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Dave Shiflett: News

Washington Post Review Of Jerry Lee Lewis Biography - December 31, 2014


His Own Story

By Rick Bragg Harper. 498 pp. $27.99

Is Jerry Lee Lewis hellbound? That question haunts the legendary rocker, who fears he may experience profoundly undesirable climate change in the next world thanks to his success in this one. “Can a man play rock-and-roll music and go to Heaven?” he asks. “That’s the question.”

Great balls of fire, indeed.

Lewis bared his soul, and many details of his admittedly non-seminarian lifestyle, to Rick Bragg, a fellow Southerner (from Possum Trot, Ala.) who has a Pulizer under his belt and formidable literary chops. Bragg’s thick and entertaining book indicates that Jerry Lee, like many of us, has cause to hope the Good Lord grades on a generous curve.

His first day on earth was indicative of what was to follow. Lewis was born Sept. 29, 1935, in Ferriday, La., as the attending doctor slept off a dose of pre-partum liquor served up by Lewis’s father, Elmo, who yanked his breached offspring into the world without apparent harm. “I come out jumpin,’ ” Lewis fondly recalls, “an’ I been jumpin’ ever since.”

He had jumped into fairly humble origins: Elmo did carpentry while mother Mamie picked cotton, but both recognized their son’s musical potential, certified when he picked out, at age 4, “Silent Night, Holy Night” on his Aunt Stella’s upright. He had a powerful will to succeed as a musician, which was not much encumbered by school, hitting a major speed bump when he failed the sixth grade. His resulting outrage led to his nearly strangling a teacher, which is where he got the enduring nickname “Killer.”

Bragg traces his early career though juke joints, dives and long stretches of late-night highway, plus a lengthy string of fistfights. But the path also led to Sun Records, where the now-legendary Sam Phillips recognized Lewis as “a born performer.” Suddenly he was rubbing shoulders with Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and even Elvis Presley, whom he hoped to follow onto “The Ed Sullivan Show.”

Sadly for Lewis, Sullivan wasn’t interested. “I don’t want any more of this Elvis junk,” he said, or perhaps snarled, yet Steve Allen invited Lewis onto his program on July 28, 1957, where he sang “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” while tossing his long blond hair, kicking his piano stool and altogether presenting himself as the wild man of rock. “That broke it all loose, that night,” Lewis told Bragg. The money began rolling in, but so did increased scrutiny of his personal life, reinforcing the view, popular among clerics and many parents of teenaged girls, that rock was the devil’s music.

Lewis’s reputation as satanic spawn was greatly enhanced by his marriage to his 13-year-old cousin Myra — a third cousin, by his count, and his third wife (by some counts he has married six times, by another count, seven; he first married at 14). This brought out the scolds at home and abroad, and drastically reduced his audience. “I played for two old ladies one time in Kansas,” he recalled. “I told em, ‘Y’all don’t owe me nothin’ for this show.’ ”

Serial matrimony wasn’t his only bad habit, as Bragg reports in detail, though not with shaking finger. Like many in his trade, Lewis drank, ingested and injected a wide variety of substances — some supplied by the same doctor who kept Elvis lubed — which finally blossomed into addiction. He saw a few wives and children die, lost fortunes, and got into deep trouble with the IRS.

Most of which is fairly standard in rock biographies. Thankfully, Lewis’s is spiced by his recounting of the fall of another cousin — evangelical superstar Jimmy Swaggart, who learned to pound the Bible as profitably as Lewis pounded the piano, eventually owning a jet and running a Baton Rouge church that held 7,500 people — or donors, depending on how you count things up. Jimmy was fond of denouncing Jerry’s devilish trade, though he lost significant credibility after the 1988 revelation that he had paid to watch a prostitute perform lewd acts, which inspired his “I Have Sinned!” confession, during which Swaggart emitted enough sweat and tears to drown a hippo. Yet as Bragg also writes, the next time cops caught him with a prostitute, Swaggart revealed a powerful talent for adaptability: “The Lord told me it’s flat none of your business,” he proclaimed.

Bragg tells the story well, though he may get a touch worshipful at times, as when designating Lewis’s “Live at the Star Club” as “one of the grittiest, most spectacularly genuine pieces of recorded music ever made.” But he’s in good company. John Lennon worshipped Lewis so much he once kissed his feet, which doesn’t seem to have impressed the great man, who later remarked, “I never did care for the Beatles all that much, to tell the truth.”

Bragg also praises the Internet, which he formerly considered a time-eating Cyclops, but which now blesses us with the opportunity to watch videos of Lewis pounding keyboards, kicking piano benches and sweating like a man with a terminal infection. All of which is tame compared with the beheadings, pyrotechnics, inflated pigs and other stage antics that were to follow in the world of rock and roll.

So while there’s a whole lot of quakin’ going on as Lewis contemplates eternity in the fiery lake (a concern, Bragg adds, that also had Elvis all shook up), here’s hoping the Chef has bigger fish to fr

Wall Street Journal Article: Life Lessons From Dad - July 7, 2014

My father was born and died at home. Nearly 91 years separated those two days, as did a lifetime of significant experiences, including one Great Depression, one World War, one wife, three children, and one year at my house, where he, accompanied by my mother, went through hospice during his struggle with dementia.

Our family's experience was hardly unique. Around 5 million Americans suffer from dementia of some type (Alzheimer's disease is the most prominent) and up to half of Americans over the age of 85 are afflicted. As our population ages, tens of millions of Americans will be called on to care for stricken parents. Over 15 million nonprofessionals are estimated to provide Alzheimer's care alone.
What can families expect?

Like all extreme experiences, caring for Dad changed our lives. Dementia is a terrible disease that robs its victims of their memories, their good nature and much of their dignity. Children of suffering parents will see many things they wish they hadn't, and they may learn things about themselves that aren't always flattering.

But that's not the whole story. Even in the sadness of hopeless decline, my parents—members in good standing of the Greatest Generation—had a few things to teach their baby-boomer offspring about toughness, perseverance, quality of life and, especially, love. We were reminded, vividly, that we are often at our best when life is at its worst.

Ronald C. Shiflett—Ron to most everybody—was born June 17, 1923, in a row house in Richmond, Va. He rarely talked about his early years, though as he grew older Dad would recall his World War II experiences as a navigator on a Naval Air Corps troop transport, ferrying soldiers from San Francisco to Hawaii to Guam. "All that water," he'd say of the vast Pacific. He also told stories about seeing fighter ace Pappy Boyington throwing back drinks at the Top of the Mark bar in San Francisco. Those were among the last memories to leave him.

As a father, Dad was definitely old-school. He wore the pants in the family—and the belt. During the hirsute 1960s, he seemed to take special delight in hauling me to the barbershop, where my ambitious locks were shorn with extreme malice. But he also had a good sense of humor, took us hunting and camping and hardly ever missed a day of work (he started his career in a gas station). Along with Mom, a public-school teacher, he sent me, my sister and my brother through college.

He was remarkably healthy and didn't have a regular doctor until he was 85. Then his life, and ours, began a drastic change. Decline introduced itself in the form of delusions. One day Mom called from their home in Roanoke, Va., to say that she had found Dad standing down by the street, dressed in a suit. When asked what he was doing, he replied that he was waiting for the police to pick him up. Dad had come to believe he was guilty of various transgressions, which were all in his mind.
The dementia diagnosis came in April 2010, with physical ailments soon to follow. In May 2012, a bout of pneumonia kept him hospitalized for a week, and the dementia seemed to take over. The medical staff agreed that hospice—a program designed to provide comfort and support for patients with six months or less to live—was our best option.

After a quick huddle with family members, my wife and I said we would move Dad and Mom into our house, where Dad would receive hospice care. We had plenty of room—just under 3,000 square feet, including spare bedrooms (now that our sons had left) and a spare bathroom.

My wife works at a hospital and is gone much of the day, but I work from home. All of this would require some adjustments. I'd need to be available to help Dad go up and down stairs, but that didn't seem like too much. In any event, this wasn't going to be a long-term situation. We expected him to live another two or three months.

That was just over two years ago.

Lesson one from this adventure was that old folks, even when they're frail, can be very tough. Dad, though cadaverous and confused, definitely didn't get the memo that his end was near. Instead, he staged something of a comeback, part of which I attribute to "grub therapy"—a steady diet of everything that sends chills down the spine of the Surgeon General: lots of red meat, fried food (a crab cake a day keeps the Reaper away) and enough cookies to build a two-story chimney.

Meanwhile, Dad's mental distress was somewhat ameliorated by various medications. The hospice nurses and workers—who checked his vital signs and helped clean him (and were paid through Medicare)—were impressed by his resurgence.

But life was difficult.

Dad was almost always cold and became deeply sensitive to being touched. He couldn't shave or clean himself at any level. His mobility steadily declined, and his sense of humor faded. He couldn't be left alone for more than a minute before crying out, "What am I supposed to do?"

Dementia also destroyed his short-term memory, so he might ask the same question five times within a minute. If Mom went out for a few hours, he could easily ask 100 times when she would return. It was as if he were being dragged back into a state of infancy. My wife and I sometimes felt our once-spacious house had suddenly become very small.

All of which produced mixed feelings—sadness and exasperation, plus guilt for feeling exasperated, especially when considering everything Dad and Mom had done for us. Perhaps we suffered from Gratitude Deficit Disorder, if there is such a thing (if not, let's hope the medical and pharmaceutical industries get cracking on this issue). We kept stiff upper lips, but those lips often concealed grinding teeth, despite help from dedicated and sometimes angelic sitters, who came several times a week and were paid for by Mom. Without them, we might have been overwhelmed by Dad's constant need for attention.

Mom bore the brunt of Dad's decline with almost supernatural grace. During the early months she showered him daily, which from outside the bathroom could sound like a mugging in process. Dressing him wasn't much more peaceful. As Dad became increasingly bewildered, she patiently responded to his questions about the most basic elements of life, such as eating breakfast. Every morning Dad would look at his bowl of cereal and ask, "What am I supposed to do with this?" To which she would calmly reply, "You must eat it to keep up your strength." This was usually followed by an exhortation to drink his prune juice.

Which brings us to perhaps the most harrowing and widely feared aspect of caring for a stricken parent: poop—the palindrome that sends countless hearts palpitating, at least until you get a little experience under your belt. Everyone I've ever talked to about caring for parents has had a somewhat similar story.

One morning I heard Dad crying from the upstairs bathroom. There is no pleasant way to describe what I discovered: He was standing in his own excrement, which was scattered widely about. Cleaning up was no picnic, especially when attending to his soiled body, which puts one in frightfully close contact with the apparatus instrumental to your existence.

But, as in other sometimes sticky situations we encountered during Dad's stay, this one revealed a previously unrecognized talent for adapting on the spot. As Dad apologized for "the mess" (which he always did in these situations, right up to the end), I said, coolly and out of nowhere, "You're hanging in there." It became my go-to phrase whenever he became frustrated and saddened by his decline.

Dad had some good moments. He especially liked looking up at the blue sky from my brother's back porch and taking boat rides with my brother, and he warmed up when my sister came to visit. My mother's presence brought him peace. And while there was no mistaking where this was heading, I never heard him express any fear of death. He would, however, deliver stinging commentary on his status, usually as I helped him descend the stairs. As we neared the bottom step, he would often say, "This is no way to live."

To some younger members of the family, that was a self-evident truth. We, of course, are all about "quality of life," whose definition doesn't include living in diapers (which are euphemistically referred to as "briefs"). More than once I told my wife I never wanted to find myself in Dad's condition. "You know what to do," I instructed my youngest son, only partly in jest. "A pillow over the face at dawn."
My parent's perspective was quite different: Life, no matter how hopeless, is to be lived to the final breath. Even when it reached the point where Mom had to feed Dad, she would worry if he didn't eat what she thought was a sufficient amount. Dad, despite his grumbling, would try to exercise every day, even when he had to rely on his hated walker. His life had become a burden, but in their eyes that didn't diminish its value.

Dad had one last surprise up his sleeve—he "graduated" from hospice care. After a year with us, he no longer seemed to be at death's door: His vital signs were good, though climbing the stairs was still a supreme struggle. Mom found a nearby assisted-living facility where, soon after arrival, Dad was taken out of the hospice program after an evaluation determined that he might have more than six months to live.

And the hospice people were right. He held on for almost another full year.
Dad lived mostly in a large recliner during that last year, and eventually the hospice workers returned. His long-term memory deserted him; he could no longer recall, even with prompting, Pappy Boyington and the Top of the Mark in San Francisco. He did recognize family members and could manage a sentence or two about the weather, though after 10 months or so at their new home, his mental age, according to a hospice calculation, was that of a 4-year-old.

By then I think most family members had made the transition from thinking of death as an adversary to thinking of death as a liberator. This too raised some conflicting feelings: You hate to wish death on your father, but you also hate to see him suffer. Death was his only way out.

Mom was probably the last to make this mental transition, but a week or so before the end she said she thought it was time for him to go. He had begun refusing to eat or drink, which the hospice nurses said was a sign his body was shutting down. The last time we trekked to the bathroom, I held Dad by both hands and walked backward toward our target. His stride was about 3 inches. We didn't make it in time.

"I'm sorry," he said.

"You're hanging in there."

Dad died two days later, in his bed, surrounded by family. As the day progressed, he turned waxen and slightly blue. His mouth was constantly agape as he struggled to breathe, and at the end we told Mom that she probably shouldn't look too closely. This was May 5, less than a month before their 66th wedding anniversary.
His service, which we held in my brother's side yard, was a nice antidote to the sting of death. The Rev. Robert Bluford, one of Dad's oldest friends and a bomber pilot during the war, read the standard Psalms to a crowd that was thin on churchgoers but stretched all the way from Richmond to San Francisco, where my oldest son watched the proceedings via Skype.

A friend sang "Over The Rainbow" (Dr. Bluford was in his early 20s when the song came out in 1939) and "My Beautiful Friend," which underscored one of the most important lessons we learned from this experience: Never take friends for granted. Among our most cherished memories are of friends who stood with us, whether by bringing over a meal, letting us use a second home to get away for a few days or simply asking how things were going.

A hospice nurse told me, early on, that lots of children won't move a stricken parent into their homes, opting instead for a facility such as a nursing home. How would I advise others who are facing this situation? For our family, bringing Dad home was the right thing to do. When he came out of the hospital, he was so weak and disoriented that putting him into an unfamiliar setting might have finished him off. I also think that caring for Dad made us better people.

As Dad's flame flickered, ours burned brighter. As his life faded, it brought our lives closer together. The challenge of caring for him also made us stronger. We hung in there. None of this was easy or pretty, and while it was happening, it was easy to wish that we were somewhere else. But if we hadn't done what we did, I know that we would regret that decision today.

To be sure, we had the room and the wherewithal to care for Dad. If he had been highly agitated or in acute pain, our decision might have been different. Judge not those who do not opt for home hospice.

Our family walked a hard road. We watched Dad get stripped to the bone by a pitiless disease. Today, our house echoes with memories of his struggle—echoes that are a sad but strangely beautiful part of our song of life.

Wall Street Journal Review of 'Geronimo' - May 24, 2014

Businessmen, athletes and politicians never tire of military allusions. They're forever blowing the competition out of the water, shelling the defensive secondary or exercising the nuclear option, perhaps following up by bouncing the rubble. Prisoners, of course, are never taken.

None of which is quite the equivalent of storming Omaha Beach, though it can add a touch of drama to ordinary life. A new book by college football coach Mike Leach sounds many of these martial themes, offering "leadership strategies" based on the life of Geronimo.

Mr. Leach couldn't have chosen a better brand than the Apache chief, born in 1829 in present-day Arizona. When soldiers, paintballers and boys who are allowed to play with toy guns (the few who are left) leap into battle, they do not cry "Napoleon!" "Hannibal!" or " Nathan Bedford Forrest!" When Navy SEALs set off to lower the boom on Osama bin Laden, they do not name their mission for Omar Bradley. In such circumstances, no other name than "Geronimo" will do.

Coach Leach (a big winner at Texas Tech and currently stationed at Washington State) is a solid admirer of Geronimo's, though he recognizes that some readers might be squeamish about how the chief made his living. "Now, let's get something straight out of the gate," he writes. "Apaches were raiders. 'Raiding' means stealing. Pillaging. Taking from others what you want or need." Piling on a bit, he unleashes the literary equivalent of a Stuka dive-bomb attack—the caps-lock key: "It was best NOT to get captured by Apaches."

That said, we're advised not to think of Geronimo as a ruthless Chief Exterminating Officer. As Mr. Leach sees it, whites moved into tribal lands around 1851 and began a hostile takeover that eventually destroyed the Apache people. What was Geronimo supposed to do, hang around the reservation playing bingo?

Mr. Leach highlights episodes from Geronimo's life as examples of various leadership qualities, such as discipline, fortitude and perseverance. During one raiding expedition into Mexico, for instance, the young warrior was bashed in the head with a rifle butt. Despite a severe concussion and skull fracture, he made the mountainous trek back to Arizona, an effort that Mr. Leach cites as a sampling of the chief's almost superhuman fortitude. He also sprinkles his pages with tips deduced from Geronimo's playbook. These tend to be prodigiously mundane: "Have a purpose in everything you do"; "avoid dealing with people who have proven to be treacherous and dishonest"; "if you sense a double cross while negotiating, don't make the deal."

Such insights may not trigger a lecture invitation from Harvard Business School, but Mr. Leach's narrative (with an assist from writer Buddy Levy ) tells the highly compelling story of a strong and resourceful people.

Consider how the Apaches hunted ducks. Step one: float empty gourds toward prey until ducks become accustomed to their presence. Step two: get in water, insert head into empty gourd and drift within arm's length. Step three: grab the unsuspecting entrées by their feet, pull them underwater for a quick drowning, then retire to the cooking fire. Live and learn, Duck Dynasty.

Apache physical prowess was astounding. Modern-day footballers, who will probably soon be penalized for glaring at the opposing quarterback, would have a hard time making Geronimo's warrior squad. Training started at an early age. "Teams of four stood across from each other in rock-slinging competitions," Mr. Leach explains. "It was like playing dodgeball with stones." Not everyone survived.

Coach Leach, who was stripped of his command at Texas Tech for an incident of alleged player abuse that would have baffled Geronimo, hails the Apaches as the ultimate hardbodies. While modern marathoners proudly post "26.2" stickers on their car bumpers—signifying that they've completed that standard marathon mileage—Apache men, women and children could make 45 miles a day with everything they owned in tow or on their backs. Even into his 60s, Geronimo—who was about 5-foot-8 and 170 pounds—could cover 95 miles in a 24-hour period.

These were not fun runs, of course. Geronimo and company were often in flight from armed troops, sometimes after breaking away from their reservation, where the land was lousy and the oversight humiliating. Geronimo's final breakout, which Mr. Leach counts as one of history's greatest evasive actions, drew the pursuit of one-fourth of the U.S. Army. Though the small band of Apaches was outnumbered 233-1, Geronimo was never captured, though he finally recognized that further resistance was futile and surrendered in September 1886.

But his game was far from over, as Mr. Leach writes in bittersweet homage to Geronimo's adaptability. Thanks to sympathetic press coverage, the Apache chief became a celebrity. Mr. Leach tells of a train ride that attracted flocks of admirers. "He'd rip buttons off his coat and sell them for a quarter," Mr. Leach writes, "then sew more on and sell those at the next stop. His hat went for five bucks." He eventually got into the live-Indian-performance business and rode in Teddy Roosevelt's inaugural parade.

Geronimo also became a Sunday-school teacher in the Dutch Reformed Church, though he was later booted for "incessant gambling." He found other ways to occupy his time, marrying his ninth and final wife in 1907 at age 84. But he was never to find his ultimate peace—a return to his native lands—despite a direct plea to TR, who turned him down. He died of pneumonia in Oklahoma on Feb. 17, 1909, age 85. Even then, his war with the white man was not quite over.

In 2009, Mr. Leach says, Geronimo's great-grandson sued Yale's Skull & Bones Society to regain possession of the great chief's skull and other remains, which had allegedly been stolen from Yale in 1918 by grave robbers led by Bush family patriarch Prescott Bush. In a development that would probably not have surprised Geronimo, the suit was dismissed on technicalities.

