Monday, February 19, 2018

George Washington's Unbirthday

Regardless of what you may hear on the street today's holiday commemorates Washington's birthday. As the official federal government page states, "This holiday is designated as "Washington’s Birthday" in section 6103(a) of title 5 of the United States Code, which is the law that specifies holidays for Federal employees. Though other institutions such as state and local governments and private businesses may use other names, it is our policy to always refer to holidays by the names designated in the law."

At one time the nation had a Washington's Birthday holiday on February 22, the actual day of the man's birth, but that changed in 1971 when the "Monday holiday rule" took effect. The rule was a postlude to a torturous twenty year saga of federal bickering, ineptitude, and state's rights issues over the national failure to honor our presidents, especially Abraham Lincoln, with their very own holiday. The fallout left us with what is in reality a Washington's Unbirthday holiday and a three-day weekend. Honest Abe didn't make the official cut.

That said, American capitalists, never keen to let a good shopping opportunity pass, liked the idea of a President's Day, especially one that could be stretched over a full week . They saw the advantage of the patriotic fervor generated by matching silhouettes of Lincoln - log cabins - and Washington - axes and cherries - positioned over merchandise and big red signs reading "SALE." The concept caught on. Today, about all Americans have left with the third Monday in February is the opportunity to buy stuff, mostly stuff they don't need. On the federal level, this not only leaves us with nothing for Old Abe but also nothing for the other presidents save George and his big unbirthday.

So what is one to do? 

Perhaps it's best to forget the issues of a misnomer and the neglected presidents and return to Lincoln and Washington as our February presidents. And they have more in common as presidents who share the quality of American exceptionalism, a term we've been hearing more often these days as the republic drifts ever deeper into its golden years.  

I elected some years ago to honor these gentlemen on their respective birthdays and celebrate this floating federal holiday with an Old Fashioned and the pop and crack of a perfect fire. The drink describes its retired historian/geographer rather well these days. It also aids his conversations with the faces in the fire as they help him organize a tribute post to George Washington that will appear on his birthday, February 22.


federal holiday quote,

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Here's A Victory Over Progressivism Just About Every American Can Celebrate

Between 1920 and December 1933 there was a great reform across the United States. It wasn't quite the reform the progressive movement expected.

Today we commemorate the passage of the Blaine Act in 1933. This brief piece of legislation began a year-long process of conventions among the states to adopt an amendment to end the debacle we know as Prohibition. Granted, overindulgence in alcohol was a national issue by the Gilded Age. At the same time, I doubt few liberals would have expected the degree of lawlessness that engulfed American society as a result of their best intentions. Indeed, a year before the Blaine Act, John D. Rockefeller wrote this appraisal:

When Prohibition was introduced, I hoped that it would be widely supported by public opinion and the day would soon come when the evil effects of alcohol would be recognized. I have slowly and reluctantly come to believe that this has not been the result. Instead, drinking has generally increased; the speakeasy has replaced the saloon; a vast army of lawbreakers has appeared; many of our best citizens have openly ignored Prohibition; respect for the law has been greatly lessened; and crime has increased to a level never seen before.

And here's a photo of The Honorable John J. Blaine, U.S. Senator from Wisconsin, who was responsible for not only writing the act bearing his name but also the 21st Amendment that officially repealed Prohibition.

I would suggest a toast this evening to Blaine and his realistic response to moral folly. Oh that we should have such wisdom today!

The New York Times front page from February 17, 1933


Photos and Illustrations:
The New York Times,
Blaine, public domain photo,

Rockefeller quote, "Twenty-first amendment to the United States Constitution,", reference 3, "Letter on Prohibition - see Daniel Okrent, Great Fortune: The Epic of Rockefeller Center, New York: Viking Press, 2003. (pp.246/7)."

Monday, February 12, 2018

Rhapsody In Blue Premiere, 1924

"The King of Jazz," Paul Whiteman, a strong-willed innovator and perfectionist became the most popular band leader in the U.S. during the Roaring Twenties. He encouraged many talented artists and composers through his interest in fusing jazz with other musical styles. Furthermore, he appreciated experimental music and sponsored several concerts featuring new compositions and artists. For one of these concerts he asked his friend and collaborator, George Gershwin, to compose a "jazz concerto." Although faced with a short performance deadline, Gershwin reluctantly agreed. In two weeks, he completed the new piece and entitled it Rhapsody in Blue. After two weeks of orchestration and eight days of rehearsal, Whiteman premiered the piece at the Aeolian Hall in New York in February 12, 1924 with Gershwin at the piano. The performance certainly enhanced Whiteman's reputation but more importantly it affirmed Gershwin place as a leading American composer.

