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‘Oh, that this too, too solid flesh would melt,’ so wrote the other bard, Shakespeare.
Scotland’s bard, Robert Burns, has had a surfeit of biographical attention: upwards of three hundred biographical treatments, and as if many of these were not fanciful enough hundreds of novels, short stories, theatrical, television, and film treatments that often strain well beyond credulity.
Burns has been pursued beyond (or properly in) the grave in even more extreme ways. His remains have been disinterred twice, the second time so that his skull might be examined for the purposes of phrenology. In death he has been bothered again very recently in the run up to Scotland’s referendum in October 2014. Would Burns have been a ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ voter, a Nationalist or a Unionist, was often posed and answered across media outlets.
This de-historicised Burns, someone who never actually had any kind of political vote in life, who had no access to nationalist, or indeed, unionist ideology, in the modern senses is nothing new. During World War I, the minute book of the Dumfries Volunteer Militia, in which Burns had enlisted in 1795 in the face of threatened French invasion, was rediscovered. It was published in 1919 by William Will of the London Burns Club with a rather emotional introduction claiming that the minute-book’s records showing Burns’s impeccable conduct as a militiaman was proof of the poet’s sound British patriotism and how he might be compared to the many brave British soldiers who had just taken on the Kaiser. In response, those who had been recently constructing a pacifist Burns spluttered with indignation. Wasn’t the Scottish Bard the man who had written ‘Why Shouldna Poor Folk Mowe [make love]’ during the 1790s:
When Princes and Prelates and het-headed zealots
All Europe hae set in a lowe [noisy turmoil]
The poor man lies down, nor envies a crown,
And comforts himself with a mowe.
This is an increasingly obscene song, an anti-war text saying, ‘a plague on all your houses’ (to paraphrase the other bard again): the poor should choose love, and not war – the latter being the result of much more shameful shenanigans by their supposed lords and masters.
O wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us
To see oursels as others see us! It wad frae monie a blunder free us
An’ foolish notion
The problem is that Burns would be dizzy with the multifarious contradictoriness of it all if he could truly emerge from the grave and attempt to see himself as others have seen him. Ultimately, what we have with Burns is the man who may or may not have been Scotland’s greatest poet, but who is certainly Scotland’s greatest song-writer (with the production of twice as many songs as poems) — the nearest Scotland has, a bit cheesy though the comparison is, to Lennon and McCartney. These songs and poems express indeed many different ideas, moods, emotions, and characters. They sympathise with radically different viewpoints (for instance, Burns can write empathetically on occasion about both Mary Queen of Scots (Catholic Stuart tyrant) and the Covenanters (Calvinist fanatics, according to their respective detractors)). Burns’s work is both his living achievement and the real remains over which we ought to pore. In the end there is no real Burns, but instead a fictional one and the important fictions are of his making.
Image Credit: Scottish Highlands by Gustave Doré (1875). Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
In late 2014, one particular video of a singer became immensely popular on Facebook. At first I thought my perception of its popularity might be skewed; I’m a singer, and have many friends who are singers, so there’s probably some selection bias in my sampling of popular posts on social media. But eventually I actually clicked on one of the many postings of the video on my feed, and with its 7.4 million views, it seemed likely that it was more than just my singer friends who had been watching it:
Overtone singing, defined in Grove Music Online as “A vocal style in which a single performer produces more than one clearly audible note simultaneously”, has been in existence for thousands of years, most famously in east central Asia. But I had never seen this much attention focused on it at once. The video is jaw-droppingly cool, in part because what’s happening doesn’t seem possible. But then, not that many people understand how singing just one note at a time actually works.
Simply trying to explain everything that happens when we breathe and phonate (i.e., make a vocal sound) requires discussion of various complex, unconscious physical phenomena. As the Grove Dictionary of Musical Instruments article “Voice” puts it:
Phonation takes place during exhalation as the respiratory system supplies air through the vibrating vocal folds, which interrupt and break the air stream into smaller units or puffs of air. The resulting sounds are filtered through a resonator system and then transmitted outside the mouth. Singing, speaking, humming, and other vocal sounds usually involve practised regulation of air pressure and breath-stream mechanics, and balanced control of the inspiratory (chiefly the diaphragm) and expiratory muscles (chiefly the abdominal and intercostal muscles).
Even after understanding all that, it’s clear that what’s happening in the video above is not a typical vocal performance. So when you hear those overtones coming from Anna-Maria Hefele, just what exactly is happening?
Fortunately for all of us, Hefele also made another video which addresses the physics of this phenomenon:
When you sing different vowels, your mouth changes shape to form those vowels. You pull your lips to the side to make an “eee” sound, and your tongue arches up in your mouth; when you make an “ooo” sound, you purse your lips and your tongue flattens out. When you do this, you’re actually changing the shape of your instrument, which in turn changes the harmonics that are stressed above the fundamental frequency (the pitch at which you’re speaking or singing). This is why the vowels sound different from one another. This is clear in Hefele’s training video, where the loudest overtones change from vowel to vowel.
Stress of different overtones is one of the ingredients of timbre, or the quality of a sound beyond its pitch and amplitude. Timbre is what allows us to distinguish between, say, a flute and an oboe playing the same pitch. They simply sound different. This is partially (no pun intended) dependent on the stress of different overtones due to the varying shapes and materials of each instrument.
The neat thing about the voice is that, while we don’t usually change the material, the shape is very flexible, and we can manipulate it to change our timbre. Overtone singing like Hefele’s takes an element of vocal sound and turns it into a new sort of instrument, inverting the typical relationship between instrument and timbre.
Anyone who’s listened to master impressionists or Bobby McFerrin (beyond “Don’t worry, be happy”) can attest to the versatility of the human voice. Vocalists are the shape-shifters of the instrument world. But comparing the 52,251 views of Hefele’s visualization video with the 7.4 million views of her performance video, it seems like we also appreciate the masters of timbre-bending the same way we appreciate magicians; most of us would rather watch the trick than see it explained.
In the newly published second edition of the Grove Dictionary of Musical Instruments, the voice is called “The quintessential human instrument.” But while almost all of us have voices, very few of us understand what is happening when we use them. Every once in a while I think it’s beneficial to see something extraordinary, if only so we remember to look at what seems ordinary a little more closely.
Headline image credit: A Sennheiser Microphone. Photo by ChrisEngelsma. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
On 12 January 1959, Berry Gordy, Jr. founded Tamla Records in Detroit, Michigan. A year later it would be incorporated with a new name that became synonymous with a sound, style, and generation of music: Motown. All this week we’re looking the great artists and tracks that emerged from those recording studios. Previously, we spoke to Charles Randolph-Wright, the Director of Broadway’s Motown the Musical, which closes on Sunday, 18 January 2015; Larvester Gaither examined the role of Duets, Girl Groups, and Solo artists in Motown.
More than half a century after its founding, Motown is still remembered by fans, musicians, and historians as the mover and shaker of its generation. From The Temptations’ “My Girl” to Marvin Gaye’s “I Heard It Through The Grapevine,” its reverberating influence is recognized even today, echoed in modern hits like Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars’ wildly popular “Uptown Funk.” Revisit the soulful croons, hypnotic hooks, and infectious beats that kickstarted not only a record label, but a revolutionary musical movement. Get on up and move your feet to these funky grooves and classic Motown beats!
On 12 January 1959, Berry Gordy, Jr. founded Tamla Records in Detroit, Michigan. A year later it would be incorporated with a new name that became synonymous with a sound, style, and generation of music: Motown. All this week we’re looking the great artists and tracks that emerged from those recording studios. Previously, we spoke to Charles Randolph-Wright, the Director of Broadway’s Motown the Musical, which closes on Sunday, 18 January 2015; Larvester Gaither examined the role of Duets and Girl Groups in Motown.
Starting in the early 1960s, female artists embarked upon solo careers with the Motown label. The first to be signed to the label was Mable John, a blues vocalist born in Bastrop, Louisiana. Slow melodic songs like “No Love” and “Who Wouldn’t Love a Man Like That” stood firmly in the blues genre yet only appealed to a limited, mature audience and did not translate into commercial success. Additionally, the success of The Miracles and The Marvalettes helped steer Gordy in another direction if, in fact, he wasn’t already searching for a newer sound. John would sing background for other groups on the label but her tenure with Motown ended in 1962. Nevertheless, John was a musical pioneer who influenced numerous artists, including contemporary blues musician Robert Cray, who covers “Your Good Thing is About to End” on his 2014 In My Soul album.
