Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Just for fun: Even more weird Colorado monuments

Howdy! There’s lots of weird stuff in Colorado history, if you only root around in the corners for it. This is an extension of a series I began for Westword, which you can find here, here, here, and here.

The recent unpleasantness has given me a lot of time to go through my files, and I happened upon my old story notes. There are still many, many little-known tidbits from the past still out there, both in plain sight and lost in obscurity. Here are ten more:

Road of Remembrance Gateway
Highway 287 and Arapahoe Rd., Lafayette

Two stone-and-brick pylons bracket Arapahoe Road on the west side of this junction, known as Nine-Mile Corner due to its being nine miles east of Boulder and nine miles south of Longmont. To understand what they’re there for, you have to pull over, get out, and peer around to find a plaque that explains: “In honor of those who served in the World War — Erected by the Lions Club of Boulder 1928.” Natalie Munio reports that the upcoming redevelopment plans for the intersection include preserving and restoring the twin cenotaphs.

Doc Holliday’s Grave
Glenwood Springs

Wait a minute. The final resting place of the Old West gunfighter is a confusing site to see. After a steep but short hike, you find a memorial to John Henry Holliday (1851-1887). And a headstone (evidently the third one, the first two being demolished by vandals/keepsake grabbers) that comments, “He died in bed.” And a disclaimer: “This memorial dedicated to Doc Holliday who is buried someplace in this cemetery.” It seems they lost track of just where they planted him, so be aware that your graveside obsequies might be directed at nothing in particular.

Home of the cheeseburger
2776 N. Speer Blvd., Denver

The Humpty Dumpty Barrel drive-in restaurant (Colorado’s first) was where Louis Ballast made culinary history when he topped a hamburger with a slice of American cheese. Oh sure, others have claimed priority — but Louis copyrighted it. A stone marker sits modestly at the original location.

The empty grave of Robert Ford

Robert Ford was not known for his wise choices. As a child, he aspired to be an outlaw and idolized the infamous outlaw Jesse James. He joined up with James when he reached the age of 20 (older brother Charles was already in the gang). Soon the two brothers decided to betray James for the substantial reward offered for him, dead or alive. On April 3, 1882, while Jesse was turned away from him, Bob Ford shot Jesse in the back of the head.

The Ford brothers then went to the authorities, and found themselves charged with first-degree murder. They were tried, found guilty, sentenced to death — then pardoned two hours later. When the reward money ran out, Bob made money posing for photos, and starring in a stage show in which he had to reenact the murder, time and again.

Finally, Ford starting opening and operating dance halls and saloons. He set up in Creede on May 29, 1892. Six days later, the whole town burned down. Undeterred, Ford reopened in a tent. Three days later, Edward O’Kelley, armed with a shotgun, entered the place, called out to Ford, and gave him both barrels.

Last but not least, Ford’s body was buried in Creede but later exhumed and moved to Richmond, Missouri. His empty grave is still marked, and visited by tourists.

Tribute to a cartoon character
Idaho Springs

Do you remember Steve Canyon? The great cartoonist Milt Caniff created him after ending his popular adventure comic strip, Terry and the Pirates. Canyon was a smart, tough, independent air-transport ace and veteran who rejoined the Air Force during the Korean War. He fought creeping Communist forces and ideas for 40 years.

Hoping for a publicity-induced business boost, the town of Idaho Springs decided to rename Squirrel Gulch, dubbing it Steve Canyon. They even got the federal government to shell out $12,000 to build a nine-foot-tall limestone statue of the new character. The statue’s plaque reads, “This statue is dedicated to all airmen who wore the uniform of the Armed Forces of the United States in time of conflict, and who stand ready in the Air Force Reserve and Air National Guard to fly in defense of their country, should the need arise” and “The United States Treasury salutes Steve Canyon and, through him, all the American Cartoon Characters who served the nation as salesmen in the Independence Savings Bonds Drive May – July 1950.”

Now Steve Canyon is forgotten by all save the last of the Baby Boomers, but he still stands defiantly, Cold Warrior, hands on hips, facing downhill.

The mysterious headstone of Jane Kirkham

A solitary headstone lies along the path of the old stage road from Leadville to Buena Vista, near the present-day intersection of highways 82 and 24. “My wife — Jane Kirkham — Died March 7, 1879 — Aged 38 years, 3 months, 7 days.” Legend has it that the stage was stopped by a robber, who was shot and killed during the holdup. The robber was purportedly revealed to be a woman, the wife of the sheriff or one of his deputies. Supposedly, it was too embarrassing to bury her back in town.

