When music meets politics, part two.

Posted March 6th, 2013 at 5:16 pm (UTC+0)

By Katherine Cole

I’ve already written about musicians expressing their political views..now it’s time for the flip side, when politicians start talking music.

It’s happening amidst a lot of drama in the northeastern state of  Massachusetts. There is a bill in the Commonwealth’s House of Representatives that would name “Roadrunner” by Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers, the state’s official rock song.  Personally, I think it’s a brilliant idea. The 70’s tune (which I confess was a major part of the soundtrack of my college years in Boston) first appeared on the Modern Lover’s legendary debut disc and it’s a paean to Massachusetts.  The verses are filled with shout-outs to local highways (Route 128), the hometown grocery  store chain ( Stop & Shop) and  native son Richman’s own declarations of “I’m in love with Massachusetts.”  Hear it for yourself in this video, complete with photos and footage of the era.

“It’s an unabashed valentine” to Massachusetts says  Joyce Linehan, a publicist who came up with the idea of making it the Bay State’s official rock song. The bill is sponsored by  Democratic state Representative Marty Walsh, but is truly a bipartisan effort– Republican Robert Hedlund  has signed on as the sponsor in the Senate.
The push to name “Roadrunner”  the “Official Rock Song” of Massachusetts is getting a lot of attention, both at home and around the world. It was the subject of an editorial in the Boston Globe newspaper this week, debated on local talk shows, and talked about all around the world– there’s a Facebook group and stories have appeared on the BBC,  the CBC and in the Guardian.

So where’s the drama?

Well, once the “Roadrunner” movement started gaining attention, two other state Representatives, Josh Cutler and James Cantwell, decided  a better choice would be Aerosmith’s “Dream On.”   “With all due respect, Aerosmith is the bestselling American rock band of all time,” Cantwell told the State House news service. “No band is more closely associated with Massachusetts.”

From left Joe Perry, Steven Tyler, Joey Kramer, Tom Hamilton and Brad Whitford of Aerosmith speak back stage at the 16th Annual Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Induction Dinner, Monday, March 19, 2001, in New York. (AP Photo/Ed Betz)











One might quibble that the title of “America’s biggest-selling rock band” goes to the Eagles, not Aerosmith. (The Eagles disc “Their Greatest Hits 1971-1975” is certified 29-times Platinum by the RIAA, and is tied with Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” as the top-selling album ever released in the U.S.)  As for Aerosmith being “closely associated” with Massachusetts–that has nothing to do with this discussion. We’re talking about songs here, not image. There’s no mention of Massachusetts anywhere in the lyrics of “Dream On”,  whereas Roadrunner has the line “I’m in love with Massachusetts” and plenty of local imagery.

The fight rages on.  Richman, while flattered, thinks this is a non-issue. His comment, to the Globe through an assistant, is: ‘Thank you so much, it’s very flattering….but I don’t think the song is good enough to be a Massachusetts song of any kind.” Jerry Harrison, who played on the original Modern Lovers track before joining the Talking Heads sounded a bit happier, telling Rolling Stone “I can’t tell you how many congratulatory emails I’ve gotten.”

Cantwell  has told the Boston Herald that one way to settle things might naming Aerosmith the official rock band of Massachusetts. But I have a feeling that would open up a whole new can of worms. Massachusetts has spawned so many other  great rock bands (The Cars,  Boston, J. Geils Band/Peter Wolf, are the first three to pop into my head) that the fight could last for decades.

By the way, Massachusetts already has an official song (“All Hail to Massachusetts”), and an official folk song, (“Massachusetts” by Arlo Guthrie) and an official polka. You can hear them all here.

Host of VOA's Roots and Branches, and world traveler extraordinaire! When I'm not listening to music, I'm probably talking about it or thinking about the next band I'm going to see. Or my next interview! Join me every week for the best in folk, bluegrass and all other forms of American roots music!

Christine Fawson, Berklee Brass Chair

Posted March 5th, 2013 at 4:22 pm (UTC+0)
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By Diaa Bekheet | Washington, D.C.

