Tag Archives: music

The AI Ballad Of John Henry

Friends this side of the Atlantic may not be familar with the story of John Henry, but you can read about him on Wikipedia.  John Henry, the story goes, was a ‘steel-driving man’ whose prowess with the hammer was formidable.  

At one point, he took on a steam hammer, side-by-side, and won… but the effort also killed him.

It’s not quite clear whether John Henry was ever anything more than a legend, but he has inspired statues, books, animations, compositions by Aaron Copland… and almost everybody seems to have recorded musical versions of the story, including Jerry Lee Lewis, Bruce Springsteen, Lonnie Denegan, Harry Belafonte, Woodie Guthrie… to name but a few.  For a brief version, here’s Tennessee Ernie Ford, or I rather like the slightly longer story as recorded by Johnny Cash.

My friend Keshav, of course, asked ChatGPT to write a version, which also covers the threat posed to traditional skills by the coming of machines.




Not being well up on Italian hits of the early 70s, I only learned about this today, but I think it’s great.

In 1972, the singer Adriano Celentano released a single called ‘Prisencolinensinainciusol’. The words are gibberish, but intended to sound like someone singing in English with an American accent – or at least, how such a song sounds to a non-English speaker.

“Ever since I started singing”, he once said, “I was very influenced by American music and everything Americans did. So at a certain point, because I like American slang — which, for a singer, is much easier to sing than Italian — I thought that I would write a song which would only have as its theme the inability to communicate. And to do this, I had to write a song where the lyrics didn’t mean anything.”

(Here’s a direct link – your browser may give you a better viewer than the player above.)

According to Wikipedia, the song was very popular, reaching the top 10 in several European countries, and, if you search, you can find a couple of other versions featuring Celentano, and tributes by numerous groups since. But this is my favourite; I certainly found my foot tapping to its beat… and I thought the choreography with mirrors was great!

All of this reminded me of a trip to Indonesia in my youth, where I ended up playing guitar with a group of guys who thought that Eric Clapton sang about “Snog, Snog, Snogging on Seventh Floor”. (I wrote a post about this and about ‘Mondegreens’ a little while ago… let’s see… gosh! – even that post was more than 16 years ago!)

Anyway, today I started down this particular rabbit-hole thanks to Charles Arthur pointing me at a Twitter thread containing some other linguistic gems, including this clip of Sid Caesar’s performance at one of Bob Hope’s birthday parties sometime in the 80s. A five-minute comedic performance with almost no words that can be understood by anybody:


Wonderful stuff.


Rose suggested a better rhyme for the old carol:

    Oh, the holly bears a berry as green as the grass
    And Mary fled to Egypt on the back of an ass!

It works better if you pronounce ‘grass’ the way she does, rather than the way I do!

Everything stops for tea

There are some tunes that are so catchy, they stick with you for ages.

I think I heard ‘Everything stops for tea’ about three or four decades ago, and probably only once. But the wonder of modern search engines is that they allow you to go back and renew your acquaintance with the things that formed those neural pathways all that time ago…

Swing Low

The song of most small birds just sounds like a stream of tweets and whistles to us, but if you slow them down, you can get a wonderful feel for what’s going on.

Here’s a nice compilation of lots of them. I like the little wren at the beginning, the (rather quiet) skylark at about 17:57 has a nice rhythm when slowed down, and the song thrush that follows him is quite fun. If other birds can pick out these details, you can imagine there might be quite a lot of communication going on.

The real star, however, is the Veery Thrush, whom you can hear in this slowed-down clip. He’s the subject of the rather fun New Scientist article, which was what first caught my attention.

Now, I wonder if you sped up a clip of cows mooing, you could get a similar effect?

Having a ripping time

A quick recommendation of the dBpoweramp software, if, like me, you should find yourself ripping large numbers of CDs.

The times, they are a changin’

This afternoon, having an old show tune running though my head, I turned to my new Amazon Echo.

“Alexa, play Some Enchanted Evening.”

Short pause while it explores Spotify. Flashing lights. Music about to start…

Some Enchanted Evening by Bob Dylan.”

