" . . . you've got to stand up for the imaginative world, the imaginative element in the human personality, because I think that's constantly threatened . . . People do have imagination and sensibilities, and I think that does need constant exposition." -- John Read

"To disseminate my subjective thoughts and ideas, I stealthily hide them in a cloak of entertaining storytelling, since the depth of my thinking, shallow at best, might be challenged by erudite experts." -- Curt Siodmak

Monday, September 11, 2017

NRR Project 38: 'After You've Gone'

‘After You’ve Gone’
Music: Turner Layton
Lyrics: Henry Creamer
Sung by Marion Harris
Recorded: October 18, 1918

“After You’ve Gone” represents a turning point. Up until it became a hit, “black” and “white” musics stayed in their respective corners. Bluesy music wasn’t even thought to be fit for recording. When it finally was, it was classified as fit only for “race records,” not for right-thinking Caucasians, who were still awash in sentimental ballads and waltz tunes. After it hit, the mainstream move away from the stilted, pallid songs of the day began in earnest, sparking the collective creation of the Great American Songbook.

The tune was composed by African-American vaudeville partners Layton and Creamer, who supplied many shows and revues around Manhattan with material – the Ziegfield Follies, for one. Though civil rights were still abysmal, finally black artists were finding their work valued. It gave them a toehold in the entertainment world that would lead to other opportunities.

The song is definitely built on a blues lament – it’s a classic you’ll-be-sorry-for-leaving-me song. The cadences are long and loping, with a series of descending chords that make the singer feel as though they’ve stepping down into the phrases. Meanwhile, the poignant runs up and down to the “gone” notes actually convey woefulness. Songwriting is starting not to tell but to show, to embody strong and intense emotion in the music itself, in compact unis, all tied together to reinforce an overarching theme. The architecture of pop is under invention.

The lyrics are direct and conversational, and reflect the growing idea in American songwriting that a song is personal, sung to an imaginary individual, instead of just belted out to the crowd. The song tells a story, and conveys a perspective – a two-minute miracle. This, along with a melody that welcomes harmony and variation, resulted in it being one of the most recorded standards ever.

The delivery of Marion Harris in this recording is stiff and polite. It would take the 1927 recordings made by Last of the Red Hot Mamas, Sophie Tucker (covered earlier her in the series) and Empress of the Blues Bessie Smith to really give the material the swing and heft it deserves. Since then, it’s been recorded countless times, in all kinds of tempi and arrangements. It’s indestructible.

The National Recording Registry Project tracks one writer’s expedition through all the recordings in the National Recording Registry in chronological order. Up next: Tiger Rag. 

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

NRR Project 37: Early Heifetz recordings

Acoustic recordings
Jascha Heifetz, violin
53 sides recorded between Nov. 9. 1917 and Dec. 19, 1924

What would it be like to be the best ever at something? The epitome, the paragon, the pattern of perfection? It is painful, wonderful? Both? Is the expression of genius-level talent inevitable?

Case in point -- Jascha Heifetz. Born in Lithuania in 1901, he was the son of a violin teacher who noted his responsiveness to his playing in the child’s infancy. Lessons began at age 2, and his status as a prodigy spread quickly. By 1911, he was giving outdoor concerts in Odessa that drew thousands.

The looming Russian Revolution prompted the Heifetzes to flee the hard way – to the East, across Siberia and the Pacific to America. Heifetz’s appearance at Carnegie Hall on October 25, 1917 electrified the musical world and led his lifetime recording relationship with Victor Records (later RCA).

The records in this selection were made over 16 sessions, all using the acoustic recording process. This literal analog method of reproduction was best for brass, all right for vocals, piano, and high-register strings – and deadly for many others without a crisp sound that cycled between 250 and 2500 Herz. Heifetz’s strength, speed, accuracy all come through loud and clear.

Heifetz’s preternatural technical skill meant that he could leap over the first and highest hurdle to instrumental mastery. (Yes, he practiced diligently nonetheless.) After a century of so of robust, flamboyant, and sentimental showmanship in violin soloists, Heifetz focused on eliminating all affectation – paring everything back to the notes on the page and how to express them as cleanly as possible. This led to accusations of robotic performances later in his career. However, it’s evident that he was merely locked into a laser-like intensity of focus that precluded excessive gestures.

The pieces recorded here are very much a part of the violin repertory of the time – concert pieces, many considered “light,” lyrical works by Sarasate, Paganini, transcriptions by Fritz Kreisler, the last of whom was the top-dog fiddler of the day. Heifetz subordinates himself to the needs of the piece he is playing rather than imposing a style. His dedication to clarity, clarity, clarity markedly narrowed the gap between the composers’ intents and the listeners’ ears.

The National Recording Registry Project tracks one writer’s expedition through all the recordings in the National Recording Registry in chronological order. Up next: After You’ve Gone. 

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

NRR Project 36: 'Over There'

‘Over There’
Written by George M. Cohan
Singer: Nora Bayes
July 13, 1917

Evangelical interventionism.

This and other songs were part of a massive effort to turn a neutral U.S. population into one willing to send its sons off to die in a foreign war. It birthed the American Century, making the country a full-fledged major power. The repercussions were vast. Let’s break it down:

On November 7, 1916, Woodrow Wilson won his second term as U.S. president, in one of the closest contests in the history of the office. World War I had been raging since the summer of 1914, and Wilson’s campaign platform leaned hard on neutrality. “He kept us out of war” and “America First” were his slogans.

This was in keeping with America’s nominal isolationism. George Washington’s Farewell Address of 1796 famously adjured the country not to involve itself in foreign affairs: "Why, by interweaving our destiny with that of any part of Europe, entangle our peace and prosperity in the toils of European ambition, rivalship, interest, humor, or caprice?" The concept has been permanently misremembered as the “caution against entangling alliances,” but the idea is the same.

