Fred Waring and other Pennsylvanians

The first four photos in this post were taken with the kind permission of the curator of the Fred Waring collection at Penn State, Fred Waring’s America, which I visited on a sudden whim yesterday morning. Fred Waring and His Pennsylvanians “taught America how to sing,” they say; I can’t begin to imagine what that means. All I know is that this golfing buddy of Bing Crosby and Bob Hope, this once-renowned purveyor of bland, inoffensive, beautifully choreographed arrangements of big band music grew up in Tyrone, Pennsylvania, the only genuine celebrity my home town has ever produced. I went to grade school in the former high school that had been built on the site of Waring’s childhood home.

But it seems Fred Waring had his wild and crazy side, too. He devoured the comics, and his archives include hundreds of original graphic artworks drawn for or about him by the cartoonists he befriended. He was apparently also fond of wearing “distinctive and original, sometimes ‘wild-looking’, jackets,” as one display put it.

I grew up listening to the five-string banjo. My older brother started learning the melodic clawhammer style when he was ten, after a few lessons from my banjo-playing uncle, who was part of the New York City folk revival in the 60s and 70s. I love the sound of this most African and most stigmatized of American instruments.

The music Waring got his start with wasn’t Appalachian string band music, however, but the kind of post-minstrel proto-jazz then popular among the hipper white folks. It makes perfect sense that Waring would go on to become the Pat Boone of the swing era. Someone had to do it, and who better than a genial, slightly funky, nice-looking white boy from smack in the middle of a state which was synonymous, then as now, with middle America?

It must be said that Pennsylvanians come in all stripes, however. Later in the day I attended a function at Shaver’s Creek Environmental Center — also part of Penn State — and took the opportunity to visit the birds at the raptor center.

The birds on display are permanent residents, too badly injured to survive in the wild — less shadows of their former selves than living ghosts, some of them. They may never again rise on thermals over farm fields or ride the wind currents along a Pennsylvania ridge, but they and their handlers regularly tour the state, visiting classrooms, county fairs, and the like. I’ve seen them in action, and I think it’s fair to say that these birds, however diminished, are celebrities everywhere they go.

I can’t help wondering whether some such diminishment might not be a prerequisite for achieving celebrity status, in fact. We crave an encounter with wildness, with what we dimly sense to be a more authentic reality than our own, but without the danger and disorientation full contact might entail.

Shaver’s Creek also includes several miles of trails, a boardwalk over a wetland, and a beautiful little herb garden with a lily pond. Yesterday, the water lilies were in full bloom, and when I bent down to snap a photo of one of them, I realized that a green frog (Rana clamitans melonota) was sitting in meditation right next to it, like a Buddha that had just decamped from his lotus. I circled the pond, snapping photos. He never moved.

9 Comments


  1. From Waring, to raptors, to the beatific frog among the lotus — fabulous cornucopia!

    And your frog made me recall an encounter today with a turtle.

    I was wandering through a community garden between rainstorms and saw a turtle scrabbling in the air, almost three inches off the ground.

    Poor thing got stuck in the stout wire of a tomato cage — I had to get it to tuck its little legs in so I could jimmy it out of the trap. (Unlike your frog, the turtle was swift to scurry off.)

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  2. Been away too long, but what a feast! Too many delicious things to comment on them all.
    We went to a big park of attractions near Poitiers a while ago, a hot day and plenty of frazzled families. There was a display of raptors, from kestrels to vultures, flying. Everyone came in fractious and grumpy and went out calmer and smiling.

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  3. Of course, a Buddhist might focus equally on the prominent dead leaf on the right, which seems to form an arc with lily and frog. It’s perfect round indentation speaks of the emptiness of all things, as well as of caterpillars nearby.

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  4. I agree with you about diminution and celebrity status in most cases. Part of me would have half an adventure — more than most people, perhaps — followed by the book and the talk-show circuit. My writing often seems like diminution except where the adventure is in the writing.

    Those owls look convivial.

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  5. post-minstrel proto-jazz
    This differs from Dixieland how, exactly?

    I can’t help wondering whether some such diminishment might not be a prerequisite for achieving celebrity status
    Maybe with the sorry crop of celebrities we have today, this would be true. What cannot be denied about Fred Waring is that he had abundant musical talent (unlike so many of today’s pop sensations), and that he drew upon a range of talents to in order to change with the times, becoming first a radio star, than a television entertainer, then an entrepreneur (ever hear of the Waring Blendor?) and earning the title “King of the Road” by the end of a long career.

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  6. Our comments aren’t scathing enough, Dave? You’re showing us how it’s done?

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  7. Lori – Glad you liked the melange! That’s a great turtle story. I’ve heard some species can climb low fences, but I’ve never seen it.

    Lucy – Hey, I’ve been to Poitiers! When I was 12 – a while ago, in other words. Don’t remember much. We were following the old pilgrim road to Santiago.

    Anyway, thanks for stopping back. I do keep up with your blog, even if I don’t comment much.

    Jarrett – Dead things are emptier than living things? How so?

    I must admit, it made a nice, balanced composition – even if I totally failed to notice the dead leaf when i took the picture.

    Peter – For me, I’m afraid, the adventure is always either in the writing or in the anticipation of the writing. I wish I could say I were in the moment more often, but most of the time I only enter the moment afterwards, in memory/imagination.

    Dave – Waring’s early repertoire included a great number of college songs and other non-Dixieland material played in a jazzy way. I probably should’ve written “pseudo-jazz” rather than “proto-jazz,” but I was trying to be charitable.

    I agree that Waring was a talented guy, even if the stuff he did wasn’t to my particular taste. By “diminution” in his case I was thinking less of the performer than of the music as it was translated from folk to pop, from something created by ordinary people to amuse themselves to something produced in studios for mass audiences. Sorry if that was a little unclear.

    Peter – No, I was just feeling cranky.

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  8. Fascinating stuff about Fred Waring. How much for the jackets?

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  9. Alas, I don’t think anyone’s selling reproductions.

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