On December 7 in 1949, Thomas Alan Waits was born in Pomona, California. While in elementary school, Tom began learning to play some instruments. His father, who would divorce Tom’s mom when Tom was ten, taught the boy to play the ukulele. And an uncle’s gravely voice would later inspire the singer-songwriter to adopt his own singing voice as the adult Tom Waits.
One of my favorite Tom Waits song is “On the Nickel,” a song he calls “a little wino’s nursery rhyme” in the video below from a 1978 Austin City Limits episode. I first fell in love with the song when it stood out for me on his 1980 Heartattack and Vine album, which also features his original version of “Jersey Girl.”
As Waits further explains, the name “the nickel” is a reference to Fifth Avenue in Los Angeles. But even if you did not know the song was about the homeless, you cannot help feeling the melancholy sound of the song. “On the Nickel” intertwines nursery rhymes that connect hopeful childhoods to lost adults, with themes that could apply to anyone. So what becomes of all the little boys? The sandman takes you where You’ll be sleepin’ with a pillow man, On the Nickel over there.
If you know the song, you may have wondered about the reference to Grady Tuck (“You can skip the light with Grady Tuck on the nickel over there”). Tuck was a San Diego musician.
Check out this live 1978 performance of “On the Nickel.”
What is your favorite song by Tom Waits? Another one of my favorites is “San Diego Serenade.” Leave your two cents in the comments.
Singer-songwriter Shawn Colvin not only has written some great songs, but she is a wonderful interpreter of songs written by others. In addition to mixing covers with her originals on some albums, she also released an all-covers album in 1994 called Cover Girl. This month, she is releasing a new album of covers, Uncovered (2015). The album, her first since 2012’s All Fall Down, features songs written by a wide-range of artists, including Stevie Wonder, Graham Nash, Robert Earl Keen Jr., and Paul Simon. Colvin has already released videos for her covers of songs by Tom Waits and Bruce Springsteen.
On the new album, Colvin covers Tom Waits on “Hold On,” which appeared on Waits’s Grammy-winning Mule Variations (1999). Check out Colvin’s coer.
Colvin also tackles a song from Springsteen’s 1987 Tunnel of Love album, “Tougher Than the Rest.” Chimesfreedom previously wrote about the song as one of the highlights of Springsteen’s Tunnel of Love album, and Colvin takes a quieter acoustic approach to the song. Check it out.
Colvin’s album Uncovered goes on sale on September 25, and she will begin a new tour with Don Henley starting October 3.
What is your favorite Shawn Colvin cover? Leave your two cents in the comments.
Bruce Springsteen remains one of the great living artists who connects us to early rock and roll. Perhaps as part of that connection, he is the artist most likely to sing the classic rock lyrics “sha-la-la.”
“Brown-Eyed Girl” Cover
In one example from a recent tour, Springsteen sang the line while covering Van Morrison’s classic “Brown-Eyed Girl” on April 19, 2014 in Charlotte, North Carolina: “Do you remember when we used to sing / Sha la la la la la la la la la la dee dah.”
“Darlington County” and “Jersey Girl”
The two “sha-la-la” songs most identified with Springsteen, though, are “Darlington County” and “Jersey Girl.” “Darlington County” first appeared on Born in the U.S.A. (1984), recounting the travels of the singer and “Wayne” heading down South from New York City to meet some girls. “We got rock and roll music blasting off the T-top singing / Sha la la la la la la la la.”
Below is a swinging performance of “Darlington County” at Olympic Park in London, England on June 30, 2013. Although the original version highlighted Springsteen’s harmonies with Steven Van Zandt, when the band plays live, everyone sings on the “sha-la-la’s.”
Although California-born Tom Waits wrote “Jersey Girl,” fans also identify Springsteen with the song from his many performances and from his close connection to New Jersey. Springsteen began performing the song during The River tour in 1981, and it appeared as a B-side to Born in the U.S.A.‘s “Cover Me.” “Jersey Girl” finally appeared on an official Springsteen album when a live version closed the box set Live: 1975-85 (1986).
In “Jersey Girl,” the singer tells us he is in love with a girl from New Jersey. It is a touching song, tinged with real-life hope and regret. The singer pleads with a single mother who is exhausted from her job, asking that she go dancing on a Saturday night where everything will be all right.
And then, apparently, they will “Sha-la-la. . .” because the singer is “in love with a Jersey girl.” As in “Brown-Eyed Girl,” one might read the “Sha-la-la’s” as rock and roll talk for sexual relations. Below is an October 2009 performance at Giants Stadium . . . in New Jersey, of course.
Springsteen used “sha-la-la” in at least one other original song besides “Darlington County.” The phrase appearing in background vocals for his song “Breakaway.”
“Breakaway” was recorded during Springsteen’s 1977-’78 recording sessions around the time of Darkness on the Edge of Town. But these sha-la-la’s did not see official release until Springsteen put together leftover songs from those sessions for the 2010 release The Promise.
Unlike the other sha-la-la’s in other songs in this post, the sha-la-la’s in “Breakaway” appear in the background, not up front in a chorus. Also, “Breakaway” is one of the rare times where “sha-la-la” does not have any sexual or love connotations.
In “Breakaway,” the “sha-la-la” phrase fills in the spaces in a song about broken dreams. Arguably, the phrase fills in for another topic we do not like to talk about: death. “Janie slid into a car last night (sha la la la, sha la la la) / In a parking lot she gave her soul away . . . .”
On a much happier note, one of my favorite “sha-la-la” songs resulted when Springsteen joined Gary U.S. Bonds on a modern version of the Cajun classic “Jole Blon” on Bonds’s 1981 album Dedication. Among other things, Springsteen contributed some “sha la la’s.”
Here is a 2012 performance where the two men teamed up on stage at Metlife Stadium in New Jersey singing a great duet on “Jole Blon” from an excellent album. Again, it is a love song and the “sha-la-la’s” help fill in the blanks.
“Sha La La”
Finally, if “sha-la-la” is good enough for a chorus, it is good enough for a name of a song. In 1964, The Shirelles recorded a song called “Sha La La” that may have given Springsteen his first love of the “sha-la-la” phrase, even though a more famous song by The Shirelles, “Baby It’s You,” also used the phrase.
Springsteen recently performed The Shirelles’ “Sha La La” in 2009 during the Working on a Dream tour. But prior to that, all of his other known performances of the song occurred in 1975.
Below is the audio of a live Springsteen version of “Sha La La” from 1975. Again, you can figure out what “sha-la-la” means: “When I kissed you and I held you tight / Baby, you made me feel alright / So this is the song that I sang all night / Sha-la-la-la-la-la-la.”
What Sha-la-la Song Should Springsteen Sing Next?
With these six songs, four of which appear on official recordings, Bruce Springsteen may be the living artist most likely to “sha-la-la” in song. It has been awhile, though, since he has recorded a “sha-la-la” song. Let us suggest “Let’s Live for Today” (“Sha-la-la-la-la-la, live for today”) by the Grass Roots, which Springsteen apparently is yet to sing. Maybe it is time for another new sha-la-la.
Is there a “sha-la-la” Springsteen song we missed? What is your favorite Springsteen “sha-la-la”? Leave your two cents in the comments.
There are a number of popular songs that reference the Fourth of July and Independence Day. There are songs that take a historical approach to focus on the drafters and signers of the Declaration of Independence as in the play and movie 1776. And there are popular songs about America like the version of “America the Beautiful” by Ray Charles or the song we discussed on Chimesfreedom last year, Paul Simon’s “American Tune.” But there are also a number of songs that refer to the modern version of the holiday without singing about Jefferson, Franklin, Adams, or purple mountains majesty.
Shooter Jennings: “Fourth of July”
Shooter Jennings, son of the great Waylon Jennings, recorded an excellent song about the holiday in “Fourth of July” off his debut album, Put the O Back in Country (2005). Although the song does not mention the Declaration of Independence or our Founding Fathers, it evokes the Fourth of July that is more familiar to Americans today of having a nice holiday.
Unlike many of the other Fourth of July patriotic songs, Shooter Jennings’s song is completely about the holiday. And it is a fun song. (Unfortunately, the official video is no longer available on YouTube so below is a fan video with the lyrics. A live version is here.)
There are two excellent songs titled “Independence Day” that focus on personal escape and independence. In Bruce Springsteen’s song from The River (1980), he sings about leaving home, not necessarily on the Fourth of July.
While Springsteen’s “Independence Day” portrays a bittersweet aspect of growing up and escaping, Martina McBride sings her “Independence Day” as an angry and empowering anthem. In the song, written by Gretchen Peters, the singer tells about her mom standing up to domestic abuse.
The “Independence Day” in this song refers both to the mother’s action asserting independence as well as to the holiday: “So I took myself down to the fair in town / On Independence Day.” Here is McBride’s video of the song, which appeared on her album The Way That I Am (1993).
“Fourth of July, Asbury Park”
Springsteen actually does have a song that, unlike his “Independence Day,” is set on the holiday. “Fourth of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)” first appeared on Springsteen’s second album, The Wild, The Innocent and The E Street Shuffle (1973) album.
Here is a young Boss playing the song in 1975 at Hammersmith Odeon. Like Shooter’s song, this one does a great job of capturing the holiday spirit.
Songs About Fireworks
I suspect that many firework displays feature Katy Perry’s “Firework,” from her Teenage Dream (2010) album. Although the song mentions the Fourth of July, it does so in the context of asking the object of the song to “Just own the night like the Fourth of July.”
Like McBride’s “Independence Day,” Perry’s “Firework” is a song of empowerment, but without the arson.
Another song that evokes the annual holiday explosives is Ryan Adams’s excellent song, “Firecracker” from his Gold (2001) CD. The song is about courtship instead of going out to see fireworks on the Fourth of July: “I just want to be your firecracker / And maybe be your baby tonight.”
In this video, Adams performs “Firecracker” in an acoustic version.
“The Great Compromise”
John Prine invokes patriotic imagery as he remembers “a girl who was almost a lady” born on the Fourth of July in his wonderful “The Great Compromise.” The song appeared on Prine’s album Diamonds In The Rough (1971).
The girl in “The Great Compromise,” however, really represents the United States. Prine’s song about disillusionment with the country during the Vietnam War is one of the great songs about our country. [Thanks to Lucia Ferrara for reminding me about the Prine song.]
Other Singing References to the Fourth
Many other singers and songwriters have planted references to the holiday in their songs. For example, there are songs by James Taylor (“On the Fourth of July”), U2 (the instrumental “4th of July”), Elliott Smith (“Independence Day”), X (“4th of July”), Ariel Abshire (“Fourth of July”), and Aimee Mann (“4th of July”).
Tom Waits mentions the holiday in “This One From the Heart.” So does Chicago in “Saturday in the Park” but the band was not completely sure about the day: “Saturday in the park/ I think it was the Fourth of July.”
And Lucinda Williams sang about a “Metal Firecracker,” although the song title referred to a tour bus. PopMatters has a good list of July Fourth songs, and check out the comments below for some more additions.
What is your favorite Fourth of July song? Let us know in the comments. And have a happy and safe Fourth of July.