All posts by Sean Curnyn

A Jolly Christmas Frank Sinatra

A Jolly Christmas from Frank Sinatra

(Bringing this out of the archives to mark Frank Sinatra’s centenary)

Review of A Jolly Christmas from Frank SinatraThere’s a communal feeling about most Christmas music. Maybe this is because we generally hear the songs in the company of others, whether it’s as we’re elbowing our way down the aisles of the department store or perhaps singing along with them in church. I think that the most special thing about Frank Sinatra’s A Jolly Christmas
(Capitol Records, 1957) may well be how a very particular mood is created, quite different to that of the run-of-the-mill Christmas album. It is not so much a mood of lonesomeness (although Sinatra was well-skilled with evocation in that area) but a more nuanced and less inherently-sad sense of simply being alone at Christmas. Not miserable, and not necessarily overjoyed either, but simply contemplating and appreciating the season apart from the crowds and the relatives.

In the course of his long career Sinatra recorded plenty of Christmas music, from the sides with Axel Stordahl in the 1940s on Columbia (some very lovely stuff) to The Sinatra Family Wish You a Merry Christmas on Reprise in 1968 (predictably kind of cheesy). And these Christmas tracks get repackaged and resold over and over again. However, A Jolly Christmas is, to my mind, quite distinct. In 1957 when he went in to record it (during July in Los Angeles), Sinatra was truly at the peak of his artistic powers. Not only was his vocal ability (both the quality of his voice and his sense of how to use it) the best it had ever been or would ever be, but he was also at a peak of good taste. My theory is that Sinatra always personally had good taste, but later in his career he came to believe that his potential audience did not, and he dumbed things down at times in an effort to woo them. At this time, however, in the mid-1950s, Sinatra had a clear idea of what he wanted to do, musically-speaking, and what he was capable of, and he was able to work with arrangers and musicians of great excellence and taste themselves, and together they were able to put out records of a very high standard that in turn reached an appreciative and welcoming audience. All of these factors would never come together simultaneously again, and this is why Sinatra’s albums for Capitol Records in the 1950s stand as his greatest, and indeed as some of the most perfect examples of refined popular music that exist.

To put it in context, A Jolly Christmas was bookended by A Swingin’ Affair! (a sterling Nelson Riddle set) and Come Fly With Me (a masterpiece with Billy May). And released in exactly the same month (September of 1957) was Where Are You?, one of Sinatra’s great sets of lovelorn ballads, this one arranged by Gordon Jenkins, who likewise is the arranger for A Jolly Christmas. Jenkins had his strengths and weaknesses as an arranger, but there’s no doubting that his particular style is crucial in making A Jolly Christmas the unique kind of Christmas record that it is. Continue reading A Jolly Christmas from Frank Sinatra

Sacrifice in Afghanistan

sacrifice in afghanistan joseph lemmReading the newspaper summary of the life of Joseph Lemm—who was killed with five other American troops in Afghanistan two days ago—makes for a devastating reminder that the people we lose on these battlefields and outposts thousands of miles from home are the very best of us. We have no right to expect such people to be given to us in the first place; we certainly have no right to believe they will always be there to lay down their lives for our safety. And so we also have a duty (in which we are failing) to take care that their sacrifices are for causes that we truly cherish and will continue to defend. Continue reading Sacrifice in Afghanistan

I Wanna Be Sedated

sedated_wanna_be_babyThe harbingers of civilizational collapse and impending apocalypse have become so very common as to encourage a serious case of the old ennui. There is little to generate surprise in the latest catastrophes and the daily litany of hopeless headlines. Yet once in a long while something can come along that compels even the most jaded fatalists among us to stop, back up, and say, “Mother of the Mother of God, what have we come to?”

And that is exactly my reaction to this story in the “paper of record” today: Psychiatric Drugs Are Being Prescribed to Infants. Continue reading I Wanna Be Sedated

Dylan Guns Cancellations

Bob Dylan Chooses Hired Guns Over Cancellations

Dylan Guns CancellationsThe U.S. State Department has warned Americans abroad to steer clear of numerous sites in Italy that are apparently threatened by jihadist attacks. These include in particular the Vatican in Rome, and two sites in the city of Milan: the Duomo and La Scala opera house. The warning also mentions more general targets “such as churches, synagogues, restaurants, theatres, and hotels” in both Milan and Rome. Continue reading Bob Dylan Chooses Hired Guns Over Cancellations

“In Flanders Fields,” read by Leonard Cohen

flanders_fieldsMarking Remembrance Day in Commonwealth nations, Canadian poet, songwriter and singer Leonard Cohen recites “In Flanders Fields,” a poem written in 1915 by John McCrae. (Below via YouTube, courtesy of Legion Magazine)

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

On reflection, we would realize it’s always been that way: people just got especially good at it in the 20th century.

