Craig Work

Craig Work Remembers Manumit

YES, MANUMIT…

Note: Throughout  the following, ” ** ” designates a name I don’t remember today.

Yes, Norma. I remember Peter Silverstone – and I remember Peter Schweitzer. The two of them were a class ahead of me; they were the older, bigger guys, and those two were always together, a star team. Enough brains between them for four people.

In the summer of 1941, I achieved my tenth birthday and I was sent to Manumit Camp for the summer, a trial run to see whether or not I could fit in there, and I was so pleased that my mom committed me for the school year. That summer, Elly Seeger was one of my counselors; later on I learned she was Pete’s sister. My tent counselor (Philip **) was a fully addicted smoker, and one afternoon we stole a carton of cigarettes from his bunk. What to do with those? Why, smoke them, of course, and we did, the entire carton in one afternoon. Many hours of serious retching followed, and I am amazed that in later years I did try cigarettes again.

I didn’t know how desperate my mother’s situation was, but in fact we were destitute. My parents had divorced when I was eight, and she paid for my first year by serving as a dorm counselor and as a teacher for the youngest children. The additional benefit of this arrangement, in her eyes, was that she was able to evaluate and confirm the nature of Manumit schooling. When the year was completed in June of 1942, the faculty caucused and agreed to give me a scholarship, which carried me through the next three years, and my mom returned to New York City to find other work.

In the simplest terms, Manumit saved my life. In retrospect, I see the Manumit faculty as specialists in retrieval and rehabilitation of destroyed children, and I certainly qualified. Of course, each member of the faculty saw him/herself in completely different terms, but I only realized that later on. By the way, from the Manumit website I just read “A Philosophy of Discipline”, by Billy Fincke, our Principal. That has re-confirmed my high opinion of the faculty.

The dorm counselors were principal actors in leading us to civilization, and I treasured Al Ohta. A small man, (barely over five feet), issei, and the most marvelously perfect athlete you could imagine. I remember Al teaching us basketball, (it was a non-contact game in those days), driving and suddenly leaping up – high above everyone else on the court – from the foul line, floating all the way to the basket, casually dropping the ball through the hoop as he passed under it on the way back to Earth. Al also taught us about jiu-jitsu. I became a believer when he coaxed me into agreeing to attack him, and I discovered that (fierce and determined as I was), no matter how I moved to an assault, I ended up lying on his forearms, three feet above the floor, staring at the ceiling. I never got to him, not even once. Years later, back in New York, when Al’s sister Toshi married Peter Seeger, I was invited to the reception and celebration in Pete’s apartment below McDougal Street in the Village. That was the day Pete sawed the fipple off a recorder and taught us all to play the challil (in the Bible, it’s the flute made from Jordan River reeds…). Meanwhile, back at Manumit , those huge blank doors beside Billy’s residence should have been a garage, but it was converted to serve for our science and math classes. Our teacher (Al **) was short and stocky – well, stocky and not really short. He was about five feet eight inches, and weighed about 230, a former semi-pro football player, and he would occasionally join our football games. It was a wonderfully comical sight to see him as a one-man blocking team, escorting a runner down the field, with kids bouncing off him in all directions as his runner waltzed down the field to a touchdown… Al took me from miserable Arithmetic (lousy teaching in Detroit public schools), to transcendently joyous Advanced Algebra. Later on, I became a mathematician.

Frieda Gerber taught Spanish, Dr. Breitbart inspected our hands for cleanliness before meals, and Gerhardt Neubeck (Jerry) was dorm counselor up at our ** House residence. ( Jerry, as we knew him, was German, a runner, formerly part of the German Olympic team. A Jew, so traumatized by the Nazis that he automatically held his hands up over his head when he was startled from behind.)

We had weekly Assemblies in which the entire school gathered for all formal Community purposes, but for me, it was the singing time. We always learned a new song at Assembly, and our guiding spirit was Margaret, who taught us all the melodies, all the harmonies, and had us sing all the rounds anyone ever knew. Thirty-nine weeks to the school year, a new song each week, and I was there four years – 156 new songs, and I actually remember most of them. So many of those were Eastern European that I suppose Margaret was from Austria (Tyrol) or Czechoslovakia. Now I sing in choir, in chamber chorus concerts, and in Opera choruses. No solos, but lots of joy in the music. We did “I Pagliacci” early this year and we just finished Puccini’s “Girl of the Golden West”, and the next one is Mascagni’s “Cavalleria Rusticana” due this spring.

