Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Pete Seeger's 1959 Tribute to Lead Belly: Living in the Country

After years of searching, I found Pete Seeger's tribute to Lead Belly, a unique rendition of Pete's well-known 12‑string guitar instrumental, Living in the Country.

Pete Seeger in England is a 2016 re‑release by Fellside Recordings of two previous albums, Pete Seeger in Concert Vols. 1 & 2, recorded October 4, 1959 at the St. Pancras Town Hall, London, and a recording made of his concert in February 1964, at Free Trade Hall, Manchester. The recording is also available on Amazon.

Track 4, I Knew Leadbelly, is Pete's tribute to Lead Belly that includes Living in the Country as I heard it for the first time in the '60s. For that story, click here.

Here is the description of Pete Seeger in England provided by Fellside Recordings:

The legendary American Folk singer's career had been seriously knocked off course by the McCarthy witch-hunts into Unamerican Activities in the USA affecting artists believed to be communists. At one stage Seeger was facing a ten year prison sentence, but he managed to visit the UK in 1958. The concert was recorded and issued by the Folklore label which emanated out of the Dobell's record shop on Charing Cross road in West London. In 1964 he was back again and at one concert, at Manchester's Free Trade Hall, he was recorded again.

Both concerts on this DOUBLE CD FOR THE PRICE OF ONE set are typical Seeger material of that time. He talks about his friends Leadbelly and Woody Guthrie and champions new songwriters like Tom Paxton and Malvina Reynolds. The concerts also give a wonderful insight to how Seeger worked an audience and had them eating out of his hand. His ability to engage the audience is an object lesson for young performers. The Folklore LPs had limited circulation and the Manchester concert has never been heard before. The booklet comes with an informative essay about Pete Seeger by Joe Stead.

Thursday, April 25, 2019

The Fly Fishing Contest at Chelm's Pond

Excerpted from Welcome to Chelm's Pond

One day, after she had to rearrange the tables because everyone wanted to sit close by to hear his story, Bloomie heard someone ask, “Did you ever compete in one of those contests like they have at the Tupper Lake Woodsmen’s Days?” Part of her wanted to listen to his story, but she was still angry. Everyone else sat expectantly, eyes and ears fixed on the woodsman, poised on their chairs. In spite of her feel¬ings, Bloomie felt the need to understand this adventurer and listened intently, disguising her attention by cleaning tables.

“Oh yes, I used to enter contests all the time,” he began, “but then I stopped. It wasn’t fair, me winning all the time, so after I won the fly fishing contest, I gave them up so others could have a chance.”

“The fly fishing contest,” they all said. “Tell us about that one.”

“There was a rich fellow from New York City who wanted to hire an Adirondack guide to take him fly fishing, and he wanted the very best fly fisherman there was, so he sponsored a contest. The winner would receive a cash prize and a lucrative year-long contract to take him fly fishing. The rich man advertised and sent out mailings to all the Adirondack guides and even published a set of contest rules. When the guides read those rules, they realized this New York City man had a funny idea of what ‘fly fishing’ meant.

“On the appointed day all the Adirondack guides turned out to compete in the contest. The crowds of spectators were so great that the sheriff had to call in deputies from the five surrounding counties just to direct traffic, order three dozen Porta Potties dropped in by helicopter so as to avoid a health and sanitation crisis, and establish an emergency hospital tent in the event that the severity of mosquito bites should make mass blood transfusions necessary.

“The first Adirondack guide came up to the platform.” The young woodsman paused as he stood up tall and folded his arms over his chest. “His voice boomed over the excited throng. ‘I am here to enter the fly fishing contest and my name is Mountain Manny.’ The crowd went wild with clapping and cheering and whistling. Mountain Manny was well-known throughout the region and famous for his skills as an angler. He was big, too, over six feet tall and he weighed more than 200 pounds – before he ate breakfast. He took out his fly rod and laid it on the ground. He reached into his pocket and withdrew a matchbox. He opened the matchbox and revealed a stonefly.

Now, you know trout love those stoneflies. They make a pretty good meal for a fish, and they can be more than an inch long, maybe two. Mountain Manny released the stonefly into the still summer air and everyone lifted up their binoculars to follow it as it flew higher and higher. Mountain Manny picked up his fly rod and flicked it back and forth in careful, measured motions, let out nearly all of the line, and hooked that stonefly mid-air in a matter of just seconds. He reeled it in and proudly displayed it to the crowd, a smile from ear to ear and back around again.

“Well you never heard a crowd of people go so wild like they did that day. They wouldn’t have believed it, except that they saw it through their own binoculars. Shaking their heads in disbelief, many of the other Adirondack guides just packed up and went home. Mountain Manny was getting ready to collect his prize and sign the fly fishing contract when another guide stepped up to the platform.” At this, the young woodsman stood on top of his chair, causing all of the Chelmites to lean back in their chairs and crane their necks so they could see him. “He announced in a voice so loud it made the air shake, ‘I am here to enter the fly fishing contest and my name is Giant Jim.’ He stood there so tall he made Mountain Manny look like you were seeing him through the wrong end of your binoculars. That Giant Jim must have stood six foot ten inches tall and weighed 300 pounds. He really was a giant.”

