Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Lester Young: Polkadots and Moonbeams

It's a quiet, gray, rainy morning here in Maine. The kind of early fall morning that makes me long for a blanket, a cup of hot tea, and the smooth tone of Lester Young's saxophone.

Here's Lester Young ("Prez") playing on some kind of American Idol-style show where viewers could call in to vote for the best jazz solo of the evening. Now that's my kind of reality TV!

The song he's playing, "Polkadots and Moonbeams," was one of my grandparents' favorite songs. Papa used to call Nana his "pug-nosed dream" based on the schmoopy/sweet lyrics, and Prez makes it sound even sweeter on his sax. To tell the truth (and these may be fighting words in some locales), I do believe Lester Young is my favorite saxophone player of all time.

[Side note: In the comments of this video, viewers note that this was recorded in '57 or '58. Lester Young died of liver disease in '59 and he suffered very badly from the disease for the last two years of his life. It's amazing to me that he was likely very ill when this was taped, and while his notes are sometimes tired, the soul and feeling is still 100% there.]

Lester Young: Polkadots and Moonbeams

Monday, September 27, 2010

Banned Books Week: Celebrating the Freedom to Read!

Young Adult author Jo Knowles has started a meme in honor of Banned Books Week. Here's how it goes:

1. Go find your favorite banned book.
2. Take a picture of yourself with said book.
3. Give that book some love by explaining why you think it is an important book.
4. Post it to your blog.
5. Spread the word!

Fair warning: I'm going to get around to this in a meandering, probably long, somewhat non-sequitur way.

When I was a kid, my parents had strict rules about what my siblings and I could read, watch, or listen to (witchcraft, magic, monsters, and violence were high on the censored list) and I was an extremely obedient child. While my siblings would sneak a little AC/DC, lie to my parents about a movie they were going to see, or "accidentally" lose notes meant for a teacher, I was a different breed.

I remember vividly the dozens of times I walked, red-faced and heart-pounding, to the front of the classroom to quietly tell the teacher I wasn't allowed to read the book that had been chosen. As a result, I read Robinson Crusoe instead of Lord of the Flies, sat out in the hall while the kids watched Dungeons and Dragons during a special library treat, and skipped music class on the days they sang songs about Halloween (though I got to know the lyrics pretty well since kids would sing them to me tauntingly over recess..."oooooo Witches' Brew...").

I didn't mind the ridicule from my classmates because I was being a good girl. I was following the rules, doing the right thing. But I was a voracious reader and I *did* mind missing out on the books.

Half MagicMost painful in my mind is the time I brought Edgar Eager's Half Magic home from the library. I must have been in third grade or so because in our school library, K-2 kids were only allowed to check out picture books and easy readers. Our librarian didn't want us to be tempted by anything that wasn't "age-appropriate" (oh, how I coveted the novels in the big kids' section!) I'd convinced myself that since the coin Jane finds in Mr. Eager's book is only half magic, it would be okay to read. Besides, the book was full of adventure and historical (and hysterical!) hijinks. I'd picked it up and I couldn't put it down. But when my mom came up to tuck me in that night and found me reading the book, she was livid. I closed the book and tearfully promised to return it the next day.

That night was the longest night of my 8-year-old life. I couldn't sleep because my brain was working out the following logic: a) I'd checked out a book about magic, b) books about magic were evil, c) I liked the book about magic, so d) I was evil. I felt horrible. Even worse, knowing that it was evil, I still wanted to find out what happened to Jane and her siblings in King Arthur's Court. Further proof that I was evil. In an extraordinary feat of will power, mostly to prove to myself that I could still be good if I tried, I cried myself to sleep and returned the book.

Two important things happened after that that changed my life.

The first was that I became good friends with Mrs. Letherman, an elderly friend of the family who had a summer cabin on our road. Every week, I would ride my bike to her house and help weed her garden. After gardening, we'd drink chamomile tea and talk about books. Her cabin walls were covered from floor to ceiling with books. And Mrs. Letherman gave me an unfathomable gift: she told me that as long as I was at her house, I was allowed to read anything on her shelves. Anything. "Even if it's too old for me?" I asked, my eyes probably popping out of my head looking at all those books. She thought that was a ridiculous question.

