Teachers: Write Your Own Model Essays!

One of the most effective strategies I’ve used in teaching across four decades is writing models of the kind of essays I’m assigning students to do. This practice has so many advantages, and demonstrates so many essential ideas:

  1. That you are not above the task you’ve asked them to do.
  2. That you can actually complete the task you’ve asked them to complete.
  3. That the work can be fun.
  4. That you’re not afraid to open yourself up to critique.
  5. That, being a teacher, you can do and do do.
  6. That there is a way to do the task correctly.
  7. That thievery is an essential action in creation (“Take from me, my child!”)
  8. That communication between writers about writing is hugely advantageous.
  9. That teaching, in case you or your students have any doubt, is about leadership.
  10. That, being a teacher, you are not above Trojan-horsing into the classroom material you’re enthusiastic about!

Why am I going on about this? Well, my freshman comp/pop music students are taking their first steps toward writing their first record reviews, and of course I am preparing a model for them to look at and possibly follow. I will lead them to believe I just wrote it, when, in actuality, I’ve been tinkering with it for almost exactly a year. Of the many I’ve written, this one is the best. It’s clean, focused, true to my actual voice, specific, and–here’s the tough part–as well-angled to my 18-and-19-year-old audience as I can get it. That last is what I’ve mostly been tinkering with. If you’re curious, take a look!

Phillip M. Overeem

English 107

February 28, 2018

Every Day Above Ground: Jinx Lennon’s Past Pupil Stay Sane (Septic Tiger Records)

            Though the 21st century’s first seventeen years have not exactly been an easy ride, 2017 proved so turbulent in its first two months that the name “Woody Guthrie” crossed many a music fan’s mind. Guthrie, the Oklahoma-born songwriter, poet, and memoirist, though an intricately flawed human being, was a master of speaking truth to power during the first half of the last century, in songs like “This Land is Your Land” (the uncensored version, of course), “Deportee,” and “Jesus Christ.” He even wrote a distinctly unflattering song about our president’s dad. Where is our Guthrie now, you can hear crusty old musical and political history buffs (like me) asking.

            Only I am not asking it, because we have a Guthrie. Sort of. He isn’t an American; he’s from Dundalk, County Louth, Ireland. He isn’t a star; in fact, he’s only played across the pond on scant occasions, and he isn’t even well-known in his home country. However, the ideas he sings about, and how he sings about them, are what we desperately need right now, and that his songs are about the struggles of the people of Dundalk (“I Know My Town,” he titles one of the songs here—and he does) should be no barrier for us. We have the same struggles.

            Mr. Lennon’s musical attack is basic. Though he is sometimes described as a rapper, he is more accurately a yeller, a concept familiar to any rock and roll fan, except Jinx sings like he’s yelling over Saturday night pub noise, sometimes inserting a “YEAH!” to make sure we’re paying attention and getting his point. His accompaniment is spare: a guitar (usually acoustic, but sometimes amplified), a drum machine, occasional alien instruments (like a trumpet), and back-up singing (from his wife Sophie). This basic attack adds up to something important: a sound anyone can make, uncluttered but unpolished, that is direct. That is a compliment one cannot extend to so many of the sounds we’re hearing stateside right now.

            The album title also communicates something important. Mr. Lennon’s songs are indeed about staying sane amidst the welter of bellicose social and political messages that sting our ears and unsettle our guts on a daily basis. One reason to buy this album is that we can feel less alone in the knowledge that U. S. citizens aren’t the only ones grappling with their mental stability in times of upheaval. From health care crises (“Bed Blocka,”in which Jinx sides with ailing working-class patients against fast-processing hospitals: “Why you shoutin’ at them like that?/Who do you t’ink you are?/These people built the country around ya!”) to amped-up consumerism (“Shop Thy Neighbor”) to money worries (“70,000 New Jobs”—in this song, not a number over which to rejoice) to immigration (“Not Bad People”), the subjects of Lennon’s songs about post-Celtic Tiger Ireland suggest he might as well be American.

