The Clare Spark Blog

November 10, 2013

The pursuit of happiness, co-counseling, and reality-testing

happinessTimeThe following links are relevant to this blog. I especially recommend the song “A Sunny Disposish” available on YouTube, lyric by Ira Gershwin.,9171,2146449,00.html  (“A Sunny Disposish”)

Why do you suppose that the ever popular Over the Rainbow was nearly dropped from The Wizard of Oz? Could some mean-spirited Republican have sensed that Yip Harburg the lyricist was a Red, pushing utopias? Or could the song have contradicted the major message of the film: that rural life on the farm was filled with attachments that surpassed those of the Emerald City? Why, after all, did Judy Garland want to get away and pursue happiness elsewhere? (See comment below that argues I am wrong, that she always wanted to get home. But the lyrics betray a yearning for something else: some earthly or heavenly utopia? Maybe that is why it was nearly dropped, assuming that my facts are correct.)

I could ask the same question of the song I’m Always Chasing Rainbows, a Vaudeville song from 1918 suggesting disillusion with the promise of American life. (See lyrics here: retitled Film Noir, decoded.) The bluebird of happiness motif is reproduced in the Harburg-Lane hit song, first heard in the Depression year of 1939.

The Declaration of Independence built its polemical foundation on “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” but never guaranteed that such an outcome of universal happiness would be the case for everyone. Hence, the popular culture emphasis on romantic yearning, laments for lost loves, or admonitions to be happy, lest you lose the regard of your friends and family, not to speak of success in “the community.”

Life is hard, attachments are fraught with ambivalence, and frequent sadness should not be diagnosed as a personality disorder. See  Or perhaps I am mistaken and am really a neurotic (formerly called a melancholic), in danger of sinking into a serious depression that could fill my horizon with utter darkness.

Anyone can play.

Anyone can play.

I don’t mean this to be a long blog, so let me end with this anecdote from my two years as a volunteer faculty member at California Institute of the Arts in Valencia, where I spent a lot of time after my divorce in the early 1970s. It was rather a hippie outfit, very counter-culture with revolution in the air, along with marijuana smoke, faculty sanctioned jerking off, critical theory, and Kierkegaard. “Co-Counseling” was all the rage. The idea was to cut out professionals, and engage each member of the dyad (male-female pair only) with another suffering person. You would hold hands, gaze into each other’s eyes, and take turns in talking about earlier traumas to your partner. Then after an hour of spewing forth painful memories, the partner got a turn dredging up the past and you had to focus on what you were hearing. This was considered to be revolutionary and a substitute for “the talking cure.”

Several faculty marriages broke up during that time, while a few partners in co-counseling married each other. My theory: no one had ever listened (or pretended to listen) to the co-counselors for such an extended period before, and without interruptions or otherwise cutting them short, changing the subject, or falling asleep. The partners (supposedly) never lost focus, or at least that was how they were perceived.

I told this story to my son-in-law and he laughed his head off. It is so true. Changing the subject is what we do and what we experience evermore as a result of the internet, mass media, and the Progressive imperative to be optimistic, to maintain “a sunny disposish” at all times, lest we found ourselves “All Alone” like those hapless Americans who have had their health insurance cancelled by Federal fiat.

Bless you, Irving Berlin and every other songwriter who reminded us to “Remember.”

For more on this subject see, and

positive state

September 29, 2012

Index to blogs on antisemitism

Saudi cartoon 2008 (a synthesis that takes account of the “Hebraic” Reformation sects) (index to German Romantic sources for multiculturalism and related issues, such as identity politics) (retitled The Protestant Establishment Taps a Good Jew) (on the pervasiveness of “Christian anti-Semitism”)

It is a misconception to think that a person’s views toward individual Jews tests their antisemitic views one way or another. A-S is above all, a theory of history, most recently a reaction to the “disruptive” effects of modernity, and an identification of the source of Evil. Most or all antisemitism is racist, for no matter how assimilated a person of Jewish descent may be, that person retains mental, physical, and moral attributes attributed to “the Jews” considered as a collective entity. Of these, none is more pernicious than the  notion that all “Jews” partake of the Old Testament God as read by non-Jews, most famously by Voltaire (whose admirers were possibly angrier at Christianity, the offshoot of Judaism). That deity is domineering, militaristic, and genocidal, looking out solely for his “Chosen People.” One would think that such a powerful set of misconceptions would be corrected in the schools and in the mass media, but no. For in a highly populated globe, the masses must be controlled, and there is no more potent poison, directing popular anger away from abusive elites, than antisemitism: our innermost desires for truth, for a relatively accurate inventory of our past, is stigmatized as disintegrating to “the family.” So despite occasional hand-wringing over “the Holocaust,” antisemitism is still poorly, even crudely, understood by most, if not all, trained intellectuals.