Being the consummate good girl, I still tried to choose books my mother would approve of, but still. The fact that an adult had opened that door, had trusted me with every piece of knowledge she had, meant something huge to me.

Years later, the second important thing happened: I read The Lord of the Rings. This was probably the first time I blatantly ignored my parents rules about reading. I was fifteen. I picked up the first book knowing it was against the rules. I read it anyway. At home. In front of my parents. And when my mother threatened to throw it away, I took to keeping the paperback on my person (in the back pocket of my baggy jeans), guarding it at all times.

I'd been told the trilogy was satanic (the same reason a church in New Mexico gave when they burned the trilogy as recently as 2001), but I didn't see anything satanic about it at all. Here was a story about loyalty and friendship, about choosing truth and goodness over evil, about love and poetry and courage. While I read, I felt my worldview shaking. This was not an evil book. It was perhaps the most un-evil book I'd ever read. So what did that mean about the rest? Bridge to Terabithia, and Lord of the Flies, and countless other books I'd missed out on over the years?

I resolved, over the pages of J.R.R. Tolkien's masterpiece, to always read what I wanted to read and make up my own mind about the content, whatever the consequences. To this day, I believe that The Lord of the Rings taught me to think critically, question my own beliefs, and always strive to be a better human being. I'm grateful every day for the freedom to read. For public libraries and for all of the librarians and teachers out there who fight to provide access to all kinds of books for all kinds of readers.

Post script: Thankfully, my mom did eventually make her peace with Tolkien. He was a Catholic, after all, and friends with C.S. Lewis who is the perfect born-again role model (though for most of my life, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe was also banned from our house...witches and magic and all). And some of my defiance wore off. My younger sisters were allowed to read Harry Potter without threats of ripping out the pages, so I like to think I was responsible for a little progress here and there.

Post-post script: I did get to finish Half Magic, eventually. On my 21st birthday, my dear friend Amy gave me a copy. It was every bit as good as I remembered it.

Information on Banned Books Week can be found at the ALA.

Now it's your turn...what is your favorite banned book? Here are a few great ones to choose from:
Bridge to TerabithiaThe Chocolate War (Readers Circle)Lord of the Flies, Educational EditionThe Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time IndianThe Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time IndianTo Kill a Mockingbird: 50th Anniversary EditionThe GiverLessons from a Dead Girl

Friday, September 24, 2010

Grab Bag Friday: Handcrafted Guitars

My friend Carter Ruff just put up a lovely new website for his custom guitar business: Subterranean Music Works. Carter's guitars sound beautiful and are made with impressive old-fashioned care and attention to detail.

If you or anyone you know is in the market for a gorgeous, hand-crafted, custom built guitar (or if you just want to see pictures of the guitar-making process), please stop by the new website and check things out.

As long as you're at it, you might also take a gander at some of Carter's music...The Half Moon Jug Band is a blast.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Haberdashery Ensemble: Kitarto Reka

Kevin and I went to see this fantastic band over the weekend. I love it when musicians mix completely unexpected styles together. The Haberdashery Ensemble (an uber-talented trio based out of L.A.) played this crazy-wonderful mix of traditional Hungarian/Eastern European gypsy music with jazz and classical elements thrown in. And just when you felt like you were getting settled in, they'd mix it up with something wild like a haunting Danny Elfman tune, or a heartbreakingly beautiful version of a Beatles song, or even nuttier, a cover of YMCA (yes, the one and only). In a word, it was awesome. If they are ever playing in your area, you should go!

Haberdashery Ensemble: Kitarto Reka

Monday, September 20, 2010

Tough Issues in KidLit

Mary PoppinsI've been following two very interesting, worthwhile discussions in the kidlit blogosphere today. Both have been discussed before but deserve revisiting from time to time:

#1: What to Do About Classic Children's Books that are Racist?
Monica Edinger (and Phil Nel via link) tackle the issue of how to deal with racism in classic children's literature. Should we forbid kids to read the original versions of well-loved books like Mary Poppins or Dr. Doolittle because of the obvious and offensive racism that exists in the novels? Should we allow them to read only the "updated" versions of these texts? Or allow them to read the originals, but only with supervision and discussion? Very tricky. Very interesting. Very thoughtful insights by Edinger, Nel, and the many folks who have commented on their posts.

