An appropriate song for today, from hep-cat Mel Torme (who always wanted to be a drummer):
…but if you want real, classy corn, here’s Al Jolson singing it, acted and lip-synched by Larry Parks (happily, not in black-face):
I often, these days, worry about growing old … until (as Woody Allen once said) I think about the alternative.
But these three elderly gentlemen, filmed in 1981 after 56 years of working together, demonstrate that we can grow old with style, dignity and an intact sense of romance:
At last! Spring is here. And here are two pieces of music to celebrate:
Billy Holiday (lyricist/composer, Irene Kitchings):
Any other suggestions?
My One and Only Love’s favourite song (this version by the wonderful Ella):
… there’s also a nice instrumental version of this lovely ballad (written by Guy Wood and Robert Mellin in 1952), by the unlikely jazz violin team of Joe Venuti and Stephane Grappelli …
… and an instrumental/vocal rendition by tenorist John Coltrane and vocalist Johnny Hartman…
… and, of course, there’s Frank …
… but My One and Only’s favourite version is this:
Extreme weather and flooding having become a highly-charged political issue in the UK. So I thought Bessie Smith’s blues (superbly accompanied by pianist James P. Johnson) about the flooding of New Orleans in 1927 might be appropriate:
This is dedicated to all the people of the ‘Somerset Levels’ who’ve had to suffer so much over the past weeks. I’d also like to dedicate it to Lord Chris Smith of the Environmental Agency, a decent man whose monumentally inept handling of the situation and lack of PR skills are making it increasingly likely that he’s going to be made the scapegoat for this fiasco.
But, for now, let’s just enjoy Bessie’s incredible voice…
The death, reported today, of Pete Seeger, reminded me that he publicly broke with Stalinism back in 2007 (some say he’d privately broken with it some years previously).
I wrote the following at the time, in a deliberately provocative style intended to infuriate folkies. Nevertheless, I hope it’s suitably respectful towards a brave and principled man:
Pete Seeger changes his tune: finger removed from ear
I’ve never particularly liked folk music, with its whining three-chord “tunes”, its anachronistic and lachrymose lyrics and the sheer musical incompetence of most of its performers – including the famous ones like Bob Dylan.
Having said that, I have to admit that most of the folkies I’ve met over the years have been thoroughly decent people, often stalwarts of left-wing campaigns, strike-support activity and international solidarity. But for some unexplained reason, these admirable people almost invariably turn out to be Stalinists of one variety or another: what is it about the music or the “scene” that brings this about? Delightful, sandle-wearing, hirsute do-gooders turn out to be apologists for some of the most monstrous regimes and genocidal crimes in human history!
Pete “If I Had a Hammer” Seeger always struck me as the spritual progenitor of the finger-in-the-ear school of folkie Stalinism (the finger being in the ear to prevent the truth about Uncle Joe’s crimes ever being heard): he was (and is) a very good and brave human being, so far as I can judge. Certainly, he had the courage to defy the House Committee on Un-American Activities, rather than betray his friends and comrades, and spent a year in jail as a result. On a less serious note, I’ve also always harboured a sneaking admiration for his legendary attempt to take an axe to Bob Dylan’s microphone cable at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival. But still, this admirable figure remained an unremitting, unreconstructed Stalinist [*]…
…Until now. According to Nicholoas Wapshott in the New Statesman, the 88 year-old Seeger says he has “‘been thinking what Woody (Guthrie - JD) might have written had he been around” to see the end of the Soviet Union. In a letter responding to (a) complaint that he had repeatedly sung about the Nazi Holocaust but failed to acknowledge the millions killed in Stalin’s death camps, he (Seeger) wrote: “I think you’re right – I should have asked to see the gulags when I was in (the) USSR”.
So now Pete has written a new song, ‘The Big Joe Blues’, which goes: “I’m singing about old Joe, cruel Joe./He ruled with an iron hand./He put an end to the dreams/Of so manyin every land./He had a chance to make/A brand new start for the human race./Instead he set it back/Right in the same nasty place./I got the Big Joe Blues./(Keepyour mouth shut or you will die fast.)/I got the Big Joe Blues./(Do this job, no questions asked.)/I got the Big Joe Blues”.
According to Wapshott, Pete now acknowledges that, “if by some freak of history communism (I think he really means Stalinism – JD) had caught up with this country, I would have been one of the first people thrown in jail”. So the finger’s well and truly out of the ear. At long last.
Above: despite my prejudice against folk music, I think this is great! Pete with Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee in the mid-60s
* Addendum: BTL comments (below) would seem to confirm that my statement that PS remained “an unremitting, unreconstructed Stalinist” (until 2007) was incorrect. It would also seem to be the case (sadly) that the story of the axing of Dylan’s electric cable at Newport in 1965 is apocryphal.
Today is Sister Rosetta Tharpe Day.
Here she is, playing and singing ‘This Train’: the sound’s a bit low, so you’ll need to listen carefully. But I’ve chosen this clip because it gives some wonderful glimpses of the Sister’s facial expressions and her great comedic sense – as, for instance, when she gestures towards the piano player at the part of the lyric about “whisky drinkers”:
She could almost make me a believer.
Christmas can be a time when you find out who your best friends are. I mentioned in passing to an acquaintance, a while back, that I’d been looking for a long-deleted 1985 album, The Lady’s In Love With You / Maxine Sullivan Sings the Music of Burton Lane. To my astonishment it arrived at my address, in CD format, just in time for Christmas
I could only find one track (‘On A Clear Day You Can See Forever’) from the album on Youtube, but it gives a pretty good flavour.
Part of the joy of this CD reissue (apart from Maxine’s singing, of course) is the extensive liner-notation by experts Will Friedwald (on Maxine) and Edward Jablonski (on Lane). There’s even a word from Burton Lane himself:
Dear Maxine, To quote a Yip Harburg lyric from this album: ‘Poor You / I’m sorry you’re not me / For you will never know’ … what it is like to be the composer of these songs and have a singer as wonderful as you to sing them.
You’re really something special.
THE SINGER by Will Friedwald
“I had no choice, I had to swing it.”
Maxine Sullivan was telling The New York Time’s John S. Wilson about her first important gig, in 1934, singing to piano accompaniment at a Pittsburgh after-hours hangout called the Benjamin Harrison Literary Club – an establishment given its name, to be sure, during Prohibition.
Apparently the club’s idea of literature was Joyce Kilmer, and Maxine got handed “Trees.” She responded by putting the ode into jazz time. As she explained to Wilson, “I just couldn’t sing it straight.”
The statement serves as a characteristically pithy summation of Maxine Sullivan’s career, which over 50 years took anything but predictable turns. In the late 1930s, she became a worldwide star transporting airs of earlier centuries (“Loch Lomond,” “Annie Laurie,” “Molly Malone”) to the swing era. In the mid-1950s, upstaged by flashier singers and determined to raise a daughter away from the pressures of show business, she took early retirement.
But 10 years later, in 1967, at the age of 56, she came back and her career unexpectedly boomed. At the time of her death on April 7, 1987, she was recording and performing more prolifically than ever before.
Of course, Maxine’s whole approach to jazz was unconventional. Most singers of her idiom, like Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan, alternated between small back-up groups with no arrangements and big bands with tight charts that were often embellished with strings. Maxine preferred more offbeat ensembles. Her best recordings combined the flexible economy of a septet or octet with a sensitive arranger — one who understood the sound of an artist whom Leonard Feather once praised as “a wonder of simplicity and understatement.” With the proper accompaniment, Maxine’s singing — already graced by a warm tone — projected a certain swing that was awesome in its gentleness,. But after her early success with Claude Thornhill and John Kirby, her career suffered because attempts to wean her away from the folk songs that had thrust her into stardom threw the baby out with the bath water. Too many producers and arrangers missed the point: that she could handle any good material if the setting complemented her distinctive style. Between the jam session and the symphony lay a middle ground.
Much of Maxine’s comeback career, as well, was similarly sabotaged by well-meaning producers who failed to recognize her idiosyncrasies and inserted her instead into traditional jazz backings that did nothing for her. Thankfully, Maxine spent both the beginning and the end of this last phase in the company of musical auteurs who knew what she was about. Bob Wilber, Dick Hyman and especially Keith Ingham had absorbed Maxine’s trailblazing work of two generations earlier, and thus could serve her particularly well during a period when she was ready and willing to stretch out.
That willingness, too, was unexpected. Maxine’s early singing had been marked by a somewhat withdrawn stance (underscoring her empathy with Thornhill), but by the time she reached her 60s, she had adopted a looser, freer sound. In the three albums they created for her, producers Ken Bloom, Bill Rudman and Keith Ingham (who doubled as arranger) carefully considered her new aura, capturing a fine singer at her all-time peak.
They also reached a high-water mark in the vastly misunderstood craft of selecting repertoire. A miraculous flow unites each of these songbook cycles: The Great Songs From the Cotton Club by Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler (1984); this album, which honours the composer Burton Lane; and Together: Maxine Sullivan Sings the Music of Julie Styne (1987), the final studio session before her death. The mix of classic and little-known tunes is not only fascinating but perfectly tailored for Maxine, and within the small-group format Ingham offers an endless variety of background textures.
Still. the disc’s most enduring contributions appropriately come from the singer. Maxine is a terror on the up-tempos and Swing Era rhythm tunes (which, ironically, she rarely had the chance to sing in the 1930s and 40s). But oh, the ballads! “Everything I have Is Yours” is so touching, so vulnerable, especially as backed by the lyrical tenor saxophone of the late Al Klink. And Maxine’s reading of “How Are Things In Glocca Morra?” responds to the universality in E.Y. Harburg’s words. It’s not just a song about Ireland; she makes it about longing, aching, missing — the sorrow for that which has passed.
The song now describes the singer as well. But though Maxine is gone, the treasure that is her recoded legacy assures us that there will always be fine days in Glocca Morra. These performances are an essential — and altogether beautiful –part of that legacy — Will Friedwald
Below: not from the ‘Burton Lane’ album, but a beautiful example of Maxine singing right at the end of her career and life:
In general, I’m one of those listeners who objects to music on Radio 4 – especially the infuriating Mastertapes with the annoying rock fan John Wilson, who – frankly – should just fuck off to Radio 2, where he belongs. However, I’m happy to make an exception for Soul Music, which this week featured the strangely melancholic Christmas song, ‘Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas.’
It was written in 1944 by one Hugh Martin for the film Meet Me In St. Louis, in which it was sung by the film’s star, Judy Garland. It comes at a particularly sad moment in the film, and Garland felt its original lyrics (read out for us in the Radio 4 programme) were altogether too depressing, and eventually Martin was persuaded to replace them with slightly more upbeat (but still hardly jolly) words. Later on Frank Sinatra got Martin to change them again, this time replacing “until then we’ll have to muddle through somehow” with “Hang a shining star upon the highest bough.”
As always with Soul Music, the programme discusses not just the song’s lyrics, but also its (surprisingly sophisticated) harmonic structure and chord changes, interspersed with the thoughts and reminiscences of people for whom it carries a special meaning and/or memories. James Taylor’s pensive version, recorded shortly after 9/11, quite rightly receives a special mention:
My favourite version, by Ella Fitzgerald, doesn’t feature in the programme, perhaps because Ella’s voice is almost too good and (combined with the relatively up-tempo swing arrangement) doesn’t quite convey the pathos that the lyrics seem to demand. Never mind: it’s Ella and it’s beautiful. So here’s wishing A Merry Little Christmas to all of you!