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.
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).
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.
Following up on yesterday’s post, I decided to draft a brief biography of gospel composer A. B. Windom — just in time for the last few days of Black History Month.
Aaron Bash Windom, better known as A. B. Windom, was born on September 11, 1910, in Missouri. Nothing is known about his early years. By 1941, he was publishing his own compositions in St. Louis, often under the imprint “Studio of A. B. Windom.” In addition to being a gospel composer, he taught music, and his students called him Professor A. B. Windom. He was also a performer, and both sang and played piano.
On February 17, 1949, he married Selma B. Hurd. Born c. 1903, Selma was from East St. Louis, Ill., across the river from St. Louis, and was the daughter of Baptist minister Rev. B. M. Hurd.
Although all his published compositions were gospel music, Windom taught classical piano. As one of his students remembers, “He was very well versed in music theory as well. Gospel music is not all he knew. He was a light-skinned Black man, [and] eccentric. I still miss him.” At least one of his students went on to become a professional musician, the gospel composer Rev. Robert Mayes (1942-1992).
Windom served for forty years as the minister of music at Christ Pilgrim Rest Baptist Church in St. Louis, circa 1940 until his death. In 1966, he served on the Devotional Literature Commission of the Progressive National Baptist Convention.
His gospel compositions were recorded most notably by Mahalia Jackson, and also by less well-known performers such as Martha Bass, the Golden Harmoneers, the Clara Ward Singers, etc. His 1948 composition “Let Us Sing Till the Power of the Lord Come Down” (a.k.a. “Now Let Us Sing”) has been recorded a number of times and is widely sung by church choirs. This song has even entered the folk tradition to the point where “Now Let Us Sing” has entered the oral tradition, passed on from singer to singer; unfortunately in the process Windom’s authorship has sometimes been forgotten.
Windom died on February 28, 1981. He had turned over his school at 3905 Evans Ave., St. Louis, to Professor Lee Cochran, Jr., who continued to teach music there. Selma, A. B.’s wife, died on February 26, 1994. They are buried together in St. Peter’s Cemetery, Normandy, St. Louis County, Missouri.
In 2016, I wrote a post about gospel composer A. B. Windom, giving what little information I then had, and asking if anyone knew more. One or two people commented who actually knew Windom, and one or two others have added little tidbits of information.
Windom is the person who composed “Now Let Us Sing,” one of the great gospel hymns. It’s hard to believe that there’s so little information out there about him. I realized today that if you search Google for “A. B. Windom,” my post now appears as the top result. That’s how little information there is about Windom online.
So I thought I should do a little more research and try to add to that 2016 post. I did what I should have done from the start — researched Windom on one of the genealogy sites. And in fact I did find a little more information, including the name of his wife. What I found in three hours of online research today had been added to the original post. If you’re looking for a research project, maybe you could go to that original post, see what little information is there, then go see if you can find more!
Post script: Singing the Living Tradition, the 1993 UU hymnal, attributes “Now Let Us Sing” to “anonymous.” Nope, it was written and copyrighted by A. B. Windom. And predominantly white churches that sing this song by an African American composer without crediting him, while changing the words to remove the God from this gospel song? … Mmm, the phrase that comes to my mind is “cultural misappropriation.”
Best song I’ve ever heard about domestic violence: “Johnny’s Girl” by Spirit Artis. The music is not complex: mostly Artis’s expressive voice, with her understated guitar accompaniment, and a touch of overdubbed harmony singing. The song is powerful enough that it doesn’t need any more than that.
In a podcast, Artis said this is a song about toxic relationships as viewed by a third party. She had seen relationships where one partner subsumes themselves in the dominant partner, so that person isn’t even known by their own name; they’re just known as “Johnny’s girl,” or “Gwyneth’s boy,” or whatever. I’ve done a little bit of work with people in domestic violence situations, and Artis’s lyrics get at some uncomfortable truths:
“Johnny’s girl, she’s lost herself again, She said, ‘He’s different, you don’t know him like I do,’ But Johnny-boy’s abusing on our friend, She said, ‘He’ll change, just give him time, this bruise will fade’….”
In the same podcast, Artis added that she sang this song to someone she knew who needed to hear it, and that person got out of the toxic relationship that they were in. So I’m linking to this song on my blog — in case there’s someone else out there who needs to hear it.
I’ve picked up the ukulele again, but there’s not a lot of live ukulele happening in southeastern Massachusetts. So I’ve been getting my uke fix watching the weekly video podcast of Hawaii Music Supply, which you can find on their YouTube channel. Yes, they promote their high-end ukuleles. Yes, there’s a lot of pointless chit-chat, as on every podcast. But there’s also plenty of music, with some of the best of the newer ukulele players, sometimes playing songs and compositions they haven’t yet recorded. Players like Honoka, Neil Chin, Taimane Gardner, and many others, appear on the podcast and jam with regulars Corey Fujimoto and Kalei Gamaio.
