…life is good when you’re proud of what you do

You might jump at the answer when you hear that today’s artist was born in Boston, raised in Chapel Hill, North Carolina (where his father, Isaac Taylor was Dean of the UNC Medical School) and that he, um, battled a drug addiction when he was a young man. And you would be correct if you thought, James Taylor’s little brother, Livingston, born in 1950.

As previously mentioned, Livingston has long been a regular presence around these parts.  We frequently saw him in concert back in the ‘70s; sometimes with his band, sometimes solo; once with his sister, Kate. And we regularly see him nowadays, usually with a favored student from his classes as a full professor at Berklee College of Music (earlier he was artist in residence at Lowell House at Harvard College).

Not only is a Livingston Taylor concert upbeat and optimistic, most of his music is – refreshingly – a shade or two beyond being commercially viable.  Take, for example. today’s selection, taken from a YouTube recording of a radio broadcast of a live performance of a song that was initially released on his 1988 album “Life is Good.”

Between mulch and loam I have been doing quite a bit of shoveling as of late; certainly enough to remind me, at day’s end, that I’m now on the better side of 50.  But when a song like this comes over one’s iPhone on a sunny spring Sunday…with those memories of (“a little dab’ll do ya”) Brylcreem in your hair and the absolute verity that life is good when you’re proud of what you do… You too might be liable to hold to the conviction that giving your all to others will bring it all back to you.

 LISTEN TO TODAY’S SELECTION – Monday 21 May

Life is Good

Eight hours with a shovel in the city summer sun

Aching arms and dusty boots and a job that won’t get done

Two weeks pay, spent yesterday and a three-change bus ride home

And the fading gray of a long hard day, not a thing to call your own

And the boy turns and asks his old Dad

He says, are you glad for the kind of life you’ve had

And he says, life is good, spring is in the air

You’ve got two bucks in your pocket

A little bit of Brylcreem in your hair

You go, life is good when you’re proud of what you do

Oh, givin’ your all to others and it all comes back to you

 Some guys are handsome and they make friends all the time

And they’ve always got a buddy, and they always feel fine

Others take the backseat and they watch the world go by

And they live life alone, quietly and shy

But when love strikes, and fires start to burn

And lonely years melt away and finally it’s your turn

And you say, life is good, winter’s flowing cold

And love is forever and it never will grow old

Life is good when you’re proud of what you do

Oh, givin’ your all to others and it all comes back to you

You can go, year to year

Thinking life has nothin’ new

Special things go to others

You’re glad for them but then just like that…

It goes and changes…just like that…

You say that life is good

You were headin’ for the fall

And you picked yourself up

And you dust yourself up it didn’t hurt at all

Oh life is good, when you’re proud of what you do

Give your all to others, come on now try,

Listen very closely to every laugh and sigh

Maybe there’s a reason for all that we do

Give your all to others and it all comes back to you…

…to you

…to turn, turn will be our delight

A Shaker hymn composed in 1848 by Elder Joseph Brackett of Gorham, Maine,

It was first published in The Gift to be Simple: Shaker Rituals and Songs.  Simple Gifts was a work song sung by the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing (more commonly called the Shakers, an offshoot of the Quakers).

The world knows the tune now thanks to Aaron Copland’s score for the Martha Graham ballet, Appalachian Spring (1944). Here are two versions of Simple Gifts:

The first recorded by Joel Cohen and the Boston Camerata at the still extent Shaker community in Sabbathday Lake, Maine;

The second by the pleasing pairing of the ever-consistent Yo-Yo Ma and the ever-versatile Alison Krauss.

