George Butterworth did not see himself as a composer. Rather, he was a well-rounded musician, who, like so many other privileged English men, enlisted in the military early in what they called The Great War.
(I wrote the first draft of this a week before the Donald Trump Heel Spur controversy; of course, I did not serve in the military, either, having had two children young. George Butterworth did volunteer for the Great War, at the age of 29.)
I never knew much about George Butterworth except as the first of three composers on a lovely Nimbus CD, “Butterworth, Parry & Bridge” -- three British composers, brought together in a 1986 recording by William Boughton and the English Symphony Orchestra.
In my iPod, that arrangement blends into one long summer afternoon in the British countryside, idyllic, gentle, peaceful. It takes me back to afternoons when we used to visit a friend in mid-Wales.
I paid more attention to the name Butterworth when it popped up in my wife’s ongoing genealogy study. One of her ancestors married a man named Butterworth in the 19th Century somewhere in Lancashire.
It does not appear to be the same family, inasmuch as George Sainton Kaye Butterworth was born in London. His father was an executive on a railroad, who sent his son to the best schools—Eton and Trinity College, Oxford.
After university, Butterworth traveled around England, sometimes as a professional morris dancer (there was such a thing in those days) and collector of folk songs. Sometimes he went around with Ralph Vaughn Williams, whom he prodded to expand a short piece into what would become his “London Symphony.”
Butterworth expanded on the folk song, “The Banks of Green Willow,” and wrote music to accompany the poems of A.E. Housman in “A Shropshire Lad.” But "composer" was a label he resisted.
In August of 1914, Butterworth joined up and was sent to the front, where armies were hunkering down in the fields of Belgium and France.
He was made a lieutenant, put in charge of coal miners from Durham, with whom he had great rapport. He was shot once in the Battle of the Somme but recovered and went back to the trenches.
On Aug. 5, 1916, George Butterworth was shot by a sniper. His body was not recovered but friends back home made sure his music was written down and survived the war.
Ursula Vaughn Williams, the widow of the composer, kept Butterworth’s music in circulation. (I wish I had known that while watching that force of nature, Frances de la Tour, portray her in the recent movie, “The Lady in the Van.” )
“The Banks of Green Willow” has come to represent the people who died in the Great War.
There is a Butterworth B&B in the French countryside, not far from where George Butterworth fell, a century ago, Aug. 5, 1916.
It was December of 1973 and New York still had an AM country music station and I was writing about the Long Island suburbs but thinking about Appalachia, where I used to work.
Three years earlier, I had been at the Hyden mine disaster, Dec, 30, 1970, when 38 men were blown to Kingdom Come, which remains just about the saddest event I ever covered.
Now, back home in New York, I was still thinking about Eastern Kentucky and West Virginia, and the country station was playing a lot of Merle Haggard, singing “If We Make It Through December.”
One of his lines is: “Just got laid off down at the factory,” which means he cannot afford presents for his little girl.
Sure, it's a tear-jerker, but that's what country is, or should be.
The song hits a universal theme -- parents wanting to provide for their children; in Appalachia I saw a lot of people living at the margins, and the song cut deep.
That’s my major impression of Merle Haggard, who died Wednesday on his 79th birthday, a balladeer of the working class and hard-living men and long-suffering women. He was what country used to be, before it turned slick and uptown on us.
I never met Haggard when I was privileged enough to wander around backstage at the Ryman Auditorium in funky downtown Nashville and chat casually with Johnny Cash and June Carter and Bobby Bare and Roy Acuff and Minnie Pearl.
Haggard was probably out on the road, living up to the label of outlaw, and doing a good job of it.
As Don Cusic notes in his fine book, “Discovering Country Music," Haggard was a symbol of the outsider, the working class, an American type, then and now, writing “Okie From Muskogee,” a defiant celebration of otherness.
When I helped Barbara Mandrell write her book, "Get to the Heart," she noted that she did not cover Dolly Parton or Loretta Lynn or Tammy Wynette's "Stand By Your Man," but that she loved performing Haggard's "Okie From Muskogee." (Mandrell noted that Haggard and other men got away with romanticizing the double standard in cheatin' songs.)
In this primary season, politicians exploit resentments galore but don't talk often enough about the economic inequities, the stacked deck, the rich getting richer, the great people who pay off politicians and park much of their money offshore, so it cannot possibly trickle down to people who just got laid off down at the factory.
It’s early March. It’s New York. It rained overnight and now it’s getting windy. The baseball games are starting down south.
I found myself humming “Waters of March,” sung by Susannah McCorkle, with her English lyrics:
“It’s the promise of life/ It’s the joy in your heart.”
But wait: when Antonio Carlos Jobim wrote that song, in Portuguese, he was talking about March in Brazil, in the Southern Hemisphere.
I checked with my friend Altenir Silva, film-writer, who lives in Rio, not far from the Tom Jobim statue. Altenir said the Portuguese lyrics mean, “It’s the rest of a bush in the morning light,” and he added, “Yes, March is a rainy month in Brazil.”
Turns out, Jobim was caught in a major rainstorm, in the interior, far from the beaches of Ipanema.
Apparently, McCorkle wrote the English version around 1993, giving it a northern take. She was a linguist, who sang in English, Portuguese and Italian, and a writer, published in magazines and working on a memoir when she committed suicide on May 19, 2001 at the age of 55. Her obituary was lovingly written by Leon Wieseltier in the June 4, 2001, edition of The New Yorker.
McCorkle’s version of “Waters of March,” with terrific guitar backup by Howard Alden, survives her, as recorded music does.
My friend Altenir followed up by sending me a version by Elis Regina, probably the most popular Brazilian pop singer when she died on Jan., 19, 1982, at 36, of an overdose.
This sadness from both hemispheres is diluted by the music they left behind, the music of water, the rush of life, the little things we see and hear and feel, the things we take for granted: -- “a stick, a stone.” “É pau, é pedra.”
