Until 1970, Dolly Parton’s career in country music looked to be average at best. She had songwriting talent from the beginning, but despite the popularity of her duets with Porter Wagoner (five had reached the US Country Top 10 from 1967 to ‘69), Parton’s solo releases barely dented the chart. In fact, after her first few moderate hits in 1967, successive releases charted successively worse through the end of the decade. That is, until she released a cover version of the Jimmie Rodgers country standard “Mule Skinner Blues” in 1970.
Rodgers wrote the song as one of his “Blue Yodels” - No. 8 to be exact - and first recorded it in 1930. Dolly Parton’s version forty years later peaked at #3 on the US Country chart. The song carried RCA Record’s release of her first “best of” compilation, released the same year, and set Parton up for the success that followed with “Joshua” (the song and the album). Also helping Parton get noticed: 40 double-Ds.
“The existentialist does not believe in the power of passion. He will never regard a grand passion as a destructive torrent upon which a man is swept into uncertain actions as by fate, and which, therefore is an excuse for them.”—Sartre, “Existentialism Is a Humanism” (via fuckyeahphilosophy) (via phasechangesyndrome) (via fuckyeahexistentialism)
“Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination. Devour old films, new films, music, books, paintings, photographs, poems, dreams, random conversations, architecture, bridges, street signs, trees, clouds, bodies of water, light and shadows. Select only things to steal from that speak directly to your soul. If you do this, your work (and theft) will be authentic. Authenticity is invaluable; originality is non-existent. And don’t bother concealing your thievery - celebrate it if you feel like it. In any case, always remember what Jean-Luc Godard said: “It’s not where you take things from - it’s where you take them to.”
I could go dozens of places with this post, but let me start here… Classical music finds its way into more “popular” more often than one might realize. There are the obvious examples like The Toy’s 1965 hit “A Lover’s Concerto,” for which the melody was taken directly from “Minuet in G,” composed by Christian Petzold in 1725 (often mistakenly attributed to J.S. Bach). There are also less well-known examples. Both “The Free Design’s “Kije’s Ouija” from 1970 (a previous song of the day) and Greg Lake’s “I Believe in Father Christmas” from ‘75 take their melodies from “Troika,” the fourth movement of Sergei Prokofiev’s 1934 Lieutenant Kijé film score.
“If I Were a Rich Man” takes both its style and melody from a theme in the third movement of Gustav Mahler’s 1896 first symphony (click to 2:35 into the linked song), which itself was partly a reworking of the traditional European folk song “Frère Jacques” into a funeral march. Follow all that?
The point, then, is that new melodies are hard to come by these days. Where modern artists make their mark is in performance. Zero Mostel’s interpretation of Tevye, the Russian Milkman protagonist in Fiddler on the Roof, won him a Tony Award, and for good reason. The most impressive moment in the entire musical for Mostel came with “If I Were a Rich Man,” a performance so overflowing with personality it became arguably the defining work of Mostel’s career. The small idiosyncrasies he incorporated brought out both the solemnity and humor of Tevye’s life. The fun version of “If I Were a Rich Man” posted here comes from the cast recording of the 1964 original Broadway production of Fiddler on the Roof.
I have a ton more fun facts and interesting angles to take on this song (did you know Bea Arthur was an original cast member in the ‘64 Broadway production?), but I suppose this post is long enough already…
To finish off our short lapse with popular music crossover into classical music (or vice versa, if you look at it that way) here’s a piece from Fiddler on the Roof.
And well.. he explains it quite well. Stay tuned for the piece that inspired it.