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!
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.
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…
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.
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.
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…
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…
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.
Thank you to Pixabay for beautiful images of crocii.
And thank YOU for reading and watching and listening to another blog post.
“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…)
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.
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…
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!
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.”
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.”
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.
“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!
It is a perfect example to me of a “wisdom song” — which helps me to re-align with my better, wiser self whenever I sing it.
Writing this post inspired me to search on Pixabay for some butterfly images, and I was astounded by what I found.
The idea that earthbound caterpillars can transform themselves into winged butterflies — that they can literally dissolve themselves and re-form their molecules into a new type of being — has fascinated and inspired us human beings for millennia.
I am also inspired by the paths they take — paths which do not travel in a straight line from point A to point B yet manage to cover vast amounts of mileage none-the-less.
Butterflies have a inner sense of where they are headed, but they also follow and respond to whatever flowers and breezes appear along their journey.
This seems to be how I, too, am moving through my musical life here on planet earth.
I looked online to learn more about the current health of our butterfly populations.
First I was directed to a relatively new company called “Butterfly Health” that seems to specialize in adult diapers…
Then I found a lovely story about vineyards in eastern Washington which “stopped using harmful pesticides and created natural habitats with native shrub-steppe plants around the vineyards to keep out harmful insects (e.g., mealybugs) and attract beneficial insects (e.g., parasitic wasps) that feed on pests.”
These vineyard saw a significant increase in butterflies — from an average of five different species to more like twenty different species!
The article noted that “butterflies don’t protect the vineyards or provide wine growers with economical benefits, (but) they are pollinators and an important element of the ecosystem. Furthermore, having butterflies flutter around a vineyard increases its aesthetic appeal and provides proof of earth-friendly pest control practices.”
It reports that “more than three-quarters of Britain’s 59 butterfly species have declined over the last 40 years, with particularly dramatic declines for once common farmland species such as the Essex Skipper and Small Heath…
‘This is the final warning bell,’ said Chris Packham, Butterfly Conservation vice-president, calling for urgent research to identify the causes for the disappearance of butterflies from ordinary farmland. ‘If butterflies are going down like this, what’s happening to our grasshoppers, our beetles, our solitary bees? If butterflies are in trouble, rest assured everything else is.'”
Deep breath in.
Deep breath out.
What, I continue to wonder, will it take for enough of us human beings to wake up and take significant actions so that the extraordinary species extinction we are now experiencing on planet earth can slow down…and maybe even stop?
Why are so many of us seemingly oblivious to what is happening to our ecosystems and unable/unwilling to make wiser choices?
I recently visited a friend’s house (his/her second home, actually) and saw a small vat of RoundUp that I assume s/he is using to take care (??) of weeds in his/her lovely garden.
It was sitting alongside an aerosol can of pesticide to kill wasps.
This is an extremely well-educated person who loves the views of nature from his/her home overlooking a beautiful river.
Yet s/he is completely oblivious to the increasingly well-documented scientific research linking herbicides and pesticides to all sorts of profound disruptions in the overall health of a wide variety of ecosystems. And disruptions to our own human metabolisms — since we human beings are deeply rooted in nature from an evolutionary perspective and share many of the same biological pathways/systems as our animal and plant cousins..
I know that beautifully photographed and persuasively written advertising messages from the makers of herbicides and pesticides contribute to our human ignorance..
And lots of us think, “Oh it’s just a little bit of RoundUp or a little bit of wasp spray…”
But it all adds up and takes a cumulative toll on a wide variety of plants and animals and bacteria and fungae which we dearly need to be functioning in balance with each other.
Another deep breath in.
And another deep breath out.
Thank you to Pixabay for these wonderful photographs of butterflies.
Thank you to Doug Hammer and John Bucchino for their tremendous musicality and songwriting expertise.
And thank YOU for reading and listening to another blog post.
What steps — small and/or not-so-small — have you taken in your life to help keep life in balance here on planet earth?
I had a somewhat unusual childhood — as you may know if you have read some of my previous posts.
Most of it was “normal” (in a privileged, white, male, upper-middle-class way).
I grew up with a mother, a father, three siblings, and various animal friends.
I had chicken pox.
I listened to James Taylor, the Beatles, Buffy Saint Marie, Cat Stevens, Peter, Paul & Mary, and Carly Simon (among others) for hours on end.