McCorkle could have added a stanza about spring training. A bat, a ball, a glove, a cap.
“It’s the promise of life/ It’s the joy in your heart.”
It is Black History Month, which means I always learn something.
This Black History Month has caused me to re-think my position on the first woman, or women, who should be on an American bill. But first:
Three years ago, Terrance McKnight of WQXR-FM did a documentary on a composer I had never heard of, Florence B. Price.
The other night, PBS ran a visual documentary on Price, and by now her music was more familiar to me, ranging from traditional classical to black gospel.
One of the experts (mostly black, via Arkansas Public Television) compared her to one of my favorites, Antonin Dvorak, who used folk music (in the deepest sense of the phrase) of two worlds, Bohemia and America.
Artists generally have it hard, but black artists have it harder. The PBS documentary showed how Price was inspired by classical music but segregation and economics held her back. She always had to be double good. (Sound familiar?)
In one pathetic episode, already accomplished, Price wrote a letter to Serge Koussevitzky, the legendary director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, asking to compose for him, and she felt the need to call attention to being “Colored.” He never wrote back.
Yet she had her triumphs. Mainstream conductors and critics and performers took her seriously, notably in her adopted home town of Chicago.
In one of the great moments in American history, Marian Anderson performed at the Mall in front of the Lincoln Memorial, April 9, 1939, after Eleanor Roosevelt had forced the issue. Anderson sang a hymn by Florence B. Price, her friend.
In the Arkansas documentary, an elderly black woman recalls, half a century later, being young and seeing a black woman singing to 75,000 people. The old lady daubs her eyes with a handkerchief. I bet you will, too.
How hard it was, how hard it is, to be black in America. Just look at the dignity of people who have been poisoned in Flint, Mich., because of the incompetent and heartless regime of a latter-day plantation massa, Gov. Rick Snyder.
But there are triumphs. Look at the lovely front-page photo of President Obama, speaking at a mosque in Baltimore, calling for a cessation of prejudice, as children smile in awe. We have seen those smiles on black service members when Obama visits the troops and on black citizens when Obama goes out in public. So there is that.
But Black History Month reminds us how hard America has been on any black who aspired. That is why I am wavering in my position that Eleanor Roosevelt should be on a bill. I think she may be the greatest woman yet produced by the U.S.A., but her greatness may have been in her advocacy of the underprivileged, for people of all colors.
Now I think the next bill (lose Andrew Jackson off the 20, not Alexander Hamilton off the 10) should be a tribute to the great women of color in America.
Who? How many? I leave that to historians. But when that glorious bill arrives, somebody should play the classical music of Florence B. Price.
Below: The multitalented Terrance McKnight accompanies Erin Flannery in “To My Little Son,” by Florence B. Price:
It’s bad enough to have nihilists around the world blowing things up after their own systems failed. But what accounts for apocalyptic behavior in the United States?
This is no news that Donald Trump is proposing things right out of the dictator playbook, even citing the one really unpleasant thing Franklin Delano Roosevelt did – internment of Japanese-Americans.
Trump doesn’t even know how widely that is condemned, by people who admire FDR. He doesn’t know much, which is his appeal to a generation dumbed down by reality shows with sneering hosts.
I grew up near Trump in Queens. People tell me he was a nasty little kid. Still is.
But he has terroristic help from the Republicans he scorns:
Carly Fiorina made public comments about dissecting embryos for “baby parts.” This has been proven untrue. Tell that to the crazed hermit who killed three people at a Planned Parenthood site in Colorado. I haven’t heard Fiorina apologize for inciting the brute.
The main New Hampshire newspaper endorsed Chris Christie in that state’s primary. At least it wasn’t Trump. But I heard the paper’s editorial writer explaining what a fine leader Christie is. He had no idea that New Jersey is doing terribly financially, and he did not seem to know about the bridge scandal -- people in Christie’s circle backing up the George Washington Bridge.
Isn’t that terrorism? What would happen if Christie were elected – from the clink?
Finally, Lindsey Graham is urging Republicans to take back their party from the unwashed interloper. That’s nice. But Graham and the “establishment” is coming off nearly seven years of overt sabotage to the President and the government.
The motivation was more than politics. It was racial. They could not stomach a smart man with African-American roots as President. Graham and his pals facilitated Donald Trump. Isn't that terrorism?
This just in: a sweet example of Graham saying nice things about Joe Biden, as forwarded by my political friend, George Mitrovich:
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Here’s a song from the Prophet Iris -- Iris DeMent: "Wasteland of the Free:"
They were heading from Lexington to Chattanooga when the clouds lowered.
When I spent a lot of time in the mountains, I loved to watch pockets of fog nestled in the hollows (pronounced "hollers.") Anjali noticed them, too.
I would have posted the classic 1972 recording of "Rolling Fog" on the "Dobro" album by the Seldom Scene, with Mike Auldridge, but I couldn't seem to locate a single.
So here is one of America's musical treasures (never mind the glitz), Dolly Parton, singing about East Tennessee.
Is it true that inside every band musician there is a superstar looking to break free?
“We all feel that way, if we had our druthers,” said Andy Aledort, the blues guitarist who will be part of a concert at the Landmark on Main Street in Port Washington, Long Island, on June 2 – The SideMen With the Uptown Horns.
Aledort then added the practical side of the blues – “It’s hard to make money.” So you do what you can.
He is a thoughtful musician who has played for Dickey Betts and Double Trouble and Buddy Guy and in Jimi Hendrix tribute shows. He also transcribes classic riffs and teaches guitar (to Paul Allen, just to drop a name) and writes about music. His experience in the industry has taught him that winning teams must have rebounders, passers and defenders as well as stars firing 3-point shots.
“Just as an aside, a few years ago I went to an astrologist, Bob Cook, who looked at my chart and told me, without knowing anything about my life or career, that I was the type of person that was happier helping others to ‘shine’ without striving for the spotlight myself, and this is definitely borne out by the many things I’ve done on and off stage.”
