M is for McFerrin


“There is something almost superhuman about the range and technique of Bobby McFerrin,” says Newsweek. “He sounds, by turns, like a blackbird, a Martian, an operatic soprano, a small child, and a bebop trumpet.”

Back in the early 1980s, I had heard of this a capella singer who performed in the jazz mode, making near orchestral sounds with his voice and body, named Bobby McFerrin. I was familiar with him mostly because every album had a some pop music covers. [Here is a live cover version of the Beatles’ Blackbird.]

Almost every season of the popular sitcom called Cosby Show had a different version of the theme to open the show. For Season 4 (1987-1988), the opening was performed by McFerrin.

In the summer of 1988, I was in San Diego, riding in the car of my sister’s friend Donald, when I heard a song called “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” for the first time. I thought, “That could be a big hit in southern California, but I don’t know if anyone else will buy it.” Of course, it hit the national charts on July 30, and went to #1 for two weeks, starting on September 30. (Here’s one video, and this the video featuring McFerrin and Robin Williams.

Skip to in 1989, when he he formed a ten-person ‘Voicestra’ which he featured on his 1990 album Medicine Music. I happened to catch McFerrin and Voicestra one morning on NBC-TV’s Today show. After a couple songs, I recall that Bryant Gumbel, then the co-host of the show, noted that McFerrin had said in an interview that he would no longer perform “Don’t Worry, Be Happy”, his only #1 hit, and that now he (Gumbel) understood why.
Sweet in the Morning from Medicine Music, featuring Voicestra.
Discipline, Featuring Robert McFerrin & Voicestra

I bought about a half dozen copies of that album to give as Christmas presents in 1990.

I was watching that episode with our brand-new new church choir director, Eric, who was crashing at our apartment until he found a place of his own. A couple years later, he arranged the McFerrin version of the 23rd Psalm for three guys in the choir to sing, Bob, Tim, and with me singing the highest part, all falsetto. On the recording, McFerrin sings all three vocal tracks, overdubbed, himself, which you can hear HERE.

McFerrin has also worked in collaboration with instrumental performers including pianists Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, and Joe Zawinul, drummer Tony Williams, and cellist Yo-Yo Ma; this is Ma and McFerrin’s version of Ave Maria.

My wife and I had the great good fortune to see bobby McFerrin live at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center on August 6, 1999. Here’s the review, from which I want to highlight the following:

Whether conducting the classics, improvising on an original tune plucked from thin air or cavorting within the ranks of the Philadelphia Orchestra, the affable McFerrin charms all in his wake.

Finding descriptive labels for the multitalented McFerrin seems futile. His talent is so broad and diverse that there seems to be nothing he can’t do well, including stand-up comedy. There’s a serious side, too, as the wunderkind leads the likes of the Philly through compositions by major composers such as Sergei Prokofiev and Felix Mendelssohn.

McFerrin’s uncanny ability to do “voices” put the audience on the floor with
all the characters from “Oz,” the most memorable of which was Margaret Hamilton’s Wicked Witch line — “Come here, my little pretty!”

[This was HYSTERICAL.]

McFerrin invited singers in the audience who knew the Bach-Gounod “Ave Maria” to sing along. McFerrin sang every note of Bach’s rippling arpeggios for accompaniment, while several audience soloists sang Gounod’s wonderful melody over the top.
[This was absolutely extraordinary. One of the soloists was only a few rows in front of us.]

The Philly sang (yes, sang) the “William Tell Overture,” for encore.
[A hoot.]

Listen to CircleSong Six from the CircleSong album.

As an Amazon review says:
“Despite the undeniable uniqueness of his gift, Bobby’s music is always accessible and inviting. When he invites his fans to sing along, as he almost always does, few can resist. Inclusiveness, play, and the universality of voices raised together in song are at the heart of Bobby’s art. Bobby McFerrin was exposed to a multitude of musical genres during his youth–classical, R&B, jazz, pop and world musics. ‘When you grow up with that hodgepodge of music, it just comes out. It was like growing up in a multilingual house,’ he says. Bobby McFerrin continues to explore the musical universe, known and unknown.”

A Bobby McFerrin discography.

Bobby McFerrin turned 60 on March 11, 2010.

ROG

ABC Wednesday

L is for Lincoln


Most Americans probably know Abraham Lincoln better than any other President. He’s the only one, other than John Kennedy, whose birth day (February 12, 1809) and date of death (April 15, 1865) I know by heart.

