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

The versatility of Lawrence Brown, Ellington’s lead trombonist




The self-deprecating Lawrence Brown is best known as one the great players in Duke Ellington’s trombone section. In fact, when Brown joined, the Ellington band became the first jazz band to have three trombones. He is, of course, more than just a number. He became the band’s lead trombonist and a very versatile soloist. How versatile? In addition to his incredible displays of virtuosity, he is probably the first of the great jazz ballad trombonists. But I described him as self-deprecating. He frequently spoke poorly of his own ability. It must have been an attempt to appear humble. If he … Continue reading

Hello Dolly! Celebrating 50 Years




Hello Dolly! opened January 16, 1964 and closed after 2844 performances on December 27, 1970. No previous Broadway musical had such a long run. Carol Channing as Dolly Gallagher Levi led the cast. It also ran for 794 performances at London’s West End. The Broadway show won 10 Tony Awards, including Best Musical, and for Channing, Best Actress in a Musical. Not till 35 years later did another musical surpass Hello Dolly! … Continue reading

Baby It’s Cold Outside, by Frank Loesser




Hasn’t this winter been brutal? Ice storms in New Orleans, arctic temperatures in Chicago. Oh baby it’s cold outside. Hmm. That sounds like a good song title! And of course, it’s the title of a most unusual song. There haven’t been many pop songs taking the form of a dialog and requiring two singers. Frank Loesser wrote “Baby It’s Cold Outside” in 1944. He and his wife Lynn sang it for the first time at a housewarming party that year after they moved in to New York’s Navarro Hotel. After all, they were entertainers, and when entertainers held parties for … Continue reading

You can’t play that on trombones!




According to an anecdote I read long ago and now can’t find, Theobald Boehm, inventor of modern flute fingering, spent a night at Rossini’s house. In the morning, he began a warmup, playing low trills. Rossini burst into the room and said, “You can’t play that on a flute.” Boehm said, “But I just did.” Rossini responded, “I don’t care. You can’t play that on a flute.” The same sentiment has followed performances on trombone, too. A European orchestra actually took Arthur Pryor’s trombone apart looking for the trickery. They knew what they had just heard was impossible. “You can’t … Continue reading

Beloved Christmas carols: A Ceremony of Carols by Benjamin Britten




Today’s post marks the last time I can possibly write anything to honor Benjamin Britten’s centennial. I have already written a program note to The Young Peoples’ Guide to the Orchestra, but I especially love A Ceremony of Carols. Its composition is part of the same narrative I wrote about before. Britten and Peter Pears were visiting the United States when the Second World War broke out. He mentioned to Serge Koussevitsky, conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, that he wanted to compose an opera but couldn’t afford it. So Koussevitsky commissioned him to write it. At about the same … Continue reading

Songs against cities




Many songs, including some well-loved standards, celebrate various American cities. Of course, no place is perfect or without its detractors. I can’t think of any really negative song that has achieved the popularity of, say, “Chicago, That Toddlin’ Town” or “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” but quite a few of them exist. Chances are you have John Denver’s putdown of Toledo, Ohio. Chicago Speaking of Chicago, the very earliest published song I have found is based on a highly insulting satirical poem the composer/publisher found in a Pittsburgh newspaper. It compared Chicago unfavorably to Sodom and Gomorrah. Other … Continue reading

Trombone vs bumblebee




“Everyone knows” that the trombone can’t play fast. In the orchestra, trombones are likely to be playing long chords when everyone else has a moving part. Even in jazz, Stan Kenton assumed that bebop would spell the end of the slide trombone. So some trombonists try to prove that “everyone” is wrong. Bass trombone soloist and clinician Alan Raph has pointed out, “Trying to be the world’s fastest trombone player is like trying to be the world’s tallest midget,” but nothing seems to keep trombonists from trying. Here are three of many videos of trombonists playing “Flight of the Bumblebee.” … Continue reading

Shared songs of the Civil War




Although at war, the Union and Confederacy shared a common history, language, and at least partly, cultural heritage. By 1863, they also shared war weariness and the grief of lost loved ones. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that they shared at least two songs that year. A Northern and a Southern composer both set the poem that starts “All Quiet along the Potomac Tonight.” Northern and Southern publishers both issued “Who Will Care for Mother Now?” … Continue reading

Songs about Cities from Tin Pan Alley




Can you name a song about New York? Chicago? San Francisco? Maybe you can name two or more about each. Maybe you can even sing one or more. How about New Orleans? Very possibly. Ypsilanti? Um. It’s in Michigan. Yes. There’s a song about it. Published in New York. From the late 19th century to the middle of the 20th, New York the hub of the popular music industry in the U.S. A handful of mostly Jewish songwriters congregated in a part of town called Tin Pan Alley and churned out songs week after week. Like the music industry today, … Continue reading