According to Rolling Stone, here’s where Howlin’ Wolf’s song “Smokestack Lightnin'” got its name:

The inspiration, said Wolf, was watching trains cut through the night: “We used to sit out in the country and see the trains go by, watch the sparks come out of the smokestack. That was smokestack lightning.”

Here’s a video of Wolf himself doing the song, along with a little howlin’:

AB — 22 June 2011

The announcement of the winner of the National Hollerin’ Contest held over the past weekend in Spivey’s Corner, North Carolina, USA, reminded me of this time-honored southern tradition. I first became aware of it when a rock festival I attended about 40 years ago included a marvelous performance by the winner of the contest, who hollered a fantastic version of “Old Time Religion.”

This year, Tony Peacock of Siler City, NC, won the contest with a rendition of Gershwin’s “Summertime,” hollered in just under four minutes. See the announcement today in the News & Observer: “N.C. hollerer wins with ‘Summertime.'”

There are some things that can happen only in North Carolina, and this is one of them. (Other examples are Benson’s Mule Days, the town of Lizard Lick, and the correct understanding of what constitutes barbecue — but we can discuss those another day.)

It’s a crime that there is no video of Peacock’s performance on YouTube, but this video from a few years ago has some nice examples of hollerin’, ending with a version of “Amazing Grace”:

In this video, the hollerer does a little lecturing about the practice:

AB — 22 June 2010

Not only has the music group the Grateful Dead created a musical and cultural phenomenon, but as a very successful business, they make a good case study in management.

That’s the conclusion drawn by Joshua Green, writing for The Atlantic — see “Management Secrets of the Grateful Dead,” March 2010.

American Beauty album cover at NY Historical SocietyGreen’s article is inspired by the recent announcement that the members of the Grateful Dead would be donating their archives to the University of California at Santa Cruz. UCSC will be using the archives to create extensive publicly-available resources. The institution is currently processing the materials, but you can read about their progress at The Grateful Dead Archive. Initial materials from the archive are on exhibit now through July 4, 2010, at the New-York Historical Society — see “Grateful Dead: Now Playing at the New-York Historical Society.”

Green reviews the curious and controversial history of academic scholarship focused on the Grateful Dead but highlights an interesting truth of the Dead’s story — they were and are a very successful business, and much of that is due to their enlightened focus on providing customer value. Green writes that,

Without intending to—while intending, in fact, to do just the opposite—the band pioneered ideas and practices that were subsequently embraced by corporate America. One was to focus intensely on its most loyal fans. It established a telephone hotline to alert them to its touring schedule ahead of any public announcement, reserved for them some of the best seats in the house, and capped the price of tickets, which the band distributed through its own mail-order house. If you lived in New York and wanted to see a show in Seattle, you didn’t have to travel there to get tickets—and you could get really good tickets, without even camping out. “The Dead were masters of creating and delivering superior customer value,” Barry Barnes, a business professor at the H. Wayne Huizenga School of Business and Entrepreneurship at Nova Southeastern University, in Florida, told me….

As Barnes and other scholars note, the musicians who constituted the Dead were anything but naive about their business. They incorporated early on, and established a board of directors (with a rotating CEO position) consisting of the band, road crew, and other members of the Dead organization. They founded a profitable merchandising division and, peace and love notwithstanding, did not hesitate to sue those who violated their copyrights. But they weren’t greedy, and they adapted well. They famously permitted fans to tape their shows, ceding a major revenue source in potential record sales. According to Barnes, the decision was not entirely selfless: it reflected a shrewd assessment that tape sharing would widen their audience, a ban would be unenforceable, and anyone inclined to tape a show would probably spend money elsewhere, such as on merchandise or tickets. The Dead became one of the most profitable bands of all time.

In the early days of Internet marketing, I remember reading the article by Dead songwriter John Perry Barlow, in Wired magazine of March 1994, “The Economy of Ideas: A framework for patents and copyrights in the Digital Age. (Everything you know about intellectual property is wrong.)” I was impressed at the time by his prescient grasp of the intellectual-property issues presented by the Internet and online commerce.

In that article, Barlow wrote:

With physical goods, there is a direct correlation between scarcity and value. Gold is more valuable than wheat, even though you can’t eat it. While this is not always the case, the situation with information is often precisely the reverse. Most soft goods increase in value as they become more common. Familiarity is an important asset in the world of information. It may often be true that the best way to raise demand for your product is to give it away….

In regard to my own soft product, rock ‘n’ roll songs, there is no question that the band I write them for, the Grateful Dead, has increased its popularity enormously by giving them away. We have been letting people tape our concerts since the early seventies, but instead of reducing the demand for our product, we are now the largest concert draw in America, a fact that is at least in part attributable to the popularity generated by those tapes.