So why are historians endlessly fascinated by the 16th President to a degree that there are over 2500 biographies of the man? Maybe it’s because the simple narrative of Honest Abe, born in a log cabin, who saw slavery as an issue worth fighting a Civil War over is instinctively such an incomplete narrative.

2009 was the bicentennial of Lincoln’s birth, and there were a number of pieces on PBS (public broadcasting in the US) about the man shed new light on him for me, and possibly for you as well.

Bill Moyers discussed THE LINCOLN ANTHOLOGY: GREAT WRITERS ON HIS LIFE AND LEGACY FROM 1860 TO NOW is a collection of more than 90 authors from across the years who create a constantly evolving portrait of the man whose shadow keeps lengthening across our history.

Moyers also highlighted Lincoln through the eyes of critically acclaimed, veteran dance artist Bill T. Jones. “In a groundbreaking work of choreography called FONDLY DO WE HOPE…FERVENTLY DO WE PRAY, Jones reimagines a young Lincoln in his formative years through dance.”

Jones said: “Lincoln was, in some people’s mind, always Honest Abe on a pedestal, but Lincoln had a sexuality. Lincoln was a politician. In the debates, Lincoln is the one that said to Douglas that, no, I would never marry a black woman. But I don’t — just because I don’t want a black woman for a wife doesn’t mean I must have her for a slave. And he even said, I’m not sure if all — if blacks and whites are equal, you know. But he said, people have the right to certain liberties. They have certain rights because they are in America. He was a man of his era.”

Also, from a conversation with Henry Louis Gates, Jr.:

What made Lincoln such a unique president?

Lincoln had a tremendous capacity for personal growth – more than any other American President. He was essentially a man of his times, resolute in his belief in the inequality of the races. But within the cauldron of the Civil War, he began to see that there could not be a United States without freedom for the black man. He came to embrace blacks, particularly those that fought so valiantly for the Union, as fully deserving the basic human right of freedom. He was slow to the cause to be sure, but once he got there, he was unshakable. Now, we will never know how far he might have gone had he lived. That’s part of the mystique that still surrounds him: the question “what if?”

Why is Lincoln’s legacy so contested?

Because Lincoln is so closely identified with what it is to be American, everyone wants to claim him, to rewrite his story to satisfy their own particular needs. For my own people, it was important to imagine him as the Great Emancipator, the Moses who led us out of slavery. For others, it was Lincoln the humble man who rose to greatness, or Lincoln the great Commander, or Lincoln the martyr. Every generation since his death has conjured up their own Lincoln. There were many Lincolns — enough for people to love and hate.

That explanation of the third US President (of eight) to die in office, but but the first (of four) to be assassinated, resonates with me. We project onto Lincoln, who was only 56 when he died, who he was and who he might have become. This might explain the release just last month of the generally positively-reviewed novel Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. No, really.

Finally, this story retold in Living Water.

The Debt
When he was an attorney, Abraham Lincoln was once approached by a man who passionately insisted on bringing a suit for $2.50 against an impoverished debtor. Lincoln tried to discourage him, but the man was bent on revenge. When he saw that the man would not be put off, Lincoln agreed to take the case and asked for a legal fee of $10, which the plaintiff paid. Lincoln then gave half of the money to the defendant, who willingly confessed to the debt and paid the $2.50! But even more amazing than Lincoln’s ingenuous settlement was the fact that the irate plaintiff was satisfied with it.*

More Lincoln photos here.

ABC Wednesday
The largest of over 100 places in the US named Lincoln is in Nebraska.

K is for Kindergarten


When my wife and I went to kindergarten in the 1950s (me) and 1960s (her), it was designed to acclimate us to going to school, learning how to be away from home, and an attempt to teach rudimentary things such as learning songs and telling time.

I still remember the Roman-numeraled clocks in my classroom, and the yellow rug that I, and a year later, my sister Leslie used to take our naps. In fact, I specifically remember once waking up at 11:45 a.m. and realizing that no one was there. I actually fell asleep at naptime, and Miss Cady let me sleep, knowing I would just get up and go home afterward. (If a teacher did that now, he or she almost certainly would be fired.)

The book pictured in this post above was/is actually a gift to my wife Carol from her family just before she actually went to kindergarten. The lead character in the book is coincidentally also named Carol.

But now my daughter is now in kindergarten, and it is far from the “children’s garden” its name suggests. In the United States, it has evolved from that “transition from home to the commencement of more formal schooling” to the “first year of compulsory education.” Where once kindergarten was where kids learned skills through creative play and social interaction,” in half-day increments, it is now often the full-day entry level to the standard curriculum.

I mean, my daughter has HOMEWORK! Not just learn the numbers and letters, but adding numbers and combining letters to make words. It’s far more rigorous than her mother and I experienced in the day.

There is this 87-page PDF from early in this century called Original Purpose and Development of Kindergarten in California, which addresses these issues

…kindergarten, inspired by precursor early childhood education concepts, included children from ages six and seven to as young as two and three. It sought to lead children gently “over the threshold of learning by the seductive charm of music, flowers, games, pictures, and curious objects.” Later, kindergarten was integrated into the first to 12th grade system, gradually and subtly changing its focus to emphasize emergent literacy and early academic skills. An apparent consequence was that the minimum entry age was raised several times to its current level. This philosophical divergence is still not fully resolved.

The daughter got a note home from school at the end of the semester, noting that she missed nine days from school, mostly for illness. We were informed that she won’t pass into 1st grade if she misses more than 28 days for the year. Could she “fail” kindergarten? She IS graded on concepts such as “identifies sight words in text”, “interprets data from graphs”, and “communicates ideas, feelings and elements of design,” and is doing well.

This is NOT her parents’ kindergarten.

I’d write more, but I have to go help her with her homework now.


ABC Wednesday
ROG

J is for JEOPARDY!


For reasons I will explain later, this is my favorite Final JEOPARDY! answer- the category is SISTER CITIES: San Francisco, California is a sister city to this one in Italy.

I started watching the game show JEOPARDY! fairly early on. It started in 1964 as a noontime show on NBC-TV. Art Fleming was the host; you can see some of his 1970s work here. I would stop at the home of my maternal grandmother and great aunt Deana; Deana and I would watch the show while we ate lunch, which grandma Williams usually prepared, and then I would return to school. The show lasted for 11 years, and I probably watched it for the first four regularly, until I went to high school, and again as often as possible once I got to college in 1971.

It is the Fleming version of the show that shows up in the film Airplane 2 (about the only original bit in that movie sequel), and in the “Weird Al” Yankovic video I Lost on Jeopardy.

Then, after a short-lived version in 1978, JEOPARDY! returned in syndicated (non-network) television in 1984 with Alex Trebek as host. I recognized Trebek from a game called High Rollers, which involved answering a couple questions then using these oversized pair of dice.

The other thing that was different from the original game, is that the values of clues had increased tenfold, from $10-$50 in JEOPARDY! (and twice that in Double JEOPARDY!) to $100-$500 in JEOPARDY! (The values doubled in the beginning of Season 19, in the fall of 2002, to $200-$1000 in JEOPARDY!) Not incidentally, in the current game, “the minimum wager on a Daily Double is $5, which was half the smallest clue value on the original version of Jeopardy! that premiered in 1964 with Art Fleming as host.”

I always love the story about the creation of JEOPARDY! After the game show scandals of the 1950s, where certain players were leaked the answers, rigging the results, the late entertainer Merv Griffin was having a meal with his then-wife. He was musing about how he could put together a show in that atmosphere of distrust. She suggested giving the contestants the answers. He said something equivalent to “Are you crazy? That’s been the problem!” She responded, “5280”; he said, “What is the number of feet in a mile?” The ah-ha moment arrived.

Merv Griffin also wrote the Think Music that plays for thirty seconds while the contestants are writing down their Final JEOPARDY! responses.

***
Oh, that question at the top: What I loved about it is that, obviously, the JEOPARDY! folks wouldn’t expect you to KNOW San Francisco’s Italian sister city. So there must be some linkage between SF and one city in Italy. And I figured it out. Any guesses?
***

One of the things people occasionally ask me when they try out for the game show JEOPARDY! is what sources they should use. Sure, there’s the official JEOPARDY! site. But THE most valuable tool, I think, is the JEOPARDY! archive, specifically the help function.

Some intrepid JEOPARDY! fans have gotten together to archive almost every show in the past 13 years, and have captured some earlier episodes as well. If one can’t watch the show, then reading the answers and questions will help prepare you for playing. There is also information about wagering, a LOT of info I think, other than general knowledge, waging is the most important aspect in the game. The site even describes the episode on the TV show Cheers when postman Cliff Clavin was on JEOPARDY!, had an insurmountable lead and still managed to lose.

