The Marchingest, Playingest Band in the Land

Florida A&M University’s Marching 100 and the invention of the black marching band style

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Historical photo from the Marching 100 Alumni Band Association.

In 1989, when the French government needed an act to represent American music for their 200th anniversary Bastille Day celebration marking French independence, did they choose Madonna? No. Michael Jackson? No. New Kids on the Block? Quintuple nope.

They chose Florida A&M University’s Marching 100—a university marching band.  Why?

Because there wasn’t anything, anywhere like The 100. Period. “They illustrated the essence of American music,” said the parade’s artistic director, Jean-Paul Goude, in a 1989 interview with The New York Times. And, at the parade, FAMU’s Marching 100 did not disappoint. Instead of a bright, healthy dose of traditional marching band fare, the Marching 100 delivered a non-stop set of James Brown, complete with high-stepping, complicated choreography and the old-school hip-swiveling swagger of the Rattlers’ signature marching style. The Parisians went bonkers.

In this YouTube video capturing the 1989 Good Morning America report on the event, you can see the representative Marching 100 rehearsing, touring the Louvre and even trying to teach their Parisian hosts to moonwalk. The end of the video shows a dress rehearsal of their performance.

The Miami Herald dubbed the Marching 100 “the marchingest, playingest band in the land.” CNN flat out announced them as “the best band in the entire universe.” And while there are scores of superb, unforgettable, unstoppable black marching bands from the rich heritage of American Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), we want to shine a light on the Marching 100 in honor of the upcoming performance of DRUMLine Live, which celebrates the black marching band style we all know and love today—which happened to be invented right here in Florida thanks to FAMU’s legendary band director, Dr. William P. Foster.

I.    Dr. William P. Foster and a (Very Brief, Grossly Oversimplified) History* of the Black Marching Band

Of course, the story traces back to war, slavery and the pervasive fearful attitudes white folks had about black and brown people. By now, we know this theme well, especially as an audience of the performing arts in America, where the record shows that the influence and creative contributions of black people is a real American tale of victory in the face of adverse and often deadly circumstances.

So, the marching band story begins somewhere around 1738, when the Virginia legislature conscripted free people of color for the military; however, whites were scared of an uprising, so PoCs couldn’t have guns. What they could have, though, were instruments. They made a perfect drum and fife corps.

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1st Army Post Band in Souilly, France, 1918. (Photo from BBC’s Music in the Great War: Military Bands)

Trained in the military bands during the War of 1812, black musicians formed several all-black brass bands in some of the same cities that would birth American music: New Orleans, Philly, New York. These post-war military bands evolved to play social functions, too, and entered mainstream life as cotillion bands. As time and wars wore on, the status of the military band elevated, and ex-military band members served their communities in auxiliary bands that played at public events, for volunteer fire departments, at lodges and for holidays.

Brass bands took off like wildfire across the country, and arguably the most fertile ground for black musicians was New Orleans. Under African American leadership, the city formed benevolent societies in the 1880s whose many social events needed music and stellar musicianship. While the black brass band musical identity was taking shape, its rural counterpart, self-taught musicians heavily influenced by spirituals, jubilees and the human voice, began establishing itself throughout the South. These musicians’ “singing horns” mimicked the up-and-down field calls, growling and sliding of the human voice, and their style met the New Orleans style during the musician exodus northward in the early 20th century.

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Band leader Lt. James Reese Europe with the 369th Infantry Regiment aka the Harlem Hellfighters, 1919.

By the time WWI rolled around, the Harlem Hellfighters military band was arguably the best in the world, as it encapsulated what had been happening musically in the black community since the foundling drum and fife corps days.

Take this history and add the fact that, in an effort to create equitable post-Civil-War educational opportunities, the 1890 Land Grant Act helped start 17 black land-grant colleges in the South (and some border states) focusing on agricultural, mechanical and industrial education.

Hence, Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University. Florida A&M University, or, FAMU. Bands played a small role on the campuses although the colleges boasted superior music programs. In time, veterans of the wars and those men who performed in marching bands like the Harlem Hellfighters found themselves in band director positions on the campuses of Tuskeegee University and Alabama A&M.

