Autumn in New York by Vernon Duke




The season of autumn has inspired some of America’s best popular songs. New York has inspired more songs than any other American city. Inevitably, someone wrote a song called Autumn in New York. That it became a standard, recorded by dozens of the giants of American popular music was not inevitable. … Continue reading

Dueling melodies: Irving Berlin’s counterpoint songs




Lovers of Irving Berlin’s music know that he wrote double songs. Two characters on stage sing different songs in succession. Then they sing them together in counterpoint. Most may not be aware that Berlin published 15 of them between 1914 and 1966. … Continue reading

Don Drummond, a great, but underappreciated trombonist




I came across the name “Don Drummond” on the Trombone Forum in connection with something called “ska.” I mentioned Drummond and ska trombone in A History of the Trombone, but didn’t investigate. Then I thought of him when trying to decide what to write about here and listened to some videos. Wow! … Continue reading

Tricky Sam Nanton and the jungle trombone




The trombone was once regarded as the voice of God and long considered grand and noble, but the early 20th century saw development of different, more raucous trombone sounds. Duke Ellington and his first great trombonist Joe “Tricky Sam” Nanton developed the “jungle sound.” In Nanton’s hands, the trombone learned to growl with a plunger and mute. Ellington’s band had the reputation of having the “dirtiest” sound of any jazz band. Although many pioneers of jazz knew and loved “high class” music like opera, the early jazz audiences probably didn’t. While more “refined” audiences may have found the jungle sound … Continue reading

Beloved Christmas Carols: We Three Kings




“We Three Kings” isn’t exactly a Christmas carol. The coming of the kings marks Epiphany, but that doesn’t keep people from singing it earlier. Three men or boys have been selected to sing the solo parts the song assigns to each king in at least tens of thousands of Christmas pageants and Christmas parties over the years. … Continue reading

Youth orchestras: killing two stereotypes at once




Young people these days can’t be pried away from their cell phones. They’re lazy and undisciplined. At least, that’s the prevailing stereotype. Classical music is just about dead according to obituaries that seem to appear in magazine articles and well-read blogs every year. No one cares about such old-fashioned music except an increasingly aging population. At least, that’s the prevailing stereotype. Don’t be fooled. Youth orchestras all over the country (and all over the world, for that matter, in case the stereotypes cross international borders) work very hard to polish performances of the standard orchestral repertoire. They love the music, … Continue reading

Beloved Christmas carols: I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day




The Christmas holidays are not a joyous occasion for everyone. Family tragedy can destroy enjoyment of festive occasions, as it did for Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. The story of “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” is perhaps the least joyous of any Christmas music I have ever studied. His wife tragically died in 1861, the same year as the American Civil War started. He could not deal with Christmas at all until 1864, a year after his son was severely injured in battle. Longfellow wrote his poem “Christmas Bells” on Christmas Eve, 1864. He wrote it not so much because he … Continue reading

Fiddler on the Roof: Celebrating 50 Years




The year 1964 saw the premieres of some of our most outstanding Broadway musicals, including Hello, Dolly!, Funny Girl, and Fiddler on the Roof. Fiddler on the Roof is based on eight stories about Tevye the milkman by Sholem Aleichem written between 1894 and 1914. Tevye has extended conversations with a character named Sholem Aleichem. To what extent does this Sholem Aleichem speak with the author’s voice, and to what extent is he as fictitious as Tevye? Even his contemporaries couldn’t figure it out. Likewise, it is not clear how faithful the stories are to real historical conditions. Aleichem’s stories … Continue reading

Songs of September




September sees the beginning of the harvest of nature’s abundance, but then the fields stop growing. It displays flamboyant color, as the leaves turn from uniform green to variegated reds, oranges, and yellows. But then autumn turns a dull brown. Relief from the heat of summer invigorates for a while, but gives way to melancholy. September melancholy has inspired some wonderful songs. … Continue reading

Kingdom Coming by Henry C. Work: abolitionist minstrel song




Popular songs usually don’t have a very long shelf life, but sometimes they’re more than just songs. Some of them affect the course of social and political events. Even after no one sings them or recognizes them any more, these are worth studying for their historical significance. I thought “Kingdom Coming” by Henry Clay Work was such a song. In form it’s a minstrel song, with a text in the slave dialect. Unlike almost any other minstrel song, it conveys a strong abolitionist sentiment. Poets who disdained the minstrel song tradition wrote abolitionist texts in dialect, which also became popular … Continue reading