Volare: Italian Americans in Popular Music

I was listening to Dean Martin last night, and I got to thinking about putting together some sort of superlative list of Italian-American figures in American popular music. Below are my current Sweet Sixteen. Who would you add in order to fill out a proper field of sixty-four?

Joe Satriani 

Jon Bon Jovi

Gwen Stefani

Steven Tyler

Frank Zappa 

Tony Bennett

Jim Croce

Louis Prima

Madonna

Dean Martin

Lady Gaga

Frankie Valli

Frank Sinatra

Mario Lanza

Henry Mancini 

Bruce Springsteen

Wherein I’m Cited with James Cone?

A few days ago, I wrote a poem partly quoting James Cone. His work means a lot to me.

Today, I found out that an essay I wrote ten years ago is quoted in a book about music, theology, and justice. In the bibliography, I’m cited next to Cone.

I know it’s because of how the alphabet works, but I’m incredibly humbled. James Cone is brilliant. I’m, at best, a broken clock. A newly encouraged one. James Cone still inspires, and the long march isn’t done.

Here’s the book, in the publisher’s words:

Music, Theology, and Justice

Edited by Michael O’Connor; Hyun-Ah Kim and Christina Labriola – Contributions by Awet Iassu Andemicael; C. Michael Hawn; Maeve Louise Heaney; Chelsea Hodge; Michael J. Iafrate; Ella Johnson; Hyun-Ah Kim; Christina Labriola; Ann Loades; Bruce T. Morrill; Michael O’Connor; Michael Taylor Ross; Don E. Saliers; Jeremy E. Scarbrough and Jesse Smith

Music does not make itself. It is made by people: professionals and amateurs, singers and instrumentalists, composers and publishers, performers and audiences, entrepreneurs and consumers. In turn, making music shapes those who make it—spiritually, emotionally, physically, mentally, socially, politically, economically—for good or ill, harming and healing. This volume considers the social practice of music from a Christian point of view. Using a variety of methodological perspectives, the essays explore the ethical and doctrinal implications of music-making. The reflections are grouped according to the traditional threefold ministry of Christ: prophet, priest, and shepherd: the prophetic role of music, as a means of articulating protest against injustice, offering consolation, and embodying a harmonious order; the pastoral role of music: creating and sustaining community, building peace, fostering harmony with the whole of creation; and the priestly role of music: in service of reconciliation and restoration, for individuals and communities, offering prayers of praise and intercession to God.


Using music in priestly, prophetic, and pastoral ways, Christians pray for and rehearse the coming of God’s kingdom—whether in formal worship, social protest, concert performance, interfaith sharing, or peacebuilding. Whereas temperance was of prime importance in relation to the ethics of music from antiquity to the early modern period, justice has become central to contemporary debates. This book seeks to contribute to those debates by means of Christian theological reflection on a wide range of musics: including monastic chant, death metal, protest songs, psalms and worship music, punk rock, musical drama, interfaith choral singing, Sting, and Daft Punk.

Words and Music

The Rilke post from earlier got me thinking about the first poem I ever memorized.

Obviously, nursery rhymes were first, and then songs like Jesus Loves Me. Then, when I started school, My Country Tis of Thee, America the Beautiful, The Star-Spangled Banner, Simple Gifts.

In fourth grade we had to memorize and recite poems, so of course we all asked if we could do Top 40. Someone beat me to We Didn’t Start the Fire (I memorized it anyway…we all did), so I did Another Day in Paradise by Phil Collins. The song really affected me. Years later, I’d find myself working street-level with the homeless populations of the Lehigh Valley. What had seemed like a very 80s problem has gotten so much worse.

The first sort of classic poem I ever memorized was To Althea From Prison by Lovelace, the cavalier. It’s very famous, especially for this line:

Stone Walls do not a Prison make,
Nor Iron bars a Cage;

but the ones that really got me were

When (like committed linnets) I
With shriller throat shall sing
The sweetness, Mercy, Majesty,
And glories of my King;
When I shall voice aloud how good
He is, how Great should be,
Enlargèd Winds, that curl the Flood,
Know no such Liberty.

and especially:

When I lie tangled in her hair,
And fettered to her eye,
The Gods that wanton in the Air,
Know no such Liberty.

I was 15, so yeah. Killed me. Still does.

It strikes me now that “Slide Away” by Oasis, which I also discovered around that time, is a cavalier poem from the Council Estates. I love it so much.

Medleys

Happy Thanksgiving from the Cocca Internet Array.

Two kinds of medleys on my mind. The vegetable kind, for obvious reasons, and the musical kind. I was playing with a chord progression/strum pattern just now, and decided that “We Are Going to Be Friends” and “Rock Around the Clock” make an excellent medley (play them both in G).

“We Are Going to Be Friends” is also a prequel to “Thirteen” by Big Star as far as I’m concerned.

Enjoy having all of those songs in your head today. I know I will.

We Belong Among the Wildflowers

I planted wildflowers in my yard.

I know that sounds stupid. Wildflowers are supposed to be wild.

I don’t check them everyday, even though I know that botany, or whatever it is I’m doing, is not like physics. Plants don’t mind being observed, they don’t hide their position or speed. But still, there’s uncertainty. It shouldn’t feel so much like luck; it is, after all, some kind of science.

I think we often forget how big a part uncertainty plays in the math of the universe.

Biochemistry, for example. We don’t really know how all of that works. I don’t feel any need to check the progress of my wildflowers every day. That’s markedly different from the fights I’ve had with myself over wether or not the door is really locked, or if the handles on the faucets are actually clean.

I want them to grow, understand. I do what I’m supposed to do. But I don’t obsess about it. I’m not sure why. Maybe I know that sometimes, even when I’ve been as perfect as I can be, things can still go sideways. Maybe I’m willing to late nature — botany, physics, whatever — share some of the risk. Maybe I’m still mystified enough by the whole process of life to believe that I’m not the Prime Mover when it comes to the fate of these tiny lives.

There’s a lot to unpack there. In the meantime, enjoy this. There’s a lot to enjoy.

The Best Songs About Rain

It has been raining for a near-biblical period of time in Pennsylvania. Maybe not forty days, but certainly six.

This morning the sun is shining and it looks again like May. Today I will mow the lawn and pull some weeds. If I have (make) time, I’ll do some writing and revising, which is also like pulling weeds. There’s something very satisfying about these actions.

In honor of the passing rain, here is my current list of Best Songs About Rain, totally off the top of my head as I type:

“Who’ll Stop the Rain?” – Creedence Clearwater Revival

“Have You Ever Seen the Rain?” – Creedence Clearwater Revival

“Purple Rain” – Prince

“Novemeber Rain” – Guns N’ Roses

“Live Forever” – Oasis

“No Rain” – Blind Mellon

What are yours?

Heroes and Villains: Brian Wilson, Donald Trump

I just watched the 2008 Kennedy Center Honors for Brian Wilson. For reasons that are easy to guess — his life story, his genius, his music — I am sobbing.  For other things, too: for him, for us; in gratitude, in fear.

A decade later, neither the country nor the world look anything like they did even in the nadir of the Bush administration. 

Honoring Brian, Art Garfunkel said: “I love rock and roll.  It’s just so joyous and life affirming.  And this is a great moment for me to honor my colleague, a fountainhead of that joy, Brian Wilson. To me, rock and roll is our great American invention.  And the fact that you, Brian, are one of its architects makes me proud of who we are as a country.”  Garfunkel talked about Brian’s “California roots, which to me, always represented the kindness and sweetness of America.”  He called Brian Wilson “rock music’s gentlest revolutionary.”

A few days ago, I read a brilliant piece by writer Gerald Weaver about Donald Trump and the failure of language.

Our innocence, our sweetness, the basic goodness of the premise for this country is the promise of a nation held together not by blood or iron but by consensus on revolutionary claims about the dignity of all people.

I’m not stupid.  I know we have never actually lived up to those ideals.  For centuries, we have systemically disenfranchised our own people.  For decades, we have instigated proxy wars.  For decades, we have have encouraged every kind of inequality.

But we’ve also held onto hope.  We’ve also given a damn about what America is supposed to be and mean. 

Condemning the tear gassing of assylum-seaking migrants at the southern border this week, Beto O’Rourke said, “It should tell us something about her home country that a mother is willing to travel 2,000 miles with her 4-month-old son to come here. It should tell us something about our country that we only respond to this desperate need once she is at our border. So far, in this administration, that response has included taking kids from their parents, locking them up in cages, and now tear gassing them at the border.”

Now the news that Donald Trump is authorizing lethal force.

I think I was four when Geraldo Rivera opened Al Capone’s vault.  He opened something else on Fox News’ The Five (I do not watch it). 

“This tear gas choked me. We treat these people — these economic refugees — as if they’re zombies from ‘The Walking Dead.’ We arrested 42 people; eight of them were women with children. We have to deal with this problem humanely and with compassion. These are not invaders. Stop using these military analogies. This is absolutely painful to watch…We are a nation of immigrants. These are desperate people. They walked 2,000 miles. Why? Because they want to rape your daughter or steal your lunch? No. Because they want a job! . . . We suspend our humanity when it comes to this issue. And I fear that it is because they look different than the mainstream.”

Of course Greg Gutfeld cut him off when he pointed out that economic refugees are in many cases fleeing situations our own policies have helped create.  Of course Jesse Waters, Fox’s Chief of Smarm, looked exasperated.

Of course, tonight, I’m crying over Art Garfunkel and Brian Wilson and America.