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One year — 1961, to be specific — in the life of the Blumenau family of Stamford, Connecticut, as jointly interpreted by William H. Blumenau (calendar entries) and Charles A. Berry (text):

American history and practical math
You’re studying hard, hoping to pass

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January 23-24.

Cruising and playing the radio
With no particular place to go

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January 27.

She just don’t have the appetite
For gas somehow,
And Dad, I got four carburetors
Hooked up on it now.
I tried to hook another
To see if I’d do a little good,
But ain’t no place to put it
‘Less I perforate the hood

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February 2.

If she’s in the mood no need to break it
I got the chance and I oughta take it
If she can dance we can make it
C’mon, Queenie, let’s shake it

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February 11.

Well I looked at my watch, it was 10:05
Man, I didn’t know if I was dead or alive

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February 23.

Don’t care to hear ’em play the tango
I’m in no mood to dig a mambo

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February 25.

I go to court tomorrow morning
And I got the same judge I had before
Lord, I know he won’t have no mercy on me
‘Cause he told me not to come back no more

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April 7.

Sweet little sixteen
She’s just got to have
About half a million
Framed autographs
Her wallet filled with pictures
She gets ’em one by one

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April 9.

Nothin’ outrun my V-8 Ford

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May 1. (The new car in question really *was* a V-8 Ford, if memory serves.)

In the heat of the day down in Mobile, Alabama
Workin’ on the railroad with a steel-drivin’ hammer

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August 10.

Ring! ring! goes the bell

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September 6.

I must admit they had a rockin’ band
Man, they was blowin’ like a hurr-i-can

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September 21.

All day long you’ve been wantin’ to dance

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September 27.

Roll over, Beethoven
And tell Tchaikovsky the news

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October 2.

The engine with blood was sweaty and damp
And brilliantly lit with a brimstone lamp
And imps for fuel was shoveling bones
While the furnace rang with a thousand groans

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October 31.

I was campaign shoutin’ like a Southern diplomat
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November 7.

Gee but the teacher don’t know how mean she looks
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December 5.

It’s got a backbeat, you can’t lose it
Any old time you use it
It’s gotta be rock ‘n’ roll music
If you wanna dance with me
If you wanna dance with me.

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December 30.

Thanks for everything, Chuck.

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One of the most popular and enduring pop songs of the Seventies is now old enough to look in the mirror and sigh at its encroaching gray hairs.

This month marks 40 years since the Four Seasons — Sixties hitmakers in the midst of a surprising Seventies resurgence — released the single most people know by its subtitle: “December 1963 (Oh, What A Night).”

According to the song’s Wiki page, it was originally set in 1933 and was meant to recall the end of Prohibition.

But various parties involved with the song, including Frankie Valli, urged songwriters Bob Gaudio and Judy Parker to reconsider the lyric. And, instead of a meditation on the narrator’s first legal bender, the song turned into a warm recollection of a first romantic encounter.

(In 2015, the narrator is probably old enough to watch Viagra commercials more intently than he watches the football games that surround them.)

“December 1963” would hit Number One on the singles charts in the U.S., the U.K. and Canada early in 1976. And — buoyed by remixes, covers, party and wedding spins, and general nostalgia — it’s remained popular since.

I’m not the world’s biggest fan of the song, me. (No, this guy might hold that title.)

But, as a person who admires pop-music productions the way some people admire Renoirs, I have to concede that Frankie Valli and company built themselves quite a single.

This is also one of a group of pop hits (“Silly Love Songs” is another) that I can remember hearing on the radio in my parents’ big Plymouth Satellite during long holiday road trips to Stamford. So it has a pleasant childhood connection.

For Hope Street purposes, “December 1963” nicely spans the time period of my grandfather’s calendars: The ones still in storage start in January 1961 and end in December 1975, when the song came out.

I thought I’d look back at the calendar for December 1963 — or at least the portion of it I took pictures of — and see what the Blumenau family of Stamford, Connecticut, was up to during that fateful month.

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Of course there’s nothing intimate or personal on the calendar that month. Just the usual errands — plumber’s appointments, trips to the dentist, appointments to babysit, times to unload unwanted household trash.

(I’ve never heard “junkie” as slang for “junkman” before. But it’s consistent with other New England slang I learned during my years near Boston — “statie” for state cop, “packie” for package store, “Eastie” and “Southie” for East and South Boston respectively. Nowadays, I’d like to think someone would recycle that water tank, but who knows.)

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Of course there is a Christmas tree — an angular streamlined jobbie of the sort Charlie Brown might have seen on his famous errand two years later, yet not high-end enough to satisfy my aunt.

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And then there’s this potpourri of seasonal action. A son comes home from college and sees the dentist; a materfamilias goes to the doctor; the daughter of the family makes a few bucks overseeing someone else’s brats on a Saturday night; the sun goes down pisser early on the shortest day of the year; and the weather is by turns cold and winter-sloppy.

(I am reminded that I have written before about that Dec. 21, 1963, calendar entry. Three years later, the pain of that week’s news from the other end of Fairfield County is still fresh … and we, as a country, have not moved perceptibly forward. My grandfather would shake his head in frustration, and so do I.)

The rest of December 1963 I didn’t bother to take pictures of, which suggests there was nothing of interest on the calendar. Just everyday action even more mundane than that I captured.

Wiki’s page for December 1963 suggests the month was generally quiet in terms of news items, as well. A few births that became noteworthy later (Brad Pitt, Donna Tartt, Sergey Bubka, Lars Ulrich) and the first Beatles singles in the U.S., but nothing that would have really stirred people at the time — especially compared to the events of the prior month.

So, while the narrator of the Four Seasons’ single might have had a memorable month, December 1963 was not otherwise noteworthy for most actual non-fictional Americans.

The Sixties would go on to get a whole lot more eventful … but that’s another story.

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We return to my grandpa’s journal of job-related facts and random trivia for another nugget.

I always enjoy finding some topic or trivia fact of my grandfather’s that interests me too.

The factoid about stacked Life magazines from my last post wasn’t really one of those; I don’t have a personal relationship with Life magazine.

I do have a personal relationship with music. I play it sometimes. I listen to it a lot. I like learning about the technical details of making it, and about the lightning flashes of creativity that also make it happen.

My grandpa was in the same place. So I imagine the tidbit at the heart of this post grabbed his brain in much the same way it grabbed mine, and inspired some of the same thoughts and questions:

aabovemiddlec

Non-musical readers might wonder what the big deal is about the A note above middle C (as in, the middle of the piano keyboard). To them, it might seem like just one among the 88 notes on a standard piano.

That particular note has a special importance to musicians and those who build and tune instruments.

A at the frequency of 440 hertz has been endorsed (though not universally adopted — more on that later) as an international pitch standard for the tuning of instruments. It’s such a significant note, in fact, that it has its own Wikipedia entry.

Hundreds of years ago, there was no single tuning pitch, and the intonation of instruments could significantly vary even within the same city. The use of tuning forks did not help, as they were not all standardized at first.

There was also pressure over time to shift pitch upward. This favors stringed instruments (they sound “brighter” and more appealing at higher pitch) but challenges vocalists, who have to push to hit the notes.

Finally, movements arose in the 19th and 20th centuries to set a single consistent tuning pitch, known as “concert pitch.”

(The three preceding paragraphs are condensed from another Wiki entry on concert pitch, which fascinated me, and I think would have fascinated my grandfather if he’d had the chance to read it.)

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This all might seem arcane; and indeed, it is possible to enjoy music without thinking much about concert pitch.

Rock bands, especially those without keyboard players, have long been known to tune to non-standard pitches, principally for the comfort of their singers.

My dad, the saxophonist-slash-engineer, points out that variations in concert pitch are more serious business to people who play wind instruments. A clarinetist in an orchestra that changes from 440 Hz to 442 might have to have his or her instrument altered, and a larger change might require the purchase of a new clarinet.

My dad adds: “Somehow a “sharper” sound is preferred by some folks.  If you get used to a sharper tuning, old tunings (like the baroque tunings which I suspect almost anyone can detect as significantly “flatter”) sound somehow more lugubrious and ponderous.”

So variation in concert pitch might be most noticeable to classical musicians who need to adjust to differing standards … and to classical fans who buy two recordings of their favorite piece by different orchestras, play them back-to-back, and notice a curious difference in pace and intonation.

To some classical listeners, concert pitch is more than a trivial interest: It can be a yardstick of whether a reissued recording is faithful to the original performance.

Check out this Stereophile magazine review from earlier this year, in which the reviewer retracts his earlier endorsement of a Cleveland Orchestra recording because the reissue is mastered to 445 Hz instead of 440 — rendering the recording faster and sharper than the real-life performance.

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If you’re still reading, you’re probably wondering whether you can hear any difference in standard pitches. Let’s find out, shall we?

Here’s an A above middle C at 440 Hz …

… at 432 Hz …

… at 442 Hz …

… and at 415 Hz.

If you have trouble hearing the difference — or just want to have some fun — try running two of the pitches at the same time. You should hear audible “beats” between the two pitches.

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I’m not sure my grandpa knew the full, convoluted history of concert pitch.

If he had, he might not have been so struck by the Metropolitan Opera’s adoption of 442 Hz as a “new standard,” because he would have known that 440 Hz was by no means universal.

Although 440 Hz was endorsed as a U.S. standard in the late ’30s and an international standard in 1955, some major orchestras here and abroad continued to use concert pitches as high as 443 Hz — and still do.

Other sources argue for the use of 432 Hz, claiming it is more soothing and attuned to the spheres. (This post is long enough already so I’m not going any deeper into that, but you can Google it if you want.)

And those who play period instruments have adopted different concert pitches for different uses, which go as low as 415 Hz and as high as 470. (The low end of this range is the “baroque” tuning mentioned by my dad a couple hundred words ago.)

In August 1971, Time magazine — my grandpa’s former employer, and one of his favorite news sources — reported on the disagreement in an article titled “The Pitch Game.” I can’t read the whole thing without subscribing, but I’m sure it fascinated him, and I’m sure it reminded him of the nugget he’d written down in his notebook eight years earlier.

My dad suggests my grandpa took notice of the whole subject not because it affected his listening habits, but for other reasons:

I think he was generally interested in what he considered significant changes to standards in the world.  I think a pitch change might have been in the same ballpark as leaving the gold standard, replacing the voting machine, changing the size or makeup of a baseball, making a penny out of steel instead of copper (1943), these sorts of things.

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 I found this subject interesting as well, 980 words ago.

But now I feel like cleaning out my brain with a little 4′ 33″. That doesn’t require adherence to any particular concert pitch.

Wonder if my grandpa ever heard of John Cage?

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A little thematic music … but whatever you do, don’t dance.

To steal a phrase from the Mennonites, I consider myself to have been in the Eighties, but not of the Eighties.

Growing up in that decade, I spent most of it wanting to be somewhere else. Most of my cultural choices in my pre-teen and teenage years (long hair, Grand Funk Railroad, Led Zeppelin, Joni Mitchell, Saturday Night Fever and Midnight Cowboy, to name a few) evinced a desire to escape.

I couldn’t avoid the popular culture of my youth, though.

For instance, I was still listening to Top 40 radio (the late, unlamented WMJQ-92 in Rochester) when the movie Footloose hit big in 1984, dragging a whole raft of hit songs along with it.

The movie told the unlikely but apparently true story of an Oklahoma town that banned dancing, with Kevin Bacon (not yet a pop-culture in-joke) starring as the big-city drop-in who broke the elders’ grip on their children’s hips.

Sounds dopey now — and indeed, I think it was kinda dopey then — but it made its mark on People Of A Certain Age, even those who wished they were somewhere else.

I had to think of Footloose, and all the related Eighties baggage, when I saw this week’s calendar entry:

March 4, 1961.

March 4, 1961.

I dunno what was going on in the red print — something about birthday cards, gifts and Time magazine.

Instead, I concentrated on the black print, which says something about my dad the teenage musician having a gig (“Job”) but stipulating that the gig involved “no dancing.”

I found that curious for reasons having nothing to do with Kevin Bacon.

Stamford and its environs are not particularly fundamentalist, and certainly not the sort of places to prevent people from shaking their tail feathers.

Inevitably, I had to wonder: Where was this gig, and why did the musicians hired in advance know that people wouldn’t be dancing?

And what did it matter to my dad? Did his preparations for the gig somehow change, based on whether or not people would be cutting the rug? Did he have to adjust his musical phrasing to be as corny and square as possible, to discourage any would-be jivers from taking the floor?

I asked my dad, and not surprisingly, he was unable to recall this specific gig at almost 55 years’ distance. Nor did he recall why Terpsichore was not a welcome guest.

He did come up with one interesting suggestion based on the calendar entry. In those days, he sometimes brought musical “fake books” to gigs, to help him navigate unexpected and unfamiliar tunes. If he knew in advance there was not going to be any dancing, that might have been a cue to bring a different book.

In his words:

Pretty mundane, but at the very last “no dancing” would indicate a different repertoire, and therefore would probably be a clue to bring different music.

 I did occasionally play with folks I didn’t play with regularly, and brought a cardboard fold-away music stand (looked like one of those big band stands when assembled) from which I read.  Other times it was probably more a security blanket, but yeh, I brought it.

Funny how much you keep in your head at that age.  Nowadays when I write a gig on the calendar I write the time, who’s on the gig, the place, the dress, sometimes the pay (that’s usually in a contract I have in my filing system).  Can’t believe how cavalier I was about gigs then!

(Apparently, around this time, a Midwestern office of the FBI noted that “practically every professional musician in the country owns a copy of one of these fake music books.” The cultural history of the fake book would be a fascinating blog post … but, alas, this ain’t the one.)

So, who knows what the story was?

Perhaps there is some person in Stamford who recalls going to hear music but not being able to dance to it. Perhaps they were even the Dance Police, responsible for dragging rump-shakers off the floor and administering suitable punishment.

Like Footloose, it’s a long-ago memory now.

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Something a little different this week …

My grandma wanted my grandpa to buy a car, according to family lore.

Instead, he went out and spent $100 — in 1941 money — to buy a machine that not only played 78-rpm records, but recorded them, as well.

(This was distant early warning of two Blumenau family predilections that continue to this day: making homegrown music, and preserving a record of absolutely everything.)

The finest musicians in New York City couldn’t make recordings in those days. But enthusiastic amateur Bill Blumenau could sit in his parlor in nearby Stamford, Connecticut, and record as many popular tunes as he wanted — or, at least, as many as his budget for blank discs would allow.

These recordings survived the decades by jumping from format to format, always a half-step ahead of obsolescence. They were dubbed from the original 78-rpm discs onto reel-to-reel tape, probably in the late ’50s or early ’60s.

Later down the road — I’m guessing ’80s sometime — my dad copied the reel-to-reel tape onto cassette. And just a few weeks ago, he copied the recordings from cassette into digital format.

(The songs never made it into quadraphonic sound, or onto 8-tracks. Ah, well, you can’t have everything.)

Once he’d converted them, my dad sent me five .m4a sound files of my grandpa playing the hits of the day on his upright piano, when he was 10 years younger than I am now.

As soon as I’d given the recordings a listen — and some noise reduction — I began to think about doing something creative with them.

I could have overdubbed myself playing along with my grandpa, Natalie Cole-style. But that didn’t seem interesting or satisfying to me.

Then it hit me:

I’ve been taking my grandpa’s raw material (his calendar entries) and turning it into something new and different (blog posts) for a while now.

Why not do something similar with his snippets of music?

This week, I am proud to unveil the results … The Original Soundtrack to Hope Street, if you will.

Hope's Treat

Cover photo by Bill Blumenau, circa 1958.

A nine-track EP, Hope’s Treat, featuring my manipulations of my grandpa’s piano playing, is available as a free Bandcamp download.

Using audio software, I’ve rearranged, rethought and reimagined his 70-year-old piano solos into something different. Not necessarily better — that’s an eye-of-the-beholder judgment — but different.

The results are a little weird, yes, and not conventionally tuneful. Still, most of the tracks run only about a minute long, and the whole shebang runs maybe 12 minutes. So it’s a quick listen — you don’t have to devote an hour of your life to it.

(Unless you like it, of course. In which case, feel free to download it, play it repeatedly, tweet about it, post it on Facebook, and write it on the back of your jean jacket. You can even dub it back to cassette or reel-to-reel, if you can figure out how.)

Here’s a sample:

Hope’s Treat is probably cooler in concept than execution. For one thing, getting 70-year-old static out of a sound recording is like getting 70-year-old wine out of a wedding dress. And when you start looping, slicing and altering that 70-year-old static, it doesn’t always go along nicely.

No matter: This was still worth doing.

And I’d like to think I did it in the same spirit my grandpa had when he turned on his new machine for the first time, flexed his fingers, and started playing.

Just to recap: Hope’s Treat is available as a free download here. If you like either the music or the concept behind it, consider posting a link to this blog entry on whatever platform you usually use to hold forth. It ain’t fine art, but I kinda like it.

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