Saturday, November 18, 2017

Johnny Mercer: Savannah's Favorite Son Has Another Birthday

Johnny Mercer statue, Ellis Square, Savannah, Georgia

November 18, marks the 108th anniversary of the birth of John Herndon (Johnny) 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 It was the beginning of a musical career that would produce more than 1500 published songs, a few thousand more unpublished songs and song fragments, scores of poems and prose pieces, an unfinished autobiography, and a major chapter in the history of American music in the twentieth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 on Broadwa. And it marked the beginning of an amazing career in the American music industry. 

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, in fact, a universal talent. He not only composed melodies but also wrote lyrics, sang a wide range of songs, performed in films, kept the nation laughing with his comedy on radio and television, and would go on to co-founded Capitol Records and the Songwriters Hall of Fame. 

Even forty years after his death, older generations in Savannah still recognize Mercer as the city's favorite son and a beloved sentimental gentleman from Georgia. We have come a long way from the advent of rock and roll in the mid-1950's and its dominance in the family tree of popular music. Still, the Great American Songbook, that generation of music beginning around 1930 and continuing into the early 1960's, has found a comfortable niche among music lovers around the world. Many songs in that now-tattered "book" belong to Mercer and stand in tribute to a man described as America's folk-poet and top song lyricist in our history.



Johnny Mercer: The Life, Times, and Song Lyrics of Our Huckleberry Friend, Bob Bach and Ginger Mercer, The American Poet and Lyricists Series, Lyle Stuart, October 1982.

Skylark: The Life and Times of Johnny Mercer, Philip Furia, St. Martin's Press, December 2004.

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

The Complete Lyrics of Johnny Mercer, Johnny Mercer, edited by Kimball, Day, Kreuger, and Davis; Knopf 2009

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

Johnny Mercer Foundation

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Veterans Day 2017

Veterans Day began as Armistice Day, marking the end of World War I on "the eleventh day of the eleventh hour of the eleventh month" of 1918. Today, this holiday honors the men and women who have defended the United States through service in the Army, Marine Corps, Navy, Air Force, and Coast Guard.

In my family I knew only three veterans, all uncles, one serving in World War I and the other in World War II. 

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. I was ten when he died and didn't know him, 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 sixty years ago.

The other veterans, Uncle Hollis - better known as "Red" - and Uncle Charles both served in the Pacific during World War II. In 1943-44, Red was assigned to Barber's Point Naval Air Station in Hawaii while his brother-in-law, Charles, served at Pearl Harbor. The facilities were a mere five miles apart but almost one year passed before they knew they were so close. On hearing the news, they resolved to meet for a photograph at the first opportunity. And here it is, taken at Waikiki with Red (l) and Charles (r) together at last.

Both returned safely to their Potomac Valley hometowns in the Appalachian Mountains near Cumberland, Maryland. Hardly a decade passed before the declining economy in the region forced them to relocate to better job opportunities. Red moved his family to Akron, Ohio and a career with Goodyear Tire and Rubber. Charles took his family to the booming oil industry in Houston, Texas and work in real estate management. Both are gone now, along with their wives, Edith and Dorothy, and contact with the cousins is infrequent these days.

I am not a veteran. I'll never experience how military service shapes a person inside. But I do count many veterans of the Vietnam, Gulf. Afghanistan, Iraq wars and other military operations among my friends.  They taught me more than any book that the cost of freedom is not free.  Each of them paid a very personal price that enables us to enjoy life in this bountiful nation today.  On this, their day of honor, I offer up to all of them my sincerest admiration and thanks for their service.

Friday, November 10, 2017

The United States Marine Corps: 242 Years Of Greatness

The Second Continental Congress established the Continental Marines, later designated the United States Marine Corps, on this day in 1775 in Philadelphia. Marines have 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 Marines everywhere, especially to my fellow historian, never-ending inspiration, and former National Park Service colleague, Edwin Cole (Ed) Bearss, who turns 95 next June.

Ed Bearss 2005.jpg
Ed leading a tour at Gettysburg in 2005

Monday, November 6, 2017

Chatham Artillery Punch: A Holiday Treat For History Buffs

With Thanksgiving a few weeks away it's also time to think about entertaining at those Christmas, New Year's, and Twelfth Night parties and other special events. Long-time readers know one of my favorite preparations for those occasions is Savannah's very own concoction known as Chatham Artillery Punch. If you assemble your batch this week it should be perfect for sharing on December 4  when artillerymen honor Saint Barbara, their patron saint.

