Every year since my youngest was five, our family has made a Christmas video to share. It’s sort of a conglomeration of Christmas card/letter, ugly sweater, and virtual caroling.
Here is our eleventh one! “Angels We Have Heard on High” has always been one of my favorite carols, and for several years now I was thinking we’d already done it. But this year I went back and checked and discovered that wasn’t true.
I appreciate each one of you who stops by this blog and wish you well this holiday season. And a happy new year!
My great-grandfather Gus Dominguez was born to parents who had emigrated to the US from Cuba and Germany. Gus spent a decade in a Brooklyn orphanage and then part of his teenage years living on the streets. His daughter, my grandmother Hazel, had given me a copy of a typewritten transcript of some of his memories of those years, as told by him. I kept this transcript in a notebook and recently pulled it out to read to my children. I had remembered there were some pretty colorful moments in the story and thought they’d be interested to hear it.
After that reread I thought it would make a pretty good folk ballad, so that’s what I did for my song last week. I sat with Gus’s story and rhymed it into a song, trying to keep it as faithful to his telling (in content, style and wording) as possible.
Nathan generously contributed several hours of work adding guitar and drum tracks to help keep this long song musically interesting.
And I spent lots of time perusing the Internet for photos of 1900s Brooklyn and Philadelphia. And cats and cigar stores and saloons. This was such a fascinating way to feel more connected to my great-grandfather and the time and place in which he grew up. Many of the photos I found were from a book published by Danish immigrant Jacob Riis, called How the Other Half Lives. The typewritten words are from photos I took of the transcript my grandmother gave me. Incidentally, I learned that she was named Hazel after Gus’s sister Hazel (unnamed but mentioned in his memoir), who died from the 1918 flu, shortly before Gus’s daughter, my grandmother Hazel, was born.
Uncle Frank has a lot of nerve Coming to see me after all these years Since he turned us all out of his home And left us at the Home of Saint John
We weren’t even Catholic till he sent us there To keep four kids out of his hair I used to be Lutheran, not that it matters I’m just a poor boy, beaten and battered
Uncle Frank Uncle Frank
The laundry man took me when I was sixteen I saw he had four kids and seen what it’d mean To stay there washing all day and all night Keeping those children all in my sight
Laundry Man Laundry Man
So I went tramping alone on the streets Looking for food and a place to sleep I saw a stable and found nearby A covered wagon with blankets inside
So that’s where I slept, at the Navy Street gate Where I seen a man with a familiar face A sergeant Marine who was my brother Fred He took me on board and made sure I was fed
Brother Fred Brother Fred
I still had no room so I asked around And worked for a lady hauling milk around town It didn’t pay cash but I got a home And two meals a day and she got me some clothes
But then she took sick and she closed up shop And once again I was out of luck She gave me two dollars so I could eat And I headed back out on the Brooklyn streets
Brooklyn Streets Brooklyn Streets
I slept in hallways, got up at sunrise, Found some meals for a decent price My two dollars lasted for six more days I kept looking for any kind of work that pays
Inside a saloon on Fulton Street Was a lunch laid out with so much to eat I looked at that lunch, hungry as a bull Dreaming of feeling my belly full
The bartender said you look half-starved Help yourself, I thanked my lucky stars Twenty customers watched me eat Threw coins in my hat till I had tears on my cheeks
Kind Strangers Kind Strangers
They gave me eight dollars ten cents and their smiles And told me where I could live on that for a while Twenty-five cents for a night of sleep In a sailor’s flophouse on Tremont Street
Then a man took me in and I worked for his brother Scraping rusty pipes, sealing ships’ boilers It was dirty work but a decent life Till he came home drunk and started beating his wife
I tried to butt in and he smacked my face So I knew I had to get out of that place Next time he got drunk and beat her again I picked up his poor cat, and threw it at his head
Out the window went the poor cat I ran away and never looked back I’m sorry for the cat, I don’t know how it did But I had to leave if I wanted to live
Poor Cat Poor Cat
I found a good job as a captain’s boy The storms were rough but I was employed Near the Cuban coast I got drunk with a friend The captain hit me hard and said my job had to end
At least they paid me – forty dollars I was a rich man, I went to the track My bet paid off, I bought some new clothes Worked for a while as a stable hand
