Ta-Nehisi Coates, a Baltimore native and widely respected young writer, has written a powerful article about the shocking riots that are taking place in that city this week, following the inexplicable death of an innocent African-American named Freddie Gray in police custody. The article is titled "Nonviolence as Compliance", and those three words say a lot.

You should read Ta-Nehisi Coates's article ... because he is expressing what every one of us feels as we begin to understand the depths of the problem of police abuse of African-American populations all over the USA. You should also read Coates's article because he knows Baltimore, and is speaking from a position of knowledge. Except when he gets to his last paragraph:

When nonviolence is preached as an attempt to evade the repercussions of political brutality, it betrays itself. When nonviolence begins halfway through the war with the aggressor calling time out, it exposes itself as a ruse. When nonviolence is preached by the representatives of the state, while the state doles out heaps of violence to its citizens, it reveals itself to be a con. And none of this can mean that rioting or violence is "correct" or "wise," any more than a forest fire can be "correct" or "wise." Wisdom isn't the point tonight. Disrespect is. In this case, disrespect for the hollow law and failed order that so regularly disrespects the rioters themselves.

"Nonviolence is a ruse"? The train just shot off the tracks here, and in a really bad way. The problem in Baltimore (and in the entire USA) is between police officers and innocent African-American citizens. I don't know if there is a Gandhi or a Martin Luther King anywhere on the scene in Baltimore this week, so it's weird that Coates chooses the (all too rare) political philosophy of nonviolent resistance as the target of his piece. And it's sad that this Atlantic Monthly article is now being widely spread, as if there were actual wisdom to be found in these angry and misguided words.

Nonviolence is not a ruse because nonviolent protest has an incredibly successful track record. In fact, there is no other form of political activism that has been anywhere near as successful around the world in the past 100 years. Nothing else comes remotely close.

The term "Nonviolence" is associated with the anti-British anti-Imperialist protest movement led by Mohandas Gandhi for many decades in India. While there is nothing simple about either Gandhi or about India, it is a basic fact that Gandhi's very courageous and excruciatingly tough campaign against the sometimes murderous oppression of the British Empire achieved its mission: India made Great Britain go away. It's hard to imagine how this goal could have been met so well without the strenuous application of the principles of Satyagraha, or Truth-force, which were widely influential as the moral foundation of the anti-British nonviolent protest movement.

It's because he was inspired by Gandhi's success that Martin Luther King adopted the principles of Satyagraha as a practical playbook when he began a protest campaign against segregation and institutionalized racism in the American south. With the nonviolent Martin Luther King at the head of the public protest through the 1950s and 1960s, great progress was made against racism in the United States of America.

"Nonviolence is a ruse". The guy can't be serious. He's certainly not thinking about the lessons of history. I wonder what path to justice Ta-Nehisi Coates considers more likely to help the African-Americans who fear the police forces that patrol them? I also wonder what effect Coates thinks his popular article will have on the sadly misguided racist police officials who already see African-Americans as potentially violent enemies? Coates is offering a path to greater alienation on both sides. And this is the article that's breaking the Internet today.

In case this isn't clear: I support the loudest possible public protest in Baltimore, and as far as I'm concerned it should go on forever and get louder and louder until change is accomplished. If I were able to be on the streets in Baltimore today, I would be there (just as I was there for the Occupy protests when I could be). Protests are great, and I don't even mind when they get unruly.

Nonviolence is about protest. Nobody logged more time, and endured more agony, in illegal public protest than Martin Luther King or Mohandas Gandhi. They both went to jail constantly. They both gave their own lives for the cause. A serious dedication to nonviolence breathes life into a protest movement. It's what allows a protest movement to stay alive as long as it needs to, and ensures the enemies of the protest movement that the protest movement has got what it takes to endure.

"Nonviolence is a ruse." You lost the path here, Ta-Nehisi Coates. You just went over to the stupid side.

Nonviolence is not a ruse. Here are a few things that are a ruse: police violence, bad government, bad journalism. These are the frauds that must be continually exposed. More importantly, public apathy is a ruse, and hopelessness is a ruse.

Hopelessness is what Ta-Nehisi Coates is preaching today in the Atlantic Monthly. That's not what the brave people on the streets in Baltimore need today as they continue to make their voices heard.


Hopelessness is what Ta-Nehisi Coates is preaching today in the Atlantic Monthly. That's not what the brave people on the streets in Baltimore need today as they continue to make their voices heard.

view /CoatesNonviolence
Tuesday, April 28, 2015 10:02 am
Ta-Nehisi Coates says "Nonviolence is a ruse". Wrong.
Levi Asher

What can a pacifist say about racism? A lot, it turns out. The pacifist perspective is badly needed when rage abounds, as it does right now following the decisions by grand juries in Ferguson, Missouri and New York City not to indict two policemen who killed two unarmed African-American men.

"American society's admiration for Martin Luther King increases with distance," writes Ta-Nehisi Coates of The Atlantic, in an article subtitled with blunt words: "Violence works. Nonviolence sometimes works too."

Ta-Nehisi Coates has also been exploring the evergreen idea that racism can be corrected by war on his Twitter account, evoking the North's victory over the South in the American Civil War as a relevant moral victory, and declaring that:

This got a lot of retweets and responses, and the increasingly popular cultural critic doubled down:

The conversation spread. Inevitably, the popular idea that World War II was also a "good war" because it ended the Holocaust (ignoring the fact that World War II also created the Holocaust) was invoked:

Ta.Nehisi Coates's statements here are hardly new or shocking. But it is shocking and upsetting that statements like this seem to carry the force of truth, and that pacifists should fail to challenge this rash idea. Pacifists need to speak with a louder voice, especially since facts are on our side. History shows that war is often a primary cause of racism, and that war is nearly always an enabler of its worst offenses. War doesn't correct racism; it generates it.

How can a pacifist begin to speak about racism, when emotions are high and words seem misplaced? First, we can point out that the obvious fact that wars tend to pit ethnic groups against each other. This makes it nearly self-evident that war aggravates feelings of ethnic hatred, that militarism is likely to be a primary cause of racism.

Once we begin to look at the actual evidence, it becomes clear that war and racism are hopelessly entwined, that they amplify each other, and that even the fear of possible future war can be a tremendous enabler of racism. An acclaimed recent history book called The Internal Enemy: Slavery and War in Virginia, 1772–1832 by Alan Taylor hammers this point home (we wrote about this book earlier this year in a blog post titled "Blood Alienation"). This important book shows that fear of a militarized slave revolt played a gigantic role in the South's debates over the future of slavery in the decades before the Civil War. This fear originated with news of the bloody Haitian revolution of 1791 to 1804, and was increased by Nat Turner's attempted slave uprising in Virginia in 1831.

Alan Taylor's The Internal Enemy counters the popular idea that greed was the primary engine of the slave economy in the American South. Greed may have been the original motivation for the wide acceptance of slavery -- sure, there was a lot of money in sugar cane and cotton. But The Internal Enemy shows that an obsessive fear of black uprisings began to dominate government policy in Southern states before the Civil War. Paranoid fears that white women would be raped en masse during a slave uprising added a psychotic edge to this fear (this meme would later justify many lynchings after the Civil War).

Alan Taylor's book suggests that an overwhelming fear of race war left Southern states incapable of rational decision-making when the time came for these states to follow the rest of the enlightened world and outlaw slavery. The North could outlaw slavery, and so could England, because their smaller slave populations didn't present a significant internal threat. States like Virginia saw their slave populations as a terrifying and highly capable militant presence (a fact that has been largely lost to history until Alan Taylor's book) and thus could not converge upon moderate and humane practices with regard to this internal enemy. Fear of race war defeated every Southern impulse towards moderation.

To suggest that war helps to fix racism is to suggest that a recovering alcoholic take a drink to steady his resolve, that a tank of gasoline be used to fight a fire. No serious thinker can look at the historical evidence and continue to believe that this method can work. Of course, we know that Ta-Nehisi Coates is a serious thinker, and many of his Twitter respondents probably are too, so we can only conclude that they have not looked at the evidence.

One key point of evidence is the fact that the loss of the Civil War created a shared white/black society that never came to peace. Instead, after 1865, many Southerners dealt with the humiliation of a crushing military defeat by turning the refusal to assimilate with blacks into a badge of defiance and pride. As movies like D. W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation show, it became a sign of military distinction among prominent Southerners after the loss of the Civil War to refuse to associate with the victors of the war, either white or black. This type of "victory" was not a good ground upon which to build a civil society between whites and blacks.

