Friday, March 27, 2015

The Divine One In What Would Be Her 91st Year

At our house we enjoy the music channels as much as the video programming. The "Singers and Swing" channel in particular is one of our favorites and one of their singers we hear every day is the late, great Sarah Vaughan. Today marks the 91st anniversary of her birth in Newark, New Jersey. The introductory paragraph of her Wikipedia entry quotes the music critic, Scott Yanow, as saying she had "one of the most wondrous voices of the 20th century." With a three octave range, wonderful diction, and a sensuously rich voice she could wring every emotion out of a popular song or jazz number. When coupled with the greatest of songwriters from the first half of the 20th century I think she could be matched only by Ella Fitzgerald for her vocal magic and entertainment value. 

Vaughan passed away in 1990 and in the past twenty-five years we have the likes of Jane Monhoit, Diana Krall, Nancy LaMott, and others to carry on the jazz vocalist traditions. As I have said before we've come down a long way in what passes for popular music over the past generation. Of course, there are exceptions but for the most part real singing has become subordinate to other aspects of presentation, performance, and spectacle. And once more I ask the question, "Where is jazz, a genre birthed in the United States?" It is alive in many small markets across the country but it remains a small portfolio in the financial departments of our corporate music industry. The corporate bottom line drives the industry today and it drives some of our best musical talent into a parallel universe. These niches of excellence exist for those who want seek them out but it is far easier to succumb to the mediocrity forced upon the market by the accountants and their search for profit through the lowest common denominators in music.

Here are three examples of superb music sung by the Divine One at a time when professional musicians actually had a major roll in the industry management. Do enjoy. And do your best to support the American cultural phenomenon knows as jazz.  

Here is Vaughan and trumpeter, Clifford Brown, performing Lullaby of Birdland from their 1954 album, a recording entered into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1999.

In 1958 she recorded Misty with Quincy Jones and his orchestra. Misty was her signature song for many years.

By the early '70's this Sondheim classic displaced Misty as the Divine One's song.

Happy birthday, Sassy!

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Tennessee Williams: Drama All The Way

Tennessee Williams in 1951

Tennessee Williams, a pillar of 20th century American drama, was born on this day in 1911. The Public Broadcasting Service's American Masters series online biography of Williams opens with this paragraph:

He was brilliant and prolific, breathing life and passion into such memorable characters as Blanche DuBois and Stanley Kowalski in his critically acclaimed A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE. And like them, he was troubled and self-destructive, an abuser of alcohol and drugs. He was awarded four Drama Critic Circle Awards, two Pulitzer Prizes and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. He was derided by critics and blacklisted by Roman Catholic Cardinal Spellman, who condemned one of his scripts as “revolting, deplorable, morally repellent, offensive to Christian standards of decency.” He was Tennessee Williams, one of the greatest playwrights in American history.

Like most Americans, I know Willams only through his best play adaptations on film.  For me, the prolonged tension and violence he presented in virtually all of his work always had limited appeal. On the other hand watching Elizabeth Taylor cavorting in various stages of dress had its own set of production and entertainment values for a young teenager.  

Here is an Arts and Entertainment biography excerpt covering Williams's later years: 

The full American Masters article on Williams is available here.

Robert Frost: The Possibilities Of Roads And Snowy Evenings

Robert Frost in 1951

When I think of Robert Frost three memories come to mind. First, there is the poetry that was likely introduced into my elementary school classroom through The Road Not Taken, Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening, and Mending Wall. The vivid imagery in a small package was enough to catch even a young student's attention. The second memory is that of an old, long-faced man standing tall and capped with a mound of white hair. It's an appropriate image as Frost would have been well into his seventies by 1950. Despite his age he was quite a public figure in his later years. I remember seeing him on television many times. Finally, there is the old man standing at the Capitol on a bitter January day in 1961 attempting to read a poem written on the occasion of the presidential inauguration of John F. Kennedy. One could say his inability to complete the reading was an appropriate ending for a man who had led such a difficult life. In two years both Frost and Kennedy would be gone. 

