Die Doing What You Love

NPR shared a special story this week that I haven’t been able to get out of my head. Jane Little was a tiny 4’11” double bass player who joined the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra when she was 16. I’m sure it was great to watch the smallest person in the orchestra playing the biggest instrument. She became a Guinness world record holder in February for performing with the orchestra for 71 years, at age 87. She was set to retire next month. And she died while performing on stage this week.

She literally died doing what she loved, weeks before she was going to stop doing it. I watched that video and teared up. It seems like her life was perfect, she was so happy, and she never retired. This brings me to the question of whether people die soon after they retire because their purpose for living is gone. The Guardian published an article about this earlier this month that cited a study that found that “healthy retirees who worked a year longer (over the age of 65) had an 11% lower ‘all-cause mortality risk.'” People talk about how they can’t wait to retire, but maybe they don’t know what they’re asking for.

So, the solution? Be like Jane. Make your job something you love, and you can do it for the rest of your life. (Aside: Can I make drinking wine and riding my bike my job?)


Wedding Singers

When the youngest of my brothers got married, two friends of theirs (a married couple) sang a Yes song during their ceremony (“Onward“). I remember being really affected by it; how amazing is it to have friends who can give you music as a wedding gift? I can still hear them singing.

I wasn’t aware, or didn’t make the connection at the time of that wedding, that my grandfather had also performed at probably dozens of weddings in his lifetime. I’ve learned more about him since and the amount of emotional response I got from family, friends, and even strangers on past blog posts about his wedding performances is a testament to how integral music is to our lives. These were performances done even up to 50 years ago, and still these memories resonate.

It never crossed my mind that I’d ever perform at a wedding, especially because I’m not much for solo performance and I had always considered a wedding performance to be a one- or two-person job, unless you’re part of the band. But joining a choir has brought me a lot of pretty great surprises (not the least of which are the great friends I get to spend time making music and bad choir jokes with). Two choir friends got married this spring, and another of us commissioned a choral song based on an E. E. Cummings poem as a gift. And he asked a bunch of us to learn and sing the song at the wedding, along with the composer. So, that happened.

Being up there singing an amazing original song with my friends, for my friends, felt great enough, but then to think about how this brought me just a little closer to the grandfather I never met put the whole thing way over the top. I hope our happy couple enjoyed it as much as we did. Listen to the recording here, courtesy of composer Alexis Renee Ford.


Slow Song Mix Tape, 1996

PhotoGrid_1404090352112Here’s another in the series of posts in which I share a playlist of songs to immortalize an old cassette tape that I unearth. Tonight I visited the sauna that is my attic to do some consolidating, and I found this tape.

As I’ve said before, over the years and out of necessity I’ve turned from a keeper to a thrower, except in the case of some of the more sentimental keepsakes. But I don’t need this cassette. I do, however, want to hang on to the list of songs, because I’m nostalgic and listening to these songs sends me right back to that pink-walled bedroom of my youth, which I will never see again. So I made a Spotify playlist (N.B. that the Beatles and Peter Gabriel aren’t available on Spotify, so this isn’t completely faithful to the original tape).

What was the purpose of this mix? I would bet that in my 15-year-old mind there was a glimmer of hope that someday I would play this mix for a boy in a romantic attempt at baring my soul. But we all know I just used this to serenade myself.

Mock it, love it, sing along with it, do with this list as you will. I still love most of these songs 18 years later!

Behind Every “Satisfied Mind”

I posted once before about the namesake of this blog, which is a song titled “A Satisfied Mind.” The first time I heard the song was during my introduction to Jeff Buckley while I was going through a divorce. For a long time I didn’t look much past the song itself; I thought it was Jeff Buckley’s song. I love Jeff Buckley’s crooning and the lyrics really resonated with me, and that’s all I needed at the time.

Over the years as I’ve gone back and listened to the song again I saw other names pop up in search results and it dawned on me that this song has layered history. On a whim the other day I searched Spotify for “Satisfied Mind” and it gave me a TON of results. I combed through them all and found NINETY-EIGHT versions of the song, including covers by Ella Fitzgerald, Johnny Cash, Lucinda Williams, Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson, and Joan Baez. I was floored. So I did a little more digging, and here’s what I’ve learned:

The song was first released in 1954 by Starday records and the names on the original album were Joe “Red” Hayes and Jack Rhodes. Red Hayes was quoted in a printed interview on the origin of the lyrics, which apparently came from a conversation with his father-in-law: “I put a lot of thought into the song before I came up with the title. One day my father-in-law asked me who I thought the richest man in the world was, and I mentioned some names. He said, ‘You’re wrong, it is the man with a satisfied mind.'”