After the loss of the Civil War, the humiliation of invasion and defeat replaced the fear of slave revolt as the main ingredient in the cauldron of racism that has been swirling in the post-Confederate states ever since. The rebellion is over, but the hatred that lingers after the loss of a hard-fought war still pollutes this section of American society today. This appears to be a frequent phenomenon after a war is lost. The Nazis who congregated in Germany after the loss of World War I were also sore losers. Sore losers do a lot of damage.

It's very good that slavery was ended between 1963 and 1865. But military vanquishment by blockade and invasion was the worst possible way to achieve this result, because racial integration was imposed by a hated enemy rather than accepted from within. This is not a good model for the future of our planet. I hope that those who think of war as a redeeming force will consider the alternative of pacifism, which is a broad, flexible and (hopefully) emerging philosophy.

Pacifism often includes the belief that peace is a redeeming force for society as a whole, and that the best way to achieve a peaceful world -- which means a world without racism -- is to follow the peaceful methods of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King. Since social sicknesses like racism are generated by the culture of hyper-militarism, the best way to cure these sicknesses is to cure our addiction to the culture of hyper-militarism. Romantic paeans to noble war by Atlantic Monthly writers do not help this case.

Pacifists should explain that evidence of the damage war does to our society is present in human history at least as prominently as nitrogen is present in the air we breathe. (For anyone who is curious: nitrogen makes up 78.09% of the air we breathe, though nobody ever talks about all this nitrogen. Fear of violence and perception of internal threat probably accounts for at least 78.09% of our problems with racism, and nobody ever talks about this either.)

Besides quoting Alan Taylor on public attitudes in pre-Civil War Virginia, what other historical facts can a pacifist cite against the ridiculous suggestion that war can correct or cure racism? Plenty, plenty, plenty. We can remember that the entire practice of human slavery is based on military conquest, that a slave is a prisoner of war or the descendant of a prisoner of war. We can speak of all the atrocities of the past hundred years, every single one of which took place in the context of total war: Bulgaria, Armenia, Ukraine, Nanking, Poland, Czechoslovokia, Hungary, Romania, Tibet, Bosnia, Iraq, Syria.

We have previously noted here that genocide is always enabled by war, that genocide never occurs outside of the context of war. Pacifists need to help explain that genocide, like racism, is a direct by-product of militarism. It is impossible to imagine that we will ever have a world without racism, or without genocide, unless this is also a world without war.

Scratch a racist and you'll find a militarist. Remember the outbreak of anti-semitism enabled by the Dreyfus Affair in France? In fact, Dreyfus was considered a "German Jew", and the entire explanation for the vicious attacks against Dreyfus can be found in France's stunning loss to Germany in the Franco-Prussian War, and to the fear of Germany that became a French obsession after this loss. It's a vital and little-known point that Dreyfus was not singled out because the French had suddenly become intolerant of Judaism. He was singled out because as an ethnic Jew he was suspected of having ties to Germany.

The pattern repeats over and over: a war is fought, and racism follows in its wake. Or a war is anticipated, and racism becomes a sensible policy. What about the slaughter of Native Americans in 19th Century USA? Like the slaves in Virginia, like Dreyfus in France, like the Armenians in Turkey, the Native Americans were seen as an internal threat, a strategic liability in time of war. We didn't kill the Native Americans because we hated them; we killed them because we were scared of them. After the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, did the USA force Japanese-Americans into concentration camps because we suddenly hated them? No, we forced them into concentration camps because we were afraid of them. Wherever war arrives, racism follows.

War as a cure for racism? A worse idea has rarely ever been suggested. I don't blame Ta-Nahesi Coates for expressing his frustration at American racism in 2014 by praising the outcome of the Civil War. But war is no prescription for racism, and I hope nobody thinks that the Civil War stands as proof that a good war can exist. And what would have been the result of this "good war", I'd like to ask Ta-Nehisi Coates, if the Confederacy had won?

I don't blame Ta-Nehesi Coates for writing what he feels. But I do blame my fellow pacifists -- are you out there, anyone? -- for not speaking up more effectively to join the conversation and share some historical insights when emotional paeans to the nobility of war are widely shared. The fact that many people seem to agree with Ta-Nehisi Coates and few people are pointing out the flip side of his story shows once again what we've observed here before: committed pacifists need to do a much better job of making our voices heard, of saying what needs to be said when it needs to be said.


Ta-Nehisi Coates thinks violence is sometimes necessary to combat the evil of racism. How can a committed pacifist respond?

view /PacifismAndRacism
Sunday, December 7, 2014 10:10 am
Police frontlines in Ferguson, Missouri
Levi Asher

"Wizard of Oz is on again", I noticed recently while flipping through my favorite classic movie channels. Then I spotted the year on the movie listing: 1925.

Here it was, the early version I'd always been curious to see! This silent-era Wizard came out fourteen years before the great Judy Garland classic, and even though I'd heard the 1925 version was a box-office dud and an artistic failure, I'd long been curious what this interpretation of L. Frank Baum's children's book contained.

It doesn't take long before the problems with this ambitious production begin to reveal themselves. Departing wildly from L. Frank Baum's story from the very start, the movie introduces a meandering political subplot: a prime minister, a threatened land, a secret lost princess whose identity is sealed inside a mysterious envelope. These dreary machinations barely connect to the familiar story of The Wizard of Oz, and the melodrama makes the movie immediately wearying to watch. We would barely know that this is L. Frank Baum's story at all as the movie begins if we didn't see an old man reading the book to a little girl.

This girl, however, is not Dorothy. The 1925 Wizard of Oz was the masterwork of a then-popular moviemaker and clown named Larry Semon whose spindly motions and sad-sack expressions recall Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. Larry Semon financed and directed this movie, and he cast his vivacious starlet wife Dorothy Dwan as Dorothy. Here she is -- a rather worldly child -- with kindly Aunt Em in an early scene on the Kansas farm.

Larry Semon cast himself as the Scarecrow, and surprisingly it's not Dorothy Dwan but Semon himself who prances proudly on camera through much of this movie. Larry Semon's vintage comic routines bear traces of various stage traditions from vaudeville to music hall to mime to slapstick, and he's an energetic marvel to watch, even as he shamelessly hogs the screen. Many of his routines go on too long, but he finds the right note in his initial Scarecrow number, a set piece that clearly informed Ray Bolger's Scarecrow in 1939.

The 1925 Wizard of Oz has no Wicked Witch, no Toto, no yellow brick road. It does have a tornado (as seen in that wild image at the top of this page). It also has a gleaming Land of Oz, and one wonders if Larry Semon's movie might have succeeded if he'd left L. Frank Baum's original plot elements to work their natural magic. (As it happened, this Wizard of Oz destroyed Larry Semon last hope for a breakthrough Hollywood hit. He would die three years later at the age of 39).

Now that the bad news about the 1925 Wizard of Oz being a turkey is out of the way, here's the good news: the film provides a fascinating opportunity to contrast what one film version may do badly and another may do well. While the impeccable and nearly perfect 1939 Wizard of Oz beats the 1925 movie on almost every count, there is a single important innovation in the 1925 version that clearly inspired the 1939 version.

This is the notion of transformation, the idea of a Land of Oz that is a mirror of the farm in Kansas, and the pleasure of watching three clumsy farmhands emerge as their shadow selves: the Scarecrow, the Tin Man and the Cowardly Lion. So much of the beauty of the great 1939 Wizard of Oz is tied up in this magical transformation, which does not occur at all in L. Frank Baum's original book. It is found, however, in Larry Semon's 1925 movie.

Before Larry Semon's Scarecrow becomes a scarecrow, he's one of three farmhands who travels in the flying house with Dorothy to Oz. He then hides himself by stealing the clothes off an actual scarecrow and stuffing them with straw.

It's delightful to see young Oliver Hardy (sans Stan Laurel) as the Tin Man, who similarly adopts his junk-pile uniform in order to hide from predators.

It's an even-bigger surprise, and not a very happy one, that the Cowardly Lion in the 1925 movie is played for broad laughs as a racist caricature of a shiftless African-American. We first meet this character as a farm worker played by G. Howe Black (his real name was Spencer Bell), and even before he reaches Oz he's forced to run through a few variations of the depressingly familiar "scared by a ghost" comedy routines that audiences seemed to always expect from African-American performers in the 1920s and 1930s. Why, we must wonder today, was it so entertaining in this era to watch African-American actors pretend to be scared out of their wits? The 1925 Wizard of Oz mines that trope mercilessly. During the tornado scenes (which, for some reason, are filmed in vivid blue) a blot of lightning tries to chase him down, and this happens:

Later, this character transforms himself into the Cowardly Lion (cowardly -- get it?) by hiding inside a costume that he finds in a cave.

