Posts Tagged ‘calypso’

Sometimes It Seems

Monday, January 27th, 2020

 

gwyneth tray

So there I was in early 2019 in our house a mile inland from Mendocino, creating songs for Lounge Act In Heaven. New music and lyrics were coming with ease and I was also writing words for music I’d written years ago but had never gotten around to recording. A most exciting creative time for me.

One morning I was in my office/studio and said aloud to the unseen ones, my main audience these days, “I want to write a calypso.”

The minute I said the word calypso I thought of Harry Belafonte, a vastly important person to me when I was a young music-hungry kid in a household with a non-musical father and a musical mother who only played the piano and sang songs from the 1920s and 30s when she, as Paul McCartney put it, had a bellyful of wine. I loved standing beside her and singing along as she played from a Tams-Witmark songbook and sang the old songs in her beautiful soprano.

It’s only a shanty in old shanty town,

the roof is so slanty it touches the ground,

In a tumbled down shack by the old railroad track,

like a millionaire’s mansion it’s calling me back

The records I remember my mother playing when I was little, and those records only rarely, were a couple Mills Brothers albums (which I loved singing along to) and Artie Shaw’s big band hits, which my parents played and danced to at every party they ever gave. We also had a read along/sing along album of Winnie the Pooh. When Winnie sang Tum Tum Tiddle Iddle Um Tum Tum I was supposed to turn the page. That was our home music scene until…

1957. I was eight. A movie called Island In the Sun starring Harry Belafonte came out that year, caused a national sensation, and made Harry an even bigger star than he already was. Island In the Sun was such a big deal culturally that shortly after the movie came out every sophisticated household and many quasi-sophisticated households in America had Harry Belafonte’s hit album Belafonte Sings of the Caribbean.

I will never forget the first time my mother put Belafonte Sings of the Caribbean on our old monophonic record player. I came out of my room like a moth drawn to a flame, listened breathlessly to the heavenly songs for the duration of Side One, then dashed to the record player, turned the record over, camped by the speaker for all of Side Two, and then turned the record over and started Side One again. I must have listened to that album from start to finish five hundred times over the next few years, and my mother occasionally played the album while she made dinner for the first few years we had the record, so I came to associate supper with calypso.

My favorite song from that album was ‘Cordelia Brown’. Oh Cordelia Brown what makes your hair so red? Oh Cordelia Brown what makes your hair so red? They say you come out in the sunshine with nothing on your head. Oh Cordelia Brown, what makes your hair so red?

When I was ten, I went to Discount Records in Menlo Park and with my very own hard-saved three dollars bought Harry Belafonte’s album Love Is a Gentle Thing, a mix of Calypso songs and folk songs and what in those days were called Negro Spirituals. I played the album countless times and still remember several of the songs sixty years later, including ‘All My Trials’. If living were a thing that money could buy, you know the rich would live and the poor would die. All my trials lord, soon be over.

Some months later, I bought another Harry Belafonte album, brought it home, took the album out of the Discount Record bag, and was horrified to find I’d somehow brought home the wrong record. The man on the cover was African American and wearing dark glasses. His name was Ray Charles. How was this possible?  I had watched the record store clerk put the Harry Belafonte album in the bag and hand the bag to me. Was the clerk a sleight-of-hand genius? And why had he given me a record by someone named Ray Charles and not Harry Belafonte?

Then I turned the album over and here was Harry Belafonte. Seems in those days record companies would release promotional albums that paired two of their recording artists on the same LP so the popularity of one might aid the popularity of the other.

Now here is something I find interesting about me, and maybe about people in general. For the first six months of owning that Harry/Ray album, I listened over and over to the Harry Belafonte side and steadfastly avoided the Ray Charles side.

Then one fateful rainy Saturday, having exhausted the indoor resources of our house and being a bit weary of Harry Belafonte, I lowered the needle onto the first cut of the Ray Charles side, the song ‘CC Ryder’. When Ray began to play the piano in a way I had never heard anyone play the piano and sing in a high plaintive voice unlike any voice I had ever heard, I only listened for a moment before I lifted the needle from the record. Why? Because Ray’s music and his incredibly emotional singing seemed like something I was not supposed to hear, something frightening and forbidden and dangerous.

A little while later on that same rainy Saturday, my mother announced she was going to Macy’s, did anyone want to go with her? My sisters and brother all jumped at the chance to get out of the house and my father was at work, which meant I would have the place all to myself.

When my mother and siblings were gone, I returned to the living room, lowered the needle on Ray Charles singing ‘CC Ryder’, and seven songs later I was a totally different cat and rarely listened to Harry Belafonte after that.

My parents loathed the Ray Charles side of that record, so I only played it when they were not around until we got a stereo with a headphone jack, and thereafter headphones were the salvation of my musical life.

So I lived another sixty years without listening to Harry Belafonte, but his songs and timing and phrasing were ingrained in me and I wanted to write a Calypso song. I spent several days hunting around on my guitar until I found a calypso-like chord pattern I loved, and when I’d mastered the pattern, I started scat singing with Harry’s calypso phrasing, and out came ‘Sometimes It Seems’.

One of the things I loved about Harry’s calypso songs was that no matter what the songs were about, they sounded sweet and hopeful, and that’s what I aimed for with ‘Sometimes It Seems’.

In his commodious recording studio, Peter Temple set up three microphones and we tried a couple takes of ‘Sometimes It Seems’ with me playing the guitar and singing. I was not happy with the rhythmic consistency of my guitar playing, so we recorded the guitar part first, which allowed me to focus entirely on the somewhat tricky chord changes without the distraction of trying to sing, too. Once I was happy with the guitar part, we recorded my vocal part, made a rough mix, and gave that mix of voice and guitar to Gwyneth Moreland.

Gwyneth spent some time figuring out her accordion part and a vocal harmony and then came to Peter’s studio. We recorded her accordion track first, then she sang, and we liked her singing so well, we mixed her voice slightly louder than mine, which resulted in a pleasing duet. Then I recorded a second vocal track we placed low in the mix, and voila, a sweet simple calypso song.

Sometimes It Seems

 

Sometimes it seems life’s not fair

And nobody seems to care

Nobody seems to understand

Makes us want to run away to the end of never land

 

But when you dance with me

Our worries disappear

When you sing with me

We overcome our fears

 

So let’s dance together every day

Sing harmony and chase those blues away

My Black Heroes

Thursday, December 2nd, 2010

A hero is someone who understands the responsibility that comes with his freedom.” Bob Dylan

The black athlete I am currently most enamored of is Michael Vick, the quarterback for the Philadelphia Eagles who recently spent two years in federal prison for financing a large and illegal pit bull farm where dogs were raised and trained to fight and kill other dogs, and where dogs deemed unfit to be successful fighters were ruthlessly murdered, some by Vick himself. Several of my friends are unhappy with me for liking Michael Vick, just as they were upset with me for liking Mike Tyson, and for liking Muhammad Ali before it became politically correct to like the man who started out as Cassius Clay, and for liking Sonny Liston before I liked Cassius Clay.

I don’t like that Michael Vick treated dogs cruelly and killed them, but I understand that raising and fighting pit bulls is an integral part of southern culture. I sojourned in South Carolina in the 1970’s and attended barbecues at the homes of both white people and black people, and the climax of every such party came when the man of the house took me and a few other men to visit the kennel wherein he kept his illegal fighting dogs and the coop wherein his illegal gamecocks were caged. And as we stood in the presence of these ferocious dogs and ferocious birds, our host would proudly regale us with tales of grisly battles fought by his dogs and cocks, tales for which he expected to be greatly admired.

I don’t recount this southern lore to defend Michael Vick, but to suggest there is a cultural context for his actions. Had he come from China and been the son of a cat breeder providing cat meat to the markets of Beijing, we might wince at the thought of a child being taught by his parents how to slaughter cats, but most of us would understand that this person came from a very different culture than ours, and so be it.

“Willie Mays was the finest player I ever saw, make no mistake about it.” Willie McCovey

The greatest idol of my early childhood was Willie Mays. After Willie I added to my list of heroes Wilt Chamberlain, Cazzie Russell, Oscar Roberstson, Earl the Pearl Monroe, Julius Erving, and several other black basketball players. My current favorite among active basketball players is Rajon Rondo of the Boston Celtics.

The only white athlete I ever idolized was the Russian high jumper Valeriy Brumel. I was a lucky twelve-year old watching through binoculars at Stanford Stadium in 1962 when Valeriy jumped seven feet five inches to break his own world’s record. Inspired by Valeriy’s feat, I concocted a backyard high jump using a bamboo pole for the bar spanning the six feet between two redwood grape stakes with a pile of sawdust for my landing pad. I practiced jumping over that bar every day for several months until I cleared four feet eight inches, after which I turned my athletic attention to basketball.

“Music is the medicine of the breaking heart.” Leigh Hunt

I discovered Ray Charles when I was nine years old, and in a most roundabout way. My mother was a fan of the Mills Brothers who were black but sounded suitably white and whose pictures did not appear on their albums bought by white people. Of the big bands, my folks listened to Artie Shaw and Tommy Dorsey, not Count Basie or Duke Ellington. But in 1957, when the carob brown Harry Belafonte entered the American mainstream in the movie Island In the Sun, a drama exploring interracial relationships, my folks and many other relatively open-minded white people bought Harry’s album of calypso tunes featuring the title song from Island In The Sun.

I fell madly in love with Belafonte’s singing and played Island in the Sun so often that my mother would periodically hide the album from me lest she go mad. And when my grandmother sent me five dollars for my ninth birthday, I took the money to Discount Records in Menlo Park and asked the man behind the counter if he had any other Harry Belafonte albums. He found such an album, gave me two dollars change for my five, put the album in a bag, and sent me on my way.

When I got home, I discovered that only one side of the album featured Harry Belafonte. The other side belonged to a guy named Ray Charles. I was so angry that the record was not exclusively Harry, I didn’t listen to the Ray side for several weeks, until one fateful rainy afternoon my curiosity got the better of me and I lowered the needle onto the first cut on Ray’s side.

