Utopian Turtletop. Monsieur Croche's Bête Noire. Contact: turtletop [at] hotmail [dot] com

Saturday, December 31, 2005

Happy New Year!

A year ago I posted the complete Burns text of “Auld Lang Syne.” Some while ago I came across this post by linguist Geoffrey Nunberg on the inscrutability of Burns’s poem. According to Wikipedia, Guy Lombardo’s playing of the song, sweet as it is, didn’t introduce the song to the U.S. as a New Year’s tradition, it being sung in Massachusetts at least as early as 1896. Most people agree that Lombardo did popularize the tradition. I’d be curious to hear any recordings earlier than Lombardo’s, should they exist.

All I know for sure is, it’s a pretty song, and here’s hoping for a Happy New Year for us all.

The family cottage, closed up for winter,
Gull Lake, Michigan,
Christmas Day

My parents' house is across the lane from where I stood when I took this photo.

A beautiful snowy day.

My son and his two paternal cousins -- one a little younger, one a little older -- had a grand time.

My dad is doing well. Chemo isn't making him sick and the cancer spots are shrinking. Aside from having lost his hair, he looks better than he has in a year, and says he feels better too. Sometimes he looks glowing.

I'd forgotten how stressful Christmas with family can be. I had blow ups with a couple family members (not my dad) -- funny thing, in my memory, these tiffs weren't due to me being stressed out and edgy. Despite that, it was a good trip. Christmas was a great day. Morning excess and so on, early afternoon walk on the beach and then a nap, then afternoon dinner in Battle Creek with 30-some members of my dad's side of the family, lots of little kids, great to see cousins and uncles and aunts.

An intense conversation with the husband of a cousin, a sweet guy who pursued my cousin for years before she finally joyously realized that she loved him; an intense conversation about the horrors of cosmetic surgery, him not mentioning my scars, me not mentioning his withered arm and his limp caused by nobody-knows-what; nobody, that is, in my branch of the family (his parents are Christian Scientist; he's now Presbyterian). The grown daughter of 50 year old cousin, teasing her dad about coloring his hair; "I don't know what you're talking about," he said, smiling. My son taking digital photos of various relatives and getting taciturn uncles to smile warmly at the preposterousness of being photographed by somebody so small who's standing on his tiptoes. Family lore asked of my dad (the Lore Master) by another cousin's wife -- "How long has the Shaw Christmas party been going on?" -- "Forever. For years my folks hosted it, and all of Mom's sisters and their families would come to Dad and Mom's house, Dad and Lucene's house after Mom died. After Dad died we started rotating who hosted"; I butted in, "Since the conversion of the pagans." Various male relatives sneaking to the den to catch some of the Bears game. Learning that an uncle proposed to an aunt on the way to a Christmas Eve party at this very house, years before they bought it themselves. Noticing that a cousin's daughter looks a lot like the wedding portrait of my grandmother in the hall.

Sad when the party ended.

Meanwhile, back in Seattle, my wife had been dealing with a suicide attempt from a former resident of the Transitional Housing Program she manages. A couple days before Christmas, he called to say good-bye, telling her he'd taken 30 anti-depressant pills. She signalled somebody near her to call 9-1-1; she knew his address. The ambulance got there in time. Later he told her that he had wanted her to intervene; that's why he'd called. Before he changed his mind, though, he meant it. He'd recently learned that he was losing his V.A. and disability benefits because of a felony warrant in Florida for "failure to appear" from back in his drugging days; a recent federal law prevents people wanted for a crime from getting benefits. When he learned of the warrant, he turned himself in to the Seattle police, asking to be sent to Florida -- a trip he has no ability to pay for -- the SPD said that it's none of their business. He's still in the hospital, involuntarily committed. We'll figure out a way to get him down there.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Taking the commuter train to Michigan City, Indiana, where my brother, who lives in Kalamazoo but has business in South Bend today, will pick us up.

