Jack Baruth recently told his tale of an 898-mile road trip accompanied by only one CD. True, he also had with him a Spawn of Satan Homing Device, oops, I mean an iPod. And also true, and perhaps even more relevant, the one CD that so engaged Jack’s artistic imagination was a stunner, Joel Fredericksen and Ensemble Phoenix Munich’s Elizabethan early-instruments and vocal tribute to Nick Drake, Requiem for a Pink Moon.
RFAPM is one of those “love it or don’t get it” pieces of art. Give it a try. It might grow on you. If so, you can buy it here.
Jack’s Captiva review got me pondering about selecting a variety of CDs for a long road trip. To make the cut, first a CD had to be very good in all respects, and also unquestionably have passed the “test of time.” So that means no albums that are valued primarily for nostalgia, or known mostly for including one song that was a hit on the radio. (Sorry, Layla.)
It also helps if the recording in question is a bit off the beaten path. The purpose of this exercise is not to validate anyone else’s pre-existing greatest-hits list. The purpose is to introduce a captive in-car audience to truly great music they perhaps might not otherwise encounter.
The final selection criterion is that an album should in some way contribute to increasing our Cultural Literacy in music. What are the genres and pieces of music that an educated person should have at least some exposure to and awareness of?
In just the same way as it is hard to call yourself educated if you have no familiarity at all with the King James Bible and if you haven’t read any Shakespeare, I think that there are pieces of music—not all of them classical—that are almost as important in terms of our shared cultural heritage.
The problem with such ventures (of course) is the tendency to focus first on the historical musical-developmental or sociological importance of a piece of music, instead of starting the inquiry with “Will this really grab somebody by the ears?”
My goal is not to make anyone feel that they are being told to eat spinach because it is good for them. My goal is to help people fall in love with great music.
1. Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong: Porgy and Bess
One might be tempted to say that if one had to put only one recording into a metaphorical snow globe as representing (as well as one could) the richness and complexity of American musical culture, this album has to be it.
Porgy and Bess is an opera about African-American street life with music and lyrics by the first-generation-American Jewish Gershwin brothers (the book was by DuBose Heyward). Heyward, a white Southerner, was a descendant of a signer of the Declaration of Independence.
Heyward’s achievements were to write the first Southern novel that (for the most part) treats African Americans without condescension and which makes us care about them as human beings, and equally important, to write some of the most affecting and memorable lyrics in the history of musical theater (and also opera). The lyrics are jointly credited to professional lyricist Ira Gershwin, but according to Stephen Sondheim, “most of the lyrics in Porgy—and all of the distinguished ones—are by Heyward.”
One also might be tempted to think that the world might be a better place if young parents were presented with a copy of this album along with their newborn’s Birth Certificate. But the idea of a toddler toddling around the house while singing some of the more adult-themed lyrics from “I Wants to Stay Here” (e.g., “Don’ let him handle me an’ drive me mad”) is more than a bit disconcerting.
This album is that rare gem that merits the word “perfection.”
Hear it here.
Buy it here.
Now that we have the ground rules squared away, and I also have gone overboard and overlength on the first recommendation—and technically, of opera highlights at that—the rest of the recommendations, of a sufficiently large number of CDs to last an 898-mile trip, will go by much more quickly.
For further listening: Miles Davis’ and Gil Evans’ instrumental suite on Porgy and Bess is a classic, as are the two volumes of Ella Fitzgerald’s Cole Porter Songbooks.
Record producer John Marks is a columnist for Stereophile magazine.