Pickin’ Banjos: Celebrating “Great Galloping Gottschalk”

Today’s birthday to celebrate is that of American original Louis Moreau Gottschalk. Check out the nice web piece my WGBH colleague Cathy Fuller put together a couple of years ago, pairing up Gottschalk’s iconic (and, I would say, groundbreaking) 1855 composition The Banjo with Gloucester, Mass., painter Fitz Henry Lane’s New York Harbor,  “composed” during the same year, and now hanging at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.   As Cathy puts it,

The year is 1855, and the two artists come from very different circumstances. One of them was forced to stay in one place all his life; the other was famous for globetrotting.

The painter Fitz Henry Lane (1804-1865) lost the use of his legs before his second birthday. The paralysis was thought to have come from ingesting poisonous jimsonweed. He would never recover.

The musician Louis Moreau Gottschalk (1829-1869) became America’s first traveling virtuoso – a pianist/composer who did an unbelievable amount of touring. He gave uncountable concerts in Europe, Central America, South America and Cuba. Sometimes called the “Chopin of the Creoles,” he worked into his music the syncopations of Louisiana and the Caribbean, creating pieces that anticipated jazz and ragtime. His music really had little to do with Chopin’s, but his spectacular control of the instrument was caricaturized by images of a wild pianist with hundreds of flying fingers.

 

Music and Art: Louis Moreau Gottschalk & Fitz Henry Lane

Actually, there IS a pretty significant connection between Chopin and Gottschalk, as we discovered in one of our Radio Chopin episodes called “Chopin Comes to America.”   Sample grab:

When Gottschalk was 13, his father packed the young piano prodigy off to Paris to study at the world-famous Conservatoire which at first REJECTED his application, his examiner declaring, “America is a country of steam engines.”

But Gottschalk chugged through and by 1845, he was making his Paris debut at the Salle Pleyel. On the program: Chopin’s Piano Concerto in E minor. In the audience: the composer himself.

Chopin met Gottschalk after the concert, and heaped praise on the young American, predicting a brilliant future for the teenaged pianist. Hector Berlioz was there too, and spoke of Gottschalk’s “exquisite grace, brilliant originality, and thundering energy.”

Episode 14: Chopin Comes to America

As for his signature piece, it’s amazing what a wide range of interpretation it gets, and if YouTube is any indication, how much it represents “America” to foreign audiences as much as any work by Copland, Gershwin, or Bernstein. I first discovered Gottschalk through the mid-70s by pianist Ivan Davis, a few of which you can find on YouTube.  Later, in DC, I was blown away by the sound and incredibly solid playing by pianist Lambert Orkis, who recorded a lot of Gottschalk on the composer’s instrument of choice: a 9-foot Chickering, made right here in the Hub of the Universe.

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As for recordings of more recent vintage…. I usually admire the unusual repertory – and performances by the eccentric Cypriot pianist Cyprien Katsaris.  But he seems to take the “Serenade Grotesque” subtitle a little too much to heart, dropping and adding notes as he pleases while he buzzes through it like he’s on a bullet train to Bejing.  Irish pianist Philip Martin, on the other hand, gives it an almost ponderous opening at this performance in Mexico City.  And then there is this highly nuanced (and nicely shot) performance by Dutch pianist Regina Albrink.  I’d never heard her playing before but i’ll be listening for more after hearing this!

 

 

 

 

Polar Prize Pickin’ Berry

Chuck Berry, along with opera director Peter Sellars announced today as winners of the Polar Music Prize.   Why?

In its citation for Mr. Berry the award committee wrote that “‘Nuff said.   Now, do you suppose the esteemed Mr. Berry will he hiring a Swedish bar band to back him up when he comes to Stockholm to accept his prize from King Carl Gustaf himself?

I do love the eclectic nature of this Swedish prize.  As the Times puts it,

Last year’s winners were Kaija Saariaho and Yossou N’Dour; in 2006, they were Valery Gergiev and Led Zeppelin; and in 2004 they were B.B. King and Gyorgy Ligeti. (In 2003, Keith Jarrett – who works in both  classical  music and jazz, became the first and so far only musician to win the prize on his own.)

Now, back to Chuck Berry:  The album pictured above is from his second LP, released in 1958, and one of my prized vinyl collections.   Sure, it’s got the hits “Sweet Little Sixteen,”  “Rock & Roll Music,” and “Reelin’ and a Rockin'”….but have you ever heard this classic before: “Rockin’ At the Philharmonic?”  I tend to agree with the All Music Guide characterization:   “Rocking at the Philharmonic” is a rippling guitar/piano workout, a compendium of the sounds that lay beneath those hit singles, and a killer showcase not only for Berry, but also for Lafayette Leake at the ivories, and also a decent showcase for Willie Dixon‘s bass playing.”