Splendid dinner with friends Kate & Michael & their 3 kids, Kerry, Jeff & his new wife (whom I hadn't met), Randy & his 2 kids, and my sister and her 2 kids last night. Boistrous! Kate & Michael are moving to St. Thomas, Virgin Islands to try something new; Michael, after 15 albums in 17 years, says he has given up music, "run out of gas." Randy's playing with a Rolling Stones cover band that can pull in $3,000 for one gig. Jeff's working on several projects, as always; Kerry's writing a story on David (who was out of town, so I missed him) and Mickle (with whom we had lunched earlier in the day), both of whom have Poe adaptations opening in Chicago in the next couple months. Mr. Jumping Chocolate Pudding and his 4 and a half year old cousin spend half the dinner under the table; Kate & Michael's kids are lovely, as are Randy's; everybody seems well.

The image above is Santa, from the original illustrated edition of "A Visit From St. Nicholas." I found a cheap used Dover reprint of the book in a small town in Canada last summer. In one of the pictures, Santa is standing on a stool to reach the mantle to get the stockings. This short, authentically Livingstonian (see below), or, if you insist, Moore-esque, Santa is so unfamiliar to readers today that the Dover edition sports the Thomas Nast Santa pictured below on the cover!

Merry Winter to all!

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Norman Rockwell had Santa in red before Coca-Cola got to him (see post below). This is from 1926. I wouldn't be surprised to find out that the red suit predates Rockwell too.

Or is Santa wearing "warm red woolies" -- long underwear -- here?
1849 illustration by Boyd to "A Visit From St. Nicholas";
this one is closest to the text of the poem.

The Thomas Nast Santa, 1881. Some web sites color his suit red;
I'm not confident of the authenticity.

The Coca-Cola Santa, drawn by Haddon Sundblom in the 1930s.

Blogging from my sister's house in Chicago. Cold weather -- 14 degrees Farenheit when she picked us up at the airport, 10 degrees 25 minutes later at her house! Good to be here.

Last year I looked online for a collection of Nast Santas in book form. Couldn't find one.
Thanks, Jody "The Anachronist" Rosen and A.C. "sounds and fury" Douglas, for your comments. It appears you are both right: Nast gave Santa his bulk, and Coke gave him his red suit. But I love that feral Puck-ish Santa as drawn by Boyd; another of his illustrations from that edition -- which is the first single-poem book edition of "A Visit from St. Nicholas" -- is featured on the cover of Stephen Nissenbaum's fascinating book "The Battle for Christmas." And it's just plum interesting to me that modern illustrations of the old poem give us a Coca Cola Santa in flat contradiction to the words he purportedly illustrates.
By the way, I've never found the Shakespeare-authorship controversy all that persuasive, though for Borgesian reasons I love the theory that the works weren't written by William Shakespeare but by a different man with the same name. I am, however, a firm Livingstonian in the "Night Before Christmas" controversy. A few years ago, in his book "Author Unknown," Don Foster proved beyond a reasonable doubt that Henry Livingston, not Clement Clarke Moore, wrote "A Visit," which in its first publication was called "Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas. Burton Stevenson came very close to making the same conclusion in his book "Famous Single Poems and the Controversies which Have Raged Around Them" in the early 1920s; but he finally decided on Moore on the grounds that a professor of theology wouldn't have lied about so serious a matter as authorship. Foster found evidence that Moore could very well have lied; that, indeed, he may have lied about other writings as well. Foster and Stevenson agree that stylistically "A Visit" is 99% closer to the style of the extant writings of Livingston than Moore; Foster also shows that in the original 1822 publication, the last 2 of Santa's 8 reindeer were "Dunder and Blixem," a common Nederlandish expression meaning "Thunder and Lightning!" Livingston was of Dutch ancestry; Moore knew German but not Dutch and changed it to "Donder and Blitzen." Expressions like, "Moore's poem," such as Jody used in his terrific profile of Mannheim Steamroller honcho and "Convoy" composer Chip Douglas in the New York Times magazine today, remain sadly accurate, though, since most people haven't read Foster's book and Moore's spiritual ownership of the poem is still generally endorsed.
If I don't check in again for a week or 10 days -- and I'm not planning to, really (well, at least not after tomorrow night) -- Cheers.

Merry Winter

I'm sure someone has done exegetical work on how Santa's portrait in the classic poem of 1823, "Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas," got so altered by popular perception, but I don't recall ever having read any. Note these differences.

