Walking In A Winter Wonderland

Walking In A Winter Wonderland

It’s the end of another year.

And the beginning of another winter.

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Although the days are getting longer, many months of cold and icy weather lie ahead…

Today I am visiting my sisters and nephews in upstate NY, where a flow of air from the Arctic has lowered the temperature to the single digits.

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At least once a day we bundle up and tromp with the dogs through fields and woods, observing nature in a somewhat frozen, dormant state.

Ponds are covered with ice and snow.

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Creeks are mostly a cascade of ice, with an occasional hint of water still flowing underneath.

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Crows fly overhead.

We see many animal tracks in the snow — rabbits and deer and something very large (a bear?) which is stepped on by one of the dogs before we can correctly identify it.

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Woodpeckers and blue jays and cardinals and chickadees and sparrows and finches visit the bird feeder.

How any animal manages to stay alive during the long winter months amazes me.

The nights are SO COLD with a breeze to make it feel even colder.

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I made this recording of “Winter Wonderland” with Doug Hammer at his studio in Lynn, MA, many summers ago.

It is another great winter holiday song written or co-written by a Jewish lyricist or composer.

In this case the composer, Felix Bernard, was Jewish.

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Born in Brooklyn, NY, in 1897, his father was a violinist from Germany while his mother was Russian. His family spoke Yiddish at home.

Felix worked as a pianist on the American vaudeville circuits, and also performed in Europe. Like many other composers (including Jerome Kern and George Gershwin) he worked at one point for a music publishing company, and eventually formed his own dance band.

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According to historian Nate Bloom, he also “wrote special musical programs for leading singers of his day, including Sophie Tucker, Eddie Cantor, Al Jolson, and Nora Bayes (all of whom were Jewish).”

Unfortunately he died when he was only 47 years old.

Deep breath in.

Deep breath out.

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Wikipedia tells us that Richard Smith — an Episcopalian — was inspired to write the lyrics for “Winter Wonderland” after seeing the Central Park in Honesdale, PA (his hometown) covered in snow.

He contracted tuberculosis in 1931 and died at Lenox Hill Hospital in NYC in 1935 — just a year after “Winter Wonderland” was published and recorded.

He was only 34 years old.

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Another deep breath in.

And out.

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I love the melody of “Winter Wonderland” and agree with the lyrics — winter IS a great time for hoping and dreaming about the future.

What will 2018 hold for the astounding and intricate web of life on our planet — of which we humans are only one thread?

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Sometimes it seems like we human beings are an enormously successful invasive species — ignorant of our place in the web of life and daily ignoring the balances which must remain in effect between plants, animals, decomposers, microbes, etc. for all to flourish.

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Why do we human beings devote hours and hours and hours of our lives to watching (or listening to) seemingly endless amounts of news, commentary and speculation — as well as entertainment in the form of sports contests, TV shows, movies, web-videos, etc?

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Why do so many of us choose to live so many hours of our precious lives transfixed by an electricity-powered, screen-delivered deluge of images and words and ideas and stories and opinions and advertisements?

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There are so many more important things we could be doing — or NOT doing — which would actually be helping re-balance some part of life on planet earth which is currently out of balance.

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We could be sitting still and breathing.

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We could be helping someone else learn a new language or a new skill.

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We could be singing or dancing or maybe even making music with friends and family.

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We could be walking outside in a winter wonderland, gazing at trees and sky and earth.

Perhaps in 2018 more of us can choose to put down our phones, ignore our Facebook feeds, turn off our devices, and simply be with ourselves — and with the natural world — on a regular basis.

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As 2017 fades away…

Here’s to a sense of flow!

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Here’s to singing!

Here’s to consuming fewer natural resources!

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Here’s to health!

Here’s to friends!

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Here’s to family — human, animal, plant, fungal, microbial!

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Here’s to hope and faith and patience and perseverance!

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Here’s to life!

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Here’s to love!

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And here’s to you for reading and listening to another blog post!

Thank you for your participation with my blog in 2017.

Thank you, too, to my sister Christianne for letting me use a few of her lovely photographs — taken during current and past winter walks.

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A healthy, happy, well-balanced, low-impact, music-filled, surprisingly-satisfied New Year to you!

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The Holy-day Spirit

The Holy-day Spirit


Another delicious Thanksgiving has come and gone.

Days are short.

Nights are long.

And increasingly cold.

Last week jazz pianist Joe Reid and I shared our program of winter holiday songs written or co-written by Jewish lyricists and composers at a retirement community in Newton.

As I have probably noted in previous blog posts, a significant number of great winter holiday songs were written or co-written by Jewish lyricists and composers.

In 1942 Irving Berlin gave us “White Christmas.”

In 1945 Mel Tormé and Bob Wells gave us “The Christmas Song.”

In 1949 Johnny Marks gave us “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.”

In 1950 Jay Livingston and Ray Evans gave us “Silver Bells.”

In 1959 Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen gave us “The Secret of Christmas.”

In 1966 Jerry Herman gave us “We Need A Little Christmas.”

In 1995 Jason Robert Brown gave us “Christmas Lullaby,”

And the list goes on and on!

In this political moment here on planet earth — when many are working to arouse a righteous sense of “us” versus ‘them” in their followers — I am grateful to be reminded of the folks who bridge cultures/identities and bring people together.

