Tuesday, December 29, 2009


We’ve all heard the story of how, way back in 1816, during a thunderstorm on Lake Geneva in Switzerland, the British Romantic poets Byron and Shelley, Shelley’s wife, Mary Godwin, Byron’s mistress Claire Clairmont, and "physician" and groupie John Polidori gave each other serious cases of goosebumps telling scary stories. There was an agreement made that all the participants would write a tale of terror. Shelley and Clairmont never completed theirs; Byron began one but abandoned it; Mary Shelley took her idea and made it into arguably the greatest horror/philosophical classic of all time, FRANKENSTEIN, or, THE MODERN PROMETHEUS.

And then, there was Polidori’s tale. Called "The Vampyre" and published in 1819, it was for many years wrongly attributed to Byron. Almost certainly, the main characters—Aubry, the wannabe man of the world, and the suave, sophisticated, yet brutal Lord Ruthven, who turns out to be a vampire—were based on Polidori and Byron themselves. Byron was at great pains to dissociate himself from its composition, and indeed from Polidori. But the story was embraced by its public, particularly by contemporary French and German Romantic poets, playwrights and composers. In 1821, it was dramatized for the stage by the German playwright Heinrich Ludwig Ritter. Seven years later, the composer Heinrich Marschner (1795-1861) and librettist Wilhelm August Wohlbruck turned Ritter’s play into an opera. DER VAMPYR premiered at Leipzig on March 28, 1828.

Marschner, according to Wiki, was the most important German Romantic composer between the two giants Carl Maria von Weber and Richard Wagner. DER VAMPYR was, in fact, quite a favorite of Wagner’s; he produced and conducted it several times himself, and once rewrote the ending of one of Aubry’s arias for his brother, an operatic tenor, who complained it wasn’t "effective enough"—an ambiguous phrase that I, at least, take to mean it didn’t give him scope to show off his high notes.

Wagner’s reworking of the aria did not catch on. In any case, the main character in both story and opera is Lord Ruthven, the vampire, a baritone role. Imagine my surprise when, last night while cruising YouTube, I found this gem: Ruthven’s aria "Ha! Noch einen ganzen Tag" ("Still a whole day"), sung by the operatic love of my life, Thomas Hampson.

I’m not sure exactly when this recording would have been made; at a guess, perhaps the very late 1980s or early 1990s. Hampson is in excellent voice, but—dare I confess—I got the giggles listening to him declaim, "Blut! Ich muss blut!" ("Blood! I must have blood!")
As to whether I would allow him any of mine?

It’s negotiable.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Ruling Days

There's a sweet old hillbilly custom that my mom and aunt still follow: the "ruling days." The old people in the mountains and knobs would make note of weather conditions on the twelve days beginning on Christmas Day, as they believed these would correspond to weather conditions in the coming twelve months. Christmas Day "rules" January, yesterday "rules" February, and so forth. The ruling days end on January 6th, to which the old people often still refer as Old Christmas--in the Roman Catholic tradition, the Feast of the Epiphany, the date on which the Magi are said to have visited the Christ Child and given him gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.

Here in the knobs, Christmas Day's weather was cold and cloudy, windy with rain late in the day. January, therefore, will be cold and rainy, especially toward the end of the month, according to the old people. Yesterday, February's ruler, was cold but sunny, while today, March's ruler, is sunny, mild (48 degrees) and breezy.

Right up until January 6th, Mom and Aunt Barbara will keep track of the weather.

And then, we'll see.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Christmas Lullaby

Many years ago, when I attended a small Baptist church, the altar call at the end of sermons was frequently a mournfully beautiful tune in a minor key of which I never knew the name or for that matter any of the words. It wasn't until about a decade ago, in a Methodist church I attended at the time, that I learned it was called "Come, Ye Sinners, Poor and Needy", from its opening line, in the Methodist hymnal, in which it was first included in the 1990s. In the old Broadman hymnals, used for many years in Baptist services, it is called "I Will Arise and Go to Jesus" from the opening line of the refrain.

The words to "Come Ye Sinners" were published in 1759 by their author, British minister Joseph Hart. In 1835, a Spartanburg, South Carolina singing school teacher named William Walker--better known among fans of oldtime music as "Singin’ Billy"--set the words to a tune called "Restoration" in his shape-note hymnal THE SOUTHERN HARMONY.

I left the Methodist church in April of 1998, if I recall. In May, I found Doc Watson’s 1990 CD ON PRAYING GROUND, on which he sang a set of Christmas lyrics to the same tune. The words Doc sings are taken in part from a poem by the great British hymn writer Isaac Watts. Doc's lyrics, identified as traditional with arrangement by Doc Watson in the songwriter's credits, are:

Hush my babe, lie still and slumber
Holy angels guard thy bed
Heavenly blessings without number
Gently stealing on thy head.

How much better art thou attended
Than the son of God could be
When from Heaven he descended
And became a child like thee

Soft and easy is thy cradle
Coarse and hard the Savior lay
When his birthplace was a stable
And his softest bed was hay

Hush my babe lie still and slumber
Holy angels guard thy bed
Heavenly blessings without number
Gently stealing on thy head.

Doc sings with only his own guitar accompaniment, and pronounces the word "gently" as "gentlie"--a very old mountain way, not uncommon at all in traditional mountain music.

I can imagine a mountain mother, awake in the night with a fussy baby, rocking and singing, rocking and singing. . .

Monday, December 21, 2009

An Evening with M. R. James

Imagine a room like this:


Decorated for Christmas, it’s warm and cozy. Now then, imagine that over to the righthand side of the fireplace, there sits a man in a large armchair. He’s not a handsome man by any means, but his face is strongly marked by intelligence and humor—and he is about to work magic.

All stories are magic, but there are some that gain in the telling by being read aloud. So imagine, also, a group of students—all male, for this man is provost of a famous British preparatory school—seated in chairs or on the floor, coltish legs and sharp elbows pulled in, anticipating wonders.

We owe the tradition of telling ghost stories at Christmas mainly to Charles Dickens. Dickens’s most famous work in the genre, A Christmas Carol, is subtitled Being a Ghost Story of Christmas. Dickens, as editor of various magazines in the course of his career, always put out a Christmas annual which consisted in the main of ghost stories, by some of the most famous writers of his day: Wilkie Collins, Elizabeth Gaskell, Amelia B. Edwards, and of course Dickens himself.

The man who is about to read to his students, however, was born too late to submit his stories to Dickens. Montague Rhodes James is, however, arguably the finest of all writers of fictional ghost stories.

Montague Rhodes James (1862-1936)

Born the youngest son of a Sussex clergyman in 1862, he was also one of the unlikeliest. By profession a historian (mainly of medieval England), he lived out his life a bachelor, first as a Cambridge University chancellor and, for the last eighteen years of his life as provost of Eton. There would seem to be nothing in his background to account for his taste for the macabre.
In his spare time, however, he wrote ghost stories. At first he read them to his fellow Cambridge dons during the Christmas season; later, for his pupils at Eton.

In our own day, we are used to writers in the horror genre who use bloody menaces—serial killers, killer clowns, demons, rabid dogs, kinetically gifted teens (yes, Stephen King, I’m primarily, but not solely, talking about you)—to scare us witless. Not once does M. R. James resort to this type of over-the-top plotline, or, in King’s evocative phrase, go for the gross-out, yet James’s stories can scare one into turning on extra lights, and checking dark corners, strictly by the power of suggestion. In the preface to a collection of his stories called A WARNING TO THE CURIOUS AND OTHER STORIES, the author Ruth Rendall—herself no mean hand at creating uncanny atmospheres—gives a near perfect description of how James achieves these scares:

"His stories begin quietly, often with a description of a place, a town or a country house or library, and his traveller to whom in a little while dreadful things will happen. There are—at first—no ghosts and demons, only a gradually increasing, indefinable, slow menace. And James’s characters bring trouble on themselves by such simple innocent actions, by being a little too curious, by merely examining an old manuscript or borrowing a certain book, by picking up an apparently harmless object on the beach." (pages vii-viii.)

The stories to which Rendall refers, in that final sentence, are, respectively, "A Warning to the Curious", " Canon Alberic's Scrapbook" and "The Tractate Middoth," and "O Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad", but the general idea holds true for all of James’s stories. Not to mention that these stories have influenced a good many writers—even Stephen King—who came after James; there is a scene in King’s 1977 novel The Shining that must have been inspired by one in James’s early story "Lost Hearts", in which a young boy is frightened by a ghastly figure he sees in a bathtub.

It is astonishing, as well, that James’s influence should have spread so far when his output in the genre consists of no more than thirty-one short stories.

