Archive for the ‘History’ Category


This is a few months before he starts singing for the Harry James orchestra; he’s 22. The charge of sleeping with a woman is revised to adultery when she turns out to be married, and eventually dropped.

Sinatra’s life makes an interesting way to look at 20th-century America. Just this famous mugshot shows things have changed a bit since 1938: The charge is seducing a single female of good repute.

He was born in 1915 and died in 1998. Crowds screamed for him two decades before the Beatles. The documentary “Sinatra: All or Nothing at All” grounds young Sinatra in an America where race hatred commonly extended to Italians, Irish and other groups and where the Depression meant not just working hard to survive but possibly literally not surviving. Once a singing waiter, he becomes famous in every medium from radio onward; gets credited for destroying American morality by adultering with Ava Gardner; from JFK to civil rights, mobsters, Vegas and Reagan, that’s a pretty good shuffle through the decades.

He became a cliche partly because of age (paunch, fading vocals, less self-reinventing) but also by the “Seinfeld is unfunny” principle — so successful in his groundbreaking that he became the status quo. (One of my favorite moments in “High Society” is when Bing says “You must be one of the newer fellas.” Turnover is always with us.)

Late-era Sinatra parodying himself is painful, but earlier in his career, when he’s still doing it straight and singing with sincerity, the power is clear. You can probably hear it even through the audio flaws in this film of him singing to a roomful of WAVES in 1943. Criminal seduction, you say? 🙂

Read Full Post »

Got a chance to crawl around inside the type of bomber my grandfather flew, a B-24 Liberator, today as several Collings Foundation aircraft visited our town. America’s most-produced plane of World War II, these heavy bombers typically dropped 5,000-pound loads of explosives deep behind enemy lines across Europe and in every theater. B-24s were harder to fly but carried heavier payloads farther and faster than the B-17. There are only two operational B-24s left in the U.S., and it was a great opportunity to look around and into this aircraft on a beautiful day. My dad and I are repairing a model B-24 and I can tell you, those distinctive oval tail fin pieces look a lot smaller in plastic.


Visitors get to step up a little ladder into the tail and go through the airplane up towards the cockpit. The B-24J would typically have had a crew of 10, including gunners at the nose, turrets, waist and tail. This particular plane is painted to represent the Witchcraft, which flew 130 missions, the most in the Mighty Eighth Air Force: http://electraforge.com/brooke/flightsims/b24_flights/witchcraftHistorical.html


Seen in the background here is Collings’ restored B-17 Flying Fortress, which we also got to see in the air a few times as it passed over.

In a 2006 CBS interview, a flight engineer from the original Witchcraft tells how he came up with and painted her nose art: http://www.cbsnews.com/news/witchcraft-flies-again-for-vets/

Climbing through the B-24 (I did get to sight and aim the waist guns):




The planes will be here Sunday as well, and visiting them costs $12 adults/$6 kids. Taking a half-hour flight in one is also possible, for $450. Till you get that saved up, here’s the video version 🙂

Read Full Post »

Heard on the radio yesterday: An old norteño version of the old, old Hank Thompson hit “Wild Side of Life.” “Mi Nueva Casa,” I learn from musica.com, was a 1982 hit for Los Invasores de Nuevo León, boosting them to their first gold record. That is totally fitting in a number of ways, one being that Texas (Hank’s home state) and Nuevo León are neighbors, and one being that “Wild Side of Life” has a tendency to spin off hits.

Western Swing pioneer Hank Thompson and the Brazos Valley Boys were Billboard’s top country and western band of the year for 14 years straight, 1951-1964. The tune behind “Wild Side” itself is “an old traditional English melody” on which the Southern hymn “Great Speckled Bird” was based, according to a biography of Roy Acuff. “GSB” was Acuff’s first radio hit and got him a recording contract in 1936. In 1952, “Wild Side of Life” stayed at No. 1 for nine weeks, newly fitted out with lyrics about a temptress who breaks up a man’s marriage and then leaves him to go back to her bar-room good-timing ways – its most famous line being, “I didn’t know God made honky tonk angels.” That inspired an answer song, “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels,” the first country No. 1 by a solo female artist, which sold a million copies and launched Kitty Wells’ career. It put the blame back on men for cheatin’ and was considered so shocking that NBC and the Grand Ole Opry both banned it. Waylon Jennings and Jessi Colter did a mashup of the two songs in 1981, which brings us neatly back around, chronologically speaking, to Los Invasores:

