Monday, March 9, 2009
For the first time in my music career, I'm publicly releasing a brand new song before having it available on an album. A couple months ago, on December 27, 2008, when I was on vacation in my hometown of Ishpeming, MI, I wrote and recorded a new song called "Robert Traver Blues." I'd had the song's concept for a few years, but it wasn't until I was back in Ishpeming in person, and playing my 1918 Gibson tenor banjo, that I was able to finalize my melody and lyrics. Since I was away from my own recording equipment, I used my brother's cassette 4-track recorder to record the song, and what you'll hear on the recording is 3 tracks, all first-take performances, written, recorded, and mixed in about two hours:
1. acoustic guitar and vocals with a keyboard-generated drum loop in the background
2. banjo and harmony vocals
3. more banjo and more harmony vocals
You can visit my AUDIO PAGE to download a free MP3 of the song.
Last month I was having the recording mastered (so that it would sound best for downloading) and as I thought about what to do with the it, I discovered online that 2009 is the 50th Anniversary of the movie "Anatomy of a Murder," the film that is the central concept for the song!
2009 is also the year of my own 20-year high school class reunion, so I've been thinking a lot about Ishpeming lately. Or "Iron City," as Ishpeming is called in the movie.
Here are the lyrics for the song, along with some details about the people I'm singing about.
ROBERT TRAVER BLUES
words and music by Jonathan Rundman
cp2009 Salt Lady Music (ASCAP)
Robert Traver walked the streets of my hometown when I was young
In Iron City, my hometown, the place we both come from
Otto Preminger set up his cameras out on Lakeshore Drive
It was Iron City, my hometown, on the silver screen
Doctor Seaborg got himself an element that bears his name
Yes, Iron City was his birthplace, he won the Nobel Prize
Gerhard Theodore Alexis played and sang and fell in love
In Iron City, my hometown, you can hear his melody
You're gonna go far...
Tell me, can you change the world from somewhere small and far away
like Iron City, my hometown?
John Voelker walked the streets of my hometown when I was young
Iron City, my hometown, the place we both come from
Some words about the people in the song:
ROBERT TRAVER/JOHN VOELKER
Robert Traver was the pen name of Ishpeming-based author John Voelker. He wrote the novel "Anatomy of a Murder" which was made into a movie. The film was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture.
When I was very young I was aware of Voelker. My parents and other folks in town talked about him. He lived a few miles down the road from my elementary school, and I remember hearing about him in class, seeing him on local TV, etc. I never got to meet him. He died in 1991.
Preminger was not an Ishpeming native, but this famous Hollywood director came to our little town in the Upper Peninsula to shoot the movie version of Voelker's book. Jimmy Stewart was his lead actor. Other Yooper locations (Marquette, Big Bay, etc.) are featured in the film as well. It's really an incredible movie, and you all should see it.
Born in Ishpeming in 1912, Seaborg was in elementary school with my Grandma. He went on to become a world famous chemist, discovered some elements, was a leading atomic scientist, and won the Nobel Prize. He did so many amazing things you'll have to visit Wikipedia just to get the idea.
Seaborg didn't have anything to do with "Anatomy of a Murder," but John Voelker's work got me thinking about other Ishpeming natives who went on to do amazing things that impacted society at large. My song idea began to evolve, and began to ask "Can you change the world if you're from a small town in the middle of nowhere?" These folks were answering that question with a "Yes."
The last person that I included in the song is someone to whom I really feel connected.
GERHARD THEODORE ALEXIS
Alexis was an influential church musician and composer in the early 1900s, working in the Swedish Lutheran Church (Augustana Synod) that would eventually merge into my current denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. I became familiar with his work when I learned to play a hymn from the old 1950s-era Service Book And Hymnal, the "Red Book" that I sang from as a child. The hymn that I found had a tune called "Ishpeming!" I couldn't believe that my hometown had its own song, so I had to find about the composer, Alexis.
I Googled his name, and found a very comprehensive webpage maintained by Alexis' grandson, David Melbye, also a musician. Turns out that Alexis spent one year in Ishpeming (1910) where he served as the musician at Bethany Lutheran (I bet he was the choir director for Glenn Seaborg's family!), the Swedish congregation in town (the same congregation where my Uncle Lance Roberts would eventually serve as an interim Pastor in 2003!). Alexis fell in love with a Yooper girl that year and married her, and wrote the tune "Ishpeming" in honor of the place where he spent such an important year of his life. As a Lutheran church musician myself, I had to put old G.T. in my song, too. He might be the first person in history to have written a song inspired by Ishpeming.
So, there's the background "Robert Traver Blues." Thanks to Traver/Voelker, Seaborg, and Alexis for the inspiration and for being great vocational role models. If you'd like to check out another song of mine written about Ishpeming, Michigan, check out this vintage live performance video of the song "581" that I just posted.
