In Pages from the Arts, we review books that relate to what we cover on the site: theater, opera, classical music, dance, comedy, spoken word and film/TV with a stage connection. Look for our opinions on biographies, memoirs, histories, work about practice and theory, coffee table books and other tomes. These will be curated and mostly written by contributor Cathy Ritchie, Acquisitions Librarian at the Dallas Public Library. Ritchie also reviews books for the websites of the Dallas Public Library, Theatre Library Association, and the American Library Association’s GLBT Round Table, plus other publications.
Pages from the Arts will also include reviews from other TheaterJones contributors, and we encourage our readers to suggest and submit reviews, too. If you're reading a newish (let's say less than a year old) book that falls into a performing arts category, email editor Mark Lowry at firstname.lastname@example.org and let him know you'd be interested in reviewing it. If you have written or contributed to a book that fits the mission, let him know that too, especially if there is a North Texas connection.
If the book is currently available at the Dallas Public Library, we'll offer that information.
In this edition of Pages from the Arts: A history of the Weavers and the Blacklist, two feuding burlesque dancers, and a daily appreciation of classical music.
Wasn’t That a Time: The Weavers, the Blacklist, and the Battle for the Soul of America
By Jesse Jarnow
Da Capo Press, 2018
This book is available at the Dallas Public Library: CLICK HERE
As I approach a milestone birthday this month, my reading and listening tastes are edging towards nostalgia for performers and events from historical periods preceding my ever-advancing age. While I hasten to note that the Weavers were definitely before my time by at least a handful of years, their era and the societal currents they represented have always interested me. Theirs was a remarkable American story, now newly told in detail for all of us, young and older.
Jesse Jarnow engagingly shares the tumultuous story of a singing group with influence far beyond the eclectic music they championed and popularized. Pete Seeger (banjo), Lee Hays (bass voice and occasional autoharp), Ronnie Gilbert (the “girl singer”) and Fred Hellerman (guitar) became “The Weavers” in 1948 after they all wove through the 1940s as members of other politically progressive groups. All were committed, in varying degrees, to liberal causes as crystallized in the so-called “Popular Front,” defined as a “broad coalition of different political groupings, usually made up of leftists or centrists.”
As Jarnow states at one point: “It was the music that drove [their message] home, the thrilling freshness of fluid next-beat segues between the Israeli circle dance and the polka and the Caribbean party jam. Most of all, the Weavers offered a blend of voices and intuitive harmonizing that at times might have seemed like a musical sleight-of-hand. They were four singers with only a banjo and guitar between them for instrumental support, but if any other quartet of musicians arrayed themselves in that configuration, there is little chance they’d come out sounding like the Weavers.” Poet Carl Sandburg reportedly said, “When I hear America singing, the Weavers are there.”
But as they gradually gained prominence in the early 1950s for their soaring harmonies, unique arrangements of largely unfamiliar folk and ethnic material (e.g., Lead Belly’s “Goodnight Irene,” the Hebrew “Tzena Tzena Tzena,” and the African “Wimoweh,” better known in later years as “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”), and overt commitment to issues confronting America, the times in which they plied their trade were not kind. The House Un-American Activities Committee was alive and thriving: Seeger and Hays were targeted for their supposed Communist leanings, which affected the entire group’s dynamic and future. When both men were called by the Committee to testify, Hays took the Fifth, but Pete Seeger refused to answer their questions on First Amendment grounds, leading to contempt of Congress charges.
Additionally, Seeger found himself listed in the infamous book Red Channels, and thus, the Weavers were blacklisted, resulting in FBI surveillance of all four members; they were forbidden to perform on stage, television or radio. Their albums for Decca Records were deleted from the company’s catalog, and no new recording contracts were forthcoming. Copyright and author credit issues regarding some of their song “arrangements” would also periodically plague the quartet, along with the underlying issue of how “commercial” the group really wanted to be. Would greater public and financial success interfere with their original mission, and political worldview? Due to all this, and more, the original Weavers quartet officially disbanded in 1952, after which Seeger embarked on a solo career, and the others sought out work as they could. However, their saga was far from over.
