Thursday, March 31, 2016

Johann Sebastian Bach Turns 331 Years Old Today

J.S. Bach statue in Leipzig, Germany

Today marks the birthday (in 1685, and for Old Style calendar sticklers, it's March 21) of one of the great three "B's" in classical music, Johann Sebastian Bach, He gave us some of the most sublime music in western culture and it would be an oversight, especially as a Lutheran, not to honor this master of the Baroque and pillar of Lutheranism. His music was largely forgotten for almost a century following his death, but had been restored by the first quarter of the 19th century. The new-found popularity of Bach was due largely to the composer-performers, Felix Mendelssohn and Ludwig van Beethoven, and the publication of many of Bach's works. 

I was introduced to the music of J.S. Bach as an infant at Mount Calvary Lutheran Church in my little hometown in the mountains of Maryland. The church already had been baptizing members of my father's family for over seventy years. We were a large family within the larger church family. One aunt was the principal organist while several aunts, uncles, and cousins held various position in church administration and in the choir. In the summer of my ninth year our family moved leaving behind not only familiar places but also family linkages to Mount Calvary Lutheran Church. I left with a strong faith reinforced in part by Bach's profound music. Although faith faced some challenges in my revolutionary days the awe and appreciation for Bach never waned.

Here are three examples why. First is Glenn Gould's interpretation of the Goldberg Variations, Nos. 1-4 in which you can hear the performer's notorious verbal accompaniment.

Second is "Dona Nobis Pacem," [Grant Us Peace] from the Mass in B minor.

And third simply for the fun of it, the Gigue Fugue.


Photos and Illustration:, flickr/seabamirum

Monday, March 28, 2016

Paul Whiteman: The Syncopated Showman

Paul Whiteman was born on this day in 1890 in Denver. Once known as the "King of Jazz," but now almost forgotten outside of tight circles of music history, he was primarily responsible popularizing the integration of jazz in popular music throughout the United States. Historian Glenn T. Eskew says this about him:

Alert to the emerging style, Whiteman pioneered standardized settings of the songs, capturing the melodies on paper and leaving room for improvisation while making jazz appear "respectable" for dancing by using symphonic arrangements. Whiteman made recordings in 1920 of "Avalon" and "Whispering" songs that inspired Johnny Mercer. By 1924, in a bid to blend the "serious" with the "popular," Whiteman conducted his Palais Royale Orchestra in the world premier of George Gershwin's 'Rhapsody in Blue,' which revealed the omnipresence of syncopation. Indeed, Whiteman's various approaches to jazz gained him his crown, for he mastered a jazz-inflected light-sweet music that while never the hot music of [Louis] Armstrong nonetheless popularized the genre in the United States. From the cabaret to the symphony hall, musicians embraced the rhythm and blues of playing as Americans consumed Whiteman's liberating jazz. 

Paul Whiteman in Radio Stars.jpg
Paul Whiteman in in the magazine, Radio Stars, February 1934

Indeed, Whiteman was quite the showman as can be viewed in this excerpt from the 1930 film, King of Jazz. The film was the first to use a prerecorded studio soundtrack "made independently of the actual filming." It was also one of the earliest Technicolor films. 

And we can't let Whiteman's birthday pass without an opportunity to hear his celebrated orchestra performing the popular music that made them famous. This 1928 recording features 25 year-old Bing Crosby singing his first number one hit. Crosby would go on to shape popular singing for the rest of the century.

That's happy music. Tap your feet, did you?


Photos and Illustrations:
Whiteman photo, photographer uncredited,


Glenn T. Askew, Johnny Mercer: Southern Songwriter for the World, University of Georgia Press: Athens and London, 2013

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Music History At Its Best: Johnny Mercer: Southern Songwriter For The World

As OTR readers know the American songwriter and singer, Johnny Mercer, is a frequent subject on this blog. Even forty years after his death he remains the favorite son of his hometown, Savannah. And from coast-to-coast it's downright impossible to go a day without hearing at least one of his 28 "bread and butter songs." In all he wrote over 1400 songs during his forty-year career. Bits and pieces of another 1500 songs and song ideas can be found in the Johnny Mercer Collection at the Georgia State University Library in Atlanta.

