Tell Your Story

This is a web site for anyone who has a story to tell about a musician-no matter what genre-who had to cross some kind of difficult boundary, whether that boundary was race, religion, culture, family, friend or self, to get to where he or she felt compelled to go musically. The story can be about you, someone you know, or an historical figure.

I would like this page to be a place which inspires everyone-not just musicians-to find the courage they need to pursue what may seem to be a risky or even dangerous path.

Feel free to tell your story on this page or to link to wherever that story can be found.

Thank you Silvia Hartmann for the painting of Lightning Woman

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

II. Paul Wittgenstein: Five FIngers Do the Work of Ten

Paul Wittgenstein (brother of philosopher Ludwig), was a pianist who lost his right arm in World War I. He evolved a method of playing with one hand, which he detailed in a publication called "The School for the Left Hand." You can find exercises and transcriptions from that here:, Paul)

He went on to have a 40-year career performing and teaching. People who saw him perform could not believe he had only one hand.

Here are a few sites that detail his story:

And read about a number of one-handed pianists here:

Finally, here's live footage of Wittgenstein playing Ravel's Concerto for Left Hand in 1933:

Thanks to George Mokray for turning me on to this story. George writes on ecology and other things. Do a search, you'll find a lot of interesting stuff.

Monday, April 7, 2014

I. The Amazing Creation of Strange Fruit

I will start things off with a short version of the story surrounding the creation of the song "Strange Fruit," one of the most powerful songs in the American musical canon and one which would not have been created if several people had not had the courage to cross over boundaries.

The context of the story is late 1930's New York City, a center of intense musical activity, much of which was segregated by race. Mixed bands were not unheard of, but nightclub audiences were essentially segregated. 

In 1938, a man named Barney Josephson created the first self-avowedly integrated nightclub in New York and ironically called it "Cafe Society." Tagline: "The wrong place for the right people."

A interesting group of people gathered around Cafe Society, including white and black intellectuals, political activists, artists and musicians. One of the musicians Josephson hired was Billie Holiday. One of the patrons of the club was Abel Meeropol, a high school teacher, poet, composer involved in leftist politics. Meeropol wrote a poem called "Bitter Fruit" for a NYC Teachers Union periodical. He then wrote a song using the lyrics and changed the title to "Strange Fruit." 
Abel Meeropol (Lewis Allan)
The song was performed a couple of times in a political context, at rallies, but the subject-lynching in the South-was far beyond the scope of what popular music lyrics dealt with (although blues and country music sometimes dealt with more realistic situations). 

Club owner Josephson wanted Billie Holiday to sing Strange Fruit and she resisted. To sing this song would be risky for any popular performer. Her record producer at Columbia, John Hammond, hated the song and would not allow her to record it for Columbia Records. 

To help Holiday make the decision to sing the song, Josephson said he would create a special environment for its performance: Holiday would close her set with it; the waiters would stop all service; the room would be in darkness except for a spotlight on Holiday's face and there would be no encore. Also, another Cafe Society denizen, Milt Gabler, who'd started Commodore records, named after his record store, Commodore Records, said that he'd record the song.
And so, Billie Holiday sang it, recorded it with Frankie Newton and other musicians from Cafe Society and, amazingly enough, it sold hundreds of thousands of copies and became the song that was probably most closely associated with her.

All the people involved in bringing Strange Fruit onto the American stage took some risk: Abel Meeropol, as a white man, espousing the cause of racial justice by overtly alluding to America's shameful behavior; Barney Josephson, by creating an integrated space and not abiding racist customers and Gabler, in extending himself financially to record the song.

However, it was Billie Holiday who had the most at stake. As a black singer associating herself with such a controversial subject, she was subject to several levels of potential recrimination: owners who wouldn't hire her, negative audience reaction, the possibility of the authorities withholding her cabaret card. Her whole career, in other words, might have been in jeopardy.  Holliday had much to lose, but she took the leap. We are all that much richer for the courage that she and the others showed.

Strange Fruit

Southern trees bear a strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black body swinging in the Southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.
Pastoral scene of the gallant South,
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth,
Scent of magnolia sweet and fresh,
And the sudden smell of burning flesh!

Here is a fruit for the crows to pluck,
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck,
For the sun to rot, for a tree to drop,
Here is a strange and bitter crop.

For those not acquainted with the history of lynching in America, there's a article here that can shed light on it.