In recent months I have been reminded of the talent that backs up the stars. I went to the Landmark – where all three of our children went to elementary school -- to see two of my favorite singers, Kathy Mattea and Iris DeMent. Sitting up front, I was transfixed by the guitar riffs that made the stars even better. (I wish I had taken names of the two pickers, but afterward I did get to tell both of them how terrific they were.)
On June 2, the same Landmark on Main Street will welcome to a whole concert of sidemen – Aledort, plus Audley Freed (Cry Of Love, Black Crowes, Jimmy Page, Sheryl Crow), bassist Andy Hess (Black Crowes, Gov't Mule, John Scofield), singer/keyboardist Mike Dimeo (Deep Purple, Riot, Bonnie Tyler, Tommy James), drummer Shawn Murray (Mink Deville, John Hammond, Mick Taylor), bassist Dennis Metzler, and singer JP Patrick.
They will be joined by the Uptown Horns, who have backed up The Rolling Stones, James Brown and Bruce Springsteen and, yes, B.B. King.
For information on the event at 7:30 PM, please see:
The SideMen concept is the brainchild of Bill Willets who works with Louis Rosano of Louis Electric Amps in New Jersey. Willets recently organized the first Sidemen concert in Ramsey, N.J., and sold out the place – and is bringing accomplished musicians to my town on June 2, with another concert scheduled for Teaneck, N.J., on June 4.
Aledort, 59, grew up in nearby Little Neck and at the age of 8 he and a few pals began riding their bikes up and down the hills to Port Washington to ogle the wares at the legendary Ghost Motorcycles – by coincidence, next door to the Main Street School.
He studied guitar under the legendary teacher Joe Monk of Great Neck and lives in nearby Sea Cliff with his wife Tracey Aledort, who runs Forest Books in Locust Valley, and their children, Rory and Wyatt.
For a while, Aledort did 50-80 shows a year with Dickey Betts (who came up with the Allman Brothers Band) but Aledort says life on a band bus “is like being on a chain gang.” Hence, he tries to stay close to home, but the blues are always the blues.
(Below: Aledort gives a little primer on the blues.)
Looking for a poem about work, for my visit to a New York high school, I came across “Let America Be America Again,” by Langston Hughes. It is as contemporary as the current flap over Rudolph Giuliani’s comments about President Obama.
The President, a graceful writer, has often talked about his love for America, as it is, as it could be. Giuliani, particularly disappointingly for a New Yorker, deliberately overlooks the President’s body of work.
Langston Hughes, writing in a time of lynching and outright segregation, begins his poem this way:
Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.
(America never was America to me.)
Hughes then touches on the aspirations in this country:
I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
I am the Negro bearing slavery's scars.
I am the red man driven from the land,
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek--
And finding only the same old stupid plan
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.
But near the end, Hughes raises what sounds to me like a prayer of hope:
O, let America be America again--
The land that never has been yet--
And yet must be--the land where every man is free.
The land that's mine--the poor man's, Indian's, Negro's, ME--
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.
The high-school class I visited had mature young people from other lands -- young women in head scarves, several young men from Asia, a young woman from Mexico about to begin an internship, a young woman from Ecuador who in two years has learned to speak English almost perfectly.
It’s Black History Month. I wanted them to share the hope I feel when I listen to President Obama, the hope I feel when I listen to Langston Hughes.
On Tuesday, Feb. 24 at 9 PM, Terrance McKnight will host a show about the pianist Hazel Scott on WQXR-FM.
And as a bonus, here is “I’ve Known Rivers,” a jazz version of Hughes’ poem, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” performed by Gary Bartz:
The two of us, whacked by a cold, missed a nice party on New Year’s Eve.
Younger people staying home would line up DVDs or Netflix or something streaming. We played clicker roulette, with my only resolution to avoid the rancid pairing of Kathy Griffin and Anderson Cooper. (He is out; the joke never did work, people.)
There was a rather classy concert by the New York Philharmonic on PBS – jazz and an orchestra.
Then I started clicking. Four slender lads were running around a field, hair flopping in the breeze, coping with a grumpy old man with an overbite who kept insisting he was, at least, clean. Grandfather McCartney.
Suddenly it was 1964 all over again. I did not pay much attention to the Beatles at first but one morning I was listening to one of my favorite disk jockeys, William B. Williams, on “W-N-E-W, 11-three-oh on your dial,” as the jingle went.
William B, was normally cool – a champion of Nat Cole, Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett and Peggy Lee – but that morning he was denouncing a quartet of moppy-maned Brits for desecrating the air waves. He was so angry that he broke the Beatles’ new vinyl record, right on the air. I could hear shards clattering into the waste-paper basket. Geez, what was threatening William B?
One night that fall we lined up a baby-sitter and caught Hard Day’s Night. There they were, cheeky lads, goofing on people, minding Paul’s cantankerous grandpa, being pursued by girls, always in motion. We were smitten in 1964, and we were smitten again on New Year’s Eve, mostly by the music, but also by the understated irony.
Who will ever forget the glum lament by Ringo in Yellow Submarine, stuck at the bottom of the ocean, speaking in flat Liverpool dialect: “I want me mum.”
Or the agitator that was my favorite Beatle, John Lennon, putting Paul’s grandfather in his place in Hard Day’s Night:
John: You know your trouble, you should have gone west to America. You would have been a senior citizen of Boston. But you took a wrong turn, and what happened? You're a lonely old man from Liverpool.
Grandfather: [Sour] But I'm clean.
John: [Cheerful cynicism] Are you?
The lads ace their television appearance but their reward is not the birds of London but an update from management: “They think it'd be better if we pushed straight to Wolverhampton.” And that’s where the movie ends.
Two people home with a cold clickered around and found Jennifer Lopez and Taylor Swift conducting contemporary pop concerts with the charmless intensity of a new year’s resolution workout.
