard time seeing Leadbelly or Robert Johnson for that matter as being as big and influence on country as they were in say rock and roll. (Both being significant influences on the great guitarists of the 60′s like Clapton, Richards, and many others)

    Of course a lot of people only know Leadbelly from that amazing cover that Nirvana did. Still one of the best covers ever in the history of rock, IMO.

    (Whoops. Correction. I just reread your post. Oops. I missed two whole sentences somehow. Ugh)

    I’d agree with you though about country music. I think what happened was that country music got taken over by the same “geniuses” that destroyed rock and most pop in the 90′s. It’s mostly crap with little soul to it. But I’d say the same of most modern music of whatever genre: rock, pop, hip hop, or country. Occasionally there will be bursts in one of the genres. The Coen Brothers rejuvenated bluegrass and other roots music, but it quickly became an “underground” sensation ignored by popular music again. In rock there have been acts like Velvet Revolver or Audioslave trying to rejuvenate those genres. But I doubt they will. Jurrasic-5 or Aesop Rock pop up in hip hop, but often as not are ignored in preference to rather trite fluff.

    On the other hand, the birth of P2P networks let people experience a lot of music they never could on the radio. Avoiding the whole ethical issues tied to P2P, I will say that it allowed a thriving underground of different styles to appear.

  23. Susan on September 20, 2004 at 9:53 pm

    My husband is psycho on music. At last count over 40,000 CDs, vinyl that goes back to the fifties with the same obsessed love. He was a missionary (not quite as law abiding as he should have been) in the UK (actually Scotland) in the late 60s. Went to more concerts of the likes of the Rolling Stones than a good missionary shood. Was a collector then and ever. And now downloading. (What a weird world there is out there for music swapping.) Pretty much everything you’ve mentioned and more, more, more is at my fingertips–and would be at Nate’s if he wished.

    I love the late Cash recordings. There are reams of them with the way-beyond husky voice and simple acoustic backgrounds. A version of “Poor Wayfaring Man” that is simple and beautiful. (And that makes me think of the last Anonymous Four record of hymns; a similar haunting version of “Poor Wayfaring Man.”)

    And now I have my iPod. What a wonderful world.

  24. Jim F. on September 20, 2004 at 9:56 pm

    T. Wray: Thanks for the recommendations. I don’t know Tom Waits, but I’m going to go check him out.

    Russell Arben Fox: I’m with Danithew, you should write about music for the blog. You obviously know a lot more about this stuff than I do. I’m not only an omnivore, I’m an amateur.

    Kevin Barney (and others): As part of Rebecca’s indoctrination, she also gave me a Wilco album, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. It is growing on me. Thanks also for the reference to Jayhawks. I hadn’t heard them before.

    Greenfrog: Nietzsche was a wimp as a person, but not as an intellect. Besides, it is always very difficiult to know when he was being serious and when he was playing with his audience.

    Mark B: Thanks for bringing some opera references in. I neglected to mention them, but though I am not as educated in opera as someone who actually knows something, I am an aria fan.

    Clark: For me Willie Nelson is like Johnny Cash, often incredibly good, occasionally too “commercial,� but you’re right about the Cash-Nelson songs.

    Melissa: Thanks for confessing to sharing some of my tastes in music. Now you need only to start listening somewhere other than only the car!

  25. Jim F. on September 20, 2004 at 10:11 pm

    Silus Grok, after posting the last piece, I went to the Romanek site you gave. Thanks very much for that. The video is, indeed, hauntingily beautfiul.

  26. Melissa on September 20, 2004 at 11:11 pm

    Russelll,

    I beg to differ. I don’t think the extensive use of the flattened thirds and sevenths that is so characteristic of the blues scale is conventional in anyway close to the sorts of routine melodies and lyrics that I find in a lot of contemporary country music. CCM is obviously not Stravinskly or Mozart. But I think it is in a different category than Muddy Waters too. I was simply acknowledging the fact that Gary Alan, for example, just doesn’t rate with those folks. Despite that fact, I was trying to explain why it is still so often (surprisingly) pleasing to me in a downhome sort of way.

