Deposits — a song for a Sunday

I’ve been in Canada this week, loving how friendly and polite everyone is. But this sign along the seawall in Victoria takes “polite” just a bit too far.

"remove any deposits that your dog may make"

Deposits? Someone on the by-law committee clearly misread “barking dogs” as banking dogs.

And “any deposits”? As a dog owner myself, I shudder to think.

Cities the world over require that people clean up after their dogs; Victoria is the only one I’ve ever encountered that legislates it by euphemism.

Still, it’s Sunday so I shall deposit this song here. I thought about giving you singing dogs, but instead I’ll let Dick Van Dyke and company explain the wondrous results of even a small deposit in the “Fidelity Fiduciary Bank.”

Like what you’re reading? Click here to keep in touch—and I’ll send you my “$100,000 Writing Lesson” as thanks.

Details pack emotional punch — a song for a Sunday

Today’s songs—yes, two!—come to us via Malcolm Gladwell, whose glorious podcast Revisionist History has returned for a second season. His examination of “The King of Tears,” country music songwriter Bobby Braddock, demonstrates that details pack emotional punch like nothing else.

details pack emotional punch
Braddock knows details pack emotional punch

Few of my readers may be aspiring country songwriters. But whatever genre we write in, we all want our pieces to pack emotional punch. Because that’s what gets them remembered. And—say it with me, folks—”if you don’t want to be remembered, why are you writing in the first place?”

To get at what’s different about country music, Gladwell compares a classic country hit to Mick Jagger’s song “Wild Horses.” Jagger wrote the song while keeping watch over his girlfriend, Maryanne Faithful, who had overdosed on heroin. He’s determined not to leave her side: “Wild horses couldn’t drag me away.”

Details pack emotional punch

It’s a powerful statement, and visual too. Jagger overcomes the cliché by turning it into a literal promise, vowing that he and his love will ride those wild horses, “someday,” when she’s recovered.

Gladwell compares that song of undying love to one of the lachrymose ballads that were Bobby Braddock’s stock in trade, “He Stopped Loving Her Today.”

He said “I’ll love you till I die,” she told him “You’ll forget in time”
As the years went slowly by, she still preyed upon his mind

He kept her picture on his wall, went half-crazy now and then
He still loved her through it all, hoping she’d come back again

Kept some letters by his bed dated nineteen sixty-two
He had underlined in red every single “I love you”

Every couplet here offers us a detail about the man, his feelings, his sentimentality. Because of those specifics, we don’t just learn about the man. We see him, we have empathy for him.

“Wild Horses” gives us a fact. “He Stopped Loving Her Today” paints a picture. You may not know the latter song right now, but I guarantee that after listening to Gladwell’s podcast, you’ll never forget it.

My favorite version of “Wild Horses” is Susan Boyle’s. Go figure. And for the country song, George Jones sang it first. But I give you Randy Jackson, singing at George Jones’s memorial service at the Grand Ole Opry. But really, you should listen to the podcast first.

How can I miss you when you won’t go away? – Song for a Sunday

I taught a wonderful class on revision yesterday. And today’s song played a supporting role.

One of the concepts my writers always have trouble grasping is Rest. I mean, they know what it is, what it means. They just fail to see how it applies to them.

Surely some hack with no sense of shame could leave a first draft in an imperfect state, I can almost hear them thinking. But not me. Or if they’re fresh out of academia, Not I.

But the truth is, we need distance because we demonstrate time and again that we are highly subjective judges of our own work. We think a first draft sucks when actually it contains some true gems. We think something is brilliant when it’s drek.

That’s why I built two time-outs into my revision process: Rest after the first draft and Revisit after the second.

But that word- revisit – implies that you have left at some point and now return. Or, as Dan Hicks & His Hot Licks croon:

How can I miss you when you won’t go away?

I learned that song from an ex. In retrospect, perhaps I should have worried about our relationship sooner. But in any event, it’s a fun song, and this is a rollicking live rendition of it.

Enjoy your song for this Sunday.

How Can I Miss You When You Won’t Go Away from Mark Messina on Vimeo.

