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Friday, February 5, 2021

The silent movie roots of an iconic song -- one we need right now. Feb 5 2021 edition


LATE ADDED ITEM, right here, up-top:

The musical guest on this week's SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE is singer-songwriter PHOEBE BRIDGERS. She was the subject of a recent feature story in the New York Times, after making the rounds of late-night TV over the past year. And all that after playing gigs as a teenager in Southern California and getting several positive write-ups in The Guide, way back when. (Search our archives.) We remember seeing her perform her first gig on a real stage as a headliner, at the Coffee Gallery Backstage in Altadena, and before that at a barbecue restaurant in Pasadena and as a guest of other artists in several venues along the way. We remember when her guitar teacher and music coach was KELLY McCUNE of the acoustic roots band BORDER RADIO. And now our local kid has grown up to be a professional artist and made the big time!

n L.A., SNL airs twice Saturday, on KNBC TV channel 4. The first airtime is 8:30 pm when it goes out live on the East coast (11:30 pm there). It airs again at 11:30 Pacific time.


Now, here's the edition as originally published...

A little perspective, up top

by Larry Wines, editor

Two weeks and two two days into a new era, and already the "merely competent" of the new administration seems like we're watching genius. Okay, the horses aren't even to the first turn. 

But we do get to see Amanda Gorman recite/perform another of her poems in the Superbowl pregame on Sunday. That thought makes us smile.

Hey, you take your joys where ya find 'em. 

Sure, you need to keep the full perspective. (Half full, not half empty.) Yeah, the shops that sell rose-colored glasses are still shuttered in Pollyannaville. But the snow crystals sparkle in the first moments of sunrise, before it's time to start shoveling. A bird sings somewhere in a distant bare tree. You know the flowers will bloom soon, when spring returns. And, dammit, if you don't find something to make you smile, you have already lost an essential part of finding -- and being able to see -- the big picture.

So let's pause and take account. Sure, plenty just ain't right. Still, we know of no reason to assume that anything horrendously stupid is about to befall us. So we really do have time for music! And time to find that smile.

You're safe 'til Tuesday, anyway, when "Impeachment: Resurrected 2 Hell" premieres at the scene of the crime. First time that's happened since "Gone with the Wind" premiered in Atlanta in 1939.

Meanwhile, speaking of Georgia on the mind, the Northwest Georgia wacko freshman Congresswoman has self-stripped and bared her beliefs, even before the rest of Congress stripped her of her committee assignments on Thursday. That, with no help from California Congressman and supposed "leader" Kevin McCarthy, whose inscrutable defense of her caused one Gopper colleague to opine that "McCarthy is really sh*tting the bed on this thing." 

Very quickly, in case you missed it... she -- newly-elected Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene -- said California's wildfires were caused by "Jewish space lasers," and that those who disagreed with her about her lengthy list of q-razy Q-anon fantasies were dangerously anti-American.

Her list of who is really crazy includes other members of the House of Representatives -- the ones who reigned her in and should therefore "be assassinated." Can't we just send her deranged ass home? I mean, really! (By the way, Marjorie, we DID "Stop the Steal" when your sore loser bros were stopped, after they turned to sedition to try to steal democracy from all of us.)

Okay, okay, laughing at the deranged just pisses them off and makes 'em crazier. And sideshow sword-swallowing bearded-lady distractions cannot be allowed to steal what belongs in the center ring. None of which changes the fact that, for our own mental health, we do need to smile, and we need decent reasons to feel good about it when we do. That's a tall order.

These are serious times. In January alone, 100,000 more Americans died of COVID-19, bringing the total dead closer to half a million. Inescapably, that's the direct result of eleven previous months of diversion, distraction, denial of reality, ridicule of science, unfounded notions of conspiracy, terminally egotistical narcissism on the part of one Orange Abomination, and the utter chaos all that produced, sabotaging intelligent response. Fits and starts of quasi-quarantines have brought record unemployment and inconsistent assistance to those sidelined through no fault of their own. We are on the verge of fourteen million Americans facing eviction and homelessness, with as many as forty-six million who may follow. One in seven is facing food insecurity or is perpetually hungry right now

Our culture is being eviscerated. Everything from live music venues large and small to galleries and museums and essential nonprofits of every imaginable kind and purpose are facing extinction. Novel Coronavirus has been an asteroid, as much as the one that killed the dinosaurs, even if Wall Street's celebratory skies haven't darkened like those ominously visible on most everyone else's horizons.

Too many don't know enough to realize the Titanic was built to hold more lifeboats, but big buck / cheap bastard capitalists wouldn't spend the money for them. (And yes, the rich spent a fortune after the fact manipulating hearings on two continents to obfuscate their crime.)

Characteristically austerity-loving Congressional Republicans don't want to allow measly $1,400 checks to help our struggling fellow citizens, yet only eleven of them wanted a wacko and her "Jewish space lasers" kept off the Education & Labor Committee. (199 House Republicans voted to give her that important soapbox for her beliefs. Only 11 voted with the Democrats to keep her off the committees.) The Senate's Republicans --  who one commentator, CNN's Don Lemon, dubs Quetrumplicans -- appear headed to let Benedict Donald off the hook, just in time to be indicted in New York State for a spectrum of financial fraud crimes spanning decades. 

A disgrace visible to the world is not a reason to smile. Nor to demand "moving on" as a carrot-and-stick lure for unity. Tempting as it is, you can't play turtle and hide in your shell. That gig is taken. It's Mitch McConnell's version of Reagan's jar of jellybeans and Trump's junk food button. And if you try to think rabbit to hide in your burrow, remember that rabbits are necessarily scared of everything because in the wild kingdom they're what's for dinner.

By now you're thinking, this guy said we all need to smile? Yeah. You do. And you need a respite before the bell rings for the next round.

If ever there was a need to find reason to smile -- and not in ridicule of stupidity -- It's now. That's what this edition is about. Just that one thing. 

And we promise to make it a memorable and worthwhile read-and-listen experience.

So let's get started!

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Rarely does Garrison Keillor's daily missive, "The Writer's Almanac," lead his devoted legion of readers into musical climes. His edition for today, Friday, February 5, 2021, does feature a tuneful turn, and it takes us there in a delightfully surprising way.

We'll start with the longtime "A Prairie Home Companion" impresario's presentation, and pick it up from there:

Garrison Keillor writes:

On this date in 1936Charlie Chaplin's film “Modern Times” opened in New York City (works by Chaplin). It was the last film in which his beloved and iconic character "the Little Tramp" appeared, and it was the only film to include the Tramp's voice.

"Talkies" had been around since The Jazz Singer in 1927, but Chaplin had held out. His films had been internationally successful in large part because there was no language barrier in silent films; his comedy was physical, and it was a simple matter to replace English title cards with those in the local language. Chaplin knew that giving the Tramp dialogue meant losing all the audiences that didn't speak English. In 1931, he had released “City Lights,” which was silent in defiance of the new mania for sound, and had gone so far as to say that talking pictures were a fad that wouldn't last. He told an interviewer, "Dialogue may or may not have a place in comedy ... dialogue does not have a place in the sort of comedies I make." The interviewer asked him if he had ever tried including dialogue, and he answered, "I never tried jumping off the monument in Trafalgar Square, but I have a definite idea that it would be unhealthful." “City Lights” was a critical and commercial success, and one reviewer said,"Nobody in the world but Charlie Chaplin could have done it. He is the only person that has that peculiar something called 'audience appeal' in sufficient quality to defy the popular penchant for movies that talk."

By 1934, however, Chaplin had realized that the days of the silent movie had passed, and he was worried about being seen as old fashioned and outdated. He wrote a dialogue script for “Modern Times,” but in the end, used almost none of it. He used sound effects, and human voices carried through radios and loudspeakers, but the Little Tramp did not speak. He did, however, sing: at one point in the story, he gets a job as a singing waiter, but loses the lyrics to the song he's meant to sing. He sings a language of gibberish instead — no translation required.

“Modern Times” reflects the anxieties of its age. Chaplin had spent the past year and a half touring Europe, witnessing the rise of nationalism and the effects of the Great Depression. He describes how he got the idea for the film:

"I was riding in my car one day and saw a mass of people coming out of a factory, punching time clocks, and was overwhelmed with the knowledge that the theme note of modern times is mass production. I wondered what would happen to the progress of the mechanical age if one person decided to act like a bull in a china shop."

The movie portrays a very different reality from the pre-World-War-I world into which the Little Tramp character was born. Workers were being replaced by machines, and — even worse — assembly-line labor was turning them into machines themselves. Humanity was second to progress and efficiency, and Chaplin turned anxiety into comedy. 

When the movie opens, the Little Tramp is working in a factory, but his mindless and repetitive task — which he must perform faster and faster to satisfy the foreman — drives him mad and he literally becomes a cog in the great machine of industry. He spends the rest of the movie in a series of jobs, and tries to get arrested so he can have three meals a day and a place to sleep. Eventually, he finds happiness in an anarchist lifestyle with his co-star, Paulette Goddard, who plays "the Gamine." 

[At the end] They walk off into the sunset to the strains of the song "Smile," which was composed by Chaplin. 

Foregoing essay is copyright © 2020 Prairie Home Productions, All rights reserved.



So, the great silent film / physical comedy genius was a songwriter, too? Well, no. He was a composer, and as American Songwriter magazine says:

"Charlie Chaplin not only wrote, directed and starred in his own films, he also composed their scores. And for silent films, which had no dialogue, these were lengthy scores." explains, "In the final scene of Modern Times, Charlie and the gamine set off down the road to a new life. [They've each endured crushing defeats, rejection, humiliation at the hands of a power elite who demand complete submission.] When they get up off the grass [and are on the] verge [of leaving together], he pauses and points to the corners of his mouth, indicating that she should smile." 

Being a silent film, the on-screen titles lend themselves to a perfectly timed pause, and then the single word appears in unusually huge type.

The first appearance of the music -- in the film -- remains instantly recognizable to generations of audiences, including today's. Few knew It originated for that on-screen moment.

In our time, it was released as a recording from season one of TV's "Glee." Michael Jackson recorded it. Nat King Cole's signature version has outlived that iconic artist, inspiring countless others and adding additional dimensions of context. Online, you can find performances on ukulele, cello, piano, trumpet, concert harp, full orchestra, and vocal a capella. But as composed for "Modern Times" in 1936, it was originally written in D minor and it had no lyrics.

So, who are the collaborators, or the actual songwriters?

Charlie Chaplin was a legendary autocrat. In today's creative community parlance, he would be a "difficult to work-with genius." He regularly fired anyone who suggested any changes, and wasn't good about sharing credits for anything, other than for those who faithfully worked to realize his vision for what went on the screen. Even then, questions remain about the uncredited roles of his "musical secretaries." We'll get to that in a moment.

It was John Turner and Geoffrey Parsons who added the lyrics to the instrumental, making the tune into the immortal song, "Smile," when they gave it both words and its title in 1954. Eighteen years had passed since its instrumental debut.

Still, "The lyrics are based on lines and themes from the movie," says the Wikipedia listing about the song, and there is plenty to support that claim.

If you don't think you know the lyrics, you'll surely recognize them:

Many will mentally paste the image, not of Chaplin, but of another artist alongside the lyrics. We've touched on why, through the generations, so let's combine images with listening.

Here's a YouTube video assembled by video crafter "ChaplinsViolin" with a gallery of clips from Charlie Chaplin film images of his trademark character, "The Little Tramp." The soundtrack is Nat King Cole's timeless rendition of the song:


Unsung heroes behind the singers

Paul Zollo's 2020 story in American Songwriter magazine revealed unknown dimensions of the full genesis of the song, based on Paul's 1999 interview with David Raskin, the last in a line of Chaplin's "music secretaries," who were more likely uncredited collaborators, and perhaps co-composers and orchestral arrangers of Chaplin's basic melodies. 

Paul's story concludes with several links to recordings by a succession of music stars performing "Smile." It's a good read, in addition to all those music video bonuses.

"Behind The Song: 'Smile' by Charlie Chaplin with Turner & Parsons, and, most likely, Raskin"

Irresistible parting note: How a pop song becomes a classical music classic

Finally, you'll take away a fine memory if you listen to this live concert instrumental performance by violin master David Garrett of his orchestral arrangement. It's very contemporary for today's ears, yet imparts the kind of sentimental impact on audiences that Chaplin's closing scene did as his final film faded to black in 1936:

Light up your face with gladness
Hide every trace of sadness
Although a tear may be ever so near
That's the time you must keep on trying
Smile, what's the use of crying?
You'll find that life is still worthwhile if you just smile.

___ ^ ___ ^ ___ ^ ___ ^ ___ ^ ___ ^ ___


We'll be back soon with coverage of the opening of the brand-new, years-in-the-making, MUSEUM OF AFRICAN AMERICAN MUSIC.

Plus, some special features on blues, banjos, rootsy New Orleans jazz, and other delights to the ears of all -- that owe their origins to the Black experience in America.

Meanwhile, don't be a maskhole, and stay the hell away from the maskless Branch Covidians. No free passes to get stupid for the Superbowl!

___ ^ ___ ^ ___ ^ ___ ^ ___ ^ ___ ^ ___

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And, geez, THAT was back when Rin-Tin-Tin hadn't gotten his second "tin" from Tin Pan Alley... and you watched TV on a big box and movies on a screen, instead of both in postage-stamp mode on your phone.. and "the pandemic" meant 1918... and Rudy Giuliani was "America's Mayor" instead of a portable meltdown of brown ooze... and "trump" was something that only happened in a card game, instead of being garishly applied to buildings that go bankrupt (before it became a synonym for grifter college, grifter steaks, cultist wackos, attempted violent coups at the Capitol, and banishment from polite society)...
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♪ The ACOUSTIC AMERICANA MUSIC GUIDE endeavors to bring you NEWS – and views of interest to artists everywhere – more specifically to musicians and the creative community and music makers -- and fans of acoustic and Folk-Americana music. That includes both traditional and innovative forms. From the deepest roots to today’s acoustic renaissance, that’s our beat. We provide a wealth of resources, including a HUGE catalog of acoustic-friendly venues (now undergoing a major update), and inside info on FESTIVALS and select performances in Southern California in venues from the monumentally large to the intimately small and cozy. We cover workshops, conferences, and other events for artists and folks in the music industry, and all kinds o’ things in the world of acoustic and Americana and accessible classical music. From washtub bass to musical spoons to oboe to viola to banjo to squeezebox, from Djangostyle to new-fangled-old-time string band music, from sweet Cajun fiddle to bluegrass and pre-bluegrass Appalachian mountain music to all the swamp water roots of the blues and the bright lights of where the music is headed now.
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Til we catch ya again on the flip side 
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