Thursday, December 13, 2018

The NRR Project #52: The first laugh track; or, why is comedy funny?

The OKeh laughing record
Recorded 1920, Berlin
Released in U.S. in 1922
Performers: Lucie Bernardo, Otto Rathke, and Felix Silbers

"Comedy is the salt of civilization, its critical voice. The comic spirit is forgiving, stands up for freedom and elasticity, and counters the corrosive powers of evil by refusing to acknowledge its claims over the human spirit. Its real enemy is custom drained of significance; it is the ability of life to assert its claims no matter what social forms dictate." — Guy Davenport

OK, I’m not going to kid you. The best and most comprehensive take on this interesting novelty recording is the analysis and history written by Casey O’Dell for the National Recording Registry, which you can access here. All the vital facts are there, and anything I might add would only be commentary.

Which has never stopped me before.

Boiled down, the facts are these: the original recording is from Germany, recorded on the OKeh label in 1920 — which itself ripped off the idea from Henry Klausen’s recording “The Misfortunes of Youth” in 1903. On the Laughing Record (in German, Das Original Lach Aufnahme), a cornetist tries gamely to play a serious solo, only to be undermined by a giggling, then guffawing, woman. A man joins in the audible hilarity, flummoxing the instrumentalist. At about the two-minute mark, the two laughers finally settle down for a moment, and the horn player makes another game effort. However, this triggers an even more raucous burst of laughter, including snorts, gasps, and sighs, until the comic convulsions peter out.

That’s it. It sold more than a million copies in America. Soon and often copied by other labels around the world, the recording and its like popped up again and again.

O’Dell expertly traces the recording’s history and heritage. He rightly adjudges the subjective experience of listening to the recording as hovering between the “joyous” and “demonic.” O’Dell makes the case for it being a precursor of the laugh track, and talks about our enjoyment of the forbidden and unprofessional live crack-ups of stage and film (or “breaking,” or as the British say, “corpsing”).

He even cites the recording as a proto-meme, and he’s right in the sense that the piece transcends language, making it universally comprehensible and contributing powerfully to its analog-era virality. It’s a great piece of insight.

To it, I can only add some basic thoughts about comedy. Now: nobody wants to talk about why something is funny. Trust me. In my Film Comedy class at NYU, I was forced to read Freud’s Jokes and Their Relation to the Subconscious. Not only wasn’t it compelling reading, but there were no jokes worth cribbing from it. Analysis is death to comedy, which, like horror and erotica, short-circuits a rational response for a welcome burst of feeling, and unmediated response. (To complicate things, we must factor in scholar Eric Griffiths’ statement, “It is important to remember that laughter can express other emotions apart from amusement.”)

Now, Freud thought that comedy provided psychic relief, that it is a safety valve that allows the expression of repressed, forbidden, or social unacceptable ideas. This is also known as the “Hey, I was just kidding” theory, and the reason why comics and satirists are usually the first to be silenced when dictatorships rise.

The ancients proposed that laughter was a way of feeling superior (anyone who has watched the Three Stooges has been exposed to this theory). For them, the clown doing what was “wrong” was a way of reinforcing what society deemed to be “right,” and reinforced adherence to normative values. The incongruous juxtaposition theory, which would also be a great name for an EDM outfit, simply states that humor is triggered when something is out of place or context, or contravenes normal understanding. Surrealist humor such as Magritte’s The Treachery of Images (1929) illustrates the theory aptly.

A more recent and more compelling idea has evolved about comedy, to do with the subversion of compassion. The philosopher Henri Bergson declared that laughter required the elevation of the intellect over the sensibilities — that it puts us at a remove that allows us to laugh. We laugh at things that, if presented seriously, would trigger a compassionate response. As Mel Brooks put it, “Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die.” Thinking of it in this way, comedy takes on tones of sadism.

From a practical standpoint, the perspective of 15 years on stage as a comic taught me that comedy is fueled by a great deal of aggression, sparked by a real grievance about the gap between things as they should be and things as they are. There is an immense pleasure in sublimating this impulse to the service of provoking laughter, and it promotes (temporarily at least) a sense of power and control over the vagaries of human life, a way of both naming what infuriates us and conquering it by laughing at it.

Bergson writes that laughter is inherently complicit; “laugh and the world laughs with you,” as the saying goes. There is an element of coercion to this, but also a spur to inclusivity. After all, if we’re in on the joke, our position is privileged. We become, literally, the cognoscenti, people who know.

The Laughing Record works because it goads us into laughing as well. It gives us a scenario in which we can side with anyone we hear. A musician is attempting to play something straight — to celebrate staying within the boundaries of taste, and the socially acceptable idea of what constitutes entertainment. To the extent that any of us has had to stand up in front of others and perform, our sympathies fly to the struggling cornetist. However, as audience members who have had to sit through insufferable cultural experiences, we side with the laughers as well. Who hasn’t wanted to crack up themselves in such solemn intolerable moments?

There’s no resolution in the recording, no narrative save that which the listener brings to it. Near its end, the cornetist tries to get started again, but he can only blat out a couple of notes, struggling not to laugh himself. And the sense The Laughing Record gives is, that’s OK. Laughter is the solvent of pretension.

The National Recording Registry Project tracks one writer’s expedition through all the recordings in the National Recording Registry in chronological order. Up next: “Ory’s Creole Trombone.”)

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

The NRR Project #51: The savior of traditional Irish music

‘The Boys of the Lough’/’The Humours of Ennistymon’

‘The Boys of the Lough’
Recorded April 1922
Folk tune
Performed by Michael Coleman; accompanied by J. Muller, piano

‘The Humours of Ennistymon’
Recorded April 1922
Folk tune
Performed by Michael Coleman; piano accompanist unknown

In October 1914, a 23-year-old violin virtuoso left Ireland and came to America. His archaic but lively style led to an enthusiastic following. His recordings of traditional Irish music boomeranged back to the Emerald Isle, inspiring both the preservation and the development of Gaelic music, culture, and language.

Coleman came from a musical family in the Knockgrania, near Ballymore in County Sligo. His father was a locally renowned traditional flautist. Coleman was trained as a child both in fiddle playing and in step dancing. This the fiddler of the time would combine in live performance, roaming from town to town as an entertainer.

When the young man joined the vaudeville circuit in America, he found a universe of “stage Irishmen.” The first massive wave of Irish immigration to America took place in the 1850s, triggering the first of the many anti-immigrant political movements in the United States. “No Irish need apply” was a sign seen in many shop windows. In popular culture, the Irishman was a boggy beast, a cartoonish figure who was uncouth, drunken, prone to fisticuffs, and prolifically fertile. By the time Coleman made it over, despite the integration of Irish-Americans into the culture and power structure, this stereotype was still in place and beloved. “Throw ‘em Down M’Closkey” and “The Mulligan Guards” resounded everywhere.

However, a New York City record-store owner named Ellen O’Byrne thought she could sell authentic Irish music to those hungry for the sounds of home. She encouraged Coleman, and they both cleaned up. “The Boys of the Lough” has become an archetypal reel, and “Ennistymon” remains a preeminent jig.

Coleman’s is what is now termed the Sligo style of Irish fiddling, brisk and slashing, with lots of ornamental trills and triplets, bursting into chords at the ends of lines, like someone wielding a firework in the dark. This is not lyrical, legato stuff — it’s straight-up dance music, and it’s easy to imagine the hammering beats of Coleman’s feet accompanying his playing. There’s life in it. Most surprising of all, his records sold the most in Ireland itself. As such, his work still stands as a bridge between ancient tunes and modern times.

He preserved the old tunes, but he made them his own as well, imprinting them with his unique style. (Observe the parallel with the previous discussed Texas fiddler Eck Robertson, who performed a similar role for American country music.) Ironically, his education in antique technique turned out to be the sound of the future.

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 Okeh Laughing Record.

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

The NRR Project #50: Original country: ‘Arkansas Traveler’/‘Sallie Gooden’

Eck Robertson
‘Arkansas Traveler’
Recorded June 30, 1922
Music and lyrics attributed to Col. Sanford Faulkner
Performed by Eck Robertson and Henry Gilliland

‘Sallie Gooden’
Recorded July 1, 1922
Folk tune
Performed by Eck Robertson

Where do folk songs come from? “No one knows, that’s why they’re folk songs.” Yes, I know. However, we cultural spelunkers like the opportunity to clamber deep inside the history of a song or melody and attempt to trace it back as far as we can. Hey ho!

