Monday, September 10, 2012

In Sixty-Four Bars

I live in Washington, DC where, for many years, the local public radio station WAMU has dedicated a few hours every Sunday night to a program called The Big Broadcast which features "old time" radio shows.  While the first few hours feature old radio dramas like Johnny Dollar, Dragnet, and Gunsmoke, the later hours usually include some excruciatingly unfunny old comedy programs like Jack Benny, Fibber McGeeOur Miss Brooks (which is particularly painful as Eve Arden was such an amazing actress).

Anyway, on a recent broadcast they featured an old episode of the Jack Benny Show.  It was recorded at an Army base in Arizona and there were jokes about tans and desert heat.  Then the band and the show's resident singer (whose name I didn't catch) began to sing a tune I later learned was called "Conchita Marquita Lolita Pepita Rosita Juanita Lopez." 

I've never heard this one but it certainly makes for an interesting piece of  Pop Latino history.  I'm not sure how popular the song was at the time but it certainly was successful enough to be recorded by a number of very well known performers (more on that later).

This novelty song was written by the iconic songwriter Jule Styne and the lyricist Herbert Magidsen (who won the first Oscar for Best Original Song in 1934 for the "The Continental").  

"Conchita Marquita Lolita Pepita Rosita Juanita Lopez"'s gimmick is right there in the title:  Conchita's rather long Spanish name.  (One imagines that Conchita at some point, like many Latinas -- my mother included-- had to shorten her name to the American three-name practice). But what's striking is that this song tells a pretty straight-forward story of a cross-cultural love affair: the tale of an "Irish lad" serving in the Army along the Mexican border who falls in love with the "Rose of Juarez."   Mutual love ensues and they soon find themselves living in Hoboken, New Jersey with an ever expanding brood of children with Spanish and Irish names.

The versions I've heard online seem to all trade equally in both Mexican and Irish linguistic and musical stereotypes (and New Jersey stereotypes in the Bing Crosby version above).  But aside from Conchita's long name and the "ethnic" names of their children, the song is very matter-of-fact.  This was certainly born out in the Jack Benny live broadcast where I first discovered the song.  After the band and crooner finished, the crowd erupted in cheers.  And that was it. There were no comments or patter about the song's themes (and the Jack Benny show was nothing if filled with groan-worthy patter).

The Glenn Miller  version features vocals by Tex Beineke and the Modernaires in a pretty swingin' and broguing version of the song.  I was also able to find a version by Dinah Shore that's worth a listen.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Monday, September 3, 2012

On Spanish Naval Heroes

There are many ways that the history of Spanish speaking people disappears from American history. One of the ways is by mispronunciation and respelling.  The names are changed in ways that separate a place or a marker or even a person from it's Spanish source.  Like how the city of Galveston loses it's "z" and it's connection to Bernardo de Galvez, (the forgotten hero of the American Revolutionary War without whose contributions the American rebel colonies would've fallen to the British. More on him some other time, I promise).

Today I'd like to talk about the Spanish-American naval hero David Farragut.  He's one of the navy's greatest figures and perhaps the greatest naval figure of 19th century America -- famous for his (probably apocryphal) command during the Battle of Mobile, "Damn the torpedoes!  Full speed ahead!"  I live in Washington, DC and most Washingtonians don't realize that Farragut Square, or the metro stops at Farragut (East and West) are named for a Spanish-American naval hero.  In fact the other day as a friend and I were walking by the square I mentioned his Spanish roots and she replied with some surprise, "Farragut?  That's a Spanish name?"

Well, actually it's a Catalan name.  Not that you'd know it from the way we pronounce it in this country.  His father George Farragut was a navy man too. "George" was born Jordi Farragut in Minorca Spain, son of Antoni Farragut and Joana Mesquida. He changed his name to "George" after he gave up his commission as a Captain in the Spanish Merchant Marines to fight on the American side during the Revolutionary War. He gave up being a Captain to be a Lieutenant in South Carolina's Navy and perhaps Anglicizing his name was the price he had to pay for fitting in.  Although it may have been the exasperation of repeated mispronunciations.  We will never know.  He fought against the British at Savannah and did some cavalry service as well.  After the war he married Elizabeth Stine, settled down and raised a family.

