Festivals, music

THE MAGIC OF MUSIC

The Las Cruces Ukes Performing Group. © Norine Dresser photo collection, 2017.

May 19 to 21, 2017, the Las Cruces Ukes sponsored our first Ukulele Festival. It was a stunning success. Over 100 ukulele fans, mostly from the Southwest came to learn from guest instructors,

By the time we dispersed on Sunday afternoon, the crowd was feeling mellow, eager to go home and start practicing the new tunes and techniques we had learned. What created an added a sense of community was a workshop led by one of our members, Gorton Smith, a retired Methodist minister. We played and sang songs in a session labeled “The Gospel According to Uke.” Jim Beloff, one of our instructors, followed leading us in the playing and singing of Beatles tunes These melodies have now become classics and in their own way made us seem blessed as we departed for home.

Music has always played an important role in my life. Growing up, we had an upright piano that my mother played. Later, she insisted that I take piano lessons. I was just a so-so player and did not enjoy it, but I found it beneficial in grammar school in the 1940s. I played in the orchestra and because we had a surplus of pianists, I learned how to play the marimba, bells, and triangle. I also joined the chorus and harmonica band, and the totality of these musical experiences uplifted and enriched me. I never forgot how that music made me feel. Consequently, I insisted that my own children have music lessons. Of course they all started out on the piano, but then they branched out to other instruments.

During the late 1950s the guitar captured my interest, and a neighbor loaned me one of her guitars for a weekend. I was hooked! Not much later, (August, 1958) I was pregnant with my 3rd child and my husband and I drove to Las Vegas for the weekend. We roasted in the heat outside, but a new well-chilled Stardust Casino had recently opened, and it was rumored that their slot-machines paid off more frequently than at other casinos. My husband wandered off to lose money in other parts of the gambling club, while I stayed at the nickel slot machines. Suddenly, I hit a $25 jackpot. Bells clanged and I began to feel faint, but I refused to give in to that sinking feeling until the cashier brought me my winnings. Then I succumbed to the collapsing.

Mysteriously, a gentleman appeared, identified himself as a doctor and tourist from St. Louis, MO. He laid me down on a couch, had someone bring me water and explained that the disparity between the scorching outdoor temperatures and air-conditioned cold of the Stardust plus my pregnancy caused me to feel ill.

Suddenly, Harold materialized. When I told him about my jackpot and he inquired, “Are you going to share it with me?”

Adamantly, I answered, “No.” Instead, I used it to buy a guitar from a Sear’s & Roeback Catalog. A Silvertone guitar cost $19.95 and its cardboard case was an additional $5.95.

That purchase changed my life. I met others with the same folk music passion; I learned quickly and began teaching guitar in my home and later at the YWCA; With another guitarist we played duos for different organizations; I became a music teacher at a Catholic girls school and gave guitar lessons to three nuns; My friendship with the Sister Superior persists until this moment; On the night before my son’s bar mitzvah along with my older daughter (age 11) who sang the lyrics, I played guitar, and my 13-year-old son accompanied us on bass. We recorded, “The Day After Christmas,” written by my supermarket checker and financed by a secret backer — the supermarket manager. Can you beat that for fun?

Music still enhances my life. Although I have switched to the ukulele because it’s lighter in weight, I still perform with others, and that too, has brought me great pleasure and lots of laughs.

 

The Las Cruces Chicks: (left to right) Marie Hughey, Roxana Gillett, Norine Dresser, Joy Goldbaum. Showing off our chicken leg stockings and wearing fowl hats, at the Las Cruces Ukes Festival we performed a parody of The House of the Rising Sun. Photo by Alfred Hughey. © Norine Dresser photo collection, 2017.

In a forthcoming weekend, the Las Cruces Ukes will be performing for Cancer Survivors and the following weekend, we will be playing for military veterans. Hopefully, these performances will bring pleasure to these audiences. For certain, the Las Cruces Ukes will feel enriched through sharing our music magic with them.

 

Norine Dresser is a folklorist who has passed the love of music on to her children. This makes her happy.

 

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aging, creativity, music

What Am I Going to Be When I Grow Up?

