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September 28, 2010


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Mike D

And Bowie can certainly croon, as well. "Station to Station" comes to mind. And not just the title track. "Wild Is The Wind".

Paul Johnson

Fantastic post. Further thoughts from someone who's been obsessing about these issues for years now: I think talking about microphone technique only begins to get at what was extraordinary about Crosby, namely that he was among the first to get the idea that in the electric age, audience was now a ghostly thing, no longer a living presence. He appealed to absences, crooning into the ether, making feeling manifest in his recordings in a way that was fundamentally different from Jolson. For Jolson, performance constituted a sacred rite, and the emotional import of a particular lyric mattered less than the narrative arc of the evening's entertainment, made up of a series of mystical gestures that always climaxed with Jolson becoming the supplicant begging for the audience's eternal love. The sincerity of the lyrics didn't matter; all that mattered was the ritual of the performance, a religious experience that had nothing to do with the demands of any particular song and everything to do with the emotional give and take between performer and audience. And that's a tradition Jerry Lee Lewis clearly venerated and perpetuated, as anyone who's listened to Live at the Star Club can attest. Crosby begins (or continues from Armstrong) an apostate tradition that betrays the rites of performance in favor of the rites of the song (or the recording), a tradition that clearly contained Bowie as well.

Morgan wonders why Crosby sounds so gloriously antiquated now, and while there are myriad reasons, I wonder if he hasn't been rendered especially antique in the last decade, as American Idol has resurrected many of the old Jolsonian rites in new, profane form.


Great piece about two of my favorite singers. Now I suddenly want to hear a Crosby version of "Ashes To Ashes" (seriously).


Boy. Thanks for Der Bingle singing "Brother..." Just amazing.


That was an absolutely terrific read, Glenn. I'm also really digging Der Bingle's cardigan. I may or may not own several items pretty similar to it.

Chris O.

Bing and Bob: I've yet to pick it up, but in Sean Wilentz's new "Bob Dylan In America," he apparently discusses Bing Crosby's influence on Zimmy. The vocal approach you discuss is also apt here, but I emember reading a Time magazine interview with Dylan from the mid-80s where he mentioned particularly admiring Crosby's use of phrasing, which makes sense.

Listen to Dylan's "Moonlight" from 2001's LOVE AND THEFT and it's hard not to imagine it a Crosby standard. Additionally, his "When the Deal Goes Down" -- which spawned a lovely video directed by CAPOTE's Bennett Miller -- from 2006's MODERN TIMES is based on Crosby's "Where the Blue of the Night (Meets the Gold of the Day)".

Phil Freeman

Agree with what both Glenn and Paul said. I wrote about this whole microphone-technique/crooning vs. belting thing in my book on Miles Davis's electric work, except I was talking about Sly Stone (and his acolyte D'Angelo).

Matthew Fisher

Fine post, Glenn. Funny, but Bing's influence on 20th century American singing as a whole has been floating around my brain for several years now - it started when I read Giddins' marvelous book. Some of your thoughts seem like nailed-down, concrete versions of thoughts I've been mulling over since then. Which is why I read your blog. You're always thinking all over the place and taking ideas a half-step further.

@Chris O. - There's an even more blatant steal on that album. Check out Crosby's "Red Sails in the Sunset" from 1935 (a lovely recording), then listen to "Beyond the Horizon" from MODERN TIMES. Stunning, no? If Dylan wasn't listening to Crosby when he cut those tracks, then I'm Nettie Moore. It thrilled me to make that connection along with the one you mentioned because, in effect, they're the sort of muscial/cultural threads that Dylan is weaving together all throughout LOVE AND THEFT and MODERN TIMES (and of course, practically everything else he's done). His well is deeper than Godard's.

That Fuzzy Bastard

Paul, that's a terrific point about performance and audience. I've often been struck by how weirdly square American Idol seems. I'd thought about it as an artifact of the nostalgic Bush years, or perhaps it's just my Gen-X alienation bumping against millenial enthusiasm. But what you say about the role of the audience, and the detachment of Bing (and Sinatra) versus the leg-humping of Jolson (and Aiken) makes worlds of sense in that context.

Chris O.

@Matthew - After I submitted the comment I did think of "Beyond The Horizon" as being Bing-esque, but did not make the connection with "Red Sails In The Sunset." Nice! However, I did neglect to mention LOVE AND THEFT's "Floater (Too Much To Ask)" borrowing from Guy Lombardo's "Snuggled On Your Shoulder," which Bing had recorded. They've also both covered the Gershwins' "Soon" (Dylan's live version used to be on YouTube).

Also, for fun, check out Dylan's straw hat in the Traveling Wilburys' videos for "She's My Baby" and "Inside Out," then look at Bing's in a movie clip of "Where the Blue of the Night (Meets the Gold of the Day)."

Evelyn Roak

Chris & Matthew, I, at least, am enjoying the Dylan/et. al. discussion that has grown here (very much in line with the original post). The Godard comparison is actually quite apt in that their attitudes and intellects, their uses and appropriations/reference/collaging, are on a similar wave-length and have a similar function in the making of their own art. Just throw in The Mekons and David Markson and you have four of the great artists of the second half of the twentieth century (and beyond), all brilliant with quotation, collage, reference and connection. (Heck, lets make it five and put John Fahey in there)

Glenn Kenny

I'm not crazy about Wilentz, but it sounds as if, as Count Floyd says of The Kid From "Deliverance" on the former's "Very Scary Christmas," he makes a good point. And of course a Crosby song does pop up from time to time on Dylan's delightful radio program...and not just one of the usual suspects, either.

One of the funniest things about that rather silly movie "Factory Girl" was how it made a hero of "authenticity" out of its "Folk Singer" character, having him stand up for all that was thrifty, brave, clean and reverent as opposed to Andy Warhol's "decadent" plasticity. The character, played by Hayden Christensen, was supposed to have been explicitly called Dylan, but Dylan apparently had his people balk, and the filmmakers blinked. Good for Dylan. In any event, the whole notion of setting up a Dylan/Warhol opposition on those particular grounds is beyond naive (not to mention humorless). "He saw a RIVAL!" a friend remarked of Dylan's position viz Warhol back in the day. Eggs-ackly.

Chris O.

I haven't read much of him, so I'm not aware of his foibles. Wilentz wrote an essay on Dylan's "Blonde On Blonde" sessions for The Oxford American, which I believe also appears in the new book and which rather demystifies any notion of an indulgent debauched "Exile On Main St."-style of creation out of chaos. According to his sources, sure, there were long days and late nights as musicians waited for Dylan to refine lyrics, but it was very professional.

Bringing it back to Bing, however, I think it's interesting the idea of the pop/rock star post-Bing is one of metamorphisis. Robert Zimmerman becomes Bob Dylan (and then on to several other permutations); David Jones becomes David Bowie who becomes Ziggy Stardust; Paul Hewson-Bono-The Fly and on and on. It's actually kind of vaudevillian in its way -- to be these characters, who are every bit as "real" as Marion Morrison's John Wayne. But then in country music, Hank Williams evolves into... Hank Williams. Jerry Lee Lewis is Jerry Lee Lewis. Bing is Bing. So, he has more of a connection to the country music stylists in that respect. (This can be refuted, I suppose. Hank Williams had his Luke the Drifter; Jimmie Rodgers was The Singing Brakeman.)

To put it mathmatical terms, perhaps Bing is a prime number to Bowie & Dylan's composite numbers.

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