Stars and Stripes and Sousa forever

John Philip Sousa III (1913-1991) did not follow in the footsteps of his grandfather, but those who met him discovered a spirit as creative as the famous march king. I interviewed Sousa the younger in the summer of 1987, when he visited Delaware Water Gap, Pennsylvania, for a concert in honor of the man who wrote what many consider to be America’s second national anthem.

John Philip Sousa III marches to the beat of a different drummer than his famous grandfather. It isn’t that the New York City resident doesn’t thrill to the stirring marches of his illustrious forbearer. It’s just that he’s more inclined toward the written word.

“I love hearing them,” Sousa said of the marches during a concert featuring “Semper Fidelis,” the Marine Corps anthem, and other favorites. “But writing always has been my enthusiasm.”

The New York resident is the author of two books, both nonfiction, of which one was a bestseller. He was assistant publisher of Fortune and formerly head of public affairs for Time magazine and in charge of long-range development for the Time-Life Book Division.

“Right now, I’m writing a book on good taste in management,” he said. “Then I think I’ll write my memoirs.”

John Philip Sousa III relaxes during a concert in honor of his grandfather

He is also head of the Sousa Foundation, which controls the rights to his grandfather’s work, although he admits that, when he was young, he wasn’t aware of the music.

“I paid no attention to it at all. As far as I was concerned, he might not have existed. Then, when a certain aunt died, I got stuck with the whole Sousa Corporation. It’s just something I have to do every day. I think I owe it to my grandfather.”

As a youth, Sousa may not have been familiar with the music, but he has fond memories of his paternal ancestor.

“He was charming, relaxed. He had a good sense of humor. He smoked cigars all day long, but back then, it was good for you.”

The elder Sousa wore mismatched clothes and “always had a piece of music in front of him.”

He’s familiar with the music now. “I love it. I have the same favorites everybody else does, ‘Stars and Stripes Forever’ and the ‘Washington Post March.’” But one piece stands out. “It’s ‘El Capitan,’ from the operetta. He wrote 20 operettas, you know.”

Although Sousa has heard the marches hundreds of times and is used to the fireworks and fanfare, he still marvels at the reception with which audiences greet his grandfather’s music.

“Last summer I was in [New York’s] Central Park for a concert with Leonard Bernstein. There were about 100,000 people there. They cheered and applauded him and he played a number of his own compositions, but they wouldn’t let him go. And finally he turned around and what did he play? ‘Stars and Stripes Forever.’”

During a speaking engagement in Toledo, Sousa was asked about the connection between John Philip Sousa and the Fourth of July. “I said, ‘Funny you don’t know that. He invented the Fourth of July.’”

Does he see a resurgence in Sousa’s popularity together with heightened interest in patriotism?

“No, they are just good marches. Yes, they make everybody cheer and clap, but if the marches weren’t that good, everybody wouldn’t be cheering and clapping.”

Sousa saves his sentiment for other things. He will not divulge his age. He will not even discuss it. Once, when he bought a ticket on the Long Island Railroad, the ticket agent asked if Sousa was over 65 and eligible for the discount rate.

“I asked for a ticket, not a discussion of my age,” Sousa fired back.

He seemed more relaxed at a tribute to his grandfather’s music in the tiny borough of Delaware Water Gap, Pa., lounging in a director’s chair in a white suit that matched his hair. “I thought it over and the concert just sounded so enchanting, with everybody up here knocking themselves out. And it wouldn’t kill me to come up, you know.”

Sousa appreciates music but never learned to play an instrument. “I blame this on my mother, if blame is the right word. She couldn’t carry a tune. Talking to myself I said, ‘He did it better than anybody. Do something else, John.’ So I did.”

Pat Dorian directs the band on Aug. 20, 1987, 75 years to the day when John Philip Sousa conducted a similar concert on that spot in Delaware Water Gap, Pa.

