Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Van Lingle Mungo, Mr. Frishberg, Anita O'Day

Van Lingle Mungo was a fireballing, fiery-tempered, pitcher for those perennial losers of 1930's, the Brooklyn Dodgers. He also has the oddball distinction of being the subject of a jazz bossa nova composition with music and lyrics by Dave Frishberg.
The verses of "Van Lingle Mungo" are made up entirely of baseball players names, ie.

"Whitey Kurowski,
Max Lanier,
Eddie Waitkus,
Johnny VanDerMeer,
Bob Estallela,

and so forth.

To quote Frishberg, who was interviewed by the Baseball Almanac; "The only other guy from the song I ever met was Mungo himself, who arrived from Pageland, South Carolina, to be on the Dick Cavett show and listen to me sing the song. This was 1969, when Cavett had a nightly show in New York. Backstage, Mungo asked me when he would see some remuneration for the song. When he heard my explanation about how there was unlikely to be any remuneration for anyone connected with the song, least of all him, he was genuinely downcast. 'But it's my name,' he said. I told him, 'The only way you can get even is to go home and write a song called Dave Frishberg.' He laughed, and when we said goodbye he said , 'I'm gonna do it! I'm gonna do it!' If he did it, The Baseball Almanac doesn't mention it."

Frishberg wrote some well-known jazz comically-tinged lyric gems such as "My Attorney Bernie" and "Peel Me Grape". "Peel Me Grape" has gained recent notoriety due to Diana Krall's version - but, with all due respect to Diana, Anita O'Day's version back in 1958 is the tops.
Anita is one of my favorite female jazz singers - she hasn't the range and finesse of Sarah Vaughan, or smoothness of Ella Fitzgerald but she's swings like crazy and has a sass,(without cliched "sexiness") exuberance, instrumentalist's sensibility, and nuance of emotion that at times surpasses the greats. You can get a taste of her live in the classic movie "Jazz On a Summer's Day", filmed at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1958. She comes out in her signature black dress, wide-brimmed black hat and gloves and lays it down. Anita led a tough life, recently chronicled in her autobiography "High times, Hard Times" - co-authored by George Eels.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Hazel Wands, Wells, Wise Fish and Other Irish Fancies

Here's the famous W.B.Yeats poem "Song of the Wandering Aengus";

I went out to the hazel wood,
Because a fire was in my head,
And cut and peeled a hazel wand,
And hooked a berry to a thread;

And when white moths were on the wing,
And moth-like stars were flickering out,
I dropped the berry in a stream
And caught a little silver trout.

When I had laid it on the floor
I went to blow the fire a-flame,
But something rustled on the floor,
And some one called me by my name:
It had become a glimmering girl
With apple blossom in her hair
Who called me by my name and ran
And faded through the brightening air.

Though I am old with wandering
Through hollow lands and hilly lands,
I will find out where she has gone,
And kiss her lips and take her hands;
And walk among long dappled grass,
And pluck till time and times are done
The silver apples of the moon,
The golden apples of the sun.

This is the only poem I ever voluntarily memorized. It rolls nicely off the tongue and is a great bit of a story as well.
The Irish - Scots and Welsh just as much - were particularly enamoured of hazel trees. Hazel wood was sacred to poets and forbidden to burn in any hearth. The nuts of the hazel tree were considered to store great wisdom. Oftimes a sacred well or pool was ringed with hazel trees. When the nuts from the trees would fall into the waters below to be gobbled up by the fish (salmon or trout) those fish would be endowed with great wisdom. In Ireland, spots on these fish are indicative of the amount of "wise hazelnuts" swallowed by them. According to the oldest legends, both the goddesses Sinann and Boand broke taboo and obtained wisdom from these waters and fish but paid the price of drowning from the waters therein. These waters overflowed to become the two great rivers of Ireland; the Shannon (Sinann) and the Boyne (Boand).

Over in merrie England hazel woods became synonymous (likely an Anglo-saxon term of derision towards the native Celts and their fanciful beliefs) with "idle fantasy". In Chaucer's poem Troilus and Crysede there are a few phrases like "Ye haselwodes shaken!" meaning, perhaps "What a miracle you're coming up with!" and "Thou sitest on hasel bou," meaning "you talk idly". (this from a fascinating article by Martin Puhvel of McGill University).

