Notes
First thoughts, running arguments, stories in progress
Track of the Day
Show Newer Notes

This is the song I have stuck in my head after reading David Sims’s review of The Founder—a new biopic about Ray Kroc, the entrepreneur who manipulated a small California burger joint away from its two founders and into the McDonalds fast-food empire. The film, unfortunately, misses the mark in David’s estimation:

The film had the chance to subvert the typical bootstrap tale of American triumph, but instead it plays right into that easy narrative, trying to celebrate his business acumen without skirting past his darker misdeeds. The Founder ends up feeling extremely wishy-washy, unable to scrub the nastiness of Kroc’s success but also incapable of confronting it. … The Founder is the fast-food dinner of biopics—20 minutes after you eat it, you’re already hungry again.

Which is a shame, since Kroc’s story could be fascinating with different treatment. Take “Boom, Like That,” the Mark Knopfler single that reportedly served as inspiration for the movie (also the first place I heard about Kroc). From the lyrics:

We’ll make a little business history, now
Or my name’s not Kroc—call me Ray
Like “crocodile,” but not spelled that way, now
It’s dog-eat-dog, rat-eat-rat
Kroc-style. Boom, like that.

According to Knopfler, that chorus is based on quotes attributed to Kroc, and the words are unsettling—simultaneously casual and callous. If Kroc’s problem as the hero of The Founder is his blandness—played by Michael Keaton, he’s “a man whose business canny is impossible to dismiss, but who otherwise is a bit of a blank slate, perhaps befitting a champion of mediocrity”—that blandness is also what makes him fascinating: In Knopfler’s portrayal, he’s a guy who sets out to “drown” his competition and does it, shaking hands and smiling all the while.

Pair that with a slow-and-steady, recursive, persistently catchy melody and you get a song that captures Kroc’s story, and perhaps some aspects of the fast-food industry itself—deceptively simple, and yet pervasive, and ultimately haunting.

(Submit a song via hello@. Track of the Day archive here. Pre-Notes archive here.)

After seeing the AMA responses from TNC today, long-time reader Nicole Pezold Hancock writes:

I’m really late in seeing all these notes from Horde members, but years ago, I was the commenter known as Pontchartrain Girl. I joined the Horde in 2009, around the time of the murder of Dr. George Tiller. As a news junkie, I frequented The Atlantic magazine and had even read TNC’s Michelle Obama article [link] but had never noticed the blog.

And then Dr. Tiller was gunned down as he attended church. I spent a few hours in the days after scouring the Internet—not for news, but for comments. I don’t know why reading the violent ravings of people I disagreed with was attractive to me right then. Perhaps I wanted to feel more pain? Or gloat at their misspellings or apparent lunacy? Or maybe I was just spoiling to read a fight.

At any rate, I ended up in TNC’s salon and witnessed a remarkably civil discussion of abortion rights [link]. That’s the only place online or off that I’ve heard all these disparate voices respectfully sharing their thoughts on such an emotional, divisive subject. And that was just my first day lurking there.

Shortly after, TNC hosted a lengthy, ridiculously entertaining debate on mayonnaise versus Miracle Whip and their cultural significance [link]. I was in love. The Horde was smart. The Horde was funny. The Horde was thirsting for truth, whether about how we remember the Civil War or what milk substitutes are healthiest. And their leader was rigorous about facts and the rules of engagement. He demanded as much integrity as the best of professors and I learned better how to say mea culpa—even to a faceless online community (I can’t listen to “I Stand Corrected” by Vampire Weekend without thinking of him).

TNC and the Horde refined and challenged my thinking on so many subjects.

And then things started to fall apart. Others have explained this far better than I can or remember. But I went from being Pontchartrain Girl to being a Pontchartrain mom around the same time that TNC’s stature was growing. I found it dizzying and dissatisfying trying to keep up any conversation or even to follow those of the Horde because it got so crowded. It wasn’t only trolls. There were just too many of us jockeying to speak and be heard all at once. TNC would post an item or the OTAN and almost immediately it’d be mobbed by 300 comments, then 500 comments. And so I quit.

