If I Only Had A…

If I Only Had A…

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As we in Massachusetts enter the second week of staying at home due to COVID-19, I have been happy to connect with family and friends and acquaintances via their WordPress blog posts and Facebook updates.

THANK YOU to everyone for your words and images and information!

Since it’s been almost a month since my last blog post, I am finally putting my fingers to the laptop keyboard in order to share another great song by composer Harold Arlen and lyricist Yip Harburg (in photo below…)

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Yip lived a full and passionate and creative and principled life — and wrote the lyrics for a bunch of great songs, including “Springtime in Paris,” “Old Devil Moon,” “How Are Things In Glocca Morra?”  “Down With Love,” “It’s Only A Paper Moon,” “Happiness Is A Thing Called Joe,” “Lydia The Tattooed Lady, and “Brother, Can You Spare A Dime?”

And then there are the songs he and Harold Arlen wrote for a movie inspired by the work of author L. Frank Baum and illustrator William Wallace Denslow.

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These include “We’re Off To See The Wizard,” “If I Only Had A Brain,” and “Over The Rainbow” — which won the Academy award for best song in a motion picture in 1939.

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I learned from reading a biography about Yip — co-written by his son Ernie Harburg — that in addition to writing the lyrics for the songs in The Wizard Of Oz, Yip also wrote all the dialogue that sets up the songs — and he even wrote the dialogue for one of my favorite scenes near the end, when the Wizard gives medals to the Scarecrow, Tin Woodman, and Cowardly Lion in honor of their heart, brains and nerve.

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I also learned that, in classic Hollywood fashion, eleven different screenwriters were involved with the script — with Yip serving as the final script editor, pulling the whole thing together and giving it coherence and unity. But he didn’t get any official screen credit for all of that work on the script.

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Yip is also the person responsible for including the powerful metaphor of a rainbow in the movie — which was produced partly to showcase MGM’s Technicolor prowess.

In the original book The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, there is no mention of a rainbow.

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Yip’s son Ernie describes in an interview I found on YouTube how “Over The Rainbow” came to be written:

Yip and Harold Arlen’s contract at MGM had run out, and they still didn’t have a key song for Dorothy written.

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Frank Baum writes in The Wonderful Wizard Of Oz that where Dorothy lived, “not a tree nor a house broke the broad sweep of flat country that reached the edge of the sky in all directions. The sun had baked the plowed land into a gray mass. Even the grass was not green, for the sun had burned the tops of the long blades.”

Yip and Harold discussed this description, and how Dorothy’s neighbor Miss Gulch had threatened to take away her beloved companion, Toto, and how Dorothy was looking for a way to escape…

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At this time in their lives, both Yip and Harold were living in Beverly Hills, with lush green lawns — plus elaborate sprinkler systems to keep them green!

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One day when his gardener turned on the sprinklers, Yip was struck by the little rainbows that appeared in the air. When he next saw Harold he said, “Dorothy wants to escape — to be on the other side of the rainbow,” and Harold went away and came back with a beautiful melody which Yip then worked on for three weeks to find words with exactly the right syllables to fit Harold’s melody.

And, thanks to Judy Garland’s beautifully poignant rendition of their song,  the rest is cinema history.

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“If I Only Had A Brain” (a version of which is included in the player at the beginning of this blog post) is based on a melody for a song called “I’m Hanging On To You” which Yip and Harold had written for — and then cut from — a 1937 anti-war musical called Hooray For What!

Apparently another song that Yip and Harold wrote for Hooray For What! — called “In the Shade of the New Apple Tree” — so impressed the powers-that-be at Metro Goldwyn Mayer in California that they chose Harold and Yip to write the songs for what became The Wizard of Oz.

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When they were working on a song to be sung by the Scarecrow, Tin Woodman, and Cowardly Lion, Yip recalled the melody from “I’m Hanging On To You,” and fashioned an entirely new set of lyrics — including short verses (one of which I have included in my recording with pianist Doug Hammer) which were not used in the final cut of the movie.

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Rainbows continued to be an important metaphor for Yip throughout his life — popping up in quite a few of his songs.

Yip once explained, “I belong to a tribe of what used to be called troubadors. Sometimes they were called minstrels. Now we’re called songwriters…we worked for, in our songs, a better world, a rainbow world… Now my generation, unfortunately, never succeeded in creating that rainbow world; so we can’t hand it down to you. But we could hand down our songs, which still hang on to hope and laughter.”

For that I am immensely grateful — to Yip and to Harold and to all of the other hard-working songwriters from the 20th century who have left us such a treasure trove of music.

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Yip differed from many of his contemporaries in that he was eager to wrestle with social and political issues in his creative projects.

I already mentioned the anti-war musical Hooray For What! in 1937 (two years before the start of WWII) and the Depression-era classic “Brother, Can You Spare A Dime?” which Yip wrote with one of his first collaborators, the composer Jay Gorney,  for a revue in 1932 called Americana.

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With composer Harold Arlen he wrote the songs for 1944’s Bloomer Girl, which was set in upstate NY and explored the women’s suffrage and abolitionist movements in the years leading up to the Civil War while featuring an integrated cast on stage.

Three years later Yip helped create another musical classic, Finian’s Rainbow — set in a fictional region of the American South called Missitucky. Yip not only wrote lyrics, he also co-authored the script — and the integrated cast featured characters such as a leader of a union of black and white share-croppers, a leprechaun, two recent Irish immigrants, and a white racist Southern Senator who is transformed into an African-American citizen for several days as an opportunity for growth and education.

Finian’s Rainbow gave us a wide variety of songs, including “When The Idle Poor Become The Idle Rich, “Old Devil Moon,” “Look To The Rainbow,” and “How Are Things In Glocca Morra?”