The ski troopers
Vail and Breckenridge

During World War II, the U.S. Army trained soldiers to fight in high altitudes and frozen conditions. Camp Hale near Leadville housed 15,000 men, all trained to ski, climb, and survive and fight in winter. The recruitment and gathering of like-minded soldiers inadvertently led to the explosion of the ski industry directly after the war. Ski-trooper vet Pete Siebert founded Vail, and others followed suit, creating the Colorado ski industry. The statue in Vail is more imposing — 13 feet tall and solemn; in comparison to Breck’s life-size, more dynamic piece.

Solid Muldoon buried here

This spot marks the last resting place of a masterful prank. The prankster, George Hull, was a tobacconist from New York. He had experience at fooling people. He had dreamed up the infamous “Cardiff Giant” of 1869, the faked discovery of a carved simulacrum of a petrified prehistoric man. Hull’s trick gulled a lot of folks; P.T. Barnum then made his own Cardiff Giant and declared it to be the real deal, not Hull’s.

Hull wanted to try his trick again. This time, he made a plaster-of-Paris mold instead of a sculpture, bought a real skeleton, and imbedded it, covering it with his creation. The fake was seven feet, six inches tall and featured a small tail, grafted on in attempt to tout it as a missing link. This time Barnum was in on it, fronting Hull $2,000 for 75 percent of the take. Choosing a random Colorado hill, Hull and his cohorts buried the object and a few months later, on September 16, 1877, a shill “discovered” it. Unfortunately, the once-burned public didn’t take to the new hoax, and the Solid Muldoon (dubbed in honor of a contemporary song lyric) soon vanished from sight.

In 1976, commemorants created a replica of the Muldoon and displayed it for a few years. On July 22, 1984, the replica was buried beside the road, near the hill in which the original was interred.

The Manassa Mauler

If you’ve ever heard of Manassa, Colorado, it’s because Jack Dempsey was born there (or you’re into covering the yearly migration of sandhill cranes). The champion heavyweight boxer held the title from 1919 to 1926, and was one of the iconic athletes of the era. He started out at the bottom, choosing fights in barrooms and winning them. His boyhood cabin now serves a museum dedicated to his memory; only it and a dynamic statue commemorate this pugilistically talented Coloradan.

Cockeyed Liz’s grave
Buena Vista

Elizabeth Spurgeon (1857-1929) was forced into a life of prostitution at the age of 13 (her nicknamed stemmed from her appearance after a childhood accident). Sixteen years later, she bought a property in Buena Vista, the Palace Manor, and turned it into a whorehouse. In 1897, she married the town plumber and gave up her profession. Their graves were originally bordered by plumber’s pipes.

Tuesday, April 28, 2020

NRR Project: The first transatlantic radio broadcast

First transatlantic radio broadcast
March 14, 1925

For one of the few times so far in this survey, I find myself stymied. Fortunately, no one could write a better explanatory essay on this entry than Cary O’Dell’s,which you can find here. The recording in question is not readily available, and most of it is of abysmal sound quality.

As O’Dell states, this was not the first transatlantic communication, but it was the first airing of a transatlantic broadcast intended for the public. It was a signal that was passed through a variety of long- and short-wave conduits on its way to home receivers, and that signal deteriorated with every step of the process. It’s not surprising that the end result was not much to brag about.

It was a necessary first stage, however. There was not much of a push from commercial interests to import foreign broadcasts. However the transmission of information, specifically news, from Europe would grow in importance as the Second World War loomed. This provided important perspective to millions of listeners from the first generation of broadcast journalists such as William L. Shirer, Edward R. Murrow, and Eric Sevareid.

Two years later, Lindbergh would be the first to fly across the Atlantic. The world was shrinking.

The National Recording Registry Project tracks one writer’s expedition through all the recordings in the National Recording Registry in chronological order. Up next: Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five and Hot Seven recordings.

Monday, April 20, 2020

NRR Project: ‘The Charleston’

‘The Charleston’
Performed by the Golden Gate Orchestra
Recorded April 2, 1925

There is little I can add to Robert Rawlins’ excellent essay concerning the iconic song and dance on the National Recording Registry website. In clear detail, he outlines its origin and the stories of its originators. He goes on to outline the multitude of talent found on the recording — including Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, Red Nichols, and others.

Rawlins goes on to outline the advantages of the “Diamond Disc” recording approach utilized by the Edison Company. The technological advance allowed for better sound quality, as well as a longer recording time — four and one half minutes on a side as opposed to the standard three.

But what made the Charleston such a hit? If ever we think back to that era, we see that herky-jerky solo dance, usually executed by a flapper in a beaded, short-hemmed dress and headband. What WAS the Charleston, anyway?

