Sunday, March 25, 2012
I don't know what to do with this. It somehow relates to the last couple of posts, even if it's a stretch. I've been writing about odd memories being jogged loose, with the result that old songs leap forth as if they were compressed like a jack-in-the-box.
This time it's a cartoon, with music attached. Not Ah Poor Bird, not Frere Jacques or even Mahler's Third Symphony. I had some dim memory of a cartoon or cartoons that featured a sombre-looking black bird, not flying but walking with deliberate pace, occasionally (and inexplicably) hopping up in the air.
I somehow conflated this with a Popeye cartoon in which Wimpy chased a duck around with a meat grinder, but it wasn't the same one. It seemed more like one of those old Warner Brothers cartoons, with snappy patter and non-stop action. But where, when, how? It must have been a long way back, and I could not for the life of me remember anything else about it.
I tried to find it on YouTube, using terms like "black bird walking" or "Warner Brothers cartoon with black bird". Came up empty. But one thing I did remember was the musical accompaniment to all this walking and hopping. Though I didn't know the name of it back then, it somehow got recorded deep in my brain.
I don't know how many years or decades went by before I was able to recognize it: Hey, that's the piece in the bird cartoon! It's called Fingal's Cave, part of the Hebrides Overture by Mendelssohn.
When I searched under "cartoon Fingal's Cave", it magically popped up, even though those words were nowhere in the description. And lo: it was one of those old things from the '40s, now deemed too racist to show. Maybe that's why this cartoon was silenced, probably around 1960 or '61.
The character is called Inki, a little African kid who hunts game with disastrous results. He's a little too much like Little Black Sambo for comfort, though on YouTube pages people always rant about political correctness and about how THEY are little African kids who hunt game, too, and love the cartoon and think it's swell.
Inki, as it turns out, was featured in a whole series of cartoons, all with the black bird walking solemnly along to that low-key, almost eerie string version of Fingal's Cave. He would make a cameo appearance in a number of other cartoons, which tells me that he must've been popular for some reason, if only for his oddness.
So it actually happened, these cartoons are real. I'm not sure of the connection with Ah Poor Bird and Mahler and all that: maybe just birds and classical music? It's an unlikely combination, after all. But there it is.
Dear Sir or Madam, will you read my book
It took me years to write, will you take a look
Order The Glass Character from:
Barnes & Noble
It surprises me how often things are joined together, even chained, or branch ever outwards yet back into each other. Or is it like one of those plants that puts down new roots along its runners, like a spider plant or a banyan, thus recreating a baby plant complete in all its parts?
Whatever. It's Sunday, I made a few discoveries that I found intriguing, and I want to capture them before they melt away like a Creamsicle on a hot sidewalk in August. As I wrote in my last post, my little lovebird Jasper got sick and nearly died, until he suddenly popped back into vibrant health. This brought to mind the old Elizabethan round, Ah Poor Bird, which I had not thought about in. . . oops, half a century. Jesus, I'm getting old.
Then I remembered something my brother Walt said about Mahler: that a melody in one of his symphonies was actually Frere Jacques in a minor key. Bing-bing-bing: I realized that Ah Poor Bird (or something like it) may have been the original source.
Try it. Hum or sing Frere Jacques (and I don't know for sure if Americans even know it, but to Canadian children it's more familiar than O Canada). Then try Ah Poor Bird, as in the last post with the three singers. Compare and contrast.
Then we have the Mahler, conducted by Leonard Bernstein who is worthy of a post on his own. But he makes me sad, and he makes me sad because he had everything a person could ever want, including worldwide fame, and yet he was. . . sad.
He died of cancer at 70, I think, but it's a miracle he lived that long, smoking obsessively, drinking with ever-escalating ruthlessness and popping pills like candy. In his later years he seemed like a blurred version of himself. It affected his conducting. I heard a very late version of Beethoven's 9th that he conducted when the Berlin Wall fell: it lumbered, it galumphed, it didn't move along swiftly the way Beethoven desperately needs to to prevent it from sounding like Brahms on a bad day.
Beethoven has a heavy and profound and even dense and solid aspect, to be sure, but (being a paradoxical genius) there was also a mercurial quality, quicksilver and fire, and he was unpredictable. He did things that shouldn't have worked, and wouldn't have worked for anyone else. He was definitely the father of Mahler, as twisty and bizarre as Mahler can be. Mahler is the bad son, like Beethoven on acid.
Speaking of dying too young, Mahler keeled over dead from heart disease at 50. A sad loss for the music world, though much of his stuff was too impenetrable for me to enjoy. Simply unlistenable. I don't expect Readers Digest compilations of Strauss waltzes, but I must be able to find a point of entry somewhere. When music repeatedly pushes me away, I can no longer stay in its presence.
OK then! Bernstein, Mahler, and oh, who was that other guy. . . I mentioned Alban Berg, and he's a good example of being pushed away. His opera Lulu, which has nothing to do with To Sir with Love, is a lulu all right. It's a mess, a theoretical exercise that does not work in actuality. Not for me, anyway.
But it's interesting how much he resembled Stephen Fry. Almost no one resembles Stephen Fry. His face is like something you'd find on Easter Island, craggy and monumental. Kind of like. . . Beethoven?
I vaguely remembered this song from my childhood: though we weren't exactly the Von Trapps, we were given to singing in harmony, even in round, and I may have taken the soprano part (though I doubt it). Then the whole thing was tossed to the back of my brain, to the point that I began to think I had imagined it. For decades, it just didn't come up.
What shook it loose? Uhhhh. . . my bird got sick. That's right. I was ridiculed on someone else's blog just for having a bird, and a large picture of me was posted with Jasper on my shoulder: anyone who has birds must be nuts, some crackpot old lady half out of her mind.
I'm not. But to get back to the original point, we did some painting upstairs (in my office, in fact: it's now a lovely soft blue with a touch of dove-grey) and my bird got sick. We tried everything to keep him away from possible fumes. It may not have been the paint at all. He has something wrong with the toe on his left foot, and has partially lost his grip. Did he take a fall? For whatever reason, he was puffed up, ruffly and almost unresponsive, and we feared the worst.
When I picked him up (for he no longer had the energy to just hop into my hand as usual), he snuggled down in my palm as if in a nest and buried his head in my hand. Not normal behaviour, at all. It was then that the song began to play in my head. After more than 50 years, my sick birdie pushed "play".
Ah, poor bird. Take thy flight. For some reason I remembered my brother Arthur singing it. It was one of those songs that came from who-knows-where: nobody wrote it, apparently. It just "was". On doing a bit of digging, however, I discover that the roots of it may well be Elizabethan. No doubt it sounded different hundreds of years ago and there were/are many versions, but this is the one I kept finding on YouTube.
This was the only decent version I uncovered. It's an amateur group, but they're definitely singers. It's touching, if not perfect: meaning, it's music. I like the way they sing it more than once, the way they work on it and discuss it and let it evolve. The process is everything (and I particularly like their obvious joy in singing).
Most of the videos I found were of Godawful children's choruses singing wildly off-key. It's a children's song, apparently, like Frere Jacques. . . but hey, do you hear a sort of similarity? Flip Frere Jacques into a minor key, and there you have it. With only a few changes, we have the original Ah Poor Bird, stolen by who-knows-who.
Way leads on to way. The next association was with Gustav Mahler and his - what, second symphony? We played Mahler recordings endlessly when I was a child (along with every other classical composer, up to and including Kurt Weill and Alban Berg). One day the slow movement of this symphony was playing, and my older brother Walt said, "Listen to this. It's Frere Jacques." "No it isn't." "Yes it is. It's just in a minor key." "What's that?" "You know. The sad key." I was probably eight years old, but it somehow stuck.
I found a recording of the Mahler piece and will post it next, along with some revelations about the composer and Leonard Bernstein, then deemed the go-to guy for interpreting Mahler symphonies. It's funny how finding one video, or remembering one bit of tune due to a sick bird, can open out memory telescopically, or rather, kaleidoscopically.
By the way, my bird suddenly recovered and is now hopping into my hand, devouring millet and humping his plastic toys with his usual elan.