First things first, though. These are considered to be the first recorded country songs (they would be classified as “hillbilly songs” for some time; country music was niche music until the singing cowboys of screen and radio brought into the popular culture), and Alexander Campbell “Eck” Robertson (1887-1975) couldn’t have been picked more deliberately to represent the development of traditional music.

He was born and grew up on a farm in the Texas panhandle, on the flat, treeless plains of Llano Estacado. His grandfather was a competitive fiddler, as were his father and uncles. By the time Eck was 16, he was making a living as a musician. Eck traveled with medicine shows, performed in silent movie theaters, played at fiddling contests. He worked up a routine of patter and jokes, and fancy tricks, even coaxing speech sounds out of the instrument with the aid of a metal contact.

He and fellow fiddler and Civil War vet Henry C. Gilliland went to New York, auditioned for the Victor Talking Machine Company, and recorded a few tunes. Robertson would record sporadically after that, but it wasn’t until he was rediscovered during the urban folk boom of the early 1960s that he was finally given some of the recognition and honor he deserved.

Robertson’s virtuosic technique is evident on both recordings; in “Arkansas Traveler” he plays the high harmony to Gilliland’s melody, and in “Sally Gooden,” he whips off the melody and a dozen variations with seeming effortlessness and inventiveness, crashing along at a headstrong pace, underlining all with a compelling, droning ground note. This is dance music, social music, but there is a sense of pride and professionalism as well. Robertson and Gilliland weren’t happened upon in the fields by a Lomax. Music was their business, and in this way music that could almost be defined as tribal moved out into the light and started mutating in response to commercial pressures, technological considerations, and popular taste.

Unlike many American folk tunes, “The Arkansas Traveler” comes with some documentation. It came to life as a result of a real-life encounter (or least the embellished superstructure of one). Col. Sanford C. “Sandy” Faulkner (1803-1874) was a prominent cotton planter in Chicot County, Arkansas. In the 1840, he campaigned with some friendly politicians, canvassing the hinterlands of the districts for votes. The party of five men got lost in the backwoods of the Boston Mountains, located on the Ozark Plateau in the northwest portion of the state.

They came upon the cabin of a squatter, and Faulkner was nominated to ask directions. The exchange, accompanied by a two-part melody, became a favorite story that Faulkner performed at dinners and functions, until it jumped and spread by word of mouth. Eventually, it was written down; the complete original text can be read here at Historic Arkansas. The gist of the story that the traveler is thwarted time and time again in his attempts to find out where he is, how he can get where he needs to go, whether he and his friends can find food and shelter, or even to establish some kind of communication.

Over and over again, the squatter shoots the traveler down with sarcastic wit. “Does this road go all the way to Little Rock?” “It ain’t gone nowhere yet.” “Have you lived here all your life?” “Not yet.” “You’re not very smart, are you?” “No. But I ain’t lost.” Each squatter response is punctuated with the repetitive sawing of the signature phrase on his fiddle. (All former children will recognize the tune as carrying the later lyrics, “Pickin’ up a baby bumblebee/Won’t my mommy be so proud of me!” etc.)

Finally the traveler says, “Why don’t you play the rest of that tune?” Squatter says, “I don’t know it.” The traveler takes the fiddle and completes the song with a flourish . . . and suddenly the squatter knows how to get to Little Rock, and has room for the strangers, and plenty of food, and a bit of whiskey as well.

Washburn's 1858 painting, The Arkansas Traveler
The story is solid and well-crafted, punctuated with a string of jokes funny in themselves before the big payoff, musically and comedically. The conflict between the “civilized” person and the simple-acting-but-sly country bumpkin is ancient and easily understood. In 1858, Edward Washburn created a painting depicting the story; it became popular by virtue of being reproduced as an inexpensive Currier & Ives lithograph. It became a vaudeville sketch in 1869, and played on national stages for 20 years. Charles Ives incorporated the tune into his Country Band March (1905), skewering it in the process. Since then, the song has been covered countless times, most notably by Pete Seeger on Frontier Ballads (1954) and Jerry Garcia and David Grisman on Not for Kids Only (1993).

