(For all back issues go to the Archive)
The world in general, and journalism in particular, lost a great, pragmatic thinker/writer/editor/man of conscience on March 20. The day before, Jonathan Rowe had returned from his morning workout feeling out of sorts. By evening his fever was raging so that he went to the hospital. He passed away Sunday morning, victim of a sudden, overwhelming infection. Rowe was not a household name in our omnivorous 24/7 media climate--he was rarely if ever called upon as a talking head on cable news shows, even though as an editor at the Washington Monthly and a staff writer at the Christian Science Monitor he weighed in--maybe too sensibly for cable news--on all the pressing matters of our time. Much of his energy in his later years was devoted to On The Commons, an organization he co-founded to promote commons-based solutions to problems.
In a moving tribute to his friend, David Bollier wrote, in part: Jon’s sudden, unexpected death underscores something that he understood well: our fixation on the big abstractions--politics, economics, wealth--tends to blind us to the fragile and beautiful realities of human existence, whose intrinsic importance cannot be denied...must not be denied.
As someone blessed with a capacious mind and soul, Jon clearly recognized the brutal necessities of politics while honoring the immanent truths of the spiritual. He also had the clarity of mind to realize that while the two realms may never be reconciled or integrated, neither can they ever be disconnected. Jon’s life was to wrestle with this koan.
Read the entire tribute to Jonathan Rowe at Bollier’s website. Then go to the Jonathan Rowe archives and read what Rowe himself had to say over the years about pretty much every important matter under the sun. It will be time well spent.
Directed by Sidney Lumet
As we were in the midst of preparing our April issue for launch on the evening of May 10, word came of the death of Sidney Lumet, one of the greatest of all American film directors, whose body of work includes 12 Angry Men, Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, Network and 2007’s vastly underrated Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead (with Philip Seymour Hoffman, Ethan Hawke and Albert Finney) among the more than 50 films he directed.
‘Growing up Jewish--I lived in every borough but Staten Island--if I walked a few blocks one way or another into another neighborhood, I got beat up. So you learn to pay attention. You notice things pretty closely. That immigrant experience not only gives you a tremendous sense of time and place and limits, it also gives you a tremendous energy, because you have to pay attention. All the time,’ Lumet said in a 2007 interview.
Next month’s issue will feature a tribute to Lumet’s life and achievements.
COVER STORY: STEVE MARTIN and the STEEP CANYON RANGERS
In 2009 Steve Martin won a Grammy for Best Bluegrass Album for his John McEuen-produced The Crow: New Songs For the 5-String Banjo. He has returned now with an even stronger bluegrass effort, Rare Bird Alert, produced by Tony Trischka with musical support courtesy the Steep Canyon Rangers, the formidable North Carolina quintet that in the past couple of years has assumed a rightful spot among the best bluegrass bands of its time. Because Steve Martin has been adamant in pointing out that the Rangers are not his backup band but their own entity--in fact, as he told us, “They are their own band, and I am their celebrity”--we are approaching this major bluegrass event in a twofold manner:
*In TheBluegrassSpecial.com Interview ‘I’m Really Enjoying Bluegrass,’ STEVE MARTIN reflects on life with banjo in hand, the journey to The Crow and subsequently to Red Bird Alert, and the lure of this music’s call to him.
*In ‘Rare Birds of Bluegrass,’ Steep Canyon Rangers guitarist WOODY PLATT recounts the band’s history, its education in the studio and how collaborating with Steve Martin on record and on the road has enhanced the Rangers’ identity.
‘The Cry of Anguished Protest, The First of Many Wrought From Me’
Who Was Beverly Kenney? By David McGee
This month marks 51 years since BEVERLY KENNEY committed suicide at the age of 28, for reasons yet unknown. Hailed in the mid-‘50s as the latest and best in a line of towering female jazz singers, compared favorably to Billie, Ella, and Sarah, she had the looks, she had the style, she had the versatility, she had critical cred, she had the support of the day’s finest musicians, and she had the ‘it’ that is the stuff of legendary careers. Instead, her days ended in despair, and alone, in a women’s residence on West 11th Street in Greenwich Village on April 12, 1960, a lethal combination of Seconal and alcohol in her system. Little more is known about her now than it was then, and as time passes a key question remains unanswered: Who was Beverly Kenney?
