Thursday, September 21, 2017

A Fire Burning In The Darkness

Forty-four years ago tonight, park rangers at Joshua Tree National Monument - now a national park -  noticed a huge fireball on the ridge at Cap Rock. Upon investigation, they found a flaming coffin and the partially burned remains of Gram Parsons, a 26 year old musician who would become a music legend. In his life, lived fast and loose, Parsons would blend rock and country into a new sound as he pursued what he called "cosmic American music." If you listen to The International Submarine Band, The Byrds, The Flying Burrito Brothers, and his work with Emmylou Harris, you know what that sound was all about.

In a few hours, the pilgrims will make their trek to Cap Rock to pay their respects to Parsons as they have for decades. Rangers may close the area, but that won't make a difference. The faithful will be there.

For more on the Gram Parsons story, read the comprehensive Wikipedia entry with many links to his discography as well as a direct link the the entry on his death.


Photos and Illustrations
Full Moon at Cap Rock, Nikhil's Domain 

Eighty Years Of Hobbits

Today marks the 80th anniversary of the publication of The Hobbit. For all Tolkien fans who have come to love the book and stories to follow, Corey Olsen wrote a history of The Hobbit for its 75 anniversary in 2012. Here is a post he wrote about the book and the evolution of its main character, Bilbo Baggins, for The Daily Beast. Olsen included seven illustrations Tolkien drew for the book, one of them being the dust jacket, proving he was not only a superb writer, but also an accomplished artist.

Cover from 1937

The Wikipedia entry for The Hobbit states that a signed copy of the first edition could fetch more than $80,000 at auction. 

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Gram Parsons: Seeking Cosmic American Music

Parsons in 1973

Gram Parsons spent his brief musical life searching for what he called "cosmic American music," a sound emerging out of gospel, R&B, country and rock traditions. He was born in 1946 into a wealthy Florida-Georgia family, a circumstance that encouraged both his exploration of music and the drug abuse that killed him on this day in 1973 in the Joshua Tree Inn at the edge of the desert he loved. Parsons performed with The Byrds and The Flying Burrito Brothers before attempting a rocky solo career that went nowhere until he met a young singer in Washington, D.C. Her name was Emmylou Harris. Parsons soon partnered with Harris and they went on to produce some of the finest sounds from the early fusion days of country and folk-rock. With his passing, one of American music's greatest inventors was stilled, but others, including Emmylou, would use his inventions and adapt them over the next forty years into the country rock music we know today.

Here is some music to help you understand the history. The first recording is a Gram Parsons-Bob Buchanan song that appeared on The Byrds album, Sweetheart of the Rodeo, released in 1968. It was both a Parsons concept and groundbreaking for the band by going deep into classic country and introducing Parsons to a rock audience.

Here's a Parsons-Chris Hillman song, dating from 1969 and the days of The Flying Burrito Brothers. Parsons can be identified by his signature marijuana leaf Nudie suit.

And here is Parsons with Emmylou Harris performing their song, In the Hour of Darkness, from the album, Grievous Angel, released four months after his death. 

With barely a decade of musical composition and performance behind him Gram Parsons made a lasting and profound impression on American popular music.  We will continue to hear that influence for a long, long time. 

For more on the Gram Parsons story, read this review from The Times Online, this Country Music Television biography, and this comprehensive Wikipedia entry with many links to his discography.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Mencken, The Sage Of Baltimore Has A Birthday

After all these years, the Sage of Baltimore - Henry Louis Mencken - still has so much to tell us about the American experience. In his day he invented the term "booboisie" to refer to the masses who didn't read much, know much or even care much about their lives as citizens of a democratic republic. Today we could easily apply his term to the masses who are well-schooled but not well-educated, who apply emotion rather than reason and logic to their decision making, and who align themselves with coalitions of self-interests wrapped in collectivist totalitarianism. Another term for the modern-day "booboisie" is "moonbat". I think Mencken would have a even more colorful term for them if were still with us. And oh would he have a time with our political and social landscape today.

Democracy is a pathetic belief in the collective wisdom of individual ignorance. No one in this world, so far as I know - and I have researched the records for years, and employed agents to help me - has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people. Nor has anyone ever lost office thereby.

Henry Louis Mencken, the "Sage of Baltimore," was born on this day in 1880. He was a leading journalist and author on the American scene, humorist, and a student of the American language. Mencken's stature seems to be on the rise over the last few decades. I'd guess it's because we experienced a concurrent rise in many nation-wide opportunities to watch logic, practicality, and skepticism destroy a multitude of political pretenders and their policies regardless of political persuasion. 

Puritanism is the haunting fear that someone, somewhere is having a good time.

Mencken (right) celebrating the end of Prohibition in 1933

As much as I enjoy reading all of Mencken's work, the autobiographical books remain my favorites. His three-part "Days" series, Happy Days(1940), Newspaper Days (19441), and Heathen Days (1943) should be essential reading. They cover life and times from birth through 1936, the most productive and positive time in his life. After the mid-1930's, Mencken fell a bit out of fashion as his curmudgeonly persistence began to grind on the American psyche. His perceived sympathy with German nationalism helped undermine his reputation into the 40's. In one of the great ironies in American literature, a stroke in 1948 rendered him unable to read, speak or write beyond simple phrases or sentences. Although he regained some communications skills over time, he spent the next seven years enjoying music, listening to readings, and conversing with friends until his death in 1956. 

If, after I depart this vale, you ever remember me and have thought to please my ghost, forgive some sinner and wink your eye at some homely girl.

Those who want the full Mencken story should read Terry Teachout's, The Skeptic: A Life of H.L. Mencken (2003). Teachout is a superb writer who treats his subject with objectivity and warmth. I also enjoyed a biography, Mencken: The American Iconoclast (2005), by the eminent Mencken scholar, Marion Elizabeth Rodgers.

If reading isn't to your liking but you still want some immersion into the man and his times, C-SPAN's American Writers Project produced a fine two-hour program on Mencken that should not be missed. It is a thorough multimedia exploration.

I'm the third generation in my family to consider Mencken a favorite writer. Though the author as skeptic likely played a role in his popularity over the years, I think the humor sold him to the family - certainly has in my case. But there is a sad note to this story. In 1959 - I was 13 that year - two family members who were among the first generation to appreciate Mencken passed away just one day part. My dad was the executor of this challenging estate. The late relatives had shared a large home with other brothers and accumulated seventy years of cultural history within its walls. It seemed the only thing that left the house was weekly trash. Included in that history collection they retained were thousands of magazines. No institution or person wanted them as they had not yet achieved a patina of age, worth or "significance." I was given the responsibility of burning them and in doing so I watched a near complete, mint collection of The Smart Set and The American Mercury magazines rise up in smoke on a cold winter day. Both magazines were under the editorship of H.L. Mencken early in his career and featured many new writers who were to become famous in the decades to follow. Today, the collection could bring as much as five figures at a major literary auction. So much wisdom up in smoke. If the Sage of Baltimore were alive today, he would not be happy at this outcome, nor would he be surprised...

No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people.


Democracy is....    "Notes on Journalism," Chicago Tribune, September 19, 1926;

Puritanism is....    " Sententae," The Citizen and the State, p.624;

If, after I....    "Epitaph," from Smart Set (December 1921);

No one ever....    paraphrase of the "Democracy" quote as noted in The Yale Book of Quotations (2006)

Monday, September 4, 2017

Labor Day 2017

In the eastern U.S. we're in the last minutes of the Labor Day holiday weekend and the informal end of summer. I'm sure Labor Day and the weekend generated plenty of memories. The most memorable Labor Days in my early days - the '50's and '60's - were the big day-long picnics sponsored by the paper mill that employed my home town. Three to four thousand people attended those events at Burlington, West Virginia, and enjoyed carnival rides, swimming, softball, races, airplane rides, and a playground filled with wonderfully dangerous equipment that could never be built today. It all ended with a movie under the stars at the drive-in theater next door.

Old Tybee Ranger was three when this photo was taken at the Burlington campground

Many of the kids I played with those days ended up working at the mill, I imagine a number of them went on to college and enjoyed the greater opportunities it afforded. In the long run they made the right decision. Today, the mill employs only a shadow of its former workforce, fewer than a quarter when compared to its post World War II heyday. The company sponsored picnic ended years ago. The union wages may still be good, but the jobs are few, the future of the American paper industry remains in question, and the quality of life still wants in a region now entering its seventh decade of stagnation or decline. 

Although it's been forty years since I skipped rocks in Patterson Creek and spent my last weekends at the Burlington campground I feel a strong affinity for the place and for the people who live there. My family's experience began there in the early nineteenth century. Today that family consists of my cousins and Facebook friends who elected to remain in those magnificent ridges and valleys in the shadow of the Allegheny Front.

In my life, I've always made a point to family, friends, and colleagues that all work is honorable. Every employee, from minimum wage to executive salary, contributes to achieving organizational success and profit in the American dream. To those in the valleys of Georges Creek, New Creek, Patterson Creek and the Potomac River I wish a happy Labor Day. The notable labor history of these valleys in the last century helped bring the nation through two world wars and into the limelight as the greatest economic engine on the planet. Although we may be left only with the memories of the holiday at Burlington and elsewhere we cannot forget the labor that made the celebration possible and the ambitions and achievements of those who choose to call the region "home."

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Woodstock 1969: Peace, Music And Three Days In The Aquarian Age

The Woodstock festival began on this date in 1969. It attracted an audience estimated at 400,000 - twice what the promoters expected - with more than 35 of the leading or up-an-coming musical attractions of the day. Joni Mitchell didn't appear as scheduled but she penned a perfect description of the event, one that Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young would bring alive as a #1 hit that still captures an audience. 

Well I came upon a child of God, he was walking along the road
And I asked him tell where are you going, this he told me:
Said, I'm going down to Yasgur's farm, going to join in a rock and roll band.
Got to get back to the land, set my soul free.
We are stardust, we are golden, we are billion year old carbon,
And we got to get ourselves back to the garden.

Well, then can I walk beside you? I have come to lose the smog.
And I feel like I'm a cog in something turning.
And maybe it's the time of year, yes, and maybe it's the time of man.
And I don't know who I am but life is for learning.
We are stardust, we are golden, we are billion year old carbon,
And we got to get ourselves back to the garden.

By the time we got to Woodstock, we were half a million strong,
And everywhere was song and a celebration.
And I dreamed I saw the bombers jet planes riding shotgun in the sky,
Turning into butterflies above our nation.

We are stardust, we are golden, we are caught in the devil's bargain,
And we got to get ourselves back to the garden.

The day before the festival began, one of its performers, David Crosby, celebrated his 28th birthday. Now at 76. he may be a social and political bad boy in the eyes of many but he remains an iconic figure in the performance and evolution of popular music beginning in the 1960's. His talents, notably his beautiful high harmony, helped propel The Byrds, and Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young to the top of the charts. Crosby is still on the circuit adding his signature sound --and rather strong it remains--after all these years. Considering the toll from years of unhealthy life choices both emotional and physical, we're fortunate to have him around for another generation of admirers. For me, Crosby ranks among the best of the singer songwriters.


Photos and Illustrations:

All quotations:

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Have You Seen The Perseids Tonight?

Perseid shower time lapse, August 2009                                           NASA/JPL

The Perseid meteor shower returns this week! It's both the most reliable shower of the year and one that produces the most fireballs. Best viewing will be after midnight on the nights of August 11 and 12. A waxing moon will make for somewhat better viewing on August 12. With clear and dark skies you should easily see 60-70 meteors per hour. The good news is you don't have to be up just before dawn to see the fireballs. They are random meteors, brighter than the planets Jupiter and Venus, and often traveling longer arcs across the sky. One of the most spectacular fireballs I ever saw cut across at least 120 degrees of steel blue sky about half an hour after sunset. One never quite knows what to expect when you watch the sky.

