Wednesday, July 26, 2017

He Brought Us "The Soft Glow Of Electric Sex Gleaming In The Window."

Today is the birthday of the American humorist, Jean Shepherd (1921-1999). His best known contribution to American humor is A Christmas Story, a compilation of stories and characters drawn from his earlier work. It was originally produced as a feature film in 1983 and made the transition into a television classic thanks to the persistence of Ted Turner. Almost any man born before 1950 has lived some or all of Ralphie's childhood. Each man's path to adulthood is his own, but the markers are identical. Jean Shepherd was a genius at capturing them. And his skills as a narrator made him a natural at weaving the common threads into humorous and entertaining listening.

Shepherd on the air in 1970

I find Shepherd's personal path in the American experience a most interesting one. Although he surely had the talent to become a well-known national treasure, radio did not provide him coast-to-coast exposure available with the new medium of television. He was fiercely independent, a maverick, and one not to take life too seriously. I can imagine he was a threat to the ego of more than one radio executive. Furthermore, he was a "night owl" on radio, broadcasting to a dedicated but smaller audience, and in direct competition with televised local news and the likes of Johnny Carson and The Tonight Show. In fact, an unverified Wikipedia entry notes that Shepherd was in line to take over The Tonight Show with Steve Allen's departure in 1957, but Jack Paar had the right of first refusal with the NBC network. Paar unexpectedly accepted, thus, denying Shepherd his big break on one of television's most popular shows. Finally, from my research, it seems Shepherd maligned his radio work when he moved into writing film for television in the '70's. Indeed, it apparently was a clean break - maybe the execs were happier without him - and he did go on to success with films, including The Phantom of the Open Hearth, The Great American Fourth of July and Other Disasters, and Ollie Hopnoodle's Haven of Bliss. Still, I think the fates denied him the opportunity to become a big television star in the 1950's and much better well-known in his lifetime.

Jean Shepherd died in Florida sixteen years ago known primarily for one film produced in 1983 when he was 62. There's much more to him than that and I hope more people come to enjoy his work. The settings now and in the future may be different but the collected experiences from childhood and adolescence often age into fine wine. Thanks to Shepherd we can enjoy the harvest.

"...the soft glow of electric sex gleaming in the window."                          A Christmas Story, 1983

Monday, July 24, 2017

Oshkosk/AirVenture: The World's Greatest Aviation Adventure

The world's largest fly-in is in full swing in Oshkosh, Wisconsin this week. It's the Experimental Aircraft Association's (EAA) AirVenture 2017: The World's Greatest Aviation Adventure. This is the 65th edition of what started as a small convention at the Milwaukee airport in 1953. Today it's a week-long, world-class gathering that addresses virtually every aviation topic and turns two ordinarily quiet runways into the world's busiest airport.

had the privilege of staffing the Federal Pavilion at five AirVentures beginning in 1999. Some may interpret that as overkill, but I left each one thrilled at the thought of returning for the next event.

Nothing can replace being at Oshkosh mixing with almost 20,000 folks who fly into the convention, thousands of exhibitor/participants, and a half million visitors. Fortunately, if you can't attend, the EAA maintains a comprehensive up to the second website where you can spend hours reading, watching and listening to the day's/week's events. Facebook friends should be on the lookout for live broadcasts as well. 

AirVenture at Whitman Field - for scale the runway at the top is 8000 feet long

Here's wishing everyone at AirVenture 2017 a safe and enjoyable experience. I'm with you in spirit and looking forward to returning to the event in the near future. 

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Days Of The Dog

It is the first night of the New Moon, actually a night without a moon.  Here in Atlanta it coincides with what climatologists tell us is the average warmest day of the year.  Climate averages aside I can say that today was much warmer than those averages derived from 130 years of observations. The excess was not uncomfortable given the usual pop-up thunderstorms that not only brought rain but also an early cloud curtain that shielded the area from afternoon sunshine. At an elevation of around 1000 feet Atlanta is a far better place  - the coast is best - to enjoy a hot summer in Georgia. South of the Fall Line running from Augusta through Macon to Columbus the heat can be a serious challenge. There's no better illustration of this than the one-hour drive south from Atlanta to Macon. In that brief time you will drop 550 feet over several ancient river terraces until you arrive, five degrees hotter and fully saturated, at the Ocmulgee River swamps bordering the city's southeastern side. Macon is a place where summer's hottest days are best described in terms of months. 

