“IDK How But They Found Me” puts on a great, gracious show

What an exciting week I’m having! We just got back from the seacoast, 2+ hours away, where I was acting as chaperone for the third and fourth grade on a tide pooling expedition. My phone died without warning on the way home, and I had to get myself and four kids back to school JUST BY BEING SMART. This is a MAJOR triumph for someone who has spent most of her life either lost or about to get lost.

Yesterday, we went to the beach with my father and had a cookout; and the day before that, I drove three young parsons to The Palladium in Worcester, MA, to watch a show, which had VERY LOUD music and NO CHAIRS TO SIT ON. My college girls were looking for cheap shows for the summer, and came across this duo, I Don’t Know How, But They Found Me.

Was I expecting to enjoy myself? Nnnnnot really. I listened to a few songs, and they seemed like a fun band, kind of emo but with a sense of humor. I liked this song:

The lead singer and bassist, Dallen Weekes, used to be in Panic! At the Disco, which I have heard of because I have teenagers– specifically, teenagers who have discovered that life is too short to be too cool to listen to pretty okay music. I’m sorry, I can’t stop talking. I’m so tired. Anyway, Worcester more or less shuts down at 5 p.m., so we were tramping around looking for an open restaurant, and came across the other member of IDK How But They Found Me, Ryan Seaman. My daughter got up the nerve to ask for a selfie, which he cheerfully agreed to.

Nice guy, although rather blue around the hair. So then we got some sammiches, the waited in line for an hour while I cursed my shoe choice and worried about this girl ahead of us, who was wearing fishnet stockings under her skin-tight jeans. How itchy! Gosh. Then they patted us down, because it’s Worcester. I thought to myself more than once as we waited for a million years, “We, as a group, may not smell great.”

The opening band was pretty crappy. They could sing, but not well enough to justify their terrible attitude. Some kind of emo punk thing, but even more boring than usual. Then the guy’s shirt fell off almost immediately, and he was just this skinny little thing! My stars. My feet hurt so much and my purse was getting heavier and heavier (also I had brought my jacket because I thought it might be chilly. It was not chilly), but the floor was a little sticky, and the girl next to me was flailing herself around, so I just kept holding it. Hello, my name is Eunice, and I am 83 years old. Papa was a general in the war, and he told me never to put down my purse, and I never did.

So finally the headliner band came out, and instantly, the night was rescued. Really good stuff! The lead singer really worked for the audience’s attention every last minute. Here’s a little scrap one of my kids caught:

A post shared by ✨Lena ✨ (@missfortune1977) on

He had complete control of that room. It was kind of amazing. It took me a while to put my finger on it, but he was essentially telling emo dad jokes the whole time, and it was so much fun. He had me singing along to songs I’d never heard before. Here’s one of their songs that you’ve probably heard:

Solid song. The singer/bassist and the drummer were clearly having fun, and seemed to enjoy being together. It wasn’t just a concert, it was a whole act. They played a good, long set, and then came out for an encore, which was “Nobody Likes The Opening Band” (see above).

But, he made sure everyone knew he wasn’t talking about the actual opening band; but it was a song about how no one wants to get involved with new, unfamiliar things, but give them a chance, and maybe it’ll turn into something good. Then, halfway through the song, he stopped and called out the lead singer of the actual opening band, and had him sing a special verse, which was “nobody likes the headlining band.”

Wasn’t that nice? The opening band really did suck, but here was a roomful of a few hundred pierced, tattered, silly-haired young parsons who were very eager to be extremely edgy, all watching and adoring this undeniably very cool man going out of his way to be gracious and generous to someone who could be considered his competitor. Maybe it was the pain in my feet, but I was quite moved.

So they don’t have an album out yet, and only have a few original songs, but they are touring around, and boy those were some cheap tickets, so grab some if you can! It was a good performance in every way.

Then we drove home and I got pulled over twice. Humph. Nobody likes the lady with out-of-state plates driving maybe a little bit on the quick side after midnight.

Good singer, rotten song: 12 inexplicable musical crimes

Today, I’d like to indulge in two of my favorite hobbies: music, and complaining. Specifically, I want to talk about singers who are normally great, good, even excellent . . . until that one song. What the hell were they thinking, with that one song?