After two years at Pawling, we moved down to Langhorne, and I never realized I was in Amish country until years later.

Many years after graduating, (twenty or thirty years), I returned to Pawling and looked up the old school. I had real difficulty getting the new owners to permit me to drive around the grounds to renew old memories. They were really reluctant, and I gathered that they were a training ground for hunting dogs. In fact, my own best guess was that it was serving as a training ground for one of our intelligence services.

I remember Herby Edelman, Beata Breitbart, Charlotte Gerke, Steve Wersan, Walter Levinson, Karl Avellar, Lauren and Mickey Tucker, Micky Mailman, Mark Sikelianos, Kolya Von Hoffman, Gunther Eben, Kitty Schwaetzer, Marty Gahagan, Ann Canning, Moira Flanagan, Eric Darling, Frank and Ellen Conroy, ** Popper, Carl Moses, Steve and Shirley **, and more…. many more. These people are all vivid faces, living in my remembrances.

Craig Work, 2 January 2007

“The Banks of the Ohio” , “Follow the Drinking Gourd”, “Blue-tail Fly”, “Acres of Clams”, “Barbara Allen”, … I grew up singing just about all of the American folk songs. My Mom and I sang most of the time we were together, and we sang all the rounds we could find. And when I went to boarding school, at the age of 11, the Music director there taught us at least one new song every week ( 39 weeks per year —- 156 new songs in four years). Many of her songs were from other countries, so I was singing French, Spanish, Czech, Romanian, German, Yiddish, Swiss, and Russian folk songs (also Bach and Handel). My father’s family, on the other hand specialized in Negro Spirituals (that’s what they were called then; “Black” and “Afro-American” are much later). Continuously, from the founding of the University immediately after the Civil War, one son from each generation of our family became the head of the School of Music at Fisk University, and each one put out a collection of arrangements of Negro Spirituals. I learned all of those, too, not as a task, not as an accomplishment, simply as more of the background score which accompanies all of every day. In the 1970’s, when Uncle John died, his two sons became, respectively, an investment adviser and a civil engineer, ending the family dynasty at the Fisk University School of Music.

I was a violinist at 6, playing with a high school orchestra. I hated the practicing, though, and I literally threw the violin out of a fifth story window one day. I played piano for a couple of years, but the teacher gave up on me when she realized that I was playing everything at sight; I wasn’t willing to practice the piano either. But, as a teen-ager, I was powerfully motivated to play in the band which my friends organized, so I started learning guitar. And, as my Dad would have said, I became a “gittar-playin’ po’ soul”; I practiced diligently through long hours – willingly! So I learned the chords and melody to just about all of the dance music of the 30’s and 40’s, and I tried to imitate both Charley Christians and Django Rheinhart. I sadly decided that, even with all my enthusiasm, I just didn’t have their gifts. Too bad.

Living in Greenwich Village, one evening I was down in the Calypso Restaurant below Macdougal Street, and Connie – the owner – was feeding me some of her special soup. I seem to have this delightful effect on good cooks; they feel moved to feed me. I love it. Anyway, Connie leaned over to me and said, “See that guy at the corner table? He’s a guitarist, too. You should talk with him.” After I finished my soup (first things first) , I introduced myself to the stranger, who was named Millard (Thomas). He was an unprepossessing man, at first sight, but my attention was commanded when he pulled out his guitar and started playing music which I recognized from my piano days as Bach, and darned good Bach at that!  I had never before heard classical music on guitar, but I was swept away with delight over the magical sound. In that moment, at that spot, I signed on as his student, and for several years he taught me. And I practiced magnificently! I even reached the point of teaching folk and classic guitar to beginners, as an income source. I expanded my guitar income by performing in restaurants and dinner clubs, quiet classical guitar as a pleasant background to a good dinner. I was barely earning my meals, but I was deliriously happy.

