Jan. 25, 2011

Tuesday 9:00AM

by Denver Butson

A man standing at the bus stop
reading the newspaper is on fire
Flames are peeking out
from beneath his collar and cuffs
His shoes have begun to melt

The woman next to him
wants to mention it to him
that he is burning
but she is drowning
Water is everywhere
in her mouth and ears
in her eyes
A stream of water runs
steadily from her blouse

Another woman stands at the bus stop
freezing to death
She tries to stand near the man
who is on fire
to try to melt the icicles
that have formed on her eyelashes
and on her nostrils
to stop her teeth long enough
from chattering to say something
to the woman who is drowning
but the woman who is freezing to death
has trouble moving
with blocks of ice on her feet

It takes the three some time
to board the bus
what with the flames
and water and ice
But when they finally climb the stairs
and take their seats
the driver doesn't even notice
that none of them has paid
because he is tortured
by visions and is wondering
if the man who got off at the last stop
was really being mauled to death
by wild dogs.

"Tuesday 9:00AM" by Denver Butson, from Triptych. © The Commoner Press, 1999. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of blues, soul, and gospel singer Etta James, (books by this author) born Jamesetta Hawkins in Los Angeles (1938) to a single mom who was 14 years old. Etta sang in gospel choirs in Los Angeles, moved to San Francisco, sang doo-wop, and was discovered there by the famous Johnny Otis when she herself was just 14 years old. He asked her to sing a song with him called "Roll With Me Henry," and he was so impressed that he took her down to Los Angeles to record with him — without telling her mom. They renamed the song "The Wallflower," and she nailed it perfectly on the first take in the recording studio. It became a big hit, shooting to the No. 1 spot on the R&B charts in 1955.

It was in 1960 that she first sang the song she's now most famous for: "At Last." The song was written 20 years before, and it had been performed by the Glenn Miller Band in the 1940s, but her version is by far the best known, and it's considered her signature song. It's the song to which Barack and Michelle Obama danced their first dance as president and first lady of the United States at the first presidential inaugural ball two years ago. In fact, a version of the song was sung at each of the official 10 inaugural balls that January. It's often played at weddings and wedding parties.

Etta James had been a star singer for more than 40 years when she won her first Grammy, in 1995, for an album of Billie Holiday covers called Mystery Lady. In the last decade, she's won several more Grammys.

She wrote about her musical career, struggles with drug addiction, and her mysterious young mother who loved Billie Holiday in a highly praised memoir, co-authored with David Ritz, called Rage to Survive (1995). She wrote about her mother, Dorothy:

"I call Dorothy the Mystery Lady. She was Miss Hip, a jazz chick, a let-the-good-times roller who wore midnight cologne and told me, when I was barely old enough to understand, that in a former life she had been a white woman with red flowing hair and bright freckles, a powerful and fearsome queen who had put some people to death. I believed her. But in this life she was a light-brown-skinned beauty who wore short skirts and fishnet hose and platform shoes with ankle straps. Her face was fabulous. Her body was voluptuous. Like the Billie Holiday song says, men flocked around her like moths to a flame. She adored the music of Billie Holiday and considered herself a jazz purist. No raunchy blues for the Midnight Lady. Nothing but jazz, fine and mellow, sweet and swinging progressive jazz."

It's the birthday of poet Robert Burns, (books by this author) born in Alloway, Scotland (1759). He farmed, worked as a tax collector, and wrote poems. And he spent more than a decade gathering traditional Scottish folk songs, humming the airs and making sheet music out of the tunes, and writing lyrics to a lot of the tunes, as well.

He went about songwriting in a very ritualistic manner, making sure that his mood was right and his muse was present. Before he started making up words to go with a folk tune, he said he tried hard to discern the "poetic sentiment" that would correspond to the "idea of the musical expression" of the tune. He would ponder this for a while, and then he would write the first stanza, which was always the hardest part. After that he would get up from his desk, go outside, walk around, sit on the ground sometimes, and look for things in nature that he said would be "in unison or harmony with the cogitations of my fancy and workings of my bosom." And he would hum whatever tune he was working on.

Then, when he could feel his Muse starting "to jade," he'd go back to his desk and start writing furiously while rocking back and forth on the back legs of his chair — swinging at intervals that matched for him the rhythm of the song he was trying to write out.

He composed hundreds of songs and poems. Among his most famous are Auld Lang Syne; A Red, Red Rose; Ae Fond Kiss; Tam O'Shanter; To a Mouse; A Man's a Man for A' That, and The Battle of Sherramuir.

From the archives:

It's the birthday of novelist Gloria Naylor, (books by this author) born in Queens, New York (1950). She began her first book, The Women of Brewster Place, while attending Brooklyn College and working as a switchboard operator. The book, which focuses on the stories of several women who have come to live on the dead-end street, Brewster Place, won the American Book Award for best first novel in 1983.

It's the birthday of author William Somerset Maugham, (books by this author) born in Paris, France (1874). He wrote the novels The Moon and Sixpence (1919) and Of Human Bondage (1915), about Philip Carey — a sensitive, orphaned boy born with a clubfoot, who is raised by a religious aunt and uncle, and eventually falls into a doomed love affair with a lady named Mildred. Maugham wrote, "Few misfortunes can befall a boy which bring worse consequences than to have a really affectionate mother."

It's the birthday of Virginia Woolf, (books by this author) born Virginia Stephen in London, England (1882). Her father was the editor of a popular series of reference books, The Dictionary of National Biography, and Woolf later said that she had been cramped in the womb by the weight of those heavy volumes. From an early age, her father gave her access to his extensive library, and he taught her "to read what one liked because one liked it, never to pretend to admire what one did not." After the death of both her parents, she moved with her siblings into the unfashionable but cheap neighborhood of Bloomsbury, which soon became the literary and intellectual center of England. Woolf's brother hosted evening meetings that came to include D.H. Lawrence, T.S. Eliot, Aldous Huxley, and others. Woolf suffered most of her life from bouts of depression, and one doctor prescribed long walks as a remedy. It was on these walks that she conceived of many of her novels, including Mrs. Dalloway (1925) and To the Lighthouse (1927). These novels employed a new brand of stream of consciousness, distinct from James Joyce and others. She said, "On the outskirts of every agony sits some observant fellow who points."

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