Archive for June, 2009

Sing For and About America, Part Two

June 30, 2009

Before taking another step forward:  go back and read Part One.

Thanks. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .>> > > > . . . . . . . . . .>>>>>>

After moaning and groaning about how poorly we are in introducing our children to the “American Songbook” as what should be an essential part of their education,  let us look at a remarkable European choral group that has made its interest in folk music and folk culture the most prominent feature of its work and the purpose for its existence.

I was not even aware of the  existence of this choral group,  nor was Native Daughter Billie (my long-suffering wife),  until nearly two years ago when a childhood friend and Confirmation Class mate sent her from Germany a CD done by the group and titled “Sing Along, America.”  Interestingly, the group was founded in Stuttgart in 1959 (and is still located there), the year of our wedding in the City Hall of this great metropolis.  So this is the fiftieth anniversary for all of us.

The “Onnen Chor” was founded by Gerd Onnen.  Today his son Manfred is the group’s maestro and also a soloist, as is Catherine Onnen. It has expanded its repertoire of vocal music in about 60 original languages (just consider that!) and over 350 titles. In its aptly-named “Boundless” collection,  these languages/cultures are represented:  Malaysia, Latin American, Ireland, Poland, Germany, Denmark, Spain, USA, Turkey, South Africa, England, Wales, Israel, Mexico, Russia, Switzerland, Iceland, Australia, and Scotland.

The subtitle of the “Sing Along, America” CD says (in German) “From the Dakotas to Broadway,  A Glimpse at the Musical History of the USA.” In terms of historical time,  the songs on this CD, with one or two exceptions, cover a period from the antebellum (pre-Civil War) South to the 1970s.  It represents,  as a liner note puts it,  these genres of music:  Folklore, Country, Spiritual und Gospel, Blues, Film, Musical.  The original name given to the group was “Folklorechor Stuttgart,”  and it annually has an extensive series of concerts in Stuttgart halls and theaters.

I have listened to the complete disk now two or three times and continue to admire the quality of the performances and the variety.  I was unfamiliar with a few of the selections,  but most I knew quite well.  The Stephen Foster song (he is represented by three compositions) “Old Folks at Home”  (“Way down upon the Sewanee River”) is rendered in contemporary “Standard English” rather than the original Negro dialect,  such as is found in the songbook of my youth (“The New Brown Book”):  “‘Way down upon de Swanee Ribber, Far,  far  away,/  Dere’s wha’ my heart is turning ebber, Dere’s wha’ de old folks stay.”

In contrasting styles and modes, the last six selections are all from films or musicals:  “Tea for Two,”  “Moon River,”  “Beauty and the Beast,” “Where Do I Begin,”  “Somewhere,” and a medley from “Hair.”  I also enjoy the bumptious beats of such mid-range pieces as “Tavern in the Town,”  “Cotton Fields,” and “Oh Happy Day.”

Should you wish to find more about my interest in the “American Songbook” and how I discovered and responded to finding that copy of “The New Brown Book” in Western North Carolina,  you might wish to find and read the eighth column I did for “The Sandspur,” which appeared in the August 6, 2006, issue.  It is titled “Music essential to American melting pot.”

If there is enough interest I can “post it” on this site.

Hope you will have a great Independence Day weekend!

RJR

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Sing For And About America, Part One

June 29, 2009

Listen up!

Have you noticed that those who study and practice music in some fashion generally become students who, on most measurements of intelligence, are found to be more highly capable than those who are deprived of such experiences?

This is why it pleases me to read that Cumberland County School Superintendent Till avows his commitment to the arts as well as to athletics in public school curricula.  This is why it also pleases me to read that such a prominent sports figure as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is a Washington lobbyist for music education in the schools.

Why many of us may regret that music education is neglected,  we usually express more concern that we have lost track of physical fitness as an essential goal for our schools.  Kids are getting fatter,  kids are getting unhealthier,  kids ride busses back and forth to school, and ride in cars back and forth to nearly every destination.(Only a small fraction of students usually are part of active athletic teams.)

But I suspect we have done even less to educate all our students by having them sing from the “American Songbook” and by introducing them to at least  a rudimentary knowledge of both instrumental and vocal music.  (Dance and graphic arts are other important curricular topics that I will not address here.)

Why is music education so important, especially in learning and practicing the music that is part of our American history and, as well, part of our knowledge of world cultures?

In my simple one-room country school in northeastern Kansas,  we had few resources and limited guidance in our music education.  What we did have was Mrs. Clara Haller, who not only taught all eight grades, but also was a trained pianist who would lead us in singing two or three songs every day from “The New Brown Book” of over 110 “Community Songs.” It bore the title “I Hear America Singing.”  (I found a copy of this old treasure in a roadside antiques kiosk several years ago, and I treasure it.)

At our monthly very modest PTA meetings,  we would also listen to songs from adult members (or guests) and also perhaps be required to sing ourselves.  One song here (I guess it might be termed a “scat” piece) that was contemporary and popular and that that I recall standing up and singing with other scholars was “Mairzy Doats.”

This songbook was eclectic.  It was historically correct. Much of the language in it in the American songs (I wrote about this in my “Sandspur” column a couple of years ago) would now be considered “politically incorrect”  and, sadly, would probably be suppressed by educators more concerned about “offending” parents or adults in the community than providing a rich and stimulating education.

Sorry about that,  but the songs did exhibit authentic dialects and cultural conditions (see, for example, Stephen Foster’s robust and genuine “Old Folks at Home”) and are essential parts of American history and folklore.  Why are we afraid for our children to learn about that, the “real stuff”?

Part II of observations about this topic will follow in a day or so.  Probably more like “or so.”

RJR

Censorship? Suppression? By Whom?

June 21, 2009

I’ve been busy.

I’ve been distracted.

I’ve been inefficient.

I’ve been lazy.

Above all, I’ve been quite often neglecting to post a Blog. (Maybe I would move better and faster if I did “tweets” instead of blogs and was limited only to 140 characters.)  BTW,  can someone explain what, according to the “Twitter” program, is meant by a “character”?  I do know that I have been limited on other Websites by being required to use only so many “characters” or my message is cut off at the knees.  And certain nuances of writing (e.g., ”   “) seem not to be “characters.”

Today’s topic is book censorship.  My text comes from a letter to the Editor that appeared a week ago  (June 14) in the “Observer.”  It bore the title “Parents can’t judge a book by its cover” and was submitted by Christine Pavel of Fayetteville. Ms. Pavel addressed the letter to “the parents of all Cumberland County middle and high school students.  As summer approaches, so does the Summer Reading Program, which is implemented by the county, and I am urging parents to familiarize themselves with the content of the book(s) your child/children may choose to read this summer.”

Ms. Pavel goes on to mention two books that were on the list for the summer of 2008 that, she observes, “contained story lines that are totally inappropriate for students to read.”   The books she singled out are Henry Fielding’s 1749 novel “Tom Jones”  and Anthony Burgess’s 1962 novel “A Clockwork Orange.”   Both novels were made into motion pictures that were considered both successful and creatively excellent:  “Tom Jones” in 1963 (won four Oscars* including “Best Picture”),  directed by Tony Richardson with Screenplay by John Osborne;  and the second film adaptation (the first was done by Andy Warhol in 1965) of “A Clockwork Orange” in 1971, directed by Stanley Kubrick.

I don’t know whether Ms. Pavel had seen either or both of the film adaptations mentioned,  but I would urge all prospective censors or suppressors to consider that seeing an image directly vs. reading its description in print can have much different emotional and sensual impacts.  Furthermore,  an argument for suppression or rights of access to books should not be supported by references to the film version or versions.

As an example,  Tony Richardson’s treatment of the lustful dining scene with Tom Jones (played by Albert Finney) and Mrs. Waters/Jenny Jones (Joyce Redman), which is cleverly done as a “silent movie” scene,  emerges with far more sensuality and sexuality than the same as originally written by Henry Fielding in his acclaimed 1749 novel.  (Disclosure here:  my doctoral dissertation at the University of Nebraska in the late 1960s was titled “Tom Jones in Adaptation:  A Chronology and Criticism,” one feature of which was a study and analysis of the 1963 movie.)

In his novel as printed in 1749 and subsequent editions,  Fielding did use objectionable or unacceptable (at that time) language–but only in a form similar to the “bleeps” we often hear these days in TV programming.  The subtitle for Fielding’s novel is “The History of a Foundling.”  Tom himself is the foundling and therefore might in print be described by a rival as a b——d.  And a woman might be referred to by the colorful and outspoken Squire Western (the father of Tom’s true love Sophie) as a b——h.

“Tom Jones” is often regarded today,  especially because of its realism,  as the first English novel.  It is certainly worth the reading by a middle school or high school student (who should be strongly commended for his or her patience and persistence and more kudos for what has been learned)  for its elaborate plotting,  its historical references and contexts,  its exacting and robust language, and the worthiness of its transcendent theme,  “Amor vincit omnia.”

I have taught the second novel,  “A Clockwork Orange,” but only once and late in my career at UNCP.  It is not a novel that would probably be appropriate for a middle school student.  Using a different token:  I doubt that a many  (more likely none) of such an age group would be able or willing to read it.  It is replete with “droogs” (gang members) speaking in a strange lingo,  a blend of English and Russian words (for its time, it was futuristic,  supposing that England and Russia were now one nation and culture).

It is also classified as a “dystopian novel,” which is the opposite of a “utopian novel.”  The difference is in that the writer casts out a gloomy view of a future time while the optimistic writer would see the future as improved and enjoyable.  Burress’s novel, with young men acting out sexual fantasies and committing savage acts of mindless violence, is obviously in Dystopia with other twentieth-century fictions, such as Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World” and George Orwell’s much darker “1984.”

I feel that the novel it should be compared to from the nineteenth century is the great Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky’s “Crime and Punishment.”  I still recall vividly my rereading of this novel in the summer of 1955 as I faced great changes in my life:  a pending marriage to a young woman I did not love but whom I felt obligated to wed,  a pending move to a great industrial city  (Detroit,  Michigan, and I had never lived or even stayed overnight in a city of more than 20,000 people),  and taking on the challenge of graduate work in English at Wayne State University, where I would also teach two classes of Freshman Compostion, while not being yet 21.

Finding that summer of 1955 some solitude in the basement of our farm home (we three boys shared one bedroom),  I also brought forth from my subconscious a great fear and a transcending depression as I read anew about Dostoevsky’s hero’s murder of two old women for money as well as of his desire to demonstrate his moral superiority, to see if he had “the right stuff” to be a Nietzschean Superman. I vowed never to read this novel again;  it had threatened to destroy my soul.

I did not, on the other hand, regret having assigned “A Clockwork Orange” (an edition with Burgess’s glossary of coined words as an appendix) to my 200-level literature course.    Even though most of the students seemed to respond AT THAT TIME (and this is important to consider) with but lukewarm fervor to the plot, theme, and characters of the novel, I could tell that it had a profound effect on two or three male students as they identified their own search for manhood with Alex and his fellow droogs’ terrorism and recklessness, and with the state-sponsored psychological and moral rehabilitation of Alex, done so as to make him physically sick every time he viewed or imagined an aggressively sexual or a violent act.

I was fortunate to be able to have as our guest during this study Dr. Tom Leach, who had known and worked with Anthony Burgess when the latter was in residence at UNC-Chapel Hill.

“A Clockwork Orange” has a powerful message for those in gangs or planning to be and for those who harbor or practice random acts of violence.  It is also offers a linguistic pastiche,  almost a miracle in itself,  and worth reading also at that level of understanding.  “Time” selected it as one of the best English-language novels published from 1923 to 2005. And, say I,  deservedly so.

Last night I watched a 2006 movie,  “Little Miss Sunshine,”  on the Oxygen channel.  Every character in that initially dysfunctional family,  except for Olive Hoover,  the seven-year-old eponymous hero,  uses language at times that is “bleeped out” for prime-time consumption.  And all in the family lack at least a good bit of good sense and have not much of heroic character.  Yet,  after many travails and setbacks,  the family unites behind Olive’s improbable quest and becomes a force to be reckoned with.

Far better,  I think, for a young viewer to see this movie (or read either “Tom Jones” or “A Clockwork Orange”) than to view either of the movies screening on the Lifetime Movie Network the same evening:  “Gospel of Deceit,” in which the female partner of a joint ministry falls in lust with a young parishioner; and “My Stepson,   My Lover,”  title being self-explanatory.

Ms. Pavel’s concerns and her interest in ensuring that our children “grow up in a positive environment with positive influences” are commendable ambitions.  But the prospect of suppression or book censorship would make the American Library Association,   the American Civil Liberties Union, and most educational administrators cringe inwardly or rise up in protest.

Parents must share actively in seeing that their children get a sound education.  I seek to keep in mind a sound mantra forged by a colleague at UNCP:  “One must not sacrifice truth or knowledge upon the altar of political correctness.” And “political correctness” comes in many guises and disguises, many of which are donned by parents, guardians,  community members,  and educational administrators who have good intentions or who are too timid to stand the ground on which their intellectual convictions were formed.

RJR

The Millionth English Word? Or Not?

June 15, 2009

Son Ron directed my interest to this CNN story, in which “Web 2.0” is identified via a complex computerized search to have become (just lately, mind you) the one millionth word to enter the English language.

There is no doubt among professional linguists or casual language historians (such as ourselves, yes?)  that English is unrivaled as the language with the richest,  most diverse, and largest culture of language in the world today.  And it has been so for a considerable length of time.

“What is a word?” is a question, however, that is not easily answered.  I would not, for example, consider “wardrobe malfunction” to be a word but rather a two-word phrase that became a popular term because of its widespread usage to describe a particularly unusual and controversial occurrence on a TV program reaching a very large audience.

