Posts Tagged ‘Brooklyn’

Memoir 4: The Magic of Musical Memory

Monday, February 26th, 2018

I never hear the Kenny Rogers’ recording of “The Gambler” without recalling an editor colleague in Boston who spontaneously broke into singing Rogers’ song while we line-checked stories and wrote headlines on the copy-desk.

During our tenures on the Boston copy desk, I sang in a neighborhood choral group, and I discovered during a summer choral festival that Billy also sang in his neighborhood concert choir.

But even that discovery of the shared love of choral singing didn’t match Billy’s workplace confession that he loved to sing “The Gambler.”

Billy also frequently complimented an investigative writer at the newspaper, noting that particular writer was “Just one of three journalists in the world who understands the proper use of a semicolon.”

That comment drove me to strengthen my grasp of semicolon usage.

I only worked with Billy for a few years, but two things I sadly recall: he once severely cut his hand as he pressed down the contents of a trash can at home that was hiding broken glass. Also, I learned several years after I left Boston that Billy had died young–in his mid-40s–from what his obituary described as “a massive heart attack.”

However, my most vivid image of him comes from those times during a lull on the copy desk when Billy broke into song with the lines “you’ve got to know when to hold ’em; know when to fold ’em.”

Come to think of it; those words could be an adage for copy editors! And, yes, Billy had a performer’s baritone singing voice.

Then there’s my boyhood remembrance of George, who taught me the word bandolier, and the name of a place called The Vale of Tralee.

George was a late-comer to our conglomerate of friends growing as teenagers in Brooklyn’s Park Slope neighborhood.

He had dropped out of school and became a member of a street gang. About the time he turned seventeen, George, through the influence of parents, friends, and probably a couple of priests, was re-enrolled in St. Michael’s High School in Bay Ridge.

There he befriended several of my neighborhood friends, and he began hanging out with us, a tiny group of mostly Irish, Roman Catholic choirboys and altar boys, and me, the lone Protestant in the entourage.

George and I discovered a mutual enjoyment of singing, and he began teaching me the Irish songs he knew and loved.

“The Irish Soldier Boy,” one of George’s favorites, taught me the word bandolier, and I can still hear George’s melodious tenor singing the line, “and with loving arms around his waist, she tied his bandolier.” In a way, this song expressed George’s thinking about maternal love and courage. I like to believe these ideas he absorbed from singing had rescued him from juvenile delinquency.

George also taught me the opening verse of “The Rose of Tralee,” a sad Irish love song. Ingrained in my brain because of George are the lines, “Yet, ’twas not her beauty alone that won me; Oh, no, ’twas the truth in her eyes ever dawning, that made me love Mary, the Rose of Tralee.”

This song had been popular during my young years through earlier recordings of the Irish tenor Dennis Day and crooner Bing Crosby, but even those stars didn’t sing “The Rose of Tralee” like George.

I later discovered Tralee is a bay on the southwestern coast of County Kerry in Ireland, and today the Vale of Tralee is the name given the stadium of the Tralee Rugby Football Club.

Memory tells me George, who wasn’t a skilled player in our games of stickball, softball, or baseball in our Brooklyn neighborhood, probably would have been a superior rugby player.

Incidentally, we all learned from boyhood matches at the PAL (Police Athletic League) gym that George was an excellent boxer.

I mostly remember that George and Billy sure loved to sing, and they taught me lifelong lessons about semicolons, Ireland, and the power of singing.

It’s a shame there isn’t a Hall of Fame for singing copy editors and boyhood boxers.

 

Cowboy Contemplative: Heaven or Home?

Thursday, May 7th, 2009

Cowboy Contemplative: Singing our way home

[in memory of Mom]

Years ago a popular country song recorded by Tanya Tucker extolled the bliss of Texas. The song was “Texas When I Die,” and was written by a Tennessean (born in Arkansas), Ed Bruce (along with a couple of collaborators). Bruce actually cut a much better version of the song than Tucker’s, but her version moved further up the charts.

It begins with this repeated quatrain:

“When I die, I may not go to heaven;

I don’t know if they let cowboys in.

If they don’t, then bury me in Texas

‘cause Texas is as close as I’ve been.”

I have no connection whatsoever to Texas, so when I heard and fell in love with Bruce’s song, I toyed with the lyrics and made it my own.

“When I die, I may not go to heaven;

I don’t know if they let cowboys in.

If they don’t, then bury me in Brooklyn

‘cause Brooklyn is as close as I’ve been.”

New York actually gets dissed in Bruce’s lyrics, as does Detroit, Milwaukee, and—one could extrapolate—also Hell, while San Antone and Willie Nelson and Texas beer are given a treatment close to apotheosis. But no matter, for me Brooklyn—with or without Schaeffer or Rheingold beers—is sweeter than San Antone or Houston or Big D.

One could, of course, plug in one’s own place of heavenly memories: “. . . then bury me in Boston/‘cause Beantown is as close as I’ve been.” Or, for less urban devotees, how about, “. . . then bury me in Springfield /‘cause Main Street is as close as I’ve been.”

For me, it was living in Brooklyn, believe it not, that drew me as a teenager to the thrall of country and western music. At the time, a New Jersey radio station, WAAT, beamed Don Larkin’s “Hometown Frolic” into the region with its theme song, the Gene Autry standard, “I’m Back in the Saddle Again.” (Nora Ephron and Tom Hanks proved that song a favorite even to the Sleepless in Seattle!) If confronted with the quasi-Biblical query, “Can anything good come out of Jersey?” I would have quickly and confidently responded, “country music.”

So while my high school buddies in Brooklyn were losing themselves in Alan Freed and the rhythm and blues music that evolved into rock ‘n’ roll, I was steeping myself in Hank Williams, Webb Pierce, Faron Young, Hank Thompson, Eddy Arnold, Hank Snow, Slim Whitman, and cowboy favorites such as Autry, Tex Ritter, Ernest Tubb, Roy Rogers, and Rogers’ original compatriots, the Sons of the Pioneers. My adolescent fantasy of singing on the “Grand Ole Opry” ranked second only to playing for the Brooklyn Dodgers, and I learned about five chords on the guitar and about 500 country and western songs.

At that time, the only thing truly cowboy about that line-up of singers I mention is that several of them wore cowboy hats and occasionally appeared in chaps and spurs. Over the years, I’ve come to recognize that “cowboy” is an attitude and a mindset more than a way of life or vocation; like me, most of the singers I mentioned above probably weren’t comfortable around horses, steers, or ranch waste; nevertheless, they extolled the way of the cowboy.

I think what cowboy singers promoted and what appealed to me as a boy was what I now can identify as the life of a “cowboy contemplative.” My heroes didn’t respond to life with Clint Eastwood macho aided by a big six-shooter; they backed off, rode alone, extolled the trail, preferred the dogies to the barroom, and sang quiet ballads.

Even when they did have to turn to the gun, they acted and then, like Alan Ladd’s “Shane” or the legendary Lone Ranger, rode into the distance to be alone with themselves—and perhaps, with God—and to sing a song (I just know the Lone Ranger sang when he was alone).

And they may well have asked the question repeated in Bruce’s “Texas When I Die,” which wonders if cowboys get to heaven (they do, as surely as ragamuffins enter God’s kingdom) and asserts those dying cowboys are ready to accept the next best thing: home.

Though she was neither a cowgirl nor a singer but surely a psalm-loving contemplative, it’s no wonder my mother always said of those who’d recently died, “They’ve gone home.”

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Writer’s Note: Ed Bruce, the writer of “Texas When I Die,” and the writer and original singer of “Mama, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to be Cowboys,” in the twilight of his career has cut two successful gospel albums—“Changed” and “Sing About Jesus”—and, as noted on his official Web site, has become an ambassador of God’s life-changing love in Jesus Christ.

P.S. If you’ve read this far and would like to know more about my own cowboy contemplative life, you can click a link on this blog for “Poetry by ARA” to find my poem entitled, “One of Their Kind.” Or, just click here.

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Listen to hear Ed Bruce’s recording