Happy Birthday, Bach

ill_be_bachWhile you may have heard that the famous Baroque composer Johann Sebastian Bach was born on March 21, 1685, he wasn’t.  Well, that’s what the date was when he was born according to Old Style dating, but the calendar changed before he died, so he was born March 31, 1685 according to New Style dating.  Is that as clear as mud?  Let me muddy the waters more.

Julius Caesar established a reformed calendar in 46 BC.  However, it lagged the astronomical calendar by 11 minutes a year.  Hey, what’s a few minutes a year?  By 1582, it amounted to 10 days, so Pope Gregory XIII did a quick-step and bumped the calendar up 10 days to correct that.  However, only Catholic countries, i.e., Venice, the Papal States the Holy Roman Empire, Spain, the Spanish Netherlands, Portugal, and France made the change at that time.  Although Protestant countries later fell in line, Bach’s Saxe-Eisenach only did so in 1700, making him born March 21, O.S. (Old Style), but March 31, N.S. (New Style).  Since I was also born on March 31, I opt to use the N.S. dating, making him a birthday brother, so to speak.

The Three B's Bach, Beethoven and Brahms

The Three B’s
Bach, Beethoven and Brahms

The “Three B’s” are considered the premier composers, all beginning with the letter B.  Although Bach, Beethoven and Brahms are now considered to be the three great B’s, it was not originally so.  In 1854, composer and writer Peter Cornelius described the Three B’s at Bach, Beethoven and Berlioz in an article meant to elevate Hector Berlioz to the stature of the already-recognized greatness of Bach and Beethoven.  If you’re not that familiar with Hector’s works, don’t feel like the Lone Stranger.  Although considered influential in the Romantic period, he and his works are not well known to the general music listener.  However, later that century the conductor Hans van Bulow replaced Berlioz with Johannes Brahms (Mr. Lullaby) in his assessment of the great Three B’s and the rest is history.

The Rabbit of Seville

The Rabbit of Seville

Getting back to J.S. Bach, let me give a more personal note of why I am so proud to have been born on his birthday.  I was not brought up in a household that listened to classical music.  In fact, the only classical music I remember experiencing was in Warner Brothers cartoons.  Who can forget Elmer Fudd singing “Kill the Rabbit” to the tune of Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” in (click here) “What’s Opera Doc?”  Or Bugs Bunny singing “Let Me Shave Your Mop” in the revised version of Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro,” (click here) “The Rabbit of Seville?”  Yet I had no idea these were but parodies of the great musical masterpieces lying in wait for me.

When I went to college, there were private listening rooms in the library where I could play records (I’m dating myself here) while listening to them on headphones while I studied calculus or fluid dynamics. One of the platters I played was (click here) “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor” by J.S. Bach.  I was hooked.  Perhaps it was because his intricate precision appealed to my engineering mind.  Musicologist Hebert Anton Kellner considered Bach a mathematician because of this aspect of his music (click here).  Whatever the case, this superstar of the Baroque era of classical music became a favorite of mine and remains so to this day.  I can honestly say that Bach was a guiding light on my path of musical appreciation.

For those of you who remember the TV show M.A.S.H., when Hawkeye is giving Radar a crash course in classical music for a nurse he is dating, Hawkeye tells Radar to just say “Ah, Bach,” if the nurse brings up J.S.  The reason is that Bach is the penultimate composer, about whom nothing needs to be said.  Unfortunately, Radar doesn’t quite understand.  (click here)  Yet, the point is well made: the very name of Bach says it all.

Birthday Boy, Johann Sebastian Bach

Birthday Boy,
Johann Sebastian Bach

Only a fool would deny the fact that J.S. Bach was a great composer.  There are far better sites from far better musical historians who write on that, so I will not make any feeble effort to compete.  I will only say that he is the greatest to me.  I will also note that the liturgical calendar of the Episcopal Church has a (click here) feast day in his remembrance on July 28th every year (he died on July 28, 1750).  As an Anglican myself, I find this most appropriate for a man who wrote some of the greatest musical works of all times, primarily for the Christian church.  For an example, click here for a performance of “St. Matthew’s Passion.”

Happy 330th birthday, Bach.

Friday the 13th

13 friday2015 will have three of the ultimate of unlucky days, Friday the 13th.  February, March and November will all host one.  While not common to have so many, it will happen eleven times this century.  For friggatriskaidekaphobics, they will be very bad years.  In case you didn’t guess, friggatriskaidekaphobia is an irrational fear of Friday the 13th, deriving from the Norse goddess Frigga, the wife of Odin who donated her name to Friday, combined with Greek tris (‘three’), kai (‘and’), deka (‘ten’), and good ol’ -phobia.  Don’t like that word?  How about paraskevidekatriaphobia, which combines paraskevi (‘Friday’) and dekatria (‘thirteen’) with our beloved -phobia.  But enough esoteric etymology, why is Friday the 13th the penultimate unlucky day?  Herein lies the rub.  No one really knows.  So let’s explore some of the conjectures posited.

13 for dinner

13 for dinner with a Judas in the mix

Friday was the day Jesus was crucified after dining with 12 of his followers, one of whom betrayed him, although we do not know if it were the 13th day of the month.  That would seem to be very bad luck and should have credence, especially in so-called “Christian countries.”  Obviously, such a tradition of fear would have started a couple of millennia ago, right?  Wrong.  There is no ancient Christian tradition of Friday the 13th being unlucky.  While 13 has been considered an unlucky number to seat at a table for many years, even that cannot be definitely linked to Christianity.  Loki, the Norse god of mischief, was the 13th god at an unlucky Valhalla banquet and well may be the source of that superstition.  But, as far as the legend goes, we don’t know that the banquet was on a Friday.

