My parents were both of Norwegian heritage, and hailed from Minnesota. They met as grad students at the Eastman School of Music, and spent their careers as music educators. Needless to say, our house was filled with music, and I was introduced to the works of Edvard Grieg at an early age. Later in life when I began to sing his songs, I could feel myself tapping a rich vein of familiarity and love. Grieg is the foremost Norwegian composer, and his songs stand out as premiere examples of the Scandinavian contribution to the art form.
The song I have chosen for my final contribution is one of Grieg’s “greatest hits”: “Ein Traum”, the final song in the wonderful Opus 48, consisting of six songs set to German texts. I learned it first in Norwegian, and I must confess that I have never sung it in German in performance. The Norwegian translation is extremely singable, and somehow seems more ‘original’—but then, I’m biased.
Kirsten Flagstad was, is, and always will be, the queen of Norwegian classical singers. (Not that she has much competition, as the group is quite small.) It’s only fitting that her statue greets all who visit the gorgeous opera house in Oslo—she was an amazing artist and is highly venerated in Norway.
The recording I’ve chosen was made in 1936 with the wonderful Edwin McArthur, Flagstad’s musical partner of many years. It’s a masterful song in the hands of true masters.
“Litany”, from John Musto’s masterful set of songs Shadow of the Blues is, in my humble but educated opinion, a perfect song. I actually find it difficult to describe how I feel about this song—it has a profound effect on me every time I hear it. John, who has been inspired by many amazing poets during his long and productive career, in this case took Langston Hughes’ words and elevated them to another dimension. Not because they needed elevating, mind you, but because John is that gifted. As in Fauré’s “Clair de Lune”, the piano sets the mood beautifully before the singer joins in. The two together make time stand still.
I have heard many performances of this song, live and recorded, and I have sung it myself in recital, so I know whereof I speak. The recording I have chosen is the orchestrated version, which highlights the rich harmonic colors, and features the clear and nuanced vocal interpretation of Jubilant Sykes. The song exists brilliantly in multiple versions. It is a song for the ages.
Gather up, in the arms of your pity
The sick, the depraved, the desperate, the deprived
All the scum of our weary city
Gather up in the arms of your pity
Gather up in the arms of your love
Those who expect no love
So, Joni. Her influence on my life is profound, and when I was asked to share five songs, I knew one would have to be Joni’s. The real challenge again was to choose only one song from her huge catalog. The first of her albums I encountered in my youth was Ladies of the Canyon, and it contains many of my favorites. But as she released album after album, my list of favorites grew and grew until she finally ascended to a supreme position in my personal pantheon of best loved artists. Just as I had wanted to be Joan Baez back in the folk music days, later I wanted to be Joni Mitchell. She said everything I ever wanted to say much better than I could ever have said it. I never cease to marvel at her way with words, her melodic and harmonic ingenuity and her power to reach the hearts and souls of her audience. All this from a person who refers to herself as “a lonely painter” who lives “in a box of paints”, as she says in yet another of my favorite songs, “A Case of You”.
After weighing endless options, I finally flipped a coin and selected the title song from “Hejira”. It’s vintage Joni and from the period just before her voice began to fray due to her obsessive love affair with American Spirit cigarettes. In this song we hear a very world weary Joni. The music is a simple but rich setting for the lyric—both brilliant and heartbreaking.
