We all remember the glorious feeling of the official start of summer — when school ended for another year. After Joanna and I had been married for 20 years, we went back to school, taking classes with students much younger than we were, and got to again experience the rhythm of a school year.
We both ended up with graduate degrees, and I became a teacher. “School’s out for summer” then took on new meaning. So did “teachers’ dirty looks,” for that matter.
Those involved with academia know that our work doesn’t end just because the school year does, but the pace changes during the summer months. That is especially true because I promised myself when I finished graduate school that I would never again teach summer school, devoting that time instead to research, rest, and getting reacquainted with my loved ones. An occasional research sabbatical gives further opportunity for the kind of reflection that most Americans don’t get.
One line from “School’s Out,” the Alice Cooper rock classic, goes “School’s been blown to pieces.” That might be more troubling today than in 1972 (though the worst American school massacre actually came via a bombing in 1927, thanks to a lunatic anti-tax forerunner of more recent anti-government loons).
Suggestions of violence aside, however, we teachers (and our spouses) still typically get the same thrill with the “official start of summer” that our students do; hence this song.
Happy Thanksgiving, everyone. “Simple Gifts” is a 165-year-old Shaker song of thanks, of worship (we sang it on more than one occasion when we attended a local Quaker church, and the pianist at our current church played it just last Sunday) and — appropriately for us — for dancing (though we’ve never danced to it).
The song has been done by many performers, including Jewel. You’ve probably heard it in some form, perhaps via Aaron Copland, Lord of the Dance, an Oldsmobile commercial or the intro for a bad tabloid television show hosted by the insufferable Nancy Grace. A John Williams arrangement that included “Simple Gifts” was played by cellist Yo-Yo Ma, violinist Itzhak Perlman, clarinetist Anthony McGill and pianist Gabriela Montero at Barack Obama’s 2009 Inauguration.
Though Joanna and I live a privileged middle-class American life, we largely agree with the sentiment of the song. We live in a small 1940s house and have never owned a car made in this century. Much of our clothing and home furnishings came from thrift stores and yard sales. Joanna feels guilty if she doesn’t use every scrap of left-over dinner (so yes, after today, we’ll undoubtedly be having turkey sandwiches, turkey soup and perhaps some new experimental turkey recipe for days to come).
Judy Collins, one of our favorite folks singers, chose to sing this song at the White House in 1963 before including it on her album titled, “Whales and Nightingales.” The video below comes from black-and-white television footage of a 1963 performance. You can also find another nice version, featuring Alison Krause and Yo-Yo Ma (and cool pictures of children) here.
Lyrics here, with video below.
One of the things we naturally “had to do” on our first visit to New York was see a Broadway play. We’ve seen great theatre elsewhere, including in Spokane, but there’s nothing quite like taking a subway to Times Square, eating dinner with cheesecake for dessert at Junior’s and then walking to a show. On our first visit to the city, that show was “Chicago.” (We had previously seen the film, which stars Renée Zellweger, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Richard Gere.)
When Joanna and I met, I was a journalist and she knew little about the profession. One thing we had in common, however, was our lack of respect for what television news had already become. Cable news arrived in the year we met (CNN was founded that year), which has made the media landscape even worse. A big problem is the focus on entertainment — on “razzle dazzle” — rather than on news that actually affects our lives.
For example, back on the morning of Oct. 25, the “breaking news” lead story on CNN, Fox News and MSNBC was one that told us nothing new of importance about a the death of a cute white girl who was murdered 14 years ago. Oh, and by the way: Since the death of Jon Benet Ramsey, more than 140 million children under the age of 5 have died — mostly of things (starvation, disease, bad water, war, etc.) that we could prevent if we had the will to do so. (The good news is that child death rates have dropped significantly in recent years, after holding remarkably steady for decades.)
“Razzle Dazzle” lampoons the media for its shallowness and is, of course, one of the best songs from “Chicago.” Lyrics here, with song from Jerry Orbach and the original 1975 cast below.