However, the beauty of the man’s art is that he doesn’t leave you wallowing in despair over these ills; countering every song that gives one a reason to be anxious is another illuminating a reason to be cheerful. In “Chinaman in Dundalk Town,” the song’s persona rejoices in a simple moment experienced with an immigrant: “He spoke to me!” He reminds us that “Every Day Above Ground is a Good Day.” He commiserates with us in “Don’t Let the Phone Calls Annoy You.” He proves quite gallant and empathizes with women (worthy of lauding always, but especially lately) as he chides a fellow pubgoer to “Learn How to Talk to Girls.” He recommends the liberating quality of playing music in “God is In My Guitar.” He even lionizes the humble “Water Meter Man.” Perhaps most striking, though, in Lennon’s efforts are his urgings—the first step toward our recovery—that we not retreat to a state of denial:

            Yeah, there’s good t’ings, and there’s bad t’ings ‘ere.

            Yes! WE CAN LOOK AT IT!

            We can do it! Let’s do it—YEAH!

            I will walk the railway line out the countryside

            Where my grandparents used to live:

            They built a big motorway right t’rough the center of it. (“I Know My Town”)

It isn’t easy to deny denial—but it’s necessary. Lest you think Jinx’s relentless focus on the travails of real life might be hard to take over the course of a 24-song album, the man is also very (and very frequently) funny: Future and Lil’ Wayne might get a laugh themselves from Lennon’s song “Cough Medicine,” and, as for “Fireman Meets Samurai Sword” and “45 Degree Angle Phone Face”? Let those be a comic Siren call to the uninitiated!

            What’s not to like about this record? First-time samplers may require time to get used to Lennon’s in-your-face delivery, as well as his reliance on repetition in order to make sure his messages stay gotten. No doubt the hour-long-plus running time and 24-song playlist could stand some pruning; with an artist as ebullient, energized, and boisterous as Lennon, the listener must be game if she does not want to be worn down.

            On the other hand, though, the same listener might just enjoy a good, long drink of something clean, clear, powerful, and empowering after many months of having to force-guzzle dirty water. During the Great Depression, Woody Guthrie inspired many citizens to endure—to not give up on their fellow men and women. Jinx Lennon is capable of the same, if we can reach across the water (via Bandcamp) and pull him across. As critic Robert Christgau pungently writes: “All he wants is to keep us out of the circle of shit and help make a better world….”

Works Cited

Christgau, Robert. “Jinx Lennon: Know Your Station Gouger Nation!!!” Robert

Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics. http://www.robertchristgau.com

          /get_artist.php?name=Jinx+Lennon. 2015. Accessed 8 March 2017.

Lennon, Jinx. Past Pupil Stay Sane. Septic Tiger Records, 2016.

          https://jinxlennon1.bandcamp.com/album/past-pupil-stay-sane        

 

Psst! If you’re intrigued? BUY THE RECORD!

This post is dedicated to Liam Smith, my Irish friend who is directly responsible for me knowing about Jinx!

Q: Who is Your Buddha? A: My Buddha is Punk! (February 27th, 2018, Columbia, Missouri)

It wasn’t a rekkid but a documentary that I “listened to” and was struck by. Andreas Hartmann’s My Buddha is Punk (2015) delighted me for many reasons. Most important, the film captured in specific and moving detail how difficult it must be to be a committed punk and Buddhist, particularly in war-torn, atrocity-scarred Myanmar (where some “Buddhists” initiate the atrocities). The central figure, 25-year-old Kyaw Kyaw, is indefatigable, driving his ragtag band Rebel Riot through rehearsals, debating with a drunken, slipping peer about punk’s meaning while knocking out a fanzine, attending regularly to his Buddhist rituals, confronting an anti-Muslim Buddhist about his stance, traveling miles and miles by train to sell gear, play music, and promote the band (trying to talk a fellow traveler out of joining the military along the way). This is no cinematic masterpiece; artifice would probably get in the way. If you’ve ever been holed up in a dank cellar, trading sweat with other humans while you listen to raw, rough raging songs of freedom and resistance–or if you have struggled to stick to your principles–you’ll want to check out My Buddha is Punk. We watched it through Nicole’s subscription to tricycle, but I know you all have your ways.

