Thursday, June 30, 2016

Lena Horne: Legendary Lady Of Song

Lena Horne was born on this day in Brooklyn in 1917. Those familiar with the singer will always remember her remarkable talent as a legendary performer with a sparkling personality and a beautiful smile, In her almost seventy years in entertainment she worked the big band and cabaret circuits, movies, Broadway, and television. She became politically active in the fight for civil rights following World War II, a decision that placed her on the federal entertainment blacklist for over a decade. Readers can enjoy more details about Horne's life and career in a thorough obituary published following her death in May 2010.

File:Lena horne 1964.JPG
Bell Telephone Hour television publicity photo, 1964

Here she is performing her signature song, Stormy Weather, from the 1943 film of the same name.


Photos and Illustrations:
public domain photograph, NBC Television, 


Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Mel Brooks At 90

Today we're wishing one of the funniest men on the planet a very happy birthdayThat performer, writer, director, producer, songwriter, and perpetually wacko comic personality known as Mel Brooks is ninety years old. In his seventy year career he's brought us some of the finest comedy to grace the American stage, big screens in theaters, and the television screens in millions of our homes. And there's no end in sight either with his work in animated features, occasional television appearances, and  persistent rumblings of a Spaceballs sequel.

Brooks in a still from Blazing Saddles, 1974

Brooks started in comedy in the Catskills in the late 1940's, became a television comedy writer and performer in the early 1950's, and graduated to film direction with The Producer's in 1968. The rest is history, a laugh track of films including the gems:

The Producers (1968)   "Will the dancing Hitlers please wait in the wings? We are only seeing singing Hitlers."

Young Frankenstein (1974) "Abby...Normal."

Silent Movie (1976) "Non!"

High Anxiety (1977) "Those who are tardy do not get fruit cup!"

History of the World Part I (1981) "It's good to be the king."

Spaceballs (1987) "May the schwartz be with you."

Robin Hood: Men in Tights (1993) "Actually Scarlet is my middle name. My whole name is Will Scarlet O'Hara. We're from Georgia."

Dracula: Dead and Loving It (1995) "I have been to many stakings - you have to know where to stand! You know, everything in life is location, location, location...."

The Producers (2005) "I'm not going into the toilet. I'm going into show business!"

Three of the films listed aboveBlazing Saddles The Producers (1968)and Young Frankenstein are ranked at #6, #11, and #13, respectively, on the American Film Institute's 100 Greatest Comedies list.  Quite an achievement for a sickly kid who got his start as a drummer at resorts in the Catskills. 

In closing here is an unforgettable three minutes and twenty seconds from the film he calls his personal favorite, the 1968 production of The Producers:

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Johnny Mercer: Still Bringing Music To The World

Today marks the fortieth anniversary of the death of Johnny Mercer (1909-1976), a sentimental gentleman from Georgia, the favorite son of Savannah, and one of the most significant figures in American music history. He died in Los Angeles after a wide-ranging career as a prolific lyricist and songwriter, popular singer, and music industry innovator, entrepreneur and benefactor.

Johnny Mercer statue by Susie Chisholm, erected in Ellis Square, Savannah, in 2009

For those who may not be familiar with his work, here is a list of what Mercer considered his "bread and butter songs," including his four Academy Award-winning efforts (in bold) and several nominations (underlined):

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

Hardly a day passes that even a casual music listener will not hear a Johnny Mercer song. 
 For those who enjoy the Great American Songbook and jazz/pop vocals, the Mercer magic remains very much alive in contemporary music. Looks like the man once described by the lyricist, Yip Harburg, as "one of our great folk poets" will be around for a long, long time. How lucky we are!

Mercer portrait and signature, Mercer grave, Bonaventure Cemetery, Savannah, GA


Photos and Illustrations:
grave site photo, Emily E. Beck

Harburg quote, Portrait of Johnny: The Life and Times of John Herndon Mercer, Gene Lees, Hal Leonard, February 2006.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Summer Arrives With The Strawberry Moon

Around the world today people will have an opportunity to see an event that has occurred about thirty times in the last 2000 years. That event in the northern hemisphere is the summer solstice coinciding with a full moon. For residents of Atlanta the solstice occurs at 6:34 PM EDT. The Strawberry Moon will rise 9:00 PM as the sun sets on the opposite horizon. 

