Wonderful Redwood Tree

On October 2, 1968, Pres. Lyndon B. Johnson signed the act that established Redwood National Park in California.  The law put 58,000 acres in the control of the National Park Service.  And in 1978, the government added an additional 42,000 acres to the park.

The law making the area into a national park was a culmination of decades of work by preservationists.  In the late 1850s, loggers were harvesting many of the redwoods.  But by the early 1900’s, a Save-the-Redwoods League started buying up land to preserve the trees, and California began designating areas as state parks.

Fortunately, we can still enjoy the massive trees at Redwood National Park, as well as see other giants at Sequoia and Kings Canyon national park (one of my favorite national parks).  Sequoia and redwood trees have many similarities, but they also have many differences, such that sequoias are the largest trees by volume while redwoods are the tallest.

Van Morrison’s “Redwood Tree”

The greatest song about redwood trees would have to be Van Morrison’s “Redwood Tree.”  The song first appeared on his 1972 album, Saint Dominic’s Preview, which is probably my favorite Van Morrison album.

“Redwood Tree” begins with a boy and his dog looking for a rainbow.  And the song ends with a boy and his father looking for a lost dog, who is never found. But the song is really about memories of youth and what we learn as we age.  The redwood tree of the title provides a protective force.

And it smells like rain,
Maybe even thunder;
Won’t you keep us from all harm,
Wonderful redwood tree.

Although “Redwood Tree” was released as a single, it only barely broke into the Billboard Top 100.  At the time, reviewer Stewart Parker in The Irish Times called the song a “simple but tuneful ditty.” Rolling Stone referred to the song as a “beautiful, sensuous cut.”

Over time, many defenders have praised the song.  The Telegraph lists “Redwood Tree” as one of thirty Essential Van Morrison Songs.  It notes that this three-minute song about childhood is “perfection.”

Decide for your self as you celebrate the protection of these wonderful trees with a listen to Van Morrison’s “Redwood Tree.” For a bonus, below is a demo version of the song that appeared on The Genuine Philosopher’s Stone collection.

What do you think “Redwood Tree” is about? Leave your two cents in the comments.

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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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    Who Was Poor Old Johnnie Ray?

    Poor old Johnnie Ray,
    Sounded sad upon the radio;
    He moved a million hearts in Mono.
    Our mothers cried;
    Sang along, who’d blame them.

    The opening of the 1982-1983 hit song “Come On Eileen” by Dexys Midnight Runners mentions a person named Johnnie Ray. So does the first line of Billy Joel’s 1989 song “We Didn’t Start the Fire” (“Harry Truman, Doris Day, Red China, Johnnie Ray. . . .”).

    In each of the songs, the songwriters refer to Johnnie Ray in the context of remembering their childhoods.  During the period they evoke, Johnnie Ray was a big star. But by the 1980s, when these songs were released, and today, many ask, “Who was poor old Johnnie Ray?”

    Who Was Johnnie Ray?

    Johnnie Ray, who passed away on February 24, 1990, was born in Oregon on January 10, 1927.  He rose to stardom as a singer in the early 1950s. Some, like Tony Bennett, have credited Ray’s work to being an important precursor to rock and roll.

    One of Ray’s biggest hits was “Cry.”

    Bob Dylan once noted that Ray was the “first singer whose voice and style I totally fell in love with.”  Ringo Starr explained that in the early days, he and the other Beatles listened to “Chuck Berry, Little Richard and Johnnie Ray.” The Rolling Stones’s Bill Wyman, among others, has commented how Ray opened up his ears even before Elvis Presley began recording.

    And when Elvis Presley got out of the army, he covered a song he knew from Ray, “Such a Night.” Elvis’s version appeared on his 1960 album Elvis is Back.  Below is Johnnie Ray’s version.

    But as rock and roll took off in the late 1950s, Ray’s popularity declined in the U.S. even as he remained popular in other countries. Ray never disappeared and continued to perform until 1989.

    Ray even had some fun with Presley’s music in the following comedy bit, where Ray explains he is not declaring war with Elvis. The clip is from a 1957 live episode of the CBS variety show Shower of Stars.

    Ray had a great voice and made some wonderful music despite being deaf in one ear from a childhood injury. It is interesting to speculate why he could not maintain his popularity as rock and roll took off.

    Maybe his style still was stuck in the 1940s era for rock and roll listeners. Maybe rumors about his sexual orientation hurt him, or maybe it was not cool to be in a movie like There’s No Business Like Show Business (1954) with Ethel Merman.  (Still, that film also starred Marilyn Monroe, and Elvis Presley’s career would survive being in far worse movies.)

    Ray also appeared on What’s My Line? on June 9, 1957.

    Other songs have mentioned Ray too. In 1986, Ray appeared in Billy Idol’s “Don’t Need a Gun” video and was mentioned in the lyrics of the song.

    More recently, Van Morrison dropped Ray’s name in his song “Sometimes We Cry” on his 1997 album The Healing Game.  In the song, Van Morrison exclaims, “I’m not gonna fake it like Johnnie Ray.”

