Oklahoma Contemporary
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New Light

Jan. 13, 2021

Purposeful Playlists: Sounds from the Field

Art historian Robert Bailey soundtracks Fieldworks: Beyond Measure ahead of Thursday night Listening Party at Oklahoma Contemporary
A person wearing a black cowboy hate poses with a sunburst electric guitar in the desert mountains
Freddie Brown's "New Mexico" is one of the many diverse songs included in Oklahoma Contemporary's upcoming Fieldworks: Beyond Measure Listening Party on Jan. 14. (Source: newmexicomusic.org)

We love a good beat at Oklahoma Contemporary. Whether it's a concert on our North Lawn, our Studio School offerings on songwriting or a staff roundup of our favorite movies about rock stars, pop icons and everything in between, music is a big part of how we experience the world at your new arts center. That's why we're hosting a Listening Party this Thursday, featuring a thoughtful selection of music inspired by our current third-floor exhibition Fieldworks: Beyond Measure, handpicked by Fieldworks collaborator Robert Bailey.

Stop by Café Contemporary on Jan. 14 for dinner and happy hour (5-7 p.m. daily) specials like $6 classic cocktails, $2 Coors Banquet and $4 wine before experiencing this one-of-a-kind show exploring our relationship to the natural world through fieldwork documentation in the American Southwest. Bailey's inspired playlist will fill our first floor until 9 p.m., with plenty of room to spread out across the café, lobby and Creative Lounge.

To help get you ready for this can't-miss evening of music, art and refreshments, we asked Bailey to guide us through his curated selections in the latest installment of our Purposeful Playlists series. Below you'll find a link to the complete mix, followed by a track-by-track analysis from Bailey himself. Happy listening!

A black and white photo depicts folk singer Woody Guthrie playing an acoustic guitar emblazoned with the phrase "This machine kills fascists"
Oklahoma native Woody Guthrie with his iconic guitar, 1943. Source: Wikipedia.

1. Woody Guthrie — "This Land is Your Land"

I might as well start where our road trips do and kick things off with Woody Guthrie and “This Land is Your Land.” I’m not the first person to suggest that this song — with its verse about the “Private Property” sign intact — would make for a better national anthem. I love the way that Guthrie evokes the land lyrically — “the sparkling sands of her diamond deserts” — as the ground on which struggles for freedom, equality and justice play out. Guthrie himself was a vagabond, and like him, we spend a lot of time on “that ribbon of highway,” which, in the United States, is usually set atop routes established by the Indigenous people whose land this country occupies. Settlers like me can dream with Guthrie about the “back side” of the sign, but even then, we still trespass because almost all of “this land” was stolen from its rightful owners and remains stolen. I try to keep that fact close to mind while traveling — and when at home. Emphasis squarely on “your land.”

2. Hank Snow — "I’ve Been Everywhere"

Let’s get going. The constancy of transit across America’s many passageways imbues the country’s music with a tendency to poeticize the road, and the first songs on this playlist are in that road song tradition. We have probably played them all in our vehicle at some point while traveling. Hank Snow’s “I’ve Been Everywhere” uses a form common in American poetry — the list — but the song is actually Australian. Geoff Mack, its author, filled the original lyrics with the place names of his home country, and other writers have adapted it for other places. Snow’s version starts out with a reference to “the Winnemucca road,” presumably Interstate 80, a highway that traverses the northern part of the Great Basin Desert. There is mention in the song of having “crossed the desert’s bare, man,” but desert place names to prove it are scant beyond Winnemucca, and the misconception that the desert is bare, a vast emptiness, has enabled everything from greedy resource extraction to hazardous atomic testing. The desert is actually very, very full of life in many forms, so remember some desert place names like Cal-Nev-Ari, Truth or Consequences and, of course, Zzyzx.

Album artwork depicts a group of figures with yellow text treatment: The Grateful Dead

3. Grateful Dead — "Truckin’"

I went with the studio recording of “Truckin’” to keep things manageable time-wise, but it’s worth checking out the Grateful Dead’s live versions of this song, which often last upwards of 10 minutes or more, because they fully capture “what a long strange trip it’s been.” “Truckin’” is uncommon among Grateful Dead songs for its geographical breadth, covering large swaths of the United States. (The band’s version of Chuck Berry’s “Promised Land” is another similarly wide ranger.) They’re actually of the West — both the real West and a mythical West full of romanticized no-goods, low-downs and has-beens. I guess what I’m saying here is, if you’ve got a long drive ahead of you, through the West or somewhere else altogether, you can always put one of the thousands of recorded Grateful Dead concerts on the stereo to help you get where you’re going. The Dead were — and remain — road dogs.