“Sallie Gooden” has a more ambiguous origin story. It can be searched for under a number of variant names — Sally, Sallie, Goodin, Gooden, Goodwin, Godwin. The tune is a simple reel, the kind played at dances or “play-parties,” the latter being social events for teens in pre-technology days. The titular heroine is the object of both affection and teasing — “Had a piece of pie, had a piece of puddin’/Gave ‘em both away just to see Sally Goodin”; “Sally is my darlin’, Sally is my daisy/When she says she hates me, I think I’m going crazy”, and on and on, with hundreds of improvised couplets that can be tacked on as long as breath lasts. It is said that the original Sally Goodin ran a beloved boarding house on the Big Sandy River in Kentucky during the Civil War, and was commemorated by Confederate soldiers stationed there.

Under the words is the melody, which swings brightly and merrily in a major mode, a simple seesaw that’s easy to learn and build on. Peel back further and you’ll find a darker, quieter source for the song. Before “Sallie Gooden” had lyrics, it was known as “Boatin’ Up Sandy,” when the river was the quickest and easiest path to take north to Ohio, and bore the bulk of commercial trade in the region. “Sandy” is housed in the minor key, a shambling and melancholy piece that aches with loneliness. Leave it to humankind’s natural inclination to leaven such sentiments with humor and energy, transforming a haunting tune into something more upbeat and memorable.

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 Boys of the Lough/The Humours of Ennistymon.’

Friday, July 27, 2018

Book review: Justin Mitchell's "Shenzen Zen" is painfully hilarious

Shenzen Zen: An Accidental Anthropologist’s Decade of Life, Love, and Misadventure in the Middle Kingdom
Justin Mitchell
Telford Garden Press

The only reason you need to purchase and read Justin Mitchell’s new memoir of his journalistic adventures in China, Shenzen Zen, is that it contains this sentence:

“I never thought that at the same time next year I’d be spending the afternoon of my 51st with an apparently autistic 4-year-old Chinese child on a beach with signs forbidding ‘Whoring and feudalism.’”

OK, there are more reasons.

Mitchell, long-time reporter and editor for American publications wholesome and unsavory, found himself living and working in China from 2003 through 2012, moving from one journalism gig to another as one does — or rather, once did back when there was a plethora of publications to drift among. The resulting adventures could have filled a book, and did.

(Please note, I have been reading Justin for 40 years or so. I grew up reading his music writing for Denver’s late lamented Rocky Mountain News. Years later, I met him in a drug-fueled haze somehow associated with our mutual involvement with the pioneer regional TV program HomeMovies, and have tracked him ever since, through gigs at such stellar rags as the Weekly World News, where he crafted lifestyle pieces such as “Melt Flab Away with the Roadkill Diet!.”)

His chronicles are great — like the best journalistic prose, his writing is snappy, to the point, and insolent. There is not one scrap of high-minded analysis here, nor the stench of any self-righteous soul-searching. Instead, Mitchell does what one is supposed to do. He tells us his story in as straightforward, honest, and entertaining manner possible, and succeeds.

Mitchell doesn’t tread on the ground of history here (although he did dub Hong Kong’s somewhat infamous “milkshake murderer”). He stays in the zone of real life, at ground level, dealing in the daily details that define a life no matter where it’s lived. He looks for a decent place to live, tolerable food, cheap bars, and lively female companionship and even affection.

The politically correct will not tolerate this book; a few chapters in they will shriek and puff themselves inside out like a kernel of outraged popcorn. The rest of us will thoroughly enjoy it.

To be sure, Mitchell doesn’t hold back on sarcastic commentary, skewering the hypocrisies of the Chinese system, the ugliness of the Western visitor, and their mutual cultural incomprehension. Above all, he doesn’t kid himself, and we get a warts-and-all self-portrait as well. The result is an eloquent, raw, sharp-toothed take on a life, in a style that bears far more resemblance to reality than that of many memoirists.

Journalists and comics are a lot alike. Both populations consist of inveterate gossips, excuse-makers, lowlifes, guttersnipes; bitter, twisted, sociopathic, and bitterly funny humans. Neither profession sports a union, for the simple reason that there is no solidarity in them besides at the bar rail. And both know how to tell stories. Mitchell’s books is crammed with them, and most are laugh-out-loud funny (OK, he’s not a clown — he breaks down and gets serious when appropriate).

