Wednesday, August 09, 2017

Glen Campbell, 1936-2017

Glen Campbell died yesterday at 81, after many years' struggle with Alzheimer's. He had a fine, clear tenor voice, but his greatest talent was as a guitarist. Before going solo, he was part of the Wrecking Crew, a group of exceptional L.A. studio musicians whose contributions can be heard on many hits from the 1960s.

A favorite of mine will always be his rendition of John Hartford's "Gentle On My Mind"; in the clip below he shows his skill as a picker as well as a singer:



Another is "Less Of Me,"a song he recorded with Bobbie Gentry. I couldn't find a live video of him singing it with her, but I did find one with another great woman singer, Jackie DeShannon:
 

You may (if you're as old as I am) recall that when Brian Wilson took ill during a Beach Boys tour, Glen filled in for him on bass (not his usual instrument) and high vocals (higher than his normal), to surprisingly good effect. Glen later couldn't resist adding a Beach Boys medley to his repertoire. In the clip below, please feel free to slide across his (I think) pedestrian covers of "Good Vibrations" and "California Girls" to get to 4:12, where the "Fun! Fun! Fun!" begins, and doesn't stop until the end.
  

The backing band in the Beach Boys clip above is the Jeff Dayton Band, and the concert was at -- would you believe? -- the North Phoenix Baptist Church, in 1998.

 Glen Campbell photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Monday, May 29, 2017

Gregg Allman, 1947-2017

In April of 1969 I was in my second year of law school, and visited my parents in Tampa during spring break. Paging through the Tampa Tribune I saw a review of a concert at a local venue. The headline act was a prominent Motown group, but the reviewer wrote that the loudest cheers came for the warm-up group, "the Allman Brothers, whom no one had heard of."

I likely would have forgotten this, but back in Cambridge in May I heard a local DJ announce a forthcoming Velvet Underground concert "with the Allman Brothers." Not long after that I began to hear their early recordings on "underground" or "AOR" stations like WBCN in Boston and WNEW in New York, to which I moved after graduation. I missed their great concert at Fillmore East in March of 1971, At the time I was more into the folk-into-country of the Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, and their progeny, especially Gram Parsons and Neil Young.

The death of Duane Allman late in 1971 sent the group into a less hard-edged blues, more country influenced direction, led by by Dickey Betts. My first Allmans album was Brothers and Sisters, and my favorite song "Ramblin' Man," a Betts composition with a hook for me in the line, "I was born in the back seat of a Greyhound bus rollin' down Highway 41." That road was the umbilical cord connecting Tampa to Atlanta, and ultimately to Detroit, which is why, entering Tampa on 41 from the north, one of the first things you would see was the Detroiter Motel.

Gregg was largely responsible for the breakup of the group in the late 1970s, caused in part by his distraction into Hollywood glitz following his marriage to Cher, and in large part by the Scooter Herring case. Still, he was instrumental in reuniting the group on several occasions, and did some very good work solo and in other groups.



I'm closing with a video, from Gregg's channel, of a live performance he did on January 14, 2014 in Macon, Georgia, where the Allmans had made their home in the early 1970s. The song is "Ain't Wastin' Time No More," written by Gregg, which was the opening track on Eat a Peach, the Allmans' first album following Duane's death. Gregg's performance is augmented by splendid solos on sax by Jay Collins, and on guitar by Scott Sharrard.

Photo of Gregg by Patricia O'Driscoll from Keeping the Blues Alive.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

They also served, and many died: remembering the merchant mariners.


This weekend we remember the men and women whose lives were lost in defense of our nation and its allies. Among these have been many merchant mariners, whose service was essential in delivering ammunition, fuel, equipment, food, and medical supplies to our troops, and those of our allies, fighting overseas. It is estimated that, in World War II, as many as 9,300 died at sea or later succumbed to wounds inflicted when their ships were attacked by enemy submarines or aircraft, or struck mines.

The photo above is of the American Merchant Mariners' Memorial, by the sculptor Marisol. I took it while walking around Battery Park, at the southern tip of Manhattan, and posted it here on November 1, 2006.

American Victory (photo above) is one of the few surviving "emergency" cargo ships from World War II. She has been preserved in my old home city, Tampa, by the American Victory Ship Mariners Memorial Museum. Her dock is at 705 Channelside Drive, near the Florida Aquarium. I visited her there several years ago. Paul Schiffman, a retired Merchant Marine master who tended bar at the Lion's Head, for many years my favorite Greenwich Village saloon, served as a mate on her maiden voyage in 1945, delivering supplies to U.S. forces in the Pacific. At a memorial gathering for Paul, who died in 2011, I learned that Mike Wholey, another Lion's Head regular, had served as a mate on American Victory's last voyage in service, delivering supplies to our troops in Vietnam.

In 1988, pursuant to a court order, merchant mariners who served during World War II were granted veteran status, allowing them to receive discharge papers and medical benefits.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Ella Fitzgerald's Centenary

Today, April 25, would have been Ella Fitzgerald's 100th birthday (I'm getting in very late, now), and I must remember her as one of the greatest jazz and pop singers of all time. Not only that, but someone who is remembered by many who worked with her as unpretentious, low maintenance; indeed, sweet. Just like her music. In the clip below, she sings "Mack the Knife," by Berthold Brecht and Kurt Weill, and in it gives credit to two singers who did it before: Louis Armstrong and Bobby Darin. Enjoy!

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

J. Geils, 1946-2017

I first knew of the J. Geils Band some time after my arrival in Cambridge for law school. Looking through one of the local "what's happening" papers, I saw they were the featured act at a nearby venue, probably the Boston Tea Party. My law school routine that year was such that I didn't get out to sample the music scene, which was splendid at the time. I missed J.Geils, as well as folk icons like Joni Mitchell and Tom Rush, who were regulars at Cambridge spots like Club 47.