I suspect, though, that one thing that makes them so memorable is, simply, that James himself first read them aloud—and he must have been a wonderful reader, for none of the fellow professors or students who heard him read them at Christmastime ever forgot them. At least one of his pupils, the English actor Christopher Lee, has read James’s work on BBC radio, and shared his memories of hearing "Monty" in his youth. (James died in 1936.)

I frankly cannot do any sort of justice to James’s work; my powers of description aren’t equal to the task. However, his best stories are available online. These two are my favorites.

Lost Hearts

A Warning to the Curious

These will give you a savor of M. R. James’s variety of dark magic.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Bobby Helms's Hat Trick

In 1957, Bobby Helms (1933-1997) had three monster hits in a single year—one of which makes a comeback each Christmas season.

The first of the three was "Fraulein", released on March 30. It told the story of a young man who had fallen in love with "an old German’s daughter/by the banks of the old River Rhine" while serving in the postwar occupation of Germany. Stone country, it went to number one on the country charts and an astonishing number thirty-six on the Billboard Top 100—sort of the "pop charts" back in the day.

A few months later, Helms released "My Special Angel." More overtly pop in construction, and with backing vocals by the legendary Anita Kerr Singers, it went to number one on the country charts and peaked at number seven on the Billboard Top 100. It has proven over time to be the most durable of Helms’s mainstream hits; it was first covered by The Vogues in 1968 and has been in the repertoires of a number of groups ever since.

A few days before Christmas in that same astounding year, Helms released "Jingle Bell Rock." Possibly because it was a holiday-oriented song, and a novelty tune at that, it didn’t make it to number one on its first release; it went to number thirteen country and number six on the Billboard Top 100. However, it was re-released during an additional five Christmas seasons and eventually became one of those songs that—well, it wouldn’t be Christmas if you didn’t hear "Jingle Bell Rock" at least once.

After those three monster hits, all within a nine-month period in a single year, Helms settled into a comfortable if mediocre career. He never had another major hit, and recorded his last album in 1987. He died in 1997 at the age of 63, and has been inducted into the Rockabilly Hall of Fame, although I think it’s about time the Country Music Hall of Fame added him to its roster.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Saturday Music: One Bright Star

This song comes from Vince Gill's 1993 Christmas CD LET THERE BE PEACE ON EARTH. I was reminded of it a few weeks ago when I learned that Sis was tapped to direct the kids' Christmas play at her church and had cast the Princess in the lead role. The Princess said (proudly, I thought), "I'm the star."

"Hey, that's cool!" I enthused.

"No, I mean LITERALLY I'm the star. The Star of Bethlehem."

OH-kay. . .

Sis confided later that the main reason she had cast the Princess as the Star had nothing to do with nepotism. True, the role is the largest in the play--but, she added pragmatically, "With her, I knew for certain I could bully her into learning the lines."

Imagine me trying not to ROFLMAO--

Okay, the graphics in this video are moderately weird. But Gill's sweet tenor and the gorgeous harmony vocals overcome the graphics and make a lyrically commonplace song about the Star of Bethlehem into a rare treasure. Hope you like!


Thursday, December 10, 2009

Y'all Gotta Hear This!

I've held forth at length in the past about my love for George Frideric Handel's 1741 oratorio MESSIAH, a work for all seasons that is most popular around Christmas. I was surprised--AWFULLY surprised--when yesterday over at Facebook this link turned up: the bass aria "The People that Walked in Darkness" sung by my beloved baritone Thomas Hampson.

The text is from Isaiah 9:1-7.

This is not a piece I would have thought Hampson would choose. He is a lyric baritone, his voice somewhat less hefty than the weight one would associate with this aria, not to mention that he seldom (or at least, in nothing I've heard him sing) uses his lower register like this.

I think I fell in love all over again--with Handel, MESSIAH, and Hampson--after hearing this.

Monday, December 7, 2009


One of the greatest charms of the original edition of A CHRISTMAS CAROL is the series of color and black and white illustrations done by John Leech (1817-1864). Charles Dickens himself hired Leech to illustrate his "Ghost of an idea", in the process coming into conflict with his publishers. Dickens had grandiose ideas for his little book; he wanted gilt-edged pages, colored endpapers (originally in a chalky green that rubbed off, changed in later editions), and color illustrations, all to be sold at a price of five shillings. He wanted caricaturist John Leech because Leech was known to have a strong social conscience; his political cartoons had attracted Dickens in the first place, and since A CHRISTMAS CAROL had a strong message for the wealthy, Dickens felt his work would be more appropriate than that of his usual illustrator,
George Cruikshank. In the end, Dickens self-financed the publication, broke with his publishers--those sticks in the mud who wanted a more or less chapbook affair--and left his story and us much the richer.

In the event, only two of Leech's illustrations were suggestive of that social message, one obliquely, one overtly. Four were in color; four were in black and white, but they all have an offbeat charm. One was used for the frontispiece of the book: a depiction of Old Fezziwig--to whom Scrooge was, in his youth, apprenticed--and his wife, standing forth to lead the ball guests in "Sir Roger de Coverley" (which we here in the States know as a Virginia reel).

Mr. Fezziwig's ball

Leech perfectly captures the chubby, kindly couple of Scrooge's memory, but others in the series are deliciously eerie. Take, for example, the color etching of Marley's entrance and the scene outside the window through which Marley departs, after warning Scrooge he will be visited by the three spirits.

Marley's Ghost

John Leech's phantoms

Marley, even in a caricature style, gives one a shiver, with his thin transparence; the scene outside the window, foreshadowing the fate that awaits Scrooge should he not reform, is more overt, with the ghosts wailing over the heads of the homeless woman and her child, on the stoop below.

Scrooge is, of course, a tough nut to crack; if he weren't, then we wouldn't have a story. But he is disquieted enough by the memories roused by the Ghost of Christmas Past ("Long past?" "No. Your past.") that he tries to put out its light, in a little drawing that reminds me no end of a candle being snuffed:


Scrooge's encounter with the Ghost of Christmas Present, beginning as it does in an all-but-unrecognizable decorated version of his own miserly apartment, is done in bright, uproarious colors, only appropriate for a spirit whose mission is to spread joy and peace:


But even this spirit, grand and jolly though he may be, has hidden a reminder of the poverty and degradation that most societies try to forget: the skinny, dreadful children named Ignorance and Want, before whom Scrooge quails, then begs the spirit to cover them.


Hard upon this horrifying vision comes the most frightening of all the spirits Scrooge has encountered on this night of many wonders: the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, who by his very eloquent silence terrifies Scrooge into a realization of the fate Marley hoped to spare him.

ghost of Christmas Yet to Come

That all but skeletal hand, pointing Scrooge onward toward a miser's grave, does more than all the other spirits combined to convince Scrooge to mend his ways.

Leech's illustrations end, as does Dickens's story, with Scrooge sitting down over a wassail bowl with his long-suffering clerk, Bob Cratchit, to discuss ways in which Scrooge may help Cratchit's family.


Other artists over the years have illustrated A CHRISTMAS CAROL more lavishly and copiously--among them Arthur Rackham, whose 1915 edition turns the whole book into a delightfully spooky fairyland. No one, however, has ever captured the lessons of the spirits with quite John Leech's elan; his arresting little set pieces remain one of the pleasures of this little book, and are available in any number of facsimile additions.

And as Tiny Tim observed (it's worth repeating, this time of year!), God bless us, every one!

Sunday, December 6, 2009


Being a Story of How Charles Dickens Plagiarized Himself, Got Out of Debt, and Created the Most Famous Christmas Story Outside the Gospel of Luke

Also an ego trip for yours truly, this being probably my alltime favorite of the blog posts I've written in the last three years. Originally posted at Fairweather on November 26, 2007, and again on December 6, 2008, it's getting yet another run here. And thank you for your indulgence.


In October 1843 Charles Dickens was in a bind. Married since 1836, he was already the father of four children and his wife was pregnant with a fifth. His latest novel, Martin Chuzzlewit--published in installments, as were his previous ones--was not doing well. Worse yet, he was in debt. As a twelve year old, Dickens had seen his father imprisoned for debt, one of the more charming conventions of European history. He was damned if he would expose his family to that shame and horror. He needed to write a "potboiler" to raise cash, and he needed to write it fast.

Sometime during that dreary October, he had an idea for a story of a miserly old bachelor whose whole character would change after visits from a series of ghosts associated with the Christmas season. Eventually he would call that old buzzard Ebenezer Scrooge, and the little book that told his story was given the name A Christmas Carol in Prose: Being, a Ghost Story of Christmas.

