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Showing posts from January, 2014

Songs of the Civil War

Funny what you find in the Wall Street Journal.  Surprisingly, it was the most in-depth review I was able to find for this new collection of music, Divided and United: The Songs of the Civil War.    There's also this piece on All Things Considered.

It seems that Randall Poster, the producer of the 2-CD set, was trying to strike a balance between the two sides of the war, drawing on both Union and Confederate marching songs and ballads.  He's drawn an impressive range of musicians to the music, allowing each to pretty much arrange their own pieces.  Poster has done great work before, so I'm really looking forward to this set.

You get everyone from T-Bone Burnett, who has arranged two folk soundtracks for the Coen Brothers, to Loretta Lynn, the undisputed Queen of Nashville.  In between you get some earthy renditions from Steve Earle, best known for his work on the television series Treme these days, to the Carolina Chocolate Drops, one of my favorite contemporary folk band…

In Hemp We Trust

As you can see from this pictorial history, hemp was a vital part of American colonial life, and carried over into early US history.  Probably, the most cited example is George Washington who grew hemp for commercial use, as did many plantation owners.  Hemp was a viable cash crop, until cotton came to replace it in the 19th century, with the advent of cotton gin.  Hemp was used in everything from rope, to clothes to ship sails and even the pages of the Bible.  Jefferson also grew hemp at Monticello, primarily for use on his plantation.  Here's a partial list of his personal records noting the use of hemp.

However the cultivation of cannabis sativa as a narcotic changed the way many persons looked at the plant. At first the US tried to regulate the substance with a "Marihuana Tax Act" in 1937, but it generated very little revenue, and anxiety grew over the recreational use of the drug, ultimately leading it to be treated as a controlled substance and subject to arrests …

Setting the stage

It's almost impossible to read the Republican responses to Obama's State of the Union address.  It is as if they weren't even in the same chamber when the speech took place.  But, it is not surprising that the GOP should pick a woman to deliver its formal rebuttal given all the flack they have been getting recently.  Unfortunately, Cathy McMorris Rodgers just repeated the same old tropes.

As Barack Obama said it is time the Republicans accept the Affordable Care Act and suggest means of improving it.  The Act is now firmly in place and is providing many of the benefits it was intended to do.  A good first step by Republican governors would be to approve Medicaid expansion in their states so that more people can have access to affordable health care.

However, the big take-away as far as conservatives are concerned appears to be Obama stating he would use the full power of his executive authority to move forward on policies that the Republicans continue to block in Congress…

So Long Pete

It is hard to feel sorrow for a man who lived such a long wonderful life and brought so much joy to so many people along the way.  Pete Seeger is an American icon, a figure that straddled no less than five generations of music, keeping the spirit of Woody Guthrie alive for a younger generation of folk singers to revel in, including Woody's son, Arlo, with whom Pete often sang.  Pete gave a young Bob Dylan entry into the folk music world beyond the village, although he too felt betrayed when Dylan went electric at Newport in '65.  And, Pete was there for Bruce Springsteen as well, who did perhaps the most marvelous tribute to the old master in the Seeger Sessions a few years back, giving folk music a sense of pure joy, as in this recording at St. Luke's.  But, perhaps the warmest moment of all was Pete Seeger being honored by Arlo and others at Kennedy Center, singing his classic If I Had a Hammer.

The thing about Pete is that he welcomed everyone into his midst.  Larger t…

The Political Biography of Wendy Davis

As this Christian Science Monitor article notes, Wendy is learning the hard lesson of fudging her biography.  It's not like she reinvented herself, as so many politicians do, but she "blurred" the lines enough that Wayne Slater of the Dallas Morning News felt compelled to spell out the distinctions in a story he wrote on the gubernatorial candidate for 2014.

You see Davis got the jump on her prospective Republican opponent, Greg Abbot, raising more money for her prospective run than he did in December.  This seems to have come as a bit of a jolt to Texas GOP fundraisers, and so they seek a way to curb all this appeal Wendy Davis has been garnering since her epic filibuster in the Texas state legislature last summer.

