Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Presence of the Past - A Review

Roy Rosenzweig and David Thelen, The Presence of the Past:
Popular Uses of History in American Life
; Columbia
University Press: New York, 1998; 291 pp.

Every few years an "official" study concludes
that American's don't know---and don't care to learn---
anything about history. The study shocks the nation.
Colleges and universities vow to add more history classes
to their curriculums. Politicians admonish their
constituents to start studying the past. And the media
declares that something must be done about the thousands
of graduating high school seniors who can't explain the
significance of the Battle of Gettysburg or the New Deal.
Despite these best efforts, another study years later
comes to the same conclusion.

One might be forgiven for concluding that American
historical ignorance is terminal. But what if our
understanding of historical consciousness is flawed?
What if Americans really DO know and care about history,
but simply can't connect with it in the context of
classrooms or textbooks? What if the key to improving
historical consciousness is to understand the average

Professional historians Roy Rosenzweig and David Thelen
pose these questions, and offer their own answers, in
Presence of the Past. Culled from the results of a 1994
survey, conducted in cooperation with Indiana University's
Center for Survey Research (CSR), Presence of the Past
examines how almost 1,500 respondents interacted with

Do Americans value history? In the most literal sense
they don’t. “History”, according to the respondents, is
boring, biased and irrelevant. “The past”, on the other
hand, is invaluable. To the respondents, in fact, it
is essential. It defines their identities, while also
encouraging changes. It explains their personal
victories and defeats. It helps them prepare their
children for adulthood. Clearly Americans do value
history, even if they call it something else.

Do Americans engage history? They certainly do, and often.
Nearly all 1,500 respondents frequently engaged history---in
family reunions, photo collections, oral interviews, books,
films, TV shows, historical associations, museum visits and
many other ways. They professed to feel connected to the past
while participating in these activities. In addition, they
astutely judged the reliability of historical sources they
encountered. They were neither as ignorant nor as indifferent
as professional historians often claim.

With a wide range of respondents, it was no surprise to
interviewers that age, race, gender and socioeconomic status
affected historical interactions. Respondents with higher
incomes participated in more expensive activities, such as
collection and restoration, than respondents with lower incomes.
Male respondents participated in reenactments and historical
associations, while female respondents compiled family histories
and made scrapbooks. Asked to name the defining historical
event in their lives, respondents’ choices---World War II,
the Civil Rights movement, the Battle of Wounded Knee---
generally fell along racial lines.

A separate survey of minority groups revealed other differences.
While white respondents generally trusted books and education,
African- and Native-Americans believed books and education were
biased and dishonest. As indicated above, African- and Native-
Americans identified with historical events and figures particular
to their own pasts; African-Americans, for instance, overwhelmingly
identified with Martin Luther King, Jr. Yet rejection of white
historical narratives did not mean rejection of American
historical narratives. The historical narratives of
African- and Native-Americans were in fact strikingly American:
struggles for truth and equality, and the upward progress of
society. When contrasted with white respondents’ narratives of
disillusionment and decline, minority narratives suggest that
historical interpretation is not completely black and white.

Despite such obvious differences, several constants emerge in
Presence of the Past. Respondents valued formal education only
inasmuch as it allowed them to participate in and investigate
history, not simply to memorize and regurgitate facts. They
enjoyed historical films and TV shows, but they did not completely
trust them. They read historical books, but formed their own
opinions. They considered eyewitness accounts and artifacts
more trustworthy than secondary histories. Most importantly,
they felt most connected to the past when participating
in family reunions and museum visits.

Rosenzweig and Thelen disagree on the survey’s implications,
and each author offers his own conclusions in the chapter
“Afterthoughts”. Rosenzweig sees great opportunities for the
interaction of academic history and public history. The former
can offer a larger historical context, provided that academics
treaty public historians with respect, while the former can
keep history “human” so long as they embrace inclusiveness and
objectivity. To Thelen, such strict group distinctions are false
constructs. With the illustration that “an individual could be
a woman, lawyer, Republican, Chicagoan, lesbian, Irish American”,
he concludes that different forms of history (academic versus
public, local versus national) are all essential and are all
interconnected. In his opinion, it is impossible for Americans
to completely divorce themselves from history.

Both authors insist that historians must help Americans to
understand and engage history. By what means? Presence
of the Past
makes the case for public history. More books
and more formal education won’t suffice; neither will more
historical films and TV shows. Family reunions and photo
collections are useful, but often these fall outside the
strict purview of history. By contrast, museums and historic
sites inspired great trust (8.4 of out 10 on a trustworthiness
scale) and a great sense of historical connection (7.3 out of
10 on a connection scale) among respondents. If academics and
the American public are to find any common ground, then public
history seems to be the key.

Presence of the Past is sure to provoke partisan debate. Some
will claim that a survey of only 1,500 people doesn’t prove
anything, although it is doubtful that a larger survey would
alter the basic conclusion. Some professionals and some
educators will retort that reunions and museum visits don’t
constitute “real” (read: larger nation-state narratives)
history. Historical consultants for films and television
will likely engage in either painful soul-searching (“Why don’t
they trust us?”) or else in self-congratulation (“Who cares if
they trust us or not? At least they’re watching!”). Public
historians alone will praise Presence of the Past, for it
validates them.

Yet this validation comes with a warning: the public’s trust
in public history must not be betrayed. If Americans believe
that museums and historic sites set standards for accuracy and
objectivity, then public historians must ensure that these
standards are met. Lies and distortions in public history,
like those in films, books, and TV shows, will not be overlooked.
Should public history grow complacent, should it ignore public
dialogue and cooperation, or should it succumb to special
interests, then Americans will reject it. The potential
result---complete and deliberate historical ignorance---is the
stuff of historians’ worst nightmares.

Monday, October 26, 2009

History in Fiction...Or, is it Fiction in History? Hmm...

I followed someone else's link to this article, and found it partisan,
snarky and amusing---right up my alley. Maybe it'll be up yours
too. (Actually, that last part didn't sound right...)

This particular paragraph is academia to the nth degree:

The most scrupulous historian is an unreliable narrator;
he brings to the enterprise the biases of his training and
the vagaries of his personal temperament, and he is
often obliged, in order to make his name, to murder
his forefathers by coming up with a different take on events
from the one that held sway when he himself learned
the discipline; he must make the old new, because his
department's academic standing depends on it.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Review - Land of Lincoln

Andrew Ferguson, Land of Lincoln: Adventures in Abe’s America;
Atlantic Monthly Press: NY, 2007; 279 pp.

Almost 150 years after his death, Abraham Lincoln continues to
dominate American history and popular culture. Yet who is Abraham
Lincoln today? Why does he have so many different faces? Why is he
claimed by different interest groups? And how should we separate
Lincoln the man from Lincoln the icon? In Land of Lincoln: Adventures
in Abe’s America, newspaper reporter Andrew Ferguson tries to
answer these questions while searching for the real identity of our
sixteenth President.

