the May 8, 1977 Barton Hall Concert

One of, if not thee, greatest Grateful Dead concert of all time (thanks to taping).

Having over 2,300 concerts to choose from, to try and pick just one Grateful Dead show as the best is both subjective and impossible (as well as controversial). That said, one show that is mentioned over and over as one of (if not thee) best is the May 8, 1977 Barton Hall concert at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.

The band were in especially good form during the 1977 tour. The Barton Hall concert is a legendary show partially because the music is accessible – it’s enjoyable for hardcore Deadheads and casual fans alike. But perhaps even more importantly the show is accessible in a more literal sense. Grateful Dead audio engineer Betty Cantor-Jackson recorded over 1,000 tapes of live concerts for the band and the Barton Hall show is one of her most famous recordings. The “Betty Board” recording of the Barton Hall concert is of excellent quality, without which the concert likely would not be held in such high esteem.

The Betty Board recording of the Barton Hall concert by Betty Cantor-Jackson has helped make the concert one of the most famous Grateful Dead shows of all time.

“Everybody’s favorite fun game, move back …”

Recording Grateful Dead concerts, and the Shakedown Street style trade of concert tapes, is an entire sub-culture of the band. More than 2,000 of the estimated 2,300 concerts have been preserved by tapers. The non-profit Internet Archive has an entire section just for Grateful Dead recordings with over 16,000 entries. Instead of being anti-piracy the band embraced tapers, giving them their own space behind the mixing desk. As drummer Mickey Hart said “We can’t be cops.” The decision inadvertently worked like a viral marketing campaign. Fans would record shows, they would trade tapes with other people, and in the process millions more people were exposed to the band’s music. Today the band’s website has a “Taper’s Section” devoted to highlighting taped recordings from each week’s concerts in the band’s history.

In 2017 on the 40th anniversary of the Barton Hall concert Tompkins County, NY (where Cornell is located) declared the day “Grateful Dead Day.” In 2011 the Barton Hall Concert was entered into the National Recording Registry of the Library of Congress alongside other culturally significant recordings such as Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech, George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, Dolly Parton’s Coat of Many Colors, Vince Guaraldi Trio’s A Charlie Brown Christmas, etc.

Added info: you can purchase the Cornell 5/8/77 concert as a 3-CD set, or you can listen to the concert for free on

A mini documentary on the magic of the Barton Hall concert.

In 2017 on the 40th anniversary of the concert the Cornell Chimes performed a concert on the bells.

the Gibson 1959 Les Paul Standard

One of the most legendary and sought-after guitars in the world.

In 1952 the Gibson Guitar company began to sell a solid-body guitar. The guitar was a collaboration with “The Wizard of Waukesha” guitarist & inventor Les Paul. The Gibson Les Paul guitar was created as an answer to the Fender Telecaster, created two years earlier becoming the first mass produced solid-body guitar. Despite some initial success Gibson sold fewer and fewer Les Pauls over the next 5 years. By 1958 Gibson decided to redesign the style of the guitar and turned to the sunburst finish of their hollow-body electric guitars for inspiration. They replaced the Les Paul’s gold painted finish with a cherry sunburst finish. This was the dawning of “the Burst”, some of the most famous guitars ever made.

Golden Gods

The 1958-1960 era of Gibson Les Pauls are some of the most collectible guitars in the world but they didn’t start out that way. Officially called the Gibson Les Paul Standard, but nicknamed the “Burst”, the guitar went relatively unnoticed until 1964 when a young Keith Richards bought a 1959 Burst from Selmer’s Music in London. He used it to record many of the Rolling Stones’ early hits including Satisfaction, Get Off My Cloud, and Let’s Spend the Night Together. Perhaps as importantly Richards was also seen with the guitar – in publicity photos, on tour, and in 1964 during the Rolling Stones appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show.

Because of the great sound the guitar produced, other early blues-rock guitarists wanted to try it. Richards lent his 1959 sunburst to Jimmy Page (then a studio musician, pre-Led Zeppelin) as well as to Eric Clapton. Later the classic combination of Gibson Les Paul played through a Marshall amp was created by Clapton who used the combo on the highly influential 1966 album Blues Breakers with Eric Clapton. Whether Clapton used a 1960 sunburst or a 1959 is an item of debate.

