Random thoughts about record albums – part 1: Dylan’s LP idea…

…and how the invention of vinyl changed music forever.

“I agonized about making a record, but I wouldn’t have wanted to make singles, 45’s – the kind of songs they played on the radio. Folksingers, jazz artists, and classical musicians made LP’s, long-playing records with heaps of songs in the grooves – they forged identities and tipped the scales, gave more of the big picture. LP’s were like the force of gravity.” – Bob Dylan, Chronicles, Vol. One

Bob Dylan (image courtesy Mojo Magazine)

I’m about 50 pages into Dylan’s memoir Chronicles, Vol. 1. The quote above leapt out at me last night as I was reading. It seems a prescient comment from our latest literature Nobelist, given that he was one of those about to usher in the record album as art form.

Dylan’s preoccupation with making LP’s rather than singles (we still use the term album, though the operative word for a single is “track” these days) seems, on the face of it, in line with his preoccupations: he didn’t see himself as, nor did he want to be, a “hit maker.” That would have been selling out to commercial forces (stop me if you’ve heard that one before) that, as a budding artist (stop me if you’ve heard that one before), Dylan disdained. It might cost him that “force of gravity” he desired.

Serious music fans know that “force of gravity” as authenticity. According to Dylan, authenticity lay in the album format.  Continue reading

Anniversary journalism? Well, mostly it just sucks.

In early April 1970, I walked into the newsroom of my hometown newspaper and asked the editor if he knew anyone at the state department of natural resources. I’d just received my undergraduate degree in geology. I could do that kind of work for a while before I returned to university for master’s and doctoral degrees and to eventually live happily in Alaska as its state geologist.

best-earth-day-poster-ideas-pictures-2016I walked out of that newsroom as a journalist. (I lied about being able to type.) The editor needed another sportswriter but couldn’t hire one full time. He needed an environmental writer (the first Earth Day was two weeks away) but he couldn’t hire a full-time one.

I could do both, he judged. He hired me. I wrote about Sen. Gaylord Perry’s first teach-in on April 22. For the next six weeks, I wrote “green” and follow-up Earth Day stories in the afternoon, and local sports in the evening.

But come June, the editor asked for fewer “green” stories and more sports stories. By July, I’d more or less become a full-time sports writer.

In March 1975, five years later, I was asked to produce a slew of Earth Day anniversary stories. Then, a few weeks after Earth Day, no more stories. Ditto 10 years later and 15 years later.

That introduced me to anniversary journalism. I witnessed that with the rise of fall of Earth stories every five years in my newspaper and many, many others.

Continue reading

Music and Popular Culture

Carole, Joni, and Carly: sometimes it’s hard to be a woman…

“A young woman in the spring and summer of 1967 was walking toward a door just as that door was springing open. A stage was set for her adulthood that was so accommodatingly extreme—so whimsical, sensual, and urgent—that behavior that in any other era would carry a penalty for the daring was shielded and encouraged.” – Sheila Weller, Girls Like Us

Girls Like Us by Sheila Weller (image courtesy Goodreads)

Sheila Weller’s triple-decker biography (and I use this word advisedly) Girls Like Us gives readers a look inside the lives of three of the singer-songwriter era’s biggest stars: Carole King, Joni Mitchell, and Carly Simon. Weller’s book is well-researched and the reader learns a great deal about each of these major figures. What becomes a question for the astute reader as he/she progresses through the book is whether what is being learned is always useful or meaningful.

This is not to say that Weller’s book isn’t compelling reading, especially for music buffs, fans of any of these particular music legends, or Boomers nostalgic for the era in which King, Mitchell, and Simon did their finest work. It is.

What may not work for some readers is the focus of Weller’s biographical studies. That may be because the work of these three songwriters are feminine (and feminist) concerns. One certainly cannot argue that three writers known for highly personal and confessional songwriting are treated unfairly by the author’s looking at their artistic careers through the lens of their personal lives. What might be giving me (and may perhaps give other readers) pause is the level of detail that Weller goes into in exploring King’s, Mitchell’s, and Simon’s private lives. Continue reading

S&R’s 2017 Word of the Year: “re-accommodation”

Is it too early to name something the ______ of the Year? Heck no. Let’s call it.

You probably saw where United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz lamented the need to “re-accommodate” that uncooperative passenger.

What a word, that: “re-accommodation.” It doesn’t just apply to airlines – it’s application is nearly limitless.

Every night in bars across America bouncers re-accommodate unruly guests.

The US government re-accommodated the Japanese during WW2.

The US also re-accommodated the Native Americans. For example, they re-accommodated the Cherokees from NC to Oklahoma (although we have to come up with something better than “Trail of Tears”).

There’s some re-accommodation going on right now at Standing Rock. Continue reading

The only way to defeat Trump and his supporters

It’s about tribalism. You cannot work with Trumpists. Period. You must defeat them and then fix the problems that handed them control.

It is useless to attempt to reason a man out of a thing he was never reasoned into. – Jonathan Swift

Since the moment of Campaign 2016 when it became clear that Donald Trump actually had a chance, a lot of people have done a lot of thinking and pontificating and punditofying and writing and hand-wringing about the reasons for his viability. On one end of the spectrum: Donald gave the drooling, racist, misogynist, xenophobic, ignorant, anti-intellectual, hillbillies a cynical, smirking, dog-whistling charlatan they could line up behind. On the other, we’ve had all manner of thoughtful, complex analyses about how economic anxiety (and utter despair) fueled the rise of a non-partisan populist backlash against a political establishment that has spent decades betraying those it represents.

Both versions are compelling because each was built on a measure of observable truth. Continue reading

ArtSunday: LIterature

The most famous novel set in NC, according to the Internet

There are some laudable choices: Alabama, Misissippi, Montana, Missouri, New York… But Nicholas Sparks?

“Nowadays people know the price of everything and the value of nothing.”  – Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray

Nicholas Sparks (image courtesy Wikimedia)

I saw an article this week that’s a pretty good explanation of where we are as a culture. Business Insider published an article called “The most famous book that takes place in every state” that purports to provide readers with – well, the information indicated in its title.  On the face of it this seems like a clever idea – it promotes reading and gives a little shout out to each state. Given the culture we live in, promoting reading is certainly a good idea, and giving every state a nod for its literary contributions is democratic in a way that we need more of.

Well, as Robert burns said in “To a Mouse,” “The best laid plans….” Though perhaps, given the BI article, Dave Marsh’s observation about Kiss Alive II is more apropos: “Here’s a bad idea gone wrong….”

Some of the results offered for “most famous book that takes place in every state” are laudable. Some are arguable. Some, however, are atrocious – ill-informed in ways that make one despair for the future.  Continue reading

The Mature Society, pt 3: what would a better America look like?

Part 3 in a series.

by Dr. Michael Tracey

The problems of education, religion, critical thinking, a commitment to the truth, and holding ourselves to a higher standard: creating the mature society won’t be simple.

There is, then, a different question, driven by another thought which is that there is a certain sense of responsibility for the critic – if one is not to be nihilistic or utterly despondent – to suggest if not a way out then at least a sense of what something “better” might actually look like. In particular, here, to ask the question of just what a mature society might look like: what would be the texture of its culture, its mood, its ambition, its practices, its relationships, its preferences, its allegiances? What would it look like as a moral and ethical entity? What would there be about it that the dispassionate mind could admire?

A useful definition of mature would include: Continue reading

Music and Popular Culture

Positively 4th Street: positively Shakespearean…

Bob Dylan will pick up his Nobel Prize shortly while on tour in Sweden. Joan Baez was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this year. Whether they ever got over each other is a question that may never be answered.

“I think women rule the world and that no man has ever done anything that a woman either hasn’t allowed him to do or encouraged him to do.” – Bob Dylan

“Instead of getting hard ourselves and trying to compete, women should try and give their best qualities to men – bring them softness, teach them how to cry.” – Joan Baez

Positively 4th Street by David Hajdu (image courtesy Goodreads)

Joan Baez and Bob Dylan have had a long and complicated relationship.

There have been a number of books written about that relationship (including memoirs by both Dylan and Baez themselves) which try to get at what drew them together and what drove them apart. To save you any apprehension, the upshot is that nobody, not even Dylan and Baez, will ever understand. That doesn’t mean that writers and scholars won’t try to understand, of course.

One of the most interesting attempts to explore the Baez/Dylan axis of complexity is David Hajdu’s fascinating Positively 4th Street. Hajdu doesn’t get any further than any other scholar or writer (or Dylan or Baez) with explaining the complexities of the Dylan/Baez relationship, but his book is fascinating because he takes an unusual tack in his exploration. In a plot device that is positively Shakespearean, Hajdu uses the microcosm of the relationship between Joan Baez’s sister Mimi and Richard Fariña to parallel the macrocosm of Bob Dylan/Joan Baez.

Continue reading

The Mature Society, pt 2: politics and leadership in the age of anti-science

Part 2 in a series.

by Dr. Michael Tracey

How stupid are Americans, anyway? And how much worse are our leaders?

Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-OK) explains climate change

Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-OK) explains climate change

Numerous events and curious beliefs – large and small – caught the eye, even before the election of 2008 and certainly beyond. Consider:

  • a CNN discussion on October 10, 2005, featuring the likes of Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, addressed the subject of whether recent climate events – the Christmas 2004 tsunami in Asia, hurricane Katrina in the late summer of 2005, an earthquake in Asia – actually presaged the end times, the Rapture and the second coming of Christ; Continue reading

Live in a rural area? Can you find a doctor when you really, really need one?

The vascular surgeon who removed my gangrenous gall bladder last month received his early medical training in Lahore, Pakistan. He’s been a member of the medical community in my rural valley for more than three decades.

eimyxgertMy primary-care physician for the past 20 years received his medical training in Taiwan. My urologist for a decade was an Iranian-American. The surgeon who removed a subcutaneous growth from my right elbow is a Pakistani-American. So is the internist who treated a pulmonary issue. He’s been here more than two decades.

Those who live in rural areas likely know, or have, doctors with surnames they might think uncommon. Yet all my foreign-born physicians are American citizens with deep ties to the community in which I live. They’ve taken good care of me.

But why have these wonderful doctors settled here, in rural America?

Continue reading

The Mature Society, pt 1: 1984 vs Brave New World

Part 1 in a series.

by Dr. Michael Tracey

We live in a moment of hyper-consumerism, uber-war and insidious surveillance by a vast security apparatus. But what might it look like if Orwell and Huxley were both wrong.

“The age of maturity that past authors were hoping would come seems not to be the destiny of humankind… Humanity is condemned to seek truth rather than possess it… This would be the vocation of our species: to pick up the task of enlightenment with each new day, knowing that it is interminable.”- Tzvetan Todorov, “In Defence of the Enlightenment.”

In The Empire Strikes Back, young Luke Skywalker asks his Jedi master, Yoda, whether the dark side is stronger than the good? “No,” Yoda replies, “easier, quicker, more seductive.”

Begin afresh, afresh, afresh…” Philip Larkin, The Trees

This essay is, in the first instance, impelled by a deep sense of disappointment at the immense gulf between the grand promise of this country, the United States, and its objective contemporary condition, the sense one has looking out across the landscape with squinted eyes that there is, as Milton writes in Paradise Lost, “Demoniac frenzy, moping melancholy, / And moon-struck madness.” Continue reading

Unnamed sources? Journalists should teach readers why they were used

On Thursday, four journalists for CNN reported:

The FBI has information that indicates associates of President Donald Trump communicated with suspected Russian operatives to possibly coordinate the release of information damaging to Hillary Clinton’s campaign, US officials told CNN.

CATEGORY: JournalismInformation. Indicates. Associates. Communicated. Suspected. Operatives. Possibly. Coordinate. Information. US officials.

Huh? Could this lede be any more vague? This lede is all may have — which leaves open the possibility of may not have.

The story, reported by Pamela Brown, Evan Perez, Jim Sciutto, and Shimon Prokupecz, contains unnamed sources in 10 of the story’s 18 paragraphs. The FBI director is named, but only in reference to stories reported earlier. White House spokesman Sean Spicer and Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov are named, but only in chiding the findings of the story. Two paragraphs near the end of the story contain no sources and appear to be the conclusions of the reporters.

Continue reading

WordsDay: Literature

Jane Austen, alt-right heroine…say what…?

“I do not want people to be very agreeable, as it saves me the trouble of liking them a great deal.” – Jane Austen

Various news sources, both here in America and elsewhere, are claiming that Jane Austen, doyenne of English respectability, has become a heroine to the despicable group called by the all-too-euphemistic moniker the alt-right.

Jane Austen (image courtesy biography.com)

For any rational person (and my beloved Miss Austen was nothing if not rational) her embrace by such loathsome characters is both horrifying and bizarre. Conservative as she was (Austen found her contemporary Byron’s behavior wild and reprehensible, for example, violating as it did the established social mores of Regency England), Austen undoubtedly would have found the behavior of a number of the more well known figures of the alt-right movement equally reprehensible. One has a difficult time, indeed, imagining Miss Austen feeling able to tolerate being on the same planet, much less in the same room with creatures such as Richard Spencer and Milo Yiannopoulos.

The alt-right loves them some Jane, though – for reasons that mystify anyone capable of reading Austen’s work intelligently. Continue reading

Chuck Berry and the Beatles: standing on the shoulders of a giant and all that…

According to one source, the Beatles covered at least 15 Chuck Berry songs.