Dickens was, in fact, recycling material he had already covered. In his first great work, The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club , he used the theme in a story within a story, told by Mr. Wardle of Dingley Dell. Later extracted from the main narrative of The Pickwick Papers and anthologized as "The Story of the Goblins Who Stole a Sexton," it treats of one Gabriel Grubb, a drunken curmudgeonly sexton who is spending Christmas Eve digging a grave instead of joining in the jollities of the season. He is dragged off by goblins, and changes in character after a series of visions shown him by the Goblin King convince him he lives in a wonderful world after all.

Dickens would enlarge upon that theme. He would replace the visions with actual visits from the ghost of Scrooge's dead business partner, Jacob Marley, and the spirits of Christmas Past, Present, and Yet to Come. He threw in a grossly sentimental subplot (also used in passing in "The Goblins Who Stole a Sexton") about a sickly poor child--Tiny Tim Cratchit--of the sort Victorians adored and wept over. He wrote in a frenzy; he told a friend that he laughed and cried, cried and laughed, throughout the composition. And he delivered it to his publisher in less than six weeks, with very few if any rewrites.

Dickens distributed advance copies of his little "Ghost of an idea" on December 17, 1843; the original printing of six thousand copies sold out within three days of its official December 19 release date. It never looked back; it has never gone out of print. It has been done as a one act play, a musical, and in any number of movies, the earliest being a 1908 production by Thomas Edison. Ebenezer Scrooge even lent his name to a Bill Monroe instrumental on Monroe's 1981 Master of Bluegrass LP.

With A Christmas Carol, Dickens established the tradition of ghost stories being written, read and told at the Christmas season. Until his death in 1870, he produced a number of so-called Christmas annuals consisting of ghost stories written by himself and other Victorian writers. The tradition survived into the 20th century.

And by the way, he was able to pay off the debt that plagued him into writing A Christmas Carol, and was from then on well to do. He was able to leave both his wife, from whom he was formally separated in 1858, and his mistress, an actress whom he met in 1857, independently wealthy to the ends of their lives.

And as Tiny Tim observed, God bless us, every one.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Saturday Music: Early Snow with Loreena McKennitt

Snow seldom comes this early in the knobs, with the winter solstice still a couple of weeks away, but we woke this morning to a couple of inches, white and crisp as linen sheets over lawn and trees and as far on the horizon as one could see. Mom called Sis; the Princess and her friend Miss V had been out playing in it since 8:30, coming indoors occasionally to warm up and gulp hot chocolate, then back out they went. Brother Olde Hippie notes ironically, "White stuff on the ground. Is this what the oldtimers call SNOW?"

It also gave me my theme for Saturday music. The Irish-Canadian musician Loreena McKennitt has, over the course of her career, recorded several winter-themed songs.

One such is "Snow", with lyrics by the Canadian poet Archibald Lampman, (1861-1899). Originally recorded on her 1987 CD TO DRIVE THE COLD WINTER AWAY, it was rerecorded in a slightly different form on 1995’s A WINTER GARDEN.

The wistful carol "In the Bleak Midwinter" was written by the English poet Christina Rossetti (1830-1894) sometime before 1872, although it was not published until a decade after her death. Rossetti titled it "A Christmas Carol" but it is more usually known by its opening line. Set to music in 1906 by the Swedish-British composer Gustav Holst, it is performed here as an instrumental, from McKennitt’s 2008 album A MIDWINTER NIGHT’S DREAM, on which songs from A WINTER GARDEN were reprised and augmented by new recordings.

Now, in mid-afternoon, the sun is peeking out and the snow is melting rapidly, dripping steadily off the roof—an ephemeral but lovely gift from Old Man Winter.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Six Geese A-Slaying: A Christmas Cozy

Imagine this: two days before Christmas, a small Virginia town is forming up for its annual Christmas parade. This year's theme is The Twelve Days of Christmas, and so twelve drummers and eleven pipers are trying to out-noise each other, various people in costume are roaming around (including thirty-seven members of the local birdwatching/conservation club dressed as Canada geese), there are animals everywhere--including two elephants, three camels, and a herd of sheep--On the Nativity float, a very pregnant young woman who is portraying the Virgin Mary is going into labor. A third-rate stringer from a Washington DC newspaper is hassling everyone, most notably Mistress of Revels Meg Langslow.

And then, just when it seems all will finally settle down and the parade will get off to a peaceful and successful start, two Boy Scouts (assigned to clean up behind the elephants) run up to Meg, eyes wide, breathless, to announce they just found Santa in a shed where he had gone to get into costume--dead.

Dead he is, with a stake of holly shoved through his heart.

And so begins Donna Andrews's Christmas cozy, Six Geese A-Slaying.

The series began with Murder with Peacocks, and presently runs to ten volumes. Six Geese A-Slaying was published in 2008.

Complications abound throughout the opening chapters as Meg tries to get the parade ready to roll, but a dead (MURDERED) Santa is just about the last straw. The dead man is, as is usual in cozies, the most loathed man in town, Ralph Doleson, a truly unfit choice to play Santa; unfortunately, he's the only one in town who will fit into the suit, bought years earlier by the city council, who refuse pointblank to buy a new one and appoint a new Santa.

At first Meg--influenced by her college-professor (and still new) husband Michael, who's rehearsing for a one-man show of A Christmas Carol--thinks there's a Dickens connection. But as she digs deeper, offering her amateur but competent help to the police, she finds that it's not a hatred of Santa that got Doleson killed--it's his activities as a blackmailer. And his vic list is extensive.

Donna Andrews writes in a style reminiscent of Janet Evanovich's Stephanie Plum series, so events unfold in excruciatingly funny detail until the denouement, when Doleson's killer kidnaps Meg and her injured brother Rob. He's foiled in his attempt, of course, but even that unfolds in hilarity.

If you're in the mood for a lighthearted mystery, I recommend this one.

As for me, I'll be somewhere in a corner with a book.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

A Very Strange Coincidence: Take This Tune

This week's selection for Take This Tune is Joan Baez's "Diamonds and Rust", in which she reconnects by phone with an old love (said to have been Bob Dylan). As Jamie notes, there are countless songs about reconnecting with lost loves. It can be through a friend:

Gordon Lightfoot, "Did She Mention My Name"

or by looking at old pictures

Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton, "Just Someone I Used to Know"

or sitting by the sea, watching the waves.

Hank Snow, "Rockin' Rollin' Ocean"

The contact need not be direct; it can simply be a touch on a memory.

In my case, a song one would not usually associate with a lost love (although it does bring two lovers together at the end) is one that I will always think of in such a connection. That song is

Marty Robbins, "El Paso"

When I began blogging at Fairweather Lewis in January 2007, the second post I wrote was about this song. During the week I was writing it, word came that the father of my "lost love" had passed away.

I wouldn't exactly say that Lee (his middle name) and I were childhood sweethearts, but we had been friends from first grade on. He quit school at Christmas of our senior year and went into the military, and I had completely lost track of him. He had had a difficult home life, and apparently, at one point, had cut family ties altogether; nearly twenty years after we lost touch, I happened to meet his mother--who told me that at the time she hadn't heard from him in seven years.

So I wrote and rewrote my blog about "El Paso", which had nothing to do with lost love. I polished and fretted, I cried with frustration and finally decided if I didn't post it as was, I would never have the nerve.

Two days after I posted the blog, Lee's father's obituary came out in the local paper. And at last I knew where my lost friend had gotten to--

for there, in black and white, I read "son, Lee, of El Paso, Texas."


I don't know, but it still is one of the strangest things that ever has happened to me.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Circle of Steel

I don’t shop on Black Friday—never have. I don’t like braving massive crowds, each individual flailing the air with lists, credit cards, or cash, for one thing, or traffic all going one way with snarling killers at the wheel who were, only the day before, smiling, laughing, and stuffed with Thanksgiving goodies and goodwill. Nor am I in favor of getting up at some godless hour without a darned good reason—something along the lines of the house burning, perhaps—or going home in shadowy dark among scurrying strangers who might—or might not—turn out to be cutthroats. Give me time to think, leisure to walk around without having to worry about being beaten senseless by savage elbows or constantly threatened by those lethal weapons known by the quaint name "shopping carts", and I’ll browse and dream for hours—but not on Black Friday.

Going Home at Dusk, 1882

In short, the very idea of Black Friday, with its emphasis on sales and saving the retail sector from disaster, with fights over the last sale item or breakdowns over getting to said item a few steps too late, its innate and ineradicable commercialism, the lights and sales signs, brings out something—grinchy—in me: cynical, critical, and altogether not in the proper spirit of the season.

All of which may explain, by the scenic route, why one of my favorite songs come Christmastide is Gordon Lightfoot’s almost Dickensian "Circle of Steel".

Rows of lights in a circle of steel
where you place your bets on a great big wheel. . .