My wife delivered her critique: “The last 50 years, eat your heart out.”
Happy New Year.
On a warm day last May, Neo Silva was baptized in a glorious Italian church on Carmine Street in Greenwich Village, in the presence of his parents, Celia and Altenir.
Seven-plus months later, in summer in Rio, Neo encounters the new statue of Antonio Carlos Jobim near the beach in Ipanema.
No matter what hemisphere you are in, Feliz Ano Novo, with special thanks to Brazil for being the permanent heart and soul of Jogo Bonito, the beautiful game, and the source of Tom Jobim and La Garota de Ipanema.
Wanna feel warm?
These are poems about a priest abusing a boy, a number of boys.
Norbert Krapf, recently the poet laureate of Indiana, held it inside for half a century, before a spiritual advisor suggested he deal with it. He then did what an artist does. He created something else, something different.
Think of it as a stage. (This is my conceit, not the author’s.) On the stage is a boy, still reeling from what happened so long ago, and an older man, who has been living a productive life, despite what happened. With his back to the audience, mute and distant for a long and heavy time, is the priest himself.
And then there is Mr. Blues.
"Okay, you got some mean and nasty stuff in your past.
"I admit you got some mean and nasty stuff in your past.
"My mama used to say, 'Son, let go of that bitter sass.!'"
-- Mr. Blues Sings Yes
Mr. Blues is the friend we all want to ride shotgun on the journey of our lives. He is the third part of the Freudian trinity, who sees clearly, speaks the truth, does not let things rest. (Krapf told me he did not create Mr. Blues but rather Mr. Blues just began speaking one day.)
Mr. Blues prods the boy and the man to reconcile, to look again at what went down in rural southern Indiana, when the home-town priest asked altar boys to stay over at the rectory on the night before Sunday Mass, and also took them hunting, was a pillar of the community, and over the years he violated some but not others. Many people knew, but not everybody. The boy and the man are still working that out, five decades later. Why couldn’t they tell anybody? (One boy told his father, who beat him up, but not the priest.)
Krapf used to teach at C.W. Post College on Long Island. I first heard about him in 2003, from three Navajo women from the Southwest who had been recruited to play volleyball, and who raved about Krapf for initiating them into poetry as part of the fine education they were receiving at Post.
Krapf moved home to Indianapolis after that. We still have never met, although I wrote a column about him and the frontier between Bears fans and Colts fans in northern Indiana, before Super Bowl XLI in 2007. Krapf sings blues and jazz around Indiana, and loves to reminisce about the hills and farms of southern Indiana, just north of the Ohio River, a region I learned to love in my days in Louisville.
Now Krapf has written poems about a different corner of his childhood. The man wonders what he could have done to heal some of the pain of the boy, and Mr. Blues hectors them to meet in the middle, to get it out. The reality is as current as Pope Francis meeting with six victims of priest abuse in early July. By now, we all know what happened, in so many places.
Late in the book, there is a rustling on the hypothetical stage. It takes a long time for the priest to speak, but ultimately he does, beginning with a terse warning to the boy. Let us say he is not contrite.
(Krapf notes in the preface that his therapist urged him to include the priest in these poems. Good instinct. It works in the context, and I suspect it worked for Krapf, also.)
I am not qualified to critique poetry, Krapf’s use of three-line stanzas, blues cadence, repetition with slight variation, slang, familiarity, child-like observations of the living past. I only know that I read Catholic Boy Blues in two huge chunks, wondering how it would turn out.
I was reminded of the aside that Nina Simone hurls at the audience in her epic song, “Mississippi Goddam:” “This is a show tune/ But the show hasn’t been written for it, yet.” Never was, to my knowledge. But the aside lives.
Most of us think we have read and heard everything we need to know about priest abuse, but up to now we had not heard Norbert Krapf take it on.
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Catholic Boy Blues. By Norbert Krapf. Introduction by Matthew Fox. 2014. Greystone Publishing LLC. Nashville, Tennessee. www.greystonepublishing.com.
On July 15, it was announced that Krapf has been selected as the regional winner of the 2014 Eugene & Marilyn Glick Indiana Authors Award. He and a colleague plan to hold workshops about writing about difficult relationships.
For more information: http://www.krapfpoetry.com/
Iris DeMent has a better home-run ratio than Babe Ruth.
She has issued only a handful of albums, as we still call them, containing some of the most profound songs ever written, ever sung – “Our Town,” “My Life,” "No Time to Cry, and “When My Morning Comes Around," which is more than a song, it is a hymn.
I have raved about her before, The Prophet Iris and her song "Living in the Wasteland of the Free," never more relevant.
DeMent does not come around that often, but she is currently wending her way toward Port Washington, Long Island. On Saturday at 8 PM, she will appear at the Landmark on Main Street. to be introduced by John Platt of WFUV.
The building used to be the Main Street School, high on a hill -- a landmark, one could say.
All three of our children attended Main Street. One daughter played the flute and the other played the cello and our son had a notable cameo in a class play. Now the building has been converted into apartments for seniors, with the old auditorium hosting a music series ranging from doo wop to folk.
Iris DeMent fans await that rare swing, that rare album, that rare tour. In 2012 she issued "Sing the Delta," 12 of her songs, rooted in Arkansas, where she was born, the youngest of 14 children.
“Some of these songs I’ve had around awhile but I needed time to grow into them,” she has said. “I guess you could say I just wasn’t ready to deliver them in the way that they de-served. I’m glad I waited. It’s taught me to surrender…to trust the natural flow and order of things and not worry about it.”
On Saturday Iris DeMent is performing a mile from our house. I'll be there.
Every name has a story, and our daughter Corinna tells hers in a lovely May Day essay today.
She tells the story on the day when she witnessed her friend Jacky Nkubito become an American citizen in DC.