It may seem a bit odd that a song like “How Are Things In Glocca Morra” was written by two Jewish songwriters (Burton Lane was the composer of Finian’s Rainbow).

But Yip was himself the child of immigrants — Orthodox Yiddish-speaking Russian Jews — and he grew up very poor on the lower east side of Manhattan.

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His official name when he was born in 1896 — the youngest of four surviving children out of ten total — was Isidore Hochberg, and he was nicknamed “Yip” (from Yipsele, a Yiddish term of endearment referring to a squirrel) because he was so active as a child.

Yip was very successful in grammar school — winning prizes for his ability to recite poems and performing in many musical productions. He earned a spot at Townsend Harris — a prestigious public high school associated with City College of New York where you could earn both a high school and bachelor’s degree in seven years.

He found himself seated alphabetically next to a young fellow named Israel Gershovitz — also known as Ira Gershwin. Yip and Ira became life-long friends — sharing a deep admiration for Gilbert & Sullivan and later co-writing a humor column for the newspaper at City College.

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I could go on and on about Yip.

Although he was not a Communist, he was blacklisted from working in the movies, TV  and radio for 12 years during the 50s and early 60s.

He kept working on Broadway, however, and even co-wrote a song which was recorded by the folk/pop trio Peter, Paul & Mary.

If you are curious to learn more about this creative and inspirational human being, you can click here to read his Wikipedia entry and/or track down the biography co-written by his son, Ernie Harburg.

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Perhaps some of his songs like “Brother, Can You Spare A Dime?” and “It’s Only A Paper Moon,” will take on a new resonance in the days and weeks ahead…

For the time being, I remain grateful that we in Massachusetts are still allowed to leave our homes and go for walks in our neighborhoods — as long as we maintain a healthy physical distance from other human beings we encounter along the way — so that I can continue to “while away the hours, conferring with the flowers (and) consulting with the rain.”

While COVID-19 buffets our human societies, the natural world continues — blessedly — to create a new buds, new leaves, new flowers!

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Part of the reason for the gap between my last blog post and this one is that I have begun leading half-hour singalongs at 8:00 pm each night via Facebook Live.

If you are feeling hungry for some musical camaraderie and fun, please consider joining us any night starting at 8:00 pm (Eastern Standard Time in the USA).

Previous sing-alongs also remain on my Facebook home page in case you are curious to visit at any time of the day or night.

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You can click here to visit my Facebook home page.

Thank you to Pixabay for some of the images included in this blog post.

Thank you to Giphy.com for all of the GIFs included in this blog post.

Thank you to Doug Hammer for his tremendous skills as a pianist AND as an engineer.

And thank YOU for reading and listening to another one of my blog posts!

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The Moon and Sand… and Seals!

The Moon and Sand… and Seals!

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As regular readers of this blog are well aware, I love spending time on Cape Cod.

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And I am not alone in this sentiment.

In recent years the population of seals on Cape Cod has risen significantly.

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According to the web site of the Center For Coastal Studies in Provincetown, two kinds of seals — harbor and gray — live on the Cape year-round.

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Three other species — harp, hooded, and ring seals — can also be spotted on Cape Cod, although they give birth in Canada and Greenland.

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I am pretty sure it is gray seals who share the beach in North Truro with us human beings.

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Head Of The Meadow beach, near where I camp with family members each summer, is home to hundreds of seals.

You can click here to read a recent story — with great photos — about this particular community of seals.

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It confirms what we have noticed — that within the past ten years, the number of seals sharing this beach has increased substantially!

At low tide they gather in large communities on the sandbars and soak up the sun.

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Then at high tide everyone is back in the water, swimming up and down the shoreline in search of food.

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When I am learning new songs, I usually record them as accurately as possible with pianist Doug Hammer at his studio in Lynn, MA.

Then I load piano-vocal and just-piano versions onto my iPod — and walk and sing for hours, memorizing lyrics while musing about the story being told in the song…

And beaches are great places to walk and sing.

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Seals often will swim along the shore while I am walking — their heads popping up through the surface of the water at regular intervals.

Sometimes a bunch of them will gather and watch/listen if I stop and sing in one place for a while.

They are curious beings.

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On clear nights, I sometimes leave the campground and head back to the beach in order to walk and sing and revel in a truly starry sky.

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Where I live — just outside of Boston — there’s a lot of light pollution.

But on the outer Cape — away from buildings and streetlights and cars — the skies remain awe-inspiring.

And song-inspiring!

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I wrote the song (in the player at the beginning of this blog post) a couple of summer ago… and recorded it with Doug a few weeks ago at his studio north of Boston.

It was an alternative pick for a Valentine’s-themed blog post.

But since February is not quite over, I have decided to share it in this seal-themed blog post instead.

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Since I burn easily, I almost never go to the beach during peak sun hours.

My routine is to stay at the campground during the day — when almost all of the humans have gone to the beach — and write songs.

I sit in a very large tent with my ukulele and a rhyming dictionary and a little digital recorder and a laptop computer and bags of song ideas which I have jotted down over the years.

I listen to the birds and the chipmunks and the crickets and the cicadas.

And write.

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Then in the late afternoon I walk down a long path through a wonderful pine forest to the beach.

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In addition to swimming in very shallow water along the shore — because the booming seal population has also encouraged a healthy population of great white sharks to visit the outer Cape — I sometimes stretch and do a little yoga.

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As do the seals…

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While we human beings dither about climate change — and carry viruses around the world due to our obsession with international travel — and vote for political candidates who may or may not care one iota for their constituents — I am strangely reassured to think about the seals.