Belafonte II: The Long Road to Freedom

Seeing Belafonte @ Berklee yesterday couldn’t help but make me think back to the time when he came to our NPR studios in 2001 to record a couple of programs around a project that was near and dear to him….but took nearly 4 decades to produce!

Harry Belafonte at NPR in October 2001  (Photo: David Banks, NPR)

Harry Belafonte at NPR in October 2001 (Photo: David Banks, NPR)

It was called “The Long Road to Freedom,” and aspired to be nothing less than an authoritative anthology of black music in America…from the earliest war crys, work songs and shouts, imported from Africa, to Herbie Hancock’s “Watermelon Man,” and a musical setting of a speech by MLK called “I’ll Never Turn Back No Mo.”   Once completed, it contained no fewer than 80 tracks across 5 CDs, as well as a beautifully-produced 140-page hardbound book of photos, essays, and commentary about the black musical experience in America.

It was an amazing, lavishly packaged, and carefully produced set, which Belafonte had undertaken at the height of his popularity in the early 1960’s.  Belafonte had the run of RCA’s thoroughly “modern” studio facility, and as a Music Director the legendary (and now shamefully forgotten)  arranger and choral director Leonard De Paur, famed at the time for his work with the pioneering De Paur Infantry Chorus, an all-male black chorus that became a top-drawing attraction for Columbia Artists in the immediate aftermath of World War II.

Leonard De Paur, Joe Williams, and Harry Belafonte reviewing a take, C. 1961

Leonard De Paur, Joe Williams, and Harry Belafonte reviewing a take, C. 1961

And, at the start, Belafonte and De Paur had a budget big enough to bring in some big names to the exercise into chronicling what the singer called “African-matrixed music,” Bessie Jones, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, and Joe Williams.

And Belafonte was deeply invested in the project: “We in America know very little about the history of our nation, especially as applied to the black experience,”  he said in an interview.  “So I always felt that my mission was to use music as a way in which to impart ideas and thoughts that would awaken curiosity.”

But whether is was for reasons of budget, time, or interest, the journey of the Long Road project got a lot longer.  The sessions came to a halt around 1971, and the entire project languished in the vaults of RCA – and its ever-evolving corporate ownership – without a single note from any of the sessions making its way to the public.  My guess is that at some point, the bean-counters at RCA decided that the ROI would never be realized; the project got put on the shelf, and then institutional amnesia took over.

But, miraculously, three decades later, The Long Road to Freedom materialized in much the form that Belafonte and De Paur imagined it — if not more so.  (Ironically, the set was released on Sept. 11, 2001, which may help to explain why it did not get more attention when it was released…).  So after a lot of back-and-forth negotiations,  one crisp autumn day Harry Belafonte was at NPR, recording a Morning Edition interview with Bob Edwards, cutting tracks for a long documentary special I was producing around the anthology, posing for photos with practically everyone in the building, and sitting down for one of the most extraordinary lunches I’ve ever had in my lifetime.

It actually started the moment we left the building on Massachusetts Ave. for our half-block-walk to the restaurant.  Harry Belafonte does not blend in to the crowd; the man oozes charisma.  Truck drivers, pedestrians, and even bike messengers all had to say hello to The King of Calypso, which meant that our half-block walk took about 40 minutes.  As for the meal itself: the food was profoundly unmemorable, but the the conversation anything but.  There is no such thing as “idle chatter” with Harry Belafonte.  It wasn’t just the fact that Belafonte has been an eyewitness to history – he had a way of describing his arguments with JFK, or his bailing MLK out of jail, or visits to Africa that were both sharply etched in a journalistic sence, but also deeply philosophical.  And he wasn’t content to just tell war stories; like many people of real greatness, he asked as much as he answered.   And when Harry Belafonte leans into you and asks you a probing question, you don’t dare give a dishonest response!  For all of his struggles for racial equality, you could tell the Belafonte remains a curious and optimistic student of the human condition.  Reminds me of how he quoted from Paul Robeson in his acceptance speech at Berklee:

“It’s a wonderful path to be in the arts, because artists are the gatekeepers of truth. Art is the radical voice of civilization.’ From that time until now, I always knew that I would have a life in the arts. My pursuit was to do what Robeson said, take advantage of this gift of art and to develop myself, and to apply it the way other people needed to be inspired.

Back to the Long Road for a moment: Over time, this collection has become an invaluable resource for schools, critics researchers, documentarians, and, yes, a radio producer or two….though the early-sixties aesthetic of the recordings and arrangements is very much a product of its era.  Some of it can sound a little quaint to our ears, but other parts are breathaking, like hearing Bessie Jones and the Georgia Sea Island Singers singing Kneebone Bend, or Belafonte himself doing Boll Weevil   You can listen to the interview Harry did with Bob Edwards here.

