James Brown Comes to the Screen

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This Friday, August 1, the new movie about James Brown will be released. Titled Get On Up, the film stars Chadwick Boseman as Brown. The film also features Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, Craig Robinson, and Dan Aykroyd, Brown’s co-star from Doctor Detroit (and The Blues Brothers). As of this writing, no reviews have been published, so its unclear if Get On Up will be good. It’s easy to be dubious though. The trailer makes Get On Up look like a pretty standard biopic.  And Boseman doesn’t really look like Brown. Of course, nobody really looks like James Brown, so that can’t be held against the movie.

Regardless of the movie’s eventual quality, James Brown is a compelling character: he was an essential figure in 20th century American history and culture, and his music’s influence can still be heard today. His story is a great one: as for a telling of it, I suppose I’ll not so humbly recommend Proud: The Story of James Brown by Ronald D. Lankford, our (Morgan Reynolds) biography of the singer. It’s a good one.

Born into poverty in the 1930s, Brown revolutionized R&B music into something vital and earth-shaking, and the live shows he put on were intense and dynamic. He influenced generations of musicians that followed him, and helped shaped the sound of modern pop and rap.

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Brown was also a radical and influential advocate for civil rights, and inspired many with his song “Say it Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud.” He also toured in Vietnam, performing for American troops.

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Brown also struggled with drugs and the law, and strove, not always successfully, to be a family man and a good man. In short, his life was a full one.

To read about James Brown, check out Proud: The Story of James Brown by Ronald D. Lankford (ISBN# 978-1-59935-374-6) from your local library or purchase it from Morgan Reynolds Publishing.

– Josh Barrer,

Associate Editor

(All pics appear in Proud: The Story of James Brown)

(And while we are on the topic of movies about the subjects of Morgan Reynolds biographies, don’t forget The Imitation Game, starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing, due out this November.)

 

 

Published in: on July 29, 2014 at 9:15 am  Leave a Comment  
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Pete Seeger and “We Shall Overcome”

(from left) Martin Luther King Jr., Pete Seeger, Charis Horton, Rosa Parks, Ralph Abernathy, in  1957.

(from left) Martin Luther King Jr., Pete Seeger, Charis Horton, Rosa Parks, and Ralph Abernathy, in 1957.

Earlier this year,  on January 27, acclaimed folk singer and activist Pete Seeger passed away at the age of ninety-four.  Seeger had a long and distinguished career, beginning in the 1930s when he was just a teenager. He was instrumental in the movement to re-popularize folk music in the 1950s and 1960s; was blacklisted for his leftist political ideals and was indicted for contempt of congress for his refusal to answer questions from bullying House Un-American Activities Committee in 1955; and was an early champion of the music of Bob Dylan. Later, in the late 1960s and 1970s, he used his music to protest the Vietnam War, and lent his talents to many other causes. He performed at the 2009 inaugural concert for President Barack Obama, and continued writing and performing tirelessly up until the end of his life.

But one of the things Seeger is most known for is the song “We Shall Overcome,” the unofficial anthem of the Civil Rights Movement.

Seeger didn’t write “We Shall Overcome.” Like many folk songs, it was pieced together from several sources and passed from musician to musician, each adding their own unique element to it, though it was mostly derived from a 1901 gospel song called “I’ll Overcome Someday.” By the time Seeger began performing the song, it had become “We Will Overcome.” Seeger changed the key lyric slightly, “We will” became “We shall,” as he felt that the revised phrase had a powerful, open sound when sung. He also wrote several new verses for the song. Seeger’s version of the song was performed by many folk singers, and quickly became popular amongst activists fighting for civil rights and laborers’ rights*. Seeger played the song at a 1957 performance: Martin Luther King Jr. was in the audience. Though King was familiar with the song, he was particularly struck by Seeger’s version.

By the 1960s, “We Shall Overcome” was known by everyone in the Civil Rights Movement, and they sang it proudly and defiantly at protests and gatherings, to give themselves strength and confidence to face the oppressive forces they were challenging. It was performed at the famous 1963 March on Washington, though not by Seeger; he was out of country with his family, so the song was performed by popular folk singer Joan Baez. (Another Seeger song, “If I Had a Hammer” was also performed at the March, by folk group Peter, Paul, and Mary.)