Slater categorically denies he was requested to write his story at the behest of the Abbott campaign.  He felt he was compelled to tell it how he sees it, digging into Wendy's personal narrative and pulling out a few inconsistencies that are enough to do…

The Trouble with Llewyn Davis

I finally got a chance to see this film after great anticipation.  It had won the Grand prize at the Cannes Film Festival back in May,  runner-up to the Gold Palm winner Blue is the Warmest Color.  For whatever reason, the Coen Brothers decided not to release the film until December and then only in limited theaters.  In the meantime, the film received great praise, topping many critics' polls.  This of course led many to ponder why the film was essentially shut out of the Oscar nominations.  It's only two nominations are for cinematography and sound mixing.  So what gives?

This film seemed to take the point of view of Bob Dylan's Like A Rolling Stone moreso than anything Dave Van Ronk ever wrote or sang, although Llewyn sings several signature Van Ronk songs.  What we get is not the charismatic Mayor of MacDougal Street but rather a washed up folk singer, bumming sofas and cigarettes off people, as he drifts toward nowhere.  Llewyn Davis, of Welsh rather than Irish and …

Lipstick on a Pig

Recently, GOProud founder Jimmy LaSalvia announced he was leaving the GOP because he considered it "brain dead."  He now joins the approximately 40 per cent of "independent" voters in America who no longer choose to affiliate themselves with either party, reflecting the growing unrest in this country with the two-party system, and the Republican Party in particular.

Certainly, we have seen many cases over the last five years to bolster LaSalvia's claim, which makes one wonder why he has waited this long to leave a party that obviously has shown no accommodation toward gays, or women or just about anyone else who doesn't fit its very narrowly defined vision of America.  I suppose like many Americans he wanted to oust Obama, as it was easier to project all his insecurities on Barry rather than admit the basic structural problems with the GOP that he was previously so proud of.

Like many conservatives, LaSalvia seems to live in a delusional world.  In his cas…

Walter White meet LBJ

I guess it really isn't new news, but Bryan Cranston has taken on the role of LBJ in the play, All the Way, which focuses on Johnson getting the Civil Rights Bill through Congress.  The play has been circulating for some time, but is due to make its Broadway premiere soon.  He looks pretty convincing in the short clip, but then Cranston is a great actor.

All the Way was commissioned by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2012, as part of a US History Cycle.  The play was written by Robert Schenkkan and directed by Bill Rauch.  It has garnered quite a bit of praise during its run, but scoring Cranston is obviously a big coup.

He seemed to think that his character Walter White wasn't very far away from LBJ, noting that they had a similar determination to succeed at all costs, and both could be self defeating, but it is hard to imagine LBJ resorting to cooking meth to make ends meet.  Cranston first appeared in the role in September and has been honing his performance since.  I i…

One Nation Under Pot

The marijuana debate heats up as now Oregon and other Western states plan to put forward ballots on the recreational use of the drug this year.  President Obama weighed in on the subject in an interview with David Remnick of the New Yorker, although you have to go pretty deep into the article (page 9) to find the quote that set Chris Matthews bouncing off the walls.  Obama felt pot was less dangerous than alcohol, although he added that he wouldn't encourage his girls to smoke weed.  I imagine he doesn't encourage them to drink or smoke either.

Now one can understand right wing pundits like Bill O'Reilly playing up the dangers of cannabis, but you figure Chris has smoked a little of that wacky weed in his youth and would be a little more open to the subject of legalization.  But, just like O'Reilly, he calls persons to prop him up in his arguments.  In this case Christoper Lawford.

Despite numerous studies on cannabis, which show that it is not addictive and has no kn…

Parting the Waters

Nice to see Martin Luther King still being commemorated.  I let his birthday slip right by me.  It was on the 15th, although it is celebrated the third Monday of January so that Americans can have a three-day weekend.

Several states resisted the holiday but eventually came to accept it with caveats.  Arizona calls it Civil Rights Day, while Alabama, Mississippi and Virginia co-celebrate the birthday of Robert E. Lee on this day. Separate but equal I guess.

