Monday, August 29, 2011

My Ode to Michael Jackson on his 53rd Birthday

It’s been slightly over two years since the sudden death of the too-young pop icon and I’m sure that greater fans and more informed minds than mine will be writing about him today. But since his singing moved me profoundly at one point in my life, I wanted to put in my two cents on this day that should have been his 53rd birthday.

My first and only connection to Michael’s music was when I was in Jr. High, about two years into my love affair with pop music. My parents were WWII generation music lovers, my older siblings had filled cast-off juke box with classic rock of the 1960’s, and I possessed a small turntable with which I endlessly replayed the few LP’s I owned – Carole King’s “Tapestry,” the Beatles’ “Abbey Road” Carly Simon’s “No Secrets,” and some oddball album that conglomerated random rock hits from the previous half-decade.

I also had a transistor radio and that’s where Michael comes in. I distinctly recall being profoundly moved, in the way that only happens when one is young and first exposed to music, by the Jackson Five’s slower numbers. I can recall one moment in particular: I was walking through a field with my Jr. High friends in suburban Chicago and “Never Can Say Goodbye” was there with us. Did one of us have a transistor along for the walk or was the music playing in my head? I can’t recall but the yearning melody sung by that inimitable voice moved me deeply, touching something profound within my impressionable, musically-inclined soul.

As Michael morphed into a mega-star, I lost touch with him and his music. There were surely some of his own generation who followed his rise but as the bulk of pop star fans tend to be at least half a decade younger than the stars themselves, I believe that generally, those mesmerized by “Billy Jean,” “Beat It,” and “Thriller” hailed from the John Hughes generation. Since my only encounters with Michael after 1972 were restaurant videos and later, screaming tabloid headlines, I’ll leave the rest of this post to a greater mind than mine, that of Jake Austen who, in his book “TV a-Go-Go: Rock on TV From American Bandstand to American Idol” (published in 2005), devotes a chapter over 40 pages long to Michael. He begins it like this:

“Over the course of his four decades in show business, Michael Jackson has undertaken the ultimate TV rock journey. He caught the tail end of Ed Sullivan’s reign, visited “American Bandstand” as it hit middle-age, and helped the “Soul Train” pull out of the station. He was a cartoon rock star and a fixture on 1970s variety shows. When the MTV revolution began he was the key revolutionary. As for reality TV, over the last fifteen years every time he has appeared on TV unscripted, from the Video Music Awards to “60 Minutes” to Court TV, the spectacle has been more surreal and challenging than any fabricated reality show could hope to be.”

He ends it like this:

“Dressed in the black outfit that made him look like a hybrid of Dracula, Harry Potter, and Little Richard, Jackson waved to his supporters, and as he left the court (after being admonished by the judge for being late – his tardiness caused by the adoring throng) he hopped atop his SUV and did some dance moves for the cheering crowd.

“As Jackson drove off his people distributed invitations to his fans for a Neverland party that evening to thank them for their support. Party attendees enjoyed free amusement park rides, and were served ice cream sandwiches, cookies, and hot dogs.

“And of course, fried chicken. Because Michael Jackson has soul.”

Quotes taken from pages 249 and 294 of “TV a-Go-Go” by Jake Austen, Chicago Review Press, 2005.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

"Battle Hymn of the Republic" -- The Evolution of an Iconic American Anthem

There are some songs that, when performed in a crowd, tend to elicit spontaneous audience participation. I’ve seen videos of Britons reacting in this way to the William Blake/Hubert Parry anthem, "Jerusalem" and I’ve seen Americans respond in a similar way to "Battle Hymn of the Republic" during our "Songs of the Civil War" program. What is it about this song that elicits such a powerful emotional response?

I have an inkling as to why that might be so, but before I lay out my opinions before you, here’s some background information on the evolution of this iconic song. The John Brown of the Union marching song, "John Brown’s Body Lies a’Moulderin’ in the Grave" was not originally the crazed Kansas Abolitionist who seized the Harper’s Ferry arsenal in 1859 in order to initiate and arm a slave revolt. Rather, he was Sergeant John Brown of Boston, who was very much alive, a member of the Second Battalion, Boston Light Infantry, a second tenor in that battalion’s glee club, and, according to pop musicologist David Ewen, someone who often bore the brunt of jokes. One of these was the creation of new lyrics which included his name and set to the tune of the then-familiar camp meeting song, "Say Brothers, Will You Meet Us?" creating what was apparently a hilarious parody. Guess you had to be there.

The song grew in popularity as Sergeant John Brown was forgotten and replaced in a most serious manner with John Brown the abolitionist, who had indeed been in the grave several years by the summer of 1861 when the Massachusetts 21st regiment sang the song in an unforgettable manner while marching through NYC en route to battle. The regiment was instantly dubbed “The Hallelujah Regiment” and the song swept the Union.

One day the fall of 1861, after Julie Ward Howe – whose husband was a member of a Military Sanitary Commission – had been visiting Union army camps, she was asked by a friend, who was a man of the cloth, to write different lyrics to the song. In her own words, this is what followed:

“I replied that I had often wished to do so. In spite of the excitement of the day I went to bed and slept as usual, but awoke next morning in the gray of the early dawn, and to my astonishment found that the wished-for lines were arranging themselves in my brain. I lay quite still until the last verse had completed itself in my thoughts, then hastily arose, saying to myself, ‘I shall lose this if I don’t write it down immediately.’ I searched for an old sheet of paper and an old stump of a pen which I had had the night before, and began to scrawl the lines almost without looking, as I had learned to do by often scratching down verses in the darkened room where my little children were sleeping. Having completed this, I lay down again and fell asleep, but not without feeling that something of importance had happened to me.”