By David McGee
Who is SERENA MATTHEWS? Intensely private, endearingly humble and audaciously gifted, she is who she wants to be. No other artist writes quite like her, no other artist sings quite like her, and no other artist will leave a listener quite as dumbfounded by the beauty and unalloyed passion of her art as she does. In an online dialogue--her first in-depth interview--this product of Byrdstown, Tennessee (otherwise known as the home town of teenage bluegrass phenom Sierra Hull) frankly discusses family, music, songwriting, her commitment to womens’, animal and Native American rights (she’s part Cherokee), and her ambitions in a series of wide ranging, freewheeling email exchanges. Out of the most conventional circumstances and influences, bathed in the love and support of a close-knit, small town family, she has fashioned powerful art. Read, and believe. Serena Matthews is for real.
Trio Medieval: The Worcester Ladymass Project
Founded in Oslo in 1997, indebted to Anonymous 4, among others, but with an approach all their own, Trio Mediaeval--Anna Maria Friman, Linn Andrea Fuglseth and Torunn Østrem Ossum--have released their fifth album, A Worcester Ladymass, on which the trio presents a reconstruction of a 13th century votive Mass to the Virgin Mary, based on manuscripts and fragments originating in an English Benedictine Abbey. Critics have hailed A Worcester Ladymass as ‘a glorious experience’ and more.
*In this month’s Classical Perspectives album spotlight, we present an overview of the critical appraisals of the new album.
*In an interview with Classical Archives’ Noel Gasser, Trio Medieaval’s LINN ANDREA FUGLSETH discusses the origins of the esteemed trio's fresh reconstruction of the musical fragments comprising the Worcester Ladymass, which were previously used as bookbinding and stuffing for organ stops, as well as their characteristic incorporation of contemporary works, in this case two movements by English composer Gavin Bryars. In addition, Ms. Fuglseth provides fascinating detail into the group's origins going back to Oslo in 1997, their intriguing history with contemporary music, the surprising success of their Norwegian folk songs, and much more.
When we launched our Border Crossings section two years ago, our first priority was an in-depth profile of the great Viennese traditional folk artist ROLAND NEUWIRTH, arguably Austria’s greatest living traditional folk artist, a true giant in his native land. Finally, this month, our third anniversary, we have Roland in our pages, in his own words, recounting his musical journey, which takes in his upbringing, his family life, the first stirrings of the passion still fueling his music, the history of Viennese music and even the state of his health--it’s all linked. Warm, funny, irreverent, cranky and soulful, Roland’s words are true to his personality and to his music. Roland’s music is a contemporary updating of the earliest style of Viennese folk music, Schrammel, as developed in the late 1800s by brothers Johann and Josef Schrammel, who set off a wave of “Schrammel euphoria” across Austria when their music was debuted in public. “Extremschrammeln” is how a Vienna critic described the music Roland and his band purvey, and Roland was so taken with the coinage that he adopted it as his group’s official name. Read on for the unique perspective on life and music in the words of one of the world’s great traditional folk artists.
A Bill Monroe Centennial Moment
‘I Have Always Been Proud of the People That I Came From In Kentucky’
Shaped by a life of hard, bare necessities and strong role models in the Kentucky mountains, young Bill Monroe’s music begins to take shape. This month’s installment in our monthly celebration of Bill Monroe’s 100th birthday year.
Pleasures of Music
Music With Meals
By G.K. Chesterton
Controversial in his time and still today, G.K. CHESTERTON, literary and social critic, historian, playwright, novelist, Catholic theologian and apologist, debater and mystery writer, usually devoted himself to matters weightier than whether music at meals disrupts conversation and digestion. But to the topic of music at meals as an inhibitor to conversation he did indeed address himself, in a 1929 magazine article that generated a good deal of heated response on both sides of the question. Undaunted, he penned the following observations on the subject.
'The Lion Sleeps Tonight' at 50: A Song for the Ages
By Michael Sigman
Marking the 50th anniversary of The Tokens’ version of ‘The Lion Sleeps Tonight,’ roving contributor MICHAEL SIGMAN considers how what was supposed to be B-side of a single became a rock ‘n’ roll classic.
