Friday, May 19, 2017

Tybee Island: When Summer Comes

For the past week we have watched wave after wave of puffy clouds sweep out of the southeast across our patch of Piedmont east of Atlanta. Today there was a big difference. The clouds brought some serious humidity with them, so much so that iced tea and the ceiling fan on the porch lost out to air conditioning and the Florida room. It was a sure sign that the trade winds have resumed for another year. It also reminded me of my years on the Georgia coast.

South Beach, Tybee Island, Georgia

There, the trades usually creep in softly most likely because humidity is ever present. They bring in the high cirrus and horsetails as well as the puffy fair-weather cumulus clouds that race over the beach so beautifully at sunrise. Later in the day, the clouds sweep inland twenty miles or so where they meet the uplifts of daily heating enhanced by the incentives of the onshore flow. Often, the result is a brisk and exciting line of thunderstorms sometimes extending from the city-state of Charleston to the Players Club fairways at Ponte Vedra Beach. In Savannah, the 3:00 pm summer showers are so predictable you can almost set a watch by them. When residents advised me an umbrella was a summer essential they weren't fooling. The city's collapsing thunderstorms can produce inches of rainfall that compete very nicely with frog strangling storms I've experienced on the Southern Plains.  

For eleven years I worked at the mouth of the Savannah River and watched the light show over Savannah arcing north and east toward Hilton Head Island. Occasionally storms moved to my location when the land breezes swept in early and pushed the activity to the southeast. Almost always it was a magnificent show that ended with warm, comfortable land breezes lasting well into the evening. After a few hours of stillness in the early morning hours a quiet southeasterly breeze soon embraced the island in salt-saturated humidity and a haze that turned golden with a full sunrise. The Boat-tailed Grackles skirmishing in the oleanders nearby served as a natural alarm clock during the eight years we lived on Tybee Island. I do miss the birds, but not their role as nature's alarm clock.

The trade wind days last into September to be replaced by weeks of spectacular warm, dry, cloudless days, cool nights and warm water lingering into November. Of course, the occasional tropical storm can interrupt the coastal idyll that is the norm on the sea islands. It is to be expected and respected by those who share the fragile boundary of life at the ocean's edge. In Atlanta we'll sometimes enjoy the remnant sea breezes that survive the 200 mile journey from the Atlantic. It is a welcome reminder of the joy of coastal living.


Photos and Illustrations:

Monday, May 15, 2017

Katherine Ann Porter: "I Was Always Restless, Always A Roving Spirit."

Katherine Anne Porter, an American writer, journalist and activist, was born on this day in 1890 in the west-central Texas town of Indian Creek. She led an often troubled yet exciting and eccentric life. By the age of forty she was an acclaimed and widely read author but it took another thirty years and the publication of her novel, Ship of Fools (1962), before she found financial security in her craft. 

She moved to Washington, D.C., in 1959 to finish the novel and while there developed an association with the University of Maryland in nearby College Park. In 1966 her great success with the novel as well as her receipt of the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction for her Collected Stories published in 1965 moved the university to award Porter an honorary degree of Doctor of Humane Letters. At the same time she announced her desire to donate a lifetime of treasured personal possessions and papers to the school to be housed in the Katherine Anne Porter Room, at that time located in McKeldin Library. Porter eventually moved the few miles from her Washington home to College Park where she could be even closer to her collection and the university's resources. 

Readers interested in Porter as a writer will enjoy this 1963 Paris Review interview conducted as part of their Art of Fiction series.

For a biographical sketch illustrating her place in American literary history go here.

On a personal note: Back in 1968 I spent about two weeks doing research in special collections on the top floor of McKeldin Library at Maryland. At the elevator and in the hallways I kept meeting this small, friendly, elderly, white-haired woman with a jovial smile that invited conversation. She seemed far too helpful to be a typical university librarian. Years later I read how much Porter loved the academic setting and interacting with students, learning about them, their studies, and their plans for the future. She was, in fact, a near constant visitor to her room on the library's fifth floor. It wasn't long before the realization hit that my "little old librarian" was none other than Katherine Anne Porter. Oh to have those two weeks back. This time I'd ask the questions.

There's an interesting back story to my discovery of Porter. It involves the Mexican Leftists of the 1920's, film making, fractal theory, systems of creative design, and the study of pandemics. In other words, it is a story best told over pitchers of craft beer enjoyed with live jazz, overstuffed club chairs, and soft light. Perhaps pure chance will give rise to the opportunity. Porter would like that.


Photos and Illustrations:

Title quotation, "Katherine Anne Porter, The Art of Fiction No. 29, Paris Review
Katherine Anne Porter,

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Mother's Day 2017

My mother was the fourth of seven children born to a farm couple whose deep lineage in the western Virginia mountains was lost to history before 1800. She and my dad met at a community dance in 1931 and married in the fall of 1933. By that time she had worked in a silk mill and as an etcher and designer in a glass factory. Later, she worked throughout World War II as a quality control specialist in a massive synthetic fabric plant that provided most of the materials for American parachutes.



With my arrival in 1946 she became a full time mother and homemaker, but still found time to enjoy her church family, reading, gardening, nature, frequent visits with her large family, and vacations at the summer place on Pattersons Creek. She was taken from this world far too early in 1976 after a long illness.




There's no question that I miss her and I'm sorry she did not live to enjoy her daughter-in-law and three grandchildren. Still, I feel her goodness has been with us helping to shape our family over these near forty years. Wouldn't have it any other way. She was a great mom, full of love, compassion, a wonderful sense of humor, and dedication to family and friends.

This is a repost from 2016.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Fred Astaire: Puttin' On The Ritz

Today is the birthday of the American entertainer, Fred Astaire (1899-1987)He was a dancer, actor, and singer who was the definition of "class" in everything he did. To say he set high standards for performance and personal conduct would be an understatement. In fact, the word "perfection" is an appropriate descriptor and it's a word we don't see or hear from Hollywood types these days. 

Although well-known as a dancer and actor, as an extraordinary singer Astaire introduced movie fans to many songs that would form the core of what we know today as the Great American Songbook.

Younger readers may be prone to ignore a post about some dancer who died a generation ago. Don't be one of them. Astaire's footwork--with and without a partner--will astound you. Here is a link to Astaire's Wikipedia entry for readers would like to learn more. If you simply want to enjoy the man in action rather than read about him, the following media should suffice:

That's entertainment!

Friday, May 5, 2017

Orson Welles: "I Started At The Top And Worked My Way Down."

Today marks the 102nd anniversary of the birth of Orson Welles. He has been missing from the world stage for over a generation now. The film and stage industries will always owe him immensely for what he brought to them and for the treatment his genius received at the hands of a Hollywood film cartel that resented outsiders.

Welles at 21 

There will never be another cinematic alchemist quite like Orson Welles. Interested in experiment and discovery in the performing arts, he was a remarkably talented actor, writer, director, producer, and more. Before he was thirty, he had terrified the nation with his realistic Halloween presentation of H.G. Wells's War of the Worlds (1938) and awed film audiences with Citizen Kane (1941). Welles was already a rather contentious artist when he achieved almost instant fame. His creativity and drive helped label him as a difficult, if not reckless, personality and he never endeared himself to the Hollywood in-crowd. As a result his film legacy was limited to a number of noteworthy productions and a long list of unfinished projects, and pipe dreams. The achievement of early fame and the fast and loose pursuit of art at almost any cost gave him a unique perspective on creativity and the entertainment industry. Although he appreciated his solitude he was never one to shy from the limelight and delighted in interviews and personal appearances where he could deliver and endless stream of anecdotes in his rich, unforgettable baritone voice.

For a taste of Welles as writer, director, and co-star, here is the famous "mirror scene" from The Lady of Shanghai (1948). Film critic David Kehr has called the film "the weirdest great movie ever made."

And here from his 1958 film, Touch of Evil, is the classic "crane shot" that makes an appearance in every college film class. 

In later life Welles became known as a great conversationalist. From 1974, here are the highlights from an interview with the British broadcaster, Sir Michael Parkinson. Welles talks about politics, bullfighting, his friendship with Ernest Hemingway, personal heroes (Winston Churchill, Gen. George S, Marshall), the power of criticism, the film industry, the stars (he thought James Cagney was far and away the best), his attitude toward his films, and future projects. It's a quick and entertaining 37 minutes and in my mind reveals much about the man who foreshadowed the independent film movement we know today.



Photos and Illustrations:
Welles portrait, Library of Congress (Carl Van Vechten, photographer, March 1, 1937)
Kehr Quotation:, review of The Lady of Shanghai

Title quote, Welles, from the film, F For Fake (1973)

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Commemorating Bing Crosby

The American entertainer, Bing Crosby (1903-1977), used his baritone voice in combination with new recording technology to develop a personal singing style that made him the nation's top entertainer for a generation beginning in the mid-1930's. Young people probably know little if anything about Crosby but I think he sits at the pinnacle of the 20th century American entertainment industry along with his close friend, Bob Hope. Crosby's contributions are well worth exploring if you enjoy popular culture, and are essential if you are a fan of the Great American Songbook. 