 LISTEN TO TODAY’S FIRST SELECTION – Sunday 20 May

LISTEN TO TODAY’S SECOND SELECTION – Sunday 20 May

Simple Gifts

‘Tis a gift to be simple

‘Tis a gift to be free

‘Tis a gift to come down where you ought to be

And when we find ourselves in the place just right

‘Twill be in the valley of love and delight

When true simplicity is gained

To bow and to bend we will not be ashamed

To turn, turn will be our delight

‘Til by turning, turning we come round right

ADDITIONAL LYRICS

‘Tis a gift to be loved and that love to return

‘Tis a gift to be taught and a richer gift to learn


And when we expect of others what we try to live each day

Then we’ll all live together and we’ll all learn to say

‘Tis the gift to have friends and a true friend to be

‘Tis the gift to think of others not to only think of “me”

And when we hear what others really think and really feel

Then we’ll all live together with a love that is real

…there is really no way to say “no” to the morning

Today’s selection is the first song, on the first side of Daniel Grayling Fogelberg’s first album, Home Free.  Born in Peoria, Illinois, in 1951, the youngest son of a high school band director (“The Leader of the Band”) and a classically trained pianist, Fogelberg found inspiration in numerous musical genres, including folk, pop, rock, classical, jazz and bluegrass.

Beyond the fact that he was raised in a musical household, anyone who has read a number of these ThisRightBrain posts to date will recognize a passel of familiar themes in looking at Fogelberg’s early years.  As an adolescent who was learning to play the piano, he taught himself to play a Hawaiian slide guitar that his grandfather had given to him. A talented multi-instrumentalist, he would eventually play guitar, bass, piano and mandolin.

At the age of 14 he joined his first band (a Beatles cover group) and then began to write his own songs while playing with his second band at the age of 16.  After high school, he studied theater arts and painting at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and it was there, while playing in area coffeehouses, that Fogelberg was discovered.

The man who discovered him was Irving Azoff (a recent University of Illinois grad), who had discovered REO Speedwagon (another Urbana-Champaign act) and would go on to represent numerous other headliners, including: Christina Aguilera, Jewel, Journey, the Eagles, Seal, Van Halen, Neil Diamond, New Kids on the Block and Steely Dan.

Azoff managed to find work for Fogelberg in Nashville, so he could hone his skills as a session musician, which was where he recorded and released his debut album in 1972, albeit to rather tepid initial response (it was ultimately certified Platinum on re-release).

However, Fogelberg was soon performing as an opening act for Van Morrison and upon the release of his second album, 1974’s “Souvenirs” (produced by Joe Walsh, another Azoff client), he struck lucky with “Part of the Plan”which would be the first in a long string of hits in a career that lasted nearly to his death from prostrate cancer in 2007.

This, Dan Fogelberg’s “debut track” is unique to his canon of some 15 studio albums, in that it features no guitar.

LISTEN TO TODAY’S SELECTION – Saturday 19 May

To The Morning

Watching the sun

Watching it come

Watching it come up over the rooftops.

Cloudy and warm

Maybe a storm

You can never quite tell

From the morning

And it’s going to be a day

There is really no way to say no

To the morning

Yes it’s going to be a day

There is really nothing left to

Say but

Come on morning

Waiting for mail

Maybe a tale

From an old friend

Or even a lover

Sometimes there’s none

But we have fun

Thinking of all who might

Have written

And maybe there are seasons

And maybe they change

And maybe to love is not so strange

The sounds of the day

They hurry away

Now they are gone until tomorrow

When day will break

And you will wake

And you will rake your hands

Across your eyes

And realize

That it’s going to be a day

There is really no way to say no

To the morning

Yes it’s going to be a day

There is really nothing left to say but

Come on morning

…and we’ll drink and dance with one hand free.

He started young, so to say that his career spans over 50 years is no exaggeration. In looking back one can only marvel at his performances with the Spencer Davis Group, Traffic and with Blind Faith, never mind his blue-eyed “soul-o” work;  yet even in his early teens, Stephen Lawrence Winwood was living “the” dream.

Born in Birmingham, England in 1948, his father was a motorcycle engine fitter by day and a semi-professional sax player much of the rest of the time. It was no surprise that young Stevie and his older brother, Muff learned to love swing and Dixieland jazz, but Steve also took to musicianship and learned to play drums, guitar and piano.  By the age of eight he was performing on stage with his father and brother.  Meanwhile, he was first introduced to the organ at church, when he snuck some playing time after choir practices.

