NYFOS offers a week of cold-weather songs as we settle into the winter season.
With a text by Langston Hughes, this song depicts a winter moon as a thin crescent, a rationed portion of a moon for a season when resources grow scarce.
Happy Friday everyone! It’s my last day as your tour guide, and since I’ve been in rehearsals for two separate Christmas shows, I figured I would end with a Christmas song. Not only is the song one of my favorite holiday tunes, but it’s also the best-selling single of all time. I’m, of course, referring to Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas”.
I would be lying if I said I didn’t think my selection was a little cliché. I love Christmas music and have a large catalogue that ranges from the hits to very obscure compositions that most likely only appear on my iPhone. But then I sat back and thought about what one song truly captures that time of year to me. And the choice was easy. Written by the Jewish-American Berlin in 1940, it was first sung by Bing Crosby on The Kraft Music Hall. It went on to appear in the film Holiday Inn, won the Oscar for Best Original Song, and inspired the popular the film that shares the song’s name. It’s been noted that the song’s popularity sprang from the longing to be somewhere else for the holidays, a sentiment easily shared for listeners during WWII. The song would go on to sell 50 million copies.
When I was young, my family would always watch White Christmas at the start of the Christmas season. It always felt that was the moment that it was “officially” Christmas time. Now, that moment has changed for me. For the past eight years, it’s been around 10pm on a Monday night at 105th and Broadway. A Goyishe Christmas to You! has a very special place in my heart.It was the first thing that my wife saw me perform in, and even though we no longer live in NYC, it’s one of our favorite holiday traditions. I relish the performance each year, and love seeing my fellow performers who, although we only see each other about once a year, have become very close to me.
At the end of the evening, we all gather at the front of the piano and get to sing Mr. Berlin’s song. Then something magical happens. We hum in harmony and it feels as if, just for the briefest of moments, the rest of New York is silent. To me, then is it Christmas.
This week I thought I’d share some of the music that has filled my recent weeks. It is the Christmas season and we’re about to put up our traditional tree, a present we received at the end of the last century from Jim’s brother and sister. They had each been assigned to one of us in their family’s Christmas lottery, and decided to pool their resources and go in on a gift together. The result was a small plastic tree and a bunch of silvery ornaments—disco balls, hanging oval pendants that I call “Jewish folksinger earrings,” strings of (very) faux-pearls, feathery fronds—as well as strings of lavender lights. To top the tree off, they enclosed a Ken Doll in a purple tunic and a crown. Until that fateful day in 1998 I had never had a Christmas tree or a Hanukkah bush in my house. Suddenly I was witness to an Upper West Side Christmas miracle: a tree of off-the-charts gayness. I would never have purchased such a thing, but my in-laws wanted us to have it. And I love it.
When Jim and I put up the tree, I always play the first Christmas record I ever bought: Joan Sutherland’s The Joy of Christmas. I did not grow up hearing carols, and Dame Joan’s LP was my first sustained exposure to them outside of department stores. I was a teenager. As a result, I have no idea what the lyrics really are. In the late 1960s Sutherland’s diction was at its foggiest. “Joy to the World” sounds something like “Cho to the woo.” But this recording, first cherished on LP and now spinning on CD, means that the Yuletide season has begun. And her “O hoary nooit” (could that be her Australian accent emerging?) is capped by a high C# that always makes me want to convert to Catholicism for about two minutes.
O hoary nooit (“O Holy Night”), sung by Joan Sutherland (Richard Bonynge, cond., Douglas Gamley, arr.)
This most iconic and instantly recognizable sacred Jewish song has had a lot of treatments over the many centuries it’s been around. While the Aramaic lyrics are quite a mouthful even for a native Hebrew speaker, a surprising number of mainstream pop singers have tried to make the prayer their own, including Al Jolson, Neil Diamond, Perry Como—and Johnny Mathis! In this revealing interview, he describes Kol Nidrei as “…so emotionally driven that I got, I would say, 95% of the words correct.” As I do my best to make this prayer my own tonight, together with cantors all over the world, I will try to remember what inspired Johnny to do the same.
One of my resolutions this year is to think more about the “other”—the other person, the other point of view, the other side of the world. As you might imagine, Judaism has a lot to say about it. The great rabbi Hillel, who lived in the earliest days of the Common Era, wondered “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, who am I? If not now, when?” Folk singer-songwriter Carrie Newcomer gives some hopeful answers in this number, which has become popular among many American faith communities and activist circles. “I see sorrow and trouble in this land / Although there will be struggle we’ll make the change we can.” We need to really hear these words.
At the risk of sounding hackneyed, I think becoming a father has made me a better person in every way. It has also given me new insight into all the father figures I’ve known, and, especially at this time of year—to use appropriate prayer book parlance—into the notion of a Heavenly Father. The contemporary Israeli artist Eviatar Banai explores multiple layers of earthly and eternal fatherliness in this hit 2009 single, making for a lilting, introspective, and compelling musical experience.
Dad, I want to stand in front of you
Believe that you are a good father
Dad, I need to know you love me
Just like a good father
Dad, I want to be safe with all my heart
That this journey would be a happy ending
That everything I pass along the way
Will become a weakness for great power
Dad, I want to come back to me
Find you there with me
I’m really good at it, Dad
And there I believe in myself
*My dove on the sides of the rock
Let me hear your voice
Sing me a brand new song
Which will illuminate the very fibers of my heart.
*reference to Song of Songs 2:14
We like to think of Irving Berlin as one of the most quintessentially American songwriters, but like so many of them, he had his roots elsewhere. He wrote this little-known tune for Fanny Brice in 1925, soon after legislation had been passed placing quotas on immigration. In this live recording by the incomparable Judy Blazer and NYFOS’s own Michael Barrett, listen for lyrics like “There’s millions of people on the shore / Why can’t you make room for just one more” and marvel at how relevant Berlin’s piece still is.
The High Holy Days have arrived yet again, the busiest time of a cantor’s year. I find that a song without words (Hebrew: nigun) puts my heart and mind at ease more than any other. When composing this one, my friend and teacher Joey Weisenberg was inspired by the famous phrase in Isaiah 40:1, “Comfort ye” (Hebrew: nachamu). Although the melody seemed ironically discomforting the first time I heard it, by the second and third times through I found myself completely entranced. I hope you will too!
Oooh that opening bass line!
I am finishing this week of Song o’ Days with a number that is one of my all-time favorite mood-elevators, Bill Withers’ “Lovely Day.” This classic cut from a giant of 70’s soul music is a gift that keeps on giving. Jerry Knight’s opening funky bass line kicks off an affecting and uplifting song that acknowledges that not all lovely days start off that way.
Some contemporary popular musicians, such as Questlove, revere Bill Withers because he was a man that used the pop music industry before it used him. Withers grew up a stuttering child in the Jim Crow south and used a stint in the Navy to get escape West Virginia. He landed in southern California, overcame his stutter, taught himself guitar and composed a series of hits (”Lean On Me”, “Aint No Sunshine”, “Use Me”, “Just the Two of Us”) during a recording career that lasted only about a decade. He and his wife Marcia have closely guarded the rights to his catalogue of songs and their business savvy has set them up so that Withers did not need to continue to subject himself to the industry indignities so many of his peers faced.
I love this song because it gives voice to the challenges we all face and also gives us the musical ladder to climb towards a better day. A lovely day.
When the day that lies ahead of me
Seems impossible to face
When someone else instead of me
Always seems to know the way
Then I look at you
And the world’s alright with me
Just one look at you
And I know it’s gonna be
A lovely day
Bill Withers is a man that succeeded on his own terms, overcoming poverty, racism, a stutter and an industry that sought to exploit him. His story and his music are touchstones of hope, dignity and a sort of success that we can all aspire to. A true American.
PS. It bears repeating that I love and respect the NYFOS community and Steven’s enduring artistry. I appreciate this opportunity to share my slightly different experience and our shared love of Steven, NYFOS and popular song.
Monday’s NYFOS Sing For Your Supper – “A Goyishe Christmas to You – Yuletide Songs by Jewish Composers” at HENRY’s is sold out, but we do have an active wait list and we would love for you to join us. We will also have room for walk-ins at the bar. Come share the holiday spirit.
This number is dedicated to all my wonderful HENRY’s bartenders at closing time. My Song of the Day today is from my modern everyman, Tom Waits with his delightful song, “The Piano Has Been Drinking.” The time is ripe for some rich satire.
“The Piano Has Been Drinking” is special to me because of its unique perspective on my life’s work, service. Waits focuses on a particular moment that hospitality professionals know well: closing time. There is a moment at every bar, as the night comes to an end, when the air goes out of the room. Your best guests have left before the cleaning crews start working the dark edges, slowly moving into the dim light. Everything changes at that moment, as a night of endless possibilities suddenly becomes a morning of bitter reflection. Last call lures so many to stay beyond their limits and to test the patience of those that serve them.
Waits’ growling, slurred vocals fit a particular vision of the over-served lounge pianist who’s drooping eyes rove over the room at closing time, leaving no thing and no one unscathed. His fingers move up and down the keys carelessly, aimlessly, while his lyrics pull it all into focus.
And the telephone’s out of cigarettes, and the balcony is on the make
And the piano has been drinking, the piano has been drinking…
And the box-office is drooling, and the bar stools are on fire
And the newspapers were fooling, and the ash-trays have retired
But it is his denigration of the owner that sets my heart afire with love for this song. “And the owner is a mental midget with the IQ of a fence post.” Let alone that he has rhymed that line with “As the bouncer is a sumo wrestler cream-puff Casper milquetoast.” This is one of those songs so well suited to its writer’s gifts that we are left to bathe luxuriously in its wonder.
Tom Waits: The Piano Has Been Drinking (Not Me), aka The Bartender’s Prayer
Studio Version from Small Change, 1976
Live Version from Bounced Checks, 1981
Live Television from Fernwood Tonight w/ Martin Mull & Fred Willard
PPS. If you want more politics in a Waits-ian vein, try this on for size – God’s Away on Business. Waits wrote it with his wife, Kathleen Brennan for a Robert Wilson musical of Woyzeck, the songs from which are on Waits’ Blood Money album.
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