* No red suit.
"He was dress'd all in fur, from his head to his foot"

* His descent down the chimney doesn't leave him pristine.
"And his clothes were all tarnish'd with ashes and soot"

* He's small.
"a miniature sleigh, and eight tiny rein-deer"

* He's chubby and plump, not huge.
"He had a round face, and a little round belly"

I'm also curious as to the significance of his "laying his finger aside of his nose" before he swoops back up the chimney.

If anybody has any insights, I'd be delighted to read them.

Mr. Jumping Chocolate Pudding and I take off today for 10 days with my parents and siblings and nephews and nieces and cousins and aunts and uncles; no blogging till I get back. My beloved spouse, to my sorrow, cannot get the time off from work to join us. We weren't planning to go at all at this time, but because of my dad's health we're going. As I've mentioned, he has terminal cancer. Although his most recent scan results showed remarkably positive response to chemotherapy, and he's feeling better than he has in a year, the doctor was terribly grim in giving the news, not wanting to instill hope. Some people survive for years with my dad's diagnosis, but they're a tiny minority. It seems to me that the response my dad has had to his treatment is as good as we could hope for for now. As for the future, we shall see. It'll be good to be there with everybody.

Merry Winter, everybody.
Peace on earth, good will toward humankind.

Friday, December 16, 2005

Happy Birthday Beethoven, and my old friend Jay.

Many happy returns of the day!

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Elegant, erudite, and enthusiastic blogger Jody Rosen has written an entire book on Irving Berlin's holiday perennial White Christmas. I saw it at a bookstore last Season, picked it up, came this close to buying it, and put it down, thinking, I'm sure I'll get this later. Well, I haven't come across it since, but I do remember it closing -- or at least I think I do -- with a charming anecdote illustrating the friendly bantering relationship between songwriter Berlin and his song's most successful salesman, Bing Crosby. Jody has graced this blog with occasional observations; if you missed his startling datum about the original lyrics of "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," scroll down to comments and do partake.

Most of us have heard many many versions of "White Christmas." The song's ability withstand an enormous variety of approaches and interpretations impresses. In addition to Bing's classic reading, a few I love:

* Darlene Love's insouciant and sassy take, which includes the song's rarely used comic introduction as an interlude, on Phil Spector's Christmas album. (I'm guessing Berlin originally conceived the song as at least semi-comic, beginning it with "the sun is shining, the grass is green, the orange and palm trees sway, there's never been a nicer day in Beverly Hills, L.A." A review of Jody's book mentions Berlin wrote it in 1938. It became a hit during World War 2, when Bing omitted the introduction and made the song a tender melancholy fantasy of overseas soldiers for home.)

* The Drifters' classic swinging finger-popping doo-wop version.

* Elvis's solo cover of the Drifters' arrangement, which assigns the gorgeous tenor line to the piano.

* The Statues' stately soaring doo-wop version.

* Canadian composer John Oswald's plunderphonic handling of Bing's classic recording, in which he keeps Bing's tempo but electronically manipulates his pitch, sending it wobbling all over the place.

* Barbra Streisand's tender reading, which includes the "orange and palm trees" introduction but makes it seem sweet and nostalgic.

Lots of other versions stick fairly close to Bing's reading, and though nobody matches his combination of easy masculine confidence and tenderness, and nobody else ever had the heart-rending context he fitted so well, I don't dislike any of them; or, I didn't.

Until today. Today I heard for the first time a version I hate: Frank Sinatra's. The arrangement sticks close to Bing's tender melancholy, but Frank seems flummoxed by Bing's mastery, knowing he can't touch it, and so to distance himself from it he desecrates the song far more disrespectfully than John Oswald's assault on it, which honestly recognizes and even celebrates the original's power. To make himself seem hip, Frank changes one word and, for me, wrecks the song.

I'm dreaming of a white Christmas
Just like the ones I used to know
Where the treetops glisten
And kiddies listen
To hear sleighbells in the snow
"Kiddies" -- yuck. As if "kid" isn't diminuitive enough. But "kid" can be affectionate. No affection in "kiddies." Bah, Frank, you phony humbug.

* * *

Plunked through "The Twelve Days of Christmas" on the piano the other night, and, reading the song, realized what my ears had never told me -- it freely switches back and forth from 3/4 time to 4/4. Pretty cool.