4. Chuck Berry — "No Particular Place to Go"

Chuck Berry has written more than one classic road song (“Promised Land” takes us from coast to coast), but I chose this one because, like Berry, I often have “No Particular Place to Go.” I enjoy wandering, being led by whim or even being led astray. I also like that the car radio plays a big role in this song, suggesting that one drives as much to listen to music as to go somewhere. I think that’s right and something for which we should all have more time. There’s pleasure in the activity itself that has nothing to do with a destination — just “cruisin’ and playin’ the radio.” The flipside of Berry’s original single, a track called “We Two,” is about cooking outdoors in the countryside while listening to “some jazzy sounds,” which is to say that, if you take that song camping with you (which I recommend), it becomes the very sort of music it rhapsodizes.

Album cover art for the song "On the Road Again" by Willie Nelson, featuring the recording artist with a red bandana and braided hair

5. Willie Nelson — "On the Road Again"

Willie Nelson is masterful at writing deceptively simple songs that say profound things, and “On the Road Again,” ostensibly a straightforward paean to his profession as a touring musician, roaming the land with his guitar Trigger (named after boyhood western hero Roy Rogers’s horse), is one of those songs. “Goin’ places that I’ve never been / Seein’ things that I may never see again.” — life, in a nutshell. And the communality to which he refers in the lyric — “makin’ music with my friends” when you “get on the road again” — well, that’s what life’s all about, isn’t it?

6. Lucinda Williams — "Side of the Road"

Lucinda Williams’s “Side of the Road” is tucked away on the back side of her excellent self-titled album from 1988, but it’s a gem not to be missed. A multifaceted song about human connection and disconnection, it digs deep into the reasons why we are close to and far away from one another. The solitude that you get when you “follow that unbroken line” is one of the real attractions of setting out on the road, leaving everything behind, disconnecting to reconnect, and Williams, who remains one of the best songwriters going, captures that feeling in all of its ambivalence, complexity and poignancy.

7. Stateline — "Rezervation Road"

After a bit of driving, we’re fully in the Southwest now. I first heard Stateline on the radio in the midst of getting lost somewhere on a backroad near Chaco Canyon, and I immediately fell in love with the band. I steer myself wrong sometimes, but KTNN, the Navajo Nation radio station, has never been responsible. Stateline is a very good country band, bandleader Travis Friday’s playing and singing and songwriting are all worthy of note, and “Rezervation Road” absolutely nails the feeling of familiar routes that lead “to where I want to go.” The rest of this playlist continues to explore songs from and inspired by the place we travel around the most, that is, the southwest: Arizona, eastern California, New Mexico, Nevada, far west Texas and Utah. People often equate American music with blues, jazz, country and rock and roll from the South, but there is a whole other American music in this region where so many cultures overlap and intersect. With no one essential quality, it’s music of movement and connection, exchange and change. The rest of this auditory road trip is one of many routes through some of its variety.

Album artwork for the song "Tumbling Tumbleweeds" by Sons of the Pioneers, depicting tumbleweeds blowing across a prairie

8. Sons of the Pioneers — "Tumbling Tumbleweeds"

“Tumbling Tumbleweeds” is something of a cliché at this point, but Bob Nolan, who wrote the song for the Sons of the Pioneers to perform, was no stranger to the real Southwest, growing up there after his family made its way from Canada to Tucson. Funnily enough, though, the tumbleweed, this icon of the West, is an invasive species. Apparently, it arrived from Russia and began its march across the West from South Dakota in the 1870s, which means that the tumbleweed arrived in America within living memory when Nolan penned his timeless-seeming ode, which seems of a kind with the old western songs anthologized in Irwin Silber’s Songs of the Great American West. That it was written — or rewritten — for a Gene Autry film is a reminder of how much Hollywood shapes our perceptions of the West in image and in song. That play between reality and representation is strewn all over the West, which is a good reason to listen to more songs than just this one, but this one is still worth a listen to hear the forming of myth before your very ears.

