Sunday, August 16, 2009

The Connoisseur

The Connoisseur (1962)

I've written a couple posts in the past about Norman Rockwell; I've always liked the clarity and coolness of his style. This painting was the cover of the January 13, 1962 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Oil on canvas, 37 3/4 x 31 1/2 inches, the image is unabashedly conservative, but a conservatism of a kind that has all but vanished from the contemporary public sphere. The painting both respects and critiques the abstract impressionism of the painting within the painting. It seems to ask whether the artist (apparently Pollock) could ever render an image as "realistic" as the image that contains his painting (Pollock's early work, much of it done for the WPA, would suggest that yes, he could).

Truth be told, I much prefer Pollock. But I also love that sparkling wit in Norman's eye.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Tokyo Rose, Axis Sally and Fox News....

Iva Toguri mug shot, Sugamo Prison - March 7, 1946

I believe the best framework to really understand likes of Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, Newt Gingrich, Michelle Malkin, Matt Drudge, Lou Dobbs, Bill O'Reilly and the rest of the ultra-right wingnut punditry is to see them as the direct descendants of Tokyo Rose and Axis Sally.

Iva Ikuko Toguri D'Aquino, an American, was the woman most identified with "Tokyo Rose", a generic name given by Allied forces in the South Pacific during World War II to any of approximately a dozen English-speaking female broadcasters of Japanese propaganda.

Mildred Gillars, also known as "Axis Sally," was a female radio personality during World War II, best known for her propaganda broadcasts for Nazi Germany. Gillars' most famous broadcast, and the one that would eventually get her convicted of treason, was a play titled Vision of Invasion that went out over the airwaves on May 11, 1944. It was beamed to American troops in England awaiting the D-Day invasion of Normandy, as well as to the home folks in America. Gillars played the role of an American mother who dreamed that her soldier son, a member of the invasion forces, died aboard a burning ship in the attempt to cross the English Channel. The play had a realistic quality to it, sound effects simulating the moans and cries of the wounded as they were raked with gunfire from the beaches. Over the battle action sound effects, an announcer’s voice intoned, ‘The D of D-Day stands for doom…disaster…death…defeat…Dunkerque or Dieppe.’ Adelbert Houben, a high official of the German Broadcasting Service, would testify at Axis Sally’s trial that her broadcast was intended to prevent the invasion by frightening the Americans with grisly forecasts of staggering casualties.

They sought what Fox News seeks, the destruction of America. Unlike Sally and Rose, who we assume were motivated by some personal ideology, however wrong; Fox and the pundits are motivated solely by greed.

These are the people Richard Brautigan was writing about in his poem "Negative Clank" in his book Rommel Drives On Deep Into Egypt.

Negative Clank

He'd sell a rat's asshole
to a blindman for a wedding

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Transmissions from a distant galaxy....

"If the lighter side of rap and hip hop's wordplay and rhyme has a spiritual father, he might be Slim Gaillard (1916–1991, shown here at the right), the great jazzman and scat artist of the 1930s and 1940s, whose nonsense syllables and quick-witted and humorous rhymes can be heard as echoes in the raps of De La Soul, Busta Rhymes, and A Tribe Called Quest. Born in Santa Clara, Cuba, Gaillard was raised in Detroit and New York City. As half of the jazz duo Slim & Slam, Gaillard developed his own hip argot, a musical vocabulary of wildly colliding nonsense syllables and the surprise of unexpected rhyme Gaillard called "vout." Armed with it, a quick wit, and an ability to scat with the best, Gaillard produced hits like "Chicken Rhythm," "Flat Foot Floogie," and "Cement Mixer." Though he was not as famous as Cab Calloway or Scatman Crothers, Gaillard's comic derring-do and hip personal style made him a cult favorite among jazz listeners and fans of scat for generations to come." - (Oxford African American Studies Center)

"Transmissions from a distant galaxy..." is how I feel about this video I just found on Youtube thanks to the most recent Punmaster mailing (you should subscribe to their Music Wire mailings).

Slim Gaillard is one of those black musicians from the first half of the 20th Century who has obscure origins -- he was either born in Cuba, or in Florida, or maybe Detroit. Gaillard first rose to prominence in the late 1930s as part of Slim & Slam, a jazz novelty act he formed with bassist Slam Stewart. Their hits included "Flat Foot Floogie (with a Floy Floy)", "Cement Mixer (Puti Puti)" and the hipster anthem, "The Groove Juice Special (Opera in Vout)". The duo performs in the 1941 movie Hellzapoppin'.

In penning his biggest hit, "Flat Foot Floogie," the sly Gaillard perpetrated a monumentally mischievous prank on the American pop music public. The whole first line read: "Flat Foot Floogie with the Floy Floy." As it happen, a flat-foot floozie (Galliard substitutes "floogie) in the African American slang of the period is defined as a streetwalking prostitute and, in the same lexicon, the floy floy is defined as gonorrhea.

In other words, America was unwittingly singing along to a song celebrating a streetwalker carrying the clap.*

This video was aired on Michelob Presents Night Music, a late-night television show from 1988 and showcase for jazz and eclectic musical artists hosted by Jools Holland.

* From Wikipedia.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Songs For Political Action....

Songs For Political Action: Folk Music, Topical Songs And The American Left 1926-1953 is a 1996 10 CD box set by the German-based Bear Family label.

Anyone unfamiliar with the Bear Family might want to take a tour of the web site and see some of the most excessive CD box sets anyone has ever imagined. It’s one thing to imagine a collection of early 60’s British skiffle performer, Lonnie Donegan. It’s another thing entirely to imagine it as an 8-CD box set with 60-page book (“More Than Pye in the Sky”).

Or, consider this: Currently in print are four different CD box sets for Dean Martin; an 8-CD & 84-page book set, another 8-CD & 84-page book set, and two different 6-CD plus DVD plus book sets (that’s 28 CDs, 2 DVDs and 4 books of Dino). You’ll also find three 4-CD Tex Ritter box sets, and page after page of multiple multi-CD boxes by Marty Robbins, Petula Clark and countless other artists from every genre and era.

When you look at a Bear Family box set of an artist you’re not particularly interested in there is a tendency to think, “How bizarre.” But, when you find that 12 CD box for one of your favorites that contains every alternate version, demo version, foreign language version, outtake, and a glossy hard cover book with full color photos of every LP, single, E.P., Indonesian flexi-disc, etc., there is a tendency to think, “It’s about time.” The Bear Family is the music collector’s dream label.

Songs For Political Action is a perfect case in point. 296 songs on 10 CDs with a 215-page hard cover coffee-table book makes for a box set that can’t be lifted with just one hand. It also makes for a stunning listening experience.

When compared to most of the developed world, America is still a very young country. It is a characteristic of youth to be disinterested in history, and that historical ambivalence is a defining aspect of the American character. The history of the American Left of the 1930s and 1940s is the history of average Americans struggling to gain the rights and rewards that most of us in 2009 pretty much take for granted.

This description from the Bear Family catalog places the collection in a concise context:

“Maybe it didn’t bring about the social and economic equality that it strove for, but the American Left of the 1930s and 1940s did leave one lasting legacy: the urban folk song revival. The energetic, politically daring music of the Almanac Singers and its predecessors, contemporaries and successors continue to resonate through today’s singer-songwriters. Spanning the years 1926 to 1953, the discs offer a comprehensive overview of this enduring music, from the labor choruses and New York’s socially conscious theatrical scene of the 1930s, to the Almanac Singers´ influential, the postwar idealism of People’s Songs and ends with the disturbing anti-Communist hysteria of the McCarthy era that silenced many of these talented, dedicated performers.”

The discs are organized historically and thematically: #1 - The Leftist Roots of the Folk Revival. #2 – Theatre and Cabaret Performers: 1936-1941. #3 – The Almanac Singers: March 1941-July 1941. #4 – Fighting the Fascists: 1942-1944. #5 – World War II and the Folk Revival. #6 – The People’s Songs Era: 1945-1949. #7 – Pete Seeger: 1946-1948. #8 – Charter Records: 1946-1949. #9 – Campaign Songs: 1944-1949. #10 – An Era Closes: 1949-1953.

Listen to songs like “I’m Going To Organize, Baby Mine” “There Is Mean Things Happening In This Land” “Farmer’s Letter To The President” “Write Me Out My Union Card” “We Shall Not Be Moved” “Bad Housing Blues” “Which Side Are You On?” “Oh, What Congress Done To Me” “Commonwealth of Toil” “Unemployment Compensation Blues” “The U.A.W. Train” “Susan’s in the Union” “Swingin’ On A Scab” “Song Of My Hands” “In Contempt” “Put My Name Down” “Talking Un-American Blues” “Joe McCarthy’s Band” and you’re listening to the history of America; the history of the individual men women who fought and died for simple things like a living wage, voting rights, the right to organize, and the dignity of the average American.

Throughout the collection there is an underlying passion for America, for the ideals and principles that America should extend to every citizen. It is fitting that the last song on the last disc is Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land.” This passion for America, and a stubborn refusal to accept nothing less than America’s promise of a fundamental fairness, rests right on the surface of lyrics like:

“Was a high wall there that tried to stop me
A sign was painted said: Private Property,
But on the back side it didn't say nothing --
This land was made for you and me.

One bright sunny morning in the shadow of the steeple
By the Relief Office I saw my people --
As they stood hungry, I stood there wondering if
God blessed America for me.”

Guthrie was a true phenomenon in his time, extraordinarily popular. I’ve always like Grapes of Wrath author, John Steinbeck’s description:

“Woody is just Woody. Thousands of people do not know he has any other name. He is just a voice and a guitar. He sings the songs of a people and I suspect that he is, in a way, that people. Harsh voiced and nasal, his guitar hanging like a tire iron on a rusty rim, there is nothing sweet about Woody, and there is nothing sweet about the songs he sings. But there is something more important for those who will listen. There is the will of the people to endure and fight against oppression. I think we call this the American spirit.”

I think I paid about $250 or so for this box a few years back and it’s been worth that to me. When I was a kid I had an Uncle Joe who always bought me books, every birthday, Christmas, and often whenever he’d come to visit. If I had money, I’d buy a copy for every kid I know as I’m pretty sure this isn’t the history they're getting in schools today, and if anyone ever said a truer thing than “Those who forget history are condemned to repeat it.” I’d sure like to hear it.