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Dr. William P. Foster, creator of the world famous FAMU Marching 100 band. (Photo: Victor R. Gaines)

In 1946, FAMU specifically wanted to put itself on the map. To do so, they would need a fine band. Better than Tuskeegee’s. They hired Dr. William P. Foster, a man renowned for his high ethical standards in life and in musicianship, and he took on the struggling FAMU band program. Although the university only had 16 band members and 17 mostly broken instruments, Dr. Foster pulled together a 45-piece marching band for the start of the fall 1946 term. It was the first of fifty-two years that Dr. Foster would serve as FAMU’s director of bands. 1946 marked the start of his “philosophy of life” approach, demanding excellence in musicianship, service, academics and personal achievement.

But 1947. That’s when the magic happened.

II.    Pageantry and Showmanship

In case you don’t know, HBCU football games are about the band. The half-time show is where it’s at and where you’ll see the high-stepping, cymbal-bowing, whistle-tooting razz-ma-tazz artistry of all that is the one-upping showmanship of the black marching band extravaganza.

It started with Dr. Foster’s simple decision to break from the traditional marching mold. In 1947, his second year as FAMU’s director of bands, he had them execute some dance steps to “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” during the half-time show. Nobody had seen a marching band do such a thing. People went nuts; they loved it; the band loved it. Dr. Foster knew he was on to something big, something good. He started innovating, mixing drills, dance, precision and developing signature marching styles (everyone knows FAMU’s “death cadence” or “slow one sequence” that accelerates to 320 steps per minute).

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Historical photos from the Marching 100 Alumni Band Association.

Once Dr. Foster and the FAMU band, coined the Marching 100 though they now exceed 400 members, broke the mold, there was no going back. Other HBCU marching bands took their cues, borrowing here and there from FAMU but eventually finding their own styles and signature moves, which added a different dimension to inter-collegiate competition. Touchdowns were one thing, but half-time shows—which Foster called “pageants” and the name stuck—were the real action on the field.

“The Marching 100 was, and still is, the identity of Florida A&M University,” says Straz Center Chief of Security Dan Mathis, who is a proud FAMU alum. “When people mentioned FAMU, the conversation was always about the band. The games were about the band. When the Florida Classic was still played here in Tampa Stadium, I dreamed as a kid about running out of the tunnel as a football player while the band played. Everyone looked forward to the half-time show. The half-time shows were epic against our in-state rival Bethune-Cookman University–the formations, the dance routines, the tuba section, and the dynamic drum majors.”

His favorite part? “The tubas!,” he laughs.

Dan says watch this video if you want to see some action from the Marching 100 tuba section:

The Straz Center’s marketing manager for the Patel Conservatory education programs, Stephanie Pemberton, was a drum major at Blake High School. Their band director, a FAMU grad and member of the Marching 100, gave her the legendary training that put FAMU on the map. “He originated Blake High School’s Marching Yellow Jackets to model after the Marching 100,” she says. “We did 90-degree high-step entrances and exits from the stadium as well as extensive dance numbers involving all musicians in the band. At this point of my musical career, I had already been playing for 10+ years—but this was a whole new experience in the world of entertaining. Our football team was lousy, but people came to the games to dance in the stands. It was so much fun. Even now, as a 36-year-old woman, I can still hold the ‘flamingo stand’ he made us do. And do. And do.”

III.    FAMU: Getting Personal in the Historical Context

Geri Kelly, who works as the community programs coordinator at the Straz Center’s Patel Conservatory, graduated from FAMU in 1968. “I can remember watching the band on the field at A&M when I was a child,” she says. “The pride and the excitement that the band generates is what convinced me to attend Florida A&M.  Although the academic program in theater was one of the strongest in Historically Black Colleges, I felt a sense of pride just to say I attended FAMU, the home of the Marching 100.  I can remember throughout my adult life, making the effort to be before the TV to see them perform at three Super Bowls, in parades for Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama and on 20/20 as the main guest.”