Meanwhile, the Wizard of Oz doesn't stand out much in this movie, and mainly serves as a foil for the other actors:

Despite the many disappointments of this movie, we must give it proper credit for inventing the metafictional device that was used so effectively in the 1939 version when the farmhands played by Ray Bolger, Jack Haley and Bert Lahr morph into the Scarecrow, the Tin Man and the (now white, still funny) Cowardly Lion. One wonders if the 1939 script might have missed the innovation of aligning Dorothy's three friends from Oz with real-life counterparts from the farm in Kansas if Larry Semon's movie hadn't come up with it first.

There's something haunting about Larry Semon's face when he hams it up as the Scarecrow. We see in his eyes the deep hopes he held for this expensive production, and can only imagine with sadness how lost he must have felt when the work crashed at the box office, taking his career down with it. The transformation was only half complete.


Comedian Larry Semon's silent-movie 'Wizard of Oz' from 1925 provides a fascinating case study in what one film version may do well and another may not.

view /Wizard1925
Thursday, July 31, 2014 07:26 am
Screenshot from 1925 Larry Semon film of Wizard of Oz
Levi Asher

Amiri Baraka, a seminal Beat poet, angry playwright, revolutionary activist and scrappy indie publisher from Newark, New Jersey has died. The Allen Ginsberg Project blog has the scoop. Here's a Litkicks article about Amiri Baraka by Jamelah Earle from 2003.

Please feel free to share your memories or personal encounters with Amiri Baraka by leaving a comment below.


Amiri Baraka, a seminal Beat poet, angry playwright, revolutionary activist and scrappy indie publisher from Newark, New Jersey has died.

view /AmiriBarakaNewarkPoet
Thursday, January 9, 2014 09:09 pm
Amiri Baraka
Levi Asher

Dave Van Ronk's The Mayor of MacDougal Street is a constructed autobiography, pieced together by the singer's friend and admirer Elijah Wald after Van Ronk died of cancer in 2002. Elijah Wald is a roots-music scholar who has also written books like How the Beatles Destroyed Rock 'n' Roll: An Alternative History of American Popular Music. Eleven years later, the book he produced from interview recordings and memoir fragments would have given Van Ronk the pleasure of seeing his name pop up in lights as a primary source for the new Coen Brothers movie Inside Llewyn Davis.

Dave Van Ronk would have relished the irony, because his failed flirtations with fame became legendary by the time he died. Flirtation with fame provides the primary plotline for Inside Llewyn Davis, a movie I got excited about when I first heard of its Dave Van Ronk connection, and enjoyed very much when I finally got to see it.

I don't always love a Coen Brothers movie (especially, for instance, when it's a Coen Brothers movie of a Cormac McCarthy novel), but I do always love the music in a Coen Brothers movie. Inside Llewyn Davis is a bonanza of great folk tunes, and the soundtrack is especially rewarding for displaying the wide variety of musical styles of the early 1960s folk boom: Irish brother groups, sea shanty singers, "early music" experts, Appalachian authentics, Beat poets, corny comedians, harmony crewcut groups. Despite the great music, Inside LLewyn Davis isn't quite as spectacular a snapshot of 1960s Greenwich Village culture as their previous O Brother Where Art Thou? was of 1930s Mississippi Delta blues and bluegrass culture. It's a sadder and smaller movie than O Brother, but the film's connection to Van Ronk's Mayor of MacDougal Street amounts to a surprising honor for this little-known but important musician.

Inside Llewyn Davis is not actually based on Van Ronk's memoir, though the memoir is cited and referenced often. It's a good guess that the Coen Brothers played up the Van Ronk connection to throw off the scent left by the movie's frequent nods towards Bob Dylan; just as O Brother Where Art Thou was really about Robert Johnson's Delta crossroads milieu, one suspects that the original idea of Inside Llewyn Davis may have been to make a film about Bob Dylan's early New York City milieu. (The Welsh name "Llewyn Davis" is another indication of the Dylan origination.) But it's not easy to get film rights for Bob Dylan material, so the filmmakers might have chosen Van Ronk's book as a good workaround that could bring them to the same place.

The hidden connection is especially evident in the movie's gorgeous Greenwich Village street settings, which strongly resemble the charming cover of Freewheelin Bob Dylan. I hope this will earn Inside's production designer Jess Gonchor an Oscar. (Personal note: Jess Gonchor happens to be my step-cousin, and I knew him as a kid, though strangely I don't remember ever talking to him about movies! I haven't seen him in years, but I hope I'll see him soon on TV waving a golden statue.)

The story of Llewyn Davis's degrading failure to invent himself as a superstar does come directly from Mayor of MacDougal Street. The memoir shows many similarities between Llewyn Davis and Dave Van Ronk, as well as many differences.

Like Llewyn Davis, Van Ronk hated squeaky-clean commercial folk acts like the Kingston Trio. He once turned down an invitation to join Peter, Paul and Mary. Like Oscar Isaac, the movie's musically talented star, Van Ronk played a sweet, syncopated, chiming fingerpicking blues style that is commonly known as either ragtime guitar or Piedmont style. (Oscar Isaac doesn't play the Piedmont blues quite as well as Van Ronk in real life, but who does?). Also, like Llewyn Davis, Dave Van Ronk liked cats.

But there are gigantic differences too. Unlike Llewyn Davis, Dave Van Ronk was a cheerful and gregarious extrovert, a natural entertainer with a comically gruff manner and bearish physique. Unlike Llewyn, he was married and had his own New York City apartment (he did not sleep on other folksinger's couches -- they slept on his). Van Ronk's first wife Terri, who he remains happily married to through most of Mayor, has expounded on the difference between Llewyn Davis and Von Ronk in this helpful Village Voice piece.

Dave Van Ronk was a few years older than Bob Dylan, and was already established on the Greenwich Village folk music scene when young Dylan showed up in 1961. Van Ronk welcomed Dylan into the scene, after which Dylan famously stole his older friend's clever arrangement of "House of the Rising Sun" to feature on his first album. The story of this theft is well known, but in fact many other songs from Dylan's delightful first album were also swiped from Van Ronk's setlists, and Dylan would continue to add ingredients from the Dave Van Ronk musical stew (Brecht/Weill, Rev. Gary Davis, Blind Willie McTell, Bing Crosby) to his own songbook for years. Dylan also, arguably, took many of his wild vocal stylings (growling and elongating, fumbling for beats, alternating between animalistic shouts, yowling bends and sudden tender falsettos) from his older friend.

But Dave Van Ronk's musical influence doesn't end with Bob Dylan. I've been a Hot Tuna freak all my life, but I discovered only in recent years that much of the Hot Tuna songbook was picked up from Dave Van Ronk -- including my favorite Tuna song (though Jorma and Jack do play it better). The Allman Brothers picked up Blind Willie McTell's "Statesboro Blues" from a Dave Van Ronk record. The Grateful Dead picked up Rev. Gary Davis's "Samson and Delilah" from Van Ronk, the Doors the rock arrangement of Brecht's "Alabama Song". All of this indirect influence casts an interesting light on the sad sack saga of Inside Llewyn Davis: while Dave Van Ronk never got to be a star, he did enjoy much appreciation and respect from his peers. We can also presume that Van Ronk got to dine out on the Bob Dylan "House of the Rising Sun" story quite often over the decades.

Dave Van Ronk considered himself a professional blues singer, and appraised himself a fairly good one. He was enthused by jazz, enchanted by Broadway's golden age, amused by rock and roll, strangely disinterested in country/western, and mockingly dismissive of the oxymoronic idea of commercial folk music (though he allowed his third album to be called "Dave Van Ronk, Folksinger" at the height of the craze in 1963). Mayor of MacDougal Street is packed with the intelligent musings of an expert ethnomusicologist. Here, he narrates a childhood experience with a local music teacher in Briarwood, Queens:

To be a musician requires a qualitatively different kind of listening, and that is what he was teaching us.

He used to play tricks on us. I remember one time he put on a Count Basie record, and it was one of those arrangements with a recurring theme, a riff going on and it builds and builds. By about the third chorus it was raising the roof, and Jack said, "Watch what's the rhythm section's doing during that chorus."

Two of three of us said, "Well, they've sped up a little, haven't they?"

He said, "Let's set a metronome and see."

So we backed up a couple of choruses, set the metronome so that it was keeping the same time as the band, and listened to what happened. It turned out that we were right in a way, because the tempo did change. By that chorus the rhythm section had slowed down slightly -- just a little, but you could tell from the metronome. So it was just the opposite of what we had thought: the tempo had slowed, and that was creating this fantastic tension.

