I have joking said to many of my friends that I left the country in their hands for four years and its gone half-way to hell. However in the case of the CBC Radio its no joke. I can’t believe the shell it has become of what was once a broadcasting system that treated its audience if though they had some degree of intelligence. Programming now talks down to the listeners, announcers mispronounce words and scripts – and I’m assuming there are still scripts – are badly written and edited. Classical programming, where once knowledgeable hosts introduced music that they knew and understood, has been relegated to a few hours in the late morning presented by a simpering host whose inane comments would make a first year music student blush. I’ve finally given up on our National Broadcaster and listen to CBC only first thing in the morning to get the traffic and weather reports.
Fortunately our friend Allan introduced me to the wonders of a little Apple gadget called Airport Express. Basically a wireless receiver it has been hooked up to my stereo system and at its simplest using iTunes can bring some 2000-3000 radio stations into our living room. Amongst others we have a choice of 345 Adult contemporary music stations, 195 80s Flashback streams, 317 religious stations (should that be your thing) and the list goes on: Metalica, Golden Oldies, Bluegrass, Country and – Hallelujah – 160 classical stations. We’ve been listening to streams from Barcelona, Zurich, Berlin, Rome, Boston, San Fransisco, Los Angeles – now that’s traffic reporting! – and one of our favorites 90.1 University of Wyoming. Most of the US streams are National Public Radio and though often the announcers can be a bit annoying in their gush there are a raft of good programmes that remind me of what classical radio programming can be and in Canada once was.
On Sunday afternoons American baritone Thomas Hampson, through his Hampsong Foundation and WFMT Chicago, is presenting Song of America, a 13 part series devoted to the words and music of 250 years of American song. This past Sunday the programme was devoted to Stephen Foster – and to his credit Hampson didn’t shy away from addressing the influence of Minstrel shows on Foster and his lyrics which are now often considered racist and politically incorrect. He also spoke of how these labels have meant only a limited number of Foster’s songs are heard today. However there is a wealth of beautiful melodies – many of them in a dialect meant to mirror the way African-Americans were said to speak at the time – that deserve to be rediscovered for the dignity and beauty they bring to their subjects.
One such song is Nelly Was A Lady – a beautiful lament of a man for his dead partner that Foster wrote in 1849 for the Christie Minstrels. The race of the couple is of minor importance because the emotion is simple, dignified and universal and striking at the heart of his sorrow. Yes the lyrics are filled with “da’s”, “tru lub’s” and “jist” but it has been suggested that the “dialect” used by Foster was common all over the US at the time, and is more defined by class rather than race, or even culture. But I’ll leave that as a subject for better educated minds than mine to discuss.
Singer Tom Roush has created a series of YouTube videos of Foster songs included a lovely version of Nelly Was a Lady but unfortunately he changed the lyrics to avoid charges of racism that he often gets when he performs the song as written. But I find even with the “santizing” Foster’s words and music have a strong emotional appeal. The tune and words have been running through my head the past few days.
The Internet Archive has an exceptionally lovely book created in 1888 with music and lyrics and a series of illustrations “from nature” by Charles Copeland. A left click on the cover will allow you to flip through through the original lyrics and some touching engravings that illustrate the story.
Hampson also played a song of Foster’s that became popular parlor song when it was first pubished in 1854. It was first recorded on an Edison Cylinder in 1905 and there are many versions of Hard Times Come Again No More but few strike so close to the sorrow and melancholy of the words and melody as this version by Kate & Anna McGarrigle. Backed up by Rufus Wainwright (before he became famous for being famous), Emmylou Harris, Mary Black, Karen Matheson and Rod Paterson they seem to capture the pain and sorrow of the less fortunate. Listening to it I’m struck by the immediacy of Foster’s lyrics. Its hard to believe this was written in 1854 – or perhaps it is just a condition of life that is always with us and applies as much to the hard times of today as it did to those of 1854.
I have every intention of following the next eleven weeks of Hampson’s programme which promises Langston Hughes and the Harlem Renaissance, Songs We’ve Always Sung and War Cries in his survey of 250 years of American song. Now that is radio programming the way I remember it.
30 novembre/November – Sant’Andrea apostolo