Sandy Brown Jazz

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Tracks Unwrapped

Blackberry Winter



Blackberry Flower


Blackberry winter comes without a warning
Just when you think that spring's around to stay
And you wake up on a cold, rainy morning
And wonder what on earth became of May.

Some years ago, I walked into the room where the television was on. It was broadcasting a performance by countertenor David Daniels and guitarist Craig Ogden, and the song was Blackberry Winter. I sat spellbound. The track is on their album A Quiet Thing, and you David Daniels and Craig Ogdenprobably need to listen to it in a quiet place to get the best from it. My sister-in-law kindly bought the album for me that Christmas.

Hearing a countertenor is unusual. A countertenor is described as: 'a type of classical male singing voice whose vocal range is equivalent to that of the female contralto or mezzo-soprano voice types. The countertenor range is generally equivalent to a contralto range, extending from around G3 to D5 or E5, although a sopranist (a specific kind of countertenor) may match the soprano's range of around C4 to C6. Countertenors often are natural baritones or tenors, but rarely use this vocal range in performance. The term first came into use in England during the mid-17th century, and was in wide use by the late 17th century. However, the use of adult male falsettos in polyphony, commonly in the alto range, was common in all-male sacred choirs for some decades previous, as early as the mid-16th century.' Earlier, opera had engaged the castrati, but countertenors moved in to replace those singers who no longer had their bits removed to enable them to sing high.

In popular music, the Bee Gees did well during the Disco era with their falsetto Saturday Night Fever and other recordings, but to listen to David Daniels, there is a different voice quality to that of the Brothers Gibb. It is, as I suggest, best to find somewhere quiet to enjoy this. It is not jazz, but patience, that is to come. Unfortunately you have to leave this page for a moment to listen to this (click here and then on the picture of the album cover)


Blackberry winter only lasts a few days
Just long enough to get you feeling sad
When you think of all the love that you have wasted
On someone who you never really had.


Blackberry Flowers


So what is a Blackberry Winter? It is an American term used in the south and mid-west to describe a short, enexpected cold snap that can come in after the first few warm days of spring when blackberries are in bloom. Dave's Garden, and international community of gardeners, says: 'Oldtimers knew that blackberries need a cold snap to set buds on the blackberry canes, so as sure as night follows day, there will be a cold snap when the blackberries bloom.'

There are similar terms used elsewhere, based on the same premise, and so we have cold snaps that are called 'Dogwood Winter', 'Whippoorwill Winter', and 'Redbud Winter'. Apparently another term used is 'Linsey-Woolsey Britches Winter', after a type of winter long underwear which you can put away after the last cold snap.



The idea of warm love having a cold snap has inspired a number of composers to write songs about Blackberry Winter. Although we don't get to hear his song, in this brief video, Country singer Bill Anderson talks about the idea behind using Blackberry Winter as a theme:




The song we are unwrapping here is the one sung by David Daniels and written by American composer Alec Wilder with lyricist Loonis McGlohon. Here is a video of it sung by Hilary Kole:





I'll never get over losing you
But I had to learn that life goes on
And the memory grows dim, like a half-forgotten song
Til the blackberry winter reminds me that you're gone

It is surprising that Alec Wilder's songs are not more recognised and that we don't hear more of him. Born Alexander Wilder in Rochester, New York in 1907, he was a self-taught composer. We read that: 'He was good friends with Frank Sinatra, Peggy Lee, Tony Bennett and other Alec Wilderluminaries of the American popular music canon. Among the popular songs he wrote or co-wrote were I'll Be Around (a hit for the Mills Brothers), While We're Young (recorded by Peggy Lee and many others), Where Do You Go? (recorded by Sinatra), It's So Peaceful in the Country and Blackberry Winter. He also wrote many songs for the cabaret artist Mabel Mercer, including one of her signature pieces, Did You Ever Cross Over to Sneden's?. Unusually for a composer, Wilder occasionally wrote his own lyrics including those for his most famous song I'll Be Around. Other lyricists he worked with included Loonis McGlohon, William Engvick, Johnny Mercer and Fran Landesman.'

'In addition to writing popular songs, Wilder also composed classical pieces for exotic combinations of orchestral instruments. The Alec Wilder Octet, including Eastman classmate Mitch Miller on oboe, recorded several of his originals for Brunswick Records in 1938-40. His classical numbers, which often had off-beat, humorous titles ("The Hotel Detective Registers"), were strongly influenced by jazz. He wrote eleven operas; one of which, Miss Chicken Little (1953), was commissioned for television by CBS.' Apparently, Sinatra also conducted an album of Wilder's classical music. He wrote a definitive book American Popular Song: The Great Innovators, 1900–1950 (1972). With lyricist Loonis McGlohon (who was also his cohost on a 1970 radio series based on the book) he composed songs for the Land of Oz theme park in Banner Elk, North Carolina.'



Here's Billie Holiday singing Alec Wilder's I'll Be Around with the Herb Ellis Orchestra.




The Alec Wilder Octet which is mentioned above, included the oboist, conductor, recording producer and A&R man, Mitch Miller. Strangely, that it seems the Mitch Miller Orchestra featuring Bernadine Read put out an alternative song called Blackberry Winter, this Mayflyone composed by Lindeman and Stutz that, in my opinion, is not a patch on Alec Wilder's song - click here (if you must).


The romantic notion of a Blackberry Winter reminds us of the brief life of the Mayfly. Mayflies "hatch" (emerge as adults) from spring to autumn, not necessarily in May, in fact one of the most famous English mayflies is the fisherman's "March brown mayfly".

Apparently the English poet George Crabbe, compared the brief life of a newspaper with that of mayflies, both being known as "Ephemera", things that only live for a day. Did you know that uniquely among insects, mayflies possess paired genitalia - the male and female both have two sexual organs? What do they do on the one day they are alive? At least a Blackberry Winter passes, for the Mayfly the outlook is not so optimistic.




In the circumstances it seems surprising that any band or group would call themselves 'Mayfly' - presumably they would not expect to be around for long? But here's an accapella group called Mayfly singing They Can't Take That Away From Me. They say 'The idea for the Bossa Nova interpretation is stolen from Brasilian pianist and singer Eliane Elias'.




I get so lonely, most of all in springtime
I wish I could enjoy the first of May
But I seem to know that blackberry winter
Is not so far away......It's not so far away.

We turn now to a much more 'raw' interpretation of Blackberry Winter. This is by Marlena Shaw from her album Dangerous. The Chess and Blue Note labels singer was first introduced to music by her uncle Jimmy Burgess, a jazz trumpet player. In an interview with The New York Times, she told the reporter “He [Jimmy Burgess] introduced me to good music through records - Dizzy [Gillespie], Miles [Davis], a lot of gospel things, and Al Hibbler, who really knows how to phrase a song.”




Blackberry Winter has found its way to the title of books (Margaret Mead and Sarah Jio), a very strange film by Brent Stewart, and band names such as the hillbilly band Blackberry Winter who recorded music for Debra Granik's excellent award-winning movie Winter's Bone starring Jennifer Lawrence.

But we leave you with this beautiful instrumental version of Blackberry Winter played by Keith Jarrett (piano), Charlie Haden (bass) and Paul Motian (drums) from the album 'Bop-Be' (Impulse!, 1977):




I get so lonely, most of all in springtime
I wish I could enjoy the first of May
But I seem to know that blackberry winter
Is not so far away......




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More Tracks Unwrapped:

Lover Man
Flight Of The Foo Birds
Just A Gigolo
I'm In The Seventh Heaven

© Sandy Brown Jazz 2016