Mel Tormé’s parents were Jewish immigrants who fled Russia for a new life in the United States. Although he is most famous as a jazz vocalist, he also co-wrote 250+ songs, many of them with Bob Wells (born Robert Levinson), who was also Jewish.

According to Tormé, the song was written during a blistering hot summer day in an effort to “stay cool by thinking cool.”

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As Mel recalled, he “saw a spiral pad on Bob’s piano with four lines written in pencil: Chestnuts roasting… Jack Frost nipping… Yuletide carols… Folks dressed up like Eskimos. Bob didn’t think he was writing a song lyric. He said he thought if he could immerse himself in winter, he could cool off. Forty minutes later that song was written. I wrote all the music and some of the lyrics.”

The forty minutes that they devoted to creating that song certainly paid off extraordinarily well for Mr. Wells and Mr. Tormé!

Many songwriters aspire to create a holiday standard, which will then be recorded and performed year after year — generating an ongoing stream of revenue.

When I was first putting together a program of winter holiday songs written or co-written by Jewish composers and lyricists, I worked with the wonderful pianist Megan Henderson — who is now the musical director for the Revels organization, which creates the beloved Christmas Revels held at Sanders Theatre each December.

As we were musing about the different reasons that these winter holiday songs came to be written, we came up with the term, “Christmas ka-ching!” to describe the economic motivation that no doubt was driving some of the songwriters.

Several winter holiday songs were created to be performed in films.

One of my favorite holiday standards, “Silver Bells,” was written by Jay Livingston and Ray Evans for a 1950 movie, The Lemon Drop Kid, where it was sung by Marilyn Maxwell and Bob Hope.

I always associate it with my mother’s mother, a hard-working private nurse who lived in the borough of Queens for most of her life and no doubt did a lot of her holiday shopping on “city sidewalks, busy sidewalks — decked in holiday style.”

Jay Livingston, who wrote the music for “Silver Bells,” and Ray Evans, who wrote the lyrics for “Silver Bells,” were a famous Jewish songwriting team with many hits to their credit including “Mona Lisa” and “Que Sera Sera.”

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Jay was born Jacob Harold Levison in 1915 in a small industrial suburb of Pittsburgh, PA, and Ray was born Raymond Bernard Evans — also in 1915 — in Salamanca, not far from Buffalo, N.Y.

They met at the University of Pennsylvania when they both joined the university dance band, and their songwriting partnership endured until Livingston’s death in 2001.

I love the verse — not always sung — they wrote for “Silver Bells.”

“Christmas make you feel emotional. It may bring parties or thoughts devotional. Whatever happens or what may be, here is what Christmastime means to me…”

A contemporary Jewish songwriter, Jason Robert Brown, wrote another one of my favorite winter holiday songs — “Christmas Lullaby” — for his first musical revue called Songs for a New World.

 


Mr. Brown is an extremely gifted human being who sometimes works as music director, conductor, orchestrator, and pianist for his own productions — and has won Tony Awards for his work on the Broadway musicals Parade and The Bridges of Madison County.

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“Christmas Lullaby” honors one of the deepest miracles of all — how a woman (with a little genetic input from a man — or, in the case of Jesus’ mother Mary, with the help of the Holy Spirit) can grow an entirely new human being inside her body.

I think about this miracle in my Music Together classes, because I have been teaching long enough for many mothers — who originally attended with their first child — to become pregnant and return for more music with their second (and even third) child.

Neil Postman wrote at the beginning of his book, The Disappearance of Childhood, that “Children are the living messages we send to a time we will not see.”

Although this sentence also appears in a book published the following year by John Whitehead called, The Stealing of America, it appears to have been coined by Postman.

And regardless of who gets credit for it, I LOVE this idea.

One of my sisters-in-law — who has parented two children and worked with hundreds of others in the public schools of Western, MA — incorporated this quotation into a work of art which I see hanging on her wall every time I visit.

Sometimes I remember during my Music Together classes that part of my modest legacy here on planet earth may be the spontaneous and affirmative musical fun I shared with these extraordinary little souls — who will grow up to face unimaginable challenges stemming in part from the ignorant (and at times utterly greedy) choices that we grownups have made during the past 100+ years.

Perhaps some seeds of improvisation and collaboration and harmony and community and inter-connectedness and playfulness and creativity and love and respect will have been sown during our musical time together — which will blossom to help solve/resolve future challenges in a time that I will not see.

And perhaps these wonderful holiday songs will also travel into the future, continuing to touch and guide people’s hearts and minds for generations to come…

Let’s keep singing and humming and whistling and playing them!

Thank you to all of the songwriters who have created such a great legacy of music for us to share.

Thank you to Joe Reid for performing 47 shows with me in 2017 at retirement communities, public libraries, community centers, memory cafes, and synagogues around New England.

If you are curious to see what’s on our calendar for 2018 you can click here.

Thank you to Doug Hammer for recording — while playing the roles of both pianist AND engineer — the songs in this blog post with me.

Thank you to Nate Bloom, a writer who has made it a personal quest to track down and figure out which winter holiday songs have been written or co-written by Jewish lyricists and songwriters.

And THANK YOU for reading and listening to another blog post!