12.22-OCCAPELLA (Van Dyke Parks)

Van Dyke Parks


There's music in the streets.
There's music everywhere.
A little old soul beat--
There's dancing everywhere.
I would tell the whole world
Tell them if I could
To add a little song into each life
It's finger snapping good.

        Pardon me, but you could use it.
        We're gonna make a little music.
        You got soul now don't you lose it.
        We're gonna make a little music.
        Everything's gonna be mellow
        People just a singin occapella


[Repeat verse]

        [Repeat chorus]


On his sophomore album, Van Dyke Parks quit his earlier compositions of orchestral psychedelia and instead arranged an album fairly well united in theme around interpreting Calypso music of Trinidad and Tobago circa the 1930s and 1940s. He called the album Discover America, which would lead one to expect more Americana such as he had worked on with Brian Wilson for SMiLE. But in fact, the audience is being asked to “discover America” through the eyes of its neighbors in the Caribbean Islands. Many of the songs reflect an America before World War II that was better known in the Islands through movies and radio than through personal experience. It was an oddball project twice and three times removed from its subject; thus again, as he had in Song Cycle, VDP participated in a postmodern aesthetic. A somewhat similarly themed album titled Good Old Boys, about Louisiana in the 1930s, by Van Dyke Park’s Los Angeles friend Randy Newman, was released in September 1974, but Good Old Boys is far more directly historical than cultural.

Neither the Newman nor the Van Dyke Parks album are particularly psychedelic in their overall presentation. Good Old Boys is ragtime; Discover America is steel band music. Concept albums had by this time been passed to progressive music. By this time, too, what would come to be known as “World Music” had grown beyond the ragas of George Harrison and Donovan, beyond the North African explorations of the Incredible String Band and Brian Jones, and having moved beyond Paul Simon’s El Condor Pasa (released in September 1970), it could no longer be claimed as a psychedelic phenomenon. Bob Marley and the Wailers' Catch a Fire would be released in April 1973, and voice directly to America a Caribbean Black consciousness that Van Dyke Parks could only allude to. Thus Discover America came at a liminal moment.

I include Occapella in this psychedelic collection not because of its introduction of new instruments and musical forms, nor because of its concept. Though I’m influenced by my estimation that Song Cycle and SMiLE are great psychedelia, and therefore feel Van Dyke Parks was approaching Discover America with some psychedelic bias, I particularly chose Occapella because of its quirky juxtapositions. Not only was Occapella first written and performed by New Orleans musicians in 1971 (Allen Toussaint and Lee Dorsey, respectively), thus implying that the city is part of the Caribbean cultural rim (“America’s third world city” we used to call it), but its interpretation includes an overlay of singers that sound as if they came out of the Ziegfield Follies. Only in a hallucinogenic universe do these sounds—Calypso, New Orleans funk, and 1930s musicals go together. It is because of the audacious playfulness of this combination that I think of Occapella as psychedelic.