There is a faith in loving fiercely
the one who is rightfully yours,
especially if you have
waited years and especially
if part of you never believed
you could deserve this
loved and beckoning hand
held out to you this way.
I am thinking of faith now
and the testaments of loneliness
and what we feel we are
worthy of in this world.
Years ago in the Hebrides
I remember an old man
who walked every morning
on the grey stones
to the shore of the baying seals,
who would press his hat
to his chest in the blustering
salt wind and say his prayer
to the turbulent Jesus
hidden in the water,
and I think of the story
of the storm and everyone
waking and seeing
yet familiar figure
far across the water
calling to them,
and how we are all
preparing for that
and that calling,
and that moment
we have to say yes,
except it will
not come so grandly,
but more subtly
and intimately in the face
of the one you know
you have to love,
so that when we finally step out of the boat
toward them, we find
us, and confirms
our courage, and if you wanted
to drown you could,
but you don’t
after all the struggle
and all the years,
you don’t want to any more,
you’ve simply had enough
and you want to live and you
want to love and you will
walk across any territory
and any darkness,
however fluid and however
dangerous, to take the
one hand you know
belongs in yours.
Ellen Foley’s Fighting Words, written & produced by Paul Foglino, wins multiple awards, including Best Rock Album, 2021, also Song of the Year, 2021, for “Are You Good Enough?” and more
By PAUL ZOLLO
The recipients of the 2021 Bluerailroad Awards, for excellence in music and music-writing, were announced today. The biggest winners are Ellen Foley and her producer-songwriter Paul Foglino. Together and separately they won several Bluerailroad awards, including Best Rock Album, 2021 for Fighting Words; Song of the Year and Best Rock Song for “Are You Good Enough?” and Best Folk Song for “Fill Your Cup.”
In addition, Ellen Foley was individually awarded as the Artist of the Year, 2021, and Paul Foglino, individually, was awarded with the Songwriter of the Year, 2021 award.
The legendary and beloved Ross Altman was awarded with the Pete & Woody Lifetime Achievement in Songwriting Award, as well as the Best Folk Album award for If Not Now, When?
The phenomenal Lady Blackbird and her co-writer/producer Chris Seefried are also multiple winners, for her debut album, Black Acid Soul, named Best Jazz Album, 2021. And also for Best Jazz Song, 2021, for “Fix It,” performed by Lady Blackbird, and written by Seefried and Bill Evans,.
St. Vincent won her fourth Bluerailroad award this year for Best Art Rock album for Daddy’s Home.
We are happy to announce all the recipients for the 2021 Bluerailroad Awards for Excellence in Music:
The BLUERAILROAD MUSIC AWARDS, 2021
BLUERAILROAD ARTIST OF THE YEAR, 2021 Ellen Foley
BLUERAILROAD SONGWRITER OF THE YEAR, 2021: Paul Foglino
SONG OF THE YEAR, 2021 “Are You Good Enough?” Paul Foglino, songwriter; Ellen Foley, artist.
BEST FOLK SONG “Fill Your Cup,” written by Paul Foglino; performed by Ellen Foley on Fighting Words
THE BLUERAILROAD PETE & WOODY LIFETIME ACHIEVEMENT AWARD in SONGWRITING Ross Altman PhD
BEST FOLK ALBUM, 2021 Ross Altman, If Not Now, When?
BEST JAZZ ALBUM, 2021 Lady Blackbird, Black Acid Soul. Chris Seefried, producer.
BEST JAZZ SONG, 2021: “Fix It,” By Lady Blackbird, artist, Chris Seefried, Bill Evans; songwriters
BEST ART ROCK ALBUM St. Vincent, Daddy’s Home
The BLUERAILROAD JULES SHEAR SONGWRITING ARTISTRY AWARD for BEST ALBUM OF BRAND NEW MIRACLE SONGS Jules Shear, Slower
PRODUCER OF THE YEAR Shooter Jennings, We Are Chaos, Marilyn Manson (artist).
BEST ROCK COLLABORATION Marilyn Manson & Shooter Jennings, We Are Chaos
BEST ROCK & ROLL ALBUM: Jimmy Angel & The Jason Gutierrez 3, Love Fever. Produced by Jason Gutierrez.
GREATEST RADIO SINGLE OF 2021: EELS, “Good Night On Earth.” Written by E; produced by John Parish.
BEST NEW CLASSIC ROCK SONG Barry Keenan & Invisible Poet Kings, “North Country”
BEST HIP POP ALBUM OF THE YEAR: Finneas, Optimist
MOST HAUNTINGLY MELODIC SONG, 2021 Ryan Levine, “I Miss The War”
MOST BELOVED ANGELENO ARTIST OF THE YEAR Tom Freund
MOST BELOVED ANGELENO BAND OF THE YEAR Los Lobos
BEST SOLO INSTRUMENTAL ALBUM Ben Harper, Winter is for Lovers Released in November, 2020
BEST L.A. RADIO STATION KCSN, the Independent 88.5 FM | Southern California Radio
BEST NEW BEATLES MOVIE Get Back PETER JACKSON, Director JOHN LENNON, PAUL McCARTNEY, GEORGE HARRISON & RINGO STARR, Beatles Also starring BILLY PRESTON, GEORGE MARTIN, YOKO ONO, LINDA McCARTNEY and MAL EVANS
THE BLUERAILROAD EDEN AHBEZ SONG-DREAMER AWARD Marvin Etzioni
BESTSONG WRITTEN FOR A MOVIE: “No Time To Die,” by Billie Eilish and Finneas
The DR. JOHN MYSTIC PIANO MAN AWARD, 2021: Bob Malone
BEST JAZZ/BLUES/R&B/FUNK/PIANO MAN ALBUM OF THE YEAR, 2021: Bob Malone, Good People
THE WARREN ZEVON GENIUS AWARD, 2021: Neil Rosengarden
MOST BEAUTIFUL, EXPANSIVE and LOVINGLY DESIGNED WOODY GUTHRIE BOOK, 2021 Nora Guthrie, Robert Santelli, Woody Guthrie, Songs and Art – Words and Wisdom: Voice of the People
Never has a songwriter written a memoir as beautiful and powerful as this one. But there’s never been another artist like Rickie Lee. It’s among the most poignant, funny, genuine, tragic, romantic, poetic, harrowing, ambitious, generous , soulful, brilliantly rendered, immaculately remembered, luminously musical and exultant memoirs ever written.
GREATEST SONGWRITER MEMOIR EVER: Rickie Lee Jones, Last Chance Texaco, Chronicles of an American Troubadour
BEST MUSIC BIOGRAPHY, 2021 Ben Sidran, The Ballad of Tommy LiPuma
GREATEST AND MOST MAGICAL LEONARD COHEN ON HYDRA MEMOIR Leonard, Marianne and Me Magical Summers on Hydra By Judy Scott
BEST AND MOST INSIGHTFUL BOOK ON JOHN & YOKO JOHN KRUTH, Hold On World: The Lasting Impact of John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s Plastic Ono Band, Fifty Years On
BEST MUSIC PHOTO BOOK, 2021 Eye of the Music. The Photography of Sherry Rayn Barnett; New York to LA 1969-1989 Foreword by Holly Gleason
BEST MEMOIR FEATURING BOB DYLAN , LEONARD COHEN, THE DALAI LAMA and more Nomad Girl, My Adventures with Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, John Lee Hooker, the Dalai Lama and more. By Niema Ash
BEST LINER NOTES John Kruth, Trees of the Ages; Laura Nyro Live in Japan
THE BEST JOHN PRINE SONG BY SONG CELEBRATION BOOK John Prine, One Song At A Time By Bruce Rits Gilbert
Ross Altman is also the winner this year for Best Folk Album, 2021 for If Not Now, When?
