xmlns:og='http://ogp.me/ns#' The Font of Noelage: Putting a song in our hearts.

Saturday, 22 October 2016

Putting a song in our hearts.

Bob Dylan is the 2016 Nobel Laureate for Literature.

When I first heard that news I was not shocked, but I was surprised. The Nobel Prize for Literature usually goes to well known authors like John Steinbeck, Ernest Hemingway, Harold Pinter, Doris Lessing, Alexander Sholzenitsyn and a lot of other famous authors whom I have not read and whose names I cannot pronounce.

When I thought a little more about it I rejoiced at such an appropriate choice. “Why not Bob Dylan?,” I thought. He wrote the songs that inspired a generation in the 1960s when the times certainly were a changing. He has continued to write song lyrics that are great poetry in anybody’s language.

I was in Toronto, Canada in 1962-64 and the times certainly were a changing. Every night on television we watched Martin Luther King Junior marching peacefully for civil rights against aggressive and brutal opposition. We watched President John Kennedy, against a background of riots and vicious slayings, tell the American people that unless all citizens enjoyed liberty and the pursuit of happiness, then no American was really  free. We watched as Robert Kennedy called out the National Guard to an enable African-American, James Meredith, to be the first negro to enrol at the Mississippi’s state university, even though Governor, George Wallace, was standing in the doorway to block his entry.

We watched Martin Luther King Junior tell over 100 000 people at the Washington Monument one very hot afternoon in August, 1963, about his dream to one day live in a country where a man was judged by the strength of his character and not by the colour of his skin.

He did not live to see that day. He was shot dead in 1968. So was Bobby Kennedy. Just like his brother, JFK, five year earlier. Oh, the times they were a changing alright. The answer was blowing in the wind. And Bob Dylan wrote words that inspired and challenged us all to try and make it happen.

Come writers and critics who prophesy with your pen
And keep your eyes wide, the chance won’t come again.
And don’t speak to soon for the wheel’s still in spin
And there’s no tellin’ who that it’s namin’
For the loser now will be later to win,
For the times they are a changin’.

Dylan’s Nobel award started me thinking of other songwriters who would also have been worthy Nobel winners for a lifetime of creating notable poetic expressions with their song lyrics.
Leonard Cohen came to mind. I have seen Leonard Cohen twice in live concerts about twenty years apart. At that first concert after he said hello to the audience he expressed surprise that there were so many people there who so obviously “liked listening to music to slit your wrists by.”

I was first attracted to Leonard’s work when I heard him sing
“Like a bird on a wire
Like a drunk in an old midnight choir
I have tried in my way to be free

His words and music touched me. Then I heard him sing Dance Me to the End of Love.
“Dance me to your beauty like a burning violin.
Dance me through the panic till I’m gathered safely in.
Lift me like an olive branch and be my homeward dove.
Dance me to the end of love”

The music, the biblical references and the word pictures he painted made me a Leonard Cohen fan for life. Like Dylan, Cohen has produced a huge body of work that compares favourably with any writers of any century. He’s my man!

Bob Dylan received his Nobel Literature Award "for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition" It reminded me of the words spoken by legendary TV newsman, Walter Cronkite, way back in 1997, on the occasion celebrating the 100th birthday of America’s greatest songwriter, Irving Berlin. At that time, Cronkite remarked that ”Irving Berlin helped write the songs of this country, capturing the best of who we are and the dreams that shape our lives.”

I have enjoyed Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen’s music and poetry for many years, however, I am more a Bing Crosby, Perry Como, Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennet sort of music lover. I love tuneful melodies that also have great lyrics. So, it will surprise no one who knows me that I would have no trouble nominating Cole Porter and Irving Berlin as two gentlemen who combined wonderful melodies with lyrics that were often witty, enchanting or terribly sad.

After all, when we were very much younger, falling in and out of love, it was Cole Porter who gave us the words that woo.
You’d be so easy to love
Easy to idolize all others above
So worth the yearning for.
 So swell to keep the home fires burning for.
We’d be so grand at the game,
So carefree together that it does seem a shame
That you can’t see your future with me,
‘Çause you’d be. Oh, so easy to love.

Cole Porter reminded us how harrowing the gut tearing, yearning anxiety that separated love could be. Mimicking the endless tick, tick, ticking of the clock that makes time and separation the enemy of lovers everywhere he wrote
Night and day, you are the one.
Only you, beneath the moon and the sun.
Whether near to me or far
It’s no matter darling, where you are
I think of you
Night and day. Night and day.”

Of course, Cole was a rather cheeky chappy. He loved  the double entendre and giving quite risqué interpretation to his lyrics.
That’s why birds do it, bees do it
Even educated fleas do it.
Let’s do it. Let’s fall in love.

Cole Porter was married to Linda Porter and they stayed married despite Cole’s predeliction for male Spanish dancers and similar macho types. However, he remained devoted to Linda throughout his life.

Their relationship could perhaps be summed up in his song
But, I’m always true to you darling in my fashion.
I’m always true to you, darling, in my way.

Yes, Cole Porter would be a very worthy Nobel Laureate, but if you only get one pick, then it is Irving Berlin for me.

Irving Berlin wrote over 1550 songs. They are all good. Many of them are great and sold multi millions of copies. Some of them are incomparable. Berlin was born in Russia in 1897 and came to America with his parents when he was five.

In 1911 he wrote Alexander’s Rag Time Band. This rag time tune instantly became famous around the world. The next year he married Dorothy Goetz. Six months later she died from typhoid fever which she contracted on their honeymoon in Havana.

Irving Berlin was devastated by the death of his young bride. He wrote a beautiful song to express his heartfelt grief. Simple words that portray loss on a grand and sorrowful scale. It quickly sold over a million copies.
I lost the sunshine and roses.
I lost the heavens of blue.
I lost the beautiful rainbow, I lost the morning dew.
I lost the angel who gave me summer, the whole winter too.
Oh, I lost the gladness, that turned into sadness when I lost you.

He continued to express his melancholy in song. What’ll I Do encompassed the grief experienced when separated from a loved one either by death or distance.
What’ll I do with just a photograph
To tell my troubles to.
When I’m alone
With only dreams of you
That won’t come true,
What’ll I do?

However, despite this great sadness, Berlin’s life had a happy ending. In 1925 he married Elin Mackay, an heiress. They remained devoted to each other for 63 years before Elin died in July, 1998. Irving died two months later, in September, 1998.

Elin’s family was a catholic. Before the marriage, the family were not too keen on her interest in a young Jewish songwriter, so they sent her off to Europe to forget about him. However, Irving wooed his lover over the airways with songs such as Remember and Always.
Remember the night
The night you said “I love you?”
Remember, you vowed by all the stars above you?
Remember, we found a lonely spot,
And after I learned to care a lot
You promised that you’d  forget me not?
But you forgot to remember.

Of course, Always became a popular song at weddings.
I’ll be loving you, always.
With a love that’s true, always.
Not for just a year, not for just a day,
Not for just an hour, But always.

Like the rest of America, and the world, Elin could not resist such tender expressions of love. She came back to America and they eloped. Elin’s father was not impressed. Thinking Irving was after his daughter's huge financial inheritance he promptly disinherited her. Irving immediately assigned her the royalties from several of his songs, including Always, which is still played at weddings and anniversary celebrations. She immediately became very wealthy in her own right.

Mr Mackay refused to speak to Irving for several years. However his attitude mellowed during the great depression, in the 1930s, when he suffered severe financial hardship and his very affluent songwriting son-in-law bailed him out.

Berlin wrote a substantial part of the Great American Songbook. One of his most famous songs, of course, is White Christmas, which Bing Crosby first sang in a 1941 for a film called Holiday Inn. 
That  Crosby version alone has sold more records than any other song in history.

Irving Berlin loved America. And America loved him. It made him a very, very rich man. It is reported that on one occasion his accountant told him of certain steps he could take to minimize his income tax. Berlin exclaimed, “ But, I don’t want to minimize my tax. I like paying taxe. I love this country.” (Donald Trump, please take note)

Irving Berlin even wrote a love song to America. One of the most poignant moments in the aftermath of the Twin Towers tragedy of September 11, 2001, was the televised gathering of stunned and shocked US congressmen and women standing on the steps of the Capitol building and singing
God bless America, land that I love,
Stand beside her and guide her
Through the night with a light from above.
From the mountains, to the prairies,
To the oceans white with foam,
God bless America,
My home sweet home.

We must be forever grateful to Irving Berlin. Indeed, we must be grateful for the world of music. In this troubled world of ours, the times still are a  changing. Often, not in the way we would like. Let us be thankful then, that people like Irving Berlin, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Cole Porter together with Paul McCartney, John Lennon, Billy Joel, Bruce Springsteen and all the other lyrical poets have given us words and music to lift our spirits and leave us with a song in our hearts.

As Walter Cronkite so eloquently said of Irving Berlin, they have indeed captured the best of who we are and the dreams that shape our lives.

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