A Grand Salute To The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T.
A burgeoning cult favorite, director Stanley Kramer’s colorful 1953 musical fantasy, The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T., is getting a boost from a grand new three-CD reissue of all the music the great screen composer FREDERICK HOLLANDER created for the movie--all of it, including the songs actually performed in the movie, alternate versions and additional material, including orchestra-only tracks of several of the songs (Karaoke Seuss, anyone?). A third disc comprises archival piano recordings played by Hollander himself, revealing some of his early ideas for the music; pre-production piano recordings made for rehearsal purposes; and all the major song and dance sequences exactly as they are heard in the finished film. The “cool” factor of this movie has been enhanced by its being the only movie ever written by THEODORE SEUSS GEISEL, better known as DR. SEUSS. Alas, the good Doctor felt the finished product so botched that he never spoke of it again--or so we thought--and did not even mention the project in his autobiography.
Our Dr. T. coverage includes:
*An in-depth review of the Film Score Monthly's CD reissue of Frederick Hollander’s complete Dr. T. Score.
*A movie review by one of the country’s outstanding film critics, JONATHAN ROSENBAUM, initially published in American Film in 1978. Rosenbaum managed the neat trick of getting Dr. Seuss on the phone and talked to him about The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T.--the only time, so far as anyone knows, that Mr. Geisel ever spoke to a writer about the movie (he stipulated he not be quoted in the ensuing article). Rosenbaum’s take is informed, insightful and balanced, far and away the most intelligent Dr. T. commentary we’ve ever come across. As an addendum to this review, we have a brief background profile on the film’s child star, TOMMY RETTIG, who of course went on to much greater fame as the star of the first 100-plus episodes of the top-rate ’50s TV series, Lassie, a full episode of which, titled ‘Jeff’s Moustache,’ we have included here.
*’Frederick Hollander’s Road to Dr. T.: From Weimar Berlin to Hollywood Sound Stages (with Digs at Hitler at Every Stop): from the liner booklet essay penned by Frederick Hollander biographer ALAN LAREAU, an excerpt centered on the writing of the music for The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T. and how Hollander came to be involved in the production after making a name for himself in Weimar Republic Germany, where he wrote, among many tunes, ‘Falling in Love Again’ for Marlene Deitrich in Josef von Sternberg’s classic The Blue Angel. A fascinating look at an underrated film composer who is about to get his due with a full-length biography by Lareau.
‘Teen Angel, Can You Hear Me?’
The First ‘Dead Girl Song’ & The Birth of a New Rock ‘n’ Roll Sub-genre
by David McGee
As part of the singing Dinning Sisters from the late ‘30s through 1954, JEAN DINNING experienced show business success of the highest order, selling a million copies of their single “Buttons and Bows” and racking up an unbroken string of hits for Capitol Records in the late ‘40s, and even joining their friend and labelmate Tennessee Ernie Ford on one of his early rockin’ country numbers, ‘Rock City Boogie,’ in 1951. But a song she wrote and gave to her brother Mark in 1959 earned her a permanent place in rock ‘n’ roll history as the progenitor of a treasured subculture, variously called ‘Dead Girl Songs,’ ‘Teen Coffin Songs’ and ‘Teenage Tragedy Songs.’ Regardless, the basic formula was for a teenage girl to meet some unfortunate end, usually by her own hand. Dinning’s song was ‘Teen Angel,’ and after her brother had a million selling single with it, the floodgates opened to further musical mayhem. Ms. Dinning passed away on February 22 at the age of 86. This story chronicles her productive life in song, and surveys the landmarks of the genre she unwittingly created with ‘Teen Angel.’ Ray Peterson, Jody Reynolds, Pat Boone, Dickie Lee, J. Frank Wilson & the Cavaliers, Jan & Dean, even the inspired parodist Jimmy Cross are all present and honored for their indelible contributions to teen tragedy. In a related story, we salute JOHNNY PRESTON, whose big 1959 hit ‘Running Bear,’ penned and produced by J.P. ‘The Big Bopper’ Richardson shortly before he died in the plane crash that also claimed the lives of Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens, offers a Native American twist on the tried and true teen coffin song formula. Mr. Preston died on March 4 at age 71.
*BeBe & CeCe Put An 'Amen' To It. Or Do They?
Siblings and gospel giants together, BeBe and CeCe Winans are putting an "Amen" to BeBe & CeCe. Following a week of shows that started April 1 in Detroit (their first hometown appearance in 15 years) and wound up at New York's Madison Square Garden, the duo is going out on a high note. But other projects are in the works to honor the duo’s history, and speculation persists that this may not be the duo’s final, final farewell.
*Twinkie Clark Looks Back With Humility
By Bob Marovich
Elbernita “Twinkie” Clark’s new solo CD, With Humility, looks back and testifies about more than four decades in gospel music as a member of what is arguably the most prominent gospel music family of all time.
*Gospel giant Sherman Washington of the Zion Harmonizers dies; the rebuild of PILGRIM BAPTIST CHURCH is ‘on again’; Daughter’s illness takes Gold City’s BRENT MITCHELL off the road and DAN KEETON steps in as new tenor.
SHOW ME THE WAY, Terry Myrick--Gospel artist and off-Broadway talent Terry Myrick's sophomore solo release on his own imprint, Sweet Melody Records.
RELEASING THE SPIRIT, Jonathan DuBose, Jr.-- Jonathan DuBose, Jr. is the Hal Blaine of gospel music. Known as "The Prophesying Guitarist," DuBose has played a supporting role, supplying the guitar parts for dozens of recordings you hear on the radio and on CD. For Releasing the Spirit, DuBose takes his turn on center stage. His solo album is an instrumental collection of beloved gospel hymns and songs, where the guitar is the lead voice. It's a relaxed jam session on church classics where the jazzing does not obliterate but adds flavor to the melodies.
SONGS FROM MY HEART, Tim Spady & Inspiration-- Songs From My Heart is a fine introduction to Tim Spady's sacred songwriting. One can only hope that he will continue pursuing his craft with diligence in the years to come.
MY SONGBOOK, Vashawn Mitchell-- Following in the wake of triple-threat Vashawn Mitchell's GRAMMY nominations and critically-acclaimed CD Triumphant (EMI Gospel), Tyscot Records mined its catalog to present the Chicagoan's best early recordings and performances as a CD/DVD combination called My Songbook. The selections on My Songbook are culled from projects such as Mitchell's Believe in Your Dreams (2005) and Promises (2007). It will introduce newer fans to the artist's early material that, they'll discover, is just as fresh as his current work.
ALBUM SPOTLIGHT: THE ESSENTIAL PAUL REVERE & THE RAIDERS
*‘We’re Not In The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Can You Believe That?’
By Christopher Hill
The fact is that there were millions of real rockers who logged just as much time listening to Paul Revere and the Raiders between 1965 and 1967 as they did the Rolling Stones. That the kids who made “Like a Rolling Stone” a hit did the same with “Kicks” and “Good Thing.” That there was one point at which serious young men who might one day be rock critics could want to be both John Lennon and Mark Lindsay, the Raiders’ front man, at one and the same time.
*The Mark Lindsay Arc
by David McGee
Considering the growth of Paul Revere & The Raiders as chronicles on The Essential Paul Revere & The Raiders, with its Mark Lindsay-centric timeline. Lindsay’s growth--as a writer, as a producer, as a singer and entertainer, as the band’s chief theorist and visionary--is indeed a story unto itself, and its arc is from the beginning to the end of the Raiders’ productive years. Includes an interview with Lindsay centered on the band’s early years and development in the studio.
ALBUM SPOTLIGHT: ALMOST HOME, Larry Sparks
Home, Where The Heart Is, And How Larry Sparks Got There
By David McGee
Though its music is largely upbeat if not always high-spirited, the narrative arc of Larry Spark’s moving new album, Almost Home, describes many a melancholy moment of aching departures and abject wanderings, with all roads leading back to where the heart is. A muscular display of traditional bluegrass prowess, the new long player in question hits every mark dead on: the lovingly crafted songs will get to anyone harboring warm memories of family and friends and a time of communion now long ago and far away—few of them are specifically love songs of the romantic sort, but rather about a love that runs deeper and unfailingly between blood kin and others close enough to be blood kin.