The Winwoods lived close to a number of Birmingham music halls and Steve was still in school when he began to play the Hammond B-3 organ and guitar as backup for the many American Bluesmen who came to town.  In those days it was customary for American singers to hire local musicians while on UK tours, and at the age of 13 Stevie Winwood, who was now modeling himself on Ray Charles, was playing with the likes of Muddy Waters, T-Bone Walker, John Lee Hooker, B. B. King, Howlin’ Wolf, Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley.

When he was 14 he and Muff joined the Spencer Davis Group and Steve’s distinctive high tenor voice placed him in the role of lead singer.  When the group had their first Number One hit with “Keep on Running” in 1965, Winwood used his earnings to buy his very own organ.  He also began to collaborate with guitarist, Eric Clapton.

While the years ahead would bring Traffic (the ‘60s version), Blind Faith and Traffic (the ‘70s version) they would also find Winwood playing session for an increasingly broad array of artists, including: Jimi Hendrix (that’s Winwood playing organ on “Voodoo Chile”), Toots & the Maytals, Lou Reed, Robert Palmer, George Harrison, Marianne Faithful, David Glimour, Christine McVie, Billy Joel and (yes) the Grateful Dead.

His eponymous first solo album in 1977, was recorded (like some of his later albums) at his Gloucestershire home with Winwood playing all instruments. Today’s selection was recorded in the United States for his 1986 album, “Back in the High Life” (which earned him two Grammy Awards).  That’s Winwood on mandolin.

You may also recognize James Taylor helping to express the same laudable aspiration that most of us tend to share from time to time.

LISTEN TO TODAY’S SELECTION – Friday 18 May

 Back In The High Life Again

It used to seem to me

That my life ran on too fast

And I had to take it slowly

Just to make the good parts last

But when you’re born to run

It’s so hard to just slow down

So don’t be surprised to see me

Back in the bright part of town

 I’ll be back in the high life again

All the doors I closed one time

Will open up again

I’ll be back in the high life again

All the eyes that watched me once

Will smile and take me in

And I’ll drink and dance with one hand free

Let the world back into me

And oh I’ll be a sight to see

Back in the high life again

 Girl you used to be the best

To make life be life to me

And I hope that you’re still out there

And you’re like you used to be

 We’ll have ourselves a time

And we’ll dance till the morning sun

And we’ll let the good times come in

And we won’t stop till we’re done

We’ll be back in the high life again

All the doors I closed one time

Will open up again

We’ll be back in the high life again

All the eyes that watched us once

Will smile and take us in

And we’ll drink and dance with one hand free

And have the world so easily

And oh we’ll be a sight to see

Back in the high life again

 High life

High life

In the high life again

 We’ll be back in the high life again

All the doors I closed one time

Will open up again

We’ll be back in the high life again

All the eyes that watched us once

Will smile and take us in

And we’ll drink and dance with one hand free

And have the world so easily

And oh we’ll be a sight to see

Back in the high life again

 High life

Back in the high life

Oh, we’ll be back

…I’ll show you something to make you change your mind

Written in 1968, today’s selection was purposely excluded from Ralph McTell’s debut album, “Eight Frames a Second” as he feared that listeners would find it too depressing.  It was recorded in one acoustic take the following year, however, and included on his second album, Spiral Staircase” although (except for in the Netherlands) it met with little acclaim.  It wasn’t until 1974 that McTell’s finest song was re-recorded and finally released as a single.

Born as Ralph May in Farnborough, Kent in 1944 and raised in Croydon, his given name was in honor of English composer, Ralph Vaughan Williams, for whom the newborn’s soldier-father had been a gardener prior to the war.  But after being demobilized the old gardener abandoned his family, leaving his wife, Winifred, to support her young sons on her own. She once recounted, “I remember Ralph (then aged four) saying to me quite soon after Frank left us, “I’ll look after you Mummy.”

Despite the family’s destitution, Ralph, who discovered his love for music early-on when his grandfather taught him to play harmonica, had (by all accounts) a happy childhood. In his teens he was given a ukulele and (yes) a copy of “The George Formby Method” and soon became captivated by Skiffle and Rock’n’Roll.

Eventually he acquired a guitar and modeled his playing after such Blues greats as Blind Blake, Robert Johnson and (significantly) Blind Willie McTell, from whom he took his professional surname.  That’s Skiffle, Rock’n’Roll and Blues, quite a start for an international folk legend whose peers include: Tom Paxton, Leonard Cohen, Joan Baez, Steeleye Span and Fairport Convention.

