Archive for the ‘Country Music’ Category

For Chet

Somewhere in heaven there’s bound to be a corner where Chet Atkins holds court, folded over his guitar with a lover’s absorption–for, as his brother-in-law, the legendary mandolinist Jethro Burns once told him, Chet, when the angels hear you sing, they’ll FIND you a guitar–

Speaking for myself, I always loved Chet’s little rangeless voice and his humor, both on full display in his disarming rendition of Ray Stevens’ “Frog Kissin'”.

Chet was born on June 20, 1924, in Luttrell, Tennessee, and from there, conquered the world of guitar. He once made a list of the most influential guitarists of all time for Irving Wallace in The Book of Lists; he placed Django Reinhardt at the top and himself, with commendable and characteristic modesty, in the middle of the pack.

Happy birthday, Chet. Damn, we miss you.

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RIP Slim Whitman

Singing along with Slim Whitman was always an exercise in humility for me. It took me years to figure that I could never hit those achingly sweet high notes because I’m an alto and he was Slim Whitman. By comparison, I sounded like Tennessee Ernie Ford–(okay, I’m exaggerating, but only a little 😉 ).

Of all the songs he recorded, this is my favorite.

Godspeed, Slim.

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The songs say it all. . .

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The wind is the singer who sang the first song. . .

This morning a light dampish slightly chilly wind blows through Knobite Corner, under a sunny sky. It’s not always that way: sometimes the wind drives in storm clouds with lightning, hail and hard cold rain. Other times the wind circles back on itself and becomes a tornado, scouring and smashing lives and landscapes–sadly not too uncommon a phenomenon around us.

In gentler moods, though, the wind truly is a singer, the perfect duet partner for pines and willows and tall grass, and a subject for some of my favorite music.

One such song is the one quoted above, recorded by the late John Denver on his 1975 album Windsong. The listing of attributes of the wind makes for some of Denver’s best poetry; wed to the light lilting tune, it’s unforgettable.

“They Call the Wind Maria” is truly sui generis; there’s not another wind song like it out there. From the 1951 Lerner and Loewe musical Paint Your Wagon, it’s been sung by everyone from Vaughn Monroe to Frankie Lane to the Kingston Trio, and, in the 1969 film version, by actor Harve Presnell, but my favorite version is by country music’s great trio The Browns. The orchestral accompaniment and vocals give it a great dramatic punch.

One of the most romantic of all wind songs is Hank Williams Sr.’s “Waltz of the Wind”. Apparently it is, like his mesmerizing “Alone and Forsaken”, a home demo recording, with no accompaniment save his guitar. Ol’ Hank’s reedy tenor turns sweetly seductive here, especially on the line “the trees played the waltz of the wind”.

My alltime favorite song about the wind is also my alltime favorite Sons of the Pioneers song. Recorded on a 1959 album called Cool Water and Seventeen Timeless Favorites of the West, it uses their formidable vocal harmonies and a seamless ebb and swell of dynamics to suggest the rush and whisper of the wind as it passes.

Hope that wherever you are today, the wind sings in its gentlest mood. . .

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There are those who say she’s a ghost: a lady dressed all in black, her face concealed by a black veil, who brings flowers to the crypt where lies the body of the great silent film star Rudolph Valentino. This lady–or, at least, a lady–has performed this ritual every August 23 since 1927, the one year anniversary of Valentino’s unmercifully early death.

She’s no ghost, though. The duty has been performed, more or less officially, by three living women in succession since then.

Born Rodolfo Guglielmi in Italy in 1895, Valentino was sent to the United States in 1913 after a troubled childhood and adolescence. He made his way in New York City as an exhibition dancer (a skill that stood him in good stead during his movie career), busboy, and, rumor has it, a gigolo. He moved to Hollywood in 1919, changed his name to Rudolph Valentino, and began to appear in small parts in films, usually cast as the villain–thanks to his dark good looks. He became a major star in 1921’s The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, playing a French-Argentinian playboy who dies in WWI; this part led to his iconic role in the eponymous The Sheik.

His career did not last long; on August 15, 1926, he collapsed in a New York City hotel and died eight days later of peritonitis following a perforated ulcer.

At the time of his death he was allegedly engaged to the actress Pola Negri, following on two failed marriages. Negri (1897-1987) certainly seems to have been devastated by Valentino’s death; she fainted several times during his funeral. She also claimed, in her later years, to have been the black-clad, veiled lady who first placed flowers at his crypt in 1927.

Romantic though her claim may be, though, Negri was not the first Lady in Black. That honor falls to a girl who took it as a commission from Valentino himself.

In 1947, a woman named Ditra Flame (pronounced fla-MAY, 1912-1984) revealed that she was the original Lady in Black. Her mother was a friend of Valentino’s. When Ditra was a young girl, she was hospitalized for a serious illness, and Valentino came to visit her. At that visit, she said, Valentino asked her to come to his grave to visit him once he was dead, for he did not wish to be alone. Ditra recovered, and when Valentino died some years later, she–by then a teenager–kept her promise to him, first going to the crypt, in black and bearing flowers, on August 23, 1927. She only revealed her status as the original Lady in Black after a former showgirl named Marian Watson–who, like Pola Negri, claimed to have been Valentino’s fiancee–claimed she was the Lady in Black. In later years, Flame stopped wearing black clothes on her anniversary visits to Valentino’s crypt. As the legend grew, vast numbers of women in black would show up each August 23rd, rendering Flame somewhat superfluous.

A disgusted Flame discontinued her annual visits in 1954. In the wake of Elvis Presley’s death in 1977, she took up the tradition again, continuing her visits to Valentino’s crypt from then until her death in 1984. She is identified on her tombstone as the Lady in Black.

A woman named Estrellita del Regil began to visit Valentino’s grave in the early 1970s, and is generally accepted as the second “official” Lady in Black when she continued the role after Flame’s death. Del Regil also claimed that her mother, Anna Maria Carrascosa (1910-1973), had been the original Lady in Black, and that she was continuing a family tradition; this claim is not generally accepted. She continued in the role until 1993, when illness forced her to give it up. Del Regil passed away in 2001.

Since 1995, an actress named Vicki Callahan has been the “official” Lady in Black, and so identifies herself on her website.

And the list goes on. In addition to the no longer active Poe Toaster and Valentino’s Lady in Black, there was long a royal mystery: who was placing two dozen red roses on Anne Boleyn’s grave on the anniversary of her death?

Anne, the second wife of the infamous Henry VIII of England, was convicted on charges of treason, adultery, incest and witchcraft (her true crime being her failure to bear Henry the sons he craved) and executed on May 19th, 1536. Sometime in the mid-nineteenth century, on May 19th of each year, someone began placing two dozen red roses on Anne’s grave beneath the floor of the Chapel of St. Peter ad Vincula in the Tower of London.

The roses have been found, each anniversary, for more than one hundred fifty years now. In the last decade, however, it has been revealed that descendants of the Boleyn family began paying a London florist in the 1850s or thereabout to deliver the roses. Their descendants have continued the tradition, although it’s done nowadays by a different florist!

It’s also said–if Wikipedia is to be believed–that Valentino’s Lady in Black was one source of inspiration for the classic country song “The Long Black Veil,” written by Marijohn Wilkin and Danny Dill in 1959.

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I really couldn’t tell you, one way or another, whether Evelyn Danzig and Jack Segal intended this gentle little tale of a little girl who prays

send, dear God, some scarlet ribbons
Scarlet ribbons for my hair

and a parent who is left bemused when out of nowhere scarlet ribbons turn up on the little girl’s bed to be a Christmas song, per se, when they wrote it in 1949.

Early recordings by Dinah Shore and Harry Belafonte, among others, didn’t make much impression. Then, in December of 1960, a trio of brother and two sisters–country music’s The Browns–released it. Their version went higher in the charts of the day than any other–

Okay, granted I get teary-eyed over little kids and puppies and kittens and etc. Still, there’s something especially touching about this tiny miracle.

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Welcome, September

In the 1938 musical Knickerbocker Holiday this song is sung by an aging Peter Stuyvesant as a lament for his lost youth. So in context. In actuality, Kurt Weill and Maxwell Anderson wrote it to suit the limited range and gruff voice of their star, Walter Huston–probably why it was such a perfect fit for Willie Nelson, who recorded the song on his 1979 Stardust album of pop standards.

I’ve never thought of the song in terms of aging, though–incurable romantic that I am, I think of it in the context of a relationship that may or may not make it to December. Just sayin’– 😉

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