Sunday, December 31, 2017

Wishing You A Happy New Year 2018

The Seventh Day of Christmas is New Year's Eve. In much of Christian Europe this day is also known as Silvester or the Feast of Sylvester. One of the more interesting iterations of celebrating the arrival of the new year occurs in Scotland. It's known as Hogmanay. It's a nice blend of old and new elements including feasts, fireworks, bonfires, torchlight processions, and driving out trolls.

The many features of Hogmanay will be repeated throughout this day as the new year sweeps across the face of the planet. Virtually all the these activities will involve the gathering of family and friends. Whether they celebrate among millions or simply with immediate family there will come a time to end the celebration and look forward to the sun rising on the first new day of the new year. In the western world, perhaps any place touched by British traditions, that gathering will end with the singing of Robert Burns's poem, Auld Lang Syne, set to an ancient Scottish folk melody.  At least three centuries before Burns's lyric became popular, there was another song shared among departing English, Irish, and Scots friends on the eve of the new year. We offer The Parting Glass to you tonight as we ring out 2017 and ring in 2018 as a year of hope overflowing with blessing and goodwill for all.

Happy New Year 2018!

Saturday, December 30, 2017

Rudyard Kipling: Courageous Captain Of Language And Experience

Born on this day in 1865, the British writer, Rudyard Kipling, was a product of England and India. He infused his writing with the essence of Victorian times and the adventure of empire. Eighty years after his death he remains a popular writer, a beacon of reason and rhetoric, among political centrists and conservatives. His works for children, including the Jungle Books and Just So Stories, have never lost their popularity among young readers. It is so unfortunate that cultural relativism over the last forty years has sadly pushed Kipling into literary obscurity in most of academia. Although he may be out of fashion he still reaches across a century into an age of moral relativism and leftist ideological fantasy to remind us that ancient virtues and wisdom will hold us accountable in the end.

Kipling and his wife spent about five years living at Bliss Cottage near Brattleboro, Vermont, just prior to the height of his career. In was in this setting that he produced some of his most memorable work, including the Jungle Books, a short story collection entitled The Day's Work, his novel Captain's Courageous, and a volume of poetry, The Seven Seas.

Our political and cultural slide to the left in the last few decades has brought Kipling's appreciation of realism to the fore. One of his most quoted poems that speaks to the necessity for reason and the folly of cultural relativism is  "The Gods of the Copybook Headings." Many readers have inquired about the poem since it appeared in this blog a few years ago.  It's become a tradition of sorts to commemorate Kipling's birthday by reposting it each year. It is a power statement for our time.  

The Gods of the Copybook Headings

AS I PASS through my incarnations in every age and race,
I make my proper prostrations to the Gods of the Market Place.
Peering through reverent fingers I watch them flourish and fall,
And the Gods of the Copybook Headings, I notice, outlast them all.

We were living in trees when they met us. They showed us each in turn
That Water would certainly wet us, as Fire would certainly burn:
But we found them lacking in Uplift, Vision and Breadth of Mind,
So we left them to teach the Gorillas while we followed the March of Mankind.

We moved as the Spirit listed. They never altered their pace,
Being neither cloud nor wind-borne like the Gods of the Market Place,
But they always caught up with our progress, and presently word would come
That a tribe had been wiped off its icefield, or the lights had gone out in Rome.

With the Hopes that our World is built on they were utterly out of touch,
They denied that the Moon was Stilton; they denied she was even Dutch;
They denied that Wishes were Horses; they denied that a Pig had Wings;
So we worshiped the Gods of the Market Who promised these beautiful things.

When the Cambrian measures were forming, They promised perpetual peace.
They swore, if we gave them our weapons, that the wars of the tribes would cease.
But when we disarmed They sold us and delivered us bound to our foe,
And the Gods of the Copybook Headings said: "Stick to the Devil you know."

On the first Feminian Sandstones we were promised the Fuller Life
(Which started by loving our neighbour and ended by loving his wife)
Till our women had no more children and the men lost reason and faith,
And the Gods of the Copybook Headings said: "The Wages of Sin is Death."

In the Carboniferous Epoch we were promised abundance for all,
By robbing selected Peter to pay for collective Paul;
But, though we had plenty of money, there was nothing our money could buy,
And the Gods of the Copybook Headings said: "If you don't work you die."

