Whose Version of “The Sky is Crying” is the Best?

In 1959, blues musician Elmore James wrote and released the song “The Sky is Crying.” This piece quickly became a blues standard, celebrated for James’s soulful slide guitar and heartfelt vocals. The song’s melancholic message, conveyed through a deeply engaging tune, captures the essence of the blues and resonated with many listeners.

“The Sky is Crying” did not go unnoticed and was soon covered by several well-known musicians. Artists like Albert King, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Gary B.B. Coleman, and Eric Clapton each performed their own versions, adding their unique interpretations to this classic. For a notable female rendition, check out Susan Tedeschi of the Tedeschi Trucks Band who delivered a powerful performance at Royal Albert Hall, showcasing her intense and emotive vocal style.

In my opinion, the best rendition of “The Sky is Crying” is the version performed and recorded by blues musician and singer Jimmy Johnson (1928-2022). During the 1980s, I enjoyed seeing Johnson play live at B.L.U.E.S. on Halsted Street in Chicago. I was with my girlfriend, now wife of 33 years, and the experience left a lasting impression on me.

What sets Johnson’s version apart from the others? It’s difficult to explain precisely why it resonates with me so deeply. Among the thousands of blues songs I’ve listened to, Johnson’s interpretation uniquely conveys the imagery of a sky cracked open and raining. It evokes the mood of numerous film noirs I’ve seen and cold winter nights walking (or running) along deserted, wet streets.

I may also be drawn to this version because this was the first time I heard the song, long before I encountered Vaughan’s and Clapton’s versions. It’s like enjoying a bottle of wine at a restaurant with good company, only to find it tastes different when you purchase the same vintage to enjoy at home. The context in which I first experienced Johnson’s rendition undoubtedly shapes my perception.

The emphasis Johnson places on particular notes, and his interpretation of the lyrics, and the musical arrangement  all contribute to the song’s appeal. The lyrics are simple yet evocative, and his soulful delivery makes the rendition hauntingly beautiful and undeniably catchy.

Would Johnson’s rendition of the song have been as impactful to me if I hadn’t heard his before Vaughan’s or Clapton’s version? Perhaps. However, the first encounter with a piece of music can profoundly influence subsequent experiences.

This leads to several important insights:

The first probably concerns the role of Subjectivity in Art. A person’s first encounter with a piece of music can be profoundly influential, coloring all subsequent experiences. My first experience with Johnson’s version of “The Sky is Crying” set a benchmark for all others.

The second highlights the Role of Context.  Just as a wine might taste different at home than at a restaurant, the setting and circumstances of an individual’s first encounter with a piece of music can play a crucial role in its impact. Hearing Johnson live in an intimate blues club created a unique and unforgettable experience.

The third involves the Essence of Blues Music. This genre specializes in conveying deep emotions and personal stories. Johnson’s melancholic message and soulful delivery exemplify how blues can resonate with listeners on a deeply personal level, reflecting universal human experiences.

And finally, Nostalgia significantly shapes our preferences and perceptions. The first version of a song you hear often holds a special place, influencing how you perceive other renditions. This speaks to the lasting impact of initial impressions and the role of nostalgia in shaping our tastes.

All this to say, is that personal preferences are not always rational but often come from deep-seated memories that are often accompanied by emotional experiences. It’s important to be conscious of our biases, but we must avoid letting this awareness prevent us from making decisions and exploring new pursuits, ideas, and goals. Striking a balance between awareness and action allows us to grow and adapt without becoming paralyzed by self-reflection.

Enabling graffiti and street art in these crazy times?

Over the past fifty years, graffiti and street art have emerged as significant movements in public art and street culture, visible on all manner of surfaces throughout urban environments worldwide.

Predictably, this activity has elicited diverse responses from individuals and groups, ranging from admiration to condemnation.

Undoubtedly attention from different stakeholders influences the prevalence of graffiti and street art, and is effected by the local contexts in shaping this public art form.

Societal Responses and Effects

Reactions to graffiti and street art vary significantly. Many people, unless their property is affected, are indifferent often due to apathy or their preoccupation with other pressing concerns. On the other hand, reactions to graffiti and street art can influence its perception and prevalence, creating a recursive effect where attention can either amplify or diminish the activity. This awareness comes from diverse stakeholders, including admirers, detractors, and neutral observers.

Public Indifference vs. Active Engagement

Public indifference often stems from a lack of direct impact or preoccupation with the daily crush of  pressing obligations. Conversely, active engagement can come in various forms, including but not limited to such as public exhibitions, media coverage, community projects, scholarship, book publishing, social media, and legal graffiti walls.

Positive attention (that which attempts to legitimate graffiti and street art) is often done by practitioners, who may seek to elevate graffiti and street art as respected forms of artistic expression. Negative attention (that which seeks to control, deter, or eradicate graffiti and street art) is typically spearheaded by community activists, social entrepreneurs, ghost buffers, politicians, and law enforcement, aiming to maintain public order and aesthetics.

Awareness and Its Impact

A key question is whether the responses to graffiti and street art condones and/or enables it, leading to increased activity (perhaps even motivating its practitioners to experiment with new styles, techniques, placement, etc.). Awareness can indeed impact the prevalence and nature of graffiti and street art, as heightened visibility and discussion may encourage more graffiti writers and street artists to participate, while also drawing more efforts to control it. For instance, research shows that cities with legal graffiti walls often see a reduction in illegal tagging, as writers and street artists have designated spaces to work legally.

Stakeholders and Channels of Influence

Different individuals, organizations, and channels of communication operating in various urban locations throughout the world have varying levels of influence. In New York City, for example, because of its long history of urban graffiti, galleries may play a significant role in legitimizing graffiti or more likely street art as an art form. Meanwhile, in places like Nuart, Norway, or Aberdeen, Scotland, annual street art festivals might be more impactful in fostering community engagement and international recognition.

Final Thoughts

The impact of societal responses and the role of different stakeholders in either amplifying or mitigating graffiti and street art are complex. The recursive nature of attention highlights the need for a nuanced understanding of how public art evolves in response to societal engagement. Understanding the motivations behind different viewpoints and the specific impacts of local contexts can provide deeper insights into the future of graffiti and street art.

Photo credit

Title: Berlin-Flughafenkiez (2024)

Photographer: Jeffrey Ian Ross, Ph.D.

Embracing Familiarity Versus Taking a Chance on Something New

Every day, we make numerous choices—what to wear, what to eat, which route to take. But why do we lean towards the familiar, and what motivates us to try something new?

Driven by habit or a preference for spontaneity over deliberate planning, many of us navigate these decisions on autopilot. We often face a fundamental choice: accept or embrace the comfort of familiarity or venture into the unknown to explore new options.

Decision-Making Framework

Whether we stick with what we know or take a chance on something new depends on a series of conscious or unconscious cost-benefit decisions. This framework involves weighing the importance of the choice and assessing the alternatives and the stakes: What will we gain, and what might we lose?

Consider a low cost decision like what to eat for  breakfast. If you’re tired of the same cereal, you might decide to try a new brand. Problem temporarily solved. Alternatively, with ample time, disposable income, motivation, and curiosity, you might scour your neighborhood, town or city for the perfect breakfast spot.

Keep in mind that many people like variety. Although you may love eating steak, shrimp cocktail or sushi, over time a steady diet of these food items is probably going to wear thin.

Menu fatigue and culinary monotony

For example, many people who visit vacation resorts or go on cruises and opt for the all-inclusive package, which allows them to eat at any of the onboard or on-site restaurants as much as they want, eventually get bored with the food offered. This phenomenon, known as “menu fatigue” or “culinary monotony,” occurs when the variety and excitement of the food options diminish over time, leading to a sense of boredom or dissatisfaction with the meals. This speaks to the human need for variety and our constant search for novelty.

The “Treated Like Royalty” Approach

Imagine, however, your favorite dining establishment where not only are you familiar with the menu, waiters, and perhaps the owner, but you are generally happy with the food they prepare and serve. The personnel greet you by your name, you are taken to your favorite table, and the sommelier always has the perfect wine recommendation. The restaurant may even offer special perks or personalized service, such as wine pairings, or complimentary desserts, This situation provides a relatively high level of comfort, predictability and security in knowing what to expect. However, over time, this consistency can also lead to boredom. the overall experience may become stale.

The Explorer’s Approach

Conversely, embracing the role of an explorer means a willingness to step out of one’s comfort zone and deal with uncertainty. Explorers seek new experiences, whether it’s trying a different restaurant, cuisine, visiting a new vacation spot, starting an interesting project, or collaborating with unfamiliar colleagues. This approach may lead to unexpected discoveries and opportunities for emotional, experiential, and intellectual growth. However, it also comes with inherent risks—disappointment, mistrust, failure, and occasional setbacks.

Navigating the Dichotomy

Both approaches have merits and drawbacks. Being treated like royalty offers security and personalized service but can eventually lead to complacency and boredom. On the other hand, exploration brings novelty and excitement, but it also requires tolerance for uncertainty and occasional frustration.

Striking a balance

Ultimately, the choice between settling for the same old same old (and even being treated like royalty) and embracing exploration is personal and situational. Limited resources like time, money, competing obligations and preferences  might make us lean towards familiar experiences. At times, we crave the comfort of predictability; at others, we seek the thrill of adventure. Instead of adhering strictly to one approach, finding a balance between the two can enrich our lives. Embrace the richness of both familiarity and exploration, and consider a rational process for high-stakes decisions.

Image credit

Charlie Chaplin from the movie “The Circus” (1928)