Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Artie Shaw: "It's The Sound Of The Horn - What You Do With The Instrument."

The famous jazz clarinetist, Artie Shaw, was born on this day in 1910. When he passes away in 2004 at the age of 94, Entertainment Weekly said this about him in his obituary:

Artie Shaw, one of the most popular bandleaders of the big-band era and the choice of many critics and musicians as the best clarinet player in jazz history, died on Thursday at his home outside Los Angeles. The ”Begin the Beguine” hit maker was 94 and apparently died of natural causes.

As a swing bandleader in the 1930s and ’40s, Shaw aspired to be considered a high-minded composer of art music, but his popularity kept getting in the way, with fans always clamoring to hear such monster hits as ”Begin the Beguine” and ”Frenesi.” Though he loathed the comparison, he was inevitably likened to Benny Goodman. Both were immensely popular, clarinet-playing big-band leaders, both were children of Jewish immigrants (Shaw’s given name was Arshawsky), and both had been among the earliest white ensemble leaders to integrate their groups racially (Goodman with players like Teddy Wilson and Lionel Hampton, Shaw with Billie Holiday and Roy Eldridge). During World War II, he joined the Navy and formed a band that crisscrossed the globe playing for U.S. troops; the band literally toured to exhaustion, leading to Shaw’s medical discharge.

Artie Shaw performing his Concerto for Clarinet, 1940

To say that Shaw was complex and difficult would be an understatement. He was married eight times, greatly disliked fame, and resented the conflict between creativity and the music industry so much that he virtually abandoned music in the early 1950s. Perhaps his life illustrated a never ending search for perfection by a man who could have approached it in any number of fields. When he died in December 2004 at the age of 94, he was recognized as one of the century's finest jazz clarinetists and a principal force in the development of the fusion of jazz and classical music that would become known as "Third Stream Music." Technically, I think he was at the top. 

Readers interested in a more thorough examination of even more facets in the life of this restless musical genius can visit this link at Swing Music Net for his obituary and this entry for his Wikipedia biography.

For a sample of "the sound of the horn" in the hands of Shaw, here he is with his orchestra performing the two "monster hits" mentioned in the Entertainment Weekly post above:

We've enjoyed the wonderful sounds of Shaw and his orchestra for over eight years now.  Le the music go on!


Photos and Illustrations:
public domain screen shot from the film, Second Chorus, 1940

Title quote, Tom Nolan, Artie Shaw, King of the Clarinet: His Life and Times, W.W. Norton & Company, 2010.
Artie Shaw entry, wikipedia.org

Friday, May 19, 2017

Tybee Island: When Summer Comes

For the past week we have watched wave after wave of puffy clouds sweep out of the southeast across our patch of Piedmont east of Atlanta. Today there was a big difference. The clouds brought some serious humidity with them, so much so that iced tea and the ceiling fan on the porch lost out to air conditioning and the Florida room. It was a sure sign that the trade winds have resumed for another year. It also reminded me of my years on the Georgia coast.

South Beach, Tybee Island, Georgia

There, the trades usually creep in softly most likely because humidity is ever present. They bring in the high cirrus and horsetails as well as the puffy fair-weather cumulus clouds that race over the beach so beautifully at sunrise. Later in the day, the clouds sweep inland twenty miles or so where they meet the uplifts of daily heating enhanced by the incentives of the onshore flow. Often, the result is a brisk and exciting line of thunderstorms sometimes extending from the city-state of Charleston to the Players Club fairways at Ponte Vedra Beach. In Savannah, the 3:00 pm summer showers are so predictable you can almost set a watch by them. When residents advised me an umbrella was a summer essential they weren't fooling. The city's collapsing thunderstorms can produce inches of rainfall that compete very nicely with frog strangling storms I've experienced on the Southern Plains.  

For eleven years I worked at the mouth of the Savannah River and watched the light show over Savannah arcing north and east toward Hilton Head Island. Occasionally storms moved to my location when the land breezes swept in early and pushed the activity to the southeast. Almost always it was a magnificent show that ended with warm, comfortable land breezes lasting well into the evening. After a few hours of stillness in the early morning hours a quiet southeasterly breeze soon embraced the island in salt-saturated humidity and a haze that turned golden with a full sunrise. The Boat-tailed Grackles skirmishing in the oleanders nearby served as a natural alarm clock during the eight years we lived on Tybee Island. I do miss the birds, but not their role as nature's alarm clock.

