As I approach 70 (WTF), at last I think I can begin using this line with impunity:
Quote investigator researches the genesis of the saying with typical aplomb. The germ of the idea can be traced back to around 1770, but the precise formulation was first recorded in 1951, with candidates such as Billie Noonan, Adolph Zukor, Eubie Blake, and Mickey Mantle.
The great sax player and composer Wayne Shorter (1933–2023) (wiki; YouTube topic) died recently at the age of 89, having been at the heart of a succession of outstanding bands (tributes e.g. NYT; Guardian here and here).
From 1959 he was a core member of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, recording albums such as A night in Tunisia—here’s live footage from Paris that year:
Indestructible (recorded in 1964, issued in 1966) (as playlist):
Eventually in 1964, Wayne was lured away by Miles Davis (cf. here and here) to join his second great quintet, recommended by John Coltrane himself as his replacement. As Miles reflected in his Autobiography, evocative and candid:
I knew that Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, and Tony Williams were great musicians, and that they would work as a group, as a musical unit. To have a great band requires sacrifice and compromise from everyone; without it, nothing happens. I thought they could do it and they did. You get the right guys to play the right things at the right time and you got a motherfucker; you got everything you need.
If I was the inspiration and wisdom and the link for this band, Tony was the fire, the creative spark; Wayne was the idea person, the conceptualiser of a whole lot of musical ideas we did; and Ron and Herbie were the anchors. I was just the leader who put us all together. Those were all young guys and although they were learning from me, I was learning from them, too, about the new thing, the free thing. Because to be and stay a great musician you’ve got to always be open to what’s new, what’s happening at the moment. You have to be able to absorb it if you’re going to continue to grow and communicate your music. […] I knew that I was playing with some great young musicians that had their fingers on a different pulse.
Both Miles and Herbie deeply admired Wayne’s writing—Miles again:
Wayne was the only person that I knew then who wrote something like the way Bird wrote, the only one. It was the way he notated on the beat. Lucky Thompson used to hear us and say, “Goddamn, that boy can write music!” When he came into the band it started to grow a lot more and a whole lot faster, because Wayne is a real composer.
The passage that follows refines our image of “free” jazz:
He writes scores, writes the parts for everybody just as he wants them to sound. It worked exactly like that except when I changed some things. He doesn’t trust many people’s interpretations of his music; so he would bring out the whole score and people would just copy their parts from that, rather than go through the melody and changes and pick our way through the music like that.
Wayne also brought in a kind of curiosity about working with musical rules. If they didn’t work, then he broke them, but with a musical sense; he understood that freedom in music was the ability to know the rules in order to bend them to your satisfaction and taste. Wayne was always out there on his own plane, orbiting around his own planet. Everybody else in the band was walking down here on earth. He couldn’t do in Art Blakey’s band what he did in mine; he just seemed to bloom as a composer when he was in my band. That’s why I say he was the intellectual musical catalyst for the band in his arrangement of his musical compositions that we recorded.
Classic albums from this heady period include E.S.P. (1965):
Miles smiles (1967):
Nefertiti (1968) (Miles: “it was with this album that people really began to notice what a great composer Wayne Shorter was”):
and Miles in the sky (1968):
For all the variety of these albums, I find it remarkable how often Miles favoured the idiom of the busy earlier bebop style that he had sidelined with Kind of blue (1959).
Meanwhile Wayne was also making albums independently of Miles—such as Night dreamer (1964), with Lee Morgan, McCoy Tyner, Reggie Workman, and Elvin Jones (as playlist):
Speak no evil:
and Juju (as playlist):
* * *
Much as I admire the 1960s’ pop scene, it’s taken me a while (Hello?) to appreciate the extraordinary creativity in jazz that followed on the heels of the classic bebop era.
Moving on, Miles disbanded the quintet in 1969 after Wayne left, but they kept working together, with exploratory albums with Joe Zawinul such as the exquisite, contemplative In a silent way (1969)—with Chick Corea as well as Herbie and Joe on keys, and John McLaughlin on guitar:
They delighted further in new keyboard timbres with the extraordinary double album Bitches’ brew (1970):
Again, Miles’s account of this period (Chapter 14) is fascinating. I’m always impressed that early bebop found such an audience, but these later albums, even less grounded in the reassuring signposts of traditional melody and harmony, were joyfully received too—even amidst the wealth of more digestible popular songs that were thriving at the time, such as soul (here and here) and the British scene (of which the Beatles were just the apex), not to mention the niche WAM avant-garde like Boulez.
* * *
I may be stuck in the 60s, but Miles, Wayne, and Herbie weren’t. Through the 1970s, they were avidly exploring the new sounds of funk, rock, and fusion. By now Wayne had largely switched from tenor to soprano sax; and like Herbie, he was absorbed in Nichiren Buddhism.
If you ask Wayne the time, he’ll start talking about the cosmos and how time is relative.
From 1971 until 1986 he was a core member of Weather report with Joe Zawinul, making albums such as I sing the body electric (1972) (these are all playlists):
Heavy weather (1977):
Here they are with their final line-up, live in Cologne in 1983:
From the late 1970s Wayne was also part of VSOP, with Herbie, Ron Carter, and Tony Williams (from Miles’s 60s’ quintet), and Freddie Hubbard on trumpet:
Ever adaptable, Wayne also worked with Joni Mitchell (from 1977 to 2002), Carlos Santana, and Steely Dan. But he never neglected jazz; from 2000 he played in a quartet with Danilo Perez (piano), John Patitucci (bass), and Brian Blade (drums)—here they are live in Paris, 2012:
countries with high levels of support for populist, radical right parties voted more for songs from other countries that featured what the authors call “ethno-traditional” cues.
At first this may confuse the “Guardian-reading tofu-eating wokerati”, many of whom are doubtless devotees of “world music” in some form. But while traditional cultures, the world music scene, and Eurovision may not always be clearly distinguishable, they are not congruent; moreover, the agendas of ethnomusicologists may differ from those of performers and audiences in the societies concerned—among whom there’s a wide spectrum of tastes, amidst widely differing political contexts.
The music of “the folk” has long been regarded as a counterpart to elite culture. As Bruno Nettl observes (The study of ethnomusicology: thirty-three discussions, p.406, under “Diversity and difference”), academic research tends to champion diversity, speaking out for neglected minorities. But one finds an overlap between nationalism and liberation from empires on one hand, and regional pride or Kumbaya-esque world music fusion on the other, with the lines often blurred. Nettl (p.435, under “Trying to make peace”) also observes the role of music in national and ethnic conflicts for contexts such as sporting events, political rallies, and wars.
Michael Church’s Musics lost and found makes a convenient survey. In the early days of collection, folklore was often conscripted to nationalist goals, as in east Europe (see e.g Fiddles and racism). In Franco’s Spain (Musics lost and found, pp.124–5), the culture of sub-groups (Galician, Catalonian, Basque) was downplayed; while flamenco seems to have been largely exempt, in Portugal fado was linked to fascism.
While the political allegiances of local communities may be hard to discern, in the USA and Britain the folk scene has long been associated with the left. In England, the “Christian socialist” Cecil Sharp was followed by a succession of left-leaning collectors and performers. But quite apart from the socialist heritage of British folk music, the Last Night of the Proms has become a focus of Brexit nostalgia. In the States, the Lomaxes were joined by singers like Woody Guthrie and Peggy Seeger; folk was the soundtrack for post-war protests. (In rock music, also commonly assumed to be anti-establishment, there’s a similar unease when ageing rock stars turn out reactionary—see e.g. here).
Modern nation-states have adopted a prescriptive, and proscriptive, stance towards their indigenous peoples. A classic case is the Chinese regime’s portrayals of its ethnic minorities, notably the Uyghurs (e.g. here) and Tibetans (e.g. Sister drum, and How *not* to describe 1950s’ Tibet). Within the socialist bloc around east Europe, whose heirs are perhaps the main breeding-ground for the ethno-trad movement, there was considerable resistance to state fakelore (tellingly evoked by Milan Kundera in The joke).
So besides the winning Eurovision entries of Ukraine, we can’t celebrate the Buranovo Babushki so innocently:
On one hand, the Eurovision voting blocs may regard each other as allies; on the other, beyond the media bubble, Brexiteers are not renowned for their enthusiasm for Balkan turbo-funk; and Greek-Turkish fusion is unlikely to feature on playlists of the far-right denizens of those countries. The Guardian article comments:
The populist radical right tends to be associated with very national narratives, a kind of inward-looking, nativist defence of domestic cultural traditions against the modernising, homogenising influence of globalisation.
This seems a worthy agenda—but Nettl’s comment that “ethnomusicology values a cultural mosaic, rather than forcing everyone into a melting pot” needs unpacking too. While regional diversity indeed tends to undermine narrow nationalist agendas, whatever one feels about the world-music fusion scene, it can lead to another kind of homogenizing grey-out (cf. the “Rough Guides phenomenon”, and Songlines).
However inconclusive, the Eurovision analysis makes a reminder that different performers and audiences will attribute different meanings to music (see e.g. Terylene).
Having long rejoiced in the bands heard on the 2 glorious CDs Frozen brass ( Nepal, India, Indonesia, Philippines, Ghana, Surinam, Bolivia, Peru!), it’s high time for me to get a basic education on the brass bands of New Orleans. 
The early years After the Civil War and Emancipation, black civilian bands began to emerge, their style inspired by both European-style military bands and the ring shout of African slaves at the Sunday gatherings in Congo square. Organised by labor unions, social aid and pleasure clubs (the Perseverance Benevolent and Mutual Aid Association was founded as early as 1783), they would perform on parades for feast days like Mardi Gras, and play hymns and dirges on funeral processions.
By the early 20th century, new instruments, sounds, and styles were transforming the musical landscape. Early groups included the Excelsior (1879–1931) and Camelia bands. Perhaps most celebrated is
the Eureka brass band (wiki; YouTube topic) (1920–75); here’s a brief clip from 1951:
Excerpts from 1952 to 1963:
Some more footage:
and Westlawn dirge, 1961:
Since the 1960s By the early 1960s, despite concerns that the tradition was in decline, New Orleans brass bands enjoyed a renaissance, gaining wider celebrity through tourism, heritagification, and touring. As new generations were trained, the stylistic spectrum broadened. Among the more traditional groups:
William J. Schafer, Brass bands and New Orleans jazz (1977)
Richard Knowles, Fallen heroes: a history of New Orleans brass bands (1996), and
Mick Burns, Keeping the beat on the street: the New Orleans brass band renaissance (2006),
note e.g. the Hogan Archive, a CD series from Smithsonian Folkways (e.g. this), as well as articles here and here. This article leads to four videos (starting here) that make a succinct introduction, along with an outline of the style’s rhythmic foundations (NB this virtual exhibition, with great photos and audio reminiscences).
Like a suburban Sisyphus doing and undoing a jigsaw, having gone to great lengths to mix up the daily sequence of my diverse topics in a stimulating fashion, it’s that time of year when I try and reassemble them into some kind of thematic order (cf. 2018, 2019, 2020, 2021). In September I essayed a handy roundup of roundups, covering some of this ground; and in November I listed Some recent *MUST READ* posts. As ever, in the sidebar you can consult the tags and categories, and even the monthly archive (scrolling waaay down); the homepage still provides useful orientation.
Disturbingly, the items featured below are just a selection, but do click away on all the links…
Perhaps I can begin with a story that combines several of my interests:
Well, that’ll keep you busy—as a reward, in future perhaps I’ll try posting every three days, rather than every other day, and I might even reblog earlier posts a tad less avidly—not wishing to try your patience (“You must come over and try mine sometime”—Groucho).
The LRB has enriched my life, but nothing in its pages is so invigorating as Patricia Lockwood’s articles (click here for her own literary ouevre and a selection of her reviews; see also here).
Much as I learn from the LRB, some of its reviewers tend to submerge the book supposedly being considered beneath their own superior expertise, reading like “it should have been ME who wrote about this topic”. Ms Lockwood’s style is highly personal, but she manages to keep the poetry of her own fantastical world in the service of deep insights into the milieu of her subject, while drawing us into the whole craft of fiction writing. In a recent review of two story collections by George Saunders her comments illuminate, rather than obscure, the author’s message.
She reflects on the sense of failure conveyed by Saunders’ characters:
It must be, in order that he can overcome. At some point, the source of poignancy stopped being the characters, and started being the desire of the stories to rise above themselves. They wanted a little more than they had, than they could ever have. They could feel their strength, if they were just given a chance, they could be more than Daryls, Dereks, Kyles…
Commenting on his religious background, she stops herself:
Trying to trap me into writing a big Catholic thing, eh? Well, I won’t, except to say that we probably have a few of the same voices in our heads.
Reading Lincoln in the Bardo, she observes:
Short fiction is a cruel form. It is life in miniature: not enough time. Some of its best practitioners have been cruel, or doctors in an age when we took legs off with hacksaws. It is hard to keep giving readers that edge they can brace against, catch their breath, say OK, all right, you know it and I know it. It is hard, after experiencing their love, to stop yourself from showing up to rescue your readers too soon.
On Saunders’ experience as a teacher:
If you’re a normal person, the first time you set foot in a classroom you will hear a voice that says: “It is wrong to take their money”. Other claims rise up to drown out this voice—what holier thing than the study of literature; talent cannot be taught, but the fundamentals can; they are paying for a circle of protected time—and all of them are true, but the voice is loud, louder than literature, and grows louder when you see a student so full of desire for her own life that she can barely breathe, and you taking money for it. What will she do? Is there a world for her? Are you part of the cheat, have you been promoted to middle management?
As to his insights on Russian fiction:
Why is Saunders so much more interesting about Turgenev’s “The singers” than about Gogol’s “The nose”, when Gogol would seem his more natural forebear? Most memorably, A swim in a pond in the rain has a great section on Tolstoy’s “Master and man”, the story he is always writing in one form or another: one man dies to save the other, in falling snow.
There is something insoluble here. He is telling us that you cannot trust the Pulse—this is the fact that must be continually learned. Your feeling (you are, after all, doing this to feel the feeling) has nothing to do with whether it is good, just as your desire to be good cannot be worked out in fiction. But in those moments it does come to you what a guy is for, and you are covered in glory; it comes to you what it is to be a cloud of consciousness, with lives moving through you and that weird holy look on your face. The body lies far below you, in parts, the Worm Interlude—real site of your genius—passes into another phase, one you seem to remember from before you were born. “Where were you, before you came here?”
Andrea Motis is one of the most gifted young musicians nurtured under the aegis of Joan Chamorro’s Sant Andreu Jazz Band project in Barcelona (click here, and here). How very wonderful to hear her live last weekend, performing at the London Jazz Festival on vocals and trumpet at Pizza Express Holborn—an intimate venue conducive to attentive listening—in trio with the splendid Josep Traver on guitar (a Sant Andreu veteran) and the Sicilian bass-player Giuseppe Campisi.
Her alternation of vocals and trumpet recalls Chet Baker, but whereas Chet constantly reproduced a mood that he had discovered in his youth, Andrea is constantly developing—creating her own magic of the voice, ever deeper in her personal dream.With her growing superstar status, she’s not becoming a diva: her manner remains unassuming.
Here’s an upbeat number (the colour palette not doing justice to the Mediterranean warmth of her Almodóvar-esque dress!):
Between imaginative reworkings of standards like My favorite things and Someone to watch over me, a highlight of her Latin-tinged set was her entrancing transformation of Majorcan/Catalan band Antònia Font’s song Alegria, with its “gentle shower of stardust”—here she is performing it in 2020, with Josep Traver and Joan Chamorro:
If Andrea had stayed with her four-piece jazz backup band of Juan and Josep etc., and done original versions of jazz standards, she could have been the European version of Diana Krall and found huge success. With that small jazz band, she was getting hundreds of thousands of views and hundreds of comments on YouTube. With her new band led by her husband and the experimental style, she is fading from view. I find this unfortunate.
Composing and performing songs is an art—not just in Western Art Music, but in folk and popular genres around the world (cf. What is serious music?!). The songs of the Beatles deserve to be treated with the same seriousness as those of Schubert (cf. Susan McClary); and apart from pop music generally, it’s worth admiring the craft of miniatures such as cartoons, TV theme-tunes, and jingles (for the merits of “analysis”, see the introduction to my Beatles series, citing Mellers and Pollack).
The exquisite Dream a little dream of me was composed in 1931 by Fabian Andre and Wilbur Schwandt, with lyrics by Gus Kahn. Unlike Beethoven, those guys really knew how to write a tune. A lullaby for parting lovers, it’s been revisited by many singers to different effects that reflect the changing zeitgeist.
I tried to sing it like it was 1943 and somebody had just come in and said, “Here’s a new song”. I tried to sing it as if it were the first time.
And it’s magical:
Stars shining bright above you Night breezes seem to whisper “I love you” Birds singing in the sycamore tree Dream a little dream of me
Say nighty-night and kiss me Just hold me tight and tell me you’ll miss me While I’m alone and blue as can be Dream a little dream of me
Stars fading but I linger on dear Still craving your kiss I’m longing to linger till dawn dear Just saying this
Sweet dreams till sunbeams find you Sweet dreams that leave all worries behind you But in your dreams whatever they be Dream a little dream of me…
Mama Cass caresses the lyrics (“Birds singing in the sycamore tree”…) with dreamy syncopations and triplets, never metronomic. The harmonic progressions into and out of the “Stars fading” section are enchanting. Whether or not listeners are consciously aware of it, various types of modulation are effectively used in pop music. Step-wise shifts are most frequent; but here, after the opening two verses in the home key of C major (with our ears perhaps prepared by the surprising chord at “whisper” in line 2), the second section modulates fluently, exhilaratingly, to A major (from 0.54)—distantly reminiscent of Mahler’s sudden revelation of alpine pastures adorned with cowbells, or an incandescent Messaien meditation suffused with ondesmartenot [Steady on—Ed.].
The “Stars fading” section is a gem in itself. After the chromaticism of the opening two verses, its rather brighter mood, over layers of honky-tonk piano and wordless chorus, far from sounding brash, only enhances the song’s overall intimacy. With more lazy triplets, I relish the descending minor 7th leap (from high so to low la) at “linger on dear” and “linger till dawn dear”, framing more sensuous lingering on the last word of “Still craving your kiss“… And then, to signal the return to the home key, the harmony shifts back with “Just saying this“—first (1.13) beneath a descending semitone in the vocal line, then the second time (2.18) with dreamy wide leaps.
It’s all complemented by the arrangement, with the first bass entry slipping in for verse 2 (Cass responding with a funky rhythmic emphasis on “kiss me”), the nostalgic-pastiche piano interlude and coda, as Mama Cass becomes subtly more jazzy and energised… Every detail is perfectly calibrated to the dream.
* * *
Going back to quirky original versions from 1931 transports us to a different era of dance music—when the singer was subsidiary, providing an interlude between the main instrumental sections. Here’s Ozzie Nelson and his Orchestra:
And here’s Wayne King, introduced by some wacky chinoiserie at the very start (in homage to the organum of the sheng mouth-organ?!), with Ernie Burchill singing:
BTW, it’s fun to invert the chronology of these early recordings, imagining them as a post-modernist ironic take on Mama Cass’s song by the Michael Nyman band.
We can only hear early music with our modern ears; and how we respond to music over time depends substantially on the persona that we impute to the protagonists. Still in 1931, by contrast with those versions, Kate Smith (cf. By the Sleepy lagoon) performed the song with an impressive rhythmic freedom, and the band arrangement is also effective, already breaking out from the starched corset of the foxtrot:
Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong recorded it in 1950:
(Several YouTube uploads mistakenly attribute this to Billie Holiday, but alas she doesn’t seem to have recorded it—now that would have been amazing!)
Doris Day (1957) is even dreamier:
Now here’s a thing. For the “Stars fading” section, versions so far modulate upwards by a minor 6th—pleasantly novel, but not radiant like the major 6th modulation of The Mamas & The Papas (a stroke of genius that I surmise we can attribute to Papa John Phillips). And in earlier versions, for the first appearance of the line “Dream a little dream of me” the vocal line has risen brightly (mi–la–so); but as a later generation perhaps found this too soupy and saccharine, it was discarded, instead falling from a flat mi to re.
While there is much to savour in such renditions, the more I listen the more infatuated I am by the dreamy mood of Cass Elliott’s version, with her rhythmic variety, and all the subtle tweaks of the arrangement in timbre and harmony that make it so very enthralling.
And the song keeps inspiring younger musicians—such as Andrea Motis with the Joan Chamorro Quintet (see here, and here):
Again, among targets that she sends up are the documentary format, her own persona, both elite and popular cultures, and indeed human history itself.
In the beginnings opens by exploring the achievements of early humans:
One thing they did invent was fire, which allowed them to see at night and kept them warm, tragically prolonging their already tedious lives.
Having conquered numbers, humankind moved on to something even more boring, by inventing writing.
The Ancient Greeks invented lots of things we still have today, like medicine and olives, and lots of things that have died out, like democracy and pillars.
And another invention:
Philosophy is basically thinking about thinking—which sounds like a waste of time, because it is.
Thanks to the volcano, we know everyday Romans had grey skin, were totally bald, and spent their time lying around inside their shockingly dusty houses. But it also preserved glimpses of how sophisticated Roman life was, with creature comforts like indoor plumbing and cunnilingus.
In Faith/off the intrepid Ms Cunk covers religion.
What’s ironic about Jesus Christ becoming a carpenter was that he was actually named after the two words that you’re most likely to shout after hitting your thumb with a hammer.
She perks up with an entirely gratuitous plug for an all-inclusive five-star resort near the temple of Kukulkan, “the last word in luxury”.
Islam represented a radical break from previous religions, because the buildings it happened inside were a slightly different shape.
And she asks
Why can’t the religions all learn to live together in peace, like they do in Ireland?
In The Renaissance will not be televised Ms Cunk sets the scene:
It’s the year 1440 (not now, but then, in 1440).
The historic present has always Got my Goat too.
Gutenberg’s press was the first of its kind in history—except Chinese history.
This is Florence—the Italians call it Firenze to try and stop tourists from finding it. […] Florence might look like a pointless mess today, but in the 15th century…
On the Mona Lisa:
Just looking at her prompts so many questions. Who is she? What’s she smiling about? Is she holding a balloon between her knees? And if so, what colour is it?
Turning to the New World,
After arriving in America to forge a life of honest hard work and toil, many of these colonists quickly discovered they couldn’t be arsed, so they stole people from Africa and made them do it instead.
Eventually Washington won, becoming America’s first president, the single most revered role in the world until 2016.
Rise of the machines opens with a succinct recap:
Last time we saw how the Renaissance turned Europe from a load of mud and parsnips into a posh resort full of paintings…
Americans back then weren’t the humble unassuming people they still aren’t today.
The North asked the South what kind of America it wanted to live in—one where white people leeched off other races while treating them as inferior, or one where they pretended they didn’t.
Following the Civil War,
Now Lincoln was President, at long last slavery was abolished, and replaced with simple racial prejudice.
Turning to recording,
Thanks to Edison’s pornograph, classical music could now bore an audience of millions.
She returns to the theme of femininism, on which she has already established her credentials;
Finally, with the vote, women could choose which man would tell them what to do.
Besides her collaboration with Charlie Brooker, in the final episode, War(s) of the World(s)?, “it’s easy to see why” she’s an admirer of the ouevre of Adam Curtis. Turning to Russia, Tsar Nicolas
was allowed to rule the country like a dictator, which I’ve been advised to say isn’t how Russia works today. […]
A world like this, where the masses toil for pennies while a tiny elite grow rich, seems so obviously unfair and unthinkable to us today. We can scarcely imagine what it must have been like.
As to 1950s’ America,
Adverts were so influential that it made viewers at home want to be the sort of person who bought things too. They’d work hard to get money, to buy a car, so they could drive to the shops and buy more things, which they’d have to pay for by going back to work, which made them miserable, so they’d cheer themselves up by going out and buying more things, which they’d have to work to pay for.
On the birth of popular culture:
Unlike normal culture, which was paintings and Beethoven, this was stuff people actually enjoyed.
For decades, pioneering black artists had steadily built on each other’s work to develop an exciting new musical form for white people to pass off as their own.
Moving on to the technological revolution, the Apple Macintosh was
the world’s first inherently smug computer.
smartphones revolutionised the way people interact, by providing a socially acceptable way to ignore everyone around us.
But we’re not lonely—thanks to social media, it’s quicker and easier to bond with millions of others over something as simple as a cat photo or the ritual shaming of a stranger.
* * *
Dr Shirley Thompson’s musicological expertise somewhat under-used
in fielding fatuous questions like
“Would it be fair to say the Rolling Stones were the Beatles of their day?”.
To help her unlock the mysteries of human civilisation Ms Cunk consults a range of academics, asking penetrating questions like “Why are pyramids that shape—is it to stop homeless people sleeping on them?”, “Has a mummy ever ridden a bicycle?”, and “Is there a Great Roof of China?”. Scholars such as Jim Al-Khalili, Douglas Hedley, and Ashley Jackson manage to keep a straight face, even as she disputes their so-called expert views with stories about “my mate Paul”, recommending them helpful YouTube videos wat ‘e sent ‘er. The Cunk interview is fast becoming the hallmark of the public intellectual; and I now feel that it should be a compulsory ordeal, a rite of passage for any aspiring lecturer. As Rebecca Nicholson’s review observes:
You could spend a lot of time wondering whether the interviewees are in on the joke or not; if they are in on it completely, it ruins the gag, which surely works best if they think Cunk is deadly serious. The same is true for viewers, in a way. If you look closely enough, you can see that there’s a formula: compare old thing to new thing, ask anachronistic question, wait for baffled response. In both cases, though, I don’t think it matters. None of the academics seem to think they are being mocked, nor are they trying to be funny; likewise, it’s so hilarious and well-written that if you can occasionally see the bare bones poking out, it isn’t much of an issue.
The interview in Cunk on Shakespeare, where she quizzes Ben Crystal on a list of words that Shakespeare, er, might or might not have made up, remains a great favourite of mine:
This series has a new, mystifying musical leitmotif, introduced by fine links such as
Descartes inspired an intellectual movement known as the Enlightenment, during which metrosexual elitists published essays that expanded humankind’s horizons in a manner that will go unmatched until the 1989 release of Belgian techno anthem Pump up the jam… [cue music].
Philomena Cunk attains a level of vacuity with which no-one outside the current government could compete. Too bad she’s over-qualified to serve as the next Prime Minister.
by turns passionate and dispassionate. Working month by month through 1968, the short chapters, with their snappy titles, unveil a wealth of insightful vignettes, showing a real feel for the streets and for the dazzling cast of troubled musicians in search of stardom, social justice, or just struggling to survive. Cosgrove’s vivid descriptions make one reach for YouTube—so below I complement my introduction with some of the many tracks he evokes so well.
The story hinges on Stax Records, the civil rights movement, the assassination of Martin Luther King on 4th April 1968, and increasingly violent protests. Vietnam, and the obdurate Memphis city mayor Henry Loeb, also loom large. Stax has already been the subject of several studies, such as Rob Bowman, Soulsville U.S.A. (1997) and Robert Gordon, Respect yourself (2013), as well as several documentaries.
Cosgrove’s opening chapter, “Roosevelt Jamison’s blood bank”, segues seamlessly from the segregationist rules for blood donation to Jamison’s thriving sideline nurturing soul bands.
James Carr, The dark end of the street (1967):
In Hank Cherry’s words, Carr “dove into his own embattled soul and pulled from the painful reaches of his psyche”. Another star discovered by Jamison was O.V. Wright, who had a series of hits, including
A nickel and a nail (1971):
The brilliant Otis Redding was only 26 when he was killed in a plane crash late in 1967, along with the Bar-Kays. Sittin’ on the dock of the bay was posthumously released on 8th January 1968:
Unlike the more controlled Motown system, or, more famously, the Hollywood studio system, Stax was informal, haphazard, and collegiate.
The company, “an oasis of racial sanity”, smashed through segregationist rules. Its (white) owners were Jim Stewart and his sister Estelle Axton; the school system produced a wealth of black talent. The Bar-Kays were educated at the Booker T. Washington High School in South Memphis, still almost entirely black, “informal academy of southern soul”. Stax prodigies Booker T. Jones (no relation!) and the M.G.’s had a hit with the instrumental Green onions as early as 1962:
Another senior mentor was sax player, bandleader, and studio boss Willie Mitchell. At first Stax had a mutually beneficial relationship with Atlantic Records in New York and its “emperor” Jerry Wexler. Among the performers Atlantic sent to Memphis were Wilson Pickett and Don Covay, as well as Sam and Dave—all of whom were volatile and hard to work with.