Things got hot for Jacques DeMolay

Things got hot for Jacques DeMolay

Another theory is that it started when the fabled Knights Templar came under persecution by King Philip IV of France, known as “The Fair” because of his hair color rather than his equability, arrested Templar Grand Master Jaqcues DeMolay and other members of the order on Friday, October 13, 1307.  Now that really sounds like the source, right?  Unfortunately, (if you’ll pardon the pun) there is no reference to it being an unlucky day from that time hence.  In fact, as late as 1882 there is no record of Friday the 13th being considered particularly unlucky.

No way is that my room!

No way is that my room!

Friday itself had long been considered unlucky, again for reasons lost in time.  Perhaps it was because Jesus was crucified on a Friday, but pagan Germanic tribes considered it an unlucky day as well.  The number 13 has had a bad rap in most Western cultures so that up to 80% of high-rises are built with the floors numbered without a 13, but not in Asian ones, which consider 4 the unlucky number.  Why?  Oft times trying to attach logic to superstition is a wasted effort.  But when did 13 get attached to Friday as a double whammy?  It seems that a group of anti-superstitionists got together and officially formed the Thirteen Club in New York City on Friday, January 13, 1882.

The Thirteen Club was started by men who wanted to flaunt their disbelief in superstitions, including those about Fridays, when many hangings were done (we’re not talking pictures here), and of the number 13.  They also purposely broke many mirrors, which undoubtedly was good luck for the glass industry.  Ironically, the club may well have been the originator of the whole Friday-the-13th obsession, for they would hold a gala event when Friday and the 13th of the month intersected.  Branches of the club sprang up all over the States and Britain.   And with them, Friday the 13th observations of anti-superstition by their members.

However, the Thirteen Club may well have been the founders of what they despised: a new superstition.  In 1907, stock promoter Thomas Lawson published a  book entitled Friday, the Thirteenth.  In it, the protagonist manipulated the stock market to destroy his enemies by playing on their fears of Friday the 13th.  Obviously, since 1882 and 1907, something had altered in the Western view of Friday the 13th and the Thirteen Club may well have been the agent of change.  The club whose motto was “that superstition should be assailed and combated and driven off the earth” might have started one of the biggest superstitions of all time.

Jason Returns in Monday the 13th, Part XXX

Jason Returns in “Monday the 13th, Part XXX”

The consequences of creating Friday the 13th fears are pervasive.  A whole series of slasher movies might otherwise have been called “Monday the 13th.”  Or, if made by an Italian, “Friday the 17th,” since 17 is an unlucky number in Italy.  A British study found that since fewer people drove on Friday the 13th than the Friday before.  Since that resulted in fewer fatal accidents, it was actually a lucky day for those who might not have otherwise survived it.  Perhaps that’s a bit of “making your own luck.”  Then again, a study claims that $800,000,000 is lost annually by businesses that day because people won’t marry, travel and, for the most fearful, even work on Friday the 13th.  No doubt, there are those who will cite bad things that happened to them on some Friday the 13th.  But then, other people could do that for any day and date.  As for me, I opt to go with the spirit of the now-defunct Thirteen Club and thumb my nose at the superstition.  I won’t, however, purposely break any mirrors.  It’s not that I fear seven years of bad luck, but it’s a waste of money.

“New” Sherlock Holmes Movie

William Gillette as Sherlock Holmes

William Gillette as Sherlock Holmes

Recently, a copy of William Gillette’s long-lost 1916 silent film, Sherlock Holmes, has been found in Paris.  It is currently being restored by the San Francisco Silent Film Festival and the Cinémathèque Française, so we can hope to see it somewhere online in the foreseeable future.  Currently, the only clip I found was on a BBC news release (click here to see).  Why is it so important, especially to Sherlockians?

Was it the first film portrayal?  No.  The 1900 short, “Sherlock Holmes Baffled” holds that honor.  (Click here to view)  However, the meager plot only seems to have been made to demonstrate the “special effects” of the era, with a burglar and his bag of loot disappearing and reappearing several times.  Sherlock, wearing a dressing gown with a revolver in his pocket and smoking a cigar, walks in on the thief.  Holmes solves nothing and, as the title says, is baffled.  Not an auspicious beginning to his film career.

Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes

Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes

Was Gillette the actor to portray the Great Detective on film the most number of times?  Again, no.  He only played him one time on film.  Basil Rathbone appeared on the silver screen 15 times as Sherlock Holmes (counting a cameo in “Crazy House”) and is, to many, the epitome of the man.  No doubt, numerous repeat showings of those movies on television helped that standing.  And, for many years, no actor came close to bringing that character to life to viewers and fans.  Yet one of the worst travesties was when the producers and writers decided to make Holmes a modern character rather than a Victorian one.  It started with “Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror” and kept going.  It was not even based on a Sir Arthur Conan Doyle story, but click here to watch.

Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson

Jeremy Brett as Sherlock Holmes and David Burke as Dr. John Watson

The honor of being Sherlock the most number of times on screen goes to Jeremy Brett.  From 1984 to 1994, Granada Television produced 41 episodes with him (one of which, “The Mazarin Stone,” combined two stories).  His eccentric, anti-social, brilliant Holmes was right off Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s pages.  And that’s what Jeremy wanted.  He once said, “So, all these things you can get from Doyle, and when other actors who play Holmes and just pop on the deerstalker, and his cape and the pipe and walk straight through it, puff…puff…puff–and get on with the next thing–that’s probably the safer way to train — but it’s not exactly being true to Doyle. It’s just an image, like a cliché, which is not real.”  Jeremy did not just read scripts given him, but read the original stories, looking for the real Sherlock Holmes.  “Holmes could be rude, impatient, abrupt, and his intolerance of fools was legendary. I tried to show all this, all of the man’s incredible brilliance. But there are some cracks in Holmes’ marble, as in an almost-perfect Rodin statue. And I tried to show that, too.”  But he also wanted Holmes to be more that words on a page, but a real person, not only to the audience, but to himself.  He immersed himself in the character he portrayed.

Sherlock Holmes in a three-pipe case

Sherlock Holmes on a three-pipe case

Jeremy said, “I was talking about becoming. What I mean by that is an inner life. Watson describes you-know-who as a mind without a heart; that’s hard to play, hard to become. So what I did was to invent an inner life. I mean, I know what his nanny looked like, for example; she was covered in starch. She probably scrubbed him, but never kissed him. I don’t think he probably saw his mother until he was about eight. Maybe caught a touch of the fragrance of her scent and the rustle of her dress. I guess collage days were fairly complicated because he was quite isolated. He probably saw a girl across the quadrangle and fell in love, but she never looked at him….so he closed that door. And he became a brilliant fencer, of course, as we know, and a master at boxing…brilliant athlete…and many more little, tiny details which I have to kind of make up to fill this kind of well…that Doyle so brilliantly left out.”  In fact, he became obsessed with the role.  Some years ago, after Jeremy’s death, I spoke with a woman who had produced some of the Holmes series.  Alas, I cannot contact her, so she will remain my “anonymous source.”  She said he became so consumed with being Sherlock Holmes on screen that he became him.  I do not know if that meant the cocaine injections, but he died tragically young.  Sadly, he did not finish all the Sherlock Holmes stories.  But he will be a hard act to follow.  (click here to watch)  Sorry, Benedict Cumberbatch, you’re not Jeremy.

Holmes with a bent pipe and dressing gown

Holmes with a bent pipe and dressing gown

Now that we’ve established that Gillette was neither the first nor the most prolific film portrayer of Holmes, why is this newly-discovered one so interesting?  William Gillette was a stage actor who portrayed Holmes in the footlights intermittently from 1899 to 1915 in a play written by Doyle, whom he met and hit it off with.  His stage presentation may well have inspired Doyle to bring Holmes back from his fatal tumble with Moriarty down the Reichenbach Falls.  Since Gillette was an American and his accent was not English, it is interesting that Doyle liked his performance.  Roger Johnson, editor of the Sherlock Holmes Journal, said, “You can hear the same sort of thing when Katharine Hepburn tries to speak in an English way in The African Queen.”  (click here to hear Gillette as Holmes).  Since his film wasn’t a talkie, it didn’t matter.  Gillette’s was the first film that actually had Holmes solving a case.  The earlier one only had Holmes as an observer of a phantom thief and nothing more.  Gillette’s was the first one that developed the character that became the norm on film.  As BBC noted, this one had him smoking the full-bent pipe that became synonymous with Holmes, even though it does not appear either in the text of the stories or the original illustrations.  According to the BBC article, Gillette introduced that lower-bowled pipe so the audience could see his lips when he spoke.  He wore the deerstalker cap that was in none of the stories, but did appear in one of the original Strand‘s illustrations.  He wore the dressing gown that Doyle did write of.  These are in the film (or so I understand).  Since this was a silent film, he never says, “Elementary, my dear Watson.”  Neither did he in the stories.  However, he did say, “Elementary, my dear fellow,” in the play and P. G. Wodehouse’s 1915 novel, Psmith, Journalist, is believed by most to be the first usage of that exact phrase.  However, so much of how the general public sees Sherlock Homes is based on that silent rendition of the man.  For that reason, many of us eagerly wait for it to appear on Youtube.  I know Morg Mahoney is one.  She used Sherlockian methods in her investigations in Christmas Cracker and It’s Bad Business.  However, be warned: this film is a French version and all title cards are in French.  Parlez-vous français?


Battle of New Orleans

John Cherry?

Did Great-great-great-great Grandpa John Cherry look like this?

In 1959, Johnny Horton sang a song entitled “The Battle of New Orleans.”  (click here to listen) In it, he told of going with Colonel Jackson down the “Mighty Mississip” in 1814.  While this might have been true as far as the date of the trip, the battle did not take place until January 8, 1815, and this year is its bicentennial anniversary.  It should be noted that Andrew Jackson was actually a major general both in the Tennessee Militia and the U.S. Army by then.  There are two things I find very interesting about this battle, the most famous American victory in the War of 1812: first is that my direct ancestor, John Cherry, served in the battle with the 2nd Regiment of the West Tennessee Mounted Gunmen under “Old Hickory” and the other is that the battle had no affect on the outcome of the war.

Let’s address the first interesting point, well, first.  Although I have had ancestors serve in the Revolutionary War (yes, I could be a Son of the American Revolution, if I wanted to take the time and effort), the War of 1812 and the Civil War (on both sides, no less), the only one who bore the Cherry name was John.  The Tennessee Mounted Gunmen were militiamen, not regular army, and knew Jackson very well.  In 1812, he had led them in an aborted attempt to shore up the defenses of New Orleans (a major port and the defender of the Mississippi River artery), but had to turn back when Congress refused to fund the operation (Congress has always shown such great wisdom).  After the Battle of Horseshoe Bend in 1814, where Jackson defeated the “Red Stick” Creeks, he was made a major general in the U.S. Army, as well as the commander of the Seventh Military District, which included New Orleans.  And so, in 1814, he took a little trip with the militias from Kentucky and Tennessee.  That included Great-great-great-great Grandpa John Cherry.

