“Oh! captive, bound, and double-ironed,” cried the phantom, “not to know … that any … spirit working kindly in its little sphere, whatever it may be, will find its mortal life too short for its vast means of usefulness. Not to know that no space of regret can make amends for one life’s opportunities misused! Yet such was I! Oh! such was I!”
“But you were always a good man of business, Jacob,” faltered Scrooge, who now began to apply this to himself.
“Business!” cried the Ghost, wringing its hands again. “Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!”
—A Christmas Carol
In my family, A Christmas Carol is almost a sacred text. My grandmother quoted from it each Christmastime, and she, my mother (a teacher of English literature) and I watched each film and television version of it, cocoa and Kleenex in hand. We recited along with Marley’s Ghost, the Ghost of Christmas Present, Ebenezer Scrooge and Tiny Tim, weeping and hugging and loving every moment of the story. Each viewing or reading of A Christmas Carol left us renewed in our commitments to each other and ourselves to hold Christmas in our hearts all through the coming year, and to remember Jacob Marley’s exhortation that looking after each other and lifting up those around us was our true reason for living. A Christmas Carol reminded us that humankind was our business, that “charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence” were our collective responsibility to each other, and the source of humanity’s greatest joys as well.
When my own daughter was old enough, I began reading Dickens stories aloud to her, and of course A Christmas Carol was among them. I read the whole of it to her in one evening, stopping occasionally to compose myself. She and I went to see a beautiful theatrical production of it in Seattle when she was a girl, just as my mother and I had seen multiple wonderful versions of it at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco during my childhood. Seeing A Christmas Carol has always meant far more to me than attending any production of The Nutcracker ever could.
This masterful work, so perfectly composed, so moving, so excitingly paced, was written in just six weeks when Charles Dickens’s fortunes were flagging, his coffers low and his popularity waning. But it was not worry about his purse or his reputation that inspired Dickens; it was his childhood spent in a debtor’s prison with his family that made him speak out so powerfully on behalf of the poor. While still a young boy, Dickens was forced to leave school to work in a boot blacking factory. There he spent his days pasting labels on bottles in hopes of making enough money to bail his father out of his debts. It was only through the efforts of children that Dickens’s father could pay off his debts and at last leave the Marshalsea Prison. Though Dickens later grew prosperous and world-renowned, he never forgot his time spent among the poor, the sick, the fearful and the abandoned.
In early 1843, Britain’s Parliament published a report on the damaging effects of the Industrial Revolution on poor children. The Second Report of the Children’s Employment Commission moved Dickens deeply, and he planned to write and publish an inexpensive political pamphlet to encourage commissioners and other lawmakers to do more on behalf of the poor.
Dickens gave a fundraising speech in October of that year at the Manchester Athenæum, urging workers and employers to come together to combat ignorance with educational reform. It was during that visit to Manchester that he realized his greatest ability to influence and inform was not through political tracts and speeches but through his works of fiction. In those early days of October 1843, he devised the plot of A Christmas Carol. When he returned to his home in London, he worked in a fury to complete the story in time for Christmas publication, and just made it: it was published 176 years ago today.
This is the saddest thing I’ve read today: “If you survey American parents about what they want for their kids, more than 90 percent say one of their top priorities is that their children be caring. This makes sense: Kindness and concern for others are held as moral virtues in nearly every society and every major religion. But when you ask children what their parents want for them, 81 percent say their parents value achievement and happiness over caring.” So write Adam Grant and Allison Sweet Grant write in “Stop Trying to Raise Successful Kids,” an article in the December 2019 issue of The Atlantic.
If your kids don’t know that kindness is the most important quality of a human being, then you’ve failed as a parent. Prizing the attainment of admiration from others and believing in the innate primacy of your own happiness above the well-being of others leads to a deadening of empathy for and lack of awareness of the situations and needs of others. Devaluing kindness and decency and elevating selfishness and disconnection from others has brought the United States and the United Kingdom to their current damaged and dangerous states.
The Grants continue, “Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised, then, that kindness appears to be in decline. A rigorous analysis of annual surveys of American college students showed a substantial drop from 1979 to 2009 in empathy and in imagining the perspectives of others. Over this period, students grew less likely to feel concern for people less fortunate than themselves—and less bothered by seeing others treated unfairly.”
