One-Minute Book Reviews

January 23, 2011

‘Ballet for Martha’ – A Book a Tiger Mother Might Claw for

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When Martha Graham, Aaron Copland and Isamu Noguchi teamed up

Ballet for Martha: Making Appalachian Spring. By Jan Greenberg and Sandra Jordan. Illustrated by Brian Floca. Neal Porter/Roaring Brook, 48 pp., $17.99. Ages: See  below.

By Janice Harayda

Ballet for Martha will surely lift the heart of any Tiger Mother who is looking for something to read to a second-grader who needs a break from perfecting her Mandarin and practicing the piano for three hours a day. How often do you see a picture book not much larger than Where the Wild Things Are that describes how three people collaborated on an American masterpiece? And that shows the kids what they, too, can achieve if they are geniuses like Martha Graham, Aaron Copland and Isamu Noguchi?

Any Tiger Mother might claw to read aloud the lines in which Graham reacts to the discovery that some of her choreography won’t work with Copland’s music: “She has a tantrum. She screams. She yells. She throws a shoe.” A Tiger Mother might also love the way Graham keeps rejecting Noguchi’s ideas for the sets for Appalachian Spring, a dance about a 19th-century couple’s wedding and anticipation of their new life on the frontier. And a Tiger Mother would have no trouble answering unresolved questions such as: Why does the Pioneer Woman at the wedding – an older figure inspired by Graham’s grandmother – look so much younger and more seductive than the Bride? Is that a come-hither look she’s giving the Husbandman? And is it beyond second-graders to wonder if something is up between the Pioneer Woman and the groom?

Most of all: a Tiger Mother might identify with the fiery revivalist preacher who marries the Bride and the Husbandman: “Towering, glowering, leaping like a cat. His long arms point toward the couple.” Jan Greenberg and Sandra Jordan don’t answer their rhetorical question: “Is he warning them of hard times ahead?” But they explain other things in their afterword. One is that Copland won a Pulitzer Prize for Appalachian Spring. Could a Tiger Mother ask for more than book that implies that even 7-year-olds can benefit from reading about what it takes to win a Pulitzer?

Best line/picture: A quote from Graham: “My dancers never fall to simply fall. They fall to rise.”

Worst line/picture: “She screams. She yells.” It’s redundant.

Ages: Ballet for Martha is informative and well-illustrated. But it embodies a paradox: Many children reject picture for chapter books starting at the age of 6 or 7, and this picture book seems pitched to the strong readers who may snub it because of its format. The publisher recommends Ballet for Martha for ages 6 to 10. But it lacks the high drama or comedy that many children at the younger end of its age range want. And older ones might prefer an illustrated chapter book like Martha Graham: A Dancer’s Life (Clarion, 1998), billed as a volume for ages 10 and up and written by Russell Freedman, who won a Newbery Medal for Lincoln: A Photobiography. Because Graham’s dances were a reaction to classical ballet, children might also get more from Ballet for Martha if they read a good book about ballet first.

Furthermore: Jan Greenberg and Sandra Jordan have won many American Library Association honors for their books, which include Action Jackson (Square Fish, 2007). Brian Floca wrote and illustrated Moonshot: The Flight of Apollo 11 (Atheneum, 2009), a New York Times Best Illustrated Book. Ballet for Martha was a runner-up for the ALA’s 2011 Robert L. Sibert Medal for “the most distinguished information book” of the year for children.

Janice Harayda is an award-winning critic who has been the book columnist for Glamour and the book editor of the Plain Dealer. You can follow Jan (@janiceharayda) on Twitter at www.twitter.com/janiceharayda.

© 2011 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda

February 25, 2010

2010 Delete Key Awards Finalist #3 — Clarence Clemons and Don Reo’s ‘Big Man’

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From Clarence Clemons and Don Reo’s Big Man: Real Life & Tall Tales (Grand Central):

“Clarence thought about a girl he knew in high school, then about a song he used to play, then about the house he grew up in back in Virginia, then about a street in Paris, then about a room he stayed in once in San Francisco, then about a painting of a child and a dog sitting on a pier, then about a bottle of wine he especially enjoyed at a restaurant in New York or maybe Boston with its gardens and grown-up houses ad tress along the river and pizza in the North End and a car, his first car, a ’62 Chevy, a burgundy convertible; and he thought about all the people who died and he thought about death itself and how his was coming someday and how scared he would be to stop living and lose it all and slip into that great blackness and would it hurt and for how long; and he thought about the endless rush of time and color and sound as he moved down the corridor like at the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey, where that guy is in the room where you’re young and you’re old and you’re young and you’re old again; and he thought about his mother and his father and his children of God and about Heaven and who would be there and would there be awkward moments like when Jackie O runs into Marilyn, and he wondered why ghosts are always wearing clothes and did that mean that shirts and pants existed after death, too; and he thought about all the things he didn’t do that he said he would, the broken promises, the broken hears, the fragments of regret scattered around all his rooms, all his days; and he thought about the rain, the soft, steady kind, the deep, soaking rain that strangely brought him comfort on the days that said that the sun would never come out again, and the rain would wash him clean if he stood in it and opened his arms to it and turned his face to the dark, weeping sky and allowed it to soak into his soul and make him one with the rain, part of it, lost in it where there was no pain and no memory and no regret, a place of peace and quiet, a place beyond hope, beyond redemption, beyond death.”

The E Street Band might still be playing in Asbury Park dives if the group had given the world the musical equivalent of this 397-word jawbreaker from its popular saxophonist and sideman for Bruce Springsteen. “Long” doesn’t equal “profound.”

Read the New York Times review of Big Man

The Delete Key Awards are being announced in random order but numbered for convenience. This is finalist No. 3. You can also read about the Delete Key Awards on Janice Harayda’s page (@janiceharayda) on Twitter. The winner and runners up will be announced March 15 on One-Minute Book Reviews and on Janice Harayda’s page (@janiceharayda) on Twitter.

© 2010 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

August 8, 2009

Caldecott Medalist Richard Egielski Returns in a Picture Book About a Famous Musical Rift – Jonah Winter’s ‘The Fabulous Feud of Gilbert & Sullivan’

A  dual biography focuses on the creation of The Mikado

The Fabulous Feud of Gilbert & Sullivan. By Jonah Winter. Pictures by Richard Egielski. Scholastic/Arthur A. Levine, 40 pp., $16.99. Ages 4–6.

By Janice Harayda

Why do publishers bombard us with book-and-CD editions of books that don’t need them and fail to issue them when they might do some good? Does anybody really need that book-and-CD edition of Curious George Goes Camping? C’mon.

But a disk could have added a lot this slightly fictionalized dual biography of the librettist W.S. Gilbert and the composer Arthur Sullivan, which focuses the storied feud between the two men that ended when they reconciled to create their most popular light opera, The Mikado. Nobody can argue that the music involved – The flowers that bloom in the spring, / Tra la! – is too adult for children. So the omission of a CD seems mainly intended to avoid copyright fees or pander to the library market, where the book might sell fewer copies if it included a disk likely to disappear quickly from a pocket.

As it is, Jonah Winter plays Gilbert to Richard Egielski’s Sullivan in The Fabulous Feud of Gilbert & Sullivan. Winter tells a story that, if lively, gets much of its energy from hyper-italicizing and the use of capital letters and exclamation points. “I refuse to write any more music for Mr. Gilbert’s ridiculous operas,” Sullivan says. “It’s always the same ridiculous story, over and over over again!” Winter also invests his tale with a whiff of didacticism as he pursues two goals — telling the story of the rift and making a point:  “Sometimes even the best friends fight.”

But Egielski supplies the missing music with bold paintings that, like Maurice Sendak’s, evoke a mood not through intensely detailed facial expressions or body language but the imaginative use of such elements as tone, color, whimsy and framing. Winter’s opening lines suggest the appeal of Gilbert and Sullivan’s operettas in their day:

“There was a time when jolly old England was not so jolly. Children worked in factories. Queen Victoria frowned. Everything was grim. Everything was dark – except … in the make-believe kingdom of Topsy-Turvydom.”

Egielski illustrates this passage with a wonderfully balanced two-page spread that evokes the setting through cutaway images of multistory buildings in the rain. On the left-hand page, children work in a sweatshop as a coronet-topped Victoria rides in a carriage on cobblestones below them. On the right-hand page, just across the street, an actress puts on makeup as theatergoers approach the Savoy with umbrellas raised against oversized raindrops. This is late-Victorian London, rendered in terms a preschooler can grasp. And on it goes in the book, which reaches its climax with a wordless spread showing a scene from a The Mikado that blazes with sunny colors thrown into high relief by the dank weather on the first pages.

The Fabulous Feud of Gilbert & Sullivan may have its strongest appeal for Savoyards who want to inspire in a love of Gilbert and Sullivan in children. But unlike many books driven by similar motives, this one has enough drama that it isn’t mainly an appeal to parental vanity and pretense. And an author’s note at the end includes a link to a fantastic Gilbert & Sullivan Web site that has the full text and lets you listen to all the music of the operettas by the pair. (To hear any song from The Mikado music, click on “Mikado,” “MIDI Files,” the title of a song, and the speaker icon.) So even if there’s no CD, you can punctuate readings by singing merrily: “The flowers that bloom in the spring, / Tra la / Have nothing to do with the case.” For some adults, the link to so much beloved music might in itself be worth the cost of the book.

Best line/picture: An example of Eglielski’s imaginative use of frames: On one two-page spread he places his images in two circles against a black background, as though you were looking at them through opera glasses.

Worst line/picture: Winter uses British English inconsistently. He writes “dreamt” instead of “dreamed” but “Savoy Theater” instead of “Savoy Theatre.”

Published: April 2009

Furthermore: Egielski won the 1987 Caldecott Medal for his art for Arthur Yorinks’s Hey, Al. He and Yorinks also collaborated on the new picture book, Homework. Winter lives in Brooklyn, NY. Egielski lives in Milford, NJ. Contact the authors c/o Author Mail, Scholastic Books, 557 Broadway, New York, NY 10012.

Reviews of children’s books appear every Saturday on One-Minute Book Reviews, a site for people who like to read but dislike hype and review inflation.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

July 20, 2009

Cole Porter in the Summer, When It Sizzles — If They Say That These Lyrics Heinous, Kick Them Right in the Coriolanus

Filed under: Poetry — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:47 am
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[This is a re-post of a review that appeared in November 2006. I am on a brief semi-vacation.]

A master of light verse in the winter, when it drizzles, in the summer, when it sizzles

Cole Porter: Selected Lyrics. Edited and with an introduction by Robert Kimball. Library of America, 178 pp., $20.

By Janice Harayda

Several friends and I took part as teenagers in a summer drama program in which we learned the lines from Kiss Me, Kate: “If she says your behavior is heinous / Kick her right in the ‘Coriolanus.’” This we regarded as the summit of wit and sang so often that any adult who wanted us to read more poetry could have just given us a book of Cole Porter lyrics on the spot.

I don’t know if that tactic would work today, but the Library of America has made it easier to find out. Cole Porter: Selected Lyrics contains the words to 93 songs that aren’t just some of the best-loved of the 20th century – they are models of light verse. Porter’s lyrics have become such mainstays of our culture that even people who never read poetry are likely to recognize some: “I love Paris, in the winter, when it drizzles, / I love Paris, in the summer, when it sizzles.” “You’re the top! / You’re the Colosseum./ You’re the top! / You’re the Louvre Museum.”  “ … birds do it, bees do it. / Up in Lapland, little Lapps do it, / Let’s do it, let’s fall in love” (though it turns out that “birds” and “bees” is an alteration of Porter’s original words, included in Selected Lyrics).

Why do Porter’s words have such staying power? Porter (1891–1964) was born in Peru, Indiana, but traveled widely and seems to have been a true citizen of the world. His lyrics have a cosmopolitan refinement that may be even more alluring in the age of Howard Stern and Janet Jackson than during the Jazz Age and the Depression, when he did his best work. Porter is a kind of Cary Grant of song-writing – gifted, urbane, and ageless. He blends high and low cultural references with an ease that is more British than American and enables anybody to identify with him. He writes in “You’re the Top”: “You’re the top! / You’re a hot tamale.” Two lines later, he adds “You’re Botticelli, / You’re Keats, / You’re Shelley.” How many writers would dare mix that campy “hot tamale” with the highbrow “Keats” and “Shelley” today? Yet for all the exuberance of such songs, Porter also writes poignantly about his great theme: the evanescence of human attachments and the dreams they embody. In his lyrics the sex of the beloved is often unspecified, so he speaks to gay and straight readers alike.

Porter moved gracefully among poetic meters – iambic, trochaic, anapestic – and at his best is as funny as such titans of light verse as Ogden Nash and Dorothy Parker. But he is racier than most light-versifiers. His lyrics teem with double-entrendres. And one of the gems of Selected Lyrics is a parody of “You’re the Top” by Irving Berlin that nods to Porter’s fondness for sexual wordplay. If you think that line about Coriolanus from “Brush Up Your Shakespeare” is amusing, wait till you see what Berlin rhymes with “You’re the breasts of Venus.” “White Christmas” was never like this.

Best line: Many lyrics include both internal and end-rhymes, such as: “Let’s question the synonymy of freedom and autonomy, / Let’s delve into astronomy, political economy, / Or if you’re feeling biblical, the book of Deuteronomy.” These lines suggest the influence of Gilbert and Sullivan more directly than do others in Selected Lyrics.

Worst line: Porter occasionally uses clichéd rhymes, such as “love” and “above,” as in “Ours”: “The high gods above / Look down and laugh at our love.” Given the volume of material in Selected Lyrics, it is remarkable how rarely he does this.

Recommendation? This compact volume is small enough for a fragile end-table and an example of what an acquaintance of mine calls “a great guest-room book.” Visitors can dip in at random and fall asleep happy.

Editor: Robert Kimball

Published: April 2006

Furthermore: The elegant, minimalist cover of this book was designed by Mark Melnick and Chip Kidd, perhaps the most esteemed book-jacket designer of our day.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

April 6, 2009

A Biographer Recalls America’s Entry Into World War I on April 6, 1917, and the Birth of the Song ‘Over There’

Filed under: Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 4:49 pm
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Given the recent study that found that 10 percent of Americans think Joan of Arc was Noah’s wife, it’s likely that few could identify April 6 as the day the U.S. entered World War I. George M. Cohan wrote the most famous song about that war, and biographer John McCabe remembers its origins in George M. Cohan: The Man Who Owned Broadway (Doubleday, 1973):

“On April 6, 1917, Woodrow Wilson signed the declaration of war against Germany, and show business true to its traditions prepared at once for entertainment service. On that day, Cohan was in his Manhattan apartment. Contrary to a press agent’s story … of Cohan’s writing ‘Over There’ on the back of an envelope on his way into the city that morning from Great Neck, the song was actually written in New York City. April 6 was a Friday and Cohan, like most Americans, took the news of our entry to the war in a mood of spirited determination that all would eventually be well. He pondered Wilson’s announcement during his Saturday duties at the office, and that evening shut himself up in his study.

“Cohan’s daughter, Mary, to this day retains the vividest memory of the following morning. ‘Early that Sunday,’ she says, ‘Dad called us all together – we kids, and my mother. He said that he had finished a new song and he wanted to sing it for us. So we all sat down and waited expectantly because we always loved to hear him sing. He put a big tin pan from the kitchen on his head, used a broom for a gun on this shoulder, and he started to mark time like a soldier … “

As his daughter recalled it to McCabe, Cohan then sang the song that included the famous lines: “Over there, over there, / Send the word, send the word over there, / That the Yanks are coming, the Yanks are coming, / The drums rum-tumming everywhere.”

McCabe goes on:

“’Over There’ became not only the most popular song of World War I but the manifestation of a perdurable American theme as well. As Cohan often said, he had simply dramatized a bugle call, but in its incisive notes and words he had also delineated something elemental in the American character – the euphoric confidence that the coming of the Yanks was the march of the good guys to effect infamy’s overthrow.”

You can listen to three versions of Cohan’s “Over There” for free on the site www.firstworldwar.com/audio/overthere.htm, including a bilingual English-French recording by Enrico Caruso. To listen to Caruso or another artist singing “Over There,” you will have to make another click on the site to select which version you want to hear.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

December 18, 2008

How to Listen to Handel’s ‘Messiah’ – What Are the Functions of a Recitative, an Aria and a Chorus?

Filed under: Nonfiction,Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 8:38 pm
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At this time of year people often speak of the “Christmas portion” of Handel’s Messiah as opposed to the “Easter portion.” But are those terms accurate? A few comments from Robert J. Summer, a professor of choral studies at the University of South Florida and founding conductor of the Master Chorale of Tampa Bay, in his Choral Masterworks From Bach to Britten: Reflections of a Conductor (Scarecrow, 2007):

“Part I is more than just the Christmas portion since it encompasses also the prophecy and Christ’s sojourn on earth. Part II focuses on Christ’s suffering and death, but also includes movements for the resurrection and ascension as well as the spreading of the gospel.”

Summer writes of the pieces that directly follow the Overture (#1) in Messiah:

“The internal structure of most Baroque oratorios, including Messiah, is organized into sequences of recitative, aria, and chorus. The function of the recitative is to relate the story or action; the aria reflects on the action or becomes a state of mind; and the chorus completes the thought, summarizes the situation, or participates in the action (the turba chorus). An example this relationship can be observed in the first three vocal pieces of the work. The recitative, ‘Comfort ye’ (#2), ends with instructions on how to prepare for the coming of Christ – ‘make straight in the desert a highway for our God.’ The aria, ‘Every valley’ (#3), describes what needs to be done in order to carry out these instructions – [Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill made low; the crooked straight and the rough places plain]. And if all this is accomplished, the glory of the Lord shall be revealed as sung by the chorus in ‘And the Glory of the Lord’ (#4).”

Listen to tenor Paul Elliott singing “Comfort Ye” and “Every Valley” from Messiah, conducted by Christopher Hogwood ,at www.youtube.com/watch?v=zhy2SRHqpuQ. Listen to the choir of King’s College, Cambridge, singing “And the Glory of the Lord” from Messiah at www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZorcMYb3fPo&feature=related/.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

December 3, 2008

What’s Next? Marijuana-Laced Scent Strips in Children’s Books? — A Picture Book Version of Bob Dylan’s ‘Forever Young’

[If you can't see the book cover at left, you can see it and hear "Forever Young" by clicking on the link to book trailer on YouTube at the end of this review.]

Forever Young. By Bob Dylan. Illustrated by Paul Rogers. Atheneum Books for Young Readers / Ginee Seo Books, 40 pp., $17.99. Age range suggested on Amazon.com: 4–8. Actual age range: 50–70.

By Janice Harayda

Just in time for the holidays, here comes the latest piece of sucker bait tossed to sentimental baby boomers by publishers: a picture book that has no words except for the lyrics to Bob Dylan’s hymn to youth, “Forever Young.” What’s next, Let’s Read and Find Out About “Lay, Lady, Lay”? Or My First Book of “Everybody Must Get Stoned”?

The kindest thing you can say about this book is that it lacks the appropriate special effects: marijuana-laced scent strips so preschoolers can get stoned out of their minds while reading it. Paul Rogers’s coolly antiseptic illustrations suggest none of the heat Dylan’s music generated: A critic for Publishers Weekly rightly said that “the flat, digitally manipulated compositions recall 1960s low-budget animation.”

Rogers’s illustrations amount to a visual biography of Dylan from his Minnesota childhood through his early years as a singer-songwriter in New York (though you wonder if he and his schoolmates fist-bumped and wore waist-length backpacks as in this book). The pictures show Dylan playing only an acoustic guitar, but some details nod to his later electric years. And the book has so many images of celebrities that children could well come away from this book with the idea that Joan Baez, Ben Shahn, Ringo Starr, Paul McCartney, Edie Sedgwick, Albert Einstein, DA Pennebaker and Martin Luther King Jr. once stood shoulder-to-shoulder at an antiwar march as they do here. Rogers needs two pages of end notes to explain all the visual references that will sail right over the heads of four-year-olds, which makes Forever Young something rare: a picture book with footnotes.

“Forever Young” is a sweet song from its opening lines (“May God bless you and keep you always” / May all your wishes come true”) through its closing refrain (“May you stay forever young”). But its simple rhyming lines don’t have anything close to the energy or poignancy – or just the poetry – needed to sustain a 40-page book without a companion tape or CD. And the words reflect a point of view few children are likely to share.

Although parents may wish their offspring to stay “forever young,” children typically want to grow up as fast as they can. This why psychologists advise parents to use such overworked as phrases as “big girl chair” or “big boy school” in talking about new and potentially frightening situations. Few things are scarier to many children than the idea that they may stay “forever young,” which they may equate with powerlessness.

So here’s a suggestion: If this book tempts you in the children’s section of a bookstore, don’t buy it for the kids. Buy it as a gag gift for one of those second-childhood–themed 50th or 60th birthday parties where everybody brings Mickey Mouse ears or Star Trek DVDs. For all its faults, Forever Young is still a lot cheaper than a gift certificate for six months’ worth of Botox or Viagra.

Best line: An end note quotes a 2004 Los Angeles Times interview in which Dylan said he wrote “Blowin’ in the Wind” in 10 minutes: “just put words to an old spiritual, probably something I learned from Carter Family records.”

Worst line: Some end notes are glorified product plugs: “Highway 61 Revisited (1965) is a great album to listen to when you’re on the road – or not.”

Editor: Ginee Seo

Published: September 2008

Watch the trailer for this book on YouTube, which has Dylan singing “Forever Young” as the pages of the book turn, at www.youtube.com/watch?v=eCMgDc2uiWI.

Furthermore: Can’t get enough of the sucker bait publishers throw at boomers? Click here to read about Steve Martin and Roz Chast’s 2007 picture book, The Alphabet from A to Y www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/02/.

Janice Harayda is a novelist and award-winning critic.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

September 25, 2008

Late Night With Jan Harayda – Babbittry at the Cleveland Orchestra?

A music critic’s demotion brings to mind Sinclair Lewsis’s great comic novel

Not many Americans still use the word babbittry, that wonderful term for naive boosterism similar to that of the title character of Babbitt. But babbittry may help to explain the plight of my former colleague Donald Rosenberg, who was demoted last week to an arts-and-entertainment reporter from his longtime post as the senior classical music critic at the Plain Dealer. His reassignment inspired a story in today’s New York Times and a cascade of comments on blogs, including posts at The New Yorker www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/goingson/?xrail and the Baltimore Sun weblogs.baltimoresun.com/entertainment/classicalmusic/2008/09/critic_who_dared_criticize_cle.html.

Much of the evidence suggests that this was a sad case of a critic punished for being — well, critical. Or, more specifically, for writing reviews of the work of conductor Franz Welser-Möst that weren’t boosterish enough for the orchestra management. And a Sept. 25 valentine to Welser-Möst www.cleveland.com/arts/ by Rosenberg’s successor, Zachary Lewis, strengthens that impression. No less startling than the timing of Lewis’s article was a line in it suggesting that the orchestra paid the bill for the lunch at which he interviewed Welser-Möst for the story. I took many authors to lunch in my 11 years as the book editor of the Plain Dealer, and if I had allowed any of those sources to pick up the check, I would have expected not to have a job the next day. Lewis apparently permitted it and got promoted. Many newspapers consider it unethical for reporters to allow sources to pay for meals, so even those that allow the practice tend not to advertise the freeloading as Lewis did. And unless his comment about the lunch was misleading, you have to wonder if the demotion wasn’t symptomatic of something larger.

I have no inisde knowledge of why the reassignment occurred, but I admired the intelligence and professionalism Don brought to his work at the Plain Dealer, where he reviewed occasional books for me. So this is a reminder that if he’s lost his beat, you can still read his writing about the orchestra in a book: Don wrote the definitive history of the Cleveland Orchestra, The Cleveland Orchestra Story: “Second to None” (Gray, 752 pp., $40).

Late Night With Jan Harayda is a series of occasional posts that appear after 10 p.m. Eastern Time and comment on literary or related events but do include reviews, which appear in the morning or afternoon.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved
www.janiceharayda.com

http://www.janiceharayda.com

August 15, 2008

Why ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ is Bad Poetry and Other Literary Thoughts on the Olympics

Random literary thoughts on the Olympics:

1. Michael Phelps’s underwater dolphin kick is sports poetry.

2. NBC should fire the swimming analyst who keeps saying “he has swam” (as in “he has swam much better than this”).

3. The first word of “The Star-Spangled Banner” (“Oh”) is an example of the literary device known as anacrusis, a lead-in syllable or syllables that precede the first full foot.

4. The national anthem is written in anapestic meter, Dr. Seuss’s favorite. (What, you’ve never noticed the similarity between “And the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air” and “I meant what I said / and I said what I meant …”?)

5. Why is “The Star-Spangled Banner” bad poetry? Take in the last line: “O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.” In a good poem, words are not interchangeable. You can’t switch them around with no loss in meaning or effect, because everything in the poem essential. Apart from a rhyme, what would the national anthem lose if Francis Scott Key had written “home of the free and the land of the brave” instead of “the land of the free and the home of the brave”?

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

July 3, 2008

Was George M. Cohan Really ‘Born on the Fourth of July’? Read a Biographer’s Answer and Listen to ‘I’m a Yankee Doodle Dandy’ Here

I’m a Yankee Doodle Dandy,

A Yankee Doodle do or die;

A real live nephew of my Uncle Sam’s,

Born on the Fourth of July.

– From George M. Cohan’s “Yankee Doodle Boy” (also known as “I’m a Yankee Doodle Dandy”)

George M. Cohan claimed that he, like the Yankee Doodle Boy of his famous song, was born on the Fourth of July in 1878. But it true? In a poorly sourced article on Cohan, Wikipedia says that the composer was born on July 3, 1878. Other sources disagree with the online encyclopedia.

Biographer John McCabe says this in George M. Cohan: The Man Who Owned Broadway (Doubleday, 1973):

“George Michael Cohan was almost certainly born on July 4, 1878, at 536 Wickenden Street, on Corkie Hill, in Providence, Rhode Island. Until Ward Morehouse discovered the Cohan baptismal certificate which carries a July 3 birthdate, there had never been any doubt that the real live nephew of his Uncle Sam was born on any day other than the Fourth. The baptismal certificate hardly settles the matter. As was not unusual at the time, the birth was not recorded in the civic registry in Providence. There is, however, circumstantial evidence writ large that the July 3 on the baptismal certificate is a clerical error. Cohan’s birthday was always celebrated on the Fourth of July by his parents, Jeremiah (‘Jere’ or ‘Jerry’) and Helen (‘Nellie’) Cohan, and this many years before that date began to have profitable connotations for the Yankee Doodle Dandy. The utter probity of these two remarkable people who early taught their son that a man’s word was his impregnable bond is the strongest proof that Cohan was indeed born on the Fourth.”

Among the other evidence cited by McCabe is that Cohan’s father wrote in his diary on July 3, 1882: “Got a little present for Georgie’s birthday tomorrow.” McCabe adds: “The very casualness of the entry in a book intended for his eyes alone bespeaks its integrity.”

To hear a 1905 audio recording of “Yankee Doodle Boy” sung by tenor Billy Murray, including verses rarely heard today, click on the following link (where you will hear the lines at the top of this post about 40 seconds into the song): www.firstworldwar.com/audio/Billy%20Murray%20-%20Yankee%20Doodle%20Boy.mp3. Cohan wrote “Yankee Doodle Boy” for the 1904 Broadway musical, Little Johnny Jones.

You can also hear Cohan’s “Over There” for free in three recordings on the site www.firstworldwar.com/audio/overthere.htm site, including a English-French version by Enrico Caruso. To listen to the Caruso or another “Over There,” you will have to make another click on the site to select which version you want to hear.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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