He hired George Edward Creel, a muckraking journalist, who founded the Committee on Public Information, a government-sponsored propaganda agency. It issued government press releases, produced "morale-lifting" materials, and enforced press censorship at the behest of the War Department.

The first nationwide effort to influence public opinion was massive and thorough. Instead of being presented as just another geopolitical conflict between yet another combination of nation-stats, entry into the War was portrayed as a new Crusade. It was "the War to End All Wars," the "War to Make the World Safe for Democracy." Through the press, posters, movies, radio, bond drives, public rallies, and songs, the CPI sold the war to the people.

Isolation and peace-mongering were tantamount to treason, and songs such "I Didn't Raise My Boy to Be a Soldier" disappeared from the music-store racks.

We've met brash George M. Cohan before in this series (link here). "Over There" was his last and biggest hit, the epitome of his peppy style. Shortly after war was declared, he jotted it down. It's a perfect little marching song -- urgent, repetitious, catchy. The lyrics are a perfect evocation of the (manufactured) spirit of the day:

"Johnnie get your gun, get your gun, get your gun
Take it on the run, on the run,
Here them calling you and me, every son of liberty!
Hurry right away, don't delay, go today,
Make your daddy glad to have had such a lad
Tell your sweetheart not to pine,
To be proud her boy's in line . . . .

Over there! Over there!
Send the word, send the word, over there!
That the Yanks are coming, the Yanks are coming
The drums rum-tumming everywhere!
So prepare, say a prayer
Send the word, send the word  to beware
We'll be over, we're coming over,
And we won't come back 'til it's over over there!"

It makes you want to sing along, march along, join in. It gives the unwary an image of war as a lark crossed with a divinely ordained mission. Cohan asked singing star Nora Bayes ("Shine On, Harvest Moon") to be the first to record it. He clear, strong, straightforward delivery is perfect.

The number of WWI songs is profuse. "Over There" is only  the best-known; others include gems such as "Hock the Kaiser," "Hello, Central, Give Me No Man's Land," and "If He Can Fight Like He Can Love, Good Night Germany!" The mixture of martial ardor and rank sentiment is an appropriate disconnect for a war that was supposed to be fought for noble reasons, but wound up creating a "lost generation" of disabused humanity.

By June 26, 1917, th first U.S. troops arrived in Europe. Eventually, more than four million American men enlisted, and tow million served overseas. The conclusion of the war 18 months left America indisputably an international force.

Thee demonization of Germany and its culture affected many in the U.S. Steinbeck records the shunning his German-American family experienced by suspicious neighbors. My German-American grandfather joined the cavalry, and made it only as far as New York by Armistice Day. He still wound up changing the spelling of his funny-sounding name, and its pronunciation.

In terms of the nation's psyche, the repercussions were even greater. One of the CPI's young propagandists was Edward Bernays. He studied the propaganda efforts and decided that the same techniques could be applied to any situation requiring mass persuasion. He bcame the father of public relations, what he termed "regimenting the public mind." His offspring -- the advertising industry.

The National Recording Registry Project tracks one writer’s expedition through all the recordings in the National Recording Registry in chronological order. Up next: the early Heifetz recordings.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

NRR Project 35: The Bubble Books (1917 – 1922)

The Bubble Book
Written by Ralph Mayhew and Burges Johnson; illustrated by Rhoda Chase
Singer: unknown; perhaps Henry Burr
14 iterations, 1917 -- 1922

Multimedia. It’s ubiquitous now, but this was one of the first attempts to combine sound and image – a quite successful attempt that helped entrain young imaginations. But was it progressive or pathetic? Allow me to go on a tangential ramble . . .

I will not insult your intelligence by doing other than pointing to Cary O’Dell’s comprehensive and eloquent essay on the subject, which you should now pause and read immediately here. (Even more great information here at Little Wonder Records & Bubble Books.)

For our purposes, they were carefully crafted, sturdy little artifacts, little books containing “three 5 ½-inch discs to accompany the three nursery rhymes printed in the books.” The authors were Ralph Mayhew and Burges Johnson; Rhoda Chase did the beautiful illustrations. It is thought that the popular Henry Burr recorded the songs.

They sold millions of copies. Kids loved them. Parents loved them. Remember, until electrical motors were introduced, all gramophones were spring-driven and required cranking. Gramophone needles were cheap; they came in boxes and their frequent replacement was encouraged. This is known in parenting circles as “giving the kids something to do.” It was a welcome distraction.

There’s no doubt it was an educational aid as well. The tradition of early attempts to plow through more and more complex words by “sounding it out” is made much easier when your infant eye can match the incomprehensible spelling of a familiar word. The tricks of phonetic language, the paths phrases follow, the cadences at the base of the language, and the vast eccentricities of English, were never more well-served.

Other people might argue that it was just another step into unreality, dwelling in the metaphoric media world instead of staying grounded in direct, literally unmediated everydayness.

I don’t know. I never ran across these, but of course my generation of children had picture books wed to two-sided, 45-rpm records that told the story and made a beeping sound when it was time to turn the page. Later, Disney and many other companies made long-playing records on the same principle, and so it unfolds as each new step in technology carries it forward in some iteration.

Which makes me think it’s ubiquitous and needed. We hunger for stories, no matter the form. I crammed myself into corners, bowed with books, reading my way out from under. We played and sang along to our childhood story-records; poignant, maybe, but not pathetic.

In contrast, certain child-friending devices come off today as rather frightening. Who remembers Teddy Ruxpin? A frightening doll that could talk and had limited eye motion, a resident of the Uncanny Valley. Powered by large batteries shoved up its backside. It “read” stories on interchangeable cassettes, and it remains something I still suspect Stephen King conjured up as a practical joke.