The first time I heard J. Geils was sometime in the early 1970s, while I was in the Army. I was visiting a friend, and he played the album, the cover of which is shown above. I'm not sure why "live" is in scare quotes, as it was recorded live in concert at Detroit's Cinderella Ballroom on April 21 and 22, 1972. It includes some able and lively R&B - Smokey Robinson's "First I Look at the Purse" - and blues -  Otis Rush's "Homework" and John Lee Hooker's "Serves You Right to Suffer." The first song that really grabbed my attention was "Hard Drivin' Man,"written by Geils and the band's lead vocalist Peter Wolf. It's straight-ahead, over-the-top, hit-the-road rock. Introducing the song, Wolf got the crowd worked up with, "You've heard of the Boston Funky? [Yeah!] You've heard of the Philly Freeze? [Yeah!] We've got the Detroit Demolition now! [Pandemonium]."



The piece de resistance for me, though, was the final cut, a segue of "Juke Joint Jimmy's" (a pseudonym used by members of the band for joint compositions) "Cruisin' for Love" and "Looking for a Love" (a cover of a Valentinos hit from 1962) the latter of which breaks into pure frenzy. The clip above shows the band doing "Looking for a Love" at the Oakland Coliseum on March 22, 1980. Wolf, in the striped shirt, demonstrates his acrobatic as well as his vocal talent. Geils plays what appears to be a Gibson Flying "V" (or perhaps a Jackson King or ESP) guitar.

J. Geils was found dead in his house in Groton, Massachusetts last Tuesday. According to his Boston Globe obit he was found by police on a "well being check," indicating he may have been in poor health for some time, and lived alone. He separated from his wife, Kris, in 1999, but they remained friends. He was born in New York City in 1946 (also the year of my birth) and raised in New Jersey, where his father was an engineer at Bell Labs, and a jazz and blues enthusiast. It was while Geils was a student at the Worcester Polytechnic Institute - evidently he considered following his father's career path - that he met bassist Danny Klein and harmonicist Richard "Magic Dick" Salwitz, who shared his father's love of the blues and who, along with him, formed the nucleus of what became the J. Geils Band.

The band quickly became a staple of the Boston music scene in the late 1960s and '70s, but didn't achieve national fame until the early 1980s with a hit single, "Love Stinks," followed by a hit album, Freeze Frame, featuring their only chart-topping release, "Centerfold." The band broke up in the mid 1980s, but reunited on several occasions, mostly for benefit concerts. Later in life, Geils returned to hhis jazz and blues roots. In 1994 he and Salwitz formed a group called Bluestime that covered works by great Chicago blues artists that had inspired both of them. Geils' last venture into recording was about 2005, when, as Jay Geils, he and Gerry Beaudoin performed as the "Kings of Strings," doing jazz guitar pieces in the style of greats like Charlie Christian, whom Geils had long admired.

Monday, April 03, 2017

Mets in first place in NL East!

Of course, they're sharing this lofty position with the Nationals and the Phillies, who also won their season openers today. The Mets beat their erstwhile nemeses, the Braves, by 6-0. Despite giving up five hits, Syndergaard was dominant, striking out seven and pitching his way out of trouble until he was pulled after the sixth with a finger blister on his pitching hand. He got no support from the offense. The game was 0-0 at the end of the sixth, as the Braves' Julio Terehan was doing his usual flummoxing of Mets batters. But he was also taken out after the sixth. Mets reliever Robles kept Atlanta's bats silent through the top of the seventh, and in the bottom a succession of three Braves relievers allowed six New York runs to score, handing Robles the win. The first run in was Wilmer Flores (photo), who ran from second to home on a single to center and was initially called out by the home plate umpire. Mets manager Terry Collins challenged the call, and it was overturned on review,

There was no scoring in the eighth, and the Mets went to the top of the ninth appearing ready to cruise to an easy shutout. There was a bit of last minute drama. Gsellman, brought to the mound to close, allowed two hits, placing runners on second and third with no outs. I remembered a game back seventeen or so years ago when the Mets went into the ninth trailing Atlanta by seven runs, but jumped on the Braves' closer--I'm pretty sure it was the loathsome John Rocker, and several other arms brought in to try to stop the damage, to clinch an 8-7 victory. Could this be payback time? Then Gsellman struck out the next batter. The one after hit a little chopper that Gsellman fielded and threw to first for the out. Duda, at first, checked home, then noticed that the runner at second was way off base, and tossed for the pickoff. That ended the game.

Is there a dark lining to this silver cloud? Of course. These are the Mets, and there always must be injury problems, especially to pitchers. Syndergaard's blister isn't a serious matter, but in an abundance of caution Collins has moved his next start, against the Marlins, from Saturday to Sunday. The big worries are projected starters Lugo and Matz, who are sidelined indefinitely by elbow problems.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Chuck Berry: 1926-2017


Chuck Berry, who, in my opinion. did as much or more than anyone to make rock 'n' roll what it is, and whose inspiration was essential to the Beach Boys and the Rolling Stones as well as important to the Beatles, died today at the age of ninety. He continued performing well into his eighties. I once posted a clip of him singing one of his early hits, "Sweet Little Sixteen," at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1958. The Jazz Festival crowd seemed to be much more receptive to Berry than was the Folk Festival crowd to Dylan a few years later.



So, what song to remember him by? My choice is the one that made Number Two on my all time rock and pop hits list, "The Promised Land." It's a driving rocker in the best Berry tradition, and also includes some subtle racial commentary, as did some other of Berry's songs. It didn't take much imagination in 1964 to know that "downtown Birmingham" was a bad place for a young Black man to be "stranded" because a bus broke down. Fortunately, he has enough saved up to get a train ticket out, fast. When he gets to New Orleans, though, he's out of money, but "somebody" helps him to get to Houston, where some "people who care a little 'bout me," evidently prosperous extended family, get him a suit, luggage, and airfare to Los Angeles. The overarching narrative is that of escaping the South (Tidewater Virginia) for the supposedly more welcoming West Coast.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

A "Celtic Appalachian Celebration."