So do yourself a favor and read someone with no redeeming social value, but plenty of human value. Shenzen Zen is a good time.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

The NRR Project #49: Fanny Brice sings ‘My Man’/’Second Hand Rose’

‘My Man’/’Second Hand Rose’
Performed by Fanny Brice
‘Second Hand Rose’ recorded Nov. 8, 1921
Music: James F. Hanley Lyrics: Grant Clarke
‘My Man’ recorded Nov. 15, 1921
Music: Albert Willemetz, Jacques Charles, and Maurice Yvain Lyrics: Channing Pollock

In 1921, the top comic in America was Fanny Brice. She was the uncrowned star of the biggest, most popular revue show on Broadway, the Ziegfeld Follies of 1921, featured in four scenes in the first act, three in the second. Two of her performances from this show became her heads-and-tails signature songs, one highlighting her comedic talents and the other shining a light on a personal sorrow that informed her work.

That a Jewish Hungarian immigrant girl could break into big-time show biz and become a star is the stuff of movies, and so if we know Fanny Brice at all it’s as Barbra Streisand’s interpretation of her in the 1968 film adaptation of the 1963 hit Broadway musical Funny Girl, which made Streisand a star. It’s a lot of mythic baggage to carry.

The “real” Fanny Brice, Fania Borach, had a story that was a lot more mundane. She was funny and determined and assertive. She had a big, pleasant voice paired to sharp, clear gestures. There was a long roster of female comedians at the time, few of them remembered now – Mae West, Beatrice Lillie, Ina Claire, Marie Dressler, Helen Broderick, Joan Davis, Gracie Fields, Moms Mabley, Polly Moran, Amanda Randolph. Fanny’s wholehearted exuberance and energy was welcoming, making her a perfect clown.

A large part of her early shtick was mining the familiar and popular vein of fish-out-of-water ethnic humor. Her Yiddishe takes and talk undermined the satirical targets of her comedy sketches. In “Second Hand Rose,” a novelty song with music by James F. Hanley (“Indiana,” “Zing! Went the Strings of My Heart”) and lyrics by comedy writer Grant Clarke (“Ragtime Cowboy Joe,” “Am I Blue?”), turns a pathetic situation into a shout of complaint. The song’s heroine, who never has anything new, is not the typical silent sufferer of other songs such as “I Ain’t Got Nobody” and “I’m Nobody’s Baby.”

“Even Jake the plumber, he’s the man I adore/He had the nerve to tell me he’s been married before,” she sings, giving the song a witty sexual punchline before coming back to the refrain. In contrast, “My Man” was a calculated choice, one of the first instances in American culture in which a singer’s personal travails became part of the emotional freight of their song’s delivery.

It was already someone else’s signature song. It originated in France and was debuted by the chanteuse Mistinguett in 1916. The original lyrics make it clear that the singer is a prostitute singing about her pimp. An obvious rewrite for more parochial American tastes had to take place, so playwright and lyricist Channing Pollock came up with acceptable English lyrics – less “vulgar,” but still effective and affecting.

And Brice sang it straight. Brice was a celebrity, with a marriage that filled the headlines. Her husband Nicky Arnstein was a gambler and a con man, perpetually in legal trouble as well as, evidently, irresistible (his portrayal in the Funny Girl film by the suave Omar Sharif feeds that contention).

Full of feeling, dressed in a torn, dirty costume standing under a prop streetlamp (coming as close as America could to the implication that she was a streetwalker) she wowed the Follies opening-night crowd. People read into her interpretation the heartache the connection with Arnstein was causing. In just the same way today that fans sift through a performer’s output and project what they hear of their personal life onto the material. Brice’s emotional openness, vulnerability, and inclusiveness made the listener feel that this was her own story, not just an archetype.

Brice’s troubles undoubtedly resonated through the song, but the experience was generic enough to make it resonate with the listeners. There is another layer of interest, too – the novelty of a performer stepping outside their specialty, especially a comic artist being “serious.” Later, many supposedly lightweight performers would use a dark stage or film turn to legitimize their talent and raise their critical estimate.

Brice would turn from the stage to radio, scoring even more success as radio’s Baby Snooks, a misbehaving, truth-spouting brat who constantly subverted the adult expectations around her. She lived feisty. She said, “I lived the way I wanted to live and never did what people said I should do or advised me to do.”

The National Recording Registry Project tracks one writer’s expedition through all the recordings in the National Recording Registry in chronological order. Up next: ‘Arkansaw Traveler/Sallie Gooden.’

