2014 Mark Twain Award

I just learned that Jay Leno will receive the 2014 Mark Twain Award for American humor. I have usually been pleased with the Mark Twain Award recipients, feeling that most came close to living up to the standard the Award Committee identified when describing Mark Twain himself:

As a social commentator, satirist and creator of characters, Samuel Clemens was a fearless observer of society, who startled many while delighting and informing many more with his uncompromising perspective of social injustice and personal folly.

Although Leno is “funny” in the innocuous way comics were prior to Pryor (the first recipient of the Mark Twain Award in 1998), it is difficult to think of him as a “fearless observer of society” with an “uncompromising perspective of social injustice and personal folly”.

Of all the Mark Twain Award recipients, there is really only one, in my humble opinion, that epitomizes the Mark Twain standard and that is the only one to receive to award posthumously, George Carlin. The clip below is just one of many that show Carlin to be much more than a comic in the Leno sense.


Music Uncovered

As the world of popular culture celebrates the 50th anniversary of the British invasion, including the arrival of The Beatles, there has been little, if any, discussion of the artists who wrote and performed the music the groups from the UK imitated or copied when they “invaded” American music. These artists, playing what was referred to as rhythm and blues, were black. Consequently, their music never crossed over to a white audience. In many cases, the music was actually banned from the radio. It was banned, not simply because the performers were black, but because the performances were considered too lascivious for the delicate ears of white American youth.

An example of a black entertainer who was responsible for some of the greatest rhythm and blues music, and whose music was ignored until covered by white artists, was Hank Ballard. During the 1950s Hank Ballard and the Midnighters made numerous recordings that were popular on the black nightclub circuit, but unknown to the white mainstream. His recording of Work with me Annie reached number one on the R&B charts but was banned by the FCC from radio airplay for its obvious sexual overtones.

The great Etta James recorded the answering song, Wallflower, which also was an R&B hit.

But, it was not until Work with me Annie was rewritten as Dance with me Henry, and recorded by the white vocalist Georgia Gibbs, that it reached number one on the national charts. White audiences would have seen the sanitized version on shows like the popular Your Hit Parade. Here is a hilarious rendition by Gisele MacKensie from May 7th 1955 when Dance with me Henry was number four on the national hit parade.

Hank Ballard and the Midnighters followed up Work with me Annie with Annie had a Baby and Annie’s Aunt Fanny, both of which made clear Annie wasn’t a ballet dancer.

In 1959 Hank Ballard and the Midnighters wrote, choreographed, and performed The Twist. But, because the group was too black, the song was covered by Chubby Checkers, who, although black, was, as his phony stage name implies (get it- Fats Domino- Chubby Checkers), a chubby, cuddly, non-threatening black man. What resulted was a dance craze that swept the nation and made Checkers a super star.

Below is an amazing episode from the very 1960s popular quiz show, To Tell the Truth, where two contestants lie in an attempt to convince the panel they are the contestant telling the truth. The fact that the panel, made up of nationally famous white media stars (including Johnny Carson in this episode), have absolutely no idea who Hank Ballard is, shows just how invisible the real black artists were. The other two contestants are black, but are conspicuous in their “clean cut”, i.e. white like, demeanor. The panel ignores Hank, asking him only one question about the origins of Rock and Roll. He answers that Rock and Roll is just another name for Rhythm and Blues, but none of the panelist seem satisfied with the answer. Kitty Carlisle is the only one to choose the real Hank, and that was because she saw him moving his body when the music was being played.

The Day the Music Died

The Day the Music Died

Fifty five years ago today, three stars of the first wave of Rock and Roll, Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson were killed when their chartered Beechcraft Bonanza plane crashed in a snowstorm a few minutes after takeoff from Mason City, Iowa on a flight headed for Moorehead, Minnesota. Investigators blamed the crash on bad weather and pilot error.