Then the Gods of the Market tumbled, and their smooth-tongued wizards withdrew
And the hearts of the meanest were humbled and began to believe it was true
That All is not Gold that Glitters, and Two and Two make Four
And the Gods of the Copybook Headings limped up to explain it once more.

As it will be in the future, it was at the birth of Man
There are only four things certain since Social Progress began.
That the Dog returns to his Vomit and the Sow returns to her Mire,
And the burnt Fool's bandaged finger goes wabbling back to the Fire;

And that after this is accomplished, and the brave new world begins
When all men are paid for existing and no man must pay for his sins,
As surely as Water will wet us, as surely as Fire will burn,
The Gods of the Copybook Headings with terror and slaughter return!

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Oscar Levant: The Wit Who Danced With Madness

Happy Birthday, Oscar!

I doubt there will never be another entertainer quite like Oscar Levant (1906-1972). He was a classically trained concert pianist, composer, author, actor, dancer, comedy genius, and more. The one thread moving throughout his working life was mental illness, a condition that eventually became the core of his stage persona. It was an odd therapeutic for Levant and it brought laughter to millions. Today he's likely unknown to more than a generation of Americans but that doesn't mean he's ready for history's dustbin. Quite the contrary. There is still some talk in Hollywood about producing a film based on the entertainer's life.

Although Levant's presence on the entertainment spectrum is broad, his greatest impact was as a concert pianist, comedian, and author. He was trained in classical music in Pittsburgh and New York and divided his musical time between Hollywood and Broadway as a young performer and composer. He became a close friend and associate of George Gershwin and his extended family of stars and admirers. With Gershwin's early death in 1937, Levant would become known as the finest interpreter of his work for almost two decades until the end of his own career as a concert performer. Levant's Hollywood association not only led to his role as a composer but also as an actor. Although his filmography is short it contains a host of memorable, mostly comedic scenes involving song, dance and wit. Here are two clips of Levant at his best:

From the 1951 film, An American in Paris,

and from the 1953 film, The Band Wagon, often ranked with Singin' In The Rain as the finest musical ever to come out of Hollywood.

Next there is Levant, the radio and television personality. From the 1930's into the 1950's he was featured regularly on several radio programs and made frequent guest appearances on others. His knowledge of Hollywood personalities combined with his musical talent, quick wit and self-deprecating posture made him a hit from coast to coast. That status also made for an easy transition to television.

Finally, there is Levant, the writer. He produced three memoirs, two of them best-sellers. His Memoirs of An Amnesiac (1965) is a recollection of his often weird and tattered life as well as a tour de force of wit and wisdom aimed at Hollywood's famous and infamous personalities beginning in the 1930s. His The Unimportance of Being Oscar appeared in 1968. Although both books are a bit dated, readers with some knowledge of popular culture and politics from the Golden Age of Hollywood in the 1930's to the entertainment world of the 1960's would certainly find both books entertaining reads.

After hosting his own syndicated television program from Los Angeles in 1958-59 he made several noteworthy appearances on The Tonight Show with Jack Paar where he openly discussed his mental health issues. By the early '60's his mental and physical condition deteriorated significantly, his drug dependency increased, and he withdrew from public life. Here is one of his last television appearances:

There is a fine line between genius and insanity. I have erased this line.

                                                                         Oscar Levant, 1959


ClassicalNet biography, Oscar Levant, Oscar Levant

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Reflections On A Christmas Day

Although German traditions remain strong in our family one of my dearest memories is that of my Welsh bloodline introduced by my grandmother's parents who immigrated to the United States from Cardiff, Wales, in the early 1870's. Although I don't remember my grandmother - she died before my second birthday - my father always reminded me of her Celtic pride and Welsh ancestry expressed especially in a love for song and singing. It wasn't until the 20th century that Wales produced artists in English who were know internationally. One of them was was the poet, Dylan Thomas, whose compelling recitations approached hypnosis where words became song.