To be honest I think it would be better to commemorate Civil Rights as a whole rather than MLK in specific, since the movement was bigger than the man himself, as Taylor Branch lays out in his magisterial biography of the era, Parting the Waters.  All though, he keeps MLK front and center throughout.



I recall the summer I spent in Birmingham, where I documented The Sixteenth Street Baptist Church for the Historic American Buildings Survey.  The Civil Rights museum is on the other side of the street from the famous church, which f…

Tagging along with Mitt

It will probably be awhile before I see the documentary, but this Guardian review makes Mitt sound intriguing.  Apparently, Greg Whitely was brought on board by Mitt's son Tagg to film the campaign from the ground, and in so doing found a warmer, more amiable Mitt than any of us saw during the campaign.  You had to wonder how Mitt ever got elected Governor of Massachusetts after that horrid campaign, in which he got twisted "every which way but loose" (to borrow from a Clint Eastwood movie).

It seems the intent of the documentary is less about politics as it is about the man, giving us an intimate portrait of the Man Who Would be President.  Unfortunately, it came too late as far as Mitt's aspirations were concerned.  He should have had Whitely back in 2008, then maybe a movie like this might have actually helped him in 2012.  Instead, his political career is over, and all he can do is sit back like Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront and ponder what might have been.

Here's looking at you, kid

I imagine they were complaining about the list of nominees for the first Academy Awards back in 1929, the first industry awards to honor films and performances from 1927-28.  It was held in the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel and hosted by Douglas Fairbanks, who was the president of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences at the time.  It wasn't broadcast on radio or television, so people only found out about the winners the next day in the newspapers.

Wings was the best picture and Emil Jennings and Janet Gaynor.  The Director award was split between drama and comedy, with Frank Borzage (7th Heaven) and Lewis Milestone (Two Arabian Knights) bringing home the top prize.

It was at the end of the Silent era.  By 1930 Hollywood filmmaking had changed considerably and there were actually two awards shows held that year with All Quiet On the Western Front earning Milestone a second Oscar.  Seems WWI was still on everyone's mind.  The venue had changed to the Fiesta Room of the …

Dallas Buyers Club

When I heard Matthew McConaughey won a Golden Globe I became very curious in the Dallas Buyers Club.  I wasn't familiar at all with the story and was surprised to see it was about the AIDS break out in Dallas.  Ron Woodroof found himself one of the HIV+ victims after an electrical accident on a job site lands him in the hospital  The electrician, part-time rodeo rider and good old Texas boy wasn't happy about being lumped in with a "bunch of faggots" in an AZT control test and sought his own cure, which led him into a seedy relationship with a former doctor down Mexico way.

McConaughey went through an amazing transformation to capture the gaunt frame of Woodroof, shedding close to 40 lbs. and I assume donning some make-up to look like someone who has gone through hell and back and lived to tell about.  The writers take a few liberties with Woodroof's story but for the most part stick close to the source.

Craig Borten had been trying to bring the story to the sc…

Call to Duty

If nothing else, you have to give credit to Robert Gates’ sense of commitment, but I would think even he had to doubt the operations in Afghanistan, especially with NATO involved and competing national interests.  He appears to have been a “true believer” in this mission, giving it his full attention, every waking and it seems even every sleeping moment.
Gates has been making the rounds promoting his new book, Duty, and judging from the excerpts, it is hard to gauge his responses.  According to him, he had a pretty good “poker face,” so it is anyone’s guess what’s going on in his mind as he both defends and criticizes the Obama White House.  He saves his harshest judgment for Joe Biden, who he said has been wrong on every foreign policy decision over the last 40 years.
It seems Gates didn’t like the way Joe and others in the White House administration could bend Barry’s ear.  Gates apparently wanted Obama’s undivided attention, and felt that all this second guessing and hand wringing we…

The Sting Man

The story behind the story sounds much more entertaining than the movie, and strikes me as ripe material for an HBO or AMC mini-series.

