Sunday, May 30, 2010

Heart, head and harmony: Lisa Bell’s new album delightful


Lisa Bell
“Dancing on the Moon”
Hapi Skratch Records

Most popular music likes to get your attention with a punch in the face. In today’s exploded, panic-strewn soundscape, what fills auditoriums and sells downloads are variations and repackagings of the same-old, same-old – alienation, misanthropy, the drive for power, lust denied and satisfied. Turned up really loud. Ah, youth.

In this atmosphere, it takes guts and wisdom to follow your own inclinations. Boulder-born Lisa Bell began her solo career as an interpreter of the Great American Songbook. In that capacity, her liquid voice and magnetic personality were top-notch.

But she wanted more. She began to write her own songs, and blur genre as well, trying unique arrangements and instrumentation to get the songs across. The results are there in her last two albums – 2005’s “It’s All About Love” and her current release, “Dancing on the Moon.”

These beautifully written and performed gems are not punches, but embraces – lyrical summonses to her thoughts on life, faith, love and hope. She’s not afraid to plumb complex emotional depths, and she brings a warm and shining burnish to her artfully conceived compositions.

“Dancing on the Moon” has a smooth, solid pop feel. Bell’s voice is more adept than ever at conveying meaning with grace and balance. Her lyrics deal with issues without preaching or self-pity, moving nimbly along as in “Change Is Free”:

“Can’t pay the mortgage and the bills are due/I just keep waiting for the other shoe/And I know, this too shall pass”

She’s aided in her efforts on this outing by co-writers Mark Oblinger and Bob Story, and Oblinger’s arrangements are pitch-perfect.

(Speaking of pitch, much is made of tunings in this work, from the arbitrary 440-cycles-per-second measure to the more “natural” 424. I have heard this alternate tuning before, in a concert involving Bach’s Suites for Unaccompanied Cello – and indeed it does appear do deliver a deeper, more grounded sound. Go to for a very cogent explanation of this approach, along with surprising and illuminative sound bites that show the difference.)

I can’t commend her musical collaborators enough, either: Oblinger, Story, percussionist Christian Teele, bassist Chris Engleman, keyboardist Eric Moon, singers Robert Johnson and Linda Lawson, and Steve Conn with the loveliest accordion fills on two cuts.

For me, the proof of the pudding is not in the tuning but in the listening. This album should bear the sticker “For mature listeners only” – not because of objectionable content, but because it’s heady stuff from a grown-up artist who’s not afraid to confront herself in her work, to grow and change, to be vulnerable and share the wisdom she’s accumulated along the way.

“Dancing on the Moon” gives pleasure, and rewards thoughtful fans, all at once.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Healthy, hearty, happy, high Boulder – help!

(Note: This commissioned humor piece was judged to be just a little too negative for publication. Let me know what you think.)

Q: How many Boulderites does it take to screw in a light bulb?
A: None – all our citizens know that the true source of light comes from within!

Ah, Boulder. Latte-sipping, granola-munching, Lycra-clad, high-minded Boulder. A recent Gallup poll ranked Boulder No. 1 out of 162 large and medium-sized cities in America for overall well-being.


Our town’s status as a soy milk-slurping, solar-powered Shangri-La is undisputed. Whether you call it the People’s Republic of Boulder, “25 square miles surrounded by reality,” or other such names, our city’s reputation is the same. We are thought of as a bunch of insufferable kooks.

Well, we earned it. Since the 1960’s, our area has served as a magnet for the counterculture. It’s still a home for the counterculture. The institutionalized, affluent counterculture, that is. (Hey, I’m sorry, but if you own more than one car, you’re a Republican.)

Boulder is rife with contradictions. Our prairie-dog population has more legal protections than our homeless humans do. A vast array of regulations confounds anyone here seeking to develop a business or add on to their home. We can’t run around naked on Halloween or bicycle in the buff, but we can take our clothes off at a city council meeting. Our countless absurd resolutions mandating change in the outside world do little to affect change, but add much to our sense of sanctimonious self-satisfaction.

Our hazy, marijuana-scented macramé-and-hot-tub attitudes of yore have hardened into a narcissistic, gluten-free self-righteousness that grates on my contrarian soul. As a friend of mine once memorably said, “I’m sure we would tolerate diversity -- if there was any of it around here.”

With our high standard of living comes a high cost of living, which means that most of those who work here can’t afford to live here. It’s much easier to be happy, and have everyone on the same mental page, when your median family income is $85,807 per year.

Boulder is home for a stilted, studied informality. In few other municipalities is so much money spent on being natural. We go gaga for anything with the labels “green” and “organic” on it, justified or not. Every day, I see people riding bicycles that cost more than I have ever made in a year. And did you know that there are xeriscaping consultants here? That means people pay someone big bucks to tell them to stop watering their lawn.