McTell’s finest song, of course, is “The Streets of London” but oddly enough it was actually inspired by his early experiences as a busker in Paris.  The vignettes of the homeless, the lonely and the elderly were written about actual Parisians.  As a matter of fact, the song was originally called “Streets of Paris” but McTell changed the name upon his return to England and despite his initial wariness (today’s) 1974 version reached Number 2 on the UK Singles Chart, at one point selling 90,000 copies a day, and has since been covered by more than 200 recording artists.

LISTEN TO TODAY’S SELECTION – Thursday 17 May

The Streets of London

 Have you seen the old man

In the closed-down market

Kicking up the paper

With his worn out shoes?

In his eyes you see no pride

Hand held loosely at his side

Yesterday’s paper telling yesterday’s news

So how can you tell me you’re lonely

And say for you that the sun don’t shine?

Let me take you by the hand and lead you through the streets of London

I’ll show you something to make you change your mind

Have you seen the old girl

Who walks the streets of London

Dirt in her hair and her clothes in rags?

She’s no time for talking

She just keeps right on walking

Carrying her home in two carrier bags

So how can you tell me you’re lonely

And say for you that the sun don’t shine?

Let me take you by the hand and lead you through the streets of London

I’ll show you something to make you change your mind

In the all night cafe

At a quarter past eleven

Same old man is sitting there on his own

Looking at the world

Over the rim of his tea-cup

Each tea last an hour

Then he wanders home alone

So how can you tell me you’re lonely

And say for you that the sun don’t shine?

Let me take you by the hand and lead you through the streets of London

I’ll show you something to make you change your mind

 And have you seen the old man

Outside the seaman’s mission

Memory fading with

The medal ribbons that he wears

In our winter city

The rain cries a little pity

For one more forgotten hero

And a world that doesn’t care

 So how can you tell me you’re lonely

And say for you that the sun don’t shine?

Let me take you by the hand and lead you through the streets of London

I’ll show you something to make you change your mind

…I pulled into Nazareth

Israel has a way of hauling out your inner-romantic.  Once, about 30 years ago, I found myself on the outskirts of Nazareth with some friends.  I was at the wheel of yet another beat-up, rented Peugeot and it didn’t take long to realize that what we had here was a magnificent opportunity. So I dug through my cardboard tape-cassette box and cued up this song. Of course I did…wouldn’t you?

It was an especially stifling, sticky day.  All the windows were rolled down and before the end of the first stanza we were teetering on the abyss of an epic traffic jam.  The grand moment was quickly being lost in the haze of red tail lights and you can imagine our annoyance when the Arab taxi driver in front of us began to lean on his horn with one vexatious BEEEEEEEP!

But then he became my hero. Still leaning on his horn, he pulled out of the jam and proceeded to drive up the wrong side of the street for an entire city block, making his escape at the next intersection.

By now we were at the bit in the song where “Crazy Chester followed me…” and despite the loud protestations of my friends I went with the impulse, located my horn and did – the – same – thing.  It remains one of the few times in my life that I’ve actually gotten away with such a stunt and before the song had even ended we had discovered a more leisurely route out of town.

Written by Robbie Robertson (and named by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as one of the “500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll”) The Weight was first released on The Band’s 1968 debut album, Music From Big Pink. And it wasn’t until much later that I learned that the song actually references Nazareth, Pennsylvania, where C.F. Martin & Company has manufactured guitars since 1833.

I guess if I’d known that then, you wouldn’t have this rather fond memory to accompany today’s selection now.

 LISTEN TO TODAY’S SELECTION – Wednesday 16 May

The Weight

 I pulled into Nazareth

Was feelin’ about half past dead

I just need some place where I can lay my head

“Hey, mister, can you tell me where a man might find a bed?”

He just grinned and shook my hand

“No”, was all he said

 Take a load off Fanny, take a load for free

Take a load off Fanny

And (and) (and) you put the load right on me

I picked up my bag

I went lookin’ for a place to hide

When I saw Carmen and the Devil walkin’ side by side

I said, “Hey, Carmen, come on, let’s go downtown.”

