A LOVELY WAR: A WORLD WAR I MEMORIAL – Marilyn Armstrong

Happy Birthday, Great War. It’s 105 years since the day you officially started. World War I (WWI), also known as the First World War, was a nearly global war. It officially began on July 28, 1914, though its real beginnings were rooted in events beginning decades, even centuries earlier.

It was an ugly, devastating war. Four years of slaughter that — technically — ended on November 11, 1918.

The official number of military casualties is 22,477,500 killed, wounded, or missing in action. The combined number of military and civilian casualties is more than 37 million. If, as I do, you consider World War II as chapter two of the same conflict, the number of dead becomes even more incomprehensible.

For the past couple of weeks, Turner Classic Movies (TCM) has been “celebrating” the centennial of the first world war, inviting historians and military people to do the introductions and closing comments on the films. General Wesley Clark has been doing TCM’s intros and outros, the last of which was for Oh! What a Lovely War.

He referred to the movie as a musical comedy. While it has amusing moments, calling it a musical comedy doesn’t really cut it. If comedy can be dark, this is one dark comedy.

It’s also surprisingly informative. I can date my interest in World War I and modern American history to seeing this movie when it was released in 1969.

In his closing comments following the movie, General Clark said he hoped we had learned our lesson from this and all the other wars of the past century. I turned to Garry and said, “And what lesson, exactly, might that be?”

“Obviously,” said my husband, making a sour face, “We have learned nothing.”

I agree. Well, I guess we did learn a few things. We learned to build more efficient weapons, including weapons of mass destruction. We can kill more people faster — but no deader — than we did 100 years ago. Much of our military technology emerged during and post-WWI.

I don’t see this as progress. If you want to know why I’m so cynical, why I have trouble believing in a benign deity, look at the casualty figures from the collective wars of the past century.

I love this movie. Not only because of its historical veracity — it’s accurate — but because the music is wonderful. The cast includes everyone who was anyone in British cinema at the time — Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud, Maggie Smith, Vanessa Redgrave, Dirk Bogarde, Ralph Richardson and more, all having a great time.

I’ve seen this many times and I guess so has Garry since we can both know the words to all the songs.

Catchy. Very catchy.


OH! WHAT A LOVELY WAR

Directed by Richard Attenborough (his directorial début)

OH WHAT A LOVELY WAR

I saw “Oh! What a Lovely War” when it was released in 1969 and never forgot it. Based on the long-running British stage production, it’s World War I — in song, dance, and irony. Its catchy score sticks in your brain.

The songs are those sung by the troop during that long war. The cast includes everyone who was anyone in British stage or screen during the 1960s. The credits were a veritable whos-who of English actors.

World War I is hard to understand, even when you study it. No matter how many books I read, I’m not sure I do or will. Its causes are rooted in old-world grudges that make no sense to Americans.

So many ancient hatreds — thousands of years of scores to be settled.

My mother summed it: “Everyone was armed to the teeth. They wanted war. They just needed an excuse. Europe was a giant bomb waiting for someone to light a match.”

Hers may be as good an answer as any other. When the war began, it was the old world. The crowned heads of Europe ruled. When it finally ground to a halt in 1918 (it didn’t really end — WWII was the second chapter of the same war), the world had changed beyond recognition. The European monarchies were gone. A generation of men had been slaughtered; the death toll was beyond belief. The callous indifference to the loss of life by those in command remains incomprehensible.

More than 9 million men were killed in battle. This does not include collateral damage to non-combatants and death by disease or starvation. It paved the way for major political upheaval throughout the world.

Says the movie at the beginning: “The principal statements made by the historical characters in this film are based on documentary evidence, and the words of the songs are those sung by the troops during the First World War.”

The first World War could be called an orchestrated, organized international effort to murder a generation of men. They did a good job.

The statements of the historical characters — all lodged a safe distance from the fighting — are ludicrous. General Haig, looking at the staggering loss of life on both sides, really said: “in the end, the Germans will have 5,000 men and we will have 10,000, so we will have won.”? He said it. And meant it.

The arrival of the Americans and their takeover of the endless war — bringing it to a conclusion while there was still something left to save — is a great cinematic moment. I wonder how long it would have gone on without American involvement? Would Europe exist or would it all be a wasteland?

The war is told with music and dancing. Songs mixed with pithy comments from generals, kings, Kaisers, and soldiers. It’s a long movie — 144 minutes — and I can promise you that you will have a far better and more visceral understanding of this war and what those little red poppies the Veterans organizations give out (do they still do that?) to commemorate the war to end all wars. Until the next war. And the one after that.