Here I am in my new incarnation. Photo by Mariah Chase. © Norine Dresser photo collection, 2017.
Here I am in my new incarnation. Photo by Mariah Chase. © Norine Dresser photo collection, 2017.

When I first arrived in Las Cruces at the age of 80, I considered it a major transformation and probably the last big change I would make. Up to then, my life had been full. Professionally, I taught at California State University Los Angeles for 20 years; I wrote books, articles, and an award-winning column for the Los Angeles Times. On the personal side I had been a wife, mom, grandmother, widow, great-grandmother. I thought I had completed both cycles, but life had some surprises for me.

Instead of settling into the New Mexico lifestyle and relaxing, I felt restless and began exploring new avenues. Today, at 85, I am more community-involved than I ever was in Los Angeles.

I joined the Las Cruces Women’s Press Club; I volunteer weekly at the Institute of Historical Research Foundation; I am producing a program for the brand new Las Cruces Community Radio Station (KTAL), that I will write about in a future blog. I perform with the Las Cruces Ukes.

Best of all, I have found a new dear friend and playmate, Roxana Gillett. Together, we have been writing song parodies and presenting them to our ukulele group and elsewhere. We are having so much fun with this new venture, plotting and combining mutual interests and talents.

Roxana Gillett and I in cognito (sort-of) as reindeer. Photo by Mariah Chase. © Norine Dresser photo collection, 2017.
Roxana Gillett and I in cognito (sort-of) as reindeer. Photo by Mariah Chase. © Norine Dresser photo collection, 2017.

Here’s a partial sample of one of our parodies, sung to the tune of “All I Want For Christmas.”

All I want for Christmas is my young body back,

Memory intact, my belly flat.

And if I could only find my new false teeth,

Then I could wish you Merry Christmas.

It seems so long since I could walk

Without a pain in my tuchas

Gosh, oh gee, how happy I would be

If I didn’t have toe fungus.

 

Roxana Gillett and I in our beards to perform a parody of "Hallelujah." Photo by Mariah Chase. © Norine Dresser photo collection, 2017.
Roxana Gillett and I as the Bearded Ladies.” Photo by Mariah Chase. © Norine Dresser photo collection, 2017.

Another one of our hit songs was set to the melody of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” Our version is the irreverent topic of what to do about having cooties.

Did-ja know our beards are filled with dirt

Within these hairs cooties lurk?

But hygiene sucks, it doesn’t work, so sue us.

They sink their teeth into our scalps

Eat our flesh until we yelp

Give us some relief, some shampoo-yah.

Some shampoo-yah, Some shampoo-yah

Some shampoo-yah, Some shampoo-yah.

Roxana Gillett and I in our Halloween hats to sing a seasonal parody to the tune of the Addams Family theme song. Photo by Mariah Chase. © Norine Dresser photo collection, 2017.
Roxana Gillett and I in our Halloween regalia for an appropriate song parody.  Photo by Mariah Chase. © Norine Dresser photo collection, 2017.

We couldn’t overlook Halloween, so we wrote a parody to the tune of the Addams Family theme song.

La Cruces Ukes are kooky. On Halloween, we’re spooky

We’re altogether ooky, ukulele family.

We play at business lunches, and walrus fishy brunches

Bring smiles to gloomy Gus-es, ukulele family.

Roxana Gillett and I are ready for St. Patrick's Day. Photo by Mariah Chase. © Norine Dresser photo collection, 2017.
Roxana Gillett and I are ready for St. Patrick’s Day. Photo by Mariah Chase. © Norine Dresser photo collection, 2017.

This is a parody of  “Whiskey You’re the Devil,” as part of a St. Patrick’s Day medley.

Ukulele you’re the divil, you’re leading me astray, taking up my social life and even my        birthday.

The music from our strumming is spunkier than the tay, ukulele you’re the divil drunk or sober.

Roxana Gillett and I took a cynical stab at Valentine's Day. Photo by Mariah Chase, 2017.
Roxana Gillett and I took a cynical stab at Valentine’s Day. Photo by Mariah Chase. © Norine Dresser photo collection, 2017.

For Valentine’s Day, we parodied Dean Martin’s song “That’s Amore” changing it to “That’s Divorcé.