But I digress. Hypnotized now by our digital lives, it’s educational to peruse these quaintly analog ancestors. Part of the mission of the “Harper Columbia Book that Sings” was to create a new generation of customers. It worked.

The National Recording Registry Project tracks one writer’s expedition through all the recordings in the National Recording Registry in chronological order. Up next: ‘Listen to the Lambs.’

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Rockies game review: or, why I’m not a sportswriter

Seattle Mariners @ Colorado Rockies
May 29, 2017
1:10 p.m.
If you’da told me the Rockies were going to be in first place in the National League on Memorial Day this season, I’d have kicked you right near in the viaduct. The Rox have a long tradition of flaming out right after April, and considering the ludicrous amount of injuries we opened the year with, it seemed like now less than ever they deserved another shot from this enthusiastic but gun-shy fan. Our prospects, literally and figuratively, didn’t look good.

I waited ‘til yesterday to go – surprisingly, it was not hard to get tickets. (The previous day’s game was a sellout.) The Bolder Boulder and other holiday activities sucked away some potential crowd members, although a few people with insane stamina, still in their racing bibs, showed up to the game.

It was slightly disheartening, but familiar, to watch the Rockies lose. However (a Rockies fan must always seek qualifiers) there was definitely a different kind of losing going on in this game. This was close. Traditionally, the hit-happy bunch are let down by a series of exploding starting pitchers, who are then replaced by a dreary litany of failed relievers down the years –nay, decades, snatching defeat from the jaws of victory time and again.

Yesterday, our pitchers as a group (we used five, they used seven) suffered from a kind of dreaminess. They seemed to hurl the ball in a state of Borgesian lassitude, as though they were not quite sure any of this was real or not. This caused them to run the count up to 3-0, again and again. Despite the then heroic shakes of their respective heads, pulling them back to consensual reality, and a few strikes thrown, often as not our pitchers were getting pulled with only one or two outs and the bases loaded. You can’t keep this kind of foolishness up for long without getting punished for it.

 Otherwise, it was a good, clean game, full of swats (17 total hits, 11 runs) and no errors. Time crept by as the pitchers kept changing; the good old Rockies employee who runs gear out from the bullpen when pitchers change and then dashes back, to wild acclamation from the crowd, got worked. It would be easy to cite Parra for his ill-advised steal attempt that killed the 4th as well as some momentum, but it's a standard move. If he'd made it I'd be saying the opposite,so what do I know? In the end the Mariners just did, as Grandpa used to say, more gittin’.

In the stands, we kept our scorecards and cracked wise, one ear on the radio. The usual scoreboard shenanigans kept everyone amused, and there was plenty of hat-doffing and singing and moments of silence for Memorial Day. (What has happened to the interactive magic of the hapless fan out there trying to catch a fly ball, or replacing a base, for prizes, between innings? Is there some kind of liability issue? Has the nnany sstate taken even this away from us?) And, as I predicted, the giant anthropomorphic tooth won the mid-inning race around foul ground, maintaining a lead from the beginning over the anthropomorphic toothbrush and anthropomorphic toothpaste. Not bad.

And, oh yes, when did I predict it would rain? 2 p.m. When did it start raining? Exactly. And who was happy I brought two ponchos? Yes, that is right. Father is right.

Oh, yes. They beat us, 6 to 5.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

NRR Project 34: John McCormack sings ‘Il mio tesoro’

Detail from William Orphen's portrait  of McCormack
‘Il mio Tesoro’
From Mozart’s Don Giovanni
Performed by John McCormack; accompanied by Walter Rogers and ensemble
Recorded May 9, 1916
What is the hell is an Irish tenor? From the late 19th century through the middle of the 20th, you couldn’t throw a brick-end without hitting one. They infested churches, bars, social halls, auditoriums, and stood by pianos, organs, and spinets in countless parlors, warbling melodies that charmed the ear and made a tear well up here and there. And John McCormack was the ultimate manifestation of the phenomenon.

An Irish tenor is not necessarily Irish, although it would have behooved him to don a moniker like Reilly or Flanagan before taking the stage. It’s the vocal quality and material covered that makes an Irish tenor. He does not have the strong blare of a Verdiean tenor, nor the all-day toughness of a Wagnerian heldentenor. An Irish tenor is light, lilting, legato – smooth as silk and full of feeling. It’s perfect for sentimental ballads, whether they be about a girl or about Ireland.

John McCormack was a true son of the sod, born in the small town of Athlone in the dead-center of Ireland. His vocal gifts were appreciated, and his community chipped in to send him to Italy for training. He rose swiftly in the opera world, and began to record in 1904. He rapidly became second only to Caruso in terms of recordings sold.

Though McCormack could essay much of the tenor repertoire, he switched his focus to concerts around 1912. There he performed the hits people really loved. He was the first to record “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary,” and he made famous other chestnuts such as “I Hear You Calling Me,” and “The Last Rose of Summer”; his Irish ballads like “The Minstrel Boy,” “Mother Machree,” “The Wearin’ o’ the Green,” and many, many others proved insanely popular with the Irish-American population, which was finally beginning to overcome generations of prejudice.

This recording is a perfect example of his work. It is eminently listenable, flawless, with an extraordinary breath control and sense of articulation. Parlors everywhere had a large stock of McCormack records nearby. Soon crooners and jazz babies would take over the top spot in American musical culture, but McCormack is one of the last remnants of that genteel tradition in American vocal music. He was perfectly lovely.

The National Recording Registry Project tracks one writer’s expedition through all the recordings in the National Recording Registry in chronological order. Up next: The Bubble Book. 

