Tuesday, January 22, 2013

American Blues: Murder and the Devil

To my Croatian readers (all five of you, now), imagine you live in the US. How would you explain Croatia to your child? She would be living in a world where the real image of Croatia is clearly distorted. The media thinks its a backward land of savage violence and her friends think it’s in Russia. What could you say to convey to her what you feel when you think of home? How would you get her to understand the truth about where you are from?

The answer: MUSIC! (Probably Klapa, because... er... that’s um... the only traditional Croatian music I know about. I’m so Dalmatianly biased. If you have another kind of traditional music, please educate me. In the meantime let me write about some American music).

The music I’m talking about is American Blues, and it doesn’t involve seagulls or rocks. Instead it involves murderers, adultery, breakups, and a young man who SOLD HIS SOUL TO THE GOD DAMNED DEVIL! To me, music is the best way to impart the sights, sounds and feelings about a place (I get that part of Klapa: the sounds of seagulls, the feeling of the rocks, and the view of the sea). But what I’m talking about in American music is the torture and contradictions of what America is and was, made into a moving form of art. I want my daughter to understand the US more than just from the perspective of Croatia. Here, the US is little more than a plastic-wrapped land of McDonalds and Hollywood. I also don’t want to glorify it as some imagined utopia forged only in my own nostalgic memory. I’ve decided that one of the best ways to understand the American experience is through the Blues. The Blues embodies all of the contradictions (good and bad) that make up this crazy complex tapestry that is America.

The Blues originated among African-Americans in the deep south. And while certain Blues artists had a large influence on the eventual development of rock-n-roll, the Blues is steeped in traditional folk songs passed on from the generation to generation. For example the song “In the Pines” is believed to have been written in the 1870s. The original author is anonymous and the song has changed over time. The story is about someone asking a girl (sometimes specifically labeled as a black girl) where she slept the night before. Different versions allude to her having a lover, having committed a murder, or having a murdered husband. In any version, the song is haunting with both the girl’s sad tale and the accusatory tone of her interrogator.

(Here is a link to the best known version by Lead Belly. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=blI2dXHyBj0)

If the song wasn’t enough. Lead Belly’s own story is indicative of the Blues and the American experience. Born in 1888, Lead Belly is considered one of the greatest Blues singers EVER! His influence extends from Frank Sinatra to Nirvana. This despite the fact that he was frequently imprisoned, once for even killing a man. Another Blues legend is Robert Johnson, the man, who is rumored to have sold his soul to the devil at a crossroads around midnight. Like other legendary musicians, Johnson died at the age of 27.

Here is a Johnson song about his girl leaving him. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SnsBlY4rKwM

Here’s the Rolling Stones doing the same song in 1972. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tCu7Qq1J-Jw

While it is often assumed that Americans only care about money, we see that in the case of the Blues, most it its singers were born poor and died poor. They played and made art for art’s sake. What’s more is that all of this music came from an oppressed and disenfranchised population. Yet, it was also through this music that blacks and whites could come together (eventually). While Lead Belly and a few others were popular in the North among white intellectuals it took someone like Elvis to make black music popular among the larger white population. Then the likes of the Rolling Stones, The Who, and Led Zeppelin were influenced by the Blues and brought it back to America from England. Is it a coincidence that demand for Civil Rights increased about the same time that the Blues became more and more popular among the broader American public?

So, I’ve told you that I plan to use sad songs about violence sang by an oppressed population to explain my country to my daughter. Yep, that’s the plan. The Blues is an incredible story. As the art of a subaltern group of people, the Blues has influenced the world. Name a band and if that band is any good, than it is assured that the band’s influence was derived from someone influenced by the Blues. GUARANTEED! The story of the Blues, and its sound, is something that I feel is distinctly American. Tragedy and triumph, painful and beautiful, haunting and fascinating all at the same time. Its like Yate’s line from the pome “Easter 1916:” A terrible beauty is born. To me that’s the Blues and its in the sound of the Blues where one can feel America.

You might be able to hear it, or maybe it, like so much else, is lost in translation.

Here is Nirvana’s incredible cover of Lead Belly’s "the Pines." Watch out! Its so good it could kill you!

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  1. Cody, thanks. I have something for you and other readers, its all about Blues, Charlie feelin blue after girl left him :) start watching at 1.30min. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AcZ7l4d3tO0

  2. You have blues, and Croatia has...Well, the thing is, we don't have one singular music type that could be applied to all of Croatia. But, challenge accepted, let's "educate" you.

    First, the north of Croatia - Zagorje, Varaždinština and Međimurje. One thing unites all of those regions more than anything else - the love of wine. Therefore, most song are about winemaking, winedrinking or the aftereffects of later. So, you have either incredibly chearfull songs or incredibly somber ones. Some links follow:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wl_i7wUpc3M - about the patron saint of wine - St.Martin.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eyeauqmzOGo - about fun
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xwjist7u36s - sung or played at almost EVERY funeral.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ForoiLmSIAY - the spring is comming, and i'm happy. This one is from Medjimurje so
    the happiness might not be apparent.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9YGsDjsHK8I - another one from Medjimurje. I have no clue what this one is about, but you can hear the typical tone of Medjimurje. Sounds a bit like hungarian songs.