The music is ghastly, funny, catchy. The movie is out of print. It was only in print for a couple of months. I had been looking for it for a long time and was thrilled to snag a copy. A few copies are still available through Amazon. If you are a history buff and love great movies, grab one.

Great directing, biting sarcastic humor, terrific music and informative, this movie is in a category all by itself. It was unavailable for more than 20 years. You won’t be disappointed and you won’t forget it. In the 45 years since I first saw it, I haven’t forgotten it.


From Amazon.com:

Richard Attenborough’s directorial début was this musical satire that deftly skewers the events of World War I — including the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, a Christmastime encounter between German and British forces, and the signing of the Treaty of Versailles — by portraying them as absurd amusement park attractions. The all-star cast includes Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud, Maggie Smith, Vanessa Redgrave, Dirk Bogarde, Ralph Richardson; look quickly for Jane Seymour in her screen début.


144 min. Widescreen (Enhanced); English Dolby Digital mono; Subtitles: English; audio commentary by Attenborough; “making of” documentary.

ODE TO JOY FROM BEETHOVEN’S 9TH SYMPHONY – Marilyn Armstrong

When everything is grim and the world is dark, this is the music we need. Thank you Mr. Beethoven for giving us this exquisite piece of music! You were deaf when you wrote it, but we hear you and will always hear you.

And thank you Leonard Bernstein who conducted “The Berlin Celebration Concert” – Beethoven, Symphony No 9 Bernstein 1989.

Conducted by Leonard Bernstein, THE BERLIN CELEBRATION CONCERT is an historic performance marking the fall of the Berlin Wall. Performed on Christmas Day 1989 in the former East Berlin, the concert unites an international cast of celebrated musicians and vocalists for a moving performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.

Symphonieorchester des Bayerisches Rundfunks and members of Staatskapelle Dresden, Orchestra of the Leningrad Kirov Theatre, London Symphony Orchestra, New York Philharmonic and Orchestre de Paris.

Now, don’t you feel better about the world? I know I do.

Thankful November 9th: Music

OLD TIMEY RELIGIOUS MUSIC – Marilyn Armstrong

For a woman who is essentially religiously neutral, firmly clinging to my position of “no opinion” like a limpet on a wet rock with the tide coming in — I really love church music. I cannot help myself. Play me some Christmas carols and I am singing (croaking?) along with heartfelt enthusiasm.

Blame my elementary school teachers, not to mention all those little Christian girls with whom I grew up.

rhyming HallelujahMy parents neglected to mention I was Jewish. They failed to mention religion at all for the first 8 years of my life. I knew we didn’t have a Christmas tree. I knew my mother didn’t eat ham or bacon, but the rest of us ate it and my father cooked it.

I wanted Christmas and felt deprived every year when my friends had millions of presents and a big tree and we had Rudolf the Red-nosed Reindeer and Frosty the Snowman, two electrified plastic statues in our front window — the family’s nod to the holidays.

No menorah. No synagogue. No indication of any kind of holiday in progress except for our two plastic friends.

I didn’t know what a Jew was. I knew what a Catholic was because several friends went to St. Gerard’s, the nearby Catholic school. I knew what nuns and priests were. I could say the rosary, because Mary taught me.

I knew what Lutheran was, because Carol got time off every Wednesday afternoon to go for religious instruction. I had heard about Sunday School. And Mass. And services.

One day, at school, they showed a series of films designed to teach us to not be anti-Semites or racists.

It was a strip film with sound. Joe was on a trapeze trying to do a flying somersault. The catcher, clearly Jewish because he had a big star of David on his chest, was the catcher. But Joe, a blatant anti-Semite, wouldn’t take Joe’s hands and fell to the floor. Splat.

“Don’t be a shmo, Joe.
Be in the know, Joe.
Be in the know, and you won’t fall on your face.”

Then we got a lecture on being nice to Jews. I went home and asked my parents, “What’s a Jew?”

Mom turned to Dad and said these immortal words, “Albert, we have to do something about this.”

Shortly thereafter, my peaceful Sunday mornings were interrupted by boring classes at the nearby synagogue. I would come home pumped up on bible stories which my mother, the atheist, would promptly debunk. It wasn’t long before I was allowed to stop attending. It was clearly not “my thing.” If they’d let me out on Wednesday afternoon at 1 pm like the Christian kids, I’d have gone with more enthusiasm, just to get off from school early.

That being said, my enthusiasm for church music remains unabated. I love hymns, the organ, choirs. The blending of voices tugs at my heartstrings. I sang my heart out in the glee clubs of childhood and the All-City Chorus (Mozart’s Requiem — I was an alto) in High School. And in college I was a music major.

It made my mother more than a little nervous as I wandered around the house singing the Mass in Latin. I did explain to her that the history of Western music is church music. From plainsong to Hayden, Bach, Mozart and all the others who have followed.

Organized religion is the primary consumer of choral music. I am by no means the only person who can be lured into a church by a good choir.

little church 33

If Sunday morning services were all music without the rest of the yada, yada, I’d be there. From gospel to the local children’s choir, it’s all beautiful to me.

I suppose finally discovering I was of Jewish origin should have grounded me somehow, but it didn’t. Not really. It set me on a much longer path that I am still walking. Forever the seeker, I have learned it’s the journey that matters.

Destination unknown.

TICKLING THE IVORIES – Marilyn Armstrong

FOWC with Fandango — Ivory

Way back when … No, wait. Let’s take that from the top.

WAY back when I was halfway between toddler and kindergarten, it was discovered that I had some kind of musical ability. My brother was taking piano lessons, but I could play them and he couldn’t. Turned out, he was tone-deaf. All he wanted was a ball, a bat, and lemme outta this house!

Through the wood glider

So he got the ball and bat and I got the piano lessons. Tickling the ivories, it was called because back then, piano keys were made of ivory. Or had been. By the time I got my grand piano — a 14th birthday gift from mom — they were hard plastic. Steinway didn’t want any more dead elephants on their conscience.

I got pretty good at tickling those ivories, but not good enough to be a serious performer. The truth was, I didn’t really want to be a musician. I was going to write great novels and be famous, live alone in a house on a cliff in Maine overlooking the Atlantic Ocean.

And look how close I’ve come?

THE WHOLE TRUTH ABOUT GOOGLE – Marilyn Armstrong

I woke up this morning with an earworm. Not your normal earworm. Mine was a 1920s earworm. It was a song my mother sang often and for once, she actually got the words right. Ask any member of my family and they will assure you: my mother never ever remembered the words to any song — except this one. She would sing words from other songs to whatever melody was bouncing around in her head.

So I get up this morning and this is what I’m hearing, but without the scratches:

And by golly, the words I had in my head were dead on. Next, the obvious question arises:

How did Google get its name? – Mobilis In Mobile


The mysterious mysteries of the Internet!
You may have read this kind of “official answer: “Google derived its name from the word “googol”, a term coined by then nine-year-old Milton Sirotta, nephew of the American mathematician Edward Kasner. … Google was named after Barney Google.”
Barney Google – The History
But will you ever feel the same way about Google again? I bet you won’t! And it all began with an early morning earworm!

YOU TALK TOO MUCH! – Garry Armstrong

“You Talk Too Much.”

It was a 1960 pop single that kids used to sing outside of school and on the streets. Usually, it was making fun of adults: teachers, parents, politicians, and others who they dissed from the temerity of youth.

It’s not something we — of a certain age — say about those who do most of their socializing via texts and emails.  We value the word, conversation, face-to-face sharing of thoughts and beliefs.

As a youngster at large family gatherings, I remember the older men — uncles, cousins and male hangers-on, emboldened by liquor and loud Carribean music casting insults at the women in the house.  When they were inevitably chastized, one of the men usually would bellow, “Woman, you talk too much.”

Most of the men, shielding themselves from a proper physical response, would giggle in a protective huddle.  Much like a bad football team after committing an egregious foul.

“You talk Too Much”?  In my youthful mind, I wondered how my elders dare say such an obviously disrespectful thing. I couldn’t in my boldest young bombast even consider saying that to an elder. Certainly not my Mom. I’d be picking up my teeth scattered around the room after the two slaps on my cherubic face.

It IS something I now mumble at the political blabbathons as Presidential wannabees stumble over themselves, verbally shooting each other in the feet and leaving us — the losers — as we try to zero in on a preferred candidate to take on the current White House squatter whose rent is overdue.  Yes, you people, you talk too much and don’t say things that will make us believe in you and your candidacy.

I’m growing increasingly angry with baseball’s  TV sports talk jocks who think their jibber-jabber is more important than the high anxiety postseason games.  The nonstop verbal poop is often insulting when it’s obvious these people don’t know the basics of our national pastime.

This 77-year-old retired TV Newsie with 40 plus years on the job, YELLS profanities at the Sports yakkers. The nicest thing I can offer is: “You talk too much!”

I wrestle with the image of my sportscaster hero — the iconic Vin Scully — who truly was a wordsmith, mixing in Shakespeare, baseball play-by-play and John Keats — without missing a beat and allowing minutes of silence to heighten the import of an excellent, game-changing play.  Alas, Vin Scully, closing in on 90, chose to retire still at the top of his game.1

In my best Brandon DeWilde “Shane” plea, Vin Scully, come back! We need you now more than ever! EVERYBODY needs you. Come back, Mr. Scully, please!

Those of you of a certain age can, perhaps, see and hear Archie Bunker yelling at his wife and son-in-law: “Hey, youse!  Ya givin’ me a headache. Stifle ya-selves.  You talk too much”.

No, Pilgrim, I’m not going there.  As sure as the turning of the earth, I’m not going there.

HEY BABY, THEY’RE PLAYING OUR SONG – Rich Paschall

Which Ones Hold Your Memories? by Rich Paschall

A lot of people have a song or two that are special to them.  It might be their prom theme song or other high school or college dance song.  It might be their first dance from their wedding.  It just might be the song that was playing when they met, or when they first realized they were in love.

The special song could be one remembered from a rock concert or play.  It maybe the one that was on the radio when you were off on a road trip.  You know the one!  Everyone sang along at the top of their voices.  When you meet now and hear that song, everyone sings it again, just like 20, 30, or even 40 years ago.

Here is my top ten list. They all hold special memories, but if I was to write this tomorrow, the order might change completely. Except number one would stay the same. That’s for sure. First I have some honorable mentions from recent years.

David Archuleta, Postcards in the Sky tour

I have seen Maroon 5 in concert a number of times in recent years, and I really like Sunday Morning for a memory it evokes.  I also love David Archuleta’s Touch My Hand for the thoughts it gives of being on stage but singing to just one person.  Hunter Hayes touches a chord with the recent Invisible.  I mentioned it previously here.  I will also add One Republic’s Apologize, as in “it’s too late to apologize.”

Hunter Hayes, Live at Sears Centre, Illinois

10.  Ferry Cross the Mersey, Gerry and the Pacemakers. This 1965 hit seemed to play constantly on a road trip to Galena, Illinois.  You had to love top 40 radio in those days. A video of a 1965 performance that was posted in 2008 has over 7 million views.

9.  Sister Golden Hair, America. This 1975 number one hit was a favorite of Chicago radio personality Larry Lujack. I heard it often on my America’s Greatest Hits cassette tape.

8.  Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is? Chicago.  Recorded for the band’s first album, Chicago Transit Authority, 1969, it was released as a single the following year.

Chicago in Chicago

7.  Save The Last Dance For Me, The Drifters. The 1960 hit came back around a number of times and by several artists.  I particularly recall its use in the final episode of Season One of Queer As Folk.

6.  Good Vibrations, The Beach Boys. I guess I could have picked several Beach Boys Songs for this spot, especially Heroes and Villains.  They recall a particular era for me. Remarkably, Brian Wilson and his band are still out performing it.

5.  Color My World, Chicago. Again off the “CTA” album.  It was a popular theme for dances, proms, weddings.  The late Terry Kath did lead vocals on the hit song.  These days original member and trumpet player Lee Loughnane sings it.  Below it is founding member Robert Lamm on vocals:

4.  Horse With No Name, America. It is a favorite of my closest friend and it became our road trip song.  This 1972 hit was written and sung by band member Dewey Bunnell.

3.  That’s Life, Frank Sinatra, 1966. A friend who ran karaoke often asked me to sing it.  If she had no one to start off her show, she would just announce that I would be starting and play this, even if I was not going to sing anything.  I ended up singing it a lot:

2.  Cherish, The Association. A friend asked me to write a lyric for his sister’s wedding song.  Someone else asked me after the wedding how I thought to rhyme cherish with perish (as in, “their love will never perish”).  Listen and discover:

1. Beginnings, Chicago. I saw them in concert at DePaul University when the first album was hot and the hits were being released one after another.  This was the theme of many dances and certainly many weddings and proms.  I can not adequately explain the memories that go with this song.  From my seat on Chicago’s lakefront:

Add your favorites in the comments below.  Maybe we will sing along with you.

To see any of the music videoes for the songs above, just click on the song title.