" . . . you've got to stand up for the imaginative world, the imaginative element in the human personality, because I think that's constantly threatened . . . People do have imagination and sensibilities, and I think that does need constant exposition." -- John Read

"To disseminate my subjective thoughts and ideas, I stealthily hide them in a cloak of entertaining storytelling, since the depth of my thinking, shallow at best, might be challenged by erudite experts." -- Curt Siodmak

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Don’t you fret: learning to make music

After six months’ practice, I can play Bach’s Prelude for the Cello Suite No. 1!

Well, the first six measures. At about one-quarter tempo. At this rate, the complete piece will be ready for public performance in May, 2018.

That’s OK, though. I’m making music, which I haven’t done in years. My weapon of choice – the humble ukulele, beloved instrument of amateurs worldwide. Mine is named Fred. How did this happen?

I am learning thanks to the Hal Leonard Ukulele Method. They know their boy – not only is there an instruction manual, but an instructional CD and DVD as well. Failure is pretty well foredoomed. If they can help me to make purposeful noises on this fancy hollow plank I’m holding, they know their stuff.

It sat around the house for a year first. Here’s how it wandered in. Our school district insists on one year of instrumental music for the kids, which I think is great until I have to pay for it. Our youngest went for the clarinet.

Fortunately (for them), our local music dealers are a piratical crew who make the bulk of their gains off this dictum. The deposit on a year’s instrument rental is not inexorbitant, and it is nonrefundable to boot. It IS, however, applicable to an instrument. There was just enough for the uke and the training doodads.

I was hoping one of the kids would pick it up. Nope. Finally, I grabbed it myself one day when there was something else really important to do. Wow! Did I learn fast! No. No, not really. I can now play “Go Tell Aunt Rhody” r-e-e-e-e-l-y slowly, and clear a room really quickly. (And why in the hell did she die in the mill pond a-standin’ on her head? This bothers me on hot, windy, moonless nights.)

My 12-year-old observes my nightly practice. “It’s obsessive,” she remarks with clinical detachment. I don’t think it’s a midlife crisis. I have no illusions about becoming some kind of Renegade Ukulele God, a virtuoso strummer born late in life, destined to tour the world, itsy bitsy instrument in hand, stunning the crowd, forcing my stupid celebrity political beliefs down interviewers’ throats, women draped all over me . . . OK, maybe I have thought about it a little.

We were lucky in our house growing up to be exposed to many different kinds of music. To begin with, there was church music. Every entrance into the sanctuary on Sundays was accompanied by organ voluntaries, booming and rolling through the high-ceilinged space. Hymns are a large part of Lutheran music, which meant that I got to listen to massive amounts of Bach.

There are sporadic outbreaks of music-making in the family past. My great-grandmother had an upright piano in her parlor, draped with sheet music. Sometimes her daughter, my great-aunt Emma, would plunk out some of the old tunes and we would all sing. The keys were genuine, yellowing ivory that we were not to touch. My dad played trombone in marching band. And, when we cleaned out my grandparents’ farm in Iowa, 20 years ago, we unearthed an old, battered, unstrung uke that supposedly my grandfather wooed my grandmother with.

My father’s side of the family was by far more hip – and somewhat pretentious. My dad’s parents had all the latest sound equipment, including one of the first reel-to-reel tape recorders. They had stacks and stacks of brittle, heavy 78 rpm records: Al Jolson, Bing Crosby, Fats Waller, Gene Autry, Spike Jones, the Andrews Sisters. They were also fond of operettas, Gilbert and Sullivan, and what was then referred to as “light classical.”

Mom’s side definitely had less elevated tastes, and as a result, were much more interesting. They were into country, the National Barn Dance, Hank Williams, Roy Acuff. The hymns they sang were more heartfelt – “Blessed Assurance,” “In the Garden,” and “Blessed Be the Tie That Binds,” songs that skewed closer to evangelical practice. My mother’s enthusiasm for folk and protest music swept us along, and we knew all of Woody Guthrie’s songs, and Pete Seeger’s, and Paul Robeson’s. And of course, we worshiped daily at the Church of Johnny Cash. (She had a sideline interest in musical theater that inspired my future involvement in it.)

We couldn’t afford instruments. So we sang. I spent 90 percent of my time in high school in the theater or the choir room. I never learned how to read music, either. It wasn’t important at the time. We had excellent teachers. The energy would flow upward from my feet, pushing up through my breath, out the top of my head, clear cascading sound. When we were focused, working as one, it was like launching the sun into the space in front of us. Music manifested its own sacred space.