A couple of years ago we had the opportunity to spend a week in Hawaii. We did many of the traditional Haole tourist things — Pearl Harbor, a luau, lying on the beach, snorkeling (which reminded me that native Idahoans should probably stay on the beach), and watching hula. We stopped by the amazingly rich (and therefore somewhat depressing) First Presbyterian Church, set near where some of “Lost” was filmed, and attended a service at the historic Kawaiaha‘o Church. The best part of the most days was simply sitting on a deck looking across Kailua Beach Park at the water.
One of the highlights of the trip was actually time spent indoors at an orchid show. We’d never seen such an amazing display of flora. Later we went to an arboretum, where we saw plants from all over the world — but none that beat the flowers that seemingly grow almost everywhere in Hawaii.
The tiare blossom, also called the Tahitian Gardenia, is one of those beautiful flowers, and gives this simple song its name. And some of the first lines of the song give it further reason to be on this blog: “You are the one , The choice of my heart.”
The song “Te Tiare” by Hawaiian Heart combines traditional Hawaiian language with a bit of French. Videos that show Hawaiian performers and music can be found here and here, but the one below has better sound.
Lyrics here (with English translation), with video below.
(Note: Another Queen song, “Thank God It’s Christmas, is at #93.)
As my students can attest, I’m no fan of royalty (a reason I agree with Thomas Paine that we should have high inheritance taxes) but am a fan of Queen — and I frequently play “We are the Champions” in an attempt to relax and inspire students just before giving them a final exam.
Considering how much Joanna dislikes competition, it may be surprising how much she likes to crank up and sing this song when it comes on the radio. Maybe not, too, considering that “We are the Champions” has supposedly been declared the catchiest pop song of all time — “by scientists.”
In terms of the lyrics, naturally we have made our share of mistakes and come through them, and certainly we believe that we should “keep on fighting ’til the end,” whatever that end may be.
Lyrics here, with video below.
“Feed Me (Git It)” may be the weirdest song on this blog — which is saying something, considering that previous entries include “Mississippi Squirrel Revival,” “Suicide is Painless” and “Cows with Guns.” And considering the title, maybe I should hold it for another eight days until Thanksgiving, but here it is.
The song comes from our favorite twisted musical, “Little Shop of Horrors,” and is sung by The Four Tops‘ Levi Stubbs (doing the voice for a man-eating plant) and professional nebbish and stand-up widower Rick Moranis.
I might have considered using the song “Dentist!” because it’s funnier (though there’s already a Steve Martin song on the blog), but “Feed Me (Git It)” also corresponds with a running joke in our house. When we’re hungry — or when we think the cat, the fish or the plants might be hungry — Joanna or I may exclaim in our best Levi Stubbs voice, “Feed me, Seymour!”
Lyrics here, with video below.
“You Gotta Be” by Des’ree (a pop singer who came and went quickly during the 1990s) has a lot of great advice for young women — or for anyone else. I want my students to “challenge what the future holds,” to “stand up and be counted,” and, when warranted, “Don’t be ashamed to cry.”
Joanna and I would agree that often “love will save the day,” though not in the silly fairy tale “love conquers all” sense. Love can overcome a great deal — but only if both people in the relationship truly want to work hard enough to make it work. And in all aspects of life, including work, motherhood and marriage, Joanna has done a better job than perhaps anyone else I know of recognizing the inherent truth in the first three lines of the song’s chorus:
You gotta be bad, you gotta be bold, you gotta be wiser
You gotta be hard, you gotta be tough, you gotta be stronger
You gotta be cool, you gotta be calm, you gotta stay together
She also knows that sometimes you gotta be good, you gotta be humble, you gotta be soft, or you gotta rage against injustice.
Obviously I gotta be blessed, to have her in my life. Lyrics here, with video below.
A couple of train stories to start this post:
1) Years ago I mentioned to Joanna that I’d never had an electric train as a boy. The next Christmas, I got a small battery-powered version that still sits on a 1950s-era television set in my office.
