Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Old Postcard Wednesday--Shifting, Whispering Sands and a nod to Ken Nordine

The Shifting, Whispering Sands
(lyrics by V. C. Gilbert, song composed by Mary M. Hadler)

I discovered the valley of the shifting, whispering sands
While prospecting for gold in one of our western States
I saw the silent windmills, the crumbling water tanks
The bones of cattle and burros, picked clean by buzzards
Bleached by the desert suns
I stumbled over a crumbling buckboard nearly covered by the sands
And stopping to rest, I heard a tinkling, whispering sound
Then suddenly realized that even though the wind was quiet
The sand did not lie still
I seemed to be surrounded by a mystery
So heavy and oppressive I could scarcely breath
For days and weeks I wandered aimlessly in this valley
Seeking answers to the many questions
That raced through my fevered mind
Where was everyone
Why the white bones
The dry wells
The barren valley where people must have lived and died
Finally I could go no farther
My food and water gone
I sat down and buried my face in my hands
And resting thus, I learned the secret
Of the Shifting, whispering sands
How I managed to escape from the valley I do not know
But now to pay my final debt for being spared
I must tell you what I learned out on the desert
So many years ago

When the day is awfully quiet
And the breeze seems not to blow
One would think the sand was resting
But you'll find this is not so
It is whispering, softly whispering
As it slowly moves along
And for those who stop and listen
It will sing this mournful song
Of sidewinders and the horn toads
Of the thorny chaparral
Endless sunny days and moonlit nights
The coyotes lonely yell
How the stars seem you could touch them
As you lay and gaze on high
At the heavens where we're hoping
We'll be going when we die

Yes it always whispers to me
Of the days of long ago
When the settlers and the miners
Fought the crafty Navajo
How the cattle roamed the valley
Happy people worked the land
And now everything is covered
By the shifting, whispering sands

How the miner left his buckboards
Went to work his claims that day
And the burro's broke their halters
When they thought he'd gone to stay
Wandered far in search of water
On to old sidewinder's well
And there, their bones picked clean by buzzards
That were circling when they fell

How they found the ancient miner
Lying dead upon the sand
After months they could but wonder
If he died by human hand

So they dug his grave and laid him
On his back and crossed his hands
And his secret still is hidden
By the shifting, whispering sands

This is what they whispered to me
On the quiet desert air
Of the people and the cattle
And the miner lying there

If you want to learn their secret
Wander through this quiet land
And I'm sure you'll hear the story
Of the shifting, whispering sands

Shifting, whispering sands

The Billy Vaughn version on Dot Records was what my mother owned, what I grew up with. I had no need for video or computer gaming with a song like this, with words like these delivered by a voice like that to set my mind wandering, imagining, soaring, mourning, longing. I loved this song so much it's hard to describe. But until researching the song in order to add it to this post I was still under my childhood assumption that Billy Vaughn was The Voice, the narrator in the recording. Certainly, others made their own recordings of the song: Jim Reeves, Rusty Draper, Johnny Cash -- who did their own narrations.

I learned today that in the version I know and love, the version widely thought to be the quintessential rendering of The Shifting, Whispering Sands, Billy Vaughn was the orchestra leader, the Ray Conniff Singers provided the chorus, and The Voice is Ken Nordine. Now, if some of you are in broadcasting, or are listeners of Nordine's program on Chicago Public Radio every Sunday night at midnight, or are steeped in the heady world of jazz - especially in Chicago - then you must think me unsophisticated for being clueless about him until now.

For others like me, a quick Wikipedia bio:

Ken Nordine (born April 13, 1920) is an American voiceover and recording artist best known for his series of Word Jazz albums. His deep, resonant voice has also been featured in many commercial advertisements and movie trailers. One critic wrote that "you may not know Ken Nordine by name or face, but you'll almost certainly recognize his voice."
The son of an architect, Ken Nordine was born in Chicago, Illinois. In Chicago he attended Lane Technical College Prep High School and the University of Chicago. He has three sons with his wife Beryl whom he married in 1945. During the 1940s, he was heard on The World's Great Novels and other radio programs broadcast from Chicago.
He attracted much wider attention when he recorded the aural vignettes on Word Jazz (Dot, 1957). Word Jazz, Son of Word Jazz (Dot, 1958) and his other albums in this vein feature Nordine's narration over cool jazz by the Chico Hamilton jazz group, recording under the alias of Fred Katz, who was then the cellist with Hamilton's quintet.
Nordine began performing and recording such albums at the peak of the beat era and was associated with the poetry-and-jazz movement. However, some of Nordine's "writings are more akin to Franz Kafka or Edgar Allan Poe" than to the beats. Many of his word jazz tracks feature critiques of societal norms. Some are lightweight and humorous, while others reveal dark, paranoid undercurrents and bizarre, dream-like scenarios.
Nordine was Linda Blair's vocal coach for her role in The Exorcist, and Word Jazz inspired Tom Waits' spooky, spoken word-type pieces, such as "9th and Hennepin," "Frank's Wild Years" and "What's He Building in There?"
On television, Nordine did a series of readings on a show titled Faces in the Window, and Fred Astaire danced to Nordine's "My Baby" on a TV special. Nordine's past radio series were Now Nordine and Word Jazz. He currently hosts a weekly radio program and maintains residences in Chicago, Illinois, and Spread Eagle, Wisconsin.