Mustang Sally (1965):
Hold on, I’m coming (1966):
But then came the break with Atlantic, as they came under the wing of Warner Brothers—which soon ensnared Stax in knotty legal disputes with a soulless conglomerate.
As young black musicians returned from Vietnam—such as John Gary Williams, a member of the Mad Lads—a group of activists called the Memphis Invaders led student unrest, closely watched by the FBI.
James Brown, Say it loud I’m black and proud:
A lengthy garbage workers’ strike—publicised by WDIA, the voice of black Memphis, and supported by charismatic ministers—came to the attention of Martin Luther King. He arrived in Memphis on 28th March as another violent protest march was under way. In successive chapters Cosgrove tells the story of the murky chain of events surrounding King’s assassination on 4th April.
Dr King’s supporters point in the direction of the shooting.
King had checked into the Lorraine Motel, where Stax regularly put up visiting black singers. Sax player Ben Branch was due to give a fundraising concert that night, and just before the shooting King addressed his last words to him from the balcony:
“I want you to play Take my hand Precious Lord, Ben—play it real pretty, sweeter than you’ve ever played it before.”
The inner cities now erupted.
King was among those religious men torn by a “civil war inside”, captivated by sex and love, revealed in the tension between sacred and profane, gospel and blues. Bettye Crutcher was a gifted composer of candid songs about betrayal and infidelity, including
Johnnie Taylor, Who’s making love:
Stax, hitherto a model of racial harmony, was polarised by King’s death, with black activists increasingly concerned to claim equal rights.
Like Miles Davis, Booker T. Jones had chosen popular music over the orchestral world. He made his name on the Hammond B-3 organ, taking it beyond gospel towards rock and soul. Ironically, while working on the soundtrack for Jules Dassin’s political movie Uptight (watch here), he escaped the turmoil of Memphis to fly to Paris for a round of post-production, only to witness the May riots there.
Cosgrove gives an aside on “black bohemian” Melvin Peebles and his Sweet Sweetback’s Baadassss song, whose soundtrack was also taken up by Stax. Isaac Hayes, who had assumed the persona of Black Moses after his album Hot buttered soul, went on to win an Oscar for Shaft (playlist here), his extravagant stardom playing a major role in Stax’s later travails.
More socially engaged than the “bubblegum soul” of Motown, Stax was rebuilt by Al Bell after the fall-out with Atlantic, aiming at the new market for albums. Another hit single of this period was
William Bell and Judy Clay, Private number:
The 1972 Wattstax festival, “the Black Woodstock”, with Isaac Hayes heading the bill, was immortalised in a film—here’s a trailer:
Young mother Juanita Miller led a Poor People’s March by mule train on Washington DC, which turned out less to be far less successful than Martin Luther King’s vision, ending in disarray.
The Staple Singers, Long Walk to DC:
As black power became more militant, Cosgrove introduces Dino Woodard, a “devout brute” who served as security guard and enforcer for Stax. With his fellow hardman Johnny Baylor he propelled Luther Ingram to stardom:
(If loving you is wrong) I don’t want to be right (1972):
After Vietnam and some time in prison, John Gary Williams went on to reflect the changing times with The whole damn world is going crazy (1973):
The Black Power movement spread to the 1968 Olympics. Athlete Bill Hurd, from Memphis, narrowly missed selection. He was also a sax player brought up in the jazz and the marching band tradition of Manassas High School, where he was trained by Emerson Able—as was jazz pianist Phineas Newborn Jr, “the greatest soul musician that never was”. Newborn also passed through the Plantation Inn, another cradle for soul, whose house band were Ben Branch and the Largos. * Meanwhile Bill Hurd retired from athletics and became a successful opthalmologist, travelling internationally; later he reconnected with his fellow students at Manassas High to record soul albums.
Also visiting Memphis in 1968 was Mahalia Jackson, who remained faithful to her gospel roots at a time when many singers were crossing over to pop and soul. Of course, like the church, the gospel scene was far from pure, with “religious parasites, false preachers, and furious commercialism”. The battle between sacred and profane was again in evidence. Jackson’s Glori-fied Chicken franchise, part of the move towards black-owned businesses, had a branch at Stax corner. Here she is singing Take my hand precious Lord at King’s Atlanta memorial service:
This leads Cosgrove to feature the songs of Ann Peebles, such as I can’t stand the rain:
and Margie Joseph, whose reworking of Stop! In the name of love, with its introductory rap, was influential:
By December, Memphis “had been battered by a divisive rage that few cities in the world could survive, yet it not only survived, it thrived and expanded”.
Meanwhile, FWIW, white stars were making the pilgrimage too. Dusty Springfield (white only reluctantly) came to record an album—although she ended up recording the vocals in New York. Elvis showed up, recording a comeback TV show with a strong Memphis element. Janis Joplin, who also idolised the Memphis sound, did a misconceived gig there with the local regulars. She turned up for Jim Stewart’s Christmas party, “one of the most bizarre events in the history of soul music”. The following November, strung out on heroin, she joined the tragic 27 Club. (The lure of Memphis has persisted—among later pilgrims, on a quest for blues rather than soul, was alternative Chinese singer/novelist Liu Sola).
The Bar-Kays re-formed, reinventing themselves as pioneers of street funk. On stage with Isaac Hayes at the Tiki Club they broke new ground in an innovative cover of By the time I get to Phoenix, with a rap intro—“a mesmerising piece of soul alchemy that took classic Nashville and reimagined it as Memphis soul”. Here they are in the version on the visionary Hot buttered soul album, all 19 minutes of it:
With the obvious exception of jazz, most forms of popular black music had been constrained by the needs of commercialism and the demands of radio stations. Motown had perfected telling stories of teenage love in under three minutes, and not until Hayes broke the mould had any soul artist ever dared to extend songs or disrupt the rules of the marketplace.
In an Epilogue Cosgrove ponders reasons for the “banal and ignominious” demise of Stax records in the 70s: expanding too far from the centre (“like many a dying empire”), bruised by rash financial dealings, and over-indulgence.
Amongst all the creativity of the 60s (Coltrane, Hendrix, Beatles …), the story of Stax Records, beset by social trauma, is remarkable.
* Like Charlie Parker, Newborn spent periods in Camarillo State Mental Hospital—cf. Bellevue in New York, among whose inmates were artists such as Leadbelly, Mingus, and Dusty.
Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan this week for an audience with President Tsai Ing-wen was both bold and costly. As she tweeted,
America’s solidarity with the 23 million people of Taiwan is more important today than ever, as the world faces a choice between autocracy and democracy.
But at such a highly sensitive moment in world affairs, her trip has inflamed relations with the PRC, prompting much ominous sabre-rattling from them; and according to many China-watchers, and indeed the US government, it was ill-advised. So far not only has the PRC regime escalated the war of words, but it is retaliating seriously by launching live-fire military drills.
Pelosi’s visit was illustrated by this striking image that has been making the rounds on social media:
The transliteration Nanxi Peiluoxi 南西 佩洛西 is felicitous (cf. Shuaike 帥克 for Švejk). Her Italian parents migrated west (xi 西), and her mother came from the south (nan 南); more to the point, in the image above the final xi character has been elided into the popular deity Queen Mother of the West (Xiwangmu 西王母). * It illustrates the, um, nexus between sacred and secular power that one finds so often in Chinese religion, both before and since the 1949 “Liberation” (such as the ritual associations of Hebei; see e.g. my Plucking the winds). And on opulent processions in both Taiwan and Fujian across the strait, such god images are borne aloft on palanquins to re-assert territorial boundaries.
Still, by contrast with Pelosi’s excursion, pilgrimages for the seafarers’ goddess Mazu 媽祖 have been a major factor since the 1980s in the political, economic, and cultural rapprochement of people on both sides of the strait (see e.g. here).
While the T-shirts made a popular kitsch image in Beijing, adroitly combining enthusiasm for a foreign icon with misplaced nostalgia for Mao, in the USA they were soon in demand among Obama’s opponents, who fatuously compared his health-care reform with the Holocaust.
The world is a complicated place (You Heard It Here First).
I suppose most people read it simply as “Nanxi Peiluoxi wangmu niangniang” rather than “Nanxi Peiluo Xiwangmu niangniang”, but it’s a nice ambiguity—cf. the classic story of the hilarious misconstruing of a report on Prince Sihanouk’s visit to China!
In the late 60s, fatefully indoctrinated in the classics, my awareness of pop was largely limited to The Beatles, and it took my ears a long time to open up to the gutsy, intense physicality of unmediated rock and blues. Still, even I couldn’t help noticing the genius of Jimi Hendrix (YouTube channel; wiki), a shooting star who exploded onto the scene, as if the 60s weren’t already wild enough.
Born in Seattle in 1942, following a stint of army service he moved to Nashville, touring in backing bands. After a brief stay in Greenwich Village, in September 1966 he moved to London, “like a Martian landing”. Lured there by Chas Chandler, himself just starting out as a manager, for Jimi it was a leap in the dark; but when after just a week he got to jam with Cream, Eric Clapton was amazed by his playing of Howling Wolf’s Killing floor.
He soon formed the Jimi Hendrix Experience band, with the dynamic energy of Mitch Mitchell on drums and Noel Redding on bass. In London he experienced less racism than in the States, and brought an Afro-American tinge to what was still a largely Caucasian pop scene, a “black hippie”. When he returned to the States in 1967 for the Monterey festival, he was still largely unknown there.
A deeply serious musician, he synthesised blues (already unfashionable among the new generation of African Americans), soul, folk, R&B, jazz, and psychedelic rock. He was at the heart of the whole countercultural zeitgeist; even his exotic sense of fashion was iconic. His vocals (“warm, wistful or lascivious on cue”) make a counterpoint to his astounding guitar playing. Like Coltrane, he was gentle and softly spoken.
His three studio albums are
Are you experienced (double LP, 1967, contemporary with Sgt Pepper!):
Jimi’s appearance at the 1967 Monterey festival must have been one of the great gigs of all time. The band opened with yet another stunning rendition of Killing floor, immortalised here; in Hey Joe Jimi plays guitar with his teeth, and behind his back (like the pipa players of the Tang dynasty…):
Yet Jimi never indulged in empty virtuosity; such iconic scenes are integral, sincere. He ended the set with Wild thing, setting fire to his guitar and smashing it (“I decided to destroy my guitar at the end of a song as a sacrifice. You sacrifice things you love. I love my guitar”):
For the Woodstock festival in 1969 Jimi had a new lineup. I must confess it took me some time to tune into his legendary reworking of The star-spangled banner (for some other versions, click here). I’m used to jazzers transforming standards with complex melodic and harmonic changes, and our ears are tuned to the dense, manic textures of rock; so, misled by Jimi’s sparse monodic rendition (Like, Hello?), it took me a while to hear that the meaning resided in the timbre—“an act of protest”, as Paul Grimstad observed, in which
bombs, airplane engines, explosions, human cries, all seem to swirl around in the feedback and distortion. At one point, Hendrix toggles between two notes a semitone apart while burying the guitar’s tremolo bar, turning his Fender Strat into a doppler warp of passing sirens, or perhaps the revolving blades of a helicopter propeller. […]
All the exalted ideals of the American experiment, and the bitterness of its contradictions and hypocrisies, are placed in volatile admixture through an utterly American contraption, a device you might say is the result of a collaboration between Benjamin Franklin, Leo Fender, and Sister Rosetta Tharpe, the mongrel machine that Hendrix made into a medium for a new kind of virtuosity. In the Woodstock performance of the national anthem, we find that an electric guitar can be made to convey the feeling that the country’s history could be melted down, remolded, and given a new shape.
Typically, Jimi deflated all the hype:
All I did was play it. I’m American, so I played it… It’s not unorthodox … I thought it was beautiful.
Amidst legal disputes, Jimi parted with Chas Chandler, continuing to explore; his new band Band of Gypsys was an all-black power trio with his old friend Billie Cox on bass and Buddy Miles on drums. Despite mixed reviews, their live album at the Fillmore East includes stunning solos from Jimi like Machine gun:
There’s something cute about Hendrix being a neighbour of Handel in Brook street, albeit not at the same time. Both were migrants catering to a changing modern market, both experimenting in different styles—but while some of Handel‘s arias are admirable, he can hardly compete with Hendrix’s genius… *
* That’s how I originally wrote that last sentence—in the interests of brevity, not wanting to try the patience of Hendrix junkies. In view of Eric’s entertaining comment below, I might now augment it, perhaps like this:
While some of Handel’s music is admirable (see my tribute to some gorgeous arias), over his long career the ratio of drudge to ecstasy is rather high (and “I’ll have you know, I’ve played more Messiahs than you’ve had hot dinners”!). Handel found himself, as you do (or at least, as baroque composers did), dutifully churning out a lot of mundane fugues by the square yard. I’m not knocking the routine, bread-and-butter craft of artisans, but this is far from the evanescent genius of Jimi—and, I’d say, in a more sensible comparison, far from the constant spiritual inspiration of Bach. OK, for a more refined assessment of “the class of ’85”, see John Eliot Gardiner, Music from the castle of heaven, ch. 4 (cf. A Bach retrospective, Rameau, 1707 at the Proms, and many posts under https://stephenjones.blog/category/wam/early-music/).
We impertinent laowai are used to descending on a Chinese community to interpret its customs, but it’s less common to find Chinese ethnographies of religious life in Western societies.
Li Shiyu 李世瑜 (1922–2010) was a leading authority on Chinese sectarian religion and its “precious scrolls” (baojuan 寶卷). Alongside his historical research, he was concerned to document religious life in current society—although it was hard to broach the latter in China after the 1949 revolution. In his work on the precious scrolls, I have also been impressed by his attention to performance practice. When I met him in the early 1990s he was still going strong, and still doing fieldwork.
Li Shiyu with his wife, 1993. My photo.
Li Shiyu undertook his early field training in rural north China in 1947–48, on the eve of the Communist revolution, assisting his teacher, the Belgian Catholic missionary Willem Grootaers, in documenting village temples around the regions of Wanquan, Xuanhua, and Datong.  Whereas Grootaers was mainly concerned with listing the material evidence of “cultic units”, Li went further in describing sectarian activity. His resulting thesis Xianzai Huabei mimi zongjiao 现在华北秘密宗教 [Secret religions in China today], was published promptly in 1948, focusing on four sects including the Way of Yellow Heaven (also active in north Shanxi in counties such as Yanggao and Tianzhen, and later documented by scholars such as Cao Xinyu and Liang Jingzhi).
After the 1949 “Liberation” Li’s research was highly circumscribed (like that of countless other scholars such as Wang Shixiang), though he managed to continue his study of the precious scrolls, publishing a major catalogue in 1961. It was only after the liberalisations of the late 1970s following the collapse of the commune system that was he able to resume his work in earnest.
And in that early reform era, from 1984 to 1986 he also spent eighteen months as a Luce Scholar at Pennsylvania University. Hannibal Taubes (always ready to supply a stimulating lead: e.g. here, and here) alerts me to a chapter in Li Shiyu’s memoirs (Li Shiyu huiyilu 李世瑜回憶錄 , pp.296–311) in which he attempted to apply the kind of field methods that he had acquired under Grootaers (described in pp.267–70) to the “folk religions” of the USA, with vignettes of the diverse Christian life of urban Philadelphia.
In his last six months there Li Shiyu made an ethnographic survey of church activity in the university district—an area of twenty streets and some 8,000 inhabitants. The 160 churches there might be large or small, with some shared by more than one denomination; seventeen were established Catholic and Protestant churches, while the others belonged to over seventy different groups that had mostly been formed since World War Two, some of them just small “house churches”.
With the Mayor of Philadelphia.
My eyebrows were raised to read of Li Shiyu’s first port of call: in search of statistics, he began by consulting the very people he would never dream of going anywhere near in China—the Police Chiefs 公安局局长 (!) of the district and city. In China, local police archives (see Liu Shigu’s chapter for Fieldwork in modern Chinese history) would make most instructive sources on religious activity for the whole era of Maoist campaigns, but attempting access would be rash. Indeed, to Li Shiyu’s lasting anguish, his 1948 thesis had been used by the Public Security Bureau to suppress the very sectarian groups he had respectfully documented.
Anyway, when the Philadelphia police chiefs were unable to help, the City Council introduced him to the Mayor, who asked, “Why do you wanna know? You been sent by your government? Are you gonna give your report to them when you go back?”.  Li Shiyu replied that he was just doing academic research, nothing to do with the government—just as we might have to explain in China (cf. Nigel Barley in Cameroon, cited at the end of my post on The brief of ethnography).
In answer to Li Shiyu’s query whether churches needed to register when they opened, the Mayor explained how “freedom of religious belief” worked in the States; all people had to do was to find a property, ideally one bequeathed in someone’s will, tax-free and rent-free. He went on, “Some pastors are pitiable—unable to find a site, they have to rent one temporarily, paid by donations from the congregation or from their subsidiary occupation. Spreading the teachings is a good thing, it’s good for society, there’s no need to register with the police—so I dunno how many churches there are in Philly.”
Next Li Shiyu visited the Westminster Theological Seminary. But as one has to do in China, he soon gave up on officialdom, “going down” to the churches themselves, one by one. As he notes, in an unstable, even dangerous, American society, parents sought to prevent their children getting into trouble by introducing them to the spiritual power of the church (rather like the elders of Hebei ritual associations, as recalled by many villagers such as Cai An). Li absorbed himself in the intensity of sermons and choirs, getting to know congregation members. But rather than observing the mainstream churches, his experience in China doubtless prompted him to seek out some of the more less orthodox, charismatic groups—some of which forbade marriage or the owning of property.
To imbue us with the holy spirit, here’s a musical interlude from 1976 (which will get you in the mood for Aretha’s ecstatic Amazing Grace):
Li Shiyu’s survey makes fascinating reading in Chinese, bearing in mind his particular concerns, suggesting parallels with religious life in China. A case in point is the first, and most remarkable, of his nineteen vignettes, “The Holy Mother descends from the mountain” (Shengmu xiashan 圣母下山).
I doubt if Li Shiyu quite knew what he was getting into  when he stayed for ten days in a hostel on 36th Street, whose basement was the meeting place of the International Peace Mission. The mission was founded by the controversial African-American preacher Father Divine—here’s a short documentary:
After his death in 1965 the organisation was led by his white wife Edna Rose Ritchings, known as “Sweet Angel”, “Mother Divine”.
Mother Divine signs her book for Li Shiyu.
In March 1986 Li Shiyu witnessed Mother Divine’s annual “descent from the mountain” (the “mountain” of her estate at Woodmont in the suburbs), and even made a speech as guest of honour at the banquet. But he can’t have been privy to Father Divine’s turbulent story or the Peace Mission’s intrigues. From 1971 Mother Divine was engaged in a dispute with cult leader Jim Jones, until he fled to Guyana in 1978 and instigated his followers to commit a horrific mass suicide there (subject of several documentaries, e.g. here)—alas, just the kind of cult that the Chinese state seizes on as a pretext to suppress peaceful gatherings of believers.
Li Shiyu goes on to introduce the Miracle Temple of Christ; he takes part in a “qigong” healing session, and a service involving “wild kissing”; he is struck by the silence of prayer at a Quaker (Kuike! 魁克) meeting (evidently “unprogrammed worship“), discovers Sister Tina’s lucrative psychic fortune-telling business, and observes a rather stressful immersive baptism. In an experiment that only the most intrepid fieldworker will care to contemplate, he confuses a couple of what sounds like Jehovah’s Witnesses by showing a genuine interest in their teachings, asking them etic questions like why there were so many denominations in Philadelphia, and their economic circumstances. And he describes the only occasion in visiting over a hundred churches when he was met by a hostile reception.
Of course, Chinese scholars have long sought to understand “Western culture”; one might even see it as the mainstream of Chinese intellectual life since at least the May Fourth era (for science, philosophy, fiction, music, and so on)—I think, for example, of Fou Ts’ong’s father Fu Lei. Though Western culture didn’t reside solely in advanced technology or reified masterpieces of high art, it was rare for Chinese scholars to have the curiosity (or means) to contemplate the ethnography of living Western societies.
Even making the transition from rural to urban ethnography is rather rare, let alone shifting one’s sights from rural China to urban America. Just as Western fieldworkers in China build on a considerable body of research by local scholars, within the USA such charismatic traditions attract much study. And like Western scholars making an initial survey in China, during Li Shiyu’s time in Philadelphia he could hardly engage with the complexities involved in documenting religious life, or address issues such as race, gender, poverty, migration, and social change.
Still, he clearly found the encounter most fruitful and suggestive. For Chinese readers, potentially, such studies might suggest that “superstitious” practices were not unique to a “backward” China, that they have their own social logic. Li Shiyu’s non-judgmental, etic viewpoint is refreshing.
Though he gives Christian Science an easy ride, when interviewed by a representative he encapsulates a significant issue: asked, “Why do you want to come to the States to study our folk religion?”, Li Shiyu replies feistily, “That’s a question I’d ask your scholars—why do you come to China to study our folk religion?!”, citing the Chinese proverb Lai er bu wang fei li ye 來而不往非禮也 “Not to reciprocate is against etiquette”. Click here for the more elaborate interview in The Christian Science Monitor.
Despite his somewhat testy initial encounter with the Mayor, Li Shiyu clearly relished the ease of doing fieldwork in the States, without the fear of consequences that bedevilled research under Maoism in China. His sojourn in Philly must have made a welcome relief before he plunged back into the fray of fieldwork in China, as academic pursuits there became more free—if never free enough.
 The Mayor was apparently Wilson Goode—who might well have been feeling sensitive since he was under the shadow of an investigation into the police’s botched attempt the previous year to clear the building occupied by the radical anarcho-primitivist cult MOVE, when a police helicopter had dropped a bomb that led to a fire destroying four city blocks, killing eleven (including five children) and leaving 240 people homeless (documentary here). Goode himself later went on to become a minister of religion.
 Rather as I had no idea in 1989 when I first witnessed the New Year’s rituals in Gaoluo that the village had been the scene of a major massacre in the 1900 Boxer uprising, and that the Catholics there had later been evangelised by Bishop Martina, who was accused of plotting to blow up the Communist leadership at the 1949 victory celebrations in Tiananmen: click here.
Sir Walter Raleigh smoking a pipe and being doused by a servant who thinks he’s on fire.
Wood-engraving, mid-19th century. Source.
Talking of inventions (the sandwich, the telephone), one of Bob Newhart‘s classic sketches features Sir Walter Raleigh on the phone to the head of the West Indies Company in London, trying to plug yet another of his wacky ideas:
This post on the introduction of tobacco to England has some charming vignettes, such as
The Great Plague of 1665 saw tobacco smoke widely advocated as a defence against “bad air”. Indeed at the height of the plague, smoking a pipe at breakfast was actually made compulsory for the schoolboys at Eton College in London.
The Tulsa race massacre remains one of the worst incidents of racial violence in the modern history of the USA, one of its deadliest terrorist attacks. 
It took place on 31st May and 1st June 1921 in the Greenwood District (“Black Wall Street”) of Tulsa, Oklahoma—then one of the wealthiest Black communities in the USA. Following the arrest of a young Black shoeshiner, Black citizens gathered to prevent him being lynched. As martial law was declared, mobs of white residents—some of whom had been deputised and given weapons by city officials—attacked Black residents and destroyed homes, businesses, churches, and schools, including aerial bombardments by incendiary devices.
More than 800 people were admitted to hospital, and as many as 6,000 Black residents of Tulsa were interned, many of them for several days. At least 39 people were killed, with some estimates as high as 300. Around 10,000 Black people were left homeless; over a thousand homes were destroyed.
In the years to come, as Black Tulsans worked to rebuild their ruined homes and businesses, segregation in the city only increased, and Oklahoma’s newly established branch of the KKK grew in strength.
Black and white residents kept silent about the massacre for decades; it was largely omitted from local, state, and national histories. There were no public ceremonies or commemorations; instead, the events were deliberately covered up.
The silence began to be broken from the 1970s. The Tulsa Race Riot Commission, founded in 1996, delivered its report in 2001 (the name was changed to the Tulsa Race Massacre Commission in 2018). Only since 2002 have schools in Oklahoma been required to teach students about the massacre, and in 2020 it officially became a part of the school curriculum there.
Here’s a documentary (for others, see e.g. here and here):
Now is a suitable time to listen to Gogol Bordello, a Manhattan-based “gypsy punk” band (website; wiki). Their lead singer Eugene Hütz was brought up in Kyiv, making his way to the USA in 1990 at the age of 17. Now he is active in raising funds to relieve the plight of Ukrainians suffering from the Russian invasion (cf. Jamala and other artists).
Formed in 1999, inspired by Roma music with elements of punk and dub, Gogol Bordello was originally titled “Hütz and the Béla Bartóks”, but he recalls that they decided to change the name because “nobody knows who the hell Béla Bartók is in the United States” (cf. the missed opportunity for an early punk band Gurdjieff and the Truth Seekers). In the revised title, the name Gogol pays homage to the way the author “smuggled” Ukrainian culture into Russian society, rather as the band was doing with east European music in the USA.
Hütz and the band have appeared in several films, including Everything is illuminated (Liev Schreiber, 2005), a drama about the Nazi purges in Ukraine. Here’s a trailer for the documentary Gogol Bordello non-stop (Margarita Himeno, 2008):
Here’s American wedding (2007):
And Pala Tute, opening track of their 2010 album Trans-continental hustle—here live in Paris (with funky fiddling from Sergey Ryabtsev):
The band has long been subsumed under the alternative Manhattan world music scene—and it’s “not that Hütz himself originally set out to educate the world about eastern Europe”:
Believe me, that’s not really my thing. And, truth be told, Ukrainians are pretty humble. Which is probably why things were easily hijacked from them for so long. We’re like, well, we’re rich in culture, so it ain’t gonna hurt us.
But the Russian invasion has given Hütz an urgent new mission as cultural ambassador. His benefit single Zelensky: the man with the iron balls, with Les Claypool, Stewart Copeland, Sean Lennon, Sergey Ryabtsev, and Billy Strings:
Hütz also draws our attention to a recent song by the choral group Bortnichanka in Kyiv:
The unsuspecting world music fan might easily mistake it for a nice bucolic wheat-threshing song—but no:
And armoured personnel carriers were in flames The Muscovites stood nearby They were in complete stupor Burning bastards were in flames…
I’m always intoxicated [Now read on—Ed.] [That’s enough of your lip—SJ] by the mood of Irish music, with its elusive, swirling, heterophonic (or even monophonic) melodies offset by jagged syncopations, any rare hints of harmony serving merely to remind us that it’s a mere modern trinket to which its unruly contours can’t be reduced (see e.g. More early music).
* * *
Around the world there must be many terms evoking the special atmosphere of entering deeply into the spirit of musicking; I think of flamenco duende and fado saudade—both with a strong undercurrent of loss. In more celebratory vein, an Irish expression much bandied nowadays is craic, the convivial mood sparked by getting together in company (cf. buzz, vibe, groove). I suppose this kind of atmosphere is the goal of most social gatherings where music is likely to be a catalyst, like Moroccan ahouach, Mediterranean festivals, or weddings anywhere. How good it is to have an all-encompassing term that stresses the wider context of sociability—including drinking, joking, musicking together! Significantly, in WAM, whose pundits have worked tirelessly to claim autonomy from mere human interaction, I can’t think of such a term—ideas welcome.
So impertinent non-nationals like me have become familiar with the nation of craic; but sure enough, it’s yet another of those fabricated traditions—in which the Irish are complicit, to boot. Kevin Myers has described it as “pseudo-Gaelic”, a “bogus neologism”.
The word crack (derived from Middle English crak, “loud conversation, bragging talk”) is recorded in Scotland in the 16th century in the sense of chat, news, or gossip; and it was common in north England and Scotland in the 19th century, sometimes with hints of musicking. These senses of the term entered Hiberno-English from Scots through Ulster, and were then borrowed into Irish, with a reference from 1929 and rural citations from the 1950s. In Dublin, the great Flann O’Brian used the word in articles collected in The best of Myles (1966).
