The Song Goes on ‘Til the Break of Dawn

Now gallantly streaming on Spotify and Amazon Prime, America’s national anthem is a relatively new idea that found its legal place in our national identity as late as 1931.

sheet music

This 1814 copy of “The Star-Spangled Banner” was the first printed edition to combine the words and sheet music. Currently this is one of only ten copies known to exist, and is housed in the Library of Congress.

Imagine the White House burned to cinder.
The Capitol collapsing into smoke and char.
The lane between the two a soot-choked corridor of smoldering federal buildings.

If you can imagine that scene, then you know exactly what British troops left behind them as they marched from D.C. to Baltimore in the late summer of 1814, as the “War of 1812”—a trade skirmish that escalated into full-blown war—waged into its third year. The young nation, only recently liberated from Britain after the Revolutionary War, found itself on the brink of a royal thrumming by the war powers of England. Bankrupt, obliterated and with its government on the run from advancing British troops, the struggling republic toppled towards dissolution. If Baltimore fell, there would be no hope for America’s survival. With the Brits closing in from Canada, inching warships into the Patapsco River toward Baltimore’s Fort McHenry and marching 4,500 highly-trained soldiers to the city, the nation looked as though it would soon be back under British control.

With these high stakes, the citizens of Baltimore threw their might against the British, banning together to reinforce the harbor and the city. As the 4,500 redcoats advanced on the city, they were met by 15,000 American citizens manning an unexpectedly impressive defensive earthworks. For 25 hours, the formidable British navy lobbed bombs and artillery at Fort McHenry trying to force a surrender that never came. When the sun rose in the morning, American soldiers hoisted a 42-foot-by-30-foot American flag, known as the star-spangled banner, over the fort as the British beat a grudging retreat.

The raising of that enormous flag symbolized the triumph—and the hope—of a new nation that refused to bow to tyranny.

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Engraving of the bombardment of Fort McHenry by John Bower.

Francis Scott Key, a 35-year-old Maryland barrister and gifted amateur poet, witnessed the attack from the water. He’d been held aboard a British ship negotiating the release of an American POW, Dr. William Beanes. A raging storm added to the drama of the attack during the night, and the sight of an American flag rising with the bright, new dawn so inspired Key to grab the back of a letter and pen a verse of poetry as he and the other Americans were released:

O say can you see, by the dawn’s early light,
What so proudly we hail’d at the twilight’s last gleaming,
Whose broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous fight
O’er the ramparts we watch’d were so gallantly streaming?
And the rocket’s red glare, the bomb bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there,
O say does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

Later that night, Key would write the remaining three verses. The poem, first titled “The Defence of Fort M’Henry,” appeared in two Baltimore papers shortly after the victory along with a melody Key had chosen to accompany the lyrics. The song caught on, and by November 1814, only two months after the Battle of Baltimore, America had “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

F Scott Key

Francis Scott Key’s original manuscript copy of his “Star-Spangled Banner” poem, now on display at the Maryland Historical Society.

Ironically or fittingly, depending on your perspective of American history, “The Star-Spangled Banner” is set to the tune of a British drinking song made popular by a London gentlemen’s club called The Anacreontic Society. The club adopted Anacreon, a Greek lyric poet specializing in drinking songs and hymns, as their emblem, and composed their own drinking hymn called “To Anacreon in Heaven.” The melody, written by John Stafford Smith, would be almost note-for-note copied by Key for the lyrics of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

Here’s “To Anacreon in Heaven,” nicknamed “The Anacreontic Song” for the club that made it popular. You can sing our national anthem in your head over the rather saucy and now hard-to-make-sense-of original words:

“The Star-Spangled Banner” landed in league with other patriotic songs of the times including “Yankee Doodle,” “Hail, Columbia” and “My Country “Tis of Thee” (whose melody is a repurposed “God Save the Queen,” the British national anthem). The song wasn’t as popular as the other three until the Civil War, when the notion of national unity took on a deeper meaning. A cursory review of history seems to indicate that—despite divisive moments—America’s true hope is to be truly united states. With this current of feeling dashing through a traumatized populace, post-Civil War sentiment embraced “The Star-Spangled Banner” as a statement of American identity.