Christine Fawson (Courtesy photo by Dario Preger)

Christine Fawson (Courtesy photo by Dario Preger)

Jazz trumpeter Christine Fawson was named interim Chair of the Brass Department at Boston’s Berklee College of Music last month. Fawson — who is also a vocalist and songwriter– is the first women in charge, at Berklee, of instruction in such instruments as trumpet, trombone and tuba.

Does she think it’s extraordinary for a woman to be teaching brass? “When you talk with women in this business, will usually come up with the same answers to these questions, which is: I never think about it,” says Fawson.  “It’s in the back of mind somewhere that, yeah, I’m a woman doing this, and that [it] isn’t so common. But, honestly, I’m just doing what I do.”

Fawson has been a member of a vocal jazz group, Syncopation, since 2000, and she teaches singing for brass players.

I talked to Fawson about her new position and her music.



Diaa Bekheet
Diaa Bekheet has worked for a host of media outlets, including Radio Cairo in English, ETV News, Deutsche Presse-Agentur (dpa) and the Associated Press. He joined VOA in Feb. 1989 as an International Broadcaster, hosting a variety of popular news and entertainment shows such as Newshour, Radio Ride Across America, Business Week, and Jazz Club USA. He has interviewed a number of Jazz celebrities, including the legendary Dizzy Gillespie, Ramsey Lewis, Wayne Shorter, and George Benson. Diaa is currently an editor for our main English site, VOAnews.com.

Remembering Van Cliburn

Posted March 1st, 2013 at 4:12 pm (UTC+0)

By Katherine Cole

On the obituary pages, virtuoso classical pianist Van Cliburn has been described as a    ” Cold War Musical Envoy” and “The Texan Who Conquered Russia.”  Talent alone was enough to place him among the other giants of the keyboard like Vladimir Horowitz, Rudolf Serkin and Arthur Rubinstein. But at its height, Van Cliburn’s fame was more like Elvis Presley’s, with both men having legions of screaming female fans.  You can read more about that interesting comparison here.

Van Cliburn became an overnight star in 1958 after winning the top prize at the Tchiakovsky International Competition in Moscow. He was only 23 years old at the time, tall and lanky with a healthy head of blond curls.

23 year old Van Cliburn plays the piano during his performance in the final round of the first International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow, in this April 14, 1958, file photo. Van Cliburn won the competition. (AP Photo file)
















Cliburn’s win at that first Tchaikovsky competition came at the height of the Cold War and it was an unexpected triumph.  The contest had been established by the Soviets in an effort to prove their  cultural supremacy, taking place just a few months after they had seemingly proved their supremacy over the U.S. (and the world)  in the “space race” by launching  the Sputnik satellite.   According the CBS obituary, Van Cliburn was not supposed to win the contest. Then Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev reportedly gave the go-ahead for the judges to honor the American, saying “Is Cliburn the best? Then give him first prize.”  His unlikely win has been said to bring a thaw in the tensions between the rival superpowers and propelled the American pianist to a very successful, albeit short-lived, career.

It also turned the young man into a hero the world over. When Mr. Cliburn returned home after his win, he was given a ticker-tape parade in New York City. It’s estimated that more than 100-thousand cheering people lined the streets of Lower Manhattan, hoping for a glimpse of the pianist.

n this photo provided by the Van Cliburn Foundation, Texas pianist Van Cliburn blows kisses to fans while riding in a car in a ticker-tape parade in New York City, shortly after winning the first International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow on April 14, 1958. It was the first ticker-tape parade held for a classical musician. (AP Photo/Courtesy of Van Cliburn Foundation.)














Van Cliburn dedicated many years of his life to helping aspiring young artists by creating scholarship programs at schools and universities throughout the world.  In 1962, he established the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in Fort Worth, Texas.  It is still one of the most important (and lucrative) piano competitions.