2) Joanna and I always thought train travel would be romantic, and we have friends who love to travel that way. So a few years ago we decided to travel to Chicago via Amtrak. Unfortunately, it’s impossible to leave Spokane via train without leaving in the middle of the night — and a reported derailment somewhere else down the line kept us from pulling out of the station until about 4 a.m. A surly conductor and a crowded train made an already long trip seem interminable. The return trip was much better, but not enough to convince us to ever again ride the rails for much more than from New York to Washington, D.C.
But obviously we will ride the “Peace Train.” After the Iraq War began in 2003, I wore a black armband as a symbol of protest and mourning for the U.S. soldiers and Iraqis who would die senselessly. A “NO WAR” sign that was posted in our front yard before that war began now hangs on my office wall.
With the need for peace in the world, it seems somehow appropriate that “Peace Train” was written and sung by a guy named Cat Stevens during the Vietnam War — a guy who would become a Muslim named Yusuf Islam. Lyrics here, with video below.
The jazz classic “Harlem Nocturne” has nothing to do with the obnoxious once-ubiquitous latest version of the “Harlem Shake” (which actually has almost nothing to do with Harlem or the original Harlem Shake).
Originally done without words, the music for “Harlem Nocturne” was given to me by my high school band teacher when I was a young tenor sax player. I never did learn to play the song well and never performed it anywhere, but it has been one of my favorites since then. The version I like best also fits well with “film noir” (a genre that Joanna and I enjoy) as demonstrated by its selection as the theme music for a couple of “Mike Hammer” TV series.
And of course we’re both fans of saxophone music. Earlier this month we had the opportunity to see two great sax players in the space of a week — Chris Potter on a Saturday night, followed the next Thursday by Harry Allen, who, along with guitarist Chris Flory, accompanied wonderful jazz pianist Judy Carmichael. (By the way, though it probably was an unpaid volunteer, whoever did the paper program for the latter event should be fired — Allen and Flory each had their names spelled two different ways on the same page of the program, while the name of a company sponsor also was misspelled.)
Now for us “Harlem Nocturne” is a reminder of Harlem itself, that fascinating section of Manhattan just north of Central Park and not far from the hostel we stay in when we visit the city. The title of a famous Langston Hughes poem that provided the name for a Broadway play (set in Chicago), Harlem also houses the Amsterdam News, one of the oldest Black newspapers in the country. Last time we were in the city we visited the newspaper, getting a warm welcome and a fascinating history lesson from editor/publisher Elinor Tatum and one of her reporters.
“Harlem Nocturne” has been performed and recorded by numerous artists since it was written in 1939. The Viscounts had the most famous version, while Herbie Mann was among those who offered a more upbeat take. Silvia Brooks sings a version of the song with one set of lyrics, while Mel Torme sang another.
As for us, we like the song played slow and deep, without words or a lot of other instrumental accompaniment, as done by Georgie Auld in the video below.
As a child Joanna contracted polio, a nationwide horror that most of us can’t imagine today. I was reminded of just how horrible and terrifying it was (and still is, in some countries) when we visited a North Carolina Museum of History exhibit devoted to the disease. The recorded sound of an iron lung machine coming in via speakers as we stood before one of the machines brought Joanna to tears. And the fact that some of her symptoms have since returned via post-polio syndrome seems flatly unfair to me.
Unlike one of her childhood friends, Joanna was never confined to an iron lung. But she suffered plenty — missing quite a bit of school, being subjected to painful treatments with hot, heavy, wool compresses (a regimen developed by an Australian nun), and having all of her toys and clothes burned to prevent further spread of the virus.
Polio is one of several experiences from Joanna’s past that might have killed or seriously embittered a weaker person (such as her husband, perhaps). But the experience also undoubtedly contributed to the fact that my wife is now the most empathetic person I know, in addition to being almost incapable of “wasting time” by sitting still (even when she should).
To take the words from the Lee Ann Womack song, Joanna knows better than most of us to “never take one single breath for granted” and to “give faith a fighting chance.” Given the choice, she’ll always dance.
Lyrics here, with video below.