Thursday, April 27, 2017

Photo of the Day: Ralph Waldo Emerson Grave, Concord, MA

Transcendentalist essayist/poet Ralph Waldo Emerson died on this date at age 78 in 1882. “The Sage of Concord” was buried in his town’s Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, in a section known, appropriately enough, as “Authors' Ridge.” Also here: Louisa May Alcott, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and perhaps the closest to Emerson in sensibility, Henry David Thoreau. Can you think of a town of comparable size that has produced so many literati? I can’t.

Nine years ago, in the fall, I was visiting Boston, staying in Lexington and Concord, when I took this photo. I could not bid goodbye to this area that had done so much to establish America’s political and literary without stopping here. So, on a sunny, beneficent Saturday morning, I came here.

It is entirely appropriate that Emerson was laid to rest in this spot.  He had, after all, delivered the speech at the dedication of the cemetery in 1855. It is equally appropriate that he and his family occupies the most visible family plot in this stretch of ground, as he had done so much in the antebellum period to make Concord a center of intellectual life in the United States.

The remains of three people closest to Emerson are next to him: his second wife Lidian, daughter Ellen, and most poignantly, son Waldo. The latter’s death, at age five, plunged his father into a torrent of grief, leading ultimately to the hard-won wisdom that found expression in one of his greatest essays, “Experience” (1844).

The verses that appear on the bronze plaque on Ralph’s uncarved boulder that you see here—“The passive master lent his hand/To the vast soul that o’er him planned”—come from Emerson’s poem “The Problem,” which disclaims interest in ministries (“Yet not for all his faith can see/Would I that cowled churchman be”). He had shocked the sensibilities of many New Englanders when he not only gave up his Unitarian ministry in his late 20s, but went on to stress the human rather than divine nature of Jesus. The rest of his hugely influential career was spent in creating a new kind of American spirituality that extolled the “divine sufficiency of the individual."

Quote of the Day (Victor Hugo, on Those Men Hate)

“Men hate those to whom they have to lie.” —French novelist Victor Hugo (1802-1885), Toilers of the Sea (1866)

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Photo of the Day: Looking South From Midtown, at the Port Authority, NYC

I took this photo the other morning on the best part of my morning commute into New York City: when my bus, against all odds, has made it through New Jersey toll plazas and the Lincoln Tunnel, and is about to deposit me in the Port Authority Terminal.

(I still have several streets to walk to get to my office, but—unless it’s snowingfrom this point on, the trek to my job won’t be so treacherous.)

Quote of the Day (Elizabeth Bishop, on Dreaming Our Dreams)

“Oh, must we dream our dreams
and have them, too?
And have we room
for one more folded sunset, still quite warm?”— American poet Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979), “Questions of Travel” (1956)

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

This Day in Jazz History (Birth of Ella Fitzgerald, Supreme Artist of the American Songbook)

April 25, 1917-- Ella Fitzgerald, who, as the “Queen of Jazz” sent listeners into transports of joy for half a century, was born in Newport News, Va., in a home already broken, with parents who had separated even before her birth. By the end of her teens, she had experienced even greater trouble, as her mother died and she was sent to a reform school.

Competing in an “Amateur Night” at Harlem’s Apollo Theater broke the dreariness of her life, opened an avenue to a livelihood, and allowed her to surmount her shyness and self-consciousness about her appearance for at least a few hours onstage.

As a youngster raised on rock ‘n’ roll, it took me a while to warm to Fitzgerald. I knew her best from 1970s Memorex commercials, featuring the famous tagline, "Is it live, or is it Memorex?". In the late 1960s, perhaps advised by her management to seek out newer material, she chose to sing on The Ed Sullivan Show a tune not suited to her gifts, The Beatles’ “Can’t Buy Me Love” (though it was a hit in the UK). Even her mastery of scat singing seemed at the time to me more like vocal pyrotechnics for their own sake rather than in the service of the song.

What made me appreciate her for the first time was my discovery two decades ago of her covers of great American songwriters: Cole Porter, Duke Ellington, the Gershwins, Jerome Kern, Johnny Mercer, Irving Berlin, and Rodgers and Hart. The series, starting with Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Cole Porter Song Book in 1956 and continuing for nearly a decade, was an extraordinary artistic success that, in the process, earned the deep gratitude of those to whom she paid musical tribute. (A typical response was from Ira Gershwin: “I never knew how good our songs were until I heard Ella Fitzgerald sing them.")

Like her admirer Frank Sinatra, Fitzgerald had already been a success for more than a decade, but may have achieved her greatest artistic heights in the 1950s with work that helped establish the canon of the Great American Songbook. Jazz critic-historian Gary Giddins may have summed up why she retained the loyalty of jazz fans for five decades: 

“When Ella Fitzgerald was singing at her peak – in good voice, with good song, arrangement and accompaniment – nothing in life was more resplendent.”