My Old Kentucky Homesite

Archive for the ‘Music’ Category

Sing Along with Auntie Diluvian

Posted by Larry Wallberg on 08/15/2010

This isn’t intended to be an earworm post. But if you do happen to find yourself humming the tune involuntarily, just be thankful it’s not “Kumbaya.”

Posted in Freedom from Faith, Music | 11 Comments »

Earworm Saturday #7

Posted by Larry Wallberg on 08/07/2010

When my friend visited me from New York, one of the things she really wanted to do was to go to Shaker Village. Having been there once, I had no desire to hear the history of the silly religious sect again. The only thing I remember about them is that they were hot for celibacy, so they didn’t tend to breed much. Soon — big surprise! — they went extinct. Who says Darwin is inapplicable to Christianity?

In any case, on the morning of the day my we’d planned to head to Pleasant Hill (how pleasant could it be without sex?), we heard that the temperature was going to be 91 degrees. Even my friend had no interest in braving the sweltering heat just to watch people make chairs.

So we stayed home, and, to mollify her, I found a decent rendition of that ubiquitous Shaker tune. (Note: The tune is ubiquitous; the Shakers, as previously noted, not so much.) By the way, if you’re wondering what to get me for my next birthday, the jewel in the video is a simple gift I’d enjoy.

If you know me, you can probably guess the rest. I wound up with an earworm. And so did my friend. We spent a lot of the rest of the day asking one another to stop whistling.

The weirdest thing about “Simple Gifts,” however, is that it’s hardly ever performed simply. This sweet potato is trying to make her interpretation look easy, but she’s not fooling anyone, is she?

Here are a couple of Presbyterians, clearly working hard. Once or twice they get so close to one another that it’s a good question whether they’ll be able to remain celibate for long.

But nobody makes the song seem more difficult than this guy. How does he do that? [Note: Here’s an Addendum for the Curious.]

Some music directors are entirely wrong-headed. Is there anything simple about this version?

Occasionally, even a rendition that has aural simplicity still manages to look impossible. How did these siblings get their pianos on the sand?

A new set of lyrics was written in 1963 by Sydney Carter, who managed to combine Christ and dancing. Screw all those fundies who think that doing the jig is a sin. (In case you’re in too much of a religious rapture to notice, I should warn you that the input file has no video stream.)

Given Carter’s lyrics, you should have guessed that I’d include this unsimple performance, with its many encores. What says “simple” more than a fireworks display? In fact, the only thing remotely simple about this video, is the fact that the guy forgot to put on his shirt.

Are you bored of the dance yet?

If there is an afterlife, the ghosts of 19th-century Shakers are definitely shaking at their no longer recognizable song.

The moral of this post is: Keep it simple, stupid!


Posted in Earworms | 22 Comments »

Who Wants to Join Me in a Sing-Along?

Posted by Larry Wallberg on 07/22/2010

I’ve always hated the summer. It’s too goddamned hot, f’cryinoutloud. So I get particularly cranky about bullshit when July and August roll around.

I  get so tired of hearing the same stupid arguments over and over again from theists. Their proofs of the existence of a god are beneath contempt, and don’t even deserve a reply.

I also get tired of reading philosophical claptrap written ad nauseam by some atheist bloggers.

A_Blogger: I’m addressing this to the Christians who read my blog.
Me: Nice one! You’re about to make some devastating argument against religion that absolutely no one has thought of yet, right?
A_Blogger: Well, maybe somebody has thought of it. But my Christian readers may not have seen it before.
Me: And the millions of religonists who read your blog regularly will suddenly have their eyes opened here by your brilliant insights on
A_Blogger: Not millions. But a few lurkers, maybe.
Me: What, like a thousand? A hundred? Ten?
A_Blogger: Every person counts.
Me: Toward what? Are you an evangelical?

A_Blogger: We atheists have to show that you can be good without any gods.
Me: Just like theists show that their god makes them good?
A_Blogger: Well, one of religion’s biggest arguments is that morality comes from their god.
Me: Then ask them to prove it. And have them give examples from history. And don’t let them get away with defining morality to include their silly precepts against dancing or drinking or gambling or any other biblically disapproved activities. Make them tell you what actions are and aren’t moral, and how they know which is which.
A_Blogger: Still, we ought …
Me: And who’s this “we” you keep talking about?

A_Blogger: Atheists in America have to organize.
Me: I agree. We shouldn’t vote for anyone who doesn’t believe 100% in separation of church and state.
A_Blogger: Yes!
Me: So we shouldn’t support any candidate or elected official who refers to “God” or who panders to the religious zealots in the country, as Obama did when he expanded the Office of Faith-Based and “Neighborhood” — ha!— Partnerships?
A_Blogger: Well, sometimes we have to take the lesser of two evils.
Me: I thought you said we have to organize.
A_Blogger: Yeah, we do. But we can’t accomplish all our goals at once.
Me: What goals do we have besides promoting separation of church and state?
A_Blogger: We need to advocate for reason.
Me: So we shouldn’t ally ourselves with any public figure who perpetuates unreason? Like, say, telling the public how good prayer is, as Obama did in his speech about the oil crisis?
A_Blogger: Obama doesn’t really believe that stuff. He only says it to …
Me: … to pander to the religious zealots in the country? And to perpetuate unreason?

A_Blogger: The world would be a better place if religion were to disappear.
Me: So people would miraculously change from being the assholes that they are if they had no gods to pray to?
A_Blogger: Well, at least they wouldn’t have any nonsense to believe in.
Me: So you’re saying that there’s no nonsense aside from religion?
A_Blogger: No, I’m not saying that. Don’t put words in my mouth. But religion is a worse kind of nonsense than …
Me: Than political nonsense? Than legal nonsense? Than economic nonsense? Than literary nonsense? Than artistic …
A_Blogger: Look, if religion were gone, that would be just one less kind of nonsense for us to have to deal with.
Me: Who’s “us”?

You can come up with variations of those conversations, but they always boil down to the same ol’ thing.

By the way, I’m also bored with Republicans and Democrats, all media commentators, and basically anyone who tries to sell me on his or her opinion about anything. I’m enervated daily by fans of the U.K. Wildcats, Lexington “boosters,” and genteel Southerners. I’m sick of folks who buy lite beer. And I’ve had it up to here with people who tweet (except birders trying to attract rare species).

So I’ve adopted, as a personal anthem, this little ditty by one of my favorite singers.

By the way: I may feel slightly less curmudgeonly when mid-September finally arrives.

Posted in Freedom from Faith, Music, Random Rants | 26 Comments »

Earworm Saturday #6

Posted by Larry Wallberg on 07/10/2010

The other day, a friend asked me if I remembered what my first earworm was. I sure do. It was Mrs. Bronstein playing “The Spinning Song” on her piano.

When I was growing up, my Saturday mornings always began with the sounds of that poor woman of indeterminate middle age — I referred to her as “old” back then (fuck me) — practicing her music. The headboard of my bed was separated from the sounding board of her upright piano by a thin wall of plaster between our apartments. Throughout my entire childhood, she never expanded her repertoire beyond the same two pieces, but she played them both with such gusto each week that I sometimes worried about her piano crashing through the wall and landing on my head. The one she always started with was a musette by J.S. Bach. Usually, she tried it once or twice, maybe three times at most, and that was that. I liked the way the tune played with rhythm (I didn’t learn the word “syncopation” until later), and even though Mrs. Bronstein almost always screwed up the middle section, she’d end with a flourish.

The other number was “The Spinning Song,” my ear-monster. I’ve subsequently found out that it was written by a 19th-century German actor named Albert Ellmenreich, but when I was a kid, I thought it might have been composed by Mr. Bronstein to drive his wife crazy. He was definitely that kind of guy. He wore a beret, f’Chrissake, and my father told me that he was a … shhhhh … socialist. My other theory was that some Jewish mother, maybe even mine, had commissioned the piece with the specific purpose of awakening her slugabed child in the Bronx.

In any case, Mrs. Bronstein never did get through “The Spinning Song,” even though she practiced it from the time I was about five until I was nearly eleven. Six years, and she never finished that goddamned thing. Because whenever she would hit a wrong note, she would start all over again from the beginning.

Boop-bah Boop-bah Boop-bah Boop-bah
Deedle-eedle ump-dum dih-TAHH.
Deedle-eedle ump-dum dit-DUMM.
Deedle-eedle ump-dum dih-TAHH.
Deedle-eedle ump-dum dit-DUMM.
OOM-puh OOM-puh OOM-puh OOM-puh …
… Oh, no!

