Winter’s First Week

Cover: 'December,' by George Winston

A bit of a changeup from the usual Friday routine here. Let’s start with a couple of things not from whiskey river (because, well, why not)…

...a song for winter

…and:

Christmas Trees
(A Christmas Circular Letter)

The city had withdrawn into itself
And left at last the country to the country;
When between whirls of snow not come to lie
And whirls of foliage not yet laid, there drove
A stranger to our yard, who looked the city,
Yet did in country fashion in that there
He sat and waited till he drew us out
A-buttoning coats to ask him who he was.
He proved to be the city come again
To look for something it had left behind
And could not do without and keep its Christmas.
He asked if I would sell my Christmas trees;
My woods—the young fir balsams like a place
Where houses all are churches and have spires.
I hadn’t thought of them as Christmas Trees.
I doubt if I was tempted for a moment
To sell them off their feet to go in cars
And leave the slope behind the house all bare,
Where the sun shines now no warmer than the moon.
I’d hate to have them know it if I was.
Yet more I’d hate to hold my trees except
As others hold theirs or refuse for them,
Beyond the time of profitable growth,
The trial by market everything must come to.
I dallied so much with the thought of selling.
Then whether from mistaken courtesy
And fear of seeming short of speech, or whether
From hope of hearing good of what was mine, I said,
“There aren’t enough to be worth while.”
“I could soon tell how many they would cut,
You let me look them over.”

“You could look.
But don’t expect I’m going to let you have them.”
Pasture they spring in, some in clumps too close
That lop each other of boughs, but not a few
Quite solitary and having equal boughs
All round and round. The latter he nodded “Yes” to,
Or paused to say beneath some lovelier one,
With a buyer’s moderation, “That would do.”
I thought so too, but wasn’t there to say so.
We climbed the pasture on the south, crossed over,
And came down on the north. He said, “A thousand.”

“A thousand Christmas trees!—at what apiece?”

He felt some need of softening that to me:
“A thousand trees would come to thirty dollars.”

Then I was certain I had never meant
To let him have them. Never show surprise!
But thirty dollars seemed so small beside
The extent of pasture I should strip, three cents
(For that was all they figured out apiece),
Three cents so small beside the dollar friends
I should be writing to within the hour
Would pay in cities for good trees like those,
Regular vestry-trees whole Sunday Schools
Could hang enough on to pick off enough.
A thousand Christmas trees I didn’t know I had!
Worth three cents more to give away than sell,
As may be shown by a simple calculation.
Too bad I couldn’t lay one in a letter.
I can’t help wishing I could send you one,
In wishing you herewith a Merry Christmas.

(Robert Frost [source])

…and:

December Notes

The backyard is one white sheet
Where we read in the bird tracks

The songs we hear. Delicate
Sparrow, heavier cardinal,

Filigree threads of chickadee.
And wing patterns where one flew

Low, then up and away, gone
To the woods but calling out

Clearly its bright epigrams.
More snow promised for tonight.

The postal van is stalled
In the road again, the mail

Will be late and any good news
Will reach us by hand.

(Nancy McCleery [source])

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A Quirky Eclectic Christmas Mix (2015 Ed.)

[Video: Anaïs Mitchell, “Song of the Magi”: a subtly subversive “Christmas carol” if I’ve ever heard one. (Lyrics)]

Want to visit the pages for earlier playlists, which include videos, other songs, and some background material not in the “official” list? Here y’go:

2008 2009
2010 2011
2012 2013
2014  

If you’ve visited RAMH at about this time in previous Decembers, you know (more or less) what to expect from this post. You probably don’t know it all though…

For starters, I’ve moved the text listing of all songs — which was taking up way too much space in the post itself — into a separate pop-up window. If you’d like to keep the complete current songlist open for reference in a separate window while the music plays, use this link. (This is just a simple text list of song titles and artists, not an actual player.)

One other (bigger) change here: the little audio-player gizmo has changed since 2014 (for reasons boring and technology-driven):

  • The song titles, alas!, now appear as grotesque file names rather than, y’know, good old English. You’ll still be able to glean the titles themselves, but still…
  • Play, pause, forward and reverse buttons — that stuff is still here.
  • …but the player now includes a “popout” feature, which opens up the player in a separate, smaller window of its own — good for tucking to the side, if you just want to keep the music in the background while you go off elsewhere on the Web.
  • Finally, if you’re observant, you’ll notice a more standard, more obvious way to obtain the current track for yourself — without requiring the secret RAMH “decoder ring” trick I’ve provided in the past.

