Thursday, July 29, 2010

Mbube Sleeps Tonight

Mbube means "lion" in Zulu.

Solomon Ntsele was born in 1909 in the bush near Ladysmith. He would later become known as Solomon Linda, using his clan name.

His family was very poor. He would often spend evenings guarding his family's cattle against lions. So his bio says - not sure what a boy could have done if a lion came; perhaps at least sound the alarm.

Solomon had always had a love of music inside him. He attended mission school where he became acquainted with Western music culture, hymns, etc. He participated in choir contests. He never learned to read and write, though.

In the mid-1930s, Solomon traveled to Johannesburg to seek his fortune, more or less. There was definitely nothing going on in his village. This is to say that Solomon joined the ranks of countless other young men who ended up doing menial work in the big city.

Solomon formed a musical group by the name of the Evening Birds, and they sang at clubs on weekends. They became pretty popular in the beer halls of Soweto Township which were frequented by the black laborers who lived there.

Solomon left his job at the Carlton Hotel in Johannesburg and found employment as a record packer for Italian immigrant Eric Gallo's recording studio, the only studio in sub-Saharan Africa at the time. It was here that the Evening Birds were noticed and recorded. Solomon had written a song he called Mbube, and they recorded it in three or four takes. This was in 1939.

The song didn't really have words. It was of the popular South African "isicathamiya" style, with syncopated rhythms and interwoven vocals that is so characteristic of that distinct local genre. On the final take, Solomon impulsively added some words at the end that were to become famous the world over. "In the jungle, the mighty jungle, the lion sleeps tonight..."

The song became immensely popular, selling over 100,000 78 RPM copies through 1949. Since then, the song has been recorded by over 150 singers and groups, used in movies (Disney's "Lion King") and broadway productions.

But Solomon Linda had sold his rights to the recording studio for 10 shillings, and that was that.

If you are not very old, you will remember the version in "The Lion King." If you are older, you will remember the incredible success The Tokens had with the song in the 1960s. If you are even older, you will remember the smash hit it became for The Weavers.

As I said, over 150 artists have recorded the song. In addition to Disney, The Tokens and The Weavers, others included Jimmy Dorsey, The Kingston Trio, The Spinners, The Tremeloes, Glen Campbell, They Might Be Giants, Miriam Makeba, R.E.M., Chet Atkins... it goes on and on. Besides the Disney movie, the song was used in Ace Ventura, Pet Detective.

The Weavers were the first, I guess. Someone brought Pete Seeger (who was part of The Weavers at that time) a stack of 78s to listen to, and Solomon's song was among them. Seeger was captivated by the song, playing it over and over and over and trying to transcribe the African words being chanted. One word he just couldn't make out, and finally wrote it down as "Wimoweh." And so the song would became known in America. (The actual Zulu word being repeated in the song was "uyimbube." Close enough. Seeger taught the song to the Weavers and the rest is history.

I liked The Token's version best (although the Kingston Trio's version stayed on the charts for 3 years) until I recently heard a recording of the version done by a much more elderly Pete Seeger, recorded at a concert he once did with Arlo Guthrie. You may recall that Seeger in his youth also sang with the great Woody Guthrie, Arlo's daddy.

I don't think any of these people really knew what the song was about. Just so YOU know, it was about a young lad who used to guard his family's cattle from lions at night.

An lot of people made an awful lot of money off Solomon's song. The Song of Solomon, if you will. Millions and millions of Dollars.

Solomon Linda, meanwhile died impoverished in apartheid South Africa. His wife couldn't even afford a headstone for his grave. Someone finally erected a headstone 18 years after he died. You see, The Weaver's producers had songwriter George David Weiss rework the song. He added more words and retitled the song "The Lion Sleeps Tonight." He made enough changes that he obtained copyright for the work. And so it goes.

As far as I know, the only money Solomon Linda's family ever saw for the song was a check for $1000 that Pete Seeger sent them out of his own pocket one time. That and the 10 shillings Solomon got from the recording studio so long ago.

If you would like to hear my own current favorite version of the song, the one by Pete Seeger in that concert with Arlo Guthrie, the link to the music is below. Pete sings the falsetto part that made the song famous, the same eerie falsetto voice sung by Solomon himself when he was an Evening Bird in 1939.

The Evening Birds. Solomon Linda is the tall man at the left.

"Wimoweh" (Mbube) Sung by Pete Seeger and concert audience. ("Precious Friend" concert with Arlo Guthrie)

Buy "Precious Friend" on iTunes or Amazon

Update: His name is spelled "Solomon."