Short-shrift Division:

Still on a Dennis Gonzalez roll. It is criminal that this Texan is not more widely known as a master player and composer in jazz: his achievements in balancing freedom and order, making improvised music accessible, and designing dynamic opportunities for and inspiring his fellow musicians are awe-inspiring. Yesterday’s nutritious, euphonious helpings were Gonzalez’s New York Quartet records Midnight Suite and Dance of the Soothsayer’s Tongue. If you love Mingus’ classic work, folks, you have no excuse not to track these down. They don’t sound like Mingus; they simply share that laudable drive bring structured but emotionally unrestrained music to life. (Note: Mike Thompson, on drums, is a wonder.)

Brothers’ Goodbye: “Upon Reflection—The Music of Thad Jones” (February 26th, 2018, Columbia, Missouri)

Who doesn’t appreciate an album with a story behind it? In this case, the story couldn’t be much more poignant: pianist Hank Jones and drummer Elvin Jones saying a musical so long to their late brother, trumpeter, composer and bandleader extraordinaire Thad by playing his work. Anyone with any familiarity with the surviving brothers’ own style and work should be imagine the level and skill, depth of feeling, and sureness of touch they bring to the occasion, but a bit of a surprise is the serenely joyous tone of the album: a warm send-off, with smiling hearts. Another delight is the performance of George Mraz, who is so inspired that at times his lines threaten to steal the show–but don’t.

It’s that the record is devoid of somber moments. In fact, maybe the most powerful is also the most inevitable: when the trio close with Thad’s most famous composition, the delicate, pensive “A Child is Born.” I love what the much-missed Penguin Jazz Guide claims about the performance–that if hearing it doesn’t at least mist the listener’s eyes, he may want to check the composition (the substance!) of his ticker. Test yourself:

Short-shrift Division:

Eric Revis: City of Asylum–What I feel like, at least metaphorically, so many of us are seeking. A marvelous free recording from Clean Feed, led by Revis on very exoressive bass, with Kris Davis on piano and Andrew Cyrille on drums, it seems to aurally build that kind of structure. The only cut that beats their disassembling of Monk’s “Gallop’s Gallop” is the leader’s haunting “Sot Avast.”

James P. Johnson: 1921-1928–Stride piano being effervescently born.

Three Spaced Masterpieces by “The Hillbilly Dalai Lama” (February 25th, 2018, Columbia, Missouri)

PhasesSpiritDecember Day

My Sunday afternoon was graced by these three magical records recorded across forty years by Willie Nelson, the man accurately dubbed “The Hillbilly Dalai Lama” by Kinky Friedman. If Nelson had left nothing but these albums, he’d be in the pantheon; it’s truly awe-inspiring to consider that outside of these masterworks lay hundreds and hundreds of diamonds. I have often casually said to friends and students that Hank Williams wrote 50 of the 100 greatest country songs of all-time and he only lived to 29. In tranquility, and hypnotized by the man’s stunningly eloquent and accurate way into our moments of darkness and light, I think that Willie just picked up that mantle and extended it, as if to rebuke an unjust universe.