9. Sweethearts of "Navajoland — One Woman’s Man"

I am not an expert in traditional Navajo music by any means, but that doesn’t prevent me from enjoying “One Woman’s Man” by the Sweethearts of Navajoland. I got to know it from the compilation Heartbeat: Voices of First Nations Women, released on Smithsonian Folkways in 1995. The liner notes to that album tell me that this track is a typical skip dance, which I have no reason to doubt, but the bilingual lyric surely defies typicality once or twice. Sung mostly in Navajo, the date 1950, the name of the singer Johnny Horton and the song title “One Woman’s Man” stand out by contrast because they are sung in English. The song tells a story about a man and a woman dancing to a song of Horton’s. The man says to the woman that, someday, she will remember him when she hears it. Horton’s song is actually called “I’m a One Woman Man” (and he first recorded it in 1956), so the Sweethearts’ alteration, especially their use of a possessive, cleverly flips gender dynamics around a bit, scrambling some assumptions of country music like Horton’s. At least, I think that’s what’s going on here.

Album artwork for the song "By the Time I Get to Arizona" by Public Enemy, depicting two Black men in firearm crosshairs

10. Public Enemy — "By the Time I Get to Arizona"

Far less subtle, Public Enemy’s “By the Time I Get to Arizona” also reconfigures the title of another song, in this case Jimmy Webb’s “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” memorably recorded by everyone from Glen Campbell to Isaac Hayes. The seemingly small difference between the two titles involves an ugly bit of contemporaneous history circa the song’s 1991 release. Arizona Governor Evan Meacham refused to celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day, then a relatively new holiday, and the people of Arizona voted against reintroducing it. Between Chuck D’s militant lyrics and the Bomb Squad’s hard-hitting production, “By the Time I Get to Arizona” excoriates the worst of American politics and the racism that is still far too pervasive in this country. Public Enemy often hung a klansman in effigy while performing this song live, and in Tucson shortly after its release, the group walked on stage, did just this one number, and promptly left. In 2010, a group of Arizona rappers remade “By the Time I Get to Arizona” to protest Arizona SB 1070, a piece of anti-immigrant legislation signed into law by Governor Jan Brewer.

11. Joaquin Brothers — "La Pachuca Polka"

The Joaquin Brothers are a waila band of Tohono O’odham musicians. They perform a type of music that is also called chicken scratch and that has similarities to a lot of northern Mexican music and to polka. “La Pachuca Polka” is from their first album, released in 1975 on Canyon Records, which is dedicated to Native American music and well worth a deep dive. That album is one of the first times waila was made commercially available to the general public on a record. Other early highlights: the compilation called simply Waila! from 1972 includes tracks by four other groups, and The Cisco Band also put out a record in 1975; both are on Canyon. Chicken scratch is dance music, and once you get into step with its rhythms, it’s absolutely hypnotic stuff. There is a radio station, KOHN out of Sells, Arizona, that plays a lot of waila, and sometimes I just look it up on the internet, put it on, and let it rip for a while. There comes a point where you get so absorbed into the music’s patterns that no other music seems quite right anymore.

Album art for the song "Alma Enamorada" by Chalino Sanchez, depicting the artist seated with a cowboy hat
Album art for the song "Alma Enamorada" by Chalino Sanchez, depicting the artist seated with a cowboy hat

12. Chalino Sánchez — "Alma Enamorada"

The story of Chalino Sánchez is more or less unbelievable. Born in Sinaloa, Mexico, he came to the United States after taking revenge on a wealthy local who had wronged a member of his family, shooting and killing the offending party before fleeing. While working as a laborer in the Sonoran Desert of southern California, he began performing corridos, especially narcocorridos about people involved with the drug trade, before meeting a violent end back in Sinaloa. There’s a wild story about a would-be assassin trying to shoot Sánchez on stage during a performance at a club in Coachella (long before the famous music festival came to town). Wounded, Sánchez grabbed the gun out of his attacker’s hand, and suddenly the shoe was on the other foot. I doubt that these events, like Sánchez’s life as a whole, transpired quite as they do in my own mind, but they’re incredible tales regardless, themselves the stuff of a corrido, and “Alma Enamorada,” one or Sánchez’s best vocals, is a touching love song. He was, it turns out, a lover and a fighter.

