Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Walt Whitman: "I Hear America Singing"

The American poet and essayist, Walt Whitman, was born on this day in 1819 in West Hills, Long Island, New York. His formal education ended after six years but his insatiable desire to learn immersed him in libraries, museums, lectures, salons, and landscapes in and around New York.  His life as a poet, essayist, journalist and humanitarian would take him to New Orleans, Washington, Boston, and Camden, New Jersey, but his associations in New York would make the great metropolitan area the hub of career.

File:Walt Whitman - George Collins Cox.jpg
Whitman in 1887

A free spirit easily recognized as the most extraordinary poet of his time, Whitman bridged the American experience from the early Romantic period in literature to the advent of hard realism as the end of the century approached. I'm not sure what presence he has these days in the public school systems across the country but baby boomers - born between 1946 and 1964 - had a full dose of his poetry beginning in elementary school. For more information on Whitman, including an extensive biography, visit the outstanding resources at the Walt Whitman Archive.

For an example of his work here is "One's-Self I Sing," the introductory poem to the third and last section of his collection, Leaves of Grass, as published in 1867.

ONE’S-SELF I sing—a simple, separate Person; 
Yet utter the word Democratic, the word En-masse. 

Of Physiology from top to toe I sing; 
Not physiognomy alone, nor brain alone, is worthy for the muse—I say the
Form complete is worthier far; 
The Female equally with the male I sing.

Of Life immense in passion, pulse, and power, 
Cheerful—for freest action form’d, under the laws divine, 
The Modern Man I sing.

Much of Whitman's poetry has been set to music. Sometimes the blend of music and existing poetry has limited success and authors often do no think favorably of such adaptations. I think Whitman would have approved especially with the music coming from fellow a impressionist, in this case Frederick Delius. This composition has been a personal favorite for forty years. This recording features the superb Welsh baritone, Bryn Terfel and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra and Chorus under the baton of Richard Hickox.


Photos and Illustrations:
public domain photo, George Collins Cox, restored by Adam Cuerden, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

Walt Whitman entry,
One's Self I Sing,
title quote from the poem of the same name 

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Benny Goodman: "Creativity Grows Out Of Two Things: Curiosity And Imagination."

On a cold night in January 1938, Benny Goodman and his band, along with select members of the Count Basie and Duke Ellington bands, performed a concert at Carnegie Hall. No jazz bandleader had ever performed there. The concert was a sensation, reaffirming Goodman as the "King of Swing," and jazz as serious American music. In the eyes of many music critics and historians, this concert remains the single most important event in popular music history in the United States. Superlatives aside, the concert was a study in swing music history and jazz improvisation. 

Publicity style candid photo of Goodman ca. 1970
So who was Benny Goodman. He grew up poor in Chicago, but received quality musical instruction there. Before long, he was playing "professionally" with many bands. The Chicago music scene also gave him an affinity for New Orleans style jazz. At 20, he left for New York and world fame brought about not only by practice and persistence but also by a most unusual turn of events.

In 1935, his orchestra performed regularly in New York on an NBC Radio program entitled, "Let's Dance." It was broadcast live across the country after midnight, Eastern Time. Young people in the East were fast asleep when his orchestra hit the airways, but it was perfect timing for the West Coast. A strike ended the broadcasts after a few months and the band decided on a coast to coast tour. In the interior states, the tour was a disaster because people didn't care for "upbeat" jazz arranged for orchestra. The band was looking forward to the Palomar Ballroom in Los Angeles as the last stop and an end to the pain. When they arrived, thousands of young fans who had heard them on the radio were waiting to hear them in person. What was to be a welcome end to a disastrous tour turned into the beginning of the Swing Era.

Eighteen months later Goodman and his band found themselves on stage at that Carnegie Hall concert. After several curtain calls at the end of the concert, Goodman announced to the screaming fans that an encore would follow. Sing, Sing, Sing was the last song in that set. It already was a popular piece for the band, but this performance lifted it to holy status in the swing jazz genre. Featured players included Gene Kruppa on drums, Babe Russin on saxophone, Harry James on trumpet, Goodman on clarinet, and Jess Stacy in a masterpiece of improvisation on piano. Here is thirteen minutes and six seconds of invention that transformed swing jazz into mainstream American music.

Today marks the birthday of Benny Goodman (1909-1986). Eighty years after his landmark appearance in Carnegie Hall the world still enjoys the music and legacy of the "King of Swing.  In fact,  recordings of that famous concert have remained in print as best sellers since 1950 when masters were found in Goodman's home. There isn't much more to be said. Go listen to the music!


Photos and Illustrations:
public domain publicity portrait

title quote,
Benny Goodman entry,

Monday, May 29, 2017

Stravinsky's The Rite Of Spring As Genius And Madness

On this day 104 years ago the young composer, Igor Stravinsky, made music history in Paris. The event was the premiere of the ballet The Rite of Spring. Like his earlier work for Sergei Diaghilev's Ballets Russes, it was experimental and revolutionary. When combined with primitive choreography and a human sacrifice theme audiences were either dazzled or infuriated.

Photo from 1913 showing original costumes 

In the early 1980's the original choreography was meticulously reconstructed after being lost for almost six decades. A few years after its completion it was presented by the Joffre Ballet. There is no better representation around of what that 1913 audience both heard and saw. Here is Part 1 - all three available on YouTube - of their performance.

Stravinsky's imaginative compositions went on to  have a huge impact on music and the arts. At the forefront stands The Rite of Spring  as one of the most widely recorded and performed symphonic works in the world. It remains as fresh in 2017 as it was in 1913. In that century its innovative energy in sound and rhythm has been re-patterned by the likes of Aaron Copeland, Leonard Bernstein, John Williams, Philip Glass and many others. 

Some say the most productive experiments often make the biggest messes. The genius and madman in Stravinsky would be pleased. 


Photos and Illustrations:
public domain photo from First Nights: Five Musical Premieres by Thomas F. Kelly. Yale University Press, New Haven 2000. 

Igor Stravinsky entry,

Memorial Day 2017

Today we honor men and women who made the supreme sacrifice in service to their country. They gave their lives that we might live out our own in an experiment of community called the United States. Take some moments today to think of them and what they have given you and your family.

Many of us grew up knowing this day as Decoration Day, but now it is best known as Memorial Day. Though both its date and scope have changed over time, its central meaning remains strong. At virtually every crossroad town from sea to sea, there will be old soldiers, flags, a speech or two, and prayers. These events will take place at memorial walls bearing the names of the honored dead. Invariably, the audiences will be small, but firmly dedicated to the idea that the nation will always remember the cost of freedom.

The American composer, Charles Ives, captured much of the historic character of this day in his composition, Holiday Symphony.  Section II, "Decoration Day," has a number of familiar tunes, but you may not recognize them without a guide. Like the holiday itself, Ives gives us rich, complex, and contemplative moments in time and space. 

Here in words and images, the contemplative moments continue...

From the silence of sorrowful hours,
The desolate mourners go,
Lovingly laden with flowers,
Alike for the friend and the foe:
Under the sod and the dew,
Waiting the judgment day.
Under the roses the Blue,
Under the lilies the Gray

A Soldier's Burial
by General George S. Patton (1943)

Not midst the chanting of the Requiem Hymn,
Nor with the solemn ritual of prayer,
Neath misty shadows from the oriel glass,
And dreamy perfume of the incensed air
Was he interred;
But in the subtle stillness after fight,
And the half light between the night and the day,
We dragged his body all besmeared with mud,
And dropped it, clod-like, back into the clay.

Yet who shall say that he was not content,
Or missed the prayers, or drone of chanting choir,
He who had heard all day the Battle Hymn
Sung on all sides by a thousand throats of fire.

What painted glass can lovelier shadows cast,
Than those the evening sky shall ever shed,
While, mingled with their light, Red Battle's Sun
Completes in magic colors o'er our dead,
The flag for which they died.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Peggy Lee: "Music Is My Life's Breath."

Peggy Lee 1950.JPG
Peggy Lee in 1950

The American entertainer, Peggy Lee (1920-2002), always had a serious independent streak in both her life and career. While most singers chose to go loud she went rich, seductive, and stylish. Her method caught the eye and ear of bandleader Benny Goodman in 1941 and for the next five decades she wrapped songs in her personality, warmth, and intimacy for millions of fans. Here is the song that made her famous:

She not only sang songs but also wrote them. Here she is singing her biggest hit, Manana; words by Lee and music by Dave Barbour:

Lee had her last big hit in 1969 with Is That All There Is?. The songwriting team of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller wrote the song based on a story by Thomas Mann. Its perfect for Lee's treatment.

With that sophisticated style and renown singing, writing lyrics, composing, and acting, it's easy to see why Lee was always introduced to audiences as "Miss Peggy Lee." And it's no wonder that such an "in charge" personality could become the model for one of the most beloved characters in television history.  That the character is none other than a Muppet may surprise you. It is a story of caricature, humor, reverence, and unexpected fame. Read about it here in this brief Smithsonian Magazine interview. 

Lee was born on May 25, 1920 in Jamestown, North Dakota. Her recording still sell well fifteen years after her death and can be heard regularly on jazz and popular music stations and channels around the world. That's all there is.


Photos and Illustrations:
public domain publicity photo

Peggy Lee,

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Bob Dylan At 76

Bob Dylan was only 21 on July 9, 1962 when he walked into the Columbia Recording Studios in New York to record a song to be included on his second album. The song, Blowin' in the Wind, brought him fame and recognition as one of the nation's leading folk poets in the twentieth century. The lyrics and Dylan's comments on the song were published in June 1962 in the folk journal, Sing Out. He said this:

Too many of these hip people are telling me where the answer is but oh I won’t believe that. I still say it’s in the wind and just like a restless piece of paper it’s got to come down some ...But the only trouble is that no one picks up the answer when it comes down so not too many people get to see and know . . . and then it flies away.

The music critic, Andy Gill, said this about the song in his book, Classic Bob Dylan, 1962-1969: My Back Pages:

Blowin' in the Wind marked a huge jump in Dylan's songwriting. Prior to this, efforts like The Ballad of Donald White and The Death of Emmett Till had been fairly simplistic bouts of reportage songwriting. Blowin' in the Wind was different: for the first time, Dylan discovered the effectiveness of moving from the particular to the general. Whereas The Ballad of Donald White would become completely redundant as soon as the eponymous criminal was executed, a song as vague as Blowin' in the Wind could be applied to just about any freedom issue. It remains the song with which Dylan's name is most inextricably linked, and safeguarded his reputation as a civil libertarian through any number of changes in style and attitude.

The song remains a poem for our times, perhaps all times.

At the political blog, Powerline, Scott Johnson has made a number of observations on Dylan's impact on the American musical experience.  Here are his posts from 2016, the first, Not Dark Yet, discussing the man and his significance in the world of music and beyond, and the second, devoted to Dylan the songwriter. Both posts feature any number of links for fans who want to explore Dylan in depth as well as hear several likely unfamiliar covers of the master's work. 


Photos and Illustrations:
public domain photo, 1964 Yearbook, St. Lawrence University, New York

Bob Dylan entry,

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,

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,

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:, 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.