Road to Nowhere: Covering a Classic

Road to Nowhere: Covering a Classic

What’s the first CD you ever bought? Back in the 80’s, when those shiny new laser disks appeared in elongated cardboard packages, my first purchase was Talking Heads’ Little Creatures.  I enjoyed the entire album, but I particularly liked to play the final track, “Road to Nowhere,” on endless repeat.

ABOVE: Watch David Wallace & Friends perform Talking Heads’ “Road to Nowhere” at the 2016 MWROC festival.

Road to Nowhere in the Golden Era of MTV

In fact, MTV’s heavy rotation of “Road to Nowhere” was probably what prompted me to buy Little Creatures. Lead singer David Byrne always had artistic concepts and films for Talking Heads’ songs. “Road to Nowhere” remains my favorite for its symbolism and cinematography:

Byrne perpetually jogs on an invisible treadmill in the lower right hand corner. Meanwhile, other band members perpetually twist, age, and cycle through life’s major events.  If you watch the video in slow motion, or frame by frame, prepare to catch oddities you may have missed while staring at the jogging Byrne:

We briefly witness Trinity, the world’s first detonation of an atom bomb (0:59-1:01)

Road to Nowhere Trinity Atomic Test Film

Screenshot of the original Trinity atomic test film, briefly excerpted in the Talking Heads video

At 1:20, drummer Chris Frantz appears to have become a musical Sisyphus, dragging a heavy accordion up a steep hill.

And then we see sparring, rotating men wearing business suits and Mexican luchador masks (1:45). I can’t explain why this ten-second montage rings so true to me, but it does.

Does the stop-motion animation beginning at 2:55 looks familiar? That’s because it inspired the subsequent video for Peter Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer.”

Covering Road to Nowhere

At the 2016 MWROC Festival, I needed a set-closer to follow my new electric viola tone poem, Array of Irrevocable Light. Since “Array” digs deeply into nuclear wonders, threats, and problems, “Road to Nowhere” seemed a fitting conclusion. Why? Well, consider David Byrne’s summary of the song: “I wanted to write a song that presented a resigned, even joyful look at doom.” Although I intended to take my audience to some dark places, I also wanted to leave them joyful.

A few notable covers of “Road to Nowhere” exist. (For example, check out Jars of Clay or the Young at Heart Chorus). For my unique spin, I added violins, cello, and rhythm viola to the original orchestration. To me, the song feels as timely today as it did when I first spun Little Creatures in 1986.  Enjoy!

A Teaching Artist Nightmare

A Teaching Artist Nightmare

Do you dream about your work? A colleague of my father’s once invoiced an employer to compensate his sleeping hours. (Purportedly, he had solved a problem in a dream.) Because chemical engineers are expected to sleep on their own time, his request was denied.

Billing for dreams may sound ludicrous and pretentious, but I get it. Invest enough time and energy into your work, and it will seep into your subconscious and haunt your dreams.

Doc Wallace David Wallace Teaching Artist Nightmare New York Philharmonic

A young Doc Wallace breaks down a violin concerto for a New York Philharmonic music educator’s seminar. Photo Credit: Rob Klein

Teaching artists spend the majority of our waking hours helping others to connect to an artwork’s essence. When all goes well, people become transfixed or transformed by it. We dream about this, figuratively and literally.

On a good night, a teaching artist dream inspires a new, complete lesson plan: you have a vision of people standing in a circle and simulating a fugue as they bounce and pass basketballs. On a bad night, we relive the times that we miserably failed to bring others into the magic of a masterpiece. In the teaching artist nightmare, things get weird and nerdy pretty quickly. . .

A Teaching Artist Nightmare

A young Johannes Brahms sits defiantly enough to inspire a teaching artist nightmare

Johannes Brahms: Musical dreamboat or teaching artist nightmare?

Last night’s teaching artist dream was abysmal. At a noisy, crowded dinner party, the stranger seated beside me randomly asked me why I love Johannes Brahms’s Symphony No. 4 in E minor, Op. 98. (Go ahead; judge my repressed desires. . .)

Taken off guard, I rambled incoherently. Oh, I was passionate all right. I listed musically solid reasons: intervallic relationships, compound meters, architectonic layers of rhythmic pulsation. . . Perceptually speaking, though, I gave my polite listener absolutely nothing of value. (Did I mention Phrygian melodies?)

