Friday, November 29, 2013

Billy Strayhorn: The Man Behind So Much Music

For jazz, pop and Great American Songbook enthusiasts today marks another important birthday, that of Billy Strayhorn. He was the genius songwriter and arranger behind many of Duke Ellington's hits if not his fame. I have written about Strayhorn in a few posts over the years but never devoted one to him until today when I found Scott Johnson's Power Line tribute, Lush Life, just could not be ignored. Do check it out and make a note of his mention of Terry Teachout's new biography of Duke Ellington, a study that explores the Ellington-Strayhorn partnership at length.

As Johnson notes, the song, Lush Life has many fine interpretations. He makes mention of my favorite version. And thanks to You Tube, readers can listen to the Johnny Hartman-John Coltrane interpretation and make their own decision.

To me, it's the best. Hartman is superb here. No equal. Add Coltrane and we have even greater music history.

C.S. Lewis: A Christian Anchor With Heart Afire

A few days ago, November 22, we noted the death of C.S. Lewis, the most beloved Christian writer of the 20th century. Today marks the 115th anniversary of his birth (1898). I could easily write a few paragraphs and suggest some links for further study of this remarkable scholar. Instead, I ask that you set aside time for this brief documentary released by several student and faculty members at Asbury University (Lexington, Kentucky) earlier this year. It is a fine exploration of his reason, imagination, and journey to faith in Christ.


In the end there is something about taking measure of Lewis's significance that remains beyond our grasp. In the end the only way to fully appreciate the legacy he left is to pick up his books and open the door to the great adventure he left for us inside of them.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

An Old Bay Ranger Thanksgiving

All of us have heard the story about the courage it took for the first troglodyte to slurp into a raw oyster. In all seriousness, I must give the guy credit, if reason was a part of his consciousness. The presentation hasn't changed much over time, so the aversion persists; however, some of us have courageously overcome it. I suppose growing up near the food source has made a difference.

For those who remember the Chesapeake Bay as a great seafood factory, oysters were a plentiful, essential food. My family enjoyed them in a variety of ways, but my favorites were always fried oysters and oyster stuffing. In Maryland, the oyster stuffing was reserved for Thanksgiving Dinner.

In 1976, I left the Chesapeake in a driving January snowstorm and, some years later, married into a family with other Thanksgiving traditions. It has been a losing battle ever since, with a lonely sage dressing gracing our holiday table for most of the past 31 Thanksgivings. This year marks another concession as we will have guests, and there will be dressing options, including oysters. I could veer my thoughts toward the question, "Is it stuffing or dressing?" or "Is it essential to stuff in order to call it stuffing?", but I will not.
The Maryland Department of Agriculture's Seafood Marketing Program came to my rescue with this recipe as my mother's is long lost. 

The rest of the menu? It's a lot like this one served on the U.S.S. Kentucky on this holiday in 1907:

And the day wouldn't be right without a prayer of thanks and food music:

From the good aromas in the kitchen to the savory feast on the table, the Old Tybee Ranger household wishes you and yours a most happy Thanksgiving

Menu for U.S.S. Kentucky's Thanksgiving Day 1907 courtesy of the Navy Department Library, Washington. Here's more of their holiday menu collection. We're going to eat almost as good as the ship; no cigars and cigarettes this year.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Happy Birthday, Mr. Cool

One of the most significant books in the historiography of the South, Ulrich Bonnell Phillips's Life and Labor in the Old South, begins with these words: 

Let us begin by discussing the weather for that has been the chief agency in making the South distinctive. ... The summers are not merely long but bakingly hot, with  temperatures ranging rather steadily in the eighties and nineties of the Fahrenheit scale.

The early 20th century single story Southern home, with its high-roof, wrap-around porch, and traditional "dog trot" breezeway, is a vernacular response to that baking heat. Homes of this type can still be found throughout the South, in fact, contemporary construction in the region often incorporates its features in vestigial form. But what has made the South so popular these days? I believes in particular the natural climate remains a significant draw, especially now that the social and political climate of the New South welcomes all Americans. Still, Southerners must deal with the heat. And that brings us to the significance of November 26.

On this day in 1876, a son, Willis H. Carrier, was born into an old New England family. By the turn of the century, Carrier developed a system of conditioning air in a stiflingly hot and humid Brooklyn printing plant. The new environment ensured stability in the paper and the perfect alignment of four-color printing. It was soon a huge success in several industries. By the 1920s, air conditioning became popular in retail trade and entertainment, especially the movie theater. It was a small jump from commercial systems to home systems, and by the 1930s, air conditioning began a slow but steady increase in usage until the post World War II era when it boomed. Carrier's application would have far reaching impacts on the American experience.

From an environmental perspective, air conditioning made the South livable year round. One could work hard outside on a mid-summer Georgia day and find comfort in an air conditioned break at work and a cool, comfortable supper and evening at home. Today, we take this comfort for granted across the nation giving it attention only when it's time to change the filter or the compressor dies.

If you call the South "home," take a moment today to thank Willis for his contribution, an invention you're going to appreciate perhaps as early as March of 2014 when that heat begins its sure increase to "bakingly" unbearable levels in the Southern summer.