(Aviso: it’s from 2001, back when NPR was using RealAudio, and it may not play on your fancy smartphone….)

 

 

For Pete’s Sake

PETESEEGER5string

I’ve been thinking for several days now about what I could say about Pete Seeger that hasn’t already been said, seen, or heard. Certainly it is impossible to overstate his influence on my generation. “How to Play the Five String Banjo” – both the tattered red music book and ten-inch LP  from 1954- were as ubiquitous in the households of my youth as the Glenn Gould Goldbergs, the Ormandy “Messiah” recording with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, and Kind of Blue, if not more so.  His was the first concert I ever attended in my life…in the glorious trappings of a school gymnasium in Acton, (or was it Maynard? or Harvard?) Mass. in 1963. As part of the concert Pete led a singalong of “Froggy Went a Courting” just for us wee ones, and I remember it to this day.  (And was totally tickled when Springsteen chose it for his tribute album The Seeger Sessions.)

seegersessions

I’m certain it was the first time I had ever been invited to sing in my life. And decades later I joined the decidedly nonexclusive club of folks who have produced programs about Pete’s remarkable life.

But none of that is particularly new, unique nor noteworthy. What might be, however, is the saga of Pete Seeger the public television host: Before finally being “readmitted” to commercial television in the late ’60s, Pete made 39 episodes of a quirky, wonderful, and decidedly low-production-value program called “Pete Seeger’s Rainbow Quest.” Take a look at Episode 1, with Pete talking about his “distrust of this little magic box,” and then going on to teach us all at home how to play along, and join the chorus…

November Numerology: JFK and the meaning of 11/22

Think piece I wrote for WCRB Classical New England for this rather remarkable day on the calendar…\

November Numerology: JFK and the Musical Meaning of 11/22

Play in Subway, Win Pulitzer…

Joshua Bell in the DC metro Not quite one year to the day it was published, funnyman writer Gene Weingarten‘s celebrated story about Joshua Bell busking in the Washington Metro wound up as one of six Pulitzer Prizes won by the Washington Post today – an impressive and near-record haul. Even though the little social experiment was in itself something of a failure (hardly anyone recognized who it was playing underneath that Curly W cap, and even fewer chucked in any change); the story itself was a PR bonanza for Bell — and now, it seems, for the author.    BTW, you can hear Bell’s entire subway performance  here.

And if the past is prologue, I’ll bet that the “Joshua Bell Pulitzer” will get a lot more attention than the “official” Classical Music Pulitzer for 2007: The Little Match Girl Passion, by David Lang, commissioned and premiered at Carnegie Hall by Paul Hillier’s Theatre of Voices ensemble.

My piece is called The Little Match Girl Passion and it sets Hans Christian Andersen’s story The Little Match Girl in the format of Bach’s Saint Matthew Passion, interspersing Andersen’s narrative with my versions of the crowd and character responses from Bach’s Passion. The text is by me, after texts by Han Christian Andersen, H. P. Paulli (the first translator of the story into English, in 1872), Picander (the nom de plume of Christian Friedrich Henrici, the librettist of Bach’s Saint Matthew Passion), and the Gospel according to Saint Matthew. The word “passion” comes from the Latin word for suffering. There is no Bach in my piece and there is no Jesus—rather the suffering of the Little Match Girl has been substituted for Jesus’s, elevating (I hope) her sorrow to a higher plane

Nothing against Lang or his work, which sounds interesting enough, t’s just that invariably these Pulitzers go to pieces that have been played once in often out-of-the way locations.  Back in my NPR days, tracking down the actual *recording* of a Pulitzer-winning-composition – and doing it in time for the morning news! – invariably involved a combination of detective work, browbeating, and more than a little luck.

Not so in the Internet age, however.  Want to hear Lang’s piece – or even download it?  Get it here– direct from the Carnegie website.     For that matter, this may be the most information-rich Pulitzer ever — you can even hear an interview with Lang about the creation of the work.

Oh, yeah, and there’s one more musical Pulitzer today – a Special Citation for Bob Dylan – for his “profound impact on popular music and American culture, marked by lyrical compositions of extraordinary poetic power.”

See the complete list of Pulitzer winners here.

PS – nice to see another Hans Christian Andersen piece set to music to some acclaim.   Throughtout his career the Danish writer/poet/playwright collaborated with and was inspired by a number of notable composers – including Mendelssohn, Robert Schumann, and Wagner.     And Lang is just the latest of a long line of musicians who have in turn found inspiration in Andersen’s words.

The Ultimate “Music Video”

This is why I love YouTube. It all started when Dr. Wizard came down the stairs humming the old British Music Hall song A Mother’s Lament, and looking for the words. And then I remembered that Cream actually recorded the song on their Disraeli Gears album. Which led to finding this bit of video silliness. Who’d a thunk it? Could this replace the “Yule Log?”
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