Ted Sherman lays out the story of The Sting Man in his article, the Jersey Hustle.  It makes much more sense than the movie, American Hustle, which spins wildly out of control at the midway point and never really recovers.  At the center of both stories is Melvin Weinberg, renamed Irving Rosenfield in the movie.  Christian Bale does his best to mimic the real-life con man, having spent three days with him in Florida.  Weinberg was close to 90 at the time, and seemingly still unrepentant.  However, David O. Russell, who wrote the script and directed the film, decided to give Rosenfield a more human touch.

Weinberg had been nabbed by the FBI for running a phony loan scam, which Russell depicts in the movie.  However, the relationship between Weinberg and the corrupt Camden mayor wasn't quite so chummy, nor heartfelt.  Weinberg liked Errichetti but …

Roll, Jordan Roll

12 Years a Slave should dismiss any more Southern antebellum fantasies.  I really appreciated the way Steve McQueen looked at slavery as a form of Totalitarianism, rather than extolling the nobility in his oppressed characters.  Michael Fassbender was utterly ruthless as Edwin Epps, controlling his work force as a commander would a prison camp in World War II.

I assume persons have seen the movie or know of Solomon Northup's account, so I will indulge in a few details from the movie.  Solomon (Chiwetel Ejiofor) soon learned after being duped and sold into slavery that if he wanted to survive he had to keep his head down, and that meant assuming his new identity as Platt, as there would be no one to help him.

The strong English accents may throw some persons off, but it gives the film an air of authenticity, as do the plaintive folk songs of the era.  The characters speak as of their time, which I felt was very important to the film.  There is no good or bad.  Each has his rationa…

Of Torts and Obamacare

As usual I find myself locked into battles with some of my buddies on facebook over the ACA.  Despite reports that health insurance premiums only rose 4 per cent in each of the past two years, my friends have posted audacious claims of 30 to 40 per cent spikes in premiums.  These are the usual "personal" stories the Republicans like to indulge in so much these days, as if they have the "true" feel for the man in the street.  

When I looked into the matter more closely I saw that the biggest spike in health insurance premiums occurred between 1999 and 2009.  Health insurance rates rose a whopping 131 per cent over this ten year period, well in excess of any increases we have seen recently.  

The cry then, as it has been for many years, is tort reform, despite no indication that it has worked in the states it has been implemented in, such as Texas.  The Republicans believe the only problem with health care and health insurance is runaway lawsuits, even when the AMA a…

Fighting the same battle 50 Years later

What bemuses me about this recovery is all the hedging going on in the media.  We see unemployment numbers consistently drop from one month to the next, but each time critics say more persons are dropping off the record books, and that not enough jobs are being created to cover those lost during the recession.

This is probably true to some degree, but if there is any sector that is lagging in the recovery it is the public sector, especially at the state and local level where conservative governors and mayors made draconian cuts in payroll.  Paul Krugman has long said that if government simply hired back all the employees it cut, this would boost employment considerably.  These austerity measures are a big reason the economy has taken so long to recover.

Unfortunately, it seems the GOP simply won't budge.  It has been a major battle in the Senate to extend unemployment benefits.  The Democrats seemed on the verge of a compromise solution, but the Republicans have stonewalled it o…

Becoming Uncle Walt

I remember when I was a little boy, I was looking for a stamp to put on a letter I had written to my grandmother, and broke this block of Walt Disney stamps in my mother's collection to put one on the envelope.  My mother was very upset, but held her composure, giving me a lesson on the value of stamps and in particular blocks and sheets, and after that I never broke a block or stamps again.  Many years later, I found a block of Disney stamps to give back to my mother.

It must be upsetting to go through the trouble of making an honest tribute about an excellent artist, only to have the short pieces related to Disney excised and made front page news.  Meryl Streep was heaping praise on Emma Thompson and her portrayal of P.L. Travers in Saving Mr. Banks, but you wouldn't know it to hear all the news the next day, as Meryl took time to dis dear old Walt in the process.


