Archive for August, 2009

Today’s Red Hot Mama

Monday, August 31st, 2009

Source: New York Public Library

If you like Madonna, Lady Gaga, or Katy Perry, you’ll love Sophie.

Also known as “Iron Lungs” or “Queen of Jazzaration,” her best title was “The Last of the Red Hot Mamas.” Beginning in 1906 and running for six decades (yes, six decades), the career of Sophie Tucker (her own stage name) proved the point and the entertainment value of a woman with a full voice and a strong point of view.

As posted in our daily Culture News, the New York Times has a feature on the new recordings “Sophie Tucker: Origins of the Red Hot Mama 1910-1922” produced by Archeophone. (Their company slogan: “Songs You Thought Were Lost Forever.” Perfect.) This new digital package from the original wax and 78 r.p.m. recordings brings back the power of Sophie.

Today’s female pop stars owe their swagger, in your face sexuality, and genuine sense of fun in no small part to Tucker. When she began in vaudeville there was still the dusty echo of the Victorian era. Tucker’s live performances opened a door to a new world of laughter and love, each as raucous as the other.

“I’ve never sung a single song in my whole life on purpose to shock anyone. My ‘hot numbers’ are all, if you will notice, written about something that is real in the lives of millions of people.” Thankfully, real, indeed.

Some of her most popular songs include, A Good Man is Hard to Find, I’m Living Alone and I Like It, I Ain’t Takin’ Orders from No One, No Man is Ever Gonna Worry Me, Some of These Days, My Yiddishe Mama, and What’ll You Do?

And, some of her best lines include:

  • I’ve been rich and I’ve been poor. Believe me, honey, rich is better.
  • From birth to 18 a girl needs good parents. From 18 to 35, she needs good looks. From 35 to 55 good personality. From 55 on, she needs good cash. I’m saving my money.
  • Four things a woman should know: how to look like a girl; how to act like a lady; how to think like a man; and, how to work like a dog.
  • Good girls go to heaven. Bad girls go everywhere.
  • The secret to longevity is to keep breathing.

From Ziegfeld to Broadway to movies to radio and to television, Tucker knew how to create an audience and a legacy.

The Tucker persona is also famously adopted by Bette Midler, who keeps up the act in her online advice column, Ask Soph, as well as on stage. (I will never forget it you know. It was on the occasion of Ernie’s eightieth birthday. He rang me up and said, “Soph! Soph! I just married myself a twenty-year old girl. What do you think of that?” I said to him, “Ernie, when I am eighty I shall marry me a twenty-year old boy. And let me tell you something Ernie: twenty goes into eighty a helluva lot more than eighty goes into twenty!”)

A big festival thanks to Archeophone. Sophie Tucker’s act is played on festival stages all over the world, today. Now we can have the original recording, as well.

- Bill Reichblum

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One Toke. Everyone’s High

Monday, August 24th, 2009

Here’s an August smile.

The last few weeks have been filled with the legacy of Woodstock. While the story is often told as one of the youth culture in opposition to the status quo, it’s worth remembering how often the radical art of today becomes the accepted culture of tomorrow.

Take Mike Brewer’s and Tom Shipley’s classic One Toke Over the Line. The folk/rock duo wrote the song in 1970 as a way to kill some time backstage, and as a bit of a joke. When it was released in 1971 it seemed as though a lot people were taking one too many tokes.

Vice-President Spiro Agnew labeled the singers and their song as subversive. A US government agency tried to get the song banned from radio play for using the work “toke.”

And yet, who could resist such a good and easy to sing-a-long song?

Even Lawrence Welk was tempted. Welk’s television show ran from 1951 to 1982, and is still regularly available in syndication throughout America. If you want to understand the solid middle of America, you must watch Welk TV; in addition, you just might find yourself getting hooked on the singing, dancing, and oh-so-bubbly approach to home grown showbiz. The show usually plays on Saturdays at the end of day or early evening. There is something so comforting about the experience that the show can easily become an addiction.

On to that toke. Amazingly, the song was performed on the show. Welk singers Oklahoma and Iowa born Gail Farrell and Dick Dale, “an attractive couple,” are brought on stage to sing one of those “newer songs.” They know how to light it up.

If the old fashioned couple singing about smoking dope in such cute costumes was not enough, how about Lawrence’s post performance comment?

“There, you’ve heard a modern spiritual.”

What a country: always reaching for new highs.

- Bill Reichblum

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Woodstock Nation vs. Watergate Nation

Monday, August 17th, 2009

Photo by Derek Redmond and Paul Campbell — Creative Commons License Some Rights Reserved

The fortieth anniversary of Woodstock has provided a few weeks of nostalgic pleasure, real or imagined. The Camelot of festivals, Woodstock and its memories have been driving playlists, downloads, and critics — musical and cultural.

In America, conservative politicians such as Pat Buchanan and John McCain firmly believe that the legacy of Woodstock is a decline in American culture and values.

Buchanan’s campaigns and television jobs are energized by his determination to warn us of the peril of this legacy.

McCain’s best laugh line in his most recent campaign was to mock Hillary Clinton for approving funding for a Woodstock museum: “My friends, I wasn’t there. I am sure it was a cultural and pharmaceutical event. I was tied up at the time.”

Good line. However, the truth, as always, is a bit more complicated.