To this day, I can hum, whistle, or scat-sing the first twelve bars of that tune perfectly. But at precisely the same point in the thirteenth measure, every single time, Mrs. Bronstein’s fingers got hopelessly muddled. She’d approach that spot in the melody and I’d lie absolutely still, holding my breath, united with my neighbor in some kind of mystical mind-meld of uncertainty.

She never did manage to spit those notes out perfectly. After a few seconds of silence, during which time I always imagined her heaving a sigh from the innermost recesses of her tormented being, she would go back to the beginning and doggedly commence deedling once more. Fifteen, twenty times, occasionally thirty, until she gave up, but only for that session. The next Saturday morning, she’d be back at it again, tenaciously determined, the paradigm of optimistic persistence.

For the rest of the weekend, I’d find myself singing the nonsense syllables printed above, which I’ve always imagined to be the song’s lyrics. Once I was deedling to myself while bringing a bag of garbage to the incinerator, and Mrs. Bronstein happened to open her door.

“Oh,” she said, “I see you like good music.”

I never knew until today, when I listened to it on YouTube, how the rest of that damned thing went.  Here it is. So stick your computer behind your headboard and listen to just the beginning about fifteen or twenty times. Guess what: you’ll have grown yourself an earworm. Meet me at the incinerator, and we can hum a duet.

Posted in Earworms, Memoirs | 13 Comments »

If I Only Had a God

Posted by Larry Wallberg on 07/06/2010

Some of my readers – all right, just Chappy – have been urging me to record my as yet unwritten version of “Onward, Godless Soldiers.” But I couldn’t get any further than the first verse:

Onward, Godless Soldiers, lurching as to war.
Those Jehovah’s Witless knock upon the door.
“Christ, it’s Sunday morning! We were still in bed!
Do we give a shit what happens when we’re dead?”

Onward, Godless Soldiers, marching back to snooze.
Screw their cross of Jesus and their damned good news.

Still, maybe I owe you guys something singable. So I’m reviving a set of lyrics I wrote a few years ago, and reposting them here. In case you’d like to sing along, you can click this link for the accompaniment.

If I Only Had a God

I could while away the day in
A fit of fancy prayin’,
And never think it’s odd.
I’d condemn Richard Dawkins
And his atheistic squawkin’s
If I only had a god.

I would be like all the fundies,
My head inside my undies:
My brain, a giant wad!
Though my thoughts no cigar win,
Still, I’d have no need for Darwin
If I only had a god.

J.C., be good to me,
And clean out from my head
All the science and the history I’ve read.
Then make your face appear on bread.

In a public school position,
I’d foster superstition,
Ignoring what is mod,
Teach the Bible as true, no
Problem with Amendment Uno
If I only had a god.

[Update: 07/08/10 at 3:20 a.m.: Roz asked me to supply her with some more verses, and I was happy to oblige. Little did she know what a sour mood I’m in, so this second go-round is a bit darker than the first. Although, I suppose it’s the natural extension of the song’s logic.]

I’d teach Africans and Asians,
The needy of all nasions,
The hungry and unshod.
Even though I’d despise ‘em,
I would go evangelize ‘em
If I only had a god.

I would smite the heathen cynics,
And bomb abortion clinics,
As Cath-o-lics hurrahed.
It would pay me no penny,
But I’m sure I’d please Pope Benny
If I only had a god.

Oh why, should I be shy
‘Bout doin’ my lord’s work?
Each atrocity will earn another perk,
Because my god’s a vicious jerk.

I could make the sinners cower,
And fly into a tower,
Pursuin’ my jihad.
I’d obey heaven’s urgin’s
Just to earn myself some virgins
If I only had a god.

Posted in Freedom from Faith, Music | 22 Comments »

Was Michelangelo a Joking Atheist?

Posted by Larry Wallberg on 06/22/2010

My friend Srsny called me up yesterday all excited by a story about Michelangelo that she’d just heard on NPR. It seems that one of his depictions of Yahweh in the Sistine Chapel contains an anatomically correct brainstem in the Big Guy’s neck.

