Editorial License

Rob Hammerton, music educator etc.

The Pen is Mightier…

(Lately, as I have clicked on the “Publish” button that commits my words “permanently” to this space, the screen has been filled with several ideas for my next great blog article topic. The fine folks here at WordPress are basically offering up writing prompts, possibly not unlike the kind of essay-question starter kits one might find in the midst of a standardized Language Arts test. So this is my response to one of their more interesting prompts, namely:)

Who writes the best song lyrics?

I’m going to presume we’re limiting ourselves to songs, which is to say we’re leaving out whole vast regions of musical output, including opera, cantatas etc. It’s hard to argue with “Gloria in excelsis deo” and other justly famous texts. And for the moment I’m going to leave out the world of Romantic-era art song (although one of my favorite items is “Der Erlkonig”, a poem by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, which was most famously set to music by Franz Schubert). And I’m going to leave a discussion of the lyrics of Randy Newman, who could be considered an American art-song composer, for another time.

But for sheer mastery of the English language as utilized as a means of creative expression simultaneously musical and poetic? I know exactly who my number-one person is, without hesitation, without having to consult an Internet List of Famous Composers and Lyricists. Without question, there is one gentleman who (for me) stands head-and-shoulders above jut about anyone else in American music (and there are some giants out there).

Ira Gershwin.

He didn’t write exclusively with his brother George, but the vast majority of his well-known work is as a result of that partnership in the 1920s and 1930s.

He was a master at creating song lyrics that could make listeners chuckle, or could make their eyes well up with tears. He often rhymed not merely words but whole phrases; he possessed an unmatched knack for internal rhyme schemes; his lyrics could shift gears from the sublime to the ridiculous. And Ira Gershwin could do all of these things within a single song … or even within a single couplet.

 

Anything For You”

Just tell me what to do / I’ll more than see it through

Dear, I’ll do anything for you

I’ll buy insurance from your brother / I’ll even learn to like your mother

 

But Not For Me”

They’re writing songs of love / but not for me

A lucky star’s above / but not for me

With love to lead the way, I’ve found more clouds of gray

Than any Russian play could guarantee

 

How Long Has This Been Going On?”

Oh, I feel that I could melt / Into heaven I’m hurled

I know how Columbus felt / Finding another world

 

I Can’t Get Started”

I’ve flown around the world in a plane / I’ve settled revolutions in Spain

The North Pole I have charted / But I can’t get started with you

  Around the golf course I’m under par / And all the movies want me to star

  I’ve got a house, a show place / But I can’t get no place with you

You’re so supreme; lyrics I write of you / Scheme, just for a sight of you

Dream, both day and night of you / And what good does it do?

  In 1929 I sold short / In England I’m presented at court

  But you’ve got me downhearted / ‘Cause I can’t get started with you

 

Isn’t It a Pity?”

Imagine all the lonely years you wasted / Fishing for salmon, losing at backgammon

What joys un-tasted! / My nights were sour spent with Schopenhauer

 

Let’s Call The Whole Thing Off”

Things have come to a pretty pass / Our romance is growing flat

For you like this and the other / While I go for this and that

 

My Cousin in Milwaukee”

When she sings hot, you can’t be solemn

It sends the shivers up and down your spinal column

 

Nice Work If You Can Get It”

The only work that really brings enjoyment

Is the kind that is for girl and boy meant

Fall in love and you won’t regret it

That’s the best work of all, if you can get it

 

Our Love Is Here To Stay”

The more I read the papers, the less I comprehend / The world and all its capers and how it all will end

Nothing seems to be lasting, but that isn’t our affair / We’ve got something permanent – I mean in the way we care.