It is in returning to that poem written during the “war to end all wars” that so many across the English-speaking world mark the sacrifices of soldiers not only in that war but those that came after it, and those that keep coming. The 20th century was notable for the great technological progress made by humankind, and much of that progress was speedily employed to bring death on scales hitherto unheard of, both in the fields of war and in the realm of state tyranny. On reflection, we would realize it’s always been that way: people just got especially good at it in the 20th century. Is there any reason to think the 21st century will prove an exception to the trend?

Unfortunately, the evidence of human nature changing for the better seems a little hard to come by. And on the other hand the evidence for weapons of war of maximum lethality getting into the hands of those eager to employ them is all around, both in the headlines and between the lines of stories that get little attention.

McCrae’s poem, more resonant with each passing year, will continue to echo and frame new sorrows. There is something about what occurred in Word War I that has shadowed and anticipated later catastrophes. But the existence of such poetry at least reminds us that as long as we have words to say, all is never lost.

The Concern of a Canine

The Concern of a Canine

The Concern of a Canine
Yours truly is not a particularly friendly guy, as his friends would readily attest. My dog, a fourteen pound mutt named Billie, is quite different: a friend to anyone who makes eye contact with her. She is also quite different in the level of concern she’s capable of showing to unknown passersby. Life in the big city involves walking past countless individuals in states of relative disrepair; these include the addicted, the mentally ill, the disabled, the genuinely homeless and those who (for whatever reason) find setting themselves up in a busy location with the right begging shtick to be a worthwhile occupation. Billie will greet anyone who greets her, and has taken time for some I’d certainly rather walk right by.

Billie has long noticed people who seem to be on the verge of falling down.

However, the truly remarkable thing is that her capacity for concern can go beyond those who actually greet her. Continue reading The Concern of a Canine

Crime and Punishment

Crime and Punishment

Crime and PunishmentIt’s not easy for a nation to see itself in the mirror. And it’s even harder when the visage in the glass is as misshapen and horrific as this.

Forty years ago the U.S. Supreme Court decided that the practice of abortion was not merely permissible but was a fundamental right sitting somewhere between the lines of the Constitution, and one not to be restrained. The nation has lived with that since; some have been taking advantage of this right, some opposing it, with the larger portion of the body politic essentially turning their heads away. In the summer of 2015, we’ve had held before us a looking glass that shows us how far we’ve come, and it’s a lot like undraping the picture of Dorian Gray. Words are not remotely adequate for what we see, and I’ve personally been struggling to come up with any at all. Yet there could be no writing about anything else before giving expression to some kind of statement on this. Continue reading Crime and Punishment

Tennessee Blues

Tennessee Blues

Tennessee BluesAt this point, we don’t know their names, but four U.S. Marines were shot to death today in Chattanooga, Tennessee. From a news report:

After the shooting, the Department of Homeland Security said in a statement that it was “enhancing the security posture at certain federal facilities, out of an abundance of caution.”

One of the pressing questions in the wake of this massacre is whether, out of an “abundance of caution,” the “security posture” of U.S. military installations will include the notion that these individuals who have volunteered to defend the nation, and on whom we depend to do so, will actually be permitted to carry firearms (because reports currently indicate that these murdered U.S. Marines were compelled by law to be defenseless). Continue reading Tennessee Blues

Assyrians impaling Jew 700 BC

Inspirational Thought of the Day

Assyrians impaling Jew 700 BCToday while re-reading Abraham Joshua Heschel’s great work The Prophets, I came across this passage which put me in a “nothing-ever-changes” frame of mind:

Assyria has often been called the most ruthless nation of antiquity. For ages she plundered all peoples within her reach, like a lion which “filled his caves with prey and his dens with torn flesh” (Nah. 2:12 [H. 2:13]). Her warfare abounded in atrocities; cutting off the heads of conquered peoples was a common procedure. The kings of Assyria boasted of towns destroyed, dismantled or burned, leveled as if by a hurricane or reduced to a heap of rubble. The victors took away everything they could carry. Upon capturing a city …

Continue reading Inspirational Thought of the Day