Jarnow engrossingly depicts the numerous twists and turns of the group’s history including breakups, makeups, comebacks, replacement members, and long periods of separation. Jarnow also offers readers an ongoing look at the chronic conflicts the four strong-minded original Weavers faced amongst themselves, with particular focus on crotchety curmudgeon Lee Hays, who, for me, was the most vivid figure in the entire book. (He once proclaimed that the Eleventh Commandment is “Never give up a grudge” — Lee Hays in a nutshell.)
After several notable “reunions” in their later years—culminating in the award-winning 1981 documentary “The Weavers: Wasn’t That A Time!”—the group parted ways once and for all, with Hellerman the last member to pass away, in 2016.
Jarnow has given Baby Boomers and their progeny a marvelous ride through a still-controversial era in American history, as personified by a remarkable group of musical artists whose greatest joy in life was to sing, in tandem with their roles as caring citizens of this nation. As the author offers in conclusion:
“If the Weavers themselves perhaps fell into the far mists of pop music and social-justice histories, the songs they chose to sing certainly didn’t. But it was never about the Weavers. It was about the singing along, the harmony and the connection. It was the space between the threads, the singing, not the song or the singers. It wasn’t about the Weavers, but the weaving.”
Feuding Fan Dancers: Faith Bacon, Sally Rand, and the Golden Age of the Showgirl
By Leslie Zemeckis
Counterpoint Press, 2018
This book is available at the Dallas Public Library: CLICK HERE
Hey, it’s all entertainment, folks…
Burlesque, striptease, nudie shows—call it what you will, but it’s all variations on the theme of well-built ladies taking off their clothes in public for titillation, audience admiration and financial remuneration. It was big business not so long ago…
Leslie Zemeckis is an author/filmmaker whose previous works on the history of burlesque have introduced modern-day audiences to a significant era in American show business, and she now enlightens us further with a dual biography of two early-20th-century women whose life stories crystallize both the excitement and the ultimate winding down of a unique time in this nation’s performance art and culture—and with a Texas connection in the mix to boot.
Both Faith Bacon (1910-56) and the somewhat more legendary Sally Rand (1904-79) used fluffy fans and other apparatus in their performances. Were they really naked underneath the huge feathers and bubbles? Hard to say, but they skillfully made it look that way and won legions of adoring fans in the process. Both women of humble origins, they became largely famous during the 1920s and ‘30s via appearances at World’s Fairs and other “midway” venues.
Zemeckis alternates their stories, adding context and deep background, as we also come to know Earl Carroll of “Earl Carroll’s Vanities” fame, along with the one and only Florenz Ziegfeld and his Follies. While Rand hoped to become a legitimate actress one day, Bacon’s career became far more circumscribed, and her path ultimately led to financial difficulty, substance abuse, and troubled affairs with both men and women, all while in the midst of a co-dependent relationship with her mother. In 1956, at age 46, Faith Bacon committed suicide by leaping from a Chicago hotel window.
Rand, on the other hand, had an arguably more successful professional life, including work at Dallas’s Carousel Club where her boss—“not a nice man,” she was quoted as saying—was one Jack Ruby. While Bacon’s on-stage “’tude” was aloofness, Rand was, says Zemeckis, “the proletarian’s pinup. She empathized with the folks standing in long lines ready to hand over precious quarters to see her. She genuinely appreciated them.”
Zemeckis also observes: “Sally profoundly and forever changed popular entertainment. By promoting Sally Rand the ‘fan dancer,’ she flourished, becoming ‘the spirit’ of the ‘changing notions of women and sexuality.’ …She was the very symbol of a woman emerging from the Victorian era to grasp her destiny with her own two hands… Pushing her nudity, she created her own sexual revolution whereby the next generation of women were even freer, less dependent on a man for their value and their destiny.” And Sally Rand continued performing her special dances well into senior citizenship. She died in 1979 at age 75.