13. Nina Katchadourian — "Marfa Public Library"

Nina Katchadourian is an artist and musician with an inventive sense of humor. “Ballroom Marfa” is one of a series of songs she wrote and recorded during a residency in Marfa, Texas, the adopted home of artist Donald Judd, who transformed it from a sleepy ranch town in the Chihuahuan Desert into an international art destination. Katchadourian had never been to the region before, so she decided to get to know it by writing songs about the place, mostly jingles, including this one for Ballroom Marfa, an art museum. The amusing results, recorded with local musicians, were broadcast on the first-rate freeform radio station KRTS. Among its DJs are Primo Carrasco and David Beebe, who also perform together as a duo (and recently put out an album). Their work has turned me on to a lot of terrific lesser-known northern Mexican and Tex-Mex music, and they also do great versions of some of my favorite songs by Freddy Fender, Doug Sahm and a whole bunch of other Texas musicians. Marfa, in other words, is a singular place for culture.

14. Ned Sublette — "Cowboys Are Frequently Secretly Fond of Each Other"

In addition to being a musician and composer, Ned Sublette also writes smartly about music and about American history. Raised in Portales, New Mexico (among other places) before he made his way to New York City, Sublette recorded an album of traditional Western music called Western Classics with a band of locals dubbed the Southwesterners that got released on the important new music label Lovely Music with a cover photograph by Robert Mapplethorpe. In addition to his downhome connections, Sublette has also worked with luminaries of the avant-garde, including Alvin Lucier, whose famous Music on a Long Thin Wire first got installed at Winrock Shopping Center in Albuquerque, of all places. Sublette’s best-known song is probably “Cowboys Are Frequently Secretly Fond of Each Other,” mostly because Willie Nelson recorded a version of it that brought the cult classic to mainstream attention in the wake of the film Brokeback Mountain’s success. A clever lyric about queer desire out West sits within a country song structure where you might not expect to find it, but, as Sublette himself has pointed out, cowboy imagery and Western wear are well-established in LGBTQ+ culture and have been for a long while now.

Album artwork for the collection "Recuerdos de Freddie Brown," depicting the recording artist in a cowboy hat with a jacket slung over his shoulder

15. Freddie Brown — "New Mexico"

Freddie Brown’s “New Mexico” is an example of what New Mexicans simply call “New Mexico music,” a blend of Native, Spanish, Mexican and Anglo music that can be sung in more than one language. It is, in other words, music from New Mexico that reflects the state’s complex history of indigeneity and settlement. Al Hurricane is probably the best-known purveyor of this style, and I like his work a lot, too, but Brown’s “New Mexico” is the perfect song for capturing, in an unabashedly self-referential way, how the music and the place go together. (It’s also, in its way, whether intentionally or not, a rewrite of “This Land is Your Land,” using a lot of similar phrasing and structure in the lyrics.) New Mexico music is almost unknown outside of New Mexico, which makes no sense at all to me. I recommend KANW out of Albuquerque as a go-to spot for finding more of it, and they also sell albums by New Mexico musicians on their website.

16. Katie Lee — "Muddy River"

Katie Lee participated in the salvage archaeology done in the Glen Canyon area of the Colorado River near the Utah-Arizona border before construction of the Glen Canyon Dam flooded the whole area. She was a regular in the region at the time, a river-rafting enthusiast, an environmentalist and a campaigner against the construction of the dam. She once said something to the effect that she would have blown it up if only she’d known how. That remark is typical of Lee, a woman who raised hell unapologetically the whole way through a lengthy life. Among her many pursuits, she wrote wordy and playful folk songs, including a couple batches about the Colorado River, some of which got released on Folkways Records as Colorado River Folk Songs, and “Muddy River” is a highlight from that album, tracking an eventful journey down the San Juan River from Mexican Hat into the Colorado River and through the Grand Canyon a few years before the damned dam got built.

Album artwork for "Trout Mask Replica" by Captain Beefheart, depicting a surreal image of a humanoid with a fish face and top hat

17. Captain Beefheart — "The Dust Blows Forward ‘n the Dust Blows Back"

A different sort of wordy hellraiser, Don Van Vliet, who is better known by the moniker Captain Beefheart, hails from the Mojave Desert, where he and Frank Zappa grew up and learned to make music and freak out together. (Jimmy Carl Black, who drummed in Zappa’s band The Mothers of Invention, is also a desert child, born in El Paso.) If the desert has a Dadaist, Beefheart is it, and I love his bananas wordplay and oddball delivery in “The Dust Blows Forward ‘n the Dust Blows Back.” The song is about as arid as the landscape in which I imagine him singing it. After quitting music, the Captain returned home to the desert for a second act as a painter, a period captured in Anton Corbijn’s short film Some YoYo Stuff, in which David Lynch asks him about “The Dust Blows Forward ‘n the Dust Blows Back.” Though he stopped writing and recording songs later in life, Beefheart has thankfully inspired a whole slew of surrealist and psychedelic musical weirdness in and out of the desert. From the Meat Puppets (who do a harrowing take on “Tumbling Tumbleweeds”) to Sun City Girls to Bob Log III, there is no shortage of Beefheart energy out there keeping it out there, and I’m here for it.

