A challenge that has Viktor digging out a Tuvan folk tune with lyrics just a little bit Soviet biased and has Roo getting headaches and settling on a jazz tune that is too much yolo for him. Hey ho here we go!
Old Fashioned Morphine by Jolie Holland, chosen by Roo
There was always this obvious choice staring me down. I really tried to avoid going there, for a bunch of reasons. Before I delve into those reasons, I have to admit to loving the whole album Yenisei-punk with all of my being, and I have, since first I got hold of it almost some 20 years ago… that said it really feels wrong in so many ways; me loving it, me writing about it and most of all; me presuming to understand anything about the lyrics and were they come from or even having an opinion on them. However in buckling and picking Solun Chaagai Soviet Churtum I kind of have to explaining myself.
I’m a sucker for throat singing in most of its forms. Back in my early 20s I happened upon the documentary Genghis Blues in a film festival screening and walked out with a passion for it. In a 20-something-year-old I think it’s fine but now I’m 40 and I can’t shake feeling a bit self-conscious about the implications of tourist-like exoticism. Much like when the Americans in the film show the Tuvan musicians a Didgeridoo, it feels naive while also pretentious. Be that as it may, I am still passionate about throat singing.
Now Yat-Kha complicates matters further by mixing traditional Tuvan music and throat-singing with modern western instruments in a recording session in Scandinavia. Why on earth am I bothered by this? I honestly can’t say and it shames me to no end to have to admit that it does. Usually I would embrace this sort of fusion of cultures but somehow I have to quell some stupid feelings concerning genuinity, like I said I’m embarrassed by my feelings here.
Well, onto the main course of this meal. Tuva was incorporated in the USSR in 1944. Minorities and minority culture was only to varying degrees tolerated during the ensuing years. The safest bet for any folk artist would have to have been to adopt a pro-Soviet stance. The beautiful opening track of Yenisei-punk and my pick for this challenge Solun Chaagai Soviet Churtum displays the marks of this cultural imperialism. On the sleeve of the album, lyrics are provided, both in Tuvan and as a translation into English. The lyrics of Solun Chaagai Soviet Churtum is translated like this:
What a beautiful taiga and
what a beautiful Soviet country
Because socialism won there,
new people appeared.
The real life only in the strongness of
peace and friendship.
This is only possible
in the successful Soviet Union.
…am I being judgemental, perhaps, but I find it that these lyrics don’t really fit the music. Neither do they feel correct for any Tuvan folk tune carrying the weight of generations, nor do they feel right for a Tuvan folk/rock fusion band of the mid 90s. No matter how out of place I find these lyrics they do stand testimony to important History and as such I still feel that I wouldn’t want to have Yenisei-punk open up any other way.
What I have learned from this challenge is that I’m lousy at interpreting and hearing lyrics correctly. I have also discovered how much fun it is to interpret lyrics literally. Like when I got a headache and accidentally thought that The Flaming Lips might have lyrics that don’t fit with the music (of course they don’t, silly me), I learned how fun it is to interpret the tune; Guy who got a headache and accidentally saves the world as a tune that is about a guy who gets a headache and accidentally saves the world.
I had other tunes that perhaps rubbed my poetry centre the wrong way, but it turns out that I thought they were a pretty good match once I read the correct lyrics and not my misheard mumbo jumbo. Also as, Viktor surly knows, I’m not a person who like conflicts very much – and now I’m supposed to tell an artist (well in theory they can read this) that they’ve not done their job properly – the horror! That might not be exactly what this challenge is about, but too close to be scary. So what I needed for this challenge was a tune with lyrics easy to interpret, not too wordy (so it’s easier for me to understand them) and as always; a really great song all around.
Suddenly, on the way to the coffee machine, I heard the words I was singing in my head: “Gimme that old fashioned morphine, it’s good enough for me”. Bingo! I did not think that the music sounded like a tune about drug abuse. I googled the lyrics and of course, it wouldn’t really be that easy, would it? The text was however not too long and from my point of view pretty easy to understand. Jolie names two people in the lyrics (plus her grandpa), Billy Burroughs and Isabelle Eberhardt. Two people that lived far from normal, conformed lives. She also sings: not to worry, the world is almost done. So my take on it that she’s saying: yolo, do what you feel like, it will be over soon. The lyrics are without a doubt a wink to the old folk tune, Gimme that old time religion, but the message is not the same.
The tune is great, it’s a folk-jazzy blues kind of thing, made for smokey bars with whiskey and cigarettes at two in the morning. The horns are giving me some serious Cab Calloway vibes, and seems to convey a longing or a lament. I have made some mental connection between this song and Nobody knows you when you’re down and out, the Bessie Smith version, which I think has lyrics that is more in tune with the music and would be more in tune with this one too.
With all that said, the lyrics are really cool and the song is super cool and I’m very happy that I got the chance to recommend it and write about it, even if the premises might be a bit of a stretch. Give it up for Jolie Holland and her Old Fashioned Morphine!
…and for our next task, we will find a tune that…
This our next challenge is pretty open, what do you make of it? let us know what you think makes a tune fragile and what tunes showcases this quality the best in you mind. For our takes, just check back in two weeks.
See you in two weeks!