SEE YOU AT THE LABOR DAY FAIR

Summer 1964 Isle La Motte, Chopping Wood copy 2(Me, age 13, August 1964, in front of my brothers Dave and Rob, up in Vermont, on Isle La Motte, trying not to think about returning to school in two weeks. But we had the Labor Day Fair to look forward to.)

Back in the mid 1960’s, the West Hartford Labor Day Fair was a big deal. It may not have had ox-pulling contests or prizes for the biggest hog, or jars of homemade jam and pickles like some of the more rural Connecticut Autumn fairs, but it did have plenty of gut-wrenching rides, teeth-wrecking candy apples and splendiferous cotton candy that would evaporate instantly in your mouth, igniting sugar bombs in your brain and enough hot dogs to feed a medium sized English village for a week.

For one whole day, which also happened to be the very last day of Summer vacation, the vacant lots between the old American Legion hall and Williams Ford, behind the library and police station, became home to the most wonderfully trashy carny town. You cajoled your parents into bringing you there or, when you were a bit older, walked there yourself. And there you stayed, until the last rotation of the Ferris wheel, hanging out with your friends, eating foods with no nutritional value whatsoever, like fried dough, chocolate pretzels and funnel cakes and drinking equally unhealthy beverages like Coke, Dr. Pepper, Orange Crush, A & W or Hire’s Root Beer, Lime Rickey, White Birch Beer and Cream and Grape Soda. It was a day to throw dietary caution to the wind, and to ride every dipping, dropping, spinning, bobbing, lurching, lunging and gravity-defying ride that was there. This was your last day before school started, and you’d be damned if you didn’t stretch out and enjoy every precious second of freedom.

SODA POP BOTTLE TOPS   FRIED DOUGH STAND SNOW CONES & COTTON CANDY

(Food and drink at the Labor Day Fair.)

Along with a hint of Canadian air that made you want to wear that flannel shirt for the first time since last Winter, there were songs on the radio that became forever imprinted in your mind as harbingers of Fall. Early September was the time when you reluctantly returned to the spirit-killing fluorescent light of classrooms, hallways and crowded cafeterias. But it was also when you saw many of your friends for the first time in three months. And it was the time when, as if by magic, mysterious, unknown, beautiful girls would appear, floating in and out of rooms, occasionally locking eyes with you and severely affecting your physiology. To this day, there are certain songs that bring me back to those times when my life got busy again, when my brooks of inspiration turned into mighty rivers, when a new band of mine started rehearsing and performing, when I fell in love and my new girlfriend inspired me to write new songs. Coincidentally, September is also when my first major label record came out (“Blind To Reason” on RCA Records, Sept. 24, 1988).

BILLBOARD COVER SEPTEMBER 24 1988 copy 2

There were some great songs that were on the radio in 1964 and ’65, when I was about to start my eighth and ninth grades. Many of them were English, as it was the height of the “British Invasion”, which was really a host of British bands who were by fascinated by our American soul music, as well as some country. Even in their writing, as in the case of The Beatles, this influence was evident. I’m certainly not the first person to observe that these Brits were giving our own music back to us. I can say, without a doubt, that we needed it at that time. The insipid “vocal stylings” (sounds like the design of a split-level suburban house) of crooners such as Pat Boone and others were churning out songs that had not one centilla of rhythm or soul. American record labels, owned by rich white men, in all their racist glory, got white singers to record the black songs they “discovered”.

At any rate the songs back then mostly had English accents. Just listen HERE.

And HERE. Imagine, if you will, slow-dancing, at the age of fourteen, in Suzy Brigham’s basement, to THIS song. And, at the school dance in the cafeteria, you could really bust your moves at a faster tempo with THIS song.

Meanwhile, at the Labor Day Fair, THIS song was playing as you walked over to that girl who you hoped would be your new girlfriend, and asked her if she’d like a soda.

“Thanks”, she said, with that sweet voice. “I already have two.”

In fact she did, and the second one apparently belonged to that guy who was now walking toward you.

“Well, I guess I’ll see you guys tomorrow at school,” you say, lamely, as THIS song starts playing in the speaker right above your head, putting you momentarily in a depression as deep as the Grand Canyon.

“Oh,” she says, in a  sudden burst of energy. “I’d like you to meet my cousin Ned. He’s visiting from Virginia.”

Just then the sun comes out from behind one of the few clouds in the sky and it seems to you like she is smiling a little longer than necessary at you. The sun is back-lighting her hair, making her look positively angelic.

She beats you to the punch. “Maybe we can go to a movie sometime, on a weekend?” Her voice just gets more sweet and silky each time she speaks.

“Yeah, that sounds great”, you reply, as your heart jumps up and down like a frantic little kid, excited about getting ice cream.

“In the meantime,” she says, playfully, “we could try out this Ferris wheel. I hear it goes really fast.”

A smile spreads across your face and you fumble in your pockets for those bills you had put in there this morning.

“Sure!” you reply. “I….I thought I..”

“My treat,” she interrupts. “you can get the next one.”

It’s happening again. That feeling of something new is starting up. As you look at her smiling face and shake her cousin’s hand. who has just told you it was nice to meet you, the possibilities of your life open up inside your heart like one of those huge, panoramic Hudson River school paintings. The late afternoon September sun is shining on her hair, on the Ferris wheel and in your chest.

As you both sit down in the seat and fasten your bar, you hear another song starting over the speakers. How perfect, you think. You look at her and smile, as the music begins to unfold its wonderful feeling. The Ferris wheel starts to move, with a sudden jerk. You can’t stop smiling as you listen to that great SONG.

As you head down the tenth dip on the Ferris wheel, she looks at you and you look back. Her perfume smells great. So does her hair. You look at the sky, which is fading slowly from bright blue to dark purple, and you remember those last weeks at the beach.

“It really was a great Summer,” you say aloud, half to yourself, half to her.

IMG_7369(The beach, like the moon and sun, is always there.)

 

 

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A GOOD FRIDAY NIGHT DATE

MORNING GLORY ON WEEPING MULBERRY TREE copy

(Morning glory-covered weeping mulberry tree in front of our friends’ house. Photo by Grayson Hugh.)