Because of mechanical difficulties with the bus for the Winter Dance Party Tour, Buddy Holly had chartered a plane for his band. The Big Bopper, sick with the flu, convinced a member of Holly’s band, Waylon Jennings, to give up his seat, and Ritchie Valens won a coin toss for another seat on the plane.


Born Charles Hardin Holley in Lubbock, Texas, Buddy Holly was just 22 when he died. He began his musical career as a boy playing bluegrass and country music. After seeing Elvis Presley perform in Lubbock, Buddy and three friends began to play their own version of “Rockabilly” under the name The Crickets. By the mid-1950s, Holly and his band had a regular radio show and toured internationally, playing hits like “Peggy Sue,” “Oh, Boy!,” “Maybe Baby” and “Early in the Morning.” Holly wrote all his own songs, many of which were released after his death and influenced such artists as The Beatles. The group had just scored a No. 1 hit with “That’ll Be the Day” prior to the 1959 tour.

Another crash victim, J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson, 28, was a disk jockey in Texas and later began writing songs. Richardson’s one and only hit was the rockabilly “Chantilly Lace,” which made the Top 10. He developed a stage show based on his radio persona, “The Big Bopper.”

The third crash victim was Ritchie Valens, born Richard Valenzuela in a suburb of Los  Angeles, who was only 17 when the plane went down but had already scored hits with “Come On, Let’s Go,” “Donna” and “La Bamba”. In 1987, Valens’ life was portrayed in the movie La Bamba, and the title song, performed by Los Lobos, became a No. 1 hit. Valens was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2001.

See the full story below:

Singer Don McLean memorialized Holly, Valens and Richardson in the 1972 No. 1 hit “American Pie,” which refers to February 3, 1959 as “the day the music died.”

Friday Night Music

I imagine everyone is aware that the incomparable Pete Seeger died this week. I don’t have anything to add to the tributes already paid to him as a folk archivist, musician, song writer, peace activist, environmentalist, and yes, radical.

We live in a time where those who refuse to conform are vilified much like they were in the McCarthy era. If Seeger had never made a single record, he would be an American hero based upon the courageous stand he took when he was forced to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1955. The HUAC committee interrogated more than 3,000 government officials, labor union leaders, teachers, journalists, entertainers, and others. They wanted to purge Communists, former Communists, and “fellow travelers” who refused to renounce their past and inform on associates from positions of influence within American society. 

When they accused Seeger of performing for Communist front organizations, he refused to invoke the Fifth Amendment, instead he insisted that the Committee had no right to question him about his political beliefs or associations.

When asked if he had performed at Communist Party functions he said:

Mr. SEEGER: I have sung for Americans of every political persuasion, and I am proud that I never refuse to sing to an audience, no matter what religion or color of their skin, or situation in life. I have sung in hobo jungles, and I have sung for the Rockefellers, and I am proud that I have never refused to sing for anybody. That is the only answer I can give along that line.

The counsel for the committee continued to badger Seeger until he finally said,

Mr. SEEGER: I decline to discuss, under compulsion, where I have sung, and who has sung my songs, and who else has sung with me, and the people I have known. I love my country very dearly, and I greatly resent this implication that some of the places that I have sung and some of the people that I have known, and some of my opinions, whether they are religious or philosophical, or I might be a vegetarian, make me any less of an American. I will tell you about my songs, but I am not interested in telling you who wrote them, and I will tell you about my songs, and I am not interested in who listened to them. . . .

Pete Seeger was sentenced to a year in prison for contempt, but the verdict was reversed in 1962. Nevertheless, Seeger remained on a network television blacklist until the late 1960s.

He went on to record hits with The Weavers and on his own over the years. His musicianship is often overlooked because of his impact as an activist. But, as this clip of him singing “Wimoweh” from the 40th anniversary concert of The Weavers shows, he was an intense and riveting entertainer.