For more information on the impact of air conditioning check out these sites:

N.B. Life and Labor in the Old South was written by Ulrich Bonnell Phillips (1877-1934) in 1929.Phillips reflects not only the biases one could expect of a Southern historian of the time, but the original scholarship one would expect of the finest historians of our time. If readers seek out fine writing and a curiosity about ideas that have shaped our present-day interpretation of the American South, slavery and its legacy, and race as a primary theme in American history, I suggest they begin with U. B. Phillips.

This is an edited version of an earlier post.

Friday, November 22, 2013

C.S. Lewis and Aldous Huxley: Fifty Years Ago Today

It is common knowledge that President John Kennedy died on this day. It is not well known that we lost three internationally famous men within seventy minutes that day, the others being C.S. Lewis and Aldous Huxley.  Although they could hardly come from three more distinct and disparate perspectives, all three of them shared deep concerns about the future of the planet and its inhabitants.

Lewis was one of the last century's leading scholars, novelists, and Christian apologists. Most readers likely know his name, but many may not be familiar with the depth and breadth of his literary accomplishments. From this writer's perspective, if you cannot enjoy a Lewis book you simply haven't read enough of his work. I was introduced to the author through a gift. My best friend gave me a copy of The Four Loves as medication for some perplexing developments in a relationship with Marti, the girl of my dreams at the time. Eventually, Marti moved on with a professor of English at UNC Chapel Hill. I was left with a life-long literary relationship with Lewis. I trust Marti found similar satisfaction with the prof.

Although Lewis was far from reclusive, he appreciated his privacy. For that reason, we have few interviews and recordings of the man. Fortunately, we do have a portrayal that gives some insight into what made him a beloved writer:

Aldous Huxley shared the life of the mind with Lewis but little else outside of his English background and writing skills. A humanist and lifelong pacifist, Huxley was a prolific writer best known for his novels and essays. Among the novels is Brave New World, a dystopic world view written in 1931 as a parody of utopian novels popular earlier in the century. From a spiritual perspective, he was an agnostic who maintained a strong interest in mysticism, universalism, and Vedanta. Later in his life, Huxley would be remembered for his experiments with hallucinogenic drugs and his accounts thereof.  Here he is in a 1958 television interview discussing threats to freedom in the United States:

Both Lewis and Huxley cast long intellectual shadows across the globe and Kennedy left us with "a fleeting wisp of glory" that follows us to this day.  I can enjoy what the three of them have brought to us, but for me I'm most likely to follow this advice from Lewis:

Some day you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again.

John F. Kennedy: Fifty Years Ago Today

I was seventeen years old when Kennedy died. His passing marked the end of what we have come to call the American Camelot. Obviously, we need to take time to reflect on the great tragedy that occurred on this date. But I would rather move back a thousand days to the first day of his presidency where he spoke of a new vision and hope for the United States and the world. This is what he said:

