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.

aging, customs/rituals, folklore, music

“…And Many More…?”

Birthday cake with lit candles.  © Norine Dresser photo collection, 2015.
Birthday cake with lit candles. © Norine Dresser photo collection, 2015.

 

On May 27th, my late husband would have been 94. Automatically, I sang “Happy Birthday” to him and just as reflexively I included the tag line, “And Many More.”

Does it make sense to sing “And Many More” to someone who is deceased?  I laughed at the irony. What does that mean? Do I want him to continue being dead?

My parents always made a big deal out of birthdays. I remember a children’s radio show called, “Uncle Whoa Bill.” Without my knowledge, my parents sent Whoa Bill a message that he read over the radio. “If Norine Shapiro looks inside the washing machine, she will find her birthday present.” Thrilled, I ran to the back porch and excitedly opened the washing machine lid to discover my gift.

I tried to pass along the tradition of fussing over our children’s birthdays, but that didn’t always work out successfully. When Mark turned four, I made arrangements to take him and his nursery school pals to visit the television show, “Chuck-o, the Clown.” When Chuck-o popped into the room with his brightly painted face and flaming orange wig, a startled Mark burst into tears.

When Andrea wanted a “Pink Party” for her fourth birthday, I complied by asking her girlfriends to wear pink and in the dining room filled with pink balloons, I served pink cream cheese sandwiches. One of her bossy girlfriends asked, “Is that all we’re having for lunch?” When I responded, “Yes,” she called her mother to complain and requested that Mom immediately pick her up. Mom turned her down, yet her daughter’s reaction threw the proverbial wet blanket on the festivities.

When Amy was 12, she wanted to celebrate her birthday with a slumber party. We agreed and her girlfriends came over. We ordered a variety of pizzas for dinner and didn’t sleep much during the night because of all the giggling. We fed them breakfast in the morning and after all Amy’s friends had left, I asked, “Did you have fun?” Emphatically, she reported, “It was a dud!”

However, I had great success a few decades ago while still living in Los Angeles. Harihar Rao, the creator of the Music Circle, an organization dedicated to bringing classical musicians from India to Southern California, called me with a request. At the 75th birthday concert to honor internationally renowned sitar player, Ravi Shankar, would I lead the audience in singing “Happy Birthday” to him?

While secretly thinking of Marilyn Monroe’s Happy Birthday song to JFK, I excitedly answered, “Yes!”

 

Ravi Shankar playing the sitar. © Norine Dresser photo collection, 2015.
Ravi Shankar playing the sitar. © Norine Dresser photo collection, 2015.

At intermission, Ravi was on stage with his fellow musicians, family and me. I stepped forward to the mike and led the audience of several hundred in singing, “Happy Birthday.” Everyone applauded and his devotees then ascended the stage and kissed the bare feet of their musical guru.

Later, an Indian man approached me with a compliment. “You did that very well.” I thanked him and then explained, “I’ve been practicing for years.” He didn’t see the humor of that remark, and I wasn’t about to explain it.

 

Norine Dresser is a folklorist who loves birthday celebrations and in spite of, or because of  the irony will continue to sing “And Many More,” to her deceased husband and parents.

able/disabled, aging, disabilities, independence, mobility, music

“My Dog Has Fleas”**

Novice playing the ukelele.  Photo by Mariah Chase. ©Norine Dresser photo collection, 2015.
Novice playing the ukelele. Photo by Mariah Chase. ©Norine Dresser photo collection, 2015.

 

Last weekend I had an “Aha!” moment while attending a ukulele concert given by the Las Cruces Ukes. While listening to the music, I realized a ukelele could solve my need for music involvement, so after the concert, I purchased one.

During the Folk Music Revival in the 1950s and 1960s, I played and taught folk guitar. I consider that era as the most satisfying time of my life. Musicians trooped in and out of our Los Angeles home; students came to take classes from me; guest guitar teachers gave lessons to me and my guitar-playing friends. We verbally contracted for them to come for six consecutive Monday nights to teach us different styles: Hawaiian, Mexican, Swedish, Jazz, Blues, and American folk music. But one teacher, Marlen Rabiroff, was so outstanding that instead of being our instructor for six weeks, he stayed for three years until he and his family moved to Palo Alto.

But that was then and this is now when lifting the guitar out of its case is cumbersome and hurts my arthritic shoulders. Transporting the instrument becomes problematic. Carrying it while walking with a cane in addition to my inherent clumsiness puts me at risk for falls. Because the ukulele is so much smaller and lighter than a guitar, it seemed like a possible solution for playing music again.

With osteoarthritis and age (83), I have had to make other adjustments. I used to feed the cat on the kitchen floor. That is too tough to do anymore, especially putting down fresh water without spilling it. Now, I feed Sweetie Beattie on the back counter of the kitchen away from human food. She easily jumps up to eat and to drink from an automatic water dispenser.

Sweetie Beattie dining. © Norine Dresser photo collection, 2015.
Sweetie Beattie dining. © Norine Dresser photo collection, 2015.

Currently, I keep my dishes on racks outside the cupboard. If I keep the plates and bowls inside the cabinet, I must stretch my damaged shoulders and torque my body – not good for artificial hips.

Dishes stacked on the counter.  ©Norine Dresser photo collection, 2015.
Dishes stacked on the counter. ©Norine Dresser photo collection, 2015.

I avoid using the bottom drawer in my fridge because doing so requires that I drag a chair over to reach its contents. And safety bars in the bathroom and inside the shower are a must.

Back to the ukulele. I don’t know if regular practice for weekly lessons will fit into my already crowded schedule. Nonetheless, I am going to try and will let you know how I fare. Meanwhile, stay tuned!

**”My Dog Has Fleas” refers to the melody used to tune a ukelele.

Norine Dresser is a folklorist who feels bereft without music.

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.