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.

Cape_Cod_National_Seashore_Wikipedia

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.

BlueberryCloseup

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?

TruroTrenchSkyClouds

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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.

LakeSkyReflection

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.

Hummingbird3

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.

JapaneseCherryBlossoms

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…

RainbowFlowerField

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.

Echinacea

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.

DirtRoadTreesMist

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.

SpringFlowersTreeSun

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.

TreeLakeStars

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.

Flower&Butterfly

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.

SunsetRedFlowers

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…)

SummerBerries

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!

hydrangea

Who Is Harry Warren?

Who Is Harry Warren?

 

Last Sunday jazz pianist Joe Reid and I debuted a one-hour program of music devoted to the composer Harry Warren at an enthusiastic retirement community in Milton, MA.

Mr. Warren had a long and extraordinarily successful career as a songwriter, but his name is not as familiar as that of Irving Berlin, Cole Porter or the Gershwin Brothers — all of whom were his contemporaries.

Warren and lyricist Al Dubin wrote the first song in this blog post, “Lullaby Of Broadway,” for the Hollywood movie musical Gold Diggers of 1935 — and it earned them an Academy Award for Best Song in a Motion Picture.

It’s kind of ironic, however, that this love song to Broadway was written in California.

Harry had grown up in New York, and wanted for much of his adult life to move back east and write for the theater.

But he ended up living in California for over 50 years — where he composed more than 400 songs for 90 different movies.

And the songs he co-wrote — including such gems as “The More I See You,” “Serenade In Blue,” “Chattanooga Choo Choo,””The Boulevard of Broken Dreams,” and “At Last” — continue to be performed at weddings, included in commercials, featured in movies, etc. to this day!

HarryOnBoardwalk

Harry was the born on Christmas Eve, 1893, in Brooklyn, NY, and he was christened Salvatore Antonio Guaragna — the second youngest of eleven children. His father was a successful custom boot maker who had emigrated from Italy and changed the family name from Gauragna to Warren when Harry was a child.

Harry was very musically inclined, teaching himself how to play his father’s accordion as well as singing in the choir at his Catholic church. He dropped out of school at age 16 to play drums with his godfather in a band that toured up and down the Hudson River valley with a traveling carnival.

He also taught himself to play the piano, and ended up finding employment at the Vitagraph Motion Picture Studios in Brooklyn, NY, doing a wide variety of tasks including prop master, assistant director, and accompanist for the silent movie star Corinne Griffith to help her summon different emotions while she filmed her scenes.

HarryWarren1910

During WWI he joined the Navy and was stationed at the tip of Long Island in Montauk. Since he played piano, he ended up entertaining his fellow soldiers a lot — and also started writing his first original songs.

In December 1918, right after the war had ended, he married Josephine Wensler, and their first child, Harry Junior, arrived the next year.

After WWI, Harry found work playing piano in cafes, bars, and silent movie theaters in order to support his young family.

In 1920 a couple of men from a music publishing company heard him playing piano in a Brooklyn saloon — including one of his original songs, “I Learned To Love You When I Learned My ABCs.” They brought him to meet their boss, Ruby Cowan, who hired him as a staff pianist and a song plugger.

He spent his days and nights visiting theaters, clubs, bars and restaurants all around Brooklyn in order to pitch his company’s latest songs to vaudeville performers, band leaders — anyone who might perform the song and thus help to make it popular so that people would buy sheet music which they could play at home.

Warren later claimed that his basic shyness prevented him from being particularly effective as a song plugger — and perhaps this shyness is also part of the reason why his name hasn’t become better known by the American public.

His first hit, “Rose Of The Rio Grande,” was a collaboration with composer Ross Gorman and lyricist Edgar Leslie in April 1922.

Gradually he was able to do less song plugging and more composing — collaborating with lyricists such as Gus Kahn, Ted Koehler, Irving Kahal and Ira Gershwin (when his brother George was focused on one of his classical music projects) among others…

Harry’s early hits caught the attention of Hollywood, and from 1929-1932 he wrote songs for several minor movies — commuting via the train from New York to Hollywood and back again.

But he did not enjoy his time in California, finding it too parochial — and disrespectful to songwriters.

He later explained: “It was nothing like it is today. The railway station was a wooden building. If you rented a car, you were lucky the wheels didn’t fall off, and there were very few decent places to eat. Hollywood looked to me like a small town in South Dakota, and when you finally got to the Warners studio in Burbank, it was like being on the frontier. You could look out the windows of the music department at the San Fernando Valley and see nothing but wide open land. All I could think about was New York. What made it even worse, the studio was empty — they had laid off most of their people for the summer. Although they had made a fortune with The Jazz Singer in 1927, by the summer of 1932 they were in real trouble.”

Many executives in Hollywood thought movie musicals were done after a flood of them were produced following the 1927 success of the first talking/singing motion picture, The Jazz Singer.

