Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Out Of The Rut, Into The Groove

When I hear someone say maybe school should run year-round, I get collywobbles. As a kid, I always looked forward to summer. Three months to do whatever I wanted, read whatever I wanted, think about whatever I wanted. Some of those apparently-casual ventures took me to interesting and useful places I'd never have found if other people had been directing my activities.

The past four months have been tough for me. I came back from a promotional trip for A Perilous Conception all ready to get cracking on my next mystery novel. But I couldn't concentrate, couldn't develop a plot, couldn't call up characters. Nor could I do any physical work. I figured I was just worn out from the 2500 road miles.

What I didn't know was that I had developed Graves Disease, or hyperthyroidism, a condition which destroys muscle tissue and turns minds into something like sieve-encased mush. I fell into a daily pattern - sleep late, get up reluctantly, do email, write some blog posts, and now and again stop staring at the wall long enough to thumb through the collection I'd acquired last year of writings, musical compositions, and artefacts from the estate of Brun Campbell, the Original Ragtime Kid. By six in the evening, I was reduced to watching the clock till it seemed reasonable to hit the sack.

I've been treated for the Graves Disease, and I'm feeling pretty good again, but I still can't get myself going on a book. I email, I blog, I look at the Campbell material, I email some more. I'm stuck in a rut. I'm restless. And it's light till ten pm here in Seattle, and the days are what we consider warm in these latitudes.

 My Graves Disease has evolved into Solstice Fever. I need a vacation (from the Latin vacatio: freedom, exemption). Wipe my slate clean, put on a pair of new shoes, wander off, and see where I go. Emails will be shorter and fewer. Except for my alternate-month posts to the Poisoned Pen Press blog, no more blogging for a while. No more promotional work, at least not until leaves fall.

Gonna pull myself out of this rut and find my groove.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

You've Never Heard Of Captain Shaw. Well...

Captain Eyre Massey Shaw was a major figure in the history of firefighting. In 1861, at the age of 31, he was named Head of the London Fire Engine Establishment (reorganized four years later as the Metropolitan Fire Brigade, and now known as the London Fire Brigade), and served in that post for thirty years. He was responsible for countless innovations in firefighting, was a great popular hero, and prior to his retirement, was knighted by Queen Victoria.

Shaw was also a dedicated Gilbert and Sullivan fan, customarily sitting in the first row of the balcony. At some point, W.S. Gilbert noticed him, and wrote him into Iolanthe. A key feature of the plot of this operetta was the provision that a fairy who dared to marry a mortal would be punished by death. On Opening Night, November 25, 1882, the Fairy Queen, struggling with some inconvenient feelings toward a human, came to the edge of the stage, addressed Captain Shaw in the balcony, and wowed the audience by singing,

"Oh, Captain Shaw
Type of true love kept under
Could thy brigade with cold cascade
Quench my great love, I wonder?"

Well, all right, you might say - but where are you going with this?

 Here's where. My wife Myra and I had been at loggerheads over how to properly celebrate our fiftieth wedding anniversary this summer. For my seventieth birthday, I'd enjoyed a ragtime concert at our daughter's and son-in-law's house, followed by a terrific barbecue and a fabulous chocolate dessert; for Myra's seventieth, she'd set up a quiet dinner with the kids and their spouses. Now, for our anniversary, I thought we should do something special. She thought another quiet dinner would be in order.

By March, we were nowhere near resolution. Then we went to the Seattle Gilbert and Sullivan mid-year fundraising event. There was singing, dancing, mugging. There were raffles. Finally, there was an auction: in the final show of the run, the high bidder would be dressed in a fireman's coat and hat to play the (nonspeaking) role of Captain Shaw, who, with a fire hose, would try to quench the ardor of the Fairy Queen. And, the producer added, couples were welcome to participate - there could be an "assistant hose carrier."

Myra gave me the hardest fish eye in her arsenal. "Oh, no."

"Oh, yes," I said, and raised my hand.

So on the evening of July 28, Myra and I will mark our Golden Wedding Anniversary by dampening the affections of a Fairy Queen. And here's the punch line. We were married in New Jersey on July 29, and time zones being what they are, when we go onstage, it will in fact be July 29 in New Jersey. Would Gilbert and Sullivan have loved that little twist? Even Myra now admits it's pretty cool.

And the next day, dinner with the kids, their spouses, and our grandson.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Blatant Promotion Of Someone Else's Book

I recently enjoyed a week of fabulous ragtime music - first at the Scott Joplin Festival in Sedalia, and now at the Blind Boone Fest in Columbia, Missouri. In the process, I've had the pleasure of spending some time with Carol Binkowski, whose book, Joseph F. Lamb: A Passion for Ragtime has recently come out.

Joe Lamb was one of the three major composers of ragtime a century ago, and lived a life of stunning variety and accomplishment. To date, there's been no full-length biography of Lamb, but Carol has rectified this omission. She's presented Lamb's story in a most effective way, painting such a clear and captivating background of the times that at times you'll think you're reading a novel. But it all really did happen, and whether or not you're a musician, and whether or not you like ragtime music, you'll get sucked into this book, and then, when you turn the last page, you'll sit for a moment, dazed, feeling as if you've just been dumped out of a time machine. Get it from a bookshop, or from a library, but get it and read it. I don't think you'll be sorry.

Here's my short review.

* * *

A century or so ago, there were three major composers of classic ragtime music: Scott Joplin, Joseph Lamb, and James Scott. Book-length biographies of Joplin have been available for some time, but in this regard, Lamb and Scott have been sorely neglected. Now, happily, we now have Joseph F. Lamb: A Passion for Ragtime, by Carol Binkowski (McFarland, 2012). The wait has been worth it.

Joe Lamb's story is a classic American tale, and Binkowski does a first-rate job of telling it. Born in 1887, Lamb grew up in Montclair, NJ, basically taught himself piano, and as a teenager, began to compose popular tunes in the styles of the times. Then he heard Scott Joplin's ragtime, and became hooked. He began to write in this genre, met and got to be friends with Joplin (who enthusiastically endorsed the younger man's work), and saw his compositions achieve considerable popularity. But about 1920, the market for ragtime vanished. Lamb continued to write rags and other tunes for his own enjoyment, held a responsible corporate job, and lived a quiet life with his family, in Brooklyn.

By the time of the ragtime revival in the 1940s, Lamb was a mystery man to music historians. Most of them assumed that like Joplin and Scott, Lamb was Black, and probably long dead. But in 1949, while researching the book that became They All Played Ragtime, Rudi Blesh and Harriet Janis discovered him, and he got to enjoy his celebrity for the remaining eleven years of his life. Many of the rags he'd composed during the prior thirty years were published, as were a bunch of new ragtime pieces he set onto paper during the 'fifties. He performed at ragtime festivals, and made recordings.

The author recounts Lamb's life story through a beautifully-drawn background of the times in which he lived, which stretched from the late Victorian age to the last days of the Eisenhower presidency. Social customs and mores of the day, business practices, geographic considerations, and certainly entertainment - particularly music - are used effectively to give the reader a full and satisfying picture of Lamb's personal and professional life. Binkowski's descriptions of places play like movies.

Most fortunate is the fact that two of Lamb's children are still with us, and cooperated fully with the author regarding documents, photographs, and family stories. (The composer's daughter Patricia has been active for years, attending ragtime festivals and presenting seminars related to her father's work).

The material should be of interest to musicians and music historians, while remaining fully accessible to nonmusical readers. In her introduction, the author states, "...this is not a musicological study. Nor is this a comparative or critical analysis of Lamb in relation to Scott Joplin, James Scott, or any other composer." But the scholarship is outstanding, as reflected in the long and comprehensive list of references, and the pertinent chapter end-notes. In addition, appendices list Lamb's published and unpublished compositions, recordings, and folios of his work.

No question, Joe Lamb lived the quintessential American dream. It's satisfying to learn that such a good man received his just and full reward, perhaps not in the coin of the realm, but in currency that mattered deeply to him.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

D-Day Remembered

I came along just a few months before Hitler's invasion of Poland in 1939, so I grew up listening to wartime news on the radio. My father would blow in from work, turn the dial to the five o'clock news, and listen until it was time for dinner.

By the time I was five, I'd discovered that that little brown box was also a smorgasbord of music, so Pop had to switch the station to hear the news. When I made objection, which I did every time, he told me the news was more important, that America was fighting a war, and our lives depended on it.

Well, I knew that. I'd heard it all around the neighborhood, and had spent a fair bit of time scouring the streets for discarded aluminum foil from cigarette packages, to turn in to make weapons and ammunition to kill Germans, Italians, and Japanese. That was fine. But I didn't like to have my musical appreciation hour preempted by sonorous, somber voices, talking about people and places utterly unfamiliar to me.

In early June of 1944, my father got more irritable than usual, sweeping into the house and flipping the radio switch even before he said hello to my mother or me. "There's something about to happen," he said. "We're going to invade from the Western Front - but all the information is second-hand, coming from intercepted German reports. Why do we need to get our news from Germany? Can you tell me that?"

Then, on June 6, as I came down for breakfast, Pop was already at the table, the radio blaring loud enough for neighbors on both sides to hear. The speaker was a man named H. V. Kaltenborn, and he was telling the story of the Allied invasion of France. "This had better succeed," Pop boomed. "If it does, it will be the end of the war. If it doesn't..."

If my father finished that sentence, I didn't hear it. "The end of the war?" I piped?

"Yes, I'm sure of it."

"Hurray!" I shouted, and I remember jumping up and down. "No more news. Then I'll be able to listen to music."

Which cracked up the old man no end. "There'll still be news," he said.

My face must've replied that I didn't understand.

"Peacetime news," my father said. "There'll always be news.

And so there has been. But peacetime news on commercial radio stations has become an endless litany of murders, assaults sexual and otherwise, lawsuits, callous interviews of disturbed people, the silly cavortings of celebrities of all stripes, and repeated weather and traffic reports. Fortunately, we have NPR, to which I'm glad to send periodic contributions to support its broadcasts of excellent music, interrupted hourly by intelligent and informative newscasts. A good balance. I think my father would've approved.

No, the NPR reporters don't sound quite up to Mr. Kaltenborn, or, for that matter, to Robert Trout, Ed Murrow, and many other names with which I could pad this post. But all right. There are a lot of things that ain't quite what they used to be. Go to, and listen to Kaltenborn's report from sixty-eight years ago today. It's worth a few minutes of your time.