Music Worth Listening To: Galt MacDermot

28 Jul

Galt MacDermot is best known for his musical Hair, which was definitely a pop cultural watershed, however it also was very zeitgeisty and is something of a relic from its own time.  He never had anything that approached the success of Hair, and had a few big flops on broadway which made just about anything else he ever made completely obscure.

That being said, MacDermot is completely worth exploring–I certainly don’t think that everything he’s ever done is worth listening to, however he’s  perfect to wander through his backlog and pick out songs to make a marvelous playlist from.   He does a little of everything–art songs, blaxpoitation soundtracks, jazz-fusion instrumental, and a series of the weirdest shows ever staged.   While his instrumentals aren’t to my taste, every album that has vocals on it has a couple of gems hidden in the dross.

MacDermot’s music style is to be a blender of every sort of music pastiching them together.  Sometimes this results in a mess, occasionally the songs are brilliant.  There’s a handful of songs that are enjoyable and terrible and interesting at the same time.

So what would I recommend?  Let’s skip Hair–because that’s a classic that you can suss through yourself, and lets start with The Karl Marx play soundtrack–the music is very twenties influenced and early 20th century operetta. many of the songs are surprisingly tender.  All the songs are very short (MacDermot rarely goes over 3 minutes in whatever form he takes), but the best song from this one is the gospel influenced Holy Mystery.

Then there’s The Many Faces of Song–the odd song set set to synths.  It doesn’t really hurt MacDermot’s music any, and there’s several numbers here worth your listen.  The best is the very first–Fortune and Men’s Eyes, MacDermot has this quirky talent for taking formal poetry and making it into wonderful music (partially because his weak spot is lyrics in general).  This song is just gorgeous and expansive.)   Then we get to Paul Lawrence Dunbar in Song, where four songs particularly take the cake:  He Had His Dream, A Negro Love Song, Whip-poor-whill and Katy-Did, and Invitation to Love–the whole soundtrack is lovely though.

Corporation is a bizarre soundtrack (?) which I can’t tell if it’s against Corporations or making fun of plays that are against corporations.  More than not the lyrics here are particularly strange, but still there’s Robash Tree, a wise little song that sounds like a children’s lullaby.  Then we get to The Human Comedy which has about 80 songlets so picking is difficult here–it shows MacDermot in his wide glory, just about every style he plays with is here, and more often than not it’s good (though I hate the child’s voice, a bit too piercing.)  The songs I really like me is the 50’s influenced I Let Him Kiss me Once, and the aptly titled Beautiful Music.

Then there’s the Thomas Hardy works, very interesting having these poems set to music–they’re all pretty, but my favorite is the selfsame song.

He’s got dozens of more albums, but he’s well worth dredging through–honestly if I were a band I would do a Macdermot tribute album, it would be danged good.

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