Outside, the storms – political and meteorological – were raging. Inside there was a winter concert, by students and, later, enthusiastic alums.
How sweet it was, to find shelter from all storms, to hear young people play and sing, with considerable skill.
Our youngest grandchild was in one of the ensembles, but honestly the quality of the music and the spirit of the young people would have been an attraction by itself.
This was Thursday evening at Schreiber High School in Port Washington, Long Island, which, as much as it changes, retains its home-town feel, on a peninsula, with a train line terminating there, and a real downtown -- 45 minutes by rail from Penn Station.
The superb arts department produced one concert Wednesday and another on Thursday – an orchestra, a band, a choir, and then an ensemble for the Hallelujah Chorus from Handel’s “Messiah.”
A young woman gave a haunting flute solo; a young man led one section with a strong first violin; a young man played a specialty instrument that evoked the swirling of the sea.
I was particularly captivated by the choir, having had the privilege of singing in Mrs. Gollobin’s chorus at Jamaica High School in the mid-‘50’s and admiring the choir members.
I watched the faces of these young people as they put their hearts into “Rock of Ages,” and, I will confess, I remembered our chorus harmony from 1954-56, and I softly hummed to myself.
I thought of the choir stars from Jamaica High – an alto who taught music at a university in Texas for many decades, and our two lead sopranos who came back for reunions, still beautiful and active well into their 70s.
And then there was Eddie Lewin, star soccer halfback and lead in our musicals. (Lotte Lenya came to our performance of her late husband Kurt Weill’s operetta, “Down in the Valley,” with Lewin playing the lead role.) In later years, Eddie took a pause in his medical career to fulfill his dream of touring with “Fiddler on the Roof.”
I thought about our choir and chorus while watching the young people of Port Washington as they performed so brilliantly in their own time.
At the end, the leaders honored the tradition by calling all alumni of the music department to join them in Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy.” Dozens of recent graduates filled up the sides of the auditorium.
They were asked to call out their graduation classes – 2018, 2017, 2016, 2015 – and somebody said, “1976!” That was Jonathan Pickow, a well-known musician from our town, the son of Jean Ritchie, one of the great traditional folk singers and historians from her native Eastern Kentucky. (Ritchie
Jean and her husband George Pickow – now both passed – lived high on a hillside in our town. First time I heard Ritchie was at Ballard High in Louisville, when we lived there, around 1971-2. She reassured Kentuckians that the steep hill on glacial Long Island made her feel she was still in Viper, Perry County.
Jon has toured with Harry Belafonte, the Norman Luboff Choir and other choirs, has performed with Oscar Brand, Judy Collins, Theo Bikel, Odetta, Josh White, Jr., Tovah Feldsuh and my pal, Christine Lavin.
And there he was, amidst musicians more than 40 years younger than him, talking respectfully of having been part of music programs at Schreiber High in Port Washington, back in the day. Music is classical; it provides shelter in all storms.
* * *
PS: Jean Ritchie wrote the classic protest song, "Black Waters," about strip-mining, which obviously the tone-deaf Mitch McConnell from Louisville has never heard.
He seemed to dwell in the crevices of the Capitol Building, like the phantom of some loopy opera. He gravitated to the glare of the spotlight, revving up his dudgeon from zero to 100 in seconds, expressing outrage at all perfidies. He was the House attack pit bull for MSNBC.
“He loves this,” I used to think about Anthony Weiner when he emerged at full decibels for the latest media crisis. He loved the attention. Sometimes I wondered why he wasn’t back in his Congressional office, reading a bill, or something.
I had the same thought in the last few days watching Weiner perform for the cameras. He loves this. He loves the attention, loves explaining the inexplicable of his phone-sex scandal. This is his core. There appears to be nothing behind it.
He has reached the skin-crawling persona of a Jim Cramer, babbling about stocks in sing-song tones, or Rush Limbaugh, making up vile accusations with the assurance of a man on the street corner who thinks he is Napoleon. Anthony Weiner is out of control, in public, and he seems quite likely to force New Yorkers to be tempted to see him as an alternative to a large cluster of Democratic mayoral candidates.
He has persuaded his wife to stand by his side in public view, and by extension he has included her mentor, Hillary Clinton, who cannot profit from these concentric circles of memory.
I don’t think Weiner has enough sense to go away on his own. What we need now is the wisdom of the Polish rabbi, as played by Gene Wilder in the movie The Frisco Kid.
At the end of a perilous trip across the continent, the rabbi subdues a vengeful outlaw who has pursued him. The rabbi, weary of violence, turns to the crowd and says (and here you must imagine the lush Wilderish-Yiddish pronunciations):
“Would somebody please show this poor a------ the way out of town.”
* * *
The great Christine Lavin has added a topical Carlos Danger minute to her ever-relevant song, "What Were You Thinking?"
He sounds best on vinyl, even with a scratch or two, accentuating the throb in his voice, the emotion in his heart. It’s good to accumulate a few dings over time.
I went right to the vinyl on Monday when I heard Richie Havens passed at 72. He once made an album called Mixed Bag that (with all due respect to Dylan, to Joplin, to Cash, to Motown, to The Band) says everything about America in the late ‘60’s. Or maybe now. I think young people should know his work.
