Monday, November 3, 2008


The English playwright William Congreve taught us that,"Music hath charms to sooth the savage breast." In turn, the English music-hall singer Anna Russell taught me that silly music hath charms to loosen the uptight breast.

In my most recent blog, I mention the university Faculty Follies, to which students flocked to see their instructors make fools of themselves through song, dance, and general desecration of the performing arts. My first appearance in the Follies was a duet, "The Indian Love Call." But the next time I succumbed to peer pressure and prepared a little number, it was a solo; and as things turned out, that song has followed me throughout my life like a trail of toilet paper eternally glued to my shoe. For which, as it happens, I'm quite grateful.

Backstory:< Anna Russell (1911-2006)was a British-born musician with excellent training and talent but a sense of humor too large to be confined to the regular concert or operatic stage. She turned instead to composing and singing hilarious spoofs of serious music, and made a long, successful career for herself in America, Canada, England, South Africa and anywhere else her wit and play on words would be appreciated. Around 1960, she published The Anna Russell Songbook, which my pal Beverly gave me as a Christmas present.

The Songbook was sub-titled, "Music For People Who Want to Sing But Can't." The non-musical voices were neatly categorized: thin wispy voices; high, clear English bell-like voices; low monotones after the French style; the loud, cracked music-hall voice "with two or three good notes at either end of the scale, and nothing much in between." That last herd included moi.

The song Anna indicated as best (ahem)for my voice was titled "I'm Only A Faded Rose." The narrator mourns that she was once "a rosebud, so fair and pure," feted with diamonds and beautiful clothes but now been cast aside: "He plucked me and wore me, then threw me away; now I'm only a faded rose." The final word spans a full octave and, when properly screeched, produces more decibels than a Boeing 747 on take-off.

I have sung the song many times to a variety of audiences. Each time, the results have been startling. Or startled. Something like that. On one occasion, I had been asked to accept an administrative appointment at the University. The small group I was to join had scheduled a meeting in a handsome, dark-paneled conference room. In attendance were two other deans, an administrative assistant, a couple of secretarys, and an assistant vice president in charge of token appearances. The head honcho, one of the finest men who ever convened a meeting, graciously introduced me and announced that after the meeting itself, we would have refreshments and, in fact, a musical number. (The administrative assistant was a gifted singer.) He then jokingly added, "Perhaps would should require Elouise to sing as well, as a sort of initiation." Indulgent smiles all around. Ho-ho-ho.

"I'll sing for you," I said. (The best defense being a good offense, and all. My singing was undeniably an offense.)

And when the short meeting was over, I launched into "Faded Rose," a capella. Given the occasion, I may have been operating with an additional shot of adrenalin. In any case, I was loud and dramatic, as Anna Russell intended. The two other deans roared; the secretaries giggled;the veep seemed unable to summon up any response. But for me the payoff was the reaction of Paula, the adminstrative assistant, she of the gorgeous voice, a regular soloist at oratorios around the valley, and a woman of calm, self-assured dignity. She was the sort of person any executive would pray to have in the outer office; even the most persistent time-wasters could not get past her guard. By the time I finished singing, her face was deep red, her careful make-up was puddled pudding, her eyes were swollen shut, and her screams of laughter had caused her to cough so hard we had to take a recess before she could sing her own number.

I calculate that my rendition of that song had speeded up the pace of my friendship with Paula by many months.

On another occasion, I attended a week-long summer workshop for feminists in higher education. This must have been in the mid-Seventies, when academic women were getting very serious about equality in the workplace, reasserting the place of neglected women writers, insisting on proper job titles, five-year plans for one's career advancement, and much more. It was all very sober, very crucial, part of the Movement, part of History, and most of the participants were so uptight they could hardly bend at the waist. Tailored power suits and heels were the order of the day. Not one woman mentioned husband or child during the first three days of the workshop. (Liberation did not preclude being servile to one's pets, however, and photos of Fluffy, Flush, Mitzi and Muffin circulated without a blush.) Our seminars and discussions were all highly educational, rigorously researched, and so boring they brought tears to the eye. In the evenings, there was little to do except collapse in one's room or share the solace of revivifying booze in the sterile lounge. The non-drinkers thumbed listlessly through old Alison Bechdel cartoons and scratched our mosquito bites.

One evening, Ms. A asked Ms. B half-heartedly if she wanted to catch the 8 p.m. movie at the university cinema. ("Bonzo goes to College.")

"No," said Ms. B . "I want to stay here and have Elouise entertain me."

I have no idea what led Ms. B. to say such a thing. Possibly my responses in the workshop discussions had suggested I was less serious about my five-year plan than the others; perhaps I just struck her as the class smart-ass. Who knows?

But a couple of the women pushed an old piano into the lobby; someone else volunteered to accompany me; (I had brought the sheet music along to submit as evidence of the traditional role of Woman As the Subject of Abuse and Ultimate Rejection); and I sang "Faded Rose."

Laughter started slowly but accelerated. The cork popped out of more than the Scotch bottle; ice melted from the brave faces; better singers snuggled up to the piano bench and let 'er rip. By evening's end, pictures of Tommy Junior and Simone were going the rounds. During the rest of the workshop, some of us dared to wear slacks and even jeans; our responses to questions were not from the canon but from our own experience; and regular dashes of salsa seasoned the scholarly fare.

So in this month of Thanksgiving, I drink a cider toast to the irrepressible Anna Russell (her bio is titled I'm Not Making This Up, You Know!)and say, "Many thanks! Your rose never did fade in my eyes."

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