* * *

Heard Elvis's "Blue Christmas" on the radio today. Such a great record! Fine, bluesy guitar & piano playing; nice shuffling rhythm; great lead from Elvis, especially on "blue blue blue Christmas," first time bluesy, 2nd time bubbly; and, best of all, the eerie falsetto vocal riff from the chorus. So easy to take the record for granted, having heard it so many times all these years; listening closely revealed anew its delights.

* * *

On the recommendation of ACD (whose blog Sounds and Fury, for some reason, is resisting the efforts of my computer to reach it tonight, giving me the message "Forbidden

You don't have permission to access / on this server."), I bought a Christmas album by the choral group Chanticleer, the album with guest soprano Dawn Upshaw. Such breathtakingly lovely singing, the loveliness of the sounds and the soul-ringing intonation. Really dark moody holy nighttime Xmas music.

I have trouble articulating my experience of classical music. Thinking maybe that my experience of music is so bound up with rhythm and tone -- the rhetorics of rhythm in vernacular music, how beats signify socially and emotionally; the rhetorics of tone and timbre in singing, Bing's relaxed masculinity versus Sinatra's more stressed masculinity. Nothing rhythmically grabbing about most of the Chanticleer CD, and the timbre/emotional tone throughout is reverent. I'm all good with the reverence -- as Oscar Wilde said, Christmas teaches the worship of the baby; and any birth inspires reverence. To believing Christians, Christmas signifies something more, as it does to anybody plugged into the solar cycle. Speaking as a culturally Christian agnostic continually trying to cultivate a reverence for the immensity and mystery and preciousness of life, Chanticleer sings that something more, beautifully.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Dance party in the kitchen after dinner tonight, to this ablum by Veda Hille's kid-friendly family band Duplex. Catchy lively charming goofy friendly tender songs, including a tender lovely cover of "Figure 8" from Schoolhouse Rock. We saw Duplex at the Vancouver Folk Music Festival last July. After the set my beloved spouse asked Veda (of whom my spouse and I have been ardent fans for many years) if she would pose for a photo with our son. Veda gathered half of the band together and posed.

* * *

Listening more to Andy Griffith's Christmas album, which I posted on a while ago. In addition to the heart-rending stories I posted on, I'm digging the unusual song selection -- some old faves, like Silent Night and Joy to the World; and then some darker awe-filled less ubiquitous standards, like O Come O Come Emmanuel and I Wonder As I Wander; and then, most strange and wonderful, a couple non-Christmas Christian hymns, one I remember from my button-down mainstream white Protestant church growing up, Beautiful Savior, and a gospel tune I didn't know, Jesus Walked That Lonesome Valley. At the end of Away In A Manger he tags on a non-Christmas, non-Christian lullabye from the Elizabethan era, Golden Slumber, some of the lyrics (but not the music) of which the Beatles lifted on Abbey Road. A deeply passionate, awe-struck record; not without humor, suffused with tenderness and love. Andy's reading of Luke's telling of the Christmas story -- when he raises his voice to quote the multitudes of the heavenly host appearing before the shepherds, "glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward all mankind," it's thrilling.

* * *

I mentioned the other night my belief that Christmas is a Festival of Excess Capacity, forgetting to mention that the ideology/imagery our society entails it with -- family, cheeriness, and nonstop shopping -- depresses the hell out of a lot of people. I never forget the trio of classic Christmas suicide-attempt movies -- It's a Wonderful Life, Meet John Doe, and The Apartment.

Life is inexplicable and awesome, and it can be damned hard, compounded by human cruelty and thoughtlessness. I know I'm guilty. My heart goes out.

* * *

In the great night my heart will go out.
Toward me the darkness comes rattling.
That's a healing song by Juana Manwell, a/k/a Owl Woman, taught to her in a dream by a friend who had recently died, and recorded and translated from the Papago Indian language by the great white ethnographer Frances Densmore in 1920. Along the way white anthologists of Indian poetry started calling the song "Death Song," but a reading of Densmore's original publication, which I found in a library once, shows that it was a healing song.

Tonight it also feels like a Christmas song, which, on some spiritual plane, Andy Griffith would understand.
Regarding Santa: My beloved spouse told me today that she had prompted the almost-3-year-old to say, "I hope you have a nice Christmas too" to Santa. Funny to be all bragging on him and find out he didn't come up with the idea. Still -- he remembered his Mommoo's suggestion.