I’m traveling in some vehicle
I’m sitting in some café
A defector from these petty wars
That shell shock love away
There’s comfort in melancholy
When there’s no need to explain
It’s just as natural as the weather
In this moody sky today
In our possessive coupling
So much cannot be expressed
So now I’m returning to myself
These things that you and I suppressed
I see something of myself in everyone
Right at this moment of the world
As snow gathers like bolts of lace
Waltzing on a bridal girl
You know it never has been easy
Whether you do or you do not resign
Whether you travel the breadth of extremities
Or you stick to some straighter line
Now here’s a man and woman sitting on a rock
They’re either going to thaw out or freeze
Sounds like Benny Goodman
Floating through the snowy trees
I’m porous with travel fever
But I’m so glad to be on my own
Still, the slightest touch of a stranger
Sets up a trembling in my bones
But I know no one’s going to show me everything
We come and go unknown
Each so deep and superficial
Between the forceps and the stone
Well, I looked at the granite markers
Those tributes to finality – to eternity
Then I looked at myself here
Chicken scratching for a piece of immortality
In the church they light the candles
And the wax rolls down like tears
There is the hope and hopelessness
I’ve witnessed all these years
We’re only particles of change – I know
Orbiting around the sun
But how can I have that point of view
When I’m bound and tied to someone
White flags of winter chimneys
Waving truce against the moon
In the mirrors of a modern bank
From the window of my hotel room
I’m traveling in some vehicle
I’m sitting in some café
A defector from the petty wars
Until love sucks me back that way
After I finally accepted the fact that I had no future as a rock singer, I switched to jazz, which is a bit easier on the voice. I am still very nostalgic for this period of my life. I was like a kid in a candy store and couldn’t get enough of discovering new artists, especially singers—female, preferably. My on-the-job training began when I joined Pieces of Dreams, a popular jazz group based in Kalamazoo, MI. I was the only singer, and I played alto sax and flute on certain arrangements. All of the guys were amazing musicians, and in this newbie they found an eager pupil!
The jazz vocal trio, Lambert, Hendricks and Ross were true trailblazers during their career in the 50s and 60s. What began with groups like the Andrews Sisters in the 40s was taken to new places by this amazing trio. All three were incredible singers and fearlessly creative in using the voice in what is known as straight ahead jazz. Just as jazz instrumentalists study other players’ solos, LH&R transcribed solos by the great players and then cleverly added lyrics, a technique which became known as “vocalese”. Combined with their mind-blowing arrangements, these recordings have become classics.
It was difficult to select just one song from their collection, and every time I closed in on one, another would call out to me. I finally decided on “Twisted”, a song written by and featuring Scottish singer Annie Ross—she is AWESOME, in the true sense of the term. The melody is a transcribed sax solo recorded in 1949 by Wardell Gray. The words are by Annie and the song was included on their first record in 1952. Listen to her sing in the cracks and all around the beat! And her amazing flexibility and precision! Truly virtuosic. One of my other favorite artists, Joni Mitchell, covered “Twisted” on her Court and Spark album. More about her later…
Sidebar: After I had written the above I read that Jon Hendricks died on November 21, 2017 at age 96—may he rest in peace. Dave Lambert died in a car crash in 1966, but as of this writing, Annie lives on.
My parents were professional musicians who kept throwing instruments at me to see which one would stick, so I learned to play multiple instruments but none of them well. Eventually I realized that my true instrument was in my throat, and my teenage rebellion took the form of choosing to go into the very style of music they found the least appealing—rock.
I tell you this because I have chosen a song from the rock genre as my first contribution. It could well have been a Beatles song—the true soundtrack of my youth—but since they are really their own genre, I set to work trying to decide among the endless other possibilities.
I settled on “Fragile” by Sting. Since way back when he was with the Police I have admired him as a singer, songwriter, player and performer. I’ve seen him live multiple times and would go again in a heartbeat. He covers such impressive territory with his lyrics, music and arrangements, often choosing to rearrange his own best songs. His clear, soaring, English choir boy sound can turn on a dime into a rock rasp or a blues growl, and he even had the temerity to trade verses and harmonize with Pavarotti on “Panis Angelicus”—check it out on YouTube. “Fragile” is quite special in his output, having become an iconic song, remaining relevant long after its creation. I have always admired how Sting makes strong political statements, yet never yells. “Fragile” has been covered by many artists—Stevie Wonder’s duet with Sting is especially powerful. The message is timeless, and the music is basically genre-less. On this original recording his voice is muted and somewhat breathy, as befits the tenderness and pathos of the lyric.
If blood will flow when flesh and steel are one
Drying in the color of the evening sun
Tomorrow’s rain will wash the stains away
But something in our minds will always stay
Perhaps this final act was meant
To clinch a lifetime’s argument
That nothing comes from violence and nothing ever could
For all those born beneath an angry star
Lest we forget how fragile we are
On and on the rain will fall
Like tears from a star
On and on the rain will say
How fragile we are
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