The Academy of American Poets has this to say about Frost:

Though his work is principally associated with the life and landscape of New England—and though he was a poet of traditional verse forms and metrics who remained steadfastly aloof from the poetic movements and fashions of his time—Frost is anything but merely a regional poet. The author of searching and often dark meditations on universal themes, he is a quintessentially modern poet in his adherence to language as it is actually spoken, in the psychological complexity of his portraits, and in the degree to which his work is infused with layers of ambiguity and irony.

The full article is available  here.

It's difficult for me to believe that a poet I remember has been gone so long that several of his works are in the public domain. One of them is The Road Not Taken written in 1916.

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,

And sorry I could not travel both

And be one traveler, long I stood

And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less travelled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Frost reading at John F. Kennedy inauguration in 1961

Top photo, Fred Palumbo, World Telegram staff photographer - Library of Congress. New York World-Telegram & Sun Collection.
Bottom photo, B. Anthony Stewart/National Geographic/Getty

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Georgia's Flannery O'Connor

This week is an important one in the history of American literature. In the span of two days, it contains three birthdays, that of the poet, Robert Frost, the playwright and author, Tennessee Williams, and the outstanding fiction writer, Flannery O'Connor. Today we'll review O'Connor. 

Mary Flannery O'Connor, First Communion Day, 1932

She was born in Savannah on March 25, 1925, and spent her early childhood as a devout Catholic there in a home on Lafayette Square.  The square features moss-draped live oaks, colorful azaleas, and abundance of birds, all sitting in the shadows of the towering spires of the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist.   Things haven't changed much in this beautiful space. It still has its interesting spectrum of regular visitors: fast-walking pedestrians, lovers holding hand, lunch hour diners, retirees enjoying the benches, touring families, people waiting for the bus, runners and bikers, and playing children. And every day as they have for 120 years, the cathedral bells remind the people of God's grace and their obligations as His children. I think as long as you can visit Lafayette Square, say on a pleasant Sunday afternoon, you can know O'Connor well.

Her family moved to Atlanta in 1938, where her father was diagnosed with lupus, a chronic disease involving the destruction of healthy tissue by the body's immune system.  Soon after they moved 100 miles southeast to her mother's family home in Milledgeville.  When her father died in 1941, O'Connor moved a few miles north of town to her uncle's farm where she lived with her mother. Eventually, the farm would be called Andalusia, and it would become a refuge following her own diagnosis with lupus in 1950. At Andalusia, she would weave her experiences and memories of  people, ethics, morals, and religion into some of America's finest literature. 

O'Connor house at Andalusia 

At Andalusia she would write her novels, Wise Blood, and The Violent Bear It Away, along with scores of short stories published in two collections in her lifetime, A Good Man Is Hard To Find, and Everything That Rises Must Converge. Her Complete Stories appeared posthumously in 1971.

O'Connor's bedroom-office at Andalusia

In 1964 lupus took Flannery O'Connor from us in her 39th year. You can visit both her childhood home and Andalusia thanks to foundations that preserve the landscapes and memories she cherished. And, thanks to her, you can visit the South anytime by simply opening one of her books. 

Writers who see by the light of their Christian faith will have, in these times, the sharpest eye for the grotesque, for the perverse, and for the unacceptable. To the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures.


Childhood photo, Andalusia Farm, Inc. Photo courtesy of the Flannery O'Connor Collection,           Georgia College and State University, Milledgeville, Georgia.
Bedroom, photo courtesy of Emily Elizabeth Beck
Adult portrait,

Saturday, March 21, 2015

The Rite Of Spring Is Here!

We just finished our first full day of northern spring so here's some music to celebrate the season breaking upon us. It is Igor Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring [Le Sacre du Printemps] for many years a personal favorite. Through the Internet we can enjoy the 1987 recreation of the dance originally choreographed for the piece's premiere in 1913. I'm not much of a dance fan but the historian in me - one who does enjoy early 20th century history and culture - thinks this is an interesting bit of entertainment.