Mary Wells was Motown’s first successful female soloist. Born in Detroit, she signed with the label in 1960. Her first release, “Bye Bye Baby,” peaked at number 8 on the R&B charts in 1961 and later reached 45 on the pop chart. Although John preceded her in signing with Motown, Wells was viewed as the “Queen” since she was the first to achieve stardom. In fact, the success of “You Beat Me To the Punch” made Wells the first Motown artists regardless of gender to be nominated for an R&B Grammy. Nevertheless, while Wells enjoyed a string of successful releases during her tenure with Motown, her relationship with the company lasted only until 1964. Unsatisfied with the Gordy’s marketing strategy, which channeled resources built from her success towards developing The Supremes, she left Motown for 20th Century Fox Records in 1965.
While at Motown, however, she made a huge impact, exemplifying for other up and coming artists the expectations of a successful female artist. Additionally, the success of “My Guy,” a song penned by Smokey Robinson, established her as Motown’s first international superstar and laid the template for the sound Motown would find success with. Prior to leaving Motown, she also recorded a duet album with label mate Marvin Gaye, who was a rising star at the time. Consisting of slow ballads and standards, Together created a winning formula that Motown would emulate with other females artists throughout the remainder of the sixties decade.
With the departure of Wells, Motown looked to Brenda Holloway as her ideal successor. Holloway inherited many of the songs written for Wells and achieved only moderate success with them despite the fact that she was probably one of Motown’s most talented artists. Like Wells, she opened for The Beatles, and Dick Clark considered her America’s most talented vocalist. Born in Atascadero, California, she began singing professionally at the age of 14 and seemed already primed for stardom when she met Gordy at the age of 17. Her contract with Motown in 1964 allowed for her to record from Los Angeles where she resided. Her first recording, “Every Little Bit Hurts,” reached number 13 on the Billboard, establishing her as a rising force to be reckoned with. Still, her tenure with Motown was short-lived as she became disillusioned with what increasingly appeared to be a tumultuous atmosphere at Motown, which had yet to fully recover from the departure of Wells. A few months prior to her departure in 1968, The Artistry of Brenda Holloway was released and achieved moderate success in the United States as well as the United Kingdom.
Several other female artists contributed to Motown’s rise, including Carolyn Crawford, Gladys Knight (she achieved success as a lead female singer with 3 male singers providing background vocals), Patrice Holloway (Brenda’s younger sibling who co-wrote “You Made Me So Very Happy,” a tune Blood, Sweat and Tears took to #3), Reba Jeanette Smith (commonly known as Debbie Dean and Motown’s first white female soloist), Barbara Randolph, and others.
As the 1960s came to a close, female artists continued to play a major role both at Motown, in music more generally, and in culture globally. Early Motown female solo acts continue to exert an influence today, for example on pop sensation Alicia Keys, who covered “Every Little Bit Hurts” on her Unplugged album in 2011.
On January 3, 2015, scholar Daniel Albright (1945–2015), the Ernest Bernbaum Professor of Literature at Harvard University—who counted himself, among other accolades, as an NEH Fellow, a Guggenheim Fellow, and a Berlin Prize Fellow at the American Academy in Berlin—passed away unexpectedly. The author of sixteen books, which straddled a range of interests from literary criticism and musicology to panaesthetics and the history of modernism, Albright taught in three departments at Harvard, where he had worked for the past decade.
As an undergraduate at Rice University, Albright originally declared a major in mathematics before switching to English. Upon graduating from Rice in 1967, he attended Yale, where he received his M.Phil in 1969 and his Ph.D. in 1970. Prior to his arrival at Harvard in 2003, Albright taught at the University of Virginia, the University of Munich, the University of Rochester, and the Eastman School of Music.
Once at Harvard, he taught in the English, Music, and Comparative Literature departments. English Department chair and professor W. James Simpson spoke highly of Albright’s career in Cambridge.
“Whenever Dan was in a room, the room was full of fun and amusement and delight because of his range of literary allusions and music allusions,” Simpson said. “He was constantly delighting an audience.”
On 12 January 1959, Berry Gordy, Jr. founded Tamla Records in Detroit, Michigan. A year later it would be incorporated with a new name that became synonymous with a sound, style, and generation of music: Motown. All this week we’re looking the great artists and tracks that emerged from those recording studios. Previously, we spoke to Charles Randolph-Wright, the Director of Broadway’s Motown the Musical, which closes on Sunday, 18 January 2015; Larvester Gaither examined the role of Duets in Motown.
The Marvalettes, a girl group consisting of Gladys Horton, Katherine Anderson, Georgeanna Tillman, Juanita Cowart and Wanda Young, recorded Motown’s first number one pop hit, “Please Mr. Postman.” The upbeat song topped both the pop and R&B charts, making the Marvalettes one of the first all-girl groups in the industry to achieve such a feat. Thus, from its beginning, women would play a pivotal role in shaping Motown’s collective yet multifaceted identity. No less than 60% of the top 100 singles released by girl groups during the sixties emanated from Hitsville, U.S.A., as Motown came to be known. Even with the monumental success of its male artists who comprised roughly 60% of the label’s talent during this period, the same could not be said.
One of Motown’s key ingredients for success was the collaborative effort Gordy managed to convey to his organization’s artists, musicians, writers, producers and singers. In this regard, girl group The Andantes was the secret ingredient to Motown’s rise to prominence during the sixties.
Comprised of Detroit natives Jackie Hicks, Marlene Barrow and Louvain Demps, the versatile and multitalented session group provided background vocals for nearly 80 percent of the hit records produced by Motown during the sixties. Five songs including them as background vocals topped the Billboard’s popular music chart: Mary Well’s “My Guy,” Four Top’s “Reach Out I’ll Be There” and “I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch),” Diana Ross & The Supremes’ “Love Child” and “Someday We’ll be Together.” No doubt, many of the acts during the first half of the sixties decade benefitted from the highly acclaimed production team consisting of Lamont Dozier and brothers Brian and Eddie Holland, and a talented group of musicians nicknamed The Funk Brothers. Yet, a cursory listen to tunes created by the Holland-Dozier-Holland team reveals how heavily they relied upon the Andantes. In fact, they were featured on literally all of the Four Top’s hit singles.
In addition to singing background vocals, Barrow sometimes stood in for Florence Ballard of The Supremes during concerts and between 1968–69, substituted for Mary Wilson and Cindy Birdsong on the Supremes’ recordings. From 1965–67, the Andantes replaced the Marvalettes in the studio; the group’s final album The Return of the Marvalettes could have been titled Wanda Young and the Andantes, as Young was the only remaining original member of The Marvalettes. The Andantes dissolved as a group once Gordy relocated the company to Los Angeles in 1972, but they could be heard by a new generation as late as 2002 on rap musician Jay Z’s album, Blueprint 2: The Gift and the Curse, as he sampled “The Marvalettes” cover of Smokey Robinson’s “All of Me” on the single “Poppin Tags.”
The Marvalettes’ “Please Mr. Postman” remains a classic in popular culture. Early on, The Beatles, The Carpenters, and Diana Ross & The Supremes covered it; more recently, popular rap artist Lil Wayne sampled The Carpenters’ version on a track titled “Mr. Postman.” They are considered one of the top girl groups of all time and, to a large extent, rivaled Motown’s most successful group, The Supremes. Aside from being Motown’s first successful girl group, they actually wrote some of their earlier hits. For example, their second top 10 single, “Playboy,” was written by member Gladys Horton. However, The Marvalettes were reluctant to veer too far away from the R&B genre. When the Holland-Dozier-Holland team wrote “Where Did Our Love Go,” it was originally intended for them but was passed on to The Supremes because they were looking for a hit.
The Supremes (Diana Ross & The Supremes) was not only Motown’s most successful girl group but also one of the most popular groups of the twentieth century, at their height rivaling the Beatles. Diana Ross, Florence Ballard, and Mary Wilson were teenagers from Inkster, Michigan when they signed with Motown in 1961. Ironically, their rise to stardom was not as meteoric as previous Motown girl groups but eventually far exceeded the others in terms of commercial success and international acclaim. It would take three years for the group to make a dent in the industry.
The first eight singles released by The Supremes were only moderately successful, just enough to keep the teenagers motivated; after all, they were signed with Detroit’s biggest record company and they could occasionally hear their songs playing on local radio stations. However only one of these singles, “When the Lovelight Starts Shining Through His Eyes,” reached higher than 75 on the Billboard Hot 100, peaking at 30. When the Holland-Dozier-Holland team presented the teens with a tune that had been turned down by The Marvalettes, they lacked such leverage and had no choice but to accept the challenge of turning what also appeared to them a childish song into a hit. Instead of the usual, intricate harmonic patterns Wilson and Ballard were growing accustomed to, with “Where Did Our Love Go,” the refrain was simply, “Baby Baby, Where did our love go?” and, thus, relied heavily Diana Ross’s stylistic interpretations of the song’s lyrics to make it meaningful.
