Category Archives: Journal – Vol. III

CXXXI. Music: Part 3 – “The Wallflower” and The Saga of Annie & Henry

May 14, 2015 — I was in eighth grade listening to hit songs on the radio sung by Doris Day and Perry Como, when my friend, Anne Sullivan, said, “You’ve gotta listen to this.”  It was “Roll With Me, Henry,” sung by Etta James (1938-2012), the first rock ‘n’ roll song (now commonly known as doo wop) I had ever heard. The song, I learned today, has an interesting backstory.

According to Wikipedia: The Wallflower” (also known as “Roll with Me, Henry” and “Dance with Me, Henry“) is a 1955 popular song. It was one of several answer songs to “Work with Me, Annie” and has the same 12-bar blues melody. It was written by Johnny Otis, Hank Ballard, and Etta James. Etta James recorded it for Modern Records, with uncredited vocal responses from Richard Berry, under the title “The Wallflower” and it became a rhythm and blues hit, topping the U.S. R&B chart for 4 weeks. It was popularly known as “Roll with Me Henry”. This original version was considered too risque to play on pop radio stations.
In 1955, the song was covered for the pop market by Georgia Gibbs with the title “Dance With Me Henry”. That version charted, hitting the top five of several pop charts, including number one on the Most Played In Juke Boxes chart on May 14, 1955 , spending three weeks on top of that chart.[1] In 1958, Etta James made her own cover version of “Dance With Me Henry”.

Hank Ballard (1927-2003) & The Midnighters (formerly called The Royals) released “Work With Me, Annie” on January 14, 1954. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) immediately opposed it incanting that it had crossed over to a white teenage audience and the overtly sexual lyrics were thought unsuitable for them. But efforts to ban the song failed. The song had sold a million copies as did each of the succeeding Annie songs in the trilogy (“Work With Me, Annie,” “Roll With Me, Henry” and “Annie’s Aunt Fanny.”)

The success of these recordings instigated the practice of recording double entendre and answer songs. “The Wallflower” (popularly known as “Roll With Me, Henry”) is the answer song to “Work With Me, Annie.” The Midnighters recycled the melody once more for “Henry’s Got Flat Feet (Can’t Dance No More).”

An answer or response song, as the term suggests, is a song made in answer to a previous song, usually in recorded music. This concept became widespread in blues and rhythm & blues in the 1930s through the 1950s. Country music answer songs were popular in the 1950s and ’60s, primarily recorded by female singers in response to an original male recording. Response or answer music extends through to today in hip hop, rock music and filk music.  Wikipedia defines filk music as both a musical culture, genre, and community tied to science fiction/fantasy fandom and a type of fan labor. The genre has been active since the early 1950s, and played primarily since the mid-1970s. The term (originally a typographical error) predates 1955.

It appears to me that these answer/response song artists were engaging in pre-tech-age forms of flash fiction, blogging, and blog comments and replies.

Here are some YouTube links to original performances of these songs:

Hank Ballard & The Midnighters’ “Work With Me, Annie”  — a 12-bar blues song, the first in the Annie series.

Etta James, “Roll With Me, Henry

This is a later, Platters version of “Roll With Me, Henry” — or as The Platters female singer, Zola Taylor, (1938-2007) says it, “Hennery.”  This is funny — and I thought I could jitterbug. Brings back memories.

Hank Ballard & The Midnighters, “Annie Had a Baby

The Midnighters, “Annie’s Aunt Fanny

The Champions, “Annie Met Henry.”

There are no coincidences, some say, yet I stumbled on this today, May 14, 2015 , the 60th anniversary of Georgia Gibbs’s (1919-2006) “Dance With Me, Henry” topping the jukebox charts, because a fellow blogger visited my site for the first time and commented.  I responded and in turn, visited her blog — she writes about music, mostly rock ‘n’ roll (http://www.jinglejanglejungle.net).  She wrote a post about The Champs and “Tequila” and that made me think of the first rock ‘n’ roll song I had ever heard.

Samantha Mozart

CXXXI. Music: Interlude

September 24, 2014 — F. Scott Fitzgerald came to live in Wilmington, Delaware, in March 1927. With him he brought his wife, Zelda, and his little daughter, Scottie. They stayed two years.

The feudal atmosphere in Wilmington under the du Ponts, thought Maxwell Perkins, Fitzgerald’s editor at Scribner’s, would provide the creator of The Great Gatsby with the tranquility he needed to finish his new novel, “The World’s Fair,” and give him material for future work.

For $150 a month, they leased Ellerslie, the white three-story 1842 Greek Revival cupolaed mansion on the Delaware River in Edgemoor. Wilmington attorney John Biggs, Fitzgerald’s former Princeton roommate, found the house for them.

For the first few months, life at Ellerslie floated along on the wings of a dream. Fitzgerald wrote to Ernest Hemingway: “Address for a year – Ellerslie Mansion, Edgemoor, Delaware. Huge old house on the Delaware River. Pillars, etc. I am called ‘Colonel,’ Zelda ‘de old Missus.’”

Scott and Zelda devised a system of calls and echoes so they could find each other among the 14 of the 27 rooms they kept open. Scottie romped the broad green lawn with the Wanamaker and du Pont children. And from the second-story bay window room where Fitzgerald wrote, he could see the lights far across the river.

Ellerslie

Ellerslie, image from the Hagley Museum and Library

At Ellerslie, in the deep night, amid the whispering old oaks, beeches and horse chestnuts, you might glimpse the suggestion of a figure, perhaps Gatsby himself, standing on the pillared portico of the magnificent house, lifting his arms outstretched toward the dark water.

The invitations went out and the crazy weekends began. Fridays the French chauffeur drove to the Wilmington train station to meet the guests who included Ernest Hemingway, John Dos Passos, Thornton Wilder, Edmund Wilson and Charles MacArthur. The chauffeur drove them back on Sunday. In between were dinner dances, polo matches staged with plow horses and croquet mallets, and late-night bedside visits by the resident ghost. If things got dull, they caroused the town: John Biggs received the middle of the night phone calls to get them out of jail.

At Ellerslie, Fitzgerald had turned 30. Indeed, a weekend guest recalled one of the parties as being a virtual funeral wake for the passing of his 30th year. His sense of loss plagued him.

“There was a demon within him to be the greatest writer of his generation. He didn’t feel he was accomplishing this,” remembered Biggs.

He got distracted when he started writing. “I get afraid I’m doing it instead of living…. Get thinking maybe life is waiting for me in the Japanese gardens at the Ritz or in Atlantic City or on the lower East Side.”

Zelda wanted to build a surprise dollhouse for Scottie. Fitzgerald and his little girl waited in their car on a quiet red-brick street corner while she disappeared with some papers through a door lettered “Cabinet Maker.”

It was a fine November day. The last golden leaves clung to the trees, sprinkling little shadows here and there on the sidewalk. The daddy yawned. A very little boy walked up the street, taking very long strides. He went up to a door, took a piece of chalk out of his pocket and proceeded to write something under the doorbell.

“He’s making magic signs,” the daddy told the little girl. The daddy then wove a tale of fairy intrigue. ‘The little boy was the ogre and he was holding a princess captive behind the closed curtains of the flat on the corner. The king and queen were imprisoned 10,000 miles under the earth.

“And what, Daddy? What?” demanded the little girl, caught up in the magic. The man continued the story. He wanted to be in his little girl’s fairy world with her. A shutter banged closed, then slowly opened. Suddenly the room turned blue. That meant the prince had found the first of the three stones that would free the princess.

The man could remember that world but he knew he would never again see it or touch it for himself. “Outside the Cabinet-Maker’s” was published in The Century Magazine, December 1928.

In March 1929 the Fitzgeralds sailed for Genoa. In April they were somewhere in France. By June they were in Cannes.