But Darryl Zanuck at Warner Brothers had a hunch that new technologies and the creative vision of Busby Berkeley might turn things around.

So in 1932 Warren was lured back west by Zanuck to write a complete score for a new film, 42nd Street, with lyricist Al Dubin.

And as it turned out, Depression-era audiences were cheered by the singing and dancing of Ruby Keeler and Dick Powell and wowed by Berkeley’s innovative, grandiose and oftentimes bizarre group dance extravaganzas.

Here’s a photo of Al Dubin, Busby Berkeley and Harren Warren at the Warner Brothers studio.

AlBuzz&Harry

42nd Street yielded several hits, including the title song, “42nd Street,” “Shuffle Off to Buffalo,” and “You’re Getting To Be A Habit With Me” — which has now become a habit with me (and which I find myself singing at all hours of the day and night).

 

42nd Street had been completed by the end of 1932, but Warner Brothers waited until spring of 1933 to release it.

Warren had returned to his office in New York at the Remick music publishing company.

He still hoped his future would be in Broadway theaters.

However, 42nd Street tested so successfully with preview audiences before it was released that Warner Brothers rushed a similar film into production — Gold Diggers of 1933, which was filmed in 28 days!

Warren and Dubin wrote five songs for Gold Diggers of 1933 and then signed a contract — renewable annually at Warner Brothers’ discretion — to continue writing songs there.

And since he proved to be a tremendous composer of hit songs, his contract was renewed over and over again — thus keeping him in California.

Gold Diggers of 1933 outdoes 42nd Street in the wildness and lavishness of its production numbers.

Busby Berkeley was now the man of the hour and was given more or less free rein to pursue his cinematic visions.

For example, the movie opens with Ginger Rogers and a chorus line of women all wearing bikinis made out of huge coins singing the optimistic anthem to capitalism, “We’re In The Money.”

During the rest of the 1930s Harry Warren worked on 20 movie musicals with Al Dubin — for which they created standards such as “I Only Have Eyes For You,” “Lulu’s Back In Town,” and “September In the Rain.”

HarryandAlDubin

Often the songs Warren and Dubin created had very little to do with the plot.

But they DID fuel the imagination of  Busby Berkeley.

He would get inspired by their song titles and then manage — in some fantastic and unusual way — to include their songs in the plot of the movie.

In the 1934 film Dames Dick Powell’s character sings “I Only Have Eyes For You” to Ruby Keeler’s character on the Staten Island ferry.

Then they both fall asleep on the subway, and he dreams that he sees Ruby’s face everywhere — floating in geometrical patterns in the air, and then on the faces of a huge chorus of women who are all wearing masks of Ruby Keeler’s face while climbing up and down huge staircases and/or riding an elegant Ferris wheel.

At the climax of the song, all of these women bend over and form a giant mosaic of Ruby’s face using painted puzzle pieces on their backs.

If you have never seen this movie sequence, you can find it on YouTube.

It’s quite surreal.

This is not the only hit song Harry wrote about eyes.

In 1938 he wrote a song with lyricist Johnny Mercer for Louis Armstrong to sing in the Warner Brothers movie Going Places.

Armstrong plays the trainer of a wild-tempered race horse who only calms down when Mr. Armstrong’s character sings or plays this next song on the trumpet to him.

 

Given Mr. Armstrong’s decades-long relationship with marijuana — which he once described as being “a thousand times better than whiskey” — I have to think that the lyric might also have been something of an in joke between Mercer, Warren, Armstrong, and their fellow musicians.

Mr. Warren had a deep well of melodic ideas which he tapped into whenever he was composing a song.

Usually he and his lyricist would come up with a title and bat around ideas for lyrics.

Then Harry would compose a melody for which the lyricist would write words.

The list of great songs for which Harry Warren composed the music is quite extraordinary.

HarryWarrenSongHits

From 1931 – 1945, Harry co-wrote more hit songs than Irving Berlin, and had more Oscar nominations for best song (11) and wins (3) than Berlin, George Gershwin, Cole Porter, or Hoagie Carmichael.

Warren ended up winning an Oscar three times — for the afore-mentioned “Lullaby Of Broadway” with lyricist Al Dubin, “You’ll Never Know” with the lyricist Mack Gordon, and “On The Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe” with lyricist Johnny Mercer.

Warren also had more hit records — 42 songs! — on “Your Hit Parade” than any of his peers.

And yet his name is not familiar to many of us.

There appear to be many reasons for this.

As mentioned earlier, Harry was a shy man and not much of a schmoozer.

He didn’t go to a lot of Hollywood parties where a songwriter might sit down and promote his catalog of songs.

He also didn’t hire a publicist to keep his name in the papers the way many of his fellow songwriters did.

