Shout, Wail, & Murmur :: Translating Music’s Barbaric Yawps

Towards the end of his lifelong epic “Song Of Myself” Walt Whitman brags “I too am not a bit tamed—I too am untranslatable/ I sound my barbaric yawp over the rooftops of the world.” It’s a wonderful boast, considering that he’s wrapping up one of the most eloquent poetic statements in American history. Whitman was a controversial figure in his time, both censored and praised for his celebratory frankness and outrageousness. And with this particular line, he prophetically points out something very important about what the blues, soul, and rock & roll, is all about. We don’t just listen for precise language, we want the barbaric yawps too. 

Pop music is defined in large part by excesses of personality and self-expression, so grunts and wails and outbursts of all kinds help make it what it is and can leave some tell-tale marks that show us what a particular artist or song is really all about. Those shouts and calls—words chosen for their sound and character as much as their literal meaning—hint at the sublime and ridiculous secrets their singers might have to share.

First of all, the gold medal for yawping has to go to the man who treated it as not just a novelty in his act but a veritable instrument in and of itself: Mr. Please Please himself, Mr. Dynamite, the hardest working man in show business, Mr. James Brown. It’s not just because of all those primal grunts, though those are pretty rad in themselves and uncountable, but those joyful squeals that start off the ultraprecise funk of “Mother Popcorn” like starter pistols and punctuate the rhythm like an extra horn section unto themselves. Or those cocky cackles and grunts in “Cold Sweat” and, naturally, “Sex Machine.” There’s that ultra-confident “can I take ‘em to the bridge” call and response with the indefatigable Bobby Byrd, that comes straight from the intimate synchronization between Brown and his band, often imitated but never duplicated.

It’s not surprising how many of these yawps come from R&B and the blues, with their direct links to the call-and-response of the African-American church. More on this later. Sometimes those legendary crooners allowed themselves a bit more control over their tone than others. Al Green, who grew up in the Memphis church and returned to it in his later years, has that uncanny ability to soar and warble above that fat, tangy groove— courtesy of the Hi Records crew—in “Let’s Stay Together,” which gives you shivers every time, like the first kiss with someone you know you’ll be with a long time. Al Green doesn’t necessarily have to do much physically. His amazing vocal range and expert control of it makes his songs levitate. But you gotta watch out. Those yawps giveth and taketh away. Sometimes they reveal more about the performer than even their mighty powers can consciously do. 

Take Otis Redding, for example, who shouts it out almost as much as Brown does—but in his case, it’s all about expressing utter vulnerability rather than alpha status. Otis loves you baby, he needs your loving, he’ll just about die without your precious precious love, why you wanna break his heart, can’t you see he’s down on his knees for you, and “Try A Little Tenderness” starts soft but leads up to that trademark “gotta gotta gotta na na na” that demonstrates how Otis bellows from the bowels of his soul only to tap into more of that helpless, charismatic desperation. In contrast, take his hero Sam Cooke, who felt as much heartbreak and pain as Otis did but somehow managed to maintain a posture that was cooler than cool, totally in control, so that you could just tell he would win the girl in the end. But that’s a different aspect of what soul music’s all about, too. Even if you attain what you long for, the blues aren’t over with you yet. Anyone who doubts this can just check out his spontaneous “Demonstration of Soul” that feels as off the cuff as anything Otis did but manages to be suave as all hell at the same time. But don’t forget how Sam Cooke ended up, either. 

Elvis, of course, knew a little bit about Saturday night and Sunday morning and his legendary way of pinballing between segregated cultures did amazing things to his voice. Elvis could shake, rattle, and roll through the Beale Street blues and R&B repertoire with everything he had, but he also had a silken way of setting the mood that was uniquely his own. Turn the lights down low and put on his atmospheric (and a little eerie) version of “Blue Moon.” About halfway through, while the rhythm modestly trots along, Elvis lets loose with these hair-raising warbles, almost feline in their delicacy, that put something indefinable into the air. Jim Jarmusch used this song as the theme of his Memphis film Mystery Train and it cues up the summoning of the King’s ghost in a nondescript hotel room, to his own puzzlement as much as anyone else’s. Johnny Cash’s ominous humming at the beginning of “I Walk The Line” (inspired by the sound of an enormous telegraph machine Cash manned during his time in the Army) deserves an honorable mention as well, since even Elvis was jealous at how it got a reaction out of the crowd without the man in black even having to move a muscle.

