Friday, May 27, 2016

The NRR Project #10: ‘The Stars and Stripes Forever’

The Star and Stripes Forever
Unknown band

Chuck Klosterman recently wrote about John Philip Sousa, in connection with his recent story, “Which Rock Star Will the Historians of the Future Remember?”, published in the New York Times on May 23. I’d love to cut and paste the entire swathe of his meditation on Sousa’s significance and his place in popular culture – but there are copyright laws. Here’s a link – it’s right at the beginning of the story.

In essence, he asserts that Sousa is synonymous with the march, and stands for the entire genre in the public consciousness, the certainty of there being many more composers of the same kind in the historical records, or indeed thriving today. (You can imagine my surprise when, as a child, I found out that living people wrote hymns, too. I thought they were all whipped by Martin Luther with a guitar and some head arrangements about 500 years ago, and constituted the vocabulary of faith.)

“The Stars and Stripes Forever” is his emblematic work. Klosterman rightly makes associations with this tune and national holidays, the circus, and college football. This selection by the National Recording Registry features the first known recording of the march, on one of Emile Berliner’s disc recordings.

Sousa mastered a brisk, aggressive, yet decorous kind of music fit for the birth of the American empire, which began with our Latin American and Pacific interferences of the same era. These martial tunes, big bombastic blasts of bravado, exude the stereotypical idea of “American-ness” – energetic, optimistic, proud, na├»ve, and casually violent. His 4/4 rhythms incite the feet to tap, or march heedless of the destination. Music as propaganda.

There was no triggering incident that brought “The Stars and Stripes Forever” into the spotlight. It’s simply memorable. Its clever play with dynamics, the variant themes, that nifty little piccolo obbligato, and the roller-coaster buildups, smashes, and swerves in the piece as inherently fascinating.

Klosterman includes the circus in the associations he has of this tune, interestingly, it’s only heard at circuses, or theaters, when tragedies strike. Known as the “Disaster March,” it’s only played when life-threatening emergencies occur, as a signal to staff to help evacuate the audience. Of course, any disaster is probably made worse by throwing a Sousa march into the mix, but hey.

Of course, it’s the tune we hear when Popeye eats his spinach, gains strength, and saves the day. And, of course, as kids we all loved its variant, “Crazy Mixed Up Song,” aka “Be kind to your web-footed friends . . . “ That’s the price of popularity. This tune has been butchered by amateur bands more than any other, it’s been incorporated into countless cultural and commercial enterprises. For better or worse, it’s our theme song.

The National Recording Registry Project tracks one writer’s expedition through all the recordings in the National Recording Registry in chronological order. Up next: Gypsy Love Song.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Who mows my lawn? Crackheads, morons, and crazy people

Not our house, obviously.
I am a shame-based gardener. Let me explain.

One set of grandparents were farmers, the other champion rose growers. I spent my childhood digging, planting, pruning, weeding, watering, and picking. Don’t get me wrong, I loved it – it was a perfect way to commune with nature, to instill a work ethic, and to partake of the satisfaction and frustrations of growing things.

By the time I’d reached 15, though, I was thoroughly tired of being used for free labor. (Part of the family legacy. That’s why my ancestors’ families were so large until the 20th century – it was a need for many hands to work the farm, combined with the relatively high child mortality rate. We bred promiscuously in order to survive.) I wanted to spend the rest of my life in the allergy-free confines of the local library, and any theater that would hire me.

So, the calling was not passed down. Two generations ago, we were titans of the yard; now, it looks like hoboes live at our address. Grandma would be pissed.

On top of my natural indolence is the crippling arthritis that’s crept up on me. Add to this children who are equally loathe to push the mower, and we end up with a backyard that resembles a nature preserve. Waist-high grasses, weeds of every variety, yuck it up and party on, heedless of my sporadic attempts to control them.

Enter my beloved. Extremely intelligent and armed with the best intentions, she has nearly destroyed our yard several times.

