July 2019

A Song In Many Forms

A good piece of music can be done in many forms. Some may sound better than others, but a good song has enough that performers of different styles have something to work with. One particular song started when Hoagy Carmichael, the song’s composer, was walking along and started to whistle. He was so pleased with the melody that he wanted to write it down. He called the song Star Dust and worked on it for several months, polishing it and perfecting it as he went along.

Carmichael originally thought of the song as a somewhat mid-tempo little number. The first recording of the song was made on Halloween, 1927, by “Hoagy Carmichael and his Pals,” a group that included, among others, Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey.

Somewhere along the line, the two words in the title were combined into one, making it Stardust. Carmichael recorded a somewhat slowed down version of the tune in 1928, but the lyrics, added by Mitchel Parish in 1929, made the slower tempo de rigueur. In 1931, Isham Jones made a recording of the song as a sentimental ballad.

In the early 1940’s, RCA records wanted to use two versions of Stardust on one record, something of a battle of the bands. They wanted to use Tommy Dorsey’s version on one side. and Artie Shaw’s version on the other. The story goes that they first presented the idea first to Dorsey. When he heard Shaw’s version, he begged them not to go through with the idea as Dorsey felt that his version of the song paled in comparison to Shaw’s, arguably the best instrument version of the song.

Walter Winchell was was a crusty old journalist. If you have ever seen an episode of the old TV show The Untouchables, Winchell is the narrator. He was hard as nails and nothing got to him — except Nat King Cole’s version in 1957, considered the best vocal version of the song. This version bought Winchell to tears.

There have been over 1500 recordings of Stardust. It was considered the most recorded song in History until Paul McCartney’s Yesterday took the top spot. What ever version in whatever style you like, the song is a classic that will be played hundreds of years from now.

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Johann Sebastian Bach’s Only Forgotten Son

Big Band had it’s Spike Jones. Top 40 music has it’s Weird Al Yankovic. Classical music has it’s PDQ Bach. PDQ Bach is the alter ego of composer Peter Schickele.

Schickele is a music expert. Listening to his many compositions of PDQ Bach allow you to study models of classical music and it’s structure. He uses classical elements in a more modern context. On the liner notes of one of his albums, he explains how many classical composers used folk songs of the time and expanded them into orchestral piece. An example of that can be heard from the very beginning of this video as Bach, er, Schickele began with a theme from Yankee Doodle — a motif heard throughout the piece.

There is no telling what you are likely to hear in a PDQ piece, but they are certainly worth a listen. You can have fun and expand your musical horizons. The orchestra also joins in on the fun here as well. Listen, and perhaps you, too will want to enroll in the music program at the University of Southern North Dakota At Hoople.

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The Beginning and the end

Sometimes it is hard to catch the story told in the lyrics of a song. If it is about a relationship, the natural tendency is to assume that the song is about a love affair. That is not always the case.

The Blues Magoos formed in 1964, originally calling themselves The Trenchcoats. By 1966 they were one of the mainstays of the Greenwich Village scene in New York. After a couple of flops on minor labels, the group signed with Mercury Records. They recorded their first album, Psychedelic Lollipop. That album included a song celebrating the band’s first step to the big time. That song was released as a single in February, 1967, reaching number 5. That song was We Ain’t Got Nothing Yet.

Ace Flash and the Dynamos formed in 1972, made up of musicians who had been in other bands in the UK. By the time they recorded their first album, the band’s name had been shortened to just Ace. That album, Five a Side, included a song calling out one of the band members for wanting to leave, possibly causing the breakup of the band. That song, How Long, was a top 20 hit in the UK and hit number 3 in the US.

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The absolute first

Thomas Edison is well known for a number of inventions, one of them being how to record and playback sound in 1877. He used a foil cylinder and a stylus attached to a horn. Once the cylinder was recorded, Edison could then play it back.

Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville 1817-1879

However, it would not be correct to say that Edison was the first person to record sound. That honor goes to Frenchman Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville whose earliest recording from 1860 was of someone singing Au Clair de la Lune. He used a soot covered paper in which he traced the audio wave. The problem, though, was that he did not have any means of playing back the audio. Unlike earlier attempts, some going back to 1857, this recording had a 250 hertz tuning fork as part of the recording which allowed modern scientists the ability to calibrate the speed to a certain extent, although the recording device was hand cranked.

It was not until 2008 that scientists were able to play back this recording from 1860. In this clip, the original recording is first, followed by attempts to “clean them up” to make them more intelligible.

Truly a voice from the past.

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A career begun in war

World War II was a very hard time for the people of Britain. German air raids, destruction, food shortages, and many other factors went towards making life hard. British entertainers helped keep spirits up, with veteran performers such as Vera Lynn and George Formby becoming early favorites. Sometimes a star is born, almost out of necessity.

In the early 1870’s, a new hotel was built near what was to become Piccadilly Circus. There was to be a concert hall in the basement, but the managers of the hotel petitioned to change the proposed concert hall into a theatre. Permission was granted, and the underground Criterion Theatre was born.

Because of the theatre’s unique location, the BBC made use of it for many of its broadcasts during World War II. On October 17, 1942, The Beeb was preparing to broadcast one its programs, “It’s All Yours.” A man went to the program, hoping to record a message for an uncle who was stationed in North Africa. The man’s daughter accompanied her father to the theater, but before the program began, air raid sirens sounded and the audience became nervous. To ease the tension, the BBC producer asked if anyone in the audience would like to sing, or tell a joke or story, to help the audience calm down. The daughter, who had wanted to be an entertainer since a young age, volunteered. She sang a song from the turn of the century called “Mighty Lak a Rose.” The orchestra began to play behind her, and the audience was enchanted. When the song was over, the orchestra gave her a standing ovation. The girl was asked to sing on the program, and her performance drew hundreds of letters. Her singing career was born. Two years later she added film to her resume.

By the early 1960’s, the girl was a popular singer and actress across Europe, but she did not become known in the US until 1964 at the ripe old age of…32 with her hit, Downtown. I was not able to find a recording of her 1942 broadcast, but here is a video exploring the life of a young Petula Clark.

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Where have I heard that before?

When I was in college, I had an English instructor who really enjoyed the subject. His bachelor’s degree was in Marine Biology, but he happened to do some work in a lab with a man to whom the subject was a hobby – a passion. That man was named John Steinbeck.

With an inspiration as Steinbeck, my instructor’s interests turned from Marine Biology to English. He wrote a number of books including a biography of Peter Mark Roget – father of the thesaurus. One day in class my instructor brought up the subject of plagiarism. He was renown enough to be asked to review manuscripts of textbooks for English education. One such book had a poem, supposedly written by a student of the author of the book. My instructor recognized it – he had read that poem in a publication that had, as I recall, a nationwide readership of perhaps fifty people. One of those people happened to be my instructor. That was enough to stop the textbook writing career of that author dead in its tracks. 

Plagiarism may be overt in the written word. In music, however, it may crop up subliminally. A songwriter may get a chord progression in his head and he may go with it, not realizing it had been heard before.

Often times it is not a conscious act on the part of a songwriter to rip off from another songwriter, but it can happen despite one’s best intentions.

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A Catchy Melody

Back in the late 1960’s, my mother listened to KING-FM in Seattle. It was (and still is) a classical music station. Today I understand it is non-commercial, but back then it was a commercial station.

If there are any commercial classical stations today, they tend to play the “Top 40” of classical music. Back then, KING-FM would play a wide range of music, anywhere from Gregorian Chants to Aaron Copeland. They would also play contemporary compositions as well.

One such piece was by American composer Terry Riley called In C. This piece is named for the fact that there is one instrument or another playing a C note as something of a metronome throughout the piece. It may be buried from time to time, but it is always there. I think I can guarantee that this won’t be an ear-worm.

A few years ago I was talking to a musician and I mentioned In C to him. He was impressed that I knew of it, as not many people do.

Now you are part of an elite club.

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