The point of strength and influence is to extend one’s power to do good for the benefit of others as well as ourselves. The noblest goal is the use of one’s power (whether individual, corporate or national) to help others and lift them up, to give them reason for hope, to help them see that they and their needs are reflected in our eyes. Happily, following through on that lofty goal actually brings greater happiness, prosperity, and longevity over all on both a personal and society level. Such socially oriented thinking has been proven to increase happiness and satisfaction, and to raise the safety and prosperity of others within society. And that’s what life is about. The rest is just glitter and dust.
Recently I’ve been listening to a song that’s been around for a half-century but which was made fresh and new to me when I heard Alan Cumming sing it last June in the latest Broadway revival of the musical Cabaret. It’s a jaded, cynical song sung by a character who pretends to feel no pain and who appears to be inured to the ugliness of the world. But the power of the performance comes from the realization that, while the prostitute singing the song may no longer seem to care what he (or she) has to do to get by, that purported apathy comes after years of suffering and having experienced so much pain and loss that no longer caring almost seems like a blessing:
I don’t care much Go or stay I don’t care very much Either way Hearts grow hard On a windy street Lips grow cold With the rent to meet So if you kiss me If we touch Warning’s fair I don’t care very much
“I Don’t Care Much,” like other songs in that brilliant musical, underscores the desperation and fear that led people living in Berlin under Nazi rule to try to blot out reality with a bit of naughty pleasure, and sometimes to lose their hearts (and maybe souls) to apathy or pretense in order to try to imagine away evils that they couldn’t bear to fight or even face.
When performed in the 1993, 1998 and 2014-15 Sam Mendes-directed Broadway productions of Cabaret, the song is sung with great bravado by an actor in drag. When I sit down to sing it at the piano, I like to do it more quietly, with restraint and softness, to underscore the fact that the singer may no longer feel so much, but she or he recognizes the tragedy in the loss of caring. The person telling the story may not feel whole and complete anymore, but he does remember that once there was a heart beating within him that could care. There is still a soul within that registers the loss. I can never be a person who does not care much, so when I sing the song, I must be a person who pretends not to care.
After singing the song so much this week, I got to thinking about some of the classic popular songs I love that are sung by or about prostitutes. It seems an odd theme for a pop song, I know, but really, aren’t a vast number of popular songs about lost love and the pain that comes from longing? Think about how many songs are about people’s desperate search for an escape from loneliness, or about the bliss that comes from feeling a deep and true connection to another person after a tormented period of hopelessness. People often think of prostitutes as dirty, dangerous and jaded, but their profession exists to offer the promise of pleasure and escape from the pain of the world. Their job is to sell a bit of themselves for a little while to people who are desperate to connect, to feel something deep and real, to feel cared for and soothed and satisfied for a sliver of time before they go back out into the freezing night, rushing to their homes, hoping to avoid being seen by those who would crush and destroy them for having the audacity to believe in whatever pleasure and happiness they can find (or pretend to find) in a dark and dirty world.
Guilt, shame and social ostracism are braided into the fiber of their lives; they exist to provide comfort and to satisfy elemental longings, but they are despised and punished for providing services that are both desperately sought after and deeply reviled. Theirs is a jaded, bitter corner of the world of longing and desire, and that is what makes their songs and stories so dramatic and powerful a counterpoint to the light and airy songs we usually associate with love. Drama comes from contrasts. In order for the spotlight to shimmer brightly, it must be surrounded by dark shadows to set it off.
I first saw the film version of the musical Cabaret when I was just nine. My outgoing mother liked to take me along with her as often as possible when she socialized, so despite the adult nature of the film, she and a friend brought me along to see Cabaret. I dutifully covered my ears and closed my eyes on command whenever Mom turned to me and whispered “PG! PG!” or “Parental guidance time!” The whole film was infused with a bawdy, mysterious sexuality far beyond my understanding, but it was compelling and fascinating enough that I enjoyed every lurid, intoxicating moment of it. It cleverly incorporated stories within stories, and it was full of great Bob Fosse dance numbers and catchy, seemingly lighthearted nightclub songs that were invested with deeper, uglier meanings. The songs reflected and expanded on the stories of the main characters and had scary parallels to the Nazi-inflicted horrors going on in the streets of Berlin just outside the doors of the cabaret.