I summarized the finale’s greatness with a simple sentence:

“The fourth movement. . .”

[emotionally charged pause; right index finger rises unconsciously for added emphasis]

“. . . is a passacaglia!”

With that utterance, I choked up and held back tears. -In dreams, who doesn’t weep at the thought of an inspired, German genius concluding a romantic symphony by resurrecting a seventeenth century Spanish dance form?

-The normal guy sitting next to me, that’s who. He repays all my vapid effusion with a blank stare.

He’s right, of course. As an advocate, I’ve been an idiot. Abstracted from musical experience, my subjective emotions, formal analysis, historical knowledge, and classical music jargon provide no vehicle for listening, comprehending, or caring. The man neither hears what I’m hearing, nor knows what I’m knowing. He can’t tap my dopamine.

The Teaching Artist Nightmare Never Ends

So, the stranger tries to help by asking some well-meaning questions: “Yeah, but is it going anywhere? I mean, does it lead to something? Is there some kind of highlight?”

It’s my turn to stare blankly back.

So that’s it? For you, music goes somewhere? Symphonies revolve around a main event, some kind of climax that you can point to and say, “Whoah! How ‘bout that bass drum?!” The entirety of Brahms IV culminates in a marvelous passacaglia; did I not make that clear?!

“Well. . . kind of. Things really amp up at the golden section. But for me personally, the highlight is this flute solo. . . Um let me. . .”

I fumble around, looking for my score. (Doesn’t every teaching artist bring a reprint of the Vienna Gesellshaft der Musikfreunde’s complete Brahms symphonies to the dinner party?. . .)

I stop rummaging, realizing that I forgot to bring my music- a common occurrence in a teaching artist nightmare. Even if I had, notes on the page would have proven silent and impotent. My only recourse is to stand and sing the flute solo myself, finally channeling my passion into music rather than verbiage. I take a deep breath. . .

Mercifully, I awoke. I felt terrible.

Escaping the Teaching Artist Nightmare

This cartoon from the New Yorker nails it!

I felt awful because I had violated just about every tenet of effective teaching artistry. Instead of listening, I was talking. Instead of questioning, I was telling. Rather than cultivating a listener-centered inquiry into the symphony, I fell into the trap of focusing on my own personal enjoyment and interpretation.

Unfortunately, I drowned perfectly valid entry points with unexplained terminology. I conveyed information without engaging through actual musical experiences. Honestly, the guy didn’t really want to know why I love Brahms IV. On the contrary, he wanted to love Brahms IV himself.

I’m reminded why I give pre-concert talks with a fiddle in my hands and a piano at my side. I’m recalling why I make my learners conduct Brahms’s phrases, sing his melodies for themselves, or perform his complex rhythms as a group.

When you are teaching others, consider which technical terms you critically need to communicate, and which are superfluous and omissible. Ask questions of an artwork, rather than assuming that you already have all of the answers. Instead of forcing people into a prescribed experience, set them up to discover the highlights for themselves.

Let’s wake up. The strangers are listening.

-Doc Wallace, 9 February 2017

Dear Prudence – The Story Behind the Song

Dear Prudence – The Story Behind the Song


During The Beatles’ Indian sojourn, John Lennon wrote “Dear Prudence” as a serenade for Prudence Farrow, sister of actress Mia Farrow. Along with Mike Love of The Beach Boys and a handful of other celebrities, they all had traveled to India to study transcendental meditation with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.

After ten days, Ringo Starr left. (Apparently, the food disagreed with him. The desired spiritual results eluded him as well). Paul McCartney left the meditation course after a month to pursue other commitments.  However, George Harrison and John Lennon persisted for another couple of weeks alongside the Farrow sisters and several others.

“Dear Prudence, Won’t You Come Out to Play?”

According to Lennon, Prudence had withdrawn to her hut, meditating nonstop. “She’d been locked in for three weeks and wouldn’t come out, trying to reach God quicker than anybody else. That was the competition in Maharishi’s camp: who was going to get cosmic first.”