One day, at my lesson with Millard, he asked me: “Hey Craig. Are you working?” “Not much”, I said. “You want a job?” With absolutely no hesitation, I accepted; Millard was an unusually trustworthy sort of guy. He explained was accompanying a singer, and the singer ( “Harry”) wanted one more classically-trained guitarist. I was not only hungry, I was flattered. My teacher was telling me he thought well of my playing. So I became the second guitar for Harry Belafonte. There was also a quartet of singers, a flautist and a bass player. Harry hired an arranger to produce music for this group, and we rehearsed for months. When we were ready, Harry’s agent took us on the rounds of auditions… for about a year. After all that, even making a couple of records, we couldn’t get hired. Simply, the group was too large; no one wanted to pay that much. So the group sadly, quietly dissolved. Harry opened a hamburger restaurant on Seventh Avenue, just below Sheridan Square.

Since I was living nearby, and Alex’s Borscht Bowl was near Harry (Alex frequently fed me some of his great borscht), I was in Harry’s restaurant many afternoons. It turned out that he enjoyed my folk songs, and I enjoyed his Calypso, so we passed the time in his (empty) restaurant. One day, Harry said: “Let’s put together a repertoire, okay?” , and we did that, just the two of us. I did the arranging, and I provided the accompaniment. Harry provided the voice; I didn’t realize it then, but he was also providing the magic. Anyway, we contacted Harry’s agent, and he advanced money for some simple stage uniforms – checked shirts and dark trousers, then we commenced the rounds of auditions again.

Just about everyone who heard us liked our music, but they all said they couldn’t take a chance on an unknown act – sorry. We kept auditioning for months and months. Harry had closed his restaurant, and I had no other work, so we were making the rounds through all the available days.

Nothing.

Finally, Max Gordon agreed to give us a week at his club, and, to celebrate the beginning of actual income, Harry and I signed a contract sharing the wealth. He offered me half, but I was seized by a recognition of reality; I pointed out that he paid the agent, and that he was the star, so we modified it, and he got most of the income, and I had a salary. So we played a week at the Village Vanguard, on Seventh Avenue, and we told everyone in New York, “Never mind an audition, come to hear us down at the Village Vanguard with a live audience.”

That’s when I began to learn about Harry’s magic. When we stepped onto the bandstand, I became invisible. Everyone in the room was instantly captured, absorbed in Harry’s aura. And we started into our first set; I was tense, but he warmed the crowd and he became more powerful and ebullient. The crowd answered, enthusiastically, then joyously – and then wildly responsively. The next day, the reviewers reported that the audience had elevated Harry to star status in one night. The audiences and enthusiasms continued night after night (several performance sets each night), and our booking was extended – and extended again – and eventually, we played that bandstand for six weeks. Gordon, the owner of the Vanguard, had an uptown club, the Cafe Madrid, so he booked us into the Madrid also. Our routine was to perform a set at the Vanguard, throw on overcoats, leap into a cab, and run uptown to 52nd street, perform a set in the Madrid, then throw on coats, leap into a cab, run downtown, perform another set at the Vanguard, throw on overcoats…. That went on until my world disappeared into a sort of numb fog of performances, taxi rides, roaring audiences and interviews. Harry’s agent went into overdrive, and we were on radio shows, we played the Kate Smith show, we played the Ed Sullivan show, we made records…

One night we played the Apollo Theater – and the audience was even warmer, happier. Another night Harry said, “Tonight we play Birdland!” , and I was really blown away. Birdland was the top jazz spot in the city at that time. It turned out that Harry had been a jazz performer (in an earlier incarnation), and he had been performing at Birdland when he had had an argument with the management and walked out. Now that he was back in the limelight, the management told him to come back and perform or face a lawsuit over his unfulfilled contract with them. He agreed, but insisted on performing his new folk and Calypso repertoire, not the jazz sets he had previously done there. They agreed, and we were there. I was transported beyond all limits. We spent the hours between sets trading music backstage with the greatest jazz men of the era – I had bought their records, committed their music to my memory, and I had never dreamed of actually speaking with these men. The audience was beautiful. Jazz cognoscenti, most of them, I suppose they also knew about Harry’s contract argument with the management, but they were relaxed and cheery. The night was full; the audience enveloped us in a sea of warm welcome. The reviews declared that Harry had reached new heights.

We needed more music, so we developed more and more performance sets. And we performed endlessly. And the world was dizzyingly wonderful.

Enjoy life,

Craig Work