One of my favorite Carly Simon/Jacob Brackman songs is “The Carter Family” — from her great album, No Secrets — which I recorded a few years ago with pianist Doug Hammer during a rehearsal for a show called Songs about Parents and Children.
You can listen to it using the player at the beginning of this post.
Up until the age of ten I liked to walk, run, bike and climb around our neighborhood in Washington, DC after school (which was Sidwell Friends, where the Obama daughters have been educated in recent years).
We lived in a semi-attached house on the corner of Porter and 36th Street.
One of my best friends was indeed a girl — named Eve — although (unlike the song) it was me who moved away from Eve…
Next we lived for a year in Queens, NY (in my grandmother’s house where my mom had grown up) while I was a standby for the very small role of Theo in the original production of Pippin.
When my mom moved there as a child, it was the first house standing on the block — and by the time my siblings and I knew it in the 1960s and 70s, it was the only house on the block which still had open space on both sides of it.
My grandmother had an organic garden; blueberry, gooseberry and currant bushes; lots of trees (I remember scaling oaks, mimosas, hemlocks and locusts); and big lawns on which we could play with our neighborhood friends.
I don’t recall my grandmother ever “nagging at me to straighten up my spine” (as Carly Simon sings in “The Carter Family”), but I definitely miss this childhood eden.
When my grandmother died, my mother sold this house and a developer immediately built two big houses in what had been her side yards.
I definitely miss this place “mo-o-o-ore than I’d ever have guessed.”
In fact, I dream about it on a regular basis…
Then we moved to the northwest corner of Connecticut — where I attended our local public school and rode my bike up and down the hilly country roads, exploring the woods and fields around our house.
We did not have a swimming pool. Someone else added that after we sold this small log-cabin-style house…
Interspersed within my relatively privileged and relatively normal childhood were days, weeks, and sometimes months when I worked professionally as an actor.
That was not normal.
That was walking into a room full of strangers and doing whatever one needed to do in order to be hired for the job.
That was a lot of anxiety and disappointment interspersed with a few moments of elation — when I learned from my agent that I had been hired to do a commercial or modeling job or voice-over or theatrical production or made-for-TV movie.
The elation inevitably morphed into fear as the date for the actual gig approached.
And then — depending upon the kindness and patience and generosity and humor of the people in charge — the filming or recording or photo shoot or performance was more (or less) bearable.
I do NOT miss working as an actor mo-o-o-ore than I’d ever have guessed. It’s a very stressful life.
Since this was before the era of the VCR, most of the commercials, voice-overs, and TV movies I made were lost along the way — ephemeral bubbles in the incessant flow of popular (and to a large extent disposable) culture.
So I was happily shocked when two of my cousins looked up a TV movie I had made in 1975 called Bound For Freedom and discovered that it had recently been uploaded in four chunks onto YouTube!
If you are curious to check out the first chunk, you can click here.
That’s me being sold into indentured servitude by my father during the opening sequence.
I played a character named James Porter, and I had a lot of strawberry blond hair back then…
This is a photo from that movie which I found for sale on Ebay.
If my memory serves me, Bound For Freedom was originally broadcast on NBC during the Sunday night time slot usually filled by a Disney movie.
However, the husband and wife team — Suzette and David Tapper — who produced and directed the movie also managed to incorporate it into the social studies/American history curriculum of a few elementary schools in the late 1970s.
I learned about this when a friend in high school, John Gallup, told me how he and some of his classmates at Salisbury Central School had sometimes quoted lines from the movie to each other in jest.
Today I am VERY grateful to a man named Ethan Hamilton (as well as his teacher who at some point loaned him her VHS copy of Bound For Freedom) for recently uploading it to YouTube.
The main thing I remember from making Bound For Freedom is how kind and generous Fred Gwynne was as a fellow actor.
I may have written about this in a former blog post… but it made an impression many decades ago and bears repeating.
Often a non-actor on a movie’s staff will fill in for the star of the movie and read their lines off camera when other people’s closeups are being filmed. This gives the star a break.
But Fred, although he was the recognizable star of this project — having been a main character in the hit TV series Car 54, Where Are You? as well as in The Munsters — willingly stood off camera and interacted with me when my closeups were being filmed.
And something in the kind and empathetic way he made eye contact pulled all sorts of emotions out of me which I doubt I would have been able to access otherwise.
