The Holy-day Spirit

The Holy-day Spirit


Another delicious Thanksgiving has come and gone.

Days are short.

Nights are long.

And increasingly cold.

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

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

In 1942 Irving Berlin gave us “White Christmas.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

And the list goes on and on!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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I Wait…

I Wait…

 

“I Wait” was written by Steve Sweeting, a songwriter, jazz pianist, and teacher who currently lives in NYC.

He and I have been friends since we began making music together in Allston, MA, a couple of decades ago.

“I Wait” is one of many songs we recorded two years ago for a CD of his music called Blame Those Gershwins.

I love this song’s bittersweet, thoughtful perspective.

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It articulates how I often felt while I had a day job — and only made music at night and on weekends…

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It wasn’t until I was laid off by the non-profit organization where I had worked for 16 years that I finally dared/cared to focus on music full time.

Making it.

Leading classes where we do it together.

Recording it.

Sharing it in retirement communities and assisted living facilities and public libraries.

That was almost five years ago.

And I am now grateful that I was laid off — although I was surprised and shocked and disappointed at the time.

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Some of us (such as me) become so grooved/entrenched in the flow of our lives that we need to be forced by outside circumstances to make important changes.

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I do not think that waiting is a bad thing.

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Patience can be a virtue.

Learning to delay gratification can be a huge developmental step on the path to maturity.

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And some animals wait patiently for hours before making their next move.

But — if I understand the concept of yin/yang correctly — within a reservoir of waiting there also lies a seed of activity germinating…

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Just as our torrents of activity/accomplishment need to be interspersed with spaces of calm reflection and “not-knowing.”

Time to mull.

ChileTime to muse.

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Time to dream.

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Time to imagine the consequences of how our actions might ripple for seven generations into the future here on planet earth…

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What kind of balance are you able to find in your daily life between waiting and doing?

Thank you for reading and listening to this blog post.

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And thank you to the photographers who made these beautiful images I found at Pixabay — and also to my sister Christianne, who (I think) took the photo of me gazing out over Cayuga Lake a few summers ago.

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Tempus fugit…

Mo-o-o-ore (than I’d ever have guessed)

Mo-o-o-ore (than I’d ever have guessed)

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.

Carly SImon

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.

3600 Porter Street Aerial View

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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

10 White Hollow Road Aerial View

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.

Will Toddler Head Shot

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.

WIll Smiling Head Shot

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…

Will Bound For Freedom

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

May Your Life Be Blessed

May Your Life Be Blessed

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I just opened up WordPress and was happy to find a post about gratitude from The Snail of Happiness in my daily feed.

There are a seemingly-ever-increasing number of energies and actions on planet earth that we can be aware of — due in large part to the magic of electricity and our wide-ranging embrace of modern media — yet which we can do very little to influence directly.

And I am easily overwhelmed by this onslaught of information.

However, we CAN re-align our own energy/perspective by doing something as simple as writing down three things for which we are grateful.

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And then — from a more grateful, grounded emotional space — we can send a card to an elected official, give a little money to a compelling cause, or volunteer our time at a local non-profit.

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Or make some art.

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Or write a song.
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Or simply sit and breath.

horse-winter-sunToday I am grateful that a friend’s husband is alive in New Orleans.

I don’t see this friend very often (our paths used to cross because of work) and have never met his husband.

I learned about his husband’s recent assault and robbery — while he was attending the Unitarian-Universalist annual general assembly being held at the end of June in New Orleans! — when I checked my Facebook page.

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Apparently it is all over the Boston and New Orleans news — since our media have (sadly) functioned for decades with a mindset of “if it bleeds, it leads…”

But I have been out of town and away from the local news.

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So today I am grateful that my friend’s husband is finally out of the hospital in New Orleans and back at home in Boston.

And I am grateful that the other person who was (less severely) attacked is also recovering well.

chestnut-gallopingAnd that two of the four young men who perpetrated this crime (some of whom had been staying at a Covenant House shelter for homeless/troubled youth) have turned themselves in.

horses-clowningI hope they — as well as the two people whom they attacked and robbed — are being treated with compassion and respect by the judicial system so that some unexpected healing might take place as a result of this sad and brutal event.

And I am grateful for the basics: health and patience and delicious food — more and more of it organic — and a roof over my head.

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I am grateful for people who visit my blog even though I haven’t posted anything new for four months.

horse-three-day-eventI am grateful for progress (sometimes very sloooow) and persistence (sometimes almost imperceptible) on larger tasks such as letting go of un-needed possessions, processing complicated emotional situations, and crafting a CD of original songs.

Which leads me to the song at the beginning of this post.

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I wrote it last summer while I was camping with family in heaven a.k.a. North Truro, MA.

horses-in-green-fieldSome of the words came from a little piece of paper I picked up after one of my cousins was married a few summers ago on a hill overlooking Cayuga Lake in upstate New York.

The little piece of paper turned out to be a crib sheet that the mother of the bride had used when she spoke during the ceremony.

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I expanded her words a bit, consulted my trusty ukulele to find chords and a melody, and eventually brought it to pianist Doug Hammer’s studio on the North Shore of Boston to record.

Horses-mist-treesThank you to anyone and everyone who reads this blog post.

I am grateful for your interest.

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I am also grateful for the beautiful images from Pixabay that I have used in this post.

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My cousin who got married loves horses and is an excellent — and very hard-working  —equestrian.

horse-kissShe and her husband also just had their first child.

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And I am very grateful for that, too.