It’s said to have evolved from competitive dancing among the dockworkers of Charleston, South Carolina. Physically, it’s simple. A step forward, tap, step back, tap, arms akimbo. Anyone could do it without the practice or the partner that was needed for ballroom dancing. It’s best remembered now as a solo dance, although a partnered version soon developed. Compared to the smooth, graceful, floating kind of dance done before, this was sharp, frantic, and emphatic. It also left plenty of room for individual variation.

It captured the energy of the day, the high-flying optimism of America in the afterglow of World War I. Hedonistic and heedless, wild. It meshed well with the hot jazz of the day, spread to night clubs and dancehalls across the country. Though its heyday lasted only from 1925 to 1930, it remained a vivid memory. Now its sits on the shelf of collective thinking about the Roaring Twenties, alongside Prohibition, jazz, radio, and gangsters.

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 first transatlantic radio broadcast.

Friday, January 31, 2020

NRR Project: ‘Adeste Fideles’

‘Adeste Fideles’
Performed by the Associated Glee Clubs of America and audience
Recorded March 31, 1925

This is perhaps the most significant development encountered thus far in my National Recording Registry project, but it’s also the most difficult to explain. Well, that’s never stopped me before.

On March 31, 1925, fifteen “glee clubs” (amateur male singing societies) gathered on the stage of the original Metropolitan Opera House at 1411 Broadway in Manhattan. Columbia Records was there as well. It recorded all the participants (850) singing the Christmas hymn “Adeste Fideles” — “O Come All Ye Faithful," joined in the last chorus by the 4,000-member audience.

What makes the recording so significant is that it was made electrically. Engineers had been working on this development for years; it was made feasible by Western Electric’s H.C. Harrison and Joseph P. Maxfield in 1924.

Before this, you recorded by making sound into a large horn, which funneled the sound down to a sensitive stylus that copied the vibrations into a matrix material, like wax or shellac. Once you had a good “take,” the master disc or cylinder could be replicated numerous times.

The process was crude and limited. Performers had to jam themselves around the recording horn, quiet or sibilant noises got lost, and the masters were notoriously dodgy, easily wearing away and losing their fidelity to the original sound.

Electrical recording changed all that. A microphone, or even multiple microphones, captured the sound, translating it into infinitely more detailed electrical impulses on the receiving disc. I can best explain it through analogy. Acoustic recording was like writing with a broom handle in a bank of snow. Electrical recording was like fine etching on glass.

The difference in quality is easy to distinguish. Listen to “Adeste Fideles” again. There are hundreds, then thousands, of voices singing, and on an acoustic recording this mass of sound would have “blown out” the receiver and come across as just so much noise. The electrical process allows the reception of a wider bandwidth of volume — and of tone as well. The range of frequencies captured widened considerably. The vocal parts are clearly delineated in the recording, despite the size of the chorus.

The result is a new richness and subtlety in recorded music, one that change how music was made. Those who could exploit its new-found intimacy and range would become its new stars.

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 Charleston.


Repeated Takes: A Short History of Recording and Its Effects on Music
Michael Chanan

The History of Music Production
Richard James Burgess
Oxford University Press

The Art of Sound: A Visual History for Audiophiles
Terry Burrows
Thames & Hudson

Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Gateway Drug: Me and the Kingston Trio

It had to start somewhere.

On January 26, Bob Shane, the last surviving member of the original Kingston Trio folk-singing group, passed away. The event prompted me to pull out my battered and scratched copy of their debut 1958 album, which I’ve hung onto down the years.

Of course, I never have to play it again. I have it memorized. Every song, both sides of the record, in order. I even sing the skips. “Three Jolly Coachmen,” then “Bay of Mexico,” then “Banua” . . . We played it over and over, all three of us kids growing up. We sang along to it, we acted it out. We still discuss it, and surprise each other with snatches from it, sometimes.

Being the oldest, I was the first one to find it in my parents’ sparse record collection. I was always rooting around in everything, and I read, watched, or listened to everything I could get my hands on. I was the first one to be allowed to Use the Record Player.

This was a huge, heavy stereo console, a real piece of furniture that stood in the living room and held not only a recessed turntable that could play 33 1/3, 45, and 78 rpm records but an AM/FM radio as well!— the multimedia platform of my childhood. I was tested as to my mechanical competence before being allowed to use it. I placed the record on its stacking spindle (you could play as many as four sides in a row), drew the overarm into place, and ratcheted the start control. Magically, the turntable spun, the record clattered onto it, and the tonearm pivoted into place and dropped. Away we went!

