In Praise of Food…and Lillian Rozin!

I am well aware that all sorts of challenging — and often heart-breaking — situations continue to unfold here on planet earth.

However, I have decided in recent blog posts to accentuate the positive.

Part of the fun of re-vamping my website earlier this year was re-visiting my musical past.

When I first started working at the Cambridge Center For Adult Education in Harvard Square, we co-produced a lot of events — open mics, workshops, seminars, performances — with the Boston Association of Cabaret Artists (BACA).

BACA is a humble and surprisingly resilient non-profit group which a bunch of us helped to start over 25 years ago.

And it is still going strong — an ongoing labor of love — due to the efforts of a generous and ever-evolving group of singers, musicians, songwriters and music fans who serve on its board, bless them.

I do not remember exactly how I met singer/actor Lillian Rozin, who is now a psychotherapist, yoga instructor and author, too.

Maybe at a BACA open mic?

In any case, we hit it off and Lillian started creating lavish spreads of appetizers and desserts for our open mic nights.

I am not someone who follows recipes or considers himself to be much of a cook.

But Lillian is an inspired and inspiring goddess in the kitchen.

She learned to love food and cooking from — among other people — her mother, the much-published food writer, Elizabeth Rozin.

Eventually we started performing together as “The Will & Lil Show” — co-creating two different shows of music and ideas before she moved from the Boston area back to her homeland of Philadelphia.

Our first show focused on the subject of water — in rivers, clouds, oceans, harbors, showers, wading pools, and even our own metabolisms.

We followed that with a show called We Are What We Eat — A Potluck Cabaret which featured songs about eating, serving and preparing food such as Cole Porter’s “The Tale of the Oyster,” Bernstein, Comden and Green’s “I Can Cook, Too,” Stephen Sondheim’s “The Ladies Who Lunch,” the Sherman Brothers’ “Feed The Birds,” and Stephen Schwartz’s “It’s An Art.”

The show began with Lillian and me on stage chopping and slicing and preparing various finger-foods while audience members were finding their seats.

Once everyone had arrived, we began singing a song (in the player at the start of the blog post) from William Finn’s musical “March Of The Falsettos” while serving the audience what we had been preparing onstage.

It was a lot of fun.

The original lyrics for “Making A Home” included some references to food — to which we added a few more.

Recently I was happy to find a computer disk which contained some of our original PR photos as well as a script for our food show.

Here’s a list of food-related items that we used during the show:

Image by Bernadette Wurzinger from Pixabay

Microwave pre-set with popcorn.

Baguette. 

Hardboiled eggs.

Little pots of strawberry jam.

Toast.

English muffin.

Little jar of mustard.

Watercress or heavy duty parsley.

Hamsteak.

Bones/chew toys.

Root vegetables.

Image by Jordan Stimpson from Pixabay 

Brie, cheddar, harvarti dill, goat, and cream cheeses.

Grapes.

Olives.

Cornichon.

Pop tarts.

Pringles potato chips.

Spam.

Count Chocula/Cocoa Puffs/Lucky Charms cereal boxes.

Jello.

Bacon bits.

Strawberry Newtons.

One pound of smoked fish.

Horseradish.

Lots of crackers.

Cider.

Bag of salad.

Packets of Sweet & Lo.

Vinegar cruet.

Celery.

Peanut butter and peanuts.

Bologna.

Non-dairy whipped topping.

Bananas.

Image by S. Hermann & F. Richter from Pixabay 

Melon.

Bosco.

Two pie plates.

Marischino cherries.

Cutting boards.

And knives.

As you can probably extrapolate from this list of props, we covered a lot of ground in this show — from the processed food industry (for which Lillian’s mother had once consulted) to food norms in different cultures (Lillian has traveled a lot) to my past as a child actor doing commercials for various food products (such as Ring Ding Juniors, Lifesavers, Imperial margarine, and Oreo cookies).

Here’s an excerpt from what we said after we sang “Making A Home” while serving appetizers to the audience.

