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.)

 

 

 

TIME’s Youngest Person of the Year–Before Greta Thunberg

I decided to do some counting. So far, Greta is the youngest individual TIME Magazine Person of the Year.

Before Greta, can you figure out who the holder of the “youngest individual” was? Here are several possible answers:

– Mark Zuckerberg
– Queen Elizabeth II
– Mahatma Gandhi
– Wallis Simpson
– Charles Lindbergh

I will publish the correct answer in the next blog post.

But while we’re all paying attention, I did notice that the vast majority of winners have been older white men: 73 in all. During that same period, there have been just 6 females–and including Greta, just one other female since 1987. (Yes. TIME should probably question its processes). She was:

– Margaret Thatcher
– Elizabeth Warren
– Hilary Clinton
– Angela Merkel
– J.K. Rowling

Again, look for the correct answer in the next blog post.

One final thought: during the past few years, and throughout its history, TIME has given the honor to, for example, The Computer, The Endangered Earth, and the Ebola Fighters. Who was Greta’s immediate individual predecessor as Person of the Year?

– Barack Obama
– Donald Trump
– Nancy Pelosi
– Beyoncé
– Tim Cook

Answers to come.

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.

 

An Absolute Joy

Screen Shot 2019-11-21 at 6.56.08 PM.png‘Tis the season for annual performances of Handel’s Messiah, a magnificent oratorio notable for catchy melodies, high drama, and extreme reverence. It feels great to sit in a concert hall and listen to music composed in 1741–and it feels even better to stand up and sing along. The British novelist Jonathan Keates recaps the compelling story of Handel, oratorios, and the era’s version of what becomes show business in a 150-page book called Messiah: The Composition and Afterlife of Handel’s Masterpiece. It’s a wonderful starting place for a holiday adventure through what is variously called “early music” or “baroque classical music.”

I stumbled into the world of Henry Purcell, William Byrd, Josquin, Lassus, Monteverdi, and their contemporary counterparts, John Tavener, Arvo Pärt, and James MacMillan by watching free YouTube videos and listening to CDs by a wonderful choral group called The Sixteen led by the remarkable Harry Christophers. I would certainly apply the term, “an absolute joy” to the 4-and-a-half minute YouTube video “Monteverdi Vespers / Apollo’s Fire” from 1610. It’s played by a pair of orchestras–a small string group and a small brass group tied together with a continuo section consisting of a lute, an early keyboard, and a harp–and a choir that performs with beauty, grace and virtuosity.Screen Shot 2019-11-21 at 6.56.08 PM.png

I mentioned that I found this music rather by accident. Truth be told, when I started building an LP library, baroque music was, well, very inexpensive. I could buy the records, in fine condition, for about $3 each (as opposed to about $5 for other classical LPS, $10 for the jazz LPs I wanted, and more for the rock/pop recordings). So I bought a lot of them, figuring I would discard what I did not like. I loved it all, and now, I’ve got a problem with available shelf space. But I did not buy any music by The Sixteen because the material is not available on LP.

If I was just beginning to listen today, I would probably begin with a 40 track sampler entitled 40: The Anniversary Album

The number 40 refers to the age of The Sixteen–they began with a concert performance in May, 1979. The music on this 2-CD set reaches back much further–over 600 years. It’s an ideal holiday gift–for those who still listen to CDs in their home or car. (It’s also available on iTunes, etc.)

If you listen with your heart, it’s easy to fall in love. I would begin by darkening the room, and playing the Handel Coronation Anthems on a video screen connected to a good pair of loudspeakers. This performance, from the BBC’s popular PROMS, bursts into large-scale choral energy with wonderful conducting (fun to watch Harry Christophers at his best) and beautiful instrumental work. The CD is even better because the sound quality is extraordinary (true for all of their work, on their CORO label), and because there’s twice as much music.

While we’re on Handel… one of the newest recordings by The Sixteen is an opera called Acis and Galatea. It’s not a big opera–and you can watch the opera with its five singers and small instrumental ensemble to sense each individual musician’s magic. Watch the video promo, listen to Harry explain what they are doing and why, and you’ll want to buy the 2-CD set for the holidays as well.