This is a deliciously smooth, flavorful and potent drink to be enjoyed responsibly in an appropriate setting. Keep in mind the longer it ferments, the more powerful, deceptive and tasty it becomes. If made this week, by Christmas it should be legendary. There is a point - say after two months - at which it 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.

In the past I've posted a recipe for 50 servings but this year it's reduced by half for two reasons. First, it's an expensive endeavor, and, second, a small cup can be enjoyed for a long time. The origin of today's recipe is lost to history but the assemblage of scattered notes over the decades - like the spirits themselves - produces a deliciously potent punch. 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.

For 25 servings of Chatham Artillery Punch:

1 quart of strong green tea (soak about 1/4 pound of tea for a day, then strain)
Juice of 5 lemons
10 ounces brown sugar
1 quart Catawba wine (a muscadine wine may be easier to find and works as well)
1 quart Santa Cruz rum (use Virgin Islands style rum, light or dark)
1 pint brandy
1 pint dry gin (I like the flavorings in Bombay Sapphire)
1 pint rye whiskey (Bulleit 95 Rye Small Batch is a perfect choice)
1.5 pints Queen Anne cherries
1.5 pints pineapple chunks
1.5 quarts champagne

To prepare, sterilize a 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 - a month is better. Careful sampling is permitted to insure the fermentation process is working as planned. To serve, pour the mixture carefully over a block of ice, add the champagne, and stir gently. IMPORTANT: Never refrigerate to cool ahead of serving or serve with ice cubes. 


Distinctive Unit Insignia of the Chatham Artillery

The Chatham Artillery survives today as the 1st Battalion of the 118th Field Artillery Regiment of the Georgia National Guard. Their latest service was in Iraq. Their annual banquet is moving into its third century.


Sunday, November 5, 2017

Remembering Gram Parsons On His Birthday

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.

Parson would have been 71 today. Here are the Byrds performing his song, "One Hundred Years From Now," on their groundbreaking album - and Parsons's concept - Sweetheart of the Rodeo:

With barely a decade of musical composition and performance behind him Gram Parsons made a lasting and profound impression on American popular music. We will continue to hear that influence for a long, long time.

For more on the Gram Parsons story, read this review from The Times Online, this Country Music Television biography, and this comprehensive Wikipedia entry with many links to his discography.

Guy Fawkes Day 2017

Guy Fawkes Day celebration in London, 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.

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. Frankly, I'd love to see it happen again.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

All Hallows Eve 1517: Here I Stand

Martin Luther Seminary, Mequon, Wisconsin

In 1517, Martin Luther knew that All Saints Church in Wittenburg, Germany, would be filled with worshipers on November 1 for All Saints Day celebrations. For this reason he posted his ninety-five theses on the door of the church the night before to publicize his disgust with the Catholic practice of collecting indulgences from sinners seeking salvation. Little did Luther know that his protest on October 31, All Hallow's Eve, would start a revolution within the church. Today, Protestants around the world commemorate this event every October 31 as Reformation Day.

Johann Sebastian Bach, the musical voice of the Reformation in the Baroque period, wrote the following cantata for Reformation Day 1725:

1. Chorus

God the Lord is sun and shield. The Lord gives grace and honor, He will allow no good to be lacking from the righteous.

2. Aria A

God is our sun and shield!
Therefore this goodness
shall be praised by our grateful heart,
which He protects like His little flock.
For He will protect us from now on,
although the enemy sharpens his arrows
and a vicious hound already barks.

3. Chorale

Now let everyone thank God
with hearts, mouths, and hands,
Who does great things
for us and to all ends,
Who has done for us from our mother's wombs
and childhood on
many uncountable good things
and does so still today.

4. Recitative B

Praise God, we know
the right way to blessedness;
for, Jesus, You have revealed it to us through Your word,
therefore Your name shall be praised for all time.
Since, however, many yet
at this time
must labor under a foreign yoke
out of blindness,
ah! then have mercy
also on them graciously,
so that they recognize the right way
and simply call You their Intercessor.

5. Aria (Duet) S B

God, ah God, abandon Your own ones
never again!
Let Your word shine brightly for us;
although harshly
against us the enemy rages,
yet our mouths shall praise You.

6. Chorale

Uphold us in the truth,
grant eternal freedom,
to praise Your name
through Jesus Christ. Amen.

Almost four years later, Martin Luther was urged to recant his theses as he stood before the stood before the Diet of Worms. He replied:

Unless I am convicted by scripture and plain reason--I do not accept the authority of popes and councils for they have contradicted each other--my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise, God help me. Amen.

 With Luther's statement, attempts at reforming the Christian Church has reached a tipping point. There would be no turning back .


Photos and Illustrations:
Conrad Schmitt Studios, Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Bach translation, emmanuelmusic,org

Friday, October 27, 2017

Dylan Thomas: "Rage, Rage Against The Dying Of The Light"

Today marks the birthday of the Welsh writer, Dylan Thomas an artist whose work reflected his immersion in the themes and images of coastal living. His lyrical descriptive writing, poetry and unforgettable voice brought him great fame in the United States in the decade prior to his untimely death in New York in 1953.

Thomas in a London park

Thomas and his native land have special meaning to me. My great grandparents from my mother's side immigrated from Cardiff, Wales, to the United States in the 1870's. Though I never knew my grandmother - she died before my second year - my father often recalled how she took pride in her Celtic roots and the Welsh love for song and singing.

It is interesting that he should remember the talk of song and singing. Many critics and authorities write that Thomas's recitations are spoken words that approach song. Readers can reach their own conclusion by listening to the poet reading Poem in October, his recollections of his thirtieth birthday. Audio quality isn't the best. I suggest earphones and closed eyes for this sound journey if you choose not to read along.

What an unforgettable voice. I first heard a recording of Thomas sometime in elementary school. There's a good chance few students in any grade have that opportunity today. How unfortunate. We often think education has come a long way over the last seven decades. Perhaps it has, but somewhere on that journey we have undoubtedly lost some very precious cultural experiences. If we could hear Thomas's truth singing every year, we would know so much better who we are as individuals and as a people. 

Here is Thomas reciting most famous poem, Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night, a powerful, emotion-filled villanelle addressing the end of earthly life. 

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Picasso: "Everything You Can Imagine Is Real."

The world-renowned artist, Pablo Picasso, was born on this day in 1881 in the city of Malaga, Spain. When he died 91 years later in 1973, Alden Whitman said this about him in the opening paragraphs of a New York Times obituary:

There was Picasso the neoclassicist; Picasso the cubist; Picasso the surrealist; Picasso the modernist; Picasso the ceramist; Picasso the lithographer; Picasso the sculptor; Picasso the superb draftsman; Picasso the effervescent and exuberant; Picasso the saturnine and surly; Picasso the faithful and faithless lover; Picasso the cunning financial man; Picasso the publicity seeker; Picasso the smoldering Spaniard; Picasso the joker and performer of charades; Picasso the generous; Picasso the Scrooge; even Picasso the playwright.
A genius for the ages, a man who played wonderful yet sometimes outrageous changes with art, Pablo Picasso remains without doubt the most original, the most protean and the most forceful personality in the visual arts in the first three-quarters of this century. He took a prodigious gift and with it transformed the universe of art.

The artist in 1908

To learn more about Picasso read his biography here. The New York Times obituary continues here.  It's impossible to select a representative display of his work in this small post; therefore, I recommend readers visit the extensive website of the Musee Picasso Paris where over 300 Picasso works can be viewed. Wikipedia's Picasso page has several external links that may be of interest.


Photos and Illustrations:
Musee Picasso Paris

A Picasso quote appears in the title.

Friday, October 20, 2017

October: When An Early Autumn Walks The Land...

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 country lane all russet brown,
a frosty window pane shows me a town grown lonely.

In October 2008 I wrote the first of many revised editions of the story of the annual October closing of my family's "summer place" in the West Virginia mountains near Cumberland, Maryland. Those who follow this blog likely know more about the Burlington campground than most current residents of that village. Still, it's an important story in the Old Tybee Ranger's formative years and it's worth repeating. There is one significant change in the story this year. The magnificent two-story cedar pavilion that stood for nearly a century as the focal point of the property had become unsafe and was demolished. For much of the last forty years it served more as a landscape feature than a facility and had been abandoned to the elements and, now reduced to a memory. And speaking of memories, from 2008...