Singers from the folk world have been fond of the poem. My favorite musical versions of the
"Song of the Wandering Aengus" are Donovan's on HMS Donovan and Jolie Holland's on Catalpa

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

D'Gary and the Lemur

Tonight at the library where I work in Phoenix I went down on my break and checked out (for the umpty-umpth time) the first recording of the Madagascarian guitarist D'Gary. By some cosmic collision (if only in my own billiard-busting skull) at the end of the worknight, a co-worker from telephone reference came down the stairs asking me if i heard anything about a lemur loose in the building. In the gathering of those leaving the building I picked up bits and pieces and the logical conclusion was that it was some sort of desert ring-tail cat and not a Madagascar Lemur gone for a stroll in the park, taking a detour through the open door of the library....

From a small village in Madagascar, D'Gary has evolved an intricate, flowing finger-picked acoustic guitar style that is out of this world. The fact that Malagasy people are largely of a mix of African and Indonesian origins hints at the unusual chemistry of these sounds - obviously inspired by western recordings as well.
D'Gary has adapted to guitar melodic lines that roll with ease off of native instruments of his people; the valiha - a tubular harp, the marovany - a box zither, and, among others, the kabosy - which combines characterists of the mandolin, guitar and dulcimer.

A little about Madagascar from the liner notes of this record:
"80% of the plants and animals of Madagascar are endemic, they exist only there. In terms of biodiversity it is one of the richest lands on the planet. This is due, perhaps to the island's early separation from the mainland some 160 million years ago and to the fact that Madagascar was one of the last places on Earth to be settled by humans (around the 7th century AD).

The record is called "Malagasy Guitar: D'Gary: Music from Madagascar" and is available from Shanachie records. It was produced by Henry Kaiser and David Lindley -innovative and diverse guitarists in their own right - in 1991.

Friday, March 03, 2006

Lost photos of the Titanic

I was out in front of a bookstore one night talking with a friend while leafing through a coffee-table photo book of the Titanic in the sale bins. A young woman overheard our conversation and told us that her great-uncle had been on the Titanic; he was traveling alone - I believe she said he was a Basque from Spain - and met his death in the icy sea that night, April 15, 1912, at 2:20 am, along with 1500 others. I can't help but hope that he at least made some friends on board or somehow made peace with his fate.

I always wondered if any photos were taken on board those last days that have yet to be found. I don't mean the famous last photos taken from her final departing point in Queenstown, Ireland; I mean photos - or film - taken during the voyage by either survivors that remained unspoken of and in the family's possession, or some film that went down with the ship and might be recovered intact.
There were some photographic plates found in the wreckage but all material was obliterated.
Incredibly, when the Lusitania (sunk 1915) was salvaged in 1982, a reel of film called Carpets of Baghdad was found and sections of it were restored and viewable. Is it possible something of this sort survived on the Titanic?
There happened to be a well-known cinematographer aboard the Titanic, William Harbeck. He was noted for his documentary filming of the days folowing the San Francisco Earthquake among others. There is some speculation that he was invited to take footage aboard the ship and it seems definitive that he intended at least to film the arrival in New York; employing a smaller boat to view it before docking.
There is a mystery surrounding his relationship with a young French woman, Mademoiselle Henriette Yrois. Although Harbeck was married it seems likely that Yrois may have traveled with Harbeck as his wife (as younger unattached females were likely to be chaperoned in those times). One of the survivivors recalled:
"In the opposite corner are the young American kinematograph photographer and his young wife, evidently French, very fond of playing patience, which she is doing now, while he sits back in his chair watching the game and interposing from time to time with suggestions. I did not see them again."

We will never know the truth of it as both Harbeck and Henriette perished in the sinking. Harbeck's body was found, apparently clutching a bag that belonged to Mlle. Yrois. Her body was never recovered.

A great site for information and discussion about the Titanic: intelligent contributions from writers, naval experts etc., extensive biographical articles about most of the passengers and crew;