Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Frank Godwin and Treasure Island

The story goes that Robert Louis Stevenson was on holiday in the Scottish Highlands and one rainy day came upon his stepson Lloyd, applying watercolors to a map he'd made of an imaginary isle. Lloyd described Stevenson's attention;

"....as I was finishing it, and with his affectionate interest in everything I was doing, leaned over my shoulder, and was soon elaborating the map and naming it. I shall never forget the thrill of Skeleton Island, Spyglass Hill, nor the heart-stirring climax of the three red crosses! And the greater climax still when he wrote down the words "Treasure Island" at the top right-hand corner! And he seemed to know so much about it too —— the pirates, the buried treasure, the man who had been marooned on the island ... . "Oh, for a story about it", I exclaimed, in a heaven of enchantment ..."

Stevenson, who had been in a writer's block of late, dutifully hunkered down and blazed through the creation of Treasure Island.

My father had a hard-bound copy of Treasure Island in the house and it was the first novel I ever read. It bore the signature of my grandfather on the inside cover "From Dad, To Edmund J. Clohessy Jr., - Christmas 1930".

- thanks, Matthew for scanning the book-cover!

By the time the already-worn volume fell into my hands I must have seen the famous 1934 movie version with Wallace Beery as Long John Silver, Lionel Barrymore playing Billy Bones, and Jackie Cooper as the boy Jim Hawkins. My father and I were very fond of such bygone silver-screen gems, and his breadth of knowledge about the stars and their signature roles was a tantalizing thread that fueled my imagination. But, the fact that my father had read the book prior to, even, the 1934 movie version added to the intensity of interest he conveyed to me, to whom, like many 6 or 7 year old boys, a fine tale about pirates and lost treasure was as gasoline tossed on the fire.

As in all things, bookwise, artwise - lifewise - "Hunger is the best appetizer".

The book had but 4 colored - painted! - illustrations by Frank Godwin. Godwin is much lesser known than Howard Pyle and N.C. Wyeth whose names are synonymous with vivid swashbuckling scenes of the classic pirate books. Nonetheless, he stands on his own with graceful
rendering, exquisite coloring, and fine characterizations. Godwin also did outstanding work on Stevenson's Kidnapped and Hagedorn'sThe Book of Courage as seen below.

Four illustrated plates from Godwin were just enough to drive me round the bend, imaginatively speaking, and supply my own inner scenery.

to add some music to the proceedings, and forge a link to the previous post, here is a pirate-themed musical sketch ( i couldn't get a copy of his Henry Martin) of Donovan's taken from a live performance;Moon In Capricorn

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Donovan, in Her Majesty's Service

Following on the trail of recent posts about the songs of Donovan Leitch by my pal Relative Esoterica I I want to urge listeners to check out one of his lesser known, though one of my personal favorite, recordings - HMS Donovan. This was recorded after the birth of his first child in 1970, and like "For little Ones" is simultaneously for children but also should appeal to any adult with an ear attuned to poetry set to exquisite melodies and guitar playing with Donovan's particular twist on the folk tradition.

The record is lesser known than most of his others and had poor sales, despite one song that got a good deal of airplay "Celia of the Seals". This has some to do with a change in management and lack of promotion but also with the fact that it does not fit neatly into a "package" theme as some of his records. I personally think that Donovan's pop records at the time were not up to his usual snuff and the "people" were out of phase with him.
For the sake of brevity I include here a summary review of the record I posted in amazon back in 2000 - apologies in advance for my usual overflowery writing;

"While 'For Little Ones' is an intimate journey through the child-like looking glass of Donovan's Scottish Isles, 'HMS' is painted with a broader brush. This is more the loving stumble into childhood via an attic of musicboxes and half-crumbled story books with turn-o'-the-century color leafs. Some things we've outgrown and some things we should never forget.
Some unparalleled, great stuff here: 'Seller of Stars', 'Queen Mab", and 'Henry Martin' - lovely melodies w/ haunting guitar accompaniment somewhere between Bert Jansch and Ramblin' Jack.
The guitar throughout this recording is particularly crystalline and as full as harps in ancient halls. 'The Voyage of the Moon' - who else, I ask you, possesses the musical legerdemain to make you feel the slight pause of the moon with her sail of gauze? 'Song of the Wandering Aengus' - an ending that fades seamlessly into Yeats' celtic Twilight and your heart skips a beat. After hearing Donovan's version it will probably remain the only famous poem I can recite at will. Donovan is the undisputed master when it comes to reviving the vague stirring children have that there IS another world just past the trees and under the hills. (Am I completely nuts on this?) I respectfully differ with Markmatts [here i'm referring to another review] opinion of 'The Walrus and the Carpenter'. For those uninclined towards "folk"-type material, I play this cut first as bait by establishing our man as a visionary in sound. The response is invariably amazement. I find it endearingly Felliniesque - the song of the oysters is a gem and you'll not forget their little legs trotting on..."

"Henry Martin" is a traditional English song about one of Donovan's favorite themes,
piracy, and he employs a wonderful rolling - like the sea - modal pattern on guitar while using his voice to imitate a jew's harp or a hurdy-gurdy; much as one might hear on a sailing vessel of the 18th or 19th century or in some seedy port-of-call. The effect is trance-like and somewhat East Indian.