True, I don’t get any royalties on the millions of copies of my songs which have been extracted from concerts, but I see no reason to complain. The fact is, no one but the Grateful Dead can perform a Grateful Dead song, so if you want the experience and not its thin projection, you have to buy a ticket from us. In other words, our intellectual property protection derives from our being the only real-time source of it.

Insights from thinkers like Barlow led me to write my 1995 e-book, The Smart Business Guide to Internet Marketing, one of the first e-books published and sold online (now archived for free at Optimization Marketing). In fact, Barlow was one of the people who bought a copy, although I don’t flatter myself by thinking there was much in it that he hadn’t already thought of.

I think a key insight from the Grateful Dead case study is that a successful business ultimately has to rest on customer relationships. Interactive media and technologies place unprecedented control in the hands of customers, and the smart business these days is the one that realizes that the success of its brand will rest on its customer experience.

In the Atlantic article, Barlow tells Green,

What people today are beginning to realize is what became obvious to us back then—the important correlation is the one between familiarity and value, not scarcity and value. Adam Smith taught that the scarcer you make something, the more valuable it becomes. In the physical world, that works beautifully. But we couldn’t regulate [taping at] our shows, and you can’t online. The Internet doesn’t behave that way. But here’s the thing: if I give my song away to 20 people, and they give it to 20 people, pretty soon everybody knows me, and my value as a creator is dramatically enhanced. That was the value proposition with the Dead.

AB — 16 May 2010

I was astonished to learn today that the lyrics to the 1960s hit “Louie Louie” are not obscene, as we speculated endlessly as teenagers. (See “What are the REAL lyrics to ‘Louie Louie’?” on The Straight Dope.)

The KingsmenAccording to The Wacky Top 40, by Bruce Nash and Allan Zullo, The Kingsmen, who recorded the song in 1963, were surprised to learn that people thought they heard obscene lyrics when listening to the song. The group’s drummer is quoted as saying, “At one time we saw 35 different copies of the lyrics and they were all completely different, depending on what part of the country you were from.”

He says the lyrics were so hard to understand because the lead singer was too far away from the microphone in the recording studio.

According to The Straight Dope, the author of the song, Richard Berry, told an interviewer that the song is meant to be “the lament of a seafaring man, spoken to a sympathetic bartender named Louie.”

It’s a beautiful, touching song. Here are the actual lyrics, as given in the Dr. Demento lyrics database:

Louie Louie
by Richard Berry

Louie Louie

Oh no, me gotta go.

Louie Louie

Oh baby, me gotta go.

A fine little girl, she wait for me,

Me catch the ship across the sea.

I sailed the ship all alone,

I never think how I’ll make it home.

Louie Louie

Oh no, no, no, me gotta go, oh no

Louie Louie

Oh baby, me gotta go.

Three nights and days I sailed the sea.

Me think of girl constantly.

On the ship I dream she there.

I smell the rose in her hair.

Louie Louie

Oh no, me gotta go, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.

Louie Louie

Oh baby me gotta go.

(Okay, let’s give it to ’em right now!)

Me see Jamaica moon above.

It won’t be long me see me love

Me take her in my arms and then

I tell her I’ll never leave again.

Louie Louie

Oh no, me gotta go

Louie Louie

Oh baby, me gotta go.

I said we gotta go,

Let’s get on outta here.

Let’s go.

AB — 7 May 2010

I was happy to find a YouTube version of this Kodak ad from about 1963. I’m not sure why a 12-year-old would understand how it feels to watch your children grow up, but I remember I used to cry watching this ad.

I would have to say this is good advertising — makes a strong emotional connection with the viewer and an excellent tie-in to the product. Until today, I hadn’t seen this ad for over 40 years, but I still remembered that it was for Kodak.

Interestingly, the ad is two minutes long. I understand that the song “Turn Around” is by songwriter Malvina Reynolds.

AB — 7 April 2010

Since I started using TiVo a few years ago, I’ve been impressed time and again by the extent to which the digital video recorder (DVR) changes the experience of television — it can open up the “long tail” of TV in amazing ways (see Chris Anderson’s 2006 Wired article, “The Long Tail,” for an explanation of what that means).

For me, the latest example is VH1’s occasional show, “Classic in Concert,” which I never would have learned about had it not been for my practice every so often of reviewing all upcoming shows in TiVo’s alphabetical list.

“Classic in Concert” televises videos of live concerts, some recent, some quite old. Many of them have no interest to me (KISS, ZZ Top) and can go right in the trash. But recently I did enjoy watching concerts by Blind Faith and Brian Wilson, which were well worth the viewing time.

Following are some notes on those concert videos. Unfortunately, “Classic in Concert” appears to have no web home, so there’s nothing great I can find to link to, other than some YouTube videos of doubtful provenance.

Blind Faith’s 1969 Hyde Park Concert

This was a fascinating archaeological treasure, a movie of what might have been the world’s first glimpse of the collaboration between Eric Clapton post-Cream and Steve Winwood post-Traffic (Winwood later returned to Traffic).

