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July 2010

The Sundays: Summertime

Weekend Music

Let's see how long I can keep this string of husband-wife collaborations going. Thanks to Rob G for the link. This song is from an album released in 1997, and apparently The Sundays haven't released anything since. According to their AMG bio, they decided to withdraw from the music biz to focus on raising their child. I hope they've stayed together and had more children. (Note: if you're subject to motion sickness, this video could make you a little uneasy, I think).


Anne Rice Excommunicates Everybody Else

I know she's serious, and it's a serious matter, but I couldn't help snickering a bit at the way Anne Rice has publicly repudiated Christianity. It sounds so juvenile, like a teenage girl yelling "I just...just...HATE all of you!", bursting into tears, running off into her room and slamming the door.

I really don't know that much about her. I sampled Queen of the Damned, one of her vampire books, some years ago, really thinking that I might like the gothic atmosphere that I supposed her work would have. But I soon encountered a scene of such sickening violence that I stopped reading. (Anybody want to recommend that I give her another try?) I knew that she had returned to the Church, and had written at least one book about the life of Christ, but on the basis of a few interviews with her that I read or heard, I sort of had an uneasy feeling about it, as if she were still holding back and was not fully committed. 

I'm always a little surprised at those who think their personal opinions about who Jesus was and what he taught are more authoritative than those of the communities which have been thinking and praying about it for 2000 years.

“It's simply impossible for me to ‘belong’ to this quarrelsome, hostile, disputatious, and deservedly infamous group.” Well, who can argue that she's wrong to call us “quarrelsome, hostile, disputatious, and deservedly infamous” (though she might have acknowledged the good stuff, like, say the music of Bach)? But I'm of a quite different mind: thank God that it is possible for me to belong, to be allowed on board the ship which is the world’s only hope. If I’m also still a bit of an outsider, as she says of herself, on one level, that’s ok. I put up with the Church, the Church puts up with me: that seems fair enough.

I'm not responsible for what happens to your mind if you click here. I will note that it may take me a while to recover.

The Endurance

I'm embarrassed to say that I knew almost nothing about Ernest Shackleton until tonight. I knew that he was one of the explorers of one of the poles, but I didn't even know which one, and I didn't know whether he succeeded or failed, lived or died. Well, now I know, thanks to this excellent documentary, which I recommend highly. If you've complained about the weather or some other physical discomfort or inconvenience lately, or been impatient with some tiresome task, this will put it in perspective for you, although perhaps at the cost of making you feel a bit ashamed. What Shackleton and his men went through on their failed attempt to reach the South Pole is almost inconceivable. 

The film, narrated by Liam Neeson, includes both still and moving pictures taken on the voyage, liberal quotations from the diaries of members of the expedition, contemporary photography of the Antarctic (beautiful and, in this context, somewhat frightening), and interviews with historians and descendants of some of the crew. Very very much worth the hour and forty minutes invested in watching it.

War In the Closed World 20: Mooresville and Music

It was also in Mooresville that I first encountered my other great love: music. It may even be a greater love; if I’d been born with more musical ability and weren’t so lazy, I might have made myself a competent performer. There is an interview with Walker Percy in which he is asked what he would have liked to be if he had not been a writer; he replies that he would have liked to be an operatic tenor, a heldentenor. When I asked myself a similar question, the answer came to me instantly: I would have liked to be a really, really good electric guitar player.

My earliest memory in which music plays a part is only a sort of fragmented image. I think it was before my father remarried, though I can’t be sure; if that’s true I was probably around five years old. It was in the old house in Mooresville, in a wing that had just been converted into an apartment for my uncle Jimmy and his wife (I have a few memories of the conversion, of someone letting me hold a paintbrush and slap it at an upstairs wall). Jimmy and his father, my grandfather, were playing music, Jimmy on guitar and my grandfather on mandolin. I think other people were there. Perhaps it was a sort of party. They may have played “The Blue-tailed Fly”; at any rate I associate the song with that memory, and with that apartment.