With that said it's time to envision sitting comfortably on the screen porch where a big ceiling fan quietly generates a steady breeze and your sweating, sweet iced tea feels good even to the touch. The forest across the lawn and garden is a still landscape interrupted by an occasional bird or squirrel and accompanied by countless cicadas and their song of summer. 

If you stay there long you witness the yellowing light of day giving way to the twilights, the lightning bugs, the katydids, and a chorus of north Georgia tree frogs. I love all of those twilight sounds but I love the katydids most because they remind me of long summer vacations and drifting to sleep in my bed next to a cottage window. It opened wide to both their chatter and a comforting breeze moving down the West Virginia mountainsides of my childhood.

Also happening outside my window was the rising of the “dog,” the event behind the “Dog Days” of my summer. Having lived most of my life deep in woods or in brightly lite cities, I never made note of the brightest star rising to its highest elevation in the summer sky. Before turning thirty I enjoyed the sky in terms of weather and events including Earth’s moon, meteor showers, comets, and favorite constellations. After eleven years living on an island at the edge of the ocean things changed. I observed, perhaps literally merged with, the actors on this infinite stage and their cycle of days, hours, tides, seasons, years, and more. No question the experience enticed me. In time I came to know well the dog and his comings and going. 

Sirius, the Dog Star, actually a double star

Now when that brightest star rises in the eastern sky, it’s name is Sirius. Twenty-five hundred years ago the Greeks knew the star as Sirius, Sothis, and the Dog Star, the bringer of heat and drought to their rocky hills and islands. A thousand years earlier the Egyptians worshiped the object as the star goddess, Sodpet, whose appearance brought flood waters and new crops to the valley of the Nile River. It is a far cry from the beaches of Pelopennese to my humble porch in the woods here in the Atlanta suburbs. And early evening thundershowers coinciding with sunset and lingering past midnight may likely obscure the Dog’s rise on my horizon tonight. With certainty, I will not be awake for the Dog’s zenith - highest elevation in the sky. No worry though, for the music of the spheres will perform as expected, God willing. Tybee’s beaches, the Back River, and the beautiful salt marshes will be refreshed will a very high tide. My katydids here and in West Virginia will chatter long into the night. The Dog Days will stay with Atlantans for another week or so. And Macon will swelter long after Labor Day is a distant memory.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

A Watershed Week In Folk And Rock Music History

If you enjoy the music of  the '60's this is a week to remember three landmark July events that shaped the industry then and continue to impact what we hear today. 

JULY 9, 1962: Bob Dylan

Dylan and Joan Baez, March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, Aug. 8, 1963
Bob Dylan was only 21 on July 9, 1962 when he walked into the Columbia Recording Studios in New York to record a song to be included on his second album. The song, Blowin' in the Wind, brought him fame and recognition as one of the nation's leading folk poets in the twentieth century. The lyrics and Dylan's comments on the song were published in June 1962 in the folk journal, Sing Out. He said this:

Too many of these hip people are telling me where the answer is but oh I won’t believe that. I still say it’s in the wind and just like a restless piece of paper it’s got to come down some ...But the only trouble is that no one picks up the answer when it comes down so not too many people get to see and know . . . and then it flies away.

The music critic, Andy Gill, said this about the song in his book, Classic Bob Dylan, 1962-1969: My Back Pages:

Blowin' in the Wind marked a huge jump in Dylan's songwriting. Prior to this, efforts like The Ballad of Donald White and The Death of Emmett Till had been fairly simplistic bouts of reportage songwriting. Blowin' in the Wind was different: for the first time, Dylan discovered the effectiveness of moving from the particular to the general. Whereas The Ballad of Donald White would become completely redundant as soon as the eponymous criminal was executed, a song as vague as Blowin' in the Wind could be applied to just about any freedom issue. It remains the song with which Dylan's name is most inextricably linked, and safeguarded his reputation as a civil libertarian through any number of changes in style and attitude.

JULY 5, 1965: Jefferson Airplane

Jefferson Airplane, first album released August 1966
On July 5, 1965, singer-songwriter, Marty Balin, watched a frustrated hootenanny try-out walk off the stage of The Drinking Gourd in disgust over his performance. Balin liked what little he heard and was impressed by the man's ambition. He went backstage and asked him, Paul Kantner, if he would join a band he was forming for his new Haight-Ashbury club called The Matrix. Kantner agreed. He didn't know it at the time, but he and Balin had just formed a band that would become Jefferson Airplane.

In a matter of days, another Drinking Gourd singer, Signe Toly Anderson, would join. Kantner recruited his downstairs neighbor, Jorma Kaukonen, as another guitarist. A local drummer and bass guitarist filled out the group. Kaukonen would convince Jack Casady to become their new bass later in the year.

Six weeks after Balin and Kantner had their backstage chat, Jefferson Airplane debuted as the house band at The Matrix on August 13, 1965. The band was an instant success and went on to release their first album, Jefferson Airplane Takes Off, a year later. Signe Toly Anderson (vocals) and Skip Spence (drummer) soon left and were replaced by Grace Slick and Spencer Dryden.  The group's next album, Surrealistic Pillow, launched them to international success.

JULY 3, 1968: Crosby, Stills & Nash

CSN's first album, released May 1969

The Byrds had already fired David Crosby, Buffalo Springfield broke up leaving Stephen Stills without work, and Graham Nash felt far too restrained working with the Hollies. They knew each other through the music scene in Los Angeles and networks that develop naturally among like-minded folks. Crosby and Stills had already been jamming in Florida and elsewhere. Both knew Crosby through his American tours.

The catalyst in this story is the singer-songwriter, Joni Mitchell. She shared Laurel Canyon, a neighborhood just north of Hollywood, with many other music industry notables and up-and-comers. Mitchell's home was described (Mark Volman) as "a little different...not so much maternal but about holding court in terms of songwriters who could find themselves there on any given night...and present their music to a kind of inner circle of people." On July 3,1968, circumstances brought Crosby, Stills, & Nash together at the house. "Nash asked Stills and Crosby to repeat their performance of a new song by Stills, You Don't Have To Cry, with Nash improvising a third part harmony." In a Daily Mail interview, Nash recalled, "That night, while Joni listened, the three of us sang together for the first time. I heard the future in the power of those voices. And I knew my life would never be the same."

Neither would music for millions around the world. Crosby, Stills, Nash, and later, Neil Young, would go on to phenomenal success. And so it was for Dylan and the members of Jefferson Airplane. Change would be about them and through all of it they would make music history for decades as their sounds and musical influences live on for appreciative audiences around the world.


Photos and Illustrations:
Roman Scherman Collection, National Archives and Records Administration

Text:, Rock and Roll History, Signe Toly Anderson interview, KGON Portland, 2011 Mart Balin: Jefferson Airplane Takes Off, Joe Vertino, producer,, 2009, "An Oral History of Laurel Canyon, the 60s and 70s Music Mecca"," March 2115

Quotations, Crosby, Stills & Nash segment:

"You Don't Have To Cry" quote is from
Nash quote,
Volman quote: Hotel California: The True Adventures of Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young, Barney Hoskins. Wiley, 2007

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

July 4th Weekend 2017: Independence Day

The Avenue in the Rain                                  Childe Hassam, 1917

As Independence Day 2017 nears it's end, and with it the end of a four-day holiday weekend, I can think of now better way to reflect on our experience over these days than to read and reflect on the Declaration of Independence, signed on this day in 1776:

In Congress, July 4, 1776

The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America, When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.--That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, --That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.--Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.

He has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.

He has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing importance, unless suspended in their operation till his Assent should be obtained; and when so suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them.

He has refused to pass other Laws for the accommodation of large districts of people, unless those people would relinquish the right of Representation in the Legislature, a right inestimable to them and formidable to tyrants only.

He has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their public Records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures.

He has dissolved Representative Houses repeatedly, for opposing with manly firmness his invasions on the rights of the people.

He has refused for a long time, after such dissolutions, to cause others to be elected; whereby the Legislative powers, incapable of Annihilation, have returned to the People at large for their exercise; the State remaining in the mean time exposed to all the dangers of invasion from without, and convulsions within.

He has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands.

He has obstructed the Administration of Justice, by refusing his Assent to Laws for establishing Judiciary powers.

He has made Judges dependent on his Will alone, for the tenure of their offices, and the amount and payment of their salaries.

He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harrass our people, and eat out their substance.

He has kept among us, in times of peace, Standing Armies without the Consent of our legislatures.

He has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil power.

He has combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution, and unacknowledged by our laws; giving his Assent to their Acts of pretended Legislation:

For Quartering large bodies of armed troops among us:

For protecting them, by a mock Trial, from punishment for any Murders which they should commit on the Inhabitants of these States:

For cutting off our Trade with all parts of the world:

For imposing Taxes on us without our Consent:

For depriving us in many cases, of the benefits of Trial by Jury:

For transporting us beyond Seas to be tried for pretended offences:

For abolishing the free System of English Laws in a neighbouring Province, establishing therein an Arbitrary government, and enlarging its Boundaries so as to render it at once an example and fit instrument for introducing the same absolute rule into these Colonies:

For taking away our Charters, abolishing our most valuable Laws, and altering fundamentally the Forms of our Governments:

For suspending our own Legislatures, and declaring themselves invested with power to legislate for us in all cases whatsoever.

