Songs that Should be in Movies

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Bob Dylan

Duluth is gearing up for Dylan Fest this coming week. For those unaware, singer Bob Dylan was born here and lived in northern Minnesota through his high school days. Although some local controversy exists about Dylan’s perceived slights of his hometown, many people here like his music and I expect the events will be full.

Not long ago on the radio I heard Dylan performing Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Some Enchanted Evening.” Hearing him sing it in his nasally voice was funny and sort of surreal. It made me pull off the road and start a list of “Songs that Should be in Movies.” Who knows, such a list could come in handy if movies are ever made from my novels. (Grin.) I can see Dylan’s song accompanying a slow dance scene.

Other songs I’ve heard since then that I’ve added to my list are:

Running with the Wolves,” by Cloud Cult. This would make a good road trip song.

From a Payphone in the Rain” and “Me, You & the Universe,” by Teague Alexy. The payphone song is so heart-wrenching, it made me glad that Teague doesn’t record such songs very often. (Just stab me in the heart with a pencil and twist it, why don’t you?!) These songs are stories in themselves – maybe too specific for a movie soundtrack — but they’d make for good closing credits songs; ones to hear while you’re feeling the after-effects of a movie and you want to prolong the agony (or ecstasy) of the story and chill out before you stand up and go out into the real world.

That’s it for my list so far, but I’m still adding to it. Any suggestions?

Crawling out From Under my Musical Rock

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A Band Called Truman. Photo by Tanja Heckert.

Is there something your community is known for that you aren’t tuned into? It could be a sports team, an industry (like craft breweries), or some other cultural/historical thing. For me, it’s the local music scene. And now I’m making up for lost time.

For years, I’ve been squished under the rock of my responsibilities so I haven’t been able to enjoy the local music scene. I also haven’t had friends or acquaintances who were into it, so I plodded along, deaf to all the musically talented people around me. And Duluth has a lot of them. Case in point: Gaelynn Lea, who just won National Public Radio’s Tiny Desk Concert Competition. Her unique style surpassed that of 6,000 other people and wowed the judges.

Sure, I knew about the symphony and high school bands – wider community kinds of music, but not so much individual local musicians. I realized I needed to rectify this. As a writer, I appreciate the creativity involved in songwriting and singing, and I feel it is my duty to become more familiar with the local music scene. Besides, I just like it!

I’ve had the good fortune to meet several local musicians/band members (including A Band Called Truman, Teague Alexy, Michael Monroe, Mary Bue, Georganne Hunter, and Jerree Small) and others I’ve managed to see play live or I’ve plucked them out of the “local music” CD section in the library. These include the Hobo Nephews of Uncle Frank, Cloud Cult, Low, Charlie Parr, Bill and Kate Isles, Ryan Lane, Rachael Kilgour, Sara Thomsen, Woodblind, and Jamie Kallestad.

I don’t know what I would do without the library’s help in catching up on twenty-something years of missed local music. Thank god for libraries! I know I’m missing many local musicians in this list, but I’m only halfway through the alphabet in the library section. 🙂

The thing is, I didn’t even know what I was missing until a series of chance encounters, life changes, and opportunities arose. It’s been a fun ‘research project,’ and the experiences will no doubt find their way into my fiction writing.

Is there something in your life that you don’t even know is missing? Something available in your community that’s being wasted on you? Here’s hoping someday you have the ability to take advantage of this food for the soul.

My Dad & Barnacle Bill

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My dad repairing a vehicle in our driveway, 1951.

One of my fondest memories of my father — who is ninety-seven and has been having a rough go of it lately — involves the ballad of Barnacle Bill, a song popular in the 1930s.

Picture me as a child of five, knocking on the bathroom door. My father is inside, shaving or whatever. He answers my knock, singing in falsetto:

“Who’s that knocking at my door? Who’s that knocking at my door? Who’s that knocking at my door? (Cried the fair young maiden).”

Of course, I’d tell him it was me and that I had to go to the bathroom . . . BAD. Like all children who would rather play than go pee, I’d leave it until the last moment.

He’d answer by continuing to sing, this time in a gravelly male voice:

“It’s only me from over the sea
(Said Barnacle Bill the Sailor).
I’m all lit up like a Christmas tree
(Said Barnacle Bill the Sailor).
I’ll sail the seas until I croak.
I’ll fight and swear and drink and smoke,
But I can’t swim a bloody stroke
(Said Barnacle Bill the Sailor).”

By this time, I’d plead again for him to let me in, and he’d reply in falsetto:

“I’ll come down and let you in,
I’ll come down and let you in,
I’ll come down and let you in,
(Cried the fair young maiden).”