After they sailed, Ellerslie was acquired by the Krebs Co.

Tender Is the Night, begun in 1925 as “The World’s Fair,” winged its way into the literary world in 1934. One year later, the big square rooms of the sweeping white mansion on the Delaware housed the offices of the DuPont Co. pigments plant.

On December 21, 1940, Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald, lyrical prose writer, author of novels, short stories, poems, essays and plays, died in Hollywood, Los Angeles, California, of a heart attack. He was 44. In 1972, the gracious summer home on the Delaware, riddled with termites, was demolished.

F. Scott Fitzgerald, great grandnephew of Francis Scott Key, the author of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” the United States national anthem, was born in St. Paul, Minnesota, on this day, September 24, 1896. Happy Birthday, Scott.

Away! away! for I will fly to thee,
Not charioted by Bacchus and his pards,
But on the viewless wings of Poesy,
Though the dull brain perplexes and retards
Already with thee! tender is the night

—from Ode to a Nightingale, John Keats

This Ode to Fitzgerald is excerpted from a piece I published in the Wilmington (Del.) News-Journal, “Only the Memories Remain,” under my byline Carol Child,
April 24, 1986.

Samantha Mozart

CXXXI. Music: Part 2 — Rhapsody

September 11, 2014 — What if you handed each person in the world a guitar or a tambourine, and then asked all to play their instruments in unison, speaking as neighbors one to another. Think of the dialogue this would create. What effect would this have on the world?

Recently, I attended a dinner reception for a group of jazz musicians. When I stood up to leave, one of the musicians at the table asked me a question, and in response I began telling a story. In the middle of my story, suddenly I became aware that the musicians were looking up at me, listening with rapt attention. Was my story that fascinating? Probably not. It occurred to me that the musicians were about to go on stage and perform, and here I was performing for them. I was not the performer here; they were. I quickly wrapped up my story and left to go over to the hall where they would play that evening. On the way, I thought, musicians listen, they really listen. They have to; how else would they be able to perform together if they didn’t listen to one another? The result would be chaos. And then I realized why I have long felt that the heart of my life was when I worked at the catering/food distributing company in the 1980s. Nearly all my coworkers were musicians, and we had so much fun together – we played together – talking, joking, telling stories, laughing, singing, and always listening: we all listened to one another, accepted the other’s expression and didn’t judge. We intermeshed.

That August Saturday night of my watching all music on television, my PBS station followed John Sebastian and my folk interlude with Gustavo Dudamel: The boy who conducted his toys at age four and grew up to lead The Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela, operated under the auspices of El Sistema (founded in 1975 by Venezuelan musician, educator and economist José Antonio Abreu, to take indigent children off the streets by giving them free musical instruments and lessons), today is the musical director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and conducts great world orchestras, all with passion, exuberance, expression and joy.

Watching Gustavo Dudamel conduct, I am at once transported to 1973 when my daughter and I went to see the young Zubin Mehta conduct the L.A. Philharmonic at the L.A. Music Center performing Tchaikovsky’s fifth symphony. Zubin Mehta was extraordinary (also extraordinarily handsome, still is). When the concert ended, we in the audience stood and applauded at length. During the performance the momentarily idle violinists and cellists smiled across the orchestra to each other apparently acknowledging some string-players’ inside joke. This is the only orchestra in which I have seen members smiling. They smiled again this time under the baton of Gustavo Dudamel – who smiled, too, throughout.

To my ever-broadening grin, this Saturday evening I was privileged to watch Dudamel conducting works of George Gershwin, with Herbie Hancock on piano, in 2011 at spectacular Disney Hall, designed by maestro architect Frank Gehry, a hall where the audience sits surrounding the stage where sit the musicians. If any musician can bridge the gap between youth and popular music and the great classics, besides world renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma, it is Gustavo Dudamel. When you watch him conduct, you know by his facial, arm and bodily expressions exactly what the composer coded and precisely what Dudamel desires to draw from the orchestra. He makes listening to music compelling and fun.