According to the two Johns Hopkins neurosurgery researchers who studied the painting, Michelangelo likely included the brainstem as (a) a kind of signature, (b) a joke, and/or (c) a nose-thumbing “fuck you” to the Vatican.

Apparently, it’s fairly well known that Renaissance artists, interested in learning human anatomy, obtained cadavers for dissection. The Church frowned on this practice at the same time that it paid for, and encouraged, realism in the painting of biblical subjects. So the authors hypothesize that Michelangelo included the brain in his painting essentially to twit the religious authorities with a subtle “Guess what I did!”

My take, as an atheist, is a different one. Perhaps Michelangelo was pointing out that his god’s brain was exactly the same as an ordinary human’s. Surely, the great painter had dissected the bodies of other creatures besides those of our species, and he would have known that animals’ organs, including their brains, are not the same as ours. So, if the heavenly creator were indeed more “superior” to Man than Man is to the beasts, his godly brain should have been of a different size and proportion altogether. For his brain to be so much like ours, he must have been a construct of mere mortals, rather than a supreme being to take seriously.

But that got me thinking about how amazing our brain really is. One of the things most interesting to me about the story was the great joke by the editors — the closing play-out music. This kind of joke is broadcast all the time on NPR’s various programs, but today was the first time I ever thought about the mechanics of such a gag.

First, the listeners have to recognize a collection of noises as music rather than just a group of odd sounds. Second, the audience has to “translate” what they’re hearing into a tune they know, even though the melody is played in a version that’s most likely a variant of the one they’re familiar with; perhaps it’s orchestrated differently, or performed at a different tempo, or slightly varied in its rhythms. Third, when the tune is recognized, its music has to be so indelibly tied to its title and/or lyrics as to make a certain phrase spring to mind immediately upon identification of the melody. Fourth, the listeners have to understand that the associated phrase is not just a random string of words, but one that communicates a definite message from the programming staff. Fifth, the message has to be processed by filtering the phrase through the context of the preceding story. Sixth, the juxtaposition of story and phrase has to be enough of a surprise to engender an involuntary laugh reflex; the more inappropriate the original context of the song to the broadcast context, the bigger the laugh is likely to be. That’s a pretty astounding series of “calculations” for an organ, mortal or not, to perform.

Oddly enough, I can’t think of a single instance in the bible of people using their god-like brains to laugh at a pure, clever joke like the musical one that followed NPR’s story, or the one that Michelangelo painted. Can you?

Posted in Freedom from Faith, Music | 28 Comments »

Happy Boopday (Or Maybe Not)

Posted by Larry Wallberg on 06/19/2010

There will be no earworms here at the Homesite this Saturday, because today is the anniversary of Max Fleischer’s birth.
[Update 4:50 a.m.: Actually, that’s a lie. I misread my source. His birthday was July 19, not June. But, hey, it was late when I wrote this, and what are a couple of letters between friends? Anyway, I like to get my cards out early to be sure they’ll arrive in time. So, sue me. But enjoy this tribute first; don’t let all my Googling go to waste. FYI: The information in the rest of the post, to the best of my knowledge, is correct.]

Max was a genius at animation. He and his brother Dave started the Fleischer Studios in 1921. Among their successes were the “Out of the Inkwell” series and the “Song Car-Tunes,” which invited audiences to “follow the bouncing ball” as they sang along. The Fleischers also created the Popeye series and made adventure cartoons starring Superman.

But the Fleischer shorts that I love best are the ones that scared me shitless when I was a very little boy, and left me fascinated, both visually and auditorily, when I was a little older. They were wildly surrealistic, really wacko. Some of them featured popular jazz artists of the 1930s, both in live action and as “voice-overs.” These psycho-sexual extravaganzas appealed to me on a level I didn’t even recognize. Their “star” was Betty Boop.

In honor of Fleischer’s birthday [next month!], I present you with some of his eeriest, most wonderful work.

First, three cartoons that helped launch Cab Calloway’s career. He not only sings and conducts his band, but — because Max had invented the rotoscope, which recorded live action for animators to trace over —he dances, too.

Minnie the Moocher

Snow White (including “St. James Infirmary”)

The Old Man of the Mountain

The Fleischers also got a great performance out of Louis Armstrong.

I’ll Be Glad When You’re Dead You Rascal You

In this last cartoon, Don Redman sings and conducts two numbers, “How’m I Doin’?” and the title song.