Quantifying the Self

 I track, therefore I am

Were he still alive, my father would be 100 years old this May. He was born at the family farmhouse in Smith Center, Kansas.  Because he was born at home with the help of a neighbor acting as a midwife, he had no birth certificate. The first time it was a concern was when he joined the Navy prior to World War II.  As I recall, he had to get “affidavits” from a number of people in order to get a “delayed” birth certificate.  Of course, in subsequent years data about his life were collected including: marriage license, social security, census, real estate records, employment records, health insurance, pension plans, and, finally, death certificate.

Fast forward to today, and it is obvious that my father was a statistical mystery compared to you and me. Thanks to scandals like NSA data mining, The questions we are now asking ourselves are-

Was 2013 the year online privacy died? Or was it the year that people paying attention realized that their online lives—and all their data and communications—was low-hanging fruit that was being picked and parsed by big government and big business?

Today it is  common knowledge that data are automatically and silently being collected by businesses and governmental agencies to track our behaviors online. For many of us, this is a dangerous invasion of our privacy. For others, however, data mining presents incredibly exciting opportunities. The leading-edge of this group are part of the newly emerging “Quantified Self” movement. The Quantified Self movement has individuals dispersed throughout the world -self-quantifiers- who are not only producing troves of data by virtue of simply going about their daily on-line business, but who are becoming conscious consumers of the data they produce.

So, for example, using various data collection devices along with computer applications, they can see if physical activity data collected on weekdays result in more exercise and more sleep than on weekends. They can then begin to hypothesize, form some sort of explanation, as to why a difference may or may not exist. In other words,  they can use personal data to conduct scientific, statistical analysis and use the results to make changes in their lives.

The term “Quantified Self” is attributed to Gary Wolf and Kevin Kelly, editors affiliated with Wired magazine, who used it informally in 2007 as the name for a local collaboration of users and technology toolmakers who are interested in automating the collection of data.  As public awareness grew and as new devices and technologies are becoming more familiar to consumers, the Quantified Self movement grew dramatically. Today, QSers communicate through local “MeetUp Groups” in many cities throughout the world and through a Web Site where community members share information through forums and videos. There are also annual conferences in America and Europe where “the global community of self-trackers and tool makers can meet and share”. The 6th annual QS European Conference will be held this May in Amsterdam.

I find the QS movement tremendously intriguing. There are any number of interesting implications surrounding what it means to quantify yourself. To what extent are you your data?  In September I started using a fit bit activity tracker. Just one of many devices that allow anyone to begin to track and analyze personal data, the fit bit allowed someone like me to dip a toe into the QS movement without tremendous time or effort. I will talk more about my personal experiences in subsequent posts. If any of you have had your own experiences with self-tracking let me know.

Friday Night Music

Phil Everly died this week. The close harmony that was the inspiration for so much of early rock & roll, including many of the artists of the British Invasion of the 60s ( The Beatles, Hollies, etc.), died with him because no group has ever able to recreate the magic of the Everly Brothers.

I could have included a clip from one of their many hits, but here is their version of the beautiful “Kentucky”. It highlights their angelic harmony.

An Alert Update Plus Some Thoughts on Fear


Another friend, not the one who sent me the original ALERTS TO THREATS IN EUROPE I posted yesterday, decided to update the list to include America.

The Americans are on “Be Alert for Unspecified Awful Things”  a status they have maintained since, well, forever. This is frequently raised to “The Sky Is Falling” just to justify their insane arms expenditures. When concern over dwindling oil supplies threatens the alert level becomes “Lets Attack”  eventually followed by the highest level which is “We Need To Rebuild The Country We Just Destroyed.”  Rumor has it that there is a level called “Let’s Try Peace “but it has never been considered.

I think you will agree it is at least as clever as the Cleese original. But, after chuckling over it  for a few minutes, I started to think about the deeper truth. It really does describe the political process that has dominated America at least since 9/11. American politics is dominated by a “Culture of Fear”. We are asked to be on constant alert for any number of awful things. The media, of course, is implicated in the whole process.


