Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Mark Twain's Music Box

I suppose there are two kinds of music, -- one kind which one feels, just as an oyster might, and another sort which requires a higher faculty, a faculty which must be assisted and developed by teaching. Yet if base music gives certain of us wings, why should we want any other? But we do. We want it because the higher and better like it. But we want it without giving it the necessary time and trouble; so we climb into that upper tier, that dress circle, by a lie: we pretend we like it. I know several of that sort of people, -- and I propose to be one of them myself when I get home with my fine European education.
--Mark Twain, from "A Tramp Abroad"

Mark Twain was an amateur musician who was extremely sensitive to music.  He once told his wife that "songs are good remembrancers.  Almost every one I hear instantly summons a face when I hear it." 

During their European travels in 1878, while Twain was gathering material for the book that would become "A Tramp Abroad," his wife Olivia presented him with an enormous and outrageously expensive music box.  The phonograph was still in its patent phase so this item represented modern technology (I like to think of it as a very expensive eight-track tape player, in this particular case, something no one could afford and that was soon replaced with something that worked much better).  But more importantly, the music box represented Old World sophistication, a vehicle whereby Twain might remedy his cultural insecurities.

For although he had by this time made a fortune writing of his backwoods upbringing, this background and its implicit lack of refinement occasionally caused him insecurity as he sought to live among Hartford's society people.  This music box played ten tunes to be chosen by the purchaser.  If he chose correctly, he could impress his society guests but only if the list did not represent his own musical tastes; he wanted to show Hartford that the author of Tom Sawyer was also a man knowledgeable in the realm of high (i.e., European) culture.

In her essay, "Mark Twain's Music Box: Livy, Cosmopolitanism, and the Commodity Aesthetic," Kerry Driscoll mentions the preliminary list of 16 tunes that cost Twain heavily in angst and time, so much time, in fact, that he was no longer in Europe when he finally whittled the list down to the necessary ten.

Only five of the music box's final ten are known but the entire preliminary list survived.

The Final Playlist for Music Box: (five known out of 10)
Wedding March from Wagner’s Lohengrin
The Pilgrim’s Chorus from Wagner’s Tannhauser
The Lorelie from Das Rheingold
Miserere from Verdi’s Il Travatore
The Russian National Anthem

Preliminary List of Proposed Melodies: (16)
Miserere from Verdi’s Il Travatore
Overture from Rossini’s William Tell
Wedding March from Wagner’s Lohengrin
The Lorelei from Das Rheingold

“Hymn” (Driscoll assumes this might be the theme from Mendelssohn’s Symphony #2 – Hymn of Praise)
Last Rose of Summer
Bonnie Doon
Auld Lang Syne
Lament of the Irish Immigrant
Way Down in Tennessee
Long, Long Ago
Day After Day (Drifting From Home)
Overture from Boieldieu’s The Caliph of Baghdad
Russian National Hymn
Der Fremersberg

A few decades later, Twain included the following in a sketch he called "The Villagers of 1840-3," which was a grouping of situations, characters, and items from Hannibal.  He titled the following list "Songs that tended to regrets for bygone days and vanished joys."

Oft in the Stilly Night
The Last Rose of Summer
The Last Link is Broken
Old Dog Tray (he mentions that this is "one of the d----dest, oldest, vilest songs")
For the Lady I Love Will Soon be a Bride
Gaily the Troubadour
Bright Alfarata
“Negro Melodies”
My Old Kentucky Home (in the “Villagers” sketch, he recites the line, “The day goes by like a shadow on the wall, with sorrow where all was delight”)
Swanee River, Massa’s in de Cold, Cold Ground  (all his "negro melodies" are actually Stephen Foster tunes).

Although the preliminary music box list is heavily laden with a nod to classical, European music, Twain did manage to sneak in a few tunes that he probably had known and loved as a boy.  And in his autobiography, he also mentions specific tunes -- Nelly Bly, Old Dan Tucker, Buffalo Gals, and Camptown Races -- that the minstrel show musicians played when they traveled through Hannibal, giving the future humorist his first encounter with professional humor and the life-long music lover some tunes he would never forget.