‘He Truly Was The Boy Next Door’
Remembering songwriter HUGH MARTIN, who wrote classics for Judy Garland, Yuletide and all time. A tribute to the composer of ‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,’ ‘The Trolley Song’ and ‘The Boy Next Door.’
Ferlin Husky, ‘Make Me Live Again’ (1957)
We pay tribute to country giants FERLIN HUSKY and RALPH MOONEY. Thanks for the memories.
MICHAEL CLEVELAND & FLAMEKEEPER, Fired Up-- Fired Up is indeed fired up, on multiple levels, and yet another powerhouse statement from one of most formidable bluegrass outfits on the scene.
THE GIBSON BROTHERS, Help My Brother-- For want of a single comma, the greater purpose of the Gibson Brothers’ fine new album might be misunderstood. For this is an exercise in one-on-one connecting, with one better off reaching out to another in distress and trying to bring some solace to a troubled soul. An explanation is in order.
CHARLIE SIZEMORE, Heartache Looking For a Home--With this, his seventh album, it is past time to speak of Charlie Sizemore unconditionally as a great bluegrass vocalist. A man who spent a large amount of time between his fine 2002 Tom T. Hall tribute album (Story Is The Songs of Tom T. Hall) and his 2007 Rounder debut (Good News) making most of his money from lawyering, Sizemore returns with a formidable knockout punch in Heartache Looking For a Home.
JOSH SLONE & COALTOWN-- Hailing from east Kentucky, Josh Slone & CoalTown come by traditional bluegrass naturally, which accounts in part for the group’s Rural Rhythm debut sounding so seasoned, so assured, and so deeply invested in the genre’s enduring themes. (A few years back the band self-released its first album proper, Appalachian Blues.) Cue this up for a stranger to the music, and he/she will get the idea.
RALPH STANLEY, A Mother’s Prayer-- Any new communication from Dr. Ralph Stanley is most welcome, and in A Mother’s Prayer he makes his latest appearance ever more meaningful by focusing on the gospel messages closest to his heart. No less benevolent in song than he is in his personal life, Dr. Stanley reaches across oceans of time for his material, not caring whether the sources are too old to be dated or come by way of a current mainstream contemporary country star--the good doctor is about spreading the good news of Christ’s death on the cross as atonement for humankind’s sins and the glorious promise of salvation inherent in the triumph of the cross.
JOSH WILLIAMS, Down Home-- Among many thoughts that spring to mind when considering Josh Williams’s superb Down Home album is how young but how seasoned he sounds all at once. He has a lived-in voice, but one free of ragged edges—you’ll have a hard time not thinking early Randy Travis when he sings, especially when he eases into a tender country love song such as “Dream of Me” with its loping pace, aching harmonies and strong backwoods flavor supplied by tart, to-the-point fiddle and banjo solos by, respectively, Jason Carter and Aaron McDaris.
YONDER MOUNTAIN STRING BAND, Show-- In its most ambitious outing yet, the Yonder Mountain String Band marshals all its strength and fluid melding of styles into a rousing album-length statement of fine songwriting and inspired musicianship.
NEIL DIAMOND, The Bang Years 1966-1968--Let us all agree that for this moment in time, Neil Diamond made rock ‘n’ roll of an exalted order, took it seriously as a means of communicating deeply personal revelations, not always flattering to himself, and left behind a body of work as real as it is lasting, as if one doesn’t go hand in hand with the other. Behold the real deal, the real Neil.
PAUL PIGAT, Boxcar Campfire-- In last month’s issue, Paul Pigat appeared in his guise as Cousin Harley on his new album It’s a Sin, dealing some fairly incendiary rockabilly, merciless rock ‘n’ roll and elegant Les Paul-styled pop. Released concurrently with It’s a Sin, Boxcar Campfire bears Pigat’s birth name, more acoustic than electric guitar, some fancy fingerpicking, a decided bent towards country and Delta blues, an atmosphere alternately laid-back and tense and some striking vocals steeped in a wry, weathered, unsentimental perspective born of experience in life its ownself. In case you didn’t get the drift, it’s also one terrific album—certainly an ideal counterpart to the fiery It’s a Sin, but in its own right a thoughtful, soulful keeper of a long player.