Every October 15, my mind floods with wonderful memories. From birth through my 27th year, the date marked an important event in my life. The story descends out of my dad's membership in the Uniform Rank of the Knights of Pythias. The URKP was an elite military-style company within a fraternal organization born out of the search for national reconciliation following the Civil War. Every good military organization needed a campground, with lodging, mess hall, recreation pavilion, and parade. The URKP had theirs in the small village of Burlington, West Virginia. It also served as a regional park, complete with playground, and was often rented for the day for family reunions, company picnics, church functions, and other large gatherings.

"Camp" at Burlington was paradise for a young boy. A creek bordering the camp offered hours of fun. You could explore the woods and fields forever. The frequent social events made the playground a great place to meet new friends. But "camping" at Burlington was, by no means, a wilderness experience. We were lucky to use a cottage that had every comfort of home. And there was a drive-in theater next door where I enjoyed the snack bar as much as the movies. Across the road was a small airfield with several Taylorcrafts and Piper Cubs, and a hangar that gave birth to many "homebuilts" over the years. I can say with confidence that Burlington was never boring.

Through the summer of 1974, I spent many weeks at "camp" every year, including several weekends of "cold camping" in the off-season. Opening the cottage and grounds for the summer, though exciting, was not especially memorable. Freezing temperatures lingered into May, so the campground usually opened on Memorial Day weekend. On the other hand, winterizing the place was like saying "Goodbye" to an old friend. Thoughts of family, friends, the big fish, fireworks, that scary movie, the old biplane, all those memories accumulated over the past six months filled your mind. Amid the blazing gold sycamores, brilliant fire oaks and maples, the smell of wood smoke, and a harvest of black walnuts, we went through the years-old closing procedure until the last item - pouring anti-freeze into sink traps - was checked. At that point, it was time to load the car, proceed with all those repetitive tasks one does "just to be sure," then close and lock the big red door until Spring.

As American society changed, the URKP fell out of fashion. Lodge members grew old and passed away. In 1974, the lodge itself and all its assets dissolved. I haven't locked that big red door for 34 years now, but I still have the key and a remarkably detailed mental picture of the cottage and landscape that I loved.

In many ways, Burlington is with me every day, for my experiences there helped shape my values, and define my career, hobbies, and general interests. The impact has been so profound that I have asked my children to do their best to provide the same opportunity for their own families.

In weaving all of the memories about this weekend, I ask you, my readers, to do the same: Find a nearby paradise and escape to it often while your children are young. There will be no sorrow there.


Illustrations and Photos:
all photos from OTR family archive

opening quote, Early Autumn, lyrics, by Johnny Mercer, The Complete Lyrics of Johnny Mercer, Johnny Mercer, edited by Kimball, Day, Kreuger, and Davis; Knopf 2009

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Chuck Yeager Goes Supersonic

Seventy years ago today, October 14, 1947:

... Bob Cardenas, the B-29 driver, asked if I was ready.
"Hell, yes," I said. "Let's get it over with.
"He dropped the X-1 at 20,000 feet, but his dive speed was once again too slow and the X-1 started to stall. I fought it with the control wheel for about five hundred feet, and finally got her nose down. The moment we picked up speed I fired all four rocket chambers in rapid sequence. We climbed at .88 Mach and began to buffet, so I flipped the stabilizer switch and changed the setting two degrees. We smoothed right out, and at 36,000 feet, I turned off two rocket chambers. At 40,000 feet, we were still climbing at a speed of .92 Mach. Leveling off at 42,000 feet, I had thirty percent of my fuel, so I turned on rocket chamber three and immediately reached .96 Mach. I noticed the faster I got, the smoother the ride. Suddenly the Mach needle began to fluctuate. It went up to .965 Mach - then tipped right off the scale. I thought I was seeing things! We were flying supersonic! And it was as smooth as a baby's bottom: Grandma could be sitting up there sipping lemonade. I kept the speed off the scale for about twenty seconds, and raised the nose to slow down. I was thunderstruck. After all the anxiety, breaking the sound barrier turned out to be a perfectly paved speedway.
I radioed Jack in the B-29,
"Hey, Ridley, that Machmeter is acting screwy. It just went off the scale on me."
"Fluctuated off?""Yeah, at point nine-six-five."
"Son, you is imagining things."
"Must be. I'm still wearing my ears and nothing else fell off, neither."
                                                                      . . .