Gustave Doré: Lost Satan

Gustave Doré: Lost Satan

August 7, 2010

American Music and Jewish Composers: Irving Berlin and Leonard Bernstein

Irving Berlin ca. 1910

I read Joseph Byrd’s negative evaluation of the original lyrics to Irving Berlin’s “Puttin’ On The Ritz” ( when it was first posted on a Humanities-Net list July 12 (New Deal Era and its Origins), with Byrd’s linking of the lyric to prior “coon songs” and even blackface. This is what Byrd wrote on the topic of “black female domestics and dancing” (it is followed by my response on H-Net, 8-6-2010, expanded for purposes of this blog):

[Byrd:] That’s exactly the topic of Irving Berlin’s original lyric to “Puttin’ On The Ritz” —

Have you seen the “well to do?”

Up on Lenox Avenue?

On that famous thoroughfare,

With their noses in the air?

High hats and colored collars,

White spats and fifteen dollars.

Spending every dime,

For a wonderful time!

If you’re blue and you don’t know

Where to go to, why don’t you go

Where Harlem flits?

Puttin’ On The Ritz!

Spangled gowns upon the bevy

Of high-brow[n]s from down the levee,

All miss-fits,

Puttin’ On The Ritz.

That’s where each and every Lulubelle goes,

Every Thursday evening with her swell beaus, Rubbin’ elbows!

Come with me and we’ll attend

Their jubilee, and see them spend,

Their last two bits,

Puttin’ On The Ritz.

[Byrd commentary:] Plain and simple, this is a jazz-inflected version of the ubiquitous 20s “coon songs”, like “Hard-hearted Hannah” “I Ain’t Got Nobody”, and “Big Bad Bill Is Sweet William Now”. Why “Every Thursday evening?”  Thursdays in Manhattan were “Maid’s Night Out”. That’s the version Fred Astaire sang in the 1930 hit record (also covered by Harry Richman).  Berlin later cleaned up the lyrics, e.g.,

Dressed up like a million-dollar trooper, Trying hard to look like Gary Cooper, Super-duper!

which while not racist, is not very good either.

Coon songs were the extension of blackface, and indeed, usually performed in blackface (except by women).  Even Berlin’s “Alexander’s Rag-time Band”, which on the surface doesn’t seem to be racist, was turned into a broad dialect comedy duet in its first recording, by Collins and Harlan.  Coon songs were the other side of the “plantation melodies” which expressed nostalgia for the “Old South” (i.e., slavery), songs like “Rockabye Your Baby To A Dixie Melody”, “My Mammy”, “Is It True What They Say About Dixie” et al.  [end, Byrd comment]

[Spark response:] Joseph Byrd, co-founder of The Yankee Doodle Society, has, in prior publications, boldly exposed the attempts of recent musicologists to whitewash the racist lyrics of blackface minstrelsy (for instance in the case of Stephen Foster’s “Oh Susannah!”)  But in this instance, I was not sure that I. Berlin deserved such harsh criticism. So I read several biographies of two composers who, in their contrasting ways, have come to represent American music: I refer to Irving Berlin and  Leonard Bernstein, both of whom were indebted to black and Latin music (as well in Berlin’s case, by Stephen Foster and Tin Pan Alley in general). I thank Byrd for inspiring much-needed research on my part: my curiosity opened up the tradebook genre of the intimate biography of celebrities in American music history, a genre that seems to be focused less on their artistic production and its sources and ideological messages than on inside-dope regarding the composers’ sexual and business practices. (An exception is Charles Hamm’s musicological treatment of Berlin as a participant in the melting pot: see Bibliography.)

It is my sense that the original lyric of “Puttin’ On The Ritz” was more puritanical than “racist.” Irving Berlin was a self-educated immigrant who fled his tenement home in the NYC Lower East Side when he was only thirteen or so. He worked in various dives and was exposed to low life in general, along with the rowdy ethnic music performed in such venues. Throughout most of his productive period, false rumors abounded that he had a little “colored boy” sequestered somewhere who really was the author of his many popular songs. He was also notoriously frugal and abstemious in matters of the flesh. Numerous uptown swells had visited his early haunts, and he had no great respect for their slumming, snobbery, and primitivism. The man was remarkably class-conscious and throughout life embraced the strenuous work-ethic of the middle-class, even as he married Ellin McKay, a renegade from the upper class, who, for a time, sacrificed her relations with her father to marry [the little Jew].