I've had a long association with Mercer's music and the Great American Songbook beginning in the early 1950's when I listened to my foster brother practicing his trumpet for high school performances and dance band gigs. Into and beyond the golden age of rock my record collection had several jazz and pop vocals with more than a few of his songs. The watershed event occurred in 1977 when a career move brought me to Savannah six months after Mercer's death. There I learned about his remarkable influence on American music as a lyricist, songwriter, singer, and entrepreneur. The result of that "learning" is three linear feet of books, recordings and files on the "Old Music Master," a name that comes from - where else - a 1943 song resulting from his work with another music master, Hoagy Carmichael.

The latest addition to the Mercer book shelf is an outstanding academic biography by Professor Glenn T. Eskew at Georgia State University. Johnny Mercer: Southern Songwriter for the World (University of Georgia Press, 2013) provides readers with a fine, well-written, and enjoyable chronological view of the Mercer story. What makes this biography different from earlier attempts is its placement of Mercer, a product of the patriarchal South, in the Southern diaspora of jazz, blues, and popular music artists into the north and western United States and the world. Eskew also focuses on Mercer's significant role in shaping the direction and diversity of American music through his work as a founder and artists and recording director of Capitol Records. Ninety pages of citations and footnotes make the book an essential for Mercer students and fans.

In summary, this book cements much of the information in two other Mercer biographies with additional information and, citations, and additional sources. It also rightfully documents Mercer as an enormous force in American music history, far beyond the talented lyricist and smiling, gap-toothed singer the Greatest Generation knew so well. For readers who have an interest in the "Old Music Master" himself and his work with the blues, jazz, country, and popular music entertainers who brought such music to American culture in the 20th century, it is an important read. In fact, if you want to read one book on the subject, I'd say this is it.

Sassy Sarah Vaughan, The Divine One

The magnificent American singer, Sarah Vaughan, was born on this day in 1924. She was a performer if not a magician who could wring emotion out of a song with her warmth and three-octave range. Indeed she was a symphony of sound over her fifty years on the stage. Her passing 26 years ago leaves a void still unfilled in the world of popular music and jazz. Of course with female vocalists like Jane Monhoit, Diana Krall, Nancy LaMott, Madeleine Peyroux, Kat Edmonson, Nora Jones and others we'll be entertained with plenty of quality. It's just that the sass won't be quite the same.

Here is Sassy, the Divine One, at work on two of her signature songs:

And once more I ask the question, "Where is the spirit of jazz today, a genre birthed in the United States?" It is alive in many limited markets across the country but it remains a small portfolio in the financial departments of our corporate music industry. The corporate bottom line drives the industry today and it drives some of our best musical talent into a parallel universe. These niches of excellence exist for those who want seek them out but it is far easier to succumb to the mediocrity forced upon the market by the accountants and their search for profit through the lowest common denominators in music. The consumers can do better. Start your search tomorrow.

Easter 2016

Easter Changes Everything!

Rise heart; thy Lord is risen.
Sing his praise without delayes,
Who takes thee by the hand,
that thou likewise with him may'st rise;
That, as his death calcined thee to dust,
His life may make thee gold, and much more, just.

Awake, my lute, and struggle for thy part with all thy art.
The crosse taught all wood to resound his name, who bore the same.
His stretched sinews taught all strings, what key
Is the best to celebrate this most high day.

Consort both heart and lute, and twist a song pleasant and long;
Or since all musick is but three parts vied and multiplied.
O let thy blessed Spirit bear a part,
And make up our defects with his sweet art.