Worried friends selected John to reach out to Prudence and encourage her to socialize. As John puts it at the end of this early demo of his song:

“No one was to know that sooner or later she was to go completely berserk, under the care of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. All the people around were very worried about the girl because she was going insannnnnnne. . .So, we sang to her.”

From all accounts, Lennon’s simple serenade had a positive impact.

“Dear Prudence, Won’t You Open Up Your Eyes?”

Eventually, John and George left India, disillusioned with the Maharishi. (He was rumored to be womanizing.) Moreover, to John, the Maharishi seemed more interested in earthly wealth and fame than spiritual matters.

As a rebuke, Lennon wrote a scathing song entitled “Maharishi.” The lyrics castigate the Maharishi for breaking his own rules and for making fools out of his disciples. Out of respect for the positive lessons they had learned from him, George persuaded John to change the protagonist of “Maharishi” to “Sexy Sadie.”

“It’s Beautiful, and So Are You”

However, “Dear Prudence” remains unchanged from its original form. Lennon’s gently coaxing masterpiece reminds us that for a healthy spirituality, we mustn’t hermetically withdraw from the world. Rather, we must open our eyes, perceive, smile, and interact.

So that’s the message I shared with the audience in this set-closing psychedelic jam at the 2015 MWROC festival. Have a listen! Come out to play.

David Wallace: electric viola & vocals

Laura Kaye: vocals

Matt Vanacoro: keyboards & vocals

Sean Grisson: cello

Rob Bambach: electric guitar

Paul Ranieri: bass

Jason Gianni: drum set

Charles Ives Meets Metallica. . .

Charles Ives Meets Metallica. . .

Ives Stamp1997

All hail the Charles Ives commemorative stamp!

Study the life of Charles Ives. Learn about his father’s musical experiments and ear training exercises. George Edward Ives (Charles’ father) would tune a piano a quarter tone off-key for playing duets with a “properly” tuned piano. He’d make young Charlie sing a song in one key while playing it in another. He marched brass bands towards each other while they were playing different songs in different keys and different meters. From a distance, Young Charlie observed and listened.

EXPERIMENTING WITH IVES

One day, I decided to recreate Ives’s father’s experiments. I set up two boom boxes on opposite sides of a large room, and blasted recordings of two contrasting Sousa marches simultaneously.

Try it! Walk around and explore that world of clashing dissonance.  Enjoy the synchronous moments that sound like the two bands are musically responding to each other.

Eventually, this experiment became an annual event in my Music Studies for Dancers seminar at the Juilliard School. I’ll never forget the expression of pure ecstasy on one Juilliard dancer’s face as he found that sweet spot midway between the two stereos. Oh, the bliss of those disparate sound waves colliding upon you with ineffable synergy!

THE HEAVY METAL IVES EXPERIMENT

Tonight, while studying a post about classic electric bass lines, I stumbled into a similar experiment. A hidden window on my computer would not stop playing Tool’s “Schism” after I had started Metallica’s “Orion.” [Do try this at home, kids!]

Unfortunately, everything was coming out of the same lousy built-in Macbook speakers. (Because these speakers lack bass, volume, and spatial distance, internal speakers severely reduce the inherent antiphonal, polymetric potential of this musical collision). Nevertheless, the effect was powerful enough to made me wonder. . .

What if George Edward Ives had lived in the late 20th century and had liked heavy metal?. . . Instead of two brass bands, what if he had employed Tool and Metallica in his experiments?

Run and get yourself two equally loud audio systems and a room big enough to handle them. Then, go nuts with this idea and share what you learn. Apply what you discover.

-Doc Wallace, 7 January 2016

Thank You, Maestro Kurt Masur

Thank You, Maestro Kurt Masur

Today, the New York Philharmonic announced the passing of Music Director Emeritus, Kurt Masur. In the early 1990s, I had the privilege of performing under his hands as a student at Mannes College of Music and The Juilliard School. Later, I worked as a Teaching Artist in the School Partnership Program (founded by Kurt Masur and the New York Philharmonic), and I regularly gave pre-concert workshops and lectures for his performances. From these perspectives, I wish to express thanks and to highlight some of Masur’s many contributions.

Thank you, Kurt Masur.

Thank you for some of the finest performances I have ever heard. Especially, thank you for bringing Yevgeny Yevtushenko to perform an electrifying poetry recital before you performed Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 13 in Bb minor, “Babi Yar.” with the New York Philharmonic.