“All songwriters are links in a chain.” – Pete Seeger
“Everybody might be just one big soul Well, it looks that a way to me… Wherever little children are hungry and cry, Wherever people ain’t free That’s where I’m gonna be…”
Bluerailroad is happy to announce that Ross Altman has won not one but two awards this year (our first double winner ever):
He is the first recipient of the 2021 Bluerailroad Pete & Woody Lifetime Achievement Award in Songwriting for his entire lifetime of writing and performing his own songs, informed and empowered by his work as a scholar, historian, journalist and activist.
Ross is also the recipient of the Best Folk Album of the Year 2021 award for his latest album If Not Now, When? We will bring you more about this album in coming days.
We named the Lifetime Achievement award in honor of Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie because individually, and together as friends, they both exemplified the better and even best angels of songwriting. Woody knew, as Bob Dylan told us, that “the airwaves are sacred. Though these airwaves are now considered ‘terrestrial,’ they’re hardly earthbound; he recognized that this was more than a vehicle for musical confection, contrived and sugared for mass appeal. To him this was a miraculously powerful tool by which one could reach the masses directly and constantly, inspiring and uniting people.
He also recognized that It also could be used to lull, distract, misinform, fool, frighten and divide. To Woody it was self-evident that given its unbound power and scope it should be used in positive ways, to bring hope, love, unity and trust to the people. To bring songs about social injustice – about the deportees and dispossessed, those made to feel that this land is not their land. He knew the power of song – combined with that of radio – could change the world for the good. Here was a way to deliver musical messages of hope and solace to all people, even those cut off from life. He wrote songs to bring people together, to lift their hearts, and to connect souls.
Always the message came across:
Yes, this is a crazy world. Brutal, in fact. But you are not alone. We’re doing this together.
“The worst thing you can do,” wrote Woody, “is to cut yourself loose from the people. And the best thing is to vaccinate yourself right into the big streams and blood of the people.”
Ross Altman’s allegiance to this principle has been positively heroic over the years. As an activist and performer. he’s closer to Pete than Woody. Whereas Woody might turn to a jug of wine, as he did to fuel the epic “Tom Joad,” falling asleep over Pete’s old acoustic typewriter, Pete nourished his spirit with activism and scholarship both. He also became a serious folk music archivist, by discovering and performing folk songs from the very roots, as well as all the branches. Ross is a serious scholar who knows this history, and also that of Pete & Woody. As he said in a performance of Pete’s controversial “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy,” when he was a kid, people didn’t talk about Pete Seeger much because he was blacklisted. His music was considered dangerous – and kept off the sacred airwaves. But Ross kept talking about him, and singing his praises, and his songs.
As a performing artist, he’s also closer to Pete than Woody. As Steinbeck wrote, Woody was just “a voice and a guitar.” He wasn’t a polished performer at all, nor an entertainer. Pete Seeger – on his own and with his group The Weavers – was a powerful, charismatic performer with a beautiful and powerful singing voice. Ross, in addition to his other multitiudes, has one of the most commanding, resonant singing voices of any folksinger. He can project a melody with vigor and easy grace, and can deliver a lyric so that it is received fully. Had he never written any of his own songs, he would still be one of the great folksingers of our time.
Like Woody, Ross has a rarefied songwriting gift which is almost extinct in these post-modern modern times: the ability to translate the timely cultural events and characters of today into timeless and sturdy songs. Woody was a genius at this, as we have come to learn. Daily he’d land on items in the newspaper which would trigger songs, which he would usually write and complete immediately. As songwriters know, it’s not an easy thing to do. To create a lasting song, something that matters long after the subject has come and gone, and in this age of digital news flashing as fast as lightning and then disappearing, is harder than ever. He does it, as did Woody, with a great mixture of wisdom, compassion and humor.
Ross Altman is probably the most prolific, literate, experienced, politically active, and excellent topical singer/songwriter in Los Angeles today.”
Woody did it countless times, as has Ross. His newest album, If Not Now, When? our favorite Folk album of 2021, does this over and over, and with as much joy and flair as ever. Because in addition to that knack with the timely, newsy details of daily life, it also requires a savvy craftsman. Because a song is more than words. It is more than poetry. It is born as a creature of both words and music, which inherently unites the timely and the timeless, and the specific with the universal. To accomplish this requires a real mastery of all aspects of song craft – those ancient elements which even poetry has mostly abandoned but which we find in songs always – rhyme, meter, symbology, myth. Those are all contained within the lyrics. Add to that the abstract unseen but undeniable force of music itself – of melody, harmony, rhythm – all wed precisely to the contours of the human voice, so that the song sings naturally.
The opening song of the new album is a remarkable crystallization of his brilliance with the topical song. “Terry Schiavo RIP ” not only rips right to the center of this horror, which many have probably long forgotten, of a husband keeping his wife alive in the hospital against the wishes of her family. How one would translate that into a song is hard to fathom. He took a Phil Ochs/Tom Lehrer way in – the use of dark whimsy mixed in with great song craft and virtuoso rhyming, This is a man who knows what he is doing.
Part of that stems from the fact that, like Pete Seeger – and also his father Charles Seeger -= Ross is a scholar. Not only one of our greatest historians of folk music in America, he’s got a PhD in Modern Literature. It’s why he can write an elegiac song for the poet W.H. Auden as beautifully as he writes about the tragic death of Robin Williams. In a world where so many songwriters presume wrongly that there’s no song content left for them, as “everything’s been done,” he has shown in every album the real-time truth: that the potential content of a song is limitless.
This is not the first time Ross has been awarded for his songwriting and activism. In 2016 Folkworks magazine, where Ross was a columnist since 2003, writing his How Can I Keep From Talking column, awarded him with the first-ever Folkworks Standing Ovation award “to honor individuals who have contributed to our folk community.” Their words fit our sentiment exactly; this wasn’t a hard choice:
“For our first award, the selection was so easy and obvious. The person who came to mind immediately was our own esteemed FolkWorks writer, and Los Angeles institution, Ross Altman.
Ross cares about people and about ethics… not just in his singing and writing…but in his everyday caregiving. He is motivated by the likes of Pete Seeger, Tom Paxton, Phil Ochs, Buffy Ste. Marie, Joan Baez and of course Bob Dylan. In fact, through his writings in FolkWorks, Ross has garnered attention as an authority on Bob Dylan.“
We will bring you more about Ross and the new album, but first some great holiday gifts. Here are some performances by the man of some great originals, and also songs by Pete & Woody.
And on behalf of all those whose journeys have been enriched by the songs, spirit and soul of this artist, we say: For all the things you are, thank you Ross Altman forever. We love you.
Everyone tells me I am crazy to want to be a songwriter. Are they right?