There was a warm, thin smell, now lost, of vacuum tubes heating, of thick wires carrying current, a dash of machine oil. The Kingston Trio’s record company, Capitol, had a fun feature incorporated into their LPs (LP stood for “long-playing”) at the time. The labels of the period had the spectrum printed around their edges — a circle that shaded first red, then yellow, green, blue, purple, red again. As the record spun, the label band formed a rainbow. If you stood directly over the record, you could hypnotize yourself as the colors morphed endlessly, around and around. I’m sure that the sight of 4-year-old me staring fixedly into the stereo while singing loudly and lustily along with Bob Shane, Dave Guard, and Nick Reynolds must have been one of the first, but certainly not one of the last, times that my mother must have worried about me.

A word about the musical archeology of my family. On my father’s side, it was conservatism and solid upper-middle-class values, reflected in a love of Bach, Vivaldi, operetta, Gilbert and Sullivan, the slick syrupy sounds of Mantovani, Hugo Winterhalter, Percy Faith et al, and selected musicals, centered on a titanic affection for Rodgers and Hammerstein. Mom’s heritage was more complex. She grew up on gospel and country and western music, which gave her a solid base in Americana.

But she was a closet subversive. She hankered for the simple folk tunes peddled by the likes of Burl Ives, and the politically charged acoustic music of Pete Seeger, the Weavers, and Woody Guthrie. She was a naturally bred fan for the mid-century folk revival, and she and we sang about Darlin’ Corey, and the House of the Rising Sun, that old freight train’s whistle, hard times. Poverty and struggle were romanticized. We were on the side of the have-nots. Our house rang to the sounds of Paul Robeson, Odetta, Peter Paul and Mary, Harry Belafonte . . . and of course the Kingston Trio.

Now this is not to say that we were receiving the pure, authentic, and unvarnished folk gospel. This was cultural colonialism, not just appropriation but pretty much a strip-mining of folk culture. These were not escapees from a prison farm, nor representatives of the underclass. The Kingston Trio and its competitors of the period referred to by Martin Mull as the Great Folk Music Scare — the Limelighters, the Chad Mitchell Trio, the Highwaymen, the New Christy Minstrels, the Highwaymen, the Rooftop Singers, and the Serendipity Singers — were white. Incredibly white. There was a veneer of Caucasian cheesiness that inevitably bleached out the product.

At this time, nightclubs still thrived in profusion, and this was folk arranged, tooled, and produced for middle-class nightclub audiences. It was a fad. For purists, it was revolting. There is casual racism and stereotyping in some of the songs of the Trio and of others. It was a club act. The Trio’s first five albums (we had them all) included show tunes (“They Call the Wind Mariah”) and jazzy ballads (the classic “Scotch and Soda” could easily be a Sinatra song). The nervous and earnest patter between songs that can be heard on their early live albums is obviously the inspiration for the Smothers Brothers’ initial burst of cripplingly funny folk-satire. (Christopher Guest’s 2003 parodic film A Mighty Wind also covers this territory without mercy.)

The whitewashing of vernacular music was common from early days. Minstrel shows were distorted appropriations of black culture. The first jazz ensemble to record, the Original Dixieland Jass Band, was all-white. R & B and early rock hits were Caucasian-ized by the likes of Pat Boone. And thus with the folk songbook. Whereas bards and balladeers such as Guthrie and Seeger made music out of a desire to educate and galvanize, this was merely an impulse to divert, to entertain. The record industry snapped up the folk impulse and homogenized it.

But the music of the Kingston Trio was a gateway drug. It led me on to the real deal — Joan Baez, Tom Paxton, Bob Dylan, and from thence on to the rest of the musical universe. It taught us that music was participatory and open to everyone. You didn't need a concert hall, or professional musicians even. All you had to do was sing.

It also taught me to work my way back through musical history, to find those overlooked original creators of these real and powerful sounds and give them their due, get them on my magical turntable as well. Then, to understand their contexts you begin to read more history, go deeper, and on it goes, keeping the mind humming with music, music all day long. In this way, I think, the commercial folk groups of the era paid penance for their sins of appropriation. I was a white kid stuck in a white town in the very middle of white continent, but this music reached all the way in through and found me and led me out.

And, whether deliberately or not, this inundation radicalized us. In the midst of the Missile Crisis and the Civil Rights movement, most of the songs we grew up hearing (until the British Invasion at least) were either true folk songs, or protest songs, and often both. They were stirring, and their energy swept us up in a wave of optimism. We could sing, and march, and change things for the better, in that magic time before the killings of Kennedys and Kings.

So I slap the records on my turntable again, and sing along with “Tom Dooley” and “Wreck of the ‘John B’” and “South Coast.” Hypnotized again, but this time by the beauty of those voices tumbling over each other, that cascade of beautiful song. And I sing louder.

Just for fun: Even more weird Colorado monuments

Howdy! There’s lots of weird stuff in Colorado history, if you only root around in the corners for it. This is an extension of a series I...