Born and raised in Illinois, Ferguson
was a full-fledged Lincoln fanatic as a
child, eagerly devouring all things
Lincoln: his writings, his statuary, his
place of birth, his tomb, and the
mountains of trinkets made in his
honor. Almost inevitably, Ferguson
wandered away from his passion as
a young adult, distracted by growing
pains and disillusioned by Lincoln
debunkers. But the controversial
dedication of a new Lincoln statue in
Richmond, Virginia, where Lincoln stayed a week before his death, forced Ferguson to re-examine America’s Lincoln ideology as well as
his own. Determined to understand the public’s view of Lincoln,
Ferguson traveled from Washington to California in search of
Abe’s America. From his travels Ferguson has culled a rich---
and hilarious---story that reflects our national quest: always
seeking, yet not quite finding, the elusive Father Abraham.

Ferguson finds Lincoln beset with lobbyists and special interest
groups, all trying to claim him as one of their own. Lincoln is asked
to be skeptical but pious, urbane but homespun, literate but
ignorant, peaceful but destructive. He has been dismissed as an
elitist, a bumpkin, or a shrewd manipulator. He has been made
a caricature of American imperialism. He has been asked to pull
the public’s heartstrings. Often, he has been forced to make
money for his modern-day disciples.

Ferguson decides that the last is the most ridiculous Lincoln of
all; as a failed businessman from the 19th Century frontier, how
could Lincoln possibly embody the spirit of 21st Century corporate
America? Nonetheless, Lincoln is co-opted by the Tigrett Corp of
Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, as a model of good business management
for executives and administrators. Ferguson’s survey of a typical
Tigrett Corp workshop illustrates more than the dangers of trying
to fashion Lincoln into our own image; it shows how an out-of-context history lesson, dressed up in entrepreneurship, can turn history into something almost unhistorical.

Thankfully, Ferguson does not spend much time with the business
executives, preferring to focus on three main Lincoln interest
groups: Lincoln collectors, Lincoln impersonators (though they
call prefer to call themselves “presenters”), and Lincoln historians.
Their widely divergent views seem to obscure the real Lincoln as
much as they reveal him.

In the Cult of Abe, Ferguson finds collectors and impersonators to
be the most accessible. Their passions for the man make them
ideal Lincoln proselytizers. As they see it, the key to understanding
Lincoln is through full immersion: either dressing up like him or
buying anything and everything connected to him. Their scholarship
might be patchy, but their hearts are in the right place.

By contrast, Lincoln historians earn most of Ferguson’s scorn. The
rangers and docents of the National Park Service and the curators
and administrators of the Lincoln Presidential Library, are the most
influential of the Lincoln interest groups. They provide the filter
through which the public sees Lincoln as he was. Thus they owe it to
themselves and to the public to get Lincoln “right”.

But if public history is collaboration between historians and the
public, then by Ferguson’s standards most public historians have
failed. They refuse to collaborate with the public. Instead, they
distill Lincoln into a series of Disney-esque vignettes, complete
with wax statues and pithy sound-bites, to make him more “fun”.
They sanitize his Illinois home with 21st Century efficiency,
exorcising the imperfections of the 19th Century in which he
grew up. They make him dull, weak, comical, biased,
ordinary---all in the name of protecting and educating the public.
In Ferguson’s eyes they have missed the point, and he is satisfied
when their grand efforts are rewarded with poor attendance
and low ticket sales. After all, they haven’t bothered to ask the
public what it thinks about Lincoln.

However, these public historians fare well compared to Lincoln’s
academic historians. When mentioned at all, they only serve to
illustrate the cluelessness of academia. A Richmond symposium
of academics formed to defend Abe’s honor is dismissed with a
brief paragraph; the best they can offer is the wan conclusion that
Lincoln “wasn’t so bad”. An academic social historian writes an
uncomplimentary study of of an exhibit at the Chicago Historical
Society, forcing the society to change its presentation of Lincoln
(one of Ferguson's favorite exhibits as a child). Other academics
find nothing to praise about the public interest in Lincoln. A
Altogether, academia wants to criticize and savage, rather than
to make any useful contributions.

By the last chapter, standing before the Lincoln Memorial in
Washington, D.C., Ferguson has found the real Lincoln: the icon.
Though debunkers try to knock him off his pedestal, though
academics belittle his greatness, though public historians try to
make him more “common”, most Americans prefer to see him
as extraordinary. Why else do they spend hours in his museums,
why else do they still visit his birthplace and tomb, why else do
they make his biographies bestsellers, if not because they
recognize his greatness? It is the old Lincoln, the Lincoln of folklore
and fable, the Lincoln of pomp and circumstance, the Lincoln of
the Lincoln Memorial---grand, oversized, unchallenged,
uncomplicated---that they long for.

In his particular criticism of the National Park Service and the various Lincoln museums, Ferguson offers a challenge to public historians. Rather than beginning with assumptions about the public, they should first seek to understand their viewpoints, not only about Lincoln but about all American history. They should carefully balance preservation, education and entertainment. And they should never forget that history, as the public sees it, is extraordinary. For those who would be public historians, Ferguson’s conclusion is a warning: don’t mess with Old Abe. The people still love him.

When You're Pressed For Time...

...just post older writings.

That's the only way I figure I can keep posting, so I might
as well try.

For my Introduction to Public History class at the University
of West Georgia, I'm expected to write five book reviews over
the course of this semester, for books related to public (i.e.,
non-academic, but rather museum- and historic-site-related)
history. I've already written three, so I figure I'll share them

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Interesting Passages II

"The migration of the Lincoln family from Kentucky defies all
contemporary expectation, not to say common sense.
Whether you approach it from Chicago, to the northeast,
or from St. Louis, to the Southwest, Central Illinois is
almost unimaginably flat, as through the whole country
had been smoothed out by a rolling pin. Along this meridian
the deciduous forests of the eastern United States thin out
and the grasslands of the west begin...The land in Lincoln's
time sprouted a sea of prairie grass, each shaft of which was
stiff as cardboard and sharp as a handsaw...Back then, in
other words, a prairie was even less attractive and more
forbidding than it is now. If a man could tolerate life here,
he could tolerate anything.

"Yet old Tom Lincoln not only tolerated it, he sought it out.
So did the numberless families who migrated in the same
direction. As my family and I retraced the Lincolns' steps
in reverse, from Illinois prairie to the river valley of Indiana
to the hummocks and dells of Kentucky, the land grew
lovelier. Tom hauled his family the other way, with the
landscape getting more and more unsightly, calculating that
the less inviting the land was, aesthetically, the more potential it held, financially. He must have scanned each new neighborhood and thought: verdant bluffs, meandering creeks dancing with sunligh, hidden hollows and twisting pathways swept by cool breezes---too pretty! We'll never make a buck here! Pack it up! And so on, till he finally found a place ugly enough to earn a living (Land of Lincoln: Adventures in Abe's America, by Andrew Ferguson; Atlantic Monthly Press: New York, 2007, pp. 208-209)."

Friday, August 14, 2009

Back to the books...

Yesterday I had my first class meeting for Intro to Public
History at University of West Georgia. Books to read, papers
to write, a project, a practice grant, a practice resume...

And that's not even counting the work I'll have to do for my
other class (History of Georgia) which starts next week!

School daze, indeed.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Interesting Passages

As an avid reader, I enjoy clever turns-of-phrase and interesting,
well-written passages in books, articles and essays. From time to
time I'll share some of my favorites here. These include works of
fiction and non-fiction.