If you have time or interest to watch any of Bound For Freedom, you will see that Fred shines in a gentle, understated way throughout the entire film.
And I AM surprised to find that I miss him mo-o-o-ore than I’d ever have guessed.
Thank you, Fred Gwynne, for your generous spirit.
Thank you, Carly Simon and Jacob Brackman, for writing such a wise and beautiful song.
Thank you, Doug Hammer, for our decades-long creative relationship.
Thank you for the astounding magic of the internet which allowed me to find the images for this post.
And thank YOU for reading and listening to another blog post.
Recently we experienced the warmest February day ever recorded in Boston according to a radio announcer on WBUR.
In the short run, I am very grateful for this lovely respite from wintry weather.
In the long run, however, I wonder what’s going on with the larger weather patterns and ocean temperatures on planet earth?
Our opposable thumbs — and seemingly insatiable desire for novelty and innovation — have helped us to create all sorts of stuff.
And much of what we have created needs power from fossil fuels (in the form of electricity, for example) to function or is actually made from fossil fuels outright in the case of plastic.
Plastic wrap. Plastic toothbrushes. Plastic containers to store leftovers. Plastic bags. Plastic bumpers on cars (one of which my sister’s dog was able to chew into pieces when he thought a small animal was hiding under it!)
Plastic plates. Plastic silverware. Plastic cups. Plastic shower curtains. Plastic bowls. Plastic bottles filled with water and laundry detergent and shampoo and apple cider.
Plastic dispensers for easy-gliding floss (which is itself made out of plastic). Plastic souvenir tchotchkes. Plastic electronic devices. Plastic credit cards.
The list goes on and on.
Today I listened to a news story about an area in Texas where we human beings have been extracting oil and gas for the past hundred years.
We’ve been blessed with an inheritance of solar energy accumulated by plants growing on planet earth for millions of years — and we are withdrawing it — and spending it — in the blink of a cosmic eye.
What an amazing inheritance!
Why are we squandering it to manufacture and then purchase stuff that doesn’t usually make us feel any better after the initial thrill of acquisition subsides?
Stuff that won’t decompose for hundreds of years — thus contaminating and altering all sorts of natural processes and feedback loops on land and in our lakes and rivers and streams and oceans.
Why have we not been taught to weigh the long-term consequences of our manufacturing and consumer choices?
I sometimes wonder what an economy would look and feel like which actually honored the long-term costs and consequences of fossil fuel-driven lives on the larger ecosystems which sustain the amazing, interconnected web of life on planet earth…
I am guessing it would be simpler and slower.
It was a growing awareness of all the stuff in my life which inspired me to write lyrics for a melody by Steve Sweeting many years ago which became the song “Stuff.”
I was visiting dear friends who had moved into a large new home on Bainbridge Island near Seattle — and reflecting upon the pros and cons of our very blessed — and privileged — lives.
She is a songwriter and singer and teacher whom I met when I participated in a week-long cabaret conference at Yale.
I — and many of my singing peers — love to perform her songs, the most famous of which is probably “The Rose,” which she wrote for the movie starring Bette Midler.
She has recently finished a new CD of her latest batch of songs called Voices.
I guessed that she might be sick of listening to herself (which one ends up doing over and over and over again when one is recording and mixing and mastering a CD) and open to the possibility of hearing something new.
And, bless her, I was right.
Here’s what she wrote back after listening to Steve’s CD:
“Thank you so much for sending the lovely CD! It was such joy to hear your voice again. AND to listen to something that wasn’t ME for a change!
The songs are terrific. Your performances are nuanced and touching and lovely.
My very favorite is STUFF.
I think I have to have it.
Feels like it would something perfect for me to put in my repertoire if your friend is willing to share.”
Needless to say I was astounded and excited and humbled that she had made time to listen to the CD, that she liked Steve’s songs, and that she liked one of the songs to which I had contributed lyrics well enough that she might end up adding it to her repertoire!
Deep breath in…
Deep breath out…
It’s funny how something as simple as someone asking for the sheet music for a song I have co-written gives me a renewed sense of validation and encouragement to continue on my (still extremely humble) path as a songwriter.
Maybe it’s another example of the power of feedback loops — in this case feedback that Amanda found the melody and chords and ideas and arrangement of “Stuff” compelling enough that she might want to learn it and then share it with others.