The Magic of Bob Dorough

For Bob Dorough, three is a magic number. For his legion of fans, it’s Bob himself who’s magic.

Whether he was singing times tables or scat, Bob made music and learning fun for adults and children alike. He died April 23, 2018, at his home in Mount Bethel, Pennsylvania, at the age of 94.

In the late 1970s, I wrote an article about him for DownBeat that was never published. Here it is at last, the story in his words of how he created Multiplication Rock, presented as a tribute to a most remarkable man.

* * *

It can be no accident that Bob Dorough included the song “Because We’re Kids” on his album Beginning to See the Light. The piece not only sums up his attitude toward children, which led to his job as composer of the ABC-TV series “Schoolhouse Rock!” It reflects the relaxed image he projects, the open smile that reaches you even before the soothing Southern twang of his voice.

Intoning the words of Dr. Seuss, Dorough sings, “But we’ll grow up someday, and when we do I pray we just don’t grow in size and sound and just get bigger pound by pound. I’d hate to grow like some I know who push and shove us little kids [sniff] around.”

No chance of that now. Dorough has spent the past several years scoring “Schoolhouse Rock!” in which he teaches children math, grammar and civics in a respectful and entertaining way. Listeners have long associated him with jazz, from his work as an accompanist to his own 1957 classic on Bethlehem records, Devil May Care. But that challenge met, he turned to producing popular artists like Spanky and Our Gang and writing advertising jingles.

After a decade-long hiatus from the jazz world, his career has come full-circle and he’s back to doing some of his favorite things. The veteran of swing and New York City jam sessions has returned to nightclub performing (including a recent stint at Bradley’s in New York) and has released a new album—a live performance recorded in California with longtime associate and bassist Bill Takas.

The duo recorded Beginning to See the Light on their own label, Laissez-Faire, to achieve the artistic freedom they desired. The track from which the album receives its name—a Harry James, Duke Ellington composition—finds Dorough swinging on piano around Takas’s strong walking bass lines. Throughout the rest of the recording, Dorough livens the recording with his unique voice, a reedy sound that’s soft and thin as a whisper, spiced with a drawl that echoes his West Texas roots.

Born in Arkansas, Dorough fell in love with music while in high school, to the point of going back to school another year after graduation to take advantage of playing with various bands. He picked up piano by ear after discovering he could compose and hold down more jobs by playing that instrument, then headed for North Texas State at Denton to polish his skills. “It was the first college to put jazz on the curriculum,” he says. “It was just a hotbed of jazz.”

His salesman father had other ideas for his son. “I was a natural mathematician. My father said, ‘You could be an engineer ‘cause your math grades are so good.’”

But New York City beckoned. “I played in different bands and combos and mostly we jammed. We were always playing. It was a way of learning. And I also liked singing. I got into my own style of singing. I guess I pretty much formulated my own style at a fairly young age, although I had what I thought was a late start in music. I was interested in serious music, too. Composition was my major.”

Dorough’s late start may account for his affinity for children and his long life in the business. “I always endeavored to think young, act young and live young, and take care of myself. As I say, I felt I got a late start in music. I was drafted and was in the Army. All that threw me way behind schedule. I dropped out when I was 28 or so, working on a master’s degree I never got at Columbia. And I’m probably one of the few American boys who took a high school post-grad course.”

When jobs in his field ran thin, he turned to producing popular artists—Chad Mitchell, Roberta Flack, Spanky and Our Gang. He tried advertising work. That move gave him an exciting job and a whole new audience—children. “It’s like anything else. You make a contact and get a job, and if it’s good, you get another one,” he says of his introduction to “Schoolhouse Rock!” and its creator.

David McCall, president of the McCaffrey and McCall advertising agency in New York, faced a problem that Dorough was soon to solve with twelve songs later released as Multiplication Rock. “His idea was to set the multiplication tables to music. He got it from his own child, who couldn’t memorize the tables but he could sing along with Jimi Hendrix and the Beatles and memorize all the words. So my partner, Ben Tucker, claimed I was the man to do the job.

