by Andrew Ford and Anni Heino
La Trobe University Press (with Black Inc.) 2019
An illuminating history of the song for every kind of music lover.
Often today, the word ‘song’ is used to describe all music. A free-jazz improvisation, a Hindustani raga, a movement from a Beethoven symphony: apparently, they’re all songs.
But they’re not. From Sia to Springsteen, Archie Roach to Amy Winehouse, a song is a specific musical form. It’s not so much that they all have verses and choruses – though most of them do – but that they are all relatively short and self-contained; they have beginnings, middles and ends; they often have a single point of view, message or story; and, crucially, they unite words and music. Thus, a Schubert song has more in common with a track by Joni Mitchell or Rihanna than with one of Schubert’s own symphonies.
The Song Remains the Same traces these connections through seventy-five songs from different cultures and times: love songs, anthems, protest songs, lullabies, folk songs, jazz standards, lieder and pop hits; ‘When You Wish Upon a Star’ to ‘We Will Rock You’, ‘Jerusalem’ to ‘Jolene’. Unpicking their inner workings makes familiar songs strange again, explaining and restoring the wonder, joy (or possibly loathing) the reader experienced on first hearing.
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This is a book to dip into for a burst of intel from the dark aces and spaces that give us music. A compendium of essays, explanations, examinations and histories of 75 songs . . .
Andrew Ford, a composer and presenter of The Music Show on Radio National, and writer and musicologist Anni Heino vivisect most of the songs with a musician’s deep knowledge and care, parsing the tune’s grammar and architecture in an attempt to explain how it works on the mind, feet and heart . . .
Ford and Heino always return us to the emotional journey of the song before long: ‘‘and here is the climax of the singer’s offer: ‘I wanna die with you, Wendy on the street tonight/ In an everlasting kiss’. It is a Wagnerian moment where Springsteen proposes nothing less than a Liebestod, a love-death – orgasm as obliteration – and it takes us to the song’s climax.’’
But this collection, including tales of composers and singers, also takes us outside the songs and reminds us what a hard life music has always been for all but the gilded few. Cliff Edwards sang When You Wish Upon a Star as Jiminy Cricket in Pinocchio. It is the most touching of songs, his voice a haunting promise to the listener that it will be all right. But, of course, it won’t. Cliff died penniless in 1971 and his body lay unclaimed in a Hollywood morgue. Listen to Jiminy Cricket sing about your dreams coming true and think on that.
The essays also include many heterodox musical insights. This one rings loudly for those of us who’ve instinctively felt Joni Mitchell’s second-to-none bravura but lacked the chops to say why.
‘‘Mitchell’s great contemporaries, Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen, though wordsmiths first, were not above faking a line and truncating or obscuring sense to make their words fit their tunes. Mitchell, a far more sophisticated and inventive musician than either man, wrote melodies and chord structures that seemed infinitely elastic, allowing her to say exactly what she wanted.’’ Thank you.
The Song Remains The Same is an elegantly written, musically wise book in which the authors reveal, with compelling flourishes, not only the worlds embedded in their chosen songs but the worlds from which they somehow sprang.
Anson Cameron, The Age & Sydney Morning Herald
While Ford and Heino write compellingly about the simplest of material (‘You Are My Sunshine’, for instance), they shine when discussing songs that are musically a little odd: ‘Stardust’, ‘America’, ‘Lush Life’, ‘Night and Day’, ‘Fast Car’. The last of these, by Tracy Chapman, provides one of the collection’s many high points. Ford and Heino give a stunning reading of the song, one far more complex than its hypnotically repetitive guitar part might suggest.
As the essay on ‘Fast Car’ shows, Ford and Heino can walk the line between scholarly analysis, which requires musicological knowledge beyond the general reader, and popular music journalism, which too often focuses unduly on the lyrical content of a song. As well as being able to explain the role played by harmony and structure, Ford and Heino can also brilliantly elucidate those moments – especially prominent in vernacular and popular song – that resist conventional analysis: a particular inflection, a yelp, whatever . . .
Throughout the book they trace complex transnational and transhistorical connections between apparently divergent material. For instance, the essay on ‘Thule, the Period of Cosmography’ by Thomas Weelkes (the Elizabethan composer who once urinated on the dean of Chichester Cathedral from the organ loft) becomes an occasion to discuss the role of long and outré words in song lyrics.
Of course, songs make more immediate connections in time and space, most notably between performers and audiences . . . The emphasis on communities is also seen in the essays concerned with the political power that song can engender, found in tracks such as ‘Gracias a la Vida’, by the Chilean songwriter Violeta Parra, and ‘Strange Fruit’, the extraordinary song about lynching made famous by Billie Holiday. (Women, so often sidelined in music – both ‘élite’ and ‘popular’ – are impressively present throughout these pages.)
The essays in The Song Remains the Same, then, are not merely randomly organised but are connected through the book’s numerous repeating themes. There are also links (often playful) between contiguous essays. For instance, the essay on Kate Bush’s ‘Oh England My Lionheart’ is followed by an essay on ‘Ja nus hons pris’ by Richard the Lionheart. The whole book is organised like a perfectly sequenced playlist. Indeed, Heino’s companion Spotify playlist is an invaluable resource for readers of this book.
Song is culturally central in large part because of its affective power. What other form can so quickly produce such intense and various somatic responses? Songs make us cry, laugh, and dance. But more cerebral responses are equally important, as this stunningly good book shows. Ford’s and Heino’s essays are not only full of insights about individual songs, classes of songs, and song in general, but they are also full of jokes and wit. They are masterclasses in the short-essay form. Like a good song, they are brief, memorable, and compelling.
David McCooey, Australian Book Review