“Self Made Man”

Back in the 1960s, a young John Hartford recorded a fragment of a song called “Self Made Man” (it was released in 2019 in a posthumous album). Then in 1971, Hartford made a nice arrangement for it and recorded the song on his album “Radio John.” It’s a witty satire of those rich men who think they are self-made, though really their rise to financial success has come at the expense of others: “How many fingers must he step on, to do the best he can… Have you seen the bones his closet holds, Do you watch hi when he sharpens his knife?” It was a pretty good song, even though it was really just a fragment of a song.

Fast forward to 2022. Rachel Baiman, a young country and old-timey musician based in Nashville, decided to fill out Hartford’s song. She added another verse, for the women in the lives of “self-made men,” which manages to duplicate some of Hartford’s wit and sparkle:

Do you think you want to sit around and play a part
In the corner of his self made life
Stand by his side patiently
And try to be his perfect little wife?
Will you tell him that he’s done everything right
And that he should never take the blame
For the people cast off and trampled on,
Just because they got in his way?
How many men do you think it takes to make a self made man….

Huh. Reminds me of certain billionaires who are in the news right now.

Then Baiman added another melody for the chorus, which Hartford had just sung to the same melody as the verses. She has turned the song into an infectious sing-along song that challenges the prevailing mythos of the current economic order. (You won’t be surprised to learn that Baiman was raised by parents who belonged to the Democratic Socialist party.)

Worth listening to, and worth singing along to.

Screen shot of a video of Baiman performing the song in a sound studio.
Continue reading ““Self Made Man””

Choral music resource

A musician friend just told me about Amidon Community Music, which offers a wide selection of SATB music. Many look suitable for use in UU congregations, and the website has testimonials from UU congregations. Prices are reasonable: US$5.00 for five copies. Of interest to congregations with a limited music budget, they also offers free sheet music downloads.

You have to enter your name, address, and email to access the free downloads; I haven’t yet taken the time to do that. But I’ve seen one of their arrangements, “Love Call Me Home” by Peggy Seeger, and it looks pretty good. My musician friend recommends everything they produce.

This has been going on for a while

The whole nonbinary gender thing is new and different, right? I mean, that’s why old people are so worked up about transgender and nonbinary, because it’s so new. Right?

Well, no. Now that I’m officially past the age of sixty, I qualify as old people (you can’t call me middle-aged, that’s for sure). And to me, non-binary gender seems normal. It doesn’t feel new at all. So how come an old guy like me feels that way?

Russell Arben Fox has been doing a series on pop music from 1983 at his blog In Media Res. I’ve been following his series in a desultory fashion, and I finally tumbled to one of his main point — that a lot of pop music from the early 1980s bent or broke gender norms. David Bowie was especially well-known for androgyny. I remember a friend, someone we’d now call nonbinary gender, commenting on how great it was that Bowie was so publicly gender non-conforming. Prince came along a bit after Bowie, became far more famous, and was just as androgynous. Among less well known musicians, Annie Lenox, the lead singer of Eurythmics, frequently wore androgynous clothing. In the New Wave band The Human league, singers Philip Oakey, Susan Ann Sulley, and Joanne Catherall, wore the same makeup. The list goes on….

Two androgynous singers from The Human League in a side-by-side comparison showing their identical makeup.
Catherall (l) and Oakey (r) of The Human League, from the video “(Keep Feeling) Fascination”

You can find a lot of androgyny in early 1980s pop music. It was the logical extension of cultural trends that began in the 1960s — guys with long hair and big Afros, the feminist revolution challenging gender roles, and so on. By the early 1980s, Poly Styrene of X-Ray Spex felt no need to play the role of a sexy girlie lead singer — she could just be herself without being forced into someone else’s (mis)conception of what it meant to be female. Nor was it just the musicians — that’s what people going to clubs, or just listening to the music, were doing, too.

That historic moment didn’t last long. The Reagan revolution rolled back progress in gender. The Clinton years cemented the regression. In this century, everyone seems to have forgotten that nonbinary gender was a thing, before it was even called nonbinary gender. I’d forgotten about it until I started looking at those old music videos from that era. But it did happen. For a few years, when I was in my late teens and early twenties, androgyny was socially acceptable (in the big cities, anyway). As a product of that era, no wonder I’m much more comfortable with nonbinary gender than with the strict gender roles and gender norms that came later.

Personally, I’m glad nonbinary gender is back. I feel it’s much easier than everyone being crammed into the same tiny little gender boxes. Sigh. Too bad Ron DeSantis and the Florida state legislature don’t feel the same way.

Celebrating Juneteenth

Recently, I read an article quoting a Juneteenth activist saying something like: The time between Juneteenth and July 4 should be a sixteen day celebration of American freedom. Opal Lee, who championed the holiday for many years before it became a reality, said: “Juneteenth will be the bridge that we can all go over. We should celebrate from June 19th to the 4th of July!” As someone who grew up celebrating Patriot’s Day — April 19, or the commemoration of the Shot Heard Round the World — I agree that we need more days to celebrate the American dream of freedom. So I’m grateful that my employer decided Juneteenth is a paid holiday for staff at our congregation, and I’m using the day to celebrate American freedom.

