Song of the Day: September 30

from Michael Barrett:

In our brief survey of the Negro Spiritual this week, we’ve heard from Marian Anderson and Mahalia Jackson. Let’s hear now from Robert McFerrin Sr. from 1957. Yes, this is Bobby McFerrin’s Dad. Two years before this recording Mr. McFerrin became the first black man to sing at the Met. Listening to this perfectly produced voice and razor clean diction reminds me of the tradition of many classically trained black singers. There is something dignified and pure in their declamation of the english language. I remember Virgil Thomson once telling me that the reason Four Saints In Three Acts had an all-black cast in 1937 had nothing to do with what I thought was a cool and subversive idea. “No.” he said. “Black singers just had the best diction, and that’s what I wanted”.

Begin at 4:28 to hear “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” and “Witness” in Hall Johnson’s arrangements.

Song of the Day: September 29

Today’s Song of the Day features Mahalia Jackson and Nat King Cole in Steal Away. The lyrics are “Steal away, steal away, steal away to Jesus. Steal away, steal away home. I ain’t got long to stay here.” Again, it is code for an escape to freedom. This recording from 1957 is a good reminder of how gospel music was (and in some places still is) accompanied—a piano and a hammond organ with all its vibrato. The spiritual is beautiful, and even though it is one of Harry Burleigh’s original settings, it doesn’t seem to be a  favorite of singers. Its internal qualities perhaps don’t make it a frequent choice for recitals, but it has long been near the top of my list. In Ms. Jackson’s voice (and her glacial tempo), it’s a wonderful piece of American history.
—Michael Barrett

Song of the Day: September 28

This week’s Song of the Day selections come from NYFOS co-founder Michael Barrett:
I have just been baptized in the Colorado River. It wasn’t intentional. I was swept into the rapids of Cataract Canyon about 100 miles south of Moab, Utah. I had several mouthfuls of the the holy water, and somehow survived. Two nights before I had played the NYFOS concert Harlem Renaissance at the Moab Music Festival with pianist John Musto, soprano Julia Bullock, baritone James Martin, and tenor Robert Mack. It was a moving experience thanks to the poetry (Langston Hughes, Zora Neal Hurston, County Cullen, et al), great music (Fats Waller, Eubie Blake, Duke Ellington…), fabulous performances, and a sold-out house of people who really got the point—the flowering of the the musical and written word in 1920’s Harlem from our black brothers and sisters. What a moment of pure American expression. I think it was what what Frank O’Hara was getting at when he wrote a “real right thing”. 
I also went to the Pope’s Mass at Madison Square Garden a few days ago. My wife Leslie was in the orchestra playing with Jennifer Hudson, Harry Connick Jr., Kelly O’Hara—and the turgid, uninspired, mostly 19th and 20th century liturgical tunes that comprise the modern Catholic Mass. Why, I thought, would they bother with this pablam when there is so much God-inspired music out there, expressly written for the Mass? Don’t get me wrong—I really like the new Pope. He was pooped out by the time he got to MSG, but he was there, and represented his new progressiveness in the Catholic Church. I personally don’t care for organized religion, but this guy has caught my attention and his humanism and tolerance seem to be giving the world some hope. Finally, a religious leader talking the talk and walking the walk. 
But it all brought me back to America and our music, our town—NYC/Harlem—and the beauty of music that comes out of adversity. It was explained to me several years ago that much of Negro spiritual texts were in code. Old Testament phrases like “The promised land” were code for freedom. The “River Jordan” was the Mississippi. Getting over the river to “campground” or “my home” is where a new life of freedom could begin.
Here is Marion Anderson, one of America’s greatest heroines and vocalists in “Deep River”. She makes me proud to be an American, and though I’m not religious, she, the Pope, and the Colorado River have brought me closer to God.  —Michael Barrett

Song of the Day: September 25

This is our final post from guest DJ Mark Campbell. Thank you, Mark!  Next week: NYFOS Co-founder Michael Barrett!

Did You Ever Cross Over to Sneden’s?
Music and lyrics by Alec Wilder

TGIF. After all the heavy songs on my list this week, I now feature one that had no relation to a personal crisis or to my writing: “Did You Ever Cross Over to Sneden’s?” by Alec Wilder. I love this song because of the mystery in the lyric (do we really know what happened to the person singing this song or the person they are missing?), the simple poetry and melody, and the merging of past and present in the story.

“Do You Ever Cross Over to Sneden’s?” was written for Mable Mercer, but I prefer the recording linked below. It’s performed by Joannie Morris and Bill Bolcom—two members of the immediate NYFOS family.

When I started this list, I vowed that I would not include any of the work of my collaborators, as it meant the exclusion of other collaborators’ work. That wouldn’t be fair. And professionally unwise. The inclusion of this song is in line with that vow, but it’s also cheating a little. When Bill and Joannie perform a song they become part of that song; they are immediately inextricable from the creation of it.

Song of the Day: September 24

from librettist Mark Campbell:

Knoxville: Summer of 1915
Music by Samuel Barber; text by James Agee

I know this is not a “song.” But this is my week, not yours. I first heard this work in 1989 when my mother was diagnosed with cancer—and continued listening to it after she died a few months later. I marvel at the brilliance of this text setting; in Barber’s deft hands, the prose sounds like poetry. But, more personally, this music gave me permission to mourn at a time when I sorely needed it. And I still fall apart at the lines:

“May God bless my people,
My uncle, my aunt, my mother, my good father,
Oh, remember them kindly in their time of trouble;
And in the hour of their taking away.”

This is a recording of the work with Dawn Upshaw:

Song of the Day: September 23

from librettist Mark Campbell:

Being Alive
Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim

I had to include a Sondheim song this week. Had to. “Being Alive” is not necessarily my favorite song from the Sondheim canon—but I have to admit that in my long and varied romantic life, I’ve often asked the same questions about love that Robert asks in this song. (Now that I am married to my sweet husband Steve, these questions are still asked, but perhaps less emphatically.) The song is also fresh on my mind because of the recent death of Dean Jones, who played the original Robert on Broadway. Of course, much is made of the ingenuous twist in the lyric from a description (“Someone to hold me too close”) to a plea/command (“Somebody hold me too close”), but I think the power in this song is also in the tough verbs: “crowd,” “ruin,” “hurt,” “force.” And of course the final twist, “to help us survive/being alive.” This album was the first show album that I bought myself—and was my first experience with Sondheim’s music. I soon began to listen to Company religiously—over and over, as I would pretty much all of the musicals with music and lyrica by Sondheim. Funnily enough, I bought it as a birthday gift for my mother who had seen Elaine Stritch on TV and felt that she had found a kindred spirit in her.

Song of the Day: September 22

from librettist Mark Campbell:

This Charming Man
Music and lyrics by The Smiths, Johnny Marr and Morrissey

I am an ardent fan of Morrissey and The Smiths and love so many of their songs, so choosing one was very difficult.  While this song was released originally in 1983, it was re-released in 1992, the time when we gay men were about to enter our second decade of AIDS. The song has a boyish sexuality and a brazen homoeroticism that was very welcome at a time when AIDS was devastating my community and trying its damnedest to make us feel bad about sex. (I’m happy to report that it didn’t succeed.) The song still makes me grin, starting with its jangling, gangly intro. It’s impossible not to feel the exuberance of the singer’s crush and the rush of joy he feels—and I love the irony in the lyric, “Will Nature make a man of me yet?”