I Heard

Even given the flawed YouTube incarnations, I still find those cartoons pleasurably creepy.

Posted in Music, Old Movies, Pop Culture | 23 Comments »

Earworm Saturday #5

Posted by Larry Wallberg on 05/22/2010

The other day, I was humming along to an old jazz album that I love, a compilation of “greatest hits” by the Dave Brubeck Quartet. Many of the cuts are among my all-time favorite recordings. But much to my dismay, I was also greeted by the sound of some music I’ve hated ever since I first heard it on the Broadway stage back before Noah first heard raindrops.

Don’t get me wrong: the instrumental Brubeck version is cool. However, when the ditty became an earworm shortly after I’d listened to it, I was appalled to discover that the original — complete with some of the most corny, insincere words ever written — was what I had rattling around my head. Augggh! I’m sure you’ll agree that it’s the world’s most treacly anthem to ersatz cheeriness. Thank you, Oscar Hammerstein, you sap!

Obviously, you’re dying to know what dumb piece of doggerel I’m referring to. But I can’t present it in its raw state, because some of you readers may be diabetics. Perhaps the most familiar version of the song won’t be quite so sickeningly sweet if you’re reaquainted with it during a drive-time sing-along.

In case you’re wondering, here’s how that tune was interpreted by Brubeck and company. Just sit back and try not to think of whiskers and sleighbells and schnitzel.

See what I mean? But actually, without the stupid snowflakes and strudels and brown paper packages, the melody is quite charming. Even a sourpuss like me could find little to apologize about in this highly entertaining, mostly wordless version.

But the question is: can you hear that tune without immediately thinking of cream-colored ponies and warm woolen mittens? And doorbells. What kind of mentally challenged person came up with that one? “Oh, yes, my favorite thing is a doorbell. My second favorite thing is a door knocker. I’m also fond of buzzers and chimes.” Anyway, maybe a Japanese Flamenco Duo might help you ignore any unwanted visitors (at your door, or in your ears).

Sorry If you’re now haunted by that drivel. But your bright copper kettles may come to a nice boil in this Latin dance rendition.

Frankly, one of my favorite things is that this guy is not my next-door neighbor.

Of course, another way to remove the saccharinity is to just make up your own words.

And how about these bitter girls (probably not in white dresses with blue satin sashes) singing about diamonds and pearls and rich greedy husbands?

But … (There’s always a but, isn’t there?) … some guys, apparently, have only one favorite thing. (But who can blame them?)

A few performers do manage to overcome the syrupy verses by employing subtle seduction. This lead singer’s come-hither glances convinced me that I’d like to be one of her favorite things. Warning, though: If you stick around like a puppydog until the end, you’ll have to sit through an ad for, of all (favorite) things, grapefruit-scented soap. Ah, what a comedown for the lovable (and lavable) Nataly.

Here’s another performer who, while using the original words, rids the song of more than just a spoonful of sugar. However, be warned: When the dog bites, when the bee stings, this might be the wrong governess to comfort you.

OK, readers, you may now joyfully return to petting your kittens.

Posted in Earworms | 23 Comments »

In Memoriam: Lena Horne

Posted by Larry Wallberg on 05/11/2010

I’m not a big fan of memorial posts because, obviously, a corpse doesn’t care whether it’s remembered or not.

But Lena Horne, who died on Sunday night, was one of my favorite singers. Back in the mid-50s, she was also one of my first crushes — before my mother explained to me that nice Jewish boys “can’t” marry shvartzers. What Mom should have told me was that I couldn’t marry Lena Horne because another nice Jewish boy, named Lennie Hayton, had already done so. Apparently, I had the right first initial, but that goddamned “W” cost me my shot.

I doubt whether my mother was a fan of Lenny Bruce, another nice Jewish boy. In one of his most famous standup routines, he said:

You are a white. The Imperial Wizard. Now, if you don’t think this is logic you can burn me on the fiery cross. This is the logic: You have the choice of spending fifteen years married to a woman, a black woman or a white woman. Fifteen years kissing and hugging and sleeping real close on hot nights. With a black, black woman or a white, white woman. The white woman is Kate Smith. And the black woman is Lena Horne. So you’re not concerned with black or white anymore, are you? You are concerned with how cute or how pretty. Then let’s really get basic and persecute ugly people!