He has abdicated Government here, by declaring us out of his Protection and waging War against us.

He has plundered our seas, ravaged our Coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.

He is at this time transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compleat the works of death, desolation and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty & perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized nation.

He has constrained our fellow Citizens taken Captive on the high Seas to bear Arms against their Country, to become the executioners of their friends and Brethren, or to fall themselves by their Hands.

He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.

In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. A Prince whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.

Nor have We been wanting in attentions to our Brittish brethren. We have warned them from time to time of attempts by their legislature to extend an unwarrantable jurisdiction over us. We have reminded them of the circumstances of our emigration and settlement here. We have appealed to their native justice and magnanimity, and we have conjured them by the ties of our common kindred to disavow these usurpations, which, would inevitably interrupt our connections and correspondence. They too have been deaf to the voice of justice and of consanguinity. We must, therefore, acquiesce in the necessity, which denounces our Separation, and hold them, as we hold the rest of mankind, Enemies in War, in Peace Friends.

We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States; that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do. And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.

And to think this document will be followed eleven years later by the U.S. Constitution and its concept of government by "We, the people." In the spirit of the freedom of the American Experiment established on July 4, 1776, our cultural experience continues to reinvent itself every day. We can thank the Founding Fathers for that freedom, but with that it comes the awesome responsibility to preserve the system that created and sustains it. I hope you take some time this weekend between the burgers, the parades, the fireworks and whatever to think about that responsibility and resolve to keep our democratic republic strong for ourselves and future generations.


Photos and Illustrations:
public domain photo, "The Avenue in the Rain," oil on canvas, by the American painter Childe Hassam. 42 in. x 22.25 in. Courtesy of The White House Collection, The White House, Washington, D. C. Image courtesy of The Athenaeum.

National Archives and Records Administration

Monday, July 3, 2017

Gettysburg At 154 Years

The Old Ranger and his dad at Gettysburg National Military Park 1954

Today marks the conclusion of the Battle of Gettysburg, fought July 1-3, 1863, and the beginning of the end for the Confederate States of America. A year later, in August 1864, the Union unconditionally controlled the Mississippi River and relentlessly pressed Confederate forces in Virginia. In the Deep South, General Sherman's army devastated Atlanta. Six months later, he would be in Savannah and poised to destroy the remains of the Confederacy as he moved north through the Carolinas.

The American Civil War is a perennial topic in our history. Indeed, it did preserve the Union as President Abraham Lincoln intended and left us with any number of consequences, both good and bad, in our national experience. Regarding those consequences, we should not expect otherwise as that is the way events unfold in the great wheel of history. And so it is with our great wheels of personal experience. Now in my seventh decade immersed in all of this I'm a bit surprised and certainly privileged to experience Gettysburg at 100 and 150. The place is a personal holy ground because three people cared.

First of all. my parents always loved being in nature and its historical overlay. Living in the Potomac River watershed afforded our family many opportunities to enjoy any number of places of national significance. As is often the case, first impressions become lasting ones. I was seven years old when we spent a long weekend exploring almost every foot of Gettysburg National Military Park. It was a fascinating experience and I still have the souvenirs to prove it. About six years later I met George Landis, the third person in this story. Landis taught middle school history and social studies on the eve of the Civil War Centennial. A Pennsylvanian with a love of history and basketball, he devoted an entire school year to the study of the Civil War. He was a superb teacher, highly animated and far ahead of his contemporaries in his classroom methodology. He focused on learning that took his students beyond lectures into the world of role-playing, performance, critical thinking and more. I recall fondly seeing every chalkboard in his classroom filled with detailed maps of battles, each carefully drawn and labelled with colored chalk. A little more than a decade after my year with Landis, I began a long and rewarding career immersed in experiential learning in the sacred places and histories in our national parks.

The Old Ranger with his mom at Gettysburg National Military Park 1954

There will be tens of thousands of people visiting Gettysburg this week as well as many thousands of volunteers recreating and commemorating the events that took place there. There will be lasting impressions made this week about the sacrifice, the consequences, and the wheels of history both national and personal. And somewhere in the crowd is a seven year-old with a new enthusiasm for a defining moment in our national experience. The commemorative landscape at Gettysburg will wait with pride and serenity like an old veteran to welcome him on his return visit in the battle's bicentennial year, 2063.