In fact at one point a few of his friends hired a publicist for Harry on his behalf, and Harry fired the man as soon as he found himself mentioned in a gossip column.

I was steered towards Warren and his music by a chapter called “I’m Just Wild About Harry Warren” in one of Michael Feinstein’s terrific books — Nice Work If You Can Get It: My Life In Rhythm and Rhyme.

Michael befriended Harry near the end of his life, and has championed his music ever since.

Feinstein’s anecdotes about Warren provide a lot of texture and detail which other biographies omit or gloss over.

For example, the man who wrote the music for so many happy songs was heart-broken by the sudden death of his son Harry, Jr. in 1938.

And according to Feinstein, Warren’s marriage remained deeply scarred by this tragedy for decades afterwards…

Deep breath in.

Deep breath out.

During his decades-long career in Hollywood, Harry worked primarily for four movie studios: Warner Brothers in the 30s, 20th Century-Fox in the early 40s, MGM in the later 40s, and finally Paramount in the 50s.

He co-wrote his last big hit — “That’s Amore” — with lyricist Jack Brooks in 1953 for Paramount’s movie The Caddy starring Dean Martin (which earned Warren his tenth Oscar nomination for best song in a motion picture).

In the mid-1950s, however, Hollywood stopped making many big musical films — so Harry expanded his horizons.

In 1955 he co-wrote the theme song for the TV show The Life and Legend Of Wyatt Earp.

He also wrote scores and title songs for dramatic movies including “Marty” in 1955, and “An Affair To Remember” in 1957 — and continued writing songs for Jerry Lewis’ comedic movies after Dean and Jerry parted ways.

He even returned to Broadway with a musical, Shangri-la, based on a James Hilton novel which sadly was not a success.

To keep himself busy, he composed a bunch of short piano vignettes, and in 1962 wrote a complete Catholic mass with Latin text.

One of his biggest successes came in 1980, when producer David Merrick and director/choreographer Gower Champion adapted the original 1933 Hollywood blockbuster 42nd Street into a Broadway musical which also included many other songs Warren and Dubin had written for Warner Brothers movies.

HarryAtPiano

Warren’s lifelong dream of having a hit show on Broadway was realized.

And yet, according to Michael Feinstein, Merrick and Champion were not very inclusive of — or respectful to — Harry, even managing to leave his name off the poster for what became a huge musical success.

So — although it earned him plenty of money — the Broadway version of 42nd Street brought him very little happiness or satisfaction.

Another deep breath in.

And out.

I am going to end this blog post with song Harry wrote with lyricist Mack Gordon for the 1942 20th Century Fox film Iceland.

 

I am well aware that my ongoing curiosity about the songs, songwriters, and performers of bygone eras is in large part a coping mechanism to drown out the distressing realities of our current political landscape here in the USA.

Perhaps his songs will give you a few minutes of solace and distraction, too!

And yet the real world in which most of Warren’s songs were written included a huge economic crisis, the genocides of millions of human beings, the use of atomic weapons, public lynchings, and many, many other horrific undertakings by the human species.

Blessedly his songs have survived — with some of us still singing them.

As I was finishing the first draft of the patter for our hour-long program of Harry’s songs, I learned that the wonderful jazz singer Rebecca Parris — who was based in Duxbury on the South Shore of Boston with her partner, the pianist Paul McWilliams — had died after sitting in for a couple of songs with McWilliams at the Riverway Lobster House in South Yarmouth, MA.

I also learned from reading her obituary in a local paper that “There Will Never Be Another You” was the last song she performed before leaving the restaurant, collapsing outside., and being taken to Cape Cod Hospital.

So it seems a fitting way to end this blog post in honor of Harry and in honor of Rebecca — and in honor of all of the other singers who have breathed life into Harry’s songs over the past nine decades.

Thank you to Doug Hammer for playing piano so beautifully while simultaneously recording all of these songs with me so that I would have accurate versions of Harry’s songs to practice and learn.

Thank you to Joe Reid for playing over 50 shows a year with me in retirement communities, restaurants, synagogues, assisted living homes, senior centers, and coffee houses around the greater Boston area.

Thank you to Harry Warren and his lyrical collaborators for writing these songs.

Thank you to Michael Feinstein and others who have written about Harry.

And thank YOU for reading and listening to what I know is a lengthy post.

Let’s keep humming and singing Harry’s songs for years to come!

 

HarryWarrenSmithsonian

Father’s Day!

Grandpa Tom

Andrew Thomas McMillan

This Sunday is Father’s Day in the USA.

My father (pictured above) died a year and a half ago.

He was a loving man who sang to me and my siblings at bedtime when we were young.

He didn’t teach me much about business or money — unless it was to inspire me to make different decisions than he did regarding concepts like saving…

But he was always willing to talk and listen.

At one point when he needed to stop driving, sell a trailer home he owned which was costing him money, and do some strategic planning regarding his declining health, two of my siblings and I and he met with a mediator.

It was not easy or fun to meet with a mediator, but we emerged with an agreed-upon list of things that needed to be accomplished.

And bless him, he accomplished everything on the list (with significant help from my older sister, with whom he lived for many years…)

As his health declined and he became less and less mobile, the sweetest way to spend time with him was sitting by his bed and playing the ukulele.

He loved to sing — even when his face was more and more disfigured by the cancer which eventually wore him out — and knew lots of standards from the 1920s – 1970s.

The wonderful team of David Shire (composer) and Richard Maltby, Jr. (lyricist) wrote a song called “If I Sing” which always touches my heart.

It was inspired by a visit which David Shire made to his father who was living in a retirement community/nursing home.

When I perform “If I Sing,” I am very grateful that my dad shared his love of music with me.

And I think of several male voice teachers who have nurtured me over the past couple of decades.

And I think of my step father, who was a professional flautist for many years — and  is now a passionate music educator who loves his students and continues to teach in his 80s.

A heartful Father’s Day to you, dear reader.

I am well aware that not everyone is blessed with a loving and functional father — or even a father at all…

However, I hope you are able to feel grateful for something your dad — or a trustworthy male teacher, or minister, or rabbi, or mentor — has given you.

Thank you for reading and watching and listening to this blog post.

Thank you, too, to Maltby & Shire for writing such a terrific song.

And thank you to Mike Callahan — himself now an enthusiastic and loving father! — for creating this great orchestration, for inviting me to sing with the Timberlane pops orchestra, and for conducting the orchestra so tenderly and skillfully.

Catch Me…

Catch Me…

 

Recently I read a small but devastating article in The New Yorker about what our new Secretary of the Interior has already accomplished in the first year of his service.

It immediately reminded me of the song “Catch Me” (which opens with a few seconds of silence after you hit the play icon at the top of this page…)

“Catch Me” is another song by David Friedman (about whom I wrote recently) which Bobbi Carrey and I recorded with pianist, arranger, and engineer Doug Hammer for our If I Loved You CD.

Although Ryan Zinke held much more conservationist views when he was a Montana state senator — acknowledging climate change as a significant threat to US national security, for example — now that he is Secretary of the Interior, he is working hard to remove burdensome regulations to industry on public land and in our coastal waters.

pier + smokestacks

He even reversed a recent ban on lead ammunition in wildlife refuges designed to protect birds that eat carrion.

The article concluded by saying that — while it is possible future elections will nudge our leadership back in more sustainable and respectful directions — the damage already being done to our public lands and wildlife will take decades to re-balance or repair (which, of course, is not even possible when a plant or animal becomes extinct…)

Boy-train-woods

Somehow this article has thrown me into what I trust is a temporary tailspin of depression and hopelessness.

As lyricist Fran Landesman once noted, spring can really hang you up the most…

Obviously there is SO MUCH that we human beings need to do to reduce and re-balance our patterns of consumption and destruction as soon as humanly possible.

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And yet so many of us — me included — are unable to change a lifetime of habits and assumptions and behaviors in order seriously to address the coming environmental challenges/catastrophes/opportunities.

For example, many of us who are blessed to live in countries such as the United States continue to think, “Of course I deserve to travel as much as I can afford.”

Yet according to a recent article on The Conversation web site, “no other human activity pushes individual emission levels as fast and as high as air travel.”

Yikes!!!

And even if we can’t afford a plane trip to someplace warm (or intriguing or affordable or colorful) we are strongly urged by our morally bankrupt financial institutions to pay for it using a credit card…or two…or three.

Man-Help

How many of us are basically indentured servants to our credit card companies, making minimum payments yet never paying off all our accumulated debt?

Another assumption I find odd is that most of us continue to think that we deserve to have one — or more — cars.

Of course, this is often related to the fact that many of us think that we deserve to live wherever we like — places which may not be located anywhere near public transportation, for example — so, of course, we have to have a car in order to get to work, to shop, to visit friends and family, to drive to the gym (the practice of which I truly don’t understand… why not ride your bike or walk to the gym? Or ride your bike/walk/run instead of joining a gym and donate what you used to pay for your gym membership to a deserving non-profit group?) etc.

And how about those of us who feel that we deserve to own vacation homes — sometimes built in very unwise locations?

north-beach-erosion

Many of these structures sit uninhabited for weeks or months at a time, consuming fuel/electricity so that the pipes don’t freeze, or so that the house doesn’t get too humid, or so that the burglar alarms are functioning…

The list of possessions and privileges to which many of us aspire is loooong — and has been extremely well-marketed for at least a couple of generations here in the USA.

Yet so few of us seem to be able or willing to pause and ponder the consequences of our consumption…

And global greenhouse gas levels continue to rise.