My family likely became aware of Thomas through his trips to the U.S. made over a span of about four years beginning in 1950. His trips always made sensational news for he was not only a rising star worshiped in metropolitan and university salons but also a boisterous character prone to drunkenness and colorful language. Indeed, his trip in 1953 ended in death from pneumonia while in New York. One could say he covered the full spectrum of life and when he spoke of it in verse or prose he made music. I first heard Thomas reading his work in elementary school English class sometime in the mid-1950's. I've read and listened to him since then. What follows has been a favorite Thomas story in my family for over sixty years. 

In that time I read it or portions of it to women I loved, to a few thousand students in writing classes, and to my children. When Dylan Thomas brings voice to his work it makes for some of the finest listening in the English language. When he reads A Child's Christmas in Wales it is magic. It is my gift to you in this holy season. . .

Friday, December 22, 2017

A Full Day Of Winter

Today is the first full day of winter in the northern hemisphere. Personally I don't look forward to cold temperatures, ice, assorted freezing slop, and black snow lining city streets for the next two months. On the other hand, the thought of lengthening days that arrived with yesterday's solstice brings a big smile to my face. This rebirth of the sun has brought happiness to humans for quite a long time. 

The Newgrange Tumulus in County Meath, Ireland, is a nice illustration of this long-standing respect for the rebirth of light and warmth to a culture.  The burial mound has a passage that aligns perfectly with the winter solstice sunrise.  People have observed the illumination of the keystone at Newgrange long before Stonehenge and the Giza pyramids existed.

For the next six months the sun will climb a bit higher every day in the Northern Hemisphere. We won't notice heat from the "rebirth" of the sun until a month or so into this cycle. While we experience, perhaps enjoy, a world at quiet rest the lengthening days can give us hope that the "dead season" will soon come to an end. 

Monday, December 18, 2017

Fletcher Henderson: From Blues To Jazz To Swing

Fletcher Henderson (1897-1952) played an important role in bringing improvisational jazz elements into big band/dance band compositions. Both Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman credited his talent as an arranger for much of their success. It is interesting that his role in the development of American popular music was not well understood until academic studies of the history of jazz appeared late in the last century.

He was born on December 18 into a well-educated and musical family in the southwest Georgia town of Cuthbert. Henderson earned a degree in chemistry and mathematics but as a black man he had a difficult time finding work in those fields and soon turned to music to make a living. That musical career took him from accompanying Ethel Waters, Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith and other blues singers, through the creation of an orchestra that included Don Redman and Louis Armstrong, to work as a composer-accompanist for Benny Goodman at a formative time for the swing era. From blues, to jazz, to swing, Henderson was a pioneer in music for almost forty years. His formula for swing music still shapes what we hear and enjoy today. 

Here are some examples of Henderson's approach to music. First is Henderson and his orchestra playing his arrangement of Down South Camp Meeting. Our second music sample is  Sometimes I'm Happy, music by Vincent Youmans and lyrics by Irving Ceasar, as arranged by Henderson for Benny Goodman in 1935.

Compact disc cover, Imports release, ASIN: B01596RGW, October 16, 2015
Text:, Fletcher Henderson, Fletcher Henderson, Jazz: A Film by Ken Burns, Fletcher Henderson biography

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Frank Sinatra: His Song Lives On

Frank Sinatra, the American singer and actor whose phenomenal career spanned sixty years ending in 1995, was born in Hoboken, New Jersey, on this day in 1915.   During his career he produced a discography spanning the eras of jazz, swing, big band, and pop music. I had the good fortune to attend two Sinatra concerts during the '60's. Both were unforgettable opportunities to see this American icon at work as a storm of rock music swept the nation and displaced the popular song as the dominant music genre in our culture.

Sinatra at the White House, Washington, D.C., 1973

Writing at on the centennial (2015) of Sinatra's birth, Deroy Murdock begins his exploration of the life, times, and legacy of "Ol' Blue Eyes" with this:

Saturday completes a century since Francis Albert Sinatra belted out his first note as a newborn, 13-and-a-half-pound baby in Hoboken, N.J. He grew up to become the finest male vocalist of the 20th Century, alongside his female counterpart and occasional partner in rhyme, Ella Fitzgerald.
But Frank was much more than just a crooner. He excelled as an actor, dancer, TV host, entrepreneur, record-company executive, and even music conductor. His timeless fashion sense defined style and elegance for gentlemen from the 1940s until today. He left enormous footprints on popular culture and was as original an American as this nation has produced.
After 100 years, a hundred superlatives barely could do Sinatra justice. Rather than wade through the many adjectives that define the man, the best way to appreciate Sinatra and his gigantic contribution is to savor his artistry and epic life story.