The name happened as Corinna tells it. I was taking a course on the Cavalier Poets with Dr. Ruth Stauffer at Hofstra College in the spring of 1960, the last semester of my very good liberal arts education. I loved the urgency of Andrew Marvell:
Had we but world enough, and time,
This coyness, lady, were no crime.
It’s possible I might even have used those words, or at least felt the sentiment, in that beautiful flowering spring.
I also loved the poem Corinna’s Going a-Maying by Robert Herrick, which our daughter describes so nicely.
So how did we name our two other children? Marianne and I agree that her mom, still with us at 93, loved the name Laura. Also, Marianne and I both knew the David Raksin song “Laura,” from the noir movie of the same name, from 1944.
Laura is the face in the misty light
Footsteps that you hear down the hall
The laugh that floats on a summer night
That you can never quite recall.
One version is by Frank Sinatra -- long before his ring-a-ding-ding stage, I hasten to add. It's a little lush, but a time piece.
I was sold as soon as the name Laura was proposed for our oldest daughter.
And she’s not the only Laura named for the song. In the comments portion of the youtube Sinatra version, LauraLaVitaEBella says her grandfather gave her the name. Bravo, Nonno.
How did we arrive at David for our third child?
Marianne notes that I wanted to name him Dylan. It would have been perfect. She counter-proposed David – for the Michelangelo statue in Florence.
Many years later, I came to understand King David through the Leonard Cohen song, written in 1984, now one of the great touchstones of contemporary life.
Personally, I am partial to the k.d. lang version on her glorious Canadian tribute, Hymns of the 49th Parallel.
So I say, Hallelujah for music and poetry and art. Hallelujah for May Day. And Hallelujah for Citizen Jacky in DC today.
Top: Raglan Road. Below: classic concert at the Alhambra.
The networks and the papers are gearing up for the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington on Aug. 28. I saw the saintly John Lewis on television the other night.
Memories kick in.
I was covering the Mets in Pittsburgh, and watched the march on television during the day, captivated by the mood, the words, the faces.
Then I got on the bus from the Hilton, down by the famed confluence, to funky old Forbes Field up on the hill. At some point I got into a conversation with Maury Allen of the Post and Jesse Gonder and Alvin Jackson of the Mets, who had all been watching in their rooms.
I’ve always treasured this memory of four people standing around the clubhouse, so enthused about Martin Luther King and the other speakers, and the people who had come so far, the joy and hope we felt.
I’d forgotten that Jackson was the starting pitcher that night, lasting four and two-thirds innings against his old club, taking the loss in a 7-2 defeat. Gonder pinch-hit for Choo Choo Coleman with two on and no out in the ninth and hit into a force play. Roberto Clemente went 3-for-4 and drove in 3 runs. I can’t remember if we asked him about the march after the game. I’d like to think we did.
Throughout the bad times and the good times, the memory remains of that march. The four of us had been sure, as the Sam Cooke song would say a few months later, a change was gonna come.
Nowadays, the sour faces on Cantor, McConnell, Paul and Boehner seem straight from the bad old days. And we are assured by Chief Justice John Roberts that things are so good that we do not need a voting rights law anymore. Governors and legislatures do their best to deny access to voting. Fifty years ago I stood around a clubhouse with three friends and talked about the March on Washington.
The box score from that game:
The history of the Sam Cooke song:
A more recent story about the March on Washington:
Ladies and gentlemen, the late, great Sam Cooke:
James Agee is back, with a revived version of the work he did with Walker Evans in the American South during the Depression. His ear supplied the words and Evans’ eye supplied the photographs of stoic people trying to survive.
Here is another great collaboration I seek out at Father’s Day: Knoxville: Summer of 1915, Samuel Barber’s adaptation of Agee, sung by Eleanor Steber at a concert in Carnegie Hall on Oct. 10, 1958.
The song works for Mother’s Day but even more for Father’s Day, because the lyricism and discordance suggest what is coming soon. Agee’s father died in 1916, which was commemorated in Agee’s A Death in the Family, published in 1957, two years after Agee’s death.
The song describes Agee’s family sitting outdoors, in a time before air conditioning and television. It begins:
It has become that time of evening when people sit on their porches, rocking gently and talking gently and watching the street and the standing up into their sphere of possession of the trees, of birds' hung havens, hangars. People go by; things go by. A horse, drawing a buggy….
I heard it first on WQXR-FM years ago, and bought the CD, Eleanor Steber in Concert, 1956-58. I later read that Steber was from Wheeling, West Virginia, and wondered if she would have felt any affinity for Knoxville, further down the Appalachian range.
The song reminds me of summer evenings in the 1940’s, when my family stayed outdoors, in our own back yard in the borough of Queens, to catch some slight breeze. I remember fireflies and the Brooklyn Dodgers on the radio and my brothers and sisters and my parents.
This is where I usually lose it:
All my people are larger bodies than mine...with voices gentle and meaningless like the voices of sleeping birds. One is an artist, he is living at home. One is a musician, she is living at home. One is my mother who is good to me. One is my father who is good to me. By some chance, here they are, all on this earth…
When I play this song, I think of our parents, talking about books and politics and the old days, suggesting what is possible for us in our lives.
For those of us who know that our parents were good to us, this is a memory. For others, it may be an ideal, a hope.
* * *
The concert above is from 1948, when the work made its debut. The pianist is Edwin Biltcliffe.
Jane Redmont’s web site has a wise tribute to the song, and includes the lyrics:
My childhood friend Alan Spiegel wrote a lovely biography and critique of Agee in 1998:
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….
How refreshing, in the dark of winter with snow on the ground, to see all that young talent at the Grammies.
My wife and I laughed at the great commercials, geared to a younger audience – not the remedies for old-age ailments we see on MSNBC. Different crowd. Guess the kids on the Grammies don’t have achy knees yet.
I’ve lost all touch with current pop music – got enough Satie and Marley and McGarrigles stocked up to last my lifetime – but the performers were so accessible, so good, so attractive, that we watched right through to the tribute to performers who died in the past year.