But the Red Hayes version fell off the radar because Porter Wagoner covered it in 1955 and made it a hit. And then over time there was speculation about whether Jack Rhodes was actually coauthor of the original or if he’d given $500 to Red Hayes and in return ended up getting his name on the record. There’s also a UFO story associated with the writing of the song. Read more on this music historian’s blog, where you can also listen to the original recording.

You can also check out my Spotify playlist below, loosely organized by importance/my preference (you’ll notice I threw all the twangy and country stuff at the end since those are my least favorite versions). You’ll see there’s no Red Hayes version available on Spotify, and even some of the artists on my playlist who cover the song don’t know who the original artist is (cough, Justin Vernon, cough). Enjoy.

Songs Lost in Time

Fritz-KruegerMy grandfather was a professional musician: a tenor in the Philadelphia Opera Company in the ’30s and ’40s (check it out! He’s mentioned in the Philadelphia Opera Co Wikipedia page), a performer in many other settings, and eventually a voice professor at West Chester University (where incoming freshman can still win the Fritz K. Krueger Memorial Voice Scholarship). I have written about him many times but I am continually fascinated by his life and work.

As I have said before, my family is lucky enough to have kept some old recordings of his performances, and my brother digitized them a few years ago. But the records sat in a chest in my parents’ house for decades and I guess over time that kind of record sort of deteriorates. So some of the recordings didn’t translate to digital very well.

I went back and listened to a few of the songs again the other day like I do occasionally, and I happened to zero in on one of the records (number 5 on the recordings page), which was labeled “B.J. Wedding Music” with a German song title written on it, but he was singing in English, so I thought I’d tap my mother for some more info by asking her about it on Facebook. Turns out that “B.J.” is Betty Jo, his niece, and he sang “Ich Liebe Dich” – “I love you” in German – at her wedding.

1412_thumbThe other song, “Because,” isn’t in the digital recordings, I guess because it was unplayable. So, I looked up the song, which was sort of hard to find. I did eventually find a Perry Como version (meh) and a performance of it that I liked, sung by another famous voice of the time, Mario Lanza (don’t worry, I didn’t know who he was until the other day, either):

Then I found this video of the song, which it turns out is from the 1938 movie, “Three Smart Girls Grow Up,” yet another thing I’d never heard of.

And Facebook showed me its true value again that day because as more people saw my post I collected more historical nuggets:

1. My grandfather’s family and friends called him “Our Mario Lanza.”

2. He sang at so many people’s weddings, and all of those people remember it so happily!

3. His picture is up in the Wyomissing Institute of Fine Arts in Reading, according to another family friend. I’d like to find out if it’s still there.

But at the end of all this, despite what I found, the thing that is still lost is Fritz’s recording of “Because.” That is, it’s lost unless there’s someone out there with another collection of his recordings…

Put the Needle on the Record

I’m 33 years old and until last night I’d never actually operated a turntable. Never put the needle on the record, if you will. I had heard vinyl being played, of course, but no one had ever shown me how to use a record player and I was sort of terrified of scratching a record. And to be honest, recently I have been very happy with listening to music using Spotify and Google Play, because for the most part they have everything I want to hear.

But life has changed in some amazing and surprising ways that mostly have to do with meeting my new main squeeze. And one of these ways has to do with turntables. He has a collection of vinyl and played some of it for me one of the first times I went to his place. I liked seeing the albums and watching the process of playing the music, but I still stood a safe distance from the turntable and practically held my breath while leaning over it to watch the record turning.