As often happens with music, dance and other performing arts, they serve an irrevocable purpose of capturing feelings and meanings of enormous social and historical value. So it was for Key’s soaring tribute to a new nation’s fortitude and lofty aspirations for freedom for all people.

In the late 1800s, the U.S. military regularly used “The Star-Spangled Banner” for ceremonies, especially those involving the lowering or raising of the flag. In 1918, during a World Series game between the Chicago Cubs and the Boston Red Sox, the military band on hand launched into the song during the seventh-inning stretch. The Chicago Federal Building had been bombed the day before, and America was amidst the turmoil of World War I. At the sound of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” players and fans joined in an impromptu saluting of the flag in silence.

1918 World Series

Photo from a 1918 World Series game at Comiskey Park. (Photo: http://www.mlb.com)

Again, the moment took hold of national feeling, and playing the song while saluting—or putting the right hand over the heart—in silence became common practice at sporting events. What’s interesting is that “The Star-Spangled Banner” wasn’t even the national anthem in 1918. The song entered the lawbooks on March 3, 1931 thanks to Maryland representative John Linthicum, who lobbied for “a national song to give expression to its patriotism,” which, naturally, was met by much resistance from citizens who did not feel that laws were needed to make people patriotic. However, the bill passed, and Herbert Hoover signed off on it despite common feelings that the song was too hard for normal people to sing. That complaint, to this day, remains valid, as we all know if we’ve ever been to an American sporting event.

Though a drinking song melody of our oppressors, the American national anthem enjoys its big day this week as July 4 marks our 242nd year of independence from British rule. It commemorates a moment when America was hanging onto itself by the skin of its teeth, and we almost lost our republic except for the valiant efforts of everyday people to fight for what we could be.

Happy Fourth of July.

From Suzuki to Itzhak

Ten-year-old music student Mateo Valdes’ violin journey at the Patel Conservatory.

Mateo Violinist by Rob-Harris-1973

Photo: Rob/Harris Productions, Inc.

Patel Conservatory violin student Mateo Valdes has a very deep and wise gaze under a flop of shaggy, dark bangs. He doesn’t make eye contact much, but when he does, he seems to possess a kind of old-soul way of knowing that belies his slight 10 years of age.

His mother, Natacha, trained in the Suzuki method as a child and continues to practice and play violin today. When her son was old enough to sit for an orchestra performance, she took Mateo to an afternoon concert. Like many people, initial exposure to the arts as a small child awakened his talent.

“I saw the violin,” he says simply. “And I knew right away I wanted to learn to play.” Natacha looked for schools with Suzuki classes, found the Patel Conservatory and enrolled her son in 2013, when he was five years old. The Suzuki method involves a triangle of teaching and learning among the teacher, student and a parent or guardian. So, Natacha and Mateo began this violin journey with Dr. Catherine Michelsen, the string specialist at the Patel Conservatory.

“It was different from what I expected,” Mateo says of his first lessons five years ago. “I had to practice putting my feet in the proper position when I was little and just starting. Catherine had a cardboard thing I had to put my feet on, and we would practice my posture. Then I got into playing. Book 5 is where I am now.”

Suzuki Violin Camp (1)

Suzuki Violin Camp at the Patel Conservatory, 2017.

But Mateo’s “where I am now” extends beyond the next book in a serial technique. Though he continues to train and learn from his enormous support system at the Patel Conservatory and at home, Mateo’s relationship to music and to his instrument denote a young artist in the dawning of his craft. “He’s been a true joy to teach,” says Dr. Michelsen. “His innate musicality was apparent early on, both in his playing and in his interest in other aspects of music such as improvisation. His sense of dynamics and phrasing is very impressive.”

Mateo’s versatility was impressive enough to land him a spot as one of the youngest violinists in the Suncoast Super Strings, an arm of the Itzhak Perlman Music Program in Sarasota. After rehearsing with an orchestra comprised of students from around Florida, the Suncoast Super Strings performed with Itzhak Perlman himself conducting in December 2017.