The trade wind days last into September to be replaced by weeks of spectacular warm, dry, cloudless days, cool nights and warm water lingering into November. Of course, the occasional tropical storm can interrupt the coastal idyll that is the norm on the sea islands. It is to be expected and respected by those who share the fragile boundary of life at the ocean's edge. In Atlanta we'll sometimes enjoy the remnant sea breezes that survive the 200 mile journey from the Atlantic. It is a welcome reminder of the joy of coastal living.


Photos and Illustrations:

Monday, May 15, 2017

Katherine Ann Porter: "I Was Always Restless, Always A Roving Spirit."

Katherine Anne Porter, an American writer, journalist and activist, was born on this day in 1890 in the west-central Texas town of Indian Creek. She led an often troubled yet exciting and eccentric life. By the age of forty she was an acclaimed and widely read author but it took another thirty years and the publication of her novel, Ship of Fools (1962), before she found financial security in her craft. 

She moved to Washington, D.C., in 1959 to finish the novel and while there developed an association with the University of Maryland in nearby College Park. In 1966 her great success with the novel as well as her receipt of the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction for her Collected Stories published in 1965 moved the university to award Porter an honorary degree of Doctor of Humane Letters. At the same time she announced her desire to donate a lifetime of treasured personal possessions and papers to the school to be housed in the Katherine Anne Porter Room, at that time located in McKeldin Library. Porter eventually moved the few miles from her Washington home to College Park where she could be even closer to her collection and the university's resources. 

Readers interested in Porter as a writer will enjoy this 1963 Paris Review interview conducted as part of their Art of Fiction series.

For a biographical sketch illustrating her place in American literary history go here.

On a personal note: Back in 1968 I spent about two weeks doing research in special collections on the top floor of McKeldin Library at Maryland. At the elevator and in the hallways I kept meeting this small, friendly, elderly, white-haired woman with a jovial smile that invited conversation. She seemed far too helpful to be a typical university librarian. Years later I read how much Porter loved the academic setting and interacting with students, learning about them, their studies, and their plans for the future. She was, in fact, a near constant visitor to her room on the library's fifth floor. It wasn't long before the realization hit that my "little old librarian" was none other than Katherine Anne Porter. Oh to have those two weeks back. This time I'd ask the questions.

There's an interesting back story to my discovery of Porter. It involves the Mexican Leftists of the 1920's, film making, fractal theory, systems of creative design, and the study of pandemics. In other words, it is a story best told over pitchers of craft beer enjoyed with live jazz, overstuffed club chairs, and soft light. Perhaps pure chance will give rise to the opportunity. Porter would like that.


Photos and Illustrations:

Title quotation, "Katherine Anne Porter, The Art of Fiction No. 29, Paris Review
Katherine Anne Porter, wikipedia.org

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Mother's Day 2017

My mother was the fourth of seven children born to a farm couple whose deep lineage in the western Virginia mountains was lost to history before 1800. She and my dad met at a community dance in 1931 and married in the fall of 1933. By that time she had worked in a silk mill and as an etcher and designer in a glass factory. Later, she worked throughout World War II as a quality control specialist in a massive synthetic fabric plant that provided most of the materials for American parachutes.



With my arrival in 1946 she became a full time mother and homemaker, but still found time to enjoy her church family, reading, gardening, nature, frequent visits with her large family, and vacations at the summer place on Pattersons Creek. She was taken from this world far too early in 1976 after a long illness.




There's no question that I miss her and I'm sorry she did not live to enjoy her daughter-in-law and three grandchildren. Still, I feel her goodness has been with us helping to shape our family over these near forty years. Wouldn't have it any other way. She was a great mom, full of love, compassion, a wonderful sense of humor, and dedication to family and friends.

This is a repost from 2016.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Fred Astaire: Puttin' On The Ritz

Today is the birthday of the American entertainer, Fred Astaire (1899-1987)He was a dancer, actor, and singer who was the definition of "class" in everything he did. To say he set high standards for performance and personal conduct would be an understatement. In fact, the word "perfection" is an appropriate descriptor and it's a word we don't see or hear from Hollywood types these days. 