All three of these albums are humbly conceptual, the first two linked by the lyrical thread of Johnny Gimble’s fiddle, the last two by big sister Bobbie Nelson’s piano, all three by crack bands and Willie’s unmistakable acoustic guitar. Phases and Stages (1974) plumbs the heartbreak, humor, and illumination of both a woman’s and a man’s side of a break-up–taken outside the context of the concept, each of the songs is a classic, either major (“Bloody Mary Morning”) or minor (“Sister’s Coming Home” / “Down at the Corner Beer Joint”). Spirit (1996), sparer, drumless, linked mostly by the instrumental passages titled “Matador” and “Mariachi,” meditates on loss and perseverance, and its songs, perhaps, rely on each other for their eternal air. December Day (2014) is one of the most startling road-band studio recordings I’ve ever heard. The concept’s pretty simple, and seems to have come from Bobbie: as she’s quoted as asking in the studio, “Why not record our favorite songs like we play them for ourselves?” It works–the listener does feel like he’s eavesdropping on a little corps of musicians (on a family of musicians) laying back and sharing what’s always made them happiest. In that way, December Day might be the most successful of the three, and its song list may well have been assembled much more casually than the others’: three Irving Berlins, a Reinhardt, a Jolson, “Mona Lisa,” and “Ou-es tu, mon amour” surrounding several old Nelson copyrights (for example, “Permanently Lonely,” ’63) and a couple of very poignant–and dryly funny–new ones  (“I Don’t Know Where I Am Today,” “Amnesia,” and “Laws of Nature,” of which the Dalai Lama himself would surely approve). The effect is confidently valedictory: “This is the stuff I’ve loved all my life, and, by the way, do you notice how my stuff stands up in the American pop canon?” Not too valedictory, as it turns out, as Willie’s released several albums since then, and probably has more in the chute. I don’t doubt that he might also have another masterpiece in him, and that it’ll be 2028 before we know it.

Dig in:

Short-shrift Division:

Otis Redding: Otis Blue/Otis Redding Sings Soul–Willie got me hankering for more mastery, and when I called this up on Apple Music I was stunned by what sounds like an expert aural restoration.

Swamp Dogg: Gag A Maggot–“Just call me wife-sitter / I’m a mighty happy critter! / Don’t be bitter / ‘Cause I’m wit’ her….”

Pan Afrikan People’s Arkestra (Horace Tapscott, conductor–and pianist): Flight 17–I have yet to hear a Tapscott-associated album I didn’t love, and this is no exception. It’s wayyyy out of print, so I had to throw my bobber out on Discogs Lake and wait for twitch…and wait…and wait. But was it worth it! Recorded at Los Angeles’ Immanuel United Church of Christ, it’s a large group recording of power and delicacy, with no Tapscott compositions but two strong ones by the departed honoree (pianist Herbert Baker), one by saxophonist Sabir Mateen (who’s on board, and how), and a winning foray through a Coltrane medley.

 

In Walked Budd (February 24th, 2018, Columbia, Missouri)

Budd Johnson, that is! From the opening notes (just click above, podnah) you know you’re going on a deep tenor sax dive, which is what I did yesterday with Johnson on his Swingsville album, Let’s Swing, and indirectly on Etta Jones’ luxuriously blue Lonely & Blue, where Budd, with assistance from the equally great tenor man Gene Ammons, wraps the singer in thick, slow-swinging swaths of indigo.

Both LPs are simply classic. Both are rendered in Rudy Van Gelder’s stunning sound. Both feature a richness and depth of feeling you’ll have some difficulty finding in a new set today.

Funny: I just read an article on meditation written by Repa Dorje Odzer and published in tricycle, and I’d advise you to listen these in much the way the article advised me to sit:

1) Don’t think about past records you’ve heard.

2) Don’t judge what you’re hearing now (hear it arise and unfold).

3) Don’t imagine where the music will go.

4) Don’t try to figure the music out.

5) Don’t try think about how the music could be/should be different (resist controlling thoughts).

6) “Rest, like a bee stuck in honey,” and let the music wash over you.

Easier typed out than done, but Johnson’s and Jones’ (and Ammons’ and Van Gelder’s) work provides a perfect opportunity to try and merge meditation and fully present listening. I’m trying it in a bit.

Short-shrift Division

Hailu Mergia: Tche Belew(Wow! Truly a master Ethiopian jazz-funk composer–I get the funk now.)

Harlem River Drive (all hail the Palmieri Brothers!)

Dennis Gonzalez’ Yells at Eels: In Quiet Waters (Wow! Truly a master free jazz composer!)

Jason Marsalis and the 21st Century Trad Band: Melody Reimagined, Book 1 (Doesn’t quite live up to the ambitions of the band name or album title, but it’s swinging and lilting and lively nonetheless. The leader’s on form.