 

In time the Rockies may crumble, Gibraltar may tumble

They’re only made of clay / But our love is here to stay

 

Someone to Watch Over Me”

Although he may not be the man some

Girls think of as handsome

To my heart he carries the key

 

They All Laughed”

The odds were a hundred to one against me

The world thought the heights were too high to climb

But people from Missouri never incensed me

Oh, I wasn’t a bit concerned / For from history I had learned

How many, many times the worm had turned

 

They Can’t Take That Away From Me

The way your smile just beams / The way you sing off key

The way you haunt my dreams / No they can’t take that away from me

 

Who Cares?”

Let it rain and thunder, let a million firms go under

I am not concerned with stocks and bonds that I’ve been burned with

 

Now, I do not wish to be known as a stick-in-the-mud. I hope I never hear myself rail against songs written after the rock ‘n’ roll era started, in a voice like Homer Simpson’s father. You kids get off my lawn! And take your devil music with ya! They don’t write ’em like they used to!, grumble grumble illiterate heathen grumble grumble…

Of course there are fine lyrics being written even as we speak. But only in rare instances at any time in history have they been written with the fine ear for the English language that Ira Gershwin regularly wielded; and certainly not with Gershwin’s consistency – in dozens and dozens of songs, throughout many years of writing, there are very, very few “weak” lyrics to be found in his catalog (they’re in there, but you have to work to find them). Oscar Hammerstein approaches to this standard; a number of Lerner & Loewe songs do qualify; and I’m sure that comments will come my way advocating for a number of other writers for the American musical stage. And yes, the pop and rock scene has produced some creative lyricists and inspired turns of phrase in its time (Paul Simon, Lennon & McCartney, and the aforementioned Randy Newman leap immediately to mind).

But as it happens, recently I had occasion to sit at a local college football stadium, an hour or so before kickoff. I watched the teams warm up; I watched the people wearing Event Staff jackets wait in the 45-degree weather to direct any fans that might also decide to show up absurdly early; I watched some clouds take varying shapes as they were whisked across the sky by the steady 15 mph breeze … and I took note of the rap music pounding out of the public address system speakers in the south end zone.

 

This is why, this is why / This is why I’m hot

I’m hot cause I’m fly / You ain’t cause you’re not

 

Not to dump on the lyricist, on the sentiment or passion behind the lyrics, or on the catchy rhythmic content; but the thought sprang to mind, unbidden:

It ain’t exactly Gershwin.”

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November 24, 2011 Posted by | blogging, entertainment, music, writing | , , , , | Leave a comment

How Quickly It Can Evaporate

And again we have a Scandal of the Week. This one, though, is not nearly as inconsequential or laden with celebrity/pop-culture fluffiness as, say, a Kardashian divorce, an Aniston sighting, or even a Senate prostitution-visit scandal.

This one involves the abuse of children, the conduct of college football instructors, and the sudden collapse of what was considered an almost inassailable career.

 

Joe Paterno, head coach of Penn State football for nearly half a century, has announced that he will retire from that position at the end of this football season. Doubtless it was not how or why he had planned to go.

What I knew of Joe Paterno before this story became a story … isn’t really that much. I’d watched national sports network coverage of college football generally and Paterno particularly, and perceived Paterno as one of the coaches that could be admired much more than many. Some coaches of nationally-known college athletic teams have struck me as possibly decent teachers and human beings; some have definitely not. Some coaches strike me as people whom I would not let my hypothetical college-age, football-playing sons near, whether for reasons of general perceived sliminess or because the coach clearly was more interested in wins and losses and bowl berths than he was interested in helping young people become decent young adults. Some – few, but there have been some – strike me as people who really do have the physical and psychological condition of their athletic charges as their primary concern. (One, whom I imagine I will write about further one day, is Bill Gibbons, head coach of the Holy Cross women’s basketball team. Not only was he clearly a stellar role model for his players, but he was even nice to the band.)

Until this week, I had taken Joe Paterno at face value. Now that I’ve done a little more of my homework, I’m both heartened and disheartened. As it turns out, he did indeed spend more than sixty years doing admirable things admirably, and that’s the heartening part: that I could watch an “up close and personal”, sports-television treatment of a sports celebrity and actually get a fairly accurate portrayal of him. And in the course of being a college football coach, Paterno may have done some occasional things along the way that weren’t so noble – which would mark him as what each one of us is, a regular human being who is not perfect.

