Welcome to Letters From Quotidia Postscripts Episode 6 – a podcast by Quentin Bega for listeners who enjoyed that Irish phenomenon- the crack! in the 200+ Letters and Postcards From Quotidia over the past 18 months. Quotidia remains that space, that place, where ordinary people lead ordinary lives. But where, from time to time, they encounter the extraordinary.
Hey, it’s deep in winter here in Australia- but summertime in Northern climes where I was born. And Summertime is the name of the first song on this podcast. It is a somewhat contested song: early in the piece, the similarity to an earlier black spiritual, Motherless Child was commented on, and the great Mahalia Jackson recorded the two together as a medley. Its lyrics are by DuBose Heyward, of whom Stephen Sondheim has written he has gone largely unrecognized as the author of the finest set of lyrics in the history of the American musical theatre – namely, those of Porgy and Bess.
The music, of course, was written by George Gershwin. In Porgy and Bess, set in Catfish Row, a dockside area of Charleston, South Carolina in the 1930s, Clara, a young, black woman, sings to her baby. Her husband Jake is a fisherman, and, like all the people of the settlement, they live hardscrabble lives. This scenario, of life, of death has been repeated throughout history and indeed prehistory. Through all the noise and nonsense, the conflict, the clash, we hear the soothing tones of mother to child as she seeks to shield her offspring from the unruly universe by resorting to a lullaby.
21-year-old Billie Holiday recorded the first cover of this song in 1936. She was part of the Harlem Renaissance spanning the 1920s and 30s including such important black artists as musicians Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong and writers Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston. According to Wikipedia some people would argue that the Harlem Renaissance never ended and has continued to be an important cultural force in the United States through the decades: from the age of stride piano jazz and blues to the ages of bebop, rock and roll, soul, disco and hip-hop.
I saw somewhere that there are some 25,000 commercial covers in the years since the song’s première in 1935! I guess you could add a zero to that number to include the non-commercial covers- so this recording will perhaps take that total to 250,001.
In 1971, a month or so before I got married, my brother Brendan, who was my best man, organised a night for our family and friends at a small, cosy, hotel in Cushendall. We had a meal and retired for drinks to a small lounge area where a piano set against the wall. A pleasant-looking matronly guest who was staying at the hotel- not one of our little group- sat down and began to tinkle the ivories as I think they call it. Emboldened by wine, I asked did she know Summertime. The previous year I had devised a lead break for the song on my Burns short-scale jazz guitar instead of studying for my exams. I was rather proud of it and still had dreams of rescuing my first electric from the pawn shop where I had traded it for rent arrears. Historical note- I never got round to it. Maybe, that’s why I requested that song- I can’t remember now, but I remember with gratitude her rendition of this classic for a rather bleary-eyed young man. Memory renders it right up there with the great interpreters. And, for what it’s worth, here is my take on it: [insert song]
Summertime is a postscript to Letters From Quotidia Episode 23 Still on the Move published on 17th February 2021 where, apart from discussing the arrow paradox of Zeno and its refutation by Diogenes the Cynic, I referred to a brief blues song I had written some 40 year previously. Daddy was a jazz singer in the rain, Mama got wet was the first line that just popped into my head one day as I was noodling on my guitar in 1981. Was this an unconscious referencing of duBose Heyward’s with mammy and daddy standing by which finishes his classic lyric? Perhaps. I carry a lot of stuff around in my head: snippets of poetry, lines of songs, quotations from the Bible, a lifetime’s perusal of books and paintings- all the detritus of a liberal arts education (which, of course, includes a lot of science stuff, too). So, here’s Still on the Move [insert song]
In the last post I mentioned how the postscripts have a capacity to surprise, I should also add: not only are they able to resist my wrangling of them, but they, from time to time, bend me to their will! This one insists on a reference to one of the world’s great dance companies- Bangarra, which was established over 30 years ago here in Australia to tell the stories of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. Its presiding genius is Stephen Page who, with his brothers Russell and David, created one of the most stunning and exciting dance ensembles in existence today. Russell was an amazing dancer whose physicality and grace left me spellbound. He took his life at the age of 32. His brother, David, was according to The Sydney Morning Herald the musical heartbeat of Bangarra, composing scores for 27 of the company’s 35 major works. He invented a pioneering modern soundtrack that embodied traditional language, song and instrumentation with the sounds of electronica, hip-hop, classical and nature, defining the Bangarra sound that would fill the theatre and leave audiences reverberating with hauntingly beautiful melodies. He took his life in 2016.
I mention these tragedies not from some ghoulish wish to shock or attract attention, but to emphasise that the burdens carried by indigenous people here, far exceed those of the colonisers and their descendants or of those migrants who have arrived here over the past two centuries. In 1996, two years after arriving in Sydney from North Queensland, I wrote a song about the plight of the Aboriginal people, shortly after the Coalition under John Howard took power. Why, I thought, has so little progress been made in delivering justice? So, I wrote It’s Been Taken Away. [insert song]
There are stirrings of hope again. But I don’t want to be premature, as Prime Minister Paul Keating proved to be in his Redfern speech of 30 years ago. This great country of Australia seems to have to be dragged, inch by inch, or millimetre by millimetre, to use a more accurate metaphor, to a proper acknowledgement of the claims of a culture that is more than 65,000 years old. In words taken from the Uluru statement: Proportionally, we are the most incarcerated people on the planet. We are not an innately criminal people. Our children are aliened from their families at unprecedented rates. This cannot be because we have no love for them. And our youth languish in detention in obscene numbers. They should be our hope for the future.
Have you noticed that, unlike my usual practice, there is no poetry in this podcast? Oh, but there is: the words I have just quoted, and, indeed, the whole, gracious and accommodating text of the Uluru statement, is true poetry, I suggest.
Now to personal pain. My sister Monica, the youngest of our family of six children, passed away on 27th May this year. My brother, Brendan, the best man at my wedding all those years ago, had visited Monica earlier this year, and was left with the sad responsibility to convey this news to me in Australia. I last met with her here in our home in Sydney in the summer of 2010. She was once a trilingual secretary working for the ILO, a branch of the UN, in Geneva, until her retirement. She resumed her love of the sea, a condition first caught in our shared childhood in Aruba and its fabulous Caribbean tropical waters.
She loved the ocean, the reefs and the fish and being able to float amidst a paradise of colour and life. She came to us bearing gifts and a CD showing her encounter with sharks circling as she sat amidst the coral underwater off Cairns in the outer Great Barrier Reef. Of course, the really dangerous sharks are not out there in the world’s oceans, but swim in your bloodstream as cancer cells ravenously seeking to destroy you from within. Both of my younger sisters, then, have been taken within little more than a year, by the blight that is cancer. Monica, my lovely sister, this song is for you. [insert song]
Credits: All written text, song lyrics andmusic (including background music) written and composed by Quentin Bega unless otherwise specified in the credits section after individual posts. Illustrative excerpts from other texts identified clearly within each podcast. I donate to and use Wikipedia frequently as one of the saner sources of information on the web.
Technical Stuff: Microphone- Shure SM58; (for the podcast spoken content) Audio Technica AT 2020 front-facing with pop filter); Apogee 76K also used for songs and spoken text.
For recording and mixing down: 64-bit N-Track Studio 9 Extended used; Rubix 22 also used for mixing of microphone(s) and instruments. I use the Band in a Box/RealBand 2022 combo for music composition.