The Grapes of Wrath Inspires Lancaster Singer-Songwriter

Image of singer-songwriter Sean Cox

A young singer-songwriter in Lancaster, Pennsylvania recently wrote a song inspired by The Grapes of Wrath, joining a line of Steinbeck-loving singer-songwriters stretching all the way back to Woodie Guthrie. Jenelle Janci, staff writer for Lancaster Online, notes the most recent visitation of the Grapes of Wrath muse in her July 5 profile of Sean Cox, a popular club and wedding musician who recently cut his first solo record. “Letters to the Light”—the set Cox sang for his recent solo debut at a downtown Lancaster, Pennsylvania venue—sounds very different from the punk and garage-band music Janci says the enterprising singer-songwriter performed as a teenager. Steinbeck, an author with eclectic musical tastes who admired artistic courage, would approve.

Photo of Sean Cox by Joey Ulrich courtesy WITF.

New Music Continues: Bill Frisell’s “John Steinbeck” Commissioned by Brooklyn Rider String Quartet

Image of jazz guitarist and John Steinbeck composer Bill Frisell

Passionate about sound and programmed to appreciate performance, John Steinbeck took piano lessons as a boy, listened to classical records when he wrote, and liked new music, old music, chamber music, opera, and jazz as an adult. American musicians—including a contemporary string quartet group—have remained passionate about John Steinbeck in return. Steinbeck’s spirit has animated folk songs by Woody Guthrie and Bruce Springsteen, inspired operas by Carlisle Floyd and Ricky Ian Gordon, even motivated the composition of recent organ music by Franklin D. Ashdown and Lothar Bandermann. Such eclecticism seems especially appropriate for an author who sang in the church choir as a child, loved Bach and Broadway equally, and wrote an early, unpublished novel called “Dissonant Symphony.”

Image of Brooklyn Rider string quartetFor the latest addition to the growing body of music inspired by John Steinbeck, applaud  Brooklyn Rider, a young string quartet with Steinbeckian crossover audience appeal. In 2014 Brooklyn Rider commissioned new chamber music works from a group of distinctively different composers including Bill Frisell, an acoustical guitarist blessed with an expert back-up band and a big following in the world of jazz. Each composer selected for Brooklyn Rider’s recording project was encouraged to “look outside the sphere of music” in writing a short chamber music piece inspired by a person, place, or idea of the composer’s choice. Bill Frisell picked John Steinbeck. The resulting CD, Brooklyn Rider Almanac, is an example of contemporary recorded music at its best—clear as sunlight on the sea, full of color and character, and as varied in style, feeling, and form as the books of John Steinbeck.

Steinbeck wasn’t the only artistic figure chosen by a composer for the project (Daniel Cords picked the painter Keith Haring), or the only author: Aoife O’Donovan celebrates William Faulkner in a fiddling romp through the mind of Faulkner’s character Quinten Compson, Benjie’s brother in The Sound and the Fury. But Bill Frisell’s piece—titled simply: “John Steinbeck”—is the last cut on the album and stands out as the shortest, and the most surprising, of the 13 works recorded. Partisans of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Faulkner at the time accused Steinbeck of being a sinplistic sentimentalist while praising books such as The Sound and the Fury for hard-edged modernism and challenging complexity. Did Bill Frisell write his tough little string quartet as a belated musical rebuttal to Steinbeck’s critics? “John Steinbeck” certainly tests the ear and requires effort to understand, more like Faulkner than Steinbeck, who refused to write for the critics or to criticize fellow writers who did.

Cover image from The Brooklyn Rider Almanac CDI think the Salinas Valley native who listened to records while writing The Grapes of Wrath in his California Coast Range retreat would get the point of Bill Frisell’s peak-and-valley piece, chamber music inspired by an artist who agonized and rejoiced with the characters he created in a small room high in the mountains, observing monkish solitude as Bach’s Art of the Fugue and Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms played in the background. You decide. Close your door, shut your eyes, and listen to Brooklyn Rider Almanac from start to finish, then repeat the last piece on the album as you contemplate the personal context and social sense that inform The Grapes of Wrath. John Steinbeck was a sociable loner, a pretty good description of a string quartet player—or a jazz performer like Bill Frisell, creating a printed score for recorded chamber music instead of improvising as usual. Like a string quartet’s lead violinist, Frisell is the first among equals when performing with his group. In “John Steinbeck” he communicates the lonely predicament of a working novelist who, like a composer putting sound on paper, has only himself to praise or blame, peak-or-valley, before the record ends.