Cheryl Chenet / Getty

Many of the obituaries for Nat Hentoff, the writer and critic who died Saturday at 91, are focusing as much, if not more, on his political writing as on his work as a jazz critic—an imbalance that seems to reflect the relative stature of jazz and politics in contemporary culture more than it does Hentoff’s own body of work.

Hentoff was a combative and heterodox observer of politics, an absolutist civil libertarian who was a man of the left—one of the first great Village Voice writers—but one who was willing to, and often did, break with fellow leftists, as on his opposition to abortion. Thanks to his rightward drift over the years (by the end of his career, his column was running on World Net Daily, of all places), he’s being mourned as much if not more on the right today.

But I knew Hentoff as a jazz writer long before I’d ever heard of his political work. Hentoff’s name was so commonly signed to the liner notes of classic jazz albums from the 1950s and 1960s that as a budding jazz fan, I came to believe he might have been the only jazz writer at the time. He was not—though his stature was close. Hentoff was, however, one of the early, serious critics of the form. Like many jazz writers, he had once picked up an instrument, then realized that he wasn’t going to make it as a player.

Instead, he brought a seriousness of approach to a music that was past its zenith of popularity in the swing era but still a long way from being revered as “America’s classical music,” much less Ken Burns’ sepia-toned scope. His 1961 book The Jazz Life delved into musicians who were liable to be tarred as junkies (Miles Davis), malcontents (Charles Mingus), or charlatans (Ornette Coleman), considering not just the notes they played but the social contexts from which they emerged and in which they worked. Hentoff had honed his knowledge of the world as a teenager in Boston, hanging around jazz clubs and black jazz musicians where a young Jewish kid stuck out.

Before his spell at the Voice, Hentoff wrote for DownBeat (he claimed he was fired for trying to hire a black writer there), and later wrote about the music for JazzTimes, The Wall Street Journal, and others. Hentoff also reviewed records occasionally for The Atlantic, though none of those reviews is available online. In 2008, he was laid off by the Voice. (I wrote a short piece criticizing the decision for my college newspaper; Hentoff, by what means I can’t begin to guess, saw the column and sent me a fax to thank me.) In addition to his jazz journalism, Hentoff also wrote the liner notes for The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan and profiled the future Nobel Prize winner for The New Yorker in 1964. “Wiry, tense, and boyish, Dylan looks and acts like a fusion of Huck Finn and a young Woody Guthrie,” Hentoff wrote.

When I heard about Hentoff’s death, I realized it had been more than a decade since I read The Jazz Life. I’m somewhat embarrassed to say that, like Hank Shteamer, I no longer feel I know Hentoff’s critical voice. Jazz criticism boasts some notable stylists, from the impeccable Gary Giddins to the boisterous Stanley Crouch to the cerebra Ben Ratliff. By dint of his stature, Hentoff seems in a category apart—he is simply the voice of jazz writing.

Hentoff wasn’t just a great writer, though. He also produced several albums—none of such stature as the drummer Max Roach’s ambitious 1960 album We Insist! Freedom Now Suite, a project of civil-rights-related compositions. “Freedom Day,” which focuses on the Emancipation Proclamation, features Roach’s wife Abbey Lincoln on vocals and boasts notable solos from trumpeter Booker Little and trombonist Julian Priester, but it’s Roach’s machine-gun drumming that leaps out of the music.

Blending his own social and musical passions, Hentoff celebrated the political awakening among musicians at the time in his liner notes for the album:

Jazz musicians, normally apolitical and relatively unmindful of specific social movements, were also unprecedentedly stimulated. Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Max Roach, Art Blakey and several others declared public support for the sit-ins .... Jazzmen too had been becoming conscious and prideful of the African wave of independence. Several new original compositions were titled with the names of African nations, and some jazzmen began to know more about Nkrumah than about their local Congressman.