    You might enjoy a book I read last year called _Romancing the Folk: Public Memory and American Roots Music_ by Benjamin Filene. He has some interesting things to say about the canonical figures of American roots music—-Lead Belly, Woody Guthrie, Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon, Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan.

    Jim, if I didn’t have so much philosophy to read when I’m not in my car then I might just listen to more music at home!

    By the way—-does anybody like Billie Holiday? Her song “Strange Fruit” is not comfort music but is a pretty amazing piece.

  27. D. Fletcher on September 20, 2004 at 11:33 pm

    I must admit, I’m really surprised at all your comfort music choices. If I’m looking for comfort, I’m looking to listen to familiar, “easy listening,” tuneful and pleasant music. Somebody like Johnny Cash or Tom Waits! is completely edgy, almost the opposite of comfort (to me).

    Music by Handel, Mozart, Chopin, Tschaikovsky, Faure or Ravel (but not Bach, Beethoven, Brahms or Stravinsky — these are “edgy”)

    Musicals by Rodgers, Berlin, Lerner and Loewe, and the Disney scores. (No musical by Sondheim is comforting — “edgy” again.)

    Anything sung by Ella Fitzgerald or Rosemary Clooney.

    American “traditional” folk music, like Guthrie, and stuff spearheaded by Emmy Lou Harris.

    For more modern pop music, James Taylor, Carole King, and certain of the Beatles songs (but not all). I like the Eagles, Linda Ronstadt, and most 70s “California” pop-rock.

    For comfort, I can’t listen to the blues or country. Bob Dylan is NOT comforting.

  28. Silus Grok on September 21, 2004 at 12:47 am

    Jim: thank you. I love the video… makes me cry.

    D. Fletcher: I’ve long enjoyed classical, but don’t find it comforting because the obsessive compulsive in me knows I should “know more” about the music, and my lack of knowledge gnaws on me… comfort is singing along to a great tune.

    My favorite music? Angry woman music (The Chieftains and Joni Mitchell singing THE MAGDALENE LAUNDRIES on TEARS OF STONE; Annie Lenox singing THIN LINE BETWEEN LOVE AND HATE on MEDUSA; just about anything by Tracy Chapman; and Lauryn Hill singing EX FACTOR on THE MISEDUCATION OF LAURYN HILL… mmm.)

  29. T. Wray on September 21, 2004 at 1:05 am

    I have a question:
    In this thread some of you seem to be using the phrase “comfort music” in a way that implies a quasi-official category with definable characteristics. I.e. Melissa stating, “Her song ‘Strange Fruit’ is not comfort music but is a pretty amazing piece.” This is curious to me because I have never heard this term before, or at least I never caught on that it was a “term” as opposed to the author’s choice of words.
    Here, there seems to be a general understanding (among most) of what “comfort music” is. Is this bloggernacle language? T&S language? Students of J. Faulconer language? Dalai Llama language? Generally accepted musician/composer/music-studies/criticism jargon that has just never entered my radar screen (this would be odd since I’ve heavily involved myself in music most of my life – though its certainly possible)? OR, am I totally out-to-lunch and reading too much into coincidental reoccurences of word ordering?
    I did a search on Yahoo! for this term but didn’t find anything very helpful. So anyway, sorry if this is a trivial question. But I’m very curious and there are no stupid questions, right?

    Second (totally unrelated) question for Nate Oman, who’s hopefully reading. How do you know Eric Andersen? I know your a law guy, but didn’t you study back East (or do you have Midwest ties?)? He is a great guy and was recently called to be our Bishop. I haven’t had him for class, but some LDS-law students have him during the week for Contracts and on Sundays for Personal Worthiness. Seriously though, I really admire the down-to-earthness that accompanies his notable intelligence.

    -Tyson

  30. Jim F. on September 21, 2004 at 1:08 am

    Tyson: As far as I know, I invented the term “comfort music” when I wrote this blog, making an analogy to comfort food.

    Whoever said there are no stupid questions, said something stupid. Of course there are stupid questions–but yours wasn’t one of them.