Polly and I recently had a long overdue visit with our friends, Kim, her mother Carol and Kim’s son John, who are also neighbors of ours. Polly made a delicious cherry pie and we brought it down the street to their house at 2 in the afternoon. We sat in their cozy front room, protected from the hot Summer sun by their air conditioning and the shade of the weeping mulberry tree that takes up most of their small front yard. Every August this tree, with the help of Carol’s green thumb, sprouts bright blue morning glory flowers that last nearly to Halloween.

We had our coffee and pie and visited hard, as my grandmother used to say.

Somehow we got to talking about buying things online. Somebody said how convenient it was, and Polly said how she preferred to go to the store, hold the article in her hand and, if it was clothing, try it on in person. I get what she means.

Then our friend Kim said “And I know streaming movies is convenient, but I miss Blockbuster.”

Oh, man, that hit a nerve with us. Then Polly told the story of our Blockbuster Friday night dates.

In the early days of our courtship, in 2007, while Polly and I were just beginning to co-produce “An American Record” on weekends, I would take the Peter Pan bus from Bourne, Massachusetts to Hartford, Connecticut on Friday afternoons. I had not as yet renewed my drivers’ license. Polly would pick me up at Union Station in Hartford, which served as both train and bus station.

From the bus station, we’d head to Danbury, Connecticut where Polly lived. Our first stop, after getting a quad tall no-foam latte with whole milk at the Starbucks drive though, was at one of the two Blockbuster Video stores that were in Danbury at the time. It was both relaxing and exciting to wander slowly down the aisles together, looking at the movies, talking about what we were in the mood for: action, comedy, thriller, quirky independent film or one of those Summer blockbuster (pun intended) epics like “Independence Day” or “Close Encounters Of The Third Kind”. Or perhaps a black and white 60’s British dry comedy like “The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner” or a black and white over-the-top sci-fi British classic like “The Day of the Triffids”. Looking at the covers, reading the blurbs, deciding on which videos to get – that was half the fun.

BLOCKBUSTER VIDEO STORE AISLE

(Blockbuster Video.)

TAPEI TOKYO Shot 1

(Taipei Tokyo in Danbury, Connecticut, sadly and mysteriously closed since 2013.)

Our next stop was Taipei Tokyo, maker of the most delicious cold sesame noodles, Szechuan dumplings and ginger chicken with string beans. We’d get the food to go.

What more could you need? A couple great movies, some good food you both liked, and each other. That’s a good Friday night date!

Polly and I used to frequent Taipei Tokyo often. We got to know the owners and I always enjoyed mispronouncing Xièxiè (thank you) in my very limited Mandarin. Then suddenly in 2013, they were gone. We were crestfallen. An era of congenial, relaxed dining had vanished.

Just like Blockbuster Video.

Now, yes, we stream Netflix and Amazon Prime movies (a smart tv and the Prime membership a Christmas gift from my brothers). And instead of wandering the aisles of Blockbuster, we now wander the aisles of Bethel Library, which has a really good selection of films.

Though we’ve not found a restaurant nearby that can come anywhere close to Taipei Tokyo’s dumplings, we’re still searching.

And we still have each other.

 

 

SONGS OF SAUDADE AND HIRAETH

ON THE WALES-ENGLAND BORDER copy

(In 1987, when I went to Wales for the first time, to visit the land of my fathers, as the train  crossed the border – depicted in the photo above, taken from the train window – I felt an incredible surge of emotion. I can only explain it as an ancestral gravity in my soul. All while I was there, it was as if I had finally come home, yet I knew I had to leave again. It was the hiraeth I was feeling.)

According to Wikipedia, Saudade (European Portuguese: [sɐwˈðaðɨ], Brazilian Portuguese: [sawˈdadi] or [sawˈdadʒi], Galician: [sawˈðaðe]; plural saudades) is a deep emotional state of nostalgic or profound melancholic longing for an absent something or someone that one loves. Moreover, it often carries a repressed knowledge that the object of longing might never return.

The only other word at all that is akin to saudade is the Welsh word hiraeth. [HEER-eyeth] [ How to pronounce hiraeth].

Despite being hard to translate, saudade has equivalent words in other cultures, and is often related to music styles expressing this feeling such as the blues for African-Americans, dor in Romania, tizita in Ethiopia, or assouf for the Tuareg people. In Slovak, the word is clivota or cnenie, in Czech, the word is stesk and sehnsucht in German.

I would add to Wikipedia’s list the Portuguese musical style of fado. And, to their section of literature that is written in the tone of saudade, I would add Marcel Proust’s seven-volume-long novel “The Remembrance Of Things Past”, James Joyce’s “Ulysses” and Vladimir Nabokov’s “Lolita”. There are, I’m sure, other examples.

But let’s stick to music. I have made a list. And, yes, I myself did write a song (mostly instrumental) called Saudade. Perhaps it stemmed from my love of Brazilian music and the berimbau my good friend percussionist Joey Cardello made for me.

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MI0003768911

1) Chega de Saudade – Written by Antonio Carlos Jobim and performed by João Gilberto. The song was first recorded by Brazilian singer Elizete Cardoso. The music was composed by Antonio Carlos Jobim and the lyrics were written by Vinícius de Moraes. João Gilberto’s recording is the most famous. Chega means no more, enough.

To hear “Chega de Saudade” sung by João Gilberto click HERE.

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cesaria-03(Cesaria Evora.)

2) Sodade – Written in the 1950s by by Armando Zeferino Soares, a Capeverdean composer. Recorded in 1992 by Cesaria Evora on her album Miss Perfumado. Sodade is a song in the Coladeira style, a Capeverdean genre. Musically it uses the cycle of fifths and The common small band Coladeira instrumentation is a vocalist, violão (guitar), a cavaquinho (four stringed guitar that plays rhythm) and some percussion. Bigger bands adds acoustic bass, a rabeca (violin), clarinet, trumpet and percussion such as a shaker, güiro, cowbell, congas.

To hear “Sodade” by Cesaria Evora click HERE.