A toe-tapping hymn—Song for a Sunday

A James Baldwin essay I read this morning began with quotations from two bits of poetry. Rudyard Kipling’s paean to colonialism, “The White Man’s Burden,” and a stanza from a gospel hymn called “Down at the Cross.” I’d never heard the hymn before, so I went looking for it. Following the disturbing casual racism of the Kipling poem (and Baldwin didn’t even quote the worst part of it!), I certainly wasn’t expecting such joyful, toe-tapping music.

toe-tapping beat care of Doris Akers
Doris Akers by Source (WP:NFCC#4), fair use

It took a while to search out the right rendition. I found choirs full of white people bluegrassing it up all over YouTube. But I wanted to give you something closer to the hymn as Baldwin would have known it, and I think I did, in a lovely late-1940s recording of three black women singing close harmonies with a brisk, positively toe-tapping rhythm. They called themselves the Simmons-Aker trio: Dorothy Simmons, Hattie Hawkins, and Doris Akers at the piano. I wonder why Hattie Hawkins got left out of the billing?

Turns out Doris Akers not only played religious music, she also composed it. One song she wrote with gospel diva Mahalia Jackson sold more than a million records. Near the end of her life, in 1992, the Smithsonian Institution dubbed her “the foremost black gospel songwriter in the United States. The Gospel Music Hall of Fame inducted her posthumously, six years after her death.

And so today’s song is “Down at the Cross.” Toe-tapping gospel: I dare you to listen and keep still.

Hope and these United States — Song for a Sunday

Springsteen sings about hope
Springsteen in 2012. Photo by Bill Ebbesen (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0] via Wikimedia Commons
Who else can I turn to on this long 4th of July weekend but Bruce Springsteen? I’ve heard this song about hope, dreams, and this country he loves many times. But it’s never made me cry before.

Springsteen first sang “Land of Hope and Dreams” publicly in 1999, during his reunion tour with the E Street Band. Remember 1999? Bill Clinton was president—though the Senate would try to impeach him. The Twin Towers still stood watch over lower Manhattan. Most people’s biggest worry was a massive technological failure. Tech folks thought that computers programmed to look only at the last two digits of the year might roll us back to 1900 when the new year hit. (Spoiler alert: they didn’t.)

But life was pretty good, at least if you weren’t a person of color. Or an immigrant. Or—God forbid—both. (Springsteen would later write a song about the 1999 killing of Amadou Diallo.) Or LGBT. A Gallup poll found that while half of the country thought “gay or lesbian relationships between consenting adults should be legal”—thanks ever so much—only 35% of our neighbors thought we should be able to legalize those relationships in marriage.

So when Springsteen sang “Land of Hope & Dreams,” he was singing about an imperfect country full of imperfect people. But imperfect people striving to be their best selves, and to make their nation its best self.

Well, this train carries saints and sinners
This train carries losers and winners
This train carries whores and gamblers
This train carries lost souls

I said, this train, dreams will not be thwarted
This train, faith will be rewarded
This train, hear the steel wheels singing
This train, bells of freedom ringing

Wikipedia reports that at a live performance earlier this year, Springsteen added the line “This train carries immigrants.” Indeed it does.

When hope seems in short supply

But only six months into the new presidential administration, hope seems harder than ever to hold onto. And dreams? As they sometimes say in New Jersey, Fuhgeddaboutit.

So when I heard Springsteen’s song this morning, it made me cry.

Can we ever return to the imperfect but optimistic land Springsteen sings about? I hope so. Right now, it’s hard even to dream.

Want to communicate more courageously? Click here to get my e-book Do It Anyway: Tips for Courageous Writing

Unleashing creativity — song for a Sunday

unleashing creativityI was going to write about this song about unleashing creativity. It’s called “A Wizard Every Day.” And I will.

But as I was searching the YouTube for the best rendition of it, I got to thinking about the creative people who wrote the song, composer Nikko Benson (you’ll hear him singing on the video I chose) and lyricist Liz Suggs. And about all of us who make art come out of our minds and our fingertips. Maybe not every time we try. But enough times that we’ve made people go “ooh” in appreciation. If it happens even once, that’s magical.

I’ve heard Benson and Suggs’s song twice now, both times sung by my favorite male singer, Brian Stokes Mitchell. And I can’t believe I didn’t blog about it the first time. But I didn’t, so here we are.

Anyway, I don’t want to spoil the song by writing too much about it. You should listen for yourself. All the way through.

I say “all the way through” because at first you’re going to think it’s just a silly song about a man’s encounter with a trick-or-treater. It is that, but it’s not just that.

So thank you to Nikko Benson and Liz Suggs, wherever you are, for unleashing creativity in the form of your song “A Wizard Every Day.” The world could use more wizards. Who knows—maybe one of my readers…

I’d love to know what you think of the song. What’s your favorite line or moment? Let me know in the comments.

Writing is just the first part of the process. Revising—that’s the secret sauce that gives your writing zing. Join my free webinar on revising.