On Saturday evening, March 11, my wife and I attended a concert billed as "A Celtic Appalachian Celebration" at Symphony Space on the Upper West Side. It was sponsored by the Irish Arts Center and featured Mick Moloney (photo) as master of ceremonies, as well as being one of the musicians. Mick has been the recipient of a National Heritage Award from the National Endowment for the Arts and a Presidential Distinguished Service Award from the President of Ireland. I had the pleasure of meeting Mick, and hearing him play and sing, at the Brooklyn Historical Society several years ago.



The headline act for the event was Green Fields of America, a group, named for a song, that Mick Moloney formed in 1978 "to present and tour some of Irish America's finest musicians and dancers" (Wikipedia). Over the years, the membership of the group has changed. The clip above shows them playing an unidentified, very spirited Irish tune. The group at the time this video was made included at least three musicians that were part of the group that played on Saturday: Mick Moloney on guitar; Athena Tergis on fiddle, whose background includes being in the cast of Riverdance and touring with the late Clarence Clemons; and Billy McComiskey on accordion. Others who were with the group on Saturday were: Brendan Dolan on piano; Brian Fleming on drums; Liz Hanley on fiddle and vocals; Jerry O'Sullivan on pipes and whistle; and the immensely talented fourteen year old Haley Richardson on fiddle.



As mentioned above, Mick intended to showcase Irish American dance along with music. The clip above shows two members of City Stompers, Nicole Ball and Sara Rowbottom, dancing to the music of the Melody Allegra Band. The first minute and thirty seconds of the clip is all music, then the dancers take the floor. The City Stompers, led by their director and choreographer Megan Downes, took the floor often during Friday's concert. Their style is "Appalachian Flatfoot," which is characteristic of the Ulster Scots, or "Scotch Irish," who settled Appalachia during the late eighteenth century. They were descendants of the Protestant Scots who were "planted" in northern Ireland by James I during the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries in an effort to subdue the Catholic Irish. As Mick Moloney noted, the term "Hillbilly" comes from the popularity of the name William among the Presbyterian Scotch Irish.

Two other dancers, who doubled as musicians, also appeared on stage, sometimes with the women of City Stompers and sometimes by themselves. Jake James is a dancer and multi-instrumentalist who has performed with many groups, including one of my favorites, Black 47. Niall O'Leary is a polymath: dancer, musician, businessman, and architect.

 

Anna and Elizabeth are Anna Roberts-Gevalt (at right in the clip above) and Elizabeth LaPrelle. Elizabeth is a Virginia native who grew up in the Southern Appalachian musical tradition, of which "Little Black Train," the song they do in the video, is exemplary. Anna grew up in Vermont, which is also part of Appalachia. (Geologists will tell you it goes all the way to Maine and southern Canada.) During the concert, Anna and Elizabeth performed a couple of songs that Anna learned from older singers in Vermont, thus giving us a taste of a lesser known Northern Appalachian tradition.



Another taste of the southern Appalachian tradition was provided by the wife and husband duo Erynn Marshall and Carl Jones. "Tune Tramp," which they do in the clip above, was one of the songs they performed at the concert. They also did "Decatur Stomp," a tune Erynn composed that combines the old time Appalachian and Ragtime styles. You can hear it here.

The concert ended with all the musicians and dancers on stage doing a stirring medley of Irish and Appalachian music and dance. It was a fine warm up for the feast of St. Patrick.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Another remembrance I missed: Mose Allison (1927-2016).

I first heard of Mose Allison during my college years. I had a copy of Johnny Rivers' album Meanwhile Back at the Whiskey à Go Go, which led off with the Willie Dixon song "Seventh Son," which I loved. I later heard a version by Mose that I liked even better. For a time, I assumed he had written the song. I was thereby led to seek more by him, and acquired some albums, which gave me a sense of the breadth of his talent. It encompassed jazz, blues, and R&B. Not bad for a self described "middle class white boy" from Mississippi.

In 1981 I went with some friends to a sailboat race in Annapolis. I saw in a local paper that Mose was playing at a venue there, and I convinced my friends, none of whom had heard of him, that we should go that evening. He ended his set with this:
 
At the end of the show, my friends were all fans.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Baseball is back! Mets win spring training opener from Red Sox.

The Mets opened their Grapefruit League pre-season with a 3-2 win over the Red Sox today. This makes me happy, but my wife, most of her relatives, Twiffer, and some other friends less than so. Most of them would shrug and say, "Spring training results are meaningless; especially ones early in spring training." They'd be right, of course. Still, I can't help making what I can from Seth Lugo's pitching two scoreless innings, homers by Michael Comforto and Gavin Cecchini, and two hits by Travis D'Arnaud, who had problems at the plate last year.

Tomorrow they face the Washington Nationals, who won the NL East last year, leaving the Mets to fight for a wild card spot they failed to capture. The outcome won't matter much, but again I'll make what I can of it.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Remembrances--an addendum: John Glenn

When I had finished my Remembrances post, I had a feeling that I'd left out someone very significant. I had noted the death of John Glenn on Facebook, and had meant to post about him here, but got caught up in pre-Christmas madness along with my paying work.

John Glenn was a hero to me long before he rode Friendship 7 into orbit, circled the earth three times, and piloted the capsule to a safe landing in the Pacific. As an Air Force brat, during my childhood I read everything I could about jet pilot heroics. I knew of him as the pilot who first flew across the continental U.S. at an average speed above Mach I. I also learned of his exploits as a fighter pilot in World War II and the Korean War.

Permanently engraved on my memory is the morning of February 20, 1962. I was in tenth grade, and in Mr. Bonar's biology class at Robinson High School, in Tampa. We were excused from class and went outside--February 20 in Tampa was clear and just a bit crisp--and, looking to the east, saw the rising vapor trail that eventually curved slightly away. As the school day progressed, we got occasional updates, including the frightening news that his capsule's heat shield might have broken away. We cheered at the report of his safe splashdown.

