Damien of Molokai . . . With Music By Tom Russell

Tom Russell’s concept album The Rose of Roscrae tells the story of an young man who flees Ireland to become an outlaw on the American frontier.  During the outlaw’s travels, he hears about Father Damien, a priest in Hawaii who works with lepers.  And he dreams of joining him.

Father Damien was a real person who was born as Jozef De Veuster on January 3, 1840.  As portrayed in Russell’s story, Damien was a Roman Catholic Priest from Belgium.  And he did leave his native Belgium to minister to people with leprosy in what then was the Kingdom of Hawaii.

Russell’s songs about Damien led me to want to know more about him. Lately, I have been reading The Life and Letters of Father Damien, Apostle of the Lepers.

Father Damien became known around the world for his work even while he was still alive.  With the fame also came some criticism, often highlighting the struggles between the natives of the islands and the influence of the Europeans and Americans.

Tom Russell’s Father Damien

In Tom Russell’s songs about Father Damien, he makes reference to the criticisms.  And he also mentions that poet Robert Louis Stevenson defended Damien.  It is true that Stevenson, who visited Hawaii after Damien’s death, became an admirer of Damien’s work and wrote about him.

In “The Hands of Damien,” Russell’s protagonist JohnnyBehind-the-Deuce reacts to hearing about the work of Father Damien. The discovery that someone like Damien exists helps Johnny begin to seek his own redemption.

In another song, Johnny hits a low point and imagines seeking guidance from Father Damien.  The song is “Damien (A Crust of Bread, A Slice of Fish, A Cup of Water).”

Tom Russell wrote about “Damien” on his Facebook page:

“We read “Damien the Leper,” in high school. Written by Mia Farrow’s father, film director John Farrow. I always thought this guy took it to the Western limit…the edge…a leper colony on Molokai. He was from Belgium. Robert Lewis Stevenson defends him. Johnny Behind the Deuce is gonna join him but never makes it . . . he returns to Ireland.”

I was a little surprised to read Russell reveal Johnny never made it to meet Father Damien. As in all song cycles, the story is a little cryptic at times.  But I had imagined that Johnny actually had gone to meet Father Damien at some point in his life.

After working with people with leprosy for sixteen years, Father Damien eventually contracted leprosy himself, dying of the disease on April 15, 1889.

Tom Russell is not the only fan of Father Damien. India’s Mahatma Gandhi was inspired by this “martyr of charity.” April 15 is now a holiday known as Father Damien Day in Hawaii.   Father Damien was eventually canonized as a saint by Pope Benedict XVI on October 11, 2009.

For more on Father Damien, the following video summarizes his life story.

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    Lead Belly: “The Hindenburg Disaster”

    On May 6, 1937, the German passenger airship Hindenburg caught fire while it attempted to dock at a naval station in Lakehurst, New Jersey. Thirty-five of the 97 people on board the ship died, along with one worker on the ground.

    Herbert Morrison’s Report

    Many people would listen to Herbert Morrison‘s recorded reports on the radio.  The horrible crash — along with Morrison’s cry of “Oh, the humanity!” — helped end public confidence in the use of airships as a means of travel.

    This video puts together Morrson’s reporting with some separate color footage from the scene.

    Lead Belly’s “The Hindenburg Disaster”

    In the years before television, songwriter often responded quickly to write songs about a major disaster.  And Huddie Ledbetter, better known as Lead Belly, used his songwriting skills to tell the story of the Hindenburg in “The Hindenburg Disaster.”

    Lead Belly recorded his song for the Library of Congress on June 22, 1937.  Check out his version of the story in “The Hindenburg Disaster.”

    “The Hindenburg Disaster” appears on Lead Belly: The Smithsonian Folkways Collection.

    Leave your two cents in the comments.

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    Happy Birthday Butch Cassidy

    Butch Cassidy was born on April 13, 1866 in Beaver, Utah as Robert Leroy Parker. His nickname “Butch” may have later come from working in a butcher shop.

    Cassidy was first arrested at around the age of 14 when he left an IOU after taking a pair of jeans and a pie from a store for a pair of jeans. After a jury acquitted him, he pursued various jobs throughout his youth, including work on ranches.

    Cassidy’s first bank robbery occurred on June 24, 1889 in Colorado. While he continued to do some ranch work, his illegal activities increased.

    He formed his “Wild Bunch” gang of criminals after getting out of prison in 1896. After that, it was not long before he added Harry Alonzo Longabaugh — “The Sundance Kid” — into the gang.

    Of course, it would be the association between Butch and Sundance that would inspire the classic 1969 movie directed by George Roy Hill and starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

    The fate of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid remains somewhat of a mystery. Two bandits were killed in San Vicente, Bolivia as shown in the film. But many debate whether those two men were actually Butch and Sundance. Some speculate they returned to the U.S. where they lived out their days.

    Happy birthday Butch, wherever you are. And as a bonus, here are Six Things You May Not Know About Butch Cassidy.