The story is essentially about the unwillingness of many Germans (and many foreigners then living in Berlin) to acknowledge the growing danger of Hitler’s leadership in the early 1930s, and about the political apathy and, ultimately, the fear that fueled German society’s acceptance of inhumanity and depravity. The musical play, which is based on John van Druten’s 1951 play I Am a Camera and Christopher Isherwood’s 1939 book of stories called Goodbye to Berlin, is about the sickness that grows in a culture and in the hearts of its citizens when they refuse to see what is going on around them and refuse to look after each other out of fear for their own welfare. The musical numbers by John Kander and Fred Ebb are perfectly attuned to the zeitgeist of 1930s Berlin, and are gems in and of themselves. They also expand on, deepen and enrich the power of the story in ways that few composers for musical theater ever achieve.
The team of Kander and Ebb had a wonderful knack for drinking in the style and feel of the music of the past and then creating their own versions of those songs so that they felt completely authentic but were also entirely original. John Kander has said that when he was preparing to compose the music for plays like Chicago (which takes place in the 1920s) or Cabaret (which is set in the 1930s), he liked to immerse himself in the music of the time and listen to it so fully, deeply and constantly that it filled his brain. He then put it aside completely for a while and let it marinate and stew, and then when he began to write, the influences and motifs of that time period would wend their ways into his songs naturally, so he could compose comfortably in a fashion that had gone out of style forty years before. He was so masterful at it that a number of his songs, which seem so appropriate in the context of their original plays, went on to be popular standards that can stand on their own—songs like “Mein Herr,” “Cabaret,” Wilkommen,” “New York, New York” and “All That Jazz.”
The song “I Don’t Care Much” was written for the original Broadway production of Cabaret, but it was cut from the film version. I saw a stage production of the show featuring Joel Grey (the Tony- and Oscar-winning original Emcee) over 25 years ago, but the song never stuck with me until I saw Alan Cumming sing it last June in full drag in the astounding revival of Cabaret that is currently finishing up its run at Studio 54. When he stood at the microphone in his shimmering dress and heavy makeup, he was mesmerizing. Previous Sam Mendes-directed revivals of Cabaret starring Alan Cumming were staged in London in 1993 and in New York in 1998; the video above was excerpted from the 1993 production. Mendes’s dark, lurid style of staging the show works splendidly to underscore the tatty, raw, dangerous quality of life lived by those who spent their time in Berlin’s dark underbelly during the 1930s. The costumes are ripped, the makeup is smeared, the voices are gritty and the desperate quality of the characters is more evident and affecting than in the prettier, cleaner film version and earlier stage productions.
Alan Cumming said in his excellent interview with Terry Gross on her NPR radio show “Fresh Air” that he came up with a back story for his Emcee character in which he started off as a young male prostitute and worked his way into the cabaret life, so as a former rent-boy he has no fancy graces, and no desire to hide his voracious sexual appetites or comfort with the seedier side of life. In earlier productions of the show, Joel Grey held every eye and commanded attention with his strange, sexless, voyeuristic portrayal of the Emcee: he was an outsider laughing and smirking at the performers and the audience in a detached, amoral way. Alan Cumming’s version is immersed in the world of the cabaret, reveling in it, tainted by it, and ravaged by sex and drugs and decadence. The outsider Emcee of Joel Grey acted like a Greek chorus, pointing us at the depths of degradation others went to to shield their eyes from the ugliness of the outside world. Alan Cumming’s Emcee is drenched in underworld decadence and is ultimately pulled down and destroyed by it, as are all the others who could not escape from the decadent, dangerous world they were trapped in.
Cumming stands at the microphone in the dark and sings the song of a weary, degraded prostitute stripped of feeling by a sick and dangerous world, no longer caring what he must do to make enough money to eat or pay the rent or buy a coat thick enough to keep out winter’s chill. At first, as he stands in a dress and full makeup, the audience sometimes laughs at his outlandishness, thinking this is just another lark, a humorous way to remind us of the fluid and open sexuality of decadent pre-World-War-II Berliners. But in short order, his rough voice tells us that his kisses mean nothing. His comforts can be bought as a way to keep shoes on his feet and food in his stomach, but they mean little more to him:
Words sound false When your coat’s too thin Feet don’t waltz When the roof caves in So if you kiss me If we touch Warning’s fair I don’t care very much
Love for sale, Appetizing young love for sale. Love that’s fresh and still unspoiled, Love that’s only slightly soiled, Love for sale. Who will buy? Who would like to sample my supply? Who’s prepared to pay the price, For a trip to paradise? Love for sale.