  31. greg on September 21, 2004 at 1:16 am

    Melissa,
    Billie Holiday is wonderful. Along with Edith Piaf, she is a regular on Sundays in my home.

  32. Jack on September 21, 2004 at 1:46 am

    Well, if were talking about being comforted by music, I can honestly say that Enya has helped me through some serious bouts with depression. Though when I’m in my right mind its total throw away music. Trash.

  33. Hans Hansen on September 21, 2004 at 3:06 am

    Enjoyed your music comments, Jim F. I’m a musician and music teacher in Southern California. I would add to your list of classical composers Mozart and Beethoven. I remember years ago taking a religion class at BYU from Arthur Henry King who stated his opinion to the class that the best in music stopped at the death of Mozart. I won’t repeat his opinion on jazz since it would be regarded as being very racist.

    Personally I’m a Wagner nut, particularly The Ring and Parsifal, but listening to Wagner takes endurance (about 18 hours for The Ring and at least 5 to 6 hours for Parsifal). Of course with Wagner you also get the Nietzsche connection until his falling out with Wagner.

    I’m also into bluegrass, gospel and country and was particularly impressed with the soundtrack album to “Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?”

    Hope you continue expanding your musical horizons, Jim.

    BTW, I’m married to your wife’s former college roommate, Rosalyn.

  34. Nate Oman on September 21, 2004 at 7:57 am

    Jim: Your a Nietzche scholar, yet Wagner doesn’t make your list. Interesting….

  35. Jack on September 21, 2004 at 10:35 am

    Hans: I wish I could’ve sat in that religion class with you. I love Auther Henry King. But over the last few years I’ve come to thoroughly disagree with some of his views. I think some of his intense aversion to certain certain styles is, in part at least, because he wasn’t brought up to it. You know that he hated Wagner right? He said that it took many years to rid Wagner from his soul and charactized his music as being erotic. (I think he said this in a commencement speach at BYU after the orchestra had just played something from “Tristan”)

    This brings up what I feel is important for all to remember. Music, art or any cultural infuence will resonate with those who were shaped by such infuences in their early years – no matter how base they may seem to others outside that tradition. Almost without fail, every time I hear the Beatles’ “Penny Lane” my heart melts with warmth – not because its a miraculous spiritual experience, but because I resonate with it at a very deep level. The Beatles 7 to 8 year stint of glory before their breakup coincides almost perfectly with my years of innocence – I turned eight the year the Beatles broke up. So I can honestly say that even though Bach is my hero (which became apparent only after taking counterpoint in college), the Beatles have played a much bigger role in shaping my musical sensibilities.

  36. Mark B on September 21, 2004 at 11:13 am

    Jack,

    I remember hearing the AHK, Wagner and commencement. Is it true that someone tried to soften the blow by reminding the audience that, as Twain said, Wagner was better than he sounds?

  37. Jack on September 21, 2004 at 11:36 am

    Mark B. That’s hilarious! I wish I’d been there. Or this just another one of those wonderful Mark “B” Twainian anecdotes? : )

  38. Mark B on September 21, 2004 at 12:05 pm

    Jack,

    At my age, it’s hard to tell the real memories from the memories of memories from the outright manufactures. Perhaps it was my father, who was there, who suggested that the blow to AHK may have been softened if someone had brought up the Twain quote. Whoever was conducting those commencement exercises (either Pres. Oaks or Holland), I suspect that he didn’t really quote the Twain line.

    The suspicion was that whoever in the music faculty chose to perform the Wagner did it to tweak AHK. Those sneaky, nefarious musicians. :)

  39. Russell Arben Fox on September 21, 2004 at 12:42 pm

    I don’t really know that much about music–any of the musically trained individuals commenting here surely know more than me. And for that matter, I’m a piker when it comes to music collecting and listening; our cd collection is pretty small compared to some of those that have been mentioned here (and a lot of what we have has been the result of friends sending us music and insisting we listen to this or that). If I have any argument to make about music, it’s that there’s no reason (at least, not that much of a reason) to feel as though one needs to justify, apologize for, or explain an affection for straightforward popular music, whatever you want to call it (comfort music, easy listening, etc.). While anyone with the slightest critical sensibility ought to be able to identify the Billy Ray Cyruses and Britney Spearses of the world (and shun them accordingly), the fact is that an awful of lot of popular music which was crafted with nothing more than public performance and radio airplay in mind is nonetheless good stuff. I think it’s easy (especially for educated people) to sheepishly convince themselves that something they like is “slick” or “commercial” or “pop” and feel they have to make allowances for it. I used to do it that all the time myself, but I try not to now, because I’ve a lot more respect for ordinary pop craftmanship than I used to.