NRR Project update: New selections for 2017!

Dear and faithful reader -- here is the list of recordings selected by the National Recording Registry for 2017, just announced today. The comprise 25 recordings from the across the history of American recorded sound. I have been plowing forward through time on this project, and am currently working on an essay concerning John McCormack's 1916 recording of "Il mi Tesoro." So lenghthy is this project (I have tackled 34 out of 475 to date) that each year I find myself adding the new entries to the list, circling back to cover selections that predate where I'm currently at, etc. I am hanging in there, and I hope you are, too. Hopefully someday a complete compendium will  be assembled. In the meantime, I am still learning and having fun sharing what I find out with you. Thanks for reading!

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

NRR Project 33: 'They Didn't Believe Me' (1914)

Julia Sanderson and Donald Brian premiered 'They Didn't Believe Me' on August 14, 1914. World War I was 10 days old.
‘They Didn’t Believe Me’
Music: Jerome Kern
Lyrics: Herbert Reynolds
Performed by Harry Macdonough and Alice Green
Recorded Sept. 8, 1915

It sounds like it was written yesterday. That’s the key to what makes one still refer to Jerome Kern in the present tense. His songs are very much alive.

At last. In this marathon effort, I feel for the first time contact with modernity. Up to now, what had popular American music been? Hymns and gospel songs, Stephen Foster, marches, sentimental ballads, minstrel-show hits, George M. Cohan, operetta, bawdy “extravaganza” songs, and ragtime. Even the first great contributor to the Great American Songbook, Irving Berlin, dwelt in the peppy, razz-mah-tazz mode of “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” (1911) for many years.

By 1914, the precocious Kern, who took the piano very seriously and studied for years in New York and Heidelberg, had been in show business for nine years. He began as a rehearsal pianist on Broadway and song-plugger in Tin Pan Alley, and worked his way up in both New York and London.

When a London producer brought an English show, “The Girl from Utah,” to Broadway in 1914, the first act needed punching up. (The story goes that first acts in English theater could be indifferent, as the audience always showed up late; but Americans were prompt and restless. They wanted a complete evening of entertainment, dammit.) Kern and Herbert Reynolds threw five new numbers into the show, and “They Didn’t Believe Me” was one of them.

Julia Sanderson and Donald Brian premiered it on August 14, 1914, and it quickly became a national hit. Five weeks later, Victor Talking Machine Co.’s house tenor and gifted administrator Harry Macdonough recorded it with Alice Green, aka Olive Kline. Kline was a substitute singer in a church quartet Macdonough sang in, and one Sunday he sent her a note during the sermon asking her to make a test record. She became a popular member of the Victor stale of singers.

As sung here, the song is delivered in a very stiff, 19th-century style. The introductory verse has a bit of hurdy-gurdy feel to it, but when Macdonough hits the chorus, even his essential whiteness can’t prevent the song from sounding vernacular, conversational. The melody is almost non-schematic – it seems to wander about, but it exists strictly to illuminate the meaning of the words, pared-down and essential. (Access that recording here.)

For the first time in American music, someone is singing TO someone rather than at someone. The rhythm is a sauntering 4/4, conducive to the foxtrot that was taking over American dance halls. It tells a story, and words and music serve each other in lovely symbiosis. Most importantly, there is an emotional current running through the piece. It has a pulse, it can be inhabited emotionally, which confers and augments the interpretive power of its performers. Here’s the beginning of the sensitive, insightful, witty, and vital catalogue of “standards” that will remain current, and keep feeding imaginations, for a long time to come.

Kern would go on to create six key “Princess Theatre” musicals after this, experiments in small-scale, believable musical comedies that charmed everyone, moving up step by step, churning out a musical a year, partnering fatefully with Oscar Hammerstein II, creating the legendary vernacular opera Show Boat, and moving on through Broadway and Hollywood.

He wound up writing more than 700 songs, among them “All the Things You Are,” “The Way You Look Tonight,” “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” “Who?”, “A Fine Romance” – and on and on. And they all still sound fresh. “They Didn’t Believe Me” is a great place to start exploring his work.

The National Recording Registry Project tracks one writer’s expedition through all the recordings in the National Recording Registry in chronological order. Up next: the great John McCormack sings ’Il mio tesoro.’ 

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

NRR Project 32: 'Casey at the Bat' (1906)

‘Casey at the Bat’
DeWolf Hopper
Recorded 1906

What can you say about “Casey at the Bat”? That’s fresh, I mean. It’s engraved on our collective consciousness. Everyone knows it; it’s part of American mythology. We’ve all recited it, or heard it recited. It’s been performed, recorded, adapted, parodied thousands upon thousands of times. It’s on short list of “America’s best-loved poems,” along with “The Night before Christmas,” “Paul Revere’s Ride,” and homiletic narratives such as those of Edgar A. Guest (“It takes a heap o’ living/To make a house a home”), et al. In other words, it’s annoying.

The facts are these – Ernest Lawrence Thayer, a 24-year-old humor columnist for the San Francisco Examiner (a Harvard classmate of millionaire publisher William Randolph Hearst’s, who gave him the job), cranked out this mock epic as his last piece for that paper, on June 3, 1888. It was buried, like the piece of comic doggerel Thayer and everyone else took it for, at the bottom of the fourth column on Page 4 that day. It bore no byline. (Thayer received proper attribution years later, but never made an extra dime off his best-known creation.)

As a poem, it certainly works. It’s memorable, it tells an interesting story in an interesting way. Its pace is bouncy and fee, fun, and seemingly crafted to speak aloud, actually. It’s almost a parody, but not quite – “A straggling few got up to go in deep despair” is exactly how many baseball fans have felt when the home team was down late in the game. Ultimately, it’s a bit of a homily about tragic pride as well.