And weather becomes more erratic — affecting wildlife habitats as well as human agriculture (and thus the ability of more and more countries to feed their citizens).

And plastic — some of it visible and some of it in tiny fibers — continues to pollute the waters of planet earth and contaminate aquatic life on all levels of the food chain.

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Sadly — depressingly — tragically — hubristically — the list of human pollution, deforestation, and environmental degradation goes on and on and on…

I often feel — as I watch TV or listen to the radio or use the internet — that I have entered a frantic cocoon created solely so that we human beings can hide (for couple of hours or for an entire lifetime) from the terrifying realities of the larger patterns/feedback loops which are unfolding/unraveling right now on planet earth.

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And I want to say — to myself and to most of my fellow human beings here in the USA — WAKE UP!!!

Often this is when I catch a cold.

And I stay home and write a blog post like this…

I am aware that I am extremely blessed to live a life where I can moan about larger environmental challenges because my basic needs for food, clothing, shelter, employment, love, and respect have already been met.

And I have a job — leading Music Together classes — to which I can walk or bike or take the bus.

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However, I am also aware that anyone writing or reading a blog post is using electricity and some sort of magical electronic device which contains metals mined all over the planet by human beings under inhumane conditions as well as plastic from fossil fuels — and which have most likely been assembled by human beings working under inhumane conditions.

And my other job — sharing one-hour programs of beloved standards at retirement communities, assisted living facilities, and public libraries — involves driving many miles per month in a trusty, high mileage Prius belonging to the jazz pianist Joe Reid, with whom I do 50+ gigs per year.

So I am utterly complicit.

And I wonder what the f–k I am doing with my one precious life here on planet earth.

Moss+Water Droplets

Yet I also know that music matters in some way — that it can touch our hearts and even inspire us to do unimaginably courageous things.

A documentary I watched recently about James Baldwin reminded me that there was a lot of singing by heroic non-violent protestors as they were marching… and as they were being beaten… and as they were being thrown into police vehicles.

Deep breath in.

Deep breath out.

What do you think/feel about any of this, dear reader?

What do you think/feel about the sad news that Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain — two people who have achieved international success, wealth, fame, influence, celebrity, and in theory the happiness which success/wealth/fame/influence/celebrity are alleged to bring — have taken their own lives during this past week?

Another deep breath in.

And deep breath out.

Thank you to David Friedman for writing such compelling songs.

Thank you to Bobbi Carrey for her musical collaboration over the past 15 years.

Thank you to Doug Hammer for his piano playing, engineering, production wizardry, patience, and humor.

Thank you to Mike Callahan for his vocal arrangements.

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

And thank YOU for making time so that you could read and listen to another blog post.

Daisy-Pier

 

The Wind Beneath My Wings

The Wind Beneath My Wings

 

This afternoon I saw an airplane rising in the sky above Boston.

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As usual, I was amazed that such a huge and complicated chunk of metal could become airborne.

Apparently it has something to do with the Bernoulli Effect.

In online article by Matthew Reeve I learned that “Daniel Bernoulli was an eighteenth-century Swiss scientist who discovered that as the velocity of a fluid increases its pressure decreases.

This can be demonstrated when a constant flow of fluid or gas is passed through a tube, and a section of the tube is constricted.

At the point of constriction, the flow will speed up and there will be a drop in pressure against the walls of the tube.

This principle has become widely known as the Bernoulli Effect.”

The Bernoulli Effect explains why planes fly AND why we are able to produce sound with our vocal cords.

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Matthew Reeve continues,

“The two results of the Bernoulli Effect can be explained with two examples.

Flow increase: When you place your thumb over the end of a running hose, the flow of water speeds up and travels further across the garden. At the point of constriction velocity increases.

Air pressure drop: An airplane’s wing is shaped so that the bottom is flat and the top is curved. When air flows across the top of a plane’s wing, it travels faster and the lower pressure creates lift.”

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This keeps the plane aloft.

Astounding!

I first heard about the Bernoulli Effect in a voice lesson with Professor Eugene Rabine.

He was attempting to explain to me how our vocal cords — which are more accurately called vocal folds — vibrate to produce sound.

When we make a sound using our voice (also know as phonation), our vocal folds are pulled together by a team of small, strong, sophisticated muscles.

During phonation, the stream of air coming up from our lungs through our wind pipe/trachea is momentarily stopped by our vocal folds.

At this point pressure begins to build up below the vocal folds.

Vocal cord vibration Bernoulli effect

Back to Matthew Reeve’s article…

“When the pressure is high enough, the vocal folds are forced to separate and the airstream is allowed to flow through the vocal folds.

The airstream through the vocal folds then accelerates causing a drop in pressure.

This drop in pressure then sucks the vocal folds back together.

Air pressure under our vocal folds then builds up again and the process continues.”

This cycle of our vocal folds opening and closing — hundreds of times per second — creates the waves of air pressure that we recognize as sound.