The song was banned from the radio in the 1930s, but it became a hit for multiple artists in the following two years nonetheless, and it has been recorded by scores of major singers in the decades since. Even k.d. lang and Fine Young Cannibals put their stamp on the song. The faded, jaded quality deepens as the song progresses:
Let the poets pipe of love in their childish way, I know every type of love Better far than they. If you want the thrill of love, I’ve been through the mill of love; Old love, new love Every love but true love.
During her 2011 tour, Broadway star Idina Menzel sang the song as a bored-sounding, lite-jazz mashup with another prostitution-related song, “Roxanne,” by The Police. Most of us know the driving, original version of the plaintive call by a lover to his streetwalker sweetheart to give up her career to be with him and him alone. However, my favorite version is a gorgeous, stripped down solo version sung by Sting in the filmed version of the 1981 Amnesty International benefit concert called The Secret Policeman’s Other Ball. In it, Sting, accompanied only but his own spare, loose guitar playing, wails with so much more hopeless yearning than in the original song. His pain is greater, and his angst is so thick it hangs in the air and echoes along with his desperate voice. The performance is a tour de force that still gives me chills.
Elvis Costello is not the only musician in his family who can sing despairingly of the shattered dreams and desperate acts of those who walk the streets for money. His wife, jazz pianist and chanteuse Diana Krall, does a stunning version of the 1933 hit song “Boulevard of Broken Dreams.” No, not the song by Green Day—I mean the Harry Warren/Al Dubin classic that starts like this:
I walk along the street of sorrow The boulevard of broken dreams Where gigolo and gigolette Can take a kiss without regret So they forget their broken dreams You laugh tonight and cry tomorrow When you behold your shattered schemes Gigolo and gigolette Wake up to find their eyes are wet With tears that tell of broken dreams
Gigolos and gigolettes were considered just one step, if that, from prostitution. A gigolo is, by definition, a man who seeks the company and monetary support of wealthy people (usually women) who pay him for his charms. The term came about in the 1920s as a back-formation from the term “gigolette,” which then referred to a woman hired to be a dancing partner (and sometimes something more). This song is often sung with swelling passion and force, such as in the 1952 version by Tony Bennett, but I think the slow, melting version sung by crackle-voiced alto Diana Krall is the most haunting version of them all. Its restraint is more inviting and much sexier than the bolder, brighter Tony Bennett version. As famed stripper Gypsy Rose Lee said, always leave your audience wanting more.
Many of the richest, deepest songs about love are the ones based on loss and longing. If you find yourself feeling scarred or let down by life and love, know this: you are not alone, and the pain of lost love will heal. Acts of loving kindness set in motion by good-hearted people reverberate through time; they are carried in the hearts of the people whom we touch with our love and our music long after we ourselves are gone.
Icicles, those shimmering, elemental, diamond-like structures, may be nothing but water, but they can turn deadly in the right circumstances. Imagine a dark winter’s night in a Finnish forest, the sounds of icicles crashing down around you, the air filled with shattering noises and the wailing of the wind. You hear the cracking of tree limbs weighed down by their icy shrouds, the lowing of frightened animals in the barn, and your mind turns to the stories your grandmother told you about the spirits of the forest, the demons, the maleficent influence of the long dark nights, the wild animals, the errant hunters. This is the sound of Värttinä.
Over thirty years ago Finnish sisters Sari and Mari Kaasinen took their love of Finnish and Karelian (southeastern Finnish) folklore and decided to add music to their recitations of poetry and epic stories. They named their group Värttinä, which means “spindle,” as a way to honor women’s traditions and creations, and ever since the group has sung in the Karelian dialect of the Finnish language accompanied by various acoustic instruments.
Värttinä has long been known for singing “korkeelta ja kovvoo” (high and loud) in a style Americans may recognize as sharing some elements of singing made popular by Bulgarian women’s choirs in the 1980s and early 1990s. The group mixes wonderfully intricate and unexpected rhythms with high, vibrato-free, intense women’s voices singing in close but dissonant harmonies. Their nasal, diaphonic, tension-filled sound isn’t what most of us who grew up on Western musical traditions usually find beautiful. Yet there is an intense and dramatic quality to their music, and their precision and power bring joy to what could otherwise be a jarring, even disturbing sound.