I knew about Dave Brubeck and Levon Helm. But there was a shock when I saw the name Mike Auldridge.
It brought me back to the fall of 1972, when I was covering the award ceremony of the County Music Association in Nashville. (Had an interview with Loretta Lynn coming up.) I was staying in some chain motel east of I-65, and overnight some zealous promoter slid a couple of vinyl 33 1/3 albums right under my door.
One of them was Old Train by a sensational fusion bluegrass group called the Seldom Scene. Another album was Mike Auldridge – Dobro. I never turn down anything free, so I stuck them in my luggage and played them when I got home. And I still play them today, particularly because of the dobro of Mike Auldridge on both albums, so thoughtful, spare, clear.
The best track on Dobro is Rolling Fog, credited to Paul Craft and sung by Auldridge, who apparently did not do many solos. His mellow baritone is timeless -- as good as men like to think they sing in the shower.
Find a place to creep in, underneath my door,
Whisper to me, while I’m sleeping,
Make yourself at home.
Knowing that the Seldom Scene was based in Alexandria, Va., I always figured I'd be in DC and notice they were playing in some club, but it never happened. I did interview John Duffey and Dr. John Starling, a surgeon and soloist, on the phone for the Times before their gigs in the New York area, but I never caught them. Why?
I’ve been singing along with the Seldom Scene for a long time, courtesy of my turntable that fascinates my grandchildren no end. I missed the obituary for Mike Auldridge in the Times on Dec. 31 but vinyl is coming back, and I just played Rolling Fog on a damp gray Monday morning.
Thanks to the Grammies for letting me know about Mike Auldridge.
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.
Over the weekend, I drove 14 hours around New Jersey and Pennsylvania and was reminded of the skill and courtesy of most long-distance truckers.
Piloting 80,000 pounds of mobile weight at high speed, the vast majority of truckers are better than any other category of driver.
I used to make long hauls in my car when we had places in Kentucky or Florida, and I learned to rely on truck drivers, particularly at night when traffic thinned out and we all could make time, legally, of course.
This past weekend I was reintroduced to that reassuring sequence of giving the truckers plenty of room to pass me, or merge in front of me. I would flick my bright lights a couple of times and they would ease that behemoth in front of me, and when that bulk settled into place, they would tap their brakes once or twice, producing the ritual blink that says thank-you. .
Many years ago, traffic was held up on Interstate 4 outside Orlando. When we got to the point of obstruction, a truck had jackknifed and turned over, strewing stuff all over the road. I doubt the driver survived. I made up my mind I would make sure all those trucks had room to ease carefully into the lane they needed.
Sure, once in a while some cowboy with white-line fever barrels too fast, tailgating or changing lanes without signals. He needs to get off the road and into a rest stop.
But most of them are really good – better than the yuppies trying to control a van with one hand while babbling into a cell phone, better than kids veering from lane to lane, better than seniors lumbering along in campers.
For decades, I put in so many miles for work and family that I came to relate to truckers. Years ago I bought a cassette at a rest stop north of Richmond, Virginia – Best of Road Music, Volume II, great stuff from Bill Monroe, Hoyt Axton, Red Sovine, Jerry Jeff Walker. One very sweet song is Blue Highway, by John Conlee, about a trucker who reassures his wife that his night-life is non-existent as he roams America “in this whining time machine.”
I want that trucker to get home safely. I want all of us to get home safely, when I am driving at midnight, and some trucker I will never meet gives me the tap-tap flicker of his brake lights.
(Nice truck video below)
He arrived out of the ozone in the very late ‘60’s, a voice straight off the Fordham campus. On WNEW-FM, a station with its share of edgy types, he came off as much more than sophomoric but not yet a grad student – a perpetual junior, who was starting to get it. That is a compliment.
Pete Fornatale maintained that mix of wonder and knowledge as long as he lived, which was not nearly long enough. He died Thursday at the age of 66.
He was a friend. We lived about a mile apart in Port Washington for decades, and took long walks around the old sand mines on Hempstead Harbor. We talked about serious issues as we walked – spiritual things, political things. He was deeply affected by 9/11 – talked about it on the air at WFUV-FM, his first and final station.
He didn’t seem much interested in talking sports, thank goodness, which gave me the leverage to ask him about his music contacts.
There were perks to being a friend of Pete’s.
He introduced us to our heroes, Anna and Kate McGarrigle, in some Village basement dressing room, right after a show.
We sat with him when he emceed a benefit brunch at the Lone Star, when Richard Manuel and Rick Danko were about to go back on the road. Check out the High on the Hog album. Richard sings She Knows in that sweet falsetto, and at the end Pete and Richard salute each other. Now all three of them are gone, and so is Levon.
Pete and I took our sons to a Grateful Dead concert at the Nassau Coliseum.
He introduced me to John Platt, his Long Island buddy, now a Sunday-morning presence on WFUV.
And one night in a club on the South Shore of Long Island, he introduced us to Christine Lavin, his friend, now my friend. Chris once performed Sensitive New Age Guys live on Pete’s Mixed Bag show – using Pete as the male foil. That night in the club, she called out both of us to sing backup. She’s currently on the road, working on a tribute to Pete that will be played sometime over the weekend on XM radio and also on WFUV-FM on Saturday. We are all in shock.
But the best part was the music, the thematic shows, where Pete could find four or five songs that belonged together. (Doug Martin’s obit in the New York Times on Friday does a great job explaining Pete’s technique. )
I hope this doesn’t get Pete in trouble with the authorities – what can they do to him now? – but he used to make copies (cassettes, which dates me) of his best thematic shows. I play them on my walks.
One show was Ladies Love the Beatles, amazing arrangements of old favorites.
Another show was about aviation, with a sensational version of Tree Top Flyer by Stephen Stills. Afterward, Pete admits, with that heh-heh laugh of his, that the song just might have been about an illegal pursuit.
