The Most Influential Song of All Time?

In their June issue, The Atlantic asks, “What is the Most Influential Song of All Time?”

Some of the answers submitted by celebrities include “We Shall Overcome,” “Like A Rolling Stone,” “Respect,” “Heartbreak Hotel,” and “Amazing Grace.”

I don’t think you can come up with a definitive answer. An argument can be made for all the songs listed above and a few others. Of course, it also depends on what is meant by “influential.” A song that influenced music, a song that changed history . . ?

In the Atlantic, singer/songwriter Rodney Crowell mentions Louis Armstrong’s 1928 recording of Joe “King” Oliver’s “West End Blues.” That song, to my mind, is a very strong contender.

On June 28, 1928, a 26-year-old Louis Armstrong walked into a Chicago recording studio with his Hot Five band and changed music history. The recording was of a song called “West End Blues,” composed and first recorded several months earlier by Armstrong’s mentor, Joe “King” Oliver. On that day in 1928, Armstrong stepped out of his mentor’s shadow and came into his own.

louis-armstrong1B2Armstrong and the Hot Five’s recording of “West End Blues” features an incredible piano solo by Earl “Fatha” Hines, one of Armstrong’s great friends and important collaborator. Armstrong’s 15-second trumpet intro and his eight-bar solo near the end are nothing short of epic. But what makes the song so influential to me is Armstrong’s singing. His simple and understated vocal styling on this song is one of the earliest recorded examples of scat singing.

Louis Armstrong, universally recognized as one of the greatest jazz musicians of all time, is also one of the most influential singers, an aspect of his career that is often overlooked. Armstrong set singers free. No longer did they have to possess what was traditionally considered a “good” singing voice. No longer did they have to conform to a restrictive vocal style. Armstrong wasn’t the first to sing scat, or croon with a bluesy tone, but he almost single-handedly took that kind of singing out of the backwater, or out of the alley and put it on main street. Artists including Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald were greatly in Armstrong’s debt. And without him, there would have been no Elvis, Bob Dylan, Ray Charles, or Aretha Franklin. If Armstrong had not come along, perhaps someone else would have, but then again without Armstrong, perhaps singers would still be sounding like Rudy Vallee or Kate Smith.

King Oliver named this song for New Orleans’ West End, a popular picnic and entertainment area on Lake Pontchartrain. I used to live on West End Boulevard less than a mile from the lake.

Now, without further ado, “West End Blues”:


Short Takes – End of May Edition

• Only last month, I featured Maya Angelou in a post for National Poetry Month. Now, she has passed away at the age of 86. Here is her obituary at the LA Times and an appreciation at the Washington Post.

• The Wall Street Journal reports that “In this interconnected global world, the leaders of other countries are more of a known entity then they were just a decade ago. In looking at how Americans feel about 16 leaders, the most striking thing is that the only two leaders whom a majority of U.S. adults have good opinions of are not leaders of countries, per se, but rather spiritual leaders. Three-quarters (76%) have a good opinion of Pope Francis, up from three in five (61%) who had a good opinion of him in May, 2013, right after he assumed the papacy. Over two-thirds (68%) have a good opinion of the Dalai Lama, up from 64% who said so last May.”

Pope Francis does have his detractors, or, skeptics. For instance, the head of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests says Pope Francis’s plan to meet with abuse victims looks like “a public relations ploy.”

• John Fund at the National Review Online writes that Norway’s government caved in to pressure from China and snubbed the Dalai Lama during his visit to Norway earlier this month.

• Recently a Buddhist temple/center opened up just a few blocks from my home. I have long wanted to have a place close by where I could pop in and meditate with others. This place adversities itself as “modern Buddhism,” which I find appealing. However, it belongs to the New Kadampa Tradition (NKT). They charge money to sit with them. And, they are involved in the Dorje Shugden controversy. So, that means I will not be popping in. I’ve said previously that I share the Dalai Lama’s position on this matter.

While in Norway, the Dalai Lama had to contend with ongoing demonstrations by pro-Shugden supporters, and he had this to say about it: “We’re Buddhists and the Buddha advised us not to take refuge in ordinary deities and spirits. The demonstrators say I’ve banned this practice, but that’s not so, I haven’t and the monasteries associated with Shugden in South India are evidence of this.”

Here is the Statement of the Deutsche Buddhistische Ordensgemeinschaft (DBO, German Buddhist Monastic Association) on the Protests against the Dalai Lama by the International Shugden Community (ISC)

• At the BBC, Dr Andrew Skilton weighs in on “Why is Buddhism so hip?”

• Ray Bradbury on Zen and the Art of Writing (1973).

• Speaking of Bradbury . . . you are probably familiar with the 1972 Elton John song “Rocket Man,” composed by John and his long-time writing partner Bernie Taupin. It’s one of Elton John’s biggest hits and the lyrics were inspired by a Ray Bradbury short story by the same name. Taupin has also acknowledged that his words were inspired by another song called “Rocket Man,” and also based on the Bradbury short story. This “Rocket Man” was released by one of my favorite groups of the 1960s, Pearls Before Swine on their 1970 album The Use of Ashes. Here is their “Rocket Man” written by Tom Rapp.


Back Home and Nowhere

Every time I think about back home
It’s cool and breezy
I wish that I could be there right now
Just passing time.

Everybody seems to wonder
What it’s like down here . . .
Everybody knows this is nowhere.