The Torrid Twenties were at hand, and many, many Americans, either ignoring Prohibition or actually taking up drink in defiant resentment of the Volstead Act's intrustion into their private lives, had beaten their swords into cocktail shakers and were dancing deeper and deeper into the ostrich hole of isolation (Delivered from Evil, by Robert Leckie; Harper Perennial Press, 1987).

Friday, August 7, 2009

"August is the cruellest month...mixing memory and desire..."

I remember stumbling across this article several years ago,
and loving it. Unfortunately, I never followed up on my mental
note to bookmark it for future reference. Thankfully, Slate decided
to re-run it, for which I am most grateful. Enjoy...and pray for
the coming of September! ; )

(Personally, I think February and August are tied for the title
of most useless month of the year. But anyway...)

* Nicole - No offense intended, by the way. But think of the
alternatives mentioned: your birthday could be in the wonderful
month of July instead! Isn't that something to celebrate?

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

If this is love...

As a Civil War afficianado, I enjoyed Charles Frazier's Cold Mountain
(1997), the story of a North Carolina soldier who deserts from the
Confederate army and journeys back home to the woman he left
behind. That's the general synopsis; the actual book is much more
complex and layered. It's a challenging read, full of detail and nuance,
and a heartrending story; without giving away the ending, I'll simply
note that everyone doesn't live happily ever after.

As with every book I've enjoyed I made a point of seeing
purposes (the old saw that the film isn't as good as the book is true
here, although it isn't really bad). Some time later I purchased the
soundtrack album, which was an interesting compilation of
and the usual film score segments.

Most of the score is based on a particular piano figure that sounds
somewhat antebellum in mood, and it works fairly well. However,
one track that has confused me is "Love Theme".

What's confusing about it? Well, have a listen...

Does that sound even remotely romantic to you?!? Personally I
think it sounds more like the menacing title music for the Lord of the
Rings trilogy. If I heard that in the midst of a love scene betwen
Inman (Jude Law) and Ada (Nicole Kidman), I'd wonder if they were
about to be set upon by a band of orcs!

Perhaps Minghella was watching too much Rebecca when he
composed this part of the score, confusing the macabre with the

Anyway, I'd like to suggest renaming this piece: "Melancholy Theme".

Monday, July 6, 2009

Picker's Progress - Part 4: The Picker Picks Up Picking (...but not his nose)

Musicologists will tell you that guitar-shaped instruments such as
the oud, the zither, and the vina have been around since about
3,000 B.C. Over the centuries, the bodies of the instruments
morphed, and the number and arrangement of strings changed.
By the mid-19th century the guitar (its name supposedly a
corruption of a Persian word) had achieved its standard,
recognizable form and six-string permutation.

Your humble narrator must have seen these ancient instruments
many times before. But the first time he sat up and paid attention
to them was 1995.

At Presbyterian College, in beautiful Clinton, South Carolina, nearly
every dorm room contained an acoustic guitar (This is an
exaggeration, to be sure, but it is an exaggeration for effect; thus,
it is forgiveable. Don't question it). Even if the denizens of these
rooms never so much as touched these guitars, except to move
them and make space for futons or piles of laundry, they had them
nonetheless. It was a rite of passage, and I longed to make that passage myself.

When I came home for summer break after freshman year, I
informed my parents of this desire. My mother's response was,
and I quote, "Alright; just so long as you don't give up the piano"
(If you recall from Part 3, I had taken up the keyboards again
during my senior year of high school.

My response: "I won't." (The eventual outcome: I did. And no
one called me out on it. But I digress...)

Because I was all of 19 when I made this humble request, I was
still indulged by my parents. And so, during that long, hot summer
of 1996, while the world turned its gaze on my corner of the world
(Atlanta) for the Olympic Games, and I slaved away as a lifeguard
at the WhiteWater amusement park, they went to Ken Stanton and
got me my first guitar.

I can still remember it: A Washburn D-10N 6-string. A plain top
(no "sunburst" polish or other frou-frou). Barnyard red sides. And
with it a soft case, a strap, a set of picks, an instructional video, a
thin instructional book, and two beginner lessons at Ken Stanton---
all for the modest price of $200.

I watched the video first, and picked up on the tuning process---long
the source of much later squinting, straining and bad stage jokes*---
fairly quickly. Then came the first three chords: A, E, and D.

E and D were pretty easy. A was a bit of a challenge. You see, there
are two schools of thought on how to finger A---well, actually two
schools of practice (there's very little that's cerebral about this). One
school insists that A should be fingered this way (numbers indicate
fingers of the left hand, starting with "1" as the index):

The other is equally adamant that A should be fingered this way:

As fate would have it, the instruction book I learned from taught the
second fingering of A. So that's how I learned A: with this admittedly
arthritis-inducing fingering.

Sixteen years later, I sometimes miss those first tender months of
my playing, when the plain-jane chords of beginner lessons sounded
lustrous and full, and I imagined being a hit songwriter/rock star.
Nowadays I can run through all the major and minor chords in about
a minute or less. I quickly get bored with what I'm playing, and the
luster seems to have worn right off. Perhaps I've sacrificed my
childhood wonderment on the altar of speed and technique...

But then I remember how much time it took to move from one chord
to the next, particularly from any chord to A. You could have boiled an egg in the middle of it all...or maybe even knitted a handkerchief!

The Ken Stanton instructor taught me three things in those two
all-too-brief lessons: 1) how to fingerpick a Delta blues, 2) how to
play Blues Traveler's "Run Around", and 3) how to play Alanis
Morissette's "Head Over Feet". The first two have remained to this
day, because I love blues music and because "Run Around" is one
of the simplest songs to play (four chords---G, C, A minor and D---
repeating endlessly). Alanis? Naw; I worked through my inner- woman phase years ago. Now I'm a thoroughly modern, post- femininst man; lookout, world.

And so it was back to PC, toting my little plain-topped, red-sided
baby under my arm. I was a big man on campus now!

Late that winter (fall semester, 1996) I cowrote my first song.
Mr. Thomas, a freshman that year, had already been playing
for a little while when we met in the PC Choir. But he humored
my absolute lack of skill by letting me hang out with him in the
commons building between the newest male and female dorms
on the far end of the campus. There we strummed away (or,
rather, HE strummed away, and I stumbled along as best I
could) into the wee hours of the night, furtively searching for
the Muse, and anxious for any gifts she might see fit to bestow
on us poor, humble supplicants.

It seems that memory is clearest concerning either the
greatest of things or the worst of things; the middle-range
stuff tends to get overlooked. I'm not sure whether that
song we bludgeoned out was necessarily the worst I've
ever remembered, but it came close. With lyrics such as
"Your love is like a drug addiction" and "I can't read your
mind / But if I could, what would I find", and a chord
progression modeled after, you guessed it, "Run Around",
our Lennon-McCartney effort would have had to beg for
the chance to tie Pete Best's shoelaces!@

After this disastrous debut#, I kept my distance from
writing for a while, and concentrated on learning more
chords and improving my timing. Like any beginner, I
struggled mightily with barre chords. For the young,
the weak, and even the out-of-practice, trying to keep
that index finger clamped down firmly across the neck
was almost the Thirteenth Labor of Hercules! My own
efforts were so bad, and the buzzing from an improperly-
clamped neck so vexsome, that for almost a year I
avoided any chord sheet that featured an F major
(which in standard tuning requires either a capo or
a barre fingering). Even today, my barring ability
is abyssmal; I just disguise it by moving up the neck

And, college being college, there were plenty of people
who were, skill-wise, light-years ahead of me. You
could trip over them walking back to the dorm; you
could lay them down on the lower quad and walk to
class without touching the grass; you could stack them
end on end and reach the moon---

(---you get the idea?)