I’ve only been able to share a tiny bit about Van Cliburn and his very interesting life and career. Clicking on the links above will take you to some of the other appreciations that have been published in the days following his death on Wednesday at 78.  I included a bit more music in the obituary that’s featured on our website–you can find it here!  And the Washington Post ran a beautiful appreciation of Van Cliburn, written by a woman who had the great fortune of hearing the pianist playing in her parents  apartment. More than 50 years later, she remembers the occasion as if it took place last night.

Host of VOA's Roots and Branches, and world traveler extraordinaire! When I'm not listening to music, I'm probably talking about it or thinking about the next band I'm going to see. Or my next interview! Join me every week for the best in folk, bluegrass and all other forms of American roots music!

The Clock Is Ticking

Posted February 28th, 2013 at 10:11 pm (UTC+0)
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By Ray McDonald

Eric Clapton sounds tired.

Talking to “Rolling Stone” Magazine, the 67-year-old guitar legend says he plans to stop touring once he hits 70. Eric says he still loves to perform, but the rigors of traveling – such as dealing with immigration officials and security checks – is proving too much. I can identify with him; who hasn’t wanted to flee the airport after being asked to empty the contents of a carry-on bag?

However, it also has me thinking about the great concerts I’ve seen in the past…and how we shouldn’t assume that our favorite acts will be around forever. Clapton himself put on one of my all-time favorite shows: in 1987, he hit North America with the all-star lineup of Phil Collins on drums, Greg Phillinganes on keyboards, and Nathan East rocking the bass. Clad in a linen suit, Eric broke nary a sweat while striding the stage of Washington’s Capital Centre – all the while ripping off classic riffs on his Stratocaster guitar. Here’s a clip of Eric in his mid-’80s regalia.



I saw the Rolling Stones in 1981 in San Francisco; and three years before that, I witnessed Neil Young on his legendary “Rust Never Sleeps” tour. How long will we have them? (Who knows — Mick Jagger may well still be doing the full Mick Jagger when he’s 100.) I caught John Martyn in concert in 1984; the great folk-rocker died in 2009. Currently, Lady Gaga is sidelined after undergoing hip surgery. She suffers from a joint inflammation – or is it something more?

I’m not trying to be morbid here – and I wish Lady Gaga a speedy recovery. I’m simply saying “carpe diem,” and let’s be grateful for the many wonderful artists who still travel the globe, sharing their gifts.

Finally, Eric Clapton may be crying wolf about hanging it up. In that same “Rolling Stone” interview, he says “I retire at the end of every tour. When I’m on the road, I’ m gritting my teeth and putting up with hotels and sleep deprivation and upset tummy. But when I’m off the road, the road suddenly seems like a magical idea again.”

Clapton kicks off his next tour on March 14th in Phoenix, Arizona, and for those of you who can’t see him live, his 21st studio album “Old Sock” arrives on March 12th. Catch him if you can – and just for fun, how about sharing your favorite concert memories?



Stone Temple Pilots Part Ways with Scott Weiland

Posted February 27th, 2013 at 11:03 pm (UTC+0)

By Katherine Cole

They’ve been together for years and years (minus a  5 year split), but the Stone Temple Pilots have parted ways with lead singer and founding member Scott Weiland.  The band released the news in a terse, one line press release on Wednesday, saying simply “Stone Temple Pilots have announced they have officially terminated Scott Weiland.”

Singer Scott Weiland poses for a portrait at his home studio in Burbank, Calif., (AP Photo/Chris Pizzello)










No other information is available, so we don’t know if the band will be continuing with a new vocalist. While shocking to fans, this split shouldn’t come as a total surprise.  Earlier this week, Weiland told Rolling Stone that the band had been going through a rocky period, but even as recently as February  26th was denying all rumors that he’d been fired from the group. According to the Rolling Stone story, “the rumors began a couple of months ago when Slash said in an interview that STP had fired Weiland.”

The grunge and hard rock band was formed in the early 1990’s in San Diego, California. Their first CD, 1992’s Core, has sold more than 8 million copies in the US. A year later, their hit “Plush” won the Grammy for ” best hard rock performance with vocal.”