18. Endlings — "The Devil’s in the Red Tail"

Raven Chacon is a Diné composer, musician and sound artist who has been associated with the art collective Postcommodity. He studied with a number of highly respected figures in experimental music, including James Tenney (who is a Southwesterner) and Wadada Leo Smith, and his own music is often very, very noisy. I really enjoy listening closely to a series of pieces he did based on field recordings of “silence” at sites in the Southwest that he then amplified until they become harsh noise, each location generating its own distinctive patterns and rhythms at higher volume. Those pieces are intense to the point of being unfriendly on a playlist, so I’ve gone with a slightly (but only slightly) friendlier piece called “The Devil’s in the Red Tail” by the group Endlings, a collaboration between Chacon and John Dieterich. But do go to Chacon’s website and check out more of his work because listening to just one track cannot do his wide-ranging practice justice.

Album artwork for "Without a Song" by Sammy Davis Jr., featuring the recording artist smiling while singing into a microphone

19. Sammy Davis Jr. — "Without a Song"

We include a story about Sammy Davis Jr. in the exhibition. He’s not at his best there, but he is at his best here on “Without a Song,” specifically the version sung live at the Sands in Las Vegas and released on his album That’s All! I am sour on Las Vegas overall, but music is one of its redeeming features. The whole Rat Pack phenomenon remains formidable, and Frank Sinatra’s live album from the Sands is, like Davis’s, a fun ride musically with a longer-than-necessary comedic interlude so the band can take a tea break. But there’s much more to Las Vegas and music. The Flying Burrito Brothers’ “Sin City” is actually about Los Angeles but borrows Las Vegas’ nickname, and it is one of my all-time favorite songs (Emmylou Harris, among others, does a good version). The legends surrounding its co-writer Gram Parsons (who also co-wrote a song called “Ooh Las Vegas” that is definitely about Las Vegas), his visit to the Mojave with friend Keith Richards, his early death in the desert and his buddies’ do-it-yourself funeral pyre for him in the Joshua Tree area are among the wildest rock and roll legends. Also, The Lollipop Shoppe — do not let their bubblegum name fool you — are one of the rawest garage rock bands you’ll ever hear, and they’re from Las Vegas. It’s wonderful to me that all of this exceedingly different music was going on at more or less the same time in or about the same place. Again, that’s the southwest.

20. Joy Harjo — "The Real Revolution is Love"

Joy Harjo brings a lot of things going on in this playlist full circle. She is one of the very best poets writing today in any language, but she is also a musician, having released about a half dozen albums on which she reads poetry, sings, and plays saxophone. “The Real Revolution is Love” is a jazz-reggae hybrid from Harjo’s first album with the group Poetic Justice. It took me a while to get what she is up to here, but that’s often the case with good art, which takes time and makes time. Harjo, who is a member of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, is very much a traveler, having lived and worked here and there throughout her life, including a lot of time spent in New Mexico, but she’s originally from Tulsa, so she ends this auditory road trip by returning the playlist back to Oklahoma with a powerful conclusion.

There’s so much more listening to do, though: Terry Allen’s albums and radio plays, Lee Ranaldo’s Amarillo Ramp (For Robert Smithson), Blackfire’s and Sihasin’s albums, The Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square, Waylon at JD’s, Marty Robbins’s “El Paso,” Cahuilla bird singing, Tucson punk, the Palm Desert scene, The Drags, Michel Redolfi’s Desert Tracks, whatever’s going on down in Terlingua these days, a whole bunch of records on Smithsonian Folkways, Canyon Records, Indian Records, etc., the wind, and so on, and so forth. Truly, it never ends.

Robert Bailey

Editor's note: Fieldworks: Beyond Measure is on display in the Mary LeFlore Clements Oklahoma Gallery through April 19. Reserve your limited access, timed tickets here.

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