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Shipoopi: Thoughts on Two Meredith Willson Memoirs – The Clyde Fitch Report

January 26, 2011

The Brown Tweed Society is pleased to welcome new contributing partner Leonard Jacobs, Editor of The Clyde Fitch Report, who will routinely weigh in with news from the New York theater scene and ongoing arts issues.

Who wouldn’t have liked Meredith Willson (1902-84)? Two of his autobiographical volumes, And There I Stood With My Piccolo (1948) and “But He Doesn’t Know the Territory”(1959), long out of print, have been re-published by the University of Minnesota Press, and are superb reads. Don’t read them out of order. Don’t read something else between the two. They’re a play in two acts, farce and tragedy akimbo, full of showmanship.

As the earlier book was published nearly a decade beforeThe Music Man conquered Broadway, it occurred to me perhaps it could be read as a document of its time, and not reexamined with a 2010 lens. Why? Because And There I Stood With My Piccolo isn’t just an artifact of the antecedents of The Music Man, the back-cover copy notwithstanding. I think of it as artistic foreshadowing. If Willson hadn’t paid tribute to his roots, if he hadn’t saluted the humanity, flaws of all, of his origins, he might not have written The Music Man at all.

And while a 2010 lens would dictate reading And There I Stood With My Piccolo with the image of Willson as eternally synonymous with Broadway, the book was published well before that idea took hold. It was band playing and orchestra playing, it was popular song and film scores, that America linked to Willson — if America saw him in any indelible way in 1948 at all. And to think that the youth he recounts in the Mason City, Iowa, before World War I wasn’t so distant, so hazy, back in 1948, makes you grateful for such a vivid link to yesteryear.

Yet another pleasure, probably the greatest pleasure, in the volume is found in savoring Willson’s distinct voice — no one’s syntax, no one’s word choice, no one’s palpable sense of irony could ever be confused with his. The first book isn’t merely a paean to early-20th-century Midwestern values but a work of living history, times that once existed in tones beyond sepia. (Read more…)

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