October 16, 2012
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Kevin Brockmeier, George Pelecanos, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, David Peace, Myla Goldberg, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.
Elena Passarello cleverly discusses the power and significance of the human voice in her essay collection Let Me Clear My Throat. Both informative and entertaining, these essays will have you singing their praises.
Library Journal wrote of the book:
"In a brilliant combination of rigorous study and conversational tone, actor and essayist Passarello has created a remarkably entertaining and thought-provoking look at the human voice and all of its myriad functions and sounds."
Since Let Me Clear My Throat is a collection of essays about the human voice, the book is kind of a playlist in itself; nearly every page mentions a song or a singer. Many of the essays connect two very different voices together in some pretty unlikely duets: Robert Plant and Howard Dean, an American Idol contestant and a speaker-in-tongues, Bob Dylan and the crows that haunted my yard after the blizzards of 2008. I made these pairings, I suppose, to hunt for a common core in the most famous sounds of the past few hundred years-- some shared note between crooners and campaigners and rebel yellers and kings of screamo.
Here are eight more "duets" of vocal performances that either come from various corners of the book, or from just outside the book's reach.
ABBA, "Take a Chance on Me" and John Rich, "Raisin' McCain"
"Communication Breakdown," my essay on Howard Dean's infamous Iowa Caucus scream, begins with a list of the "theme songs" of various presidential candidates, noting that Republicans always have a tough time getting permission to any music. Just ask poor John McCain, who, by the time he clinched the nomination, had been ordered to cease using songs by Tom Petty, Jackson Browne, Van Halen, Boston, and Heart. That August, McCain's people commissioned John Rich, he of "Save a Horse, Ride a Cowboy" fame, who then recorded the unfortunate "Raisin' McCain'." On top of the sad double entendre in the title, this turkey features lines like "well he got shot down / in Vietnam town" and (my favorite) "PLAY that American git-tar, son!" Ugh. What's even sadder is that, according to Time, McCain's favorite song is the much more interesting "Dancing Queen." McCain, in fact, likes ABBA so much that he actually requested "Take a Chance on Me" at a few summer '08 campaign stops, but his team discouraged him. Then they opted for "Raisin'" instead. A few weeks later, they helped him select his running mate.
James Blake, "The Wilhelm Scream"and Sheb Wooley, "Flying Purple People Eater"
Nobody knows the voice behind the Wilhelm Scream, a crazy sound clip that has been edited into hundreds of movie death scenes from The Wild Bunch to Howard the Duck. Some assume the sixty-year-old falsetto scream came from the throat of novelty song man Sheb Wooley, but I didn't find any definitive proof that Wooley was Wilhelm when I researched the cult scream for the book's first essay. And really, I hope nobody ever ID's the voice, so that the Wilhelm Scream retains the mystery that inspires voices like James Blake to sing about it. Blake's "Wilhelm Scream" is a spooky electronic ballad that also uses falsetto, but in a much more hushed and digitally processed voice than the mystery voice behind the scream. Through all of the filters, he sounds like an astronaut drifting away from his spaceship and out into the black. I can imagine his "Wilhelm" sounds also getting patched into movies, like maybe HAL's first quiet outer space murder in 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Judy Garland, "Rock-a-bye Your Baby with a Dixie Melody" and Frank Sinatra, "I'm a Fool to Want You"
One of my favorite things about writing Let Me Clear My Throat is that it forced me to reconsider the overplayed "legends" of song. I'd heard Garland and Sinatra in so many vodka ads and Starbucks that both were more background noise than icons to me. So I spent the summer of 2011 with Judy Live at Carnegie Hall and Frank Sinatra Sings for Only the Lonely in my headphones. About the twentieth close listen, Garland became surprisingly ferocious, Sinatra shockingly vulnerable. Opening my ears to them-- moving past "ring-a-ding-ding" and "Over the Rainbow" to finally hear what wooed earlier listeners—made me feel how a born-again must when he comes back to the Lord.
