The 1,001 Greatest Songs of the 20th Century – 620 to 611
620. “One by One,” Billy Bragg and Wilco. Songwriters: Woody Guthrie, Jeff Tweedy; Did Not Chart; 1998. Billy Bragg, “Woody (Guthrie) came from the English folk-song tradition, songs of 30 verses and no reprise. I would argue he’s the last of that ballad tradition and on the cusp of where folk music stops being folk and became music where people know who wrote it. He was the first singer-songwriter.” On “One by One,” Guthrie wrote about his inexorable march to death, watching the seconds of his life tick away while hoping that his relationship with his lover will last eternally (“One by one my hair is turning gray/One by one my dreams are fading fast away”). Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, who still regularly performs material from the 1998 “Mermaid Avenue” album in concert, “I think Guthrie is one of the primary sources for American songwriters. As a kid growing up, I absorbed his music and his voice. It was elemental for me.”
619. “Wild and Blue,” John Anderson. Songwriter: John Scott Sherrill; #1 country; 1982. “Wild and Blue,” a song about heartbreak and self-destruction, was John Anderson’s first #1 country single, although it is much less remembered than 1983’s “Swingin’.” Appropriately, for a John Anderson outing, the sound is as country as moonshine and kicks like a Tennessee mule. Songwriter John Scott Sherrill, “I’d been breaking up with my wife and I’d been seeing this other gal who was definitely wild and blue. She’s the girl in that song. She could party and rock harder than anyone I’d known, and just keeping up with her was like a full time job. I’d been sitting around trying to get the phrase ‘Wild Blue Yonder’ in a song, and I started thinking about my girlfriend at the time, and all of the sudden I realized she was the one that was wild and blue.” Anderson sounds like he got some kind of steroid shot to twang so vehemently. Also, check out cover versions sung by two outstanding female artists – Sally Timms of the Mekons and Lucinda Williams.
618. “Think,” The “5” Royales. Songwriter: Lowman Pauling; #66 pop/#9 R&B; 1957. The “5” Royales formed as a gospel group in Winston-Salem, North Carolina and evolve into one of the most influential R&B acts of the 1950s. Singer Jimmy Moore, “For a while, we were doing both secular and gospel song and the secular recordings did a little better than the gospel. And that was that.” Moore is asking for romantic reconsideration on “Think,” but musically it’s most interesting for its stop/start rhythms and Lowman Pauling’s thick, bluesy guitar licks. Rock critic Ed Ward, “Lowman Pauling was a phenomenal guitar player. And once his snaky asymmetrical lines became part of the records, they started to sell.” “Think” was radically reworked by James Brown in 1960, resulting in The Godfather of Soul’s first Top 40 hit. The “5” Royales never had pop success during their career, yet they were the subject of a tribute album by Stax guitar legend Steve Cropper in 2011 and were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2015.
617. “Don’t Come Home A’ Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ on Your Mind),” Loretta Lynn. Songwriters: Loretta Lynn, Peggy Sue Wright; #1 Country; 1966. While some sources state that Loretta Lynn was inspired to write “Don’t Come Home A-Drinkin’” after a fight with her spouse, her first #1 country hit originated with Peggy Sue Wright, a younger sister. Lynn, “She was married and had a little girl and was starting to find out that no matter how good life is, it does have its ups and downs.” No matter the inspiration, Loretta puts her liquored up, sex hungry man in his place on one of the numbers that admirers cite as an example of Lynn’s proto-feminism. Loretta, on her approach to songwriting, “If you write about what’s happening, it don’t hurt as bad, it don’t bother you as much. That’s how it does me. I don’t know how anybody else does it, but that’s the way I do it.” Sister/co-writer Peggy Sue Wright, who would later become a minor country star, wasn’t the only sibling to cash in on this tale of marital strife. Jay Lee Webb, Loretta’s younger brother, peaked at #37 on the country charts in 1967 with “I Came Home A-Drinkin’ (To a Worn-Out Wife Like You).”
616. “The Band Played Waltzing Matilda,” The Pogues. Songwriter: Eric Bogle: Did Not Chart; 1985. The Pogues, who mixed a punk rock attitude with traditional Irish instrumentation, didn’t sound like a 1980’s band from London. The band became a critical favorite with their 1985 Elvis Costello produced album “Rum Sodomy & the Lash,” which included the U.K. pop hit “Dirty Old Town.” Australian songwriter Eric Bogle penned “And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda” in 1971, a critique of the glorification of war that details the often brutal personal consequences. This is not a tune to put on to lift you out of sadness. Bogle, “I wrote it as an oblique comment on the Vietnam War which was in full swing… but while boys from Australia were dying there, people had hardly any idea where Vietnam was. Gallipoli was a lot closer to the Australian ethos – every school kid knew the story, so I set the song there.” From the Sputnik Music website, “The most obvious comparison to The Pogues version of ‘The Band Played Waltzing Matilda’ is with the 13 minute ending to Highway 61 Revisited, ‘Desolation Row,’ and there’s really no higher praise that can be offered except to say that the comparison is valid. More so than any other song on the album, it’s pretty much entirely carried by MacGowan. While he never had the biggest range, or the best technical voice, in terms of bitter frustration there are few vocal performances better than the 8 minute epic album closer.” Robert Christgau, “He tests the flavor of each world before spitting it out.”
615. “I Say a Little Prayer,” Dionne Warwick. Songwriters: Burt Bacharach, Hal David; #4 pop/#8 R&B; 1967. Hal David reportedly wrote “I Say a Little Prayer” from the perspective of a woman concerned about her lover in Vietnam, however there’s nothing in the lyrics to validate that claim. “Prayer” was an intended b-side that became one of Dionne Warwick’s biggest solo hits, peaking at #4 on the pop charts in 1967 (despite Burt Bacharach’s concerns that the tempo was too fast). Author Serene Dominic, “To any human ear not attached to the Bacharach mind, the Dionne version sounds quite perfect, thank you – its swift tempo ideal for suggesting someone’s morning workaday preparation rituals.” While rehearsing songs for Aretha Franklin’s 1968 “Aretha Now” album, The Sweet Inspirations, her backing vocalists, performed an impromptu version of “Prayer,” leading to Aretha’s more gospel influenced recording. History repeated in that Aretha’s cover was intended as a b-side that again resulted in a Top Ten pop hit. Bacharach, perhaps being a bit too modest, has described Aretha’s take as “much better than the cut I did with Dionne.” Bacharach, “(Aretha) imbued the song with heavy soul and took it to a much deeper place. Hers is the definitive version.” Over four decades later, pop music fans are still debating this matter.
614. “Choo Choo Ch’Boogie,” Louis Jordan and His Tympany Five. Songwriters: Vaughn Morton, Denver Darling, Milt Gabler; #7 pop/#1 R&B; 1946. Oklahoma native Joe Liggins created a sensation in 1945 with “The Honeydripper,” a novelty/jump blues number about a sweet ladies’ man that topped the R&B charts for a record eighteen weeks. Louis Jordan repeated that feat in 1946 with the swinging, twelve bar blues, hit “Choo Choo Ch’ Boogie.” The song came from hillbilly guitarist Denver Darling and Vaughn Horton, who had a writing credit on Jimmie Rodger’s “Muleskinner Blues.” Stylistically, the shuffle beat shows how closely Louis Jordan and Bob Wills were working in their approach to 1940s dance music, with Jordan emphasizing his saxophone work in places that Wills would have tossed in a fiddle solo. Author Andrew Hickey, “If there’s any truth at all to the claim that rock and roll was the mixing of country and western music with rhythm and blues, this is as good a point as any to say ‘this is where rock and roll really started.’ Essentially every musician in the early rock and roll period was, to a greater or lesser extent, copying the style of Louis Jordan’s 1940s records.” I’m guessing this is the only song ever covered by both John Denver and Foghat.
613. “September,” Earth, Wind & Fire. Songwriters: Maurice White, Al, McKay, Allee Willis; #8 pop/#1 R&B; 1978. Maurice White, a former session drummer for Chess Records, formed Earth, Wind & Fire in Los Angeles in 1970. The band quickly signed to Warner Brothers, but it took several years for their message of black positivity to find a mainstream audience. Not too many pop songs put a stamp on the calendar the way Earth, Wind & Fire’s “September” has – it is referenced annually on the 21st of September in the same way that Alice Cooper’s “School’s Out” is blasted at the end of every spring semester. Songwriter Allee Willis on arguing with Maurice White on the lyrics, “The, kind of, go-to phrase that Maurice used in every song he wrote was ‘ba-dee-ya.’ So right from the beginning he was singing, ‘Ba-dee-ya, say, do you remember/Ba-dee-ya, dancing in September.’ And I said, ‘We are going to change ‘ba-dee-ya’ to real words, right?’ And finally, when it was so obvious that he was not going to do it, I just said, ‘What the fuck does ‘ba-dee-ya’ mean?’ And he essentially said, ‘Who the fuck cares?’ I learned my greatest lesson ever in songwriting from him, which was never let the lyric get in the way of the groove.” Verdine White of EWF on the song’s legacy, “People now are getting married on September 21st. Every kid I know now that is in their twenties, they always thank me because they were born on September 21st.”
612. “Angel from Montgomery,” Bonnie Raitt. Songwriter: John Prine; Did Not Chart; 1974. John Prine penned this song about a woman trapped in a dreary life, dreaming of escape, and included it on his 1971 debut album. Prine, “I had this really vivid picture of this woman standing over the dishwater with soap in her hands…She wanted to get out of her house and her marriage and everything. She just wanted an angel to come to take her away from all this.” Bonnie Raitt, with her husky voice and blues background, gave the sadness and longing of the lyrics a deeper layer of emotional depth. Raitt, “I think ‘Angel from Montgomery’ probably has meant more to my fans and my body of work than any other song, and it will historically be considered one of the most important ones I’ve ever recorded. It’s just such a tender way of expressing that sentiment of longing – like (John Prine’s) ‘Hello in There’ – without being maudlin or obvious. It has all the different shadings of love and regret and longing. It’s a perfect expression from a wonderful genius.”
611. “Yesterday,” The Beatles. Songwriters: John Lennon, Paul McCartney; #1 pop; 1965. Paul McCartney, on the origins of one of the most recorded songs in pop music history, “I just woke up one morning with this tune in my head. I thought, ‘I don’t know this tune, or do I?’ It’s like an old jazz tune.” John Lennon, “The song was around for months and months before we finally completed it. Every time we got together to write songs for a recording session, this one would come up. We almost had it finished. Paul wrote nearly all of it, but we just couldn’t find the right title. We called it ‘Scrambled Eggs’ and it became a joke between us. We made up our minds that only a one-word title would suit, we just couldn’t find the right one. Then one morning Paul woke up and the song and the title were both there, completed. I was sorry in a way, we’d had so many laughs about it.” George Martin, “It wasn’t until he got the lyric together that we decided to record it. I said, ‘It’s a lovely song. I can’t really see what Ringo can do on it. I can’t really see what heavy electric guitars can do on it.’ I remember John (Lennon) listening to it, there’s a particular bit where the cello moves into a kinda bluesy note and John thought that was terrific.” McCartney, “I don’t know that ‘Yesterday’ was the best thing I ever wrote, it was the flukiest thing I ever wrote, ‘cause it was a dream. I think I like ‘Here, There and Everywhere’ better as a song.”