(Submit a song via hello@. Track of the Day archive here. Pre-Notes archive here.)

A reader, Rick Jones, writes:

This video of Stephen Foster’s great song “Hard Times Come Again No More” seems to tie together some of Notes’ recent themes. It’s a cover (the song was written in 1856) by the Familia McGarrigle (including a teenage Rufus and Martha) and it speaks to coming troubles and the need for perseverance that Fallows has been evoking in his writing.

If you have a version of “Hard Times” that particularly resonates with you and have a memory associated with it, please send us a note: hello@theatlantic.com. (The McGarrigle/Wainwright clan also did a version of Stephen Foster’s sunnier “Better Times Are Coming.”) Update from a reader who flags a rendition of “Hard Times” from Mavis Staples:

From another reader, Peter:

What a great song, unfortunately, it seems timeless. I first heard it in 1981, sung by the outstanding Chapel Hill string band The Red Clay Ramblers. Their wonderful harmony singing frames the song with a warmth that counterbalances the bleakness of the lyrics you can here them here.

Another reader recommends a version that isn’t available on YouTube:

My favorite is somewhere in my library of Bill Frisell bootlegs, but it’s something along these lines. I’m fascinated by songs like this that are just so old and remain in the repertoire. For example, “St. James Infirmary” is based on “The Rake’s Lament,” an 18th century British naval song. It’s also the parent of “Streets of Laredo,” the Johnny Cash tune. That’s nuts!

One more reader, Sydney:

Greetings from just south of Raleigh, NC, as I read all the news I missed last night because often, playing with babies beats knowing more details of terrorism. When I saw your post on “Hard Times” I immediately thought of the Yo Yo Ma and James Taylor cover that I had on repeat this time last year while waiting for morning sickness to magically disappear in the second trimester of a twin pregnancy, but instead got more pains and swelling. I resigned myself to only focusing on seeking the good in life, that hard times would pass.

Proud to say I’ve now got two happy healthy baby girls, one of whom wants to keep me company now. Keep up the great work.

The covers keep arriving from long-time readers, namely Barbara:

It has been so great to see the McGarrigle thread spin into Stephen Foster land with “Hard Times Come Again No More.” I like sentimental songs and apparently have a high tolerance for pathos, especially if rhyming lines are involved. I thought the song’s Wikipedia entry, describing it as a “parlor song,” was a nice touch that avoided the judgement implicit in “sentimental,” even if the judgement is right on target.

The song is one of my favorites from Foster, who is one of my favorite composers. I learned to play some of his songs on the piano from a tattered copy of a collection of his work. I learned a lot of other folk songs and sentimental favorites from an even more tattered hardcover copy of the Fireside Book of Folk Songs I still have, although the book now begins halfway through the song “Cockles and Mussels” and ends partway through the index, with no hardcovers in sight. (I was able to get another copy of the book, covers and all, when a family member passed away, but I still play from the spineless copy that opens flat and stays open.)

I am not an accomplished pianist and I’ve grown increasingly rusty. Early in elementary school, I only progressed partway through John Thompson’s Modern Course for the Piano: The Second Grade Book: Something New Every Lesson. The “something new” that killed my progress was syncopation, in the form of dotted eighth notes in a version of James A. Bland’s “Carry Me Back to Old Virginny.” (I understood the mathematics just fine, but my mind had decided on a rhythm that seemed pleasing to my fingers, and no amount of repetition and no lack of a gold star got me to play the song correctly. After weeks of intractable stubbornness on my part and the part of the only piano teacher in town, we parted ways. I did take more lessons in high school when the wife of a new music teacher at the central school offered them. I explained my history, and we started out lessons with Bach. It was more successful, but I stopped taking lessons when I left for college.