I was fascinated by the instruments, especially the guitar. It was an arch-top, which was not usual for country or folk music, with f-holes like a violin, and a sunburst finish. I thought it was extremely beautiful, but I don’t think I was allowed to touch it, or perhaps I was just too shy to ask.

The odd thing is that I don’t remember this happening more than once. Of course it may have—after all, I didn’t live there. But I don’t remember either my grandfather or my uncle playing music again, except once, many years later, my uncle.

My first memory of hearing rock-and-roll is in Mooresville: I am outside my grandparent’s house and I hear Elvis Presley singing “Hound Dog.” I suppose it must have been coming from a car radio. That must have been 1956, when I was eight.

My grandfather was a carpenter and cabinetmaker, among other things, and I loved to go to his shop with him, a small dim building a couple of blocks from their home, filled with aromatic lumber and well-made, well-kept tools. I even said at the time that I wanted to be a carpenter, which is very funny to me now and no doubt even more so to anyone familiar with my talents in the building line. But in my most vivid memory of the shop, I’m standing outside it, beside my grandfather’s car, a black ‘40s or early ‘50s-style Chevrolet if my memory is correct, listening to the Everly Brothers singing “Wake Up, Little Susie,” on the radio. That would have been 1957, when I was nine.

My grandfather did not live much longer than that. I believe I was not more than ten when he died of lung cancer. It was a few years later—a long time in my life—that I began to have a conscious enthusiasm for music, and it was my grandmother Hill, whom I visited often, who provided the material. She had a record player, and a few dozen records, among which were Harry Belafonte’s two Carnegie Hall concert albums, Belafonte at Carnegie Hall and Belafonte Returns to Carnegie Hall. (She also liked Elvis.) These two albums, each one consisting of two LPs, were my gateway to a musical wonderland, and my grandmother eventually bought me my own copy of the first one.

There came a time when they seemed old-fashioned and too slick and show-business-y for my taste, and I haven’t heard them for decades. But looking at the track lists now, and remembering them, I understand why I was captivated. They have a sample of most of the interesting folk music that was happening outside the confines of commercial radio: American, both black and white, (Odetta singing both); calypso (the famous “Day-O” and others); college folk (The Chad Mitchell Trio); African (Miriam Makeba); Latin (“La Bamba”). There is humor (“A Hole in the Bucket”); sophistication (“The Ballad of Sigmund Freud,” with the chorus “Oh Doctor Freud, oh Doctor Freud, how we wish you had been differently employed”); high-energy dance-play songs (“Jump Down Spin Around”); emotional ballads (“Danny Boy,” “Shenandoah”). It was world music long before the term was coined, though the emphasis was on American music.

I continued to like rock-and-roll, but through my early adolescence it was folk music that I loved most. For a while it was the highly polished pop-folk of groups like the Mitchell Trio, the Highwaymen, and Peter, Paul, and Mary. By the time I was in high school my beloved grandmother’s mind had failed and she had been moved to a nursing home (more on that in another chapter), and when I visited in Mooresville it was at the home of my uncle Jimmy and his wife Libby, now living in a house they had built next door to the old family home. There I got a taste of the originals from whom the pop folksters had gotten their material and inspiration. There I heard real blues for the first time, in particular the sound of the blues guitar, for which I had an instantaneous love which has not only never faded but has grown stronger over the 45 years or so since I first heard it. As B.B. King said of hearing Bukka White for the first time: “that sound would go all through me,” and it still does.

