John Sieger
Sieger on Songs

“Compared To What”

A jazz protest song? This Les McCann and Eddie Harris song from 1969 still is an elegant punch in the gut.

By - Jun 5th, 2015 12:23 pm
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Les McCann and Eddie Harris at the Montreaux Jazz festival 1969.

Les McCann and Eddie Harris at the Montreaux Jazz festival 1969.

Montreaux Jazz festival 1969. How far have we drifted from that moment? It’s hard to calculate. Watching this eight-and-a-half-minute video, in which Les McCann and Eddie Harris deliver the gospel with a timeless cool, it feels like we’re peeking at something very ancient and nearly forgotten.

Compared To What, even with a few heavy-handed lyrics, might be the best protest song ever written and one of the greatest performances you’ll ever see. It was composed by Gene McDaniels. Quite a surprise thereMcDaniels had hits in the early ‘60s with A Hundred Pounds Of Clay and Tower Of Strength. These two songs hardly point the way to this one, but like many blacks at this point in history, he couldn’t watch his TV and avoid becoming radicalized. This song was first recorded by Roberta Flack, who is better known for a brand of pop-soul far different from this, adding to the unlikeliness of this moment. Flack’s version is quite different, a little more laid back and funky. She later went to the top of the charts with another McDaniels song, Feel like Making Love.

McCann had worked with McDaniels before and knew exactly how this song should go. He and Harris were more than world class instrumentalists and brought a lot of blues, gospel and R&B feel to the stage that night. The thing that electrifies, though, is McMann’s voice. He sounds like a guy who has been passed by his last taxi and is ready for some respect. Not one word in this song sounds false. He knows the lyrics, because he has not only read, but lived them.

I love to lie and lie to love
I’m hangin’ on they push and shove
Possession is the motivation
That is hangin’ up the goddamn nation
Looks like we always end up in a rut
Everybody now
Tryin’ to make it real compared to what

Slaughterhouse is killin’ hogs
Twisted children killin’ frogs
Poor dumb rednecks rollin’ logs
Tired old ladies kissin’ dogs
I hate the human love of that stinking mutt
I can’t use it
Tryin’ to make it real compared to what

President he’s got his war
Folks don’t know just what it’s for
Nobody gives us rhyme or reason
Have one doubt they call it treason
We’re chicken feathers
All without one nut goddamn it
Tryin’ to make it real compared to what

Church on Sunday sleep and nod
Tryin’ to duck the wrath of God
Preachers fillin’ us with fright
They all tryin’ to teach us what they think is right
They really got to be some kind of nut
I can’t use it
Tryin’ to make it real compared to what

Where’s that bee and where’s that honey
Where’s my God and where’s my money
Unreal values a crass distortion
Unwed mothers need abortion
Kind of brings to mind old young King Tut
He did it now
Tried to make it real compared to what

Tryin’ to make it real compared to what

© Eugene McDaniels © LeftRev Music Co., Inc.

There are people who can use rough language in a song and those that can’t. I reside in the latter group, but I sure appreciate it when he yells “Goddamnit!” He is, at that point, venting on behalf of countless others. I love the frogs-dogs-logs-hogs rhyme in the second verse. It’s clever, funny and pushes the form a little bit. I won’t say anything else about the lyrics, nitpicking isn’t called for when something works this well.

The music is stunning. McCann is a very facile and fluid pianist. When he drops that quote from The Age Of Aquarius at the beginning, he wins my heart. There was very little harmony and understanding going on at the time in America, none to speak of in the poorer parts of town. It’s a full two minutes before the song kicks off and by that time, you have had a lesson in how to play it from him and Harris. As they shift keys, slowly climbing in little baby steps (half steps, really, to be musically correct), Harris comments at every stage with endless ease and hipness. The rest of the band is stellar and should be named. There’s Benny Bailey on trumpet, beaming beatifically at Harris when he’s not playing, Leroy Vinnegar on bass and Donald Dean on drums. I don’t know these names, but that’s only a reminder of massive talent pool jazz has provided us with.

In 1969, the Vietnam war was still raging and in cities across the U.S. whole neighborhoods had been torched, looted, destroyed. There was a lot of anger, much of it justifiable and this song captures it with with wit and chops aplenty. Sadly, no time stamp is attached to this song or performance and, as we keep revisiting these themes while failing to move beyond the sad state of affairs that inspired them, it’s sad to think it might have been written yesterday.

There are so many instances of wondrous alchemy in black music. This is one. A painful experience becomes a joyous celebration. How it’s done is a mystery, but why is understandable — sometimes it’s important to testify. I jokingly tell friends that white people have one role in the blues, giving it to black people. Yes, it’s a joke, but wouldn’t you like to see it stop pretty soon?

9 thoughts on “Sieger on Songs: “Compared To What””

  1. Anonymous says:

    John… great song, great work.

    You nailed it.

    Compared To What was real important to me when I was just getting into Jazz.

  2. Anonymous says:

    John, Love your take on this. Well written. Keep it coming.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Wonderful writing John. This recording is amazing.

  4. Anonymous says:

    Jeez, how many times did Ron Cuzner play this great, transformative number? How many times have I played it since?

  5. Anonymous says:

    John, I can’t believe it. You have finally written a critique that I agree with. “Compared To What” is a hard song to cubby hole. It is jazz, but also R&B, rock, funk, soul. I wish that you would have mentioned the lyric that ends with the mention of King Tut. That is the only line in the song that I never understood. Actually, the whole album is very good. “Cold Duck Time” follows “Compared To What” on the album, and is almost as cool.

  6. Anonymous says:

    The past and the future always hold hands in truly great music. I especially like the lines “Where’s that bee and where’s that honey/Where’s my God and where’s my money” which seem simple on the surface, but are quite profound in terms of everyone’s expectations and self-appraisals.

  7. Anonymous says:

    My wife and I saw Les perform this song and others in the early seventies at the Miller Jazz Oasis during Summer Fest. It was tremendous and we still talk about it with others who were there. The crowd was wild with beer and standing on every table.

  8. Anonymous says:

    Great article John. I thoughht you nailed the feel and the raw emotion of the song as it was played at Montreaux. “Swiss Movement” An outstanding performance and you describe it beautifully.

  9. Erin O'Reilly says:

    Thanks for your interpretation and insight, and thanks for sharing!

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