I saw Dolly Parton for the first time last night when she came my way on her "Better Day" world tour. As the sun set on the brown summertime hills of the SF suburb of Concord, CA, Dolly came out shimmering with "Walking on Sunshine" and proceeded to entertain for an impressive 2.5 hour show with only one intermission for a costume change. She sang, she wiggled, she played several instruments and told hilarious yet heartwarming stories of her humble beginnings in the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee; it was all so masterful and gracious, and I wanted it to be true.
With decades of plastic surgery under her belt and her own theme park, it would be easy to see that Ms. Parton has a penchant for creating entertaining illusions. However, her backstory and songwriting are full of a kind of gritty realism and heartfelt truth that you'd be hard-pressed to find in today's artists (even here on ND). It is this side of Dolly that I went to see yesterday, hoping to catch a glimpse through all the glitter and cheese, but all I got was smoke and mirrors.
Her show was highly entertaining, a wham-bam medley of everything from traditional bluegrass ("Rocky Top" and "Mule Skinner") to classic rock ("Help" and "Stairway to Heaven") to Hannah Montana (for the kiddies) and even a "dis" rap targeting her friend and film co-star Queen Latifah. Her humor was over the top and sweet, she pandered equally to the mixed crowd of hicks and drag queens and she even spent a little time to educate her global audience about mountain music.
At first, only the instrument playing was suspect. The fact that she made her grand entrance with a hot lick on a glossy white fiddle and then quickly discarded it was a clue to how the whole show would go, but I suspended my disbelief nonetheless and tried to enjoy the show; after all, Dolly supposedly does play guitar, banjo and some fiddle. It wasn't until she whipped out an intro on an alto-sax that was clearly (and badly) pantomimed that I got hip. I had been wondering the whole time how she could play banjo and guitar with her long fake nails, but had rationalized that she was probably playing part of the time but was definitely doubled by a background instrumentalist. Once the sky darkened enough to really see her on the jumbo-trons, it became clear that she was pantomiming almost every instrument in the show (though I do think she probably did play the auto-harp and dulcimer for real). Where pianists usually perform to the side, Dolly's silver glittery beast was turned completely away from the audience while she pretended to play what her keyboardist behind her was obviously actually doing for her. Still, I had consolation in her sweet voice, unchanged by the years, pulling off ornaments and high notes like only a master can.... or did I?
It wasn't until about three quarters of the way through that I started watching her mouth. The vocals had been odd from the get-go, with her super-compressed headset mic seemingly divorcing her vocal sound from the rest of the band; allowing crystal clear whispers but holding back all the high notes to hell. My initial impression was that it sounded "canned", but I had chalked that up to the peculiar sound needs of Dolly's show, so she could talk and sing dynamically into one mic that was in a fixed position on her face. Sadly, once I could see her face on the big screens, I started to notice the incongruities.
In addition to being a musician I am also a voice teacher, so I'm sure I was picking up on technical subtleties that most would not notice, and to be honest, with all the plastic surgery and botox it's pretty hard to actually see what someone's face is doing, but all that doubt was confirmed when I caught her dropping words in the second set. It was clear by the end that Dolly had lip-synced at least half of the concert and had pantomimed playing almost every instrument known to man. The ethical debate raged in the car on the way home. Lip-syncing, miming... is it wrong?
The one thing that was undeniably real and "Dolly" in the show were her original songs. Dolly Parton has apparently published over 3,000 songs in her career and has had 26 country #1's and won eight Grammies. Her writing ranges from full-on bubblegum-disco-pop to traditional bluegrass and country, and her neo-Appalachian ballads like "Little Sparrow" are good enough to join the old-time lexicon. She is steeped in the great American traditions of Mountain Music and Vaudeville and has managed to distill both in her writing and performance to reach a worldwide audience.
Little Sparrow sung for real...
Little Sparrow from a recent tour, clearly lip-synched.... (sounded identical to this last night)
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ibTL8cTng5k (embedding disabled)
So, can we fault her at age 65 for employing any means necessary to continue to bring these songs and this culture around the world? How fake is too fake? And when we go to see a stadium type concert, what are we really paying for? Do we expect to see and hear a truly "live" performance or is some illusion ok?
I'm sure I don't know anymore.
Song Story #2: Kaithola
by Melody Walker
While attending college in 2007, I wrote a grant which allowed me to travel to Kerala, India to study music for one month. I wanted to learn the South Indian or "Carnatic" style of classical singing, as well as the centuries-old rhythms and scales that were so different from the Western theory I was learning at music school. I was also determined to find out what their traditional "folk" songs sounded like, as it was almost impossible to learn or even hear that music here in the States.
Kerala is on the west coast of India's deep south. It is a verdant jungle and quite swampy in the monsoon season. Outside the big cities, the people are old-fashioned and the men mostly go shirtless wearing nothing but the towel-like "mundu" wrapped around their waists. While the state of Kerala has the largest Christian population in India, there are Hindus and also echoes of an even older animistic tradition which includes snake worship.
The famous "snakeboat races" feature rowing songs that everyone seems to know their own version of. Here is one version sung by the staff of the cultural center I was staying at in Aranmula village:
After 40+ hours of air travel, my first exposure to South Indian folk music came over the airwaves in my barefoot chauffer's car on the three hour drive from the airport in Cochi to the Vijnana Kala Vedi cultural center Aranmula village. Though he spoke very little English and drove like a veritable maniac, I considered him my first interview subject in India and started quizzing him about the music that was playing on the radio.
It sounded like Bollywood pop to my ears, so I asked him: "Bollywood?"
"No," he replied, "nadan pattu...ah (searches for English words)... folk music."
I was stunned, and intrigued. I thought that I was going to have to find old folks in the village to ever hear these songs, but there they were, right on the radio, presented with all the dignity of Britney Spears. From the rest of our conversation I gathered that old Indian folk songs had enjoyed a resurgence in popularity, but had sort of gone the way of pop country music in America; ultra-cheesy production, twangy singers and dance videos were all now remixed with these very old songs in a combo that appealed widely to the rural poor and working class of Kerala. Part of this also has to do with the state's pride in it's own unique (and dwindling) language: Malayalam. Most of my musical studies at the cultural center would be sung in sanskrit (the language of the Vedas), but I decided I would like to learn a Malayalam folk song before my trip was through.
Luckily, an opportunity came to go see a folk band sing at a local community hall (pictured right). I was happy to find a more traditional treatment of the old songs. Deafening festival-style percussion accompanied a lead singer and chorus of about seven guys. All the songs featured call and response and were in simple 4/4 or 6/8 meter that usually sped up to the finish.
I was just about the only person in the audience, in the middle of the day in a huge booming hall, so I threw in some earplugs, turned on my mini-disc recorder and started scrawling notes. Sadly, my field recordings from that day were lost, but I managed to talk to the band after their concert and got them to teach me a song. I took that song, "Kaithola", to my Indian classical voice teacher at the cultural center, and he helped me with translation and pronunciation.
A while after I returned from India, I recorded "Kaithola" into my webcam so I would remember it. Then I decided to throw it up on YouTube to share with a few friends and maybe find out more about the song from people searching for it. The next time I logged into YouTube it came up as my most watched video, with a few thousand views and 30 or 40 positive comments. In the summer of 2010 someone left a comment that my clip had been used in a Malayalam political satire show and that I was "famous all over Kerala". Here is my original video (though there are copied versions now floating around on YouTube):
The song is a story about an anxious young girl who is putting off her ear-piercing ceremony. Here is the translation of the whole song, as told to me by my Indian voice teacher:
Here is the political satire show "Politrics" that my clip was used in. I was a little scared at first that perhaps i would be made fun of for my horrible pronunciation, but it turned out to be quite the opposite: the segment cuts between my song and video of their health minister's horrible english, basically saying that Americans are learning Malayalam to try to understand her (clip starts at 3:30):
Because they saw this clip, a folk-fusion prog-rock band out of Trivandrum, Kerala decided to arrange the song and use my original video's audio in their recording. They are called Vidwan, and they are a group of 20-something musicians trying to preserve their native language and folk music in a more modern medium. We have talked quite a bit on facebook, and they say that hard rock is what is popular with the youth and it's what they love to play, but they also take great pride in their state's rich cultural heritage and want to participate in it. The end result is beautiful. You can check out their "Kaithola" remix track here: Kaithola.mp3
As the above recording uses only my original audio, we've been collaborating on a re-recording of this beautiful song and it will be included on their upcoming first full length album. They are great musicians and I cannot wait to see what other collaborations we can cook up. Thanks internet!
Check out Vidwan here: http://www.reverbnation.com/vidwan
and "Like" their Facebook page: http://www.facebook.com/vidwanfolk
"Gold Rush Goddess" - Melody Walker on writing an eco-feminist old-time folk song with an Afro-Cuban twist
by Melody Walker
About a year ago, after a long night of art-walk busking with my lady-folk trio the Vintners Daughters, we found ourselves looking for refreshment with some friends in the form of a downtown Eureka, California bar. The ever popular Shanty was packed to the gills so, with some apprehension, we dared to venture next door to the Schooner, a much seedier establishment with advertised topless dancing in the back room. The Schooner smelled like piss and urinal pucks, and the walls were coated in stuck-on dollar bills defaced by patrons. Nevertheless we bought a round and chatted up “Whitey” (the infamous owner and alleged local Klan leader) for a spell.
Just as we were about to get the hell out of there, an old friend from the Menstrual Mondays open mic we used to host, walked up in a white trenchcoat and invited us to come back and watch her dance. We had no idea she did any such thing, so we were of course curious. We haggled with Whitey for a while, and he finally let us all in the back for a reasonable group price.
Our homegirl Jess, a.k.a. “Cherry”, was not your average stripper. She had her darkness, but she was also an excellent songwriter and singer, so we weren’t too surprised when she put on Tom Waits as her first dance. She was way better than we expected and she completely enchanted us, with her swirling long dirty-blond hair and seasoned undulations. Since we were only one of two groups in the back room, we got more than enough attention, and in some kind of strange transference, all of our hard-earned busking tips wound up tangled in her thong after just a few songs.
At a certain point I couldn’t help but notice the bouncer started rudely chastising Jess for making too much contact with us, the customers. “That’s five!” he’d say, “That’s another five. You’re up to $20 now Cherry!” (apparently docking her pay with every infraction). She would mouth back at him and try to keep it funny, but we could tell it wasn’t all good. We knew the kind of tips she was making that night, and that Whitey wasn’t exactly giving her minimum wage on top of that, so we decided to leave before we got her into any more trouble.
On the way home, still a little stunned, we reflected on the plight of our friend and the poetic irony of us turning all of our tips into her tips by the end of the night. After some more lively discussion of sex-worker history with the lovely Vintners Daughters, this song idea started to emerge and I said it: “Wouldn’t it be rad if there was a song about an gold rush stripper who is really an apparition of mother nature wooing all the gold back from the miners?” I went home to my newest instrument, the tenor banjo, and began writing.
Listen to Gold Rush Goddess
by Melody Walker
Come down off that mountain
Come down all you men
But don’t you come knockin’
Without money in your hand
I was born a full-grown woman
With this gold dust in my hair
I’m just shakin’ what God gave me
So feel free to stare
Did you take that gold from my mama’s riverbed?
Did you dynamite the mountain and then leave her for dead?
Did you think that you could keep it and be rich beyond your dreams?
Well, look deep into my eyes boy and give it all to me
Come down off that mountain
Come down and watch me dance
You can love me with your eyes
Just don’t use your hands
I’ll sparkle like pyrite
Flashin’ in your pan
But I ain’t fool enough
To bet my money on no man
Come down off that mountain
You ain’t nobody’s king
You may think you’ve seen it all, boys
But I’ll show you something
Keep watchin’ my body
While I put you in a trance
I’m the goddess of the gold rush
And you don’t stand a chance
Did you take…
Yeye oro yeo yeye
The ending “holler” is actually a folkloric Yoruba chant for “Oshun”, the Afro-Cuban goddess of gold, rivers and flirtation. My global vocal group AkaBella had done an arrangement of a series of songs for her, and we had learned them directly from our Cuban song teacher Reynaldo Gonzales. I guess I didn’t realize until the song was written that my Gold Rush Goddess was not a new archetype at all, but an incarnation of many mischevious seductresses that came before her. Maybe that’s subconsciously why I decided to be Kali-ma for Halloween that year!
"Gold Rush Goddess" will be on the upcoming "III EP" to be officially released in February 2011.
Let me know what you think and I'll send you the mp3 for free!
Originally posted on www.MelodyWalkerMusic.com