Friday, April 27, 2018

Recalled to life: or, where did my last six months go?

On August 26 of 2017, I was just sitting down to appetizers with my wife at a local restaurant when I passed out. Six months and two hospital stays later I am not only recovered but have what in essence is a second opportunity to live fully. Was it a stroke? A nervous breakdown? Adrenal insufficiency? A road-to-Damascus moment? What happened?

I had just returned from a long trip, driving home alone for 1,200 miles after dropping our son off at college for his sophomore year. I was sleeping rough in the car, eating catch as catch can . . . overdoing it. I was tired, more profoundly sleep-deprived than I could imagine.

Still, it was quite a surprise to pass out for the very first time in my life, especially in a public place. Though I was only out for 30 seconds or so, my thoughtful wife summoned an ambulance immediately. I found myself being loaded onto a gurney, cannulated, and shipped off to the nearest hospital. (Here's how awesome the restaurant was -- they boxed up our dinner to go!)

I was floundering. I shook with tremors, and numbness and tingling plagued my hands and feet. I was dizzy, but not in the classic sense of the room turning about me. Instead, I felt as though I were tumbling forward, end over end, uncontrollably. I was flushed and sweating, alternating with bouts of chills. My heart raced and my breath caught in my throat. My ears rang, and my throat was swollen and painful. I couldn’t bear light or noise. I was curled in on myself like a fetus.

I was drifting in and out of consciousness, and unconsciousness would have been my first choice. Above all, I was in an absolute and helpless panic. It felt like the floor had opened beneath me and I was plunging hopelessly into a never-ending nothing. You know how you miss a step in the darkness and suddenly stumble, grasping helplessly for something to steady you? This was my state, lying stock-still and wired up to all the diagnostic machines.

After two days and no diagnosis, they sent me home. I hung on for a month, hoping the problem would cure itself. Finally, in early October, I was seized with another spell so severe that I packed myself off to a second institution. Once again, they examined me — nothing. Fortunately, my wife had made an appointment at the adjacent cardiologist’s office. He took one listen to my thuddering chest and ordered a coronary angiogram (this is when they slip a tube up your vein and take a gander at your ticker with the help of x-rays and dye).

That test proved negative — as did many others. In fact, they tested every part of me over six days, through MRIs, CT scans, bloodwork, you name it. The doctors examined everything but my taint (look it up). No abnormalities were found. They were very apologetic. (One thing I did note is that many medical specialists simply cannot think, can’t extrapolate outside the bowling-lane boundaries of their unique disciplines. This clinical modesty results in the reduction of errors — and liability — but it doesn’t go far in solving a complex problem.)

An inevitable round of visits to specialists turned up nothing. Meanwhile, I was still living a very provisional existence. I was trapped at home, still victimized by the same symptoms, unable to sit up for very long periods, much less travel, and exercise, do the chores and run the errands. I couldn’t go to shul or to school functions. Initially, I was largely unable to talk for a couple of weeks, and the ability to write a coherent sentence took about a month. I was sleeping 12 to 14 hours a day, with naps of 2 to 4 hours in between. I was vanishing.

Finally, somewhere between the endocrinologist and the neurotologist, I got help. The diagnostic prize goes to ENT-otolaryngologist Carol Foster at the University of Colorado Hospital. “It’s SLEEP APNEA,” she pronounced with confident finality.


It still astonishes me that such a prosaic problem should be life-threatening. However, with me the problem was far worse than imagined. I went to a sleep clinic and had a study done — the kind where they wire you up and monitor you all night. (Again, my prescient wife noticed a problem years before, and I had been tested no fewer than three times by three different clinics, with inconclusive results.) It turns out I was experiencing an AHI (Apnea-hypopnea index) of 52 — meaning I was coming out of a sleep state nearly once a minute, all night long.

Not only had this produced the symptoms outlined above, but I learned that perhaps for as long as a decade, I had been sleep-deprived like this. My neural and cardiac functions, my cognitive skills, my focus, my immune system, even my glandular output and the amount of gray matter in my head, had atrophied to the point that my life was in danger.

By this point, I was sweating through three T-shirts a night, and beginning to feel uncontrollable hallucinations creeping in at the corners of my consciousness. I hunkered down and hung on. Thanks to the efficacy of my health insurance, I waited FOUR MONTHS for the CPAP machine that saved my life.