“I was very excited,” says Mateo. “I liked performing with so many people. Now that I played in that orchestra, I sort of have an image in my head of where I want to go, where I see myself with the violin. I see myself playing in a big concert and making recordings. And a lot of improv stuff.”

Mateo with Itzhal Perlman 1

Mateo gets a shirt autographed by Itzhak Perlman.

Mateo, who studies and practices rigorously, spends much of his free time with the violin recording himself on his computer in improvisations of what he’s learned. “I love improvising,” he says. “I work on my pieces to get better, but I do want to record and do something with that later.”

“I play with Mateo, too,” says Natacha. “I’ve seen a huge development in his technique because of Catherine’s style of teaching but also because he gets boosts with the Patel Conservatory camps. He’s more comfortable, happier with his own playing. I am most pleased about his desire to improvise, though. That’s not me or anybody else. That’s just him.”

Here’s a clip of Mateo improvising:

 

“Playing violin is very fun once you get it,” Mateo says. “After the first six months, I really started to enjoy it. It’s been great for me.”

If you want to get involved with Patel Conservatory summer camps and classes, see what’s available and register now at patelconservatory.org.

 

Mateo’s Teacher Offers Pro Tips for Starting a Child’s Violin Lessons at the Patel Conservatory

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Dr. Catherine Michelsen

We always welcome parents and children to observe the Suzuki violin group classes and lessons! Parents can get a “pass to class” in admissions to observe our Monday afternoon group classes and private lessons throughout the week. Because the Suzuki program has a higher level of parent involvement, we want to make sure that parents and students have a thorough idea of what the program entails. There is no need for parents to have musical experience themselves. However, the triangle of student, parent and teacher is part of what makes it such a rewarding experience. We can also provide help in renting or purchasing an instrument.

Ashe! Ashe!

The Florida African Dance Festival in Tallahassee Celebrates 21 Years June 7-9

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Photo taken during a class at the 2017 Florida African Dance Festival.

“Ashe,” pronounced ah-SHAY, similar to “sashay,” and also spelled “ase,” is the Yoruba word for a West African spiritual concept of the life-force energy. Everything has ashe. Everything has the power to transmit and communicate ashe—and two very powerful forms of working with ashe are drumming and dance.

Thus, the Florida African Dance Festival, held in Tallahassee every June and hosted by African Caribbean Dance Theatre, positively rattles the walls with ashe as drummers and dancers from around the world gather to learn and teach traditional African rhythms, dances and cultural heritage. The festival runs next weekend, June 7-9, at Florida A&M University Developmental Research School.

You can find out everything you want to know about taking drum and dance classes, being a vendor, attending the Saturday night performance or contacting FADF on their website, fadf.org.

congolese drummers

Last year we attended FADF and saw this finale performance of Congolese dance-drummers. Suffice it to say they alone are worth a round trip to Tallahassee.

In 2017, we packed our bags and trekked to Tally for the three-day event, overestimating our endurance and registering for three hours of class on Friday and Saturday. We had five options for classes that Friday and chose Makaya Kayos’s morning Congolese class first. Makaya is the middle drummer in the photo above with the red band under his knee. He’s probably 5’7” and appears to be able to jump that high as well before tucking into a front somersault. After the first half hour, when all of us students were pouring sweat, thighs hammering from non-stop deep squats up and down a basketball court in a college gym, Makaya and the drummers gave us a much-needed rest and boost of hype with a mini-performance that concluded with the aforementioned jump-into-forward-roll move. The students erupted into hollers and applause, buoyed by the energy (Makaya has a LOT of ashe), and we finished the rest of the class in exuberant spirits and spurting sweat.

Following Congolese class, we took Ismael Kouyate’s Guinean class. Ismael returns this year to teach his Guinean class Friday morning and Saturday afternoon, and we can tell you first-hand that his class, like Makaya’s, is outstanding. If you go this year, make sure you take it.

Marie Basse Wiles

Marie Basse Wiles and Senegalese percussionists perform at the 2017 FADF Concert.

