Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Blog Rerun: Duke Ellington & Mahalia Jackson: Come Sunday

I'm taking a couple days off for the holidays, but here's a blog rerun of a gorgeous Mahalia Jackson song. I also wanted to add a link to a live recording of Come Sunday from the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival at the top here. Enjoy!

Duke Ellington and Mahalia Jackson: Come Sunday (Originally posted November 29, 2006)

I have the good fortune this winter of singing as a guest vocalist for the Richard Nelson Quintet, a jazz quintet based here in Maine. We’re doing a holiday-ish concert in December that Richard is calling “A Concert in the Spirit of Peace and Serenity” (concert details are on my website). One of the first songs Richard asked me to sing for this show is one of my favorite melodies written by Duke Ellington: Come Sunday.

Besides the fact that “Come Sunday” has a gorgeous melody sung by one of my musical heroines, Mahalia Jackson, I’ve always been intrigued by the album it came from, Ellington’s Black, Brown and Beige. It’s interesting to me because we tend to see people in certain ways. When they move outside of that view we’ve created it can be, well, disconcerting to say the least.

Up until the 1940’s Duke Ellington was known pretty specifically for his big band and for popular songs like “Take the A Train” and “It Don’t Mean a Thing if it Ain’t Got that Swing.” Ellington was an extremely talented composer, and he began to experiment with even more complex music. In 1943, he performed an original symphony at Carnegie Hall: “Black, Brown, and Beige” which

"represented the story of African Americans in the United States. Black presented the people at work and at prayer, brown celebrated black soldiers who fought in American wars, and beige depicted African American music of Harlem." (Doris Greer)
The symphony wasn’t exactly jazz music, and it wasn’t exactly classical music. The critics couldn’t fit it into any set category of music, and their reviews and responses were so fiercely negative that Ellington never performed the entire piece in public again.

Luckily, he later recorded some of the music from this concert (though never the entire repertoire) on the album Black, Brown, and Beige, and it is there that we can here the lovely Mahalia Jackson singing Part IV: Come Sunday.

More information on Duke Ellington:
The “official” website
Ellington on Wikepedia
Smithsonian Jazz

Monday, December 27, 2010

Blog Rerun: J. R. R. Tolkien: The Father Christmas Letters

I'll be taking a couple days off to enjoy the holidays, but here's a blog rerun to tide you over:

J. R. R. Tolkien: The Father Christmas Letters (originally posted December 17, 2007)

Sometime in the 1920's, Father Christmas began writing letters to J. R. R. Tolkien's children. The letters came with his very own intricate drawings of the North Pole, elves, goblins, and of course Father Christmas's assistant: the North Polar Bear.

The letters tell the Tolkien children about all the yearly highlights and happenings in the North Pole. The North Polar Bear is always getting into scrapes. Like the year that he accidentally turned on two years' worth of Northern Lights:

It was the biggest bang in the world, and the most monstrous firework there ever has been. It turned the North Pole BLACK and shook all the stars out of place...

Father Christmas wrote these letters in his shaky handwriting every year for 20 years. I have a book that has some of the letters reproduced, in actual envelopes. You can pull out the letters and read them, just like the Tolkien children did all those years ago. Each year at Christmastime, I open up the envelopes and smile as I read about the adventures in the frozen North.

Apparently, there is a newer version that contains even more of the letters. I haven't seen it, but I don't think it has the pull-out letters (which are half the fun). It does have the gorgeous color illustrations, vividly intact. For Tolkien lovers like me, one version or another of this book is absolutely worth picking up.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Grab Bag Friday: My Favorite Holiday Treat, the Bowdoin Log

Merry Christmas everyone!

I hope you have a cozy holiday with family and friends and lots of nice surprises. And I hope you get to have all your favorite holiday treats this year. Here's mine, dripping with homemade hot fudge that tastes almost *exactly* like my dad's!

The Bowdoin Log

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Free Playlist: NPR's Best New Music from 2010

I love NPR.

Between now and February, you can download their Best New Music of 2010 iTunes playlist for free. Just open up the iTunes store, choose "Redeem" under Quick Links, and type in this code:

7KYL46FHXL49 [As Kelly noted, you need to get your own code by clicking the above link & following directions. Thanks, Kelly!]

I just downloaded mine, and it's got everything from R&B to classical to rock. I can't wait to find at least one new favorite.

And if you're looking to get in the holiday spirit, check out the Jingle Jams NPR Holiday Mix and peruse more great holiday music playlists on their site.

Happy listening!

