We Were Not Alone

Seems like science fiction, but for a long time, Homo sapiens were not the only human beings on earth. And there were a lot of them. And they lived in a very large area that included most of Europe, much of Asia, and probably, in many other places, too (but we haven’t yet found the evidence). They were far more sophisticated than you might imagine, very similar to our own kind as we evolved, in parallel, from about 350,000 years ago until (fairly recently?) until about 40,000 years ago. If we extended our individual family trees back to that time, most or many of us would find parents, aunts, and uncles, and plenty of cousins who were Neanderthal or mixed with our own kind, and quite likely, mixed with other early humans, too (and, probably, other species). This is not some exotic scientific story. This is the story of our own lives. And no less messy.

This morning, I happened to see a cartoon drawing of two large bears inspecting a minivan. On the back window of the vehicle were stick figures of a human family. One bear remarks, “Look! A menu!” It’s not easy to study the Neanderthals, or other early hominids, because they were eaten, destroyed in battle and accidents, burned, and buried. In fact, buried is good–if you know where to look. So far, we’ve been lucky enough to find bones, tools, settlements, but not many of them. Still, it’s a start, and we’ll no doubt find a lot more throughout the 21st century as we improve our satellite imaging (for example). In the meantime, scientists and historians have figured out some parts of the puzzle. Bear in mind that humans have been pursuing archeology for just over 150 years–and for the first 50-100 years, there were a lot of questions about validity, integrity, and there was astonished disbelief because humans (and their religions) didn’t want to consider the possibility that we were not alone as a human race. Getting past the idea of a “missing link” between humans and apes was, and perhaps remains, a problem, too. And this is made more complicated because Neanderthals are “extremely similar creatures to us” but “many simultaneous pathways existed, some finishing in dead ends, others like Neanderthals developing their own unique bodies and minds that were a match from our own.”

I’m quoting Rebecca Wragg Sykes, a remarkably talented storytelling and scientific historian whose book, KINDRED: Neanderthal Life, Love, Death and Art is an absolute delight. She keeps the story interesting (fascinating would be a better word), piling on the historical details, open questions, likely facts, and the vast vastness of things we don’t know. I love that.

So far, we’ve found about 250 Neanderthal bodies, or enough parts and pieces of bodies to develop some ideas about their lives. We will certainly find a lot more. Their brains and our brains–about the same size (“just as big and deliberating as your own”) Their brow–more expansive than ours. Their babies’ chins–less prominent, so our babies are, or were, probably cuter than their babies. Their eyes–bigger than ours, noting that “people from higher latitudes have eyeballs up to 20 percent bigger than those from near the equator.” Their ears–very similar to our own, inside and out. Their noses–certainly larger, so they could “snort in the air at almost twice the rate we do.” But why? Here’s the speculative layer that’s found throughout the book–questions about whether the larger nose provided greater airflow, more air filtering and conditioning, or a more powerful or refined sense of smell. “…in some ways, Neanderthals’ large internal structures resemble reindeer and saga antelope, which have extensive mucous membranes to reduce dehydration and heat loss…[but] the internal structures in Neanderthals appears to be worse at air conditioning than our own.”

There’s a strangeness about discovering Neanderthal life expressed in time and distance. They lived for several hundred years in an expanse from Spain to Siberia. When something is discovered about a particular body or settlement, one must consider not only where it was found but also when. That’s because cultures and communities are always in motion–so a place-based assumption may, in fact, be more of a time-based assumption. Think in terms of discovering a human body from the Middle Ages in France and another from two years ago in Vancouver, British Columbia, and making statements about their dental care, or their diet. Assumptions must be carefully considered. Now, expand the time scale from a thousand years to twenty thousand years–the assumptions become that much flakier.

Tools: “More artisans than klutzes, [Neanderthals] appreciated the right tools for the job. Selecting hammers…was crucial. Small cobbles have the necessary mass to hit hard for big flakes, but for more delicate work, pebbles are better. And using soft rather than hard hammers produces different effects. Elastic organic materials like antler and bone or even dense rock like limestone spread out the kinetic energy and produce thinner, longer flakes…Tools were often retouched, sometimes to give a particular edge, but often to resharpen them–flakes dull very fast even when cutting meat.” So: yes, Neanderthals made and used a variety of tools for a variety of purposes, just as we did, and do today. This suggests the range of activities they pursued–hardly anything as simple as hitting a bear with a wooden club, though they may have done that, too. They used wood to make spears: “far from pointed sticks…finely crafted from thin spruce and a single Scots pine, their tips are all at the stump end: the hardest part. The shafts were systematically carved off-center for increased strength…Experiments show that the shorter-throwing spears easily range to 30 meters (30 yards).”

Their diet was varied. “Beavers’ fatty tails would have been succulent treats…they certainly gorged on tortoises…dolphins, seal and large fish…ticks and lice might have been nibbled while grooming hair…Neanderthals hunted [bears] more than other predators…burning hints at cooking right there in the den.” They ate plants, too–pine, mushrooms, moss. They cooked stews. They soaked acorns, then boiled them, a far more sophisticated conception than eating only raw meat. They fermented food, one of many examples of planning and preparation.

