In Praise Of Vince Guaraldi

If you’ve watched A Charlie Brown Christmas, you’ve enjoyed the music of Vince Guaraldi.

Guaraldi’s jazz-flavored interpretations of holiday classics like O Tannenbaum, What Child Is This?, and Greensleeves, played by a trio with Guaraldi on piano, Jerry Granelli on drums, and Puzzy Firth on bass, were perfectly suited to Charles Schulz’s beautiful tale of Charlie Brown’s search for the meaning of Christmas.  I long ago bought the soundtrack CD at a bargain bin, and Guaraldi’s songs have been a key part of the holidays at the Webner household ever since.  I really can’t imagine what the holidays would be like without that music.

On a soundtrack album that is filled with gem after gem, my favorite track is the the instrumental version of Christmas Time Is Here — spare, shuffling, deeply melodic, with each note heartfelt and moving.  It’s the first song on my holiday mix iPod playlist and it inevitably puts me in the holiday mood.  It’s perfect music for a wintry day.

Although I will always associate Vince Guaraldi with A Charlie Brown Christmas, Guaraldi wasn’t a one-hit wonder.  With his trademark glasses and thick handlebar moustache, he was a staple of the jazz scene for two decades.  He recorded lots of excellent music, including the memorable Cast Your Fate to the Wind.  His career was cut short by his untimely death, of an apparent heart attack, in 1976, when he was only 47 years old.  You can learn a little bit more about Guaraldi and his music here.  It’s worth a few moments to know more about a man who helped to provide a soundtrack for our holidays.

Like Having Your Own Genius Bar

Richard was home for a few days last week.  It was great to see him and catch up on how he’s doing — and it was also great because I got to tap into our very own “Genius Bar” and solve a problem that had flummoxed me for weeks.

Any parent with kids under the age of 30 knows what I mean.  They’ve grown up with technology, are wholly comfortable with it, and seem to know, intuitively, how to fix any problem.  Richard and Russell have solved countless technology issues that have perplexed me — whether it is setting up wireless networks or explaining cell phone functions or diagnosing computer problems.

I was trying to deal with fallout from the demise of our old iMac.  My iTunes were on the old iMac and my iPod was synced with it.  I had the Apple folks remove the hard drive, bought a shell to store the hard drive and allow it to be connected to the new iMac, and was able to do that — but I couldn’t figure out how to transfer my iTunes from the old hard drive to the new computer.  The prospect that I would not be able to do so really sucked, because it meant my old iTunes were lost forever, I couldn’t sync my iPod with the new computer, and ultimately I probably would have to rebuild my iPod and its playlists.

When Richard was home I asked for his help.  He took a look and immediately figured out what to do, transferred the music, and this morning I was able to sync my iPod without losing everything on it.  Thanks, Richard!

And, incidentally, I disagree with those who will contend that this means I have officially moved into the “helpless and clueless senior” category.  I would argue that there is, or should be, a technology exception.

Culling The iMac Herd

We’ve had our home iMac for six years, and during that long period (too long, according to Richard) it has served faithfully and well.  Lately, however, it has been a bit slower than normal, and somewhat balky.  I asked Richard to take a look at it, and he found that in six years we had managed to use up a lot of space, which could be slowing the iMac down.  He deleted a few programs for old games, but also pointed out that by far the biggest user of space was our iTunes.  It would be a good thing, he said, to go through it and see whether any of the music could be deleted.

It’s amazing what kind of stuff you accumulate on a home computer over the years, and iTunes is no exception.  We had some 93 GB of music on the iTunes, and as I began deleting I found that it was pretty easy to do so.  How did Britney Spears and Jessica Simpson get on there, anyway?  (How embarrassing!)  I don’t think I’ll need, for now at least, the Arabic language primer that I downloaded when we were preparing for our trip to Egypt.  And — sorry, Russell! — I don’t have any problem deleting the heavy metal, electronica, and hip hop/rap music that I don’t like and don’t listen to. The main purpose of the iTunes, now, is to store songs and sync my iPod, so we don’t need to keep music that is never going to make the iPod cut.

So far I’ve deleted about 25 GB of files that were on the iTunes.  We’ll have to see whether the iMac becomes a bit more frisky as a result — but in any event it feels good to discard some of the outmoded musical baggage and cull the iMac herd.

