Woody Guthrie Writes “This Land …”

On this date – in 1940 – Woody Guthrie pens lyrics to “This Land Is Your Land”

Guthrie wrote the lyrics of his signature song (to an existing melody) at the Hanover House, a cheap New York hotel for transients where he had just rented a room. He had arrived in New York the week before after hitchhiking across America, a coast-to-coast trip that helped shape both the words to the song and Woody’s thoughts on the country he loved. He also wrote it in partial response to the Irving Berlin hit, “God Bless America,” which Kate Smith was then belting from every radio he passed. And which Woody – given his experiences – found to be a bit on the fatuous side and somewhat less than persuasive.

Guthrie_May_5_1940_NYPL_AdjWoody would make his home – off and on – in various parts of New York City for the next 26 years. But the Hanover House was his first residence and the composition place of his most famous song, which would not be recorded until 1944. It would be published the year after in a booklet of ten songs with Guthrie’s hand drawings that he sold for 25 cents.

2012-07-14-WoodyThisLandPageAs far as I can tell, there is no truth to the rumor that the Koch Brothers are planning to record a cover of Guthrie’s song entitled, “This Land Is My Land, This Land Is My Land.” But, just in case, I hope someone locates Woody’s famous “machine” and uses it on them.

It’s Not Easy Wearing Green

Molière ( 15 January 1622 – 17 February 1673)

On this date in 1673, the great French theatrical hyphenate Jean-Baptiste Poquelin (aka Moliere) was performing the lead role of the hypochondriac in his last play, The Imaginary Invalid, when he suffered a coughing fit, hemorrhaged, collapsed, then insisted on continuing to the end of the show. Moliere died at home – a few hours later – from the tuberculosis that (legend has it) he’d contracted while being imprisoned for debt. Argan, the character Moliere was playing in his final performance, was clad in green.

Debtor’s prison (or its moral equivalent) remains a standard job hazard for anyone attempting to make a living from theater or any of the Arts. Especially these days. In this place. And the irony of Moliere dying during a production in which he plays a hypochondriac has not been lost to history. It is also emblematic of the principal theme of  his profoundly comic plays – including his first The Learned Ladies, The Misanthrope, The Miser, and Tartuffe – which could be summarized as, “We are not who we think we are.”

Several highly effective treatments for tuberculosis have been developed since the 17th century; although not wiped out – and occasionally threatening to make a comeback – tuberculosis is not the hazard it once was. No such luck, however, with the human strains of hypocrisy and self-delusion. They are more prevalent now than ever. There would appear to be no cure. And they ensure that Moliere’s plays never date.

gop debatersActors are a superstitious lot. They say “break a leg” instead of “good luck” (which is considered bad luck). When appearing in a production of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, they live in terror of speaking the play’s name and refer to it only as “The Scottish Play.”  As an occasional actor myself, I share that fear and it scares me just writing Macbeth. (Twice now!  I think I peed a little!) And, because of Moliere’s death costume in The Imaginary Invalid, we actors don’t like appearing onstage wearing green. Costumers, beware!

I don’t know exactly why actors are superstitious.  I’m sure it has something to do with being present – in our bodies, live – while we practice our art, thereby risking the also-live slings and arrows of outrageous audience members. Or of slipping on our own flop sweat and falling to our deaths, metaphorical or otherwise. I do know, however, that if I’m ever lucky enough to perform the role of Argan in Moliere’s The Imaginary Invalid, I’ll insist on a red costume and – just to be on the safe side – call it “The Hypochondriac Play.” I hope I break a leg.

That Time Aretha Sat Down to the Piano

Aretha Franklin records in Muscle Shoals, Alabama  – January 24, 1967

No, not that time.  Yes, it was great to see Aretha perform at the most recent Kennedy Center Honors and to watch Barack and Michelle bop along. Those two have earned a fun night out if anyone in America ever has, the shit they’ve had to put up with these past nearly eight years. Although – in terms of the show itself – I could have done without all the cutaways to Carole King waving her arms and acting amazed, just amazed!