It is a mistake to think the manipulation of fear for political purposes is new in American politics, however. It is probably more accurate to say it has been the norm for most of our history. Noam Chomsky has explored what he calls the, “…resort to fear by systems of power to discipline the domestic population” and traces the American version back, at least, to John Quincy Adams. Chomsky uses historian William Earl Weeks to make his point.

Weeks describes in lurid detail what Jackson was doing in the “exhibition of murder and plunder known as the First Seminole War,” which was just another phase in his project of “removing or eliminating native Americans from the southeast,” underway long before 1814. Florida was a problem both because it had not yet been incorporated in the expanding American empire and because it was a “haven for Indians and runaway slaves… fleeing the wrath of Jackson or slavery”.

There was in fact an Indian attack, which Jackson and Adams used as a pretext: US forces drove a band of Seminoles off their lands, killing several of them and burning their village to the ground. The Seminoles retaliated by attacking a supply boat under military command. Seizing the opportunity, Jackson “embarked on a campaign of terror, devastation, and intimidation,” destroying villages and “sources of food in a calculated effort to inflict starvation on the tribes, who sought refuge from his wrath in the swamps”. So matters continued, leading to Adams’ highly regarded State paper, which endorsed Jackson’s unprovoked aggression to establish in Florida “the dominion of this republic upon the odious basis of violence and bloodshed”.

These are the words of the Spanish ambassador, a “painfully precise description,” Weeks writes. Adams “had consciously distorted, dissembled, and lied about the goals and conduct of American foreign policy to both Congress and the public,” Weeks continues, grossly violating his proclaimed moral principles, “implicitly defending Indian removal, and slavery”. The crimes of Jackson and Adams “proved but a prelude to a second war of extermination against (the Seminoles),” in which the remnants either fled to the West, to enjoy the same fate later, “or were killed or forced to take refuge in the dense swamps of Florida”. Today, Weeks concludes, “the Seminoles survive in the national consciousness as the mascot of Florida State University” — a typical and instructive case…

…The rhetorical framework rests on three pillars (Weeks): “the assumption of the unique moral virtue of the United States, the assertion of its mission to redeem the world” by spreading its professed ideals and the ‘American way of life,’ and the faith in the nation’s “divinely ordained destiny”. The theological framework undercuts reasoned debate, and reduces policy issues to a choice between Good and Evil, thus reducing the threat of democracy. Critics can be dismissed as “anti-American,” an interesting concept borrowed from the lexicon of totalitarianism. And the population must huddle under the umbrella of power, in fear that its way of life and destiny are under imminent threat…

The main difference between then and now is that the powers that be are more sophisticated in manipulation. Below is the trailer to a documentary, “Culture of Fear” that features interviews with Chomsky and other experts.

Here is the link to the full documentary

As we mark the 10th anniversary of the invasion of Iraq,  it is critical that we remember exactly how Bush, Cheney and the rest of the neoconservative cabal played the politics of fear to get the war they wanted.  Over the last week or so we have been subjected to a series of mea culpa apologies from media pundits and so-called journalists rationalizing away their role in cheerleading the invasion. Everyone from David Frum, author of the “axis of evil” phrase, and Andrew Suulivan on the right, to Jonathan Chait and Ezra Klein on the left have offered “yes, but” apologies. Quite honestly, I am not interested. I agree with Charlie Pierce, they should all just go away. They really have lost all credibility for me.

As long as I am talking about documentaries, I have to include the BBC series, The Power of Nightmares: The Rise of the Politics of Fear. It explores the history and background of both radical Islam and the Neo-Conservatives. Originally produced in 2004, it was never broadcast in the United States. Fortunately, it is now available on You Tube. Here is part one with links to parts two and three below.

The Power of Nightmares Part Two

The Power of Nightmares Part Three

Friday Comedy Relief


All and all, this has been a pretty depressing week. Continuing stupidity from the State Legislature- see here, here, here, and here. Continuing bad news like this. Never ending evidence that big banks are corrupt- that Catholic clergy are corrupt- and that wingnut Republicans are both corrupt and jaw-dropping stupid.