I started to look for the other kids Searching through all the Dominguezes I found the school where my sister was And that she was being well taken care of
I rented a room on Navy Street And then one day who should I meet My old man himself, waiting for me I greeted him as if he hadn’t left me
He asked me to go with him to PA Said he’d explain it all on the way He’d married again, had two more kids And changed his name cause of something he did
I said, what did you do? Did you kill or steal? Then he told me a story and it was all real He got engaged and then changed his mind Cause he’d found out she was the high-flying kind
She didn’t want to let him go But he didn’t want to keep her and so He threw acid in her face So now the police were on the chase
He changed his name to Frank Hidalgo And from now on I should call him Uncle
Uncle Frank Uncle Frank
He ran a cigar shop in Philadelphia My brother Fred came in and recognized him Fred sailed right at him, cussing and mad Frank ducked behind the counter and I got bashed
Then Fred started crying and I tried to explain But he just left and didn’t come back again
Brother Fred Brother Fred
I finally found Charlie, my other brother Through an ad in the New York newspaper He came to Philadelphia, turned out alright, And then our house caught fire one night
And who do you think started that fire? Yeah you got it right – that cowardly liar A lighted cigar, a hall filled with clothes Good old Uncle Frank, right on the nose
Uncle Frank Uncle Frank
My mother died when I was six This story shows how dear a mother is
I got Nathan to play along on this one so it’s officially a Cabin of Love song! And just indulged in old romantic movie scenes for the video. Sabrina, The Philadelphia Story, and Roman Holiday are the movies these snippets came from.
Let’s pretend that we’re all alone And there’s nothing to see on our shiny phones And the children have all gone to bed And there’s visions of each other dancing in our heads
And we know just what to do And we feel a love so true And the stars are shining bright On this perfect pretend night Buh duh duh dum bah bah bah dum
You go first and I’ll follow you To the ends of the earth in these dancing shoes That we’re making believe are on our feet While we’re moving to a rhythm oh so slow and sweet
And we know just what to do . . .
Who cares the weather or how we feel This is our secret world and we make it real So let there be light in each other’s eyes And magical nights under black velvet skies
My eldest child turned 18 this past week, so naturally my song for the week needed to be for her. Her dad Nathan and I took a walk together that we used for a cowriting session, which we extended when we returned home, and within a couple hours we had this very country song. Fun to have Nathan on the lead vocals this time. He wanted a song that expressed both loss and gain, grief and pride. I think we got it!
For better and worse she’s always been my girl Ever since we met she’s been my world But things have been changing for a long long time Now I look back and I can see the signs Something’s going on that I can’t ignore She ain’t gonna be my baby anymore
She’s tall and proud and lovely as can be She’s all dressed up but I know it’s not for me There’s a spring in her step and a charge in the air She flashes a smile and tosses her hair She grabs the keys and walks out the door She ain’t gonna be my baby anymore
There goes my baby There goes my girl There she goes shaking My whole wide world I just want to hold her but I know she can’t stay She’s gonna leave and I won’t stand in her way Where she’s headed I don’t know for sure But she ain’t gonna be my baby anymore
I’m looking at her but she’s looking beyond me Out where the big blue sky meets the sea She’s got stars in her eyes, I’ve got a lump in my throat She’s ready for the tide to carry her boat And I’m crying a river back here on the shore She ain’t gonna be my baby anymore
There goes my baby . . .
She’s shaking me awake from my sweet dreams The sun is rising and she wants me to see I never loved her more than I do tonight I’m keeping it together with all my might And I’m picking my heart up off the floor She ain’t gonna be my baby anymore
I put off songwriting till Saturday morning for week 34 of #songaweek2021. The deadline to submit is Saturday night. After a band rehearsal in the afternoon I recruited my husband and bandmate Nathan to play along and we got-‘er-done for another week. Don’t look too hard for meaning in this one. But we had some fun!
I’m gonna go outside and listen to the news All the tweets and chatter and the cock-a-doodle-doos There’s a thousand stories In my own back yard
There’s no time like the present and there’s no place quite like this And if you feel you’d like it well I’d like to feel your kiss And just a few more things We could try after dark
We’re on a great big rock that keeps on rolling round the sun Just when we think it’s over well it’s only just begun It’s the most fantastic way To see the stars