(Amazed at what, Carole, that Aretha’s still alive, still bringing it? I mean, she hasn’t been in exile in a faraway land, she didn’t just get released from stir. But I’m being petty. And I shouldn’t blame Carole. I should blame the cameraman, who I’m guessing was on loan from CBS Sports, where he’d covered archery and darts. Or the producers, who think they have to “build a narrative” for everything, so all the folks at home know what they’re watching and how they should feel about it. Will we ever again just have basic coverage of an event, of the thing itself, so we can just, like, watch it? Instead of watching people in the crowd wave their arms? And act amazed.)

No, the time Aretha sat down to the piano that I’m talking about was nearly 40 years ago, in 1967, when Aretha finally got free of Columbia and was able to sign with Atlantic Records instead. Columbia Records then was run by Mitch Miller – of insipid “Sing Along with Mitch” fame – but, at Atlantic, her producer would be Jerry Wexler. Among other things, Wexler had coined the marketing term “rhythm & blues” to replace the execrable “race music,” which had ghettoized black American composers and performers since the beginning of radio play. So there was at least a chance Aretha’s new equally-white producer would be more in tune with her than Sing-Along-with-Freaking-Mitch.

What Wexler suggested to Aretha was a session at FAME Studios in tiny Muscle Shoals, Alabama.  The recording studio – with its tremendous roster of backing musicians – had scored rhythm & blues hits for local artists such as Arthur Alexander,  Jimmy Hughes, and the Tams, but it was Wexler (and the Atlantic artists he brought in) who would help it reach the next level. If you haven’t seen the wonderful documentary about FAME Studios called Muscle Shoals (2013), treat yourself. Not the least of its many pleasures are the present-day interviews with Aretha Franklin.

muscleshoals1000v2When Aretha arrived at Muscle Shoals, what Jerry Wexler suggested she do was sit down to the piano and play. Where Columbia had cut off her gospel roots and tried to mold and popify Aretha into someone she wasn’t, Atlantic was interested in hearing what Aretha herself wanted to be. By Aretha’s own account, the music poured out of her.  They settled at the session on “I Never Loved a Man (the Way I Love You)” as her first recording in Muscle Shoals. Sadly or understandably (depending on who’s doing the telling), it would also be her last.

Something happened at that recording session – something besides the obvious thing of an incomparable artist finding her true voice – and its mostly agreed-upon lineaments include a) a horn player getting fresh with Franklin; b) her husband at the time insisting that the horn player be fired; c) the horn player being fired but that proving insufficient redress for the husband, who insists Aretha leave Muscle Shoals; and d) Aretha leaving.

I’m good with that version. Or any other version that someone cares to put forth. It’s all water under the bridge at this faint remove and, besides, FAME had done its work – or rather Aretha had been able to do her work there – and the greatest period in one of the finest careers in American music history was underway. The single recorded at Muscle Shoals became the title song of Aretha Franklin’s first album at Atlantic. And that album, among its other great songs, included covers of Otis Redding’s “Respect” – Aretha’s first monster hit – and Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come.”

Chew on that last a moment.  The newly confident Aretha not only took on Otis Redding and made one of his signature songs her own – but also recorded a thrilling, hurt-you-down-to-the-bone version of Sam Cooke’s last and most personal song. Which song, by the way, just happens to be one of the greatest American protest songs ever written.

Chew on that and … so long as the cameras aren’t rolling … go ahead and wave your arms.

aretha on tour uk

The Pig from Port Arthur

Janis Joplin (January 19, 1943 – 10/4/1970)

joplin-janis-top shotAs a young teen, Janis Joplin was called “pig” because she was overweight, “pizza face” because of her acne, “freak” because she dressed different and liked the arts. It also didn’t help – in the 1950s in a place like Port Arthur, Texas – that Joplin refused to hate or hold herself apart from black people and counted some of them as friends. What is condemned in current social media as hazing and bullying would have been a good day for Janis in high school. And, in college, the frat-boy types voted her “Ugliest Man on Campus.”