She said, “I gotta go, but my friend can stick around”

Take a load off Fanny, take a load for free

Take a load off Fanny

And (and) (and) you put the load right on me

 Go down, Miss Moses

There’s nothin’ you can say

It’s just ol’ Luke

And Luke’s waitin’ on the Judgement Day

Well, Luke, my friend, what about young Anna Lee?”

He said, “Do me a favor, son

Won’t stay an’ keep Anna Lee company?”

Take a load off Fanny, take a load for free

Take a load off Fanny

And (and) (and) you put the load right on me

Crazy Chester followed me

And he caught me in the fog

He said, “I will fix your rack, if you’ll take Jack, my dog”

I said, “Wait a minute, Chester, you know I’m a peaceful man”

He said, “That’s okay, boy

Won’t you feed him when you can”

Take a load off Fanny, take a load for free

Take a load off Fanny

And (and) (and) you put the load right on me

Catch a cannon ball now

To take me down the line

My bag is sinkin’ low and I do believe it’s time

To get back to Miss Fanny

You know she’s the only one

Who sent me here with her regards for everyone

Take a load off Fanny, take a load for free

Take a load off Fanny

And (and) (and) you put the load right on me

…you are the child in which the love still remains

Back in the ‘70s there was a regionally popular group called the Pousette-Dart Band (aka PDB), formed by singer/song writer Jon Pousette-Dart here in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The group’s self-titled debut album “Pousette-Dart Band” was released in 1976 and by the time their next album, “Amnesia” was released in ‘77 they had quite a following, with popular singles such as “Amnesia” (how can you forget that one?), “Fall on Me” and “County Line”

Perhaps you remember them, in which case you too may have wondered about that unusual name. Well,  it’s a name freighted with history, as Jon is the son of Richard Pousette-Dart an avant-garde artist who was hugely popular in the 1940s.  With collections now found in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum, the Guggenheim Museum and the Museum of Modern Art, as well as Washington’s Smithsonian Museum and the National Gallery, not to mention dozens of other major museums (including Boston’s MFA), he was rather a celebrated member of the Abstract Expressionist School of painting.

In fact the family maintains an artistic tradition as Richard’s daughter (and Jon’s sister) Joanna Pousette-Dart is a highly regarded abstract painter with exhibits in a broad array of contemporary museums and galleries. All very interesting, but it still doesn’t explain the name.

So imagine my surprise to discover that Richard was the son of Nathaniel Jermund Pousette-Dart, who was also an important painter (and art writer),  known for his “progressively modern” and slightly “impressionistic” landscapes (that were still considered “sane and conservative”).  The son of Swedish immigrants, Algot and Mathilda Pousette, Nathaniel had married a girl named Flora Louise Dart in St. Paul, Minnesota.

But Flora‘s ideas about marriage were fairly progressive and believing that a marriage should be based on mutual esteem, she refused to use the conventional “love, honor cherish and obey” vows and insisted upon writing her own.  When they were married in 1913, Nathaniel and Flora combined their names, and that’s the origin of the Pousette-Dart name.

Not long after releasing its fifth album, their grandson’s group called it quits in 1981, although Jon Pousette-Dart still maintains an active touring schedule, which sometimes includes the other members of the band.  And today’s bittersweet selection from the “Amnesia” album remains a favorite.

LISTEN TO TODAY’S SELECTION – Tuesday 15 May

 Yaicha

I love to watch you smile

And Yaicha

You’re the reason you’re mama smiles

And Yaicha

You are a candle beneath the falling the rain

You are the child in which the love still remains

Oh unbroken

You shine amidst the pain

And unspoken

You understand just the same

You are a candle beneath the falling the rain

You are the child in which the love still remains

Oh Yaicha

I love to watch you smile…

…it’s the loneliest number since the number one

Glad beginnings abound…as do sad endings from time to time.  Take Harry Edward Nilsson, a fine songwriter with a splendid singing voice (for which he won two Grammy Awards), who had achieved great peaks in the late 1960s and early ‘70s, without ever going on tour or performing in a major concert for that matter.

