Saturday, January 25, 2014

"Gin a body meet a body" Happy Birthday Robert Burns

The great Scot poet Robert Burns is not exactly a household name in the 21st century, outside of the yearly St. Andrew society dinners around the world. He did get a Google doodle a few years ago that called out his poem, "My Luve is like a red, red rose/That's newly sprung in June."

He will never be entirely forgotten, because one of his poems-—better known with its raunchy lyrics cleaned up for a children's song—is tied to one of the most famous novels of the 20th century:

"You know that song 'If a body catch a body comin' through the rye'? I'd like — "
"It's 'If a body meet a body coming through the rye'!" old Phoebe said. "It's a poem. By Robert Burns."
"I know it's a poem by Robert Burns."
She was right, though. It is "If a body meet a body coming through the rye." I didn't know it then, though.
"I thought it was 'If a body catch a body,'" I said."
 Holden Caufield in Catcher in the Rye
The same song that inspired JD Salinger and his character has been recorded many times. These are all must-listens.

Karen Carpenter & John Denver
The Carpenters Very First Television Special was on December 8, 1976. It has the most extraordinary medley of Comin' thro the Rye with the Beach Boys's Good Vibrations. Surely one of the strangest medleys in pop music history, but it works musically and a true duet for these two consummate singers. A real treat.

Ava Gardner in Mogambo
I prefer the 1932 Red Dust, but its 1953 remake with Grace Kelley and Ava Gardner vying for the love of Clark Gable has the distinction of Ava singing Comin' thro' the Rye, "a bit of home."

Marian Anderson
Her 1944 version on The Bell Telephone Radio show is exquisite. The announcer raises the whole "is rye a field of wheat or a river" issue.  Before The Catcher in the Rye, people thought the rye was a river, probably based on the first stanza of the underlying poem

O, Jenny's a' weet, poor body,
  Jenny's seldom dry:
She draigl't a' her petticoatie,
  Comin thro' the rye!

that Jenny is wet from wading across a small Rye river, dragging her petticoat,  to meet her lover. Later pundits dispute this, maybe influenced by Salinger.  I think the strongest argument that Burns did not intend a river is that he did not capitalize it, and he was a stickler for his punctuation.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

"RING OUT WILD BELLS": Peter O'Toole Got It

I haven't seen How to Steal a Million in forever, but when I did as a kid I remember Peter O'Toole exuberantly shouting "Ring Out Wild Bells" at the end when the alarms are all going off all over the place. He said it with such conviction, like he really knew what it meant beyond a line of dialogue in a movie. I remember my mom saying that it was Tennyson, which I filed away until college, when I looked it up.

When O'Toole died I was surprised there is no clip of the scene on YouTube, but someone posted

When I'm feeling blue this is one of my go to movies for comfort!! "Ring out wild bells!!"

on FlickChick's FB page, so I'm not the only one it made an impression on.

The line is from Lord Tennyson's long elegiac poem In Memoriam, written over 17 years to cope with the sudden death of Arthur Henry Hallam, who was his sister's fiancé, at age 22.

It's most famous lines are

    'Tis better to have loved and lost
    Than never to have loved at all.

But it has the most glorious of New Year's lines,

    The year is dying in the night;
    Ring out, wild bells, and let him die

Real European church bells are a force of nature. They are like nothing I ever heard of in my suburban upbringing.  The first bells I heard where at Solesmes, in France, where I met Cadfael. I could not get over the magnitude of their glorious sound, the depth of feeling they can summon.

Tradition says that Tennyson's lines came upon hearing the bells at the Abbey Church of Waltham Holy Cross and St. Lawrence. It's a church with many distinctions, including being an 11th century pilgrimage site; having Thomas Tallis as the organist in the 16th century; and being the last of the Catholic monasteries to be closed or "dissolved" by Henry VIII during the Reformation.


 Listen to the amazing bells from Waltham that someone kindly filmed:

    Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky,
    The flying cloud, the frosty light
    The year is dying in the night;
    Ring out, wild bells, and let him die.

    Ring out the old, ring in the new,
    Ring, happy bells, across the snow:
    The year is going, let him go;
    Ring out the false, ring in the true.

    Ring out the grief that saps the mind,
    For those that here we see no more,
    Ring out the feud of rich and poor,
    Ring in redress to all mankind.

    Ring out the want, the care, the sin,
    The faithless coldness of the times;
    Ring out, ring out thy mournful rhymes,
    But ring the fuller minstrel in.

    Ring out false pride in place and blood,
    The civic slander and the spite;
    Ring in the love of truth and right,
    Ring in the common love of good.

    Ring in the valiant man and free,
    The larger heart the kindlier hand;
    Ring out the darkness of the land,
    Ring in the Christ that is to be.