Although maybe I’m celebrating U.S. freedom in an unusual way. For me, an important result of freedom in the U.S. is the freedom we have for artistic expression. And with that in mind, this Juneteenth I’m celebrating by listening to music by Anthony Braxton. National Public Radio has said of him:

“Anthony Braxton has always done things his own way. He’s famous for creating his own musical syntax and strategies, in work that straddles jazz and classical traditions but conforms to no established pattern. He is a true American original — and by his own account, a perpetual work in progress.”

Isn’t that perfect for a celebration of American freedom?… combining cultural influences… conforming to no established pattern… creating your own way… a perpetual work in progress.

With that in mind, today I’m listening to one of my favorite works by Braxton: “Composition No. 19 (For 100 Tubas).” A recording is available from Braxton via Bandcamp. You can also see two short video clips of an outdoor public performance here and here. While I suspect Braxton would resist any easy interpretation of this composition, I can’t help but hear this as being in small part a musical commentary on John Philip Sousa’s patriotic marches, but in a musical idiom that is much more powerful and much more nuanced.

Composite of two screenshots from 100 Tubas videos, showing Braxton conducting in one frame, and ranks of tuba players in the other frame.
Composite of two screen grabs from the “100 Tubas” videos. Braxton is shown at far left.

Update, 6/19: Here’s a video of another performance. Definitely worth watching, since there’s a whole visual aspect of this composition, too.
Update, 6/20: Added Opal Lee quote.


The Guild of Carilloneurs in North America (GCNA) held their annual “congress” at St. Stephen’s church in Cohasset. St. Stephen’s has a 57-bell carillon — this gives it a range of over four octaves, and apparently qualifies it to be called a “great carillon” (it’s the largest carillon in New England). There aren’t that many carillons with that kind of range in North America, and as you’d expect, the GCNA annual congress has been held here before to take advantage of this instrument.

Our apartment is right next door to St. Stephen’s, so we have a front row seat for the eight recitals spread out over five days. I’ve been working most days, so I didn’t have a chance to actually sit and listen to an entire recital, but what I heard sounded quite good. However, we also had a front row seat to hear eleven exam candidates. I’m not sure what the exam was — presumably some kind of professional qualification for carilloneurs — but the skill level and musicianship of the exam candidates covered quite a range. Some of the candidates were, in my opinion, excellent musicians, and I really enjoyed hearing them play. At the other end of the range, a couple of the exam candidates were mediocre at best (I’m being polite). And, to be honest, I didn’t think much of one or two of the experienced carilloneurs; technical skill and musical intelligence don’t always go together.

But overall, the good music outweighed the mediocre music. We got to hear free recitals of excellent music performed by professional musicians, with composers ranging from J.S. Bach to Florence Price to contemporary compositions by young composers. There was even a recital of music by women composers, which unfortunately I had to miss. It was fun being next door to the GCNA congress. And how many people can say they’ve heard eight carillon recitals in five days?

Florence Price children’s song

Composer Elaine Fine found a children’s song by composer Florence Price. This is kind of cool because Florence Price has recently been rediscovered by the classical music cognescenti as an exceedingly talented mid-twentieth century American composer who got forgotten because she was both Black and female.

Now I wonder if Price wrote other children’s songs. And this also makes me think of another fabulous mid-twentieth century American woman composer, Ruth Crawford Seeger, who produced some books of children’s songs, containing her transcriptions and harmonizations of American folk tunes. And finally, wouldn’t it be nice if some of today’s “serious” composers turned their talents to children’s music?

Why I decided to like “De Colores”

Back in 1993, when they revised the Unitarian Universalist hymnal, the editors decided to include “De Colores.” I’ve always hated “De Colores.” It’s a kids’ song. Actually, I like a lot of kids’ songs, but to me “De Colores” sounded like something from that horrible kid show with the ridiculous purple dinosaur.

It didn’t help that I knew why they put “De Colores” in the hymnal. It was famous for being sung by Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers (UFW). It’s great that they put in a union song, but if they’re going to put in a union song, then why not “Solidarity Forever”? Why not “Commonwealth of Toil”? Because, said my cynical self, “De Colores” could be passed off as just a kids’ song, or a song about racial harmony, instead of a song about stopping exploitation of workers. And the English-language verses in the hymnal aren’t even the ones sung by Cesar Chavez and the UFW.

