Song of the Day, February 16: California Earthquake

HartfordCAQuakeToday’s entry is a wonderful example of the durability — and flexibility — of a great song. California Earthquake was written by John Hartford, a talented folk / bluegrass singer, performer, and songwriter best known for composing the evergreen hit Gentle On My Mind. A gifted banjo player and fiddler, Hartford also had a clever way with words, crafting songs that blended droll delivery, cliché, serious topics, and witty wordplay. His version of the song is a straightforward country number, making the opening line, “They say they’ve exploded the underground blast,” especially jarring. A celebration of inevitability, it’s a great song with a smart hook and wry detachment. Who else would think to observe of such massive devastation:

That may be, that may be.
What’s gonna happen is gonna happen to me.
That’s the way it appears.

CassEarthquakeMama Cass chose the song for inclusion on her 1968 solo debut, Dream A Little Dream. With a rollicking piano, almost gleeful horns, and driving rhythm section, she transforms the song into a glorious pop epic, three minutes of musical delight. Cass was blessed not only with a magnificent voice but also with a flawless sense of delivery and phrasing. She offers just the right amount of restraint while still digging into the lyrics and having fun with the great construction of the song. Fittingly, she debuted the song on the Smothers Brothers’ Comedy Hour, a show which featured regular contributions from John Hartford.

ColeStandardsOver 40 years later, California Earthquake shook back to life in unexpected hands. When wry British singer Lloyd Cole decided to record an album that rocked after years of more stripped-down offerings, he wrote most of the tracks himself. With trademark irony, he called the album Standards, including only one cover, the opening track. Cole had long admired the song, although he mistakenly believed that John Phillips of the Mamas and Papas had written it for Cass. The lyrics are perfect for Cole, noted for his smart writing and devastating deadpan. With a great rocking band behind him, Cole turns the track into an alt-pop masterpiece, proving its lasting relevance and charm. Standard or not, it’s also a perfect opener for his finest album in years.

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About Robert Hulshof-Schmidt
Freelance writer, researcher, online comic vendor, and project manager. Fan of a wide range of music -- especially folk and 80s pop -- vintage comics, British TV, and LGBT fiction.

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