Karl Coryat, a two-day champion back in 1996, has some good tips for what to study: “…there are a few things you absolutely must know. These are, in order of importance: State and world capitals; U.S. presidents (order, years of office, and general biographies); state nicknames; and Shakespeare’s plays, including basic plot lines and major characters.” I might have put Presidents first, but I don’t disagree with his general premise.

“Prior to a rule change that went into effect at the beginning of the 20th Season [2003-2004], a champion could win a maximum of 5 games, whereupon he/she would retire and later return for the next Tournament of Champions.” It was the rule change that allowed Ken Jennings to win 74 games in a row. It was great for Jennings, but I’m still not convinced it was great for JEOPARDY! The Tournament that year, instead of having a bunch of 5-time champions, and maybe one or two 4-timers, actually had a 3-day champ, diluting the process.

One variation on JEOPARDY! you may or may not remember was called Rock & Roll Jeopardy. It ran from 1998 to 2001 on VH-1 and was hosted by Jeff Probst, who would later host a reality show called Survivor. I thought it was a lesser program, in large part because, for most of its run, one played for “points” rather than dollars, with the person with the most points getting $5,000.

You can read about my JEOPARDY appearances here; the Boston shows in 1998 were the first non-tournament games ever played outside the Los Angeles-area studio. I only discovered recently that I had the second highest one-game dollar amount in the 1998-1999 season.

***
The question: What is Assisi? San Francisco is named for Saint Francis of Assisi.


ABC Wednesday


ROG

I is for Irish Migration


One of the cliches one hears in the United States this week is that “Everyone’s Irish!” People who couldn’t find Ireland on a map of the British Isles will be doing the Wearing of the Green, to the delight or irritation of many.

So how many Americans ARE Irish? According to the 2000 Census, of the 281.4 million people in the country, 30.5 million, or 10.8% self-identify as Irish. In a more recent calculation, 36.3 million U.S. residents claimed “Irish ancestry in 2008. This number was more than eight times the population of Ireland itself (4.4 million). Irish was the nation’s second most frequently reported ancestry, trailing only German.”

Most people are familiar with the potato famine of the 1840s which generated much of the emigration from Ireland to the US. But in fact, the trend started earlier than that.

“Between 1820 and 1860, the Irish constituted over one third of all immigrants to the United States. In the 1840s, they comprised nearly half of all immigrants to this nation. Interestingly, pre-famine immigrants from Ireland were predominately male, while in the famine years and their aftermath, entire families left the country. In later years, the majority of Irish immigrants were women.”

The Irish-Americans suffered some definite hostility. For instance: “In the Questions for Admittance to the American Party (1854), inductees committed to ‘…elect to all offices of Honor, Profit, or Trust, no one but native born citizens of America, of this Country to the exclusion of all Foreigners, and to all Roman Catholics, whether they be of native or Foreign Birth, regardless of all party predilections whatever’.” There were also racial pressures: “…the Irish and Blacks had reason to feel they were treated unfairly in the workforce, and often at one another’s expense.”

Eventually, though the “Irish influence resulted in increased power for the Democratic Party as well as the Catholic Church. William R. Grace became New York City’s first Irish-Catholic mayor in 1880. Four years later, Hugh O’Brien won the same position in Boston.

“Irish-American political clout led to increased opportunities for the Irish-American. Looking out for their own, the political machines made it possible for the Irish to get jobs, to deal with naturalization issues, even to get food or heating fuel in emergencies. The political machines also rewarded their own through political appointments.”

I happen to think that there are actually more Irish in America than have been reported. The mixing of the races has probably made tracking lineage difficult in some cases. A prime example is delineated in the book The Sweeter The Juice about an Irish woman and a mulatto man marrying after the Civil War. Many of the descendants, especially those living as black, have holes in their family trees.

Where are the Irish-American enclaves in the US? According to the ePodunk site, the concentration is in the Northeast, plus in and around the state of Illinois. Interestingly, Albany, NY is NOT on the list; given the partying that goes on after every St. Patrick’s Day parade, such as the one from Saturday past, maybe it’s the faux green wearers who are the most vigorous celebrants.


(A not so subtle reminder for Americans to fill out the Census forms they received this week.)

ABC Wednesday

ROG