Haunted by the smile of the toothless Santa. Did I see a flicker of shame/embarrassment when he realized he had revealed his toothlessness? Was that flicker triggered by a flicker of pity/revulsion across my face? I fear it may be so, but I won't ever know.

* * *

Funny thing about teeth -- I'm missing 8 of them. 7 knocked out in an Accident (as it's called in my family, with an implicit Capital and The definite article preceding it; or, John's Accident) that happened when I was 10, the 8th tooth lost when it rotted after serving as an anchor tooth to a permanently-affixed replacement tooth. I have a partial, removable denture for the 5 lower front teeth, but my smile is so constricted by the scars around my mouth that people don't notice when I leave my denture out, which I rarely do. Since the anchor tooth for the missing upper left-side teeth rotted out, I've just left that 3-tooth gap empty. It doesn't affect my chewing (the 5 lower fronts do), and nobody can see it.

I'm quite conscious of the class implications of my denture. Damn right I'm glad to have it.

My friends tell me -- and I believe them -- that my face can be slightly shocking at first but the shock quickly wears off; some people don't even notice that I have scars, but they're rare.

Well, I didn't plan on talking about this tonight! And now it's time for bed! Good night! Time for some shut-eye!

Sunday, December 11, 2005

the sum of life (a/k/a the pessimist)

I haven’t come close to reading them all, but I’ve glanced at enough of them to be confident that none of them is likely to topple the eccentric and charming anthology “Confuscius to Cummings” from its place as my favorite book by Ezra Pound. He of course includes the usual suspects -- Confucius, Cavalcanti, some Troubadours -- usually in his own translation. But what’s sweetest about the book is its inclusion of sentimental favorite poems from his youth. The dialect verse by the sentimental Hoosier poet, James Whitcomb Riley, gives a clue as to the probable source of the grating attempts at dialect writing in Pound’s letters and some of his Confucius translations. And this gem by one-hit wonder Ben King (1857 - 1894), “The Pessimist” (which has been anthologized elsewhere as “The Sum of Life”):

Nothing to do but work,
Nothing to eat but food,
Nothing to wear but clothes
To keep one from going nude.

Nothing to breathe but air
Quick as a flash 't is gone;
Nowhere to fall but off,
Nowhere to stand but on.

Nothing to comb but hair,
Nowhere to sleep but in bed,
Nothing to weep but tears,
Nothing to bury but dead.

Nothing to sing but songs,
Ah, well, alas! alack!
Nowhere to go but out,
Nowhere to come but back.

Nothing to see but sights,
Nothing to quench but thirst,
Nothing to have but what we've got;
Thus thro' life we are cursed.

Nothing to strike but a gait;
Everything moves that goes.
Nothing at all but common sense
Can ever withstand these woes.

Pound gives only three of the stanzas. But they’re good stanzas. And not of the style that one typically associates with Ezra Pound.

* * *

Sang “Elmer’s Tune” and “I’ve Got a Gal in Kalamazoo” at a piano bar tonight, at a friend’s 70th birthday party. When I first knew Bobbie we both lived in Michigan; she suggested “Kalamazoo,” which reminded me of “Elmer” (they both hit with Glenn Miller) -- I’d had other songs actually rehearsed (leaning toward “That Old Black Magic”); but I winged it OK on these two from the memory vault. “OK” only because I was feeling unembarrassable tonight. Very nice party. The best singer of the night was not of our party: a short 60-ish man wearing mismatched plaids and with a goatee and a ponytail -- he looked like a street person. And he sang “They Call the Wind Mariah” with a large and clear sweet tenor.

* * *

Had people over to read “Lady Windermere’s Fan” last night. For the last scene my beloved spouse and my friend Skye were reading, and they were both getting misty-eyed. Great melodrama, as well as very funny.

* * *

To the mall this morning for Mr. Jumping Chocolate Pudding to meet Santa. Real beard on this Santa, a kindly-looking gent who didn’t smile. As we were leaving I thanked him and wished him a Merry Christmas, and he smiled and said Thank You, revealing he was missing 3 or 4 upper front teeth, with only one sticking out there representing for the rest. Whether one has teeth is all about social class. Heavy stuff. A friend of mine had all his yanked before I met him. He’s poor as dirt and smart as an angel and very witty but I sometimes have trouble understanding what he’s saying.