On Saturday morning, we lined up for Marie Basse Wiles’s Senegalese/Sabar class, and we’re not ashamed to report that we were in way over our heads. About ten minutes into class—so, right after the warm-up—we chose to make the class a “growth opportunity.” Grow we did by artful application of humility—and a few Band-aids to our “beginner’s feet.” Marie brought an intricate Senegalese wedding dance for the festival, and we happened to be in class with several professional African dancers who were simply stunning. For us, even when the dances are more advanced than our training, just being on the floor with the drummers and witnessing the elegance and athleticism of the advanced dancers makes us appreciate the legacy and technique of African dance.

We have to mention that among these dancers were a few members of Tampa’s Kuumba Dancers and Drummers including USF’s Dr. Kya Connor, who performed in the Saturday night concert, and founders Natalie and Myron Jackson. Kumbaa Dancers and Drummers usually represent the Tampa Bay area at the festival, and we are super lucky to have them in town keeping the traditional African dances and rhythms alive. They also hold an open community African dance class every Tuesday night. If you’re interested, check their website for information on the when/where/fees.

Funky Drummer

Fifteen-year-old Patel Conservatory student Meghan Lock: “learning drums is my life.”

HIGH RES Drummer Meg Portrait by Rob-Harris 9878

Photo: Rob/Harris Productions, Inc.

Meghan Lock’s formal musical life began like most, with piano lessons at the bright, young age of five years old. But, when her parents realized she was spending more minutes in time out for not practicing than minutes she was playing, they took a different route.

“I was always rhythmic,” says Meghan, “and always beating on my stomach or anything else that I could get to make a beat. So, my parents offered up drum lessons. I had my first lesson when I was 10 years old, and I never looked back.”

Two years later, Meghan met the musical form that would blow her mind: jazz. “When I had my first interaction with jazz … it was like everything made sense. I love jazz,” she says.

In 2017, Meghan threw her drumsticks in the ring for the Hits Like a Girl (HLAG) all-female drumming competition. She walked away the Week Three champion in the under 18 category for her performance of “Manteca,” the Afro-Cuban Dizzy Gillespie standard.

“Before this competition, my drumfluences were all male and the typical drummers you would hear from any jazz drummer … Art Blakey, Ari Hoenig, Max Roach, Chris “Daddy” Dave and Tony Royster, Jr. However, through the HLAG competition, I was exposed to so many talented female drummers from all over the world—it was truly inspiring,” Meghan says. “Now, I look to drummers like Helen de la Rosa, Terry Lyne Carrington and Sheila E. for drumspiration. More locally, I am insanely influenced by Mark Feinman of La Lucha. I totally stalk this band at an almost unhealthy level.”

Meghan joined Patel Conservatory music in 2016 when she landed spots in the jazz improvisation and jazz intensive programs. Studying with jazz teaching artist Matt Weihmuller, Meghan found her home at The Straz. “My first show with the Patel Jazz Combo was the Holiday Market sponsored by the Gasparilla Music Festival and the Junior League of Tampa in November 2016,” she says. “I enjoyed my time with Mr. Matt and never stopped [taking lessons and performing].” Meghan is a regular in the Jazz Combo class on Tuesday evenings at the conservatory as well as an as-needed drummer for Matt Weihmuller’s Saturday jazz improv class.

“I’ve always loved music,” Meghan says. “When I was a baby, my grandma used to carry me around singing everything from opera to country. I have no idea what I’d be focusing on if it wasn’t for drums. Learning drums is my life. Having the opportunity to work with Mr. Matt has definitely made me a better drummer. The relationships and experiences I’ve made with the Patel Jazz Combo are immeasurable … I’ve met so many great and talented people, musicians and otherwise, through the conservatory. I’m so grateful to have found this place.”

HIGH RES Drummer Meg Cover 2 by Rob-Harris 9842

Megan in action. (Photo: Rob/Harris Productions, Inc.)

Meet Meghan

Education: Homeschooled. “I love it. It gives me the flexibility to do what I do with jazz drumming.”

Animal friend: Harvey, a Lhasapoo. “He’s like my brother … we fight like brother and sister, anyway.”

Interests outside jazz: Reading, gaming and longboarding. “I’ve read the Harry Potter and The Unwanted series five times each. I could spend an entire day playing Resident Evil or Minecraft if I ever had the time. My mom and dad have longboards, and we all go to Clearwater Beach and cruise around with a pit stop for ice cream.”

Favorite Patel Conservatory gig: Godspell. “I was asked to play drums for the production—hands down on of my favorite gigs! I had such a great time, the cast was amazing and I learned so much about myself.”

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Megan performing for the Patel Conservatory’s production of Godspell. (Photo: Soho Images)

If you have an interest, curiosity, proclivity or any such thing for the performing arts, chances are we have a class, camp or workshop just for you. Our arts education program ranges from pre-K to adult, so anyone wishing to explore or train in music, dance or theater has a home at the Patel Conservatory. Visit patelconservatory.org for a list of upcoming arts education programs.

 

Lady with the Million Dollar Smile

Diamond Teeth Mary sparkles as part of the Straz Center’s Rock the Riverwalk local musicians’ hall of fame.

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Photo from the Florida Library Archives.

We’ve had a lot of legends grace the stages at The Straz. Around Tampa, we’ve been blessed with our own backyard musical demigods, many of whom people don’t realize grew up, lived or died right here in the Cigar City.

When it came time for us to plan something cool to commemorate our local artists for the Straz Center’s 30th anniversary season this year, we looked to our in-house musical legend Maggie Council di Pietra to help us compile a sample of some of the Tampa area’s famous and infamous musical lights.

Mary 1

Photo from the Florida Library Archives.

Among these, we find the inimitable “Diamond Teeth” Mary, Mary Smith (half-sister to blues legend Bessie Smith), who found her way to Bradenton in 1960 after several successful years as a circus acrobat and, later, as a performer in the famous Rabbit Foot Minstrels. The story goes that she stole a diamond bracelet from her abusive stepmother, disguised herself as a boy and jumped a train in Huntington, West Va. to run off and join the circus. The diamonds, which she initially sold off one by one to pay her way in life eventually made it into her teeth when she was a singer. As Mary tells it, she ended up selling the diamonds to pay for medical bills, right before she was rediscovered by a folklorist and immortalized by the Smithsonian.

“Mary was incredible,” says Dr. Blues, who worked with Mary to produce her album Walking Mary’s Blues. “She performed with Duke Ellington and Billie Holiday at the Cotton Club in Cincinnati in 1954. She was a big deal. She had a great sense of humor and was always telling stories, though I never heard one about stealing the diamond bracelet from an abusive stepmother. She did sell them to pay for medical bills, though.” When Dr. Blues met Mary, she was substituting aluminum foil and Polygrip for her shiny smile, but some blues friends chipped in and got her diamond teeth back for her last tours. “I think it was cubic zerconia, but still,” says Dr. Blues, “the ‘diamonds’ were back eventually.”

Mary 2

Photo from the Florida Library Archives.

Mary Smith died in 2000, a beloved member of the Tampa area blues community. Below, you’ll find a reprint of the memorial Straz Center grant writer and local legend Maggie di Pietra (who consulted for the Rock the Riverwalk exhibit) published in the St. Petersburg Times.

To see the rest of the people highlighted in the Rock the Riverwalk free exhibit, visit the Straz Center and cruise by the grassy knoll between the river and Morsani Hall.

Riverwalk collage

 

Diamond Teeth Mary
Remembering the ‘Queen of Blues’
________________________________________
by Maggie Council di Pietra
The original article appeard in the St. Petersburg Times April 28, 2000. Copyright © 2000 St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.
________________________________________

One thing is for certain, people in this area will never forget Diamond Teeth Mary.

We in the Tampa Bay area were lucky to share Diamond Teeth Mary’s last years.

When she died at 97 earlier this month, the memories flooded in.

Folks remembered her birthday parties at Skipper’s Smokehouse in Tampa, which drew crowds of blues enthusiasts, players and performers. Or her appearances at the Silver King Tavern in St. Petersburg.

Mary once sat in at the Silver King with showman James Peterson during a late-night set. She sang so well that Peterson, with a new battery pack on his electric guitar rig, went down on Central Avenue, lay down and stuck his feet in the air while he played, still able to hear Mary from inside.

Where blues rang out in Tampa Bay, Diamond Teeth Mary wasn’t far away.