The Resurrection: The Angel Rolling Away the Stone From the Sepulchre     William Blake, ca 1808 


Photo and Illustrations:
Blake image,, Victoria and Albert Museum, London

George Herbert (1593-1633) from his poem, Easter, "Five Mystical Songs," Ralph Vaughan Williams,

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Remembering The Birthdays Of Robert Frost And Tennessee Williams

Robert Frost in 1941

They may share March 26 as a birth date but that is about all Robert Frost (1874- 1963) and Tennessee Williams (1911-1983) have in common. The Academy of American Poets has this to say about Frost:

Though his work is principally associated with the life and landscape of New England—and though he was a poet of traditional verse forms and metrics who remained steadfastly aloof from the poetic movements and fashions of his time—Frost is anything but merely a regional poet. The author of searching and often dark meditations on universal themes, he is a quintessentially modern poet in his adherence to language as it is actually spoken, in the psychological complexity of his portraits, and in the degree to which his work is infused with layers of ambiguity and irony.

Read the full article here

Tennessee Williams in 1964
The Public Broadcasting Service's American Masters series online biography of Williams opens with this paragraph:

He was brilliant and prolific, breathing life and passion into such memorable characters as Blanche DuBois and Stanley Kowalski in his critically acclaimed A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE. And like them, he was troubled and self-destructive, an abuser of alcohol and drugs. He was awarded four Drama Critic Circle Awards, two Pulitzer Prizes and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. He was derided by critics and blacklisted by Roman Catholic Cardinal Spellman, who condemned one of his scripts as “revolting, deplorable, morally repellent, offensive to Christian standards of decency.” He was Tennessee Williams, one of the greatest playwrights in American history.

The full article on Williams is available here.

Frost and Williams. Together their American experience may be so broad as to admit no exception. Let the research begin!


Photos and Illustrations:
Frost photo, Frank Palumbo, World Telegraph, Library of Congress, New York-World Telegraph and Sun Collection;
Williams photo, Orlando Fernandez, World Telegraph, Library of Congress, New York-World Telegraph and Sun Collection

Friday, March 25, 2016

Flannery O'Connor: Struggling 'With The Stinking Mad Shadow Of Jesus'

Today is the birthday of the American writer and leading 20th century Catholic apologist, Flannery O'Connor. She was born in Savannah in 1925 and spent her early childhood there. She lived on Lafayette Square with its moss-draped live oaks, colorful azaleas, abundance of birds, and towering spires of The Cathedral of St. John the Baptist. Things haven't changed much on this beautiful square. I'm sure it still has a interesting spectrum of regular visitors. Children play on the sidewalks and lawns. And every day, the cathedral bells remind the people of God's love and their obligations as His children. I think as long as you can visit Lafayette Square, say on a pleasant Sunday afternoon, you can know O'Connor well.

The family moved to Atlanta in 1938, where her father was diagnosed with lupus. Soon after, they moved to her mother's family home in Milledgeville, about 100 miles southeast of Atlanta. After his death in 1941, O'Connor moved a few miles north of town to her uncle's farm where she lived with her mother. Eventually, the farm would be called Andalusia, and it would become a refuge following her own diagnosis with lupus in 1950. There, she would raise her beloved peacocks and weave her rural Georgia and childhood experiences into some of America's finest literature. Those titles include her novels, Wise Blood, and The Violent Bear It Away, along with scores of short stories published in two collections in her lifetime, A Good Man Is Hard To Find, and Everything That Rises Must Converge. Her Complete Stories appeared posthumously in 1971.

Lupus took Flannery O'Connor from us in 1964 when she was in her 39th year. You can visit both her childhood home and Andalusia thanks to foundations that preserve the landscapes and memories she cherished. And, thanks to her, you can visit the South anytime by simply opening one of her books.