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CRISTINA BRANCO (Cristina Branco.)

3) Saudade by Cristina Branco, Portuguese fado singer. Fado (Portuguese for fate) is a genre of Portuguese song, similar to American blues but always melancholy, not up tempo. The instrumentation is usually a singer accompanied by traditional 12 string Portuguese guitars or mandolins. She often records with one of the world’s leading fado guitarists Custódio Castelo.

To hear”Saudade” by Cristina Branco and 12 string traditional Portuguese guitarist Custódio Castelo click HERE.

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TAMMY WYNETTE(Tammy Wynette.)

4) Longing To Hold You Again – Performed by Tammy Wynette. Written by Don Robertson. Country music has more than one song about longing and yearning. This one is one of my favorites, mainly because of the sheer soul-scorching tone of Tammy Wynette’s amazing voice.

To hear Tammy Wynette singing “Longing To Hold You Again” click HERE.

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Marvin+Gaye(Marvin Gaye.)

5) Distant Lover – Performed by Marvin Gaye. Written by Marvin Gaye, Gwen Gordy Fuqua, Sandra Greene. When I first got the album this song is on, “Let’s Get It On”, in 1973, I would listen to it over and over, getting happily lost in the tangled vines of all his background harmony parts, that he loved to do himself.  His missing and wanting became mine, for my own distant lover. She had recently moved away to the other coast of the country. During those long weeks inbetween our airborne visits, Marvin consoled me with his own saudade.

To hear “Distant Lover” by Marvin Gaye click HERE.

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BB KING 2(B.B.King.)

6) The Thrill Is Gone – Written and Performed by B.B. King. What superlatives can be added to this great man? He wrote it, he lived it, he done it the best. And when the thrill is gone, that’s when you miss it the most.

To hear this Master of The Blues perform “The Thrill Is Gone” click HERE.

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BRYN TERFEL(Bryn Terfel.)

7) Suo Gân – Traditional Welsh lullaby. Sung by Bryn Terfel with The Radio Filharmonisch Orkest Holland. Conducted by Edo De Waart, 2002. Welsh men used to sing to escape the bleak hardship of their lives spent mostly down in the darkness of coal mines. The women sang hymns and went to Chapel. The tradition of singing, writing poetry and just being really emotional continues in Wales. I always say we Welsh are the Italians of the U.K. And what other county holds an annual week long festival of poetry and music? The Welsh, of course! It is called the Eisteddfod (pronounced eye-steth-vod. The double “dd” in Welsh in pronounced like a “th” sound and a single “f” is like a “v”. Two “ff”s are like an “f” in English. There are no “v”s in the Welsh alphabet.) The Eisteddfod  is held the second week of July in Llangollen in North Wales. Even though I am a first generation Welsh American, I have always been proud of my heritage.

To hear my home boy Bryn Terfel sing “Suo Gân” click HERE.

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BULGARINA WOMEN'S CHOIR(Neli Andreeva, in center, and The Philip Kutev Choir.)

8) Malka Moma – Traditional Bulgarian Woman’s Choral Music Performed by Neli Andreeva & Philip Kutev Choir. Once heard, you are haunted by these voices.

To hear “Malka Moma” click HERE.

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GET IT WHILE YOU CAN RECORD COVER

8) Saudade – Written by yours truly, Grayson Hugh. In the Fall of 2012 my old friend and very talented guitarist Norman Johnson asked me to make a guest appearance on his upcoming album “Get It While You Can” (Pacific Coast Jazz 2013). I played him my song “Saudade”, that I had written while living in Manhattan in 1996. He loved it and asked if he could put it on his record. So I sent him the chart for it and he arranged it for me, him on guitar, drums, percussion and acoustic bass. When I wrote, I was missing the country (living in New York City), missing love (I had recently left a relationship that I wasn’t happy in) and missing being happy, busy and fulfilled (having left a dead end record deal, I was still looking for a label that “got” me and my music). So I wrote this song about what the Brazilians call saudade and we Welsh call hiraeth. Hard to pronounce and hard to explain and hard to explain how to pronounce,, but you know it when you hear it and when you feel it.

To hear “Saudade” click HERE.

 

 

FRENCH ROAST COFFEE AND A SUMMER SONG

YOU CALL THIS COFFEE? copy

You know the scene in the movie “Godzilla” when the French investigator played by Jean Reno takes a sip of American coffee, grimaces and yells “YOU CALL THIS COFFEE?” to anyone and everyone and the world in general that is apparently so willing and even eager to settle for so much less in his beloved national drink.

I feel your pain, Jean. Why anyone would want to drink brown-coloured, weakling water with no taste when they could take just a little bit of time and have delicious, full-bodied, smoky-sweet and dark and deep, double-roasted coffee full of gently sloping wake-up feelings and good dreams – is beyond my comprehension.

But that’s what they serve in practically every restaurant, diner, greasy spoon, pizza parlor, bar, community center, church, temple, fast food joint and truck stop in America.

IT AIN’T COFFEE!

Here, now, I shall describe the easy and proper way to make the best cup of coffee you will ever have. Once you taste this – you will never fade back into the flocks of brown-coloured water drinkers.

FRENCH ROAST COFFEE BAG

STEP ONE. Get yourself some beans that are roasted not once, but twice. You want those coffee beans to crack twice to really release all their flavor and oil. There are several different dark roasts: Italian, Vienna, Espresso, French. You can go even darker with Spanish Roast, where the beans are roasted past the second crack and just shy of the third crack, in other words, right before the beans ignite! I personally prefer French Roast have drunk nothing but that since around 1978. My wife and I like the reliable quality of Starbucks, but do some research and get the beans you like. (As for Turkish Coffee, that’s a whole different texture and taste, almost like sipping sweetened mud. Fortune tellers often appear for the full ritual.)

COFFEE BEAN GRINDER

STEP TWO. Grind your beans fresh each time. A tip: the longer you grind them (the more your ground coffee looks like dust) the stronger and full-bodied the taste.

POLAND SPRING WATER

STEP THREE. Use only spring water. Every city water system in this country has chemicals in it, and, even with a filter, you’re going to get some coming through. Why would you want to put even small traces of fluorine, chlorine, nitrates or pesticides in your coffee?

MANY COFFEE MAKERS

STEP FOUR. You can boil spring water and use the drip method, use a French press or an automatic drip coffee maker, whatever you like. I prefer drip. I like to smell that powder of ground beans explode with aroma slowly as it drips through. The important thing is to make it fresh. And forget those single cup Keurig deals. You have to use awful little stale, pre-packaged coffee packets and they taste just like it sounds, no matter how convenient and enticing it looks.                                                                                                                              

FULL CUP OF FRENCH ROAST COFFEE ON PIANO

STEP FIVE. Drink your wonderful double-roasted coffee. I like mine black, but do with it what you will. It will make you a nicer person and also very smart.

I have spoken, and it is so.

Now that you know how to make great coffee, here’s a song called “Verano” I wrote that began with me going into a store to buy French Roast coffee beans. It talks about how this girl used to come out to see me and my band on hot Summer nights, and there was this mysterious strong connection between us…

Enjoy the song. Enjoy the coffee.

To hear “Verano” click HERE.

Here are the lyrics.

• • • VERANO • • •
words & music by Grayson Hugh

You were leaning in the corner
putting bananas away
I was there for some French coffee beans
you said “maybe when you make a million
you take me out”
and I said “that sounds good”
but I didn’t know then
just how good it was gonna be

I had been watching you
for a while already
you with your brown eyes
like a fawn in the ferns
you used to come out
to hear my group play rock ‘n roll
I used to wonder
how much you knew about me and you
cause I knew something
about you and me

It was in the air like the cool moonlight
shining, shining, shining
out in the summer yards and fields
the last full powerful moon
before September begins to bring out the grapes
I believe we both knew each other
I think we wanted to talk to one another
but Time she was waiting
and hesitating
all the life behind us
and the life she saw before us
the strange rules of destiny taking shape
on the night
when we slowly uncovered
the secret
of you and me
verano, verano
verano, verano….

 

© 2017 by Swamp Yankee Music/ASCAP

 

 

WHAT’LL I DO WITH THE BABY-O? And Other Detours With Dancers…

GRAYSON AT DEKE & ARLEEN'S, NEWTON CENTRE, MASS. 1997 copy

(Me, 1997, in my friend Deke’s study in Newton Centre, Massachusetts. We gathered here often to talk, and to listen to one of his many cherished vinyl records.)

In 1996 I had just moved from North Carolina to the Boston suburb of Newton Centre, living in the third floor apartment at the house of a great friend I’ve know since kindergarten, Deke James. He had invited me, in an act of generosity I will never forget, to live with him, his wife Arleen and six year old daughter Olivia.

Who invites you to move in with them, to become a part of their family for as long as you need to, no worries about rent, pay what you can, when you can? Who invites you to become uncle to their daughter, brother-in-law to their wife? Who offers to give you, free of charge, their legal advice as an attorney and, upon reading your publishing contract, discovers that they, my publisher at the time, still owe you ten thousand dollars? Who does this? Your best friend in the world, that’s who.

ARLEEN & OLIVIA, ME, CHUCK & DEKE

(Left: Arleen & Olivia, across the street from Rick Walker’s Rock ‘n Roll Cowboy Clothes Store, at their old location across from the Boston Common. Right: Deke, lower step, on higher step, Deke’s Harvard roommate and good friend Chuck Gentry and me. For this photo, I lent Deke my old rock ‘n roll vest, and Chuck my “Road To Freedom” hat.)

DEKE & ME, LOOKING OUT AT OCEAN, HULL, MASS. 1996

(Deke and I, surveying the surf, Hull, Massachusetts, 1996.)

I was, a year and a half later, to begin teaching songwriting at Berklee College Of Music. I would also connect, through friends at various universities, with several modern dance choreographers who had their own Companies. Soon I was receiving commissions to compose scores for them. These choreographers included Rebecca Rice, of The Boston Ballet, Diane Arvanites and Tommy Neblett of Prometheus Dance, Christine Bennett of Christine Bennett Dance and Julie Larsen of Milton Academy.

SHARPENED BERKLEE PHOTO, 2000

(Me at my desk in the Songwriting Department of Berklee College Of Music in Boston, October, 2000. There was a Starbucks just across the street, thank the Good Lord.)

In the time before my Berklee teaching began, I also made some extra money, which came in very handy at that time especially, by accompanying for modern dance classes at Boston University, The Boston Conservatory, Walnut Hill School For The Arts and at Milton Academy (where singer-songwriter James Taylor, in the time-honored tradition employed by creative souls everywhere, left the premises before his scheduled graduation).

Speaking of leaving high school early, I should explain how I discovered modern dance accompanying as a means of income. When I told my parents in my junior year that high school had nothing of value for me, they agreed that I could “drop out”, as long as I got my G.E.D. and a job. If I did these two things, I could stay at home for one year. After that I would have to get my own place.

I complied with their conditions. I took the G.E.D. test immediately and quickly. In fact when they returned home from driving me to the neighboring town for the test, I was already back, having hitchhiked home. Thus began a year of not one, but many jobs. I was a landscaper, fence painter, piano tuner, dishwasher, stockboy, and a clerk at a bookstore. I even got hired by the Hartford Courant on the strength of my typing skills. When it was explained to me, however, that I would not in fact be an ace reporter, chasing down stories in exotic locations, but sitting at a desk in a window-less room typing copy all day, the job somehow seemed less Hemingway-esque. So I kept searching, working job after meaningless job. The only consistency in my life from the age of seventeen to eighteen was the shows I was playing with my band Portrait Blues, mainly at the local YMCA, at churches, coffeehouses, community centers and private parties. Still too young to play in bars, that income was not enough to pay for an apartment.

TRUDA KASCHMANN AT HARTFORD SEMINARY

(Truda Kaschmann, circa 1974.)

Then one day my father told me about Truda Kaschmann. She was a modern dancer, a student of Mary Wigman’s. Born Jewish in 1906 in Munich, Germany, she came to America in 1934 at the age of 28 with her husband, Dr. Joseph Kaschmann, a physician, to escape the rising tide of Hitler’s anti-semitism. My dad was well-known in the artistic community of Hartford through his classical radio shows and narration for The Young People’s Concerts of The Hartford Symphony.  He and Truda became friends and he provided the narration for her educational program “Dance Is Another Language”. He suggested I ask her if she needed a pianist for any of her modern dances classes at The Hartford Conservatory.  She did. In fact she needed an accompanist for most of her classes, and eventually I was playing not only all of her Conservatory schedule, but for her classes at Miss Porter’s School in Farmington and The Ethel Walker School in Simsbury.

Truda was a 5 foot 2 inch dynamo. Though she was already in her late sixties when I met her, she was in astonishingly good condition. To show her students one of the benefits of a lifetime of dance classes, she would invite them to walk across her stomach as she lay supine on the floor with her legs extended and crossed. I’m talking about adult students walking across her abdomen! She was tough as nails, but with a heart of gold. She loved my playing and would tolerate with a laugh the occasional times I’d be so involved in my music I’d forget to stop when the exercise was over. I can still hear her shrill, bird-like call, with that strong German accent “Stop Grayson! Stop!”

Sometimes, after playing for her all day, at a dinner break around 7 pm, she’d give me a sandwich of pumpernickel bread with cream cheese. I think she made them especially for me, knowing I was a starving young musician.

She was, as they say, a mensch. The list of her former students include Alwin Nikolais, Merce Cunningham and Paul Taylor. I loved her and will always be grateful for not only that first full time job she gave me, but for the freedom she allowed me in it and for her friendship.

Dance accompanying was a perfect fit. I was paid to improvise, which I loved to do, and for pretty girls, besides! I played for other dance teachers at The Conservatory, adding percussion, vocals, saxophone and my own version of “prepared piano”, when I’d stick wedges of cardboard in upright pianos or lay coat hangers and other objects across the strings of grands. A couple years later, I got jobs with the School Of The Hartford Ballet and with Judith Dworin at Trinity College. I became adept at playing for various techniques: Graham, Limon, Cunningham, Nikolais. Soon I was playing master classes for Bill T. Jones, Gus Solomons Jr., Moses Pendelton of Pilobolus and The Paul Taylor Dance Company. This day job income, along with the money I earned from my various band gigs, carried me through my move to New York in 1986 (and subsequent signing with RCA Records in 1987). For the first year in New York I also accompanied at Princeton University, The Ailey School, Julliard and Sarah Lawrence College.

DANCERS seamless copy

(Dance students at Sarah Lawrence College, 1987.)

Viola_Farber_1958

(Viola Farber, 1958.)

One of the more interesting collaborations with a choreographer happened in 1982 when I decided to go to Viola Farber’s studio in Manhattan without an introductory phone call. I simply looked up where her company’s studio was, buzzed the bell, introduced myself and, upon meeting her, asked if she might be interested in some original music or an accompanist. She invited me to play for her company class, which, as it happened, was about to begin. I sat at the piano and, when it seemed obvious a tempo would help, provided it. When the exercise was more abstract, I added my voice, singing occasionally into the clusters of piano notes, playing the strings with my fingers, muting them and playing the piano like a drum. I remember feeling a kinship with the movement of her dancers, yet also a complete detachment, as if it didn’t matter at all what I did.

When class was over, she walked over to me and said “You’re very good.” She asked me if I’d like to perform with her company for two dance concerts she was giving in a few weeks. She mentioned that she’d also love it if I could record what I was doing for her use later. When I asked her about the type and length of music she would like me to record, she said “Just do what you were doing for 21 minutes.”

It was a most interesting experience. For the two live performances, I played piano, alto saxophone, hand drum, mbira and sang. For the recording, I played piano, sang, read various pieces of text I had written, played mbira, and enlisted my brother Robert on African drums. I called the piece “21 Minutes for Viola Farber”. I learned from Ms. Farber that music and dance can exist simultaneously and be completely independent from each other. It was an attitude of nonchalance that was very freeing. It really didn’t matter what sounds I created to accompany her movements, and yet it did. The success, if you will, of such a performance, based largely upon instant improvisation, depended upon what I have decided to call the “trueness of the trance you are in together”.

I suppose you could also say if the dancers are dull, boring and unoriginal amateurs, and the musician(s) are as well, such a collaboration will be pretentious, stupid, dull, bad. But if everyone is excellent at their instruments, and very imaginative, then beautiful and interesting things will happen.

To hear an excerpt of “21 Minutes for Viola Farber” click HERE.

•                    •                    •

In Boston, I walked. Having gone through a few years of harrowing financial difficulties, I had given up my leased car. I could have renewed my drivers license, but the expiration date, my birthday, came and went. Never underestimate the power of sheer laziness. Looking back now, I think this act of non-action was one of the first steps I took, quite unconsciously, toward disappearing. I didn’t fully vanish, for about four years, from the world until 2003. But that’s a whole other story.

So it was through my accompanying work that I became intimately acquainted with that vast, sprawling subway system in the greater Boston area known as “The T”.  To get to Milton Academy, for instance, I had to walk fifteen blocks to the Newton Centre T stop, take the Green Line to Park Street, take the Red Line to Ashmont, take the Mattapan Line to Milton, then take a city bus to a certain bus stop, where the head of the Milton Academy Dance Department, Julie Larsen, would pick me up and bring me to campus. This process was multiplied and repeated, with various, color-coded permutations, depending on which school I was working at that day. When I moved to an apartment in Weymouth in 2001, the commute to Berklee took about an hour and a half.

THE BOSTON T SYSTEM

(The Greater Boston T system, a labyrinthian tangle of underground, street level and elevated subway rides. I always thought it was one of the great things that gave Boston its identity. I did, after all, write a song about it – “Zoe On The T Train”.)

KT NIEHOFF

(KT Niehoff.)

It was at Milton Academy that I met Seattle-based dancer, choreographer, filmmaker and musician KT Neihoff. For a two week period she was a Guest Choreographer there. KT had come up with a vocal version of an old Appalachian folk song, a lullaby called “What’ll We Do With The Baby-O”. She asked me if I could make a recording of it for her and add some vocals and percussion. So I raided the Milton Academy Band Room, found a marching band bass drum which sounded good hand-played, sang some harmonies with her and later added a mountain dulcimer. I recorded it all on my 4 track cassette recorder. Unfortunately the only recording of this venture that survived is one extremely sibilant cassette track. I still like it, with its Southern mountain roots and garlands of time-worn images strung on the beat like faded old hex signs on kudzu-covered barns.

There’s a funny story about this song. In 2007, after reconnecting with my old friend and former backup singer Polly Messer, as we were preparing to record her harmony vocals for “An American Record”, I made her a compilation cassette of some of my recordings she hadn’t heard in the 13 years we had lost touch with each other. As a humorous whim, I added this song, knowing it would stand out as something very odd along with all the other songs.

She told me later when she first heard it, after enjoying all the other songs I had sent her, she shook her head and thought “Hmmm, this does not compute!”

To hear “What’ll We Do With The Baby-O” (tape hiss and all) click HERE.

•                    •                    •

Inside:Out, Before The Performance

(The stage at the Jacob’s Pillow Inside/Outside Summer Dance Concert Series.)

For choreographer Rebecca Rice (who taught modern dance at The Boston Ballet) I composed a solo piano piece that she set for solo dancer. The world premiere of “Crosscurrents” was performed on May 3, 1999 at The Robsham Theatre at Boston College. It was danced by Isadora Wolfe. In 2014 it was performed again, this time danced by Julie Fiorenza at the Jacob’s Pillow Inside/Outside Summer Series.

It just so happens that my cousin J.R. Glover has been Director Of Education at The School at Jacob’s Pillow for some years now, so it was great to see her again when my wife Polly and I attended the June 20th performance three years ago.

JR & Polly in a golden light

(Cousin JR showing Polly and I around Jacob’s Pillow.)

JR in the studio

(JR showing us the Ruth St. Denis Studio.)

To hear “Crosscurrents” click HERE.

•                    •                    •

PROMETHEUS DANCE ON STAGE DURING HELL BENT

In 1999, through a Meet The Composer Grant from New England foundation For The Arts, as well as a Grant from the Massachusetts Cultural Council, I was commissioned to compose a score for choreographer and Prometheus Dance co-director Diane Arvanites. The world premiere was performed on April 21, 1999 at The Emerson Majestic Theatre in Boston, Massachusetts. Christine Temin, of The Boston Globe wrote “set to a powerful score by Grayson Hugh Hell Bent is one of the most compelling rhythmic dances this side of Twyla Tharpe’s The Fugue.”

I had worked with Diane at The Boston Conservatory and Walnut Hill School For The Arts in Natick, Massachusetts. She loved the music I provided for her modern classes. And I loved inspiring her and her students. I played piano, sometimes sang, played African rhythms on various drums, played pennywhistle, kalimba and even accordion. Once, when I was furiously pumping a small Chinese accordion during a particularly fast and energetic exercise across the floor, she stopped the class, and, laughing, asked me “Is that a TOY?”

We always had fun, and I was very happy to hear recently that she and her co-director Tommy Neblett got married. I wish them all the very best and perhaps we will collaborate again one day.

To hear “Hell Bent” click HERE.

•                    •                    •

CHRISTINE BENNETT

I had been playing for Christine Bennett’s modern classes at Boston University in 1998, When I accepted the job teaching Songwriting at Berklee College Of Music, I gave my notice to the Dance Department Chair, as my schedule wouldn’t accommodate doing both.

One day in ’99, Christine called me at Berklee and asked if I might like to get together to discuss a possible collaboration. We met at the Starbucks across the street from Berklee and talked about her idea for a new dance work. When she described the theme, that of grandmothers, time, memories and a sort of inner house where sacred memories live, I was immediately inspired. We worked very closely together in the process of building a score for her choreography. She loved the evocative sounds of some of my folk instruments that I wanted to use, and so I began to compose for a collection of these instruments from different parts of the world. We agreed that using these primal voices of different musical cultures would be augment the emotions conjured up in the dance.

MY FOLK INSTRUMENTS, WEYMOUTH, MA. 20001

(Some of my folk instruments used in “Inner House”: Two Shanais, Berimbau, Shurti Box, Didgeridoo, Cuica, Gopichand, Navaho Thunder Stick, Cane Quills, Mbira, Ukulele, Metal String Drum, Hand Drum.)

Part 2 of “Inner House” features spoken text as well as music. The text was written by members of the Bennett Dance Company. They were asked to write something about their grandmothers. Christine Bennett sent them to me and I constructed a narrative, using only the words of the written pieces. This was especially poignant for me as I asked my mother Jean R. Schafer to read the part of the grandmother. She had just been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, but she was still living at home, with her husband, my stepfather, and functioning fairly well. Her sense of humour was still very much sharp, and the emotion she put into her reading gave me chills.

The three of us, she, my stepdad and myself, attended the world premiere of “Inner House” on March 2, 2001, and when I heard her voice as the dance evolved onstage, tears ran down my cheeks. I will forever be glad and grateful that my mother agreed to record this part. It will always remind me of her determination and her strong spirit. That spirit is with me always.

INNER HOUSE TEXT AND CREDITS FROM PROGRAM

To hear “Inner House (Part 2)” click HERE.

•                    •                    •

Of all the different directions I’ve taken musically, from playing in a Texas Swing band, performing with a free jazz trio, playing in an African drumming ensemble and composing music for stage and television, my “detours” with dancers have been some of the most enjoyable. There is something about the human body in motion, moving through space, that really speaks to me.

Not that I’m much good at it myself. My brothers and I still laugh about the times our father would put on “The Rite Of Spring”, and the two of us (me age 4 and David age 2) would dance around the living room for our grandparents, causing them to laugh so hard they’d be coughing and choking and spitting up their coffee. Even though I had no real concept of what I was doing, I remember taking it very seriously, and thinking I must be really good, they’re clapping so loudly! There was alot of leaping, and rushing off behind the hall wall as if it were a curtain, then leaping back out again.

•                    •                    •

It’s good to get off your main path in life now and then, and follow the dusty back roads. If you always play it safe and stick to the “planned route”, you miss out on learning new things about the world and yourself.

Explore.

You never know what treasures might await you down there.

DUSTY ROAD

 

 

 

 

A ROMANTIC HEART

ME & MARY SMELLIE AT DANCE 1964

(It’s 1964. And my young romantic heart is already out of control. Here I am, on the left, dancing with my girlfriend Mary at a junior high school dance, probably to “Don’t Let The Sun Catch You Cryin”. Poor girl. I know I drove her crazy with my intensity.)

A romantic heart. There just ain’t no stopping it.

If you’re born with one, chances are you will do things like fall in love extra-super-crazy deep, write poems, songs and long love letters, defend your chosen causes with the stubbornness of a lion, identify with heroic guys like Odysseus, writers like James Joyce, William Faulkner and Dylan Thomas, activists like John Muir, Russell Means, Martin Luther King and actors like James Dean, Robert DeNiro and Marlon Brando. In other words, you usually go over the top with things.

GRAYSON EASY RIDER MOPED DUDE ON BLOCK ISLAND 1978 copy 3

(And here I am, in 1978, channeling Marlon Brando in “The Wild Ones”.)

I remember, at the tender age of 14, when I was in pain after my girlfriend broke up with me, my mom telling me “Grayson, you need to develop a lighter touch.”

“Huh? A lighter touch? What the heck is that, and how do you do it?”

It was always all or nothing with me. Full steam ahead or don’t even go there. The down side of this is, of course, a tendency to either suffocate or ignore people, to be so stubborn as to be oblivious to those around you.  I like to think that, with age, I have tempered this tendency somewhat. My wife would be able give a more honest opinion about whether or not I have succeeded.

One good thing about an intense, romantic heart is, if you’re an artist, it gives you a tremendous amount of inspiration, imagination and concentration to work on whatever is obsessing you at any one given time.

And I was really very fortunate, blessed really, to have parents that encouraged my musical aspirations from an early age. I think that was because both of them were involved in the arts themselves. When I chose to leave high school early and get my G.E.D. they only insisted I get a day job to support myself, which I did, in addition to making money in my various bands at night.

In 1986, before I was signed to RCA, living part time in Manhattan and Hartford, Connecticut, I was writing songs in earnest, determined to get a record deal. One night I had an interesting and very vivid dream. I dreamt I was playing what looked like an African mallet instrument called a balafon, but the sound coming out of it was the “plucked organ” sound I had created on my Korg Poly 61 synthesizer. The notes exploded in the air like seed pods, releasing percussive bombs of chords. And the chords were just rolling out, already composed.

There was also a background harmony part being sung by some woman, unseen but heard distinctly. When I woke I knew that music was a middle-of-the-verse section.

Excited, I got out of bed and rushed over to my Korg synth that was set up with a small amp in the hallway. On my primitive little boombox, with no microphone, I recorded what I had dreamt onto a cassette tape. The first line “Father said to the son, boy, what is your intention?” appeared in my mind immediately and the rest of the song wrote itself very quickly, probably in about an hour.

Little did I know that song would lead off my RCA album “Blind To Reason” that would be released over a year later.

GRAYSON HUGH AND THE WILDTONES (with Polly) 1983 copy 2

(1982, Grayson Hugh & The Wild Tones, in front of the building in Hartford CT where I had that “Romantic Heart” dream. Coincidentally – or was it? – standing next to me is my future wife Polly Messer, who now loves to sing those harmonies of “Romantic Heart” when we perform it!)

In place of that dream African instrument I used my Korg Poly 61 plucked organ sound. I also played piano. The backup harmony part from the dream was sung not by a woman, but by a guy with a great falsetto, Joe Adams of The Flames (who later went out on tour with me). We beefed up those backgrounds with the other members of the Flames: Donald Richardson, John Sykes and Nate Burgess. On bass we used the incomparable Fernando Saunders, whose tuned-down nimble fingers and muted-thumping runs were such a wonderful effect for the choruses. On guitar we had the equally masterful Ira Siegel. I asked my good friend Joey Cardello to add some timbales. With Axel Kroell (who co-produced with Michael Baker) programming the drums and some other sounds, we had a record!

GRAYSON HUGH RCA PRESS PHOTO bigger copy

(RCA 1988, Promo shot for “Blind To Reason”. Doing my best Elvis impression.)

One of the reasons I managed to get signed to RCA Records in the first place, was because I would not “settle for nothing less than the dream”. I followed my soul’s trail stubbornly and tenaciously, camping out on army cots in basements and on people’s couches, with barely enough money for a subway ride and a cup of coffee, for a good two years before the right set of ears was put in my path.

So I’m here to tell you, it’s true, and it’s a good thing. There just ain’t no stopping a romantic heart.

And if they try to make you stop it, don’t listen.

Follow your dream.

To hear “Romantic Heart” click HERE.

••• words & music by Grayson Hugh •••

Father said to the son
boy what is your intention
boy says I don’t know
but it’s my invention
all these years hanging around here
now it’s high time
and I wish you’d make it clear
what you’re going to do with your life
and I know you want to make it right
father, it’s not the usual road
that I’ve taken

Man said to a woman
I want to share my life with you
that’s the way that I feel
ain’t nothing else left to do
it’s so real, it’s so true
words of old, when you say them you make them new
and be there for each other
always love one another
baby, that’s the way true love should be

Don’t you know it’s black or white
there ain’t no in between
I don’t want to settle for
nothing less than the dream
no such thing as halfway baby
you knew it from the start
there just ain’t no stopping a romantic heart

Might take a while
might take a lifetime too
to figure out what it was
you were put here to do
some people never know
if you only let the seed inside of you grow
what you were dreaming of
I know you’ll get there soon enough
baby that’s the way true love should be

Don’t you know it’s black or white
there ain’t no in between
I don’t want to settle for
nothing less than the dream
no such thing as halfway baby
you knew it from the start
there just ain’t no stopping a romantic heart

© 1988, 2009 Swamp Yankee Music/ASCAP

CITY DAWN – A SONG OF SPRING

UNDER THE BRIDGE IN THE CITY DAWN

(“Under the bridge in the city dawn, I don’t even need my Spring jacket on..”)

TO HEAR “CITY DAWN” CLICK  HERE.

In early April, the nights in Connecticut can still be still quite cold, in those hill towns, especially. The crocuses and grape hyacinths and daffodils are just starting to burst through the recently unfrozen ground. The explosions of cherry blossoms and dogwoods are still a good four weeks away.

Down in the largely Spanish-speaking neighborhood of Hartford’s Frog Hollow, in front of the dirt yards and old apartment buildings and funky little grocery and package stores, the warming days inspire people to set up chairs and card tables. There they hang out, play cards and blast Spanish music from boomboxes.

STREET GROUP
(Guys hanging out on Park Terrace near Trinity College, Hartford CT.)

From my apartment in the Hartford’s West End I used to walk through this area in the mid 1970s on my way  to see a movie at Trinity College’s Cinestudio.  On early Spring days, from high noon to about 5pm, the streets around Park Terrace and Pope Park were a cacophonous jumble of conga drums, timbales, expertly stumbling bass guitar, piano montunos, stinging clave rhythms, Spanish syllables sung and shouted and the horn section-like car horns and car engines.

FROG HOLLOW.png

(The intersection of Park Road and Park Terrace, Frog Hollow, Hartford, CT.)

Something about the change of the weather in late March and early April always opens up my heart with hope. Suddenly anything is possible again and life looks limitless. And without fail my mind flood with images and memories.

Be it in the rural old mill towns, the crowded cities, the back roads along the rivers that snake through the old farmlands, or the highways reaching onto into the wide open North, South and West, April is not the cruelest month, as T.S. Eliot wrote. It is the season of all hope, beauty and desire. In the Springtimes of the mid to late 70s, I would get on my Schwinn 10 speed and ride onto into the countryside, filling up my head and heart with the nature that would always inspire me.

I wrote the first verse section of “City Dawn” while playing a modern dance class at The School Of The Hartford Ballet. The students were doing an “across the floor” exercise that happened to be in a medium fast 3/4. It wasn’t a waltz, and it wasn’t a jig. It was more of a march. So I thought up something funky in 3. It became beginning of this song.

The rest of the song grew in sections, kind of like like kudzu. Over the course of 13 minutes, I went through the hills and highways of Connecticut and followed the trail of a relationship that was going on at the time. It took us to many places, some very good, some dark and miserable. But the ultimate lesson was one of forgiveness and hope.

road-soccer-at-dawn-1977
(Playing soccer at dawn in the middle of the road with one of my old band mates. May 1979.)

I wrote some of it in the practice rooms at UConn, others at a second floor Sunday School room at my old Center Church in Hartford, and fine-tuned it sitting at my kitchen table at my apartment.

CENETR CHURCH HOUSE SUNDAY ASCHOOL ROOM WHERE I USED TO WRITE MUSIC

(The second floor Sunday School room at Center Church in Hartford, CT where I wrote music alot of music in the 1970s. It had a great piano and looked out onto the back of the church and the old graveyard where Thomas Hooker is buried.)

GRAYSON WRITINGSONG AT WHITNEY STREET TABLE
(Writing music at my kitchen table in my apartment on Whitney Street in Hartford.)

It’s a journey. And, like so many others, I find it more and more interesting to revisit, as more time passes. As the funnel of one’s life gets longer to look back at, things like the forgiveness of one’s foibles, character defects and excesses come a bit easier.

Maybe today I wouldn’t write a song that is 13 minutes long. But then again, maybe I will!

It’s pointless to try and predict the destination. It’s the road along the way that keeps us interested,

*            *            *

For those of you who like words, here are the lyrics.

CITY DAWN
words & music by Grayson Hugh

Under the bridge in the city dawn
I don’t even need my Spring jacket on
smell the gasoline in the breeze
there’s a mist still sleeping down by the river trees

Couldn’t go on the way we were
things couldn’t have gotten much crazier
that life wasn’t what we deserve
’cause the air by the sea is too real
for our eyes to be unsure

Standing out on the hot highway
I’m waiting for a ride to go my way
thinking of you in those country hills
where the April nights still give you chills

Like tumbleweed the cars roll by
driving past me to the edge of the sky
in the grass by the road some flowers sigh
all the miles of this road they are nothing
when I think of you and I

In the new city dawn
Summer days coming on
daylight fog in the air like a tear
sidewalk yards, pigeon feet
Spanish sound in the heat
life begins with each new day
now it’s here

Fast
we drove along the backroads
by the yards so green
the sunlight in the lateness of the afternoon
was hanging in the trees
the beauty of the Summer was inside us
and our breath was in the breeze

Glad
we were to jump off Friday
and to see the sea
as we sipped our beer and talked and laughed
the moments in us turned to haze
as we watched each other
all our thrills and wishes grew within our gaze
both of us were happy
just to know this happiness would last two days

You and only you
could move me and amaze me like you do
I’ve been a fool for you
oh now baby I wanted to

That part of us is through
oh baby let’s begin again anew
I can’t stay away from you
oh now baby you know it’s true

Let’s go find some time, you’ll have yours and I’ll mine
we’ll walk up to the thin tree line where the sun makes the little rocks shine

It’s where your eyes have been
that thrills me so
and the way the wind is in them
and what they know
my eyes fly forever with them
to my soul

Under the bridge in the city dawn
I don’t even need my Spring jacket on
smell the gasoline in the breeze
there’s a mist still sleeping down by the river trees

Couldn’t go on the way we were
things couldn’t have gotten much crazier
that life wasn’t what we deserve
’cause the air by the sea is too real
for our eyes to be unsure

In the new city dawn
Summer days coming on
daylight fog in the air like a tear
sidewalk yards, pigeon feet
Spanish sound in the heat
life begins with each new day
now it’s here

©  1980, 2009 by Grayson Hugh/Swamp Yankee Music/ASCAP