Vice President Johnson, Mr. Speaker, Mr. Chief Justice, President Eisenhower, Vice President Nixon, President Truman, reverend clergy, fellow citizens, we observe today not a victory of party, but a celebration of freedom--symbolizing an end, as well as a beginning--signifying renewal, as well as change. For I have sworn before you and Almighty God the same solemn oath our forebears  prescribed nearly a century and three quarters ago.
The world is very different now. For man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty and all forms of human life. And yet the same revolutionary beliefs for which our forebears fought are still at issue around the globe--the belief that the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state, but from the hand of God.
We dare not forget today that we are the heirs of that first revolution. Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans--born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage--and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this Nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world.
Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.
This much we pledge--and more.
To those old allies whose cultural and spiritual origins we share, we pledge the loyalty of faithful friends. United, there is little we cannot do in a host of cooperative ventures. Divided, there is little we can do--for we dare not meet a powerful challenge at odds and split asunder.
To those new states whom we welcome to the ranks of the free, we pledge our word that one form of colonial control shall not have passed away merely to be replaced by a far more iron tyranny. We shall not always expect to find them supporting our view. But we shall always hope to find them strongly supporting their own freedom--and to remember that, in the past, those who foolishly sought power by riding the back of the tiger ended up inside.
To those peoples in the huts and villages across the globe struggling to break the bonds of mass misery, we pledge our best efforts to help them help themselves, for whatever period is required--not because the Communists may be doing it, not because we seek their votes, but because it is right. If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich.
To our sister republics south of our border, we offer a special pledge--to convert our good words into good deeds--in a new alliance for progress--to assist free men and free governments in casting off the chains of poverty. But this peaceful revolution of hope cannot become the prey of hostile powers. Let all our neighbors know that we shall join with them to oppose aggression or subversion anywhere in the Americas. And let every other power know that this Hemisphere intends to remain the master of its own house.
To that world assembly of sovereign states, the United Nations, our last best hope in an age where the instruments of war have far outpaced the instruments of peace, we renew our pledge of support--to prevent it from becoming merely a forum for invective--to strengthen its shield of the new and the weak--and to enlarge the area in which its writ may run.
Finally, to those nations who would make themselves our adversary, we offer not a pledge but a request: that both sides begin anew the quest for peace, before the dark powers of destruction unleashed by science engulf all humanity in planned or accidental self-destruction.
We dare not tempt them with weakness. For only when our arms are sufficient beyond doubt can we be certain beyond doubt that they will never be employed.
But neither can two great and powerful groups of nations take comfort from our present course--both sides overburdened by the cost of modern weapons, both rightly alarmed by the steady spread of the deadly atom, yet both racing to alter that uncertain balance of terror that stays the hand of mankind's final war.
So let us begin anew--remembering on both sides that civility is not a sign of weakness, and sincerity is always subject to proof. Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate.
Let both sides explore what problems unite us instead of belaboring those problems which divide us.
Let both sides, for the first time, formulate serious and precise proposals for the inspection and control of arms--and bring the absolute power to destroy other nations under the absolute control of all nations.
Let both sides seek to invoke the wonders of science instead of its terrors. Together let us explore the stars, conquer the deserts, eradicate disease, tap the ocean depths, and encourage the arts and commerce.
Let both sides unite to heed in all corners of the earth the command of Isaiah--to "undo the heavy burdens ... and to let the oppressed go free."
And if a beachhead of cooperation may push back the jungle of suspicion, let both sides join in creating a new endeavor, not a new balance of power, but a new world of law, where the strong are just and the weak secure and the peace preserved.
All this will not be finished in the first 100 days. Nor will it be finished in the first 1,000 days, nor in the life of this Administration, nor even perhaps in our lifetime on this planet. But let us begin.
In your hands, my fellow citizens, more than in mine, will rest the final success or failure of our course. Since this country was founded, each generation of Americans has been summoned to give testimony to its national loyalty. The graves of young Americans who answered the call to service surround the globe.
Now the trumpet summons us again--not as a call to bear arms, though arms we need; not as a call to battle, though embattled we are--but a call to bear the burden of a long twilight struggle, year in and year out, "rejoicing in hope, patient in tribulation"--a struggle against the common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease, and war itself.
Can we forge against these enemies a grand and global alliance, North and South, East and West, that can assure a more fruitful life for all mankind? Will you join in that historic effort?
In the long history of the world, only a few generations have been granted the role of defending freedom in its hour of maximum danger. I do not shrink from this responsibility--I welcome it. I do not believe that any of us would exchange places with any other people or any other generation. The energy, the faith, the devotion which we bring to this endeavor will light our country and all who serve it--and the glow from that fire can truly light the world.
And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you--ask what you can do for your country.
My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.
Finally, whether you are citizens of America or citizens of the world, ask of us the same high standards of strength and sacrifice which we ask of you. With a good conscience our only sure reward, with history the final judge of our deeds, let us go forth to lead the land we love, asking His blessing and His help, but knowing that here on earth God's work must truly be our own.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Johnny Mercer: A Birthday For A Solid Music Master

Mercer Statue on Ellis Square          Savannah, Georgia

November 18, marks the 104th anniversary of the birth of John Herndon Mercer (1909-1976). For fans of the Great American Songbook, this is a significant event. Mercer won four Academy Awards for Best Original Song and had another twelve nominations. Indeed he was quite a music master.

Born into wealth in Savannah, Mercer often recounted how his Aunt Hattie hummed to him in his crib and "he hummed right back at her." It was the beginning of a musical career that would produce more than 1500 published songs, a few thousand more unpublished songs and song fragments, scores of poems and prose pieces, an unfinished autobiography, and a major chapter in the history of American music in the twentieth century.

In Mercer's Savannah, a rich Southern culture blended with a diverse and exciting port city. He spent his childhood fascinated by train and ship whistles, and the sounds and rhythms drifting from the black churches around town. He was thrilled by the chance to slip away from his mother's watchful eye and visit the black business district on West Broad Street - now MLK Boulevard - where he listened to race records. The family's summer home on the Vernon River, about ten miles south of town, immersed him in the natural world of Georgia's tidal creeks and salt marshes. By his teen years, he loved hearing the dance and jazz bands every summer at the famous Tybrisa Pavilion on nearby Tybee Island.  He also began writing songs and skits for his student productions at Woodberry Forest School in Virginia.

When the family business failed in the late '20s, any hope of returning to Woodberry or attending college dimmed. He grew bored at home and shipped off to New York to become a Broadway performer. The demand for singers was weak, but he began tinkering with lyric writing when he wasn't singing or working odd jobs. Here is his first published song lyric:

Lyrics are meant to be heard, but it's not always easy to appreciate them without the poetry on the page, so here is a sample of that early genius as work:

Out of Breath (1930)

lyrics by Johnny Mercer
music by Everette Miller

Mine's a hopeless case,
But there's one saving grace,
Anyone would feel as I do;
Out of breath and scared to death of you.
Love was first divined,
Then explored and defined,
Still the old sensation is new;
Out of breath and scared to death of you.
It takes all the strength that I can call to my command,
To hold your hand.
I would speak at length
About the love that should be made,
But I'm afraid.
Hercules and such
Never bothered me much,
All you have to do is say "Boo!"
Out of breath and scared to death of you.

Yes, it's pretty simple, comic stuff, but it had flashes of wordplay and bouncy rhythm. It was perfect for the Garrick Gaieties revue of 1930. 

One of the chorus girls left Johnny out of breath as well. Her name was Ginger Meehan and she was Bing Crosby's squeeze at the time. Eventually, Mercer won her over and they married in 1931 after Johnny secured a staff job writing lyrics. The following year, his persistent work paid off when he partnered with Hoagy Carmichael, already well-known for his sensational song, Stardust. After several months, the collaboration produced Lazybones, Mercer's first hit song. It was full of black dialect and all the stereotypical perceptions of the day. 

By the time Lazybones became popular, the New York music industry was in full transition thanks, in part, to the rapidly growing film industry in California. Films needed songs and with his prospects cooling in New York, Mercer traveled to Hollywood where he met his old friend, Bing Crosby, who had already made the transition to the West. The early years were a challenge for Mercer, but that changed in 1936. That year, Crosby offered to sing one of Mercer's songs in the film, Rhythm on the Range.  The film wasn't much. The song was a 

runaway hit:


I'm An Old Cowhand

words and music by Johnny Mercer

I'm and old cowhand
From the Rio Grande,
But my legs ain't bowed
And my cheeks ain't tanned.
I'm a cowboy who never saw a cow,
Never roped a steer 'cause I don't know how,
And I sure ain't fixin' to start in now.
Yippy I O Ki Ay,
Yippy I O Ki Ay.

. . .

And I learned to ride
'Fore I learned to stand,
I'm a ridin' fool who is up to date,
I know ev'ry trail in the Lone Star State,
'Cause I ride the range in a Ford V-Eight

. . .

And I come to town
Just to hear the band,
I know all the songs that the cowboys know,
'Bout the big corral where the doagies go,
'Cause I learned them all on the radio.

. . .

Where the West is wild
'Round the borderland,
Where the buffalo roam around the Zoo,
And the Indians make you a rug or two,
And the old Bar X is a Bar B Q.
Yippy I O Ki Ay,
Yippy I O Ki Ay.

I think Mercer came into perfect form with this one. With a little help from his pal, Crosby, his name became associated with songwriting among Hollywood's shakers and makers.  In these early years, h
e struggled through a few flop movies, but he learned the ins and outs of Hollywood, and continued writing poetry to music. 

Mercer went on to great fame after I'm An Old Cowhand.  Movies, records, and radio brought his folksy, common sense, "free and easy, that's my style" personality into homes across America and made him a beloved next door neighbor. Mercer could be serious with a lyric, but he was equally capable of making us laugh at our selves and our circumstances. Here are two outstanding examples:

I'd say almost every American can hum the title line of Hooray for Hollywood, but it's the rest of lyric that really sparkles. Here's the song as it appeared in Busby Berkeley's 1937 blockbuster , Hollywood Hotel. If you don't want to miss any words, the lyric is below.

Hooray For Hollywood

words by Johnny Mercer
music by Richard A. Whiting

Hooray for Hollywood!
That screwy bally hooey Hollywood,
Where any office boy or young mechanic
Can be a panic,
With just a good looking pan,
And any bar maid
Can be a star maid,
If she dances with or without a fan,

Hooray for Hollywood!
Where you're terrific if you are even good,
Where anyone at all from Shirley Temple
To Aimee Semple
Is equally understood,
Go out and try your luck,
You might be Donald Duck!
Hooray for Hollywood!

Hooray for Hollywood!
That phoney super Coney Hollywood,
They come from Chilicothes and Paducahs
With their bazookas
To get their names up in lights,
All armed with photos from local rotos,
With their hair in ribbons and legs in tights,

Hooray for Hollywood!
You may be homely in your neighborhood,
But if you think that you can be an actor,
See Mister Factor,
He'd make a monkey look good.
Within a half an hour,
You'll look like Tyrone Power!
Hooray for Hollywood!

Over three decades Mercer wrote the lyrics to hundreds of songs, collaborating with the country's top music writers, including Harold Arlen, Bernie Hannigan, Hoagy Carmichael, Harry Warren, Gene DePaul, Henry Mancini, Jerome Kern, Rube Bloom, and Matty Malneck. In 1971, Mercer appeared in what he called a "parlor evening" performance as part of the 92nd Street Y's Lyrics and Lyricists Series. At the end of the program, Mercer delivered an unforgettable medley of his "bread and butter" songs. I'd say most songwriters and performers would be pleased to have five songs in such a list. Mercer had twenty-nine. Regardless of your age and interest in popular music, you may be surprised at how many of these songs you recognize:

Lazybones (1933), music by Hoagy Carmichael

Goody, Goody (1936), music by Marty Malneck

Too Marvelous For Words (1937), music by Richard A. Whiting

Jeepers Creepers (1938), music by Harry Warren

Satin Doll (1958), written with Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn

You Must Have Been A Beautiful Baby (1938), music by Harry Warren

That Old Black Magic (1943), music by Harold Arlen

Accentuate the Positive (1944) music by Harold Arlen

Fools Rush In (1940), music by Rube Bloom

I Remember You (1942), music by Victor Schertzinger

Day In - Day Out (1939), music by Rube Bloom

Dearly Beloved (1942), music by Jerome Kern

Come Rain or Come Shine (1946), music by Harold Arlen

Tangerine (1942), music by Victor Schertzinger

Hooray For Hollywood (1938), music by Richard A. Whiting

Laura (1945), music by David Raksin

Dream (1944), words and music by Johnny Mercer

On the Atcheson, Topeka and the Santa Fe (1946, Academy Award for Best Music, Original Song), music by Harry Warren

Something's Gotta Give (1954), words and music by Johnny Mercer

One For My Baby (1943), music by Harold Arlen

In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening (1951, Academy Award for Best Music, Oroginal Song), music by Hoagy Carmichael

Skylark (1941), music by Hoagy Carmichael

Autumn Leaves (1950), music by Joseph Kosma

I Wanna Be Around (1962), words and music by Johnny Mercer and Sadie Vimmerstedt

Blues in the Night (1941), music by Harold Arlen

Charade (1963), music by Henry Mancini

Summer Wind (1965), music by Henry Mayer

Moon River (1961, Academy Award for Best Music, Original Song), music by Henry Mancini

Days of Wine and Roses (1962, Academy Award for Best Music, Original Song), music by Henry Mancini

That's plenty of "bread and butter" on one man's plate, but we need to keep in mind that he had seven more songs nominated for an Academy Award that never made it into the medley. What a talent.  

If you're curious to learn even more about Mercer, your minimal immersion  requires three books, one website, and one audio disk.


A good starting point is, Johnny Mercer: The Life, Times and Song Lyrics of Our Huckleberry Friend. It was collected and edited by television producer Bob Bach and Ginger Mercer, Johnny's widow. There's nothing scholarly about it. It is simply a nostalgic look at Mercer's career through photos, letters, notes, sheet music covers, lyrics, and tributes. Photos are always worth their thousand words, and the book gives readers the chance to study the lyrics to almost 100 Mercer songs. One highlight is the publication of the texts of four Christmas greeting cards. In two of them, Johnny worked his lyrical magic using all the surnames on his card list. The book concludes with incomplete lists of his published songs and motion picture contributions.

Philip Furia takes a more scholarly approach to Mercer in his book, Skylark: The Life and Times of Johnny Mercer. This book is a well-balanced treatment of a life characterized by great success as well as trouble and torment. It is well known that Mercer could be not only a gentleman and generous friend when sober, but also a vicious drunk who frequently sent roses to his victims the day after his verbal assaults. But Furia is at his best analyzing the process of songwriting, devoting many pages to a single song, and detailing the origin and evolution of the lyric. If you want to skip the nostalgia and go straight to reading a very good biography, Furia has written your book.

Gene Lees was a music biographer, lyricist and jazz historian who was a personal friend of Mercer's beginning around 1950. He brings more of a Hollywood insider perspective to the Mercer story, and does so with an entertaining, informal style. If this is what you look for in a biography, then Portrait of Johnny: The Life and Times of John Herndon Mercer is your book. The book doesn't have Furia's tight organization, but it is full of personal recollections and opinions from scores of close friends and associates. The high point for me is the author's extensive use of direct quotes from Mercer's unpublished autobiography. On the other hand, Lees gives his readers almost too much detail on Ginger Mercer as the terror in her family's life. Some readers may say the book is more of a layman's psychological analysis than a true biography. Regardless, it provides a nice balance to Furia's book in spite of the duplication.


If you want to use the Internet as a source of information on Johnny Mercer, there is no better site than the Johnny Mercer Foundation/Educational Archives. The home page may look a bit plain, but don't let that fool you; the links open windows to hundreds of pages of media.


You can find scores of audio CDs featuring the songwriting and singing talent of Johnny Mercer. For me there is one essential CD and an "honorable mention." The essential is An Evening With Johnny Mercer, the 92nd Street Y Lyrics and Lyricists program Mercer did in 1971. I think it's a great hour to spend with the man and his music.

The "honorable mention" is Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Johnny Mercer Songbook. Fitzgerald's brilliant eight-album Songbook Series was recorded between 1956 and 1964, at the height of her vocal quality. The Mercer tribute is included here because of her near-perfect diction - you do want to hear the words - the fact that Mercer was the only lyricist honored in the Songbook Series.

I have provided you with some details about Mercer's life, his contribution to American popular music, and best of all, several examples of his words and music. In addition, for those interested in learning more about him, I listed several sources in a variety of formats. There's plenty more to know. If you do pick up a book or check out a website, you'll find that Mercer was both the source of the idea and a founding member of Capitol Records. You'll also read that he was extraordinarily generous. You'll also find out that, almost throughout his life, the fame and fortune came at great personal cost. That seems to be the rule. Still, Mercer's gap-toothed smile and performance talent brought pleasure to millions of Americans during the mid-century. 

It has now been more than a generation since Mercer's death in 1976. He may be gone, but that mountain of music and the ideas he left behind are very much alive and well. Mercer stays with Great American Songbook and jazz enthusiasts through the singers and organizations that keep his music and legacy alive. Here is a list of past and present singers 


Margaret Whiting (Long associated with Mercer as a performer and family friend, she was a most significant individual promoter of Mercer's music late in her life.) 

Frank Sinatra

Mel Torme (extensive recordings from the Mercer catalog, but no single album)

Sylvia Syms

Nancy LaMott (outstanding interpretation; her untimely death was a great loss to the music world))

Susannah McCorkle

Diana Krall (extensive recordings from the catalog, but - very sadly - no single album)

Bobby Darin (a landmark album recorded with Mercer; it's a classic)

Maxine Sullivan (simply swinging jazz from a great vocalist)
Shari Lynn

Jenny Ferris

Blossom Dearie (close associate of Mercer in his last years who kept his memory and music very much alive until hear death in 2009)


The Johnny Mercer Foundation/Educational Archives I mentioned this site earlier. Just about everything you want to know will be here.

The Johnny Mercer Special Collection, Georgia State University This university in downtown Atlanta houses most of Mercer's personal papers and memorabilia. They also maintain a well-done exhibit room on "the bard from Savannah."

Songwriters Hall of Fame Mercer was a co-founder of this organization in 1969

That just about covers my Mercer tribute for 2013. I want to end with three favorite Mercer lyrics that have become embedded in our culture as Great American songs and jazz standards over their sixty years. They are:

Midnight Sun

Lionel Hampton and Sonny Burke wrote Midnight Sun in 1954 as an instrumental and had a big hit with it. The story goes that Mercer heard the tune on the freeway heading to his office. By the time he got there, he had the lyric. Ella Fitzgerald has "owned" this song for fifty years.

Your lips were like a red and ruby chalice warmer than the summer night
The clouds were like an alabaster palace rising to a snowy height
Each star its own aurora borealis suddenly you held me tight
I could see the midnight sun.

Early Autumn

Early Autumn was composed in 1949 by Ralph Burns and Woody Herman. 

When an early autumn walks the land and chills the breeze
And touches with her hand the summer trees,
Perhaps you'll understand what memories I own.
There's a dance pavilion in the rain all shuttered down,
A winding lane all russet brown
A frosty window pane shows me a town grown lonely.


In 1944, the film, Laura, appeared with a theme song composed by David Raskin. The next year Mercer added the haunting lyrics.

Laura is the face in the misty lights,
Footsteps that you hear down the hall.
The laugh that floats on a summer night
That you can never quite recall.

And you see Laura on the train that is passing through,
Those eyes how familiar they seem.
She gave your very first kiss to you
That was Laura but she's only a dream.

If you do pick up a book or check out a website, you'll find that Mercer was quite a diverse personality. As a lyricist, composer, performer, businessman, and philanthropist, he shaped much of the American popular music industry for forty years, beginning in the mid 1930s.   You'll also find that, almost throughout his life, the fame and fortune came at great personal cost. That seems to be the rule. Still, Mercer's gap-toothed smile and performance talent brought pleasure to millions of Americans during the mid-century. He's still with us in so many ways. 

So happy birthday, Johnny. You're just about too marvelous for words. 

References: Books by Bach and Mercer, Furia, and Lees; Johnny Mercer Foundation; Georgia State University Archives, and The Complete Lyrics of Johnny Mercer, by Kimball, Day. Kreuger and Davis.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Veterans Day 2013

My Great Uncle George, standing on the left with his fire brigade in Jacksonville, Florida, served as a lieutenant in the U.S. Army in World War I, the Great War. To him, this day was Armistice Day, the day marking the end of that war at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918. I was ten when he died and didn't know him well, but much of what he was as a veteran is present in my house. His portrait hangs just off our foyer. The pocket Bible he carried is in a keepsake cabinet nearby along with his military issue binoculars and a silver-plated swagger stick - a gift from his unit - made from machine gun shells casings and the Seal of the U.S. Army. The last item is one he never saw, but it summarized everything he did as a soldier. That item is the flag that covered his coffin. To my knowledge, it's still in the original triangle fold made the day he was buried nearly sixty years ago.

As much as I value these mementos of George's life, they cannot surpass the value of his service in defense of family, nation, and faith. Today, all of the veterans of World War I are gone and the 1.5 million veterans of World War II are passing on at an accelerating rate. Still, we are left with millions of servicemen and women from the Korean conflict through Vietnam, the Middle East actions in Iraq and Afghanistan, and full circle to those still standing in the trenches in Korea. They are all reminders that freedom is not free. 

From the time I could hold a paint brush with serious determination - probably 1951 - I did my part to honor veterans. A week before the holiday, Dad and I went to the local cemetery to paint flag holders and install Old Glory on the graves of veterans of the Great War who had been member of my dad's lodge. The lodge had a seventy year history in my small town and scores of holders were scattered at random on the landscape. My instructions were simple: armed with primary yellow, blue and red paint, paint carefully, leave no spatters, paint EVERY marker. The worst offense, by far, was missing a marker, but Dad made sure that never happened.  

On Veterans Day proper, there was a brief service from atop a small memorial building. At its conclusion, the crowds descended from the hilltop cemetery to either watch or march in what seemed like an endless parade down Main Street. It was straight out of a Norman Rockwell illustration: flags, bands, fire trucks, politicians, the ladies' auxiliary, the soldiers. It was a most impressive event.

Ninety-five years ago, at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of the year 1918, World War I - the Great War - came to an end with the signing of the Armistice Treaty by the Allied forces and Germany. For the next 34 years, Armistice Day honored the service of veterans of that war. In 1954, Armistice Day became Veterans Day and its scope was expanded to honor all American veterans.

I am not a veteran. I'll never experience how military service shapes a person inside, but I do know that every veteran has paid a price that enables us to enjoy life in this bountiful nation. 
On November 11 - Armistice Day or Veterans Day - we should take some time to remember those who have served their country and it people. To all of them I offer my sincerest admiration and thanks on this day and every day.

The Marine Corp's 238th Birthday

The United States Marine Corps had its beginning on this day in 1775 in Philadelphia and has served in every American armed conflict. 

Marines' Hymn

We fight our country's battles
In the air, on land, and sea;
First to fight for right and freedom
And to keep our honor clean;
We are proud to claim the title
Of United States Marine.

Our flag's unfurled to every breeze
From dawn to setting sun;
We have fought in every clime and place
Where we could take a gun;
In the snow of far-off Northern lands
And in sunny tropic scenes;
You will find us always on the job
The United States Marines.

Here's health to you and to our Corps
Which we are proud to serve;
In many a strife we've fought for life
And never lost our nerve;
If the Army and the Navy
Ever look on Heaven’s scenes;
They will find the streets are guarded
By United States Marines.

Thanks and best wishes to all Marines, especially to my fellow historian, never-ending inspiration, and former NPS colleague, Edwin Cole (Ed) Bearrs.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Remembering Gram Parsons

Gram Parsons in 1972

Gram Parsons spent his brief musical life searching for what he called "cosmic American music," a sound emerging out of gospel, R&B, country and rock traditions. He was born on this day in 1946 into a wealthy Florida family, a circumstance that encouraged both his exploration of music and the drug abuse that killed him in 1973 (September 17). Parsons performed with The Byrds and The Flying Burrito Brothers before attempting a rocky solo career that went nowhere until he met a young singer in Washington, D.C. Her name was Emmylou Harris. Parsons soon partnered with Harris and they went on to produce some of the finest sounds from the early fusion days of country and folk-rock. With his passing, one of American music's greatest inventors was stilled, but others, including Emmylou, would use his inventions and adapt them over the next forty years into the country rock music we know today.

Here is some music to help you understand the history. The first recording is a Gram Parsons-Bob Buchanan song that appeared on The Byrds album, Sweetheart of the Rodeo, released in 1968. The Byrds went deep into classic country here and introduced Parsons to a rock audience.

Here's a Parsons-Chris Hillman song, dating from 1969 and the days of The Flying Burrito Brothers. Parsons can be identified by his marijuana leaf Nudie suit.


 And here is Parsons with Harris performing their song, In the Hour of Darkness, from the album, Grievous Angel, released four months after his death. 

For a Gram Parsons bio, visit this link. For a longer immersion in his world and music go to David Meyer's 2008 biography.

Parsons's body met with a notable and very illegal cremation in the hills of Joshua Tree National Park. For the story, go here. Room 8 at the Joshua Tree Inn, the location of his death, is now a shrine and the destination of a pilgrimage for many of his fans. Here is a post from some recent visitors.

Boys Do Love Their Fires; Or, Guy Fawkes Day And Bonfire Night

Guy Fawkes Day celebration at Windsor Castle, 1776

If the American Revolution hadn't killed the celebration of Guy Fawkes Day on this side of the Atlantic, OSHA certainly would have done it in by now. Brits still celebrate the day about four hundred years ago when an attempt by the Gunpowder Plot to blow up the House of Lords and King James I was foiled with the arrest of Guy Fawkes who had been assigned to guard the explosives. Most Americans probably know the man and the day from the film, V for Vendetta, and the following poem:

The Fifth of November

Remember, remember! 
The fifth of November, 
The Gunpowder treason and plot; 
I know of no reason 
Why the Gunpowder treason 
Should ever be forgot! 
Guy Fawkes and his companions 
Did the scheme contrive, 
To blow the King and Parliament 
All up alive. 
Threescore barrels, laid below, 
To prove old England's overthrow. 
But, by God's providence, him they catch, 
With a dark lantern, lighting a match! 
A stick and a stake 
For King James's sake! 
If you won't give me one, 
I'll take two, 
The better for me, 
And the worse for you. 
A rope, a rope, to hang the Pope, 
A penn'orth of cheese to choke him, 
A pint of beer to wash it down, 
And a jolly good fire to burn him. 
Holloa, boys! holloa, boys! make the bells ring! 
Holloa, boys! holloa boys! God save the King! 
Hip, hip, hooor-r-r-ray!

Much of the religious bitterness has passed and Guy Fawkes Day is no longer an official holiday. Still, it's a fine opportunity to celebrate by lighting bonfires, marching in vast torch light parades or igniting fireworks just as celebrants did days after Fawkes's arrest.

It's a man's holiday when the sun sets and it's time for the FIRE.

I have a feeling this is reminiscent of Independence Day celebrations across the United States about a century ago. OSHA and the nanny statists wouldn't have any of it today.