Baking Day

Today was cold and windy, with a few snow flurries here and there.  It was a perfect day to put on the “Holiday Mix” on the iPod, crank up some Christmas music, and get down to some serious holiday baking.  Today’s work featured some Dutch spice cookies, two kinds of fudge, lemon bars, coconut toffee treats, and a few new recipes that I’ll share.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again — there’s nothing like holiday baking to put you in the Christmas mood.  Of course, the Browns winning at Miami on a last-second field goal doesn’t hurt my mood, either.

Hearing The Distant Strains Of Steel Drum Music

It’s chilly and damp here in Columbus, and the weather forecast is for colder temperatures and snow.  I’m mentally not ready for it.  So, I’ve plugged in my iPod and decided to listen to some steel drum music.

Steel drum music is one of the few musical genres that will immediately transport you to a particular place.  In this instance, it is somewhere in the Caribbean on a beach, looking at brilliant blue water beneath clear skies, with a cold adult beverage in your hand and your toes wriggling in the sand.  The tinkling of the steel drums music wafts past on sultry breezes and urges you, irresistibly, to try the latest rum-based concoction developed by the friendly barkeep at the nearby Sand Bar.

When you listen to steel drum music, snow and cold are very far away.

Although the precise history of the invention of the steel drum apparently is uncertain, there seems to be general agreement that it was first developed on the island of Trinidad during or shortly after World War II.  From there, it spread to every island in the Caribbean, and a new kind of musical sound was born.  The drums typically are made from the bottoms of 55-gallon steel drums and are called “pans.”  The surfaces are carefully shaped and tuned so that striking particular parts of the concave surface sounds different notes, and they usually are polished to a shiny finish.  If you watch an expert play a steel drum, as opposed to just swaying with the music as you guzzle your Swizzle or Sea Breeze, you realize that it takes a lot of skill.

The first song I ever heard played on a steel drum was “Yellow Bird.”  Jamaica Ray plays it in the video below, and although the video is dark, I like it because the dimness and background bar sounds really capture the relaxed Caribbean feel that I think of whenever I hear steel drum music.

The Unexpected Freedom Of A Rainy Sunday Morning

It is raining cats and dogs in New Albany this morning.  Steady rain, with an occasional thunderstorm, is expected to be an all-day thing.  So, the weekly round of Sunday golf has been canceled, and at 9 a.m. I look forward to the day and wonder what I will do to fill it.

There is something a bit exciting about an unexpectedly open weekend day and the unforeseen choices it presents.  You can be industrious, of course.  You could do the work you brought home, and perhaps tackle some of the chores that have been piling up.  In my case, those chores would include straightening up the basement, shining my work shoes, and putting the overflowing coins that have been spilling out of the box on my dresser into paper coin sleeves for eventual deposit.  (The chores that I really need to do, like weeding our brick patio and back beds, can be rationally deferred due to weather conditions.)  Or, you can be intellectual and inclined toward self-improvement, and curl up with a good book and catch up on reading.  Or you can have some fun, and work on a personal project like editing your Ipod.  Or you can be lazy, turn on the TV, and sink blissfully into the rich silt of American popular culture, remote at the ready.

What to do?

Mom Mix

We will be celebrating Mom’s 80th birthday in a few weeks, and preparations for the big shindig already are underway.  My sister Cath, the consummate organizer, has decided that rather than a harpist (!), the “entertainment” should consist of a mix of songs I am to prepare on my Ipod.  (I must admit that I agree with this decision on Cath’s part, because I associate harps with angels, and you don’t want to be thinking about angels at a person’s 80th birthday party.)

I welcome this challenge.  I know that Mom likes ’40s music, and I already have a pretty good selection of “Big Band” stuff on the Ipod.  So, preparing a mix of those tunes will just involve creating a new playlist and moving some songs around.  I like Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington, and similar artists of that era, and I also like ’40s-style singers such as Bing Crosby, Rosemary Clooney, and Frank Sinatra.

When I asked Mom about what kind of music she would like to listen to at her party, she also mentioned “show tunes” and songs from movie musicals like South Pacific and The King and I.  I’ve never been much of a fan of musicals because the whole concept has always seemed incredibly awkward to me, with people who are living otherwise normal lives suddenly bursting into song at any moment.  Being the dutiful son, however, I want to make Mom happy, so I’ve gotten the CDs for those two musicals, plus The Sound of Music, Guys and Dolls, and West Side Story.

Because I really don’t know much about this genre, I would be happy to get any suggestions from our readers about good “show tunes” to include on the “Mom Mix.”  For now, however, I am pretty sure that There Is Nothin’ Like A Dame from South Pacific will make the cut.

Christmas Music

I am a sucker for Christmas music of all kinds. I like traditional carols sung by choirs, ’60s holiday rock ‘n roll like Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree, oratorical masterpieces like the Messiah, and jazz and Big Band treatments of the Christmas standards. I’m always on the lookout for some new holiday music to add to the Ipod “holiday mix” playlist. The challenge is to find another “Christmas album” that compares to the all-time classics, like Vince Guaraldi’s A Charlie Brown Christmas or, more recently, Linda Ronstadt’s a Merry Little Christmas.

And so, I must give kudos to the Purple Raider, who long ago recommended An Oscar Peterson Christmas. I finally picked it up recently, and it has met my high expectations. It is an excellent, note-perfect jazz tribute to the holidays that has to rank up there with some of the best Christmas albums ever. Its combination of slow and fast treatments, piano and vibes, will allow for an even better mix of tunes for the days of holiday baking.

More on Christmas music later. In the meantime, as we ramp up to the holidays, An Oscar Peterson Christmas gets the Webnerhouse seal of approval.

Dixie Electric Company

When disco was king during the mid-’70s, discos sprouted in shopping centers across America like mushrooms after a long rain. During that era, the Columbus disco of choice was called Dixie Electric Company and was located in the Great Western Shopping Center, far out West Broad Street. Behind its unassuming storefront facade it had everything you wanted in a disco — a checkered, light-up-from-underneath dance floor, a disco ball, strobe lights, a smoke machine and siren, and a DJ who could sense the best times to move between fast songs and slow songs and the songs that were best suited to make the transition and could hit the strobe light and disco ball at the crucial moment in Fire by the Ohio Players.

My high school friend JD and I used to go to Dixie Electric Company occasionally, just to see if we could screw up our courage and successfully ask girls to dance. The women seemed to show up in dense, impenetrable packs and sit at the tables nearest the dance floor, while the guys would hang out in the dim periphery or near the bar. If you summoned the gumption to ask a girl to dance, you had to make a long walk to the bright area near the dance floor, and if the woman turned you down after sizing up your hair, clothes, general appearance, and likely dancing abilities it was a very public humiliation. Much better to go up with your friend after spotting a female twosome who seemed like good candidates and ask them to dance at the same time, so if you both got turned down you could share a self-deprecating laugh as you slinked back to your table in the cavernous depths of the club!

I have to confess that I liked a lot of the “disco music” that they played at the Dixie Electric Company, even though I didn’t own very impressive “disco outfits” or know any dance steps beyond the beginner-level “Bus Stop.” Still, I thought dancing was a lot of fun if you weren’t horribly self-conscious about it. JD and I had some good times at the Dixie Electric Company, and in recognition of that fact I have called the “disco” playlist on my Ipod “Dixie Electric Company.” The first 20 songs are as follows:

Get Down Tonight — K.C. & The Sunshine Band
Stayin’ Alive — Bee Gees
Funkytown — Lipps Inc.
Lowdown — Boz Scaggs
Got To Give It Up, Part 1 — Marvin Gaye
I Will Survive — Gloria Gaynor
Play That Funky Music — Wild Cherry
Fire — Ohio Players
Neutron Dance — The Pointer Sisters
Turn The Beat Around — Vicki Sue Robinson
Love Hangover — Diana Ross
That’s The Way (I Like It) — K.C. & The Sunshine Band
Jive Talkin’ — Bee Gees
Boogie Nights — Heatwave
Jungle Boogie — Kool & The Gang
Disco Inferno — The Trammps
(Every Time I Turn Around) Back In Love Again — L.T.D.
Dazz — Brick
Fly Robin Fly — Silver Convention
Car Wash — Rose Royce

Soul Playlist: The First 20

I like soul and R&B music very much. It was music that was played on all of the popular radio stations when I was growing up — when radio stations, generally, tended to play a much broader spectrum of music. You might hear a Beatles’ song followed by one by the Temptations followed by In-a-Gadda-da-Vida. These days, radio stations seem to pick one specific kind of music and stick to it, which I think is a lot more boring.