“If you tried to give rock and roll another name, you might call it ‘Chuck Berry’.” – John Lennon

Chuck Berry (image courtesy Rolling Stone)

I had planned to write an essay this week about George Harrison’s brilliant synthesis of rock and Indian music, “Within You, Without You.” That plan changed suddenly with the sad news of Chuck Berry’s death.

Check that.

What made me change my mind was the Chuck Berry obituary/tribute posted at Rolling Stone. In an essay of several hundred words, the Rolling Stone writer gave a long list of bands who covered Berry songs and who were influenced by him. While the Rolling Stones and Beach Boys got plenty of mention (and rightfully so), the Beatles weren’t mentioned at all. That is an oversight, to paraphrase (possibly) Churchill, up with which I cannot put.

See the above John Lennon quote. We can go from there. Continue reading

WordsDay: Literature

Book Review: Hank: a Storyteller’s Story by Rick Burnham

Hank: a Storyteller’s Story tells a tale of identity theft of the most literal kind and how, as victims discover their true identities how much our pasts inform our futures.

Rick Burnham’s brief novel Hank: a Storyteller’s Story is an exploration of two questions.

Hank: a Storyteller’s Story by Rick Burnham (image courtesy Southern Yellow Pine Publishing)

The first of these questions is one of identity: the novel’s heroine, Jennifer Johnson McCarthy is unhappily married and at loose ends. She feels as if she has lost who she is and the life she is leading as the wife of a controlling husband makes her both desperate and determined to find herself again. By chance, on their way home from a beach vacation, Jennifer and her husband Emerson, a driven corporate attorney, stop at a gas station/convenience store on the outskirts of Oak Springs, Florida. It is there where Jennifer begins a journey of self-discovery that changes not only life, but the lives of her entire family.

The impetus for Jennifer’s journey is hearing an old man named Hank Chatman tell a story. Chatman is a charming storyteller who appears once a week at the store and tells stories about local residents, stories which may or may not be true. Hank’s storytelling serves multiple purposes. The stories themselves provide a tall tale folklore of rural Florida culture – and amusement for his listeners (one about a chicken farmer and government experiments that create giant chickens is particularly good). More importantly, Hank’s storytelling allows him to connect with those who come to hear him.

Like Jennifer. Continue reading

If Congress decides to spend $1 trillion on infrastructure, keep tabs on who gets it

The grades are in. The nation’s infrastructure is close to failing.

aging-infrastructureThe 2017 report card of the American Society of Civil Engineers, posted today, gives the infrastructure on which America depends for commerce, defense, recreation, flight, food, water, waste — almost everything — an overall grade of D+.

From the ASCE report:

The 2017 grades range from a B for Rail to a D- for Transit, illustrating the clear impact of investment – or lack thereof – on the grades. Three categories – Parks, Solid Waste, and Transit – received a decline in grade this year, while seven – Hazardous Waste, Inland Waterways, Levees, Ports, Rail, Schools, and Wastewater – saw slight improvements. Six categories’ grades remain unchanged from 2013 – Aviation, Bridges, Dams, Drinking Water, Energy, and Roads.

The areas of infrastructure that improved benefited from vocal leadership, thoughtful policymaking, and investments that garnered results.

Scholars & Rogues has long considered addressing the nation’s infrastructure needs essential for the nation’s economic, cultural, resource, and domestic security (see here, here, here, and here). Continue reading

Lost Highway: Peter Guralnick’s search for the roots of roots music – part 3, there are no losers in music…

Authenticity. Music. Freedom. Whether you’re Elvis Presley or Sleepy LaBeef, if you can have the courage to follow Sam Phillip’s advice, you can’t be a loser.

“You can be a nonconformist and not be a rebel. And you can be a rebel and not be an outcast. Believe in what you believe in, and don’t let anybody, I don’t care who it is, get you off that path.” – Sam Phillips

(Read Part 1, Part 2)

Howlin' Wolf (inage courtesy bobcorritore.com)

Howlin’ Wolf (inage courtesy bobcorritore.com)

Initially I had planned for this last essay on Peter Guralnick’s excellent book on roots musicians, Lost Highway: Journeys and Arrivals of American Musicians, to focus on those musicians that he profiles who seem to have been their own worst enemies due to their dogged refusal to give up their dream of success. I mentioned Charlie Feathers, who, at the time of Guralnick’s profile of him, was in his 40’s and still playing small clubs and (to use a favorite term of Guralnick’s which has faded sooner that he expected) juke joints. Feathers’ insistence that he was still on (or at least near) the cusp of stardom if dark forces weren’t preventing his ascendance struck me as so sad, so indefensible, so lacking in self-awareness that I found him not simply sad and pathetic but off-putting. And I found Guralnick’s celebration of Sleepy LaBeef so over the top for a guy who had simply kept playing when those of his generation who didn’t make it had the good sense to quit was – well, see above description of my feelings for Charlie Feathers.