Here are some tunes that Mark Twain no doubt enjoyed, three from the music box list (Last Rose, Bonny Doon, Der Fremersberg -- the third an orchestral piece that he encountered in Baden-Baden and absolutely adored), two from the Villager's Sketch list (Last Rose, Bonny Doon) and one mentioned in the autobiography in conjuction with his boyhood recollection of minstrel shows (Old Dan Tucker).


"Mark Twain's Music Box: Livy, Cosmopolitanism, and the Commodity Aesthetic," by Kerry Driscoll. From Cosmopolitan Twain: Mark Twain and His Circle, edited by Ryan and McCullough, University of Missouri Press, 2008.

"Villagers Sketch, 1840-3" from Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer Among the Indians and Other Unfinished Stories by Mark Twain, ed. by Walter Blair, University of California Press, 2011.

Monday, November 28, 2011

"Sgt Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band": The Concept Album that never was. Or was it?

The first in a series by guest blogger, John Atwood, a thinker and guitarist who was inspired as an 11 year-old to learn the instrument after seeing the Beatles perform in 1964 on the Ed Sullivan Show and who followed their career assiduously through his high school years when he formed a garage band just so he could play their songs within a group. He’s had a few decades to ponder the import of the Fab Four and the following post contains his initial musings on the Sgt. Pepper album.

Although Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band has long been considered the original concept album, the first vinyl song collection unified by a central theme, the Beatles asserted decades later that it was not such an item. If it began as one, the idea was allegedly discarded long before Sgt. Pepper hit the record bins. So the flamboyant packaging --  the neon military suits and the collage of famous faces -- plus the Salvation Army Band idea inherent in the album's title were apparently created more for a visual unity than anything else.  Otherwise, said John, Paul, George and Ringo, it was like any other album they'd done, just a miscellaneous collection of tracks.

However, the notion of the Concept lingers on for a couple of good reasons. As someone who was seriously listening to such music at the time, I can attest that it was generally assumed there was some central point to Sgt. Pepper though we seemed to all intuit the Beatles weren’t about to spill it. The belief at the time was that Music should speak without the assistance of footnotes, and it was incumbent upon the listener to derive such value as they could from it by honing their own listening skills.

Secondly, there was the fact that the Beatles followed Sgt. Pepper with an unequivocal, though essentially unsuccessful, concept album/TV film called Magical Mystery Tour. This, in conjunction with the fact that the press at the time was everywhere talking about the Beatles “growing up” suggested they were searching for new and more serious ways of taking Rock music to a new level.

Indeed, there was a distinct sense in the late 60’s that we were “rolling up” for the Mystery Tour, or the Magic Bus, or Jefferson’s Airplane (or numerous other modes of transportation), to discover where Music could go. And Rock music did go on to develop numerous ideas, some silly, some temporarily significant and others that had more lasting value.

Personally, all of this led me to explore other forms of music as well, such as classical music,  Works like Sgt. Pepper, Tommy, several Moody Blues albums and others helped me to see that composers wrote symphonies or concertos (not to mention operas) with a view to developing a musical idea far more substantial than just a simple tune.  And although I’d listened to Sgt. Pepper and pondered it literally hundreds of times, it eventually went by the wayside, as things often do in life. 

But a few years ago -- after the Beatles Anthology came out, and the special about the making of the album—something told me that it was time to give Sgt. Pepper another listen-to, so I went and bought the CD.  And as I came back to it afresh, the question about whether it had a theme wormed in and out of my consciousness.  Now a bit older, a bit more experienced, as I thought on it, it hit me that in fact there was a theme, hiding, as it were in plain sight. It was like one of those trick pictures where your initial stares will allow you to see one thing, but when your eyeballs -- or perspectives -- shift, a whole new picture emerges.

In saying this I’ve no interest in contradicting the Beatles own words.  In repeated interviews that I have seen with each of them, there is a ring of truth in their denials of any purposeful intent with the project. It is clear though that they enjoyed playing with words and with notions, whether or not they seriously felt these ideas or sought to promote them.  Perhaps the theme I see came out of a kind of collective subconscious at work, or maybe it is just pure accident, but I wish to show that it is there, that it is a profoundly moving idea, and that in conjunction with incredible songs and musicianship, it is a magnificent work of art. 