Reading about the Bernoulli Effect reminded me of a recording of “The Wind Beneath My Wings” that pianist Doug Hammer and I made during a rehearsal for a memorial service a few years ago.

It combines the act of singing with the imagery of flying.

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Thank you to Nicki Nichols Gamble for asking me and Bobbi Carrey to sing at her husband’s memorial service — and for requesting this particular song.

Thank you to Doug Hammer for his terrific piano playing and for his engineering expertise.

Thank you to David Gay, Eugene Rabine, Roland Seiler, Craig Wich, Mary Klimek, and all of the other human beings who have taught me about healthy vocal function.

Thank you to Pixabay for some lovely photographs and to the internet for some useful graphics

Thank YOU for reading and listening to another blog post — and thank you to everyone who continues to offer me positive feedback and enthusiastic support for my music-making.

You are indeed the wind beneath my wings.

And — echoing the final lyrics of the song — I also give thanks for the Bernoulli Effect, which allow planes to fly and human beings to sing!

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If I Loved You…

If I Loved You…

 

Rodgers&Hammerstein

Today’s post is inspired by the act of collaboration.

Theater is all about collaboration — as are many forms of music.

I have been part of a musical collaboration with singer Bobbi Carrey for almost 20 years.

The song at the beginning of this blog post — “If I Loved You” — was written by Oscar Hammerstein II and Richard Rodgers for their musical Carousel.

Both Hammerstein and Rodgers had achieved tremendous success working with other collaborators before they joined forces during WWII to create the musical Oklahoma! 

Following the triumph of Oklahoma! they rose to new heights, co-creating a new musical every couple of years — interspersed with producing plays and musicals (such as Annie Get Your Gun) created by others.

And as their extraordinary list of hit shows — including South Pacific, The King and I, Flower Drum Song and The Sound of Music — expanded, they also devoted a considerable amount of time to overseeing touring companies, movie adaptations, and revivals of their work.

It was an extraordinary creative and business collaboration — the fruits of which will continue to be harvested  and celebrated for decades to come!

Collaboration can be a mysterious process — and theirs was not without its challenges.

But they persevered, remained respectful of each other’s gifts, and left an astounding body of work for the rest of us to savor for decades to come.

Pianist/composer/engineer/producer Doug Hammer, singer Bobbi Carrey and I recorded “If I Loved You” — one of their most beautiful ballads — for a CD we put together with exquisite arrangement input (both vocal and instrumental) from Michael Callahan.

Mike wrote the cello part on this recording of “If I Loved You,” for example.

My collaboration with Bobbi, too, has included a variety of challenges — and we have also respectfully persevered

Right now, due to a variety of factors, our collaboration is in a fallow period.

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Mike is busy being a music professor at Michigan State as well as an enthusiastic husband and father.

Doug’s career as a composer, producer and touring musician — in addition to being a devoted husband and father of two terrific sons — has meant that he is less available to perform with singers (although regular readers/listeners of this blog know that he is still willing to make music together in his wonderful home studio on the north shore of Boston).

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Bobbi was working for a while in various parts of Asia — with a home base in Kuala Lumpur.

And I — now that I am making a very modest living as a singer, songwriter and teacher — am (somewhat paradoxically) less available to collaborate with Bobbi than when I had a full-time, non-musical day job.

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Blessedly, recording technology exists so that all of the collaboration we did together has not evaporated without a trace.

 

Here’s a version of “The Little Things You Do Together” that we recorded with Doug playing piano plus a playful string arrangement by Mike.

Stephen Sondheim wrote it for the musical Company, and it paints a slightly different picture of love and marriage (another type of collaboration) than one might find in a Rodgers & Hammerstein show.

I have loved this song ever since my parents bought the cast album — which I listened to again and again and again as a child.

Sondheim knew both Rodgers and Hammerstein very well, having been unofficially adopted into the Hammerstein family when he was a teenager.

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Hammerstein became a role model and mentor for Sondheim as he, too, devoted himself to musical theater and songwriting.

And after Hammerstein died, Sondheim even collaborated as a lyricist with Richard Rodgers on a show called Do I Hear A Waltz? — along with one of Sondheim’s collaborators from West Side Story, librettist Arthur Laurents.

As someone who writes songs, I am always curious to learn more about the lives, practices, and habits of other songwriters.

I forget where I read it (maybe in one of Laurents’ great memoirs? or one of Sondheim’s terrific books about his own creative process?) but I was surprised to learn that Sondheim — with Laurents’ approval and support — transformed chunks of the dialogue  which Laurents wrote for early drafts of the West Side Story libretto into lyrics for certain songs in West Side Story.

And Laurents did not ask for co-credit on the lyrics for these songs,

It was simply part of their generous and respectful collaborative process.