Finally, I started healing. I craved and drank cup after cup of green tea. It felt as though within me, stark against a field of deep red, was a small system of black branches, growing outward, with painful slowness. It was my nerves regenerating, my senses widening.

Now, I know that for many sleep apnea is the flavor of the month and that hordes are clamoring for the little bedside “breathing machines” that regulate one’s airflow during sleep. However, mine is a link back to health and sanity. After five months flat on my back, vegetating, I finally felt alive again. Gradually, I could do more — drive to the store, the library, my daughter’s school. Hit the gym. Take out the trash.

I started to read again. Trapped at home, I finally finished Don Quixote, Nicholas Nickleby, Tristram Shandy, The Odyssey. I read over a book I had finished writing — and discovered that it wasn’t finished. My mental deterioration was obvious over the latter half of the manuscript’s pages. I set to making the book over again.

And to making my life over again. I could now tell that the incremental damages to my body had severely circumscribed my ability to deal with people, stress, and various professional and personal challenges. I was noted for not being able to go out at night, to attend social functions, to even pass the time of day with someone without falling into an irrevocable panic. Now I find myself capable of all these things, social again, able and eager to travel, not consumed with anxiety. I am becoming a new and different person, hopefully a better and more authentic version of myself.

This carries anxieties as well. My wife is getting used to someone who is now much more capable, centered, and present than the old curmudgeonly me. Is this a good thing? To me it seems equivalent to getting used to a spouse who’s been overseas, or in a coma, or both, for years. My alert exuberance can be quite irritating. And what about the return of a vanished libido? We are working on it.

Of course, all this illness led me, as the least thing usually does, to bouts of pretentious and self-pitying thinking. Not knowing if you are going to have a life is sobering enough. Now I thought: well, here I am now. What am I doing here? What am I good for?

The short answer is, just what I was before. These mental belches come and go. However, I did stubbornly pull a few precepts out of the experience. 
  1. The body has primacy. I’ve never had a comfortable existence inside of mine, being the kind of person who lives for and within the confines of his head by and large. However, I am manifested in my body, must greet the world with it, and now I must nurse it along. It told me in no uncertain terms that I can do, say, think nothing without its consent. I am finally listening to my body. The payoff is, in taking it seriously, I now find myself at the gym every day, eating better, and losing weight. It’s a miracle to regain years of dimmed vitality, especially when I am still capable of using them.
  2. I don’t have time, or rather it’s all I have. My children are almost all grown, I’ve had two or three careers, a couple of marriages. Due to age, my demographic value is now nil. Biologically speaking, I’ve done my part and am no longer needed. Whatever else is true, I have no time to waste. I get to live my life, love my loved ones, and have a few more laughs. So if you were about to ask me to get involved with something stupid, I can’t. I have to hurry.
  3. I need to be here now. My recovery means that I have not only better health and function, but that I have a broader bandwidth — emotionally, and dare I say spiritually (ssh don’t tell). My senses grow sharper and more comprehensive, my boundaries widen, and it can all be a little overwhelming as I am used to being shut up in the closet of my limitations, walled off even from perceptions, new sensory input. But I hang in there. We owe the world the gift of our attention.
  4. As usual, I am not in charge. My AA experiences continue to teach me humility. I keep Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning next to my religious texts and consult it often. “Everything can be taken from a man,” he writes, “but one thing: the last of human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” At my worst, the absolute nadir of despair, the deity was still there and the architecture of the cosmos hung together. I almost lost it all, and came through with a second chance at a better, fuller life. None of it is my doing. I am grateful.

For me there is just today, and the older I get the more I am at peace with that approach. One of my favorite prayers states that “We have come into being to praise, to labor, and to love.” That is precisely what I intend to do.

Thursday, March 1, 2018

The NRR Project #48: William Jennings Bryan's 'Cross of Gold' speech

‘Cross of Gold’ speech
Speaker: William Jennings Bryan
Recorded: 1921

William Jennings Bryan was known as “The Great Commoner,” but it is more apt to think of him as America’s first great demagogue. He was the ultimate orator, with a booming voice, expressive body, and a mellifluous approach to speechwriting that swept listeners into a rapt state, and sometimes rapture itself. He could command a crowd, but not the electorate — he ran for president three times, and lost each time.