Major General Andrew Jackson

Major General Andrew Jackson

The British Navy sailed into the Gulf of Mexico on December 12, 1814, and easily swept aside a makeshift American fleet.  They landed troops and made camp.  After a night attack by Jackson on the 23rd, the British realized that taking New Orleans might be more of a challenge than the sacking of Washington earlier that year.  The British commander, General Pakenham, decided to slow his advance and to do a reconnaissance-in-force to assess the American position.  This gave much needed time for Jackson to prepare his defenses.  He set up eight batteries with twelve cannons and had his men prepare their earthwork defenses.  Records state that Jackson had 4,732 men comprised of 968 US Army regulars, 58 US Marines, 106 US Navy seamen, 1,060 Louisiana Militia and volunteers (of those, 400 to 600 were free Blacks), 1,352 Tennessee Militia (one of whom was John Cherry), 986 Kentucky Militia, and 150 Mississippi Militia.  There were also 52 Choctows (traditional enemies of the British Creek allies), along with an unknown number of men supplied by Jean Lafitte.

Jean Lafitte Pirate, Patriot or Both?

Jean Lafitte
Pirate, Patriot or Both?

An interesting side note on the the pirate and smuggler, Jean Lafitte, is that the British had tried to woo him to support them.  The Americans had even attacked him to prevent him from helping the British, seizing property, ships and men.  Lafitte had not put up a fight.  He was charged with abetting piracy, but he then offered Louisiana’s Governor Claiborne his assistance in fighting the British and the governor sent word to Jackson.  Jackson replied, “I ask you, Louisianans, can we place any confidence in the honor of men who have courted an alliance with pirates and robbers?”  Nonetheless, Lafitte and his men manned American batteries and served on U.S. ships during the battle.  In fact, they fought so well that Jackson commended them and they received pardons.  Unfortunately, this leopard could not change his spots and spent his life oft overstepping the piracy and smuggling laws.  He normally tried to get letters of mark so that he was a legitimate privateer, but did fudge on that.  He died in 1823 attacking what he believed to be Spanish merchant vessels off the coast of Honduras.  They were actually either well-armed privateers or warships.  It is worth noting that he never attacked American vessels and even escorted them safely through dangerous waters at times.  Whether he fought for the Americans out of loyalty to America, hatred of the British or just out of pragmatism we will never know, but I like to think it was for the first reason.

Battle of New Orleans

Battle of New Orleans, with artistic license

The battle has been covered in detail by many sources, including Wikipedia (click here).  In summary, Pakenham’s 8000 men, although outnumbering the Americans, were delayed almost twelve hours in their “dawn” attack.  They suffered under the American artillery barrages (although there is no record of an alligator being used in place of a cannon, as related in Johnny Horton’s song), then hit withering fire from the muskets and rifles.  Since American forces were mainly militiamen, they did not have the inaccurate smoothbores, but rifles (called squirrel guns in the song).  Known as Kentucky long rifles (although not made there), they were accurate for up to over 200 yards, twice that of a musket.  Although they were slower to load and could not mount a bayonet, they were great for men sitting “behind cotton bales” and picking off British soldiers.  Although the British did push back the Americans in the west, their main attacks were thrown back with heavy losses.   When the battle was over, three British generals (including Pakenham) and eight colonels were among the 251 British killed. 1,259 were wounded and 484 were missing in the battle. The Americans lost a total of 11 men and 23 wounded, with no major officers in that number.  It was the greatest American victory of the war.  Or was it?

Here comes the second interesting point: the war was already over.  On December 24, 1814, the Treaty of Ghent had been signed in Belgium.  However, there was no telephone to send the word to the armies.  In fact, the Senate did not ratify it until February 18, 1815, for the simple reason that they did not have a copy to do so.  So the battle had no effect on the outcome of the war.  Save one.  It restored national pride, giving Americans a land battle in which they could celebrate.  The outnumbered American militiamen had righteously “whupped” some of the best professional soldiers in the world.  The battle also created an American hero that came only second to George Washington in the eyes of the people: Andrew “Old Hickory” Jackson.  And the rest, as they say, is history.

Johnny Horton April 30, 1925 – November 5, 1960

Johnny Horton                       April 30, 1925 – November 5, 1960

An amusing side note is that Johnny Horton found that “The Battle of New Orleans” was not selling very well in the British Isles.  Wonder why?  So he was convinced to make a different version with a different take on the battle, one more British biased.  (click here)  While Johnny was not anti-British (his song “Sink the Bismark” proves that), he should have left well enough alone.  This  revisionist version of the battle just doesn’t work.  Sadly, Johnny died in an auto accident after four short years of hits.  His rockabilly songs and historical ballads are still played and enjoyed by people like me.  Thanks to Youtube, they live on.


Christmas Truce

French Soldiers Marching to War

French Soldiers Marching to War

When the “War to End All Wars” began in August, a hundred years ago, governments on both sides were so sure of a quick victory that they assured their soldiers that they would be home by Christmas.  As a line of opposing trenches stretched from the English Channel to the Alps and men settled into living ankle-deep in mud and futile, suicidal attacks against entrenched riflemen, machine guns and cannons, the men soon realized it to be a vain hope.  Both sides were too strong and too determined for the war to have a quick conclusion.  Christmas would be spent in the trenches, with rats and trench foot instead of reindeer and stockings for Santa.