Of course, if there is a theme to the whole work, which none of them were aware of at the time, and which none of them ever perceived, I suppose there is a question of whether or not art can be considered great art if the point of it is not even understood by the artist at the time of creating it. That is a question for someone else to address.  Personally, I think the end result would have been very hard to have contrived, so the idea actually ‘works’ better being unperceived. 

And what is this theme? It is too simple: “Lonely Hearts”. Or maybe it is better phrased the way George put it: “the space between us all.” The entire record is a catalogue of people who fail to connect with the social world around them, or of people whose social world is either unhealthy, fractured or just plain non-existent.  Plus, they are in the main clueless about what they are doing: “they don’t know, they can’t see, are you one of them?”  Let’s go through the various tracks of the record and I will show you what I mean.

Next: "A Little Help From My Friends"

Sunday, November 20, 2011

What exactly did Bo Diddley unleash after being introduced by a confused Ed Sullivan on November 20, 1955? (From Jake Austen's "TV a-go-go")

"Ladies and gentlemen," the gargoyle of an emcee anounced to his rapt studio and vast TV audiences, "As everybody knows, whenever any new musical trend has evinced itself in the popular field, the first area to find out about it in advance is Harlem." His audiences had to wait a bit longer to learn the name of the Next Big Thing as the host's tongue got tangled in a string of his signature malapropisms. "Roll . . . rhythm and, uh . . . rhythm and roll . . . rhythm and color. . . ." Finally, he mannaged to locate his desired phraise: "Rhythm and blues!"

The appellation Ed Sullivan stumbled upon with such difficulty that night -- Sunday, November 20, 1955 -- was incorrect. When that "wonderful folk-blues singer" Bo Diddley kicked off Sullivan's presentation of Dr. Jive's Apollo Theater-based musical revue, what he was playing was not R&B. Instead, Diddley was introducing rock 'n' roll to America's living Rooms.

At its best, rock 'n' roll boils down to the cultural miscegenation of American music to its most potent concentration. This perfectly describes the hypnotizing, pounding, rhythm-driven music that guitarist Diddley -- along with drummer Clifton James, tuba-player-turned-maracas-genius Jerome Green, and second guitarist Bobby Parker -- unleashed that night. During the 1950s many R&B artists had met the musical criteria for rock 'n' roll, but only a few grasped the intangible elements that marked its cross-pollination of R&B, hillbilly, blues, country, jazz, Irish music, boogie-woogie, and other folk sounds. Saturated with super-coool attitude, doing a sly, funky dance across the TV screen, and singing "Bo Diddley" -- a theme song that balanced nursery rhyme innocdnce with dirty-joke naughtiness -- Diddley on Sullivan made these intagibles downright tangible.

(From Jake Austen's "TV a-go-go" page 1-2.)

Friday, November 18, 2011

Happy Birthday, Johnny Mercer!

Born in 1909, Johnny Mercer may not be a household name for anyone younger than 60, but he's written the lyrics to some national treasures. Here are some videos of my favorites. Happy Birthday, Johnny, and thanks for the beautiful words!

And here's one of my all-time favorite songs, an absolute perfect combo of lyrics and melody line. Thanks, Johnny.

Wilifred Sheed on Irving Berlin

Scroll down, if you must, to the final two sentences: incredibly well-stated!

"By 1911, Irving earned his MBA in music by acquiring a publisher-cum-partner to facilitate the flow, and with that he exploded onto a new level. The triggering device was "Alexander's Ragtime Band," a song that he himself didn't appreciate immediately, but which caught on so thoroughly wherever it was played that it seemed like a standard before its time. It is called a rag because the title says it is, but it is in fact a hybrid with a syncopated verse and a marching chorus. With that in the bank, he then set out to write some regular rags. Suddenly, one hit seemed to run into another, just as they did on Henry Ford's assembly line. In his erudite book on Berlin's first songs, Charles Hamm shows how thoroughly the young man had absorbed all the pop formulas. It was like someone learning to dance with a booklet in his hand telling him where to put his feet. But this is where the miracle kicks in, for the novice suddenly begins to dance like Fred Astaire . . ."

From Wilifred Sheed's "The House that George Built: With a Little Help from Irving, Cole, and a Crew of About Fifty."