Christmas/Holiday Cheer: Alfred Burt

We’ve sung a lot of different pieces over the years for our choir Christmas programs at church; it’s been a joy to gain familiarity with some of the very fine composers of such music. One of the more interesting is Alfred Burt, introduced to me close to twenty years ago by our long-time director John Heaton.

Burt’s story is tragically brief. He grew up in Michigan, was a music major at Ann Arbor, and served in an Army band during WWII as a trumpeter. He continued performing and composing after being discharged, but died in early 1954 at the age of 33, of lung cancer.

He’s known to us now because of the music he provided for fifteen carols. Burt’s father, an Episcopal priest, began composing his own carols for inclusion in Christmas cards when Alfred was very young. Burt took over writing the music for his father’s words around the time he finished college. The elder Burt died in 1948, but Alfred continued the tradition, asking Wihla Hutson, the organist at his father’s church, to take over as lyricist.

The first recordings of the carols, originally meant only for family and friends, came soon after Alfred Burt’s death (twelve of them appeared on a late 1954 Columbia collection entitled The Christmas Mood). Over the following years, a few wound up being recorded by well-known artists; the one you’re most likely to hear these days is Nat King Cole’s version of “Caroling, Caroling.” Several years ago, we bought This Is Christmas, an a cappella 1963 recording of all fifteen carols by The Voices of Jimmy Joyce. I can’t say I listen to it every year (though I did play it this morning), but a few of these songs bring back very pleasant memories of Christmas choir performances past: “This Is Christmas,” “Some Children See Him,” The Star Carol,” Jesu Parvale,” and especially “We’ll Dress the House.” I’d love to sing them again sometime soon.

In 1968 Simon and Garfunkel did “The Star Carol,” a song Burt completed just days before he died.

 

And here’s a nice medley of “Caroling, Caroling” and “We’ll Dress the House,” by the Salt Lake Vocal Artists. I’ve always loved the chords toward the end of each verse in the latter.

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American Top 40 PastBlast, 12/12/87: New Order, “True Faith”

One of the things I appreciate about the early-ish days of MTV now more than I did then was getting to watch videos they tried but failed to help break out. I didn’t necessarily think of it this way at the time, but I suppose it was an opportunity to expand my musical horizons. There were a few late nights in the summer of 84 I spent on the couch in the family room hanging with Mark Goodman, the folks having already gone to bed. Let’s take a glance at a couple of snippets from Memory Lane.

First, a clip from an obscure Australian band whose name, if nothing else, stuck. “Someday, you’ll look back and remember that on July 10, 1984 (or whatever date it was), you saw this video from Machinations”—Goodman really did say something along those lines! I never saw or heard them again and I sure don’t remember what song he played, but a little investigation makes me suspect it was “Pressure Sway”—the visuals ring the faintest of bells.

Then there was the evening I got introduced to a band from the UK who were a bigger deal than I realized. Goodman had rolled “Confusion,” from New Order; I confess I didn’t find it particularly appealing. Perhaps the memory of seeing it lingers now only because they did have greater success three years later.

It was a genuine surprise to learn toward the end of 87 that the much more catchy “True Faith” came from these same folks (yes, “Blue Monday” and “Bizarre Love Triangle” had slipped by unnoticed in the meantime). Clearly I wasn’t the only one digging it, since it’s #37 on this show and would reach #32. Its plenty bizarre video probably helped the song break through to the masses (it’s directed by Philippe Decouflé, a French dancer and choreographer—it wasn’t hard to tell he was also behind the camera for Fine Young Cannibals’ “She Drives Me Crazy” a little over a year later).

I wish I’d had the foresight to record those late night sessions back in 84—I wonder about the other vids I saw only once that left no trace.

While we’re on the subject of MTV obscurities: as a bonus, here’s a link to a really awful song/video I saw a few times too many back in the day.  It’s sooo bad that it shouldn’t be allowed to simply slip away through the memory hole completely. Take a gander at “The Animal Song,” by the Europeans; you’re welcome.

American Top 40 PastBlast, 12/8/73: Todd Rundgren, “Hello It’s Me”

I don’t think of Todd Rundgren having a distinct production style the way that, say, Jeff Lynne has—that is, I can’t tell just from listening to an album that he’s the one behind the dials. Nonetheless, his work as engineer and/or producer drew notice early on, and he went on to handle a wide range of interesting and well-known LPs in the 70s and 80s: Badfinger’s Straight Up, New York Dolls, Bat Out of Hell (if you haven’t read what Rundgren says he was aiming for with Meat Loaf, check it out here), Next Position Please for Cheap Trick, and one of my very, very favorites, XTC’s Skylarking. (Casey also makes a note on this weekend’s 12/12/87 show that TR produced the fine “I Don’t Mind at All” by Bourgeois Tagg.)

And of course, Rundgren was overseeing his own work, both solo and with Utopia. Among his first efforts was a re-working of a song he’d recorded with the Nazz back in 68. I’ve long thought “Hello It’s Me” was a thoughtful and intelligent take on a relationship that may or may not be going anywhere; I’d put it up pretty high on my list of songs from this period. (The things you learn from Wikipedia: Vicki Sue Robinson, of “Turn the Beat Around” fame, is singing backup.) It’s just reached the Top 10 on this show, coming in at #8—it’d peak at #5. I’ll always take the album version, please.

Christmas/Holiday Cheer: Trans-Siberian Orchestra, “Christmas Dreams”

Last night the family went to the Trans-Siberian Orchestra concert at Rupp Arena. Ben had gone with a friend to see T-SO in Cincinnati a couple of years ago and returned quite impressed. When I mentioned the possibility of scoring tickets for this year’s tour, he was enthusiastic. So, even though it would be during finals week for me and on a weeknight when Ben’s frequently been having piles of homework, we made our plans.

To be honest, I knew little going in outside of the five or so songs you hear on the radio regularly this time of year, so I learned a lot seeing them play (and doing a bit of online looking upon our return home). The group on stage last night consisted of two guitarists, bassist, drummer, two keyboardists, electric violinist, ten vocalists (five male, five female), and seven local orchestral musicians (they hire locals to fill out the sound at each show).

Rather than do a blow-by-blow, I’ll hit highlights, bullet-style:
–The experience was more hard rock/80s hair metal than I expected going in, but that’s due solely to my ignorance. I now know about the connections between T-SO and the 80s/90s metal band Savatage (who slipped under my radar back in the day);
–That said, the musicianship was rock-solid and all the vocalists were very good;
–There were stretches that I really enjoyed, but others that didn’t grab me all that much. I think that’s all about stylistic preferences (metal’s never been my thing). It seemed to be more Ben’s scene than mine or Martha’s overall;
–I ran into a couple of college friends and their son just as we walked in—we hadn’t seen one another in a long time, but from FB I know they’re big T-SO fans. Bonnie posted afterward that this was the best she’d seen of them;
–The light/laser show was effectively deployed throughout the night, and the band worked hard on engaging the audience;
–Our seats were on the aisle, to the right side of the stage as you face it. People were traipsing up and down the stairs all night long, blocking our view more than we’d have liked (it was really bad at the beginning, as latecomers kept pouring in). Fairly frustrating, but we know where not to sit next time!
–The strings were far, far down in the mix. It was essentially a guitar/bass/keyboard/drum affair all night long. I think I might have enjoyed a more “orchestral” experience;
–There are actually two touring T-SOs. Last night, the other one was in St. Louis. Tonight, the bunch we saw will be playing two shows in Greenville, SC, while the others will be in Knoxville.

They did play the songs I already knew, and that was fun. “Wizards in Winter” is probably my favorite of their works, and it didn’t disappoint. I especially enjoyed the rocked-up take on “Christmas Canon,” with four of the female singers out in front, and their closing “Christmas Eve/Sarajevo 12/24” was mighty fine. But I figured maybe I’d feature one of the pieces that was new to me instead. The rock/metal influences of years gone by are prominent, but the melody and chord progressions strongly resonate. Were this a rock song of the late 80s instead of a holiday-themed tune, I daresay it would’ve been a favorite. Here’s “Christmas Dreams.”

IRH ’53

In the fall of 49 a fresh-faced, rail-thin 18-year-old from Warsaw, KY, showed up on the doorstep of Transylvania University, ready to show his stuff. He majored in both history and political science, earned the opportunity to spend a term at American University in DC, and was the crafty leadoff hitter for the Pi Kappa Alpha softball team, always a threat to bunt his way on.  Dad loved his Transy days thoroughly and made sure his children knew that as they grew up. He kept in touch with many classmates over the years, served on a reunion committee at least once, and was a faithful donor.