Nordine's DVD, The Eye Is Never Filled (2005) provides a flow of abstract visuals to accompany the audio tracks.

Clicking on this graphic at Nordine's website (link next paragraph) took me to Amazon, which advised that the DVD is "temporarily out of stock." Tells you something, doesn't it? They are taking orders and will ship when it becomes available again. My order is placed.....
Ken Nordine's Word Jazz is his fascinating website, that includes his blog, assorted podcasts (amazing!), and online store. There is also a discography, where his recording of The Shifting, Whispering Sands is noted under a heading titled "Guest Appearances" thus:
1955 - The Shifting Whispering Sands - Billy Vaughn (Dot)

I realize this has been a lengthy Old Postcard Wednesday post and I thank you for sticking with me to the end. I got so . . . well, jazzed . . . with the discovery that a voice from my childhood was not stuck back in the sands of time and is instead right here, in the Now. Oh, oh, oh, you just have to listen to his podcast The Wow of Now...



Darlene said...

I have noticed that a lot of music from my youth is now appearing in movies or on TV. I think much of it can now be considered classic.

We have to remember that the music by Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, etc. was the popular music of their day.

Good music lasts. I don't think Rap will ever be heard again after the newness dies out. (Except as an example of the era.) So it is not surprising that The Shifting Whispering Sands is still available.

Ben said...

What a cool song! The imagery is almost intoxicating. I was totally wrapped up in the scene. I'll have to go look it up in Itunes. I didn't have a nintendo growing up either and feel very blessed for that fact. Technology these days seems sometimes like it's taking away more than it's giving. Thanks for the inspirational song. And thanks for your great comments on my blog. I very much enjoy corresponding with you.

Maggie May said...

what an amazing postcard

the watercats said...

Wow!.... The postcard is beautiful.. I love the way it is so stylistic.... Also, the recording is lovely. There is something so utterly mesmerising and innocent about it. I sat here and was suddenly whisked away into a bakelite, formica, linoleum, fairy liquid soap sudded, Sunday kitchen.. sunlight spilling through the net curtained window, swifts screeching out in the yard, the sound of neighbourhood children on tricycles or skipping....
It reminds me of listening to radio four round my nan's house, which never quite moved on in time... :-D

Marie Reed said...

How divine to listen to the version that touched and shaped your imagination as a child! You must still be swooning:)This is truly fabulous!

Lydia said...

@Darlene- Seems to me that with the Internet there will be a preservation of much more music, tv, movies, etc. than we'd have thought possible in the past. Another good argument for a "free" internet.

@Ben- Intoxicating imagery, I agree! It was fun, such fun, reading your comments of appreciation for the song. It's great getting to know you via your blog, too.

@Maggie May- It is, I agree. If I hadn't gone off on the musical interpretation of it I would surely have focused on the selection of desert designer wear by the two just takin' a little stroll on the sand...

@the watercats- Your comments sure painted a picture of their own, reminding me of the wonderful writing at your blog. :)

@Marie- Swooning is an appropriate word to describe how I felt. I really enjoyed working on this post. It became one of my favorite Old Postcard Wednesdays, most definitely.

Chris Overstreet said...

Those are odd clothes to be wearing for a casual stroll across the desert. Hope they brought some sunblock.

Kirby3131 said...

I've spent a few hours on your blog, clicking to other blogs you mentioned, then onto another blog and finally winding my way back to you LOL I love how that happens!

I hope you enjoy your weekend and don't think of this weekend as anything but "you are ahead of the game!" No sense wasting a great weekend thinking you're behind.

Happy PFF!
Kristin - The Goat

Lydia said...

@Chris- No kidding! I actually camped in Nevada's Black Rock Desert back in my college days, and we wore LAYERS for protection!

@Kirby- Two hours of scooting around the blogosphere with my blog as the jumping and returning point . . . WOW! I'm positive you had a wonderful time visiting some of the blogs I mentioned. :)
I appreciate the concept of thinking I'm "ahead of the game." That's very wise, very positive thinking!
Have a great weekend.



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