Hank Thompson:

Hank sang (not wrote, but sang):

You wouldn’t read my letter if I wrote you
You asked me not to call you on the phone
But there’s something I’m wanting to tell you
So I wrote it in the words of this song

Los Invasores’ lyrics with my translation (which reads very stilted because I’m not translating for the feeling of it but literally the words themselves. Language major, sorry 🙂 I like to know what the original words were and then fill in the feeling):

Te escribi una carta y no me contestaste         I wrote you a letter and you didn’t answer me
Fui a buscarte y ya cambiaste dirección          I went to search for you and you’d already moved (lit., changed address)
Como tengo unas cosas que reclamarte          As I have a couple things to complain to you about
me obligaste a que te cante esta canción        You’ve obliged me to sing to you this song

The song goes on to talk about how he gave up his home to be with her and is pretty miserable where he’s living now, a place that features bottles, a jukebox and a neon sign. “Y una cualquiera es la que ocupa tu lugar” — and her place is taken by whatever lady is around.

Kitty’s entry in this tune’s history books:

If you have something stuck in your throat and need to upchuck quickly, or alternately to gain an immediate visceral understanding of the Nashville tendency to slap sappy strings and gooshy backup singers all over a defenseless song that caused musicians like Buck Owens to rebel with the “Bakersfield Sound,” etc., listen to this alternate version of Hank’s “Wild Side.”

Read Full Post »

This week was the first Shakespeare Week in the UK, a nationwide deal where they try to bring the big guy’s works to life for elementary kids, a terrific idea and a tricky thing to do. Hell, it’s hard to bring Shakespeare to life for grownups; that’s when you get the faux-important approach, simply reading lines out in posh accents and hoping it looks intelligent. Here’s what it looks like when a brilliant pair of actors really speak the words as though they’re just talking to each other. (Kenneth Branagh has just been set up by his friends, who have told him Emma Thompson is in love with him)

Stunt casting can help keep viewers’ attention — who doesn’t want to watch more of Catherine Tate being snarky and David Tennant doing, you know, anything? But so little of the comedy here has anything to do with Shakespeare’s words. Tennant wears a Superman T-shirt and bumbles around the stage — quite charmingly, but it’s just that: charming slapstick. Same scene:

It’s very funny, but they’re cheating. They barely try to make the big wodges of Elizabethan understandable, just play the funny lines we can all get, then shovel the hard bits out the sides of their mouths to get to the next gag. As a way to get young people to watch, it’s not bad. But you never really get to meet Beatrice and Benedick. How are you supposed to care later when they’re forced to admit they’re in love?

The epitome of the stunt-cast and faux-important approaches is “Shakespeare in Love,” which contains 0% true Shakespeare, just some pretty people, posh accents (some quite fake indeed) and a few gags on the level of “Romeo and Ethel the Pirate’s Daughter,” for God’s sake.

Puke. Shakespeare isn’t sexy Joseph Fiennes leaping in and out of boats. He’s a 32-year-old father of three when he writes “R&J” and “Midsummer Night’s Dream,” a middle-aged businessman imagining himself back into the hot tights of a teenager and imagining himself into the mind of a short brunette who is furious with a tall blonde for taking her boyfriend. They’ve been friends since they were in school together, these women, and they don’t understand at all what has just happened to them.

The next clip, of those two women in an epic catfight, is the actual moment I fell in love with Shakespeare.

I was ten years old and saw it on PBS. Yes, it’s the 1980s so the hair is floppy, and yes they play some of it broadly. But watch what they’re not doing: skipping the hard words. They’re making them work. Watch Helena get through that speech about her and Hermia as schoolgirls, a block of almost incomprehensible English. It’s like trying to convey emotions in Martian.

But it sets up how betrayed both women feel, and sets up that perfect payoff, a comedy catfight with real human love and pain underneath it.

So playing Shakespeare today requires actors to communicate really hard, and the modern viewer’s experience is different from the groundling’s, but there’s a different payoff too.