Here’s another clip from a show I played in Chicagoland 10 years ago this month...it was March 25th, 1999. This was our opening tune that night, and I love how the instrumentalists interpreted this song.
That’s Andy Deitrich playing drums, Benji Derrick singing harmony and playing bass (that bass guitar was once owned by John Stirrat of the band Wilco!), and Matt Marohl adding some super tasty pedal steel.
It’s a pretty old tune, written in 1993 in Eugene, Oregon, and recorded for my 1994 album “Wherever” (the CD is out-of-print since about 2000). The song is about County Road 581 that runs South from my hometown of Ishpeming, in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. I’ve driven/ridden that road thousands of times in my life, traveling 13 miles to my Grandpa’s camp on Big Perch Lake, and I feel like I have every inch of the trip memorized. Here are the lyrics:
You want to get to where the pavement ends
You want to watch it as the acres fall
You want to cross the South branch on the narrow bridge
Find a passage to the reservoir
You take 581
Some kind of trouble waiting back in town
You need the county road to take you far away
You take the S-curves to the Wayside
Don’t stop ‘til you leave Faith behind
Are you farther than you’ve ever been before?
Can you feel the project closing in?
You pass the clearcut and the airfield
Don’t you want to just fly away?
For those of you Yoopers reading this blog entry, I’ll decipher some of the lyrics:
+ “pavement ends”: the pavement does end, and turns to gravel a bit after Perch Lake and before reaching Casey Lake.
+ “acres fall”: Ishpeming residents may recall the incredible change in the landscape in the late 80s and early 90s when much of the trees along 581 were cut down by loggers.
+ “South branch” of the Escanaba River
+ “reservoir” the Greenwood Reservoir
+ “S-curves” dangerous driving between the Stoneville Road intersection and the Beagle Club Road
+ “the Wayside” landmark tavern just past the S-curves
+ “Faith” Faith Lutheran Church, just past the Wayside
+ “the project” Project ELF (Extra Low Frequency), high-security miliary communications system installed in the woods South of Ishpeming to help submarines, etc., to communicate....rumored to have negative effects on animals and environment
+ “clearcut” more logging
+ “airfield” private airport near Perch Lake, close to the end of the pavement
Wednesday, March 4, 2009
Daniel Frick is a professor at Franklin And Marshall College in Lancaster, PA, and he has authored a new book entitled Reinventing Richard Nixon. Check out the book at Amazon.
I appear in the book, thanks to my song "Meeting Nixon," in a section of the book called "Nixon in Music and Comedy," along with some legendary rock recordings that also mention Tricky Dick, including:
+ "Ohio" by Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young
+ "Sweet Home Alabama" by Lynyrd Skynyrd
+ "Gimme Some Truth" by John Lennon
+ "We Didn't Start The Fire" by Billy Joel
Thanks, Dan, for putting me in such good company!!
Monday, March 2, 2009
Here's a shot from my steering wheel as I drove from Portland to Camas, Eastbound along the Columbia River. It might be hard to see in this photo, but that's Mount Hood rising up above the highway in the background.
My rental car was part hotel, part office, part stereo system, part closet on my tour. On Saturday night after my concert in the Portland area I listened to Bruce Cockburn's "Further Adventures Of..." album and drove North on I-5. When I got too tired to continue I stopped at the RelaxInn in Chehalis, WA, where I enjoyed Room #4.
I spent Sunday and Monday morning in Seattle and Everett, WA, with mountain ranges surrounding me on both sides. I never get tired of those views!
On Monday afternoon I drove my rental car onto the Edmonds/Kingston ferry, and zipped across Puget Sound.
I had many flashbacks to my visits to Sweden and Finland as I rode the ferry. No wonder there were so many Scandinavian immigrants who felt at home here!
Thanks to everybody who hosted me, came out to hear me play, and took me out on the town! Let us do it again.
The PowerPopaholic music blog has posted a review of my new album! CLICK HERE to read the review at the site. Gotta love the Lowe and Crenshaw references! Text is below:
Jonathan Rundman "Insomniaccomplishments" Jonathan Rundman tells his story with simple arrangements and an acoustic guitar for the most part. As the title suggests, these tunes were born in his basement studio in the wee small hours. The songs range from forceful folk of "If you have a question" to the Neil Young-ish pop of "New Eyes." Some songs have a more traditional instrumental angle ("Kuortane") and others have progressive rock feel ("Nothing Downtown") so stylistically it has something for everyone. Duet partner Beki Hemingway add her harmonies to "I Thought You Were Mine" to make it the best track on the album for me. Some of the indie pop tones recall a mix of Nick Lowe and Marshall Crenshaw. And that's fine with me. Jonathan also has a "Best-of" collection that will give you insight into the man's previous works.