The Chelmites at The Broiled Beet pulled their chairs closer so they wouldn’t miss a word, their eyes fixed on the young woodsman.

“He reached into his pocket, took out a matchbox, and released a mayfly. Now there isn’t an insect the trout like more than a mayfly, even though they’re only about a half-inch long. Everyone lifted their binoculars and followed that mayfly as it took off on a light summer breeze. Giant Jim took his time and looked through his fly fishing rods, carefully deciding which one to use, as the mayfly drifted further and further away. Finally, he selected a rod, picked it up, and gracefully flicked his wrist, letting out the line in long arcs – it was beautiful just to watch him, big as he was, gently working that rod and that big curving loop of line. Then, with a perfectly-timed flick of his wrist, the rod arced back, the line followed, and he hooked that mayfly. He reeled in the line and held that tiny hook between his fingers, showing off that tiny mayfly he had caught on the wing. The crowd erupted in applause accompanied by hootin’ and hollerin’ louder than a family of long-tailed cats in a room full of rockin’ chairs.

“At this point the few remaining would-be competitors somberly packed up their fly fishing equipment and tried to look like they had never been there. The judge was about to award the prize to Giant Jim and have him sign the contract when I stepped up to the platform.” Now the young woodsman stepped down from his chair and took his no-more-than-average-height stance in front of the crowd. “I said, in as big a voice as I could muster, ‘I am here to enter the fly fishing contest and my name is Adirondack Mendel.’”

The Chelmites perched on the edges of their chairs, leaning forward so far that three of them fell over on their faces, but they were so entranced by the story that they didn’t even feel embarrassed. Immediately they resumed their postures, listening keenly to every word.

“Mountain Manny and Giant Jim looked around trying to find me, seeing as I am much shorter than they and not so imposing a figure, until finally they looked down and saw me and – gracious gentlemen as they were – gave me some elbow room so I could enter the competition. I reached into my pocket, pulled out a matchbox, opened it slowly, and out flew a noseeum.

Now, of course, you know that a noseeum is so-called because these blood-sucking, flying piranhas are so tiny you ‘can’t see them,’ so everyone immediately raised their binoculars, turned the knobs to maximum magnification, and whipped their heads around to keep the little noseeum in view as it was buffeted around by the gusty summer wind. Meanwhile, I calmly picked up my fly fishing rod and in a few swift motions had the full length of line swooping back and forth from one end of the crowd to the other. Then, with one seamless movement of my arm and wrist, I was done, confident that I had displayed the greatest skill and won the contest. I reeled in my line, leaned my rod in the corner, and stood there proudly, my arms folded over my chest, ready to receive my prize and sign the contract.

“The crowd continued to watch the noseeum flit around in the wind and the judge seemed puzzled. He pointed to the wind and said to me, ‘You made a great show of it, but the noseeum is still flying.’

“In reply, I declared, ‘My dear judge, circumcision is not meant to kill.’

“And that’s how I won the fly fishing contest.”

The Chelmites, honored to be in the presence of this famous Adirondack guide, slapped him on the back, shook his hand, and wished him mazel tov. He acknowledged each of them by name and, to those he didn’t know already, made a brief introduction. He was pleased to attract such a grateful crowd. But in the midst of all these admirers, Adirondack Mendel’s eyes searched for the one person whose attention he most desired. Across the café he spied Bloomie as she cleaned a table, a charmed smile lingering on her face. But in the next moment, she caught him looking at her, and her expression turned to stone. I’d better stick to my own business, he thought, and bide my time with Bloomie.

Sunday, November 25, 2018

I Got Latkes

Just when you thought there were enough Chanukah songs already ...

I Got Latkes

Based on I Got Rhythm by George and Ira Gershwin, ©1930
Chanukah lyrics by Sandy Schuman 2017

I got latkes
I got dreidels
I got candles
Nes gadol haya sham

I got gelt and
I got oil
Nes gadol haya sham

Fry the latkes
Spin the dreidels
Light the candles
Nes gadol haya sham

Lazman hazeh

I got latkes
I got dreidelsI got candles
Who could ask for anything more
Who could ask for anything more

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Be Kinder to One Another: A Tribute to George Gershwin at 120

Vulcans say, “live long and prosper.” Jews say, “biz hundert un tsvantsik,” “may you live until 120.” For example, one might say, “Happy birthday! Biz hundert un tsvantsik!” It is based on the Biblical verse, “Moses was a hundred and twenty years old when he died; his eyes were undimmed and his vigor unabated” (Deuteronomy 34:7).