It’s not all Handel and Monteverdi, of course. I loved a collection called The Earth Resounds featuring earlier music from three composers who started in Flanders: Orlande de Lassus (c. 1532-1594), Josquin Desprez (c.1452-1521) and Antoine Brumel (c.1460-1512 or so). Brumel worked as a church musician who wrote, notably, The Earthquake Mass, a truly moving experience in every sense. It’s difficult for me to imagine listening to music that was composed around the time of Christopher Columbus–and thoroughly enjoying the works as fresh, warm and winning here in the 21st century.

You’ll get a similar set of time and place by watching this video of Henry Purcell’s “Welcome Songs”–but the time is the latter half of the 1600s and the place is England. Once again, the video is tied into CDs, several that you’ll find on the CORO website.

The Deer’s Cry is a good starting place to experience sacred choral music, past and present. Begin with the short video on YouTube, then graduate to the hour-plus CD with its centerpiece, Miserere nostri by William Byrd (1540-1623) with help from another well-known composer whose work remains popular, Thomas Tallis (c. 1505-1585), known today for Spem in alium, a choral work you’ll find by several artists in record stores and on YouTube. The title of the CD comes from a work by Estonian composer Arvo Pärt (born 1935). It is stunning.

Screen Shot 2019-11-21 at 8.14.19 PM.pngSpem in alium is the final entry in a concert on YouTube that also features two other Tallis works, as well as compositions by Robert Carver and Robert Ramsey. The sound and performance are enormously affecting and well worth a good long, quiet listen. (The video  tallies 119,000 views–far more than most in this category.)

There are so many other CDs that I have already heard–and so many more than I wish to hear–but allow me to mention several other recommendations by contemporary composers: Stabat Mater by contemporary composer James MacMillan; a collection by Edmund Rubbra and another called Ikon of Light with works by John Tavener. In this video, Harry Christophers connects the dots between past and contemporary work.

To this awe-inspiring stack of listening for the holidays and well into 2020, I would add the variety of Eton Choirbook legacy CDs–there are several, and they celebrate the Eton College Chapel in England.

I have a great deal more listening to do–and reading, too. I have yet to listen to The Sixteen’s version of Messiah–more Handel operas (now that I’ve discovered how The Sixteen sings them, I want to hear them all), more from their choral pilgrimage series, and I’m sure I will discover even more delights (and I do mean to use that word in its most literal sense).

Along the way, I plan to read–and have in my hands–a good thick, well-researched book about Baroque Music by John Walter Hill, and the volume I should probably read first Screen Shot 2019-11-21 at 8.16.50 PM.pngRenaissance Music. So much music, so little time–but then, much of this music has been performed for half a millennium. Regardless of my pace, it will survive. Today, in the hands and hearts of Harry Christophers, and his peers including John Eliot Gardiner, and others, it may be fair to say that it thrives as never before. The secret: these magical musicians are more than that. They are teachers. And I am their most willing student.

Bring on the Immigrants!

“These days, a great many people in the rich countries complain loudly about migration from the poor ones. But as the immigrants see it, the game was rigged: First, the rich countries colonized us and stole our treasure and prevented us from building industries. After plundering us for centuries, they left, having drawn up maps in ways that ensured permanent strife between our communities. Then they brought us to their countries as “guest workers”–as if they knew what the word “guest” means in our cultures–but discouraged us from bringing our families. Having built up their economies with our raw materials and our labor, they asked us to go back, and were surprised when we did not. They stole our minerals and corrupted our governments so their corporations could continue stealing our resources, they fouled the air above us and the waters around us, making our farms barren, our oceans lifeless; and they were aghast when the poorest among us arrived at their borders, not to steal, but to work, to clean their sh*t and f*ck their men.”

Suketa Mehta is angry. He has every right to be angry. You and I should be angry, too. He’s angry because we are upside-down and ignorant about immigration. That’s why he wrote a manifesto–in the form of a book appropriately entitled This Land Is Our Land: An Immigrant’s Manifesto. His choice of words is narrow: this is a manifesto for all people who live in the U.S. because more than 99% of us are, in fact, immigrants. The remaining 1% are survivors. The paragraph that begins this article also begins his book.

Mehta is a very a good writer, especially when he’s angry. He’s a journalist and a professor, a smart guy who makes very powerful arguments in favor of knowing far more than we know today. He is angry about the hypocrisy, and it’s bracing to see all of this material in print–from a major publishing house. And it is hopeful. Metha makes it clear that we can and must do better, in part because the 21st century demands a higher level of global interaction, in part because “never before has there been so much human movement…and so much organized resistance to human movement.”

