14 December 2009

Read Your Own Books Challenge 2010

In keeping with my new year's resolution of using up what I already have (big noodle casseroles with those Cash and Carry egg noodles, collaging from current ephemera...) I have decided to Read My Own Books in 2010. (Hit the button at the right to see the challenge.)  I made a list of ones I have that I have been meaning to read- some I have been toting around since college!  In no particular order, and followed by the approximate years they have spent, unread, in my possession:

  • The Red Dancer, Richard Skinner (2 yrs)
  • Jonathan Strange & Mr Norell, Susanna Clark (1 year)
  • The White Bone, Barbara Gowdy (3 yrs)
  • The First World War, John Keegan (5+ years)
  • The Crimson Petal and the White, Michael Faber (2 yrs)
  • Peter the Great, Robert Massie (7+ years)
  • Be Sweet, Roy Blount Jr. (3 yrs)
  • Stone's Fall, Iain Pears (1 yr)
  • The Meaning of Night, Michael Cox (1 yr)
And those are the books that have made it out of boxes in the last year I have lived in my house!  It'll be a weird year for reading, leaping all over history. 

09 December 2009

Jingle Bells

The most insidious ear worm of them all.  Maybe.  Jingle Bells was written by a Boston Sunday School teacher named James Pierpont who just happened to hit on one of those mythic melodies that resonates with everyone.  Never knew the second verse, though.

Dashing through the snow in a one horse open sleigh
Over the fields we go,  laughing all the way
Bells on bobtail ring, making spirits bright
What fun it is to ride and sing a sleighing song tonight

Jingle Bells, Jingle Bells
Jingle all the way 
O what fun it is to ride in a one horse open sleigh

A day or two ago I thought I'd take a ride 
And soon, Miss Fanny Bright was seated by my side, 
The horse was lean and lank misfortune seemed his lot 
He got into a drifted bank and then we got upsot 

A day or two ago the story I must tell 
I went out on the snow, and on my back I fell; 
A gent was riding by in a one-horse open sleigh, 
He laughed as there I sprawling lie, but quickly drove away.

Of more interest to me would be some kind of study about how the alternate version spread from kid to kid until every kid in the country knows it.  Its weird, and so American.

Here's some versions from Rob Weir's blog:

Jingle Bells, Batman smells
Robin laid an egg
The Batmobile lost a wheel
and the Joker got away

Other reported versions include:

Shotgun shells, Santa smells,
Rudolf ran away,
Oh what fun it is to ride
in a beat-up Chevrolet!


Jingle bells, shotgun shells,
Santa Claus is dead,
Rudolf got a .22
and shot him in the head.


Jingle Bells, Shotgun Shells,
BB's in the air.
Oh, what fun it is to ride
in Santa's underwear!"


Jingle Bells, Batman smells
Robin laid an egg,
The Batmobile lost a wheel,
and the Joker joined ballet , Hey!

08 December 2009

A Third Peaceful and Nice Song

Said the night wind to the little lamb,
do you see what I see?
Way up in the sky, little lamb,
do you see what I see?

a star, a star, shining in the night
with a tail as big as a kite
with a tail as big as a kite

In October of 1962, an American reconnaisance mission flying over Cuba recognized Soviet nuclear missile bases being installed within launching distance of the US.  President John F Kennedy and his brother Bobby, the Attorney General, spent a frantic and stressful month trying to ensure their safe removal and unruffle the feathers of the Soviet alliance.  It is generally considered the closest the world ever came to full out nuclear war during the Cold War period. 
During the Cuban Missile Crisis, songwriter Noel Regney (who was, with his then wife Gloria Shayne Baker was also responsible for "Rain, Rain Go Away") was walking in New York City, worried, watching all the mothers with their babies in strollers, and thought of the line, "Pray for peace, people everywhere."  Regney himself was a Frenchman drafted by the Nazis during the occupation in World War II.  He deserted the German army and joined the French resistance, and was eventually wounded leading the Nazis into an ambush.  Methinks he may have known a thing or two about war and peace.  
Do You Hear What I Hear  is such a sweet picturesque song (I love the image, "a voice as big as the sea..") and when I used to teach pre-school Sunday School, the kidlets always loved it.  It's full of hope and love.

said the night wind to the little lamb
do you see what I see?
way up in the sky little lamb,
do you see what I see?
a star, a star shining in the night
with a tail as big as a kite

said the little lamb to the shepherd boy
do you hear what I hear?
ringing through the sky shepherd boy
do you hear what I hear?
a song, a song high above the trees
with a voice as big as the sea

said the shepherd boy to the mighty king
do you know what I know?
in your palace warm, mighty king
do you know what I know?
a child, a child shivers in the cold
let us bring him silver and gold

said the mighty king to people everywhere
listen to what I say!
pray for peace people everywhere
listen to what I say!
the child, the child, sleeping in the night
He will bring us goodness and light...