* * *

Santa. People take the poor guy for granted. I thought of Buber’s “I and Thou” -- people dragging their kid to see Santa because it’s about the kid, and what the kid wants. The not-quite-3-year-old has no notion of “what he wants” for Christmas. While we were in line I asked him what he wanted to say to Santa. He said, “I hope you have a nice Christmas too.” I told him that that would be a very nice thing to say to Santa.

I don’t want to judge people who treat department mall Santas as a Buberian “It” rather than a Buberian “Thou,” because I treat people rotely and fail to engage all the time too. Trying not to!

* * *

I love Christmas. It’s not a Christian holiday. It’s a Festival of Excess Capacity, manifested by bright lights & colorful decorations, feasting, and gift exchange. Societies throughout history and pre-history have had regular, ritualized Festivals of Excess Capacity, and I think it’s great; and it makes total sense to have it around the darkest day of the year. (As far as I’m concerned Southern Hemisphere Christmas should be in June.)

Carl Wilson has been posting on video games, trying to find a line defining whether they are art or sport. Art and sport both have ritualistic roots and they’re both expressions of excess capacity. I’ve never felt the need to distinguish between music and football and gardening in any philosophical sense.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

My friend Jake brought over the recent Sufjan Stevens album about Illinois and we listened to it tonight. I'd never heard Stevens. First, rough, half-distracted impressions:

Virtuoso composing technique, including the densely layered, un-messy arrangements. Influence from Steve Reich and Vince Guaraldi and put through the finger-busting meter changes of 1970s "progressive" rock, but without Prog's pomp; the rhythmic shiftiness redeemed by continual melodic fetchingness; the masterful musicianship in juxtaposition with the soft-spoken detached yet sensitivo voice/persona. What little of the lyrics I caught either didn't sink in or they actively bugged me; with music this fresh and interesting, unappealing lyrics can be more easily forgiven.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

The academic fashion for undigested figurative language may have a source in Barthes, whose "Death of the Author" is a melodramatic, excessive metaphor for "the irrelevance of authorial intent to the interpretive prerogative of the reader." I agree that the reader's experience is independent of the author's intent. Coincidentally, I emailed something similar to someone the other day. "Once my music is out there, I'm just another listener." But I'm not dead [as of this writing], and as a listener to my own music, I still have my rights. Those rights don't trump anybody else's rights, but their rights don't trump mine either. It boggles me that people take Barthes' slick, elegant formulation as anything close to literally. What also interests me here is that the triumph of figurative language in literary theory coincided with a down-pricing of figurative language in poetry. "Metaphor and simile are old-fashioned and sentimental." Unless you're a theorist, then it's cool, except readers confer an even greater power to you and pretend you're not writing figuratively!

Nice figure of speech, though. Catchy! (And nothing against Barthes. He steals shamelessly from Wilde and Nietzche, but I dig his style and learn from him.)

* * *

While hearing Carly Simon's terrific "You Belong to Me" on the radio yesterday, it occurred to me that the reason there hasn't been a comprehensive history of post-Elvis popular music is that it's too sprawling and messy, too multi-faceted, too rich, too reflective of too much wealth in too many sub-markets.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Dad got test results back after his first 3 rounds of chemo: The spot on his lung shrunk by 50% and the tumors on his lymph nodes shrunk by more than that. As good as we could hope -- really good news. He's feeling better than he has all year. Also very good news. If I weren't too superstitious to hope, I'd hope. Thanks for all your good wishes.

* * *

2 new Christmas music faves:

1. On the radio tonight, on the "great songs, great memories" station, I heard Barry Manilow open "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas" solo a cappella. Just his voice in a stately rhythm. OK, Barry, you have a lovely voice, but where are you going with this? After the first two lines, a 5-or-6-voice (I think) vocal ensemble kicked in with a harmonically complex, lively, and gorgeous a cappella arrangement for the rest of the song -- like the Four Freshmen or the Beach Boys but with more voices (I think) and with women as well as men (I think). Barry used the complacent post-war lyrics -- "through the years we all will be together, if the fates allow, hang a shining star upon the highest bough" -- and not the heartbreakingly poignant original wartime lyrics -- "someday soon we all will be together, if the fates allow, until then we'll have to muddle through somehow." It's the first version I've heard where the singers make the post-war lyrics sound joyous and not just complacent.

2. The Wild Magnolias with John Scofield, "Go Tell It On The Mountain." The Wild Magnolias, a Mardi Gras Indian crew from New Orleans, open the song with a West-African-sounding (or perhaps Afro-Cuban-sounding) chant, before the rhythm section leaps in, percussion flying. 5 percussionists, and they wail. Scofield's guitar solo is juicy edgy funky rippin', and the vocals are great. Electric bass the only other instrument. Tell it!

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Mr. Jumping Chocolate Pudding takes a call

Really busy until after Christmas; probably light blogging till then. For instance, right now, instead of doing this, I should be either a) sleeping, or, b) installing the gear that will allow me to load my cassette recordings onto the computer and convert them to CD tracks. In other words, finish that November album I made.

Speaking of which, I want to thank everybody who sent a note or posted something about hearing my setting of the closing paragraph of Scooter Libby's letter to Judy Miller on "All Things Considered" (or on their web site). Thanks -- I really appreciate it.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Shocked to realize I’ve actually bought 2 new records in the last few weeks. Both accidentally, I hasten to add. One was a pre-release review copy in a slim cardboard case in the $2.50 bin at the used store: A new album of Christmas Remixes. The second accident was the result a momentary enthusiasm for a longrunning act I’d recently come across for the first time persuading me to fork over 16 bucks for their Christmas album, which, I soon discovered, had just come out.

I didn’t hear volume 1, but Christmas Remixed 2 follows in the now-established tradition of taking pre-rock pop and jazz records and setting them to contemporary dance beats. Despite my fondness for those beats and the dreamy reverb-heavy atmospherics their producers often indulge in, I was surprised at how well they worked superimposed on the ‘50s recordings. The ‘50s were a stodgy era for pop-swing arrangements; in most cases these are improvements. Remixer John Beltran flattens out the harmonic movement in Bing & Ella’s rendition of “Rudolph” with an original riff while still foregrounding the melody; remixer MNO puts Rosemary Clooney urging us to Have Ourselves a Merry little Christmas through a thick surreal filter; remixer Red Baron lends a huge, tremendous beat to the Berlin Symphony Orchestra’s rendition of “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies”; 46bliss lends a sacral atmosphere to Mahalia Jackson’s “Silent Night” that awes me more effectively than un-enhanced Mahalia ever has. The juxtaposition of past & present underlines the pastness of the past while bringing it slam bang effectively into the present. The past has never sounded more past. And the album is terrific.

I’ve been getting way into the library’s copy of 1998 release “The McGarrigle Hour,” starring Kate & Anna McGarrigle and featuring their children Rufus and Martha Wainwright and Lily Lanken, Kate’s ex-husband Loudon Wainwright, Kate & Anna’s sister Jane, and friends Emmylou Harris, Linda Ronstadt, and Chaim Tannenbaum. Gorgeous, lively, heartwarming group singing, exquisite harmonies, lovely vocal solos, and lots of good songs, from Irving Berlin’s haunting “What’ll I Do,” to older & more old-fashioned parlor songs, to good old anonymous folk songs, to some mostly good originals by 6 of the group members, to the ‘50s almost-rock hit “Young Love.” The recording psyched me so good that when I saw The McGarrigle Christmas Hour I immediately bought it. Missing Loudon Wainwright this time (a real loss in context; I don’t know his solo stuff), it’s much less heartwarming all the way around; the McGarrigle Christmas is somber. And that’s OK. Still lovely singing, and going for that holy tone, sometimes conveying a sense of obligation about the whole thing (enforced by the dreadful story in the booklet notes, which I’m too tired to repeat now) -- and that’s fine, that’s certainly an aspect to my experience of Christmas.

I picked up Andy Griffith’s 2003 release The Christmas Guest after the holidays last year and listened to it for the first time today. As on records past, he alternates stories and songs. The stories are super-wows; he’s a master warm wry dramatic passionate reader. “The Christmas Guest”’s story of God coming to visit in the forms of impoverished strangers telegraphs its “surprise” ending from a mile away and it’s still throat-lumpingly effective. Andy’s cover of Garth Brooks’s telling of the WW1 Christmas truce, Belleau Wood, movingly depicts the terror of war & the hope for peace (I’ve never heard Garth’s original). And Andy’s telling of the Christmas story from the Gospel of Luke is gorgeously passionate; and hearing it again reminded me of the brilliant elegance of the Christ myth: born in a manger -- a feed-trough for livestock -- to become the source of universal communion -- “take of my body” he said as he passed the bread. Whether you believe or not, it’s great poetry; and Andy believes. He conveys the seriousness of the Christmas season more effectively than the McGarrigles because he exudes joy & passion rather than obligation. The album’s stories knock me out, but 2/3rds of the tracks are him singing carols to professional, serious Nashville accompaniment. He sings in a wide-vibrato church bass voice, and it’s great.

* * *

Speaking of great poetry, my friend oblomova contains multitudes, she’s nationwide. (I went to that party 15 or 16 years ago; it was such a blast it inspired me to host my own secular reading Christmas parties; the year I went to that one was with a gaggle of actor friends; taking turns reading “Song of Myself” aloud was like taking part in a cutting contest with hot jazz saxophonists.)

* * *

We’ve been celebrating my wife’s birthday this week-end, and it’s been a blast. Took the coming-on-3-year-old to a gorgeous puppet production of “The Nutcracker” at Northwest Puppet Center, its one-hour length perfect for toddling attention spans. Later caught a couple songs of a music-store set by my friend Johnny’s band Zazou; their medley/montage of “How High the Moon” and “Ornithology” sung in 3-part harmony never fails to give me goosebumps.

And, of course, my sweetheart’s birthday is simply an occasion of happiness.

Friday, December 02, 2005

When I heard on the radio an arrangement of “Jingle Bells” set to the rhythm & sound effects track of “Tomorrow Never Knows,” I didn’t know there was a whole album devoted to mashing up Beatles tracks & Xmas classics. A whole album -- 2-CD set! -- may not work for me, but the “dashing through the snow” melody played on backwards guitar over that rhythm track was stellar.

* * *

That awesome moment near the end of the spectacular movie “Cradle Will Rock,” when the actors have successfully performed Marc Blitzstein’s eponymous musical under severe duress, and they’re celebrating with the audience onstage: yeah, it can really feel like that, bringing an art project to completion.

Pleased to have met the deadline with my solo album.

Will endeavor to put it into electronic form and accessible cyberspace for your listening experience -- and hope you like it. A sloppy musical snapshot of my energies & notions, November 2005. Tentative title: “Songs and sketches, mostly nostalgic.”

And hoping to finish my band’s album soon too, but probably not till after the new year. Title: “You never know what you’ll see.”

* * *

My favorite Christmas record lately: The Singing Dogs, “Jingle Bells.”

Roland Kirk, “We Free Kings”
Beach Boys, “Auld Lang Syne” (the mix without narration)
Vince Guaraldi, “Christmas Time Is Here” (vocal version)
John Oswald, “White” (a distorted, gorgeous collage built on Bing’s “White Christmas”)
Beatles, “Auld Lang Syne” (included on the “Free as a bird” CD-single)

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Dubbed the tapes down to one cassette in running order. Made it over the 30 minute mark, with 13 tracks.

All live, no overdubs. 7 tracks voice & guitar (one with harmonica too), 5 tracks voice & piano, 1 track voice & bass guitar. No amplification. (I have what's known as an "acoustic bass guitar," but, really, I hate that word "acoustic" as an adjective meaning, "unamplified.") I like the immediacy & nervousness of live; but, mainly, in the rush job approach of this project, a lot of overdubs wasn't a viable option.

Gonna shop for some gear to download the cassettes onto my computer.

A lot of contradictory feelings about the whole thing, but glad I finished, glad I wrote some new stuff.

Hope to resume regular blogging soon. Between deadline madness and Thanksgiving feasting, I haven't had much time or energy to get down to the corner blog to shoot the breeze. And, as you will have noticed, when I've gotten down here it's been all about me, me, me.

So, how've you been?

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