Many of their songs are based on Finnish folk tales involving death, darkness and misery, but there’s an open-throated ardency and precision to their music that helps one understand how sitting before the fire on a stormy night sharing bloody tales of horror could be a fascinating way to while away the long, dark Finnish winters.
Finland had an ancient tradition of oral storytelling and poetry, but it was overshadowed by the rise of European-style rhymed written poetry around the 18th century. During the 19th century Elias Lönnrot compiled centuries’ worth of Finnish (and probably ancient Estonian) folk tales and combined them into the written epic poem known as the Kalevala. The poem, first published in 1835, is the national epic of Karelia and Finland. The region spent ages under the thumb of Swedish and later Russian domination, and the compilation of stories into the Kalevala made it easier for Finns to share and treasure their history. This led to the rise of a Finnish national identity and inflamed the desire of Finns to be self-governing and to use and delight in their own language instead of subsuming their identity to conquering nations’ desires. The movement inspired by the power and popularity of the Kalevala is said to have propelled the growth of national pride that resulted in Finland’s independence from Russia in 1917.
I first heard Värttinä on the PRI radio show “The World” in the late 1990s around the time that their album Vimha was released. The title cut, which means “The Ice Storm” in Finnish, captured my imagination instantly. I was captivated by the complexity of the rhythms, the unexpectedly bold and dissonant yet beautiful voices, and the joy of hearing rapid-fire Finnish, which was the first language of my beloved grandmother. She had sung to me in Finnish when I was a little girl, and I played and sang Finnish folk songs to her at the piano during my teens, though those songs were nothing like the wild, animalistic, galloping folksongs of Värttinä.
There is a tradition of darkness in Finnish culture which can also be found in Russian literature; it’s not surprising considering the bitterness and length of the dark winters and the dangers inherent in making a life in such inhospitable surroundings. But there is also an indomitable spirit to be witnessed and savored in their arts, and a powerful desire to face down death in order to reaffirm the life force. Värttinä adds a strong feminist element to this desire to acknowledge but laugh in the face of death. While this formerly all-female group has expanded to include men over time, and men have gone on to write much of their music, the power of women’s voices still underlies their modern take on roots music.
During Ireland’s Great Potato Famine of 1845-52, one out of every eight people in Ireland died of starvation or disease. The famine resulted in more than a million deaths. Because potatoes were the nation’s staple food, untold numbers were reduced to eating grass or nothing at all when every year’s potato crops failed. Those who ate the rotted potatoes pulled from the ground became ill. And yet, British landlords made peasant farmers gather their wheat crops and send them to Britain while the Irish became walking skeletons, or ceased to walk at all.
Many who could gather together enough money to leave came to America, resulting in nearly a million poor Irish immigrants arriving on American shores during the famine years alone. These huge masses of desperate, often uneducated Irish made up the first large migration of poverty-stricken people to the U.S. This caused an upswelling of nativist hatred, bigotry and violence toward the Irish that took decades to abate.
Back in Ireland, British landlords evicted the starving Irish farmers and sharecroppers from their modest huts and houses when they couldn’t supply the promised number of bushels of produce from blighted land. Landlords kicked starving children, disabled elderly people and everyone in between out of their homes. They took every grain away from dying Irish babies and threw families out into the harsh elements, where hundreds of thousands of children died.
Why? Because rich landowners convinced themselves that vulnerable people were worthless people, that affluence is next to godliness, that some people are just born dirty and disgusting and disposable.
We have recently seen men kidnap tiny victims of war, call their parents murderers and rapists, and send them back to the countries that killed their family members and threatened their lives. Powerful Americans prey on victims of war, legal asylum seekers. Poor, battered, sick and exhausted people offer themselves up to our mercy, thinking the great and powerful United States will keep them from dying. They think we will shelter them from the gangs that torture and murder their loved ones in their home countries. They hope to get jobs and work hard and have a chance to be safe and stop their nightmares. Because they thought we meant it when we said that our nation reveres liberty and justice for all.