Really?!! Bob Dylan?!! I was somewhat stunned. Partly because my image of the rebellious Dylan seemed about as far from ‘Some Enchanted Evening’ as I could imagine. And partly because there are many famous recordings of this song — by great singers from Frank Sinatra to José Carreras to Bing Crosby to Perry Como to Ray Charles to Barbra Streisand to The Temptations to Willie Nelson to Harry Connick Jr. (to name a few), a significant number of which have been Top-10 hits, but I had no idea Bob Dylan had recorded it.

Well, it turns out that ignorance was bliss.

I’m an admirer of Bob Dylan, but in general I think the music world would have benefitted if somebody had persuaded him, early on, that he should stick to writing his own songs, and get somebody else to actually sing them. I grant that others may disagree.

For him to sing other people’s songs, though, is an undeniable mistake, especially when it comes to the works of Rodgers and Hammerstein. I can imagine worse sounds that could emanate from my speakers, but they would probably have to involve Billy Bragg. If you doubt me, say “Alexa, play Some Enchanted Evening”, perhaps as a cruel joke when visiting the house of a Spotify subscriber.

More seriously, I can’t help wondering what the algorithm is behind the scenes that picks this version first, and can only be overridden by tacking something like ‘by José Carreras’ onto the end of your command. Is it because it’s the most recent? Because all those recordings that spent weeks in the upper reaches of the charts don’t appeal to Spotify’s target audience? Or – a more worrying thought – perhaps it’s selected personally for me! I guess I do have more Dylan in my collection than, say, Paul Robeson or Ray Charles. In which case, maybe it’s my own fault…

Earning my R.E.S.P.E.C.T

Wow. She’s still got it, hasn’t she?

Thanks to Rory C-J for the link.


Passionflower: lateral strumming


Jon Gomm demonstrates some real lateral thinking on how to use a guitar.


iTunes Match – upgrading your songs

I’m in the process of upgrading a lot of my earlier AAC/MP3 files to 256kbps AAC. The ones I ripped some years ago tend to be lower quality than that, but it’s been too much hassle to go back to the CDs and update them.

Now, of course, everything is much easier.

I’ve subscribed to iTunes Match, which, for those who have missed it, is a new 22-quid-a-year service from Apple. Basically, it means that if you have a track on any of your machines, you can listen to it on all of them. It looks at what’s in your iTunes Library, and attempts to match it with what they have online. If it finds a match, wherever you got the original from, then you can get a high-quality 256kbps version from the cloud…. straight onto your iPhone or Apple TV, for example.

However, as far as I can see, there isn’t a way to make it automatically replace the songs in your iTunes library with the higher-bitrate versions. It needs a little encouragement – basically, once the match process has completed for your library, you need to delete each low-bandwidth track from your local machine and download it again. Don’t worry, it’ll preserve your ratings, playlists etc.

Just select the track(s) in your iTunes and press Option-Backspace. (Cmd-Backspace will also work in the main library, but not in playlists).

You’ll get a prompt:

and note that you’re given the option of deleting it from iCloud; don’t select that!

Then you’re asked whether you want to keep the old files or move them to the Trash.

I don’t want too many versions hanging around, so I shift them to the Trash, relying on Time Machine in case something goes wrong.

At this point you should see the entry still in iTunes, but with a little cloud icon indicating that it’s not on your local machine. If you were to start playing it, it would download automatically, but you can also right-click on it and select Download. And there you are, you’ve upgraded your fidelity!


This isn’t too convenient for bulk operations of many tracks at once, and you want to be a bit cautious about tracks for which iTunes didn’t find a match. It’s quite easy to delete them and find that download isn’t an option!

So I created some smart playlists to help with this. I wanted to upgrade my favourite tracks first, so the first one shows music that I’ve rated with more than one star, which is available in the cloud, and which is currently less than 190kbps. I call it ‘Low-bandwidth favourites’:

Low bandwidth favourites

With this, I can browse my highest priorities, select a bunch of them, and delete them easily.

When you do this, iTunes will say, “Aha, I have these in the cloud, where they’re 256kbps”, so after a short pause, they’ll vanish from the less-than-190kbps list. Sometimes this happens before I get a chance to download them, so I have another smart playlist called ‘iCloud not downloaded” where I can go to find them:

iCloud not downloaded rules

Other systems may work better for you – recommendations welcome – but I hope this is a useful starting point!

One thing you should note about iTunes Match, particularly if you are squeamish or have any nefarious purposes in mind: the high-quality AAC files you download will contain your name and Apple ID.

© Copyright Quentin Stafford-Fraser