For Geri, like most HBCU students and alums, the point of the pageant, of the band, goes deeper than the showmanship or the celebrity. “It is about the culture and the history in music that they keep that sense of pride alive in most blacks, whether they attended FAMU or not.  My entire family have a strong sense of pride in the Marching 100, and most did not attend the school.  It is more than that . . . it’s a way of life. It’s our heritage” says Geri.

Black marching band dance, drum, music and precision execution combined with its reimagining of what a marching band could, should and would do grew into an aspect of black culture and identity that is a singular expression of African American sensibilities. Marching bands represent a cultural legacy and are symbols of an indomitable spirit of victory, handed down through the generations since the start of the HBCUs at the end of the Civil War. The evolution of the black marching band is an important thread of the story of blackness in America that is, viewed with a wide-angle lens, an important story in understanding America, too.

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Historical photos from the Marching 100 Alumni Band Association.

Just a reminder that DRUMLine Live will be more fun with friends. Groups of 10 or more get a special discount, so if you’ve got lots of folks who want to go, call our Group Sales Office and get hooked up. 813.222.1016 or 813.222.1047 or email groups@strazcenter.org.

*historical information found in Marching to the Beat of a Different Drum: Performance Traditions of Historically Black College and University Marching Bands, a UNC-Chapel Hill master’s thesis in folklore by William Dukes Lewis.

Nacho Everyday Percussionist

Nacho Arimany’s years working with rhythm showed him how natural harmonic patterns heal the human body and mind.

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At first glance, Nacho Arimany can easily be confused for a European version of holistic healer J.P. Sears in the “Ultra Spiritual” spoofs.

But after a few moments into an interview or demonstration, Arimany reveals himself as the real deal. Here, he explains the cultural component of the recent neuroscientific findings about the effects of movement and rhythm on the brain:

Known around the world as “one of the most sought after Flamenco percussionists, composers and musicians for the brain,” ground-breaking, multi-cultural instrumentalist Arimany has mastered sound-scaping instruments from tiny harps to singing bowls to gourds. His work in bands and studying diverse ethnic communities and their percussion instruments drew Arimany down a rabbit hole of Fibonacci perfection when he began to make the rhythmic connections between mathematical truths like the golden ratio, frequency in the natural world, and the effects of certain resonances on the human body.

Arimany’s work rests on the foundation that 432 hertz (Hz) is the resonance of biological rhythms, termed “sound biology.” Humans exposed to instruments tuning to 432 Hz undergo physiological changes that enhance cellular harmony—bodies and minds literally tune themselves to this frequency (as bodies are chock full of biological rhythms). The result, Arimany explains, can improve fine motor skills, mental health and promote brain function through harmonic resonance. Over time, he created the Arimany Method, a blend of movement and rhythm used as a meditation to create “new architecture in the brain.”

Nacho Arimany, who performs for the first time at The Straz with Flamenco guitarist Pablo Sáinz Villegas, will serve in his traditional role as multi-talented percussionist to Villegas’s famed flying fingers. You’ll see percussion incarnate, and just know, if you start to feel an unfamiliar sense of cosmic resonance, that Arimany may have taken you on the magical 432 carpet ride.

Helping Y’all People Notice

How Music Wrote the Lives of the Men of Hypnotic Brass Ensemble

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Hypnotic Brass Ensemble (aka The Bad Boys of Jazz) are seven brothers from the south side of Chicago.

Ask a member of the seven-piece band Hypnotic Brass Ensemble how they got their name, and you may get a surprise answer.

It started as an acronym for the band’s mission: Helping Young People Notice . . . hypnotic. Notice what, though?

Music. Jazz. Funk. Themselves. The power of young black men channeling the cosmos the way their father taught them.

The band, all sons of famed Chicago jazz musician Phil Cohran (Sun Ra Arkestra, Chaka Khan, The Pharaohs, among others), began their apprenticeships with their dad early in life. Some started as young as four years old, but all had instruments in hand by their sixth birthdays. Cohran, who grounded himself in elevating the arts scene in Chicago and working with community youth, had a sweeping and macro view of humanity’s relationship to music. Cohran wanted to know his place in the cosmos, and he knew music held the answer. He studied all over the world to integrate a sound and teaching technique that connected musicians (and, by extension, their audiences) to the harmonies of the universe.