I tend to associate soul and R&B music with summer. I’m not sure why, but muggy nights in the ’60s and early ’70s always seemed to feature lightning bugs and Aretha Franklin, flashlight tag and the Supremes, ice cream and the Four Tops. In high school when you were on a date you always wanted to hear Me and Mrs. Jones, or Gladys Knight and the Pips, or anything by the Spinners. When I listen to those songs now, I am always struck by how romantic they are, full of love and heartbreak, longing and hope, desire and wistful dreams. You can’t help but contrast the generally positive message of those songs with the harsh, hateful misogyny of so much rap music. And the sound! Stunning vocals, lush harmonies, and melodies and a beat that just got you moving and singing along . . . .

Here are the first 20 songs on the soul/R&B playlist on my Ipod:

Me And Mrs. Jones — Billy Paul
Oh Girl — The Chi-Lites
Neither One Of Us (Wants To Be The First To Say Goodbye) — Gladys Knight & The Pips
I Wish It Would Rain — The Temptations
Respect — Aretha Franklin
Back Stabbers — The O’Jays
Let’s Get It On — Marvin Gaye
Let’s Stay Together — Al Green
Bring It On Home To Me — Sam Cooke
You’re Still A Young Man — Tower Of Power
Ain’t No Woman (Like The One I’ve Got) — Four Tops
I Hear A Symphony — Diana Ross & The Supremes
Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin) — Sly & The Family Stone
Colors — Amos Lee
Papa Was A Rollin’ Stone (Single Version) — The Temptations
I’ll Be Around — The Spinners
Respect Yourself — The Staple Singers
Think — Aretha Franklin
This Will Be (An Everlasting Love) — Natalie Cole
What’d I Say – Parts I & II — Ray Charles

Political Songs

Recently I’ve been listening to my “political songs” playlist on my Ipod. The only criterion for inclusion on the list is that the song has to have some kind of overt “political” message, as opposed to being about love, or cars, or some other song topic. I like the playlist because it has really good diversity of genres, artists, and even political viewpoints. The first 20 songs are as follows:

The Times They Are A-Changin’ — Bob Dylan
New Millenium Homes — Rage Against The Machine
What’s Going On — Marvin Gaye
Ohio — Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young
Good People — Jack Johnson
Revolution — The Beatles
Capital G — Nine Inch Nails
Tom Dooley — Kingston Trio
Authority Song — John Mellencamp
It’s The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine) — R.E.M.
Pride (In The Name Of Love) — U2
Working Class Hero — John Lennon
Born In The U.S.A. — Bruce Springsteen
Why Don’t You Get A Job — The Offspring
Redemption Day — Sheryl Crow
Uneasy Rider — The Charlie Daniels Band
Zombie — The Cranberries
American Anthem — Norah Jones
Things Goin’ On (Acoustic) — Lynyrd Skynyrd
For What It’s Worth — Buffalo Springfield

If you’ve never heard it, Uneasy Rider is an absolute classic:

Pool Music

We are down in the Bahamas visiting our good (and generous) friends Chuck and Laura Pisciotta. They are graciously hosting us at their lovely second home near Freeport, and we have had a wonderful time.

Yesterday we were sitting out by the pool on a bright sunny day and were listening to the trusty Ipod played over our portable speaker set-up. I chose my Orlando Ave. playlist, which features songs from the 1950s and early 1960s, up to the cusp of the British invasion. I have to say it is just about perfect pool music — the Four Seasons, the “girl groups” of the early 1960s, the Coasters, Connie Francis, and so on, with some Chuck Berry, Elvis, and Jerry Lee Lewis sprinkled in. The songs tend to be light and bouncy in tone and short in duration, and before you know it you are on to the next one. I never thought Dominique by the Singing Nun would appeal to Chuck’s musical tastes, but in that setting it did.