July 4th Weekend 2017: Before The Star Spangled Banner

Prior to 1931 and the selection of The Star Spangled Banner as an official national anthem, the United States used any number of patriotic songs to meet the need on holidays and other special occasions. One of the most popular of these was "Hail, Columbia," composed by Phillip Phile in 1789 as The President's March for George Washington's inauguration as our first president. Lyrics by Joseph Hopkinson were added in 1798. Today, Hail, Columbia is the official song for the Vice-President of the United States.

1861 music score cover for HAIL COLUMBIA

In honor of Independence Day, here is your opportunity to listen to the song honored as America's own for almost 150 years.

The words are patriotic and powerful as they should be for any rousing march:

Hail Columbia, happy land!
Hail, ye heroes, heav'n-born band,
Who fought and bled in freedom's cause,
Who fought and bled in freedom's cause,
And when the storm of war was gone
Enjoy'd the peace your valor won.
Let independence be our boast,
Ever mindful what it cost;Ever grateful for the prize,
Let its altar reach the skies.


Firm, united let us be,
Rallying round our liberty,
As a band of brothers joined,
Peace and safety we shall find.

Immortal patriots, rise once more,
Defend your rights, defend your shore!
Let no rude foe, with impious hand,
Let no rude foe, with impious hand,
Invade the shrine where sacred lies
Of toil and blood, the well-earned prize,
While off'ring peace, sincere and just,
In Heaven's we place a manly trust,
That truth and justice will prevail,
And every scheme of bondage fail.


Firm, united let us be,
Rallying round our liberty,
As a band of brothers joined,
Peace and safety we shall find.

Behold the chief who now commands,
Once more to serve his country stands.
The rock on which the storm will break,
The rock on which the storm will break,
But armed in virtue, firm, and true,
His hopes are fixed on Heav'n and you.
When hope was sinking in dismay,
When glooms obscured Columbia's day,
His steady mind, from changes free,
Resolved on death or liberty.


Firm, united let us be,
Rallying round our liberty,
As a band of brothers joined,
Peace and safety we shall find.

Sound, sound the trump of fame,
Let Washington's great name
Ring through the world with loud applause,
Ring through the world with loud applause,
Let ev'ry clime to freedom dear,
Listen with a joyful ear,
With equal skill, with God-like pow'r
He governs in the fearful hour
Of horrid war, or guides with ease
The happier time of honest peace.


Firm, united let us be,
Rallying round our liberty,
As a band of brothers joined,
Peace and safety we shall find.


Photos and Illustrations:
public domain photo sheet music, The Project Gutenberg EBook of The Good Old Songs We Used to Sing, '61 to '65, by Osbourne H. Oldroyd
1776 photo, 1905 postcard, OTR family archives


Sunday, July 2, 2017

July 4th Weekend 2017: This Blessed Land

In 1918, the great American songwriter, Irving Berlin, penned God Bless America for a musical revue but didn't use it choosing instead to file it away for future use. Twenty years later as the world slipped closer to another war, Berlin retrieved and revised his song. Kate Smith, one of the most popular singers of the day, debuted the song on her radio show to a national audience on November 11 (Armistice Day), 1938. It was an instant hit.

While the storm clouds gather far across the sea,
Let us swear allegiance to a land that's free.
Let us all be grateful for a land so fair,
As we raise our voices in a solemn prayer:

God bless America, land that I love,
Stand beside her and guide her
Through the night with a light from above;
From the mountains, to the prairies,
To the oceans white with foam,
God bless America, my home, sweet home.
God bless America, my home, sweet home.

If the iconic American folksinger and songwriter, Woody Guthrie, didn't hear that broadcast live, he certainly heard it played over and over on jukeboxes and radio broadcasts as war in Europe became very real. He developed a strong dislike for the song and, as a protest singer, supporter of leftist causes, and fellow traveler of the Communist Party, he soon saw the lyrics as a bland representation of the real American experience. Speaking up for the people, the less fortunate, the down trodden, the forgotten, he wrote a parody of God Bless America. He titled it God Blessed America For Me but you know it as This Land Is Your Land.  

This land is your land, this land is my land
From California to the New York Island
From the Redwood Forest to the Gulf Stream waters
This land was made for you and me.

As I was walking that ribbon of highway
I saw above me that endless skyway
I saw below me that golden valley
This land was made for you and me.