Early chapters cover the political years of the rising folk music movement in Greenwich Village (Van Ronk calls himself a Marxist, but found political lyrics boring and rarely sang protest songs), while later ones cover the wave of wealth and fame that followed the folk music explosion of the early 1960s. He has affectionate words for Pete Seeger, Tom Paxton, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan and especially Phil Ochs, his fellow Dylan "left-behind", who tragically committed suicide after his career sputtered in the 1970s. Van Ronk's high regard for Phil Ochs is surprising but fitting, and the Phil Ochs stories in this book help us to remember that, while Van Ronk was not actually destroyed by his failure to achieve commercial success, Phil Ochs was.

Another musician and songwriter who earns Van Ronk's highest praise is Joni Mitchell, who was also the adoring constant subject of Graham Nash's memoir, recently reviewed here. With all these other memoirists singing her praises, will Joni Mitchell write her own autobiography soon?

Some of the book's best stories are about classic blues songwriter Rev. Gary Davis, who Van Ronk performed and traveled with frequently, and whose "Cocaine Blues" became one of Van Ronk's most well known songs:

Sometime in the mid-seventies, I ran into Jackson Browne on the street, and he said, "Hey, Dave, I just recorded one of your songs." At that point things were pretty slow and the royalties from a Jackson Browne record would have made a big difference, so I was very happy, and I said, "Man, that's nice. Which one?" And he said, "Cocaine Blues." I said, "Jackson, that's a Gary Davis song, and here's who you contact to send the royalties to his estate. Now get away from me before you see a grown man cry."

Towards the end of Mayor of MacDougal Street, Van Ronk tries to gain perspective on the life he's lived:

This habit of showing up just in time to miss an incandescence seems to be a signature trait of mine. I am like a bellwether: "Uh-oh, here come Van Ronk. The party must be over." There have been a couple of exceptions, but when people burble at me, "Oh what a colorful life you've led!" I am tempted to tell them, "Look, I've known people who were busted with Emma Goldman, worked the river boards with Louis Armstrong, beat Marcel Duchamp at chess, bunked with Bix, hopped freights with Joe Hill, and shot grouse with Leon Trotsky. That's colorful." On the other hand, I have a sneaking suspicion that when Pericles hit Athens, everybody told him: "Boy! You should have been here last year, the joint was really jumping." You takes what you can get.

It's funny that Van Ronk was mainly a singer and not a songwriter, because he sure has a way with words. Here's a typical passage, a watercolor painting of New York City in snow:

The winter of 1960-61 was a real momzer -- snow up to your ear balls and colder than a grave digger's butt. Terri and I were living in Chelsea and it seemed to take forever to slog through the drifts down to MacDougal. But there was something very cozy about it. Partly because of the weather, it was to be the last time from that day to this that we had the neighborhood to ourselves. The tourist avalanche of the next summer was undreamed of, and on the street or in the joints, you hardly saw a soul you didn't know.

This footnote appears after Van Ronk mentions that Phil Ochs was "one of the last jacket-and-tie holdouts" among the folk-singing crew:

I never understood how anyone could sing while wearing a tie. I wore a suit for concerts a few times in the 1950s because that was considered the appropriate attire, but I always felt as if my tie was strangling me. Save the noose till after the show ...

Here's another footnote in the same format -- apparently footnotes are where Van Ronk details the things he never understood:

I never understood why everyone wanted to move out to Woodstock. I liked the Village, and I still like it, and I would not like to live anywhere else. The country is a city for birds.

I had a chance to see Dave Van Ronk perform live once, though at the time I barely knew who he was, except that I knew the story of how Bob Dylan swiped "House of the Rising Sun". This was in 1995 at a book party and reading arranged by Kerouac scholar Ann Charters at St. Marks Church in New York City.

It happens that Ann Charters is married to Sam Charters, Dave Van Ronk's close friend and musical collaborator (they were in a jug band together) and a legendary Delta Blues expert. This must be why Dave Van Ronk made an appearance with his guitar at this event. When they announced his name, all I knew about him was the "Rising Sun" story, and I had never heard him sing.

Then I heard Dave Van Ronk pluck his pretty notes and shout his gravelly words, and within microseconds I forgot about the Dylan gossip and simply enjoyed soaking in some transcendent, hilarious, inventive music. I've been a Dave Van Ronk fan ever since.

Here he is performing "Candy Man", a Rev. Gary Davis song, in Philadelphia in 1981.

And here's his "St. James Infirmary", also known as "Gambler's Blues", at the Barns at Wolf Trap in Northern Virginia in 1997.


This memoir of a great but little-known Greenwich Village blues/folk singer helped to inspire the Coen Brothers' 'Inside Llewyn Davis'.

view /MayorOfMacDougalStreet
Tuesday, January 7, 2014 06:56 pm
Dave Van Ronk, blues folk innovator
Levi Asher

(We've been talking to novelist Roxana Robinson about her unique family history, which includes two celebrated 19th century Americans, Henry Ward Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe. In this conclusion to the two-part interview, we talk about Harriet Beecher Stowe, about religion in fiction, and about Roxana's own mission as a writer.)

LEVI: It's true, as you say, that Harriet Beecher Stowe's literary reputation currently suffers. She's seen as melodramatic, long-winded – a second-rate novelist. I didn't read Uncle Tom's Cabin myself until just recently, and I was happily surprised at the richness I found. Isn't this as well-written as any novel by Charles Dickens or Nathaniel Hawthorne? It's a riveting work, filled with psychological complexity and carefully drawn characters. Do you have any idea how her reputation got so bad? Was there a period in which she fell in public esteem?

As for the perception of Harriet Beecher Stowe as racist – I can only say that this is a terrible injustice. I wonder if the hot issues Harriet Beecher Stowe handled so bravely are still too controversial for us to see her fairly today. Do you know if she was often attacked or criticized on these terms during her life, and if so, how she responded to it?

ROXANA: In 1949 James Baldwin wrote a polemical essay called “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” in which he attacks the idea of the protest novel in general, and Uncle Tom’s Cabin in particular. It is a fierce and angry piece of writing, much of it graceful and eloquent. Baldwin was, of course, highly respected as a novelist and essayist, and he offered a black voice in the literary world, at a time when a black voice was rare and very welcome. But this essay is not particularly well reasoned or well-wrought. He begins by dismissing Uncle Tom’s Cabin as “a very bad novel.” He calls it sentimental and compares it, with contempt, to Little Women.

Baldwin then says, “Sentimentality, the ostentatious parading of excessive and spurious emotion, is the mark of dishonesty, the inability to feel, the wet eyes of the sentimentalist betray his aversion to experience, his fear of life, his arid heart and it is always, therefore, the signal of secret and violent inhumanity, the mask of cruelty.”

This is a bold series of statements which make no incremental sense. Sentimentality is certainly nothing to be proud of, and the best definition I know of it describes it as “emotion without responsibility.” But the wet eyes of the sentimentalist don’t betray his or her aversion to experience. Quite the reverse. He or she is reveling in a kind of limited experience. And these eyes don’t betray his fear of life or his arid heart, and there is no reason in the world to claim that sentimentality is always the signal of secret and violent inhumanity, nor is it the mask of cruelty. There are many many sentimental people in the world who are not secretly and violently inhumane or cruel.

So Baldwin’s premise is flawed, but his sentences are eloquent and his rage is impressive, and essentially he bullied his readers into believing him. His furious denigration of the novel cast it into serious disregard, which persists today. Baldwin castigates Stowe not only for her sentimentality, but for her portrayal of Uncle Tom himself. Baldwin calls Tom a stereotype, weak, accommodating and acquiescent. In this, Baldwin misses the entire point and power of the character of Tom.

Harriet Beecher Stowe was the daughter, sister and wife of clergymen. She had grown up with Scripture. She quoted passages from the Bible all the time in her letters and conversation; it was a living presence for her. She felt it as a great power in the world, which was a large part of what gave her the courage to confront the entire nation, the economy, the philosophy, the political world, the newspapers. These were the loud and vehement voices of the world, all of which were raised against her when she wrote a book that opposed a fundamental aspect of American culture, slavery. Stowe called it what it really was in human terms – a vile and unconscionable institution that feeling people could not tolerate. This was not a sentimental premise[, though there are certainly sentimental passages in the book]. Her premise was clear and rational, but it was one that couldn’t be argued in terms of economics. It could only be argued in terms of humanity, and that’s what she did.

She had the courage to do this because she believed that the entire bastion of the Church itself was behind her. The Church, rooted in eternity, endless in its reach and mighty in its potency, was her source of strength and moral certainty. Scripture is present throughout the book, as are religious homilies which she thought germane and interesting. They may slow down the narrative (I think they do) but they demonstrate the profound importance of Christianity in the book and in Stowe’s sensibility.

My point is that Uncle Tom represents Christ. I think there is no other way to read his character.