In the Presbyterian College "scene", three musical acts
dominated: Beamstalk, Jazz Onions, and a third group
whose name escapes me at the moment.

Beamstalk was an all-guitar, sometimes-trio / sometimes- duo that played from jerry-riged stages or the beds of pickup trucks. Their songbook hewed fairly close to the mid-90's collegiate "norm": lots of Indigo Girls, Blues Traveler, and Dave Matthews, amongst others. In hindsight, their skill levels wer about average, but they SEEMED to be really good to my unlearned ears.
Beamstalk, strumming the light fantastic.

Jazz Onions$ was modeled after Dave Matthews
Band, right down to the instrumentation: guitar,
bass, drums, and fiddle (well, violin really, but
who's counting?). They lacked a woodwind
player (the guitar chair was doubled), but their
inspiration was plainly obvious; DMB's catalog
figured prominently in their setlists. They were
such cool guys; even the stand-offish manner of
some of their members demanded respect (even
if it simultaneously engendered resentment).
I would sit there on the Couch at Inklings---PC's
budget-constrained image of a coffee house, tucked
away in the dank basement of the largest men's
dorm---listening to them roll through "Dancing
Nancies" and Collective Soul's "World I Know",
Inklings Coffee House. In the right corner, sight unseen, was an electric organ. On many a lazy Friday afternoon I used to fiddle around on it and pretend I was Rod Argent.

The group-with-no-name was not so much a group
as it was an aggregation of musicians. Elliott and
Brian were seniors, jam-band fanatics, and really
laid-back guys. They were in charge of taping the
concerts at Inklings, Dead-style, perhaps in the
event that someone wanted a recording (or maybe
they just taped them for their own enjoyment).
Occasionally they would play there, Brian on keyboards
and Elliott on guitar. The jam-band influences were
front and center; long musical passages would unwind
from their instruments like brittle scrolls, floating
across the sticky floor before finally piling against
the far wall, to be kicked through by scruffy hipsters
with little patience for the wisdom of the ancients.^
One weekday morning, they blessed us with a Dead-
esque rendition of "Amazing Grace" during a prayer
meeting before classes. I thought I had died and
gone to heaven.

How I envied them all, these talented people!

"If only I could be in a band," I thought. "That
would be cool!"

Soon, I would get the chance...

* Such as this little gem: "This is a piece we learned from an ancient Chinese
scroll. It's called 'Tun-Ing'."

@ Thomas, you don't happen to still have this song sheet, do you? ; )

#...but at the time, I was downright PROUD of it!

$ They were Jazz Onions, not The Jazz Onions. I once made the mistake of
referring to them by the later designation, only to be corrected by
one of the guitarists: "No, Dan, not The Jazz Onions, just...Jazz Onions. You
know, kinda like Dave Matthews Band, not The Dave Matthews Band.
Got it?" "Yeah, I got it."

%Their lead guitarist/vocalist, Stephen, played a seminal role in my
taking up guitar. He lived right down the hall freshmen year, and unlike
so many other hallmates, he didn't go into conniptions when I asked,
"Can I play your guitar?", even though at the time I didn't know
how to play one. He was an easy-going fellow, quite likeable. Now he's
a doctor living in West Virginia, and still writing songs.

^Wow...that's probably the lamest attempt at "hipster music writing" I've ever made.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

If You Want Thinking Man's Non-Fiction...

...then Malcom Gladwell is your best bet.
Maybe you've heard of him? He's written several
critically acclaimed books, including The Tipping Point (2002)
and Blink (2005). His most recent publication is Outliers (2008),
which I just finished reading this weekend.

The central thesis in Gladwell's writings is that nothing in
this world happens for any ONE reason. Human activity,
human inactivity, the vagaries of random events...all of
these affect our lives. For the sake of simplicity (and sanity)
we convince ourselves that there is one simple reason
why any one thing occurs. But, as Gladwell proves,
we're just kidding ourselves.

Through the spectrum of "life-as-complex-event"
Gladwell shows us how and why Sesame Street came
into being (but also why Blue's Clues did better in
educating preschoolers); why an art expert could
immediately detect that a priceless ancient Greek vase
was fake (and why, after dismissing the expert's claims
and placing the vase on display, a New York museum
finally agreed that his suspicions were correct); how to
tell if a couple is about to get divorced (even if audio
tapes of them talking in private during marriage
counseling don't seem to give it away); why, after a
certain number of drinks of each, no one can tell the
difference between Pepsi and Coke; why the Beatles
and Bill Gates succeeded; why you've never heard of
the world's smartest man; and why Asians are so good
at math, yet tend to crash airplanes.

(You can't tell me that you're not even mildly curious
about any one of the above. You know you are.
These are curious things. And Gladwell gives the

Some of Gladwell's ideas are controversial, especially
in a modern world that believes that racial and cultural
backgrounds don't (or shouldn't) define who we are, and
that the best and brightest always rise to the top. Yet
if you're willing to read them carefully and thoughtfully,
you'll find many of these ideas convincing.

If you haven't read any of the above books, head out
to your local library and check out a copy. I can promise
you this much: you will be enlightened.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Picker's Progress - Part 3: The Picker Reaches Back 30 Years, and Returns to the Piano

Timeline: 1993 - 1996

In our last installment, the Picker had dropped hip-hop (and composition) like a bad habit. In this installment, he buries himself in the loving embrace of classic rock... and returns to the rocket 88, as it were.

At the risk of repetition, I'm not sure exactly why or when my attachment to hip-hop faded into nothingness. But I distinctly remember the time and the place where classic rock took its place: Camp Seagull, on the banks of the "Nasty Neuse" River, in coastal North Carolina, the summer of 1993.

Camp Seagull was mom and dad's ticket to getting me out of their hair for a spell. The summer after 8th grade, they decided that I needed a broadening of perspectives and experience, and shipped me off for six weeks of male bonding, bad cafeteria food, sailing instruction (Seagull was primarily a sailing camp), and homesickness.

They would repeat this process for the next three years.

I had no choice in the matter; so off I went.

I never enjoyed Seagull, mostly because I've never enjoyed sailing. Being out on the water is fine, but I'd prefer to leave the knots, ropes, sails and tillers to the more nautically-minded, while I sit there and enjoy it all. However, at sailing camp they don't typically allow the option of "sitting there and enjoying it all". Such an attitude invites mild threats from elder camp counselors, condescending remarks about one's masculinity from one's cabin mates, and a general sense of unease.

Mostly I survived for six weeks, eagerly awaiting the last days of salt-water (the Neuse is a briny estuary, not a fresh-water stream) and the return to Georgia red clay.