And the health thing. Folks, not all of us are triathletes, or rock-climb, or mountain bike, or ski, or paraglide. We don’t all shop at the prohibitively expensive health-food supermarkets. We don’t all do tofu. Some of us even, instead of recycling or composting, throw things away -- in the dead of night, so we don’t end up forced to embroider a scarlet “T” on our fair-trade hemp yoga wear.

Are we out of touch with reality? Not if you think that pet acupuncture is a great idea. Not if you have a labyrinth in your basement, or fall for every new therapy that comes down the pike. With high-mindedness comes arrogance, and a loss of touch with common sense.

Even I have to admit an upside, though. For me, self-consciousness is better than no consciousness. Boulder’s aspirations to transcend the mundane, to implement positive change, and to treasure the natural world around it are admirable.

That the problems we have are mostly of our own making stand in sharp contrast to the very real and harrowing problems most of the rest of the world faces every day. We ARE sheltered; we are lucky.

And we are surrounded by beauty. Even after four decades here, I still utter daily gratitude for the nearby mountains I love so much. The winters are pleasant, the summers gorgeous.

There is still an essential undercurrent of kindliness and fair-mindedness at work here, too. I traveled the country in my youth. I saw every place I might be likely to live in – and I came back here. I am raising my children here. That’s an endorsement in itself.

And of course, there’s all the comic fodder a humorist could desire.

Now, the only thing I think we’re missing, really, is the ocean. And the city council’s crafting a resolution about that, I’m told. Namaste, dude.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

The Fisk Jubilee Singers and the painful, highly problematic birth of American music

 The Fisk Jubilee Singers, then and now.


On a sweltering June night in 1871, a handful of concertizing African American university students and their music director, George L. White, stood outside a small-town hotel in rural Tennessee, menaced by an angry, drunken crowd who called White a “Yankee nigger school teacher.”

“White and his troupe retreated to the train station to pray and sing. White interposed himself between the crowd and his frightened troupe and directed them in some hymns. Gradually, recalled (student) Ella Sheppard, the riotous crowd left of their jeering and swearing and slunk back, until only the leader stood near White, and he finally took off his hat. ‘Our hearts were fearful and tender and darkness was falling. We were softly finishing the last verse of “Beyond the smiling and the weeping I shall be soon—”

                        Beyond the farewell and the greeting
                        Beyond the pulse’s fever beating
                        I shall be soon.
                        Love, rest and home,
                        Lord, tarry not but come

‘—when we saw the bull’s eye of the coming engine and knew that we were saved. The leader begged us with tears falling to sing the hymn again, which we did.’”

This remarkable passage from Andrew Ward’s masterful account “Dark Midnight When I Rise” crystallizes the transformative impact of the Fisk Jubilee Singers, who formed the secret songs of slavery into the spirituals that formed the bedrock of American music to come, and anchored the spiritual vocabulary of the culture as well.

Nearly every child growing up in America has either sung or heard songs such as “Steal Away,” “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” Wade in the Water,” “Hold On,” “Rocking Jerusalem,” “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands,” “Go Down Moses” and “Balm in Gilead.” Even those who don’t share the brand of faith implicit in the words of these songs can feel their power. How did they wink into existence?

This remarkable body of music didn’t spring from any one identifiable mind, but from the consciousness of an enslaved race. Ward explains how the African slaves imported into America, cut off from their native cultures and forced into the acceptance of Christianity, shaped an amalgam of African song and Western hymn in services hidden away from the eyes and ears of their white overseers -- and put intense measures of agony and faith into it.

Ward quotes gospel scholar and singer Dr. Horace Clarence Boyer on spirituals:

“’ . . . after a while, it’s almost like therapy. It begins to take the frown out of the face. The shoulders begin to come back to their natural position. What’s happening is, you’re going through a cleansing process. You’re coming back to where you wanted to be. Things are not quite as bad as you think they are. And the more you sing it, the more you find relief, the more you believe that there is a way out of this.’”

These songs, passed down orally, were not shared with a larger public until George L. White, treasurer and music director for the newly founded Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee heard them in 1871.

The university, run by the American Missionary Association, was begun with the idea of educating African Americans. White, a missionary himself, had been searching for a way to stave off the institution’s bankruptcy.

Choral music had only recently come into vogue as a viable form of entertainment in America. Successful tours by Alpine folk-singing groups such as the Tyrolese Minstrels in the late 1830s spawned homegrown concertizing by such traveling bands as the Hutchinson Family Singers and the Gibson family in the 1840s.

White hit on the idea of taking down these spiritual songs he heard from his black students, and formalizing and presenting them in concert. Surprisingly, his initial point of resistance was the students themselves, who felt that these folk compositions were relics of a slave past best left behind.

White found something profoundly musical and moving in them. He developed a cappella arrangements and drilled his students mercilessly; emphasizing not volume but intensity, until the Singers’ trademark sound was that of a pianissimo attack that filled any given venue with sound.