Jordi's son David is the more famous Farragut and his distinguished naval career in the War of 1812 and the American Civil War's the reason so many things bear that name across the United States.  There are monuments to him all over the country.  There are a number of schools from Massachusetts to Puerto Rico named after him.  There's a Farragut, Tennessee, a Farragut, Iowa, and a neighborhood in Brooklyn.   There's even a Starship named after Farragut in the fictional Star Trek universe. But Farragut as a name has become so incorporated into Americana that it's lost any of its Catalan roots.  Any way you slice it, you can't talk about American Navy history without talking about the son of a Spanish immigrant who changed his name to fit into the United States.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Window to Past & Present Ugliness

Yesterday I visited the Smithsonian Museum of American History with my friend Kim Roberts.  I wanted to get a second look at their splendid exhibit African American Art: Harlem Renaissance, Civil Rights Era, and Beyond before it closes next Monday, September 3rd.  After we took in the beautiful artwork, including one last live look at Claude Clark's gorgeous Resting, we decided to explore a few of the other exhibits in that cavernous building.  The Old Patent Office houses both the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the National Portrait Gallery.  The six-year renovation and redesign a few years back resulted in the intermingling of the two museum's collections and it makes for some smashing juxtapositions.  This is how we found ourselves on the opposite wing of the first floor and the current exhibitions commemorating the sesquicentennial of the Civil War.

Of the many pieces of photography, painting and statuary I was most struck by a small exhibition of the drawings of the Civil War-era artist Adalbert Volck who created some of the most fascinating (and disturbing) political cartoons of the era and seeing them are a window to the Confederate mentality.  According to the Smithsonian's site, Volck was a recent German emigre who savagely attacked the North through this series of cartoons entitled Sketches from the Civil War in North America.  Unlike most recent emigres, Volck chose to side with the Confederacy during the Civil War (he also was said to have served as a courier for Confederate President Jefferson Davis).

Rounding a corner from a series of Mathew Brady portraits, I  came across these drawings and was first struck by their tiny precision.  I came up close to them to take in their beautiful thin-lined detail.  But I don't know how else to describe these illustrations but as racist, pro-slavery, extremist artwork.  They are beautiful illustration in the service of ugly repulsive sentiments.  They are pieces in the service of demagoguing and demonizing almost everything that we now consider just and fair.  One piece entitled "The Worship of the North" really struck me.  Here's the description from the Gettysburg site:
In an elaborate scene of idol worship, Northern leaders are shown sacrificing a white man to a shrine of "The Negro." A black man sits atop this shrine, labeled "Chicago Platform" with carved busts of Lincoln as a serpent carved into its base. Henry Ward Beecher uses a sacrificial knife, Charles Sumner holds a torch, and Horace Greeley holds a censer from which snakes slither. John Brown, with a pike, is represented as St. Ossawatomie. General H.W. Halleck, General Winfield Scott, General David Hunter, Governor John Andrew of Massachusetts; and Harriet Beecher Stowe are all present in the crowd.

What the description doesn't mention are the "bricks" forming the "shrine" to "Negro Worship."  They read "Socialism," "Atheism," "Free Love," "Rationalism," "Witch burning," and "Spirit Rapping." I don't know what "witch burning" refers to specifically in this case.  I assume "spirit rapping" is a reference to the popular spiritualism of the time.  But I'm struck at how some of these attacks are still used now by the Republican Party and the right-wing's current (and I guess this artwork reveals continuing) conflation of lies, smears and bogey men.  It's certainly hard not to think of these lasting ugly currents as you pay attention to the words and actions coming from the "festivities" around Tampa's Republican convention this week (those are all separate links there).  There's an irony here of course as it's the Republican party then in power that Volck was attacking with his drawing.