Now Sondheim continues to support, nurture, encourage and inspire new generations of musical-theater-lovers. librettists, songwriters, and performers.

STEPHEN SONDHEIM

Thank you to Sondheim and Laurents and Rodgers and Hammerstein — and all of their scenic, costuming, choreographic, lighting, casting, directorial, production, and performance collaborators — for leaving us an extraordinary body of songs and shows and ideas.

Thank you to Bobbi Carrey, Doug Hammer, Mike Callahan, Jon Lupfer (who did the final mix of our CD at Q Division), Jonathan Wyner (who mastered our CD at M Works), and the musicians who played on it — Mark Carlsen (bass), Jane Hemenway (violin), Mike Monaghan (tenor sax and flute), Gene Roma (drums, percussion), Johann Soults (cello), and Kenny Wenzel (trombone).

Thank you to the internet for the photos of Rodgers, Hammerstein, Sondheim, Callahan, and Hammer.

Thank you to Paul Forlenza for the photos of Bobbi and me.

And thank YOU for reading and listening to this post!

What have YOUR experiences with collaboration taught you?

Can We Slow It Down?

Can We Slow It Down?

 

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Although spring is just arriving here in the greater Boston area, I am deeply aware of how quickly it will pass.

Yesterday I was celebrating the 22 crocus flowers in my front yard.

And today there are only 9…

Someone nibbled the rest of them down to the ground overnight!

I do not begrudge anyone (rabbit? skunk? possum? squirrel? raccoon? rat?) an early spring feast.

But it was a reminder of how life changes… and sometimes much too quickly.

Stars-Highway

A couple of weeks ago I was asked by the pianist/songwriter Molly Ruggles to share a few songs during a Sunday morning service at the Unitarian Universalist church in Medford, MA.

It’s a beautiful building — with lots of stained glass windows and gently curving pews — and the congregation is very welcoming.

One of the longstanding members of the church is someone I worked with at my very first job after dropping out of college. He and I have reconnected a little bit in recent years due to a shared interest in music and poetry — and it was a pleasure to see him before and after the service.

The minister, Reverend Marta Valentin, was planning a sermon about the value of observing some sort of Sabbath in one’s life.

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I immediately started thinking about standards which might fit this theme, such as “Up A Lazy River” by Hoagy Carmichael and Sidney Arodin or “Bidin’ My Time” by the Gershwin Brothers.

But it also occurred to me that a couple of my original songs might fit the theme, too.

With some shyness, I sent them — “Can We Slow It Down” and “The Beauty All Around” — to Molly for consideration.

Much to my delight, she liked them and forwarded them to Reverend Marta, who also liked them.

In fact, Reverend Marta visited my blog and found another original song, “May Your Life Be Blessed,” which she asked us to include in the service.

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Needless to say, I found this entire experience to be a much-needed affirmation that my original songs can be meaningful to people other than myself…

It was also exciting because I had been thinking that I could only perform my original songs in public with Doug Hammer (who is playing in the recording at the top of this page) at the piano with me.

I write songs using a ukulele — which I play very rudimentarily — and then flesh them out with Doug at his recording studio north of Boston. And Doug has performed many of them with me in different showcases during the past few years.

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So it was a revelation that another pianist would be able to bring them to life as well as Molly did (with very little rehearsal)!

The service itself was very satisfying, too.

My songs — especially “Can We Slow It Down?” — almost seemed as though they had been written to complement the Reverend Marta’s sermon.

Hurrah!

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As I have probably noted in previous blog posts, there is a thriving ukulele Meetup community in the greater Boston area.

I attend a group which meets the 2nd and 4th Wednesday night of each month and another which meets the 1st and 3rd Wednesday afternoon of each month.

Most ukulele Meetup groups include a humble — and very supportive — open-mic period where attendees can share a song they’ve been working on.

This is the main place I have dared to share my original songs during the past few years.

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After I played “Can We Slow It Down?” two weeks ago, a couple of fellow ukulele attendees asked me if I might post it somewhere.

So this post is created for them!

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Thank you to Molly Ruggles, Reverend Marta, Doug Hammer, and my ukulele-playing peers for their enthusiastic support and encouragement.

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Thank you to Pixabay for some lovely images.

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

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I welcome any thoughts/feelings you might have about the pace of life these days…

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When Did Snowflakes Fall So Sweet?

When Did Snowflakes Fall So Sweet?

At last winter is melting away.

The piles of snow between our sidewalk and the street are getting smaller.

Tiny green fingers are pushing out of the earth…

And today the first crocus bloomed in our front yard!

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I planted a bunch of bulbs in November, right before the ground began to freeze.

And it appears that the squirrels did not dig all of them up — because crocus leaves are popping up everywhere.

Hurrah!

Several years ago I wrote a very simple song about spring and colored blossoms falling down to the ground.

