Category Archives: Art & Culture

RIP: Little Richard – (Richard Wayne Penniman)(5 Dec 1932 – 9 May 2020)

Poster for a Little Richard Concert in Baltimore, circa 1956
Poster for a Little Richard Concert in Baltimore, circa 1956.
Photograph of poster from liveauctioneers.

Almost 70 years on it is difficult, unless you possessed young ears in the middle of the 1950s, to understand the enormous impact a song like Tutti Frutti had on its listeners.

Everything about Little Richard shouted ‘DIFFERENT!’ Just look at that hairdo – remember this is the staid hung-up 1950s. Our parents, our schools and the ‘establishment’ were still decrying our hair in the last years of the Nixon administration in the early 1970s. Imagine the public outrage (not too strong a word) in the 50s. Of course, the disapprobation of our elders only made sporting the coiffures more fun!

Although I have not looked at the stats I cannot imagine anyone (other than, perhaps, the Beatles – who actually opened some European concerts for Little Richard in 1962), besting his record of 17 hit singles in about four years circa 1955-1959. The man rocked and everyone into the new rock and roll knew it!

Penniman learned his chops in a manner similar to how many African American polymath performers learned theirs in the first half of the 20th century: first in church, then in vaudeville or traveling troups of performers. In his case it was Dr. Hudson’s Medicine Show. He joined in 1949 rather than enter 10th grade. Here he performed a variety of skits, sometimes in drag as Princess LaVonne, and learned to play what church-folk called ‘devil music’. He once said that Louis Jordan’s Caldonia was the first secular piece he ever played (“Caldonia! Caldonia! What makes your big head so hard?”) HISTORIC NOTE: The second(?) recording of this song was where the term “Rock and Roll” originated. It appeared in a Billboard Magazine review of Erskine Hawkins 1945 record: “right rhythmic rock and roll music”.) A year later Penniman joined Buster Brown’s Orchestra where his childhood nickname of Lil’ Richard was modified (he was quite small and had one leg shorter than the other.)

After a couple recording contracts with his records becoming popular in Georgia but not reaching a larger audience, Little Richard returned to his hometown of Macon, Georgia doing menial labor and performing on the side. In 1955 the musician Lloyd Price (with whom my father worked) recommended Specialty Records, the label he recorded for, and Little Richard sent them a demo tape. Months passed with no call. Eventually Specialty’s producer heard Richard sing Tutti Fruiti during an impromtu set at a club – but had to hire another songwriter to clean up the sexual lyrics Little Richard had put to the song. Three takes in September led to a November release and the rest, as they say, is history!In June of 2007 the British music magazine Mojo, based on a survey of music artists (Björk, Tori Amos, Tom Waits, Brian Wilson, Pete Wentz, Steve Earle and others), listed Tutti Frutti as Number 1 in their “The Top 100 Records That Changed The World”.

SIDE NOTE: I almost did not include this mention as a decade ago Mojo moved to take over ownership of copyright of their writers and photographers work AND, at the same time, laid liability for libel and copyright infringement onto those same writers and photographers.


RIP: Denis Theodore Goldberg (1933-2020)

Artist's Open Air House in Rivonia
An Artist Friend’s Open Air House in Rivonia, © Wilbur Norman
Artist's Open Air Library in Rivonia
The Open Air Library, ©Wilbur Norman

I just learned that Denis Goldberg, one of the last two survivors of South Africa’s infamous Rivonia Trial (1963-1964), died on April 29th of cancer with Covid-19 complications.

Denis Goldberg, a civil engineer and an anti-apartheid activist, spent 22 years in prison. He was arrested during a meeting of activists and commanders of the MK (uMkhonto we Sizwe) the armed wing of the ANC (African Nation Congress) on a farm in Rivonia. The defendants in the sabotage and treason trial were Nelson Mandela (already in prison under a “citing workers to strike” charge), Walter Sisulu, Lionel Bernstein, Denis Goldberg, Arthur Goldreich, Bob Hepple, Abdulhay Jassat, Ahmed Kathrada, Govan Mbeki, Raymond Mhlaba, Andrew Mlangeni, Moosa Moolla, Elias Motsoaledi and Harold Wolpe. (Goldreich and Wolpe escaped from prison, after beatings and torture, before beginning their sentence; Hepple fled the country when charges were withdrawn; and Lionel Bernstein was acquitted, rearrested and placed under house arrest before escaping from the country.) The rest beat a de facto death sentence thru what was probably a private treaty with the judge. Goldberg received release in 1985 largely through the work of his daughter and members of her kibbutz and the U.S. and Israeli governments (for many years both close allies of apartheid South Africa.)

Many Americans think the fight for democracy in South Africa was a monolithic black vs. white struggle. This arrest list shows how wrong this view is: those arrested were English, Indian Muslim, Jewish, Xhosa, Pedi and Coloured.

The Rivonia Trial (Rivonia is a suburb of Johannesburg) contained what is considered a founding moment in the attempts to create a democracy in South Africa – 31 years before it became a reality. The ‘moment’ was , in fact, a three hour defense opening statement by Nelson Mandela, his famous “I Am Prepared To Die” speech. Here is the closing paragraph:

“During my lifetime I have dedicated my life to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons will live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal for which I hope to live for and to see realised. But, my Lord, if it needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

As the only remaining white found guilty, Denis Goldberg was taken to Pretoria Central Prison to serve 22 years. The others served in various prisons with most doing extended time on Robben Island off the coast. Mandela served almost 28 years (18 of which were at Robben), Walter Sisulu served 26 years (most at Robben), Ahmed Kathrada served 26 years (18 at Robben) with the balance at Pollsmoor Maximum Security Prison (along with Raymond Mhlaba, Andrew Mlangeni, Elias Motsoaledi and Walter Sisulu.) Many, perhaps all, of those convicted worked on interesting college degrees while incarcerated. Some may remember that it was Ahmed Kathrada who showed President Obama and the First Family around Robben Island in 2013.

In 2017 the three remaining survivors of the Rivonia trial – Denis Goldberg, Andrew Mlangeni and Kathrada, along with the three surviving defense attorneys, Joel Joffe, George Bizos and Denis Kuny – appeared in a documentary film entitled “Life is Wonderful”, directed by Sir Nicholas Stadlen. These were the words Goldberg’s mother, Annie, is said to have uttered when she learned that he and his comrades had been spared the death sentence. (Annie must have been quite a mom: in 1960 she was arrested with him for supporting strikers after the Sharpeville massacre and they both spent four months in jail.)

Here is an interview with Sir Nicholas about the film: https://vimeo.com/284713545

Kent State May 4, 1970

Mary Ann Vecchio gestures and screams as she kneels by the body of a student, Jeffrey Miller. Photo by John Filo, copyright © 1970 Valley News-Dispatch
Mary Ann Vecchio gestures and screams as she kneels by the body of a student, Jeffrey Miller. Photo by John Filo, copyright © 1970 Valley News-Dispatch


“Mary Ann Vecchio [a 14-year old runaway, as the world later learned] gestures and screams as she kneels by the body of a student, Jeffrey Miller, lying face down on the campus of Kent State University, in Kent, Ohio. On publication, the image was retouched to remove the fence post above Vecchio’s head.” The protest was against President Nixon’s illegal bombing of Cambodia during the Vietnam War. Reacting to mass demonstrations on May 1st, Nixon he had called anti-war protestors ‘bums’.