For someone like me who’s trying to pick up the uke again, it’s really helpful to hear what really good ukulele playing sounds like. Plus ukulele players tend to be welcoming friendly people, and the ukulele itself is a gentle happy instrument. I put this podcast on while I’m cleaning the floor or doing laundry, and it cheers me right up even on a rainy windy winter day.
But here’s my playlist for this year’s World Ukulele Day. It’s mostly instrumental, except for two pieces. Many of the performers are from Hawai’i, of course, but I tried to make this about world ukulele by including players from Thailand, Japan, the US mainland, Germany, England, and Canada. Musical styles range from traditional Hawai’ian to jazz to pop to folk and beyond.
Corey Fujimoto may not be showy like some Big Name Uke Players, but his musicianship and technical prowess are top drawer. This Presto movement from a Bach sonata shows off both his technical prowess, and his excellent musical taste.
The words to this song are both silly and sweet. The real joy in this video is watching five top-notch uke players, all doing different things with the same tune. If you have five really good uke players, you really don’t need any other instruments.
John King was trained as a classical guitarist in the campanella style, and he made his name in uke circles by performing classical music on the uke. His arrangements of melodies by Hawai’ian composers are less well known, but well worth listening to. Both his arrangements and his playing are understated, allowing the beauty of the melodies to shine through.
James Hill is a ukulele virtuoso, and he sometimes suffers from virtuoso-itis, making music more complicated than it needs to be. Not in this video, where Hill plays second fiddle, er uke, to John King.
Taimane Gardner is another incredible uke player who sometimes suffers from virtuoso-itis. But in this performance, the high level virtuosity she displays is well matched to the requirements of the music.
For my money, Israel Kamakawiwo’ole was the best ukulele player ever. He doesn’t play with the virtuoso pyrotechnics of a James Hill, a Jake Shimabukuro, or a Taimane Gardner. But his playing is perfect. So is his singing.
Since 1947, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has maintained the “Doomsday Clock.” That mythical clock shows how close humanity is to total destruction. Originally, the Clock only looked at the danger from nuclear armageddon, but in recent years has included threats from ecological catastrophe, bio-security, and other controllable threats to humanity.
The Clock was advanced from its previous setting of 100 seconds before midnight (i.e., to destruction), up to 90 seconds before midnight. According to Rachel Bronson, PhD, president and CEO, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists: “90 seconds to midnight is the closest the Clock has ever been set to midnight.” The Bulletin’s press release attributes most of the increase in threat to humanity to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and ongoing threats that Russia will use nuclear weapons.
Ten years ago, the Clock was set to 5 minutes (300 seconds) to midnight. When I first got active in the movement calling for reduction in nuclear stockpiles, back in the late 1970s, the Clock was set at 9 minutes to midnight, and we thought that was terrifying.
I still remember attending a Sun Ra concert in Philadelphia sometimes around 1983, when Sun Ra led his band in a snake dance through the audience while chanting, “It’s a motherfucker / Don’t you know / If they press that button / Your ass gonna go.” That chant was one of the things that helped me make sense of something you can’t really make sense out of. Nuclear war. It’s a motherfucker — and Sun Ra never used strong language, except in this piece, but that strong language is the only possible language for this topic — but there it is. Don’t get frantic about nuclear disaster, but don’t ignore it either. Confront it head on, in all its seriousness, with all the possibility of oblivion, while making music about it.
(For the record, the live version I remember hearing differs from the 1982 recorded version. Musically, the version I heard in Philadelphia is probably more like the live version recorded in Germany in 1984; though the words of the German recording differ from what I remember. There’s also the version recorded in Paris in 1983, which is quite different musically. No matter. If you’re looking to make sense out of nuclear armageddon, the effect of any of the recorded versions is the same: helping us make sense of the senseless.)
Three of us were in the office in the early afternoon. Each of us was feeling a little bit grumpy. Each of us was glad to be done with 2022, and hoping that 2023 will be a little bit better.
I told them my theory. Here we are, three years into a pandemic. Historically, pandemics have ended after a year and a half. But this pandemic is still going strong. I told them about this article I read that blamed the Ukraine war on the pandemic — Putin took advantage of societal chaos to launch his war.
I think I might even blame the pandemic for what happened in the U.S. House of Representatives today. The Republicans could not elect a Speaker of the House. Sure, we can blame it on right-wing extremists and ideologues. But I suspect part of the reason that people are voting right wing extremists and ideologues into office is that people are afraid and angry and doing stupid things like voting for people who can’t and won’t govern effectively.
It’s time to start playing ukulele again. I’ll never be a good ukulele player, but who cares. Pick up a ukulele, and you can’t help smiling. To quote George Harrison: “[The uke] is one instrument you can’t play and not laugh.”
Even if I can’t play it very well, a uke makes me feel better. Especially if it’s Carol’s uke, the one with blue flowers painted on it.