Here I include his version of the The Song of the Wandering Aengus, the famous Yeats poem set to words that is featured on HMS. In a past post "Hazel Wands, Wells, Wise Fish and Other Irish Fancies" from March 16th of 2006, I wrote a bit about the poem itself which might be of interest.

Many of the songs Donovan plays here are children's poems set to his own, or traditional melodies; here is the Thora Stowell poem, The Seller of Stars

Thanks again to Elizabeth for her fine posts on Donovan!

Sunday, March 15, 2009

From Coleman to Cantors

Sometimes a confluence of events in our lives is like a prophetic dream, preparing us for a new revelation or a forgotten treasure newly revealed. Or, maybe it's just like seeing a color in someones hair and then noticing it everywhere.

I had been reading a biography of the composer Harold Arlen and noted with some interest that his father was a cantor; dictionarily defined as, applicable in this case, "in a synagogue, the person who chants the liturgy and leads the congregation in prayer" - really a "singer" of Jewish liturgical song. I had a strong emotional pull towards this type of song, and a vague memory of it stirred inside of me, filed within as "things I've got to look deeper into one of these days".

The night after I had read that passage about Arlen's father, I was having a break at the bar of a restaurant where a group of us play a kind of experimental jazz, not so much songs as "happenings into song" or "sound evolvements" or, (as it may appear to some) how about "mindless doodlings"?

Steve Jansen, one of my musical cohorts, who creates "soundscapes" from odd items, is also a journalist who has interviewed a fair number of jazz artists. We got to chatting about Ornette Coleman, whom we both dig musically, and the absolutely unfathomably perplexing explanations and declarations that come out of his mouth. I remarked that it would be interesting to "loop" some of these statements into a creative musical patchwork as they stand alone as wondrous ciphers. I mean, what does one make of;
"It's impossible for you never to have existed at all, because when you didn't know that you existed, you did exist." ? And so forth...

At work in the library the following day I happened upon a book by Ben Ratliff called "The Jazz Ear" , a series of his ruminations and interviews with jazz players and composers. This book was of particular interest because Ratliff asks the artist to choose some recordings - not their own work - to play and discuss at the interviews.

In the book I found an interview with Ornette Coleman. Curious about the records Ornette would choose, I was pleasantly surprised that he had asked Ratliff to bring something by Cantor Joseph "Yossele" Rosenblatt. Ratliff brought a 1916 recording of Rosenblatt singing "Tikanto Shabbas" a psalm put to song. Also, what Ornette had to say was, for him, very direct.
Ornette on Rosenblatt;
"I was once in Chicago, about twenty-some years ago. A young man said, 'I'd like you to come by so I can play something for you.' I went down to his basement and he put on Joseph Rosenblatt and I started crying like a baby. The record he had was crying, singing, praying, all in the same breath. And none of it was crossing each other. It was all separate. I said, 'Wait a minute. You can't find those notes. Those are not "notes" They don't exist." Yossele Rosenblatt

As I listened to Rosenblatt myself, (this recording and others are available on youtube and elsewhere), I remembered where I had heard a cantor's song that moved me to tears and had sown the seed of curiosity about this music; it was in the Italian movie The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, based on a novel by Giorgio Bassano, and brought to fruition on film by Vittorio De Sica in 1970.
The story centers on the story of two Jewish families in Ferrara (the movie was filmed on location), Italy who have very different views on the events surrounding the rise of Mussolini, Hitler, and the fate that awaited them with the advent of war.
It was De Sica's last major film. Having been lauded early on for the "neo-realism" of The Bicycle Thief, and Umberto D he subsequently had fallen out of grace with critics for his "lighter" work and, after almost 15 years, The Garden was agreed to be a fine, though different, return to his former glory.

Unavailable from any existing cd recording, on youtube I was able to find on a trailer clip (?) for "The Garden of the Finzi-Continis" the beautiful, incomparable recording of Cantor Sholom Katz singing "El Male Rahimim" or "Keil Molei Rachamim" It comes in about 52 seconds into the clip and should not be missed!

From SaveTheMusic.com I did find this bit about Sholom Katz, acknowledged as one of the greatest recorded cantors;

"Sholom Katz was born in Grosswardein, Hungary. At an early age he was already displaying his unique ability before vast audiences. When he was only twenty years old, he won the post of cantor at the famed Kishinever Shul, with a three year contract. His next position was in the Hecker Shul where the renowned Shlomoh Zalmon Razomne once officiated as Cantor.
In 1942 in a Nazi concentration camp, Sholom was among 1600 Jews scheduled for mass execution. He received permission to sing the Keil Molei Rachamim (Prayer for the Dead) while the prisoners were digging their graves. The Nazi commandant, impressed with his voice, spared him to sing for the officers, and the next day he was allowed to escape, the only one of 1600 spared a brutal death."(italics are mine)

What can one say after that?

* The picture at the top of the page is of the Synagogue in Ferrara, Italy.