Another deep breath in…
And another deep breath out…
Despite all of the larger patterns of disrespect and dishonesty and disbelief which are rippling around our country and around the planet these days, I will continue to count my blessings, continue to reduce my ecological footprint, and continue to sing — and sometimes write — songs.
Thank you, as usual, to Pixabay for the lovely images in this post.
Thank you to Steve Sweeting for entrusting his melodies to me.
Thank you to Amanda McBroom, for making time in her complicated life to listen to Steve’s CD AND then to send such uplifting feedback to us.
And thank you to YOU for reading and listening to another one of my blog posts.
PS: I hope you noticed the irony of me ranting about all the plastic junk we human beings create and buy and sell on planet earth and then agreeing to make a CD recording of Steve’s songs — thus creating 250 shiny, round, flat pieces of plastic which will be obsolete junk within another decade or so…
And here in the USA we mostly don’t think about them.
And that’s just the human-to-human devastation…
There is also an extraordinary wave of extinction of other forms of life on planet earth unfolding right now… and most humans don’t want to think about that either.
We are ignorant — choosing to ignore the complicated and heart-breaking repercussions of our actions because it is too painful.
And because the challenges of how we might change some of these patterns seem too vast.
And because our media tends to give us a very limited glimpse of what is happening here on planet earth.
And because our media — which at its most basic level exists to entice human beings to BUY THINGS — has very little incentive to do anything other than reinforce the allure of fame and wealth and celebrity and insane over-consumption.
Over-consumption of cars and alcohol and clothing and accessories and medication and food products and music and fossil fuels and hair dye and eyeliner and TV shows and lipstick and sunblock and pesticides and movies and plastic bags and electronic devices and travel and “entertainment” and a myriad other things that most of us do not need.
Deep breath in.
Deep breath out.
“When I’m worried and I can’t sleep, I count my blessings instead of sheep,” the songwriter Irving Berlin once wrote and set to music.
According to Wikipedia (and a book edited by local musical expert Ben Sears called The Irving Berlin Reader) it was based on Berlin’s real life struggle with insomnia.
He wrote in a letter to Joseph Schenck:
“I’m enclosing a lyric of a song I finished here and which I am going to publish immediately… You have always said that I commercial my emotions and many times you were wrong, but this particular song is based on what really happened… The story is in its verse, which I don’t think I’ll publish. As I say in the lyrics, sometime ago, after the worst kind of a sleepless night, my doctor came to see me and after a lot of self-pity, belly-aching and complaining about my insomnia, he looked at me and said ‘speaking of doing something about insomnia, did you ever try counting your blessings?’”
Mr. Berlin certainly had experienced many things that might have hung heavily on his heart.
He emigrated to the US when he was a small child to escape the anti-semitic pogroms unfolding in Czarist Russia.
His father died when he was young, which catalyzed Irving (or Izzy as he was called by his family) into leaving school and earning money as a paper boy on the streets of lower Manhattan.
His own son died when he was less than a month old on Christmas Day.
Mr. Berlin served in both the first and second World Wars, producing (and performing in) theatrical revues to raise money, lift the spirits of a country at war, and comfort soldiers fighting all around the planet.
As a Jewish man, he must have been deeply affected by the unimaginable reality of the Holocaust… and atomic weapons… and so many other astoundingly destructive human creations of the 20th century.
Mr. Berlin used the song in the 1954 film White Christmas.
Bing Crosby’s character sings it to Rosemary Clooney’s character to comfort and (it being a Hollywood movie — perhaps to begin a romantic relationship with) her.
I join with millions of people who have sung this song in the past 62 years to restore a sense of peace and gratitude in their lives when they are tossing and turning in the middle of the night.
And as 2016 slouches towards 2017, I also count my blessings:
Clean water at the twist of a faucet…
A functioning furnace…
Fossil fuels to power the furnace and stove and water heater…
My sweetheart of almost 25 years…
One remaining parent + a wonderful step parent…
Siblings who love and communicate with each other…
Employment that involves relatively modest consumption/destruction of natural resources (CDs of music to the families in Music Together classes, electricity to play them, fossil fuels to heat and sometimes cool the karate studio where we lead classes, gasoline to power the hybrid car in which jazz pianist Joe Reid and I drive to gigs, electricity to run the PA systems where we perform)…
The magic of digital recording…
My trusty iPods for learning songs…
My ukuleles and laptop computers for creating new songs…
My rhyming dictionaries for inspiration…
The amazing interlibrary book/CD/DVD loan system for more inspiration…
How our bodies can heal themselves…
US citizen privilege….
