Friday, September 29, 2017

Another Birthday To Share

The day always brings to mind the remarkable coincidence that I share this birthday with two of my favorite personalities from the world of the arts. Studying them in depth came later in my life and it's only been in the last decade that I realized September 29 was a big day we shared. It's a coincidence from somewhere in the stars beyond time. I don't want to attempt an explanation. And there's no delusion here, my friends, I will never approach their genius. Not sure I'd want to. I'll simply leave it at that and let this post unfold.

If I had to choose two personal favorites among American artists, I would choose Walter Inglis Anderson and George Gershwin. I discovered Anderson on my own in the 1970s during the dedication of a National Park Service visitor center in Ocean Springs, Mississippi. The award-winning center featured architectural elements incorporating his motifs as well as interior displays of his nature paintings. The building itself was a work of art emerging from the salt marsh at the edge of Davis Bayou. Unfortunately, the center was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. In regard to George Gershwin, I had an ear for him very early in life as my mom and dad enjoyed listening to his work on radio, records, and television.

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

George Gershwin in 1937

Anderson and Gershwin were filled with creative genius. Both lives featured tragic loss. Anderson died (1965) in his early sixties recognized as a local artist and obscure introvert wracked by schizophrenia. National appreciation of his contribution to American art would come slowly and long after his death. Even today he's not well known among general populations beyond the South. Gershwin would die of a brain tumor at the age of 38 at the height of his career and known throughout the world.

Frogs, Bugs, Flowers                   Walter Anderson, ca 1945

Walter Inglis Anderson, was born on September 29, 1903 in New Orleans. After training at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in the mid-1920s, he spent most of his career associated with Shearwater Pottery, a family enterprise founded in Ocean Springs, Mississippi. Though deeply troubled with mental illness for much of his life, he produced thousands of vivid works of art - often called "abstract realism" - seeking to celebrate the unity of human existence with nature. I often describe his work as decorated illustrations that play freely with figure and ground and the positives and negatives of visual perception. His realizations of nature explode in the mind's eye. Observing Anderson is a meditative experience. Visit the Walter Inglis Anderson Museum of Art site to learn more about the life and work of this regional artist who only recently has taken on national significance.

George Gershwin was born in New York in 1898. He went on to become perhaps the most beloved American composer of the last century through his many compositions for the musical stage, the concert hall, and what has become known as the Great American Songbook. Gershwin's appeal comes in part from his colorful and lively incorporation of jazz motifs in all his music. He died in 1937 with what could only be called a spectacular career ahead of him. I often imagine what he could have brought to American music had he lived another forty years.

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


Photos and Illustrations:

Walter "Bob" Anderson, Self-portrait, 1941. Walter Anderson Museum of Art, Ocean Springs, Mississippi.
Frogs, Bugs, and Flowers, Walter Anderson, ca 1945. Repository: Roger H. Ogden Collection. Copyright held by Roger H. Ogden.
George Gershwin 1937. Carl Van Vechten Collection, Library of Congress

Sunday, September 24, 2017

John Rutter: New Visions In Music

John Rutter at Clare College, Cambridge, England

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

Some in the classical music world, mostly in Great Britain, find Rutter's compositions to be a bit simple, repetitive, and stylistically confused. Others place him at the top among 20th century composers. I have to side with the latter appraisals. The melodies are generally simple, the harmonies beautiful, and the style affords a perfect balance of music and message. Furthermore, choirs of all sizes and skill levels perform his work to appreciative audiences everywhere. If popularity is any indicator, John Rutter's music will be enjoyed for a long, long time.

Here is the finale  of Rutter's 2016 composition, Visions, a four-part work based on the theme of Jerusalem:


Photos and Illustrations:
Clare College Alumn

Thursday, September 21, 2017

A Fire Burning In The Darkness

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

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

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


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

Eighty Years Of Hobbits

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

Cover from 1937

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

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Gram Parsons: Seeking Cosmic American Music

Parsons in 1973

Gram Parsons spent his brief musical life searching for what he called "cosmic American music," a sound emerging out of gospel, R&B, country and rock traditions. He was born in 1946 into a wealthy Florida-Georgia family, a circumstance that encouraged both his exploration of music and the drug abuse that killed him on this day in 1973 in the Joshua Tree Inn at the edge of the desert he loved. Parsons performed with The Byrds and The Flying Burrito Brothers before attempting a rocky solo career that went nowhere until he met a young singer in Washington, D.C. Her name was Emmylou Harris. Parsons soon partnered with Harris and they went on to produce some of the finest sounds from the early fusion days of country and folk-rock. With his passing, one of American music's greatest inventors was stilled, but others, including Emmylou, would use his inventions and adapt them over the next forty years into the country rock music we know today.

Here is some music to help you understand the history. The first recording is a Gram Parsons-Bob Buchanan song that appeared on The Byrds album, Sweetheart of the Rodeo, released in 1968. It was both a Parsons concept and groundbreaking for the band by going deep into classic country and introducing Parsons to a rock audience.

Here's a Parsons-Chris Hillman song, dating from 1969 and the days of The Flying Burrito Brothers. Parsons can be identified by his signature marijuana leaf Nudie suit.

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

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

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

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Mencken, The Sage Of Baltimore Has A Birthday

After all these years, the Sage of Baltimore - Henry Louis Mencken - still has so much to tell us about the American experience. In his day he invented the term "booboisie" to refer to the masses who didn't read much, know much or even care much about their lives as citizens of a democratic republic. Today we could easily apply his term to the masses who are well-schooled but not well-educated, who apply emotion rather than reason and logic to their decision making, and who align themselves with coalitions of self-interests wrapped in collectivist totalitarianism. Another term for the modern-day "booboisie" is "moonbat". I think Mencken would have a even more colorful term for them if were still with us. And oh would he have a time with our political and social landscape today.

Democracy is a pathetic belief in the collective wisdom of individual ignorance. No one in this world, so far as I know - and I have researched the records for years, and employed agents to help me - has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people. Nor has anyone ever lost office thereby.

Henry Louis Mencken, the "Sage of Baltimore," was born on this day in 1880. He was a leading journalist and author on the American scene, humorist, and a student of the American language. Mencken's stature seems to be on the rise over the last few decades. I'd guess it's because we experienced a concurrent rise in many nation-wide opportunities to watch logic, practicality, and skepticism destroy a multitude of political pretenders and their policies regardless of political persuasion. 

Puritanism is the haunting fear that someone, somewhere is having a good time.

Mencken (right) celebrating the end of Prohibition in 1933

As much as I enjoy reading all of Mencken's work, the autobiographical books remain my favorites. His three-part "Days" series, Happy Days(1940), Newspaper Days (19441), and Heathen Days (1943) should be essential reading. They cover life and times from birth through 1936, the most productive and positive time in his life. After the mid-1930's, Mencken fell a bit out of fashion as his curmudgeonly persistence began to grind on the American psyche. His perceived sympathy with German nationalism helped undermine his reputation into the 40's. In one of the great ironies in American literature, a stroke in 1948 rendered him unable to read, speak or write beyond simple phrases or sentences. Although he regained some communications skills over time, he spent the next seven years enjoying music, listening to readings, and conversing with friends until his death in 1956. 

If, after I depart this vale, you ever remember me and have thought to please my ghost, forgive some sinner and wink your eye at some homely girl.

Those who want the full Mencken story should read Terry Teachout's, The Skeptic: A Life of H.L. Mencken (2003). Teachout is a superb writer who treats his subject with objectivity and warmth. I also enjoyed a biography, Mencken: The American Iconoclast (2005), by the eminent Mencken scholar, Marion Elizabeth Rodgers.

If reading isn't to your liking but you still want some immersion into the man and his times, C-SPAN's American Writers Project produced a fine two-hour program on Mencken that should not be missed. It is a thorough multimedia exploration.

I'm the third generation in my family to consider Mencken a favorite writer. Though the author as skeptic likely played a role in his popularity over the years, I think the humor sold him to the family - certainly has in my case. But there is a sad note to this story. In 1959 - I was 13 that year - two family members who were among the first generation to appreciate Mencken passed away just one day part. My dad was the executor of this challenging estate. The late relatives had shared a large home with other brothers and accumulated seventy years of cultural history within its walls. It seemed the only thing that left the house was weekly trash. Included in that history collection they retained were thousands of magazines. No institution or person wanted them as they had not yet achieved a patina of age, worth or "significance." I was given the responsibility of burning them and in doing so I watched a near complete, mint collection of The Smart Set and The American Mercury magazines rise up in smoke on a cold winter day. Both magazines were under the editorship of H.L. Mencken early in his career and featured many new writers who were to become famous in the decades to follow. Today, the collection could bring as much as five figures at a major literary auction. So much wisdom up in smoke. If the Sage of Baltimore were alive today, he would not be happy at this outcome, nor would he be surprised...

No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people.


Democracy is....    "Notes on Journalism," Chicago Tribune, September 19, 1926;

Puritanism is....    " Sententae," The Citizen and the State, p.624;

If, after I....    "Epitaph," from Smart Set (December 1921);

No one ever....    paraphrase of the "Democracy" quote as noted in The Yale Book of Quotations (2006)

Monday, September 4, 2017

Labor Day 2017

In the eastern U.S. we're in the last minutes of the Labor Day holiday weekend and the informal end of summer. I'm sure Labor Day and the weekend generated plenty of memories. The most memorable Labor Days in my early days - the '50's and '60's - were the big day-long picnics sponsored by the paper mill that employed my home town. Three to four thousand people attended those events at Burlington, West Virginia, and enjoyed carnival rides, swimming, softball, races, airplane rides, and a playground filled with wonderfully dangerous equipment that could never be built today. It all ended with a movie under the stars at the drive-in theater next door.

Old Tybee Ranger was three when this photo was taken at the Burlington campground

Many of the kids I played with those days ended up working at the mill, I imagine a number of them went on to college and enjoyed the greater opportunities it afforded. In the long run they made the right decision. Today, the mill employs only a shadow of its former workforce, fewer than a quarter when compared to its post World War II heyday. The company sponsored picnic ended years ago. The union wages may still be good, but the jobs are few, the future of the American paper industry remains in question, and the quality of life still wants in a region now entering its seventh decade of stagnation or decline. 

Although it's been forty years since I skipped rocks in Patterson Creek and spent my last weekends at the Burlington campground I feel a strong affinity for the place and for the people who live there. My family's experience began there in the early nineteenth century. Today that family consists of my cousins and Facebook friends who elected to remain in those magnificent ridges and valleys in the shadow of the Allegheny Front.

In my life, I've always made a point to family, friends, and colleagues that all work is honorable. Every employee, from minimum wage to executive salary, contributes to achieving organizational success and profit in the American dream. To those in the valleys of Georges Creek, New Creek, Patterson Creek and the Potomac River I wish a happy Labor Day. The notable labor history of these valleys in the last century helped bring the nation through two world wars and into the limelight as the greatest economic engine on the planet. Although we may be left only with the memories of the holiday at Burlington and elsewhere we cannot forget the labor that made the celebration possible and the ambitions and achievements of those who choose to call the region "home."