Although well-known as a dancer and actor, as an extraordinary singer Astaire introduced movie fans to many songs that would form the core of what we know today as the Great American Songbook.

Younger readers may be prone to ignore a post about some dancer who died a generation ago. Don't be one of them. Astaire's footwork--with and without a partner--will astound you. Here is a link to Astaire's Wikipedia entry for readers would like to learn more. If you simply want to enjoy the man in action rather than read about him, the following media should suffice:

That's entertainment!

Friday, May 5, 2017

Orson Welles: "I Started At The Top And Worked My Way Down."

Today marks the 102nd anniversary of the birth of Orson Welles. He has been missing from the world stage for over a generation now. The film and stage industries will always owe him immensely for what he brought to them and for the treatment his genius received at the hands of a Hollywood film cartel that resented outsiders.

Welles at 21 

There will never be another cinematic alchemist quite like Orson Welles. Interested in experiment and discovery in the performing arts, he was a remarkably talented actor, writer, director, producer, and more. Before he was thirty, he had terrified the nation with his realistic Halloween presentation of H.G. Wells's War of the Worlds (1938) and awed film audiences with Citizen Kane (1941). Welles was already a rather contentious artist when he achieved almost instant fame. His creativity and drive helped label him as a difficult, if not reckless, personality and he never endeared himself to the Hollywood in-crowd. As a result his film legacy was limited to a number of noteworthy productions and a long list of unfinished projects, and pipe dreams. The achievement of early fame and the fast and loose pursuit of art at almost any cost gave him a unique perspective on creativity and the entertainment industry. Although he appreciated his solitude he was never one to shy from the limelight and delighted in interviews and personal appearances where he could deliver and endless stream of anecdotes in his rich, unforgettable baritone voice.

For a taste of Welles as writer, director, and co-star, here is the famous "mirror scene" from The Lady of Shanghai (1948). Film critic David Kehr has called the film "the weirdest great movie ever made."

And here from his 1958 film, Touch of Evil, is the classic "crane shot" that makes an appearance in every college film class. 

In later life Welles became known as a great conversationalist. From 1974, here are the highlights from an interview with the British broadcaster, Sir Michael Parkinson. Welles talks about politics, bullfighting, his friendship with Ernest Hemingway, personal heroes (Winston Churchill, Gen. George S, Marshall), the power of criticism, the film industry, the stars (he thought James Cagney was far and away the best), his attitude toward his films, and future projects. It's a quick and entertaining 37 minutes and in my mind reveals much about the man who foreshadowed the independent film movement we know today.



Photos and Illustrations:
Welles portrait, Library of Congress (Carl Van Vechten, photographer, March 1, 1937)
Kehr Quotation: chicagoreader.com, review of The Lady of Shanghai

Title quote, Welles, from the film, F For Fake (1973)

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Commemorating Bing Crosby

The American entertainer, Bing Crosby (1903-1977), used his baritone voice in combination with new recording technology to develop a personal singing style that made him the nation's top entertainer for a generation beginning in the mid-1930's. Young people probably know little if anything about Crosby but I think he sits at the pinnacle of the 20th century American entertainment industry along with his close friend, Bob Hope. Crosby's contributions are well worth exploring if you enjoy popular culture, and are essential if you are a fan of the Great American Songbook. 

Bing Crosby 1930s.jpg
Crosby publicity photo from the 1930's

I remember him for four reasons. First is his recording of Irving Berlin's White Christmas. As long as people think about the security and warmth of home and family - and when will that stop - they will appreciate Crosby's recording. His version has sold the most copies - over 100,000,000 - of any song ever recorded (Guinness World Records). Second is the series of "Road picture" comedies he made with co-stars Bob Hope and Dorothy Lamour between 1940 and 1962. Third is his role in two films, Holiday Inn (1942) and its remake, White Christmas (1954). Crosby premiered the song, White Christmas, in 1942 to a receptive public already weary from the early months of World War II. [Holiday Inn is a better film than its lavish, colorful, but still enjoyable remake.] Fourth is his series of Christmas specials for television.

