Monday, September 29, 2014

A Coincidence For Walter, George, And Me

If I had to choose two personal favorites among American artists, I would choose Walter Inglis Anderson and George Gershwin.  I discovered Anderson on my own in the 1970s during the dedication of a National Park Service visitor center in Ocean Springs, Mississippi. The award-winning center featured architectural elements incorporating his motifs as well as interior displays of his nature paintings. Unfortunately, the center was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. In regard to George Gershwin, I had an ear for him very early in life as my mom and dad enjoyed listening to his work on the radio, records, and television. 

Today, September 29, marks the birthday of Anderson and Gershwin. Both were filled with creative genius. Both lives featured tragic loss. Anderson died (1965) in his early sixties recognized as a local artist and obscure introvert wracked by schizophrenia. National appreciation of his contribution to American art would come slowly and long after his death. Even today he's not well known among general populations beyond the South. On the other hand, Gershwin would die of a brain tumor at the age of 38 at the height of his career and known throughout the world. 

Walter "Bob" Anderson, Self-Portrait, 1941
Walter Inglis Anderson, was born on September 29, 1903 in New Orleans. After training at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in the mid-1920s, he spent most of his career associated with Shearwater Pottery, a family enterprise founded in Ocean Springs, Mississippi. Though deeply troubled with mental illness for much of his life, he produced thousands of vivid works of art - often called "abstract realism" - seeking to celebrate the unity of human existence with nature. I often describe his work as decorated illustrations that play freely with figure and ground and the positives and negatives of visual perception. His realizations of nature explode in the mind's eye. Observing Anderson is a meditative experience. Visit the Walter Inglis Anderson Museum of Art site to learn more about the life and work of this regional artist who only recently has taken on national significance.

Frogs,Bugs, Flowers                  Walter Anderson, ca.1945

Gershwin in 1937

George Gershwin was born in New York in 1898. He went on to become perhaps the most beloved American composer of the last century through his many compositions for the musical stage, the concert hall, and what has become known as the Great American Songbook. Gershwin's appeal comes in part from his colorful and lively incorporation of jazz motifs in all his music. He died in 1937 with what could only be called a spectacular career ahead of him. I often imagine what he could have brought to American music had he lived another forty years.

Studying these artists came much later in my life. In the last five years, that study led to a startling revelation: George, Walter and I were born on September 29. It's a coincidence from somewhere in the stars beyond time. I don't want to attempt an explanation. And there's no delusion here, my friends, I will never approach their genius. Not sure I'd want to. I'll simply leave it at that and enjoy their greatness knowing that we share a quiet and inconsequential commonality.

In closing, here is some of Gershwin's genius performed by the London Symphony Orchestra, Andre Previn conducting and at the piano.  


Walter "Bob" Anderson, Self-portrait, 1941. Walter Anderson Museum of Art, Ocean Springs, Mississippi.

Frogs, Bugs, and Flowers, Walter Anderson, ca 1945. Repository: Roger H. Ogden Collection. Copyright: Roger H. Ogden.

George Gershwin 1937.  Carl Van Vechten Collection, Library of Congress

Copyrighted illustrations used used under Section 107 (Fair Use) of the U.S. Copyright Act

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

John Rutter's Musical Look At The World

The British choral composer, John Rutter, celebrates his 69th birthday today. He is deeply appreciated in the U.S. and Britain for his many choral and other compositions, for his work as a conductor and arranger. and as the founder of The Cambridge Singers. Some classical music critics, mostly in Great Britain, find his compositions to be a bit simple, repetitive, and stylistically confused. Others place him at the top among 20th century composers. I have to side with the latter appraisals. The melodies are generally simple, the harmonies beautiful, and the style affords a perfect balance of music and message. Furthermore, choirs of all sizes and skill levels perform his work to appreciative audiences everywhere. If popularity is any indicator, John Rutter's music will be enjoyed for a long, long time.

Here are two brief videos of Rutter discussing his work. The first one focuses on music for royal occasions, specifically his anthem, This is the Day, written for the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton. The second introduces his latest compact disc released in celebration of the 30th anniversary of The Cambridge Singers.

Finally, here is a personal favorite of mine, A Gaelic Blessing, written in 1978.

Splendid work

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

First Full Day Of Fall

The season arrived in north Georgia today - cool, windy, crispy dry, intense blue sky. Left me wistful:

To Autumn

O Autumn, laden with fruit, and stain'd
With the blood of the grape, pass not, but sit
Beneath my shady roof; there thou may'st rest,
And tune thy jolly voice to my fresh pipe,
And all the daughters of the year shall dance!
Sing now the lusty song of fruits and flowers.

