A longstanding tradition among Karṇāṭak composers involves weaving hidden meanings into their song texts; generally known as mudrās, such terms may serve to identify the composer through a pseudonym, or they may indicate aspects of the music itself.
The highly revered composer Muttusvāmi Dīkṣitar typically included his signature pseudonym Guruguha somewhere in his song texts. He also often worked in the name of the rāga in which the composition is set, sometimes ingeniously encasing the reference in two adjacent words that, taken together, reveal the rāga mudrā.
This according to Rāga mudrās in Dīkshitar kritis by K. Omanakutty (Thiruvananthapuram: University of Kerala, 2012; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature; RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2010-50861).
Above, a depiction of Dīkṣitar on a stamp issued by India Post; below, Gayathri Girish sings his Sārasa daḷa nayana, one of the works discussed in the book.
Toward the middle of the 13th century B.C.E., shortly after a granddaughter of the great Hittite king married the Ugaritic ruler, a matrimonial scandal shook the kingdom. The first lady of the city-state of Ugarit was accused of disporting herself with the nobles, of “ceaseless enjoyment” with them: the Akkadian word ṣiāḫum (to laugh joyfully, to flirt) was the discreet description of conjugal infidelity.
“To laugh” had been the euphemism for sexual intercourse and physical love for at least 700 years, as is attested in Paleo-Babylonian love songs. Already in Sumerian songs of the beginning of the second millennium B.C.E., the verbs “to delight” and “to utter joyful cries” were used to describe amorous play.
The language of love in Aššurian songs is one of metaphors and discreet allusions; carnal love is mentioned only indirectly, through stock literary devices stemming from a long tradition. Amorous metaphors include “the scent of cedar is your love”, “she seeks the garden of your opulent love”, and “today my heart is full of play and music”.
This according to “La musique des amoureux” by Brigitte Groneberg (Dossiers d’archéologie 310 [février 2006] pp. 50–54).
Above, a Paleo-Babylonian plaque; below, Peter Pringle performs his recreation of an ancient Egyptian song that uses similar metaphors.
A lively musical culture existed in the second half of the 14th century at the court of Brabant during the reign of Wenceslas I, Duke of Luxembourg (above, right). This abundant musical activity makes it likely that a member of the court chapel, Nicolas de Picquigny, was Pykini, the composer of the much-admired four-voice virelaiPlasanche or tost.
The text of Plasanche or tost mentions that the audience will listen with pleasure to the parrot (le papegay). Although parrots are often mentioned in such texts to evoke springtime, and some scholars have guessed that here it is a punning reference to a Pope, archival sources show that Wenceslas had chosen the parrot as his symbol, having had its image embroidered on numerous furnishings with the coats of arms of Brabant and Luxembourg.
The bird was a very appropriate mascot for this duke and poet, who welcomed poets from so many different linguistic regions to his court and was himself fluent in multiple languages. The virelai’s listeners would have had no doubt about the identity of this particular parrot.
The MS was discovered in Yunnan by Xu Lin (1921–2005) when she was working there as a field linguist in 1958; dating probably from the early 1930s or somewhat earlier, it contains the texts of 208 traditional songs of the Bai people, written in Old Bai script (Hanzi Baiwen/汉字白文).
The task of transcribing and translating these texts was carried forward by Xu under very difficult circumstances through the vicissitudes of Chinese history until her death, and then completed by the other authors. This edition presents them in the original script with International Phonetic Alphabet transliterations and word-by-word glosses in Chinese and English, in English translations, and in a facsimile reproduction from the MS.
Below, scenes from a Bai spring festival.
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Born Isidore Hochberg, the lyricist changed his name to Edgar Yipsel “Yip” Harburg when he married in 1923. In spite of a close childhood friendship—and some collaboration—with the Gershwin brothers, he did not consider making a living with poetry until the stock market crash in 1929 wiped out his profits as an industrial inventor and entrepreneur.
His first hit song was Brother, can you spare a dime?, with music by Jay Gorney. Although radio networks tried to ban the song for being sympathetic to the unemployed, Harburg was not discouraged from political commitment: He wrote one of the first antiwar musicals (Hooray for what!, 1937); the first all-black Hollywood musical for general audiences (Cabin in the sky, 1943); the first musical about feminism (Bloomer girl, 1944); and the first stage song about the emerging civil rights movement (The eagle and me from Bloomer girl). He was also the first to mount a fully integrated Broadway musical (Finian’s rainbow, 1947).
