Monday, August 24, 2009

Funiculi Funicula

On this day in history (August 24, AD 79), Mount Vesuvius erupted, destroying several Roman cities, including Pompeii.

Mount Vesuvius towers over the landscape near the Italian city of Naples. Vesuvius is still an active volcano, but the mountain has long drawn people for relaxation and recreation. In 1880, a funicular railway was opened on Mount Vesuvius. To commemorate that opening, Italian composer Luigi Denza wrote a song -- Funiculi Funicula -- with words by Peppino Turco. The song proved to be so popular that Richard Strauss used it in his symphony, Aus Italien, thinking that it was an Italian folk song; needless to say, a lawsuit ensued, and a royalties were awarded to Denza.

Just as Pompeii was destroyed in an eruption of Vesuvius, the funicular railway was destroyed in a 1944 eruption of the volcano. Still the song remains a favorite.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Hawaii Statehood

Today celebrates the 50th anniversary of Hawaii becoming the 50th state of the United States of America. Statehood was attained on August 21, 1959.

As I was researching to write about something musical for Hawaii, I looked at Aloha 'Oe, one of the best known Hawaiian songs. It was written by Queen Lili'uokalani in 1878 about the parting of lovers. Queen Lili'uokalani (1838-1917) was the last reigning monarch of the Hawaiian Islands, reiginig 1891-1893. The Queen wrote more than 150 songs during her lifetime. I was suprised to learn that Aloha 'Oe is not the state song of Hawaii.

Instead, the state song is Hawai'i Pono'i. The standard translation is, "Hawaii's own true sons, be loyal to your chief." The words were written by King David Kalakaua, with the music written by Professor Henry Berger, the Royal Bandmaster. Hawai'i Pono'i served as the national anthem for the Kingdom of Hawaii from 1876 to the end of the kingdom in 1893. It was adopted as the official state song by the state legislature of Hawaii in 1967, and it links the proud heritage of Hawaii with its statehood.

Monday, August 17, 2009


The Woodstock Art and Music Fair was held over three days in August 1969 -- the 15th, 16th and 17th -- so this is the 40th anniversary of that seminal event in pop music. Woodstock didn't take place in Woodstock, New York because of community opposition; rather, it took place at dary farm in Bethel, New York, about 40 miles away.

The line-up of performers was a true who's who of the era (excluding the Beatles and the Rolling Stones). Jimi Hendrix, the Who, Jefferson Airplane, Grateful Dead, Santana, the Band, Johnny Winter, Blood Sweat and Tears, Sha Na Na, Ravi Shankar, Joan Baez, Arlo Guthrie, Richie Havens, Creedence Clearwater Revival, and many others performed for the 300,000 spectators at any one time.

In spite of only 600 porta-potties, inadequate water supplies, mud, and choked roads, the festival showed that young people could gather for a musical celebration in a peaceful way. With Joni Mitchell's song as well as a film about the festival and records from the festival, Woodstock became more than it was at the time. (Joni Mitchell was not present at the festival, even though she memorialized it with her song).

The era of peaceful rock festivals lasted only a few months. "Woodstock West" was held in December 1969 as the Altamont Speedway Free Festival in northern California. Marred by death and violence, Altamont sealed the uniqueness of Woodstock.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

And the Flag was Still There

Happy 230th birthday, Francis Scott Key! The man who authored the words that became the national anthem of the United States of America was born on August 1, 1779, in Frederick County, Maryland. He grew up writing verses as a hobby, taking after one of his ancestors who was an English poet laureate. After attending St. John's College, Key became a successful lawyer. He married and had 11 children with his wife Mary.

In 1814, Key headed a truce commission negotiating for the release of Dr. William Beanes, who had beed captured by the British and held on the British ship, Suprise, off Baltimore. Dr Beanes had looked after the American troops at Valley Forge during the revolution, so was something of an American hero. The negotiators, including Key, were not permitted to leave the British ship they were on (Minden) since the British were planning an attack on Fort McHenry. The British attacked the fort, the battle raged for a day and night, while Key watched through field glasses. The next morning, Key saw that the American flag was still flying over Fort McHenry, and quickly wrote down his verses on an envelope he had with him. After the battle, the negotiators were released. Back at the Indian Queen Hotel in Baltimore, Key wrote out a neat copy, and it was soon printed as The Defense of Fort McHenry. It became known as The Star Spangled Banner in 1815. The music was an English popular (and sometimes, drinking) song, To Anacreon in Heaven, composed by John Stafford Smith around 1775. It became the US national anthem in 1931.

Francis Scott Key was a very religious man. But, he was also a slave owner, torn between maintaining slavery and advocating for a solution to it; eventually, he freed his own slaves. He served as U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia from 1833 to 1841. He died January 11, 1843.