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We’ll start with some low-hanging fruit: David Bowie’s “The Laughing Gnome”

Ha, ha, ha, hee, hee, hee indeed. My son points out that Bowie was young when he made it. Well, when I was young, I made poo poo in the potty, and that poo poo was a better song than “Laughing Gnome.”

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And now for some high-hanging fruit: “Perfect Day” by Lou Reed, 1972

Fight me! It’s a bad song and it sounds bad. When it comes on the radio, I want radio never to have been invented. They will want you to believe that, just under an intentionally deceptive veneer of deftly-sketched urban optimism, this song quietly smolders with despair. But actually, it’s just a dumb little song that doesn’t make sense, sung unpleasantly by someone who has a very particular talent and definitely isn’t using it here. Nice violins, though. Geez. Fight. Me.

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Honorable mention: “New York Conversation,” also on Transformer:

I loves me some Lou Reed, but sometimes he needs to stop.

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Now back to something we can all agree on: Paul Simon’s inexcusable “Cars Are Cars”

It’s like a Paul Simon song that he forgot to put any Paul Simon in. It’s like when the recipe calls for  heavy cream and you use reconstituted Coffee Mate granules, instead. It’s like when my daughter woke up in the middle of the night because she had thought of the most amazing invention in the world, and it was going to change everything, so she wrote it down and went back to sleep, planning to dominate civilization in the morning. When she woke up, it said “bag of bees.” We’re not sure where all that confidence came in, but mistakes were made, Paul.

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Next: I don’t know if Pat Boone counts as a singer who’s normally good and great and fine. I mean, I do know. We all know. Nevertheless, I absolutely had to include “Holy Diver,” one of many gems from his mind bogglingly ill-advised album, In a Metal Mood: No More Mr. Nice Guy:

I chose this one because of the video.

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Hey, here’s a steaming hunk of faux-hippie feculence: The Rolling Stones’ “Ruby Tuesday.”

What an absolute turd blossom of a song. It’s pure poetic justice that this song has a bland, pointless, pandering American food chain named after it. Ruby Tuesday is the microwaved mozzarella stick of the rock and roll world, and I’m glad that, whenever I think of the Rolling Stones, I think of Ruby Tuesday, because the Rolling Stones are jerks.

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How about “Obladi, oblada” by the Beatles?

It’s not actually structurally a terrible song, but why was it made? And what about when Desmond stays at home to do HIS pretty face, eh, eh? Blows your mind, don’nit, you PLEBE? Allegedly, this is the song that made John want out for good.

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Honorable Beatles mention: “Run for your life”

Not a bad song musically, but, like many of my peers, I’m over the whole “let’s have another chorus of domestic violence” thing. Pass.

Of course the Beatles also put out a lot of absurdly self-indulgent nonsense toward the end, but they were trying to be terrible and daring you to be so un-stoned that it bothers you, so that doesn’t count. I’m also not including anything by Paul McCartney or John Lennon’s solo careers, because Lennon + McCartney = genius, but  McCartney alone is frosting without a cake, Lennon alone was just a whine in a bottle.

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Now for a song that brings out my inner murderer: “My Ding a ling” by Chuck Berry:

I’m going to start my own country just so I can make a law against this song.

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And just because I want to make some friends today: “Man in Black” by Johnny Cash.

Every time he says, “I’d like to wear a rainbow everyday!” I shout “NO YOU WOULDN’T!” He wore black because he liked to look awesome and cool and scary, and also very much because it’s harder to see ketchup stains on black. Nothing to do with the poooooor, or the hundred fine young men who died. Please. It’s actually a decent song, of course, because it’s Johnny Cash, but the penetrating, smarmy insincerity of it makes me want to get up and dismantle things with my teeth.

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Ready to really suffer? Here’s the execrable “Delilah” by Queen

This song is new to me, and now I feel so envious of my past self. That pulsing synth makes me feel like I’m in a car with a flat tire but there’s nowhere to pull over. I guess it’s about a cat? Why doesn’t that make it better? I am filled with horror.

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Finally, here’s a song that, in a just world, would have been taken out and shot: “Dancing in the Street” by Mick Jagger and David Bowie.