Lil: “Will and I love to cook.”

Will: “And we love to feed other people what we have cooked.”

Lil: “And we love to eat; so this show was a no-brainer.

Will: “Eating is something that is easy to take for granted. 

Lillian Rozin and Will McMillan standing back to back and smiling...
Photo by Stephen C. Fischer

Lil: “We do it several times a day, often out of habit or while we are focused on something else.”

Will: “But eating is really a magical process.  Think about it… radiation from a nearby star is captured by plants who transform it into something that we can absorb into our bodies, which becomes… us.”

Deep breath in.

Deep breath out.

Over twenty years later I am still amazed by how life works here on planet earth!

Near the end of the show Lillian tied me to a chair while singing “Have An Eggroll Mr. Goldstein” from Gypsy and stuffing all sorts of delicious, cut-up fruit into my mouth.

Then we sang “You’re The Cream In My Coffee” while throwing pie plates full of non-dairy whipped topping in each other’s faces.

Our encore was “Life Is Just A Bowl Of Cherries.”

This delightful anthem was written by Lew Brown (lyrics) and Ray Henderson (music) for Ethel Merman to sing in George White’s Scandals of 1931 after she had rejected another song they had wanted her to perform.

I am very thankful that Ms. Merman knew — when she was still in the early years of her extraordinary career the entertainment industry — what kind of song she could and couldn’t deliver to an audience.

Otherwise Ray and Lew might not have written this musical gem.

Image by StockSnap from Pixabay

Thank you for reading and listening to this somewhat light-hearted blog post.

I will undoubtedly return to more serious topics in the future.

Today I have been inspired by a statement currently circulating (I hope accurately) on FaceBook from a Hopi Indian Chief named White Eagle.

“This moment humanity is experiencing can be seen as a door or a hole. The decision to fall in the hole or walk through the door is up to you.

“If you consume the news 24 hours a day, with negative energy, constantly nervous, with pessimism, you will fall into this hole. But if you take the opportunity to look at yourself, to rethink life and death, to take care of yourself and others, then you will walk through the portal…

“Don’t feel guilty for feeling blessed in these troubled times. Being sad or angry doesn’t help at all…

Lillian with her beloved dog Albee!

“Show resistance through art, joy, trust and love.”

Another deep breath in.

And deep breath out.

Thank you to Lillian Rozin for being one of my favorite collaborators… and one of my favorite chefs, too!

Thank you to Doug Hammer for playing piano AND recording the rehearsal from which we recently selected and mixed these songs.

Thank you to Ray Brown and Lew Henderson for writing “LIfe Is Just A Bowl Of Cherries” — and to Ethel Merman for inspiring them to do so.

Thank you to William Finn for writing “Making A Home.”

You are always welcome to visit my website — where you can find more songs from The Will & Lil Show celebrating food.

Or you can find me singing — with Doug Hammer playing his Schimmel grand piano — on SpotifyPandoraApple Music and other digital music platforms.

And if you are hungry for more music, you are welcome to listen to my latest release, “The Carter Family” by Carly Simon and Jacob Brackman on a bunch of different digital music platforms.

A Love Letter to the Postal Service…

As some of you may know, postal rates are going up at the end of the month — August 29th.

A regular stamp will cost 58 cents, and postcard stamps will go up to 40 cents.

If you are a fan of sending and receiving cards and letters (or you still pay some of your bills by mail…) now is the time to stock up on stamps!

I am a huge fan of stamps AND of the US postal service.

You can click here to see all the stamps currently for sale by the US Post Office online.

I am using some of my recent favorites to illustrate this blog post.

I feel the postal service is one of the things that still connects all of us — and that we all continue to use on a regular basis — regardless of political ideology, religious affiliation, racial ancestry, and socio-economic status (although the rates going up and up and up certainly make it more expensive to use…)

I also like our postal carrier, Rob.

