History

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.”

An Alert Update Plus Some Thoughts on Fear

UPDATE

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.

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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  http://topdocumentaryfilms.com/culture-of-fear

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

Vision of Climate Change

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There are certain photographs that become iconic. They engender an immediate connection with an event, tragic or triumphant. They put the event in human terms, often showing a family, as in Dorothea Lang’s iconic photograph of Florence Owens Thompson and her children.  The photo became the most famous image of the Great Depression in the United States.  It has become an iconic image of resilience in the face of adversity.

See here for a list of 27 photos that also fit the description. Perhaps the most famous compilation is Life Magazine’s 100 photographs that changed the world.

I started thinking about other events or phenomena that might engender an iconic image for  future generations. Climate change is just such a phenomena. We appear to be at the point, finally, where it is generally understood that a scientific consensus has been reached identifying human activity as the major cause of climate change.

There is an overwhelming level of scientific consensus on human-caused climate change. Over 95% of actively publishing climate scientists agree that the earth is warming and that human activity is the cause. In spite of this agreement, only about 50% the general public think that scientists have reached a consensus on human-caused climate change. Two sources of the discrepancy are the unbalanced portrayal of the situation in the media, and the Manufactured Doubt Industry.

James Lawrence Powell did a meta-study of almost 14,000 peer reviewed scientific papers written from 1991 to November 2012. His pie-chart says it all.

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Of course, there are still morons like Henry Paine of National Review who, as part of the “manufactured doubt” industry, intentionally confuse climate with weather, but when, in his inaugural address, President Obama called for America to lead the world’s response to the threat of climate change, it became clear that it is time to find an iconic image worthy of Dorothea Lang.

We, the people, still believe that our obligations as Americans are not just to ourselves, but to all posterity. We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations.

Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires, and crippling drought, and more powerful storms. The path towards sustainable energy sources will be long and sometimes difficult. But American cannot resist this transition. We must lead it.

I am sure there are hundreds of photographs that could serve, but, for me,  the first image that came to mind was of the Holmes family huddled in the water as the Tasmanian wildfire raged around them.

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I feel that this picture has that same emotional impact as Lange’s photograph. It depicts a family, in this case a grandmother and her grandchildren, clinging to each other- resilience in the face of adversity.

What I find most amazing is that, unlike the posed Lang photograph, this picture was taken by the children’s grandfather in real time.

Here is how the UK’s Guardian newspaper described the photo.

These stunning pictures of five young children and their grandmother huddled together under a jetty in the Tasmanian town of Dunalley were captured by their grandfather Tim Holmes. The family was forced to stay in the water for several hours as homes around them were razed to the ground. The pictures, taken on 4 January have just been released

The Last Word on Laura Silsby?

If we lived in a rational world, Laura Silsby will have had her 15 minutes of fame and we could all move on. That, of course, will not happen. Nevertheless, I think that Timothy Egan has managed to have the final word on the whole Silsby affair in his commentary The Missionary Impulse.  In the article, Egan, rightly I believe, characterizes the case as one more example of Cultural Imperialism.

At the least, the curious case of Laura Silsby raises questions about cultural imperialism: what makes a scofflaw from nearly all-white Idaho with no experience in adoption or rescue services think she has a right to bring religion and relief to a country with its own cultural, racial and spiritual heritage?

Imagine if a voodoo minister from Haiti had shown up in Boise after an earthquake, looking for children in poor neighborhoods and offering “opportunities for adoption” back to Haiti. He could say, as those who followed Silsby explained on a Web site, that “the unsaved world needs to hear” from the saved.
Who says they are “unsaved?” And who says the world needs to hear from them? Haiti is a predominantly Roman Catholic country, and a nation full of passionate believers at that.
As it turns out, there was no orphanage for the Silsby children, just plans, many, many plans. And some of the young Haitians were not even orphans. As to what qualified Laura Silsby to jump into international relief work with a side of adoption services, well, she had once run something called Personal Shopper. And she was a charismatic Christian, with a golden tongue.
So, despite the fact that she’d been subject to numerous civil lawsuits for unpaid wage claims, and had a history of flouting the law, she could convince fellow Baptists to follow her to Haiti after the devastating earthquake last month. Under the banner of heaven, they would try to help “each child find healing, hope, joy and new life in Christ.”
Egan gives a quick history lesson to those who would believe that Silsby’s adventure is just an isolated case of naivety. The “missionary impulse” to save the heathen is just one variation of the Cultural Imperialism that Egan calls a “personality disorder” of western culture.

I give Egan the last word:

The missionaries say they have found the Word, the Truth, and feel compelled to spread it. Indeed, Paul Thompson, one of the Idaho pastors who followed Silsby to Haiti, expressed these feelings in his pastoral newsletter just before the earthquake.

“War is declared!” he quoted a 19th century British missionary approvingly. “In God’s Holy Name let us arise and build!”

But the Silsby case calls for a different type of refrain: Missionary, heal thyself.


Howard Zinn, Dead at 87

I don’t have many heroes, but Howard Zinn was one. As a historian, he insisted that the voices of the powerless be heard. As an activist, he lived his beliefs. The term “populist” is currently used and abused in the media. Howard Zinn understood what the term should mean.

If you haven’t heard of Howard Zinn, I doubt anything I can say will make him live for you and I am sure the obituaries will turn his life into a sound bite. So, my suggestion would be to go here and by a copy of A People’s History of the United States. Even if you have read it at some point in the past, read it again. It will put some of today’s craziness into perspective.