Sumer is icumen in,
Lhude sing cuccu!
Groweþ sed and bloweþ med
And springþ þe wde nu,
~ Oldest written English song, about 1260
The air conditioner is broken again.
~ David Davis, April 25, 2022
Sumer has not cume in yet, although the thermometer sometimes suggests it has. Today, though, it’s raining, 62 degrees, still spring.
The air conditioner will be fixed well before sumer cumes in.
“This 800-year-old song comes from a miscellany that was probably written in Oxford around 1260 and it’s the first recorded use of six-part polyphony.
“The beautifully preserved manuscript contains poems, fables and medical texts – and is the only written record of ‘Sumer is icumen in’. The song is a ‘rota’ or round, a canon for several voices (in this case six). It describes the coming spring, a singing cuckoo and various excited farm animals. Click the image below for a closer look at the full manuscript in all its glory.” (Listen to one of the oldest songs ever written, ‘Sumer is icumen in’)
Summer has come in, Loudly sing, cuckoo! The seed grows and the meadow blooms And the wood springs anew, Sing, cuckoo! The ewe bleats after the lamb The cow lows after the calf. The bullock stirs, the goat farts, Merrily sing, Cuckoo! Cuckoo, cuckoo, well you sing, cuckoo; Don’t ever you stop now, Ground (sung by two lowest voices) Sing cuckoo now. Sing, Cuckoo. Sing Cuckoo. Sing cuckoo now!
“This is an opera for children because it tries to recapture my own childhood. You see, when I was a child I lived in Italy, and in Italy we have no Santa Claus. I suppose that Santa Claus is much too busy with American children to be able to handle Italian children as well. Our gifts were brought to us by the Three Kings, instead.
“I actually never met the Three Kings—it didn’t matter how hard my little brother and I tried to keep awake at night to catch a glimpse of the Three Royal Visitors, we would always fall asleep just before they arrived. But I do remember hearing them. I remember the weird cadence of their song in the dark distance; I remember the brittle sound of the camel’s hooves crushing the frozen snow; and I remember the mysterious tinkling of their silver bridles.
“My favorite king was King Melchior, because he was the oldest and had a long white beard. My brother’s favorite was King Kaspar. He insisted that this king was a little crazy and quite deaf. I don’t know why he was so positive about his being deaf. I suspect it was because dear King Kaspar never brought him all the gifts he requested. He was also rather puzzled by the fact that King Kaspar carried the myrrh, which appeared to him as a rather eccentric gift, for he never quite understood what the word meant.
“To these Three Kings I mainly owe the happy Christmas seasons of my childhood and I should have remained very grateful to them. Instead, I came to America and soon forgot all about them, for here at Christmas time one sees so many Santa Clauses scattered all over town. Then there is the big Christmas tree in Rockefeller Plaza, the elaborate toy windows on Fifth Avenue, the one-hundred-voice choir in Grand Central Station, the innumerable Christmas carols on radio and television—and all these things made me forget the three dear old Kings of my old childhood.
“But in 1951 I found myself in serious difficulty. I had been commissioned by the National Broadcasting Company to write an opera for television, with Christmas as deadline, and I simply didn’t have one idea in my head. One November afternoon as I was walking rather gloomily through the rooms of the Metropolitan Museum, I chanced to stop in front of the Adoration of the Kings by Hieronymus Bosch, and as I was looking at it, suddenly I heard again, coming from the distant blue hills, the weird song of the Three Kings. I then realized they had come back to me and had brought me a gift.”
—Gian-Carlo Menotti, from the booklet with the original cast recording of Amahl and the Night Visitors
When I think of my hometown as it used to be–and I do that often–two people immediately come to mind.
I’ve written before aboutDr. Francis Carlton Luckett,who practiced medicine in my hometown of Fentress, Texas from 1917 until shortly before his death in 1965. I won’t repeat myself here except to say he was an extraordinary person and physician. In the words of my great-aunt Bettie Waller, his presence raised the level of the community. To people who knew the town in the first half of the 1900s, he was Fentress.
But what prompted this post–Dr. Luckett was also a musician. He worked his way through medical school at Tulane by playing a theater organ, accompanying silent films. In Fentress, he gave recitals and played for weddings. And he composed “Hospital Rag” for the piano.
As a child, I was fascinated by the idea that my doctor, who hated giving children injections (I never got mad at him for popping me with a penicillin shot every time he saw me; I blamed my mother instead), came to my house to take my temperature (and give me a penicillin shot) when I was sick, and took out my tonsils, had composed a rag. But I never heard him play it, and he didn’t commit it to paper, so I gave up hope.
Until Doctor’s granddaughter sent a recording to my friend Patsy Munk Kimball (whose husband was named for Dr. Luckett, and whose two sisters, in addition to her first child, he delivered), and Patsy sent a file to me.
Wow. That man was all over the piano.
Patsy had shared with me many old photos of Fentress in its early years, when the Fentress Resort drew people from miles around.
I wished aloud that I could share everything with folks who remember Dr. Luckett. David offered to make a video and put it on Youtube.
Suddenly the topic broadened–we couldn’t make a video about the town without includingDick Ward,who owned and operated what used to be called an ice cream parlor in the early part of the 19th century and continued until, like Dr. Luckett, he retired in the 1960s. He, too, was Fentress. I’ve written about him, as well.
There was a big sign on the awning in front of his store–W. F. Ward Conf. After I learned to read, I asked what Conf. meant. Confectionery, my father told me, but he’d heard someone remark it ought to say, W. F. Ward Cone, because that’s what he sold–huge double dip ice cream cones for a nickel. And if the top dip fell off, as sometimes happened, especially to children without the manual dexterity to hold the cone upright (or who tried to get on their bicycles with cone in hand), he automatically replaced the dip, free.
That had to be the best deal anywhere–the only price in the world that was never affected by inflation.
And ice cream is therapeutic. After a penicillin shot from Dr. Luckett, one of Dick’s ice cream cones made everything okay again.
(And make no mistake–it wasn’t just kids–I saw plenty of adults walk out of Dick’s store carrying ice cream cones. And smiling.)
But back to the video. Patsy supplied the pictures, I put them in order, and David made the video. It’s onYoutube for all to see.
If you want to know more about Fentress, the bare facts are covered in the Handbook of Texas. But if you want to know the whole story–like
why the Methodist Church was founded, or
what J. C. Dauchy always carried in his pocket, or
which teenager made the owner of the telephone company so mad–and how the teenager did it–that the owner threatened to cut off service to the Fentress School, or
which new bride invited visitors to “Come right in” when her husband was taking a bath in front of the fireplace in the living room (in 1905), and
what the new husband did when he heard his bride invite company to come right in, or
what the members of the Staples Baptist Church did immediately after their minister preached against the Sin taking place in Fentress on a daily basis (I’ve been told that during Prohibition, the skating rink/dance hall did get a little loud)–
If you want to know anything like that, don’t ask the Handbook of Texas.
And because the music is so much fun, I lay there listening, replaying, listening, replaying… I don’t know how many times I listened to it. I also don’t know what time I finally went to sleep.
Ragtime is my favorite music–pianoonly, no interference from lesser instruments. Morath is my favorite ragtime pianist. There’s something about his touch… I can’t describe it, but it’s right.
I discovered him years ago in a program on PBS. Then I bought the LP. Recently I repurchased it for Kindle. (Or Fire, or whatever this beast is supposed to be called.)
Tonight, googling for a link to the album, I came across a 1986 New York Timesreview of Morath’s one-man show, “Living a Ragtime Life.” Serendipity. I didn’t know there’d been a show. Or that Morath is a musicologist.
Or also, according to Wikipedia, a composer, actor, and author. Or known as”Mr. Ragtime.” Or called a “one-man ragtime army.”
I hadn’t planned to say this much about Max Morath, but he’s worth some words, so I’ll quote part of the Times review (which you may skip if you wish):
”IT’S our music that labels our history, more than our wars and our politicians,” asserts Max Morath early in his one-man show, ”Living a Ragtime Life.” Seated at a grand piano under a Tiffany lamp, and flanked by an Edison phonograph, the musicologist, storyteller and expert in turn-of-the-century Americana seems the very epitome of an old-time vaudevillian. But in reflecting with a sly ironic humor on our longing for ”the good old days,” Mr. Morath is much more than a devoted nostalgist. He is a philosopher of American popular culture with Mark Twain’s gift of gab and farsighted historical view. The picture he paints of the 1890’s, ”when sex was dirty and the air was clean,” is of a world that we might want to visit, but, he convincingly persuades us, we almost certainly wouldn’t want to live there.
But back to what I was listening to over and over last night and why.
First the why: As I’ve already said, it was fun.
The what: Music from the turn of the century–that other century–through World War I. Some pretty bad songs. Some pretty silly ones. Some pretty good ones, usually because they were pretty bad or pretty silly.
Chorus: We don’t want the bacon We don’t want the bacon, What we want is a piece of the Rhine. We’ll feed “Bill the Kaiser” with our Allied appetizer. We’ll have a wonderful time. Old Wilhelm Der Gross will shout, “Vas is Los?” The Hindenburg line will sure look like a dime; We don’t want the bacon We don’t want the bacon, What we want is a piece of the Rhine.
CHORUS 1: “You are going far away, but remember what I say When you are in the city’s giddy whirl. From temptations, crimes, and follies, Villains, taxicabs and trolleys, Oh! Heaven will protect a working girl.”
CHORUS 2: “Stand back, villain! Go your way! Here I will no longer stay, Although you were a marquis or an earl. You may tempt the upper classes With your villainous demitasses, But Heaven will protect a working girl.”
If you take a girl out walking Down a little shady dell Always take a girl named Daisy ‘Cause daisies won’t tell
The lyrics quoted here are just excerpts of the songs, and are just a sample of Morath’s presentation.
So there’s my idea of fun, the pastime that kept me awake when decent folk were sound asleep. It’s not for everybody, I realize–though, of course, it should be.
Says Morath, “Scorned by the establishment as ephemeral at best, trashy at worst, ragtime was the fountainhead of every rhythmic and stylistic upheaval that has followed in a century of ever-evolving American popular music.”
If ragtime and its offshoots strike your fancy, the album cited at the beginning of this post and “Living a Ragtime Life” are available from Amazon (and other vendors no doubt).
And the program “Max Morath: Living a Ragtime Life!” that I watched on PBS many years ago now appears in seven parts on Youtube.
CHORUS: I’ve got a ragtime dog, and a ragtime cat; A ragtime piano in my ragtime flat; … Got ragtime troubles with my ragtime wife: I’m certainly living a ragtime life.
In a couple of minutes, George will learn that, because he never existed, his wife, Mary, aka Donna Reed, not only never married, but became a librarian. Judging from her granny glasses, frumpy hat, and bun, that’s a fate worse than death.
I like It’s a Wonderful Life, but it isn’t my favorite Christmas movie. I prefer Miracle on 34th Street, in which Edmund Gwenn–whom I rank right up there with Henry Travers–is declared, in court, to be the real Santa Claus. No librarians were defamed in the making of that show.
Nevertheless, as soon as half the town crowds into the Bailey living room to pile money onto the table, I start to cry. I cry through the credits and the next three commercials. Even a not-favorite movie can stir emotions. Year after year after year.
Favorites aren’t easy for me. I don’t have a favorite novel or a favorite song or a favorite color. Or a favorite teacher, actor, or pet. I have multiple favorites. For me, those get-your-password questions–“What is your favorite television show?”–are useless. I never remember whether I said Andy Griffith or Law and Order or I’ll Fly Away.
I do, however, have a favorite Christmas carol. The melody is lovely and singable–singable is important to me–but it’s the words that move me. They speak of peace and quiet and rest for the weary, of heavenly song floating above earthly babble. They speak of ancient tidings of peace to one small group of men, and of a promise of a world in complete harmony.
But the lyrics also speak of the present, of stopping, and looking up, and seeing angels. They’re there now, and they’re singing.
We have only to be still and listen.
It came upon the midnight clear, that glorious song of old, from angels bending near the earth to touch their harps of gold: “Peace on the earth, good will to men, from heaven’s all-gracious King.” The world in solemn stillness lay, to hear the angels sing.
Still through the cloven skies they come with peaceful wings unfurled, and still their heavenly music floats o’er all the weary world; above its sad and lowly plains, they bend on hovering wing, and ever o’er its Babel sounds the blessed angels sing.
Yet with the woes of sin and strife The world has suffered long; Beneath the angel-strain have rolled Two thousand years of wrong; And man, at war with man, hears not The love-song which they bring; O hush the noise, ye men of strife, And hear the angels sing.
And ye, beneath life’s crushing load, whose forms are bending low, who toil along the climbing way with painful steps and slow, look now! for glad and golden hours come swiftly on the wing. O rest beside the weary road, and hear the angels sing!
For lo! the days are hastening on, by prophet seen of old, when with the ever-circling years shall come the time foretold when peace shall over all the earth its ancient splendors fling, and the whole world send back the song which now the angels sing.