My Hana’s Suitcase Story


Have you ever had a book change your life? I did. This is the story of a book that gave me my favourite experience as a classroom teacher ever!!! Please enjoy. 🙂

Prologue: Hana’s Suitcase by Karen Levine, is an award-winning story that is actually two stories in one. The story begins by introducing us to the Brady Family and, in particular, the two Brady children; George and Hana. As we meet them, they are blissfully unaware that they are about to be swept up into one of modern history’s darkest chapters: the Holocaust. In the next chapter, we fast-forward sixty years and meet a Japanese teacher named Fumiko who has organized a peace club. In order to help her students understand the true nature of the Holocaust, Fumiko knows that children usually learn more deeply when they have actual materials and objects to hold rather than simply looking through photographs. So, she sends requests to Holocaust museums all over the world for any resources that they could spare to help her in her lessons. She received rejections from every museum except for one.

That museum sent a collection of artifacts that included a suitcase with the name Hana Brady on it. And so begins a detective story than ended up spanning the globe as Fumiko and her students attempt to discover who this “Hana Brady” really was.

Karen Levine constructed her book by alternating the story lines every other chapter. So, as Hana and her family move through the well-known stages of the Holocaust process culminating in being sent to the concentration camps, Fumiko and her students move closer and closer to discovering what eventually ended up happening to Hana and her family members by the end of the book.

As a father, I completely and wholeheartedly endorse the notion of surrounding young children with rich literature. In my home we have books about every conceivable topic imaginable on bookshelves in our living room, in both of my daughter’s bedrooms and in our basement playroom, too. My daughters are growing up surrounded by, literally, thousands of books. Not surprisingly, they are both growing up to have a love of reading and to view reading as an enjoyable way to spend time during their day.

As a teacher, I have attempted to create the same kind of literature-rich environment for my students. There were, again, thousands of books in my classroom; available for students to read for pleasure, to use for research purposes, to listen to being read aloud and much more. The books in our classroom spanned a wide range of reading levels and subject areas so, there was something for every student to successfully read and enjoy in our classroom. Having good books in a school classroom is important so that students can hear wonderful writing and fascinating stories; stories that may inspire anything from flights of fancy to calls for social justice and beyond. Hana’s Suitcase by Karen Levine is an excellent book and I highly recommend it. It is well-suited to students who are in the 8-11 age range. But, I thoroughly enjoyed it as an adult, too. However, my reason to singling this particular book out has nothing to do with remembering the Holocaust or giving a shout-out to Karen Levine. My reason for writing about this book is that Hana’s Suitcase was the book that helped me experience my favourite and most profound reading experience with a student in my entire career. Here is my Hana’s Suitcase story…..I hope that you enjoy it. 🙂

My classroom was loaded with books. I had them sorted into bins and baskets usually based upon topic or genre. For example, I had a bin of “dog” stories, bins of “outer space” books, bins of “Halloween” books and so on. My standard classroom practice was to set these book bins/baskets out and make them available for students to access all throughout the year as interest or need arose for them. However, whenever I started a new Unit of study in the classroom, I would pull those books out from wherever they were and place them in a location of prominence near where our class meeting place happened to be. As I pulled these books out, I would hold a book talk with the students and go over each book so that they became familiar with them.

My Hana’s Suitcase story starts as we approached the special Canadian day known as Remembrance Day. In Canada, Remembrance Day is used to honour our soldiers who have fought in wars all over the world, as well as, those who are presently involved in peacekeeping duties in such hotspots as Afghanistan. As you all can appreciate, war can be a very grisly topic when you explore it in detail so, as a general rule of thumb, when getting Remembrance Day Units of Study prepared for Primary students, keeping things on a very general, basic level is the preferred route to go. So, in this context, I began my book talk with my class of Grade 2 students in Bowmanville, Ontario. I pulled out books such as The Butter Battle by Dr. Seuss and proceeded with the book talk as planned.

Now, I would be remiss if I didn’t stop here to tell you that this class of Grade 2 students was one of “those” classes. When a teacher usually talks about their class being one of “those” classes, they often are referring to classes that are not that well-behaved. The old adage is that every teacher will have one of “those” classes before their career is over. I’ve had mine and I survived my trial by fire. But, this class was not one of “those” classes because it was a bad class. In fact, the exact opposite is true. This class was a class that was full of keeners who all got along well together and who were all very eager to learn. They loved sitting on our carpet meeting place and talking about everything under the sun. They particularly enjoyed book talks. So, as I went through all of the primary-level books that I had in my collection, a young girl put up her hand and said, “My mother told me a story once about a little girl who……….I’m not exactly sure if I remember it right but……the girl and her family had to live in a closet or a basement for two years during the War.” Although she couldn’t remember the exact details, I knew at once that she was referring to Anne Frank. So, as she spoke, I debated with myself as to whether or not I really wanted to go where she was leading me. In the end, I did, as I often do. I decided to listen to the students and follow their interests. So, I told the class that the young lady in question was Anne Frank and I told them the broad outline of her story. I had the actual Diary of a Young Girl book in a cupboard (where I kept books that I liked but that I didn’t feel Grade 2s were ready to handle). I took it out and showed it to the class. This sparked a whole new round of questions and, in the end, they asked me if I would leave the Anne Frank book out with the other Remembrance Day books. I said that I would.

And since they liked Anne Frank, I told myself that there was no reason to keep Hana’s Suitcase tucked away either. So, I pulled that out and talked about Hana’s story in basic terms, too. I stressed to the kids that I thought both books were too hard for Grade 2s to read but that if they wanted to look at the books during reading time, I would answer any questions that they had as a result of what they were able to read themselves or see in the pictures. I concluded the book talk and life went on in our room as it normally did.

Two days later, a young girl in my class named Kaicey, came up to me during our Language time with Hana’s Suitcase in her hand. She asked me if I would help her read the book because she was interested in finding out what happened to Hana. Now, at that moment, I had 26 other students engaged in a variety of reading, writing and spelling tasks. There was a lot of activity going on and, to be truthful, after having told the class that I thought this book was too difficult for Grade 2s to read, I really didn’t want to sit down and slog our way through this 102-page book about the Holocaust. But, Kaicey continued to stand there. ”Will you help me read this book, Mr. MacInnes. Will you help me, pleaseeee!” I truly didn’t want to go down that road but that tiny voice inside my head reminded me that I was a teacher and that helping kids learn to read is my job and that I should just get over myself and help this child who has had her interest sparked by a book. Soooo, I took a deep breath, sighed a little and told Kaicey that I would help her read the book. But, she needed to know that we would not be able to finish it in one day because it was over 100 pages long and that it wasn’t a happy story, either, that I expected her to do most of the reading, that I would only help her with the big words and be there to answer her questions about what she was reading. She looked at me and smiled and said that we had a deal. So, in the middle of a bustling Grade 2 classroom, Kaicey and I sat down on the carpet, with our backs against a wall of cupboards and we began to read Hana’s Suitcase.

That first day, she read three and a half pages. We talked about what she had read so far and what she thought was going to happen to the, then, carefree Hana Brady. She answered. I, then, asked her if she felt like this was a book that she wanted to continue to read. I half expected her to say that the book was too tough, thank me for my time and tell me that she would move on to something else. But, she said that she liked the book so far and was excited to read it again tomorrow. In my mind, I was still not convinced that she would still be as interested the next day but, come the next day, Kaicey was right there with the book in her hand, ready to continue to learn about a little girl named Hana Brady. So, in that fashion, reading 3-5 pages at a time, we started getting deeper into the book and I began to enjoy my time spent reading and talking about Hana with her. She read almost all of the words by herself, with me filling in with only words such as the names of the towns and cities, for example.

Well, we were about 20 pages in, when Remembrance Day came and went. Kaicey knew that my routine was to put the “theme” books back in their bin or basket once our Unit of Study was over and get new books out for the next Unit. So, she came to me of her own initiative and said that she knew Remembrance Day was over and that the Remembrance Day books were going to be put away but, would it be ok if we continued to read Hana’s Suitcase. I told her that, of course it would be ok and that, perhaps, she would like to keep the book in her desk until we were through. She liked that idea.

So, over the next few weeks, reading a few pages here and a few pages there, amid the learning commotion in my classroom, we managed to reach the end of the book. Normally, under such circumstances, an event like this would be cause for celebration. It isn’t everyday that a grade 2 student can read a tough book like that, mostly on her own. But, as we discovered what happened to Hana and her family and to Fumiko and her students, neither of us felt like celebrating at all. In fact, we both felt somewhat sad that our experience had come to an end. While not as intense a bond as a father-daughter bond, we had shared a unique experience none-the-less and it brought us closer together in a way that normally doesn’t happen with a teacher and a student in the course of our academic affairs. So I said to her that, if she wanted, she could keep my copy of Hana’s Suitcase so that she could always remember Hana and remember our time together reading about her and learning about the Holocaust. I expected her to take the book. But instead, she gave me the book back and said that it was such a good story that she wanted to make sure that I would share it with other children in my other classes to come. So, reluctantly, I took the book back.

The story would have ended there if not for some fortuitous timing. Two weeks later, I attended the Ontario Library Association Annual Conference in Toronto. One of the workshops at this conference involved award winning children’s authors discussing their work and, as luck would have it, one of the authors was Karen Levine! I sat in the workshop, spellbound, as she regaled the audience with tales of how she came to be involved in this book project and how she felt as it came to its’ gorgeous conclusion. At the end of the presentation, the authors took questions from the audience. Someone asked Karen what the most satisfying consequence of writing the book was for her. Without missing a beat, she replied that she enjoyed the letters that she received; especially from young students who found Hana to be inspiring and her story to be important.

Now, I do have a brain and it normally functions well. But, the thought of writing to Karen Levine and telling her of my experience in the classroom with Kaicey and her book had never occurred to me until that very moment. So, my next immediate thought was that if Kaicey would’t accept my own copy of Hana’s Suitcase, perhaps she would accept a new copy if I got the actual author to autograph it for her. So I rushed out to the nearest bookstore and bought a brand new copy. However, Karen Levine had left by the time I got back to the conference hall. So immediately, I contacted her publishing company and explained what I wanted to do. Luckily, they were very understanding and were only too happy to help. I sent them the book and they said they would contact Karen Levine on my behalf and have her autograph the book.

About a month and a half later, a parcel arrived at school. It was the book. Karen Levine had, indeed, autographed the book but had gone one step better and wrote Kaicey a personalized note. The note read: ”Thank you for taking such an interest in someone that I have come to view as very special. Reading such a book at your age makes you very special, too. Keep up your interest in reading. Yours truly, Karen Levine.

I contacted Kaicey’s mother and told her what I had done and that I wanted to give Kaicey the book as soon as possible and would she, Kaicey’s mother, like to be there. She was very pleased that I had done what I did. I gave Kaicey the book after school a few days later. Mom smiled. I smiled. Kaicey smiled and accepted the autographed book.

That experience happened many years ago, prior to the advent of social media. At the time, having message boards and chat rooms on my school network was as close to experiencing the interactivity that has come to characterize our use of social media nowadays. At that time, the following Fall, a teacher from another school posted a question asking for good book recommendations for our upcoming Remembrance Day. A good book recommendation!? Did I ever have one for her. So, I posted a letter describing the experience that Kaicey and I had with Hana’s Suitcase. I had never written anything for an audience before so I was unprepared for the avalanche of overwhelmingly positive feedback that poured in from all over the school board. One teacher even asked for permission to print our story off and give it to her mother who collected “Teacher stories”. I had never thought of writing about my experiences as a teacher before but, all of this feedback gave me food for thought.

So, I started my own blog and the first story I wrote was the one you are reading. Back in those days, I had only just joined Facebook and Twitter and was just learning how to link my blog posts up to social media and share them with the world. Before I did this though, I wondered about contacting Kaicey (and/or her family) and letting her know what I was hoping to do. Several years had passed by this point and I was able to find both Kaicey and her mother on Facebook. They were both delighted that this experience had meant as much to me as it did them and that I wanted others to know about it, too. They were enthusiastic in granting permission for me to go forward.