I roamed and I rambled and I followed my footsteps
To the sparkling sands of her diamond deserts
While all around me a voice was sounding
This land was made for you and me.

There was a big high wall there that tried to stop me
Sign was painted, it said private property
But on the back side it didn't say nothing
This land was made for you and me.

When the sun came shining, and I was strolling
And the wheat fields waving and the dust clouds rolling
A voice was chanting, As the fog was lifting,
This land was made for you and me.

This land is your land, this land is my land
From California to the New York Island
From the Redwood Forest to the Gulf Stream waters
This land was made for you and me.

We're going to hear both of these songs more than once over the holiday weekend. I don't care which song fits your disposition. And either way one chooses to define that experience we should have no problem defining the United States as a unique experience among the history of nations.  Celebrate it!

Fireworks over the National Mall on July 4th.



Saturday, July 1, 2017

July 4th Weekend 2017: American Variations

Wow! We have a four-day weekend to celebrate our 241st year of independence from Great Britain and George III. Look forward to some music, words, and fine arts over the next four days as we explore the American experience. In defining that experience the word "diversity," in its fullest expression, would rank high on any list. Tonight we're sending out our best wishes for a safe and happy holiday in the form of Variations on America.

Charles Ives, a fiercely original American composer, wrote this piece for organ in 1891 when he was seventeen. Sadly, he was generally unknown and ignored in his lifetime, but is now recognized as a pioneer in 20th century music. The organist in this performance is another American original, Virgil Fox. Describing Fox as flamboyant in terms of his persona and technique would be an understatement. He introduced classical music to tens of thousands of young people in a series of cross-country tours in the '70's. I was fortunate to see him perform once in an unforgettable concert in Washington. He was an amazing entertainer with a repertoire of over 250 pieces, all memorized. He never performed with a score, even when accompanied by an orchestraAs for Variations on America, there are five of them, each speaking with a unique voice, but united by a beloved melody. Nerd that I am, it's been a favorite of mine since childhood. I hope you enjoy the next seven minutes and fifty-six seconds of diverse American originals as much as I do.

Friday, June 30, 2017

Lena Horne: "I'm Me, And I'm Like Nobody Else."

About fifteen years ago I was a member of the planning and design team for the newly established Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site in Alabama. Fundraising was a big part of our mission and we asked a large core group of airmen who they would like to see as a national spokesman for the effort. To a man, the response was, "Lena Horne!" who made a number of visits to their  two Tuskegee airfields during World War II. They adored her. She was beautiful, had a sultry voice, the perfect figure for a World War II pinup, and a highly successful musical career on stage and screen. She was also strong-willed and, at times, defiant, both characteristics that served her well in the American civil rights movement following the war. No wonder she appealed to them.

Who was this international star and favorite pinup?  Lena Horne was born on this day in Brooklyn in 1917. Those familiar with the singer will always remember her remarkable talent as a legendary performer with a sparkling personality and a beautiful smile, In her almost seventy years in entertainment she worked the big band and cabaret circuits, movies, Broadway, and television. She became politically active in the fight for civil rights following World War II, a decision that placed her on the federal entertainment blacklist for over a decade. Readers can enjoy more details about Horne's life and career in a New York Times obituary published following her death in May 2010.

Horne at Tuskegee Institute banquet, Tuskegee, Alabama

Due to her age and disabilities, Horne was unable to take on the role the Tuskegee Airmen so enthusiastically desired but fundraising commenced in a different direction and eventually contributed to construction and interpretation at the park. Her image and the stories of her visits are embedded in the exhibits. 

I remember Horne well from her frequent television performances and recording beginning in the 1950's. She's always been a personal favorite among pop and jazz singers and the stories of her association with the Tuskegee Airmen story tells me she was one very special lady. 

Here she is performing her signature song, Stormy Weather, from the 1943 film of the same name.


Photos and Illustrations:
Noel Parrish Collection, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, Washington


Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Happy 91st Birthday Wishes To Mel Brooks!

Anyone want to guess which director has three of the top fifteen films on the American Film Institute's 100 Greatest Comedies list? It's none other than Mel Brooks, performer, writer, director, and producer of some of the finest comedy to grace the American stage, big screens in theaters, and the television screens in millions of our homes.

Brooks in a screen still from his super hit, Blazing Saddles (1974)

Brooks started in comedy in the Catskills in the late 1940's, became a television comedy writer and performer in the early 1950's, and graduated to film direction with The Producers in 1968. The rest is history, a laugh track of films including:

Blazing Saddles (1974) "Pardon me while I whip this out."

Young Frankenstein (1974) "Abby...Normal."

Silent Movie (1976) "Non!"

High Anxiety (1977) "Those who are tardy do not get fruit cup!"

History of the World Part I
(1981) "It's good to be the king."

Spaceballs (1987) "May the schwartz be with you."

Robin Hood: Men in Tights
(1993) "Actually Scarlet is my middle name. My whole name is Will Scarlet O'Hara. We're from Georgia."

Dracula: Dead and Loving It (1995) "I have been to many stakings - you have to know where to stand! You know, everything in life is location, location, location...."

The Producers (musical) 2001 "Will the dancing Hitlers please wait in the wings? We are only seeing singing Hitlers.

The Producers (film remake) 2005 "My blue blanket! Give me back my blue blanket!"

Young Frankenstein (musical) 2007  "He vas my boyfriend!"

Brooks has been entertaining us for over 65 years. He has no plans to stop. What I find even more remarkable is the fact that the Mel Brooks in private is most often the same zany entertainer one finds in his films. I recall the many stories my National Park Service colleagues told of Brooks and his wife, Anne Bancroft. In the '70's and '80's they were frequent guests at Caneel Bay Resort inside Virgin Islands National Park on the island of St. John. Known for playing practical jokes on the younger park rangers and resort staff during the day, Brooks and Bancroft hosted them at after-hours gatherings where hilarity ruled. Given the public comedy we know, one can only imagine the memories to come out of the spontaneity of such an evening. 

Brooks has definitely left us with many memories over many decades. Who knows what's next for a comedian who is arguably the funniest man on the planet?  Whatever it is I'm sure we'll be smiling.  

Happy birthday, Mel Brooks!

Sunday, June 25, 2017

George Orwell: "...Politics Itself Is A Mass Of Lies, Evasions, Folly, Hatred And Schizophrenia"

For a prescient and enigmatic writer it is hard to surpass George Orwell. He published these words in his novel 1984 in 1949:

The new aristocracy was made up for the most part of bureaucrats, scientists, technicians, trade-union organizers, publicity experts, sociologists, teachers, journalists, and professional politicians.

Fifteen years following their publication, Lyndon Johnson embedded the "new aristocracy" in his Great Society program, a national government initiative designed to end in a progressive utopia for the American people. I leave an evaluation of the program's success over the last two generations to my readers. Instead I choose to focus on Orwell who as time passes seems to be more and more a visitor from the future who spoke not in terms of political parties but of the human condition, universal rights, and classical liberalism. 

George Orwell - Eric Arthur Blair - was born on this day in India in 1903 and educated at Eton College and through self-study and his experiences in Asia and Europe. Wikipedia defines him aptly as "an English novelist, essayist, journalist and critic. His work is marked by lucid prose, awareness of social injustice, opposition to totalitarianism, and commitment to democratic socialism." 

George Orwell Press Photo, 1933

Most of us know him only as the author of 1984 but there is much more to read and appreciate from this man who is consistently described as one of the most influential writers of the last century. If you only know him as a novelist, I suggest you read some of his early essays, especially Down and Out in Paris and London (1933), The Road to Wigan Pier (1937), and Homage to Catalonia (1938). These works explore social justice themes in some of the finest, most vivid, objective, and descriptive writing to be found in modern English. For another aspect of Orwell's insight readers should explore his literary criticism, available in several compilations.

For a man who passed away at 46, George Orwell left us an enormous and rich body of work that I am sure will influence social and political thought for a very long time. 


Photos and Illustrations:
public domain, old accreditation for National Branch of Union Journalists,

title quote, Politics and the English Language, George Orwell, 1946
subject entry,

A Past Southern Passage

June 25 is a day to remember for many Savannahians in particular and fans of the Great American Songbook in general. It marks the passing of Johnny Mercer in 1976. He was a sentimental gentleman from Georgia, a favorite son of Savannah and one of the nation's most important figures in entertainment in the last century. Mercer's impact was universal. He composed melodies, wrote lyrics, sang a wide range of songs, performed in films, kept the nation laughing with his comedy, and co-founded Capitol Records and the Songwriters Hall of Fame.

Johnny Mercer, New York, N.Y., between 1946 and 48

We have come a long way from the advent of rock and roll in the mid-1950's and its dominance in the family tree of popular music. Still, the Great American Songbook, that generation of music beginning around 1930 and continuing into the early 1960's, has found a comfortable niche among music lovers around the world. Many songs in that now-tattered "book" belong to Mercer and stand in tribute to a man described as America's folk-poet and the finest lyricist in our history.