After such a symphonic apotheosis of Yevtushenko’s poetry, a thirteen-minute standing ovation didn’t seem long enough. Our world badly needs palpable artworks that directly challenge governments to confront racism and genocide. Thank you for repeatedly demonstrating how music and musicians can bring peace, healing, and unity in troubled times.

Thank you for new music.

Bless you for commissioning Sofia Gubaidulina to compose Two PathsYou knew our world needed phenomenally expressive double viola concerto. Moreover, you knew what the New York Philharmonic’s virtuosic viola principals, Cynthia Phelps and Rebecca Young could do.

Thank you for Bach.

Autographed Bach St. Matthew's Passion Score Kurt Masur

Kurt Masur refused to take a bow after his 2008 New York Philharmonic performances of St. Matthew’s Passion, but he did sign the score I used to prepare the pre-concert talks.

Maestro, following your 2008 performances of J. S. Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion, you wouldn’t take a bow or even step back up to the podium. Instead, you held the score high above the platform, and offered the glory to Bach and to God.

Thank you for teaching.

Whether you were rehearsing students or professionals, you gave historical context, musical insights, and explanations of tradition. Thank you for singing, gesticulating, and cajoling until we all got it. Though I didn’t even play it, I still can hear you singing the viola solo from Kodály’s Háry János Suite.

Thank you for Bruckner and Mendelssohn, too.

Thank you for bringing out Anton Bruckner’s spirituality and his quintessentially Austrian folk influences. Your elegance and depth helped me to understand his symphonies for the first time. You did the same for masterworks of Felix Mendelssohn.

Thank you for jazz.

Thank you for celebrating and conducting the music of American composers, especially Duke Ellington. You introduced so many young musicians to Three Black Kings; Black, Brown, and Beige; and A Tone Parallel to Harlem. To help us understand how to articulate jazzy syncopations, you exhorted us to listen to vintage big band recordings. Listening helped tremendously.

Thank you for music education.

You said that every public school elementary school student should graduate with a diploma in one hand and a recorder in the other. Some of us questioned the idea at first. However, recorders proved effective tools for performing, improvising, composing, and internalizing musical themes.

You should have seen students walking down Harlem streets playing “Ode to Joy” of their own freewill while wearing their caps and gowns. It still happens, over twenty years later.

Thank you, Kurt Masur

Finally, on a more personal note, thank you for collecting and wearing bolo ties, whether or not New York fashion hounds approved. And thank you for always smiling, looking down, and asking, “How are you?!”

-Doc Wallace, Dec. 19, 2015

Personas for Rachel Barton Pine

Personas for Rachel Barton Pine

I am thrilled to announce the world premiere of Personas, my five-movement solo sonata commissioned by violin virtuoso Rachel Barton Pine. Rachel premieres Personas at the Michigan Festival of Sacred Music on November 13th. In accordance with the festival’s sacred theme, Rachel has creatively programmed a recital inspired by Abrahamic traditions. The first half consists of Baroque works by Bach, Biber, and Corelli; in contrast, the second half features modern works by Yale Strom, Mohammed Fairouz, and myself. [Get your tickets here!]

Still life of "Ruth," the third movement of "Personas."

Still life shot at my kitchen table in New York City on August 8, 2013 while composing “Ruth,” the central movement of “Personas.”

Writing Personas was truly a labor of love, with a compositional process spanning a full two years. I challenged myself to realize the full potential of Rachel’s phenomenal musicianship and stylistic range. To that end, I drew from diverse musical reservoirs, including bluegrass, heavy metal, Hebrew prayer-modes and folk songs, bel canto operatic cadenzas, Paganiniana, and baroque counterpoint. Rachel is truly one of the few violinists who can navigate so many diverse styles and genres equally well.

In mid-October, I traveled to Chicago to meet with Rachel for an intensive 24-hour session of sharing, coaching, experimenting, and revising. Two days before my flight, I experienced a customary bout of “composer’s panic.” [“What if this piece really is awful? What if those chords don’t work? “Maybe I was thinking too much like a violist in this passage?”]. Silly me! In Rachel’s hands, every note easily surpassed my best hopes and expectations. One day of working together proved sufficient to refine Personas into its final form.