Enough of all that. Here’s the little player doo-dad. (Note that the post itself continues on below it — if you need something to read in the meantime!)

A Quirky/Eclectic Christmas Mix (complete)

If you’re pressed for time, and/or just don’t want to (re-)listen to the earlier years’ selections, the similar gizmo which follows lets you listen to just 2015’s ten-song list, without having to fast-forward through earlier years’ lists:

A Quirky/Eclectic Christmas Mix (2015 Only)

Update: new feature

You can now open the full playlist in a separate window with “shuffle” mode enabled. This will begin playing as soon as the popout window open. (Some mobile devices/tablets disable the autoplay feature, though.)

Pop Out to Shuffle!

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In the Land of What’sToCome

[Video: The Hello Strangers, last seen at RAMH in October 2014, released this video cover of Doris Day’s 1956 classic earlier this year — not coincidentally, on Day’s 91st birthday. Also not coincidentally, their grandfather Ronald Chace, had both sung with Doris Day and played second trombone in Les Brown’s Big Band during Day’s tenure with Brown in the 1940s. The Strangers recorded this song in Chace’s memory.]

From whiskey river:

After Thanksgiving

Lord, as Rilke says, the year bears down toward winter, past
the purification of the trees, the darkened brook.
Only 4:45, and the sky’s sheer black
clasps two clear planets and a skinny moon
as we drive quietly home from the airport,
the last kid gone.

The time of preparation’s over, the time of
harvesting the seed, the husk, the kernel, saving
what can be saved—weaves of sun like
rags of old flannel, provident peach stones,
pies, pickles, berry wines to
hold the sweetness for a few more months.

Now the mountains will settle into their old
cold habits, now the white
birch bones will rise
like all those thoughts we’ve tried to repress:
madness of the solstice, phosphorescent
logic that rules the fifteen-hour night!

Our children, gorged, encouraged, have taken off
in tiny shuddering planes. Plump with stuffing,
we too hurry away, holding hands, holding on.
Soon it’ll be January, soon snow will
shuffle down, cold feathers, swathing us in
inches of white silence—

and the ways of the ice
will be narrow, delicate.

(Sandra M. Gilbert [source])

and:

Language is the element of definition, the defining and descriptive incantation. It puts the coin between our teeth. It whistles the boat up. It shows us the city of light across the water. Without language there is no poetry, without poetry there’s just talk. Talk is cheap and proves nothing. Poetry is dear and difficult to come by. But it poles us across the river and puts a music in our ears. It moves us to contemplation. And what we contemplate, what we sing our hymns to and offer our prayers to, is what will reincarnate us in the natural world, and what will be our one hope for salvation in the What’sToCome.

(Charles Wright [source])

and:

How To Listen

Tilt your head slightly to one side and lift
your eyebrows expectantly. Ask questions.

Delve into the subject at hand or let
things come randomly. Don’t expect answers.

Forget everything you’ve ever done.
Make no comparisons. Simply listen.

Listen with your eyes, as if the story
you are hearing is happening right now.

Listen without blinking, as if a move
might frighten the truth away forever.

Don’t attempt to copy anything down.
Don’t bring a camera or a recorder.

This is your chance to listen carefully.
Your whole life might depend on what you hear.

(Joyce Sutphen [source — click on the ‘Two Poems’ link])

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Recognizing — Just Noticing — Reasons to Go On

[Music video by Dr. How and the Reasons to Live, a band based in Harrisonburg, Virginia. All I really know about this is what the caption at Vimeo says: “featuring Maarten Vanhaverbeke’s cross-Canada cycling trip.” The band’s Bandcamp page is here. It describes the band — genre Americana — as “a joy ride that is unique to feel, great to see and awesome to hear. Imagine Yogi Bear finding his picnic basket. Yeah, that’s happiness.”]

From whiskey river:

Probability

Most coincidents are not
miraculous, but way more
common than we think—
it’s the shiver
of noticing being
central in a sequence
of events
that makes so much
seem wild and rare—
because what if it wasn’t?
Astonishment’s nothing
without your consent.

(Lia Purpura [source])

and:

We are stories still going.
(excerpt)

If you’re reading this, if there’s air in your lungs on this November day, then there is still hope for you. Your story is still going. And maybe some things are true for all of us. Perhaps we all relate to pain. Perhaps we all relate to fear and loss and questions. And perhaps we all deserve to be honest, all deserve whatever help we need. Our stories are all so many things: Heavy and light. Beautiful and difficult. Hopeful and uncertain. But our stories are not finished yet. There is still time, for things to heal and change and grow. There is still time to be surprised. We are still going, you and I. We are stories still going.

(Jamie Tworkowski [source])

and:

It all matters. That someone turns out the lamp, picks up the windblown wrapper, says hello to the invalid, pays at the unattended lot, listens to the repeated tale, folds the abandoned laundry, plays the game fairly, tells the story honestly, acknowledges help, gives credit, says good night, resists temptation, wipes the counter, waits at the yellow, makes the bed, tips the maid, remembers the illness, congratulates the victor, accepts the consequences, takes a stand, steps up, offers a hand, goes first, goes last, chooses the small portion, teaches the child, tends to the dying, comforts the grieving, removes the splinter, wipes the tear, directs the lost, touches the lonely, is the whole thing.

What is most beautiful is least acknowledged.

What is worth dying for is barely noticed.

(Laura McBride [source])

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Those Happy-Go-Lucky Poor Folks: “A Couple of Swells”

Schell's Hobo Band

[Image: “Schell’s Hobo Band,” formed in 1948 as a side project of Schell’s Brewery in New Ulm, Minnesota. The band itself has been successful enough that it now has its own Facebook page.]

[Don’t know what this is? See the series introduction here.]

Pop culture has always offered plenty of examples of our “Happy-Go-Lucky Poor Folks” theme. Some of these examples cross over into racial stereotyping, for obvious reasons: race and social class (at least in the U.S.) are all bound up together. What better way to assuage our cultural guilt about slavery than to claim that its victims are somehow not doing that badly after all?

But then there’s the old image of the hobo — the tramp — as a figure of fun. And it had nothing to do with race, only with the character’s hilariously déclassé lot in life. He (it was almost always a he) just seemed so unsophisticated, so silly, y’know? This stereotype was reinforced by much older cultural symbols, particularly that of the circus or stage clown.

Think Emmett Kelly, both father and son: even though they appealed to the audience’s sympathy, their first objective was laughter (however soft and gentle). “Look at the hobo,” the subtext went, “trying to sweep the spotlight off the stage! Doesn’t he know you can’t do that?”

'Saturday Evening Post' cover by Norman Rockwell (August 18, 1928)A little weirdly to our eyes and ears, maybe, one thing which seems to have struck people as especially amusing “back in the day” was the very fact of the hobo’s poverty. That they didn’t have two coins to rub together — gosh, how could we possibly take them seriously?

Consider Norman Rockwell’s Saturday Evening Post cover at right (click to enlarge to full cover). This tramp probably (despite his belly size) hasn’t eaten pie for years. But look — he can steal a freshly baked one! And look — the baker’s dog will bite him on the bottom! What fun! (You could almost imagine this fellow sitting at fireside in a clearing in a forest, sharing the pie with his friends and regaling them with the comical story.)

(Yeah, I know: the geometry/physics here seem more than a little off: the dog shouldn’t be perfectly horizontal, even if he’s holding on tightly enough to be flying along behind the running tramp.)

Critically, though, this cover appeared in the Post in August, 1928 — just a little over a year before the onset of the Great Depression. Thereafter, with “real people” suddenly reduced to the social stature of hobos, coincidentally the jokes fell flat. These weren’t random outliers in the populace: they were friends and family…

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One Small Heart

[Video: “One Small Heart,” by Mary Chapin Carpenter. Lyrics here.]

From whiskey river:

Heart
(excerpt)

You watch a dream pause
over a pool in a forest
under a breeze rippling its
surface reflections of inverted
branches & a patch of sky where
one bird flies by, upside-down.
Let it slow down.
Down.

[…]

Gone. Wing-flap. Birdsong, tree-song, floated, tilted,
moving away on its own scrap of independent energy
where everything lives, however briefly,
beating its one small heart…

(Maurice Scully [source])

and:

There’s actually no such thing as an adult. That word is a placeholder. We never grow up. We’re not supposed to. We’re born and that’s it. We get bigger. We live through great storms. We get soaked to the bone. We realize we’re waterproof. We strive for calm. We discover what makes us feel good. We do those things over and over. We learn what doesn’t feel good. We avoid those things at all cost. Sometimes we come together: huge groups in agreement. Sometimes we clap and dance. Sometimes we look like a migration of birds. We need to remind ourselves — each other – that we’re mere breaths. But, and this is important, sometimes we can be magnificent, to one person, even for a short time, like the perfect touch — the first time you see the ocean from the middle. Like every time you see the low, full moon. We keep on eating: chewing, pretending we know what’s going on. The secret is that we don’t. We don’t, and don’t, and don’t. Each day we’re infants: plucking flower petals, full of wonder.