Whatever all that cost Janis Joplin, she wasn’t saying, she wouldn’t give her youthful tormentors the satisfaction. She’d talk tough in interviews and act like it didn’t count. But we knew it did. We’d heard Janis sing.

And Janis Joplin wasn’t one of those ugly ducklings who became a swan. She stayed an ugly duckling in the world’s eyes and became a star. Dared us not to love her just the way she was. The way she’d always been, all the way back to Port Arthur. The way she would always be – her every gesture seemed to say – and “Fuck you, man, if you think I’m gonna change.”

Then Janis would sing.

When Janis Joplin sang, everything else went away. Her problems and your problems. Black and white. The world with its cruelty, its pat judgments of ugly duckling and swan.

And fuck you if you think it didn’t.

An Actor Prepares

Constantin Stanislavski (January 17, 1863 – August 7, 1938)

stanislavski lower depthsStanislavski didn’t just talk the talk – or write it in the series of books (beginning with An Actor Prepares) that serve as the foundation for acting training – he trod the boards himself as an accomplished and gifted stage actor. So much for those who can’t, teach. Stanislavski could and did.

At age 14, he began appearing in plays put on by his rich artsy family. He got his first training at home and his family was one of the wealthiest in Russia. So much, too, for having to “struggle” for your art. A little money can provide an artist with a good start and comes in handy later on … when the rent is past due, for instance, and you’re still in rehearsal.

And young Constantin does not appear to have suffered much, although he did need to conceal his true ambitions from his aristocratic relatives. They enjoyed their amateur theatricals, but would have been appalled by the idea of Stanislavski becoming a professional actor. He hid this fact from them until 1896, the year before when – at age 34 – he cofounded the Moscow Art Theatre with Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko.

MAT_original_company_1899_width_630pxLife became more difficult after the 1917 Russian Revolution, when most of Stanislavski’s money and assets were seized by the new Soviet Union and he was exhorted to put on “socialist realist” dramas. Stanislavski declined, continuing to produce and direct plays only to his liking until very near the end of his life  (when he finally succumbed to Stalinist pressure). And he wrote the books. Which are still read.

But acting was Stanislavski’s first love. And it is acting – his – that I celebrate today.

P.S. You might have seen this post before … on January 5th to be exact … which is Stanislavski’s birthday on the old Julian calendar, the dating system that Russia used when Constantin was born. I pulled it to repost it on his birth date according to the Gregorian calendar, which we use and which Russia switched to eventually after it became the Soviet Union. Do you think Stanislavski was pissed when he lost those 12 days? I mean, how do you “prepare” for that?

David Bowie Is

His body short-circuited. His body of work lives on. David Bowie is. I love his music, his changing personae, most of all his lyrics. You become a lyricist by reading, immersing yourself in words. Below is a recent list Bowie compiled of his favorite books and some photos of him reading.