'The narrow bud opens her beauties to
The sun, and love runs in her thrilling veins;
Blossoms hang round the brows of Morning, and
Flourish down the bright cheek of modest Eve,
Till clust'ring Summer breaks forth into singing,
And feather'd clouds strew flowers round her head.

'The spirits of the air live in the smells
Of fruit; and Joy, with pinions light, roves round
The gardens, or sits singing in the trees.'
Thus sang the jolly Autumn as he sat,
Then rose, girded himself, and o'er the bleak
Hills fled from our sight; but left his golden load.

William Blake (1757-1827)

Monday, September 22, 2014

Welcome To Fall And The Month Of The Grape Harvest

Leave it to the French to have a sweeping, violent revolution that would attempt to wipe out all traces of monarchy and replace it with enlightenment and the Age of Reason. One of the features of the revolution was the Napoleonic Calendar. Its ten day weeks, twelve months of thirty days, and assorted extra days to add up to the essential number, 365/6, made it confusing as a time piece. On the other hand, using seasonal events, plant and animal names, and farming implements to label the days and months made the calendar a work of art. And so we have on this day, September 22, not only the autumnal equinox but also the anniversary of the proclamation of the Republic (1792) and the first day of the new Napoleonic Year.

Welcome to Vendemairie (Grape Harvester) and its first day, Raisin (Grape).

Here in the next 29 days is a vivid picture of the season:

Safran  (Saffron)
Chataignes  (Chestnut)
Colchique (Autumn Crocus)
 Cheval  (Horse)
Balsamine (Yellow Balsam)
Carrotes (Carrots)
Amaranthe (Amaranth)
Panais (Parsnip)
Cuve (Tub)
Pommes de terre (Potatoes)
Immortelle (Strawflower)
Potiron (Giant Pumpkin)
Reseda (Mignonette)
Ane (Donkey)
Belle de nuit (Marvel of Peru)
Citroville (Summer Pumpkin)
Sarrazin (Buckwheat)
Touresol (Sunflower)
Pressoir (Wine-Press)
Chanvre (Hemp)
Peches (Peaches)
Navets (Turnip)
Amarillis (Amaryllis)
Boeuf (Cattle)
Aubegine (Eggplant)
Piment (Chile Pepper)
Tomate (Tomato)
Orge (Barley)
Tonneau (Barrel)

I think Vendemairie provides us a comforting association  with a different time and place, a pre-industrial existence where we can easily recognize ourselves as part of nature and not separate from it. That's as it should be. This is the season to be close to the earth and its harvest that sustains us through the cold and dark months to come.

Welcome to Fall and the grape harvest. Let us enjoy it.

Sources: (fascinating site maintained by the Fondation Napoleon).
Wikipedia entry: Vendemaire

Friday, September 19, 2014

Why Do Pirates Talk Like That?

Blackbeard the Pirate                           Engraving, Benjamin Cole, ca. 1724

It's International Talk Like A Pirate Day. I'm sure the number of  "arrrrrhhs" and "shiver me timbers" heard today brought out some smiles and responses. There's nothing wrong with enjoying the lighter intentions of the day but being curious I've decided to share some information about the who, what, when, where, and how of pirate talk. Do enjoy.

Arrr Matey! The Origins of the Pirate Accent  A strong case for the origin of pirate talk.

Pirate R As In I R Eland?  This is a potential alternate explanation to the link above.

West Country Dialects  A comprehensive resource on speech in Southwest England.

Bristol Dialect/Glossary   A focused look at words and phrases from a Southwest England county.

Sid Totter (b. 1877): Listen to him speak in a 1950's West Country dialect.

And here is Robert Newton, a.k.a. Long John Silver, displaying his Dorset accent in a reading  of a short poem:

And here is Newton as Long John Silver:

Not sure I care much about the origins after hearing Newton's performance again. I was four years-old when he appeared in Walt Disney's Treasure Island (1950). He'll always be my personification of the perfect pirate, me hearties.

