Pineapple Poll Dances in Seattle

Pineapple Poll Dances in Seattle

IMG_20150727_0001In 1951, Charles Mackerras arranged a few dozen melodies from the Gilbert and Sullivan operettas to form the score of a ballet called “Pineapple Poll.” As an ardent Savoyard (viz., Gilbert and Sullivan lover), I have worn out many an LP recording of that score and play it frequently on CD, lamenting all the while that it has never been released as a video.

Well, it turns out that I have been wrong for many years! Back in 2004, the Seattle Gilbert & Sullivan Society worked together with the Spectrum Dance Theater and performed the work as part of the Society’s season. Based on a Gilbert Bab Ballad, it tells the tale of Pineapple Poll and other lovers on and around HMS Hot Cross Bun.

51cA8aL8TuL._AA160_The score is an absolute delight. Music from all but the first and the last two of the Savoy works is represented. There is also a passage from Sullivan’s “Overture Da Ballo” and the Rataplan song from “Cox and Box”to throw off the scent any expert trying to name the origin of each melody. There are also two numbers from “Ruddigore” that had been dropped in the current recordings of that work at the time “Pineapple Poll” was created  (“The battle’s roar is over” and the original start of the Act II finale, “Having been a wicked baronet a week). This Seattle production charmingly adds a short introduction and an entr’acte not in the original score.

Now and then the lyrics sung in the operetta to the melody being played actually have reference to the situation in the ballet, and that only adds to the fun. It does indeed help to have Gilbert and Sullivan memorized now and then!

Filmed before an audience, who seems to be having a wonderful time, the production uses, perforce, a scaled-down orchestra (the original score calls for 60 players) and a scaled-down corps de ballet. Who cares? The cast is having such fun that quantity has nothing to do with it.

web pineapple poll (2)There are one or two aspects of the choreography created by Donald Byrd that strike me as a bit silly (like rolling on the ground with legs twitching in the air); but the plot is pretty silly to begin with, so what matter? I do like the camera showing the full stage when it is filled with movement, saving close-ups for solos or pas de deux. The running time is 54 minutes and there is not a dull moment in them.

A copy can be ordered through the Society’s website, www.pattersong.org.

downloadNote: The ballet can also be seen in a vintage black-and-white television version on a now out of print ICA Classics DVD, along with “The Lady and the Fool.” The Seattle disc is in color, the ICA in black and white from a 1959 telecast. However, the latter is choreographed by John Cranko and must be seen, if only for the interesting contrast in interpretations between the two troupes.

Some of Opera’s Little Inside Jokes

61Fkw5KeniL._AA160_Some of Opera’s Little Inside Jokes

The things we miss that a first-night audience caught immediately! I have always suspected an inside gag when Polonius tells Hamlet that he once played Brutus. Could it be that he really did? By which I mean, did the same actor who played Brutus in “Julius Caesar” possibly play Polonius in “Hamlet,” which seems to have been written soon after?

51vXsWzszeL._AA160_In the final scene (before the epilogue) of “Don Giovanni,” the Don has an on-stage ensemble playing tunes from three popular operas of Mozart’s time, the last of which is the “Non piu andrai” from “Le Nozze di Figaro.” The servant Leporello complains “I’ve had too much of that one!” While most current audiences spot the joke of Mozart using his own tune from his last opera, the really funny point is lost to them. The singer playing Leporello was indeed the very one who sang Figaro and therefore might very well be tired of that song.

Another self-reference comes in the third act of “La Belle Helene,” when Agamemnon, Menelaus and Calchus are decrying the lack of morals in Greece (=Paris). When they mention how even the quality of the music has decayed, the orchestra strikes up a slightly disguised version of a tune from Offenbach’s own “Orphee aux enfers” to underscore their complaint.

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This video has some bad cuts but it does have Vincent Price!