Mr. Leach has written a fan's tribute to a man who, he writes, "personified a life-way of excellence." The realities of modern life may prevent a full application of Geronimo lessons. But many of us could learn a few things from the old chief and his people, starting with a general wariness of government promises and supervision. Some of us might also look upon those 26.2 stickers with a deeply adjusted sense of awe.

Wall Street Journal Article: Where Atheists Meet to Evangelize - April 14, 2014

Look out unbelief—atheism is on a roll, or so proclaims American Atheists, whose annual convention kicks off Thursday in Salt Lake City. “This has been an excellent year for atheism,” says Dave Muscato, public-relations director for the diety-dissing group. “Between 2005 and 2012 there was a fivefold increase in the number of people who use the word atheist when asked to identify their religion.”

That’s still not a lot. While 20% of Americans profess no particular religious faith, according to the Pew Research Center, only 6% identify themselves as atheist or agnostic. Still, one hates to toss cold water on the affable Mr. Muscato, a musician, who says he went atheist five years ago after a stint playing Christian worship music (the kind of songs that, let’s face it, can make you pray they’ll stop).

But why Salt Lake City? “We haven’t had a convention there since 1981,” says Mr. Muscato. “A lot of Mormons who have become atheists call themselves ex-Mormon and part of our campaign is to get them to move away from ex-Mormon” and simply call themselves atheists, thus taking pride “in their non-belief.”

The keynote speaker for the four-day gathering will be Chris Kluwe, a former punter for the Minnesota Vikings, who says he was fired for advocating same-sex marriage. Mr. Kluwe, author of “Beautifully Unique Sparkleponies: On Myths, Morons, Free Speech, Football, and Assorted Absurdities,” will be joined by speakers including Denise Stapley, winner of “Survivor: Philippines” and Iowa’s “only certified sex therapist” (according to convention publicity); Mark White, bassist from the Spin Doctors; and gay-rights activist Marsha Botzer.

Workshop topics will include starting your own atheist group, how to lobby politicians, and how to debate Christians and “other religious apologists.” The contact page at the American Atheists website states: “Please note: we are not interested in debating or being preached at,” which to some ears might sound a tad hypocritical and closed-minded, qualities often used to describe the organization’s adversaries.

There seems to be no lack of evangelical enthusiasm in the American Atheist flock, and with 94% of the U.S. population still either in the grips of God or just not sure about Him, the potential for conversions is vast. But organized atheism lags far behind Mormonism in evangelizing. Getting people to enter the godless fold (or abyss, depending on your perspective) appears to be a pretty tough sell.

Mr. Muscato says modern technology is a powerful ally. “Any 7-year-old with an iPhone can go to Wikipedia” to check out religious claims made by their parents, he explains. “They’re harder to indoctrinate”—at least until the kids realize that the words “infallible” and “Wikipedia” rarely appear in the same sentence.

Older seekers, and even reasonably skeptical bystanders, might easily be put off by the tone of American Atheists’ advertising around the country. “Celebrate Reality” one pre-convention billboard proclaims in Salt Lake City, echoing admonitions elsewhere: “Nobody Needs the Christ in Christmas” (Times Square); “Enjoy Life Now. There Is No Afterlife” (Jamesville, Wis.); “Relax, Hell does not exist. Heaven either. Enjoy your life” (San Diego). In other words: “Hey Rube—Wise Up!”

It is the rare philosophy that doesn’t consider itself superior to the alternatives, but suggesting that the uninitiated are delusional and feeble-minded might not be the wisest way to expand your brand. The absolutism underlying the atheist pitch also seems out of step with the spirit of our “tolerant” times. Even John Lennon, whose “Imagine” is something of a hymn to non-belief, led a heterodox spiritual life, including a fascination with the Rev. Billy Graham. Similarly, surveys by Barna Research in 2003 found that half of atheists believe in a soul and the possibility of life after death. Does that qualify as a heresy?

Greater minds will decide that question, and perhaps ponder whether Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s Bible-verse reference on his official Facebook and Twitter accounts really promotes religion via “the machinery of the state,” as atheist activists contend.

Back in Salt Lake, Mormons may bristle at the godless gathering, but they have little reason to fear an atheist army descending. Mr. Muscato estimates that convention attendance will probably be south of 1,000—roughly the number of new members the Latter Day Saints sign up every day.

Mr. Shiflett posts his writing and original music at

Wall Street Journal Piece: O Come All Ye Grousers (full, unsanitized version) - December 21, 2013

O Come All Ye Grousers

By Dave Shiflett

Thanksgiving is the season of the turkey. Christmas’s official bird should be the grouse.

As always, the run-up to Dec. 25 has unleashed a national moanfest. Crèches set some teeth to grinding, while others complain that the Baby Jesus is being treated like a leper. Almost everyone complains that the season is too “commercial,” though they’ll carp to high heaven if they don’t get everything they asked for.

There are too many calories, too much booze, plus all those family members you hope to see only at funerals, preferably in a horizontal position while holding a couple of orchids. Aesthetes are horrified by tacky lights, and environmentalists wail about the additional fossil fuels needed to fire them. Unbelievably, there is even complaining about one of the season’s most endearing spectacles – the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show.

Is nothing sacred anymore?

Admittedly, Christmas has gotten to be unwieldy. Thanksgiving is now a mere speed bump on the road to yuletide. Christmas songs infiltrate radio playlists while there are still leaves on the trees, and tinsel and candy canes go up even before the Pilgrims get their annual nod. By mid-December the only reindeer some of us want to see is on a platter with a side order of rice.

But the larger fact is that contemporary Christmas offers something for everyone, from traditionalists to scoffers, enthusiasts to scolds (nearly 20 percent of Americans are not affiliated with any religion, according to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, though only 6 percent call themselves atheists or agnostics). If you don’t want to praise the Christian savior you can sing the praises of the other two members of the seasonal Trinity -- Santa Claus and Ebenezer Scrooge, both of whose affiliation is unknown. All three bring unique, helpful and evolving messages. Our cups runneth over. Let us consider a few of the ways.

First off, there’s Jesus, whose message of eternal hope and peace continues to illuminate the season. Yet he also can be considered apart from the religious claims that have consoled and inspired believers through the ages (and sent a few heads rolling too). The Christmas focus is an infant in the humblest of circumstances: a stable, which for the four-legged co-occupants doubled as a latrine. There’s tension in the back story as well: Has the earth ever known a more profound silence than just after Mary revealed to Joseph that she was with child, and that the only one passing this paternity test would be the Almighty? How does one prepare for such a moment?

At the very least, it’s a story that provides a profound lesson in trust and positive thinking, both of which are in short supply these days.

Life outside the manger was no carnival ride either. The ancient world was a very tough neighborhood. Routine infections could be fatal. The shadows were full of cutthroats while palaces brimmed with tyrants. Battlefield casualties could be stunning: Cannae (92,000), Arausio (84,000) and Carrhae (24,000); the siege of Jerusalem, later in the first century, would claim over 1,100,000 mostly Jewish lives, according to the historian Josephus, with an additional 97,000 captured and enslaved. Remember, this was before the advent of automatic weapons. And so when Herod commanded his goons to slaughter all the male children in Bethlehem with the hope of whacking the newborn king, he was very much in step with his times, during which collateral damage was considered a Virtue.

Despite these challenges, the Baby Jesus ended up doing pretty well. According to Pew, there are today 2.18 billion Christians, nearly a third of the world’s population, despite an inner circle that included Judas the snitch and no social media to speak of. All of which offers a valuable insight to our pampered youth, who think they’ve entered the Valley of Death when their Internet service is interrupted: Man does not live by Bandwidth alone. And while you’re at it, eat your peas.

On the secular side, Santa Claus -- aka Kris Kringle, Saint Nick, Father Christmas, and (in stricter households) the Son of Mammon – is a bit newer to the scene, though he does trace his roots to Saint Nicolas, the fourth century Greek bishop best known for giving dowries to three poor girls so they wouldn’t have to become prostitutes (reminding us that there’s nothing like a little seed money to keep you out of a tight spot). Other variations include Nazi Germany’s “solstice man,” modeled after the pagan god Odin, who urged mothers to buy swastika-shaped biscuits for their children.

These days, Santa has morphed again.

In the spirit of disclosure, I once had serious issues with Claus, whose impersonators began popping up in U.S. stores sometime around 1890. We know the drill; he invites children to sit on his lap and tell him what they smuggled down the chimney. Despite society’s best efforts to destroy rote learning the tykes recite well-rehearsed wish lists of obscenely expensive toys as Claus, often an unemployed actor or hefty friend of the store manager, leers at the parents, knowing that many of us got little more for Christmas than a stick horse and a few lousy tangerines.

While Claus remains the face of commercial Christmas he has become a far more sympathetic, and heroic, character. The reason is simple: he’s under attack by scolds – who, like the poor, we will apparently always have with us.

The primary complaint is that Claus is fat, as is his wife, whose spirit has never been broken by Jenny Craig. Indeed, perhaps the second most profound silence on earth would follow Santa suggesting to Mrs. Claus that she join Weight Watchers. There is no denying their immenseness. Boiled down to their tallow, the Clauses could light Manhattan for a long weekend.

Nor is their persecution any surprise. We live in a time when office-purchasing mayors tell us how big our sodas should be and what type of oil to fry our food in, while many schools send “parental notification letters” to the homes of chunky youth (in direct contradiction to anti-bullying programs and the war against “size shaming”). Claus, the patron saint of porkers, is a standing rebuke to these outrages. With every corpulent, unrepentant corpuscle Claus tells the Man to Stick It.

The favor is happily repaid. Then-U.S. Surgeon General Rear Adm. Steven K. Galson, teed off on Santa a few years back, proclaiming “It is really important that the people who kids look up to as role models are in good shape, eating well and getting exercise.” In the same spirit Australian heath expert Nathan Grills insisted that “Public health needs to be aware of what giant multinational capitalists realized long ago – that Santa sells, and sometimes he sells harmful products.” Mr. Grills added that in the U.S. Santa’s name recognition with children is just behind that of another demon: Ronald McDonald. Similarly, Roy Pickler, whose public health credentials include a stint as a contestant on “The Biggest Loser” and part time work as a Santa impersonator, pronounced that "The world is going to have to change their acceptance of what Santa looks like. Santa is a role model, and kids don't want to have a role model that's fat."

Not only is Claus an alleged threat to youthful waistlines. He’s blamed for mental and spiritual mayhem as well. In a 2012 Psychology Today essay entitled “Say Goodbye to the Santa Claus Lie” Dr. David Kyle Johnson argues that the “Santa Lie” risks damaging parental trustworthiness and increases “credulity and ill-motivated behavior.” He also notes an incident in which a child, when told that Santa doesn’t exist, turned atheist.

Men have gone to the stake for far less, and the indictment goes yet further. Claus smokes a pipe (contents unknown, though his continuous laughter raises suspicions) and drinks alcohol – brandy, by most accounts, and judging from the flush on his cheeks plenty of it. Tippling fictional icons, of course, are catnip to scolds: James Bond was recently flogged in the British journal BMJ for drinking at levels allegedly detrimental to his marksmanship and famed sexual prowess, the latter certainly startling news to one of Bond’s most vivacious and medically astute leading ladies – Dr. Holly Goodhead.

Most of us, of course, don’t mind well-intentioned advice to shed a few pounds, though unfortunately these admonitions often come from those joyless, hectoring types whose main purpose in life is to parade their own superiority and push other people around. If they weren’t ordering us up on the scales they’d be annoying us some other way. The situation is made worse when the messengers have legislative powers. Just as most of us want government to stay out our bedrooms it should stay out of our kitchens as well. Claus no doubt agrees, which is why he’ll likely end up on a Wanted poster any day now.

Which finally brings us to Ebenezer Scrooge, who is also experiencing a transformation, though one of a different kind.

Scrooge, of course, is best known for a late-life personality switch from tight-fisted taskmaster to doddering sugar daddy. The pre-sugar Scrooge has historically exemplified the qualities denounced in a sermon delivered earlier this year to the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Tuscaloosa, Alabama.

“Our society is for better or worse grounded on individualism and this notion of personal freedom versus communal responsibility,” intoned the Rev. Fred L. Hammond, who posted the message on his blog. “This is manifested in a false illusion that the American Dream is attainable by all, if we do as Ebenezer Scrooge did and put our nose to the grindstone and grind away. What our contemporary society fails to see is that our capitalist mindset is a spirituality that is detrimental to living a full and abundant life.” This spirituality, the reverend also noted, rules the U.S. Congress and can be found hovering around Wal-Mart.

Yet there’s a vibrant revisionism afoot that insists Scrooge was actually a better man before he became victim to that dramatic drive-by spooking. A small but virile band of bloggers, analysts, and others who are not likely to be Unitarians hail the pre-conversion Scrooge as the “original one percenter.” Russell D. Longcore, for example, thinks Scrooge was spot-on when he denounced Christmas as “a time for paying bills without money; a time for finding yourself a year older, but not an hour richer; a time for balancing your books and having every item in them through a round dozen of months presented dead against you.” These days, Longcore observes, Americans pay for Christmas with plastic while their savings rates “are near zero.”

Scrooge is also hailed as a job creator who paid clerk Bob Cratchit a reasonable wage. The revisionists, in fact, are hard on Cratchit, who they insist is not to be mistaken for Mr. Hustle.

“If Cratchit’s stagnating in the backwaters of Scrooge’s shop was due to his basically poor work skills,” wrote author and law school professor Butler Shaffer in a classic 2004 essay, “we are once again confronted with the question: why did Cratchit not seek to enhance his skills, as by learning a more remunerative trade? That would certainly have been a great benefit to his family, including affording additional resources with which to possibly rescue Tiny Tim from his malady. But, alas, Bob Cratchit was, once again, either too unambitious or too unimaginative to pursue this course of conduct… Such is the extent of his courage, ambition, and love for his family.”

In the generous spirit of the season, Professor Shaffer let Crachit have it with both barrels instead of only one. He also gave a clear sign that those who prefer the unreformed Scrooge are not alone, so if kicking Cratchit is your idea of holiday fun, go at it (and maybe get in a lick at Scrooge's treacly nephew Fred while you're at it). As Scrooge himself said, "keep Christmas in your own way," which is perhaps the best seasonal advice of all.

The long holiday season offers other delights: paid holiday time, an opportunity to sing, sober or otherwise, the Hallelujah chorus, and nourishment of the dark and lurid hope, a variation of which is also present at NASCAR races, that someone in those Black Friday mobs might get trampled. Verily, there really is something for everyone.

So perhaps grousers, as a revised Tiny Tim might observe, should “stick a cork in it, every one.”

Washington Post review: Johnny Cash: The Life - December 9, 2013

By Dave Shiflett

Johnny Cash rode a boyhood dream and three chords to country music stardom. But as Robert Hilburn’s definitive biography vividly chronicles, that dream spawned a sizable brood of nightmares.

Cash grew up poor, mostly in Dyess, Ark., where his parents took part in a government-backed farmland “colonization” program. While poets, philosophers and singers rhapsodize about living close to the land, Cash knew better. Working in the cotton fields was hard, and the early death of his brother in a sawmill accident further darkened the charms of rural life. Soon enough, he decided he’d rather pluck a guitar than a chicken and dreamed of singing on the radio.

The dream was somewhat audacious, for Cash was no musical prodigy. He left high school not for Nashville but for Pontiac, Mich., where he worked in the auto industry. This was followed by a stint in the military that took him to Germany, where he helped intercept Soviet Morse code messages. He formed a band on his return and performed his first radio gig in May 1955 at age 23. According to Hilburn, it was an amateurish performance, though his first recordings were better (and should have been: “Cry, Cry, Cry” required 35 takes). He was on his way.

Hilburn, a former music critic for the Los Angeles Times, interviewed Cash often during his journalistic career, and, while an admirer, he goes fairly light on the whitewash. He tells, in great and sometimes harrowing detail, how Cash’s professional advancement and personal decline blossomed simultaneously.

One red-letter day in that decline occurred in the fall of 1957, when a fiddle player gave Cash his first amphetamine after hearing him complain about the exhaustion that accompanied constant touring. Cash, who started smoking when he was 10, was quick to form a new addiction, later telling a friend that “one pill was too many and a thousand wasn’t enough.”

Nor was he a slacker in the skirt-chasing competition, despite having expressed undying fidelity to his first wife, Vivian, in his early hit, “I Walk the Line.” Still, he was far more restrained than musical contemporary and fabled horndog Elvis Presley. “One night,” Cash recalled, “we counted nine girls that he had sex with in the dressing room.”

To no surprise, Cash’s first marriage was not one for the record books, due in part to an evolving romance with June Carter, also married at the time. The turmoil was hard not only on Vivian and their four daughters, but on the local wildlife as well. In 1965, after retreating to the Los Padres National Forest to escape home life, he started a fire that killed most of the condor population.

The rings of suffering spread yet further. Fans struggled through mediocre performances; at times, Cash missed more gigs than he made. Yet he suffered the most, not only from the ravages of addiction, which dropped his weight to 125 pounds, but from the agonies of not living up to his Southern Baptist convictions.

Cash’s desire for redemption seemed as powerful as his desire for drugs. He and June, who married in 1968, became regulars at Billy Graham crusades, “testifying” before nearly 2 million people, despite ongoing drug use and a soft reading of the commandment against adultery. Cash, perhaps in a generous mood, described himself as “a C+ Christian.”

He earned much higher marks for his music, though, as Hilburn reminds us, many of his most iconic songs were written by others, including “A Boy Named Sue” (Shel Silverstein), “Ring of Fire” (June Carter and Merle Kilgore) and “I Still Miss Someone” (which was “mostly written” by a nephew). His signature song, “Folsom Prison Blues,” relied so heavily on “Crescent City Blues,” by Gordon Jenkins, that Cash eventually paid Jenkins $75,000 to waive his composer rights. Nonetheless, he was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall Of Fame , the Country Music Hall of Fame and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

But he also went through a long recording slump, earning recognition by USA Today for making one of the 10 worst albums of 1987 (“Johnny Cash Is Coming To Town”). Fortune smiled again in 1993 when he met producer Rick Rubin, with whom he made a series of sometimes stark recordings that ended his career on a high note. In perhaps the most searing section of the book, Hilburn recounts the making the 2002 video for Cash’s version of rocker Trent Reznor’s “Hurt.” Cash was in ill health, and June had learned the day before that she had a leak in a heart valve. She died in 2003; Cash held on four more hard months, dying at age 71.

Cash had a dream and enough talent and desire to see it through, for better and worse. Interestingly, late in his life he suggested he also benefited from good timing. If he tried to make it in today’s music industry, he mused, “I think the only job I’d be able to get would be singing in a coffeehouse somewhere.”

Wall Street Journal Review of Books by Graham Nash, Ray Davies and Donald Fagen - November 25, 2013

Book Review: 'Wild Tales' by Graham Nash | 'Americana' by Ray Davies | 'Eminent Hipsters' by Donald Fagen

It's a popular complaint that America no longer produces anything when in fact we churn out vast quantities of music and musical merchandise—T-shirts, posters, ball caps, thongs—and a steady stream of celebrity-musician memoirs.

Three Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees—Graham Nash, Ray Davies and Donald Fagen—have now set down their guitars and picked up their pens (or signed on a ghostwriter), joining such illustrious predecessors as Neil Young, Bob Dylan and Keith Richards in reliving their glory years, or at least the parts they care to remember.

Their books include standard features of the genre: early struggle, breakthrough, truckloads of money, rapacious promoters, and nonstop drugs and women, plus arrests, overdoses and rehab. But there's another story line: Ambitious young men working their way out of difficult upbringings to make it big in the Promised Land—America—where they eventually grow old and cranky. Just like the rest of us.

Graham Nash, now 71, is best known for his work with the Hollies and with Crosby, Stills and Nash (sometimes joined by Young). But he grew up in Salford, possibly the worst slum in the north of England. The toilet was al fresco, his wardrobe was provided by the Salvation Army and his father's room and board were supplied, for a time, by the local prison.

Fortunately, Mr. Nash had a talent for singing. As he tells us in "Wild Tales: A Rock & Roll Life," he and a classmate opened each school day harmonizing the Lord's Prayer, though he was not cut out for the ecclesiastic life. He had been transfixed by radio broadcasts of American pop stars: Elvis, the Platters, Jerry Lee Lewis, Bill Haley and the Everly Brothers. He left school at age 16, in 1958, to make a go of it as a performer.

The Hollies (named after Buddy Holly) got their big break in February 1963, after a talent scout caught one of their gigs. Mr. Nash, who makes no pretense of being a master musician, admits that his guitar playing was hardly stunning: At this performance his instrument had no strings. Nevertheless, the band cranked out a string of pleasant pop hits that still haunt the oldies airwaves, including "Bus Stop" (written by teenage songwriter Graham Gouldman), "On a Carousel" and "Carrie Anne."

Soon, though, the young man grew "bored with the moon-and-June rhymes, singing about schoolboy crushes and forbidden sex." He had also fallen in love with America, where he was introduced to future love interest Joni Mitchell, singer David Crosby and drugs.

Readers still amazed by rock excess will get a fix in this breezy memoir. Mr. Nash, turned on to marijuana by Mr. Crosby and to LSD by Cass Elliot of the Mamas & the Papas, became something of a stoner prodigy; one sometimes senses that he considers getting high a heroic act, like storming Omaha Beach. Yet he supplies a cautionary tale by chronicling Mr. Crosby's gruesome transformation into a bloated, lesion-covered addict.

Mr. Nash, whose later hits included singalong standards "Teach Your Children" and "Our House" plus "Just a Song Before I Go" (written after a drug dealer bet him he couldn't compose a song in under an hour), reminds us that rock stars live in a different financial universe than most fans. Soon after moving to California, he found himself short on cash. No problem. Mr. Crosby cut him a check for $80,000. When touring, the band might make $50,000 a day, though Mr. Nash adds that most of the money ended up in other pockets: After one $12 million tour he, Mr. Stills, Mr. Young and Mr. Cosby pocketed $300,000 each. "That left $10.8 million unaccounted for," he writes, and no doubt highly appreciated.

Yet like other mortals, rockers grow older and are susceptible to putting on a righteous grump. He calls Neil Young "utterly self-centered" and takes aim at fatter targets, including George W. Bush, the tobacco lobby and rifles with "hundred-round clips." He seems surprised that 10% of his audience sometimes headed for the exits after the political grumbling commenced, especially in the South. The nerve of those hicks! Despite the manifest flaws of his adopted nation, Mr. Nash loved it enough to become a citizen, settle down, get married—36 years and counting—and otherwise live like a member in good standing of the Rotary Club. He's not alone.

Ray Davies, also from a working-class family in England, found fame and fortune in the U.S., plus a few other things. As a former frontman (with brother Dave) of the Kinks, whose catalog ranges from rock blasters "Lola" and "You Really Got Me" to the serenely beautiful "Waterloo Sunset," he came to the U.S. in 1965 as part of the British invasion, where he rubbed shoulders with people less glamorous than Joni Mitchell, including serial killer John Wayne Gacy, "at the time a community organizer" involved in a fundraising concert. After the Kinks went toes-up in 1996, Mr. Davies continued recording and touring, despite later health problems; his most recent record was released in the U.S. in 2011.

In "Americana: The Kinks, the Riff, the Road," Mr. Davies is more reserved than Mr. Nash, offering fairly temperate accounts of the music life's agonies, ecstasies and ennui. Though Mr. Davies was shot by a New Orleans mugger in 2004, he is far more critical of drugs than firearms, complaining how dope is used to prop up touring musicians: "Pamper them; give them all the drugs they need (legal or otherwise) just to get through. Once the tour is over they can be left to look after their own wreckage."

But Mr. Davies, too, is upbeat on America, even praising how students recite the Pledge of Allegiance, "which I think in a strange way helps form a bond among all new Americans." In his spare time he works on an exchange program between high-school bands in New Orleans and London, which suggests he could rise high in Optimist International.

Not so our third musical great, Donald Fagen, a founding member of Steely Dan. If there were a Cranks Hall of Fame, he'd be a multiple inductee.

Mr. Fagen escaped Kendall Park, a New Jersey suburb, after a youth he claims was made bearable only by jazz radio broadcasts and the "subversive" radio talk show of Jean Shepherd (whose "In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash" would be made into the film "A Christmas Story"). At Bard College, Mr. Fagen met Walter Becker, with whom he eventually founded Steely Dan (named after a Japanese sexual aid) and produced a string of Classic Rock stalwarts, including "Reelin' in the Years," "Rikki Don't Lose That Number" and "Deacon Blues."

Mr. Fagen, 65, is a good writer and highly talented musician—many rockers would have a hard time reading his charts—but what makes his brief book sing is his sharp tongue. He could teach Bill O'Reilly and Alec Baldwin tons about how to deliver a proper tongue-lashing.

Post his tour journal on the Internet? "Why should I let you lazy, spoiled TV Babies read it for nothing in the same way you download all those songs my partner and I sacrificed our entire youth to write and record," he snarls. Mr. Fagen, who once wrote a song called "Godwhacker," in which he envisioned putting out a hit on the Almighty, is similarly harsh on his Earthbound enemies, citing a British study alleging that conservatives have an "inordinately large amygdala" that makes them delusional. "It's got to be the amygdala thing," he insists. "Period. End of story."

Some listeners might point out that such absolutism is also considered a conservative trait. Indeed, Mr. Fagen sounds like his amygdala is a bit swollen when noting that "I'm deeply underwhelmed by most contemporary art, literature, music, films, TV, the heinous little phones, money talk, real estate talk, all that stuff" and when praising the lack of "soul-deadening porn or violence" on 1960s television.

But what fun is old age if you can't grouse a bit? Geezers do not live by oatmeal alone. Mr. Fagen describes a 2012 concert at which he was performing. The crowd was so "geriatric," he says, that he was "tempted to start calling out bingo numbers." Eventually, the fans were all "on their feet, albeit shakily, rocking out" to the music. "So this, now, is what I do: assisted living."

There's a bright side our author may be overlooking. Should Mr. Fagen tire of the music biz he, along with Mr. Davies and Mr. Nash, have an excellent crack at endorsement deals from the manufacturers of adult diapers and other products for decaying oldsters. For some folks, America's blessings never end.

Wall Street Journal Article: When Summer Was Easy (pre-edited version) - July 14, 2013

Of all the seasons, summer seems to evoke the most childhood memories, probably due to its singular status as the season of No School! Ah, the freedom to frolic beyond the reach of scolding teachers and paddle-wielding assistant principals, to pursue the idle arts of cloud gazing, star counting, making firefly lanterns and perhaps even to skinny dip with an adventurous cheerleader (or, more likely, her less glamorous cousin).

As we grow older (I was born in 1955, during Eisenhower’s first term) we are also naturally inclined to compare summers then with summers now. To no surprise, those of us who have acquired knowledge, wisdom and an appropriately cranky attitude find that summers sure aren’t what they used to be.

Let us count a few of the ways.

First off, most of us born in the fifties spent summers in the raw, sweltering bosom of Mother Nature, which, with all due respect, wasn’t exactly paradise, especially when the mosquitoes started feeding. Home air-conditioners were rare; only about 10 percent of homes had them by 1965 (around 80 percent of modern homes are climate-controlled). When it got hot you turned on a fan. When it got real hot you prayed for a thunderstorm.

People prayed a lot more back then, at least publicly, perhaps in part because it was still legal. We started school (public) with the Lord’s Prayer, and heads bowed prior to most sporting events, weenie roasts and any other occasion where food was consumed. We were also likely to Praise The Lord when the DDT-spewing anti-mosquito fogger appeared on the horizon (haven’t seen one of those in a while). This was, of course, the era of Mutual Assured Destruction, so it was important to have your bases covered at all times.

Also unlike today, we didn’t watch much television during summer break. There were only three channels, and besides that TV played a far distant fiddle to the preferred vehicles of entertainment and enlightenment: books. We might be out of school but we had summer reading lists, which these days don’t seem to be as rigorous. An NEA newsletter noted a couple of years ago that middle school students in the Arlington School District outside New York were required to read at least one book during the summer. One whole book!

I recall (dimly) reading 40 books one summer – some assigned and some part of a local library program. This wasn’t our only bookish experience. For many children in our neck of the woods, Vacation Bible School was a requirement of citizenship (VBS participation is also down). Besides dispensing cookies, watermelon and (untreated) Kool-Aid, these programs focused young minds on talking snakes, parting seas, and Jezebel’s dangerous allure. We still sang “Onward Christian Soldiers,” which was excellent preparation for many an afternoon’s chief activity: playing guns.

Contemporary gunaphobes will gasp, but guns were as common as iPhones are today. Most boys I knew had at least one toy rifle, pistol or submachine gun (preferably, one of each). We took our marching orders from guys like Kirby in “Combat!” (Kirb was the Baryshnikov of the Browning Automatic Rifle), Illya Kuryakin of “The Man From Uncle” (played by David McCallum, who has devolved to the mild-mannered Duckie of NCIS) and of course the indomitable Sgt. Rock of comic book fame. As we grew older we got BB-rifles, which were used (one cringes to recall) to reduce the local bird population and harass squirrels and other creatures further down the Great Chain of Being (we were all devout speciesists). We later graduated to .22s and shotguns; summer camps had rifle ranges and offered NRA gun safety courses.

These days – characterized by the recent arrest and suspension of a 14-year old West Virginia student who refused to take off his NRA t-shirt -- a high body count would be assumed. I am happy to report that no member of my heavily armed circle ever shot anyone, though honesty requires the admission that one summer afternoon I did manage to shoot myself.

It happened after a small but heavily armed platoon of us was dropped off at a rural lake for an overnight camping trip. Since this was in the thick of adolescence several of us were working hard to develop a smoking addiction (known back then as simply trying to look cool). As I was taking a drag off a cigarette my pistol fell off a nearby bench and discharged, blasting the Marlboro from between my fingers, cutting a groove in my right index finger and nearly trimming the tip of my nose. Yes, I know. A stupid move -- but also a real-life lesson that there is no such thing as cognitive equality, a fact of life that also gets short shrift these days.

Some readers may wonder why parents weren’t hauled into court for sending their sons into the woods with loaded weapons. As it happens, my parents, who had earlier been traumatized when my older brother threw a spear into my back (it stuck, but only for a few seconds) are learning of the shooting incident as they read this article. The larger fact is that by today’s standards, most parents of that era were worthy of Leavenworth. What sinners they were! They sent us outside without sunscreen, let us ride bikes without helmets, jump on trampolines without “safety barriers,” and smiled as we vied with our siblings for the premier spot in the family sedan: the ledge underneath the back window, where you could stretch out and take a nap.

This isn’t to say they didn’t run a tight ship. When we got out of line we were “corrected” with the help of leather belts or expertly wielded hairbrushes (known in some households as “Officer Porcupine”). If we cussed (more about which in a minute) we got our mouths washed out with soap. If someone had told us that a few decades hence parents could be arrested for such manifestations of concern we would have assumed the commies had made good on their promise of world domination.

Yet back then, fixating on possible death and injury would be seen as neurotic. Perhaps this was because our parents had been through the great depression and World War II, which made post-war life seem relatively placid. Accidents happened but they were accepted as part of life. Another personal story illustrates the point. One summer I got a job on a local farm, where I was soon run over by a tractor and hay trailer, which drove ribs into both my lungs. Though I was initially thought to be dead a crack team of surgeons revived me. Being young and resilient I was out of the hospital in a little over a week (my nurse, blessed creature, supplied me with cigarettes once my chest tube was removed).

We never sued the farm owners. Lawsuits were far rarer than today; “ambulance chaser” was an epithet with a significant societal sting. Under 90,000 civil cases were filed in 1970, according to public policy analyst Jurgen O. Skoppek, a number that by 1986 had risen 192%. These days we’re suing each other over mold, hailed as the “next asbestos,” and my lovely nurse might be brought up on charges of supplying cigarettes to a minor. None of which, to my mind, represents progress.

Summers past looked a lot different. Around 13% of Americans were obese in the early 1960s, as compared to 36% today (about two-thirds of contemporary Americans are considered overweight or obese). All of which makes a trip to the beach a different experience.

The seashore of my youth was populated by people who were, relative to now, fairly thin. Huge people were rare: If you weighed in at 350 or more you had a good crack at getting a job at the freak show (a staple of traveling summer carnivals). Nowadays beaches are covered with human manatees (for reasons of disclosure, I could be considered a junior manatee). This may, in part, be a testament to the self-esteem movement, which routed the notion that body size should be a cause of shame. Or maybe it’s simply another reminder that there’s safety in numbers.

Another cosmetic change: Tattoos, which were largely confined to men with military or maritime experience, and bikers. Nowadays, according to a Harris Poll, 38% of adults 30-39 have tats, as do 30% of those 25-29 and 22% of those 18-24. Inked women slightly outnumber men. By comparison, only 11% of American 50-64 say they have tattoos, a number that drops to 5% for Americans 65 and older. Why the proliferation? Twenty-five percent say tattoos make them feel “rebellious” – like growing long hair back in the 1960s -- while 30% say they make them feel more sexy, 21% more healthy and strong and 8% more intelligent (meanwhile 45% percent of Americans without tattoos believe those who have them are less attractive, while 39% say they’re less sexy and 27% less intelligent). Of course, you could always cut your hair if you got tired of it, or faced an unexpected court date. Getting rid of a tattoo is not so easy, though 86% of tattoo bearers said they have never regretted their decision, perhaps belying the idea that the younger generation has commitment issues.

Modern beaches are also intellectually different. When I was a kid you saw lots of thinner people reading fat books. Now you see larger people staring at thin phones. Many are no doubt chronicling the adventures of their favorite literary character – themselves – updating their Facebook accounts with descriptions of eating Oreos, watching a seagull peck the eye out of a dead fish, and spending 15 minutes the prior evening flushing the sand from between their massive glutes. It’s almost enough to make one pity NSA snoops who might be called upon to monitor these communications, thus putting themselves at extreme risk of acute inanity poisoning.

Which brings up another significant change: the rise of the wildly popular salutation/exhortation/denunciation/benediction known as the F-word, which not so long ago was the hydrogen bomb of obscenities, used primarily by men in combat, stevedores, and golfers. Now it traipses lightly off the tongues of 14-year-olds at the slightest provocation – should, for example, that seagull hop over and steal a potato chip. Should cell coverage lapse the oratory might match that of a pirate whose beard had caught afire.

Many oldsters blame rap music and Hollywood; others the triumph of cliche (speech without thought) but a less judgmental (and that must always be our goal!) analysis starts with weeding out the Fs from a typical conversation. What is left? Usually the transcript of a deeply mundane existence. Could the F-infestation, in part at least, be an attempt to dramatize lives made dull by design – a design requiring mandatory bicycle helmets, risk-free trampolines, pools without diving boards, and now an attempt to drop the presumptive drunk driving alcohol level to .05%, which some people can reach with a single glass of wine? As always, proponents argue that if one life can be saved, it’s worth it, though if that’s the criteria they might also focus their hysteria on such threats as falling out of bed, which claims around 600 American lives a year (Time magazine) and autoerotic asphyxiation, which takes another 1,000 citizens to early graves, according to WebMD.

Hypercaution has saved lives, but it has diminished life in the bargain.

Summers saw other enormous changes. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I Have A Dream” speech in August 1963, which became as familiar to my generation as the Declaration of Independence (July, 1776). The Summer of Love (1967) spread the gospel of getting high, enlightening some and blighting others, while in July 1969 Apollo 11 landed on the moon, a testament to aiming high. Richard Nixon resigned in August of 1974, AIDS was formally recognized by U.S. health authorities in June of 1981. Along the way summers saw the passing of national figures ranging from Ronald Reagan to Judy Garland, Jonas Salk, Jim Morrison and Jerry Garcia.

There were also personnel changes closer to home. Adults who seemed immortal in our youthful summers had their brushes with disease and death. Ditto for some cousins, friends, and siblings – and ourselves. We rarely know the names of current bands, usually go to bed when we used to be going out, and say things like “I’d rather get a colonoscopy – make that a double-colonoscopy! – than go camping.”

Alas, our suns have begun to set.

Yet we have absorbed some of the changes that make modern summers so different than the summers past. Should the sun suddenly blink off, for example, we might acknowledge this as a significant setback for our species – but a giant leap forward in the battle against solar-related cancers and premature wrinkling. And just the other day I was thinking that if my family had more progressive ideas about lawsuits when I got run over that long-ago June, I might today be living on a very nice farm.

Live and learn.

Wall Street Journal Review of 'Follow The Money'' - March 11, 2013

The writing life has taken journalist Steve Boggan many exotic places: war zones, up the Amazon in search of hallucinogen- fueled natives (along they way he encountered “rare pink dolphins”), and deep into the bowels of British society during staffer stints at the Independent, the Times, the Daily Mail, the Guardian and the Evening Standard.

Now a freelancer, Mr. Boggan’s first book took him into the gunsights of possibly fatal boredom: He flew from London to Lebanon, Kansas (the center of the United States, by some estimates) to follow a ten dollar bill as it passed from person to person over the course of 30 days. The wandering sawbuck led him to some decidedly non-exotic places, including Hays, Kansas, Harrisonville, Missouri, an apple orchard, a deer hunting camp, and a few motels where bedbugs dare not tread.

“More than once I had questioned my decision to take on this task,” he writes early on. “It was neither smart nor funny. It was just crazy.” Which raises a reasonable question: Why read such a book? For the people, mostly. Ordinary Americans, so-called, bring Mr. Boggan’s book to life (aided, to be sure, by a sharp eye and generous spirit). There’s more to the nation’s interior life than you see from the Interstates, or 39.000 feet.

Mr. Boggan did a similar story for the Guardian, in that case following a ten-pound note around London. The ground rules were simple enough: If a person accepted the bill (either as payment or as change) they were told Mr. Boggan came with it and would stay nearby until the bill changed hands. As he told Rick Chapin, a lodge owner who was the first to get the bill, “Just treat it like any other ten dollar bill and spend it whenever you’re ready.” He fully understands how strange a proposition this would seem to future recipients.

“There is no word other than ‘creepy’ to describe the act of asking a lone woman, traveling hundreds of miles with her four-year-old son, if you can follow her,” he writes. Yet this particular woman, whom he met in Kansas, responded, “Sure. Sounds like fun.”

Before his journey ended, Mr. Boggan shared houses, drinks, tree stands and life stories with a proudly godless truck driver, a pair of evangelical missionaries, an Amish rug maker, a platoon of musicians, a Chicago banker, a bow-hunting waitress, a woman whose son makes his living as a cage-fighter, and a hotel worker named Stacey who shared her own literary aspiration: to publish her book arguing that lesbians co-habitate far quicker than heterosexuals. That title is “Bring Your Own U-Haul” and awaits a nimble agent.

Suspicious readers may be wondering by now if “Follow the Money” is yet another exercise in cross-Atlantic sneering, in which a sophisticated European – perhaps one of those preening metrosexuals! – makes fun of American rubes like Ernie, a Kansas farmer who asks if the Brits are still having martial trouble with the Germans, and, when Mr. Broggan offers to guide him around London should he ever visit, asks “Will you take me to see the Eiffel Tower?”

While Ernie would no doubt send eyes rolling ‘round Islington (and Topeka as well) Mr. Boggan finds Ernie to be a decent man who would fly to England’s assistance should the Germans revert to their old ways. Indeed, he is so enthusiastic about many of the people he meets and the places he visits he could easily get work at local chambers of commerce should the freelance life go sour.

In one St. Louis neighborhood, for instance, he marvels at the number of local theatrical productions, admires young girls working on their ballet steps, and enjoys the thunder of a brass band. He chides English friends who insist the “American Midwest was a cultural wasteland. It wasn’t even a weekend. This was an average Thursday night.”

This isn’t to suggest Mr. Boggan is without opinions. He’s put off by anti-abortion billboards, right-wing radio (he is outraged by the Mancow show, for some reason not realizing you should never take seriously anyone called Mancow), is ill at ease around guns and seems, at first at least, to be a bit of a Jehovahphobe, complaining about radio preachers and feeling a “tightening” in his stomach when people start talking about God. But he gives his subjects a respectful listen, especially the Amish, whose productivity humbles him.

He does find signs of small town decay, yet on the bright side notes corresponding investment opportunities. Mr. Boggan tells of a California doctor who bought a Kansas house on eBay for a few thousand dollars, though when he came to town he “took one look at what he’d bought and drove off without getting out of his car.”

Mr Boggan includes brief local histories and interesting tidbits, some about money itself: during his 30 day trip, the Treasury Department printed around 82 million ten-dollar bills; all told 25-30 million bills of all denominations are printed each day, worth in total about $1 billion, though the cost of each bill is just under a dime (which some people think is close to their true value). Google Earth, he discovered, offers a variety of midpoints for the U.S. If you use a Mac, you get Chanute, Kansas, while the PC version directs you to the Meadowbrook Apartments in St. Lawrence, Kansas. He offers a reasonable explanation: “Could this have anything to do with the fact that Brian McClendon, vice-president of engineering at Google, lived in the Meadowbrook Apartments as a boy? Or that Dan Webb, senior software engineer at Google, grew up in Chanute, Kansas? Surely not.”

The last person to have the bill was a retired Ford auto plant worker named Glenn Waddell, who had won the money in a sports bet. All told, the journey took Mr. Boggan about 3,000 fairly placid miles. Pleasant reading every page though an interesting sequel might start him out someplace slightly more adventurous -- South Central Los Angeles or New Orleans perhaps – where a wandering sawbuck would likely take him places that will tighten more than his stomach.

A New Music Fesival: Poor Farm Fest - October 1, 2012

Do you have to be crazy to start a music festival?

I wondered that after seeing a notice for the second annual Poor Farm Festival in Williamsburg, West Virginia. There seems to be at least three strikes against success: a resoundingly flat economy, declining attendance at music venues (down 20 percent by some estimates) and gas closing in on four bucks a gallon.

So maybe the organizers are munching a bit too much of the local loco weed.

But there’s something to be said for people whose madness benefits musicians and their listeners. The Poor Farm Fest ( listed 29 performing bands this year, and organizer Carolyn Stephens was kind enough to offer me a last-minute slot, bringing the number to an even thirty (to keep the ethics tidy, I did not ask for remuneration). The festival was providing work for over 100 musicians. The only act I’d heard of was Nora Jane Struthers, although the sons of two rock stars – Ginger Baker (Cream) and Greg Allman (Allman Brothers) – were billed as headliners.

Besides all that, I could use a good airing out. Website photos showed a terrific setting – mountains, meadows and deep blue sky. I packed up the camping gear, found a bottle of retsina and off I went.

The drive from Richmond to Williamsburg is nice, as Interstate drives go; I-64 provides dramatic (for this part of the world) views topping Afton Mountain outside Charlottesville and re-enters mountainous terrain just past Lexington. Goshen is a beautiful stretch of mountain and valley; if I end up ashes I wouldn’t mind a few spoonfuls being sprinkled thereabouts (heirs take note). The first kiss of fall (the festival opened Sept. 6) had started to turn the leaves around Clifton Forge and an hour or so later I exited at Lewisburg, W.Va. for the final 25 minutes of the trip. The Williamsburg Road covers the final eight miles or so. It is of interesting design: a paved lane with two gravel shoulders; when cars approach it’s onto the shoulder to avoid collision. Eventually you come around a curve and there’s the Poor Farm: 1,000 acres of meadows and forest, some hilly, plus a house, a stage, and a herd of cattle. Atop a distant mountain ridge a dozen or so white wind turbines twirl away.

The site gets its name from its former function. When residents of Greenbrier County were down and out they could go to the farm and work a section of land. The terrain rolls and in some places dips dramatically – the result of limestone cave collapses – but the concert area is fairly flat and the stage – a sturdy structure enclosed on three sides – has a sound system powerful enough to cover the fairly vast camping area, which for my money is nicer than the camping spaces at Floydfest, Clifftop, and certainly Galax.

All in all, a superior festival site. Only one thing was missing: people.

When I arrived Friday afternoon, the second day of the festival, musicians on stage sometimes nearly outnumbered the audience. If I were running things I might have gone hunting for a cyanide pill. But organizer Carolyn Stephens (aided by husband Pete) was unruffled. Her attitude brought to mind the motto of a childhood hero: What, me worry?

Carolyn is tall, slender, and apparently unflappable. On Saturday morning we talked things over during a drive to make a bank deposit. My first question: What on earth possessed you to jump into the festival biz?

Well, she began, she had booked acts during her school days at Curry College, near Boston. She brought in people like Livingston Taylor, who might not have sold tons of records but who knew how to win over audiences. Later, she worked in radio – once doing shows on three stations in the same market. “One of the stations was adult contemporary, one was country, and the third was a religious station.”

But love of music isn’t the main reason she started her festival. Wal-Mart played a crucial role – the kudzu-like retailer opened two superstores within an hour of Poor Farm at a time she was making her living selling plants. Her horticulture business soon shriveled. If she was going to stay in the area she’d have to create her own job. She recalled the good times booking acts back in college, and she did have a nice0 site for a festival.

“When we decided to do this, I had 45 days total to get ready. We had to put in roads. We had to build a stage. We had to get a vendor, and line up volunteers. I had to get permits, including an ABC license.” There was also promotion, and the small matter of finding bands that could be booked on short notice. “I hadn’t been to a festival since 1978,” she said. “I do everything on the fly. I mean everything.” Internet research helped her find talent. She ended up hiring seventeen acts, cutting deals with many that included a promise to book them the following year in return for a reduced fee.

Yet Carolyn was unable to cut a deal with the Weather Deity – it rained off and on during the festival. But the festival did attract around 600 people. “Four hundred of them were my neighbors who wanted to see what the hell we were up to,” she said. “They didn’t like music. They’re farmers.” But the other 200, she believed, might become repeat customers and would also talk up the festival to their friends. “The rule is, one talks to ten, so by our second year we’d have the possibility of 2000 people coming.” Word of mouth seemed to be working. “The first year, our Facebook page had 200 friends. This year, we had 2,000,” she said. She also developed a list of about 20 newspapers she targeted with press releases (which she wrote) and pictures. “Some of these papers ran the releases without altering them,” she says, adding that she studied journalism in college. She eventually took out an ad in Relix magazine, which she said was hugely expensive. I sensed Relix won’t be getting any more of her money.

After depositing a wad of currency, we headed back to the Farm. Like many of this year’s acts, the Rain God made a return appearance. She acknowledged that bad weather can dampen attendance. But she also said that the first two days of the Poor Farm 2012 were improvements over year one, and that she was very enthusiastic about some of the new acts.

“I avoid agents like the plague,” she said, but two of her stronger acts for 2012 came through agent John Laird at the Americana Agency. “John has a reputation for being both good for the artist, and good for the venue. In the long run they both have to succeed. I told him I had a small festival and he said he had some up-and-coming people who were really good, and who I could get for a good price.” One act was Nora Jane Struthers and her band, TheBootleggers. The other was The Steel Wheels.

“Nora Jane wrote a song about Greenbrier County – about the effect the coal mining and limestone industries have on residents of this county,” she said. “It’s a great song – and she had never played in Greenbrier County. I thought, ‘this is serendipity. This girl needs to be here!’” The Steel Wheels, meantime, had been well received at Merlefest. Another acoustic act, Johnson’s Crossroads, had also played Merlesfest, and while now based in Asheville its two core members are from the area (I’ll profile Nora Jane Struthers and Johnson’s Crossroads soon).

She was also very enthusiastic about Friday night’s headliner: Kofi Baker’s “The Cream Experience.” I had liked them as well. Kofi, son of Cream drummer Ginger Baker, could give his dad a run for his money and his band mates left no one pining away for Eric Clapton and Jack Bruce. With a few exceptions (including a cover of Jimi Hendrix’s “Manic Depression”) they stuck to Cream and Blind Faith hits; Kofi also warbled a version of “Pressed Rat and Warthog” – a tune that goes well with retsina and which probably doesn’t get covered very often. Though he has a top-flight musical pedigree he’s very accessible and good-natured. His running joke had it that Ginger Baker actually wrote all the Cream’s music, only to have it stolen by Eric Clapton (Kofi’s godfather, Carolyn tells me). He also got off a good joke at Jack Bruce’s expense: “How are a cup of 7-11 coffee and Jack Bruce alike? Both are best with Cream.”

The audience loved the band. But from what I could tell there might have been 1oo listeners, max. And that was huge compared to the next day. To be fair, the stage talent had declined a bit by then, at least early on.

Carolyn had given me an 11:30 slot; the plan was to play tunes from my new collection of instrumentals (free here: and gently draw festivarians from their tents to the stage area in time for the opening noon act. A consummate professional, I rehearsed earlier than morning, sitting on the stage and playing for a woman with three children plus a security guy who had been up until five drinking moonshine.

But as show time approached it was hard not to notice that the lovely meadow in front of the stage was nearly empty. Indeed, had I left my chair in the meadow for the stage when 11:30 arrived, I would have taken the entire audience with me. Yes, I was the only person awaiting my performance. I’m accustomed to playing for small houses so this was no worry. But it raised a vital question. How long can this festival last without bringing in more people?

Carolyn doesn’t seem worried. She said she would give the festival 3-5 years to succeed, and believes that as word gets out – especially about its excellent site and stage – larger acts will want to make the trek down Williamsburg Road. One band she hopes will help put Poor Farm on the festival map is Donna the Buffalo. “I’ve tried to get them before,” she says. “I really want to get them here next year.”

Donna would seem a perfect musical match for Poor Farm, and if the band’s loyal followers — AKA ‘The Herd” – showed up, that should make the cash registers sing as well. Other good fits would be Hot Tuna, Tim O’Brien (a West Virginia boy), and Lyle Lovett (who told me last year he was probably going to go independent) plus returning favorites (Nora Jane Struthers, the Steel Wheels, Johnson’s Crossroads, Kofi Baker). The roster could be rounded out with younger rock/roots/blues acts trying to climb the ladder.

Can Carolyn pull it off? She said she is putting in as many as eighty hours a week to make Poor Farm fly. She seems determined to succeed, come hell or high water.

There was no lack of the latter on Saturday afternoon. Just as Nora Jane Struthers was about to go on, a ferocious rain/wind storm struck. Canopy frames were twisted like pipe cleaners. My faithful chair, parked directly across from center stage, blew away, never to be found.

I know a sign from heaven when I see one and decided to vamoose. Just before departure, Carolyn drove up, surveyed the situation, and declared that the chance of rain was down to about ten percent. “I can live with that,” she said. Later, she filled me in via email about the final day:

“On Sunday, the sun came out and so did the families. We had tons of kids and families sitting in chairs with winter clothes on…We had a full-fledged super light show, smoke, strobes, and covers from the greats like Black Sabbath and Rush, a huge wild show ending with a professional fire dancer on the audience side of the stage who whirled her fire-pots to the music and just made a grand finale for the weekend…I left the festival feeling like a huge success, and I can’t wait to do it again next year!”

Here’s hoping Carolyn Stephens can find a way to make Poor Farm grow and prosper. I’d like to return, maybe even find my vagabond chair.

Wall Street Journal Review of 'Hit Lit' -- What Makes Blockbusters Tick - April 14, 2012

If you want to make the big money in fiction, don't skimp on the friction—especially the sexual, spiritual and political varieties—and go light on the navel-gazing. So counsels James W. Hall in "Hit Lit," a study of what makes best sellers tick.

Mr. Hall, himself no stranger to the best-seller lists as a thriller writer, teaches a college course on 20th-century mega-best sellers. "Hit Lit" offers insights from his own study of these books and from his classroom discussions.

"Hit Lit" focuses on a murderer's row of commercial best sellers from the past couple of decades: Tom Clancy's "The Hunt for Red October" (1984), John Grisham's "The Firm" (1991), Robert James Waller's "The Bridges of Madison County" (1992) and Dan Brown's "The Da Vinci Code" (2003). It looks back at earlier sensations, too: Stephen King's "The Dead Zone" (1979), Peter Benchley's "Jaws" (1974), William Peter Blatty's "The Exorcist" (1971), Mario Puzo's "The Godfather" (1969), Jacqueline Susann's "Valley of the Dolls" (1966), Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird" (1960), Grace Metalious's "Peyton Place" (1956) and Margaret Mitchell's "Gone With the Wind" (1936). These literary cash cows may tell us something about prevailing tastes, and they certainly share many features that wannabe blockbuster writers might keep in mind while going for the gold.

Job one, Mr. Hall writes, is to hook readers quickly, perhaps by having a naked young woman chomped in half by a shark or a man murdered by an albino monk, or by flashing some thigh (and perhaps adjacent real estate). Once hooked, customers must be goaded to keep turning the pages, the quicker the better. If they hesitate, you are lost. "Hit Lit" warns sharply against going introspective. People in blockbuster land don't have navels. "These characters are not self-absorbed or contemplative," Mr. Hall explains. They are "pitted against large forces, not characters in conflict with themselves" (take that, William Faulkner). Also, don't dillydally with needless personal detail. He notes that in "Gone With the Wind," Scarlett O'Hara "is married and becomes a widow in a single sentence at the beginning of Chapter 7."

Mr. Hall and his students found that protagonists with mass-market appeal tend to be mavericks, misfits or loners and that they often come from fractured families and communities. (In real life, aren't these types often deeply self-absorbed?) They are also often in pursuit of the American dream, variously defined, and find themselves acting against "a sweeping backdrop" such as the Cold War ("The Hunt for Red October") or the civil-rights struggle ("To Kill a Mockingbird").

Then there is the sweeping backdrop of humanity's eternal yearning to legally invade someone else's nether regions. "Sex sells," Mr. Hall reminds us, which is why even non-blockbuster readers have heard of "Peyton Place" and "Valley of the Dolls," books that benefited by being published in the pre-Internet era. They offered glimpses of furtive gropings long before it was possible to find every possible sexual permutation in the sanctity of a palm-cradled electronic device.

All the books surveyed, Mr. Hall writes, include at least one central sexual incident. Some are salacious, some melodramatic—Scarlett being carried upstairs for a thorough pillaging—and some criminal, such as the alleged rape at the center of "To Kill a Mockingbird." Many of the episodes shine a light on sexual hypocrisy. "New Englanders were outraged and offended that their folksy cover had been blown and their steamy bedrooms laid bare" in "Peyton Place," Mr. Hall writes. Warming to the subject, he declares that " 'Peyton Place' is America, the polite, mannered façade pulled back to reveal the squirming reality below."

Not to throw cold water on this literary hot flash, but if Americans were, en masse, really so sweaty and squirmy, would they buy a book describing what they already knew? Safer to say it was the novelty of the "Peyton Place" story that made the cash registers sing.

Religion is another hot-button subject in the most popular fiction, we're told. The church ladies in "To Kill a Mockingbird" are a flock of hypocrites, according to Mr. Hall, and they're hardly alone in best-seller land—you won't find an uncritical portrayal of traditional religion in any of these books. "It would seem that the bestselling authors of all time are a collection of freethinkers and agnostics who share a tendency to ridicule religious hypocrisy and aggressively challenge standard orthodoxy."

Or perhaps the authors are protecting their own orthodoxy by ridiculing those outside it. In any event, Mr. Hall informs us that religious works of an affirming sense sell so well that "most bestseller lists shunt them off into a separate category so the mainstream nonreligious books will have some slim chance of survival."

You're not likely to learn much about the Beatitudes in best sellers, but the books are instructive in other ways: Blockbusters almost always include an "abundance of facts and information," Mr. Hall says, by offering peeks inside glamorous or closed-off subcultures. He calls them "secret," but we may call them mysterious or little understood. For example: big-time law offices ("The Firm"), the entertainment world ("Valley of the Dolls"), organized crime ("The Godfather") and Opus Dei, the Catholic organization ("The Da Vinci Code"). Mr. Hall dubs this the "didactic function," which doesn't necessarily mean that the publisher has a fact-checking department burning the midnight oil. While Tom Clancy's detailed descriptions of military technology may be fairly accurate, Dan Brown's premise that Jesus was a baby-daddy is no more factually based than "The Wizard of Oz." Then again, they don't call these books fiction for nothing.

Mr. Hall, who writes with a light, amused touch, doesn't pay much attention to the literary quality of the books in his survey, and he can sound dismissive of writers who vastly outshine the multimillionaire club. "I'd wager there is more pure data on a single page of 'The Hunt for Red October' than in many entire novels by Faulkner or Hemingway," he writes. Here's a counter-wager: There are more moments of pure literary pleasure on a single page of Faulkner or Hemingway than in the entirety of "The Hunt for Red October." Here is a typical passage in the Clancy novel, describing the hero at a tense moment: "Ryan was chain-smoking at his station, and his palms were sweating as he struggled to maintain his composure." Faulkner might rather jump off a bridge than commit such pablum to print.

"Hit Lit" seems to take these books a bit too seriously, as when Mr. Hall contemplates the greater meaning of the opening dining scene in "Jaws," in which the main course has gone for a skinny-dip: "One could ask if the self-sufficient woman who abandons her man in a drunken haze is being punished for the sin of independence." Perhaps the shark ate Quint for the sin of drinking too much brandy.

Faculty-lounge politics pop up here and there in "Hit Lit." In a discussion of the "nuclear family" (a presence in many blockbusters), Mr. Hall dismisses William Bennett's lament over the dissolution of the family as a "a somewhat dire description of what some would say is simply a modernization of the family structure or a set of changes that reflect other transformations in modern culture." As Scarlett O'Hara might say: Pshaw—that professor needs to visit the projects.

“ But he also makes some sensible observations. "These days it's harder to profitably press the hot button of sex because that button has just about been worn out from overuse." And while acknowledging that seven of the books he studied were first novels, he notes that the other authors needed nurturing before hitting pay dirt, an increasingly rare corporate indulgence. "These days, if a writer does not succeed on the first or second try, his or her career is likely to flatline."

Mr. Hall includes some interesting tidbits. Ben Franklin—"lustful Ben," as he calls him—"was one of the first Americans to own a copy of John Cleland's scandalous novel 'Fanny Hill; or, Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure.' " He quotes Nathaniel Hawthorne's put-down of the "horde of female scribblers" and observes that women make up nearly 80% of fiction readers. Which raises a question. Are male readers kept at bay by design, purposely neglected by publishers? Or were they brainwashed by Opus Dei to avoid fiction? There's a novel in there somewhere.

—Mr. Shiflett is author of a lightly
read novel called "In the Matter
of J. Van Pelt."

Wall Street Journal Essay 'My Family's Bones' -- original, pre-edited version - February 18, 2012

The recent filming of Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” in Richmond and Petersburg, Va. was a reminder that, despite a few holdouts, local residents have made peace with the Civil War’s outcome. Most greeted the second coming of Lincoln (the film focuses on the late president’s visit to the fallen confederate capital less than two weeks before his assassination) as cause for artistic celebration -- and economic gain. It was also a splashy ending to the often somber Civil War sesquicentennial season.

But there was more involved than Hollywood glitz and greenbacks. Those events also stirred memories of an era that recedes ever further into the past, a time not only of Lincoln, Grant, Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee, but of people little noted, if not anonymous, yet who are in their own way still influential.

I have been thinking lately about one such person. Her name was Marcella Dunn. Her lifetime achievements were, at best, humble. They are certainly little known. So far as I know, this story is the only published record of her existence, though at one time she was listed in various documents – not as a person, but as property.

My family owned Marcella Dunn.

She was alive the day Lincoln came to Richmond – living on the plantation in Buckingham County, Virginia that had passed down through my mother’s side since the 1700s. A slave celebrity of sorts had also lived in the county -- Betsy Hemmings, niece of Sally Hemmings (and by some accounts one of Thomas Jefferson’s children) – who is buried in an attractive grave beside her master, John Wayles Eppes, Jefferson’s son-in-law, at the Millbrook Plantation.

Marcella’s grave, like her life, is all but invisible. It is located on a lightly sloping hillside alongside several dozen slave graves in a segregated section of the family cemetery. Hers is one of perhaps two slave gravestones that include the deceased’s name. The others are marked by bare fieldstones; those resting below are as anonymous in death as they were in life. Marcella’s daughter, Ella, lies among them.

I had seen Marcella’s gravestone during family funerals when I was growing up – you passed the slave graves on the way to the white section of the cemetery, some of which was surrounded by a stone fence. There are three confederate soldiers buried there, including one who fought at Gettysburg. The slave graves were in open land where the cattle grazed; I remember seeing a cowpie on Marcella’s grave during one visit.

But I knew little about her. Relatives would sometimes tell stories about how Marcella helped raise my great-grandmother and grandmother – and my great uncle, Malcolm, a larger than life man whose temperament sometimes seemed straight out of the antebellum era. Then again, to him those days, and ways, were hardly distant. He had the sword of our relative who fought at Gettysburg, and in his youth was cared for by a woman who had been a slave.

In 2000 I took my youngest son (who grew up to be Sarge, whose military deployment was discussed in these pages last July) to Buckingham to talk with Malcolm, then 85. I wanted to record his memories of Marcella and other stories from his life, if not for a future book (a fictionalized version of Malcolm is at the center of my recently published novel “In The Matter of J. Van Pelt”) then at least to make sure they did not disappear with him into his grave. He was the last source of information about Marcella: family records had been destroyed in a fire, as had official records when the county courthouse burned in 1869. Malcolm died two years later, in a world far different than the one he was born into -- a world changed, to some degree I believe, by Marcella.

He called her “A Marcella” – the A standing for Aunt. “I can still see A Marcella walking across the creek land,” Malcolm said, staring off a bit as we sat around the kitchen table. He described her as “tall and skinny” with a light complexion and a deep voice. “A Marcella had a lot to do with raising my mother,” he said, and she also guided him and his siblings in the paths of righteousness. He recalled her taking a stick to a brother, and she gave Malcolm some tongue lashings “like she was my own mother.”

She was born on the plantation in 1818 and in slave times would have been known as an “indoor slave” – someone who worked in the kitchen and tended to the family. “She was part social worker, part domestic help. If somebody got sick they’d send for Marcella.”
She was “loved by everybody. She smiled all the time.”

I asked if she ever talked about slavery. “She used to tell old stories she’d heard by word of mouth that her ancestors were on the first shipload of slaves to Virginia,” Malcolm said. Then he said something jarring: “A Marcella said slavery did black people more good than anything else.”

It was not surprising Malcolm might hold such a view. But could Marcella have really believed such a thing, or was she simply saying what she thought the white folk wanted to hear? There’s no way of knowing, of course, though the possibility she might have is a grim reminder she was born into a world whose best and brightest proclaimed black inferiority as universal objective truth. Lest we forget, a few examples:

"Vices the most notorious seem to be the portion of this unhappy race,” said one widely published description of blacks; “idleness, treachery, revenge, cruelty, impudence, stealing, lying, profanity, debauchery, nastiness and intemperance, are said to have extinguished the principles of natural law, and to have silenced the reproofs of conscience. They are strangers to every sentiment of compassion, and are an awful example of the corruption of man when left to himself." So stated the 1797 Encyclopedia Britannica

In the same spirit philosopher David Hume sneered that a Jamaican black who had gained a reputation for intelligence was "admired for very slender accomplishments, like a parrot, who speaks a few words plainly." Even John Locke, champion of the "inalienable rights of man," wrote a provision for slavery in his draft of the Fundamental Constitution of Carolina -- and invested in the Royal Africa Company, which held the British monopoly of the African slave trade.

Transcending such pervasive and grinding bias would require nearly superhuman strength, and there are other, more brutal, reminders of subservient status. While Malcolm insisted whites treated their slaves well, history tells another story, one that also strikes close to home. My family tree includes the names Stevens, Alvis, Coleman, and Cabell -- surnames found in advertisements for runaway slaves from Buckingham and nearby areas.
John Stevens, advertising in the Virginia Argus (Jan. 5, 1803), offered $20 for a slave named Toney, who is described as “about thirty years of age, has scars on his back [not for his good behavior] and one very noted scar on his breast as large as a man's finger.” He had also “been branded on both jaws.” Joseph Cabell, in the Virginia Gazette (Sept. 6, 1799) offered $40 for two slaves named Billy and Judy, a husband and wife who had fled together. In November 1795, John Alloway Strange offered ten pounds for Tom, “about 25 or 26 years old, 5 feet 4 or 5 inches high, has a scar on his head, and a large one on one of his legs, and one on each wrist, occasioned by handcuffs: his back much scarred by whipping.”

I did not ask, though wish I had, if Marcella ever spoke about being beaten, or being intimidated by the Klan, whose local branch included two relatives. Malcolm said he had never seen a lynching but added there was a local “lynching tree” that a “wood company” had cut down a few years prior to our interview. Strange to think, but somewhere that tree may exist in reinvented status as a bed or kitchen table.

Malcolm filled in a few other details of Marcella’s life. She had one child he knew of and likely several grandchildren, though he didn’t know the names of any descendents. The fact that she was light-skinned suggested mixed ancestry. I asked if family slaves had borne children by their masters. “I guess they did,” he said, estimating I had “probably plenty“ of unknown kin, some of whom might be buried near Marcella.

Marcella died a very old woman, in 1927. Her funeral was attended by about 100 people -- “more blacks than whites” with a black and white preacher. “There were buggies and horses under the trees,” Malcolm recalled. “It was a pretty day.” Her gravestone, pictured nearby, includes her name and dates on one side and on the back an inscription stating she had been willed with 20 other slaves to her final master. Near her grave is the only other slave marker I found with an inscription: “Betty Stevens could only read the Bible.”

While you can’t know much about a person from this distance, when I think of Marcella I think of a dignified woman forced to play a difficult hand. She came to know freedom, of sorts at least, and she clearly knew love. She was admired and valued in her community and made her part of the world a better place. Those are worthy accomplishments for anyone, and considering her situation, perhaps great ones.

Yet it is hard not to wonder if her omnipresent smile was a sign of true happiness, a survival technique, or a combination of those and other factors. She was a firm Baptist, Malcolm said, so perhaps her smile also represented a triumph of forgiveness. I like to think Marcella’s smile was the reflection of a nature more powerful than the forces arrayed against her. That would, in my mind, make her a superior person. One also wonders how many Marcellas there were among the 12 generations of American slaves, their contributions unsung but incalculable.

It’s also hard not to also think about the anonymous souls buried alongside her. Who were they? Were they all born on this land? Did some escape the plantation, only to be dragged back? What were their dreams? Did they go through life believing they were inferior, if not sub-human? While Marcella and daughter Ella are said to lie side-by-side, the heart-rending words of Sojourner Truth can haunt as you walk among the fieldstones: "Look at me! Look at my arm! I have plowed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me -- and aren't I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man (when I could get it), and bear de lash as well -- and ar'n't I a woman? I have borne thirteen children and seen ‘em mos' all sold off into slavery, and when I cried out with a mother's grief, none but Jesus heard -- and ar'n't I a woman?"

If David Hume ever spoke words that powerful and eloquent, they slipped my attention.

None are responsible for the sins of their fathers, but there is a connection between generations, for good and bad, sometimes bestowing wealth and privilege, sometimes hardship and sorrow, and many things in between. Time definitely has a way of shuffling the deck. Just as those anonymous bones belonged to people once owned by my family, they now own part of me.

Malcolm’s world was shuffled too, and he seemed to have changed as well, if only a little, perhaps due to Marcella’s influence.

A devout Dixiecrat, Malcolm for many years hosted an annual picnic – featuring fried chitterlings – that attracted upwards of 400 people, including many state politicians. This started out as an all-white event but eventually there were new faces at the table.

“When Doug Wilder was elected they all said I had to have him,” Malcolm recalled near interview’s end, adding that he invited Wilder but wouldn’t allow Virginia’s first African-American governor to sit at his hallowed dining room table. Wilder seems not to held this against him. One day, after he had left office “he stopped in,” Malcolm recalled. “Just came by to say hello.”

I asked what he thought of Wilder.

“He was alright.”

Wall Street Journal Review of "Scapegoat" - February 4, 2012

Truly honorable people—in the wake of some monumental botch—fall on their swords. Most of us, however, would prefer that someone else be chosen to take the hit.

In "Scapegoat: A History of Blaming Other People," British writer Charlie Campbell traces the habit of buck passing back to the Garden of Eden, where Eve, an apparently gullible person with far too much time on her hands, blamed a talking snake for persuading her to pick the forbidden fruit, thus unleashing our continuing pageant of sorrows.

Whatever our other shortcomings, humans have a profound talent for designating fall guys for problems and disasters that we ourselves are responsible for or that we simply do not understand. As Mr. Campbell observes in this brief and entertaining book, there might not always be a cure for what ails humanity, "but there's always a culprit."

Mr. Campbell traces the word "scapegoat" to William Tyndale's 1530 English-language translation of the Bible. Tyndale used the word to describe a ritual found in Leviticus in which two goats representing Israel's sins were sacrificed to appease the celestial authorities. The translator himself shared a similar fate in Henry VIII's England. He was eventually condemned as a heretic and strangled—then burned at the stake for good measure.

Scapegoating and religion have kept close company, according to Mr. Campbell, a former editor at the Literary Review.

Christianity's central figure can be viewed as a scapegoat, taking on humanity's sin and in the process earning a trip to Golgotha. Early believers were blamed for various disasters and accused of hideous behavior, including incest, cannibalism and child murder—accusations, Mr. Campbell adds, that Christians would later level against their own adversaries. "Ultimately our imagination is relatively limited when it comes to wickedness," Mr. Campbell writes, "and the authorities trot out the same list of accusations towards minorities they wish to demonize."

Jews, perhaps the eternal scapegoats, catch it in the neck even from people they're trying to help. When Crusaders set out in 1096 to retake the Holy Land, Mr. Campbell says, they stopped off in the Rhine Valley and slaughtered Jews—"many of whom had lent the money the Crusaders needed to set out on this religious quest in the first place."

The list of wrongdoing that Jews have been blamed for is quite expansive, Mr. Campbell reminds us, including poisoned wells and crops, missing children and the Black Death, though Pope Clement VI issued a bull relieving them of responsibility for the last horror. Instead, he chalked it up to "a misalignment of the planets," as Mr. Campbell explains, "which is as close as the Church will ever get to saying that it, like the rest of us, just doesn't know."

Yet there has been little lack of certitude in history's scapegoating efforts, some of which may strike readers as laughable despite the horrendous results. Fifteenth-century Dutch scholar Johann Wyler, a witch expert, calculated that there were 7,405,926 witches, "divided into 72 battalions, each led by a prince or a captain." Another estimate put the number at 1.8 million. While most witches apparently escaped detection, some 50,000 were killed.

Mr. Campbell's descriptions of executions are suitably grim, though he also takes a look on the bright side. While the Middle Ages were especially rough times for the accused, they were plush times for a certain type of entrepreneur. Witch-hunter Matthew Hopkins made a killing in the trade in the mid-1600s, earning 20 shillings per conviction (a month's wages for a laborer). On one red-letter day he sent 19 witches to their deaths. Impoverished towns might spend a big portion of their budgets on witch extermination. This was not an exact science. The famous "swimming" test bound witches and lowered them in water. If they floated, they were guilty. If they drowned, they were innocent. (Sorry—we meant well!)

Mr. Campbell trots out other popular scapegoats—communists, financiers, the devil in his various guises and even inanimate objects, including a bell that innocently tolled away in the Russian town of Uglich until a prince was assassinated there in 1591, after which it was shipped off to Siberia, a cursed object, to languish for several centuries.

Yet Mr. Campbell's strangest examples feature animals. He tells the story of a storm that ravaged the Hebridean island of St. Kilda in 1840. A Great Auk, rare in those parts, was seen walking on the beach; it was captured and put on trial for instigating the fatal storm. The Auk, already a flightless bird, was found guilty and stoned to death. In a similarly vengeful spirit, a Parisian cow was executed in 1546 for having amorous relations with a man, though common sense indicates that the man was likely the aggressor. In a nod to fairness, both were hanged, then burned.

Mixing metaphors, insects have endured a similar scrutiny as scapegoats. Mosquitoes, flies and ravenous weevils have been threatened with excommunication by the church. A killing frost would usually solve the problem. But in southern France, the church put the local weevils on trial for a crop blight. The trial went on for eight months, during which time the weevils were granted a plot of land for sanctuary.

While we might like to believe that humanity has outgrown its addiction to scapegoating, Mr. Campbell reminds us otherwise. Economic downturns, he writes, "are extraordinarily complex and hard to fathom, yet that does not deter the blamemongers." Bankers take much of the blame because "they are regarded by the public as being overpaid." They may certainly be blamed for a revived interest in urban camping.

When bankers won't do, creative minds come up with even more exotic malefactors. Author and lecturer David Icke, a former British soccer player and Green Party spokesman, teaches that "the world is run by a secret cabal of giant shape-shifting extraterrestrial lizards known as the Babylon Brotherhood." This group, he says, includes both President Bushes and troubadours Kris Kristofferson and Boxcar Willie. There is apparently a good market for this viewpoint: Mr. Icke has written 18 books, and his website reportedly gets 600,000 hits per week.

Athletes sometimes play the role of the scapegoat, especially if they blow a scoring opportunity that would have clenched the game, as Baltimore Ravens kicker Billy Cundiff did in his team's recent loss in the AFC championship. Mr. Cundiff, who partially blamed a scoreboard error for making him rush the kick, might argue that losing, like winning, is a team effort. Soccer star Andrés Escobar, blamed for scoring a goal against his own team in the 1994 World Cup game, might argue the same, if he had not been murdered in connection with his gaffe.

Finally, there are politicians, who get blamed for a lot, sometimes wrongly. But they may also be the world's pre-eminent blame shifters—demonizing rival politicians with eternal vigilance. Mr. Campbell does acknowledge exceptions to prominent leaders dodging blame. He cites Robert E. Lee's post-Gettysburg mea culpa: "All of this has been my fault. I asked more of my men than should have been asked of them." Then again, the architect of Pickett's Charge had cause for humility.

Mr. Campbell cannot be accused of writing a ringing endorsement of our species. But he has made it clear that many of us operate on a revised version of the Golden Rule: Do unto others what should probably be done unto you.

—Mr. Shiflett is the author of the recently published novel "In the Matter of J. Van Pelt."

Profile: Tara Nevins of Donna the Buffalo - December 30, 2011

Here's a profile of Tara Nevins I did for my ongoing book: Alive Without Permission.

Tara Nevins is best known for fronting Donna The Buffalo, the enduring (20 plus years) rock/jam/festival band based in Trumansburg, New York. Years pass, band members come and go, but Tara (and co-founder Jeb Puryear) keep Donna hoppin’ and constantly touring.

But in her heart of hearts, Tara Nevins is an old-time fiddler. Her most vivid musical experiences are tied to the traditional music of the North Carolina hills, where she sought out and learned the tunes that still excite her and deeply influence her work with Donna and as a solo artist.

I met Tara last spring at Merlefest. She’s slender and good-looking, with a warm bearing. While some professional musicians seem bored with their routines Tara maintains a passion for music, especially traditional forms, including cajun, zydeco, and old time. She’s something of an old time apostle, and when I told her I was interested in learning more about the music she suggested I attend the Mt. Airy Fiddler’s Convention in Mt. Airy, North Carolina (the subject of an earlier post – scroll down, you’ll find it).

“Mt. Airy has been and still is my Mecca,” she told me. She books no shows during the week of the festival, and sure enough this year she rolled into the festival grounds in Donna The Buffalo’s big purple tour bus, which has an interesting history all its own: among its previous owners are Toby Keith and Jim and Tammy Bakker’s PTL Club.

The sun was on full broil that May weekend and it felt like you could roast potatoes inside the bus, so after a brief talk we stepped outside where Tara pointed out several friends and former band mates who were singing country standards. One old pal is Joe Thrift, well known to old time practitioners for his fiddle tune “Pale Face.” Joe, a highly respected violin maker, once played keyboards for Donna. He was also the band’s bus driver, he told me, and considered himself very good at it. I hope to interview him for this project a bit further on.

The purple bus was on Tara’s mind when I caught up with her a few weeks ago to talk about her early days as a musician, her love of old time, and whatever else came to mind. Donna the Buffalo had played a gig in Annapolis, Maryland the night before and soon after departing for home the bus began shaking violently. The problem turned out to be bad rims. “We all got on our computers and found a 24-hour roadside service,” she said. Several hours and four hundred dollars later they proceeded toward Trumansburg. “I got to bed at six-thirty this morning.” I was reminded of something Jorma Kaukonen wrote a few years back (roughly paraphrased here): Being a professional musician means long hours of driving interspersed with brief periods of actually playing music.

Donna usually does around 100 shows a year, Tara says, but this year they’re doing far more. “We have debt to pay.” She said touring is getting a bit harder as time goes on. “I don’t like being out of my routine. I don’t always get to eat as well as I’d like, or exercise as much. I really like to get in an hour of walking each day, and that can be hard to do when you’re on the road.” The band is currently working on a new disc, and she’s also trying to get out more to promote her latest solo album, “Wood and Stone.” Though she sounded somewhat tired she was also upbeat. She clearly loves the path she has chosen.

I asked her how old she was when she knew she would spend her life making music. “I never consciously thought that,” she says. There was no decision one day to forego everything else in favor of the musical life. But many years were spent developing the chops, and worldview, that made this life possible.

Tara grew up in Orangeburg, New York, not far from New York City. She got her first violin at age 5 and took up the guitar at 14, learning the songs of Joni Mitchell, James Taylor and Carol King. She wrote her first song at 17 – “it was a silly little song called ‘We’re On Our Way To A New World Now.’ The theme was kinda ‘the younger generation is alive and happening. We know what it’s all about.’ It did foreshadow the uplifting, worldly message that’s in a lot of Donna the Buffalo’s music.”

She played violin in the high school orchestra, and during that time discovered that not all the old masters played classical music. “When I heard the ‘Will The Circle Be Unbroken’ album, it turned my head. I thought ‘That’s what I want to do.’” Her classical violin studies took her to the Crane School of Music at SUNY Potsdam, but she did not solely concentrate on the classical curriculum.

“My roommate played in a band called the St. Regis River Valley String Band,” Tara says. “They played old time and I fell in love with it in a minute.” The band liked her as well, and eventually added her as a member. “Before I knew it, playing old time was what I was doing with my life.” While she had earned a teaching degree, “I had no interest in teaching music.”

Instead, she wanted to learn as much about old time as possible. After college, she “dove in,” and no place was more important in her development than the Mt. Airy festival. “We also went to Galax and Brandywine, but Mt. Airy was my favorite. It was small and there were lots of local players to learn from, and some of the greatest players came from that area, including Tommy Jarrell, Benton Flippen, and Fred Cockerham.”

There was, she adds, something of a culture clash. “This was a very southern festival, and we were outsiders. We were from the North, the West Coast, the Midwest, and we were alternative minded. We were called ‘The Revivalists’ because we were the younger generation that was reviving this music. At first, the local people looked at us sort of crossways. I think we amused them. But they knew we respected their culture and that we had come to learn their music. And come Sunday morning when it was time to leave, we left the place spotless. Eventually we were accepted, appreciated and loved.”

One sign of that acceptance was that the outsiders began winning contests. “We started an all-girl band called The Heartbeats and one year won the best up and coming band.” The Heartbeats “were and are an extremely significant band in my life. We are a powerful old time band that plays hard driving fiddle tunes and songs that have a bit of pop sensibility.” Tara also won the fiddle contest. “Being accepted at that level was a very powerful experience,” Tara says , though perhaps her most memorable musical experience followed an on-stage performance of the classic tune “Sally Anne.”

“I played the tune in the fiddle contest and got off the stage. I was standing there and Riley Baugus walked up to me and said there was someone who wanted to meet me. I was a little nervous, but I went with him. So he takes me to a campsite, and there’s Dix Freeman, who played banjo with Tommy Jarrell for years. He had heard me playing ‘Sally Anne’ and said ‘You sound so much like Tommy.’ Well, I had learned the tune from a Tommy Jarrell recording. He asked me to play it again. For me, being face-to-face with Dix was mind blowing. He was very nice and invited me to his house and showed me around. There was a little cabin there where they had square dances. He also had Tommy Jarrell’s moonshine jug. “

For Tara, these were life-shaping events. “These times were like Christmas when you’re a kid. They still are very powerful for me, and I know for a lot of other musicians.” Donna the Buffalo, she adds, has its roots in old time. “Originally, all the people in the band were old time musicians. Jeb picked up the electric guitar and I got an electric violin from my dad. We added drums and morphed into an electric band, but the old time influence is definitely there.”

I asked Tara about songwriting. She is a solitary woman in that regard. While she and Jeb Puryear write all Donna’s original material, and have been doing so for 22 years, “we haven’t written a song together.” She hasn’t co-written with anyone, she adds, though she does perform with other writers, including country hit maker Jim Lauderdale, who appeared on her recent solo album as a harmony singer.

Her new solo disc, “Wood And Stone” (Sugar Hill Records), has stellar contributors, including drummer Levon Helm and producer Larry Campbell, and has kept her in pretty good company, appearing on the Americana charts with recordings from Lucinda Williams, Steve Earle and Gillian Welch. The disc is a deeply personal reflection on family life, including the breakup of her longtime marriage. Yet it is not, she says, “maudlin or so private that it’s embarrassing. This is not a woe is me record” or, as she has said elsewhere, a musical version of a “chick flick.” It is also something of a departure from her first solo record, “Mule To Ride,” which came out on Sugar Hill in 1999 and showcased Tara’s fiddling. That disc, which also charted, featured several high profile guest artists, including Ralph Stanley and Mike Seeger.

Her only woe, she says, is that she hasn’t gotten out to play the tunes as much as she’d like due to commitments with Donna the Buffalo.

“I’m thinking I’d like to put together a little band and do more gigs in the spring.” Despite over 20 years of public performances, including gigs before large audiences, she is still uncomfortable unaccompanied. “I never have just played solo, except maybe at a songwriter workshop.” When she’s with a smaller band, she adds, she enjoys talking with the audience, which she doesn’t do much of when playing with Donna. “It’s nice having that sort of communication.”

Near conversation’s end she offered advice for younger musicians. They should listen to the classical masters – Bach, Beethoven et al. – but also to the best of other traditions, whether Loretta Lynn, Hank Williams, the Balfa Brothers, Thomas Mapfumo, The Frank Family, plus rock and pop deities including the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, and Bob Marley. And if old time turns their head, as it turned Tara’s, she suggests Jarrell, Flippen, the Smoky Valley Boys and the Roan Mountain Hilltoppers, for starters.

And, of course, a yearly visit to Mt. Airy. She’ll be the fiddle babe in the big purple bus.

Talking with Tara reminded me of my trip to Mt. Airy and the other great old time players I’d heard there, including Mark Olitsky. Mark’s clawhammer banjo had turned my head when I first heard it a couple of years ago at Clifftop. We eventually struck up a friendship, played some tunes together, and shared campsites at a few festivals. After eating some of my highly carnivorous cooking, Mark went vegan.

So, next time out, a conversation with Mark (if I can track him down). For now, a short break for Christmas. And for those who have wondered about my son Branch (scroll down a bit and you’ll find a piece I did on his deployment to Iraq) — he’s back home. And he’s looking for an upright bass. He’d probably like to find Tommy Jarrell’s moonshine jug as well. Lord help us every one.

Wall Street Journal Review of Several Humor Books -- Unedited Version - November 19, 2011

We could all use a good laugh these days, unless you happen to be amused by financial peril, sanctimonious street urchins, unsolicited tumors, children who have decided to move back home, and other of life’s non-stop calamities.

The book industry has responded with a barrage of works promising to bring a smile, or least a smirk, to our weary faces. Some of the material is new, some slightly recycled, some clunky. None of it is free.

In the fresh jokes department, comic Demetri Martin’s “This Is A Book” has a contemporary air, as befitting a guy who’s appeared on Conan, the Daily Show and his own slot on Comedy Central. His book includes essays, drawings, short stories and plenty of reminders that we live in an age when some people – make that lots of people – believe everything they think or do should be posted.

“Nearly ½ of all people in the United States are torsos,” Mr. Martin observes in a chapter entitled “Statistics,” along with “Men are 35 times more likely than women to be turned on by looking at a wedgie.” In a chapter about updating flags his new flag of the south features a man in a suit holding a Bible and a waffle. “He looks proud and is standing inside a trailer park.”

This stuff might be a lot funnier with a chaser of nitrous oxide, yet there are plenty of smiles in David McRaney’s “You Are Not So Smart,” which argues that humans are experts at self-delusion and in drawing large lessons from abnormal behavior, some of it not so funny at all. He cites hysterical responses to the Columbine school shootings: “A typical schoolkid is three times more likely to be struck by lightning than to be shot by a classmate,” he writes, “yet schools continue to guard against it as if it could happen at any second.” Keep that in mind the next time your local school officials start chirping about how they’re teaching “critical thinking skills.” A chuckle may ensue.

In a sexier vein, Merrill Markoe’s “Cool, Calm and Contentious” is a wry look at life from a woman who loves dogs but is a bit warier of men, as we see in her account of surrendering her virginity to a loutish hack artist who treated indifferently and failed to make the earth move despite being given several opportunities. His name is Brad, if anyone’s interested.

Some readers might find themselves saying “are you sure you want us to know all this?” yet may be amused by her explanation of why teenagers are “boneheads” about sexting, hooking up and other sexual endeavors: The frontal lobes, which allow us “to comprehend the idea of actions having consequences, aren’t finished being wired for functioning until your late twenties.” Hmmmm. The fact that many of us comprehended the likely consequences of our actions all too well is why we learned the art of lying at a very early age. That’s no joke.

There are lots of world-class laughs in Andy Borowitz’s “The 50 Funniest American Writers,” which includes the work of Mark Twain, S.J. Pereleman, Jean Shepherd, Hunter S. Thompson, Nora Ephron, Dorothy Parker, H.L. Mencken, Wanda Sykes, Dave Barry and the Onion. Essays on politics are especially timely: Twain writes as a man disclosing his sins prior to running for president: he not only “treed a rheumatic grandfather of mine in the winter of 1850” but went AWOL during Gettysburg. “I wanted my country saved, but I preferred to have somebody else save it.” Mencken, meantime, proposes that “unsuccessful candidates for the presidency be quietly hanged, as a matter of public sanitation and decorum” and on further reflection concludes ex-presidents be accorded the same treatment. At heart, maybe Mencken was a premature tea-bagger.

P.J. O’Rourke, now an elder in the temple of mirth and the only self-proclaimed Republican in this bunch, still has his teeth about him in “Holidays in Heck,” a collection of re-written magazine articles from Hong Kong, China, Kyrgyzstan and other exotic locales. Mr. O’Rourke, who has added “cancer survivor” to his resume, takes a scalpel to a modern art display at the Venice Biennale, eviscerating a piece by Italy’s Bruna Esposito, who “scattered onion skins on marble floor tiles and, remarkably, did not title it ‘Get the Broom.’” Looking on the brighter side, Mr. O’Rourke theorizes that many dictators, including Hitler, were frustrated artists, so putting their dreck on display might have kept them out of bigger trouble. That might make a novel fund-raising line: We’re not hanging lousy pictures, we’re aborting world wars. Maybe worth a try.

Calvin Trillin, another elder, sounds a bit cranky in his take on health food in “Quite Enough of Calvin Trillin,” a rich compendium of 40 year’s worth of his work. “Am I the only one worried about how unhealthy the people who work in health food stores look?” he asks before smirking at “bee waste” and “stump paste” and wondering why legislation hasn’t been passed that protects consumers from “being reminded constantly of the last days of Howard Hughes.” Give it time, sir.

All told, some worthy additions to the humor vault. Other holiday gift suggestions: Juvenal, whose first- and second-century satires of gluttonous bluebloods keeling over on the way to the baths, and incestuous villainy (“every embryo lump was the living spit of uncle”) could have been written last week (though getting them published might be another matter). There’s also Paul Tabori’s “The Natural Science of Stupidity,” which includes a life insurance policy of sorts from the 16th century: Soldiers are instructed to sew moss taken from the skull of an executed man into their clothing. “As long as you wear the jerkin, you are safe from ball, cut and thrust.” Ah, the days before class action lawsuits.

Some of the best humor isn’t found in books, of course. The funniest line I’ve seen in years is on a funeral urn crafted by artist/songstress Nancy Josephson: “Does this urn make my ashes look big?”

A joke to die for, almost.

Review of 'Where Soldiers Come From' on PBS - November 10, 2011

It’s been a while between postings – some unexpected writing assignments came up, and there was also a week in San Francisco. I’m still planning on getting to Ashville, North Carolina ASAP to talk to musicians, recording magnates and other purveyors of roots music, but until then here’s a heads-up on a film about another subject this blog has taken up, military deployment.

“Where Soldiers Come From,” a new film about deployment and its consequences, airs Nov. 10 at 9 p.m. on PBS. It will stream Nov. 11-Dec. 11 at Readers who enjoyed my Wall Street Journal piece, “While My Son Serves” (scroll down a bit; you’ll find it) will likely find this show worthy of your time.

It follows the deployment of a National Guard unit from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan to Afghanistan and back home again. The project was four years in the making and is very thorough. Those with family members who have deployed will see a lot of their own experiences here, while those who haven’t will get a clear-eyed view of how deployment affects families.

Director Heather Courtney, who is from the same hometown (Hancock) as several of the soldiers, says the film “is about the people who fight our wars and the communities and families they come from. Many Americans, whatever their politics or feelings about war, are very far removed from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars because they don't know anyone personally who has served in them as a soldier. I hope that my film will help viewers get to know these young men and their families, feel compassion for them and see a bit of themselves in the people on the screen.”

The film is entirely respectful of the soldiers and their families, though no one will mistake this for a military recruiting film – or an anti-war film either. For my money, it’s a straight-ahead, non-dramatic look at a group of kids – ranging from late teens to early 20s – and their families and friends as they go through a deployment.

The soldiers signed up during hard times; the military gave them work, a $20,000 signing bonus, a promise of an underwritten education and, for some, a purpose in life. Plus, they were young and looking for adventure. They found plenty of that, though we are eventually reminded that adventure can wear you down after awhile, and definitely change your perspective.

Courtney takes us through the early days of training, wondering if they’ll go overseas, and the fateful day the deployment orders come through. Scenes from a farewell party will be familiar to many families: plenty of booze and stiff upper lips. Then they’re off.

The soldiers are fairly carefree, bantering blithely as they go about their job: detonating Improvised Explosive Devices along Afghan roadways. “I don’t want to kill anyone,” says one soldier. His pals chirp in on other subjects. “Have you had sex yet?” says one. “I’m a lover not a fighter,” says another. Many of the conversations in the film, one should add, are undertaken in what my son calls the “incredible mosaic of obscenity.”

Then – Boom! – a bomb goes off and things get very serious very quickly. If you’ve never seen film of an IED detonating, there are plenty here. Some result in wounds, though Courtney spares us the gore.

Courtney also keeps the families in focusing, reminding viewers that when one family member is deployed, the entire family is deployed. Parents will definitely associate with a father who tells of fearing that “knock on the door” from a Pentagon representative bearing bad news. A girlfriend says there’s “lots of depression. Life is very different.” We see families talking via Skype, conversations that are deeply heartfelt but sometimes awkward; a combination of joy, relief, and trying to come up with small talk.

Back in Afghanistan, the stress begins taking its toll.
In their barracks, soldiers talk about having a hard time sleeping. One develops ulcers and adult asthma. A shift in attitude appears universal.

“I hate everybody here,” one soldier says. “I’m a racist American now because of this war.” Other soldiers have become somewhat disillusioned. The people of Afghanistan, one says, are “stricken with a burden that seems unfixable. What is the point in all this? Who am I fighting this war for?” There is talk of suffering “too many concussions” from being “blown up too many times.”

Yet there is also a high level of compassion, even for their adversaries. One soldier sympathizes with the people who are trying to blow him up, suggesting that if he were a native he might be doing the same thing. After a cache of explosives is found near a home, concerns are raised about what will happen to the family now that the man of the house is being arrested and taken away. One soldier asks what anyone would do if a Taliban insurgent ordered them to shoot at American convoys and hide explosives -- or see their children killed. As for the children, they “are unbelievable. They never stop smiling.”

Finally, it’s time to come home. “It’s just like being pregnant,” says one mother. “It’s on you mind every day until they get back.” When they do, everyone realizes these aren’t the same boys they had known. It can be very difficult getting back into the swing of civilian life – finding a job, restarting relationship – especially when some soldiers are suffering from post traumatic stress disorder or a brain injury. One lapses into fits of extreme anger. The hidden toll of war, we are reminded, can last far longer than the deployment itself.

This is a film worth watching, for military and non-military families alike. Many thanks to Cathy Fisher of POV for sending it along. On a personal note, our family appreciates the concerns and prayers sent aloft on behalf of “Sarge,” whom we expect to reappear in Virginia sometime in December or January. And here at Veteran’s Day, we are especially thankful for the service and safe return of soldiers we know who went overseas, including Ben, Josh, Ralph, Mike, Smitty and Chip. We are proud to call you our friends.

Washington Post review: 'The Three of Us' By George Jones (George And Tammy's Daughter) - July 25, 2011

Georgette Jones: Standin’ by mom and dad
By Dave Shiflett, Published: July 22
The children of icons seldom achieve at the level of their luminous parents, which is certainly true of Georgette Jones, daughter of country music deities Tammy Wynette and George Jones. That is, for the most part, a good thing for Georgette, as we learn in “The Three of Us,” her memoir of growing up in that deeply fractured household.

She was never her father’s equal as a boozer — few reach those heights — and hasn’t matched her mother’s level of domestic drama (romance with Burt Reynolds, a long string of sometimes malignant marriages and chronic pill-popping). Then there’s music. George Jones recorded some of country music’s greatest songs, including “He Stopped Loving Her Today” and “She Thinks I Still Care,” while Wynette’s “Stand by Your Man” is one of country’s best-known anthems.

While Georgette sang a bit with her parents as a child, and later as a backup singer for her mother, she made her living as a nurse before inching back into the family trade. She recognizes that she will never reach her parent’s level of stardom, which, it seems, would suit George and Tammy (RIP) quite well. “In a nutshell,” she writes, “my mom never trusted stardom, and my dad never liked it.”

She provides plenty of run-up to her birth in 1970, including a reminder that, while her parents’ marriage may not have been made in heaven, it was a Nashville dream. “When my mom married my dad, she was marrying her hero,” she writes.

Both came from rural backgrounds, though George’s was more desperate. “Dad had to quit school at a young age to help out his family,” she writes. “No stability and no safety, just poverty and uncertainty.” Music was his way out.

As it was for Virginia Wynette Pugh (Tammy’s real name), a single mother of three when she moved to Nashville in 1966, living in a motel and, in an old Nashville story, rejected by almost everyone on Music Row. Her fortunes changed when she slipped into the office of producer Billy Sherrill and told him, “You are my last hope.” Sherrill liked her voice but not her name and suggested she call herself Tammy — after the title character in the movie “Tammy and the Bachelor.” She soon met Jones at a recording session. She cottoned to “The Possum,” and he to her. They married in 1969.

Whatever marital bliss there might have been was short-lived. By 1972 George and Tammy’s stormy weather was the talk of the tabloids and resonated in their duet “We’re Gonna Hold On,” which, Georgette writes, was “appropriate given their sometimes on-the-rocks marital status.” When they were asked during a television show what would keep their marriage together, a classic line was born: “They agreed it would only work if Dad quit nippin’ and Mom quit naggin.’ ” Neither of which appears to have come to pass. The couple divorced in 1975, and George, for the most part, dropped out of his daughter’s life.

Georgette’s memoir is not an exercise in whining or score settling. Readers looking for yet more stories about George’s legendary guzzling will be disappointed; Georgette says it was largely hidden from her. When he worked the bar and club circuit, she adds, drinking became “a weapon against his introverted nature.”

As for her mom, her major problem involved that other world-class demon: men. Tammy stood by five men, with the last two marriages especially grim. Georgette seems to hold a special, though apparently deserved, animosity for the fifth and final husband, the late George Richey, a songwriter and producer Tammy married in 1978 while “heavily sedated with Demerol.” He was verbally and physically abusive, she writes, and appears to have been a world-class swindler as well.

Georgette, to be sure, didn’t live the convent life, marrying a couple of times and experiencing her own bout of substance abuse, which she backed away from. She later survived cancer and, of greater interest to most readers, her mother’s somewhat mysterious and gruesome death.

The curtain fell in 1998, following years of painkiller addiction partly resulting from multiple operations on abdominal maladies. Tammy apparently lay dead on a sofa several hours before anyone noticed she had stopped breathing. That left her body bloated and her face “cracked,” Georgette recalls. “Mom was dead. Not just dead, but horribly and disfiguringly dead.”

Tammy’s death helped Georgette reestablish her relationship with her father, who had ignored her for long stretches, including begging off when she asked him to walk her down the aisle. Her desire to reconnect, and forgive and forget, is her most engaging and touching characteristic.

All told, the memoir is remarkably upbeat. It also reminds us that Nashville, which operates under the family-values banner, should probably trade that one in for the skull and crossbones.

Wall Street Journal Review: Cabin Fever and Back to the Land - July 9, 2011

The desire to escape the rat race, till the land, raise your own chickens, listen to the whippoorwills and otherwise escape the grind of city life has launched countless daydreams, many books and at least one highly annoying TV show: "Green Acres."

Two new books—one personal, the other a broad history of "back to the land" enthusiasm—may touch a chord in a desperate urban-dweller's heart, but they may also show, if sometimes inadvertently, that Mother Earth's bosom is not always welcoming to mere humans.

Tom Montgomery Fate, whose "Cabin Fever" falls into the category of "nature writing," is far from a full-time homesteader. He is an English professor at the College of DuPage in Illinois, lives in a Chicago suburb with his family and minivan, participates in the antiwar movement, and could easily be mistaken for a cog in the notorious wheel.

But he is also devoted to Henry David Thoreau's "Walden" and especially to the idea of living a "deliberate life," which Mr. Fate defines as "a search for balance—in mind and body and spirit—amid our daily lives." That search often takes him to a cabin a few hours from his home, where he observes nature, and himself, at close quarters.

The book is organized into seasonal essays, starting with spring, a time when the sun brings the earth to blossom, though Mr. Fate is equally alert to life forms that have kept the pesticide industry in deep clover. He has a fascination for ticks, for instance. They go "questing" for blood donors, spearing their victims with a "beaklike projection" and drawing a "quantity of blood that is a hundred times their 'empty' weight."

Mr. Fate is also a fan of ants. "Today there are more than a million ants for each person on the planet," he claims in a more-the-better spirit. As Mr. Fate watches ants doing their chores, including passing along "regurgitated" food and cooperating in ways that would make Mr. Rogers smile, he arrives at an epiphany: "It strikes me that humans could never reach such communal efficiency and economy." If the ant is condemned to be an ant and nothing more, "we too are absurdly trapped by our design"—but in our case the trap is "the labyrinth of language and reason." We must also contend with mind-numbing "choices" and "possibilities" that the ant might not imagine.

In such passages humans often appear as a less than heroic species. When Mr. Fate finds a "roadkill raccoon" who is not quite dead, he carries the stricken animal to the road's shoulder; soon he finds himself "kneeling down in the damp weeds in a sort of wordless prayer—for forgiveness, I think." He counts himself among the worst beasts in the forest, feeling as he strolls a riverbank "the burden of my role in its slow destruction."

Yet Mr. Fate has a talent for chuckling at the mind-numbing "possibilities" of existence, such as losing one's car in a parking lot. He confesses that he once found his billfold "in the cheese drawer of the refrigerator." Middle-aged readers (ahem) might find themselves mumbling, "Et tu, Fate?"

Best of all, Mr. Fate is a fan of the coyote—a creature whose tenacity is noticeably less precious and humble than the ant's. The city life seems to suit coyotes, Mr. Fate writes, observing that rural coyotes have a "30 percent chance of living through their first year" while their city dwelling cousins "are twice as likely to live that long." He tells the story of a coyote skulking into a Chicago sub shop, apparently in search of food, and another who stalked a 60-year-old woman through a suburban parking lot. Suddenly, Mr. Fate writes, the coyote "lunged for her miniature poodle, clamping his jaws around the dog's hindquarters." The woman prevailed in the ensuing tug-of-war. Perhaps there is hope for us humans yet.

As animals wander into suburban spaces—bears and deer as well as coyotes—they are betting that they'll eat better among humans than among their own kind. Man has attempted a version of this reverse migration, too, over the centuries. The never-ending search for grub is a central theme in Dona Brown's "Back to the Land."

Ms. Brown, also a professor (the University of Vermont), chronicles a movement that embraces people like Mr. Fate— professional, "progressive," concerned about the environment—but that has also included Americans who hoped to find "food self-sufficiency," preferably apart from a life of wage slavery. That desire was sweetly enunciated by 19th-century writer Philip G. Hubert: "Why is it not possible for a healthy man . . . to make bread and butter for his little ones and himself without chaining himself down to a life of drudgery?"

Ms. Brown starts with a look at early back-to-the-land efforts, which she says ended around World War I. They tended to attract Americans, some in financial peril, who struck out for the rustic regions "as a means of preserving artisanal skill, personal autonomy, and household self-sufficiency in the face of a rising tide of mechanization, monopoly and consumerism."

Later chapters carry the story through to later expressions of the same basic impulse: for example, the Southern Agrarian movement, whose ideal society might owe something to feudalism, and the cluster of thinkers known as "decentralists," who sought a world in which "everyone had access to productive property—to the tools and materials that would allow them to feed, clothe, and shelter themselves." In the 1930s, government programs sought to bring about "self-sufficiency," providing land to down-and-outers, including Johnny Cash's parents. Four decades later, suburban kids who didn't know a hoe from a howitzer traded the country club for the commune.

Ms. Brown reads deeply in the movement's core literature, including the seminal "Ten Acres Enough" (1864), by Edmund Morris, both a journalist and real-estate man. The book contained "detailed information about deep plowing, how best to save manure, and the treatment of worms on peach trees." Ms. Brown notes that a revised version of the book is still in print.

Not everyone thought it necessary to leave town to grow your own. Bolton Hall (1854–1938), a wealthy New Yorker with radical economic ideas and perhaps a green thumb, tended a third-acre garden at 137th Street and Lenox Avenue. In his "Three Acres and Liberty" (1907), he hailed other urban food-raising efforts: "Near San Francisco there are a number of frog ranches." In a similar spirit, Henry Ford provided gardens for 50,000 Detroit auto workers after the 1929 stock-market crash. Working the gardens for food was mandatory.

Ms. Brown writes engagingly, and while her sympathies are not exactly right of center, she doesn't mind detailing the hypocrisy and messianic extremes of some of the movement's more radical leaders. Helen and Scott Nearing, devoted homesteaders and ascetic socialists, sought the good life in rural simplicity and preached abstinence from all animal products, even though Helen ate ice cream. Worse yet, she declared that domestic animals were "slaves" and yet owned a cat. Scott ended up fasting to death in 1983, at age 100.

As Ms. Brown makes clear, the rural impulse can inspire a kind of religious intensity. The author and New Age activist Ray Mungo cast modern-day back-to-earthers as holy penitents: "Pushing long hair out of their way and thus marking their foreheads with beautiful penitent dust," he wrote in 1970, they "till the soil to atone for their fathers' destruction of it." Self-adoration, we are reminded, grows everywhere like a weed.

Toward the end of her survey, Ms. Brown observes that "the old question of food self-sufficiency simply no longer requires quite the same go-it-alone approach that characterized the 1970s." We have more cooperatives stores now, she says, and community-supported farms. And there are hopeful signs, in her view: The Obamas dug up part of the White House lawn in 2009 and planted a garden, while in Los Angeles 245 people (latest count) have joined the online "Los Angeles Urban Chicken Group."

Still, one has to wonder how many Americans would truly forsake their daily grind to raise chickens (and frogs), shovel manure, and operate that wonder of nature known as the cow udder. While a small portion may find solace in the soil, far more would probably prefer not to flirt with dirt.

Wall Street Journal Deployment Story: While My Son Serves - July 4, 2011

What's it like seeing a family member off to Iraq, and perhaps beyond?

The question comes up regularly these days as our 26-year-old son prepares to ship out. Kids in our middle-class world tend to head for college or for the sort of job that eventually convinces them that college isn't such a bad idea after all. Some friends wonder how our son ended up a sergeant in the Army National Guard.

"Sarge" (as we call him now) didn't volunteer because of family influence. We are Virginians and have served, but only when called. The Vietnam War ended before I got called up, but my father was a World War II navigator in the Naval Air Corps, transporting troops from Hawaii to Guam, and Sarge's grandfather on the other side was in a front-line artillery unit in Korea. A century before, the man I was named after did some surveillance work for Robert E. Lee, and in something of that spirit, our son became an Army Scout.

As America celebrates Independence Day this weekend, it's a good time to think of the men and women serving their country overseas.
He is, to be sure, a good demographic fit: Over two-thirds of our armed forces are white, most are male, and Southerners continue to be well-represented in the ranks. There was also his early fascination with soldiers and guns, but that's true of many boys.

Sarge has always possessed one habit of mind seemingly at odds with military life, which many critics insist is fit only for drones. He possesses what we lovingly call a hard head, an independent streak that, as it happens, is an inherited characteristic.

After his enlistment I had to ask why he would join an organization where taking orders is a way of life. "It's how you get to the big game," he replied. Put another way, he's a single young man looking for adventure—and perhaps meaning—and tends to believe that the people who man the office cubicles are the real drones.

He certainly chose an unusual path: Fewer than 1% of Americans wear the uniform these days. That, in turn, puts families of deployed soldiers in something of a world of their own.

For one thing, you're unlikely to bump into someone at the local tavern to commiserate with (which is not an argument for avoiding taverns, tavern life being one of the traditions that our children cross the oceans to protect).

New acquaintances sometimes seem shocked to meet someone with a deployed family member. "I'm so sorry," is their typical response. You'd almost think the lad was heading into rehab or entering the slave trade.

“'When I'm out in the desert, I feel like I'm doing what I'm supposed to be doing,' our son said after returning home. Sometimes you have to travel 7,000 miles to find a sense of purpose.”

Others simply have no experience with the phenomenon of military service. At a Christmas party a few years ago, a colleague told me, very earnestly, that I was the only person he knew with someone in the military and that my son (whom he had never met) was his only link to that world.

Sheldon Kelly, an old family friend who served with the 82nd Airborne and whose own son has done multiple tours, recalls a lunch in Washington, D.C., with professional friends when the Iraq war was at a high point. "They were all war hawks," he recalled, "but when I told them my son was in Iraq, they were stunned. It was like I was in a different class." None, he added, had children in the military.
All of which can result in a feeling of isolation for some service families and an assumption of societal indifference. With so few people deployed, it's almost as if these conflicts are not really happening.

One local couple, whose son earned a Purple Heart in Iraq, told me that while plenty of people are happy to "ribbon up"—attach those "Support Our Troops" stickers to their cars—that's pretty much the extent of their outreach.

For the most part, however, the usual response when we tell people about Sarge is to say that we must be proud—which we are—and we must also be worried. Well, sure. We're parents—worry is our fate. Yet we try to worry wisely. And thankfully, at this point in his life, Sarge is not leaving behind a family of his own.

His first deployment, in 2007, was supposed to take him to Baghdad, but he ended up in a much quieter area at the southern border. He did not like that, but my wife and I sure did. This time around his gun truck will be driving point on convoys taking troops out of Iraq.

While the Iraq war has wound down, there are still dangers. In June, 11 servicemen were killed, five in a single rocket attack. Death by improvised explosive device is a possibility for anyone riding those roads, and so visions of your son bleeding out as he screams for his mother can appear, unsolicited, in the middle of the night. Some level of apprehension is unavoidable.

Then again, why do we have children if not to give us plenty to think about at 3 a.m.?

Sarge shows few signs of coffin phobia, though he is not looking forward to dealing with intense heat, scorpions and camel spiders (which, he tells us, can grow to the size of your hand, hiss loudly, and sometimes charge in packs). As for other hazards: Sandstorms can be blinding, it's not advisable to date the locals, and a cold beer can be very hard to come by.

And you never know where his service might eventually lead him. The U.S. is supposed to be out of Iraq by Dec. 31, but that could change. With Sarge's new deployment set at 400 days, we suspect a bonus trip to Afghanistan may be in the bargain. Who knows—maybe he'll end up seeing wild, wonderful Tripoli!

There's a saying that when one family member deploys, the entire family deploys. What often isn't said is that, despite the definite downsides to military deployment (including the possibility of becoming a casualty and, at the very least, long separations), it has a strange knack for bringing people together and even making life better.

“There's a saying that when one family member deploys, the entire family deploys.”

Sarge's 2007 deployment had some positive health benefits for me, though for nonheroic reasons. Here's why: If your soldier is killed (not a great possibility, though some parents lose sight of that), there will be a knock at your door. Accordingly, if you happen to be home in the afternoon when the FedEx guy drops by, you might experience an unwelcome cardiac jolt.

To avoid that experience I took up walking, often logging 30 to 40 miles per week. Not quite boot camp, but the exercise probably added a few years to my life.

There are also moments that simply would not have happened were it not for deployment. I remember a call from our son (via cellphone) who said he was out in the middle of the desert under a bright canopy of stars. Despite a short voice delay, the reception was incredible.

"You out there by yourself?" I asked.

"No, Dad. I have my machine gun."

It was a strange, intense moment of bonding, even though he was probably 7,000 miles away.

Deployment also cured me of a lingering cable-TV habit. Whatever patience I once had for the chattering class—make that the braying class—disappeared. I don't know what is worse: raving about how our soldiers are "mercenaries" or hearing a parlor patriot (go get 'em, boys!) suggest that because recent conflicts are "low-casualty" (compared with Vietnam, Korea and the world wars), they are nothing to get worked up about. As my friend Sheldon pointed out, it does seem that the people with the biggest heart for war never seem to have any blood on the line.

It is undoubtedly true that war is good not only for munitions makers but also for what a friend calls the "prayer life." In the run-up to Sarge's 2007 deployment, a celestial petition entered my mind so effortlessly and naturally that I assumed the same has been true for soldiers' parents through the ages: If a life must be taken, take mine and spare his.

Deployment can also be a positive experience for soldiers. After returning home, our son said that "when I'm out in the desert, I feel like I'm doing what I'm supposed to be doing." Sometimes you have to travel 7,000 miles to find a sense of purpose, and many men, I suspect, may come to wish they had made a similar journey.

It's my impression that men like me, who never served, often feel that we've missed out on an important part of life. We don't know what it's like to be young and far away from home, vulnerable to instant personal extinction but also part of the comradeship that such danger creates. In this sense my son's service is a far greater thing than I have ever done.

Back home from deployments, soldiers can experience a vast array of problems, from nervousness while driving under an overpass (ambush?) or in traffic (since cars in today's war zones can carry bombs) to the more serious manifestations of post-traumatic stress disorder. The military offers some support. A Department of Defense service called MilitaryHomefront provides support for those suffering from various maladies, including combat stress, domestic abuse and suicide prevention.

For families whose soldiers didn't make it home, of course, there is an unfathomable depth of sorrow.

On a happier note, the one area in which deployment is nearly unsurpassed lies in its ability to bring people together for a grand sendoff.

We held Sarge's farewell party just before June 1, his official deployment date (he won't arrive in Iraq until this month).

This was definitely not a Norman Rockwell scene, though one suspects Norman would have had a rocking time. A smoky cooking fire (my idea to roast an octopus was vetoed; our oldest son flew in from San Francisco to butcher and cook a pig) cast a rich haze over 100 or so friends, relatives and a few thirsty strangers, some bearing musical instruments while many others, including soldiers with hard combat experience, came armed with a host of jugs.

When soldiers and musicians gather, the alcohol deities smile broadly. Thirsts worthy of condemned pirates were slaked with passion, and as the smoke and noise levels rose, neighbors could be forgiven for thinking the Vikings had landed (though none sounded the alarm down at the local sheriff's office, for which we are thankful). One senses that many serious head wounds required treatment the next morning, but there was the solace of knowing that the damage was sustained in the line of duty.

This party was not as raucous as the one for Sarge's first deployment, where lights-out came around 5 a.m. This time, all was quiet by 2. The last departure was also officially marked by a ceremony in which Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine traveled to Portsmouth to shake the hands of the hundreds of soldiers departing with my son's unit. Families appreciated that. This time, the current governor didn't show up at the sendoff, which was held in downtown Richmond.

For now, memories of Sarge's sendoff will keep us smiling as we ride out the 400-day deployment.

Grandmother: "Will the vehicle you're riding around in have any weapons?"

Sarge: "Yes, Grandma. We'll be taking along a .50-cal."

While Sarge is away, we're likely to see the local boys who have completed their tours and sometimes gather in a home-built "speakeasy," bedecked with the flags of their respective services: Army, Marines, Navy.

I recall a conversation with them one night about an American flag that has accompanied them on various deployments, sometimes tucked under their battle armor to keep it—and perhaps themselves—safe. The cable TV brayers would scoff at this as "gaudy patriotism," but to my eye this level of communal devotion is another thing soldiers have that most of us don't.

“Despite the definite downsides to deployment, it has a strange knack for bringing people together.”

These vets—young in years but in some cases having witnessed profound horrors—were in full hoot at the send-off, singing along to woozily brilliant renditions of Merle Haggard's "Mama Tried," Paul Simon's "The Boxer," a deeply fractured rendition of the Beatles' "Rocky Raccoon," and the Grateful Dead's "Dire Wolf," with its resoundingly appropriate chorus, "Don't murder me!"

There was also a glorious "Over the Rainbow," sung by a woman whose voice brought hope for better days, and then the farewell toast:

Know that you will be constantly in our thoughts and prayers.

We look forward to gathering together again to welcome you home.

Until then, don't mess with the women.

Keep your head down, and


Now, off he goes.

Wall Street Journal Review of "Bunnies and Bachelors" -- Hugh Hefner, feminist - May 29, 2011

The Feminist Mystique of Hugh Hefner

Journalists lately have taken to portraying Hugh Hefner as an octogenarian whose libido requires chemical upgrades and whose mansion is stuffed with tattered mattresses and stained carpets. But he still has his admirers. These include Carrie Pitzulo, a self-described feminist, who in "Bachelors and Bunnies" casts Mr. Hefner as something of a philosopher king and underappreciated crusader for women's advancement. How dare anyone think the Bunnyboy was ever simply a guy on the make?

Ms. Pitzulo, an assistant history professor at the University of West Georgia, begins by sketching Mr. Hefner's origins. He was born in 1926 into what he called a "typical Midwestern, Methodist home with a lot of repression." As a teenager, he appears to have been less repressed than enthusiastically self-obsessed. He began documenting his life in a series of scrapbooks that now numbers more than 2,000. After a girl rejected him in high school, he "reinvented" himself as "Hef," Ms. Pitzulo says, and he began dressing dapper and writing a music column in the school paper.

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copyright Playboy Magazine

A 1964 Playboy ad, claiming that its typical reader 'knows his way around.'
Mr. Hefner married in 1949 and had two children—a son, David, and daughter, Christie, who would eventually take over his empire. He and his wife, Mildred, didn't divorce until 1959, but by then he had made it clear that standard domesticity, that hotbed of monogamy, was not for him. In 1953, the former Esquire magazine copywriter had launched Playboy, a magazine that, as Ms. Pitzulo describes it, championed as its ideal "a swinging single Lothario" who rejected marriage in favor of "self-indulgence, materialism and promiscuous bachelorhood." Oh, and there were photos of naked women.

The magazine also included articles on fashion, food and gadgets such as the "Tensolator," which provided "bodybuilding isotonic tension," perhaps to make up for slow nights in the rumpus room. Mr. Hefner also wanted to appeal to men with intellectual pretensions. The Playboy man, he wrote in the inaugural issue, liked nothing more than "mixing up cocktails and an hors d' oeuvre or two, putting a little mood music on the phonograph, and inviting a female acquaintance for a quiet discussion on Picasso, Nietzsche, jazz, sex." Yet the rabbit logo was not meant to celebrate the cerebral nature of the insatiable hare.

Ms. Pitzulo looks closely at the true stars of the show: the Playmates, especially those who appeared in the centerfold—the three-page spread that was among the most sacred item of teenage contraband. While promoted by Mr. Hefner as the "girl next door" and "not unlike the women his readers encountered every day," writes Ms. Pitzulo, these women were actually the stuff of fantasy: perfectly sculpted and without detectable blemish.

Bachelors and Bunnies: The Sexual Politics of Playboy
By Carrie Pitzulo
Chicago, 240 pages, $25
In the 1960s, Playmates became the target of feminist ire. Protesters at the 1968 Miss America threw Playboys into a "freedom trashcan" and even Jennifer Jackson, the first African-American Playmate (March 1965), later called Mr. Hefner a "glorified pimp," though she added that she did like him as a person. Gloria Steinem, ever the subtle critic, dragged the Holocaust into the discussion in 1970: "A woman reading Playboy," she declared, "feels a little like a Jew reading a Nazi manual."

Far more troubling to Ms. Pitzulo than the girly pictures was the tone of early stories, such as "Miss Gold-Digger of 1953," which painted "women as conniving wenches only out for money." Another mainstay of the early years: articles belittling marriage and long-term commitment. Yet Ms. Pitzulo also detects a "budding attitude" in the magazine encouraging "sexual autonomy, expression, and pleasure for men and for women." Playboy came to support "progressive" political causes, including opposition to the Vietnam War and support for abortion rights. Eventually Mr. Hefner even stopped advocating male "flight from commitment." While "militant" feminists continued to despise the magazine, Ms. Pitzulo says, Playboy was actually working "toward feminist goals." Mr. Hefner could not agree more. "I was a feminist before there was such a thing as feminism," he told Esquire in 2002.

Freeing women from sexual restraint and ensuring their access to abortion, of course, are causes hailed in barracks, frat houses and other places where nonfeminists gather, but Ms. Pitzulo is not one to make such observations. She often writes with a messianic earnestness—we're told early on that her editor considers her efforts "worthy and important." She doesn't stint on the academic jargon as she "deciphers" the deeper meaning of centerfolds in "the context of postwar America" and refers to "the feminist porn critique" and the "heterosexual project." As prose goes, this can hit you like a very cold shower.

She also denounces the "religious right" and other "conservatives" with a tone suggesting she's writing universal objective truth, clearly unaware that perhaps her adversaries are not the only ones who adhere to a rigid orthodoxy.

But who among us is without blemish—except the Playmates, a few of whom grace these pages, including the thoroughly stunning Linda Summers (August 1972), stretched out in the sand with a look that says, "Hey boys, soup's on." There's also an in-house ad from 1964 boasting that 43% of Playboy readers had at least three drinks a week in a bar or restaurant, thus making the magazine an excellent buy for booze merchants. It's a reminder that Mr. Hefner believed it was his philosophy attracting the commerce that kept the bunny hopping.

"We do live, now, in a Playboy world," Mr. Hefner said in a 2006 interview, which might be news many places, including those where women still go around wearing sacks. Yet many standard-issue American male readers may conclude they owe Mr. Hefner a debt of thanks. They might have believed it was those guitar lessons, steak dinners and charming conversation that greased the romantic skids, but maybe it was the philosophical Lothario with the smoking jacket and deep reverence for rabbits who actually turned the key to paradise.

Washington Post Review of "33 Revolutions" -- A History of Protest Music - May 18, 2011

By Dave Shiflett
Protest music isn’t what it used to be.
“Steal From Walmart” and even the hundreds of anti-war songs that blossomed in the blood of the Iraq wars don’t approach the societal resonance of “We Shall Overcome” and “Where Have All the Flowers Gone,” as U.K. music critic Dorian Lynskey confirms, and mourns, in “33 Revolutions Per Minute: A History of Protest Songs from Billie Holiday to Green Day,” (ecco/HarperCollins; 656 pages; $19.99).
“I began this book intending to write a history of a still vital form of music,” Linskey writes in his epilogue . “I finished it wondering if I had instead composed a eulogy.”
As eulogies go this is a lively and sprawling one, beginning with a chapter on “Strange Fruit,” written in 1939, and ending with largely ignored attacks on George W. Bush’s military policy.
“Strange Fruit,” a darkly powerful meditation on lynching, was anything but ignored. It put 24-year-old Billie Holiday on the map and remains vibrant today, thanks in part thanks to the ministrations of arranger Danny Mendelsohn, who initially dismissed it as “something or other alleged to be music.” While protest songs up to that point were “propaganda,” Lynskey writes, this one “proved they could be art.”’
Most protest songs, to be sure, are far less vocally demanding, including Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land,” written in a New York flophouse in 1940 and borrowing part of its melody from the Carter family’s “Little Darling Pal of Mine.”
In a similar sharing spirit “We Shall Overcome” commandeered an 18th century melody and boasts four lyricists, including Pete Seeger, whose rendition found an instant fan in Dr. Martin Luther King. “There’s something about that song that haunts you,” King said, though it did have its critics, not all of them named Bubba. “If you’re going to get yourself a .45 and start singing ‘We Shall Overcome,’ I’m with you,” Malcolm X told a Harlem rally in 1964.
Lynskey writes passionately and often admiringly but doesn’t stint on the criticism, giving ample praise to Bob Dylan’s “Masters of War” but adding that fellow folkie Tom Paxton dismissed “Blowing in the Wind” as “a grocery list song where one line has absolutely no relevance to the next line.” Lynskey also reminds us that Dylan was a master of sometimes clunky contrariness: a few weeks after JFK’s assassination he claimed a strange kinship with Lee Harvey Oswald: “I saw some of myself in him,” he told a New York audience, which rewarded him with a bouquet of cat-calls.
Sing-along fans will appreciate Lynskey’s inclusion of Country Joe McDonald’s “I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-To-Die Rag,” perhaps most famous for the Fish Cheer that preceded it at Woodstock, which helped launch the F-bomb’s glorious ascendancy. In this case the criticism comes from McDonald himself. “What’s almost unfathomable is the smallness of it,” he says. “It was just another song.”
Yet we still remember that Rag, unlike the hundreds (if not thousands) of songs inspired by the Iraq/Afghanistan wars, known in some quarters as the Haliburton Expansion Initiative. Lynskey suggests one explanation: “The nature of the antiwar movement changed dramatically in February 1966,” he writes, “when the Selective Service System extended conscription to the campuses.” In that era singing anti-war songs might be considered an act of self preservation; today, the absence of a draft drains such warbling of urgency and audience.
The book ranges far beyond the sixties and includes songs celebrating gay and black pride, protesting apartheid and hunger, and denouncing various meanies including Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. There are also amusing non-musical asides, including a fond remembrance of punkster Jello Biafra’s run for mayor of San Francisco, where he took a respectable 4 percent of the vote, though that placed him behind Diane Feinstein and Sister Boom-Boom. (page 316) . Biafra would later say punk was “a close-minded, self-centered social club” and “a meaningless fad.”
The theme of smugness and encroaching irrelevance weaves through the book, with Lynskey reminding early on that many protest songs are short on chord changes and long on sanctimony, with fans to match. He characterizes the attitude as: “We understand. We are not like them. We are all on the same side.”
He gives a terrific example of another problem: the profundity-groping musician, in this case Steve Earle, who insisted that American Taliban John Walker Lindh was something of a post- adolescent everyman: “I became acutely aware that what happened to him could have happened to my son, and your son, and anyone’s son,” (Page 509) weirdly suggesting a widespread youthful desire to join an ultra-religious warrior group that doesn’t allow you to drink beer, listen to popular music, and stones you to death for unsanctioned sex.
Thankfully, we get a more sober and context-setting observation from the voice of reason himself, Keith Richards: “You don’t shoulder any responsibility when you pick up a guitar or sing a song, because it’s not a position of responsibility.”
Is protest music dead? The better question, Lynskey writes, is “Is anybody listening?” Not to protest music, it seems, which interrupts the pursuit of unencumbered entertainment. “It is not just that people have lost faith in any performer to help bring about change, it is that they resent anyone who attempts to do so,” he concludes.
Perhaps the only way to bring protest music back home is to re-institute the draft.

Merlefest Interviews with Del McCoury, Peter Rowan, Tara Nevins, Jerry Douglas and More - May 13, 2011

By Dave Shiflett
If Peter Rowan or Jerry Douglas were to give a commencement address this spring, it might be titled: “Wise up, Punks. There’s more to music than Lady Gaga.”
Del McCoury thinks so too.
During interviews at the recent Merlefest festival in Wilkesboro, N.C., several legendary roots musicians discussed the music they think is essential for young people to become familiar with, and with any luck fully embrace.
To no surprise, Bill Monroe was at the top of several lists, but the old guard also had kind words for Jimi Hendrix, aboriginal music from Australia, and even Mick Jagger’s brother.
They were less generous when discussing attempts to cut funding to NPR and PBS, while one suggested a novel cure for Attention Deficit Disorder.
“Of course they should listen to Bach and Beethoven,” said Peter Rowan, perhaps best known for writing the stoner anthem “Panama Red” and his collaboration with the late Jerry Garcia in the band Old and In the Way.
Rowan, who played with Monroe from 1965 to 1967, says Monroe and blues singer Robert Johnson were crucial in creating a sound often lost in a world awash with musical expression.
“There’s too much music available,” said Rowan as he chomped a banana in the artist’s lounge. Lost in the thicket of commercial radio, YouTube and Myspace are traditions that deserve a better hearing, including “black church music, prison songs” and “aboriginal music” from Australia, which he characterized as “three chord” tunes that are an important element in the indigenous peoples’ civil rights movement.
Rowan, who recently returned from Australia, said that movement “has yet to have its Martin Luther King moment,” making the music all the more crucial for maintaining momentum. When asked for a contemporary artist he likes, Rowan suggested crooner Chris Jagger – “Mick’s brother.”
The festival featured several other former Monroe band mates, including Grammy winning bluegrasser Del McCoury, who played in Monroe’s band in 1963. McCoury, known for his piercing voice and gray pompadour, cited Monroe and “the Baptist hymnal” as wellsprings of roots music; Monroe’s picking style, he said, has yet to be topped.
“You can’t beat the innovator,” he said prior to a performance.
Yet McCoury, who recently released a CD with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, agreed that some things have gotten bigger and better. “When we were starting out,” he cackled, “our PA systems were so small you could carry the speakers under one arm and put the microphones in your pocket.”
At Merlefest, the speakers had to be trucked in, and people came in droves. Festival attendance has gone way up since the first multi-day bluegrass festival in Fincastle, Virginia in 1965. Merlefest organizers said 80,000 people attended the four-day event, which has raised $8 million for Wilkes Community College since starting in 1988.
Monroe wasn’t on the tip of everyone’s tongue. Rory Block, a willowy blues singer who grew up in Manhattan, sang the praises of the Rev. Gary Davis, Son House, Memphis Minnie and Bessie Smith. “They’re the ones I listened to when I was growing up,” she said after a foot-stomping set. Tara Nevins, a masterful fiddler who helps front Donna The Buffalo and also has a vibrant solo career, cited old-time musicians who are far below most radar screens. “I never book gigs during the Mt. Airy old time festival,” she said, adding that many of the players there are unknown but brilliant.
Nashville mainstay Sam Bush, best known for his innovative mandolin playing, praised Doc Watson, Chet Atkins, Les Paul and Eric Clapton.
Several players, including Bush, denounced efforts to cut funding to arts and music education, National Public Radio and the Public Broadcasting System. Jens Kruger of the Kruger Brothers insisted that keeping music in the schools will pay profound medical benefits.
“In our schools,” he said of growing up in Europe, “we sang a song together every morning,” which he says focused minds and created a sense of community. When morning singing was cancelled, grades went down, he said, but rose again when the practice resumed.
If American schools made group singing a part of their morning routine, he said, it “would eliminate ADD” though that wouldn’t be music to the ears of the pharmaceutical industry.
Dobro master Jerry Douglas, who cited Flatt and Scruggs as perhaps his most important influences, said he had recently discovered the joys of singing publicly.
Douglas, who will be touring into November in support of Alison Krauss and Union Station’s new “Paper Airplane” CD, said he had launched his singing career the previous week during a Carnegie Hall gig.
“I’m 55,” he smiled. “I figured it was time.”
Had he sung a gentle, heartfelt tune?
“No. I did a murder ballad -- Jimi Hendrix’s ‘Hey Joe.’”
Wonder how Bill Monroe would have liked that.

Bloomberg Interview with Bruce Molsky, Old Time Fiddle Master (pre-edited version) - April 20, 2011

By Dave Shiflett
(Bloomberg) – The Americana/roots festival season kicks off in earnest later this month with Merlefest in Wilkesboro, North Carolina (April 28-May 1) and the National Folk Festival in Canberra, Australia (April 22-25)reflecting the worldwide appeal of songs that often originated in the Appalachian mountains and other rural hotspots.
While performers such as Doc Watson, Del McCoury and Robert Plant are better known and acts such as Blind Boy Chocolate and the Milk Sheiks and the Corklickers more cleverly named, few performers are more admired – and perhaps unlikely -- than Bruce Molsky, considered one of the world’s premier old time fiddlers.
Molsky, 55, who will play in Canberra, didn’t take up the fiddle until he was 18 and didn’t launch his full time music career until he was 41. Contrary to stereotypes this purveyor of mountain music has all his teeth and even wears an earring.
Plus, he’s from the Bronx.

Rembrandt of Appalachia

I caught up with Molsky during a recent swing through the southeast to talk about life as a traditional musician and the growing interest, especially among young listeners and musicians, in the songs he champions.
But first I wanted to know how a guy from the Bronx ends up as “the Rembrandt of Appalachian fiddlers,” as violin master Darol Anger calls him.
It started, Molsky says, when jazz legend Billy Taylor visited P.S. 81 when Molsky was 11: “I heard him play and thought -- man I want that.” Molsky bought a guitar and took lessons for a year, later immersing himself in fiddle and banjo music and earned a living as a mechanical engineer until going full-time at 40, which he calls “the nicest favor I ever did for myself.”

Tears From Ronstadt

Traditional music is on a “definite uptick” because of its purity and communal appeal, according to Molsky. “This is the music of communities and of workers trying to escape their grinds.” Or, in some cases, watching their grinds disappear.
In “Peg ‘n’ Awl,” Molsky sings about a shoe factor worker who is replaced by a machine.

They’ve invented a new machine, peg and awl
They’ve invented a new machine,
I peg one shoe, it pegs fifteen,
I’m gonna lay me down my awl, my peg and awl.

Sung in a sturdy baritone, the song could draw a tear from the most ardent advocate of automation.
“I cried when I heard that song the first time,” says Linda Ronstadt, a Molsky admirer, “and I’m not a crybaby.” She played it for her siblings, she said from San Francisco, and they cried too. Molsky’s rendition of the traditional song has “the same power as Mozart.”
Ronstadt believes Molsky and other traditional performers appeal to listeners tired of “pop music that is so empty,” a belief seconded by Molsky fan and collaborator Jerry Douglas, probably the world’s best-known Dobro player and a mainstay in Alison Krauss’s Union Station band.
“Bruce honors traditional music,” he said from Nashville. He also says Molsky is “a chameleon. With his fiddle, banjo and guitar playing, he can fit into a lot of situations.”
Douglas says younger musicians and listeners are sick of “overproduced, slick stuff.” He and Molsky cite acts such as Crooked Still, Abigail Washburn and the Carolina Chocolate Drops as taking the ancient songs into the future.

Checkered Demon’s brew

Molsky’s influence extends beyond roots music. “Both my String Quartet No. 3 and my Concerto for Violin and Cello and Symphony Orchestra have inspiration from Bruce's playing, his rhythmic drive and how spirited his music is,” composer/violinist Mark O’Connor said in an email.
Douglas adds another kudo: “Bruce isn’t a diva.”
Or rich. “I made a more secure living as a professional person,” Molsky chuckles. He drove his recent southern tour in a Toyota Prius. “I got 46.5 miles to the gallon -- the entire gas bill was $150” – less than a typical bottle of bubbly slurped down by upper-tier rock musicians.
My last question had to do with the origins of his company name: Tree Frog Music. “I was writing liner notes for an album,” he says, and wanted a moniker different than his own name. “There was a Zap comic on the table” in which he found a mention of “the Checkered Demon’s favorite grog: Tree-Frog beer.”
A toast may be in order. Molsky just got word he’ll be teaching and performing at the Berklee School Of Music in Boston in the spring of 2012. Sometimes, dropping out of school and leaving your job pays big dividends.

Review of 'Chinaberry Sidewalks' by Rodney Crowell (pre-edited version) - April 1, 2011

Grammy Winner Rodney Crowell’s Passionate Glance At His Own Family’s Somewhat Twisted Tree

By Dave Shiflett
Most families are strange in their own way, to twist Leo Tolstoy’s observation a bit, while some families, including Grammy winning songwriter Rodney Crowell’s, are strange through and through.
That could make life dicey but also provided material for a delightful and sometimes moving memoir.
Crowell, whose hits include “Shame on the Moon,” “If Looks Could Kill” and “Til I Gain Control Again” is from truly interesting stock.
Father James Walter Crowell was a hard-drinking, honky-tonking wife beater. He was born in 1923 and said he never slept on anything but straw until 1941: “It’s a wonder I don’t crow like a rooster,” he once told his son. (page 44)
Mother Cauzette, born in 1924, was a Pentecostal epileptic who suffered 13 miscarriages, lost one child in infancy and sent her husband to the hospital on at least one occasion to have a wound closed.
And they were nothing compared to other relatives, including an octogenarian great-grandfather whose 1960 death inspired the reflection that “he hadn’t answered a direct question truthfully since his twelfth birthday and hadn’t taken a bath since he fell in the Blood River in 1936” (page 44). Nor was he bound by traditional mores, Crowell writes “His sexual preferences included daughters, sisters, granddaughters neighbor’s wives and the odd farm animal. “
A grandmother, meantime, “excelled in four areas: beating her children, fighting with her husband, baking biscuits and breaking wind, the latter being her greatest passion.” (Page 45)
It may be a miracle Rodney Crowell came out as well as he did.
Born in 1950, Crowell writes with passion and a sometimes bemused horror about his upbringing in a Houston subdivision of cookie cutter houses, towering scrub brush and chinaberry trees. His parents, he notes, were not cut out to be members of the landed gentry, or any other gentry for that matter. They “took to home ownership like horse thieves to a hanging judge.” (page 12)
Pop practiced might be called laissez faire home maintenance, allowing the house -- “essentially a tar paper shack” (page 13) -- to slowly disintegrate. His parents eventually “had to strategically place a number 3 washtub, a five-gallon Igloo water cooler, an ice chest, and various pots and pans to catch the rainwater coming through the ceiling” – through which, he adds, one could see the nighttime constellations. (page 14).
The family also struggled financially. Crowell writes movingly of watching his mother cook eggs in an aluminum pie plate heated by an electric iron and of watching his parents fight, sometimes to the point where bones were broken and blood was shed.
Yet this is far from a sneering look at the family tree. It is, for the most part, a story of love, if not of the fairy book variety certainly of the enduring type. It is also a story of pursuing dreams, especially his father’s desire to be a country crooner, which introduced Crowell to musical performance -- initially as a drummer.
He got the job, he admits, not because of his drumming prowess but because the regular drummer in his father’s band had departed and dad knew he wouldn’t have to pay Rodney, whose first gig was dreadful. Yet performing in dive bars was an eye-opening experience for the pre-teen percussionist. “I saw every kind of skirt lifting, ass grabbing, ear licking, tongue sucking and dry humping there is,” he writes. (page 157)
Crowell also recalls the fateful day in 1958 when he and his parents attended a concert featuring Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash: “twenty three years later I’d produce a live recording of those three artists” (page 229) and he’d also marry Cash’s daughter, Roseanne, though the marriage was short-lived.
We get a fleeting glimpse of Crowell’s musical development, which included stints with bands called The Rolling Tones and the Arbitrators, as well as personal struggles, including a drug overdose that landed him in the hospital.
Yet the focus is on life with his parents. He vividly recalls attending Pentecostal church services with his mother, where he encountered Brother Pemberton, who “gives the impression that he might burst into flames at any moment. With his greasy pompadour spilling down over his eyes, his necktie flying, his shirt hanging halfway out of his pants, his face turned to the heavens like a satellite dish awaiting God’s direct signals, which once received will be spat at the congregation like bullets from a Gatling gun, Brother Pemberton in full flight is a sight to behold.” (page 69).
Despite his fire and brimstone, Crowell writes, “he, too, was bored” – which was revealed during one service when Brother Pemberton winked at him. It was a transforming moment. “In the wink of an eye,” Crowell writes, “ I saw a compassionate, tolerant, and non-judgmental God of love and great humor. My own faith was planted as a seed that morning, and there are days its fruit sustains me still.” 77
He also writes powerfully about his father’s demise, which was wrenching though ultimately closed the circle with his wife. “Your daddy looks like he did the day I married him,” Cauzette said just after he died. (page 247). She lived on several more years.
Crowell warmly embraces his role as “a witness to and harvester of my family’s past” (page 9) which helped him “realize that life’s basic impulse – given half a chance, even in death – is to heal itself.” 230
His healing has produced a memoir that is, in its own strange way, quite life-affirming.

Bloomberg column/Civil War Sesquicentennial/pre-edited version - March 23, 2011

Roll Over Picasso: Lee, Davis Still Rule Richmond

By Dave Shiflett(Bloomberg)— They don’t commemorate wars like they used to – or at least the Civil War, whose sesquicentennial observance is under way in Richmond, Va., capital of the doomed confederacy.
While the Picasso exhibit at the Virginia Museum for Fine Arts dominates local headlines, the “war of northern aggression,” as some traditionalists call the bloody conflict, still rules much of the city’s cultural landscape.
Yet that landscape is definitely changing, says S. Waite Rawls III, president and CEO of The Museum of the Confederacy, which opened in 1896.
“The centennial of the war was largely about re-enactments of battles,” he says, while this year the emphasis is on how the war affected women, children and the 4 million blacks who lived in the South at wartime, 3.6 million of whom were slaves. In the same spirit a state tourism website refers to the sesquicentennial as the “150th Anniversary of the American Civil War and Emancipation.”
“It’s not just about white guys fighting,” adds Vickie R. Yates, head of the museum’s marketing and public relations department.
There are painful reminders of enslavement and privation in new domestic-themed exhibits, including displays of rough cloth woven by slaves.
Yet reminders of combat are never far away. There’s a dinner plate used by a Luray, Va. woman to bang a foraging union soldier over the head. “Put him out cold,” Yates says. There’s also a wartime textbook that includes this somewhat tendentious math problem: “If one Confederate soldier kills 90 Yankees, how many Yankees can 10 Confederate soldiers kill?”
The tonal shift, while subtle to a casual observer, is raising serious hackles in some quarters. Roger McCredie, executive director of the Southern Legal Resource Center, which identifies itself as “a nonprofit organization that advocates on behalf of citizens involved in Southern heritage issues,” writes in an email that “it is already painfully clear that the sesquicentennial is going to be the apogee of thirty years' worth of South-bashing.” He adds that the “only acceptable way for Southerners to mention their Confederate heritage this time around is through self abasement and abject apology.”
Rawls, who sports a bow tie and once worked for Chemical Bank in Manhattan, prefers to focus on the vast interest in the war, which stretches far beyond the Mason-Dixon Line. Twenty percent of museum visitors in January were from the UK, he says, and he smilingly recalls the day he was summoned to the museum’s front desk to meet a group of battle re-enactors from Stuttgart. “They said they have a hard time doing re-enactments in Germany,” he says, “because no one wants to play the part of the Yankees.”
You don’t have to be a re-enactor to be awed and sometimes amused by some of the museum’s exhibits, including one challenging the popular story (in the North) that confederate president Jefferson Davis was wearing a dress when captured by Union troops. There’s also a handkerchief stained with what is believed to be the blood of the mortally wounded Stonewall Jackson.
What would Stonewall think of the Picasso exhibit? “He probably would not attend,” Rawls responds.
There’s also the uniform Robert E. Lee wore while surrendering to U.S. Grant. Yates points out that while Lee stood nearly six feet tall and weighed 180 pounds, his boots are a petite size 5.
With the cocktail hour approaching, I was inspired to observe: “What, no flask?” According to Rawls, neither Jackson nor Lee were drinkers, quite unlike the victorious Gen. Grant.
Visitors sometimes rub shoulders with contemporary eminences, including Ken Burns, who used the museum artifacts in his sprawling Civil War documentary, and Stephen Spielberg, who visited the adjacent White House of the Confederacy in November, Yates says, doing prep work for an upcoming movie on Abraham Lincoln -- still considered a war criminal by some of the southern faithful.
While McCredie refers to Union troops as “an invading army” most southerners seem to have stacked their muskets long ago. Varina Davis, wife of the former CSA president, relocated to New York after her husband’s death, according to tour guide Dean Knight, and lived at the Hotel Gerard on W. 44th Street and wrote newspaper columns for Joseph Pulitzer’s “New York World.”
Would Varina have gone to the Picasso exhibit? Yes, Rawls says, adding she was “thrilled to have Oscar Wilde” visit her post-war home. “But she probably wouldn’t have liked it.”
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