Perfect Sound Forever

The 20th Century's Greatest Hits:
A Top 40 List

Eleanor Roosevelt
Eleanor Roosevelt: Photo courtesy of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute

by Paul Willliams (February 2001)

2013 update: Paul Williams passed away on March 27th- Ultimate Classic Rock has a nice tribute to him on their site. His work was responsible for inspiring many writers and music fans, including the Perfect Sound Forever collective here. He was a wonderful inspriation and will be greatly missed. It's not saying too much to state his work was responsible for helping many of us to become music journalists in the first place. We were very honored to work with him on the article below. Thank you PW for everything.

'What works of art should be remembered and why?'  That was premise that Paul Williams set for himself when beginning his latest book The 20th Century's Greatest Hits (Tom Doherty Associates).  Not content with just a top-10 list for the year or decade, he decided that a top-40 list for the century was overdue.  You might expect from one of the pioneering rock magazine editors to have this list filled with music but you’d be wrong.  Indeed, that’s one a small piece of the puzzle.  Paintings, movies, novels, correspondence, speeches and other talisman are all part of Williams’ scheme.  Even by Williams’ own admission, any kind of list as such is going to ensure controversy (my own list: “The Waste Land,” Samuel Beckett, John Woo's The Killer, Vasily Kandinsky, In the Belly of the Beast, Gunter Grass, Italio Calvino, John Steinbeck, Flipper (the band, not the show), Big Star, Love, Creedence Clearwater Revival).  He surely welcomes this kind of thing, gladly hoping that others will, as I did, search for their own treasures from the last millennium and share them with others.

Just to give you an example of this breadth of this undertaking, two entries below span an enormous ground between an historic document drafted by a first lady and a blues single by a man who made Eric Clapton’s and the Rolling Stones’ careers possible.

Also see Paul Williams' home page

ED NOTE: In the first entry below, the other great American referred to is Billie Holliday (whose "God Bless The Child" and "I Cover the Waterfront" are Hit #6 in the book).

 HIT #7: The Universal Declaration of Human Rights

by the Drafting Committee of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights,
Eleanor Roosevelt, chairman

(adopted by the General Assembly December 10, 1948)

One great American woman after another. Eleanor Roosevelt throughout 1947 and 1948 was the "chairman" of a committee that wrote the most important and wonderful piece of writing produced by any committee in this century or era. Dr. Peng-Chun Chang of China was vice-chairman, Dr. Charles Malik of Lebanon rapporteur. The other five members of the committee were from Australia, Chile, France, the United Kingdom and the Soviet Union.

The drafting committee worked in part from draft declarations and proposals submitted by the governments of Chile, Cuba, India, Panama and the United States, but in the end the eight men and women wrote these one thousand seven hundred & seventy-four words themselves.

 In this case the essence of the creative act was not the choosing of words but the process of agreeing to agree on them (before collectively publishing them, making them public, which in this case meant offering them as a text to be adopted by a yes or no vote on the floor of the fairly young United Nations General Assembly).

 All observers and commentators agree that Mrs. Roosevelt deserves primary credit for making this act of agreement possible, through her own artful presence... Not the same as Billie's role in her performing and recording bands, but not all that different. Billie led by inspiration, Eleanor by devotion to worthy principles and by loving kindness. And look at what was created, back on the first Human Rights Day, Dec. 10, 1948, as a result! "The Magna Carta of all mankind."

 The thing that baffles me is why this isn't the first thing people think of when the subject of the twentieth century's "greatest hits" comes up. Okay, the mass media have kind of ignored the Universal Declaration so far, to their discredit... but what song or novel in this century has spoken for or had an impact on or liberated more people?

Article 19
  Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.
 Article 23
  1. Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment.
  2. Everyone, without any discrimination, has the right to equal pay for equal work.
  3. Everyone who works has the right to just and favourable remuneration ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity, and supplemented, if necessary, by other means of social protection.
  4. Everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests.
 Article 27
  1. Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.
  2. Everyone has the right to the protection of the moral and material interests resulting from any scientific, literary or artistic production of which he is the author.

Article 1
  All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

Article 2
  Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.
  Furthermore, no distinction shall be made on the basis of the political, jurisdictional or international status of the country or territory to which a person belongs, whether it be independent, trust, non-self-governing or under any other limitation of sovereignty.

Article 3
  Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.

Eleanor Roosevelt was 62 years old when she began the work of guiding and participating in the creation of a universal declaration of human rights. She had been a widow for a year and a half. Her biographer Joseph P. Lash speaks eloquently (in his preface to Eleanor: The Years Alone) of who she was at this moment in her life:

"The same qualities that had turned this protected daughter of old New York into an uncompromising champion of the poor and oppressed, that had enabled her to remake her marriage after the discovery of her husband's unfaithfulness into a journey of self- discovery and a partnership of immense usefulness to America... foretold that Eleanor Roosevelt, now standing alone and speaking for herself, would leave her mark on the times.

"She had overcome so much, turned so many difficulties into points of growth. She had emancipated herself from the insular and caste-minded society into which she had been born and, in a relentless battle of wills, had freed herself from the domination of a strong-minded mother-in-law who had embodied the values of that society. She had established a unique relationship of independence and partnership with her husband. A homely adolescent with a deep sense of inadequacy because of her physical plainness, she had grown into a woman of poise, dignity, and gracious beauty. She who had been anti-Semitic and prejudiced against "darkies" had become the epitome of a concern that excluded no one from the circle of its compassion and love. Although she had opposed the woman's suffrage movement, she was now a tough-minded and astute political figure in her own right. She for whom speaking had been an ordeal had become one of the most self-possessed and moving speakers in public life.

"She had even learned to cope with the sense of alienation, of being an outsider, that she had acquired in childhood with the death of her parents. Work and loving people no matter what they did were her formulas for transcending loneliness and disappointment. She was only sixty-one [when the President died], full of vitality, at home in the corridors of power, and adept at using power to help others. She had a vast political constituency and felt an obligation to promote her husband's objectives, especially the achievement of peace through the United Nations."

Thus the background of the principal author and a few samples from the text. Be assured that the other 24 Articles include all the basics almost any of us would wish declared and embraced: freedom of movement within, and the right to leave or return to any country, freedom from arbitrary arrest, the right to education, freedom of religion, the right to a standard of living adequate to health and well-being. But why include the Universal Declaration in this book? Because it is a work of expression, a short piece of prose, and therefore in my view as much an example of human art from its era as any film or sculpture or poem.

What greater or more memorable poem than this? A distillation into a few well-chosen words (in five languages simultaneously) of the standards virtually all nations and persons agree apply to the circumstances of every human being everywhere, a song of love and a grand essay on the many twists and turnings in the relationships between individuals and states, between personal power and consciousness and collective power and consciousness. And because I cannot bear to contemplate a world in which our understandable and appropriate appreciation for the Beatles and Picasso and James Joyce distracts us from or blinds us to awareness of the significance and reality of our having somehow agreed, in the middle of this difficult century, on the basic ground rules for human coexistence on this ball of dirt.

We did agree, that's the point. All of the work of human rights organizations like Amnesty International is completely based upon, made possible by, and carried out by reference to, this declaration that was passed resoundingly by an assembly of the representatives of all nations and peoples of the world, December 10, 1948. Every nation that has ever joined the United Nations has by that act formally expressed its willing acceptance of the Charter of the U.N. and by extension of the text of the Universal Declaration. The progress towards the realization of Mrs. Roosevelt's and the U.N.'s original intention, an International Bill of Human Rights accepted as law and given the support necessary to make it enforceable in the realpolitik of international affairs, is another story, one which the reader is urged to inform her- or him- self about. (, or ask your library for a copy of The International Bill of Human Rights- the 1981 book edition has a very readable "brief history" which can also be found at the aforementioned website).

And finally, dear reader, a bit of homework. The Preamble to the Declaration concludes:

Now, therefore, THE GENERAL ASSEMBLY proclaims This Universal Declaration of Human Rights as a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations, to the end that every individual and every organ of society, keeping this Declaration constantly in mind, shall strive by teaching and education to promote respect for these rights and freedoms...
That's where we come in. Have you told your kids? Your friends and neighbors? Yourself? How can we live by such a beautiful code if we don't educate ourselves as to its content and its existence?


Hit #28: "Smokestack Lightning"

(recorded January 1956) by Howlin' Wolf

You've probably heard the quote before, but if you're like me you'll always be glad to hear it again- the greatest twenty words of music criticism spoken by any person in the 20th century, Sam Phillips (best known for "discovering" and first recording Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis) describing his feelings when he first tuned in Howlin' Wolf's KWEM West Memphis radio show in 1950: "When I heard Howlin' Wolf, I said, 'This is for me. This is where the soul of man never dies.'"

Phillips invited Wolf to record at his Memphis studio; soon they recorded Wolf's first hit single, "Moanin' at Midnight," released on Chess Records in 1951. "I tell you," Phillips told journalist Robert Palmer, who himself recorded Sam's great quote above, "the greatest show you could see to this day would be Chester Burnett [Wolf's name when he was born on a Mississippi plantation in 1910] doing one of those sessions in my studio. God, what it would be worth on film to see the fervor in that man's face when he sang. His eyes would light up, you'd see the veins come out on his neck, and, buddy, there was nothing on his mind but that song. He sang with his damn soul."

And it wasn't only the singing. "Smokestack Lightning," Wolf's second hit record, was recorded in Chicago in 1956 with Hosea Lee Kennard on piano, Willie Johnson and Hubert Sumlin on electric guitars, Willie Dixon on bass guitar, Earl Phillips on drums and Howlin' Wolf on vocals and harmonica. What made this recording a "hit" with the black Americans who bought many thousands of copies of the single after they heard it on "rhythm & blues" radio stations in 1956 and with young white Americans and Europeans- many of them future "rock and roll" stars- when we heard it as a track on Wolf's first LP (long-playing record) a few years later was of course the extraordinary presence and power of Wolf's voice but it was also something paradoxically separate from yet inseparable from that voice: a sound, a combination of wondrous elements all adding up to one singular and endlessly provocative experience: the sound of this recording. A sound that will live forever in the hearts and minds and consciousnesses of almost every human who encounters it, the sound of Howlin' Wolf's (and Hubert Sumlin's and Hosea Kennard's, etc.) "Smokestack Lightning." "Oh, don't you hear me crying?!!"

In the history of art, the 20th century is the first time it was possible to create an enduring art object, like a painting on canvas, out of recorded sounds. As a result there is not much language yet in which to describe the remarkable aesthetic triumph of the guitar riff that frames and characterizes "Smokestack Lightning." Tone is a large part of it, as surely as it is in the relationship of colors in a Matisse painting. Relationship is vital here, too: the position (and tone) of the bass-and-drums combination in relation to the riff, and to the voice. The sympathetic listener senses (often is overwhelmed by) the precise location and texture of each sound within a palpable sonic space as well-defined as if it were framed like a Rembrandt. A space where artist and audience meet.

They get into the bloodstream, those rhythms and tones. While the Wolf's voice enters the listener's mind. In this case a 20-century-listener's mind, one that is busily learning how to inhabit this space: the three-minute recording. Words and music and voices and instruments together. Powerful noncognitive spiritual information. In compact secular containers. Universally available. "Oh, don't you hear me...?"

"So," you ask (old-fashioned mind hasn't left us altogether): "What do the words say? What's the song about?" It's about a train (familiar 19th century object). And about the anguish that men and women normally cause each other just by being men and women (i.e., sexual beings). "Ohhh, smokestack lightning, shining just like gold, oh don't you hear me crying? woo-oooh, woo-oooh." This can be understood as the speaker addressing the train as though it were some spiritual apparition or presence, seen and felt across the farmlands at night. A far-off inspiration, a friend to share intimate feelings with. And without missing a beat, the speaker addresses his lover (in his mind while standing alone outside at night? or face to face in her cabin?): "Well... Tell me baby, what's the matter here? Oh don't you hear me crying? Woo-oooh." After some evocative harmonica bursts, we learn more clearly what's on his mind: "Tell me baby, where did you stay last night?" The next two verses manage to bring the train and the anguished lovers together (but only thematically): "Well, stop your train, let a poor boy ride!" Now he's speaking to the trainman, unless he's possibly, on his knees, speaking to his lover. Next verse is unambiguously to the woman, speaker imagining himself already on that train: "Ohh, fare you well, never see you no more, oh don't you hear me crying?" But the last verse indicates you don't escape anguish so easily: "Ohhh, who been here baby, since I been gone? Little bitty boy? To go beyond..." Okay, I don't quite understand that last part, never know if I'm hearing it right, but that's okay because mystery is the primary message of this recording-the atmosphere of which it's so "atmospheric." The quality that makes us listeners fall in love with it so indelibly, usually with no idea of what words he's singing or what they could possibly mean apart from all this musical feeling we're being washed with.... "Woo-oooh..."

Every entry in this book, and every one on your own alternate list of great hits of the century, is a window onto a glorious chain of history, history of art, history of consciousness. An interconnected net. Howlin' Wolf's vocal style, though inimitably his own, was primarily influenced and inspired by the singing of the great blues pioneer Charley Patton (whom Wolf met and learned from on the Dockery Plantation when he was 18 and Patton 31) and secondarily by the yodeling of another great 20th century American singer, Jimmie Rodgers. Rodgers belongs in this book, of course, as does the immortal Robert Johnson who was a traveling companion of Chester Burnett's in the 1930s in the Mississippi Delta long before the Wolf abandoned farming to move to Memphis and form a (possibly the first) rock and roll band. Another contender for the title of Founder of the First Rock and Roll Band is Rice Miller, aka Sonny Boy Williamson II, another traveling companion of Wolf's from the 1930's, and the first blues kid on the block (i.e. in the United States) to get his own radio show and a sponsor (King Biscuit Flour; Wolf's West Memphis sponsor was House of Bread). The story of Wolf's link to London's Rolling Stones will be touched upon in entry #35.

But the chain of history that made this century and its art what it was and is, naturally goes as far back as we the species do, as demonstrated in this helpful comment by Gordon McGregor from an Internet site called BluesNet- helpful for those of us who wonder where all this mystery feeling we're being delighted by comes from:

It is maintained by some blues writers that Delta blues artists, of which Wolf is an example, came from a tribe in Africa which communicates microtonally, that is, in harmonic increments that are smaller than those in the European 12-tone scale. In addition to the polyrhythmic playing, it is what sets these blues apart not only from other types of music but also from other types of blues. The feeling produced can often be very eerie and "magical" as if the music somehow escapes time and the harmonic constraints of European music.

 Don't rule out the possibility that listening to Delta blues (including of course his hero Howlin' Wolf) is what (besides Cezanne) first got Bob Dylan (see entry #14) interested in stopping time.

 Let a poor boy ride....

ED NOTE: Also see the PSF Howlin' Wolf site

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