Mangum is not a typical example of folk music, but I think he does fit into a tradition of urban activist and protest music, within a framework that includes both historical insight and magical thinking. This report will illustrate these ideas by highlighting two of his songs in particular.Musician born 1970 in Ruston, Louisiana but moved with his friends to the college town of Athens, Georgia in the mid-1990s.
These friends would eventually make up what became known as the Elephant 6 collective. This was a quasi arts commune where various local freaks and musicians recorded music. Many of these experiments were influential and started the careers of successful bands like Of Montreal, The Lilies and Apples in Stereo.Neutral Milk Hotel grew from these experiments and included several of Mangum’s friends and colleagues, though he retains sole songwriting credit for the band’s material.
Aeroplane is the 2nd record released by Neutral Milk Hotel. The LP contains artwork by Chris Bilheimer, and broadsheet-style lyrics.
Before the song:Though the transition is somewhat abrupt from the previous song “The Fool” to this one, it is eased by the opening Cmajor chord, which pivots from the vii of D minor in the previous song to the IV of Gmajor for the open to “Holland, 1945.”As in the “King of Carrot Flowers” suite (album opener), “Holland, 1945″ consistssolely of I, IV, and V chords arranged in various orders. Like previous song“Two-Headed Boy,” (track 4 of the record) the verse melody of “Holland, 1945″ is based on a three-notefragment consisting of three consecutive scale degrees which is then shifted downward.The lyrics of “Holland, 1945″ delve into thelife of Anne Frank, this time exploring her death in particular. The song isnamed for the region where she was captured in hiding and the year in which shedied. The first verse contains a few specific details about her death.Mangum uses Anne’s story toexplore the relationship between suffering and beauty, and how they can existconcurrently.The second verseadvances the example of Anne Frank’s death, and offers another perspective onhow the speaker finds comfort in spite of her tragic demise. Longing forbeauty and frustrated by its destruction all around him, he is comforted by avisit from the ghost of a deceased friend.In an article for the BostonPhoenix, Carol Carioli (1998) reveals that this verse is about the suicideof the brother of one of Mangum’s friends. Another brief addition to thelyrics in the LP’s insert supports this insight. Right after the words “yourdark brother,” Mangum appends the initials “h.p.” in parentheses. Though it isunclear exactly to whom they refer, this suggests that the brother in the songis indeed about a real, specific person.
Before the song:1st song of side two of the LP: At over eight minutes long, the next track, “Oh Comely,” towers overthe rest of the songs.There’s a constant oscillation in key here supportsing thelyrical ambivalence between the grotesque and the beautiful. It can be divided into three main sections; the firstand second sections share similar chord changes but have different melodies,while the third is a formerly self-contained song previously titled “Goldaline”that is added on as a haunting coda (Cooper, 2005).The chord progression consists of E major alternating with Cmajor, but the melody of the first section superimposes E natural minor overthe E major chord. An E major chordopens the song, strummed on acoustic guitar in 3/4 with a vaguely menacingswing. E major will become the dominant key for much of the rest of thealbum. The song is mostly a single-take guitar and vocal performance, with theexception of some doubled vocals and horns that enter later on. In fact, therecording on the album preserves what was meant to be only a test of microphonelevels with a few bars (ibid). Instead, Mangum, apparently swept up with thepower of the song, plows through its entire duration with a remarkable,emotionally-wrought performance.After the song:At the outset, thespeaker seems to be anticipating the death of a loved one: “Oh comely / I willbe with you when you lose your breath.” Next, the keyshifts to G major as the speaker briefly reflects on the contentment of thepast: “Chasing the only meaningful memory you thought you had left / [...] Itisn’t as pretty as you’d like to guess / In your memory.” As the key shifts back to the E major/minor hybrid,Mangum proclaims, “It doesn’t mean anything at all,”As the key returns to Emajor, Mangum’s voice soars to the top of his range for the refrain: “Say whatyou want to say / And hang for your hollow ways / Moving your mouth to pull outall your miracle for me.”Next verse: Mangum says these particularlyrics reflect his disgust “about sex being used as a tool for power”(McGonigal, 1998, p. 21). The section ends with the ominous mantra: “Know all your enemies / We know whoour enemies are.” This could be a reference to the fear Anne and her familyexperienced in hiding.The time signature shifts to 4/4, theguitar plays straight, propulsive eighth notes, and the tempo accelerates. Theorder of the shift from minor to major is reversed and the C major chord isreplaced with A minor. After the introductory theme, the section contains asingle brief verse:The next section is best understoodthrough Mangum’s own explanation: “One of my new songs talks about Siamesetwins freezing to death in the forest… One is saying, ‘Don’t worry. We’ve beenattached forever, and we’ll end up in someone else’s stomach together anyway’”
1st Bullet:Mangum played some of Seeger’s music for his playlists at WFMU. Recorded two field recordings of Bulgarian folk music, both released on Orange Twin – an artists’ commune in Athens, GA, officially called the Orange Twin Conservation Community (where several members from Elephant 6 still live and work).3rd bullet: Played for Occupy Wall Street, is now touring with Strike Debt, an organization sponsored by members from Occupy Wall Street, with the goal of eliminating the debt of the 99%.Play from 31:30 at Occupy performance.
Widen: What tradition does Mangum’s music exist? Ask questions…
Jeff MangumTranscendence in folk musicMike Levine