written for the Roosevelt Borough Bulletin, January 2007

Roosevelt Arts Project Event Review: The Thirties

Brad Garton
January 20, 2007

The Roosevelt Arts Project The Thirties organized and curated by Alan Mallach was an exercise in revision for me. When I first heard of Alan's plans, I thought (sarcastically) "oh great, a bunch of dopey music from an angst-ridden era... just what I really need." However, as the day unfolded I was surprised by the resonances between that decade and our contemporary situation. I'm not sure this is a good thing, but the music and poetry we heard on January 20 certainly was.

My perspective-shift actually began earlier in the afternoon. Alan had asked me to prepare some pre-recorded background music to play as people entered Borough Hall, to help establish a 'thirties frame of mind'. As I scoured the web for snippets of FDR speeches, Hitler vitriol, advertisements for Betty Crocker products and leavened them with music ranging from the rousing Happy Days are Here Again to the sultry Stormy Weather, my deepening appreciation for the contradictions and subtleties of the era began to undermine my superficial preconceptions.

Alan and his co-conspirators did not disappoint in chasing after these features. The evening was opened by RAP President David Herrstrom, and hearing him echo FDR's "call to arms" with President Roosevelt's portrait in the background made me ache for that kind of leadership. If only we could be inspired again! Alan then took the floor to outline the course of the evening: folk tunes, poetry, concert tunes, popular/theater music, and a final folkish conclusion. A marvelously typical blend of what makes our town so fascinating.

The first round of folk music was beautifully handled by Paul Prestopino and David Brahinsky. You know, there were parts where Paul on the mandolin was melding so well with David's guitar that I wish I had a recording I could loop and play for hours and hours. The music sparkled, and I think everyone in the room (about 50+ people in attendance) felt a powerful connection with the proxy musicians from the 1930's. Paul ended the set with what he called the "ur-rap” (as in hip-hop, not RAP) piece Talking Dust Bowl Blues by Woody Guthrie. What fun!

David Herrstrom then took the stage with a captivating poetry reading. I've heard David read a lot over the years, but this was an exceptional performance. His passion for the poetry was vividly apparent. He also gave us an insight into the motivations and socio-political context behind the texts. These poets were at war! Words like "totalizing" and "dictatorship" unfortunately fell easily out of the intellectual and artistic scene. But, as David quoted from Gertrude Stein, the poetry was great "in spite of ourselves." And it was, thanks in large part to David's compelling performance of a wide range of poetic approaches.

The 'concert music' slice of the 1930's was ably handled by Alan at the piano, playing selections from composers Virgil Thomson and Aaron Copland. The rearrangement/revision for me in this case had specifically to do with the composers. In my experience, Thomson was always the more avant-garde composer, but the selections Alan chose completely inverted this relationship. The three "portraits" of Thomson's (he did a large number of "musical portraits" of people he knew, such as Picasso and Gertrude Stein) were surprisingly conservative, elegant and spare in their material, while the extended Copland Piano Variations was a tour-de-force of early musical modernity. As related by Alan, one musical critic of the time had this to say about the piece: "Mr. Copland, always a composer of radical tendencies, has ... thumbed his nose at all those aesthetic attributes which have hitherto been considered essential to the creation of music." History has obviously changed our perspective, and I found both the Thomson works and the Copland piece deeply satisfying.

After a brief poetry interlude again by David Herrstrom -- boy did he have fun reading those poems! -- Karyn Grunewald and Alan Mallach performed a selection of Gershwin songs. Such hopeful tunes, in such a troubled time! There is a real danger in presenting these songs nowadays that they may come across is maudlin or oversentimentalized. Karyn sang them with such... honesty... that they were absolutely delightful. It was obvious that she really loved these songs, and that was clearly communicated to the audience. They made me happy! I'll bet that's the social role the played c. 1935, too.

The evening ended by cycling back to the folk-tune genre, with Ron Orlando joined by Paul Prestopino. Ron performed a new song with some purported link to Roosevelt, but I didn't quite get that connection. It didn't matter, the music was lovely.

And of course there was a final sing-along. I have a terrible confession to make: I really hate sing-alongs. Something about the 'enforced camaraderie' of the enterprise bugs my stoic leave-me-alone Midwestern nature. The 30's pieces chosen for singing-along were also almost laughable in their follow-along difficulty, with musically engaging but challenging melodic twists and turns that had the audience randomly wandering about in pitch-space. As I listened semi-bemused to people attempting to predict the convoluted pitch trajectory, the final revision/rearrangement lesson of the evening dawned on me. Everyone was trying to do this! The community was cooperating, even in a simple sing-along task. That's the strong resonance between now and the 1930s. Times are bleak now, and times were bleak (with more horrors in store) in 1931. People came together, however, in a shared and common endeavor, and the world was made better. A powerful lesson to learn, and taught in a most pleasurable way.