Unlike great European orchestras, comprised traditionally of mostly stodgy, gray-haired men, the L.A. Philharmonic, like the City of Angels itself, is comprised of a rich ethnic diversity, of both men and women, young and old. Even in the early days, when my daughter and I sat in the audience, we watched a conductor, Zubin Mehta, now Music Director for Life of the Israel Philharmonic, whose Parsee family had migrated from Persia to India generations back.

Yo-Yo Ma, who has performed with Mehta often, was born in Paris of Chinese parents who immigrated to the United States when Ma was 7. What an unexpected change in the architecture, observed the boy who had already been playing the cello for three years, from a city of low buildings with tile roofs, and the Eiffel Tower, to a place of square buildings, flat roofs and water towers. Yo-Yo Ma from about age 4 or 5 has always wanted to know “Who did this and why?” He considers himself both a forensic musician, therefore, and a citizen musician. “I am a musician, but what can I do with this,” he thinks. So he plays all types of music with musicians playing all variety of instruments, exemplified by his Silk Road Ensemble. He classifies classical music along with all other music genres as simply “music,” citing composers who have crossed genres such as Argentine-born Astor Piazzolla (1921-1992), a bandoneon player, who came to Harlem and whose nuevo tango/jazz compositions were influenced by the music he heard there.

Yo-Yo Ma believes that when he is performing, he is not some great and distant maestro deigning to demonstrate his musical achievements to the audience, rather, he is doing what he can do, sharing his music, that he is the host and we, the audience, are his guests. Music is what occurs between the notes, he says, as do other accomplished musicians, naming Soviet-born violinist Isaac Stern (1920-2001) and Spanish Catalan cellist Pablo Casals (1876-1973), and defines his peak experiences in music as occurring in that moment: how do you go from this note to the next, from the end of this musical section to the next, do you stop, pause, do you continue, running the notes together, do you rise in a partial tone, one note to the next? And for example, says Ma, in Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1 in G, the cellist must go on from the Sarabande (a slow dance) to the Minuet; you can’t just end with the Sarabande and leave the music hanging.

When Krista Tippett on her September 4 National Public Radio (NPR) show “On Being” asked this artist, Yo-Yo Ma, in an interview titled “Music Happens Between the Notes,” what is his definition of beauty, he responded, “Transcendence.” He said that beauty occurs at that peak moment, the moment between the notes. The Silk Road Ensemble’s new, 2013, album is titled “A Playlist Without Borders.”

Music by its very nature is transcendent; and music is transitory by its nature and by the nature of performance. So, where does music come from? When I was very young and first heard an orchestral recording, I thought music came from the spheres. Later, on television, I saw a large group of people sitting together producing those same sounds: that was an orchestra, I learned. Many years have played through the score my life and now I believe that music comes from the spheres – its creation, as with all art, and the tones and overtones produced. A violinist said that she wanted to play the violin when she heard the violin in Russian composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s (1844-1908) symphonic poem “Scheherazade.” Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Scheherazade” is the first composition that greatly impressed me and instilled my love for classical music.

Music, as with all art, is without borders. While artists pursue their art religiously, art is not a religion; for religion implies dogma, and dogma has borders; to imply your art as religion would be to enclose yourself inside a box, wherein would cease your ability to explore new vistas of creativity.

Yo-Yo Ma and Zubin Mehta have often performed with maestro pianist and conductor Daniel Barenboim, an Israeli born in Argentina of Russian Jewish parents. Barenboim, who, when in his youth immigrated with his parents to Europe, lived and studied in Vienna, and in Paris with French musician, composer and teacher Nadia Boulanger (1877-1979). Among Boulanger’s students, who became leading composers, soloists, and conductors were Aaron Copland, John Eliot Gardiner, Elliott Carter, Dinu Lipatti, Igor Markevitch, Quincy Jones, Daniel Barenboim, Philip Glass and Astor Piazzolla.

In 1999 Daniel Barenboim with cultural theorist Edward Said (1935-2003), an agnostic born in Jerusalem, Palestine, who taught at Columbia University, formed the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, whose home is now Andalusia, Spain, comprised of musicians from Israel, Palestine and other Arab nations, as “a means to debate the meaning of democracy and cultural identity through music,” as stated in a story about Israel on The Culture Trip.com website. Nonetheless, Barenboim and Said chose to form the Divan orchestra for humanistic rather than political reasons “on the assumption that ignorance is not a strategy for sustainable survival. Education, dialogue and understanding are at the heart of their solution.” This thought extends to relationships between individuals, obviously: it is dialogue, listening and understanding thus to reach a consonance in resolution. I paraphrase Barenboim’s recounting one Arab musician’s saying, “It’s what happens between the white and the black keys.”

In 2001 Barenboim, who holds Israeli, Palestinian, Spanish and Argentinian citizenship, stated his democratic philosophy, gaining notoriety in some circles, by conducting the orchestra before an Israel Festival audience in Richard Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde Prelude. The audience would hear Richard Wagner’s music for the first time since Kristallnacht. Barenboim’s argument proposed that breaking this 30-year ban on performing Wagner’s music in Israel would be democratic. The point of performing the Prelude is that in it partially resolved chords create tension and ambiguity, suggesting conflict solved with difficulty, which only resolve themselves in the final bars.

The orchestra was named after a collection of poems by Goethe, inspired by the Persian poet Hafiz, which deal with the idea of the Other as a manifestation or element of the Self.”

What if you handed each person in the world a musical instrument, and then asked all to play their instruments in unison, speaking as neighbors one to another…?

On this August Saturday, as I watched Gustavo Dudamel conduct “Rhapsody in Blue,” he allowed space for each instrumentalist to articulate his or her solo with expression, so we, the audience could listen and appreciate, and then as the final crescendo built, in the last two or three minutes of the composition, Dudamel opened his arms wider and wider, embracing the grand sounds, simultaneously ascending higher, onto his toes, then jumping up and down; this action transcended only by his ever broadening grin, measured by deepening dimples on each cheek, so that as the crescendo climaxed and released, I half expected him to dematerialize leaving only the Cheshire cat grin. Here is a video of this performance: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q3IPut9pUZc. This is just over 41 minutes; “Rhapsody in Blue” starts at 20:15, the final theme at 34:00, and 39:00 is where Dudamel jumps up and down.

—Samantha Mozart

CXXXI. Music: Part 1 – Syncopating Jackhammers

September 2, 2014  — I’m up! I am awakened on a Saturday morning in August just past eight to the sound of two syncopating jackhammers directly below my second floor bedroom bay window. My bed is situated within the cove of the windows. Ensconced lazily beneath my counterpane I can view activities outdoors on all sides of my house, from the bay window and the window on the wall opposite. Outside the bay window I can watch the squirrel eating the green berries on the dogwood before the berries ripen to red, ricocheting the remains off the chain link fence and onto the ground – crackle, ting, thack, thack-thack, tick, thack. These are the sounds that recently have awakened me. Good morning, Squirrel. My bay window reaches out, gathers, and cups the sounds from the street below.

From my bedroom I can see and hear the world; the room is like a wheelhouse. Yet, as I am ensconced within, under dulcet intervals, my bedroom becomes the acoustically ideal music room, the hexagonal space embracing the sound as within a conch shell. Truth be told, within my being is mostly music (preferably a waltz). It’s odd I don’t play an instrument beyond a little guitar, and piano extra-lite. I did compose music, rudimentary, at one time, but no more – maybe one day, given passionate inspiration.

The windows are closed this Saturday morning, thankfully. Still I cough from the rising dust penetrating the windowpanes. My next-door neighbors are having the cement walk that runs alongside their house dug up to be replaced with fresh cement. Incredibly for this day and age, the guys with their cement mixer arrive so suddenly, my neighbors don’t have time to warn me. And I had dusted Friday.

I am not pleased.

I get up. The sound of the jackhammers transporting me to times in August 1966 in Washington, D.C., when at the end of my workday, I, pregnant, would emerge from the Congressman’s office on Capitol Hill and squeeze into the red bucket seat behind the steering wheel of our sleek, black Austin-Healy 3000 where on the dashboard the water temperature gauge read 120 F. They had just begun constructing the D.C. subway that summer, so the sound of jackhammers pervaded the town, ever present. The popular song then was John Sebastian and the Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Summer in the City”: “Hot town, summer in the city; back of my neck getting dirty and gritty.”

Only a couple years earlier, before I had gotten married, my roommate said to me, “You have to go to the Cellar Door [in Georgetown] and see this group, The Mugwumps. They are really, really good.” I wanted to but never got there. The Mugwumps were formed in 1964 with (Mama) Cass Elliot, Denny Doherty (both later to become two of The Mamas & The Papas), Zal Yanovsky and John Sebastian (both later forming The Lovin’ Spoonful) and a Jim Hendricks. Barry McGuire and Roger McGuinn as well as John and Michelle Phillips were also connected. The Mamas & The Papas’ song “Creeque Alley” tells this story:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mVTC7Vggd2M

Barry McGuire wrote “California Dreamin’.” Here is his recording with The Mamas & The Papas singing backup:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yH7szheL6vc

Jackhammer-Saturday night, our local PBS station holds a fundraiser and I just happen to tune in to “John Sebastian Presents Folk Rewind.” There, in a 1960s black and white film, is Judy Collins singing “Turn, Turn, Turn” to Pete Seeger, the composer, who is singing harmony. For an hour or so I watch all the great ‘60s folk artists performing, either in archival film or currently, as with Roger McGuinn and Barry McGuire. Barry McGuire sings “Eve of Destruction” with updated lyrics, although they don’t need much updating; in fact, the message of most of the folk songs from that era remains relevant today: the times, they haven’t changed. And, yes, included are The Lovin’ Spoonful performing “Summer in the City,” replete with jackhammer.

So, what is music? Is the jackhammer in “Summer in the City” employed as a musical instrument? An ongoing debate endeavors to define what can be categorized as legitimate music. The late composer John Cage (1912-1992) believed that any sound, or lack thereof, could be considered music. For, what is music without silence? The sound of silence is an integral component of music. In John Cage’s composition “4’33”” (1952) silence is the music: Cage instructs the musicians to remain silent for four minutes and thirty-three seconds: on the recording, here a musician shifts in his seat and there, towards the end, one coughs, verifying the presence of someone following the score. (I’d upload this piece to my sidebar playlist, but, well … you know….) Others of John Cage’s many compositions include pieces for prepared piano, “Child of Tree” (1975) for percussionist and amplified plants, and “Inlets” (1977) for four conch shells and the sound of fire. I especially like this latter. It is meditative. I am considering making a John Cage playlist for my iPod. Really. I could: John Cage’s compositions require deep listening, compelling the listener to focus, and contrary to what some might think, many are pleasing to the ear and psyche. Possibly so because he was a follower of Zen Buddhism.

The jazzy syncopated sounds of the squirrel crackling dogwood berries and thwacking them onto the chain link fence and ground below: is this then not music, too?

— Samantha Mozart

CXXX. Under the Sun

August 15, 2014 — The writer sits down beside me, a small round table laid with wine and cheese between our easy chairs. He leans towards me and he begins chatting, telling me long, enthralling tales of his experiences growing up in Ocean City, New Jersey, and the history of his family and the Italian people, since before the Etruscans, in evocative detail, indeed since the first human set foot on the Italian boot. He does not miss a stitch.

The writer isn’t really sitting beside me, but it feels so. He is noted American author and journalist Gay Talese, and he is relating the Italian saga in his book, Unto the Sons. I wanted to read this book after reading in The New York Times that Gay Talese and his wife have a home in Ocean City, and that he, nine years my senior, had written in this book about his growing up there. In his Ocean City Victorian home, he writes from a third floor room: my ideal. In 1974, I considered moving to Ocean City, to live there year-round and write.

Talese writes stories about his growing up with his Italian immigrant tailor father, his mother, from an Italian-American Brooklyn family, and sister, living above his father’s tailor shop and dry cleaning store in Ocean City and how Joseph Talese, the father, came to emigrate to the United States in 1920 from Maida, Calabria, situated in the foot of the boot: Giuseppe Garibaldi’s unification of Italy in 1871 had rendered Southern Italy economically depressed, therefore many young men came to America for jobs, sending their money back home to the wives – called white widows due to their husbands’ perennial absence – and children and parents they had left behind in their dusty villages.

Back in the dusty villages in The Kingdom of Southern Italy, in the foot of the boot, they were surrounded by water. Thereby vulnerable to constant invasion, writes Talese, the mafiosi arose to serve as bartering intermediaries between the inhabitants and the invaders.

Italians and Ocean City have always held a special place in my heart.

Prohibitionist Methodists founded Ocean City, on the next barrier island south of Atlantic City, in 1879 and to this day it remains a dry town. You have to drive over the bridge across the bay to Somers Point to buy liquor. At the north end of Ocean City, where the island broadens, is an area called The Gardens, where the Italian families have their homes.

In my childhood, I vacationed in Ocean City often with my family. Our family owned a home at the south end of the island before I was born. Although my family, and I later with my friends, vacationed in the central and southern parts of the island, I always liked The Gardens and the Italians, down from Philadelphia or year-round residents. Often I found myself drawn to walk up the boardwalk to the quiet north end and The Gardens, felt drawn to the Italians and their openness and warmth, so different from the reserve of my Anglo-Saxon family; drawn to that part of myself I had yet to meet and come to know. To one so shy in those days as I, the Italians were people with whom I felt comfortable, people with whom I could express myself openly; they accepted me without judgment.

I have worked for Italians in several jobs. Those were the jobs I liked the best. I liked working for the Italians. They treated me like a family member. When I went to their homes, they fed me. And I like to eat. Of course, one company where I worked for Italians was a food distribution and catering business. That was in Southern California. That was nearly 30 years ago, and one friend and mentor, an Italian-American, remains my treasured friend.

When I was a teenager in the late 1950s, my classmates and I spent summer days in Ocean City, lying on the beach at 9th Street or 14th Street, slathered in baby oil and iodine or riding the waves, and evenings strolling the boardwalk. We’d stay at Victorian-era rooming houses, the kind where we shared a room for $6 a night each, and the bathroom with the claw-foot tub at the end of the hall. On the boardwalk we ate T-buns – toasted cinnamon buns – and listened to rock ‘n’ roll on the jukebox with the heavy bass. We ate most of our main meals at The Chatterbox at Central Avenue and 9th.

In Ocean City I met and dated a guy named Len D’Ignazio (D’Ignazio pronounced with a long “a”, Len had told me), a good-looking blue-eyed Italian with curly blond hair. I liked Len. He was a nice guy, easy to be with. His family had a home in The Gardens, and his family owned a restaurant, D’Ignazio’s Townhouse, in Media, Pa., west of Philadelphia.

My parents had divorced a few years earlier, so my mother would come pick up my brother and me from our home outside Philadelphia, where we lived with our father, and often take us to D’Ignazio’s, where they served the best Italian food I have ever eaten.

I asked Len how his family could be Italian and he have blonde hair. He said his family was from Northern Italy. In revisiting these memories I wondered about Len. So, I researched him online. I think he is dead. Apparently he died in the 1990s. Life is short, even when you live long. D’Ignazio’s is still there, in Media, has expanded into neighboring buildings and has won awards.

