In the second month of our siege against an implacable and impersonal enemy, I am a bundle of conflicting and untidy emotions. It really is so much easier to stand aloof and not feel each successive gut-punch delivered with the day’s news. Sometimes the blow is unrelated to the main topic; the effect is cumulative nonetheless. And as a newsgatherer, I would be shirking my responsibility by taking a break from information.
Wynton Marsalis leads the procession at the funeral of vibraphonist Lionel Hampton in 2002. Wynton’s father Ellis Marsalis succumbed to Covid-19 in April.
This month is notable for the number of wonderful musicians and artists who have died of coronavirus infections and other causes since the beginning of April. Only a fraction of these are commemorated in our Final Chorus section; some created worthy work that is just outside the music we generally cover, others just missed being included as our paper brimmed full of editorial content. Each death was a grievous loss to us personally.
The first loss I must address is that of American balladeer John Prine, who died of COVID-19 complications on April 7th. Astute readers will have caught my reference to Prine on our front page. Anyone who has the internet within reach can search for “In Spite of Ourselves” and find his live performance of the song with Iris Dement. It may be the best song about married love ever written.
John Prine wrote in what might be considered the Country idiom, but his work transcends the genre. There is heart and humanity in his lyrics that remind me of Willard Robison. He was a postal carrier in Chicago and was discovered by, of all people, Roger Ebert. Ebert walked out of the one-star movie he was supposed to be reviewing, walked into a bar to quench his thirst, and heard Prine singing. Ebert wrote about Prine instead of the movie and launched his career.
Another eminent person whom I must acknowledge is the cartoonist and animator Gene Deitch, who died at age 95 on April 16th. You have almost certainly seen his work; he created Tom Terrific, and in the early 1960s directed Popeye and Tom and Jerry cartoons. He warrants mention here for the series of covers and cartoons he created for The Record Changer from 1945 through 1951, featuring the archetypal record collector, The Cat. That character—or his spiritual descendants—may still be seen pawing through crates at record shows.
Deitch lived in the Czech Republic in recent years and was active on social media until just a few days before his death. His sons, Kim Deitch and Seth Deitch, are also renowned artists and share his love of old music.
The loss that affects me most deeply, and the one I became aware of just this evening, was that of beloved ragtimer, pop star, author, and broadcaster Ian Whitcomb. Ian died on the morning of April 20th at age 78. No greater enthusiast and friend to the ragtime community could be imagined.
One of my very favorite books on old-time entertainment is Ian’s After the Ball, which I discovered decades ago. I had also seen him on various television shows, including Tom Snyder’s Tomorrow program, as he evangelized for classic ragtime and early 20th century entertainment.
Others in world of ragtime had the privilege of knowing Ian personally; I had the honor of communicating with him via email when he requested a sound file of a scarce Sam Coslow recording to present to Coslow’s daughter. (I had played the recording on my radio program and was happy to oblige.)
Ian suffered a major stroke a few years ago, but he recovered enough to enjoy a period of relatively good health. A few days before Ian’s passing Regina Whitcomb posted the following on his Facebook fan page:
I have a request—would you please play the CDs, downloads, whatever you have of Ian Whitcomb? My heart tells me that when a whole lot of us fill the air with Ian music, good “mojo” will happen.
You are a special group of people. While Ian enjoyed his minutes of fame, it’s you, those people he saw in the audience/dance floor/lectures and connected with that he carries in his heart. Every note, lyric, book, liner note, he wrote these to share with you—not to line his pockets with cash (God knows that).
For any creator of music or art the sharing of their creations by those that love and appreciate them is what matters most of all. Dr. Johnson may have said, “No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money,” but I don’t believe it and I don’t think Sam Johnson truly believed it, either. Those who are driven to create give away far more than they ever could hope to sell.
Far worse than being a blockhead is being a blockheart—to be parsimonious with gifts that are meaningless unless they are shared. All those we honor this month were generous with their creations and gave until they could no longer. We know them and love them and mourn them because of how they have enriched our lives with their gifts.
And after they have gone, their gifts remain. It shouldn’t take an epidemic or other catastrophic illness to focus our attention on the largesse bestowed on us by the gifted. We have, until lately, been so trapped in our own strivings that we’ve scarcely begin to appreciate the magnitude of this bounty.
That focus is a mixed blessing about which I have profoundly mixed feelings. And I will play Ian Whitcomb’s charming and elegiac recordings—soon. Right now my heart hurts a little too much.