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Posts Tagged ‘Ethel Smyth’


Early recording of Garland before the studios got hold of her: “Bill” from Jerome Kerns’ Showboat

Easter for me as a child was her voice singing “Easter Parade:” in your Easter bonnet, with all the frills upon it ….


As Dorothy (Wizard of Oz, never re-done)

Friends,

I’ve written only a very few blogs about women musicians, singers, composers. I am not myself technically musically educated, and there is so little readily come by of higher calibre, where the art of the woman is taken seriously, centrally. Opera composers yes, the occasional prima donna. Judy Chicago placed at her 39 women dinner table, Ethel Smyth (who became Virginia Woolf’s friend and for a brief time lover).


Ethel Smyth – pianist

I’ve written of Edith Piaf on my Sylvia blog after going to a lecture with clips, and of Kaija Saariagho’s L’amour de lion after seeing the opera on HD screening.

So it’s more than time I wrote about one of the most famous of the 20th century, an extraordinary singer and performer: Judy Garland. On Wednesday night I went to a 2 and 1/2 hour lecture by Robert Wyatt, accompanied by remarkable podcasts, clips, tapes. The auditorium was full, and I was told what a treat and how excellent is Wyatt. I have gone to one of his presentations on Gilbert and Sullivan: his talk is banal and sometimes to me offensive because he causes (to me) inexplicable laughter in the audience. Some of what I write here is from the few notes I took, a good deal from my own response to all the music and clips he played, the rest found on the Net or from memory.


For me an iconic image

The argument of this blog is that women singers have had a sexual story imposed on them, which they have succumbed to — not hard to understand since in life many interviews include a demand for sex. To make their way in a career they must negotiate their way through the male patriarchy and often end up marrying (as protection and as a platform) a male producer or director at some point (in Garland’s case most famously Vincent Minelli). Judy Garland’s life and the kind of presence her most frequently-played songs resemble are those of Edith Piaf.

What these are stories about are women with an extraordinary gift that could make enormous money and be fulfilling to enact out; they felt they had to submit to soul-destroying false archetypes; to keep up the show self-destructed from within. Each needed more self-esteem to start with, more education, and a higher status; then each might have been able to build a stable environment based on their innate self (yes there is such an entity or presence in us), and turning away from worshipping the siren calls of admiration to do what they apparently couldn’t stand. To endure this they had to drink or drug themselves into a stupor. Now this life enabled them to leave the plethora of work we have from them. Given the US environment Garland’s achievement was to do so much good work and leave behind many kinds of records of it.

One contrast I can think of: Joan Rivers managed to fulfill her talent, stay far more than solvent and possess and care for her soul (and her daughter), be true to a decent set of values her satire at least suggested. But she had to buy into (so to speak) capitalist ideals of ambition, competition, and glamor. Which she did. These desires were part of her innate self. So she claims in her bio-pic film.

Frances Ethel Gumm, the third daughter of two Vaudevillians, Garland appeared on the stage at age 2. Like Piaf, her extraordinary gifts of voice in the range and depth of emotional expressiveness, was quickly recognized and by the time she was a young teenager MGM had seen someone whose gifts would attract large audiences, and the process had begun of working her to the limit of her strength and tolerance for artifical commercial popularity.

Wyatt asserted Garland had a domineering mother and never learned to read music — she relied on memorizing.  While he suggested that Garland was abused because from the age of nine she was fed with heavy prescription drugs, he did not say why. As her life went on, the only explanation offered was the implicit,: see how weak she was, how uncontrolled; for several of her husbands and/or lovers he said how the man had “protected” her. Nowhere did he speak of the long hours MGM demanded, the high pressure (he said only that she hated Buzby Berkeley) to perform in a certain way, the demand she lose weight, look and behave a certain way; and that as she got older, the reward was large amounts of money for MGM and a (perhaps) a (thin) pretense of adulation all around her. Breaking down in private of course.

From this early decade of her life and career Wyatt told of a drivingly ambitious mother (he exonerated the father), and showed some clips, played some podcasts of her earlier effective performances on stages across the US. Tapes exist and they are musically pleasing, expressive of genuine and gay feeling. Her body type was (reminding me of Marlene Dietrich in her first years) was considered ugly (read: socially unacceptable) so she was forced into dieting, cosmetics, exercise to make her conform to the fake ideal of Barbie-ness (we see in all the Trump women today).


With Mickey Rooney

Once her appearance and name were changed, and she entered into the world of the filmed musical, she began to make huge sums for MGM. The Wizard of Oz was her earliest signature hit. She paired with Mickey Rooney again and again. One song that became a signature number was “Get Happy:” I’m not sure that any of the mainstream recordings capture what is at the core of this one: black spirituals. Listen to Judy’s words about Judgment day, getting rid of your cares and troubles, the Lord is going to chase all your cares away. It’s all so peaceful on the other side. The overlay is white male slickness, a pretense of flippancy, the male suit and tipped hat feminized.

Her years of contract under MGM showed her to emerge as a feature star whose presence commanded listeners. The wikipedia article absolved MGM of her addiction habit, but the writer does not cite the tremendously challenging (in every way) schedule wrenched out of her, nor the phoniness of the numbers — nor that she was continually berated by Buzby Berkley — nor everything draining surrounding such a career based on wide success, petty vanity and power struggles within the smaller circles. I could see how she promoted Gene Kelly, supported Mickey Rooney: they were all contending with the nonsense de-sexualized myths the public wanted to believe in. When you watch the clips, they mostly seem so pastoral , as in the famous trolleycar song from Meet Me In St Louis: bang bang bang went the trolley (trolleys were destroyed by large corporations in order to make US people dependent on the car).

There were years of great success, widely popular pleasing film after film with the same names performing with her, her husband Minelli the director and then others. She worked with the most famous and best of popular singers, actors, musicians. Wyatt showed a clip of her with Fred Astaire. But she also began to not show up for filming sessions, disrupting a making of a film repeatedly. It was inevitable that the studio would fire her. Wyatt seemed to delight in emphasizing how many husbands and lovers she had until she began to deteriorate in health under her punishing schedule, drug and drinking freely over the course of her day and night performances (on stage, in life). When she left MGM, she went on to other studios, to work on the stage, to recording songs, and at the end on TV. At a high point she owned a beautiful home in Hollywood, during a come-back she lived in London. Wyatt seemed to like to repeat she was living out of suitcase.  Wyatt discussed her times of great misery in a nonchalant way, saying (for example) how she threw something at her children and “so that was the end of her motherhood.”

She had altogether three children, Liza Minelli, something of a look-alike, the only one able to become a similar admired singing actress . Lorna Lufts had but a brief career. Garland couldn’t manage the relationships she was expected to, and would break away through breakdowns, suicide attempts, discarding who she had to, but also forming for life bonds with similarly suffering stars (e.g., Frank Sinatra), musicians, producers.  I remember her when I was young on TV looking dreadful (very heavy, her face over made-up, her teeth glittering sickly) and then very thin; later at Carnegie Hall, having become an icon for gay men — they felt a kindred spirit.

My favorite songs (and the one easiest to find) are those where she reinforces the myths; she is inimitable expressing anguish.

Except for the initial presence of a mother, Garland’s life resembled Piaf’s — and both conform to the stereotype of the woman in need of a man. Judy’s best known songs enforce this, e.g., “You made me love you.”

She lived but 47 years but the enormous amount of songs and recorded dances, movies, stage performances, military shows suggest a life twice as long with work never ceasing (NYTimes obituary).

The wikipedia article has a long description of her singing worth reading:

Garland possessed the vocal range of a contralto.Her singing voice has been described as brassy, powerful, effortless and resonant, often demonstrating a tremulous, powerful vibrato. Although the octave range of her voice was comparatively limited, she was capable of alternating between female and male-sounding timbres at will with little effort. The Richmond Times-Dispatch correspondent Tony Farrell wrote that Garland possessed “a deep, velvety contralto voice that could turn on a dime to belt out the high notes” … From an early age, Garland had been billed as “the little girl with the leather lungs”, a designation the singer later admitted to having felt humiliated by because she would have much preferred to have been known to audiences as a “pretty” or “nice little girl”. Jessel recalled that, even at only 12 years-old, Garland’s singing voice resembled that of “a woman with a heart that had been hurt” … Garland stated that she always felt most safe and at home while performing onstage, regardless of the condition of her voice. Her musical talent has been commended by her peers; opera singer Maria Callas once said that Garland possessed “the most superb voice she had ever heard”, while singer and actor Bing Crosby said that “no other singer could be compared to her” when Garland was rested …

Garland was known for interacting with her audiences during live performances; a New York Times biographer wrote that Garland possessed “a seemingly unquenchable need for her audiences to respond with acclaim and affection … The biographer went on to write that Garland’s performance style resembled that of “a music hall performer in an era when music halls were obsolete”. Close friends of Garland’s have insisted that she never truly wanted to be movie star and would have much rather devoted her career entirely to singing and recording records … Michael Musto, a journalist for W magazine, wrote that in her film roles Garland “could project decency, vulnerability, and spunk like no other star, and she wrapped it up with a tremulously beautiful vocal delivery that could melt even the most hardened troll”

Her TV show provides a cornucopia of greatness and evidence of remarkable stamina; she was on for a couple of years; here she is with Liza as Two Lost Souls:

For quite a long time in the 1970s I had a long-playing album of Judy Garland at Carnegie Hall. Jim loved it too and I would play and replay it at night. Now looking at it and the other citations from Wyatt, I see a major writer was a man blackballed as socialist: Harold Arlen. I did love “I’m gona love you, come rain or come shine.

One last: Her life in pictures in her last performance, Copenhagan, 1969: “Over the rainbow:”

It’s possible there will be a biographical film with Renee Zellweger playing the role. There is a fine American Masters PBS program.

And this shall be for music when no one else is near,
The fine song for singing, the rare song to hear!
That only I remember, that only you admire,
Of the broad road that stretches and the roadside fire
— R.L. Stevenson, “I will make you brooches”

Ellen

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