What follows is a rich overview of the man in sight and sound. It's not to be missed.

For those who simply want to remember and enjoy Sinatra at his best I offer his version of One For My Baby (And One More For The Road) (1943), music by Harold Arlen, words by Johnny Mercer:

He left us in 1998 as a man who had a way with a song quite unlike that of any other singer in the 20th century. 


Photos and Illustrations:

public domain photo in the United States, Modified version of Image:Andreotti Sinatra Nixon.jpg (NARA - ARC Identifier: 194505)

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Second Sunday In Advent 2017

With the lighting of the second candle of the Advent wreath today, we acknowledge the messengers sent to prepare the way for Christ. John prepared people for Christ's first coming by preaching repentance: 

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar--when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and Traconitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene-- 2 during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the desert. 3 He went into all the country around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 4 As is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet: “A voice of one calling in the desert, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him. 5 Every valley shall be filled in, every mountain and hill made low. The crooked roads shall become straight, the rough ways smooth. 6 And all mankind will see God's salvation.’” 

The Night of Peace    William Blake, Milton's On the Morning Of Christ's Nativity, 1814

Today's messengers prepare people for Christ's return. God wants us to view these messengers as evidence of his love. He wants us to listen to their message, through which God himself makes us ready.

Lo! He comes with clouds descending, 
Once for favoured sinners slain; 
Thousand thousand saints attending, 
Swell the triumph of His train: 
Hallelujah! Hallelujah! 
God appears on earth to reign

Every eye shall now behold Him 
Robed in dreadful majesty; 
Those who set at naught and sold Him, 
Pierced and nailed Him to the tree, 
Deeply wailing, deeply wailing, 
Shall the true Messiah see. 

The dear tokens of His passion 
Still His dazzling body bears; 
Cause of endless exultation 
To His ransomed worshippers; 
With what rapture, with what rapture 
Gaze we on those glorious scars!
Yea, amen; let all adore thee, 
High on thine eternal throne; 
Saviour, take the power and glory; 
Claim the kingdoms for thine own: 
Hallelujah! Hallelujah! 
Thou shalt reign, and thou alone.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Repeal Day: Aid For The Pour

From 1920 to 1925, he worked for members of Congress out of an office in the Cannon House Office Building until he was arrested. After a brief hiatus, he returned to serving his loyal customers from 1925 to 1930 out of an office only this time it was in the Russell Senate Office Building. His name was George Cassiday. He was known as "the man in the green hat" and his business was supplying Congress with booze during the Prohibition.

Reason TV has a brief article and five-minute history about Mr. Cassiday and his most interesting job. I'm left to conclude that the period 1920-30 had to be one of the happiest decades in history for our esteemed statesmen on Capital Hill.

And why are we discussing this story today? This is Repeal Day, celebrating the 84th anniversary of the end of Prohibition. This thirteen-year (1920-1933) attempt to end alcohol consumption in the United States was a disaster at every level and an object lesson is the futility of legislating morality.

 H.L. Mencken, (r) celebrates the end of Prohibition at the Rennert Hotel, Baltimore

And it so happens that one of my favorite musical selections addresses this alcohol theme. Those unfamiliar with the piece will enjoy the translation below the link.  This is a fine performance played as intended by the composer. I suggest you pour your favorite beverage, find your best earphones and comfortable chair and enjoy the meaning of the day.  Cheers!