Anyway, I liked all the versions your readers provided; it was interesting to hear a range of interpretations. I like Emmylou Harris’s performance of “Hard Times Come Again No More.” I don't know if the cut I listen to is online, but in this video from a concert, she says that “this is probably the oldest song in my repertoire.”

The performance of “Hard Times” I play most often is by Thomas Hampson, because I like to listen to the album in the car and am very fond of his “Beautiful Dreamer.” (The album is American Dreamer: Songs of Stephen Foster, and performers include Jay Ungar on violin, Molly Mason on guitar, and David Alpher on piano.)

Unlike some other covers, Hampson’s doesn’t sound like he’s actually been through hard times. His performance instead fits the Wikipedia description; I imagine he sings the song just as a gentleman with a good voice would have done years ago in some parlor, playing piano with more finesse than I have and trying to impress the guests at a party, particularly the woman he has his eye on. The rendition is smooth, and if you enjoy Hampson’s voice, you may not realize how awful some parts of the lyrics are. The chorus is what makes the song great, not the verses.

Of all the versions, the Mavis Staples cover is my new favorite.

Thanks everyone!

Here’s a final update, from the reader who started this “Hard Times” series. Rick indicated in our email exchange that he was a long-time reader of The Dish, the blog I helped edit for seven years—three of which were at The Atlantic. If you ever followed the blog, Rick’s final note here is a poignant little retrospective:

Yesterday, we noted Barbara’s recommendation of “Proserpina,” sung by Kate McGarrigle’s daughter, Martha Wainwright. The second half of Barbara’s email highlighted many cover songs based on McGarrigle’s work:

Sing Me the Songs: Celebrating the Work of Kate McGarrigle has some great songs by Kate and a few by other family members. Rufus Wainwright sings “Southern Boys,” and he and his sister Martha team up for “First Born” (“Yes, he’s that first-born son, he’s that special one...”). I like the oh-I-know-that-kid serendipity of “First Born,” as well as the porch-rocker feel of Rufus’s “Southern Boys.” He also joins Emmylou Harris on “I Eat Dinner (When the Hunger’s Gone),” which is about divorce, but it could just as easily be speaking of my experience of widowhood.

There’s also Jimmy Fallon performing the fun-in-the-sun “Swimming Song.” I wallow in the melancholy of Antony singing “Go Leave” [embedded above] and Krystle Warren’s rendition of “I Don’t Know” (“You ask me what it’s all about/ I say I don’t know/ Should you stay and work it out/ I say I don’t think so”)—either of these versions could be good additions to your cover-song series. “Jacques et Gilles” is a story and a history lesson combined. And there are plenty of other songs in addition to the ones I’ve listed.

I have always liked folk music, so McGarrigle fits right into my preferences. But there’s also a little extra memory fillip regarding the Wainwrights that shows my age: Rufus and Martha are the children of Loudon S. Wainwright III (of “Dead Skunk” notoriety and the creator of “Swimming Song”), who is the son of Loudon Wainwright, Jr., whose work I grew up reading regularly in Life magazine. I absorbed certain lessons about writing from Time, Sports Illustrated, and Life without realizing it, and the writing of Loudon Wainwright, Jr., was work I particularly looked for and enjoyed.

(Submit a song via hello@. Track of the Day archive here. Pre-Notes archive here.)

From a long-time and beloved reader, Barbara:

At this season, I love listening to Christmas music (except in stores and offices and elevators and out in public, where the same things play over and over again and must surely drive retail workers crazy). It’s always a relief to hear instrumental music without words on a store soundtrack. I would be totally willing to shop without listening to Christmas music for the aural and mental health of retail employees everywhere.