Then I got to the last section of Guralnick’s book, “The Blues Roll On.” And read Guralnick’s piece on Howlin’ Wolf. Continue reading

Peter Guralnick’s search for the roots of roots music: the curse of being a critics’ darling

Guralnick’s Lost Highway runs smack through the heart of Nashville’s Music Row – as with corporate Pop, Country & Western has always been about sales and little else…

Lost Highway by Peter Guralnick (image courtesy Goodreads)

Lost Highway by Peter Guralnick (image courtesy Goodreads)

“‘Outlaw’ is the word that has been used, and abused, to describe…music that deviates from the Nashville norm. The principal way in which this music deviates, ironically enough, is that it is traditional music, which honors roots, black and white, which recognizes Jimmie Rodgers, Ernest Tubb, Hank Williams, and Lefty Frizzell – the pure lineage that runs in an unbroken line through country music.” – Peter Guralnick

(Read part 1 here)

This second essay about Peter Guralnick’s masterful collection of essays on roots music, Lost Highway: Journeys and Arrivals of American Musicians will focus on a second group of musicians: those who enjoyed little (or modest) popular success despite receiving highly positive reviews from music critics and the cognoscenti. These are the artists, and their stories pepper the histories of all art forms, known as critics’ darlings, a moniker that is more often more curse than compliment.

The received wisdom is that every artist is (or should be) pursuing his/her singular vision. In that way each artist’s unique vision can contribute to the growth of the particular art form and enrich the culture at large. Which artists become successful (critically and financially) is dependent on how their talents are accepted by both critics and the marketplace. The latter group, people who buy an artist’s work and support an artist’s career, is especially important in an art form such as popular music where commerce plays a bigger a role than critical appreciation. Continue reading

I Want to Hold Your Hand…and then, America….

It was the first Beatles record I bought, but it wasn’t my favorite Beatles song.

“We wrote a lot of stuff together, one-on-one, eyeball to eyeball. Like in ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand,’ I remember when we got the chord that made the song. We were in Jane Asher’s house, downstairs in the cellar playing on the piano at the same time. And we had, ‘Oh you-u-u… got that something…’ And Paul hits this chord and I turn to him and say, ‘That’s it!’ I said, ‘Do that again!’ In those days, we really used to absolutely write like that – both playing into each other’s nose.” – John Lennon

Paul and John in 1964 (image courtesy Wikimedia)

Paul and John in 1964 (image courtesy Wikimedia)

I’d heard “She Loves You” in the fall of 1963, and, while the buddy I first heard it with (a story I have related before) mocked the song (as did the deejay who introduced it), I’d been immediately smitten, though I diplomatically kept my opinion to myself. Thereafter, when I listened to far away radio stations in big cities like Chicago and New York on my transistor radio at night when I was supposed to be going to sleep, I listened for “She Loves You.”

I think I may have heard it twice between that first time and the advent of what we know as Beatlemania. I freely admit that my memory of this period is fuzzy. I was in my 12th year and between the time I first heard “She Loves You” in mid-November and when I began hearing “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and other Beatles songs November 22, 1963 happened. Like most Americans I walked around in a dull daze  for a while, so I hope I may be forgiven for an imperfect memory of the timeline of events. Continue reading

The ‘enemy of the American People’ doesn’t work at your local newspaper

It engenders anger to know the president of the United States says that what I did for a living for 20 years — and what I’ve spent 25 years teaching — represents the acts of “an enemy of the American People.”

CATEGORY: JournalismPresident Donald, titularly “the most powerful man in the world,” will eventually learn not to pick fights with people who buy ink in 55-gallon drums — and have plenty of digital and video ink to spare.

He’s awakened a slumbering watchdog. Recall journalism’s reactions to President Nixon’s overt and covert deceits. The nation’s best newspapers rose to challenge the president — and Nixon lost. Trust in the executive branch withered. Remember, too, the swell of entrants to the nation’s journalism programs (well, after “All the President’s Men” hit the big screen). Will that happen again in President Donald’s first term?

President Donald’s fortunate in the timing of his presidency. The last 20 years have left journalism in a weakened, altered state. Reasons are many — management reacting too late to the challenge of the internet, a decline in interest in the field among the young, and massive losses of revenue prompting executives to pare the workforce of daily print journalists by 20,000 positions, about 39 percent.

Continue reading