The Writing Life: reflections by a working writer. The Writing Life

Reflections of a working writer, a university screenwriting professor, and the editor of Oregon Literary Review.

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Charles Deemer

Oregon Literary Review

MFA, Playwriting, University of Oregon

Writing faculty, Portland State University (part-time)

Retired playwright and screenwriter.
Active novelist, librettist and teacher.

Email: cdeemer(at)yahoo(dot)com

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literary links, amusements, politics, rants

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Random musings on a writer's life and times.

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Write Of Way
Samantha Blackmon's written musings on writing (composition and rhetoric).

Alexander b. Craghead: blog
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Rodney Bohen's daily commentary "on the wondrous two legged beast we fondly refer to as mankind." His pen runneth over.

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scribble, scribble, scribble
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A Writer's Diary
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Bow. James Bow.
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Glenn's adventures in screenwriting.

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Hebrew modern literature at its best, by Corinna Hasofferett.

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Robin Reagler's poetry blog.

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The Writing Life...
"An artist's only concern is to shoot for some kind of perfection, and on his own terms, not anyone else's."
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A friend over beer, Berkeley, winter, 1959

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The Writing Life II

(Posts archived here are from 01/10/03 - 10/31/06)

Tuesday, April 22, 2003  
[from a memoir in progress]
I became a teenager in the right place at the right time. In 1952, in Los Angeles County, white kids were beginning to turn on to black rhythm-n-blues music, and I was one of them. Suddenly the radio was more important than the new upstart, television, again. Over the radio came sounds of sensuality unlike anything I’d ever heard before. Up to my teenage years, I really wasn’t much of a music aficionado. I would listen with my Aunt Billie to her big band records. Billie was my mother’s sister, one of my favorite aunts, who in her youth had been a vocalist with a big band. I think I listened to her records as much for her stories as for the music.

I also was playing a little guitar by my teens, mainly cowboy songs. I wouldn’t get serious about my own musical expression until the end of my teens, after I’d moved to Berkeley, when I’d recreate myself as a folksinging beatnik.

But black rhythm-n-blues came over the L.A. airwaves like a signal of revolution, which in fact it was. Two shows in particular were listened to by most of the teenagers I knew: an afternoon show hosted by Hunter Hancock and a late night show hosted by a disc jockey who called himself Huggy Boy. I didn’t know any black people, though we’d had a black maid in Dallas, I had an occasional black schoolmate in Pasadena, and once even a black history teacher. But when Hunter Hancock and Huggy Boy played The Clovers, Billy Ward and the Dominoes, or The Flamingos, I was in a world that was new and exciting, sensual and forbidden, all at once.

It’s extraordinary how innocent the titillating lyrics of the 50s sound today. In "One Mint Julep" by The Clovers, there’s the line, “I’ve got six extra children from a-gettin’ frisky.” I’m sure the first time I heard the line on the radio I blushed. Even more daring was the song "Sixty-Minute Man" by Billy Ward and The Dominoes, with its chorus, “I rock ‘em, roll ‘em, all night long, I’m the sixty-minute man!” And later, “fifteen minutes of teasin’, fifteen minutes of squeezin’, and fifteen minutes of blowin’ my top!” At 13 I wondered how such sexual explicitness could get on the air.

And then there was the most titillating performer of all, a rock-n-roll hall-of-famer who died in 2003, Hank Ballard, who sang with his group, the Midnighters. Hank Ballard and the Midnighters was the most sexually daring rhythm-n-blues singer to hit the airwaves in the early years of rock-n-roll.

Ballard, who wrote and performed “The Twist” several years before Chubby Checker turned it into a smash hit, became best known for his infamous “Annie” records, the most notorious of which were the first two, “Work With Me, Annie” and “Annie Had A Baby.” The year was 1954, and I was 15. This is a pivotal year in the history of music, the year when most critics say black rhythm-n-blues gave birth to white rock-n-roll, a phenomenon led by a white singer who sounded black, named Elvis Presley. But the real notorious news of 1954 for teenagers like myself who still preferred the roots black sound to the new white sound was Hank Ballard and the Midnighters.

“Work With Me, Annie” has the lyric, “Let’s get it while the gettin’ is good, so good, so good, so good.” And later, “Annie, please don’t cheat. Give me all my meat.” This was incredible stuff for a white middle-class teenager to hear in 1954.

“Annie Had A Baby” was a more sophisticated song, full of wit and irony that I wouldn’t understand until years later. One verse goes:

She sings to the baby
Instead of me
Clings to the baby
Instead of me
Talks to the baby
Instead of me
Walks with the baby
Instead of me
Now it’s clear
And it’s understood
That’s what happens
When the gettin’ gets good
Annie had a baby
Can’t work no more

When Sam Philips discovered Elvis Presley for Sun Records, fulfilling his dream of finding a white man who could sing like a black man, the music scene changed forever. But I was already beginning to move on in my musical tastes by then to the cool west coast jazz sounds of Gerry Mulligan and Chet Baker. For me, the sensual energy of black rhythm-n-blues in the early 1950s was more exciting than the white rock-n-roll that sprung up from it.

But there was no better time to be a teenager. More than the music scene changed when white kids started listening to black music. The culture changed. The excitement of this change is difficult for those who did not live through it to understand. The 1960s would present a dynamic cultural change of another kind, moving the borders expanded in the 1950s to still farther limits. I think all these changes began in the early 1950s when white kids like myself, living in cities large enough to have black radio stations, began turning the dial and discovered a kind of music that had far different energy and meaning than the relatively bland music of their parents. Today the Internet is offering the same kind of alternative to kids around the world. There are still cultural revolutions to come.

4/22/2003 06:31:00 AM | 0 comments

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