Two songs in the morning

What does one do at 4:13 in the a.m. when one can’t sleep? If one were really smart, one would try to push through some of the mounds of work that have piled up on one’s desk, but if one is not so smart as all that (and this one is not), then one listens to the stash of vintage Goodmans sent to one by a friend recently. And therein exists a coupla gems I can’t get enough of: “It’s Different Now” and “I’m in a New World.” Sometimes when you go back to this old music, it can seem scaled over with its age, slightly foolish or naïve or over-earnest sounding … the lack of technical sophistication implying some kind of inferior quality to the music itself. But songs like “It’s Different” and “New World” just explode that myth into vapor. “I’m in a New World” is an old Pentecostal hymn (in, I believe, a hymnal called - in the rather unadorned manner of Pentecostalism - simply Church Hymnal). The arrangement makes the song addictively memorable; the tune clips along so pleasantly and energetically, with real fervor … there’s kick to it. And then “It’s Different Now.” I don’t know much about the song, though I wish I did (I’m listening to bootleg copies of LPs without any jacket notes or anything) because it’s my new old latest favorite … the piano on this thing is just spectacular. I’ve been told that perhaps the pianist in this case is Hargus “Pig” Robins, the blind man who Owen Bradley had playing for Patsy Cline for a while. But no matter, it’s superb work … for a second it reminds me of Hovie Lister’s habit of embellishing lines and phrases (both pianists use lotsa rolls and arpeggiation), but there’s a much more urgent quality to the keyboard work on “It’s Different Now” (whereas Lister tends toward smoothness and suave), and the way the song is mixed makes the piano sound as if it exists in another world and is filtering into the recording from some place far away … all of which imbues the tune with a slightly ethereal aspect.Meanwhile, the vocals just stomp a path to the top of the mountain and call down the very angels to sing with them. Vestal Goodman’s voice was such an instrument in its prime, something I tend too often to forget - over-plied as we have all been by the slightly caricatured version of Vestal playing Vestal (which in turn one could argue was itself a rendition of Vestal playing Johnny Cook playing Vestal) in her last years. In those early decades, her voice was a beautiful paradox of force and finesse, the way she could intone a syllable or word, articulate phrases to emphasize an idea or a feeling (here, it’s her ongoing reinterpretation of the phrase “It’s Different Now” each time the chorus rolls around). Her range was astounding, all the more so for the way her voice remained tonally consistent in whatever register she sang - no stark changes in the texture or heft as is so common with power singers and so-called divas. And then the boys, off somewhere in the distance, backing her up … though that hardly does what they’re doing justice. A while back I commented that “each of the Goodmans sang in their own kind of musical orbit … sure, their voices overlapped in crucial ways and in important places, but it’s as if they’re each one singing solos at the same time in a way that just happens to work together harmonically - the effect is not primarily musical but theatric, dramatic.” At the time I was referring to a live recording, but the same could be said of this studio stuff. I imagine the brothers singing to one another, crowded around a microphone, in a kind of exuberant disconnectedness from everything else, not exactly unaware of what Vestal’s doing, but unconcerned in a way that one can be when one works with undiluted talent like hers. That image pleases me, not so much for its reality (it’s my personal fiction as far as I know), but because it serves as a kind of historical melioration for the strife and discord that would later and ultimately undo the Happy Goodmans. Myths of long-ago unity, lost to the depredations of time and age, are just that … myths. But the early Goodmans came about as close as anyone can to an unfiltered beauty, rushing in with something like divine force upon us and, I imagine, they themselves.

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