In this post, Director of Music Vivian Montgomery reflects on her father’s life. This Friday, November 15, she is part of a concert at Follen featuring his songs.
My father grew up in Chicago, where he and his brother went to all the jazz clubs downtown from their early teens. Their parents were fellow travelers of labor communists, my grandfather Chan a sculptor and designer who had apprenticed with Frank Lloyd Wright and then found work with the WPA, and my grandmother Bets a social worker from so pious a Missouri family that her middle name was Virgin. While rolling cigarettes for his parents’ righteous gatherings, my father also absorbed their political fervor and experimental mindset. At some point in their mid-teens, before my father’s brother Steve was stricken with a mysterious total paralysis lasting 18 months, the two of them organized what sounded like a huge folk festival in Winnetka featuring Leadbelly, Big Bill Broonzy, and other raucous, soulful dignitaries. Yes, there was some more typical musical experience, playing clarinet in the school band, but I think of these settings, their palpability, their sweat, their powerful notions, their intensity, as the truly formative foundations for my father’s music.
At Swarthmore, music wasn’t the focus yet my sense is that it was always there, accompanied by a guitar, some light humming, a little whistling. I know that my parents were together, long before their courtship, at one of the last performances given by Woody Guthrie, in a barn, the proceeds to help the fading master in his illness. I know also that my father experienced something in his senior year similar to what my own composer husband also described: a sudden and irreversible desire to create music, to make composing his pathway to expression. My father’s biography then lays out what unfolded: the neurotic lessons with Stephan Wolpe, the more centered lessons with Vivian Fine, the surprise acceptance into Princeton’s MFA program, studies with Roger Sessions, classes with Milton Babbitt, struggles with torturous oral exams, the depletion that so often emanates from survival of a rigorous and rigid academic undertaking, the alienation from composition of “art music,” library school in Brooklyn, a plum librarian job at Wesleyan University, the start of a new trend in setting hundreds of texts by poet friends as songs to be sung by the composer with the lively accompaniment of a 1936 Martin guitar. We went to many concerts, spent many evenings listening quietly to records, and my father sat behind me while I practiced the piano, occasionally pretending to play like Chico Marx if I seemed to be getting frustrated, so our life was filled with music, but perhaps never so vibrantly as when my father had written a new song, and he’d bring his guitar downstairs from his attic study and sing it for us. I know those songs better than any other music, they’ve been the soundtrack to my life.
As I entered the professional music world, as early as my first two years of college at Sarah Lawrence before transferring to the University of Michigan, I became the ardent advocate for my father’s compositions, working to get them into the hands of all performers, with varying success. He had returned, through the process of being a singer-songwriter, to being what he, in his more clouded moments, will refer to as a “Real Composer” (don’t get me started on the idea that songwriters aren’t “real composers”). I came to know some of those more “classical” compositions almost as well as I knew the songs off of his LP Connecticut Elegy (Burning Deck, 1971). They always have soaring melodies, sometimes incomprehensible dissonance that releases you into warmer sonorities, and some of his pieces have a gnarly counterpoint that becomes the keyboardist’s begrudging job to untangle. Words always prevail in my father’s music, and for this I am eternally grateful because it gave me a good early start in recognizing that very little matters more in musical communication. And amidst the challenges, there’s brilliant humor that surfaces in the oddest places, such as a sudden outburst of swinging Chicago stride amidst ethereal unmeasured textures of a harpsichord piece. This man who has tormented himself while wrestling with the sounds in his mind is the same man who would play recordings of his songs for us backwards on the reel-to-reel tape machine so that they sounded like they came from Uzbekhistan (he would make up translations for the results); the same man who took me to see all of the Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers movies, and sat with me well into Wesleyan’s all-night Javanese Wayang, with its shadow puppets and gongs, until I couldn’t keep my eyes open; the same man who took his guitar and his amp and his poet friend James Camp to Washington Square Park and didn’t stop singing when a heckling drunk yelled repeatedly “Hey, I dig your Afro!” He loves They Might Be Giants and Tom Waits and Talking Heads as much as he loves Poulenc and Monteverdi and Bruckner – I guess the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.
It’s important to say these things when your 88-year-old father is alive, when you can still sit together and listen, and then talk about it afterward. It’s easier to say things that might sound like eulogizing when you know he’d say, in a Monty Python voice, “I’m not dead yet!” He certainly isn’t, we’ve got the music to prove it.