Once one starts, the list of blessings goes on and on and on.
Thank you yet again to Pixabay photographers for the lovely images in this blog post.
Thank you to Irving Berlin for his musical and poetical genius.
Thank you to Doug Hammer for his reliable studio plus his exquisite rapport while playing the piano (and simultaneously engineering our sessions).
And thank you, brave and hardy soul, for reading — and listening to — this blog post.
Like many people in the United States — and in many other countries around the planet — I have been experiencing a wide variety of feelings since our recent election.
And a lot of denial — for which I am both grateful and apprehensive…
One of the things that I have found the oddest is how most of us have continued to do the same things that we did before the election.
I have continued to buy groceries.
I have continued to take books out from the library.
I have continued to do laundry.
I have continued to get up and lead Music Together classes on Tuesday, Thursday and Friday mornings.
I have continued to do gigs at retirement communities with jazz pianist Joe Reid.
I have continued to learn song lyrics.
I have continued to clean the toilet and wash the kitchen floor.
I have continued to draft blog posts.
I have continued to watch TV.
And I have continued to love the song “Life Goes On” written by Stephen Schwartz (a version of which is in the player at the beginning of this post with Doug Hammer on piano and Mike Callahan on clarinet which we recorded during a rehearsal for my show called Will Loves Steve several years ago).
Photo by Ralf Rühmeier
As you probably know, Stephen Schwartz is the composer and lyricist for Godspell, Pippin, The Magic Show, The Baker’s Wife, Wicked (and more) on Broadway as well as the lyricist for animated movies including Pocahontas, The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Enchanted.
“Life Goes On” is not from one of his shows or movies, however.
I found it on Mr. Schwartz’s first solo CD release, Reluctant Pilgrim, and have been gently haunted by it ever since.
According to Mr. Schwartz’s web site, “I originally began to write the songs that make up Reluctant Pilgrim in response to a ‘challenge’ from a songwriter friend, John Bucchino. I had been encouraging John (who had always written individual and highly personal songs) to write for the theatre, and John in turned asked why I never wrote individual songs based on my own life. He said it was time to stop ‘hiding behind Hunchbacks and Indian princesses.’ So I decided to try… The first song I wrote was ‘Life Goes On.’ This was an attempt to deal with my feelings after a close friend of mine died of AIDS. Writing the song turned out to be very therapeutic for me.”
Mr. Jones was involved with the AIDS crisis from the very beginning, and he (although he is beautifully soft-spoken and articulate during the interview) reminded me of how loudly and angrily and stubbornly AIDS activists had to demonstrate and organize in order to make progress on understanding and treating this virus when our president and many of our elected officials just wanted to ignore what was happening.
Have we re-entered a time in US history when we will need to act up — regularly, passionately, strategically — in response to our government’s actions and/or inactions regarding climate change, immigration, civil liberties, the rights of the media to investigate those who hold power in our society, etc. etc. etc.?
I do believe that grass roots action is a crucial part of how things — laws, attitudes, opinions, political leadership, prejudices — change.
What might be the most important issue(s) to which I might devote myself in upcoming days/weeks/months?
I have a sense that protecting and maintaining the amazing web of interconnections which make up our various ecosystems is a fundamental priority which underlies (and, dare I say, trumps) many of our specifically human challenges.
But maybe election and campaign finance reform are more crucial in the short run, as an antidote to the oligarchic voices which increasingly dominate (and frame) our political and cultural debate?
How do we address and respond to and heal the enormous reservoirs of fear and anger and disrespect which seem to be percolating in the hearts of so many fellow human beings on planet earth these days?
How do we plant seeds of hope and trust and respect and love while simultaneously standing up with great power so that we are not run over by ignorance and ego and power and greed and fear?
How do we nurture kindness and gentleness while also standing up for justice?
I am clueless.
I hope that music can somehow play a part in whatever activism and consciousness-raising and healing are on the horizon.
Until then, life goes on…
Thank you for reading and listening!
And thank you to Pixabay for the images in this blog post.