Four students were killed and 9 wounded by the 67 shots fired by the Ohio National Guard that day. Two of the four killed were bystanders and none of the four was closer to the Guard than about a football field in distance. The Guard had been dispatched to Kent State by Governor James Rhodes, at the request of the town of Kent’s mayor, after an arson attack burned down the ROTC building on May 2.

Four million students (college and high school) went out on strike after the news of the shootings became public.

In New Mexico, where I now live, eleven people were bayonetted at the University of New Mexico by the New Mexico National Guard in a confrontation with student protesters on May 8th. The demonstrations in Washington, DC were so combative that Nixon was removed to Camp David for his safety and the 82nd Airborne was lodged in the basement of the Executive Office Building next to the White House. At Jackson State University, a historically black college, in Jackson, Mississippi, two students were killed (and 12 wounded) by police during a demonstration on May 14 – an event that did not receive the same attention as the shootings at Kent State.

I was in high school in Ohio and vividly remember those times – especially when my Draft Number turned out to be 99. For many years thereafter I never ate at Wendy’s because Ohio Governor Big Jim Rhodes (“part P.T. Barnum, part Elmer Gantry, part Norman Vincent Peale” – Dayton Daily News) was one of Wendy’s investors. There are memorial events at Kent State on May 4th every year and I have managed to make it to one (the 30th, I believe.)

There are still unanswered questions about the timing and personnel involved in the Kent State massacre. A prominent one involves the university- and FBI-informant Terrence Brooks Norman (no relation!), a student who appeared to be the only non-Guardsman individual who was armed at the demonstration.

RIP: Eavan Boland (24 September 1944 – 27 April 2020)

The great Irish poet Eavan Boland (1944-2020) has gone beyond to the Irish pre-Christian Otherworld of Mag Mell (the Plain of Delight) or, perhaps, Tír-na-hÓige (land of the [ever-] youthful) where worthies engage in poetry, music, entertainment, and the feast of Goibniu that grants immortality to those taking part.

If Americans know Eavan Boland it is most likely for her poem Quarantine from her 2001 book Code, reproduced, below, courtesy of Carcanet Press, All Rights Reserved.

Boland lived in New York from 1956 to 1960 when her diplomat father had a posting. Though the poem Quarantine is about Irish history, she often wrote poetry reflecting the lives of those who live in Dublin’s contemporary suburbia.

Boland said she wrote this poem after reading an anecdote in an early 20th century memoir of the famine, Mo Scéal Féin by An tAthair Peadar Ó Laoghaire. It has been estimated that more than a million Irish died from starvation and disease in the period 1845 to 1852 and a million others emigrated, a period we know as the Irish Potato Famine. Although almost documentary in nature, I prefer to read Quarantine as a love poem and admire the use of repetition (‘worst’, ‘last heat’, ‘last gift’), the phrase ‘freezing stars’ and a reference to the horrible British administration of the country during the famine where tenant farmers actually grew enough wheat to feed people but had to ship it off for English tables (‘Of the toxins of a whole history’.) The next to last stanza brings to my mind the phrase, ‘Never Again!’ but, of course, we humans are slow to learn and even slower to react.

Quarantine

In the worst hour of the worst season

    of the worst year of a whole people

a man set out from the workhouse with his

wife.

He was walking—they were both walking —

north.

She was sick with famine fever and could not

keep up.

     He lifted her and put her on his back.

He walked like that west and west and north.

Until at nightfall under freezing stars they

arrived.

In the morning they were both found dead.

    Of cold. Of hunger. Of the toxins of a whole

history.

But her feet were held against his breastbone.

The last heat of his flesh was his last gift to her.

Let no love poem ever come to this threshold.

     There is no place here for the inexact

praise of the easy graces and sensuality of the

body.

There is only time for this merciless inventory:

Their death together in the winter of 1847.

      Also what they suffered. How they lived.

And what there is between a man and woman.

And in which darkness it can best be proved.

Adon Olam

Adon Olam (אֲדוֹן עוֹלָם; “Eternal Master/Sovereign Who Reigns Supreme”) from traditional Jewish liturgy. It is usually attributed to Solomon ibn Gabirol (1021-1058, the Golden Age of La Convivencia) but the actual pronunciation of the words points to a much earlier origin. The music in the video below is to the tune of “Happy” written by Pharrell Williams.

This joyful rendition provides an uplift at a time when memorial services are not possible amidst the dying from Covid-19. Tho I am secular now, it still spirits me to my youth when we were made to recite a version of the last stanza before bedtime: Into his hand I commit my spirit when I sleep and I awake and with my spirit, my body, The Lord is with me, I will not fear.

Many will have encountered Adon Olam in Ashkenazi services during Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur and Kol Nidre. When I lived in London it was, for me, a highlight of Sephardim services sung antiphonally to an old Spanish melody.

Adon Olam may also be read in a room of the dying and in some synagogues as a means of relaying a death in the community (spoken without the musical aid of a cantor.)

Given its ready universality and application throughout the centuries, many have created their own tune to accompany Adon Olam. In 1976 Uzi Hitman wrote what has become a quite popular secular version but the most common melody is probably the one attributed to Russian cantor Eliezar Mordecai ben Yitschak Gerovitsch (1844-1914). Dudu Fisher does a nice job with this as does the singer Fortuna. The group Sabbathsong, below, performs the tune with verve and an unbeatable clarinet!

Adon Olam with transliterated melody and lyrics
Adon Olam Sheet Music

Great Music #1

"Here I Am: Isley Presents Bachrach" CD
“Here I Am: Isley Presents Bachrach” CD

A house is not a home when there’s no one there…

My rockin’ friends may laugh and poke fun accusing me of loving schmaltz with this post (“On the day you were born the angels made a dream come true.”) but I don’t care – and neither will those of you who listen to the music on this CD and the other music listed, below.

In 2003 Ronald Isley and Burt Bachrach teamed for the album Here I Am, a collection of Bachrach’s (mostly) 1960s tunes with Bachrach on piano led by Isley’s poignant, signature falsetto. Both Ronald Isley (Cincinnati, May 21, 1941) and Burt Freeman Bacharach (Kansas City, May 12, 1928) are American mid-westerners (yeh!)

Album:  Here I Am: Isley Presents Bachrach.

Artists: Ron Isley & Burt Bachrach (with many others in the orchestra)

Like most musicians who people believe pop out of nowhere, both Isley and Bachrach had a lot of road behind them when they entered mainstream consciousness. Bachrach studied with famed Darius Milhaud and was a music director for Marlene Dietrich from the mid-to-late 1950s to the early 1960s, touring worldwide and writing songs. When he had an office at the famed Brill Building in New York City he met the lyricist Hal David. Together they wrote many of the greatest popular songs of the 1960s and 1970s, performed to perfection by Dionne Warwick, one of the best selling female vocalist of all time, after Aretha. (And, oh… we all laughed but Warwick made US$3 million from plugging the Psychic Friends Network on late night TV for 7 years!) The Brill is still there and worth a visit if you’ve not passed by. It was home to music publishers and song-smiths including Bobby Darin, Gerry Goffin and Carole King, Barry Mann, Gene Pitney, Johnny Mercer, Laura Nyro, Neil Diamond, Billy Rose, Neil Sadaka and others who worked in small offices with upright pianos (according to my father.)

“Breaking up is so hard to do”

Ron Isley and brothers (variously O’Kelly, Ernie, Marvin, Rudolph) formed The Isley Brothers, an R&B group nonpareil. They made a hit of ‘Twist and Shout’ in 1962, beating the Beatles to the line (1963).

If you are a mid-period baby boomer you most certainly remember the 1971 album ‘Givin’ It Back’ featuring the songs ‘Ohio/Machine Gun’ (by Neil Young /Jimi Hendrix), ‘Fire and Rain’ (James Taylor), ‘Lay Lady Lay’ (Bob Dylan), ‘Spill the Wine’ (Miller, Scott and 5 others) and ‘Love the One You’re With’ (Stephen Stills). The recently deceased Bill Withers played guitar on that album!

Then in 1973 they released the album ‘3+3’ (‘1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die’) with ‘That Lady’ (Isley Bros.), ‘Don’t Let me Be Lonely Tonight’ (James Taylor), and more.

When I was in grad school in London the parties the Africans threw were the most fun (check out Osibisa, the first ‘World Music’ group) but for atmosphere and romance one could pull the Isley Brothers in for tactical support. If you could not keep company for the dreary autumn nights with the assistance of the Isley Brothers you were beyond helping!

‘Be mine tonight, let this be just the start of so many nights like this… then seal it with a kiss.’

But I digress.

The CD ‘Here I Am’ with Bachrach will touch a chord with those of us who survived Vietnam, the war of our generation, and the drug- and alcohol-fueled gatherings that took so many of our peers. It is like listening with new (mature) ears.

Full orchestration is not always successful on pop and jazz recordings, think 1955’s ‘Clifford Brown with Strings’ with Brown, Richie Powell, George Morrow and Max Roach – reviewed as “lush settings by some and muzak by others”. However, ‘Here I Am: Isley Presents Bachrach” is, to me, simply gorgeous; Bachrach did not lose his touch with his 1960s work with Warwick. Isley’s interpretations drop his ‘Mr. Biggs’ persona (much in evidence in his collaborations with R. Kelly) and meld tenderness, love, poignant loss, humility and romance all in one grand slow-motion sweep that will steam the bedroom windows.

Listening to ‘Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head’ we are no longer in B.J. Thomas territory riding that bicycle with Katherin Ross in 1969’s ‘Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid’ (the American Film Institute’s 73rd-greatest American film on its “100 Years…100 Movies”, 10th Anniversary Edition and 7th greatest Western (2008). Jack Lemmon, Warren Beatty and Steve McQueen were all offered the role of Sundance by the by!)

(Ah… another recent loss: illustrator Mort Drucker (1929 – April 9, 2020) who drew movie parodies for MAD Magazine from 1956 to 2008 and did the pics for MAD Magazine’s ‘Botch Casually and the Somedunce Kid’, Issue No. 136, July 1970.)

For the more visual among you, there was a PBS Special of these performances, too, that I have not seen.

Listen to this CD and you will be booking a site for a post Covid-19 renewal of your wedding vows!

P.S. For a great read on the relationship between the Isley family and Jimi Hendrix see: “Ernie Isley remembers Jimi Hendrix”. If I recall correctly, The Seattle Times article omits to report that the Isleys bought Jimi a new white Strat because they thought his (which was in hock, sans strings, at a pawn shop) was too tatty for their stage shows.

P.P.S. Dionne Warwick’s extended family is chock-a-block full of the musically and athletically talented. Blood relatives include Dee Dee Warwick, Cissy Houston, Whitney Houston, Gary Garland, Bobbi Kristina Brown and Leontyne Price.

Great Reads #3: Elmore Leonard

In my post about The Aeneid last week I did not include a photo of the actual shelves with books from early authors (Aeneid, Gilgamesh, Dante’s Inferno, The Iliad, etc.) because I had already included two overall images and I thought those enough.

Below is the photo I took but did not use.

Shelves of Classics and Elmore Leonard
Books of the classics and Elmore Leonard

One of the reasons, aside from having already included two pics for my Aeneid post, was that the books of Elmore Leonard intrude onto these shelves. This is the inevitable result of owning more books than shelves – tho it is certainly a lesser evil than books stacked and strewn around the house higgledy-piggledy.

The volumes of Leonard sit below those of Dick Francis, Carl Hiaasen, Robert Parker and Walter Mosley in the vertical stack of this shelf unit. It is the case with my guilty pleasure: mystery novels. Like the shelves with William Boyd, Bruce Chatwin, Robertson Davies, Peter Matthiessen, Thomas McGuane, V.S. & Shiva Naipaul, Salmon Rushdie and a few others whose work I collect, most of the books are autographed to me. Leonard had a long career and began by writing Westerns including Three-Ten to Yuma (3:10 to Yuma). I cannot recollect another writer who had as many of his novels turned into movies, sometimes twice!

For the smart-assed among you, the early writers grouping (‘early’ as in Herodotus) does not contain signed books (well, aside from a few modern editors of these works). Likewise my collections of anthropology and evolution are bereft of signatures except for a few letters.

Getting authors to autograph one’s books or a sheet of paper is an interesting custom. I used to have a nice little letter from Darwin’s son, Francis, answering a fan who wanted Darwin’s signature. Francis lamented he had already given away all those he had inherited. I sold the letter to the great scientist, writer and collector Stephen Jay Gould.

The act of collecting has been the subject of those writing both fiction and non-fiction; Sigmund Freud tackled the subject. He believed it sprang from the conflict of unresolved toilet training. (What a shit that shrink was, altho he did collect antiquities.) Balzac, John Fowles and Bruce Chatwin covered the conflict zone. Mozart continues to entertain us with his opera Don Giovanni and collecting of a different sort: sexual conquest. The psychoanalyst Werner Muensterberger in his engaging work Unruly Passion was onto something and he ought to have known: he collected African art as a youth but lost everything to the Germans in WWII, coming to America with $100 and a mask he sold to Rockefeller. He was an example of people who cannot be held down and his practice came to include patients like Danny Kaye, Laurence Olivier, James Dean and Marlon Brando. Muensterberger maintained a correspondence with many of the great names of the century: Thomas Mann, Mary Wigman, Pablo Picasso, Sigmund Freud, Constantin Brancusi, Walt Disney, Albert Einstein and others.

The list of those exploring the psyche of collecting goes on and on but I love John Steinbeck’s simple explanation: “I guess the truth is that I simply like junk.” Which brings up hoarding – but that is another foible altogether.

One of the favorite items on my shelves is this sheet of text sent to me by Elmore Leonard, ‘Rules to write by’. He originally published it in The New York Times. It is a hoot to read and he gave it to me as a Thank You for showing him a published bibliography of his works that he did not know about – or authorize.

of the favorite items on my shelves is this sheet of text sent to me by Elmore Leonard, ‘Rules to write by’. He originally published it in The New York Times. It is a hoot to read and he gave it to me as a Thank You for showing him a published bibliography of his works that he did not know about – or authorize.One of the favorite items on my shelves is this sheet of text sent to me by Elmore Leonard, ‘Rules to write by’. He originally published it in The New York Times. It is a hoot to read and he gave it to me as a Thank You for showing him a published bibliography of his works that he did not know about – or authorize.

Elmore Leonard Advice On Writing
Elmore Leonard Advice On Writing

I have had many spectacular books, letters, manuscripts and signatures through the years. I am looking for a great photograph to go with the the signature, below. It is Teddy Roosevelt’s and is special because, prior to his presidency, The White House was called The Executive Mansion. Here he has signed a ‘White House’ card!

Theodore Roosevelt signature on White House card
Theodore Roosevelt signature on White House card

Great Reads #2: The Aeneid

Arma virumque cano….

The Aeneid is the story of how a refugee from beaten and destroyed ancient Troy preserved his people, via divine authority, by founding Rome, with his descendants going on to establish an empire.

In 19BC the Roman poet Publius Vergilius Maro left Greece, where he had been conducting research for The Aeneid, to return to his home in Rome. He shipped out on a vessel with the Emperor Augustus, as one does. They stopped at Megara where Virgil contracted fever (or heatstroke) and he died as the ship docked in the southern Italian trading port of Brundisium. Among his last thoughts was his dissatisfaction with a 10-year long writing project, this book, The Aeneid. Rather than let an unfinished work see the light of day, he asked his executors to burn the manuscript. Augustus, who knew something of the book as Virgil had read him three chapters, stepped in and ordered the work to be published ‘as is’.

The Aeneidis an acknowledged cornerstone of Western literature and by two centuries after his death was a prerequisite in Latin education, which is to say, any western education above the rudimentary. Even in the 19th century it was often a requirement of students to memorize the whole of it! Its 9,896 lines have been printed in hundreds of editions in both its original Latin dactylic hexameter and in poetic and prose translation. Its opening line was even found in excavation as graffiti in Pompeii: Arma virumque cano, “Of arms and a man I sing.”

In 1680 Henry Purcell published the music for one of my favorite operas, Dido and Aeneas with Nahum Tate writing the libretto. (Tate is today mostly remembered, when he is remembered art all, for rewriting Shakespeare’s plays so that every scene would be “full of respect to Majesty and the dignity of courts”. Yes, the more things change, the more they stay the same!) I have many versions of The Aeneid shelved in several libraries around the house. My current favorite is the translation by Robert Fitzgerald (1983). I own four copies of this translation: one (trade paperback) in the sunroom library, one (mass market paper) in the research area for my work on wine in life and literature and two in the bedroom (first edition hardcover and a trade paper to share my enthusiasm by lending to friends.) Hmmm…. maybe this is why I have more than 5,000 books!

Virgil was a talented writer and superb stylist who cleverly knew his way around alliteration, onomatopoeia and other wordplay. His poetic lines are of a grand and stately solemn nature, very foreign to our modern ears attuned as we are to formulations of unstructured free-style verse and sentences. His goal in The Aeneid was to create a work that would glorify Rome and rival Homer’s Odyssey and Iliad. There are twelve books (what we might call chapters) in The Aeneid, written using the same syllabic and metrical line as used by Homer. The first six chapters play on the Odyssey and the last six the war and battles in the Iliad.

Though a great work, The Aeneid has not been free of issues. Yes, there are literary ones (it is a bear to translate as it is composed in what the Germans call kunstsprache, an artificial or invented artful language; I never truly mastered it in my school Latin.)

But, the problems I address here are political in nature. The work was ‘co-opted’ right from the beginning by Augustus. The emperor is kindly mentioned by name in scenes where Aeneas is gifted sight into the future when he enters the Underworld to visit his late father, Anchises. Augustus’ reign came after decades of instability (the Roman Civil Wars) following Julius Caesar’s crossing the Rubicon in 49BC, taking his legions into Rome and eventually becoming Dictator. Augustus was seen by many as savior and last hope of the Roman people for peace after the civil turmoil. Likewise it has been used through the centuries as a support for the aggrandizing and subjugating nature of colonization, a classical ‘white man’s burden’ made flesh.

But, to be fair, The Aeneid has also been interpreted as an anti-war poem and it is this tack I take. The language and potent imagery is second to none – cinematic even. The battle scenes do not require a very active imagination to visualize. It is sad that Virgil is no longer on the required reading list of our schools. It still has a lot to teach us about myriad human qualities like devotion, piety, hubris, rage, fate, courage and love in all its incarnations. Stop in and borrow a copy or buy your own if you are unfamiliar with the joy of reading this fine story.

Below, a section from “The World Below”, where Aeneas, led by the Sibyl, travels to the Underworld to see his father. She is carrying, under her dress, their entry ticket: the golden bough. It had been torn off a tree by Aeneas who was foretold it was needed as a presentation to Charon to get him to ferry them across Cocytus, the Stygian river leading to Hades. At the other side of the river there is another obstacle, the huge three-headed dog, Cerberus, but he enters the picture some lines later.

(If the words ‘golden bough’ seem familiar look up J.M.W. Turner’s painting of the same name and, also, the early anthropologist Sir James George Frazier whose work greatly influenced a generation, including Freud and Jung; Aleister Crowley; T.S. Elliot and William Carlos Williams; Hemingway, James Joyce, D.H. Lawrence, Robert Graves and Yeats; and the man who founded anthropology ‘off the verandah’, the founder of my university’s department, Bronislaw Malinowski, who was prompted to lay out the first statement of the aims of ethnography in his ground-breaking Argonauts of the Western Pacific (1922). Though now superseded in scholarship, for many years The Golden Bough exerted a profound influence upon literature, anthropology and intellectual thinking.)

Selection, below, courtesy of Vintage Books, A Division of Random House, NY. The Aeneid Translated by Robert Fitzgerald, Book VI, lines 331-402. Copyright 1980, 1982, 1983.

Editions of The Aeneid
Bedroom Library

Book VI, “The World Below”, lines 331-402

The cavern was profound, wide-mouthed and huge,

Rough underfoot, defended by dark pool

And gloomy forest. Overhead, flying things

Could never safely take their way, such deathly

Exhalations rose from the black gorge

Into the dome of heaven. …

                                                “Away, away,”

The Sibyl cried, “All those unblest, away!”

Depart from the grove! But you, Aeneas,

Enter the path here, and unsheathe your sword.

There’s need of gall and resolution now.”


She flung herself wildly into the cave mouth,

Leading, and he strode boldly at her heels.

Gods who rule the ghosts; all silent shades;

And Chaos and infernal Fiery Stream,

And regions of wide night without a sound,

May it be right to tell of what I have heard,

May it be right, and fitting, by your will,

That I describe the deep world sunk in darkness

Under the earth.

                                    Now dim to one another

In desolate night they walked on through the gloom,

Through Dis’s homes all void, and empty realms,

As one goes through a wood by a faint moon’s

Treacherous light, when Jupiter veils the sky

And black night blots the colors of the world.

Before the entrance, in the jaws of Orcus,

Grief and avenging Cares have made their beds,

And pale diseases and sad Age are there,

And Dread, and Hunger that sways men to crime,

And sordid Want – in shapes to affright the eyes –

And Death and Toil and Death’s own brother, Sleep,

And the mind’s evil joys; on the door sill

Death-bringing War, and iron cubicles

Of the Eumenides, and raving Discord,

Viperish hair bound up in gory bands.

In the courtyard a shadowy elm

Spreads ancient boughs, her ancient arms where dreams,

False dreams, the old tale goes, beneath each leaf

Cling and are numberless. There, too,

About the doorway forms of monsters crowd –

Centaurs, twiformed Scyllas, hundred-armed

Briareus, and the Lernaean hydra

Hissing horribly, and the Chimaera

Breathing dangerous flames, and Gorgons, Harpies,

Huge Geryon, triple-bodied ghost.

Here, swept by sudden fear, drawing his sword,

Aeneas stood guard with naked edge

Against them as they came. If his companion,

Knowing the truth, had not admonished him

How faint these lives were – empty images

Hovering bodies – he had attacked

And cut his way through phantoms, empty air.

Great Reads #1

Migritude
by Shailja Patel

In my spare time, while sequestered to keep Covid-19 at bay, I am having a great time re-reading books and articles I have previously read, looking for those jewels of language and expression that make me smile, nod in agreement, cry and ponder. Sometimes we read a piece that is a wonder of wonders that will stick to our brains until we bid the world adieu.

Here, a poem by Shailja Patel, a Kenyan poet, playwright, theatre artist, and political activist. She is most known for her book “Migritude” based on her one-woman show of the same name funded by the Ford Foundation. CNN characterizes Patel as an artist “who exemplifies globalization as a people-centered phenomenon of migration and exchange.” – Wikipedia

When I lived in Tanzania, East Africa I was often mistaken for a Wahindi (Indian). I spoke rudimentary Kiswahili so I would sometimes correct folks. Other times I just went with the flow and brushed it off. Idi Amin expelled Indians, many of whom owned small businesses, in 1972. Tanzania was a little better but prejudice came to the fore after independence leading many Indians to migrate out. (One guy most people know was from Zanzibar, Farrokh Bulsara, better known as Freddie Mercury!)

Here, a long, but great Patel poem, “Migritude”, (a word she created from the African diaspora movement of the 1920s known as Negritude, joined with ‘migration’ and ‘attitude’.) I know exactly what she means and sometimes think of this poem (especially the section about her father speaking 5 languages) when I am working on my disappearing languages project!

Migritude by S. Patel

“The children in my dreams
speak in Gujarati
turn their trusting faces to the sun
say to me
care for us nurture us
in my dreams I shudder and I run.
I am six
in a playground of white children
Darkie, sing us an Indian song!
Eight
in a roomful of elders
all mock my broken Gujarati
English girl!
Twelve, I tunnel into books
forge an armor of English words.
Eighteen, shaved head
combat boots –
shamed by masis
in white saris
neon judgments
singe my western head.
Mother tongue.
Matrubhasha
tongue of the mother
I murder in myself.
Through the years I watch Gujarati
swell the swaggering egos of men
mirror them over and over
at twice their natural size.
Through the years
I watch Gujarati dissolve
bones and teeth of women, break them
on anvils of duty and service, burn them
to skeletal ash.
Words that don’t exist in Gujarati :
Self-expression.
Individual.
Lesbian.
English rises in my throat
rapier flashed at yuppie boys
who claim their people “civilized” mine.
Thunderbolt hurled
at cab drivers yelling
Dirty black bastard!
Force-field against teenage hoods
hissing
F****ing Paki bitch!
Their tongue – or mine?
Have I become the enemy?
Listen:
my father speaks Urdu
language of dancing peacocks
rosewater fountains
even its curses are beautiful.
He speaks Hindi
suave and melodic
earthy Punjabi
salty rich as saag paneer
coastal Kiswahili
laced with Arabic,
he speaks Gujarati
solid ancestral pride.
Five languages
five different worlds
yet English
shrinks
him
down
before white men
who think their flat cold spiky words
make the only reality.
Words that don’t exist in English:
Najjar
Garba
Arati.
If we cannot name it
does it exist?
When we lose language
does culture die? What happens
to a tongue of milk-heavy
cows, earthen pots
jingling anklets, temple bells,
when its children
grow up in Silicon Valley
to become
programmers?
Then there’s American:
Kin’uh get some service?
Dontcha have ice?
Not:
May I have please?
Ben, mane madhath karso?
Tafadhali nipe rafiki
Donnez-moi, s’il vous plait
Puedo tener…..
Hello, I said can I get some service?!
Like, where’s the line for Ay-mericans
in this goddamn airport?
Words that atomized two hundred thousand Iraqis:
Didja see how we kicked some major ass in the Gulf?
Lit up Bagdad like the fourth a’ July!
Whupped those sand-niggers into a parking lot!
The children in my dreams speak in Gujarati
bright as butter
succulent cherries
sounds I can paint on the air with my breath
dance through like a Sufi mystic
words I can weep and howl and devour
words I can kiss and taste and dream
this tongue
I take back.”

Rats! Not Exactly on the Bucket List

Although India ought to be on the list of world cultures that one visits in a lifetime of travel, it is probably not for all travelers. Well, let me modify that with a caveat. If one includes the category of luxury travel where one essentially floats through an environment in an air-conditioned, antiseptic bubble with your personal Jeeves at the beck and call… if that is your cup of Darjeeling them yes, Incredible India may be for you, too.

One of the Must-Do’s not on my India Bucket List, however, was the Karni Mata Temple in Deshnoke, Rajasthan. It draws Indian pilgrims from far and wide with a smattering of tourists thrown in (I saw one, presumably non-Indian, European while I visited.) But there are about 25,000 kabbas resident here (give or take; I saw a dead one on my exploration.)

A Wikipedia entry, taken from the Lonely Planet travel guide, explains the place best:

“Legend has it that Laxman, Karni Mata’s stepson (or the son of one of her storytellers), drowned in a pond… while he was attempting to drink from it. Karni Mata implored Yama, the god of death, to revive him. First refusing, Yama eventually relented, permitting Laxman and all of Karni Mata’s male children to be reincarnated as rats.”

Yes, you read that correctly; a kabba is a rat. Specifically, it is a member of the species Rattus rattus, the lovable black rat, every child’s idea of the perfect pet and not to be confused with its more malleable cousin, Rattus norvegicus, the brown, better known as the Norway, or Sewer, rat. Everyone on the planet knows this latter beastie because it is the staple of research laboratories, pet stores and is, alas, the most successful and common mammal on the planet – with the notable exception of humans. Only Antarctica has been spared (for now).

Rats Feeding on Milk & Water - Karni Mata Temple
Rats Feeding on Milk & Water – Karni Mata Temple, Rajasthan, India

While I was looking up at the acre of wire mesh that covers the mostly open-air compound and thinking of Yersinia pestis, the bubonic plague, a kabba, scurrying to a destination unknown to me, ran over my right foot. This is considered especially lucky, bestowing only good things upon one so blessed. To my credit I did not scream.

I think the overhead wire mesh is to keep out the large numbers of Columbidae livia, rock doves, whose planetary feral populations have exploded. (I will go out on a limb right now and hazard that they are number three on the list of earth’s most cosmopolitan mammals.) You and I, and everyone else we know, simply call this bird a pigeon. It is a certainty that these rats-on-wings would dive in and settle down to eat the ample food stores spread around for the kabbas, for India, as elsewhere, is profoundly inundated with pigeons. The wire screen roof also keeps out India’s many birds of prey. It would be bad form to let any of the temple’s 25,000 holy inhabitants end up as meals-that-squeals.

Naturally, there is a distinct odor to the complex, one that might charitably be called barnyardy. I suppose it is a combination of the mammal residents, the food spread around by visitors and the excrement left after the food is eaten. As if to get even for their exclusion, there is also an unfair amount of pigeon poop because the wire screening cannot, of course, keep it from dropping in to pay its respects to the unfairly favored King Rat.

As with all India’s sacred spaces, shoes are verboten! 99% of pilgrims leave theirs helter-skelter in the street-cum-public-square in front of the temple, tho there is an official concession for footwear storage just a few meters beyond. The attendants looked lonely so I used it. (No, that’s a lie: they were not lonely; so many people had looked Keenly at my sandals I was worried about some less-than-honest pilgrim waddling off in them so checked my sandals properly.) The shoe storage sits at one end of the row of kitschy concessions lining two sides of the square. All sell sweets, snacks and every tacky knick-knack known to rat-dom (don’t groan, I could have written ‘ratty’ instead of ‘tacky’.) The atmosphere would not be out of place as the Midway of a 1960s circus with touts trying to snare passers-by one and all. I, in thoughtful foresight, wore a pair of those little hospital socks with grippy pads on the soles as an ensemble with my sandals. Lord (Krishna) knows if I would have had the fortitude to cross the street and enter the temple with feet unclad by sox once I checked my Keens into official care.

On a highbrow note, there is excellent architecture to indulge in and a set of solid silver doors, even if the bulk of the temple is painted Pepto-Bismol pink. My one complaint is that the large marble lions outside really ought to have been over-sized King Rats. Attendees may cast this as a matter of little consequence; the lions are rarely visible because of the hordes of Indians who lounge over them executing self-portraits. The European visitor and myself were the only ones I saw actually taking pictures of the temple; everyone else simply used the temple and its parts as their selfie back-drop, as is the case at every other site in India. At least Karni Mata is on flat, solid ground. The railings at the battlements of forts and palaces have oftentimes been installed after someone forgets they are hundreds of meters in the air and leans back for a better facial photo extension. I am not making this up.

For you early birds Karna Mata opens at 4:00 am. It is dark then so for the squeamish maybe that would be the best time to go. As there is so much food about, and rats are easily distracted, there is ample tucker for one and all, including you, dear visitor. It is said that eating food nibbled on by the rats is a high honor. If you will, please let me know how that works out. Also let me know if you see one of the rare white rats. You guessed it: that is also an auspicious honor. In this particular quest I failed. I thought to dash out and cross the square to find a flute (probably available as one is always shown with Krishna in a playing posture) and I’m sure a pied suit could have been procured, as well. Then I came to my senses and ended this line of reverie. Who wants to end up as a fatality statistic after luring all the rats out of Karni Mata just to sight a white one?

Some of you reading this may take my tone amiss, as a bit of unenlightened, agnostic snark. Please do not interpret my remarks this way: for those who travel, if you do not go to India you will have missed a precious and wonderful chapter of the human novel!

Well, that about sums up this installment except to write that while there are many monkey temples in India, Karna Mata is unique, as far as I know. And I am satisfied to report: Been there! Done that!

 

A Sonnet

(with apologies to Miss Freeman, my 8th grade English teacher, from whom I learned the proper setup of an octave and a sestet for the Petrarchan, Spenserian and Shakespearean sonnet forms. First know the artistic rules and then feel free to break them.)

Welcome to Mother India
Wellspring of Religions galore
You’ve probably Tech-Talked to us
Way down in Bangalore

East meets West – We’ve all the Best
Paintings with Class; our Jewelry – a Blast
Music and Dance; Textiles that Prance
Stone sculptures of Schist; Ah… feelings of bliss.

But, as in any form of living thing, mi’ lad
Good lives not unalloyed with the bad.
Meditate on this,
Hurriedly or at Ease:

Enter India if you Please
At some small personal Risk.

R.I.P. Richard “Dick” Claxton Gregory

Richard “Dick” Claxton Gregory
(12 October 1932, St. Louis, Missouri – 19 August 2017, Washington, D.C.)

Dick Gregory Lecturing at Wright State University, April 1973
Photo: Wilbur Norman

Dick Gregory, U.S. Army veteran, urbane comedian-turned-social activist and writer, actor, businessman and provocateur par excellence, died yesterday at the age of 84. I first met him in April 1973 when he spoke at Wright State University. I would then run into him at various events around the East Coast. I think the last time I saw him must have been in 1987 when he was arrested protesting apartheid in front of the South African Embassy in Washington, DC.

He could keep up a biting and satirical running commentary better than anyone I have ever met, no doubt from practice as a stand-up comedian in his early career. That career was given a big boost by his appearance on The Jack Paar Tonight Show in 1961.

After turning down invitations to perform on the show he was called by Paar to find out why. (Billy Eckstine had told Gregory no black performer was ever asked to sit on the couch after their act.) Gregory told Paar that the reason he was not willing to perform on The Tonight Show was “because a Negro has never been able to finish the act and walk to the couch.” The show’s producers changed this policy, making Gregory the first African American to take the couch and talk with Paar after a stage appearance!

A Lie of the Mind – ‘Trauma, Mystery, Grief’. Samuel Shepard Rogers III

Although I certainly cannot say I knew him, I ran into Sam Shepard (5 November 1943 – 27 July 2017) more frequently than almost any other famous person I have ever ‘known’. And, some of those times I would only realize it was him after he had moved on.

On a blustery early evening in March or April about eight years ago, I was leaving the Asian Tribal Art Show on the corner of Fifth Avenue and 52nd Street in NYC, head down to counter the cold, when he breezed by me in a stride as brisk as the wind, cowboy hat pulled low over his forehead and the collar of his shearling coat cinched up high; I only realized it was him after he had passed by. But where I saw him most often was in Santa Fe at the great bookstore Op Cit. He was an avid reader (or an avid book buyer) and he would bend his tall frame over, pick up a paperback and check it out much like any lover of the printed word.

And word lover he was in both consumption and production: 55 plays, 50 films, a dozen plus TV roles and at least 7 books that were not plays. Among his additional talents were banjo picker, song writer, Obie Award collector (I believe he holds the record at 10 wins) and voice actor for the audio book of Spaulding Gray’s last monologue. He avidly avoided aviation travel but was sometimes guilty of driving under the influence.

Mr. Shepard turned the final page last Thursday from complications of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, popularly called Lou Gehrig’s disease in the U.S. and motor neurone disease (MND) in Britain.

He and his writing will be much missed.

_____
“Sam always wrote from that place — a zone of trauma, mystery and grief. Whether the play was more mainstream or experimental in its conception, he took the big risk every time.” – playwright Christopher Shinn, The NY Times, July 31, 2017.

何藩 / Fan Ho – R.I.P.

Photographer-Filmmaker Fan Ho / 何藩
(8 October 1937, Shanghai – 19 June 2016, San Jose, CA)

fan-ho-as-evening-hurries-by

As Evening Hurries By. One of the photographer’s own favorites.

Somehow I missed the notice that one of my handful of favorite photographers, Fan Ho, passed to that darkroom in the sky in June of this year at the age of 78. (Many biographies list his birth as 1931.)