He has been assigned to our neighborhood for the past decade (at least), and his familiar face — and warm personality — weave all of us in this section of East Arlington together on a daily basis.

Mostly what I receive in the mail are bills, credit card statements, requests for money from organizations to which I may have given a tiny amount of money in the past (or from new organizations to whom someone has given or sold my name and address) and advertisements.

On very rare occasions, I get a handwritten — and sometimes even a handcrafted! — card.

And I savor it…

Deep breath in.

Deep breath out.

I am not sure exactly what makes a hand-written card/note/letter different from an email/text message.

There is the pleasure of seeing a person’s individual, idiosyncratic, and — in a few cases — beautiful handwriting.

I also like knowing that the person who wrote it has touched the same paper and the envelope and the stamp that I am now touching as I rip it open and read it.

And I like seeing what stamp they have selected.

But there is also — for me at least — an element of respect that is somehow implied by the fact that they found the time to find a card (or piece of paper), write something on it, put it into an envelope, address it, stamp it, and get it into the mail.

And then, somewhat magically, it finds its way to me!

I have had jobs which included dropping off mail at both a local office and at a huge regional mail sorting center.

I have seen the people and conveyor belts and sorting machines and wheeled carts and trucks that are responsible for a card or letter or package getting from point A to point B.

It is quite a feat of logistics which most of us take for granted.

And I have never had a card or letter or bill payment (that I know of…) get lost.

On rare occasions I have received something which got a little chewed up en route.

But it was still legible.

In particular I love to send “thank you” cards.

It became a habit when I was given a promotion from part-time events coordinator to full-time PR director (who still coordinated a lot of events) at the Cambridge Center For Adult Education over twenty years ago.

Email was just becoming a regular thing — and hand-written cards were becoming more of a rarity.

Any time a media person included one of our classes or events in a calendar listing, or mentioned us in an article, or interviewed one of our teachers, or mentioned us on the radio, or covered us in any way — I sent them a hand-written “thank you” card.

I wanted to thank them, AND I also wanted to jumpstart (and then nurture) a relationship with them so that when they were next on a deadline and needed some expert to interview for a story, they might be more inclined to think of us as a potential resource.

Or when they had to choose an event to feature in their weekly calendar, they might be a little more likely to select one of our offerings.

Or they might even come and take one of our classes — or attend one of our poetry readings or concerts or workshops.

I was happily surprised (and a little bit embarrassed) to learn, when I attended an annual conference of local black journalists one year, that I had even become slightly infamous when an editor from The Boston Globe referred to me as “the guy who sends all of those ‘thank you’ notes.”

I continue to send “thank you” cards after every one of my gigs to the person who booked us — and sometimes also to the person who welcomed us and made sure we were all set up, too.

And I send “thank you” notes for gifts I receive, to family or friends who feed me dinner or host me on trips, and to local media folks who write about me and my musical life here on planet earth.

I love the cards at Trader Joe’s (only a buck each) and have learned that if I see something I like, I need to buy a bunch of them because I may never see them again for sale.

And every six months or so I go to a local discount department store, TJ Maxx, in a strip mall located a 12-minute bike ride from home.

If I am lucky, they have a bunch of simple, elegant “thank you” cards (in boxes of 12 or 15 or even 20!) at a half or a third of their regular price.

This translates to anywhere from 25 to 50 cents per card.

Then I buy 5-10 boxes of whatever is nicest (because I’ll probably never see any of THEM for sale either) and ride home feeling very rich in ‘thank you” cards.

Same thing for stamps.

If I see some I like, I buy many sheets (or rolls) of that particular design because there is no telling when they will sell out at my local post office — located a four-minute walk from my home.

I guess I could order them online, but I love going to an actual post office and talking with an actual postal employee.

I don’t love putting on two face masks — a medical one and a fabric one — before I go inside, but the more infectious Delta mutation is on the rise even here in relatively well-vaccinated Massachusetts.

So I am using face masks again when I am inside a public space like a post office or grocery store.