In an interview with radio host Tavis Smiley, conducted in 2012, Seeger reflects on his life and long career, including the evolution of “We Shall Overcome” and how it came to be part of the Civil Rights Movement. Near the end, he sums up his beliefs on the power of social protest: “The people with money can break up any big thing they want, but they don’t know what to do when there are millions of little things, so I  say, go ahead with your little things and don’t think they are unimportant.”

“We Shall Overcome” was just one of the many little things Seeger contributed during his lifetime, and it played a part in changing the world.

To learn more about the 1963 March on Washington and the people who bravely stood together singing “We Shall Overcome,” please check out our acclaimed book, Martin Luther King Jr. and the 1963 March on Washington by David Aretha (ISBN# 978-159935372-2) from your local library, or purchase it from Morgan Reynolds Publishing. For further reading, please see the rest of our Civil Rights Movement series.

-Josh Barrer,

Associate Editor

*In addition to its association with the American Civil Rights Movement, “We Shall Overcome” has been an anthem for many oppressed peoples fighting for civil rights. It became particularly significant in South Africa, where it was sung by freedom fighter Frederick John Harris, prior to his execution for a bombing in protest of the country’s apartheid policy. A recorded version of the song, performed by Seeger, but with the last line, “We shall all be free,” sung by Harris was suppressed by the government, but became important to the anti-apartheid movement.

Bernstein and Copland: A Lasting Friendship

Leonard and Bernstein and Aaron Copland

Leonard Bernstein and Aaron Copland

(Editor’s Note: Today we proudly present a guest blog from author Catherine Reef, examining the friendship between Leonard Bernstein–the subject of her new book, Leonard Bernstein and American Music–and Aaron Copland.)

On November 14, 1937, when he was a junior at Harvard, Leonard Bernstein attended a modern-dance concert in New York City. To his right sat “an odd-looking man in his thirties,” Bernstein noticed, with “a pair of glasses resting on his great hooked nose and a mouth filled with teeth flashing a wide grin.” During the intermission, when he and the stranger were introduced, “I almost fell out of the balcony,” Bernstein recalled. He had just met Aaron Copland.

Bernstein, at nineteen, was already a gifted pianist and a dynamic performer, but beyond the Harvard campus he was unknown. Copland, who happened to be celebrating his thirty-seventh birthday, was a respected American composer. Later that night, during a party at Copland’s Manhattan apartment, Bernstein sat down at the keyboard and tore into his host’s Piano Variations, a clanging, discordant piece he loved to play, and a friendship was born.

For me, one of the perks of writing biographies is spending time with my subjects and their friends. John Steinbeck and Ed Ricketts, George Gershwin and his brother Ira, Ralph Abernathy and Martin Luther King . . .  enduring friendships like these are among the closest bonds in life. With their dearest friends my subjects felt a freedom to be themselves that may have been impossible in their other relationships. The friends accepted each other as they were; each brought out the best in the other.

Because of the eighteen-year age difference, the friendship of Copland and Bernstein had qualities of a mentor / protégé connection, at least in the early years. A recommendation from Copland carried weight when Bernstein applied to study conducting at the Curtis School of Music, in Philadelphia. A word from Copland helped secure Bernstein a place in the conducting program at Tanglewood, thus beginning Bernstein’s lifelong affiliation with the summer music school in the Berkshires, first as a student and later as an instructor. Copland was in the audience when Bernstein received his diploma from Curtis, in 1941. And when Bernstein was feeling frustrated as a young conductor trying to get his start in New York, he turned to Copland for advice. His older, wiser friend counseled patience. “Don’t expect miracles and don’t get depressed if nothing happens for awhile,” Copland wrote. Success would require hard work and time.

Leonard Bernstein achieved success and found fame, of course, and he remained grateful for all Copland had done. In 1979, when Copland was a Kennedy Center honoree, Bernstein spoke to the distinguished audience about his friend’s commitment to finding and nurturing new talent. “He has always had time for everyone, especially the young, and that’s the mark of a great man,” Bernstein said. “I know, because I was one of them.” In a letter Copland thanked Bernstein for the “splendiferous” tribute.

This letter is one of many that have survived. The two men carried on a lively, affectionate correspondence throughout their years of friendship. Bernstein might have address Copland irreverently as “Dear Venerable Giggling Dean,” or simply as “Aa,” for Aaron. Copland called Bernstein “Lensk,” or just plain “Lenny.” The letters tended to be playful in tone, but they could also be heartfelt. “There can never be one closer to me than you are,” Bernstein admitted in 1942. Even with a bosom friend, it can be easier to open one’s heart on a page than in person.

Collaborators and friends

Collaborators and friends

Copland’s musical path was straight and clear. He was a composer, first and foremost.

In contrast, Bernstein’s exuberant talent drew him in diverging directions: performing, conducting, and composing. In composition, too, Copland generously offered guidance. He advised the young Bernstein to cut from his work any passages that revealed the influence of other composers. “You’ve got to get that out of your head and start fresh,” he might say about a particular musical phrase. He urged Bernstein to find his own voice, to sound like no other composer but himself. “I want to hear about your writing a song that has no Copland, no Hindemith, no Stravinsky, no Bloch, no Milhaud and no Bartok in it,” Copland instructed. “Then I’ll talk to you.”

When Bernstein did find his voice, he produced works for the concert hall and the musical theater. He wrote symphonies, ballets, song cycles, Broadway shows, and a Mass that married a classical form with popular styles, such as folk. If Bernstein was determined to write music, then Copland preferred to see him compose serious pieces and leave the show tunes to others. But privately Copland wished that Bernstein would focus on conducting and performing, which he considered the younger man’s strengths, and leave composition to others. He said, rather tellingly, when asked about Bernstein’s music in 1982, “One has the impression that it isn’t always entirely necessary.”

Bernstein adored Copland’s music, however, and he championed it at every opportunity. For example, early in his career he composed a piano arrangement of El Salón México, Copland’s musical impression of a Mexico City dance hall, and proudly performed it. In a project that began in 1958, the year he became musical director of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, and continued for more than a decade, he recorded Copland’s orchestral music for Columbia Records. In 1962, he commissioned Copland to write a piece for the opening of Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, in New York City. The result was Connotations, for orchestra.

In 1989, Bernstein led the New York Philharmonic in a concert devoted to Copland’s music. The program was something of a retrospective, featuring, among other compositions, the early Music for the Theatre (1925) and Connotations. The concert closed with the orchestral version of El Salón México, and with the maestro’s jubilant, laughing leap from the podium. At least one person present, the critic Tim Page, understood that he was witnessing musical history. “Someday, and not too long from now, the idea of a Copland concert conducted by Leonard Bernstein will tantalize our grandchildren,” Page noted.

Aaron Copland was too frail and old to attend. Declining health also kept him away from Bernstein’s funeral, on October 16, 1990. A lifelong heavy smoker, Bernstein succumbed to his habit at seventy-two. Copland made it to the golden age of ninety, but he died just two months after his friend.

To learn more about life of Leonard Bernstein and his contributions to the music of the twentieth century, please check out Leonard Bernstein and American Music by Catherine Reef  (ISBN# 978-1-59935-125-4) from your local library or purchase it from Morgan Reynolds Publishing.

Lifelong friends

Lifelong friends

Published in: on September 3, 2013 at 10:15 am  Leave a Comment  
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Verdi’s Music Keeps Playing, In Opera Houses and Online

Surely one of the greatest honors for any artist is for his or her work to survive long after the artist’s death. Such is the case for the great Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi. Though yesterday (January 27) was the anniversary of his death in 1901, his operas continue to be heard and performed throughout the world.

Opera houses continue to stage productions of his work, and his work is even being performed in ways that take advantage of modern technology, ways Verdi could never have imagined. On January 7th of this year, the Royal Opera House of London broadcast a Royal Opera LIVE event online, in which viewers could watch ten hours of uninterrupted footage from backstage at the Royal Opera House. As part of this event, and to celebrate Verdi’s 200th birthday this year, the Opera House invited people from all over the world to submit video of themselves singing Verdi’s Va Pensiero from the opera Nabucco. Video submissionsGiuseppe_Verdi00 came in from all over the world, capturing people performing Verdi’s music in diverse places such as The Sydney Opera House, the Kyoto Imperial Palace, and one woman’s kitchen while she prepares Christmas dinner. These performances were broadcast as part of the Royal Opera LIVE event, and can still be seen on Youtube and the website of the Royal Opera House. Furthermore, some of the best moments from the submissions will be incorporated into a new commissioned work by  British composer Elspeth Brooke inspired by Va Pensiero. The new composition will debut later this year.

This was just the first of many celebrations of Verdi planned for this year, the 200th anniversary of his birth on October 10, 1813. The Vienna State Opera, in Vienna, Austria, for example, will be staging a number of Verdi operas this year, including La Traviatta and Rigoletto. Verdi’s works will be performed around the world, in places as diverse as Munich, Helsinki, and Shanghai. These events not only pay tribute to Verdi, but show that opera continues to be a vital and important art form, even if it is not as popular as it once was. They also show that great art can transcend time and popular styles, resonating with people even centuries after the art was first created.

To learn more about Giuseppe Verdi, his life, and his contributions to the world of music, check out Giuseppe Verdi and Italian Opera by William Schoell (ISBN #978-159935-041-7) from your local library, or purchase it from Morgan Reynolds Publishing. Then check out our Classical Composers series, featuring biographies on Antonio Vivaldi, George Frideric Handel, Fanny Mendelssohn, Clara Schumann, and Johann Sebastian Bach.

Josh Barrer,

Associate Editor

Published in: on January 28, 2013 at 11:26 am  Leave a Comment  
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“Come on and hear!”

“Alexander’s Ragtime Band” sheet music

The fireworks flashed over the National Mall as the National Symphony Orchestra struck up the beginning chords of Irving Berlin’s “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” during the July 4th concert in Washington, D.C. This year marks the one hundredth anniversary of the piece’s debut.

In Say it with Music: The Story of Irving Berlin (a Morgan Reynolds book), author Nancy Furstinger writes, “Berlin at first released the melody without lyrics, but it flopped when it debuted in a cabaret. Discouraged, Berlin stashed it in his trunk. He later pulled it back out and added lyrics because, as a newly elected Friars’ Club member, he was supposed to give a speech. Berlin decided to sing his speech, and the revised ‘Alexander’s Ragtime Band’ was the result. It became a hit and soon it could be heard everywhere across America.”

Berlin once said, “I wrote it without words as a two-step and it was a dead failure. Six months later, I wrote words to it… When the lyrics were added later, it became alive. People sang it and it became a sensation. For music to live, it must be sung.”

Lyrics to “Alexander’s Ragtime Band

VERSE 1:
Oh, ma hon-ey, oh, ma hon-ey, bet-ter hur-ry and let’s me-an-der
Ain’t you go-in’? Ain’t you go-in’? To the lea-der-man, rag-ged me-ter man?
Oh, ma hon-ey, oh, ma hon-ey, Let me take you to Al-ex-an-der’s
Grand stand brass band, ain’t you com-in’ a-long?
CHORUS:
Come on and hear! Come on and hear! Al-ex-an-der’s rag-time band!
Come on and hear! Come on and hear! It’s the best band in the land!
They can play a bu-gle call like you nev-er heard be-fore
So nat-u-ral that you want to go to war
That’s just the best-est band what am, oh, ma hon-ey lamb
Come on a-long, come on a-long, let me take you by the hand
Up to the man, up to the man, who’s the lead-er of the band
And if you care to hear the Swa-nee Riv-er played in rag-time
Come on and hear, come on and hear,
Al-ex-an-der’s Rag-Time Band.
VERSE 2:
Oh, ma hon-ey, oh, ma hon-ey, there’s a fid-dle with notes that scree-ches,
Like a chick-en, like a chick-en, and the clar-i-net is a col-ored pet
Come and list-en, come and list-en, to a class-i-cal band what’s pea-ches
Come now, some-how, bet-ter hur-ry a-long!
CHORUS:
Come on and hear! Come on and hear! Al-ex-an-der’s rag-time band!
Come on and hear! Come on and hear! It’s the best band in the land!
They can play a bu-gle call like you nev-er heard be-fore
So nat-u-ral that you want to go to war
That’s just the best-est band what am, oh, ma hon-ey lamb
Come on a-long, come on a-long, let me take you by the hand
Up to the man, up to the man, who’s the lead-er of the band
And if you care to hear the Swa-nee Riv-er played in rag-time
Come on and hear, come on and hear,
Al-ex-an-der’s Rag-Time Band

Adrianne Loggins
Associate Editor

For more information about Irving Berlin, check out Say It with Music: The Story of  Irving Berlin by Nancy Furstinger (ISBN 9781931798129) 

Published in: on July 6, 2011 at 1:09 pm  Leave a Comment  
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