Bing Crosby 1930s.jpg
Crosby publicity photo from the 1930's

I remember him for four reasons. First is his recording of Irving Berlin's White Christmas. As long as people think about the security and warmth of home and family - and when will that stop - they will appreciate Crosby's recording. His version has sold the most copies - over 100,000,000 - of any song ever recorded (Guinness World Records). Second is the series of "Road picture" comedies he made with co-stars Bob Hope and Dorothy Lamour between 1940 and 1962. Third is his role in two films, Holiday Inn (1942) and its remake, White Christmas (1954). Crosby premiered the song, White Christmas, in 1942 to a receptive public already weary from the early months of World War II. [Holiday Inn is a better film than its lavish, colorful, but still enjoyable remake.] Fourth is his series of Christmas specials for television.

Crosby's career may have peaked about 50 years ago but his impact on the entertainment industry, as both a star and entrepreneur, is still with us. Just how much of a star was he? The 2014 Public Broadcasting Service program, American Masters, stated: 

Bing Crosby has sold close to one billion records, tapes, compact disks and digital downloads around the world. He may be the biggest recording artist of all time. Only The Beatles, Elvis Presley, and Michael Jackson can rival Bing's sales record. 

For the full story, I suggest readers visit his official site after reading the Wikipedia link above. 

It would be inappropriate to write about Crosby without providing readers with a few examples of his talent. Here is Swinging On A Star, a song he introduced in the 1944 film, Going My Way. The song was an Academy Award winner that year.

And here Crosby sings the lyrics of his good friend, Johnny Mercer, who as songwriter, singer, and entrepreneur, was another major presence shaping American entertainment in the 20th century.

May 3 marks the 114th anniversary of Crosby's birth.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Duke Ellington: America's 20th Century Music Man

This weekend we commemorate the birth (April 29) of an American who painted our world with music. And listening to the music of Edward Kennedy "Duke" Ellington (1899-1974) is akin to attending a lavish banquet featuring an array of fine courses, good wines and pleasant company. It is all so very satisfying. For the past thirty years, it's been a joy to grow in the understanding and appreciation of Ellington, the most prolific American composer in the 20th century, as one of the nation's most innovative musical entertainers. 

Ellington at the KFG Radio Studio, Aurora, Colorado, November 3, 1954

I discovered Ellington "late" most likely because I was immersed in his '40's sound at an early age and grew up thinking there was nothing new. He was born in Washington, DC in 1899 and spent his early career there while learning his trade. He wrote what he called "American music," a unique blend of his creative genius and elements of jazz, blues, classical, swing, bop, and popular song. Ellington appealed to a wide audience, but the appeal was compartmentalized and so broad that you would be hard pressed to find someone who liked everything he composed. I think the one element that unified his work was elegance. Early on, that came from his training as a pianist and was bolstered later by impressionistic classical influences. Also, much of that elegance came from his long-time association with the classically trained composer, arranger and pianist, Billy Strayhorn.

I took a special interest in Ellington when I began listening to the music of the British composer, Frederick Delius. Delius's music left me spellbound then. It was rich, melodic, and complex. Later I learned it was so much that it is considered some of the most difficult music to realize in the classical catalog. As early as the 1880's, his compositions incorporated motifs and melodies from the songs of ex-slaves working on the orange plantations he managed along the St. Johns River in Florida. Those musical themes would appear frequently throughout his career. Ellington had similar interests and it would be quite natural that he would appreciate Delius. In fact the appreciation and influence was so deep that Ellington eventually composed and recorded a tribute - In A Blue Summer Garden - to Delius.

Today we commemorate the legendary Duke Ellington on what would be his 118th birthday. Here are two of Ellington's finest moments. The first one is universally recognized and comes from the orchestra near its peak in the early 1940's. The second, from 1965, is lesser known but still full of all the magic the master and his orchestra possessed.

Smooth, high brow, faultless, sophisticated, American. All of these words describe the music that came out of the world of Ellington as a composer, performer, and conductor. For fifty years he defined jazz in his own way with his superbly talented jazz orchestra, surviving the onslaught of bebop, rhythm and blues, and rock and roll. His discography includes over seventy hit records out of hundreds of releases spanning seven decades. Album sales remain strong four decades after his death.

We end with a historic moment in jazz history: Duke Ellington and his orchestra at the 1956 Newport Jazz Festival. Jazz was changing from a dance band to smaller ensemble format and at the same time competing with the rise of rock and roll. Ellington decided to link two compositions with a free-wheeling sax solo. Many jazz historians agree that this was a landmark performance that not only gave the band concept renewed life but also gave jazz a new and expanded direction in sound and listener experience.