Now I am finding that feeling again, at my kitchen table after dinner each night. After some practice, the instrument seems to warm up, become more pliable. The strings follow my fingers’ suggestions, and I am making magic, pulled out of myself again, but the feeling is smaller, quieter now, as though I were cradling a song like you would a child.

My voice is certainly not a bell-like baritone any longer. I can still sing, though, and that’s all that matters. I’m not going back to the stage, or near any open mic. I can finally enjoy playing the bluegrass and blues I love so much. I am trying to suss out a little jazz, too, like the chord changes to "Compared to What." I can even pick up a little Motorhead or Clancy Brothers. Plunking my ridiculous lyre, I can sing Hank Williams, and Bing Crosby. I can stutteringly finger-pick a little Bach. And when I do, it all comes back – us kids singing along to records, pretending to be The Student Prince or Ko-ko, the Lord High Executioner of Titipu. My mother’s voice in church and in the kitchen. The connection.

And, of course, I am simply having fun, and very grateful that I remembered how.

Thursday, December 31, 2015

Killing Germans

'Where Eagles Dare' -- a righteous bloodbath
They always made me play the Nazi.

There was one thing all the boys in our neighborhood was keen on in the 1960s – World War II. Our martial ardor was stoked by the flood of film and television of the time replaying the war for us. We all tuned in to “Combat!,” “Twelve O’clock High,” and “The Rat Patrol.” These took their cue from the popularity of the popular war films of the time – “Battle of the Bulge,” “The Guns of Navarone,” “The Longest Day,” “The Dirty Dozen.”

It wasn’t the propagandistic stuff made during the war, although we could catch plenty of that on late-night TV. It was the propaganda of the generation after. Already the Western, which dominated 1950s media, was collapsing in popularity. It was time to culturally process the war through mass media.

Each crop of surviving soldiers takes decades to work through and integrate these experiences, and some never do. Men who had fought the war were middle-aged fathers by now; the horrors they perpetrated and endured were repackaged into entertainments, made largely bloodless, noble, and above all necessary. Above all, these films featured scads and loads of bucket-helmeted, gray-uniformed Jerries getting slaughtered in every way imaginable.

This was our male paradigm. The warrior, reluctant to kill but grimly determined to defeat the enemy, ready to sacrifice his own life if need be. The G. I. Joe doll, Sgt. Rock, "Star Spangled War." The same archetype adored by the fanatics, the suicide bombers, the mass murderers. No cause is unrighteous in its own eyes. A fart has no nose.

As the youngest and scrawniest of my gang, and gifted quite inadvertently with a Teutonic surname, I was volunteered to play the bad guy, over and over again. I learned a few things – it is much more fun to play the villain, for instance. But by and large it got old quick. I was tired of dying a thousand different ways and coming home covered with the dust I’d bit all afternoon.

Oddly enough, the great-grandparent with the German name had adopted it on arrival in the U.S. – we should rightly be named, like most good Danes, Andersen. I’m not sure if this ever caused trouble for my Dad’s side of the family, but I do know that my mother’s father, a good solid 100-percent Kraut, knocked the umlaut off his moniker when the war broke out, rendering its pronunciation a bit more un-German. He also volunteered for the U.S. Army cavalry, and made it all the way to New York before peace broke out in November 1918.

Evidently, anti-German sentiment during World War I was pronounced. I first ran into mention of it in Steinbeck’s remembrances – the neighbors looked askance at his family until the war was over. Groucho Marx as a young vaudeville comic had been playing a German-stereotype character, already euphemized to “Dutch comic.” The night the Lusitania was sunk in 1915, he changed his act.

“If I had come out as a German comic, they would have killed me,” he recalls on his 1972 concert album “An Evening with Groucho.” He changed his makeup “and now I was a Jew comic,” he continues. “I had never been a Jew comic before!”

The threat was real. 4,000 German sympathizers were imprisoned in the U.S. from 1917 through 1918. The Red Cross wouldn’t accept volunteers with German surnames. Business names and street signs were changed; they stopped teaching German in many schools. Sauerkraut became liberty cabbage, dachshunds became liberty pups. German books were banned or burned. A few men were killed by angry mobs.

Sound familiar?