    Now, the eastern part of Croatia, the Slavonia, has very similar themes, but as i see it, they have zero cheerfull songs. It's all about how nothing is okay(even when it's okay) and how a bit of drinking will make it all better. The "hero" of most slavonian song is "bećar" - a batchelor that drinks A LOT and spends his time chasing girls and drinking or maybe drinking. Also, they are slower than those from the northern Croatia and a good deal of them are about eating a lot of...everything.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LGtimwyOFDA - even more hungarian influence. He's down because of...basically everything. Nothing is okay.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C2IpQpynz0M - this one sounds happy, but isn't. It's about how a girl doesn't want to marry him or have anything to do with him.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eu_YEt6-V2E - "i am the same as my father, the alcoholic...so what, i don't care." Nuff' said.

    And finaly, the Primorje and Istra. Well...i don't really know that much about it. They do use the accordion a lot so a lot of their songs sound like polkas.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nwDm3NgpBow - I was at a wedding there once and i have a feeling that this is the only song they played. Of course, it is about how you should drink a bit and forget about your troubles.

    And that would be enough spam from me. Btw, had no clue about Nirvana and The Pines.

  3. Informative and hilarious. And quite a bit in common, at least theme wise, with the Blues. Thanks a lot for accepting the challenge. This is great!!

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  5. If you're teaching her about Blues, you've already done her a huge favor.

    As josephbt has already told you just about everything you'd need for a crach course in Croatian music, here's just a little addendum for the regions of Primorje and Istra. There we have something called the "istarska ljestvica" or "the istrian scale", as well as instruments like "roženice" and "sopele".

    Here are some links:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SksELhhxfWY (traditional)
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hunicEIS6gA ("Istrian scale")
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CIRpsBBfJ-w (our version of bagpipes and "roženice")
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_YqOYyAgFw8 ("sopele")

    Plus, there's to remember that Croatia has three distinct dialects with their accompanying sub-versions, so even when the musical background is similar to, say, traditional Meditterranean melodies, you can link the song by the language it uses to a particular town or region. So I guess that's what we would primarily try to pass to our children - our dialect and it's songs, and keep the link with the old country through that.

  6. http://www.youtube.com/user/ladoansambl
    First of all, this is an awesome blog, I really enjoyed reading your posts. The one with the coffee drinking habit specially.
    The youtube channel linked above provides plenty of Croatian traditional songs and dances. It is the official channel of Croatian national folk ensemble Lado. You should consider attending their annual concerts in Lisinski, usually in November and May. Just for the record, Croatia is one of the most richest countries when it comes to traditional culture.

  7. Here's a song about a guy who sank and died in his boat while transporting lime from Ston on Pelješac to Korčula. I'm not that much into traditional music but there's something sentimental and funny about it. :)


  8. Most of the links so far are out of the 16th century and I definitely wouldn't play them to a person so he/she can know Croatia, here's something with a bit more contemporary twist:

    Medjimurje, traditional: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cLF_uTuTEQA
    Zagorje, local patriotic: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4Z9tnPKLZJk
    Slavonian, parody I hope / local patriotic: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7P4KrdJooxk http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QhnKCSdtkeo
    Istrian theme, hurting love song: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ME8xbhd927Q
    Dalmatia, "in dalmatia they say 'pomalo'" / local patriotic: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v9cp_BRtDnM / http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gGPsno7eQpI

  9. I can't speak to the music but want to tell you about the first time I came to Croatia (2002). I was at the travel agent (yes we still used them back then) and told the woman I wanted a ticket to Zagreb, Croatia. She said, "Are you sure?" Honestly, that's what she said. Well I ended up booking a flight to Venice because of the cost. Nevermind. When she had printed the tickets (they still did it back then) she slid them across her desk and said, "Now you be careful!" I remember the scene vividly though I forget what I had for dinner last night. Go figure.

  10. I see noone gave an example from Slavonia.
    This song is just perfect. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J7YNbvJ4U54
    It is about the great sadness a family experiance when their horse is sold.
    It's not about devil or murders, but it is blues in the eastern way.
    I never thought about it, but old songs from Croatia are full of deaths, mostly of heroes, their horses or creatures from wood. :)

  11. well, josephbht is rather unfair to Slavonia. try this one for size
    people are cheerful because , well, because they are

  12. There's too many links and they're not clickable and I hope this wasn't left out:

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  14. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QTlYUXfWUCQ


    here is a bit more modern version af a slavonian music, and unesco list with traditional crotian music from all parts of the country.

  15. Hi Cody, my sister sent me a link to your blog since I grew up in Zagreb but have been living in the US for the past 20 years. You have a spot-on and hilarious insights! I am a mom to two American boys who despite their poor knowledge of Croatian have unfortunately learned all the "loving" Croatian swear words from their mother. As for music, they would be able to sing to you Jinx, Gibonni, Daleka Obala and Balasevic. Not that I have tried to educate them about Croatian music but this is just the stuff that is on my iPhone and they get to listen to it in the car :-) Combined with our frequent trips to Croatia, it will indeed be interesting how they perceive the country as they grow up. A great vacation spot where their grandma and aunt are always delighted to see them?