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And the moon.

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And the stars.

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And the sea.

Thank you to all of the photographers who share their great photos at Pixabay.

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And to the seals and other wildlife who share the Cape with us human beings.

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And to the North Of Highland Campground for staying in business year after year.

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And to my family who choose to camp together for two weeks each summer.

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And to you for reading and listening to this blog post!

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A Melody Played In A Penny Arcade…

A Melody Played In A Penny Arcade…

amusement-park-1045212_1280As longtime readers of my blog probably recall, when I was laid off from my day job as assistant director of the Cambridge Center for Adult Education seven years ago, I decided to devote my life to making music.

And writing songs.

And leading Music Together classes.

A few months after my lay-off, a Boston-area jazz pianist named Joe Reid reached out to see if I might like to do a gig at the retirement community where his dad lives.

I had met Joe several years earlier — when HE was in the midst of a life transition from working full-time as a lawyer to working full-time as a musician — and promptly said, “Yes!”

We needed to prepare an hour of music, and I mentioned that I had long loved many songs co-written by composer Harold Arlen — a list which includes “My  Shining Hour,” “I’ve Got The World On A String,” “Accentuate The Positive,” “Anyplace I Hang My Hat Is Home,” “Come Rain Or Come Shine,” “Blues In The Night,”  “That Old Black Magic,” “If I Only Had A Brain,”  “Over The Rainbow,” “Happiness is Just A Thing Called Joe,” “Let’s Fall In Love,” “Get Happy,” and “It’s Only A Paper Moon.”

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I had sung a few of these songs in a program of music featuring the lyrics of Johnny Mercer with singer Bobbi Carrey and pianist Doug Hammer — because one of Mr. Arlen’s many collaborators was Mr. Mercer.

And I was familiar with others due to the movie version of The Wizard Of Oz, for which Mr. Arlen composed the music and Yip Harburg wrote lyrics (and a lot of uncredited dialogue  —  a topic I will explore in a future blog post dedicated to Yip).

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I biked over to Joe’s house — in the town next to mine — with a bunch of sheet music.

We spent about 90 minutes running through thirteen songs — picking comfortable keys and exploring tempos/feels for each of them.

And that was it for rehearsing with Joe.

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Joe (on the left) is very much a “let’s-trust-in-the-moment” kind of musician who welcomes improvisation and spontaneity.

I, too, value spontaneity — and I also appreciate structure.

So I booked time with pianist Doug Hammer at his studio north of Boston.

We recorded all of the Arlen songs once or twice so that I could have a set of piano-only tracks to play on my iPod as I walked around Arlington memorizing lyrics.

And some of the versions we recorded — such as the version of “It’s Only A Paper Moon” included in the player at the beginning of this blog post — came out surprisingly well.

“It’s Only A Paper Moon” was written for a 1932 play (not a musical) called The Great Magoo set in Coney Island which was not a big success.

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It is credited to Arlen, Harburg, and impresario Billy Rose — who was somewhat infamous for adding his name to the songwriting credits of other people’s work after having contributed an idea or two during the creative process.

You may recognize Rose’s name because he was married for many years to the great performer Fanny Brice, and his character appears in the movie Funny Lady starring Barbra Streisand as Brice.

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Somehow this Coney Island hot dog made me think of him…

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Luckily the song was rescued from The Great Magoo and included in a movie called Take A Chance the next year — which led to successful recordings by a wide range of musicians over the past 70+ years.

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I love the metaphors and imagery used in the song — all things one might encounter at an amusement park like Coney Island.

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I also love the sentiment of the song — that if someone believes in and loves another person, their belief and love can be transformative.

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And looking at these photos, I am struck by the way an amusement park transforms from day to night…

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Valentine’s Day is just around the corner, and I would like to dedicate Doug’s and my version of “It’s Only A Paper Moon” to all of the folks who have at one time or another believed in me — including friends and acquaintances in the WordPress blog-o-sphere.

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Your positive feedback regarding my music and my blog continues to touch and inspire me every day.

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Thank you to Pixabay for the great color photographs of Coney Island and other amusement parks around the world.

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Thank you to Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg and Billy Rose for writing this wonderful song.

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And to Joe Reid for asking me to do a gig with him seven years ago.

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Since then Joe and I have done hundreds of gigs together and created twenty five different one-hour musical programs.

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Thank you to Doug Hammer for his engineering excellence and his playful virtuosity at the keyboard.

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And THANK YOU for reading and listening — and even leaving a comment or two from time to time.

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Happy Valentine’s Day!

 

 

 

Ode To Water

Ode To Water

 

We’ve been having an unusually warm January in New England this year…

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So far we have experienced as much rain as snow…

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I prefer rain to snow because I don’t have to shovel outside the karate studio where I lead Music Together classes three mornings each week.

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Most of us burn fewer fossil fuels as a result of warmer winter temperatures — and save a little money on our heating bills.

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One weekend the temperature hit 70 degrees Farenheit (21 degrees Celsius) — an all-time high for Boston in January!

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I don’t know if any of our local turtles dug their way out of the mud thinking it was spring…

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But there was a fair amount of spring-like frolicking in the greater Boston area — although maybe not quite as enthusiastically as these folks…

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I wrote this song several years ago while camping in North Truro on Cape Cod.

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As regular readers of my blog posts already know, I LOVE spending time at the North Of Highland camping area.

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One of my favorite parts of camping there is how everyone gains — or regains — a deep appreciation for the preciousness of water.

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All of the faucets in the bathrooms shut off after a second or two to encourage us not to waste water while brushing our teeth, washing our hands, or shaving.