RORY BLOCK, Shake ‘Em On Down-- Coming in the wake of her impressive tributes to Robert Johnson (The Lady and Mr. Johnson) and Son House (Blues Walkin’ Like a Man), this tribute to Mississippi Fred McDowell has a twofold purpose: to allow Ms. Block to honor a bluesman who had a major impact on her own music, and to further her idea for constructing a “Mentor Series” of albums saluting the great blues masters of the past whose paths she crossed in her youthful, striving days and from whom she learned the ins and outs of the type of blues she most loves. As she did with Son House’s songs, Ms. Block strives not for exact replications but for the soul of the performance. Based on her own liner notes, she did a meticulous study of McDowell’s hard-driving riffing style, and then found her own voice and took it home over the course of a dozen tunes, some of which she wrote herself based on a McDowell riff or his history.
A musical tribute to ANN-MARGRET, who turns 70 on April 28. Never older, only lovelier.
‘Let Me Entertain You’
Christine Santelli’s Video Of The Month
Christine Santelli, ‘Catch a Break,’ from her 100 Videos in 100 Days project
(Santa Fe Easter Morning by Carl Owen)
HONORING EASTER AND PASSOVER
April is the month of both Easter and Passover. Our special coverage of these solemn occasions includes:
*Seven Stanzas for Easter
by John Updike
Of the untold number of poems inspired by the story of Jesus’ resurrection, none have engendered as much speculation, interpretation and consideration as to its greater meaning than John Updike’s 1963 ‘Seven Stanzas at Easter.’ In this year’s marking of Easter in our pages, we offer the Updike poem; the story of its discovery in 1960 when the young poet entered it in a Massachusetts church’s Religious Arts Festival and won a $100 prize for “Best of Show”; and the view from the pulpit on the import of Updike’s call for Easter not be ‘trivialized, reduced to a happy ending or a pious parable,’ as one of these distinguished clerics puts it. Happy Easter!
The Blogging Farmer
Alex Tiller’s Blog on Agriculture and Farming
In three timely posts, ALEX TILLER considers whether agriculture will survive in Japan in light of last month’s earthquake, tsunami and ensuing damage to nuclear reactors. Saltwater drowning the fields means farm production in those areas is going to be out of production for awhile. How much the spill of radiation into the environment holds back agricultural productivity is an open question still. In Thank God The Japan Earthquake Spared The Markets. Or Did It?, Tiller points out that ‘prices on several commodity futures have dropped significantly in the wake of the Japanese earthquakes, tsunamis and now nuclear accidents.’ Finally, in Bubble, Bubble--Here Comes Trouble, he offers the following cautionary advice: ‘Here's a little word of warning, at least to those speculators who are banking on increased demand for corn-derived ethanol...enjoy it while you can. As this speculation continues to drive food costs up across the board, particularly in countries where people can least afford it, there's going to be increased rage--and trouble...and anything can happen.’
Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast
This month, a double dose of 7-Imp:
*First, Jules checks in with ‘Why April Is Not The Cruelest Month, Plus A Sneak Peak At Eric Rohmann's Next Picture Book,’ a look at three new children’s poetry titles our gal wrote about in her Kirkus column, plus a preview of Bone Dog, the forthcoming picture book from ERIC ROHMANN.
*In the second 7-Imp piece this month, guest columnist CRISTIANA CLERICI from Italy waxes rapturous, and appropriately so, over MAURIZIO QUARELLO's scintillating take on Blue Beard the Pirate in his new book, which Ms. Clerici describes as ‘a cinematographic picture book.’ The striking illustrations alone make this must reading.
In The Evening by John Henry Newman
O Lord, support us all the day long, until the shadows lengthen, and the evening comes, and the busy world is hushed, and the fever of life is over, and our work is done. Then in thy mercy, grant us a safe lodging, and a holy rest and peace at last. Amen.