Moving down the chronology a little, “Gimmie Shelter” might be the Stones’ greatest song. High praise, indeed, but few of their songs are as durable and as combustible at the same time. Granted, this is cheating a little bit, but a very pregnant Merry Clayton sings those apocalyptic lyrics in such a way as to both epitomize and transcend the meaning of the words. “Rape, murder, it’s just a shot away” sounds even more dreadful when her voice keeps repeating the phrase, cracking with deeper intensity each time. You just know that she knew of which she sang. Given what was boiling in all that late-sixties air outside the studio, in that moment it’s like the whole world is about to smash apart. Similar props are due to Roger Daltrey’s cathartic yowl in “Baba O’Reilly” which is maybe less nihilistic, but still strides above a different kind of wasteland, the kind where surviving with one’s pride intact is good enough. 

In some cases, you could trace the arc of a band by the quality of their yawps. The Beatles’ oohing and ahhing over their exhilarating early hits like “A Hard Days’ Night” eventually gives way to the mischievously stoned inhalations in “Girl” and the totally demented “I Am The Walrus” (a hearty jooba jooba back to you, too, sir) and only a few years later you have the throat-peeling screams of “Oh Darling” as the band acrimoniously falls asunder. The Doors came in hot with Morrison’s vocal whipcracks in “Break On Through” (including the “she gets high” refrain that was gingerly edited out of the original single) and his caveman emoting in “Back Door Man” but eventually all that excess gives way to his derelict, Chewbacca-like wail in the middle of “L.A. Woman.” And let’s not even get into Robert Plant’s hilariously prolonged transcendental orgasm sequence in the middle of “Whole Lotta Love” which demonstrates all by itself why some people can’t stand Led Zeppelin and why many others love them unconditionally.

Call me a cornball if you want, but I still get a thrill when Bono leads the charge in the middle of “Sunday Bloody Sunday.” Bear in mind, it was recorded before he became an insufferable pitchman for the iPhone and all the rest of it. This was back when U2 arguably considered themselves a punk band, wanted to move people’s moral sense, and had some very ugly real-life tragedy to get pissed off about. That “alright, go!” over the marching beat and the churning guitar gets me every time. Not-Irish author Steve Almond said that whenever he hears the song “I feel a pugnacious righteousness about the fate of the Irish people…I’m basically ready to enlist in the IRA and stomp some British Protestant Imperialist Ass.” Maybe not exactly the response that Bono and company had in mind, but it’s righteous, nonetheless. 

Speaking of pugnacity, naturally good old punk rock offers plenty of the yawps that get the blood pumping. Johnny Rotten’s operatically rolled “rrrright NOW” followed by his guttural guffaw through those namesake teeth at the beginning of “Anarchy In The U.K.” pretty much rips up the pop charts in one grand stroke and gobs right into the scraps. Once the song actually did hit number one on said charts, the title had to be blacked out for fear of admitting publically what rowdy English youth wanted to hear in the late seventies. Joe Strummer’s rooster crow in “London Calling” signals the need for an end to all the bollocks that is threatening to flood London (and himself) in its awful wake. There just isn’t enough white space in the world to catalogue all of Iggy’s primal yawps throughout his brief but memorable run with the Stooges, but I happen to know a guy in a rockin’ band from Detroit who claims that “Down In The Street” is the true sound of his city, and that’s good enough for me. And let’s not forget Patti Smith, either: the “go Rimbaud” cheerleading for the original teenage poet maudit in “Land” along with the simultaneous shot outs to Wilson Pickett’s “Land of 1000 Dances” is about as punk as it gets.

For me, my personal favorite vocal interjection of all time terrifies me as much as anything I’ve ever heard in my life. It comes from Robert Johnson, one of the indisputable fathers of all of American music. “Preachin’ Blues (Up Jumped The Devil)” is one of his most mind-boggling feats of guitar wizardry, jumping like a juke joint in full swing or indeed a congregation catching the spirit. Johnson’s lyrics speak of the blues walking like a man, taking him by the hand, tearing him all upside down, and how the blues is “a low down old shakin’ chill.” In the middle of all this clamor, he utters this little ironic aside—“yes, I’m preachin’ now”—which isn’t really all that ironic at all. He’s preaching, after all. 

We all know the Faustian lore that has garlanded around Johnson’s legacy by now, so there’s no need for a rehash. But the fiendish way he enunciates that little word “yes” does feel like something Pentecostal, slipping in from another world; that little affirmative erupts from somewhere low down, from deep below or far beyond the earth. Even though I was raised to believe in a literal devil, I try not to, but something about that raw, diabolical little interjection still chills me to the bone every time. But that’s just me. Whether your preferred musical yawps are joyful or terrifying, political or primal, they will always end up in some way becoming a part of the song of yourself. words/m hanson

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