But of all the comic operas, the one that might need the most footnotes for our enjoyment of the work today is Gilbert & Sullivan’s “Ruddigore.” Based on an earlier play written for private performance, “Ruddigore, or The Witch’s Curse” tells the tale of Robin Oakapple, a village youth, who is in reality Sir Ruthven (pronounced Rivven) Murgatroyd. Thinking Ruthven dead, the younger brother, Sir Despard, has inherited the family curse, put upon them long ago by a witch, which obliges him to commit one crime a day or die in horrible agony at the hands of the pictures of all of his ancestors who step out of their frames to accomplish this. Er, yes, that is Gilbert having a lot of fun with the Gothic plot that even by his day had been greatly outdated, plots that in the 1960s were revived in all those Vincent Price films. (Note: Price himself plays Sir Despard in the BBC version of “Ruddigore” and is a non-singing delight.)

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All but the most patriotic British vampires would fear this

One of the production numbers in the Act I finale is a salute to the four seasons that is followed by a lovely dance, a combination which might become your favorite choral piece from all of the “Savoy” operas. Later in Act II, there is a funny bit in which Robin, now a wicked baronet, threatens a young maiden and her sailor fiance but is thwarted when the sailor holds aloft a Union Jack, before which Robin cringes. There is only audio recording of this work with all the dialogue (Ohio Light Opera on the Albany label) and I hold it among my favorites, mainly because it is so seldom done.

So witness my amazement when a baritone I once knew asked us to see him in a production of an obscure opera called “The Vampyre” in an English translation at some church in mid-Manhattan. Composed at the height of the German Romantic period, this opera tells the tale of a Vampyre named–hold on–Ruthven and…!

Suddenly the Union Jack sight gag made sense to me. What is the obvious feature of a Union Jack? A cross! Anathema to any good vampire and how the original “Ruddigore” audience must have laughed since “The Vampyre” was probably well known to many of them. No, I have no record of performances of this work in Gilbert’s day, but it is obvious that he was familiar with it and one can assume so was his audience.

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Sorcerer + incantation + teacup = spoof of “Der Freischutz”

But wait. In Act II of the German work, some characters step forward and sing a song celebrating the seasons. Of course, here it is a drinking song, something that Gilbert uses only in “The Sorcerer” (in which case the drink is tea) and in “The Grand Duke” (in which it is only a recollection of some Pommery 74 at a past affair). For those of you familiar with the “Ruddigore” lyrics, here is a prose translation of the first verse from “The Vampyre”: “In winter, one must drink; the blood of the grape warms us and thereby wine tastes so good.” In “Ruddigore” we have: “In the spring-time seed is sown/In the winter grass is mown/In the autumn you may reap/Winter is the time for sleep.” A different point of view but still too much for coincidence, I must say.

Yet another joking reference is in the “Incantation” scene from “The Sorcerer,” in which the music and offstage chorus is very similar to that in the Von Weber opera “Der Freischutz” in which the magic bullets are cast. It is only the situation that make the Gilbert scene funny, while Sullivan’s music is magnificently serious.

Now this is but one slightly extended example of how digging into the background of a work can enhance our appreciation of that work enormously. Can you imagine how that would do for a complex work like Wagner’s Ring Cycle? Worth a short series of essays, perhaps? We shall see.

Sullivan’s “Ivanhoe” Poses Some Questions

 

IMG_20150601_0001_NEWSullivan’s “Ivanhoe” Poses Some Questions

  Being a Gilbert and Sullivan addict, I am equally interested in Sullivan without Gilbert—and especially in Sullivan’s only completed grand opera, “Ivanhoe.” At last, an acceptable complete recording is available on three Chandos CDs with David Lloyd-Jones conducting soloists and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales.

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Richard D’Oyly Carte, who took a chance on Sullivan without Gilbert

Opinion on this opera is varied. There is Sullivan’s own diary entry that “a cobbler should stick to his last” as a starting point. He dreamed all his life of creating an English school of opera, but he was too successful in light opera to take the chance. As the legend goes, Queen Victoria herself suggested upon knighting Sullivan that he turn to more serious endeavors. Sullivan and Gilbert’s producer Richard D’Oyly Carte offered to erect a lavish opera house for whatever work Sullivan chose. Gilbert was given first refusal as librettist, and Sullivan settled for a not very good libretto by one Julian Sturgis.

Many characters in the novel are missing; but the libretto pretty much follows the original in a highly abridged but adequate form.

The booklet accompanying the CDs gives an excellent account of the rest of the background and a good analysis of the positive aspects of the score. It does not dwell upon the negative comments of the critics in 1891, many of which can be found on the Gilbert & Sullivan Archive website.

I found much of the chorus work exciting if not quite original, one or two sequences straight out of “Lohengrin” and “Tannhauser” both dramatically and musically, and most of the arias for the female leads quite beautiful but not quite memorable. Perhaps Sullivan lacked the inspiration Gilbert’s lyrics might have given him. Who can guess?

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Toby Spence

The cast is a strong one, most singing with good enunciation (final consonants hit squarely); but the enclosed libretto is still needed. Among the vocalists are Toby Spence (Ivanhoe), James Rutherford (Brian), Janice Watson (Rowena), and Geraldine McGreevy (Rebecca).

The running time is 165 minutes, and each CD side holds a complete act.

Note: One of Richard D’Oyly Carte’s rare miscalculations was to build an opera house for “Ivanhoe” and then find its run far too short to balance the books. The results can be found in any biography of Sullivan.

Sullivan Without Gilbert Still Has His Charm in “The Beauty Stone”

 

A-OP-Berauty StoneSullivan Without Gilbert Still Has His Charm in “The Beauty Stone”

It is ironic that Sullivan–who made it quite clear to Gilbert and their producer D’Oyly Carte that he would not tolerate another plot that depended on a magic elixir, potion or lozenge–would choose “The Beauty Stone” as his next-to-last complete work for the stage.

The libretto is about the Devil offering a Beauty Stone to whoever would apply it to their person to bring back their youthful good looks or to change from plainness into perfect beauty. This might have worked had Gilbert written the lyrics and dialogue. But the authors were Arthur Wing Pinero and Joseph William Comyns Carr, neither of whom ever before wrote for the musical stage.

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Arthur Wing Pinero

To complicate matters even more, each man saw the work in a different light–opera, operetta, music drama—each of which called for a different musical approach. And worse yet, neither author was willing to make any of the changes that Sullivan suggested. However, given the stilted medieval-like lines and the almost complete lack of humor, there was little Sullivan could have done to save the day. As it turned out, the production closed after only 50 performances and has seldom been revived.

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Arthur Sullivan

But now we can hear the work in more or less complete form on a Chandos set of two CDs, with Roy MacDonald conducting the BBC National Orchestra of Wales. The excellent program notes give a full history of the work and a deep analysis of Sullivan’s score, which the writer deems one of his best. Still, one familiar with his works with Gilbert had best put them out of mind and judge “The Beauty Stone” on its own merits.

The only line that made me laugh is when a contest entrant declares how beautiful her small foot is and the chorus asks that who cares “That she wears a smaller shoe/ Than some other maidens do?” and comments about another that it was a long time ago that she fell in love with herself. The lyrics should have a lot more of that sort of thing.

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Alan Opie

The cast includes the not very Mephistophelean Devil (Alan Opie), the handicapped Laine (Elin Manshan Thomas), who outshines all her rivals at the beauty contest because of the stone,  Laine’s father Simon the weaver (Stephen Gadd), her mother (Catherine Wyn-Rogers), and the nobleman Guntran (David Stout).

G&S lovers and students of the musical theatre will find this set a must. Play it first following the libretto, and from then on for the music alone.

Ruddigore

“Ruddigore” is Performed with Cuts Restored

A-SGS-Ruddigore               When “Ruddygore” premiered in 1887, it suffered from being a let down from the fabulous “Mikado” that appeared before it and from spoofing a genre of melodrama that had fallen out of favor years before. So Gilbert and Sullivan made several cuts and respelled the title to “Ruddigore.” When revived by the D’Oyly Carte Company in 1920, even more cuts were made and the overture was changed.

The BBC version stars two non-singing male leads and makes even more cuts. But now the excellent Seattle Gilbert and Sullivan Society, an amateur group with pretty professional productions, has on DVD a “Ruddigore” from 2011 that not only is a great performance but has the most complete score to date on video,.

Drawing from an opera by August Marschner, “Der Vampyr,” and mostly from Gilbert’s own earlier work, “Ages Ago,” the plot concerns a family curse in which each Lord of Ruddigore must commit a crime a day or “in torture he shall die.” I will not dwell upon the scenario (it is easily gotten from several websites). It is the Seattle production I wish to dwell upon.

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Original program. Note the spelling.

The voices are more than adequate for Sullivan’s score. On the other hand, some of Gilbert’s dialogue jokes could be delivered with a bit more speed. Petite Jenny Shotwell makes a properly gold-digging Rose Maybud, John Brooks successfully changes from timid Robin Oakapple  to reluctant dastard Ruthven, and Derek Sellers as Dick Dauntless nicely shows how his “heart’s dictates” always seem to work in his favor.

Note: The vampire in the Marschner work is named Ruthven.

Highlights are the double chorus to welcome the “bucks and blades,” the salute to the 4 seasons and of course the fastest patter song of them all.

Dave Ross is a short but villainous Sir Despard (although he could never pass for Ruthven’s younger brother). The priceless contralto Alyce Rogers comes into her own when as Dame Hannah she confronts Ruthven with dagger and sword; while Hollis Heron is properly loony as Mad Margaret. William Darkow makes an impressive ghostly Roderic, and Ron Gangnes’ (Old Adam) basso nicely supports the ensembles.

Many comic touches, not overdone, are created by Director Christine Goff; and Conductor Bernard Kwiram makes the most of the score. I wonder, however, why he does not use the original overture. See this company’s website at www.pattersong.org for information about ordering this and other DVDs in their catalogue. A warning though. The troupe sometimes plays fast and loose with Gilbert’s lyrics. Anachronistic ad libs are not funny and Gilbert does not need help. This “Ruddigore,” however, is free from that nonsense.

The running time is close to 150 minutes and one does miss subtitles!

Gilbert & Sullivan, Greatest Hits

More Gilbert and Sullivan from Vintage Television

A-VAI-G and S Greatest Hits

VAI DVDs clearly demonstrate that Gilbert and Sullivan were not entirely neglected by American television in the 1950s by issuing the complete broadcasts of abridged performances of “The Mikado” (with Groucho Marx) and “The Yeomen of the Guard” (with Alfred Drake). The former includes 12 minutes of Martyn Green as Sir Joseph Porter in selections from “HMS Pinafore.”

I was taken by surprise by the arrival of yet another VAI disc, titled “Gilbert & Sullivan, Greatest Hits.” It includes four selections from the earlier “Yeomen” and three from “The Mikado” sets, as well as the Martyn Green “Pinafore” excerpts. So much for mild duplication.

There is also a delightful “Gilbert and Sullivan Medley” in which Martyn Green and Cyril Richard share fairly complete versions of six songs from four of the G&S works as they change hats and wigs.

But what makes this set a treasure are the opening and closing sequences taken from “The Ford Show” in which…

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Mr. Ford, an unlikely casting bet for Ko-Ko

Well, let me start again. Thimble Theatre versions of “The Mikado” are given from a 1959 telecast and “HMS Pinafore” from a 1960 telecast. Running a breathless 25 minutes each, both are hosted and narrated by—okay, let me say it, Tennessee Ernie Ford! And not only that, he sings the comic leads in both!

As for his narratives, who else would describe a tenor being “as happy as a woodpecker in a furniture store” when he meets his soprano? I leave all the other folksy examples to those who purchase this DVD. As for his singing, he did start as a classically trained baritone before he turned to another style of singing. In fact, most of the singing of the other roles is quite good, and Ford manages to keep up nicely.

As for his acting, his Ko-Ko lacks character but his Sir Joseph Porter is quite good, especially when he sings a refrain in that stuffed-shirt upper-class British accent that works so well in farce. In fact, Ford is far better than Green, who seems to sleepwalk through his “Pinafore” songs.

I only wish VAI had come up with a better title. The one chosen has been attached to at least two CDs to my knowledge and possibly to a DVD. And not all the songs heard here could be counted among Gilbert and Sullivan’s “greatest” hits. But the contents are such a pleasure, why quibble with the title?

Mikado

Groucho as Ko-Ko is a Thing to Behold!A-VAI-Mikado TV

What to say about a telecast of “The Mikado” from 1960 that is now available on a DVD from VAI? It is part of the old Bell Telephone Hour series and crammed into 50 minutes, once commercials are taken out, and two of the lead singers cannot sing Sullivan’s music. Why bother, since it amounts to a series of selections, only five of which are complete?

Groucho Marx as Ko-Ko is the reason for why this disc will be immensely popular—and indeed why I purchased it for my collection. Fulfilling a lifelong ambition, Groucho put his heart, soul, and what little represented his singing voice into the role—and the results are strange.

His “singing” pays little heed to pitch, rhythm, or what the orchestra is playing; and when push comes to shove, he hits a low note of indeterminate value. But of course, that is the point of giving him the role. As with Hyacinth Bucket, a bad voice can be endearing (in Groucho’s case) or very funny (in Patricia Routlege’s case). The strange thing is that his dialogue scenes are simply not funny. Now and then, he breaks into a Charleston or plays with a fan. But for the most part, he seems not sure what to do and gives a straight performance where one expects hilarity.

The other non-singer is English Music Hall veteran Stanley Holloway, who finds his basso role of Pooh-Bah beyond his vocal abilities. Tenor Robert Rounseville (Nanki- Poo) and soprano Barbara Meister (Yum-Yum) make a good pair of lovers, while veteran operetta star Dennis King makes a colorful and full-voiced Mikado.

Another reason to buy this disc is Helen Traubel as the ugly Katisha. Her contralto is a wonder to be heard and she is given her full solo in Act II. Her great scene in Act I is cut entirely, so her “Alone and yet alive” is doubly welcome. The character of Pish-Tush is omitted entirely and his explanatory song “Our Great Mikado” is spoke-sung by Pooh-Bah.

This production was originally telecast in color; but that kinescope has been lost and a black and white one is substituted. But a bonus on this disc is a 12-minute sequence from another Bell Telephone Hour in which Martyn Green appears in highlights from “HMS Pinafore”—and that is in color. Why Green is costumed as a visitor to the Ascot races rather than the “Ruler of the Queen’s Nahvee” is beyond me.

Yeomen of the Guard

A-VAI-YeomenAn Early Telecast of “Yeomen of the Guard” is Preserved on DVD

One of the better releases in the VAI DVD series of vintage television productions of musicals is Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Yeomen of the Guard.” It is the team’s work that is closest to opera, it does not involve topsy-turvy situations, and the characters are fairly believable.

Part of the Max Liebman Presents series, this 1957 “Yeomen” was allowed 80 minutes of running time, the rest dedicated to commercials and station breaks, and therefore is by no means complete.  (The missing commercials can be seen as an extra.) But it does keep quite a bit of the dialogue and score (a full performance would run a bit over two hours) and serves as a good introduction to the complete work.

A caveat at this point. The original telecast was in color; only a black and white copy was found. Also, the picture is a bit more wobbly than are other VAI discs in this series. But there is no other (as far as I can tell) decent video of “Yeomen” available to us, so this one is a valuable addition to the history of television and to G&S productions. (The one from BBC is simply bad.)

A synopsis of the plot would take up too much space here; but I want to comment that the so-called Happy Ending is quite different from those in the other G&S plays: two characters wind up engaged to the very people they hate and the main comic character (like Bunthorne in “Patience”) gets what he deserves.

Alfred Drake makes a very good if not overly subtle Jack Point the jester, while popular singer Bill Hayes looks and sounds good as the not very admirable Colonel Fairfax. Barbara Cook has an operatic voice that suits her role as Elsie, but Celeste Holm in her opening song sounds too Broadway-ish for the young Phoebe; but she can hold her own with Cook from that point on.

The show begins with some background information about the Tower of London, which might interest the audience. But a second introduction by Jack Point is utterly superfluous and the time could have been better spent with a stanza from at least one song that had been removed.

Other operettas in this VAI series are Herbert’s “Naughty Marietta” and “The Dessert Song.” “The Chocolate Solider” stars Rise Stevens (a big plus) but does not follow the original in Acts II and III (a bad minus).

The Power of Song

White ChristmasSOME POSSIBLY TRUE STORIES ABOUT THE POWER OF SONG

There is an old Italian saying, “Si non e vero, e ben trovato.” This translates, more or less, as “If it isn’t true, [at least] it’s well made up.” Still in all, many stories told about songs, their creations, their effects, and so on, sound pretty “ben trovato”; but after some thought about the power of song in our own lives, these stories gain a certain psychological credibility if not a factual one.

$_35Take the tale of a certain pianist sitting at the keyboard in the reception area of a bawdyhouse. As he sang while setting to music the new lyrics written by one Arthur J. Lamb, he heard sobbing behind him; and when he realized that some of the “girls” were washing away their mascara with hot tears, he knew he had a hit on his hands. If these tough cookies were affected by the lyrics, what about the virgins in the respectable drawing rooms and theaters? Harry Von Tilzer was correct. The popularity of “A Bird in a Gilded Cage” is only slightly tarnished a full century after it was first thought out in 1900. I suppose its message is as fresh as ever.

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Lillian Russell looks too tough to let a song get to her

Take the tale of Joseph Stromberg, who was the house composer for Weber & Fields. Poor health and who knows what other problems were parts of a chain of events that led to his death, perhaps by suicide. A manuscript of a song was found in his pocket, words by Robert B. Smith, music by Stromberg. Lillian Russell wanted to sing it in the smash hit “Twirly Whirly” in 1902, but she broke into tears on the first night and could not continue. After that, she made her audience weep with what became her most requested song.

The lyrics? “My evening star I wonder who you are,/Set up so high like a diamond in the sky./No matter what I do/I can’t go up to you,/So come down from there, my evening star.” Banal, cliché-ridden, and powerful in their very simplicity.

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Mr. Danks and the latest style in facial adornment

Take the ironic tale of Hart Pease Danks, who read a poem by the editor of a magazine out west and bought it for $3 so he could set it to music. Very much in love with his wife, Danks gave it a sentimental tune befitting the times, 1872; and when it was sung in minstrel shows (this was way before Tin Pan Alley), it became an enormous hit. The ironic part is that he and his wife separated the very next year, and Danks died a lonely man. The song? “Silver Threads Among the Gold.”

Take the tale of a very proper Victorian English gentleman, whose ambition it was to make his name writing oratorios, pieces for the parlor piano-fortes, and perhaps a symphony or two and even an opera. As fate would have it, he fell in with a playwright and made his fortune doing satirical musicals. After their second collaboration, the composer’s brother died; and he wrote a short piece set to a very Victorian set of lyrics. It became an instant hit; but not too many people today realize that Sullivan of the Gilbert & Sullivan team is also the composer of “The Lost Chord.”

250px-When_I_Lost_You_1Take the tale of a very popular American composer-lyricist who married, honeymooned in Cuba, and lost his wife to a disease she contracted on that island. Although this particular man never really showed his true self in any of his lyrics, he penned a few lines that can only show his true and deep grief over the loss of his dead wife. When he had it published, it sold over million copies and is still often sung today. Irving Berlin called it “When I Lost You.”

Take the case of the same composer when he was assigned the complete score of a 1942 film musical. One song in particular was designed to be a Big Hit, another to be something of a throw-away, sung simply by the star seated at a piano. That latter number became the Big Hit as thousands of GI’s so far from home listened with tears in their eyes to broadcasts of “White Christmas.”

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Kate Smith

Take the case yet again of Irving Berlin who put into his files a song written for his World War I musical “Yip Yip Yaphank” because he thought it was superfluous and too flag-waving in the worst George M. Cohan tradition. One World War later, a famous singer asked him for a patriotic song and he gave her the rejected number. Thus did Kate Smith and “God Bless America” become forever associated.

And while we are taking the case of that song, consider the lyrics. Most of the words are monosyllables, simple, to the point, and eminently singable in a way that our official national anthem is not. The power of words when combined with the power of music can be more potent than even the Pen, let alone the Sword.

Tell me. What do YOU think are some other songs that still move strong people to tears after many years have rolled by?