Crosby's career may have peaked about 50 years ago but his impact on the entertainment industry, as both a star and entrepreneur, is still with us. Just how much of a star was he? The 2014 Public Broadcasting Service program, American Masters, stated: 

Bing Crosby has sold close to one billion records, tapes, compact disks and digital downloads around the world. He may be the biggest recording artist of all time. Only The Beatles, Elvis Presley, and Michael Jackson can rival Bing's sales record. 

For the full story, I suggest readers visit his official site after reading the Wikipedia link above. 

It would be inappropriate to write about Crosby without providing readers with a few examples of his talent. Here is Swinging On A Star, a song he introduced in the 1944 film, Going My Way. The song was an Academy Award winner that year.

And here Crosby sings the lyrics of his good friend, Johnny Mercer, who as songwriter, singer, and entrepreneur, was another major presence shaping American entertainment in the 20th century.

May 3 marks the 114th anniversary of Crosby's birth.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Duke Ellington: America's 20th Century Music Man

This weekend we commemorate the birth (April 29) of an American who painted our world with music. And listening to the music of Edward Kennedy "Duke" Ellington (1899-1974) is akin to attending a lavish banquet featuring an array of fine courses, good wines and pleasant company. It is all so very satisfying. For the past thirty years, it's been a joy to grow in the understanding and appreciation of Ellington, the most prolific American composer in the 20th century, as one of the nation's most innovative musical entertainers. 

Ellington at the KFG Radio Studio, Aurora, Colorado, November 3, 1954

I discovered Ellington "late" most likely because I was immersed in his '40's sound at an early age and grew up thinking there was nothing new. He was born in Washington, DC in 1899 and spent his early career there while learning his trade. He wrote what he called "American music," a unique blend of his creative genius and elements of jazz, blues, classical, swing, bop, and popular song. Ellington appealed to a wide audience, but the appeal was compartmentalized and so broad that you would be hard pressed to find someone who liked everything he composed. I think the one element that unified his work was elegance. Early on, that came from his training as a pianist and was bolstered later by impressionistic classical influences. Also, much of that elegance came from his long-time association with the classically trained composer, arranger and pianist, Billy Strayhorn.

I took a special interest in Ellington when I began listening to the music of the British composer, Frederick Delius. Delius's music left me spellbound then. It was rich, melodic, and complex. Later I learned it was so much that it is considered some of the most difficult music to realize in the classical catalog. As early as the 1880's, his compositions incorporated motifs and melodies from the songs of ex-slaves working on the orange plantations he managed along the St. Johns River in Florida. Those musical themes would appear frequently throughout his career. Ellington had similar interests and it would be quite natural that he would appreciate Delius. In fact the appreciation and influence was so deep that Ellington eventually composed and recorded a tribute - In A Blue Summer Garden - to Delius.

Today we commemorate the legendary Duke Ellington on what would be his 118th birthday. Here are two of Ellington's finest moments. The first one is universally recognized and comes from the orchestra near its peak in the early 1940's. The second, from 1965, is lesser known but still full of all the magic the master and his orchestra possessed.

Smooth, high brow, faultless, sophisticated, American. All of these words describe the music that came out of the world of Ellington as a composer, performer, and conductor. For fifty years he defined jazz in his own way with his superbly talented jazz orchestra, surviving the onslaught of bebop, rhythm and blues, and rock and roll. His discography includes over seventy hit records out of hundreds of releases spanning seven decades. Album sales remain strong four decades after his death.

We end with a historic moment in jazz history: Duke Ellington and his orchestra at the 1956 Newport Jazz Festival. Jazz was changing from a dance band to smaller ensemble format and at the same time competing with the rise of rock and roll. Ellington decided to link two compositions with a free-wheeling sax solo. Many jazz historians agree that this was a landmark performance that not only gave the band concept renewed life but also gave jazz a new and expanded direction in sound and listener experience. 

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

First Lady Of Song, Ella Fitzgerald: Her Centennial Year

Today marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of the "First Lady of Song," the jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald, In 1934, Ella Jane Fitzgerald wanted to dance at an amateur night at the Apollo in Harlem, but was intimidated by other dancers and decided to sing instead. It was the beginning of a career that took her magnificent voice through the big bands, to jazz, bop, and the Great American Songbook. With a voice ranging from smoky to bright she put her signature on every note and sharp diction on every word. For people who like to immerse themselves in lyrics, Ella was unbeatable. And when she forgot those lyrics or let the spontaneity flow, the scat singing was priceless. 

