Monday, April 25, 2016

The First Lady Of Song

Fitzgerald at a White House performance in October 1981

Ella Fitzgerald, the First Lady of Song, was born on this day in 1917. Readers can link to my Fitzgerald entry from last year here for more biographical information.  And this video-rich tribute prepared by Scott Johnson posting at should provide plenty of entertainment.

Fifty years ago, Fitzgerald was in the midst of recording her famous "Songbook" series of eight albums representing the best of the Great American Songbook. Nothing since has quite matched it. Doubt anything will. Though she left us in 1996, Ella simply "is." I can only imagine the look on the faces of the heavenly hosts when she waltzed through those pearly gates scat singing all the way. Simply incomparable. Maybe too marvelous for words.


Photos and Illustrations:
White House, Item C4495-9A, President Reagan with Ella Fitzgerald after her performance for King Juan Carlos I of Spain in the east room, 10/13/81; Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum, Simi Valley, California.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

May Madness Time For Lacrosse, The Fastest Game On Two Feet

Lacrosse fans who were fortunate enough to see North Carolina's stunning fourth quarter comeback and eventual take down of top-ranked Notre Dame yesterday know full-well the excitement of the game. Arguably it will go down as one of the best contests in living memory. Had it gone to overtime and a Carolina victory the game could have easily moved into the "best ever" status.

An Indian Ball-Play                                       George Catlin, American, 1846-50

From now through Memorial Day weekend college lacrosse teams across the country will play in a number of conference championships. Lacrosse's "May Madness" ends in the NCAA Men's National Championship games in Philadelphia.

Lacrosse is an ancient American sport, dating from about 1000 C.E. In it's early days, the game had a religious significance. Sides could consist of as many as a few thousand players and the losing side sometimes paid with their lives. Fast forward to today and you could say the game still has that religious fervor if you live from Maryland to New England, that part of the country where three- year-old boys get little lacrosse sticks for Christmas. These days, the teams are a bit smaller - ten players to a side - and there's almost always some bloodshed of the non-fatal variety.  For the who, how, what and why of the game, visit, the home of the national governing body of lacrosse.

The glory days for lacrosse at my alma mater, the Univerisity of Maryland

The game is furious and fast and it continues to be the fastest growing sport in the United States, even eclipsing the growth of soccer. Just a generation ago, the game at the college level was a virtually exclusive sport heavily anchored in the Ivy League and the Northeast. Today there are more than sixty Division I teams found on the East and West Coasts and at the flagship universities in the flyover country. Each year that number grows by two or three teams. Expansion in other college divisions and at the middle and high school levels is much greater. I'd say there is an outstanding future in store for lacrosse. 

For comprehensive information about high school, college and professional lacrosse teams, schedules, news, and broadcast coverage, visit  The ESPN television broadcast schedule for the NCAA tournament can be found here.  



Photos and Illustrations:
Catlin painting, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington;
1955 photo, University of Maryland, The Terrapin, p. 228

Saturday, April 23, 2016

William Shakespeare: He That Dies Pays All Debts

William Shakespeare died on this day 400 years ago. Indeed he paid his debt and endowed the world with fascinating and entertaining insight into universal human values. His name and work will be with us a long, long time.


Learn more about the man and his place in our world today at WNYC's fine commemorative event, All Shakespeare all the Time

UPDATE: Reader will also enjoy this brief comment by Steven Hayward at Powerline.


Photos and Illustrations:
Chandos portrait, artist and authenticity unconfirmed, National Portrait Gallery, London

title quotation, William Shakespeare, The Tempest, Act 3, Scene 2

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Charlie Chaplin: A Tramp Is Born

If you took a photograph of the "Little Tramp" to almost any corner of the world touched by Western culture chances are someone would recognize it. That's a powerful statement given that the character hasn't appeared in a film for over seventy years. Greatness persists. And so it is with Charlie Chaplin, born on this date in London in 1889.

In his 88 years, he graced the world of entertainment as a performer, director, producer, businessman, and composer. His concern for everyday people and their often difficult lives was a common theme in virtually all his films as well as his private life. Such humanitarian sympathies led him to ally with well-known leftist in the U.S. and eventually leave the country in the early 1950s'. Through it all, his endearing, bumbling, yet refined, tramp brought laughter and awareness to millions.

Take some time today to visit Chaplin's official site. The biography page is especially useful, providing information about nine "masterpiece features" and a complete filmography.

Below, watch Chaplin at his best - with a variation of the "Tramp" - portraying Adenoid Hynkel, dictator of Tomainia, as he contemplates ruling the world. Any resemblance between Adenoid Hynkel and Adolph Hilter is completely intentional. If you have not watched The Great Dictator (1940), add it to your queue today. You'll love it.  The film is often cites as the finest example of the use of ridicule in film in the twentieth century.

Saturday, April 9, 2016

Paul Robeson: The Lost Art Of A 20th Century American Activist

Paul Robeson                                          Gordon Parks, 1942        

One of the finest natural singing talents of the last century was the American bass, Paul Robeson, born on this day in 1898. Robeson was a scholar, athlete, actor and singer, and a graduate of Rutgers University and Columbia Law School. You can read more about his biography here.  

In 1927 Robeson found instant fame singing "Ol' Man River" in the Broadway musical, Showboat. He achieved extraordinary international success over the next decade as a singer and actor. At the same time he was deeply concerned with discrimination affecting his fellow black Americans and Africans world-wide. A 1934 visit to the Soviet Union where he met Joseph Stalin and was treated like royalty helped turn him from art to Marxist activism. Sadly for the next 25 years his role as a Soviet propagandist completely derailed his arts career. Opposition to Robeson's political stance softened by 1960 and he attempted to restore his place as a singer. Unfortunately, ill health intervened and he returned to the United States where he lived a near reclusive life until his death in 1976.  

Although Robeson always denied Communist Party membership, in 1998 during the centennial celebration of his birth, Gus Hall, General Secretary of the Communist Party USA revealed that he was indeed a secret member of the party for several decades. More telling perhaps was Robeson's Stalinist dedication. This is what he wrote in tribute on news of Stalin's death in 1953:

Today in Korea -- in Southeast Asia -- in Latin America and the West Indies, in the Middle East, in Africa, one sees tens of millions of long oppressed colonial peoples surging toward freedom. What courage -- what sacrifice -- what determination never to rest until victory!
Colonial peoples today look to the Soviet Socialist Republics. They see how under the great Stalin millions like themselves have found a new life. They see that aided and guided by the example of the Soviet Union, led by their Mao Tse-tung, a new China adds its mighty power to the true and expanding socialist way of life. They see formerly semi-colonial Eastern European nations building new People's Democracies, based upon the people's power with the people shaping their own destinies. So much of this progress stems from the magnificent leadership, theoretical and practical, given by their friend Joseph Stalin.
They have sung -- sing now and will sing his praise -- in song and story. Slava - slava - slava - Stalin, Glory to Stalin. Forever will his name be honored and beloved in all lands.
In all spheres of modern life the influence of Stalin reaches wide and deep. From his last simply written but vastly discerning and comprehensive document, back through the years, his contributions to the science of our world society remain invaluable. One reverently speaks of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin - the shapers of humanity's richest present and future.

It may be difficult for some to understand how in 1934 Robeson as a scholar could be driven by the social ills of his native country into the welcoming arms of a dictatorship actively murdering millions of its own people. At least three factors were at work: the social and political devastation of World War I, a capitalist economy in depression, and in the case of the United States, an activist federal executive backed by a sympathetic national press. Had Robeson used his gifted voice rather than political ideology as the basis for his activism, I have no doubt he would have become a well-known, widely respected civil rights leader as well as a beloved American entertainer with a historic, lifetime career in opera, popular song, and jazz. 

Here's why I hold that opinion:


Photos and Illustrations:
Gordon Parks, Office of War Information photo, 1942, Library of Congress, Prints and Photos Division, Farm Security Administration


Robeson, Paul (1978). Sheldon, Philip; Foner, Henry, eds.  Paul Robeson Speaks: Writings, Speeches, and Interviews, A Centennial Celebration, Citadel Press 

Saturday, April 2, 2016

Still Loving Emmy Lou Harris After All These Years

Emmylou Harris, my "sweetheart of the rodeo," was born on this day in 1947. She played many of the local clubs and coffee houses in and around DC when I was there in the early '70's. Unfortunately, I wasn't in the audience. Still, it was impossible not to see and hear the advertising in and around Bethesda, Chevy Chase and Silver Spring. Eventually, Harris moved to Los Angeles to work with Gram Parsons and his band, The Grievous Angels. When he died in 1973, she was devastated, but carried on Parsons's search for the fusion sound he called "cosmic American music." Two years later, with the release of her album, Pieces of the Sky, she was on her way. The sound Harris and Parsons produced in their short time together would have a significant impact on decades of folk, rock, and country music to follow.

Here is Harris, then and now, and always  my "sweetheart of the rodeo."


For more on words and music here is Scott Johnson's Powerline post, "Songbird," on the occasion of the artist's birthday in 2013. 

Definitely music worth buying!