He is a kind, strong, loving and deeply moral young man, who accepts, in the opening sequence, the fact that in order to save the world he knows (the plantation and everyone on it, black and white) his own life must be sacrificed. Though he is urged to flee, he accepts his fate in a spirit of moral obligation. He accepts the gradual worsening of his own circumstances until, finally, (again in opposition to advice to flee or resist), he gives up his own life for the good of the world. Tom is not cowardly but saintly; he is a Christian martyr. He reads the Bible himself, quotes Scripture, and is as good a Christian as Hattie is. He is kind, gentle and loving. He lives according to Christ’s teaching: he will not blame those who persecute him, and gives himself up in loving God.

Call the novel preachy, which it often is, call it sentimental, which it often is, but it’s impossible to call it “arid-hearted,” or “fearful of experience,” nor is it “the mask of a secret and violent cruelty or inhumanity.”

That sort of claim is nonsense, as is another of Baldwin’s declarations: “The virtuous rage of Mrs. Stowe is motivated by nothing so temporal as a concern for the relationship of men to one another – or even, as she would have claimed, by a concern for their relationship to God – but merely by a panic of being hurled into the flames, of being caught in traffic with the Devil.”

Actually, and quite obviously, Stowe was concerned specifically with the problem of men’s relationship to each other. The horrific state of that relationship was exactly what she portrayed. But many of Baldwin’s claims in this essay are spurious, inexact and obviously untrue. Baldwin is driven by rage, and for that reason he could not allow himself to be moved by Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which is driven by compassion.

I agree that the book is just as good as anything written by Dickens. It is wonderfully-well plotted, funny, moving, interesting and dramatic, full of diverse and eccentric characters, charged with energy and intelligence, and imbued with a great sense of high moral urgency. Like Dickens, Stowe takes on social issues as well as private concerns. Unlike Dickens, Stowe was willing to address a highly controversial subject, taking an explosive position on something that appeared to be the economic foundation of the entire country. What it lacks, in terms of literary merit, is characters of great complexity, moral and emotional questions of great subtlety or ambiguity, and great beauty in the writing. Because of those lacks I don’t consider it a novel of the very first rank, but it is still a work of great distinction.

As I understand it, it was Baldwin’s caustic diatribe that undermined the book’s standing. After the publication of that essay, the reputation of Uncle Tom’s Cabin fell into a decline from which it has still not recovered, despite Jane Smiley’s wonderful essay “Say It Ain’t So, Huck!”, ten or fifteen years ago, in which she declares that Uncle Tom’s Cabin is a better book than Huckleberry Finn.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin is moving and powerful, it is one of the most influential novels of the nineteenth century, and maybe of all time. It was the best-selling novel of the nineteenth century and the second best-selling book (after the Bible). It was translated into dozens of languages and it was read all over the world. Tolstoy read it, while wrestling with the question of the serfs. It was an enormously important book in terms of philosophy, political morality, and humanity. It asked a question that could not be ignored.

As to whether or not the book is racist, it’s hard to take that charge seriously about a book that presents a black Jesus Christ.

LEVI: I'm glad you point out that Uncle Tom is a Christ figure – this is somehow at the same time both clearly true and also, I think, easy to miss. I have to admit that I didn't really make that connection myself, though I see it now.

There's an interesting contrast between the important role of religion in your family tradition (as you describe it now) and the place of religion in your novels. Tell me if I'm forgetting something, but I don't remember religion playing a major role in Sparta or Cost or Sweetwater or This Is My Daughter. Can you shed any light about this?

ROXANA: I don’t use religion specifically in my writing at all. I don’t think it’s now a very interesting presence in novels. I think it’s a bit like therapy – it plays the same part that the movement of the narrative itself plays – that is, a slow searching toward revelation and understanding. Religion is interior, it’s dependent on faith, it’s completely individual, and so it’s hard for it to have an important or useful presence in fiction. I think when Tolstoy uses it his work is weakest.

For me religion in literature has a presence that’s sort of like science fiction. It inserts a crazy card into the game, one that means anything that happen without following the laws of human experience. Religious epiphany is a transformative moment that is psychologically inexplicable, which means that it subverts the laws we know of human nature. So we can arrive at some sort of new knowledge, without having any idea of how we got there, or why it happened. It’s like waving a magic wand. I don’t think it’s a useful component in fiction.

So I don’t use religion per se. But what I think I have drawn, from the culture of my family, is a strong sense of morality, and I think that’s clearly present in my work. I think that part of the human question concerns morality, and this raises the question of our obligations as humans, and our roles in the world. What are our obligations toward each other? What does it mean to be a human being? What does it entail? I take those questions seriously. I do feel some kind of obligation or duty to the world, and also to humanity. So I think that drives my writing to a certain extent.

LEVI: I'd like to ask you a question that I'm going to try to also answer myself (though I'm sure your answer will be a better one). What do you have in common as a novelist with Harriet Beecher Stowe? I'm not thinking so much about your mission as a writer here (because you've already addressed that above) as about the craft of writing.

And, here's one answer to this question that already occurred to me: you are both particularly good at moving between the points of view of very different characters, and presenting each point of view sympathetically and in its own full context. I'm thinking of how Uncle Tom's Cabin moves deftly into the minds of slaveholders and slaves, adults and children, men and women, good people and evil people. You seem to write with the same wide psychological scope. But that's my answer to the question – I'd love to hear yours.

ROXANA: I think the real similarity is one of moral urgency, and sometimes of real outrage. My own outrage is not always directed at the national level, though in Sweetwater and Sparta it is directed at large and impersonal issues. But moral urgency seems to be the premise for many of my novels, a kind of troubled or grieving astonishment at the state of things, and a longing to present a situation so clearly to the reader that s/he cannot allow it to continue.

Also I share with her a sense of narrative, the impulse to create an individual story that will deliver a larger message, and the impulse to do it through the presentation of the family. (Which is what Tolstoy does, too.) I’m interested in the idea of the family as being the core of human experience, and in Uncle Tom’s Cabin Stowe creates a series of family narratives that gradually and increasingly show the intolerability of a slave culture. She shows the damage done by slavery to the individual through the lens of the family.

I think the family is the crucible. The family forms us, it is our cradle and our prison, it’s what we build on and reject and refashion. It’s where our most powerful emotions are felt, it’s at the core of our deepest experiences. I share Harriet Beecher Stowe’s sense of that.

* * * * *

This is the second part of an interview with Roxana Robinson about her family legacy, which includes Henry Ward Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe. The first part is here. Roxana Robinson's most recent novel Sparta is about a troubled veteran of the Iraq War who returns to his family home.


"Harriet Beecher Stowe was the daughter, sister and wife of clergymen. She had grown up with Scripture. She quoted passages from the Bible all the time in her letters and conversation; it was a living presence for her. She felt it as a great power in the world, which was a large part of what gave her the courage to confront the entire nation, the economy, the philosophy, the political world ..."

view /BeecherLegacyTwo
Thursday, November 14, 2013 09:03 am
Harriet Beecher Stowe and Roxana Robinson
Levi Asher

There's a moment in Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson’s Mo' Meta Blues: The World According to Questlove when Ben Greenman (the book's co-writer and the co-manager of Questlove’s the Roots) makes the observation that the Roots is one of the few bands – perhaps the only band – left in hiphop.

Actually, strike that. It was Questlove who said that, on page 4, in a question & answer session with his other co-manager Richard Nichols. These moments of organized confusion are common in Mo Meta’ Blues, which is structured more like a jazz jam session than a traditional memoir. Voices chime in like instruments, creating riffs and variations on Questlove’s memories. At 40 years old, the musician is looking back on his life and taking stock. But because of who he is and the period of the timeline he’s lived through, the book is also about taking stock of the state of hiphop. When Questlove’s co-manager Richard Nichols puts him on the spot, demanding “Tell us why your story matters”, Questlove explains:

Because we're the last hip-hop band, absolutely the last of a dying breed. Twenty-five years ago, rap acts were mostly groups. You had Run DMC and the Beastie Boys and Public Enemy, and you even had bands of bands, like Native Tongues collective, which was three loosely affiliated groups: De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest, and the Jungle Brothers. I grew up looking at that model, at the sense of community and of a larger purpose. Even the negative things that came out of that arrangement, like competition and tension and sibling rivalry, were productive – that's what you get when you group. But today it's all solo acts. Maybe it's simple economics. Everyone thinks, “I'm Michael Jordan and I can do this on my own and pick up the check.” And maybe you can't blame people for that. The system isn't set up to think about it, not at all. New acts worship the star system because they see the highlight films, and that's all they can see, because that's how the experience is packaged. Solo acts are also easier for labels to deal with: they're easier to control, and you don't need to do any dividing and conquering. Even if I think of this as my book, it's never only my story. It's the story of other musicians, of other hip-hop groups, of other minds. The Roots is literally the last band on the caboose of that train …

Longevity. I am roughly the same age as Questlove, and I remember when rap and hiphop were new. They were so new that some radio stations in New York City -- yes, in New York City -- said flat out they’d never play a rap song. Back then, “YO! MTV Raps” was the closest thing MTV had to a reality show. Whatever hiphop was, parents hated it. It was so different that no one really knew what to make of it.