The First Lady of Song in 1960                             Erling Mandelmann

I saw her perform once in an overcrowded and hot venue in Washington. After a few songs, the crowd didn't mind the environment. She had us wrapped in music for over two hours and left us wanting more after several encores. Everyone had a great time that night, especially Ella. Looking back on that concert, I realize how significant it was. Ella had turned 50 and completed her famous Songbook series a few years earlier. And though her peak years were coming to an end, what she had left exceeded the best of what most 20th century singers ever offered. She went on to perform another quarter of a century dazzling audiences everywhere. Ella passed away almost sixteen years ago, but she's still making her mark, living on through a huge discography and video record. In all, it is an immense, if not iconic legacy.

Fitzgerald and President Reagan at the White House in October 1981

Throughout her very public life, Ella Fitzgerald remained a private, if not shy, person. Were she receiving a birthday cake today, I can envision a broad, approving smile and nervous glances from squinting eyes behind those big bottle bottom glasses. She'd respond with a heart-felt "Thank you, thank you," and move into the comfort and safety of song.

Here she is in 1964 performing two Johnny Mercer jazz standards for the last of the Songbook albums - eight in all - produced by Norman Grantz and released over an eight year period. The series has never been out of print and remains a hot seller after more than fifty years:

In almost sixty years, few recordings in vocal jazz can approach the significance and near-perfection of Fitzgerald's interpretation of the Great American Songbook. To me, nothing since has quite matched it and I doubt anything in the future will without some extraordinary changes within the music industry and jazz itself. 

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. So here's a happy centennial birthday wish going up to the First Lady of Song. Simply incomparable. Maybe too marvelous for words.  


Photos and Illustrations:
Mandelmann photo, commons.wikimedia.org
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.


Saturday, April 22, 2017

Earth Day, My Way

I enjoy celebrating Earth Day. In some way, in fact, a celebration of the planet takes place in our home every day. And it happens in spite of the full-on seizure of environmental themes by the radical left - the green movement - that came with the fall of the Soviet Union in 1990. Even the unhinged need an anchor but it's sad they selected such a universal idea. In the last generation it's even sadder because new personal media devices often isolate us even more from the outside, making it more difficult to experience, understand, appreciate, and protect our planet.  Five generations ago the Czech composer, Antonin Dvorak, spent his last summer in the United States in the Czech settlement of Spillville, Iowa. In two weeks there immersed in the environment of fields, farms, and families under the open skies of the prairie he composed what has become known as the American Quartet.


All of my adult life, I've fought hard to live in nature and experience it with the fervor that Dvorak found. These words, first heard in 1971, were my inspiration, more at revelation:

...we divide our spirit in two parts, what we do and what happens to us. This is the great illusion. There's really no difference as the joyous ones in the heavens know. What happens to you as well as what you do is fundamentally your doing. And when we say it's your doing, it's not the ordinary you that you call your ego or your conscious mind, it's a deeper you than that. It's the you at which you are one with nature for man and nature form a single pattern of activity, one process, just that man is a little bit more complicated than the trees. But he goes with them and the whole thing is one single process. It isn't that nature pushes you around or that you push nature around. If you are awake, if your eyes are wide open and you look at things freshly instead of with your ordinary patterns, ordinary ways in which you have been taught to think, you see that the whole process of life is something that just happens. The Buddhists call it tathata. We translate that "suchness," "just like that."
If you think that the world is going somewhere, that there are certain things that are supposed to happen and there are certain things that are supposed not to happen you never see the way it is like music. Music has no destination. We don' play it in order to get somewhere. If that were the way, the best orchestras would be those who got to the end of the piece the fastest. Music is a pattern which we listen to and enjoy as it unfolds. In the same way, "Where is the water going?" Where do the leaves go? Where are the clouds going? There not going anywhere because nature understands that the point of the whole thing is to be here, to be wide awake to the now that is going on. So when you listen to music you don't try to hold in your memory what is past or to think about what's coming. You listen to the pattern as it unfolds and so watch it as it moves now. It's a dance. And dancing is like music for when you dance you dance just to dance. You don't aim at a particular place on the floor that is your destination of the dance. You listen to the music and you move your body with it [as if] your eyes are following the patterns of the water.
he secret of...life is to spend some time every day in which you don't think but just watch, in which you don't form any ideas about life but look at it, listen to it, smell it, feel it. And when you get rid of all the talk in your head, all the ideas about what I do as distinct from what happen to me or what's the difference between man and nature or between what's mine and what's yours it all goes. and it's just the dancing pattern, what the Chinese call "li," the word that originally meant the markings in jade, the grain in wood, or...the pattern on water. When you let go of the definitions, of the attempt to try to pin down nature, to pin down life in your mind so that you can feel you are completely in control of it, its all based on the idea that you're different from it, that you have to master it. When you don't pin it down anymore, when you don't try to cling to it as if it was something different from you then your whole life has about it the sensation of flowing like water. It always goes away. but it always comes back because away and back are two sides of the same thing. Let it go!