#2: What Is the Opposite of "Clean"?
Young Adult author Jo Knowles discusses the problem of classifying books that don't contain sex or swears as "clean." She writes, "I know the people who make "CLEAN BOOKS" lists are well intentioned. This is not an attack or accusation. It's a plea for all of us to think about the potential power of our words." There are many amazing, important books for children and teens that deal with tough issues, and I agree that it can be dangerous to think of these books as lesser because a swear word or difficult content prevent them from showing up on a "clean books" list. It's even more dangerous to start thinking of them, as Knowles notes, as the opposite of "clean." Again, her blog post as well as the insightful comments give much food for thought.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Grab Bag Friday: Be Baba Leba

Songs I Like to SingApparently, the start of school and the novel I'm working on are taking up so much space in my brain that I can't remember anything else in my life. The other day, I walked out of the house and got all the way to the car before I realized I was wearing my fuzzy slippers instead of shoes!

So here is the video I was planning to post on Wednesday and completely forgot about. Since I've been following kind of a chain reaction of music videos, from Cathedrals to Hootin the Blues to The Blues Ain't Nothin But a Woman (with a brief vocal bit by Helen Humes), I thought I'd move on to one of Helen Humes' big hits.

As I mentioned last week, Helen Humes started recording when she was 14 years old, and in 1938, she took Billie Holiday's spot in the Count Basie orchestra (Lady Day was just starting to see a big rise in popularity and moved on to sing with Artie Shaw; she recorded "Strange Fruit" in 1939). Now, I always wondered what that must have been like, being the girl that came after Billie Holiday. A lot of people would find that more than a little intimidating. How do you fill those shoes? How could you possibly measure up?

But that's what I like so much about Helen Humes. She didn't really seem to care. I've read some interviews with her and she seems like she really just wanted to have a good job, sing, and have fun. She turned down Count Basie's first offer because she didn't want to travel a lot and he was offering her less money than she was making in Harry James' sweet band. (As a big band snob, I think What kind of crazy person would choose Harry James over Count Basie? Who cares about money at a time like this?) But she wasn't trying to be a star in the way so many girl singers were. Anyway, enough talk. Here she is with Dizzy Gillespie's orchestra in about 1947.

Helen Humes: Be Baba Leba

Monday, September 13, 2010

Jane Yolen: Take Joy!

Take Joy: A Writer's Guide to Loving the CraftThis morning, I am working hard to finish up one more revision of my novel. Skimming through my notebook, I found a quote I had written down from Jane Yolen's book on writing, Take Joy: A Writer's Guide to Loving the Craft. Jane Yolen has been an inspiration to me since I was teenager, so I thought I'd pass this on to you.

"So here's a wish from the Winter Queen for all of you: May you choose well those things to carry you into the even tide of your own lives. Make a raft of those choices, a raft that will slip easily through stormy seas, where the waves are wild and bright with foam. And may you come at last, as I have, to safe harbor and a welcoming shore with many books to hand, those you have written and those you hope to have time still to read."

I love the idea of making a raft of our choices. It's an interesting way to think about decisions as we all head toward that even tide. Will this sustain me? Will this travel well? And the welcoming shore with many books to hand? Now, that's my idea of heaven!