But what has shot his career down in flames is far more serious that skirting a recruiting rule or fudging a financial report, and it may actually be better described as what he didn’t do.

Barely more than a week since he won his 409th game as a college football head coach – a record – Paterno’s career has been effectively ended by the revelation of a sex scandal involving one of his former assistant coaches – and Paterno’s knowledge of a specific incident.

 

The incident involved Jerry Sandusky, a former Penn State football player who joined the PSU coaching staff in 1969 and served as defensive coordinator from 1977 to 1999. In 1977, he established The Second Mile, a non-profit foundation intended to help at-risk youth. And allegedly, Sandusky he went on to use the organization to identify the boys he would then abuse.

Kansas City Star writer Blair Kerkhoff summarized the details of the case. “There’s no question Paterno was told nine years ago that … Sandusky had been seen in the Penn State football building shower subjecting a 10-year-old boy to sexual abuse. The witness, a graduate assistant who has been identified as current Penn State assistant Mike McQueary, reported the incident to Paterno the next day. A day later, Paterno called Curley to relate what McQueary had seen, and university vice president Gary Schultz was informed.

But that’s where the story ended. McQueary was never contacted by police or other authorities. Paterno … testified to a grand jury whose report led to charges that Sandusky sexually abused young boys as early as 1994 and continued through 2009. Sandusky was found to have allegedly sexually assaulted eight boys and has been charged with 40 criminal counts. Curley and Schultz surrendered this week on charges of perjury and failure to report the alleged crimes, and Penn State’s board of trustees said late Tuesday night that it would appoint a special committee to conduct an investigation into the ‘circumstances’ that resulted in the indictments of Sandusky, Curley and Schultz. But authorities have said Paterno will not be charged with a crime.

The legal point isn’t questioned,” Kerkhoff wrote. “Paterno did what was required, and said as much in a statement. But at the heart of the firestorm is the moral responsibility of the men who were told of the incident and knew nothing came of it.”

Sportswriters this week have suggested that Paterno’s legacy was built with the highest of ideals; that he helped Penn State become one of the most recognizable American universities, and that he spent his entire adult life committed to advancing the core mission of his university. On ESPN.com, Ivan Maisel wrote, “Over 62 seasons, the last 46 as head coach, Paterno held his players, his university and himself to a higher standard. The ‘grand experiment,’ as he put it in his younger days, proved that the best college football could be played within the rules by athletes who achieved on the field and in the classroom.”

Kerkhoff added: “Paterno has long been held as a standard of coaching. Honest to the core, tough when required and charitable away from the game, he’s helped build libraries at Penn State, and his teams’ graduation rates are among the nation’s best.” Penn State’s 84 percent graduation rate may seem considerably short of 100 percent; but within the context of all of college football, it outpaces most Division I-A programs by leaps and bounds. In the Big Ten, only one school tops Penn State’s graduation rate: Northwestern University (95 percent).

Maisel continued: “Paterno could be imperious. He certainly could be holier-than-thou. But behind all of that posturing, Paterno stood for the ideals of virtue and honor as expressed through the silly, violent and completely enthralling game of college football.”

And, Kerkhoff wrote, “As the most recent round of scandals touched many of the nation’s top programs — Miami’s booster parties; Ohio State’s tattoos-for-memorabilia fiasco that cost coach Jim Tressel his job; Cam Newton’s helping Auburn win a national title after his father allegedly bid out his son’s services; Southern California’s forfeit of a national championship and Reggie Bush’s Heisman Trophy — nobody even thought to look Penn State’s way.”

But, since this news story broke late this past Sunday, Paterno’s moral compass has been called into question. The Patriot-News of Harrisburg, PA, took him to task: “There are the obligations we all have to uphold the law. There are then the obligations we all have to do what is right … (Paterno) should have done more. A man who has spoken with such affection for 45 years about ‘his kids’ failed real kids when they needed him most.”

Maisel picked up the thread: “Paterno failed to grasp the import of what graduate assistant Mike McQueary said to him in March 2002. Paterno, like many in his generation, failed to grasp that society no longer handled such indecencies behind closed doors. … Paterno’s legacy is stained by what he did not do.”

 

The whole situation reminded me very strongly of a Starred Thought® from one of my college band director’s talks: “How quickly it can evaporate.” What he was referring to specifically was how little effort it can take to bring a hypothetical school band program down from heights of success and productivity into depths of dysfunction and low morale, just by the application of a few ill-considered decisions on the part of its leadership.

He was talking to his “Marching Band Techniques” class, full of music education majors who would soon be finding new jobs, possibly at schools with band programs which had been quite successful before they arrived – or which those new directors might turn into successful programs.

Equally, he could have been speaking quite directly to the situation Joe Paterno finds himself in. No matter how many years and how much effort may have gone into building up some institution or other, with great care and leading to deserved success – a band program, a coaching career – it simply does not take much to bring the whole contraption tumbling down. And in this awful case, it didn’t just involve a reduced number of band competitions won, or the amount of cherished traditions discontinued. This time, it involved the physical and psychological well-being of who knows how many children.

Many will lament that Paterno will not have the opportunity to positively affect the lives of any more young adults who happen to be college football players, and that the game of college football will lose one of its most admirable people at a time when those people are in short supply to begin with. In a sports-centric sense, they won’t be wrong. But the fate of the young people who were abused during all those years, thanks to the failure of adults in positions of leadership to carry out their highest responsibilities, are much more important.

After all his glorious carries, it only took one fumble to end Joe Paterno’s career. But that fumble was at the goal line, and it cost him the game – and much more besides.

November 9, 2011 Posted by | celebrity, education, Famous Persons, football, news, Starred Thoughts, teachers, television | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Class Acts

So this past Saturday was Homecoming at UMass. In November. Therefore cold. I must not be a college student anymore, because on the one hand [1] I quite happily unpacked my local musical instrument and went, nay, RAN to the Stadium of my collegiate youth in order to help convince the “baby band” that we alumni could still play a little bit … but on the other hand [2] once I got there and unpacked said instrument, it dawned on me that it was barely past dawn, not yet above the freezing mark … and I took note of it. Cain’t feel m’ toes, y’all.

But it was really OK. Sometimes I think Homecoming exists so band alumni, in the course of just one morning, can be reminded of what the “baby band” does (what we all actually did too, once upon a time) all season long.

The big event of the day, for us UMass band alumni/-ae types, was the official opening of the new George N. Parks Marching Band Building, constructed on the Amherst campus after years of planning, years of fundraising, and years of that fine organization having basically nowhere to regularly store its toys, following the closing of its former home, Old Chapel. The dedication ceremony included a couple of band tunes, many speeches, and one multi-scissored snip of a red ribbon. (My young nephew and niece, also in attendance, were disappointed that the gigantic red ribbon adorning the side of the building didn’t also get snipped. That would have been fun to watch, it’s true.)

The speeches were mostly your standard ribbon-cutting ceremony speeches, at least from the university administration side. To my ears, anyway. To call them “boilerplate” might be a little harsh; they did fit the occasion. Not much in the way of turns of phrase that you might vividly remember years later. Not exactly timid or paltry either; but I imagine that some close observers of the last half a year in the life of the Minuteman Band community might have inwardly grumbled a bit that the administrators’ speeches blithely glossed over certain moments and storylines from this past spring and summer. But, at occasions such as this, one is not supposed to go out on limbs. Probably the best speech-making occasion is the one where everybody gets out alive.