Soon other musicians wanted the sound & style of the 1959 sunburst. The problem was supply. In 1959 Gibson only made 643 Les Paul sunbursts. Even the whole of the sunburst run from 1958-1960 only produced somewhere around 1406-ish guitars. So by the late 1960s lots of musicians wanted one, but there weren’t enough to go around. This began a storied history of 1959 sunbursts being bought & sold, changing hands, and creating some very famous (and extremely valuable) guitars.

It’s who’s who of rock royalty who have played a 1959 burst.

Rock Provenance

While the guitar itself is a great guitar, the who’s who of rock guitarists who have played 1959 sunbursts adds to their value. The provenance of these guitars is what make them famous.

  • Keith Richards: In 1967 Keith sold his sunburst to Mick Taylor, who had replaced Peter Green in John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers (… who had replaced Eric Clapton in the Bluesbreakers). The “Keith Burst” would rejoin the Rolling Stones two years later when Taylor was brought in to replace Stones’ guitarist Brian Jones. In 1971 the guitar was either stolen, or maybe sold, but around 1977 it was sold to Bernie Marsden of Whitesnake who held onto it for about a week before selling it to Mike Jopp. In 2004 it went to an anonymous Swiss collector who supposedly paid $1 million for it.

  • Peter Green: Purchased around 1965 from the same shop as Keith Richards’ sunburst, Peter Green’s 1959 sunburst “Greeny” can be heard on 1967’s A Hard Road by John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers. The guitar went with him to the newly formed Fleetwood Mac and can be heard on their early blues-based albums including 1969’s Fleetwood Mac in Chicago. In the early 1970s he sold it to Gary Moore of Thin Lizzy where it can be heard on their albums. Moore sold it in 2006 for perhaps £300,000 or somewhere between $750,000-1.2 million, depending on the story. It further traded hands and most recently was sold in 2014 to Metallica’s Kirk Hammett. As for the price, it’s been reported that Hammett bought the guitar for $2 million but he’s said “I made a deal with the person I bought it from that I would never say what I paid for it. But it wasn’t $2 million. It wasn’t $1 million. It wasn’t even $500,000. That’s all I’ll say about it.”

  • Jimmy Page: The guitar that Jimmy Page calls his “Number One” is the 1959 sunburst that he bought off of Joe Walsh in 1969 while on tour in America. Incidentally after Joe Walsh joined the Eagles in 1975 he and Don Felder both played sunbursts including on the band’s biggest hit Hotel California. As for Jimmy Page his “Number One” has become one of the most iconic versions of the guitar. It can be first heard on 1969’s Led Zeppelin II. Page went on to own more than one 1959 sunburst and used them throughout the band’s career, part of which can be seen in their 1973 concert film The Song Remains the Same.

  • Billy Gibbons: Founder and front man of ZZ Top, Billy Gibbons purchased “Pearly Gates” from a rancher outside of Houston, Texas in 1968. After hearing Eric Clapton play a Les Paul sunburst he knew he had to have one. Gibbons named the guitar after a former car which in turn was named because it miraculously survived a drive from Texas to Hollywood. He’s played “Pearly Gates” on every ZZ Top album since. At one point he was offered $5 million for the guitar but declined.

  • Duane Allman: While Allman was more famous for his 1957 gold top Les Paul, he sold it in a deal to buy a 1959 sunburst. That sunburst is most famously heard on the Allman Brothers Band’s 1971 live album At Fillmore East. Today it sits in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

  • Joe Perry: Unsure exactly who he traded guitars with, or when, Joe Perry ended up with a 1959 sunburst at some point in the 1970s. He played it on the early Aerosmith albums and can be seen playing it on the album art for Aerosmith’s Live! Bootleg album. Around 1982 Perry needed money and sold it for $4,500. It changed hands a few times, eventually going to Eric Johnson who offered to sell it back to Perry for what he paid for it, but Perry didn’t have any money and declined. It was sold again and by the time Perry had the money and went in search of his old guitar it was owned by Slash of Guns N’ Roses. The Joe Perry Les Paul can be seen in the November Rain video. In 2000 as a surprise 50th birthday present, Slash gave Perry back his old guitar.

Because of their iconic status the 1958-1960 Les Pauls have inspired many knock-offs. Some 1957s were refinished to look like 1958s, while others are just very convincing fakes. This leads to variations of the joke that between 1958-1960 Gibson made around 1,500 sunbursts and there are only about 3,000 left.

