Tag Archives | Can’t Stop the Muzak

Sour Note

For the past 35 years, my mother and I have had two pianos in storage in Vermont. One was the piano I grew up with and learned to play (a bit) on as a child. The other – the more valuable one, with genuine ivory keys, inherited from her own mother – was the piano my mother grew up with and likewise learned to play on (with much greater ability) as a child.

In all these years, we’ve never had a place large enough to hold them, though we always hoped to eventually.

This week we were notified that the facility where they were stored burned down last month, and both pianos were destroyed.

Bummer.


Éminence Grise

In We the Living, Rand describes a song that was popular in Russia during the early years of the Soviet era:

Historians will write of the “Internationale” as the great anthem of the revolution. But the cities of the revolution had their own hymn. In days to come, the men of Petrograd will remember those years of hunger and struggle and hope – to the convulsive rhythm of “John Gray.” … It was called a fox-trot. It had a tune and a rhythm such as those of the new dances far across the border, abroad. It had very foreign lyrics about a very foreign John Gray …. Its gaiety was sad; its abrupt rhythm was hysterical; its frivolity was a plea, a moan for that which existed somewhere, forever out of reach.

Rand translates the first stanza as follows:

John Gray
Was brave and daring,
Kitty
Was very pretty.
Wildly
John fell in love with
Kitty.
Passion’s
Hard to restrain –
He made
His feelings plain,
But Kat
Said ‘No’ to that!

I’ve long suspected that We the Living’s “John Gray” inspired Atlas Shrugged’s “John Galt” (and likewise that We the Living’s “Café Diggy-Daggy” inspired Atlas’s “Dagny”).

Michael Berliner, in his invaluable article “The Music of We the Living” (in Robert Mayhew’s Essays on Ayn Rand’s We the Living), tracks down most of the real-life music that Rand refers to in the book. But “John Gray” seems to have eluded him.

In contrast to other cases, he does not identify its composer; he also says that there are “no standard lyrics to this song,” and in evidence he offers some lyrics completely different from those Rand cites:

In a faraway southern land
Where blizzards do not blow
There once was a handsome man
John Gray, the cowboy,
John Gray, strong and rakish
As tall as Hercules
As brave as Don Quixote

But I’ve managed to track down some more info, thanks to the internet and a hazy memory of college Russian, and in fact the song Rand referred to has a known composer, and seems to have canonical lyrics as well; the “cowboy” lyrics, as we’ll see, are a red herring.

The composer is Matvei Blanter (1903-1990), one of the Soviet Union’s most popular composers, who wrote “John Gray” (“Dzhon Grei”) in 1923. And the lyrics, by Vladimir Mass (1896-1979), are the ones Rand cites. Here’s a link to a page with the song’s Russian lyrics, naming Blanter and Mass, followed by a copy of the original sheet music likewise featuring Blanter’s name.

And here’s the song itself:

This is clearly the version Rand discusses. The tune matches her description, and as for the words, one doesn’t need much familiarity with Russian to identify “Kat skazala nyet!

Here are a couple of instrumental versions; the first one does a particularly good job of capturing the “sad gaiety” of which Rand speaks:

(It’s funny how Rand thinks the “John Gray” song sounds so foreign and un-Russian, since to me it sounds utterly Russian, or possibly Russian-Jewish.)

What about the “cowboy” lyrics that Berliner cites? It turns out that they come from a completely different song, with not only different words but different music. The song’s lyrics may mention a “John Gray,” but its title is “In a Far-off Southern Land” (“V Stranye Dalëkoi Yuga”). I haven’t been able to track down any author for the song. But here it is:

As you can see (well, hear), while the two songs have some musical similarity – enough to suggest the possibility of influence (though the direction of influence can’t be determined without knowing the date of “In a Far-off Southern Land”) – the tunes aren’t the same (and to my ear, that of “John Gray” is the more complex and sophisticated of the two).

Well, that’s all.


R.I.P. Leonard Cohen

R.I.P. Leonard Cohen

I don’t think anyone’s music has been more important to me over the past two decades than Cohen’s.

Farewell, maestro.


Dancing Queen

Evidence that Ayn Rand would like Riverdance:

She described her ideal form of the dance as “tap dance and ballet combined,” and envisioned one form of it as being performed “without ever moving from one spot.”

riverdancin

Evidence that Ayn Rand would dislike Riverdance:

It’s inspired by traditional folk dancing, and Rand hated folk dancing, memorably writing that “all folk art is essentially similar and excruciatingly boring: if you’ve seen one set of people clapping their hands while jumping up and down, you’ve seen them all.”


The Key to All Mythologies

I recently finished former Doctor Who showrunner Russell Davies’ Writer’s Tale, which is his account – through a series of emails with Benjamin Cook – of the making of the show.

I now get all the references I used not to get (most of which I didn’t realise I wasn’t getting) in this video:

I mean, the lyrics are a pretty direct commentary throughout on the book.


Powered by WordPress. Designed by WooThemes