This is a book about the whole world–not the United States, not just Europe. It’s filled with stories about people whose lives are in London, Abu Dhabi, Tangier, Bhopal, Palestine, Korea, Rotterdam, Manhattan, Canada, Denmark. Migration, emigration and immigration–each a variation of the other two–is and has always been a global adventure.

The history is difficult because it’s told in all candor. Winston Churchill, for example, “loathed Nazis and Indians, and tried to kill as many of both as possible.” He advocated the use of chemical weapons against Iraqis, who rebelled against the British Empire. Taken as the ideas of a influential individual, they are upsetting. Taken as part of a larger story, they provide vital insights: “in all, 40 percent of all of the national borders in the entire world today were made by just two countries: Britain and France.” Look at a map of Africa, and you can easily see how thoroughly the many straight lines destroyed local tribes and cultures–hundreds of tribes caught in a cycle of violence as they attempted to reinstate families that, inexplicably, were now in different countries. The mess that now defines the Middle East is largely the result of borders and boundaries determined by a British fellow who never once visited the region.

“The Treaty of Peace, Friendship, Limits and Settlement” shifted ownership (the term is “cession” as one nation “cedes” territory to another. It was signed in 1848. In March 2017, a Mexican politician attempted to nullify that agreement and require the United States to pay for its use of the territory that was once about half of Mexico’s entire country–and is now most of California, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, and Utah, and parts of four other states. At first, this seems like a wild idea, but it’s just one of many examples of nations taking over parts of other nations as if it was their right to do so. Now, the time is right to start thinking more seriously about whether the items in the British Museum, gathered from hundreds of years of empire, ought to be returned to their native countries. And if we follow that line of reasoning, whether people born in those regions ought to go home, too. Or be allowed to stay. None of this is absolute. It’s been in motion for a very long time.

Mehta grew up in New York City. In Queens, where there are more people from more ethnic backgrounds than any other place on earth. “It’s astonishing how little ethnic strife there is in New York. It’s astonishing how safe New York has become, while encountering some of the biggest waves of immigration in its history. It’s astonishing how free the immigrants are to follow their own culture, language, religion. It’s astonishing how rich immigrants have made New York. If there’s a poster city for demonstrating immigration works, New York is it.”

The author blasts through ugly arguments about how immigrants take jobs away, how they are more likely to participate in crimes, how they destroy culture. Unlike most people who talk or write about any of this, he has done the homework. We are so upside down on this information, his reliable sources are nearly impossible to believe. From Criminology, “Increases in the undocumented immigrant population within states are associated with significant decreases in the prevalence of violence.” Also, “As for jobs, 86 percent of first generation immigrant males participate in the labor force, which is a higher rate than the native born…immigrant men with the lowest levels of education are more likely to be employed than comparable native-born men, indicating that immigrants appear to be filling low-skilled jobs that native-born Americans are not available or willing to take.”

Schenectady, New York is a city near the state’s capital, Albany. It is one of many cities in upstate New York that have been forgotten by the vibrant U.S. economy. That’s why the mayor personally travels to the Queens neighborhood of Richmond Hill, to recruit people from Guyana so they will move to his city where “they’re refurbished abandoned and burnt-out homes with little to no government assistance, rehabilited them with sweat equity, with neat brick-and-metal fences around them.” A far better idea than demolishing those homes (cost: $16,500 per home), the policy to sell the home instead (cost to new homeowner: $1). This is why 12 percent of Schenectady’s population is now Guyanese. The model has gained considerable acclaim, so it is being replicated in other cities: a quarter of nearby Utica, New York is immigrants, including 7,000 refugees from Bosnia.

If you’re sensing a much larger story than you’re hearing from politicians, reading in the newspapers, seeing on the TV news, or learning in school, you’ve got that right. This is a spectacular story–inclusive of its highly appropriate anger–that every immigrant, potential immigrant, long-ago immigrant, policy advisor, school adminstrator, journalist and pundit ought to study, and research in even greater detail.

In short, immigration is not the problem. It is the solution. (No spoiler alert needed here: to find out why immigration is the solution, you’ll need to read the book.)

The Thinking Side of Climate Change Requires an Emotional Partner

When the formidable Greta Thunberg barked about climate change, she didn’t do it to become famous. She did it so that adults would take the time to learn about the science. I decided to take her up on the challenge. Fortunately, I happened upon a useful tool: a book written by an apolitical scientist who writes clearly. His name is Robert Henson, and his book is sensibly called The Thinking Person’s Guide to Climate Change. (Second Edition.)