By focusing on two well-known practitioners of an art that has been making quite the comeback this decade (see the popularity of Viva’s Lounge, a burlesque haven in the Dallas Design District), Leslie Zemeckis offers a keen look at a facet of live entertainment history perhaps too easily ignored or denigrated; she posits a convincing case for the significance of “fan dancing” and its permutations within the era in which it seriously flourished, delighting multitudes. Her two subjects sought personal and professional happiness during a colorful but demanding era. Faith’s and Sally’s stories are both fascinating and entertaining—just like they were themselves, in the fairs, clubs, and legion halls of early-20th century America.
And yet…As Zemeckis summarizes late in her narrative: “The showgirls of the 1920s and ‘30s had been the goddesses of their day, leading a rarified existence of unimagined fame, adoration, and riches… But it was all illusion. Behind the smile and the ease of a parade walk, it was backbreaking, feet-bleeding…pain covered with smiles, no food, no rest or escape from otherwise drab reality of sparse childhoods, economic deprivations. A gray world where they wanted color.”
Year of Wonder: Classical Music to Enjoy Day by Day
By Clemency Burton-Hill
This book is available at the Dallas Public Library: CLICK HERE
At first glance, this book’s premise might seem contrived or hokey—a recommended piece of classical music for every day of a calendar year—but fear not: this volume is sheer delight. Even if readers choose not to seek out any or all of the spotlighted selections, they will nonetheless come away enlightened and enchanted by a woman whose devotion to, and over-the-moon enthusiasm for, this music brings us a singular world to experience.
Clemency Burton-Hill is a British violinist, journalist, actress, and radio/television host, who has worked for the BBC and arts-related organizations on this side of the pond as well. Her musical savvy is deep and varied but, most importantly, her ability to communicate about the pieces she loves so much is undeniable. With Burton-Hill as my guide, I relished every page of our time together.
As she says in her fine introduction: “….what lies ahead is not some white girl with a posh name telling you that you ‘should’ listen to classical music every day in order to somehow become a better, smarter or more classy person….What I am determined to do is to extend a hand to those who feel that the world of classical music is a party to which they haven’t been invited….It’s really important to remember that music does not exist in a vacuum: it requires listeners, audiences, witnesses in order to come alive; to be heard, to be felt. And that’s you….Music, which extends across cultures and boundaries, which requires no translation to be understood, is the most uniting language we have.”
Burton-Hill does indeed recommend a specific piece for every date in a given January-December year, but nearly always links each date to something historic—the birth or death of the composer, the work’s public premiere, special holidays and other observances. In her one-page commentary on each composition, she mixes composer biographical background, some technical analysis, and personal reflections on the significance of the selected piece in her own life. What I most admire is that she never devolves to over-cuteness in her appraisals or during her “teaching moments.” Her wit is genuine, but it always suits the occasion.
Another thing, and it’s important: Burton-Hill’s daily choices reflect enormous variety in both musical genre within the classical realm and, especially, age, gender and background of the creators. She especially lifts up female composers of all eras and birthplaces; thus, we learn not only about Fanny Mendelssohn, Clara Schumann and Amy Beach, but also about Emahoy Tsegue-Maryam Guebrou (b. 1923); Teresa Carreno (1853-1917); Louise Farrenc (1804-1875); Jocelyn Pook (b. 1960) and so many more. Readers will come away from this book with more previously unsung composer names in their brains than could have been predicted, thanks to Burton-Hill’s research and passion for inclusiveness.
And here’s a true story: I read most of this book while listening to the Dallas/Fort Worth classical music station WRR/101.1 FM. Just a few minutes after Burton-Hill shared her thoughts on the “February 4” piece Fantasie negre by pioneering African-American composer Florence Price (1887-1953), my radio host announced some “dances” for piano—by one Florence Price! Hey, I know her…This book will likely unlock many doors for both general readers and “highbrow” music aficionados of all ages and stripes.
So I thank Clemency Burton-Hill for a wonderful journey through the classical music landscape, made possible by contributors both familiar and newly astonishing—a Year of Wonder for us all, indeed.
» Pages from the Arts appears on the second Wednesday of the month in TheaterJones.