I have never taken LSD, but I have hallucinated while stoned and I have heard in excruciating detail many firsthand accounts of acid trips; and I daresay my initial experience of hearing Ray Charles accompanying himself on piano and singing CC Ryder was the equivalent of a beautiful acid trip. I felt as if the known universe had cracked wide open and I was looking and listening into an entirely other and better dimension, a place of astonishing colors and shapes and sounds and emotional possibilities heretofore never dreamed of. Indeed, so extraordinary was my experience of Ray’s performance of CC Ryder and the other songs on his side of the record, that when my mother screamed, “Turn that horrible noise off!” I was not even remotely the same person I had been before Ray sang to me, because now Ray’s voice and cadence and chords and feelings were part of me. I was no longer the child of my neurotic unhappy angry lonely confused biological parents who were forever asking me to be everything I was not; I was Ray’s child.

However, I was only nine. So I lived on with my biological parents for another eight years and suffered their vociferous contempt for most of what I loved: basketball, baseball, Ray Charles, Sam and Dave, Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, rebels, fools, outcastes, and crazy geniuses. Soul music would eventually lead me to jazz, my musical pantheon to be ruled by Cannonball Adderly, Freddie Hubbard, Nina Simone, Ella Fitzgerald, Oscar Peterson, Miles Davis, Bill Evans, and Herbie Hancock until I fell far down into the rabbit hole of solo piano, jazz and classical, where I lived for decades without a care for any other kind of music. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

“A cool heavenly breeze took possession of him.” Nikos Kazantzakis

When I was sixteen, I saw the movie Zorba the Greek, bought the book the next day, read it twice, and then quickly read several other Kazantzakis novels, including The Last Temptation of Christ and Saint Francis. Then I read Zorba the Greek again to verify and solidify Zorba as my guide, as the mentor waiting for me on a faint trail leading into the unknown. But how was I to traverse the suburban void and elude the dominant American ethos en route to taking Zorba’s hand? And who was there to show me the way to the beginning of the way?

At the height of my Zorba worship, my best friend Rico invited me to go with him to a poetry reading in San Francisco, an event I chronicle in my novel Ruby & Spear, published by Bantam in 1996, the following passage the purest autobiography I have ever included in a work of fiction.

“…a monster poetry reading starring Allen Ginsberg, Michael McClure, Philip Whalen, David Meltzer, and Lew Welch. We sat down in the dark cool of a little church in the Fillmore, and Rico pointed to a pale man with curly black hair sitting two rows in front of us.

“‘It’s Robert Duncan himself,’ he whispered reverently. ‘My god, my god.’

“‘Who is he?’

“‘My favorite poet,’ said Rico, his eyes full of tears. ‘My numero uno hero.’

“‘What did he write?’

“‘The temple of the animals has fallen into disrepair.

“The lights dimmed. I took a deep breath and tried to clear my mind. Who was I? What would I become? What about college? Sex? Money?

“Michael McClure stepped into the spotlight looking like Errol Flynn dressed all in black leather. He leaned close to the microphone and crooned, ‘I been hangin’ out at the zoo talking to the lions. Rahr. Rrrahr!’

“All the women in the audience started moaning and growling, too. It was my first intimation of the sexual potential of poetry read aloud. I was psychically overwhelmed. And when the lights came up a few glorious hours later, Ginsberg and Whalen and Meltzer and Welch having set down their drums, spent from their reading and singing and dancing and howling, I knew what I wanted to be. A poet.”

“Music rots when it gets too far from the dance.  Poetry atrophies when it gets too far from music.” Ezra Pound

Before my mother vanished into the netherworld of Alzheimer’s, she would sometimes muse about why I had chosen such a chancy and impoverished road when I might have been a doctor or lawyer or, at the very least a college professor. And why was I so enamored of black people and their music? One of her theories was that because we had a black nanny, Mary Prince, when my sisters and I were babies, I had transferred my love of Mary onto black people in general. Another of my mother’s theories was that her own fascination with rebellious female artists such as Isadora Duncan and Georgia O’Keefe had somehow been transmuted in me into a love for artists who rebelled against the status quo.

“Love is the offspring of spiritual affinity.” Kahlil Gibran

I think my love of black athletes, especially those who have fallen from the heights of great success into the depths of infamy, and then climbed back into the light despite overwhelming odds against them, has everything to do with how I perceive myself. My adoration of the outcaste warrior is indivisible from my adoration of the outcaste artist. I am always moved by stories about forsaken artists or athletes or social visionaries who are strengthened and refined into greatness by the adversities they are given to transcend. I much prefer my heroes imperfect and complicated and surprising and daring, and ultimately kind and generous and humble, for they have danced cheek-to-cheek with death and lived to tell their tales.

I recently saw a highlight in which Michael Vick was brutally tackled while scoring a touchdown against the New York Giants. After his terrible collision with a man a hundred pounds heavier than he, Michael rose from the ground and carried the ball to the stands where he reached up and placed the sacred pigskin into the hands of a young man.

The first hour of Todd’s reading of Ruby & Spear can be heard gratis on the Listen page at UndertheTableBooks.com, the entire reading available from iTunes and Audible. Actual copies of Ruby & Spear can be had for mere pennies via the interweb.