Treating the Irish like nonentities was made easier by the prevalence of stereotypes of the Irish people as stupid, lazy, filthy, obscene, drunken, vulgar and subhuman. They were said not to care about their children the way good Christian English people did, not to mind eating rot, to be too drunk to be aware of their misery, to be innately drawn to sin. Many English (and Americans) were taught that the Irish had earned their state because they were depraved and unloved by God. Their Catholicism was considered vulgar, and was held up as one more reason to despise them. This anti-Irish sentiment followed the Irish to America, so even though many found opportunity here, acceptance was hard-won.
Now we hear so many of those same epithets and slanderous words flung at Mexicans and Central Americans and South Americans who are struggling just to stay alive. The Irish immigrants who flocked to American in the 1840s and 1850s would certainly recognize the degrading and dehumanizing words that spill out of our president’s mouth, and the rough and degrading treatment given to those who drag themselves here asking only to be given a chance to stay alive.
This is how evil spreads—by determining that those who suffer must deserve their suffering, and that those in hard circumstances don’t feel or care or love as much as the affluent do. By turning away from our responsibility to help the most vulnerable among us, we stomp out compassion. By labeling the destitute and distraught as vermin, as innately criminal, as dirty, dangerous and bad for society, we propagate the rot.
We are spreading a new plague. We are setting our own destruction in motion.
Many currently in power preach that the poor are bad and undeserving, and that the foreign-born poor are even more depraved—dangerous, too. This is one of the roots of evil—this determination of the worth of human beings based on homelands or ethnicity.
For a few decades, we seemed to have gotten better about this. Most in the U.S. who still held filthy, bigoted thoughts (and there were many) knew to hide them in public. But the demons of prejudice and hate walk more openly among us now. They continue to spread the lies that some people are innately unworthy of concern, of help, even of life.
We are woefully unprepared for what is coming. Fear has led too many to support a sociopathic authoritarian president who purposely confuses and stokes mass hatred. Our system was not built for a mass breakdown in faith or for takeover by a party that actively subverts the rule of law. I often fear that we may not rally enough to recover, short of civil war and invasion by foreign oppressors that might inspire us to fight back. But the invasion is underway, and all we have to show in response is Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi biding her time and Democratic candidates saying nice words while the president and his cronies dismantle our nation.
What will it take for us to see what the world sees: We have a reckless madman at the helm who is actively destroying our nation’s morals and infrastructure. He is spitting on the Constitution, on the values of equality and respect for diversity that we hold dear, and on everyone who has sacrificed to build this nation, safeguard it, and uphold its laws and ideals.
Our country is convulsing, and we wring our hands but deny it the care it needs to survive. We are in an undeclared state of emergency. We must remove Trump from power as fast as is constitutionally possible. We will still have divisiveness and hatred and homegrown terrorism to deal with—we will not be out of the woods. But stopping this madman is a necessary first step.
A few months ago, I was doing a difficult job that lasted six weeks instead of the two I thought I’d signed on for. I was commuting about 10 hours a week (and I hate driving), and the job required intense focus on thousands of important details. I learned a lot, the people were kind and helpful, and the work they did was important, but I felt out of place, frustrated, and blue.
I tried reminding myself of all the things going right with the job: I was employed, working with good folks at an institution that improves people’s lives, making enough so that I didn’t have to work two jobs, and setting a good example for my daughter by showing that sometimes we do things we don’t enjoy in order to pay our dues, fulfill our obligations, be helpful, and earn a living.
Of course, while my brain understood all this, my heart felt cranky and sad. I was frustrated that the talents I feel are the most valuable and worthy ones I have to offer weren’t being used to the extent I’d like to use them. And then I had my Sammy Davis Jr. epiphany.
To try to make the hours in stop-and-go traffic feel less gruesome, I realized I needed to find fresh and uplifting tunes. I love NPR (which recently featured an interview with Sammy’s daughter, Tracey, who discussed her new memoir of her father), but sometimes focusing on the latest events in Fallujah while stuck on a bridge for 30 minutes just feels too nasty and I need music. I rummaged through my CDs and found one I’d bought a few months back but hadn’t listened to much yet. It was a CD of songs performed by a man I must now admit I used to think of as one of the poster children of Vegas kitsch: Sammy Davis Jr. But the best part is the name of the album: “The Wham of Sam.”