Walt's life has been carefully guarded, and one of the rare films to portray him keeps close to the Disney …

Taking the Beats for a Walk

I've only recently come to enjoy the prose of Iain Sinclair, and so find myself very tempted by this latest set of adventures, American Smoke.    Sinclair had to content himself with the Beats from afar, occasionally brushing shoulders, as he did with Allen Ginsberg in 1967.  He recalls the moment,

When I drove Ginsberg across town in my battered red Mini, the youthful tribes, having no clear sense of who he was – a bearded face from TV screens in other people’s houses, from tabloid Hyde Park dope-rally headlines – rapped on the roof, leant in at the side window, with daffodils and peace signs. Celebrity as a shattered crystal. William Blake our contemporary. London relents, in cycles of mesmerised communality: free concert, royal wedding or royal funeral, riot. Break the glass. Loot, trash. Ding dong! The witch is dead. Burn down shops and warehouses. Episodes of euphoria alternate with long-suppressed rage. Before the Swiss banks resume normal service.

Sinclair has ambled the st…

Don't Make A Monkey Out of Me!

Darwin would be rolling in his grave if he could see us debating evolution over 150 years after his seminal On The Origins of Species, but it seems a lot of folks have yet to be convinced.  This sounds more like a promotional stunt for the Creation Museum in Kentucky than an honest debate, as Ken Ham has invited Bill Nye to challenge him on the theory of Creationism, in a debate entitled "Is Creation a Viable Model of Origins?"

Seems things have gotten kind of slow at Petersburg, Kentucky, seemingly only a stone's throw from Dayton, Tennessee, where John Scopes had the audacity to introduce evolution into the classroom in 1926, only to be charged by the state for violating the Butler Act, which expressly forbade the teaching of evolution in state public schools.  Here we are nearly 90 years later and it seems the shoe is on the other foot, with a concerted effort by the religious right to reintroduce creationism into public schools.

Funny enough, Ken Ham is not even fr…

Stand Tall Wendy!

The person I most admired in 2013 was Wendy Davis for standing up to the good ol' boys in the Texas state house and forcing them to have to reintroduce their Draconian anti-abortion bill, which was later struck down by federal courts.  Wendy is now running for governor, and making the race even more intriguing is that Leticia Van de Putte is running for lieutenant governor.  The two will have a long uphill climb, but Wendy currently enjoys much more facial recognition than the presumptive Republican nominee, Greg Abbott, who is the current attorney general, and responsible for appointing Ted Cruz as solicitor general in 2003.

Wendy is not the only one challenging entrenched Republican orthodoxy.  Alison Lundergan Grimes will be challenging Mitch McConnell this Fall, assuming he doesn't get teabagged by conservatives in his state.  Grimes gained a lot of attention in 2013 after Ashley Judd chose not to run.  Ashley was not ready for the kind of abuse she would face in an elect…

A Brand New Look

I hope everyone likes the new look.  I was trying to widen the margins but could no longer use the old format, so went with this spiffy new template.  I also added popular posts over the last 30 days for easy reference.

Hope everyone has gotten off on the right step in the New Year.  Look forward to a new reading group.  Please feel free to make suggestions.

Who do you admire most?

Apparently Gallup has been asking this open-ended question for at least 57 years, judging by the number of times the Rev. Billy Graham has made the Top Ten, but what surprises me is that Richard Nixon has made the Top Ten 21 times.  Obama won the poll for the sixth straight time with a considerable lead over his nearest competitors, George W. Bush and Pope Francis.

The question is only given to Americans, which helps explain why so few foreign persons make the list, but Malala Yousafzai broke the Top Ten, thanks to her numerous appearances on American television.  Not sure whether this poll is gender based or if Gallup simply divides men from women, but Hillary has been the top woman for a record 12 years in a row.

It indicates to me an incredible lack of imagination on the part of Americans, who consistently go for the President, and even ex-Presidents five years out of office.  You hardly hear George W. Bush's name mentioned these days, but still enough persons think highly of …