Archive for the ‘Music’ Category

The Ponder Heart

Wednesday, October 6th, 2010

Image by Lee Peters, adapted from cover art, Vintage Paperbacks, 1954 (original artist unknown)

 
Charlemont, Massachusetts, is a musical town.
 
With only about 1300 residents it manages to support a summer chamber-music series, Mohawk Trail Concerts, as well as a yearly reggae festival and frequent performances by singer Charlotte Dewey, the co-owner of and spirit behind the Charlemont Inn.
 
The town has never hosted an opera, however … until now.
 
On Friday and Saturday, a concert production of The Ponder Heart will debut at the Charlemont Federated Church. The opera was composed by Alice Parker, a splendid musician and a loyal NOT (neighbor of Tinky).
 
Eudora Welty’s short novel The Ponder Heart first appeared in the New Yorker in 1953 and was published in book form the following year.
 
Alice adapted it into a short opera in 1982 with Eudora Welty’s blessing. Thanks to grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and several local cultural councils, the upcoming production will reintroduce this  humor-filled musical gem to the public and provide a concert recording for future listening. 

As I type, Alice’s Musicians of Melodious Accord are arriving to fill up houses all over Charlemont, Heath, and Hawley and get ready for their final rehearsals. 

Alice Parker (Courtesy of Melodious Accord)

 
I haven’t seen the opera, although I have read the novella—a delightful comic Gothic piece set in Mississippi in the 1930s.
 
Narrator Edna Earle Ponder is a character with whom I can identify. She tells anyone who will listen, “It’s always taken a lot out of me, being smart.” I have often felt this way myself.
 
Like me, Miss Edna Earle likes to make fudge and keep track of her neighbors. The proprietor of the Beulah Hotel in the small but bustling town of Clay, she knows everyone in town and has an opinion about everything.
 
It is her lot in life to mediate between her Grandfather Ponder and her lovable but impulsive-to-the-point-of insanity Uncle Daniel Ponder. In the course of the story, Uncle Daniel gives away just about everything he owns (including his grave site), marries twice, and goes on trial for murder.
 
It seems appropriate to me that this small-town story will be performed in another tight-knit community, and I look forward to seeing what Alice has done with Eudora Welty’s tale. I’m sure the composer’s ear for vernacular music will do justice to the saga of Edna Earle and Uncle Daniel.
 
Naturally, I have a recipe to share in honor of The Ponder Heart. I was hoping to write about divinity, a confection dear to the heart of both Eudora Welty and Edna Earle Ponder. 

My friend Bill Kubasek’s mother Win gave me her divinity recipe, and I obligingly covered much of my kitchen in sticky sugar syrup in an attempt the make the stuff.

Unfortunately, I haven’t managed to get the hang of it yet. As Miss Edna Earle says in the story, divinity is NOT “the kind of fudge anybody can make.”

Part of the Sticky MESS!

 
I plan to return to divinity in December, when it should make a lovely holiday gift. Meanwhile, here is a recipe from the composer of The Ponder Heart for a simple, tasty, and fairly healthy dip. Alice often calls it “Grandma’s Dip” and keeps it in the house to use as a quick appetizer when company stops by.
 
It would be perfectly at home at the Beulah Hotel, where guests, including Miss Edna Earle’s beau the traveling salesman, could dip vegetables or chips in it while listening to Uncle Daniel wax operatic about his trials and tribulations.
 
Try it—and if you’re in New England this weekend, come see and hear Edna Earle, Uncle Daniel, and the townspeople of Clay in the New England premiere of Alice Parker’s Ponder Heart. 

Performances will take place on Friday, October 8, at 7:30 pm and on Saturday, October 9, at 11 am. Tickets cost $20 and may be reserved by contacting Kay Holt at kay@aliceparker.com.

 
Alice’s Herb Dip
 
Alice pretty much wings this dip, and I did, too. Adjust flavors to taste, and add anything you think might enhance the mixture. Fresh herbs out of the garden are of course preferred, but you could probably throw in a few dried ones in winter.
 