She sent it to The Atlantic Monthly who published it in February of 1862, paying her a few dollars. It was reprinted in magazines and Union army hymn books and finally issued as sheet music by at least three different music houses, set to the tune of "John Brown’s Body."

The tune survived the Civil War and found its way to the accompaniment of many Presidential election songs in the years 1888, 1900, 1920, 1932, and 1944. It was played and sung, original lyrics attached, at many different seminal American events but the one that moves me the most occurred when Bobby Kennedy’s funeral train passed the railroad station in Baltimore, MD. The crowds that had gathered to pay their last respects to the Presidential aspirant spontaneously broke into song. That song was "The Battle Hymn of the Republic."

What is it about this particular anthem that moves most Americans, probably more so than the national anthem? "The Star Spangled Banner" does have some great lines (and I’ve personally been moved to tears while singing it with WWII vets) but "Banner" was written during the war of 1812 when most white Americans were still simply transplanted Englishmen. "Battle Hymn," on the other hand, came from a war that would forever determine our national identity. Something of enormously significance had been born during the bloody conflict, bigger than either side could fully comprehend. When a group of Americans join in a chorus of "Battle Hymn," to this day, one can nearly capture a glimmer of that intangible largness.


"All the Years of American Popular Music" by David Ewen.

"Songs of the Civil War" by Irwin Silber

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

The singer was tired of the song: Jesse Bartlett Davis and "Oh Promise Me"

Jesse Bartlett Davis. Photograph by NYC theatrical photographyer, Benjamin J. Falk.

Jessie Bartlett Davis was tired of "Oh Promise Me." She had sung it thousands of time during the run of “Robin Hood,” a light opera production which debuted in Chicago, 1890. While the contralto enjoyed playing the character, Alan-a-Dale, one of Robin’s merry men, she was definitely getting tired of performing that song. It had become so popular that audiences usually demanded the song as an encore – sometimes a double encore -- meaning that Ms. Davis was often forced to sing “Oh Promise Me” three times in one evening.

One night she decided she would sing something different during the production’s wedding scene. The audience “wouldn’t have it” she said. “I had no sooner commenced singing [the other song] than there were shouts from all over the house of ‘Oh, Promise Me!’ We want ‘Oh Promise Me’! This threw her into a fit of hilarity: “I managed to struggle through one verse, and then ran off the stage laughing.”

The orchestra began the introduction to “Oh Promise Me” and Ms. Davis dutifully returned to the stage, ready to sing the audience’s request. “It’s an awful fate to become identified with a single song” she said later.

Perhaps the song stood out from the other numbers because it had been interpolated into the score and not written at the same time or by the same musical team (same composer, different lyricist), but because it was the most popular song in the production, it became the primary reason for the longevity of “Robin Hood” and the reason the musical had so many revivals, well into the mid-20th century. The song also was also a popular choice for generations of American weddings.


"All the Years of American Popular Music," by David Ewen, 1977.

"Prima Donnas and Soubrettes of Light Opera and Musical Comedy in America," by Lewis Clinton Strang, 1900. Jesse Bartlett Davis quotes taken from page 101.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Book Review: "Danny Boy: The Beloved Irish Ballad"

The first and only time I had an opportunity to perform "Danny Boy" was in the basement of a Catholic church for a group of seniors who were celebrating St. Patrick's Day and wanted a touch of Irish in the program. At the exact moment I arrived at the line, "And I shall hear, though soft you tread above me," there was a thunderous stampede heard overhead: the school had just released its students for the day.

Which has (or perhaps should have) almost nothing to do with this review, although that hilarious juxtaposition of lyrics and sound kept many eyes from misting up, which they normally would have given the powerful emotions often conjured by a performance of "Danny Boy," something Malachay McCourt, in his lovely little book, mentions repeatedly.

Who wrote the lyrics? Where did the Londonderry Air originate (alright, it came from Londonderry but from whose pen (or possibly, in this case, from whose pipes or whose fiddle)? Who is speaking/singing and what is her/his relationship to Danny?

No spoilers here, and McCourt doesn't necessarily provide a concrete answer to all these questions, but he does lay out enough information, both legendary and factual, to make this a very informative read for lovers of the song. McCourt's writing is sometimes humorous, often beautiful, and always informative as can be seen from a summarizing paragraph towards the book's end:

"While 'Danny Boy' will always be touted as an Irish ballad, it was truly the product of many different worlds meshing together. Let it be the tune of a blind, Irish fiddler drifting across the sea, reaching an English barrister who would finally marry words and melody to create a song capable of describing, at least in part, the contents of the human heart. The song depicts the human condition, about the unknown and the black cloud of finality that accompanies it. The message is available to all those who want to hear it. 'Danny Boy' has a profound effect on people from all corners of the world, a trait it shares with the truest of any work of art."

(Eva Cassidy doesn't sing the song's original tune or rhythm exactly but she makes this beautiful song her own. Enjoy.)