Cass Elliot: The Mama With The Golden Voice

Cass Elliot in 1972

Today - September 19 - marks the birthday of Ellen Naomi Cohen in Baltimore, Maryland in 1941. If you enjoyed the folk-rock evolution going on the mid-1960's, you know her as Cass Elliot or Mama Cass. It's difficult to imagine that Call Elliot and the other members of The Mamas & The Papas - Michelle Phillips, John Phillips and Denny Doherty - could produce such a wealth of sound and harmony in the three years they were together. Much of their success must be credited to Elliot's bubbly personality, stage presence, and her marvelous, powerful voice.

When the group broke up in 1968 she sustained a solo career through a wide number of television appearances before shedding her "Mama Cass" image and moving into the cabaret scene as Cass Elliot in the early 1970's. Her career was ascending rapidly in 1974 when she was taken from us by a heart attack following the completion of a two week run in London.

You rarely find diction, pitch, and power in singers today, And you have to keep in mind that Cass Eliot performed long before the advent of digital pitch correction and the "art" of turning an unskilled voice into an opera star. 

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Antietam: America's Bloodiest Day Of Battle

Bloody Lane, Antietam National Battlefield Walking Tour

Today marks the 152nd anniversary of the Battle of Antietam, a one-day Civil War clash in the Great Valley of Maryland near the town of Sharpsburg. It was a marginal victory at best for the Union, but it marked an end to Confederate success on the battlefield in the first year of the war. Furthermore, it provided President Abraham Lincoln an opportunity to issue his Emancipation Proclamation freeing slaves in all the states that had seceded from the Union. The outcome and opportunity at Antietam came at a huge cost as it remains the bloodiest one-day battle in American history. In little more than twelve hours the conflict almost 23,000 participants were dead, wounded or missing. 

Bloody Lane following the Battle of Antietam, September 17, 1862

There is much to be remembered at this sacred place. Some call the battle a turning point leading to Union victory in the war. Obviously, it is a monumental step in the evolution of human rights in the United States. Sometimes the memories are far more personal. For me, Antietam remains very close to my heart and soul. I was at most six years old when my mother and father took me there to walk among the fields and forests, along the old Sharpsburg Pike and Bloody Lane, and over Burnside Bridge. The old monuments loomed large over a small boy. There's no question that Antietam and a childhood itinerary of other Civil War sites in the region helped shape my future.

Photo Credits:

Walking Tour photo: National Park Service

Historic photo: Alexander Gardner, in The Photographic History of the Civil War in Ten Volumes: Volume Two, Two Years of Grim War, The Review of Reviews Co., New York. 1911. p. 74.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

A Tribute To "The Velvet Fog" On His Birthday

Scott Johnson, my kindred spirit when it comes to music history, posted a belated birthday tribute to Mel Torme in 2012. Johnson rightfully described Torme as "one of the great all-time American artists, too little known and vastly under-appreciated." Many readers may not know the artist, but they would certainly recognize one of his most famous compositions, The Christmas Song, from its opening line, "Chestnuts roasting on an open fire...."  That song is one of around 300 Torme wrote, but he also contributed to the world of entertainment as a composer, arranger, musician, actor and writer over his 65 year career. 

Torme left us fifteen years ago. His passing was the event that compelled me to listen more carefully to his music and appreciate the crisp timing, perfect pitch, impeccable diction, and playfulness.  Johnson writes a fine tribute and includes videos - the missing one is below - of Torme and friends delivering some fine entertainment. Hope you enjoy. 

And just in case you want to associate "The Velvet Fog" with his signature song - he called it his "annuity" -  here is Torme performing it late in his career.

This is a revised version of a post from 2012.

Friday, September 12, 2014

H.L. Mencken: Still Exposing The Booboisie Across America

Democracy is a pathetic belief in the collective wisdom of individual ignorance. No one in this world, so far as I know - and I have researched the records for years, and employed agents to help me - has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people. Nor has anyone ever lost office thereby.

After all these years, the Sage of Baltimore - Henry Louis Mencken - still has so much to tell us about the American experience. In his day he invented the term "booboisie" to refer to the masses who didn't read much, know much or even care much about their lives as citizens of a democratic republic. Today we could easily apply his term to the masses who are well-schooled but not well-educated, who apply emotion rather than reason and logic to their decision making, and who align themselves with coalitions of self-interests wrapped in collectivist totalitarianism.  Another term for the modern-day "booboisie" is "moonbat". I think Mencken would have a even more colorful term for them if were still with us. And oh would he have a time with our political and social landscape today.