Last week when I bought a bunch of stamps, I was the only customer in the post office — which made my visit short and sweet.

I purchased $800 worth of postcard stamps — with a selection of beautiful barns on them — to go along with the 10,000 postcards I ordered earlier this year.

Actually I only ordered 5,000 postcards, but the printer did not understand the four-card template I sent to them and misprinted the first 5,000 (with four small messages rather than one big message on each card).

Then they very generously reprinted them correctly at no extra cost; so I ended up with 10,000 cards total — half of which say “The future belongs to those who vote,” and half of which say the same thing but four times and in much small type.

I mail them — along with a recommended hand-written message — to potential voters all over the USA who have a local election coming up (which they may or may not be aware of…)

It is one of the ways I attempt to ward off my profound disappointment — verging at times on terror — with how political events have been unfolding recently in these not-very-United States.

But this blog post is not intended to be a downer.

The recording I’ve included is a fun take of “Please Mr. Postman” written by Georgia Dobbins, William Garrett, Freddie Gorman, Brian Holland, and Robert Bateman. 

Wikipedia reminded me that it was the debut single by a Motown/Tamla group called The Marvelettes — originally released sixty years ago in August 1961.

Apparently the songwriter credits have varied over time — but the current copyright, I am happy to see, includes Georgia Dobbins, who was the original lead singer for The Marvelettes.

She helped create the first version of the song (which she and her bandmates sang when they auditioned for Motown/Tamla) by adapting a blues written by her friend William Garrett.

Her version was then re-worked by several Motown/Tamla songwriter/producers, including Freddie Gorman — who was also an actual Detroit postman.

I am particularly glad that she is included as a co-songwriter, because Wikipedia reports that Ms. Dobbins left the group soon after they were signed by Berry Gordy and before they recorded “Please Mr. Postman.”

There must be more to THAT story…

The song she helped to write became a hit — crossing the Atlantic to the UK where The Beatles quickly added it into their repertoire and eventually recorded it two years later in 1963.

Another thing I learned is that Marvin Gaye played drums on The Marvelettes’ version!

The Carpenters made it a hit yet again in 1975, and their version was sampled and used in another song called “Oh Yes” by the rapper Juelz Santana in 2006.

It is fascinating to see how songs, like viruses, move from one human host to another and creatively mutate over time…

The version at the beginning of this blog post is from a rehearsal I did a few years ago with the wonderful pianist Doug Hammer and a great female who shall remain nameless (until she decides if she’d like to be publicly credited).

I emailed her a copy of this recording after Doug and I spent a few hours tidying it up sonically, and I haven’t heard anything back yet.

I love the playful and somewhat spontaneous spirit of this recording, which I think was take number three during our rehearsal for the opening of an art exhibit called ART/Word which my sweetheart produces each year with a different theme.

The artistic theme that year was “Letters.”

I will end by thanking this mystery singer for joining me in our fun rendition of this song.

And thanking Doug Hammer for his gifts as a pianist AND engineer/producer.

And thanking the US postal service for continuing to exist and function!

And thanking the artists who create such an extraordinary variety of artwork for our stamps.

And thanking YOU for reading and listening to yet another one of my blog posts.

Do you still send hand-written cards and letters to anyone?

If you are hungry for more music, you are welcome to listen to my latest release, “The Carter Family” by Carly Simon and Jacob Brackman on a bunch of different digital music platforms.

And you are always welcome to visit my website — or you can find me singing (with Doug Hammer playing his Schimmel grand piano) on SpotifyPandoraApple Music and other digital music platforms.

Let’s continue to find new ways to reduce our carbon footprint on this precious planet each and every day!

There are far too many forest fires and floods and mudslides happening these days…

Deep breath in.

Deep breath out!

Now Streaming…


Greetings!

I hope you remain well during this odd and at times terrifying time in our planet’s history.

Today’s song was written by Canadian singer-songwriter Ron Sexsmith.

Ron Sexsmith

After my friends in Toronto exposed me to several of his beautiful, wise creations, I recorded “Gold In Them Hills” with the terrific pianist (and sound engineer) Doug Hammer.

I have ruminated in past blog posts about the value of music in our lives — how sometimes it seems quite disposable and unimportant, yet at other times it can feel quite meaningful and essential.

Here is some recent feedback about the value of music from folks on my e-mail list:

“Music is a great encouragement to people in hard times.”

“A song fixes memories of life events indelibly. “

“Music is a distraction from the troubles of the day.”

“Essential.”  

“Music is an easily accessible treat at a time when other treats are difficult to come by.”

“We all need it.”

“Music is a touching reminder that life is worth living.”

“Music is a balm during these stormy times.” 

“Music is part of what makes the world keep going.” 

Every time I read these ideas, I attempt to breathe them deeper into my soul.

Deep breath in.

Deep breath out.

Today I share news that my song “Another Good Morning” has finally been distributed to a bunch of digital music platforms — including Spotify, Apple Music, iTunes, Amazon Music, Deezer, Napster, Tidal, and Google Play.

I found — and played!— it on Spotify, which for better (and mostly for worse) is a key market for musicians these days.

I write “and mostly for worse” because the various streaming platforms pay a tiny fraction of what a performer/songwriter used to earn from the sale of actual records/tapes/CDs. 

As you may already know, the pay rate for listening to a song via streaming  — which varies over time based on a formula which I can’t even begin to explain involving each company’s most recent amount of earnings and profit — is very low.

Here are some recent rates — ranging from a high of $.019 (almost 2 cents) by Napster to a low of $.00402 (less than half a cent) by Amazon.

  • AMAZON: $0.00402 per play.
  • SPOTIFY: $0.00437 per play.
  • YOUTUBE MUSIC (GPM): $0.00676 per play.
  • APPLE MUSIC: $0.00783 per play.
  • TIDAL: $0.0125 per play.
  • NAPSTER: $0.019 per play.

Using the Spotify numbers for example, at $0.00437 per stream, a song would need to be streamed 22,883 times to earn around $100. 

One can still buy a digital download of an individual song at places like iTunes, from which the recording artist earns $.60 – $.70 per purchase.

So it would take 142 (at 60 cents per download) to 166 (at 70 cents per download) purchases to earn around $100 for the folks who recorded it.

But how many of us are still buying digital downloads of specific songs or albums?

The current name of the game appears to be Spotify playlists. 

If one can get one’s song onto a popular playlist, one can earn hundreds of thousands of streams — which theoretically translates into a decent amount of money. 

So… if you are someone who uses Spotify, please consider listening to “Another Good Morning” by clicking here.

And maybe adding it to one of your playlists.

I found a story on NPR from last year which explores the pros and cons of streaming from the perspective of a recording artist and/or songwriter.

Here is one interesting paragraph:

According to a 2017 study from Digital Media Finland, the current payment model for digital streaming services “tend(s) to benefit the services themselves, who keep about 30% of a subscriber’s fee. The rights holders of the recordings, which include record labels, producers, and performers, split about 55 to 60% of the fee. Meanwhile, the rights holders of the song itself (the composition) — which at once includes composers, arrangers, music publishing companies and lyricists — see about 10 to 15% of that pie.”

You can read the whole article by clicking here.

Another deep breath in.

And deep breath out.

If you are someone who still buys digital downloads, please consider buying a copy of “Another Good Morning” from iTunes or Amazon or another digital music marketplace.

But I am certainly aware that lots of us have very little cash flow in our lives nowadays!

Since my gigs with jazz pianist Joe Reid have all dried up (except for one outdoor performance last month) due to prudent concerns about possible COVID transmission, I have been working each week via Zoom with Doug Hammer.

We are re-visiting and polishing strong takes of songs we’ve recorded during the past 20+ years.

And I will be distributing them via CD Baby to all of these far-flung digital platforms in the upcoming weeks and months.

THANK YOU for reading and listening to another blog post!

Thank you to Ron Sexsmith for writing great songs.

Thank you to Doug Hammer for his inspired piano playing as well as his superb engineering skills.

Thank you to the photographers at Pixabay for these sublime images.

Let us all keep breathing in and out in the days ahead…

I will continue leading Music Together classes two days each week.

And riding my bike.

And walking.

And checking the latest polling data about our upcoming elections.

And donating small amounts of money to down-ballot races around the USA which could use a little help…

And wearing a blessed mask when I go outside.

Deep breath in.

Deep breath out.

As Mr. Sexsmith reminds us:

“Don’t lose heart… give the day a chance to start!”

Questions…

Questions…

“Questions” by Steve Sweeting and Will McMillan

I mentioned in my last blog post that I’ve been doing a lot of reading and watching educational videos about how the music industry works.

Today’s song — which I wrote with pianist/composer/songwriter Steve Sweeting many years ago — is perfectly themed for my current state of understanding (and lack thereof…)

In case you are the least bit curious, here’s a little of what I’ve been learning.

As a singer and songwriter, I am supposed to file for two types of copyright: sound recording (also known as the “master recording”) and song composition (of the actual song).

Song compositions generate payments to songwriters and music publishers — and sound recordings generate payments to recording artists and record labels.

So it turns out I need to learn how to wear four business hats: recording artist, record label, songwriter, and publisher.

Actually I also need to learn how to wear a publicist hat, a business manager hat, a booking agent hat, a social media/advertising hat — and the list goes on and on…

I have learned that sound recordings are given a unique ISRC code so that they can be tracked around the planet as they are downloaded, streamed, enjoyed via satellite radio, played in elevators as Muzak, etc.

In theory this tracking leads to various payment streams for the artist who recorded the song, their record company, the person (or team) who wrote the song, and their publishing company.

Also each original song composition is given a unique ISWC code for tracking purposes.

For example, Dolly Parton wrote and recorded “I Will Always Love You” when she made a very difficult decision to leave Porter Wagoner’s TV show.

This song has a unique ISWC code as a composition AND a unique ISRC code as her particular sound recording of it.

I loved reading in a 2012 interview about how Ms. Parton came to write this iconic song.

Porter and Dolly

“I was trying to get away on my own because I had promised to stay with Porter’s show for five years. I had been there for seven. And we fought a lot. We were very much alike. We were both stubborn. We both believed that we knew what was best for us. Well, he believed he knew what was best for me, too, and I believed that I knew more what was best for me at that time. So, needless to say, there was a lot of grief and heartache there, and he just wasn’t listening to my reasoning for my going.”

She continued, “I thought, ’He’s never going to listen. He’s just going to bitch every day that I go in to talk about this.’ So I thought, ’Well, why don’t you do what you do best? Why don’t you just write this song?’ Because I knew at that time I was going to go, no matter what. So I went home and out of a very emotional place in me at that time, I wrote the song, ’I Will Always Love You.'”

“It’s saying, ’Just because I’m going doesn’t mean I won’t love you. I appreciate you and I hope you do great and I appreciate everything you’ve done, but I’m out of here. And I took it in the next morning. I said, ’Sit down, Porter. I’ve written this song, and I want you to hear it.’ So I did sing it. And he was crying. He said, ’That’s the prettiest song I ever heard. And you can go, providing I get to produce that record.’ And he did, and the rest is history.”

Since then her song has been recorded by a lot of other singers — most famously by Whitney Houston.

And each recorded version has its own unique ISRC code as part of its metadata (plus Dolly’s ISWC code for writing the song) so that it can be monitored — and monetized — via unimaginably vast banks of computers keeping track of playlists, streams, downloads, broadcasts, Muzak services, etc.

Right now the music industry is in the middle of a paradigm shift which began when digital recording technology and CDs arrived in our lives.

When I was first making music as a young adult — performing with a jazz pianist, in a folk duo, and as part of an original five-person pop/rock band — I earned money from live gigs and from the sale of cassettes and CDs.

That era is over…

Music has gone from being sold on an analog object — such as a piano roll, wax cylinder, record, or cassette tape — to being sold as a long string of zeros and ones.

The zeros and ones which encoded music onto CDs allowed us to make copies of songs using our computers… and then share those copies with the rest of the world.

We could share them with our other devices (such as an iPod), with our friends and family, and eventually — via sites like Napster — with anyone else on the planet who also had a computer.

And no one got paid for any of this free file sharing!

Since then the music industry has continued to evolve — with streaming platforms such as Spotify entering our lives — but revenues for recorded music are still way down.

And now we also have COVID-19 reducing opportunities for musicians to earn money from live performances.

In fact many small music venues in the Boston area have already closed their doors…with more likely to succumb in upcoming months.

Deep breath in.

Deep breath out.

It’s hard to know what’s coming next!

My current plan, since the wonderful Doug Hammer is not yet welcoming customers back into his recording studio in person, is to work with him remotely (using Zoom) and polish some songs we’ve recorded in past years.

And write a few more blog posts explaining what I am learning about the music industry.

And continue to wear a face mask when I leave my house.

And ride my bike and walk whenever possible.

And lead Music Together classes — both outside (wearing a new face shield + wireless headset) and inside via Zoom.

And give as much money as I can afford to various political candidates and non-profit organizations who are doing their best to prevent our country from lurching into an autocracy.

Another deep breath in.

And out.

Thank you to Pixabay for their lovely images.

Thank you to Steve Sweeting for writing songs with me and to Doug Hammer for helping us record a bunch of them.

And thank YOU for reading another blog post!

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.

Seal4

And I am not alone in this sentiment.

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

cape cod administrative and political map, united states

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.

seal-3439325_1280

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.

grey-seal

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.

Seal1

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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What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?

What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?

 

I love this song written by Frank Loesser in 1947.

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Apparently it was not created for a particular movie or show.

And Mr. Loesser thought that it was fine to sing it any time of the year — because it is about someone who is in the early stages of a romantic relationship who is thinking ahead…

I recorded it with Doug Hammer when I was putting together an hour-long program of winter holiday songs written or co-written by Jewish lyricist and/or composers.

Mr. Loesser started off as a lyricist, collaborating with Jule Styne (with whom he co-wrote “I Don’t Want To Walk Without You, Baby”), and Hoagy Carmichael (with whom he co-wrote “Heart and Soul), and other composers in New York and in California.

During WWII he joined the military and helped to create original musical shows which could easily be produced with minimal costumes, props and scenery at military bases and camps all around the globe as a way to boost the morale of the troops at home and abroad.

It was during this time that he became more confident about composing the music to go with his lyrics — and one of first hit songs for which he wrote both music and lyrics was “Praise the Lord and Pass The Ammunition.”

After WWII his career as a songwriter gained momentum.

He wrote songs for the hit musical WHERE’S CHARLEY? — which gave us the standard “Once In Love With Amy” sung by Ray Bolger (who had starred as The Scarecrow in the movie version of THE WIZARD OF OZ many years earlier).

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Then he wrote songs for the musical GUYS AND DOLLS, which was a huge hit when it opened on Broadway in 1950 and which — almost seventy years later — continues to be performed all around the USA and beyond…

He expanded from writing lyrics and music to writing the libretto (script) as well for his masterwork THE MOST HAPPY FELLA, which was as much an opera as it was a Broadway show.

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His other shows include GREENWILLOW — starring a young Anthony Perkins, which was not a hit — and HOW TO SUCCEED IN BUSINESS WITHOUT TRYING, which was a hit and won the 1962 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

He also wrote songs — including “Inchworm” and “Thumbelina” for a successful movie about Hans Christian Anderson starring Danny Kaye.

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And he won an Academy award in 1949 for his song, “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” which he had originally written as a fun duet for him and his first wife, Lynn to perform at parties.

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She was apparently very upset when he sold “their song” to MGM FOR a movie called NEPTUNE’S DAUGHTER starring Esther Williams.

In recent years this song has generated some controversy since the lyrics involve a man (called “the wolf” in the original sheet music) seducing a woman (called “the mouse” in the original sheet music) using persistence, charm, and alcohol.

Since relatively few books have been written about Mr. Loesser, his daughter Susan Loesser penned a book called A Most Remarkable Fella: Frank Loesser and the Guys and Dolls in His Life.

It is very candid and informative about Mr. Loesser — who does not sound like he was  the easiest or the happiest guy to work with. In fact he infamously slapped one of the original leads in GUYS AND DOLLS, Isabel Bigley, during rehearsals because he did not like the way she was interpreting one of his songs.

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However, he was extremely supportive of up-and-coming songwriters and helped nurture the careers of Meredith Willson (THE MUSIC MAN), Richard Adler and Jerry Ross (THE PAJAMA GAME and DAMN YANKEES), and even Stephen Sondheim, who received a very supportive and empathetic letter from Frank after one of Sondheim’s early musicals, ANYONE CAN WHISTLE, closed after only nine performances.

Mr. Loesser was also a lifelong three-pack-a-day smoker, and died in 1969 at age 59 from lung cancer.

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Deep breath in.

Deep breath out.

As another year — and another decade — draws to a close, I would like to thank everyone who has visited my blog during the past six years to read and listen.

And the wonderful photographers whose work has graced my blog posts.

Also all the folks with whom I have made music during this past year!

This next decade is a make-or-break one for human beings here on planet earth.

We have ten years — or less!!! — to change the way we consume resources before climate change will swing more and more out of balance in un-imaginable, catastrophic, and un-fixable ways.

I have no idea what a contemporary human society which consumes only sustainable/renewable amounts of food and water and fuel and natural resources would look like.

But I deeply hope we are all able to WAKE UP and STOP CONSUMING fossil fuels and plastic items and unnecessary consumer goods and air travel and vacations-to-far-away-places, and car travel, and excessive food and water so that future generations of beings — human and otherwise — can exist on this lovely planet.

Many of us have somehow been raised to feel we are entitled to consume/enjoy/waste natural resources simply because we want to consume/enjoy/waste them — with no consideration or reflection about how our choices and actions affect the larger web of sustainable life here on planet earth.

This Christmas I gave copies of several books — The Overstory by Richard Powers and The Hidden Life of Trees, The Inner Life of Animals, and The Secret Wisdom of Nature by Peter Wohlleben — to various family members.

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I was slightly ambivalent to buy and give books (made from dead trees, after all…) about how amazing and wise and generous and precious trees are to life here on planet earth.

But I am hoping that sharing these books will help with the process of AWAKENING all of us human beings to the extraordinary web of life — of which we are merely one (albeit an often-times astoundingly ignorant and destructive) strand.

Another deep breath in.

And deep breath out.

I will be hanging out with family in upstate New York this New Year’s Eve.

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I learned yesterday from my older sister that the hens started laying more eggs as soon as the days started getting longer here in the northern hemisphere.

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How amazingly calibrated to subtle changes in light they are!

And I bore witness to the sheeps’ concern about getting their fair share of the grain which my sisters feed them each evening.

I learned from a television program earlier this year that a wide variety of animals — not just sheep — are very aware of what IS and is NOT equitable.

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Here we are walking the sheep to a temporary pasture area in another field.

The snow has almost all melted due to several days of non-freezing weather including rain…

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Here is one of my nephews testing fate by walking on a previously frozen stream…

Tomorrow night after evening chores are done, we will drive to the next town and cook a small feast with cousins.

Then we will play ukuleles, sing, and reflect upon the past year.

What are YOU doing New Year’s Eve?

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.

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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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