Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Pete Seeger: May 3, 1919 - Jan 27, 2014

Pete Seeger died yesterday. He was a a big part of my upbringing. We learned his music in school. I have passed on his songs to my children and in that sense his legacy will not die. He was a special kind of artist who felt that folk music and sense of community were inseparable. He used his influence through music to not only entertain but to educate. He lived through the the labor movement of the 40's and 50's, the Civil Rights and Anti-Vietnam movement of the 60's and continued to fight through the 70's and beyond for environmental and antiwar causes. All the while with his banjo, guitar and tenor voice to express his messages of peace and seeing the bigger picture. I don't get too involved in the political side of things myself. But, I admire people who can and for me, Mr. Seeger was more than an political activist. He was a voice of my childhood. I am grateful for his music. His versions of Down by the Riverside, Michael Row the Boat Ashore, Little Boxes, This Land is Your Land, Where Have all the Flowers Gone?, If I Had a Hammer, and All Around the Kitchen, will stay with me forever.

Here is a brief interview and then a performance of Skip to My Lou. He loved singing this whenever he performed for children. Enjoy!


Thursday, January 23, 2014

Keeping it Real While Singing

One of the challenges actors face when breaking into song during a scene is to keep the flow of truth consistent. The actor will be brilliant while speaking and then as soon as that music starts, BAM!, "now I am singing"...the honesty that was holding the audience captive has now disappeared. The singing has become a wall between actor and spectator and the moment is blown. I liken this phenomenon to amateur actors doing Shakespeare. The heightened language becomes a barrier and all the audience hears are words, words, words. Then turn the spotlight to a seasoned Shakespearean actor and the language is crystal clear. In fact, the language isn't what the audience is focusing on much at all, but the heart of the character takes hold and captivation ensues.

Here is Kristin Chenoweth talking about this very thing in an interview a few years back during her time on the series "Pushing Daisies". The show incorporated singing in a very natural way. I love what she has to say:



And here is the scene she is talking about. She is an amazing example of staying in that core of truth as she transfers back and forth from singing to dialogue:



When I work with students or am performing a song myself, I approach it much like I would a monologue. The first thing is to learn the song and get it in a strong place technically (an audience also will tune out someone who is singing out of tune, or with an unbalanced sound). Then my favorite part, breaking everything down and creating the heart behind the song. Sometimes the vocal technique may be compromised to bring the song to that place of truth, but the final result is most gratifying. If one can keep that continuity going and keep it real, the actor will feel it and the audience will feel it. The perfect match up in any art form.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Diggin' Into Bluegrass: Hazel Dickens

I have decided for my annual recital that I will turn from my normal 'musical theater and pop comfort zone' and get into new territory focusing on country, folk and bluegrass music. I have always been a fan of popular country music from the 70's (to be frank, pretty much ANY music from the 70's suits me just fine). I grew up listening to Dolly Parton, Kenny Rogers, John Denver, Anne Murray, The Mandrell Sisters and Linda Ronstadt. I am familiar with folk music from the 60's and 70's. I fall under the cliche category of being a Joni Mitchell fan. Can't listen to much of Bob Dylan singing, but I love his songs and prefer artists like Joan Baez doing his stuff. Pete Seeger is a staple in our home. My kids were raised on Sesame Street and good old Pete. I love his cleverness and sense of fun and leave it to banjo music to get kids up and moving. There are many more artists in the country and folk world that I will touch on in the coming months, but for today I have to admit, I do not know much about the the world of bluegrass.

This has been where most of my research resides. I am particularly interested in female artists of the genre. I had heard of most of the top male artists, but women like Hazel Dickens...where has she been all my life? Of course Emmylou Harris and Allison Krauss have been more household names in my neighborhood, the soundtrack of, Brother Where Art Thou? thrust bluegrass into the forefront of our nations conscious when it came out in 2000.

But today we need to talk about Hazel Dickens. She was known for her songs that were pro-union, and she served as an advocate for coal miners through her music. She was originally a part of the duo, Hazel and Alice. Their first album together, "Who's That Knocking," released in 1965, is considered one of the earliest bluegrass records made by women. She was a reluctant feminist role model and has said that she was originally scared to write about issues like sexism and the oppression of women.

In an interview she gave in 1999 she remembers the first time she sang 'Don't Put Her Down, You Helped Put Her There', she recalled, "I was at a party standing in the middle of all these men. It was here in Washington. Bob Siggins was playing banjo, and when I got done, everyone just stood and looked at each other, and Bob said, "That's a nice song, but I won't be able to sing it." And I said, "Of course you can."

 "We were writing about our own experience, " she explained. "They were things we needed to say."

Here is a sample of Hazel Dickens. Enjoy!!