New Beginnings Part 1: Glenn Miller and “A String Of Pearls”

This has been an eventful week but one that has gone better than I could have ever expected. Regular visitors to this place know I’ve spent most of this year trying to do the best I can for my mum, who lives with dementia. Tough in itself, but after a recent bad fall she was admitted to hospital, and although now recovered physically, it was deemed she wouldn’t be able to go back home without 24-hour support. I’ve had a fair few rants here over the last year, never about my mum, as she has done nothing wrong, but about the lack of resources out there to help families cope. (You are probably all bored of this story now, but I promise that after this post I will draw a line under the topic and get back to simply writing about my musical memories, which was what this blog was always supposed to be about.)

My mum as a young woman

Turns out that the care of our old folk is moving wholeheartedly to the private sector, and if you are lucky enough to have the funds to pay for it, you will be well looked after. If you don’t have the eye-watering amounts of cash required it’s a bit of a lottery, which really saddens me. Our NHS is “crumbling under the strain of an aging population” they say, but here’s the thing, the aging population shouldn’t be made to feel guilty about having defied the odds and lived a long life.

Anyway, the upshot is that a very swish new private care home opened this summer in our town, and was the only place with a readily available room for my mum. It’s like a 5 star hotel inside with a menu and decoration to match, but now that she’s moved in, I realise it’s the perfect place for her. After 8 weeks in hospital I think she’d forgotten all about her own little retirement flat, as in hospital time has no meaning, and it probably felt more like 8 months. So, after a bit of basic packing of clothes and belongings, we made the momentous journey across town, and so far so good. She is being treated like a queen, the food is lovely and there are plenty of people to do things with. There is an inhouse hair salon (which is so important to ladies of a certain age) and ‘activities’ every day. If you have dementia, non-dementia sufferers sometimes lose patience with your inability to carry out a cohesive conversation. In the care home, most of the residents have dementia, so no-one is going to get frustrated with you the same way they do in civvy street.

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The girls of the ATS (my mum is the tall one on the right)

Talking of civvy street, I’m going to carry on with the analogy, as I realise my mum was born to live a regimented life with set meal-times and a tight schedule of tasks and activities. I remember her talking about life in the ATS as a girl (must have been a junior version), and of the wonderful times they spent at camp. No luxuries back then of course, but all the camaraderie of being with people just like yourself. I’m starting to think the most difficult part of her life has been the years spent living on her own after the death of my dad. She moved to the Highlands to be near us, but of course you leave your friends behind, and life in a retirement flat can be a sad and lonely business. She was a great walker, and walked a fair distance into town and back every day, but I’m starting to think that was probably just to have something to do. To make more of the day go away.

Early days still, and I do have the worry at the back of my mind she might be “evicted” if her funds ever run out, but we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it. For someone who worked up until retirement age from the time she left school however (bar a 3-year break to have me), and lived a simple life, it’s just what she deserves. She is a very sociable lady and unlike many more free-spirited old folk, was born to abide by ‘the rules’ and take part in whatever is thrown her way, so I’m hopeful it will all work out. I still feel uneasy about the fact such care should be for all, but sadly that’s a massive issue which will continue to challenge our governments for some time to come.

As for the music clip, this weekend we commemorate the 100th anniversary of Armistice Day which signified the end of the First World War. I’m therefore going to choose something from the vast back catalogue of war-time favourites. My mum is off to a tea party this afternoon where they will no doubt be treated to such music. There is nothing good about war and so many young men on both sides lost their lives, but when times are tough, the sound of a big band always raised spirits and morale. During the Second World War, Glenn Miller and His Orchestra was a firm favourite with the troops (and is a firm favourite with myself), so it’s going to be something from him. Here is A String of Pearls from 1942.

No lyrics around here today, as for the first time ever, simply a piece of music and not a song. I found the string of pearls my mum received as a present from my dad when they were ‘courting’ yesterday. Not sure if such things can be taken into the care home yet (I suspect not), so in the meantime I will take good care of them.

Back to music blogging again for me now. A big change for all of us around here and a new-found freedom for me. Thanks for listening to my woes over the months – It’s been cathartic.

Glenn Miller, Carly Simon and “Moonlight Serenade”

Since discovering that all full moons have a name (given to them by the Native Americans who kept track of the months by the lunar calendar), I have written about each one as they appear in our skies. To accompany the post I always include one of the numerous songs that have been written about the moon and its many foibles.

Well I don’t know about you, but it seems ages since I’ve seen a bright moon, as it doesn’t get dark up here in the North of Scotland until way after my bedtime at this time of year. By hook or by crook however I intend to catch the one that should grace our skies later on this week, on Thursday night. This full moon is called the Strawberry Moon, because for the Algonquin tribes of North America, June was the month the wild berries started to ripen and could be harvested.

Different for us nowadays when we can buy soft fruit all year round, but as a child I lived in a house with a massive garden (tended by my dad and I) and in one corner was a large strawberry patch, which meant “pudding” for around two months of the summer was berries and ice-cream. It all got a bit boring, and no longer a treat at all, although once we acquired our new refrigerator complete with tiny ice-making compartment, at least we could keep a small supply of Walls vanilla in block form, which saved me being sent to the shop every evening just ahead of “tea-time”. (We were definitely tea rather than dinner people).

But I digress, this “moon song” was always going to feature at some point in this series and as reference is made to the month of June in the lyrics, this would seem to be the time. It’s soppy and sentimental but harks back to simpler times when boys stood at the gate waiting for their date to appear, and looked forward to “the touch of their hand in the June night”. Moonlight Serenade is a song that could only have been written by someone living in the northern hemisphere, as being outdoors at night, hanging around garden gates feeling all romantic, has never been an attractive proposition during the cold winter months. The music of course was written by big band leader Glenn Miller with the lyrics coming later from Mitchell Parish, but here we have it being performed by Ms Carly Simon – A beautiful version for this romantic summer month, taken from her 2005 album of the same name,

Moonlight Serenade by The Glenn Miller Orchestra:

The reason I am so fond of the Glenn Miller “sound”, is that back in the days when my dad and I were busy tending that large garden with strawberry patches, he and I were also very fond of watching old movies on telly, and if they were musicals, even better. One that we both absolutely loved was The Glenn Miller Story starring Jimmy Stewart and June Allyson. In fact in my head Jimmy Stewart is Glenn Miller because hard sometimes to disassociate the person playing them on the big screen from the real life person whom you’ve seen images of very rarely. I don’t think I’d be giving the game away by saying the film has an incredibly tragic and sad ending (after which I had to retreat to the pre-fridge, sound-proofed “pantry”, to stifle my sobbing), but ahead of that, throughout the hour and fifty minutes of musical action, we are treated to some mighty fine tunes of the swing persuasion: Moonlight Serenade, Tuxedo Junction, Little Brown Jug, In the Mood, A String of Pearls and Pennsylvania 6-5000.

Much of the film was of course a love story which revolved around the courtship between Glenn and his wife-to-be Helen Burger. The song Moonlight Serenade (amongst many others) was written for her, so very apt that the actress who played Helen was called June, as their courtship did seem to play out at garden gates on June nights. Glenn worked hard at finding that unique “sound” he was always looking for, and when he did, he became the world’s best-selling recording artist. In the four years between 1939 and 1943 he scored 23 No. 1 hits – More than Elvis Presley and the Beatles achieved in their respective careers. Sadly, whilst travelling to entertain U.S. troops in France during World War II, his aircraft disappeared in bad weather over the English Channel. Various theories have been put forward as to what happened that night but in the end it was pronounced a death in absentia. Glenn was aged only 40.

So there I was, a pre-teen buying swing albums, which looking back does seem a bit odd, but yet again I think I was ahead of the curve. In 1976 who should appear on the front cover of my monthly copy of Words magazine but The Glenn Miller Orchestra. As well as getting very hot and bothered by the weather, it seems the UK was also experiencing a bit of a nostalgia-fest that year, and Glenn’s music fitted the bill perfectly. A single was released containing a Moonlight Serenade, Little Brown Jug & In The Mood medleyand it reached No. 13 in the UK Singles Chart Suddenly it wasn’t uncool to like this stuff (well maybe just a little bit).

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Glenn, back in the “hit parade” alongside Abba, 32 years after his death

So, “What’s It All About?” – This post seems to have been all about looking back. I’ve enjoyed reminiscing about times spent with my dad, and realise he was probably my best friend until I reached the age of nine. He died 15 years ago but I still miss him every day – I don’t know what he would think of all this blogging malarkey but I suspect he would be quite proud of what I’ve achieved, as that’s just the kind of man he was.

As for the music of Glenn Miller, just like Carly Simon, every now and again an artist records an album of standards and there is a high likelihood that something by Glenn will be in there. Timeless tunes, which I was going to say come from simpler times, but in view of how he died, not simple at all. Different times. At the moment my favourite Glenn Miller tune is this one, I’ve Got a Gal in Kalamazoo – As a great lover of both alphabetisation and unusual sounding place-names, this one really hits the spot. The two dancers here are The Nicholas Brothers who back in the 1930s and ’40s were virtuosos of tap-dancing. I urge you to watch to the end as some incredibly acrobatic stuff here called flash dancing (with of course The Glenn Miller Orchestra playing in the background). Oh, and also remember to look out for that full Strawberry Moon on Thursday night.

Until next time….

Moonlight Serenade Lyrics
(Song by Glenn Miller/Mitchell Parish)

I stand at your gate
and the song that I sing is of moonlight
I stand and I wait
for the touch of your hand in the June night
The roses are sighing a moonlight serenade

The stars are aglow
And tonight how their light sets me dreaming
My love, do you know
That your eyes are like stars brightly beaming?
I bring you, and I sing you a moonlight serenade

Let us stray ’til break of day
In love’s valley of dreams
Just you and I, a summer sky,
A heavenly breeze, kissin’ the trees

So don’t let me wait
Come to me tenderly in the June night
I stand at your gate
And I sing you a song in the moonlight
A love song, my darling, a moonlight serenades

Postscript:

Well it wouldn’t be a “moon post” without a contribution from my friend the amateur photographer. This time however it’s not a picture taken of the last full moon but a picture taken on the night of the Summer Solstice – A waxing gibbous moon back then, a full week shy of this next full moon. Incredible image as ever.

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The Summer Solstice moon: Picture courtesy of R.J.