Washington Crossing the Delaware- He Well Might Have Been Standing in the Flat-Bottomed Boat

Washington Crossing the Delaware on Christmas night – He well might have been standing in the flat-bottomed boat.

The First World War was different from previous wars in so many ways.  Killing was much more efficient, with machine guns and monstrous cannons.  It was truly the birth of mechanized warfare, with trucks for transportation, airplanes for bombing and tanks for driving over the top of infantrymen.  And it spelled the end of armies going into winter quarters.  Up until the end of the nineteenth century, armies would have an unspoken truce during the harsh months of winter.  It was due to the impassable roads and difficulty of moving and provisioning of the troops in those conditions rather than compassion for the troops.  The men would usually be housed in rude cabins, where they would spend Christmas in time of war.  That is why George Washington’s attack on Trenton on the 26th of December in 1776 was such a surprise to the Hessians; he attacked in weather not considered suitable for military maneuvers.  While the mechanization of the armies did not eliminate those problems, it reduced them enough that there was no pause in the fighting for winter.  Christmas in 1914, the first of the war, would be spent in the muddy, cold trenches.

German Postcard from World War I

German Postcard from World War I

In an effort to to alleviate the misery of Christmas in the trenches, both the British and German governments sent packages and cards to their troops.  The Germans also received small Christmas trees with candle-lit lanterns.  In Germany, the main Christmas celebration is on Christmas Eve, not Christmas Day.  So the German troops lighted their lanterns and set the trees in front of their trenches, then started singing Christmas carols.  Since there had been a sudden frost, the landscape had a cover of white, like snow-frosted Christmases back home for both sides.  Understand that in many places the opposing trenches were so close that the soldiers had often yelled taunts at each other in the months before.  Now the lights and music of Christmas wafted across the war-torn terrain.  Since these were predominately men who were Christians and might even have visited each others’ countries before the war, no doubt the soldiers began to think that it was not right to kill each other on such a holy day.  They started singing the carols together.  They started calling to each other, with well-wishing rather than taunts.  Then, on Christmas morning, something most unusual happened.  In a number of places, the shooting did not resume with the daybreak.  An ad-hoc truce had started.

Private H. Scrutton of the Essex Regiment described it this way: “As I told you before our trenches are only 30 or 40 yards away from the Germans. This led to an exciting incident the other day. Our fellows have been in the habit of shouting across to the enemy and we used to get answers from them.  We were told to get into conversation with them and this is what happened:-
From out trenches: “Good morning Fritz.” (No answer).
“Good morning Fritz.” (Still no answer).
From German trenches: “Good morning.”
From our trench: “How are you?”
“All right.”
“Come over here, Fritz.”
“No. If I come I get shot.”
“No you won’t. Come on.”
“No fear.”
“Come and get some fags, Fritz.”
“No. You come half way and I meet you.”
“All right.”
One of our fellows thereupon stuffed his pocket with fags and got over the trench. The German got over his trench, and right enough they met half way and shook hands, Fritz taking the fags and giving cheese in exchange.”

Rifleman C. H. Brazier of the Queen’s Westminsters, of Bishop’s Stortford, described what happened to him in this way: “You will no doubt be surprised to hear that we spent our Christmas in the trenches after all and that Christmas Day was a very happy one. On Christmas Eve the Germans entrenched opposite us began calling out to us, ‘Cigarettes’, ‘Pudding’, ‘A Happy Christmas’ and ‘English – means good’, so two of our fellows climbed over the parapet of the trench and went towards the German trenches. Half-way they were met by four Germans, who said they would not shoot on Christmas Day if we did not. They gave our fellows cigars and a bottle of wine and were given a cake and cigarettes. When they came back I went out with some more of our fellows and we were met by about 30 Germans, who seemed to be very nice fellows. I got one of them to write his name and address on a postcard as a souvenir. All through the night we sang carols to them and they sang to us and one played ‘God Save the King’ on a mouth organ”

Sharing a Truce Cigarette

Sharing a Truce Cigarette

This was not planned.  There was no coordination to the truce.  It was not universal.  In some places, the firing continued and men died.  Germany had been a united country less than 50 years and not all German troops reacted the same way.  In one location, the British who came out of their trenches were fired upon by Prussian troops (much more regimented and militaristic than other Germans) and a couple were killed.  However, some Saxon troops near them threatened to shoot them and they stopped.  The Saxons even ventured out to put up a table to host their British enemies.  During Christmas Day, many locations down the line had an unofficial truce.  Hymns, carols and other songs were sung by the soldiers from both sides.  Souvenirs, food, tobacco and stories were shared.  Footballs (soccer balls) appeared and were kicked around.  There was even time to bury the dead who had fallen in no-man’s land, where trying to reach them would have meant almost certain death.

All too soon, the day of celebration was over and the killing began again.  On the same land where the day before soldiers had shared food, stories and bon humour, men were again mowed down by machine guns.  Although the top brass tried to stifle news of the 1914 Christmas Truce, censorship had not yet been formalized and stories leaked out to the general public from soldiers’ letters home.   However, as the war and killing ground on, the Truce was all but forgotten and never happened again.