STP took a break in 2003, but reformed five years later, releasing a self-titled sixth album in 2010 and spending much of last year touring.

While he has been axed from his band, don’t expect to see Scott Weiland sitting at home, twiddling his thumbs. He’s got a solo tour booked to begin next month and has announced it’ll feature songs from his now ex-group’s first two albums, Core and Purple.  Weiland has also hinted that this may be the year that we see a Velvet Revolver reunion, too!

Host of VOA's Roots and Branches, and world traveler extraordinaire! When I'm not listening to music, I'm probably talking about it or thinking about the next band I'm going to see. Or my next interview! Join me every week for the best in folk, bluegrass and all other forms of American roots music!

The Bizarre Oscars Audio Mix

Posted February 25th, 2013 at 4:54 pm (UTC+0)
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By Eric Felten

More than a few have commented on just how strange it was that the live pit orchestra at the Oscars last night was performing not in the actual theater, but from down the road at Capitol Studios. As one might expect from Capitol (where such great — and great-sounding — recordings as Frank Sinatra’s legendary 1950s discs were cut) the orchestra was beautifully captured, and came through with luscious, polished perfection.

Alas, the same could not be said for the microphone work in the theater itself. Singer after singer came across as weak, each overwhelmed by the accompaniment in the sound mix. Powerhouse belters such as Jennifer Hudson and Adele (who had her own orchestra on stage) were all but drowned out. Even Shirley Bassey, she of one of the biggest voices in the world, seemed strangely puny in the bizarre world of the Oscars telecast audio. Poor Norah Jones didn’t have a chance — though given the lame song she had to sing, it may have been a small blessing that her vocal could barely be heard.

The fault, of course, was not with the singers. It was an audio engineering problem, and a pretty basic one at that. Who knows what went wrong. It seems as though the voices came across stronger in the hall than on TV (indeed, at times it seemed like we were hearing the singers captured, not directly from their own microphones, but from the amplification being pumped into the theater). Whatever the problem, chances are when the Emmys TV awards show next comes around the Oscars telecast won’t be racking up any nominations in the Best Sound Mixing category.

What’s the Score at the Oscars?

Posted February 22nd, 2013 at 10:10 pm (UTC+0)
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By Doug Levine

Is it just me or do the Academy Awards come earlier and earlier every year?  I used to equate Hollywood’s biggest night with the change of seasons, when, in late March or early April, the warmth of spring was just around the corner and I could finally get out of the house and catch up on some of those Oscar-nominated movies.  The timing of the Oscars comes down to ratings, and the last Sunday in February proves to be the most ideal time to attract the biggest television audience.  But, as a movie buff of sorts, I’m not complaining – the earlier the better.

This year’s Oscar frontrunner is “Lincoln,” nominated for 12 Academy Awards, among them, Best Original Score.    What is a score?  Well, think of “mood” music or ambient music – usually an instrumental piece – that makes an emotional connection between the scene and the audience. The composer of the “Lincoln” score is American-born John Williams — by far the best-known of the five nominees for Best Original Score.  At 81, he’s tallied more than 40 nominations and has won the Oscar for scoring five times, including for the music for “Jaws” and “Star Wars.”  His score for “Lincoln,” marking his 40-year collaboration with director Steven Spielberg, ranges from pensive solo piano to full symphonic passages to enhance the troubled Civil War era.

Or perhaps this will be the first win for American composer Thomas Newman, who earned his 11th nomination for scoring the 23rd James Bond film, “Skyfall.”  The music is laced with pulsating electronica that gets at Bond’s discomfort with a high-tech world that threatens to make him an anachronism.

Italian composer Dario Marianelli won his first scoring Oscar for the 2007 film “Atonement.”  This year he’s nominated for “Anna Karenina,” based on the Russian novel by Leo Tolstoy.   Marianelli weaves between Russian folk music and waltzes, leading one reviewer to write “Marianelli has composed one of the most sensitive, classically-inspired movie scores in many years.”