PREVIOUSLY IN PAGES FROM THE ARTS
- February 2017: A Mary Martin biography, Joel Grey's autobiography, Jack Viertel's book about the structure of musicals, and a book about playwriting by T.J. Walsh of Trinity Shakespeare Festival
- March 2017: A memoir from Broadway legend Barbara Cook, a history of the Bolshoi Ballet, and a helpful primer on classical music.
- April 2017: Two biographies of legendary pianist Van Cliburn, namesake for the upcoming 15th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition; a story of African-American opera singer Ryan Speedo Green; a chronicle of a summer repertory production of Much Ado About Nothing; and gorgeous book (and CD) for musical Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812.
- May 2017: A book about Chicago's famed Steppenwolf Theatre, a portrait of how Venezuela's El Sistema became a model for publicy funded music education, and a biography of the late comedian Joan Rivers.
- June 2017: Three memoirs from classical musicians: Andrea Avery's Sonata: A Memoir of Pain and the Piano; Min Kym's Gone: A Girl, A Violin, a Life Unstrung; and Marcia Butler's The Skin Above My Knee: A Memoir.
- July 2017: Dominic Dromgoole's chronicle of taking the Globe Theatre's Hamlet to nearly 200 countries; a new biography of dance/choreoraphy legend Gene Kelly; and the script of Lynn Nottage's Pulitzer Prize-winning play Sweat.
- August 2017: Biographies Sam Sephard and stage and screen actress Teresa Wright; and the script of David-Lindsay Abaire's Ripcord.
- September 2017:A biography of Sarah Vaughan, an informative journey through theatrical history, and the scrip of Martyna Majok's play Ironbound
- October 2017: A biography of choreographer Katherine Dunham, a new book by acclaimed set designer David Hays, and the script of the play Application Pending
- November 2017: A biography of singer Julie London, a history of the stand-up comedy club The Improv, and a look at Annie Baker's 2016 play John.
- December 2017: Memoirs by jazz musician Fred Hersch and coloratura soprano Charity Tillemann-Dick, and a biography of turn-of-the-20th-century actor M.B. Curtis.
- January 2018: Biographies of acclaimed and award-winning actress Anne Bancroft, quixotic pianist Glenn Gould, plus the scripts of Lucas Hnath's Hillary and Clinton, and Quiara Alegría Hudes' Elliot, A Soldier's Fugue.
- February 2018: A memoir by director/producer Harold Prince; an introduction to classical music by Jan Swafford; Rick Elice's love letter to the late Roger Rees; Jenna Fischer's survival book for actors; and the script of Marco Ramirez's The Royale.
- March 2018: John Mauceri on the art of conducting, a memoir by ballet great David Hallberg, a memoir by British actor Tim Pigott-Smith, an interesting look at Paul Robeson, and the script of Rebecca Gilman's Luna Gale.
- April 2018: Biographies of Sophie Tucker and Richard Wagner, and Nicholas Hytner's memoir of his time at the National Theatre of London.
- May 2018: A tome about Angels in America, a memoir about music as therapist, and Paula Vogel's Indecent.
- June 2018: memoirs from actress Christine Lahti and Leonard Bernstein's personal assistant; Martyna Majok's Pulitzer-winning Cost of Living.
- July 2018: A biography of Rodgers and Hammerstein, a memoir from polio-stricken pianist Carol Rosenberger, and Robert Askin's Hand to God.
- August 2018: A new biography of Bob Fosse, a primer on how to watch ballet, and the definitive Broadway plays and musicals.
- September 2018: A memoir from Andrew Lloyd Webber; a lesson from Leslie Odom, Jr.; and Lucas Hnath's A Doll's House, Part 2.
- October 2018: A memoir from Sally Field; and the rivalry between Sarah Bernhardt and Eleonora Duse
- November 2018: A memoir from director Kenny Leon, an easy guide to jazz, and Philip Ridley's Radiant Vermin.
- December 2018: A new biography of Jerome Robbins, an ode to the art of opera, and the script of The Band's Visit.