So, I linked my blog post up to Facebook and waited for another avalanche of glowing feedback. I waited. I waited some more. Eventually, a few friends chimed in and said it was a good story and thanks for sharing. But, that was it. I have to admit to being somewhat disappointed. So, I decided to give Twitter a try.

I was new to tweeting and using hash tags. So, I simply posted that I wanted people to know about an amazing experience I had had in class with a great book and an eager student. I hash-tagged it #teacherstories, #HanasSuitcase and sent it out into the world.

A day or two later, I received a reply………from Fumiko, herself! The same Fumiko who was profiled in the book. The same Fumiko who had discovered who Hana really was and who helped her family reclaim her suitcase. That same Fumiko had read my post and reached out to thank me for sharing the story of my experience with Kaicey and for helping to introduce Hana Brady to the world. Needless to say, I was star struck. Immediately, I contacted Kaicey via Facebook.

I told Kaicey what had happened. She was excited, too. Then she floored me by telling me that she still had ever single part of the package Karen Levine had sent. She had the book, the personalized letter, the book mark and, even, the original shipping envelop, too. Then she sent me the photo you can see to the left. Always Remember, Karen Levine had written and Kaicey said she remembered everything we experienced and shared and that she always would.

Thanks to sites such as Facebook, I have been able to maintain contact with Kaicey and her Mom. In fact, when I recently had my birthday in January, she was one of the first to send along birthday wishes “to my favourite teacher EVER!!!!!!!!!” A day or two later, her mother emailed me to say that her daughter’s birthday wish wasn’t mere flattery and that she still regards our experience reading Hana’s Suitcase as being her favourite moment in her whole school career.

Even though this experience happened many years ago now, it still touches my heart every time I think about it. Having opportunities to make an actual difference in the lives of our students is why teachers teach. It is my single-most favourite and treasured memory of a 30 year teaching career. Good books are important. A good book called Hana’s Suitcase helped to give me and a young Grade 2 student named Kaicey, a memory that we will cherish forever. Do you have a special memory of reading with a teacher or adult that you cherish? If so, do share. I’d love to hear your stories, too

My First Tuesday: Welcome To My Blog.


The new school year started today for my wife and my two daughters. For me, today is the day my retirement officially started. A new start for them, a new world for me.

For the past few years, my school day would begin by taking my daughters to school and waiting there until the bell rang and they were safely inside. Then, as the other Moms and Dads would make their coffee clutch plans, I would head to my car and drive to school to prepare for my own day.  How I begrudged those other parents their freedom.  It was never the fact that I didn’t want to be with my own students or that I preferred coffee that much. It was the fact that I didn’t have the freedom to control my fate. I had to go to work. No choice. I had to go.

No longer.

Today, I saw my youngest safely inside her school and I……….and I……….well, I went for coffee!!!!!   I did.  I got into my car and drove downtown and met two friends, also retired teachers, and we had coffee together on a sidewalk patio. The sun shone down upon our skin. We waved to friendly passersby. We chatted about weighty matters and feather-light ones, too.  But, best of all, there was a school bell there that I was asked to ring. Not a tentative, self-conscience tinkle of a ring but, instead, a full-throttled, lusty declarative ring of freedom for all to hear. So, I rang that bell, loud and long and clear. Every time someone looked our way in puzzlement, my friends would point to me and announce, “It’s his first Tuesday!”, as if that explained everything.

But, it is my first Tuesday in this new life of mine. School traditionally starts on the first Tuesday after Labour Day in Canada. For the first time in 49 years, I was not in school on the first Tuesday. On this day, I was free.  Freedom is intoxicating and I admit to feeling slightly off balance by it all but, in a good way.  The best way I can describe it all is to point to those near-death experiences you read about. You know, the ones with the bright light that you are drawn toward and the loved ones awaiting you on the other side. Today, I got to experience the bright light that is the freedom to chart my own course. I am thankful to my two friends, Pat and Tracy, for being there to help me transition to the other side, as it were.

This is my first post on my new blog. Thank you for reading. I hope to see many of you following along as I embark on my journey with words.  Thanks for being part of my first Tuesday.  It is awesome to be here……on the other side!!!

Good company in a journey makes the way seem shorter. — Izaak Walton

The Little Swallow aka Shchedryk aka Carol of the Bells: The Story Behind Our Classic Christmas Carols

Mykola Leontovych, the original composer of “Shchedryk”

In 1916, Ukrainian composer Mykola Leontovych arranged the music to go with a traditional shchedrivka (or New Year’s song) called “Shchedryk.” Shchedrivka are a class of songs in Ukrainian in the same way that carols are a class of songs in English. When Leontovych arranged his music for “Shchedryk”, he helped to create a song about a swallow that flew into the windows of those who toiled in the fields as a sign that their harvest would be bountiful in the coming year. In Ukraine, traditional songs to welcome in the New Year and to wish everyone health, happiness and success are as integral a part of that country’s culture as Christmas carols are in English speaking countries. “Shchedryk” was very well received when it was released due in large part to the repetitive nature of the lyrical structure. In time, the song became so successful that various choral groups and even whole orchestras began traveling the globe, performing all manner of shchedrivka for adoring western audiences but the most popular song was always “Shchedryk”.

In English, “Shchedryk” translates as “The Little Swallow”. That was what it was known as until 1937, when a man named Peter J. Wilhousky took in a performance at Carnegie Hall by the Ukrainian National Chorus. Wilhousky was able to write out a copy of the musical arrangement of “Shchedryk”. With that in hand, Wilhousky created new lyrics and then applied for a copyright on a new song that he called “Carol of the Bells”. As many of you know, “Carol of the Bells” has gone on to become one of the most beloved carols performed during the Holiday season. As was the case with “Shchedryk”, “Carol of the Bells” benefits from a repetitive lyrical structure that boasts lines such as

Merry, merry, merry, merry Christmas

Merry, merry, merry, merry Christmas.

The Cellist of Sarajevo, Vedran Smailovic

One of the great things about music, in general, is that it often has the power to stir souls and to comfort troubled minds. There are many instances throughout history of people finding themselves on the wrong end of bloody battles and sieges but who managed to maintain their morale because of music. One such instance that readily springs to mind was after the death of Yugoslavian President Josip Broz Tito. His iron-fisted rule helped keep several warring regional factions at bay during his lifetime, but, upon his death, a leadership vacuum took hold. Those regional forces were unleashed and many major battles took place all over the Yugoslavian region. One of the most cruel and deadly was the Serbian siege of the city of Sarajevo. Just a few years earlier, Sarajevo had hosted the world at the Winter Olympic Games. Now, it found itself surrounded by Serbian siege guns, as well as highly trained snipers. Consequently, Sarajevo was heavily damaged by shelling. Many of those people who were trapped there ended up being killed by sniper fire as they attempted to buy bread in the marketplace or to simply cross the street in daylight hours. The Siege of Sarajevo went on for days and weeks. Not long after it began, a man began to appear at the ruins of the local church. He was armed but not with a gun. Instead, he brought a cello with him. Each evening he would play a composition called Adagio in G Major. This composition is approximately 22 minutes long which matches the total number of civilians killed by sniper fire on the deadliest days of the siege. The Cellist of Sarajevo’s music rang out in the night sky and gave hope to those trapped in the city that there was still hope…that they were still alive! The story of the Cellist of Sarajevo was part of the inspiration by the members of a heavy metal band called Savatage to create a rock opera-esque style Christmas song. The song was given the weighty title of “Christmas Eve/Sarajevo 12/24”. This song borrows heavily from Wilhousky’s “Carol of the Bells” to such an extent that many people think that “Christmas Eve/Sarajevo 12/24” is “Carol of the Bells”. Whenever Savatage put on a performance of this song, they changed the name of the band to Trans Siberian Orchestra.

One other instance of music rallying a people under siege concerns the modern day citizens of Ukraine. As I type these words, Ukraine has been under attack from Russia for almost a full calendar year. There has been much destruction of property and many innocent lives have been lost. But one of the things that has helped Ukraine to withstand the Russian onslaught to date has been the charismatic leadership and communication style of the country’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky. He understood from the very beginning that maintaining the morale of his countrymen was one of the keys to possibly surviving or even winning this war. So, President Zelensky spoke to the nation often, especially in the very early days of the conflict. His defiant speeches and firm personal resolve steadied the citizens of Ukraine. But, not only that, he encouraged as many musicians and artists and actors and poets as possible to continue to create new works and to celebrate Ukrainian classic works, too. So, not only have there been concerts and new plays performed in Ukraine all throughout the war, but Ukrainian choirs and orchestras have been able to travel the world. Just like when the Cellist of Sarajevo played each night in the ruins of that church, those singers who perform for western audiences do more than simply sing; they announce to the world through song that Ukraine is strong and that it will survive. One of the most popular songs that these traveling Ukrainian choirs and orchestras perform is “Shchedryk”. In the link section below, you will be able to hear these choirs singing in their native language in places like Grand Central Station in New York City. The performances are mesmerizing.

“Shchedryk” aka “The Little Swallow” aka “Carol of the Bells” aka “Christmas Eve/Sarajevo 12/24”: all versions of the same song of hopefulness, friendship, courage and love. Let the bells ring out! When there is music, there is life!

The link to the video for the song “Shchedryk” can be found here.

The link to the video for the carol “Carol of the Bells” can be found here. ***The lyrics version is here.

The link to the video for a story about the Cellist of Sarajevo can be found here. ***The link for the composition “Adagio in G Minor” can be found here.

The link to the video for the song “Christmas Eve/Sarajevo 12/24” can be found here.

The link to the video for a performance of the song “Shchedryk” in Grand Central Station in New York City can be found here.

***As always, all original material contained within this post remains the sole property of the author. No portion of this post shall be reblogged, copied or shared without the express written consent of the author. ©2022

Somewhere In My Memory by John Williams from the Original Motion Picture Soundtrack to the Film, Home Alone…Song #25/250: The Stars of Stage and Screen

Last night, my lovely wife announced that she was tired of her work-related stress and that to combat it, she was going to give herself a strong dose of Hallmark Christmas movies medicine. So, about two-thirds of the way through the evening, she disappeared downstairs to our den in the basement and began to take her tonic. A while later, as we lay in bed, I turned to her and asked what movie she had watched. After thinking for a while, she admitted that she couldn’t actually remember the title, because, “They’re really all the same”. Well, today’s post concerns a movie that is definitely not like the others. Today, we put our hands to our faces, let our eyes grow wide as we realize the focus of today’s post is none other than that holiday classic, Home Alone.

Home Alone was released in 1990. It starred a young actor named Macaulay Culkin, who was only ten years old at the time. Culkin’s shocked facial expression at the realization that his family had left for vacation without him has gone on to become one of the most iconic Christmas entertainment images of the last thirty years. Home Alone has grossed almost half a billion dollars in sales since its release, making it the second biggest-selling Holiday movie of all time (just slightly behind Jim Carrey’s rendition of How The Grinch Stole Christmas). In addition to the movie being a box office hit, both Macaulay Culkin and composer John Williams ended up with Academy Award nominations…Culkin for Best Actor and Williams for Best Original Song for Somewhere In My Memory. It is funny how, at times, the inspiration for the most successful movies can originate from the simplest of moments. In the case of Home Alone, the idea for it came from Director Christopher Columbus, who, when packing for a trip with his own family, offhandedly remarked to his wife that they had better remember to pack the kids as well as whatever else they were packing. Apparently, as soon as Columbus had uttered those words, his mind started thinking about the possibilities of what might happen if they had actually forgotten one of their children and had left them behind. By the time the plane that Christopher Columbus was on had landed, he had a complete eight-page outline of the entire movie. Over the course of the next few weeks, he fleshed the story out and was shopping it to movie studios a short while later. Warner Brothers signed on right away, and the process of creating a professional script and hiring the cast took place not long afterwards.

The story of how the movie was made is filled with tidbits of entertainment trivia. For instance, if you have seen the movie, then you know that once Macaulay Culkin’s character, Kevin, realizes that he is home alone and has time to process that information, his mood changes, and he begins to think about all of the things he wants to do that normally he is not allowed to. One such indulgence is being able to eat all of the snacks he wants while watching a violent gangster movie on TV. The movie he starts watching is called Angels With Filthy Mouths. This black and white “movie” was inspired by a real movie called Angels With Dirty Faces starring the great James Cagney. However, the movie that Kevin watches was actually made specifically for the movie by Director Columbus. It is entirely fake. As authentic as the look and the sound of it are, this movie-within-a-movie was shot with different actors while the main movie was being shot with the real cast. It is this kind of attention to detail that helps elevate Home Alone from being “just another kids’ movie” to being recognized as the classic it has become.

Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern…the not-too-clever criminal masterminds from Home Alone.

According to Columbus, there were a variety of logistical hurdles that he had to overcome during the shooting of the film. For starters, Macaulay Culkin was only ten years old when this movie was made. Because of rules enacted to protect child actors, Culkin’s work day could only be so many hours long each day and could never go past ten o’clock at night. Thus, all night time scenes had to be shot within a very small window of time each day. Furthermore, because he could only shoot for so many hours per day, you will notice that there are many scenes in the movie in which Culkin, as lead character, does not appear at all. His absence was due to time limitation rules in place for him, which forced Columbus to fill in the downtime with tightly planned scheduling that made the best use of the other adult actors’ time. When you watch the movie with this information in mind, it is amazing how rarely Macaulay Culkin actually appears on screen with other adults. Think of all of the dramatic scenes in which the burglars are attempting to enter the house where Kevin lives…there are many back-and-forth action scenes, but almost never is MacAulay Culkin in the same room at the same time as Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern, the thieves. All of those action sequences were shot separately: one set of scenes for Pesci and Stern and a completely different one for Culkin. The magic lay with the edits.

Composer John Williams holding one of his five Academy Awards out of the 52 he has been nominated for, including for Home Alone and, specifically, “Somewhere In My Memory”.

In real life, I always maintain that Christmas time isn’t about the presents but is, instead, about family and love. When Christopher Columbus set about finding the right person to create the musical score for his movie, he consulted with fellow director, Steven Spielberg. Having worked a lot with John Williams, Spielberg was quick to nominate his friend for the job. It was a fortuitous choice because Williams instinctively knew from the script that as much as this was an action-comedy movie, it was really a movie about the importance of family. Kevin’s family spends most of the film desperately trying to get back home to find him. Kevin spends most of the movie…while avoiding the bad guys…wishing his family was there with him so he wouldn’t have to deal with so many issues on his own. The emotions that freely flow when the family is finally reunited at the end somehow feel genuine, despite the slapstick nature of the film to that point. John Williams captured that feeling of the importance of being together with one’s family at Christmas time perfectly with a short piece of original music that plays over the opening credits called “Somewhere In My Memory”. The song is a combination of orchestral playing and choral singing. The lyrics are short but poignant and spell out the movie’s theme in a few short lines:

Candles in the window

Shadows painting the ceiling

Gazing at the fire glow

Feeling that gingerbread feeling.

Precious moments, special people

Happy faces, I can see.

Somewhere in my memory

Christmas joys all around me

Living in my memory

All of the music, all of the magic

All of the family, home, here with me.

As mentioned earlier, John Williams received an Academy Award nomination for this song, to go along with his 52(!) other Oscar nominations for his music, making him the second most nominated individual in Academy history after the great man, himself, Walt Disney.

As I write these words to you, I am alone in the house on an overcast day. I am sitting in the warm glow of the Christmas tree lights. There are presents starting to appear under the tree. Everywhere I look around me, I see ornaments and decorations that remind me of the people who gifted them to me and my family. But, most of all, I feel the presence of my family with me in this room. I have always believed that this time of year is for creating a sense of warmth and of magic for the ones you love. So, I have done what I can to create an environment that is welcoming for all who enter, but mostly, I have tried to make a world for the ones I love, so that they feel safe and protected and, most of all, loved to bits. I will know if I have succeeded by the memories that my girls take with them to adulthood. Once they have their own homes and families, I hope that they will look back upon their childhoods and remember, with warm affection, how Christmas felt in our home. Christmas is a feeling, as much as it is an event. And that feeling is about family and love.

The link to the video for the song “Somewhere In My Memory” by John Williams from the Original Motion Picture Soundtrack to the film Home Alone can be found here. ***The lyrics version is here.

The link to the video for the movie trailer for Home Alone can be found here.

The link to the official website for Macaulay Culkin can be found here.

***As always, all original content contained within this blog post remains the sole property of the author. No portion of this post shall be reblogged, copied or shared in any manner without the express written consent of the author. ©2022

Christmas Time by Bryan Adams…Song #25/250: The Great Canadian Road Trip

For a while in the 1980s, Bryan Adams was one of the biggest musical stars in the entire world. Selling close to 100 million records, having albums that had gone platinum multiple times, hitting #1 on the charts with regularity, winning 20 Juno Awards and even enjoying a couple of Academy Award nominations, Bryan Adams was every bit as big a star on the world stage as Madonna, Garth Brooks and Prince. He was also a member of one of the great singer/songwriter teams in modern music history with his friend and business partner, Jim Vallance. His song “Christmas Time” is the biggest-selling Christmas song of all time in Canada. And true to his musical roots, it all began with his first six-string that he, indeed, bought at a five-and-dime. Here is the story of Bryan Adams, Canada’s biggest male rock star ever!

Bryan Adams circa 1985.

Bryan Adams was born in 1959 in Kingston, Ontario. His father was a military officer. Because of his dad’s occupation, Adams grew up in a very transient fashion, moving from one military post to another as his father got re-assigned throughout the course of his life. As he entered his pre-teen years, Bryan Adams found himself in Ottawa where he attended Colonel By Secondary School. *(I have friends with children who go there as I type these words. So, gooooooo Colonel By!) Anyway, it was in a five-and-dime store in Ottawa at age 12 that Bryan Adams famously bought his first six-string guitar. It was an imitation Les Paul-designed guitar modeled after the ones used by rockers such as Peter Frampton and Richie Blackmore. As a young Bryan Adams practiced his licks, he immersed himself into the world of classic rock’s guitar-driven music and began charting a life course for himself that would see him eventually move to Vancouver with his family, drop out of school and use his post-secondary savings to buy a baby grand piano and launched his own band called Shock.

Success in the music industry didn’t come easily to Adams. Like many young aspiring musicians, Bryan Adams spent his late teenage years working odd jobs to supplement the meager income he was making from $50/night gigs in local bars. For most of his teens, he played in backing roles for local bands such as Sweeney Todd. He also started trying his hand at songwriting. He sold a few of his songs to other artists but not many. Like most musicians with a dream, Bryan Adams spent his first few years scuffling around, barely getting by but loving every minute of actually playing rock n’ roll for an audience. As his teens were ending, Adams got his first of many big breaks in his career when he bumped into another young man in a music store called Long and McQuade’s. That man’s name was Jim Vallance. Neither knew it at the time, but they were destined to become fast friends and lifelong music partners in an alliance that would end up going down as one of the most prolific and successful of all time.

Bryan Adams and Jim Vallance.

At the time of their meeting, Vallance was slightly further ahead in his career path than was Adams. Vallance, working under the pseudonym of Raymond Higgs, was the drummer and main songwriter of a band that was starting to get some attention in national music circles called Prism. After meeting Adams, Vallance dropped out of Prism and together, he and Bryan Adams started writing songs. Over the course of their partnership, Valance and Adams not only co-wrote all or most of Adams’ own chart-topping hits, but they also wrote hit songs for artists such as Heart, Tina Turner, Joe Cocker, Rod Stewart, Bonnie Raitt, Bonnie Tyler and many others. But, ironically enough, the first song the duo ever wrote that ended up being formally released by a record label was a rock tune called “Let Me Take You Dancing” that the label actually turned into a disco song in order to cash in on that particular musical craze in 1978. Because Bryan Adams was a young unproven commodity in those days, he had little say in what the record label did with his music. Consequently, his first two albums achieved little to no success. However, his third album was a different story.

In 1983, just as MTV and Much Music were becoming established platforms for the release and distribution of new music, Bryan Adams released an album entitled Cuts Like a Knife. With Much Music desperate for Canadian content, the video for the song “Cuts Like a Knife” went into heavy rotation and became Adams’ first big hit. It was certainly my introduction to his music. With his raspy voice and straight-ahead, guitar-driven sound, Bryan Adams went from a musical nobody in Vancouver to one of Canada’s biggest and most recognizable stars almost overnight. Adams followed up his first single with “Straight From The Heart”, and then “This Time”, and away he went to the musical races. Adams’ next album was called Reckless, and it spawned even more hits such as “Run To You”, “Heaven”, “Somebody”, “It’s Only Love” *(which became a huge hit for Tina Turner as well), “One Night Love Affair” and, his signature tune, “Summer of ‘69”. By the time Reckless finished its run on the charts, Bryan Adams was internationally acknowledged as being one of the biggest musical acts in the world. Heady times for someone who was a dishwasher and a stock boy in a dollar store just a few years earlier. His next three consecutive albums, Into the Fire, Waking Up The Neighbours and 18 ‘Til I Die all went many times platinum, further cementing his reputation as a hit-making rock star. At this point in his career, Bryan Adams could have chosen to do almost anything that he wanted to, so it was with some surprise to his fans that what Bryan Adams decided to do next was to write an original Christmas song.

“Christmas Time” was first created by Adams and Vallance in the mid-1980s, around the time that the “Cuts Like A Knife” album was being recorded. The song was intended to be included as a bonus track on that album but, instead, was released on green vinyl as a treat for Bryan Adams fan club members only. However, as often happens, word of mouth reaction was very positive, and soon fans were calling into their local radio stations asking for “Christmas Time” to be played along with the other holiday classics of the time. Radio programmers, in turn, created a demand for the song with Adams’ record label, who, in turn, pressed more copies into circulation. A positive cycle of demand and supply ensued, and before anyone knew it, Adams had a holiday hit on his hands without actually ever intending for that to happen. One of the more ironic aspects of it all is that the song “Christmas Time” is not actually a song about Christmas at all. Instead, Adams and Vallance wanted to write a song about the sense of optimism, joyfulness and inclusion that seems to exist during the Holidays and to ask the question as to why this feeling couldn’t exist throughout the rest of the year. If it did, wouldn’t our world be such a better place for all of us? So in reality, “Christmas Time” is a song about being our best selves every day, all throughout the year and not just on special occasions. There is a universal appeal to such a message, and, as a result, “Christmas Time” by Bryan Adams has become the most popular and biggest selling Christmas-themed song in Canadian history. It is not quite in the same stratosphere as Mariah Carey’s “All I Want For Christmas Is You”, but just the same, the song has sold millions of copies and is now recognized as being worthy of inclusion in today’s rotation of recognizable holiday standards that are played everywhere you go as December unfolds in the western world. In many ways, the success of “Christmas Time” is symbolic of the success that Bryan Adams has achieved as an individual artist, which is that he is respected as being one of the best and most successful rockers in history…not quite on the same level as an Elvis or The Beatles, but respected and acclaimed, nonetheless.

As his career has progressed, Byran Adams has branched out and has begun to indulge in passions for other things in life, which include photography and philanthropy. Adams is an award-winning photographer, whose work hangs in some of the most exclusive homes and galleries in the world. With the rest of his time, he devotes a lot of energy and resources toward funding causes that help improve the lives of others. In fact, one of the sole criteria that Bryan Adams insists all applicants prove when applying for one of his grants is how their project will positively impact others. To date, the almost completely self-funded Bryan Adams Foundation has awarded grants, totalling into the millions of dollars in Canada and around the world. Not too shabby for a military brat who bought his own six string at a five-and-dime in Ottawa at age twelve.