Anyway, even though I dug having the opportunity to show Lena and quote Lenny, I still might not have posted my little tribute had there not been … godless drumroll … an atheist connection.

“Yip” Harburg, the lyricist of the song you’ll hear in the video embedded below, was a fellow heathen. In addition to writing the words to dozens of standards including “April in Paris,” “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime,” “Lydia, the Tattooed Lady,” and all the tunes in The Wizard of Oz, he also wrote the following little rhyme:

Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree;
And only God who makes the tree
Also makes the fools like me.
But only fools like me, you see,
Can make a God, who makes a tree.

So this is Lena singing “Ain’t It the Truth”:

Here’s Lena in 1943, singing her signature tune, Stormy Weather.

Nearly 40 years later, she sang another version. Stick around for the second song, too, despite its name. You might be pleasantly surprised; it turns out to be … another godless drumroll … a subtle “screw-you” to the sanctimonious.

Lena Horne in fine voice and a middle finger flipped at the Fundies! Say what you will about astrology, but that’s what I’d call a harmonic convergence.

Posted in Music | 13 Comments »

Earworm Saturday #4

Posted by Larry Wallberg on 04/17/2010

Whenever anybody asks me which movie I’d pick as best animated film ever, as someone did the other day, I always say without hesitation “Walt Disney’s Pinocchio.” Visually, it’s stunning. I’d say it’s probably the only really successful cartoon that incorporated actual film noir techniques in the service of a classic children’s story.

Another thing I love about Pinocchio is its score. “I’ve Got No Strings” could easily be my intellectual theme song. I also love “Hi-Diddle-Dee-Dee (an Actor’s Life for Me)” and “Give a Little Whistle.” (Always let your consciousness be your guide.)

But I’ve gotta tell you: there’s one song in that flick that has always sickened me. Ever since I was a little boy, I’ve been creeped out by its pseudo-religious claptrap. Even without the words, the tune itself smacks of churchiness. I’d venture to guess that this number has been largely responsible for spreading the faith meme to American children ever since 1940. And, of course, that very song is the one that’s crawling through my brain as an earworm today.

I’ll first remind you of the original version, sort of. You’ll recognize it as soon as you hear it, even if you have trouble understanding all the words. (If you care to sing along, the lyrics are thoughtfully provided for yøu.)

If you go to YouTube, you’ll find dozens and dozens of pious performances of this ditty. But sometimes, no matter how lush and uplifting the orchestral background tries to be, the singer is just sooooo wrong. Man, I love when that happens.

Here’s an ultra-pretentious rendition in which the singer, obviously, wished for a hat. I can’t explain why, but the longer you focus on that thing, the funnier it becomes.

Well, maybe a Bronx accent helps the song sound somewhat less sanctimonious.

Close your eyes and listen to the melody as an excerpt from Satan’s Cricket, a 50s horror movie.

It stands to reason that deluded theists would find this song attractive. I don’t know whether this “America’s Got Talent” hopeful is a theist, but, wow!, is she deluded. If you’ve got the time, you might enjoy listening to her personal biography before she sings (starting at around 2:30). Apparently, her fifth grade teacher wrote a positive comment on her report card. If you stick around long enough, you’ll even see a hula. Then, believe it or not, this overaged Latin bombshell changes costume and performs the thing again!

I must admit, I sympathize with this YouTuber’s poor cat. (Try picturing it in the hat from a few videos above.)

What is this? (I kinda like it, even though I don’t have a clue what the guy is saying. Hey, maybe that’s a good thing.)

Doesn’t anybody know that the only thing to wish for is an Entenmann’s Chocolate Donut? Accept no substitutes!

This video is too distasteful even for me. But I share it here as a public service.

Not to leave my readers with the impression that I have no heart whatsoever, and to remind all atheists that even we can occasionally be suckers for shmaltz, I’ll include this rendition, which — sappiness and all — does manage to move me because it’s sung so simply and beautifully by one of the greatest Kentucky native “girl” singers ever. Seriously. Ahhh.

And so I wish you good day, dear readers. Makes no difference who you are. Happy whistling.

Posted in Earworms, Freedom from Faith, Music | 26 Comments »