When I was old enough to drive I sometimes spent Saturday nights at Libby and Jimmy’s. They cooked steaks and played records for me, and sometimes let me drink a beer or two. Jimmy’s great love was country blues, the rough one-man acoustic blues as it was played in the south, before Muddy Waters and others took it to Chicago and introduced the electric guitar and the rhythm section: Leadbelly, Big Bill Broonzy. Furry Lewis, Mississippi John Hurt, Fred McDowell. Those evenings were magical, filled not only with the sense of discovery but with a sense of growing into something, of a sort of initiation, that probably can be had only in youth: the discovery of discovery, perhaps. One year they gave me, either for Christmas or my birthday, a four-LP anthology of folk music from the Vanguard label, which at the time had an excellent roster of folk and near-folk artists, people who were not necessarily the originators, discovered in Appalachia or rural Mississippi, but not the highly commercial popularizers, either—people like Joan Baez and Ian and Sylvia on the one hand, and Doc Watson and the Georgia Sea Island Singers on the other. That set became a sort of encyclopedia of folk music for me, serving me somewhat as the broader and more important Harry Smith anthology (which I still have never heard) served Dylan and other discoverers of folk music in the late 1950s. I was even a bit of a folk-music snob for a while, until 1965 or so, when rock got interesting, with Dylan moving that way and the Beatles getting adventurous and folk-rock appearing.

I don’t want to make this sound like music was something that I only heard in Mooresville. My mother made an attempt to introduce us to classical music with a recording of the Nutcracker Suite, which I liked, and she had some Broadway show albums that she played from time to time, of which I remember only My Fair Lady, which I considered not too bad for that sort of thing (but have since learned to admire). But there was not the same level of interest there as in Mooresville.

The Weepies: I Was Made for Sunny Days

Weekend Music

Another sweet catchy love song. I guess I'm ruining my reputation with stuff like this; the title of this one is especially against my usual grain, as I know I've mentioned how much I like rain. But it's not ironic. This song was given away on either eMusic or Amazon a few weeks ago. I had never heard of the group before, but I want to hear more.

The lyrics are really good. If you can't make them all out, click on the video again after you've played it, and you'll be taken to the YouTube page, where the lyrics are available (click on the text below the video--it expands).

I guess next week I need to find some metal or industrial.

I think this should be widely distributed

If you don't know what this is about, don't worry about it. If you do: I don't think the Tea Party is in its essence racist. I don't think the NAACP is in its essence racist. It's time, it's far, far past time, for all of us to stop actively looking for occasions to call each other racist, and making them up when they can't be found.

The constant resort to a questionable charge of racism is a deadly poison in our system. Those who use it for short-term political advantage are playing with fire.

UPDATE: I'm pulled between wanting to say more about this whole thing, which I've been thinking about a lot recently, and Why bother?—it's not as though this obscure blog has any great influence. Lack of time trumps both, though. And as often happens when I have something to say about politics, I find that someone else has already said it for me. In this case, Elizabeth Scalia aka The Anchoress:

This whole sordid mess of a story–which is clearly not over–may tell us that it is past time for people of good will to stop tolerating politically-expedient charges of racism, regardless of whether they originate from genuinely from overzealous, malicious bloggers or from Congressmen who are confident that any charge they make will be deemed insta-credible, or from journalists who ignore real racism while trying to ignite the charge elsewhere, for the advancement of their own partisan agendas, or from the rightly marginalized, fringe-living, stupid people who every sensible person condemns.

The NAACP’s maneuver last week was an attempt at cynical manipulation, a lazy card they thought they could play, because it’s always taken the pot, before. They ticked off Breitbart, who upped the ante, but appears to have done so recklessly.

Everyone’s credibility is now strained, and perhaps that is a good thing. Perhaps the left should finally leave behind the smug instinct to sniff, “racism, straight up” over sincere disagreements on policy. If they can manage that, then perhaps the right can stop feeling so defensive.

The whole thing is here. You really should go read it, if you're much interested in this matter (and Americans ought to be, because it's poisoning our society), because she has much more to say, and a number of phrases in the above are links to examples of what she's talking about.

Volunteer Lilies

Sort of a strange thing: these Easter lilies just appeared by the side of the road near my house, here in the middle of July. I guess they grew from a discarded one. The plant is 6 feet tall or so (~2 meters).