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May 2011

NOVA Chorale at St. Joseph's, Covington

I mentioned that I had been out of town for a couple of days. On Sunday my wife and I went to St. Joseph's Abbey (Benedictine) and Seminary in Covington, Louisiana, for a performance by the NOVA (New Orleans Vocal Arts) Chorale, in which my daughter Clare sings. Covington is across Lake Ponchartrain from New Orleans. It was held in the abbey church, which I thought quite beautiful, though I am no architecture critic. The interior strikes me as rich without being ornate, simple without being austere. More important for the concert, the building has stunning acoustics, and the choir is extremely good, and the program was very well chosen and sequenced, including a good balance of old and modern music; all in all, it was one of the more memorable concerts I've ever attended. 

Of course I forgot to bring my camera, but I did take a few pictures with my phone, and more with my wife's camera. The latter should be better, but I haven't had a chance to get them off the camera yet. If they're good I'll post some. Meanwhile, these from the phone will give you the general idea:



Walker Percy is buried in the abbey cemetery. I had hoped to visit his grave, but the cemetery is fairly big and I had no idea where the grave was, and there was no one around to ask, so I decided not to search. Maybe another time. The Abbey has a nice web site, though in a few minutes of looking around there I didn't see any pictures of the church.

My wife and I talked about buying ourselves a couple of the products of the Abbey woodworking shop. We don't anticipate needing them anytime very soon, but it doesn't hurt to be prepared.

A Late Memorial Day Post

Sunday Night Journal — May 30, 2011

Monday night, actually. I went out of town yesterday, expecting to be back in time to write something more on this. But our plans changed, and I only have time to link to this Memorial Day post from the first year of the Sunday Night Journal. And I'll add this editorial by Frances Coleman of our local paper, saying much the same thing.

These sentiments are not pro-war; they are simply pro-courage and pro-sacrifice. And I would add: woe to those who, in a position to command such sacrifice, would do so for unworthy reasons.

Where I live (and maybe why)

One of the most difficult things for a believer to do is to help a doubter. ...we must...according to Paul's words, mourn with those who mourn, question with those who question, and doubt with those who doubt, for these will overcome their distrust of splendor only in this muted light.

--Hans Urs von Balthasar

Debussy - Arabesque No. 1 (as interpreted by Tomita)

Weekend Music

I give you permission to laugh at me for this one. I can't really defend it artistically, though I won't apologize for liking the first thirty or forty seconds. Let me explain why I like it so much:

Somewhere back in the 1980s, when our children were small, my wife and I discovered Dr. Who, which was broadcast (yes, the old-fashioned way, through the atmosphere) on Saturday nights by Alabama Public Television. It was the Tom Baker period. We were hooked from the first notes of the theme music (well, at least I was). We never have been the sort of people who go out much, and that was especially true when we had young children. So watching Dr. Who on Saturday nights, after the children were in bed, became our big entertainment treat of the week (and if you think that's sad, you need to learn more appreciation for life's little pleasures).

Immediately after Dr. Who came a show called Star Hustler, a brief talk about the astronomical events of the week by a fellow named Jack Horkheimer. It was a perfect somewhat cheesy, somewhat weird dessert to follow the somewhat cheesy, somewhat weird Dr. Who. This Debussy/Tomita piece was the theme music. For years I wondered what it was, but it was only fairly recently that I found out, thanks to the Internet. Hearing the first notes of it takes me right back to those Saturday nights.


And here is an episode of Star Hustler. It's worth sitting through the whole thing to hear his "Keep looking up!" sign-off. And isn't that set great?


Most Astute Political Comment I've Seen Recently

Purporting to offer a middle ground between radical individualism and collectivism, what [liberalism] really gives us is a diabolical synthesis of the two, a bureaucratically managed libertinism.

This is from Edward Feser, quoted by Graeme Hunter in Touchstone, in a review of Feser's book the Last Superstion: A Refutation of the New Atheism. I gather he means "liberalism" in the more or less everday sense, not in reference to classical liberalism.

Just as the Gulf Stream continues to flow generally northeast no matter what storms and local variations are happening on the surface, beneath the specific controversies that are the stuff of our politics, there are deeper and more powerful currents at work. I think this is one of the strongest. It's one of the reasons why I tend to ally myself with those who want to reduce the size and power of the federal government, even though my motives are not necessarily the same. 

What would you say if you met a member of Monty Python?

Surely you wouldn't quote a Python routine at him, would you? I mean, they must be thoroughly sick of that stuff. Or maybe not.

Actually, I'm pretty sure what I would say: nothing. I would pretend not to know who he was, assuming that the last thing he wants is for some stranger to start a conversation with him. If, in the grip of some wayward impulse, I did speak, I'm pretty sure I would say something stupid.

Actually, I probably wouldn't recognize him, unless he was John Cleese and looked exactly as he did in the 1970s.

Dylan's 70th Birthday

Here's something a little different in the Dylan birthday tribute line: his Top 10 Most Overlooked Songs. That's in the opinion of one guy, so naturally no other Dylan fan in the whole wide world will agree with every choice. I have to admit that I haven't heard them all, and one or two I don't really remember. But I agree that "When the Ship Comes In" and "Series of Dreams" deserve to be there. Though Daniel Lanois really should get half-credit for "Series." I'm having trouble getting this video to play, but maybe it's just my connection.


Craig Burrell has a nice post, too.

Update: The link above only works inside the U.S., because eMusic isn't licensed to sell the Dylan stuff in other countries, so I've lifted the list and added it here, along with the accompanying remarks.