Is wanting to be a songwriter crazy?
Tommy B. Electra, Texas USA
Yes. They are right. Wanting to be a songwriter in this day and age is undeniably crazy. Maybe crazier than ever.
Unless you’re still a kid. But for adults with bills to pay, and families to support, then yes. Crazy. In terms of making money. It will cost more money than it will earn at first, if not forever.
Way less crazy would be to get any real job – waiting tables, walking dogs, walking dogs around tables, washing dogs,- anything for which you can make money. That would be the decidedly less crazy course of action.
Let’s be realistic: How many songwriters starting today can make a living in this profession?
The answer: Approximately 0.000002%. Which is less than 1 %.
Those are not good odds!
So, yes, you have to be crazy to be a songwriter now.
Does this mean you should stop writing songs?
What? Are you crazy? Of course not!
Being a songwriter in these modern times is doing it despite the world telling you that it is crazy. But what does the world know about songwriting? They think it is fun. And not like a real job. And of course, they are right! But it is real work.
Does the world even need any new songs? As Bob Dylan told us in these pages, no. The worlds has enough songs to last us.
“Unless,” Dylan added, “someone comes along with a pure heart and something to say.”
Which brings us to the late great Michael Smith, who did have a pure heart and a lot to say. He wrote “The Dutchman” and “Spoon River” and other miracle songs. Yet this man who brought so much beauty to the world with his songs felt uninvited as a songwriter in modern times.
“The world doesn’t want you to write songs. It wants you to pay the bills.”
Which is true. It’s why merging these two disparate ideas – `songwriter’ and `modern times’ – we form a perfect recipe for cognitive dissonance. Also known as crazy.
Unless songwriting is truly your true passion, and is a genuine calling, something that is part of your essential being, then this is the wrong direction for you. And it’s important in life, when you find yourself heading in the wrong direction, to turn around ! It is not too late. Save yourself!
But if songwriting for you is a true calling, an essential part of your soul and sinew, the way you define yourself and make sense of the world, then it is already too late for you. You are already crazy, and there’s no saving you anymore. You’re a songwriter for life. And beyond.
“I have often wondered if, actually, being an artist in any way is kind of a sign of dysfunction… I think it’s a loony kind of thing to want to do.
-David Bowie, March 1988
So, yes, you have to be crazy to be a songwriter now. One has to consider art a true calling, have a benefactor of some sort, have other sources of income, be independently wealthy, or be okay living in a tent under the overpass while writing songs for your next album.
That being said, being an artist at all in modern times, in which art and beauty are forever being threatened by chaos and urban decay, can make you crazy. Being a musician in a world of dissonance, like a pacifist in a world of war, is also crazy-making.
And crazy, after all, is not always terrible. As all my fellow crazy songwriters already know. Many of our greatest songwriters, including from Lorenz Hart through Paul Simon and beyond, have declared they are crazy, are still crazy after all these years.
But songwriters – and all artists – despite the odds against them of achieving enough success to keep from going under, can do many things the non-crazy, gainfully employed at regular jobs cannot.
Of these, the most weighty one is they can change the world. They can make an impact. They are creators whose work becomes part of the human journey of our time, and beyond.
One song can reach a million hearts in a day. And then more. Unlike most human creations, it is impervious to time. It is imperishable.
And as my fellow crazy songwriting and making music comes with a multitude of non-financial motivations. It starts with the joy of music itself. Carole King, who has written many if the world’s most beloved songs, and is a songwriter with great worldly success, told us that if she were starting out today, she would still write songs, but would get a day job.
She wasn’t certain, she said, she’d be able to figure out how to make a living as a songwriter in today’s business. Yet she would want to keep writing songs.
“Because the reward,” she said, “is in the doing.”
Is Carole King crazy? Crazy wise, perhaps.
The doing is the process of songwriting. No matter what kind of song you write, or if you work and work and get nothing, it’s not like time spent in a coal mine digging, or in a factory laboring, or an Amazon warehouse. You’ve been inside song – inside words and music. Which is a great place to be.
Merry Christmas Bowie & Bing Crosby in Best Christmas Duet Ever
Artists through the eons have had to balance the dream of a life in art with the reality of life in the world. Even the greatest artists known to man, such as Michelangelo, had to accept the indignity of creating his masterpieces only when financed by patrons. Painting the frescoes on the ceiling and wall of the Sistine Chapel, which he accomplished in long, laborious and painful sessions lying on his back between 1502 and 1508, was not a job he wanted to do. He wanted to sculpt marble. But Pope Julius II wanted him, and he could not say no to The Vatican or to regular employment.
And though it wasn’t the work he wanted, he invested himself into its creation with an intensity which seemed linked to some madness. There is a prevalent theory about him that he had Asperger’s disorder, a form of high-functioning autism. It might have triggered the intensity of his ambition to create true masterpieces – even at The Sistine, where he didn’t want to be, he spent years, literally, to create a work far greater, more complex than anyone requested or required. It took him six years to complete.
Yet these efforts, even if they belong to a madman, did result in one of the world’s greatest masterpiece, his sprawling Sistine Chapel epic, which has lasted through five centuries.
On that ceiling, and in all his work, he created a bridge of transcendence. It is art for the ages, which speaks to our ancient souls and connects us to that which is beyond words – our innate aesthetic love of timeless beauty – which we need to survive and flourish.
Yet we also need bread. Some butter is nice, roo, but extra. Our fundamental mission in this lifetime is survival. That we survive, and help others do so. So as to get through each day with enough food, shelter, safety and sustenance to endure the everyday challenges of existence.
To do this by making art is not a rational move. Prehistoric man understood this. There was no cave-painting being done during hunting season. Human survival does eclipse art. As David Bowie, one of the greatest songwriters of our time, said, it is the act of a lunatic.
“I have often wondered if, actually, being an artist in any way,” Bowie said in 1988 on the Charlie Rose TV show, “is a kind of a sign of dysfunction. It’s an extraordinary thing to want to do, to express yourself in such rarefied terms. I think it’s a loony kind of thing to want to do.”
Loony! This from a man who wrote remarkable songs through every year of his adult life.
Was he a lunatic? If so, a very great one.
DAVID BOWIE ON THE DYSFUNCTION OF DOING ART
“The saner and more rational approach to life,” said Bowie, “is to survive steadfastly and create a protective home and create a warm, loving environment for one’s family, and get food for them. That’s about it. Anything else is extra.”
Yet did Bowie ever stop writing songs? No. Like Michelangelo, who worked into the last week of his life, at the age of 88, Bowie persisted too. In the last year of his life, in pain and knowing he was not long for this world, he chose writing a song as his lack act on earth. That song and the rest formed Blackstar, his final masterpiece.
Blackstar was released on Bowiie 69th birthday, January 8, 2016. He died of liver cancer two days after its release on January 10, 2016.
Look up here, I’m in heaven I’ve got scars that can’t be seen I’ve got drama, can’t be stolen Everybody knows me now
Look up here, man, I’m in danger I’ve got nothing left to lose I’m so high it makes my brain whirl Dropped my cell phone down below Ain’t that just like me?
By the time I got to New York, I was living like a king There I’d used up all my money I was looking for your ass This way or no way You know, I’ll be free Just like that bluebird Now, ain’t that just like me? Oh, I’ll be free
Just like that bluebird Oh, I’ll be free Ain’t that just like me?