The Chicago skyline view from Rachel Barton Pine's music studio.

The Chicago skyline viewed from Rachel Barton Pine’s music studio.

I hope to see you at the premiere or to share a recording soon!  In the meanwhile, please enjoy a synopsis:

Personas

In August 2013, Rachel Barton Pine asked me to write “something of you, for me.” She was unaware that I was already in the process of adapting Nahum: An Apocalyptic Prophesy (a heavy metal instrumental for six-string electric viola) for her unplugged, standard violin.

After some excited discussion, we agreed that I would compose a five-movement sonata based upon Nahum and four other diverse and compelling Biblical personas. Because we both value inclusion, we agreed to make great women a priority.

The soloist embodies the characters’ personas. In some cases, the music parallels their actual messages or narratives. In others, the music projects an essence.

I composed the sonata in arch form: lighter, energetic outer movements flank dramatic, complex inner movements. In turn, the inner movements border an emotional, lyrical central movement. Personas commences and concludes with ecstatic rejoicing. Along the way, we encounter a prophesy of doom, a love story, and an intricate, suspenseful political thriller. Meet the personas:

Mary of Bethany:

Mary of Bethany is the sister of Martha and Lazarus, whom Jesus publicly raised from the dead. She is most remembered for sitting at Jesus’ feet listening instead of helping her sister prepare for a meal. She also anointed Jesus’ feet with her hair and priceless ointment, just days before his crucifixion. In this movement, the soloist projects the joy and reverie Mary finds in the presence of the divine and in knowing the power of resurrection.

Nahum:

Doc Wallace Rachel Barton Pine Chicago October 2015

Rachel Barton Pine and David Wallace after a successful 24 hours immersed in the score of “Personas.”

A few generations after Jonah, the Hebrew prophet Nahum delivers another message of impending doom to the people of Nineveh, capitol city of the ancient Assyrian empire. In beautiful language, but graphic and unsettling terms, Nahum foretells an ultimate end to the Lord’s patience with a violent, imperialistic nation. The prophet predicts a siege, a flood, and the bloody and fiery annihilation of the Ninevites. Unusually sonic in his imagery, Nahum’s oracle describes galloping warhorses, clattering chariots, clashing swords, ravening lions, wailing refugees, whirlwinds, storms, and widespread panic. The prophesy was fulfilled to the letter when Nineveh fell to the combined forces of the Babylonians, Medes, and Scythians in 612 BC. Our soloist channels the essence of Nahum’s prophesy through a four- string acoustic violin.

Ruth:

If the Book of Ruth conveyed only the courtship of Ruth (a young, expatriate widow), and Boaz, (a righteous, aging, wealthy, but solitary, childless man), its tenderness would still make it one of the great love stories of the ancient world. However, the book transcends two-dimensional romance. Some of the most moving and famous passages depict the deeply loving and faithful relationship between Ruth and her bereaved mother-in-law, Naomi. (Without intervention, both faced an impoverished and heirless existence.)

In this movement, the soloist portrays the story’s emotional drama as related through Naomi and Ruth’s recurring conversations. We hear Naomi’s perspective in the more troubled, dissonant passages; Ruth melodiously speaks through the warmth and assurance of A flat major. Improvisatory cadenzas give voice to changing perspectives, potentialities, realities, and dialogues.

In this interpretation of Ruth, Boaz does not speak directly. Rather, the majestic, penultimate, climactic section belongs to the narrator. The narrator proclaims blessings, marriage, and consummation, then traces Boaz’s genealogy (and the couple’s subsequent progeny) through several generations to King David. The humble tale ends royally, but in this telling, Ruth gets the last word.

Esther:

Still Life of Musical Score of Esther from Personas for Rachel Barton Pine

Still-life shot immediately after composing the final episode and coda of “Esther,” the fugal fourth movement of “Personas.” (April 18, 2015)

Esther, Jewish queen of the Persian king, Ahasuerus (Xerxes I), remains one of the most celebrated heroines in Judaism. With shrewd guidance from her cousin and adoptive father Mordecai, Esther uses her beauty, diplomacy, and rhetorical skills to save her people from a genocidal plot instigated by Haman, an arrogant, powerful noble.