Top 10 Overlooked Bob Dylan Songs

by Douglas Wolk

"As I Went Out One Morning"

Given his obsession with history and vernacular American music, Dylan was eventually going to have to confront the legacy of slavery head-on. He did it with this affectless, totally twisted John Wesley Harding song, a three-verse koan in which a beautiful slave tries to convince the terrified narrator to be her lover and "fly south" — and she's not just any slave, but Thomas Paine's slave. Extra points for the way Dylan's asthmatic harmonica and Charlie McCoy's indelible bass counterpoint play off each other.

"Gonna Change My Way of Thinking"

Two underrated talents of Dylan's are his ability to rattle off killer blues couplets and his willingness to go back and tweak "finished" songs. The original version of this Bible-thumping blues appeared on 1979's Slow Train Coming, but when Dylan and Mavis Staples remade it as a duet for 2003's Gotta Serve Somebody compilation, he threw out all but the first verse, came up with a bunch of much funnier half-secular lyrics, cranked his rasp up to "lacerate," added a bit of spoken dialogue lifted from "Jimmie Rodgers Visits the Carter Family," and ended up with one of the fiercest rockers of his career.

"If You Gotta Go, Go Now"

The Beatles and Dylan spent a lot of the '60s volleying songs back and forth, and this salacious Bringing It All Back Home outtake is hilarious both on its own and as a parody of the Fab Four's sound circa "I Should Have Known Better." It was a British hit for both Manfred Mann and Fairport Convention (the latter in a French-language, Cajun-style arrangement, as "Si Tu Dois Partir"), but Dylan didn't bother to put it on an album until The Bootleg Series in 1991.

"Nettie Moore"

Dylan's spent his whole career repurposing the language of songs written before he was born, but this Modern Times masterpiece is nearly wall-to-wall references. The beginning of the chorus here is lifted from a pre-Civil War tune, "The Little White Cottage, or Gentle Nettie Moore." (It can't have escaped Dylan's notice that another Nettie Moore was a contralto who recorded "Deep River" and "Song of India" in 1922 for Black Swan Records, "The Only Records Using Colored Singers and Musicians Exclusively.") The "Lost John" of the song's first line comes from a Woody Guthrie tune; the "blues... falling down like hail" is from Robert Johnson; "where the Southern crosses the Yellow Dog" is not just a line from W.C. Handy's jazz standard "Yellow Dog Blues," it's the particular line Handy claimed he heard a black musician singing in 1903. And so on: As Dylan puts it, "too much paperwork." What all those allusions add up to, though, is more like a papier-maché mask — "Nettie Moore" is ultimately about a fading consciousness ("the world has gone black before my eyes") reassembling a lost world of experience around itself.

"New Pony"

Occasionally, Dylan's recordings sabotage a terrific song. This two-chord Street-Legal number about sex, voodoo and flirtation with evil has a bunch of terrific lines: "Come over here, pony, I wanna climb up one time on you," Dylan growls. Somehow, the recorded version ended up with a crawlingly slow tempo, a trio of backup singers ceaselessly repeating "How much longer?" and a cheeseball sax solo. Imagine it without the bombast, though, and it's as deep and unnerving as any blues he's written. (For another version of the song, sans cheesy sax solo, check out the Dead Weather's cover of it.)


Dylan doesn't have much of a rep as a groove artist, but the title track of the second album from his born-again Christian period is the funkiest thing he ever recorded. That's partly the work of the ace rhythm section — bassist Tim Drummond (a veteran of the James Brown band, who co-wrote the song) and drummer Jim Keltner. More broadly, though, Dylan had finally figured out how to integrate some of the sound of the gospel and soul records he loved into his own music.

"Series of Dreams"

"Look, I don't think the lyrics are finished," Dylan groused to producer Daniel Lanois about this surging, dramatic song. "I'm not happy with them. The song's too long. But I don't wanna cut out any of the lyrics." In some ways, "Series of Dreams" was Dylan returning to the lyrical mode of his mid-'60s songs — except, this time, their namedropping specificity has been ripped out, and all that's left are stasis, ambiguity and the bare walls that once held his grand visions. The arrangement, though, is the closest he's ever come to Lanois's other associates U2; its slowly cresting dynamics and thunderous rhythm are unlike much else within the Dylan catalogue.

"Tweeter and the Monkey Man"

Having done a mighty good impression of being creatively blocked in the mid '80s, Dylan graced the Traveling Wilburys with a long string of awesome throwaways. This loving tribute to/parody of the Bruce Springsteen canon, in which a transgender Vietnam-vet coke dealer and her boyfriend go on the lam to New Jersey, might have been too silly for one of his own records, but the very point of the Wilburys project was for Dylan and his friends to simply have some fun on record.

"When the Ship Comes In"

Dylan's memoir Chronicles, Vol. 1 discusses the seismic impact that Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill's Threepenny Opera song "Pirate Jenny" had on him. This 1964 "finger-pointing song" is Dylan's own "Pirate Jenny": a revenge fantasy where Dylan explores the dark side of his demands for social justice. It's pretty clearly inspired by Brecht and Weill's song — particularly its scenario, in which the ship arrives to wake the sleeping villains and settle some old scores.

"You're Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go"

Blood on the Tracks has so many earthshaking songs that it's easy to overlook the ones that are merely wonderful. "Lonesome" is as simple as a Hank Williams standard in some ways, but it's filled with masterful touches: Dylan rhyming "Honolulu" with "Ashtabula," the "crickets talkin' back and forth in rhyme," the image sequence of "purple clover, Queen Anne lace/ crimson hair across your face," that heartbreaking chord shift at the end of the bridge. It's a rare example of a gentle Dylan come-on.