Set among the poverty-stricken classes of some anonymous big city, "Circle of Steel" reminds us that Black Fridays are, far from being once-yearly orgies of spending and screaming that enable retailers to finish the year "in the black", dark and ugly everyday realities for some.

Two women form the core of the song: one an alcoholic whose doctor, "found on his welfare round", spends only the minimum time necessary with his patients; the other, the poor but honest wife of a man doing time because his "pride was his means to provide"—an almost sure bet that his pride drove him to some criminal act, rather than deal with the welfare system which is supposed to catch those in the act of falling through the cracks.

Violence implied?

"Deck the Halls" was the song they played
In the flat next door where they shout all day. . .

And yet, out in the street, no one is aware of this deadly cycle of poverty and hopelessness as they come and go on their business, their busy-ness an insulation.

Sights and sounds of the people goin’ round
Everybody’s in step with the season. . .

No, they aren’t. No. . .they aren’t.

christmas boarder Pictures, Images and Photos
The painting "Going Home at Dusk" was done by British artist John Atkinson Grimshaw in 1882.

Gordon Lightfoot originally recorded "Circle of Steel" for his album SUNDOWN in November 1973. Released the following April, the title song became arguably his most famous hit, while "Circle of Steel" remains relatively obscure. His version is not available online; this is a very good cover by Brian E.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Simple Gifts


Great food: turkey, dressing, gravy, green beans, mashed potatoes, sweet potato casserole, deviled eggs, mac & cheese, crescent rolls, wheat germ yeast rolls—and the DESSERTS!! Miss Lucy’s Apple Dumplins, made from scratch chocolate cake, oldfashioned walnut cake, chocolate chip oatmeal cookies.

Sharing memories and jokes, some of them never shared before because only one remembers. Laughter and family gossip. Watching the end of the Macy’s Parade and then the National Dog Show, oohing and aahing over the toy dogs and the giant dogs and all the sizes in between. Bubba and Amanda—eleven months apart in age, a foot apart in height and a hundred pounds or so in weight, so different in so many ways, but cousins, chatting merrily about whatever twenty/nineteen year olds chat about (mostly electronics). BIL’s stepdad and my brother talking about music. The Princess serene in a corner by the TV, making refrigerator art for everybody to take home.

Mom couldn’t be with us. This time of year—and sadly, increasingly, other times too—her various ailments keep her housebound. Gathering stuff together, making her a plate, pouring tea in empty bottles for her (she loves iced tea), amid inquiries about her health and messages to give to her.

As we all leave, some to go home, others to second feasts, there is love all around, hugs and kisses and "I love yous" and "be carefuls".

Simple gifts.

I am so thankful for simple gifts.

Photos: Jim Crotty

Cello: Yo Yo Ma

Vocal: Allison Krauss

Monday, November 23, 2009

'Nother Song about Billy the Kid

Over at Fairweather Lewis I posted a ghost story about the western outlaw Billy the Kid, being as how today marks his birth in 1859. There I posted a song by Marty Robbins that makes the Kid look like a sort of anti-hero.

This song is a bit different. Written and recorded by Joe Ely in 1987, it tells an entirely different story about the Kid. Dare I say it gives me the giggles with its mordant humor?


Sunday, November 22, 2009

We Gather Together: Take This Tune

The Thanksgiving hymn "We Gather Together", Dutch in origin, carries me, around this time each year, back forty years and more, to my days in what we called, back then, elementary school.

In those days, we’d never heard of an atheist named Madelyn Murray O’Hair down here in the red mud knobs, and we still sang songs in school that were from religious traditions, especially around Christmas. This, though, is the one I remember most—possibly because school was the only place I ever heard it sung! Most of the churches around were Baptist and were still using the old greenbacked Broadman hymnals—and this hymn, apparently, was not in that great collection.

Our music teacher was a lovely redhaired "old maid schoolteacher", as the older people still dismissively called those women in the profession who weren’t married and parents themselves—Miss Codella. If I remember right, around Thanksgiving of my second or third grade year, she began teaching us the words:

We gather together to ask the Lord’s blessing
He chastens and hastens His will to make known. . .

Of course, we had no idea what, exactly, the word "chastens" meant, although we had some vague idea that might be what would happen if you got sent to the principal’s office. And the rhyming word "hastens", we eventually figured out, meant "hurry hurry hurry!!!"

When I hear the lyrics, nowadays, I don’t hear it sung in powerful, unmistakably adult voices. I hear it as we sang it, long, long ago—children’s voices, some of them small but true in pitch, others wandering innocent of key but hearty and loud, with Miss Codella’s church-solemn piano for accompaniment, on the old stage in the elementary school auditorium, with its low stage and heavy, dusty blue velvet curtain.

I remember the stage decorations: lots of autumn leaves made of red and orange and yellow cloth, the brown turkeys in their incongruous Pilgrim hats, pumpkins stolid and plain, with no fancy Halloween carvings, and corn, Indian corn, as we called it, its brown and tan and orange and yellow kernels shining out of dry husks and dry stalks standing tall and straight.

I remember the first graders being seated in front of the stage on metal chairs, their feet dangling and their eyes wide, the second graders behind them, the third and fourth graders filing up the steps to the bleachers, then filing back down.

We always had our Thanksgiving program on Wednesday before getting out of school for the long holiday weekend, and turkey and stuffing for lunch that day, and our mouths watered as the program progressed because the lunchroom was just down the hall from the auditorium and we could smell the food being prepared—frankly, about the one time of year lunchroom food was edible.

This Thanksgiving, the old elementary school has been razed, with only a single annex built many years after I was a student there remaining, small and insignificant compared to the new "primary school" looming nearby to accommodate our large and growing population of kindergarteners through second-graders; third and fourth graders, once part of the elementary school, now attend the "intermediate school" a couple of miles away. (Some of them—Lord help us!--are the GRANDchildren of my schoolmates.) Miss Codella, who finally married and with her husband spent many happy years writing gospel songs, has long since passed away. And this morning I got word that a classmate whom I had known from first grade on—redhaired, easygoing Steve, who sang with us on that stage—has passed away of cancer.

I hear us, today, led by Miss Codella’s soprano, as if the years had not intervened.

The wicked oppressing cease now from distressing
Sing praises to His name, He forgets not His own.

This post is a contribution to Take This Tune, a weekly meme hosted by my friend and fellow music lover Jamie. If you would like to participate, please click on the Take This Tune link. Full instructions will be given there.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Winter Waltzes

The cold of approaching winter has finally sneaked into the knobs. Yesterday afternoon my brother-in-law came and turned on the gas heater. This morning the chill is gone from the hardwood floors, and Blackadder seems quite happy (he’s been hinting for a couple of weeks that we really need to turn on the warm!)

And even though snow is quite a ways off (if we get any this winter), I watched the blue flames dance and was reminded of two lovely "winter waltzes", both dear and familiar.

Emil Waldteufel, "Skaters’ Waltz" (1882)

Britenbucher skaters

Pyotr I. Tchaikovsky, "Waltz of the Snowflakes" from THE NUTCRACKER (1891-92)


I can imagine dancing through falling snow, coming in breathless and rosy, to settle in with a cup of cocoa, maybe a freshly baked cookie, and a good book—while the snow goes on whirling outside and the flames dance inside.

Good place to be—even if it’s illusory.

Later, dear ones. . .

Friday, November 20, 2009

November 20, 1820: The Sinking of the Whaling Ship ESSEX, by a Whale

On November 20th, 1820, the Nantucket whaler Essex sank in the Pacific Ocean. The strange story of how it sank, and the horrors that followed for its surviving crew, has some importance in American literature; an account by one of the survivors from the ill-fated ship partly inspired Herman Melville’s novel Moby-Dick: Or, the Whale (1851), arguably the greatest novel ever written by an American.

Essex set out from her home port of Nantucket in August of 1819, planning to be away for two years or more, only returning home with a full cargo hold of precious oil from the sperm whale, which was used at the time for, among other things, lighting fuel and as a base for perfume. On November 20, 1820, while hunting some two thousand nautical miles off the western coast of South America, Essex was rammed twice and sunk by an eighty-ton bull sperm whale, which stove in her entire front end in two separate attacks, pushing the two hundred thirty eight ton vessel backwards and eventually capsizing her.

Inspired by an account written in 1821 by Essex's first mate, Owen Chase, Melville would have his fictional Pequod stove and sunk by the great white whale, Moby Dick, as the climax of Captain Ahab’s mad pursuit of the creature who left him a cripple, with only the novel’s narrator, Ishmael, surviving the attack.

In real life, there were eight survivors of the Essex disaster. There’s always more to the story, and theirs is horrific.

