Archive for June, 2008


Amazing Grace, How Sweet The Sound!

Monday, June 30th, 2008
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Amazing Grace - How Sweet The Sound!

A staple of both spiritual and secular singers alike, Amazing Grace is one of the world’s most popular songs. John Newton, its writer, lived a life full of sin and redemption, which inspired the song’s lyrics. According to Newton’s biography, the words of Amazing Grace show the song was very personal in nature.

Newton was born in London. A former slave ship captain when he wrote the hymn, he started his life at sea with the British Navy. He narrowly avoided becoming a slave master in Jamaica. In the Navy, he rose to the rank of midshipman. When he tried to desert, however, he was put into irons and reduced in rank. Newton asked to serve aboard a West African-bound slave ship and ended up on the coast of Sierra Leone. The slave master whom he served was abusive, and eventually he was taken back to England aboard yet another slave ship.

During this trip, the ship met a violent storm at sea. Newton prayed for his life as the ship was deluged with water. This was his first taste of Amazing Grace. It marked the beginning of his conversion to Christ.

In 1754, Newton was forced out of the slave trade and off of the sea when a serious illness threatened his life. He applied to be an Anglican priest, but in the time he waited for acceptance into the priesthood he also applied to the Methodist and Presbyterian churches. In 1764, he was ordained into the Church of England.

Though he was converted, it took some time before Newton regretted his slave trading days. (What else is new? It takes all of us a long time to get our actions in line with our heart.) As he wrote in his lyrics, “I once was lost, but now am found.” Later in his life he became a powerful abolitionist, writing many articles against slavery.

Newton originally wrote six verses for Amazing Grace, but modern times have brought about a seventh. Composed by John P. Rees, Harriet Beecher Stowe published the additional and now-final verse in her novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

The melody of Amazing Grace isn’t Newton’s own. The exact origin is murky. Originally Amazing Grace was sung using a variety of melodies. A song called Old Regular Baptist was a commonly used melody. Other accounts point to a Scottish bagpipe tune as the basis for the familiar melody, which is a reason the song is often associated with the instrument. A popular myth held that the melody was an old drinking song, though this has been disproved.

From Rod Stewart to Kylie Minogue, Amazing Grace has been honored by many voices through the years. It’s even become known as the unofficial Cherokee National anthem, with altered lyrics to fit the Cherokee language.

Amazing Grace is an eternal song, both in use and meaning. Its message of redemption applies to any person who turns from his or her sin and cries out to God for forgiveness. For this and many other reasons, it will stand the test of time.

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Piano playing is lots of fun…

Sunday, June 29th, 2008
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The joy of music comes in many ways, including playing the piano!

There are lots of reasons to play the piano, but one of the most basic is simply that piano playing is fun! As Leonard Bernstein called it — the joy of music.

Piano Ideas Galore!

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The Battle Hymn of the Republic Marches On

Saturday, June 28th, 2008
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“Mine eyes have seen the glory” is one of the most powerful and recognized opening lines in the history of American song. The Battle Hymn of the Republic is the quintessential fight song of the United States, as well as its call-to-arms.

The Battle Hymn of the Republic has gone through many changes. Its form and lyrics have evolved for years to reach its present incarnation. Begun as a camp meeting spiritual by William Steffe in the 1850s, it was a call to meet on the shores of Canaan, the land of ancient Biblical promise. The main lyric that survived this incarnation was the refrain of “Glory, Glory, Hallelujah!” The song traveled across the land quickly, but it was some time before it became known as The Battle Hymn of the Republic.

A regiment of Union soldiers took the tune and fashioned their own pre-Battle Hymn of the Republic marching song. It was called “John Brown’s Body.” Many assumed it was about the famed abolitionist of the same name, but it was written as a jab to a fellow soldier.

Major General George B. McClellan found the song highly offensive. He even tried to ban it from being sung in the Army of the Potomac, but he was never successful. Verses were gradually added about John Brown the abolitionist, and the original intention of the song was lost to history.

Julie Howe was visiting a Union Army camp along the Potomac when she heard the soldiers singing “John Brown’s Body” as they marched. She was struck by the melody and strong rhythm of the song. The Reverend James Clarke, who was by her side as the soldiers marched, hinted that she should write new words for the song.

Howe went to sleep that night, and, as the grey morning light crept into her room, she found a poem forming in her mind. She sprang from her bed, found an old pen and scribbled the words down without even looking at the paper. Five verses of Howe’s Battle Hymn of the Republic were soon published in The Atlantic Monthly. Though she had written a sixth verse, it has never been commonly sung and is usually not printed.

The Republican Party later adopted The Battle Hymn of the Republic for the closing ceremony of their annual convention. It also became the basis for the American Consumers’ Cooperative movement’s anthem, The Battle Hymn of Cooperation, in the 1930s.

Through all this, The Battle Hymn of the Republic has remained a shining example of a time when generals would boost soldiers’ morale with promises of the glory of God. Its words seem archaic now, but the song is resilient.

Martin Luther King Jr. frequently quoted the verses of The Battle Hymn of the Republic in his speeches, most notably from the steps of the Montgomery, Alabama courthouse. He used the song to inspire others to rise up against oppression, to have faith in righteous actions, and to sacrifice for a greater goal. This is at the heart of the lasting legacy of the song. It is not a call to battle to the death, but a call to battle against the evils of society. God’s truth will continue to march on.