Cover of original sheet music of the two-piano version

There is no recording of the premiere but the bandleader and composer did appear in a memorable performance of Rhapsody in Blue in the 1930 film, King of Jazz. The film itself is an important piece of cinema history. Here is the sequence:

Gershwin was born in New York in 1898. He went on to become perhaps the most beloved American composer of the first half of the last century through his many compositions for the musical stage, the concert hall, and what has become known as the Great American Songbook. Gershwin's appeal comes in part from his colorful and lively incorporation of jazz motifs in all his music. He died in 1937 with what could only be called a wonderful career ahead of him. I often imagine what he could have brought to us had he lived. As for Rhapsody in Blue it seems as fresh today as it did in 1924 ranking among the most popular of concert titles in orchestra repertoires around the world.


Photos and Illustrations:
cover photo, fair use under copyright law of the United States; wikipedia entry, Rhapsody in Blue

Abraham Lincoln's Birthday

Abraham Lincoln, 16th President of the United States, was born on this day 209 years ago at Sinking Spring Farm near Hodgenville, Kentucky. Today, his grand marble likeness gazes down on millions of visitors drawn to his memorial on the Mall in Washington.

As visitors climb the marble steps, pass marble columns, and enter the chamber of the Lincoln Memorial, they are awestruck by Daniel Chester French’s enormous marble statue of Abraham Lincoln. To what part of the Georgia marble figure is the eye drawn first? Possibly, the serious look on Lincoln’s face will remind the visitor of the critical time of Civil War through which the president guided our nation. Maybe the reeds wrapped together in the arms of Lincoln’s chair will prompt the visitor to remember the way that Lincoln wanted to keep us bound together as one nation.

If you want to settle into an evening with Lincoln and his age, your choice of titles will number in the thousands and in a variety of media. I am inclined to recommend Carl Sandburg's Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years and The War Years. It is available as a one-volume abridgement of the original six-volume version of the biography. Not always accurate, not always "organized" as a traditional biography, Sandburg tells the story of Lincoln in the same manner a wise elder would deliver oral histories to those who wonder who they are and what they may become.  It's romantic, rich, warm, organic, meandering, sometimes stormy, sometimes calm. I think the approach works well because the Lincoln story is in so many respects the American story. Also keep in mind that although well-known as a poet Sandburg soon was revered in the U.S. as a poet/writer for the people once the first volumes appeared . With that in mind, I believe Old Abe would have been proud to select a writer of popular history and culture as his official biographer.

Abraham Lincoln Photo Portrait, early 1865                                    Alexander Gardner

As you can see from the photo below, Lincoln and I go way back. That picture was taken during the spring of 1952 during my first visit to Washington. It began a long association with Old Abe and his American experience that peaked during the last thirty years of my career. What an honor it was to know him well and work to preserve his story for future generations visiting our national parks. For more about Abe Lincoln's early years at Sinking Spring and Knob Creek farms visit the Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historical Park website.


Photos and Illustrations:
Lincoln photograph, Gardner collection, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.
Abraham Lincoln statue,
Lincoln Memorial personal photo 1952, author's archive

Quotation, National Park Service, Lincoln Memorial webpage,

Friday, February 2, 2018

Today Is Candlemas, The Festival Of Light Entering The World

Around our house on February 2 the words of Robert Herrick's (1591-1674) poem, Ceremony upon Candlemas Eve, have special meaning. 

Down with the rosemary, and so
Down with the bays and mistletoe;
Down with the holly, ivy, all,
Wherewith ye dressed the Christmas Hall.

The words remind that we have stretched this joyous Christmas holiday to its limit. As much as we love the season it does come to an end in the church calendar. And so today the last of the Christmas decorations have come down from the walls, doorways and mantel to be stored for next season. We'll build a fire in the den fireplace tonight but it will seem naked without its trimmings of red, green, gold and glass. But there will be light and warmth, both spiritual and physical, as this joyous Christmastide - the liturgical seasons of Christmas and Epiphany - comes to an end.

Readers undoubtedly will hear something about groundhogs today. They are less likely to learn that February 2 marks a Christian festival day. It is known in the western Catholic tradition as the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord, the Feast of the Purification of the Virgin or Candlemas, and more often in the Protestant world simply as The Presentation of Our Lord.

Presentation illustration from the Mugni Gospels, Armenia, ca. 1060

The festival marks the fortieth day following the birth of Jesus. Under Mosaic law, it was a day for temple rites completing the purification of a woman following childbirth. It was also the day to present the firstborn son for redemption in the rite of pidyon haben.

The Candlemas tradition emerges from Luke 2:22-39 where Simeon prays over Jesus with words that would become known as the Song of Simeon or Nunc Dimittis:

In peace, Lord, you let your servant now depart 
according to your word. 
For my eyes have seen your salvation, 
which you have prepared for every people,
a light to lighten the Gentiles 
and the glory of your people Israel.

Beginning around the third century following the birth of Jesus, the blessing of candles and their procession about the church on this feast day became a symbol of Jesus as the light of the world. The practice did not emerge in the western church for at least another seven hundred years.

This day has other interesting attributes in addition to the end of Christmastide. It is also the mid-point of Winter, a cross-quarter day filled with pagan traditions symbolizing fire and the "return of the light"


Photos and Illustrations:
Mesrop Mashtots Institute of Ancient Manuscripts, Yerevan, Armenia

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Philip Glass: Music Again And Again And Again

Philip Glass was born in Baltimore, Maryland, on January 31, 1937. He attended the Peabody Institute there where he studied the flute. At 15 he moved on the the University of Chicago and the study of mathematics and philosophy as well as more training in music. Today, Glass is quite probably the most well-known minimalist composer of our time although he has moved on to far more complex composition that he describes as "music with repetitive structure." Whatever one cares to call it, the music of Philip Glass is profoundly individualistic and stylistically unique:

Listening to Glass is often more an experience where one can get "into" the music as a participant rather than merely observe. Even at its simplest, his work has complexities in tone, harmony, tempo and orchestration. For one thing, Glass counts. He plays by the numbers, practicing his musical arithmetic adding, subtracting, multiplying, dividing, and even solving some algebraic formulas here and there. In the end, music to Glass seems like mathematics he studied. Fortunately for our culture, popular as well as haute, he became an extraordinary, prolific composer and a significant international influence in the music world.

Glass is different. These are the days my friend.


Photos and Illustrations:
Photo credit: Axelboldt, WNYC New York Public Radio

Monday, January 29, 2018

Frederick Delius: Making Music In His Own Way

Music is a cry of the soul. It is addressed and should appeal instantly to the soul of the listener. It is a revelation, a thing to be reverenced.
                                                                                 Frederick Delius

Delius in 1907

The English composer, Frederick Delius, was born on this day in Yorkshire in 1862. At 24, he lived the classic story of breaking away from the family business - wool, no less - to pursue a love for the arts, in this case, music. The break was interesting for it took him first to Solano Grove and an orange plantation on the banks of the St. Johns River south of Jacksonville, Florida. Later, he would teach music in Danville, Virginia, before returning to Europe for formal education in Germany. He took the sounds of American culture with him. In 1888, he settled in Paris, later married the painter, Jelka Rosen - she painted the portrait below - and devoted his life to composition. In his last sixteen years he was tortured by the pain of a slow death from syphilis contracted during his early years in Paris. In the four years before his death in 1934, he was blind and essentially paralyzed from the neck down. He composed and completed some of his most significant work during this period, all of it reaching paper through the notations of his loyal amanuensis, Eric Fenby.

Delius patterned much of his music after that of his friend and fellow composer, Edvard Grieg, but tempered it with English impressionism, his love of naturalism, and folk themes he heard among African Americans working on his father's grapefruit plantation near Solano Grove. The result was a unique and demanding music for performer and listener alike and one that almost demands an acquired appreciation. From his death until the 1970's many in the classical music industry thought his compositions were "too sweet" and trapped in immature cliches. Today, his popularity continues to grow but I believe he remains an underappreciated figure in 20th century music.

Portrait of Delius by his wife, Jelka Rosen, Grez-sur-Loing, France, 1912

I first encountered Delius's music in a BBC program in 1968. The unique lyric quality of his compositions was like a magnet and there was no escape from the compelling soundscapes with such rich, complex imagery and depth. 

Years ago, I had the opportunity to sit alone on a dock watching the evening move over the St. Johns River landscape not far from Solano Grove. Delius's music was in my head and all the beauty of "Old Florida" was in my heart. He had likely walked the river's edge at that very place, watched the same sun glistening on the water, heard the worker's songs blending with those of insects and the wind rustling the reeds and nearby palmettos. 

Over his lifetime he would be identified with the English school of music, but would put much of that Florida experience in his music. In fact, he has a significant place in American music history having been the first classical composer to use musical themes of black Americans in the South. Those themes appear in several of his composition more than forty years before George Gershwin and Porgy and Bess.  Here is an example from his Florida Suite composed in 1888.

Forty years have passed since that first sunset near Solano Grove. That's a long time to explore and mature in one man's music. It remains a most satisfactory experience - brushstrokes of sound. Different, immersive, and timeless.

In 1929 The New York Times wrote this about the composer:

Delius belongs to no school, follows no tradition and is like no other composer in the form, content, or style of his music.

Almost a century later the quote remains very much intact.

Photos and Illustrations:
Delius photograph, Monographein Moderner Musiker, Leipzig, Germany: C.F. Kahnt Nachfolger, 1907. Public domain in the United StatesDelius portrait, by his wife, Jelka Rosen, painted in Grez-sur-Loing, France, 1912. Grainger Museum, University of Melbourne, Australia


The Delius Society, website and Facebook page
Before the Champions: Frederick Delius' Florida Suite for Orchestra, Mary E. Greene., M.A. Thesis, University of Miami, 2011
Radio Swiss Classic, Frederick Delius,, Frederick Delius