The link to the video for the song “Christmas Time” by Bryan Adams can be found here. ***There is no lyrics version.

The link to the official website for Bryan Adams can be found here. ***This includes access to his photography and his music.

The link to the official website for the Bryan Adams Foundation can be found here.

Since Adams bought his first real six string in Ottawa, let’s make that our pit stop on the Great Canadian Road Trip. The official website for the city of Ottawa, Ontario can be found here.

***As always, all original work contained within this blog post remains the sole property of the author. No portion of this post shall be reblogged, copied or shared in any manner without the express written consent of the author. ©2022

The Four Seasons: Winter by Antonio Vivaldi…Composition #23/50: Keepin’ It Classy

As I type these words, the weather around my Cobourg, Ontario home has grown colder. The winds are whistling through the trees that surround my house. The sky has turned a shade of dull grey. Snow is scheduled in the forecast and should it fall, it will dance with the wind, eventually falling in horizontal sheets that will paint the world outside of my window completely white. Winter time is coming to the part of Canada where I live, just as it does every year at this time since I was born. As Canadians, we know it is coming because our world changes its look, its sounds and how the air feels upon our skin (which, increasingly, we cover up in layer upon layer of protective gear). I can use my words to describe these changes as best I can. I could even take photographs that would provide visual evidence for you. But, how could I convey the change in the seasons with a violin? It would almost be impossible for me to do so without raising a caterwauling ruckus that nobody needs to hear. However, for composer Antonio Vivaldi, the impossible became real. Over three hundred years ago, this violin prodigy created a series of concertos for violin in which he performed a magician’s feat by creating living, breathing worlds out of nothing but the notes from his violin. These concertos have become famously known as Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. In these four seasonal-themed concertos, Vivaldi used his mastery of the violin to create the sound of babbling brooks in spring time, barking dogs in the summer, chirping birds in autumn and the teeth-chattering cold of a winter’s blizzard. No one before Vivaldi had used a musical instrument to speak so directly as a storyteller would or to create whole worlds that audiences could feel and see, simply from musical notes being played well. He was a man ahead of his time. This is his story, which I will tell with a focus on Winter.

There are many parallels between the life story of Antonio Vivaldi and that of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. As children, both showed signs of musical giftedness (Vivaldi on the violin and Mozart on the piano). Both were raised by fathers who were musicians. As a consequence of this, both boys were made to spend their childhood touring the country with their father, putting on concerts and exhibitions wherever they went. As young adults, both Mozart and Vivaldi found themselves viewed as outsiders by the inner circles of the various Royal Courts in which they sought to gain entrance. Both Vivaldi and Mozart exhibited a sense of creativity, originality and a willingness to experiment that made other, more structured composers nervous and wary. In the end, both composers died in poverty, buried in pauper’s graves, their genius only acknowledged centuries after their deaths. But, make no mistake, Antonio Vivaldi and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, along with the likes of Ludwig Van Beethoven, changed the way that classical music could be played, raising it up from the mundane to the spectacular. That they were all viewed as being showy in their day does nothing to diminish the enormous impact that each composer had on his craft.

Antonio Vivaldi…a red haired musical genius in a powdery white wig.

Antonio Vivaldi grew up under the care of his father, who was a shoemaker turned musician. Vivaldi’s father was also a strict disciplinarian. As a result, young Antonio lived a rather sheltered life of practice and performance, practice and performance, day after day, village after village. In addition to his music, Vivaldi was immersed in the world of religion and theology, so much so that he was directed by his father to prepare for a life of service in a seminary or some such place when adulthood beckoned. So it was that a teenaged Antonio Vivaldi was sent to work in an orphanage in Venice, Italy called Ospedale della Pieta or the Devout Hospital of Mercy. By this time, Vivaldi had been ordained for the priesthood and became known as il Prete Rosso, or the Red Priest, due to the flaming red colour of his hair. The Ospedale della Pieta was an orphanage that was geared toward rescuing street kids and providing for them a safe place to grow up and to learn a vocation. For the boys at the orphanage, they would be cared for until the age of fifteen and then sent out to apprentice with craftsmen in the real world. When a girl at the orphanage turned age fifteen, she would be made to focus on attaining a thorough education in the Arts. It became the responsibility of Antonio Vivaldi, the Red Priest, to see to this instruction. Consequently, many of Vivaldi’s earliest works were choral compositions for the female voice. During his time at the orphanage, Antonio Vivaldi composed over two hundred concertos. However, despite the high quality of the instruction he provided, he was only contracted to the orphanage on a year-by-year basis. This meant that, at the end of each school term, Vivaldi would have the renewal of his contract debated by a Board of Governors who often cared more about the financial state of the orphanage than they did about the importance of The Arts. For many years, Vivaldi was forced to argue his worth before the Board who, in turn, would renew his contract with the barest of majority votes. One term, the tide finally turned and the renewal of his contract was voted down for financial reasons, and just like that, the esteemed composer was cast out into the street by an institution whose mission was to rescue others from those very same streets.

Even if you can’t read sheet music, a quick visual glance will tell you how tightly packed together the notes are. This gives visual representation to the intensity of the sounds found in this piece. The notes are as tightly packed as snowflakes in a snowstorm, which was Vivaldi’s whole point.

Like many composers at that time, Vivaldi was completely aware of the patronage system that existed among those in positions of nobility. So, Vivaldi spent the next few decades of his life in the employ of one Royal Court or another. It was while in the role of Capellmeister, or Chapel Master, in the Royal Court at Mantua that Vivaldi created the series of concertos that became known as the Four Seasons. While the genius inherent in these compositions wasn’t recognized during his lifetime, later examination by music scholars declared that his Four Seasons concertos should be viewed as one of the most fundamentally important and innovative moments in all of classical music. In the 1600s, classical music was mainly used to entertain the upper class and/or to glorify the role of God in the lives of His subjects on earth. Rarely were classical compositions used as vehicles to tell stories about everyday life. So, when Antonio Vivaldi created his four concertos (one to represent each of the four seasons) he constructed his music in such a way that the sounds emanating from his violin (and those of the other violins present) sounded like sounds that one would associate with each season. It was as if the audience members were being transported into a fully-realized aural reproduction of their world as it would have existed during the spring, summer, autumn or winter time. In addition to this, Vivaldi created a completely realized set of sonnets to accompany each performance. In doing so, he ushered in the practice of providing audiences with a libretto, or a book that explained the emotions and actions that were being conveyed by the composer through his music. Centuries later, as Vivaldi’s career was being re-examined by music scholars, they all pointed to his Four Seasons as being the birth of a form of classical music known as programme music. Programme music is a form of music expression that is quite common today. It involves using musical compositions as storytelling vehicles, complete with a handbook for the audience to follow along with so as to better understand what they are experiencing.

Despite the importance to classical music of the Four Seasons, and despite the innovative way in which Vivaldi used musical notes to create multi-dimensional worlds for his audiences, his genius was unappreciated during his lifetime. In fact, after the death of one of his royal benefactors, Vivaldi found himself out on the street for the second time in his life. However, at this stage of his life, he was a much older man. His health was in decline and he was viewed as being out of step with “modern” advances in music. As such, he was forced to sell most of his now-priceless manuscripts for pennies just to survive. Eventually, Antonio Vivaldi passed away in relative obscurity. He was buried in a pauper’s grave. His funeral service was perfunctory. At the time, his absence was not grieved or considered noteworthy.

But, as with many such individuals who were far ahead of their time, it has only been recently that his career has been re-evaluated and that he has been given his due as one of the most creative and influential composers in history. In fact, his personal renaissance happened by fluke when several hundred of his manuscripts were discovered in a German monastery after WWII. As you may know, after the War, teams of researchers from the allied countries descended upon Germany in the hope of finding looted treasure that the Nazis had stolen. These researchers became known as The Monuments Men. Whenever they came across stolen goods, their job was to catalogue the findings and create a database through which as many of these objects as possible could be returned to their rightful owners (if the owners were still alive) or to their families/heirs. In one mountaintop monastery, these researchers came across boxes of manuscripts that were all original copies of compositions written in Antonio Vivaldi’s own hand. It had previously been thought that these compositions had been lost forever when he sold them off in exchange for food and lodging in his dying days. But the truth is that original Vivaldi-penned manuscripts continue to turn up, here and there around the world, to this very day.

Jenna Ortega and her cello from the Netflix show, Wednesday. She plays Vivaldi’s, Winter in Episode #3.

I will close with a modern day twist to this story that I only discovered when I went searching for videos to attach to this post. When I conduct my research into the stories behind any of the songs or compositions that I write about, I have a selection of websites that I usually turn to in order to find the facts I need to tell a story properly. One of the final checks that I do for information comes from the comments section of the videos I often use. More than once, I have read through the first dozen or so comments only to discover some useful bit of information that helped me add a layer of detail to my post on behalf of the artist in question that day. Well, as I was choosing a video that showed a live performance of Vivaldi’s Winter concerto, I noticed that many of the comments were written only days ago. That there should be so many fresh comments on a video for a classical music performance was unusual. Upon further investigation, I learned that Vivaldi’s Winter concerto, specifically, had just been showcased in a new television show appearing on Netflix called Wednesday. There has been a trend recently whereby television shows for teens have been created that are built around supernatural themes. The producers of these shows are using their access to a new generation of younger viewers to introduce them to influential pieces of music from the near or distant past. The best example of this was this past summer when the song “Running Up That Hill” by English singer extraordinaire, Kate Bush, was highlighted in a suspenseful scene from the series, Stranger Things.*(You can watch that scene here). The success of the Kate Bush song, which was forty years old, being elevated all the way back to the top of the charts has inspired other producers to try the same thing. Thus, in Episode #3 of the Tim Burton-directed series, Wednesday, which features the daughter made famous by the original series, The Addams Family, decades ago, actor Jenna Ortega uses a cello to play Antonio Vivaldi’s epic Winter concerto, while a statue in a public square bursts into flames behind her and audience members run for their lives. I will include a clip of this performance below. You don’t have to have watched the series to appreciate how the music is being used. Vivaldi’s Winter was composed to recreate the sensation of fighting against a coming winter storm of blizzard-like proportions. Ortega’s performance from the TV show definitely conveys the impression that a storm, of sorts, is coming soon.

While Vivaldi originally wrote his Winter concerto for violin, I have watched several performances of it where the lead instrument being used is a cello instead of a violin, and I have to say that I prefer the cello in the lead role. The richer, deeper sound that it produces adds a layer of menace and foreboding that seems to perfectly suit Vivaldi’s attempt to create a blizzard out of musical notes. I would go one step further and say that the cello-led performances of Winter are the most rock n’ roll-like classical compositions I have ever heard. So, I will end by saying that, not only was Antonio Vivaldi a composer who was ahead of his time when it came to the genius of his creativity, but, in fact, as composers go, he was the original rock star! Bundle up, my friends. Winter is coming.

The link to the video for the composition The Four Seasons: Winter by Antonio Vivaldi as played on violin can be found here. ***This video provides Vivaldi’s sonnet for Winter in lyric form at the bottom of the screen.

The link to the video for the composition The Four Seasons: Winter by Antonio Vivaldi as played on a cello can be found here.

The link to the video for the composition The Four Seasons: Winter as used in the television programme Wednesday can be found here. ***Because of this video, thousands of teens are finding out who Antonio Vivaldi was and are discovering the beauty of classical music.

The link to the official website for Antonio Vivaldi can be found here.

The link to my favourite classical music station…Classical 103.1…broadcasting from my hometown of Cobourg, Ontario can be found here.

***As always, all original content contained within this post remains the sole property of the author. No portion of this blog post shall be reblogged, copied or shared in any manner without the express written consent of the author. ©2022

Songbird by Fleetwood Mac…Song #19/250: Reader’s Choice Tribute

Christine McVie

As many of you might know, singer/songwriter/musician Christine McVie passed away this week. McVie was best known for her role in one of the world’s most successful rock bands of all time, Fleetwood Mac. In that band, Christine McVie was the keyboardist and co-lead singer along with Stevie Nicks. She was also the songwriter behind many of the band’s biggest hits, such as “Don’t Stop”, “You Make Loving Fun” *(which was written about an affair she was having with the band’s lighting director at the time of the Rumours tour), “Little Lies”, “Songbird” and many others. As a member of Fleetwood Mac, McVie has won several Grammy Awards; she has been inducted into the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame and was presented with the Ivor Novello Lifetime Achievement Award for her songwriting.

From an early age, Christine McVie was drawn to The Arts. Her mother was a medium who told fortunes and conducted astrology sessions for money. Her grandfather was an organist at Westminster Abbey. McVie played piano and received training in its classical form. As a child, she attended the Moseley School of Art in Birmingham to study sculpture, with the thought that she would become an art teacher. While still a young teen, McVie was introduced to the music of Fats Domino by her older brother, John. This was McVie’s introduction to The Blues, which became a form of music that was integrated into everything she wrote and/or played throughout her career to come. While at the Moseley School, McVie joined several local bands, including one fronted by her friend, Spencer Davis. With Davis, she gained experience at singing in front of an audience, but more importantly, he encouraged her to write and perform her own songs. Once this seed was planted, Christine McVie grew into a young woman who possessed confidence in her own abilities and who believed that her material had every bit as much right to be heard as anything by the young men she surrounded herself with.

Christine McVie prior to joining Fleetwood Mac.

Upon graduating, she moved to London and worked for a while as a window dresser, alongside fellow Moseley School alumnus Colin Birch, who was designer Karl Lagerfeld’s official window dresser. While in London, she joined a new band called Chicken Shack. This band had a few minor hits in the UK. As part of a burgeoning Blues/Rock scene at the time, Chicken Shack toured with another up and coming band called Fleetwood Mac. At the time, Fleetwood Mac was fronted by Mick Fleetwood and John McVie, along with several others. Eventually, Christine McVie (known as Christine Perfect back then) met and fell in love with John McVie. When Fleetwood Mac’s keyboardist quit the band, she was asked to join as back up singer and keyboard player. She agreed, partly because she liked being a musician and playing live, but more because it gave her the best opportunity to spend time with John McVie. Eventually, the band moved from London to Los Angeles. Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham were recruited to join the band, and Fleetwood Mac became the band that we all came to know and love.

Fleetwood Mac during the recording of the Rumours album. From the left: Lindsey Buckingham, Christine McVie, Mick Fleetwood, Stevie Nicks and John McVie.

Unbeknownst to most fans at the time, there was a lot of internal friction present all throughout the making of the Rumours album and tour. Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham, who had been a couple, split up in a very acrimonious and public manner. In a more quiet and private way, Christine separated from her husband, John. Yet the band carried on and made some of Rock’s greatest music. Despite all of the bitter feelings that existed between members of the band, they always maintained their professionalism when it came to the music. Even though many of the songs they performed were written about each other, the band as a whole always came together and played the music for all it was worth and gave audiences everything they had. Through it all, Christine McVie was always viewed as a steadying influence. Her understated performing style contrasted well with Stevie Nicks’ flamboyance. Her calm centre contrasted with the volatility inherent within Lindsey Buckingham who, when angered, channeled his emotions through a violent style of guitar playing. Despite all of the ups and downs experienced by Fleetwood Mac, McVie stayed with the band until1998 when she announced her retirement. This life change coincided with the death of her father, whom she dearly loved and admired. In the time since she retired, Christine McVie had played with the band at a few reunion concerts. She also had released a couple of solo albums and had embarked on a tour with former bandmate Lindsey Buckingham as a musical duo. With her recent death, fans, peers and music critics alike have all been reassessing her career and have been kind in their evaluations. It takes a special type of person to possess the strength of character and the personal belief in oneself to willingly accept the role as the “glue” person in any group situation, but that’s who Christine McVie became during her time in Fleetwood Mac. Many have compared her to George Harrison, in that her talent was integral to the success of her band, but more often than not, recognition was given to other, more showy bandmates. Her calm demeanor and rock-solid countenance are being compared favourably to Harrison as well. Whatever the case, Christine McVie lived a long and productive life and has left a legacy of success that puts her in the same class with the best of those who have followed The Arts with their hearts. It is likely that it will take her death for many to realize what we have all lost.

Christine McVie at her piano.

I will close this post with a few words about today’s song, “Songbird”. This song was written by McVie during the recording sessions for the Rumours album in Los Angeles. The song was written near midnight one night when the rest of the band had finished recording and had left the studio. McVie has stated that she wrote the lyrics in less than an hour and wanted to lay down some tracks immediately so as to not lose any aspect of the song by waiting until morning. Unfortunately, the engineers had gone home, too. So Christine McVie stayed awake all night, playing the song over and over again until someone showed up in the morning to help with recording. When the rest of the band heard “Songbird” for the first time the next day, it was immediately decided that it was a song that Christine McVie was meant to sing alone and not with the rest of the band. So, going forward, “Songbird” became the song that often closed Fleetwood Mac concerts. When playing it, Christine McVie would sit at a piano at centre stage. Lindsey Buckingham would sit in the shadows and strum his guitar softly while McVie sat in the spotlight and sang. It was her song and her moment.

Rest in peace, Songbird.

The link to the video for the song “Songbird” by Fleetwood Mac, as sung by Christine McVie, can be found here. ***The lyrics version is here.

The link to the official obituary for Christine McVie can be found here.

The link to the official website for Fleetwood Mac can be found here.

***As always, all original content contained within this blog post remains the sole property of the author. No portion of this post shall be reblogged, copied or shared in any manner without the express written consent of the author. ©2022

Tomorrow’s Top 40: Christmas Edition

In this edition of Tomorrow’s Top 40, I am going to take a look at some of the many new Christmas releases that are flooding the marketplace at the moment. With the tremendous success experienced by Mariah Carey a few decades ago with “All I Want For Christmas Is You”, the market for the next great original Holiday song is wide open. It seems to me that almost everyone who’s anyone has jumped into the Holiday music scene with a new album this season. For me, what sets a Holiday album apart is when an artist or band includes songs that go beyond the usual Christmas suspects heard ad nauseam in shopping malls, on our car radio, in restaurants and so on as November winds down and December gears up. So, with that in mind, here are ten new Holiday releases that are all hoping to be the one to put you in that festive mood. Enjoy.

Happiness (Is Christmas) by Kristin Chenoweth

Kristin Chenoweth is well known from her work on a variety of Broadway musicals such as Wicked. Needless to say, the lady can sing and has charm to boot. This Christmas album is filled with many original tunes that are sung with the dramatic flair of a seasoned professional singer who appears to be having the time of her life. I am not sure that there is a Carey-calibre hit on this album but that is ok. Happiness (Is Christmas) is packed with energy and sounds like a Broadway cast recording which should appeal to many listeners who are seeking something different from the usual Holiday fare like Springsteen’s “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town”. If you are a Kristin Chenoweth fan during the non-Holiday portion of the year, then you’ll be a fan of this album, too. Here is “Happiness (Is Christmas)?Christmas Time Is Here”. ***There is no lyrics video for this song as of yet.

The Season by Steve Perry

That Steve Perry, former lead singer of the 1980s rock band Journey, has one of the best sets of pipes of any male singer around, is a hill that I am willing to die on. So, imagine my delight when I found out that he had re-emerged onto the music scene with a new Christmas album entitled The Season. However, the press release that accompanied this album spoke of Perry’s yearning to sing some “timeless classics” which is a code for singing the usual Christmas fare. There are no new songs written by Mr. Perry on this album. Instead, we have a stripped down, jazzed up, smoking-jacket-by-the-fire style of singing by Perry of Holiday standards such as Springsteen’s “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town”. If you think that an album of Steve Perry channeling his best Michael Bublé is your cup of tea, then you will like this album. I predict that fans of the band Journey will not. Here is “Silver Bells”. ***The lyric video is here.

Happy Holidays by Billy Idol

It was Billy Idol’s 67th birthday yesterday (as I type these words). One of the things that I always liked about Billy Idol is that he never seemed to take himself too seriously on stage. He always seemed to be in on the joke and, as such, he was a great entertainer all throughout his career. This was especially true once the big hits dried up in the 80s and 90s and he became more of a nostalgia act. It takes a certain type of singer to successfully transition from stadium rocker to Vegas-style lounge act, but Billy Idol has managed to make it seem effortless. His hit music always had great sound quality. Part of the reason for this was because of his deep singing voice. The combination of a rich singing voice and his comfort with being a lounge singer means that Billy Idol, unlike Steve Perry above, seems perfectly suited to croon out the “timeless classic” Christmas songs that we all know. Happy Holidays is a great album to listen to, especially if you visualize him curling his upper lip into a sneer with each mention of Santa. Here is “White Christmas”. ***The lyrics video is here. This video makes me laugh.

A Very Backstreet Christmas by The Backstreet Boys

When I think of the boy band craze of the 1980s and 90s, I remember a lot of singing that featured harmonies and a lot of choreographed dancing. Even though I cannot see the members of the Backstreet Boys while listening to this album to know if they are dancing or not, the harmonies certainly remain and shine through. This may sound like an obvious statement to make, but even though these guys are singing “timeless classic” tunes that we all are familiar with, they are doing so in a way that makes this album sound just like any other Backstreet Boys album. This is the very first Christmas album that they have released in the thirty years that they have been singing as a group. But, believe me when I tell you that their style of singing makes each song on this album instantly recognizable as a Backstreet Boys song, even if they are covering a song like “Last Christmas”, for instance. If you are a Backstreet Boys fan then you will love A Very Backstreet Christmas. Here is their cover of “Last Christmas”. ***The lyrics video is here.

Everybody Knows It’s Christmas by Chris Isaak

Mr. “Wicked Games” himself, Chris Isaak delivers a Christmas album that features almost all original music. On the standards such as “O Holy Night”, one could easily mistake him for Elvis, such is the rich timbre of his voice. Many of the original tunes on this album were written by Isaak and strike more of a rockabilly tone. His entry into the Carey-calibre derby is a song entitled “Almost Christmas”, which takes us through an afternoon of frantic Christmas shopping on December 24th. This song is whimsical and will make you smile. I am sure it will become a popular new entry into the modern day Christmas seasonal canon for years to come. All in all, Chris Isaak has delivered an album that is fresh and filled with great energy and superb singing. Don’t wait until Christmas Eve to download this terrific Christmas album. Here is “Almost Christmas”. ***There is no lyrics video for this song yet.

Pickin’ On Christmas by Davis Causey and Jay Smith

Pickin’ On Christmas is an instrumental Bluegrass Christmas album. For those of you who are not familiar with Davis Causey, he is a Bluegrass performer who has been making music for over sixty years! He was a session player extraordinaire for much of that time and over the course of his career has backed up a bevy of stars such as Marvin Gaye, Jackie Wilson, Bonnie Raitt and many more. The story behind this album is that it began two decades ago as a project that was never meant to be an album. Instead, Causey, along with his friend, Jay Smith, recorded these songs and created cds as gifts for their friends. Causey and Smith were good friends for many years, so when Smith passed away recently, Causey was asked how he would remember his friend. He answered by playing some of the tunes that they had recorded together. It was decided to make those informal gift cds into a polished professional record. The result is Pickin’ On Christmas. If you are fine with instrumental music then this album would be a great addition to your own collection of Holiday music. The musicianship on display is at a high level. Their take on these “timeless classics” is lovely and is done in a way that makes these familiar tunes uniquely their own. Excellent album. For what it is worth, it is my favourite album on this entire list. Here is “The Little Drummer Boy”. ***Remember, this is an instrumental album so there is no lyrics video for this song.

A Family Christmas by Andrea, Matteo and Virginia Bocelli

In order to appreciate what this album adds to the Holiday music canon, I want you to imagine what it must have been like to grow up in a family where your father is an internationally famous tenor. When I imagine this scenario in my mind, I see images of growing up in a home filled with music and warmth. If that is what you see then we will both enjoy this Bocelli Family Christmas album. Matteo Bocelli is Andrea’s son and Virginia Bocelli is his daughter. Needless to say, the musical apple has not fallen far from the tree. Both Matteo (who is twenty years old) and Virginia (who is entering her teens) possess beautiful singing voices, just like their father. There seems to be an easy rapport between them all as they sing their way through the “timeless classics”, and somehow they manage to cover familiar musical ground in a manner that demonstrates the affection that they have for one another. If you are a fan of Tenor-style singing, then this album is a must-have for your collection. The music is simply gorgeous. Here is “The Greatest Gift”. ***The lyrics video is here. ***Both videos are excellent. Well worth checking out.

Santa Baby by Alicia Keys

I have been an Alicia Keys fan right from the release of her very first single, “Falling”, way back in the 1990s. Over the course of her career, she has sold over 66 million records. Santa Baby is her very first album of Christmas music. Of all the performers seeking to replicate Mariah Carey’s success, Alicia Keys stands the best chance simply because her original Christmas song, “December Back 2 June”, sounds the most like a Mariah Carey song. It is soulful, jazzy, bluesy and filled with soaring moments that seem to thrill listeners. Not only does this song sound like a song that Mariah Carey could be singing, but Alicia Keys even followed Carey’s writing formula by creating the lyrics and recording the song in the middle of the summer, just as Mariah Carey did for her hit song. While it remains to be seen if “December Back 2 June” reaches the same dizzying heights that “All I Want For Christmas Is You” did back in the day, don’t be surprised if it does. This song strikes me as one that was written with being a hit in mind. If you give it a listen and like it then the rest of the album will sit well with you, too. Here is “December Back 2 June”. ***Lyrics version is here.

Louis Armstrong Wishes You a Cool Yule by Louis Armstrong

The music industry is known for many things but one of the most suspect ones is the “posthumous release”. Many artists sign contracts with record labels that promise the label x-number of albums during a certain period of time. However, real life being what it is, sometimes an artist dies before fulfilling their contractual obligations. When that happens, record labels will often insist on having the terms of the contract met, which is why after an artist dies we often see the release of “Greatest Hits” albums and/or albums that were recorded live somewhere. The downside of this for the artist is that the artist has no control over what is released in their name. As a result, sometimes a record label will release an album of outtakes, b-sides and rarities that the artists would never have released if they had been alive. So, I always view posthumous releases with a wary eye. With Louis Armstrong Wishes You a Cool Yule I needn’t have worried. This album is a collection of Holiday recordings from over the course of his career. It includes duets with Ella Fitzgerald and a spoken word rendition by Satchmo, himself, of “The Night Before Christmas”. In short, as posthumous releases go, Louis Armstrong Wishes You a Cool Yule defies convention and is actually wonderful in all regards. It would make an excellent soundtrack to a Holiday dinner I would imagine. Here is “Twas the Night Before Christmas” as read by Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong. ***The lyrics version is here.

A Neil Diamond Christmas by Neil Diamond

Our tenth and final Christmas album under review is A Neil Diamond Christmas by the man, himself, Neil Diamond. Over the course of his career, Neil Diamond has released four albums of Christmas music. This latest album cherry picks from those four albums to create an album that is not quite a “Greatest Hits” album but one that purports to be Neil’s favourite songs from those four albums. Needless to say, the music is very orchestral, soaring often on the strength of Diamond’s rich voice. In the same way that the Backstreet Boys Christmas album still sounded like a Backstreet Boys album even though they were covering familiar holiday songs, Neil Diamond’s Christmas album sounds like a Neil Diamond album, too. If you are a fan of the man, then you will enjoy this album of his favourite Christmas classics. Here is “The Christmas Song” from this album. ***There is no lyrics version for this song.

I hope that you enjoyed this post and that you were able to find something from this list that might find its way into your home during the holiday season. If not, then I know that there is no shortage of “timeless classics” playing everywhere you go. One way or another, may your holidays be filled with joy and love and, of course, with good music, too.

***As an editorial note, this is the final Tomorrow’s Top 40 post for 2022. For the next few Thursdays, I am going to use this space to talk about the stories behind some of those very same “timeless classic” songs that make up the soundtrack to our holidays. See you all then. Take care. Thanks for tuning in and reading my words. I appreciate your presence here on my blog. Bye for now. Happy Holidays.

The links to the official websites for Kristin Chenoweth, Steve Perry, Billy Idol, the Backstreet Boys, Davis Causey, Alicia Keys, Chris Isaak, Andrea Bocelli, Louis Armstrong and Neil Diamond can be found by clicking on their names above.

***As always, all original content contained within this blog post remains the sole property of the author. No portion of this post shall be reblogged, copied or shared in any manner without the express written consent of the author. ©2022

Fame by Irene Cara from the Original Motion Picture Soundtrack to the Film, Fame…Song #24/250: The Stars of Stage and Screen

One of the great truisms of being an educator is that the students under your care are all unique individuals. They enter into your classroom with varied life experiences, states of intellectual readiness and physical health, minds and hearts filled with hopes and dreams that are theirs alone and, of course, you have those who don’t want to be there at all and would rather still be tucked safely and warmly in their beds. As a teacher, I always built my programme around the fact that I shouldn’t expect all of my students to learn the curriculum in the exact same manner nor at the exact same speed. I had to find ways to help each child to be successful on their own terms. So, each school year, I tasked myself with creating 20-30 individualized academic programmes of instruction and ran them in a collective social setting. What made this easier for me is that, in reality, in any classroom setting the majority of the students fall into a fairly broad band of academic achievement that roughly translates to being in “the middle”. These would be the students who traditionally earned “B”s and “C”s on their report card. While there would be slight variations between these students, most were successful most of the time and were on course to successfully meet the requirements for that particular grade level. At the opposite end of those students who were in “the middle” were those students who struggled mightily and those students at the top end who excelled. While educators often spend an inordinate amount of time worrying about how to help those students who are struggling, that will not be the topic of today’s post. Instead, for a change, we are going to focus on the needs of those kids who excel.

Photo of a young Scarlett Johansson when she was a student at the Professional Children's School in New York City.
Actress Scarlett Johansson when she was enrolled at the Professional Children’s School in NYC.

Despite how it may seem, it isn’t always easy to be an academic rock star in a regular classroom setting. One of the main reasons for that is simply boredom. When you possess tremendous skills and knowledge, it can become frustrating to always have to be waiting for your peers to catch up to where you got to a long time ago. In the public school system where I was a teacher, students who excelled at a tremendous rate could be tested for academic giftedness. If the testing process revealed that a student was, in fact, functioning at a gifted level then, a whole host of additional programming options could, in theory, be made available to that child. In other countries, there are whole schools established with the sole mandate of helping children who have displayed giftedness in The Arts or in Athletics, for example. Today’s post begins at one such school in the US called The Professional Children’s School. This school was established in New York City in 1914. It was run for the benefit of children who worked professionally in some facet of the entertainment industry in New York. A quick look at the names of some of those who have graduated from the PCS is to read a veritable Who’s-Who of the entertainment world. Professional Children’s School alumni include Yo-Yo Ma, Beverly Sills, Marvin Hamlisch, Buddy Rich, Vanessa Carlton, Milton Berle, Peggy Lipton, Lorna Luft, Macaulay Culkin, Carrie Fisher, Elliott Gould, Scarlett Johansson and many, many more, including a young singer and dancer named Irene Cara.

Head shot of actress Irene Cara smiling.
Irene Cara.

Irene Cara was enrolled in the Children’s Professional School in the 1970s. While a student there (and then later upon graduation), Cara earned roles in many Broadway plays and musicals and had some small supporting roles in soap operas and television serials. In 1979, Cara showed up to try out as an extra for a new movie that was inspired by the musical, A Chorus Line. This movie was centred upon a group of young people in a school for the arts who were all trying to break into the world of show business. When Cara performed her audition for a role as an extra, the producers were blown away by her singing voice and by her onscreen presence. In fact, the producers of Fame ended up creating an entirely new character for the movie named Coco Hernandez and gave the role to Irene Cara. Not only that, they had Cara sing the title track to the movie. The song called “Fame….I’m Gonna Live Forever” announced Irene Cara’s arrival as a star! The movie, Fame, became a huge box office hit. Cara won the first of her two Academy Awards for Best Song. She would win her second Oscar shortly thereafter for the song, “Flashdance…What a Feeling!”. Not long after Fame ended its theatrical run, word came out that the story being told in the movie was going to be continued in a television series. Many of the original movie cast signed on to reprise their roles on the small screen. Many assumed that Irene Cara would do so as well, but she declined that opportunity and her role was given to a new actress. Cara justified her decision to turn her back on the role of Coco Hernandez by saying that she believed that many other movie roles awaited her in Hollywood and that she didn’t want to become typecast as Coco just as her career was beginning.

The television version of Fame enjoyed a few seasons of success on network TV before being canceled. Meanwhile, Irene Cara had teamed up with music producer Giorgio Moroder to write the hit song, “Flashdance…What a Feeling!” for the movie of the same name that starred Jennifer Beals as a wannabe dancer searching for her big break. Around the same time, Cara starred in a sequel to the television mini-series, Roots called Roots: the Next Generation. Irene Cara received a Golden Globes nomination for her role as author Alex Haley’s grandmother in this continuing saga. As the 1980s reached their midway point, Irene Cara was one of the brightest names in the entire world of the entertainment industry. And then, it all went away for her.

Movie poster for Fame.Top half shows the word, FAME in lights. The bottom half of the poster shows students rehearsing on a stage.

Another one of life’s truisms is that history is told by the victors and not the vanquished. It is difficult for me to say with any certainty exactly what happened to cause the downfall of Irene Cara’s career but some facts are known and I will share them with you now. As Irene Cara became a bigger and bigger star, she began to receive career advice from other people who were stars in the world of music and television. Those people were becoming concerned about how Irene Cara was being managed by her management team. Specifically, they advised Cara to have independent lawyers look into the terms of her management contract because they felt she was being denied royalties to her music that were rightfully hers. With hit songs such as “Fame” and “Flashdance” under her belt, Irene Cara should have been earning enough money to live a comfortable lifestyle. But, the fact was that she was continuing to live paycheque to paycheque. So, Irene Cara hired new lawyers and soon launched a lawsuit against her own management team in an attempt to recoup lost royalties she felt she was owed. Because Cara had little money of her own to begin with, her management team countered with a succession of lawsuits that essentially bankrupted Cara. The lawsuits dragged on for over a decade. By the time the dust settled, Cara had won a settlement of 1.5 million dollars. Not long after the decision of the court was issued, her management team declared bankruptcy itself. This caused Cara to have to begin new lawsuits aimed at recouping a fraction of that settlement, with her as a creditor. All throughout the time she was engaged in her legal battles, Cara began finding it harder and harder to get work in the entertainment industry. She claimed that her management team had placed her name on a blacklist that prohibited others from hiring her. Her former management team denied this and countered her claim by stating that Irene Cara had always had a reputation for being difficult to work with, and on top of that had become addicted to cocaine and was, in fact, the author of her own misfortune, and that it all had nothing to do with them. What the real story is, I cannot say but, the reality was that toward the end of her career, Irene Cara’s only source of income was from doing voice-over work for commercials and for animated movies. As many of you may know, Irene Cara passed away recently at age 63. The exact cause of her death is unknown.

Facade of The Professional Children's School in New York City. Banners with the school name hang down over the sidewalk.
The Professional Children’s School in NYC.

One of the things that I learned from being a teacher was that ensuring the academic success of my students was only one part of my role in their lives. The physical, social and emotional health of my students was of equal importance and required just as much attention from me as did all of the ABCs and 1-2-3s of the world. I have often felt sorry for young performers such as Irene Cara, Macaulay Culkin, Michael Jackson and others who achieved great fame at a very early age. It must be tough to bear the weight of the responsibility for million dollar entertainment franchises when you are still so young that you don’t even really know who you are as a person yet. One of the goals of The Professional Children’s School was to provide counseling services for their students to help them deal with the pressure that comes from being so famous at such a young age. That such services are necessary speaks to the cutthroat nature of the world in which Irene Cara found herself as she left her teens and entered her twenties. To protect such children from ruthless promoters was one of the reasons that The Professional Children’s School was started over a century ago and why it still exists today. At the end of the day, it can’t be easy to be gifted with such talent. Somewhere along the way, balance becomes equally as important as ambition and intellect and creativity and talent. Irene Cara’s story stands as a cautionary tale, not only for those with exceptional talent but also, for those who surround them. It is important to strive for greatness, for sure but, it is also important to love and be loved for that is the true path to happiness.

The link to the video for the song “Fame…I’m Gonna Live Forever” by Irene Cara from the Original Motion Picture Soundtrack to the Film Fame can be found here. ***The lyrics version is here.

The link to the video for the song, “Flashdance…What a Feeling” by Irene Cara from the Original Motion Picture Soundtrack to the Film Flashdance can be found here. ***The lyrics version is here.

The link to the video for the trailer for the film Fame can be found here.

The link to the official website for Irene Cara can be found here.

The link to the official website for The Professional Children’s School can be found here.

***As always, all original content contained within this blog post remains the sole property of the author. No portion of this post shall be reblogged, copied or shared in any manner without the express written consent of the author. ©2022

The Unicorn by The Irish Rovers…Song #24: The Great Canadian Road Trip

A dear friend of mine who is a Teacher-Librarian at a nearby school to where I live recently wrote an impassioned blog post about the importance of reading aloud to children. She spoke about some of her favourite chapter books and how they were brought to life for her as a young girl because of the way her teachers read to her and her classmates. Her post *(which you can read here) seems like an obvious thing for a teacher to preach, but as she said, with the arrival of COVID-19 and the increased use of facial masks, along with a younger generation of teachers who, themselves, have grown up using technology to read their words, rather than books, she had noted a marked decrease in the number of classrooms in her school where being read to aloud was a regular part of a student’s day.

Her post struck a chord with me because when I was teaching, reading aloud to my students was my absolute favourite part of my day! I am an introverted person most of the time so reading great literature aloud gave me permission to tap into my theatrical side. I loved the cadence of wonderfully written language. I enjoyed reading “in character” by altering my voice and adopting accents and so on. But, most of all, I found great pleasure in inviting children into the magical world of stories. Helping to ignite a passion for reading is one of the most satisfying aspects of my job as a teacher. Not only is reading a crucial life skill but the ability to use your imagination, to be a problem-solver and to develop an appreciation for characters and cultures different from your own all play out in stories…especially, in stories read aloud by someone you trust.

The front cover of the book, "Where The Sidewalk Ends" by poet Shel Silverstein.

In June of 2018, as the date of my retirement approached, I tasked myself with the job of clearing out my classroom so that the incoming teacher wouldn’t have to deal with piles of resources that he or she may not have wanted. Among the resources to be cleared out were almost 2000 books. Over the course of my thirty year career, I had accumulated a vast in-class library of fiction and non-fiction books. I had them organized by subject in bins on shelves all around our classroom where they could be accessed by my students. As the end of that final school year approached, I was lucky to have another teacher come along and ask about what I intended to do with my classroom library. I ended up giving it all to her. The day she came to take them away, we discovered that I had seventy-two bins of books. Somehow she managed to get them all into a truck. I hope that some or all of those books turned out to be useful to her and that she is sharing them with her students even as I type these words. However, before this lady came to take my books away, I went through my own collection and pulled out thirty books that were important to me for various reasons….one book for each year that I was a classroom teacher. Those books I took home. Each time I look at them I am reminded of what it felt like to be involved in the journey that each child took when they walked through our classroom door and what a privilege it was to be their teacher. One of those thirty special books was a book of poetry for children called Where The Sidewalk Ends by Shel Silverstein.

A photograph of a copy of the page from "Where The Sidewalk Ends" that contains his poem, "The Unicorn".
At once a children’s poem and also a hit song for The Irish Rovers.

The poetry of Shel Silverstein was silly and subversive at the same time. It dealt with topics that young children could relate to such as fear of the dark, the perils of laziness, dealing with parents and/or siblings and much, much more. The language used by Silverstein was sometimes simple and many times lyrical. I used this book (and several of his other books of poetry) with every group of students I ever taught from the very first year I bought this book (Year #3 of my career), all the way to that very last class in 2018. By the time I took that book home with me in the summer sunshine, it was threadbare and falling apart from overuse…as all loved books should be. But something magical lay buried within the pages of this book. It was there in all those classrooms over the years. It was there before I ever bought the book. It lies there now for you to discover should you ever care to look for yourselves. The treasure buried within the pages of this great book is a hit song! It is true! On pages 76 and 77 of “Where the Sidewalk Ends” is a poem called The Unicorn. This poem was written by Shel Silverstein as a commentary on religion and inclusion and silliness. It concerns the biblical story of Noah’s Ark and how he created a floating zoo and how the unicorns were invited in but were too busy playing games to see the danger all around them from the rising flood waters (which explains why children can never see a real unicorn in the wild anymore says Silverstein). This poem would have remained strictly a moralistic tale for children if not for the fact that a group of Irish immigrants to Canada chose it as a song for their debut album. That group became the Irish Rovers and their version of “The Unicorn” went all the way to #1 in Canada, selling over 8 million records in all, making it the biggest hit song in their whole career.

Four members of the Irish Rovers in a row holding an accordion, an acoustic guitar, nothing and an acoustic guitar.
The Irish Rovers in the early days.

The Irish Rovers got their name from an old song called The Irish Rover , which chronicles the journey taken by a ship back in the days of exploration and discovery. It is a fantastical tale of adventure and ruin and has been a popular drinking song in Ireland for generations. The Irish Rovers band was formed in the 1960s in Toronto when a man named Will Millar met another man named Jimmy Ferguson and the two spent the evening singing and drinking and singing some more. Millar introduced Ferguson to his brothers George, Joe and Ian who, in turn, were joined by an accordion player named John Reynolds. Together, the boys in the band became one of the driving forces behind making Irish/Celtic music popular in Canada and around the world. The Irish Rovers eventually became Canadian citizens at the behest of then Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, who then proclaimed them to be official Canadian ambassadors of music and sent them off to tour around the world under the banner of the Canadian red maple leaf flag. The Irish Rovers launched their career with “The Unicorn”, but they had plenty of other hits, including “Wasn’t That a Party?!”, “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer”, “Finnegan’s Wake” and “Black Velvet Band”. Not only did the Irish Rovers have a number of hit songs, but they were also television stars in Canada. The Irish Rovers hosted several iterations of the same variety show over the course of two decades. The shows would be set in a pub-like locale and would see the band play several tunes, along with a few celebrity guests who would show up, from time to time. One of my favourite university memories was getting to go to a live taping of an episode of “Party With The Rovers” in 1983.

Lead singer of The Irish Rovers, Will Millar and the band's former manager, Les Weinstein, arm in arm, holding glasses of beer.
A recent photo of Will Millar of The Irish Rovers and Les Weinstein, the band’s former manager and father of my roommate in university, Lisa Weinstein.

During my first year of university I lived in a student apartment complex in Toronto called Neill-Wycik College. My building was twenty-three stories tall and consisted of apartment units that housed four, five or six students at a time. Each unit had a common kitchen/living room area, two shared bathrooms and a bedroom for each student. In my first year, I was part of a six-person unit. There were three guys and three girls living together in what became a sort of family set-up. Being new to such a big city, it was helpful to have a group of people to explore the city with and to learn how to develop consistent cooking, cleaning and studying routines. One of the girls I lived with was a young lady named Lisa Weinstein. Lisa was taking the same Radio and Television Broadcasting course that I was. But, for the sake of this story, what is most important to note about Lisa was that her father was a man named Les Weinstein. Mr. Weinstein was an executive with a fledgling Canadian record label named Nettwerk Records. Nettwerk Records began by signing and promoting bands such as Skinny Puppy and The Grapes of Wrath. They would eventually gain fame by signing and developing a young female singer from Halifax named Sarah McLachlan. One of the other bands that was managed by Mr. Weinstein at Nettwerk Records was The Irish Rovers. So, when they were filming for their new series, Lisa asked us, as her roommates, if we wanted to attend a taping. We readily agreed and off we went. As mentioned, the set was designed to look like an Irish pub. Instead of sitting behind the cameras in bleachers, where many shows place their audience, we were seated at round tables meant to resemble how tables would be set in a real pub. Because of this, the audience was on camera as much as the singers were. One of the rules we were given before taping began was that there could never be an empty beer glass seen on a table. So, between each take, crew members would wander around and refill every glass! My glass was refilled four or five times, at least! I can’t quite remember to be sure. The members of the band drank with us drink for drink. By the time the show ended with a boozy rendition of “The Black Velvet Band” with guest star, Tommy Makem, I can barely remember applauding and stumbling home. But I do remember how personable the Irish Rovers all were and that It was a fun evening. If Lisa had asked, I am sure we would have all gone back again and again to the tapings.

Five mugs of ice cold beer being held aloft.
Here’s to you all!!!

It is funny how life is sometimes. Men from Ireland formed a band in Canada named after an Irish sea shanty. They had a hit song with a children’s poem from a book that I valued more than most in my own classroom library. But, before ever becoming a teacher, I drank beers with the band on the set of their show simply because I had the great good fortune to be roommates with their manager’s daughter. Although it may be a good story, it is one that I never shared with my students because I didn’t feel as though a story about their teacher getting hammered on free beer with the Irish Rovers was a suitable tale to tell. But, let me tell you, every time I opened that book in class and saw that poem I remembered. I remembered every moment of it all. And furthermore, unlike every other Shel Silverstein poem in that book, “The Unicorn” was one I couldn’t just read….it was one I had to sing.

The link to the video for the song “The Unicorn” by The Irish Rovers can be found here. ***The lyrics version is here.

The link to the official website for The Irish Rovers can be found here.

The link to the video for the original Irish song, “The Irish Rover” as performed by The Dubliners and The Pogues can be found here. ***The lyrics version is here.

The studio in which the “Party With The Rovers” show was filmed was in Don Mills, Ontario. The official website for Don Mills, Ontario can be found here.

***As always, all original content contained within this post remains the sole property of the author. No portion of this post shall be reblogged, copied or shared in any manner without the express written consent of the author. ©2022

Fanfare Rondeau by Jean-Joseph Mouret…Composition #22/50: Keepin’ It Classy

The dashing composer Jean-Joseph Mouret

“Fanfare Rondeau” was composed by Jean-Joseph Mouret as part of his Suite De Symphonies in 1729 which makes this composition almost three hundred years old! It is certainly one of the oldest pieces of music that I have ever commented on in a post format such as this. In addition to that, “Fanfare Rondeau” is the only composition of Mouret’s to still be played today with any regularity. Thus, not only is this the oldest work to appear in any music series of mine, it also makes Jean-Joseph Mouret the original one-hit wonder! Like all of the music featured in Keepin’ It Classy, “Fanfare Rondeau” is a piece of music that you will recognize from the opening notes. In fact, although this composition was well-received at the time of its creation, it has become even more popular today because of its association with a famous TV show. So let’s take a closer look at this noteworthy composition and the man who created it. Here is the story of “Fanfare Rondeau” by Jean-Joseph Mouret.

