Wednesday, August 17, 2011

I am an elephant actor

GO ON THIS SITE! Go. If you are anywhere near my age, which is 106, give or take a week or so, you will love this.

If you were ever an introverted little kid who lived for stories, if you were ever a kid who incessantly played cheesy but beloved 78 r.p.m. records on an old Seabreeze, you will love this site because they are all there. Travels of Babar, Slow Joe, Build me a House, Pan the Piper, and (perhaps most astonishingly) Dick Whittington and his Cat, in which he calls the cat "Ripple-dee-dee": surely I had imagined that, and so many other things.

But no, here it all is. Not only that, this site is clear and pristine and EASY to navigate, unlike the atrocity of Stephen Fry's blog which seems designed to make me feel like a technical dinosaur and a clumsy, out-of-touch loser (not to mention old). There's nothing more unfriendly than a bunch of kids standing in front of someone in the playground speaking a secret language. It's puerile, guys. 

But I digress. For years now I've been trying to track down Children's Record Guild recordings, which made up maybe 75% of the records I had as a kid. These were record-of-the-month-club things that covered standard fairy tales as well as oddball music, as in Pedro in Brazil:

"What's the difference between a donkey
And a man who sings too long?
The donkey is born braying,
But the man has to learn his song."

At the time these were seen as "quality" recordings, the stories serving as a delivery device for great indigestible wads of culture (i.e. Sleeping Beauty had the Tchaikovsky ballet score moaning away in the background). But what had happened to them? Did they still exist in a dusty, scratchy heap in someone's basement? Could I get them on eBay?

The only sites I found offered the original 78 r.p.m. records for $50 and up, with maybe a CD copy on the side. I sometimes heard snippets, but only enough to make me depressed. I decided I was chasing yet another chimera (like getting published again? Sorry, I got another rejection today.)

But soft! What's this? I stumbled on this site today the way I stumble on all the better sites I've found. The deal is this:  they present one "new" (meaning old) record per week. This goes back to 2005, so there are quite a few of them in the archives. 

The titles are listed down the left side of the screen in chronological order. Click on a familiar title - and I found lots of them (for example, Jimmy Stewart narrating Winnie the Pooh and the Heffalump) - and the cover will come up on the right hand side, nice and bright and big, taking up half the screen. Click under that, and a nanosecond later, you are hearing for the first time in 50 years:

"I am an Elephant Actor."

(Trumpet fanfare)

Greek Chorus: "This Elephant Actor is going to make believe he is the Brave King Babar."

"I am an Elephant Actress."

(Trumpet fanfare)

GC: "This Elephant Actress is going to make believe she is the beautiful Queen Celeste."

And what is more, it is all free, free, FREE, as it used to say in the ads at the back of the Jimmy Olsen Annual. One of the few really generous things I've seen on the net. There's nothing like it. Go.

I saw him again last night

I saw him again last night
And you know that I shouldn't
To string me along's just not right
If he couldn't he wouldn't

But what can I do, I'm lonely too
And it makes me feel so good to know
That he'll never leave me

I'm in way over my head
Now I  think that he loves me
Because that's what he said
Though he never thinks of me

But what can I do, I'm lonely too
And it makes me feel so good to know
He'll never leave me

Every time I see that boy
You know I wanna lay down and die
But I really need that boy
Oh I'm livin' a lie
It makes me wanna cry

I saw him again last night
And you know that I shouldn't
To string me along's just not right
If he couldn't he wouldn't

But what can I do, I'm lonely too
And it makes me feel so good to know
 That he'll never leave me

A feast for the eyes

When I tried to find hurdy-gurdy music on YouTube, I first had to wade through innumerable versions of Donovan's lame '60s song, which doesn't even have a hurdy-gurdy in it. I vagely remembered Allen Ginsberg reciting his poetry (Howl, perhaps?) while cranking one of these.

I could not figure it out: it had a sound kind of like Highland bagpipes, but it could also sound very Middle Eastern. It had a drone in the background with a "chanter" playing a repetitive tune, perhaps due to the restriction in range. It was fingered, not blown, but wind instruments are fingered too, aren't they? I had to turn to Wiki, and they told me this:

The hurdy gurdy or hurdy-gurdy (also known as a wheel fiddle) is a stringed musical instrument that produces sound by a crank-turned rosined wheel rubbing against the strings. The wheel functions much like a violin bow, and single notes played on the instrument sound similar to a violin. Melodies are played on a keyboard that presses tangents (small wedges, usually made of wood) against one or more of the strings to change their pitch. Like most other acoustic stringed instruments, it has a sound board to make the vibration of the strings audible.

Most hurdy gurdies have multiple 'drone strings,' which provide a constant pitch accompaniment to the melody, resulting in a sound similar to that of bagpipes. For this reason, the hurdy gurdy is often used interchangeably with or along with bagpipes, particularly in French and contemporary Hungarian folk music.

So I was partially right. A stringed instrument that plays bagpipe music. Unfortunately I could follow this path all day (and for months) and collect more and more odd-looking, odd-sounding videos of rare or antique/obsolete instruments. I posted this mainly because the hurdy-gurdy looks so gorgeous, and at least appears to be ancient. The musical performance is minimal.

Help me, I'm lost! I need to get on with my work, and all this stuff keeps on intruding.

An instrument built for two

Now this one is strange, very very strange. I'm still trying to wrap my mind around the tromba marina, that huge horn-like thing that turns out to be a massive, elongated, rectangular violin. This must be an overgrown hurdy-gurdy, but in this case it's so huge that it has to be operated (surely not played) by two. The effect is oddly electrified, like a modern rock guitar, and I can imagine Jimi Hendrix's version of The Star-Spangled Banner played on this, though the elderly European-looking musicians probably wouldn't know it.

So what would you do with this to transport it, to get it from place to place: a flatbed truck? How would you protect it from the elements (because it looks like one of those outdoor instruments)? Throw a tarp over it? Shrink-wrap it? The questions never end.

I like to think the instruments we have today have grandparents, and great-grandparents, and so on and so on. The crumhorn somehow turned into a sort of oboe, the rackett into - well, perhaps the modern-day fire extinguisher, and then - there's this.

Maybe it's like the dinosaurs, or the ancient period of "megafauna" when huge mammals ruled the earth, giant sloths and beavers the size of an apartment complex. Maybe over the centuries, things slowly shrank to a more manageable level. Or maybe this thing is just a wild card, predating the electric guitar by at least a millenium.