Autumn Songs

Resting from the Harvest, by Alfred Glendening, 1861 – 1907.

For Meredith, and in memoriam Danny.

I’ll begin this little survey of music for Autumn with a pair of people who may never have met but who crossed paths artistically: lyricist-singer-composer Johnny Mercer and composer-arranger-pianist-singer Michel Legrand.

Mercer wrote English lyrics to the great French song ”Les Feuilles mortes,” by Hungarian-French film composer Joseph Kosmo (who scored a bunch of famous films by Renoir and others, which I haven’t seen), lyrics by the French poet and lyricist Jacques Prevert (whom Lawrence Ferlinghetti translated for his own City Lights Pocket Poet series). Mercer Englished the French “dead leaves” as “Autumn Leaves. And Michel Legrand recorded it at least twice, both beautiful versions, and both featuring prominent violin.

The first comes from Barbra Streisand’s 1966 album of French songs, Je m’appelle Barbra, arranged and conducted by Legrand. A terrific album, with a moodily elegant black & white Richard Avedon photo for the cover. The violin soloist is uncredited.

Read more of this post

He Who Knew

Everybody agrees that Chuck Berry was the master* of rock ‘n’ roll’s most defining guitar lick and the writer of five or six (or thirty) of its foundational songs. But he doesn’t get enough credit as a lyricist or a recording artist. That he borrowed some of his lyrics from long dead, little-known poets only makes him more interesting.

            True as the consensus assessment regarding Chuck Berry might be, it doesn’t come close to the scope of his achievement. One of rock’s greatest lyricists – perhaps its very greatest – he has sometimes felt so strongly about his lyrics that he has recited rather than sung them. Reciting poetry had been a mainstay of popular American culture in the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth. Berry, by his own account, was part of that tradition. And sometimes, like his follower Bob Dylan, he presented other people’s words as his own.

Read more of this post

When Malindy (or Aretha) Sings: The Complex, Haunting Presence of Paul Laurence Dunbar in American Music

[I presented this paper at the Pop Conference at Seattle’s Museum of Popular Culture, April 12, 2019. The conference theme was, “Only You and Your Ghost Will Know: Music, Death, and Afterlife.”]

1. Dunbar

I’m going to talk about a few poems and songs by Paul Laurence Dunbar and their implications for music history and the Civil Rights movement. From his first book in 1893 Dunbar's books of poetry

to his death at age 33 in 1906, Paul Laurence Dunbar published six books of poetry, four novels, and four collections of short stories, in addition to his activities as a musical-theater lyricist and librettist. Unusual as it might seem now, he was best known for his poetry. When he wrote, and for many decades before and a few decades after, poetry was popular culture. There were poetry stars. People memorized poems to recite at parties. Actors could make a living barnstorming from town to town reciting poetry; Dunbar was one of the poets whose work professional actors recited. The

Dunbar's books of fiction.PNG actor Edward Sterling Wright, who played Othello professionally, recorded four Dunbar poems for Edison Records in 1913.

Dialect verse was popular. James Whitcomb Riley wrote best sellers as the “Hoosier poet,” writing in the dialect of rural, white Indianans. Charles Leland wrote a popular volume in a parody of the dialect of German immigrants – Hans Breitmann’s Ballads.

 

Read more of this post

Gatsby and the Ex-Colored Man Considered Together

James Weldon Johnson and F. Scott Fitzgerald

I’m slowly working on a book on African American music and literature from the 1890s to about 1930, from the Ragtime era through the Harlem Renaissance. James Weldon Johnson is the central figure, having been a major Ragtime songwriter and historian of Ragtime, as well as a major figure in the Harlem Renaissance as a novelist, poet, essayist, Civil Rights activist, and social historian. Paul Laurence Dunbar appears to be the second most important figure in the story I want to tell, even though he died in 1906, because his work is so tremendous and his influence in American culture runs so deep and broad and has been so long-lasting; he might end up dominating the first section of the book. (When Aretha Franklin died in August 2018, the actress Cicely Tyson paid tribute to her by reading a Dunbar poem; another tribute to Franklin quoted another Dunbar poem; rockabilly bands were playing a song based on yet another Dunbar poem into this century and for all I know still might be.)

I finished a draft of the first chapter this week (of a projected . . . 16?; I have pieces of several other chapters in various stages of draftiness), and I threw out an unsupported claim (remember, my audience, at that point, consisted of my eyes only) that The Great Gatsby has been a plausible candidate for the Great American Novel. After saying that, I decided to see whether it might be true, and like any curious 14-year-old, I searched on the web. Which led me to several articles as well as a whole book, So We Read On: How the Great Gatsby Came to Be and Why It Endures, by NPR commentator and English professor Maureen Corrigan, who argues what I suspected that people were arguing: that Gatsby is the Great American Novel.

Read more of this post

“The Guitar Was Almost Unknown”: James Weldon Johnson and the Remoteness and Irretrievability of the Past

 

petit_jean_1870_01[1]

Our story begins in the 1890s. James W. Johnson attends Atlanta University, the oldest university in the nation serving predominantly Black students. White activists had founded it for that purpose in 1865, in the aftermath of the Civil War. Like other schools of its provenance, Atlanta University has had to figure out how to survive without government funding, endowments from wealthy alums, or a large population of middle-class families who can afford sufficient tuition to meet the institution’s needs. Necessity has been an inventive mother. Students from the Negro colleges sing, not for their supper, but for the capital with which to build their campuses. They perform the spirituals from slavery days, the sorrow songs that gave voice to the slaves’ hopes for a better life “across the Jordan,” whether the Promised Land might have signified heaven, or the North and freedom, or both.

When the Fisk Jubilee Singers inaugurated the tradition in 1871, few white northerners had heard anything like their singing. Many of the songs that the Fisk chorus had introduced to public performance have stayed with us: “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen,” “Go Down, Moses,” “Deep River,” “Didn’t the Lord Deliver Daniel,” “I Want to Be Ready (Walk in Jerusalem Just Like John).” Musicians, professional as well as amateur, have performed and recorded Fisk songs thousands of times since, in styles from wailing gospel to hot jazz to blistering rock to stomping blues to keening bluegrass to deep funk to starchy European-style classical. Infinitely flexible, the spirituals constitute one of the cornerstones of American music.

Other schools followed Fisk University’s example, among them Atlanta University. Writing about forty years after his 1890s tour, in his memoir Along This Way, Johnson gave us a glimpse of his life as a young musician touring under the watchful eye of a professor. He paints a picture of a life that would scarcely be recognizable to us, with details both evocative and hauntingly incomplete.

When the University decided to send out a quartet in the summers to interest people in the school and raise funds, Mr. Chase was chosen to take charge of the boys. I sang with the original quartet; the other members were George Towns, my classmate — in our Senior year we were roommates — and two younger students, Robert Gadsden and Joseph Porter. In the course of time we sang, I should say, in ninety-five per cent of all the inhabited spots in New England. We sang in churches, hotel parlors, private drawing-rooms; in fact, wherever there was a promising opening. Our programs consisted mainly of spirituals. George Towns and I made short talks about the school, and Mr. Chase made the appeal for funds. I filled two other spots on the program: I used to play a couple of solo pieces on the guitar — the instrument was almost unknown in many of the smaller places — and recite a story I had written about my experiences with a Georgia mule. This latter feature proved to be a very popular one.

 

An independent clause jumps out from the narrative: The guitar was almost unknown in many of the smaller places.

The remoteness of the recent past! The guitar was almost unknown.

And not only the remoteness of the past, but its irretrievability, and its tantalizing missing details. What music did Johnson play on his guitar? Spirituals? Waltzes? Ragtime? Sentimental parlor songs of Tin Pan Alley? A Spanish fandango? I’d love to know! Nowadays the touring student guitarist would put his performances on the internet for his friends and family back home to watch.

 

How “The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man” reminded me of “The Great Gatsby,” and why I prefer it

ex-colored man[1]Gatsby___1A[1]

A couple months more than a year ago I went to my first high school curriculum night as a parent. The English Dept. had their plan laid out for my elder son’s four years. Impressive, engaging, informed, passionate – I liked the teachers. But I was disappointed by one of the books on the list.

Why teach F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby when you could teach James Weldon Johnson’s The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man instead?

I didn’t suggest it. But I want to now.

I had read Johnson’s 1912 novel for the first time only a couple of years before. It reminded me of Fitzgerald’s 1925 book right away – except it’s better. The basic theme of the transformation of identity, and the overlapping milieu of the New York underworld of gambling and music, but 30 years apart (most of The Autobiography appears to take place in the 1890s), made the books siblings for me. With one of the siblings older and considerably wiser.

Read more of this post

Not Their Life

bush-of-ghosts[1]

I didn’t like* David Byrne’s and Brian Eno’s My Life in the Bush of Ghosts when I first heard it. I remember being discomfited by* the implied condescension of the samples, which I assumed was implicit in their choice of American radio preachers, and which I felt extended by implication to the “world music” vocalists they pirated. The condescension was confirmed when Eno referred to the contrast between his and Byrne’s “futurism” and their pirated vocalists’ “primitivism.” How arrogant, how stupid.

I was also depressed by Byrne & Eno’s attraction to other people’s passionate utterance, and the implication that the producers, the pirates, the guys with their names above the title — they, in their purported sophistication, were incapable of producing such passionate utterance with their own lungs. As a punk rock and free jazz devotee (among other musical allegiances), and as an aspiring, perspiring musician myself, I was passionately in pursuit of the passionate utterance. The singers Byrne and Eno pirated sounded great. But the new context — no.

I haven’t read Amos Tutuola’s novel, which Byrne & Eno quoted for their title. I heard it’s good. Maybe some day.

Next day second thoughts below . . .

Read more of this post