The crew of Essex was able to salvage some supplies from the ship before she sank: sixty-five gallons of water, two hundred pounds of bread, a gun, and some navigational equipment, and kept together in three of the smaller boats used to pursue and kill whales. They made landfall, eventually, on remote Henderson Island, not far from Pitcairn Island of Mutiny on the Bounty fame. While there, they were able to shoot turtles and eat their meat, but they exhausted the island’s entire food resources within four days. Three of the whalers opted to stay on Henderson Island rather than take to the open sea seeking civilization. These three were rescued, alive but starving, by an Australian ship the following April.

Of the three boats that put back out to sea, one was lost in a great storm at the end of January, 1821. The others, commanded respectively by Captain George Pollard Jr. and first mate Owen Chase, were picked up in February, Chase’s boat by the British ship Indian and Pollard’s by another Nantucket boat called Dauphin.

Only then did the five survivors reveal that they had stayed alive by cannibalizing several of the bodies of crew members who succumbed to starvation and dehydration. In one case, Pollard’s young cousin, Owen Coffin, volunteered to let himself be killed so the others might live.

All the survivors of the ordeal on the boats—Captain Pollard, Chase, cabin boy Thomas Nickerson, and able seamen Charles Ramsdale (who killed Owen Coffin after drawing lots) and B. Lawrence—were home by June of 1821. Their reception was chilly to say the least. Pollard, once he had regained his strength, went to tell the story of Owen Coffin’s sacrifice to Coffin’s mother; she threw Pollard, her nephew, out of the house and never spoke to him again.

Remarkably, all five returned to sea again. Pollard, Chase and Nickerson all shipped aboard a whaler called Two Brothers that sank in a storm in 1823; the survivors of that loss were rescued the following day. Pollard, apparently feeling that, having lost two ships in three years, he had become a Jonah, returned to Nantucket and took a job as a night watchman. Until his death in 1882, he spent every November 20th in fasting and prayer for the men of Essex who did not survive.

Owen Chase became a wealthy man from his endeavors, but in his later years his sanity failed; he took to hiding quantities of food in his Nantucket home, haunted to his grave by the privations he had suffered after the loss of Essex.

Thomas Nickerson, only fourteen at the time of the disaster, would also leave a written account of the loss. Penned in the 1870s, it was lost for more than a century, and only found and published in 1984.

Melville’s story is an all-but-gothic classic, with its mad captain and the sinister force of nature that is the White Whale. But the story of the men of Essex is, for my money, more chilling by far.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Happy Birthday, Gordon Lightfoot

Canadian folkie Gordon Lightfoot turns 71 today.

Today also would mark my dad's 74th birthday.

Monday, November 16, 2009


I love torch songs, but don't have the voice to sing them. Now this lady--the beautiful Julie London--SHE could sing torch. This is her best-known recording in the genre.

Sunday, November 15, 2009


The chosen song for this week's Take This Tune is James Taylor's "Sweet Baby James", written as a lullaby for a nephew who was named for him. It got me thinking about lullabies from other musical forms, and these two in particular, one a traditional folk piece, the other, rather unexpectedly, from opera.

The late lamented beautiful Odetta recorded "All the Pretty Little Horses" live way back in the sixties. I first heard her recording in the 1980s, when I went on a musical odyssey and fell in love with her cavernous contralto. My mom, who in her younger days, had a glorious rich contralto as well, sang it to me as she'd rock me to sleep or hush me when I was fretful and feverish from teething.

"Summertime" is, of course, the opening soprano aria from George Gershwin and DuBose Heyward's 1935 opera PORGY AND BESS; it's a lullaby sung by the character Clara to her baby. For me, it doesn't work as a soprano piece, largely because of the high notes. I prefer it sung in lower keys, the way my mom sang it to me and as the incomparable Ella Fitzgerald sings it here.

I don't have children of my own, but I carried on the tradition; I sang these lullabies to my nephew and nieces when they were babies. I don't know if they will remember that, down in those memories we feel in our viscera rather than consciousness, but I hope they'll learn them and someday sing them for their children.

Take This Tune is a weekly meme hosted by my friend and fellow music lover Jamie. A tune is chosen and participants are asked to write about the associations or memories the tune suggests to them. If you'd like to participate, please click on the link above; full instructions on how to link your response and blog are given there.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Rockin' With Detroit's Finest: Bob Seger

It’s too early for Christmas music, and frankly, I’m in a mood to rock. When I reach that point, I turn to an old favorite: Bob Seger.

Back during the 2008 election cycle, I fell in love with his song "Turn the Page". It seemed to me at the time that the life of a political candidate, particularly the front runners for the presidential nominations, was as tiring and disheartening as Seger’s portrayal of a musician who’s been on the road too long. First released in 1973, "Turn the Page" didn’t become a Seger staple until the legendary 1975 live version, with its moaning saxophone opening and closing.

In 1991, Seger released an album called THE FIRE INSIDE. The title tune is, thematically, the same as a late seventies Johnny Lee hit about "lookin’ for love in all the wrong places", a downer about the frenetic boozing, doping, and indiscriminate sex that could be found on the club scene back in the 70s and 80s. The lyrics are highly imagistic, an indictment of that fruitless search, with no happy ending in sight. Propelled by piano and drums (played, respectively, by Roy Bittan of the E Street Band and Russ Kunkel), it’ll have you dancing as very few downers can do.

Gonna be rockin’ at the Red Mud Inn all PM--

Friday, November 13, 2009

A Tale of the Thirteenth Floor

Awhile back, on another Friday the 13th, my friend Whit posted an excellent blog about superstitions, particularly those dealing with the number thirteen. (We have a Friday the thirteenth in February, March AND November this year, alas.)

Now me, I’d just as soon stay in bed on Friday the thirteenth, but what caught my attention was his mention of hotels that do not have a thirteenth floor, skipping directly from number twelve to number fourteen. The great British ghost story writer M. R. James extends this superstition even to room numbers, in his story "Number Thirteen", which features a room at an inn that was walled up, and other rooms renumbered, after its occupant made a deal with the devil.

Needless to say, this sort of grim idea is not one one would associate with the American light-verse poet Ogden Nash, but in 1955 he wrote a peculiarly chilling long poem about that very subject: A Tale of the Thirteenth Floor. Oddly enough, Nash’s internal rhymes and couplets give this piece an icy malevolence that make you forget his charming double-edged whimsies.

The opening stanzas set the scene: an irate father is in a "midtown" Manhattan hotel, seeking the vile seducer of his daughter, a gangster and gambler called Pinball Pete. He is intercepted by the elevator operator, an oldtimer named Maxie, who agrees to help him find Pete. But the elevator stops at a hellish place: the Thirteenth Floor, where murderers and victims party eternally, linked to each other with chains.

Said Max, "Thirteen, that floor obscene,
Is hidden from human sight,
But once a year it doth appear,
On this Walpurgis Night.

(Walpurgis Night, April 30, is sometimes referred to as "the other Halloween," being a night when the veil between the worlds of the living and the dead is said to be thinnest.)

Nash gives the poem extraordinary vividness by using the names of actual victims and criminals, most of them from the wide-open days of the nineteen-teens, twenties and thirties, some still famous in our day, others whose deaths were sensational at the time but are virtually forgotten by all except true crime buffs in ours. The first he mentions is "Dr. Waite," who was executed circa 1916 for killing his inlaws; he gave the hapless pair diphtheria by putting germ cultures in their drinking water. He mentions Ruth Snyder and Judd Gray, executed in 1928 for the murder of Snyder’s husband. Arnold Rothstein, who "fixed" the 1919 World Series and was found dying in a service entrance at a hotel, shot in the stomach, in 1928, after allegedly welshing on a bet, is still looking for a game of poker:

He riffles the pack, riding piggyback
On the killer whose name he hid. . .

The last and most pathetic victim is a young woman named Starr Faithfull, found drowned on New York’s Long Beach in 1931, in circumstances that have never been explained; evidence, however, points to foul play.

The father, meanwhile, is so horrified by what he sees that he decides to leave Pinball Pete to the fate that is bound to come to him someday; he’s not about to risk his immortal soul. Only then does he learn that Maxie, too, belongs to that dreadful crowd:

"For you I rejoice," said Maxie’s voice,
"And I bid you go in peace,
But I am late for a dancing date
That nevermore will cease.
So remember, friend, as your way you wend,
That it would have happened to you,
But I turned the heat on Pinball Pete;
You see—I had a daughter, too!"

I cannot remember for the life of me when I first read this poem, although it must have been a good twenty years or more ago. I will say this: it gives me goosebumps, even to this day.

Happy Friday the thirteenth, my pretties.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Cool News

Found this on Yahoo! News--money being raised to restore the birthplace of the legendary Delta bluesman Robert Johnson

The house was built by Johnson's stepfather, Charles Dodds, and although it has been abandoned for years is still in good condition.

Great honor and recognition for his importance as a bluesman.

A Mary Roberts Rinehart Omnibus

AUUUUUUGGGGHHHHH!! Allergies attack. To distract myself from how crappy I feel, I begin reading an omnibus by "the American Agatha Christie", Mary Roberts Rinehart.

Rinehart (1876-1958) spent many years writing heavy-duty serious fiction because her stuffy, politically connected physician husband was offended by the popularity of her works for the stage and in the mystery genre. It is in those genres that he dismissed as "trashy" that she did her best work, however. She also was a World War I correspondent, the mother of three sons, and, before her marriage, had trained as a nurse.

The omnibus I'm reading consists of three novels in the mystery genre. The first, THE BAT, was published under the title THE CIRCULAR STAIRCASE in 1908. It was adapted for the stage by Rinehart and Avery Hopwood in 1920 under the title THE BAT, and republished in novel form in 1926 under the latter title. I have a feeling that once it had been a hit in play form, the novel underwent a transformation of sorts, because it reads like a breathless combination of stage melodrama and broad farce, with all the stock melodramatic characters: the spinster aunt with a mania for doing her own detective work despite the remonstrations of the police, the star-crossed lovers she's trying to save from the long arm of the law, the hysterical and superstitious Irish maid, the enigmatic butler, a gardener who thinks alopecia, rubeola, and uticaria (baldness, measles, and hives, if you wondered) are plants, and a master criminal known as The Bat. The Bat is notorious for burglarizing seemingly impregnable homes, but lately he's added killing as a sideline to his burglary. The plot spirals off to stolen securities from a bank failure that have apparently been hidden in a summer rental house; various suspicious outsiders turn up at the door to be greeted by a gun-toting spinster or, if she's occupied elsewhere, the butler. A murder committed on the circular staircase of the original title finally focuses the rather meandering action, and eventually (of course) the spinster aunt triumphs over police, Bat, and improbabilities to bring the story to a rousing conclusion.

THE HAUNTED LADY (1942) is an altogether darker, more densely plotted work. Set in the 1930s, it features Rinehart's series character Hilda Adams, a nurse who frequently works with the police and in the process has acquired the nickname Miss Pinkerton. She is hired to provide both medical assistance and security for an old, wealthy woman who believes someone--possibly one of her fractious family--is trying to frighten her to death (she has a weak heart), having failed to kill her with arsenic. In the event, despite Hilda's best efforts, the old lady is murdered--violently--and Hilda will not walk off the case until the killer is exposed.

THE YELLOW ROOM (1945) is a stand-alone novel. I haven't quite finished it yet, but the plot revolves around a family's summer home. When Carol Spencer and three family servants arrive to open the house for the season, they find the telephones mysteriously removed and its year-round caretakers hors de combat, one hospitalized for an appendectomy and the other with a broken leg which she got from falling down the main staircase of the house while running from--so she swears--a person who rushed out of a closet at her. When a dead and partially burned body is found in the closet from which she was attacked, it introduces a whole host of mysteries, not the least of which is this: who was staying in the yellow bedroom of a house that had been shut up for more than a year? There are subplots involving Carol's missing/believed killed pilot fiance and a new love interest for her who is not all he appears to be, but I'm completely in the dark as bodies continue to pile up and the plot gets more convoluted.

Good read for a sunny, sneezy day.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Veterans, We Salute You

Veterans Day 2009 Pictures, Images and Photos

To those who served on the field of battle or protected us in peacetime, our sincerest thanks.

May I mention three names in particular, near and dear to my heart:

My grandfather Homer (1895-1963), a member of the American Expeditionary Force in World War I, a sharpshooting infantryman who honed his skill hunting squirrels, who busted an ankle in a shellhole, captured 32 Germans singlehandedly but turned them in to the wrong unit to get shut of them, and—mountain boy that he was—never thought much of Black Jack Pershing.

My grandfather Paul (1911-1971), a father of four who left a good job in a wartime industry to join the fight to the finish in the Pacific as a member of the United States Marine Corps in World War II, who carried a strange souvenir from one of the South Pacific islands—a gigantic and perhaps poisonous thorn—in an elbow until the day he died.

And my father George (1935-1992), a Cold War veteran who would have driven the Russians out of Eastern Europe singlehandedly if he could have, so greatly did he value freedom.

flag divider Pictures, Images and Photos

Relatives and friends of the surviving members of the 94th Infantry Division (also known as Patton’s Boston Regiment) are working, this Veterans’ Day, to achieve Liberator status for the men of the 94th, who liberated a prison camp in Germany in April 1945. Please help in this effort by going to Congress.org and petitioning your congressional and senate representatives to join in this effort to honor the brave and compassionate men who saved many lives in that camp.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The Witch of November

What the heck--may as well add my two cents worth--

The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down
Of the big lake they call Gitchee Gumee
The lake, it is said, never gives up her dead
When the skies of November turn gloomy. . .

The Great Lakes straddle the border between the United States and Canada. They are, according to some, not lakes at all, but vast freshwater inland seas, across which deadly storms lash water and land, taking lives from both. The most legendary storms and losses invariably fall in the month of November, when weather can be so unruly that sailors on the Lakes call it "the witch."

Of all the ships lost to the witch of November, the most famous is the ore freighter EDMUND FITZGERALD. The Big Fitz, as her crew affectionately called her, went down in a dreadful storm on Lake Superior on November 10, 1975, with a loss of twenty-nine lives. Her name lives on thanks to Canadian singer/songwriter Gordon Lightfoot, who, after reading an article about the disaster in NEWSWEEK, wrote "The Wreck of the EDMUND FITZGERALD." Released on the 1976 album SUMMERTIME DREAM, the song became a hit on both sides of the border.

Lightfoot had written about shipwrecks before. In 1969, he had written "The Ballad of the YARMOUTH CASTLE", inspired by a 1965 fire aboard a Panamanian cruise ship in which ninety people died. "The Ballad of the YARMOUTH CASTLE" is a fairly standard folk ballad, brooding more over the physical destruction of the ship than over the lives lost.

"The Wreck of the EDMUND FITZGERALD" is of a different order entirely. Opening with a twanging electric guitar solo, it has what feels like the rhythm of a boat rising and falling under the listener’s feet. The lyrics are among Lightfoot’s best, full of poetry, imaginatively portraying the effects of the storm on both ship and crew.

The famed lines

When suppertime came the old cook came on deck
Sayin’ "Fellas, it’s too rough to feed ya"
At seven PM the main hatchway gave in
He said "Fellas, it’s been good to know ya".

conjure a picture of how conditions deteriorated minute by minute. (It would come out during a Coast Guard investigation that this cook was one engaged for this single trip, the regular one being ashore with illness, giving the imagined words added poignance)

and another couplet echoes the despair of the searchers looking for her wreckage:

Does anyone know where the love of God goes
When the waves turn minutes to hours?

The reasons the boat sank remain controversial, as Lightfoot acknowledges:

She might have split up or she might have capsized
She may have broke deep and took water. . .

The most usual reasoning is that she sustained damage to the hull when the storm-driven waves scraped her over a shoal, and shortly thereafter was struck by a series of giant rogue waves coming at her from three directions, the dreaded "Three Sisters" phenomenon; weakened by earlier damage, she had no chance.
There is also a dazzling description of the quirks of the lakes themselves, possibly the most memorable words ever written about them; a mnemonic device I remember more readily than the acronym HOMES:

Lake Huron rolls, Superior sings
In the rooms of her ice-water mansions,
Old Michigan steams like a young man’s dreams
The islands and bays are for sportsmen;
And farther below Lake Ontario
Takes in what Lake Erie can send her. . .

Lightfoot would eventually donate all royalties from the song to the surviving families of the twenty-nine men lost aboard EDMUND FITZGERALD.

There have been shipwrecks with greater loss of life on the Lakes in November, of course, the most devastating being in the Great Storm of 1913, when nineteen ships and more than two hundred fifty men were lost. Perhaps the strangest loss of all was BANNOCKBURN, which sank within five minutes, in heavy weather, on November 21, 1902, with all hands, and has been said since to return in phantom form, the Flying Dutchman of the Great Lakes.

But none of these disasters are as well known as EDMUND FITZGERALD, which inspired such memorable words and music, becoming Lightfoot’s third number one hit and arguably the most famous of all his songs.

Sometimes, when listening to weather reports of the Great Lakes region, I remember these lyrics, and shiver.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Moanin' Low: The Sad Life of Libby Holman

(This piece was inspired by one my friend Sherry wrote at her blog about "The House of the Risin' Sun" awhile back. Another from the archives.)

Also known as "Risin’ Sun Blues", "The House of the Risin' Sun", with its tune that sounds rather like an English funeral dirge, was recorded as early as 1933 by Clarence (Tom) Ashley (1895-1967) and possibly earlier by others.

In 1999, the legendary North Carolina folk musician Doc Watson and his grandson Richard recorded "House of the Risin’ Sun" on their CD THIRD GENERATION BLUES, where copyright of that particular arrangement is assigned to Nicholas Ray and Libby Reynolds Holmes.

Thereby hangs a tale, for Libby Reynolds Holmes was, way back in the day, a great Broadway star and torch singer. Not only that, but in 1932, she was also at the center of one of the most scandalous murder mysteries of the time.

Born Elizabeth Lloyd Holzman in 1904, the daughter of a wealthy couple from Cincinnati, Libby knew trouble in her early life; her parents went broke when an uncle who handled their finances embezzled a fortune from them. To escape the family disgrace, her father changed their last name to Holman, and it was as Libby Holman that she moved to New York City in 1924, aiming for a career on the Broadway stage. She made a successful debut in 1925, and in 1929, in a revue called THE LITTLE SHOW, she introduced what would become her signature song, the minor-key blues "Moanin’ Low."

In April 1930 she met the man whose life and death changed the trajectory of her life and career forever. Zachary Smith Reynolds was no ordinary suitor; he was the nineteen-year-old heir to a vast chunk of the R.J. Reynolds tobacco fortune, and he was already married and had a young daughter. He was also said to be of a morose and uneven temper. Libby, meanwhile, was not only a great Broadway star; she was promiscuous and already a notorious alcoholic, and she was seven years older than Smith, as the family called him. Still, he pursued her passionately, and she apparently responded. He obtained a divorce from his first wife, the decree becoming official on November 23, 1931. Six days later, he and Libby Holman were married in a Michigan courthouse.

It was a mesalliance from the start; Smith expected her to give up her career altogether and be a proper wife for a wealthy southern gentleman businessman. To that, Libby would not agree, but she did agree to take no new roles for a year and to live with him at the family estate, Reynolda, in North Carolina. It was, frankly, a deadly mistake for both of them. Smith’s family detested Libby and the friends she invited down from New York; Libby found her new inlaws boring and priggish, and as her unhappiness increased, so did her drinking.

On July 6, 1932, Libby threw a joint birthday party for Smith (he was twenty-one that day) and a friend of his. Sometime later that night, Libby told Smith that she was pregnant with his child. This precipitated a violent argument between the pair that was ended by a single gunshot. Libby ran out onto the balcony shouting, "Smith’s killed himself!"

An ambiguous statement at best. Smith Reynolds lay dead of a gunshot wound to the head. Libby hysterically proclaimed that she really couldn’t remember what happened when a coroner’s jury pronounced the death murder rather than suicide. She said she had been in the midst of an alcoholic blackout (a malady she had been known to suffer in the past) and really couldn’t recall who fired the gun.

The Reynolds family refused to press charges to avoid scandal. Libby was pensioned off with a one-time cash payment, a trust fund was created for the son she bore on January 10, 1933, and she returned to New York and attempted a stage comeback. In 1934, she turned down the lead role in a Cole Porter show called ANYTHING GOES. The role she refused was a hit for a hitherto-unknown actress and singer named Ethel Merman.

Libby Holman Reynolds would go through many lovers, marry twice more (her second husband, twelve years younger than her, died of a deliberate barbiturate overdose in 1945 at age 29; it was from him that she acquired the name she used for the rest of her life—Libby Reynolds Holmes), adopt two sons, and suffer the loss of her eighteen year old son by Smith Reynolds in a 1950 climbing accident on Mount Whitney. In 1971, at the age of sixty-seven, all but forgotten by the entertainment business, she was found in her garage, nearly dead of carbon monoxide poisoning. She never regained consciousness.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES: Conan Doyle's Own Murder Mystery?

This was originally posted at one of my other blogs, on March 9, 2008. I'm rather fond of it though, and beg leave to reprise it.

The Hound of the Baskervilles Pictures, Images and Photos

A masterful Sherlock Holmes parody/pastiche (I'm never sure which is the right word) the other day by my friend Anexplorer sent me back to my all-time favorite of the Holmes works: the novel THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES, originally published in serial form in STRAND Magazine from August 1901 through April 1902. The plot turns on how an outcast member of a Devonshire family named Baskerville uses a legend of a death omen to try to eliminate the two lives that stand between him and a considerable estate.

When the novel was published in book form, Arthur Conan Doyle wrote the following dedication:

MY DEAR ROBINSON: It was your account of a west country legend which first suggested the idea of this little tale to my mind. For this, and for the help which you gave me in its evolution, all thanks.

Robinson, it transpires, was a journalist friend of Doyle's: Bertram Fletcher Robinson, whom Doyle first met in early 1901. In the course of their friendship, Robinson is said to have told Doyle legends from his own Devonshire boyhood, including several from the complex of tales featuring Black Shuck, a giant ghostly black dog. There is some evidence to suggest that Robinson acted as Doyle's secretary during the composition of the novel. He almost certainly introduced Doyle to a driver named Harry Baskerville, whose family name was used in the novel as that of the doomed family haunted by a demonic hound.

Robinson died in 1907 at the age of thirty-six. At the time it was reported that he died of typhoid. And there the story ended.

Or did it?

The first hints that have led to speculation that Robinson may have been murdered, at Doyle's behest, surfaced in 1959. An enterprising reporter had traced the driver, Harry Baskerville, who was then in his eighties. Baskerville apparently proudly showed off an autographed copy of the novel--inscribed with apologies for the use of the Baskerville name--and told the reporter rather carelessly that Doyle had not written the novel at all; that he had stolen it from one Robinson had written on the same theme.

Still, the matter more or less lay for another thirty years, until a researcher named Rodger Garrick-Steele began an eleven-year investigation of the relationship between Robinson and Doyle. In the year 2000, Garrick-Steele voiced his suspicions that Robinson's death was not a natural one, and with several people who found his arguments persuasive, began a campaign to get Robinson's body exhumed for autopsy. It was covered at the time by CNN.

Garrick-Steele's argument goes something like this: by 1907, Robinson had begun to resent that Doyle's plagiarism, as he allegedly saw it, had become so popular, a resentment heightened by the fact that Doyle was carrying on an affair with Robinson's wife, Gladys. When Robinson threatened Doyle with exposure and legal action, Doyle persuaded Gladys to poison Robinson with the potent painkiller/sedative laudanum. Doyle, a medical doctor as well as a writer, knew that the symptoms of laudanum poisoning were very similar to those of typhoid.

If--a very big if--this were true, the plan went awry almost the moment Robinson died. In 1907 England, it's said, the law required victims of typhoid to be cremated. Robinson was not cremated; he was buried at St. Andrew's church in the town of Ipplepen. Moreover, his wife Gladys was later to claim that he died, not of typhoid, but of food poisoning following a visit to Paris.

Okay, you may ask: Fairweather, where do you come into the story?

I'm a devoted watcher of a BBC/LivingTV show called MOST HAUNTED, in which a team of mediums, parapsychologists and true believers investigate allegedly haunted sites. During their 2005 season the team went to the Old Church House Inn in Devonshire, which has some connection to the story of Bertram Fletcher Robinson. The show's medium, David Wells, corroborated Garrick-Steele's account of Robinson's grudge against Doyle and his death.

I frankly rolled in the floor over that one; this is after all the same medium who, during a visit to a pub at Haworth in Yorkshire, repeated the vile canard that Branwell Bronte, not his sister Emily, actually wrote WUTHERING HEIGHTS. (I don't believe that one either.) I was intrigued enough, though, to ask my friend Sharon(I didn't have a puter then) to do some research. It's for real--at least the suggestion that Robinson was murdered at Doyle's behest.

I've done some research of my own since then. It doesn't appear very likely to me at all, particularly in the supposition of an affair with Gladys Robinson. In 1907, following a conventional year of mourning for his late wife Louise, Doyle remarried--to a woman with whom he had been platonically involved for the last ten years of Louise's life. He and Jean, his second wife, were a deeply devoted couple for the remaining years of his life; when, after his son Kingsley died in World War I, Doyle became an avid if gullible researcher in spiritualism, Jean worked with him, exhibiting mediumistic abilities herself. Surely, if Robinson had had something to say from beyond the grave, he would have done so. Not to mention that there seems, from what I can find, no evidence before Harry Baskerville's 1959 bombshell of such rumors.

As of January 2008, the Church of England had refused to allow the exhumation of Robinson's body.