Blind Faith also included percussionist Ginger Baker and bassist Ric Grech. I was surprised to learn that Ginger Baker is still alive — guess he got away with it. Grech died in 1990, according to his Wikipedia bio.

I’ve never paid a lot of attention to Steve Winwood, but the video has helped me put a face to the haunting voice in the recordings of Blind Faith and Traffic. I never realized what an enormous mouth he has, but he does well with it.

In the Hyde Park video, Clapton seems subdued and keeps to the background. That fits with what his Wikipedia bio says — apparently Clapton felt that the concert was premature and that Blind Faith hadn’t practiced enough:

[Clapton] thought that the band’s playing was sub-par and that the adulation was undeserved and reminiscent of his Cream days when the crowds would applaud for nearly everything. Clapton, knowing the band had not rehearsed enough and was unprepared, was reluctant to tour and feared that the band would develop into a Cream repeat.

The music is indeed pretty rough — you can tell the group was relatively unpracticed — and Winwood is often off-key. Even so, it’s fun to see.

Clapton has some great videos on his official web site, but nothing of Blind-Faith vintage. Here’s a YouTube video of “Can’t Find My Way Home” as performed at the Hyde Park concert.

Brian Wilson’s Live Redo of Pet Sounds

The other video I watched recently on “Classic in Concert” was a live performance (2003 in London, I believe) of music from the Beach Boys’ 1966 album Pet Sounds.

Now in his 60s, I think Wilson can be forgiven for being a little off-key and no longer able to hit the high notes. Heck, Stevie Winwood was even more off-key at Hyde Park when he was 21. It’s inherent in the live-concert venue — you’re never going to get the perfection of a studio recording.

The band Wilson uses in the concert does a good job of reproducing the classic Beach-Boys sound, although some of its members might have had great-grandparents in the audience.

In some brief interview comments at the end of the video, Wilson reflects on the Beach Boys’ competition with the Beatles during the late 1960s. He compares Pet Sounds to the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band — a dubious comparison, in my opinion. While it might be true that the two groups were in competition for raw popularity at the time, I would be hard-pressed to rank Wilson’s output with the innovative genius of the Lennon-McCartney collaboration.

Much as I enjoyed the video, I’m not wild about the Pet Sounds music. However, the concert does include beautiful versions of Wilson’s arrangement of the traditional “Sloop John B.” and his song “Good Vibrations” (which was from Smile rather than Pet Sounds). At the time it came out, I thought of “Good Vibrations” as just another me-too psychedelic release. But over the years, I’ve come to appreciate it much more, and I now regard it as a masterwork and a great composition.

Brian Wilson has some fine recent concert videos on his official web site. From NPR’s article “Brian Wilson in Concert,” you can listen to a 2008 live recording.

AB — 3 February 2010

In case you haven’t figured it out yet, the expression “blue moon” usually has nothing to do with the moon’s color.

Tonight’s full moon is a “blue moon,” meaning it’s the second full moon of December 2009 — one of those things that doesn’t happen very often, as the moon is full every 28 days and the longest months are 31 days. We get a blue moon once every two or three years.

History of the Blue Moon

Historically, the phrase “blue moon” has been used mostly as a general term for a very unusual event, according to the Wikipedia entry. It’s only been used to refer to the second full moon in a month since 1946.

Wikipedia gives two alternative explanations for the origin of the term:

1. A 1528 pamphlet critical of the clergy, which ranted that “Yf they say the mone is belewe / We must believe that it is true.” So this indicates that the phrase was used to refer to “absurdities and impossibilities” in general.

2. The other explanation rests on an alternative meaning for “belewe” in Old English: betrayer. In this case, the moon could be called a betrayer if it led to a mistake in calculating when Easter should occur.

The Blue Moon in Song

The “Blue Moon” has been the subject of popular songs — following are some of the greatest (all these links take you to samples of the cuts mentioned):

“Blue Moon” — Maybe the best-known version is the doo-wop version recorded by the Marcels in 1961. The song was actually written in 1934 by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart. It’s been recorded by many artists, but my personal favorite is Bob Dylan’s version on his 1989 Self Portrait album.

“Blue Moon of Kentucky” — A bluegrass song written by Bill Monroe, but also recorded in a more rockin’ version by Elvis Presley. I think my favorite version, though, is the one by Patsy Cline.

“Blue Moon Nights” — Appears on John Fogerty’s excellent solo album Blue Moon Swamp.

“Once in a Very Blue Moon” — My favorite “blue moon” song of all is this exquisite number by Nancy Griffith, co-written with Pat Alger.

Interestingly, the Wikipedia entry does say that sometimes the moon actually can look blue because of smoke or dust in the atmosphere.

AB — 31 December 2009