At the age of 77, he returned to space as a member of a space shuttle crew, thereby becoming the oldest person to go beyond earth's atmosphere. I'll turn 71 one month from today. Maybe I have something to look forward to.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Al Jarreau, 1940-2017

Al Jarreau, whose syncretic style bridged jazz, mainstream pop, and rhythm 'n' blues, died today at 76. In the clip below, he does a vocal cover of Dave Brubeck's "Take Five", in which he demonstrates skill at scat singing, which I once was bold (or crazy) enough to compare to abstract expressionism.



Photo:Stig Ove Voll, licensed under Creative Commons.

Remembrances, 2016

Back in January I posted my "Look Back" at 2016. I noted that past New Year's posts had included remembrances of those friends and significant people in my life who had died during the previous year, and promised that I would post my remembrances for 2016 soon. It's now almost mid-February, and I'm getting around to it

I also noted that 2016 had taken a heavy toll, both of those close to me and those who had served as cultural icons. I'll start with four lovely women whose friendship graced my life.

Dorothy Pilch (photo, by Martha Foley) was the senior parishioner of Grace Church, and a steadfast member, along with my wife, of the church's cooking crew. With a degree from Rutgers in economics and a background in banking, she devoted many hours of her later years to helping fellow seniors with financial advice. She frequently joined us for Sunday dinner. Her birthday was two days before mine, so for some years Steve Muncie, former Rector of Grace, would host her (and me incidentally) for a celebratory dinner at the Heights Cafe.

Martha and I had the misfortune of losing our next door neighbors on both sides early this year. Dorothy Azouni and her husband, Adel, greeted me when I moved into my apartment in 1983. She was a Brooklyn native, and Jewish; he was a Palestinian Arab. They met in Paris in the time shortly after World War Two, when she was working for a United Nations agency providing relief to people in war-ravaged Europe. She and Adel were together many years, until he died several years ago. Dorothy stayed in their apartment, visited regularly by members of a nearby synagogue who would bring her pastries and other baked goods that she insisted on sharing with us. She loved Liz and our cats.

The other neighbor we lost was Lillie DeBevoise. She moved in about ten years ago, and we immediately struck up a warm friendship. She was a retired teacher, widowed, with two grown daughters, a son, and several grandchildren, all of whom were regular guests at her apartment, as were Martha, Liz, and I. Lillie would often invite us, along with some other neighbors, for cocktails on a Friday evening. She was also my "date" for the New England Society's black tie fall dinner when Martha was out of town that evening one year. Her daughter Jane, also a widow, who lives a block away on Remsen Street, owns a lovely country house in the Catskills to which Lillie took us for a couple of delightful weekends. You can read about them here and here. During our second visit, Lillie introduced us to the Dai Bosatsu Zendo.

Another woman I miss is my Lion's Head companion of some years past, with whom I remained friends following the Head's sad demise, Alice Denham. A Jacksonville native, she was an early Playboy playmate, a founder of the National Organization of Women ("NOW"), and a published novelist. Photo and more about her here.

Henrik Krogius, who died in October, was a man of many talents and accomplishments: historian, journalist, photographer, and NBC news producer. I met him once, briefly, but for many years, until his retirement at the end of 2012 from the Brooklyn Eagle and its local Brooklyn Heights Press, for which I later became an occasional free-lance contributor, I was a regular and eager reader of his columns. From them, and from his books, I learned much about the rich history of our neighborhood.

Last year saw the passing of many musicians I admired. Ones I noted here are Natalie Cole (whose death on New Year's Eve wasn't reported until New Year's Day); David Bowie; Glenn Frey; Dan Hicks; Sir George Martin (although known as a producer, I'm sure he was also a musician; besides, I think being able to handle a mixing board is a kind of musicianship); Merle Haggard; Guy Clark; and Leonard Cohen. Others--Prince, George Michael, Leon Russell--I should have noted.

One death that hit me hard was that of Sharon Jones, a fellow Brooklynite whom I heard in performance at several venues. I first posted about her in 2010. She performed with Lou Reed in 2013, but was also diagnosed with cancer that year. She continued to preform whenever she could through her courses of chemotherapy, but finally succumbed in November. A brave and very talented woman.

A non-musician I mourned is Bob Elliott, of the radio comedy team Bob and Ray. Another was physicist Tom Kibble, whose work laid the foundation for some important discoveries, including the Higgs Boson.

On a happier note, we celebrated some birthdays: Antoine "Fats" Domino (88); Ringo Starr (76); Tony Bennett (90); and Van Morrison (71).

Monday, January 16, 2017

Morehouse College Glee Club: "We Shall Overcome"

The video clip below is of the Morehouse College Glee Club singing "We Shall Overcome" (arranged by Wendell P. Whalum) at the 2009 Candle on the Bluff Awards Ceremony in Memphis.

Morehouse College, in Atlanta, is the alma mater of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., whose memory we honor today.

 

Photo: Nobel Prize Organization, via Wikimedia Commons (public domain).

Monday, January 09, 2017

2016: a look back.

Marsh, Orleans (Cape Cod) Massachusetts, January 1, 2017

For some years I've posted (with a few days' delay) a "New Year's Remembrances and Shout -Outs": the remembrances being of people I loved, knew, or respected who had died during the previous year; the shout-outs being to those who I thought had been helpful to me in my blogging effort (here's last year's version.)

This year is different, for two reasons. First, I have suffered so many losses, both of friends and of cultural icons, that I'm going to do a separate "Remembrances" post, which may take me another week or so to put together. Second, the way that I've related to my blog, and my sources of inspiration, have changed.

