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

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Jazz critic Martin Williams makes one false step in his otherwise startlingly sapient essay of 1965, "One Cheer for Rock and Roll!" In talking about the decline of the Broadway musical as a pace-setter for popular music, Williams challenges the reader to "name two songs from Fiddler on the Roof."

He was right to think that musicals were in decline and rock and roll was pouring into the gap. But Fiddler was the wrong show to pick on. While the glory days of Broadway had produced "standards" -- songs performed in dozens of arrangements by myriad performers in a cornucopia of styles -- Fiddler's achievement may be even more astonishing: it gave us folk songs. "Sunrise, Sunset" has been sung at numberless weddings; I have read that that one and "If I Were a Rich Man" have become Yiddish folk songs; millions of people have many of the songs by heart. While the standards became canvasses for professional stylists, these have become the possession of amateurs.

Last Saturday, a week ago, my beloved spouse and I got friends to watch our son for the evening as we went to another friend's 50th birthday party. Bill and Linda had had us over for sing-alongs many times, usually when Bill's old friend Ed was in town. Bill and his family are Catholic; Bill had been a Brother, a member of a religious order with less extreme vows than a monk or a priest but still entailing temporary, renewable vows of chastity and poverty. He and Linda fell in love and went on to make other vows instead. Ed was still a brother who lived "in community" with other members of his order as they did social service for the poor in San Diego.

At every sing-along Ed would do a walloping version of "If I Were a Rich Man," full of gusto and joyful irony. Everyone was pleased one sing-along when I contrived to segue from the strange, klezmer-y "doo doo doo doo" section of "Last Train to Clarksville" into Ed's big feature. I'd always wanted to learn "If I Were a Rich Man" myself, the fierceness of the line, "I Wouldn't Have to Work Hard"; the intense longing when the singer imagines discussing the Holy Books with the learned men 7 hours every day, "and that would be the sweetest thing of all." Sigh.

Ed died a quick death from cancer a couple months ago, a horrible shock. I barely knew him at all, but I can't hear the song without thinking of him. He was a really sweet guy.

Bill's 50th was the grandest sing-along yet. A few guitarists, and someone brought an electric bass and amp, and hand drums and shakers were passed around, and Bill's brother Mark, whom I'd never met, played good piano. An old friend of Bill's flew from Ohio to be there, guitar in hand. We sang a gamut from '60s pop to children's songs to traditional Irish to religious songs to blues. At some point in the ragged end of the evening with only the fanatics still left, I launched into "To Dream the Impossible Dream," but unfortunately I had forgotten all the chords after the opening tonic-major-7th to subdominant-major-7th. It's a great song for guitar, with a fierce galloping 9/8 meter, so I just beat the rhythm and searched for chords and we sang (everybody knew the words & tune) and laughed and laughed at my hopeless flailing. With the rousing vocals continually interrupted by laughter and my frantic, hopeless searching for chords, it was one of the worst performances I've ever heard in my life. And great fun.

Earlier Mark had led us in "Just a Closer Walk With Thee," a tremendous song, swung with a jaunty, strong shuffle beat on the piano. Yearning for the Divine Presence. My other favorite of the evening was a quiet, sweet, intense -- as it should be -- rendition of "Sabbath Prayer" from Fiddler, led by Bill. Folk music. "May the Lord protect and defend you. May He always shield you from shame."

A picture of Ed adorned the fridge, but we didn't speak of him. Singing another song from Fiddler felt like the tribute. And such a lovely, loving, quietly intense song -- I'm not religious, but the hope for protection from shame -- it's a real & heavy matter of the spirit. It was a great birthday party; joyous and hilarious and convivial, while not flinching from life's pains and sorrows. The music brought it all out into the open.

You may converse with a man all an evening and still part total strangers. But you cannot play music with him, or drink with him for an evening, without learning a great deal about the way he is made. And when it comes to acting as a solvent of inhibitions and a loosener of reflexes, one drink, combined with a lot of hand-made music, is far more effective than ten drinks while you listen to a talking-machine or a radio.

In these United States of America this is an especially important matter. We have abandoned the compounds of nitroglycerine and corrosive sublimate that were our tipple for thirteen years and have applied ourselves again to beverages approved by civilized men. But if the nation, while the fit of common sense is on it, could carry the policy one step further and fortify its liquor with strong music, it could remain beautifully tight on a tenth of the liquor otherwise required, to the profit of both of its stomach and of its purse. But the good music the machines provide is only so much tea -- it cheers but doesn't inebriate. It takes bad music you play yourself to send you reeling and happy to bed.

-- Gerald W. Johnson, "A Little Night Music: Discoveries in the Exploitation of an Art," 1937

(Originally posted about a week ago.)

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