Fate deigned to make him an early success. At the politically young age of 36, he reached his zenith in the American consciousness on July 9, 1896 at the Democratic convention in Chicago — his celebrated “Cross of Gold” speech.

Robert Cherny’s essay on the speech is invaluable for making clear the then-burning issue of the “gold standard” versus the “free silver” factions in U.S. politics. In essence, big business and the moneyed interests, what Teddy Roosevelt was soon to term “the trusts,” preferred the low prices caused by accepting only gold as legal tender. Meanwhile, the farmers of the country, still a substantial majority, wanted the coinage of silver in order to ease the debts they could not pay due to lower prices for their goods.

“The Boy Orator of the Platte” was a champion of the people (something disputed by historians such as Irving Stone, who considered him a fatuous blowhard). Devoutly religious, he had a Messianic sense about him that was quite compelling. The Democratic Convention was made for his purposes.

The speech itself was a mishmash of invective, sentiment, and rhetoric, much of it audience-tested in prior speeches for maximum effect. “The humblest citizen in the land when clad in the armor of a righteous cause is stronger than all the whole hosts of error that they can bring. I come to speak to you in defense of a cause as holy as the cause of liberty — the cause of humanity.” He excoriated the “Atlantic coast” (aka big business) and apotheosized the common man —

“Ah. my friends, we say not one word against those who live upon the Atlantic Coast; but those hardy pioneers who braved all the dangers of the wilderness, who have made the desert to blossom as the rose—those pioneers away out there, rearing their children near to nature’s heart, where they can mingle their voices with the voices of the birds—out there where they have erected schoolhouses for the education of their children and churches where they praise their Creator, and the cemeteries where sleep the ashes of their dead—are as deserving of the consideration of this party as any people in this country.

“It is for these that we speak. We do not come as aggressors. Our war is not a war of conquest. We are fighting in the defense of our homes, our families, and posterity. We have petitioned, and our petitions have been scorned. We have entreated, and our entreaties have been disregarded. We have begged, and they have mocked when our calamity came.

“We beg no longer; we entreat no more; we petition no more. We defy them!”

He aligned himself with populism, that great uprising at the end of the 19th century that pitted the farmers and the labor movement against bank, railroads, monopolies, and the bigwigs of high finance. This progressive and socially responsible outline of action would be co-opted by the major parties and become a significant thread in American political thinking.

“There are two ideas of government. There are those who believe that if you just legislate to make the well-to-do prosperous, that their prosperity will leak through on those below. The Democratic idea has been that if you legislate to make the masses prosperous their prosperity will find its way up and through every class that rests upon it.

“You come to us and tell us that the great cities are in favor of the gold standard. I tell you that the great cities rest upon these broad and fertile prairies. Burn down your cities and leave our farms, and your cities will spring up again as if by magic. But destroy our farms and the grass will grow in the streets of every city in the country.”

Finally, Bryan wound up with a killer finish. Gesturing dramatically, he concluded with, “. . . you shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns. You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.”

The convention went wild, applauding and parading Bryan on their shoulders for 25 minutes. “The Silver Knight of the West” won his party’s nomination, but lost to McKinley.

Bryan was a large political figure, but never an effective leader. He was a great candidate (he invented the election strategy of canvassing the country, speechmaking incessantly as he went to rally his supporters) but he was destined to be an ever-more-marginal player. Finally, he wound up as a kind of “fundamentalist pope” (according to H.L. Mencken) who fought the teaching of science in schools, most notably in connection with the Scopes trial of 1925.

Still, he articulated the feelings of a large mass of the American public. More than that, he worked a kind of rhetorical magic. In the days before media’s rise (in fact, this recording is a 1921 recreation by Bryan of his epic speech), the compelling individual had to prove their mettle live, in public, in front of hundreds or thousands. This kind of magnetism can only be hinted at in Bryan’s recorded commemoration.

The National Recording Registry Project tracks one writer’s expedition through all the recordings in the National Recording Registry in chronological order. Up next: Fanny Brice sings ‘My Man/Second Hand Rose.’

NRR Project: Egmont Overture, Modesto High School Band (1930)

NRR Project: Egmont Overture, Op. 84 Modesto High School Band 1930 This is one I don’t have a lot of information on, and only a small ...