Not THAT Thomas Jefferson! (February 23rd, 2018, Columbia, Missouri)

I love old-time New Orleans jazz records–that so many seem to and might actually have been recorded in an empty VFW hall is a charm I cannot resist–and I was pleasantly surprised earlier this week when those nice kids at Hitt Records gave me a copy of Thomas Jefferson’s If I Could Be with You One Hour Tonight. Jefferson is one of the later-period greats of traditional NOLA trumpeting, and he sounds great on this record I’d never heard of (he’s an affecting singer, too); it was actually recorded at The Lord Napier in Surrey, England, and the set list features some warm surprises (“A Long Way to Tipperary”). One of the clerks, Taylor, had had a conversation with me about a similar record I’d found at the store, and said to me, “Y’know, I don’t know much about this stuff–I probably need to get caught up.” He must be wasting no time.

I have been the beneficiary of great generosity this week, and much of it hasn’t had to do with my birthday. My good friend Isaac, with whom I share a constant stream of wonderful music on a regular basis, alerted me to the release of a new record by Hailu Mergia, an Ethiopian pianist of considerable reknown. If you don’t think you need to hear Ethiopian piano-based music, sorry, but you do. Mergia’s Lala Belu combines fascinating searching melodies (Mariam Gebru, his fellow Ethiopian keyboardist, seems to have minted them) with striking, swirling accordian, dark-toned violin, and lightly funky drums. Here’s the whole record:

Finally…about my entry of 2/22/18? I’d mentioned Joyful Noise Recordings’ “White Label Series”? Well, I gave a deeper listen to one of those, the band Berry’s Everything, Compromised, and I think it’s major, one of the best releases of 2018. The album title’s an unfortunately accurate aspersion cast on the state of the nation, and for pop music political statements, especially in the indie rock vein, it’s remarkably subversive, witty, pointed, and weird. If you’re both pissed and bemused, you might want to pick it up if you can find it.

http://berrytheband.bandcamp.com/album/everything-compromised

Short-shrift Division:

More later, I am sure, on this one, but Superchunk’s new and mordant What A Time to Be Alive is also a real killer with a political edge–and does it rock out!

A Birthday Playlist (February 22nd, 2018, Columbia, Missouri)

I turned 56 yesterday, and I admit I was a bit too distracted to now be making any sense of what I listened to, which was plenty. So, after a few bits of news, I’ll just leave you with a playlist of the highlights.

Nicole and I had breakfast at Ernie’s, a diner which every visitor to Columbia should visit. Whatever blues satellite station they were tuned to was kickin’ my ass–we didn’t have Shazam handy, and the selections were stumping me, which, to be honest, isn’t easy for a blues satellite station to do. A sprightly blues version of “Old Chunk of Coal”? Hmmmm.

Perhaps one of the best presents I received was from Netflix, which announced a Roxanne Shante biopic set for a March 23rd release. I’m all about that, as she has long been a hero of mine; as she once put it herself, she gave birth to most of them MCs. Here’s the trailer, which looks mighty promising:

Also, I subscribed this year to a very interesting series of albums Joyful Noise Recordings is curating. The White Label Series sends subscribers an “undiscovered LP” each month; each LP has been chosen by an already-established artist (the presence of Serengeti, Mike Watt, and Aesop Rock convinced me to pony up) and is limited to a 500-copy run. I finally had time to listen to the first two White Label releases yesterday: Weirding Module’s A Newer Age (curated by Kid Millions, and including an apology to Italo Calvino!) and Berry’s Everything, Compromised (curated by Dale Nixon, who was initially transfixed by the band at an unamed dive bar in St. Louis). The former features some aggressive and zoinky noise which I kinda liked; the latter, which I wasn’t able to concentrate much on at first but came quickly back to, some very plaintive, literate, subversive (!!) and odd semi-pop music. I have to give them both more attention, but I really like the idea, especially since the liner notes require the curators to justify their choices, and since it forces me out of my comfort zone. Care to sample?

Annnnnnd…here’s my birthday playlist! Enjoy!