But then. Back in those days, casual pieces that were “evergreen,” or capable of being inserted at any time of year, migrated into other papers of the same chain, and rival publications as well. The sheer volume needed to fill the daily “news hole” meant that all kinds of material found its way into the pages, good, bad or indifferent. The New York Sun ran it a few weeks later. Writer Archibald Gunter read it, clipped it out and stuck it in his wallet. He had a friend who was huge ham who he thought might like it.

DeWolf Hooper reciting "Casey at the Bat" for an early synchronized-sound film, 1922.
DeWolf Hopper was one of the funniest men of Broadway. At 6’5” and 230 pounds, he was an adept comic actor who got his start with the proto-musical comedy team of Harrigan and Hart. Hopper wound up starring in more than 30 productions during the period. (He was quite a ladies’ man as well, with as many wives as Henry VIII, and the nickname ‘The Husband of His Country.’)

And he was a big baseball fan, or “crank,” as an adherent of the sport was termed then. He had already started interpolating freestanding comic baseball sketches and “bits” into his performances as early as 1885.

When Hopper glimmed this poem, something clicked. On August 14, 1888, Hopper recited the poem at a special performance of the comic opera Prinz Methusalem that was attended by the both the New York Giants and the Chicago White Sox. It was a huge hit. Hooper was uniquely suited to deliver this bombastic narrative of battle, stretching it out, embellishing it with rococo diction and gesture, and wringing every laugh possible out of it. (This usually took him five minutes and 40 seconds; he speeds up to fit it all in on one side of this Victor disc.)

Hopper claimed to have performed the piece 10,000 times, which would mean that he got up and performed it every day for seven months out of the year over the course of the 47 remaining years of his career. I’m glad that age could not wither nor custom stale his enjoyment of performing it, but I wonder if it got a little tiresome for others.

Oh, and I don’t know if any literary scholar has covered this last point but: Casey is a big fat jerk.

The National Recording Registry Project tracks one writer’s expedition through all the recordings in the National Recording Registry in chronological order. Up next: ’They Didn’t Believe Me.’

Friday, February 10, 2017

How to Get in Trouble: Activism 101

The Denver Women's March, January 21. [Photo by Brad Weismann]
This is a personal story. There’s no claim to objectivity here. If you’re not liberally inclined, this story is not for you. The question I asked myself after Trump’s election, after a weeklong coma of disbelief, was: what should I do, in the face of massive, reactionary assault on what I consider to be essential American values? What can I do? And as Chris Edelson put it bluntly in the Baltimore Sun the other day, “This is not a hypothetical question.”

“What should I do?” I commit journalism; people were asking ME what to do. I had no idea. I know what my convictions are. I am an unreconstructed guilt-ridden and bearded white male liberal, raised during Vietnam, the Space Race, the Civil Rights movement and the aspirations of the Great Society. I’ve read enough history to know what a national crisis looks like. So, I know that sitting on the sidelines and invoking a nonexistent sense of impartiality is pretty hard for me, loudmouth fool that I am. So, farewell, sidelines.

Though I’d reported on social-justice movements, actions, and figures, I had not a clue as to how these organizations were created or maintained. How did they formulate a plan for social action? What does it entail? Who teaches it? What works?

So, I started asking people around the area. The response was spotty – oddly, some of the more established rights organizations were the slowest to respond. Some I’m still waiting on.

One who got back to me immediately was Scott L. Levin, the Regional Director of the Anti-Defamation League. The 104-year-old organization was founded to protect Jewish people, but has since broadened its scope to advocate and educate on and about civil rights issues, and to facilitate human relations.

Levin said, “We’re tremendously busy these days. The amount of hate incidents have gone up dramatically. (This was late December, three weeks before Trump’s inauguration.)

“There is a lot of hate that’s going on online, and I think people need to call it out in real time when they see it. We have to take whatever steps are necessary not to normalize this behavior. We can speak up, we can continue to call on our leaders. It’s not who we are in Colorado.

“We try to tell people that words matter. The ADL has one of the state’s biggest anti-bullying program, in 50 schools. This is about changing the culture.”

I asked him how someone with zero knowledge could start.

“I think there are lot of things they can do,” he answered. “Engagement has to be done on a person-to-person level. Just even getting together with friends and acquaintances, talking through the issues of the day, gives you a place to start. Plus, it’s therapeutic. From that, you develop a group of like-minded people, then come up with a mission statement. In a very public way, too. We’re seeing all these public communities come together -- communities of color, LGBT – and when we unite we maximize and leverage our influence. This is a kind of time that we haven’t seen in our country for a few decades. A level of activism is called for beyond the normal. We’ve got to be prepared and do our work NOW.”

Then I talked to Evan Weissman (no relation – the question has come up before). He’s a nice, smart guy, who worked for years with Buntport Theater Company in Denver. He came up with the idea for Warm Cookies of the Revolution, a hybrid of civics and interactive fun that’s been holding events in Denver since November of 2012. The best description I can find of their methodology is in a previous interview I did with Evan:

“Of the Warm Cookies inspiration, he says, ‘I kind of was over the idea that we had to do things the way we had been. Protesting and organizing are important, but this is a different way to attract more people.

‘We want to have fun, but we don’t want it to be hokey – we don’t want to hoodwink people, or hit them over the head with a message. It’s a tough balance to work out – engaging ways to discuss important issues.’”

Warm Cookies has covered all manner of topics – voting, immigration, financial policy, and so – framed in participatory, un-stodgy ways. The group’s development now seems prescient. I got hold of Evan before the January 29 edition of the group’s “Sunday School for Atheists” informational meeting. The featured speaker was Dr. Erica Chenoweth of the University of Denver, an expert in international studies who made a quantitative study of political action, violent and non-violent, and their relative effectiveness.

“I’ve been incubating this recess,” he said in early January, as life started to crank up again for everyone after the holidays. “I don’t know where the story is or where it’s going. I have hope. Hope is what allows us to do action, otherwise we fall prey to cynicism, which is just retreat.”

OK, was he worried? “It depends how much stock you put into a national election,” he said. “That’s not the litmus test, however much they tell us that. The campaigns are run by people who get us to shop – and I don’t know that I buy that.

“I think we need to take it out of the realm of where people’s minds are set. We forget about our ownership. We own the community. If I say to you, ‘Make a list of everything you own,’ no one says the sidewalks, the radio waves, the library -- we just don’t l think like that. If we remember that we own these things, we can decide what is done with them.”

(I think about those thousands I marched with on January 21. It was a huge and impressive event, far larger than anyone had anticipated. How many were there – 100,000? 200,000? People kept streaming in that day, from all points of the compass, into Civic Center Park, walking in from farther and farther out as the parking lots and spaces filled, the trains and buses disgorging throngs, most bearing homemade signs – properly spelled and punctuated, for once. At least liberalism has that! An astonishing and peaceful display of commitment. But I worry, too. That was a cinematic kind of protest, that spontaneous outpouring of mass feeling that swells up right before the movie ends. Would less dramatic efforts be as well-peopled?)

“It’s about activating a sense of responsibility. I think the key,” he said, “is that’s all incremental. You have to start small. You have to do what you can do. If you’re trying to do the perfect thing, you’ll never get anything done.

“It’s like that saying, ‘Learn one thing and you learn everything.’ So you want to get in there and mix it up. The joy is in the struggle, when you’re working with people. Enjoy the rebellion.”

The Sunday School for Atheists session on “The Science of Effective Resistance” on January 29 was held in the McNichols Building at 144 W. Colfax. It was packed to capacity. There was child care, there were Spanish translators. Collapsible buffet tables at the rear of the space held multiple sign-ups sheets, surveys, requests for ideas, and information from a number of social-action causes. Off to the side was a massive array of treats, a kind of inspired potluck (hey, the group’s guarantee the presence of cookies is right there in its title) that kids and others made short work of.

The buzz was lively and friendly. Long-time local musician and activist Jamie Laurie got the crowd’s attention focused with some call and response action. Chenoweth’s presentation was brisk, engaging, and convincing. Evidently no one had ever done a study of the relative effectiveness of violent versus non-violent protest. Using a sensible methodology and wielding and impressive array of metrics, Chenoweth asserted that success rates of non-violent social actions were double those of violent ones. 

Reasons? First, the barrier to participation is lower. It takes a peculiar set of qualities to motivate someone to pick up arms, and inevitably aligns them with a group of like-minded individuals. “Participation in non-violence is easier for non-risk acceptant individuals,” she said. “Also, this allows for participation on a day-to-day basis. There are not a lot of casual insurgents.”

There’s a lower “cognitive barrier” as well. “This is not about converting people, melting hearts,” she said. “It’s about creating a coalition – and if you’re comfortable with everyone in your coalition, you don’t have a coalition. If you form a group, you will probably form an agreement in terms of goals and methods. Trust me – you will spend 95 percent of your time in meetings figuring those things out, and 5 percent in the actions.

“Instead of pushing at an issue, it’s more about pulling. You are pulling neutrals over to the role of passive allies, then to active allies.” (Funny, this is the same methodology used to get people to become season subscribers to arts organizations.)

“Eventually, you create links with those who constitute pillars of support for what you are opposing.” (As activist Srdja Popovic puts it in his 2015 book Blueprint for Revolution, “it is awfully hard to shoot people you know.”)

She had more advice for activists. She cited the example of activist and teacher of non-violence James Lawson, who before organizing spent nine months to a year visiting the people he wanted to help, going from door to door and “finding out what people care about, personally,” Chenoweth emphasized. “What were they ashamed of? What were they afraid of?” This approach ensures that the reasons and motivation for change come from the community itself, instead of being imposed from the outside. Developing communication and trust, and modeling the concept of taking care of one another, proceeds from this approach as well.

Chenoweth heartened the crowd with her estimate that it only takes the participation of 3 ½ percent of a total given population to create a critical mass that mandates change. “And, we never know when something might make a difference, so we have to keep doing it,” she added.

Meanwhile, organizations keep popping up everywhere, and it seems like show people definitely have an advantage in creating something that works in record time. A few weeks ago, theatrical stalwart Mare Trevathan innocently put out a query on her Facebook account wondering how she could set up a civics-education class. Her friends GerRee Hinshaw and Rebecca Aronauer had formed the group Said & Done for the implementation of one social-action event after the Women's March, and they invited Trevathan to build on their existing platform. Within a few days, two Civics 101 sessions were organized and completely filled. The two-hour sessions (the first one took place in Longmont last night) cover the three branches of government, what local involvement in the political process looks like, a rundown of basic rights, effective activism, and facing fears about taking action.

“We plan to put something of a ‘franchise’ plan (without the $ part) – a template people can take to make one of these themselves,” Trevathan wrote. Already, the production of similar events across the state and region are planned.

So, guess what? Resistance is highly doable. One act lays the foundation for another. Given who our current president is, the barrier has never been lower for political involvement. Any action helps. Remember how we were told that the sharing of partisan information digitally during the election just created an “echo chamber” that had no effect? Bullshit. Relaying and amplifying messages are good, though they are no substitute for in-person, analog, real-world actions.

So start something. Pick something, stay focused on one topic --reacting to every outrage leads to exhaustion – and every issue is intertwined with others, ultimately. Communicate; find common grounds, build coalitions. Persist. Progress is incremental and never guaranteed; sometimes the most mundane actions bring about the greatest change. And don’t be so damn serious – in today’s America, you are already in trouble with many of your fellow citizens, simply for believing what you believe. It’s going to get worse before it gets better – you might as well have as much fun as possible.

“Surely, this Instruction which I enjoin upon you this day is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach. It is not in the heavens, that you should say, ‘Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?’ Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who among us can cross to the other side of the sea and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?’ No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it.” Deuteronomy 30:11-14


The sheer volume of information for would-be activists is cascading through the social system right now. Here are some places and works I found useful:

American Civil Liberties Union

Warm Cookies of the Revolution

For questions and information about the rapidly developing Said and Done: Civic 101 project, please contact Mare Trevathan at MareTrevathan.gmail,com.

Indivisible: A Practical Guide for Resisting the Trump Administration
This guide, compiled by former coongressional staffers, is free and readily available online.

Blueprint for Revolution
Srdkja Popovic

Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict
Erica Chenoweth

Beautiful Trouble: A Toolbox for Revolution
Andrew Boyd

The Nonviolence Handbook: A Guide for Practical Action
Michael N. Nagler

Monday, February 6, 2017

NRR Project 31: ‘Castles in Europe One-Step’

‘Castles in Europe One-Step’ aka ‘Castle House Rag’
Europe’s Society Orchestra
Composer: James Reese Europe
Recorded February 10, 1914
Here’s an unknown titan of American music for you, someone you should get to know. James Reese Europe was a composer, arranger, and bandleader who busted through all the color lines in his brief life. Eubie Blake called him “the Martin Luther King of music.” Why isn’t he better known?

When Europe was 20, he organized a large organization for black New York musicians called the Clef Club, which not only fielded an expert ensemble but served as union hall, booking agency, and meeting place. The 125-member Clef Club played Carnegie Hall on May 12, 1912, the first black group to do so.

Notably, they played what was recorded as “ragtime, blues, and minstrel songs,” in other words popular vernacular tunes instead of white compositions. American culture was just beginning to edge out from underneath the influence of Europe; “serious” black composers, with the exception of Scott Joplin, imitated the compositional techniques of “serious” white composers, who were aping European styles. “My success had come . . . from a realization of the advantages of sticking to the music of my own people.”

Europe’s decision to value and develop African American music was part of a groundswell of artistic assertion by important black composers. W.C. Handy published his “Memphis Blues” in 1912 as well, exploding a passion for blues in the general public. Jelly Roll Morton was touring the country at this time, working up his own repertoire.

Jazz was in the air, but this was not jazz. Europe headed a “society orchestra,” and that meant dance music. Enter Vernon and Irene Castle.

 Here was an innovative celebrity couple, a ballroom-dancing couple who revolutionized social dancing in America. The two were suave, slender, and stylish, setting an elegant tone that people wanted to imitate. They succeeded in vaudeville, in Paris nightclubs, then on Broadway (Irving Berlin wrote his first show, Watch Your Step, for them in 1914).They popularized the ubiquitous foxtrot, and women bobbed their hair just like Irene, and switched to simpler, less cumbersome outfits, as she had. Above all, they made dancing look easy and fun.

The Castles were so popular that they could make their own rules. (They had an openly gay manager, Elisabeth Marbury.) The Carnegie Hall concert got their attention; they hired Europe and his band to accompany them – an extremely risky move at the time, as many areas forbade white and black performers working on stage together. However, the combination worked, and worked well, for a few essential years.

This “One-Step” is misnamed – it should be titled “Castle House Rag,” but whatever you call it, it’s a fast and furious expedition through raggy territory. The sheer mass of instruments being played gives the recording a harsh, undynamic wall-of-sound feel, buts its lively syncopations, derived somewhat from older dance forms but harnessed to the new rush and earnestness. Of particular note is the wild drumming codas of Buddy Gilmore – the first percussive solos on record.

World War I interrupted their careers. Vernon Castle joined the Royal Air Corps, and died in a training accident in 1918. Europe joined up as a lieutenant with the infantry regiment “The Harlem Hellfighters.” His military band traveled all over Europe, spreading ragtime and blues and igniting awareness of these new musics in the minds of listeners and composers there.

Europe was known for his stubbornness in following his own artistic path, and in insisting on professionalism from his musicians. After the war, Europe came back to the U.S. and got busy performing and recording. On May 9, 1919, he got into an argument with a drummer between shows in Boston. The man stabbed him in the neck, and he died later that day. He was 39.

The National Recording Registry Project tracks one writer’s expedition through all the recordings in the National Recording Registry in chronological order. Up next: Klezmer! with ‘Casey at the Bat.’

Thursday, January 19, 2017

The NRR Project 30: ‘Fon der Choope’

A typical klezmer ensemble of the turn of last century.
‘Fon der Choope’
Abe Elenkirg’s Yidishe Orchestra
Recorded April 4, 1913
Klezmer is secular Jewish music. Say what?

Here’s the thing. Traditionally, in Judaism, instruments are not played on the Sabbath – songs of praise are sung unaccompanied, usually to tunes, also known as prayer modes, in use for centuries. But hey, what culture doesn’t have music in it? And at weddings, parties, and the like, bands of musicians would play what developed into klezmer -- a vital, emotional, dance-oriented music that developed in the Jewish communities of Europe during the 19th century, a hybrid of Romani, Turkish, and Russian influences, steeped in the melodic modes of the prayer services.