Of the sunbursts the 1959 is still the most valuable. The “Holy Grail” of guitars, the 1959 sunburst is so popular that Gibson currently makes a reissued version of it which you can buy new for just around $7,000. This is relatively inexpensive given that original 1959 sunbursts, even those with no particularly interesting provenance, sell for a few hundred thousand dollars each.

Five Watt World gives an excellent history of the Burst Les Pauls.

Clapton’s sunburst Les Paul combined with a Marshall amp, as heard on the album Blues Breakers with Eric Clapton, helped set the template for what blues-rock should sound like.

You can hear Peter Green’s “Greeny” burst on Watch Out by Fleetwood Mac.

ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons demonstrates the sound of his 1959 Les Paul, “Pearly Gates”.

Jimmy Page’s “Number One” burst is one of the most iconic 1959 Les Pauls in rock.

Viking Helmets & Wagner

Viking warriors didn’t wear helmets with horns or wings on them.

There’s no evidence that Viking warriors wore helmets with horns or wings. There are actually very few Viking helmets of any kind in existence and none have been found with horns or wings. Medieval sources show Vikings more commonly wearing simple headgear (perhaps made of leather or iron) while others have nothing on their heads at all. Vikings who wore metal helmets were probably in the minority and all of those helmets were fairly plain.

The Gjermundbu helmet is one of the few Viking helmets in existence. Medieval sources show Vikings wearing simple head coverings or nothing at all. Winged or horned helmets were never used in battle.

South of Scandinavia, Germanic and Celtic tribes did have religious headpieces with horns, antlers, wings, etc. but these were purely ceremonial and never worn in battle. To wear a helmet with large decorative extensions in combat would be impractical.

The paintings of August Malmström and the stage productions of Richard Wagner’s Ring Cycle set the standard for what we think Viking warriors looked like.

Artistic License

Fast-forward to the early 19th century, the Romanticism movement produced works that turned away from classical Greek & Roman influences and embraced medieval history from other European cultures further north (such as the Germanic and Celtic cultures). Within Romanticism was the Viking Revival in which the Swedish painter August Malmström is believed to have been one of the first to paint Viking warriors with wings on their helmets. In the spirit of the Mark Twain quote, “Never let the truth get in the way of a good story.” there are a variety of historical inaccuracies in Malmström’s paintings and the winged helmets are a big one … but they make for some great paintings. The fact that winged headpieces were purely ceremonial and probably Celtic (and not Viking), seems to have been lost on Malmström.

But perhaps the most influential source of this myth is the composer Richard Wagner. Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung) is a German 4 opera cycle by Wagner which tells the tale of a mythical past, a magic ring, and the fall of the Nordic / Germanic gods. For the first Bayreuth production in 1876 Wagner’s costume designer Carl Emil Doepler added wings to the helmets of the female Valkyries and horns to the helmet of the minor character Hunding, husband of Sieglinde.

What’s Opera, Doc?

Over time the Valkyries’ wings were replaced with horns, giving us the idea of a female opera singer with a horned helmet. This spread across pop culture most notably in the comic strip Hägar the Horrible, the Minnesota Vikings football team logo, Julianne Moore’s character in the Gutterballs dream sequence from The Big Lebowski, and the legendary 1957 Warner Bros. cartoon What’s Opera, Doc? which pulls from several Wagner operas and features Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd in winged/horned Wagnerian costumes.

A scene from the 1957 Wagner inspired Warner Bros. cartoon What’s Opera, Doc?.

Drop in to see what condition your condition is in with the Wagner inspired Gutterballs dream sequence from The Big Lebowski.

Auld Lang Syne

The nostalgic song toasting times gone by that has spread around the world.

Auld Lang Syne started as a traditional Scottish folk song. The lyrics were written down, added to, and made famous by 18th century Scottish national poet Robert Burns in 1788. In the late 18th century Burns was touring Scotland collecting folk songs & poetry when he recorded Auld Lang Syne and submitted it to The Scots Musical Museum.

Burns contributed hundreds of songs to the Museum whose intention was to preserve the fading Scots language & culture which was becoming increasingly influenced by English culture. Auld Lang Syne is written partially in English but also partially in Scots (which is a Germanic derived Scottish language, different than “Scottish” which is a Celtic Gaelic derived language). The lyrics were originally set to a few different melodies but in 1799 they were paired with the melody we know today.

Written down and added to by Robert Burns, Auld Lang Syne has become the unofficial theme song of New Year’s.

What is it and why New Year’s Eve?

Because the lyrics are partially in Scots most people don’t know exactly what the song means. The title “auld lang syne” in Scots translates to “old long since” or more loosely as “for the sake of the good old days gone by”. The song is a toast to friendship and to the fond memories of days gone by.

Given the song’s spirit of looking back while looking forward it became a standard sung every Hogmanay (the Scottish New Year’s Eve). Its association with New Year’s in North America was because of Guy Lombardo. On New Year’s Eve 1928 Guy Lombardo and The Royal Canadians big band hosted a concert at the Roosevelt Hotel in New York City and at the stroke of midnight they played Auld Lang Syne. For the next 47 years they played NYE concerts and every midnight they played Auld Lang Syne, earning Lombardo the nickname of “Mr. New Year’s Eve”. When Dick Clark created Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve from Times Square in 1972 he too played Lombardo’s version of Auld Lang Syne at midnight. Since then the song has become synonymous with New Year’s.

Guy Lombardo’s classic 1947 rendition of Auld Lang Syne.

Around the World

While the song is internationally recognized as the unofficial theme song of New Year’s Eve the melody has been used in other ways. The Korean national anthem Aegukga originally used the melody of Auld Lang Syne until 1948 when it was replaced with an original melody. It was also the melody of the national anthem of the Maldives, Qaumii salaam, until 1972 when it too was replaced with an original melody.

The Dutch song Wij houden van Oranje (which translates to “We Love Orange”) is a national soccer chant set to the melody of Auld Lang Syne. Also in Japan the melody is used for for the graduation ceremony song Hotaru no Hikari, the melody is used to mark the end of the day in department stores, etc.

QI discusses the history of Auld Lang Syne

Toasting the Past, Looking Forward

Like the Roman god Janus, Auld Lang Syne is a seasonal reminder to look back at the days gone by but also look ahead to the future. It’s a nostalgic song that toasts the people with us today as well as the people with us in spirit.


The haunting crying instrument that you’ve heard in thriller / horror movies.

Invented around 1968 by Richard Waters, the waterphone is an atonal musical instrument which has vertical metal rods of different lengths attached to a metal resonator pan/bowl. Inside the resonator is a bit of water, similar to a water drum, so when the vertical rods are played (with a mallet or more frequently with a bow) the resonator can echo and bend the sounds. The effect ranges from spacey to creepy.

Given its haunting sound the waterphone has been used to create tension and uneasiness in a variety of TV shows, theatrical productions, and movies. You can hear it in ALIENS, Poltergeist, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, etc. It’s used for jump scares such as in The Matrix when Neo’s new cellphone rings. It’s been used in multiple productions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Mickey Hart of the Grateful Dead has used the waterphone, Tom Waits has used the waterphone, as well as a host of contemporary classical composers.

Waterphones aren’t all scary though. Composer and activist Jim Nollman used the waterphone on Playing Music With Animals, where he played a waterphone to orcas.

A demonstration of the waterphone.

Metal Horns

The metal hand sign is from an Italian gesture to ward off the evil eye.

Ronnie James Dio, considered one of the greatest metal vocalists, fronted a host of legendary bands – Rainbow, Dio, and Black Sabbath. In 1979, when he was replacing Ozzy Osbourne in Sabbath, he wanted to set himself apart from his predecessor. Ozzy would flash the peace sign during concerts and Dio wanted to do something different. He thought back to the hand gesture his Italian grandmother would use to ward off the “malocchio” or “the evil eye.” From this, Dio began to flash the “mano cornuto” or the “horned hand” gesture.

Mano Cornuto

The mano cornuto is related to the Italian cornicello charm of a single horn that looks a bit like a chili pepper. They’re both used as protection against the evil eye. The hand gesture has the index and pinky fingers extended and may have evolved from the idea of the two extended fingers “poking the eyes” of the person giving you the evil eye.

Because Dio was using the sign as the vocalist for Black Sabbath, he helped popularize the gesture in heavy metal culture. Soon other musicians, as well as fans, began to make the same gesture and today it’s used all over pop culture. Dio never claimed to have invented the sign but he certainly did more to make it a part of heavy metal than anyone else.

Added info: Gene Simmons of KISS, never one to pass up an opportunity to shamelessly profit off of something, filed an application to trademark a strikingly similar hand sign. In 2017 he tried to trademark the metal hand sign but with the thumb extended instead of tucked in. What Simmons claimed was his also happens to be the sign for “I love you” in American Sign Language. He later withdrew his application but not before Dio’s widow, Wendy Dio, said of Simmons “To try to make money off of something like this is disgusting. It belongs to everyone; it doesn’t belong to anyone. It’s a public domain; it shouldn’t be trademarked.”