“Apparently they’d tried other New York City composers and they had gotten a kind of result they weren’t looking for, sort of a simplistic writing-down-to-the-children insipid approach. So I went to see them about it and that was it. Even though they were in the advertising business, they seemed prepared to develop this idea, which was nothing new, actually. It was a little bit new in that he [McCall] wanted the multiplication tables set to rock music. Everything was rock music in that year.”

Dorough calls the assignment “a rare opportunity, one of the most exciting commissions I’ve ever had, a chance to communicate with the younger generation. I didn’t know if it would be on record; I didn’t dream it would be on TV.

“I sort of laid back a couple of months. I didn’t want to go popping out obvious rhythmical tunes. So I just studied my math books. It’s strange. I’m a collector of mathematics books. I’m a mail-order freak. I’d see Fun with Games and Numbers and Mathematics for the Millions, well I would order the book. Maybe I wouldn’t even read it. When I got this assignment, I just came home and started cracking all these books. I was prepared for the job.”

He also received some help from his daughter, Aralee. “My daughter was just entering the grades where they studied math. It gave me a chance to try some things on her.”

While the outcome was supposed to be rock, Dorough found he had created a gentler sound. “Some of my friends said, ‘That’s not rock, that’s jazz. You snuck it in on them.’ I don’t know. It’s neither rock nor jazz.”

The advertising agency originally tried to market Multiplication Rock as a record and a book, but the agency’s animation department worked up a better deal for another client, ABC-TV. To date, the network has produced 25 3-minute films. Dorough makes several a year and works as the show’s musical producer and arranger.

Until now, Dorough has concentrated on writing and recording for some of the legends of jazz. His 1957 release, Devil May Care, featured himself and Miles Davis. The trumpeter later invited Dorough to compose and sing a number for The Sorcerer. Mel Torme and others have recorded Dorough’s “Comin’ Home Baby,” and the Fifth Dimension covered his “Winds of Heaven.”

Now he takes life easy on his 3-acre farm in the foothills of Pennsylvania’s Pocono Mountains, playing piano and flute duets with his daughter, lounging in flannel shirt and wool socks in his sparsely furnished home, an easy hour from the studios in New York. “I sort of fell in love with this part of the country. This reminds me a little of my boyhood in Arkansas. It’s similar terrain. Matter of fact, my grandfather used to be this far from the river there,” he says, pointing to the Delaware River.

As for the future, Dorough is enthused about the rerelease of Devil May Care, out of print until it was reissued as Yardbird Suite. His plans include performing, finishing the TV series, composing and working on a grander scale with an orchestra. He will continue to compose along traditional lines, even though he embraces jazz-rock fusion

“I think it was inevitable jazz and rock would gravitate toward each other.” The musicians in both camps, he says, were using improvisation. “I think music is just coming together. It’s like the whole culture has been fused by communications. I myself was always in love with exotic music of all kinds. I liked Indian music from India and I liked African music. And naturally I liked some classical music, too, what you would call modern classical or modern contemporary.

“Culturally, I can see this fantastic blooming of all elements and styles. I’m definitely all ears.”

Jeff Widmer is the author of the CW McCoy and the Brinker series of crime novels.

Bob Dorough entertaining children in the late 1970s (photo by Donald S. Fisher)

What’s my (opening) line?

I was sitting next to NPR science correspondent Christopher Joyce when he challenged the group to recall a favorite first line of a book. His was the opening of the Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel, One Hundred Years of Solitude. “Many years later, as he faced a firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.”

We went round robin. My contribution was the epic opening of John Mortimer’s introduction to his titular character in “Rumpole and the Younger Generation,” a line (it stretches half a page) too long to reproduce here, let alone remember in full at the time.