Undoubtedly, George Gershwin was familiar with this Yiddish expression and was likely wished biz hundert un tsvantsik many times. Tragically, his lifespan didn’t come close; he died of a brain tumor at age 38. In crafting my own stories about George and Ira Gershwin, I have come to appreciate George’s extraordinary, creative, exuberant life. Born September 26, 1898, he would have reached 120 years today. To honor his memory, I would like to share with you the eulogy delivered by Oscar Hammerstein II at the George Gershwin Memorial Concert at the Hollywood Bowl on September 8, 1937.*
To George Gershwin

Our friend wrote music, and in that mould he created gaiety and sweetness and beauty. And 24 hours after he had gone his music filled the air and in triumphant accents proclaimed to this world of men that gaiety and sweetness and beauty do not die.

A genius differs from other men only in that his immortality is tangible. What he thought, what he felt, what he meant has been crystallized in a form of expression, a form far sturdier than the flesh and sinew of the man. But lesser beings than geniuses leave their marks upon this earth, and it is as a lesser being that George Gershwin’s friends knew him and loved him.

We remember a young man who remained naive in a sophisticated world. We remember a smile that was nearly always on his face, a cigar that was nearly always in his mouth. He was a lucky young man, lucky to be so in love with the world, and lucky because the world was so in love with him. It endowed him with talent. It endowed him with character. And, rarest of all things, it gave him a complete capacity for enjoying all his gifts.

It was a standing joke with us that George could not be dragged away from a piano. He loved to play the piano. He played well, and he enjoyed his own playing. How glad we are now that some divine instinct made him snatch every precious second he could get at that keyboard, made him drink exultantly of his joy-giving talent, made him crowd every grain of gratification he could get into his short, blessed life.

Maybe the greatest thing he left us is this lesson: Maybe we take the good things of life too much for granted. Maybe we took George too much for granted. We loved him. Should we not have loved him more? Have we ever loved him so much as we do now? Have we ever said so as we do now? We are all inadequate, muddling humans with hearts and minds woefully unequipped to solve the problems that beset us. We are eloquent in the recognition of our troubles. Why are we not equally eloquent in the recognition of our blessings, as George was?

Some will want a statue erected for him. He deserves this. Some will want to endow a school of music in his name. He deserves this. But his friends could add one more tribute: In his honor they could try to appreciate and be grateful for the good things in this world. In his honor they could try to be kinder to one another—and this would be the finest monument of all.

*Sources: George Gershwin. Merle Armitage, ed. New York: Longmans, Green, 1938, p. 1-4. The George Gershwin Reader. Robert Wyatt, John Andrew Johnson, eds. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007, p. 272.

Thursday, September 13, 2018

His Dying Words

He saved my life and took care of me and taught me what I needed to know to make my own way. And when he grew old, after he turned 181, I took care of him and listened to his stories, even though I’d heard them all before and recorded them in UH, knowing this might be the last time I heard them. I stayed with him night and day, so I would be with him when he died, and I made it a point to hear and remember his dying words, so I could cherish them as his final message to me, so I could reflect on their meaning.

His dying words. He said them clearly enough, but I didn't understand what he said. I just didn't know what the words meant. They were foreign words. I never heard them before.

And so, over the course of years and decades, as my fortunes allowed, I ordered serially-deeper searches through the TransMetaArchive and its subsidiaries, and I consulted with respected members of the IP Academy of Fundalinguists. But still I am ignorant of the meaning of these words that are apparently derived from some prearchive language. Nonetheless, knowing this man most of my life and the generosity of his character, I am sure they were compassionate words, filled with lovingkindness. And so, as I have passed my 201st year, and I too am about to end my days, I pass on his words to you, exactly as he said them to me.

Zay gezunt.

Friday, August 11, 2017

My Father was a Songwriter

Copyright 1952

Yes, it’s true, my father was a songwriter. He wrote more than 80 songs, many of them with Tony Messina. Tony wrote the music, my father wrote the words. I tell a story about how, as a kid, I became curious about how they wrote songs. So I went downstairs, where they were working at the piano, to observe them in action.

As soon as I entered the room, they stopped. Tony spun around on his piano stool and asked me about school, my favorite subjects, my Boy Scout activities …. I realized they were not going to write songs while I was present.

So, I went back upstairs. And then, after considering the ethical issues, I sneaked into the stairwell, unbeknownst to them, and I heard how they wrote songs. It’s a good story. I’d like to tell it to you sometime. Stay tuned.

For now, I’d like to focus on the ending of the story. In the past, I ended with their song, Bright Tomorrow. It’s a good song and a fitting conclusion.

But, it’s not their best song. Recently, at Caffé Lena, I concluded the story with this one. I think it is perhaps their best:

The Worm is Gonna Turn On You, Music by Anthony Messina, Words by Samuel Schuman, Copyright 1952.

As I listen to that recording—I'll admit it deserves a better rendition—I think I like my father’s version better!

The Worm is Gonna Turn On You, performed by Samuel Schuman.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Song of the Century, Part 2: Get Happy!

Harold Arlen started out as a piano player and singer. This is the story of how he became a composer of popular music.