And so I was a hero this day. As usual, the fire trucks raced out to where the ship had rolled to a stop on the lakebed. As usual, I hitched a ride back to the hangar with the fire chief. That warm desert sun really felt wonderful. My ribs ached.

Yeager posing with his Bell X-1, "Glorious Glennis," 1947

The flight didn't hurt his ribs. He cracked two of them in a horseback riding accident a day and a half earlier but he wasn't about to let the issue keep him from an important mission. 

Chuck Yeager rode into the history books on the shoulders of scores of aerospace pioneers who helped him reach that speedway in the sky. Today, Yeager is 94 years old. He lives in Penn Valley, California, and continues to lead a very active life flying, fishing, and managing the General Chuck Yeager Foundation. 

Interested readers can learn more about the man and the early years of the nation's aviation and aerospace history in Yeager: An Autobiography, an outstanding read originally published in 1985. A valuable companion book providing context and additional history on the nation's early manned space program is Tom Wolfe's 1979 classic, The Right Stuff.


Photos and Illustrations:
Yeager with Bell X-1, U.S. Air Force,
Cover photo, Yeager: An Autobiography, General Chuck Yeager and Leo Janus, Bantam, 1985.

quotation, Yeager: An Autobiography, General Chuck Yeager and Leo Janus, Bantam, 1985.

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Thoughts On A Father's Birthday

It has been 110 years since the birth of my father on this day in 1907. That's a long time and one indication of why my value programming is different from that of my peers.  In short, I was raised by parents from the Roaring Twenties and the Jazz Age while most of my classmates, friends, and colleagues had parents come of age during the Great Depression. Attitudes, opinions and beliefs borne out of such a blend bring both opportunity and challenge in the real world.

This is my dad at seventeen, a high school honor graduate and holder of his class medals in English and debate. The year was 1925. He was a mill town boy with high ambitions tempered by the security of a good-paying full-time job straight out of high school and into the midst of the Roaring Twenties. He never got the college degree he wanted but he was successful, building on his strong faith, a solid marriage, and a remarkable work ethic.

When I look at this picture I am reminded that he only had four "good" years before the Great Depression and World War II brought him and the country he loved into sixteen years of hard times. Through it all he survived as a member of the "Greatest Generation" and saw his nation prosper.

My children never knew him - he's been gone for over 35 years - 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. How fortunate I was to have him as a beacon in my life. He was a great and careful teacher and a constant and trusted friend. Most of all he was my loving dad. I thank him every day and will love him forever.

Happy birthday, Dad!

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Harvest Moon 2017

The full Harvest Moon casts its shadow across the planet tonight. As the moon emerges from the sea, coastal residents can experience the sublime event precisely as it has been viewed by humans for thousands of years. It is no wonder a star-filled dome over land's end and the timeless sound of surf capture and command our consciousness so easily. Add a moon rise and all reason flees.

Lowcountry moonrise over McQueens Island east of Savannah, ca. 1950

The moon, like a flower in heaven's bower, with silent delight sits and smiles on the night.
                                                                                  William Blake

It is the Harvest Moon! On gilded vanes 
  And roofs of villages, on woodland crests 
  And their aerial neighborhoods of nests 
  Deserted, on the curtained window-panes
Of rooms where children sleep, on country lanes 
  And harvest-fields, its mystic splendor rests!
  Gone are the birds that were our summer guests, 
  With the last sheaves return the laboring wains!
All things are symbols: the external shows 
  Of Nature have their image in the mind, 
  As flowers and fruits and falling of the leaves;
The song-birds leave us at the summer’s close, 
  Only the empty nests are left behind, 
  And pipings of the quail among the sheaves.

                                                           Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

If on her cheeks you see the maiden's blush, The ruddy moon foreshows that winds will rush.
                                                                                    Virgil, 70 B.C.E. - 19 B.C.E.


Photos and Illustrations:
Lowcountry moonrise, Fort Pulaski National Monument Handbook, 1954

William Blake quotation, from Songs of Innocence and Experience, 1789
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, The Harvest Moon, public domain,

Friday, September 29, 2017

Another Birthday To Share

The day always brings to mind the remarkable coincidence that I share this birthday with two of my favorite personalities from the world of the arts. Studying them in depth came later in my life and it's only been in the last decade that I realized September 29 was a big day we shared. 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 let this post unfold.