 

This was before I started playing the ukulele — so I just sang into my lap top computer using the wonderful Apple program GarageBand.

Then I fooled around with a lot of the sounds and loops that are included with Garageband.

And then I took my laptop to my friend Doug Hammer’s studio, where he added a few more layers of sound — including spring peepers! — and I recorded (I think) a few more vocal tracks.

After Doug mixed it, I spent time at the Apple store on Boylston Street in Boston, getting help in terrific “one to one” training sessions (which Apple used to offer) about how to make a video to accompany my song.

The final product is pasted above.

Here are more crocus photos to savor…

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There is a yard at the top of a hill between Harvard Square and Central Square in Cambridge.

I go there every spring because their front yard is PACKED with crocus, snowdrops, and miniature iris.

It is very similar to this photo except much smaller in total square footage.

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I wonder how many years of planting bulbs it takes to create a field like this!

I am waiting to see my first pollinator of the season.

It is amazing that bees can survive our New England winters — and then they appear as soon as the first blossoms open their petals to the sun.

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There are so many important causes to which one can devote time and care and love and money these days.

I am a fan of environmental advocacy — because without functioning ecosystems, the human species will collapse.

Just like our populations of pollinators (bats, butterflies, bees, etc.) have been collapsing in recent years…

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All sorts of factors may be causing this collapse — including our human use of pesticides and herbicides.

So I no longer use any products like RoundUp or wasp spray.

And I pay extra money to buy organic produce and meat — mostly because it is healthier for the people who plant the food, who cultivate the food, who harvest the food, who clean the food, who package the food, who ship the food, and who handle it in our stores.

I also support organic farming because the hedgerows and bacteria and trees and streams and animals who co-exist with — and in the case of pollinators are partially responsible for — our food crops are not being poisoned either!

May all beings bloom and grow and flourish in an ever-changing balance…

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Thank you to Mother Nature for inspiration.

Thank you to Apple engineers for creating laptop computers and Garageband.

Thank you to the former “one to one” teaching team at the Apple store in Boston.

Thank you to Doug Hammer for his musical and engineering expertise.

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Thank you to Pixabay for beautiful images of crocii.

And thank YOU for reading and watching and listening to another blog post.

I welcome your comments and/or feedback.

In Praise of David Friedman

In Praise of David Friedman

Friedman-Songbook

 

David Friedman is a composer, a songwriter, a conductor, an arranger, a producer, a philosopher, a teacher, AND a dedicated advocate for the singer Nancy LaMott, who died much too young in 1995.

I first became aware of him after hearing one of Nancy’s CDs — and eventually buying all of them because I was so touched by the heartfulness in her voice.

Nancy-LaMott

Nancy recorded many of David’s songs, and I fell in love with several of them.

So when David put together a songbook of his original works, I bought it and got to work!

Two of his songs ended up on a CD of songs about love which singer Bobbi Carrey and I recorded with pianist/engineer/producer Doug Hammer, arranger Mike Callahan, and a handful of Boston-area musicians called If I Loved You.

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“I’ll Be Here With You” (on the player at the beginning of this blog post) is one of Bobbi’s and my favorite songs with which to end a performance.

And, although I do not know the details of Nancy and David’s musical partnership, I have the sense that this song may have had a strong emotional resonance for them (and might even have been inspired by their friendship…)

David-and-Nancy

Perhaps people who know more about David and Nancy’s history can weigh in using the comments section at the end of this blog post.

I think of David whenever someone says something along the lines of, “They don’t write great standards like they used to…”

There are, in fact, many people who are alive and well on planet earth and who are writing beautiful, wise songs.

But the ways that those songs reach — and touch — the rest of the world have changed significantly since the days of sheet music and singing around pianos in living rooms.

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No longer does a new song get recorded by many, many different performers — with different recordings of the same song vying for the top spot on a few national radio networks.

The rise of the singer-songwriter — along with self-contained bands who create their own original material — marked a significant shift in our popular musical culture.

David’s songs have been recorded by pop stars including Diana Ross, Barry Manilow, and Petula Clark — but these days Diana, Barry and Petula are not dominating the charts as they once did…

However, we now have many new ways to share music — such as YouTube, Pandora, Spotify… and even personal blogs like mine.

And there are many singers still devoted to both the Great American Songbook of standards from the 1920s-1960s AND to all of the great songs that have been written since then.

So ripples of music continue to wash around our culture and around our planet…

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Thank you to David Friedman for writing songs.

Thank you to Bobbi Carrey for her singing and for her musical collaboration over the past 15 years.

Thank you to Doug Hammer for his piano playing and his engineering and his production skills and his patience and his humor.

Thank you to Mike Callahan for his vocal arrangements.

Thank you to Pixabay for most of the images in this blog post (and to the world wide web for the ones of David and of Nancy).

And thank YOU for making time so that you could read and listen to another one of my blog posts!

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