I welcome any thoughts, feelings, ideas, and recommended actions in the comments section.
I shared this song by Barbara Baig a couple of years ago in a blog post.
Today I found myself thinking about it a lot.
Many people in the USA are very happy today.
I honor their sense of excitement and accomplishment.
Many people in the USA are very surprised and scared and shocked today, too.
I honor these feelings as well.
I don’t know what comes next, but I am pretty sure that the effects of yesterday’s election will ripple for weeks and months and years to come — not just here in the US but all over our planet.
Deep breath in.
Deep breath out.
I dearly hope that the horrible coincidence of learning the results of our election with the anniversary of Kristallnacht is just that…a horrible coincidence and not an uncanny foreshadowing of what may lie ahead in our not-very-united-states.
As soon as we start viewing — and scapegoating — fellow human beings as “other,” we are heading down a very unhappy and slippery slope…
I was very glad that jazz pianist Joe Reid and I were booked to perform our hour-long program of songs co-written by Harold Arlen this afternoon at a retirement community in Newton.
We all needed to sing together — beautiful, timeless songs which touched our hearts and connected us with each other.
Not surprisingly, one song moved us to tears — “Over the Rainbow,” which Mr. Arlen wrote with Yip Harburg in 1938 for MGM’s masterpiece, The Wizard of Oz.
Filming for The Wizard Of Oz began on October 13 1938.
A month later Kristallnacht occurred in Germany, Austria and parts of Poland, Russia and the Czech Republic.
The emotional resonance of “Over The Rainbow” — written by two American-born, fully assimilated Jewish songwriters for a movie produced by a Jewish-owned film company — cannot have gone un-noticed at the time.
No wonder so many of us are still moved to tears by it, almost 80 years after it was written.
I love “Let Me Be Strong,” too.
Barbara Baig wrote it when she lived in Somerville, MA and was an active member of the Boston Association of Cabaret Artists (BACA).
I recorded it many years ago with Doug Hammer on piano at his wonderful Dreamworld studio in Lynn, MA, plus Gene Roma on drums and Chris Rathbun on bass.
Thank you, Barbara, for writing this song.
May all of our hearts remain open in the days and weeks to come… as we move through our joys and our fears here on planet earth.
Let us be strong.
Deep breath in.
Deep breath out.
Thank you to Pixabay for the photos.
And thank you to anyone who reads and listens to this blog post!
I have loved Stephen Schwartz’s music ever since I heard the cast album of Godspell in 1971.
I don’t remember how I came to own it, but I played that record over and over again.
So I was wildly excited and nervous when — at age ten — I auditioned for a new musical being directed by Bob Fosse with songs written by Mr. Schwartz.
I sang Cat Stevens’ song “Father and Son” at the audition. (My aunt had given me and my siblings many of Cat Stevens’ albums, which I also loved.)
I vaguely remember standing on a stage, singing to a few people in a darkened theater.
At one point during the audition — or maybe during a callback? — the pianist played a particular section of “Father and Son” in different keys in order to get a sense of my vocal range.
I gamely sang higher and higher until my voice finally cracked.
I must have also have read from some sort of script, but I don’t remember doing any dancing during the audition.
Much to my delight and terror, I ended up being cast as the standby for the role of Theo. I did not attend the first few weeks of rehearsals, but joined the cast midway through the creative process in NYC.
I remember that Ben Vereen was very friendly and welcoming, even though he was one of the stars and was working his butt off during rehearsals.
Mostly I watched from the sidelines and kept a low profile.
I moved with the cast and crew to the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC, where Pippin previewed.
The Kennedy Center had only recently been built and was enormous. I spent a lot of time exploring the different theaters and backstage areas — as well as the snack room where I often heated up a slice of pizza using an amazing new (to me at least) technology called the microwave oven.
I also spent a lot of time hanging out unobtrusively in the back of the theater, watching rehearsals and mimicking all of the dance routines to the best of my ability (which grew over time…once we were living in NYC year-round I studied tap and jazz at the Phil Black dance studios on the corner of Broadway and 50th street).
The role of Theo — Catherine’s son — was never large and grew smaller as the show was tightened up and re-written out of town.
And then, much to my parents’ surprise — since so many Broadway shows close out of town or last only a few weeks once they open in New York — Pippin proved to be a big hit.
I had to be backstage for every performance, but I never played the role of Theo on stage.