The Morning Walk

I had a bit of insomnia this morning, and I got up earlier than usual. As is my custom — and Kish correctly identifies me as a creature of habit — I got Penny leashed up and took my morning walk around the Yantis Loop. As Kish knows, I always go the same direction, and when Penny joins me she helps to add to the routine. In the first part of the walk we need to make sure that she answers the call of nature, and thereafter she must challenge my authority by stopping to sniff at every fence post. It takes a few tugs on the leash to teach her that on this morning, too, I mean business. By the mid-point of the walk, after we pass the pond and are approaching the icy patch at the turn that is always there during the winter, we are moving at a good clip, with Penny in the lead, head up and alert. When I get back home after my brush with exercise and the cold, the coffee tastes hot and good.

I like these walks because they get me up and going in the morning. I can listen to my Ipod as I walk along, and the uninterrupted time allows my mind to roam. Sometimes I think about work, sometimes about life, sometimes about the song I’m hearing, and sometimes about not much of anything at all. It is a good way to start the day.

The Thrill of Organization

I think you could plausibly argue that the Ipod is one of the greatest inventions of the last 25 years. Obviously, it allows you to select and store the music — or movies, or TV shows — that you like the best. But I think an even more interesting attribute of the Ipod is that it allows you to organize the music however you want. This allows people’s Ipods to be uniquely individualized. Even if people had precisely the same music on their Ipods, the way in which they organized the music would still say a lot about them.

When the kids got me an Ipod, and I realized that you can make playlists, I also realized that the organizational aspect would be as much fun as the initial selection of the music. When you think about it, you can organize music in countless different ways. You can categorize songs by the decade when they were recorded or the decade when you first listened to them. Or, you can classify them by genre, like jazz and classical. Or, you can organize them by subject matter, or how they sound, or where you might hear them. Or, if you really wanted to, you could have a playlist that consisted only of songs that had the word “blue” in the title.

I’ve used all of these approaches (except for the “blue” one); I’ve got playlists called “2 a.m.,” “101 w. 8th,” “dreamtime,” and “political songs,” among others. I’ve also discovered that my initial preconceptions about how I would use the Ipod have been wrong. I am a big Beatles fan, and my first playlist was of Beatles songs. To my surprise, it has turned out to be one of the least played playlists. It is much more entertaining to build playlists where meaningful choices are involved, and where you can, after a time, review the playlist, move songs on, and move songs off. A playlist that consists of only songs by one group — even if the music is as undeniably excellent as the Beatles catalog — is just not as interesting as one where you can put two radically different sounds from radically different musical acts back to back. As a result, I’ve decided that the Beatles playlist is going to hit the cutting room floor, and the songs are going to be moved to other playlists where “Hey Jude,” say, can be followed by Goldfrapp’s “Beautiful.” And then, in a few months, I’ll shuffle them again.

Songs with a twang

I like listening to music. One of the great things about an Ipod is that you can store enough music to satisfy all of your musical whims, whatever they may be. One day it’s classical music, another it’s jazz, and another day yet it’s music from the 1960s.

In my trip to Boston this week I listened to country music. I don’t like “modern” country music, for the most part — it tends to be boring and bland. I like older country, with a twang. It’s good traveling music, and the storytelling that is a fundamental part of that kind of country music often brings a smile to my face. Country music wouldn’t be what it is if there weren’t lots of songs about drinking and failed relationships.

Until recently, I didn’t really listen to country music, because I associated it with “Hee Haw” and redneck culture. A few years ago, however, I bought some George Jones CDs and realized how good the music could be. If you haven’t listened to country music, I recommend seeing if you like the following songs, which are some of my favorites:

The Bottle Let Me Down, by Merle Haggard — a song with a great set of lyrics, and terrific guitar playing, and — of course! — the sad story behind the lyrics

Little Ways, by Dwight Yoakam — classic drums, and a real twang in the vocals

Luckenbach, Texas, by Waylon Jennings (with an assist from Willie Nelson) — a song with an important message, sung by an artist with a world weary voice

She Thinks I Still Care, by George Jones — I think George Jones has a perfect voice for country music, and most of his better songs tell a compelling story, too.

Tammy Wynette and Patsy Cline have recorded lots of good songs, too.