Well, I’ve finally decided that I actually like “De Colores.” In part this was because I finally found a performance of it I liked: the very simple, straightforward version by José-Luis Orozco on Youtube. Then I found “The UFW: Songs and Stories Sung and Told by UFW Volunteers,” which has this story by Abby Rivera:

“I was familiar with ‘De Colores’ as a child…. I grew extremely weary of this song early on, until I discovered something uncanny about it. ‘Here we go again,’ I would complain to myself many times while making faces. Then we would begin to sing, and after the first few lines my entire demeanor and attitude would change. By the time the song was over, a total transformation of my spirit would occur, making me glad that I had sung it after all. It came to be my spiritual cleansing song, because the words reached deep into my soul and took me to another place where things are perfect, in harmony, of like mind and purpose….”

OK then. If Abby Rivera can find spiritual cleansing in this song, I guess I can too. But only if we sing the verse about the chickens.

P.S.: And if you want to turn it into an actual union song, here are two verses (in English) that I learned from Pat Wynne and the San Francisco Rocking Solidarity Labor Chorus:

“Cesar Chavez, Cesar Chavez devoted his life to the Farm Worker’s Union,
Cesar Chavez, Cesar Chavez dreamed of a good life for all campesinos,
Cesar Chavez, may your courage and vision live on in our hearts and our hands,
May your spirit endure and inspire us all to continue the work you began. (2x)

“Si se puede, si se puede means: yes, we can do it, if we all believe it,
Si se puede, Cesar said, “Si se puede,” and showed us the way to achieve it,
Cesar Chavez, may your courage and vision live on in our hearts and our hands,
May your spirit endure and inspire us all to continue the work you began. (2x)

New website for early American sacred music

If you’re interested in early American sacred music (as I am), you might be interested in a new website being developed by Nym Cooke, a well known scholar and practitioner in the field. A friend forwarded me Cooke’s introductory email, which says in part:

“I invite you to explore a new website, Early American Sacred Music, at earlyamericansacredmusic.org. This constantly growing resource includes:
— a searchable database with extensive information on over 2,100 American printed and manuscript sources produced before 1821 (the complete holdings of 22 libraries), and over 10,000 manuscript music entries;
—600 pages of transcriptions from ca. 300 New England town and church histories, containing all that those sources have to say about early sacred music, and farmed out into 22 searchable subject files — with an index of the ca. 1,138 musicians those histories document….”

I’ll point out that this last item implies that anyone doing research on history of 18th century American congregations might find useful information on this website.

Also of interest to me was this statement: “Current inventorying plans include the collections of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library and the Irving S. Gilmore Music Library at Yale University; the Newberry Library in Chicago; the William L. Clements Library at the University of Michigan; the Boston Public Library; the New York Public Library; and a number of town historical societies in New England.” Again, this could make the site a very useful resource for historians as well as musicologists.

Random observation

One of my leisure-time projects for this year has been learning a bit of ukulele. So I’ve been watching a lot of videos of young ukulele players. And it suddenly occurred to me that many of the best young ukulele players are racially very diverse: Abe Lagrimas, Jr., Taimane Tauiliili Bobby Gardner, Rio Saito, Honoka Katayma. Yes, there are fabulous young white uke players, like Britni Paiva and Andrew Molina. But more seem to be non-white and/or mixed-race. Maybe this is just because the younger generation is majority non-white. Or maybe because the best uke players seem to come from Hawaii, which is racially very diverse. Of course, the most famous young ukulele player is white — that would be Billie Eilish (not that her ukulele playing is particularly good).

Jake or young kid

One of my favorite Youtube videos is titled “Guess: JAKE or Young KID? — Ukulele Challenge.”

If you know anything about the current ukulele scene, you’ll immediately figure out that “Jake” refers to Jake Shimabukuro, a ukulele virtuoso who is probably best known for his ukulele versions of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” and “Bohemian Rhapsody.” But his range as a musician goes far beyond rock and pop music. He has arranged jazz, classical, funk, and bluegrass music for the ukulele, and written his own compositions. He is known for playing complex music requiring amazing feats with both left and right hands.

The point of “JAKE or Young KID?” is simple: a panel of professional ukulele players listen to only the audio portion of a Youtube video of one of Jake’s arrangements or compositions. Sometimes it will be Jake playing, but sometimes it will be a child or young teen playing. The panelists have to figure out which it is. Given what a virtuoso player Jake is, this should be no problem, right?

Actually, the panelists regularly mistake Jake for the Young Kid, and the Young Kid for Jake. This says a lot for the high level of playing in the rising generation of ukulele players (it also says a lot about the popularity of the ukulele these days, that kids are willing to spend so much time learning the instrument). But it also makes us confront one of the nagging questions of our time: how do we know what is true and what is false? If a ten year old kid can play like Jake Shimabukuro, then what?

But the video doesn’t get into existential questions like that. It’s just hilarious. Although panelist Kalei Gamaio easily beats panelists Abe Lagrimas, Jr., and Aldrine Guerrero, each of the panelists makes hilarious mistakes.

Screen grab from the video
L-R: Abe Lagrimas, Kalei Gamaio, and Aldrine Guerrero — Kalei was the only one who figured out this player was NOT Jake, but a little kid