Tuesday, March 6, 2012

The King of Western Swing and the Duke of Lancaster

Today we celebrate the legacies of two vastly different men, born on the same date, centuries apart.

Bob Wills was born on this day in 1905, in rural Texas. (His birthday, incidentally, falls on the anniversary of the Fall of the Alamo, an association of which he was no doubt especially proud.) As the fiddle-playing, cigar-chomping, jive-talking frontman for his group The Texas Playboys, Bob pioneered what was eventually dubbed Western Swing: an innovative combination of country and western and big band jazz. The group was not only exceedingly popular, at times out-selling more mainstream acts such as Benny Goodman and Tommy Dorsey as they performed at large dance events all across the southern and western U.S., they were ahead of their time in a number of respects as well, most notably for their prominent use of amplified electric guitars (and mandolins). (The group’s sole appearance at the Grand Ole Opry, in 1944, caused a legendary scandal when they defied that organization’s ban on drum kits.) Some of the band’s greatest hits include: Maiden’s Prayer, New San Antonio Rose, Take Me Back to Tulsa, Home in San Antone, Faded Love, Bubbles in My Beer, and Basin Street Blues.

John of Gaunt was born March 6, 1340, the third surviving son of powerful British monarch Edward III. Though he never wore the crown himself, he nonetheless cast a very long shadow (literally as well as figuratively: the man was apparently about 6' 7" tall) over England and her subsequent history. His vast holdings made him the richest man in England during his time, and his colorful life included 3 marriages, an ultimately unsuccessful bid for the thrones of the Spanish kingdoms of Castile and Leon (claimed through his second wife), prosecution of several military campaigns in France, de facto leadership of England for several years (during a time when both his father and older brother, Edward, The Black Prince, were too ill to rule), patronage of Geoffrey Chaucer, and support for the proto-Reformer John Wycliffe. After his death, his son, Henry Bolingbroke deposed (and possibly murdered) John’s nephew Richard II to become King Henry IV. All subsequent English monarchs, down to the present day, are descendants of John of Gaunt.

In Shakespeare’s play Richard II, the dying John of Gaunt speaks these lines in an oft-quoted patriotic tribute to England:

This royal throne of kings, this scepter’d isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall,
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands,
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England,. . .

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