When the love leaves your heart and you’re a-falling apart

That’s divorcé.

When you’ve run out of Prozac switched over to cognac

That’s divorcé.

Cell phone rings, ting-a-ling-a-ling, ting-a-ling-a ling

It’s you ex’s fiancée.

Heart skips a beat tippi-tippi-tay, tippy-tippy-tay

She’s sending a selfie.

She is flashing a ring that has way too much bling

He’s replaced you.

She’s a gold-digging ghoul, you have been such a fool

You hate her.

You throw down the phone, you feel so alone,

You start crying.

‘Scusa-me, but you see back in our home town,

That’s divorcé.

Roxana Gillett and I preparing for the Las Cruces Ukulele Festival. Photo by Mariah Chase. © Norine Dresser photo collection, 2017
Roxana Gillett and I preparing for the upcoming Third Annual Las Cruces Ukulele Festival. Photo by Mariah Chase. © Norine Dresser photo collection, 2017

Now we’re aiming for the Third Annual Las Cruces Ukulele Festival in May. This parody is sung to the tune of “House of the Rising Sun.” Here is the first verse:

There is a coop in Las Cruces, they call the Rockin’ Roost,

It’s been a place where chickens can hide, to keep from being fried.

Our mother was a frying hen, in sizzling oil she died.

Our father was a uke-strumming cock, it saved him from the pot.

 

So what am I going to be when I grow up?

WEIRD AL YANKOVICH… MOVE OVER!

Norine Dresser is a folklorist who is astonished that even at 85, more exciting times are possible (If only her body cooperates).

aging, friendship, holidays, music, parties

Confessions of a Bearded Lady

I love pulling pranks, but it’s so much more fun when you have a playmate. And I have one — my fabulous friend and neighbor, Roxana Gillette.

Bearded Ladies, Norine Dresser and Roxana Gillett at the Las Cruces Ukes. Photo by Bob Hull. © Norine Dresser Photo Collection, 2016.
Bearded Ladies, Norine Dresser and Roxana Gillett at the Las Cruces Ukes. Photo by Bob Hull. © Norine Dresser Photo Collection, 2016.

After discovering the above pictured wonderful bearded masks on an obscure website, Roxanna ordered two.Then while waiting for delivery, and as a surprise for us to perform for the Las Cruces Ukes, she wrote a parody, set to the tune of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.”

Based on the assumption that the beards and wool head coverings were filled with cooties, she changed the chorus from “Hallelujah” to “We’ll Shampoo Ya,” creating an absurd juxtaposition.

We rehearsed numerous times and arranged that both ukulele classes would be present when we emerged in our hirsute conditions. I assured Roxana that even if the audience didn’t laugh at the song, they’d laugh at our appearances. And so they did. We were a hit. Mission accomplished.

Pulling pranks has no statute of limitations.The only requirement is being willing to take a risk that might make one’s self look foolish (over and over again).

Sisters Saggitarius, Norine Dresser and Janice Garey, 1950s. © Norine Dresser photo collection, 2016
Sisters Sagittarius, Norine Dresser and Janice Garey, 1950s. © Norine Dresser photo collection, 2016.

During the 1960s, I had a different playmate, Janice Garey. My niece, Madge Dresser had consulted with me in planning her November Sweet Sixteen birthday party. She selected an astrology theme concentrating on her unique choices of food, activities, flower arrangements.

Janice collaborated with me in making a surprise entrance at Madge’s party as the Sisters Sagittarius.We dyed sheets black for our cover-ups, wore very tall black cardboard hats, slathered our faces with zinc oxide and exaggerated our features with black eye liner. For an added touch, Janice dried out a cooked chicken leg to use as a witch’s wand.

We stashed our four daughters into my car and parked it half a block away from the party. After pounding on the door, my startled sister-in-law answered as the two of us burst in and in witch-like voices and with Janice wielding the chicken leg, we menaced the teenagers, threatening acne or cramps if they didn’t obey us. I don’t remember much else except we ad-libbed drawing upon our inner witchiness. After about five minutes, we tore out of there, ran down the street and got back into the car laughing all the way.

