Originally posted May 1, 2009
It’s May Day again (and this year, I got the day right, at least.)
No one has left a May Basket at my door this morning. I’m not surprised: How long has it been since anyone actually left a May Basket anywhere? I suppose there might be places where that sweet custom lingers, but that’s not here. I recall spending hours with construction paper, blunt scissors and schoolroom glue at Lincoln Elementary School, painstakingly putting together May Baskets with my classmates. I was not an artistic child. My skills were such that my baskets – year after year – were lopsided creatures with little gaps and clots of dried white glue all over. And the May Baskets I made over the years never got left on anyone’s doorstep.
May Day has long been marked as International Workers Day, but on this May Day I do not know of any workers who will march in solidarity today. In Europe, certainly (and perhaps in other places as well), there will be such marches. I do wonder how relevant those marches and those marchers are in these times. How lively is the international labor movement these days, especially taking into account the sad state of the international economy? Probably not all that lively, and these may be days when a more vital labor movement would be useful, as societies and priorities are being reordered. As to specifically celebrating May Day, though, I recall the days of the Soviet Union: May Day was one of the two days a year when there were massive parades across the expanse of Moscow’s Red Square, past the Kremlin and Lenin’s Tomb. It would have been a spectacle to see, of course. One thing the Soviet Union could do well was put on a parade.
Looking further back into May Day history, Wikipedia tells me that “[t]he earliest May Day celebrations appeared in pre-Christian [times], with the festival of Flora the Roman Goddess of flowers, [and] the Walpurgis Night celebrations of the Germanic countries. It is also associated with the Gaelic Beltane.” May Day, in pagan times, the account continues, marked the beginning of summer.
Current celebrations still abound in the land of about half of my ancestors, according to Wikipedia: “In rural regions of Germany, especially the Harz Mountains, Walpurgisnacht celebrations of Pagan origin are traditionally held on the night before May Day, including bonfires and the wrapping of maypoles, and young people use this opportunity to party, while the day itself is used by many families to get some fresh air. Motto: ‘Tanz in den Mai!’ (‘Dance into May!’). In the Rhineland, a region in the western part of Germany, May 1 is also celebrated by the delivery of a tree covered in streamers to the house of a girl the night before. The tree is typically from a love interest, though a tree wrapped only in white streamers is a sign of dislike. On leap years, it is the responsibility of the females to place the maypole, though the males are still allowed and encouraged to do so.”
Well, there is no dancing here today, at least not around maypoles (possibly around the kitchen if I am bored while waiting for the toaster). If I look real hard in the refrigerator, I might find a bottle of Mai Bock from one of the area’s breweries. That would be cause enough to celebrate.
Happy May Day!
A Six-Pack For May Day
“First of May” by the Bee Gees, Atco 5567 (1969)
“For Emily, Whenever I May Find Her” by Glenn Yarbrough, from For Emily, Whenever I May Find Her (1967)
“May Be A Price To Pay” by the Alan Parsons Project from The Turn Of A Friendly Card (1980)
“Mayfly” by Jade from Fly on Strangewings (1970)
“Hills of May” by Julie Felix from Clotho’s Web (1972)
“King of May” by Natalie Merchant from Ophelia (1998)
I imagine I’m cheating a little bit with two of those. But to be honest, I thought I’d have to cut more corners than I did. I was surprised to find four songs in my files with the name of the month in their titles.
As to the songs themselves, how could I not play the Bee Gees’ track? It was, I think, the only single pulled from Gibb brothers’ sprawling album Odessa, but it didn’t do so well on the chart: It spent three weeks in the Top 40, rising only to No. 37. Clearly out of style in its own time, what with the simple and nostalgic lyrics, the sweet, ornate production and the voice of a singer seemingly struggling not to weep, it’s a song that has, I think, aged better than a lot of the singles that surrounded it at the time. Still, I think “First of May” is better heard as a part of Odessa than as a single.
Speaking of out of style at the time, in 1967 Glenn Yarbrough’s honeyed voice was clearly not what record buyers were listening for. His For Emily, Whenever I May Find Her was a brave (some might say desperate, but I wouldn’t agree) attempt to update his sources of material, if not his vocal and background approaches: Writers whose songs appear on the album include Stephen Stills, Bob Dylan, Buffy Ste. Marie, Phil Ochs, the team of Mike Brewer and Tom Shipley and, of course, Paul Simon, who wrote the enigmatic and beautiful title track. I don’t think the new approach boosted Yarbrough’s sales much – at least one single was released to little effect in Canada and the UK; I don’t know about the U.S. – but the record enchanted at least one young listener in the Midwest. The album remains a favorite of mine, and Yarbrough’s delicate reading of the title song is one of the highlights.
“May Be A Price To Pay” is the opening track to The Turn Of A Friendly Card, the symphonic (and occasionally overbearing) art-rock project Alan Parsons released in 1980. Most folks, I think, would only recognize it as the home of two singles: “Games People Play” went to No. 16 in early 1981, and the lush “Time” went to No. 15 later that year. The album itself was in the Top 40 for about five months beginning in November 1980 and peaked at No. 13. That success paved the way for the group’s 1982 album, Eye In The Sky, which peaked at No. 7 in 1982, with its title track becoming a No. 3 hit. As overwhelming as The Turn Of A Friendly Card can be, I think it’s Parsons’ best work.
I don’t know a lot about Jade; I came across the group’s only album – rereleased on CD with a couple of bonus tracks in 2003 – in my early adventures in the world of music blogs. All-Music Guide points out the obvious: Jade sounded – right down to singer Marian Segal’s work – very much like early Fairport Convention with Sandy Denny. That’s a niche that a lot of British groups were trying to fill at the time, and Jade filled it long enough to release on album. “Mayfly” had more of a countryish feel than does the album as a whole.
According to All-Music Guide, “Julie Felix isn't too well-known in her native United States, but since 1964 she's been a major British folk music star and has been compared over there with Joan Baez.” Well, that seems a stretch to me, based on Clotho’s Web, the album from which “Hill of May” comes. The album is pleasant but has never blown me away.
One album that did blow me away when I first heard it in, oh, 1999, was Natalie Merchant’s Ophelia. Supposedly a song cycle that traces the character of Ophelia (Shakespeare’s, I presume) through the ages, the CD was filled with lush and melancholy songs, some of which were almost eerie. Repeated listening only made the CD seem better, if a bit more depressing. It’s a haunting piece of work, and “King of May” is pretty typical of the entire CD.