The music begins with a modal, improvisatory invocation, which unveils important musical motives and introduces a three-voice fugue. The soloist chronologically relates the entire drama from Esther’s soprano perspective, balanced by Mordecai’s tenor and bass.

Ever-changing harmonies and keys transform the fugue theme as the plot thickens. At times, the soloist becomes more omniscient or gives voice to the thoughts and plans of Haman and his wife, Zeresh. Intervening episodes freely develop fugue material, as well as melodies borrowed from the liturgy and folk songs of Purim1.

At the crux of the story, Esther reveals Haman’s treachery against Mordecai, who had previously foiled a plot to assassinate King Ahasuerus. The king is outraged. Haman appeals for mercy, but instead, he is hung on the gallows he had been preparing for Mordecai. To conclude, the Feast of Purim is decreed, and the triumphant celebration of Esther’s extraordinary heroism continues to this day. . .

John, Son of Zebedee:

John: Son of Zebedee; son of thunder; brother of James; fisherman; prophet; disciple whom Jesus loved; witness to the Transfiguration; author of one gospel, three epistles, and the apocalyptic Book of Revelation. Saint John.

John’s writings (and writings about him) reveal him to be strong, gentle, powerful, mystical, ambitious, self-effacing, personal, paternal, earthy, cosmic. As a whole, his words encompass the terrestrial, the celestial, the temporal, and the eternal.

To capture John’s visionary perspective, the musical variations combine pyrotechnic Paganiniana with grassy southern fiddling. In essence, the soloist exults in musical realms that simultaneously span the natural and the supernatural. (Yes, the variations are partly inspired by decades of improvising on the popular Gospel standard, “I’ll Fly Away!”)

Although each movement can be performed individually, combined, the movements of Personas create a broader context and message. In the hands of a virtuoso, John: Son of Zebedee makes a rousing encore on its own. However, as a culminating movement following Mary, Nahum, Ruth, and EstherJohn drives home Personas’ central theme: divine hands transfigure ordinary lives.

David Wallace 19 August 2015  (Soli Deo Gloria)

1 Jewish holiday commemorating and celebrating the story of Esther.

A Surreal Drugstore Encounter with Hank Williams & Charlie Parker

A Surreal Drugstore Encounter with Hank Williams & Charlie Parker

Every now and then, my inner-city radar picks up something that is not quite right. In these moments, my subconscious throttles my awareness because the atmosphere is wrong. -Something is about to happen. Something peripheral is asserting itself. The circumstances do not match the circumstances; be ready to react!

Once upon a Labor Day. . .

I was picking up some odds and ends at a Rite Aid Pharmacy in Washington Heights right under the George Washington Bridge. As I compared per-ounce prices of various products and pondered whether Rite-Aid’s generic knock-off of Mr. Clean’s Magic Eraser was truly as meritorious as its box proclaimed, my nervous system went into high alert. I felt particularly startled because nobody was standing close enough to cause it. A split second later, I realized why I had suddenly dropped a can of Ajax and looked up at the ceiling: it was the steel guitar.

Instead of hearing muzak, hip-hop, pop, salsa, or smooth jazz on the Rite Aid P. A. system, I was actually hearing a steel guitar. Not just any steel guitar, mind you- this was one of the most recognizable and beautifully recorded steel guitar licks of all time. My jaw dropped. Here, in a drugstore at West 179th Street and Broadway, Hank Williams Senior‘s original posthumous 1953 hit recording, Your Cheatin’ Heart, was filling the air.

Exhibit A: Hank Williams (NOT Muzak!)


At first, I didn’t quite know what to do; this wasn’t supposed to be happening. It’s not so unusual for me to dream musical incongruities, but I was certain I was perfectly awake. The music seemed slightly louder than usual for a drugstore; I glanced around to see if anyone else detected anything unusual. The women coming down my aisle browsed and conversed in Spanish as if they heard nothing but their own voices.  I stood still, listening, involuntarily and silently mouthing a word or two as Hank entered with his inimitable vocals:

Your cheatin’ heart 
Will make you weep
You’ll cry and cry
And try to sleep

I decided I’d better continue shopping before two security guards (looking my way) mistakenly decided I was the anomaly that demanded immediate attention.