Why do I and others commit such silly acts? Because making others laugh is a great motivator. Even at 84, I get a kick out of the scheming and wondering if the prank will work and will I get some laughs? But sometimes the prank falls flat.

 

Black wreath, example of style of wreath I hung on Lillian's front door. © Norine Dresser photo collection, 2016.
Black wreath, example of style of wreath I hung on Lillian’s front door. © Norine Dresser photo collection, 2016.

In the 1950s, I met Lillian, a lovely woman whose children attended the same nursery school as my children. She invited my husband and me to a Halloween party. I volunteered to help with the decorating and while at her home asked, “How about a black wreath to hang on your front door?”

She thought that was a wonderful touch, so I offered to make it for her. I bent a wire clothes hanger into a circle and threaded a ribbon of twisted black crepe paper on it. Hanging in my car, the wreath actually cast a pall over me as I drove to Lillian’s house to deliver it before the festivities began.

Several hours later, when my husband and I arrived at the party, the black wreath was missing from the front door. Surprised, I asked, “Lillian, where’s the wreath?”

Before she could answer, a distraught relative of hers pulled me aside and demanded. “How could you do such a thing?”

I was dumbfounded as she explained, “When we pulled up to the door and saw the wreath, we thought the worst. So we drove to a public phone booth and began calling relatives to ask who had died.”

I couldn’t believe what she was saying. It was Halloween. It was a Halloween party. If she did take it seriously, why not enter the house and find out?

I did not act defensively. I couldn’t. She was so genuinely upset, and I found it so irrational that I just stood there mute.

And that was the last time I ever made a Halloween funeral wreath.

But it was not the last time I have played a prank, and I hope there will be more opportunities to do so in the future.

 

Norine Dresser is a folklorist who believes that we need to create fun and to keep on laughing as long as we can.

celebrations, music, religion, Uncategorized

“When You Get to the Word ‘Jesus,’ Just Sing ‘Hm, Hm”

Those were the instructions my mother gave me after I told her that I had been chosen to be a sixth grade Christmas caroler. She felt that I would be betraying my Jewish heritage if I sang the name of “Jesus.” I didn’t agree with her, so I didn’t obey.

Anonymous group of Christmas carolers. Norine Dresser photo collection, 2015.
Anonymous group of Christmas carolers. Norine Dresser photo collection, 2015.

For me, music trumps all, and I’m not talking about Donald. Other Jews don’t have a problem paying tribute to the birth of Jesus. Look at Irving Berlin. He composed the iconic two tunes associated with Christian holidays: “White Christmas” and “Easter Parade.” High-profile Jewish vocalists have joyfully sung Christian holiday songs, such as Barbra Streisand with one album of Christmas melodies and Neil Diamond with three different Christmas albums.

In 1994, the First World Sacred Music Festival occurred in Los Angeles and was a spectacular event. Because Los Angeles has so many different religions, the event lasted for two weeks in many sacred as well as public venues. However, the most exciting program occurred at the Hollywood Bowl. First of all, the Dalai Lama blessed this gathering of almost 18,000 audience members. To protect him, all of us had to pass through metal detectors before being seated.

After his blessing, the performances ensued. Because there were so many musical acts, the concert began at 4:00 p.m. in the afternoon and ended at 10:00 p.m. As each group sang, the excitement heightened until we reached the last act, a renowned choir from the First African Methodist Episcopal Church of Los Angeles.

The pianist slowly played some chords and then intoned: “You may have AT & T, but sometimes your call doesn’t go through.” She played some arpeggios and continued. “You may have Sprint, but they, too, have problems and sometimes you can’t get through.” After playing more chords and arpeggios, she dramatically mentioned more phone carriers, all with connection flaws, leading to the climax: “But there is one person who will always be there to answer your call, and his name is…” In the spirit of the moment the entire audience shouted, “JESUS!” Then the choir began and we rocked on throughout their set until we left the Bowl on a high note.

By singing the name “Jesus,” did that negate my religious or spiritual beliefs? Did it change who I am? I don’t believe so. For me, the music transcended the words.

Is it bad/evil/or disloyal to sing the name of another one’s God?

