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MUSING ABOUT MUSIC
11 April 2010
I've been thinking a lot about music today.
First, I had to review a show tonight and the older I get, the more I try to be diligent in taking a nap the afternoon of a show just in case it turns out to be boring so that I'll have a fighting chance of staying awake through it. Nothing worse than coming to the end of a play, realizing that you've missed most of it because you were fighting sleep all the way through, and then trying to pull a review out of thin air at home. Trust me. I know all about that!
But either productions are getting better, or naptime is doing the trick because I can't remember the last show--even bad ones--in which I had to fight sleep.
I always settle in the recliner, turn on the TV and look for something that won't get me all involved and that I can doze off to. Today it was The Great American Songbook, on PBS, which was a documentary that chronicles 100 years of American popular song. It stretches from minstrel shows to Elvis, but features most prominently the "Golden Age" songwriters of the 1930s through the 1950s--Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin, the Gershwins, Richard Rodgers with both Lorenz Hart and Oscar Hammerstein, and others. Of course it didn't hurt that Judy Garland was in it several times, in the part that I saw. I missed the first half of it, which apparently started with Al Jolson singing "Swanee" and then came full circle at the end with Judy Garland singing "Swanee" (from A Star Is Born).
When the show ended, there was an interview with Michael Feinstein about the golden age of American music and he pointed out that these songs were all written to be short-lived. Musical theater and Hollywood films were the proving ground for "pop songs." We all remember the songs from musicals that became juke box hits.
But something strange happened. Instead of fading away over time, they took on "beloved" status. The mere fact that the CD to this show is called "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," a song from a movie that didn't even get positive reviews when it was released in 1939, tells you how we revere these old classics. People move on to the newer stuff, but somehow there is always a place in the heart for the old stuff too and we bemoan the fact that they don't write 'em the way they used to.
I consider myself very fortunate. While I wasn't born until the early 1940s ('43, to be exact), my grandparents had been in vaudeville and my father collected music of the 30s and 40s, so while I didn't grow up watching a lot of the very early performers, I still know most of the very popular songs, especially from stage or screen, of the 30s and 40s, as well as the 50s and beyond. I knew the songs of Sophie Tucker and Al Jolson, and all the wartime songs of Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters. I grew up dancing to the big band sound, even though my generation was exploring rock 'n roll. I remember Sinatra before anybody ever thought of a Rat Pack.
I had never thought of that as being somewhat "unique," but I guess it is. And yes, I've ordered the CD!
Then this evening we went to see a play called Black Pearl Sings at the Sacramento Theatre company. In doing some research for this play, I found some extraordinary information that I never knew before.
One of the great things to come out of the the Works Progress
Administration (WPA) of the Great Depression was the Folklore Project that sent
researchers into the hills of Appalachia and the deltas of the Deep South to gather oral
histories stories and songs that revealed who we are and where we came from.
Black Pearl is a fictionalized version of Lead Belly's story, with the two characters both female. Pearl has been in prison for 10 years for a crime which must have been an inspiration for Lorena Bobbett. Susannah is a white researcher who has come to the prisons in the south looking for the authentic sounds of slaves and, if possible, to find someone whose ancestors passed along some of the songs they remembered from their pre-slave days in Africa.
The show was magical. I'm having difficulty putting into words, for my review, how best to describe it because the two actresses were not of even calibre and that was a disappointment, but Crystal Fox, who played Black Pearl was nothing short of brilliant.
It is not a musical. There is no accompaniment. Pearl sings her songs a capella, as Lead Belly must have sung his to John Lomax. But they come from the gut and pass through the heart and when they escape they bring forth every pain that she and all of her ancestors have ever experienced....and they make the audience feel them too.
Her first song, "Trouble So Hard," hit me so forcibly that I knew I was in for something exceptional as the play progressed. I wasn't wrong.
I suspect Pearl couldn't sing you the songs from the Golden Age of American Popular Music and may never have heard of Irving Berlin or Al Jolson, but her songs were no less effective, no less emotional, no less a story of her world than "Over the Rainbow" is of mine.
I wonder what human beings would do without music? My entire life has been so wraped up in music that I can't even begin to imagine a world without any music at all. When you listen to the birds sing and the insects hum and the songs of the great whales, and most animals making soothing sounds to each other, you realize that music is an integral part of all of us, from the largest mammal to the tiniest flea.
Pretty amazing, isn't it!
PHOTO OF THE DAY