Father Mississippi                                 Walter Inglis Anderson, American, 1963

And here is the foundation upon which that revelation took place:

Psalm 104

 1 Praise the LORD, O my soul. O LORD my God, you are very great; you are clothed with splendor and majesty. 2 He wraps himself in light as with a garment; he stretches out the heavens like a tent 3 and lays the beams of his upper chambers on their waters. He makes the clouds his chariot and rides on the wings of the wind. 4 He makes winds his messengers, flames of fire his servants. 5 He set the earth on its foundations; it can never be moved. 6 You covered it with the deep as with a garment; the waters stood above the mountains. 7 But at your rebuke the waters fled, at the sound of your thunder they took to flight; 8 they flowed over the mountains, they went down into the valleys, to the place you assigned for them. 9 You set a boundary they cannot cross; never again will they cover the earth. 10 He makes springs pour water into the ravines; it flows between the mountains. 11 They give water to all the beasts of the field; the wild donkeys quench their thirst. 12 The birds of the air nest by the waters; they sing among the branches. 13 He waters the mountains from his upper chambers; the earth is satisfied by the fruit of his work. 14 He makes grass grow for the cattle, and plants for man to cultivate-- bringing forth food from the earth: 15 wine that gladdens the heart of man, oil to make his face shine, and bread that sustains his heart. 16 The trees of the LORD are well watered, the cedars of Lebanon that he planted. 17 There the birds make their nests; the stork has its home in the pine trees. 18 The high mountains belong to the wild goats; the crags are a refuge for the coneys. 19 The moon marks off the seasons, and the sun knows when to go down. 20 You bring darkness, it becomes night, and all the beasts of the forest prowl. 21 The lions roar for their prey and seek their food from God. 22 The sun rises, and they steal away; they return and lie down in their dens. 23 Then man goes out to his work, to his labor until evening. 24 How many are your works, O LORD! In wisdom you made them all; the earth is full of your creatures. 25 There is the sea, vast and spacious, teeming with creatures beyond number-- living things both large and small. 26 There the ships go to and fro, and the leviathan, which you formed to frolic there. 27 These all look to you to give them their food at the proper time. 28 When you give it to them, they gather it up; when you open your hand, they are satisfied with good things. 29 When you hide your face, they are terrified; when you take away their breath, they die and return to the dust. 30 When you send your Spirit, they are created, and you renew the face of the earth. 31 May the glory of the LORD endure forever; may the LORD rejoice in his works-- 32 he who looks at the earth, and it trembles, who touches the mountains, and they smoke. 33 I will sing to the LORD all my life; I will sing praise to my God as long as I live. 34 May my meditation be pleasing to him, as I rejoice in the LORD. 35 But may sinners vanish from the earth and the wicked be no more. Praise the LORD, O my soul. Praise the LORD.

Earth Day 2017 will be ending shortly in our world but these passages where East meets West tell us that every day is an Earth day. For me the celebration indeed flows like water. It is a joy to be immersed in nature. Everyone should experience it and I hope these words move you to that realization.


