So Here are two beautiful spirituals performed on the 12-string by Blind Willie McTell.
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Thank God I have a wonderful family and church and was confirmed last Saturday at Grace Cathedral.
This is not an easy one to write. I feel the need to pay tribute to Ray Smith, host of the Jazz Decades radio show for fifty-two years, on the occasion of his passing February 26. But the obligation to write about what Ray Smith’s program did for me is so overwhelming that I need time. So for now let me post an mp3 of the tribute show Smith’s home station WGBH did for him last night, and a link to the archive stream of old Jazz Decades episodes.
The tribute is an overwhelming experience of one man’s dedication to his craft. And it is a pure pleasure to hear Smith’s precise diction from the fragments of early episodes. Did people once speak that well? His comments on focused listening are an inspiration. Since I came to early jazz and swing long after being fascinated by contemporary improvised and new jazz music, Ray Smith was the first person I ever encountered who treated listening to old forms of popular music with the seriousness and respect that is taken for granted by folks who listen to John Cage or Evan Parker. It was impossible to hold on to the ill-informed dismissive attitude that I had about old music when confronted with the evidence of Smith’s lifelong obsession. To him I owe a love for Luis Russell, Red Allen, Red Nichols, Bob Crosby and so many others. Not to mention his New England accent and manner, which came to represent the best aspects of my home country during a lonely exile in California.
I’ll have more to say about Smith in time, but for now let’s just say that he represents a kind of radio, and an attitude towards presenting music, that we can never have enough of and that suffers greatly with his passing.
Woolrich Audio week limps to a close with two adaptations from series we have not covered before.
I don’t know that Wardrobe Trunk was ever adapted into a film, but it’s an exemplary Woolrich short: fast-moving, arbitrary, frightening, and implausible. This Radio City Playhouse is also the first New York-based radio show we’ve covered. The difference between L.A. and New York radio drama is like Justice Stewart’s definition of pornography: it’s hard to say exactly what it is, but you know it when you hear it. Perhaps it’s the difference between the California actors also working in Hollywood movies, and the New Yorkers spending nights working in live theater.
Certainly, RCP, with its “theatre” setting and relatively somber acting by David Gothard and Joe DeSantis, allows Woolrich to unfold without the pervasive delirium that we’ve gotten used to.
Now, this is a classic. Escape, radio’s great anthology of high adventure, presents Frank Lovejoy in a demented stew of voodoo curses and lunatic prejudices about jazz.
Lovejoy had a fine career as a Hollywood second lead, in In A Lonely Place and The Hitchhiker among others, but he seemed rather stolid much of the time. But on radio, he was possessed of a great gift of intimacy.
If you only listen to one Woolrich on radio, make it this one. If Edgar Ulmer had made radio shows…
Thanks for sticking around for my first blog project. Stay tuned. . . .
David Cairns Woolrich Week has ended, but for those of you feeling an acute shortage of confusion and misery in your life, I still have a couple more radio dramas for you.
The Black Curtain is a classic episode of Suspense, well received enough that they performed it three times. It’s a perfect radio story, the abstraction introduced by the listening experience is a great match for Woolrich’s signature absurdity and narrative violence. Plus, it has an amnesia plot.
People who defend audio drama often say things about how it “involves you right in the story,” or “makes the listener do the work of imagining the scene.” All true as far as it goes, but it fails to measure the difference between feeling oneself immersed in something pleasant and predictable like a Lone Ranger story, and Woolrich’s worlds of confusion and obscurity.
Black Curtain also shows why Woolrich was in some ways even more successful on radio than film. No matter how many shadows, crossfades, and fog machines a movie director employs, narrative cinema is an incorrigibly realistic medium; we are watching someone else who has been photographed doing stuff . But the important stuff in audio drama really is unseen and overheard, and this creates an element of irresolvable uncertainty.
Plus, no Woolrich movie could have counted on a hero as urbane and classy as Cary Grant. Mr. Leach starred in the first two versions of the story, and listening to two versions of the same script can give us a sense of how Suspense was evolving in the first years of its long run.
The third and final version was the first of the one hour episodes hosted by Robert Montgomery. In this show, Montgomery also plays the lead. Though he doesn’t match Grant’s performance, the longer story is powerful, and Lurene Tuttle is a marvel as the female lead. One of the joyous surprises of listening to vintage radio for the classic film lover is getting to know the elite group of professional radio actors, people like Tuttle, Cathy and Elliott Lewis, Jack Kruschen, and many more, and hearing how often they match and even outdo the great Hollywood stars before the microphone.
Now we get back to Woolrich, with two versions of his Black Angel, both from Suspense. They share only the broadest outlines with the film of Black Angel directed by Roy William Neill and starring Dan Duryea and June Vincent. Remember, there is a distinction between a show like Lux, adapting the movie adaptation for radio, and something like Suspense, that began either with original radio plays or literary works. Lux’s job was to be as much like a movie for the ears as possible, but Suspense could develop its own medium to a high degree.
The first version (1944) is eminently Woolrichian in it’s extreme rapidity. Not only was it a 30 minute slot, but the show ran short and was padded out with a long preview of next week’s program. The whole story unfolds as a few shockingly intimate and abrupt conversations between three actors, movie star Nancy Kelly and omnipresent radio stalwarts Wally Maher and Lou Merrill. The terrifying pace causes normal character development and human motivation to be elided. Yes, there is a demented twist ending.
Version two is from the one season, in 1948, when the show expanded to an hour and was hosted by Robert Montgomery, playing a fraudulent “producer’s” role influenced by that of C.B. DeMille on Lux.
Montgomery’s intros are civilized and insinuating, and the extra length does create a feeling of depth and richness that I have only found elsewhere in Welles’ Mercury Theaters.
June Havoc plays Eve, and you’ll hear Bill Johnstone, a tireless actor best known for taking the thankless job of replacing Welles as the lead on The Shadow
Havoc may have had the inside track on this gig: she married Suspense producer William Spier. There is a great 1970s interview with both of them, part of the wonderful series produced out of WTIC in Hartford. Check it out, and stay for some of the other priceless interviews, like Vincent Price.
While I prepare the next Woolrich post. . .
John Cage: One of the things that showed up when the Frenchmen, headed by Boulez, began to object to my work and ideas, they objected to the notion that music was made of sound.
Morton Feldman: Yes, I always thought that was extraordinary. It was like the medical profession objecting to the fact that Semmelweiss said that they should wash their hands when they perform an operation.