    Van Morrison’s reference is not a criticism of Ray but a tribute.  He invokes his memory of Ray’s own songs about crying such as “Cry,” along with Ray’s ability to fake cry on cue for his performances.  Like the other singers who have invoked Ray’s name, Morrison remembers Ray as a major presence in his childhood.  In a 2006 interview, Van Morrison noted that in his childhood home, “Johnnie Ray was like the backdrop, hearing his music on the radio during that period.”

    Ray clearly made an impact on those who heard him during his prime.  And it is great that the name checks by Van Morrison and Billy Joel will lead others to discover Ray’s music.  Ray of course can also thank the writers of “Come On Eileen” (Kevin Rowland, Jim Paterson and Billy Adams) for his presence in one of the most iconic opening lines of a 1980s pop song.

    Leave your two cents in the comments.

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    Van Morrison: “It’s a Long Way to Belfast City Too”

    On August 31, 1945, George Ivan Morrison was born in Belfast, Northern Ireland, although we came to know him as Van Morrison. So today is a great day to listen to some Van Morrison music, even though I never need much of an excuse to hear songs such as one of my favorite all-time songs, “St. Dominic’s Preview.”

    Imagery in “St. Dominic’s Preview”

    The song “St. Dominic’s Preview” is the title track from Van Morrison’s 1972 album. It is a song of images, beginning with a line about cleaning windows, a reference to Van Morrison’s working class roots and an early job as a window cleaner.

    The song describes the streets of Belfast during the Troubles, while also dashing across the ocean at times to check San Francisco, Buffalo, and “every Hank Williams railroad train,” but always returning to gaze out on Saint Dominic’s Preview.

    What is “St. Dominic’s Preview” About?

    In the excellent book about the album, Saint Dominic’s Flashback: Van Morrison’s Classic Album, Forty Years On, Peter Wrench writes that he sees the title song “[a]s a series of largely autobiographical shards from a young man who has travelled the world and achieved a great deal, but doesn’t feel nearly as settled or satisfied as people might expect.”

    By another account, Van Morrison’s idea was to center the song around “a church called St Dominic’s where people were gathering to pray or hear a mass for peace in Northern Ireland.”

    In many ways, the sound of the song is more important than any specific image, as I loved the song long before I had any idea about what a “St. Dominic’s Preview” might be. In the music, you hear the sound of seeking life, familiarity, and comfort.

    So it does not matter whether or not you pray to St. Dominic or live in Belfast.  We all need more songs that hope for peace and comfort. “I think it’s about time, time for us to begin.”

    In the above video, Van Morrison performs “St. Dominic’s Preview” in Ireland in 1979. In related news, Legacy Recordings acquired the rights to albums in Van Morrison’s back catalog and is reissuing albums including St. Dominic’s Preview. The company released a 37-track, compilation, The Essential Van Morrison, on August 28, 2015.

    Leave your two cents in the comments.

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    And Rosetta Stoned Me

    On July 19, 1799 near the town of Rosetta, Egypt, a French officer named Pierre-François Bouchard found a large black basalt stone with writing on it. The stone included three languages that said the same thing in Greek, Egyptian hieroglyphics and Egyptian demotic. Scholars thus discovered that the “Rosetta Stone” was the key to interpreting the long-dead written language of hieroglyphics. The stone would eventually become important for interpreting and understanding ancient Egyptian culture.

    What Happened to the Rosetta Stone

    Napoleon Bonaparte’s armies during the Egyptian campaign took control of the stone.  But the British soon took it from the French when they defeated Napoleon in 1801.

    The next year, the British placed the Rosetta Stone in the British Museum, where it has remained through today (except for a brief period during World War I), including earlier this year when I visited the British Museum in London and took the photo above.

    “And It Stoned Me”

    I do not know what Pierre-François Bouchard thought when he first saw the Rosetta Stone. But because of Napoleon’s orders to look for artifacts, Bouchard knew he had found something. I do wonder if he had any idea of the impact the rock would have on the world.

    If Bouchard knew how important it was, the discovery surely must have “stoned him,” an expression used by Van Morrison in “And It Stoned Me” from his Moondance (1970) album. Below, Morrison performs the song on June 18, 1980 at Montreux.

    Van Morrison has explained that “And It Stoned Me” is about an experience he had as a twelve-year-old kid on a fishing trip.  During the trip, an old man gave him water from a spring, with everything seeming to stand still in the moment.

    In its original review of Moondance, Rolling Stone saw the water in “And It Stoned Me” as rain. The magazine recounted that the song is “a tale of boys out for a day’s freedom, standing in the rain with eyes and mouths open, heads bent back.” The review concluded, “The sensuality of this song is overpowering, communicated with a classical sort of grace.”

    The magazine described the song in the same way that Bouchard might have felt upon seeing the Rosetta Stone: “you feel the exhilaration almost with a sense of astonishment.” When I visited the Rosetta Stone in London, I felt some of that astonishment too.

    In honor of this date’s discovery of the Rosetta Stone, take a moment to feel a little exhilarated from both mystical experiences and for human beings’ ongoing quest for knowledge.

    Photo via Chimesfreedom. Leave your two cents in the comments.

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