This can be directly attributed to Craigslist. The digital marketplace has unleashed an onslaught of marginally viable humans who think they can perform just about any project, task, or service trained and reputable professionals can, for far less cost.

This is not true.

However, our glorious entrepreneurial system has created this thriving nether region, a prime mechanism for the destruction of transactional value. It enables anyone to assert anything about themselves professionally without verification, part of the American carnival of self-reinvention . . . just like when a murderer starting a new life in another town with a fake I.D. Whether you think you are a carpenter, an accountant, or a shaman, whether you know what you’re doing or have killed anyone doing so, there is a place to post your shingle online.

Of course, I am that stolid person who doesn’t trust bargains. I use established businesses. I pay too much. I am guilty of using substandard professionals for far too long, because of my stubborn sense of customer loyalty. I’m no better. But I am less annoyed.

The first time the yard got out of hand, the sight-unseen shoemakers’ elves who were to work their magic on our lawn were, literally, crackheads. Unwashed, unused to the light of day. They pulled up in an old pickup truck, towing a dilapidated landscaping trailer that looked like Huck and Jim’s raft on wheels. Fever-eyed and hyperactive, the lead worker, a sinewy little man with a bushy ‘fro like Marc Bolan, picked up a chainsaw and went at it.

The first and only thing he went at was the decorative flowering bush at the end of the driveway, at that time seven feet high. The little man slashed away, hacking out about 75 percent of it, as his wife or wives and children proceeded to tear out all of my Cerastium tomentosum, leaving the weeds beside them alone. Between this debris and the leavings of the one unfortunate bush, which Marc Bolan piled onto his trailer and slashed at again and again with his chainsaw, like some Spirit of Arboreal Vengeance brought to life.

After two hours, they had attacked only about 50 square feet of my third of an acre. Finally I dashed out into the yard, stopped them, gave them money, and sent them away.

The next year, it was another cut-rate (as it were) disaster. This time, it was someone “recommended,” by whom I will never know, which is fortunate as now they will never find a flaming paper bag full of dog poop in their porch.

The phrase “now don’t get me wrong” often prefaces outbursts of racism, and so it does here. Now, don’t get me wrong. (Here come the bona fides that seemingly excuse my hard feelings. I took Spanish all through high school.) I have Hispanic grandchildren. I love them. But, I do not “love” any race indiscriminately; as a paranoid, I am deeply suspicious of everyone on an equal-opportunity basis.

The pair of workers that made it to the house this time didn’t speak English, for quite some time. They didn’t seem to understand what was needed, interpreting a request to “trim things back” as an opportunity to recreate the defoliation of Cambodia. Grass, trees, bushes, flowers, all fell before their gasoline-powered scythes.

I stumbled on the scene when they were about halfway through. Rapidly chaining myself to the maple tree like an Alaskan protester, I vehemently refused to let them continue, in both English and my Primer Libro-level Spanish. No dice. However, the magic words, “Well, then, tell your boss I’m not going to pay you” revealed an acute comprehension of English, with clipped, articulate responses worthy of Jeremy Irons. Assholes come in all colors, faiths, and sexes.

They left, taking their equipment but not their debris.

This year, the fun resumed. Heavy rains and an impending graduation conspired to make the yard worse than ever. A digital shout-out resulted this time in the sudden, unexpected appearance of a little old man with a backpack and an absolutely new riding mower just as we were leaving for our son’s high-school graduation.

“I got lost,” the old man said. Evidently he had seen the electronic appeal and ridden his mower unannounced from his home elsewhere in town, just like Richard Farnsworth in “The Straight Story.” We thanked him and gestured frantically towards the back yard, all while eating, dressing, and wrapping gifts.

He putted back there, and returned shortly. “You’re going to have to move some stuff,” he said. We laughed.

“It’s pretty bad back there,” he said. We laughed.

I think he did the best he could. He accosted us as we ran out the front door and into the car. “You’re going to have to do some trimming back there,” he said.