In 2016 I posted 43 times on Self-Absorbed Boomer. This compares to 107 times in 2015, 78 times in 2014, 97 in 2013, and 120 in 2011. The declining numbers (the bump in 2015 reflects my having instituted the "TBT" meme to force myself to post an old, favorite piece of music each week; I gave this up in 2016) reflect a couple of things. One is the Brooklyn Heights Blog, for which I've had to take on greatly increased responsibility since the sudden and unexpected death in 2015 of its founder, John "Homer Fink" Loscalzo. Fortunately, there are three very capable journalists helping me in this effort: SongBird NYC, Mary Kim, and Teresa Genaro. The other is Facebook. In the early days of the blog, before I got onto Facebook, I posted a lot of short things, like quick quotes from media with a brief observation, or photos, which I now put on Facebook instead of the blog. I also now put links to all my blog posts on Facebook, so I now get almost all comments on my blog posts on Facebook, not Blogger.

Anyway, I'd better get around to giving credit where it's due. In terms of volume of traffic on my blog, the award has to go to Russia. For reasons I don't know, my blog got thousands of hits from there late in 2016. They weren't directed at any particular post. My blog wasn't heavy on political content; this past year it's been music and baseball. I don't know what drew the attention. Whatever it was, I hope you all (I asume it was more than one of you) enjoyed it.

One friend I need to acknowledge is Michael Simmons. He's been a constant source of inspiration for the several years since we reconnected our friendship that began years ago in the Lion's Head. Back in September Michael sent me a link to an extract of a piece he'd written in MOJO about my favorite rock band of all time: the Byrds; read it here. It focuses on the song "Eight Miles High", an old favorite of mine, so here's the song:
 

Monday, December 26, 2016

The Roches, "Good King Wenceslas", and the Feast of Stephen

Good King Wenceslas looked out,
On the Feast of Stephen,
When the snow lay all about,
Deep and crisp and even....

So begins what is, to most of us, a very familiar Christmas carol. What, though, is the Feast of Stephen, and who was Wenceslas?

The Feast of Stephen is, in fact, today (a day which, where I am, in Eastern Standard Time, is rapidly fading), December 26, the day after Christmas. It is the day established to celebrate Saint Stephen, reckoned to have been the first martyr for the Christian faith (his story is told in Acts of the Apostles, chapters six and seven). "Good King Wenceslas", then, is really not a Christmas carol, but a day-after-Christmas carol. Nevertheless, it expresses what those of us who celebrate Christmas consider the true spirit of the holiday: bringing comfort and joy to others, especially to those less fortunate than us.

Wenceslas, sometimes spelled Wenceslaus, wasn't a king, at least during his lifetime. He was a Duke of Bohemia, now part of the Czech Republic. Emperor Otto I, of the Holy Roman Empire (later famously declared by Voltaire to be none of the above) bestowed on him the regnancy posthumously. Wenceslas was born around 908, and assumed ducal authority in 924 or 25. He was in contention with his younger brother Boreslaw (sometimes called "the Bad" or "the Cruel"), who had Wenceslas murdered in 935.

During his brief life and dukedom, Wenceslas was known for Christian piety and for deeds of kindness to the poor and unfortunate. We don't know if the words of the carol accurately reflect one of these deeds, but it seems intended to reflect his nature. Wenceslas was, like Stephen, declared a martyr for his faith and canonized as a saint.


The clip above is of a superb performance of "Good King Wenceslas" by the Roches at a Christmas concert at the long lost and lamented Bottom Line, in Greenwich Village, in 1990. Suzzy ("the Humble Servant"), on guitar, gives a long spoken introduction, evoking the sisters' late father and his love of the carol, which is well worth a listen. She's joined by sisters Maggie (the "Rich King") on keyboard, and Sarah (the "Lovely Narrator"), also on guitar.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Alison Krauss and Yo-Yo Ma, "The Wexford Carol"

Bluegrass great Alison Krauss here joins with cello virtuoso Yo-Yo Ma to perform one of my Yuletide favorites, "The Wexford Carol", with lyrics dating to the twelfth century and a tune probably older than that.

That a bluegrass musician should sing an Irish song is no surprise; the Appalachians and the bluegrass country to their west attracted immigrants from Ireland, most of them Ulster Scots, or "Scotch Irish", descendants of Protestant Scots whose ancestors had been "planted" in northern Ireland in an effort by the British crown to subdue the Catholic Irish.



As for Maestro Ma, listen to him in the Celtic groove with Mark O'Connor and Edgar Meyer on "The Green Groves of Erin/The Flowers of Red Hill".

To my Christian friends, merry Christmas! To my Jewish friends, on this year when our holidays coincide, happy Hanukkah!

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Leonard Cohen (1934-2016), "Suzanne" solo and with Judy Collins

Leonard Cohen, songwriter, singer, novelist, and poet--probably best known for those talents, in that order--died today at 82. Was he Canada's Bob Dylan? Their careers ran roughly in parallel, and there were similarities in their talents, but also differences in their works. Dylan's lyrics and music have their roots in American traditions running from Walt Whitman to blues hollers and Appalachian ballads. Cohen's seemed to me to stem from French symbolist and English romantic poetry, with perhaps a touch of Jewish mysticism. He observed the Sabbath along with, late in life, becoming a Zen monk.

The first song of his I knew was "Suzanne", written for his friend Suzanne Verdal, a dancer who lived in a warehouse made into a studio on the bank of the St. Lawrence River. In the clip above, he sings it solo, after a spoken introduction in which he tells how he was cheated out of his rights to it.


The first version of "Suzanne" I knew was by Judy Collins, from her album In My Life. It was played on WBCN, Boston's first "underground" album oriented rock FM station in my delirious spring of 1968 when, as a Florida resident of many years, I had endured my first Massachusetts winter and, being helplessly but hopelessly in love, saw the earth come again to life. I was fortunate to find the clip above, in which Leonard and Judy joined in the song.

