Sunday, February 18, 2007

History - Musical Serendipity


Songs about places can be so convincing that it's hard to believe the people who wrote them haven't been there themselves. But that's often the case. Three prime examples:


John Denver sounds so sincere singing this song that it's hard to believe he wasn't born and raised in West Virginia. But he wasn't. Denver didn't even write it; two musicians named Bill Danoff and Taffy Nivert did. And they didn't grow up in West Virginia either. In fact, they'd never even been there when the song was composed. It was actually written while they were on their way to a Nivert family reunion in Maryland. As they drove through the countryside, along the winding, tree-lined roads, Bill passed the time by writing a little tune about their rural surroundings. Gradually, it became "Take Me Home, Country Roads." How did West Virginia get into the song? A friend of Bill's kept sending him picture postcards from the Mountain State with notes like, "West Virginia's almost heaven." Bill was so impressed by the postcards that he incorporated them into the lyrics of the song. John Denver discovered the tune in 1970, while he was performing at a Washington, D.C. folk club. Bill and Taffy were also performing there, and one evening they played Denver their half-finished "Country Roads." The three of them stayed up all night finishing it. Denver put it on his next RCA album; it made him a star, and made Bill and Taffy some hefty royalties. Presumably, they've been to West Virginia by now.

The most famous tribute to the most famous musical event in rock history was written by Joni Mitchell. Millions of young Americans have listened to the hit versions by Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young and by Matthews' Southern Comfort (as well as an album cut featuring Joni herself) and imagined enviously what it was like to be at Woodstock.
But what they don't know is that Joni wasn't at the festival. She was watching it on TV, like most of America. She'd been traveling with Crosby, Stills and Nash (who played one of their first gigs ever at the mammoth rock concert), and they were all staying in New York City before heading up to the festival. But Mitchell's managers, David Geffen and Elliot Roberts, decided she wouldn't be able to make her scheduled appearance on "The Dick Cavett Show" if she went to Woodstock - so they cancelled her appearance there; Joni was left behind in New York.
Mitchell says: "The deprivation of not being able to go provided me with an intense angle on Woodstock. I was one of the fans." But in the song, she sounds like one of the eyewitnesses.

This million-selling single about an old Mississippi paddlewheeler established Creedence Clearwater Revival as America's chief exponent of "swamp rock." They were quickly recognized as the most promising artists to emerge from New Orleans since Fats Domino. There was only one catch: Creedence Clearwater Revival wasn't from New Orleans. They were from El Cerrito, California. And they had never even been to New Orleans. In fact, the farthest east that songwriter John Fogarty had ever gotten was to Montana. And the closest thing to a bayou that he'd ever seen was the swampland around Winters, California. Actually, Proud Mary wasn't originally going to be a Mississippi riverboat at all. Fogarty initially envisioned her as a "washer woman." But the first few chords he played with reminded him of a paddle-wheel going around. That brought him to thoughts of the Mississippi River, and Mary became a boat. How did Fogarty manage to pull it off so well? The best explanation he could come up with for his "authentic" sound was that he'd listened to a lot of New Orleans music (like Fats Domino) when he was young.

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