End of Part One.
Jordan Peterson on Art, Transcendence and the Meaning of Song
As author, professor, psychologist and controversial Internet phenomenon, Jordan Peterson has written, humans need a connection to that river. Without awareness of the transcendent world, our lives do not resonate as they could. They become pointless.
JORDAN PETERSON: A real piece of art is a window into the transcendent, and you need that in your life, because you are finite and limited and bound by your ignorance. Unless you can make a connection to the transcendent, you will not have the strength to prevail when the challenges of life become daunting. You need to establish a link with what is beyond you, like a man overboard in high seas requires a life preserver, and the invitation of beauty into your life is one means by which that may be accomplished.
Art is the bedrock of culture itself. It is the foundation of the process by which we unite ourselves psychologically, and come to establish productive peace with others.
Mankind needs transcendence, he says, “because you are finite and limited and bound by your ignorance.”
That edge, where artists are always transforming chaos into order, can be a very rough and dangerous place. Living there, an artist constantly risks falling fully into the chaos, instead of transforming it. But artists have always lived there, on the border of human understanding.
Art bears the same relationship to society that the dream bears to mental life. You are very creative when you are dreaming. That is why, when you remember a dream, you think, “Where in the world did that come from?” It is very strange and incomprehensible that something can happen in your head, and you have no idea how it got there or what it means. It is a miracle: nature’s voice manifesting itself in your psyche. And it happens every night.”
“Cezanne painted a red barn by painting it ten shades of color: purple to yellow. And he got a red barn. Similarly, a poet will describe things many different ways, circling around it, to get to the truth.
My father also had a nice little simile. He said: “The truth is a rabbit in a bramble patch. And you can’t lay your hand on it. All you do is circle around and point, and say, ‘It’s in there somewhere.’”
-Pete Seeger from `Songwriters On Songwriting‘
By PAUL ZOLLO
Being a songwriter in the world is the best of jobs and the worst of jobs. It’s the best because we make songs. We make order out of chaos, and find harmony within the dissonance. We give meaning to an increasingly crazy world, and create something timeless in a time when nothing seems to last more than a moment. And we get to live inside of music, which remains one of mankind’s most beautiful forces, as mysterious as ever, and powerful.
But it’s also the worst job in many ways, not only for the decimation and reconstruction of this industry we once knew, but because being a songwriter is a vulnerable position to be in. To be a songwriter in this world –a creator of music – requires a singular sort of person. It takes someone who feels things deeply, deeply enough to reach down into that well of emotion and swirl of ideas, and capture it with the abstractions of music combined with the specificities of language.
Of course, the kind of person who wants to do that – and is capable of it, even creating an entire career of it – is the kind of person who feels things deeply. Who might overthink some things, or all things. Who might linger often on the edges of obsession if not in its very core. Such is the source of art. Everyone knows sorrow, among other dynamics, is often at the heart of songs. And someone who connects so directly with sorrow, or any intense emotion, is deeply hurt by criticism and rejection. So this songwriting thing can be painful. But it’s necessary pain.
It takes real courage to do what we do. It takes chutzpah, as my mother would say. Creative courage. This is the business of putting your heart and soul out in the world, where everyone feels free to criticize and tear down what you’ve done. And it hurts. Songwriters, except if they’re genuine hacks, feel this stuff to our cores. And when somebody tears into one of your songs, it’s like an arrow straight to the heart. Because, as Randy Newman told me, songwriting is “life and death.” It’s everything. Nothing means more. Few things achieve the kind of bliss a songwriter experiences after completing a great one. And few things hurt more than unwarranted criticism.
Sure, constructive criticism is good and even necessary. Not always invited, and should be offered only when asked. But destructive criticism, well, that is quite a different matter. Any kind of rejection can be hurtful. Yet this is a business, not a humane organization created to coddle songwriters. This is an industry, and those in charge necessarily want something from you they feel will sell. And they determine what will sell by what is presently selling. At this very second.
Which means they aren’t going to be looking for your most experimental work. As great as we know it may be. They are not looking to stretch the envelope in any way. They want something that fits directly into that envelope. As those of us who have done this for more than a few days knows well.
So your challenge as a songwriter becomes not only the writing of songs, but the ability to withstand criticism and rejection. If you are not derailed by it, you can stay on track. If it does stop you, however, you won’t make any progress. Louis CK, the great comic, spoke of bringing this wisdom to life – the wisdom to withstand circumstances that don’t work well for you. “As long as you don’t stop,” he said, “you are unstoppable.”
Few words matter more in the ongoing challenge of remaining an artist in this industry, and creating art you know can be successful, if it is given a chance. But this is what it takes, and examples which prove this are abundant.
“I don’t think it’s a good idea for a serious songwriter to pay attention to what critics say…. They don’t know what they’re talking about. Unless you write songs and make records, you just can’t know what it’s about.” — Paul Simon
Keep in mind that few things are more subjective than a response to music. Even collaborators of famous songs didn’t recognize what they had at first. The most famous example is the writing of “Somewhere Over The Rainbow,” by Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg. Arlen had composed its famous melody, but his lyricist, Harburg, didn’t like it at all. He had yet to write the words, and felt this was all wrong, too sophisticated – and “like a torch song” – for a little girl in Kansas.
Arlen, however, knew what he had. So he invited his neighbor Ira Gershwin to hear it, and Ira suggested he simplify the accompaniment, and “play it like a folk song.” When Yip heard it in this new setting, he recognized the beauty of this tune, and wrote the iconic words to it.
Dave Brubeck told me that when he brought “Take Five” which Paul Desmond composed on his suggestion to their drummer Joe Morello’s 5/4 groove, to Columbia Records, they didn’t want to release it: “You don’t know the fights we had,” he said. “It wasn’t in 4/4 time. The sales-people said it could never work. Well, they were wrong. It worked.”
To put it lightly. “Take Five” became the single most-played jazz record of all time. Yet those in charge were certain it couldn’t fly.
Record companies being wrong is nothing new, of course. Capitol Records, as well as every single American record company. except Vee-Jay, famously rejected the Beatles not once but many times. The prevailing wisdom at the time was that only singers can have hits in America – think Sinatra, Elvis, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, etc. – but groups, no. And per usual, that prevailing wisdom was entirely wrong, based only on the past with no vision of the future (which was the British invasion, which changed popular music forever and gave Capitol Records and others American labels their greatest success ever.)https://dcbaf02c2a198c33c8322b97900df374.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-38/html/container.html
In our book, Tom Petty related the staggering account of having delivered Full Moon Fever ro the record company, and being informed they wouldn’t release it. The reason? They didn’t “hear a hit.”
He waited six months, by which time many of those executives who didn’t like it had been replaced. He brought in the same record, and they loved it. It became one of the greatest successes of an extremely successful career, garnering not one but four hit singles: “Free Fallin’,” “Running Down A Dream,” “I Won’t Back Down,” and “A Face In The Crowd.”
Ray Evans, who with his partner Jay Livingston composed several standards, including “Silver Bells,” “Mona Lisa” and “Que Sera Sera,” told me that every one of their famous songs was turned down and criticized.