Bob Dylan & the Nobel Prize — Song for a Sunday

The Nobel Prize in literature last year went to Bob Dylan. An unconventional choice by any measure. Prize-winners give a speech when they pick up their awards. Dylan, unconventionally, sent singer Patti Smith in his place, to sing one of his songs.

Finally, this week, Dylan forked over his speech—not in person but in an audio recording. The Academy described the speech as “extraordinary” and “eloquent.”

Extraordinary. I’m sure it is. It may be the first Nobel Prize speech delivered like a cabaret show, with a solo pianist noodling away. In the world of cabaret, musicians most often “noodle” to distract the audience from a singer’s vapid or over-extended between-songs patter.

Bob DylanNot that I’m calling Dylan’s speech vapid; that’s for you to judge. But as for over-extended, would anyone expect less of the man who pioneered the six-minute-long single? A six-minute-long single that was voted the #1 song of the 20th century. The entire 20th century. Now that’s extraordinary.

Most of the eloquence of Dylan’s speech derives from the three great works of literature he summarizes—at length. The Odyssey, All Quiet on the Western Front, and Moby-Dick. He starts with Melville’s opus, the précis of which consumes nearly half of the 27 minutes of his speech. After—spoiler alert—Ahab goes down to his watery grave and Ishmael survives by floating on a coffin, Dylan concludes:

“That theme, and all that it implies, would work its way into more than a few of my songs.”

And that’s it.

That’s it?

That’s it. And he’s on to the next book report.

Not even Bob Dylan understands why he won the Nobel

I suppose this was Dylan’s way of tying his work to “real” literature, the literature that resonated most with him when he was growing up. He says as much in the opening of the speech:

“When I first received this Nobel Prize for Literature, I got to wondering exactly how my songs related to literature. I wanted to reflect on it and see where the connection was. I’m going to try to articulate that to you.”

Except he didn’t. Not really. It wasn’t a speech so much as a word antipasto. He laid out the ingredients for a feast and invited each listener to assemble the speech he or she wanted.

Bob Dylan is an extraordinary poet. He knows his way around a metaphor as well as anyone—as well, perhaps, as the poet whose name he incorporated in his stage name, Dylan Thomas. He could have taken this occasion to speak about the importance of lyrics, the ability of lyrics set to music to catalyze change. He could have done a lot. Instead, he offered us book reports. (I wish he’d just hired a good speechwriter.)

Write better when you write more often. Join my 5-day writing challenge: Write for 15 minutes a day and I’ll donate your registration fee to a global literacy nonprofit. More info and registration link here.

TriUMphant — Song for a Sunday

I smile every time I sing the word “triumphant.”

Okay, it’s not a word one encounters very often in song. But it was a central word in the School Song I sang on special occasions between seventh and 12th grades. (sorry)—between Class VII and Class XII.

Our music teacher, Miss Havey, instructed us to hit the second syllable with extra verve: triUMphant. Because triumph is, y’know, supposed to sound happy.

Now whenever I encounter the word—I guess it pops up in a hymn every now and then—it is triUMphant. And I smile.

Miss Havey retired long ago—has probably gone on to that great Teachers’ Lounge in the Sky—and yet when I went to the official school reunion in April, women from graduating classes from the 1930s through tokay sang triUMphant. I would have giggled if I hadn’t been slightly teary-eyed.

The fact is, I do give “triumphant thanks” for my six years at that school. Without a doubt, they changed my life. But that’s a story for another time. I gotta get back to the reunion now.

Nora Bayes, the Beyoncé of the early 20th Century

Nora Bayes
Nora Bayes in 1912, Public Domain

What do Nora Bayes and Beyoncé have in common?  Vanity Fair included them both in this video celebrating the fashions of “top pop stars” of the past 100+ years.

No doubt you’ve heard of this Beyoncé. But what do you know about Nora Bayes, star of Broadway and vaudeville?

She made a cameo appearance in one of my recent blogs. Nora Bayes, née Eleanora Sarah Goldberg, introduced the world to “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” She followed that with several other hit records. George M. Cohan personally chose her to record his morale-boosting song “Over There” during World War I. It became an international hit. Shortly after the war ended in 1918, she became the first woman to have a Broadway theatre named after her, the Nora Bayes Theatre, of course.

Bayes’s second husband, Jack Norworth, wrote some hit songs for her, like “Shine On, Harvest Moon”—probably their biggest hit. But Bayes also wrote songs in her own right—music and lyrics. In fact, most sources neglect to mention that she co-wrote “Shine On, Harvest Moon” with Norworth.

More than half a dozen Broadway shows—including Ziegfeld Follies of 1931—featured “songs by Nora Bayes,” according to her listing in the Internet Broadway Database. Several others bear the credit “additional lyrics by Nora Bayes.”

She died in 1928—but her memory apparently lived on, because in 1980 writer Garson Kanin used her as the central character of his novel Smash. If that title seems familiar, yes, the book served as at least part of the basis of the television series Smash. But the producers swapped out Nora Bayes for a more contemporary figure, Marilyn Monroe.

Who was Nora Bayes?

I could end this post right now and you’d have an interesting bunch of trivia about a star of the early 20th century. But Nora Bayes was more than “…one of those rare female triple-threats in vaudeville entertainment” and “easily the most popular female entertainer in vaudeville for much of the first quarter of the 20th century.” She was also a fiercely independent woman, unafraid to forge her own path. Perhaps the comparison with Beyoncé runs deeper than their fashion style.

The Jewish Women’s Archive profile of Bayes tells us:

“In…battles with male businessmen and in her unconventional personal life, Bayes provides some flamboyant, indeed extreme, examples of the broad social changes happening in the United States in the early twentieth century, namely the questioning of traditional roles for women as well as the challenges to male political and economic power that marked the women’s movement of the time.”

Florenz Ziegfeld banned her from show business after she walked out on his 1909 Follies. But she had the last laugh—audiences missed her. She returned to the stage triumphantly, with an even more lucrative contract than she’d had before: $2,500 a week—more than $60,000 in today’s dollars.

Several years later, she broke her contract with a vaudeville producer and set out on her own:

“…she launched her own two-hour, one-woman show in 1917, starred in the musical Ladies First in 1918, and then continued to perform in vaudeville in the England and the United States through 1927.”

Who knows what Bayes would have done if her cancer hadn’t been misdiagnosed early on? But she died in 1928, leaving behind three young children adopted with her fifth husband.

Story Safari

I love finding stories like these. How many other strong women have been all but lost to history? I’ll look for an opportunity to bring Nora Bayes back to life in one of my clients’ speeches.


Write better when you write more often. Join my 5-day writing challenge: Write for 15 minutes a day and I’ll donate your registration fee to a global literacy nonprofit. More info and registration link here.

The Golden Apple — Song for a Sunday

The Golden Apple
Poster art from the Encores! production

The Encores! series at New York’s City Center has been one of the bright spots on my calendar for well over a decade now. They unearth underappreciated musicals, restore their orchestrations, hire ridiculously talented actors (it’s only a two-week commitment), and set them loose. But Encores! had a surprise for me this week: they dedicated their production of The Golden Apple to the memory of an old friend of mine who passed away about 18 months ago.

“Old friend” not in the sense of Sondheim’s “Old Friends” from Merrily We Roll Along, a crew that navigated post-adolescence together and kept turning up in each others’ lives through the bitterness of middle age. Lex Kaplen and I were grammar school classmates; we might easily have never seen each other after sixth grade. But he went to law school with one of my best friends from high school and eventually she brought him to see me sing and we reconnected through email. Then he was gone, heart attack. His post-collegiate employer The New Yorker ran a lovely piece, which I somehow managed to miss. I didn’t learn of his death until after his memorial service, when our mutual friend emailed me about it.

The Golden Apple and apple trees

Lex popped into my life randomly when he was alive; now he has popped in randomly in death. And as I sat there watching the show performed in his memory, a bunch of questions crowded into my brain.

Encores! has done six shows since he passed; why did they choose The Golden Apple to dedicate to him? Was he a rabid fan of this mid-century cult classic? What involvement did he have with Encores!? And why did we never talk about it? Clearly we had much more in common than the school song we could probably both sing in our sleep. Ha! That song was “The Apple Tree” (music and lyrics by our beloved hippie music teacher Ann Crawford)—a resonance that only just occurred to me.

I enjoyed the lush orchestrations and glorious harmonies of the Jerome Moross score. And the surely career-making performance of ingénue Mikaela Bennett, who has not yet graduated from Juilliard. But as the actors succumbed to various deaths, most of them staged for comic effect, I found myself thinking about the real thing. Which is not so funny. Even when the deceased is only a tangential part of your life.

And so your “Song for a Sunday” this week. I wanted to find you “Going Home Together,” the lovely finale of The Golden Apple, but the original cast recording pales in comparison to what I heard onstage this week. So here’s the promo video for the Encores! production. You’ll hear a bit of “Going Home Together” at the 1:35 mark. Enjoy.