By the third (and final) year---the summer before junior year at
Marietta High---I had unbended a good bit. I did as much as I could,
taking up every waking moment with some activity (mostly to
offset boredom), and even got a Red Cross/lifeguarding certification
on the side, which I later parlayed into a four-summer gig as a
lifeguard at the White Water/American Adventures park in

And in that third and final year, I met the Doors.

The Doors were in a CD brought by a cabin-mate who was, in
all imaginable respects, a Deadhead. His collection of Dead
paraphernalia (stickers, books, music) was borderline-fanatical,
and his proselytizing (about the Dead, of course) much the same.

At the time I believed some old wive's tale (not my own mother's,
I'm sure) that the Grateful Dead were a Satanic band, so I kept my
distance from them. But the Doors...well...the Doors I latched onto.

The organ did it. The electric organ did it. The sound of that
organ---organist Ray Manzarek played, I believe, a Farfisa model---
was unlike anything I had heard before...so much so that it made
me think in cliches, just like I did right now. In particular, the song
"Light My Fire" would send me into fits of ectasy; whenever it
began, I would lean over the Deadhead's bunk and keep one ear
trained on the speaker, from beginning to end.

How can I describe what that organ did to me? I can't. I only know
that it powerfully affected my thinking about music. If something from thirty years earlier could be this cool...well, then, the past was worth looking into, now, wasn't it?

Let me be clear, though, that the world of classic rock did not fall, unheralded, from the heavens during that summer in North Carolina. I had heard it before, many times; all I needed was a compelling event---such as hearing Manzarek's long "Light My Fire" solo---to bring old memories to the fore.

I had my first exposure to classic rock when I was still a child,
riding around with the folks. They liked to listen to 97.1
(Fox 97, at the time, now 97.1 The River), the "oldies" station.
My sister and I, held virtual prisoner in our seatbelts, were
forced to digest the likes of the Beach Boys, the Beatles,
Jim Croce, Percy Sledge* and Jan and Dean.** We would ask,
"Who's that?" and dear old Dad would enlighten us.***

(This, I think, proves something that the Beatles mentioned
in the book companion to their 1995 Anthology TV show; namely,
that even the music we think we don't enjoy ends up affecting us.)

Once Jim Morrison, Ray Manzarek, John Densmore and Robby
Krieger had stoked my interest, I jumped in with abandon.****
At home later that summer, I dug through closets and drawers
and laid my hands on nearly all of my parents' vinyl records, and
began spinning them at any and every opportunity. I convinced
Sis to buy me a few tapes, two, such as (no surprise) a Doors'
greatest hits collection and the Beatles' "Red Album" (my
folks had the "Blue Album" on vinyl).

Thirty-year old vinyl albums were the soundtrack to my life
through junior and senior year at Marietta High. I would get
home from school, get a snack, go upstairs, turn on the turntable,
and start on my homework. Four albums, in particular, became
my favorites, the grooves nearly worn off of them through
sixteen months of after-school studies: Crosby, Stills, Nash &
Young's So Far; Santana's first album; Blood, Sweet & Tears'
Greatest Hits; and Fleetwood Mac's Rumours.

At the same time, the outside world was encouraging this interest.
Thanks to the 30-year cycle---the phrase used to describe how
trends in music, fashion and worldviews tend to repeat every
30 years---the music of the 60's featured prominently in
blockbuster films such as Forrest Gump and Apollo 13. At
Marietta High, too, the marching band began playing Blood,
Sweat & Tears and Motown songs during halftime. And then,
in freshmen year at Presbyterian College (1995), there was the
Beatles' Anthology television series (along with the Anthology
book, CD compilations, and assorted memorabilia).

It was a good time for older music, I dare say.

So good that I even went back to the hated piano bench...for
a brief period of time.

Envy led me there. Envy of a certain person I had known
in preschool, in church choir, and the last few years of
high school (he transferred to Marietta from elsewhere
our junior year). To protect the innocent, we'll just call
him "Mr. A."

Mr. A was, to put it mildly, a fantastically talented person.
Mr. A could sing, he could act, and he could tickle the
ivories like nobody's business. I remember being
especially envious during senior year when, in the midst
of some down time in a Theater class, he sat down at his
Kurzweil keyboard and banged out the synthesized intro
to Van Halen's "Jump"---pitch perfect. On several other
occasions, he sang the blues on a spare piano in the
auditorium where we rehearsed, name-checking
everyone in the class (including yours truly).

This was the sort of skill that made Mr. A popular with
the "in crowd"...and with girls, of course.

Meanwhile, your humble narrator was in the shadows,
fairly steaming.

With the perspective of 32 years, I think it's fair to say that
Mr. A must have practiced relentlessly as soon as he could
toddle. But I didn't see it that way; I figured he must have
one-upped Prometheus by stealing musicality, rather than
fire, from the gods.

And I wanted it for myself.

So I drove myself over to Ken Stanton Music and bought a
few up-to-date beginner's piano books. Soon I would be
challenging Mr. A on his own turf!

Alas, the challenge was never thrown down.

Like so many other things in life, this desire to better myself
and pick up a new skill lasted for a few weeks, maybe even
a month. I diligently picked my way through elementary
explanations of scales, chords, and right- and left-hand
exercises for building speed and dexterity. I learned the
chord progressions for the Theme to "Hill Street Blues" and
the Fine Young Cannibal's "She Drives Me Crazy."*****I even
learned how to "play the blues"---if one can call stumbling
through three fairly simple chords, off-rhythm and completely
stiff, "playing the blues".

But I never pursued piano with the zeal of a new convert, or
even that of an envious high schooler. I took my cheesy
keyboard---the same one used in my rap "compositions"---
off with me to college, but I rarely touched it. When I got
back home from college, it went back into storage. My
niece has it now, assuming it's still working.

It wasn't a dying of musical interest that doomed my piano
days, though.

It was something new, and sinister.

Something with a curved body, a long neck, and six strings.

Something that crouched in the corner of nearly everyone's
dorm room at Presbyterian College.

Soon it would come looking for me...

*He sang the original version of "When a Man Loves a Woman", so
famously butchered by Michael ("Office Space") Bolton.

**This was before the days of SUVs with flip-down movie players,
walkmans, and other gadgets. If you were a backseat passenger,
child or not, you had no choice in the matter of what you listened to.
You listened to whatever you parents felt like listening to.

***Actually, he'd bet us dessert that we couldn't guess the song/
performer...and he usually won. Dad won't try this game with me
anymore; I now know more about the music of his generation than
he does!

****The four members of The Doors; don't say you didn't learn
anything from my blog!

*****Both fairly "dated" by the time I got to them. I guess the
piano books weren't quite as up-to-date as I thought.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Sex in Advertising

(That got your attention, didn't it?)

Yesterday I was driving home from work, and found myself behind
a pickup truck with a bumper sticker. The pickup truck was for a
small business that repaired/installed windshields (the truck bed
was full of them), and the sticker read:

Have Trouble Putting on Condoms?
Most Windshields $150 and up (phone number)

...Proof positive that sex (or lack of performance thereof) will sell
nearly anything...including windshield installations.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Picker's Progress - Part 2: The Picker Goes Ghetto-Fabulous

Timeline: 1990 - 1993

Floyd Middle School, in beautiful Mableton, Georgia, was where I
discovered rap music.