Second of Three Peaceful Christmas Songs

Maybe you have never heard the story of the Christmas Truce of 1914.  It is a true story, sometimes told with an exaggerated sentimentality, but incredibly poignant and miraculous.  I suggest you read it, here.  On Christmas Eve, in 1914, in the trenches of World War I, German and British soldiers spontaneously called a truce and suspended fire to fellowship, gather the dead, exchange gifts, and be human beings instead of cannon fodder for a few days.  The story is just devastating to me, but I tend to dwell overmuch on WWI, perhaps.  I can't watch movies about it because I get too despairingly sad.  So I have never seen the movie Joyeux Noel (2005), because, man, how depressing is that?  I mean nice. It's a nice story.  Nice stories are even harder for me to take sometimes than flat out misery.
Snoopy's Christmas (watch it below!!) is one of a series of novelty songs by the Royal Guardsmen inspired by Snoopy's imaginary adventures fighting the Red Baron in the comic strip Peanuts.   I think I can trace my weird nostalgia about WWI to the Peanuts show about Flanders Fields and these songs, which felt strangely imaginary to me until I discovered they were real as an adult.  I particularly love this song- the chorus is so sweet and catchy:

Christmas bells, those Christmas bells 
Ring throughout the land
Asking peace of all the world
And good will to man

The song parallels the Christmas Truce.  Here's the words:

Was the night before Christmas, 40 below
When Snoopy went up in search of his foe
He spied the Red Baron, fiercely they fought
With ice on his wings Snoopy knew he was caught.

The Baron had Snoopy dead in his sights
He reached for the trigger to pull it up tight
Why he didn't shoot, well, we'll never know
Or was it the bells from the village below. 

Christmas bells, those Christmas bells
Ring throughout the land
Asking peace of all the world
And good will to man

The Baron made Snoopy fly to the Rhine
And forced him to land behind the enemy lines
Snoopy was certain that this was the end
When the Baron cried out, "Merry Christmas, my friend!"

The Baron then offered a holiday toast
And Snoopy, our hero, saluted his host
And then with a roar they were both on their way
Each knowing they'd meet on some other day.

It was in fact the Germans who sent a chocolate cake into the Allied trench that initiated the truce.   It's too much, really.  Like Christmas.

3 for 1 day- Christmas Song Overload!

Been remiss, so enjoy a three-for-one post about Christmas Songs for Peace.

Obviously "Happy Xmas (War is Over)" by John and Yoko comes to mind first when I think of Chirstmas songs written to celebrate or beg for peace.  Featuring the infamous Phil Spector 'wall of sound', it was recorded in October 1971, and the kids singing in the background are the Harlem Community Choir.  Apparently the recording starts with a quiet little whisper from John and Yoko to their children, "merry christmas, Kyoko...merry christmas, Julian" which alone makes me want to cry. 
1971 sucked, despite a dramatic diplomatic breakthrough in China.  The war in Vietnam was a bloodbath.  In April of that year, American deaths in Vietnam passed 45,000.  The Pentagon Papers, the secret archive of the shocking White House administrations' movements towards the war, began to be published in the New York Times.  The captain responsible for the massacre of civilians at My Lai was acqutted of all charges.  What a song to write in the midst of this time in America!  The name of the song comes from John and Yoko's billboard campaign in 1969.  The billboards read, War Is Over (If You Want It)- Happy Christmas from John and Yoko and were installed in eleven cities around the world. 
The song rates on some people's worst Christmas songs ever lists, which is pretty Grinch-like if you ask me.  Yoko's whole schtick annoys me as much as anybody, but come on.  How can you remove a song so completely from its context and find much to gripe about here?  Its a charming melody, even if the words get a little insipid here and there.  My favorite version is by Sarah McLachlan, believe it or not.
By the way, let me inject here a note about the abbreviation "Xmas".  It is not, as some paranoid evangelicals have claimed, "crossing out Christ".  X happens to be a traditional abbreviation for the Saviour, as in the Chi-Rho symbol the emperor Constantine saw in the sky:

representing the first two letters of Christos, Christ, in the Greek, or in the letters inscribed on the cross in the Eastern Orthodox church, the so-called Christogram: 

It stands for, roughly transliterated, without the Greek alphabet, cuz I'm lazy, Iesous Christos.  NIKA, btw, means "conquers".  Jesus Christ Conquers is what this ancient symbol means.
All that to say, the X in Xmas stands for Christ, it doesn't "cross him out".  
Oh dear, I seem to have gone on.

04 December 2009

Have yourself a depressing little Christmas.

It is a great American tradition to try to make things seem better than they are.  Eternal optimism.  Can do attitude.  Looking on the bright side.  Take the nostalgic old tune, Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.  The best version has got to be John Denver and Rowlf the Dog from A Christmas Together.  Found the YouTube video here!
Here's the words:

have yourself a merry little Christmas, let your heart be light
from now on our troubles will be out of sight
have yourself a merry little Christmas, make the yule tide gay
from now on our troubles will be out of sight...

It's all polished wood and families in pretty sweaters and glasses of warm brandy and candles in the window on a dark snowy night.

Of course the original song, from the 1944 film Meet Me In St. Louis, was closely tied to the plot of the movie, and taken out of context, it is depressing as hell.  Put it in the terrifying waning days of world war 2 (we only know it was waning in hindsight, remember!) and man, is it a downer!

have yourself a merry little Christmas,  it may be our last
next year we all may be living in the past...

no good times like in olden days, happy golden days of yore

faithful friends who were dear to us, will be near to us no more

Who could bear to listen to that at Christmas!  In fact it was sung by the original artist, Judy Garland, at the Hollywood Canteen in 1944 and it brought the soldiers in attendance to tears.  It was Frank Sinatra who asked that the song be cheered up for his recording of it.  God forbid we should face what the legend and expectations of the perfect family Christmas means for those who can't have it.  Perish the thought of pausing in Nordstrom when the piano plays a melancholy tune.  We have shopping to do!

03 December 2009

Baby, it was really stupid to come over here tonight

I have a huge peeve about the song "Baby, It's Cold Outside".  In fact, I call it the date rape song.  I hate that people sing it thoughtlessly and don't notice the lyrics.  It is a reprehensible song.  Written by Frank Loesser in 1944, it was even given an Academy Award in 1949 for Best Song.  In it, 'the wolf', a lusty man, tries to entice 'the mouse', a reluctant girl, to stay past her curfew and...
Well here's the words, emphasis mine, in case you never listened closely to them.  This is the mouse's part:

I really can't stay
I've got to go away
this evening has been so very nice
my mother will start to worry
and father will be pacing with fury
so I really better scurry
well maybe just a half a drink more
the neighbors might think
say...what's in this drink?
I wish I knew how to break the spell
I ought to say no, no, no
at least I can say that I tried
I really can't stay
the answer is no
this welcome has been so nice and warm
my sister will be suspicious
my brother will be there at the door
my maiden aunt's mind is vicious
well maybe just a half a drink more
i've got to go home
say, lend me a coat?
but don't you see? 
there's bound to be talk tomorrow
at least there'd be plenty implied

I really can't stay...

Okay, annoying little reluctant mousie, didn't your mama ever teach you to mean it when you say no?  But now listen 'the wolf''s response:

I really can't stay... but baby, it's cold outside
I've got to go away... baby, it's cold outside
this evening has been so very nice... I'll hold your hands, they're just like ice!
my mother will start to worry...  beautiful, what's your hurry?
and father will be pacing the floor....listen to the fireplace roar
so I really better scurry...beautiful, please don't hurry
well maybe just a half a drink more...put some music on while I pour (??!!)
the neighbors might think...baby it's bad out there
say...what's in this drink? no cabs to be had out there
I wish I knew how to break the spell...I'll take your hat, your hair looks swell
I ought to say no, no, no, sir...mind if I move closer?
at least I can say that I tried...what's the use of hurtin' my pride (really, dude??!!)
I really can't stay...baby, don't hold out
I simply must go...baby, it's cold outside