Summer solstice at Stonehenge, Wiltshire, England

The sun reaches its highest point in the sky today and it is the longest day of the year. Although the sun begins its descent tomorrow, insolation from our star will continue to raise atmospheric temperatures until late July. As this day marks the end of the season of renewal and the beginning of the season of growth and flower, I am reminded of this quote by D. H. Lawrence:

The greatest need of man is the renewal forever of the complete rhythm of life and death, the rhythm of the sun's year, the body's year.

There's plenty of interesting music for the day including this 13th century English round:

Middle English

Sumer is icumen in,

Lhude sing cuccu!

Groweþ sed and bloweþ med
And springþ þe wde nu,
Sing cuccu!
Awe bleteþ after lomb,
Lhouþ after calue cu.
Bulluc sterteþ, bucke uerteþ,
Murie sing cuccu!
Cuccu, cuccu, wel singes þu cuccu;
Ne swik þu nauer nu.
Sing cuccu nu. Sing cuccu.
Sing cuccu. Sing cuccu nu!

Modern English

Summer has arrived,
Loudly sing, Cuckoo!
The seed grows and the meadow
And the wood springs anew,
Sing, Cuckoo!
The ewe bleats after the lamb
The cow lows after the calf.
The bullock stirs, the stag farts,
Merrily sing, Cuckoo!
Cuckoo, cuckoo, well you sing,
Don't ever you stop now,
Sing cuckoo now. Sing, Cuckoo.
Sing Cuckoo. Sing cuckoo now!

Here is a tone poem, A Song of Summer, written some 700 years later by Frederick Delius as transcribed and arranged by Eric Fenby:

And finally, there is summer as the season of youth, the school break, the summer job, of free time and good friends, and for many what the renowned mythologist Joseph Campbell called "friendship set to music."


Photos and Illustrations:


Sunday, June 19, 2016

Juneteenth 2016

So what is Juneteenth?

Emancipation                                                                            Thomas Nast, 1865

It's not a federal holiday but there will be official state celebrations of this historic event in forty-three states today. Juneteenth as described by the Library of Virginia...

...has grown into a popular event across the country to commemorate emancipation from slavery and celebrate African American culture. Juneteenth refers to June 19, the date in 1865 when the Union Army arrived in Galveston and announced that the Civil War was over and that slaves were free under the Emancipation Proclamation. Although the proclamation had become official more than two years earlier on January 1, 1863, freedmen in Texas adopted June 19th, later known colloquially as Juneteenth, as the date they celebrated emancipation. Juneteenth celebrations continued into the 20th century, and survived a period of declining participation because of the Great Depression and World War II. In the 1950s and 1960s Juneteenth celebrations witnessed a revival as they became catalysts for publicizing civil rights issues of the day. In 1980 the Texas state legislature established June 19 as a state holiday.

For more about the history of this significant day in American history visit Juneteenth World Wide Celebration.


Photos and Illustrations:
Library of Congress at


Father's Day 2016

Best wishes to all dads on their special day. Here's a picture of my dad taken in 1917 when he was in the fourth grade.  Woodrow Wilson was in the White House. The influenza pandemic that would eventually kill 500,000 Americans by 1920 began. The U.S. declared war against Germany. Federal spending was $1.95 billion. The Mount Wilson Observatory opened in California. Georgia Tech won the NCAA football championship.

He grew up to be a lot happier than he appears here. What a difference a lifetime makes. He's been gone from this world for over thirty years. My children never knew him but I think they know him well. I've done my best to teach them who he was and honor him by carrying on his many traditions.



Friday, June 17, 2016

M.C. Escher: Illustrating The Fantastic And Impossible

Just about everyone know his art. Few people know his name.

Hand With Reflecting Sphere                                                                                   1935

Encounter                                                                                                           1944

Ascending and Descending                                                       1960

Maurits Cornelis Escher, was born in the Netherlands on this day in 1898. The M.C. Escher Foundation and the M.C. Escher Company maintain an outstanding, comprehensive site about the artist and his work. A visit to the store is essential, first, to look at and purchase the quality merchandise, and second, to see a superb example of how to market your goods on the Internet. The entire site deserves a design award.  The site will also introduce you to tesselations. Learn more about them here.


M.C. Escher Foundation and M.C. Escher Company

Igor Stravinsky: "Shiny-New, Original, Inimitable"

Today is the birthday of Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971), popularly recognized as a leading founder of Modern music in the 20th century. Born in Russia, he lived in Switzerland and France before immigrating to the United States after World War II. He composed in a variety of styles over his lifetime but is best remembered for his dazzling, rhythmic music in the early years - 1910 to 1914 - of the Ballets Russes produced by Sergei Diaghilev in Paris. 

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Photoportrait of Igor Stravinsky, c. 1920s - 1930s

His work during that brief period included The Firebird (1910), Petrushka (1911), and The Rite of Spring (1913). One could say they are all signature pieces - experimental and revolutionary - that dazzled and in some cases infuriated their audiences. Regardless, they as well as other sounds  from Stravinsky's imagination have had a huge impact on music and arts. 

Here is Part 1 - all three available on YouTube - of a meticulous 1987 recreation by the Joffrey Ballet of The Rite of Spring.  There's probably no better representation around of what audiences experienced a century ago.

In the one hundred years since the premiere of The Rite of Spring  its innovative sounds have been re-patterned by the likes of Aaron Copeland, Leonard Bernstein, John Williams and many others. The American classical composer who has perhaps carried rhythm as art to its farthest horizons is Philip Glass. Not everyone has an ear for Glass's work.  Then again, the most productive experiments often  make the biggest messes.


Photos and Illustrations:
George Grantham Bain Collection, United States Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Washington

Igor Stravinsky entry,
title quote, Leonard Bernstein, Homage to Stravinsky,

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Bloomsday: James Joyce, Ulysses, And Leopold Bloom

Today is far from an ordinary day in the world of western literature.  It isn't that a number of significant events occurred or that any event occurred that day. Instead, June 16 (1904) is the setting for a several hundred page descriptive stream of happenings in the life of the fictional character, Leopold Bloom. The work is Ulysses, published in book form in 1922. The author is James Joyce. 

Ulysses is a shape shifting piece of art written out of the ashes of the Belle Epoque and the alienation of an increasingly existential world. If you accept that meanings are in people, this book assuredly means something different to every person who accepted the challenge to read it. Just can't get more existential than that.  The Swiss psychiatrist, Carl Jung, said this about it:

What is so staggering about Ulysses is the fact that behind a thousand veils nothing lies hidden; that it turns neither toward the mind nor toward the world, but, as cold as the moon looking on from cosmic space, allows the drama of growth, being, and decay to pursue its course.

A first edition copy describes as "unread except for the racy bits."

To say the least, Ulysses is an adventure. For some it may be merely pornographic or a huge word puzzle or a unique work of art in its truest form. However you chose to view the novel keep in mind that people are celebrating this work and its author across the world today on what has become known as Bloomsday. And even those who know nothing about Bloomsday, never read the book or know little about the author have likely encountered bits and pieces of Joyce's skill in school and through popular culture. This memorable paragraph ends the book:

I was a Flower of the mountain yes when I put the rose in my hair like the Andalusian girls used or shall I wear a red yes and how he kissed me under the Moorish wall and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.

I came to appreciate that quote so much I used it for almost twenty years in a descriptive writing course. Other quotes could have been useful but their playfulness simply made them interesting, maybe even enjoyable if you had a reading guide - really an essential - at hand:

Meditations of evolution increasingly vaster: of the moon invisible in incipient lunation, approaching perigee: of the infinite lattiginous scintillating uncondensed milky way, discernible by daylight by an observer placed at the lower end of a cylindrical vertical shaft 5000 ft deep sunk from the surface towards the centre of the earth: of Sirius (alpha in Canis Maior) 10 lightyears (57,000,000,000,000 miles) distant and in volume 900 times the dimension of our planet: of Arcturus: of the precession of equinoxes: of Orion with belt and sextuple sun theta and nebula in which 100 of our solar systems could be contained: of moribund and of nascent new stars such as Nova in 1901: of our system plunging towards the constellation of Hercules: of the parallax or parallactic drift of socalled fixed stars, in reality evermoving wanderers from immeasurably remote eons to infinitely remote futures in comparison with which the years, threescore and ten, of allotted human life formed a parenthesis of infinitesimal brevity.

