in Speeches

Slackers and Stardust: Hoagy Carmichael and the Inspiration for a Masterpiece

Speech given at the “Stardust” historical marker dedication ceremony in front of the Book Nook building, 114 South Indiana Ave.

Stephen Volan
Member, District VI, Common Council
City of Bloomington, Indiana USA
June 2, 2007

VolanHoagy

City Councilmember Steve Volan (left) and Mayor Mark Kruzan read the historic marker placed in front of the former Book Nook (now called The Gables and home to BuffaLouie’s Restaurant), the building where Hoagy Carmichael wrote that he composed “Stardust.” More about the event.

Honored guests and friends —

It is the rarest of privileges to be here today, to represent the city district where it all happened, and to be asked to speak. So I thought I’d open with some of the most famous words of political speechmaking:

Four score and seven years ago…Hoagy Carmichael crossed Indiana Avenue to enroll at IU. A few years later, he emerged with a couple of degrees, including one in law across the street. He went and got a job or two in law…and then he gave it up. Like so, so many modern-day students, he boomeranged back home. Like so many modern-day IU graduates, he boomeranged back to campus, hopefully, hoping he’d figure out what to do next, but pretty much just to hang out, make music, have fun.

I know well what it’s like to be an indifferent student. (Prof. [David N.] Baker alone may be able to attest to how indifferent I was, in his Jazz Improvisation class, trying to learn how to play piano even a little bit like Hoagy.)

And we all know that indifference comes from a lack of inspiration. While IU is a fine place, a brilliant place, where ideas grow, it’s still a school, a place of work. Inspiration comes as much, if not more, from places where people live…and where they play.

Let me now read to you the words of a student contemporary of Hoagy’s.

“A wonderfully stimulating exciting spirit pervaded the campus during the 1920s…yet campus life was so informal and unstructured that students fashioned their own fun for the most part and turned their ideas into enterprises. In this simple, unsophisticated, tolerant climate were bred the talents of a singular number of students who later won fame and fortune on the national scene…Since there was not yet a union building or its equivalent, extracurricular activities centered in a campus hangout known as the Book Nook, later called the Gables. In my day it was the hub of all student activity; here student political action was plotted, organizations were formed, ideas and theories were exchanged among students from various discplines and from different sections of the campus. For most of this period the Book Nook was presided over by something of a genius, Peter Costas, a young Greek immigrant who transformed a campus hangout into a remarkably fertile cultural and political breeding place in the manner of the famous English coffee houses. All in all it was a lively, exhilarating place.”
Those are the words of Herman B Wells, from his autobiography, “Being Lucky.”

The university has attempted to build many gathering places since then. Not only was there was no union building back then, in Hoagy’s time at IU, there were no dormitories. None. Zero. Everyone lived in fraternities and sororities, or boarded in local homes.

But for my money, none of those orderly, controlled attempts to create leisure spaces for students ever compared to the places that inspired students most. They cropped up one at a time, without plan or order, simply, unsophisticatedly, tolerantly, just like Peter Costas’ place. The city that has played host to the university since day one inspired coffeehouses like the Runcible Spoon, bars like Nick’s English Hut, even the quarries — and these places have taught IU students their most important course of all: how to find inspiration. How to play. From the Indiana Theatre where his mom played piano for silent movies, to the churches of African-Americans, to the Gentry Brothers Circus…the whole city was Hoagy’s campus.

This building may not be what it used to be 80-some years ago when it was part of Hoagy’s stomping grounds. But at least it’s still here, and it’s still a restaurant. We take it for granted today — how could anyone want to replace it? — but this building could have been torn down years ago. The community decided to preserve it. We should next ensure that Hoagy’s boyhood home at 214 North Dunn Street be preserved, perhaps for nothing more than as a place for people to go for inspiration.

“Stardust” has been noted as a rare bird — a song about the memory of a song. At long last, here we are at the spot he credited for inspiring his masterpiece. This marker preserves forever the memory of that song.

Many years and many of his scores later, here we are at last — having ourselves slacked in our duty — we at last acknowledge a master of play, and a master player.

Let us now praise famous dawdlers. Let us now underscore the merits of slacking, the occasional value of sloth, and the importance of preserving the memories of the man who preserved for us the memory of love’s refrain.

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