I made some swift decisions about cleaning agents and moved to the next aisle.  A young Rite Aid stocker stacked Cheerios boxes and mumbled along, dropping syllables and consonants as he phonetically rendered the instrumental breaks: “Slee’ won’ come. . . Bearw! Bearw! Bearw!. . .whole night through. . .Hmmm cheatin’ heart. . . . will tell on you!” Although this made the scene a little weirder, something about the nonchalance and absentmindedness of his singing encouraged my own mind to drift again.

A Timelessness Time-Trip

When did I first hear this song, anyway? I don’t even know. It’s something that’s always been there like the sun or the moon or gravity. . . my father occasionally used to sing it and accompany himself on guitar. I used to spin a 45 RPM record of it that I either permanently borrowed from him or got from a garage sale. In Texas during the seventies, the song could still make an occasional appearance on the radio, at a pizza parlor, or on the country music shows that formed the mainstay of primetime weekend television.

Brushing aside an impulse to ponder the song’s sudden reappearance for any omens or personal relevance, I envisioned the music filling a darkened bar or a diner in Harlem almost sixty years ago . . .

Legendary be-bop musician Charlie Parker was notorious for pumping Harlem jukeboxes full of nickels as he punched in requests for Hank Williams tunes. His friends ribbed him for it:

“Bird, how can you listen to that hillbilly music?!  It’s so corny!”

“Listen to the words, man; do you listen to the words?!”

Parker died only a few years after Williams, but I’m sure he spun this record many times. I’ve never quite managed to connect the chromatic complexity of a chart like Parker’s “Hot House” with the earthy directness of a three-chord Williams ballad. Once again I struggled to build an aesthetic link from one to the other.

Exhibit B: Charlie Parker’s Hot House (Also NOT Muzak!)

But I couldn’t bridge that gap, nor could I imagine what Charlie Parker might have been thinking as he silently brooded over his beer and listened to Hank’s sad story unfold because I was becoming aware of some strange sounds emanating from deep within the Rite Aid stock room. Once again, I had the sense that something wasn’t right, but this time I couldn’t identify the sounds. I only knew that they were vaguely human.

Then it hit me: somebody is yodeling.  Badly.

The sporadic muffled yodels unpredictably joined the song at various intervals. Either somebody in the stockroom was loving the music and having a great time exulting in it, or he was mercilessly mocking it and Williams’ tendency to pass fluidly and frequently between his head and chest voice in the great American passaggio tradition of artists like Jimmy Rogers.

-Or worse. Maybe this whole scene was the brainchild of some sadistic manager who was using Hank Williams’ music for evil. I tried to stifle the image: a bound, blue-and-red-uniformed Rite-Aid employee is being tortured. He’s being forced to yodel along to an endless-repeat cycle of “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” until he finally breaks into a chorus of “Please Release Me,” flees the building and drowns his sorrows at Dizzy’s Club Coca Cola, where he can listen to an Upstarts! group perform a sophisticated, Charlie Parker retrospective set curated by [email protected] Center, after which there will be absolutely no Hank Williams tunes playing on the nonexistent jukebox.

Somebody even deeper within the bowels of Rite Aid laughed and bantered happily. The yodeling continued.

Your Cheatin’ Heart Will Tell on You

Slowly, I realized this was not a yodel of duress. Whether exulting or ridiculing or merely groaning because he had to endure somebody else’s favorite music, the employee in the back was definitely having a good time. Like it or not, great music of any kind refuses to be ignored.

No longer on alert, I savored the moment. In twenty-two years of living in New York City, I had never heard any Hank Williams music in any store. It will likely never happen again, unless the guys in the Rite Aid stockroom have a deep and abiding love for timeless music. (Or a penchant for the quirky inside jokes that help us to tolerate tedious work environments.) Bring it home, Hank!

When tears come down,
Like falling rain,
You’ll toss around,
And call my name,
You’ll walk the floor,
The way I do,
Your cheatin’ heart, will tell on you… 

After the steel guitar tag faded away, a forgettable, more contemporary country song softly wafted through the P.A. system. Appropriately, everyone ignored it. The scene gradually shifted to resemble any other chain drugstore in New York City.

-Some brilliant producer needs to bring back the steel guitar and the yodel.

Happy Labor Day weekend!

-Doc Wallace