Actually, let me correct that...it's where I got into rap music. As any
self-respecting musicologist would know, rap music was around long
before 1990; in fact, it was over a decade old by that time. And to
be sure, I had heard snatches of it before---mostly MC Hammer and
those of his ilk (read: clean, relatively sanitized rap).

But at the top of the bleachers in the gym, I discovered the not-so-
clean, no-so-sanitized version...gangsta rap. An Asian-born friend
of mine (or maybe he just tolerated my presence) had a yellow
walkman and a pair of split-ear headphones, so that two people could
listen at the same time. And in that walkman, he had N.W.A.*

It's hard to imagine today, when regular TV shows, radio shows
and the Internet spew out all sorts of crude, crass, scatological
stuff, that things like N.W.A. records could actually be shocking.
But they were...at least to the ears of a twelve-year old boy. The
same words that he had gotten his mouth washed out for saying
when he was in fourth grade were now coming through loud,
proud, and unexpurgated.**

Of course, it wasn't just four-letter words; it was other bodily-
related verbiage as well. But when you're twelve years old---
or, at least, when you're twelve years old in 1990---you don't
really understand the full implications of swaggering references
to freely committing sordid, carnal, animal acts twenty times
before breakfast. You have enough sense to understand that
it's willfully subvervise, to be sure, but not quite enough to
see how truly messed up it is.

And not quite enough to realize how messed up it is to laugh
at that kinda stuff as it streams out of the earphones and
into your impressionable mind.

Because most of it was, I'll admit, pretty funny at the time.

Due to my age, access to this wonderfully wicked music
was naturally restricted, commercially speaking. Listening
to it on someone else's walkman was one thing; getting my
own copy was another matter.

Fortunately, I had an accomplice: my older, cooler sister,
who had already blown my mind with the oddityy of playing
"Mr Roboto" at the wrong speed (see the previous post).
Sis was dating a football player at Osborne High School who
was into the same kind of music. Sis would also sometimes
insist that I accompany her to the store to buy various
things. And during these brief little jaunts into the countryside
(for the area around Milford Church Road, where I lived at
the time, was indeed countryside), she would introduce me
to the equally-hilarious obscenities and vulgarities of 2 Live
Crew. (She would also drive at least 15-20 miles over the speed
limit on each trip, yet was never pulled over by the police.
Some people have all the luck; nearly all of my speeding
tickets have been for 10 miles over.)

Somehow that 2 Live Crew tape found its way into my hands,
where it would remain for the next few years. (Apparently
the football player never asked for it back.)

From the Asian-born friend mentioned above, I got
copies of other 2 Live Crew albums, and a few from N.W.A.
These were copied onto clear plastic tapes with pastel-
colored geometric shapes and other late-80's frou-frou
on the sides. They were usually passed over underneath
a book or a stack of papers, to prevent discovery and
confiscation---a very real danger, I might add: another
girl in my eighth-grade class was caught with a particularly
racy rap tape, and after the teacher listened to it in her
own walkman, she had a ticket straight to the principal's
office (once considered a fate worse than death!)

Slowly I built up a collection, accepting copies when offered,
or else borrowing someone's original tape, smuggling it
over to my grandparents' house, and using my grandfather's
two-cassette copier to make my own (with the volume dialed
all the way down, of course).

Sis also bought me a few on the sly, such as Public Enemy's
Apocalypse 91...The Enemy Strikes Black.

Again, I didn't understand most of the political
issues being discussed on that album; I just knew
it was something that would upset my folks if they
knew I was listening to it...which alone made it

Somewhere in the midst of this, I decided to take a stab
at "composition"---if you can call writing rap songs composition.
To accomplish this, I had an old tape recorder with a large
input speaker (Dad used it to record important meetings
at work, or Evangelism Explosion seminars), a late-80's
electronic keyboard with all the bells and whistles (a
Christmas '88 present, I believe)...and my own keen mind.

"Composition" usually consisted of filling a sheet of paper with
lyrics, using one of the keyboard's admittedly-lame tempo
settings (I didn't have a beatbox, so I didn't have any other
options, really), and rapping it out into the input speaker.
I might also throw in a few sound effects, usually the racing cars
or the gun shots. A friend of mine also showed me a cool trick
to get the sound of a slamming car door---essential for
replicating that genuine, just-robbed-the-convenience-store-
and-shot-the-clerk, now-let's-get-outta-dodge-sucka vibe---by
running one's hand along the serrated edge of the keyboard,
and then slamming it down quickly.

Sometimes I recruited a friend of mine, Johnathan, who used
to sleep over on weekends, as co-emcee. He'd do a verse, I'd
do a verse, and there it was. After a few songs, though, we'd get
bored and see what was on TV.

I stopped the recording part after about a year. I think I
wanted something more realistic, and I even asked a friend
of mine how much turntables cost---the kind you used to get
that scratchety-scratch feeling. (I had tried to do my own
scratching on my childhood plastic 45 rpm record player---
don't laugh, I'm being serious---but discovered that all I
could do was make the record slow down. I guess I didn't have
a quick enough wrist to do it right.) He mentioned a price,
but it was A) cost-prohibitive and B ) unlikely to fly with the
folks, since it would have blown my "cover", so to speak.
It never occured to me to use my parents' turntable, which
is just as well; if Paul Simon or Gordon Lightfoot had been
scratchety-scratched beyond the point of no return, I might
have been left without a hide once they found out.

But I kept writing. Lyrics poured out of me in the first
two years of high school, in the department store with my
folks (where I would find the typewriter section, sit down,
and start pecking away), and on the back of sermon outlines
at church (for which I ought to have been smote by the Lord,
given the content of my lyrics!).

Sometimes I was caught, as I was at Floyd when I left a
particularly nasty rap that name-checked several teachers
(in a not-so-complimentary way) in the metal book "cage"
below my desk. At other times, it jeopardized my school
work, as it did in typing class when I spent most of the allotted
time typing out lyrics, then couldn't understand why, when I
had no time left to type out the full, assigned work and turned
in something incomplete, that I got a bad grade for it.

No matter; the writing continued, through all of freshman year at Marietta High School, and half of sophomore year. All the while I was
listening to rap---N.W.A., Ice-T, Ice Cube, Naughty By
Nature, Cypress Hill, Compton's Most Wanted (I'm surprised
I can remember these)---24-7. I even took these decidedly
non-Christian tapes with me on choir tours...although in my
humble, ineffective defense, other guys in choir did much
the same.

Then, the spring of my sophomore year, my interest in
rap declined, and then disappeared. To this day, I can't
explain why it happened. I suppose it's no different than
falling in love with a particular band, then one day waking
up to discover that you don't really care for their music
anymore. ***

Some of these lyric sheets---banal, vulgar, and clueless
about the real world within "gangsta" chic---still exist.
My sister and my brother-in-law dug one out of some
papers a few years ago, and were amused/bemused at
what they contained. They asked if I wanted them back.

I didn't.

That chapter in my life was over. I had moved on to
different things.

Oh, in case you're wondering, yes, I did have a rap name.
It was...hold your applause...Ice-Box.

That's right. Ice-Box.

*If you don't know what that abbreviation stands for...look it up. For
most of you, it should be familiar enough.

**No joke; I dropped the f-bomb on someone who was annoying me
on the bus ride home, and got kicked off the bus for the next week.
When the folks found out, I quite literally received a mouthful from the
soap dispenser and a go-to-bed, go-directly-to-bed, do-not-pass go,
do-not-collect-$200 card.

***One of the last rap groups that I was into before I lost interest was Arrested Development. Looking back, I think this suggests a maturation in my musical tastes, since their albums were much more complex and thoughtful that many of their contemporaries. You might say they were a "gateway" group to other kinds of music.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Picker's Progress - Part 1: Portrait of the Picker as a Young Man

(Timeline: 1977 - 1990)

Before getting started, let me make a disclaimer:

A. This is the past as I remember it. Other people might remember
things differently.

B. My own remembrances are obviously clouded by 20-20 hindsight
and the perspective of a 32-year-old adult.

But that's the beauty, and indeed the very essence, of historical
"memory"; no two "memories" are the same, and no person's
"memory" remains intact throughout their life.

(If all of this sounds rather academic, it is. Can't help it; I'm in grad

I don't remember music in the womb. That's not to say that my
mother never sang while she was pregnant with me; she might
have. But I don't remember it.

Neither Mom nor Dad are big music people, at least not in the same
sense that I am. They both appreciate music, but that's about the
limit of it. Neither one of them plays any instruments today (Mom
played piano at one point).

When I was born (1977), 8-tracks were still "in", and my parents
owned a few. One was the soundtrack to Saturday Night Fever.
The reason I know this is because when I was young, while waiting
in the car in some parking lot for Mom to come back out of the
store*, I watched the plastic cover for this 8-track start to bend and
warp in the summer heat.

Regular cassette tapes were rarely seen. Mostly my folks listened to
33-rpm vinyl records. Dad built a slide-out turntable tray below the
entertainment center cabinets in the living room. The turntable slid
out, the vinyl records went on, the arm came down, and out of the
speakers the music came forth.

Particular records that I remember were Jim Croce's You Don't
Mess Around With Jim, I Got A Name and Life and Times; Paul
Simon's Greatest Hits (his solo 70's hits, not his S & G hits); a
record by Harry Nillson that featured Ringo Starr; some record
by Cat Stevens; and several records by 2nd Chapter of Acts, a
fairly popular 1970's Contemporary Christian band.

About the age of 6 I was "dragooned" into church choir. This
would be a lasting committment, one that I would honor (usually
against my will) for the next 16 years.

The Picker in the kids' choir at First United Methodist Church of Marietta, 1988 (from a church member directory).

Sometime between the ages of 6 and 10 I got my first
record player. It was plastic, with a tan base and tan
flip-up cover, an orange needle arm, a white top, and a
dark brown record platform. Because of its small size it
could only play 45-rpm records, which I discovered when I
tried to play a 33 rpm on it. I remember it took quite a few
tries before I realized that the larger record wouldn't fit.
Most kids, eyeballing the record and the record player,
probably would have picked up on that fact and not even
bothered to play the 33 rpm. I must have been "slow".

This was the era of "play-along records". Remember those?
They were booklets with 45-rpms in the back-flaps that
contained narration. "You will know it is time to turn the
page when you hear (fill in the blank) like this (fill in the
sound)." My play-along record collection included all three
of the Star Wars films, several Indiana Jones films, and a
lot of Disney films. They might still be buried somwhere
in my folks' attic. I ought to find them; with a little
blowtorch action, they might be useful as snack bowls.

My older, cooler sister had already advanced beyond such
child's play. She had real 45 rpms, including the undisputed
gem of 1983, Styx's "Mr. Roboto". When she was in a
humorous mood (which I welcomed, because it meant that
she might not beat me up that day), she would let me listen
to it normally, and then at 33 rpm speed. I was much

My first musical instruction was about the same time,
between the ages 6 and 10. Mom tried to teach me piano; it
didn't take. Now, that's the simple, sanitized version. The
truth is a whole lot uglier, one of the most unpleasant
memories of my life, and I'd rather not discuss it in detail
(especially since I brought it up once to Mom and she
asked me when I was going to forgive her for past
offenses). Please don't ever ask me about it, either.

One of the piano books from this "unpleasant" time period.

At Birney Elementary School I took music class, which
was taught by the same teacher who taught art class. I
think her name was Mrs. Brown. Initially we got along
fine; later on we had some kind of falling out. Eventually
it got to the point where I hated going to either music
or art class, mostly because I didn't like Mrs. Brown.

We learned the usual patriotic airs ("My Country 'Tis
of Thee", "America the Beautiful", "God Bless America")
and some other really strange songs. One that stuck out
was an old folk song in a minor key, on a record that we
sang along to. The song was about a man who died from
choking on a chicken bone in his chicken soup. Even
today, I can remember that section of the lyrics:

A little bone, a bitty thing / No bigger than my pinky,
He swallowed hot, from out that pot / And quicker
than a wink-ee,
He swallowed that soup, let out a whoop / And fell
down choking on his stoop,
And he choked! And he sagged! / And he smothered!
And he gagged!
And he let out a scream! "Aaaghh"! / And he let
out a moan! "Ooohhh."
And he cried, 'cause he died / from choking on
a bone
On such an ordinary day / like today.**

Absolutely macabre. People would have a field
day with that kind of crap if we played it today in
elementary schools full of impressionable young

For my part, I wouldn't eat anything for almost a
week after hearing that song. I was afraid I would
choke on it!

A full band came to our school once and performed,
to show us what different band instruments sounded
like. Afterwards we took a spelling test, to show that
we could spell some of the instruments' names. I got
every one right except "percussion". I had spelled it
"percution". For this, I blame The Electric Company.
One of their songs was about the suffix -tion, and that
song went:

T-I-O-N! / Shun-shun-shun-shun-shun!
T-I-O-N! / Shun-shun-shun-shun-shun!

I remembered this song, and figured that the "shun"
of percussion was spelled in the same way.

MTV came into being about this time. We didn't
have cable, but my aunt & uncle did. I can remember
actually watching videos on MTV at their house. The
whole matter of MTV finally doing away with its initial
reason for existence could fill countless essays. I've got
my own theories, but I guess in the end, television
networks have to give the people what they want, or
else go out of business. And apparently what the people
want---or at least, what the young people want---are
reality shows.

Up until the time I entered middle-school in 1988
my relationship to music was that of a listener, not
a performer. But in seventh grade, my introduction to a
new, subversive form of music (listened to clandestinely
at the top of indoor gym bleachers while other kids played
kick-ball below) would inspire my first bursts of creativity.

* This was before the days of Public Service Announcements warning of the dangers
of leaving children/pets in locked cars in the heat. I'm surprised my mind didn't bend
and warp as well.

**Update (04/27/09): This song was actually from a 1970's cartoon illustrated by Maurice Sendak (best known as the author/illustrator of Where the Wild things Are), sung by Carole King (who wrote "You're So Far Away", "You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman,", "It's Too Late, Baby", and other radio hits in the '60s and '70s). What would we do without the Internet? Forget everything?