Dio explains the Italian origin of the metal horns.

Mary Jane’s Last Dance

For an album of greatest hits Tom Petty wrote yet another greatest hit.

For his 1993 album Greatest Hits Tom Petty was asked to record two new songs. The album already included 16 of his best songs from the previous 17 years, but MCA wanted a few bonus songs (as was the style at the time, to include some bonus material on compilation albums). Petty was not interested in having to write new material so he dug around through some old song ideas. Producer Rick Rubin picked a fragment of a song that had a good riff and potential to be a good song.

Petty took the riff he created 5-ish years earlier, and wrote Mary Jane’s Last Dance. The song was a hit and peaked around #14 on the Billboard Hot 100. So, when pressured to write a new song for an album full of his greatest hits, Tom Petty wrote a song that itself became another one of his greatest hits.

Kim Basinger, dead woman

A driver of the song’s commercial success was the accompanying music video. The video (which has nothing to do with the lyrics) has Petty playing a morgue assistant who becomes infatuated with a beautiful dead woman (played by Kim Basinger). He takes her home, he tries to dance with her, he props her up at the dinner table, but eventually he release her body into the waves of the ocean.

Talent to Spare

It’s hard enough to write one hit song let alone a hit song to accompany your other hit songs. While Petty may have written the song under duress, it’s a testament to his talent that he still wrote one of his best songs. Regarding Mary Jane’s Last Dance, Petty later said “I complained about that [song] so much … I’m really glad I did it now.”

Lyrical Dissonance

When the melody doesn’t match the lyrics.

In most songs the melody aligns with content of the lyrics. Sad melodies have sad lyrics, upbeat melodies have happy positive lyrics. Lyrical Dissonance is when there’s a mismatch. Most typically lyrical dissonance is found in songs that have happy melodies but, upon closer inspection, have subversively dark lyrics. This juxtaposition of incongruent melody to lyrics is found across genres.

Jimmie Davis’s 1940 version of You Are My Sunshine, a song with much darker lyrics than the melody would lead you to believe.

One of the most famous examples is 1940’s You Are My Sunshine first made famous by Jimmie Davis (but recorded by many musicians over the years). The melody is so bright & cheerful it’s understandable why it’s one of the official state songs of Louisiana. The lyrics however, are about a man who is heartbreakingly alone having been abandoned by his former love and that happiness (his sunshine) has left his life.

LDN by Lily Allen is a clever use of lyrical dissonance in a few ways.

LDN by Lily Allen is a very clever example in that it explores dissonance on multiple levels. The song is about how reality is not quite what it seems, the dissonance between perceived reality vs. actual reality, and that behind a happy surface-level exterior there is frequently a darker truth.

Then there is the second level with the lyrical dissonance between the happy upbeat melody and the dark lyrics. Finally, to add yet another level, the music video for this song visualizes this dissonance with Allen moving through a saturated colorful happy London, but when she moves away from a scene the grimy darker reality is exposed. The two versions of each scene conflicting with one another.

For having a saccharine sweet melody, Copacabana is a dark song about a depressed lonely showgirl.

There are many happy sounding songs with lyrics about lost loves or failed romances

Copacabana by Barry Manilow – is about a showgirl whose bartender love is killed, their Copcacabana nightclub eventually becomes a discotheque, and she lives out her life alone, disheveled, and depressed drinking herself blind thinking of the past.
Mamma Mia by ABBA – is about a failed relationship full of regret, wishing they could have the person back.
Act Naturally by Buck Owens – the singer is going to be successful in the motion picture industry with roles of sad depressed characters just by acting naturally given his experience at being depressed & lonely.
Walking The Floor Over You by Ernest Tubb – the singer has been left by his love and now, depressed and alone, he paces around the room not knowing what to do with himself.
Once A Day by Connie Smith – the singer has been left by her love but only feels depressed once a day. Unfortunately that “once” is the entirety of the day, every day.
Lovefool by The Cardigans – the singer is desperate to be loved by someone who isn’t interested.
Go Your Own Way by Fleetwood Mac – like many Fleetwood Mac songs, Go Your Own Way is about a failed relationship within the band. The song is about a man (Lyndsey Buckingham) doing everything for his love (Stevie Nicks) but realizing he has to end the relationship because he’s being used.
Build Me Up Buttercup by The Foundations – the singer is being strung along by a person who doesn’t really care about him, but despite this abuse he still wants a real relationship with this person.
Pretty in Pink by the Psychedelic Furs – is about a girl who has sex with various guys thinking it will make her popular, but in reality she’s treated like a joke and mocked behind her back. The John Hughes movie was named after the song, but the plot of the movie is nothing like the lyrics of the song.
Macarena by Los Del Rio – the original lyrics for the dance craze pop hit Macarena are about a woman who, while her boyfriend is away serving in the military, cheats on him over and over again.

