Tuesday, December 10, 2013

A Most Inappropriate Song

So last week I started out talking about a friend who wondered if anyone really liked Spike Jones’s All I Want for Christmas is My Two Front Teeth, and I ended promising to tell you this week about a really inappropriate Christmas song that you’ll even hear sung in churches. But before I do that, I just want to devote a little time to a song that just grates on me.

My daughter says that had the words to this song been “Last August I gave you my heart, but the very next day, you gave it away…” it would’ve died a nice quiet death, and been forgotten by most of us. But because George Michael was smart enough (or evil enough) to put the word “Christmas” in it, he’s been raking in the royalties every December since 1984, as just about everyone who’s ever held a microphone has recorded a version of it.

And the really annoying thing is that this song is an earworm. It just has one of those tunes that you can’t stop humming, no matter how much you hate the song.

But enough about that, I want to get to that inappropriate song.

It started out simply enough, with a poem. A poem that Placide Cappeau, a local wine merchant and poet, had written at the request of his parish priest for the Christmas mass. But as he finished the piece, he decided that this was more than a beautiful poem; it had the potential to be a beautiful song. However, since he wasn’t a musician himself, he asked one of his friends for help. This friend happened to be one Adolphe Adam, a well-known composer of orchestral works.

However beautiful the words to this poem were, it presented a special set of problems for Adam. For you see, coming from a Jewish family, it was for a day he didn’t celebrate and about a man he didn’t believe was the son of God. Nevertheless, he set Cappeau’s beautiful words to an equally beautiful melody, and was performed three weeks later at the Christmas Eve mass.

The song was an immediate hit, spreading from Cappeau’s small town and becoming one of the most beloved songs in France. And then everything hit the fan. It began when Cappeau walked away from the church and joined the socialist movement. It got worse when church leaders discovered that Adam was Jewish. That was enough to cause them to start denouncing the song as unfit for use in church services because of its “lack of musical taste” and “total absence of the spirit of religion.” Seems to me that they were really arguing over its “pedigree” than any issues of musical taste or religious spirit.

That was really too bad, because even though it had been banned from use in church, the French people continued to sing it in their homes anyway, and it took on a life of its own.

In 1855, Unitarian minister and publisher John Sullivan Dwight published an English version of the forbidden French song here in the United States, where the abolitionist sentiments of the third verse made it particularly popular in the North during the Civil War, and is now one of the most popular Christmas songs in the world.

What song is this that was once deemed inappropriate for church use, but can now be heard in churches around the world on Christmas Eve? Perhaps the fact that it was written in France already gave it away. Perhaps it was the name Adolphe Adam that did it for you. And if you still don’t know what the song is, I’ll tell you.

It’s Cantique de Noël, or as we say in English, O Holy Night.

Remember this the next time someone tells you that a particular piece of music is inappropriate for church. Time may well prove them wrong.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Regular Christmas Music?

It started with a post from one of my Facebook friends, asking if anyone actually likes Spike Jones Christmas songs.

One person responded that he’d never heard of him, another said that he loves them, and remembered listening to them on Dr Demento. To that, my friend responded that maybe that’s where they belonged, instead of being mixed in with the “regular Christmas music.”

Well…if you know anything about me and music, you know that that got my brain spinning. Keep it with Dr Demento instead of mixing it in with the “regular Christmas music?” Oh my…the brings up the question of what is “regular Christmas music.” It also brings up the issue of the extreme segmentation of radio over the past 30 years.

You see, there once was a time when what was known as Top 40 Radio played a little of everything. If it was a big enough hit, you were likely to hear songs by The Beatles, The Supremes, Dean Martin, Patsy Cline and Allan Sherman on the same station. That’s right, what we call “novelty songs” were part of the regular mix of music played. That was until the advent of FM Radio and all of its added frequencies made it possible to narrowcast to very specific audiences, giving us the Pop station, Soft Rock station, the Hard Rock station, the Soul station, the Easy Listening station, the Jazz station, the Country station…and one two-hour radio show on Sunday nights, devoted to novelty songs.

All I Want for Christmas is My Two Front Teeth was a big hit for Spike Jones in 1948; once again, back when novelty songs were played as part of the regular mix of music. The novelty song I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas was a hit for Gayla Peevy in 1953. And then there’s the Christmas novelty song of all Christmas novelty songs, 1958’s The Chipmunk Song by Alvin and the Chipmunks. With that being one of the first records I remember, I challenge anyone to tell me that The Chipmunk Song is not only not a regular Christmas song, but that it should only ever be played on Dr Demento’s show. And what of the McKenzie Brothers version of The 12 Days of Christmas from 1981?

No…as I look at the list of songs I have in my playlist of Christmas favorites, even though Spike Jones and Gayla Peevy didn’t make the cut for me, their recordings deserve a spot in the category of “regular Christmas music” along with Alvin and other artists such as John Denver and the Muppets, Andy Williams, Nat King Cole, The Four Seasons, Manheim Steamroller, Burl Ives, Brenda Lee, Harry Connick Jr, The Roches, The Drifters, Vince Guaraldi, Barry Manilow, Paul Young, the Bowker Brothers, John Tesh, The Barenaked Ladies, Gloria Estefan, Mariah Carey, Bruce Springsteen, The Ronnettes, and of course Bing Crosby.

But now that I’m thinking about this, I gotta ask…does anyone really like Last Christmas?

Next week I’ll tell you about a totally inappropriate Christmas song that you'll hear even in churches.

Monday, November 18, 2013

If It Looks Like a Duck...

There’s an old saying that if it looks like a duck and walks like a duck, then it’s probably a duck. Generally good advice. Especially when dealing with someone who’s trying to BS you. But sometimes, what looks like a duck and walks like a duck isn’t actually a duck after all, but is something totally different.

Many people are talking this week about the death of RenishaMcBride, the 19-year-old girl who was killed by a shotgun blast after she went to get help after she was involved in a car accident.

OK…despite the last name of McBride, with a name like Renisha, it’s a pretty sure bet that she wasn’t Irish. I guess you can call that a duck. Apparently, the homeowner who killed her thought that she was trying to break into his house when she appeared at his door at 1.00a. And when you consider that the neighborhood that she was in when she was killed was predominantly white, and that the man who shot her was white, it’s a pretty sure bet that this was a racially-motivated incident. After all, rather than shooting first and asking questions later, he could’ve called 911. Another duck. Another damned white man shoots unarmed black teenager duck.

But wait…as tragic as this is, maybe there’s something else going on. Maybe there’s another explanation.

You see, when I first heard this story, two other stories immediately came to mind. The first was of Yoshihiro Hattori, the Japanese exchange student who was shot and killed in 1992, on his way to a Halloween party, when he accidentally went to the wrong house, and the property owner thought that he was going to attack him and his wife.

The second is the even more tragic story from 1994 of Bobby Crabtree and his 14-year-old daughter Matilda Kaye. Matilda Kaye was shot by her father when she jumped out of a closet and shouted “Boo!” at her parents when they returned home after midnight, not expecting to find anyone home. Her last words were “I love you, Daddy.”

While one might be tempted to say that there was an element of racism involved in the death of Hattori, there is absolutely no way you could say that that was an issue in the death of Matilda Kaye. But there is one thing that all three tragedies have in common: very frightened people who thought that guns would make them safer, and who made split-second decisions that they’ll have to live with for the rest of their lives. Any of these people could’ve stayed safely where they were and called 911, but armed with the best protection they could get, they decided to handle the situations themselves…and tragedy resulted.

Now before the 32% of you who are gun owners think that I’m calling for all guns to be confiscated, let me tell you that nothing could be farther from the truth. I understand that gun ownership is a very nuanced issue, and that “city guns” and “country guns” are two different things. What I’m talking about is the tragedies that occur when well-intentioned, frightened people, shoot first and ask questions later.

So was the shooting death of Renisha McBride racially motivated? You tell me. It certainly looks like a duck and walks like a duck.

But perhaps it was just a very nervous goose, packing heat.

And that’s a recipe for tragedy...no matter what color you are.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Who Cares?

Thanksgiving this year is on November 28th. Practically the latest it can be. And people are panicking as a result. Well, not people in general…retailers. They’re in a panic because with Thanksgiving so late, people won’t spend as much money on gifts. Or at least that’s how the thinking goes.

Now, I can see us regular folks being a little concerned because we don’t have enough time to do stuff to prepare for Christmas between November 28th and December 24th, but that’s only if you feel that you absolutely have to wait until the day after Thanksgiving to get started. I don’t, however see any of the people I know being concerned that the shorter span between this year’s late Thanksgiving and Christmas means that they’ll spend less. In fact, I don’t hear any of them heaving sighs of relief that with a shorter lead-up season, they won’t have to spend as much money as they would had Thanksgiving fallen earlier.

Quite frankly, I just don’t get it. What does when Thanksgiving falls have to do with how much people spend? Are people really that stupid that they’ll spend more money on Christmas gifts if given more time to do it?

I know that I’m not, and that’s because I was trained from an early age about what we used to call a Christmas Club. Now they’re called Holiday Clubs. It’s a special bank account where a set amount of money goes every week or every two weeks, and then at the beginning of November the money from that account is transferred to your regular bank account. It gives you a set amount of money to spend, no matter how many days there are between Thanksgiving and Christmas.

That’s right…a set amount. It doesn’t matter how many or how few days there are between Thanksgiving and Christmas, I am not going over that budget. Well…maybe I will by a hair, but still, the length of the Christmas shopping season doesn’t matter, because I’m spending the same amount of money, no matter what.

And I admit that sometimes I’ll see something way earlier in the year that I think someone would like, pick it up, and put it in the “Christmas Closet.” But that amount of money still gets deducted from what’s in the Holiday Club account.

The one exception is food gifts. In a bit of creative accounting, they tend to fall under grocery shopping. So if we can pick it, or the ingredients for it, up during our biweekly visit to Price Chopper, it gets in that way. That’s how teacher presents of cookies and coffee cakes are done.

So Thanksgiving is late this year. I don’t care.

After all, November 1st falls the same time every year…and I’m ready!

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

McDonald's and a Living Wage

I’ve been reading a lot lately about how companies like McDonald’s need to pay their workers a “living wage” that they can support a family on, and I’ve always disagreed with that. Not because I didn’t feel for the people who were trying to support families on a McDonald’s paycheck, and not because I’m totally callous toward the poor and the working poor. Quite the contrary, I believe that we should do more to help them, and that we’ll be a better society as a result.

No, my reason for disagreeing is very simple: I know from my years working there myself that McDonald’s is a “trained monkey job.” Really. It doesn't require you to have any skills that are worth $18/hour. It’s a beginner's job, where you learn the skills that you’ll need to keep other jobs in the future. True, most people will not go on to work for McDonald’s corporate, or to own their own franchise. Most people will never need to know what order to put the condiments on a Big Mac in their later lives, but it does teach you about showing up on time, working with others, and following directions without talking back.

Minimum wage jobs like those at McDonald’s were never designed to be jobs that a person could support a family on. With the exception of the managers, they were supposed to be jobs that teenagers and housewives worked for spare cash. They were flexible jobs that you could work while taking classes or while the kids were in school.

But there’s something else that I forgot about, that helps to make my point. It’s important to keep in mind, and we forget these days, that there were other jobs back then that paid good money. There were factory jobs where a person with only a high school education could work their way up and make good money…enough to support a family on. McDonald’s was always considered “chump change,” but good enough for the teenager saving up for his own car, or for spending money.

Then those other jobs went away, and McDonald’s was all that was left for people with no education or special training. They’re still paying what they’ve always paid, and now everyone’s getting on their case for not paying a living wage, or saying that the minimum wage needs to be increased so that a person could support a family on a McDonald’s paycheck.

Wrong. What needs to happen is for there to be jobs that are worth the living wage that would be paid to people. And believe it or not, according to an NPR piece from June 2011, a lot of them are out there, going begging for people to take them. The problem is that they all require some level of education or training after high school, or special training during high school.  And I suspect that the people at McDonald’s who are trying to support families are heavily weighted toward those who don’t have that education or training.

So…it seems that what we really need to do is to get everyone to understand the importance of an education, and to get them to go for it. That will enable them to get a job that pays a living wage.

And leave the burger-flipping to the teenagers who want a little spare cash.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Lady Sings the Blues About "The Butler"

Back in 1972 my family went to see Lady Sings the Blues, the film about Billie Holiday, starring Diana Ross. As we watched the scene where Harry first introduces her to heroin, my father turned to us and said, “That’s wrong. He’s not the guy who gave her heroin, it was Jimmy Monroe.”

And that was just the first of many inaccuracies and perhaps downright fabrications that I was made aware of in that movie.

The Wikipedia article on Lady Sings the Blues calls it a biographical drama film, loosely based on her autobiography; and in reading the plot of the movie and comparing it with the article about the real Billie, I definitely see where the “loosely based on” comes in.

However, Lady Sings the Blues was, once again, a biographical drama film, and not a documentary. It was a dramatic presentation about her life in broad strokes that would capture the audience’s attention, and maybe inspire them to find out more about her, not an episode of Biography. To tell the story within the already long 144 minutes some details had to be left out, certain incidents and people had to be combined; and to avoid lawsuits from those who were still alive, certain names had to be changed.

The movie was what some theologians would describe as “true, but not factual.”

And this wasn’t the first movie biography that “got it wrong.” The 1953 film Houdini ended with the famous escape artist dying dramatically in a failed escape attempt rather than from a much more pedestrian case of peritonitis. Once again, this was a feature film that was loosely based on the life of a real person, and not a documentary.

I could go on an on with examples, but I think you get my point.

All of which brings me to the recent movie The Butler. It is supposedly based on the life of real-life former White House butler Eugene Allen.

And that’s where the trouble begins.

In the column The Butler from Another Planet, Michael Reagan complains that the character of Cecil Gaines in the movie is nothing like the real Eugene Allen. He also complains that the movie dishonestly portrayed the workings of the White House during the administration of his father Ronald. He states that once again Hollywood has “taken a great story about a real person and twisted it into a bunch of lies.”

When I first read this column, I, being the librarian that I am, decided to do a little research to find out what was going on. That’s when I found out that, contrary to popular understanding, The Butler is not based on the life of Cecil Gaines. Rather, it’s a movie inspired by his life. To be more specific, it’s inspired by the idea of telling the story of a person who worked backstage at the White House for over 30 years, and seeing history through that person’s eyes. It’s a great idea.

And it’s been done before. The 1979 miniseries Backstairs at the White House, based on the book My Thirty Years Backstairs at the White House, followed Lillian Rogers Parks and other members of the White House domestic staff through the administrations of presidents Taft through Eisenhower. It’s available from Amazon if you’re interested.

The difference here is that The Butler is about a fictional member of the White House domestic staff, while Backstairs at the White House is about the real people. And as a work of fiction, it is allowed to take even more liberties with the facts than Lady Sings the Blues did. Moreover, it’s a work of fiction about how a particular fictional character saw the Civil Rights Era from his position as a member of the White House domestic staff. It is not, and doesn’t pretend to be, a documentary on the presidents in office at the time. It doesn't pretend to be the biography of Eugene Allen. That’s something that both Michael Reagan and the general public need to understand. And once everyone understands that this is a work of fiction loosely based on history, the charges of twisting Allen's story "into a bunch of lies" should go away.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go watch Hyde Park on Hudson.