Erratum and addendum: when I wrote this, I assumed that the song "Suzanne" was about Suzanne Elrod, mother of Cohen's two children.  Thanks to my friend Stephen Crews Wylder, I now know that it was about Suzanne Verdal, a friend from before he met Elrod, and I've corrected the post above to reflect this. Stephen gave a link to this NPR piece, which tells of the origin of "Suzanne", explains that the reference to "tea and oranges" is to Bigelow's "Constant Comment" tea, and tells the story of the tea's origin. By coincidence, the agency where I've been working keeps a supply of Bigelow teas in the break room, and of late I've become fond of Constant Comment. There's more about Cohen and Verdal here.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

The Repast Baroque Ensemble, "Queen Christina's Musical Realm"

On Friday evening we went to a performance by the Repast Baroque Ensemble. In the photo above they are, left to right: Katie Rietman, baroque cello; Gabe Shuford, harpsichord; Amelia Roosevelt, baroque violin; and Stephanie Corwin, baroque bassoon. They were joined for this event by violinist Beth Wenstrom. Their concert consisted of works by composers who were contemporaries of Christina of Sweden (1626-1689; reigned as queen 1644-1654); some of whom knew or performed for her. Most are Italian, for she settled in Rome following her abdication of the Swedish throne, but two are from the Low Countries, her initial destination after leaving Sweden. One is by a Spanish monk, Bartolomeo de Selma y Salaverde, whose music was popular in Italy when Christina was there, and one is by the English composer Matthew Locke. Christina never visited England, but while she reigned in Sweden she was visited by a delegation from Oliver Cromwell who are said to have thought very well of her, and gave her examples of contemporary English music. That Cromwell's representatives admired Christina proved ironic when, after her abdication, she converted to Roman Catholicism.
 
Unfortunately, there is no video or audio available on line of Repast doing any of the works that were included in Friday's concert. The clip above, which gives audio along with a still image, is of them (with Claire Jolivet instead of Ms. Wenstrom as guest violinist) performing Sonata No. 6 by Carolus Hacquart, one of the two Low Country composers included in their Friday concert, although the work they played there was Hacquart's Sonata No. 3. It does give you a good sample of their sound.


Another piece I especially enjoyed was "Susana", by the Spaniard Bartolomeo de Selma y Salaverde, which featured the bassoon; de Selma was a bassoonist. There's no video of Repast doing anything by this composer, but I found the clip above of his Canzona Terza performed by a group led by Pedro Sousa Silva, who plays recorder. The bassoon plays an important role in this piece; unfortunately, the bassoonist is not identified.

After the concert, I met both Stephanie Corwin and Amelia Roosevelt, and said to both, "You rock!" In each instance, this evoked a slight wince, but I think Repast plays with something of the spirit of a rock band. They play off each other with great alacrity, and their music swings, as I believe baroque music was intended to do. I'm looking forward to the rest of their 2016-17 season performances; the schedule is here.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

The Cubs win the pennant! The Cubs win the pennant!

As I've written before: how could I resist (given that my Mets are out of the picture) rooting for a team that hasn't won a series since the administration of William Howard Taft? Like Harper Lee, whom I was surprised to learn was a fellow Mets fan, I have a 2X4 size chip on my shoulder for underdogs. Clevelanders, having not won a series since 1948, can also claim underdog status, but not as subterranean as that of the Cubs. Besides, they play in the Phony Baseball League.

Friday, October 14, 2016

Bob Dylan, "Blowing in the Wind"

My first Dylan album was The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan, his second after his eponymous debut, which I acquired shortly after. Freewheelin' included the first song of his I knew, "Blowing in the Wind", which I first heard by Peter, Paul & Mary. See and hear an early live performance of that song, which captured like no other the mid-sixties longing for a better, more just world, below:

Tuesday, October 04, 2016

Mets vs. Giants: shades of 1951?

On a July afternoon in 1985 I was in the stands at Shea for the first time, courtesy of Pat Carroll, a Brooklyn native then living in London but on a visit home. Several days before, we had been sitting together at the bar of the Lion's Head and Pat had offered me a ticket his mother couldn't use to the Mets-Cardinals game the following weekend. I accepted, and saw the Mets win on a two-run homer off what was then called the "unlikely bat" of Howard Johnson. During the game, Pat said to me,"What you have to understand is that the Mets are really the Brooklyn Dodgers continued by other means." At that moment, I became a Mets fan, and have remained one ever since. The Dodgers had been my first love in baseball, for reasons explained here.

So, tomorrow's sudden death wild card National League playoff game can be seen as a reprise of the 1951 best-of-three tiebreaker series for the NL pennant (there were no divisions back then), a mini subway series that pitted the Brooklyn Dodgers against the New York Giants. The Giants won the opening game 3-1 on Brooklyn's home turf, Ebbets Field. Game 2 was at the Giants' home, the Polo Grounds, and the Dodgers pounded their rivals 10-0. They returned to the Polo Grounds for Game 3. The Dodgers, who were the betting favorite to win the pennant, led 4-1 going into the bottom of the ninth. One run had scored when the Giants' Bobby Thompson came to bat with one out and runners on second and third.
 
Thompson's three run walk-off homer, known since in baseball lore as "The Shot Heard 'Round the World", gave the Giants the pennant and allowed them to advance to the World Series, where they would lose in six games to that other New York team, the Yankees.

I'm hoping that the 1951 result gets reversed tomorrow, with the "Dodgers Continued by Other Means" prevailing. There are others, though, including my friend Dermot McEvoy, whose loyalty to the Mets is based on their ties to the New York Giants. When the Mets were established as an expansion team, the owners decided to adopt the colors of both of the previous New York City NL teams. The Dodgers' colors were blue and white; the Giants' were black and orange. The Mets cap (photo above) is blue with orange lettering. For those like Dermot, tomorrow's game will be the New York Giants Continued by Other Means against the Apostate Giants, who deserted New York for San Francisco.

Update: Unfortunately, it is 1951 again, with Conor Gillespie as this year's Bobby Thompson.

Saturday, October 01, 2016

Welcome back, Wavertree!

In my last post I bade farewell to the bark Peking, which had been a feature of the South Street Seaport Museum for over forty years, and which is to be returned to her original home port, Hamburg, Germany, to serve as the centerpiece of a maritime museum there. For the first time in decades lower Manhattan's East River waterfront was devoid of any tall ship. This wasn't to last long, though. On the morning of Saturday, September 24 I saw Wavertree being towed across the harbor (photo above) to her berth at South Street, which she had left some time before to undergo extensive renovation and restoration work at a shipyard on Staten Island.

Seven years before South Street acquired Peking, it bought Wavertree, a wrought iron hulled bark built in England in 1885 that lost her topmasts in a gale while rounding Cape Horn in 1912. She then spent many years as a floating warehouse in Punta Arenas, Chile and later as a sand barge in the harbor of Buenos Aires. When she was brought to South Street her hull was sound, but her topmasts and spars were still missing, and she required extensive work to be put into condition for public touring. The Museum made her restoration a long term project, then acquired Peking which, having served as a floating school after being retired from trading, arrived in almost turnkey condition. For over forty years Peking was the centerpiece of South Street's ship collection, while Wavertree sat forlornly at a neighboring pier, off limits to all but museum workers, and still missing her topmasts and spars.

South Street's galleries, shops, and other facilities on land suffered extensive damage from Hurricane Sandy, which in turn caused complete loss of revenue from admissions and sales for a long period of time. Although the museum was able, with government assistance, to repair the physical damage, the financial damage, partially ameliorated by private contributions, remained. Because of her size, Peking is a very expensive ship to maintain. Consequently, South Street entered into discussions concerning Peking's disposition, hoping to find a new owner that would maintain her as a public museum piece. Fortunately, the German government was able to fund her return to Hamburg, and South Street was able to fund the restoration of Wavertree.
As Wavertree approached South Street, she was greeted by the retired fireboat John J. Harvey, now privately owned. For my earlier encounter with Harvey see here.
Tugs turned Wavertree, preparing to guide her to her berth at South Street's Pier 16, recently vacated by Peking. At the left in the photo is the Gloucester fishing schooner Lettie G. Howard, part of South Street's ship collection but lso used as a sail training vessel by the New York Harbor School.
Here's Wavertree, two days later, secure at her berth. Her masts aren't as tall as those of Peking, but she's more representative of the ships that docked along South Street in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. I'm glad to have her there.

Friday, September 09, 2016

Auf wiedersehen, Peking!

As I noted here last year, the barque Peking, launched in Hamburg, Germany in 1911, will return to her birthplace and original home port, where she will be the centerpiece of a new maritime museum. She was taken in tow by two tugs Wednesday morning and left her berth at Pier 16 of the South Street Seaport Museum for an initial short voyage to the Caddell Dry Dock on Staten Island. She'll spend the winter there, then in spring will be carried across the Atlantic to Hamburg on a semi-submersible heavy lift ship.

Peking's place at Pier 16, and as centerpiece of South Street's historic ship collection, will be taken by Wavertree, which returns to South Street on September 24 following extensive restoration and maintenance work.

I took the photo above as Peking glided past the Brooklyn Bridge Park Marina on Wednesday morning.

Sunday, September 04, 2016

Idris Davies' "The Bells of Rhymney" by Pete Seeger and by the Byrds

Idris Davies (1905-1953) was the son of a Welsh coal miner who followed his father into the mines after leaving school at fourteen. He lost a finger in an accident, and participated in the General Strike of 1926, which led to a long period of unemployment during which he educated himself and then took courses to qualify as a teacher. While working as a teacher he wrote three volumes of poetry, the first of which, Gwalia Deserta (1938), included "The Bells of Rhymney", a poem inspired by his experience in the General Strike.

In 1958 the American folk singer Pete Seeger set the words of The Bells of Rhymney to music. In the clip below he performs it live in concert, on a twelve string guitar, which gives the impression of pealing bells, rather than the six string shown in the still photo that accompanies the clip.



The best known version of the song is not the one performed by Seeger, but that by the Byrds on their 1965 debut album Mr. Tambourine Man. Jim (later a.k.a. Roger) McGuinn's jangling Rickenbacker electric guitar gives a chiming quality similar to that of Seeger's twelve string.



There's an odd thing about the Byrds' rendition: it changes one repeated word from Davies' poem. Instead of "Who robbed the miner?" it asks "Who killed the miner?" Davies was inspired to write "The Bells of Rhymney" by his experience as a participant in the 1926 strike. The liner notes to the Byrds' album say it was about a "mine disaster." I can only speculate that someone--perhaps the album's producer, Terry Melcher (son of my first childhood celebrity crush, Doris Day), or more likely someone higher up at Columbia Records (although Columbia released the earlier Seeger version)--decided that a song about a strike, accusing mine owners of robbing miners, was just a little too Bolshie for the American mass market.

Happy Labor Day!

Photo: Welshnot.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Happy 71st, Van Morrison!

You've known gladness and sadness in the year since you celebrated your 70th birthday. In February Prince Charles dubbed you a knight, making you Sir Ivan Morrison. In June, you buried your mother, Violet, who was a musical inspiration to you and to your daughter, Shana. And you carry on. May you keep on carrying on, and in so doing continue to inspire me and many others, for years to come.

In the clip below you do one of my favorites of your many great songs, "Saint Dominic's Preview":



Photo: Wikipedia.

Monday, August 29, 2016

240 years ago: Washington's "great escape" from Brooklyn.

It was at about the time I'm writing this, the evening of  August 29, 1776, 240 years ago, that General George Washington began moving his roughly 8,000 strong Continental Army out of Brooklyn Heights, where I now sit, down to the shore of the East River. From there, they were ferried across to Manhattan on boats manned by members of Glover's 14th Continental Marblehead Regiment, made up mostly of fishermen from Marblehead and nearby on Massachusetts' North Shore. Their boats were like those in the photo above.

This move was crucial to the success of our War of Independence. Two days earlier Washington's army had engaged British forces in what is now Prospect Park. Park Slope, and Green-Wood Cemetery. This was the first time regular Continental troops, under Washington, instead of local militia, had faced Royal Army troops. Despite valiant rear-guard actions, one of which, by a Maryland regiment at the Old Stone House, was especially effective though resulting in 259 casualties, the Americans were forced to retreat. They camped on Brooklyn Heights, and rainy weather protected them from a British advance while Washington planned his escape. Had they not succeeded in crossing the East River to Manhattan that night and early morning, an improvement in the weather could have allowed the British fleet, anchored off Staten Island, to sail into the East River. This would have cut off Washington's escape route, and effectively ended the colonies' bid for independence.

Friday, August 12, 2016

S.S. United States won't sail again. Can she be saved?


I had a feeling it was too good to be true. As I noted in my earlier post, the cost of making the S.S. United States suitable for use as a cruise ship, including hazardous substance remediation and removing her steam turbine engines and replacing them with diesels, would prove prohibitively expensive to her prospective owners, Crystal Cruises. Now my misgivings have been confirmed.

In my previous post I opined that the cruiser conversion was likely the Big U's last chance to avoid the fatal trip behind towboats to the beach in India where she'd be cut to bits like an enormous stranded whale. The story linked above notes that Crystal will donate $350,000 to the SS United States Conservancy as a good will gesture to help with the ship's preservation. Proposals to bring her to New York, possibly as a hotel, a museum, or just a static display, are still being considered. The cost of doing that wouldn't be nearly as great as for making her a cruise ship, but they would still be substantial. I'm hoping one or more of our local grandees will see the value of bringing back this part of our city's history, and that the fate Oliver Wendell Holmes feared for "Old Ironsides"--"The harpies of the shore shall pluck/ The eagle of the sea"--will not befall S.S. United States.

Thursday, August 04, 2016

TBT: Tony Bennett, "I Left My Heart in San Francisco"; happy 90th!

Tony Bennett, born Anthony Dominick Benedetto in Astoria, Queens ninety years ago yesterday, will appear on stage with Lady Gaga at Radio City Music Hall on September 14. Meanwhile, he will appear at the Fox Theater in Detroit on August 12 and at the Ravinia Pavilion in Highland Park, Illinois on August 13. In October, he'll be back on the road, performing at the Rama Casino Resort in Ontario, Canada on the seventh and the following night in the Kodak Hall at the Eastman Theatre in Rochester, New York. On the 23rd he'll be at The Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa, California and on the 28th at Overture Hall in Madison, Wisconsin. Not bad for a nonagenarian!

The photo shows him in profile, in 1964 with the composer Harold Arlen.

My choice of a song to commemorate this event is perhaps a banal one, but I love the song anyway. The clip below shows him singing it at the sprightly age of 85:


Addendum: I've now learned, thanks to the Brooklyn Eagle, that the song was written right here in Brooklyn Heights by an expatriate San Franciscan gay couple who were feeling homesick. The story of how Bennett picked it up, and made the couple rich enough to move home, is wonderful.

Photo by CBS Television (eBay item photo front photo back) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Tom Kibble, physics pathfinder, 1932-2016

In a 2012 post about the then discovery of the Higgs boson, a particle the existence of which was first theorized by several groups of physicists, I noted that, but for timing of publication, the elusive particle might have been called the Kibble boson. The story is a bit more complicated than that. It's true that in 1964 Tom Kibble, then and until his death on June 7 of this year a member of the physics faculty at Imperial College London, and his American collaborators, Gerald Guralnik and Richard Hagen, published a paper that, according to The Guardian's obituary, "demonstrated how particles that transmit nature’s fundamental forces, and which on general theoretical principles should be massless, can nonetheless gain mass." Why is this a big deal? It's because, if the "general theoretical principles" preferring masslessness prevailed, the universe would be very unstable.

Unfortunately for Kibble and his collaborators, two other papers--one by the Belgian physicists Robert Brout and François Englert; the other by Peter Higgs himself--stating essentially the same theory were published earlier that summer. Higgs also posited the existence of a mediating particle, which became known as the "Higgs boson". A boson is an elementary particle that conforms to certain requirements set out in the Standard Model physicists have developed over the past half century to explain the "fundamental structure of matter" (for a more complete explanation, see the CERN website linked immediately above).

The existence of the Higgs boson wasn't confirmed until 2012. The following year, Higgs and Englert (Brout had died, and Nobel prizes aren't awarded posthumously) shared the Nobel prize for physics. In the Guardian story linked immediately above, Kibble is quoted:
My two collaborators, Gerald Guralnik and Carl Richard Hagen, and I contributed to that discovery, but our paper was unquestionably the last of the three to be published ... and it is therefore no surprise that the Swedish Academy felt unable to include us, constrained as they are by a self-imposed rule that the prize cannot be shared by more than three people.
My sincere congratulations go to the two prizewinners, François Englert and Peter Higgs. A sad omission from the list was Englert's collaborator, Robert Brout, now deceased.
The discovery of the Higgs boson wasn't the only work to which Kibble contributed that led to a Nobel Prize. The 1979 award to Abdus Salam, a fellow Imperial College faculty member, along with the Americans Steven Weinberg and Sheldon Glashow, as well as the 1999 award to Gerardus 't Hooft and Martinus J.G. Veltman, were made for work that drew on insights of Kibble's.

He was, in full, Sir Thomas Walter Bannerman Kibble, but he is almost always simply called "Tom", and that's how I'm sure this brilliant but hard-working and humble man liked it.