Friday, September 10, 2010

Grab Bag Friday: Continuing to Peep After the Frogs Go to Sleep

This summer, my sister-in-law Ellen Crow added her lovely voice (or peep, as you will see in this week's post) to the blogosphere. Her new blog, the earth is my journal and the ink is my breath (the title is from a Jeannine Parvati Baker quote) is a lovely set of musings on life, work, nature, and spirit. This week, I loved her description of a spruce tree filled with birds:
"It sounded at first like an enchanted rain, in which songs were trapped in each droplet, bursting open with music as they broke over branch and trickled down through the gray air."
Then later, she compares the birds in the overfull tree to the millions of voices online and contemplates her place in the online landscape:
"If this online land we've mutually created suddenly sounded, it's murmur rising above the pecking of my keys, resonant with millions of voices, humid with emotion, a storm cloud promising life, thunder, release . . . I imagine some corner of this land would light up like the spruce this morning, voluminous with invisible minstrels, and it would because we gather, and peep, squawk, or trickle out our particular verse for this particular moment on our particular path."
Reading Ellen's blog forces me to take a moment to slow down, think quietly, and breathe. I hope you'll stop by, say hello, and add your own peep to her world.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

The Blues Ain't Nothin but a Woman...

September's a bit of a theme month, I guess. In last week's search for the Terry & McGhee song "Jump Little Children," I came across this live performance of "The Blues Ain't Nothin' but a Woman." Brownie McGhee, Sonny Terry, Helen Humes, Willie Dixon, and Memphis Slim all on vocals? So sweet.

I discovered Helen Humes in high school when I was on a real Count Basie kick and have been a fan of her sweet, girlish tone ever since. Humes started singing as a teenager and joined Harry James' Orchestra pretty early on. She replaced Billie Holiday as the girl singer in Count Basie's band in the late '30s.

Hmmm...I guess next week, I'll have to post some Helen Humes!

The Blues Ain't Nothin' but a Woman:

Monday, September 6, 2010

James Wright: Autumn Begins In Martins Ferry, Ohio

Happy Labor Day, all!

Football season has officially arrived and Kevin will likely spend Labor Day morning watching yesterday's Tivo'd Notre Dame game (no spoilers, please). Football season means weekends change drastically in our house, and believe me, this used to be a big point of contention. I've never been a football fan or understood the desire to sit in front of the TV for hours on end on what is often a beautiful weekend day.

Until, with true Midwestern lemons-into-lemonade determination, I decided to train myself to write on football Sundays.

I've never been the kind of writer who can work with noise of any sort. No music, no movement, nothing. But for the last couple seasons, I've forced myself to write during football. Now, when the game starts, I type away with the roar of the crowd in the background and tasty football snacks within reach. Kevin can occasionally yell out "watch this play!" and I can ask "what do you think of this line?" He gets his game, I get some pages done, and all in all it's a lovely Sunday (or Saturday) afternoon. Go team!

In honor of the season, here is a James Wright poem I adore:

Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio
by James Wright

In the Shreve High football stadium,
I think of Polacks nursing long beers in Tiltonsville,
And gray faces of Negroes in the blast furnace at Benwood,
And the ruptured night watchman of Wheeling Steel,
Dreaming of heroes.

All the proud fathers are ashamed to go home.
Their women cluck like starved pullets,
Dying for love.

Their sons grow suicidally beautiful
At the beginning of October,
And gallop terribly against each other's bodies.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Concert in Damariscotta Tonight!

Tonight, I'll be the featured performer at the Round Top Coffee House open mic at Round Top Barn (formerly known as Round Top Center for the Arts.) This coffee house is super cozy and friendly, and most importantly, there is delicious ice cream very very nearby (see directions below). I hope to see you there! (Earl is *not* invited!)

Round Top Coffee House
Damariscotta, Maine
6:30 open mic; 8:30-9:30 featured performer (that's me!)
Price: $6, $3 seniors, 12 & under free

Directions: US Rte. 1B in Damariscotta, next to Round Top Ice Cream. There is ample parking.

Volunteers are needed to provide additional baked goods fr the show and will earn free admission!

For more information, call Heather Hardy or Jason Anthony at 677-2354 or the DRA at 563-1393.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee: Hootin' the Blues

Last week, I posted about Jump, Little Children's beautiful song Cathedrals, and since their band name was based on a Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee song, I planned to track down a video of that and post it. Alas, no video is to be found. Here is a link to the mp3 instead.

And all is not lost. Check out this awesome video of Terry & McGhee playing "Hootin' the Blues" on an old 1960's broadcast of Pete Seeger's Rainbow Quest. Hootin' indeed!

Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee: Hootin' the Blues