Now, I was actually around in 1985, and I remember how everything came ready-made with that “destined for a cheap car commercial” sound to it, but this song manages to stink so much harder than the rest because of how effortlessly these two shucked off their talent and integrity in favor of floppy clothes and loathsome hair. Oh my gosh, those prancing sneakers. Oh my gosh. There should have been a machine gun at the end, just as a palate cleanser.

In case you haven’t seen it, here’s a little bit of cosmic justice. Oh, internets.

How I wish every song on this list got the same treatment. Then I could die happy.

Now tell me what this list is missing, and how wrong I am about Perfect Day, and also how the tone of this post has you concerned about all my secret cancer.

Crap speaks to crap: Conjoined twins in liturgical music

As a bona fide music snob, I’ll open by sheepishly admitting that I kind of like the Dan Schutte’s “Gloria.” Yes, the My Little Pony one. It’s not very good music, but it’s fun to sing, and it’s cheerful, which, mysteriously, not all Glorias are.

If you missed the fun when it came out, here’s the Gloria side by side with the MLP song:

I feel pretty strongly about lousy church music, but I also feel pretty strongly that, when there’s nothing you can do about the music, that’s your signal to be glad the sacraments are efficacious no matter how many banjos are present.

However, I woke up this morning mit brennender sorge about “Shepherd Me, O God.” Specifically, in my head it kept merging in and out of a song which I believe to be its aesthetic equal: “I’m Moving On” by Yoko Ono. Have a listen:

and here’s its spiffy little twin:

EH? EH? And yes, this is the one where she makes that coughing bird noise at the end! Haugen, take note.

Speaking of moving on, here’s “Come Sail Away” by Styx:

and HERE is its soulmate, “We Are Called”:

But wait, there’s more! “Pure Imagination” sounds like this:

which, if you’re patient, melds seamlessly with this:

What else? How about “Gather Us In”

which is clearly keeping a secret “Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” locked up in the attic?

Now we’ll switch things up a bit and start with a small little turd of a worship song: “Lord Reign In Me”

and here’s what happens when you write this same song, but not turdly:

In conclusion, I’d like to point out that “Go Make a Difference”

is almost indistinguishable from this:

and I would be happy to sing it at Mass. Because it speaks to me! Who are you to say that it doesn’t belong at Mass, if it speaks to me? Pbbbbbbt.

Image: Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=490547

Oh, that final verse!

Drive down the road on December 26 and beyond, and you’ll see a bunch of denuded Christmas trees kicked to the curb because their owners think Christmas is now over. They may have sung Christmas songs at their house, but they haven’t listened to the final verse.

And that final verse is vital. Take, for instance, one of my favorite Christmas songs: “Would I Were Nigh”:*

This is my favorite kind of Christmas carol: gentle, tender, and spare, with enough details to make the scene human, but also eliciting a sense of wonder.

You can see on the sheet music that the choir director wanted the singers to perform the first verse, to skip verses 3-5 for brevity, and to end with the final verse. And that final verse is there for a reason.

The first five verses express a subjunctive longing to have been present at the actual birth of Our Lord – to see “the oxen lie beside Him” – to watch Joseph keep “a watchful eye for danger” while the baby sleeps — to see the shepherds “lend ragged coats to hide Him.”

But the final verse is even more reflective: “Would I were there . . .” he says, “Yet everywhere, I too can beg His blessing; Then go my way, by night or day, safe through a world distressing.” And that one thought deftly rescues the entire song from any hint of fantasy or sentimentalism: we don’t have to daydream or wish, because no matter who, where, or when we are, the scene is real. The Incarnation of our Lord is present to us. The luminous child lights the way through every era.

I haven’t thrown out our Christmas tree. Our decorations are still up, and we’re still lighting our Advent wreath throughout the Octave of Christmas, singing Christmas songs instead of Advent ones. We’re still feasting, still pressing ourselves to treat each other with extra care and tenderness, because Christmas isn’t over. And yet I woke up in the middle of the night in distress, feeling like I missed the mark this year. Our Christmas was too busy, too secular, too focused on externals and not enough on the Christ Child. Somehow, I hadn’t seen Christmas through to its end.

Well, of course I hadn’t.