It is also reported that he overcame the objections of his white actors who had refused to take a bow with a black co-star in the successful show As Thousands Cheer (1933) that starred Ethel Waters, and that protested, among other things, lynching (Gershwin’s Of Thee I Sing had already made social commentary about US political culture okay on Broadway). Berlin told his leading singers that either EW joined them in their curtain calls, or nobody would enjoy that ritual. Moreover, during his marathon morale-boosting show during world war 2, his black performers and white performers were not segregated, at his insistence. (Not that a blackface act was not part of the revue “This Is The Army,” that traveled throughout both the European and Pacific Theaters of war, with Berlin present throughout.)   (My sources are biographies by Edward Jablonski and Lawrence Bergreen.)

“Puttin’ On The Ritz” (original lyric) was written for a failed film of the same name starring Harry Richman in 1930. There is a clip of the title song on YouTube, and there is no blackface. The film quality is not very good, but I think you can see a large troupe of black dancers joining Richman and the white dancers toward the end of the routine. Also, Fred Astaire’s original recording of the song is included in The American Popular Song CD series, disc one. But perhaps most interesting of all is the fact that the song was written soon after Berlin had lost much of his fortune in the 1929 crash of the stock market. He could have been lecturing himself for writing for the Ritzy upper-classes near the beginning of  his long career in Broadway theater musicals, a step upward from Tin Pan Alley and “Alexander’s Ragtime Band.” Whatever his possible motivation, it is not uncommon for writers with a middle-class ethos to criticize what they view as excessive consumerism in other groups. *

There is no reason to mention Leonard Bernstein in this blog, except in this respect: Irving Berlin was an uncritical patriot and moved toward conservatism, though he did not oppose FDR during the Depression (his wife was an enthused New Dealer). At least one biographer seemed intent on exposing all his frailties (Bergreen). Whereas Bernstein, the offspring of a comfortably well-off Jewish family and Harvard educated, was clearly a fellow-traveler with the Left during his musical and extra-curricular career, and has been recently criticized for not being Left enough in one biography (Barry Seldes). The much longer biography (by the Englishman Humphrey Burton) tends toward lurid gossip without much musicological or other historical analysis. I am speculating that there is an unpleasant insinuation in the Burton tell-all superficially laudatory biography that Bernstein was the epitome of “Jewish” carnality and the will to power.

To sum up, I believe that calling Berlin’s “Puttin’ On The Ritz” as racist and necessarily connected with blackface and “coon song” is to stigmatize the composer too roughly. The only reason I bring up Bernstein’s oeuvre and politics is to remind other students of American popular culture that it is commonly thought among black nationalists that twentieth century Jewish composers improperly ripped off or otherwise abused/parodied the musical ideas of non-whites. I understand that Irving Berlin was criticized on the H-Net list strictly for an alleged connection to faux black culture, but I have noticed elsewhere a larger set of criticisms directed against American popular music when its composers are of Jewish origin and, as in the case of Berlin, are seen as unreflectively patriotic, or who, like the “un-American” Bernstein, are seen as possessed by demons; i.e, as romantic, intuitive artists both are politically unreliable in the eyes of some left-wing critics.

(For a guide to the logic of black nationalism, see the postscript to my prior blog:

*There is a summary on the internet that supports my reading of the original lyric to Puttin’ On The Ritz: “The rise and fall of a popular entertainer provides the basis of this musical drama. Harry Raymond (played by nightclub superstar Harry Richman) begins his career with nothing but his ambition, his talent and the support of friends and loved ones. Eventually he hits the big time and becomes a star. Unfortunately with stardom comes arrogance and selfishness and he disdains his lowly but loyal lover and pals to hang out with the upper crust. His downfall comes from a bottle of tainted homemade gin. Harry nearly dies and ends up permanently blind. Fortunately, at least one of his old crowd is around to help him rebuild his life. ~ Sandra Brennan, All Movie Guide”  This is hardly the message of the Astaire-Rogers movies that followed in the mid-to late 1930s, where upward mobility and luxury were the message, with no down side to the rise of the hoofer, though the upper crust was still mocked. I.e., the true aristocrats are artists: in this case the virtuosic team of Astaire and Rogers. The same goes for subsequent Astaire movies with different female partners.


Bergreen, Lawrence. As Thousands Cheer: The Life of Irving Berlin. Viking, 1990.

Burton, Humphrey. Leonard Bernstein. Doubleday, 1994.

**Hamm, Charles. Irving Berlin, Songs From The Melting Pot: The Formative Years, 1907-1914. Oxford UP, 1997. Highly recommended for serious students of popular song and the impact of black culture on the “melting pot.” Corrects Rogin, I think.

Jablonski, Edward. Irving Berlin: American Troubador. Henry Holt & Co., 1999.

Rogin, Michael. Blackface, White Noise. UC Press, 1996.

Seldes, Barry. Leonard Bernstein: The Political Life of An American Musician. UC Press, 2009.

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