So, given that it is Friday and the great world keeps spinning no matter what we do or say, we might as well have a laugh.

I received the following in an email from a friend. A quick Google search shows that it has been popping up all over the internet so, if you have not yet seen it, I can claim you saw it here first. It is attributed to John Cleese, that former Monty Pithon and self described “British writer, actor and tall person”

Because I don’t like to post anything if I can’t verify the source, I tried to determine if John Cleese was, in fact, the author and it appears that he was not according to the John Cleese Forum and

So, by John Cleese or not, jam packed with every possible stereotype, it is still pretty funny and a good way to end the week.


The English are feeling the pinch in relation to recent events in Syria and have therefore raised their security level from “Miffed” to “Peeved.” Soon, though, security levels may be raised yet again to “Irritated” or even “A Bit Cross.” The English have not been “A Bit Cross” since the blitz in 1940 when tea supplies nearly ran out. Terrorists have been re-categorized from “Tiresome” to “A Bloody Nuisance.” The last time the British issued a “Bloody Nuisance” warning level was in 1588, when threatened by the Spanish Armada.

The Scots have raised their threat level from “Pissed Off” to “Let’s get the Bastards.” They don’t have any other levels. This is the reason they have been used on the front line of the British army for the last 300 years.

The French government announced yesterday that it has raised its terror alert level from “Run” to “Hide.” The only two higher levels in France are “Collaborate” and “Surrender.” The rise was precipitated by a recent fire that destroyed France ‘s white flag factory, effectively paralysing the country’s military capability.

Italy has increased the alert level from “Shout Loudly and Excitedly” to “Elaborate Military Posturing.” Two more levels remain: “Ineffective Combat Operations” and “Change Sides.”

The Germans have increased their alert state from “Disdainful Arrogance” to “Dress in Uniform and Sing Marching Songs.” They also have two higher levels: “Invade a Neighbour” and “Lose.”

Belgians, on the other hand, are all on holiday as usual; the only threat they are worried about is NATO pulling out of Brussels.

The Spanish are all excited to see their new submarines ready to deploy. These beautifully designed subs have glass bottoms so the new Spanish navy can get a really good look at the old Spanish navy.

Australia, meanwhile, has raised its security level from “No worries” to “She’ll be alright, Mate.” Two more escalation levels remain: “Crikey! I think we’ll need to cancel the barbie this weekend!” and “The barbie is cancelled.” So far no situation has ever warranted use of the last final escalation level.

A final thought -“ Greece is collapsing, the Iranians are getting aggressive, and Rome is in disarray. Welcome back to 430 BC.”

The 1913 Women’s Suffrage Parade


Exactly one century ago, March 3, 1913, a massive parade took place in Washington, D.C., one day before the inauguration of President Woodrow Wilson. Although women had been struggling for the right to vote for more than 60 years, the Woman Suffrage Procession was the opening volley in a new major national effort toward women’s suffrage that resulted in women getting the vote seven years later.

The Atlantic provides some details.

Organized by Alice Paul for the National American Woman Suffrage Association, the parade, calling for a constitutional amendment, featured 8,000 marchers, including nine bands, four mounted brigades, 20 floats, and an allegorical performance near the Treasury Building. Though the parade began late, it appeared to be off to a good start until the route along Pennsylvania Avenue became choked with tens of thousands of spectators — mostly men in town for the inauguration. Marchers were jostled and ridiculed by many in the crowd. Some were tripped, others assaulted. Policemen appeared to be either indifferent to the struggling paraders, or sympathetic to the mob. Before the day was out, one hundred marchers had been hospitalized. The mistreatment of the marchers amplified the event — and the cause — into a major news story and led to congressional hearings, where the D.C. superintendent of police lost his job. What began in 1913 took another seven years to make it through Congress. In 1920, the Nineteenth Amendment secured the vote for women.

The Library of Congress’ wonderful American Memory site has some fascinating accounts of the event and the amazing women who led the suffrage fight.