But whatever religion or non-religion one ascribes to, the turn of the year brings the solstice. Here’s Kate McGarrigle talking about why she was inspired to write “Proserpina.” The song is based on the legend of Persephone, beloved of the lord of the underworld, and is a fable about the origin of the seasons. Leave aside the confusion I suffer from the names (I am more used to hearing about Persephone, and I know Proserpina is an alternate name, but I thought her mother was Ceres, and Hera sounds good in the song but where did that come from?). I need some version of a family tree to navigate all those variations, I guess. Anyway, [embedded above] is a version of “Proserpina” sung by McGarrigle’s daughter, Martha Wainwright. (My favorite version of the song, which I couldn’t find online, is from the double CD collection Sing Me the Songs: Celebrating the Work of Kate McGarrigle.)

Here’s some background on the song from the official YouTube page:

Taken from her forthcoming album Come Home to Mama, the track was recorded in Sean Lennon’s New York home studio and continues a lifelong musical dialogue between Wainwright and McGarrigle, who passed away in 2010. “It’s the last song my mother wrote, and of course I also think that she wrote it for me, and for Rufus,” explains Wainwright, referring to her critically acclaimed crooner brother, Rufus Wainwright. “We wrote songs together, ever since we were children. As we sing her songs, I think her voice can be heard in ours, literally through our pipes.”

(Submit a song via hello@. Track of the Day archive here. Pre-Notes archive here.)

A reader recommends “a rather obscure track”:

David Safran is somewhat known in Chicago as both a singer-songwriter and essayist, but he never really caught on beyond our city. Neither did his song—“Adult Things” was self-released in 2009 to not much buzz. However, it feels like a right suggestion since it wasn’t just inspired by Eugene Field, the children’s poet, but written directly at Field’s graveside. Safran wrote an essay in 2011 about “Adult Things.” He mentioned,

The 19th century writer, Eugene Field, is buried—reinterred—in a small, shoddy cloister garden at the Church of the Holy Comforter in Kenilworth, Illinois. Once or twice a month, I would travel to Holy Comforter. The parish secretary informed me I was the first Eugene Field visitor in 17 years. I admired his writing, I wasn’t overenthusiastic, but we were both locked away on the North Shore, and I needed a dead literary neighbor.

While there’s an October 2016 Track of the Day based on a Field poem, Safran’s song doesn’t emphasize Field’s poetry but his failures as a local artist—a failure Safran seems to connect with. Though “Adult Things” deals specifically, and explicitly, with relationships (one bold couplet: “Nothing like sex to ruin / a sense of intimacy”), the song ends with its singer staring down at Field’s snow-covered grave, a “work that won’t endure,” realizing he’s aging fast and needs to find, or steal, some lyrics.

Like his song, Safran ended his “Adult Things” essay with this bit about posterity:

Time bowdlerizes everyone, especially Chicago artists. … Yet this gaunt, top-hatted, largely forgotten writer cannot fully disappear into oblivion while parks and elementary schools are still being named after him; while you can still find Love-Songs of Childhood at your library’s book sale; while youngish singer-songwriters still visit his grave: a soft, narrow spot wherein one can stand, or collapse, placidly.

Chicago artists, by the way, were the inspiration for this series—our first literary song was David Nagler’s interpretation of the Carl Sandburg poem “Chicago.” But if you’re looking (listening?) for music about a specific place—a beloved city, say, or a poet’s graveside—we’ve collected some reader recommendations here.

(Submit a song via hello@. Track of the Day archive here. Pre-Notes archive here.)

A reader has some recommendations and anti-recommendations:

I really enjoy The Atlantic. I read it online and at the public library. Some covers I really enjoy: Dianne Reeves’ version of “River” (Joni Mitchell) and Stefon Harris’ cover of “Summertime” (George Gershwin).

If you are interested in bad covers, here are two: I did not care for any part of Tierney Sutton Band “The Sting Variations,” especially the songs from albums like Dream of the Blue Turtles. They were a perfect mix of pop and jazz already. Jessy J’s cover of “Feel Like Making Love” (Roberta Flack) is awful because she has such a weak voice, although the instrumentals are OK. But she does something nice with “In a Sentimental Mood” (Duke Ellington).

(Submit a song via hello@. Track of the Day archive here. Pre-Notes archive here.)