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Woody Guthrie’s ‘This Land is Your Land’

Friday, June 27th, 2008
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In 1940, Woody Guthrie sat down and wrote his personal response to the song ‘God Bless America.’ He felt a different story of America needed telling. This story would celebrate the beauty of the American expanse. At the same time, it would also celebrate the average working citizen who labored across the land. The result of his creativity was ‘This Land is Your Land,’ a song that is still taught in school music classes.

Woody Guthrie felt ‘God Bless America’ ignored the inequities in the capitalist system. He felt it was an unrealistic view of America. He held the view that too many citizens had too little. He believed that too small a segment of the population owned the greatest proportion of wealth.

This was evident in versions that never made it into print or onto records. These versions espoused more of his political views about the state of America. Over the years, he often changed the lyrics to the song, giving different performances of it.

One of the published versions of his lyrics includes this verse:

In the squares of the city – In the shadow of the steeple
Near the relief office – I see my people
And some are grumblin’ and some are wonderin’
If this land’s still made for you and me.

The original title of this song by Guthrie was ‘God Blessed America for Me.’ He eventually changed the line to ‘This land was made for you and me.’ The song received its first recording in 1944 with Guthrie and folk singer Cisco Houston. First published in 1951, it was included in a book with nine other songs.

Guthrie was born on July 14, 1912 in Okemah, Oklahoma. He experienced life during the Great Depression and witnessed its effects on the average blue-collar worker. He saw first-hand the trek by workers to find work on the West Coast.

By 1936, Guthrie landed in Los Angeles, like so many from other parts of the country. In the spring of 1938, he spent time going from place to place singing for the migrant workers.

He ended up with the moniker ‘Dust Bowl Troubadour’ as he followed the paths of these workers. As they traveled from Oklahoma to California Guthrie wrote songs about their lives and trials.

He developed his own views of the world around him and these became manifest in his songwriting. The Dust Bowl of the 1930s exposed him to the racism and class struggles that these workers faced.

His wandering lifestyle across America instilled in him a great compassion for everyday Americans. He came to appreciate the variety of races and cultures that made up the country. Along with Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie was responsible for the folk revival of the 1930s and 1940s.

In 1940, he ended up in New York City, a move that propelled his career forward. He wrote and recorded here, wrote ‘This Land is Your Land,’ did radio, and generally made a decent living.This Land is Your Land

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You’re Still a Grand Old Flag

Thursday, June 26th, 2008
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You're a Grand Old Flag!

George M. Cohan’s encounter with a Civil War veteran inspired a song that became a Broadway hit. From there it became a household name.

That song was, and is, “You’re a Grand Old Flag”. This song celebrates Old Glory and all that it stands for. The song is a patriotic march with a catchy lilt and equally catchy lyrics. It certainly is a summer concert-in-the park favorite.

George Cohan found himself next to a veteran of the Battle of Gettysburg one day. He noticed the man had a neatly- folded American flag in his hands but that it was ragged looking. This man said to Cohan, “She’s a grand old rag.”

This triggered an idea for a song in Cohan’s head and he wrote one using this line. There was consternation from people over the term ‘rag’. Many felt it was an insult to the Stars and Stripes and they wanted that word removed from the lyrics. Cohan did just that, changing the word to ‘flag,’ and the rest is American musical history.

Cohan wrote the tune in 1906 for his stage production ‘George Washington Jr.’ The play, and the song, premiered on February 6, 1906 at the Herald Square Theater in New York City. The story starred Cohan, who played a U.S. Senator’s son who desires a simple girl from the southern United States. His father has different aims – wanting his son to link up with an English woman of prominence. The story is their battle to achieve two different goals.

The play and the song ‘You’re a Grand Old Flag’ were a huge success. From Broadway it subsequently moved into America’s living rooms over the years because of record and sheet music sales. In fact, this was the first song from a stage musical to sell over a million sheet music copies.
You’re a Grand Old Flag became a staple at the family piano and was played across the country. The tune is bright and positive. It evokes feelings of national pride, and one cannot help being uplifted upon hearing it.

George M. Cohan was born in 1878 in Providence, Rhode Island. His parents were Vaudeville performers who continually toured the country. George traveled with them, along with his older sister Josephine. He honed his show business skills as a member of the Four Cohans – this mother-father-sister-brother act. They kept up a hellish tour schedule with the B.F.Keith Circuit and belted out four to six performances a day. This paved the way for the big time for Cohan, the dues-paying years teaching him much.

Eventually Cohan became a prolific Tin Pan Alley tunesmith and penned many popular songs. Others included “Life’s A Funny Proposition After All,” “I Want to Hear a Yankee Doodle Tune,” and “Over There.” His influence was so great he earned the moniker “The Man Who Owned Broadway.” Along with that he is known as the father of American musical comedy.

Cohan was not only a songwriter. He wore these hats as well in his career:

* Playwright
* Composer
* Actor
* Singer
* Dancer
* Director
* Librettist
* Producer

His influence and popularity as a true American entertainer resulted in a film about his life. This film was Yankee Doodle Dandy, which portrayed his rise from his Vaudeville days to his Broadway success.

Today, Broadway and its tunes may be a whole lot different from Cohan’s time. They still owe a debt of gratitude, however, to this eminent American songwriter and his stage musicals.

Songs like “You’re a Grand Old Flag” still speak today to people who are thankful of and appreciate the opportunity America offers.

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