I hadn’t thought about that conversation until last week, when I came across the short story “The State of Nature” by Camille Bordas in The New Yorker. The story opens with the line, “I slept through the burglary.” Now, who could possibly do that? I thought. It’s a provocative lead, one that introduces the unique voice of a singular character. I read the story in one gulp.

There are many well-known openings, from Moby-Dick (“Call me Ishmael”) to the Tale of Two Cities (“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”) to the oft-parodied line from Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, “It was a dark and stormy night.”

I’m sure you have some favorites, maybe Nabokov’s “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins” or Tolstoy’s opening to Anna Karenina, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

Just so.

And then there are the lesser-known kickoffs, the ones that brim with promise, that say, if you keep reading, you shall discover new worlds with a companionable guide.

Here, in no particular order, is a collection of my favorites, a mix of contemporary and classic lines from male and female authors alike:

“Woman’s lying in bed and the bed’s on fire.” Don Winslow, California Fire and Life.

“Once upon a time, there was a woman who discovered she had turned into the wrong person.” Anne Tyler, Back When We Were Grownups.

“I have a meanness inside me, real as an organ.” Gillian Flynn, Dark Places.

“It began, as the greatest of storms do begin, as a mere tremor in the air, a thread of sound so distant and faint, yet so ominous, that the ear that was sharp enough to catch it instantly pricked and shut out present sounds to strain after it again, and interpret the warning.” Ellis Peters, The Sanctuary Sparrow.

“On my forty-ninth birthday, I decided that all of life was hopeless, and I would eat myself to death.” Anne Lamott, Plan B.

“It was a put-up job, and we all knew it by then.” Anna Quindlen, Miller’s Valley.

“The night Vincent was shot he saw it coming.” Elmore Leonard, Glitz.

“This really happened, this story.” Laurie Lynn Drummond, Anything You Say Can and Will be Used Against You.

“I was living with a woman who suddenly began to stink.” T.C. Boyle, “Descent of Man.”

 “Her body moved with the frankness that comes from solitary habits.” Barbara Kingsolver, Prodigal Summer.

“Joe lived, but it wasn’t something he was particularly proud of.” C.J. Box, Open Season.

“The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.” William Gibson, Neuromancer.

“There are some men who enter a woman’s life and screw it up forever.” Janet Evanovich, One for the Money.

And lastly, my all-time favorite, a slight deviation from the pattern we’ve established here in that the quote needs a second sentence to complete the punchline. It’s from Jennifer Crusie’s breakout novel Tell Me Lies. “One hot August Thursday afternoon, Maddie Faraday reached under the front seat of her husband’s Cadillac and pulled out a pair of black lace underpants. They weren’t hers.”

Now that’s a keeper.

What are you favorite opening lines? Leave a comment here, or on your social medium of choice.

The mystery of the critique

Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot often says the secret to his success as a detective is simple: “Order and method.” We writers could use a bit of that ourselves.

Elizabeth George, author of the Inspector Thomas Lynley mysteries, has two criteria for evaluating fiction: strengths and inconsistencies. In other words, what did the writer do right, and are there any inconsistencies in character, plot, setting, tone, or language.

At the risk of second-guessing the author of 28 books, many of which have made it to TV, I’d like to add one more metric to the list: clarity.

Why is clarity important? Because what’s in the author’s head doesn’t always make it onto the page. Finding the holes in our story is like using a single mirror to see the back of our heads. We need a second opinion.

What about George’s criteria? I believe they are essential to good critiquing. Simple, but not widely practiced.

Consistency means the characters behave in a manner that is congruent with the personalities we’ve created for them. The language and tone should do the same.

The idea of strengths is simple but its application is often misunderstood. If we focus on the good parts of a manuscript, the writer will, too; hopefully the better work will crowd out some of the lesser stuff. That runs counter to some people’s philosophy—I’ve been stopped after class by those who want to know why I encourage a tiny piece of good writing in a sea of struggle—but that’s the exception to the rule.