The Gaelicized borrowed spelling craic is only documented from 1968, and it was reborrowed into English later still. The glorification of craic as a “specifically and quintessentially Irish form of fun” is even more recent. Critics have accused the Irish tourism industry and the promoters of Irish theme pubs of marketing “commodified craic” as a kind of stereotypical Irishness. For Kevin Myers it “coincided with the moment that Irishness became self-conscious, winsome, stylised, conceited, boastful”. In his 1999 book Companion to Irish traditional music, Fintan Vallely suggests that the use of craic in English is largely an exercise on the part of Irish pubs to make money through the commercialisation of traditional Irish music; he never heard the word spoken in Dublin until the late 1980s. He notes that Ciaran Carson (based in Belfast) was enraged by the spelling craic. Do read this excellent article by Donald Clarke!
Of course, we can’t specify the spelling when uttering the term (now that would make conversation a fine pickle), but just as I was about to try adopting it, I now think it’d be prudent for me to refrain from doing so. Still… it does sum up a feeling that is much needed.
While, um, craic has to be experienced in company, even audio recordings of live concerts can sometimes hint at the jubilation of the event. Here’s a playlist for the CD Dear old Erin’s isle: Irish traditional music from America (Nimbus, 1992—a companion to the 1991 Fiddle sticks: Irish traditional music from Donegal, also wonderful):
Following Last night’s fun, on a linguistic note: #3, with Liz Carroll on fiddle, consists of an exhilarating sequence of reels with magnificent titles: Drying out, Crush cars, The lost Indian; and Séamus Eagan’s flute solo (#6) is The wee bag of spuds. Such creative titles are conspicuously different from those of non-nationals like Messrs Messiaen and Boulez.
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance kid(George Roy Hill, 1969) (wiki; see also e.g. here).
Despite mixed reviews, the film soon became a huge hit. Besides Paul Newman and Robert Redford in the title roles, Katherine Ross appears as Etta Place, following her part in The graduate. She went on to star in the sequel Wanted: the Sundance woman (1976). And Hill used the Newman–Redford partnership again with The sting (1973), with a Scott Joplin soundtrack.
The disembodied audio is here, so as to focus on the musical artistry of the alternating zany and nostalgic passages, and that major 7th leap again (0.28, 3.18). They might have come up with more imaginative instrumental bridges, but hey. And this is clearly not the time for ethnographic study of musicking in Bolivia…
Another scene that remains with me is “Can I move?”:
I yield to no-one in my veneration for Mahler 5, some great renditions of which I’ve provided here—irreverently introduced by a version of the symphony’s opening trumpet solo on rubber chicken…
In distressingly similar vein, I’ve just had a vision of how Mahler might have revised the sublime Adagietto had he lived through to the 1930s (as he should have done) to arrange it as a catchy up-tempo number for a New York swing band, with blaring horn section (led, perhaps, by Buck Clayton) and zany syncopations, largely dispensing with the sentimental appoggiaturas.
So here’s my preliminary draft of the melody on horns, leaving you to fill in the boogie-woogie bass-line, drum-kit, and funky sax harmonies—it works even better with the hushed original opening bar and a half:
Actually, Mahler’s choice of key works well for jazz winds, making one suspect that the original was just a preliminary sketch—after all, if you’re writing a slow love song for strings, whoever would plump for F major rather than E major or F♯ major?!
As to tempo, one might regard the two versions of the Adagietto as the opposite of what happened to the music of the Tang court after it was exported to Japan, where it began a long process of retardation.
The big-band arrangement would also suit a turbo-charged Balkan brass band like Fanfare Ciocârlia. I can’t take responsibility for my wayward visions, but I realise WAM purists (bless) may be alarmed. Conversely, composers from Bach to Mahler did often creatively recycle their previous work. Bach has inspired a wealth of jazz and world arrangements; and folk and popular musics were intrinsic elements in Mahler’s sound world (see e.g. under the 4th symphony). I rest my case.
Not merely as an attempt to redeem myself, now we must go back to Mahler’s original version—within the context of the whole glorious symphony. I’m also constantly amazed at the second movement, its turbulent trauma punctuated by the hushed cello recitative.
Amidst the current carnage, I followed up Timothy Snyder’s brilliant, harrowing Bloodlands by reading two of his more recent books, written under the shock of the Trump presidency. While we’ve been sleepwalking, suddenly with the invasion of Ukraine they are even more distressingly relevant (for an overview of his work, see here).
On tyranny: twenty lessons from the twentieth century (2017) (reviewed e.g. here; for an interview, click here)
is a succinct handbook, a manifesto largely directed at US readers. It’s also available in graphic form.
Of the topics, each illustrated with salient cases from modern history, some may seem prosaic, like “Make eye contact and small talk”, “Contribute to good causes”; others (so far) are specific to the USA, like “Be wary of paramilitaries”, “Be reflective if you must be armed”, and “Learn from peers in other countries” (“make sure you and your family have passports”). More widely salient are:
Do not obey in advance (“anticipatory obedience”):
Most of the power of authoritarianism is freely given. In times like these, individuals think ahead about what a more repressive government will want, and then offer themselves without being asked. A citizen who adapts in this way is teaching power what it can do.
Defend institutions (countering a tendency to perceive them as impersonal and corrupt):
It is institutions that help us to preserve decency. They need our help as well. Do not speak of “our institutions” unless you make them yours by acting on their behalf. Institutions do not protect themselves. They fall one after the other unless each is defended from the beginning. So choose an institutions you care about—a court, a newspaper, a law, a labour union—and take its side.
Beware the one-party state:
The parties that remade states and suppressed rivals were not omnipotent from the start. They exploited a historical moment to make political life impossible for their opponents. So support the multi-party system and defend the rules of democratic elections. Vote in local and state elections while you can. Consider running for office.
Take responsibility for the face of the world:
The symbols of today enable the reality of tomorrow. Notice the swastikas and the other symbols of hate. Do not look away, and do not get used to them. Remove them yourself and set an example for others to do so.
Remember professional ethics:
When political leaders set a negative example, professional commitments to just practice become more important. It is hard to subvert a rule-of-law state without lawyers, or to hold show trials without judges. Authoritarians need obedient civil servants, and concentration camp directors seek businessmen interested in cheap labour.
Be kind to our language:
Avoid pronouncing the phrase everyone else does. Think up your own way of speaking, even if only to convey that thing you think everyone is saying. Make an effort to separate yourself from the internet. Read books.
Believe in truth:
To abandon facts is to abandon freedom. If nothing is true, then no-one can criticise power, because there is no basis on which to do so. If nothing is true, then all is spectacle. The biggest wallet pays for the most blinding lights.
Here Snyder identifies four modes: open hostility to verifiable reality, “shamanistic incantation” (“Build that wall!” “Lock her up!”), magical thinking (“the open embrace of contradiction”), and misplaced faith.
Figure things out for yourself. Spend more time with long articles. Subsidise investigative journalism by subscribing to print media. Realise that some of what is on the internet is there to harm you. Learn about sites that investigate propaganda campaigns. Take responsibility for what you communicate with others.
Listen for dangerous words:
Be alert to the rise of the words extremism and terrorism. Be alive to the fatal notions of emergency and exception. Be angry about the treacherous use of political vocabulary.
In “Be calm when the unthinkable arrives”, Snyder outlines the rise of Putin. His target in “Be a patriot” is particularly clear:
It is not patriotic to dodge the draft and to mock war heroes and their families. […] It is not patriotic to avoid paying taxes, especially when American working families do so. […] It is not patriotic to admire foreign dictators. It is not patriotic to call upon Russia to intervene in an American presidential election. […]
A patriot, by contrast, wants the nation to live up to its ideals, which means asking us to be our best selves. A patriot must be concerned with the real world, which is the only place where his country can be loved and sustained. A patriot has universal values, standards by which he judges his nation, always wishing it well—and wishing that it would do better.
(I was going to reproach the use of “he” and “his” there, but with some disturbing exceptions this is indeed largely a male aberration.)
In the Epilogue Snyder observes:
Until recently we had convinced ourselves that there was nothing in the future but more of the same. The seemingly distant traumas of fascism, Nazism, and Communism seemed to be receding into irrelevance. We allowed ourselves to accept the politics of inevitability, the sense that politics could move only in one direction: towards liberal democracy. […]
He describes this as a self-induced intellectual coma.
The second antihistorical way of considering the past is the politics of eternity. Like the politics of inevitability, the politics of eternity performs a masquerade of history, though a different one. It is concerned with the past, but in a self-absorbed way, free of any real concern with facts. Its mood is a longing for past moments that never really happened during epochs that were, in fact, disastrous.
Eternity politicians bring us the past as a vast misty courtyard of illegible monuments to national victimhood, all of them equally distant from the present, all of them equally accessible for manipulation. Every reference to the past seems to involve an attack by some external enemy upon the purity of the nation. […]
The danger we now face is of a passage from the politics of inevitability to the politics of eternity, from a naïve and flawed sort of democratic republic to a confused and cynical sort of fascist oligarchy.
But he counsels:
History allows us to see patterns and make judgements. […] History gives us the company of those who have done and suffered more than we have.
We might be tempted to think that our democratic heritage automatically protects us from such threats. This is a misguided reflex. Our own tradition demands that we examine history to understand the deep sources of tyranny, and to consider the proper responses to it.
* * *
The politics of inevitability and eternity are major themes of Snyder’s
The road to unfreedom (2018) (reviewed e.g. here),
where he expounds in more detail the background to the ongoing disaster. The chapters consider alternative world-views through meticulous analysis of the modern history of Russia, Europe, America—and Ukraine:
As I observed in my roundup for 2020, since part of my mission (whatever that is) is to vary the distribution of the diverse posts on this blog, keeping you guessing, this latest annual mélange is an occasion to group together some major themes from this past year. This is only a selection; for reasons of economy, I’ve tended to skip over some of the lighter items. You can also consult the tags and categories in the sidebar.
Some essential posts:
A selection of nine anagram tales from Nicolas Robertson’s fantastical series
Michael Church, Musics lost and found: song collectors and the life and death of folk tradition (2021)
makes an engaging diachronic introduction to fieldworkers, and the musics they documented, in societies around the world—a sequel to his 2015 book The other classical musics (favourably reviewed here). Of course, our labels of “classical” and folk” are flawed (see e.g. What is serious music?!): the two volumes overlap.
In his astute Introduction, Michael notes the role of “colonial curiosity, sometimes tinged with guilt”, as well as patriotism and the distortion of local traditions under nationalistic movements and then state socialism (cf. the observations of Milan Kundera and Yang Yinliu). He comments:
Some collecting has been a response to horrifying circumstances. The most heroic collector of Nazi death-camp songs was the Polish singer-songwriter Aleksander Kulisiewicz, who survived three years in Sachsenhausen and devoted the rest of his life to performing the songs he had memorised from Jewish fellow-prisoners. There was a clandestine Jewish choir in Sachsenhausen whose members told him that, if he survived, he should preserve their memory by singing their songs to the rest of the world. That became his mission; his 3,000-page typescript of death-camp songs—many collected from survivors of other camps whom he sought out after the war—is now lodged in the Washington Holocaust Memorial Museum.
Even in less extreme conditions, under authoritarian regimes such as the USSR the work of collecting was dangerous. Now I think too of Rahilä Dawut, distinguished anthropologist doing fine work on Uyghur culture until she was “disappeared” in 2017.
While Michael recognises that his selection is to some extent arbitrary, beyond the Usual Suspects (Béla Bartók, Cecil Sharp, the Lomaxes), the chapters tell fascinating stories, digesting a vast amount of material—focusing on pioneering fieldworkers before the 1970s but also showing the ongoing work of more recent scholars.
As to the thorny issues of “loss”,
Most of the work songs which Alan Lomax collected in Spain and Italy in the 1950s are sung no more. The same applies to the work songs which Komitas found in rural Armenia, and which Cecil Sharp and Percy Grainger collected in England a century ago. These songs are gone, because the reasons for their existence—the trades they accompanied—are gone. And after the death of the village comes the death of the songs marking its calendrical and life-cycle events; there comes, in short, the death of local music. This rule holds for all villages, everywhere.
Worn-out and irrelevant forms may not be replaced by new ones, because the conditions required for that process—community and kinship networks and the aforesaid shared religion or ideology—no longer obtain, and may never obtain again.
But Michael does well to observe that
The old idea of an immutable musical corpus is giving way to the idea of an endlessly mutable art; the primacy of collecting is being replaced among scholars by the primacy of interpretation.
And indeed he concedes that the prospect is not one of unrelieved gloom. “Migrants carry their music in their baggage”, and
New work inspires new songs: baggage-handlers for Amazon in Genoa, whose forefathers sang as they humped fish, have devised new songs to speed their parcels.
Michael contrasts fusions that are the spontaneous result of social shifts with those that are arbitrarily willed by producers. He ends his Introduction with thoughtful reflections on the role of Covid.
* * *
The chapters are loosely grouped in four sections. “Why it all began” begins with a prelude on the various motives for collecting song in 18th century Europe—political, colonial, and economic—introducing Johann Gottfried Herder and the concept of Volkslied. Chapters follow on the 17th-century broadside ballads and Francis James Child; Orientalists from France (Jesuit priests in Beijing and Salvador-Daniel in Algiers); and the Moldavian prince Dimitrie Cantemir (1673–1723), documenting Ottoman music in Constantinople after being taken hostage. Here’s a sample of Jordi Savall’s project on Cantemir with Hesperion XXI:
Michael moves on to the work of Komitas (1869–1935) studying Armenian song on the eve of the 1915 genocide; and the British folk-song revival with the “contentious” Cecil Sharp, followed by Percy Grainger.
In “Carrying the torch: collectors in Northern and Eastern Europe” (a misleading rubric, since the chapters range far more widely), after an Introduction (featuring collectors such as Pyotr Kireyevsky (1808–56) in Russia, Karel Erben (1811–70) and Leos Janáček for Bohemia and Moravia, Vasil Stoin (1880–1938) for Bulgaria, Bjarni Thorsteinsson (1861–1938) for Iceland), Michael offers a fine chapter on Béla Bartók, with his extraordinary fieldtrips before World War One collecting songs in Transylvania, Slovakia, Romania, Ruthenia, Serbia, Bulgaria, Algeria—and much later, Egypt (1932) and Turkey (1936). Michael ponders Bartók’s prescriptive agenda, seeking the “purity” of “ancient” songs, disdaining “Gypsy” and “sacred” melodies. But he was always in search of connections:
In 1912, I discovered among the Maramures Romanians a certain kind of highly ornamented, Orientally-coloured and improvisation-like melody. In 1913, in a village of Central Algeria bordering the Sahara desert, I heard a similar melodic style. […] Who would have thought that the distance between the two phenomena—more than 2,000 kilometres—could be bridged by a causal relationship?
This leads to a chapter on John Lomax and his son Alan, subsuming not only their work among (mainly African-) American folk-singers (cf. Bruce Jackson) but Alan’s work in the Bahamas, Haiti, Britain, Spain, and notably Italy, working with Diego Carpitella. Note the Alan Lomax Archive on YouTube.
I am recording the sunset of an age that will never return—every act that I see is being performed for the last time, and the men who are with me have no successors. When they die, they will take all their knowledge to the grave with them—except that part which I have recorded. Hence I am writing down everything in full detail, so as to give the clearest picture of an age and of a culture that no one else but I have been privileged to witness.
In Chapter 12 Michael introduces the Western fascination with gamelan, from the 1889 Exposition Universelle to Jaap Kunst and Colin McPhee. The site Bali1928.net has a wealth of (silent, alas) film clips.
The work of Paul Bowles in Morocco makes another vivid topic. Turning to Greece, Michael introduces the mission of Domna Samiou to document folk traditions there. John Blacking’s work on the Venda is a classic inspiration for ethnomusicologists. He goes on to explore the importance of record companies, introducing Moses Asch, Folkways, Nonesuch, Ocora, PAN, and Topic Records—before the label “world music” became a bland catch-all.
The final section, “Musical snapshots: the importance of sound archives” is introduced with notes on the Berliner Phonogramm-Archiv, the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian, East European archives, the British Library Sound Archive and the Golha Project on Persian music.
Chapter 17 explores the traditions of Central Asia—Kazakhstan, Kyrghyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Xinjiang—and further afield, Tuva. Despite the spectre of Soviet prescriptive innovations, collectors did some fine work, such as Viktor Uspensky and Viktor Belyayev, followed by foreign researchers like Jean During and Theodore Levin, and the Aga Khan Music Initiative. This leads to Afghanistan, introducing local musician-collectors, and the work of John Baily and Veronica Doubleday.
Chapters follow on Russia and Georgia—as a change from the polished stage presentation of many groups, here’s a Georgian group singing informally:
Musics lost and found continues with Pygmy polyphony in central Africa, with Colin Turnbull, Simha Arom, Suzanne Fürniss; and the radif of Persian art music.
Yang Yinliu, 1950.
Chapter 23 discusses China: the great Yang Yinliu, and my own humble fieldwork with the Gaoluo ritual association, the Li family Daoists, and shawm bands—all themes amply covered on this blog. Korean traditions (see my posts on Dang and Bowed zithers, 1) are introduced through the art of p’ansori; and Japan through taiko drumming—having left the more venerable traditions of gagaku, Noh, and kabuki to The other classical musics.
In the two final chapters Michael discusses the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage programme and its pitfalls, ending with a thoughtful overview of the book’s knotty issues. Besides the bibliography, each chapter ends with a basic reading list.
More digestible than the New Grove and Garland encyclopedias, sections in the two New Grove Ethnomusicology volumes, or even The Rough Guide to world music, this book leads audiences to a wealth of traditions. While scholars were poring over musty tomes in libraries, and composers busy composing, these intrepid collectors were busy in the field, seeking to make sense of the cultural life of grassroots communities.
While Musics lost and found covers an impressive amount of ground, there’s scope for a further volume. The story of Milman Parry and Albert Lord recording the “Homeric” epics of bards in 1930s’ Yugoslavia (archive here) would be grist to Michael’s mill. Bruno Nettl is one of the crucial figures in ethnomusicology, not only for his studies of Native American cultures but for his work in Iran. Also valuable are Bernard Lortat-Jacob’s explorations of the Mediterranean. The chapter on the Lomaxes hints at the vibrant field of Italy, but one might also adduce the work of Roberto Leydi, Tullia Magrini, and so on. Though the work of Richard Widdess in Nepal gets a mention in the Introduction, south Asia deserves a lengthier treatment, to include the likes of Arnold Bake and Nicolas Magriel. And so on…
* * *
Tom Service introduced the book with Michael on BBC Radio 3 Music Matters (here, from 17.01). The programme introduces English folk-song; migration and “climate change in music”; singing in Albania and Genoa; and (from 28.42) Veronica Doubleday discusses her outstanding work in 1970s’ Afghanistan and the current crisis—a clear instance of a culture that is very much under threat, of course.
It’s true that village communities have changed decisively. But we need a new model for the ecosphere of folk tradition. Such genres are not timeless; even Bach’s cantatas soon fell from favour, and whether or not they find new audiences is not something that I worry about, although recordings and documentation are clearly valuable.
In China I often feel as if I’m responsible for the dwindling of the folk traditions that I document; or to put it another way, the very forces that bring us to these sites are those which lead to change. The role of the fieldworker has come under increasing scrutiny, as in such works as Shadows in the field (see e.g. William Noll on blind minstrels of Ukraine). Further to Nigel Barley’s portrayal of the fieldworker as “harmless idiot”, I sometimes feel like a harmful idiot.
Tom Service opens with a soundbite much favoured by pundits: “folk music cultures are in danger of extinction all over the world”. I’m none too enamoured with the concept of “endangered traditions”: since the beginnings of anthropology, fieldworkers have always supposed they were witnessing the last vestiges of a tradition. It tends to suggest a nostalgia for the halcyon days of child chimney-sweeps (cf. Edible, intangible, dodgy). Cultural loss is a thorny issue. As Michael indeed suggests, the book’s leitmotif—the fear that the music of collectors’ chosen field might evaporate before they managed to fully document it—may not be so well-founded. It’s always too late, and never.
* * *
The book was sonorously launched with an event at the Wigmore Hall, making a fitting tribute to live musicking after a long silence, as well as a reminder of the rich traditions maintained among UK diasporas. In an exquisite programme, it was wonderful to hear Veronica Doubleday again, followed by a cappella songs from the Georgian Maspindzeli choir, Persian classical music performed by Mehdi Namdar (ney) and Fariborz Kiani (goblet drum), and the Anatolian folk songs of Çiğdem Aslan accompanied by Erdal Yapici on baglama.
The exhilaration of Racist, sexist boy in the Linda Lindas’ * gig at the LA Public Library ** in May 2021 was augmented by the frisson of the venue:
By the time the video went viral, Bela Salazar (17), Eloise Wong (13), Lucia de la Garza (14), and Mila de la Garza (11) were already experienced performers—here’s an earlier intro:
By contrast with most of their early punk forebears, they are encouraged by cool parents. This is something I can’t imagine—I never even knew it was possible to have parents who were into any kind of popular music. And when I was their age, people swam in the seas of sexism and racism all the time, but few were yet aware of the concepts—in my absurd Ivory Tower I sure didn’t Worry my Pretty Little Head about such things.
As prodigies the Linda Lindas have forged a rather different path from that of Alma Deutscher. Here they chat with Carrie Brownstein, a punk veteran at 47. And here’s their new single Oh!:
Oh, thank goodness, the next generation… You guys aren’t even the next generation; you’re like three generations below me. But I’m so glad that you exist.
All this makes a refreshing change from the raging arias of Handel opera and the righteous preoccupations of his class…
It’ll be intriguing to see how the quartet negotiates the perils of celebrity and the PR juggernaut; this useful article on Sleater-Kinney comments, “As any band that comes out of a DIY scene knows, no matter how pure your intentions, you’re never far from being accused of selling out.”
By contrast with the all-encompassing Matthew Passion, Mahler, or Abbey road, contrasts of mood and timbre are not often valued in world genres. The variety of Sleater-Kinney’s album The hot rock is something of an exception, surpassing the boundaries of punk.
* Their name alluding, need I add [Yes—Ed.] to the Blue Hearts’ 1987 single, which features in the 2007 Japanese movie Linda Linda Linda.
** I can offer this joke:
Guy walks into a public library and confidently asks the assistant, “LARGE COD AND CHIPS PLEASE!” “… You do realise this is a public library, sir?” “Ah, I see… [leans forward and whispers:] Large cod and chips please!”
A short research report, almost entirely built on others’ research
Recently I agreed to do some pro-bono translation work for the History Museum in Chico, a small city of about 100,000 people in the northern part of the Central Valley of California. I had time to stop by the museum in person in August 2021, while driving from Boston to San Francisco and back to pick up my stuff from storage, and was very courteously put-up and dined-out by the emeritus archaeologist in charge there, one Keith Johnson, and his family. I should note right at the start here that I know nothing about this topic, and that essentially all of the information here is shamelessly pulled either from Keith Johnson’s book Golden altars, or from the fantastic and too-little-known Chinese in Northwest America Research Committee (CINARC) website, which should be the real first stop for anyone interested in Chinese culture in 19th and early-20th century North America. Another great online introduction is this series of articles from the National Park Service, which gives a brief but lively account of Chinese settlement in 19th- and early 20th-century California, as well as its physical remains.
Some of the main Chinese temples in California discussed on the CINARC website.
Alta California acceded to the United States in 1848, in the wake of the Mexican-American War. Gold was discovered in the mountains there in the same year, prompting the first gold rush, and bringing the first Chinese immigrants (mostly from the Pearl River Delta) to the ports of California, especially San Francisco. By 1855, the Chinese community in San Francisco had Daoist temples, an opera house, two newspapers, and several civic associations. While the early communities prospered in many professions, they were shut out from various industries by discriminatory legislation and mob violence; many of the stereotypical images of “Asian” professions in frontier America (railway workers, launderers, shopkeepers) resulted from their systematic and often violent exclusion from other fields of work. Nevertheless, the Chinese immigrants successfully established businesses and Chinatowns all across the American West from the 1850s onward.
Chico The “Palace of Serried Sages” (Liesheng gong 列聖宮) at Chico was founded in 1884 by immigrants from south China, attracted by the mining, logging, and mercantile opportunities afforded by the Central Valley and the foothills of the Sierra Nevada. Later, many found work as launderers, grocers, cooks, and domestic servants. The community was financially and commercially sophisticated—the Chico History Museum possesses a detailed 1917 account-book for what seems to be a Chinese banking and money-lending operation, recording loans, withdrawals, interest, and annuities.
Interior of the Chico temple showing altar, 1910. Source.
Judging from the dates inscribed on the altar paraphernalia, the Chico temple seems to have been active between the 1880s and the 1910s. This tracks the history of popular Daoism in America generally. As Bennet Bronson notes, popular Daoist temples flourished in Chinese immigrant communities across North America from at least the 1850s onward, with many of the earliest surviving temples on the continent located precisely in the Central Valley region. However, the religion seems to have suffered a sudden and poorly-explained collapse in the 1920s, with many shrines closing or becoming inactive. In the case of Chico, part of the reason may have been an FBI-assisted police raid on a Chinese-run opium-distribution network in 1924 (as a result, the museum today possesses some beautiful carved and inlaid Chinese opium pipes). By the 1930s the Chico Chinatown had almost entirely vanished, and in 1939, three elderly Chinese residents gifted the surviving altar- and temple-goods to a white-American friend, from whose hands these items eventually came to the museum. The temple building was torn down in 1946.
The Bright Gate.
From the plaques and inscriptions within the temple, we get a detailed sense of the trans-Pacific and trans-Californian networks that sustained this community. Many of the temple items were manufactured in China. One such item was the massive and intricately carved Bright Gate (caimen 彩門), a gilded frieze depicting opera figures that originally hung above the temple door. According to the inscription, the Bright Gate was built on the Street of Meeting Immortals (Huixian jie 會仙街) in Guangzhou. In other cases, we have the names of the manufacturers. One of the multiple square arches that made up the altar reads:
香港 Hong Kong
城隍街 Street of the City God
百步梯 Hundred-Step Stairs
俊昌造 Made by Jun Chang
In some cases, precisely the vast distances involved in these networks appear as proof of the gods’ all-encompassing power, extending even to the shores of the New World. One set of matching couplets (duilian 對聯) around the altar reads:
The Emperor’s protection is grand and deep, linking both Chinese and Barbarian;
The god’s benevolence is vast and broad, flowing even to the nations beyond the seas.
Most of these goods were gifted to the temple by various fraternal organizations (tong/tang 堂), which could be based either in China, in San Francisco (the nearest large city and sea-port, with a large and well-established Chinese population), or elsewhere on the Western seaboard of the USA. Another inscription on the Hong-Kong produced altarpiece explains how it arrived in Chico:
A gratefully received gift of the assembled disciples of the Yee Fung Toy association,
erected on an auspicious day of the first moon of spring in the 18th year of the Guangxu reign .
The majority of inscriptions in the collection are of this sort, recording the charitable or pious gifts to the temple and community, usually by major fraternal associations. While often terse, they do give a sense of how active Chinese civic organizations were in supporting the new settlement in Chico. In a few cases the objects are gifts from individuals, usually described as “disciples” (dizi 弟子) of the god. One inscription from 1908 on a pewter censor describes it as given by “the disciple Zhou Lianzi and the pious woman Yue Hao” 弟子周連子信女月好敬送, indicating that the community of believers included women wealthy and independent enough to be noted as donors.
The purpose of all these donations was to demonstrate one’s own wealth and piety, but also to adorn the communal space with beautiful objects and sophisticated calligraphy. Beyond the gorgeously carved altarpieces and Bright Gate, there are also several elegant plaques and matching couplets. In some cases the calligrapher is identified. One is a decorously anonymous Grass-hall Layman (caotang jushi 草堂居士), whom I have not been able to trace. Another couplet in a cultured hand, described as having been “repaired” (chongxiu 重修) in Guangzhou in 1891, urges lofty sentiments:
Our intent is for the Springs and Autumns, extending great righteousness;
Its qi fills heaven and earth, and protects all living things.
Calligraphy respectfully written by Dong Qigeng, after burning incense and performing ablutions.