Monday, December 20, 2010

Philip and Erin Stead: A Sick Day for Amos McGee

A Sick Day for Amos McGeeThere's a reason A Sick Day for Amos McGee is showing up on all the best-of-the-best picture book lists this year (including the New York Times Best Illustrated Children's Books of 2010). I just picked this up for one of my nieces, and it is endearing to the nth degree.

Amos McGee takes good care of the animals at the zoo. He takes time to sit with the shy penguin and wipe the rhino's constantly runny nose. So one day, when Amos McGee has to stay home sick, the animals decide to come to his house and take care of him instead.

I first read about Amos on Betsy Bird's Fuse #8 blog, where she wrote:

Could have been written last year, ten years ago, or fifty. Doesn’t matter because the word “timeless” may as well be stamped all over each and every doggone page.
All true. The pencil illustrations are filled with soft tones of yellow and pink, the story is sweet and charming and absolutely timeless. Usually when one of my nieces or nephews gets sick with the flu, or has to get tonsils removed, my go-to book is Many Moons by James Thurber. Now I have a new book to add to the sick-day list.

A couple fun links:
Philip Stead's Online Portfolio
Erin Stead's Blog

Friday, December 17, 2010

Grab Bag Friday: Give Water Get Music, The Robot Bump

Hooray, those robots really know how to get things done! After the robots endorsed my Give Water Get Music project last week, I went from 37% of my goal to 71%! That means, 71 people who do not have access to clean water will soon have a working well or water project in their area.

Last week, I told you a bit about the sanitation benefits of clean water access, but did you know there is an economic benefit, too? In places where gathering clean water is impossible, private water distributors charge individuals for water. This means that some of the poorest households spend up to 11% of their income on a very basic necessity. And even after paying for the water, there is no guarantee that it is clean. Often the distributors collect the water from ponds and streams that are contaminated with disease-causing bacteria.

My holiday wish is to provide clean water to 100 people for 20 years by 2011. There are 14 days left.

Will you please help with the final 29%?

If you've missed my video presentations, you can catch up:
Give Water Get Music: The Robot Version
Chicken Payback Holiday Wish Prezi

And here's a video about the organization I'm working with to fund the water projects. It's an inspiring look at how you really *can* make a difference in the world.

The Story of charity:water

The story of charity: water - The 2009 September Campaign Trailer from charity: water on Vimeo.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Lisbeth Zwerger: Swan Lake

Instead of writing Monday's blog post, Kevin and I were busy working on a 1500-word treatise/photo essay for my niece's grade school Flat Stanley project. (Okay, we were supposed to send a postcard, but this is what you get when you send a project like that to a couple of writers!)

So to make up for missing a post about books this week, I thought I'd do double duty today and write about books and music. I was in our lovely downtown bookstore this weekend and was lucky enough to come across Lisbeth Zwerger's Swan Lake on the sale shelf.

Zwerger's retelling of Tchaikovsky's ballet is beautiful in every way. The story of a woman who is transformed into a swan by an evil sorceror is simply told, and Zwerger's paintings are set in muted blues and grays that bring out the shroud of mystery that surrounds the tale.

The illustration of the Swan Queen on the cover is particularly stunning. I wish you could see it better here, but the way the cuff of the sleeve makes her hand look like a swan and the dress feathers out just a little at the's genius. There's another painting that shows the transformation of the girls into swans, and it is so odd and weirdly beautiful, it made me wonder why I never thought more carefully about the strangeness of that transformation--how awkward and bizarre it would actually be.

Knowing the story, I was surprised to find a happy ending on the last page, but it turns out Zwerger did not simply tack that on. She goes on to explain that Tchaikovsky's original production of Swan Lake in 1877 did indeed have a happy ending. The production was terribly received. Critics thought the story was stupid and the music was too noisy. When the ballet was re-staged in the early 1890's, the ending was rewritten as a tragedy.

One of the nice details of the book is that a small bit of the musical score is included at the top of each page. Here's the theme, played by the New York Philharmonic:

Tchaikovsky: Swan Lake

Friday, December 10, 2010

Grab Bag Friday: Robots Endorse Give Water Get Music

There are three weeks to go in my Give Water Get Music campaign, and thanks to many of you, we're 37% of the way toward my goal: funding clean water for 100 people for 20 years by 2011.

That means, so far, we've provided enough resources to bring clean water to 37 people, which is huge. That's 37 people who won't have to spend hours walking miles to the nearest water source every day. 37 people who don't have to suffer from stomach worms, skin rashes, or dysentery because that water they walked so far for was contaminated.

But there are still 63 people to go. Still $1250 to raise. So I got the robots involved.

