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

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

My mom jamming with her grandkids, a couple days before Christmas

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Almost a week ago, waiting with my son to meet my beloved spouse for dinner at a waterfront restaurant, we found a coin-operated band organ, 50 cents a song. We listened to two old songs (one of which I knew but now don’t remember) in the chill night air; my son was rapt; I was digging it; and passersby would stop for 3 seconds and look before moving on. After 2 songs my son wanted a third, but I was out of quarters, and then my wife showed up. I’d walked by that band organ, I don’t know how many times. Psyched to have found it.

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Courtesy of The Anachronist, a great old -- 100 year-ish, I’m guessing, from the stiff rag-timey band accompaniment -- recording of Auld Lang Syne sung by a resonant baritone named Frank C. Stanley, who sings, in addition to the traditional verse & refrain, an obscure stanza and accurately translates the lost Scots word “fiere” as “friend,” a word I’d come across in an early poem of Ezra Pound’s. Thanks, Anachronist, as if in answer to my request!

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In Chicago 2 weeks ago I found an attractive book, The Best Loved Poems of the American People, edited by Hazel Felleman. 650 pages. The most represented poet: Unknown; a better designation than “Anonymous,” since “Anon.” implies intentional anonymity, and the intention of most unknown poets is unknown. Date: 1936. Felleman was the editor of the “Queries and Answers” page of the “New York Times Book Review” for 15 years; these 100s of poems were the ones that people asked about. No moderns: no Eliot or Pound or Williams or Stevens or Crane or Stein; but also no Frost; not even any Whitman or Dickinson or Hardy or Hopkins. The real pop poetry of 70 years ago. The NYT published a Queries & Answers page because the publisher, Adolph Ochs, was a poetry nut; one of the poems in the book, he inquired after, having remembered only one line and wanting the whole poem back. Two of the poems I set and recorded for my November album project are in the book. Funny that the NYTimes gathered the poems so long ago, and that a 3rd song in my November project is a letter addressed to a recently retired NYTimes reporter. Haven’t read very deeply into the book, but enjoying what I have & looking forward to more. “What a cool reprint,” I thought, “Who put it out again and under what circumstances?” Nope: copyright page says it’s never been out of print & it’s the original edition in its 90th printing.

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My friend Jay gave me the new Paul McCartney album. Beatle Paul explores his classic period, circa “Help” to “Band on the Run,” with a batch of beautifully sung, highy tuneful songs. Enjoying it very much. Sometimes I think, “Oh, that sounds like Squeeze,” or, “that sounds like Billy Joel”; then I realize, No, they sound like him. A couple Messianic passages in the lyrics about Changing the World (though less preachily than his old mate Beatle John); a couple love songs more convincing than anything I’ve heard from him outside of “Maybe I’m Amazed” (one of my all-time favorite songs by anybody ever -- the freaked-out joyous surprise & awe of Love); and a couple really nifty lyrical turns: In “Friends to Go” the singer is a loverboy hiding in his sex partner’s closet, waiting for her friends to leave because he’d really rather they didn’t know he was there -- a great image. “Promise to You Girl,” the singer is an old man, reflecting on his past, and starting a new life & new family, not at all unlike the biographical circumstances of Our Singer, with really tour-de-force music. Jay points out: Paul’s piano sometimes does the Brian Wilson thing of putting the bass notes on the 8th-note offbeats (Jay busted my own hackish piano playing for doing the same thing -- guilty!). And, I agree with Jay: really beautiful singing; just a lovely voice, and sometimes singing so High and so Softly -- remarkable.

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Last Spring Alex Ross wrote a New Yorker column about Spanish viol player and bandleader Jordi Savall that made me want to rush out & get some of Savall’s music. I hadn’t yet gotten around to it, which is why I was struck by the uncanniness that my wife’s sister’s husband sent me Savall’s album, La Folia: 1490-1701 as a Christmas present. I’ve met my brother-in-law only a handful of times; I really like him, but we only talk when for some reason he’s calling my wife to relay a message from his wife and I happen to answer the phone, or vice versa; we’ve never discussed classical music. How could he have known? Well, he heard the music on the radio and thought it was gorgeous, and I agree: Medieval Spanish/Portuguese dance music, played by virtuoso classical improvisers led by Savall on 3 different violes de gambe. Hearing Savall play, it’s impossible to imagine the advantage the more modern violin, viola, and cello have over his instruments. Great verve in the rhythm, gorgeous tone, virtuoso articulation. The Portuguese word “Folia” is our “folly,” with a similar double meaning; in Portuguese, “wild amusement,” and “insanity.” I hear exhultation; exuberant dance music played by a a hot small band, including two percussionists; much of the music improvised.

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My sister salvaged from my mom’s record collection two gems she knew I would enjoy, a 10-inch LP of “University of Michigan Music” by the marching band and Glee Club, “produced by the Alumni Association of the University of Michigan,” which my mom got as a 20-year-old (the record has her maiden name written on it, and my parents married at 21); and a commercially-released, on Vanguard records, Michigan marching band LP with the great title, Touchdown, U.S.A.: The “Big Ten” and Other Great College Marches of the Gridiron. “Touchdown, U.S.A.” has the fastest version of Michigan’s great march “The Victors” that I’ve ever heard -- it smokes; a fellow Wolverine with whom I listened to it asked if the record player somehow got switched to 45 rpm. Vanguard records got great blurbs for the record jacket.
Ferde Grofe: “One of the finest bands in the nation.”
Dr. Edwin Franko Goldman: “The University of Michigan Band, according to my judgment, has no superior among University Bands, and is truly outstanding in its achievements.”
Robert Russell Bennett (whom I’d never heard of but who has an impressive list of credits as an orchestrator): “It is the finest band I ever heard.”
Henry Cowell: “The University of Michigan Band is one of the best I have ever heard.”
Henry Cowell!

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Old business. In comments to a post from a couple weeks ago, A. C. Douglas suggested that Coca Cola codified Santa’s red-suited, fat, merry look. I mentioned my query to my sister, who said the same thing: Coke did it. This collection of Victorian Santas shows otherwise. Coke’s ad campaign of the 1930s may have solidified the image, and influenced subsequent illustrators, but the idea that they gave Santa his look seems like an urban legend that, coincidentally, works as pretty shrewd marketing for the Coca Cola company.

By the way, I should underline, The Battle for Christmas by Stephen Nissenbaum gives a fascinating & readable account of alternative Christmas histories. There are things to quibble with, but on the central point Nissenbaum is right: The family-centered Christmas wasn’t the only Christmas available 200-years ago; Puritan Americans tried to ban it from our shores early in our colonial history; urban celebrations circa 1800 probably looked more like Mardi Gras does today, except rowdier.

Also, I highly recommend this Dover edition of “The Night Before Christmas” for the complete, feral, Puck-ish Boyd illustrations to the poem, nothing like the more familiar Nast illustration pictured on the book’s cover!

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Probably light blogging for a while, as I’ve volunteered for a couple larger writing projects and I want to finish 2 albums I’ve been working on; plus I need to sleep more than I have been.

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But before I go, a few new links -- old links I’ve long liked but have simply neglected to link to. They all live in the Northwest -- Seattle, Portland, Seattle, and Yakima -- though I’ve only met one of them.

Pop music critic Michaelangelo Matos assimilates a ton of music and puts it together pop-critically in interesting ways.

Pop music critic Douglas Wolk sponsors the November album project, for which I will be forever in his debt. At various nationwide alt-weeklies he’s a go-to guy for stories on technology & music biz.

Ann Powers blogs eensy weensy, moving and frank anecdotes about life as an adoptive parent; when I met her & her daughter at a kid’s music concert she belied the stereotype of the uber-hip pop critic (which she is) and seemed like a very nice person.

Doug Ramsey’s Rifftides covers jazz. I dig his breadth of knowledge, enthusiasm, and graceful writing.

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