Another cassette was about the Sunday papers, all those sections, including the so-called funnies, with Adam Carroll’s song urging Dagwood to take Blondie up on the roof for a glimpse of the sky. That one certainly puts some zip in the step.
Pete was still growing, still learning, still thinking, still talking. My deepest condolences to his family. I’ll miss the walks but I’ve got the cassettes.
When I was writing about Levon Helm of The Band before his death on Thursday, I referred to the commonality of American and Canadian culture, pertaining to pop music.
I was not saying it all sounds alike, but that modern technology and communications have exposed all of us to various strains of music that we know and love.
The Band produced a new blend of rock, folk and country from all over the continent. Levon, bless his heart, brought Arkansas north of the 38th Parallel.
When the soul singer pictured above delivered the first note of Let’s Stay Together – the first high note! -- everybody knew he was doing Al Green. Of course, it was at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, and “The Rev” was in the audience, and President Obama quickly made a Sandman joke (Sandman Sims, a noted tap-dancer, used to give performers the hook when the Apollo audience had enough.)
Not everybody watching the President got the Sandman reference, but who didn’t recognize Let’s Stay Together? It’s in the culture.
I’m an official Old Guy, and my iPod has Brazilian music, Latino Music, the Chieftains, Anna and Kate McGarrigle with Quebec accordions, Joe Williams at Newport, Lucinda Williams, Thomas Hampson singing Stephen Foster. Not one culture, but so many cultures, all out there in our ozone. When the American President can do Al Green, we are getting somewhere.
Response to Thoughtful Reader Brian – II
The other day I mentioned a double Yankee connection to Stan Musial. This was before I gave a talk about my Musial biography, at the Bronx Museum of the Arts, a lovely building on the Grand Concourse.
Brian asked: just what were those connections? Well, in 1938, when Musial was already signed by Branch Rickey’s vast Cardinal farm system, he told a scout from his home-region Pittsburgh Pirates that the Yankee empire was showing an interest in him.
Apparently an un-named Yankee “bird dog” had spoken to him, according to a Musial friend who was trying to get the Pirates interested in the local boy. But the Pirates couldn’t touch Musial because he was under contract, and the Cardinals quickly sent him to his first minor-league post in West Virginia, as a wild lefty pitcher.
The other Yankee connection? When Musial slumped in 1959 and manager Solly Hemus saw fit to bench him, the Sporting News ran a copyright story that the Cardinals might trade Musial to the Yankees for St. Louis home-boy Yogi Berra. Musial said it was ridiculous, nothing to it. He had already blown away a proposed trade for Robin Roberts a few years earlier.
The question is: how would Musial have done as a Yankee, either at the start of his career or at the end? Perhaps he would have gotten lost as a wild young lefty pitcher, and never gotten a chance to show his hitting ability. He only got to play the outfield regularly in the Cardinal chain after blowing out his pitching shoulder while making a diving catch in center field.
Years later, the Yankees found a position for a shortstop named Mantle, and they found ways for Berra and Howard to co-exist. My guess is the Yankees – or any club – would have discovered the kid could hit and they could have used him in left field or at first base, just as the Cardinals did.
In 1960, the Pirates turned down a chance to get Musial for their pennant drive. Could his bat have helped either the Yankees or the Pirates in that wild World Series?
Oh, yes, Musial visited Yankee Stadium in his first two World Series in 1942 and 1943 and he hit his last all-star homer in 1960 in Yankee Stadium.
Those are his Bronx connections. With impeccable good sense, Musial managed to spend the last 70 years in a grand baseball city that loves and appreciates him. He did fine.
They played music from deep in the collective continental soul. Four Canadians and a drummer from Arkansas.
First time I saw Levon Helm was backstage at the Garden during the Dylan tour in ’74. Somebody had placed a backboard outside The Band’s dressing room, and he was messing around with the ball, between shows. Wish I had said hello, but I was spying on Dylan’s sound check, so I kept moving.
Now his family says he is dying of cancer.
My favorite song from Levon is Ophelia because it is so….so…southern.
Boards on the window/Mail by the door….
Reminds me of funky neighborhoods in the south, where people come and go.
Although what could be more southern than Levon’s buzz-saw rasp on The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down?
Only met him once. He played Loretta Lynn’s father, Ted Webb, in the movie Coal Miner’s Daughter. I had written the book for Loretta, and the movie people graciously invited me to the openings in Nashville and Louisville.
I was afraid the movie-makers might commit a Beverly Hillbillies version about a part of the world I love. But as soon as I saw Levon as the slender, bashful miner, I knew the movie was going to be respectful.
The second night, there was a party at the hotel, with Loretta and Sissy Spacek jamming together. Sissy could crack up Loretta by imitating her voice and her down-home bended-knee gestures.
Levon was singing backup. It was the women’s show.
During a break in the music, my wife sidled up to Levon and told him how good he was in the movie, and then she added, “You can sing, too.”
He might have had a bit to drink, but not enough that he couldn’t detect the compliment.
“Thank you, ma’am,” he said.
“He was so cute,” she recalled on Tuesday, when we heard the awful news.
The album is in the top ten in my iPod.
It is about baseball and it is about business.
But mostly it is terrific music.
In Sunday’s New York Times, I do a riff on the possible bicoastal curses that may or may not be attached to the Dodgers of Chavez Ravine. I use a few quotes from Ry Cooder, the legendary guitarist who produced the 2005 album, Chávez Ravine.
Cooder had more to say in a series of e-mails, but because my column also deals with the 25th anniversary of the career self-destruction of my late friend Al Campanis, I didn’t have space to rave about Cooder’s album, which was nominated for a Grammy after it came out.
Just turned 65, Cooder is perhaps best known for the music in Buena Vista Social Club, the movie by Wim Wenders. Out of LA,, he’s been involved in just about everything from the Rolling Stones to ethnic music since the 1960’s.