I could go on through where they lived, how they raised their children and families, the art they made, their customs and care for the dead, and more. There is so much in KINDRED, and so much of it is captivating. And I am so looking forward to the next book from Ms. Sykes. I have found a new favorite author.

Happy 60th Anniversary, Arhoolie!

In this season of abundant music, I wanted to draw your attention toward something quite special and quite unique. Sixty years ago, Chris Strachwitz founded a record label to celebrate authentic folk music and blues. The label’s first release remains a personal favorite: Mance Lipscomb: Texas Sharecropper and Songster, recorded in rural Texas and released in 1961.

It’s wonderful that the story continues to this day. Even better that there is a free (please donate) documentary featuring the history and lots and lots of really terrific performances by and in memory of Arhoolie Records artists. Right now, I am thoroughly enjoying “Morning Train” by The Campbell Brothers band–so much fun to see this spectacular rendition recorded simply and so effectively. (It begins at 1:28:40 on the YouTube video.)

Man, this is great stuff! Taj Mahal opens with a Mance Lipscomb tune, and that’s followed by a rocking Ry Cooder version of a track from Big Joe Williams Tough Times, an album he remembers buying (his father hated it). The song is “Sloppy Drunk.”

Some of the best music here comes from the label’s dedication to Mexican music. Arhoolie released several albums by Lydia Mendoza, remembered here with a fresh and impassioned La Marisoul, backed up by Max Baca, whose own band, Los Texmaniacs updates a song recorded by Flaco Jimenez, who recorded for Arhoolie. (Jimenez “was introduced to the outside world by Ry Cooder–everything is connected!) “Un Mojado Sin Licencia (A Wetbaack Without a License)” is sung first by Jimenez, then by Los Texmaniacs, and both are terrific.

What am I missing? There’s Cajun music with BeauSoleil, several members of the Treme, and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Z.Z. Top’s Billy Gibbons (singing a Lightnin’ Hopkins song), a story by the Hungarian Csôkolom, blues star Charlie Musselwhite (who used to earn money on the side by delivering records for Chris). You might know Sugar Pie DeSanto, Ruthie Foster, or Barbie Dane, but you’ll know them after you watch this documentary–and you’ll not soon forget them.

And then, and at last in the documentary, there’s Mississippi Fred MacDowell, celebrated by Bonnie Raitt. She offers a big hug and thank you to Chris, then sings and plays a lovely version of MacDowell’s “Write Me a Few Lines” and “Kokomo Blues.” Gorgeous. So great!

Hosted by American Routes radio host Nick Spitzer, the documentary was released on Thursday, December 10. It’s nearly two hours long. I loved every minute of it. UPDATE: Unfortunately, it’s no longer available online.

Akin to the Internet, circa 1920

One version of our story begins in 1874, midway between Cleveland and Buffalo, about 20 miles inland from Lake Erie, on the shore of Lake Chautauqua. Another version begins a half-century earlier, in 1826, in a town called Millbury, just south of Worcester, Massachusetts. The third takes shape in 1904 in Iowa and Nebraska, in part because small towns could now be reached by the railroads out of Chicago.

Here’s what happened.

“In an age when most Americans had acquired only a grade school education,” two educators who were involved with Sunday schools “recognized the power of education to elevate, enlarge and enrich lives.” They were Reverend John Heyl Vincent, a Methodist minister who had become Secretary of the Sunday School Union, and Lewis Miller, a former teacher who became a businessman (farm machinery) who served as the Superintendent of Sunday School and at his church and President of the Board of Education in his hometown of Akron, Ohio. Together, on the pretty shore of Lake Chautauqua, they put together a conference for 2,500 Sunday school teachers for two weeks during the summer of 1874, mostly to listen to lectures and seminars about religion. When they did it again the following year, they added music from the Tennesseans, who sang plantation songs from the American South, and non-religious lecturers, notably President Ulysses S. Grant (he had been a former parishioner at Miller’s church in Illinois). A year later, there were lectures about chemistry, geology, and astronomy.

When I visited Chautauqua in 2014, I wrote about the experience. If I had stayed the full nine-week season in 2019, I would have attended lectures by public radio’s Krista Tippett and Ira Glass; Middlebury College President Laurie L. Patton; comedians David Steinberg and Lewis Black; author and activist Bill McKibben; writer and author James Fallows; author of The Death and Life of the Great Lakes Dan Egan. I would have gone to concerts featuring Judy Collins, Madeleine Peyroux, Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn, Diana Ross, the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis; and a lot of vocal and chamber groups whose names are unfamiliar. I would sit in on each morning’s lecture/sermon by a notable Chaplain, watched performances of several operas (The Barber of Seville, and Figaro), and just walked along the beautiful shore. If you’d like to imagine what you would have done, every season since 2007, follow this link and enjoy. They are now planning their 2021 summer season. And they’ve introduced an online version that I’ll write about in the future; it’s called Chautauqua Assembly.