– Neil Young

I returned home on Saturday and I can’t tell you how nice it was. All the things they say about home are true – there’s no place like it, it’s where the heart is, etc. To wake up in the morning in your own bed, sip your first cup of coffee in your own living room, in your favorite chair while the birds sing cheerfully outside . . . it is a real delight. No doubt, a form of attachment, but who cares?

It took a killing rampage in Isla Vista, California to knock Donald Sterling off the news . . . temporarily at least. That in itself is a pretty sad commentary on our society. I feel sorry for racists and bigots. I hope they never need to have an organ transplanted. All I know about the person who donated the liver I received is that he was young and died in an auto accident. He could be black, brown, Jewish, Arab, Asian . . . What if I hated any, or all, of those groups? How would a racist feel if the only organ that could save his or her life must come from a person judged inferior because of skin color or religion? I don’t think such people see the corner they paint themselves into with their hate and anger.

Today, Memorial Day, we spend honoring the men and women who have died while serving in our country’s armed forces. I feel compelled to honor a different form of service today. During the week and a half I was in the hospital, I developed a tremendous respect to those who practice nursing. All the nurses, and the support staff, both men and women, on my floor were just incredible. Every moment of interaction was a moment of kindness and concern. Some of the things these folks had to help me with during the first few days post-surgery were not pleasant, and rather embarrassing. They did what needed to be done, and much more, and always tried to make me feel comfortable. To my mind they are the real Kuan Yins, the real bodhisattvas of this earth.

The day they let me go, I told my surgeon, “It may sound strange, but this has been a wonderful experience.” I was too emotional to describe what I meant. Immersed in a sea of compassion and healing was inspiring, and it was transformational.  I still don’t have the words to communicate how I feel.  I will soon. For now, suffice it to say that a new liver is not the only thing that has changed in me since I left home on May 12th.


Preparing for The New Normal

It is early in the morning of my 11th day at the hospital. I was scheduled for release today but I had arranged to have some work done at home during my absence and it involved glazing the bathtub and kitchen sink, a process that produces toxic fumes, so my place will not be fit for human consumption until Saturday morning. The chief surgeon here feels that I am doing so well, and they have invested so much in my surgery and recovery, that it would be a shame to jeopardize it in any way, so rather than risk I might go into the apartment too early, they are keeping me a couple days longer.

Prioritizing allocation of liver transplants is based on The Model for End-Stage Liver Disease, or MELD, a complicated system that even the doctors involved in liver transplantation do not completely understand. By late April, my Meld score was high enough that I started receiving offers for livers. Several times, I got phone calls that a liver was available but the primary candidate might be too sick for the surgery, so I should stand by as a backup. The week before my actual transplant, the situation looked favorable enough that they brought me in, gave me a room, and I waited all day while the transplant surgeon went to New Mexico to inspect the liver. None of these worked out.

Finally, Sunday the 11th, another call. Stand by, no eating or drinking, and this time, I was the primary.  There was little question that I was well enough for the surgery. Well, I hoped I was well enough, there was a small bit of doubt on my part. In any case, around 8am Monday morning, a final call. This is it. The liver is good. It’s yours. Get here as quick as you can.

My second cousin, a young filmmaker, picked me up and stayed by my side during the several hours’ long prep for surgery. It is all a blur to me now. I remember it was around 1:30PM when the anesthesiologist, said, “I’m going to get you drunk, now.” The next thing I knew it was sometime Tuesday and I had a new liver.

One reason why I am doing so well is that, as I indicated, I was relatively healthy prior to surgery. Most recipients are very sick by the time they get a liver. They been through interferon treatments, or perhaps have battled ascites, the distended abdomen swollen with fluids. Liver cancer put me on the fast track. I got extra MELD points for cancer. Now as I write this, I realize that I have crossed over another threshold: I am a cancer survivor. I no longer have cancer.

There isn’t much to do here. Read, wait for breakfast lunch dinner, wait for someone to come in and interact with you and relieve a few minutes of your boredom, even if in doing so they prod or poke or otherwise inflict some pain upon you.  And watch TV. In my case, it’s more a vain search to find something worth watching. Unfortunately, the channel selection is limited and what most Americans find interesting on television, I have no use for whatsoever.

But here I am. Alive. And although it is such a cliché, with a new life. Biding a few more days, rejuvenating, growing stronger, preparing to embark on the new normal, one centered around taking medicine designed to suppress my immune system. It’s exciting in many ways, for now that the heavy lifting is over, I am much more confident to face what lies ahead. That confidence was always there, I just wasn’t always able to touch it. I know it will be hard. I know there will be setbacks, possible rejections, and possible future hospitalizations. And with that knowledge, I see it is really just a another phase of the old normal, the same old life, the ceaseless struggle against suffering, the path that goes on forever to the endless further.


Doing Good

Thank you for the heartfelt messages. They are very much appreciated.

I don’t know quite where to start, so I keep it rather short and sweet. I find trying to communicate here difficult.  Fingers to fat for cell phone keys. Can’t hear people talk on the damn things. Had problems getting the wi-fi hooked up. Etc.

They tell me I am doing very well. In part due to my relatively good health, and I got lucky receiving a liver from a 19 year male. My doctor says that is rare. The first two days I was pretty groggy. But have been getting up and walking around the last two days. They say I may be good enough to go home by Tuesday. Everyone is rather amazed at my progress, most of all me. A little pain, not much, a lot of thirst, and discomfort in these hospital beds.  Am supposed to be on solid food already, but don’t find it very appealing.

That’s going to have to be it for now.  I won’t be on the laptop much until I return home, the cell phone either. Just too difficult for my frame of mind at present.