    “Pop music” is a complicated term; to a great extent, all it means in the present context is whatever happens to be declared “popular” by the record companies and is marketed accordingly, in connection with any number of other genres (folk, rock, blues, country, etc.). In that sense, Cash was a bad example to use: until all the critically informed hipsters and powers-that-be in the music industry decided to canonize him in the mid-90s, the Man in Black–with all his songs about God and murder and obsession and death–was a huge figure in a rather narrow slice of the country market; he never sold records the way Willie Nelson did, for example (to use a comparable example). But clearly, despite all the gray areas in the margins, it is possible to identify certain forms of musical entertainment as “popular”: that is, as meant to be appreciated on its own terms, in a tight little musical package (a simple beat, 3 or 4 minutes in length, with a couple of hooks to pull the kids in), without demanding too much of the listener. Serious rock can involve long guitar and drum solos, hard-core blues is built around a repetitive call-and-response pattern, jazz involves improvisation, folk can extend into epic ballad forms, and so forth; pop music, by contrast, doesn’t have any of that. In that sense Cash was definitely a pop artist: he was just out to put on a show. (So was Dylan; for all his lyrical complexity he remains, in his own words, “just a song-and-dance man.” Dig up some of the venom directed at Dylan by his fellow folkies back in the mid-60s, when he got tired for all the earnestness around him and decided to switch to electric guitar: the crime they all accused him of was going “popular.”)

    Country pop has suffered from this bias more than other forms, in my opinion, perhaps simply because while the majority of the disposable radio music pumped out by Nashville over the years isn’t any better or worse than the majority of the stuff which has come out of Los Angeles, country pop stars dressed really tacky, and maybe that made it easier for the critical establishment to dismiss them even more than they did some other popmeisters. In any case, I just doubt that there’s anything in the style itself which prevents it some being able to entertain is just as innovative and engaging a way as pop music grounded in any other genre might.

    For the record: in my office right now I have music by Bobby McFerrin, The Cars, Eurythmics, Thomas Dolby, Huey Lewis and the News, Dolly Parton, George Harrison, Billy Joel, Cowboy Junkies, Genesis, Rush, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, stuff from the O Brother soundtrack, and John Lennon. (I make a lot of tape and cd compilations.)

  40. danithew on September 21, 2004 at 1:11 pm

    RAF’s comments about Dylan and the comments about him selling out when he went electric brought some thoughts to mind.

    The recording industry has embraced commercialism today in a way that was often shunned by artists during previous decades. One has only to listen to the soundtracks of commercials these days to get a sense of who is selling and who is buying pop music.

    Just the same commercialism has always been around. I’ll never forget reading about Paul McCartney and John Lennon sitting down to “write a swimming pool” (warning, memory quote). Usually the very best and most talented artists love the green as much as anyone else.

  41. Hans Hansen on September 21, 2004 at 1:21 pm

    Jack and Mark B.:

    I wish I could have been there when AHK made his comments on Wagner. His statements on eroticism in Wagner were similiar to those he made about Beethoven which through me for a loop when you consider the 9th Symphony and the Missa Solemnis. Another one I missed was Hugh Nibley’s opening prayer at the 1960 BYU Commencement where he began with: “We have met here today clothed in the black robes of a false priesthood…”

    I also love the Beatles. Their song cycle “Abbey Road” was the subject of a senior paper that I wrote at the University of Utah (transferred there from BYU for reasons to complicated to go into here).