Photos and Illustrations:
Adult portrait,

title quote, from The Violent Bear It Away
O'Connor entry, Sarah Gordon, et al,

Good Friday 2016

Christ Carrying the Cross                                 El Greco (Domenikos Theotokopoulos), 1580

From the Passion of Christ According to St. John by the Estonian composer, Arvo Part:


Photos and Illustrations:
El Greco, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York,

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Mandatum - Maundy Thursday 2016

Our Lord Jesus Christ, on the night when he was betrayed, took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to his disciples and said: Take, eat; this is my body, which is given for you. This do in remembrance of me. In the same way also he took the cup after supper, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them saying: Drink of it, all of you; this is my blood of the new testament, which is shed for you for the forgiveness of sins. This do, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.

Detail of Christ from Salvadore Dali's painting, The Sacrament of the Last Supper (1955)

"Mandatum" is a Latin word we translate into English as "commandment."  On this day Christians remember the Last Supper - likely a Passover meal - and the institution of Holy Communion, Jesus's command to his disciples to love one another as He has loved them, His agony in the Garden of Gethsemane, and His betrayal by Judas Iscariot.

Stay with me, remain here with me.

Watch and pray, watch and pray.

Stay here and keep watch with me. 
Watch and pray, watch and pray!

Watch and pray not to give way to temptation.
The spirit is eager, but the flesh is weak.

 My heart is nearly broken with sorrow. 
Remain here with me, stay awake and pray.

 Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass me by.
 Father, if this cannot pass me by without my drinking it, 
your will be done.

Stay with me, remain here with me.

Watch and pray, watch and pray.

Stay with me, remain here with me.

Watch and pray, watch and pray.

If you are interested in learning more about Dali's surreal Sacrament of the Last Supper, go here and here.


Photos and Illustrations:
Dali painting, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

Opening quotation, Lutheran Worship, Concordia Publishing House, St. Louis, Missouri

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Palm Sunday/Passion Sunday 2016

Today is Palm Sunday and Passion Sunday, the last Sunday of Lent, and the beginning of Holy Week. On this day, Christians around the world commemorate the triumphant entry of Jesus into Jerusalem. It is also a time to remember the Passion history as preparation for the Holy Week experience. Readings for the day recall the anointing of Jesus, the institution of the Lord's Supper, the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus's trials before Caiaphas and Pilate, the crucifixion of Jesus, and His burial.

All glory, laud, and honor to you Redeemer King,
To whom the lips of children made sweet hosannas ring.

You are the king of Israel and David's royal Son,
Now in the Lord's name coming, our King and Blessed One.

The company of angels are praising you on high;
Creation and all mortals in chorus make reply.

The multitude of pilgrims with palms before you went,
Our praise and prayer and anthems before you we present.

To you, before your Passion, they sang their hymns of praise.
To you, now high exalted, our melody we raise.

Their praises you accepted; accept the prayers we bring,
Great author of all goodness, all good and gracious King.

All glory, laud and honor to you, Redeemer King,
To whom the lips of children made sweet hosannas ring.

Theodulf of Orleans, 750/760-821

Next Sunday we celebrate a 2000 year-old event that changes everything and brings extraordinary meaning to the following quote:

Jesus surprises us. He is a liberator, but his way of freeing us is often not dramatic. He comes to us with simple, quiet promises, using the water of baptism and the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper to assure of those promises. He is gentle and patient, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to believe in him for their salvation. He frees us from the guilt of our sins, and strengthens us to bear our daily burdens.


N.B. The Bible pictured above served my family well beginning in the 1890's. As one of my earliest memories I recall my parents carrying it every Sunday to Mount Calvary Lutheran Church a few blocks from our home. It's too fragile for use these days and now occupies an honored place in our family archive. The book becomes special to me on Palm Sundays. Among the near eighty years of memorabilia inside are a dozen or so treasured palm crosses from my childhood. 


Photos and Illustrations:
postcard, authors family archive


Spring 2016

Spring arrived in Atlanta a half hour past midnight. The new season brought an end of two weeks of high temperatures in the 70's and 80's. So it's a bit topsy-turvy, I'm pleased to leave behind the Season of Ice even if the northeastern U.S. could get nailed with another snowstorm next week. 

No calendar in the western world has described the seasons better than the French Revolutionary Calendar used between 1793 and 1805. Unfortunately the calendar failed for a host of reasons, none of them related the appropriately descriptive days of the month. Instead of March 20, think of Germinal and her thirty days:


1. Primevere - Primrose
2. Plantane - Plane Tree
3. Asperge - Asparagus
4. Tulipe - Tulip
5. Poule - Hen
6. Bette - Chard Plant
7. Bouleau - Birch Tree
8. Jonquille - Daffodil
9. Aulne - Alder
10. Couvoir - Hatchery
11. Pervenche - Periwinkle
12. Charme - Hornbeam
13. Morille - Morel
14. Hetre - European Beech Tree
15. Abielle - Bee
16. Laitue - Lettuce
17. Meleze - Larch
18. Cigue - Hemlock
19. Radis - Radish
20. Ruche - Hive
21. Gainier - Judas Tree
22. Romaine - Lettuce
23 Marronnier - Horse chestnut
24. Roquette - Arugula or Rocket
25. Pigeon - Pigeon
26. Lilas - Lilac
27. Anemone - Anemone
28. Pensee - Pansy
29. Myrtille - Blueberry
30. Greffor - Knife

May your first day of spring be the harbinger of warm weather and wind in your sails.


Photos and Illustrations:
Spring poem, Songs of Innocence, William Blake, 1789;
Allegory of Germinal, public domain,,French National Library and Bureau of Measures, Paris

Friday, March 18, 2016

Real History: Hitler Met Mussolini On This Day In 1940

One of my favorite information sources is the almanac maintained by the local public radio station, KALW, in San Francisco.  You never know what to expect from the mind of editor, Joe Burke. Of note today is a 1940 meeting of Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini that took place in the Brenner Pass. During the meeting Mussolini agreed to join Hitler in his war against France and Great Britain that had begun six months earlier.

Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini meet at the Brenner Pass

There is surprisingly good footage of this historic meeting. Any similarity between this footage and the contemporary political scene in the United States is purely coincidental.


Photos and Illustrations:

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Nat King Cole: A Sound Blazing, Brief, And Beauiful

Nat King Cole (Gottlieb 01511).jpg

The inimitable American jazz pianist and singer, Nat King Cole, was born on this day in 1919 in Birmingham, Alabama. Powerline's cultural observer, Scott Johnson, posted a fine tribute to the man in 2009 so I'm not about to try and improve it. On the other hand, I will point out that Cole had a significant link to Georgia through his association with Savannah's favorite son, Johnny Mercer. 

Mercer is credited with discovering Cole in 1943 and developing his early career with Capitol Records, an enterprise founded by Mercer, Buddy DeSylva, and Glenn Wallichs the previous year. Over a five month period beginning in July 1943 Mercer produced five Nat King Cole Trio recordings. They were superb examples of jazz and popular music fusion that appealed to a broad American market. The recording sold in the millions then and remain embedded in American music history today. The songs are: Tea For Two, Body and Soul, Straighten Up and Fly Right, Sweet Lorraine, and Embraceable You.

Here is a sample of that history in sound from the trio before 1955:

Cole's success brought wealth to Capitol Records, made him an international star, and enriched the world of music. His death at 45  left a world shocked and saddened but the recording have kept his talent very much alive for more than sixty years after his passing.


Photos and Illustration:
Cole at the piano, June 1947, William Gottleib Photo Collection, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

Glenn T. Eskew, Johnny Mercer: Southern Songwriter for the World, Athens, Georgia: University of Georgia Press, 2013.


St. Patrick's Day 2016

Happy St. Patrick's Day

Pleasant surprises abound across this great country, some of them in the most unexpected places. Savannah will host one of those wonderful annual surprises today. At 10:15, rain or shine, the Saint Patrick's Day parade will step off for the 188th time. Almost half a million people will line the streets and squares of this historic city to watch a family-friendly event. Organizers have worked hard over the past years to keep the "Saint" and sanity in the holiday, confining most of the adult revelry to River Street following the parade. That was fine with me even in my early thirties during a second adolescence. 
It's only since the arrival of "the book"- Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil - and the discovery of Savannah as a significant tourist destination that issues with irreverent activities became serious on St. Patrick's Day. [See "A Night[and Day] in Old Savannah," August 23, 2008, for details.]  

My first parade there was in 1978 when I lived in the historic district. Over the years, I lost count as the events merged one into the other during my tenure in the Coastal Empire. Eventually, our children became Irish for a day and were part of the parade. They sat on the folded top of a hot convertible and waved their green, white and orange flags to the crowds. They have plenty of ancient Celtic ancestry from Scotland and Wales, but nothing from Ireland. Fortunately, even Savannah's old Irish families happily forgive that sin. They seek only great fun for themselves and their neighbors, often complemented with fine spring weather and thousands of azaleas blooming throughout the city.

Were those the good old days? To be honest, the parade is a fond memory. Life has moved on but I wouldn't pass on an opportunity to enjoy the day again. In fact, this historic event is so enjoyable it should be on every one's list at least once. That said, better make your reservations tomorrow before March 17, 2017 becomes "No Vacancy."

May you have a safe and happy St. Patrick's Day wherever the day finds you!


Photos and Illustrations:
St. Patrick photo,
postcards, author's family archive

Thursday, March 3, 2016

The Department Of Everything Else Has A Birthday

The Department of the Interior was established by Congress 167 years ago today. The vast landscapes between the coasts had indeed become significant by 1849.  Settlement had expanded well beyond the Mississippi River across the Great Plains and the Rockies to the Pacific. Virtually all Indians had been moved and resettled in the west. The discovery of gold in California heightened interest in mineral wealth and the expansion of mining. Manifest destiny, the idea that all of North America should be part of the United States, was active in the Pacific Northwest and by 1848 had already achieved victory over Mexico from California to Texas. Indeed the interior had become a busy and diversified aspect of the American experience and one that demanded some form of federal oversight.

Today the department manages a variety of themes and their application at the heart of the American experience including history, nature, geography, and science.

For almost 37 years as a volunteer and employee I was fortunate to be associated with Interior through my work with the National Park Service. The Service has a noble mission carrying out what has been described as "the best idea America ever had." It was a wonder- filled experience that took me to the far corners of the country in terms of both geography and history. It's one I'd repeat without hesitation. So here's a big thank you to Interior for giving me such an opportunity and a happy birthday wish for continued careful stewardship of everything else.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

St. David's Day: National Day Of Wales

Why is a Welsh national flag flying from our house today?

March 1 is celebrated in much of the Christian world in the west as St. David's Day. He was born in Wales in the 6th century, attained sainthood in the 12th century, and today is recognized as the patron saint of Wales. Dewi San (St. David) died on this day in 569 and was buried in the cathedral bearing his name in Pembrokeshire. The day is also celebrated as the National Day throughout the country.

Welsh national flag created in the 15th century

Although German traditions remain strong in my family, I'm equally proud to say that I have Welsh ancestors thanks to the bloodline introduced by my grandmother's parents who immigrated to the United States from Cardiff, Wales, in the early 1870's. Although I don't remember my grandmother - she died before my second birthday - my father always reminded me of her Celtic pride and Welsh ancestry expressed especially in a love for song and singing. 

Wales is a small, ancient country located southwest of England between the Bristol Channel and the Irish Sea south of the Isle of Man. The nation has a rich cultural heritage beginning with Celtic peoples in the early Iron Age. Its isolation has left them with strong genetic identifiers as the "last of the 'true' Britons." There are only 3 million people living in Wales today. Historically, the population was never large but there was a limited diaspora beginning two centuries ago particularly with the Industrial Revolution and its need for coal. Only half of one percent of Americans claim Welsh ancestry. I'm pleased to be among them.


Photos and Illustrations:
Welsh flag, public domain image, Open Clipart Library