My grandfather Harris had attended TU for two years, 1916-18, but family finances kept him from finishing his education there. No doubt his fond memories played a role when it came time for his only child to go to college; I imagine that’s one reason it felt natural to my father to want the same for Amy and me. Just before my senior year of HS started, Dad and I drove down to Transy to talk with the folks in admissions and take a tour. One thing led to another and before too many months passed, I was ready to commit to being a member of their class of 86. My sister, less pliant than I, chose to carve her own path a year later, accepting a basketball scholarship at Union College in southeastern KY.

At the end of my senior year in college, the soon-to-be-graduates voted on a number of gag awards to distribute amongst themselves.  I copped two of them: “Most Likely to be Studying on a Friday Night” (false) and “Most Likely to Become a Transy Professor” (perhaps).

There was no open position in the math program at TU when I was on the job market six years later, but one did arise in the spring of 94. I had just moved to a house in Georgetown from an apartment in Lexington in December; nonetheless, I elected to apply, and I was invited for on-campus interview.

It didn’t go very well. I don’t think I went in overconfident, but I was underprepared.  I gave superficial answers to questions about why I wanted to join the faculty there; my presentation, on a topic from first-semester calculus, provided plenty of evidence that I still very much a work-in-progress in the classroom. By the end of the day, I knew that I hadn’t earned serious consideration for an offer.

I got over it quickly. That summer I attended a great workshop at Purdue on an innovative approach to an upper-level course I would be teaching in the fall. Its reasonably successful implementation, then and in subsequent years, probably boosted my case for tenure at Georgetown. The following January, I met Martha—perhaps that wouldn’t have happened had I gotten the Transy job.

Dad, on the other hand, took things much harder, holding Transy responsible for the outcome. I attribute much of that to my father’s protective feelings for one of his offspring. But he was also plenty stubborn and a grudge-holder when he wanted to be—over the following year I tried, to little avail, to explain how I just hadn’t merited the offer. He let the matter affect his feelings toward his alma mater. He still went to reunions, but he became much less enthused about staying involved and contributing.

I recognize Dad was an adult possessing full agency for his actions and emotions, but I couldn’t help but feel responsible for his cooled ardor for TU—after all, had I not applied… My father was already plenty bitter about much of the world around him; it seemed like my actions had taken away one of his remaining loves.

Just about exactly twenty years later, Mom and I sat down in her family room to discuss what kind of charitable donation she might make in honor of Dad’s recent passing. I suggested something to benefit Transy students majoring in the same areas he had studied, and Mom agreed.  Around the same time, an opportunity arose to buy bricks for the renovation of a plaza on the academic side of campus. I purchased one in honor of Dad, one that reads simply “Ira Richard Harris ’53.” It sits just to the right of the base of a big “T” on the north end of the plaza (there’s a “T” and a “U” at both ends).

IRHBrickCloseUp

I suppose these actions were driven in part by my desire to atone for still-lingering guilt, but: a) in the end, Dad’s Transy years were a special period in his life, and b) I have my own dear memories of the place only because of his encouragement that I go there. I’m not trying to pat myself on the back—I just wanted to have all of that honored in some small way.

Recently I learned of the need to formalize the intentions of the gift made four years ago, and yesterday I went over to Transy to sign the paperwork. Afterward I got a tour of one of their new dorms and also saw the recently-renovated interior of the classroom building adjacent to the plaza. It was an altogether pleasant visit in spite of the cold.

I kept to myself that the next day just happened to be the fifth anniversary of Dad’s death.

American Top 40 PastBlast, 12/6/80: Korgis, “Everybody’s Got To Learn Sometime”

My first job was with the Internal Revenue Service.

By the time I was a junior in high school, I’d shelved any aspirations I had about playing basketball (about halfway through my freshman season, the coach converted me from benchwarmer to team statistician).  So when cross-country season ended around Halloween, I started casting about for something to do.  Right around then, an announcement came to the school that the IRS was looking for high schoolers to work at their local storage facility. (Back in the day, Cincinnati was one of the cities to which federal tax returns were sent. My recollection is that it wasn’t residents of Ohio or Kentucky who sent them there, though—I’m pretty sure we always mailed ours to Kansas City.) I was 16 and more than ready to get some spending money. I let the guidance counselor know about my interest; it turns out I was one of several folks to do so. After submitting an application and waiting a little longer than I thought reasonable to hear back, I received word at last that I had been hired.