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And we have to carry water — for drinking and cooking and washing dishes after our meals — in big plastic jugs from centrally located cabins (which have bathrooms, showers, and outdoor spigots) down to our camp sites.

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So we become very aware of how much water we use all day long — such as boiling pasta for dinner or rinsing a soapy pot afterwards.

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We are a short walk away from the Atlantic ocean, which is another mesmerizing manifestation of water on planet earth.

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I tend to go to the beach in the late afternoon, when the sun is less powerful and the beach starts to become less crowded with other human beings.

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And then there are clouds — another form of water…

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How weird and amazing that water molecules are constantly cycling around our planet — from the sky to the earth to plants (and the animals who consume plants) and then back into the sky!

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And water is such an important substance in our bodies…

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Blood is flowing through my arteries and veins as I sit and type this blog post — and through your arteries and veins as you are reading it…

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Water is an important component of all sort of secretions which our bodies produce — and which in some cases allow for the reproduction of our species.

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And plants, bless them, create delicious fruits — containing lots of water — as part of their reproductive cycles.

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The more I explored Pixabay, the more glorious images related to water I found…

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Ocean waves…

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Cups of tea…

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Whales…

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Rainbows…

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Rivers…

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Splashing hands…

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Waterfalls…

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Water slides…

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Ponds…

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Lakes…

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Glaciers…

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Rotini…

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Thunderstorms…

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Reflections…

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Tears…

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More waterfalls…

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Aquariums…

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Raindrops…

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Leaves…

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Jelly fish…

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More glaciers…

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Mountain tops…

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Impressionistic ripples…

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Otherworldly reflections…

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Libations…

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Waves…

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Hot springs…

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And ice crystals…

Thank you to Doug Hammer for playing piano and co-producing the version of “Ode To Water” featured at the start of this blog post.

Thank you to the photographers who share their glorious images with Pixabay.

And thank YOU for reading and listening to another one of my blog posts!

Skylark…

Skylark…

As our president speaks on the radio about his recent decision to kill an Iranian general (and others) in Iraq, I thought I might share a post about love and melody and music…

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John Herndon Mercer was born on November 18, 1909 in Savannah, Georgia.

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From the 1930s to the 1960s he co-wrote a slew of hit songs including “Jeepers Creepers,” “Hooray For Hollywood,” “You Must Have Been A Beautiful Baby,” “Come Rain or Come Shine,” “One For My Baby (And One More For The Road),” “Anyplace I Hang My Hat Is Home,” “I’m Old Fashioned,” “Moon River,” “On The Atchison, Topeka And The Santa Fe,” “Too Marvelous For Words,” “Accentuate The Positive,” “That Old Black Magic,” “Blues In The Night,” “In The Cool, Cool, Cool Of The Evening,” “Autumn Leaves,” and “Skylark.”

Mercer was nominated for 19 Academy Awards — winning four Oscars for best original song — and had two successful shows on Broadway.

He was also a popular recording artist AND co-founded Capitol Records!

“Skylark” was published in 1941 — when Europe was engulfed in WWII but the USA had not yet entered the fight…

The song had a long creative gestation.

According to Wikipedia, the composer Hoagy Carmichael was inspired to write the melody for what became “Skylark” by an improvisation which his old friend Bix Beiderbecke — a jazz cornet player — had once played.

Bix’s music and too-short life had already inspired a novel called YOUNG MAN WITH A HORN which Hoagy was hoping to adapt into a Broadway show (and which a decade later provided the source material for a movie of the same name starring Kirk Douglas, Lauren Bacall, Doris Day and Hoagy Carmichael…)

Apparently the Broadway production never gelled, and after that Hoagy shared the melody with Johnny in hopes that he might write lyrics for it.

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Different books report different versions of how long it took Johnny to write the lyrics for “Skylark.”

Most agree, however, that it was a long period of time — several months to a year — and that Hoagy had kind of forgotten that Johnny was working on lyrics for it (or at least Hoagy had stopped checking in with Johnny to ask him if he had made any progress…)

Around this time Johnny had started an on-again, off-again love affair with Judy Garland.

He was 31 years old (and married…and upset because his father had recently died) and she — fresh off her success as Dorothy in THE WIZARD OF OZ — was 19 years old.

Many writers have speculated about which of Mercer’s lyrics were inspired by his love for Judy — and “Skylark” is one of the contenders.

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Here is Judy in an MGM publicity photo from 1943 — when she was 21 years old.

Beautiful and funny and gifted and smart and hard-working and … inspirational.

Another thing which inspired Johnny was the natural world.

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His family had a summer home outside Savannah on a hill overlooking an estuary — and he spent his summers as a child fishing, swimming, sailing, picking berries, and lying very still.

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He wrote in an unpublished autobiography, “The roads were still unpaved, made of crushed oyster shell, and…they wound their way under the trees covered with Spanish moss…”

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“It was a sweet indolent background for a boy to grow up in…and as we drove out to our place in the country there (were) vistas of marsh grass and long stretches of salt water.”

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“It was 12 miles from Savannah, but it might as well have been 100…”

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“Out on (our) starlit veranda, I would lie on a hammock and — lulled by the night sounds, the cricket sounds… my eyelids would grow heavy (and I would fall sleep) — safe in the buzz of grown up talk and laughter (and) the sounds of far-off singing…”

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I started reading about Johnny Mercer when fellow singer Bobbi Carrey and pianist Doug Hammer and I put together a program of his songs that we performed at Scullers Jazz Club here in Boston.

We also were fortunate enough to perform this program of songs on Spring Island — one of the multitude of barrier islands which run along the Georgia and Carolina coast.

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Spring Island was once one of the largest cotton plantations in the southern United States.

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And echoes of plantation life remain on the island…

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Spring Island is now half wildlife sanctuary and half retirement community for folks who are very wealthy — some of whom love music enough that they would fly me and Bobbi and Doug down to perform in their lovely club house.

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Although he enjoyed living in New York and California, Johnny returned home to Georgia on a regular basis — usually via a long train trip since he did not like to fly.

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He savored the slower pace of life in his hometown as well as the beauty all around.

Having traveled to Spring Island, I have a much more vivid sense of Johnny Mercer’s roots…

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A song like “Skylark” or “Moon River” makes sense in a different way now that I have seen and smelled and tasted and heard the environment where he grew up.

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Full of streams…

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And birds…

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And mist…

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And blossoms…

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And swamps…

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And big old trees…

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And ocean…

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And flowers…

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And light…

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And sky…

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Thank you to Bix Beiderbecke and Hoagy Carmichael and Johnny Mercer for creating such a lovely song.

And to Doug Hammer for his spectacular piano playing as well as his super-competent engineering skills.

And to Pixabay and Wikimedia Commons for most of the images in this post.

And to YOU for reading and listening to this blog post!

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I Heard The Bells…

I Heard The Bells…

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Jazz pianist Joe Reid (left) and I (right) have put together a bunch of one-hour programs of music during the past six years.

You can click here for a list of our musical programs if you are curious.

We share them at public libraries, retirement communities, memory cafes, and coffee houses.

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Our latest program features songs written for — and/or made famous by — Bing Crosby.

I had known very little about Mr. Crosby before requesting several biographies about him via our local inter-library network (which includes the terrific Robbins library pictured above in a photo by Jinny Sagorin).

Mostly I remembered him for singing an incongruous but lovely duet with David Bowie on a Christmas TV special.

Bing Crosby and David Bowie

I also knew that he loved golfing and had sung “White Christmas” — which became one of the highest selling recordings ever made.

And I was aware that at least one of his children had written about how challenging it was to have him as a father.

After reading several books about him, my perspective on Mr. Crosby has become much more complicated and fascinating and human…

To begin with, I hadn’t understood how HUGE a star Bing was.

His weekly radio programs reached millions of listeners for decades.

He was in the top ten of Hollywood box office money-makers for decades.

His recordings regularly topped the charts for decades.

He was definitely one of America’s first “superstars.”

He was also a devoted Catholic, following the spiritual path of his mother (who had requested that Bing’s father convert to Catholicism before they were married).

He sang an extraordinarily wide range of songs — from cowboy to Irish to jazz to pop to show tunes to hymns to Americana.

Although a Republican, he had a huge hit during the early years of the Great Depression with Yip Harburg and Jay Gorney’s empathetic lament for the common man, “Brother, Can You Spare A Dime?” — which hit the airwaves right before FDR was elected to his first term as president.

And he was one of the first recording artists to release an album of Christmas holiday songs.

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One of the many Christmas songs Bing recorded — “I Heard The Bells On Christmas Day” — has become a new favorite of mine.

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Bing recorded it on October 3, 1956, and it soon became a holiday classic.

I recorded it earlier this month with pianist Doug Hammer at his studio in Lynn, MA (and our version is included in the player at the beginning of this blog post).

I discovered on Wikipedia that the lyrics were written by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow on Christmas Day, 1863 while the USA was in the middle of our astoundingly horrible and bloody Civil War.

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He lived in Cambridge, MA — a couple of miles away from where I now live — and one of his sons had left home to fight in the Union Army.

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You can click here to learn more about Longfellow’s poem on Wikipedia if you are curious.

He experienced many deep losses during his lifetime — his first wife died after a miscarriage and his second wife died from burn wounds after her dress accidentally caught on fire — and perhaps as a result, he developed very empathetic heart.

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Many different composers have been moved to set this particular poem to music over the years.

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In 1956 Johnny Marks — a Jewish songwriter whose creative output also includes “Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer,” “Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree,” “Run, Rudolph, Run,” “Silver and Gold,” “A Holly, Jolly Christmas,” and all of the other songs from the Rudolph holiday TV show — devised a lovely tune for a few stanzas from Longfellow’s poem.

I’m not sure why this song touches me so deeply…

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Perhaps it is an echo of Longfellow’s broken-heartedness and faith reverberating from the depths of America’s civil war to our present moment of cultural unrest…

I am grateful to be reminded of the gentle power of words and music during this season of short days and long nights.

I am grateful to Pixabay and Wikimedia Commons and Stephen Fischer and Jinny Sagorin for the images in this blog post.

And I am grateful to YOU for reading and listening to this blog post.

May we experience more peace and empathy in the new year!

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We Need A Little Christmas!

We Need A Little Christmas!

 

Although it is still autumn for another two weeks here in the northeastern United States, last weekend we had our first big snow storm.

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So it feels like winter has already begun, with the holidays of Solstice and Hanukkah and Kwanzaa and Christmas looming on the horizon…

As recent readers of this blog may recall, my two sisters live on a farm in upstate New York.

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One of them has lived there for many years, is a terrific photographer, and has agreed to let me use her photos in this blog post. You can click here to read a post from two years ago which also featured her photos and the song “Winter Wonderland.”

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My sisters take at least one long walk with their dogs each day.

Stella, a very large black Lab mix, is unfazed by rain or snow.

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My younger sister and nephew moved from California a couple of summers ago.

He, too, is unfazed by snow…

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Their beloved dog of 14 years recently died, and after some reflection they decided to welcome a herding dog into their lives.

This is Tasso.

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Right now he’s still growing.

But eventually he will help with these woolly beings..

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My older sister works in Cornell’s department of Fiber Science and Apparel Design.

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This is one of the reasons why she invited several pregnant Icelandic ewes onto the farm last winter.

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Here is a sampling of their un-dyed wool…

They have a soft, insulating undercoat as well as a hardy outer coat which helps them keep warm during the winter months.

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My older sister also has a very hardy flock of Australorps who are willing to venture out into the snow if someone offers something delicious such as sunflower seeds.

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They have been very healthy and generous egg-producers.

My sister has learned firsthand how intimately connected with sunlight their egg-laying cycles are.

Egg production drops off as the days get shorter and gradually picks back up after the winter solstice.

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I continue to be amazed that hens can create such enormous and beautiful and nutritious objects inside their bodies ON A DAILY BASIS!!!

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My sister feeds them organic grain from a local mill and lots of left-over vegetables — and in non-snowy months they forage outside all day long, too.

She sells some of the eggs to local customers, and her family consumes a goodly number of them, too.

During the holidays my grown up nephew and niece and her husband return to town to partake in various family rituals.

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The cutting of a tree..

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The baking…

And decorating of cookies.

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The chopping of wood…

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The singing of songs…

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The lighting of torches with cousins to drive away the winter’s gloom…

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The trimming of the tree…

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The baking of pies…

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The eating of pomegranates…

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And those daily walks around the farm with the dogs…

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Past the irrigation pond…

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Along the edge of a field…

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Admiring the beauty of an invasive species…

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Sometimes shoveling a path…

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Sometimes visiting with a sheep…

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Or watching a squirrel’s adventures on the side of one of the barns…

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Under which Stella is taking a break…

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I have long loved the song “We Need A Little Christmas” — written by the songwriter Jerry Herman for Angela Lansbury to sing in the musical Mame.

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Here he is with Angela and Carol Channing, who starred in another one of his hit musicals — Hello Dolly.

Pianist/composer Doug Hammer and I recorded the version in the player at the beginning of this blog post several years ago.

I also perform it each December as part of an hour-long program of winter holiday songs written or co-written by Jewish lyricists and composers which jazz pianist Joe Reid and I bring to Boston-area retirement communities and public libraries.

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In our current era of cultural polarization, I am grateful to remember that some of our favorite winter holiday songs — including “Silver Bells,” “I’ll Be Home For Christmas,” “Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer” (and all of the other songs from that animated TV special), “The Christmas Song” (a.k.a. “Chestnuts Roasting On An Open Fire”), “Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow,” and “White Christmas” — were written or co-written by Jewish-American songwriters.

I thank them for their creativity and their appreciation/respect for the loving spirit of Christmas.

I thank my older sister for letting me grab all of these photos (except the one of Angela, Jerry and Carol) from her Facebook archives.

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And I — standing in snowy field during a visit to upstate NY — thank you for reading and listening to another blog post.

May you enjoy healthy and happy holidays during this season of short days and long nights…

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And maybe some pie and tapioca pudding and colorful root vegetables, too…

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Let The Day Unfold…

Let The Day Unfold…

 

Although my spirits are flagging due to the shorter days and longer nights of autumn in New England, I want to keep a small flame of optimism alight.

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So this post is dedicated to the political process unfolding here in these currently-not-very-united United States of America.

I have included a song I co-wrote several years ago called “Let The Day Unfold.”

It started life as a verse/chorus sketch which guitarist/songwriter Scott Kowalik shared with pianist/songwriter Javier Pico.

I, Scott, Javier, and two other people — Robert M. Brown and Alan Najarian — collaborated for three years in an original rock band called CUE when we were in our twenties.

CUE Screenshot

Each of us moved on to different undertakings (including lawyer, real estate developer, and non-profit arts administrator) but all of us have kept music in our lives in one way or another.

And our musical paths continue to overlap every now and then — such as when I visited Javier, and he shared with me this song sketch which Scott had shared with him.

If my memory serves me Javier gave me chords + words for the chorus as well as some chords + some lyrics for a verse. I expanded the verse structure and wrote several more verse lyrics. I wish I had a copy of what Javier originally gave to me for comparison with my finished products…

The version at the beginning of this blog post is a GarageBand draft to which a long-time collaborator, Doug Hammer, added some string parts. He also helped me sample a recording of one of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s most famous speeches which I included during an instrumental break.

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I wrote a blog post which featured Doug — who is a gifted pianist, composer, and engineer/producer — a couple of years ago.

I remain very discouraged that war continues to be such a huge part of life on planet earth.

 

Our country has been at war off and on for generations.

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Many of us — who have not experienced war first-hand — live in a privileged bubble of ignorance and denial.

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Yet every day brave women and men sign up to defend their country’s values, borders, and culture.

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This child, however, did not sign up to be part of an armed conflict…

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Who knows what he will choose to do with his life when he grows up…

Deep breath in.

Deep breath out.

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And so our wars continue here on planet earth…

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I often wonder how making music — which seems very modest and inconsequential compared with the bravery and sacrifice and horror and trauma and chaos of war — fits into the larger equations of life on planet earth.

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In an ideal world, music brings people together.

Yet it can also — such as George M. Cohan’s song “Over There” during WWI and again during WWII — inspire people to enlist in order to wage war.

And I have read about soldiers in Afghanistan playing certain songs to lift their spirits and boost their resolve while they are deployed.

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I know music lifts my spirits on a daily basis.

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But it seems to pale in importance when I reflect upon things like genocide…

Another thing I often ponder is the difference between “either/or” and “both/and.”

Every day I find myself slipping into an either/or mindset — it’s us or them… I’m completely right and someone else is completely wrong… it’s my way or the highway, etc.

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“Either/or” is a mindset which often leads to conflict… or worse.

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“Both/and” is a mindset which can lead to listening.

To pausing.

To honoring the paradoxes and contradictions of life.

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I watched another Democratic presidential debate this week — and attempted to remain open to as many different opinions and perspectives and visions and explanations as I could manage.

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I do feel some optimism when I see the range of candidates.

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I’ve been giving small amounts of money each month to several of them.

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I’m excited that many women are running for president.

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And people of color.

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With some thought-provoking ideas.

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I am also amazed that an un-closeted, married gay man is in the race.

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Some candidates are dreaming bigger than others.

And I am grateful for that.

When our country collapsed into a huge economic depression ninety years ago, we elected a president with big dreams.

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And he managed to convert many of those big dreams into action — despite having significant personal health challenges.

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I love that he — a man living with paralysis due to polio (or perhaps undiagnosed Guillain-Barre syndrome  – an autoimmune neuropathy) uses the word “paralyzes” in his famous speech about fear.

“Let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”

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I find solace and take comfort in the conviction in FDR’s voice — ringing across the decades thanks to the magic of digital zeros and ones.

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I also find solace and comfort and inspiration in many of the new voices speaking up here on planet earth.

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I also love finding new voices and kindred spirits among my fellow bloggers on WordPress.

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Thank you to Pixabay and Wikimedia Commons for the images I have used in this blog post.

Thank you to Scott, Javier, Alan, Robert, and Doug for sharing a love of music over many years.

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And thank YOU for reading and listening to yet another blog post!

Heaven… Here on Planet Earth

Heaven… Here on Planet Earth

 

Anyone who has spent time on the outer arm of Cape Cod can be deeply grateful to John F. Kennedy due to the creation on August 7, 1961 of the Cape Cod National Seashore during his short presidency.

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According to Wikipedia — which is where I borrowed this map — it includes over 68 square miles of “ponds, woods and beachfront (in) the Atlantic coastal pine barrens ecoregion.”

It’s also where I and my sweetheart and various family members are fortunate to camp each summer during the last week of July and the first week of August — in North Truro on the Atlantic side of the outer arm (or wrist, really…) of the Cape.

TruroBeachDunesSkyIn 2010 the campground where we have stayed for over 25 years — called North of Highland — was protected with a conservation easement thanks to the hard work and generosity of many people and organizations — including JFK’s younger brother, Senator Ted Kennedy.

So hopefully it will remain in operation for generations to come!

For me camping in North Truro is heavenly…

This is a view of our site from a site which some of our family members rent above us.

UpperViewofCampsitebyAndrewWe are in a bowl which is home to pine trees, grasses, chipmunks, red squirrels, all sorts of birds, lots of ants, a few oak trees, crickets, various fungi, and quite a few blueberry bushes.

There are also visiting dragonflies, bees, mosquitos, horseflies, June bugs — who appear in the evening, attracted by our lights — and on some nights we can hear coyotes howling in the distance.

Although I have never seen a raccoon or opossum or rabbit or turkey or deer at our campsite, on one night someone DID get into our niece’s trash can.

So I am guessing that larger animals are around — just wisely inconspicuous during the day.

I love the way that sunlight dapples the trees and grass — and I love picking a few blueberries each morning.

BlueberryPlantThere weren’t very many this summer, which may be because it has been somewhat dry.

We only experienced rain three times this summer while we were camping — a) on the day we drove down to set up camp, b) once overnight, and c) a substantial storm on the day that we were packing up to return home.

When it rains I imagine how good the moisture must feel on the roots of all of the trees and shrubs and grasses.

Each berry is such a jewel… and hopefully there are plenty more for the folks camping at this site right now as well as for any animals who like to eat them, too.

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I spend most of the day in our tent — which is quite spacious — with a ukulele, a little handheld digital recorder, a rhyming dictionary, two lap top computers, and several bags worth of song ideas.

Each morning I stretch and listen to song ideas I’ve accumulated during the previous months — or in some cases years — until something catches my fancy.

Then I focus on that particular idea for the rest of the day — writing lyrics, coming up with chords for a missing bridge, etc.

The song in the player at the beginning of this blog post is one I wrote a few camping sessions ago and later recorded with the pianist Doug Hammer at his studio north of Boston.

This is a view of our (green) screen house — where we cook and eat — and our (orange) tent.TwoTentsinBowlIf you look past our tents in the upper left corner of this photo, you can glimpse the tent site from which the first photo in this post was taken…

There are many, many things I love about camping.

For example, when we are camping, we become much more aware of our relationship with water — since we are carrying it in big multi-gallon containers down to our campsite for drinking and cooking and cleaning dishes.

CampingSinkAreaAlso all of the sinks in the bathrooms at the campground have faucets that automatically shut off after a couple of seconds.

And hot showers cost 25 cents for three minutes of bathing time.

I also love that there are LOTS of stars visible at night.

I went for several long walks along the beach late at night when the sky was clear  — and the moon so bright that I didn’t need to use a flashlight to see where I was going.

Being away from street lights and TV screens and radios — while spending hours and hours surrounded by birds and insects and trees and sky — helps me reconnect with what’s important.

Like time with family and friends.

And intact ecosystems.

TruroSandWaterSkyBefore dinner — which is often something delicious cooked by my brother-in-law who bikes to the local fish store on an almost daily basis, bless him — I usually walk down a pine-needle-covered path to the Atlantic ocean and swim.

In recent years the tide and winter storms have created a gully along the beach which ranges in depth from one to five feet depending upon the time of day.

Since there is now a robust population of seals who swim up and down this section of the Atlantic ocean — as well as great white sharks who come to eat them — my family is much happier if I swim laps in the gully rather than in the ocean.

TruroTrenchLifeGuardChairThere were a couple of great white shark sightings during our two weeks at the camp ground, and also one day when a bunch of whales cavorted within sight of the beach.

But I did not see them because I was working on new songs in my tent…

Everyday I checked in with a hydrangea plant which grows near the path to the bathrooms and showers.

HydrangeaPlantThere was so much happening on this plant — it was a world unto itself!

Every day flowers would unfold new petals.

And bees and wasps and even flies in many different shapes and sizes would gather pollen.

HydrangeaCloseupDuring the course of our time at the campground, several spiders wove webs — which in due time trapped a quite a few meals.

Here is a close up of one of the spiders against a green hydrangea leaf.

HydrangeaSpiderWebEventually it was time to pack everything up and return home.

This is always a sad and somewhat stressful process for me.

But my sweetheart and family members are very patient, since they know it happens every summer on the last day of our camping adventure.

TruroBeachTwilightTrenchWhat doesn’t usually happen, however, is an hours-long rain storm on the day of our departure.

Strangely this lifted my spirits…

I even got to continue working on a new song after our tent was down — with our brown tarpaulin providing protection during a prolonged period of deluge…

WillUnderTarpWithUkeThank you to all of the folks who keep North Of Highland camping area going year after year. I highly recommend it if you are in need of some rejuvenation!

Thank you to Andrew for letting me use his photo looking down towards our camp site, and for making so many delicious meals.

Thank you to the Kennedy family, whose love for — and lobbying on behalf of — Cape Cod has impacted millions of people — and plants and animals — for many, many decades.

Thank you to my sweetheart for all of the beach photos and for letting me use his phone to take photos of the hydrangea and our camp site.

And thank YOU for reading and listening to this blog post.

Where is your heaven on planet earth?

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Here’s To Life

Here’s To Life

 

“Here’s To Life” is a song I recorded with pianist Doug Hammer many years ago

It was written by Phyllis Molinary and Artie Butler and first recorded by Shirley Horn in 1991.

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Sometimes people say, “They don’t write songs like they used to.”

I respond that many great songs ARE still being written.

But the era of different pop stars each recording their own version of a particular hit — with different versions of the same song riding up and down the charts simultaneously — are long gone.

So a song like “Here’s To Life” is savored by a few rather than beloved by multitudes.

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I had not known anything about Mr. Butler and Ms. Molinary until I started poking around on the internet.

Mr. Butler is a composer, arranger, songwriter, music director, and record producer who has worked on an extraordinary range of songs — including Janis Ian’s “Society’s Child,” Louis Armstrong’s “What A Wonderful World,” and Barry Manilow’s “Copacabana.”

For a more complete list of songs with accompanying stories, you can visit his web site.

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He was inspired to write the tune for “Here’s To Life” after watching Johnny Carson interview George Burns on The Tonight Show.

He gave it to a few different lyricists before Phyllis Molinary (about whom I have not been able to learn much of anything…) wrote the set of lyrics which became “Here’s To Life.”

And now we are all blessed with this wise and elegant song…

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It reminds me of a birthday party I recently attended for a vibrant eighty-year-old who has lived much of her life in western Massachusetts.

Before dessert was served, many of her friends shared stories about their relationships with her.

In her understated, thoughtful, generous, organized, humorous, and wide-minded — as one woman from South America described her — way, this woman has touched thousands of her fellow human beings in significant ways.

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She taught for many decades at her local college, serving as the head of the psychology department (if I am remembering correctly) and also overseeing the college’s counseling center.

She has advised several generations of students, mentored countless faculty members, led the campus teachers’ union, been very active in town politics, and on and on and on…

I know her mainly as a very faithful cousin-in-law.

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She always visits during the winter holidays, bringing gifts for everyone and sharing stories about a web of family and friends she has accumulated around the planet.

And she shares her perspectives on what is happening locally — what options her town is exploring to mitigate an underground plume of contamination that the water department has recently discovered, for example, or how a new local restaurant (which she, of course, is eager to support) is faring.

She has a gentle finger on the pulse of her town…

Her birthday party was held at a local retreat center which is run by a very ecologically-minded order of nuns.

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As the festivities were winding down, we were invited and encouraged to explore the property.

They have converted a huge carriage house — originally built in the late 1800s by the Crane family, who earned a lot of money making paper (including the paper which is still used to print US currency) — into a function hall.

On the second floor of the carriage house they have created many different areas where guests can make art, meditate, read, pray, explore eco-spirituality, marvel at the miracle of evolution, and rejuvenate their souls.

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Outside the carriage house are fruit trees, free-ranging chickens, a labyrinth, a cathedral of very tall pine trees, a huge community garden, and lots of flowers.

To me it felt a little bit like heaven on earth.

Here’s a link to the Genesis Spiritual Life and Conference Center if you are curious to learn more.

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I found these great photographs on Pixabay, and I am grateful to all of the photographers who have shared their images there.

I am also grateful to Doug Hammer, for his exquisite piano playing and terrific engineering skills.

And to the birthday woman whose life is an ongoing inspiration for how to move through the world with empathy and wisdom and generosity and balance.

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And to the Genesis Spiritual Life and Conference Center for inviting us to roam around their property after her birthday gathering.

And to Art and Phyllis for writing such a lovely song.

And to you for reading and listening to another blog post.

A healthy and happy summer to you — full of berries and flowers and friends and family (unless you are reading this from somewhere in the southern hemisphere, in which case I wish you delicious winter adventures instead…)

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May all your storms be weathered, and may all that’s good get better.

Here’s to life…

Here’s to love…

And here’s to you!

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