Alicia recommends an even more serene version of the ’60s counterculture classic by The Youngbloods:

My recommended cover song is Lizz Wright’s “Get Together.” I had heard the song before, and even knew the lyrics, having heard it growing up on radio stations that played oldies and soft rock. But I hadn’t really “heard it” until discovering Lizz Wright’s version. Hearing the song slowed down and mellowed out revealed a message about the Gospel that I wouldn’t have otherwise got.

I am a Christian. I listen to and read what appeals to me aesthetically and reject what is trite and/or in opposition to the basic tenets of Christianity, regardless of the artist’s professed belief. I am not saying that was The Youngbloods’ intention, just what I heard. Maybe Lizz Wright heard that, too. And it was nice she was able to bring out that aspect of the song without being backed by a choir.

(Submit a song via hello@. Track of the Day archive here. Pre-Notes archive here.)

Confession: I’ve never read one of Saul Bellow’s novels. (If you’ve got a strong case to make for which one I should start with, feel free to send me a note.) But I’ve been taught by enough people who love him to recognize his monumental place in American literature. Christopher Hitchens wrote about that influence in our November 2007 issue:

At Bellow’s memorial meeting ... the main speakers were Ian McEwan, Jeffrey Eugenides, Martin Amis, William Kennedy, and James Wood. ... Had it not been for an especially vapid speech by some forgettable rabbi, the platform would have been exclusively composed of non-Jews, many of them non-American. How had Bellow managed to exert such an effect on writers almost half his age, from another tradition and another continent? Putting this question to the speakers later on, I received two particularly memorable responses. Ian Mc­Ewan related his impression that Bellow, alone among American writers of his generation, had seemed to assimilate the whole European classical inheritance. And Martin Amis vividly remembered something Bellow had once said to him, which is that if you are born in the ghetto, the very conditions compel you to look skyward, and thus to hunger for the universal. ...

Bellow in his time was to translate Isaac Bashevis Singer into English (and “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” into Yiddish), but it mattered to him that the ghetto be transcended and that he, too, could sing America.

On that note, my colleague Emma has written a piece today about the complex history of Jewish identity in America, at a time when the self-described alt-right movement has given anti-Semitism an ugly new presence in public discourse. Read it here (and let us know if you have a related personal experience to share).

But speaking, as Hitchens does, of singing and transcendence and the translation of art into other forms and languages, I remember being thrilled to discover during a high-school AP English class that one of the Counting Crows songs I’d been listening to on repeat was titled after one of Bellow’s novels: Henderson the Rain King. The song’s narrator is scared, trapped, frustrated, and overlooked, and seems to invoke Henderson as a figure who represents many of those feelings:

Hey, I only want the same as anyone
Henderson is waiting for the sun
Oh, it seems night endlessly begins and ends ...

There’s a vision of freedom, though, in the wistful opening lines: “When I think of heaven ... I think of flying.”

Back to Hitchens on Bellow, Henderson, and flight:

A slew of cover-song recommendations come from reader Dan Paton:

(Submit a song via hello@. Track of the Day archive here. Pre-Notes archive here.)

From reader Daniel:

I really like your “most transformative cover songs.” Here’s a suggestion for your series: Scissor Sisters’ “Comfortably Numb.” Talk about transformation; making a Bee Gees-type disco number out of Pink Floyd’s original song is really something. Some people hate it, but I think it works surprisingly well.

By the way, in the note for Booker T’s Abbey Road medley cover, your reader writes that it might be the only time that entire album has been covered. That is certainly not true; Laibach covered Let It Be in its entirety (it’s not very good, but their version of “Across the Universe” is not bad).

(Submit a song via hello@. Track of the Day archive here. Pre-Notes archive here.)

Ads are being blocked

For us to continue writing great stories, we need to display ads.

Un-block Learn more
Back

Whitelist

Please select the extension that is blocking ads.

Back

Please follow the steps below