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Jazz musician Kelan Phil Cohran. The honorific “Kelan,” which means “holy scripture,” was given to him by Chinese Muslims while he was visiting China.

He implemented this view in his teaching, and his sons, masters as they are of Afrobeat, R&B, funk, soul, traditional jazz and hip hop, always weave their music back to the over-picture: that their sometimes strange improv instrumental tangents construct a tone link to the nonstop harmonies emerging from planetary electromagnetic fields. They have, as they say, some harmonies that can only be heard in space.

… Now imagine Jupiter speeded up with a funky James Brown drum and horn section:

Hypnotic Brass Ensemble took to the streets of Chicago early in their career where they grew a grassroots fan base and earned a dope reputation purely by word-of-mouth. In time, “helping young people notice” outgrew their neighborhood radius, and HBE realized they were destined for bigger things. Thus, “helping young people notice” became “helping y’all people notice” as HBE began its interplanetary mission as “superheroes of jazz sent to rescue those in distress—and that is the entire musical community of planet Earth,” as they say in the British documentary about HBE and their work with Fela Kuti’s drummer Tony Allen.

These men, these brothers, these direct descendants of musical spiritual master Phil Cohran and veterans of the mean streets of southside Chicago, do not merely play music. They are made of it. They are acutely aware of the role jazz, hip hop, soul, funk, R&B, rock ‘n’ roll and the intricate musicality of Asia and Africa contribute to their organic make up. This acute awareness transmits through their musical compositions and has the ability to reach into the soul of the listener.

Such is the way of HBE.

Hypnotic Brass Ensemble performs at The Straz this February, and we are thrilled that they will be holding two school outreach workshops, one at Dunbar Elementary and the other to be determined. It is our privilege and mission to give local young people access to artists like HBE and do our part to “help young people notice” the world is large, diverse and full of incredibly cool people and opportunities to connect themselves to the bigger picture.

 

This program is funded in part by a grant from South Arts in partnership with the National Endowment for the Arts and the State of Florida Division of Cultural Affairs.

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Call Me Xalam, Banjar, Strum Strum or Merrywang

The story of America’s instrument

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Xalam, or khalam, is the Wolof name for traditional stringed instruments from West Africa. (Photo: http://www.instrumundo.blogspot.com)

The meek and pluck-twangy sidekick to guitar and fiddle didn’t get its propers before Deliverance ruined an entire generation on banjo music and canoe trips to rural Georgia. The lone ambassador of a spectacular and truly (colonial) American history, the banjo is considered by folk musicologists to be the only original American folk instrument. The guitar and violin already existed in their current forms as did Celtic drums, piano and upright (a.k.a. “double”) bass. But the banjo . . . what’s up with that?

Known to Europeans as a banjar, bangie, banshaw, strum strum or merrywang, the banjo originated in the Gambia region of Senegal and traveled with enslaved Africans to the Caribbean, eventually inching north to the Southern plantations of America when enslaved people built their home instruments from local resources—gourds and animals.

An animal hide stretched over a gourd with three or four gut strings, this instrument, called a xalam in Africa, stayed among the enslaved, buoying their spirits and keeping them musically connected to their homeland and to each other, giving them an outlet for personal expression and propping up their dancing in the absence of traditional drums. (Interesting side note: when slavers took the Africans’ drums away out of fear of rebellion, the enslaved took up a practice called “pattin’ juba,” using their hands and feet for intricate clapping and stamping to hold the polyrhythms.)

Known to be some of the most gifted musicians in the new world, Africans often played for white communities, introducing them to polyrhythmic music and advanced singing techniques. So, the xalam’s American “banjar” form morphed in the 1800s when white folks fell in love with its sound and capabilities. Although “merrywang,” sadly, didn’t catch on as a popular name, it’s easy to see the short linguistic jump from “banjar” or “bangie” to “banjo.”