Here’s the first surviving recording of the genre made in America. It’s credited to Abe Elenkrig’s Yidishe Orchestra, about which not much is known. Abe was a barber, and played trumpet and led an ensemble on the side, performing for social occasions. The 10 sides he and his outfit recorded for Columbia shine light on the genre during one of its most obscure periods.

“Fon der Choope” (“For the Wedding”) is a typical klezmer piece (ironically, the term wasn’t used until the 1980s – until then it was known as Yiddish music), the typical ensemble consists of trumpet, clarinet, violins, flute, accordion -- portability for traveling musicians. The high, keening melodies, based on sacred phrasings known as cantillations, give the music a penetrating feelingness.

The recording is fascinating in that it captures the music before jazz began to influence it. The first recording of jazz was four years away, and once it enters the picture it begins to perlocate into klezmer – and vice versa. A lot of the minor-key work, the vocal-style inflections, and the forthright emotionality found its way into early jazz, via practitioners such as Dave Tarras. Naftule Brandwein, and Ziggy Elman (Elman’s 1938 klezmer instrumental “Fralich in Swing” was Caucasianized into the hit song “And the Angels Sing” a year later.)

However, mainstream American Jewish culture was more interested in assimilation at the time. It wasn’t until the late 1970s that the Klezmer Revival took place, which revived traditional approaches and inspired new hybrids as well. Now klezmer is inextricably wound into the DNA of American music – aren’t you glad?

The National Recording Registry Project tracks one writer’s expedition through all the recordings in the National Recording Registry in chronological order. Up next: ’Castles in Europe One-Step.’ 

Thursday, January 12, 2017

NRR Project 29: Lovey’s Trinidad String Band

Lovey’s Trinidad String Band
Recordings for Columbia, Victor Records
Recorded June-July 1912
24 takes

What makes a music catch the ear of the public? Why this and not that, then but not now? Four years before jazz exploded onto the American scene, calypso came ashore.

It came in the persons of the uniformed members of Lovey’s Trinidad String Band, wielding waltzes and syncopated, swaying paseos. Trinidad and Tobago in the Caribbean was a hotbed of music generation in the 20th century, and calypso was one of the genres. It was a full-bodied, orchestral kind of Afro-Hispanic dance music, based on violins and guitars, with some percussion and a few wind instruments thrown in for accents.

What makes calypso unique is its lyrics, none of which hare found on the Lovey (aka George R. Baillie) recordings. The rhythm in most calypso songs serve as a backdrop for freewheeling, improvised verse – extempo --, usually about sex, politics, or some other controversy. Sounds like rap? It’s a distant progenitor, whose offspring and relatives include The Dozens, toasting, and sanankuya. Calypso spread the news, lyrics were debated and records were banned. Without that edgy, alive word-battling aspect, these first known recordings of calypso are intriguing, but not riveting.

Lovey’s toured New York in the summer of 1912, and made exactly two dozen recordings, which can be heard on a finely curated compilation by Bear Family Records. Calypso’s singers would begin to record bodies of work in the 1930s, and in 1956 Harry Belafonte would spark a worldwide (and extremely sanitized) calypso craze with his recording of “The Banana Boat Song.”

The National Recording Registry Project tracks one writer’s expedition through all the recordings in the National Recording Registry in chronological order. Up next: Castles in Europe One-Step.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

NRR Project 28: ‘Come Down Ma Evenin’ Star’

‘Come Down Ma Evenin’ Star’
Lillian Russell
Music: John Stromberg
Lyrics: Robert Smith
Recorded March 22, 1912

 This recording is the rarest of the rare – an unreleased test pressing discovered 31 years after it was recorded. It captures the presence of a lovely and talented link in the history of celebrity culture – the legendary Lillian Russell, the first American “sex symbol.”

Like her 19th century predecessors Lola Montez and Lillie Langtry, she first won praise as a performer, then as an ideal beauty and glass of fashion. Finally she was celebrated simply for being herself – set so firmly in the minds of the public that she had endorsement deals.

She was the daughter of a newspaper publisher and a writer/feminist. She studied voice with the great Leopold Damrosch, and despite her mother’s disapproval she was soon the best-known singer of operetta in the country. She was classy, charming and voluptuous, embodying the ideal Victorian female figure -- large-bosomed, corset-cinched, topped with a round, cherubic face.

Like many prominent female performers, she had a tumultuous personal life, studded with four marriages and many affairs, mostly with rich and powerful men. Newspapers tracked her incessantly. When Alexander Graham Bell initiated long-distance telephone service in 1890, Russell sang over the line.

“Come Down Ma Evenin’ Star” was written for Russell by composer John Stromberg for her starring role in the popular 1902 review Twirly Whirly. He held it back from her, saying it wasn’t ready. He committed suicide weeks before opening night, and the music for the song was found in his pocket. His lyricist put words to it, and it became Russell’s signature song.

It’s a sweet, wistful ballad of yearning, of a kind just ready to fall out of favor. Its sentimental strains were the last delicate gasp of the silk-and-lamplight niceties of the period. Russell made this recording in 1912, a decade after it became a hit, and eight years after Russell had stopped singing (but not performing) onstage.

Why did Russell record it? Significantly, she never allowed herself to be recorded live save for this disc, and a handful of film snippets. She didn’t need the income, certainly, being financially independent. Or the publicity. Perhaps she listened to the recording playback and found, like so many people, that her voice was unbearable. (She is a bit nasal and strained here.)

Interestingly, though, her performance here is technically top-notch, warm, clear, and expressive. It verifies the abilities of performer lost to popular consciousness, remembered if at all as a “sex symbol.”

The National Recording Registry Project tracks one writer’s expedition through all the recordings in the National Recording Registry in chronological order. Up next: Lovey’s Trinidad String Band recordings.