7. Flamenco

FlamencoFrontRecord: Flamenco
Artist: José Barroso
Released: Crown Records, 1959

If there's one thing that I've learned in talking to people about music over the years, it's that people who truly love music never confine themselves to one genre. Most will claim a favorite genre, perhaps the music they listened to exclusively in their youth, but tastes broaden and mature as we age and begin to see commonalities and appreciate differences beyond what we had been comfortable with.

According to his music collection, my father was no different. There are roughly three or four hundred records, and the variety is striking. The collection is divided almost equally between jazz and classical, but there is nothing mainstream. Not a single Beatles record, no Buddy Holly or Elvis Presley or James Brown. No Motown. The only nod to pop music of the day is Frank Sinatra, but my father filed him with the classical records.

But there are a few unexpected albums that pop from time to time as you're flipping through, like this one. We discover new music in different ways, or at least we used to. Last week I heard a song that I thought my daughters might like, so I texted them an Apple Music link. When I was their age, someone would have had to put a physical copy in my hands. My first exposure to 70s prog rock came through a high school friend of mine, Christian. We were in physics together, and when he'd come over to study, he'd always bring a different Genesis album. It was unlike anything I'd ever heard -- none of it was on any of the radio stations I listened to -- but I quickly fell in love. If my own children go through my vinyl collection after I'm gone, they'll likely be as surprised by my Genesis albums as I've always been by my father's Flamenco.

What I've always wondered about is how my father came across this record. Did a friend put it in his hand the way Christian did for me? Or was he drawn by the cover art, a flamboyant photo of a woman with castanets in her hands? (Castanets are not heard on the record, by the way. Only a single guitar, played beautifully by José Barroso.) 

I'll never know how it got here, but I'm glad it did. It tells me something of his approach to and appreciation of music. He admired musical expertise, and I've no doubt that that's what appealed to him with this record. I've had the same response listening to Rodrigo y Gabriela, a flamenco-influenced guitar-playing duo from Mexico City (also the birthplace of Barroso). My wife and I saw them play at a benefit show years ago, and I immediately bought their self-titled album. I still love listening to it, not just because of the beauty of what they've produced but because I can't begin to imagine how they do it. Even so, it didn't lead me to explore any deeper into the genre, and neither did this album encourage my father to buy anymore flamenco records.

One side note. There was something about this record -- the physical record -- that always bothered me. There was no paper cover for the vinyl, and that just didn't seem right for my father, who clearly cared for his collection. When I gave the record its first spin, I could see that it was slightly warped, and it didn't sound as clear as the others I'd been listening to.

But when I did my usual research I found that Crown Records was notoriously cheap and known as "the king of the junk record labels." According to Discogs.com, "The covers usually fell apart almost instantly. LP's were shipped out with NO inner paper liners, thus splitting covers. The cheaply-made records sounded worn right out of the package. Plagued with more than the typical pressing flaws, noise can be heard and bumps seen on most LP's." 

And yet somehow this record survived sixty years. I'm glad it did.


Side 1
El Vito
Serenata Española

Side 2
Cuadros en Aragon
Página Romantica
Soleares Opus 10
Tango Español

3. Billie Holiday

LadyDayRecord: Billie Holiday
Artist: Billie Holiday (with Ray Ellis and His Orchestra)
Released: MGM Records, 1959

Quite simply, there's no one like Billie Holiday. This isn't her finest work, but it's important because it's her last work; she died four months after these songs were recorded. If you were to look for this album today, you'd find it as Last Recording, with that new title added to the album artwork, but the record I'm listening to this morning must be from the first print run. It's just Billie Holiday.

How to describe Lady Day? It's difficult to find a comparison to someone as legendary as Ms. Holiday, but I can say that Norah Jones reminds me of her, though Jones is a bit more sultry, and Madeleine Peyroux is another musical descendant, but there's something unique about Holiday. 

The artist does not need to be pained, but some of our greatest artists channel their pain into their work, either directly or indirectly. But when Holiday sings on this record, "I'll never smile again, until I smile at you. I'll never laugh again, what good would it do?" these aren't her lyrics but it is her pain, an apparent contradiction that highlights a key difference between how standards in the music industry have changed.

Artists today must write their own songs to be taken seriously, and some -- like Taylor Swift -- are criticized even if they collaborate with another songwriter. That was never the case before. The great singers from the last century -- Billie Holiday, Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Joe Williams -- almost never wrote their own songs. They were performers, and that they were singing someone else's songs could never diminish their genius. There was only one Sinatra, after all. No one could duplicate Ella Fitzgerald.

And so what Holiday does with these songs is something no other artist could have done. In the liner notes for this album, Leonard Feather describes how different she was in 1959 as compared to her earlier years, but he doesn't go into specifics. The truth is that Holiday had spent her thirty-year career chasing away pain with alcohol and heroin, and so when we listen to these final recordings, we're listening to a voice that's been damaged and a soul that's been ravaged. And yet, it's all so beautiful.

This morning was the first time I've listened to this record, but I smiled to hear her renditions of two timeless classics, "All the Way" ("When somebody loves you, it's no good unless he loves you, all the way") and the Louie Armstrong standard "When It's Sleepy Time Down South." Both songs are someone else's, both songs are familiar, but Holiday makes them her own.

The best example of this is in one of the most important songs ever recorded, "Strange Fruit." I don't think my father had that in his collection, but we can't talk about Billie Holiday without discussing her haunting version of a song that helped plant the seeds for the Civil Rights movement by taking an unflinching look at the dark history of lynching in the American South. Consider the lyrics, then watch this video of Holiday performing the song in 1959.

Southern trees bear a strange fruit.
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root.
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.
Pastoral scene of the gallant South,
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth.
Scent of magnolia, sweet and fresh,
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh.
Here is a fruit for the crows to pluck,
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck,
For the sun to rot, for the tree to drop,
Here is a strange and bitter crop.
Again, these are not Holiday's words. The lyrics were adapted from a poem written by Abel Meeropol in response to an infamous photo of a double lynching in Marion, Indiana, in 1930. (You can read about that history here.) But just as she did throughout her career, Lady Day took those words and elevated them. That, I think, is what true genius is. The elevation of a truth that the rest of us already knew.

LadyDay2Side 1
All of You
Sometimes I'm Happy
You Took Advantage of Me
When It's Sleepy Time Down South
There'll Be Some Changes Made
'Deed I Do

Side 2
Don't Worry 'bout Me
All the Way
Just One More Chance
It's Not for Me to Say
I'll Never Smile Again
Baby Won't You Please Come Home