The other two contenders are 1) the Indian-inflected score for “Life of Pi” by Canadian Mychael Danna (who is also nominated for Best Original Song, “Pi’s Lullaby”); and 2) five-time nominee Alexandre Desplat for his “Argo” score, which features a blend of Iranian percussion, piano, strings and voice sampling.

We’ll find out Sunday who wins at the 85th Annual Academy Awards.

Branford Marsalis and other Jazzers Hiding in Movie Soundtracks

Posted February 22nd, 2013 at 8:55 pm (UTC+0)
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By Diaa Bekheet | Washington, DC

With the Oscars this weekend, I’ve been thinking about movie music. It’s such  an important tool for screenwriters and film-makers to tell their story. From the opening credits of a film, the music prepares the audience — or at least should — for the movie to come. A few days ago, I was listening to the main title of “Sneakers,” a 1992 thriller starring: Sidney Poitier, Robert Redford, and Ben Kingsley.

The movie is an early take on what has become a big issue — computer espionage. The soundtrack — written by composer James Horner, famous for the scores to such films as Avatar and Titanic — isn’t really what I expected to hear. For a cyber-spy thriller about secrets, it was airy and almost whimsical.

Essential to the sound of the soundtrack is the soprano saxophone, which just happened to be performed by the celebrated jazz musician Branford Marsalis.  It’s hardly the first time great jazz musicians have contributed to movie soundtracks — perhaps most famously there is the Johnny Mandel and Gerry Mulligan score for “I Want to Live,” which featured Mulligan on baritone sax, Art Farmer on trumpet, and Frank Rosolino on trombone. (They also had cameos in the film.)

How many other great jazz musicians have contributed — perhaps without screen credit — to memorable movie music? Take to the comment thread below and let me know your favorite example of a jazz musician hiding in a Hollywood score.

My twitter: @voajazz

Diaa Bekheet
Diaa Bekheet has worked for a host of media outlets, including Radio Cairo in English, ETV News, Deutsche Presse-Agentur (dpa) and the Associated Press. He joined VOA in Feb. 1989 as an International Broadcaster, hosting a variety of popular news and entertainment shows such as Newshour, Radio Ride Across America, Business Week, and Jazz Club USA. He has interviewed a number of Jazz celebrities, including the legendary Dizzy Gillespie, Ramsey Lewis, Wayne Shorter, and George Benson. Diaa is currently an editor for our main English site, VOAnews.com.

And The Little Gold Guy Goes To…

Posted February 22nd, 2013 at 7:50 pm (UTC+0)
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By Ray McDonald

Sunday, February 24 marks the 85th edition of the Academy Awards – now officially re-branded as “The Oscars.” The origins of that name, which attached long ago to the statuette awarded winners, are contested. Legendary actress Bette Davis claimed she gave the little gold guy the nickname “Oscar” because she said  it looked like her first husband, Harmon Oscar Nelson. But Margaret Herrick, librarian at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, said she was the one who originated the moniker, saying the statue had reminded her of a relative, Oscar Pierce.

While many fans may emphasize the on-screen performers, the two musical categories have also provided their share of excitement. Best Original Score and Best Original Song were both adopted in 1934. Over the years, many superstars have claimed victories in the latter category, and some may surprise you.

Isaac Hayes took the prize in 1971 for his memorable “Theme From ‘Shaft,'” becoming the first African-American to claim the Best Original Song honor. He also made a pretty memorable entrance at his acceptance speech!



Also receiving the award over the years have been: Stevie Wonder, for “I Just Called To Say I Love You” in 1984; Lionel Richie, for “Say You, Say Me” in 1985; Carly Simon, for “Let The River Run” in 1988; Bruce Springsteen, for “Streets Of Philadelphia” in 1993; Elton John, for “Can You Feel The Love Tonight” in 1994; Phil Collins, for “You’ll Be In My Heart” in 1999; Bob Dylan, for “Things Have Changed” in 2000; Eminem, for “Lose Yourself” in 2002; and Melissa Etheridge, the 2006 winner for “I Need To Wake Up.”