Keep in mind as you review the CNN piece what linguists would usually agree a “word” to be.  Here is the definition of “word” from a well-regarded contemporary American English collegiate dictionary, one with which I would concur:  “A sound or a combination of sounds, or its representation in writing or printing, that symbolizes and communicates a meaning and may consist of a single morpheme or a combination of morphemes.”  Doesn’t quite capture the principle, though, that it also must (or must it?) stand by itself as an expression with complete meaning. Thus “agri-” would not be considered a word nor would “American agriculture” but “agriculture” would.  Same with such an affix as”-ize.”

Have fun!

http://www.cnn.com/2009/TECH/06/10/million.words/index.html?eref=rss_topstories

RJR

Are Ya Cruisin’ for a Bruisin’?

June 10, 2009

I’m writing this from the “Mountains Library near Lake Lure. 

Just recently, reading an extended essay about British writer Ian McEwan,  I came across a little game that McEwan once got going with his British friends and fellow writers Christopher Hitchens and Martin Amis.

Fellows got into a game trying to one-up each other on variations of the familiar phrase “cruisin’ for a bruisin’.”  Note that in all instances here they seem to have dropped the “g” sound as the more casual  form seemed more appropriate. 

The writer of the essay reporting this gave two excellent examples of the variations the three came up with,  while avoiding some of the scatalogicalical and sexual variants.

I got so intrigued by this challenge that I spent several early mornings trying to create good  specimens.   Here is one of my poorer (at least in my judgment) attempts:  “Are ya rootin’ for a bootin’?”  Keep in mind that each example is, in effect, a kind of dare to the person addressed, asking him (probably not her) to make a choice and threatening to deliver some harm to the listener.

Give it your best shot.  I will in a few days share with you the two examples given in the essay that a member of this distinguished literary trio came up with.  And I all also share several “pretty good ones” (IMHO) that I came up with.

RJR

“Tom Swift” Strikes Again!

June 5, 2009

Going on vacation to the Lake Lure area tomorrow for a week with the missus, she being now so called that for fifty years since our marriage at the Stuttgart Town Hall on June 4, 2009.

Someone said in a 1928 silent movie (“The Crowd”) I watched on TCM the other night,  “Marriage isn’t just a word.  It’s a sentence.”  Well, if so, so be it. I’ll hope for a pardon from President Obama as his first term ends with the new elections in late 2012. . . .

Some of my more faithful and longterm readers (such as Marshall Faircloth and Frank Maness) may recall the “Tom Swiftly” competitions I ran on this “blog” two or three times. Well, here’s your chance to compete in a New York Times  national competition.  Cousin Bob brought this to my attention:  go to the link below and post your sentence.   I would suppose that you could enter more than once. . . .

Best to all,

RJR

Schott’s Vocab: Weekend Competition: Tom Swifties 

Man, Er, Rather Bear, Walks into a Bar

June 2, 2009

        Not a three-legged dog, or a parrot, or a gorilla this time.  And certainly not a man, who is the usual focus of that clever story that begins “A man goes into a bar . . . .”

This one you may have come across before. I like it for the clever alliterative patterns.   Alliteration, as you surely know or remember, was the structural basis for Old English or Anglo-Saxon verse, as with “Beowulf”; the story following, though, would not be as amusing were Beowulf, rather than the bear, the central character, the antagonist to the bartender’s protagonist.  Anyway, here is the story, as recently sent to me (probably for a second time) by Champaign Bob, my first cousin,  my elder,  and my better.

A bear walks into a bar in Billings, Montana, and sits down. He bangs on the bar with his right paw and demands a beer.  The bartender approaches and says,  “Look, we don’t serve beer to bears in bars in Billings.”                                                   The bear, becoming angry, demands again that he be served a beer.                                                                                               The bartender tells him again, more forcefully,  “We don’t serve beer to belligerent bears in bars in Billings.”                    The bear, very angry now, says,  “If you don’t serve me a beer, I am going to eat that woman sitting at the end of the bar.”                                                                                                   The bartender retorts,  “Sorry, we don’t serve beer to belligerent and bully bears in Billings.”                                        The bear goes to the end of the bar, and, as promised, eats the woman.  He comes back to his seat and again demands a beer.                                                                                                  The bartender states confidently,  “Sorry, but we especially don’t serve beer to belligerent, bully bears in Billings who are drug users.”                                                                               The bear looks at him quizzically and says,  “I am not on drugs.”                                                                                               The bartender looks steadily and severely at him and says, “You are now.  That was a barbitchyouate.”

Can you top that one?

RJR