I recently watched the movie Almost Famous again for about the tenth time, and was not only thrown into a bit of a hippie reverie, but also started thinking about all the music that makes an impression on me. The famous quote by the character Penny Lane, “if you ever get lonely, just go to the record store and visit your friends” has stuck with me since I first saw the film, as I often seek comfort in music. I have spent many a night lying on my bed, headphones in thinking about my life, my choices, the world around me and what my role within this great expansive universe might be. So yeah, music can really send me spinning into some existential contemplation. Other times, songs are my commuting companion, my study buddy, my date on a night out, and a comforting friend when experiencing a bout of sadness. Whatever music may be to me, it is surely about a million different things to all of you! Music never fails to leave an impression, here are some of our favourite songs that we can’t stop, won’t stop listening to!
Robert Johnson-Love in Vain
You might have heard the legend of the great Robert Johnson, that he allegedly sold his soul to the devil at the crossroads in exchange for his musical talent. Folklorist, Barry Lee Pearson says that this is all just a myth. Since there is little biographical information about Johnson, fans throughout the years have embellished and improvised his story to comply with the enticing and enigmatic “devil” exchange. What is known, is that Johnson was born in 1911 on a plantation in Delta, Mississippi, was more interested in music than farming, ran off and returned six months later having mastered the guitar. From there, he worked as a travelling musician, and in 1936 got the chance to record in Texas. While his song “Terrapane Blues” was a minor hit and he was invited to return the following year, he died at the age of 27 due to unknown causes; although a note on the reverse of his death certificate says it was syphilis. Largely unknown at the time, but on the threshold of great success at his death, Johnson only recorded 29 songs in his lifetime. A major inspiration to many celebrated musicians, such as Eric Clapton and Keith Richards, Johnson’s life and legend have lived on in the hearts and minds of many aspiring guitarists the world over.
Read more about it here.
Elton John-Rocket Man
I think we can all remember when we first heard/got to bask in the glory that is Elton John’s music. I honestly can’t think of an occasion that would not be made better by one of his songs.
Rocket Man is a melancholic, poignant and melodic tune inspired by the short story of the same name by the author, Ray Bradbury. His sci-fi story is written from the perspective of a child, and chronicles the astronaut father’s anxiety about leaving his family behind as he embarks on a mission to space. The song was released in the early 1970s, a time when the fervour surrounding space exploration was high; indeed, in 1972 the Apollo 16 mission sent man to the moon for the fifth time. Rocket Man’s narrative of leaving the “real world” behind for the great unknown in space has been compared to the “Rock Star isolation” theory, wherein addiction, solitude and normalcy are the sacrifices musicians make in order to be superstars, or Rocket Men. Whatever your interpretation, I think it’s going to be a long, long time until I get tired of playing this song!
Read more about it here.
Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash-Girl from the North Country
One of my absolute favourite songs to listen to when I’m feeling a little blue, I always find immense comfort in the sweet sounds of Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan. The two were friends for over 40 years, and were great fans of each other. After Cash’s passing in 2003, Dylan wrote, “In plain terms, Johnny was and is the North Star, you could guide your ship by him”. Despite this mutual admiration, the two only recorded together on one occasion, releasing just one song from their session. “Girl from the North Country” was that song, and it ultimately made it onto the 1969 album, Nashville Skyline (one of his best, in my opinion!). The duo performed the tune on The Johnny Cash Show, where Dylan was reportedly nervous and Cash said he didn’t really think much about it , but afterward “everybody said it was the most magnetic, powerful thing they ever heard in their life. They were just raving about electricity and magnetism. And all I did was just sit there hitting G chords.” While you can find many bootleg copies of the other tracks from their recording session, it is surely the raw, undulated power of their combined voices and histories on “Girl from the North Country” that has made it such a timeless classic.
Read more about it here.
Nina Simone-I Put a Spell on You
A woman who needs no introduction, the incomparable Nina Simone is the soundtrack to all my dinner parties, essay writing stints and moments of deep reflection. Born in 1933 in North Carolina, Simone took to piano at an early age, attracting the attention of a white piano teacher who not only gave her lessons in classical piano, but raised funds to send her to Juilliard as well, where she continued her education. Having grown up in the heyday of the Jim Crow Laws in the South, Simone was no stranger to racial issues, yet she resisted this oppression at every turn. When she was only 12 years old, Simone refused to perform at a classical music recital if her parents had to sit at the back of the room, as was required at the time for black people. Her rejection from the Curtis School of Music in Philadelphia due to the colour of her skin fully cemented the reality of institutionalized racism, and after this, she turned away from classical music and began performing a mix of jazz and blues in bars in order to support herself. Born Eunice Wayman, she took the name “Nina Simone” as she wanted to avoid her mother’s attention; raised in a religious family, she knew her mother would not approve of her singing as entertainment in places where alcohol was served. It was after the 1963 Birmingham, Alabama church bombing that she became heavily involved in the civil rights movement, at which time her music really took on a new firepower. Writing the legendary song “Mississippi Goddamn” in twenty minutes, Simone went on to write some of the most rousing and affective anthems of the Civil Rights Movement.
She surrounded herself with black intellectuals, poets, writers, actors, activists, and “all those who felt compelled”. Civil rights music became her driving force, and she was punished for it by the racially motivated music industry. At the time, African American history had been ignored, silenced and altogether unwritten, and Nina Simone was committed to the cause of making race in America a topic of discussion, an active scholarly pursuit and a personal story as well, wherein she encouraged listeners to question “who am I?”, “where do I come from?” “do I really like me?”. More than anything, she wanted to get black people to identify with black culture and black power, a not only radical idea at the time, but also a dangerous one, as violence from white opposition was inextricably tied to the civil rights movement. Simone has said that the music industry boycotted her music and its production as they felt it was too incendiary, a reaction that deeply affected her emotionally; so much so that she left both the United States and the music scene for Liberia. Eventually settling in France, it was here that she suffered both her worst mental health episodes and the ultimate resurgence of her career. Married to an abusive husband, Nina Simone’s life was not an easy one. Laden with doubt and regret about not becoming the first black classical pianist, Simone spent the majority of her music career depressed, exhausted and crippled by a reliance on pills and constant fear of her husband. Diagnosed with bipolar disorder late in life, Simone was largely misunderstood throughout her lifetime, and she passed away in 2003 from breast cancer. Her legacy as a musical progeny, a brilliant performer, and dedicated activist live on. As cultural critic Stanley Crouch notes, “nobody sounds like that except her”, and certainly nobody inspired a generation so much as her either.
Watch the trailer for the documentary, What Happened Miss Simone here.