It all boils down to what I would most like to do as a musician. Put songs on people's lips instead of just in their ear. I wish I could live long enough to see more people singing again, either solo or in groups. For recreation. For reverence. For learning and laughter. For struggle. For hope, for understanding.
I know I won't live that long, but if this world survives, I believe that modern industrialized people will learn to sing again.
-- Pete Seeger, Where Have All The Flowers Gone: A Singer's Stories, Songs, Seeds, Robberies (1993)
Venerable Mom Laquedem was instantly taken with "Momsms," by Anita Renfroe, to which I linked in my other post for this Mother's Day, when I played it for her for Passover. (Our family has some unusual observances.) My regular Mother's Day serenade to her is Tom Lehrer's song "Oedipus Rex," which I'll sing to her today, as is my custom. Venerable Mom will reply as is her custom, with a couple of words that aren't in my day-to-day vocabulary followed by the suggestion that a card and a box of chocolates would have been adequate.
The noted cellist Yo-Yo Ma was in Portland this last weekend, where he played a concert with the Oregon Symphony. The conductor, Carlos Kalmar, and the orchestra did him proud -- though Mr. Ma's one piece was the highlight of the program and he ripped through it with verve and elan, the Symphony played that and the other three pieces at a very high standard.
Mr. Ma doesn't rehearse much before an orchestral performance -- he spent about an hour and a half with the Oregon Symphony Sunday morning -- but the musicians said that he was likable and very approachable, so much so that at one point he turned to one of the Symphony cellists, held out his cello, and said, "Here, play mine." What's so special about one cellist lending his instrument to another? Mr. Ma travels with his own cello, a valuable Stradivarius worth something in the $millions. (Word got out 11 years ago when he left it in a New York taxicab.) I'd be afraid to even breathe on it.
I ended Wednesday's post with a teaser: other than its treacherous melody, what is the fault or omission in The Star-Spangled Banner? It's this. Although we did not adopt it as our national anthem until 1931, Francis Scott Key wrote his stirring words about "the land of the free" in 1814, when slavery was yet part of our nation. Key owned slaves himself, black people who were in the land of the free but not free themselves. Key even alluded to slaves, without irony, in the third verse, which I'll quote in its entirety:
And where is that band who so vauntingly swore That the havoc of war and the battle's confusion, A home and a country should leave us no more! Their blood has washed out their foul footsteps' pollution. No refuge could save the hireling and slave From the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave: And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave.
Who are the "hirelings and slaves" of Key's verse? According to Robin Blackburn, a British socialist historian, the British army included American ex-slaves whom the British had freed, and who wanted to do battle with the nation that had enslaved them. Key's verses about "the land of the free" ignored the unfree in America, and mocked those that sought the same freedoms that Key himself enjoyed.
This background brings me to the third patriotic song that every American should know. It's called Lift Every Voice and Sing. James Weldon Johnson (1871-1938) wrote the words in 1899 and his brother John Rosamond Johnson (1873-1954) set it to music in 1905. It begins with these three lines:
Lift every voice and sing, 'Til earth and heaven ring, Ring with the harmonies of Liberty;
Unlike the invocation of immediate peril in La Marseillaise, or the florid description of the battle in The Star-Spangled Banner, James Johnson's verse alludes only subtly to the slavery era:
Stony the road we trod, Bitter the chast'ning rod, Felt in the days when hope unborn had died; Yet with a steady beat, Have not our weary feet Come to the place for which our fathers sighed?
The college classmate from whom I first heard the song many years ago said it was the black national anthem, and in fact the NAACP had so designated it in 1919. As an anthem it's a remarkable statement of hope. It's nearly as remarkable for what it doesn't say: it doesn't wish destruction on anyone, and it doesn't, unlike Key's song, celebrate freedoms that more than half of Key's compatriots couldn't enjoy.
Despite its other fine musical and lyrical qualities, Yankee Doodle, about which I wrote on Monday, didn't have the dignity of a national anthem. This is not to say that the anthems of other nations are uniformly fine pieces of work; for example, Great Britain's anthem, God Save the King (or Queen), started life in 1745 as a tribute to King George II. Its first verse began "God save great George, our King / Long live our noble king / God save the King."
The song got more lively in the second verse:
O Lord our God, arise Scatter his enemies And make them fall. Confound their politics, Frustrate their knavish tricks, On him our hope we fix, O save us all.
The British were less sanguinary than the French, who in 1795 adopted La Marseillaise as their anthem. It includes this fierce bit:
Entendez-vous dans les campagnes Mugir ces feroces soldats? Ils viennent jusque dans vos bras Egorger vos fils, vos compagnes!
Which translates approximately to this:
Do you hear these ferocious soldiers Roaring in the forests? They're coming almost up to arms' reach To cut the throats of your sons and wives!
Americans didn't go in for singing pious hopes for our leaders, nor (most of the time) for singing about how fierce and deadly the enemy was. In fact, our country didn't adopt a national anthem until 1931, when Congress selected The Star-Spangled Banner over the other contenders. Francis Scott Key had written it in 1814 while watching the British attack on Baltimore during the War of 1812. The song's first verse doesn't express pious hopes for the president, nor does it threaten citizens with slaughter, nor does it boast about America. Rather, and very unusually for national anthems, it simply asks a question: "Last night at sunset, our flag was flying over the ramparts [of Fort McHenry in Baltimore]. The sun is about to rise. Can you see it flying yet?" The second verse says "yes, it is still flying."