Some Oscar-winning songs have had more staying power than others. Seventy-four years after Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg scored with “Over the Rainbow,” the song is still universally loved. By contrast, less than a decade after the Three 6 Mafia won for “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp,” is there anyone who remembers it at all?

Competing this year are J. Ralph, with “Before My Time” from the movie “Chasing Ice”; Walter Murphy and Seth MacFarlane, with “Everybody Needs A Best Friend” from “Ted”; Mychael Danna and Bombay Jayashri with “Pi’s Lullaby” from “Life Of Pi”; Adele and Paul Epworth with “Skyfall,” from the movie of the same name; and Claude-Michel Schonberg, Herbert Kretzmer, and Alain Boublil with “Suddenly,” from “Les Miserables.”


Who claims the prize? I say Adele takes this one going away. She has tremendous career momentum on her side, while the song itself has been acclaimed as the best James Bond theme in decades.



Who’s your choice?

The other side of love …

Posted February 18th, 2013 at 9:53 pm (UTC+0)

By Katherine Cole

OK, enough with the hearts and flowers.

If you were anywhere near a newspaper, television or radio last week, you were probably made aware of the St. Valentine’s Day holiday — the most sickly sweet day of the year. And while many radio shows turned your stomach with songs of undying love and the like,  this week on Roots and Branches, we’re examining the flip side. That’s right, time for songs about broken hearts and betrayal.

I could easily have  filled the show (and a few more) solely with the music of Loudon Wainwright,  III.  After all, he’s released more than 25 records, filled mainly with stories of love lost, found, and squandered.  But that wouldn’t allow you to revel in the misery of other great songwriters.

Such as Leonard Cohen. “That’s No Way To Say Goodbye” (found on both Cohen’s debut album and  the soundtrack to Robert Altman’s film “McCabe and Mrs. Miller”) has to be one of the best break up songs ever.  But if I have to pick one Leonard Cohen anti-love song to top all others, it would be this one.

“Famous Blue Raincoat” has been studied so deeply, I’m amazed there hasn’t been a book written about it. I’m sure there are several doctoral dissertations floating around. Originally found on Cohen’s 1971 album “Songs of Love And Hate,” the version above proves the song’s every bit  as haunting 40-plus years later. It’s the kind of song that you understand less with each hearing, but want to listen again in hopes of figuring out the mystery. A common theory is that it’s about a lover’s triangle…though some say “Famous Blue Raincoat” is a letter Cohen wrote to himself. I suggest you listen a few dozen times and then share your interpretation in our comments section.

Needing much less study is this classic from Nancy Sinatra Lee Hazelwood‘s songwriting took a few liberties with grammar, but his lyrics send a clear message! Nancy  blogged about cover verisons of her biggest hit, but I don’t think any come close to her own interpretation of “These Boots Were Made For Walkin'”.

Rolling Stone ranks “I Can’t Make You Love Me” — sung by Bonnie Raitt on her 1991 album “Luck of the Draw” — as #339 on their list of the “500 Greatest Songs of All Time.”  All I know is that it’s sadder than sad.

Roots and Branches this week features  some of my favorite anti-love songs. Take a listen and then share the tunes you turn to when your heart is aching. I don’t know what it is, but there’s something about a sad song that makes you feel so good!

Host of VOA's Roots and Branches, and world traveler extraordinaire! When I'm not listening to music, I'm probably talking about it or thinking about the next band I'm going to see. Or my next interview! Join me every week for the best in folk, bluegrass and all other forms of American roots music!



VOA’s music bloggers bring you info about all kinds of music. Katherine Cole will keep you up-to-date on the world of Bluegrass and Americana music while Ray McDonald rocks the Pop charts and artists. Diaa Bekheet  jams with you on Jazz.  Visit us often. Your comments are welcome.



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