One summer for a few weeks during my teenage years, my aunt, uncle and grandmother rented a house in Ocean City. My uncle loved to ride the waves, as did I. The surf was peopled body-to-body one day, so when a huge wave suddenly arose, I had no time to maneuver my raft (air mattress), and my raft and I rode right in on the back of some guy riding his raft. Every evening while my aunt was preparing dinner, we’d relax on the upper deck and my uncle would proclaim, “The Ocean Bar and Sea View Grill is now open.”

It has been a decade since I’ve visited Ocean City; I shall return.

Ocean City Boardwalk, 1990s

Ocean City Boardwalk, 1990s

Row of Victorian Homes, Ocean City, 1990s

Row of Victorian Homes, Ocean City, 1990s

My uncle loved Italy and the Italians, too. During the Second World War, serving in the U.S. Army, he was among the Allies who landed on Sicily and then crossed the Strait of Messina onto the boot, “picking the helmets off the heads of the dead,” he said, on their way north. He often spoke fondly of Palermo and “Napoli” and “Milano.” After the war he went back two or three times, vacationing with my aunt. Later, he painted with oils paint-by-number Italian landscapes, which my aunt hung on their living room walls.

During the two world wars, the Italians were known to be terrible soldiers, soon tiring of battle. Gay Talese writes that Italians don’t see the reasoning of killing groups of strangers, against whom you have no personal vendetta; for Italians it’s a one-on-one thing, a personal blood feud. Talese makes the point, too, that Italians have prismatic vision; they are able to see all sides. I, too, have prismatic vision, one way I relate to Italians.

Back before the First World War, many young Italian men left Southern Italy with their wives and settled in Paris where they raised their families, their children when grown often marrying the French.

Later, when King Victor Emmanuel III and the Grand Council replaced Mussolini on July 26, 1943, the attitude of most Italians was, “Well, whatever.” The Italians welcomed the Allies then; the mafiosi, many imprisoned under Mussolini, now freed, opened the way for the Allies to cross Sicily. Many mafiosi were connected to relatives living in the U. S., many, naturally, were members of the American Mafia. Southern Italians arriving in America were taken under the guidance of a patrone who connected them with jobs, attorneys, doctors, friends and relatives – the familiar “I know a guy….”

I found it interesting to note, as Talese writes, that those from impoverished agricultural Southern Italy, upon arrival on the U.S. East Coast and speaking no English, were likely to be discriminated against and attacked, so settled into ghettos. Originally, Greeks inhabited Southern Italy, until when, generations later, the Italians booted them out. Therefore, it would be natural to designate Southern Italians as being actually Greek. Whereas, those from industrial Northern Italy were broadly educated, more sophisticated, spoke more than one language, and when they came to the U.S., assimilated quickly, felt comfortable traveling alone across country and often settled on the West Coast – where I worked for their descendants.

Nonetheless, the Italians didn’t connect me to this story. Wanting to read about what it was like to grow up in Ocean City, I got more than I bargained for – a fascinating history of Italy and the Italians and how they got to Ocean City. I had no idea that I was in for an encyclopedic history, a history Talese derived from his father’s stories, from his ancestors’ diaries and from extensive, intensive research – a book that reads like a novel, all 600-plus densely typeset pages, that held me spellbound. I have read a number of books since I read Unto the Sons last winter, yet this one stays with me. In fact, I inadvertently engaged in reading tutti Italian, winter into spring. I don’t know why I did it; I just did. I read Frances Mayes’ Under the Tuscan Sun and Bella Tuscany, which made me wish I were younger and could go buy my own ancient villa there, as Mayes did, and from which I derived some really good and economical Tuscan peasant recipes. It’s like I’m preparing for an Italian journey that I don’t yet know about – or maybe that was it, seen through the magical pages of books. Some things come spontaneously, stepping out of the cobalt blue shadows of the sun. They radiate in electric white light standing before you for a moment in time, and they never quite leave you.

—Samantha Mozart