One day after school late that fall, my father dropped me off at a warehouse on Industrial Road in Florence. There were at least a dozen young folks there, a few of whom like me came from W-V. We filled out more paperwork, got the little bit of training we needed, and were put to work. It was pretty menial stuff—our job was to re-file returns that had been pulled (for audits?).  We’d be given a pile of returns and sent off to navigate the rows upon rows where they were housed. I honestly don’t remember now how it all was organized, but I’m kinda thinking that each return had a number assigned to it (now that I think of it, SSN would have been a natural choice), so you just had to find the box/folder where it belonged. I’m sure we were closely monitored in the first days to make certain we understood the system and weren’t putting anything in the wrong spot. Despite it not being that challenging, the need to pay attention to details was appealing enough and something I handled reasonably well.

Our shifts were only five hours or so, and included a short break for us to eat whatever we’d brought with us for dinner. Ideally I’d have gotten about twenty hours in each week, but I had trouble gaining traction. Before the holidays, they told us pretty often not to come in due to lack of things to do (I think they were pretty forgiving if you begged off because of school work, too). Hours became more regular once the calendar switched over to 81; however, I turned in my badge toward the end of February—it was time for track practice to start. I had made a little dinero (and wouldn’t have minded earning more), but between the delay in getting started and the overall lack of hours, it felt like a missed opportunity.

It’s also strange to think back on it, given how much things have changed since then. I’m sure we were trained on confidentiality and all that rot, but you’ve got to think we wouldn’t have been allowed to take smartphones with us into the workspace had such things existed. And with such a high percentage of returns filed electronically nowadays (as well as the ability to scan paper returns), there’s no need for the warehouses, I suppose.

The radio in the break room was usually tuned to one of the local Top 40 stations. Not surprisingly, there are a few hits of the day that make me think of working in that warehouse: among others, songs by REO Speedwagon, Rod Stewart, Dan Fogelberg, and Donnie Iris.  Q102 didn’t play “Everybody’s Got To Learn Sometime,” (at least it didn’t chart for them, according to the sheets I have), but it was one of my very favorites at the time I had this job. The Korgis, an Aussie group, just had this one U.S. hit, but it’s amazingly good. They’re at #21 on this show, close to their peak of #18.

American Top 40 PastBlast, 12/2/72: Billy Paul, “Me and Mrs. Jones”

I’ve mentioned previously that one of the pieces of data I noted in my early days of charting and 45 collecting was the artist’s label. There was still a decent variety of labels in the mid-70s, though even then it wasn’t too hard to figure that the two biggest players appeared to be the Warner/Reprise/Atlantic/Asylum/Elektra and Columbia/Epic families. It was interesting enough to track the changes the various companies made to their logos/labels on 45s as the 70s slipped into the 80s. Mention a single that I bought during that period and often an image of the label pops immediately into my head.

Even though I don’t believe I owned anything on Philadelphia International (which was distributed by Columbia) back in the day, I still associate the name with the grey-green color used on its 45s. It was a Kenny Gamble/Leon Huff joint, and they, along with Thom Bell, deserve much of the credit for what we know as the “Philly soul sound” of the 70s. I think of Lou Rawls and the O’Jays as their primary acts, but they also had MFSB, the Three Degrees, Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes (as well as Teddy Pendergrass after he went solo), and Billy Paul.

“Me and Mrs. Jones” was PI’s first pop #1 hit, spending three weeks there at the end of the year (here, it’s #13 and zooming up). At the time, it caught the attention of me and my sister mostly for Paul’s dramatic singing of the title phrase (even though she was just seven, Amy could do what sounded to me at the time an acceptable imitation of it). I now recognize it for the fabulous slice of early 70s soul it is.

Paul kept recording for a few more years after his smash, but success was mostly limited to the soul charts (he did have one other pop Top 40 hit, “Thanks For Saving My Life,” which made #37 in April 74). He died in April 2016, part of the big wave of musical artists who passed on that year. Today would have been his 84th birthday.