Double Decker Records Allentown PASo yesterday he took me up to Double Decker Records in Allentown, his favorite place to shop for vinyl. I was excited to see this favorite place of his. When I walked in I thought, god, they’re going to peg me as a complete newb, but eventually after a bit of browsing in the main room we made it to the “50 Cent Room” where, as you might have guessed, all of the albums are 50 cents. This was where I lost myself. There were so many albums of so many different genres and sifting through them and showing finds to one another across the room was really, really fun. I enjoyed it sort of in the same way I love traveling, because it exposed me to things I might have forgotten about or never seen before if I keep myself holed up in my own world. Look! Peter, Paul, and Mary! The Monkees! Barbara Streisand! Dionne Warwick! Hair! Mary Poppins! Klezmer! Lots of skinny men with long hair and really tight pants!

I hadn’t really expected to shop for myself, seeing as I don’t have a record player and had never played a record before, but suddenly I found myself schlepping a huge stack of albums around the room and digging for more. And when we finally put up the white flag we had looked through not even half of what was in that room. My total bill was $7.42.

20140329_210900We got our spoils home and commenced cleaning the albums, which of course I also knew nothing about. And then I got a lesson in putting the needle on the record and it was like magic. The sound was wonderful and it was satisfying to think that maybe I had rescued music (I found some great jazz, classical, opera, and big band stuff) that might otherwise just rot away in a moldy basement. I got chills.

Here’s a little video I took of the record I decided to play first, Glenn Miller: A Memorial 1944-1969. What a huge win! Looks like this is just the beginning of a new adventure for me.

A Magical Musical Weekend With Voices of Namibia

This is a long overdue post about the visit that our choir hosted from a Namibian choir, Voices of Namibia (VON). They traveled from Windhoek, Namibia, to compete in the World Choir Games, which were held this year in Cincinnati. They toured the U.S. as part of their trip and one of their stops was with our choir (Pennsylvania Academy of Performing Arts). Members of our choir volunteered to provide housing to members of VON and I signed up for two women in their 30s, figuring we’d probably have the most in common. We were all nervous and excited to meet them. We did research about cultural norms in Namibia and did our best to prepare. Sherpa wanted to stock the kitchen with ingredients to make Namibian food. (For the record, we didn’t – I figured it would be like a Namibian serving me chicken fingers and french fries).

Well when they arrived they had been on the road for about 2 weeks and already won 2 silver medals at the World Choir Games. They had just traveled on the bus from Detroit and when I arrived at the church where we rehearse to meet them, they were piled on the lawn in various degrees of sleep, because they had arrived early. After everyone from our choir showed up, the magic began. They were amazing people. We all got to know each other and sang together. They all spoke English, although their everyday language is Afrikaans. Here’s a mind-blowing video of all of the basses singing one of the VON songs after a few minutes of tutorial:

The two women who stayed with us were amazing. We had a long night chatting for hours about everything – food, family, traditions, fun, friends, music.

The next day, VON took a tour of Philadelphia. That night, they held a free public concert that was packed. You can find videos of many of their performances from their U.S. tour on YouTube (for example, Alleluja).

But the crowning jewel experience, for me, was our joint performance of Elob Misa, a traditional Namibian song in a language whose name I would have never guessed the spelling of without much Googling: KhoeKhoegowab, pronounced kway-kway-koh-VAH. It’s one of the language that has clicks. During our get-to-know-you rehearsal, their African-language director taught us the voice parts, the lyrics, the clicks, and — oh, yes — the dance moves that are part of this song. We were all paralyzed by the difficulty of learning the clicks, but fortunately the VON alto that was sitting next to me was a native speaker of KhoeKhoegowab and tried her very best to tutor me. I can hardly explain how difficult it was. There were 4 different clicks we had to learn, and if you use the wrong one you’re saying a completely different word. Check out this video by a couple of Namibians explaining the clicks.

They surprised us after the rehearsal by asking us to sing the song without them. And we did it, albeit with nowhere near the booming confidence of VON, but they LOVED it. They took pictures and videos and whooped and hollered at us. Of course the Namibia men snuck around toward the back and filled in the clicks, which are a crucial part of the song because there’s a part where the song is whispering and clicking only.

Well, Sherpa got a video of our joint performance of the song during their concert. If you look for the bright white face in the front row, that’s me.

We all spent the weekend trying to click correctly and I still can barely get it. But we had an unforgettable weekend bonding with and connecting to people from across the globe through music. Our two ladies, Lydia and Helena, will forever be friends. I hope to get to Namibia and visit them. I’m so grateful I could be part of it!