When we are in the tavern 

When we are in the tavern, 
we do not think how we will go to dust,
but we hurry to gamble, 
which always makes us sweat. 
What happens in the tavern, 
where money is host, 
you may well ask, 
and hear what I say. 
Some gamble, some drink, 
some behave loosely. 
But of those who gamble, 
some are stripped bare, 
some win their clothes here, 
some are dressed in sacks. 
Here no-one fears death, 
but they throw the dice in the name of Bacchus. 
First of all is to the wine-merchant 
the libertines drink, 
one for the prisoners, 
three for the living, 
four for all Christians, 
five to faithful dead, 
six for the loose sisters, 
seven for the footpads in the wood, 
Eight for the errant brethren, 
nine for the dispersed monks, 
ten for the seamen, 
eleven for the squabblers, 
twelve for the penitent, 
thirteen for the wayfarers. 
To the Pope as to the king 
they all drink without restraint. 
the mistress drinks, the master drinks 
the soldier drinks, the priest drinks, 
the man drinks, the woman drinks, 
the servant drinks with the maid, 
the swift man drinks, the lazy man drinks, 
the settled man drinks, the wanderer drinks, 
the stupid man drinks, the wise man drinks, 
The poor man drinks, the sick man drinks, 
the exile drinks, and the stranger, 
the boy drinks, the old man drinks, 
the bishop drinks, and the deacon, 
the sister drinks, the brother drinks, 
the old lady drinks, the mother drinks, 
this man drinks, that man drinks, 
a hundred drink, a thousand drink. 
Six hundred pennies would hardly 
if everyone drinks 
immoderately and immeasurably. 
However much they cheerfully drink 
we are the ones whom everyone scolds, 
and thus we are destitute. 
May those who slander us be cursed, 
and may their names not be written in the book of the righteous.

You can enjoy the Latin poem and this English version together at the You Tube link. 


Photos and Illustrations:


Tonight's The Night Of The Krampus

I suppose kids still hear about receiving 
a lump of coal in their Christmas stocking as payment for a year of bad behavior.   So much for gifts as a sign of grace at Christmastide. On the other hand, given the state of behavior of too many children these days perhaps we are a bit overdue on restoring some form of payment - punishment if you will - for the erosion of good conduct. 

We don't have to create something new for this plan. Some years ago I stumbled on an Old World solution that's been around for centuries in many central and eastern European cultures. To boot, for the last thousand years or so he has been associated with the most benevolent and generous of figures, Sinterklaas, or as we know him today, Saint Nicholas, or Santa. So who is this Bad Santa, the other half of the holiday team? His name is Krampus. Unfortunately, he is extreme to the point of terrifying for children. In fact, an unexpected visit from this visage in the dead of night would insure obedience from most rational adults.

St. Nicholas and Krampas            Arnold Nechansky, Wiener Werkstatte, 1912

I first discovered Krampus through an interest in post cards. When I began looking at cards from central Europe, especially those printed by the magnificent Wiener Werkstatte in the early decades of the 20th century, I noticed that two figures often appeared on the Christmas cards depicting a visit to a welcoming family. One was a traditional Saint Nicholas character dressed in ornate flowing robes and carrying a bag of gifts. The other was a shabbily dressed rather grotesque if not devil-like creature carrying a bundle of switches and a bag. The intention of the visit was to leave a nice gift for the good children or a lump of coal for the "behaviorally challenged." While good children enjoyed their presents, moderately bad boys and girls could expect a swat or two from the switches. The worst cases went into the bag and carried off to who know where or what.

Please, I'm not advocating whipping, kidnapping, and cooking as a corrective for youth beyond the bounds of civilized coexistence. Rather, I'd just like a little balance for all the feet jabbed into my Economy Class back between Atlanta and anywhere, the screaming tantrums endured at finer restaurants, and the toxic aerosol clouds projected my way by sneezing toddlers.  Yes, it is time to modernize the deliveryman and bring on the coal acknowledging of course that the traditional Krampas needs plenty of modification to work as a disciplinarian in the 21st century!

Tonight, the eve of Saint Nicholas Day, is the Night of the Krampus. Although this night for European adults has taken on an almost Halloween-like character often fueled by alcohol, it remains a fascinating, ancient story of the dual nature of our existence. Those who understand that good does not stand without evil, just as there are no mountains without valleys, can learn more about the Krampus tradition here.


Photos and Illustrations:

Sunday, December 3, 2017

First Sunday in Advent 2017

A stunningly beautiful full Cold Moon, the best supermoon of the year, cast its light across north Georgia this evening. It was a wonder-filled event to usher in the close of  the First Sunday in Advent 2017.