If you follow all the parts, the hard bits and the Elizabethan impenetrability and so on, then when you see that moment, a phrase or a joke or a feeling that skips over the centuries in between, it springs out with total clarity no archaeologist can dig up: Four hundred years ago, a person felt exactly the same way you did when their heart broke.

Read Full Post »

Piano scholar and player James Goodwin has a number of videos up on YouTube. This, he says, “is an improvisation in the piano blues style that developed in the barrelhouses and whorehouses of Texas in the 1920s and 1930s. Characteristic is the use of slurred notes in the right hand and pumping chords or stride in the left hand.” (Buy a CD here)





Read Full Post »

If it is good enough for the Bird, it is good enough for me. This is also kind of a classic example of the mid-20th-century “open four cans of Campbell’s” school of cooking.

Lady Bird King Ranch Chicken

(Bonus: Queen Elizabeth II’s recipe for scones.)

Read Full Post »

Here is U2 launching into the song they believed might actually spark violence if it were misunderstood:

And here is a John Wayne movie’s anachronistic but stirring delivery of an actual rebel song:

Back in the heyday of MTV, when I was a budding little pre-teen U2 fan, I heard Bono say something that lodged in my memory: “This song is not a rebel song.” He said it as he introduced “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” and it was clear from his phrasing that the words meant something additional that I didn’t understand. Taken at face value, of course, with the lyrics of the song itself, the message was clear: “No more.” I’d say many Americans who did not know what Bloody Sunday was the first time they heard the song had learned that piece of recent history by the second or third time they heard it. (In July 2012 — forty years later — Northern Ireland police have opened a new murder investigation of the event.)

But it wasn’t till this year that I learned what was behind the extra weight Bono gave to the words “rebel song.” And I learned it because of a John Wayne movie, of all things.

Director John Ford of course is known for classic westerns, particularly the “cavalry trilogy” of Wayne films: “Fort Apache,” “She Wore A Yellow Ribbon” and “Rio Grande.” He was also what you might call a devout American Irishman, a son of Irish immigrants, and made “Rio Grande” purely so that Republic Pictures would let him cart his stock company over to County Mayo to film “The Quiet Man.” Wayne played former Union officer and Shenandoah Valley veteran Lt. Col. Kirby Yorke, who is ordered by Gen. Philip Sheridan to lead a cavalry raid from Fort Stark across the river into Mexico.

As in his other films, Ford chose music carefully: sometimes songs true to the historical period shown (“The Girl I Left Behind Me”), sometimes anachronistic songs that nonetheless fit seamlessly (“She Wore A Yellow Ribbon”). In “Rio Grande,” two emotional moments come as the regimental singers perform “I’ll Take You Home Again, Kathleen” and “Down by the Glenside (The Bold Fenian Men).”

“Kathleen” was written in 1875, but “Down by the Glenside” fits less well into the chronology, as the film is set in 1879. (Although it was 1873 when Gen. Philip Sheridan ordered former Union officer and Shenandoah Valley veteran Col. Ranald Mackenzie to lead the 4th Cavalry in a raid from Fort Clark across the Rio Grande.)

My dad noted, as we re-watched the movie recently, that the song was a specific reference to Irish history. We set to Googling, and learned it was written in or about 1916 by Peadar Kearney, who fought in the Easter 1916 uprising and had earlier written “The Soldier’s Song” (“Amhrán na bhFiann”), which is now Ireland’s national anthem.

And we also learned Kearney’s ballads were part of the body of Irish music called rebel songs. Though the tradition was familiar to us — centuries of history in which the oppressed Irish used music to transmit culture and calls to arms, up through the modern “Troubles” to the present day — the term was not, to me at least. Finally, then, I knew why those words were so freighted when Bono called them out to the crowd at Red Rocks.

In fact, as I might have learned in 1983 had the Internet been suitably developed, that was how Bono introduced “Sunday” during most of U2’s “War” tour. At the song’s first performance in Northern Ireland, Dec. 20, 1982, the band were so wary of its reception that Bono added a promise that if the crowd didn’t like the song, they’d never play it there again. Happily, they did like it, and another piercing song carried its piece of Irish history out into the world.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »