Mercoledi Musicale

Cannabis sativa via Wellcome ImagesTo celebrate (?) the first day of legal pot in Canada I thought I’d delve into the world where “reefer madness” is traditionally thought to run rampant – no I don’t mean Ontario politics – I’m talking about the world of jazz and blues.  And the first thing I came across was this little number from Murder at the Vanities a 1934 musical set backstage at Earl Carroll’s Vanities, a revue know for featuring the most “lightly clad” showgirls on Broadway.  The movie was released just before the Hays Office began ridged enforcement of the Motion Picture Production Code and the passing of the Uniform State Narcotic Drug Act.  In a production number typical of Carroll’s shows Gertrude Michael tells us all about what Marahuana does for her.

Kitty Carlisle, who also appeared in the film, maintained that at time she had no idea what marijuana was. She thought it was a Mexican musical instrument.

Such is not the case with the next artist – Janis definitely knew what she was talking about in this early recording. What an incredible blues singer she was!

And that just two examples from a vast catalogue of numbers that sing the “praises” of Cannabaceae cannais sativa!

On this day in 1662: Charles II of England sells Dunkirk to France for 40,000 pounds.

Mercoledi Musicale

A scrap of papyrus from the Oxyrhynchus trove bearing the text of a Sapphic poem.

Yesterday I spoke of Sappho’s Ode to Aphrodite (Stin Aphroditi) until 2004 the only complete poem by the Lesbian poet known to be in existence.  An invocation to the Goddess of Love for assistance with unrequited love, it was a lyric poem meant to be recited to the plucking of the strings of a lyre.  The text is Aeolic Greek and is written in what we know as Sapphic stanza:  three long lines of identical metre followed by a shorter fourth.

There are seven stanzas: the first three invoke the Goddess in the appropriately flowery terms of a supplicant.  In the next three Aphrodite appears to Sappho, hears her complaint against the woman she loves, and the Goddess assures her that things will soon change. The poem ends with the poet imploring  the Goddess to always aid her in matters of love.

Unfortunately the récitante and lyre player on this recording are uncredited which is a shame as the music of both her voice and the instrument are true lyric poetry.

The best known translation of Sappho’s work is by the American classicist Elizabeth Vandiver.  The following link with take you to her translation, notes and metrical explanation: Ode to Aphrodite .

On this day in 1687: The Parthenon in Athens is partially destroyed during the Morean War.

Mercoledi Musicale

The First Fruits of the Season

Recently the Guardian ran a piece on the late Irish playwright Brian Friel and it brought to mind two of his plays that I have always loved:  Philadelphia Here I Come and Dancing at Lughnasa.  Both plays brim over with a sense of longing, wit, despair, humour, and sadness that it seems to me only Irish writers such as Sean O’Casey, Seamus Heaney, Maeve Binchey, Frank McGuinness,  and Edna O’Brien* seem to be able to catch without being maudlin or tin-pan alley faux-Irish sentimental.   As I flashed back to a remarkable production of Dancing at Lughnasa that played Ottawa back in the mid-1990s I tried to remember when exactly that old pagan feast was celebrated only to discover that is today:  August 1.


Lugh is associated with skill, the arts, crafts, law, oaths and truth.

Falling half way between the Summer Solstice and the Fall Equinox, Lughnasa is the last of the four festivals of the Old Celtic Ways.  It is named after the god Lugh who is said to have instituted the festival as a harvest feast and funeral games for his foster mother Tailtiu.  Legend says she died from exhaustion after having cleared the plains of Ireland for agriculture.

It was the day that the harvest of the spring planting were celebrated with ritual ceremonies, athletic games, feasting, festive markets and dancing.  It was also the time for proclaiming laws and settling legal disputes, drawing-up contracts, and the proclaiming of marriages. As happened so often with the old feast, in Christian times it morphed into Lammas Day with many of the same observances and customs.

I searched for music to celebrate the day with dancing in memory of Friel’s Mundy sisters.  In trying to avoid the pseudo-Celtic new-age kitsch of Enya or Lorrena Mckennitt so beloved in health spas, I came across this piece by Hymir’s Kettle played on an Irish bouzouki.  Though the instrument may not be authentic to the Old Times the tune is certainly one to set the feet tapping and the spirit, if not the body, dancing to give thanks to the god Lugh for seizing a bountiful harvest for us and his foster mother Tailtiu for clearing the land.

And once we catch our breath it only leaves for me to wish that your harvest be abundant and your dancing be abandoned.

*To name but a few.

On this day in 1893: Henry Perky patents shredded wheat.

Mercoledi Musicale

A site I belong to celebrates musicals – chiefly those that have been forgotten – and this time of year many of the posts highlight the glory days of summer stock.  Those halcyon days when cities and towns around North America had tents, converted barns, or outdoor theatres with small resident companies of singers, dancers and directors who were joined by a visiting “star” in a musical (or sometimes play) that had been a popular a season or two earlier in New York, or perhaps a time-honoured operetta, one of the Rogers and Hammerstein biggies or even Gilbert and Sullivan.

The only picture I could find of the Music Fair tent was a drawing from a local newspaper.

In Toronto we had the Music Fair out at the Dixie Plaza in Mississauga from 1958 to 1960.  It was a tent theatre connected to the Melody Fair in North Tonawanda, New York.  A company would play two weeks at one theatre (while rehearsing another show) then head across the border for two weeks in the sister house.  Mario Bernardi, who went on to conduct at Sadler’s Wells and founded the National Arts Centre Orchestra*, and John Fenwich, who conducted and composed at the Charlottetown Festival, were the young conductors; Zachery Zolov, principal choreographer at the MET, was dancer director.  In the chorus was a very young Victor Braun who went on to a major European opera career – it was a invaluable training ground.

The first show I saw was in early July 1958 – Cole Porter’s Silk Stockings with Rae Allen – a name well known to my friends at the aforementioned site.  I was hooked. Every second Saturday for the next three summers I would walk – the best I can tell about 5 kilometres (3.5 miles) – via the shoulder of the Queen Elizabeth Highway (try that now!!!!) to catch the matinee. As well as a raft of musicals with known Broadway performers such as Ms Allen, Gretchen Wyler, and Nancy Andrews I got to see Eve Arden in Goodbye Charlie, Red Buttons in Teahouse of the August Moon, James Garner in John Loves Mary, Jill Corey and Roddy McDowell in Meet Me in St Louis, Dorothy Collins in South Pacific, Jeannie Carson in Finnan’s Rainbow, and almost Genevieve in Can-Can.

Can-CanI say almost because back in 1959 the gamine  Mlle Genevieve was touring in the Cole Porter musical as La Môme Pistache and I was set to go to the last Saturday matinee.  She had become popular on the late night Jack Paar show with her fractured English and in cabaret with her Gaelic way with a song.  Though the show had a less than great book I loved the original cast recording with all those wonderful Porter songs: C’est Magnifique, It’s Alright with Me, I Love Paris and my own favourite Allez-vous En.

Which leads me to today’s Mercoledi Musicale.

Sadly I never got to see her sing it in person.  Midway through the second week Genevieve made her exit up the aisle, tripped on an electrical cable and broke her ankle.  In summer stock there were often no understudies to speak of so the rest of the run was cancelled. It was to be another thirty years before I would have a chance to see Can-Can.

In 1988 Chita Rivera and the Radio City Rockettes toured a version that played the National Arts Centre in Ottawa.  And it involved another broken leg story.  But first here’s Chita and the Rockettes doing the can-can from that production.  It was filmed during a performance at a theatre-in-the-round which accounts for the odd camera angle.

Watching the fabulous Chita it’s hard to imagine that in 1986 she had been involved in a major car accident.  She broke her left leg in twelve places, and it took eighteen screws and two braces to mend the breaks.  Two years later she was touring in a major role and doing that cartwheel-split combo seven times a week!  A Broadway legend indeed!

*I once mentioned to Mr Bernardi that I remembered him from those Music Fair days and he seemed less than thrilled at the reminder.

I thought I’d make a list of the wonderful (to my young eyes at least) shows I saw over and above those I’ve already mentioned: Song of Norway, Happy Hunting, Oklahoma, The Boy Friend, The King and I, Brigadoon, Bells Are Ringing, Most Happy Fella, The Student Prince, The Mikado, and The Pirates of Penzance,

On this day in 1886: The first scheduled Canadian transcontinental train arrives in Port Moody, British Columbia.

Mercoledi Musicale

ma un po ‘tardi

Late again ….  but to be honest as anyone who has been retired for any length of time can tell you the days start losing their sequence and meaning after a while.

Given that on a grand level the world seems to be a confused and confusing place these days I think we could all use a bit of a musical pick me up.  Something to set our feet tapping and maybe, just maybe, make the old zygomaticus major do its work.  I know nothing makes mine draw my mouth superiorly and posteriorly to allow for a smile than this little dance tune by Jacques Offenbach.

Now tell me that at the least your toes weren’t tapping and that maybe there was even a slight activation of your zygomaticus major?

On this day in 1907: Norway grants women the right to vote.