During his lifetime, Jean-Joseph Mouret was quite a famous and popular composer. As a young man, he was noted for his quick wit, stylish disposition and the ease with which he moved in the social circles of the French nobility. While barely into his twenties, Mouret fell under the protective patronage of Anne, the Duchess of Maine. Anne was originally a member of the House of Bourbon, which was a powerful political family in aristocratic circles in France. In a marriage of political convenience, she became married to Louis-Auguste, the illegitimate son of King Louis XIV. The Duchess of Maine used her influential position to promote French culture and the Arts. She became known for the banquets she held and for the musical performances she commissioned. For the position of Surintendant de la Musique, she selected the young Jean-Joseph Mouret. He quickly fell into his role as a valued member of the Duchess of Maine’s royal court and created hundreds of compositions in her honour that became the featured music played during her feasts. Consequently, Mouret enjoyed much favour among the aristocracy and was able to live a life of relative luxury for a man who had no royal bloodline of his own.

(Agen) Portrait de Marie-Anne de Bourbon, princesse de Conti 1690-91- François de Troy – Musée des Beaux-Arts d’Agen

Because the vast majority of the music he created was never performed outside of the royal ballrooms of the Duke and Duchess of Maine, Mouret’s work never became popular in the larger, more commercial sense. In fact, the only time Jean-Joseph Mouret ventured beyond the protective confines of the royal household, his efforts met with disastrous results. At that time in France, the Catholic Church was a powerful presence in the political landscape. Consequently, religious observances were strictly adhered to by most everyone. For example, during the period known as Lent, all opera houses in Paris closed their doors out of respect for the Catholic Church. However, not everyone in France was Catholic, and it was felt that The Arts should continue during Lent as long as they were such that all performances had thematic aspects that respected the religious tone of the times. Thus, a series of public concerts were organized that became known as Concerts Spirituel. These concerts were originally organized by someone else but soon the series fell into financial ruin. In his position of Surintendant de la Musique in the royal court, Jean-Joseph Mouret was asked to come in and take over the leadership of these secular concerts. Mouret was delighted to have been approached and saw this as an opportunity to expand his influence beyond the walls of the royal palace. However, it turned out that the members of the nobility had sworn their allegiance to the Catholic Church, and they refused to follow their favourite composer into the public world of Parisian music. Not long after agreeing to head the Concerts Spirituel series, Mouret was forced to declare bankruptcy. It was a shameful and humiliating moment for Mouret. Afterwards, he was forced to return to his duties at the behest of the Duchess of Maine having had any political or career ambitions stripped from him leaving him effectively neutered in the eyes of those in the royal court. For the remainder of his life, he composed music for the Duchess and her friends…and never again for anyone else.

As mentioned, there is only one piece of Mouret’s entire musical catalogue that has survived the passage of time and that is a piece of music entitled “Fanfare Rondeau”. As you may know, a fanfare is a piece of music that is often played when someone of importance is being welcomed into a place where a crowd has gathered. In Mouret’s case, his “Fanfare Rondeau” was commissioned to announce the arrival of the Duke and Duchess of Maine into the royal ballroom. In musical terms, a rondeau is a segment of music that is part of a sequence of structured movements called musical forms. Back during the Baroque Period of classical music, the use of the standardized musical form compositional structure was common practice. In that common structure, the rondeau was considered to be the first segment of the musical form (which often consisted of three to four parts). Thus, in his Suites de Symphonies, the rondeau was the introductory segment of the symphony and because it was being used to welcome the Duke and Duchess of Maine into the ballroom, the rondeau was also considered to be a fanfare, thus the piece became known as “Fanfare Rondeau”.

This composition was very popular when it debuted. It became the standard introductory fanfare used to welcome royal visitors into any royal court in France thereafter. But what ensured the continued relevance of “Fanfare Rondeau” no longer has anything to do with the shiny people of the noble class. Instead, what made this composition so well known and popular today was its selection as the opening theme for the PBS television series, Masterpiece Theater. The producers of Masterpiece Theater wanted to bring a sense of the importance of art and culture into the living rooms of regular Americans by showcasing some of the finest theatrical plays and movies available. In order to give their programmes a regal air, the producers selected “Fanfare Rondeau” as their show’s opening theme. Masterpiece Theater has been one of the flagship shows on the entire PBS network, and as such, the playing of “Fanfare Rondeau” has come to represent PBS, as a whole, in the eyes of the world. Although Jean-Joseph Mouret has long since passed away, his ability to capture the essence of upper class refinement in music has granted him a sense of immortality that finally extends his name beyond the walls of the royal palace of the Duke and Duchess of Maine in France. The proof that the name of Jean-Joseph Mouret lives on will be seen in the fact that you will know his music the second it begins. His “Fanfare Rondeau” has become synonymous with classiness and refinement. Undoubtedly, this would make Mouret proud.

The link to the video for the composition “Fanfare Rondeau” by Jean-Joseph Mouret can be found here.

The link to the video for the playing of the opening theme to Masterpiece Theatre on PBS can be found here.

The link to the official website for Jean-Joseph Mouret can be found here.

The link to the world’s greatest classical music station…Classical FM 103.1…broadcasting out of my hometown of Cobourg, Ontario, Canada can be found here.

***As always, all original content contained within this blog post remains the sole property of the author. No portion of this post shall be reblogged, copied or shared in any manner without the express written consent of the author. ©2022

Good Vibrations by Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch…Song #18/250: Reader’s Choice

One of the most successful and heavily promoted music groups of the 1980s was a boy band known as New Kids on the Block. They had a string of hits such as “Hanging Tough”, “You Got It (The Right Stuff)”, “I’ll Be Loving You Forever”, “Cover Girl” and many more. The five original members of NKOTB all hailed from the Boston area (which will become important as this story rolls along). One of those original guys in the band was named Donnie Wahlberg. He had a younger brother named Mark. This is where the story of today’s post begins.

The Wahlberg brothers grew up in Dorchester, Massachusetts, which is a suburb of Boston. Dorchester used to be a city unto itself but was incorporated into the municipality of Boston proper. Initially, Dorchester was a mainly white community founded by Puritans who arrived from England and Ireland centuries ago. However, after amalgamation, Dorchester saw an influx of immigrants arrive, making it one of the most diverse cities along America’s eastern seaboard today. Like many in the Boston area, the Wahlbergs identified with Irish heritage (which at the time for a teenage boy like Mark Wahlberg meant white culture). You don’t have to look very hard in Boston to find indicators of Irish culture. (The Boston Celtic basketball team, bands such as The Dropkick Murphys…my favourite faux Irish band, etc…, are everywhere you go.) So, when Donnie Wahlberg suddenly became a huge music star with New Kids on the Block, it gave his little brother, Mark, a larger sense of self-importance than most boys his age have earned the right to have. With his ego large, young Mark Wahlberg turned to crime. Specifically, he was charged with several violent, racially-motivated crimes against Black and Asian families who had recently moved into the Dorchester area. In fact, one assault was so serious that Mark Wahlberg was charged with attempted murder (which ended up being plea-bargained down to felony assault, for which Wahlberg served time in jail as a young man).

Mary Mark and the Funky Bunch. Note the “Irish” green.

After having completed his sentence, Mark Wahlberg faced an uncertain future. The one thing he had going for him was that he was handsome and strong…and he had a brother who was a music star. Mark worked with Donnie and with his brother’s management team to see if he had the talent to follow in his brother’s footsteps. As it turned out, Mark Wahlberg wanted to try rapping (after seeing the success of Vanilla Ice). With the help of Donnie and some DJs who were skilled in the emerging art of sampling, Mark Wahlberg organized them all into a band that went by the name Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch. Their first album was called Music for the People. The first single was called “Good Vibrations”. This song went all the way to #1 on the charts and stayed in the Top 40 for almost a full year! The highlight of the song for many was the combination of some stellar piano playing, Mark Wahlberg’s rapping and the soaring vocal sample taken from a lady named Loleatta Holloway (who was given a co-songwriting credit because of the sample, even though she never recorded a single note for the song). Despite the fact that this song reached the top of the charts, Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch were never able to replicate its success, and so “Good Vibrations” can really be considered their only true hit.

Mark Wahlberg’s iconic Calvin Klein ad. He is 21 years old in this photo.

While the song certainly possesses a funked up groove, it was really the accompanying music video that took Mark Wahlberg straight to the top. In the video for “Good Vibrations”, Wahlberg appears shirtless for most of it. At the time, Mark Wahlberg possessed a physique that was toned and chiseled. His body and his tough guy image that he projected set many hearts a flutter. Sex appeal has long been known to sell merchandise and this was certainly the case with Marky Mark. As a result of the overwhelmingly positive reception his six pack abs received as a result of this video, Wahlberg was signed to be a Calvin Klein underwear model. In the end, he became as famous for appearing in his underwear on billboards (alone or with model Kate Moss) as he ever did as a singer. Many others wondered how they could get themselves into the same physical shape that he managed to do and so he was approached to put together exercise videos. The story of his fitness regimes is more important than many casual fans realize and impacted his career for years thereafter.

Mark Wahlberg and “Irish” Micky Ward at the premiere of the movie, The Fighter.

When Mark and Donnie Wahlberg were putting together the music for “Good Vibrations”, there existed a famous boxer from nearby Lowell, Massachusetts, called “Irish” Micky Ward. Ward fought several times for the Lightweight title and is most known for a trilogy of matches against Montreal’s own Arturo “Thunder” Gatti. Ward won the initial match against Gatti while losing the rematch and tie breaker. However, many who watch boxing will tell you that those three matches were among the best boxing matches of all time, and that both boxers earned their sterling reputations in the ring during those bouts against the other. In fact, two of those three matches ended up being ranked as “The Fight of the Year” by Ring Magazine. So, when the Irish-influenced kid, Mark Wahlberg, decided that he needed training in the art of boxing for his video for “Good Vibrations”, he turned to “Irish” Micky Ward. It was because of Ward’s training that Wahlberg developed his chiseled physique and authentic boxing moves. But there is more to the story than that. As many of you know, Mark Wahlberg left the music business and went into acting after his modeling days came to an end. He gained fame in movies such as Boogie Nights, The Perfect Storm and Planet of the Apes. My daughters know him best from a series of movies called Daddy’s Home (with Will Ferrell). But the movie that Wahlberg is most closely associated with was a movie that earned him many awards and nominations called The Fighter. This movie is the biopic based on the life of boxer “Irish” Micky Ward. In fact, there are many Irish connections at play here…Canada’s favourite faux-Irish band, The Mahones *(who were profiled last week in a post that you can read here) contributed a song to the soundtrack of The Fighter called “Paint the Town Red”. It is the band’s biggest hit. As well, Boston’s own The Dropkick Murphys’ most successful album was called The Warrior’s Code. The title track was a song dedicated to “Irish” Micky Ward, who also graces the album’s front cover. *(You can watch that video here).

Mark Wahlberg, like so many of us, is certainly a product of his environment. He grew up Irish-proud and immigrant-phobic but, over time, he has become able to embrace the positive side of his cultural roots without doing so by downgrading the right to cultural pride by groups who differ from himself. Not knowing the man personally, I cannot say for sure whether that is truly the person he has become or whether it is because of his understanding of how to project an image in the public spotlight. But what I can say for sure is that he has managed to create several onscreen characters that the people in my family like, and in particular, he has created one funky song that really appeals to my wife. So, I dedicate this post to my beautiful wife, Keri. I hope that it brings a smile to your face and a skip to your step. Thanks for being the driving force in our home for bringing the music of boy bands to the forefront. I know that you had New Kids on the Block posters on your bedroom walls growing up so this is something that makes you a product of your environment as well. As boy band songs go, “Good Vibrations” is one that even I can listen to and appreciate. Thanks for being you, dear.

***As a reminder, I take requests. Any genre. Any era. Send me your song/artist/band suggestions and I will do whatever I can to bring those stories to life in a post just like this one. Feel free to leave your requests in the comment box below. Thanks.

The link to the video for the song “Good Vibrations” by Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch can be found here. ***The lyrics version is here.

The official website for Mark Wahlberg can be found here.

The trailer for the movie, The Fighter, starring Mark Wahlberg can be found here.

***As always, all original content contained within this post remains the sole property of the author. No portion of this post shall be reblogged, copied or shared in any manner without the express written consent of the author. ©2022