“Every hit we had was turned down all over the place,” Ray said. “`Mona Lisa’ was not even going to be released. Nat King Cole said, ‘Who wants this? Nobody will buy this.’ … `To Each His Own’ was laughed at. They said, ‘Who wants a song with that title?’ … We played `Buttons and Bows’ for the head of Famous Music, and he said, ‘We might be able to get a hillbilly record out of it. That’s the best we can do.’”
Even the singers themselves often didn’t grasp the greatness of their material, none more famously than Doris Day, who would only do one take of “Que Sera” because she so hated it that she didn’t want to sing it twice. It became the greatest hit of her career, and her theme song.
“That’s nothing against her,” Jay said, “It’s just that nobody knows.”
Well, there is somebody who knows. That’s you. The songwriter. You know better than anyone – be it a critic, an executive, a singer, or even a spouse. You know what you’ve got. You need to trust your heart, and trust your song. And know you’re not alone. So many of the great songwriters I’ve interviewed told me they suffered because of criticism and rejection. Their years of success did nothing to protect them for this injury. Yet they used the pain to motivate them to move towards their next work.
Rickie Lee Jones said that she was singing at a campfire – years before she made her first album – and a total stranger insisted on telling her how awful her singing was. It made her cry. But she didn’t stop singing.
James Taylor told me that after Rolling Stone dubbed him the worst of all the “confessional songwriters,” it hurt him for years. But he kept going.
Paul Simon said he was so downhearted by the poor reception of his album Hearts and Bones that he felt nobody cared anymore, “nobody was listening.” But rather than indulge in self-pity, he followed his muse to South Africa and recorded the tracks that became Graceland. Figuring he’d lost his audience, he drowned his sorrow in music, and created a landmark in American popular music.
“I don’t think it’s a good idea for a serious songwriter to pay attention to what [critics] say,” he said. “It’s just too hard. And it’s not informative. They don’t know what they’re talking about. Unless you write songs and make records, you just can’t know what it’s about.”
The moral, in the words of Ray Evans, is: “Never give up.” Being an artist in this world, and in this industry at this time, is bound to be painful. But that pain can be translated into song. You need to endure, and to keep going. The only thing that can stop you, ultimately, is you.
It helps to remember that what you do matters. Writing a song – in this world at this time – is a true achievement. The world doesn’t tell you to write songs. Often it encourages not creativity, but destruction. But songwriters bring songs to this world, and that is, as Van Dyke Parks said, “a triumph of the human spirit.” Whether one person hears your song or one million, it is a true triumph. Which is why I echo Bob Dylan’s remark, “Thank God for songwriters.”
and other concepts harmful to the soul & spirit of a songwriter
By PAUL ZOLLO
“There are ways,” said Bob Dylan, “that you can get out of whatever you’ve gotten into.” From our 1991 interview, he’s discussing ways of remaining creatively engaged so as to do good work, without slipping into the malaise of sameness, that uninspired sense that you’re spinning your wheels. As soon as that happens, Dylan advised, get off the main road. Take a detour.
“You want to get out of it,” he said. “It’s bad enough getting into it. But the thing to do as soon as you get into it is realize you must get out of it . And unless you get out of it quickly and effortlessly, there’s no use staying in it. It will just drag you down. You could be spending years writing the same song, telling the same story, doing the same thing. So once you involve yourself in it, once you accidentally have slipped into it, the thing is to get out.”
Face your fears And stop empowering them.
But when you get out, how do you get back in? Sometimes taking the normal routeisn’t the best way. It’s the most obvious and logical method. But obvious logic, which is made up of conventional, linear thinking, is too limited to apply to songwriting. Regular physical realities, such as the dynamic of cause and effect, simply do not aply to songwriting. Occasionally they might, but regular laws of physics are mostly unrelated to songwriting.
Part of this is due to the fact that a song being born is like a living thing coming into the world, and its safe delivery requires a delicate, loving approach. Always there is the risk of scaring away a nascent song spark, not unlike a frightened kitten, by being too directly aggressive. Chances are it might run under the couchto hide, where you can’t reach it.
Face your fears
You got nothing to lose but your years
Face your fears
You got nothing to shed but your tears
You’re not young you’re not old
You’re just here
Face your fears
And as the silence of night it draws near
Face your fears
Like a beacon of light it’s clear
You’re not old
And there is nothing in life you should run fromfrom "Face Your Fears"
By Ben Sidran
At this precarious moment in its development, that spark – that tiny flame — is a “living spirit,” as Rickie Lee Jones said, which requires gentle, loving guidance to nurture into a fullblown song. But if that unformed, unrealized song glimmer is questioned, criticized, intimidated or scared, “you will destroy it,” said Rickie Lee. You’ll kill is before it is even born.
A song spark – not unlike a baby newly delivered into this world – needs nourishment, comfort and calm. Love helps too. Authentic love for its strengths and singularities. If you don’t feel that, or if there are aspects of the song which you feel are unlovable, work on those, and revise them. Trust your instincts.
Remember a song in formation is extremely sensitive to everything, yet unknowing of most things beyond the fundamental urge to survive. A construct of the songwriter’s psychology, it’s extremely delicate, not unlike a tiny flame one tries to bolster into a big campfire, while a winter wind keeps whipping . Your own negative ideas, such as doubting, questioning or mistrusting this spark, are like that wind, capable of snuffing out that little flame before it has a chance to grow up.
In this way, songwriting becomes a process of negotiating with one’s own interior psychology. To do that well over years -decades even- requires learning the impact of your attitudes about creativity, and specifically, songwriting. Only by becoming conscious of that which works for you and that which doesn’t, and actively avoid that which always stalls or ends the process, you won’t get past that stage.
But how do you do that? Not scaring off that glimmer of song is only the start. How do you engage with it? How do you make it feel safe? Songs, unlike baby birds, don’t learn to fly by being pushed out of the tree.
So how then?
It begins with first removing all hindrances. Like ensuring one can get out of a house easily in case of fire by having no obstructions, a songwriter must also create a clear pathway. This means removing psychological obstructions created by your own ideas.
Which brings us to “writer’s block.” So prevalent is this concept that most people regard it as a real affliction, not unlike a broken arm, or Chicken Pox. It’s considered an unavoidable sickness, and one which simply needs to be endured. People assume they will heal in time, but it can take months, and there’s no medicine to quicken recovery.
But it is not a real affliction at all; it’s a psychological contruct of your own brain; created and empowered entirely by your own anxiety or fear.
In truth, creativity and your personal success at harnessing it is entirely dependent on your ability to clear the way. This means clearing out all fear, or worry, or any negativity which can get in the way. If there are any psychological assumptions obstructing you, they need to be removed. And none of those is worse than this idea of writer’s block.
It’s important to divorce yourself entirely from this line of thinking, so as to erase the potential of falling into this same trap. Otherwise, you actively promote the false notion that your creativity gets stopped in its tracks like blood to the heart. But it isn’t true at all. It isn’t physical.
Also important is to recognize that, for whatever reason, creativity ebbs and flows. There are those days when, as Tom Petty said, “the guitar just feels friendly” and suddenly a song begins to flow.
But there are also days when you get nothing. That is normal. It is rare for any artist to remain plugged into the source all the time. On those days when nothing is coming, or writing seems arduous or worse, accept it as part of the process. It is not a sign of writer’s block.
So it is crucial for all artists to never think in the negative terms of writer’s block. Simply using the phrase “writer’s block” empowers its reality in your life. You are convincing your creative core that it is obstructed, and empowering the belief to be real. This is the malignant result of negative thinking.
Often songwriters and other creative folks use writer’s block as an excuse. If this is what you do, telling yourself and the world that you have caught this disease which renders you creatively powerless so you don’t have to do your work, this will hurt you. If that’s even partially true, then it’s time to seriously scrutinize the actual cause. Often the real cause is fear of completion; that sense that the song will never be perfect, or even close, so better to never finish it.
There can be a whole host of other reasons why your writing isn’t flowing. To expect an easy condition in which you can turn the handle and songs will flow always is unrealistic. Rather than curse the darkness for your failure to make magic every time, you should celebrate the inner light and give thanks for all the times you connected. Don’t take that for granted by believing writer’s block has cut you off.
As the legendary Motown songwriter Lamont Dozier said, not only must you never consider writer’s block, you should take it even farther: “I never say that I had a good day or a bad day writing. Instead, I have good days and learning days.”
Good days and learning days. That is great advice. Because it is your thinking–the way you frame your experience–that directly affects your psyche, the core of your creativity.
Recognize that all artists have good days and bad days. But they are not completely random. It takes a lot of energy to do this well. If you are exhausted and feel blocked, you don’t have writer’s block. You need sleep.
It requires a lot of energy to do this and not let it go until the song is well-formed enough not to fall apart, even when incomplete. If you are simply exhausted and in need of rest, it can get really hard to write anything. If other life problems are burdening you and if you feel depressed, anxious or even distracted, that will obstruct.
It comes down to being honest with yourself. If your goal is to be a serious songwriter, get serious. This is serious work. Just because it is fun – and it is music – it still requires a clear and unobstucted process. When you drive a car, you take it seriously enough so as not to crash. There’s no excuses. Do you bring that same clarity and seriousness to your songwriting? If not, you can get lost. Or worst. You can crash.
So keep your eye on the road, stay alert, and be vigilant in avoiding any psychological pot-holes.
In Part II, we will offer some short-cuts to getting there, and other routes unknown to most.
David Roche Steps Out of the Shadows
By JEFF GOLD
In the late ’70s and ’80s one of the greatest musical groups to come out of the New York folk scene was the Roches, three sisters who wrote and sang some of the greatest songs of that time. The driving force of that group (first discovered by Paul Simon), was Maggie Roche, who tragically left us just a few years ago. Along with these three talented sisters came an extremely talented brother who, because of his sisters’ fame, was left in the shadows.
With his new album Griefcase, an impeccably produced and deeply personal group of songs, David Roche’s time has finally come. Stewart Lerman (Beck, Mumford and Sons), David Kumin (Black 47) and David have produced this album with such love that every track is enhanced and arranged without getting in the way of this very special group of songs. Kumin also played bass, Hammond B3, Wurlitzer and slide guitar on several tracks.
Wisely surrounding himself with class-A musicians, such as the legendary David Mansfield (Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash), he gets right to the essence of each song. The first song “Grief” starts us off with the crack of the snare drum before being joined by heavy electric guitar, the perfect feel for this memorable opener:
I’ve got a grief that’s 10 foot deep I’ve got a grief that’s way to steep A grief too far to fall in
With great drumming by Brian Dunne [Hall & Oates] and nice slide guitar to round out the rocking arrangement, it’s a vivid message for our current chaotic state of affairs. He follows it with a good break from that chaos, “Meet and Fall,” a beautifully calming love song duet with his daughter Oona. Their voices blend as only singers from the same family can blend, evoking that rich spirit of his sisters. Set against a pure pair of simple and well-recorded acoustic guitars, it’s a song about the excitement and uncertainty of young love.
Next up is “Love Unending,” a song of boundless love wrapped around a great guitar hook with a sound reminiscent of Paul Simon’s best solo work. The song “Carson” is a profound anti-gun song which shows off his intimate singing style, and asks the question that most Americans have asked for years, and yet remains unanswered still:
Can nothing be done Controlling the gun How can we overcome this type of cancer?
Other stand-outs include “Anelle,” which showcases his lyrical piano playing, and also a love song to his wife of over 30 years, “Mary.” : Stay with me darling Time is expiring Never want anything more Than to be in the grace Of your beautiful face As you come round the mountain And into the door.
This is the work of a confidant artist whose twelve impeccably crafted and produced songs should be welcomed behind the door of everyone who still wants to hear personal songs that speak to all with beautiful memorable melodies.
I exult in taking photos of people and places in and around Hollywood, but there is no annual event I love more than the annual Dia de los Muertos -Day of the Dead – celebration at Hollywood Forever. The oldest and most historic cemetery in Hollywood, older than the movies which came to town (Paramount is built on ground that was once cemetery -though “unpopulated”), there are more icons and stars here than anywhere in Hollywood.
Day of the Dead also is such a poetic tradition – and in colors, elaborate flowered costumes and traditional skull make-up that I find so poignant, and beautiful. The color scheme is so beautiful, all those autumnal oranges and reds, perfect for this haunting festival of Fall. All to celebrate and rejoice in the beauty of so many lives, embracing the fullness of life by reveling in the small details of lives, souvenirs, in beautifully ornate altars which stretch through the entire place.
Do that here – in this old cemetery which has been here since the 18th century full of beautiful stone tombs, green grass and lakes, and it is photo Christmas. Everyone feels a spirit both solemn and joyful. Most of the people present are in the elaborate make-up, including whole families with kids. Many of these were painted at home with family, while many others stop at the stands along Santa Monica Boulevard and do it there or at tables inside.
This is more than make-up, after all – this is beautiful ancient folk art – each resonating with the same themes, but each unique – shaped both by face and choice. And it takes some time of being still. When it’s finally finished, everyone is eager to parade through the cemetery and happy to be photographed. Which is a real treat for a photographer that wants to get people to engage. Unlike the real world, where many people would prefer to not have their photo taken, here they’re happy to stop and be photographed , and to have this art they’ve become preserved, here among these fields of tombs and memory.
Countless legends are buried or interred here, including Valentino, Judy Garland, Mickey Rooney, John Huston, Peter Lorre, Marion Davies, Virginia Rappe, Johnny Ramone, Chris Cornell, Tyrone Powers, and even the greatest star Hollywood has ever known, Joe Frisco. There’s also the studio owners – such as Harry Cohn – and those who made the movies, such as Cecil B. DeMille.
And each year they provide this beautiful festival – and each year it is an absolute joy to photograph. Here Day of the Dead in Hollywood this year, already the 18th of this century Saturday, October 27, 2018. Photographed in sun and dark, between noon and midnight.
— Paul Zollo.
From an altar in memory of the great Martin Landau; his favorite things – his bottle of Campari, cigarettes, apples, photographs.
The film doesn’t sugarcoat its subject: the narration and interviewees allude to the producer’s dark moods, and there are references to his involvement with organized crime.
By JEFF BURGER
Studio mastermind and convicted murderer Phil Spector gets all the ink, but he wasn’t the only terrific—and terrifically flawed—music producer working in the 1960s who came to a sad end. Another was England’s Joe Meek, who wrote and produced a ton of adventurous pop before killing his landlady and then himself in 1967, when he was only 37.
Yet another was Bert Berns, who racked up a long string of musical accomplishments but also got involved with the Mafia and possibly drug running before dying from heart disease at age 38. Berns’s life was recounted in an off-Broadway play, “Piece of My Heart: The Bert Berns Story,” and in the 2014 book Here Comes the Night: The Dark Soul of Bert Berns and the Dirty Business of Rhythm and Blues. The book led to a 2016 movie, Bang! The Bert Berns Story, which has just been issued on DVD.
The film—which features narration by Steve Van Zandt, who inducted Berns into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2016—chronicles a career that was astonishing both for its successes and its brevity. In 1960, an unknown Berns signed on as a $50-a-week Brill Building songwriter. By the time he died, only about seven years later, his resume included a stint as the staff producer at Atlantic Records; ownership of two thriving record labels, Bang and Shout; and composing and production credits on a long list of classic tracks.
Among those Bern classics: the Drifters’ “Under the Boardwalk,” the Jarmels’ “Little Bit of Soap,” Van Morrison’s “Brown-Eyed Girl,” Neil Diamond’s “Solitary Man,” the Exciters’ “Tell Him,” Solomon Burke’s “Everybody Needs Somebody to Love,” the Animals’ “Baby Let Me Take You Home,” the McCoys’ “Hang On Sloopy,” Barbara Lewis’s “Baby I’m Yours,” Freddie Scott’s “Are You Lonely for Me, Baby?,” and the Strangeloves’ “I Want Candy.”
Berns also co-wrote “Piece of My Heart,” which became a signature tune for Janis Joplin, and the Isley Brothers’ “Twist and Shout,” which also enjoyed major success in the Beatles’ version.
Bert & Brett Berns
Bang! The Bert Berns Story, which includes brief performance clips of some of the producer’s hits, consists largely of reminiscences by many of the artists and industry people he worked with or inspired; and most of them tell colorful and memorable stories about him and the songs he wrote and recorded.
Among the interviewees are Paul McCartney; Keith Richards; Ron Isley; producer Richard Gottehrer, a one-time member of the Strangeloves; Sony chairman Doug Morris; Ben E. King; Cissy Houston; songwriters Jeff Barry, Ellie Greenwich, and Mike Stoller; and even the famously reclusive Van Morrison. Also featured are Berns’s daughter, Cassandra; and his wife, Ilene, who chokes up and walks off camera while discussing his death.
One person we don’t hear from in the movie is Berns himself. Apparently, he never recorded any extensive interviews, which is unfortunate. Laudably—and despite the fact that Berns’s daughter produced the film and his son Brett co-directed—it doesn’t sugarcoat its subject: the narration and interviewees allude to the producer’s dark moods, and there are assorted references to his involvement with organized crime. But because the film lacks substantial footage of Berns himself, we have to conjure up his personality from the comments of others. Their recollections do paint a pretty good picture; but I suspect we’d have a better one—including more understanding of what led him down some bad paths—if we could see and hear more of the man himself.
Still, Bang! The Bert Berns Story is well worth your attention, especially if you lived through the 1960s with a radio turned on. The picture may be less than complete, but it’s a fascinating one. And the movie argues persuasively that Berns’s accomplishments deserve much more recognition than they’ve received to date.
John Scott Sherrill, Mr. Honky Tonk. Unless you count the one record that John Scott Sherrill released nearly three decades ago as a member of a group called Billy Hill, this is apparently his debut album. So why does he sound like a polished veteran? Probably partly because he has spent those three decades (and more) writing hits—including 11 chart-toppers—for some of country’s biggest artists, among them John Anderson, Alison Kraus, George Strait, and Patty Loveless. And his interpreters aren’t limited to country: he has also been covered by everyone from Jimmy Buffett and Peter Wolf to Steve Earle and Mick Jagger. Some of the songs that have netted big royalties for Sherrill over the years are included on this album, which also features a few previously unheard tunes. None of them blaze new stylistic trails—Sherrill is mainstream Nashville all the way—but Mr. Honky Tonk is nevertheless first rate. The material reconfirms the artist’s writing talents while also leaving no doubt that Sherrill—who sounds redolent of Anderson and George Jones—can sing ’em as well as he writes ’em.
John Wesley Harding, Greatest Other People’s Hits. John Wesley Harding, a.k.a. Wesley Stace, has written some fine pop/rock material during his long career, but he has also proven to be an excellent interpreter of other people’s songs. Many of his best covers are on this 17-track anthology, which combines material from his earlier albums with hard-to-find singles and previously unreleased performances. The program is about as diverse as you could imagine: it makes room for writers ranging from Bruce Springsteen and George Harrison to Madonna and Conway Twitty. Not everything works or puts a fresh spin on the songwriters’ original recordings, but there are far more successes than failures here. Highlights include Springsteen’s “Jackson Cage” and “Wreck on the Highway,” the latter with Bruce singing along; Phil Ochs’s “Another Age”; Twitty’s “It’s Only Make Believe,” a sublime duet with singer/songwriter Kelly Hogan; and a live reading of Lou Reed’s “Satellite of Love,” with Reed sharing vocals.
Writer of “Miami Mammy” Who Sparked the Swimming Horses Craze of the 1920s.
By PAUL ZOLLO
“The morning sun was antiseptic
The robin’s song so narcoleptic
The grass was green as a cucumber
Where I lay in a sleepy slumber
And dreamed a dreamy ragtime dream
Of sky-blue ponies in the stream…”
From “Blue Ponies In The Stream” By Hank Trembley
One of the most significant, if unsung, songwriters of the modern era, Hank Trembley wrote hundreds of memorable songs (and thousands of forgettable ones) including “Alligator Seder,” “Blue Ponies In The Stream,” “The Knickerbocker Alter Kocker,” “[I’ve Been] Sober All October” “Your Skinny Skinny Legs,” “Ragtime Moosepie Love,” and his most famous song, “My Miami Mammy,” which was recorded by Al Jolson.
Born Hyman Trembluchnik on February 29, 1891 in Yonkers, New York, he was the son of Itzhak Trembluchnik, a part-time cantor and pickled herring salesman, and Esther Zmudjki, a Lithuanian fan-dancer and contortionist. Itzhak, a Russian immigrant, grew up in the village of Rizshishtchov (“a little town that looks like a sneeze and sounds it”) near Kiev.
As Alec Wilder wrote in his acclaimed opus, American Popular Song, “Trembley does exemplify the pure, uncontrived Hebraic line more characteristically than any other writer except Kern, with whom Trembley was known to enjoy long swims in the Hudson.”
He started piano lessons when he was only three, but at age five lost two fingers on his right hand to a rabid squirrel, and switched to ukulele. (Unlike his famous peers who wrote their songs on piano, Trembley composed only on uke, tuned to his signature “Talmudic plectrum tuning.” He could only play in one key – F sharp – but often used a primitive capo he fashioned himself out of squirrel bone and rubber-bands to change keys.)
He wrote his first song at the age of eleven, the Yiddish-inflected “Spin That Dreidel, My Meidel Mit A Kleidel,” and never stopped writing. “My mother would drink raspberry schnapps, cook tzimas and dance to that song for hours,” he remembered in a 1920 interview with Yiddish Forward. “I knew songwriting was the life for me. The only thing that brought me the same kind of joy was baseball. And being a little Jew with only eight fingers, I figured baseball for me was not an option.”
When he was thirteen, he changed his name to the less ethnic Hank Trembley, in honor of his favorite baseball player at the time, Sy Trembley, of the Brooklyn Dodgers. That same year he wrote the songs and book for a musical revue called “Bring On The Borscht,” which was presented at Yonkers’ Temple Emanu-El, and starred his first love, a big-voiced 13-year old girl named Fania Borach. Two years later, she changed her name to Fanny Brice, and went on to great fame with the Ziegfeld Follies. Though he proposed to her some seventeen times, according to his own account (and many more than that, according to her own), she resisted a romantic liaison with him, but loved him as a songwriter. It was his undying passion for her singing and performing that gave her the confidence to triumph.
Never did she forget her debt to Trembley. “He believed in me from the start,” she said in 1950, “back when everyone said I was a no-talent, ugly girl with a giant schnozz. He taught me it was okay to be funny, and he also had the best pickled herring in Yonkers.” Hank wrote his first-ever love-song for Fanny, “Farblondzhet Fania,” which she first recorded herself in 1927. It was recorded several times since then, most famously by Eleanor Roosevelt in 1928, and in 1967 by Tom Jones.
Trembley also wrote a song he based on her compliment about his herring expertise, called “The Best Pickled Herring in Yonkers,” recorded by Brice as well as Eck Robertson and, in a rare flamenco rendition sung in Spanish, Ramon Montoya. Alec Wilder, in his popular song tome, referred to it as “certainly the worst song [Trembley] ever wrote, and quite possibly one of the worst ever written.” How Wilder and so many others remained unmoved by its intimate evocation of Jewish life at the time remains a mystery, as the song’s charms, either in English, Hebrew or Espanol, abound. “I fell for her first time I saw her In her sweater of red Irish wool I repressed my compulsion to paw her As the moon rose up over our shul…
“I heard all the good angels cheering Also dybbuks who all wished me dead While I spoke of the glory of herring And prayed someday soon we would wed….
“And ever since this, our first Shabbos ride Her love, it has made me bonkers She knows God and I will always provide The best pickled herring in Yonkers
Yes, the best pickled herring in Yonkers….” From “The Best Pickled Herring in Yonkers” By Hank Trembley
Though stories differ in their account of Trembley’s first experience with swimming horses, which became a lifelong obsession, several insist it was during a 1902 weekend in Atlantic City with his family that he first saw Floyd Carver’s famous Diving Horses attraction and caught the bug. Others maintain it came from an account of a New York City cop who accidentally rode his horse off the Brooklyn Bridge in 1903; though the cop drowned, the horse saved itself, and swam easily to shore. Regardless of which story is true, swimming horses became a major theme in Trembley’s work over the next two decades.
In 1905 he wrote the first of these swimming horses anthems, “Blue Ponies In The Stream.” Manically performed by Florence Lawrence in the silent movie Palomino Polly, it became a worldwide hit. Families around the country gathered at the piano to play it, sheet music sales skyrocketed, as did sales of a player piano roll of it. Since eight-fingered Hank could not play the piano part correctly, it was performed instead by Hank’s friend Izzy Baline (who later changed his name to Irving Berlin, and, inspired by Trembley’s success, started writing his own songs. Inspired by Trembley, Berlin also played only in the key of F sharp.)
Suddenly Trembley was a household name, and savvy businessman that he was, he cashed in on the swimming horses craze sweeping through America that he sparked himself. In 1906, he wrote more than a dozen aquatic equine songs, including “My Soggy Appaloosa” and “Dunkin’ Donkeys,” which years later became the title song of the celebrated western starring Lash LaRue.
It was in 1919 that Trembley wrote the song for which he’s still most famous, “My Miami Mammy.” Though credited to both Trembley and Al Jolson, in fact Jolson had no part in its authorship, but insisted on credit in exchange for recording the song. Trembley agreed, as did all other songwriters at the time hoping to make a living. The song went to Number One, and has since been recorded by over 612 singers, including Judy Garland, Bing Crosby, Eugene Debs, Ethel Merman, Ethel Waters, Mamie Eisenhower, Sonny & Cher, Debbie Boone, Marilyn Manson, Trixie (formerly Victor) Lesko and David Lee Roth.
Its origins, Trembley revealed in 1935 (two years past his own death), came from a summer in 1918 he spent in Miami, working in the service of the Jewish mob there – also known as Undzer Shtik, or Kosher Nostra. Needing a summer job, he asked his father to pull some strings, which led to a well-paid internship as a bootlegger during Prohibition, buying bootleg wine from family friend Rabbi Dov Manischewitz, and his twin sons Adolph and Julius, and selling it to various temples. He also learned the ropes of loansharking, gambling, bookmaking, and taxidermy, and devised the successful plan to fix the 1919 World Series. (All were talents and skills, he said in a 1931 Russian radio interview, which served him well as a songwriter.)
It was during that summer that he met the real-life “Miami mammy” of his song, Ester Litwak, mother of the Jewish mobster “Slovenly” Tony Litwak, a profligate, alcoholic dwarf who loved nothing more than a clever song lyric, of which Trembley had a bounty. Invited by Tony to a Shabbos dinner at his mother Ester’s Miami apartment, Trembley bonded with her over their mutual appreciation of herring (as well as chopped liver, tzimas and kreplachs), and wrote several songs for her, of which this remains the only famous one. (Sadly, it remains pretty much his only remembered song.)
In 1920, Hank wrote the songs for a Broadway revue, “The Liverwurst Follies,” which starred Ethel Merman, with a book written by George and Ira Gershwin’s younger brother, Gummo Gershwin. Though it opened and closed in less than a week, it did contain two songs which have since becomes standards, “Cry Me A Liver,” and a song later adapted by Paul Simon, “Fifty Ways To Leave Your Liver.”
Simon, who triggered the emergence of World Music with Graceland in the 1980s, was also inspired (though he’s repeatedly denied it) by Trembley’s early forays into world music, most notably his synthesis of African tribal rhythms with Hawaiian ukulele music in 1927’s “Honolulu Zulu,” performed by Mattie Dorsey. Trembley followed that hit with another early world music composition, “Coconut Latkes,” which was recorded by Sy Kershbaum and His Silver Trousers Orchestra.
In the early thirties Hank collaborated frequently with the periodontist-songwriter Herb “Gefilte” Fischman, and moved to Beverly Hills, where, tragically, his life was cut short in the summer of 1933 in a freak mahjongg accident. (To this day, many historians and card-sharks alike insist his death was no accident but a suicide. Yet the thought of anyone attempting suicide by swallowing 144 mahjong tiles still seems ludicrous now as it did then.)
But although the man is long gone, his legacy lives on. Inducted to the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1967 (and deducted in 1971), he remains most beloved in his native Yonkers, especially during the one-week Trembleyfest held each August in Tibbetts Brook Park, where children and adults alike swim with horses in the giant pool there. As he wrote back in 1905, “when you swim with ponies in a stream/life is but a lovely dream.”