They had never attempted anything so ambitious, but since they weren’t exactly deluged with offers they decided it would be foolish to turn him down.
They developed a stage book based on Robbins’s ballet Fancy free, about three young sailors on a 24-hour leave in New York. The result was called On the town, and when it opened at the Adelphi Theater during the 1944 Christmas season they were also in the cast.
The show was hailed by critics, marking the beginning of a professional collaboration between the two that became, as The Chicago Tribune noted in 1990, “unchallenged as the longest-running act on Broadway.”
Sherman led Jewish humor and sensibilities out of ethnic enclaves and into the American mainstream with explosively funny parodies of classic songs that won him extraordinary success and acclaim across the board, from Harpo Marx to President Kennedy.
Sherman’s legacy represents a touchstone of postwar humor and a turning point in Jewish American cultural history. He was a manic, bacchanalian, and hugely creative artist who sold three million albums in just 12 months, yet died in obscurity a decade later at the age of 49.
This according to Overweight sensation: The life and comedy of Allan Sherman by Mark Cohen (Waltham: Brandeis University Press, 2013).
Bee imagery has long been a prominent element in song titles and lyrics. Bumble boogie: 100 years of bee imagery in American sound recordings—A discography by William L. Schurk and B. Lee Cooper (Popular music and societyXXXIV/4 [October 2011] pp. 493–502) explores several bee themes featured in more than 200 commercial recordings released in the U.S. during the past century.
Themes cited include references to scent, terms of endearment, analogies to bee-related structures and hive-oriented treasures, allusions to romance, sexuality and reproduction, and fears of physical pain and emotional rejection. The discography features recordings released over the past ten decades either as singles (45 or 78 rpm records) or as songs compiled in albums (33⅓ rpm records) or on compact discs.
“Odes to obesity: Images of overweight men and women in commercial sound recordings—A discography” by William L. Schurk and B. Lee Cooper (Popular music and societyXXXIV/2  pp. 237–246) explores more than 200 commercial sound recordings that address obesity themes in lyrics and song titles.
The introductory text examines gluttonous dietary patterns and food addictions among endomorphs. It also traces socially inflicted and self-ascribed references to individuals of hefty stature. Finally, it probes assertions of personal affection and social rejection based upon excessive body weight.
The discography features recordings that address fat themes that were released over the past eight decades as either singles (45 or 78 rpm records) or as songs compiled in albums (33⅓ rpm records) or on compact discs. A brief bibliography of articles and books that address either physical or lyrical obesity concludes the study.
On this Valentine’s Day, let’s look at an article that analyzes the 100 most popular songs between 1958 and 1998 for performer demographics and expressions of love.
In the 1990s women and black artists recorded more hits than in earlier periods; over time, references to love in lyrics performed by women artists decreased. References to sex in lyrics peaked between 1976 and 1984, when women used sexual references five times more than men; however, between 1991 and 1998, men used more sexual references.
Later songs and songs performed by white female artists expressed greater selfishness; the quality of love expressed in the lyrics remained the same.
From 4 to 8 October 2021, The Barry S. Brook Center for Music Research and Documentation hosts the virtual conference Responses in Music to Climate Change. The event brings together scholars, performers, composers, and activists, with the goal of exchanging … Continue reading →
Introduction: Dr. Philip Ewell, Associate Professor of Music at Hunter College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, posted a series of daily tweets during Black History Month (February 2021) providing information on some under-researched Black … Continue reading →
For it [the Walkman] permits the possibility…of imposing your soundscape on the surrounding aural environment and thereby domesticating the external world: for a moment, it can all be brought under the STOP/START, FAST FOWARD, PAUSE and REWIND buttons. –Iain Chambers, “The … Continue reading →
Near the end of his visit to Rome in 1933, the Hindustani vocalist Omkarnath Thakur (1887–1968) received an invitation to dine with Mussolini; Il Duce had caught wind of Thakur’s theories and experiments regarding the inducement of emotional states by … Continue reading →