Cecilia Bartoli, "Ombra Mai Fu" and Enrico Caruso, "Ombra Mai Fu"
Two takes on an aria written for a Castrato in 1738. Though recorded a century apart, they both appear in my essay on the male soprano's high C, the C6, and the high tenor's C5. When pushed together, I think they prove how one little octave can rewrite the entire story inside a song. Imagine a bass voice singing "Sexual Healing"or a mezzo pouring her heart into "Ol' Man River."
An Uncredited Peruvian Girl, "Wedding Song"and John Lennon, "Well Well Well"
My essay "Space Oddity" is about this Golden Record filled with the "songs of Earth" that was stuck to the side of the Voyager II space probe. Chuck Berry is on the Record, as is Mozart, as is the voice of an Andean teen from a remote mountain village. Hers is one of the most enticing sounds of the playlist—so reedy and coy—and it proves that Carl Sagan, Alan Lomax, and the rest of the Record's curators knew a song needn't be world famous in order to have universal appeal.
Too bad, however, that the team was forbidden to put "Here Comes the Sun" on the Voyager (they say the record company suits wanted a contract granting them space royalties). But you know what? As much as I love George Harrison's voice, think I would've sent out a tune by different Beatle vox. There's no screaming in any of the existing Record's tracks, and the aliens should be treated to at least one human scream. And just imagine how wide their bulbous ET eyes would get upon hearing Lennon's Primal Therapy howls in "Well Well Well."
Myron Cope, "Deck the Broncos" and Mac Miller, "Frick Park Market"
The essay "Double Joy: Myron Cope and the Pittsburgh Sound" celebrates Pittsburghese, which was once called "the Galapagos Islands of American dialects." Pittsburgh sportscaster Myron Cope was not only fluent in this dialect; he added dozens of terms and tones to it. Some Cope-isms were recorded into legendary radio ditties, sung by Cope in rasp that makes Tom Waits sound like Marian Anderson: "Deck ‘doez Bronco(eh)s/ they're just yonko(eh)s/ falalalala / ghagha-gha-gha." Mac Miller, prince of the new Pittsburgh sound, attended the same high school as Cope, 63 years later. There's no 'Burgh accent anywhere on his debut album, except in one line about how rhyming gives him "that Punxatawney Phill-ing" (or "feeling"). This is a pun that rests on how his (and Cope's) part of Pennsylvania swaps the long "e" sound with the short "i." Dissipated accent or not, I betcha Miller can sing "Deck the Broncos" —weird vowels and all-- verbatim.
Charles Johnson and the Revivers, "I Can't Even Walk Without You Holding My Hand" and CJ Bargamian, "A Monstrous Little Voice"
By the end of this project, I was pretty sick of writing in my own voice, so I starting soliciting other ones. One day I wrote a 50-question vox personality quiz, inspired equally by Cosmo and Briggs-Meyer, and then I got my shy friend Hector to take it. Hector is a ventriloquist dummy who performs on the knee of artist T. Foley. My favorite of his quiz responses was that, if forced to karaoke, he would sing that gospel ode to co-dependence, "I Can't Even Walk without You Holding My Hand." A few months after Hector took the quiz, I solicited Atlanta-based musician CJ Bargamian to write a mini-album based on the essays of the book (podcast now on iTunes!). I'm particularly taken with the song about Hector; its lyrics come straight from his quiz answers, and the song even name-checks "I Can't Even Walk." It's a moody tune with a curvy, West-Coast guitar sound: Angelo Badalamenti goes vaudeville. At a karaoke night, Hector would kill it.
Jimmy Scott, "Imagination"and Roberta Flack, "I Told Jesus"
These two performances don't appear in the book, even though I tried several times to include them. The same thing happened with Marvin Gaye, Paul Winchell, and Patricia Neal. I suppose the loudest thing I learned in making Let Me Clear My Throat was that some voices live too close to our hearts (or too wrapped up in our histories) to survive on the page. With Scott and Flack, the desire to keep their sounds whole and inarticulate trumped my interest in dissecting them. That might prove what the best voices are all about, I suppose: they can mesmerize you until you can't bear to break the spell that they have cast.
Elena Passarello and Let Me Clear My Throat links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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