Listen to this track by American folk music dynasty member and Brooklyn NY born storytelling singer-songwriter Arlo Guthrie. It’s “Alice’s Restaurant Massacree”, an epic length story-song that appears on his 1967 debut album, appropriately titled Alice’s Restaurant.
This song is his most famous even now, based on real people and real life events, and delivered in a “talking blues” style made popular by his legendary dad, Woody Guthrie. It would prove to be an enduring song even if it is longer than most; 18 minutes and change, depending on the version, of which there are now quite a few. Most of that running time consists of a spoken-word delivery with a circular ragtime style finger-picking vamp behind it. Unconventional as it is, it got Arlo Guthrie a recording contract after his live performances of the song caught the attention of underground radio, who got a hold of a live recording. It was even adapted into a full length feature film in 1969 directed by Arthur Penn, and starring Arlo Guthrie playing a version of himself.
Because the story initially takes place during the Thanksgiving holiday, it’s now often given airplay during that time of the year, having celebrated it’s fiftieth year this past November. But, the themes the song deals with go beyond a single time of year or occasion. Maybe that’s why it was such a hit, despite the level of commitment it asked of listeners during a time when three minute songs were the order of the day. Read more
Here’s a clip of Gil Scott-Heron’s most famous spoken word piece, ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televised’, taken from his 1971 album Pieces of a Man.
Gil Scott-Heron is thought to be one of the progenitors of hip-hop, approaching his early efforts with a spoken word ‘rap’ as backed by an insistent groove, with some counterbalancing jazz flute acting as a foil to his strident vocal delivery. His was the street-level voice of a black man concerned that the larger American culture was leaving his community behind in the wake of cultural distractions.
Among these distractions was television and commercialism which took attention away from what was happening in neighbourhoods in cities all over America – that the poverty cycle and disillusionment caused by it was reaching a breaking point. Where Marvin Gaye was angered and saddened by this same trend as expressed in his “Inner City Blues” put out that same year, Scott-Heron is full of disdain and sarcasm, listing off the banalities of white America measured against the anger and rising tension that stood in contrast with it.
Whether or not Scott-Heron can be traced to today’s hip-hop in general is arguable, although his connection to individual hip hop artists like Grandmaster Flash (‘The Message’), The Disposal Heroes of Hiphoprisy (‘Television, The Drug of the Nation’), and Public Enemy (‘Fight the Power’) is pretty undeniable in terms of tone and subject matter. What Scott-Heron was trying to do with this piece and other early poetry pieces he’d done while working in the same vein as contemporaries the Last Poets was to shed light on what was happening in the inner cities.
Hip Hop today, for the most part with those listed exceptions in mind, is about rising out of what is happening there, and escaping it. Absent from modern hip hop is the concern for the community that is so endemic to Scott-Heron’s work, it seems to me. In its place is the same banal materialism that he is speaking out against in “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”.
What do you think, good people? I’m sure there are examples which prove this generalization of mine wrong. Are there some striking examples of social commentary and concern left in modern hip hop? I’d love to be turned on, hip hop fans!