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. The building itself was a work of art emerging from the salt marsh at the edge of Davis Bayou. 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 radio, records, and television.

Walter Inglis "Bob" Anderson, Self-Portrait, ca. 1941

George Gershwin in 1937

Anderson and Gershwin 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. Gershwin would die of a brain tumor at the age of 38 at the height of his career and known throughout the world.

Frogs, Bugs, Flowers                   Walter Anderson, ca 1945

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.

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.

Today I begin my 71st year still deeply immersed in the amazing output of fellow Librans  Anderson and Gershwin born on this day. Although I'm perfectly happy not to share their fame, I'm honored to share their interpretations of the American experience with anyone. What a fine balance it is.


Photos and Illustrations:

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 held by Roger H. Ogden.
George Gershwin 1937. Carl Van Vechten Collection, Library of Congress

Sunday, September 24, 2017

John Rutter: New Visions In Music

John Rutter at Clare College, Cambridge, England

John Rutter, the notable British composer, conductor and arranger, turns 72 today. He is best known and loved for his choral music; his professional choral group, The Cambridge Singers; and their recording label, Collegium Records. Doing an Internet search for Rutter doesn't bring up much more than the same brief biography. Though far from reclusive, the composer enjoys his privacy, but he does have a fairly active Facebook page. In addition, there is the occasional article here, and here that gives readers some insight into the man behind the music. My take on this relative dearth of information is simply that one should get to know the man through his music. Here is an anthem he wrote for the wedding of Prince William and Catherine Middleton in 2011:

Some in the classical music world, mostly in Great Britain, find Rutter's 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 is the finale  of Rutter's 2016 composition, Visions, a four-part work based on the theme of Jerusalem:


Photos and Illustrations:
Clare College Alumn

Thursday, September 21, 2017

A Fire Burning In The Darkness

Forty-four years ago tonight, park rangers at Joshua Tree National Monument - now a national park -  noticed a huge fireball on the ridge at Cap Rock. Upon investigation, they found a flaming coffin and the partially burned remains of Gram Parsons, a 26 year old musician who would become a music legend. In his life, lived fast and loose, Parsons would blend rock and country into a new sound as he pursued what he called "cosmic American music." If you listen to The International Submarine Band, The Byrds, The Flying Burrito Brothers, and his work with Emmylou Harris, you know what that sound was all about.

In a few hours, the pilgrims will make their trek to Cap Rock to pay their respects to Parsons as they have for decades. Rangers may close the area, but that won't make a difference. The faithful will be there.

For more on the Gram Parsons story, read the comprehensive Wikipedia entry with many links to his discography as well as a direct link the the entry on his death.


Photos and Illustrations
Full Moon at Cap Rock, Nikhil's Domain 

Eighty Years Of Hobbits

Today marks the 80th anniversary of the publication of The Hobbit. For all Tolkien fans who have come to love the book and stories to follow, Corey Olsen wrote a history of The Hobbit for its 75 anniversary in 2012. Here is a post he wrote about the book and the evolution of its main character, Bilbo Baggins, for The Daily Beast. Olsen included seven illustrations Tolkien drew for the book, one of them being the dust jacket, proving he was not only a superb writer, but also an accomplished artist.

Cover from 1937

The Wikipedia entry for The Hobbit states that a signed copy of the first edition could fetch more than $80,000 at auction. 

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Gram Parsons: Seeking Cosmic American Music

Parsons in 1973

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 in 1946 into a wealthy Florida-Georgia family, a circumstance that encouraged both his exploration of music and the drug abuse that killed him on this day in 1973 in the Joshua Tree Inn at the edge of the desert he loved. 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. It was both a Parsons concept and groundbreaking for the band by going deep into classic country and introducing 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 signature marijuana leaf Nudie suit.

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

With barely a decade of musical composition and performance behind him Gram Parsons made a lasting and profound impression on American popular music.  We will continue to hear that influence for a long, long time. 

For more on the Gram Parsons story, read this review from The Times Online, this Country Music Television biography, and this comprehensive Wikipedia entry with many links to his discography.