Sainsbury TV Ad

Sainsbury TV Ad

Although briefly depicted in a couple of movies, the 2005 movie “Joyeux Noël” was devoted to the Christmas Truce and was shown at the Cannes Film Festival that year.  Now, on the centennial of that truce, Sainsbury supermarkets has made a TV ad depicting it, including the British Tommy handing a Sainsbury chocolate bar to his German counterpart (click here).  While some have claimed that this is blatant commercialism, at least it brings to light this most unusual event.  In doing so, it gives food for thought.  As a Highland Regiment officer wrote in The Times in 1915:  “It is a great hope for future peace when two great nations hating each other as foes have seldom hated, one side vowing eternal hate and vengeance and setting their venom to music, should on Christmas day and for all that the word implies, lay down their arms, exchange smokes and wish each other happiness.”


In Memory of Jesse Winchester

Jesse Winchester May 17, 1944 - April  11, 2014

Jesse Winchester
May 17, 1944 – April 11, 2014

I never met Jesse.  I never spoke with him.  I never saw one of his concerts.  In fact, I did not even know his name until I wanted to quote some of the lyrics from a beautifully written and poignant song recorded a few decades ago by Jennifer Warnes, entitled “You Remember Me.” (Click to listen to it.)   It is about her former lover who became a priest (or a nun, if sung by a man).  It was perfect for my book, Foul Shot, but I knew it was copyrighted material and I would need to obtain permission.  While there are no set rules on this, it can cost thousands to quote a few lines of some rock songs and I wanted to use several verses of “You Remember Me.”  I found that Jesse had written it and contacted him by email.  I explained that I was self-published and did not have a big budget (any, really), but loved the song.  He gave me full permission, gratis, writing, “You have my permission to quote from ‘You Remember Me’ in your book. Thank you for asking, congratulations and good luck with the new publication.”  He requested nothing in return.  I did cite his generosity in my dedication and sent him a copy.  He wrote back that he had received it on February 26, 2014.  He thanked me for it and for mentioning him in the dedication.  “It looks very readable,” he wrote.  It was the same month that he was diagnosed with bladder cancer.  He died just weeks later.  Although I doubt that he had an opportunity to read Foul Shot, I have a faint hope that he did and liked how I used his song.

Although not so famous as a singer outside of his loyal folk music followers, Jesse’s songs were recorded by Nicolette Larson, the Weather Girls, Michael Martin Murphey, Reba McIntyre, Wynonna Judd, Jimmy Buffett, Tom Rush, Ted Hawkins, The Everly Brothers, Patti Page, Ronnie Hawkins, Elvis Costello, Alex Taylor, and many more, as well as Jennifer Warnes.  In fact, Bob Dylan once said of Jesse, “You can’t talk about the best songwriters and not include him.”  As is often the case, the recorders of his songs made his works more famous than Jesse was.

There are many ways to judge people.  Without personal contact, we oft judge them by less than reliable sources.  I had minimal contact, only email, with Jesse, but feel I have some validity in saying that Jesse was not only a great songwriter, but a decent person.  In all of our correspondence, he was friendly and gracious.  He was generous in allowing me to quote his song with no remuneration.  He even took time to write a kind note when he received my book, although I am sure it really held little interest for him at that point.  “Your new book arrived – thank you again.  And I appreciate the nice reference . . . . Good luck with your new baby.”   I judge people by their actions and Jesse’s were generous, indeed.  Thank you, Jesse, you were a kind and generous soul.  Your songs will continue to touch our hearts for many years.  And, come spring, another cherry blossom tree will be planted in your memory.

Ring Dem Bells- For the Salvation Army

The Duke

The Duke

While Duke Ellington made “Ring Dem Bells” famous in 1930, the Salvation Army has put it into practice for many years.  Ever since the San Francisco Salvation Army first utilized crab-cooking kettles in 1891 to collect money to help the needy, red kettles have become a part of the Christmas season.  While I can’t swear they used bells that first Christmas, we expect them now.  The kettles have become the biggest fund-raiser for the Army’s charitable programs for the whole year.  Although the Army does pay people to ring the bells when needed, they love it when volunteers ring the bells for two reasons: it saves money so there is more for their work with those in need and the volunteers are much more enthusiastic than the paid workers.  The kettle return for volunteers is almost always higher than for paid workers.  After all, they can arm-twist friends and acquaintances without any qualms.  I know.  I ring that bell.

Mikey and the Scottish Santa.  Great knees, huh?

Mikey and the Scottish Santa. Great knees, huh?

Bell ringing can be fun.  On behalf of the Gold Country Celtic Society, I recently took a shift with my friend Mikey.  Although he is a bagpiper and has played them when we’ve done it previously, we were going to be inside of a local supermarket and he thought it might be a problem.  Judging by the response, probably that would not have been the case.  I came as the Scottish Santa and it was a real kick.  Probably 99% of the people would break into a grin when we greeted them with a “Merry Christmas” as they came in the door.  I had one man ask what tartan I was wearing.  “McClaus, of course,”  I replied.  The women were interesting, with several of them stuffing money in the kettle while commenting on our good-looking knees.  When one woman I know came into the store, I said, “Merry Christmas, Carol.”  She looked at me quizzically and said, “How do you know my name?”  Mikey said, “Santa knows everyone’s name.”  But the kids were my favorites.  Handing them a candy cane and seeing the look in their eyes gives me a thrill every time.  As a kid who believed in Santa, I can relate.  As Santa now, I can enjoy.  Although the two hours standing after putting up Christmas decorations all over the house earlier did get to my aging back, it was well worth it.

salvation-armyOkay, here comes the pitch.  If you’re a part of any business, club or society, take a day and “ring dem bells.”  It is fun, rewarding and helps your community.  We’ve had a “Battle of the Media” between The Union newspaper and KNCO radio.  I don’t know who will win, but The Union publicized their day and gave away a lot of free stuff.  All that for bragging rights and a plaque.  If you want to have a kick while doing good, click here for your local Salvation Army location and sign up for bell ringing.