Sometimes he’d let me in. But if he needed more time to finish, he’d draw out the torture by singing the last verse:

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My dad in his knickers (right) with his father outside their home in central Minnesota. I call this photo “fancy pants.” It must have been taken in the 1930s, during the time the Barnacle Bill song was on the radio.

“Well hurry before I bust in the door
(Said Barnacle Bill the Sailor).
I’ll rare and tear and rant and roar
(Said Barnacle Bill the Sailor).
I’ll spin you yarns and tell you lies
I’ll drink your wine and eat your pies
I’ll kiss your cheeks and black your eyes
(Said Barnacle Bill the Sailor).”

Finally, he’d open the door to find me doing the ‘I have to go pee’ dance in the hallway.

Even though this ritual was rather cruel, hearing my father imitate the male and female voices was fascinating. It was sort of scary, too, like there was a stranger (or two) in the bathroom. And some of the words were rather violent. But I was the youngest of four, so no doubt, my father needed some type of delay or coping mechanism for these interruptions from his children.

In looking up the lyrics for this song on the Internet, I learned my father was singing the tame version. His rendition was made popular by Hoagy Carmichael and his orchestra on the radio (including Benny Goodman on clarinet and Tommy Dorsey on trombone). Other adaptations are much “saucier,” and longer.

All I can say is thank goodness my dad sang the short and sweet version to me or there would have been a puddle in the hallway.

The Power of Collaboration (and how it Relates to the Pitch Perfect Movies)

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Teague Alexy, collaborator extraordinaire.

I admit it. I’ve watched Pitch Perfect 1 and 2 movies. Pitch Perfect 1 helped me escape from a hard time. The humor is truly funny and the singing – well, it just makes you want to walk around performing acapella and dancing all day. I just watched Pitch Perfect 2 and it’s got me musing about the value of collaboration.

In the movie, one of the lead singers of the “Bella” college acapella group ends up collaborating with one of the newest members to create an original song, which not only impresses her music industry boss, it helps the group win the world acapella competition.

This weekend I was privileged to be part of a book launch and music event that was a collaboration between 10 or so local authors. The lead author/singer (Teague Alexy) could have held the event by himself, but he chose to invite others to participate. He even took a chance on someone like me – a local novelist and poet who he just met a week ago (but we share a publisher.)

He held the event in an independent theater in downtown Duluth. Attendance wasn’t huge –a lot of events competed that night – but I’m sure it was larger than if he had been the only one performing. The range of styles of the authors was refreshing and mind-expanding, and I met several new ones.

Earlier in the day I had a conversation with an established author. We talked about how being an author (even one with a hard cover book published by a state university press) doesn’t mean you will rake in the dough. We agreed that the lifestyle is the reward, not the profit.

The night of the performance, I could have been sitting around home banging away at my computer or doing dishes, but instead I joined a bunch of other writers and we shared our work with an audience. The power of collaboration was evident then, and I’ve seen it at operate many times in the past in my day job, when organizations work together to strengthen the reach of their programs and projects.

I truly believe that organizations that try to protect their turf by outcompeting the competition are missing a great opportunity. I just want to say that if you’re an author, don’t be afraid to share the limelight with others – it will be to your advantage. Likewise if you’re an organization.

It takes a village to make a good book launch. And if enjoying Pitch Perfect 1 & 2 is wrong – if collaborating is wrong – I don’t want to be right.

Good Enough for Jazz

I sent the text for my second novel off to the publisher last week, a few days earlier than the January 1 deadline they had given me. Why early? I just couldn’t look at it any more. There comes a point where editing fatigue sets in and no additional amount is going to make a difference.

Line art drawing by Pearson Scott Foresman, Wikimedia

Line art drawing by Pearson Scott Foresman, Wikimedia

After reworking it with the input of my writer’s group during the two-and-a-half years it took to create, incorporating comments from several reader friends, and then a two-month concentrated bout of editing once the story was finished, I had reached the editing-point-of-no-return.

In high school, my best friend was a saxophone player. I played French horn, and we sat next to each other in band. My friend was also in the jazz band, and when we were out gallivanting on the town or at home without our instruments, she used to sing the jazz songs to me that she was learning. That’s how I gained an appreciation for Count Basie, Woody Herman, and the like. She also shared a phrase that the conductor used to say when the musicians were tuning their instruments: “It’s good enough for jazz.”

So maybe the instruments weren’t perfectly in tune. For jazz — home of individuality and improvisation — perfect technique is eclipsed by style and feeling. Have an instrument not perfectly in tune? That’s cool, that’s all right. It’s good enough for jazz.

Of course, that would never fly in concert band. And the phrase struck the young me – who was ever striving for perfection and straight “A” grades. Not aiming for perfection went against everything I had been taught up until that point. It instilled in me the idea that sometimes, things are as perfect as they are going to get. Any additional amount of effort isn’t going to make a difference, and, in fact, it can detract from whatever you’re trying to do.

That’s what it’s like with my novel. I’ve made it as perfect as I can at this point. I am happy with it, but not overjoyed. Some parts of it I read and love, but other parts I’m not so keen about. Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure it’s better than a lot of published writing out there, but if I waited until I had the text in a form I was totally, outrageously happy with, I’d never get it off my computer and onto my publisher’s.

So it’s off. It’s gone. Another eco-mystic romance will be unleashed upon the world in June. It was so much fun to write, and I got to include some of my favorite topics, like music (although a more symphonic sort). The setting is in my home town, which I saw through new eyes during the writing, and it deals with issues dear to my heart, like climate change and endangered species recovery.

I’ll still have opportunities to tweak it (not to be confused with twerking it) before publication. But for now, it’s good enough for jazz.

Vinyl Memories

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Two records remain from my childhood collection: The Monkees first album and an autographed copy of Fleetwood Mac’s Rumors (“To Marie – To a very special person. Lindsay Buckingham”). If I recall correctly, I inherited the Monkees album from one of my brothers. The Rumors album was a gift from my sister (who was dating Lindsay Buckingham’s brother at the time). I gave away the rest of my collection to a store downtown during a cleaning fit several years back.

I was able to hear the albums this weekend at a friend’s house. She recently bought a turntable and had a party to celebrate, inviting everyone to bring their records. Although the stile arm rode small waves of warpage, I was so pleased and relieved to discover my records were still playable! It has been so long since I even looked at one, I had forgotten that records are two-sided. I blame time and compact discs for that.

I used to love watching records spin, getting almost hypnotized while the music played; staring at the stile as it progressed slowly toward the record’s middle. Try and do that with a CD! I’d lean on the console and sing along to Neil Diamond, Jethro Tull, Heart, Jesus Christ Superstar, The Sound of Music – we had quite the eclectic collection.

Of course, after records came cassette tapes. I would record my favorite songs off the radio when I wasn’t listening to my very first cassette album – Cat Steven’s Tea for the Tillerman. But somehow, I totally missed the 8-track era.

Although now I appreciate being able to burn my own CDs with individual songs through I-Tunes and creating personalized radio stations through Pandora, listening to records at my friend’s house reminded me of what’s been lost with the evolution of the music industry. I don’t claim to be a music industry expert, but it’s obvious to anyone paying the least bit of attention that a whole generation of children has grown up with a different music listening experience. No more self-hypnosis to the red Columbia label.

Instead of the 33-1/3 rpm LP (for the younger set, that’s a 33-1/3 revolutions-per-minute long-playing record), we now have the I-pod. It’s not bad, just . . . changed. Who knows what we’ll have next? But one thing’s for sure, we’ll always have music of some sort. It seems hardwired into our beings.

Since I only have two records, I don’t think I’ll go so far as to buy my own turntable, but it sure was fun to recreate the childhood experience of listening to music, if only for one evening.

The Music of Nature

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Nature isn’t just what we see. It encompasses all our senses. Think of the vanilla essence of Ponderosa Pines, the rough grains of sandstone, and the sound of a dolphin’s exhale as it surfaces. We’re so used to the visual it’s challenging to remember other senses, especially in environmental and scientific work. I recently learned there’s a field that specializes in sound and the environment. It’s called acoustic ecology.

Acoustic ecology explores the relationship between living beings and the environment through sound. This can take many forms, from delving into what a forest sounded like 70 years ago when different species of birds lived there, to the affect of car alarms on the urban environment.

On a blustery day this past October I had the chance to talk with an acoustic ecologist. Chris Bocast is a talented musician who specializes in the field. He just finished producing a podcast about Lake Superior for our joint employer, Wisconsin Sea Grant. The series isn’t an example of acoustic ecology per se, but it does show how sound can illustrate environmental topics.

Because I’ve worked around Lake Superior for many years, Chris wanted to include me in the series. And of course, I couldn’t let him get away without covering the St. Louis River Estuary, too.

We met during a Sea Grant conference in downtown Duluth. For the interview we walked next door to the historic Greysolon Plaza Hotel. We sat in the hotel’s ornate and quiet mezzanine lounge.

In the middle of our conversation, Chris asked, “What’s the function of an estuary in an ideal ecosystem?” I replied that I happened to have written a poem about that, and darned if the poem didn’t make it into the series. It’s “Two Sisters” from my last entry.

Click here to listen to the Lake Superior podcast series. My poem can be found near the end of program #7 (Superior’s Sister).

The piano-based ambient music Chris created for the podcasts is unnamed. He told me it’s designed to evoke a sense of the pristine. I don’t know about you, but I could bliss out on his music all day.