Released in 1964, the song’s success was also owed to the group’s superb stage presence. That summer, Motown’s Brenda Holloway had achieved success with “Every Little Bit Hurts” and radio and television personality Dick Clark was lining up acts for his Caravan of Stars. Clark seemed in awe of Holloway’s voice and approached Motown intent on including her as a headliner, but Gordy insisted that The Supremes be attached to the deal. Clark reluctantly agreed, yet during the tour The Supremes were billed simply as “and others.” Nevertheless, as they won over concert audiences around the country, the song steadily climbed the charts, eventually peaking at Billboard’s top spot. With the success of “Where Did Our Love Go,” The Supremes began touring abroad, and within a few months had achieved their second number one hit with “Baby Love.” “Baby Love,” topped charts in both the United States and Britain. Europe would quickly follow suit, making The Supremes’ an international phenomenon that would score unprecedented five consecutive number one hits. Altogether, 12 of their singles during the sixties topped the Billboard 100.
Martha and the Vandellas originally consisted of Rosalind Ashford, Annette Beard, and Gloria Williams. With Williams’s departure in 1962, Martha Reeves joined the group and became its lead singer. The group recorded all their singles for Motown’s Gordy imprint. Very talented singers, the group’s repertoire spanned rock, pop, blues, and R&B. Once signed in 1962, it didn’t take the Vandellas long to find success with Motown, as they were the first group to benefit from the Holland-Dozier-Holland production team. “Come and Get the Memories” peaked at 25 and 6 respectively on Billboard’s Hot 100 Pop and R&B charts. “Heat Wave,” a song about a women’s heated desire for a guy she’s in love with, climbed to number 4 on the pop chart and earned The Vandellas the distinction of becoming the first Motown group to be nominated for a Grammy.
Their most popular song, however, was “Dancing in the Streets,” a song written by William “Mickey” Stevenson, Ivy Jo Hunter, and Marvin Gaye. The song’s principal writer, Stevenson, was inspired to write the song after witnessing people dancing in the streets of Detroit, often times opening fire hydrants to cool off. But while the song’s lyrics and up-tempo rhythms were meant to convey a feeling of optimism and fun-spiritedness—a song people could dance to—others believed the song was a call to riot. As cities burned that summer, “Dancing in the Streets” became a metaphor for riotous protest born of despair and indignation. The song would aptly capture the mood of youthful rebellion at the height of the Civil Rights movement, climbing to the second spot on the Billboard Pop chart and number 4 on UK’s pop chart, all the while becoming a fiery anthem for youth throughout the United States.
The Velvelettes were formed in 1961 and its original members consisted of Bertha Barbee McNeal, Mildred Gill Arbor, Carolyn Gill, Norma Barbee, and Betty Kelly. Sandra Tilley joined the group in 1966 but left a year later to replace Rosalind Ashford of the Vandellas. Signed in 1962, the group recorded “There He Goes” and “That’s the Reason Why” in 1963. However, their breakthrough came in 1964 with the release of “Needle in A Haystack,” a single that reached 45 on Billboard’s Hot 100 that year. But by 1964, Motown was expending its focus on The Supremes. Nevertheless, the group continued to perform concerts during this period and recorded in the studio for Motown up until their final release “These Things Will Keep Me Loving You,” an R&B song that reached the top 50. The Supremes and Martha and the Vandellas also recorded some of The Velvelettes’ material during this period. The Velvelettes finally dissolved as group in 1967 but played a pivotal part in the overall scheme of Motown’s success between 1962-67.
Though the girl group phenomenon of the 1960s faded, female musicians continued to be successful and influential at Motown and in music generally.
Oxford University Press is saddened to report the passing of noted jazz scholar Lawrence Gushee on 6 January 2015. A Professor of Music at the University of Illinois for over 20 years, he held the title of Emeritus Professor of Music at Illinois since 1997. Originally specializing in medieval music, Dr. Gushee turned much of his attention to jazz during his time at Illinois, writing frequently on the history of black American jazz musicians. A prodigious researcher and eloquent writer, his contributions to research on the origins of jazz and its early period simply cannot be overstated. In particular, his 2005 book Pioneers of Jazz, which Oxford is incredibly proud to have published, was a landmark work in jazz history. Bringing to light the hitherto untold story of the early New Orleans jazz band the Creole Band, Gushee revealed how this almost entirely overlooked group played a pioneering role in introducing jazz to America, and bringing about the jazz phenomenon that swept the nation during the 1920s. While he will surely be missed by the jazz community, his contributions to the telling of its history will continue to be of immeasurable value to scholars, students, and fans of the music for generations to come. On behalf of OUP, I offer our deepest sympathies to his family during this difficult time.
On 12 January 1959, Berry Gordy, Jr. founded Tamla Records in Detroit, Michigan. A year later it would be incorporated with a new name that became synonymous with a sound, style, and generation of music: Motown. All this week we’re looking the great artists and tracks that emerged from those recording studios. Yesterday, we spoke to Charles Randolph-Wright, the Director of Broadway’s Motown the Musical, which closes on Sunday, 18 January 2015.
Perhaps no other record label in America’s music history performed a more significant role in fashioning Rhythm and Blues’ assimilation into the country’s popular culture than Motown Records. Founded by Detroit songwriter Berry Gordy, Jr. in 1959, Motown (originally named Tamla Records) began producing hit records almost from its inception and continued to do so throughout the sixties. During this period, Motown and its subsidiary labels recorded 110 top 10 hit songs and became the standard bearer for black music. As Motown evolved from a small African American record label into a colossal, international industry giant with unprecedented crossover appeal, several women played noteworthy roles in shaping its storied development.
While Motown carved out a niche for itself for effectively crafting successful girl groups, some female artists, notably Mary Wells and Brenda Holloway, triumphed as soloists. In addition, female artists contributed to the company’s overall success as writers and as background vocalists for fellow label artists. Many left a lasting impression through duets with male artists.
Kim Weston achieved success as a soloist but it was her duets with the legendary Marvin Gaye that etched her name in the annals of Motown. Her stint with the company began in 1961 with the single, “Love Me All the Way,” a high pitched, blues song that reached 24 and 88 on Billboard’s R&B and Pop charts respectively. In 1964, Motown released “What Good Am I Without You,” a moderately successful duet with Marvin Gaye. During the following year, in 1965, soulful dance hit “Take Me in Your Arms (Rock Me a Little While)” reached number 4 on the R&B and peaked at 50 on the pop chart. But “It Takes Two” was Weston’s greatest contribution to Motown. The song peaked at 4 on the R&B chart, 14 on the pop, and 16 on the UK. Released in 1966, the duet album with Weston was also Gaye’s most successful musical achievement up to that point and laid the basis for his subsequent duets with Tammy Terrell, who was hired by Motown after Weston left the label for MGM in 1967.
Gaye would perform with Mary Wells, Kim Weston, and Diana Ross but his best, most lasting material came from duets with Terrell. Born Thomasina Winifred Montgomery, Terrell and Gaye recorded three albums for Motown. United and You’re All I Need both reached the top five on Billboard’s R&B chart but, more importantly, the pair achieved a charismatic presence on stage that was augmented by numerous television appearances. While performing onstage at a concert in Hamden-Sydney College in October of 1967, Terrell collapsed in Gaye’s arms and was diagnosed with a malignant tumor shortly after. Terrell and Gaye recorded a third album titled Easy that was released in 1969.
By the end of the sixties, female artists would continue to play a defining role not only at Motown but also in the broader industry. No doubt, they would continue to face challenges, many of which their male counterparts didn’t have to face. Nevertheless, they should be credited with opening the doors for later female artists and ensuring black music’s ongoing impact upon global popular culture.
On 12 January 1959, Berry Gordy, Jr. founded Tamla Records in Detroit, Michigan. A year later it would be incorporated with a new name that became synonymous with a sound, style, and generation of music: Motown. All this week we’re looking the great artists and tracks that emerged from those recording studios. To kick us off, we spoke to Charles Randolph-Wright, the Director of Broadway’s Motown the Musical, which closes on Sunday, 18 January 2015.
Can you name your top five favorite Motown songs?
No. They change daily and some of them are only album tracks that many may not know.
You’ve talked about how “What’s Going On” is one of your favorite songs from this project because of its message of hope and change. Do you see this theme of social justice reemerging in popular music today?
I hope that theme is remerging because it is necessary. Motown was more than just music. It was a movement. Music has the power to change, to encourage, to heal. We need that now more than ever.
How have some of the legends of Motown responded to the show?
They have loved it, and seen it several times, which attests to their feelings about it. It was most important to me that we honor them because they opened the doors through which we now all walk. Diana Ross, Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder, Gladys Knight, Mary Wilson, Martha Reeves, and so many others have been there supporting us—and not just the performers, also writers like Holland Dozier and people behind the scenes, people behind the records have given us their stamp of approval. That means everything to us.
Throughout the show you get to see a great number of female artists that came through Hitsville U.S.A. What role do you think women played in Motown’s growth and success?