So there is word play at its best with lots of traditional arts and sciences, a dash of Dadaism, even a precursor or two of pataphysics. Rest assured there's more there than the racy bits. 

If you want to learn more about the day, the book, and the author, visit these sites: Bloomsday, Ulysses, and James Joyce


Photos and Illustrations:, June 4, 2009, photo by Martin Argles

Malcolm Cowley, Exile's Return: A Literary Odyssey of the 1920s,  revised, Viking Press, 1964

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

The Magna Carta At 801 Years.

Eight hundred years ago today England's King John set his seal to a document containing ideals that have formed the basis for democratic governments ever since. The document is the Magna Carta. Here is what Michael Wood wrote about it in his book, The Story of England, a companion volume to the BBC documentary of the same name:

In the Magna Carta in 1215 King John had acceded to the barons' demands made in response to his wholesale abuses of power. In essence it was a charter for the ruling class but it embodied the crucial principle that the king was bound by the law. Immediately after John's death Magna Carta was reissued in the name of his successor, and there were several versions up to 1225. Since then it has come to be regarded by English people, and by all who have adopted English law, as the chief constitutional defense against arbitrary or unjust rule. Its most famous clauses express some of the English people's most deeply held political beliefs, and pertain to both rich and poor:
No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed, or exiled, or deprived of his standing in any other way, nor will we proceed with force against him, or send others to do so, except by the lawful judgement of his equals, or by the law of the land . . . To no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice.
Later lawyers found here the basis for fundamental English rights: equality before the law and freedom from arbitrary arrest . . . .

Article of the Barons (Magna Carta, 1215            British Museum

For more on the Magna Carta, including some excellent links and illustrations, I refer readers to Instapundit's Stephen Hayward and his fine tribute to this historic moment in Western history.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Flag Day 2016

On this day in 1777 the Second Continental Congress adopted a design for the flag of the United States. This year we celebrate the centennial of President Woodrow Wilson's proclamation officially establishing June 14 as Flag Day.

The original Star Spangled Banner, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC

Oh! thus be it ever, when freemen shall stand

Between their loved home and the war's desolation!
Blest with victory and peace, may the heav'n rescued land
Praise the Power that hath made and preserved us a nation.
Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just,
And this be our motto: "In God is our trust."
And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave!

                                                                           The Star Spangled Banner
                                                                            Verse 4

It wouldn't be right to have Flag Day without music so here's a rousing tribute to Old Glory from the 1942 film, Yankee Doodle Dandy, a biopic of the American songwriter, George M. Cohan. If you don't know this film it's worth viewing as one of the most entertaining biographies out of Hollywood as well as a prime example of wartime propaganda. Morale was marginal that year on both the home front and the battlefield. Any lift in spirit would help sustain our allied fight against the evil infecting Europe and the Pacific at that time. The film certainly rallied that spirit. It was a patriotic blockbuster winning several Oscars and . The clip below comes from the computer colorized version produced by Ted Turner in 1986.


Yankee Doodle Dandy entry,

Monday, June 6, 2016

D-Day Invasion, June 6, 1944: To Take The Cliffs, To Free A Continent, To End A War

Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial at Omaha Beach

June 6, 1944, 160,000 Allied troops landed along a 50-mile stretch of heavily-fortified French coastline to fight Nazi Germany on the beaches of Normandy, France. General Dwight D. Eisenhower called the operation a crusade in which “we will accept nothing less than full victory.” More than 5,000 Ships and 13,000 aircraft supported the D-Day invasion, and by day’s end on June 6, the Allies gained a foot- hold in Normandy. The D-Day cost was high -more than 9,000 Allied Soldiers were killed or wounded -- but more than 100,000 Soldiers began the march across Europe to defeat Hitler.

We don't teach history much these days. If students simply learned that "more than 100,000 soldiers began the march across Europe to defeat Hitler" and his National Socialist movement, I would be pleased.

For more on the significance of this day link to the U.S. Army D-Day Page


Photos and Illustrations:
U.S. Army D-Day Page

title derived from a quote by President Ronald Reagan
quotation,, U.S. Army D-Day Page