Merry Christmas from the Scottish Santa.


Mother-In-Law Day

Common idea of a Mother-in-law

Common conception of a Mother-in-law

Sunday, October 26, 2014, is Mother-In-Law Day.  Mothers-in-law are a favorite butt of jokes for stand-up comedians. Rumble seats in the old coupes and roadsters were called mother-in-law seats because those who rode in them were out of the passenger compartment, and presumably out of the driver’s hair. If you google “mother-in-law jokes” you will have page after page of sites listed. A few of the less offensive ones are listed below:

Adam was the happiest man who ever lived because he didn’t have a mother-in-law.

My mother-in-law’s second car is a broom.

A man in a bar says to his friend, “My mother-in-law is an angel.” His friend replies, “You’re lucky. Mine’s still alive.”

Q: What’s the difference between an outlaw and my mother-in-law? A: An outlaw is wanted!

The definition of mixed emotions is seeing your mother-in-law drive over the cliff in your new Porsche.

So is Mother-In-Law Day a joke, too? Absolutely not. Started in 1934 by a newspaper editor in Amarillo, Texas, it is now observed on the fourth Sunday in October. Or not. Over the last eighty years it has not exactly caught fire. But do mothers-in-law deserve the almost universal vilification and lack of recognition they have received? Maybe some do, for there are both good ones and bad ones. Yet, if anyone suggested ignoring Mother’s Day and Father’s Day because some mothers and fathers have not deserved to be honored, they would be booed and driven from the stage in a shower of rotten tomatoes. In that spirit, let we who loved our mothers-in-law honor them on Mother-In-Law Day. I will, even though mine is no longer on this earth.

True, my mother-in-law and good friend

True, my mother-in-law and good friend

From the moment we first met, my mother-in-law and I hit it off. Her name was LaTruda, a name she hated, so she went by True. It was an appropriate name for her because if anyone was true to the ones she loved, it was she. She was attractive, lively and had an incredible wit. If she were angry with someone, that wit could have a razor edge. However, in the 36 years I knew her, she never turned her quick mind against me. In fact, my wife (an only child) used to say that she knew we had to work any disagreements out because she could never “run home to Mama.” She said that Mama would have sent her back to me, her buddy.

My mother-in-law thought that the term “in-law” was demeaning to me and seldom used it. At a country club event to which my mother-in-law (sorry, True) belonged, we took an opportunity to dance together. A woman who was also a member asked her who I was. “My son, Ron,” she replied without hesitation. The lady smiled. “Oh, I can see the resemblance.” We both had a hard time stifling our laughter.

To say we were simpatico would be an understatement. She had a flair for style and I enjoy dressing with a flair. We had similar tastes in music, including classical, 40′s swing, rock and roll, and jazz, however she was a fine musician (like my wife), while I could only listen to the music. We both were avid readers, devouring books. We both enjoyed crossword puzzles. We both took Latin in high school, the “dead language.” We both enjoyed a similar sense of humor, oft considered warped by those who did not think in the same way we did.

After college, I ended up working in my in-laws’ family business. I ran one of two locations and had pretty much total control of its day-to-day operation. They also almost always had a house close to my wife and me. For 16 years, they even had one on the same property as ours. We went on a number of cruises as a family over the years. Normally, that would be a recipe for disaster: working, living and playing in such close proximity with family often causes friction. Such was not the case with my mother-in-law. While there were a few occasions when my father-in-law and I had problems, my mother-in-law stood as Horatio on the bridge against his angry outbursts (which he did have). Her rapier wit provided a great defense.

In 1994, we sold the family business and in 1995 all moved to the Isle of Man in the British Isles. There were my wife and myself, our daughter, my in-laws and our Sheltie, Fionna. We all lived on the same property and I remodeled their place, former stables, to reflect a bit of Southern California and to include conveniences not common in the Isles, such as a large shower with hot water from a pressurized tank and a side-by-side refrigerator. It was during the remodel, when she couldn’t remember what I had just said about the work being done, that we realized something was wrong. She had been stricken with Alzheimer’s. Even as this horrendous disease attacked her, she kept her sense of humor. “There’s one advantage,” she once told me. “I can read the same book over and over again.” One byproduct of the disease is a lowering of inhibitions. When she first went to the hairstylists with my wife, the assistant was a woman named Fionna. “Fionna?” she asked. “I have a . . .” She paused. My wife’s heart almost stopped as she expected the woman to be equated with our dog. “. . . a friend with your name.” To this day, I wonder if she were playing a mind game.

True as a young woman, with her movie-star looks

True as a young woman, with her movie-star looks.  Her beauty wasn’t just skin deep.

Due to my father-in-laws’ medical problems, we moved back to the States. While pricier, the medical care in the States had more to offer. But there was no “magic pill” for True’s condition.  As her disease progressed, she forgot my name, but she would look at me and say, “You’re a good man.” After her passing, I wrote her eulogy, which was sent to all who knew and loved her. It was a woeful duty and a great honor. As her son, it was also my right. So I now honor her memory on Mother-In-Law Day, although Altera Matris Diem, translated from Latin as “Other Mother’s Day,” would be much more appropriate and I am sure one she would prefer. It is also a title she deserves.

The Star-Spangled Banner

flagOn September 14th of this year, our national anthem will have its bicentennial celebration of when Francis Scott Key first wrote the words.  Janine Stange will complete a 50-state singing tour of it by performing this challenging melody at Fort McHenry on our national anthem’s 200th anniversary.  So, before we get into the history of our beloved anthem that the late Caldwell Titcomb, president of the Boston Theater Critics Association and professor emeritus of theater criticism at Brandeis, noted that it has a melody that far exceeds the range of the average person (ever try to sing it on key?), let’s have a little trivia fun.  If you go to a pub quiz on September 14th, it just might help.

1.  Where is Fort McHenry?

2.  How many Americans died in the attack on the fort?

3.  During what war was the song written.

4.  What was the original title?

5.  Where was Francis Scott Key when he wrote the words to “The Star-Spangled Banner”?

6.  Why was he there?

7.  How many stars and stripes were on the flag Key saw flying over the fort?

8.  Who wrote the melody?

9.  Who did he write the melody for?

10.  What is the vocal range required to correctly sing the melody?

11.  How many verses are there?

12.  Who was the first President who had it played for official events?

13.  What President signed it into being the national anthem?

14. What was the first year it was played at baseball’s World Series?

15.  Who broke all traditions to sing it on September 13, 2001?

British burning the White House

British burning the White House

If you found this difficult, don’t feel badly.  It was meant to be.  You will find all the answers in this posting.  The War of 1812 was, like so many other wars we fought, not universally popular.  In Europe, England and Napoleonic France had been engaged in battle for many years.  While Thomas Jefferson’s Democratic-Republican Party (later the Democratic Party) sympathized with once-republican France, the Federalist Party leaned toward trading-partner Britain and many of its followers even continued trading with them during the war.  The main American grievances were that the British would stop American merchant ships and seize any sailor they thought subject to British impressment (which they applied rather liberally) and that the British actively encouraged Native Americans to attack American settlers.  American expansionist ambitions played a part, too.  Although many New England maritime states were against it, the War Hawks (a term first used in that war) prevailed and a declaration of war squeaked by on June 18, 1812.  To say that American victories were spotty would be an understatement.  The invasion of Canada was a fiasco.  While the army did capture, sack and burn the capital, York (now Toronto), it retreated with heavy losses.  In retaliation, the British sacked and burned Washington, including the White House, after scattering the poorly led and organized American defense.  Tit for tat.  Along the way, they brought back loot and prisoners.

Old Ironsides in action

Old Ironsides in action

This is not to say that America had no victories.  In the sea, our ships did surprisingly well against the world’s naval super-power.  More heavily armed and built of stout American oak, our frigates proved a match for the British ones.  The USS Constitution, “Old Ironsides,” defeated and captured four British frigates.  American privateers (legalized pirates) effectively harassed British shipping.  Many sailed from Baltimore Harbor.

Having defeated Napoleon, the British felt they could make short work of the upstart Americans.  If they took Baltimore, they could not only almost eliminate the privateer threat, but cut their former colonies in half and defeat them in detail, or in smaller units rather than all at once.  And that was the plan.  However, the Americans put up a lively land defense, so the British decided to attack by sea, taking Fort McHenry in Baltimore Harbor.  With warships that could sit out of range of the fort’s guns, they thought they could pound it into submission.  And now we come to “The Star Spangled Banner.”

Fort McHenry with the rockets red glare

Fort McHenry with the rockets red glare

Francis Scott Key was a lawyer and amateur poet who had gone to the British to obtain the release of Dr. Beanes, a friend of his who had been taken captive when the British had sacked Washington.  It was a classic case of the worst and best of timing.  While on a British warship, he observed the shelling of Fort McHenry.  One can only imagine how he felt as he observed the wildly-inaccurate Congreve rockets (with a red flare) and mortar rounds (bombs bursting) exploding in the night sky, lighting the defiant battle flag over the fort.  Four Americans died from the shelling.  Then came the dawn.  Major George Armistead ordered the 30′ by 42′  fifteen stars and stripes flag (Vermont and Kentucky had joined the Union) be hoisted and Key saw it.  He penned his poem, “Defence of M’Henry,” on the back of an envelope (no, Lincoln did not write the Gettysburg Address on one).

Not long afterwards, Key changed the name to “The Star-Spangled Banner” and put it to music.  The melody he chose was one he’d used before, “The Anacreontic Song.”  Composed by John Stafford Smith for the London Anacreontic Society (Anacreon was a classic Greek poet who loved wine and women), it had become a popular bar song with many different words.  Key liked the tune and it became our national anthem.

Although it was widely sung, “The Star-Spangled Banner” took many years to become our national anthem.  “Hail Columbia” and “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee” were strong competitors, but sharing the same melody with “God Save the King (or Queen)” knocked “My Country ‘Tis of Thee ” out of the competition.  President Woodrow Wilson began to have it played at his public appearances in 1916.  In 1918, baseball’s World Series played it before every game.  Still, it wasn’t our national anthem.  On November 3, 1929, “Ripley’s Believe it or Not” stated “Believe It or Not, America has no national anthem.”   Finally, on March 3, 1931, President Hoover signed the law making “The Star-Spangled Banner” our national anthem.

Christina Aguilera: Fail

Christina Aguilera: Fail

Many singers decry the melody of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”  Since it has a melody that spans nearly two octaves, when most people are good for one, at best, it is daunting to sing.  Not only that, few people know the first verse perfectly, much less all four.  Consider Christina Aguilera’s performance at Super Bowl XLV.  Yet, many famous singers have sung it without complaint.  One of the most unusual ones did so at St. Paul’s Cathedral on September 13, 2001.  Queen Elizabeth II sang it with all those attending the 9/11memorial service there, the first British monarch ever to do so.  At least in public.