We thanked him. He drove his mower carefully around the car, cutting down three of my roses and another large swathe of Cerastium tomentosum in the process, took a left, and putted up the road, a demented Lone Ranger of horticulture, piloting a chrome-yellow Yardman. We took off.

Did he ever find his way home? I hope not. I like to think he is somewhere near the Wyoming border by now, periodically refilling his tank and stopping for a sweet roll and coffee every now and then.

Can we control these people? We cannot. We can do what I do – go with reputable professionals who charge too much. In the long run it’s cheaper. 

Friday, May 13, 2016

Opera Colorado’s ‘Scarlet Letter’ the start of something big

Laura Claycomb as Hester Prynne in Opera Colorado's "The Scarlet Letter" [Photo by Matthew Staver/Courtesy Opera Colorado]
If you like being a part of history, you should get down to the Ellie Caulkins Opera House tonight, or Sunday afternoon. There you will see the world premiere of composer Lori Laitman and librettist David Mason’s “The Scarlet Letter,” the operatic adaptation of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s classic 1850 of Puritan guilt and shame.

Reviews are written for many reasons. Most readers just want to know: should I go or not? Yes, you should. Moving on. Most of the time the creatives involved in a project would just like some pull-quote-worthy praise for promotional purposes. (Hey, behind all this art, people need to sell tickets!)

Well, this “Scarlet Letter” is a great, thought-provoking work – but it’s not perfect. Which is why you should see it right now. More later. Moving on–

The story hews faithfully to the original. Hester Prynne, newborn child in arms, is publicly scorned by the close-minded Pilgrims of her town, and is forced to wear a scarlet letter “A” for adultery for life. She stubbornly will not reveal the child’s father, the community’s pastor, Dimmesdale. Hester’s long-lost husband shows up, pretends to be someone else named Chillingworth, moves in with Dimmesdale, and tries to get him to confess. For years. Finally, Dimmesdale and Hester decide to leave town and start over together, but then for some reason Dimmesdale confesses publicly, reveals a scarlet “A” on his own chest, and dies. (Leaving Hester holding the bag, mind you . . . oh these sensitive men!)

Laitman is a past master at writing for the voice, and is completely up to the task here. If she has any musical or thematic predecessors in sight, they might be the vernacular mid-century American opera composers such as Carlisle Floyd or Douglas Moore, or the Britten of “Peter Grimes.” She has her own distinct voice, however, using beautiful flowing lines over complex harmonics, using a broad orchestral palette, but not for its own sake.

Hawthorne’s novel seems devilishly difficult to adapt; the grip of repression hangs heavy over all the characters, the opposite of opera’s usual emotional extremes. Poet David Mason boils Hawthorne down to fit the stage’s needs, in beautiful, simple, straightforward language. He fills out the characters and lets them voice observations, motivations, and attitudes that push them into three-dimensionality. In rhyme. This is quite a feat, and runs the risk of sounding too “June-spoon-moon” to the casual ear. But it works.

Several passages still stand out for me – the opening chorus, Hester’s lullaby to her illegitimate child and Dimmesdale’s nightmare in Act I, the forest duet in Act II, and of course Dimmesdale’s killer finish, as it were, at the opera’s end. But there are languors; some of the transitions between scenes are muddy, and Act 1 seems to peter out.

The piece also seemed to lose some energy and focus due to the sheer size of the stage and house. The cast is less than two dozen strong and sometimes seem to be swallowed up on a sterile field. The distances between characters seems vast at times, with awkward crossovers. Some movements were tentative or oblique, blocking expressions.

Stage designer Erhard Rom uses two curving, Serra-like monoliths that swivel, part, and fragment to define the space, backed with ramps, curtain, and scrim, which Greenberg uses to silhouette figures, hauntingly. Topher Blair’s projections are a huge contributing factor as well, manifesting a green forest glade, snow, stars, clouds – nesting the harshness of men inside a pervasive, affirming natural world. Beth Greenberg’s direction, Rom, and Blair work together closely to overcome the staging problems, with mixed results. But – I think that shrinking the stage picture, putting it on in a more intimate house the size of a Glyndebourne, would increase the work’s power tenfold.