the answer is no...ooh darling it's cold outside
this welcome has been so nice and warm...look out the window at that storm
my sister will be suspicious...man, your lips look delicious
my brother will be there at the door...waves upon a tropical shore
my maiden aunt's mind is vicious...gosh, your lips ARE delicious
well maybe just a half a drink more...never such a blizzard before
i've got to go home...baby you'll freeze out there
say, lend me your coat?...it's up to your knees out there
but don't you see? how can you do this thing to me?
there's bound to be talk tomorrow...think of my life long sorrow
at least there'd be plenty implied...if you caught pneumonia and died
I really can't stay...get over that hold out
aah, but it's cold outside
So, essentially, he has slipped her a mickey, he's guilting her into sleeping with him by appealing for his loss of pride, and he is essentially threatening her health and safety should she choose to leave.  How about offering her a ride home, dude?  How about respecting the wishes of her parents that she be safely home in the middle of a blizzard? 
Apparently Islamist Sayid Qutb witnessed young people at a church dance writhing and nasty dancing to this little ditty in the early fifties, and he wrote about it in the seminal work, "The America I Have Seen", which became a base text for Islamic radicals, including Al Qaeda.  Now THAT is a pedigree. 
Too bad the stupid song is so catchy. 

02 December 2009

The Dubious History of the Great American Christmas Song

Well, as usual I was totally  inspired by a podcast today.  In the case it was the unapologetically enthusiastic embrace of the folks at the Slate Culture Gabfest of Bob Dylan's Christmas Album, and the fascinating subsequent discussion of the derivation of some of our most beloved American Christmas songs.
For starters, the ubiquitous and nostalgic White Christmas, penned by Russian Jewish immigrant Israel Baline (later known as Irving Berlin) has already been sullied for me by the knowledge that the white Christmas crooner Bing Crosby used to know was in frigid Spokane, WA, my arch enemy.  If one can have a city for an arch enemy.  Which one can. 
If you have never encountered either the full version of the song or the unbearable (if only because of the blackface scene) film Holiday Inn for which it was written, you might be in for a little shock.   I first heard the whole song by Linda Ronstadt and was like, huh?
The sun is shining.
The grass is green.
The orange and palm trees sway.
There's never been such a day
In Beverly Hills, L.A.
But it's December the twenty-fourth,
And I'm longing to be up north.

 Here's a line from a review of Mark Rosen's book on the subject:

Ironies, abound, of course, since a secular Christmas song written by a Jewish immigrant became the embodiment of holiday nostalgia. Further, the very selling of the idea of a more tranquil, innocent, idealized holiday past helped fuel the American commercialization of Christmas.

Couldn't have said it better myself.   And I just love it. Watch Bing in all his glory here.

01 December 2009

Moby Dick

It being Christmas and all, I think it is time for a new obsession. How about Moby Dick? I have been listening to the American Icons series on Studio 360 and was reminded how obsessed people get with this novel of obsession.  It's one of those 'books about everything' that I love.  Plus Nantucket, 19th century, madness, cultural relativism, simple joy versus the consuming dark, God, the nature of evil, the barbarity of man, the indifference of Mother Nature, the power of the unknown, the meaning of suffering, the finality...or not... of death, bizarre ephemera, the white man's plunder of the planet, the lure and call of the sea, and a black ship covered in the remains of whales.  Among other things.  What's not to love? I had a mini obsession with the story of the whaleship Essex, especially the wonderful book by Nathaniel Phibrick, and of course being a Coffin I have a genetic pull to Nantucket Island.  I visited there, once, and found that while my body type and choice of apparel have no place among the current inhabitants, the whale bloodied and oil soaked ground do in fact have something to share with me.
 I have tried to read Moby Dick several times, and every time I do, I think, what a weird fricking book- which someone actually also says on the Studio 360 podcast.  It is unlike anything else I have read.
Something I learned from the podcast is that artist Frank Stella got obsessed with Moby Dick in the late seventies and spent 12 years creating a series of pieces based on the chapters of the book.   Though generally not a fan of Modern, angular and abstract art, I was intrigued by his idea: creating a piece of work to accompany every chapter of Melville's book.  All of them.
The titles of the chapters are themselves so evocative and romantic they nearly eclipse the need for the book.  And they can be misleading, as this McSweeney's bit points out.  Maybe I should try it. I am, of course, no Frank Stella, and realistically I can commit no more than 5 minutes a day to any artistic endeavor.  Moreover, I lose interest quickly.  

Chapter 1:
In Belfast I once attended a sermon in a church with a high, high looming pulpit, dark stained wood, and a definite portent of doom.  Below is the preaching scene from Moby Dick with Gregory Peck. (It's Orson Welles preaching, though.)  This is not at all how I pictured the church when I read the description in the book.   The church in my head, like the empty, draughty one in which I spent a boring two hours in Belfast, is dark, brooding, hopeless, damning, and threatening.  It is a coffin ship.