The Chávez Ravine album hits hard at the machinations that put the peripatetic Dodgers, former of Flatbush, Brooklyn, on a hillside overlooking LA. It incorporates sounds in Cooder’s head, and real news events and life in the mostly Latino village up on the hill, and it also contains a few artistic liberties.
But mostly it features East LA musicians like Lalo Guerrero, Pachuco boogie king Don Tosti, Thee Midniters front man Little Willie G, and Ersi Arvizu, of The Sisters and El Chicano.
Cooder depicts a sweet village life (Poor Man’s Shangri-La) interrupted by the greed of downtown, backed up by the anti-Communist furies of the 1950’s.
Of course, nothing like that could happen today.
“Myself, i don't like sports and i hate the developers and what they do, as i'm sure you know. i like old trees, little wooden houses, tiny winding streets, and the rural feel of elysian park and the ravine and bunker hill and all the beautiful places that are gone forever. i hate growth, i hate change. LA is ruined, cities are ruined, culture is quite ruined. now we have legal lynching back again,” Cooder e-mailed to me, the latter presumably a reference to Trayvon Martin.
Actually, he said, he liked boxing back in the day. He has a song “Corrido de Boxeo,” showing the sport as a staple of Latino life back in the ‘50’s, but in the album that world is disrupted after developers cut their deals.
He has a sweet-to-cynical song about a man who dreams about paving over the Los Angeles basin, with the phrase “It’s my town!” Cooder was amused a few years back when a Dodgers advertising campaign proclaimed, “It’s My Town.”
“Funny! I make no claim,” Cooder wrote the other day.
The developers send bulldozers up on the hill. (a driver sings: “It’s Just Work for Me”) and the people depart to the mournful strains of “Barrio Viejo” – old neighborhood.
Despite his instincts against big business and big sport, Cooder does leave the album with a sense of reconciliation in “Third Base, Dodger Stadium,” with a parking-lot attendant singing about the new ball park:
Second base, right over there,
I see Grandma in her rocking chair,
Watching linens flapping in the breeze,
And all the fellows choosing up their teams.
Somehow, the singer decides, “Yes, I’m a baseball man myself.” And the CD ends with a Costa Rican poem, mysteriously found inscribed on a wooden plank in a rain forest, transformed into a hymn, “Soy Luz y Sombra” (I Am the Light and the Shade) which talks about hope and reunion. One English translation includes this stanza:
Fertile home of old trees
Of tender flowers, newborn
With ancient roots and future hopes
The united family
The old goat pasture remains a symbol of the world that was evicted to make room for the Dodgers. An artist named Vincent Valdez has made a graphic version of that time. In my column, I raise the prospect of some left-coast curse waiting decades to smite the Dodgers. For all that, listening to the last two songs on Chávez Ravine around opening day made me ready for a new season.
I always figured Mooney Lynn was the luckiest man in the world.
I loved Mooney. When I was helping Loretta Lynn write her book, Coal Miner’s Daughter, Mooney would put his pistol down on the table and never fuss when I asked about his indiscretions. He also held the family and the business together while Loretta was out on the road, and it was easy to see why she loved him so much.
Mooney was stumpy and weather-beaten, but in the movie he got to be portrayed by Tommy Lee Jones, a handsome football player from Harvard. For millions of people who have seen the movie, that is their lasting image of Mooney Lynn – a college lineman who could move pretty fast. How cool was that?
I was thinking about Mooney last Saturday night while watching the HBO production, Game Change, about the Hail-Mary pass the McCain campaign heaved in 2008 when it brought in Sarah Palin to run for vice president.
Palin lucked out, just like Mooney. She will never escape the hilarious impersonation by the inimitable Tina Fey, but for the two-hour television movie Palin was played by Julianne Moore, who did wonders for her.
Moore did not try to serve up Palin’s dance-hall-queen strut or smirk, but rather gave her character a minimal gravitas never before detected by my personal seismograph. For the two-hour haul, Moore (and the writers and director) gave Palin a tinge of fear that she might be bombing in public, the slightest bit of awareness that maybe she should know some of those things people were prattling about.
I almost felt sorry for her – well, at least until some television commentator would note that she could be one cardiac event from the presidency. Then it all came back to me.
John McCain did not come off as well. He’s been lurching around in a coma since politely scolding that bigoted woman in the red dress in 2008, but he’s still more appealing than Ed Harris’ bland character in the movie. Woody Harrelson stole the show as campaign maestro Steve Schmidt, who is currently performing community service as commentator on MSNBC, discussing the current lot.
Of course, none of the spinmeisters in 2008 had a chance what with that smart, handsome, confident figure making speeches before huge crowds in Berlin or Washington. Where did the movie-makers find that guy? He’s a natural.
And that made me wonder:
When HBO decides to make a movie about Grumpy, Sleazy, Dopey and Starchy, the last four standing, who will play them?
Clearly Rick Santorum will be played by another simplistic type. (See below.)
Mitt Romney could be portrayed by his own wax statue from Madame Tussaud’s – an upgrade in personality, if you ask me.
Ooops: This just in, from Ry Cooder, one of the artists behind Buena Vista Social Club and Chavez Ravine. It's called The Mutt Romney Blues.
Ron Paul could be fun if Jerry Stiller could tear himself away from all those runway models in his current commercials.
But Newt Gingrich? A few decades ago, Mickey Rooney could have impersonated Newt’s pretentious bluster but I’m guessing somebody more courant could serve up Newt as he cajoles people into donating to his dubious cause.
That inevitable movie has to be more enjoyable than this long and silly season.
Your nominations for the leading roles are welcome.
Who plays Bachmann? Who plays Cain? Who plays Newt?
has filed an interview with, of all people, me.
It's on his blog. (Just past photo of rat!) My thanks for his interest. GV
David Vecsey's sweet tale of distant love before the Web, now NYT Podcast, narrated by Griffin Dunne. Please see: