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A Christmas Potpourri

I’ve somehow largely been out of the mood for Christmas (not in a bad mood, just having trouble feeling like it’s Christmas), watching no Christmas movies, listening to very little Christmas music, and reading even less Christmas related material. It’s been odd. However, here three Christmasy things relating to music, literature, and cinema that are part of my December that I wanted to share.

Julie London and Christmas

Julie London did not have a very big voice. She said she had “only a thimbleful of a voice, and I have to use it close to the microphone. But it is a kind of over-smoked voice, and it automatically sounds intimate.” She manages to sound both sexy and classy.

My December has been rather warm, because I’m temporarily in California. Usually, my Christmas is damp and chilly (rather than snowy), but this year it is sunny and warm. In two songs, Julie London sings about a warm Christmas, but it’s not because of the sun.

“I’ve Got My Love To Keep Me Warm” – written by Irving Berlin in the 1937 film On the Avenue.

And “Warm December”

“I’d Like You For Christmas” was written by Julie London’s husband, Bobby Troup, who acted with Julie London in the TV series Emergency!

Relating to John Milton

I’ve been reading about John Milton, author of Paradise Lost. One random fact I learned in a biography about him – The Life of John Milton: A Critical Biography by Barbara K. Lewalski – is that the phrase “Hobson’s Choice” derived from Thomas Hobson, who owned a livery stable and rented horse and carriages to the students at Cambridge (presumably including John Milton). He reportedly would force the students to rent whatever horse and carriage was closest to the door, thus the saying “Hobson’s choice,” which essentially means “no choice.” I mention it because I had never heard the phrase before and caused the title of David Lean’s film Hobson’s Choice to make much more sense. I had previously and rather ignorantly assumed it meant that he really had a choice to make.

But the one Christmas work I have consistently been listening to is Ralph Vaughan William’s “Hodie,” which is a cantata with music set to texts from the Bible and various English poems from authors like George Herbert, Thomas Hardy, and John Milton. The most moving song is “It Was the Winter Wild,” which is adapted from John Milton’s poem “On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity.” Listen how, at the end, the music hushes after the soprano sings about how “Birds of Calm” brood over the music so that it forgets “to rave.”

It was the Winter wilde,
While the Heav'n-born-childe,
All meanly wrapt in the rude manger lies;
Nature in aw to him
Had doff't her gawdy trim,
With her great Master so to sympathize:
And waving wide her mirtle wand,
She strikes a universall Peace through Sea and Land.

No War, or Battails sound
Was heard the World around:
The idle spear and shield were high up hung; 
The hooked Chariot stood
Unstain'd with hostile blood,
The Trumpet spake not to the armed throng,
And Kings sate still with awfull eye,
As if they surely knew their sovran Lord was by. 

But peacefull was the night
Wherin the Prince of light
His raign of peace upon the earth began:
The Windes, with wonder whist,
Smoothly the waters kist, [ 65 ]
Whispering new joyes to the milde Ocean,
Who now hath quite forgot to rave,
While Birds of Calm sit brooding on the charmed wave.

A New Christmas Movie

I have yet to see a single holiday film this December, but thanks to Ruth at Silver Screenings, I have a new Christmas film to watch tonight that I have never seen, or even heard of before. It is called The Holly and the Ivy, starring Ralph Richardson, Celia Johnson and Margaret Leighton. It looks to be delightful. For more information and a link to the film, please check out her post, here.

Have a Merry Christmas! I’ll be back before New Year with a look at the past year and some thoughts about the coming new year.

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Posted by on December 23, 2017 in Books, Movies, Music

 

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A Return to Earth and Johnny Hartman

After having dropped off the face of the blogging earth, so to speak, I am feeling rather giddy to have returned. I’ve missed writing and reading about movies and books and hope everyone is doing well and having a lovely fall. It’s been a beautiful autumn where I live. How about your autumn?

I’ve actually stacked up a lot of different things I would like to write about: Japanese cinema, Jo Stafford, a new book about jazz and pop singers that is dangerously addictive to read, a few movie reviews of film noirs, some observations about American hard-boiled writing. But perhaps the best place to begin is with Johnny Hartman.

Johnny Hartman never achieved the success he deserved during his own lifetime and even now is not as well known as he should be. He has a meltingly lovely voice. When the word mellifluous was created, surely that person had Johnny Hartman in mind.

He was primarily a singer of ballads, which was part of his difficulty, because he was singing ballads at a time when rock and roll had stormed in. Perhaps if he had been singing a decade earlier, he would have been better known.

He inadvertently became known as a jazz singer when he collaborated with John Coltrane on their brilliant album John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman, though he was also a pop singer. Will Friedwald, in the dangerously addictive book I mentioned called A Biographical Guide to the Great Jazz and Pop Singers, wrote that “The basic sound of a Johnny Hartman performance touches on all three sources: jazz, adult pop, and cabaret.”

He was also, according to Friedwald (and it’s difficult to argue), “one of the greatest of all interpreters of love songs.”

It wasn’t just a question of a deep, sensual voice, which he surely had: it was his romantic attitude. ‘There was a sentimentality to him,’ his longtime accompanist Tony Monte put it. ‘He was in love with the idea of being in love, and he [continually] expressed that idea. He would sing about it, and he would speak about in his patter. He would look out wistfully in the audience and say he was going to dedicate the rest of the show to the beautiful women out there and to the men who brought them, and who were paying such great attention to them. And it wasn’t just a little piece of theater, he meant what he was saying.’

In honor of Autumn, which is coming to a close, here is Johnny Hartman and John Coltrane’s rendition of “Autumn Serenade.”

And “The Nearness of You,” written by Hoagy Carmichael and Ned Washington. This song can just about melt a person.

 
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Posted by on November 20, 2017 in Music

 

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Doris Day – Singer

Yesterday was Doris Day’s birthday – were she just discovered she is truly 95 and not 93 as she had thought – and in honor of her birthday, Love Letters to Old Hollywood has hosted “The Doris Day Blogathon,” which I am delighted to participate in with this tribute to Doris Day as singer.

I’ve always loved Doris Day as an actress, but one of the remarkable things about her is that even if she had never been an actress, she would have deserved to be remembered as a great singer, one of the most popular of her era. She was singing number one hits on the chart before she had even become an actress (click here for a look at her chart hits and discography).

Doris Day originally intended to be a dancer, but when an accident left her temporarily disabled, she turned to singing. She would listen to Ella Fitzgerald and try, as she said, “to catch the subtle ways she shaded her voice, the casual yet clean way she sang the words.” Her teacher taught her to sing as if she were singing into the ear of one person. The result is that she developed one of the most intimate styles of singing that I have ever heard.

She envelopes you in her warm vibrato. She had perfect diction, a beautifully fresh tone, that could also be suggestive, and spellbinding phrasing. But she’s an understated performer, which I believe has led to her being underappreciated. It sounds easy. Her singing has even been called easy listening, but there is nothing easy about it.

Check out her phrasing in “My One and Only Love.” Listen to the way she sings the first line “The very thought of you/makes my heart sing.” She sings it as one phrase, pausing after “you,” but not breathing, only to swoop up vocally on “makes my heart sing.” Such phrasing is only possible with perfect breath control and technique. I tried imitating her, which only increased my appreciation of her.

She was also a mesmerizing performer and no one could put across a song quite like her. When showing the movie Love Me or Leave Me to my cousin, she remarked on how the camera rarely moved while Doris Day was singing. As she said, it didn’t have to. Doris Day draws you in, just sitting there singing, and anything else would be a distraction (listen to “It All Depends on You for an example”). She demonstrates the exact same thing in her version of “The Way We Were.” Her ability, without histrionics, without much movement, to tell a story and convey feeling is marvelous. But this subtly has also, I think, contributed to her sometimes being underappreciated as a singer (as well as the way people association her with more upbeat song).

Although primarily known for singing popular music, Doris Day was also a fine jazz singer and it has been remarked be a number of people that she could have been one of the greatest female jazz singers if she had pursued that path. Here is a jazzier song from her discography, called “You’re Just Too Marvelous,” which she sang in the film Young Man With a Horn. The trumpet player is Harry James.

Of course, in a pinch she could also belt out a song Broadway style, as she proved in Pajama Game.

Absolutely stunning singer! I never get tired of listening to her.

Thanks so much to Love Letters to Old Hollywood for hosting! And Be sure to check out all the other posts about her life and career and films.

 
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Posted by on April 4, 2017 in Music

 

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