Three speeches did stand out, though, in my mind. Heidi Sarver, band alum and current University of Delaware band director, told a story in the form of an allegory. Band alums who marched during the Parks era were completely unsurprised that she referred to Peter Pan, the movie “Hook”, and the Lost Boys. Jeanne C. Parks, wife of the late great George Parks, told a story in the form of … well, actually, in the form of several George Parks stories. A couple of them could only have been told properly by Jeanne herself. These are two of my favorite makers of speeches (or polite conversation, for that matter), because they’re never ever dull (understatement), and they have occasionally been very satisfyingly pointed.

There was also a speech by another gentleman – one of the last people any of us UMass band alums would have expected to enjoy getting up and making a formal speech at a relatively tightly-wrapped event. This was the man whose most potent and persuasive arguments often have been made using sentences of four words or less. (“Figure it out” and “play and march faster” spring immediately to mind.)

Thom Hannum, assistant director of the UMass Minuteman Marching Band, carrying with him thirty years of service to the University and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, got up and made a speech. Before he made the speech, he got a standing ovation, and probably was uncomfortable with getting it. After he made the speech, he got another one. Again, he probably thought, “no; thank you, but sit down please.” (And he was the object of a third standing ovation during the actual Homecoming football game.)

Some months before, as has been chronicled, Thom was a candidate for the UMass band directorship. As has also been chronicled, another gentleman was named director. As has also been chronicled, some in the UMass band alumni community were disappointed that Thom wasn’t named director, and others were displeased with what they knew of the process of selecting the new director that wasn’t Thom, and still others were disappointed and displeased. Happily, many have since reached out to Timothy Anderson, “the new guy”, and Dr. Anderson has responded gracefully and articulately to those who have reached out. And he has gone to great lengths to acknowledge Thom, publicly and convincingly.

The new guy” in any situation has a very challenging job ahead of him or her — regardless of who he or she is — regardless of what experience he or she brings to that position. Even more challenging when his or her assistant is one of the people who wanted his or her job. In some situations, this can make for a toxic work environment; at the very least, an awkward and uncomfortable one – even if the assistant doesn’t actively work to create such an environment.

So on Saturday, Thom Hannum made a speech, surrounded by band alumni who thought the world of him, but also in the presence of the gentleman who was selected for the position that Thom had also sought.

He hit it out of the park. He saluted the completion of a new home for the Minuteman Band. He saluted those who had been “Chapel rats” before Old Chapel was closed; he saluted those who had been “lost boys”, who had not known Old Chapel and who had completed their time with the UMMB before the UMMB found its new home; he wished publicly for the continuation and growth of the band program, so that a quality musical organization would live in that new building for years to come. And, significantly, gracefully, he also saluted the man who had become that organization’s new leader.

For all the reasons and bearing in mind all the circumstances suggested above, not everyone in the world would have been capable of doing that. But Thom was.

Sometime during this past summer, Thom made the decision to remain associated with the UMass band program. He did so for reasons which may be surmised, but which are completely known only to him. Whatever his precise set of reasons, he is still at UMass, and the program clearly benefits from his continued presence. But it does so not merely because Thom is a DCI Hall-of-Fame percussion giant and therefore the UMass percussion section continues to be glorious proof of that. It does so not merely because Thom knows the traditions, characteristics, and capabilities of the band program so well, thanks to having helped shape it for three decades. Thom Hannum is a continued asset to the UMass Marching Band program, equally, because he is capable of standing up and making public statements like the one he did on Saturday.

Quite simply, Thomas P. Hannum is a class act, quite likely the classiest act that our Commonwealth can currently lay claim to. There have been days this year when I didn’t think the University of Massachusetts had any right to claim as its own a man who can stand as tall as Thom Hannum did on Saturday. But, remarkably, we do still have him. And we can thank whomever (or Whomever) we wish to thank, for that.

November 7, 2011 Posted by | band, GNP, marching band, music, Thom Hannum, UMMB | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments