food, Movies & Movie Stars, music

“Be My Love”

Happy Belated Valentines Day!  But the above title does not refer to the love celebrations of February 14.  Instead, it refers to the title of a Mario Lanza hit in 1951.

Shrine to Mario Lanza.  © Photo by Barry Fisher, 2014.
Shrine to Mario Lanza. © Photo by Barry Fisher, 2014.

If you are of a vintage younger than me, you might say, “Mario Who?”  Yet for those who were adults during the 1950s, Lanza was a larger-than-life tenor despite being only 5′ 7″ tall.  He became a sensation in opera, in films and was a recording star, with “Be My Love” his first million-record hit.  Some compared him to Enrico Caruso, whom he portrayed in a movie, “The Great Caruso, and indeed, Caruso was Lanza’s singing idol.

Unfortunately, he died in 1959 at the age of 38.  Nonetheless, his voice is still remembered by music aficionados.  To honor Lanza, her father’s favorite singer, Denise Chávez, co-founder of the Border Book Festival, created a fund-raiser centered on the life and career of Mario Lanza.

Since Lanza’s family came from Abruzzo, on January 31st, we held a Mario Lanza birthday party here in Las Cruces, New Mexico, where we honored the late operatic singer by preparing foods representative of the Abruzzo region of Italy.

While none of the volunteer chefs who prepared the feast was Italian, a scrumptious and authentic meal was served to 50 guests.  We dined on an antipasto of bread, cheese, salami, olives, carrots; crepes in chicken broth; polenta with sauteed swiss chard, grillled eggplant and a three pepper vegetable dish on top; Tiella, a vegetable casserole; chicken and beef kabobs, tomato sauce on pasta made with a genuine “chitarra,” a wooden pasta machine that sings while producing the pasta.  Of course, wine accompanied the meal and for dessert we had homemade biscotti of three different varietiies, pizzeles, and affogato, vanilla gelato in hot espresso.  I know I’m leaving out the names of a few more dishes, but I’m still too full to remember them all.

Costumed singers, Stephen Jones and Martha Vera, from El Paso, entertained us with operatic arias during the meal, then led us in a Mario Lanza sing-along including “That’s Amore,” “O Sole Mio,” “Arrivederci Roma,” “Volare,” “Santa Lucia,” “Funiculi, Funicula.”  We followed this with a Mario Lanza Quiz and the person guessing the most correct answers received a $40 bottle of Sicilian wine.

We use the expression, “He must be turning in his grave,” when something abhorrent to a deceased person occurs.  On January 31, 2014, Mario Lanza must have been so astonished by this tribute to him in Las Cruces, NM, he must have been singing in his grave on what would have been his 93rd birthday.

Norine Dresser is a folklorist who was a newlywed when she first heard Mario Lanza sing, “Be My Love.”

folklore, music

Pete Seeger And Me

Pete Seeger & banjo.  Text © Norine Dresser, 20014.
Pete Seeger & banjo. Text © Norine Dresser, 20014.

I didn’t know him, but he certainly affected my life.  And when he recently died at the age of 94, I experienced a sense of personal loss and began replaying his CDs.   I mused over the impact of his singing on the world and me.

During the folk music revival in the late 1950s and 1960s, I attended one of his concerts in Pasadena, California.  I had never gone to a concert where the entire audience was expected to sing along.  He and his music exhilarated us during the concert and it had a lasting effect.

Several years later, when I led an auditorium of St. Thomas Catholic School students in singing classic American folk songs, I could understand the power of the music and the words.  I was as excited as the students.

Pete was a great teacher.  With only his voice and banjo, he educated us about racial equality, “We Shall Overcome;” injustices of the Vietnam War, “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?”  He introduced us to the American folk music repertoire, especially the songs of Woody Guthrie, “This Land Is My Land,” as well as taught us important songs from other cultures, for example, the Zulu, “Wimoweh.”

His methods were contagious.  Group singing became such a pleasurable act for me that during the 1960s, my friend, Jan Steward, and I held alternating open houses once a week and invited folks to drop by to sing with us.  Calling it our “Friday Night Sing,” we engaged in this activity for several years.  That’s how I met Pete’s dad, Dr. Charles Seeger.  Someone brought him along to participate two weeks in a row.

Charles was a prominent ethnomusicologist.  His physical frame was like Pete’s — tall and lean, but his demeanor differed.  Whereas Pete wore the garb of the working man, Charlie dressed elegantly — often with an ascot.

One day in the 1970s as I was walking across the UCLA campus, we ran into each other.  At the time Charles was 88 and his words stunned me:  “You know, I’m building a house now.”  That someone his age was planning a future home greatly impressed me.  Subconsciously, I believe that his statement influenced and encouraged me, at age 80, to purchase a new home here in New Mexico.

One of Pete’s own songs, based on Ecclesiastes, was “Turn, Turn, Turn.”  The words include “A time to be born, A time to die.”  Pete’s turn to die has come and gone but his influence will endure.

Norine Dresser became a folklorist, in part, as the result of listening to the stories of Pete Seeger and singing along with him.