Today's campaign would probably change out some of those "bricks."  I'd imagine a present day Adalbert Volck adding bricks reading "MEXICANS" or "ALIENS", "GAY MARRIAGE," "SOCIALIZED MEDICINE," and "SOCIALIZED MEDICINE" to the "altar."  I highly recommend checking out this exhibit, or at the very least, check out this piece online in it's full size (here).  Volck was a gifted artist who, although relatively new to the country, was quite successful in tapping into an ugly stream of American fear-mongering.  This is American history and it's not pretty. And as this presidential campaign has shown us, it is still very much with us.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

What A Difference A Day Makes

Maria Grever
Today's installment's about that old classic standard known by many jazz fans.  It's been recorded by dozens of performers over the years from Dinah Washington, Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, Sarah Vaughan and most recently by the likes of Jamie Cullum.

What most jazz fans probably don't know is the song began as "Cuando Vuelva A Tu Lado." The bolero (with radically different lyrics from the English version) was written by María Grever (born Maria Joaquina de la Portilla Torres in Guanajuato).  She's considered the first Mexican woman to find success as a  composer.  Her other great songs include "Jurame" and "Volvere."  "Grever" was her husband's name (she married a rich oil executive who whisked her away to New York City).

The song was later refashioned as "What a Difference A Day Makes" with lyrics by Stanley Adams.  And this is how the song is credited to "Grever/Adams" on all the pressings.
Another bit of trivia about Adams: he also wrote the English lyrics to "La Cucaracha."

Here are videos of the song in the original and English versions.  First the Mexican/Puerto Rican trio Los Panchos iconic version of the original:

And here's the English version recorded by Dinah Washington:

Friday, July 13, 2012

A Book Gets a Name

So, today consensus has been reached.

The title of my new book which won the Letras Latinas/Red Hen Poetry Prize will be:

Speaking Wiri Wiri

(Interestingly enough, the voice recognition software I am using this morning first recorded the new title as "Speaking weeee weeee" thus proving that Google does not understand my father's neologisms.  Quelle surprise.)

This morning, as is so not my practice, I woke early and found myself walking along the waterfront in Georgetown with my dog.  It gave me the opportunity to think about the new title and how it connects to some of the themes in the book and how it connects the book to my father, to his voice and his story.  Coming up for a book after working with its contents for so long is daunting.  You want a title that's true and direct and thought provoking.  Certainly Speaking Wiri Wiri is that.

So what does the title mean?

In the house I grew up in "wiri wiri" was my father's term for English.  He never defined it.  We just knew what it meant.  It meant his kids were sitting around speaking English and he felt left out and he was having none of it.  I figured "wiri wiri" must be what English sounded like to him. That's what "wiri wiri" means.  In the context of the book, it speaks to the ways in which I've struggled with language and how that's part of my own exploration of identity and belonging -- certainly one theme in the book.

I originally started this blog last November (while at a residency at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts). This morning, after hearing about the final book title, I tried changing the blog's name to but found that name was amazingly already taken (by a long defunct blog by a high schooler).  How could this be?  Who else would use "wiri wiri" I thought to myself.  This of course led me to a very educational, Google search which revealed a few things.

First I discovered that "wiri wiri" is the name of a type of Guyanese hot pepper. Small round and "South American" was how one website described it.

But most pleasing I find that that "wiri wiri" may be the Spanish equivalent in some parts of "yadda yadda."  And this is what leads me to the video for Los Canarios de Michoacan's song "El Wiri Wiri."  To call this video an epiphany is an understatement.  Given the playful nature of parts of the book, this title fits in ways I could never have imagined.

I also found the following song by the amazing Senegalese artist Youssou N'Dour titled "Wiri-Wiri."  I include it because it's achingly beautiful.

I hope to use this blog to talk about the book but also as a repository for what I discover along the way.  Like most journeys, I love having good music along for the ride.  So this is an auspicious way to begin.