Key's third verse is a little more in the French model, beginning with these lines:
And where is that band who so vauntingly swore That the havoc of war and the battle's confusion, A home and a country should leave us no more! Their blood has washed out their foul footsteps' pollution.
He returns to modest Anglophilia in the fourth and final verse, which says approximately, "Praise God for making us a nation and saving us this time; we will conquer when our cause is just. Let us hope it is always so as long as our flag shall fly." All four verses end with the anthem's most famous line, "O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave." Again, it's an unusual anthem, because it mostly doesn't brag, exhort, pray, or threaten, but rather asks if our flag is still flying and rejoices that it is.
Where Key slipped up was in his choice of music. He wrote the verses to be sung to the tune of a British song called To Anacreon in Heaven, the club song of the Anacreontic Society. It's replete with classical references and double entendres. It's also nearly unsingable: it stretches over an octave-and-a-half and has one leap of more than an octave. It has another fault, or perhaps an omission, which later writers have tried to solve, as I'll discuss in my third and concluding post on this subject.
Independence Day brings to mind three songs of American history, first and most prominently YankeeDoodle of the Revolutionary War. The song itself, or at least snippets of it, date back (Wikipedia tells us) to 20 or more years before the Revolution. The term "Yankee doodle" came into the song during the war itself, first as a pejorative from the British -- "doodle" is said to come from the German word "dudel," meaning "fool" or "simpleton" -- and so a "Yankee doodle" was a foolish colonist. Shortly into the war itself, the American soldiers took the British insult and reveled in it, proudly singing about the Yankee doodles who did not have the fine uniforms and muskets of their opponents, but were still going to win their independence.
Like God Save the King (the British anthem that it displaced), Yankee Doodle is easy to sing, with a melody that spans less than an octave and has no big leaps up in pitch. Unlike the British anthem, Yankee Doodle has no pretensions to dignity. It's very much a song of the people, without any fixed order to the verses after the first.
I learned three verses of Yankee Doodle as a child, the ones beginning "Yankee Doodle came to town," "Father and I went down to camp," and "There was Captain Washington." Then a few years ago, the Laquedemitasse and his classmates sang three more verses I'd never heard. This one delighted me:
There I saw a thousand men As rich as Squire David And what they wasted every day I wish it could be save-ed.
As with the other verses, the "there" is the camp of the Revolutionary Army. Who Squire David was, I do not know, but his name lives on in what I think is the first bit of American song to protest waste in government spending.
Baritone Robert Orth, in town to play Don Alfonso in Portland Opera's production of Cosi Fan Tutte, is often away from home, appearing on stage. This week in Portland, someone asked him if he ever felt lonely being away from home so much. "When I started to travel," he replied, "yes, I did feel lonely. But now that I've spent thirty years on the road," he said with a whimsical tone that the dry words don't reflect, "I find myself endlessly fascinating."
When Kenyon College decided to buy a new Steinway, it sent three of its staff -- the head of the music department, the piano coordinator, and a professor emerita -- to New York and the showroom of Steinway & Sons, where the piano coordinator (John Reitz, who soloed with the Oregon Symphony at age 21) played five of the pianos. The school chose one, and plunked down $85,000. The professor emerita, Camilla Cai, got to see how Steinway breaks in the keys on its pianos: a machine hits all 88 keys at once, over and over. The Kenyon College Alumni Bulletin quotes her description: "I don't think I have ever heard a sound as glorious, except the time I heard a harp fall down a full flight of stairs."
Many fields have within their ranks someone of accomplishment whose reputation rests on a slim body of work. For example, Ralph Ellison's literary reputation rests on Invisible Man, the one novel he published during his lifetime, and Evariste Galois's mathematical fame comes mainly from calculations he wrote down in one night of frantic activity, the day before he was killed in a duel.
The closest example in musical satire is that of Tom Lehrer, whose entire comedic output consists of three albums (recorded between 1953 and 1965) and a few uncollected songs, totaling about two hours of playing time. He gave up recording 40 years ago, and except for a few songs written for "The Electric Company" and one trip to the studio in 1996 to record one of his old songs, has stayed out of the public eye ever since. (He once wrote that when in the 1970s people suggested political topics for him to write songs about, he felt rather like a resident of Pompeii who was asked for some humorous comments about lava.) He released very few pictures of himself (he told me many years ago that he wanted to be just famous enough that people would recognize his name but not his face), and as far as I know only one video of him performing exists, lasting about 13 minutes. (It's downloadable here.)
Yet many of his songs continue to be listened to and sung, ranging from "The Hunting Song," a staple of campfire singalongs ("I went and shot the maximum the game laws would allow / Two game wardens, seven hunters, and a cow"), to "Pollution," a favorite of environmentalists of a certain age ("See the halibuts and the sturgeons / Being wiped out by detergeons. / Fish gotta swim, and birds gotta fly / But they don't last long if they try"), to his tongue-twister "The Elements," being the names of the 102 elements then known set to the tune of the Major-General's song from "The Pirates of Penzance." The title of this post is the last line of the song.
Today marks Mr. Lehrer's 78th birthday. Best wishes to you, sir, and if in your musical trunk there should be a few more songs "that haven't been discavard," your fans hope that you'll share them soon.