Thus, the banjo made a rather rickety bridge—but a bridge nonetheless!—across cultures, with this ungainly instrument as an unlikely taproot for diverse American folkways. The Africans trained others in their traditional “down-picking” style, which formed the basis for how to play American banjo. Anglos restructured the gourd design to a wood frame and added metal strings. Somewhere along the line the all-American fifth “drone” string appeared on this frame design with the frame itself shifting from wood to metal. Early historians credited this addition to Joel Sweeny of North Carolina though more recent study casts that claim into doubt, as longtime banjo maker Jim Hartel notes that African designs of xalams or calabash-style African banjos already included a short string similar to the drone. So, we’re not 100% sure how the string appeared, just that it did when the banjo diffused across the race line to be an instrument for everybody. That addition, however, made the contemporary banjo a uniquely American folk instrument—a circular monument to successful cross-pollination of cultural traditions (it’s unfortunate minstrelsy period notwithstanding).

Banjo maker Jim Hartel and Carolina Chocolate Drops frontwoman and ethnomusicologist Rhiannon Giddens give context and history of the minstrel banjo:

With the new sounds emanating from the open-backed, round body and metal strings, what we now recognize as “frailing” or the “claw-hammer” technique mastered by such banjo superstars as Bill Monroe and Earl Scruggs evolved from the down-picking style. Banjo players today pull from both techniques, as evidenced by Newgrass legend Bela Fleck and incredible, Louisiana-based roots-musician Cedric Watson.

All hail the merrywang, a singular sound of our complex and important cultural roots.

The Piano Guy

The Straz Center official piano tuner Kevin Patterson on what it takes to keep the ivories in the pink.

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Our official piano tuner, Kevin Patterson, doing what he does best.

The average home piano needs a tune up about twice a year, but when your livelihood and music critics are on the line, a good concert piano gets its ivories tickled, twisted, polished and pricked before every single performance.

A piano tuner’s life is a good one: flexible hours, nice pay, a cool skill set with a high tool-level. Plus, if you tune pianos for the Straz Center, you occasionally get to rub elbows with some of the greatest pianists working today. At the very least, you’ll be charmed by our ever-entertaining backstage production staff.

Our official piano tuner is Kevin Patterson, and we like him a great deal. So does Rohan De Silva, whom you may know as the Steinway artist who accompanies world-famous violinist Itzhak Perlman. De Silva liked Kevin’s pre-concert work so much that he thanked our humble piano tuner by treating him to lunch.

“It was one of my most memorable experiences at The Straz. I’ve tuned for them twice now, and they also require a technician to check over the piano at intermission. Both times, the audience applauded when I finished the touchup tuning,” Patterson says. So, sometimes there is such a thing as a free lunch, and, later, people at your job will clap for you. Like we said, it’s a good life.

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Piano strings.

The work itself requires an intricate and fascinating procedure that involves more than twisting tuning pegs to set a certain tension on strings. “The piano is an extremely complicated instrument,” Patterson says. “It needs constant maintenance at the professional level. They have thousands of moving parts, about 230 strings amounting to around 15 to 30 tons of pressure, depending on the piano’s length.”

A full grown African bull elephant weighs around 7 tons. So a piano has two to four full grown male elephants of pressure on the strings. That’s a lot of force on a lot of strings, so tuning can be a delicate, somewhat surgical endeavor.

To attain the standard concert pitch of “A440” (that’s the pitch A above middle C at 440 hertz), Kevin uses a tuner app on his phone for the first few notes then does the rest by ear, tuning by intervals then playing arpeggios and scales to double and triple-check his work. “It’s not simple mathematics,” Kevin explains about why he doesn’t use a tuner for all of the notes. “Tuned by machine, a ‘perfect’ treble end of a piano sounds flat to the human ear. So, you have to know what you’re doing to find the right pitch.” In other words, there’s an artistry to capturing the tonal context that requires a human ear to tune for other human ears.

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Kevin hard at work on stage in Morsani Hall.

Kevin has relative perfect pitch so prefers to tune by ear, which is how he was taught as an apprentice and in his formal Steinway training. His wrench, called a “tuning hammer,” works on the individual string while a “mute strip” or “rubber mute” provides the silencing of the surrounding strings so Kevin can work one string at a time. All in, a solid piano tuning takes about one hour.