The various standbys — me, the standby for Irene Ryan, the standby for John Rubinstein, and the standby for Ben Vereen — along with the understudies for the other main roles would rehearse our parts with the stage manager on matinee days between the afternoon and evening performances.
Ben’s standby was a lovely man named Northern Calloway, whose day job was playing the role of “David” on Sesame Street, which was filmed in a converted theater on the upper west side of Manhattan.
Jill Clayburgh’s understudy was Ann Reinking, who was then a member of the chorus (but who may have begun dating Bob Fosse during Pippin and went on to all sorts of success afterwards as a performer and as a choreographer).
A boy named Shane Nickerson played the role of Theo each night.
He and I became friends.
Shane’s sister Denise had played the role of Lolita in an unsuccessful musical version of the Nabokov novel and then was cast as Violet Beauregarde in the original movie of Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory. Except she was not really Shane’s sister. She was actually his aunt. But that is another story — and a fascinating example of how we human beings often play roles in real life as well as on stage.
Other than an ever-present anxiety that I might have to perform the role if Shane were to become ill, I had a lot of fun backstage.
I fetched hot beverages for some of the dancers before the show began at the coffee shop across 46th street (where the stage door was located).
I learned how to play chess with one of the younger stage hands.
I watched endless poker game conducted by dressers, musicians and stage hands at a big table behind the orchestra pit while the show was running.
I became friends with the back stage hair dressers and helped brush out the many different wigs which the chorus members wore during the show.
And I hung out with the wonderful animal handlers, Jack and Mary, who took care of the duck and the sheep who appeared nightly in the show.
Among other duties they had to walk the sheep up and down 46th street and along 8th avenue in order to encourage it poop before it went on stage.
The sheep liked to eat cigarette butts, which was not conducive to its health; so I would keep an eye out for them when we strolled around the theater district, chatting with surprised passersby.
I remained as a standby in the original cast until I grew too large for the role. (Theo enters in the second being carried on the Leading Player’s shoulders, and this was a very direct way to gauge my growth month by month…)
I was not the first to leave the company — that was probably Jill Clayburgh, who was replaced by Betty Buckley early in the run, and also dear Irene Ryan, who died about the same time — but it was a very sad and awkward experience for me.
Show business can be very confusing regarding matters of the heart.
A cast and crew come together to create a show or film a movie — or even just a TV commercial — and everyone strives (at least while on stage or when the cameras are running…) to be friendly and part of a team/family while they are attempting to make some magic together.
And then, when the shoot of the movie or the run of the play is over, everyone becomes a free agent again.
And one may never see any of them again.
Were any of those people my friends? Did any of them think about me when I was no longer part of the cast? I certainly thought about them for years afterwards.
Deep breath in.
Deep breath out.
It is humbling to learn on Wikipedia how the lives of various Pippin cast members unfolded before and after their time on stage at the Imperial Theater in the early 70s.
Some are still involved with show business as performers or choreographers or teachers.
Many are dead.
And composer Stephen Schwartz, bless him, has continued to write wonderful songs for Broadway and Hollywood.
I recorded his song “Magic To Do” (the opening number in Pippin) several years ago during rehearsals for a show I put together called Will Loves Steve, which featured songs written by Stephen Schwartz, Stephen Sondheim, Stephen Foster, Steve Sweeting, Stevie Wonder and Steven Georgiou — a.k.a. Cat Stevens a.k.a. Yousuf Islam.
Doug Hammer played piano — while simultaneously engineering the track — and Mike Callahan played clarinet.
For many years after Pippin I carried within me a sense that success meant starring on Broadway, or in the movies, or on TV.
Yet now I am amazed that anyone is able to perform EIGHT shows each week, month after month, repeating the same songs and dances and lines and emotions with as much authenticity and enthusiasm as they can muster on any given day.
And the life of a star — with folks asking to take selfies with them wherever they go in public, and having to repeat the same stories over and over again during media junkets while maintaining their youthfulness and beauty and fitness and marketability year after year — seems less and less appealing.
I am slightly surprised to realize that I have learned the same lesson as the title character In Pippin: that a normal life without a lot of fanfare is AOK.
And there is still plenty of humble and unpublicized magic — like what happens in my Music Together classes and during performances at retirement communities and singing along at ukulele meetup groups — to be done each day if one is so inspired…