David Bowie’s Favorite 100 Books

  • The Age of American Unreason, Susan Jacoby, 2008
  • The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Junot Diaz, 2007
  • The Coast of Utopia (trilogy), Tom Stoppard, 2007
  • Teenage: The Creation of Youth 1875-1945, Jon Savage, 2007
  • Fingersmith, Sarah Waters, 2002
  • The Trial of Henry Kissinger, Christopher Hitchens, 2001
  • Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder, Lawrence Weschler, 1997
  • A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution 1890-1924, Orlando Figes, 1997
  • The Insult, Rupert Thomson, 1996
  • Wonder Boys, Michael Chabon, 1995
  • The Bird Artist, Howard Norman, 1994
  • Kafka Was The Rage: A Greenwich Village Memoir, Anatole Broyard, 1993
  • Beyond the Brillo Box: The Visual Arts in Post-Historical Perspective, Arthur C. Danto, 1992
  • Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson, Camille Paglia, 1990
  • David Bomberg, Richard Cork, 1988
  • Sweet Soul Music: Rhythm and Blues and the Southern Dream of Freedom, Peter Guralnick, 1986
  • The Songlines, Bruce Chatwin, 1986
  • Hawksmoor, Peter Ackroyd, 1985
  • Nowhere To Run: The Story of Soul Music, Gerri Hirshey, 1984
  • Nights at the Circus, Angela Carter, 1984
  • Money, Martin Amis, 1984
  • White Noise, Don DeLillo, 1984
  • Flaubert’s Parrot, Julian Barnes, 1984
  • The Life and Times of Little Richard, Charles White, 1984
  • A People’s History of the United States, Howard Zinn, 1980
  • A Confederacy of Dunces, John Kennedy Toole, 1980
  • Interviews with Francis Bacon, David Sylvester, 1980
  • Darkness at Noon, Arthur Koestler, 1980
  • Earthly Powers, Anthony Burgess, 1980
  • Raw (a ‘graphix magazine’) 1980-91
  • Viz (magazine) 1979 –
  • The Gnostic Gospels, Elaine Pagels, 1979
  • Metropolitan Life, Fran Lebowitz, 1978
  • In Between the Sheets, Ian McEwan, 1978
  • Writers at Work: The Paris Review Interviews, ed. Malcolm Cowley, 1977
  • The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, Julian Jaynes, 1976
  • Tales of Beatnik Glory, Ed Saunders, 1975
  • Mystery Train, Greil Marcus, 1975
  • Selected Poems, Frank O’Hara, 1974
  • Before the Deluge: A Portrait of Berlin in the 1920s, Otto Friedrich, 1972
  • In Bluebeard’s Castle : Some Notes Towards the Re-definition of Culture, George Steiner, 1971
  • Octobriana and the Russian Underground, Peter Sadecky, 1971
  • The Sound of the City: The Rise of Rock and Roll, Charlie Gillete, 1970
  • The Quest For Christa T, Christa Wolf, 1968
  • Awopbopaloobop Alopbamboom: The Golden Age of Rock, Nik Cohn, 1968
  • The Master and Margarita, Mikhail Bulgakov, 1967
  • Journey into the Whirlwind, Eugenia Ginzburg, 1967
  • Last Exit to Brooklyn, Hubert Selby Jr. , 1966
  • In Cold Blood, Truman Capote, 1965
  • City of Night, John Rechy, 1965
  • Herzog, Saul Bellow, 1964
  • Puckoon, Spike Milligan, 1963
  • The American Way of Death, Jessica Mitford, 1963
  • The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea, Yukio Mishima, 1963
  • The Fire Next Time, James Baldwin, 1963
  • A Clockwork Orange, Anthony Burgess, 1962
  • Inside the Whale and Other Essays, George Orwell, 1962
  • The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Muriel Spark, 1961
  • Private Eye (magazine) 1961 –
  • On Having No Head: Zen and the Rediscovery of the Obvious, Douglas Harding, 1961
  • Silence: Lectures and Writing, John Cage, 1961
  • Strange People, Frank Edwards, 1961
  • The Divided Self, R. D. Laing, 1960
  • All The Emperor’s Horses, David Kidd,1960
  • Billy Liar, Keith Waterhouse, 1959
  • The Leopard, Giuseppe Di Lampedusa, 1958
  • On The Road, Jack Kerouac, 1957
  • The Hidden Persuaders, Vance Packard, 1957
  • Room at the Top, John Braine, 1957
  • A Grave for a Dolphin, Alberto Denti di Pirajno, 1956
  • The Outsider, Colin Wilson, 1956
  • Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov, 1955
  • Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell, 1948
  • The Street, Ann Petry, 1946
  • Black Boy, Richard Wright, 1945
  • The Portable Dorothy Parker, Dorothy Parker, 1944
  • The Outsider, Albert Camus, 1942
  • The Day of the Locust, Nathanael West, 1939
  • The Beano, (comic) 1938 –
  • The Road to Wigan Pier, George Orwell, 1937
  • Mr. Norris Changes Trains, Christopher Isherwood, 1935
  • English Journey, J.B. Priestley, 1934
  • Infants of the Spring, Wallace Thurman, 1932
  • The Bridge, Hart Crane, 1930
  • Vile Bodies, Evelyn Waugh, 1930
  • As I lay Dying, William Faulkner, 1930
  • The 42nd Parallel, John Dos Passos, 1930
  • Berlin Alexanderplatz, Alfred Döblin, 1929
  • Passing, Nella Larsen, 1929
  • Lady Chatterley’s Lover, D.H. Lawrence, 1928
  • The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald, 1925
  • The Waste Land, T.S. Eliot, 1922
  • BLAST, ed. Wyndham Lewis, 1914-15
  • McTeague, Frank Norris, 1899
  • Transcendental Magic, Its Doctrine and Ritual, Eliphas Lévi, 1896
  • Les Chants de Maldoror, Lautréamont, 1869
  • Madame Bovary, Gustave Flaubert, 1856
  • Zanoni, Edward Bulwer-Lytton, 1842
  • Inferno, from the Divine Comedy, Dante Alighieri, about 1308-1321
  • The Iliad, Homer, about 800 BC