An ongoing chronicle...

Today at work, while trying to make it through a mind-numbingly-
boring day (the usual), I got an idea for an extended series of posts.

These posts will chronicle my musical progress through the years,
from the earliest times that I can remember music being around,
all the way to the present.

Several facts and considerations prompted this:

1. I'm an amateur musician.

2. There's nothing better to do.

3. What can it hurt?

4. It's not an exercise in egotism, I assure you; I ain't
that good, as you'll discover.

5. I just think it might be interesting.

6. I've always been fascinated by famous musicians talking
about their early days, before the big fame and the big gigs
and the big bucks (and the big divorces, and the big drug
busts, and the big headaches, etc.).

7. You might look at #6 and say, "Aha! 'Famous musicians'!
You are an egotist!"

8. I promise you, I'm not.

9. You might find some of it interesting.

10. Even if you don't, I'll keep doing it anyway.

11. In one of my classes at University of West Georgia---Introduction
to Archives---we've been talking about archival theory: how
materials are selected, how they're preserved, and what the
upshot of all that is for popular culture and "memory".

12. I'm not talking about "memory" as in "Where did I put my car keys?"

13. I'm talking about "memory" in a historical sense.

14. "Memory" is a big thing nowadays in academia. Basically, it's the
study of how people's remembrances of events change over time.
People consciously preserve some things (and discard others) in
order to "remember" the past in a certain way.

15. You may as, "What does that have to do with
this series of posts?"

16. Well...I dunno....other than I might someday be asked to share
the details of my musical journeys with an aspiring historian...and it
would be good to remember what they were.

17. "The odds of that happening are of so slight," you may
comment, "that even Vegas doesn't want a part of it.

18. Well then, my children (if any) might want to know...and it would
be good to remember for them.

19. You may look bemused, sigh, and say, "They'll probably run
away screaming the minute you open your mouth."

20. Bottom line, I'm just bored and stubborn.

So, here we go, with "Picker's Progress"!

21. (I know; it's a lame, deritative title. Get over it.)

Monday, April 6, 2009

"Ye shall Know the Truth...

...and the Truth shall take ye to court."

As a grad student in history, I find this absolutely fascinating. It seems that history is being drawn and quartered by two forces: academia and pop culture. Academia says, "Get the facts right, even if it's boring, disappointing, or confusing! Otherwise it's not history!" Pop culture says, "Make it appealing, colorful, and scandalous, even if it's not 100% acurate! Otherwise why should people want to know about it?"

Personally, I think there's enough interesting and accurate stuff out there, without the need to inflate, deflate, revise, amend, spin or fabricate for the sake of popular consumption.

Yet some people do prefer the inflations, deflations, revisions, amendments, spins and fabrications over the real deal. Go figure.

The Betsy Ross thing is especially poignant. While the educated adult in you is approving of "setting the record straight" about who actually did (and didn't) sow the first American flag, the little ten-year-old kid in you is sniffling in despair because his fourth-grade American History teacher was putting him on. It's sad and necessary at the same time.

Right now in class we're reading Lee Considered, a controversial book that blows great holes in the mythology of Robert E. Lee (whether he was really anti-slavery, whether he was all that great a general, etc.) I think the author makes some good points and misses a few others, but I can understand why people cherish the "traditional" Lee. It's painful to let go of your idols...

Friday, April 3, 2009

21st-Century String-band music...

...is alive and doing very well, thank you.

These guys have been coming through my earphones at work a lot nowadays.

Nice video work, too; kinda reminiscent of the 1960's folk festivals. Even the film
color suggests an older time.

And a great closing line, although I can't tell if it's meant to be ignorance or sarcasm
(either way, it's pretty freakin' hilarious).

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Irritating "Greenies", one day at a time...

In truth I didn't care one way or the other about the Earth Day "lights out" thing; I wasn't at home between 8:30 and 9:30 pm last night anway (I was sitting in a music shop in Roswell listening to several accoustic performers).

Still, if for no other reason than to be contrarian, and to puncture the elitist, self-righteous pretensions of eco-conscious people everywhere, I humbly present the following video.


...Or don't enjoy; makes no difference to me.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

More prozac, please...I live in Atlanta.

MSNRealEstate periodically runs these rankings of cities, in order to show where one ought to live. This time, the ranking is "unhappiness" or "depression", based on a combination of factors such as unemployment rate, divorce rate, suicide rate, crime rate, and even "cloudy day rate".

And for some reason, the capital of the Peach State (formerly known as the Empire State of the South, which I think is a far better nickname) comes in at #10. I think that's pretty hilarious, considering how few depressed people I know around here. There's no way you can tell me that New York (or at least one of its five boroughs) isn't on this list, and if we're using a city's "cloudy day rate" as an indicator of depression, then I ask you: where is Seattle?

Just writing this has brought on a certain amount of melancholy. I must leave you, gentle reader, for now, while I go and lie down and hope for the pain to go away...

EDIT (03/09/09): Turns out Seattle is on the list...at #20. Complete BS; it should be much higher than that.

Also, for some of my friends: Nicole, Louisville is #17.

Thomas, Memphis is #14, tied with Pittsburgh, PA.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

A video response...

A friend of mine recently posted a link to a rather trippy Beach Boys home video, for the song "Wouldn't It Be Nice?"

In that spirit, here's another trippy video, from the same time period, for a band and a song that I've always thought highly of.

Update (05/02/09): Found another one to replace the one that was removed. Enjoy!

Saturday, February 14, 2009

The next Mickey Rourke...

"I be stuck up in Folsom Prison...Fo' shizzle..."

This has got to be one of the stranger pieces of news in the entertainment biz, at least to me. We all knew the Phoenix clan was a little off-center (it's hard to have those kinda first names and not wind up a little messed up), but...what...?!?

Apparently Mr. Walk-een intends to quit films and change careers. Mr. Joaquin is going to be DJ Wiggity-Wiggity-Joaquin.



The sad thing is that now, I'm going to feel like I need to take a shower every time I watch Walk The Line.

Let's hope that, in the end, for Mr. Phoenix, the title of a certain Johnny Cash album proves to be prophetic: The Man Comes Around.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Birthdays, according to Jim Boggia

Another day, and another year, older.

So far, thirty-two doesn't feel any different from thirty-one. But, different or not, it's here to stay, at least for another three-hundred and sixty-odd days.

And on this occasion, here's a little number for you, courtsey of that local purveyor of great indie music, Paste Magazine (I thought of posting a live version, but it didn't have the great
background vocals in the last 21 seconds). I challenge any one else to present any other charming folk-pop song that actually manages to rhyme "black and tans" in the lyrics.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

The Weight of The World...

Just got back from my first class meeting.

Here's what ahead:

Thirteen books to read over the course of four months, each one to be discussed in class.

Three of those books to write reviews for.

One of those books to lead a group discussion for.

And...a twelve- to thirteen-page essay that uses at least eight to ten primary and secondary sources (that's first-hand accounts and latter-day histories for you rubes).

...And this is only for one three-hour class (I'm taking two this semester).