I have never felt so, but I speak only for myself.

Oops! I have much more to write about, but it’s time to leave for my Las Cruces Ukuleles rehearsal for our four upcoming Christmas concerts. And when we get to the word “Jesus” I will have no problem belting out his name.

The author in her Las Cruces Ukes performance costume. © Norine Dresser photo collection, 2015.
The author in her Las Cruces Ukes performance costume. © Norine Dresser photo collection, 2015.

 

Norine Dresser is a folklorist who delights in music of all kinds, religious and secular, Western and Eastern.

 

 

 

folklore, music, Uncategorized

“I Can’t Stand the Competition!”

Few people might consider that watching one segment of an early morning television show could become a life-changing event.

But that’s what happened to me in 1954 when feeding my newborn daughter, Andrea, while watching the “Today Show” hosted by Dave Garroway.  He interviewed Jean Ritchie, a New York Settlement House worker who was originally from Appalachia and played a new-to-me-instrument called a mountain dulcimer that she strummed with a feathered quill.

Jean Ritchie holding her mountain dulcimer.  © Norine Dresser photo collection, 2015.
Jean Ritchie holding her mountain dulcimer. © Norine Dresser photo collection, 2015.

The haunting tunes she sang in a thin clear soprano voice struck me powerfully. Never before had I heard anything like this. Later, I discovered that it was the modal scales on which her tunes were based that created the plaintive quality that bowled me over. Immediately, I purchased one of her LP recordings, learned to sing these new tunes and started collecting albums of other folk music stars of the day: Joan Baez, Judy Collins, Pete Seeger, Tom Paxton, Rambling Jack Elliott, Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan and dozens more.

Norine Dresser playing her own Mountain Dulcimer. Photo by Mariah Chase. © Norine Dresser photo collection, 2015.
Norine Dresser playing her own mountain dulcimer. Photo by Mariah Chase. © Norine Dresser photo collection, 2015.

Ultimately, Jean Ritchie became the Yellow Brick Road leading to my becoming a folklorist. First, I learned a large part of the American folk music repertoire. Next, I started playing folk guitar and later taught it; Then I attended UCLA where I earned a B.A. in anthropology and an M.A. in folklore and mythology. Afterward, I utilized my new-found knowledge to teach folklore and pop culture at California State University Los Angeles, where I stayed for 20 years.

* * *

Flash forward 10 years from that 1954 “Today Show” segment. I found out that Jean Ritchie was scheduled to perform at the Ash Grove, the premiere Los Angeles folk music venue of that time. On a lark, I sent her a very homespun letter saying that members of my guitar club were fans and if, while in L.A., she would come over, we would be honored to meet her and “break bread” together. I mailed the letter and forgot about it – until the day she phoned. In her twangy voice she agreed to come over but with the proviso that I transport her to her evening gig at the Ash Grove. “Of course,” I excitedly agreed.

Jean was a delightful guest describing the role of music while growing up in her home. For example, she and her siblings sang specific songs while performing particular chores. After lunch she performed an enchanting dulcimer concert. This was a magical moment: from first watching her on TV in my living to now seeing her perform live in my living room. She mesmerized my guests and me.

After all the visitors had left, Jean rested in my bedroom while I prepared supper. During the meal, my toddler, Amy, who was in a high chair, took her spoon and kept banging it against her water glass while Jean was trying to talk. Exasperated, Jean loudly announced, “I can’t stand the competition!”

That shut us all up. We were so used to the dinner table din that we didn’t hear the noise. It took Jean to point out this disruption. And ever since Jean’s pronouncement, “I can’t stand the competition,” this commentary has become one of our family’s favorite sayings.

All these memories of Jean Ritchie and her influence in my becoming a folklorist washed over me a few weeks ago with news of her death at age 92. My last conversation with her took place in the car while we drove to the Ash Grove that night more than 50 years ago, and I felt remorseful. I never told her how her “Today Show” appearance had changed my life.

But it’s never too late. “Thank you, Jean Ritchie!

 

Norine Dresser is a “I Can’t Stand the Competition!”who shall forever be grateful to Jean Ritchie who led her down the wondrous path to becoming a folklorist.