I've written about The Rite of Spring before because it is so significant in the world of music over the last century. The ballet was remarkably innovative. Pandemonium erupted at its premiere in Paris. After all it was a strange mixture of weird music, strange dance, and human sacrifice. But Stravinsky's new and soon to be beloved music never stopped in his lifetime. In fact, the music you  just heard could have been written earlier this afternoon it is so fresh. And Stravinsky has been gone for more than forty springs.

Note that Parts Two and Three are available. Hope you enjoy all of it.  

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

The Sandhill Cranes - Soaring Overhead

It's been a warm week in Atlanta and that translates to afternoons on the patio. Several times the reading, sky-watching or quiet sunning has been pleasantly interrupted by the distant croaking of the last waves of Sandhill cranes pushing northwest to their summer habitats. Sandhills are enjoyable to watch with their shapely "v" or wide arced formations as well as their "kettling" or staging in uplifts as they to break out into formations. 

In our woodland setting they're almost always heard - "ka-rooo, ka-rooo, ka-rooo" - before seen, a situation that leaves us hoping they will fly over our clearing. Most of the time they do because they fly high, very high, sometimes a thousand feet or more. At those altitudes it's hard to imagine that you're watching a bird that may stand over four feet tall and soar on a near-seven foot wing span. 

GIF-Distribution Map

Lately, the resident populations of Sandhills have been growing in the south. Their permanent numbers in Georgia are estimated to be in the thousands. Those that do migrate over Georgia this time of year are headed to their breeding grounds from the Great Lakes to the southern shore of Hudson Bay.  Coming or going, they always bring a smile and leave us looking up for more.

Sandhill crane (Terry W. Johnson)

Top photo,
Map, Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center, U.S. Geological Survey,
Bottom photo, Wildlife Resources Division, Georgia Department of Natural Resources

Monday, March 16, 2015

Happy St. Patrick's Day 2015!

Happy St. Patrick's Day 2015

I could focus on the contemporary experience of St. Patrick's Day in the U.S. - the wearing of the green, the parades, the parties, the drinking songs. Instead I want to look back at the true meaning of the day, the religious aspects, that so often get lost in the worldly celebration. Of course, there's nothing wrong with celebration - we do live in the world - as long as it's done in moderation while we keep the origins of the day in mind. Enjoy.

If you do nothing else with this post, at least listen to the remarkably powerful hymn!

The Reverend Paul Prange, Chair of the Board for Ministerial Education, Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod, has this to say about St. Patrick:

When it comes to St. Patrick, truth may be stranger than fiction.
Born in Scotland, he grew up as a Christian but was not too serious about his faith. His life changed suddenly at age sixteen when he was kidnapped by Irish pirates. For six years he labored as a slave, tending pigs and sheep. He began to value the Christian faith in which he had been raised. When he escaped from slavery, he made his way to the coast, got a job on a ship, and returned to his family in Scotland.
Back in Scotland, he could not get Ireland out of his mind. The love of Christ was compelling him to share with his former captors the promises of God that had come to mean so much to him while he lived among them. After studying the Bible for nearly 20 years, he went back to Ireland a free man, and he never left.
Patrick baptized thousands of people. He helped to organize congregations all over Ireland, and worked hard to train and ordain men to serve as ministers of the gospel. Among his converts were wealthy women who became Christians in the face of family opposition. He also dealt with the royal family of the time, instructing them in the truths of the faith.
It is very unlikely that he drove all of the snakes out of Ireland. He probably did not wear green all of the time. But the historical truths of his life are inspiring, and cause us to give thanks to God for faithful missionaries.


Today's music is St. Patrick's Breastplate, a 19th century hymn based on words attributed to him.

St. Patrick's Breastplate

I bind unto myself today
the strong Name of the Trinity,
by invocation of the same,
the Three in One, and One in Three.