Henry Louis Mencken, the "Sage of Baltimore,"  was born on this day in 1880. He was a leading journalist and author on the American scene, humorist, and a student of the American language. Mencken's stature seems to be on the rise over the last few decades. I'd guess it's because we experienced a concurrent rise in many nation-wide opportunities to watch logic, practicality, and skepticism destroy a multitude of political pretenders and their policies regardless of political persuasion. P. J. O'Rourke seems to have picked up the Sage's role as iconoclast and debunker in modern day America.

Puritanism is the haunting fear that someone, somewhere is having a good time.

Mencken celebrating the end of Prohibition, 1933

As much as I enjoy reading all of Mencken's work, the autobiographical books remain my favorites. His three-part "Days" series, Happy Days (1940), Newspaper Days (19441), and Heathen Days (1943) should be essential reading. They cover life and times from birth through 1936, the most productive and positive time in his life. After the mid-1930's, Mencken fell a bit out of fashion as his curmudgeonly persistence began to grind on the American psyche. His perceived sympathy with German nationalism helped undermine his reputation into the 40's. In one of the great ironies in American literature, a stroke in 1948 rendered him unable to read, speak or write beyond simple phrases or sentences.  Although he regained some communications skills over time, he spent the next seven years enjoying music, listening to readings, and conversing with friends until his death in 1956.    

If, after I depart this vale, you ever remember me and have thought to please my ghost, forgive some sinner and wink your eye at some homely girl.

Those who want the full Mencken story should read Terry Teachout's, The Skeptic: A Life of H.L. Mencken (2003). Teachout is a superb writer who treats his subject with objectivity and warmth. I also enjoyed a biography, Mencken: The American Iconoclast (2005), by  the eminent Mencken scholar, Marion Elizabeth Rodgers, 

If reading isn't to your liking but you still want some immersion into the man and his times, C-SPAN's American Writers Project produced a fine two-hour program on Mencken that should not be missed. It is a thorough multimedia exploration.

I'm the third generation in my family to consider Mencken a favorite writer. Though the author as skeptic likely played a role in his popularity over the years, I think the humor sold him to the family - certainly has in my case. But there is a sad note to this story. In 1959 - I was 13 that year - two family members who were among the first generation to appreciate Mencken passed away just one day part. My dad was the executor of this challenging estate. The late relatives had shared a large home with other brothers and accumulated seventy years of cultural history within its walls. It seemed the only thing that left the house was weekly trash. Included in that history collection they retained were thousands of magazines. No institution or person wanted them as they had not yet achieved a patina of age, worth or "significance." I was given the responsibility of burning them and in doing so I watched a near complete, mint collection of The Smart Set and The American Mercury magazines rise up in smoke on a cold winter day. Both magazines were under the editorship of H.L. Mencken early in his career and featured many new writers who were to become famous in the decades to follow. Today, the collection could bring as much as six figures at a major literary auction.  So much wisdom up in smoke.  If the Sage of Baltimore were alive today, he would not be happy at this outcome, nor would he be surprised...

No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people.


Democracy is....   "Notes on Journalism," Chicago Tribune, September 19, 1926;

Puratinism is....   " Sententae," The Citizen and the State, p.624;

If, after I....    "Epitaph," from Smart Set (December 1921);

No one ever....    paraphrase of the "Democracy" quote as noted in The Yale Book of Quotations (2006)

Monday, September 8, 2014

Still Crazy For Patsy Cline

On the last day of August I posted about the birthday and career of Arthur Godfrey, television's first superstar. Today we commemorate the birth of a music legend discovered and nurtured by Godfrey at the height of his career. You may recognize her name: Patsy Cline (1932-1963).

She was born on September 8, 1932 in Winchester, Virginia. In her early teens, she began singing locally on the radio, in clubs and at special events. By the mid-1950s, she was singing with a young Jimmy Dean on a popular country music show broadcast from Washington. A year after her network television appearance on The Grand Ole Opry, she auditioned for the nationally popular show, Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts. The public loved her. Godfrey loved her. He made Patsy Cline a star.  By 1961, she was at the top and still rising in popularity on the country music charts when her career came to a tragic end in a small plane crash near Nashville, Tennessee in 1963.  

I grew up with her music often hearing it over the radio all day at our family's summer haunt in Burlington, West Virginia. The village was on U.S. 50, just a dozen ridges and thirty-five miles west of her first home in Winchester, Virginia. That's a bit far to claim her as a neighbor, but still close enough to make one proud of a country kid who made it big. Now more than fifty years after her passing music fans still appreciate her marvelous voice.  Crazy!