Saturday, August 24, 2013

Remembering Frankie Trumbauer, Bix, and Some Jazz Age Songs

I’m confessin’ that I got real deep into music of the ‘20's this summer. I was preparing for a musical of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, 1920's Style, playing tenor sax. It occurred to me that I should be playing a C Melody sax, like they did in the period. So now I’m overhauling one of those 90 year old things. The Buescher is sort of a baby tenor; the Conn is a long neck alto. But I digress. I started listening to C Melodies.

What won my heart was this recording from the ‘90's of Scott Robinson bringing to life a tune, Singin' the Blues, that Bix Beiderbecke and Frank Trumbauer made in ‘27.

 Turns out Frankie made a lot of platters, and a lot of them with Bix. So I started listening to their stuff on YouTube. One that caught my ear and stuck there was No One Can Take Your Place, dated 1928. It seemed to epitomize the era.

It bounced around my brain for a week and I had to find out more about it. But nothin’. No sheet music. Not on any list of pop songs of any year. It was lost. Where’d it go? Prolly (a word I learned from Sinclair Lewis) lotsa songs got written and recorded, but never were published cause they didn’t catch on. First I found several newer songs with the same title, even one by Lynnerd Skynnerd, not so good. This must mean that even the title had disappeared over the decades.

Then I went back to the video where I had seen the Odeon record label. (BTW, Odeon, a German company seems to have turned out the best fidelity on those 78's. They recorded in London and New York, as well as Berlin and Paris.) The label identified the composers: lyrics by Gilbert and Melbeck and melody by Frank Signorelli. Turns out they wrote lots of tunes together, and scored with Stairway to the Stars and A Blues Serenade, later recorded by Glenn Miller and Duke Ellington. What really lit me up was a different version of a 1945 song I grew up with about my home town: Sioux City Sue (1924). Can’t find the lyrics to Signorelli’s version, but it’s not much to write home about.

No One Can Take Your Place was Bix’ last recording session with Frankie in the spring of ‘29. Bix was probably sick, and the tune lacks much that would make it “jazz.” Bix does have a couple of short breaks, and the ending. Otherwise, just another pop song. And the story it tells is a little “off.” This guy is telling this doll how he still loves her even though he’s got a new gal. I don’t think anyone wanted to be singing about that scenario. But I like the melody, so I picked it out and guessed at the chords. This feels like a real contribution to the world's accumulated knowledge! It will be in the next post.

A Lost Pop Song from the '20's

This song is explained in the previous post: I have posted this on Google Drive as a public document, but I have no idea how you can copy it or open it. It is a PDF file.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

What He Said - A Hymn about Jesus' Teachings

This hymn is explained in the previous post.

The Poverty of Hymns and One of My Own

Where are the hymns that tell the teachings of Jesus? I ask this because of a dispute this past month about the new Presbyterian Hymnal, Glory to God. The hymnal committee decided not to include a decade old praise song, “In Christ Alone.” This hymn actually does a good job of clearly stating a particular theology of the atonement. That was the problem. Presbyterians recognize that there are a variety of metaphors for how God reconciles the world to Godself (as some of us have said it).  Al Moeller, leading Southern Baptist and neanderthal theologian, is outraged that any Christian would deny the penal substitutionary theory of the atonement: that God sacrificed His Son on the Cross as a payment to satisfy the debt of sin that humanity had built up since we emerged from Africa. All of us collectively owed something to God for all of our wrongdoing, so God decided to pay it Himself. (He is “Father.”)

(I should state here that atonement concerns me not at all any more. Having abandoned belief in the supernatural, I see our problem as needing reconciliation with each other, period. God gets in the way of this, and often becomes the impetus for hating and annihilating each other. Jesus, I think, had other ideas.) Myths and metaphors are helpful, as long as we are clear that they are myths and metaphors, and not literally true.

The hymn controversy reminded me of why I dislike most hymns. They are about the Christ and doctrines, and rarely about the historical Jesus. As I look at the list of hymns in the new Glory to God, I do see a few newer hymns that may be about what Jesus taught. “A Woman Broke a Jar,” and “A Woman and a Coin” are two obvious examples. Different ways of singing about Jesus, other than spiritualizing and glorifying him as divine, are possible. The Disciples of Christ have a wonderful hymn speaking of Jesus as “Holy Wisdom.” That didn’t make the grade for Presbyterians, and I guess Avery and Marsh hymns or songs are verboten now in the PCUSA. (They were Presbyterian ministers in Port Jervis, NJ until not too long ago.)

About 15 years ago, a Jesus Seminar scholar wrote but did not publish a paper analyzing what the Methodist hymnal said about Jesus. I do not remember that the human Jesus did more than “call us” and “die.” Somehow the bit about his death does not connect with his teachings about power, empires, and violence. Of course there is a lot about how Jesus loves us, but that is inference, not directly found in his sayings. OK, maybe I will do an analysis of Jesus in Glory to God.

A friend on line suggested that I write a Jesus hymn, so the file that follows displays it: “What He Said.”

I had recently presented to my local Unitarian-Universalist congregation the teachings of Jesus from the Jesus Seminar. I looked at The Essential Jesus, wherein Dominic Crossan translated some of Jesus’ teachings into free verse of the simplest and direct language.

The tune had to be irregular, a necessity when working from other than metrical poetry. Maybe someone else can suggest better language and a better tune. I tried to produce a simple, singable tune, but may have failed in that. There are a couple of nice “hooks.” I would have liked a blues form, or a pentatonic melody. The chords are simple for guitar players. The chords could be enhanced. Maybe others can write in other ways about what Jesus taught. I think it’s time for another “Not Alone for Mighty Empire,” (not in Glory to God), or another hymn of the Social Gospel, or a revival of some hymns of the ‘60's. But today we are heavily into personal, individual praise and traditional, doctrinal divine man hymns. Even the topical hymns are not very realistic. So it goes.

Missing in Action

What is missing here are posts about my Yom HaShoah sermon in April, my thoughts about the Heidelberg Catechism, and lots of other deep thoughts about many other important things. This spring I joined a big band at SUNY ADK, which made 4 music groups. Kinda busy.