What should writers avoid when critiquing a manuscript? In her work of nonfiction, Write Away, George urges us to forget about our own tastes. After reading or hearing a piece, many writers will say they liked or disliked the writing, characters, language, or plot. A typical response from even the most educated is, “I couldn’t get into it.”

That kind of critique doesn’t give the writer enough detail to improve, and might discourage an emerging talent. As George points out, it’s not our story. We’re not there to rewrite the work but to call out the strengths and flag the confusion. Did the writer mean to change point of view in mid-chapter? Is she experimenting with time by switching tense in mid-sentence? Those inconsistencies are concrete, measurable, and susceptible to improvement.

All of this boils down to a single question: are we critiquing the construction of the work or the content? If we develop a system that relies on order and method, we’ll know. And so will the reader.

 

‘Thrilling and suspenseful’

What a way to start the new year. Amy Shannon of Amy’s Bookshelf has written an expressive review of Curb Appeal that awards the novel four stars. She calls CW McCoy’s third outing in the Southwest Florida series “thrilling and suspenseful.”

Since the review is brief, and Amy has graciously granted permission to reprint it, I’m doing so here.

“This is a great story that has more than just one plot, but the major plot points to a murder and CW is a detective who must solve it. The writing brings the reader right smack in the middle of the story. It’s an interesting and intriguing story, and makes the reader want to see more sides of CW McCoy. I haven’t read other books from Widmer, but I definitely will add more to my TBR list. I look forward to going back to reading the first two McCoy books.”

So do customers who have left comments on Amazon. “A spell binding addition to the CW McCoy series. Can’t wait for the next one.” “I like how the characters have developed over the three books, the drama and the levity in parts. It is a good read!” “I read it in two sittings and got nothing done around the house! I loved it and highly recommend it.”

Reader reaction to Peak Season, the first of the McCoy novels, was just as enthusiastic. Kirkus Reviews called it “an entertaining mystery romp” and things just got better from there. “Really a good read with lots of character details and plot twists.” “Widmer’s created a great protagonist with many facets…hope to hear more of her!” “The details of south Florida lifestyle and tourist season are spot on.” “Made me want to hear more of CW’s adventures!”

Many came to the novel through the audiobook version and wanted to hear more. “Very skillfully written; the characters are described in such detail that they feel real and relatable.” “The scenes are intricate, suspenseful, and haunting. This book has everything: mystery, romance, suspense, and murder! Overall, Peak Season was a very engaging read and I cannot wait to start the next novel.” “All in all, a great start to what promises to be an interesting, fun series, and I look forward to finding out what Jeff Widmer has in store for CW in the future.”

Those who like a strong female protagonist in mystery/suspense fiction might appreciate these reactions: “Amazing that a male writer can do such a great job with a female character as the lead!” and “A good read for guys, too, even though the main voice is a woman.”

You can find all of the books in the CW McCoy series in print or electronic form at Amazon, Amazon UK, Barnes & Noble, iTunes, Kobo and through bookstores everywhere. Peak Season is available in audio format through Audible, as is my other mystery/suspense series, starting with Mr. Mayhem, the book that introduces the defrocked journalist named Brinker who, as a purveyor of public relations, brings new meaning to the term fake news.

 

‘What’s not to like about this new novel?’

What’s not to like about a good review?

No, they’re not uncommon. Most writers can find something positive to say about a book. But unqualified praise? It’s rare.

That’s why I’m so pleased to see Ryan G. Van Cleave’s assessment of Curb Appeal, the latest in the series of mystery/thrillers featuring detective-turned-real-estate-agent CW (Candace) McCoy. (No, that’s not her in the photo on the left.) The piece appears in the October edition of Scene magazine.

For those of you who don’t feel like following the link, here’s an excerpt:

“What’s not to like about his new novel by Sarasota resident Jeff Widmer? Most of the things I look for in a mystery are right there. Hot new cop boyfriend faces assault charges—check. Rival real estate agent is strangled by a lacy black bra in chapter 1—check. Back-to-back hurricanes—check. Seriously, Widmer understands the value of pacing and creating a driving forward momentum. But he still knows how to sprinkle in telling details. Widmer’s Curb Appeal presents the image of an intriguing book—and the reality matches.”

I’m especially pleased to see the review combined with one of Patricia Gussin’s latest books, Come Home. Dr. Gussin is a former executive with Johnson & Johnson who specializes in writing medical mystery/thrillers. She and her husband Robert run the independent Oceanview Publishing on Longboat Key, Florida. I’ve read her work and heard her speak at the annual Venice Book Fair, and she’s as informative in person as she is in print.

Ryan has a raft of publishing experience, too. He is a poet, editor, and teacher who lives in Sarasota, Florida, where he heads the creative writing program at The Ringling College of Art + Design. An Amazon.com best-selling author and co-author, he has penned and edited a diverse field of books, including Memoir Writing for Dummies, Contemporary American Poetry and Unplugged, My Journey into the Dark World of Video Game Addiction.

He’s a writer who is generous with his time and praise, as is the person who brought Curb Appeal to his attention, fellow author and teacher Eric Sheridan Wyatt.

What’s not to like about that?

Stormy weather

Starting a new project is never easy. Working during a storm that threatens your entire state makes it even harder to concentrate.

Now that Hurricane Irma has swept through Florida and spared our home, I’m trying to refocus efforts on a new novel, tentatively titled Born Under a Bad Sign, although The Peaceable Kingdom might provide an ironic description of the theme.

Set in 1969 just before the historic Woodstock Music & Art Fair, the book pits the residents of eastern Pennsylvania against the government in a battle to save or dam the Delaware River. It introduces two young people, a budding photographer named Elizabeth Reed and a prodigal musician called Hayden Quinn, who struggle with their own personal conflicts as they weigh the risks and rewards of love and fame.

For Elizabeth, the peace of the Minisink Valley is a form of paradise. For Quinn, whom Rolling Stone calls the next Jimi Hendrix, Eden lies to the north, at Max Yasgur’s farm. Whether they realize their dreams is an open question.

Unlike its predecessors, the CW McCoy and Brinker novels, this work is more mainstream, an exploration of the baffling mysteries faced by a sixteen-year-old woman on her emotional journey to adulthood.

I started working on paper (hence, the image of the notecards) before graduating to Word, with its document-view feature that uses headers to provide a visual outline of the manuscript. Less onerous than outlining, it’s a system I recommend to fellow writers who want flexibility as well as organization.

 

This land was made for you and me

In doing research for a book that deals with property rights, I came across this missing verse from Woody Guthrie’s classic folk song, “This Land is Your Land.”

There was a big high wall there that tried to stop me;
Sign was painted, it said private property;
But on the back side it didn’t say nothing;
This land was made for you and me.

Guthrie wrote the lyrics in 1940. The earliest known recording of the song (a March 1944 version now part of the Smithsonian collection) includes the verse. Subsequent versions omit it.

What do you make of that?

Creatures of habit

This month, I’ve been posting images of Southwest Florida that inspired many of the scenes in Curb Appeal, the third installment in the CW McCoy series of romantic suspense novels. If you would like to see the collection in one place, head over to Flickr for a global view of the scenes and people who inhabit CW’s world.

And speaking of characters. . . . While locations along the Gulf Coast weave their way into the novel, animals play an equally important role. Witness this trio, some of whom make regular appearances at Myakka River State Park as well as the Sarasota Farmers’ Market.

 

Captain Louie, Walter’s black lab who lives aboard the ‘Mary Beth’ in #curbappeal

 

I once was lost but now I’m found: Sugar Bear returns in #curbappeal

 

Alligators outnumber people in some areas of Myakka River State Park. Just ask CW in #curbappeal