Just as with the folks who toss out their trees on December 26th, I make a mistake if I pin all my hopes for peace and joy and love on Christmas day, or really on any single day. If I do make this mistake, it’s because I haven’t listened to the song all the way through. I’m leaving off the final verse, and that one is vital.

The final verse, not only in the song but in anything that God is trying to tell us, says: “This story, your story, doesn’t end with death.” If we’re not getting everything we need in this world, if we don’t feel satisfied, if we feel adrift and alone and incomplete, if we feel that we’re always missing the mark, that’s because we haven’t gotten to the end of the song yet. We haven’t yet gotten to the final verse, which rescues all the others from fantasy.

The most accurate “final verse” we can sing is the one the Church teaches us: We wait in joyful hope, and that includes joyful hope for our own salvation through Christ’s efforts, not through our own. Don’t skip that verse.

The light of the Christ child is not meant be contained in a single day. It stretches from that night in Bethlehem to our present day, and it also stretches out ahead of us, into the future, as we wait for Him to come again and set all things right, in our own lives and in the “world distressing.”

So if this season feels all too distressing to you – if you are alone, or if you are suffering, or if bad memories seep through and make this time of year awful, or even if we ourselves are the cause of that distress — remember that we’re all still in that subjunctive phase.

There’s nothing wrong with us if we feel incomplete. We are incomplete. The final verse is yet to come. Oh, that final verse! It’s worth waiting for.

***

*from An Irish Carol Book (McLaughlin and Reilly) compiled by Fr. John Fennelly, arranged by Fr. Fennelley and  J. Gerald Phillips, my sister’s choir director in college. I can’t find a recording anywhere, so here is the music (thanks to Sam Schmitt for hunting down and sharing the sheet music!)

A version of this essay first appeared in the National Catholic Register in 2015.

Dora’s Terrifying Halloween Playlist!

Today, it’s my daughter Dora’s turn to be world famous in Poland! Here is her playlist of Halloween music, which certainly reflects her diverse upbringing. It certainly does.

WEREWOLF BAR MITZVAH from 30 Rock:

SPOOKY SCARY SKELETONS (Remix)
(Warning: I’ve never heard this before and it instantly gave me a headache. Argh!)

For reasons I can’t explain, I scrolled down to the comments on YouTube, and this caught my eye:

So you can see that robust discourse is alive and well in America today.

Next, a song I loathed the first time I heard it at age 10. It just pissed me off, and when I finally saw the movie, I was even madder. It ought to be taken out and shot. Yeah, yeah, Bill Murray made it watchable. Oh no, when else will we have a chance to see Bill Murray on fillum? Anyway, sorry, Dora. Here’s your song:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cU4qbnNmxWA

Palate cleanser! WEREWOLVES OF LONDON by Warren Zevon

This one, I endorse. A great antidote, and it shows how a pop song can be catchy and repetitive without being maddening.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nhSc8qVMjKM

Next! More werewolves with this timeless classic from MST3K, WHERE, O WEREWOLF

Okay, I have mixed feelings about Oingo Boingo, but if you had to be around for the 80’s, you could do worse:

Dora also included Weird Science, but I saw this movie in the theater, too, and I’m still angry over losing my three dollars. You can hear the song (which is, admittedly, the least intolerable part) here.

The inescapable and inexplicable MONSTER MASH by Bobby Pickett:

Then look what happened. The poor SOB found himself on TV again a few years later with THE MONSTER SWIM. But check it out:

“He always said that he had the best kind of celebrity that there is, since no one really recognized him and he was never really bothered but everyone knew the song,” says Nancy Joy Huus, Pickett’s daughter. Given up for adoption when she was a baby unbeknownst to Pickett, Huus and Pickett later reunited and enjoyed a close relationship preceding his death, with Huus being a fan of the track throughout her life without knowing it was her father who was singing. “When I found him, he was out-of-his-mind thrilled since he thought he was going to grow old alone. I still remember the night I told my kids that Grandpa is the ‘Monster Mash’ singer.”
Aw!
Next, the immortal Cash with GHOST RIDERS IN THE SKY
This video is immensely cheesy, but Corrie insisted this was the version we want:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k_oXQVUzEoc
 

SCOOBY DOO THEME from 1969, because why not?