But getting a concert piano into tip top shape requires more than tuning. There’s also “voicing” the tone, a low-tech technique of pricking the felt hammer with a needle to relax the fiber. This manipulation of the fibers’ pressure morphs a tinny tone into a warm, strong tone. On the flip side, if a tone is too flat, a drop of a lacquer solution on the felt hardens the fibers to produce a brighter sound.

“It can get detailed,” Kevin laughs. “It’s been said that a pianist is never fully satisfied with the piano condition. But, it’s my goal each time to get the piano as close as possible to its peak level of performance.”

Lizzie Borden Took an Acts

Performing arts adaptations of one of America’s most grisly and haunting murder stories

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Portrait of Lizzie Borden, circa 1889.

The facts are simple.

On Aug. 4, 1892, Andrew and Abby Borden were found dead in their Falls River, Mass., home from multiple hatchet wounds. Police found no sign of a struggle, no convincing murder weapon, no bloody clothes on any possible suspect—even the one tried for the murders, Andrew’s younger daughter Lizzie.

Lizzie’s case stood as the 19th century’s version of the O.J. Simpson trial, feeding the public’s imagination and raising countless speculations about motives, what really happened and a friend’s testimony stating she saw Lizzie burning a “paint-stained” dress three days after the murders. Even though the jury acquitted her, Lizzie Borden galvanized into a horror legend guilty of the crime, spending the rest of her life as a social outcast and ghosting into history as an axe-wielding, Victorian psychopath who continues to provide fertile ground for storytellers of all artistic genres.

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Colleen Cherry plays Lizzie Borden in Jobsite Theater’s rock musical production of LIZZIE (photo: Rob/Harris Productions, Inc.).

Lizzie Borden’s legend, staged at The Straz this month by Jobsite Theater as the killer rock musical LIZZIE, features one of the latest stabs at adapting this gruesome, fascinating episode for the stage. LIZZIE features an all-female “riot-grrrl” band with Lizzie and Co. belting out musical metal as they perform a rock concert version of the events from Lizzie’s point of view. LIZZIE runs in the Jaeb Theater from Oct. 12-Nov. 6.

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Left: The Boston Ballet’s 1972 production of Fall River Legend (photo: King Douglas). Right: American Ballet Theatre’s Fall River Legend, 2007 (photo: Lois Greenfield).

But before this current version, ballet choreographer extraordinaire Agnes deMille took a whack at capturing the complex social and emotional subtext surrounding Lizzie’s life. Her dance version, which ends in a guilty verdict, examined Lizzie’s relationship with the local priest, her complicated feelings toward her father and stepmother and the role of the small-town mindset. DeMille’s invention, premiered by American Ballet Theatre to a cinematic score by Morton Gould in 1954, arrived as an instant classic called Fall River Legend. The piece entered the repertory of other major ballet powerhouses including Dance Theatre of Harlem and Paris Opera Ballet.

The boring real-life outcome of Lizzie’s innocent verdict also provided a problem for another adaptation 11 years later when City Opera of New York transcribed the tale to the optimal form for murdering psychopaths: opera. Jack Beeson’s titular opera was conducted by none other than Maestro Anton Coppola, who later became the inaugural artistic director of the Straz Center’s Opera Tampa. In Beeson’s version, the plot centers around Lizzie’s psychological abuse by her father and stepmother, casting Lizzie as a tragic figure with little choice of escape except by removing the forces of unpleasantness. In short, administering the 81 whacks reported in the jump-rope rhyme. (“Lizzie Borden took an axe/Gave her mother 40 whacks/When she saw what she had done/Gave her father 41.”) To be historically accurate, 19 whacks befell Abby, who was her stepmom, with 11 landing upon Mr. Borden, both numbers that make catchy rhyming next to impossible. As usual, the facts disrupt the dramatic potential. However, Beeson’s sharp-edged psychological interpretation was no hatchet job. The critics and audiences loved the opera, and Maestro Coppola was lauded for his command of the challenging score.

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Elizabeth Montgomery as Lizzie Borden in a scene from the made for TV movie The Legend of Lizzie Borden, 1975.

Television and movies revisit the story, mining the details for new ways to cut and wrap film adaptations that keep audiences titillated by Lizzie’s mysterious and misunderstood personality. Goth lovely Christina Ricci killed the role in Lifetime’s TV movie Lizzie Borden Took an Ax, inspiring a Lifetime mini-series about Lizzie’s life after the trial. In a creepy turn of events, Elizabeth Montgomery (Bewitched) portrayed the Fall River spinster in ABC’s 1975 airing of The Legend of Lizzie Borden. Later, a genealogist discovered Montgomery was Borden’s sixth cousin. Talk in Tinseltown today suggests a new feature film is in the works starring Chloe Sevigny (Boys Don’t Cry, Big Love) with the trying-to-get-past-Twilight superstar Kristen Stewart as Lizzie’s maid, Bridget Sullivan.

Although it’s a bloody mess trying to understand why the public remains so morbidly fascinated with the Borden story on stage and screen, this fact remains: Lizzie performs well with acts.

Don’t Bore Us / Get to the Chorus: Songwriting 101

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Carole King, one of the greatest American songwriters of the 20th century, started with a piano melody. As the song took shape, she added layers, eventually adding lyrics — first with her then-husband Gerry Goffin and eventually on her own. Tapestry, her seminal 1971 solo album, remained on the Billboard charts for six years, top in record sales until a little album titled Thriller toppled her reign.

Although many great songwriters came before King and many will follow, there seems to be no set way to write a song. Some writers start with a beat, others a melody, still others hear a hook or obsess over a lyric that arrives unceremoniously while the songwriter takes a shower. The songwriting process seems to be a bit of a zen undertaking: all roads are one road. Writing a hit song, however, is a road much less traveled. Even seasoned songwriters are never sure if their work will produce a hit or miss. Guy Chambers, the current British hit-maker for acts like Bryan Adams and Robbie Williams, averages one hit song for every 47 he pens.

The good news for workaday folks interested in writing their own songs is that a decent song, or even a fantastic song, doesn’t need to be a hit. Inversely, scoring a hit doesn’t mean the song is that great. Perhaps some of the best songwriting happens in bedrooms, in train stations and on the job, performed on porches, neighborhood corners and tiny spaces with makeshift instruments.

In general, humans need to make music, and there are a few basic songwriting tools: knowing the parts of a song, structure, chord progressions, lyrics and melody. If remembering all the basics proves too much, stick with the songwriting standby: “don’t bore us, get to the chorus.”

Generally, songs consist of intro, verses, chorus, bridge and outro. The intro grabs the listener’s attention for the song’s story, which unfolds in the verses. Verses often rhyme (although they don’t have to) and create a rhythmic pattern for the listener. The chorus is — as evidenced by the songwriting standby — arguably the most important part of the song. A chorus should be sing-a-long-able, catchy, memorable and convey the main message of the song. Often, the great karaoke fails occur because we think we know a song, but we actually only remember the chorus — that’s how powerful it is. The bridge provides the song’s contrast and the outro leads the listener to a sense of closure, perhaps with subtle melodic changes or repetition.

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With intro and outro as bookends, a writer can toy with the structure of the verses, chorus and bridge — or if there is even a need for a chorus or bridge (“Amazing Grace” has neither, and it has done all right as a song even though no one knows much past the first verse.) The chord progressions inspire a “feel” for the song that contributes to the melody, which carries the lyrics. Understanding simple structures helps new or blocked songwriters get their ideas moving. But remember: much like the Pirate’s Code, these aren’t rules, really, more like guidelines. Many songs include a pre-chorus, a short lead-in to the chorus like in “My Girl” when they sing “I guess you’d say … ” or in Katy Perry’s hit “Firework,” when she sings “You just gotta ignite/the light/and let/it shine … ” Songs may also contain refrains, variations on verses, choruses and melodies, providing, somewhere, a “hook,” or the catchiest part of the song (often the chorus or somewhere in the chorus — Adele’s “hello from the other side” in her crazy big hit “Hello.”)

Happy writing. For inspiration, check out the handy Songwriting 101 chart above or get to know some of the latest greatest singer-songwriters showcased in our Club Jaeb series.