Each rolling wave of immigrants to America has had to run the gauntlet of prejudice. The Irish, the Germans, the Polish, the Italians, the Mexicans, the Japanese, the Chinese, the Vietnamese, the Russians. Suspected, disliked, stereotyped, and acted against. Now anyone vaguely Middle Eastern is tagged as a Muslim and a violent one at that. A bit harder to hide a complexion than a last name.

Of course, the Nazis were the perfect enemy. Evil personified. No problem killing them and anyone associated with them. Our polar opposite, we thought. 

The lines of prejudice were redrawn after World War II. The Germans, formerly one solid ethnic unit to despise, was now split in half. Democratic Germans were good, Communist Germans were evil. The Red Menace was harder to typify, differentiate, personify. The Cold War was fought by identical men on each side, all wearing gray flannel suits, indistinguishable.

But . . . we still had memories of the perfect enemy, the Nazis. Being seemingly perfectly inhuman, it was easy and guilt-free to kick their asses in copious amounts in our fantasy lives. 1968’s “Where Eagles Dare” held the record for decades for most German soldiers killed – here’s a funny video tallying the count:

Steven Spielberg, that not-so-obscure filmmaker of my generation, has related a fondness for this preposterous film. I wonder sometimes if we all got desensitized to body counts in this manner. It certainly seems like Spielberg follows in the wake of 1960’s World War II films when he created the violent extravaganzas of “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and “Temple of Doom.” Spielberg’s action films often mimic video games, with stage after stage of peril to be run through and their inexhaustible supply of baddies to be wasted. After Spielberg, the Matrix movies, Tarentino lately, and many other franchises and standalone film sagas filled with mass, righteous killings.

So what’s the appeal? John Cleese has the most succinct explanation of what shadow projection is:

 Sound familiar? In a year when our shadow selves seemed to leap into the light, brandishing weapons and killing innocent strangers in the name of slaying dragons, I hope we can learn that these arbitrary distinctions shouldn’t endanger us, that the misperceptions of others won’t get us killed, that our superficial characteristics don’t mark us for a beatdown or worse.

When you come right down to it, most of our identity is based on a set of imaginary constructs. Why should we let one set of illusions prompt us to destroy lives that operate on a different set?

We shouldn’t have to blend in or hide. That’s why we came here in the first place. Remember?

Monday, November 16, 2015

Story of a song: 'My Melancholy Baby'

It was the first torch song. It’s only heard in old movies or TV shows these days. The scene is usually a smoky barroom, at the ass-end of the evening. It’s that peculiar time of night when the soused, haunted by their past, call for this maudlin ballad and begin to sob. It’s a running joke in the 1954 film version of A Star is Born, as poor Judy Garland is harassed with, “Sing ‘Melancholy Baby’!”

This drunkard’s tearjerker took only a little longer than 40 years to become a cliché. It’s one of the one-hit wonders in the Great American Songbook, and the only one to be written in Denver, Colorado. Its 1912 birth in my hometown spurred this investigation. A couple of pretty tales have been spun around this song, but the real story of “My Melancholy Baby” is filled with false starts, warring claims to authorship, a scrambling for royalties, and litigation. Failure is an orphan, success has a hundred fathers.

OK, cute stories first.

One: William Frawley is best remembered for playing Fred Mertz on the “I Love Lucy” TV show, but he started as a song-and-dance man. On the May 3, 1965, episode of the TV game show “I’ve Got a Secret,” he revealed that he was the first to sing “My Melancholy Baby,” at the Mozart Café at 1647 Curtis Street. The noted journalists Gene Fowler and Damon Runyon were there.

Two: The composer Ernie Burnett served in France in World War I, was wounded and lost his memory. In the hospital, he heard someone singing “My Melancholy Baby,” recognized it, remembered who he was, and made a full recovery.

I’m unable to confirm or deny the truth of the second story, but the first story is disputed by almost everyone.

Ernie Burnett
Composer Ernie Burnett (originally Ernesto Bernaditto from Cincinnati) and his then-wife Maybelle Watson, who was the song’s first lyricist, filed for copyright on the song, then called “Melancholy,” on October 31, 1911. Despite their efforts, they couldn’t interest anyone in it. (In those days, songwriters carried their songs from one publisher to another, auditioning them.) Finally, Denver club owner and music publisher Theron C. Bennett bought the tune, but tossed the words. He set an employee, George Norton, to write a new set of lyrics. This jerry-rigged song became an enormous hit.

“Come, sweetheart mine, don’t sit and pine
Tell of the cares that make you feel so blue
What have I done, answer me, hon
Have I ever said an unkind word to you

My love is true, and just for you
I’d do almost anything at any time
Dear, when you sigh, or when you cry
Something seems to grip this very heart of mine

Come to me my melancholy baby
Cuddle up and don’t be blue
All your fears are foolish fancies, maybe
You know, dear, that I’m in love with you

Every cloud must have a silver lining
Wait until the sun shines through
Smile, my honey dear, while I kiss away each tear
Or else I shall be melancholy too”

Why was it written? To whom? Burnett told a story abut waiting for a woman (presumably his wife) for eight hours at the train station; Norton spins a tale about being sweet on a Denver waitress. Despite the desire to getting nailed being the wellspring of most romantic tunes, neither of these anecdotes is likely. "My Melancholy Baby" is an inspired piece of hackwork.

When the sheet music was published, it bore a dedication to “Miss Maybelle Watson of Berkeley, California.” Burnett and Watson were divorced by that time; perhaps the publisher sought to assuage Watson’s ego and prevent her from suing for a piece of the royalties, even though her lyrics were replaced by Norton’s.

 So who sang it first? Bennett, the original publisher, claims he gave the debut performance of it at his club, the Dutch Mill at 811 16th Street, in 1912 -- not Frawley. Two original copies of the sheet music feature two different artists pasted into the cameo center of the cover – “That Singer,” Jack O’Leary, and “winsome June Le Vey.” At this point, the song was still titled “Melancholy.” It was changed to “My Melancholy Baby” in 1914, and a year later Bennett folded, selling the song to Joe Morris Music Company in New York. Burnett claims he convinced Sophie Tucker to sing it, which began its rise to popularity.

The person who arguable made this song a hit was Walter van Brunt, whose 1915 recording may contain some of Watson’s original lyrics, pushed down into the song to make a second introductory set of lines. This set of words is omitted in nearly every recording of it:

“Birds in the trees, whispering breeze
Should not fail to lull you into peaceful dreams
So tell me why, sadly you sigh
Sitting at the window where the pale moon beams

You shouldn’t grieve, try and believe,
Life is always sunshine when the heart beats true
Be of good cheer, smile through your tears,
When you’re sad it makes me feel the same as you”

Gene Austin scored with it again in 1927, and England’s Al Bowlly in 1935. 

Tommy Lyman, a cabaret performer, made “My Melancholy Baby” his theme song during the 1920s, playing and singing it late at night and referring to it as his “torch song,” a reference to the old phrase “carrying a torch for someone,” an unrequited love. Perhaps it’s this specific pathos Lyman imbued it with that gave it its cliché effect on the inebriated.

It started showing up in films – The Roaring Twenties (1939), Birth of the Blues (1941), Johnny Eager (1942), Follow the Band (1943), Minstrel Man (1944). In the 1945 film noir Scarlet Street, director Fritz Lang and composer Hans Salter work the tune into the score and as source music in the film itself, as a theme to which the main characters disintegrate.

In Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot (1959), it’s the song that always seduces Marilyn Monroe’s character, especially when essayed on tenor sax. Forty-eight years after its birth, “My Melancholy Baby” ends its effective cultural life as a dick joke.

In the end, Bennett and Burnett reaped the royalties, after legal action against Joe Morris; Norton’s son had to litigate for years to get compensation for his father, who had signed away his rights to Bennett for $20 a week, back in the day. Watson got nothing. Frawley got the credit, and the song may have brought back its composer from the dead. Who knows? If you stick your nose down into the warf and woof of history, it's hard to see more than a tangle of contradictions, unresolvable, unprovable, lost in the past.

In the end, we still have a great song.


Denver’s Old Theater Row
Forrest Hall Johnson

The Tin Pan Alley Song Encyclopedia
Thomas S. Hischak
Greenwood Press

American Popular Song: The Great Innovators 1900-1950
Alec Wilder
Oxford University Press

Tin Pan Alley: An Encyclopedia of the Golden Age of American Song
David A. Jasen

A Century of American Popular Music
David A. Jasen

Piano Stylings of the Great Standards, Volume 2
Edward Shanapy
Alfred Music

Cladrite Radio: Snapshot in Prose: Ernest Burnett

Mark Steyn: Song of the Week #202, Oct. 24, 2011

“My Melancholy Baby” entry, Chris Tyle at jazzstandards.com