Sunday, November 15, 2015

New Readings of Old Books-2

When Wood showed me how to get over the levee to the River
By the time we clambered down the moist bank of the levee, the sun had just set over Port Allen in the west; it was late Spring, and the river was half flooded around the swamp willows.  This was taken (early 1980s) where one could drive to the top of the levee where also some of the agriculture school cattle were grazing, on the dry side, about half a mile south of the LSU campus.  Of course, it is film, not digital, Kodachrome probably.

I want to write about a Memoirs, Present Indicative, of Noel Coward, that I first read when I was about to graduate from high school or during the three semesters that I was at the California College of Arts and Crafts.  In either case I was living in Berkeley (so was the family) but did not yet have access to the University library.  I recall finding it at the Egyptianizing Berkeley Public Library on Shattuck Avenue and checking it out there.  It really made an impression!  It was a time when I was reading biographies and memoirs of opera singers, Emma CalvĂ©, Maria Jeritza, Lotte Lehmann, Geraldine Farrar (my goodness: princes and tennis stars, cf. Anna Netrebko), Chaliapin, Caruso, Alma Gluck: probably her first, because her daughter, Marcia Davenport, had written the novel that really astonished my adolescent imagination, The Valley of Decision, and then Of Lena Geyer, so that it was no wonder that opera stars were exciting—and wasn't it just as well that I could imagine Manon, for example, delicate, petite?  I also haunted the used-book stores for 78 rpm records.  It was a lovely couple of years.  At the rooming house, at 2622 College, which qualified as Approved Housing, since I was under age, in the evening we sat around a large round kitchen table and filled sketchbooks and talked, and talked.  Neither before or later (until perhaps now) did I have free time for such preoccupations.  By the time I turned 21, in 1955, I was beginning graduate course work.

So what about that Sunset over the Willow Swamp on the Mississippi?  Well, the photos of famous people are under copyright, and by now those years in the early 1950s and now even the early 1980s have become sentimental in their own right, and I have made a habit of using pictures as headers.  I might break my neck if I went down the slithery mud today, to take new ones, and my coaevals are dying and my former students are at the height of their careers, very busy, so I treasure these pictures.  Besides, they are part of me, and you may make of them what you wish.

(Have to re-write body of this post: please excuse):
Having lost the tangled thread for this post, I'll just note the kind of thing I had in mind.  Noel Coward had reminded me of the craze for African American night-club music (and it was picked up, too, in Downton Abbey, Season 5).  But I also had noticed in novel after novel the protagonists having been described as appreciating a Grammaphone Society recording of the Bach Concerto for two violins, which reminded me how much shorter the pre-WW II catalogues had been, and how important the really outstanding 78rpm sets had been.  Then there was that Blackbird business: a comment on a YouTube offering of a 1927 song, "Bye, bye Blackbird", and some young person was astonishingly puzzled by the lyrics of the song.  Nor did I at the time know about the all African-American musical show Blackbirds, which predated the song by a year or so.  The song's 'blackbird' was inspired by Florence Mills, who enchanted London and, I think, Paris as well, until her early death in 1927.  She was adorable, as her portrait photos show (and perhaps the inspiration for the figure of Betty Boop?), but she never recorded the song in question though we do have a recording of one with a similar reference.  Like Noel Coward, Paul McCartney. who sang the 1927 "Bye bye" song so lovingly in the "Kisses on the Bottom " concert at the Capitol Records studio a few years ago, surely knew whose song it was, and Bessie Smith actually recorded it when it was new.  However, and this is the kind of realization (better late than never), I have a two-CD album  of Josephine Baker in her youth that includes two of the songs from Blackbirds.  But these were European recordings and were not noticed, apparently, by the person who compiled the list in the Wikipedia.  But Josephine Baker's knowledge of Mills, who died so young, and her covering Mills's songs for performance in France, adds one more detail to the history of the effect (with the Prince of Wales, Edward, attending Mills's concerts repeatedly) of the most enchanting African-American  performers  in Europe  at the time.  It was my retirement-age pleasure reading that took me to the abundant material in Wikipedia on the musical  Blackbirds and Florence Mills.  You'll find lots of material, both documentary and pictorial, on Florence Mills—all except her voice.  Josephine Baker was only five years younger, but happily lived till 1975.