Motown was one of the first companies where women were in charge. Many women at Motown were in key positions, including Berry Gordy’s sisters (who had a label before him). Women like Suzanne DePasse and Edna Anderson (both represented in the show) still continue to have a major voice in the entertainment industry. Motown opened so many different doors, and continues that legacy.
The show has attracted many people from near and far, of all ages showing the power of good music. Do you think that a show like Motown serves as a gateway for younger individuals to learn about and appreciate classics from artists like Michael Jackson and the Jackson 5, Marvin Gaye, Diana Ross and the Supremes, Smokey Robinson, and other Motown artists whose influence are still heard in today’s music?
Absolutely, and it is an aspect that gives me great pride. Watching all ages, all colors, all political persuasions singing and dancing together gives me hope.
Can you describe Motown’s lasting legacy using lyrics from a Hitsville song?
The legacy of Motown can best be described using the lyrics from an original song that Berry Gordy wrote for the show:
“IT COULD HAVE THE GREATEST SOUND
BUT WHEN YOU PUT THAT NEEDLE DOWN
IT’S WHAT’S IN THE GROOVES THAT COUNTS!”
Stay tuned for new articles every day this week celebrating Motown.
Headline image credit: Marva Hicks, Brandon Victor Dixon, and the Original Broadway Cast of Motown the Musical. Courtesy of Motown the Musical.
Today, 8 January, would have been Elvis Presley’s 80th birthday. In remembrance of his fascinating life we’re sharing a slideshow from the beautiful images inElvis Presley: A Southern Life by Joel Williamson. How did this Southern boy make it from Nashville and Vegas, to Grafenwoehr and the White House?
Elvis with his parents, 1950. Joseph A. Tunzi/ JAT Publishing.
Elvis Presley with Scotty and Bill poster, Cape Girardeau, Mo., July 1955. Taken at the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville, Tennessee. Thomas Hawk, photographer. Available via Flikr.
Elvis on his way to fame at the Louisiana Hayride, 1956. LSU-Shreveport Archives and Special Collections.
An impromptu session with Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Elvis Presley, and Johnny Cash at the Sun Record Studios in Memphis, Tennessee, on December 4, 1956. Originally published in the Memphis Press-Scimitar. Courtesy of the Memphis and Shelby County Room, Memphis Public Library & Information Center.
Headline and 1956 photo from article on Elvis and Mae Axton, who wrote “Heartbreak Hotel,” just after the record sold 1 million copies, 1956. Published in the Memphis Commercial Appeal. Courtesy of the Memphis and Shelby County Room, Memphis Public Library & Information Center.
Elvis Presley in Grafenwoehr, 1958. Courtesy of U.S. Army Garrison Grafenwoehr.
The façade of Graceland in the late 1950s or early 1960s.
Elvis during his ’68 Comeback Special on NBC. Available via Joseph A. Tunzi/ JAT
Elvis and Priscilla’s wedding at the Aladdin Hotel, Las Vegas, May 1, 1967. Available via Getty.
Priscilla and Elvis at a dinner. Memphis and Shelby County Room, Available via Memphis Public Library & Information Center.
Elvis after a performance in Las Vegas, January or February 1970. Available via Joseph A. Tunzi/ JAT Publishing.
Elvis rehearsing in Las Vegas for his 1970 documentary, “Elvis: That’s the Way It Is. Available via Joseph A. Tunzi/ JAT Publishing.
Elvis Presley meets President Richard Nixon on December 21, 1970. White House Chief Photographer Oliver F. Atkins. General Services Administration. National Archives and Records Service. Office of Presidential Libraries. Office of Presidential Papers. Collection RN-WHPO: White House Photo Office Collection (Nixon Administration), 01/20/1969–08/09/1974.
Marquee of the International Hotel, Las Vegas, 1971. Available via Joseph A. Tunzi/ JAT Publishing.
From just behind the gates at Graceland, a look at the mourners gathered on the day Elvis died, as the police try to hold back the crowds, August 16, 1977. Photographed by Saul Brown. Memphis and Shelby County Room, Memphis Public Library & Information Center.
Featured image credit: Headline and 1956 photo from article on Elvis and Mae Axton, who wrote “Heartbreak Hotel,” just after the record sold 1 million copies, 1956. Published in the Memphis Commercial Appeal. Courtesy of the Memphis and Shelby County Room, Memphis Public Library & Information Center.
Today, 8 January, is the 80th birthday of Elvis Presley. Born to Vernon Elvis Presley and Gladys Love Presley (née Smith) in 1935, the ‘King of Rock and Roll’ left an indelible mark on American popular culture. In celebration, we present a brief extract from Elvis Presley: A Southern Life by Joel Williamson.
One photograph of the small Presley family captures the essence of their lives then and thereafter. Elvis, about three years old, is posed with Gladys and Vernon. Elvis is standing, and his parents are sitting on either side of him.
The exact date of the picture is unknown. Decades later it showed up in the photograph collection of the Official Elvis Presley Fan Club in Leicester, England. Interviews with pediatricians, pediatric nurses, mothers, fathers, grandmothers, and grandfathers have estimated Elvis’s age.
The blank, clean, slightly gray background is probably the concrete wall of the brand-new Lee County jail in Tupelo. Vernon is a prisoner, having been arrested on November 16, 1937, for forging a check. The county jail had recently been built by the Works Progress Administration (WPA), a New Deal project to employ the unemployed. Previously, county prisoners had been lodged in the run-down town jail. Only the white prisoners were moved to the new jail.
In the photograph, mother, child, and father are close, body to body as if huddled against a coming moment of separation. Gladys’s left arm reaches behind and across Elvis’s back to Vernon. Her open hand rests lightly on Vernon’s left shoulder, as if to hold him in gently, to affirm her presence with him. It is a hand that seeks to comfort, but its loose openness signals her powerlessness.
Vernon had been charged with forging a check on Orville Bean, the dairy farmer who was his landlord and employer. He had been arrested and arraigned during the fall term of criminal court. He pled not guilty, but he would not get a speedy trial. His plea came too late for him to be tried in the fall term of court. His case would have to wait for the spring term, which began six months later on Monday, May 23, 1938. Before the court convened that spring, the local papers were full of suggestions that the docket was overfull and that justice in Lee County must be meted out more rapidly than before.
Only days before Vernon’s case would have been tried, he changed his plea to guilty. Justice swiftly followed. On Wednesday, May 25, Judge Thomas H. Johnston sentenced Vernon to three years in the state penitentiary. He got no credit for the six months he had spent in the county jail. After sentencing came the anxious wait before the prison guards trucked him off to Parchman Farm.
On Saturday, May 28, Circuit Court Clerk Joe J. Kilgo wrote out the papers committing Vernon and eleven other convicts to Parchman. The twelve men waited in the county jail for the dreaded arrival of “Long Chain Charley,” a sergeant on the guard force at Parchman who circulated through the state collecting convicts for transport to prison. He always brought a long chain to which he shackled his prisoners to prevent their escape.
Six months in the county jail waiting for a trial had been bad enough, but there was always at least some hope for relief. Orville Bean might decide not to press charges against Vernon. Relatives and friends might somehow intervene. If it came to a trial, a good lawyer might rise to defend him and the jury might find him innocent. Having changed his plea to guilty, Vernon faced the certainty of serving at hard labor in a notoriously tough prison for three long years, years in which he could not come home every night to his wife and child in their little two-room wooden house in East Tupelo nor earn money to support them.
Sensing the pathos in the photograph does not require knowledge of its history. The bodies of the man and woman are tense with anxiety and dread. The child is anxious and confused. Vernon has put his hat on his head as if making ready to leave. He faces the camera, but his eyes cut to his left as if watching fearfully for someone or something to appear that he already hears. Gladys also stares to the left, her body stiff.
The little boy’s gaze is less focused, as if he were told to look at the camera but senses something he needs to see off to the left too. He wears bib overalls over a dark, long-sleeved shirt, charmingly trimmed with white cuffs and a white collar. Gladys is a talented seamstress. She wears a flower-print dress. Her dress, like Elvis’s shirt, is attractively set off by a collar of a different color. Elvis, like his father, wears a hat. His hat seems almost man-sized, cocked at a rakish angle on his round little head. His full cherubic lips are twisted down to the right as if he realizes that he should say something and set his jaw in some certain way to assert an attitude, but he doesn’t know what to say or how.
This is the earliest photograph of Elvis. The photographer was most likely a friend or a relative who had driven Gladys and Elvis a couple of miles over from their home in East Tupelo. It was a defining moment in the lives of Elvis, Gladys, and Vernon Presley, individually and collectively. The very fact of the visit, the camera, and the one photograph that has been preserved indicates that they understood that they were at a critical juncture in their lives. The petty and foolish crime that Vernon committed in the fall of 1937, when he was twenty-one, Gladys twenty-five, and Elvis less than three, deeply marked their lives.
If you are a singer who has a degree in vocal performance, then you are ready to stop doubting your greatness and start living an awesome life by singing in the world now. If you are a voice teacher or coach, you will recognize the need for your students to make a difference in the world with their singing and even make some money. Singing gigs and projects for classical singers are not just in opera, symphony orchestras, and churches anymore. In fact, most of the more meaningful (and lucrative) destinations for the vocal arts are not on the traditional stage, but out in the world helping people.
The key is to sing for people who want to hear you for their own reasons, and who value what you have to offer. If you are willing to gain new skills that you may not have acquired in school, you can find meaningful and lucrative places to sing. There is plenty of work out there for everyone.
Here are the top five tips to get you started:
Get familiar with what is already working in the world. Peruse the arts news and blogs daily to see what is happening with classical singers all over the world. You’ll be surprised to see how classical singers are making a living these days as teaching artists, wellness performers, cultural ambassadors, corporate consultants, independent artists, etc.
Learn how to market yourself as a performer and your products. Marketing just means having the ability to interview well, pitch your ideas, audition well, create great materials, and get them to your target audiences, fans, and employers. Take a class.
Create products that you can offer to both employers and fans. You’ll need videos, CDs, MP3s, streaming events, download cards, or anything you can hand to a prospective fan or employer to introduce yourself and your art.
Tailor your repertoire for a specific purpose. We all know that different repertoires evoke different types of responses in the listener. Offer a repertoire that is calming, joyous, enthusiastic, or patriotic, etc. and the audience will choose whatever he or she needs.
Know yourself. Every singer is an artist but may not know it. To develop your own “voice” so to speak, you’ll need to turn inward. If you know why you are singing you can develop your own authentic vocal art that will have tremendous power to transform your listeners. I recommend meditation.
Accomplished, hard-working artists capture the hearts and imaginations of their audiences. Sing for the spirit of the song. As a singer, you can put your voice to good use making the world a better place. Sing out in the world for a specific and meaningful purpose, and a simple evening of entertainment can turn into a pathway for enlightenment.
Headline Image: Microphone, Music. CC0 Public Domain via Pixabay.
Among the earliest, most challenging inventors of troubadour lyric, Marcabru composed songs for the courts of southwestern France during the second quarter of the twelfth century, calling knights to crusade, castigating false lovers, defining and refining courtly values, while developing his own kaleidoscopic image as witty, gritty, biting, rhyming, neologizing, moralizing wordsmith par excellence. As they come down to us in song manuscripts, Marcabru’s forty-some poems — with their wide vocabulary, difficult syntax, and multiple versions — offer a host of problems for modern readers trying to understand their language and fully comprehend them as songs performed live before an engaged public. Marcabru, A critical edition, edited and translated by Simon Gaunt, Ruth Harvey, and Linda Paterson, has been my indispensable tool for taking on that project.
Two of Marcabru’s songs (XXV and XXVI) particularly caught my eye, as they’ve attracted the attention of many others who radically disagree about their import. Estornel, cueill ta volada (Starling, take your flight) and Ges l’estornels no.n s’oblida (The starling did not dally for a moment) outline a series of dramatic exchanges in which a lover first gives the starling a message of complaint for his amia (beloved), demanding that she compensate for her neglect by meeting him in a certain position: flat beneath him. In the second song, the bird delivers the ultimatum, hears the woman’s spirited defense and enticing reply, and returns to anticipate the lover’s lusty triumph. Taken together, Estornel and Ges l’estornels offer a humorous guide to Marcabru’s piebald art of ventriloquism, as they act out the elusive nature of his identity as poet and persona, refracted through multiple voices and changing masks.
To recreate as much as possible the full scope of Marcabru’s dazzling play, I combined popular and scholarly views of ventriloquy. Señor Wences was my first teacher, when he appeared on the Ed Sullivan show in the 1950s and 60s with Pedro, a head in a box (“s’awright?” “s’awright!”), and a soft-spoken boy named Johnny. I can see him holding up one hand to paint lips on his thumb and finger to form Johnny’s mouth, adding eyes and a wig, as low- and high-pitched voices shuttle back and forth between man and dummy. Thanks to YouTube, you can still see how Señor Wences dares us to see the perfection of his art by focusing our gaze right on his lips, as he lights a cigarette and speaks elsewhere through the puppet. He balances a spinning plate on a long stick and spins a three-way conversation (not unlike Marcabru in the starling songs!) with Pedro’s head and Johnny, now tossed behind the table. Why do we get such a kick out of these silly games? The fun of seeing how well the ventriloquist can fool us into not seeing where the voice comes from, or hear it coming from where we know it isn’t? Because we know it’s a fake, we enjoy all the more how the ventriloquist’s counterfeit art displaces reality.
Exploring the more serious side of ventriloquy, I found in Mary Hayes’ Divine Ventriloquism in Medieval English Literature: Power, Anxiety, Subversion an unexpected connection with the incongruous mix in Marcabru’s starling poems. Hayes highlights how the ventriloquist’s displaced voices sharpen issues of source and authority, the confusion of truth and deception, the possibility of (mis)appropriation. Her reminder that Latin “ventriloquist” goes back to Greek “engastrimythos” (belly speakers, like the Pythian oracle whose divine words of uncertain meaning rose up through womb and mouth) goes straight to the sex-talking orifices that Marcabru conjures up in Estornel and Ges l’estornels, no doubt to the great delight of his courtly audience.
Recognized by fellow troubadours as misogynist, Marcabru criticized but also impersonated women — a trick that may well have inspired real women poets to enter the arena in their own right, as more than twenty trobairitz (women troubadours) did. The female impersonators of my title give a nod to Monty Python’s Piranha brothers (who knew how to treat a female impersonator). But in the world of troubadour lyric, men in drag jostle with trobairitz impersonating men and other women, like the Dolly Parton mimic I learned about while working on the starling poems. Charlene Rose-Masuda’s imitation — as well as the original — can be found on YouTube in all her bursting charms, looking like we might imagine Marcabru’s amia in contemporary dress.
Who or what is the genuine article? The presumption that the poet’s first person pronoun speaks for himself or herself is subverted by their obvious pleasure in inventing personas that may not correspond to historical selves. Of course, when Marcabru sets a woman or a starling to chattering, the ventriloquy is patent, but when he speaks as the ribald but courtly lover in Estornel, the disconnect from his usual image as moralizing scold — a sort of Rush Limbaugh avant la lettre – becomes a puzzle as soon as the poet inserts his signature to specify what “Marcabru says” (“Marcabrus/ditz” 60-1). Monologue or dialogue, one speaker or two? The vvoice(s) remain entangled in Estornel’s shifting registers.
As I follow the different masks assumed by the poet through his belly-speaking, vaudevillian, Dolly Parton, bird-screeching impersonations, the starling as intermediary leads me finally to notice the bird’s visual appearance, left unmentioned. The iridescence and spotting of its feathers give the starling’s dark plumage what Marcabru calls the “white, brown and bay desire” (XXXI, 33) of false love, while the mottled poet himself has a brown spot (Marca brun) stamped in his nom de plume. He’s the mimic and master of precisely what he criticizes, as if to “truly” condemn false language and bad loving he must incarnate them. Called on stage by his proper name, Marcabru performs brilliantly with all the mixed colors and rainbow plumage of a male-female-bird-impersonator par excellence.
With that familiar chill in the air signaling winter’s imminent arrival, it’s time again to indulge our craving for Christmas music by Frank Sinatra, Mariah Carey, and more. But first, let’s take a step back and explore the history of Christmas music with the following facts.
From medieval Christmas celebrations onwards, the holiday has included Christian, pagan, and secular elements. For example, American Christmas songs range from religious hymns and carols to secular songs about Santa Claus and general goodwill.
During the 17th and 18th centuries, American colonists celebrated Christmas with mumming practices, including costumes, pranks, dancing, and musical instruments.
Boston tanner and composer William Billings wrote sacred Christmas music in the 18th century.
American Christmas music developed from various immigrant traditions, gaining popularity in the United States during the 19th century.
Charles Dickens contributed to the popularity of Christmas traditions with his successful novels The Pickwick Papers (1836-7) and A Christmas Carol (1843). Celebrations during this period included door-to-door Christmas caroling, Christmas cards, and “living nativity” scenes.
Several classic Christmas carols were produced in the 19th century, including “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear” (1849), “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” (1863), and “Away in a Manager” (1885).
The popularity of Christmas music exploded with radio, television, and film in the 20th century. Hollywood has played an important role in the popularity of Christmas music with films like Holiday Inn (1942), Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964), It’s A Wonderful Life (1946), and A Christmas Story (1983). (We couldn’t resist posting this classic scene below.)
Check out our list of classic Christmas tunes below:
Headline image credit: Lighted Santa Reindeer, 2012. Photo by Anthony92931. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
In Inkygirl recently, I talked about how I'm sometimes more productive when I have sounds from a coffee shop playing in the background. Do you usually like to have background noise while you're working? If so, what type?
One-third of you prefer silence but the rest like some kind of background noise. Of the latter, 70% prefer ambient noise and 45% prefer music without lyrics.
The ringing sound of sleigh bells is all too familiar around this time of the year. It’s the official siren signaling in the winter season. While a well-known signature staple on sleighs, Santa suits and reindeer, jingle bells haven’t always been associated with Christmas. They do much more than just ring in holiday cheer.
1. Sleigh bells or jingles bells are a type of bell that produces a distinctive jingle sound. They are in the percussion family of instruments.
2. The bells are made from sheet metal bent into a spherical shape with a small ball bearing or short metal rod placed inside to create the jingle sound.
3. Small bells were known in ancient times. In Sumer, Babylonia, Assyria, and Egypt they were commonly suspended from the trappings of horses, mules, and camels.
4. Centuries ago, sleigh bells were fastened to horses to signal the approach of someone important or to warn pedestrians of an approaching vehicle. Sleighs were unable to stop quickly enough so they needed a warning sound.
5. William Barton opened the first US sleigh bell company in East Hampton, Connecticut in 1810. East Hampton eventually became known as “Belltown” because it produced so many bells.
6. Sleigh bells, or jingles, are rarely used to produce specific pitches. Mozart, however, prescribed this in the third of his Three German Dances K605.
7. The song Jingle Bells, also known as “One Horse Open Sleigh,” is one of the most popular and most recorded songs on Earth. It was written in 1857 by James Lord Pierpont and was originally meant for Thanksgiving.
8. Sleigh bells were one of the first instruments played in space. In 1965, Gemini 6 astronauts Tom Stafford and Wally Schirra, smuggled bells and a harmonica onto their spacecraft and played Jingle Bells for mission control as a light-hearted holiday joke.
9. The affluent ornamentally wore bells as a symbol of wealth and status.
10. In old Pagan beliefs, jingle bells are used to ward off bad luck, diseases, and evil spirits. Today, some motorcyclists strap small bells to their handlebars to ward off road demons.
Headline image credit: Sleigh Bells. Photo by Richard Wheeler. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
There are plenty of operas about teenage girls—love-sick, obsessed, hysterical teenage girls who dance, scheme, and murder in a frenzy of musical passion. Disney Princess films are also about teenage girls—lonely, skinny, logical teenage girls who follow their hearts because the plot gives them no other option. The music Disney Princesses sing can be divided into three periods that correspond to distinct animation styles:
Onto these three periods we can map the themes of the princess anthems, the single song for which each princess is remembered:
The relative lack of variance in these songs tells us something important—while animation styles have changed, the aspirations of girlhood have not been radically altered.
But then there’s Frozen.
Elsa’s anthem, “Let It Go,” combines aspects from all three periods: Frozen is a computer animated film, Idina Menzel is a Tony Award-winning singer, and, most importantly, the song and the Snow Queen who sings it have an operatic legacy rooted in representations of madness and infirmity. “Let It Go” is a tribute to passion, spontaneity, and instinct—elements celebrated by both the opera (which nevertheless punishes the bearer severely) and the Disney film (which channels them into heterosexual romance). Frozen does neither.
Unlike the songs of longing for belonging that came before it, “Let It Go” insists that being like everyone else is bound to fail. It’s a coming out song often read as a queer anthem and easily interpreted to account for a number of stigmatized identities. As such, Elsa is a screen onto which may be projected our fantasies and fears. While her transformation into a shapely princess swaying in a sparkly gown with wispy blond hair may be familiar, the scene where this takes place, the way she looks back at the viewer, and the music she sings define Elsa as more ambiguous than she appears. Is Elsa sick, is she mentally ill, is she asexual, is she gay? What is Elsa and why does she resonate so strongly with young girls?
Elsa is like the women of 19th-century opera in her exclusion from the world the other characters comfortably occupy. Marred by magical ability, Elsa must isolate herself if she does not want to scar those she loves—or so the dialogue tells us. The imagery suggests an illness; Elsa behaves as if she were contagious. Indeed, she is consumptive like Mimi, but she is also betrayed like Tosca and scandalous like The Queen of the Night. As Catherine Clément says of women in the opera: “they suffer, they cry, they die…Glowing with tears, their decolletés cut to the heart, they expose themselves to the gaze of those who come to take pleasure in their pretend agonies.” Operatic women express their hysteria skillfully. At the pinnacle of her agony, Elsa builds a magnificent castle while singing her most beautiful song, a song that has itself become infectious. In its final moments, she exposes herself, only to slam the door on viewers who would like nothing more than to gawk at the excess.
Most princess anthems end satisfactorily on the tonic chord, their musical conclusions coinciding with lyrical expectations that assure the story will fulfill the princesses’ desires. For example, when Ariel wishes she could be “part of that world”, she sings a high F, which a trombone echoes an octave lower, reinforcing the song’s key and suggesting the narrative’s interest in giving Ariel what she wants. In “Someday My Prince Will Come,” Snow White’s final line repeats the home pitch no less than six times as if to insist the screenwriters pay attention. “Let It Go,” on the other hand, ends unresolved. The score establishes a sharp distinction between the assertive melodic phrase sung by Elsa, “The cold never bothered me anyway,” and the harmonic manifestation of the accompaniment. Elsa turns her back to the camera after singing the downward moving line, which ends rather abruptly on the tonic, while the chord that ought to have shifted with Elsa’s exit lingers in the icy upper register of the strings, as if refusing to acknowledge the message. Is the music condemning the singer’s difference by suggesting that her immunity to the elements is indicative of a physical or psychic malady?
Unlike Donizetti’s operatic heroine, Lucia, whose infamous “mad scene” prompts the chorus to weep for her, Elsa stares into the camera, eyebrow raised, as if daring the spectators to pity her. This is the look of a woman who refuses to capitulate to patriarchy. And with our endless covers and video parodies of “Let It Go” we have rallied to her defense. Rather than constrain her by Frozen’s story, “Let It Go” lets Elsa escape again into possibility. The new princess message, “Leave Me Alone,” is echoed by little girls everywhere.
Peter Conrad says of opera, “It is the song of our irrationality, of the instinctual savagery which our jobs and routines and our nonsinging voices belie, or the music our bodies make. It is an art devoted to love and death (and especially to the cryptic alliance between them); to the definition and the interchangeability of the sexes; to madness and devilment…” Such is also a fair description of Frozen, for what are its final moments than an act of love to stave off death, what is Elsa but a mad and devilish woman who revels in the impermanence of sexuality, what is a fairytale but a story full of savage beasts that prey on our emotions. “Let It Go” releases an archetype from the hollows of diva history into the digital world of children’s animation.
Headline Image: Disney’s Frozen. DVD screenshot via Jennfier Fleeger.
Carols bring Christians together around the Christ Child lying in the manger. During Advent and at Christmas, Christians everywhere sing more or less the same repertoire. Through our carols, we share the same deep delight at the birth of a poor child who was to become the Saviour of all human beings.
The carols are wonderfully ecumenical in their origins. Four verses and the tune of ‘Adeste Fideles’ (‘Come all ye faithful’) come from an eighteenth-century Roman Catholic layman, John Francis Wade. ‘Angels we have heard on high’ is a traditional French carol, now commonly sung to a tune arranged by Edward Shippen Barnes (d. 1958), an American organist and composer. The text of ‘Hark the herald angels sing’ was written by Charles Wesley. Its widely used melody is taken from Felix Mendelssohn, who was born into a Jewish family and brought up a Lutheran. Isaac Watts, a non-conformist, composed the words of ‘Joy to the world’. The music, although often attributed to George Frederick Handel, seems of be of English origin.
An Episcopalian bishop, Phillips Brooks, wrote ‘O little town of Bethlehem’, and the tune we normally hear accompanying this comes from Ralph Vaughan Williams.
‘Ding dong merrily on high‘ is sung to a dance tune from sixteenth-century France; the text was composed by an English enthusiast for carols, George Ratcliffe Woodward (d. 1934). We owe ‘Away in a manger’ to a nineteenth-century children’s book used by American Lutherans. The words for ‘See amid the winter’s snow’ were written by Edward Caswell, who became a Roman Catholic and joined Blessed John Henry Newman in the Birmingham Oratory. Sir John Goss, an Anglican organist and composer, provided the musical setting.
‘Silent night, holy night’ was the work of two Austrian Catholics, the priest and organist of a country church. An Irish Protestant, Nahum Tate, probably composed the text of ‘While shepherds watched their flocks‘, which is often sung to a tune taken from Handel.