Dancing in the Dark, despite all the dancing in the video and the title of the song, isn’t really about dancing.

Lyrical dissonance can also hide depression with upbeat music

Dancing In the Dark by Bruce Springsteen – Springsteen was pushed to write another hit single for his 1984 album Born in the U.S.A.. Angry and pressured, he wrote Dancing In the Dark in one night. The singer is isolated, depressed, tired, and dissatisfied with his life, needing help to find a way out (and in Springsteen’s case, needing a way to escape the alienating pressure to produce hit songs). The “dancing in the dark” in this case is his moving in darkness trying to find meaning / light for his life.
Piano Man by Billy Joel – is about a piano player at a local bar observing the various regulars at the bar, each of whom have unfulfilled dreams with little chance of every finding success.
Chandelier by Sia – is about a protagonist whose excessive party lifestyle is masking pain and unresolved problems.
Another Day, Another Dollar by Wynn Stewart – is about working your life away, day after day.
Today by the Smashing Pumpkins – Today is the greatest day, because the suicidal protagonist (who has already cut himself in self-harm, “pink ribbon scars”) has decided that his life can not get any worse. The title is ironic, that from this point on things can only be better than absolute rock bottom.

The line in Today by the Smashing Pumpkins that “today is the greatest day …” is ironic.

Lust for Life is about overcoming heroin addiction.

Fun songs about heroin

• Lust For Life by Iggy Pop – is named for the 1956 bio film about Vincent van Gough, Lust for Life. That aside, it’s a song about recovering from heroin addiction, it references the work of William S. Burroughs, and generally speaks of depravity. It’s not the fun joie de vivre anthem people think it is, and Royal Caribbean certainly shouldn’t have used it to sell cruises.
• There She Goes by The La’s – is about the love of heroin, or possibly about a woman.
• I’m Waiting For The Man by the Velvet Underground – is about going up to Harlem to buy some heroin. The “man” in question is the protagonist’s drug dealer.

[Nothing But] Flowers is about living in a post-apocalyptic world, reclaimed by nature.

Going from nature, to industrial society, and back again

Big Yellow Taxi by Joni Mitchell – is about environmentalism, regret, and the destruction of nature.
[Nothing But] Flowers by the Talking Heads – is like a reverse Big Yellow Taxi. It’s about a post-apocalyptic world where nature has reclaimed urban areas and the singer is torn between appreciating the new natural world and longing for the comforts of his former industrialized lifestyle.

Shiny Happy People is an incredibly happy melody but the lyrics are about Chinese propaganda and the Tiananmen Square massacre.

Violence masked by fun melodies

• Shiny Happy People by R.E.M. – is a sardonic satirical song about the smiling happy people seen in Chinese propaganda in the wake of the Tiananmen Square massacre. (Bonus: the Sesame Street parody Happy Furry Monsters really is about happy furry monsters.)
• Electric Avenue by Eddy Grant – is about the 1981 Brixton Riot in London where hundreds of people were injured clashing with the police.
Mack the Knife – has a long and complicated history, but the version popularized by Bobby Darin is about a knife-wielding murderous gangster.
Jack Straw by the Grateful Dead – inspired by Of Mice and Men, Jack Straw is a murder ballad about a group of outlaws who are on the run from the law. As there is no honor among thieves members start killing each other off. (Bonus: this video includes the legendary naked Oregon pole guy.)
• Maxwell’s Silver Hammer by the Beatles – is about a hammer wielding murderer.
• Brown Sugar by the Rolling Stones – is an incredibly dark song about West African slaves being brought to the United States and the female slaves being raped at night by their owner.
• Pumped up Kicks by Foster The People – is about a kid named Robert dreaming of shooting his classmates at school.
• I Don’t Like Mondays by the Boomtown Rats – is about an actual school shooting in San Diego in 1979. The shooter, Brenda Spencer was asked why she killed people on the playground and she said “I don’t like Mondays. This livens up the day.”