Today, hiphop has gone beyond mainstream. It’s become an entire genre, like rock-n-roll, jazz or country. It’s taught pop a few things about production values. But that’s not how it was when it started.

The Roots formed in the mid-80's, after Ahmir met Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter at the Philadelphia High School for the Creative and Performing Arts. As Questlove tells it: Tariq was in trouble. Ahmir was trying to get a girl. (This dynamic, by the way, repeats itself throughout the book). LL Cool J, Run DMC, Fat Boys, World Class Wreckin' Cru (featuring young Dr. Dre) and Mantronix all released albums in 1985. The Beastie Boys released Licensed to Ill in 1986. Public Enemy’s first album dropped a year later. The Roots witnessed hiphop’s birth, its transition into mainstream and everything that came after. They got to be a part of it.

So, if anyone has the authority to discuss the history of rap and hiphop, it is Questlove. But he never makes the mistake of pretending to be a solo act. Questlove may have the drum skills, but Black Thought always led the group’s lyrical visions. The level of respect Questlove holds for Tariq is apparent when he describes a freestyle video the Roots released online. Tariq improvises rhymes as Questlove points to objects in an alley.

It's gotten some currency online as proof of his talent, and it was certainly a moment where he was in the zone. But for me, I don't need that as proof: I go right back to CAPA in 1988, watching Tariq dismantle kids at the lunch table, to the point where other guys wanted to fight him. I saw the power of words wielded in that way. He was amazing.

And, while this might be Questlove’s book, the dedication page reads: “... well Tariq?”

This author’s lack of ego is one big reason the book has hit the bestseller lists. Mo' Meta Blues is a smart, well-written, thoughtful examination of a man’s -- an artist’s -- life within the context of a cultural movement. Other musician memoirs are too often just self-indulgent extensions of the author’s therapy. I was personally very far from this book’s target audience when I started reading it, and yet I couldn't put it down. It’s funny, entertaining, insightful. You don’t need to be a music nerd to enjoy this book, and it might help turn you into one.

Since finishing Mo’ Meta, I've been downloading the Roots albums, watching videos of the group online, DVR-ing “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon” (which features the Roots as the house band).

While this book includes a fairly straightforward narrative about Questlove’s life and musical influences, it also features a series of question & answer sessions with Roots manager Richard Nichols. At times, Rich footnotes and “corrects” Questlove's memories. There are also several of Ben Greenman's emails to the book's editor, Ben Greenberg -- which caused the confusion I mentioned at the beginning of this review and which had nothing to do with their names. Add in, also, Questlove’s playlists, which are divided into years and all from the period of his life before he went “professional” (though the term “professional” is relative, as music was always a part of his life. His father was a successful musician, and not only Questlove but also his mother and sister became part of his father’s group).

Questlove's career has always been about collaboration. And while frustrations are a part of all creative relationships (though, for a music industry memoir there is a surprising lack of animosity and backstabbing here) his relationships remain strong to this day. And not only with the core group, the Roots. Questlove talks about being part of a conscious community that extended outwards to include Mos Def, Erykah Badu, Q-Tip, The Fugees, Eve and even Jimmy Fallon. He talks about roller skating with Prince (in one of the funniest scenes I’ve ever read), collaborating with Jay-Z, and tense moments when the Roots worked with P. Diddy. He’s very humble about the place he and the Roots have carved out for themselves in the industry. It feels as if he's spent his life looking for and building something bigger than a band.

Somewhere along the way the Roots made the decision not to identify themselves with a specific lifestyle or persona. This means they’ve never had to worry about outgrowing an image, which helps to explain their longevity, and their long-lived credibility. (In a footnote Rich makes the case that it was the Roots' artistic authenticity that attracted Jay-Z when he chose them to back him on MTV Unplugged).

Mo’ Meta Blues ultimately does more than explain why the Roots are considered legendary, and why they're still important after more than 25 years. It's a generation defining book. For those of us of a certain age, it helps us to understand and better appreciate the music that was playing in the background as our lives were happening. Even if we weren’t necessarily listening to it at the time.

* * * * *

Tara Olmsted has previously reviewed a memoir about Che Guevara on Literary Kicks.


Tara Olmsted reviews the new memoir by hiphop scenester and Roots drummer Questlove.

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Tuesday, July 30, 2013 08:58 pm
New memoir by Roots drummer Questlove
Tara Olmsted

I used to buy records in a Chicago shop called the Jazz Record Mart on Grand Avenue. It was run by a guy named Bob Koester, a jazz and blues fanatic. He also had his own record company, Delmark Records, where he recorded a lot of blues artists who'd been passed over by Chess Records. The record shop was incredible. It was piled floor to ceiling with jazz and blues records. Bruce Iglauer, who went on to start Alligator Records, worked behind the counter. On any given day you might spot a well-known blues musician flipping through the stacks or talking to Koester.

The first time I went down to the Jazz Record Mart with a friend, Alex, I stocked up on Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf records. Alex bought a single album: Hoodoo Man Blues by Junior Wells. It was recorded by Bob Koester on his Delmark label. We rushed back to Alex’s house and put the record on. The album cover was an atmospheric black and white shot of Junior Wells playing in some after-hours blues dive, cigarette smoke surrounding him in a thick cloud, his harmonica in one hand. The music on the album was just as atmospheric. Most of the blues albums on Chess were really just compendiums of greatest hits, with maybe some filler thrown in, but Hoodoo Man Blues was a real album, with continuity, songs leading into other songs, all sounding like they were recorded live at, say, Theresa’s, a blues club on the South Side where Junior Wells often played. The guitar player, who very subtly supported Junior’s singing and harp playing, but also showed some occasional flash, was credited as “Friendly Chap”. We asked Koester about this and he told us that “Friendly Chap” was in reality the guitarist Buddy Guy. Buddy was under contract to the Chess brothers, so to avoid legal hassles Koester listed him under a fictitious name.

This was my first introduction to Buddy Guy (and Junior Wells), and Alex and I listened to that album until we could play every song note for note.

Buddy Guy and Junior Wells had a turbulent relationship spanning more than twenty years, playing together or apart, but always playing well. They were part of the new generation of bluesmen who came up in Chicago after the generation of masters that included Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf. The new generation included Otis Rush, Magic Sam, James Cotton, and Luther Allison. These musicians arrived in the 1950s, ten years after Muddy Waters established a beachhead for blues in Chicago. Muddy had developed the basic Chicago Blues sound, and the new generation of players just took it to new heights. Where we can see country roots in much of Muddy and Wolf’s early recordings, Buddy Guy and Otis Rush brought a distinctly urban and electric sensibility.

Now, joining a recent raft of rock and roll memoirs, Buddy Guy himself has published a memoir, When I Left Home: My Story. It's written with David Ritz, who worked on previous biographies of Ray Charles and Marvin Gaye. This is Buddy recounting his life as the son of a Louisiana sharecropper, growing up in a tight-knit country family, falling in love with the guitar, and making his way up to Chicago.

Buddy provides the stories, and David Ritz crafts them into a highly readable book. When I Left Home is not an academic work or a classic of post-modern fiction. It is quite simply Buddy Guy relating his struggle to make it big and provide for his family in a very tough urban blues scene. Buddy gigged all over Chicago and Gary, Indiana, drove a tow truck by day, and managed a club called the Checkerboard Lounge. He met and became friends with Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Ike Turner, Earl Hooker, Little Walter, Sonny Boy Williamson. He later formed lasting relationships with the “English cats”, as he calls them: Eric Clapton, Keith Richards and Jeff Beck, as well as with the Vaughan Brothers of Texas, Jimmy and Stevie Ray.

Buddy’s story is one of constant gigging, constantly trying to make money from a very precarious line of work. His innovation and skill kept him going when the black blues scene went through its bust in the early sixties, only to be picked up by a new white audience that brought more fame and money than Buddy had ever thought possible.

Buddy Guy was one of the first bluesmen to play in the great hippie palaces of the sixties, along with B.B. King and Albert King. His agent Dick Waterman booked him into the Avalon and the Fillmore in San Francisco, and sent him on extended trips to Europe. His outrageous guitar style – he began his set playing outside of the venue and then walked through the crowd to the stage, a trick he borrowed from Guitar Slim – had a great influence on other guitar wild men such as Jimmy Hendrix, and his use of distortion and feedback was a big inspiration for Eric Clapton.