What do you all think?

For that matter, what would Sherlock Holmes think?

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Saturday Music: Favorites from Ol' Blue Eyes

I'm in a Sinatra mood, my dears--hence these songs. "Witchcraft", written by Cy Coleman and Carolyn Leigh, was originally recorded as a solo in 1957, but this version, a 1993 duet with the beautiful Anita Baker, is WONDERFUL.

"I’ve Got You Under My Skin" written by Cole Porter, comes from a 1956 album called SONGS FOR SWINGIN’ LOVERS. Don't talk to me about anybody else's version--not even Thomas Hampson's--or the duet with Bono from the same album as the duet with Anita Baker; this one is truly the standard, and all others fall short. Harrumph.

Oh, my. It don't get no better than this. Later, fellow music mavens.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Bedtime Music: Overture from MESSIAH

Comforting on a day of mourning.

For the Dead and Wounded of Fort Hood

US Flag at Half Staff with Candle Pictures, Images and Photos

Our thoughts and prayers are with you.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Bedtime Music: An Old Favorite

This lovely piece, the Canon in D major (in form, a canonic variation on a ground bass, for the repeated eight-note figure in the bass), by the German Middle Baroque composer Johann Pachelbel (1653-1706) was fairly obscure as recently as the 1970s, but became a favorite when it was revived by guitarist Jean-Francois Pallaird. It gained its greatest theme, however, as the main theme from the 1980 Academy Award winning film Ordinary People.

When I was in college chorale, in the early eighties, we sang a choral setting of the Canon in D. I only remember the opening:

In the silence of our souls, O Lord, we contemplate thy peace,
Free from all the world's desires, free from fear and all anxiety. . .

Lovely music for bedtime, no?

PS Some of you may recognize that the portrait that accompanies this video is of Mozart, born more than a century later than Pachelbel. Pay no mind; just enjoy the music.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Halloween Half-Price, Christmas in the Garden Center. . .Turkey in the Grocery


It was a Turkey! He could never have stood upon his legs, that bird. He would have snapped 'em short off in a minute, like sticks of sealing wax. Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol (1843)

Auntie and I hit that fearsome Wally World today. Halloween items--a lot of them--hung forlornly on a half-price rack. The garden center, meantime, is in the process of being turned into a Christmas wonderland of trees, decorations, figurines, and cards.

Only in the grocery section is there much sign of Thanksgiving as yet--in a main-aisle freezer the two ends are already emptying of frozen turkeys, some of them fully as big as Dickens's fictitious bird.

I've never cooked a turkey that large. For one thing, Mom and I could never eat that much turkey, and for another, my sister has for many years now insisted on doing all the cooking for Thanksgiving. She most likely will do so again this year, although I may take a vegetable dish.

Granted that I was hungry when we walked past those big birds. But I swear I could smell turkey and stuffing, mashed potatoes and pumpkin pie--and my mouth watered.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Be Careful Who You Love: Ode to a Songwriter

The other evening an online acquaintance of mine was reminiscing about an uncle of his who holds a revered place in the history of country music outside Nashville circles, but who has never received his due from Nashville, where most of that history is written. That reminiscence reminded me of "the greatest songwriter you never heard of"—a man who likewise has yet to get his due from Nashville. I wrote about him in somewhat different form in a September 2008 blog post, and beg leave to write about him here.

On September 19, 2008, WBIR-TV, Channel 10 Knoxville anchor John Becker did a feature during their Live at Five broadcast about Arthur Q. Smith—to whom he referred as "the greatest songwriter you never heard of."

If you’re a fan of classic country music from the forties and fifties, though, you may recognize the names of some of the songs he wrote: "Wedding Bells", "I Overlooked an Orchid", "Rainbow at Midnight". Those are but three of thirty-five to fifty songs written by Arthur Q. Smith which are attributed to other writers.

Arthur Q. Smith was born James Arthur Pritchett in Griffin, Georgia, in 1909. From the 1930s to the 1950s he performed on Knoxville radio WNOX’s famed Midday Merry-Go-Round. The Merry-Go-Round, emceed for its entire run of some nineteen years by a DJ and promoter named Lowell Blanchard, was live music on East Tennessee’s airwaves. It was also a springboard for a number of performers who moved on to Nashville, legends in country music: Archie Campbell, Chet Atkins, Mother Maybelle and the Carter Sisters, the Louvin Brothers, Homer and Jethro, Don Gibson, the Everly Brothers, Carl Smith, Carl Story and the Rambling Mountaineers (one member was the mandolinist Red Rector), and many others.

When James Arthur Prichett joined the Merry-Go-Round, he adopted the stage name Arthur Q. Smith. The "Q" was probably added to distinguish him from "Fiddlin’" Arthur Smith and Arthur "Guitar Boogie" Smith, respectively a fiddler and an electric guitarist of the same era. Arthur Q. sang in a pleasant if occasionally faltering tenor reminiscent of the vocals of Hank Williams Sr.—good old basic hillbilly singing. And Arthur Q., like Ol’ Hank, was an excellent songwriter.

Tragically, he shared another trait with Ol’ Hank—he was hopelessly alcoholic.

At one time, there was a corner bar called The Three Feathers in Knoxville, not far from the WNOX studios. Arthur Q. and performers from the Merry-Go-Round would meet there after live shows. Arthur Q. would sit at the bar and write song lyrics on whatever paper was available, usually napkins. And some of those lyrics he sold for beer money.

"Wedding Bells" was one such. A hit for Hank Williams Sr. in 1949, it is credited to Claude Boone—which may be one source of rumors that Ol’ Hank bought songs. "I Overlooked an Orchid" is credited to Carl Story, Shirly Lynn, and Carl Smith. Carl Smith had a hit recording of that song in 1950. "Rainbow at Midnight" is credited to and was recorded by Ernest Tubb in 1946.

Buying songs was not an uncommon practice in the old days of country music (and for all I know, may still be very common). Webb Pierce, for example, who owned a song-publishing company and, for some fifteen years beginnning in the mid-1950s, was guaranteed to make a hit out of any song he chose to release, was notorious for telling songwriters he’d record their material if they’d "give him half of it"—i.e. share songwriting credit with him in exchange for him recording the number. Thus Pierce made money off the publishing, recording and writing of the song (most famously, perhaps, off Mel Tillis). Arthur Q. Smith made no such agreements. He literally sold all rights to his songs, usually for sums ranging from ten to twenty dollars—drinking money.

East Tennessee historian Bradley Reeves showed John Becker a receipt he found in Arthur Q. Smith’s papers (which are now held at the East Tennessee Historical Society as part of the Midday Merry-Go-Round’s archives), the only one found so far to document such a transaction. Dated December 15th, 1950, it shows that Don Gibson paid Arthur Q. fifteen dollars for a song called "Blue Million Tears." Allegedly this gave Gibson half the song, but apparently Arthur Q. never made another cent off it. There is some evidence to indicate that Arthur Q also wrote Gibson’s hit "I Can’t Stop Loving You", but documentation is sparse.

The one song Arthur Q. refused to part with was one he wrote about a Second World War soldier who returns after being listed as MIA to find that his fiancee, believing him dead, has married another man. "Missing in Action" was a hit in the 1950s for Ernest Tubb. It is credited to Arthur Q. Smith and Helen Kaye.

Poor businessman? Alcoholic who sold the songs that could have made him a name to be reckoned with in country music, as many another addict sells talent and soul? The most heartbreaking part of Arthur Q. Smith’s story is that so many people knew and used his weakness, and yet are celebrated in Nashville to this day, while his name is virtually forgotten outside his family and lovers of classic country and the Merry-Go-Round.

Harlan Howard, a great songwriter who was taken advantage of in the early days of his career, when he was young and desperate for money, wrote the song "Be Careful Who You Love (Arthur’s Song)" in honor of Arthur Q.

The old guitar picker had run out of liquor
So I sat down beside him and bought him a drink
I bought him another, and finally some color
Returned to his cheeks, and he said with a wink
Son I worked for Red Foley, knew Hank and Ol’ Lefty
I worked on the Opry back when I was strong
But in showbiz you know sometimes it gets slow
So you buy us another and I’ll sing you a song. . .
Be careful who you love. . .

Arthur Q. Smith, songwriter extraordinaire, died at the age of fifty-four on March 21st, 1963. At the time of his death, he had seven cents in his pocket.

There are thousands of stories out there, like my acquaintance’s uncle and Arthur Q., of people who were significant in the past history of country music but whom Nashville chooses to ignore or downplay in documenting its own admittedly illustrious story. It’s up to people outside Nashville to keep that other history alive—and to nag hell out of Nashville, until recognition comes. It can be a long lonely job.