    Photo via public domain. What is your favorite scene in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid? Leave your two cents in the comments.

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    Richard Nixon and Pearl Bailey Amid the Storm

    On March 7, 1974, singer Pearl Bailey invited President Richard Nixon to join her on stage at a White House dinner for the Midwinter Governors’ Conference.  Nixon joined Bailey onstage at the piano, playing “Home on the Range.”

    The Washington Post called it “the impromptu ‘Dick and Pearl Show.'” The two then went into “Wild Irish Rose.” The audience loved the duo. California Governor Ronald Reagan later said that the evening was “absolutely tops.”

    But on the same week as this performance, a grand jury had named the president as an unindicted co-conspirator in the growing Watergate scandal.  It had also issued criminal indictments against six former officials in Nixon’s administration and a lawyer for his reelection campaign.

    There was talk of the possible impeachment of the president.  And the country also faced an energy crisis, trouble in the Middle East, and economic woes.  In five months on August 8, Nixon would announce his resignation.

    But for a few moments on March 7, the president must have felt a little respite as his mind was taken off his troubles.  For a brief time, with the weight of world about to crash upon him, he had a few laughs with Pearl Bailey.

    From a description of the evening, the video below appears to be from that night on March 7, 1974.  Check it out.

    Leave your two cents in the comments. Photo image via YouTube.

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    “It’s All In the Game”: The Hit Song Co-Written By a Vice President

    Charles G. Dawes served as Vice President of the United States under Calvin Coolidge during 1925-1929. At various times, he was a banker, a military general, and the co-winner of the 1925 Nobel Peace Prize (for his work on a post-World War I plan to help Germany stabilize its economy). If all that was not enough, he also co-wrote “It’s All in the Game,” the 1958 hit song recorded by Tommy Edwards.

    Dawes’s Melody in A Major

    Dawes wrote the music for what would become “It’s All in the Game” in 1911 while he was a banker. The amateur pianist and flautist then played his composition, “Melody in A Major,” for a musician friend who then took the sheet music to a publisher.

    The tune became popular and was often played at appearances by Dawes. Below is a 1924 recording of “Melody in A Major,” featuring Carl Lamson on piano.

    “It’s All in the Game”

    Dawes, who was born in Marietta, Ohio on August 27, 1865 and passed away on April 23, 1951, just missed seeing his tune become a chart-topping pop standard. In the summer of 1951, not long after Dawes’s death, songwriter Carl Sigman took the melody that Dawes wrote and added lyrics to create “It’s All in the Game.”

    Many a tear have to fall,
    But it’s all in the game;
    All in the wonderful game,
    That we know as love.

    Tommy Edwards Versions in 1951 and 1958

    A number of artists sang “It’s All in the Game,” including Dinah Shore and Louis Armstrong. The Virginia-born R&B singer Tommy Edwards had a popular version of the song first with his 1951 recording.

    But seven years later, Edwards recorded it again in 1958 in a rock and roll version.  This recording went on to top the charts, becoming the version most people recognize today.

    First, here is Edwards’s 1951 version.

    Now, listen to the differences between that 1951 version and Edwards’s 1958 recording of “It’s All in the Game.” The later recording illustrates the influence of rock and roll in the intervening years after Elvis Presley first recorded “That’s All Right” at Sun Studios in 1954.

    Edwards also performed this version of “It’s All in the Game” on The Ed Sullivan Show on September 14, 1958 (only two years after Presley’s first appearance on the show).  Below, though, is his hit recording.

    Edwards had some other minor hit songs, but he never again matched the success of “It’s All in the Game.” Edwards died on October 22, 1969 at the age of 47.

    The Songwriters

    As for the songwriters, Sigman wrote lyrics for other popular songs, including “(Where Do I Begin?) Love Story” (the theme from the 1970 tear-jerker movie Love Story) and “Ebb Tide,” the 1965 Righteous Brothers hit.

    Sigman passed away on September 26, 2000 in Manhasset, New York.  He was 91.

    The other songwriter who wrote the melody, as noted above, went on to become the only U.S. Vice President to co-author a hit song.  On top of that, he also is the only Nobel Peace Prize winner with a hit song (so far).

    While you may not remember much from school about Dawes’s political career or his Nobel Peace Prize or his years as U.S. Ambassador to the United Kingdom, you likely recognize his important work on a great song that was made an American classic with some help by Carl Sigman and Tommy Edwards.

    “It’s All in the Game” continues to touch people, whether in the version by Edwards or by other artists like Nat King Cole, Cliff Richard, the Four Tops, Van Morrison, George Benson, Tom T. Hall, Ricky Nelson, or Michael Buble. So, while I am still waiting for that hit song from Dick Cheney or Joe Biden or Mike Pence, for now, Charles Dawes remains the only vice president to get so many greats to sing his tune.

    And that is the story behind the song.

    Photo via public domain. Leave your two cents in the comments.

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