Monday, November 4, 2013

It's That Time Of Year, Time To Prepare Chatham Artillery Punch

November's cool breezes and infinitely clear blue skies signal the start of an annual ritual in Savannah. It's time to start the punch. And so it is as many of the old families - and those who want to be old - begin their preparations for Christmas, New Year's Eve , and Twelfth Night by setting aside a batch of Chatham Artillery Punch. It is by far the city's most historic and memorable beverage. 

In 1977, I was introduced to Chatham Artillery Punch at the Lion's Den in the DeSoto Hilton in Savannah. It reminded me of rumtopf, only it was better. Much better. The elite military unit for which it is named, one of the oldest in the nation, has a storied history of defending Georgia and the United States for over two centuries, including service in Iraq and Afghanistan. Today the unit serves as the 1st Battalion, 118th Field Artillery. The punch always graces their celebration of Saint Barbara's Day and Christmas. I can think of no better way to end a traditional celebration of Christmas in Georgia than with one cup of this wonderful drink. And I do mean ONE cup.

In my opinion, the following recipe - derived from several formulations and an archival source that shall remain nameless - captures the historic flavors nicely, although, I'm sure they varied over the years, depending on the ingredients at hand. (A Georgia National Guard newsletter noted that a pair of soldier's socks, the stockings of a soldier's wife, and sand from Iraq were added to the punch in 2006.) We're not going that far.

Chatham Artillery Punch (for 50 guests)

2 quarts of strong green tea (soak about 1/4 pound of tea for a day, then strain)
Juice of 10 lemons
1 1/4 pounds brown sugar
2 quarts Catawba wine (a red muscadine will be easier to find and work just as well)
2 quarts Santa Cruz rum (use Virgin Islands style rum, light or dark)
1 quart brandy
1 quart dry gin (I like the flavorings in Bombay Sapphire)
1 quart rye whiskey
3 pints Queen Anne cherries
3 pints pineapple chunks
3 quarts champagne

To prepare, sterilize a 5 gallon crock or similar vessel. Mix the tea and lemon juice, then dissolve the brown sugar and gently stir in all the alcohol except the champagne. Add the cherries and pineapple chunks carefully. Cover the crock tightly and sit aside in a cool, dark place for at least one week, but one month is better. Careful sampling is permitted to insure the fermentation process is working. To serve, pour the mixture carefully over a block of ice, add the champagne, and stir gently. Never refrigerate to cool ahead of serving or serve with ice cubes.

This is a deliciously smooth, flavorful and potent drink to be enjoyed responsibly in an appropriate setting. It is not for every party. Also keep in mind that the longer it ferments, the more powerful, deceptive and tasty it becomes. There is a point - say after two months - at which the punch becomes a lightly fruited rumtopf,  and a perfect topping for ice cream or bundt. I suspect however that using it in Old Savannah as something other than a beverage would be a sacrilege.  

Regardless of how you plan to enjoy Chatham Artillery Punch, know that your expense and anticipation will be rewarded. I once brewed a batch for eight weeks. It was legendary. 

Friday, November 1, 2013

All Saints Day Or Allhallowmas 2013

All Saints Day in Krakow, Poland

The remembrance of the departed faithful is an old custom in the Christian church. Here is some commentary on this day taken from the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod website:

The Commemoration of All Saints has been observed by Christians since at least the 4th century after Christ, although not always on November 1. Christians then as now desire to follow the encouragement of the writer to the Hebrews: "Remember your leaders who spoke the Word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith" (Heb 13:7).
The original purpose of remembering the saints and martyrs was blurred during the medieval ages, as saints became the objects of prayers and petitions for merit before God. Pointing to Christ as the only source of forgiveness, Luther cleansed the church of this abuse of the saints. Lutherans did not remove All Saints Day from the church calendar, however.
Luther posted his 95 Theses on the Wittenberg church door on October 31, 1517 precisely because he wanted the document to be seen by the throngs that would services on November 1, All Saints Day. Lutherans eventually chose October 31 as the day on which to remember Luther's legacy to the church, and All Saints Day in the Lutheran Church has forever after been overshadowed by Reformation services.
* * *  
The Prayer of the Day:
Almighty God, you have knit your people together in one holy Church, the body of Christ our Lord. Grant us grace to follow the examples of your blessed saints in lives of faith and willing service and with them at last inherit the inexpressible joys that you have prepared for those who love you; through Jesus Christ our Lord...

Our music for this day is Ralph Vaughan Williams's setting - Sine Nomine - for the processional hymn, For All the Saints, written by William Walsham How. 

Most versions omit several verses that I believe are most relevant to our time. They are:

For the Apostles’ glorious company,
Who bearing forth the Cross o’er land and sea,
Shook all the mighty world, we sing to Thee:
Alleluia, Alleluia!

For the Evangelists, by whose blest word,

Like fourfold streams, the garden of the Lord,
Is fair and fruitful, be Thy Name adored.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

For Martyrs, who with rapture kindled eye,
Saw the bright crown descending from the sky,
And seeing, grasped it, Thee we glorify.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

O may Thy soldiers, faithful, true and bold,
Fight as the saints who nobly fought of old,
And win with them the victor’s crown of gold.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

And when the strife is fierce, the warfare long,
Steals on the ear the distant triumph song,
And hearts are brave, again, and arms are strong.
Alleluia, Alleluia!