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Back in New Mexico, haven to Arizona's fleeing misunderstood immigrants. I love it.

I have survived several days deep in the jungles in the environs of the Great Salt Lake and I have lived to tell the tale.

But not today.

Home sweet home by the Rio Grande.
Vista encantada.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Overcoming procrastination: Squeeze page futility

(Click to enlarge your disappointment in the human race)
Do you ever just type in a word or term into Google at random to see what comes up?

For me, yesterday's random search term was "procrastination." Mainly, when I do this, I am looking for amusement rather than edification. I am seldom disappointed. Partly this is because I am so sarcastic and partly because I am so intolerant of fools.

Anyway, the usual self-help sites came up, as you would expect - the first page taken up by the ones who pride themselves on keywords and SEO in general. They are funny in and of themselves, but boring.

On page two you begin to get into the squeeze pages. These are my real source of humor. A squeeze page, if you don't know already, is a sales pitch page by someone who has written a wonderful eBook (or "report" as they seem to call them) on the subject you have just searched. These pages are funny because of their terrible grammar and spelling, and because of the absurdity of their claims. They call them squeeze pages because there is no link exit; you either buy the eBook or report at the bottom or you close the tab.

Now, I can't imagine anyone buying a life-changing solution from one of these 8th grade dropouts, but their squeeze pages are all over the web. They all look alike and use the same alternating red headlines and blue bullet text. Some of them are pretty long, because each multilevel master who buys the system feels the need to change the wording to his own, and he always has a couple more fool-proof selling points to add at the end. These eThings always cost $7 - something. $27, $37, $47... always ends in $7. Apparently these cunning online marketers have run a web-wide survey and have discovered those are the magic price points for worthless eBooks. Reports, I mean.

Well, as I said, I find them funny. But there was this one in particular that amazed me. Can you IMAGINE how hard it must be to sell a (virtual) book on overcoming procrastination to strangers on the internet? I mean, your prospective buyers are procrastinators, right? It seems the best you could hope for would be for a procrastinator to read a couple paragraphs of your tedious squeeze page and then bookmark it "for later" never to return.

Actually, the whole thing got started when this misfit procrastination healer came across another squeeze page from someone else under the category of "How to Make $7 Million Dollars in 17 Weeks!!!!!!!!!!" or some such. And he gives his credit card number to ClickBank and pays the $39 for the guy's "system" and... excuse me, $37, not $39. Thus finding himself safely inside the side-show tent, he finds out the infallable "system" is to sell more eBooks to needy misfits like me by making up a zillion squeeze pages of his own. "But wait! You don't even have to write these life-changing eBooks yersef! No sir! For $67 more, you can "invest" in my COMPLETE TURNKEY WEALTH SYSTEM and you'll then get the resell rights to ALL my own personal infallible marketing magnets."

Or some such.

So our 8th grade dropout who is behind on his rent and hoping for a miracle by Friday goes over his credit limit and forks over another $67 to get the resell rights to the infallible marketing magnets that some other dolt down the line has authored. Probably in 1951. OUR dunderhead begins availing himself of his mentor's free subdomain pages to set up dozens of his own squeeze pages, and what book does he choose to sell? How to overcome procrastination. Jesus, Joseph, and Mary, huh?

Ah, well. I was going to go on and show you some examples of his squeeze page pitch that I found so funny in the first place, but, as usual, this is already too long. I think I will just go back to answering questions about car repairs on the forum boards.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Friday, July 9, 2010

Resonator Guitars

The Mississippi Delta was shining
Like a National guitar...
—Paul Simon, "Graceland"

Before the days of amplified guitars, there was a problem hearing acoustical guitars properly in the crowded 1920s Prohibition-Era Juke Joints and dance halls. Singers like Bessie Smith had the vocal cords to cut through the noise of the crowd in the smoke-filled rooms, but the guitar players couldn't compete with that or with the brass instruments of the bands.

To address this issue, the resonator-style guitar was invented in 1928 by John Dopyera. Essentially, he replaced the traditional open sound box of a normal guitar with a spun-metal cone or "resonator" which produced 4 to 5 times more sound volume than the regular acoustical guitar put out.

Obviously, the mellow wood tones of the guitar were gone, replaced by the twang of the steel. Some of these guitars were made to play flat on the player's lap, facing up, and some had round necks that allowed them to be held in the normal fashion. They were, and still are, ultra-suited to the Blues, which is what they were playing in those smokey Juke Joints back then.

Probably the epitome of those fine guitars was the National tricone which, as the name suggests, had three cones instead of one. The famous National tricone doesn't twang - it GROWLS. The National tricones were nickel over brass or, in some expensive models, silver plated. The shine they put out is what Paul Simon was referring to in his song.