Most of the dates given in these inscriptions are in traditional Chinese format—either an imperial regnal title (“such-and-such year of the reign of the Guangxu emperor”), or in sexagenary format according to the Heavenly Stems and Earthly Branches (tiangan dizhi 天干地支) system, or both. That is, at least as far as formal inscriptions in their temple were concerned, this community counted the years according to the accession of the Manchu emperors in far-off Beijing. One brief inscription on a pewter censor, however, gives insight into another sort of politics:
A gift from the Hongshun Association,
on an auspicious day of the 6th year of Heavenly Motion (Tianyun).
The Hongshun Association is one name for the Heaven-and-Earth Assembly (Tiandihui 天地會), an anti-state secret society with branches in many Chinese communities, especially in San Francisco. “Heavenly Motion” is an anti-state calendrical term dating back to at least the 17th century. Its use implies that the Hongshun Association viewed the ruling Manchu imperial house and its regnal titles as illegitimate, and it was thus a statement of revolutionary intent.
When I originally saw the “6th year,” I naturally wondered what “year one” was. A note on the ever-fascinating CINARC website puts the puzzle-pieces together. Another inscription from Victoria, British Columbia, reads “Heavenly Motion 3, or the ding-wei year” 天運三丁未年. The ding-wei year corresponds to 1907. As the CINARC editors note, the famous revolutionary Sun Yat-sen gave a speech in San Francisco in 1904 endorsing the use of Heavenly Motion dates as an anti-state signifier. Thus it seems that at least one revolutionary group on the West coast of North America began to date their calendars from that year. The “6th year of Heavenly Motion” on the pewter vessel in Chico should be from 1910, only one year before China’s last imperial dynasty did in fact collapse in the face of a nationalist rebellion.
As for the rituals that took place inside the Chico temple, our only information is from old photographs and the ritual objects themselves. Like all Chinese temples anywhere in the world, the Chico temple contained incense pots, in which one could place lighted sticks of incense before bowing or “striking the head” (kowtow or ketou 磕頭) at the altar. (Hence the common term for Chinese temples in 19th- and early-20th- century English sources, “joss [incense] houses.”) The altar itself contains spirit-plaques (shenpai 神牌) dedicated to Lord Guan (Guangong 關公), Avalokiteśvara-Guanyin (觀音), the historical doctor Hua Tuo 華陀, the astrological god Great Year (Taisui 太歲), and a god of wealth called “The Astral God of Wealth and Silks” (Caibo xingjun 財帛星君). Another item is a wooden stamp with the words, “The fountainhead of wealth pours broadly in” (Caiyuan guangjin 財源廣進), presumably used for endorsing paper or cloth articles brought to the temple for luck. I haven’t come across anything recording an actual ordained Daoist priest resident in Chico, but it seems probable that one or more laymen had enough basic ritual knowledge to see to their own community’s spiritual needs.
Chico funeral procession with American flag. Source.
Related to these public funeral processions, a major concern of many Chinese communities in North America was the ritually proper burial, and reburial, of the dead. One photograph shows the Chico Chinese graveyard as it stood in the 1950s. The museum has on display two Chinese gravestones, both with elegantly simple inscriptions giving the name, place of origin, and date of death of the interred:
會邑 Hui Town (Huizhou)
古井磨耳村 Old Well Millstone Village
趙贊美墳磨 The grave of Zhao Zanmei
光緒拾六年 In the 16th year of the Guangxu reign
眾于四月卄一日 He passed away on 21st day of the first moon [June 8th, 1890].
Another interesting object in the museum is a small red brick, with the following terse inscription:
白洪[ ]井村 Bai and Hong [one character missing] Well Village
馬贊喜公墳 The grave of master Ma Zanxi
Passed away in the 4th moon of the 31st year of the Guangxu reign [~ May 1905].
Such Chinese “grave-bricks” are known from across North America, as far north as Alaska. Many Chinese immigrants, concerned about dying abroad without descendants or proper burial rituals, wanted their remains to be shipped back to their native villages. An elaborate trans-Pacific network sprang up to facilitate this. These small bricks would be buried with the body, providing an accurate name and address in the event of disinterment.
The arrival of special teams from China to disinter corpses was an object of morbid interest in the American press at the time. In his capacity as a reporter in San Francisco, Mark Twain described one attempt by the California legislature to discourage Chinese immigration by banning such ritual disinterments, calling the proposed legislation “an ingenious refinement of Christian cruelty.” Another newspaper article (again, quoted on the CINARC site) describes the arrival of such a team in Chico in 1893:
The Chinese population of the town of Chico, Cal., has for the past two weeks been under a strain of excitement concerning the exhumation and removal of all the bodies buried in the Chinese cemetery of that place. This has been a gruesome spectacle. A company of native resurrectionists dug into the graves, took up the coffins, removed their contents and deliberately set to work getting rid of the more or less decomposed flesh, scraping the bones, drying them, then gathering them in bunches, carefully tied, wrapped, then labeled with the respective cognomens of the several deceased and the residence of the particular families in China … (San Francisco Call 1893-11-14, p.19)
The prurient tone of this newspaper article suggests some of the darker aspects of the Chico Chinese community’s story. For all that the Chinese community lived and prospered in Chico for over fifty years, they remained isolated amidst a society that could treat them with open and sometimes violent racism. The Chico temple was founded only two years after the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882. The following decade saw a wave of brutal massacres, expulsions, arson attacks, and acts of mob violence against Chinese in the United States and particularly in California. By the end of the decade, many counties in the area had expelled their entire Chinese populations, often with multiple fatalities. In Chico, a fire destroyed much of the Chinatown in 1887; the firehose that might have put it out was found severed in four places. The California State University at Chico holds and has digitized the minute-book for the “Chico Anti-Chinese League,” which goes on for over a hundred pages between the years 1894 and 1896, in mercifully illegible handwriting.
Unfortunately, this story of discrimination and communal destruction is not yet over—witness the recent rise in anti-Asian hate crimes across the USA. Nor is California’s fascinating heritage of popular Daoist temples safe from harm in 2021—according to Chico archaeologist Keith Johnson, at least two historic Chinese temples in California have been destroyed by accidental fires in the last decade, and more are now in danger from the massive climate-change induced wildfires that now regularly sweep across the state, consuming towns and cities.
In early 2019, I hosted a Chinese friend in San Francisco, a Beijing-based film-maker with whom I’d worked together to document at-risk temples and historic mural sites in impoverished parts of rural Hebei province. As we walked along the waterfront in Berkeley, looking across the great blue Bay to the cloud-wrapped towers of downtown SF, winds off the Pacific were driving long trains of waves through the Golden Gate to crash on the shores of America. I told him that I was as much, and as little, a foreigner here as he. Chinese people have been in California for as long as Anglo-Americans, and Russians and Spanish and Mexicans were here before that, and before them, the Maidu, Ohlone, Miwok, Yokuts, and more peoples too many to name. When some part of this place’s history vanishes, the loss belongs to all of us.
Anne Applebaum, Twilight of democracy: the failure of politics and the parting of friends (2020; subtitle for US edition the seductive lure of authoritarianism)
serves as a useful survey of disturbing trends around the world, notably in Europe and the USA, making a slim and accessible tome with its own seductive lure. *
As a historian, Applebaum has long been a noted critic of the Soviet system, with her thoroughly-researched accounts of Stalin’s gulag and the 1930s’ famine (see under Life behind the Iron Curtain). Such work is easily co-opted by “anti-Communist” conservatives in the West, and until quite recently Applebaum, happily aligned with the centre-right, didn’t care to argue; like many liberals, she only felt compelled to confront the wider issue when authoritarianism began posing a threat to democracy around the world.
With her media profile as a journalist (e.g. in The Atlantic and on Twitter), Applebaum is prominent among the legion of vocal critics of Trumpism (including, from her own field, other public intellectuals such as Timothy Snyder, as well as committed democrats like Robert Reich), and she’s just as engaged with related global trends, notably in Europe and the UK. By virtue of her own background, her warnings seem, at once, all the more telling (it’s good to find erstwhile conservatives defecting) and flawed.
A 1999 New Year’s Eve party that she hosted with her husband Radek Sikorski at their Polish home prompts her to reflect on the imminent “parting of friends”.
What, then, has caused this transformation? Were some of our friends always closet authoritarians? Or have the people with whom we clinked glasses in the first minutes of the new millenium somehow changed over the subsequent two decades?
Along with anecdotal passages, the book also provides excursions into earlier debates over democratic values. Applebaum suggests:
Authoritarianism appeals, simply, to people who cannot tolerate complexity; there is nothing intrinsically “left-wing” or “right-wing” about this instinct at all. It is anti-pluralist. It is suspicious of people with different ideas. It is allergic to fierce debates. Whether those who have it ultimately derive their ideas from Marxism or nationalism is irrelevant. It is a frame of mind, not a set of ideas.
Following World War Two,
British Tories, American Republicans, East European anti-Communists, German Christian Democrats, and French Gaullists all come from different backgrounds, but as a group they were, at least until recently, dedicated not just to representative democracy, but to religious tolerance, independent judiciaries, free press and speech, economic integration, international institutions, the transatlantic alliance, and the political idea of “the West”.
Such values seemed to have triumphed after the collapse of Soviet regimes from 1989. But recently, “by contrast, the new right does not want to conserve or to preserve what exists at all”; liberal democracy turns out to be worryingly fragile.
Noting the role of political entrepreneurs and propagandists, Applebaum cites Julien Benda’s 1927 La trahison des clercs. Having cautioned us that “there is no single explanation, and I will not offer either a grand theory or a universal solution”, she begins her discussion of right-wing populism, its lies and conspiracy theories, with east Europe (notably Poland and Hungary), where two illiberal parties have monopolies on power: in Poland, the Law and Justice Party, and Vikor Orbán’s Fidesz Party in Hungary.
Applebaum finds hypocritical the grim warnings over the influence of “Communism” that retain an appeal for the right-wing ideologues of her generation. Her explanation of the crisis in Poland is informed by her own involvement with the leading political figures there. In Hungary, she has a run-in with the historian Mária Schmidt, whose House of Terror Museum she had found impressive, but who later espoused Orbán’s nationalist cause.
Observing that these movements are not particular to the former Communist countries of east Europe. Applebaum turns to the UK and the rise of Boris Picaninny Watermelon Letterbox Johnson, whose “outsized narcissism” complemented a “remarkable laziness” and penchant for fabrication. Her encounters in 1990s’ London with “nostalgic conservatives”, and the jocular atmosphere at the Spectator, seemed like harmless fun. She harangues effectively against the Brexit débacle, but again, given that she consorted happily with Simon Heffer and Roger Scruton, one worries about her social circle.
Nostalgia took the form of belief in a world where England made the rules. In The future of nostalgia Svetlana Boym distinguishes “reflective” and “restorative” nostalgia: the former miss the past, without wanting it back; the latter want to live in it, right now, lamenting decline.
In the Western democracies anxiety, anger, and the backlash against immigration may seem like a long-delayed reaction to the crises of capitalism since the 1960s, compounded by new technology (cf. Can’t get you out of my head).
After considering the Vox party in Spain, Applebaum focuses on the USA, noting antecedents to Trumpism and the predilection for violence, and introducing former acquaintances with whom she parted ways, such as the alarming Laura Ingraham and Roger Kimball.
* * *
Twilight of democracy has been widely welcomed—see e.g. LARB, NYT, and in the Guardian, this review (along with Kratsev and Holmes, The light that failed) and interview here. But it’s worth reading two reviews by David Klion and Jorge González-Gallarza—both critical, yet far apart on the political spectrum.
Applebaum’s blind faith in the centre-right strains of neoliberalism and meritocratic mobility conveniently absolves her and her remaining friends of any responsibility for the present crisis. […] It never seems to cross Applebaum’s mind that having had so many erstwhile friends who ended up on the far right might say something unflattering about her own judgment—and more generally about the centre-right political tradition to which she belongs. […] Applebaum is willing to skewer her erstwhile friends, but she is unwilling to interrogate her own culpability and that of the centre-right establishment more generally.
From a conservative standpoint, Gallarza observes:
Her journalism reads like a (somewhat more) refined version of the doomsday prophesying that prevails among her never-Trump colleagues. […] Waxing alarmist about the demise of the American republic is something of an oversubscribed beat across the mastheads she writes for. […]
Applebaum’s primary ambition is to chronicle how modern republics can undergo dismantling, from within, through the subversive influence of a rogue faction of the intelligentsia. For [her], national populism complicates the democratic experiment, but its hold over a share of the elite intellectual class is most disconcerting.
[Applebaum] draws attention to an old truth that merits recalling—yes, democracy only thrives when a spirit of republican virtue overcomes factionalism, authoritarianism, and other undemocratic impulses. And there may well be cause for alarm on this score in the post-Soviet East. But Applebaum’s record of casting off divergent views as the work of authoritarian demagogues puts her in a difficult spot to raise the alarm.
Given the valuable role that Applebaum plays in defending the cause of liberal democracy, perhaps we might overlook her dubious past involvements with the sinister figures she now excoriates. But similar arguments from further left may prove to be more valuable. For practical, passionate, informed ways of strengthening social justice, do follow AOC!
* Rather like the decor for her online interviews—runaway winner in the Classy Book-Lined Study category.
Among the highlights of this year’s Proms was John Wilson‘s stimulating programme with the reborn Sinfonia of London (shown on BBC4, on i-Player).
After Johann Strauss’s Die Fledermaus overture (a favourite of the incomparable Carlos Kleiber), Francesca Chiejina sang the exquisite Seven early songs (1905–08) of Alban Berg. As a polar opposite of the overture, Wilson continued with Ravel’s disturbing La valse (1920), depicting “a society spinning out of control, reeling from the horrors of the recent past towards those of the near future”, in the words of Alex Ross.
As a prodigy in Vienna, Korngold was praised by Mahler, Richard Strauss, and Puccini. Making his name with the opera Die tote Stadt, he was a prominent figure in the lively theatrical scene of the 1920s, going on to collaborate with Max Reinhardt. Having commuted between Vienna and Hollywood since 1934, by the time of the Anschluss in 1938 Korngold realised that it would be impossible for him and his family to continue living in Austria. In the USA his film scores soon came to define the Hollywood sound. As Michael Haas comments,
he found himself mugged by both realities—commercial necessity and Hitler, both at the same time.
It’s unfortunate that Korngold himself subscribed to the notion that “serious music” could only reside in the symphonic tradition—to which he returned after retiring disillusioned from film in 1947, but still writing in a romantic style that had plummeted from fashion after the war. Even Messiaen‘s Turangalîla (1949), challenging yet sensual, was met with negative reviews; Boulez’s Le marteau sans maître was premiered in 1955.
So pieces such as Korngold’s Violin concerto (1947) were received patronisingly. Whatever the zeitgeist was, this wasn’t it; much as we all love late romanticism, surely this was too late?! (cf. the ever-later early music).
“That sounds like film music” is a put-down that deserves to be retired. The usual intention is to dismiss a work as splashy kitsch. Over the past century, though, enough first-rate music has been written for the movies that the charge rings false. Hollywood composers have employed so many different styles that the term “film music” has little descriptive value.
Ross gives thoughtful background in Chapter 8 (“Music for all”) of The rest is noise, under “Hollywood music” and “Exile music”. Richard Taruskin is always worth reading too: in The danger of music (§33, “The golden age of kitsch”) he thickens the plot by contrasting Korngold’s Das Wunder der Heliane with Ernst Krenek’s “jazz opera” Jonny spielt auf, both from 1927.
Perhaps the weird twin burdens among WAM aficionados of expecting both background knowledge and linear progress can be eased by imagining Korngold’s late works as composed before the war, as if he were a Rachmaninoff or a Zemlinsky. At least, it would be sad not to allow oneself to relish the symphony’s gorgeous slow movement (and in Haas’s post, do listen to Korngold playing the Adagio on the piano—as with Mahler’s piano rolls, one gets a sense of composition, improvisation).
Indeed, since Mahler was already fêted in New York by 1908 (see e.g. here and here), while it may be fruitless to speculate how his style might have evolved had he lived to the era of the 1930s’ talkies (one can hardly imagine that any more could be said after the 9th and 10th symphonies and Der Abschied), it’s intriguing to wonder whether he too would have been seduced by the lure of Hollywood…
As Haas observes, conflicts over modernity and populism were already hotly debated in 1920s’ Berlin and Vienna (cf. What is serious music?!);
The themes that resonate throughout Korngold’s life are particularly relevant today as they represent the fight for the very purpose of music. Is it elite, or is it populist? Is it high art or easy entertainment? Is it merely an application, like the use of colour in cinema, or is it l’art pour l’art—a thing of purity and a bridge between the listener and a higher state? Is music a cultural cornerstone of European civilisation or is it merely “disposable”?
So all this makes Korngold’s work grist to John Wilson’s mill. Here’s his 2019 recording of the symphony with the Sinfonia of London:
* Though it’s often described as “Symphony in F sharp major”, Korngold’s biographer Brendan G. Carroll notes that he was particular in casting the work in F sharp, without specifying either major or minor (cf. the story of the prison exam!). Nor should it be confused with F hashtag minor. Anyway, six sharps would be well above the legal limit on Sundays in Pennsylvania.
The fairy-tale dénouement of the US Open women’s singles was an even more intense and moving contest than anyone dared imagine. Just exhilarated by this rare moment in sporting history, to celebrate youthful inspiration I’d like to offer a wacky little playlist in homage to both players—a paean to migration, riffing freely on their cultural backgrounds. Some of these connections may be approximate, but you get the idea.
Her mum Zhai Dongmei 翟冬梅 comes from Shenyang in northeast China:
so here’s a powerful, majestic, gritty shawm band from nearby Liaoyang (#6 in the Music Player as you scroll way down in the sidebar of this blog, with commentary here)—two players striving in unison, occasionally pulling apart, with the drum evoking the sound of the tennis ball (the very opening perhaps satirising Nadal’s pre-serve routine)?! See also Ritual groups of Liaoning; and click here for Emma speaking excellent Chinese (Yeah I know…).
From the Canadian background of Emma’s parents, some Inuit throat-singing—another joyous ritualised game (whereas both Emma and Leylah are decorously silent on court, perhaps this evokes a speeded-up soundtrack of the vocalisations of certain other tennis players):
Moving on to, um, Bromley, how about David Bowie:
* * *
Just as inspiring—both on court and for a playlist!—is Emma’s opponent Leylah Fernandez.
For the Philippine heritage of her mum,
the elegant passion of nanguan (nanyin) ballads from the Hokkien diaspora of southeast China:
Leyla’s dad comes from Ecuador, suggesting a somewhat imprecise connection with
festive wind bandsfrom the Bolivian Andes (see Music and the potato), grounded in seasonal rituals (Wimbledon and the other majors):
And for the family’s Canadian heritage,
in French-Celtic mode, the irresistible energy of La bottine souriante playing La tuque rouge:
I can’t think why it’s taken me so long to get round to watching The Handmaid’s tale. All four seasons are currently available on Channel 4—the final episodes of Season 4 airing, by an ominous turn of fate, just as Afghan women were in dread at the Taliban takeover.
Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel was published in 1985. It concerns the Republic of Gilead, a religious, misogynistic military dictatorship not far in the (then) future that comes to power in a coup overthrowing the US government. The book was widely read; Atwood reflected on her intentions in 2012, before the parallel with Trumpism became inevitable:
In the UK, which had had its Oliver Cromwell moment some centuries ago and was in no mood to repeat it, the reaction was along the lines of, “Jolly good yarn”. In the US, however […] it was more likely to be: “How long have we got?” […]
Nations never build apparently radical forms of government on foundations that aren’t there already.
So Atwood was motivated by the enduring strain of Puritanism in American culture; the three great secular dictatorships of the 20th century; modern theocratic regimes such as Iran and Afghanistan; and the atmosphere of oppression was further inspired by her visits behind the Iron Curtain (see this interview).The story adroitly combines the iniquities of all these systems.
I made a rule for myself: I would not include anything that human beings had not already done in some other place or time, or for which the technology did not already exist. I did not wish to be accused of dark, twisted inventions, or of misrepresenting the human potential for deplorable behaviour. The group-activated hangings, the tearing apart of human beings, the clothing specific to castes and classes, the forced childbearing and the appropriation of the results, the children stolen by regimes and placed for upbringing with high-ranking officials, the forbidding of literacy, the denial of property rights: all had precedents, and many were to be found not in other cultures and religions, but within western society, and within the “Christian” tradition, itself.
Even at the “benign” end of Christianity, the insidious submission of women is expressed with typical flair by Patricia Lockwood, reflecting on her relationship with the seminarians who came to stay:
What else could I do but tease them? I had no real power; it was men like these who were in charge of my life. If they decided tomorrow I had to cover my hair or wear skirts or pray separately, or be barred from reading certain books, or take certain pills and not take others, or be silent in the presence of men, I would have to do it. To have that bald dynamic of power on display in your home every day, pretending to arch over and protect you—it does something to a person. The seminarian calls women “the tabernacle of life”. The tabernacle, if you do not know, is an ornamental box that is largely important for what it holds. It is shut up and locked when the men go away, so the consecrated elements inside cannot be stolen.
Atwood describes The handmaid’s tale not as a critique of religion, but as a critique of the use of religion as a “front for tyranny”. The book also has echoes of novels such as Ira Levin, The Stepford wives (1972) and Philip Roth, The plot against America (2004). Another crucial theme is the fertility crisis amidst ecological degradation. As Seth Myers observes, even since the departure of Trump, “the core organising principle of the GOP right now is its fundamental hostility to democracy”.
The TV series Neither the 1990 film nor the 2000 opera by Poul Ruders went as viral as Bruce Miller’s recent TV series for Hulu. While the far right was always active in the USA, and Atwood’s novel was partly inspired by the rise of the Christian right there, the threat still didn’t seem too tangible; the book appeared as a somewhat remote cautionary tale, a mere fantasy.
The first TV season was ordered in 2016, when few believed that Trump could win the presidency. His victory gave it a more immediate, disturbing relevance. If the idea of a draconian far-right state still seemed distant, the series does focus the mind on the attempted coup on 6th January this year, and on gun-toting militas—a serious challenge to liberal complacency, even since the restoration of sanity.
The success of the series came at a time of ever-greater focus on women’s rights and the #MeToo movement—amidst misogyny and the anti-feminist backlash,  intrusive surveillance, police brutality, and attacks on the media, with states continuing to tighten bans on abortion. The handmaid uniform now “dresses protests across the world”.
While most commentators praise the TV series as a suggestive allegory (e.g. here), Cathy Young, even as a feminist, resisted the general mood, perhaps taking the message rather too literally (or assuming that viewers were doing so):
At the time, it was hailed in major publications as “timely”, “prescient”, and “alarmingly close to home”, despite bearing no resemblance to the actual alarming things happening under the Trump presidency.
As Young notes, Republicans even flaunt their promotion of jobs for women. Rather, their main targets are refugees, asylum seekers, and immigrants.
Race Opponents of the regime are condemned to forced labour in the Colonies, parts of America contaminated by pollution and radioactive waste. In the book we gather that African Americans (the “Children of Ham”) and Asians have been relocated to “National Homelands” in the Midwest to be housed in ghost towns without access to food or water, and Native Americans have been exterminated.
Given the dominant theme of slavery, the shortcomings of the book in covering race have been much discussed (e.g. here). Ana Cottle characterises it as “white feminism”.
The Handmaid’s Tale suggests that the brutality of slavery alone is not impactful enough to serve as a universal wake-up call; instead, we’re only drawn to this “feminist” rallying point when the person enduring these heinous crimes is a college-educated white woman.
more concerned with the interiority of white women at the expense of people of color who recognise that Gilead isn’t a possible horrifying future, but the reality of what America has always been.
As Cathy Young comments, the series’ pretensions to current relevance give it an unpleasant subtext of victimhood appropriation on behalf of privileged women. More dubiously, she claims:
The Handmaid cult is a reminder that, as much as the Trumpian right traffics in wild conspiracy theories and demonises any disagreement with the president, the anti-Trump left has its own paranoid style.
The book’s whiteness is hardly rectified in the TV series by including some black characters; in a society based on white supremacy it may even seem incongruous, blurring the issue.
Episodes The first season is based on the book; the next three series are sequels, developed in consultation with Atwood. The drama remains harrowing and thought-provoking throughout (synopses of the episodes here), with Elisabeth Moss a riveting presence.
The events unfold over several years, with Season 3 apparently taking place in the present. The characters of Commanders, Wives, Handmaids, Guardians, and Eyes are prominent; the role of the Marthas grows in later seasons too.
As in the book, stonings, hangings, maimings, forced criticism and confession sessions contrast with flashbacks to the “normal” life of “the time before”; in the days leading up to the coup, we see all the insidious details that prepare for dictatorship, as women are deprived of all rights. There are constant echoes of all the appalling abuses perpetuated by dictatorships around the world, and the warped loyalties based on the struggle to survive.
Aunt Lydia, June, and Serena Joy.
The story is set in Boston; it becomes apparent (realistically?!) that Gilead’s control remains tenuous, as the republic has to cope with various armed uprisings across the territory, notably in Chicago (effectively shown in Season 4). Meanwhile the humane conditions of refugees in exile, anxious for those still trapped in Gilead, play a growing role.
In Season 1, I found the 6th episode particularly telling—the scenes with the Mexican ambassador, and Serena Joy’s backstory (also in 2/6) as advocate of “domestic feminism” (women are not even allowed to read the Bible, let alone Serena’s book A woman’s place) until she meekly accepts her new role. Gilead propaganda is reminiscent of Goebbels and Xinjiang; and when June eventually manages to tell the ambassador the truth, it is to no avail—a foretaste of murky diplomatic waters. Scrabble also plays an unlikely role.
From Season 2 the story begins to go beyond the book. We get to see the Colonies, evoking the Russian and Chinese gulags. In 2/8 Serena’s mask begins to slip, until she is cruelly beaten back into submission—a missed opportunity here to play out with Stand by your man?
With the Gilead soundscape largely devoid of music, the playout and other tracks (for season 4, see here) are well chosen, making a commentary from a sane, remote world—like Oh bondage up yours for the explosive end of 2/6, I only want to be with you in 2/8; Nappy roots’ Good day (a welcome discovery) for 3/1; Che sara sara in 3/8; the Vivaldi Gloria (glorious) for 3/10; I say a little prayer at the opening of 4/1; and for the gory dénouement of the whole series, You don’t own me.
The Season 2 finale is amazing, with Serena increasingly ambivalent, and the attack on Aunt Lydia (whose backstory emerges in 3/8).
In Season 3, as Serena becomes ever less loveable, the resistance comes into focus. 3/6 shows further horrors on a visit to Washington DC, but the season ends on a note of hope.
By Season 4 June has become a fully-fledged resistance leader. After falling once more into the hands of a vengeful Aunt Lydia, she finally reaches the safety of Canada. Even here the drama never lets up; survivors are still in anguish as they confront their trauma, and Fred and Serena, now to be brought before the International Criminal Court, desperately try to minimise their punishment. The resolution in the finale is not quite one that politicians envisage.
* * *
In 2019 Margaret Atwood published a compelling sequel, The testaments (reviewed e.g. by Anne Enright and Julie Myerson). Just when we thought we knew enough about Gilead, it provides a wealth of new material. Set around fifteen years after the events in the book, and not directly reflected in the TV series, it’s narrated by two young women brought up in the contrasting environments of Gilead and Canada, who turn out to be connected; Aunt Lydia, hitherto an archetypal Nazi female camp guard, also gives a most surprising account of her story.
Both books end with appendices consisting of notes from the Symposium on Gileadian Studies in 2195 and 2197 respectively. Both are quasi-scholarly discussions of the authenticity of the material presented: the first, the tapes on which The Handmaid’s tale is based, the second, the three written testimonies. So academic conferences have survived, then, like cockroaches.
The TV drama remains gripping throughout. While the whole plot hinges on the fertility crisis, sometimes I wonder if the series may portray not only the oppressors but the oppressed as sanctifying motherhood, albeit for contrasting reasons. The tiny acts of resistance are meant to inspire; instead, the only consolation is that the viewer is not in this hell. Even so, among us right now are plenty of refugees from similar regimes for whom such traumas will be distressingly familiar. The story serves both to mourn the victims of past dictatorships and to warn against future or latent ones. Neither liberal democracy nor women’s rights can be taken for granted.
By a remarkable coincidence (cf. Köchel), the theremin was invented by Léon Theremin (Lev Sergeyevich Termen, 1896–1993). Given that its timbre is surely that to which singers and instrumentalists aspire, it seems sad that its profile remains largely limited to the niches of film music and “lollipops”.
Termen was drawn to experiments in physics and electrons from his teens. After World War 1 and the civil war Abram Fedorovich Ioffe recruited him to the Physical Technical Institute in Petrograd. In 1920 he invented the instrument that would become known in the USA as theremin. As a cellist, one of the early pieces he adapted was The swan (see below). In this 1954 clip he demonstrates the instrument:
Having married Katia Konstantinova in 1924, he spent time on tour in Europe before they moved to the USA in 1927. His concerts on the theremin soon became popular, and he set up a laboratory in New York, devising a range of inventions, including new electronic musical instruments. As he became the toast of New York society, he was conducting industrial espionage for the Soviet state.
With Clara Rockmore.
Apparently irrespective of the Soviet Consulate’s demands that he should divorce his wife, Theremin proposed to emigré Lithuanian violinist Clara Rockmore (née Reisenberg, 1911–98), who became renowned as a theremin virtuoso. Instead, when Clara married an attorney, Theremin married the African-American dancer Lavinia Williams in the mid-1930s, to some controversy; with racial tensions such a thorny issue, this might have made an interesting match. But in 1938, concerned over his financial problems and the imminent global conflict—and perhaps under pressure from his Soviet minders anxious that his spying activities might be exposed—Theremin returned abruptly to the USSR, whereafter Lavinia never saw him again.
With Stalin’s great purge under way, he was promptly imprisoned. He was sent to work at a sharashka research facility in the remote Kolyma gulag, devising eavesdropping devices. After his release in 1947 he remarried. Rehabilitated in 1956 following the death of Stalin, he continued serving the KGB until 1966, also working at the Moscow Conservatoire.
When Lavinia visited Clara in 1974, she was glad to learn that Theremin was still alive; as she started corresponding with him, he even proposed remarriage. He was able to travel abroad only from 1989, visiting the USA in 1991—where he met Clara again.
* * *
For more, Albert Glinsky, Theremin: ether music and espionage (2005) is a fascinating study, meticulously researched. And for an imaginative fictional treatment, this tangled web makes a fine theme for the novel by Sean Michaels, Us conductors (2014). Focusing on Theremin’s relationship with Clara, the story takes in the Russian Revolution, America’s Great Depression and the celebrities of the day, Stalin’s gulag, two world wars, the cold war, and perestroika. Indeed, following the 1993 documentary Theremin: an electronic Odyssey (trailer here), the subject seems to cry out (eerily) for a movie version…
You crouched in black on the terpsitone’s platform, as if you were praying, centred in a spotlight. Carlos, the harpist, sat beside you. In the wings, I held my breath.
You stood, slowly, staring into the room’s rapt silence. You arched your back. You were a black-barked cherry tree. You were my one true love.
With Carlos you played Bach and Gounod’s “Ave Maria”. Each note was shown in a beam of light. I had built a loudspeaker, covered it in twill, raised on a simple mount above the stage. Your music pushed like breath against the cloth. It trembled and then sang. You danced, choosing every moment, guiding the melody with a rolled shoulder and the tilt of knee. At the clubs you had not danced like this.
* * *
Theremin was interested in a role for the instrument in dance music, developing performance locations that could automatically react to dancers’ movements with varied patterns of sound and light. And the instrument was to be a gift for film soundtracks.
Among several YouTube playlists, this one features 64 tracks by the great Clara Rockmore—opening magically with The swan:
Even by the other-worldly standards of the theremin, her rendition of Vocalise is Something Else:
And here’s Theremin’s last pupil, his grand-niece Lydia Kavina playing Clair de lune:
Our nation was born in genocide when it embraced the doctrine that the original American, the Indian, was an inferior race. Even before there were large numbers of Negroes on our shores, the scar of racial hatred had already disfigured colonial society. From the 16th century onward, blood flowed in battles of racial supremacy. We are perhaps the only nation which has tried as a matter of national policy to wipe out its Indigenous population. Moreover, we elevated that tragic experience into a noble crusade. Indeed, even today we have not permitted ourselves to reject or feel remorse for this shameful episode. Our literature, our films, our drama, our folklore, all exalt it.
Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, An Indigenous peoples’ history of the United States (2014).
Having outlined her own troubled family history and her path to activism and research after the Wounded Knee siege of 1973, Dunbar-Ortiz rewrites the standard periodisation of US history.
The facts are well documented, if still widely ignored: genocide, along with slavery; a catalogue of massacres and expropriation; the commodification of land, with “sacred land becoming real estate”. But like Tanya Talaga she puts the story in global context, as a template for colonialism around the world; and she also stresses survival.
Starting with early history, the very notion of America as a “New World” is deceptive.
It should not have happened that the great civilisations of the Western hemisphere, the very evidence of the Western hemisphere, were wantonly destroyed, the gradual progress of humanity interrupted and set upon a path of greed and destruction.
Before the colonists arrived, North America was no wilderness; in the words of Francis Jennings,
They did not settle a virgin land. They invaded and displaced a resident population.
Dunbar-Ortiz describes imperialism and settler colonialism, the propounding of the white supremacist doctrines of manifest destiny and the covenant with God, the Columbus myth and the doctrine of discovery.
As “trendy postmodernist studies” insisted on Indigenous “agency”, “encounter”, and “dialogue”, they still refrained from fundamental questions: “with multiculturalism, manifest destiny won the day”. Seeing settler colonialism as a genocidal policy—a view obscured by the “nation of immigrants” framework—she comments:
The notion that settler-indigenous conflict is an inevitable product of cultural differences and misunderstandings, or that violence was committed equally by by the colonised and the coloniser, blurs the nature of the historical process.
The culture of conquest didn’t start with Europeans crossing the Atlantic:
By the time Spain, Portugal, and Britain arrived to colonise the Americas, their methods of eradicating peoples or forcing them into dependency and servitude were ingrained, streamlined, and effective.
Indeed, as Chalk and Jonassohn observed in 1990, “genocide has been practised in all regions of the world and during all periods in history”; it was even widely celebrated. Dunbar-Ortiz adduces the “profit-based religion” of the Crusades, a Christian zeal to justify colonialism. And domestic crusades were waged against heretics and the poor; as the labour of the European peasantry was exploited, relocation, deportation, and expropriation of land were already commonly practised by the late 15th century. With European commoners suffering from the transition from common land to land as private property, they found an escape valve; colonialism around the world offered them new opportunities to join in the usurping of resources, land, and labour. The ideology of white supremacy, already clear in the expulsion of Jews and Muslims from Iberia, would provide an illusion of class levelling. Dunbar-Ortiz notes the savage British conquest of Ireland in the early 1600s.
Dunbar-Ortiz scrutinises the Calvinist origin story, in which the notional superiority of the early Anglo-Scottish-Irish colonists has remained entrenched, despite the “nation of immigrants” theme.
Disease was only one among several factors in the sharp decline of Indigenous populations in the Americas over the 16th and 17th centuries. Gold was the new currency of colonialist ventures, seducing both elites and common people; successive gold rushes increased the greed of migrants and stimulated further ethnic cleansing.
The systems of colonisation were modern and rational, but its [sic] ideological basis was madness.
The Seven Years’ War (1754–63) between the British and the French was largely a British war with the Indigenous peoples. As Dunbar-Ortiz observes, the kind of counterinsurgent warfare that the Scots-Irish settlers perfected formed the basis of US militarism into the 21st century: unlimited war with extreme violence, whose purpose is to destroy the will of the enemy people or their capacity to resist, employing any means necessary but mainly by attacking civilians and their support systems, such as food supply. She notes the continuing use of such vocabulary in the US military machine, such as the term “Indian country” in the Vietnam war, and the code name “Geronimo” for the 2011 campaign against Osama bin Laden.
Another weapon of war was alcohol, which took a growing toll on Indigenous peoples through the 18th century. Christian missionaries accompanied the genocide, but even conversion didn’t ensure survival.
The settlers continued waging genocidal wars after the Declaration of Independence in 1776. In the southern states stolen from the native population, the basis of the plantation economy was slavery (my naïve question for white supremacists: why go to the bother of importing slaves all the way from Africa when they could simply have enslaved the Indigenous population rather than exterminating them?).
In the Southeast the “genocidal sociopath” Andrew Jackson implemented the “final solution”; his presidency enshrined genocide at the apex of US government.
Democracy, equality, and equal rights do not fit well with the dominance of one race by another, much less with genocide, settler colonialism, and empire. It was during the 1820s—the beginning of the era of Jackson settler democracy—that the unique US origin myth evolved reconciling rhetoric with reality.
In The last of the Mohicans (1826) James Fenimore Cooper set a pattern for the nullifying of guilt. As an instance of the denial of colonialism Dunbar-Ortiz cites Obama’s inaugural address in 2009.
The story is just as shocking as the great invasion moves West. Enthusiastically supporting the US war against Mexico in 1846, Walt Whitman praised “historical destiny”:
The nigger, like the Injun, will be eliminated; it is the law of races, history…
For such authors, still celebrated today, heroism was the major theme.
Dunbar-Ortiz notes foreign wars at the time, in former Spanish territories of Mexico and South America, as well as in north Africa.
Indigenous peoples were the object of ongoing brutality through the Civil War. Some groups actually sided with the Confederates. Kit Carson’s campaigns against the Navajo were infamous. By 1870 the Indigenous population of California was reduced to 30,000, “quite possibly the most extreme demographic disaster of all time” (but see Steven Pinker below).
After the Civil War, massacres and land-grabs continued, as the US Army, led by Sherman and Custer, consolidated the conquest of the West—with African-American troops now playing a significant role.
This reality strikes many as tragic, as if oppressed former slaves and Indigenous peoples being subjected to genocidal warfare should magically be unified against their common enemy, “the white man”. In fact, this is just how colonialism in general and colonial warfare in particular work.
Indian scouts were also recruited to the US army. Still the Indigenous peoples fought back, as in the war on the Apaches (1850–96) led by Geronimo. But the Ghost Dance movement of 1890 was a desperate final act of resistance, which would now take new forms.
* * *
Pacified, the survivors now came to be seen as docile, their submission confirmed by the insidious new institution of boarding schools (from the 1870s). By the 1890s most Indigenous communities were confined to reservations, where they could never thrive.
In industrial unrest at home the army protected the bosses. With segregation entrenched, “race riots” erupted. Under Roosevelt’s New Deal in the 1930s, and the appointment of John Collier as commissioner for Indian affairs, Indigenous rights were protected to a degree; but communities suffered severely during the Great Depression.
The period after World War Two saw increased claims to compensate for illegally-taken land, though they were always circumscribed. Despite the “Red Scare”, the civil rights movement grew. Abroad, the US was ever more involved in counterinsurgency.
In 1970, under Nixon, the Taos Pueblo managed to regain their sacred site of Blue Lake, leading to further scrutiny of sites such as the Black Hills, scarred by the “odious” Mount Rushmore carvings:
Called the “Shrine of Democracy” by the federal government, it is anything but that; rather it is a shrine of “in-your-face” illegal occupation and colonialism.
New generations took up the struggle for self-determination, with the National Indian Youth Council formed in 1961. Protests began to attract media attention, such as the 1969 occupation of Alcatraz Island, which lasted for eighteen months. Noting the solidarity and joyful good humour that ruled, Dunbar-Ortiz cites the activists’ proclamation, a fine piece of satire:
We, the Native Americans, reclaim the land known as Alcatraz Island in the name of all American Indians by right of discovery.
We wish to be fair and honorable in our dealings with the Caucasian inhabitants of this land, and hereby offer the following treaty:
We will purchase said Alcatraz Island for twenty-four dollars (24) in glass beads and red cloth, a precedent set by the white man’s purchase of a similar island about 300 years ago.
We will give to the inhabitants of this island a portion of the land for their own to be held in trust by the American Indians Government and by the Bureau of Caucasian Affairs to hold in perpetuity—for as long as the sun shall rise and the rivers go down to the sea. We will further guide the inhabitants in the proper way of living. We will offer them our religion, our education, our life-ways, in order to help them achieve our level of civilisation and thus raise them and all their white brothers up from their savage and unhappy state…
Further, it would be fitting and symbolic that ships from all over the world, entering the Golden Gate, would first see Indian land, and thus be reminded of the true history of this nation. This tiny island would be a symbol of the great lands once ruled by free and noble Indians.
Dee Brown’s Bury my heart at Wounded Knee was published in 1970, and in 1973 protesters converged on the site, now “little more than a trading post, a Catholic church, and the mass grave of the hundreds of Lakotas slaughtered in 1890”. This, the culmination of two decades of collective Indigenous resistance, coincided with the Vietnam War, whose massacres recalled those of Native Americans.
Indeed, Dunbar-Ortiz sees the “Indian wars” as a template for US imperialism abroad. From 1798 to 1827 the US intervened militarily 23 times overseas; from 1831 to 1896, 71 times; from 1898 to 1919, 40 times. Again, such campaigns to expand markets were waged under the guise of divine responsibility, as in Cuba and the Philippines.
Despite protests, the US army continued to use the imagery of “Indian country” during the 1991 and 2003 invasions of Iraq. She cites John Grenier:
US people are taught that their military culture does not approve of or encourage targeting and killing civilians and know little or nothing about the nearly three centuries of warfare—before and after the founding of the US—that reduced the Indigenous peoples of the continent to a few reservations by burning their towns and fields and killing civilians, driving the refugees out—step by step— across the continent […] Violence directed systematically against noncombatants through irregular means, from the start, has been a central part of Americans’ way of war.
In 1982 a Spanish and Vatican proposal for the UN to celebrate the doctrine of discovery and the “encounter” between Europeans and the peoples of the Americas was met by protest (cf. Invasion Day in Australia). In 2007 the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples was ratified, offering hope that it might “bring western cultures out of their old world of savagery and closer to humanity”, as Leo Killsback put it—analogous with Germany’s progress following the Genocide Convention in the wake of World War Two.
The story now converges with the wider movement against ecological degradation, as vested business and government interests continue to oppose claims for restitution of land.
Protests against the Line 3 pipeline, Minnesota 2021 (source).
Generally I’m much in favour of well-illustrated books,
but I find the lack of images in Dunbar-Ortiz’s book rather eloquent.
Dunbar-Ortiz illustrates the travails of economic self-determination with the giant electronics company Fairchild at Shiprock in the Navajo Nation, as well as the gaming industry, part of whose profits go towards educational and lobbying activities.
Meanwhile “the mainstream media and books regularly expose and denounce the poverty and social dysfunction found in Indigenous communities”, with widespread alcoholism, child abuse, and suicide (she cites Chris Hodges’ account of Pine Ridge in Days of destruction, days of revolt; for another horrific case, see Grassy Narrows). As several scholars observe, all these are symptoms of trauma and powerlessness in the wake of colonial subjugation. Alcohol has even been seen as a form of resistance, as have truancy and sabotage in boarding schools.
The conventional narrative of US history routinely segregates the “Indian wars” as a subspecialisation within the dubious category “the West”. Then there are the westerns, those cheap novels, movies, and television shows that nearly every US American imbibed with mother’s milk and that by the mid-20th century were popular in every corner of the world. […]
The opening of the 21st century saw a new, even more brazen form of US militarism and imperialism explode on the world scene.
Legalised torture, as at Guantanamo, was now justified by the precedent of Modoc prisoners in 1872. Dunbar-Ortiz also refers to the displacement of the people of the Chagos Islands to make way for the US base of Diego Garcia, another ongoing dispute.
She notes the astronomical number of firearms owned by US civilians, and their incomprehensible attachment to the Second Amendment (for gun control, see references under Ghost dance).
Overseas empire was the logical outcome of the course the United States chose at its founding.
Under “North America is a crime scene” Dunbar-Ortiz gives a gory catalogue of a deeply troubled society. It remains unclear how America can come to terms with its past; as elsewhere, even acknowledgement of historical crimes would be a start.
* * *
All this may seem like preaching to the converted, but there are plenty of people, like me, who need to read such analysis. Importantly, there’s also a version for young people. Still, I’d like to read reviews by the kind of historians whose world-view the book disputes, ardent defenders of empire like Niall Ferguson. The book will fall on deaf ears among conservatives who still insist that America is “not a racist country”, “as Georgia’s education board adopted a resolution insisting that students should be taught that racism and slavery are aberrations rather than the systemic norm”. (see here, and here). So I remain curious to learn how to bridge the gulf with such people; at least, a book like this may spread these ideas more widely.
It’s worth returning to Steven Pinker’s The better angels of our nature: a history of violence and humanity (n.2 here), in which he cites Matthew White’s lists for global death tolls through history. While I remain dubious about awarding first “prize” to the 8th-century An Lushan rebellion, the “annihilation of the American Indians” from the 15th to 19th centuries is placed 7th on the list, before World War Two (9th), Mao (11th), Stalin (15th), and World War One (16th). While the statistics are inevitably approximate, Pinker’s consideration is detailed.
European colonialism too has portrayed itself as benign. In the UK, the legacy of colonialism and slavery is, belatedly, becoming a pressing issue—again vehemently resisted by vested interests.
It was one of the very first symphonies that I played with my local youth orchestra. Hard as it is to put aside the jaded accumulations of convention and the Hovis ad, I was reminded how remarkable it is in concert at the Barbican in 2015—as if one could wish for anything more after hearing the divine Hélène Grimaud play the Ravel piano concerto in the first half.
The symphony was commissioned by the New York Phil during Dvořák’s stay as director of the National Conservatory there from 1892 to 1895—when he also composed the cello concerto. At a time when white settler-colonialists were busy taming the Native Americans they hadn’t already massacred, anthropologists like the Franz Boas circle were taking such indigenous cultures seriously. Dvořák too proclaimed an interest in Native American music and African-American spirituals:
I am convinced that the future music of this country must be founded on what are called Negro melodies. These can be the foundation of a serious and original school of composition, to be developed in the United States. These beautiful and varied themes are the product of the soil. They are the folk songs of America and your composers must turn to them.
However, while he may have heard Iroquois performers in Prague in 1879, in the States he had little exposure apart from hearing the African-American student Harry Burleigh at the Conservatory singing spirituals for him. Indeed, commenting on the symphony, Dvořák wrote:
I have not actually used any of the [Native American] melodies. I have simply written original themes embodying the peculiarities of the Indian music, and, using these themes as subjects, have developed them with all the resources of modern rhythms, counterpoint, and orchestral colour.
Among the luminaries invited to the fund-raising soirée for the Black Panthers hosted by Lenny Bernstein and his wife Felicia in their sumptuous Manhattan apartment, the star guest was the Panther activist Don Cox.
Felicia is remarkable. […] She greets the Black Panthers with the same bend of the wrist, the same tilt of the head, the same perfect Mary Astor voice with which she greets people like Jason, D.D. Adolph, Betty, Gian Carlo, Schuyler, and Goddard, during those après-concert suppers she and Lenny are so famous for.
Wolfe observes the social dynamics:
… Is he, a Black Panther, going on to pick up a Roquefort cheese morsel rolled in crushed nuts from off the tray, from a maid in uniform, and just pop it down the gullet without so much as missing a beat of Felicia’s perfect Mary Astor voice…
He notes ironically that
the current wave of Radical Chic has touched off the most desperate search for white servants.
And he describes the social background in florid detail.
Radical Chic was already in full swing by the time the Black Panther party began a national fund-raising campaign late in 1969. […]
By the 1960s yet another new industry had begun to dominate New York life, namely, communications—the media. At the same time the erstwhile “minorities” of the first quarter of the century had begun to come into their own. Jews, especially, but also many Catholics, were eminent in the media and in Culture. So, by 1965—as in 1935, as in 1926, as in 1883, as in 1866, as in 1820—New York had two Societies, “Old New York” and “New Society.” In every era, “Old New York” has taken a horrified look at “New Society” and expressed the devout conviction that a genuine aristocracy, good blood, good bone—themselves—was being defiled by a horde of rank climbers. This has been an all-time favorite number.
A remarkably in-depth debate ensues.
Wolfe goes on to reflect on the media backlash. As a BBC programme summarised,
Members of the press were pointedly not invited to the Bernsteins’ meeting, but two journalists managed to sneak in regardless and the next two days saw the New York Times reporting on this event as “group therapy plus fund-raising soirée” which “mocked the memory of Martin Luther King Jr”.
The Bernsteins and Don Cox vehemently objected to their intentions being portrayed as anything but genuine, with Felicia responding to the newspaper: “The frivolous way in which it was reported as a ‘fashionable’ event is unworthy of the Times, and offensive to all people who are committed to humanitarian principles of justice.”
For further discussions of the impact of the event, see e.g. here and here.
The Panther 21 were acquitted of all charges in May 1971.
the double pleasure of presenting the names and faces of many women artists, who were seldom seen in 1972… while spoofing the male exclusivity of the patriarchy.
And as she observed,
Humour is a mode of speech that is indirect and ambiguous and, therefore, can have multiple interpretations. It can potentially disrupt dominant meanings and the social order while protecting the joker from consequences that might occur if the same message were delivered in a serious mode. Humour sabotages critics, for unlike spoken language, laughter does not belong to a linguistic code and, therefore, has the possibility of creatively breaking that mold while taking advantage of humour’s natural attraction.
The roster of early American humorists commonly begins with Mark Twain, but he was in good company. Nick Robertson, creator of the outstanding anagram fantasies, led me to the oeuvre of Corry O’Lanus (John Stanton, 1826–71).
As the Brooklyn Programme commented (Mark Twain’s letters, vol.2, p.45),
As a humorous writer Stanton has no equal in New York or Brooklyn. While his fun is not so boisterous as Artemus Ward’s, or so cutting and sarcastic as Orpheus C. Kerr’s, or so wildly burlesque as John Phoenix’s, there is a gentle ripple of pure fun about it—humor, in fact—which makes one hug himself (sic) with pleasure to read.
Left, portrait of Ann Stephens, c1844; right, Marietta Holley.
Nor should we neglect early female humorists. Antecedents of the great Dorothy Parker included Ann Stephens (1810–86) (links to her works here);Francis [Frances] Whitcher (1811–52); and Marietta Holley (1836–1926), aka Josiah Allen’s Wife (sic), who wrote on women’s rights and prohibition.
Roza Eskenazi with Demitris Semsis (violin) and Agapios Tomboulis (cümbüs), Athens 1932.
Through the first half of the 20th century, the popular songs loosely grouped together as rebetika, performed by Greek, Turkish and other ethnic groups (Armenian, Jewish, Roma), thrived in the night-clubs and music halls of port cities like Istanbul, Smyrna/Izmir, and Athens, as well as in the diaspora, notably the USA (cf. Accordion crimes).
For “the birth of modern Istanbul”, I’ve already praised Charles King’s Midnight at the Pera Palace, which puts the popular music scene of the day in context. Despite its syncretic style, rebetika found itself on the faultlines of a period of convulsive change, with savage ethnic conflicts leading to the population exchanges of 1923. The rebetika ethos is commonly linked with other popular demi-monde styles like flamenco, fado, tango, blues, and so on. 
This was also a booming period for the commercial recording industry, and we have a wealth of reissues on CD (often with fine liner notes and translations), such as
Greek-Oriental rebetica: songs and dances in the Asia Minor style—the golden years, 1911–1937 (Arhoolie Folklyric, 1991)
Armenians, Jews, Turks and Gypsies: oldest known recordings (Collection Greek Archives, 1995)
Great voices of Constantinople 1927–1933 (Rounder, 1997)
To what strange place: the music of the Ottoman-American diaspora, 1916-1929 (Canary, 2001)
Women of rembetika 1908–1947 (JSP, 2012).
For early 78s of Greek rebetika and other styles, note the Kounadis Archive Virtual Museum (n. here), including some wonderful amanes.
Left to right: Safiye Ayla, Necmiye Ararat Hanim, and Suzan Yakar Rutkay.
Prompted by the CD Women of Istanbul (Traditional Crossroads, 1998), I’ll feature YouTube playlists for some of the female singers who feature on such discs, as they achieved popularity from the 1920s alongside male performers. Their biographies only hint at the changing times. As Harold G. Hagopian observes in the liner notes, the gramophone
could effectively divide the public from the private, the voice from the body, screening women at least for a time from the very modern world they helped foster.
Left, Zehra Bilir; right, Roza Eskanazi.
Zehra Bilir (1913–2007), of Armenian descent (see e.g. here) (17 songs here, some duplicated):
I love her plaintive free-tempo songs, like this one punctuated by fiddle—reminiscent of a Uyghur muqaddime (and, more distantly, Irish sean-nós!):
Here she sings in an Armenian dialect quite remote from “standard” Turkish, with stock phrases borrowed from Anatolian folk türkü, rich in allusions. As my Istanbul friends tell me, the folk lyrics seem to have inspired a poem by Ali Kızıltuğ, in which a man professes his undying love.
This style is featured on the CD Amanedhes and taxims 1929–1937 (playlist):
The Jewish-Greek singer Roza Eskenazi (mid-1890s–1980), based in Athens—a playlist with 276 gorgeous tracks:
The list opens with Why I smoke cocaine—the Greek lyrics translated by Hagopian:
Where’s all my prettiness, where are those great looks of mine? In all of Athens, no girl had my class. I was really a doll, with money and all— I’m not putting you on, I made the world go wild. Then this tough guy, yeah, a number one Mr Cool, Got me involved with him; He took all I had and left me flat— He took my heart, my. youth, and my money too, And from the pain, I smoke cocaine. (Oh damn you cocaine, you’ve wiped me out!) Bigshots loved me, old guys, young guys, boys, And all the fine dudes on the scene. What great times I had, with wine and song; Every day I partied it up and led the good life. And now, poor me, I wander around and waste away, ‘Cause my hang-up for that tough guy won’t let me be. That cokehead came and wrecked my brain, So I myself now smoke cocaine.
Like the societies that it studies, anthropology is in constant flux.
On Franz Boas(1858–1942) and his circle, a most engaging book is
Charles King, The reinvention of humanity: how a circle of renegade anthropologists remade race, sex, and gender (2020)—main title of 2019 US edition Gods of the upper air [“Discuss”!]. Reviewed e.g. here, here, and here.
Immensely readable, it surveys how ways of making sense of the diverse cultures of the world have changed since the beginnings of formal anthropology.
Cover, showing Margaret Mead with Fa’amatu in American Samoa, c1926.
Reaching beyond the confines of drier academic treatments, it’s a real gift to write like this for a general audience. King really brings to life what might seem like abstruse theoretical debates.
Alongside Boas himself, he focuses on four female scholars: Margaret Mead, Ruth Benedict, Ella Cara Deloria, and Zora Neale Hurston.  As Francis Gooding comments,
It’s not a coincidence that Boas and his collaborators, variously Jewish, Black, Indigenous, female and queer, were all outsiders of one kind or another to the mainstream of American society. That their ideas were found radical and strange is an indictment of their culture; that King’s book seems timely is an indictment of our own.
The work of the Boas circle set forth from fieldwork on “exotic” cultures to the lessons it might provide on issues in American society, as they challenged the entrenched notion of linear progress from “primitive” to advanced societies, and the narrow categories of race and gender.
More than anyone in his day, Boas understood that his own society’s deepest prejudices were grounded not in moral arguments but rather in allegedly scientific ones. Disenfranchised African Americans were intellectually inferior because the latest research said so. Women could not hold positions of influence because their weaknesses and peculiar dispositions were well proven. The feebleminded should be kept to themselves because the key to social betterment lay in reducing their number in the general population. Immigrants carried with them the afflictions of their benighted homelands, from disease to crime to social disorder.
the core message of the Boas circle was that, in order to live intelligently in the world, we should view the lives of others through an empathetic lens. We ought to suspend our judgment about other ways of seeing social reality until we really understand them, and in turn we should look at our own society with the same dispassion and skepticism with which we study far-flung peoples. […] In time these shifts would inform how sociologists understand immigrant integration or exclusion; how public health officials think about endemic illnesses from diabetes to drug addiction; how police and criminologists seek out the root causes of crime; and how economists model the seemingly irrational actions of buyers and sellers.
Such insights, I confess, do look like progress to me. Still, even as they have gained widespread currency, King notes the resistance from the political right, where
some of these changes are said to constrict a community’s ability to determine its own social mores. A new form of state-sanctioned intolerance, protected in “safe spaces” and monitored by “language police” from schools to workplaces, insists that we should all agree on what constitutes marriage, a good joke, or a flourishing society. The narrative is one of overreach, of unreasonableness, of an overweening state’s infringing on individual speech, thought, and sincerely held values.