Photos and Illustrations:
Anderson painting, porterbriggs.com

First quotation, Buddhism: Man and Nature, Alan W, Watts, Hartley Films, 1968
The Holy Bible, New International Version, 2011, Psalm 104

Friday, April 21, 2017

John Muir: Dissolving The Boundaries Between Self And Nature

The great American naturalist and conservationist, John Muir (1839-1914) was born on this day in Dunbar, Scotland. Through his efforts and the movements he supported with such fervor - he founded the Sierra Club - we can enjoy the spectacular wildness that is Yosemite National Park. His efforts also help establish the national park movement that today provide us with more than 400 units administered by the National Park Service. In addition, there are more than 6500 state parks and thousands of local parks and preserves to enjoy. Although Muir focused on the preservation of wilderness his work was a model for cultural preservation, a movement begun largely with Civil War commemorations late in the 19th century.

Muir in his beloved Yosemite Valley in 1890

By nature, Muir was a wanderer physically and emotionally building upon his studies in botany and geology as he traveled. In 1868 he saw Yosemite Valley for the first time and soon realized he had found his calling in the world of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. This is how he described the revelation in his autobiographical notebook:

There are eight members in our family....All are useful members of society - save me. One is a healer of the sick. Another, a merchant, and a deacon in good standing. The rest school teachers and farmers' wives - all exemplary, stable, anti-revolutionary. Surely then, I thought, one may be spared for so fine an experiment.
... the remnants of compunction - the struggle covering the serious business of settling down -gradually wasted and melted, and at length left me wholly free - born again! I will follow my instincts, be myself for good or ill, and see what will be the upshot...As long as I live, I'll hear the waterfalls and birds and winds sing. I'll interpret the rocks, learn the language of flood, storm and the avalanche. I'll acquaint myself with the glaciers and wild gardens, and get as near the heart of the world as I can.

Oh that we should be so lucky to follow our instincts and be ourselves.

For comprehensive information about the life and mission of John Muir,  visit the John Muir Exhibit at the Sierra Club website.  In addition, Yosemite National Park has a fine tribute to Muir at this link.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

The Great San Francisco Earthquake: April 18, 1906

In the early morning hours of April 18, 1906, a devastating earthquake shook the town. On that date earth science was a very young science. The idea that San Francisco sat astride two massive and drifting plates, one of which was moving toward Alaska, would have been laughable. Fifty years later, such thinking was widely accepted in the theory of plate tectonics.

On that morning 109 years ago and in the days that followed, "theory" wasn't on the minds of San Franciscans. They wanted to survive. This is how the opening paragraphs of the National Archives entry describe the event:

....Though the quake lasted less than a minute, its immediate impact was disastrous. The earthquake also ignited several fires around the city that burned for three days and destroyed nearly 500 city blocks.

Despite a quick response from San Francisco's large military population, the city was devastated. The earthquake and fires killed an estimated 3,000 people and left half of the city's 400,000 residents homeless. Aid poured in from around the country and the world, but those who survived faced weeks of difficulty and hardship.

The survivors slept in tents in city parks and the Presidio, stood in long lines for food, and were required to do their cooking in the street to minimize the threat of additional fires. The San Francisco earthquake is considered one of the worst natural disasters in U.S. history.

You can read the rest of the article and view scores of historic photographs and documents related to the event here. The National Park Service has a fine resource newsletter on the quake. Below are several stereoscope cards from the family archives showing the scene following the earthquake and fire.

If you want to see remnants of the earthquake first hand and learn a bit more about it, plate tectonics, and continental drift there's no better place in my opinion than the Earthquake Trail at Point Reyes National Seashore. [Point Reyes is a spectacular resource in the National Park Service. Plan two or three days minimum to explore all of it.] The Seashore is accessible from Highway 1 at Olema about eighteen miles north of the Golden Gate. The trail - an easy half-mile - is at the Bear Valley Visitor Center. The trail's focal point is the famous old fence displaced eighteen feet by the quake.

In Alaska in 2000 I experienced one serious earthquake - 5.5+ on the Richter Scale - that scared me. It lasted lasted less than a minute and was strong enough to keep me and several visitors at Chugach National Forest's Begich, Boggs Visitor Center swaying in our seats in a dark theater.  When it was safe to stand and walk we emerged from the building to the sound of thunder and several small rock slides tumbling down the mountain across the Portage River next to the center. Our guides told us not to worry because earthquakes happened all the time at the site. Later in the day they acknowledged that we experienced "a good one." 
Easy for them to say! 


Sunday, April 16, 2017

Easter 2017

Christ is Risen!

He is Risen indeed!

Christ As The Redeemer Of Man                      William Blake

As we approach the close of the Festival of the Resurrection of our Lord here are some sights, sounds, and words to help us recall the joy of the day and keep its meaning alive in us in days to come.

Thine be the glory, risen, conquering Son;

endless is the victory, thou o'er death hast won;

angels in bright raiment rolled the stone away,
kept the folded grave clothes where thy body lay.

Thine be the glory, risen conquering Son,
Endless is the vict'ry, thou o'er death hast won.

Lo! Jesus meets us, risen from the tomb;
Lovingly he greets us, scatters fear and gloom;
let the Church with gladness, hymns of triumph sing;
for her Lord now liveth, death hath lost its sting.

No more we doubt thee, glorious Prince of life;
life is naught without thee; aid us in our strife;
make us more than conquerors, through thy deathless love:
bring us safe through Jordan to thy home above.

Easter Changes Everything!

The Angel Rolling Away The Stone From The Sepulchre            William Blake, 1805

For we have here no continuing city,

but we seek the future.

Behold, I show you a mystery:
We shall not all sleep,
but we all shall be changed
and suddenly, in a moment,
at the sound of the last trombone.
For the trombone shall sound,
and the dead shall be raised incorruptible,
and we shall be changed.
Then shall be fulfilled
The word that is written:
Death is swallowed up in victory.
O Death, where is thy sting?
O Hell, where is thy victory?

Lord, Thou art worthy to receive all
praise, honor, and glory,
for Thou hast created all things,
and through Thy will
they have been and are created

Rise Heart, The Lord Is Risen!

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 cross 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.

Image result for salvador dali the ascension of christ
The Ascension of Christ                                                    Salvador Dali, 1958

Christ is Risen!

He is Risen indeed!


Photo and Illustrations:
Blake image, collections.vam.ac.uk, Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Dali image, wikiart.org

Brahms Requiem text, www. classical-music.com

Friday, April 14, 2017

Good Friday 2017

Christ Nailed to the Cross: The Third Hour                William Blake, 1803-06

O man, bewail your great sin;
For this, Christ from his Father's bosom
Went forth and came to earth.
Of a virgin pure and gentle
He was born here for our sake,
He was willing to mediate.
To the dead he gave life
And conquered all sickness
Until the time came
That he should be sacrificed for us,
To carry the heavy burden of our sins
Upon the cross itself.

J.S. Bach - St. Matthew Passion:
35. 'O man, bewail your great sin'

Two pages from the St Matthew's Passion in Bach's hand

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Palm Sunday/Passion Sunday 2017

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.

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

On the Sunday following this Passion Week we celebrate a 2000 year-old event that changes everything.


Photos and Illustrations:
early 20th century postcards from OTR family archives

Friday, March 31, 2017

J.S.Bach: Music To God's Glory And The Soul's Refreshment

J.S. Bach                                      E.G. Haussman, Germany, 1746

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.

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.

In this commemorative post Bach's music is his biography. No need for names, dates, places, and details. Let the music speak for him.

The Canadian pianist, Glenn Gould, was the most technically perfect interpreter of Bach's keyboard music in our lifetime. His approach - he was well-known for singing along while he performed - was unique and not to every one's preference but no one could deny that Gould was a magician at the keyboard. Here he is playing several of Bach's Goldberg Variations, BWV 988. The first two minutes are slow and quiet followed by ten minutes of fast, bright, and brilliant music on the part of the composer and the performer.

From the St. Matthew Passion, here is the final recitative and chorus, a lullaby to Jesus as he lies in his tomb:

Here is a familiar piece attributed to Bach, Toccata & Fugue in D minor, BWV 565, performed by young Dutch organist, Gert van Hoef:

Last we hear the Gigue Fuge. This composition is proof that not all Lutherans are stuffy.

Bach's music has been a part of me for so long that I couldn't begin to tell you when I first heard it other than to say it had to be in church at a very early age. The preludes. fugues, harmonies, the shear wonder of his work, it's all in my blood. And I can't play a single note of it. Wouldn't have it any other way. I simply listen and let it flow.

Music’s ultimate end or final goal…should be for the honor of God and the recreation of the soul.
                                                           Johann Sebastian Bach - Leipzig, 1738