I saw Buddy play several times in the 1980s at Chicago nightclubs, when he was making his move to go beyond a local blues legend and become an international star. Around this time he opened his own blues club, Legends, on South Wabash (and has since opened a new Legends just down the street, an ultimate down-home blues bar where artists from all over the world come to play).

As you read When I Left Home, you will realize how hard Buddy had to struggle to establish himself as a guitar player in Chicago, and then finally with his relentless touring and Grammy winning albums to become a major star of the caliber of B. B. King.

Interspersed with stories of gigs and recording sessions are stories of the Chicago blues scene and its denizens, some reflecting the violence of the time, others the absurdity and hilarity.

The young Junior Wells, for example was a bit of a juvenile delinquent. Muddy Waters wanted him in this band to replace Little Walter on harp, as Muddy and Walter had had a falling out over Walter’s hit “Juke”. Once, while Junior was still in high school, he got into some trouble and the school wanted to put Junior in juvenile hall. Muddy Waters interceded and got custody of Junior, signed a paper, and Junior was free. Junior thanked Muddy and then went off to catch a bus.

Muddy said, "Where you going, Junior? Get into the car with me."

Junior said "I got places to go."

"The hell you do. I’m in charge of your black ass."

Muddy was blocking Junior’s way to the bus, so Junior gave him a shove.

Muddy didn’t say nothing. He just pulled out his .25 automatic and pointed it at [Junior’s] head. "I got no problem with shooting you -- no problem at all".

On the gruesome side, Buddy recounts a story that took place in a bar called Mel's Hideaway on the South Side. A man comes in and sits at the bar and starts drinking heavily.

“You drinking hard", said the bartender.

"Need to, feeling down ... Wife troubles."

"Those are the kind of problems that can get you down."

"Not anymore."

The man throws back two beers followed by two scotch chasers, orders another round. Finally, the bartender asks the man how he solved his problems ...

Man put a paper bag on the bar.

"How could a paper bag solve your wife problem?", asked the bartender.

"Go on and look inside", said the man.

Bartender put his hand in the bag and felt something hairy.

"Pull it out", said the man.

Bartender pulls it out and right there, in his hand, is the bloody cut-off head of a woman.

"Motherfucker", the bartender screamed.

"Told you I done solved the problem", said the man.

Not all the stories in Buddy’s book are this grim. Some are very funny, although the humor is quite crude. The Chicago bluesmen were raised in rural poverty, and even though they moved north to the big city, they never lost their country ways. They were ex-field hands who escaped the plantations and share-crop farms on the strength of their talent, but the barnyard was never far behind. Some, like Howlin’ Wolf, remained as country as Muddy Waters was urban.

One night, Buddy Guy organized a blues harmonica contest at Theresa’s. He noticed that all the best harp men were in the house: Little Walter, Junior Wells, James Cotton and Sonny Boy Williamson. They got up on the stage one by one and they all tried to beat Little Walter, who was really the best harp player in Chicago. The others grudgingly acknowledged Walter as the top man, but the competition didn't end there:

At one point Junior and Walter had gone in the men’s room at the same time.

"I saw you in there, motherfucker," said Walter. "Heard you been telling the ladies you got a log in your pants. All I saw was a stick."

"A stick," Junior shot back, "a lot longer than yours."

"None of y’all can even stand at the same piss stand as me", said James Cotton.

"Motherfuckers", said Sonny Boy Williamson, "if you want to talk about God-given equipment, I’m ready to measure my manhood against anyone."

Right then and there, out came the dicks! And out came the women, running over to see these fools looking to claim bragging rights for carrying the biggest tool in the shed.

When I left Home captures a time that has long passed into memory -- the golden age of Chicago blues. It was a time when Chess, Vee-Jay and Cobra were turning out records that were noticed halfway around the world by young British musicians. It was a time when all the best musicians in the country gravitated to Chicago to play at Silvio’s, Theresa’s, Peppers and all the other great blues joints that dotted the South Side and West Side.

Muddy and the Wolf were the undisputed kings of the scene, but they always got stiff competition from princes like Buddy Guy and Otis Rush. It was a time of great industrial strength for the city of Chicago, where well-paying jobs brought rural blacks by the thousands to live in cramped slum housing, but who nonetheless expressed their joy of living and their pride in their culture by heading to the blues clubs at night.

Now the older bluesmen have died off, the young guns are themselves old, and the black community prefers hip-hop to blues. Blues is now considered old-fashioned by young urban African-Americans, and remains strong only through the support of the white blues community, who came to the music late and respect it for its purity and its improvisational qualities.

Read Buddy Guy’s story. Compare it to some of the recent rock memoirs. You will see the vast difference in motivation that Buddy Guy brings to his tale. Money and fame were not his driving forces. He was driven foremost by a deep love of his music, and by need to be a part of the blues community. Buddy Guy did not search for fame -- he searched for respect and love.


Michael Norris reviews the new autobiography by Chicago blues legend Buddy Guy.

view /WhenILeftHome
Wednesday, July 17, 2013 12:08 am
When I Left Home, the memoir by Buddy Guy
Michael Norris

This is the last of five blog posts inspired by the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg. As I struggle to write this one today, I'm forced to admit two things that you'll very rarely ever hear me say.

First, I feel humbled. Second, I am at a loss for words.

At 3 pm on July 3, I walked with a large group of people across the battlefield in the footsteps of Confederate General James Longstreet's infantry assault against the center of the Union Line. This assault was the most dramatic and destructive single action of the entire American Civil War, and it was a march so desperate that General Longstreet himself urged Robert E. Lee against the attempt. Many thousands of men walked directly over open ground into cannon fire and massed companies of riflemen, and many thousands of Confederate and Union soldiers died at the spot. A very good (though admittedly cinematic) depiction of this assault can be seen in this 29-minute segment from Ronald Maxwell's excellent 1993 film Gettysburg.

I wanted to write a great philosophical blog post about my thoughts during this commemorative walk, but instead the walk left me feeling intellectually humbled. It was a friendly walk, alongside many strangers of many backgrounds, a walk that was pleasant under a beautiful sky, a walk that ended much more quickly than I expected. (I daresay the walk also ended more quickly than many of the original soldiers expected, too). Afterwards, anything I began write for this blog post seemed trivial next to the sacrifice that these soldiers paid for their dubious but deeply earnest cause.

I could write about the military disaster at Gettysburg as a case study for pacifism, an illustration of the blind folly of war. But, really, what do I know of war? It's hard to stand on this battle ground and prattle about pacifism with any feeling of authority.

I could talk about slavery, or about American values. Based on the license plates I spotted all over Gettysburg National Park from July 1 to July 3, there were many tourists there from many parts of the country: Georgia and Florida, Texas and Louisiana, Massachusetts and Vermont, Kentucky and Ohio, also plenty of Colorado and California and Oregon and Alaska, and even plenty of Canada. However, I spotted only a few African-American or Hispanic families during the three days of the 150th commemoration. That's an interesting reminder of how fluid the notion of "American history" is. I suppose African-Americans have different kinds of battles from the last 150 years to commemorate. I thought there might be a Hispanic presence at this event due to the fact that the American Civil War was a clear legacy of the American Mexican War a generation earlier (most of the Civil War commanders were veterans of the Mexican War), but if there was any Hispanic presence, I did not spot it. Perhaps the historical significances of many of these American cultural legacies have yet to be explored.

I started to write a blog post about this idea, but threw it away because I wasn't really sure whether or not I had anything valid to say.

So what could I write? I could write about states rights and the principle of government by consent, but these are hot-button issues today, and the last thing I want to do is stir up another Internet argument about Rand Paul.

On a separate front, I have also written directly about Pickett's Charge at Gettysburg in a couple of past Litkicks blog posts titled The Case Against Egoism and The Shock of the Self. In both of these articles, I discussed Pickett's Charge as a case study for a psychological argument -- specifically, my contention that a group of people may in some special circumstances act as a group self, and will abandon all regard for individual motivation. The Confederate assault on July 3, 1863 is a clear example for this because, as I wrote, many of the individual soldiers must have felt fear as they approached the fatal Union line, but history records that the Confederate brigades moved forward as a collective unit without fear.

I believe this is a valid observation, but as I walked across the battlefield I did not feel that I was honoring the brave soldiers who died on this day by turning them into a psychological case study. So I didn't want to commemorate the event by writing about this again either.

In short, I feel humbled. A guy feels like a jerk waxing wise about anything -- pacifism, ethnicity, psychology -- while walking in the footsteps of an infantry assault that killed thousands of brave souls. So I decided to just show you a couple of pictures I took instead. At the top of the page, we're crossing the fence at Emmitsburg Road. Below is the view behind me to my left as we climbed a ridge. In the first and third photos, you can see the legendary copse of trees that is the destination of Longstreet's assault. These group photos show only one of nine "brigades" that walked together at 3 pm on July 3.

And, finally, here's a quote from the Bhagavad-Gita, from the ancient Hindu epic The Mahabharata, which also describes a battle scene:

Steadfastly the will
Must toil thereto, till efforts end in ease,
And thought has passed from thinking. Shaking off
All longings bred by dreams of fame and gain,
Shutting the doorways of the senses close
With watchful ward; so, step by step, it comes
To gift of peace assured and heart assuaged,
When the mind dwells self-wrapped, and the soul broods
Cumberless. But, as often as the heart
Breaks -- wild and wavering -- from control, so oft
Let him recurb it, let him rein it back
To the soul's governance; for perfect bliss
Grows only in the bosom tranquillized,
The spirit passionless, purged from offence,
Vowed to the Infinite.


Walking across the Gettysburg battlefield on the 150th anniversary of Pickett's Charge

view /HumbledGettysburg
Sunday, July 7, 2013 05:31 pm
Walking the Gettysburg battlefield at the 150th anniversary of Pickett's Charge
Levi Asher

With all this acting experience behind me, Shelton thought I was ready for a crack at the movies. Not Hollywood, just Astoria, Long Island. He got me a part out there playing mob scenes in a picture with Paul Robeson. From that I got a real part in a short featuring Duke Ellington. It was a musical, with a little story to it, and it gave me a chance to sing a song -- a real weird and pretty blues number. That was the good thing about the part.

The rough part, of course, was that I had to play a chippie. Opposite me there was a comedian who'll kill me because I can't remember his name. He played my pimp or sweetheart. He was supposed to knock me around.

He knocked me down about twenty times the first day of shooting. Each time I took a fall I landed on the hard old floor painted to look like sidewalk. And there was nothing to break my falls except the flesh on my bones. The second morning when I showed up at the studio I was so sore I couldn't even think about breaking my falls. I must have hit that hard painted pavement about fifty times before the man hollered "Cut."

I saw a little bit of this epic one time at the studio, but that was all. Mom, of course, thought I was going to be a big movie star and she told everyone to watch for the picture. I don't know if anybody else saw it, but we never did. It was just a short subject, something they filled in with when they couldn't get Mickey Mouse. We'd have had to hire a private detective to find out where the hell it was playing.

What a voice. Rich, dark, sassy, slangy and street-smart. Funny, bitter, bristling with innocent joy. I'm talking about Billie Holiday's voice, but I'm not talking about her singing voice. I'm talking about her memoir, Lady Sings the Blues by Billie Holiday with William Dufty, published in 1956:

We've been looking at some great lost rock memoirs (by Ian McLagan, Dee Dee Ramone and Chuck Berry) lately, and some of these feel pretty vintage today. But the earliest rock memoirs have nothing on the early jazz memoirs for raw authenticity. The best jazz memoir of them all may be Billie Holiday's slender but gut-punching tome, which was turned into a popular movie starring Diana Ross in 1972, but should be read, not watched, for full effect.

Eleanora Fagan was born dirt poor in 1915 and shuffled between broken homes, reform schools and jails in Baltimore, Philadelphia and New York City throughout her young life, She scrubbed rich people's homes for nickels, was raped at age ten, then spent her early teenage years in a bleak reform school on Manhattan's Roosevelt Island, then called Welfare Island, before becoming a prostitute at 14. She liked to sing Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong songs while she scrubbed, and eventually she gathered her courage and auditioned at a Harlem bar.

It turned out she was the very epitome of a natural singer, with amazingly expressive instincts, and she shot quickly to fame. As some actors are character actors, Billie Holiday (the name Eleanora Fagan took on) was a character singer, imbuing emotion and personality into every word, enunciating with a wide range of vocalizations. In her voice you could hear a child crying, an angel humming, a mouse squeaking. Modulating her theatrical impulses with a self-trained instinct for timing and a disciplined command of tonal control, she revolutionized jazz singing, and is still remembered as one of the great voices of all time.

It turns out that Billie Holiday tell stories as well as she sings. Maybe better. She loves to talk, and often hovers above philosophical themes, as when she evokes the Greek philosopher Heraclitus:

No two people on earth are alike, and it's got to be that way in music or it isn't music.

I never forget this wonderful old Spaniard Pablo Casals, who played the cello once on TV. When he finished some Bach he was interviewed by some American chick. "Every time you play it, it's different," she gushed.

"It must be different," says Casals. "How can it be otherwise? Nature is so. And we are nature.

So there you are. You can't even be like you once were yourself, let alone like somebody else.

She wields slang as expertly as Jack Kerouac, and is always amused by her own quirky life, even when life serves her nothing but problems. In this book, she goes to jail early in life and returns over and over. She marries repeatedly, attaches herself to one man after another, and eventually loses much of her self-control (though, from the evidence of this book, none of her self-respect) through severe heroin addiction. But Billie's tough. In the pages of Lady Sings the Blues, she smirks through all the pain, always finding the wit in the situation, as when she is arrested in California.

It was Joe Tenner, boss of the club, who went to bat and called Jake Ehrlich, a famous San Francisco criminal lawyer. Mr. Ehrlich recently allowed his biography to be written. My trial is included in it as one of his "picturesque criminal cases". I thought he was picturesque myself that day when he walked in and got me and John Levy out on bail.

The anecdote at the top of this article about Holiday's attempt to be a film star shows her tendency toward comic self-effacement -- because the short film she's talking about here was no Mickey Mouse cartoon. It was Duke Ellington's 1935 masterpiece Symphony in Black, an attempt to update George Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue with a grittier African-American jazz/classical synthesis. It's no surprise that Duke Ellington, who could have chosen any singer in the world, chose Billie Holiday for this ambitious cinematic work. You can watch the entire 9 and a half-minute short here, including Billie Holiday's sidewalk fight, followed by her big number and some jazz combo dancing that I like almost as much as Bang Bang by

As an early pop music memoir, Lady Sings the Blues was written without heavy editorial oversight, and the word on the street is that many of the facts don't check out. The book was "written" via interviews with William Dufty, who assembled the book from their conversations and didn't do any advanced fact-checking. So, these are the stories Billie Holiday told. The artistry is all in the telling.

True, not true -- does it matter? The book definitely tells the truth about what it felt like to be raped at age ten, and then to get blamed for being raped in juvenile court. That's plenty enough truth for me.

Here's Billie singing Fine and Mellow:

And here's Strange Fruit, one of her signature songs, and an extremely intense number:

I love this memoir even though I am not particularly a committed Billie Holiday fan. I'm much more likely to groove out to Sarah Vaughan, who was nine years younger than Billie Holiday and added a smooth melodic touch to the rough-edged Billie Holiday sound. But Sarah Vaughan did not invent herself from the ashes like Billie Holiday, and she could never have told stories like Billie Holiday. It's not surprising that Billie Holiday could tell great stories, as she was also a songwriter (God Bless the Child, for instance, was her own composition).

(If Sarah Vaughan could have written like Billie Holiday, she might have gotten revenge, since Billie Holiday savages her younger competitor -- with a gentle feline touch, of course -- in a couple of amusing scenes in Lady Sings the Blues)

Billie Holiday's life story really was a tragedy, because she lived much of her childhood, adolescent and adult life either in jail or under threat of police persecution. Like Chuck Berry, she was constantly sent back to jail for one mild offense after another (clearly, it was not always safe in 20th Century USA to be a successful African-American musician, especially a bawdy and uppity one with a taste for the fast life).

It's a tragic fact that Billie Holiday struggled for money at every moment of her life. Even when she had it she didn't have it, and she never learned how to handle money and was exploited and stolen from constantly by men she wanted to trust.

The rock singer Lou Reed must have loved Lady Sings the Blues, because his tribute song Lady Day encapsulates the beginning and ending of this book in two succinct verses. First, we see her auditioning at the little Harlem club:

When she walked on down the street
She was like a child staring at her feet
But when she passed the bar
And she heard the music play
She had to go in and sing
It had to be that way

Then, in the short song's second verse, we fast-forward to the end of her life.

After the applause had died down
And the people drifted away
She climbed down off the bar
And went out the door
To the hotel
That she called home
It had greenish walls
A bathroom in the hall

Billie Holiday died while being arrested for drug abuse in 1959, three years after Lady Sings the Blues was published.


What a voice. Rich, dark, sassy, slangy and street-smart. Funny, bitter, bristling with innocent joy. I'm talking about Billie Holiday's voice, but I'm not talking about her singing voice. I'm talking about her memoir, 'Lady Sings the Blues'.

view /LadySingsTheBlues
Tuesday, June 4, 2013 10:18 pm
Paperback edition of Lady Sings the Blues by Billie Holiday
Levi Asher