Yes, it’s amazing that this bit of 1870s culture remains vibrant and remarkably successful 150 years after it began, but that’s only part of our story.

Now, let’s jump back to the late 1820s and 1830s–where the roots of today’s public radio reside (GBH began just ten years later). Somewhat similar to today’s TEDTalks, the Lyceum circuit provided lecturers to more than 3,000 theaters and public spaces all over the country. There were big stars on the circuit: Mark Twain, P.T. Barnum, Susan B. Anthony, Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, and other U.S. Presidents, and lots of lesser-knowns. But there was a problem. No air conditioning. No climate control for hot indoor spaces during the summer–so the Lyceum circuit was, mostly, a wintertime activity. Until one day…

Keith Vauter, who managed western states and territories for a booking agency that supplied the Lyceum Circuit with talent, decided to try a new approach. The Chautauqua concept in upstate New York had inspired summer chautauquas in other places. He figured he could book his talent during the summer, and expand his business. His first attempt–in 1904–failed because the logistics of moving so many performers to so many locations was just too expensive. As Vauter improved the logistics and came up with a way for local communities to guarantee the cost of their own chautauqua, the concept took off. Borrowing ideas from traveling circuses, vaudeville, and theater troupes, they devised what became a very popular idea: the traveling chautauqua. At least until 1929, when a combination of talking motion pictures and the Depression more-or-less ended the fun. For about 25 years, traveling Chautauqua “served to provide small towns with a deeper sense of self, community, nation, the world, and God. They spanned the silent movie era, the Progressive Age, and the transportation shift from horse-and-buggy to automobile.”

There is great wisdom in the chautauqua movement, and in the Lyceum movement, and in their intermingled roots of what has since become radio, television, some of the Internet, some of the entertainment industry, and more. When I started to become curious, I found two extraordinary experts who knew the culture and the whole story. The first was Harry P. Harrison, who was among the first “platform superintendents” for the new Chautauqua circuit way back in 1903. He wrote, or dictated, a book to co-author Karl Detzer, a professional writer; it’s called Culture Under Canvas: The Story of Tent Chautauqua (published in 1958; I found an autographed copy for $3 in a used bookstore). The second is newer, written by a college professor who worked with music students in summer Chautauqua for many years. It’s called The Traveling Chautauqua, and the author is Roger E. Barrows. The material quoted in this article comes from that book.

So: what was it like, going to a tent chautauqua for a week in the 1920s?

From Missouri’s Joplin Globe: The most famous Chautauqua speaker was the founder of Temple University, Russell Conwell. Conwell is said to have given his “Acres of Diamonds” speech 6,150 times between 1882 and 1925. Much in the spirit of self-improvement found in chautauquas, Conwell emphasized that developing his talents and skills is what made a man successful — or diamonds could be found in one’s own backyard. He and perennial presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan were two of the most sought-after speakers.”

Harrison tells stories about the many performers who helped make his career. Barrows breaks it down by type of performer, provides many more pictures, and also includes excerpts from their scripts.

“Madame Ernestine Schumann-Heink sweeps onto the stage. She is a large woman whose presence dominates the platform. Her rich voice, with its wide range…begins with the spring aria from the Saint-Saens opera, Samson and Delilah.” (“When the movement began in 1874, all music was live.”) “To the perpetual spinning sounds of the piano, Madame Schumann-Heink becomes Gretchen at the spinning wheel, expressing her mounting heartache as she comes to realize the emptiness of Faust’s promises…Schubert’s art song travels from the Austrian metropolis of Vienna to the small towns of Texas and Ohio…The artist would later recount how, in the midst of her signing, she could hear the mooing of cows…”

Bohumir Kyrl, who had played with Sousa, conducted his own popular band and became a star performing on cornet. College girls, on an adventure for the summer, would sing classical, art, and popular songs. The Jubilee Singers (the Fisk University group was one of several) would “harmonize a cappella;” “they had heard tales of slavery from their parents’ laps, and…had personal experiences with racism, (as they expressed) the “anguish and sorrow of the original singers.” There were authentic Indian princesses who performed on piano, sang songs, and shared legends of their people. The Raweis were Native New Zealanders on tour through the American hinterlands. At a time when actors were not welcome in God-fearing small towns, Lucille Adams was an “interpreter,” also called a “reader,” who read and spoke expressively, but didn’t quite “act.” In time, the circuit tried a Shakespearean acting troupe led by Ben Greet, a legitimate Shakespearean actor, and they became popular, famous, and well-traveled, introducing Shakespeare’s work to audiences who had never seen anything quite like it. Eugene Laurent was a popular magician on the circuit.

There were cooking lessons, many lecturers who specialized in a loving life at home, and plenty of preachers. Billy Sunday was a former professional baseball player who converted to evangelical Christianity and became one of its most famous spokespeople. Lots of souls were saved in the chautauqua tents, of lives transformed. Many religions were represented; Rabbi Emil Hirsch of Chicago’s Sinai Congregation helped non-Jews understand his religion.

One of the most famous speakers relied upon religion with a more old-time flavor, not only for his tremendous success on the circuit but also as the basis for three runs for U.S. President–William Jennings Bryan, at the time, one of the best-known American citizens. (You’ll recall his name and presence from the Scopes Trial and the play, Inherit the Wind). Reformer Jane Addams was on the circuit in 1909 and 1919. Women’s suffrage was a hot topic on the circuit, too. Jeanette Rankin often spoke about that–she being the first woman elected to the U.S. Congress.

From 1909 to 1912, Peter MacQueen talked about his adventures hunting for big game with Teddy Roosevelt in Africa. Around the same time, Frederick A. Cook spoke–more than 350 times–and claimed to be the first man to reach the North Pole (Peary was second). Booker T. Washington spoke about progress through education at chautauquas around 1914, and a few years earlier, Florence Mayrick talked about her life in an English prison. When the chautauaqua was in town, everyone was elevated, educated, and thrilled. Truly, this was something special in towns where not much special happened very often.

And then, it was over. This huge chunk of American education for adults, and for the entire family, just went away. Radio took its place with an even wider variety of education, religion, entertainment and more. And then, television, and then, the internet.

The best way to experience a chautauqua is to buy a ticket for several days, or longer, for the original that still runs in New York State. The second best, which may be pretty darned good, is to find yourself a local chautauqua like the one that the Wythe Arts Council runs in Wytheville, Virginia, or the weekend festival in Madison, Indiana, or the one that feels intentionally old-fashioned in Mountain Lake Park, Maryland, an old B&O Railroad town and former resort that was, in the day, home to an original Chautauqua traveling show. As soon as things open up again, they’re on my list–and if you know of any others, please add them to the comments below.

AND–for even more fun–check this out! It’s an industry trade magazine from June 1922–and it’s chock full of advertisements, news stories, photographs, listings of booking agents, and so much more. The magazine is called Lyceum Magazine: For the Lyceum and the Chautauqua.

The Constitution Song

Excellent work by an old friend and his creative team. The Constitution Song is the first project for Tublius™, an initiative by Peter Shane to popularize the history and interpretation of the U.S. Constitution through online photographic, video, musical, and prose presentations.

Please take a few minutes to watch, learn about the Constitution, and its vital importance. Then, share.

We will make progress in November if everyone adds their voice today.

Thankfully, there is a website that comes complete with the lyrics and explanations. Sure wish I had something similar for Hamilton! For example…

Add your voice!

Add your voice!

Add your voice

To the Constitution Song!

Americans whipped the British and secured their independence.

  • The American Revolution was fought between 1775 and 1783. The colonies declared their independence from Britain on July 4, 1776.
  • That didn’t guarantee a country fit for their descendants.

The states at first agreed to just a loose confederation.

  • The first version of the United States of America operated under an agreement among the states called, “The Articles of Confederation,” written in 1777 and ratified in 1781. It described the union as a “league of friendship” among sovereign states. The Articles authorized a one-House Congress to conduct foreign policy, maintain armed forces and coin money. However, Congress lacked the power either to raise taxes or to regulate commerce. There was no separate executive branch to enforce the law, and Congress could create no courts other than admiralty courts.

They didn’t have the unity it takes to forge a nation.

So four years after wartime,

  • The American Revolution is generally dated from 1775, with the confrontations at Lexington and Concord, until 1783, when the Treaty of Paris was signed, and the Constitutional Convention took place in 1787. The Battle of Yorktown, the decisive last battle of the war, was actually fought from September 29 to October 19, 1781. With the help of the French, George Washington was able to lay siege to the army of British General Charles Lord Cornwallis, eventually surrounding them with artillery until Cornwallis was forced to surrender. It took fifteen months, however, to agree on all treaty provisions, in part because the American alliance with France and the French alliance with Spain meant that a full armistice required Britain to reach acceptable terms with all three countries.

Philly saw a secret meeting

  • Following a navigation dispute with Maryland, Virginia called for representatives of all the states to convene at Annapolis on September 11, 1786. Only five states showed up, however, and so, as suggested in a report drafted by Alexander Hamilton, they wound up recommending a convention of all the states to be held in Philadelphia to consider potential improvements to the Articles of Confederation. The Philadelphia delegates were fearful that, given the precarious state of the Confederation, premature publicity of tentative proposals might doom the Convention to failure and discourage the delegates from speaking freely and even changing their minds as discussions proceeded. They decided to close the doors to the public and agreed to a pledge of secrecy, which apparently was all but entirely kept.

Of men who knew without a change, their freedom would be fleeting.

Their government was feeble. It needed a solution.

In sixteen weeks, they hammered out a U.S. Constitution.

  • The convention met from May 25 to September 17, 1787.

(and so it continues…)

Watch the video. It’s fun! And the guy you’ll be learning from, well, he’s among the best there is.

The RSA: Climate Change Requires Immediate Attention

I’m always impressed with The RSA’s animations. This one was just released. It tells an important and urgent story about climate change. Acknowledging the nastiness of dealing with two catastrophes at the same time, this video runs less than five minutes–and the visuals bring the topic to life.

Be safe, everyone.

A City of Books

Although the idea of writing a book about books and bookstores for people who enjoy books seems to be both precious and redundant, I find browsing, then reading, these books to be irresistible. The newest in this genre is A Booklover’s Guide to New York, by which author Cleo Le-Tan and illustrator Pierre Le-Tan seem to mean not the state of New York, nor most of the city of New York, but instead, the island of Manhattan. And that’s just fine: few places on earth contain a richer assortment of delights for people who love books.

The book is set up as a combination of a tour and a series of conversations. The first stop is The Mysterious Bookshop, down in TriBeCa, relocated from further uptown, accurately described as “a homey destination” and “a haven for any crime, suspense and thriller reader.” Next page: an interview with Otto Penzler, who owns the shop, and founded Mysterious Press back in the mid-1970s. It’s fun to read his back story–so many people who live in NYC have a backstory–after he started the publishing house, and it succeeded, he decided to open a shop without knowing anything at all about starting or operating a retail enterprise. What was the key to success?: women started writing popular mystery fiction, and that attracted more female readers. He describes Manhattan as “ground zero” for mystery.

Within walking distance: Poet’s House at 10 River Terrace, which has been operating for three decades, “still prides itself on “bringing world-renowned poets to new audiences. And: Richardson, at 325 Broome St., owned by Andrew Richardson, who also publishes a magazine (same name as the shop), with a selection that is “either deeply intellectual, aesthetically pleasing, or highly sophisticated.” And sometimes, erotic. This is not just a book filled with pages about bookstores; the Seward Park Library is one of several public libraries. Opened in 1909, it’s located in Chinatown, which tends to be busy much of the day and night, but here, there is quiet. And a lot of books. And all of the modern conveniences. Museums get their due, too. The first is the Tenement Museum, located at 103 Orchard Street (all of the places in this paragraph are walkable from one another, but subways and buses can shorten the travel times). The museum offers guided tours of life more than a century ago in lower Manhattan, a time when poor European immigrants lived in close quarters. Of course, it includes a specialist bookstore.

Let’s head to midtown. It’s a healthy walk, about two miles north, but it’s quick and easy to hop on the subway. Mostly, this is a busy business district with lots of skyscrapers. My favorite bookstore–the Gotham Book Mart–is among the many shops that are no longer there. But there are plenty of places to visit, and perhaps, buy even more books. If you’re staying overnight, there’s the Library Hotel, 299 Madison Avenue at 41st Street, one of a growing number of hotels with their own collections of books for guests (these are popping up all over the world). The Morgan Library & Museum is a notable Manhattan landmark, and “originally the private library of one of America’s most notable financiers, Pierpont Morgan.” The Morgan also hosts special book-related events and other arts events. It is simply a stunning place. Even more fun: The Drama Book Shop, filled with scripts, scores, and all things theater. Under new ownership–Lin-Manuel Miranda and several of his Hamilton cronies–a new shop opens soon. A short walk leads to the main branch of The New York Public Library, at 42nd Steet and Fifth Avenue, with its awesome map room, classic reading room, and so many places you’ve seen in magazines and in movies. Next, it’s over to Algonquin Hotel, 59 West 44 Street, where “right after World I, a group of rather intelligent and witty twenty-something New York writers, critics, and actors, and nicknamed themselves ‘The Vicious Circle,” and included NY Times theater critic Alexander Woolcott, Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley, and Robert E. Sherwood.

As time and interest allow, there’s John Steinbeck’s apartment at 190 East 72 Street, walkable but again, a subway is faster. And if you want to further explore Manhattan’s Upper East Side, check the schedule for the 92nd Street Y, 1395 Lexington Avenue, because there are often authors and various performers on stage discussing their work: in March, the list includes novelist Zadie Smith, Maria Kalman on her new book about Alice B. Toklas, film director Barry Sonnenfeld talking about his new book with Jerry Seinfeld, E.J. Dionne, Hilary Mantel, Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn on their new book, a lot of musical performances, and more. Right nearby: La Librairie des Enfants, a charming lending library, and an informal community center. Also in the neighborhood: Kitchen Arts & Letters at 1435 Lexington Avenue, offering not only cookbooks but tons of books about food history and related topics

What about the other boroughs? Sure, there are a few pages about the Bronx (2 pages, plus a good interview with local author Richard Price), Brooklyn (The Center for Fiction–moved after two centuries in Manhattan, The Central Library, which is not part of the New York Public Library but a magnificent enterprise of its own) and Queens (a lovely story about fulfilling the need for neighborhood bookstores–Kew & Willow Books).

There are some photographs, but they tend to be small and suggest snapshots. Better are the pen-and-ink illustrations that do not attempt to support the text in a literal way. Instead, the pictures provide a sense of place, offer little piles of books and the occasional bookworm. Think about the use of spot illustrations in the New Yorker magazine–but add spot color.

 

(Note: New Yorker illustrator Pierre Le-Tan died in October 2019.)

 

 

 

An Ordinary Interview with Mandy Patinkin

I’ve been a fan since he performed Ché in Evita, certainly since he brought Georges Seurat to life in Sunday in the Park with George. It’s wonderful to be a fan of Mandy Patinkin because he’s talented and smart and heimish, a real person who also happens to be an actor and a singer. The Canadian radio program Q heard on CBC radio (and on some public radio stations in the U.S.). The interview covers concepts about religion and science, family, philosophy, friendship, storytelling, family, and imagination. Not your usual showbiz Q&A, but much more a quiet conversation between friends. A half-hour well-spent.

Just in case the word is unfamiliar, heimish, also hamish, is a Yiddish word that feels homey and comfortable, probably derived from a description of “the old country,” but nowadays, closer to friendly and just comfortable being himself while bringing others into the conversation as equals.

 

A World of Music in Salisbury

If you haven’t tried the Lemon Chess Pie at Ugly Pie on Main Street in Salisbury, Maryland, it’s probably time that you do so. For me, it was a tough decision: the Peanut Butter & Jelly Chess Pie was a serious contender, but the lemon won out. And I happened to miss the Apple Crumb pie because, well, the shop was busy. There were almost 200,000 people visiting Salisbury for the weekend.

Ugly Pie is just next door to The Mad Hatter, a chef-owned restaurant with an adventurous bearing and locally sourced food. Had I known how good the restaurant was going to be, I would have eaten all of my meals there. As schedules allowed, I ate only two: Alice in Toast, an egg cloud (fluffy egg white [a very old food idea enjoying an Instagram comeback] with fresh bacon, avocado and a giant biscuit, and a beef bulgoki preceded by a wonderful, light, fresh crab soup (“most people buy a quart to take home–yesterday, we sold about ten gallons in all”–Chef Dan).

And who better as a dining companion than Mayor Jake Day, the former city council president who is extremely proud of his city’s recent progress. Day points out the old brick building where he started his career as a young architect, then talks about how his dream of rebuilding the old city is is coming true. The rebirth is more than physical. The turning point was Third Fridays, a monthly celebration that brought the community back downtown after a half century of staying away (for a look at the city that used to be, browse these historical photos of Salisbury).

Screen Shot 2019-09-11 at 4.15.12 PM.pngThe success of Third Fridays encouraged the city leaders to pursue a larger dream. They applied to serve as the host city for the National Folk Festival–a three-year commitment with a longer-term contractual responsibility. The National Council for Traditional Arts partners with the host city for three years, and then, the local city must continue a smaller-scale version of the festival for many more years. Last year, it rained, but about 100,000 music and craft fans showed up anyway. This year, the weather was perfect, the music was spectacular, the Salisbury doubled its festival attendance. The joint success was due, in part, to the wonderful vibe, but also to the presentation of one extremely high quality performance followed by another and another and far too many for any reasonable person to absorb in three days. I tried. And I’m writing this article while playing a sampler CD in the background, remembering how much great music I saw on stage, and how much I missed (next year is Salisbury’s third year, so the opportunity window remains open).

For much of the festival, there were acts on five stages scattered through the (walkable) city center. (And, every time I walked from the Community Stage to the PRMC Stage, I passed the newly-opened ice cream parlor in the renovated old Chesapeake Hotel, and every time, there was a line out the door and beyond).

tsponoc1-768x768We started out with an acoustic band out of Pittsburgh called Tamburaški Sastav Ponoć–five guys carrying on a native Balkan string band tradition with easily accessible music that dates back over 500 years. The instruments look and sound familiar (they resemble guitars, mandolins, etc.), but they’re local to the Balkans: the soprano prim, the alto brać, the ćelo, the bugarija and the berda. The band members learned Balkan music in their communities, and from their parents (for example, Mark, who plays brać, learned from his father, who runs the well-known and well-regarded Duquesne University Tamburitzans music group). It’s the kind of music that sounds just enough like familiar bluegrass and folk to feel comfortable for an audience new to Balkan styles, but the feeling that this music is part of my life runs deep. I suspect many people feel that way.

One of the good things about a festival is that performers do their acts more than once. We had hoped to see Sheila Kay Adams tell stories of her Appalachian childhood on Saturday morning, but we managed to see half her act on Sunday instead. She talked about her life as a child being brought up by well-intentioned religious leaders in the community, and explained that their odd combination of accents, mumbling, and dental insufficiencies allowed her to grow up without understanding a single word uttered by any of them.

Eddie-Cotton_PC-Corey-Solotorovsky-Vicksburg-Blues-Society_240-dpi-350x350AURELIO_3_PC-Richard-Holder_240-dpi-350x350The variety of things to do at a folk festival is striking, and provocative. We wandered from Appalachian storytelling to the juke joint electric guitar of Eddie Cotton, Jr., then to the Aurelio, who also plays electric guitar, but in a profoundly different style coming out of Central America. Specifically, Aurelio performs music from the Garifuna culture, found along the coast of Belize, Honduras, Guatemala and Nicaragua. It’s not every day that I’m exposed to this music; the immersive experience of loud guitar, deep kick drum, and a rocking rhythm took me to a place I’ve never been before. A different sort of transcendency shook me out of Sunday morning sleepiness (after a long Saturday night) as Cora Harvey Armstrong belted gospel favorites (she took requests from a very knowledgable audience) with backup from family members in her small band.Cora-Harvey-Armstrong-e1555534893164-350x350

Family plays an important role in traditional music. It’s not unusual to find siblings performing together, sometimes as part of a multigenerational act.

Jones-Benally-Family-Dancers_courtesy-of-artist_240-dpi-350x350We missed them onstage, but we spent an hour chatting with the Jones Benally Family Dancers, a Native American group. They call themselves Dine’–others call them Navajo (a useful comparison: people in Germany call themselves Deutsche, but others call them German). The dad–Berta Benally–has been dancing onstage for three-quarters of a century. He doesn’t know how old he is, but family members guess his age at about 90 years, give or take. He still does an amazing hoop dance, and other dances that he learned from his grandfather. His story, which I only began to learn, weaves through the history of “not being kidnapped to attend an Indian school” because his parents hid him away, joining Buffalo Bill’s Wild West and traveling to almost every country in the world as a dancer and performer and stage craft expert, and later performing as John Wayne’s stunt double in Hollywood. These days, Berta performs with his son and daughter (who have their own rock band that incorporates Dine’ traditions), and his granddaughters (who really wanted to go back to the hotel room to change out of their stage clothes so they could do their homework).

Ostensibly, the National Folk Festival is about musical performance (and craft, as below). That’s one way to look at what happened in Salisbury last weekend. There’s more to it, which is why the National Council for Traditional Arts does the work it does. Berta Benally, Aurelio Martinez, Theodore “Lòlò” Beauburn, Jr. (who dances and sings as the lead of a Haitian band, Boukman Eksperyans), Cora Harvey Armstrong out of Richmond, Virginia, Eddie Cotton, Jr. from Clinton, Mississippi, Rahim AlHaj (the Iraqi oud player from Albuquerque who I missed this time around)–they define the United States and its culture. They remind the crowd that not one of us–nearly all of the people who currently live in the United States–come from any one place. We come from so many places, it’s nearly impossible for any of us to make any meaningful list of our various family tributaries.

The exception might be the Benally family, but here, too, there’s an enormous global influence. The U.S. is a nation of rich contradictions–the Buffalo Bill Wild West shows became a place where Native American cultures were collected and celebrated, but these shows became far more popular in Europe than in the U.S. And of everyone who appeared at this particular festival, Berta Benally is probably the only one whose resume includes not only performances for the Queen of England, but also throughout South America, Europe, Asia. He’s certainly the only one who helped to open Honolulu’s first shopping mall, and performed regularly at the Rose Bowl Parade. Welcome to the United States of America, not quite his native land.

And then, there’s the crafts. This was a big music weekend, so I found myself attracted to Pete Ross. His display–there were more than a dozen interesting craft displays–focused on the making of the gourd banjo. The writer/historian Krisina Gaddy (K.R. Gaddy) joined us for a deep dive into the several strands of banjo history, including answers to my questions about origin in Africa, new information (for me) about the Dutch and Surinam, and serious questions about the sanitized history of the banjo making its way along White paths from England to Appalachia. I was sufficiently taken with the history lesson to visit her website, and to listen for an hour to a podcast that included performance and historical storytelling.

I suspect this is the point of the festival. I go, I eat, I listen to music, I come home feeling as though I might have learned something, and then, I spend time learning even more by visiting websites and listening to music. All because I decided to spend a weekend in a place I’d never been, Salisbury, Maryland. I shall return (next year!).

(Photos courtesy of the artists)

Eunice, Nina and Laiona

“White people had Judy Garland–we had Nina. God bless ya, baby!”

Little Girl Blue: The Nina Simone Musical – Written and Performed by Laiona Michelle – George Street Playhouse 1/27/19 Photo Credit: T Charles Erickson© T Charles Erickson

Richard Pryor’s quote introduces a 4-CD box set, a concise summary of more than forty record albums, mostly in the 1960s. Nina Simone’s story parallels the evolution of race consciousness and rights during that period. In fact, it’s a very good story, the kind of story that deserves a proper stage show to feature both the music, the struggles, the era, and a remarkable performer that most people do not know very well.

Fortunately, I was not the only one who thought that was a good idea.

There are three names to know. The first is Eunice Kathleen Waymon, a talented girl born in Tryon, North Carolina in 1933 who never lost the child within her, for all of the good and the bad that may bring. The second is Nina Simone, a stage name built from the Spanish term for “little one” and “Simone” after the actress Simone Signoret. The third name is Laiona Michelle, a Broadway actress and singer who decided to write and star in a small stage show so the story and music of Nina Simone could be shared with a 21st century audience.

This is not a one-woman show, and that was a wise production decision. Instead, Laiona/Nina appears with her small jazz band (basically: piano, bass, drums) in an imaginative styling of a club set in the early and later 1960s (lighting and scenery are supportive and well-done).

Maybe in another time, the story would be a happy one. Watching the show, recently staged at The George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick, New Jersey (on the Rutgers University campus), one wishes it could have been otherwise. Her regrets are our regrets. Waymon was a gifted classical pianist, clearly special from the age of three, who benefitted from a small town piano teacher who not only recognized her talent, but helped her get to the Juilliard School in New York City (the community raised the necessary funds). Sadly, we were deprived of her work on the classical side because Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music turned down her application, almost certainly as a result of the color of her skin (in 2003, just before her death, they offered an honorary degree). She was devastated.

And, she was resilient. Determined. Vastly talented. Capable of holding the stage at a time when this was not easy for a singer to do on her own. She had a sense of humor, too, and a sense of how to keep her career in motion despite indefensible obstacles. At the start of the stage show, Laiona begins to find her way and the audience becomes comfortable with her interpretation of Nina Simone. In time, despite the occasional subtle miss, she becomes Nina Simone–and everyone in the theater is on her side. It’s not easy to be Nina/Eunice; she struggles more than any person ought to struggle, but those were her times, and she wasn’t getting the kind of help that might be available nowadays (under the best of circumstances).

It’s striking to see just how much music, and Nina Simone, and our consciousness changed in a decade. Her earliest recordings, and her earliest hits, come from Broadway. For example, George Gershwin’s “I Loves You, Porgy,” Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “Something Wonderful,” Cole Porter’s “The Laziest Gal in Town,” and Rodgers and Hart’s “Little Girl Blue” (which titles the stage show) are part of the repertoire. And they sit beside some hipper Broadway tunes such as Anthony Newley’s “Feeling Good” and “Beautiful Land.” One favorite, not included in the stage show, goes back to the early days of vaudeville, the Ziegfeld Follies, when songwriter-performer Bert Williams would perform his signature “Nobody” in blackface. The juxtaposition of this material against one of Simone’s best-known songs, “Mississippi Goddam” seems striking, but this composition, and many more of her original songs, also stand beside the Billie Holiday song, “Strange Fruit” (written by Lewis Allen), and Holiday’s own “Tell Me More and Then Some.” Certainly, the first act’s closer, “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free” is both a show stopper and a wonderfully sensitive reading of a song that doesn’t get much attention nowadays.

There is a lot of music in this show. Some of the above songs, some of Simone’s most popular songs, are not included in the stage show (it’s impossible to include everybody’s one favorite). (Laiona does an especially good job with one of my favorites, Randy Newman’s “I Think It’s Going to Rain Today,” and easily one of the best versions of the sometimes-yukky “My Way” I have ever heard). Still, there is an appropriate mix, the right songs to propel the story of Nina Simone’s progress from jazz/pop singer in the early 1960s to a fully aware, righteous Black woman and social activist later in the 1960s, and on through the 1990s and beyond. Her engagement in the Civil Rights movement leads to time in Liberia, Barbados, England, Belgium, France, Switzerland and The Netherlands. Much of the time is difficult, and as she continues to perform, the dramatic story becomes emotional on two levels. There is the life of Eunice Kathleen Waymon, who never quite left her childhood memories behind, and finds herself deeply disappointed by some of what has happened to her. And there is the life of a spectacularly talented dark-skinned singer who represents far more than herself, and tries to make things better, often against adversity. It’s not an easy story to hear because none of us did nearly enough to make things better, but the music soothes and eases the bad feelings. It’s a patent medicine, an elixir, a mode of storytelling that allows the story to progress without tearing our insides out.

As I write this article, I’m listening to the Four Women box set that recaps her work for Verve. I have a particular attachment to “Nobody,” which I mention again because I’ve just listened to it again, but as I browse the stage show’s song list, I realize that I have a particular connection to many of the songs. And not just the songs. The sense that this was a life that I should have known better, a body of work, an artist who deserves more of today’s stage than she has been allowed.

Here’s hoping we have not seen the last of Little Girl Blue by, and starring, Laiona Michelle. Here’s hoping Nina Simone finds her place in an off-Broadway theater for a spell, and then, here’s hoping she takes that show on the road so that everyone can experience, and remember, who Nina Simone was, and was she still matters.

Excellence in Design: The Look of Jazz

You probably don’t know the name Reid Miles, but you probably know his work. He was the art director for an extensive series of significant Blue Note jazz albums. For those who care about jazz, and design, and typography, and photography, this is a lesson worthy of your time and attention.

You may know the name Francis Wolff. His photographs tell the story of Herbie Hancock, Joe Henderson, Tony Williams, Art Blakey, and so many others.

And you may know the name Michael Cuscuna, a jazz record producer and “Blue Note archivist.” His insights bring the visual storytelling to life.

The film is produced by Vox. Nice work!

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