Birds, Songs, Memory and Coincidence

One of the perks of working at Osgoode Hall is seeing the grounds in spring and summer, all the beautiful trees and gardens maintained by two very hard-working women. There are about five blossoming crab-apple trees that recently came into spectacular bloom and on Friday morning I saw a flash of orange fly up into one of them. I thought “Baltimore Oriole” right away, but it happened so fast I wasn’t sure. So I walked over and stood under the tree, pouring rain and all, peering up through the branches like a gawking idiot. Which is pretty much what I am. Sure enough, there were two orioles, orange as pumpkins, flitting around in the lush pink blossoms. It makes sense, orioles have a sweet tooth and they’re likely getting some nectar here, so maybe they’ll hang out for a few days.

You may have gathered that apart from jazz and baseball, I’m also pretty crazy about birds and songs, which kind of go together. If I’d been with Frank Sinatra and the rest of “The Rat Pack” back in the day (I wish), their motto might have been “Let’s get some birds, baseball, bebop, booze and broads and be somebody.”

I can’t tell you what a lovely thrill and surprise it was to see these birds like this, but I’ll try. The last time I remember seeing an oriole was in the backyard of my parent’s first house in Scarborough, which had several big old elm trees. I have a tiny but crystal-clear memory of looking up through the elm branches one summer day and seeing one perched high up there, the sun glinting off the orange and black bright enough to nearly blind me. We moved from there to a house in the city when I was six, so that was about fifty years ago, believe it or not. It would seem most of my memory triggers or signposts have to do with birds, baseball games, gigs, songs and stories/jokes; it’s kind of strange, but it beats having no memory left at all.

Naturally there are lots of songs about birds, in fact Carmen McRae did a whole album devoted to them called BIRDS Of A FEATHER. “A Nightingale Sang in Berkley Square”, “Bye Bye Blackbird”, “Mister Meadowlark”, Johnny Mercer’s “Bobwhite (Watcha Gonna Sing Tonight?)” and Harold Arlen’s “The Eagle and Me” are all included, among others. Hoagy Carmichael of course wrote two of the most famous and enduring bird songs – “Skylark” and “Baltimore Oriole.”

Hoagy occasionally wrote his own words but most often collaborated with lyricists and among the best of these were Paul Francis Webster and Johnny Mercer, who each wrote lyrics for a bunch of good songwriters and co-won several Oscars for best song. Mercer wrote the words to “Skylark” – my favourite Hoagy tune – and on the bridge he offers one of the great lyrical passages in all of song:

“And in your lonely flight,

haven’t you heard the music of the night?

Wonderful music.

Faint as a will-o-the-wisp,

crazy as a loon.

Sad as a gypsy, serenading the moon.”

The “wonderful music” line always moves me, coming as the tune switches from major to the relative minor. I’ve played the song hundreds of times and even without a vocalist singing the lyric, those words in that spot stay in my mind and always thrill me. Music is wonderful, and though playing it for a “living” is sometimes dispiriting, it’s also a great privilege and it’s as well to remember this.

There are many good recordings of “Skylark”, but the best one I’ve heard is by Gene Krupa’s big band from the early-’40s, with a very young Anita O’Day singing. The arrangement at a medium tempo is really good, featuring downward moving harmony instead of the normal ascending chords. What really sets it apart though is Roy Eldridge, who plays an arresting trumpet solo on the first sixteen bars of the tune, before the vocal comes in. I can’t tell if he maybe has a water glass in the bell of his horn as a kind of mute or what, but I’ve never heard his tone sound quite like this; glassy, buzzing, a clarion call of passion and eloquence. Little Jazz is just breathtaking here, he takes my head clean off. Here he is with Anita O’Day:

My favourite recording of “Baltimore Oriole” is by the composer himself, on an album from the late-’50s on Pacific Jazz called HOAGY SINGS CARMICHAEL. The whole thing is terrific, most of its success having to do with the smallish big band of great L.A. jazz and studio musicians, playing wonderful arrangements by Johnny Mandel. There’s some great jazz soloing from the likes of Sweets Edison or Don Fagerquist on trumpet, Art Pepper on alto saxophone and Jimmy Rowles on piano. Hoagy is not what you would call a great singer in the conventional sense, he has a kind of dry, drawling and nasal voice not unlike Jack Teagarden or Willie Nelson. Naturally he knows these songs better than anyone though and puts them across with a lot of charm and soul, getting at the feeling behind them effortlessly. He even cuts loose with some good whistling on his pastoral “Memphis In June”.  Two of his most famous songs – “Stardust” and “The Nearness Of You” – are omitted here, replaced by his lesser-known ‘Winter Moon” and “Ballad In Blue”. Here’s “Baltimore Oriole” from that session:

“Baltimore Oriole” isn’t as intricate a song as “Skylark” but is also beautiful and Mandel’s arrangement here is a marvel, using woodwinds and muted brass in almost a canon structure. The song tells the old story of marital discontent and infidelity using birds as characters. It has a feeling quite similar to Gershwin’s “Summertime” – slow, minor and bluesy, though less of a lullaby. By sheer coincidence, after seeing the orioles Friday morning, I played a gig that same night with Arlene Smith and she sang this very song. Life is like that sometimes, you don’t see a particular bird for fifty years and then……..maybe somebody is trying to tell me something. I’ve played this tune a lot with female singers since I was pretty young, and one snippet of the Paul Francis Webster lyric really caught my attention early on and stayed with me :

“Leaving me blue, off she flew, to the Tangipahoa”.

I wondered, what the hell could “the Tangipahoa” mean? It intrigued me, fired my young imagination – it sounded kind of like “Taj Mahal” and I didn’t know how it was spelled or anything – I imagined “Tanjee Paaho”. I assumed it was a made-up, mystical place like “Xanadu” or “Shangri-La”, a Utopia, maybe an Eden on the Ganges, complete with hanging vines, ruins and mist.

Thirty years later, I was reading a biography of Lester Young, who was born in New Orleans and grew up near there. The book revealed that the Young’s home was on the Tangipahoa River near Lake Ponchartrain. Slowly the light bulb went on. “Tangipahoa, Tangipahoa……’off she flew to the Tangipahoa’ – ‘Baltimore Oriole! – Hoagy, ahaa! The Tangipahoa is a real place after all, you sly bugger.”

It was a small thrill, having the meaning of something that had festered so long in my imagination suddenly revealed so randomly. The fact that it was a real place near a spot so dear to me as New Orleans only made it better. One of the things now on my “bucket list” is to someday take a canoe trip on the Tangipahoa River, maybe with my brother Randy, who’s actually a pretty dab hand with a paddle. Hopefully no alligator attacks or Deliverance episodes befall us, thanks just the same.

A while back I had a similar revelation regarding another small personal mystery – the intriguing name of an old ballplayer, Debs Garms. Garms wasn’t a star or even a very important player, but the memory of him lingers because of his strange name and the fact he won a very controversial batting title in 1940. I’d always assumed “Debs” was just an odd nickname – there were so many of them back then. I figured his real name would be “Frankie” and he got the “Debs” handle from being a real ladies’ man or having a lot of prom dates or something.

Long ago I looked him up in my Baseball Encyclopedia like the nerd that I am. It simply listed Debs Garms as his real birth name and he was from a place called Bangs, Texas, believe it or not. I thought, “Jesus. What the hell kind of first name is ‘Debs’ for a ballplayer”?

While never exactly losing any sleep over it, I wondered about this for about twenty-five years and while on holiday in Mexico a few years ago, I was reading a book by the great Robert W. Creamer about the epic 1941 baseball season. Along with about a thousand other details, Creamer revealed that Debs Garms was named after Eugene V. Debs, a Democratic member of the Indiana Legislature and later a five-time Socialist Party candidate for the U.S. Presidency between 1900 and 1920, the last time from a prison cell! He also served prison time for strike-organizaing and making speeches denouncing America’s involvement in World War One and was a founder of the Industrial Workers of the World, or the “Wobblies” as they were called.

This boggled my mind, I never could have imagined it. I mean, aside from anything else, Garms was from Texas, not exactly left-wing country. And besides this, baseball has long had an iconic standing as the “National Pastime”, as patriotic and American as apple pie, so having a ballplayer named after someone so radically seditious as Debs comes out of left field, so to speak. As we’ve all learned though, life is full of such surprises and odd connections, they’re part of what make it worth living.

To me, having these small mysteries solved by way of coincidental reading rather than systematic research is a kind of silver lining of the aging process. If you stay interested and engaged in stuff, no matter how arcane, things come full circle and small tidbits come your way, just as the orioles did the other day. It’s the little things that count, God is in the details.

The down side of course is that while you’re mining these tiny nuggets, other bits of memory start slipping away, like your best friend’s phone number, your computer password, or what’s-her-name’s name – damn, what is it again? Actress, blonde, gorgeous, great cheek bones. Mi…….Mich……Michelle……Michelle Fi….Pfeiffer. Michelle Pfeiffer, that’s it! Phew, that was a close one.

© 2013 – 2016, Steve Wallace. All rights reserved.

8 thoughts on “Birds, Songs, Memory and Coincidence

  1. Once again so WONDERFUL reading your words Steve! I find my mouth smiling as I read the humor and I find myself happy to have read about you and “your” birds and always interesting observations…
    Here in Vancouver, nothing quite so exotic as orioles perhaps but…mama duck + 7 ducklings is certainly making for some amusement. They are at the adorable fuzzy stage and they can zoom through the water at quite a speed.

    • Hey Karin, Thanks again for your kind words, glad you enjoy the writing. Ducklings are great too, my sister-in-law saw something fairly amazing involving a mother duck and her babies on the Puntlrdge River in B.C. but I forget the details. I tell you what, I’ll ask her and email you the story, as i remember it was remarkable.

    • Hi Joe, Yeah, your/our version of Skylark is also good and was a helluva lot of fun to record. It ain’t Hoagy’s song, but your version of “The Folks Who Live On the Hill’ is right up there for me too…

  2. Nice memories Steve. Cardinals always take me back. In fact, whenever I see one I think it is Dad come back to say hi. Nuts, I know. But so was he in his own way.
    Hey, what’s your favourite version of ‘My One and Only Love’? Live and/or recorded.

    • Hi Trace, you don’t sound so nuts to me, though Dad was a tad eccentric for sure. My memories of him are definitely associated with birds, so I get what you’re saying. My favourite version of “My One and Only Love” on record is by Johnny Hartman, singing it with John Coltrane on the album they did together – I think I might have lent it to you – if not, I’ll buy you a copy, it’s good but real short. My fave live version was probably Ray Bryant’s and I know you heard that one too……

  3. Birds are powerful spirits in tribal mythology. Thanks for the article Steve. I really can relate.

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