These and other familiar carols have been composed by members of different Christian communities who lived in various parts of the world. The carols have also proved splendidly ecumenical in their use. No other collection of hymns are sung so widely by Christians when they celebrate one of the two central feasts of their liturgical year.
With a happiness that lights up their faces, Christians sing together the carols. With the birth of the Christ Child, light has replaced darkness, and real freedom has taken over from sin. The beautiful ‘Sussex Carol’ catches the common joy of Christian believers: ‘On Christmas night all Christians sing/To hear the news the angels bring/News of great joy, news of great mirth/News of our merciful King’s birth.’ The words of this carol go back to a seventeenth-century Irish bishop, Luke Wadding. In the early twentieth century, Vaughan Williams discovered the text and the tune that we use today, when he heard it sung at Monk’s Gate in Sussex. Hence it is called the ‘Sussex Carol’.
Such carols bring Christians together around the manger. They blend beautifully text and music to unite us all and lift our spirits at Christmas. But they also remind us that the shadow of the cross falls across the birth of Jesus.
Some carols foreshadow the suffering which the Christ Child will endure for all human beings. Thus the penultimate verse of the traditional English carol, ‘The first Nowell‘, declares: ‘and with his blood mankind has bought’. ‘In dulci jubilo’, a medieval German carol, arranged by J. M. Neale (d. 1866) and entitled ‘Good Christian men, rejoice’, subtly links Bethlehem and Calvary when the second verse repeats: ‘Christ was born for this.’
The carols that feature the Magi and the gifts they offer foretell the passion of Christ. Myrrh is an aromatic resin that was widely used in the Middle East to embalm corpses. From early times Christians understood that gift to symbolize the death and burial of Jesus. ‘We three kings of Orient are’, a nineteenth-century Christmas carol from Pennsylvania, devotes a whole verse to the gift of myrrh: ‘Myrrh is mine, its bitter perfume/breathes a life of gathering gloom/sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying/sealed in the stone-cold tomb.’ Such carols unite Christians with the Magi in worshipping the Christ Child, whose birth is already overshadowed by the cross.
When we sing our favourite carols this Christmas, let us rejoice in their very ecumenical origins and in their use by Christians everywhere. The carols light up our faces with vivid joy. But they also recall how the shadow of Calvary fell over Bethlehem. Jesus was born into a world of all-pervasive pain and suffering.
Featured image credit: Little Twon of Bethlehem, by Phillips Brooks. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons
Director Robert Altman made more than thirty feature films and dozens of television episodes over the course of his career. The Altman retrospective currently showing at MoMA is a treasure trove for rediscovering Altman’s best known films (M*A*S*H, Nashville, Gosford Park) as well as introducing unreleased shorts and his little-known early work as a writer.
Every Altman fan has her or his own list of favorite films. For me, Altman’s use of music is always so innovative, original, and unprecedented that a few key films stand out from the crowd based on their soundtracks. Here are my top five Altman films based on their soundtracks:
1. Gosford Park (2001): The English heritage film meets an Agatha Christie murder mystery, combining an all-star ensemble cast and gorgeous location shooting with a tribute to Jean Renoir’s La Règle du Jeu (1939). Jeremy Northam plays the real-life British film star and composer Ivor Novello. Watch for the integration of Northam/Novello’s live performances of period songs with the central murder scene, in which the songs’ lyrics explain (in hindsight) who really committed the murder, and why.
2. Nashville (1975): Altman’s brilliant critique of American society in the aftermath of Vietnam and Watergate. Nashville stands as an excellent example of “Altmanesque” filmmaking, in which several separate story strands merge in the climactic final scene. Many, although not all, of the songs were provided by the cast, which includes Henry Gibson as pompous country music star Haven Hamilton, and the Oscar-nominated Lily Tomlin as the mother of two deaf children drawn into a relationship with sleazy rock star Tom Frank (Keith Carradine, whose song “I’m Easy” won the film’s sole Academy Award).
3. M*A*S*H (1970): Ok, I will admit it. It took me a long, long time to appreciate M*A*S*H. Growing up in 1970s Toronto, I couldn’t accept Donald Sutherland and Elliot Gould as Hawkeye Pierce and Trapper John — familiar characters from the weekly CBS TV series (but played by different actors). Looking back, I realize that M*A*S*H really did break all the rules of filmmaking in 1970, not least of which because it appealed to the anti-Vietnam generation. Like so many later Altman films, what appears to be a sloppy, improvised, slap-dash film is in fact sutured together through the brilliant, carefully edited use of Japanese-language jazz standards blared over the disembodied voice of the base’s loudspeaker.
4. McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971): Filmed outside of Vancouver, Altman’s reinvention of the Western genre stars Warren Beatty and Julie Christie. The film uses several of Leonard Cohen’s songs from his 1967 album The Songs of Leonard Cohen, allowing the songs to speak for often inarticulate characters. Watch for how the opening sequence, showing Beatty/McCabe riding into town, is closely choreographed to “The Stranger Song” as is Christie/Miller’s wordless monologue to “Winter Lady” later in the film — all to the breathtaking cinematography of Vilmos Zsigmond, who worked with Altman on Images (1972) and The Long Goodbye (1973) as well.
5. Aria (segment: “Les Boréades”) (1987): Made during Altman’s “exile” from Hollywood in the 1980s, this film combines short vignettes set to opera excerpts by veteran directors including Derek Jarman, Jean-Luc Godard, and Julien Temple. Altman’s contribution employs the music of 18th-century French composer Jean-Philippe Rameau. The sequence was a revelation to me personally, since it contains the only feature film documentation of Altman’s significant contributions to the world of opera. One of the first film directors to work on the opera stage, Altman directed a revolutionary production of Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress at the University of Michigan in the early 1980s: the work was restaged in France and used for the Aria Later, Altman collaborated with Pulitzer-Prize winning composer William Bolcom and librettist Arnold Weinstein to create new operas (McTeague, A Wedding) for the Lyric Opera of Chicago.
Rounding out the top ten would be Short Cuts (1993), Kansas City (1996), The Long Goodbye (1973), California Split (1974), and Popeye (1980) — Robin Williams’ first film, and definitely an off-beat but entertaining musical.
In celebration of the recently published biography, Elvis Presley: A Southern Life by Joel Williamson, I thought I would share some memories of Christmas past. In the 1970s we listened to Elvis on vinyl. Every December when it was time to decorate the tree you could hear the deep dulcet warbling of Elvis coming from the hi-fi. Some of my favorite Elvis renditions of Christmas songs follow.
With the tree up and ready to be decorated we’d pop on the Elvis to kick off the Christmas season with “The First Noel”.
In the kitchen we’d often hear my mother sing along to “Winter Wonderland” as she made stained-glass window cookies to hang on the tree.
One of my dad’s favorites was “Silver Bells”. He’d sing along so that it sounded like Elvis was his backup singer.
My best friend Tracy had an artificial, all-white tree bedecked in tinsel and lit solely with blue lights. In the evenings we’d just sit in her living room watching the tree as she and Elvis sang “Blue Christmas”.
Now that I am older, I still like to listen to Elvis when I decorate for Christmas. Then when I have everything just the way I want I like to get a crackling fire going, turn down the lights, plug in the tree, toss back a few slugs of egg nog, settle into a comfy couch with someone special, and listen to Elvis’s “Merry Christmas Baby”.
Here’s hoping your stocking is stuffed with Elvis this season. I find he makes the holiday merry.
Headline image credit: Elvis! Photo by Kevin Dooley. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.
Amongst the many famous people Lerner corresponded with, Frederick Loewe is naturally the most important in terms of musical collaborators. Yet sadly, correspondence between Lerner and Loewe is quite rare. I found only a few letters between them during the course of the research for the book, and was particularly disappointed by the lack of letters from their early years. They must have written many letters over the forty-odd years they knew each other, and it would have been particularly fascinating to have been able to chart every move of this legendary collaboration. (Incidentally, letters between Rodgers and Hammerstein are also quite rare; of course, composer-lyricist teams spend a lot of time together, and don’t always need to collaborate through the mail.)
Nevertheless, the letters that have survived are quite wonderful. For example, a letter from May 1956 – not long after their biggest hit, My Fair Lady, had opened – indicates the warmth of their relationship at this point, as well as their close interest in business matters:
There has been a lot of interest motion picture wise in the last couple of weeks and Irving has worked out a formula which he will, of course, go over with Ben, whereby whatever sum is paid for the picture rights will exclude GBS. He will get his on the gross later on. In other words, if the property sells for a million dollars, which is certainly the minimum, we will be able to divide it on the usual basis.
The songs are doing absolutely wonderfully. Vic Damone’s record in the last seven days has begun to crash through and you hear it all the time. Not only that, but “On The Street Where You Live” is getting wonderful plugging on radio and TV; in fact, all three of the songs are. Rosemary Clooney is making another record of “I Could Have Danced All Night” this week and the old record is being withdrawn. I have been keeping after Goddard [Lieberson] and Mitch and I’m going to try and get them to make another record of “Accustomed” with a male singer.