She includes SWEET DREAMS ARE MADE OF SEVEN NATION ARMY. Why? I dunno.

IT’S ALMOST HALLOWEEN by Panic! At the Disco. This is essentially a Wiggles song, but what are you gonna do.

Okay, M1 A1 by Gorillaz. Definitely an acquired taste. This song tests your patience, for sure, but I hear what she’s hearing.

Dora also included DRACULA, which apparently I’m too old for.

PSYCHO KILLER by The Talking Heads
This is, uhm, one of Corrie’s favorite songs.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Kxu5dKqEmZMREMAINS OF THE DAY from Corpse Bride
Tim Burton, which I spell with a capital meh. Still, Danny Elfman. He knows what he’s doing.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zn-F6bWS240

Legitimately scary: SILVER by The Pixies

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J1shKVh98-E

And finally,

DECOMPOSING PUMPKINS by Brainkrieg (via Homestar Runner)

Next up is my mom getting back from book club! So we’ll all need to get out of the way, so she can pull in.

And what’s on your essential listening list for Halloween?

Operation Just-For-Nice: A little dancing

Today in Operation Just For Nice, my on-again-off-again project that attempts to make at least one little bit of one little day in at least our little house a little bit better instead of worse, we have been putting on dance music in the evenings.

Not dance music like club music, but music that the five-year-old and the two-year-old want to dance to, which I am happy to have them hear. We usually start evening chores at 7 p.m, but the little guys don’t have regular jobs yet, so they dance in the living room while the bigger kids work around them. Or sometimes I just put music on, and that’s pleasant, too.

One of the great disappointments of the last few decades is that I’ve never managed to get more than one or two of my kids listening to classical music. I wanted them to be able to say “Ah, Chopin!” or “Whoa, Mahler” while listening to the radio, and I wanted them to be able to identify whether they were hearing baroque, classical, romantic, or modern music. I wanted them to hum themes from Die schöne Müllerin while washing the dishes. This was how I grew up, and it may not have made me a better person, but I’m sure glad to have all that music in my head.

Anyway, that’s not how it worked out. We don’t get to concerts, and while my kids don’t resist classical music and are even kinda into opera, they never turn it on by themselves. Well, so I turn it on, in the car, and now in the evenings. I haven’t been pushy about naming composers or styles or form (although I recommend the delightful and accessible Exploring Music with Bill McGlaughlin, if you’re looking for that). Instead, I ask the five-year-old what kind of music she wants to dance to, and then I pick something good and readily interesting that fits that description.

(That’s an invaluable parenting secret: Kids are 9,000% more receptive to things when they get to pick.)

If she says she wants ballet music, I feel like they will definitely come across The Nutcracker and probably Swan Lake on their own without help, so here instead is Debussy’s “Clair de Lune”:

Princess-at-a-ball music? You could do worse than “Wiener Blut” by Strauss, or just about anything by Strauss:

She asked for tap dancing music, so I did a search for tap dance music, and she danced along (not bad for her first time!)

but just about anything big band would do. Try Cab Calloway, unless you’re allergic to corn.

She requests fighting music? Here’s Aram Khachaturian’s Sabre Dance:

or you could go with some Hungarian Dances by Brahms. Here’s #5, which has a lot of back-and-forth for two dancers:

Jazzy dancing music, you say? Here’s Stephane Grappelli and Django Reinhardt being delicious with “Minor Swing”:

Maybe someone wants to be a lonely butterfly. Here is a little Chopin for that:

Forgive me, Bach, but I told my children you wrote vampire music:

We’ll get the Well Tempered Clavier later.

The other day she requested Ninja music, and I was at kind of a loss. What can you suggest?

Understated greats: Jesse Winchester

Why has no one told me about singer and songwriter Jesse Winchester? I heard an excerpt of an interview with him on American Routes yesterday, and whoooo, what an interesting guy.

Here’s the song that really knocked me back a few paces. “Isn’t that so” from Third Down 110 to Go (1972):

I don’t think these lyrics are as flip and breezy as they seem at first. Is he really advocating for following the “line of least resistance,” or is he making a quiet accusation? Either way, it’s a heck of a song.