In 1968, while the Beatles were forming Apple Records, John Lennon was asked who his favorite American artist was and he replied “Nilsson” The press then turned to Paul McCartney and asked the same question.  His response was…“Nilsson.”

Leap forward to 1973; Harry Nilsson was living in Southern California and Lennon, who had recently separated from Yoko Ono, happened to bump into him at a club.  Before long the two were inseparable, with Lennon fully committed to producing Nilsson’s next album. Unfortunately, theirs was a time of excessive drinking and drugging in a very public way, including heckling at (and being thrown out of) others’ performances, trashing of guestrooms and near misses with bottles thrown from upper level hotel windows.

Even worse, Nilsson ruptured a vocal cord while recording the album that Lennon was producing for him (the woeful “Pussy Cats”).  It was only the fact that Lennon accompanied his pal to the record company negotiations and made an (unfulfilled) intimation that he and Ringo Starr might wish to sign with RCA after their Apple Record contracts expired, that they agreed to re-sign Nilsson and release the album.

By the onset of the 1980s Harry Nilsson’s best years were behind him.  Then he fell into dire straits after his financial advisor had embezzled all the funds he had ever made as a recording artist, leaving him and his family in serious debt (while the financial advisor served less than two years in prison without having to make restitution).

By the onset of the 1990s his entire career was behind him, with a final public singing appearance made at Caesar’s Palace in 1992.  That’s when Nilsson joined Ringo Starr and His All Starr Band to sing “Without You” and Todd Rundgren handled the high notes. The following year Harry Nilsson survived a massive heart attack (at the age of 52) and began to press RCA, his old label, to release a boxed-set retrospective of his career while attempting to record another album…which was never completed as he died at his home in early 1994.

Take heart, you who have made it this far, because that’s not the story’s end.  In 1995, a tribute album, “For the Love of Harry” was released consisting of popular artists singing many of Nilsson’s songs, including today’s selection sung by Richmond, Virginia native, Aimee Mann.

First made famous by Three Dog Night in 1969 (their cover reached Number 5 on the Billboard Chart), the song was first included on Nilsson’s third album in 1968, “Aerial Ballet”“One” was written after Nilsson had called someone on the phone and got a busy signal.  The “beep, beep, beep, beep…” tone became the opening notes to his song.

LISTEN TO TODAY’S SELECTION – Monday 14 May

One

One is the loneliest number that you’ll ever do

Two can be as bad as one

It’s the loneliest number since the number one

No is the saddest experience you’ll ever know

Yes it’s the saddest experience you’ll ever know

Because one is the loneliest number that you’ll ever do

One is the loneliest number that you’ll ever know

It’s just no good anymore since you went away

Now I spend my time

Just making rhymes of yesterday

Because one is the loneliest number

That you’ll ever do

One is the loneliest number

That you’ll ever know

One is the loneliest number

One is the loneliest number

One is the loneliest number

That you’ll ever do

One is the loneliest number

Much, much worse than two

One is the number divided by two

One………..

One is the loneliest number

…who would think it astounds us, simply naming their names?

“Light” and “Moon” those were our son and daughter’s very first words, respectively. So what were your child’s/children’s first words? I’ll bet, like my dear wife (and mother of our children), you warmly remember them; and here’s an especial salutation to you mothers, and a light hearted wish for a very Happy Mother’s Day.

Today’s selection by Broadway composer/musicologist Maury Yeston and Broadway lyricist/actress, Christine Andreas was chosen especially for you, as performed by Mimi Bessette…

Wha’? Never heard of her?  Well then, here’s a snippet from her resume:  “Dark Brown Hair, Dark Brown Eyes, 5’4”, 125 lbs., SAG – AFTRE – AEA, Plays Piano, Guitar, Mandolin, Dulcimer, Double Bass & Cello; Fencing & Unarmed Combat (American & British Certification with honors), Tennis, Swimming, Ice Skating, Horseback Riding, Dialects & Munchkin voices.”