An 18-month tour across the Northeast began discouragingly. Writes Ward, “Nothing had prepared Northerners for White’s young choir. What little they knew of black culture was derived from the derisive ‘Darktown’ cartoons of Currier & Ives and the bug-eyed, burnt-cork minstrel troupes with their ‘Congo banjos,’ interlocutors, ersatz ‘plantation melodies,’ and ‘nigger’ jokes that cavorted across the stages of the day. For many Northerners, minstrel troupes were there only African American frame of reference, and even the pious Yankees who attended White’s first concerts took their seats expecting to laugh at the antics of a primitive people.”

Nothing could withstand the power and sincerity of their performances. What began as a predicted folly ended a triumph. The Singers raised tens of thousands of dollars for their university, and the troupe soon found themselves suffering from overwork rather than neglect. Subsequent tours that covered England and parts of Europe as well over the course of six and a half years were to prove lucrative, but also the group’s undoing.


In addition to the grueling schedule, the usual interpersonal frictions arose. More significantly, the singers began to demand better treatment – a less taxing schedule, higher pay, individual recognition. White and the others who led them in turn accused them of ingratitude, and invoked their sense of dedication to a higher cause (in this case, Fisk, Christianity, and racial equality, in ascending order of irony).

Another unfortunate long-term side effect of the Singers’ popularity was the unintended reinforcement of the Uncle Tom-ish stereotype of virtuous victimhood of African Americans. The myth of the passive, benighted, saintly Negro would persist even down to the well-intentioned metaphors connecting Tom Robinson and the title creature in Harper Lee’s 1960 novel “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

Was White’s well-meaning transmission of these songs simply another in an almost endless stream of white assimilation, exploitation and pollution of another culture’s handiwork? And then there is that nasty question: does art born of torment and torture redeem that experience, or simply use it as a means to an end?

Christianity’s central metaphor is suffering and redemption, and the Jubilee songs embody this theme. Art is redemptive only in the sense that it is cathartic – that in and of itself, whether lauded or even noticed by the outside world, it aids the soul in surviving and making sense of reality. Does that mean that art is therapeutic? Sure; but therapy is not art, something the self-indulgent will never understand. In other words – everyone has a story to tell, but not everyone knows how to tell a story.

The power of spirituals extends past the boundaries of the faith within which they were conceived. Any participant in vocal music can tell you how it feels to be swept up passionately in the act itself. To serve the tune is to relinquish self for a time, to become a vessel of a higher power.

Again, Ward:

“When White asked several Genevans through an interpreter how they could so enjoy the songs when they could not understand the words, ‘the answer was, “We cannot understand them, but we can feel them.”’”

European sacred and art music has its limitations. The majesty and beauty of Palestrina, Monteverdi, Bach, Schubert, Mahler, Verdi and all, despite their presumed dominance by educators and experts, still don’t touch much of the musical universe as practiced worldwide.

White codified the music, but did not tamper with its power. That power injected itself into the pale culture that dominated it. As Ward notes:

“An editorial in the A.M.A.’s (American Missionary Association) journal went so far as to suggest that a little exposure to black religion might do whites good. ‘One of the beautiful and blessed effects of a real Christian culture for the negro would be the reflex influence of his emotive religion upon the unimaginative and unemotional white people who are now benefiting him.’”

Painfully condescending, but spot on in terms of white religion. Anyone who has suffered through years in the sedate pews of non-evangelical Christianity knows that subdued obedience and unduly demonstrative participation is the order of the day. No wonder the Jubilee Singers’ listeners felt they were hearing, in many senses, revelation.

Ward quotes one of the group’s most enthusiastic and eloquent fans, Mark Twain:

“’Arduous and painstaking cultivation has not diminished or artificialized their music, but on the contrary – to my surprise – has mightily reinforced its eloquence and beauty. Away back in the beginning – to my mind – their music made all other vocal music cheap; and that early notion is emphasized now. It is utterly beautiful, to me; and it moves me infinitely more than any other music can.’”


After seven years and three tours, the Jubilee Singers raised enough money to build Fisk University’s first permanent structure, Jubilee Hall. Succeeding classes kept the tradition alive, and alumni, such as the brilliant Roland Hayes, spread the tradition.

Spirituals led to gospel music – the deliberate expressions of individual composers such as Thomas A. Dorsey and James Cleveland. The harmonies and feeling filtered down through the culture, influencing jazz, rhythm and blues, soul, bluegrass, pop songs, rock and others.

The Jubilee Singers continued, expanding their repertory and winning acclaim. Until recently, their efforts have gone largely unrecorded; however, the 2003 disc “In Bright Mansions” is a remarkable and moving recapitulation of the songs that cemented the group’s reputation nearly 150 years ago.

Meanwhile, the contradictions still chafe. It’s still evident that African Americans are still disenfranchised and culturally segregated in any number of ways – while their songs of suffering have been fully integrated into the American consciousness.


“In Bright Mansions”
The Fisk Jubilee Singers
Curb Records

Dark Midnight When I Rise: The Story of the Fisk Jubilee Singers
Andrew Ward
HarperCollins, New York, 2000


NRR Project: Egmont Overture, Modesto High School Band (1930)

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