Winchester also wrote songs for Elvis Costello, Jimmy Buffett, Joan Baez, Anne Murray, Reba McEntire, the Everly Brothers, Lyle Lovett, and Emmylou Harris, among others. I have endless admiration for folks who write and perform short songs. Say what you came to say and then move along!

The American Routes interviewer says,

[I]n your life there’s seems to be this back and forth between your southern sensibilities in growing up and then migration for various things. You went off to college in Massachusetts. That had to have been kind of culture shock if you were growing up around North Mississippi and Memphis I would think.

And Winchester answers:

Nick, you put the nail on the head, buddy. It was a shock to me. It was the first time I came across people who put sugar in their cornbread, and I was so disappointed in them.

Ha. A very thoughtful guy, but with a pervasive humility and quiet sense of humor. He moved to Canada to avoid the draft in Vietnam (a choice I understand better now that I have teenage boys and a president I trust not at all), and launched his career there. He says in the interview:

I remember a quotation from Peter Ustinov, who was one of my favorite actors. He said there’s no national anthem that sets my toe a-tappin’ and I know what he meant. It’s a very dicey issue — nationalism. I’m not sure where I stand on it. Who am I? I don’t know. I like certain things about living in the south and certain things about living in the north. It’s just, viva la difference.

He didn’t return to the US to tour until 1977, after President Carter extended amnesty to draft dodgers who changed their citizenship.

Here’s “Step By Step” from Let the Rough Side Drag (1976). This song will be familiar to viewers of The Wire:

and (skipping forward several decades) a song recorded shortly before he died of bladder cancer in 2014, just a few years after he had been treated and cured of cancer of the esophagus in 2011:
“All That We Have Is Now:”

 

From the album A Reasonable Amount of Trouble. I’m thrilled to discover a new-to-me singer/songwriter. If you’re already in the know, which Jesse Winchester album do you recommend?

***
Photo of Jesse Winchester by robbiesaurus (Flickr: Jesse Winchester) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

A few mini reviews: Michael Kiwanuka, Tom Wolfe, and vampires

 

Here’s how we’re entertaining ourselves these days:

Watching:

What We Do In the Shadows (2014)

Currently streaming on Amazon Prime. A funny, grisly, low-budget mockumentary following modern-day vampires who share a flat in New Zealand. I actually conked out before I could see the last twenty minutes or so, but it kept me giggling throughout, especially the parts where they meet a pack of werewolves (not swearwolves):

Looks like we’ve got another phrase entering the family lexicon. Not for kids or sensitive viewers. Goofy and gross and a little bit sweet. Features a few of the actors from Flight of the Conchords (which I still haven’t seen).

Reading:

Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe

Reading again after many years and wondering if there’s any way this book could have been written in 2017 without rioting. Wolfe is merciless to everyone, of course, black or white, rich or poor, connected or unconnected, but man is he merciless. Change.org would have had his head on a pike.

Anyway, the writing is better than I remembered – self-indulgent, but he deserves to be indulged. Reading it is like shamefully, hungrily working your way through an entire platter of eclairs all by yourself. I was blown away at how he allowed the facts of the central event to unfold gradually over the course of hundreds of pages, letting cowards and manipulators tell more truth than the (relatively) innocent. Should be required reading for any number of reasons.

Listening to:

Michael Kiwanuka’s latest album, Love and Hate (2017). Here’s one of the best songs, “Cold Little Heart”

His voice just tears me up. He sounds like a faithful man who’s being tried. The whole album is fantastic, and the producers (including Dangermouse) keep you on your toes.

Tell me what’s getting you through the week!

When Ella Fitzgerald had no one to watch over her

Ella Fitzgerald’s voice means warmth, joy, careless brilliance, strength wrapped in velvet. But her early life was cold, rough, harsh.

It’s Ella Fitzgerald’s 100th birthday today, and on NPR’s Morning Edition, Susan Stamberg reports that Fitzgerald, born poor, was orphaned at 15. Her surviving stepfather was hard on her, and she lived for a time with an aunt, but then started skipping school, eventually living on the streets.

“She was on the streets of Harlem dancing for tips” [Smithsonian Curator of American Music John] Hasse says.