I must digress at this point. Are you already asking yourself, why would Laura buy Sammy CDs in the first place? Well, because I heard one of his songs in a store somewhere and was reminded what a fine voice and a great sense of expression, style, and warmth he had at his best moments. The many TV appearances he made during the 1960s and 1970s were so filled with Vegas schlock and corny overstylization that he was almost a self-parody by the time I started listening to music in earnest. He was doing campy, obvious, cool cat riffs during his showy performances on Merv Griffin and Mike Douglas and The Tonight Show, and I couldn’t be bothered. I knew I’d loved his portrayal of Sportin’ Life in the film “Porgy and Bess” when I’d seen it on TV as a tiny kid, but I don’t think it’s been on TV since about 1970 so my memory is now faint, and I loved his performance as the Cheshire Cat singing “What’s a Nice Kid Like You Doing in a Place Like This?” in a strange 1966 animated parody variation of “Alice in Wonderland.”
His turn as groovy evangelist Big Daddy in “Sweet Charity” is a classic sixties moment that featured Sammy’s charismatic rendition of the song “The Rhythm of Life,” but somehow I forgot about that. The big hits he had when I was a kid, like “The Candy Man,” felt too cutesy and pat to me, and I dismissed him, with his goofy hipster patois and giant diamond rings, his membership in the Rat Pack, and his public support of Nixon was too bizarre. (I still shudder when I remember the much-publicized photo of Sammy’s adoring, awkward, full-body hug of Nixon.)
But when I heard him singing over the speakers at some chain store I thought, damn, no wonder this man was so popular. Listen to the feeling he puts into that line! What clear, clean enunciation! What sophisticated, tasty phrasing! So I swallowed my pride and hung out at a CD store listening station for a half hour, listening to selections from a number of his albums. I bought two, one of ballads and one of swingier songs. What a good move that was. But then I got distracted and hardly listened to them.
Anyway, back to my commute-hour epiphany. I popped “The Wham of Sam” into my CD player, and right there, boom, I was hooked with the first song, the star of the album, “Lot of Livin’ to Do.” The horns grabbed me immediately, and the energy, which starts out high, somehow continues to build with every measure of the song. The band arrangement by Marty Paich is fabulous, swingy in the style of Sinatra’s terrific “Ring-A-Ding-Ding” album (one of my favorite albums of all time, by anyone—it was arranged by the legendary Nelson Riddle).
“Lot of Livin’ to Do” is big and brassy and has something new going on at every turn, but the band never outshines Sammy, whose phrasing is exact and elegant. His syncopation is so sure and it builds right up to the payoff moments. He knows when to pull back a little and when to let it rip. The intonation and enunciation are beautiful, but beyond his technical chops, he works the lyrics just right. He’s thinking about what he’s saying, he means what he’s singing, and I believe every word. He was sizzling and I was thrilled, sitting in a traffic jam on a bridge near Seattle at 8:30 a.m., bouncing up and down in my seat.
I must have listened to that song six times in a row on the way into work. The words crept into my brain and Boom! I had a revelation. The words aren’t Shakespeare; they’re standard upbeat lyrics, and the song was originally written for the musical Bye Bye, Birdie, which is fun but not Sondheim, you know? But somehow, sung with that bravado and joy and excitement and underscored by that hot band, the lyrics spoke to me:
“… [T]here’s wine all ready for tasting / And there’s Cadillacs all shiny and new / Gotta move ’cause time is a-wastin’ / There’s such a lot of livin’ to do. / There’s music to play, places to go and people to see / Everything for you and me / Life’s a ball if only you know it / And it’s all waiting for you / You’re alive, so come on and show it / There’s such a lot of living to do.”
I heard it, and I believed it. I figured, hey, this slight man had a four-pack-a-day cigarette habit, a glass eye, grew up without his mom, had to deal with racism from day one, and had to perform in hotels that he was barred from sleeping in because of the color of his skin (until he became a big name and helped break the color barrier in show business). And man, did he love life. He ate it up and went right over the top, drinking and smoking and skirt-chasing too much, and hanging out with some unsavory folks, yesbut he also took a song like “Lush Life” and sang it like he’d lived it. He sang every song as if he lived it. And he meant every word.
He brought fun and swing and life into everything he sang. Sometimes the hipster kitsch of it was too much for me, and sometimes the low-brow, I’m-gonna-please-everybody style of his later years felt like he’d dumbed-down his act, especially considering what sophistication he was capable of. His desire to please everybody and be up, up, up all the time cheapened his rep in the eyes of many of us, but the joy he brought to life, the beauty he found in it and made for others.
That devotion to wringing every drop from it reminded me how lucky I was and how many wonderful things are around for me to enjoy. I thought it seemed a sin to waste another day in disappointment that I’m not doing more exciting work, and I vowed I’d make good things happen, find them, make sure they’re a part of every day of mine, and every one of my daughter’s days, too. I figured if Sammy, who had so much trash to contend with, could take his talent and shoot it off like fireworks, why can’t I take whatever gifts I have and make something fine and exciting of them, too? I may not be the dynamo Sammy was, but I don’t have his struggles either. And one doesn’t have to be a superstar to find something splendid in each day, or to make fine things happen.
So from that day forward I’ve reaffirmed my dedication to finding and doing good work, to making beauty, to learning something good and doing something kind each day, to being grateful for the opportunities to enjoy life more and to worry less about my dwindling savings (and how long it takes to find good jobs), and to writing regularly and with purpose. In a roundabout way, I have Sammy to thank for inspiring me to start this site. The wham of Sam, indeed!
Movie studios of the 1960s took the pulse of the culture and wanted to find a beautiful black man who seemed unimpeachably smart, brave, honest, talented and appealing—in short, a perfect black man—to make their characters come to life. But they got so much more. They got someone who felt real, natural, wise and good. There was no stiffness, no artifice, no arrogance. He was powerful, but not through violence—through reason, through integrity, through courage.
Poitier might have enjoyed having a chance at roles that didn’t always put his race front and center. But his talent, grace, insight, subtlety and decency allowed him to break through to people who seemed unreachably, permanently prejudiced at a time when America needed that more than anything. His performances were wonderful in their own right, but their influence on culture spread the importance of his characterizations far beyond the range of mere entertainment.
The performance that’s dearest to me of all of his work is not one of his tour-de-force performances like In the Heat of the Night—it’s his charming, naturalistic and deeply sympathetic performance in A Patch of Blue. The 1965 film is about a gentlemanly, intellectual and extremely kind man who befriends an abused, naïve and blind white teenager, the daughter of a trashy bigot, who has no idea that her best friend and mentor is a black man. The story sometimes gets a bit mawkish or obvious, and some of the other performances run a little over the top, but Poitier never does. As always, he gives it a quiet intensity, a sweet humor and a still, warm, humane focus.
This scene is one of the least dramatic in the film, but it shows perfectly how Poitier tells you everything you need to know about his character through his everyday expressions of humor and decency. It is in these small, perfect moments in each of his films that he becomes real, universal, a man we can all admire, a man we want in our own families. He could convincing play a friend, a romantic partner, an officer of the law, a builder of buildings and emotional bridges—someone we would all want in our lives. He was the honorable authority, the advisor, the father figure, a man who was always attractive and alluring but not overly sexualized, intense but not out of control. He was a black man who was both able and allowed to play an ideal man. And that changed everything.
We often see photos of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., looking serious, dignified, even dour. But he was a man who loved to laugh and who had great joy in his heart. His short, determined life involved constantly facing down injustice and living with fear and struggle, sure—but he loved laughter and fun, good food and good music as much as anyone. He was a real, flesh and blood human being, not a stoic saint immune to the pain and difficulty around him. And I think that makes his devotion, determination and persistence all the more extraordinary, don’t you?
Yes, it’s true: Trump’s failure to plan ahead and provide hot food for the visiting Clemson Tigers last night is just a distraction. The fact that he had piles of stale, cooling food sitting on the table and as the White House butler lit candelabra around them is as nothing to the horrid things he does each day. The ridiculousness of having staff portion French fries out in tiny water cups with the Presidential seal on them is laughable, but not earth-shattering. The fact that this billionaire was so cheap that he wouldn’t even spring for a hot catered dinner, but made a proud point of serving his guests of honor cold fast food shouldn’t surprise us—it’s totally in keeping with his usual ways.
But we should note his total inability to tell the truth even in the most mundane and verifiable circumstances. To be so incredibly petty as to lie even about the number of hamburgers served, to feel the need for self-aggrandizement and lies in even the tiniest particulars, to say that “over a thousand” burgers were served when he only bought 300—if he did pay any of his own money at all—this is a constantly changing virtual reality that he manipulates in order to destabilize the world. We should never assume that he will be honest or do the right thing in any particulars, ever. We should assume that he will pull the whole world down to make a point if we let him.