Fortunate Son is one of the most famous anti-war protest anthems, delivered with a catchy up-tempo melody.

And of course, happy songs protesting war

Fortunate Son by Creedence Clearwater Revival – used in montage scenes for Vietnam war movies, in ad campaigns to help sell blue jeans, and even without permission by the ultimate fortunate son Donald Trump (Trump, his staff, and his MAGA followers being too dumb to see the irony of its use) Fortunate Son is arguably the most famous anti-war anthem. Behind the up-tempo rock melody is a social criticism of how the unaffected elite social class wage wars that poor kids have to go fight & die in.
99 Red Balloons by Nena – is about the futility of war and how something as innocent as releasing balloons near the Berlin Wall could cause military escalation and eventual mutual destruction on both sides.
Born in the U.S.A. by Bruce Springsteen – like Dancing In the Dark, this song is also on the Born in the U.S.A. album. It’s a protest song. It’s about a disillusioned working-class veteran who society has rejected & alienated. It is not the pro-America Reagan-era anthem most people think it is, but rather it’s a scathing criticism of 1980s America.

Black Sabbath’s War Pigs is an example of lyrical dissonance the other way around, dark melody but positive anti-war lyrics.

Dark Melodies, Positive Messages

Not as common, but lyrical dissonance is also found the other way around with dark melodies & positive lyrics. Black Sabbath’s 1970 song War Pigs is very dark melodically, but the lyrics are strongly anti-war. War Pigs is like a darker sounding Fortunate Son. It’s a criticism of the Vietnam War (and war in general) and how the rich & powerful benefit from war while facing none of the dangers, sending the poor off to die.

Incongruent music in TV & film is a common trope now, but it was popularized by this Stealers Wheel straight razor scene in Reservoir Dogs.
(Warning: if you’re squeamish, this isn’t for you)

Added info: Musical dissonance/incongruity can also be found in a slightly different way in TV & film. This is where the mood of the song being played does not align to what is taking place in the scene. Frequently this is done with a happy song being played as a counterpoint to a dark disturbing scene.

This has become a common trope in entertainment today but a few early examples helped define the concept.
• David Lynch employed this concept in Blue Velvet with Roy Orbison’s In Dreams.
• The X-Files used Johnny Mathis’s Wonderful! Wonderful! multiple times in perhaps the show’s most infamous episode Home.
• However, no director is more famous for this than Quentin Tarantino. One of Tarantino’s earliest and best known uses of this technique is in 1992’s Reservoir Dogs and its well-known use of the Stealers Wheel song Stuck in the Middle with You.

Jingle Bells

The hell-raising sleigh song that became a Christmas standard.

Jingle Bells was published in 1857 under the title One Horse Open Sleigh. It wasn’t until it was reissued in 1859 that it got the title we know today. It was written by James Lord Pierpont, the uncle of Wall Street titan John Pierpont Morgan (aka. J.P. Morgan). By all accounts James Pierpont was a pretty awful person. He lived for adventure, traveled the world, abandoned his family, didn’t attend his first wife’s funeral nor did he care for their children after she died, he fought for the south in the Civil War despite being from an abolitionist family in Massachusetts, etc. That said he did write one of the most famous Christmas songs of all time despite the fact that the song isn’t about Christmas.

Risqué High-Speed Sleigh Riding

Jingle Bells is one of several Christmas favorites that have nothing to do with Christmas. The lyrics & melody changed within Pierpont’s lifetime but in general the song is about a sleigh ride. Looking to the lesser known additional lyrics the song is specifically about getting away from the watchful eyes of the people in town and a boy taking a girl out for a secluded sleigh ride. The song then has the protagonist relaying his story to other guys and telling them to pick up girls in their sleighs and have a good time while they’re young.

These lyrics were most likely influenced by where & when Pierpont wrote the song. At the time the town of Medford, Massachusetts (where he wrote the song) had a strong winter sleigh racing scene. It was also a rum producing city. People would race their sleighs at top speed (frequently while drunk) down Salem Street. It was like a drunker 19th century version of American Graffiti. Today the town of Medford has a plaque commemorating the song and says the song is about sleigh racing. None of this is very Christmasy.