I bind this day to me for ever,
by power of faith, Christ's Incarnation;
His baptism in the Jordan river;
His death on cross for my salvation;
His bursting from the spicèd tomb;
His riding up the heavenly way;
His coming at the day of doom:
I bind unto myself today.

I bind unto myself today
the power of God to hold and lead,
His eye to watch, his might to stay,
His ear to hearken, to my need;
the wisdom of my God to teach,
his hand to guide, his shield to ward;
the word of God to give me speech,
His heavenly host to be my guard.

Christ be with me, 
Christ within me,
Christ behind me,
Christ before me,
Christ beside me,
Christ to win me,
Christ to comfort 
and restore me.

Christ beneath me,
Christ above me,
Christ in quiet,
Christ in danger,
Christ in hearts of
all that love me,
Christ in mouth of 
friend and stranger.

I bind unto myself today
the strong Name of the Trinity,
by invocation of the same,
the Three in One, and One in Three.
Of whom all nature hath creation,
Eternal Father, Spirit, Word:
praise to the Lord of my salvation,
salvation is of Christ the Lord.

Our literary piece comes from the opening paragraphs of the Confession, one of two extant documents written by St. Patrick.  The translation from the Latin in by Ludwig Bieler.  

I am Patrick, a sinner, most unlearned, the least of all the faithful, and utterly despised by many. My father was Calpornius, a deacon, son of Potitus, a priest, of the village Bannavem Taburniæ; he had a country seat nearby, and there I was taken captive.
I was then about sixteen years of age. I did not know the true God. I was taken into captivity to Ireland with many thousands of people---and deservedly so, because we turned away from God, and did not keep His commandments, and did not obey our priests, who used to remind us of our salvation. And the Lord brought over us the wrath of his anger and scattered us among many nations, even unto the utmost part of the earth, where now my littleness is placed among strangers.
And there the Lord opened the sense of my unbelief that I might at last remember my sins and be converted with all my heart to the Lord my God, who had regard for my abjection, and mercy on my youth and ignorance, and watched over me before I knew Him, and before I was able to distinguish between good and evil, and guarded me, and comforted me as would a father his son.
Hence I cannot be silent---nor, indeed, is it expedient---about the great benefits and the great grace which the lord has deigned to bestow upon me in the land of my captivity; for this we can give to God in return after having been chastened by Him, to exalt and praise His wonders before every nation that is anywhere under the heaven.
Because there is no other God, nor ever was, nor will be, than God the Father unbegotten, without beginning, from whom is all beginning, the Lord of the universe, as we have been taught; and His son Jesus Christ, whom we declare to have always been with the Father, spiritually and ineffably begotten by the Father before the beginning of the world, before all beginning; and by Him are made all things visible and invisible. He was made man, and, having defeated death, was received into heaven by the Father; and He hath given Him all power over all names in heaven, on earth, and under the earth, and every tongue shall confess to Him that Jesus Christ is Lord and God, in whom we believe, and whose advent we expect soon to be, judge of the living and of the dead, who will render to every man according to his deeds; and He has poured forth upon us abundantly the Holy Spirit, the gift and pledge of immortality, who makes those who believe and obey sons of God and joint heirs with Christ; and Him do we confess and adore, one God in the Trinity of the Holy Name.
For He Himself has said through the Prophet: Call upon me in the day of thy trouble, and I will deliver thee, and thou shalt glorify me. And again He says: It is honourable to reveal and confess the works of God.
Although I am imperfect in many things, I nevertheless wish that my brethren and kinsmen should know what sort of person I am, so that they may understand my heart's desire.
And so I should dread exceedingly, with fear and trembling, this sentence on that day when no one will be able to escape or hide, but we all, without exception, shall have to give an account even of our smallest sins before the judgement of the Lord Christ.

Here is a link to the remaining eight pages describing his journey from slave to missionary.

Prange comment, welslutherans site, Facebook