Those old guitars are quite valuable as collectors items today, with a limited edition hand painted tricone going for maybe $4000 if you can find one.

John Dopyera left National in 1928 and, with his brothers, founded his own company called Dobro. That was a contraction for Dopyera Brothers, and was also a word which meant "good" in their native Slovak language. The Dopyera brothers put out a single-cone resonator that was inverted and bowl shaped that could put out more volume than even a National tricone could, so they say.

Today, the name "Dobro" has become synonymous with resonator guitars, much like Kleenex or Xerox have almost entered the public domain as generic names. However, Gibson, who currently owns the Dobro name, has announced that they intend to begin defending the trademark again. Good luck to them.

The names of the old Blues legends who used the resonator "steel" guitars - especially the National tricone - are too numerous to list. Some played them like regular guitars and some used a slide (they were often called "slide guitars" too) or a "steel." Often this was really a broken glass bottleneck. This they used to change the pitch of the strings in a continuous sound rather than using the frets.

Eric Clapton, the British rocker, is more famous for his modern amplified guitars, but over the years built up quite a guitar collection. One of these was an old Dobro he found in Nashville that he had Randy Wood replace the neck on. Randy also decorated the now famous guitar. Clapton is shown playing that resonator guitar in this 1976 studio session. The guitar probably didn't see the actual light of day in an actual public performance until a few years later during the "Eric Clapton Unplugged" live concert. Several of the songs from that concert were American Depression-Era Blues songs that were just perfect for a resonator.

If you are interested in hearing what a resonator guitar sounds like, here is one of those songs from that concert. I recommend headphones.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Arkansas Archipelago

Tulsa World (online edition) July 3, 2010: Wal-Mart Stores' chief merchandising officer John Flemming is leaving the company August 1, after 10 years, the world's largest retailer said Friday.

They say John is leaving his zillion dollar a year no-work job in order to spend more time with his family.

In other news (ABC News business unit), July 2, 2010: Wal-Mart is paying it's starting employees in Chicago $8.75 per hour. This works out to $13,360 a year gross, before taxes and before they spend anything on insurance if they feel they need any insurance. (Wal-Mart doesn't pay for insurance for the regular serfs.)

For 3 years now I haven't been able to find any manufactured goods sold by Wal-Mart that weren't made in Communist China. Not to be inflammatory or mean to cause more misunderstanding to well up against the misunderstood corporate sweathouse.

Incidentally, Wal-Mart CEO Michael Duke's $35 million a year salary comes out to$16,826.92 per hour, more in an hour than they pay their hourly wage workers in a year to support their families.

Since these wages are below the poverty line in the U.S., the slack is made up by the U.S. Government paying welfare benefits and food stamps to Wal-Mart's employees. Not to mention what happens if they or their children get sick. Maybe you already know where the U.S. gets the money to pay for this.

Wal-Mart says it is looking to open 500 more stores overseas this year. It seems to be rubbing its hands together at the prospect of expanding in India, hoping, probably, to pay less than $1 an hour. It is asking the U.S. Government to bully the Indian Government into changing it's laws so it won't have to comply with Indian law, and to thus be able to help the Indian people faster.

Obama says his wife Michelle no longer sits on the board of that pickle company that has Wal-Mart as it's biggest customer. Whew. Thank god for that. So Wal-Mart DOES buy American if the PR is right.

As usual, I could go on, but, as usual, what the hell good would it do? You aren't going to be asking these kinds of questions of political candidates this November, anyway. Right?

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Happy Birthday...

Happy 234th, U.S.A.

The 233rd birthday, but 234th anniversary of Independence.

Actually, Congress had voted for Independence on July 2nd, but July 4th was the actual signing date. Dreadfully hot in Philadephia. Washington himself read the declaration to his troups as soon as the courier arrived with the news. The revolution had already been going on for over a year by that time, having started on April 19, 1775, in Lexington, MA. In fact, the year-long Siege of Boston (an American victory -- the Americans were doing the sieging) was already over and the battle of New York was beginning (a British total rout of the Americans; the British began landing troops on Staten Island on July 3, reaching 32,000 in number by August.)

Happy 12th, Malia Obama. Born on the 4th of July.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Well I'll be damned, here comes your ghost again

Now I see you standing
With brown leaves falling around
And snow in your hair
Now you're smiling out the window
Of that crummy hotel
Over Washington Square
Our breath comes out white clouds
Mingles and hangs in the air
Speaking strictly for me
We both could have died then and there
—Joan Baez "Diamonds and Rust"


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