Now, a party has been planned to celebrate Diamond Teeth Mary’s life and spirit. She pretty much planned it herself.

Harmonica growler Rock Bottom, a close friend of Mary’s for 20 years, explained that “Mary didn’t want a funeral but she wanted a party. She outlined the whole deal, down to the red beans and rice and stuff.”

Mary wanted it held at Skipper’s, and she wanted people who knew her to get together and play. Not like a series of band showcases. More like how it used to be, playing on someone’s porch.

“There’s no structure,” says Bottom. “That would be the music biz, and this is a memorial for Mary, and never the twain shall meet.”

The music industry was never kind to Diamond Teeth Mary, but she managed to perform and make a living for 85 years without its help.

Mary Smith McClain started her performing career when Billie Holiday was in diapers and Robert Johnson was a toddler. But her Cinderella story of running away from home in 1915 at age 13 to escape an evil stepmother had no prince charming; it was Mary’s own skills as an acrobat and singer that enabled her to survive.

By the time Muddy Waters and B.B. King were born, Mary Smith had years under her belt as a dancer and acrobat for the traveling minstrel/medicine shows across the Chitlin’ Circuit and had started to sing. Medicine shows, which were popular roughly from the end of the Civil War to the 1950s, were traveling troupes featuring free entertainment interjected with pitches for ointments and tonics — the same format adopted later by television, which played a huge role in the medicine shows’ loss of popularity by creating stars that many people could see at once.

Mary’s talent for drawing a crowd earned her a place with the best of the shows. She traveled in troupes like Irwin C. Miller’s Brown Skin Models, the Davis S. Bell Medicine Show and for 11 years as part of the infamous Rabbit Foot Minstrels.

Mary was commonly promoted as “Queen of the Blues” on the same bill with luminaries such as Nat King Cole, Sarah Vaughan, Cab Calloway, Fats Waller, Count Basie and Ray Charles.

Life on the road for black performers wasn’t exactly limousines and room service in those days. Often the troupes had to travel miles out of their way just to find a place where they could eat or sleep, only to be relegated to the back yard.

One of Mary’s contemporaries was Bessie Smith, who was a big sister figure for Mary until her death in 1937 in an automobile accident. In an interview in the early 1990s, Mary remembered seeing Bessie lying on a stretcher on the hospital floor. She lay there so long, Mary said, that her blood clotted on the floor. Although Bessie Smith was a huge star, a black woman in a hospital couldn’t expect to get immediate attention.

Along the way, Mary became known as Diamond Teeth Mary for the diamonds she lodged in her teeth. Mary knew how to play an audience as well as tell a story, and the survivalist persona she had crafted was well-honed.

Why the diamonds? Some said they were an on-the-road hiding place for diamonds from a bracelet her mother had given her. In other stories, the diamonds were from a necklace she stole from her abusive stepmother. In another interview, Mary said, “All the singers were doing stuff like that [then], with gold in the 1940s. I did diamonds, just to have something to make me stick out.”

During some of the leanest years, the diamonds were replaced for a while with tinfoil. In a recent interview, Mary’s caretaker said that Mary’s mother had come down with cancer, so Mary had her teeth pulled and pawned the diamonds to pay for her mother’s care. Later in Mary’s life, some Tampa Bay friends helped her have new diamonds installed.

Diamond Teeth Mary was booked at the old Palms Club on U.S. 301 in Bradenton when she decided to retire there in 1960.

It was the end of one era for Mary, but the beginning of another. She married Clifford McClain, her second husband and followed him to church. Mary moved her genre of focus from the blues to gospel music, which she claimed she had never sung before 1964. Mary became a star at church, singing Precious Lord and Amazing Grace, while falling into relative obscurity as interest waned in the blues.

In the late 1970s, when the blues was enjoying a resurgence of interest, Mary was “discovered” by folklorists who invited her to perform at the Florida Folk Festival. Her performance there brought down the house and earned her an invitation to a performance at the White House in 1980.

Why didn’t Diamond Teeth Mary record when all her contemporaries seemed to be doing it? She somehow evaded the recording studio in favor of live performances for decades. Some said it was her temperament; Mary liked to work things on her own terms and burned her share of bridges along the way.

University of South Florida anthropologist Maria Vesperi received an NEA grant in 1982 to archive some of Diamond Teeth Mary’s performances and stories on video. Vesperi offers another view: “Mary was a country person. She had the opportunities, she was sought after, but she didn’t want it — didn’t want the city life that went with being a recording star at that time, to have to live in an urban area. She liked being on the road.”

Vesperi tells how Mary’s occasional outward prickliness was explained to her one time by Johnny Morgan, who owned the Stuffed Pepper on Central Avenue in St. Petersburg, one of the few blues venues around the bay area in the early 1980s. “It’s a survival strategy — it’s a defense. Johnny said he would have to look her in the eye and say, “Mary, you got paid.’ At her age, she never knew when her next gig would come up, and she took every gig for all its worth.”

Mary liked the attention she got from singing in church. “She’d been kicked out of several churches by the time I met her,” says Vesperi. “She was a genuinely spiritual woman, and it meant a lot for her to have a church. I believe it was a tough time for her, that the other church ladies didn’t like her singing in bars.”

But Mary thought of it as a mission. Who needed to hear God’s word more than those sorry souls hanging at bars? And Mary would work a little church into her blues — for free. Others who knew Mary also cite her struggle with a personal, internal conflict between religion and blues.

The 18 hours of video funded by Vesperi’s grant have never been edited. The reels were shot by nationally known cinematographer Nick Petrick, digitized last year for protection and archived at USF. Vesperi is seeking funding for post-production work.

The juke joints and dance halls Mary had played for black customers in earlier decades gave way to international audiences at festival stages, blues bars and even Carnegie Hall.

Mary never had any children, so there were no close kin around during her later years. It seems the blues community in Tampa Bay was her adopted family.

In 1996, local blues luminaries put on an all-star jam/concert to raise money for Mary, whose apartment had been damaged in a fire. Acoustic blues guitarist Roy Bookbinder helped Mary get a working telephone, and Rock Bottom and his friend St. Petey Twigg took Mary — wheelchair and all — on tours of Europe.

Traveling with Mary was an experience for Rock Bottom. “The first time she went [with St. Petey Twigg] to Sweden and Norway, she left all her Norwegian money, which was a considerable amount, in the trash in her hotel room. When presented with the money, and asked if perhaps she’d forgotten it, Mary angrily replied, “Don’t give me that gumbo money. You’re not gonna fool me. I want dollars!’ Mary was paid in U.S. dollars for the remainder of her tour.”

Locally-based blues diva Sandy Atkinson met Mary late in her life. About six years ago, Atkinson had just moved to the Tampa Bay area and was thinking maybe she was too old to pursue a lifelong dream of a career singing the blues. Then she saw Diamond Teeth Mary perform one night at the Ringside in St. Petersburg, and it gave her the chills. “Here I was, 40 years old off to see the wizard and there was this incredible woman onstage. She was just bouncing all over that wheelchair, and I had to go up and shake her hand.”

Atkinson wrote a song and recorded it on her latest CD called She Rocked, a tribute to Mary and how she influenced others with her tremendous energy and distinctive style.

Secret of the Resonating Chambers

Opera Tampa Singer Vanessa Rodriguez reveals the four parts of the body to “place” the voice. Plus, she shows how to hit those high notes with no microphone.

“It’s the Tweety Bird end of the spectrum,” says Vanessa Rodriguez. We’d asked her to explain what she meant when she told us she was a coloratura soprano. “We sing all the notes, all the notes, people don’t want to sing—high notes, fancy runs, we do it all.”

Born in Queens, New York, Rodriguez studied voice at the University of South Florida in Tampa, eventually finding her way to small roles in big operas and building her career. She started as an ambassador with Opera Tampa Singers in 2013, and this season she appears as Barbarina in The Marriage of Figaro and as Angelina in Gilbert & Sullivan’s Trial by Jury this summer. She’ll also take on the role of Green Alien/Blonda in Opera Orlando’s Star Trek-interpretation of Mozart’s comedy, The Abduction from the Seraglio.

We have a powerhouse opera season launching this weekend with Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, followed by Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro in March and culminating in Verdi’s Macbeth in April.