Ingredients:
 
2 cups cottage cheese (low fat is fine)
1 cup sour cream
salt and pepper to taste
seasoned salt, garlic salt, and/or seasoning mixes to taste (I eschewed the salt and pepper and threw in several sprinklings of my Zatarain’s spice mixture, as well as a dash of something from Penzey’s Spices called “mural of flavor” seasoning)
1/2 teaspoon paprika
1 pinch cayenne pepper
a handful of chives, finely chopped
other fresh green herbs to taste (I used parsley, basil, and dill), finely chopped
 
Instructions:
 
Combine the cottage cheese and sour cream in the bowl of an electric mixer. Beat in the remaining ingredients.
 
Place the dip in a bowl, and refrigerate for 2 hours before serving.
 
Serve with veggies, chips, sliced apples, or crackers. This dip also tastes great atop a baked potato. 

Makes about 3 cups.

To Be Perfectly Frank: 100 Years of Frank Loesser

Monday, June 28th, 2010

 
Tomorrow will mark the 100th anniversary of the birth of American composer and lyricist Frank Loesser.
 
Loesser was born on June 29, 1910, in New York City and died in 1969. He wrote or co-wrote some of our most singable songs—“On a Slow Boat to China,” “Heart and Soul,” “Luck Be a Lady Tonight,” “Two Sleepy People,” “Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition,” and about 700 others.
 
I’ve read a fair amount about Loesser, but I feel as though I don’t really know him. In books he comes across as contradictory. He rejected his family’s love of classical music yet longed to write an American opera. He was moody and quick to anger yet nurturing of his peers. He worked far too many hours yet loved parties. 

 
The man I can’t quite find in print comes across in his music as brilliant, playful, and intuitive. He knew how to structure a musical number so that it was easy to sing yet constantly surprising. And he knew how to reveal character through song.
 
His Guys and Dolls, to me the quintessential Broadway musical, illustrates this attention to character. Nathan Detroit’s passive yet sincere love for his longtime fiancée shines through “Sue Me.”
 
Sky Masterson shares his love of the city and his secret longing for connection to others in “My Time of Day.” Shy-no-more heroine Sarah lets her wild side peal in “If I Were a Bell.” And Miss Adelaide’s language and lifelong dilemma are defined in “Adelaide’s Lament.”
 
The lament exemplifies one of Loesser’s other strengths—his ability to translate colloquial conversation into music and lyrics. Miss Adelaide’s voice goes up (as mine certainly would!) whenever she gets particularly agitated contemplating her perpetually ALMOST married state: 

When they get on the train for NIAG’RA
She can hear CHURCH bells CHIME.
The COMPARTMENT is AIR CONDITIONED
And the MOOD sublime.
Then they GET OFF at SARATOGA
For the FOURTEENTH TIME!!!
A person can develop la grippe….
 

I look forward to learning more about Loesser tomorrow evening as I remain glued to the TV (well, actually, I’ll probably save some of the material for later viewing via TiVo) watching Turner Classic Movies’ salute to Loesser.
 
The lineup will include How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying (1967; star Robert Morse will co-host the TCM evening!), the 2006 documentary Heart & Soul: The Music of Frank Loesser, and several other films.
 
Although there are several gems to choose from I wish one of the films were Hollywood Canteen (1944), which features Bette Davis singing (!) the first Loesser song I ever performed, “They’re Either Too Young or Too Old.”
 
I couldn’t dream of emulating La Bette’s perfect diction. On the other hand, I can of course sing rings around her.
 
I’ll also learn about Loesser as I rehearse for—you guessed it—MY OWN LOESSER CENTENNIAL TRIBUTE WITH ALICE PARKER! 

This will take place on Saturday, August 21, at the Green Emporium in Colrain, Massachusetts. (See fabulous poster below.)

 
Alice and I are still planning the program so if readers have a favorite Loesser song they should suggest it now! 
 
Meanwhile, in tribute to tomorrow’s anniversary here is a special seasonal cocktail. It’s appropriate for two reasons. First, it was invented by my friend Michael Collins, the chef at the Green Emporium.
 
Second, I MUST have something to hold in my hand when Donald Freeman and I perform “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” another song that shows off Loesser’s way of turning conversation into song.
 
“Baby” is one of Loesser’s famous overlapping songs, in which characters (in this case “The Wolf” and “The Mouse”) sing complementary music and lyrics over each other.
 
According to Loesser’s daughter Susan, the composer and his first wife Lynn Garland Loesser performed this song privately many times. She quotes her mother as saying: 

We got invited to all the best parties for years on the basis of “Baby.” It was our ticket to caviar and truffles. Parties were built around our being the closing act.