She earned more pennies as a lookout for cops outside a brothel. At one point, she was arrested for truancy and sent to a reform school, where she was regularly beaten. So she ran away — this awkward, gawky girl with skinny legs and old, cast-off boots — with no money, living on the streets and sleeping where she could.

Around this time, Fitzgerald used to say, she first began to sing on stage. She was 17, and found herself terrified in front of a brutal audience at Amatuer Night at the Apollo. She had been planning to dance, but her legs shook too badly; so instead, she sang. And everyone loved it, so she kept on singing. At least that’s the way she tells it.

Who can describe her voice? Instead of talking about it, let’s listen. The velvety ballads are my favorites. Here’s one of the greatest:

Oh, how I need. What a miracle of vocal engineering that she goes all high and hoarse without losing an ounce of power. Happy birthday, you beautiful woman. Someone I’d really like to know.

Image: Ella in 1940, photo by Carl Van Vechten [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

 

The perfect version of this work

Today, I wanted to put together a collection of music for Holy Week. Music posts always take far, far longer than I expect, because I know exactly what I want the music to sound like, but it takes forever to find the best version — if it even exists anywhere besides in my head.

I was looking for a recording of “O Sacred Head Surrounded,” under the impression that the words were composed by Bernard of Clairvaux. Not so, according to some quick research:

The hymn is based on a long medieval Latin poem, Salve mundi salutare,[1] with stanzas addressing the various parts of Christ‘s body hanging on the Cross. The last part of the poem, from which the hymn is taken, is addressed to Christ’s head, and begins “Salve caput cruentatum.” The poem is often attributed to Bernard of Clairvaux (1091-1153), but is now attributed to the Medieval poet Arnulf of Leuven (died 1250).

I also thought the melody and harmony were by Bach. Also more complicated than that:

The music for the German and English versions of the hymn is by Hans Leo Hassler, written around 1600 for a secular love song, “Mein G’müt ist mir verwirret“, which first appeared in print in the 1601 Lustgarten Neuer Teutscher Gesäng. The tune was appropriated and rhythmically simplified for Gerhardt’s German hymn in 1656 by Johann Crüger. Johann Sebastian Bach arranged the melody and used five stanzas of the hymn in the St Matthew Passion ... Franz Liszt included an arrangement of this hymn in the sixth station, Saint Veronica, of his Via Crucis (the Way of the Cross), S. 504a. The Danish composer Rued Langgaard composed a set of variations for string quartet on this tune. It is also employed in the final chorus of “Sinfonia Sacra”, the 9th symphony of the English composer Edmund Rubbra.

And so, overwhelmed with information that made it harder, not easier, to narrow down exactly the version I wanted, I tried video after video. It seems I’m not the only one who adores this hymn. It’s been recorded a lot, by just about every group, in just about every style and level of skill imaginable. I even found an ASL version, recorded in the shadows of somebody’s kitchen.

I listened to dozens of versions. “That one’s pretty!” my daughter called out from the other room, maybe hoping to help me settle on something and quit hopping from one video to the next.

When I got to this earnest, nasal rendition

I started to cry like an idiot, and not out of frustration.

This is the week when the whole world is looking to grab ahold of the right version — the whole world, in and out of various translations, deleting some stanzas, ruminating over and expanding others, practicing and training with different assemblies of people, harmonizing, re-harmonizing, simplifying, making it garish, making it sentimental, making it florid, making it pale.

There were versions by small groups of women, huge choruses of highly trained choir boys, struggling teenage girls who want to be Amy Grant, overambitious tenors who titled their rendition “O Sacred Head Surrounded Barbershop Style,” and dozens and dozens of isolated tracks — just the bass, just the alto, and so on, because it is a difficult work. A difficult work.

There was a Filipino choir belting it out in a strangely baroque basilica, their voices fighting with the tropical birdsong coming through the windows. In some recordings, there was a persistent buzz from a mishandled mic; in some recordings, the camera man wanted to sing along, and rattled the pages of his hymnal, too.

Stupidly, I cried and cried. I stopped looking for the perfect rendition.

Everyone is trying to grapple with what is going to happen on that terrible hilltop. Everyone is trying to make sense of it, to locate the perfect version that satisfies, to comprehend it completely.

It doesn’t matter how accomplished you are, how well you have prepared. It cannot be done. It is too difficult a work.