Sez Me: Street Scene is a Great American Opera

On this date – January 9 – in 1947, the opera Street Scene opened at the Adelphi Theater on Broadway and ran for 148 performances.

street scene 1947

The show was composed by German-born Kurt Weill, who considered Street Scene his finest score and it is certainly his most operatic. The beautiful lyrics are by poet and playwright Langston Hughes. The book is by Elmer Rice from his play of the same name, which chronicles the lives and loves of the mostly immigrant residents of a brownstone in early 20th-century New York over the course of two blazing-hot summer days.

The original production of Street Scene was a popular and critical success, but high running costs resulted in its early closure. Street Scene has never been revived on Broadway, but it has made its way into the repertoires of opera companies around the world.

A Wedding to Remember

On this date in 1950, A Member of the Wedding opened on Broadway

Ethel_Waters_Julie_Harris_Brandon_DeWilde_Member_of_the_Wedding_Broadway

Carson McCullers adapted the play The Member of the Wedding from her novel of the same name about Frankie Addams, a lonely 12-year-old tomboy who becomes obsessed with her older brother’s upcoming wedding. The Broadway production was directed by Harold Clurman and starred Julie Harris as Frankie, second-grader Brandon DeWilde (“Shane! Come back, Shane!”) as her cousin John Henry, and the magnificent Ethel Waters as the family housekeeper Bereneice.

The show premiered 65 years ago today and ran at the Empire Theater for 501 performances

Movie director Fred Zinnemann wisely used the Broadway cast for his 1952 film of play. Julie Harris was 25 when she starred as Frankie onstage and 27 in the movie, but she somehow pulls it off.

The top picture is a cast photo from the 1950 stage production; the one below, a backstage shot of Harris smoking a cigarette and Waters with Carson McCullers on opening night.

backstage memeber

Twilight Cowboy

Jon Voight (born December 29, 1938) – American Actor

view_13_COMING-HOME_jpg

Jon Voight is 77 years old today. If you’ve caught him as the loathsome ex-con Mickey Donovan on TV’s Ray Donovan, you may find that more than a bit surprising. Voight – in his twilight years – is scary in the part and manages to convey threat merely by his physical presence. What is surprising, too, is the fact that it’s only in later years that Voight has been able not only to play villainous roles but to excel at them.

The first time I remember him as a bad guy was in 1985’s Runaway Train. Voight was pushing fifty then, but those cherubic blond good looks – both his blessing and his curse – had yet to give way to a vague seediness, and director Andrei Konchalovsky had to ugly him up for the role of a violent prisoner with makeup scars and pretend metal teeth.

It was more than his looks, though, that made it difficult for Jon Voight to  convey menace. There just seemed to be something weak about him: some fundamental lack of self-esteem, perhaps, or an underlying sadness. And it appeared to be coming from the actor not the part.

When those qualities complemented the role – most notably in John Schlesinger’s Midnight Cowboy (1969) and John Boorman’s Deliverance (1972) – the results were unforgettable. Voight was also wonderful in Martin Ritt’s Conrack (1974), the story of a young white teacher on an impoverished black South Carolina island that was adapted from an autobiographical work by another wounded man-boy, Pat Conroy.