In his career Mercer wrote the lyrics to 1500 songs, collaborating with the country's top music writers, including Harold Arlen, Bernie Hannigan, Hoagy Carmichael, Harry Warren, Gene DePaul, Henry Mancini, Jerome Kern, Rube Bloom, and Matty Malneck. He also left behind a few thousand more unpublished songs and song fragments, scores of poems and prose pieces, and an unfinished autobiography all housed in the Johnny Mercer Collection at the Georgia State University Library in Atlanta. 

Mercer often talked about his "bread and butter" songs. I'd say most songwriters and performers would be pleased to have five songs in such a list. Mercer had twenty-nine. Regardless of your age and interest in popular music, you may be surprised at how many of these songs you recognize:

Lazybones (1933), music by Hoagy Carmichael;

Goody, Goody (1936), music by Marty Malneck;

Too Marvelous For Words (1937), music by Richard A. Whiting;

Jeepers Creepers (1938), music by Harry Warren;

Satin Doll (1958), written with Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn;

You Must Have Been A Beautiful Baby (1938), music by Harry Warren;

That Old Black Magic (1943), music by Harold Arlen;

Accentuate the Positive (1944) music by Harold Arlen;

Fools Rush In (1940), music by Rube Bloom;

I Remember You (1942), music by Victor Schertzinger;

Day In - Day Out (1939), music by Rube Bloom;

Dearly Beloved (1942), music by Jerome Kern;

Come Rain or Come Shine (1946), music by Harold Arlen;

Tangerine (1942), music by Victor Schertzinger;

Hooray For Hollywood (1938), music by Richard A. Whiting;

Laura (1945), music by David Raksin;

Dream (1944), words and music by Johnny Mercer;

On the Atcheson, Topeka and the Santa Fe (1946, Academy Award for Best Music, Original Song), music by Harry Warren;

Something's Gotta Give (1954), words and music by Johnny Mercer;

One For My Baby (1943), music by Harold Arlen;

In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening (1951, Academy Award for Best Music, Oroginal Song), music by Hoagy Carmichael;

Skylark (1941), music by Hoagy Carmichael;

Autumn Leaves (1950), music by Joseph Kosma;

I Wanna Be Around (1962), words and music by Johnny Mercer and Sadie Vimmerstedt;

Blues in the Night (1941), music by Harold Arlen;

Charade (1963), music by Henry Mancini;

Summer Wind (1965), music by Henry Mayer;

Moon River (1961, Academy Award for Best Music, Original Song), music by Henry Mancini;

Days of Wine and Roses (1962, Academy Award for Best Music, Original Song), music by Henry Mancini;

That's plenty of "bread and butter" on one man's plate, but we need to keep in mind that he had seven more songs nominated for an Academy Award that never made this list. What a remarkable talent...and I bet you hear one of his songs today.

For more on this American folk poet visit


Photos and Illustrations:
William P. Gottlieb Collection, Library of Congress

Johnny Mercer: The Life, Times, and Song Lyrics of Our Huckleberry Friend, Bob Bach and Ginger Mercer, The American Poet and Lyricists Series, Lyle Stuart, October 1982.

Skylark: The Life and Times of Johnny Mercer, Philip Furia, St. Martin's Press, December 2004.

Portrait of Johnny: The Life and Times of John Herndon Mercer, Gene Lees, Hal Leonard, February 2006.

The Complete Lyrics of Johnny Mercer, Johnny Mercer, edited by Kimball, Day, Kreuger, and Davis; Knopf 2009

Johnny Mercer: Southern Songwriter for the World, Glenn T. Eskew, University of Georgia Press, 2013

Johnny Mercer Foundation

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Summer Solstice 2017

For Northern Hemisphere folks the sun reaches its highest point in the sky today. It is the longest day of the year.

Summer Solstice Sunrise at Stonehenge, Wiltshire, England                    NASA

Although the sun begins its descent tomorrow, insolation from our star will continue to raise atmospheric temperatures until late July. As this day marks the end of the season of renewal and the beginning of the season of growth and flower, I am reminded of this quote by D. H. Lawrence...

The greatest need of man is the renewal forever of the complete rhythm of life and death, the rhythm of the Sun's year, the body's year.

...and this music by Johann Sebastian Bach:

Shout with joy to God, all the earth!.... Psalm 66