Saturday, May 06, 2023

Some thoughts on English and Portuguese history, an admirable woman, and two boroughs of New York City

Today King Charles III was crowned. This led me to think of the last British monarch to bear his name, Charles II (portrait by Philippe de Champaigne, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons). He was more fortunate than his father, Charles I, whose reign ended with his beheading. The young Charles was sent into exile in France. He returned to England and was crowned in 1660; his reign lasted until his death in 1685

While he has been called the "Merry Monarch" his reign was far from untroubled. In 1665 a terrible plague struck England, and the following year saw the Great Fire of London. What caused tension throughout his reign was his sympathy for Catholicism, inherited from his father and undoubtedly strengthened during his French exile. 

In 1670 Charles entered into the Secret Treaty of Dover, in which he pledged to support France in its war against the Dutch Republic and to convert to Catholicism at an unspecified time (he did so, on his deathbed). This led to the Third Anglo-Dutch War, concluded in 1674 by the Treaty of Westminster, under which, among other things, the Dutch returned their colony of New Netherland to the English, who renamed it New York. 

New York City's Borough of Brooklyn, where I have lived for the past forty years, is co-extensive with the County of Kings, so named in honor of Charles II. Our neighboring County, and Borough, of Queens is named for his consort, Catherine of Braganza (portrait by Peter Lely, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons). She was a Portuguese infanta, or princess, whose marriage to Charles at the age of 21 was, like almost all European royal marriages, diplomatically arranged. Her dowry included Bombay, now Mumbai, thereby helping to establish the British foothold in India. The marriage didn't get off to a good start. She developed a nosebleed and fainted when told that Charles had made his favorite mistress, Barbara Palmer, her Lady of the Bedchamber, or personal attendant. 

Despite this and many other discourtesies, Catherine remained faithful to Charles until his death. To his credit, Charles resisted entreaties to divorce her when she suffered three miscarriages and failed to produce a legitimate heir to the throne. After Charles died she remained in England through the short, unhappy reign of her brother in law, James II, and  the "Glorious Revolution" of 1688, which sent James into French exile and gave the crown to his daughter, Mary, and her husband, William of Orange, whose marriage had been arranged by Charles to placate Protestants and secure realtions with the Dutch. Under William and Mary, Protestant power was solidified by Parliament, which passed an "Exclusionary Act" barring Catholics from the throne. Catherine returned to Portugal in 1692, where she spent her later years active in affairs of state, serving on two occasions as regent for her brother, Peter II, and helping to secure a treaty between Portugal and England. She died in 1705 and is buried at the monastery of São Vicente de Fora.

As a Brooklynite I hate to say this, but, Queens, you got the better of the two royals.

Wednesday, May 03, 2023

Gordon Lightfoot (1938-2023), "Seven Islands Suite"

No, this isn't turning into a music blog. It's that every week lately seems to bring news of the death of a musician I've loved. I'm 77, so it's not surprising that many of the musical idols of my younger days,  of whom a good number were ten or so years older than me, are now reaching their actuarial expiry dates.

I loved Gordon Lightfoot both for the quality of his songs and for the fact that his voice was in a range I could handle. I've told this story before. In conversation with Lester Bangs of beloved memory, who disdained any music that wasn't a "full frontal assault", I confessed to liking Lightfoot. Lester gave a dismissive "Hmph!" He said something like, "I know Gord. Do you know what he does when he's trying to write a song and needs inspiration? He goes to a hardware store and stares at the labels on cans of paint." That night, when I got home to my apartment, I pulled out my Lightfoot albums and scanned the song titles for color imagery. None there. 

The video is of Lightfoot doing my favorite of his songs, "Seven Islands Suite", at Massey Hall, Toronto, in 1974.    

Sunday, April 30, 2023

Harry Belafonte, "Jamaica Farewell"

Harry Belafonte died last Tuesday at the age of 96. According to his New York Times obituary his singing career began while he was a teenager, and he began to be recorded in the early 1950s. His "Day-O (Banana Boat Song)", made it to the pop charts in 1957, but didn't do quite as well as an almost contemporaneously recorded version by the Tarriers, a folk group consisting of Alan Arkin (later better known as an actor), Bob Carey (who was Black, thereby making this the first well known racially integrated American folk group), and Erik Darling my pleasant encounter with whom you can read about here. The Tarriers' version is an amalgam of two Jamaican folk songs put together by the American folk singer and songwriter Bob Gibson, who had visited Jamaica. The songs were "Day-O" and one called "Hill and Gully Rider". I'm pretty sure the first version I heard had the "hill and gully rider" chorus, so likely was the Tarriers' version.

"Day-O" was included on Belafonte's album, Calypso, which was the first long playing album to sell a million copies. The video above is of Belafonte singing "Jamaica Farewell", which was also on Calypso and charted in 1957 after "Day-O".  It was written and composed by Irving Burgie, a Brooklyn native whose mother was from Barbados, and who wrote the lyrics for the Barbadian national anthem, "In Plenty and in Time of Need". He was a prolific songwriter, who wrote many more songs for Belafonte, some of which, like "Island in the Sun", became hits. He also performed as a singer, using the name "Lord Burgess".

There is some controversy over whether "Day-O", an adaptation, on which Burgie collaborated with Belafonte, of a Jamaican folk song, or "Jamaica Farewell", written by Burgie but considered part of a Jamaican folk tradition called mento, should be considered "calypso", a musical style that originated in Trinidad and Tobago. According to MasterClass, calypso "spread throughout the West Indies." MasterClass includes Belafonte in its list of "5 Notable Calypso Musicians" and calls "Day-O" calypso, no doubt because it shares calypso's call-and-response format and rhythmic structure. "Jamaica Farewell" lacks the call-and-response, but MasterClass calls mento a "subgenre" of calypso. "Origins of Mento", on, disputes this, arguing that while the two styles "share many similarities, they are separate and distinct musical forms."

One thing that cannot be disputed is that Harry Belafonte had a profound and lasting effect on American popular music, as well as that of other nations. His talent was not limited to singing. He also saw success as an actor, having met his close friend Sidney Poitier while they were both in an acting class, and as a television host. He is the only person to have won an Emmy, a Grammy, a Tony, and an Academy Award. The last was in a noncompetitive category; he was given the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award for his work to advance civil rights in the U.S. -- he became a close friend of and co-worker with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.. -- and in South Africa, and for his efforts to provide relief for victims of famine and other disasters worldwide.

Update: read about an event in Belafonte's life, that helped to sharpen his commitment to civil rights, here.