Did I tell you last time about the Actors Benefit? I don’t think so. Anyhow it was the goddamnedest night of all time. It made the opening night look like a Hadassah benefit. The laughter was enormous on every point; practically every song stopped the show and the ovation at the end was something I’ll never forget as long as I live. When Rex and Julie stepped out of the line for their final bow, the entire audience stood up like one person and shouted. There were over seven minutes of curtain calls. Comments at the end were something I’ve never heard before. It was an absolutely incredible experience and I can’t tell you how much I wish you’d been there. Rex told me later it was the most extraordinary night in his entire theatrical career. Incidentally, Rex gave the greatest performance I’ve ever seen him give and it was fascinating to see how the actors knew that his was the really great performance of the show. His ovation was tumultuous.
[…] The French play I told you about looks fascinating and Moss and I have also been kicking other things around from time to time. I am sure when you come home that it won’t take too long for us to decide on something. I want you to know, incidentally, that for the first time in my life, I am not bursting to go to work. The only reason I am doing what I am doing is just to keep my mind occupied in a vague way. However, I am sure this lethargy won’t last forever and the minute we’re together again, the old sparks will begin to fly.
Here, we see them discussing a possible film version of Fair Lady already (it didn’t appear for another eight years); some cover versions of a couple of the songs by popular singers Vic Damone and Rosemary Clooney, released to boost interest in the show; and a special Actors Benefit performance, at which Rex Harrison had evidently given an especially electric performance. Then, the final paragraph offers a vivid insight into the affectionate relationship between Lerner and Loewe at the time, with reference to “the old sparks flying.”
By the 1980s, however, the previous warmth had gone. Two letters regarding the revised stage version of the movie Gigi, which was being put on in London under Lerner’s supervision but without any input from Loewe, reveal high levels of tension between them:
There has been so much legal back and forthing about what songs can or cannot be used in “Gigi” that I thought, perhaps, I could cut through it all by giving you a history of the enterprise over here.
[…]The idea of bringing “Gigi” to London originated over a year and a half ago with Cameron Mackintosh, who, as you know, did “My Fair Lady” and did us proud. It was while Cam was planning it that John Dexter, who certainly in everybody’s opinion is one of the best directors in the world, became involved. What Dexter had in mind, and God knows I agreed with him and I am sure you would, too, was to capture the intimacy of the film— which, as we know, did not have the usual M-G-M production numbers, etcetera—but, at the same time, not be haunted by the film. It would be a true theatrical piece and not what Gerald Bordman, in his authoritative History of the Musical Theatre when writing about “Gigi,” said: “Lerner and Loewe’s enchanting film musical was lifted off the screen and set down uncomfortably on the legitimate stage. The translation from film script to play script was mere hack work.”
Rehearsals are to begin a week from today and last week was the first time we heard that you only wished songs from the film to be used. If your desire was conditioned by the success of Louis Jourdan’s production, let me assure you it was dreadful and only successful in places because of Louis combined with “Gigi.” When I read the script, I told Dave Grossberg to make certain it never appeared within 150 miles of New York. Even Cam, when he saw it, was appalled.
Also, the fact is at this point that management has rights that cannot be withdrawn. The Dramatists’ Guild Law and the law over here is that only one of the authors’ signatures is required. The reason for this is that if the other author (or authors) is unhappy, he can have his version done by someone else. Because I signed the contract with the full confidence that you would be as pleased about the production as I, the producers now have the right to the stage version.[…]
The rest of the letter offers more detail, but the situation was this: Loewe tried to wield his legal rights over Lerner, who was making changes to the score on his own in London, and Lerner replied by explaining that he had the legal right to do so in the UK. Twenty-five years after they had taken Broadway by storm in a series of musicals including Brigadoon, Paint Your Wagon, My Fair Lady, and Camelot, the golden partnership had been reduced to bitterness. Yet, as the letters from the 1950s reveal, at the height of their fame they had been intimately connected and deeply affectionate.
Christmas is a time for music, and music directors’ calendars typically fill up in December. In academic circles, there are Christmas pageants, holiday musicals, end-of-term recitals, and Christmas music concerts. On the professional scene, performers take advantage of both the celebratory and melancholy sides of the season to present concerts, charity events, and special performances (full-length or one-off). Shows running on and Off-Broadway, and in regional and community theaters tack on additional performances; theaters and producers mount shows geared especially for children and family audiences. All over the country there are productions of familiar titles such as A Christmas Carol, A Christmas Story, and How The Grinch Stole Christmas, as well as an endless supply of new, original holiday works for the musical stage.
Regardless of the event or job, here are five things for music directors working during the holidays to keep in mind:
(1) Keep your work positive and inclusive.
To some extent it’s up to you as the music director to set the tone for every project you work on. This is especially important during the holidays, when much of the entertainment has its primary purpose something uplifting, convivial, or spiritual. Positive sentiment begins organically. If you instill it in your performers and commit to it as a leader and player, it will be palpable to an audience and appreciated by your colleagues. During the season, people who might not normally participate in or attend stage events should find their holiday theatergoing or singing/acting experience memorable (in a good way!) and special.
(2) Focus on the beauty and emotionalism of the music.
Don’t worry that your lead trumpet plays a quarter tone sharp, or your leading soprano sings a quarter tone flat. Or at least, don’t worry unduly. These sorts of imperfections seem more commonplace this time of year. Musicians are busier; productions are thrown together hurriedly; part-timers or amateurs appear on the scene. Lead according the needs of the situation, keeping the proceedings in rehearsal and performance positive and enjoyable. Put the heartwarming music, rather than any shortcomings of the performance, at the fore of your attention.
(3) Be sensitive.
Times are tough for many at the holidays. Loneliness, loss, poverty, and painful memories are amplified. Music or drama often triggers them, but can also be a balm for suffering. Understand the important role that the music you direct takes in people’s lives, and treat your work with the same sensitivity you would treat the people themselves. This can apply both to people working with you on your production and those in the audience. Don’t be surprised if a raw nerve or an open wound is touched, and be supportive. Again, keep your focus on the music–that is why everyone is there, whether or not they are working through personal feeling. Professionalism sometimes entails being particularly compassionate, while of course maintaining a professional demeanor.
(4) Respect the religion.
As someone wisely once said, while watching Fiddler on the Roof, everyone is Jewish. The same holds true at Christmastime, when people of all creeds and beliefs come together to sing carols about the birth of Jesus, red-nosed reindeer, and many other things (including those with entirely commercial origins). As a music director, you must adopt the spiritual conviction of the music or drama you are leading and performing, and preferably understand the meaning being conveyed. I remember being chastised by a professor in my choral conducting Master’s program for not being a true believer. I replied, and I still contend, that all music directors are to some extent actors, and even an atheist humanist like me can take on the necessary faith when performing a work written out of devotion. But music directors should also be the wisest musicians in the room. Before singing “I Have a Little Dreidl,” they should research the reason that the dreidl should be made of lead, not clay. And who was this King Wenceslas, anyway, and what is the feast of Stephen? It’s the music director’s job to find out.
(5) Change styles with ease.
Holiday music comes in many styles. One day you’ll have to jingle bell rock, the next you’ll be tackling the gentle chromaticism of “O Little Town of Bethlehem” or the the classical fanfare of “Adeste Fideles,” and the next pull off the pop rhumba of “Feliz Navidad.” So be ready. As always, a good music director must be something of a stylistic chameleon, and train his or expertise in multiple (if not all) genres. At no time of year is this more clear than at the holidays.
Headline Image: Rachmaninov Festival Orchestra, Conductor Derek Gleeson. Photo by Derek Gleeson. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia
Christmas is the busiest time of year by far for the Oxford Music Hire Library. Oxford University Press publishes most of the carols the world knows and loves — the one that has just popped into your head is probably one of ours — with newly-composed Christmas titles added every year. Carol orders come in as early as August and keep rolling in until worryingly close to the big day itself. In 2014, our carols are being performed in the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada, South America, Australia, Scandinavia, Hong Kong, Germany, South Africa, and more. So far this year, we have had orders for over 600 orchestral sets for Christmas titles for nearly 200 orchestras and choirs. Inevitably, the lead up to Christmas gets a bit frantic! We need to make sure we have enough copies of the most popular carols to supply any last minute requests, as unexpected changes to concert programmes can and do happen to us all.
Many of our most popular carols come from the much-loved Carols for Choirs series, and most of our top 10 can be found in the ever popular 100 Carols for Choirs. To help you get into the Christmas spirit, here’s a playlist of OUP’s 10 most-requested carols in 2014.
Looking more closely, here are the top 20 carols of 2014. Most are old favourites, but there are a few newer carols here too.