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Dear die-hard dilettantes,

Some of you know that I’m a teaching fellow this semester for a popular course at Harvard called, “Gender and Performance,” taught by the extraordinary Professor Robin Bernstein. This week’s all about Bertolt Brecht, an artist I’ve had a love-hate relationship with ever since my freshman year encounter with Mother Courage.

Lotte LenyaI’m a bigger fan of The Threepenny Opera, the operetta Brecht wrote with Kurt Weill in the late 1920s. You can get a taste with this clip from this 1966 TV broadcast of Lotte Lenya recreating her role as Pirate Jenny from the 1954 off-Broadway production, with a translation by one of my all-time favorite queer, Jewish socialists, Marc Blitzstein (you can hear songs from his Brecht-inspired Cradle Will Rock on the Internet Archive). Feel the alienation!

The Lenya clip comes from the spectacular website BlueGobo.com, which recovers videos of musicals from the 1930s to the present, as were broadcast to national audiences on the Tony Awards and other TV specials. Where else would you find a clip of the great Zero Mostel performing “If I Were a Rich Man” from Bock and Harnick’s Fiddler on the Roof? Or any clip at all from their lesser-known Fiorello! about the rise of, yes, New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia.

DeLariaTwo more favorites: Chita Rivera singing “All That Jazz” on Sammy Davis Jr.’s variety show (you’ve never seen jazz hands like these, people!). And lesbian comic Lea DeLaria performing “I Can Cook Too” from the underappreciated Bernstein, Comden, and Green musical On the Town.

So long, farewell, auf wiedersehen, for now.

Musically yours,

Stephen

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To the easily exhausted,

Believe it or not, I was a lazy scholar even in high school. Ah yes, the days of Netscape and dial-up service, I remember them like they were yesterday! Even then you could find me at my family’s computer, scouring online archives for primary sources sooner than I’d touch the dusty tomes of the local library.

One of my first discoveries was the vast and amazing archives of the Library of Congress, which, all these years later, still reward a careful search or casual browse. Among the most evocative of their many collections has to be Voices from the Dust Bowl. The songs, beautiful, haunting, and fascinating, open a unique window into the lives of migrant workers in 1940s California.

Take, for instance, the talented King family playing “The Kickin’ Mule,” with the memorable chorus,

Whoa there mule I tell you
Miss Liza you keep cool
I ain’t got time to kiss you now
I’m busy with that this mule.

You can read the complete lyrics here.

Another of my all-time favorites is Jack Bryant singing “Lonely, I’m So Lonely,” but be advised: it might prove difficult to get out of your head once you’ve heard it.

And who can resist the casual misogyny of “A Woman’s Tongue Will Run Forevermore,” sung by “Mrs. Kitt,” who warns, a woman “will talk a man to death.” You can read one version of the lyrics here.

Well, that’s all the time we have for today, dear listeners. But I’ll leave you with one last track, a six-year-old boy imitating a frog, a freight train, and a chicken. We can only hope he eventually found his way to a Hollywood soundstage.

Audibly yours,

Stephen

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Dear citizens of the land of nod,

Today’s entry comes to you courtesy of UC Santa Barbara’s fabulous Cylinder Preservation and Digitization Project–an archive of music from the early 20th century, when songs were recorded on hard wax cylinders. You could literally spend hours here building your ITunes playlist.

Just imagine wooing your sweetheart with such ethnically-sensitive tunes as Irving Berlin’s “Sweet Italian Love,” sung in dialect by the prolific vocalist Billy Murray. Looking forward to the lyrical ingenuity of “When the moon hits your eye,” Murray sings, “When you kiss-a your pet/And it’s-a like-a spagett/Dat’s Italian love!”

Of course, Italians aren’t the only ones who know how to set a romantic mood. Here Ada Jones sings “Hottentot Love Song,” about, you guessed it, a Hottentot man in love with a “Zulu maid.” As Jones croons, “If my skin ain’t white/I’ve a heart that’s white/and it’s all for you.” (You can view the sheet music here from Mississippi State University’s Templeton collection).

And last but not least, listen to Murray and Jones sing the anti-sentimental duet “Pet Names” from George Cohan’s 1908 musical, “The American Idea”–a “satire on international marriage,” in the words of the New York Times.

Be sure to check out the archive’s curated exhibits, too!

Until next time!

Yours romantically,

Stephen

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