Tuesday, July 28, 2015

In defense of Gone With the Wind

My friend Bookworm has a typically thoughtful post up at her blog, speculating about the literary and cultural influence of two famous novels with Southern themes: Uncle Tom's Cabin and Gone With the Wind.

What makes the post a special pleasure is that she wrote it only days removed from a first-ever vacation to the American South, and between episodes of the Civil War documentary that put filmmaker Ken Burns on the cultural map 25 years ago.

I haven't read Uncle Tom's Cabin. But I do remember liking Ken Burns' documentary (he's done nothing as stirring since), and I did read Gone With the Wind.

Now that you know my background with respect to the items about which Bookworm was musing, the reason I just compared campaign ribbons, if you will, is that I wanted a sturdy platform from which to disagree with her. One does not cross blades with Bookworm lightly, or smile midway through  a duel knowing that you did not begin by drawing your sword with your dominant hand.

Gone With the Wind -- more specifically, what Bookworm rightly calls Margaret Mitchell's "powerful, romantic, tragic, gilded view of the South before, during, and after the Civil War" was and is problematic, she says, because "it allowed Jim Crow and other depredations against blacks to continue long after they should have died a natural death."

That, I think, is too strong an indictment, even for an influential 1936 novel and the iconic movie that it famously spawned four years later (the movie was filmed in 1939 but released in 1940). When would Jim Crow and other such depredations have died a natural death? Human nature being what it is, that's hard to say. Bookworm implies that Margaret Mitchell being on the wrong side matters at least as much as Harriet Beecher Stowe being on the right side did, but I don't think the two authors are necessarily on opposite sides of the same teeter-totter.

Let's stipulate that art can have influence, especially when it's not kitsch. "Jim Crow," Google tells me, was derisive slang that came to mean any state law passed in the South that established different rules for black people and white people. The brief history of Jim Crow that I scanned while writing this says almost nothing about the cultural currents that encouraged those misbegotten laws. That article does, however, finger the infamous 1896 Supreme Court decision known as Plessy v. Ferguson for creating the fiction of "separate but equal" as being somehow synonymous with "Constitutional" or "A-O.K."

Bookworm has a legal background, so it's safe to assume that her contention about Margaret Mitchell's novel simply adds Gone With the Wind to that bilious mix of Democrat-sanctioned racism and wrongheaded jurisprudence epitomized by Plessy, without discounting the other parts of that trifecta. Jim Crow, we know, was not officially scuttled in some places until the Civil Rights movement of the early Sixties, although World War Two (and the honorable service record of black Americans in that conflict) did a lot to underscore the stupidity of "separate but equal" thinking.

Back to GWTW, then: Was the novel's romanticism as dangerous as Bookworm suggests it was? You could with equal justice ask whether Ken Burns' brilliant use of Ashokan Farewell as a violin theme in his Civil War documentary stirred more sympathy for "Billy Yank" or "Johnny Reb."

One reason to be sanguine about the influence of GWTW is that Jim Crow laws were applauded by people unused to reading for pleasure. I'm painting with a broad brush, I realize, but it seems to me that Southerners who wore out their library cards were not also going to KKK meetings.

That said, the main reason I am willing to absolve Margaret Mitchell of the charge of aiding and abetting the Law of Unintended Consequences is because GWTW was not published in a vacuum: Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn still loomed large over American letters while Scarlett and Rhett watched Sherman's troops burn Tara to the ground.

Twain's great novel is many things, but it's anti-slavery message was a stirring repudiation of the "Jim Crow" ethos in real time (1885). Ignorant school administrators who wish now that they could bowdlerize some of the language in "Huck Finn" forget its moral peak, which is when Huck decides to help free his friend Jim, the slave, even at the cost of what he (Huck) thinks is eternal damnation.

Greater love hath no man than to give up his life for his friend -- that was Twain's theme, against which Jim Crow and every racist jot and tittle associated with it looks tawdry. That Huck was wrong about the price of his moral behavior actually makes his stance (and the novel) even more powerful.

Margaret Mitchell could be nostalgic for the antebellum South without providing significant comfort to segregationists because the ghost of Samuel Langhorne Clemens barred the door to the dungeon of inhumanity in his wry but immovable way, with the help of a semi-literate teenager who had more heart than he realized while rafting along the Mississippi River.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Playing at sound engineer

It was one of those nights where my teenagers had other things to do, and the prospect of more overtime at work after a long day was unappealing, so I decided to see a band called The Whisky Runners. They were playing at an Irish bar, and their publicity flyer promised classic rock covers that were upbeat and entertaining.

All five band members are competent musicians, but I left before their set was complete. For me to walk out on a show like that is unusual, so I wanted to capture a few thoughts about why I did so. The Whisky Runners aren't likely to give any weight to my opinion, but I don't blame them for that at all.

My hope is that whoever reads this blog entry won't begrudge me the chance to lay down a marker for the value of sound engineering.

I've mentioned that the band has talent. I should add that their playlist was top-notch: We're talking about some of the best-known work of musical legends like Ben E. King, The Beatles, Bob Dylan, Creedence Clearwater Revival, The Band, and The Eagles -- exactly what you'd expect from a group working its merry way through classic rock covers.

Unfortunately, the sound mix was awful. I think the band realized that, but could not decide how to fix the problem. The lead guitarist spent most of two songs eyeballing the mixing board, and asked the audience if the sound was good. Some dummy near the stage shouted "It's not loud enough!," but from where I was sitting, his comment was easy to dismiss as a bad joke. It won a guffaw and a "Rock On, Dude!" from the band's front man, which I thought was a shame, because the "muddy sound" problem that they never fixed might have been less glaringly apparent if the band had turned its amplifiers down. More subtle sticking from the drummer would have helped, too.

Before I get to why, a disclaimer: I have no formal training in acoustics. I've never been a roadie. And the last time I picked up a soldering iron for "fun with electronics" was as a Boy Scout.

On the other hand, I've heard a lot of live music, read more than my share of record album liner notes, and worked (back in the day) as a disc jockey at a college radio station.

If I could have found a way to channel Christopher Walken-as-record-producer-for-Blue Oyster Cult, per that "More Cowbell" skit from Saturday Night Live, here's what I would have said to The Whisky Runners:

1. Your drummer isn't so much keeping time as supplying punctuation. He doesn't have to beat the crap out of the kit on every song. After awhile, it sounds like falling painfully down a long flight of stairs, even when it's well-timed. A Beatles ditty like "When I'm 64" should swing, not clomp or bludgeon, but it can't do that when every downstroke is an exclamation point.

2. You guys like to play more than you like to sing, and that's okay, but the vocal mics were overwhelmed by the "wall of sound," which meant some tasty lines were hard to hear. If you have to shout the lyrics for a comparatively mellow tune like "Take it Easy," then you end up robbing the song. Would Don Henley and Joe Walsh sound like backup singers for Twisted Sister? No, they would not.

3. Any keyboard player who can jam his way through the  arpeggios that your keyboard guy laid down for "Hey Jude" ought to be front-and-center in the sound mix for a song like that.

4. You have a rhythm guitar player. I saw him, and I saw his guitar. The lacquer finish on its body is worn off in all the right places, but the instrument itself seemed to be missing in action more often than not. Some aural separation between guitars would have been welcome.

My ears were ringing when I left the bar and walked to Dairy Queen for a "consolation cone."

Ironically, the best music I heard all night was on the satellite feed over speakers there, with singer/songwriter Jason Mraz crooning "I Won't Give Up." That sweet, syncopated ballad is nowhere near as iconic as most of the repertoire I'd just heard, but it benefits hugely from being a more technically proficient recording. The moral of the story: Sound engineering can make or break performances.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Stealth poetry

Remember Jeff Foxworthy's old comedy routine, "You might be a redneck"?

He'd sift through circumstantial evidence for which that sentence was the always the punchline ("If you've ever taken a six-pack of beer to a funeral, you might be a redneck...If your daughter's Barbie Dream House has a clothesline in the front of it, you might be a redneck.")

Foxworthy says his definition of "redneck" is "someone with a glorious lack of sophistication," and I like that.

His follow-the-anecdote-to-its-wry-conclusion formula can be applied to other kinds of identification, also. There are probably more poets out there than most of us realize, even if comparatively few people think of themselves as poets, and even fewer people make a living that way.

I think you can tell "stealth poets" by their markings. I don't know of any comprehensive field guide to identifying that species, but here are a few utterly subjective and improvised clues:

If you've ever woken up to a day when a thin scrim of cloud filters sunlight that is partially diffused but wholly beautiful, you might be a poet.

If you've ever made a U-turn just to take a photo of crepe myrtle flowering in red and purple near the road, you might be a poet.

If you deliberately wear your heart on your sleeve around people whom you trust, because the emotionally reserved alternative seems like a recipe for missed opportunity, you might be a poet.

If the song "You Don't Know Me" still seems especially poignant, then you know why Elvis Presley, Ray Charles, and Michael Buble all covered it, and you might be a poet.

If while singing hymns, you sometimes substitute words to improve scansion, you might be a poet.

If you talk to wild rabbits even when you're sober, you might be a third-order Franciscan -- or a poet.

If you've ever actually watched clouds for more than a few seconds, you might be a poet.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Lesson learned

I am not a big soccer fan, but like a lot of other people, I watched the World Cup final this past weekend between the women's teams from the United States and Japan. That was a fun game. I marveled at the audacity of the longest goal in Carli Lloyd's hat trick, and cheered when Tobin Heath capped the scoring with a lightning strike that the opposing goalkeeper did not have a prayer of stopping.

The American women are champions, and rightfully so, but in the pre-game potpourri of "human interest" stories aired by Fox Sports, one thing stood out for me: Head coach Jill Ellis mentioned that a Navy SEAL had spoken with her team earlier this year. She added that his motivational advice was simple but effective: "Hold fast and stay true," he said.

Good for him for passing that along. I don't know whether he got into the oft-ignored difference between suffering and pain, as Neo-Neocon does thoughtfully at her eponymous blog, but you can't live out a statement like that without at least intuiting that there might be a difference between those things, even if you don't go so far as to wonder whether one of them can sometimes be redemptive.

Good for Jill Ellis for remembering the SEAL's line. She and her team took at least that much to heart, and the rest of us can learn from what such commitment looks like, even when we're not competing for a trophy.

(Photo by Anne-Marie Sorvin of USA Today/Reuters shows U.S. forward Alex Morgan)

Saturday, July 4, 2015

For Independence Day

It's not a bald eagle; it's a broad-winged hawk. But it'll do! And as friend Jeff notes, forget the "July 4" stuff. What makes July 4 special is that it's Independence Day.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

I do not think it means what you think it means

I saw a news clip today of the First Lady telling Girl Scouts that they were "making history" by being "the first to camp out on the South Lawn of the White House."

Newscasters also said that a severe thunderstorm soon forced those Girl Scouts to seek shelter in the Executive Office Building, but I'm more interested in what Michelle Obama calls "historic," because the action she praised seems trivial.

Doesn't something have to be significant before it can be called historic?

Etymology is not something I have any particular expertise in, but I've always thought of "historic" and "heroic" as sibling words.

Was spotlighting the White House in multi-colored light to celebrate a Supreme Court ruling also "historic"? I hope not, because it's easier to make a case for calling that stunt "ill-advised" or "juvenile."

Let me put the question a little differently: The  boys in my senior class were, as far as I know, the first to wear turquoise tuxedos and ruffled shirts for our high school yearbook photos, but that does not make our wardrobe choice "historic." What it means is that someone in school administration at the time got a superlative discount from a local formal wear shop whose proprietor was nostalgic for the Seventies.

A distant bell of memory sent me to Wikipedia to see what it had to say about Andrew Jackson's first inauguration. While accounts of the debauchery around that event seem inconclusive, there is evidence to suggest that Mrs. Obama may have been wrong not only for confusing the mundane with the historic (her husband does that, too), but also for ignoring what happened 1829. Ten thousand people came to Washington, D.C. that March to see Andrew Jackson sworn in as president, and a good number of them seem to have partied all over the place, very possibly camping on the White House lawn. In a few well-documented cases, they passed out on that lawn.