Mixed Bag was the album of the age, not just because Havens became famous for holding the fort at Woodstock until reinforcements arrived. That was in August of 1969 when it was beginning to seem possible that we -- the ubiquitous we – might be making some points about the war and injustice. But in 1967, when he made Mixed Bag, things were pretty bleak.
He caught the poignancy of Dylan’s Just Like a Woman and the Beatles’ Eleanor Rigby and he carried the torch big time on San Francisco Bay Blues.
But check out the song Handsome Johnny, written with Louis Gossett.
Havens mentions Handsome Johnny, marching off to one battle or another: Gettysburg, Dunkirk, Korea and Vietnam and then he adds Birmingham, which is pertinent since he came from Bed-Stuy back in the day. Then he blurts:
Hey, what's the use of singing this song
Some of you are not even listening
I say, in the spirit of Richie Havens, in homage to the ‘60’s, give a call to some of those senators who ignore the 90 per cent of this country on the gun vote, and give Handsome Johnny one more play over the phone.
Richie Havens gave the title to Pete Fornatale’s marvelously eclectic radio show on WFUV, still ongoing, but Pete left us a year ago, and now Richie Havens is gone, too. I can only imagine what Don McGee will play in his Havens tribute on Saturday.
I heard the news from Christine Lavin, that talented and caring staple of the New York folk community, who wrote:
“I played at many Canadian festivals when Richie was one of the headliners -- backstage he was always very modest and humble, always interested in meeting the other musicians and watching others' sets. He's one of those musicians (and there's not a lot of 'em) who you know exactly who he is from the first strum of the guitar or the first words out of his mouth. Very rare.
“It was always a hoot to watch him do that crazy signature 'kick' of his as he finished his sets. His taste was very broad -- I love what he did with Ervin Drake's It Was A Very Good Year, and the Beatles' In My Life, Eleanor Rigby, and With A Little Help From My Friends -- and his Dylan covers went a long way toward cementing Bob Dylan's reputation as the premiere songwriter of his generation.”
Sat next to Richie Havens in a Dunkin Donuts or Starbucks on Eighth Avenue and 43rd Street a decade or two back. He had sheet music with his name hand-written across the top. That’s how I knew who it was, since I never saw him perform. I could not bring myself to say, “Hey, man, I love your work,” because….well, he was enjoying his coffee and glancing at the music sheets, and why disturb an artist in his repose. But, hey, man….
Personally, I would listen to Christine Lavin sing names from the phone book, much less her own songs about supermarket checkout meltdowns and gallivanting flies on airplanes and “sensitive new-age guys.”
She’s my favorite Upstate New York-Upper West Side folksinger-drum majorette.
Now Christine is addressing the gun issue in the wake of Newtown.
Please click here:
Lavin says she’s been in touch with Esther Williams because of this video. Maybe she will elaborate.
I happen to agree with Chris. But even if you don’t agree with every point, there’s the voice and the guitar.
The Web Site:
Like a comet on one of her science-oriented songs, Christine Lavin is subbing for John Platt on Sunday, 23 September, on WFUV-FM, 90.7, from 8 a.m. to 11 a.m.
John is a treat every Sunday. Chris doesn't fly this way as much now that she is living upstate.
Yes, she will do a section about Pete Fornatale, who starred as the Male Foil on her guest rendition of Sensitive New Age Guys years ago.
The only drawback is that Chris doesn't seem to plan any Christine Lavin songs. That can't be right, can it? I said I would boycott unless she does Yonder Blue. But really, she should do something.
More and More, I Talk to the Dead--Margaret Renkl
NASHVILLE — After my mother died so suddenly — laughing at a rerun of “JAG” at 10 p.m., dying of a hemorrhagic stroke by dawn — I dreamed about her night after night. In every dream she was willfully, outrageously alive, unaware of the grief her death had caused. In every dream relief poured through me like a flash flood. Oh, thank God!
Then I would wake into keening grief all over again.
Years earlier, when my father learned he had advanced esophageal cancer, his doctor told him he had perhaps six months to live. He lived far longer than that, though I never thought of it as “living” once I learned how little time he really had. For six months my father was dying, and then he kept dying for two years more. I was still working and raising a family, but running beneath the thin soil of my own life was a river of death. My father’s dying governed my days.
After he died, I wept and kept weeping, but I rarely dreamed about my father the way I would dream about my mother nearly a decade later. Even in the midst of calamitous grief, I understood the difference: My father’s long illness had given me time to work death into the daily patterns of my life. My mother’s sudden death had obliterated any illusion that daily patterns are trustworthy.
Years have passed now, and it’s the ordinariness of grief itself that governs my days. The very air around me thrums with absence. I grieve the beloved high-school teacher I lost the summer after graduation and the beloved college professor who was my friend for more than two decades. I grieve the father I lost nearly 20 years ago and the father-in-law I lost during the pandemic. I grieve the great-grandmother who died my junior year of college and the grandmother who lived until I was deep into my 40s.
Some of those I grieve are people I didn’t even know. How can John Prine be gone? I hear his haunting last song, “I Remember Everything,” and I still can’t quite believe that John Prine is gone.
Jan. 30, 2023