Now that you’re more familiar with Mimi I can tell you that “New Words” was included on her album, “Lullabies of Broadway” which won the Parent’s Choice Award for Best Children’s Album of 1991 (coincidentally the same year our son was born). But before we get to the “New Words” here are a few old ones:

“Everyone can keep house better than her mother, till she trieth.”  ~ Thomas Fuller

“Youth fades; love droops, the leaves of friendship fall; A mother’s secret hope outlives them all.”  ~ Oliver Wendell Holmes

“For the hand that rocks the cradle is the hand that rules the world.” ~ William Ross Wallace

“What is Home without at Mother?” ~ Alice Hawthorne

“I want a girl just like the girl that married dear old dad” ~ William Dillon

“Her children arise up and call her blessed.” ~ Proverbs 31:28

LISTEN TO TODAY’S SELECTION – Mother’s Day, 13 May

NEW WORDS

Look up there, high above us

In a sky of blackest silk

See how round, like a cookie

See how white, as white as milk

Call it the moon, my son, say “moon”

Sounds like your spoon, my son, can you say it

New word today, say “moon”

Near the moon, brightly turning

See the shining sparks of light

Each one new, each one burning

Through the darkness of the night

We call them stars, my son, say “stars”

That one is Mars, my son, can you say it

New word today, say “stars”

As they blink all around us

Playing starry-eyed games

Who would think it astounds us

Simply naming their names

Turn your eyes from the skies now

Turn around and look at me

There’s a light in my eyes now

And a word for what you see

We call it love, my son, say “love”

So hard to say, my son, it gets harder

New words today, we’ll learn to say

Learn moon, learn stars, learn love

…Me and Shirley T

Commonly associated with Hawaii, and with a Polynesian name that roughly means “jumping flea” due to the jumpy finger movements required to play its strings, the ukulele was developed in the 1880s with a design similar to that of both the cavaquinho and the raja, a couple of small guitars that had made their way to the islands with a shipload of Portuguese immigrants from Madeira and Cape Verde.

One of these newcomers, a cabinetmaker by trade, began to churn out this hybrid instrument within weeks of his arrival, to the vast delight the locals.   When Hawaiian King Kalākaua, a steadfast patron of the arts, heard the new instrument he roundly supported its usage at royal gatherings and by the 1915 Pan Pacific International Exhibition in San Francisco a ukulele ensemble headlined the Hawaiian Pavilion.

The ensemble was such a mainland hit that Tin Pan Alley and Vaudeville took note and a fad for Hawaiian-themed songs soon worked its way throughout the country.   Within a few years the portable, inexpensive ukulele, which now commonly comes in four sizes (soprano, concert, tenor, baritone) would gain world renown as one of the icons of the Jazz Age.

Born a half century later in Honolulu, in 1976, Jake Shimabukuro (whose mother gave him his first uke at the age of four) is a ukulele virtuoso who plays a custom-made four-string tenor model.  Having participated with a number of ensembles, Shimabukuro (who has experimented with myriad innovations including effect pedals) made his initial mark with the release of an instructional DVD called Play Loud Ukulele, which was soon followed by scoring credits for a Japanese film Hula Girls. 

A spokesman for “Music is Good Medicine” (promoting music, arts and the importance of a healthy life) Shimabukuro went on to perform on stage with Jimmy Buffett  and accompanied fellow Hawaiian-born Bette Midler at The Royal Variety Performance before the Queen.

Today’s (ukulele) selection is “Me and Shirley T” and lest you worry that we’ve dug up another moppet-ode to Shirley Temple, let me assure you that the song is dedicated to another star that first saw the light of day in the mid-’30s at Chasen’s, an old school Beverly Hills restauraut opened by Three-Stooges fill-in Dave Chasen.

Best remembered for its chili, Chasen’s was a favored haunt of Hollywood celebrities including the young Shirley Temple who had requested a non-alcoholic cocktail. So an anonymous bartender mixed up a concoction made up of two parts Sprite, one part cherry juice, a splash of grenadine, all topped off with a maraschino cherry.

The mixture was a hit, not only with the spritely starlet, but with generations of kids, including (at some point) a very young Jake  Shimabukuro, who wrote “Me and Shirley T”  in honor of his affinity for the Shirley Temple Cocktail.

LISTEN TO TODAY’S SELECTION – Saturday 12 May