King also pays suitable attention to the personalities, their struggles, and complicated love lives of the group.
The members of the Boas circle fought and argued, wrote thousands of pages of letters, spent countless nights under mosquito nets and in rain-soaked lodges, and fell in and out of love with one another. For each of them, fame, if it ever arrived, was edged with infamy—their careers became bywords for licentiousness and crudity, or for the batty idea that Americans might not have created the greatest country that had ever existed. They were dismissed from jobs, monitored by the FBI, and hounded in the press, all for making the simple suggestion that the only scientific way to study human societies was to treat them all as part of one undivided humanity.
* * *
Franz Boas was born in 1858 in Minden, Westphalia—where my orchestral colleague Hildi was to find refuge after fleeing invasive regimes. After studying physics in Heidelberg and Kiel, Boas was drawn to Arctic adventure; in 1883, taking a servant, he embarked for Baffin Island.
The Inuit there had been known to European explorers since the 16th century; in 1577 four of them were captured and displayed as objects of curiosity in England before dying of disease and injuries sustained during their capture.
During Boas’s stay he was assisted by a local man:
Signa was no timeless native simply struggling for survival on an unchanging shore. He had a past, with wanderings and movement, a family lineage, and remembered moments of hardship and joy.
While studying Inuit lifestyles, Boas documented stories and transcribed songs, made maps and sketches. The blood from a raw seal liver is still visible on the paper of his notebooks. But the population soon began succumbing to diphtheria.
Here among the Inuit, a person with the title of “doctor” couldn’t cure an ailing child. A university graduate knew nothing of snow and wind. An explorer was dependent on the whims of a dog team. He had seen it himself—the disorientation that comes with staring at one’s own ignorance, as plain as a brown seal on white ice. Being smart was relative to one’s own circumstances and surroundings.
In late 1884 Boas made his way to New York and then to Washington DC, where he visited the “backwoods intellectual” John Wesley Powell, head of the new Bureau of Ethnology at the Smithsonian. Its researchers were currently engaged in major projects on Native American cultures; but with no position available for Boas there, he returned to Germany.
The scientific field that he had been circling since his voyage to Baffin Island was on the brink of an explosion, one that he was now well placed to miss.
The study of people was becoming known as ethnology, the word anthropology, at first referring mainly to the study of anatomy or natural history, only gradually came into vogue. The journal American anthropologist was founded in 1888. Whereas works like Frazer’s The golden bough (1890) were based on classical written texts, the new discipline sought “to go beyond what was written and ancient into what was observable and alive right now” (cf. Daoist ritual, where the driving force for most fieldwork has been the Ancient Wisdom of written texts, rather than change in modern social practice).
Powell’s mentor Lewis Henry Morgan specialised in the study of the former Iroquois Confederacy, his projects based on the widespread “spiritual renewal” of the day. But they still subscribed to the linear model from savagery to barbarism to civilisation. King gives an instance of this way of thinking:
Music, too, differed from one stage to the next. Savages might beat out a rhythm on a log or a stone, but barbarians sang a melodic line, while civilisation added counterpoint and harmony.
Boas was keen to get back to the USA, and in 1886 he returned to New York. King notes that almost 1.8 million German speakers settled in the States between 1850 and 1900; New York seemed as much German as American.
While seeking an academic position, Boas embarked on new fieldwork among the indigenous groups of the Pacific Northwest. Returning to New York, he found himself at odds with the Powell circle and the classification system then in vogue at the Smithsonian as well as for collections such as the British Museum, the Royal Ethnological Museum in Berlin, and the Pitt Rivers Museum.
The organisation of the collections seemed to reflect the collector’s sense of what the object was for, as opposed to the worldview of the artisan who had originally made it. […] The only people who could really say whether something that looked like a bow was a weapon, a child’s toy, or an instrument for making fire were the true experts—that is, those who actually used it, in a given place, at a given time. This bone rattle might make music. That one might drive away evil spirits. Yet another might distract a wailing child. It all depended on where you were in the world, not when you happened to be on some linear path of social evolution.
With his shaky English and his disputes with senior figures in the field, Boas took some time to establish himself. In 1889 the psychologist Granville Stanley Hall invited Boas to take up a post at Clarke University in Massachusetts, but the atmosphere there soon became unproductive. He continued spending his summers doing fieldwork in British Columbia. (Alongside personalities, King pays attention to institutions and funding bodies.)
Now an American citizen, Boas moved on to Chicago, where a World Fair was to be held in 1893. The Harvard archeologist Frederic Ward Putnam invited Boas to design a display.
The Midway Plaisance featured exhibits on the peculiar ways of the world’s peoples, from a Bedouin encampment to a Viennese café, most of them thin disguises for hawkers of merchandise and cheap entertainment. An entire building was devoted to the lives and progress of women, while others highlighted advances in agriculture, electrification, and the plastic arts. A new fastener called a zipper made its debut over the six months of the fair’s operation, as did a chewable gum called Juicy Fruit, a tall circular ride presented by a Mr Ferris, and…
Next to the ethnological area, with wigwams, totem poles, and so on, on display, was the Anthropological Building. Boas’s contribution, in eight rooms, was a display of anthropometry, a vogue to which he had subscribed; but the exhibits revealed his increasing reluctance to regard it as a useful method.
Measurements of North American mulattoes showed them to be roughly the same height as white people. […] The distribution of people by stature in the city of Paris varied widely, just as it did for a study of Civil War veterans (although it was found that those from western states were in general taller than the easterners). An attempt to show the heights of Italians ended up finding no obvious pattern from northern Italy to the south. […] The peoples of “Old Europe” were, perhaps surprisingly, shown to be even more physically mixed than the population of the avowedly immigrant United States.
Boas was coming to perceive that
What counted as social scientific data—the specific observations that researchers jotted down in their field notes—was relative to the world view, skill sets, and preexisting categories of the researchers themselves. […] Theories were neither true nor false. They might better be described as successful or unsuccessful: they either fit the observable data or they didn’t. When observation bumped up against the walls of an existing theory, the theory was the thing that had to be changed. The first step was to get good data and then let the theory follow, which was the entire point of all those confusing tables and graphs in his Chicago anthropometry lab.
Meanwhile Chicago suffered a smallpox epidemic, followed by a round of influenza; the mayor was assassinated, and much of the exhibition was destroyed by fire. Still without a regular post, Boas returned to New York, where he began to work for the American Museum of Natural History, whose anthropology section was now directed by Putnam; there he continued his work on the American Northwest. In 1899 he oversaw the launch of a new series of American Anthropologist. At last in 1902 he gained a professorship at Columbia. By 1902 he had five children.
The issue of race now assumes centre stage. King introduces theories current at the time. Blumenbach (1775) had adopted a fivefold classification: Ethiopians (Africans), Americans (!), Mongolians (Asians), Malay (Pacific) and Caucasian (European), but by 1871 Darwin was questioning such basic schema.
As racial theories sought to justify the assertion of power by people of European descent (the term Aryan was in use from the mid-19th century), in the USA the Jim Crow system of segregation came into force. The theories of social scientists could have deep, often destructive, ramifications for people’s lives.
In 1899 William Z. Ripley divided European peoples into Teutonic, Alpine, and Mediterranean types, the first of which he claimed were at the forefront of the achievements of world civilisation. The term eugenics came into use.
Over the two decades spanning the turn of the century the foreign-born population had swollen:
Nearly a third more people were foreign-born in 1910 than in 1900. (It would take another century, into the 2010s, before immigration figures would ever approach similar levels. At the time Donald J. Trump announced his campaign for president by denouncing Mexican “rapists”, for example, the foreign-born figure was within a little more than a percentage point of the 1910 level.)
Madison Grant turned from zoology to human species, and “the preservation of his own race against an onslaught of immigration”; no longer could the USA remain an “asylum for the oppressed”. Hitler later expressed his approval of Grant’s work, considering the US to be showing the way toward a brighter, more scientific way of building a political community.
In 1907 the US Congress established a commission to study the rise in immigration; representatives, “decked out in straw boaters and linen suits”, visited the squalid detention camps of ports like Naples, Marseilles, and Hamburg. The following year they invited Boas to lead a team researching physical changes in the immigrants of the neighbourhoods of lower Manhattan. His 1911 report found them to be remarkably adaptable to their new surroundings; races were unstable.
There was no reason to believe that a person of one racial or national category was more of a drain on society, more prone to criminality, or more difficult to assimilate than any other. What people did, rather than who they were, ought to be the starting point for a legitimate science of society and, by extension, the basis for government policy on immigration.
Still, Boas’s findings were largely ignored in the Commission’s final report.
Also in 1911, he published his first book for a popular audience, The mind of primitive man, dismantling the whole concept of racial hierarchy. Disputing the idea that the successes of one’s own society today were due to some inherent superiority of “civilised” peoples over lesser-achieving “primitives”, he summarised:
Historical events appear to have been much more potent in leading races to civilisation than their faculty, and it follows that achievements of races do not warrant us in assuming that one race is more highly gifted than the other. […] Race was how Europeans explained to themselves their own sense of privilege and achievement. Insofar as races existed, at least as Europeans typically understood them, it was through an act of cultural conjuring, not biological destiny.
And he stressed the subjective responses of fieldworkers:
Tribal people were often said to be indolent, but what if they were only lazy when it came to things that they didn’t happen to care about? Why should we expect that every people everywhere should necessarily attend to the same things with equal zeal or approach the same projects with diligence and commitment? Primitive people were sometimes said to be quick to anger and to lash out wildly according to their emotions. To be civilised, after all, was to be coolheaded and rational. But didn’t it take coolheadedness and logical thought to follow a seal pod across a featureless ice floe, or to track a whale in an oared canoe to the point of its, and your own, exhaustion? “The proper way to compare the fickleness of the savage and that of the white,” he wrote, “is to compare their behaviour in undertakings which are equally important to each.”
His work pointed towards a “higher tolerance”. But despite the relatively prestigious position of German immigrants in US society, with the outbreak of World War One Boas found himself a member of a feared minority. Already a critic of expansionist American foreign policy, by 1917 he denounced US involvement in the war. After the war, disillusioned with rising nationalism, he continued to encounter professional problems. Immigration laws tightened.
Again in 1911, Alfred Kroeber had “discovered” Ishi, “the last of the Yahi” in California. Despite the media circus,
The Yahi were not in fact a lost tribe. Their reduced condition was the product of modern history, not a relic of some mist-shrouded past. […] They were not holdovers from prehistory but rather refugees from a brutal present.
* * *
So far the story of American anthropology has been dominated, like the society of the time, by entitled white men. But now the younger generation whom Boas nurtured at Columbia began to include some talented female scholars.
Ruth Benedict (1887–1948, right) studied first with Elsie Clews Parsons. She began studying with Boas in 1921. In 1924, embarking on fieldwork among the Zuni in New Mexico (already a well-established research topic), she learned of their cross-gender custom of “berdache”.
In New York, she met Margaret Mead (1901–78), who was to be her life-long soulmate, and encouraged her to come to Columbia to study with Boas.
The London-based Polish émigré Bronislaw Malinowski had already published his landmark study of the Trobriand Islanders in 1922, introducing the notion of “participant observation”, and Mead was now drawn to the study of Polynesian peoples.
As she grew ever closer to Benedict, she began an affair with Edward Sapir, whose own work focused on Native American linguistics. The complicated amorous entanglements of the circle, complementing their explorations into the diverse relationships of the peoples they studied, form one theme of King’s book.
In 1925 Mead set sail for American Samoa to do fieldwork. Undeterred by the razzmatazz that accompanied her arrival in Pago Pago, the US Navy’s main station in the South Pacific, she soon “went down to the countryside”, as the Chinese say. She was made an “honorary virgin”—a useful concept for fieldworkers.
A hurricane gave her an opportunity to engage with the locals in their immediate practical concerns. With her studies focusing on the lives of women and girls, she learned that adolescent angst was not necessarily the prerogative of American teenagers.
On the seven-week return voyage to the States in 1926, her own love life became even more complicated when she met the British-trained New Zealander Reo Fortune. Back in New York she became assistant curator at the Museum of Natural History.
Also in 1926, following Nanook of the North, Robert J. Flaherty released his silent film Moana—again offering prurient glimpses of bare female breasts, by then largely a fantasy:
Mead’s book Coming of age in Samoa was published in 1928, to great acclaim—apart from a few men in the Boas circle like Alfred Kroeber, and later Derek Freeman.
In October, again parting reluctantly with Benedict, she married Fortune in Auckland, and they set off for Melanesia together. As Boas took issue with the growing esteem in the USA for eugenics, Mead’s work bore on ways in which a more flexible society might absorb its deviants to lead healthy lives. The result was her book Growing up in New Guinea (1930). She was already a celebrity.
Two other female pupils of Boas went on to work largely outside academia. The African American Zora Neale Hurston (1891–1960) had grown up in Florida in rather comfortable surroundings, but her mother’s early death plunged her into the harsh realities of segregation. Even later in Washington, the integrated university of Howard was an oasis: the racial divide was no less flagrant. She began to write stories, essays, and poetry, and in 1925 she set off for New York, where she gained a place as a mature student at Barnard and became a popular member of the “Harlem Renaissance”.
Still, she bridled at the genteel image expected of black people to gain favour in the eyes of the white cultural establishment.
Having enrolled in English, Hurston now studied with Gladys Reichard, who was working on Navajo culture; soon she gravitated to the Boas circle. In 1927 Boas arranged for her to do fieldwork back in Florida. There she was to collect folk tales around Eatonville—not far from Ocoee, where protests over voter suppression had led to a pogrom against the black population in 1920, first of a series (Tulsa, Rosewood, Little Rock).
Convict leasing had been abolished in 1923, but private chain gangs persisted: as late as 1960, a farmer commented, “We used to own our slaves—now we just rent them.”
Hurston’s brief fell under the rubric of folklore, a term that went back to the 1840s. Among such collections among African Americans, King adduces the Uncle Remus stories (1880)—“a white person gazing at an allegedly black world, uncomplicated, tricksterish, full of wily creativity”.
Back in New York, Hurston struggled to transform her notes into a coherent ethnographic narrative. She took odd jobs, and worked on a novel, Jonah’s gourd vine (1934). But in 1935 she enrolled as a doctoral student at Columbia under Boas, and managed to publish Mules and men, described by King as
the first serious attempt to send the reader deep inside southern black towns and work camps. […] … not a holdover from Africa, or a social blight to be eliminated, or a corrupted version of whiteness in need of correction, but something vibrantly, chaotically, brilliantly alive.
Here’s a excerpt from Hurston’s 1928 film footage, with her voiceover:
Boas was now eminent yet frail. His wife Marie died in 1929.
Another talented student of his was Ella Cara Deloria (1889–1971). On the Northern plains, the Omaha had been removed to reservations since the 1850s. They were early subjects for research; James Owen Dorsey’s Omaha sociology (1885) became a standard reference in anthropology.
Refreshingly, Dorsey also noted contradictory accounts, notably when some gem he had gleaned on ritual practice was then denied by the chieftain Two Crows, “nagging naysayer, an ethnographical balloon deflator”. Assessing thee value of conflicting sources is indeed a common issue that fieldworkers (not to mention textual historians) have to confront. Even what seemed to be a consensus of opinion could be thrown into doubt. Again, informants might have their own agendas; and “perhaps [Two Crows] simply misunderstood the question, or maybe you misunderstood his answer”. As King puts it,
What you needed was repeated and respectful conversations with the real human beings whose worlds you were straining, as best you could, to comprehend.
Ella Cara Deloria, also called Aŋpétu Wašté Wiŋ, grew up in Standing Rock. Her mother was of mainly European descent; her father’s heritage was the Lakota/Dakota subgroup of the Sioux. She spoke both English and Dakota, attending an Episcopalian boarding school. Having managed to gain admission to college in Oberlin, joining the provincial elite, in 1912 she entered Columbia’s Teaching College, whose mission was to shape “civilised aboriginals who would become credits to their race and help elevate their charges out of poverty and paganism”.
the end of the western frontier was still a recent memory. Her father had been among those who had tried to mediate between reservation authorities and Sitting Bull.
She was two years old when agency police killed Sitting Bull on the very reservation where she grew up, followed by the Wounded Knee massacre.
Deloria was living at a time when American views of Indians were shaped not only by the recent experience of violent conquest but also by the refashioned memory of it: a world of dime novels, cigar-store statues, and Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show.
On graduation she taught first at her old home in Sioux Falls and then in Lawrence, Kansas. Having met Boas at Columbia, in 1927 they met again when he visited Lawrence, and he invited her back to New York, recognising her rare qualification to participate in various projects. In the summer of 1928, while Hurston was collecting in Florida, Deloria returned to the Plains. Her first project was to check the reliability of James Walker’s 1917 study of the Sun Dance. She was guided by Ruth Benedict as well as Boas. But her local knowledge was invaluable:
I cannot tell you how essential it is for me to take beef or some other food each time I go to an informant. The moment I don’t, I take myself right out of the Dakota side and class myself with outsiders.
King goes on,
You had to know precisely how to make a gift, how to make the right kind, how to eat properly with people, how to call them by the correct kinship terms…
Deloria led an itinerant life; to eke out an income she led pageants of indigenous music and dance. In 1933 Boas again enlisted her in a project for the revived Handbook of American Indian languages. As Benedict recalled, “In all his work with American Indians Professor Boas never found another woman of her caliber”.
Deloria was a native speaker of Dakota and its dialects, with little education as a linguist apart from the informal sessions that Boas or Benedict might provide. But her instincts and on-the-spot grasp of field methods, Benedict said, probably amounted to more expertise than many doctoral students had at their disposal.
By the time that Margaret Mead paid a visit to the Omaha, she found their conditions disturbing: “It’s just nothing at all. A thing like this isn’t a culture, hardly even the remains of one.” But if she thought anything of interest had been killed off by poverty and white invasion, for Deloria
a better method was to give up trying to identify the dying embers of an older civilisation and instead get to know the living, right-now culture of the people you were actually surrounded by—women and men who weren’t stuck in history, but, like Deloria herself, were feeling their way through it. There was no need for nostalgia about the past if you could uncover the kaleidoscopic richness of the present. It was just that the present might take forms that you found surprising or frustrating, even disappointing.
I quite agree—although in cases like Grassy Narrows, Identifying cultural riches must surely give way to concerns over healthy drinking water and a reasonable life expectancy.
Deloria also resisted inert depiction by documenting linguistic change. But by 1938 she was again without work. Her Dakota grammar, published in 1941,
provided a glimpse of a deeper America, one obscured by its obsessions with racial fitness and linear cultural evolution. If you wanted to know what Sioux chiefs had said after the Battle of Little Bighorn or to understand the anguished wail of mothers when their sons’ bodies were brought home from Wounded Knee—if you wanted to discover, in other words, the inverse of American history as it was normally taught in schoolrooms and summer camps—Boas and Deloria were showing the way.
When Boas retired from teaching in 1936, Columbia, still prone to sexism, overlooked Benedict in favour of Ralph Linton. But the Boas circle were still involved in a wide range of projects.
Some differences of approach festered. Mead met Sapir’s attacks on her work in kind: in her experience, she wrote, jealousy was frequently found among old men with small endowments.
Pressed to derive a general conclusion from his decades of study, Boas came up with “People don’t use anything they haven’t got”.
In the USA, the related discipline of sociology was making headway, with studies such as Robert and Helen Lynd’s Middletown (1929).
Mead and Fortune returned to New Guinea in 1931. Their trip turned out to be traumatic, with Gregory Bateson now entering into the equation.  Their studies of local cultures informed reflections on their own tangled relationships. As things came to a head in 1933, Mead returned to Benedict in New York. The latter’s Patterns of culture (1934) would become most influential; in the next year Mead followed it with Sex and temperament, linking up Boas’s ideas on race with her own on sex and gender, based on her work among the Arapesh, Mundugumor, and Tchambuli.
Yet the price of such methods
was a kind of intentional madness. If your sense of reality was shaped by a particular time and place, the only way to free yourself was to go out of your mind: to step outside the mental frameworks that you knew to be real, true, and obvious.
* * *
The publication of Mead’s Sex and temperament coincided with that of Hurston’s Mules and men. Yet
volumes on Samoans or New Guineans were hailed as commentaries on the universal features of human society. One about African Americans was a quaint bit of storytelling.
Hurston had done more collecting in the south with the young Alan Lomax, recording stories, work songs, spirituals, and blues for the Library of Congress (catalogue here).  Here’s an excerpt with Lomax recording Hurston herself:
Hurston now set off for Haiti, just recovering from US military occupation. First in Kingston she observed the Jamaicans’ ability to take on the airs of the English, noting that “passing” from one racial category to the next almost always took place towards the direction of social power.
Culture wasn’t just a set of rules or rituals, she realised. It could also be a set of chains that individuals dragged around with them after the prison wardens more or less fled the scene.
After making expeditions inland, attending a boar hunt and a nine-night mortuary ritual, in autumn 1936 she moved on to Haiti, where the African influence was even clearer. Parallel with the work of Melville Herskovits on rural religious life there, she entered into the practices of voodoo, already covered in the patina of the sensationalist depictions of travellers.
Put away, disregarded, institutionalised, forgotten, willed by others to be effectively dead—her condition was very much like that of many people Hurston knew, the black women and men she had met from Florida labour camps to whites-only universities. It was just that Haitians had invented a word for it.
She now planned two books, “one for anthro, and one for the way I want to write it”. The latter, the novel Their eyes were watching God, was published on her return to New York in 1937, combining “a coming-of-age story, a meditation on the inner lives of women and the men they loved, a literary ethnography of the Gulf Coast”.
Though by now Hurston had no thoughts of an academic career, she still returned to the American South for more fieldwork. Tell my horse (aka Voodoo gods), her field report from Jamaica and Haiti was published in 1938.
From 1936 to 1938 Mead and Bateson lived in Bali, working on trance there—they eventually released a short film in 1952:
And then they returned to New Guinea. But war loomed.
* * *
The theories that Boas and his circle had developed so scrupulously were now in opposition to state-sanctioned dogma, which bore a remarkably close resemblance to Nazism. Boas had been expressing his anxieties about the rise of Nazism in Germany since 1933. But the tide of intolerance there was just as evident in the USA; racial segregation and eugenics were already well established there, inspiring Hitler. Despite the US sense of moral superiority, as King observes,
None of America’s enemies saw themselves as opponents of American values. Not even Adolf Hitler claimed to be against freedom, justice, or prosperity. Rather, they saw themselves as better, more advanced versions of what they believed America had been trying to achieve. Real freedom would mean the subjugation of the racially inferior. Real justice would mean allowing the fittest individuals and countries to take their rightful place on the world stage. Real progress would mean cleansing and separating, pushing forward the able and advanced while sweeping away the primitive and retrograde.
Franz Boas on the cover of Time, 1936.
Boas died in 1942. Here’s the 1986 documentary The shackles of tradition, again by Andre Singer:
With the outbreak of war, the team’s original fieldsites became inaccessible. As many social scientists were recruited to the war effort, Bateson and Mead joined an advisory group to President Roosevelt. Benedict later joined them in Washington. By June 1944 she was charged with assembling material on Japanese society, gathering a group of scholars. In the USA the Japanese were seen as utterly alien and subhuman; internment camps for Japanese Americans were harsh. But Benedict sought the kind of understanding that would provide enlightened guidance for the eventual occupation of Japan. The resulting book The chrysanthemum and the sword, published in 1946, was widely read.
While working to keep afloat the school at Standing Rock that her father had founded, Deloria continued with her studies and writing, much of it still unpublished at the time of her death in 1971. Hurston, shocked by the Detroit massacre of 1943, was deeply ambivalent about the US victory. She continued to write while working in a succession of odd jobs. Since her death in 1960 her work has belatedly been appreciated, with tributes by such figures as Alice Walker. Here’s a documentary:
Back in New York after the war, Mead and Benedict resumed their bond. Benedict was at last promoted to the rank of full professor, and elected president of the American Anthropological Association. She died in 1948. Mead, the most renowned heir to Boas, died in 1978; on her career, here’s Andre Singer’s 1986 documentary Coming of age:
* * *
King begins his conclusion by citing Allan Bloom, who in his attack on the trend for cultural relativism in The closing of the American mind (1987) found few women worthy of note: he grouped Mead and Benedict alongside Hannah Arendt, Yoko Ono, Erica Jong, and Marlene Dietrich—all “negative teaching examples”, as the Chinese say. As King observes, the Boas circle would have surprised to learn that their views had triumphed, their struggles against prejudice having been met with such resistance.
Conversely, Clifford Geertz, pillar of the later generation of anthropologists, praised the insistence
that the world does not divide into the pious and the superstitious; that there are sculptures in jungles and paintings in deserts; […] that the norms of reason were not fixed in Greece, the evolution of morality was not consummated in England. Most important, we were the first to insist that we see the lives of others through lenses of our own grinding and that they look back on ours through ones of their own.
If readers today take all this as self-evident, that’s because they too have been infected with the bug. But as is only too evident in our news today, resisting bigotry still remains a constant struggle.
Of course, anthropology, like the societies it studies, continues to change; the work of these scholars from the 1880s to the 1940s may have been refined since, but it remains seminal. King brings this story to life, combining a vivid feel for period detail with reflections on fieldwork methods and perceptive comments on ideological trends. He makes a fine advocate for the enlightened values of the Boas circle.
 Besides folklore and sociology, ethnomusicology is a strongly related discipline (under Society and soundscape, see e.g. Michelle Bigenho’s observations). Bruno Nettl surveyed the prominent contributions of women in Native American studies during the same period, including Alice C. Fletcher, Frances Densmore, Natalie Curtis, and Helen Roberts, on to Gertrude Kurath, Ida Halpern, Charlotte Frisbie, Judith Vander, Charlotte Heth, Victoria Levine, Beverley Diamond, and Tara Browner. But he goes on,
Considerable female participation may generally have been characteristic of new yet unestablished fields; ethnomusicology was not taken as seriously as ancient history and Latin philology, for example, thus permitting women easier access. The fact that American and English women are particularly well represented in this group may also be related to the common relegation of music in Anglophone cultures to women, and thus to the fact that music departments in North America were first introduced at women’s colleges.
 Here I’d like to put in a word for Peter Crowe (1932–2004), such a lively, alternative presence at gatherings of the European Seminar for Ethnomusicology, who underwent his own transformation in Melanesia. See e.g. his “After the ethnomusicological salvage operation—what?” (1981) and his Musical traditions in the South Pacific (1984).
 This leads me to remind you of the work of Bruce Jackson among southern convicts, and his fine manual on fieldwork.
You may be disappointed to learn that the plot concerns not a tomato but the Judgment of Paris, with the prize of the Golden Apple. Still, I can’t help wondering if early performances prompted giggling (I’m like, “Hey guys, Cesti’s gone and written an opera about a tomato!”).
The opera is mentioned in the fascinating, mouth-watering
David Gentilcore, Pomodoro!: a history of the tomato in Italy (2010),
whose basic culinary ingredients are liberally seasoned with wise observations on social and economic change.
The tomato’s uses were continually subject to change, from production to exchange, distribution, and production. […] The tomato is an ideal basis for examining the prevailing values, beliefs, conditions, and structures in the society of which it was a part and how they changed over several centuries.
In Chapter 1, “Strange and horrible things”, Gentilcore dates the recorded history of the tomato in Italy from 31st October 1548, when Cosimo de’ Medici presented a basketful to the excellencies of Pisa—who seem to have been bemused:
And the basket was opened and they looked at one another with much thoughtfulness.
Remarkably, it would be well over 300 years before the tomato gained widespread favour among the Italian population in the pasta sauces we now know and love, belatedly becoming a national symbol—for Italian emigrants abroad, during the Fascist period, and later. Other New World imports (such as maize, potatoes, tobacco, American beans, chillies, cocoa, vanilla) gained acceptance more quickly.
Cesti’s opera was premiered in Vienna; the composer died the following year, and I haven’t yet seen evidence of further performances—staging it would have been a massive undertaking. So audiences in Italy may even have been denied the opportunity of a good giggle, although word must have spread. Still, in Italy, over a century after the tomato was first recorded there, one might suppose that the word pomodoro (the pomo referring generally to fruit, not to the apple) at least had become part of the vocabulary of the elite who were the audience for such spectacles. But then, they would also be familiar with the ancient story—although from the simple synopsis one might not imagine that it called for elaborate stage machinery to depict tableaus like shipwrecks and collapsing towers:
The gods ask the Trojan prince Paris to decide which of the goddesses Venus, Juno, and Pallas (Minerva) is the most beautiful and thus deserving of the Golden Apple. Paris gives the prize to Venus. The spurned goddesses try to get their revenge until Jupiter decides to end the confusion, turns to the audience and awards the golden apple to the Empress Margaret Theresa [“Typical!”].
An early Miss World contest, then, with Paris in the role of Bob Hope.
The tomato had been introduced to Europe by Cortés, reaching Italy by way of Spain, as a botanical specimen. The physician-botanist Mattioli described it in 1544, using the name pomo d’oro in his 1554 revision. But confusingly, the term also continued to denote the fruit in the ancient myth of the Hesperides.
Gentilcore notes the early association of tomato and eggplant (or aubergine, splendidly advertised by British greengrocers as OBOS). The latter, incidentally, reached Europe from Persia by way of Andalucia.
In 1628 the Paduan physician Sala regarded tomatoes as “strange and horrible things”, following
a description of locust-eating in Ethiopia, spider- and cricket-eating in Padua, and ant- and worm-eating in India.
Indeed, to eat them was still commonly regarded as harmful, even poisonous.
Yet, as both Durante and Sala inadvertently suggest, someone was eating tomatoes, regardless of the dietary advice. Costante Felice, a physician near Urbino, tells us who: “gluttons and those eager for new things”.
Left, Arcimboldo, Vertumnus, c1590; right, door frieze, Cathedral of Pisa, 1600/1601. Artistic depictions of tomatoes were very rare before the mid-18th century; the emperor’s mouth is more likely to contain cherries than cherry tomatoes.
In Chapter 2 Gentilcore broadens the theme to consider Renaissance Europe’s apparent aversion to fruit and vegetables—based on the advice of physicians of the time (cf. Sleeper!). Consumption of vegetables increased through the 17th and 18th centuries, but an Italian culinary manual from 1590 contains not a single reference to them.
Still, health warnings were not necessarily heeded by either princes and courtiers or the common folk—as we’ve been noticing recently… Other treatises attest to a great variety of common vegetables and plants being consumed. In 1596 the English courtier Robert Dallington wrote:
Herbage is the most generall food of the Tuscan, at whose table a sallet is as ordinary as salt at ours; for being eaten of all sorts of persons, and at all times of the yeare: of the rich because they love to spare; of the poore because they cannot choose; of many Religious because of their vow, of most others because of their want. It remaineth to believe that which themselves confesse; namely, that for every horse-load of flesh eaten, there is ten cart-loads of hearbes and rootes; which also their open markets and private tables doe witnesse.
Indeed, the religious institutions made a virtue of a diet rich in vegetables. And Gentilcore notes the importance of markets; the ortolani market gardeners of Turin had their own religious confraternity. He offers an aside on what was described as the “incomprehensible predilection” in Rome for broccoli, later to become “le vainquer de macaroni“. To the consternation of English observers, salad (“the mixing of diverse and various things”) came into vogue. Olive oil was still used more for lighting lamps than for cooking.
As he comments, historians always have difficulty finding information regarding the diet of the poor. From an early-18th-century French report on the dietary habits of Naples, it’s clear that much of the population not only ate vegetables but subsisted on them—along with bread rather than pasta; and tomatoes were part of this regime.
Methods of preparation remained basic because the kitchen utensils remained basic. The peasant kitchen thus was basic, with only a few clay or wooden implements.
Chapter 3, “They are to be enjoyed”, explores the acculturation of the tomato in 18th-century Italy. By 1759 a survey of farming in Tuscany included it among the “fruits prized by men [sic: see below] as foodstuffs or as condiments for them”. Gentilcore surveys the different varieties of tomato.
Sardinia was a Spanish possession until 1720, and the Sardinians, at all social levels, may have been “the first [in ‘Italy’] to take the tomato seriously”. Disappointingly for those of us who supposed that sun-dried tomatoes were invented in 1970s’ Hampstead, they appear in a Sardinian recipe from the mid-18th century.
By the 1830s, but probably earlier too, enterprising peasant women in the Cagliari area were selling sun-dried tomatoes. This is an important reminder of the role of gender in agrarian change. Indeed, women frequently were responsible for the cultivation, preparation, and sale of foodstuffs, and tomatoes were becoming an important element of domestic production, if not consumption.
We now find tomatoes not only eaten cooked and raw, but preserved in a thick paste, and in sauces. Still, their appreciation was regional: for southern peasants they were a major ingredient of their ordinary food, but they played only an occasional role in northern cuisine—and this remains true today. **
Tomatoes were now becoming so common that people were throwing them away—or at least were throwing them. In Italy, tomatoes were the missile of choice to show disapproval of public performers, and the activity came to be known as a pomodorata.
An 1863 report refers to the poor of Naples eating something called pizza, “seasoned on the top with an abundance or oil or pork fat, with cheese, oregano, garlic, parsley, mint leaves, with tomato especially in summer, and finally sometimes even with small fresh fish”. As Gentilcore observes, tomato was not yet a basic element of pizza, but only one possibility among several.
Moreover, that report may also contain the earliest reference to pasta as a staple food accompanied by tomato sauce—the subject of Chapter 4. It coincided with the movement to unify the different states and islands into a single nation.
Indeed, the triumph of pasta was also remarkably late. Types such as lasagne, vermicelli, and maccheroni were already established by the 16th century (spaghetti was a latecomer), but pasta was eaten soft, cooked for long periods, and thus accompanied by dry condiments; it was still a side dish. The two best-known regions for production were the Ligurian coast and the Bay of Naples.
By the mid-19th century the Neapolitans commonly ate pasta in taverns and as street food. It was now served slightly hard (vierd vierd: the expression al dente only became common after World War One)—a novelty that soon spread.
Making the preserve for the sauce (conserva, passata, salsa) was still largely a small-scale, local activity. Towards the end of the 19th century a French traveller in Calabria commented:
We are, in effect, in the season in which, in every Calabrian house, tomato preserve is made for use during the rest of the year. It is a solemn occasion in the popular life of these lands, a kind of festive celebration, an excuse for get-togethers and gatherings… Neighbours, and especially the neighbourhood women, get together in different houses one after the other for the making of conserva di pomi d’or, a procedure that culminates with a large meal; and they gossip as much as they can while crushing and cooking the tomatoes. It is here that for several months the locale’s chronicle of scandal is identified and commented on; it is here that those old rustic songs, which are today so avidly collected by scholars keen on folklore, are repeated from generation to generation.
By the 1880s tomato paste began to be exported to the USA. Its industrialisation was concentrated (sic, as Gentilore notes!) in Liguria, Emilia Romagna, and Campania. Tomatoes were first canned in the USA and Britain; in Italy, Parma took a leading role in both cultivation and preservation. Tomato ketchup was already becoming the national condiment of the USA.
The marriage between pasta and the tomato is usually said to have taken place in Naples around the 1830s. Pasta al pomodoro only gradually became a national stereotype from the late 19th century—just as millions of Italians started crossing the ocean to the New World, where the tomato had originated. It was to make repeated crossings.
So while I find it a challenge to imagine Botticelli and Michelangelo not tucking into a plate of penne arrabiata, such dishes would have been hardly more familiar to Verdi as they were to Monteverdi. Even as late as the 1930s when Umberto Saba met Gabriele D’Annunzio, he was more impressed by the novelty of the plate of pasta with tomato sauce (“a crimson marvel”) than by the Fascist celebrity himself.
The first acclaimed pizza was cooked for Queen Margherita in Naples in 1889; of three pizzas prepared for her, one was seasoned with tomato, mozzarella, and basil—the red, white, and green of the new national flag. In fact, its history goes back considerably earlier.
Above we saw a folk version of pizza in 1863 (for much earlier antecedents, see wiki). Pizzas were publicly made and sold in Naples by late in the 17th century. During his stay there in 1835, Alexandre Dumas described it as the staple diet of the city’s poor—with pasta eaten only on Sundays. By the middle of the century the city had over eighty pizzerie. In the 1880s Carlo Collodi, writing for a young audience, was underwhelmed:
Do you want to know what pizza is? It is a flat bread of leavened dough, toasted in the oven, with a sauce of a little bit of everything on it. The black of the toasted bread, the off-white of the garlic and anchovies, the greeny yellow of the oil and the lightly fried greens, and the red bits of the tomatoes scattered here and there give the pizza an air of messy grime very much in keeping with that of the man selling it.
The juxtaposition of hunger and gluttony is one theme of Collodi’s Pinocchio, first published in book form in 1883.
Pinocchio jumps into the sea, only to find himself in a fisherman’s net. Pinocchio explains to the fisherman that he is not a fish to be eaten, but a puppet. The fisherman replies that he has never caught a “puppet fish”, and asks how he would prefer to be cooked: “Would you like to be fried in the frying pan, or would you prefer to be stewed with tomato sauce?”
Meanwhile bread, often eaten stale, remained a basic foodstuff. In Puglia there was a popular proverb Ce mange paene e pomedaore nan ve me’ o dattaore (“He who eats bread and tomato, to the doctor will never go”).
In Chapter 5, “Authentic Italian gravy”, the scene shifts to the USA, along with successive waves of migrants. From 1876 to 1945 over nine million Italians crossed the Atlantic in search of a new life, most of them arriving between the 1890s and 1920s (cf. Accordion crimes).
Left, making tomato paste the Sicilian way, Madison WI, mid-1920s; right, supper on the Lower East Side, NYC, 1915.
Ventura’s 1886 short story “Peppino”, set in New York, describes pasta with tomato sauce, then still a novelty. Gentilcore goes on:
Making homemade tomato paste (conserva) was, for many immigrant families, partly a symbolic link to the town left behind, partly a matter of taste preference, and partly good economic sense.
Many immigrants also resorted to canned tomato paste. At first, such preserves were imported from Italy, but local production soon competed. The discussion subsumes the varieties of tomato, and the history of additives—including coal tar and formaldehyde.
In the early 20th century, the UK was the second main importer of Italian tomato preserves; meanwhile the British took to growing their own, with the growth of the suburbs and the increasing availability of greenhouses.
Ironically, American immigrants were often unaware of how much change was taking place as they strove to maintain continuity.
As emigrants, they had left Italy because of “hunger”, but as immigrants nostalgia and longing quickly set in. This was not nostalgia for the “land of poverty”, of course, but for the festive foods and the community to which they belonged. Consequently, they reproduced the food production and consumption patterns that were more dreamed of than actual in the world left behind. The “old country” became a mythologised place, which immigrant parents described to their children as a place where poverty and hunger coexisted with food that was good and natural and where they all ate together as a family.
The ritual of the Sunday dinner signified that the family was living the American dream, and
the focus for the transmission (or, if you prefer, the inculcation) of cultural mores and aspirations from parents to children. The place of origin that parents described to their children on these occasions was not so much a real place as a place remembered, a place imagined. The immigrants gradually filled it with idealised constructions, which had a very real function [for them]: to interpret, explain, criticise, and even deny the New World present, to both themselves and their children.
An account from 1940s’ America remains true today (note the typical use of the male pronoun!):
The Italian forced to live far away from his homeland, wherever in the world he sets his table, rejects every kind of cooking in order to establish his own, the simple but tasty cooking of his native land. And more than anything else he does not give up his traditional dish of macaroni with tomato sauce.
The new hybrid of the Italian-American restaurant too became stereotypical to the point of caricature—the “red-sauce joint, with its dishes smothered in tomato sauce, its red-checked tablecloths, and its candles stuck in Chianti bottles”.
By the 1930s the clientele of such restaurants had shifted from poor single immigrant bordanti to “bohemians” in search of an “Italian experience”.
Somewhat gleefully, Gentilcore also documents the invention of canned spaghetti in tomato sauce, dating from the early 20th century.
The sight of GIs opening cans of tomato spaghetti must have been a strange one to southern Italian peasants as the allied forces made their way up the peninsula in the latter stages of World War II. […]
It is easy to look down on such products, but it was a new way of eating food. After all, both spaghetti with tomato sauce and the invention of canning began about the same time, in the mid-19th century, so why shouldn’t they be united? It is just that we attribute different meanings, different values, and a different social status to pasta al pomodoro and canned spaghetti.
Returning to Italy, Chapter 6, “The autarchical tomato”, takes the story on to the Fascist era.
The mass migration of millions of Italians across the Atlantic had a positive effect on dietary practices in Italy in the form of remittances and return migration. […] For the first time, these remittances gave many Italians a chance to put aside money or goods.
Thus food preservation flourished as never before. But as economic prosperity grew, expectations and aspirations continued to change.
Gentilcore continues the story of the industrialisation of tomato processing—noting a company in Felino near Parma that rejoiced in the name Società anonima di coltivatori per la produzione delle conserve di pomodoro.
Changing patterns of organised labour had been giving rise to social unrest since early in the 20th century. Despite labour laws, even in the 1940s much of the burden for cultivation was borne by women and children. After World War One strikes and riots erupted. Mussolini’s Fascist Party sought to restore order—and to make Italy self-sufficient in food.
While the campaign of the Fascist Futurist Marinetti to abolish pasta was fruitless (indeed, Neapolitans came out onto the streets in protest), he didn’t extend his proscription to the “light and adaptable” tomato. Even ketchup survived the regime, though with their aversion to foreign words, it was renamed Rubra. Much Fascist food advertising was aimed at the resourceful housewife.
After 1924, when the USA restricted immigration, the Italian regime sought to replace it with Libya as a destination; as they proclaimed autarchia, or self-sufficiency, tomato cultivation was propounded there too. None of these projects bore much fruit.
On the eve of Italy’s fateful entry into World War Two in 1940, it was exporting virtually all of its fresh tomato crop to Germany; Gentilcore observes that Italy’s “Pact of Steel” with Nazi Germany that year might as well have been called the “tomato pact”.
Chapter 7, “The tomato conquest”, opens with a reminder of the poverty of Italy (particularly the chronically afflicted rural south) in the 1950s, as depicted in the neo-realist films of the day. But industrialisation, urbanisation, refrigerators, and the rise of supermarkets further transformed people’s eating habits. In the two decades from 1950, Italians grew in height but not in weight, despite the ever greater popularity of pasta. As stereotype and reality began to fuse, Italians could now eat spaghetti al pomodoro to their heart’s content. It was increasingly popular in Britain and the USA too, although pundits like Elizabeth David resisted the cliché, stressing the regional variety of la cucina Italiana.
Gentilcore’s material is now supplemented by feature films, such as two scenes, both from 1954—Totò’s spaghetti scene in Miseria e nobiltà (1954):
and Alberto Sordi’s scene from Un Americano a Roma (also 1954):
The recipe for spaghetti with tomato sauce included in Sophia Loren’s In cucina con amore (1971) is a tribute to the earthy recipes of her grandmother.
The disparity between north and south persisted. In his song Siamo meridionali! (1980) Mimmo Cavallo referred back to the family bathtub of southern migrants, classic receptacle for the growing of tomatoes (coltiviamo pomodori ddint’e vasche ‘e bagno):
Such migration from the south influenced the eating habits of both the migrants and the hosts.
In the Hollywood “pasta paradigm” (see e.g. this 1978 article by Daniel Golden), “the tomato sauces prepared and consumed by gangsters echo the bloody acts they commit”. One thinks of two scenes from Goodfellas (1990)—at home:
and in prison:
Pomodoro! can’t quite find a place for one of the great spaghetti-eating scenes: in Tampopo, Japanese debutantes are strictly schooled in the etiquette of eating them properly (another failed project, like Mussolini’s Fascism):
Nor does Gentilcore mention the “pizza effect” of anthropology, whereby elements of a nation or people’s culture are transformed or at least more fully embraced elsewhere, then re-imported to their culture of origin (cf. Tibetan “singing bowls”). The tomato played a role in the dubious “Mediterranean diet”.
By the 1980s, EU subsidies were further transforming the food economy, with Puglia benefitting notably. The Epilogue surveys the current tomato scene in Italy and beyond. As multinationals service our demand for year-round supply of “fresh” foodstuffs by sending them on vast, irrational journeys, Gentilcore addresses the global problem of labour slavery, organised crime, and trafficking. As immigrants began performing the tasks that Italians now shunned, the organisation and exploitation of labour by gang bosses was already featured in Pummaro’ (Michele Placido, 1989). Heavily staffed by African immigrants, and more recently eastern Europeans, the labour force is more vulnerable than the giornatori of yesteryear. Polish gang bosses exploit the Poles who work for them.
In a justly nostalgic passage which will strike a chord in Britain and elsewhere,
Nowadays, tomatoes look the same everywhere in Italy. Whereas “the real tomato has different, complicated shapes, with splits and streaks, and often pronounced baroque features, which so pleased the Neapolitan painters of the 17th century” [actually not yet, as Gentilcore points out], tomatoes today taste of nothing; they are full of water.
EU subsidies were not only unwelcome to producers in California, but hit West African countries hard. In turn, Italian growers have been hostile to Chinese imports, with the term “yellow peril” rearing its ugly head again (cf. Fu Manchu).
Gentilcore notes the Chinese term fanqie 番茄, “foreign eggplant”—the tomato was introduced there quite early by European missionaries, but still remains quite niche. BTW, it’s also known as xihongshi 西红柿 (“Western red persimmmon”), which reminds me of yet another story that I heard from Tian Qing (e.g. here, and here): during a phase of reviving Maoist “red songs” in Xi’an, some wag suggested the city might be renamed Tomato (Xihongshi 西红市 “Western red city”). I must also put in a word for the succulent tomatoes grown by Li Manshan.
This book will make you hungry—not just for knowledge.
* * *
All this is yet another instance of how things we assume to be eternal and immutable, like harmony and democracy, turn out not to be so. Another reason why I’ve cited Pomodoro! at some length is because its integrative approach, while perhaps a hallmark of most research worth its (um) salt, bears an affinity with that of ethnomusicology, including reception history—as for musicking, so for tomato-ing.
* Not to be confused with his long-lost Russian cousin Cestikoff, whose opera Il trasporto del pompino, regrettably not about fire-engines, was banned in St Petersburg. Allegedly.
** Cf. The Monty Python cheeseshop sketch: Cleese: “How about Cheddar?” Palin: “Well, we don’t get much call for it around here, Sir.” Cleese: “Not much call—it’s the single most popular cheese in the world!” Palin (smugly): “Not round here, Sir.“
By coincidence, I began composing this blog in late 2016—just as the poor ol’ USA was descending into a deep abyss, “waters deep, fires raging”. So it’s a great relief to be able to write free of that dark shadow, as sanity makes a welcome come-back gig after a four-year vacation, and grown-up-sounding comments re-emerge from the White House. Anyway, here I break the champagne over the bows of a new USA tagin the sidebar (these tags are useful, BTW, however rough and ready! Do consult them!).
It seems suitable to start with the series that I wrote on
So while one always wants to rejoice in all this, somehow such posts were always blemished by the Putrid Tang emanating from the White House; but now, with the renaissance following these traumatic four years, it finally seems suitable to celebrate again—even if the battle for social justice continues.
Love, power, money, ghosts of empire, conspiracies, artificial intelligence—and You
The series, in six parts over some eight hours, is broadly chronological, with an ambitious coverage of major events and recurring themes—failed political revolutions amidst a widespread distrust and resentment of elites; radical movements, and their defeat; pessimism as old power structures remain intact and kleptocracy rages; racial antagonism (with sexism revealed less explicitly); anger, insecurity, and paralysis in the age of individualism, haunted by the malignant scars of the past, lacking a vision for the future, “free but alone”; personal expression, technology, psychology, consumerism, advertising, mass electronic surveillance and algorithms. You know the kind of thing…
While countercultural discontent has long been a much-discussed theme, Curtis’s take is virtuosic. The dystopian vision of his message, juxtaposing cultures, is conveyed as much through the collage of blending images and a sinister, psychedelic soundtrack (including pop and Chinese revolutionary opera) as through graphic newsreel footage, interviews, and his own voiceover.
Funnily enough, among interviews, this—with Diane Morgan (aka Philomena Cunk), no less—is rather good.
I think I get so sucked into the stories that you choose and the people you concentrate on. They’re not boring people. Like Jiang Qing! She could’ve been from Bolton.
As Ms Cunk, herself master of the deadpan delivery, notes:
It’s partly your calm, authoritative voice. I feel like you could be a cult leader. You could tell me that bananas were invented by the Polish secret service and I’d believe you. There’s something hypnotic about it.
Here’s the fine parody of Curtis’s style mentioned in their chat (“In a landmark new documentary produced for YouTube, Adam Curtis has not examined his career and laid bare his style in the light of some confused academic papers he stumbled across on the internet”):
Themes In the USA, bastion of individualism through the Cold War, we are introduced to Richard Hofstadter (tracing suburban anxiety, fear, and hatred right back to the pilgrims), the John Birch Society and the Illuminati conspiracy theory; the CIA’s MK-Ultra mind-control experiments; Black Power, and infiltrators.
In Britain, the loss of empire also gave rise to insecurity and xenophobia. Curtis covers Kenya and the Mau Mau; and the disillusion of new arrivals from the former empire. In the wake of the slave trade, in the USA guilt mutated into fear and anger, along with deep resentments over racism and police violence. Featured are the Yellow Peril, and the KKK; the IRA, and MI6; Blair’s Britain.
In Germany the Red Army Faction (aided by the Stasi) responded to what they saw as the mutation of Nazism—with the far right indeed growing. But revolutionary chic also emerged.
Politicians gave up being our representatives who would challenge the powerful on our behalf, and began to tell us what to do on behalf of the powerful. But we didn’t notice because we were too busy shopping.
Alongside climate change and suburban alienation, Valium (and later OxyContin) submerged people’s disillusion at the false promises offered by material comfort—at first particularly for women. The blurring of reality and illusion is illustrated by The dream of the red chamber. Curtis surveys Nixon, the Vietnam war, his visit to China, and Watergate; ever more volatile money markets; US and British involvement in the Middle East, and oil; 9/11, Iraq, Syria, ISIS; USSR dissidents and prison songs; new despair in Russia after the fall of Communism; oligarchs, corruption; the Balkan wars, and the corrosive allure of nationalism, always connected with the past.
Democracies, subordinate to financial and bureaucratic interests, often seemed to be producing the wrong results (north Africa, the Middle East)—“What if the people are stupid?”. Meanwhile humanitarian aid arose from frustration with politicians, attempting to change the world by bypassing them; but it was vulnerable to being exploited by them, as in Ethiopia.
With technocrats ever more powerful over politicians, and constant global financial crises, a conservative nostalgia for empire re-emerged. Curtis notes the magical vision of Britain’s feudal past that had been created by artists and writers from the late 19th century; passing over socialist currents within the folk music and dance revival, he suggests they were
invented to create a kind of safe dream of the nation that could hide the violence and the horrors. The dream persisted under the surface of the 20th century. But as the fears and uncertainties and the chaos of the last few years rose up, millions of people started to believe that dream. That it was real.
What had begun a long time ago as a make-believe version of England, created in the deserts of Mesopotamia as the British Empire fell apart, had now turned into a terrifying nightmare.
This has led to the similar urge in the USA and UK to recreate the dream of a lost greatness—Trump and Brexit, the inevitable dénouement that Curtis’s whole project has sought to explain.
Part 6 takes in the rapper Tupac Shakur, son of Afeni, with civil rights an ever unresolved issue; Saudi Arabia, and jihad as a remedy for nihilism; Chaos theory and Complexity theory amidst growing paranoia; the 2008 economic crash and austerity, as resentment against elites grew further; the growing power of global corporations; AI, conspiracy theories, manipulation, “a world beyond freedom and dignity”.
In Russia, Curtis shows post-Soviet unrest, with popular protest at corruption and chaos; Putin, Pussy Riot, Navalny. The 1997 British handover of Hong Kong; capitalist consumerism in reform China, Deng Xiaoping and the limits of democratic reform; Tiananmen 1989 and the disturbing figure of Chai Ling; land grabs and corruption, the downfall of Bo Xilai’s attempt to revive collective idealism, popular grievance; mass surveillance—and Xinjiang—under Xi Jinping.
And so to Trump, Bannon, QAnon; Cummings, and Farage—with Covid now compounding inequalities. Politicians have moved from espousing reprehensible visions to having no agendas beyond power itself. With liberalism in retreat, tech companies feed off paranoia.
Characters Largely eschewing the Usual Suspects, Curtis’s choice of personalities and interviewees is most original, with a wealth of fascinating stories to follow up, making the viewer reach for wiki—including Peter Rachman and Michael X, Ethel Boole and Maya Plisetskaya, Edgar Mittelholzer, John L. Lewis and Harry Caudill representing the miners of Appalachia; Kerry Thornley, Operation Mindfuck, and Lee Harvey Oswald; Daniel Kahneman; the Russian criminals sent (along with Solzhenitsyn) to New York in 1974 who became the Potato Bag Gang, and Eduard Limonov; Horst Mahler, Afeni Shakur.
Jiang Qing and her psychological makeup feature (perhaps too) prominently:
In her operas, Jiang Qing had gone back into China’s past. Her aim had been to rework them, to express a new kind of revolution. But in reality, she had reawakened a dark and poisonous kind of violence that had lurked under the surface of China for hundreds of years. It was driven by a resentment of the rigid hierarchies that the revolution had not really changed. Mao had not given her or anyone else guidance about what to do with the fury that she had summoned up.
Curtis’s vision will doubtless be unwelcome to entrenched elites. So while he gives the revolutionaries a poor review, and rejects being labelled as a leftie, I guess we might settle for a definition based on having an enquiring mind prepared to challenge the status quo—precisely the fear of conservatives.
Despite all the endless pressures, he ends with the possibilities that the election of Biden may offer hope for a return to a former stability, and that people will be able to imagine genuinely new kinds of futures—dependant on their regaining confidence. We may need further encouragement. Some may recall the counter-intuitive optimism of Steven Pinker over the long sweep of human history. Others might suggest that paralysis and nihilism have not conquered all; while Curtis hardly broaches the more modest (but not necessarily less radical) advances of non-violent movements for social justice (cf. Hašek’s ironic “Party for Moderate and Peaceful Progress within the Bounds of the Law”!), progressives don’t necessarily seem doomed by the demons of the past, as young grassroots activists increasingly take up noble causes, holding power to account.
The war on sexism has to be waged on so many fronts that it’s worth recalling that language is a crucial element. I’ve been re-reading
Casey Miller and Kate Swift, Words and women: language and the sexes (1976)
—a rather early exploration of an important topic, that remains a concise, well-argued introduction, even if progress has since been made in the areas discussed. Based on North American usage, it focuses on English, with instances from early etymology and other European languages, whose greater linguistic differentiation gives rise to different issues.
The opening chapter explores Names, and their consequences. Under patronymic systems, with women foregoing their surnames on marriage, they “belong” to another family. Lucy Stone was a pioneer in keeping her name in 1855, but this is one area where most women seem to have remained curiously faithful to patriarchal convention (for dissenting views, see also here; cf. wiki on “maiden” and married names across cultures). The authors also note changing trends in given names, and introduce the ongoing campaign for the title “Ms”.
Who is man? opens by highlighting the title and images of Jacob Bronowski’s acclaimed TV series The Ascent of man, which follows a long representational tradition. Its creators
could hardly have intended to convey the message that males alone participated in the evolution of mankind, yet through the use of imagery limited to males they effectively negated an inclusive, generic interpretation of their title subject.
A 1972 study found that “man” tended to evoke men (particularly adult white men)—an image that seems to persist despite the challenges of recent decades. Such language also conditioned traditional teaching about prehistoric society.
Dr Spock was an advocate of counteracting the linguistic presumption of maleness: the use of the male pronoun
is one of many examples of discrimination, each of which may seem of small consequence in itself but, when added up, help to keep women at an enormous disadvantange—in employment, in the courts, in the universities, and in conventional social life.
While the standard remained “he”, an opposite trend emerged in education:
By the mid-1960s, […] some of the angry young men in teaching were claiming that references to the teacher as “she” were responsible in part for their poor public image and, consequently, in part for their low salaries. […] To be vital, it appears, a teacher’s image must be male.
In the Declaration of Independence, the “self-evident truth” that “all men are created equal”
did not apply to women any more than they did to men who were slaves or to those original inhabitants of the country referred to in the document as “the merciless Indian savages”.
The authors go on to clarify issues surrounding Sex and gender. In our common perception of animals too, “all creatures are assumed to be male until proven female”. Other European languages use “grammatical gender”, also affecting articles and adjectives. A fine quote from Mark Twain, from “The awful German language”:
In German, a young lady has no sex, while a turnip has. Think what overwrought reverence that shows for the turnip, and what callous disrespect for the girl. See how it looks in print—I translate this from a conversation in one of the best of the German Sunday-school books:
Gretchen—Wilhelm, where is the turnip? Wilhelm—She has gone to the kitchen. Gretchen—Where is the accomplished and beautiful English maiden? Wilhelm—It has gone to the opera.
While most “agent nouns” (worker, farmer, doctor, clown) belong to the “common gender” category, some became more common in female versions (princess, lioness, sorceress, early imports from French). The evolution of “seamstress” is an interesting case. Some early feminists
prized the “female designations” because they felt women should be given credit, as women, for their accomplishments. More, however, objected.
reverted to being an exclusively female designation—though with an additional pejorative meaning that has no male equivalent.
Miller and Swift summarise:
Throughout its history, as English made the gradual change from grammatical to natural gender, words denoting occupations and professions could be and from time to time were used for females and males without distinction. But because males are consciously or unconsciously considered the norm, new feminine designations were introduced and accepted whenever the need was felt to assert male prerogatives. As the language itself documents, once certain occupations ceased to be women’s work and became trades or vocations in which men predominated, the old feminine gender words were annexed by men and became appropriate male designations. Then new endings were assigned to women, quite possibly, in Fowler’s phrase, to keep a woman from “asserting her right” to a male’s name (or his job).
Some nouns like waitress and actress were still common, if waning, in the 1970s.
The distinction between actor and actress is not a distinction between male and female; it is the difference between the standard and a deviation.
Semantic polarisation examines the role of words in moulding cultural assumptions. The authors note the role of cultural anthropology in clarifying issues: across societies,
the extent to which roles are assigned on the basis of sex and the rigidity with which the sexes are categorised also varies greatly.
The authors unpack damaging dictionary definitions for words such as “manly” and “womanly”, whose 1960s’ portrayals—respectively positive (courage, strength, vigour) and negative (weak, fickle, superficial)—now look absurd. Such expectations were reinforced early in childhood.
Miller and Swift illustrate the “degeneration of meaning” with the words virago, shrew, and tomboy. And they cite Margaret Mead:
The potentialities which different societies label as either masculine or feminine are really potentialities of some members of each sex, and not sex-linked at all.
The language of religion is an important topic: even in modern north Europe, where religion is a lesser influence on society than in the USA, history bequeaths a heavy burden. Originating in patriarchal societies, the major Western religions inevitably contain abundant “semantic roadblocks to sexual equality”. God, father, son, king; spiritual men and sinful women; the virgin–whore dichotomy for women. Again, this whole edifice has come under increasing scrutiny (cf. Patricia Lockwood‘s fine definition of “tabernacle”!).
In The great male plot Miller and Swift ponder the backlash against feminism, with instances of male “humorists” going for cheap laughs in belittling sensible linguistic (and social) progress. As women’s access to education gradually increased, men were ever keener to act as guardians of the language. Fowler’s prescriptions again loom as a negative influence, railing against the now widely accepted formulation “as anybody can see for themselves”—no shocking “Women’s Lib” madness, but going back to Shakespeare. Others joined in denouncing descriptive grammarians’ apparent abandoning prescriptions for good and bad usage—“the King’s English and the fishwife’s”.
The male bias of English does not have to be fostered by a conspiracy.
The authors describe the growing use of “Ms” (the magazine Ms was first published in 1972)—becoming more popular not only as “a significant number of women began to object being labeled according to their (presumed) marital status” but also as an effective time and money saver with the growth of direct mail selling. And again it was fiercely contested by fatuous men. In an informed discussion, Ms Miller and Ms Swift trace the evolution of gendered titles further back in history. Meanwhile sexism “remained the only form of bigotry still treated as good clean fun by the American Press” (cf. the neanderthal “Rear Admiral” Foley).
In What is woman? The authors explore the different speech habits and vocabularies of women and men. They cite the research of Robin Lakoff:
Discouraged from expressing herself forcefully, a girl may acquire speech habits that communicate uncertainty, hesitancy, indecisiveness, and subordination.
Women were still penalised for unseemly language (note the LRB article on a 1923 trial, linked here). In speech as well as behaviour, men have licence to behave badly. Of course, language taboos have been challenged generally, as in the 1933 Ulysses case. But women were among the vanguard in breaking the barriers; Iris Murdoch, Doris Lessing, and Carson McCullers all used the word “fuck” quite early in their books. At the same time, the language used to degrade females has been scrutinised.
In The spectre of unisex Miller and Swift further discuss the spread of the ending “-person”, and the uncomprehending resistance to it. Meanwhile “they/their” to replace “he/his” was gaining ground, and has continued to make further progress.
Setting forth from kinship terminology in different cultures as an instance of how language reflects and shapes perception, Language and liberation discusses the recent concepts of racism (1950s) and sexism (late 1960s). Publishers and other bodies were producing non-sexist guidelines by the 1970s; since then, too, children’s books have gone on to make wonderful progress in correcting harmful stereotypes (links e.g. here).
Eliminating sexism need not result in graceless language, as many people fear. Sensitive speakers, writers, and editors have been doing it consciously and well for years. Language that does not depend on abstraction is superior, for it is forced to be specific.
In the Postscript the authors list some guidelines, including succinct summaries for –ess and –ette endings (remember usherettes?), * forms of address, job titles, and so on.
* * *
The powerful arguments of Miller and Swift cover most of the issues that have since gradually entered the mainstream, even if they continue to be distorted and trivialised by dinosaur men and the PC-gone-mad brigade. For the state of play nearly three decades later, the useful guide
Jennifer Mather Saul, Feminism: issues and arguments (2003)
devotes chapter 6 to feminism and language change, an issue that has come to attain increasing public prominence. With precise logic that reminds me of the great Janet Radcliffe Richards (The sceptical feminist, 1980), she gives concise sections on gender-neutrality and gender-specificity, and considers arguments against language reform.
Replacing gender-neutral usages (notably “man”; such terms are not actually gender-neutral at all) avoids confusion, and positively affects the way we think. Her solutions are modest (not in a “feminine” way, I may add), and adjustments easily made. But gender-specific words like manageress and waitress are also flawed, again assuming a male norm. Saul updates the story of the usage of “Ms”.
Ms Saul goes on to confront, and confound, arguments against reform. Language is important, but at the same time it is only one aspect of the wider campaign. And she provides a succinct list of further readings.
While Miller and Swift discussed “bitch”, more recently words like “slut” have come under the spotlight (see e.g. Jessica Valenti’s comments, here and here). Feminists are recasting “profane” language, such as the c-word, even extending their labours creatively to embroidery. And I’ve already noted other dodgy terms like femme fatale, diva, and “gamine elfin waif“. As I write, I see that the “governess” is making a comeback among wealthy British families—FFS.
Charles Ives (1874–1954) achieved considerable fame as the author of Life insurance with relation to inheritance tax (1918). But That’s Not Important Right Now. His music (mostly written before 1927) took much longer to be appreciated.
His style, At a Time When it was Neither Profitable Nor Popular, offers a most distinctive American take on playing out the clash of cultures, in a random montage of dissonant soundscapes—hymn tunes, town bands, and so on. See e.g. the ever-perceptive comments of Alex Ross (The rest is noise, pp.140–46, in a chapter aptly titled “Invisible men”) and Richard Taruskin (The danger of music, pp.51–9, 186–90).
Mahler, then being fêted in New York, admired Ives’s music—indeed, they shared a taste for incorporating popular soundscapes. Later, insiders like Henry Cowell, Elliott Carter, Aaron Copland, John Kirkpatrick, Nicolas Slonimsky, Lou Harrison, and Bernard Herrmann began to promote his work, before it was popularised by Leonard Bernstein in the 1950s. John Cage, with his affinity for the random, was another fan:
I doubt whether we can find a higher goal, namely that art and our involvement in it will somehow introduce us to the very life that we are living, and that we will be able, without scores, without performers and so forth, simply to sit still to listen to the sounds which surround us and hear them as music.
I entirely share the universal delight in the intoxicating language of Patricia Lockwood, with her passion for the mind-expanding power of words.
Within her genre-bending oeuvre, the publication of a new article by her is always the occasion for fireworks and champagne. Just when we thought we couldn’t take any more analyses of the genius of Elena Ferrante, Lockwood makes the perfect commentator; so now we can delight in her own delight at Lila and Lenù.
Her essay The communal mind is a prelude to No one is talking about this, her new novel about living in the internet. Amidst a multitude of blazing fanfares (e.g. this review), this comes from an interview with Hadley Freeman:
“White people, who had the political educations of potatoes, were suddenly feeling compelled to speak about injustice. This happened once every forty years on average, usually after a period when folk music became popular again. When folk music became popular again, it reminded people that they had ancestors, and then, after a considerable delay, that their ancestors had done bad things.”
Lockwood is all too aware that books about the internet have a bad reputation: “[They] had the strong whiff of old white intellectuals being weird about the blues, with possible boner involvement.”
* * *
Lockwood’s memoir Priestdaddy (2017; review, interview) celebrates and bewails her eccentric family, in a style distantly akin to the stories of David Sedaris. The title refers to her father, a rare married Catholic priest; she wrote the book while staying back at the family home with her husband Jason during a period of adversity. I guess it’s “confessional”.
While her parents make hapless victims of her trenchant pen, it’s far from mere slapstick; it’s an affectionate, benign portrayal, becoming increasingly reflective.
She was deprived of college by her father’s inability to resist buying a guitar made for Paul McCartney:
Later, I would take a detached literary pleasure in the notion that higher education had unwittingly been robbed from me by a Beatle.
She observes family life with detachment:
The drama of the scene ought to have been tense and throbbing, but it was undercut somewhat by my mother’s decorating, which ran heavily to bowls of gold balls. Still, we played our parts: every once in a while my father would bang down his fist while looking patriarchal, and my mother would turn to stare out the window while looking powerless, which contributed to the impression that we were participating in a Tennessee Williams play where “the internet” was being used as a code for “homosexuality”.
The Don Pablo’s in Cincinatti was a large converted factory, so it looked vaguely like a nightclub where people went to have wrong ideas about Mexico. In the corner, a fake cactus threw up its helpless arms, as if my father were holding it at gunpoint.
Her relationship with her husband Jason is most endearing. As he wonders if her father is trying to kill him, she responds:
“Did you give him any indication that you were a pacifist or an intellectual, or that you liked abstract art?”
Pets are a bone of contention too:
My father hates cats. He believes them to be Democrats. He considers them to be little mean hillary clintons covered all over with feminist legfur. Cats would have abortions, given half a chance.
When Jason takes a job at a local newpaper, she muses:
There was a sign announcing how many days had passed since the last workplace accident, which made me think of the unlucky employee who had to climb up on a ladder the next morning to flip the number back to zero with a maimed hand.
As Tricia tries to watch old movies on TV, her father switches over without ceremony to
something like Bag of Guts: How Much Blood is in a Human Body? or Boom! A Toot from the Bum of the Apocalypse or Ragged Claws: Hideous Mutant Poem from the Deep.
She guesses the plots of his favorite movies based on the sounds coming through the walls:
A remake of The Ten Commandments where the lead actor is just an AK-47 wearing Moses robes. He parts the Red Sea by shooting it.
Indiana Jones flips through his dad’s diary and finds a map of the clitoris. “IT’S MINE”, he yells, but will the Nazis get there first?
God is a cop with a monkey sidekick, but the monkey sidekick is mankind.
She takes singing lessons with her sister:
We often sang together at church because our voices sounded related, though mine was obviously the hunchbacked insane relative who lived up in the attic and only descended for meals.
Her second teacher
looked like she knew where Prague was, which at that moment in time I did not.
But the chapter segues to her suicide attempt as a cloistered teenager.
Some of the most baroque passages come when she explains Catholicism to her bemused husband, suggesting a Martian ethnographer (indeed, she likens her notebook to that of an anthropologist):
“What did these people teach you?” he asked me one night, mystified. “What exactly do Catholics believe?”
I’d been preparing my whole life for this question. “First of all, blood. BLOOD. Second of all, thorns. Third of all, put dirt on your forehead. Do it right now. Fourth of all, Martin Luther was a pig in a cloak. Fifth of all, Jesus is alive, but he’s also dead, and he’s also immortal, but he’s also made of clouds, and his face is a picture of infinite peace, but he always looks like one of those men in a headache commercial, because you’re causing him such suffering whenever you cuss. He is so gentle that sheep seem like demented murderers in his presence, but also rays of light shoot out of his face so hard they can kill people. In fact they do kill people, and one day they will kill you. He has a tattoo of a daisy chain on his lower back and he gets his hair permed every eight weeks. He’s wearing a flowing white dress, but only because people didn’t know about jeans back then. He’s holding up two fingers because his dad won’t let him have a gun. If he lived on earth, he would have a white truck, plastered with bumper stickers of Calvin peeing on a smaller Calvin who is not a Catholic.”
While reluctant to “harp on” (my garish phrase, sic!) about feminism, Lockwood reflects on her relationship with the seminarians who come to stay:
What else could I do but tease them? I had no real power; it was men like these who were in charge of my life. If they decided tomorrow I had to cover my hair or wear skirts or pray separately, or be barred from reading certain books, or take certain pills and not take others, or be silent in the presence of men, I would have to do it. To have that bald dynamic of power on display in your home every day, pretending to arch over and protect you—it does something to a person. The seminarian calls women “the tabernacle of life”. The tabernacle, if you do not know, is an ornamental box that is largely important for what it holds. It is shut up and locked when the men go away, so the consecrated elements inside cannot be stolen.
YAY!Hallelujah! The “indomitable human spirit”, demurely Renting Asunder the Chains of Bondage—not just surviving but thriving!!!
People do sometimes accuse me of blasphemy, which is understandable, and which is their right. But to me, it is not blasphemy, it is my idiom. It’s my way of still participating in the language I was raised inside, which despite all renunciation will always be mine.
So while she doesn’t give the church an easy ride, she describes her background of taking part ungrudgingly in its rituals. Merging emic and etic, she is altogether gentle in her lack of confrontation—as she observes in this review:
“But in a way, I am happy that I wrote it before all this [the US elections] went down because you can look at those things foreignly. There can be a sort of nostalgia looking back at it. Whereas now, it feels so urgent to excise all these conservative forms of thought as opposed to just seeing them as quirks—which they’re not just quirks, but they are that, especially when it’s your family.” She adds, “I always had the sense that running alongside this book was a book that was much angrier, or was expressed more as a sort of haranguing monologue against various things, but that’s not particularly natural to me as a writer.”
She describes the background and reactions to the publication of her poem Rape joke, and adds a note to her comments on motherhood:
The twinge you are feeling right now is the twinge of wondering whether I am really right-thinking, whether I am really on the right side when it comes to this subject. I put that twinge in because I sometimes feel it myself. But after all that, you must understand that I had to leave right-thinkingness behind.
She reflects on her family’s involvement in the “pro-life” movement (see also this, adapted from the book):
We patronised pro-life businesses, which in the Midwest, back then, was easy to do. It was possible to buy a pro-life pizza, despite the fact that a pizza is by its very definition made out of choices.
She perceives certain feminist credentials in her mother, who is ever alert to danger while not clearly subscribing to the notion of female suffrage. In a charming chapter rejoicing in the title “The Cum Queens of Hyatt Palace”, they bond over finding cum on a hotel bed. After a spirited exchange with the management (not of bodily fluids, I should add),
We join hands and set forth into the morning, united by that human glue which cannot be dissolved.
But amidst the hilarity her account addresses ever more serious topics—the church child-abuse scandal, pollution-induced disease, and her father’s roles in counselling the desperate and officiating for the bereaved.
Eventually he concedes to his errant daughter,
“I never thought it would be so much fun to have you home. It’s so nice when your kids grow up and you don’t have to kill them anymore.”
But while revelling in language she treasures its limitations:
The desire to describe voice, gesture, skin colour, is a desire to eat, take over, make into part of the pattern. I am happy every time I see a writer fail at this. I am happy every time to see real personhood resist our tricks. I am happy to see bodies insist that they are not shut up in this book, they are elsewhere. The tomb is empty, rejoice, he is not here.
Do bask in every enchanted word that Ms Lockwood writes! As a suitable soundtrack for such shots in the arm, I suggest You’re my thrill.
In my post Detroit 67, among several clips of the great Aretha Franklin I featured her extraordinary live sessions in January 1972 at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in LA. The double albumAmazing Grace was released that year to huge acclaim, but the documentary had to wait right until 2018 to see the light of day. For anyone who hasn’t yet managed to do so, you can still find it on BBC i-Player (here)—otherwise, one can always buy it… 
BBC2 followed the film up with the documentary Respect.
Recorded over two evening sessions, the film Amazing Grace is all the more effective for showing its workings, complete with its calculated planning, technical hitches, and even piano-tuning. Yet despite the constraints of live recording, these were clearly inspired celebrations—just like many musical gatherings around the world (see What is Serious music?!, under “Serious world music”).
Between numbers, Aretha’s focus sometimes makes her look pensive, almost frail—but as she sings she becomes a spirit medium, a vessel for the Holy Spirit, possessed with all the joy and pain of Gospel.
With the MC Reverend James Cleveland adroitly mediating sacred and secular, Aretha is backed by the Southern California Community Choir, who are also spurred on by the balletic Reverend Alexander Hamilton. Among very few white faces in the ecstatic congregation are Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts.
On both evenings the tone is set by a devotional opening song (Wholy Holy and Mary don’t weep), followed by rousing up-tempo numbers like What a friend we have in Jesus, How I got over, All go back, I’m climbing higher mountains, as well as the ensemble interactions of Precious memories (“Sacred secrets will unfold”) and Precious Lord, take my hand/You’ve got a friend in Jesus.
The way Aretha opens in slow free-tempo is always moving—her final song (from 1.12.01), I have heard of a land on the far away strand, ‘Tis the beautiful home of the soul where we shall never grow old, is a whole seven-minute alap in itself—just as inspired as Indian dhrupad.
Most miraculous of all is the title track Amazing Grace (from 37.04; for the audio version, see under Detroit 67)—a long, slow meditation (without clearly defined beat or melody!) that leaves the congregation, the choir, Rev. Cleveland, and Aretha herself in tears.
As usual (cf. OMG), the usage goes back a long way—in this case to at least 1798. But more recently it is the Americans who have clung to the meaning of “soon”. The discussion also mentions “momently”, also early but now obsolete.
As many observers have commented, for Brits new to flying in the States it’s most disconcerting to hear the pilot announcing “We will be taking off momentarily”; since one hopes that having achieved altitude we might be able to remain airborne for quite some time, one surely expects a rather more upbeat prediction. At the other end too, Dick Cavett’s comment
When the flight attendant would say, “We will be landing in Chicago momentarily,” I used to enjoy replying, “Will there be time to get off?”,
inspires a brilliantly pedantic thread, which needn’t detain us here.
I also support the objection that “momentarily” sounds like “an attempt to be fancy” [Objection sustained—there’s another thing we don’t get to say over here].
Anyway, I’m always glad of an excuse to cite Airplane. For a fine mid-air tannoy story, click here; for further divergent US/UK usages, here, here, and even here; see also And I’m like.
This, from BBC news only last week, was suspiciously prophetic (reporter waiting round dark corner with baseball bat):
Diego Maradona is to have emergency surgery caused by a head injury in the next few hours.
Tanya Talaga, All our relations: indigenous trauma in the shadow of colonialism (2020),
based on her 2018 lecture series. Talaga, a journalist, had to rediscover her Ojibwe heritage on her mother’s side. Whereas Shkilnyk’s book on GrassyNarrows is a detailed ethnography of the sufferings of one small community, Talaga extends her scope to the wider fate of indigenous peoples in north America and around the world—including the Inuit, tribal groups in Brazil, the Sami people of Scandinavia, and Aboriginal people in Australia. I’m also reminded of the fate of ethnic minorities in the PRC such as Tibetans and Uyghurs.
Talaga opens her account with the high incidence of suicides—particularly of children—in the territories of NAN (Nishnawbe Aski Nation), a group of forty-nine First Nations in northern Ontario. From 1986 to 2017 there were over 558 suicides there; 37 people took their own lives in 2017 alone. The problem was common throughout First Nation bands in Canada, notably among the Inuit, where the suicide rate is ten times the national average.
Left: Inuit demonstration, c2018 Right: Sami climate strike joined by Greta Thunberg, 2020.
Nearly one in three Sami have thought about or attempted suicide. In Guarani-Kaiowá in southwest Brazil, the suicide rate is 34 times higher within indigenous communities than among the non-Indigenous population. In Australia too, intentional self-harm was the leading cause of death for all Aboriginal people between the ages of 15 and 34. Meanwhile incarceration rates are far higher than in the general population.
Talaga puts all this in the context of the global search for justice, civil rights, and freedom—subsuming environmental protection, housing, healthcare, education, nutrition, and access to clean, drinkable water.
She sketches the painful colonial histories that have led to the ongoing plight of these peoples: genocide, disease, treaties betrayed, multi-generational trauma, discrimination, suppression of identity; residential schools and churches, constant official prevarication and obstruction.
As she notes, all this is strongly reminiscent of the apartheid system in South Africa. She cites Martin Luther King:
Our nation was born in genocide when it embraced the doctrine that the original American, the Indian, was an inferior race. Even before there were large numbers of Negroes on our shores, the scar of racial hatred had already disfigured colonial society. From the 16th century onward, blood flowed in battles of racial supremacy. We are perhaps the only nation which has tried as a matter of national policy to wipe out its Indigenous population. Moreover, we elevated that tragic experience into a noble crusade. Indeed, even today we have not permitted ourselves to reject or feel remorse for this shameful episode. Our literature, our films, our drama, our folklore, all exalt it.
Against the legacy of the residential schools, the “lock hospitals” of Australia, and segregated hospitals in Canada, Tanaga meets fine community leaders striving to redress injustice, themselves mostly survivors of the residential schools.
Yet despite the involvement of such enlightened figures and social scientists, a plethora of institutions—themselves responsible for much of the trauma—have been quite unable to tackle such problems, and are widely distrusted.
With a long succession of decrees falling far short, protests have been frequent for many decades. Despite the Standing Rock protests over the Dakota Access Pipeline from 2016, construction has resumed under Trump, with his contempt for the environment.
Tanaga suggests that while education has long kept people in ignorance, it can now play a major role in alleviating the situation.
Here’s one of several of her talks to be found online:
* * *
While expressive culture may seem a cruel irrelevance in all this, it was precisely the forced removal of these people from their cultures that led to their sufferings.
As project leader Murray Schafer observed, “the general acoustic environment of a society can be read as an indicator of social conditions which produce it and may tell us much about the trending and evolution of that society”. Prescriptively, the series warns against “the degradation of the soundscape thanks to the mounting din of industrial modernity”.
Innovative and well-meaning as the series was, it appears as a “back to nature” project, and “what the broadcasts exclude is perhaps more important than what they include”. The recordings largely ignored urban soundscapes: “Anyone unfamiliar with the Canadian soundscape would be forgiven for coming to the conclusion that the world’s second largest nation was a bastion of early industrial machinery, a sanctuary for quiet, self-reliant, God-fearing folk”.
Also largely absent are the First Nations and its “visible minorities”. “Their portrait of a pastoral, post-colonial British outpost shunted the country’s sizeable non-Christian, ethnic population squarely out of earshot”, dismissing
a protracted, often violent and brutal, campaign of assimilation that replaced one set of sonic practices with another. For generations of Indigenous Canadians, the sounds of church bells would likely not have connoted community or belonging, but would have rather reverberated with echoes of the “re-education” in settler religion and language that many were forced to endure in Canada’s residential schools”. […]
If a nation needs a myth, it can do better than telling stories about the necessity of shoring up a colonial legacy whose time has come.
Of course, the “traditional”, and changing, cultures of indigenous cultures have also been a popular subject; what is at issue with this series is how they are kept separate, marginal. And it’s very common for a project to be less all-embracing than its title suggests (e.g. “Singers of the world“, “British music”, Punk).
As long as we bear this in mind, it’s quite natural to focus on a particular area within a culture; with the bolder aim of encompassing the soundscape of a whole culture, however, one has to be more inclusive.
Another post on the site explores the “hubbub” of First-Nation healthcare in Vancouver’s downtown Eastside, and the film East Hastings pharmacy (Antoine Bourges, 2012):
For Sami musical culture, we might start with the article “Sámiland: joiks of the tundra” in The Rough Guide to world music: Europe, Asia, and the Pacific. Among recordings of traditional song, Yoik: a presentation of Saami folk music comprises 3 CDs with a 310-page book. And here’s the playlist of the 1956 Folkways album Lappish joik songs from northern Norway (liner notes here):
Smile was first heard as the romantic orchestral theme in Charlie Chaplin’s Modern times (1936), with Paulette Goddard as “the Gamin”.
It’s a political film critical of industrialisation, lamenting the hardships of the Great Depression. Graham Greene feared it would be seen as a Communist film, and indeed Goebbels banned it. By 1954 when the theme was arranged into a song, Chaplin was banned from the USA.
Here’s the original, purely instrumental, with its gorgeous harmonies:
So despite the smoochy strings, it’s innocent of sentimentality; rather, it’s a parody of the domestic bliss of which most people are deprived, recognising the challenges of life.
It’s said to be inspired by Puccini, but while the melody is indeed close to Ah, quegli occhi! (cf. Jeepers creepers), it was a more generic sound that Chaplin (one of a select group of left-handed violinists!) seems to have offered to his young arranger David Raksin to embellish (see here and here). If we’re playing the melodic similarities game (always a vexed issue; see also Unpromising chromaticisms), its contour is echoed in the opening of Glenn Miller’s Moonlight serenade:
Modern times is also famed for its nonsense song (cf. Doubletalk):
Talkies had already replaced silent films, but Chaplin persisted; the song is the only time in the Little Tramp films that his voice is heard—ironically, singing gibberish.
* * *
One doesn’t have to know Chaplin’s film to relish the 1954 vocal version by Nat King Cole (one of rather few male pop singers I find expressive):
So with all its further heart-rending harmonic shifts and inspired touches of orchestration, it’s still a sad song. Its mood also reminds me of Michel Legrand’s exquisite You must believe in spring, with its more sophisticated lyrics.
Judy Garland’s 1963 version has a special poignancy:
This may be news only to those with their heads buried in medieval Daoist manuals, rather than to people following the current tribulations of the USA, but…
Just when global politics seems at the mercy of venal, thieving white men, along comes the inspiring, principled, articulate, practical, passionate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
While Sarah Cooper’s scriptwriter the Orange Baby-in-Chief is playing golf, egging on fellow white terrorists and criminal thugs, and throwing his toys out of the pram, AOC is working flat-out to help people—confounding cynics as she highlights the importance of issues like climate change and the Green New Deal, healthcare, employment, women’s rights, and the plight of immigrants.
An unrivalled communicator, every speech she makes on such issues is compelling. Just one of numerous instances of her forensic appearances in Congress:
She is demonised by the Right, who, utterly unable to engage in rational argument with her, shoot themselves in the foot by disparaging her former waitressing job or obsessing fatuously over her clothes (cf. Dressing modestly).
She’s a master of social media. One of her early media triumphs after being elected to Congress was her riposte to their outraged reaction to the notion that Women might actually Dance:
On social issues her every Tweet gets to the heart of the matter, and she clearly wins legions of admirers on Instagram with her informal yet engaged chats there:
She keeps elaborating her powerful message, as here, from December 2020.
Here she is with a powerful speech eviscerating Ted Yoho’s non-apology:
This moving documentary provides background on AOC’s remarkable election to Congress:
Do follow her on Twitter and all those other New-Fangled, um, platforms! All is not lost—but first things first, eh: the immediate priority is to restore a modicum of civilised values and consign the current incumbent of the White House to a padded cell.