In the 1950s and the 1960s, Fan Ho stalked the streets, alleys, tenements, waterways and markets of Hong Kong with his Rollei Twin Lens Reflex, possessed of a deft compositional sense and a patient* eye for light and shadow. In so doing he inadvertently documented a city that would morph into the great metropolis it is today. His poignant, compassionate and artful portfolio from this time relates a humanist sentiment highlighted by a geometric touch salted with intriguing chiaroscuro. He was able, equally, to portray Hong Kong as a hive of activity or as a nearly deserted monument to the individual.

It is unfortunate today that many young photographers are not familiar with his work. For those who are, one of the facts they know is that the Photographic Society of America consistently listed Ho as one of the world’s top ten photographers every year from 1958 to 1965. He was the recipient of some 300 photography awards over a long career and also directed 27 films (also acting in a few!) His diversity sprung, no doubt, from his feeling that, “I hate to repeat myself.”

What is probably less known is that Fan Ho had a self-deprecating and very refined sense of humour; his wit was infectious and ever-present.

Fan Ho was about the last of a generation of image-makers who made photography the modern expression we see today.

He will be missed.

fan-ho-approaching-shadow-1954

* Approaching Shadow (1954). For many years I marveled at this photograph and thought of it as one of the small number of decisive moment masterpieces. Now that I know more about it I still find it entirely captivating as, apparently, did the buyer at Bonhams (Hong Kong) in 2015 who purchased it for HK$375,000 (US$48,000), a Fan Ho record. In fact, Ho used his niece for the model against the wall and a draughtsman’s triangle in the darkroom to create that dramatic edge of shadow! To me the artist’s darkroom manipulation makes this image no less great.

Still the Greatest! RIP Mohammed Ali (1942-2016)

“It was his beauty that beat me.” – George Foreman

In a world where many noted personalities are famous simply for being… well… famous, Mohammed Ali was a giant, a man who not only had a skill and performed colossal feats with that skill (40 Sports Illustrated covers as of next week attest to this) but who stood for something, as well. Ali became a symbol of hope and aspiration for anyone trying to make something of a life begun in humble or deprived origins, for those forced by circumstance into a life of servitude and despair. How appropriate that he was recognized by both the United Nations and Amnesty International as a world ambassador for peace and justice.

I met Mohahammed Ali once. I had, of course, seen him many times on television, flashing that infectious smile and spouting his sing-song braggadocio. What do you say to the man who was once the world’s highest paid athlete and most recognized face and name on earth (as an American, everywhere I went in Africa in the late 1970s people who could not speak much English would raise their arms and shout “Mohammed Ali!”)? I managed to mumble something about it being a supreme pleasure to finally meet “The Greatest”.

What I was not prepared for was his handshake. Ali took both my hands in his and I still remember, and often mention, that my hands (I’m 6 foot, 1 inch tall) were engulfed in what seemed to me to be two catcher’s mitts enclosing my hand. I immediately thought of what it would be like to be hit by such huge fists and said so. He laughed and slowly threw one of his famous mock punches.*

“If you are still the same person at 50 as you were at 20 then you have wasted 30 years of your life.” – Mohammed Ali

When you are “The Greatest”, so you shall ever remain.

* In Philadelphia I belonged to the same club as Joe Frazier and his hands were similarly sized. Plus, Frazier was not that tall but his shoulders extended far beyond my own when we would stand face to face. He was built like a moving , giant cinder block.

Montaigne’s Tower

It is a nation, would I answer Plato, that hath no kinde of traffike, no knowledge of Letters, no intelligence of numbers, no name of magistrate… no use of service, of riches or of povertie… no apparell but naturall… no use of wine, corne, or mettle. The very words that import lying, falshood, treason, dissimulations, covetousnes, envie, detraction, and pardon, were never heard of amongst them. How dissonant would hee finde his imaginarie common-wealth from this perfection?
– Michel Eyquem de Montaigne (28 February 1533 – 13 September 1592) Of the Caniballes, translated by John Florio, 1603.

 

The original Château de Montaigne is no longer in existence – except for the Tower where Michel Eyquem had his library and study. It was on this day in 1571, in this “citadel” looking out upon the vineyards, that he began his nearly decade-long self-imposed refuge of reading, thinking and writing. During the next nine years he wrote the first two of his books of essais, a form he did not invent, per se, but for which he is justly famous, developing and refining the personal, discursive eloquence and rich flexibility we associate with the essay form.

His mother’s family were conversos, Spanish Jews converted to Catholicism. Pierre, his father, possessed definite ideas about his son’s education, and had a family fortune inherited from trade in wine and salted fish, to carry it out. Michel was given to peasants to rear for the first three years of his life, so as to know the life of the commoner, and then tutored and addressed only in Latin to learn what would become his first language in both speaking and writing.

Although Montaigne wrote that he preferred conversation to any other form of communication*, it is difficult to imagine, outside pre-literary cultures, a single individual’s ability to pass onto future generations, orally, the insights to be gained by sustained reading of his work; conversation, outside the therapist’s couch, seems to me to have its limits with regard to the revelation of our deepest selves.

It is odd, I think, that, throughout much of history, his essays have been thought of as works of literature rather than works of philosophy. “He moved from a conception of philosophy conceived of as theoretical science, to a philosophy conceived of as the practice of free judgment,” (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2009) using the device of solid and numerous references to past thinkers to illuminate the study of his own existence. And all, initially, to exorcise the demon of melancholy to which he became subject at the beginning of those ten years of study looking out over the vineyards.

There is a school of thought that Shakespeare read Montaigne in John Florio’s 1603 translation and used portions of it for his own plays. Here, a selection from The Tempest, Act II, Scene 1, correlating with the quote at the head of the page:

Gonzalo: I’ the commonwealth I would by contraries
Execute all things; for no kind of traffic
Would I admit; no name of magistrate;
Letters should not be known; riches, poverty,
And use of service, none…
No use of metal, corn, or wine…
… treason, felony, …
Would I not have; but nature should bring forth,
Of its own kind,…all abundance,
To feed my innocent people.…
….
I would with such perfection govern, sir,
To excel the golden age.

 

* Montaigne’s belief is in direct opposition to his later countryman, Marcel Proust’s idea that, “The artist who gives up an hour of work for an hour of conversation with a friend knows that he is sacrificing a reality for… a superficial digression which gives us nothing worth acquiring. We may talk for a lifetime without doing more than indefinitely repeat the vacuity of a minute.” (A. De Botton, How Proust Can Change Your Life, 1997, pages 118-119.)

 

Listen to the Oldest (Discovered) Song in the World: A Sumerian Hymn Written 3,400 Years Ago

FROM: the web site Open Culture

World's Oldest (Discovered) Song: A 3400 Year Old Sumerian Hymn
World’s Oldest (Discovered) Song: A 3400 Year Old Sumerian Hymn

In the early 1950s, archaeologists unearthed several clay tablets from the 14th century B.C.E.. Found, WFMU tells us, “in the ancient Syrian city of Ugarit,” these tablets “contained cuneiform signs in the hurrian language,” which turned out to be the oldest known piece of music ever discovered, a 3,400 year-old cult hymn. Anne Draffkorn Kilmer, professor of Assyriology at the University of California, produced the interpretation above in 1972. (She describes how she arrived at the musical notation—in some technical detail—in this interview.) Since her initial publications in the 1960s on the ancient Sumerian tablets and the musical theory found within, other scholars of the ancient world have published their own versions.

The piece, writes Richard Fink in a 1988 Archeologia Musicalis article, confirms a theory that “the 7-note diatonic scale as well as harmony existed 3,400 years ago.” This, Fink tells us, “flies in the face of most musicologist’s views that ancient harmony was virtually non-existent (or even impossible) and the scale only about as old as the Ancient Greeks.” Kilmer’s colleague Richard Crocker claims that the discovery “revolutionized the whole concept of the origin of western music.” So, academic debates aside, what does the oldest song in the world sound like? Listen to a midi version below and hear it for yourself. Doubtless, the midi keyboard was not the Sumerians instrument of choice, but it suffices to give us a sense of this strange composition, though the rhythm of the piece is only a guess.

hear the song

 

For Him The Bell Tolls

Wine is one of the most civilized things in the world and one of the most natural things of the world that has been brought to the greatest perfection, and it offers a greater range for enjoyment and appreciation than, possibly, any other purely sensory thing which may be purchased.
– Ernest Miller Hemingway (21 July 1899 – 2 July 1961), Death In The Afternoon, 1932.

Ernest Hemingway is one of those writers we associate with machismo, cocktails and rum. But he liked a good bottle of wine as well as any wine fan and wrote of it eloquently.

“In Europe we thought of wine as something as healthy and normal as food and also a great giver of happiness and well being and delight. Drinking wine was not a snobbism nor a sign of sophistication nor a cult; it was as natural as eating and to me as necessary.” – A Moveable Feast, 1964

I like that. It speaks to the fundamental nature of wine and its place alongside any, or every, meal. It is not for nothing that those who consume a glass or two each day live longer than the non-drinker. Of course, quality of life is also important, for living long is no boon if one is not healthy enough to enjoy a life extended. In The Sun Also Rises, published during U.S. Prohibition, Hemingway included wine (along with a variety of other alcohols) almost as if it were a character:

“I drank a bottle of wine for company. It was Chateau Margaux. It was pleasant to be drinking slowly and to be tasting the wine and to be drinking alone. A bottle of wine was good company.”
The Sun Also Rises, 1926.

“This wine is too good for toast-drinking, my dear. You don’t want to mix emotions up with a wine like that. You lose the taste.” – Count Mippipopolous in The Sun Also Rises.

In a scene where the protagonist, Jake Barnes, and his buddy, Bill Gorton, are fishing the Irati River in the Pyrenees (an area locals call Auniak which, I believe, means ‘barrier’) they cool their wine by putting it in the water. I tried this once by jamming my bottle amid ‘stable’ flotsam by the bank and falling asleep for an hour at my campsite. In my homage I lost a 1978 Bordeaux for not tethering the bottle at the neck with a knot.

The conventional wisdom surrounding Hemingway’s self-inflicted death is that it sprang from a major crisis, an inability to write a tribute to President Kennedy just after the 1961 inauguration. He had returned to Idaho from electroconvulsive therapy at the Mayo Clinic and found that the treatment pretty much wiped his memory. Now, medicine has found and implicated a new culprit, Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), such as we are seeing in retired pro-footballers where an accumulation of tau protein associated with dementia and degeneration of brain tissue has led, it is alleged, to numerous self-inflicted deaths.

It appears that Hemingway’s self-inflicted death may have been assisted, or even put in motion, by the many concussions he sustained over the years: mortar fire (Italy, 1918); skylight accident (Paris, 1928); auto accident with John Dos Passos (Billings, Montana, 1930); auto accident (London, 1944); thrown from motorcycle while evading Nazis (Normandy, 1944); auto crash (Cuba, 1945); slipping on the deck of his boat, Pilar, (Cuba, 1950); Cessna plane crash (Uganda, 1954, minimal injuries); head-butt to break escape window in the crash of a de Haviland Rapide – the rescue plane sent for him after the Cessna crash! (Uganda, 1954); auto crash (1958) and assorted other physical knocks. Then there was, of course, the major league drinking he courted much of his life.

As if the above litany were not enough we now know he also had, as probably did his father, the blood disorder hemochromatosis, an inability to metabolize iron leading to physical and mental deterioration. This genetic fact might account for three (perhaps four) of his five siblings committing suicide as well as the self-inflicted death of his grandaughter Margaux. He once told Ava Gardner that he spent “a hell of a lot of time killing animals and fish so I won’t kill myself” (Hotchner, 1966.)

Wine was a part of Hemingway’s life to the very end: the day before he shot himself he went on a picnic lunch where he enjoyed wine and, in the evening, even went out to dinner with his wife Mary.

I, like most I believe, prefer to remember him in the early dawn, sitting down to write, freshly sharpened pencils lined up, changing the face of American literature.

“In wine most people at the start prefer sweet vintages, Sauternes, Graves, Barsac, and sparkling wines, such as not too dry champagne and sparkling Burgundy because of their picturesque quality while later they would trade all these for a light but full and fine example of the Grand crus of Medoc though it may be in a plain bottle without label, dust, or cobwebs, with nothing picturesque, but only its honesty and delicacy and the light body of it on your tongue, cool in your mouth and warm when you have drunk it.” – Death In The Afternoon, 1932.

Mockingbird Finally Sings in Zeros & Ones (Digitally)

Today is the 88th birthday of Harper Lee, the author of the July 1960  novel To Kill a Mockingbird.

To coincide with her birthday her publisher, HarperCollins, announced  six hours ago that she has finally agreed to let the book be published as an e-Book, thereby knocking down another in the dwindling list of classics that have been withheld from digital distribution.

“I’m still old-fashioned. I love dusty old books and libraries,” said Lee  in a statement released by HarperCollins (whose still sell a million copies of the book each year!) “I am amazed and humbled that Mockingbird has survived this long. This is Mockingbird for a new generation.”

It is to be noted that this leaves the seminal novel of another reclusive author still out in the digital cold: J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher In the Rye.

Scout and Atticus enter the realm of the digital on July 8.

 

27 April 2014: World Pinhole Photography Day

“Mauerblicke looking West” - image made with pinhole camera through a hole in the Berlin Wall, Germany
“Mauerblicke looking West” – image made with pinhole camera through a hole in the Berlin Wall, Germany

Sunday, April 27 is World Pinhole Photography Day. And, here in northern New Mexico, we are fortunate to have the world’s largest collection of pinhole photography and its associated paraphernalia.

In honor of the annual event the New Mexico History Museum is hosting Poetics of Light, an exhibition of the collection’s images from pinhole enthusiasts around the world.  Poetics of Light will open on the celebratory Day itself and run for about eleven months. (http://www.nmhistorymuseum.org/pinhole/)

The collection of 6000 photographs, 200 cameras and 200 books is the result of the generosity of Eric Renner and Nancy Spencer, Co-Directors of Pinhole Resource.  Both artists’ pinhole and zone plate photographs can be viewed on their sites at:

http://nancyspencerphoto.com/home.html
http://ericrennerphoto.com/home.html

There are many web sites providing directions for making your own pinhole camera.  Or, you can buy a camera for as little as $10 or as much as several hundred.  Check out both directions and ready-mades on the internet.

Herewith, a couple of samples (courtesy of the New Mexico History Museum) to whet your appetite for pinhole photography – and remember to get out there and create your own images this Sunday!

 

Starfish in Tidal Pool
Starfish in Tidal Pool

econtent.unm.edu