Conservative critics want to warn us about all things promulgated by the sixties’ youth. The fact is that the “Woodstock hippies” didn’t drive the civil rights movement or the anti-war movement. These nation changing movements weren’t led by the “drop-out” crowd, but by politically engaged and determined youth. They, too, were part of the music and the circus of Woodstock. It makes you wonder: are the conservative politicians really angry at the 3 Days of Music and Peace, or are they angry at these movements that changed US politics?

Maybe the Wall Street Journal has the answer. The Journal is one of our “must read” newspapers. WSJ is well known for its in-depth reporting, international coverage, and decisive editorial positions.

The newspaper’s history, though, is one of tension between two very different trends in the American conservative movement. Although the Journal wants to be the leading voice for business growth through less government regulation it has often been the leading voice for the most insular and retro politics of the culture wars.

In its editorial on Woodstock that ran on August 28, 1969, the paper wrote:

“…there are enough of them to assume some of the levers of power in the future American society. It would be a curious America if the unwashed, more or less permanently stoned on pot or LSD, were running very many things. Even if the trend merely continues among young people in the years ahead, it will be at best a culturally poorer American and maybe a politically degenerated America.”

“Culturally poorer”? Woodstock pushed to the forefront one of America’s most significant and financially successful cultural exports — rock music. Surely, any pro-business minded American conservative should celebrate not only the revenue rock has generated home and abroad, but the message as well. Rock ‘n Roll was and is about the culture of freedom — freedom to rebel and freedom from any kind of tyranny. Just ask Václav Havel.

“Politically degenerated America”? While the editorial writer for the Wall Street Journal was fearing kids at a rock festival, Richard Nixon and his WSJ-supported politics were in the process of creating the most cynical and illegal acts of any US presidency.

Woodstock Nation or Watergate Nation?

Which is a better cultural legacy: a celebration of music and peace or a government of lies and deceit?

Perhaps our conservative editorial writers of today might be a bit more generous to the freedom loving youth of 1969. The right choice isn’t to wrap yourself in the flag of Watergate Nation, but in the spirit of Woodstock Nation.

- Bill Reichblum

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Woodstock: 40 Year Old Virgin

Monday, August 10th, 2009

Photo by Chris Luckhardt — Creative Commons License Some Rights Reserved

If the Greeks had Epidaurus, we have Bethel.

For thousands of years, when one thought about the nature and spirit of a “festival” the ancient Greeks were the touchstone. For the last forty years, those thoughts have turned to Woodstock.

Forty years ago this week, Woodstock defined the times, the politics, the music, and a global community. And to think it was only meant to be “3 Days of Peace & Music.”

Of the many remembrances — real or imagined — perhaps the best summary has been made by Jon Pareles of the New York Times: “After the buzz wore off, the utopian communal aura of a Woodstock Nation gave way, almost immediately, to the reality of a Woodstock Market: a demographic target group about to have its dreams stripped of radical purpose and turned into commodities.”

No doubt, he is right. But there is also no doubt that although today’s music might have lost the same determination to put politics into poetry, there is still a genuine commitment to community in the fans of both yesterday and today.

After all, what are all our social networks — Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, to name just a few — but avenues to reach across geographic, generational, and class lines to connect, to make a community. As seen recently in the Iranian street protests, these networks are at their best when they are used for communal action against oppression: be it freedom from government or freedom for expression.

Isn’t that the best legacy of Woodstock?

As repressive governments still control too many people, surely we can all rally around the poets who should be free to speak their words, the singers who should be free to play their music, the dancers who should be free to move, and the actors who should be free to speak to us from a stage.

Art is a platform for questions and ideas. Maybe we are not all gathered in the mud, but we are gathered online. The question is what will we create today, what will we inspire, and what will we do with our power to gather, exchange, and express?

There is power in being a little innocent, a little naive. After all, who would ever have thought one could change the world one song at a time?

- Bill Reichblum

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Merce as Merlin

Monday, August 3rd, 2009

Merce Cunningham, who passed away last week, was not just a leader in modern dance but also a force in how we think about, and create, art.

The legacy of his company, Merce Cunningham Dance Company, and his partnership with John Cage will include how we perceive chance encounters, capture movements’ possibilities, and celebrate the fun of experimentation and creation.

For a little inspiration, here are a few words to live by from Merce:

I’d rather find out something than repeat what I know. I prefer adventure to something that’s fixed.

In coming to a new piece, I still try to find ways to use chance. It is to try to open my eyes to something I don’t know about rather than me simply repeating something that I already have dealt with.

I don’t work through images or ideas. I work through the body.

Dance is an art in space and time. The object of the dancer is to obliterate that.

Too much technique makes for a robot; too much improvisation makes for a sloppy body.

There isn’t a story in the conventional sense. Each person could receive this in his or her own way, and not receive it in some way that I’ve decided for them ahead of time.

Live and work in every direction, so that whichever way you face is front.

You have to love dancing to stick to it. It gives you nothing back, no manuscripts to store away, no paintings to show on walls and maybe hang in museums, no poems to be printed and sold, nothing but that fleeting moment when you feel alive. It is not for unsteady souls.

The only way to do it is to do it.

Have friends both old and young.

Love surprises.

Laugh often.

The dances, the dancers, the works, and the words: Merce has left artists and audiences a genuine legacy of new visions. And, he and John Cage have left us with two of the best smiles in art — don’t you think?

- Bill Reichblum

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