And then there was Hal Ashby’s Coming Home (1978), which costars Jane Fonda and contains Voight’s finest performance as Luke Wilson, a paraplegic Vietnam vet. In that film, weakness has been inflicted on Luke Wilson from the outside – by combat – and Voight inhabits the character body and soul. His speech to a high school (which should be required viewing in every Army recruiting office in America) is largely improvised. It’s a brilliant and deeply moving moment, which brings the tragedy of that war (and all wars) home to us in a way that few films have. Coming Home, oddly enough, is also Jon Voight’s most credible work as a romantic lead. Fonda’s great, too.

A Family Christmas Play

Sam Shepard’s True West opens in NYC – December 23, 1980

true-w2

“I can’t stay here. This is worse than being homeless.”

The perfect play for the holidays … especially if you’re reuniting with family  … Sam Shepard’s savage comic drama about sibling warfare (and a few other things) opened at The Public Theater with Peter Boyle and Tommy Lee Jones as estranged brothers Lee and Austin. Earlier in the year, True West had had its world premiere at San Francisco’s Magic Theatre, where Shepard was writer-in-residence.

Varese’s “Organized Sound”

Edgard Varese (December 22, 1883 – November 6, 1965)

varese against black

Avant-garde French composer Edgard Varese left behind only about three hours of finished music … approximately five seconds of which could be considered melody … but they might well be the most influential three hours in music history, inspiring everything and everyone from electronic music and jazz fusion to Babbitt, Cage, Frank Zappa, and John Zorn.

Varese immigrated to the United States in 1915  – two years after the Paris debut of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring – and took up with other French expatriate avant-garde figures such as Marcel Duchamp and Francis Picabia. It was Varese’s intent as a maker of music to “let in all sounds, sounds which up to now—and even today—have been called noises.”

He achieved this goal in a series of unique, surprisingly popular compositions beginning with Amériques for large orchestra in 1921 and concluding with Poème électronique for electronic tape in 1958. He eschewed the term “music” for his work, preferring “organized sound.”

The record label Varese Sarabande, which was formed in 1978 and is now dedicated to film scores and cast albums, was named after him.

Remembering Beckett’s Muse

Billie Honor Whitelaw (6 June 1932 – 21 December 2014)

Billie Whitelaw Samuel Beckett

It has been exactly a year since English actress, Billie Whitelaw, died and if she ever gave a bad performance in her 82 years – on stage, screen, small screen –  I haven’t seen it. She was completely real in everything she did.

Most Americans know Billie Whitelaw as Mrs. Blaylock, the fierce nanny sent by Satan to watch over Damien in The Omen (1976), where it required no less a movie star than Gregory Peck to kill her off.  She acted in other U.S. features, but most of her movie work was done in England, where – in the Sixties and Seventies – she had large roles in several excellent films and was considered something of a star.

Billie Whitelaw made a memorable debut in The Sleeping Tiger (1954), starring Dirk Bogarde and directed by the blacklisted Joseph Losey under an assumed name. She shone as Chloe Hawkins in the terrific Brit noir Hell Is a City (1960); starred opposite Albert Finney in the wonderful Charlie Bubbles (1967) and again in Gumshoe (1971); did great work in worthwhile but not great movies such as Twisted Nerve (1969), John Boorman’s Leo the Last (1970), and Start the Revolution Without Me (also 1970); and had a nice turn in Alfred Hitchcock’s last great film, Frenzy (1972), which Hitchcock returned to England to direct.

These and Whitelaw’s other movie roles guaranteed her a respectful  obituary in The Times, but it is her stage work – in particular, her 25-year collaboration with Samuel Beckett – that earned her a place in history. Their work together began in 1964 with Play at the National Theatre and continued until Beckett’s death in 1989. He once called her “a perfect actress” and created roles for Whitelaw – and with her – in most of his later experimental plays, including Rockabye, Eh Joe, and Not I.  He also supervised a celebrated revival of Happy Days starring Whitelaw as Winnie.

billie as winnie
Here’s a link to a piece on Beckett and Whitelaw – from a year ago – that ran in the Independent: Whitelaw & Beckett.