I learned a lot, and I wanted to share. Here’s rundown on some of the more important ideas:

Earth is definitely warming. We know this because independent scientists have analyzed more than a century’s data. Overall, the rise is about 1 degree Celsius, but the increases have been greater in some parts of the world, and less in others. We also know that the earth is warming because the ice in major glaciers, large areas of Greenland, and the interior of Antartica is melting rapidly. In addition, the growing season in the Northern Hemisphere is longer than before, and certain annual events are occurring earlier because of the warming: the Sakura (Cherry Blossom) Festival in Japan, the appearances of daffodils in England’s Royal Botanical Gardens, the high bush blueberries around Walden Pond. You’ve probably noticed this plant behavior in your area, too. One more indicator: mosquitoes, birds and other creatures are being driven to higher altitudes, and, in a parallel development, marine life seems to be migrating toward the poles. Taken as individual instances, none of these indicate much of anything. When they are considered as part of a larger pattern, scientists strongly believe that this activity to be a clear indicator of warming.

One degree may not seem like much, but remember that’s an average across a very wide range of regions. Better to consider the hot spells experienced by, for example, Chicago, where hundreds of people died from heat-related causes in 1995, followed by thousands in Paris in 2003 and more in Moscow in 2010. Cities become “heat islands” where nighttime temperatures do not cool as they did before, so the buildings and the streets trap the heat and cause temperatures to remain well above normal for extended periods. Air conditioning is a potential remedy, but many cities are not structured for large-scale use of air conditioning, a technology related to electricity and fossil fuels–not an ideal solution.

You’ll have to read the book to satisfy your curiosity about how much of this warming is due to human action–the answer is a lot–but it’s far safer to assume that we are too blame, so we can take as much corrective action as possible (the alternative only makes things worse).

Browsing the chart on page 57 (there are many charts and illustrations, all helpful in navigating the collected wisdom), it’s clear that the big game is change the behavior of two large countries–China and the U.S.–because they are responsible for 43% of the global carbon dioxide emissions in the world (counting only fossil fuels, cement, and gas flaring). Add India and Russia, and the four culprit total is 54%. Focusing on the big stuff seems sensible–there is reason for concern about Qatar’s very large per capita contribution, but Qatar has less than 3 million people, so its total contribution is small. It’s comforting to see real progress from, for example, the U.K., and Mexico, and Brazil–but deeply disturbing to compare their numbers with the U.S. and China (each seemingly more concerned with tariff brinksmanship than dealing with gigantic problem in which they are the most significant perpetrators). Moving on…

Climate change does not exist in a vacuum. “Many victims of heat waves die not because the air is so warm, but because it’s so dirty. The sunny, stagnant conditions prevalent during heat waves make an ideal platform for…” and here, the list of dangers becomes very nasty, causing serious lung conditions and heart attacks. The cause is fine particulate matter that enters the indoor environments, and tends to be very difficult to manage. With global warming, we consistently exacerbate the potential for human tragedy–especially among the elderly, the pregnant and the youngest children. This heartless approach to environmental management now seems to permeate many aspects of life on earth.

Climate change is also related to floods and droughts–which seem contradictory but they occur when the land can no longer do the job of absorbing water. Along with several other factors, these provide good reason for people to migrate to areas that were previously too hot, cold, wet, dry, or otherwise unappealing or nonproductive. With time, they are changing so that new agricultural lands are indeed opening up. Problem is, the additional warm, or wetness, or dryness, causes unpredictable responses from flora and fauna, and new weather patterns. The new kind of wheat may successfully grow in the new region, but it may also become home to previously dormant microbes that wreak havoc hundreds or thousands of miles away. (These patterns are utterly normal, but scientists are losing their ability to keep track of what’s happening because much of the science is still developing and because the climate is changing faster and in less predictable ways than anyone thought possible.)