The Descent of Peace   William Blake

I give you the end of a gold string.
Only wind it in a ball,
It will lead you to Heaven's gate
built in Jerusalem's wall.
                                                                             William Blake, "Jerusalem"

As we enter into the seasons of Advent and Christmastide, it is time once more to explore almost two thousand years of music written and performed for this holy time. Dating from the 7th century, here is the plainsong, Conditor Alme Siderum (Creator of the Stars at Night):

Here is some background on the hymn including its original text and an English translation.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Winston Churchill: A Lion Is Born

Today is the birthday (1874) of one of the leading statesmen of the 20th century, Winston Churchill..

Churchill in 1895

Sir Winston Leonard Spencer-Churchill KG OM CH TD DLFRS RA (30 November 1874 – 24 January 1965) was a British statesman who was the Prime Minister of the United Kingdomfrom 1940 to 1945 and again from 1951 to 1955. Churchill was also an officer in the British Army, a historian, a writer (as Winston S. Churchill), and an artist. He won the Nobel Prize in Literature, and was the first person to be made an honorary citizen of the United States.

For more information on Winston Churchill go here. And here - thanks to Steven Hayward writing at Power Line  - is a teachable moment from the great political philosopher, Leo Strauss, on hearing of Churchill's death in 1965. Finally, we cannot forget Churchill as a historian. He was both an extraordinary observer and compelling writer. New readers should start their journey with My Early Life: A Roving Commission, first published in 1930. It's a personal favorite and a book I believe will lead others to read more from this masterful writer. 

The Lion with his son and grandson in 1953

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

C.S. Lewis: "...'Where Dreams...Come To Life, Come Real...."

The Screwtape Letters, The Chronicles of Narnia, The Space Trilogy, Mere Christianity, Surprised By Joy. These books, known throughout the world, came from the pen of Clive Staples (C.S.) Lewis,  one of the last century's leading scholars, novelists, and Christian apologists, born on this day in 1898. I was introduced to the author through a gift. My best friend gave me a copy of The Four Loves as medication for a wounded relationship with Marti, the girl of my dreams at the time. Eventually, she rekindled a friendship with a professor of English at UNC Chapel Hill and from my perspective the story of their relationship was left to Heaven. On the other hand I was left with a life-long literary relationship with Lewis.

C.S. Lewis in 1947                             Arthur Strong

Lewis had a extraordinarily broad literary career immersed in a world of teaching and scholarship that included a close friendship with his colleague, J. R.R. Tolkein. Like most writers he appreciated his privacy but was by no means reclusive and fondly recalled as an excellent lecturer and conversationalist who loved humor. It's unfortunate that we have so little audiovisual material featuring Lewis but there is one brief tape from the World War II era where he discusses topics that would later be incorporated into his book, Mere Christianity:

From this writer's perspective, if you cannot enjoy a Lewis book you simply haven't read enough of his work. Readers of any age and ability will surely find something of interest among his more than eighty titles of poetry, fiction, and non-fiction. Choose...and enjoy.

Some day you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again.
                  from The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, C.S. Lewis, 1950


title quote, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, 1952

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

William Blake: Seeing Eternity In An Hour

In his own time he was so eccentric his neighbors and friends perceived him to be a madman. As an engraver and illustrator he was caught between the decline of the guilds and the rise of industrialization. It was a time when men saw the value of their labors swept away from the cottage and into the factory under the watchful eye of the manager. For workers, the loss of autonomy, the shift in control and production, and the helplessness in the face of change led to a revolt against the Age of Reason and a rage against technologies it spawned. William Blake was born into this environment on this day in 1757. Two centuries later he would be recognized as both one whose vision, imagination and sensitivity were unmatched in the Age of Romanticism, and a truly unique influence in the history of the Western world.

William Blake                      Thomas Phillips, English, 1807

He who binds himself to a joy
Doth the winged life destroy

But he who kisses the joy as it flies
Lives in Eternity's sunrise

                                                                              Eternity, William Blake, 1803

There is one certainty about Blake's work and that is its complexity. He is by far one of the most interesting visionaries to come out of the West and its traditions. I learned much from this artist and philosopher in an effort to balance my life between intellect and emotion. So far it's been a beautiful, productive, and fascinating journey. These works have been a part of that experience:

The Ancient of Days                                                              William Blake, 1793

In the following illustration Blake depicts his character, Urizen, [You rising] as reason shaping the world and its experience. This engraving is also interpreted as God the Father [and often God the Son] as divining existence. It is a prime example of the complex and often confounding world of Blake's imagination.