Viewing is easy and best in the Northern Hemisphere. If the night is clear, take a lounge chair or blanket and bug spray outside between midnight and dawn and look into the northeast sky. In that sky you'll see a lopsided "W" known as the constellation Cassiopeia, an easy marker for its neighbor, Perseus. As you might guess, the meteors radiate from this point, but it's important to note that they may occur anywhere in the sky dome. Furthermore, you will likely see some random meteors that will not fit the pattern. Don't bother with a telescope, but you may enjoy binoculars for exploring deeper into space when the meteor watch gets a tad boring. 

Sunday, August 6, 2017

A New Weapon Obliterates A City And Ends An Aging War

Today marks the 72nd anniversary of the first use of an atomic bomb. It was dropped over Hiroshima, Japan, by a B-29 bomber, the Enola Gay, under the command of Col. Paul Tibbets. The crew may have had suspicions about their mission beforehand but Tibbets let them know only after the bomb had been armed a mere hour from its target. 

Tibbets was alerted to the blast by radioactivity tingling in his teeth and the metallic taste from electrolysis on his tongue. Ten and a half miles away, many thousands had already vanished. A massive firestorm would grip the city within minutes and kills thousands more.

The decision to drop the bomb on Hiroshima - and Nagasaki three days later - was a difficult and controversial one that assuredly brought a very quick end to the war with Japan and in the eyes of most historians and military experts saved the lives of millions of combatants and civilians. The controversy is still with us. For more on this historic event and its aftermath readers should visit this fascinating Harry S. Truman Library and Museum archive of primary sources relating to the story. 

Tibbets waves from the cockpit prior to takeoff


Photos and Illustrations:
Hiroshima aftermath, U.S. Navy Public Affairs Website,
Enola Gay photo, National Archives and Records Service


Saturday, August 5, 2017

Conrad Aiken: "I Love You, What Star Do You Live On?"

Conrad Potter Aiken was born on this day in Savannah in 1889 and lived in an elegant townhouse on Oglethorpe Avenue across the street from Colonial Cemetery. He often played in that ancient burial ground midst tabby crypts and tombstones where the mortal remains of many of Georgia's aristocracy found rest. From the time he was eight or nine he wanted to be a poet. Soon he found himself captured by the works of Edgar Allan Poe and happily sharing the terror with his brother and sisters.

Born in that most magical city, Savannah, I was allowed to run wild in that earthly paradise until I was nine: ideal for the boy who early decided he wanted to write.

With his parents immersed in Savannah society and surrounded by wealth, privilege, and pedigree, he seemed destined for happiness. After all, his father was a successful New England physician and both parents had a long heritage steeped in Unitarianism and transcendental thought. But all was not well. One day, when he was eleven, he returned home to find his mother shot to death, his father dead by suicide. Conrad Aiken's world changed forever that day and he would never fully recover from the horror he saw.

His parents gone, young Aiken was separated from his brothers and sisters and sent to live with relatives in New England, but he felt homeless there. Aiken felt detached from his world, but he was a successful student both in private schools and at Harvard where he studied under the guidance of philosopher and writer, George Santayana, and struck up a life-long friendship with fellow student, T. S. Eliot.

Aiken would go on to write lyrical poetry weighted with symbolism and psychological exploration so deep that, in his own words, "Freud was in everything after 1912." Later in his career he moved predominantly to prose expressing "faith in consciousness" and an endless search for knowledge as the means to bring order and structure to the larger consciousness of the world. In all, he wrote or edited fifty books, including his poetry, short stories, five novels, and one autobiography.

Unfortunately, for all of his output Conrad Aiken never achieved the level of fame of his good friend, T. S. Eliot or other contemporaries. Shyness kept him away from readings that, for a poet, were lifelines to his audience. Also, he was a most candid critic, a posture that did not endear him to his fellow writers. Lastly, as a resident of both the United States and Europe he could never quite be associated with writers, benefactors, and salons on both sides of the Atlantic. By 1960, he had been resident in the U.S for some years and "rediscovered." Aiken eventually returned part-time to the elegance of Savannah. He spent the winters living next to his boyhood home, becoming the focus of social and academic circles and sought out by admirers until his death in 1973.

If you wander toward the eastern bluff in Savannah's magnificent Bonaventure Cemetery, you arrive at Aiken Way. There, with the vast salt marshes of the Wilmington River spreading out to the distant treeline, you find a simple granite bench. Conrad Aiken installed it as his memorial headstone before his death. His parents rest next to the memorial. Their headstone bears identical death dates, an eerie reminder of the chaos we all face in our lives.

For those of us who have found our peace, there is a profound release there under the live oaks and Spanish moss. Others may not be so fortunate. Aiken is one them. In life, he was restless, a constant searcher forever sailing through an uncertain sea. He felt the same about death and wanted us to know. How fitting it was that he should find his epitaph quite by accident while perusing the Savannah newspapers. It appeared in the daily list of port activity and read simply: "Cosmos Mariner - Destination Unknown." Aiken indeed saw himself a cosmic mariner who on his death in 1973 cast off without a port of call, destination unknown. He left behind, engraved on the bench the wish, "Give my love to the world." It is a rather confident wish coming from a restless sailor. We can pray that every man should find safe harbor, all the while knowing that we are not the final judge of his navigation. We are left merely to explore the products of a shy and troubled man who could appreciate a bawdy pun and have his say in singing words and lilting prose.

Ruinous blisses, joyous pains, Life the destroyer, life the breaker, And death, the everlasting maker....

If readers want to learn more about Aiken and his world, I strongly recommend they read this interview published in The Paris Review in 1963.



Conrad Aiken, The New Georgia Encyclopedia, entry by Ted R. Spivey
Conrad Aiken, Wikipedia
Conrad Aiken: Progidy Unitarian Poet, Richard A. Kelloway

The poem fragment is the conclusion from Aiken's, "The Dance of Life" published in 1916.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Tony Bennett: Singing America's Songbook At 91

Anthony Benedetto, better known as Tony Bennett, turns 91 today. After more than sixty years on stage, he still draws huge audiences to his full concert schedule of tunes from jazz, to Broadway, to the Great American Songbook. Bennett has been at the business so long he's had two careers, a fifteen-year affair with the Greatest Generation, and a now thirty-year reinvention with new artists, music, and audiences following a lull during the rock and roll era. Bennett also has been in the forefront of introducing current generations to the Great American Songbook.

Bennett is an interesting blend of vocal talent and showmanship, a well-perfected entertainer with a not so perfect voice. You have to learn how to appreciate the value of a permanent vocal strain and a sound occasionally from the depths of vaudeville. For me, it was a long learning process, but I've come to appreciate and enjoy the total Bennett experience. Here he is performing a jazz standard from the Great American Songbook as a duet with the sensational jazz/pop vocalist, Norah Jones:

We wish Tony Bennett a happy 91st birthday and many years to come in the spotlight. The best is yet to come, so he sings!

If you enjoyed Speak Low, a unique blend of words by Ogden Nash and music by Kurt Weill, buy the music and help keep jazz, swing, and the Great American Songbook alive and well.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

"Even The Smallest Person Can Change The Course Of The Future."

On this day J.R.R. Tolkien's The Fellowship of the Ring first appeared on store shelves in the United Kingdom. A used copy of that first edition with its original dust jacket would fetch an owner at least $6500. An autographed copy would easily be in six figures as Tolkien was a bit of an introvert and disliked autographing his books. I doubt that any sum would matter much to true fans. To them the words within are priceless.

Here is a brief video about the author's life and his creation of Middle Earth. The film comes from the Behind the Scenes series issued in the special edition video package of director Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings trilogy.

It would take another generation following Tolkien's death in 1973 before a cinematic version of his great work would or perhaps could appear. In the interim his imagination gave new energy to a full range of fiction writers. His is a rich legacy that has recently been enjoyed and expanded with the video release of the Hobbit series - 2012 through 2014 - also by Peter Jackson.

The 1937 cover


title quote taken from The Fellowship of the Rings.

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 the "you'll shoot your eye out" childhood of Shepherd's semi-autobiographical character, Ralphie Parker. 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."        

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.