(Time Life)

 
Eventually, Loesser sold the song to MGM to be sung by Esther Williams and Ricardo Montalban in the 1948 film Neptune’s Daughter.
 
Lynn Loesser was deeply saddened, but “Baby” won her husband his only Academy Award for best song. (As time went by he managed to scoop up a couple of Tonys and a Pulitzer as well.)
 
On August 21 as Don (doing his best Ricardo Montalban impression) finishes the line, “Beautiful, please don’t hurry,” I’ll pop in with,
 
“Well, maybe just a half a drink more………….” 

Let’s all raise our glasses to an American original!

 
 
Chef Michael Collins informs me that he was inspired to create this cocktail by my late neighbor Florette, who made a mean rhubarb tea.
 
I have tried it three ways—with rum (as described below) at his restaurant, with a little Grand Marnier at home when I couldn’t find rum, and in “virgin” form with a little pink lemonade for my young friend Audrey. I like it all three ways.
 
Ingredients:
 
for the base:
 
6 cups water
1 cup sugar
2 cups chopped rhubarb
2 cups strawberries, cut in half
1/2 lime
1 tablespoon grenadine (optional–for color; I found with really fresh fruit I didn’t necessarily need it)
 
for the cocktail:
 
1 cup cocktail base (see above)
2 ounces white rum
lime juice as needed for rimming
sugar as needed for rimming
 
Instructions:
 
Bring the water to a boil. Add the sugar and stir. When the sugar has dissolved add the fruit.
 
Reduce the heat to very low and simmer, uncovered, for 20 minutes, until the fruit breaks down. Toward the end of this process add the grenadine if you are using it.
 
Allow the mixture to cool. Remove the half lime (DO NOT FORGET THIS STEP!), and place the liquid in a blender in batches. Blend it; then strain it, first through a strainer (don’t try to push the fuzz down through the holes) and then through cheesecloth.
 
Place it in a jar and keep it refrigerated until it is needed.
 
To make a cocktail (or two): Place the rum in a cocktail shaker, and add ice. Pour in the cup of cocktail base. Shake.
 
Pour a little lime juice around the rim of 1 large or 2 small glass(es), and dip it/them in sugar so that the sugar coats the rim(s). Strain the drink into the glass(es). 

The drink recipe serves 1 to 2. The base makes about 6 cups.

Audrey drank this cocktail with pink lemonade instead of rum.

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Sip and Sing Along!

Friday, April 30th, 2010

 
I’m not from a horsy family so I didn’t watch the Kentucky Derby as a child.
 
This annual ritual began for me in graduate school. Each year my friend Dan Streible gave a Derby party at which guests wore colorful hats (well, this guest did, anyway), sipped mint juleps, and sang “My Old Kentucky Home” along with the folks at Churchill Downs.
 
We also watched the horse race.
 
Dan is a darling person and a terrific scholar. He was also smart enough to marry my friend Teri the Renaissance Woman. I think of him every time I watch the Kentucky Derby, sip a mint julep, or sing “My Old Kentucky Home.”
 
 

Dan at his recent Orphan Film Symposium, obviously getting ready to sing "My Old Kentucky Home" (Courtesy of the Orphanistas)

 
Like other tunes by Stephen Foster such as “Hard Times” and “Old Black Joe,” the state song of Kentucky is nostalgically sentimental and easy to sing.
 
The act of crooning it and watching the VERY brief horse race (which often seems shorter than the song) always starts May off with a bang for me.
 
The song is traditionally played at the Derby by the University of Louisville Marching Band.
 
I was lucky enough to find a recording of the band at the Kentucky Derby Information site (which also provides a little history of the relationship between the song and the race, as well as a look at some outstanding Derby hats and of course a few recipes!).
 
I used it as background for our sing-along. Click on the sheet music below to start the recording and then minimize your audio player so you can read the lyrics and sing with me. That way you’ll be in good voice for the Derby tomorrow.
 
I’m still working on the recording technology; my loud voice may sound a little fuzzy and faint. I think I messed up a couple of notes and lyrics. And frankly if I’d been in charge of the band I would have asked the musicians to play the song a little faster and a little higher.
 
If you drink a couple of mint juleps before listening, none of those things should bother you, however.
 
Here we go……..  
 
 
The sun shines bright in the old Kentucky home.
‘Tis summer, the people are gay.
The corn top’s ripe, and the meadow’s in the bloom
While the birds make music all the day.
 
The young folks roll on the little cabin floor,
All merry, all happy, and bright.
By’n by hard times comes a knockin’ at the door.
Then my old Kentucky home, goodnight.
 
Weep no more, my lady. Oh! Weep no more today.
We will sing one song for the old Kentucky home,
For the old Kentucky home, far away.
 
 
Dan’s Mint Juleps
 
I asked Dan for his julep recipe and then immediately changed it just a little bit by adding mint directly to the simple syrup to make the concoction more minty.
 
He was vague about amounts of syrup and bourbon. Basically, you should make this drink to your taste! Here I’m giving you the proportions my family uses, along with his instructions, slightly modified.
 
Ingredients:
 
for the simple syrup:
 
2 large sprigs very fresh spearmint, slightly crushed
1 cup sugar
1 cup boiling water
 
for each julep:
 
lots of shaved, finely crushed, or snow ice
(You can see from the picture above that I wasn’t the most thorough crusher in the world, but luckily the glasses still ended up frosty as we sipped!)
about 1 ounce simple syrup
about 2 ounces Kentucky bourbon whiskey
(Dan says, “There is no such thing as Tennessee bourbon. Don’t make the mistake of using sour-mash whiskey.”)
2 sprigs very fresh spearmint
 
Instructions:
 
The day before the Derby (that’s today!) prepare the simple syrup. Combine the mint with the sugar, and pour the boiling water on top. Stir until the sugar dissolves. Cool and refrigerate overnight.
 
The next day make the julep.
 
Pack a julep glass with ice. (No julep glass or cup? Use a highball glass if you must.)
 
Drizzle simple syrup over the ice. Top off the glass with more ice if needed.
 
Pour the bourbon over the sweetened ice until the glass is nearly full.
 
Add sprigs of very fresh spearmint. Stir slowly. Sip slowly, with a straw or not. Be sure to get a snootful of mint as you sip. The longer the bourbon blends with the mint oils the better.
 
Do not drive or operate heavy machinery. 

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My Huckleberry Friend

Friday, November 6th, 2009
Lyricist Johnny Mercer (Savannah Morning News)

Lyricist Johnny Mercer (Savannah Morning News)

 
A Johnny Mercer lyric is all the wit you wish you had and all the love you ever lost.
 
So said Frank Sinatra, one of the great interpreters of American song.
 
The lyricist John Herndon Mercer (1909-1976) would have turned 100 on November 18. His centennial is being celebrated with tributes all over the world and particularly in his hometown of Savannah, Georgia.
 
Naturally, I have to get in the act!
 
Composer/pianist Alice Parker and I will perform a local tribute to Mercer’s music on Friday, November 20, in Colrain, Massachusetts.
 
Mercer wrote the words to hundreds of memorable songs, including “That Old Black Magic,” “Something’s Gotta Give,” “Jeepers Creepers,” “Days of Wine and Roses,” and “The Autumn Leaves.”
 
Perhaps because he worked with many different composers, Mercer’s legacy is a little dimmer in the popular mind than those of lyricists such as Cole Porter, Ira Gershwin, and Oscar Hammerstein II. Singers like me love to perform his songs, however.
 
The Sinatra quotation says it all. Mercer produced brilliant, lively numbers like “Accentuate the Positive” and funny ones like “Lonesome Polecat” from the film Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. Sung by lonely woodchoppers, it offers one of my all-time favorite lines: “A man can’t sleep when he sleeps with sheep.”
 
And then Mercer hit the ear with a lyric of love and longing like “Blues in the Night” or “Come Rain or Come Shine.” Sometimes it’s all a singer can do to get through these songs without crying.
 
A couple of my favorite Mercer lyrics are among his more obscure works. I’m a sucker for a sweet tune called “Lullaby” from the short-lived Broadway show Saint Louis Woman, which he wrote with composer Harold Arlen in 1946.
 
It tenderly evokes memories of early childhood and laments our collective inability to recreate the feelings we had in our parents’ arms.
 
I also relish one of Mercer’s earliest songs, “Satan’s Li’l Lamb,” a collaboration with Arlen and lyricist Yip Harburg. The three threw it together for an African-American review in New York in 1932.
 
As soon as the great Broadway belter Ethel Merman heard it she ran out and recorded it. The music and lyrics are bluesy and sad but also funny and self-deprecatory, full of jazz rhythms and chords.
 
“Satan’s L’il Lamb” also winds up with a high, dramatic passage. High, dramatic passages are better than candy to us sopranos!
 
In addition to writing songs, Johnny Mercer was an influential performer and a pioneer in the recording industry.
 
He began his career as an actor and singer; he sang with both the Paul Whiteman and Benny Goodman Orchestras. In his prime he hosted regular radio shows in which he performed and promoted his own songs and those of his peers.
 
Savannah Morning News

(Savannah Morning News)

 
In the 1940s he founded Capitol Records, the first major record company on the west coast and a music institution for years to come. It emphasized quality recordings, fairness to composers and musicians in paying royalties, and the development of new talent.
 
As both a writer and a performer Mercer had a knack for the vernacular that charmed his audience and knocked down doors. Savannah justly claims him as its favorite son; his temperament and artistic sensibility were authentically Southern.
 
His Southern streak carried disadvantages. Like his fellow sons of the South Tennessee Williams and William Faulkner, Mercer was an alcoholic.
 
Overall, however, his background stood him in good stead. It enabled him to blend much of the South’s character into his music: its slow pace, the African-American songs he sought out in his youth, the folk music of his Scottish-American heritage.
 
He wove the landscapes and the sounds of his childhood into his lyrics—the huckleberries he picked as a child, the meadows and the rivers in which he played, the “whoo, whoo” of the trains that passed through town, the lilt of his mother’s Southern accent.
 
I champion American popular music of all eras. I’m conscious, however that we don’t have lyricists like Johnny Mercer today—versatile poets with an ear for the rhythms of American life and the verve to promote their songs with humor and intelligence. As a historian, singer, and member of the public I’m enjoying getting to know his music better. 

His song poems can tell stories as they do in “One for My Baby,” in which the narrator talks about his lost love to a bartender. They can act as traditional love ballads as in “I’m Old Fashioned.” Or they can string together images and sounds to convey a patchwork of emotions as in “Moon River”:
 
 Two drifters, off to see the world.
There’s such a lot of world to see.
We’re after the same rainbow’s end.
Waiting ‘round the bed.
My Huckleberry friend,
Moon River and me.
 
All of us should take time on November 18 to sing a Mercer tune and or/listen to some of the music of America’s Huckleberry Friend.
 
The Johnny Mercer Foundation’s web site has a “Johnny Mercer Jukebox” listeners can play. And Turner Classic Movies is featuring his film music every Wednesday during November.
 
“Blues in the Night,” my program with Alice Parker, will take place at the Green Emporium on Friday, November 20, beginning at 8:30 pm. Pizza, cocktails, and dessert will be served. Reservations are suggested; the restaurant’s number is 413-624-5122.
 
If you’d like a huckleberry recipe (one of my readers wanted one after looking at this post!), please see my post on Huckleberry Friendship Bars. Mercer lovers might also like to try the “Blues in the Night” barbecue sauce…….
 
twbluesweb
 

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Hooray for Hollywood!

Monday, August 10th, 2009

singingweb  

This post doesn’t come with a recipe–but it does relate to food.
 
My neighbor Alice Parker and I will provide a little dinner cabaret next Thursday, August 20, on the patio at Chandler’s Restaurant at Yankee Candle Company in South Deerfield, Massachusetts. 
 
Alice will be playing a borrowed keyboard–and I will be singing–from 6 to 9 pm as part of the restaurant’s 14 Years/14 Dollars anniversary celebration. Diners will get an informal barbecue supper and a chance to hear us perform for $14.
 
(Of course, people will probably want something to sip on and maybe a bite of dessert so the tab may come to a little more than that, but the evening is still a pretty good deal.)
 
Our show is titled HOORAY FOR HOLLYWOOD:  SONGS FROM THE SILVER SCREEN’S GOLDEN AGE. We haven’t finalized the program yet. After all, we wouldn’t want to lose our freshness! I do know it will include a little Gershwin; a little Irving Berlin; and several songs with lyrics by the wonderful Johnny Mercer, whose 100th birthday is coming up.
 
If you’re nearby, please join us and sing along. If not, belt out a few tunes as you fix your own dinner that evening.
 
For reservations call 413-665-1277.