(Micah Ling, hobart pulp)

and:

The Heart Remembers Everything It Loved

Everything remembers something. The rock, its fiery bed,
cooling and fissuring into cracked pieces, the rub
of watery fingers along its edge.

The cloud remembers being elephant, camel, giraffe,
remembers being a veil over the face of the sun,
gathering itself together for the fall.

The turtle remembers the sea, sliding over and under
its belly, remembers legs like wings, escaping down
the sand under the beaks of savage birds.

The tree remembers the story of each ring, the years
of drought, the floods, the way things came
walking slowly towards it long ago.

And the skin remembers its scars, and the bone aches
where it was broken. The feet remember the dance,
and the arms remember lifting up the child.

The heart remembers everything it loved and gave away,
everything it lost and found again, and everyone
it loved, the heart cannot forget.

(Joyce Sutphen)

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Paying Attention to the Imperceptible

[Video: Loreena McKennitt performs “All Souls Night” live. (Lyrics below.)]

From whiskey river:

It is a mistake to believe that the crucial moments of a life when its habitual direction changes forever must be loud and shrill dramatics, washed away by fierce internal surges. This is a kitschy fairy tale started by boozing journalists, flashbulb-seeking filmmakers and authors whose minds look like tabloids. In truth, the dramatics of a life-determining experience are often unbelievably soft. It has so little akin to the bang, the flash, of the volcanic eruption that, at the moment it is made, the experience is often not even noticed. When it deploys its revolutionary effect and plunges a life into a brand-new light giving it a brand-new melody, it does that silently and in this wonderful silence resides its special nobility.

(Pascal Mercier [source])

and (italicized lines):

All Souls Night

Bonfires dot the rolling hills
Figures dance around and around
To drums that pulse out echoes of darkness
Moving to the pagan sound.

Somewhere in a hidden memory
Images float before my eyes
Of fragrant nights of straw and of bonfires
And dancing till the next sunrise.

CHORUS:
I can see lights in the distance

Trembling in the dark cloak of night
Candles and lanterns are dancing, dancing
A waltz on All Souls Night.

Figures of cornstalks bend in the shadows
Held up tall as the flames leap high
The green knight holds the holly bush
To mark where the old year passes by.

[CHORUS]

Bonfires dot the rolling hillsides
Figures dance around and around
To drums that pulse out echoes of darkness
And moving to the pagan sound.

Standing on the bridge that crosses
The river that goes out to the sea
The wind is full of a thousand voices
They pass by the bridge and me

(Loreena McKennitt [source])

and:

My eyes wandered from one end of the mountains to the other. “Do you think they go on forever?”

“The mountains?” Aritomo said, as though he had been asked that question before. “They fade away. Like all things.”

(Tan Twan Eng [source])

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Weekend Music Break: Joey Alexander, “My Favorite Things”

James Gulliver Hancock: Joey Alexander's 'My Favorite Things'

[Image: Album art by James Gulliver Hancock, for Joey Alexander’s debut, My Favorite Things (2015).]

One of the most famous descriptions of some unlikely cultural phenomenon or another goes like this, taking various specific forms depending on the phenomenon in question:

Sir, [phenomenon] is like a dog’s walking on his hinder legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.

Joey AlexanderThe original comes from James Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson, quoting SJ himself. There, the phenomenon is “a woman’s preaching.” But it’s hard for me not to think of the quip in connection with Joey Alexander’s jazz piano work. Because — beautifully fluid, virtuosic, inspired, inspiring though it may be — at the time he recorded and released this debut album a few months ago, he was all of eleven years old. The photo at right (click it to enlarge) is one of my favorites from the little booklet enclosed with the album — it should give you some idea of the marvel of the cultural phenomenon of the moment.

I don’t want to make too much of this as a novelty. (In writing about Alexander, one New York Times observer said, “The acclamation given to musical prodigies usually involves some mix of circus-act astonishment and commodity futures trading.”) No, really — all I wanted to do was to offer you a solid hour of nice, not-at-all challenging weekend listening.

Joey Alexander: My Favorite Things

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Unfolding into Time

Webb telescope: unfolding test

[Image: Testing the unfolding of the James Webb Space Telescope’s sunshield (photo via NASA, 2014-07-10). Per the NASA site, the Webb telescope “will be a powerful time machine with infrared vision that will peer back over 13.5 billion years to see the first stars and galaxies forming out of the darkness of the early universe.” For a visualization of the complete unfolding of the telescope post-launch — all components, including the sunshield — see this video.]

[See the note at the foot of this post]

From whiskey river:

Poem for My Birthday

I have stopped being the heroine
of my bad dreams. The melodramas
of betrayal and narrow escapes
from which I wake up grateful
for an unexciting life
are starring my troubled young friend
or one of my daughters. I’m not the one
who swims too far out to sea;
I am the one who waves from shore
vainly and in despair.
Life is what happens to someone else;
I stand on the sidelines and wring my hands.
Strange that my dreams should have accepted
the minor role I’ve been cast in
by stories since stories began.
Does that mean I have solved my life?
I’m still afraid in my dreams, but not for myself.
Fear gets rededicated
with a new stone that bears a needier name.

(Lisel Mueller [source])

and:

Four in the morning, cold and still but for the buzz of my yard light as it talks to the one up the hill at my neighbor’s. Mine says it feels the earth spinning it out to the end of its post, like a drop of light that might at any instant shake off into the stars, but my neighbor’s says that’s nonsense, the typical thing you can expect to hear from a poet’s lamp: Nothing on earth can feel that centrifugal force. As for me, I know how light on their legs the fat mice are as they carry the dog food, nugget by nugget, feeling the warmth spin away from the earth, and how the trees are flushed at this time of the year with the effort of holding leaves. Oh, yes, there is a steady tug from the Milky Way, and I can feel my fingers lifting just a little away from these keys, not touching and then touching again, one tap and then another.

So light I am, so light is my heart when I am up early, trying to write.

(Ted Kooser [source])

…and (from the commonplace book):

The Dead

At night the dead come down to the river to drink.
They unburden themselves of their fears,
their worries for us. They take out the old photographs.
They pat the lines in our hands and tell our futures,
which are cracked and yellow.
Some dead find their way to our houses.
They go up to the attics.
They read the letters they sent us, insatiable
for signs of their love.
They tell each other stories.
They make so much noise
they wake us
as they did when we were children and they stayed up
drinking all night in the kitchen.

(Susan Mitchell [source])

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Midweek Music Break: Linda Ronstadt, “Long, Long Time”

Ronstadt (from Rosenbaum's 'Melancholy Baby,' Esquire Magazine, October 1985)In an issue of Esquire Magazine, back in the 1980s, I read a piece by Ron Rosenbaum called “Melancholy Baby,” which opened by talking about the saddest songs ever: great heartbreak songs. (At left is, I believe, the photo which opened the article.)

Eventually, as it turned out, the article was a wonderful, more general report of an interview over dinner with Linda Ronstadt. (Be still, my then 30-something-years-old heart… another reason why I never forgot that article.) But it began with a discussion of this song in specific, as maybe the saddest-of-the-sad.

Ronstadt herself remembered the recording session:

I can remember the day I recorded “Long, Long Time”… It was 10:30 in the morning, but I was really into this kind of achy feeling, because the music — it’s in these chords. I think my phrasing was horrible, I think I kind of butchered it, but it is definitely in those chords. And it happened to the musicians, who are jaded session players. As soon as the fiddle player and Weldon Myrick, who’s the steel guitar, began to play those chords, they got real into that and became personally involved.

(It wasn’t in that article, as I thought I remembered, but I think I once read another detail of the session: that Ronstadt had a cold, or a respiratory infection — something like that, maybe with a fever — and just felt 100% incapable physically of recording anything.)

Here’s what Rosenbaum himself said of the song:

Do you remember “Long, Long Time”? If you haven’t heard it, you’re lucky. Because from the opening weeping steel-guitar hook, the song is paralyzingly sad. By the time she reaches the final refrain… it has managed to reopen every aching wound of romantic loss you’ve ever experienced, and some you haven’t yet. A legendary classic killer sad song.

There’s almost a kind of superstitious cult around the lethal tear-jerking power of this song. Like the one that grew up in previous generations around “Gloomy Sunday.” People would talk about that song in hushed and superstitious tones and refer to rumors that because it was the cause of so many suicides, it had been banned from the airwaves; it was just too lethally sad. I knew several women who swore they’d worn the grooves thin in “Long, Long Time” jags, playing it over and over again addictively to exorcise their hearts of sorrow.

I don’t have much to add to his comments. I will say, though, that if I ever wrote a book of Great Moments in Ronstadt History, “Long, Long Time” would have a chapter all its own.

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