Last week on his WGBH radio program, The Jazz Decades, Ray Smith played a very fine recording of Careless Love from the 1930s sung by a singer I wasn’t familiar with and whose name I didn’t catch. Waiting impatiently for the play list to be posted on his website I was at last glad to find out who the singer with the distinctive alto voice and unique vocal style was. Lee Morse.
Researching Morse, I had been mistaken to think that Careless Love was the first recording of her to pass my way. Robert Skoglund, who had once hosted the best program in the history of Maine Radio, The Humble Farmer*, often played her novelty number “T’aint no sin to take off your skin and dance around in your bones,” but I’d never caught the name of the singer then. It’s fun, and it was a distinctive voice but it didn’t drive me to look into her then.
You can hear Lee Morse singing a range of songs for yourself here. Careless Love is listed for 1938, I’d recommend it as a good place to start. I’ve only begun listening but have been impressed with what is there. I especially like Mailman Blues and her version of Mood Indigo makes you understand why the word “sultry” needed to be invented. She was quite a singer, unlike just about everyone else. It’s a shame that her personal troubles overwhelmed her career for more than a decade and that she died unexpectedly when she was making a comeback attempt in the 50s.
II. "You might have seen that best selling author who made the evening news because he had lied to the American people on national television. --- This was news because he was an author."
The Humble Farmer, Robert Skoglund was an institution on Maine Public Radio for almost three decades before he was kicked off last summer over his political and social commentary. Management made him a demand no one of any integrity could have taken. When he was first fired many of us had hoped that management would relent but that hasn’t happened yet.
Firing him over the blood-curdling accusaion that he participated in a non-endorsing Democratic get-out-the-vote message is an outrage against democracy. One for which they'd have to fire most of their on-air personalities for.
“Humble’s” mix of old and newer jazz, corny and sophisticated humor and comments were idiosyncratic and funny and, at times, bitingly serious. They were what public radio is supposed to be for. His weekly shows were the best program that MPR has ever produced. Given the management’s and board’s treatment of a volunteer like him, it’s unlikely that anyone will ever try to do as well again.
Skoglund was just about always unpaid to do the show over decades of dedicated production for public radio. Shortly before he was dumped* they apparently started to pay him $30 to produce his one hour weekly show, perhaps so they could claim that he was a “contractor” in violation of his terms of “employment”. Whatever else someone might say against him, we know that he can’t be bought for $30 a week or discouraged away by nothing.
But The Humble Farmer hasn’t been silenced, his regular rants and music selections are still to be heard, his weekly Whine and Snivel still read. It’s lucky that he was so used to doing it for free because it’s not much of a difference sitting in front a piece of paper and a microphone whether it’s done for broadcast or for webcast. You can still hear him and read him almost like when he was on the air and decide for yourself. You might hate it or find it puzzling but he has many dedicated listeners and readers. It might make you want to dance around in your bones. Wait for warmer weather.
"Now I know that you have read 'One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich' and probably other accounts of prison life," he said in one rant, after mentioning a friend whose father survived nine years in Siberia. "So even if you have been spared this particular form of cultural enrichment, you know what was going on in Russian prison camps 50-so years ago.... Can you think of anything that would take more out of you than a prison camp in Siberia? Years later, they put the old man in a nursing home in Maine. And he died the next day."
* Management at Maine Public Radio has a history of firings, discouraging volunteers and cancellations of popular programs, having had to take back their attempts to go to the sterile all talk format a few years back. I wouldn’t be surprised if this wasn’t a more subtle attempt to change formats by boring the audience out of listening.