While trying to manage the impact of what we do know–and deal with the sluggish government response to problems that seem so overwhelming and yet tend to be difficult to comprehend–scientists are discovering the impact of all sorts of scary phenomena. Some of this is related to melting ice. The Permafrost layer in eastern Siberia, and large Arctic regions are experiencing environmental and physical changes that are downright spooky. In Fairbanks, Alaska, for example, bicycle paths buckle and sinkholes emerge from construction sites. In time, they will probably emerge on their own. As they do, as the Permafrost continues to melt, everything could become a lot worse because massive amounts trapped methane and carbon dioxide may be released–causing lots more melting, and sea level rise with positive impacts all the way down the eastern seaboard of the United States (that is, flooded subways in New York City; destruction of Atlantic beach communities; submerging low-lying cities and fishing communities).

This is not alarmist writing. This is the science that Greta Thunberg wanted adults to learn. As you can see, I’m only touching a few points–we haven’t discussed oceans, rivers, hurricanes, trees, or anything related to the likely statistical impact of each of our possible individual and global actions.

The book is terrific, but most people don’t read books, and fewer still read 500 page science books. So: the information is available, but so far, adults are not doing a very good job capturing hearts and minds. Greta did, and she caused street protests and some media attention. That’s important because raising awareness is part of the game, and because big decisions and social change are often driven by emotion, not scientific fact. Still, we lack a clear picture of what is happening, in a form that most people can comprehend, remember, and share. Every adult must be able to explain climate change to their children, and to one another. Every teacher must be equipped to teach these lessons every day (a great deal of the current curriculum can be pointed toward global understanding of climate). The American Meteorological Association seems like the kind of organization that could step up as a kind of source authority, as it has attempted to do with the publication of this particular book. Somebody needs to step up and make the story clear so that we can all become partners. I want to help. I hope you do, too.

 

 

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)

Why Don’t We Know More about Africa?

Simple question. Simple answer, too. Most students in most parts of the world don’t spend much time learning about Africa. There are pyramids, lions, and drums, and for more advanced students, Apartheid, e-bola, the history of slave trade, tribes and villages.

Compare that with the list of things you know about Asia, Europe, even Australia. We know more, in part because we learn more at school, and also because Japan, England, France, Australia (the country), China, India, Italy, and other places on those continents play a part in popular culture, the history that’s taught in schools, the news that’s reported in the media, and, undeniably, the food we eat. Early on, kids learn about Italian and Chinese food, but most adults’ familiarity with any food from Africa is likely to result in a list with no items on it.

All of that is about to change.

440px-Africa_(orthographic_projection).svgIn 1950, 5 of the world’s largest countries were located in Europe, 2 were in the Americas, 5 were in Asia, and none were in Africa.

By 2050, not one European nation makes the top 20. In the Americas, 3 countries make the list. Ten are 10 Asian nations (including Turkey and Russia). The other 7 are in Africa.

Here’s the tally for 2100. Only 3 of the world’s largest countries are in the Americas. The count for Asia is 7.  The count for Africa: 10 of the top 20.

In this century, half of the world’s kids are being born in Africa. Most of the world’s new schools, hospitals and universities will be built in Africa and Asia. Most of the world’s students will learn and eventually go to work for new companies in Africa and also in Asia.

This data raises some very big questions about where in the world people will live and work. Population in Africa is growing rapidly, but economic growth is lagging. You may have read that the world’s population will soon be 8 billion people–that’s coming in 2024, not very far off. We’ll reach 10 billion by 2054 and 11 billion by 2088. Think about half of those new births happening in Africa. And now consider where those people will grow up, where they will work, and where they will live.

The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals and the work of NGOs are improving the social and economic situation in Africa, so the number of extremely poor people is being reduced. This creates a growing middle class with sufficient resources to consider possible migration to improve their educational and economic situation.

Many of those people will follow old patterns–they will migrate from one place in Africa to another. Some Africans will work to improve their local situations, fighting corruption, improving health care, teaching. Others will decide to leave–and many will move to Europe. Why? Because Africa’s youthful population will find available jobs in European countries where the percentage of older people is steadily increasing. The economic opportunity may greatly exceed the current incoming European population from Africa–that’s what I think will happen.

9781509534562And that’s the basis for a provocative and well-researched new book called The Scramble for Europe: Young Africa on its Way to the Old Continent by Stephen Smith. Professor Smith is a leading expert on contemporary Africa, a former well-credentialed journalist, and now a Professor of African Studies at Duke University. He’s smart, well-informed and among a small number of people who are writing about this remarkable situation for a general audience. The title is misleading–this is a book about both Africa and Europe, but  here, Africa loses out to Europe in the main title.

What might happen? Smith’s first scenario, called “Eurafrica,” “presupposes a reservoir of goodwill towards African immigrants, who are viewed as the best chance of investing the Old Continent with a younger, more diverse and possibly more dynamic population. The second scenario is called “Fortress Europe,” and it continues a tradition of “rigorously securing its borders,” with a heavy dose of altruistic behavior. The third, with the unpromising name, “Mafia Drift,” and involves a combination of trafficking and other nasty behaviors. The fourth and final is labelled “Bric-a-brac Politics” captures the erratic realties of government action.

For me, it seems very likely that a great many people born in Africa will remain in Africa, and build significant cities with significant universities, business structures and more. This will take shape only in the countries where political and social stability allow for external investment (when nations are unstable, investors tend to either exploit or flee). It’s difficult to migrate, so most people will stay, but there are so many people who are being born in Africa, the vastness of numbers will probably reshape many of the nations in Europe within the next 10, 20 and 50 years. The same will be true for the United States as it realizes that it must shift its focus from a relatively small flow of net immigration gain from Latin America to the far larger number of people who are likely to migrate from Africa. In time, the number of African-born people in the United States will far exceed the number brought here through the slave trade.

 

 

Gandhi on the Economics of Newspapers

From yesterday’s New York Times, a special report on the death of another American newspaper. As is typical for the NYTimes, the story is in-depth, thoughtful, and well worth reading time (especially in its original Special Section print edition.) Original NY Times caption: “CreditTim Gruber for The New York Times”

Every few days, somebody sends me an interesting article about a nonprofit approach to journalism. There is usually a well-intended foundation involved, and an emphasis on discovering the future of local newspaper reporting, or something similar. These investments are made in the public interest. Unfortunately, interest from members of the public is often so limited, these journalist ventures cannot and do not sustain on their own. In the past, revenues from classified and display advertising masked this limitation. The only other form of reliable newspaper revenue, circulation (people paying for their newspapers) has long been insufficient to fund local journalism. All of this becomes more complicated when we add layers of television, radio, and internet storytelling.

The NPR model works because it is funded, in part, by Federal funds generated by taxing every American, and because some of those same people donate addition money to support not only journalism but entertainment programs as well. Given the competitive landscape in radio, NPR has developed a popular brand, so it is also able to attract advertising (which it calls “corporate support” to mask the whiff of commercialism).

And that leads us to South Africa in 1903. Gandhi was an attorney fighting for the rights of people with Indian heritage. He was a member of the team that founded Indian Opinion, a newspaper published mostly in English with section in Gujarati. “Though…this paper, we could very well disseminate the news of the week among the community. The English section kept those Indians informed about the movement who did not know Gujarati, and for Englishmen in India, England and South Africa, Indian Opinion served the purpose of a weekly newspaper.”

Indian Opinion began with advertiser support. “[Some] of our best men had to be spared to do this….some of the good workers had be set apart for canvassing and [collecting bills] from advertisers, not to speak of the flattery which advertisers claimed as their due.”

And here’s the part that struck home for me: “…if the paper was conducted not because it yielded a profit but purely with a view to service, the service should not be imposed upon the community by force…only if the community wished. And the clearest proof of such a wish would be forthcoming if they became subscribers in sufficiently large numbers to make the paper self-supporting.  [We] stopped advertisements in the paper. The community realized at once their proprietorship of Indian Opinion and their consequent responsibility for maintaining it…”

He goes on, “[The workers’] only care now was to put their best work into the paper, so long as the community wanted it, and they were not ashamed of requesting any Indian to subscribe to Indian Opinion, but thought it even their duty to do so. A change came over the internal strength and character of the paper and it became a force to reckon with….the community had made the paper their own.”

For those who could not understand the language, or afford the subscription price, neighbors would read the paper aloud, translate and explain the meaning of the stories.

With so much information flowing toward us every day, discussions about the future of journalism are constantly obscured and made unimportant. And newspapers continue to die. And the internet and NPR are insufficient replacements. Imposing solutions from above–foundation funded and such–are reasonable short-term solutions. More than a hundred years ago, Gandhi was dealing with very different realities, but his concept of pull vs. push is very much alive today.

I’m not read finished reading The Essential Gandhi: An Anthology of Writings on His Life, Work and Ideas, but this particular idea captured my imagination, so I thought I’d share it with you.

 

 

 

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.

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