Oh, the shark bites …

For Christmas, my thoughtful brother, aware that I’d just purchased a new turntable and stereo system, dug his way through the racks of a used record store in upstate New York and came up with one of my prized possessions as a teenager — this 1974 reissue of an early stereo recording of Die Dreigroschenoper in German, produced under the supervision of Kurt Weill’s widow, Lotte Lenya. It plays beautifully (dig that Seymour Chwast cover art, too), and I’m looking forward to spending more time with it. (This, along with my daughter, may also be dragging me back to writing more about theatre and drama, as I used to back in the day.)

English-language translations of this Threepenny Opera don’t often catch the sharp, rough inflections of Brecht’s lyrics; Bobby Darin’s suavity doesn’t really approach the gutteral growls of Wolfgang Neuss, say, who sings the “Mortitat von Mackie Messer” on this recording:

But, performed in the right spirit, the English-language “Mack the Knife” can bite. Dave Van Ronk, who once recorded an album of Brecht’s songs, performed “Mack” with his Ragtime Jug Stompers on a 1964 album for Mercury Records; he wrote in the album notes:

“Mack the Knife” is kind of a brainstorm. We think that we do no violence to the spirit of the song in performing it. As a matter of fact, I personally think that if Kurt Weill had been familiar with the form he would have scored the entire “Three Penny Opera” for jug band.

Could be; you can listen and judge below. I’m also waiting on the original cast album of the Richard Foreman/Stanley Silverman Lincoln Center production of 1976, so more then.


Wednesdays with Hoagy

When I haven’t been watching my daughter onstage, I’ve been listening quite a bit to Hoagy Carmichael recently, a great American singer/songwriter who has fallen into some obscurity over the past few years. He may be most famous for his appearance as Cricket in Howard Hawks’ 1944 To Have and Have Not; below, he sings “Hong Kong Blues” in an excerpt from the film. (I can highly recommend Richard M. Sudhalter’s fine 2002 biography of the musician, Stardust Melody.)


Joplin & Co.

Now available for pre-order, Marilyn Nonken‘s next album, Syncopated Musings: Rags, Concert Waltzes, and Novelties for the Pianoforte by Scott Joplin and His Collaborators, is a collection of less-familiar music by the self-described “King of Ragtime” and several of his friends and colleagues. Divine Art Records will release Syncopated Musings on February 11, 2022, and it’ll be available on both CD and in a variety of downloadable formats.

Yours truly wrote the liner notes. “Why ragtime? Why now?” you may ask. Well, I answer, “Far more than a nostalgic throwback to a ‘simpler’ time … these explorations and the continued excavations of the form confirm ragtime as a soundworld all its own – a soundworld that remains remarkably contemporary.” Allow me to go on:

The early 20th century culture in which this music was composed seems surprisingly similar to the culture of the early 21st. A society tearing itself apart in the effort to navigate tensions created by white responses to the increasingly important roles of Black and immigrant Americans in urban and rural cultures; the threat of health crises like the frequent and devastating yellow fever outbreaks and the Influenza Epidemic of 1918; even the geopolitical consequences of America’s increasingly isolationist and nationalist foreign policies – this was the background to ragtime’s emergence, and it remains the background to 21st century interpretations of this uniquely American music. Those anxieties are ours, demanding our individual responses. Syncopation, perhaps the most obvious quality of ragtime, exploits rhythmic irregularity and imbalance, seeking but never finding final resolution, perhaps an uncanny reflection of our own personal and cultural predicament. They may also be the key to ragtime’s continuing appeal and its imaginative reinterpretation.

Divine Art provides a sample of Syncopated Musings below. You can pre-order the album itself here.

Ragtime break: Sunflower Slow Drag

In the next few weeks you’ll be hearing more here about Syncopated Musings, Marilyn Nonken‘s new album of music by Scott Joplin and his collaborators, now scheduled for release in January of 2022. As a preview, Divine Art Records is providing Marilyn’s performance of Scott Hayden and Scott Joplin’s “Sunflower Slow Drag” on YouTube below. Per the promotional copy:

While Scott Joplin’s ragtime music shot back to popularity in the 1970s, many of his pieces are still relatively unknown and this also applies to pieces in which Joplin collaborated with other musicians. American pianist Marilyn Nonken has a new album in which she takes us on a journey through some of Joplin’s most attractive rags and concert waltzes, including works in which he partnered with Scott Hayden, Arthur Marshall, Charles Lamb, and Louis Chauvin. Syncopated Musings will be available worldwide on February 11, 2022, and direct form Divine Art in early January.

You can read more about it here. In the meantime, sit back and relax to the strains of this 1901 classic.

Patrick Sky

Among the first LPs I purchased for my new turntable were the first few albums by the folksinger Patrick Sky, who left us just a few weeks ago at the age of 80. The New York Times obituary is here.

Back in 1979, John Pfeiffer strolled into my Bard College dorm room bearing a copy of Songs That Made America Famous — maybe the most scurrilous folk album of the era. Said Rolling Stone upon the album’s belated release in 1973:

Sometimes a record comes along that so affronts common decency, so offends public morality, and so insults established canons of taste that its very appearance understandably prompts cries of outrage, shock and indignation. Veteran folk minstrel Patrick Sky’s latest opus is just such a record. … Such a record belongs in every American home; enjoy it while you still can.

Sky’s album was a series of songs not atypical of the black humor of the era, the expression of an impatience with sanctimony that we could still use today. Some of them, like “Our Baby [Died Last Night],” were just offensively silly. But two of the cuts — “Child Molesting Blues” and “Bake Dat Chicken Pie,” Sky’s cover of a 1907 song by blackface performers Collins and Harlan — suggested that folk and roots music weren’t entirely a gentle traipse down Nostalgia Lane, but were potentially minefields. The “folk” weren’t entirely innocent nor bucolic; you could get your leg blown off that way.

Before 1973 Sky was one of the more popular and talented of the musicians to come out of the New York City folk revival (praised particularly by Dave Van Ronk, who wrote the album notes for his first few releases), and in later years he devoted himself to the preservation of the uilleann pipes, an Irish instrument not unlike the Scottish bagpipes. You can see him perform one of his signature songs, “Many a Mile,” at a 2013 concert here. (Don’t miss his comic reference to Oscar Wilde’s comments on bagpipes at the top of the song.)

Sky, like yours truly, was a great fan of W.C. Fields, with whom he shared a sardonic nasal twang. In a 1964 concert he covered W.C. Fields’ “song,” “The Fatal Glass of Beer,” which first appeared in Fields’ 1933 short subject of the same name. You can hear it below.