    It’s true that Twain said “Wagner’s music is better than it sounds”. He also made this priceless comment on Wagner’s “Parsifal”: The first act of the three occupied two hours, and I enjoyed that in spite of the singing”.

    Tchaikovsky, after he attended the first Bayreuth festival in 1876: “After the last notes of “Goetterdaemmerung” I felt as though I had been let out of prison”.

    Oscar Wilde: “I like Wagner’s music better than anybody’s. It is so loud that one can talk the whole time without other people hearing what one says”.

    Nietzsche on “Parsifal”: Christianity arranged for Wagnerians”.:

  42. Keith on September 21, 2004 at 5:10 pm

    Jack, Mark, et al.

    I was watching when Arthur King spoke. I had classes from him and knew him fairly well; when they played the Wagner I tought that he would say something. Pres. Holland did quote the Twain line before he introduced Arthur. You can find a softened version of what Arthur said in his book, but what he actually said first was more along the lines of thanking them for that fine “rendition of that most unholy piece.”

    King probably would have despised most of the comfort music mentioned on this list. He probably has good reasons for this, but I think it’s his loss. King argued that the saint must be seeking the very best every moment–a lifetime/eternity in every moment. On the one hand he may have a point–we should be seeking the highest. But I wonder if this couldn’t be better stated to seek what we seek, and approach what we encounter, in the highest way–to read, listen, etc. in discernment and in love.

  43. Jim F. on September 22, 2004 at 1:17 am

    Hans, welcome. I recognized you as Rosyalyn’s husband immeidately. After all, how many musicians named Hans Hansens with a passion for Wagner can there be? I probably should have included Mozart, Beethoven, and others in my classical list, but I was just trying to give a taste rather than a complete list.

    I loved Arthur King, but love doesn’t always mean agreement, and I think some of his opinions were wacky, including most of what he had to say about music. Part of what I loved about him, however, was that he didn’t mind at all having the discussion. I could say, “Arthur, that is just wacky!” and then we could talk about it. Even when the discussion ended with me continuing to think his idea was wacky, I learned a great deal. Like Keith, I was there when Arthur spoke, and Keith’s account is quite accurate.

    I suspect that there is also more to the Hugh Nibley myth. When he gave his talk about managers and leaders, he began by referring to that story. I don’t recall his exact wording, but I do remember thinking that he was at least suggesting that the story as usually repeated isn’t very accurate.

  44. Jack on September 22, 2004 at 1:19 am

    Hans: you are right that AHK was critical of Beethoven, but it was to a much lesser degree than Wagner. I think what King was most concerned about was self-assertion on the part of the artist in his/her work. I think he liked much of Beethoven’s work, but was disappointed by his way of reminding the listener that “I Beethoven am still here” ( as King would say) by asserting himself in the music.

    If not anything else, AHK’s views have a way of causing the artist to scrutinize him/herself for moral deficiency – which ideally ought to improve the quality of his/her art. The down side of his views as I understand them, is that you run the risk of throwing out the baby with the bath water. So what if Beethoven had a few deficiencies? I’ll take his music the as it is, because as it is, its the best that humanity has to offer.

    I think Keith hit the nail on the head with this comment: “On the one hand he [AKH] may have a point–we should be seeking the highest. But I wonder if this couldn’t be better stated to seek what we seek, and approach what we encounter, in the highest way–to read, listen, etc. in discernment and in love.”

    Arthur (forgive my terrible misspelling of his name above) Henry King’s ideas were a real challenge for me. As one who is not very educated I felt that I was unenlightened because I didn’t agree with everything that one so highly educated had to say about the arts. It’s very gratifying to hear that people like Jim F. and others here at T&S allow themselves to be charmed by the less “exalted” art forms discussed on this thread. I need to do what Russell has suggested and not be ashamed of what I think is beautiful no matter how base or even vulgar others my think it is.

    That being said, I still read and reread AKH’s essays. Wonderful stuff!

  45. Jack on September 22, 2004 at 1:27 am

    Hans: I’d love to hear more about your paper on “Abbey Road”.

  46. Bill on September 23, 2004 at 2:00 pm

    Remember, Nietzsche was himself a wannabe composer, like Adorno and J.-J. Rousseau. What a motley trio!

  47. Hans Hansen on September 23, 2004 at 2:13 pm

    Jack: Sorry it took me so long to get back to you. “Abbey Road”, I wrote the paper in 1974 (I’m sure it’s probably gathering dust out in my garage somewhere). As I recollect I analyzed the musical structure of the songs, commented on the many musical links that they shared (bits and pieces of previous songs, both music and lyrics, showed up in later songs), the way that many of the songs flowed seamlessly from one to the next, and the similarities to song cycles by both Schubert and Schumann, etc. That’s about all I recall but considering it’s been 30 years…

    In many ways the “Sgt. Pepper” album was also a “song cycle”, but the structure was much tighter in “Abbey Road”.

  48. Hans Hansen on September 23, 2004 at 2:29 pm

    Jack: re AHK and Beethoven.

    You are right in regard to AHK’s feelings on Beethoven. Your comment jogged my memory, and while Mozart is more objective in his music I still have no problem recognizing his music as say opposed to his contemporaries, Clementi and Hummel, not to leave Haydn out of the mix. It’s just as AHK put it though, when you hear Beethoven his personality is felt strongly throughout his compositions. And because he is saying “I Beethoven am here” that his humanity comes through and speaks to the listener. I am reminded of the contrast between J.S. Bach and Beethoven when one looks at their manuscripts (Bach’s “B-Minor Mass” and Beethoven’s “Missa Solemnis”): Bach writes “S.D.G”, (Sei Dei Gloria, for the Glory of God); Beethoven writes, “Let if flow from my heart to the heart of all men”.

  49. Eliza on September 23, 2004 at 11:22 pm

    Just wanted to say thanks for the inspiration to check out some Johnny Cash and dig deeper into Beethoven! I haven’t checked T&S in awhile – and I never comment when I do check, sorry for lurking – looks like I missed a lot! I loved this thread, and it was great to see everyone’s music choices. I’m no music connoisseur myself, but I know what I like! Amen to Paul Simon (esp. Graceland, love the Ladysmith Black Mambazo collaborations), U2, The Shins (I especially love Oh, Inverted World – so mellow and inventive, and the tracks sort of blend together, it’s like one long song!), James Taylor, the Beatles (of course), Willie Nelson, REM, Lauryn Hill, Coldplay, Edith Piaf and Disney scores – hadn’t thought of that, but I’d definitely call that comfort music! What about Cat Stevens?

    Thanks also, lots of you, for the articulations of “why country music can be good.” Singing along to country radio is a guilty pleasure of mine I hadn’t been able to pinpoint – but I do like the stories, the honesty and the Americana feeling of it all (though I don’t always love the far-right political opinions). Good thread!

    Jim, are you Christian’s dad? Kacy was one of my YW leaders in California and I used to babysit Sam while she worked on her master’s. (If I’m totally off, sorry!)

  50. Jack on September 24, 2004 at 1:18 am

    Hans: Saying that Beethoven’s “humanity comes through and speaks to the listener” is a much more optimistic way of characterizing his music. I love hearing it put that way.

    (I really wanted to say “a much more charitable way…”, but since I like AHK and don’t want to … ah what the heck. I guess I’ve already said it)

  51. Jim F. on September 24, 2004 at 11:24 am

    Eliza, yes I am Christian’s dad and I’m also quite happy to be Kacy’s father-in-law and Sam’s grandad. And now Christian and Kacy have two more children, Margaret (“Maggie”) and Benjamin (“Ben”).

  52. Hans Hansen on September 24, 2004 at 8:02 pm

    For those of you who may be members of the Musical Heritage Society, they are offering an 18-track CD for sale (only $4.98) that features Lieder, Piano Works, and a Melodrama by Nietzsche that span his lifetime. The baritone soloist is Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau.

  53. Eliza on September 24, 2004 at 10:48 pm

    How exciting! Well, tell Kacy I said hi. And Christian too. And the kids while you’re at it, even though none of them know/remember me!