Newton                                                                              William Blake, 1795

Here Blake depicts Isaac Newton [and the Age of Reason] at the bottom of the sea shaping (the dividers, once more) the world of humankind on the earth. Newton has turned his back on the organic beauty of God's natural world.

The Descent of Peace   William Blake, 1815

Here, the Angel of Peace descends forcibly out of heaven illustrating God's reason (the dividers) brought into the world in the form of his Son to reconcile Nature (the recline female nude) and a redeemed humanity
And finally we have one of Blake's most familiar pieces. his preface to Milton: A Poem in Two Books. The preface says much about Blake's philosophy opposing the Age of Reason as embodied in Greek and Roman thought and the dangers a reliance on intellect can bring to a world based equally on emotion. Furthermore, the preface is a perfect illustration of Blake's religious mysticism as well as his veneration of Milton.

The stolen and perverted writings of Homer and Ovid, of Plato and Cicero, which all men ought to contemn, are set up by artifice against the Sublime of the Bible; but when the New Age is at leisure to pronounce, all will be set right, and those grand works of the more ancient, and consciously and professedly Inspired men will hold their proper rank, and the Daughters of Memory shall become the Daughters of Inspiration, Shakspeare and Milton were curb'd by the general malady and infection from the silly Greek and Latin slaves of the sword. Rouse up, O Young Men of the New Age! Set your foreheads against the ignorant hirelings! For we have hirelings in the camp, the Court, and the University, who would, if they could, for ever depress mental, and prolong corporeal war. Painters! on you I call. Sculptors! Architects! suffer not the fashionable fools to depress your powers by the prices they pretend to give for contemptible works, or the expensive advertising boasts that they make of such works; believe Christ and His Apostles that there is a class of men whose whole delight is in destroying. We do not want either Greek or Roman models if we are but just and true to our own Imaginations, those Worlds of Eternity in which we shall live for ever, in Jesus our Lord.
And did those feet in ancient time

Walk upon England's mountains green?

And was the holy lamb of God
On England's pleasant pastures seen?

And did the Countenance Divine
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here
Among these dark Satanic mills.

Bring me my bow of burning gold!
Bring me my arrows of desire!
Bring me my spear! O clouds, unfold!
Bring me my chariot of fire!

I will not cease from mental fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand,
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England's green and pleasant land.

Would to God that all the Lord's people were Prophets. Numbers xi, ch. 26

Many readers are likely familiar with this piece through Sir Hubert Parry's magnificent anthem, Jerusalem, as orchestrated by Edward Elgar.

To see a world in a grain of sand
And heaven in a wild flower
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand
And eternity in an hour

from Auguries of Innocence, William Blake, 1803


Photos and Illustrations:
Blake portrait, National Portrait Gallery, Washington, D.C.
Newton, Tate Gallery, London,

Text:, Blake entry
Jacob Bronowski, A Man Without A Mask, Seeker and Warburg, London, 1944

Sunday, November 26, 2017

The Man Who Made Our Life Cool

On this day (November 26) in 1876, Willis H. Carrier, was born into an old New England family. By the turn of the century, he developed a system of conditioning air in a stiflingly hot and humid Brooklyn printing plant. The new environment ensured stability in the paper, perfect alignment of four-color printing, and a more efficient and comfortable work force. It was soon a huge success in several industries. By the 1920s, air conditioning became popular in retail trade and entertainment, especially the movie theater. It was a small jump from commercial systems to home systems and by the 1930s air conditioning began a slow but steady increase in usage until the post World War II era when it boomed. 

Carrier posing with a 1922 model chiller

Carrier's application would have far reaching impacts on the American experience. Regionally, air conditioning made the South livable during long hot summers. The result was a massive shift in population and jobs from North to South beginning in 1960's. It is a trend that not only continues today but also shows no sign of stopping.

These days we take the comfort of air conditioning for granted across the nation giving it attention only when it's either time to change the filter or repair a compressor.

For interested readers, here is a link for more information on the impact of air conditioning on the American experience: 

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