We aren’t opera singers here at Caught in the Act, so we sat down with Rodriguez and asked her to give us a crash course in singing, starting with the basics: posture, breathing and placement. Here’s her tutorial, complete with glorious “head” placement and a demonstration of “nasal” singing that made us want to burst into Ethel Merman impressions.

Enjoy!

String Theory

The mandolin and violin share some interesting intersections.

From the cave paintings at Three Brothers Cave in France came evidence of the proto-proto-mandolin, a crude lute-like instrument with one string. Or perhaps this cave drawing, which depicts a hunting bow converted to a musical instrument, represents the great-great-great-great-great-great-grandmother of what we know as the violin.

MusicalBow

An Obu man playing a musical bow in Nigeria, circa 1909-1913.

These two seemingly different instruments share the same tuning – G, D, A, E – so a violin player could switch to mandolin and crank out the same Bach sonatas. Likewise, a mandolin player could heft a violin under her chin and spool out “Rickett’s Reel,” transmuting said instrument from violin to fiddle.

As humans traveled, pillaged and collided culturally, their instruments ended up in new hands to be played around new fires with new types of fermented beverages. Thus, common roots stem from Middle Eastern instruments influencing European instrument makers, as both the mandolin and violin chart back to Arabic origins. (The mandolin traces to the “oud” and the violin to the “rabab.”)

oud-rebab collage

An oud (left) and a rabab (right).

The two share a notable historic turn in Italy albeit 100 years apart. In the 1500s in northern Italy, an instrument evolved from the design of the viola di braccio, and an instrument maker named Andrea Amati of Cremora landed on record as the first known creator of the modern violin in 1555. The oldest surviving violin dates to 1560 and belongs to Amati. The most well-known Italian violin maker, Antonio Stradivari, apprenticed with Amati’s grandson. Stradivari set the standard for the violin in the late 1600s and early 1700s, at the time when the Latin mandora, part of the lute family, entered the stream of Italian life.

The Italians invented a smaller version of the mandora, called it the mandolina, and by the 1800s, the mandolin enjoyed a happy, abundant life in Italian music. During the great immigration of the late 1800s to America, Italians packed their mandolins and introduced this delightful little instrument to the New World.

gibson mandolin family

The Gibson Mandolin Family at the National Music Museum in Vermillion, South Dakota.

In 1898, an American luthier named Orville Gibson won a patent for an arch-top design on the traditional bowl-backed Italian mandolin. The American mandolin was born. Gibson instruments became a household name. Gibson’s iconic mandolin design continues to symbolize American folk music to this day.

The roads converged for the violin and mandolin in the United States, where the Italians had created a great mandolin fever in the 1900s. Violins in the guise of fiddles partnered with mandolins, banjos, guitars and upright basses to codify a particular type of Americana music that exploded in the 1930s once commercial radio became a fact of life. Bill Monroe, a mandolin virtuoso, created a new style of finger picking based on the frenetic fiddle techniques of Uncle Pen Vandiver. Monroe added “blue” notes and phrasing from a bluesman mentor named Arnold Schultz, named his band The Blue Grass Boys, and invented bluegrass music.

Several generations later, another mandolin virtuoso who creates celestial interpretations of violin music on his mandolin, Chris Thile, borrowed from Monroe’s tradition of lightning-fast finger picking with his breakout band, Nickle Creek. Now the inheritor of Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion, which he is refashioning to exhibit outstanding, burgeoning musical talent, Thile stands as possibly the greatest mandolin player in the world.

From humble and possibly apocryphal beginnings on a cave wall in France to stages here at The Straz, the convergence of the mandolin and the fiddle presents an intriguing intertwining of the lives of two fascinating instruments that found a common home in bluegrass bands – not a bad twist of fate for our four-noted friends.

 

We have an exceptional selection of great string-fueled performances this fall. For our other exciting musical acts, visit strazcenter.org.

Colter Wall – Fri., Nov. 17

Lindsey Stirling’s Warmer in the Winter Tour – Fri., Nov. 24

Ben Haggard – Fri., Dec. 15

The Grahams – Mon., Dec. 18