The Sleigh Race“, Currier & Ives, lithograph, 1859

Jingle Bells … In Space

While in space for the 1965 Gemini 6 project, astronauts Tom Stafford and Wally Schirra snuck sleigh bells and a harmonica aboard the capsule. Alluding to Santa Claus, on December 16th they reported seeing “… a satellite going from north to south, up in a polar orbit.” They then proceeded to play Jingle Bells to an initially very confused mission control. Their instruments were the first every played in outer space and are now in the Smithsonian.

During the mid 1960s the song began to take-on alternate lyrics, the most famous of which is the Batman themed parody. The Batman Smells version seems to have started around the time of the original Adam West television show. Australia has Aussie Jingle Bells to better align to the summer heat of Christmas down under.

Added info: the titular “jingle” doesn’t refer to a type of bell, but rather it is a verb telling you to jingle/shake bells. Sleighs can run fairly silent on snow and so jingling bells are a safety feature serving as an audible signal that you are approaching.

The Pedal Steel & Ralph Mooney

The pedal steel guitar shaped decades of country music and Ralph Mooney is a legendary master of the instrument.

Part of the sound of classic country is the pedal steel guitar. It’s the sliding, bending, sometimes crying sounding instrument that fills in the background as well as takes solos. Before most modern country abandoned classic country artists & sounds, the pedal steel was a standard part of the genre for decades.

The Hawaiian style lap guitar served as the foundation for what became the pedal steel guitar.

Pedal Steel

The pedal steel guitar started out (without its pedals) in Hawaiian music. Hawaiians took the acoustic guitars of 19th century Europeans and laid them flat across their laps. This new style of playing eventually created its own kind of guitar, the lap guitar, which was designed to only be played laid across the performer’s lap. By the 1930s these were electrified and given legs to get them off the musician’s lap. Eventually these instruments found their way into western swing.

In 1939 Alvino Rey worked to get the first pedals added to his steel guitar. In 1952 Zane Beck added knee levers. With pedals and knee levers, this formed a new instrument called the pedal steel guitar. The pedals & knee levers, when pushed, bend the strings to raise or lower the pitch of notes changing their sounds. This augmentation of notes was done before the musician would play the strings, but in 1953 Bud Isaacs bent the notes while they were already played on the Webb Pierce song Slowly. While it sounds normal now, at the time it was an entirely new way of playing. This was the dawn of a huge change in country music. A whole host of pedal steel players arose to shape country music and one of the best was Ralph Mooney.

Ralph Mooney playing with Wynn Stewart.

Ralph Mooney

Born in 1928 in Duncan, Oklahoma, Ralph Mooney moved to California when he was 12. He started playing the steel guitar but when he learned about the pedal steel he built his own. He started playing in bands and it was in 1950 that he met Wynn Stewart. Stewart, along with Buck Owens and others, helped define the Bakersfield sound and Ralph Mooney was a big part of that. Like any genre, country music has lots of subgenres and the Bakersfield sound was the subgenre coming out of California in the 1950s. It didn’t sound like the more polished music that was coming from Nashville at the time (aka “Countrypolitan”), it had more of a honky-tonk early-rock sound and the pedal steel was integral to that sound.

With Wynn Stewart, Mooney recorded numerous classics such as Wishful Thinking, Another Day Another Dollar, and Together Again. Mooney is even name-checked before his (really incredible) solo on Stewart’s 1965 Sing A Sad Song. Mooney also recorded with Buck Owens on several big songs including Under Your Spell Again and Heartaches for a Dime.

In 1971 Mooney influenced the rising new subgenre of Outlaw country when he started recording with Waylon Jennings, who was one of Mooney’s biggest fans. You can hear some of Mooney’s best work with Waylon on 1973’s Lonesome, On’ry and Mean, Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow up to Be Cowboys, and Ladies Love Outlaws.

Mooney (seated at the pedal steel) eventually became a part of The Waylors, playing with Waylon Jennings.

Crazy Arms

Ralph Mooney’s pedal steel work alone would have made him a country music legend, but he was also the cowriter of the mega hit Crazy Arms. The 1956 version by Ray Price became a number one hit and stayed at number one for 20 weeks. It has since become a country standard but is so popular that it’s been recorded by musicians across genres such as Chuck Berry, Jerry Garcia, and Louis Armstrong.

So while there have been many great pedal steel players, Ralph Mooney helped shape the Bakersfield sound, Outlaw country, and ultimately influenced country music in ways that are still heard today.

Added info: The fantastic Cocaine & Rhinestones podcast has an entire episode devoted to Mooney which is a must-listen for fans of classic country.

A selection of Mooney classics

Mooney is name-checked before his solo begins.