Fanfare for …

The ghosts of October have melted into the first fog of the autumn and November has arrived in our village.

Fanfare - EyesLast night the Crotchety Couple cowered inside while excited young voices passed by our house, rising to a crescendo and fading away again. Then, unexpectedly, there was a brisk rapping on the front door. Fear gripped my heart as I went to answer the knocking. Was I being summoned by a spirit of the night? Or, worse, was I about to be accosted by small children in Hallowe’en costumes demanding “trick or treat”? No, it was only our next-door neighbour asking for help with his computer.

Later, as the evening wore on and the likelihood of further visitations diminished, Crotchety Man’s inner tension eased. There were no further surprises overnight so, to celebrate coming through this ordeal practically unscathed this year, I think we should have a fanfare. I have never understood why some people like being scared but it seems to be a very common affliction. What better piece of music, then, than Aaron Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man?

Fanfare - BrassAaron Copland was an American composer, music tutor and conductor. He studied all forms of classical music, was taught by eminent music teachers and mixed with a wide range of contemporary composers. His best-known compositions were in an accessible contemporary classical style although his work was also influenced by jazz and the more avant-garde composers of the time, such as Schoenberg.

During the first World War the conductor of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, Eugene Goossens, had invited British composers to submit a fanfare to introduce each of the orchestra’s concerts in the coming season. The idea was so successful that he repeated it during the second World War, this time sending invitations to American composers. A total of eighteen fanfares were submitted, Aaron Copland’s being Fanfare for the Common Man.

The fanfare, as you would expect, is quite short – 3 minutes 16 seconds – and features just brass and percussion instruments: four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, a tuba; timpani, tam-tam and bass drum. It starts with the crash and rumble of gongs and kettle drums as if the town cryer is calling “Oyez! Oyez!”. Then the brass instruments blare out a triumphant message with a sonorous unison that fills the hall, carries through the windows and billows down the streets. Everyone in the neighbourhood hears the notes, understands the message.

The cryer moves on. As he repeats his words other voices join in creating rich harmonies. “Victories will be ours!”, he proclaims, and the message ripples out in ever increasing circles, fading away, leaving the populace uplifted and ready for the glory that is to come. It’s a stirring, patriotic piece; something to send off the troops as America enters the war.

Fanfare - ELPMany years later, in 1977, Emerson, Lake and Palmer recorded their own version of Fanfare for the Common Man. It wasn’t the first of Copland’s works to be given the ELP treatment (they had a version of Hoedown on their 1972 album, Trilogy), nor was it the only ‘classical’ piece to feature on ELP albums (their Pictures at an Exhibition album was based on a work by Mussorgsky). It was a natural piece for ELP to perform.

The ELP version of Fanfare was a surprisingly faithful rendition of Copland’s orchestral piece. The score was transposed to a key in which Keith Emerson liked to improvise, the brass instruments were replaced by Emerson’s synthesiser (a Yamaha GX-1 according to Wikipedia) and Greg Lake’s bass guitar was added. Then an improvised passage was inserted some two-thirds of the way through, extending the track to over nine minutes long. The theme, though, was entirely Copland’s and that feeling of triumph (or was it triumphalism?) comes across as loudly and clearly as ever.

Crotchety Man likes both of the versions described here. (There are a number of other versions, too.) The original is, perhaps, a little short; the ELP version perhaps a little long. Either way, they are exciting, stirring pieces full of life and exuberance; a stimulant as effective as any pill and much safer. Just the thing for dreary autumn days.

Fanfare - GhostOh, and one more thing… Aaron Copland died in 1990 at a place called Sleepy Hollow. Spooky or what?

The Rising Sun

The House of the Rising SunThis time, for my Track Of The Week, I’m going to do something a bit different. Instead of focusing on a specific recording I’m going to explore about a dozen different versions of the same song: The House of the Rising Sun. The link is to a Spotify playlist containing recordings from 1941 to 2001 given in chronological order.

The Rising Sun has a special significance for me. It was the first thing we played when our unnamed band set up our equipment for the very first time in the local youth club hall in the autumn of 1970. In that first rehearsal I played my electronic organ and we managed to recreate the sound of The Animals pretty well. As I was guessing the chords and it was the only thing I could play on the organ, that was pretty amazing. Our performance that day convinced me that playing in an amateur band really was going to be fun and it was, it really was.

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The origins of The House of the Rising Sun are obscure. It may have been an English folk song written in the 18th century and taken to America by immigrants from the British Isles. The oldest known existing recording is from the Appalachians and dates from 1934. The first version available on Spotify is the 1941 recording by Woody Guthrie that kicks off my Rising Sun playlist. This is an unremarkable folk/blues song in a 4/4 time with not much of a tune. In it the female singer warns other girls not to be led astray, as she was, by drunkards and gamblers. Although the words don’t say so most interpretations assume the woman is a prostitute and the House of the Rising sun is the brothel she works in.

Lead Belly recorded Rising Sun in 1944.  His version is also in a 4/4 time and still doesn’t have much of a tune. This time, though, it is sung from the point of view of a man who wants to save his younger sister from a life of misery in the House of the Rising Sun. And it has a rocking country feel, quite different from Woody Guthrie’s mainstream folk rendition.

Then, in 1947, a black American country-blues singer and guitarist called Josh White wrote new music for The Rising Sun and changed the words a bit. Most subsequent performances of the song are based on Josh White’s version, including the 1958 banjo arrangement by Pete Seeger. Now the song is in a 6/8 time and we hear the lilting tune familiar to modern listeners for the first time.

Joan Baez recorded a particularly captivating version of Rising Sun in 1960. With just an acoustic guitar and her clear, mellow voice she wrings the listener’s heart with the tale of a woman whose life has been full of sorrow and misery. Folk music at its very best.

The following year the folk singer Dave Van Ronk taught The Rising Sun to Bob Dylan and both Van Ronk and Dylan recorded it. The Van Ronk version doesn’t have an obvious time signature; the chords change in time with the soulful singing, which wanders along in traditional finger-in-the-ear folk fashion. (It’s music, Jim, but not as the pop charts would know it.) Dylan’s version is a straightforward rendition of the song but unmistakably Bob Dylan, the folk singer, as he was in 1961.

The Animals

The Animals

The most famous version of Rising Sun (at least in the UK) is the one by The Animals, recorded in 1964. Eric Burdon said that the band learnt the song from a Northumbrian folk singer, Johnny Handle, not from the Bob Dylan track as has often been suggested. It has been described as “the first folk-rock hit”, which neatly summarises the mix of folk, rock and pop that made it so successful. The Animals’ Rising Sun was a number one single in both the UK and the US and it won the Grammy Hall of Fame Award in 1999. It made an indelible mark on Crotchety Man, too.

There have been numerous other covers of Rising Sun. The Spotify playlist includes versions by another six artists: Marianne Faithfull did a slow folk/pop/classical version reminiscent of French folk songs; Tim Hardin offered a very nice, passionate, folk/blues version; there was a psychedelic rock rendition by Frijid Pink that saw considerable chart success in Europe; there have been two entries into the country music charts, including an up-tempo country/pop version by Dolly Parton; George Melly gave it the cool jazz treatment; and Jimmy Nail sang it as a traditional ballad.

So it seems The House of the Rising Sun is a folk/blues/country/pop/rock song that has also been given perfectly acceptable jazz and old-school ballad treatments. It is the ultimate genre-busting track. Have a listen. You won’t like every version, but it will be good for your education, I promise. And I haven’t even mentioned the 2013 heavy metal arrangement by Five Finger Death Punch…