John Steinbeck Inspires “An American Experience,” Music By Lothar Bandermann

Image from "An American Experience" by Lothar Bandermann

John Steinbeck continues to inspire exciting music by living composers. The latest example is Lothar Bandermann’s “An American Experience: Reflections on a Theme,” an 11-minute set of variations depicting American characteristics and dedicated to John Steinbeck. The orchestral version of the composition—premiered by California’s Silicon Valley Symphony in 2013—will be performed by the Saratoga Symphony at Union Church of Cupertino, California, on May 3. Organ and orchestral versions of “An American Experience” can be heard on the composer’s website. The work is also arranged for symphonic band.

John Steinbeck continues to inspire exciting music by living composers. The latest example is Lothar Bandermann’s ‘An American Experience: Reflections on a Theme.’

Image of Lothar Bandermann, composer of "An American Experience"Lothar Bandermann shares traits with John Steinbeck beyond the German heritage evident in both names: working-class roots and a love of organ music. Born into a coal miner’s family near Dortmund, Germany, the Cupertino, California-based composer came to the U.S. in 1958 at the age of 24, graduating from the University of California with a major in physics and receiving a doctorate in space physics from the University of Maryland. After conducting astronomy research and teaching at the University of Hawaii—where he met and married Billie Lanier Reeves, a singer and choir director—he worked as an aerospace scientist in Palo Alto, California, before retiring in 1998 to devote his time to writing and performing sacred music.

Bandermann shares traits with Steinbeck beyond the German heritage evident in both names: working-class roots and a love of organ music.

Like John Steinbeck, he took piano lessons as a boy, playing the organ at his Catholic church when he was 15, a lifelong practice he continues as organist for St. Joseph of Cupertino Catholic Church near his California home. Although he has composed numerous sacred works for piano, voice, and choir—including a Latin Requiem for solo, chorus, organ, and orchestra—he concentrates on writing and arranging organ music, 400 examples of which he can be heard performing on his website. The organ original of “An American Experience” will be published by Zimbel Press in 2015, and new projects are in the works. Piano, organ, orchestra, choir, symphonic band: John Steinbeck would admire the versatility of this industrious German-born scientist-musician in tune with the American experience celebrated (and criticized) by John Steinbeck, a sophisticated music lover who liked new music.

John Steinbeck would admire the versatility of this industrious German-born scientist-musician in tune with the American experience.

Union Church is located at 20900 Stevens Creek Boulevard in Cupertino, California. The May 3 concert, a Sunday event, begins at 3:00 p.m.

Eternity Hotel: Song Lyrics by Tom Kozlowski and Roy Bentley; Music by Kozlowski

Image of Hotel California remagined

So far, the afterlife is damned annoying.
A giddy riffraff in best rags argues
as it devours the continental breakfast.
They’re all lying about a legacy of good
and sneaking in a surreptitious swift kick
at a house dog who begs and says hello.

Everyone is talking at once in a crowd
that seems to await news of something.
House staff and maids are former models.
Aloof and uniformed in Moroccan blue,
they glide by like a memory of eating and
being fabulously filled. You rub shoulders

with a saint with a used-up look that says
it’s never enough, this rising above one’s
animal nature. He nods as if redemption
were mostly a matter of being recognized
and he had no more substance than air.
As if the soul were used to rented rooms.


Music by Tom Kozlowski. Lyrics by Tom Kozlowski and Roy Bentley.

Copyright © 2014 by Tom Kozlowski and Roy Bentley. All rights reserved.

Rorschach Dragonfly: Song Lyrics by Tom Kozlowski and Roy Bentley

Image of dragonfly showing Rorschach pattern

Have you ever met someone in an instant undefined?
Like one of those ink-blot tests where you say what comes to mind?
We were both casualties, tattooed histories.
We were like amputees, battlefield refugees.

We listened to songs of death at the door—
veteran voices, without metaphor.

A little night magic began and ended with you.

I’ve heard or read it somewhere—
what you manifest is before you.
Is it in you? Is it in me?
Is it Infinite Possibility?

In a gallery that love-kissed day,
David watches Bathsheba bathe.
What the two of us couldn’t say, hearts paraphrased.

Ceilings of glass, light and a canvas of nudes—
I wanted to hold you, step into the painting with you.

A little night magic began and ended with you . . .

Thieving hours like fireflies,
insect tangos in my hand—
I saw that same light in your eyes
reflect back into mine . . .

Ceilings of glass, light and a canvas of nudes—
I wanted to hold you, step into the painting with you.

A little night magic began and ended with you . . .
A little night magic began and ended with you . . .

I called out to you under April skies , , ,
You answered back my name on wings of dragonflies.


Music by Tom Kozlowski. Lyrics by Tom Kozlowski and Roy Bentley.

Copyright © 2014 by Tom Kozlowski and Roy Bentley. All rights reserved.

After the Ferris Wheel Stops: Tom Kozlowski Sings Poetry

Image of ferris wheel light from Tom Kozlowski's lyric

All the Light I Had at the Time

All the light I had at the time: fairy dust, blue and fine.
Fellini-esque flying Christ. Moonlight walks, rivershine.

All the love you left behind: markets fell, but I survived.
We crashed and burned, o love of mine. Flames never go out of style.
Flames never go out of style.

Tilt O’Whirl, Ferris wheel. Laughing in a House of Mirrors.
You said you wanted the carnival life, the Tunnel of Love.

All the light I had at the time couldn’t keep us satisfied.
That hit-and-run turned me inside out: faith like a phoenix on wings of doubt.
Faith like a phoenix on wings of doubt…

Fortune Teller, Wonder Wheel. I learned to laugh, I learned to feel.
Took a chance on the carnival life. Got lost in a Tunnel of Love…

Thrive on nothing, maybe less. Defining zero as nothingness.
Sayin’ “life is sweet” is such a curse. To kill a mockingbird is even worse.

All the light I had at the time: fairy dust, blue and fine.
All the love you left behind—we crashed and burned, o love of mine.

Music by Tom Kozlowski. Lyrics by Tom Kozlowski and Roy Bentley.

Copyright © 2014 by Tom Kozlowski and Roy Bentley. All rights reserved.

Instructions for a Sky Burial

Songs of a Hungry Heart from the Country of Not-knowing

Image of Tom Kozlowski, singer in the spirit of John SteinbeckIf you ask me what friendship is, I’ll look to Tom Kozlowski. I’ve known Tom since 1966. One characteristic we share is what Bruce Springsteen refers to as a “hungry heart,” which, to me, is a mind that asks fundamental questions and revises the answer based on ever-evolving experience. Take “Instructions for a Sky Burial,” a song about journeying that we wrote as a result of reading about a practice the Tibetans use to send the souls of their dead to some Next Place. The song starts off: “Take a cup of loss / Add a body breaker / Flashing shiny knives / under Tibetan skies.” Tom and I were born in Dayton, Ohio in 1954. Both of us loved books and music at an early age, and our friendship became collaboration. In the songs we write together, we share a territory whose frontiers are states of ecstasy and imagination. (I call it The Country of Not-knowing.) Performed by Tom in his signature style, this song is from an unfinished CD called In the Pocket. I hope you enjoy it.

Photo of Tom Kozlowski by Deni Naffziger.

Copyright © 2014 by Tom Kozlowski and Roy Bentley. All rights reserved.


Celebrating Steinbeck in Sound at Carmel Mission

Image of Carmel Mission as it looked in the 18th century

The 75th anniversary of the publication of The Grapes of Wrath will be celebrated in a public organ concert beginning at 7:00 p.m. on August 22 at  California’s Carmel mission. Inspired by The Grapes of Wrath, Tortilla Flat, Sea of Cortez, and John Steinbeck’s admiration for the music of J.S. Bach, the literary-minded program will be performed by James Welch, California’s foremost concert organist and a fan of John Steinbeck’s fiction.

The historic Carmel mission is located at 3080 Rio Road in Carmel-by-the-Sea, several miles south of Monterey and Pacific Grove. Along with inland Salinas, the three Monterey County communities were inhabited or frequented by Steinbeck during his formative California period and appear frequently in his writing. The 1935 novel Tortilla Flat is set in Monterey, the site of Cannery Row and the launching point of Steinbeck’s 1940 Sea of Cortez expedition with his close friend Ed Ricketts, the marine biologist, to study the coastal ecology and culture of Baja California. The result of their legendary trip and writing collaboration was Sea of Cortez: A Leisurely Journal of Travel and Research (1941), the book that distilled the ideas animating The Grapes of Wrath, In Dubious Battle, and Of Mice and Men, Steinbeck’s labor trilogy of the late 1930s.

Image of James Welch, organist for the August 22 Steinbeck concert at Carmel Mission

A native of Southern California who started college as a pre-med student, James Welch earned a doctorate in organ performance from Stanford University and lives in Palo Alto, where he has held the post of organist at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church since 1993. A member of the music department at Santa Clara University and a former faculty member at the University of California, Santa Barbara, he has researched and recorded Latin American organ music on a Fulbright grant, performed music by European and American masters at cathedrals and concert halls throughout the world, and recorded works by a variety of composers for the organ, including the four featured on his August 22 concert at Carmel Mission. (Welch will perform a program of music by British composers on the famed organ of the Mormon Tabernacle in Salt Lake City on August 3.)

Music for Steinbeck from J.S. Bach to “Night in Monterey”

Welch’s Carmel mission concert will open with J.S. Bach’s mighty Toccata in C major and other selections by the composer whom Steinbeck and Ricketts described in Sea of Cortez as “breaking through” to a state of mystical sublimity in sound. It will continue with Steinbeck Suite, a five-movement work written by Franklin D. Ashdown in honor of the 75th anniversary of The Grapes of Wrath and inspired by scenes from Tortilla Flat and from Steinbeck’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. Ashdown, who lives in New Mexico, is one of America’s most widely published living composers of music for organ and choir. Steinbeck Suite was premiered by Welch at the Santa Clara mission on February 17 and will be published in 2014 by Zimbel Press, a respected publisher of new music. Ashdown visited the Carmel mission following the Santa Clara premiere and played its pipe organ.

Also featured on Welch’s Carmel mission program will be a pair of 20th century California composers who were inspired by the Monterey Peninsula and San Francisco Bay Area in their musical writing. Richard Purvis (1913-1994), the organist and choirmaster of Grace Cathedral in San Francisco following World War II, enjoyed camping on the Monterey coast, a passion colorfully reflected in Nocturne (“Night in Monterey”), one of several Purvis pieces that will be performed by Welch, who published a biography of Purvis in 2013. Dale Wood (1934-2003), the organist and choirmaster at San Francisco’s Episcopal Church of St. Mary the Virgin in the 1970s, wrote music with a distinctively California style influenced by musical forms familiar to Steinbeck, including jazz, gospel music, and the music J.S. Bach. Welch’s Carmel mission concert will include Wood’s brilliant setting of the chorale “That Easter Day With Joy Was Bright” in celebration of the seminal Easter Sunday chapter from Sea of Cortez.

Carmel Mission and Steinbeck’s Feeling for Catholicism

San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo Mission was the second California mission built under the administration of Junipero Serra, the Franciscan missionary who made the Carmel mission his headquarters from 1770 until his death in 1784. Like other California missions, it fell into disuse and decay following secularization by the Mexican government in the 19th century. By Steinbeck and Ricketts’s time, the restoration advocated by Steinbeck and others was underway, and the Carmel mission became a parish church in 1932—the original goal of the Franciscans for the missions they built along the “King’s Highway” between San Diego and Sonoma under Spanish colonial rule. Its beauty, acoustics, and location have made it a popular concert venue and tourist destination today. The Carmel mission was named a minor basilica by Pope John XXIII in 1960 and hosted a visit by Pope John Paul II during his 1987 North American tour.

Ashdown’s choral work, Missa Brevis de Requiem, is dedicated to the memory of both popes, and his Franciscan Pastorale, based on St. Francis of Assisi’s “All Creatures of Our God and King,” is among his most frequently performed works for the organ. It is tempting to imagine that John Steinbeck, who was friendly to Catholicism in his fiction and familiar with the legend and lore of St. Francis and the California missions built by the Franciscans, would be pleased.

Steinbeck Suite for Organ

From Woody Guthrie to Bruce Springsteen, two books that made John Steinbeck famous—Tortilla Flat and The Grapes of Wrath—have inspired American singers to celebrate both sides, sunny and sad, of John Steinbeck’s moody populism. Aaron Copland wrote orchestral music for The Red Pony and Of Mice and Men in the 1940s, and Ricky Ian Gordon’s operatic setting of The Grapes of Wrath premiered in 1977. But before now pipe organs have been silent on the subject of John Steinbeck, and that seemed strange: the author listened to Bach and had an ear for church music developed as a child. The February 16 premiere of Franklin D. Ashdown’s monumental Steinbeck Suite for Organ at Mission Santa Clara—65 miles from Steinbeck’s hometown of Salinas—remedied this historic oversight. Pulling out all the stops on the reverberant Mission Santa Clara pipe organ, James Welch brought passages from Tortilla Flat and The Grapes of Wrath chosen by Ashdown to thundering and whispering life. Five movements describe moments of high drama from two Steinbeck classics: I. Perambolo (“The Humanity of John Steinbeck”); II. Divertimento (“Making Camp and Celebrating on Route 66: The Grapes of Wrath”); III. Miserere (“’If you’re in trouble or hurt or need—go to the poor people. They’re the ones that’ll help’: The Grapes of Wrath”); IV. Musica de los Paisanos (“’How lonely it would be in the world if there are no friends to sit with one and share one’s grappa’: Tortilla Flat”); and V. Toccata (“The Conflagration of Danny’s House: Tortilla Flat”). Crank up the volume on your computer, then listen, laugh, and weep. The live recording below is courtesy of Santa Clara University and includes movement pauses and audience applause.


From the Garden

Love-song lyrics about the types of flowers commonly found in gardens? It may sound unusual in connection with John Steinbeck, but the author who wrote “Chrysanthemums” loved to garden and grew many types of flowers and vegetables at home, even in New York. The New York actor and singer Alan Brasington liked the idea of song lyrics about the garden of love so much that he gathered, performed, and produced a medley of American love songs featuring the types of flowers Steinbeck would have known and grown a century ago. The SUNY New Paltz graduate and London-New York theater veteran sings with Alice Evans, an award-winning Broadway actress whose family descended from the American patriot Nathan Hale.