Laura Claycomb plays Hester; Dominic Armstrong plays Dimmesdale, and Malcom MacKenzie plays Chillingworth. Of the three, Armstrong stands out as delivering a definitive performance here. He goes full throttle, vocally and emotionally, giving us a portrait of a man living in hell. To be fair, he also has the clearest motivation and the strongest emotional line in the opera. Chillingworth is an ambiguous figure, alternately friendly and menacing; Hester is an aloof figure, not really blowing open until the climactic forest duet. (Claycomb seemed to have a little breath trouble the night I saw the show.) The opera demands more emotional intensity.

So – it’s a tad raggedy. All newborns are. There’s something very vital and worthy here, though. Dimmesdale dies at the end, splayed out in a Pieta in the lap of Hester. And the crowd turns to the sky, and sings about the limits of human law and understanding as stars wheel above them, and it all comes together and that shivery feeling of transcendence takes place.

The audience completes the process. Take it from someone from the other side of the lights – how you clap, how you laugh, how you listen is keenly felt. It informs what the creatives are up to, gives them guidance, and helps them understand their work. The work doesn’t mean jack squat in a drawer.

As director Greenberg said last week, “People have misconceptions about going to the opera. They ask me, ‘What should I read? How should I prepare?’ Hey – you don’t have to prepare. If it’s done well, you will get it. Be on time, and buckle your seat belt.”

And here you have a little miracle. All these people and elements have finally come together and made this brilliant collaboration come alive. (Fortunately, Naxos is recording the shows and we will end up with a release in the fall of 2017.) Is “The Scarlet Letter” a classic? Will it join the repertoire? I have no idea. It’s taking shape right now, in front of the audience’s eyes. Criticism is nothing unless it spurs you to join in the process. Go, and see what you think.

Opera Colorado presents the world premiere production of Lori Laitman’s The Scarlet Letter on May 13, and 15 at the Ellie Caulkins Opera House, 1385 Curtis Street. For tickets and information please visit

The NRR Project #6: Vernacular Wax Cylinder Recordings at UC-Santa Barbara Library

Cylinder with notes, UCSB collection.
Vernacular Wax Cylinder Recordings at UC-Santa Barbara Library
A vast panoply of individuals
More than 650 recordings
Ca. 1890-1920
Here’s a sterling example of how to preserve and curate recorded sound.

To date in this exploration, I have run up against the impossibility of listening to National Recording Registry entries only twice. In each case, they involved wax cylinder recordings, which have an extremely short replay life. In the first case, the Passamaquoddy Indian field recordings contain sacred songs and are the rightful property of the living members of the tribe. In the second case, that of the Benjamin Ives Gilman Collection recorded in 1893 at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago, the material’s inaccessibility is mysterious.

Here is the solution. The University of California at Santa Barbara has amassed a most astonishing collection of “vernacular” wax cylinder recordings – that is, recordings not made by commercial artists, nor by anthropologists or professional collectors. These are home recordings, and UCSB has created a website that indexes and displays them all. Made between 1890 and 1920 by folks across the country, they contain songs, stories, speeches, jokes, sound effects, and sales pitches.

There are even primal “overdubs.” The wax cylinder phonograph was a two-way device; one could listen and record on the same equipment, and onto the same cylinders, and at least one person added his whistling and singing to commercial recordings. It’s instructive to see people wrangling new technology to meet their specific needs.

Blithely careening through the collection randomly is a real treat. Here are the wobbly singers, the shaky cornetists, the boring uncle’s advice, the prayers and homilies of another era. Here’s where the real culture lies, below the radar of commercial sensibilities and academic concerns. The real history is here, in the little sounds and forgotten voice of nobody in particular.

The digitization of a recording removes the need for further playback and opens up its content to anyone on the internet. The site also provides a masterful historic overview of the project, and deserves reading in itself and not my reiteration of it. There are thematic playlists, a history of wax recordings – complete self-education in one spot. And, brilliantly, UCSB offers a way for interested listeners to help. Through an “Adopt a Cylinder” program, one may choose an undigitized recording for “rehousing, cataloguing, and digitizing.” UCSB has more than 10,000 recordings from various collections online at this time, but states that there are more than 3,000 to go.

The National Recording Registry Project tracks one writer’s expedition through all the recordings in the National Recording Registry in chronological order. Up next: The Stars and Stripes Forever.

Friday, May 6, 2016

The NRR Project #9: George W. Johnson’s ‘The Laughing Song’

The Laughing Song
George W. Johnson, vocalist
Ca. 1896

An innovative hit that’s irredeemably racist – it’s the American story in a nutshell.

Here’s the story. George W. Johnson, born into slavery in 1846. As a child, he’s paired with one of his master’s sons as a “bodyservant,” or playmate (kudos to Tim Brooks for his research, found in his book Lost Sounds). As such, he learned to read and write – a highly unusual skill for a black slave to possess, one for which the possessor was usually killed.

After the Civil War, he made his way north to New York City, where he became a noted street entertainer. His whistling skill and his ability to laugh, heartily, in time and in tune, brought him to the attention of early recording studios looking for a hit. In the spring of 1890, he began his limited but staggeringly popular career.

At the time, all recording was strictly an analog process. A performer stood in front of the large, morning-glory horn of the recording/playback machine and sang or declaimed as it scratched the vibrational pattern into the receiving medium on the machine’s revolving cylinder. No mechanical duplication had been devised.

Johnson recording.
Therefore, for 20 cents a crack, George W. Johnson, who had an iron constitution, great enunciation, and a resonant voice, sang and whistled into three or four machines at a time, over and over again, 50 times a day or more. He is estimated to have sold between 25,000 and 50,000 copies of “The Laughing Song,” which means at the very least he sang the song 6,000 times over 12 years.

The tune itself is jaunty and raggy. Johnson has a performer’s ease and energy. His enunciation (oddly, white culture’s condescending acceptance of African-American exemplars would include the phrase, “They’re so well-spoken,” as though complex conversation was beyond people of color) marks him as someone superior to his material.

The lyrics are staggering. He’s a “dandy darky” with a mouth like “a trap”. “He’ll be the King of Africa/ in the sweet bye and bye,” and the thought makes him laugh, which he does with verve. He sees himself as a figure of fun, as a safe, genial, weak-minded kind of oddity. White culture demanded that black men be turned into non-threatening buffoons. Johnson played into it, and made a fortune. His other big hit? “The Whistling Coon.” Ouch.

He made few friends with the police. He was a relatively affluent black man living in Hell’s Kitchen, at the time a desperately deprived neighborhood. He preferred the company of white women, also a huge problem for him at the time, and when one died in his apartment he was charged with murder. (His popularity may have helped his release.)

Eventually, technology caught up with him. By 1902, the mechanical reproduction of recordings was possible, and players only needed to be recorded once. Johnson became a doorman, stated drinking, and died in 1914.

His symbiotic relationship with white culture put him firmly in mind of the chasm between stereotype and reality in race and race relations, and he chose to please the crowd and go with the stereotype. Was he an Uncle Tom, or a savvy entertainer? What was worse – being a slave, or perpetuating humiliating assumptions that kept his people back? 

At the same time, he was the first African American recording artist, and star. Did he owe anybody anything?

The National Recording Registry Project tracks one writer’s expedition through all the recordings in the National Recording Registry in chronological order. Up next: The vernacular wax cylinder recordings of UC-Santa Barbara Library.

NRR Project: 'Gregorio Cortez'

  ‘Gregorio Cortez’ Performed by Trovadores Regionales – Pedro Rocha, Lupe Martinez October 1929 2:31 The corrido is a Mexican balla...