Fair warning: I can't really be held responsible for the goofball humor involved in the video. I was born and bred on Archie Comics. It does something to the brain.

Please spread the word throughout your galaxy!

Give Water Give Music: The Robot Version

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Broken Social Scene on KCRW

Kevin and I got to spend Thanksgiving in his hometown Los Angeles, which is always an adventure for a girl from an unincorporated town of 800 people. In between trips to Intelligentsia (Kevin's coffee mecca) and celebrity sightings (I'll admit, I asked "Who's Toby Maguire?" and was promptly chagrined because I *did* of course adore the Spiderman movies), one of my favorite things about visiting L.A. is flipping between KCRW and KJAZZ on the car radio. I know, I know, I can listen to both stations online, but there's something extra cool about hearing them local.

Which reminded me that I haven't been regularly checking out all the great In Studio Sessions that KCRW posts on their YouTube channel each week. If you scroll down the sidebar, there are some great recent performances by Band of Horses, Arcade Fire, and Los Lobos to name a few. Here's a cool live version of 7/4 by Broken Social Scene.

Broken Social Scene: 7/4

Monday, December 6, 2010

Charles Dickens: Great Expectations

Great Expectations (Bantam Classics)I don't know how I managed to earn two English degrees without reading any Charles Dickens, but thank goodness there is still reading time after college. At the prompting of my younger sisters, I spent yesterday curled up in a blanket with Great Expectations in one hand and my tea in the other. What better way to spend a Sunday than getting caught up in a good yarn?

I loved how Dickens jumps straight into the action and keeps you riveted from the very first chapter. We meet Pip as a young boy who stumbles upon (and out of sheer terror, brings food to) a dangerous escaped convict. It couldn't get much more attention-grabbing than that.

I think what I loved most about the story, though, is that it's largely about those inevitable moments in our lives that change everything. Some are so momentous that they change everything instantly. The moment Pip meets Miss Havisham, for instance, he knows nothing can ever be the same. But so many more are moments that come and go without notice, and it is years, even decades later, before we realize how our lives have changed because of them.

Dickens writes this about Pip's first meeting with Miss Havisham:

"That was a memorable day to me, for it made great changes in me. But it is the same with any life. Imagine one selected day struck out of it, and think how different its course would have been. Pause you who read this, and think for a moment of the long chain of iron or gold, of thorns or flowers, that would never have bound you, but for the formation of the first link on one memorable day."

I wonder what small thing has happened today that could change, in a small or large way, the course of my life. Or yours?

Friday, December 3, 2010

Grab Bag Friday: Give Water Give Music Update

My holiday wish is to raise enough to bring clean water to 100 people before 2011. Thanks to lots of very generous people, we've achieved 25% of that goal and there are still 29 days left!

Unsafe water and lack of basic sanitation cause 80% of diseases and kill more people every year than all forms of violence, including war. Unlike many of our complicated world problems, this is a tragedy with a clear solution: clean water. 

If you help me, I'll send you free CDs as a thank you! Please take a moment to watch my Give Water Get Music presentation to find out how. Then, please spread the word. Together, we can make a significant difference.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Blog Rerun: Sam Phillips, Sister Rosetta Goes Before Us

I'm taking a bit of a break from my blog for Thanksgiving break. Here's a rerun featuring a Sam Phillips song that remains one of my favorite songs of the decade. 

Sam Phillips: Sister Rosetta Goes Before Us (originally posted June 4, 2008)

The new Sam Phillips album is out! Normally, I would listen to the album straight through from start to finish, but this time I had to go straight to Sister Rosetta Goes Before Us. Alison Krauss and Robert Plant covered the song on Raising Sand, and if you remember, I was pretty wild about it. So I was dying to hear the Sam Phillips rendition.

It's always so interesting to hear how a writer interprets their own work. A poet, for instance, might put completely different emphasis on line breaks when reading their work outloud than I could have ever imagined in my head. Alison Krauss & Robert Plant's version of "Sister Rosetta Goes Before Us" is dreamy, introspective, eerie, polished. Sam Phillips takes a completely different approach to her own work. In comparison, it's messy, rushed, untamed...all in the best of ways. The way Alison Krauss sings the song, Sister Rosetta's music comes to the singer like a strange gift from above, supernatural, beautiful, and detached. In Sam Phillips' version, the music is a down-to-earth personal revelation, a tangible refuge, a place of abandon and release.

Ok, off to listen to the rest of the album. Tune in for more gushing next week...

Alison Krauss & Robert Plant version:

Sam Phillips version: