Saturday, June 30, 2018

Woody Guthrie’s American Song to be staged at Palm Beach Dramaworks

Poster art by Caroline Von Feilitzsch

The ensemble musical revue opens on Friday, July 13 for a three week run.  American Song is a celebration of the life, writings, and music of Woody Guthrie, as well as the vibrant American spirit.

The musical, which was conceived by Peter Glazer, features more than two dozen of the legendary balladeer’s songs, including his best known piece,  “This Land is Your Land,” as well as many other favorites such as “Do Re Mi,” “Bound for Glory,” “Hard Travelin’” and "Union Maid.”  In addition, all the dialogue was compiled by Glazer from Guthrie’s writings.  He was a folksong poet, with an uncanny ability to capture the vernacular and the travails of the common man. 

He describes his symbiotic relationship with “his” people in a 1946 poetic ode called “The People I Owe,” which is excerpted in the opening speeches of the show:

. . . I have heard a storm of words in me, enough to write several hundred songs and that many books. I know that these words I hear are not my own private property….I borrowed them from you, the same as I walked through the high winds and borrowed enough air to keep me moving. I borrowed enough to eat and drink to keep me alive. I borrowed the shirt you made, the coat you spun, the underwear you fixed, and those socks you wove. I went on and walked down my road, you went on and walked your path. And the weather's winds, snows, sleets, ices, and hailstones cut down the oat straw, beat through the car top, knocked holes in shingles and went through awnings broke window lights, but never separated our works. Your works and my works held hands and our memories never did separate. I borrowed my life from the works of your life. I have felt your energy in me and seen mine move in you.

There are obvious comparisons of Guthrie’s experience to the contemporary world’s divisiveness, income inequality, and immigration woes.  But this musical revue is apolitical and instead is a celebration of what brings us together as a nation, of what it means to be human.

Bruce Linser is the show’s Director.  Linser is the manager of Dramaworks’ The Dramaworkshop and just came from  a very successful production of Avenue Q which he directed for the MNM Theatre Company.  When asked about the upcoming show, Linser said “this is an experience to bring people together.  I hope audiences will be surprised by the sheer joy and relevancy.  Guthrie was incredibly passionate about storytelling.  And what he was saying he was also singing, making this ensemble theatrical experience moving.  Even though an ensemble, I approach it as he would any musical: it must tell a compelling story.  Ironically, Guthrie’s tragic flaw, his restlessness, might have deprived him of even more fame when he lived.  But that was his strength, telling the tales of people who were marginalized from all over the nation, from the migrant workers to those toiling in factories organizing unions.”

Four families, three of them related with fifteen children, from the Dust Bowl
in Texas in an overnight roadside camp near Calipatria, California
  Dorothea Lange, Photographer, March 1937

The cast of five actor/musicians features Cat Greenfield, Don Noble, Sean Powell (who is also the musical director), and Jeff Raab, all making their PBD debuts, and PBD veteran Julie Rowe.  They will be joined onstage by musicians Joshua Lubben, Michael Lubben, and Tom Lubben, West Palm Beach-based triplets who are familiar to many South Floridians as The Lubben Brothers.
Woody Guthrie

The actors supply the drama and the poetry while the energy of Guthrie’s songs is amplified by the Lubben Brothers, all classically trained musicians, but drawn to the American Folk Tradition.  It is their own mission statement: “Music brings community.  As a family that plays music together, we desire to bring others into the same unity we have come to love.”  Talk about type casting!

When asked about their feelings about Guthrie and this show in particular they said (singularly of course, but one might begin a thought while another completes it): “This is the first time we’ve gone so deeply into Guthrie’s’ music.  We’re familiar of course with his big name standards, “This Land Is Your Land,” “So Long It’s Been Good to Know Yah” and see him in the great American tradition of folk storytellers.  He tells the story of a part of America that has been forgotten.  The images in the show are very powerful and organic, demonstrating a disenfranchised people’s faith and hard work, trying to build their lives and make a better one for their children.  Guthrie eloquently expresses the essence of the American Dream in his folksongs.”

“Although at times we find ourselves going back to our classical roots, performing classical concerts as well, we always get together at least once a week to sing folksongs, from Afro American spirituals to folk songs of today.  We simply love to discover ones from America’s past and to sing them.”

“We think this experience is going to be very different than the usual concert performance.  The latter must just sound good, one off, but playing each day in a structured show allows development and of course, as you are playing before a different audience each day, those performances can be slightly different, responding to the audience.  We love the way the actors in the play depict three different periods in Guthrie’s life, a moving way of showing a multifaceted human being.”

The joy and the energy of the Lubben Brothers can be seen in their rehearsal of Guthrie’s “Do Re Mi” about how dust bowl migrant workers were turned away or poorly treated at the California border.  Sound familiar? So before Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen, there was Woody Guthrie.  He gave rise to so many great singers who were champions of the common man.  It is indeed a time to celebrate and come together at PBD Don & Ann Brown Theatre in West Palm Beach, July 13 – August 5.  For ticket information contact the box office at (561) 514-4042 or visit

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

A Gathering Storm

We seem to be watching the slow motion creation of a dystopian plutocracy. Obfuscated by the administration’s contrived crisis of dealing with undocumented immigrants and horrific scenes of families being separated, is an alt-right agenda of dismantling the so called social net.  Stories such as a recent one in the New York Times are hidden by other events of Trump’s creation. 

Highlighted here are some salient points from the New York Times article of a few days ago, “Behind Trump’s Plan to Overhaul the Government: Scaling Back the Safety Net”.

I have depended on the Times for the Truth all my life and I see no reason to disbelieve any of this about “a small army of conservatives [who] have produced dozens of initiatives like the cabinet reshuffle proposal, with the goal of dismantling the social welfare system.”

·       *Among the most consequential ideas is a proposal to shift the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, a subsistence benefit that provides aid to 42 million poor and working Americans, from the Agriculture Department to a new mega-agency that would have “welfare” in its title — a term Mr. Trump uses as a pejorative catchall for most government benefit programs
          *Mr. Trump, for his part, joked on Thursday that the plan was “extraordinarily boring” before TV cameras in the Cabinet Room.  But being boring in an all-too-exciting White House has provided cover for a small army of conservatives and think tank veterans who have been quietly churning out dozens of initiatives like the proposal to reshuffle the cabinet, with the ultimate goal of dismantling the American social welfare system from the inside out.
          *Stephen K. Bannon, the president’s former adviser,…believes the attack on social programs will be one of Mr. Trump’s most enduring policy achievements.
          *Philip G. Alston, a New York University professor and the United Nations special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, agreed with Mr. Bannon’s assessment. “My sense is they are making very considerable progress, even though no one is paying much attention,” he said.
      *As president, Mr. Trump would become so bored with the details of domestic policy that aides long ago stopped sharing all but the most top-line specifics of their plans — including the reorganization, according to several people who have worked closely with Mr. Trump.  If Mr. Trump is fuzzy on policy, he is acutely attuned to the perils of offending his base, especially older voters.
      *The core of Mr. Trump’s safety net policy is an expansion of work requirements to foster self-sufficiency among recipients of food assistance, Medicaid and housing subsidies to reduce dependence on the government. “Our goal is to get people on the path to self-sufficiency,” Mr. Bremberg said. Its real purpose, advocates for poor people claim, is to kick hundreds of thousands of the needy off the federal rolls, to cut taxes for the rich
      *By early 2017, Heritage produced a government reorganization plan that served as the initial template for Thursday’s announcement. They also drafted a list of 334 policy recommendations, about half of them aimed at domestic programs for poor people or Obama-era regulations protecting low-income consumers.

The first part of the plan, cutting taxes for the upper 1%, has already been implemented.  What remains to be seen is the long term impact of those cuts on the deficit; most economists agree that GPD growth will not offset those cuts. This leaves an ever growing national debt, something the Republicans staunchly opposed before and now seem to be content with.  When cries of deficit spending reach a crescendo in the future, their “Trump card” may be to throw the neediest 42 million Americans under the bus in the name of fiscal responsibility. 

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Musical Notations

My former self speaks to me…….

It sometimes laments not committing more effort into improving my piano skills over the years.  Not that I am gifted, but I am teachable.  Not that I even had the time to pursue more intense lessons being involved my entire adult life in a publishing career that was all consuming.  But I still have regrets about not developing what talent I do have into a higher degree of proficiency at the piano.

I am most envious of those gifted musicians, who can hear a song and then play it, improvise it, embellish it, all without reading a musical score.  It is an extraordinary gift and most of the prominent musicians have that ability. 

Irving Berlin’s story is intriguing.  He couldn’t write or read music.  He never had a lesson although Victor Herbert briefly instructed Berlin, who was already established as a major composer of popular songs.  In fact, he abandoned the effort knowing he didn’t really need those lessons to further his career.

As a youngster Berlin taught himself to play the tunes he heard in his head using the F# scale, thus playing mostly on the black keys.  He found it simpler to just learn them to express his musical ideas (why bother with the white keys : - ).  Remarkable.  As any musician will tell you, it’s a heck of lot easier to compose and play in C Major. 

As he never studied music, and wasn’t a great pianist, he couldn’t transpose.  Most gifted musicians can transpose to another key “on the fly.”  I can’t.  I have to work it out.  Berlin couldn’t so when he wanted to change keys in a song he relied on a mechanical instrument that changed keys for him.  He would write that section of the song in F# and the mechanical transposer changed it to whatever key he wanted.  He also asked musicians to transcribe his music.

Even professional musicians are confounded by Berlin’s abilities and lack of ability.  But the point is he could play without music, music he couldn’t read.  In that regard, he played strictly by ear.

Classical performance completely relies on the ability to read musical notation.  Of course there is still room for a performer’s interpretation of the composer’s score.  Many concert performances by pianists, with or without the orchestra will be performed without the pianist consulting the musical notation, or just having it there for a passing glance to be in synch with the orchestra.  These are remarkable pianists being able to internally assimilate large and complicated works.  It’s really the ability to “see” the score or to sight-read “silently.”  They simply hear it in their heads.

There are also jazz pianists who can not only play by ear, but have been trained classically, and can thus sight read such as Bill Evans and Oscar Peterson.  They were double threats at the keyboard, using their incredible knowledge of musical theory, voicing, and virtuoso technical training to interpret a song.  Both Evans and Peterson were comfortable playing solo or with a jazz group, without having to read music for any performance.  To them, playing was like speaking a language they were born with and then studied to know the entire vocabulary and usage.  A gift few have.

Hearing it in one’s head is the most salient characteristic of a jazz performer, particularly one performing in a “jazz jam” with other jazz performers without any rehearsal, maybe never having played with the other.  Jazz performers who are playing a piece they are not familiar with use a lead sheet and/or a chord chart.  Lead sheets consist of the melody line in the treble clef and the accompanying chord for the bass and for “filling in.”  I can read a lead sheet or “fake book” music, they’re usually synonymous. 

I have “fake books” for most of the Great American Songbook, a favorite repository from which jazz artists take their pieces.  But just having the melody line and the chords does not make one “jazz jam worthy.”  Jazz artists can take a chord chart which corresponds to the lead sheet and improvise using the song structure, usually returning to the melody itself at the end of the jam. 

In order to do so, the jazz artist must be able to follow the melody in his or her head, as well as follow the rhythm.  Jazz jam artists “hand off” solos to one another.  The music can become very abstract, but all participants in a jam are speaking the same language.

I have put to rest the fantasy of jamming, although I could do some.  It would just be too anxiety producing for me.  I now accept the fact that I’m an inveterate soloist; just enjoy playing as I do, not at a professional level, but simply for the joy of revisiting the classics of the Great American songbook and play them for myself or for others as part of a structured program.  My playing adheres mostly to the melody, improvising mostly for the bass based on the chords. 

I started this entry about my distant self talking to me in the present.  Rick Moore, the very gifted jazz keyboardist who is the founder of the Jupiter Jazz Society (an “organization committed to presenting ’live’ improvised music and promoting Jazz education throughout the Palm Beaches”), wrote a piece he calls “Song for Cherie,”  a song for his wife.  She is really the organizer of the Jupiter Jazz Society.  I was struck by the piece as it reminded me in some ways of Bill Evans’ original work, my favorite jazz artist.  Rick’s work has clockwork simplicity to it, and although a waltz (Evans wrote many), a beautiful jazz feel to it, particularly the B section.

I asked him whether he would share the lead sheet with me which he was kind enough to do, so I could have the enjoyment of playing it.  You can hear the composer himself play the piece at this link. 

He’s composed many pieces over the years and will be issuing a CD of them in the future.  It is something to look forward to.

It made me think of my nascent songwriting efforts from decades before.  They are mostly uncompleted pieces, simply because I’ve never had any training either in theory or in composition.  Also, there was the time factor.

One of my finished pieces was called Annie’s Waltz.  Ironically, both Rick and I wrote songs to the women in our lives in 3 / 4 time.  I wrote a brief blog entry about my piece ten years ago but Google Pages pulled the link to my recorded version.  That entry makes reference to it being written the year we were married, 1970.  But I’ve found the original and it was written in Jan. 1969, just about the time we started dating seriously.  In a few months, that piece will be 50 years old.  50 years!!!  Here is a photo of what I wrote, warts and all given the passage of time and the worn edges of the music.  It’s a simple piece, but heartfelt for this mere amateur.

As I’ve had difficulty posting what I recorded, I have simply posted a You Tube version.  I’ve learned to accept less than perfection with my little digital camera and even reluctantly and nostalgically to accept the fact that I’m a soloist, not destined to be a jazz performer and I’m ok with that.  I just enjoy playing.  All the videos I’ve posted can be found here.