The Fourth, Revisited

Those of you who haven’t visited the site much probably won’t know about my two “big” Independence Day posts. I thought I’d reprise them today:

  • The first, from 2008, appeared just a few months after I’d started this blog. The subject, in those innocent times a few months before Barack Obama was elected: certain similarities between the political atmosphere then, and the counterpart in 1776… as represented by a selection from the Broadway musical, 1776. The song: “Cool, Cool Considerate Men.” (Just the few lyrics excerpts there should be enough to convince you that not a whole lot has changed since then — at least, not for the better.) On a trivia note: this was the first RAMH post to include a little audio-player thingumabob for embedding music in a blog entry.
  • The second, from 2012, melded a bit of personal history about patriotic parades with some background information about the marches of John Philip Sousa. By that time, as you will see, I’d gotten over all shyness about incorporating music in my posts.

…and of course, if you’re so inclined, feel free to visit my post of a few hours ago. It, too, has some things to say about the occasion celebrated in the US today. Sorry, no music for that one.

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Red, White, Blue: A Holiday Fiction


The President emerged from his private Oval Office bathroom, rubbing his hands together. It didn’t help right away; they dripped on the carpet. Not his problem, though. He had people, after all — people whose only job was to sop up spills at his feet, dry the doorknobs behind him, hand him towels before he touched anything that might not shed water, or might later reveal a handprint. Documents of state. The hands of dignitaries and friends. Women. Whatever.

It was a problem in this joint, a serious problem if you asked him. Back home, in fact at any of his homes and he had a lot of homes, all right?, back home he had people in the bathroom who’d stop him as soon as he stood up, turned away from the sink, stepped out of the shower, whatever — dry him off, make him presentable to all the squeamish dopes he might come into contact with before the water and other things could evaporate or be patted away. But here in this place, wow, how did his predecessors live like this, anyway for even four goddam years? Probably some rule, some budget restriction that needed approval from the sneaky cocksuckers on Capitol Hill.

Unusually, nobody else was in the Oval Office right then. Good. He needed to pull himself together, get a grip on something before he faced anyone else — the something that had greeted him, shocked the hell out of him, when he peed just now.

The red.

Blood, all right? He knew blood. He was used to drawing it from people who got in his way. He saw it on TV, on those movies they make. Back in his school days, he saw it flowing from the nose and lower lip of a guy who’d jumped him. Yeah. That other guy had hit him first, which nobody else cares about when they tell the story, and he’d just given that guy what he asked for, and yeah, all right?, that guy’s blood was there, then, sure. But blood wasn’t supposed to come from him, the President, the Honcho. If you cut him he’d do only one thing and that was cut you back, and you better believe it, cut you back.

He couldn’t tell anybody about it. He couldn’t see a doctor about this, couldn’t breathe a word of it into the air of anyone who might hear it, which was to say, of anyone. Not his wife or his kids. Nobody. It was like his mentor once said to him: Never let them see you bleed. And then, because that left the door open to other possibilities, he’d added: Never let them know you can bleed. Ice water, not blood, right?

Smart man, his mentor. And he didn’t care what they said, that smart bastard was no queer.

No, he couldn’t mention the blood, because once he did he’d be dead. That person would tell somebody else, or that person would write it down where it could be read by somebody else who would then tell somebody else, all the way up and down the chain. And the way things worked in this fucking city, everybody in the goddam world would know about it by the end of the week, and then he’d be dead. Might as well be. Unfair. Newspapers, fucking media… He patted his jacket pocket, but oh, that’s right — they’d taken his phone away, changed his passwords. No outlet there.

He just had to tough it out. It’d go away. It was just something he ate, something he drank. The goddam food in this place, right? Mexican chef, he was pretty sure, or maybe a Frenchie, Chinaman, one of those. It’d pass, whatever it was. He was the goddam President.


He had a fellow who worked for him now, did all kinds of odd jobs, ran errands, tied his tie, opened doors. Never came with him back to New York or to Florida, just stayed right here and waited for him, the President, to return. He couldn’t take the guy with him to those other places, they wouldn’t understand. They’d talk. Guy was a queer, he was pretty sure — the only person in the White House, as far as he knew, who ever used that goddam creepy transgender bathroom his predecessor had installed. And on top of that, the fellow was black. A Negro, right? African-American. Afro-American, whatever they hell they called themselves now.

Well, this fellow who worked for him was in the Oval Office one day, standing along the wall like he did, at attention or whatever. Like a flagpole. Sculpture. Piece of furniture, something you didn’t have to deal with or even pay attention to. Also in the office at the moment was his counselor, his — what’d the Guidos say? — oh yeah, his consigliere. And the consigliere was going on the way he’d started doing, getting a little full of himself in fact, some days he didn’t think the guy would ever shut up, and jeezus could he have a more annoying laugh? But the guy was going on, blah blah blah, and then he said it. He said: Don’t forget, we gotta give the niggers something, too. And then he stopped and raised an index finger and waggled his hairy goddam eyebrows over the top of his glasses and then he pointed at him, the President, and added, No, correction, you gotta give them something. And then the goddam laugh again.

The President looked away from his counselor, over to the fellow who worked for him. Guy didn’t even flinch. Or maybe he’d flinched already, but fast so you couldn’t catch him in the act. Sometimes they were like that — one way when you’re looking, a different way when you weren’t.

But then the guy did something — maybe it was nothing, maybe it wasn’t nothing, who knew. He didn’t flinch, but he twitched. And not twitched his face, or a shoulder, or his body. It was almost invisible, real fast, just one little flick of that one finger, the middle one… He wasn’t even sure he’d even seen it, and he looked up at the guy’s face thinking he’d catch him looking embarrassed or something. But embarrassed, well, who even knows if they get embarrassed? It’s not like they blush or anything, right?

Tell you one thing. It was funny at first, all right? It was funny and it was fun, this whole thing. Being President. Signing, signing, signing. He was a signing monster in the early days. He’d write his name, hold it up so the cameras could show he signed it himself and didn’t use pre-signed stationery or automatic signing machines or any of that crap. All those people standing behind him, grinning. He got along with those people, with everybody who got along with him, all right? He was a lot more genuine than they all thought. Really real, you know? And so he’d sign all that stuff, and somebody would take it away, and he didn’t know what happened to it after that but the way the left-wing dopes screamed maybe it was being shoved up their keisters. He hoped so. And he could feel the country changing under him, behind him, and that was good, right?

His counselor was still talking. Talk, talk, talk. He waved the guy away, out of the office. Shut the door behind you, right? He looked over to the fellow who worked for him. Still a statue. Not a twitch. Maybe something in his eyes, something the President had never seen in a statue…

But then it was gone, and the President’s attention turned to other things.


They all thought he had enemies, the President knew. And yeah, okay, he might even have used the word enemies a few times himself, back in the days when he could still use his phone.

But he didn’t really have enemies. He just had pains in the ass.

And the worst of all the pains in the ass were the liberals, the lefties, the fuckers who controlled the newspapers and the media and the other countries and even the companies and all the people who’d turned against him. They had to be behind it, because who would turn against him otherwise? He was great at what he did, right? Lies. They just lied about him, constantly. All the time. And they were lying about his so-called enemies, but if any of them had said pains in the ass instead, he’d have nodded like he was agreeing. And then he’d have pointed right back at them.

Democrats. Bastard turncoat Republicans, the weak shits. “Independents,” and who the hell knew who else was in the mix. Communists, anarchists, socialists, bomb-throwers, queers and women, African-Americans and Mexicans, Canadians, Muslims, the plain old goddam people anymore — the people who used to talk about him in the old days, talk about him all the time, in titty bars and in their kitchens and at baseball games and after church and in schools…

Ungrateful pains in the ass, all of them. They think he was doing all this for fun? No, he wasn’t doing this for fun. He was doing this for them, and so they’d know he was doing it for them — for their outspoken knowing. Applauding or bitching, he didn’t care back then, right?

The hell with them. He didn’t care anymore, either. Because they didn’t care. They were all talking about other shit. March Madness. Report cards. TV shows, and they couldn’t even talk about his TV show anymore because the bastards had pulled the plug on that two years ago. Food prices, gas prices, toilet fucking paper prices. Didn’t they know who he was? Didn’t they know what he could do to them?

His, what was it, counselor… no, his consigliere had quit, saying publicly that he had personal reasons but privately that he was just “tired.” (Tired, the weakling.) The fellow who used to stand at attention in the Oval Office when the President didn’t have anything else for him to do — he was gone, too. Took a research job with the National Science Foundation, the guy told him with a smirk on his face, he knew it was a smirk, and he didn’t understand that at all because he thought he’d signed something in the early days that canceled the National Science Foundation, hadn’t he? (He himself couldn’t check on the Internet anymore because they still wouldn’t let him have a phone but he’d ask one of the kids to look it up and tell him, answer the question: did he pull the plug on The Egghead Show or didn’t he?) The Vice-President was still around somewhere, but probably out of town the way he always was anymore. Making speeches, visiting Capitol Hill and K Street, with his tie all tied and his hair close cropped and his jacket buttoned in front. Posture of a phony, that one. Keeping his own hands clean, the bastard. Never trusted him. Never.

No. He was alone now. Nobody was looking, nobody was listening.

Talk shows had other things to talk about.

Comedians joked about married life.

Cab drivers bitched about traffic and pedestrians.

Pains in the ass. Everygoddambody. He’d show them yet. He was the President, and they’d remember him all right. He was the President.

He pulled the drawer of his desk open, and reached inside.


Copyright 2017 by John E. Simpson. Feel free to make use of this piece however you’d like; that said, please include this copyright notice in the reusing work. I’d appreciate it, too, if you could include a link to the story’s original posting on my site, at this URL: — but I won’t unleash the lawyers on you if you skip that step.

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Weekend Music Break: Gershwin for an Early-November Sunday Afternoon

Gershwin - signature/inscriptionYou can be forgiven for feeling more than a little stressed out today, especially if you’re in the US and if (as is true for this post, and its author) today is the first Sunday in November, 2016 — or for that matter, if you’re elsewhere and just watching us a bit nervously.

Under the circumstances, without further comment, herewith a bit over an hour’s worth of easy-going music to accompany your newspaper-reading, blogging, airport-lounge-waiting, or what-have-you…

[Like that little signature/inscription over there on the right? You might like to see a brief analysis of it from Suzanne Shapiro, a “court-qualified graphologist whose thirty-five years of experience have led her to some unique cases, from analyzing graffiti for a Los Angeles Charter School to Bernard Madoff’s signature and most recently, Prince William and Catherine’s for ‘The Daily Beast.'” Just click on the image to open the analysis in a new window/tab.]

Gershwin Sunday

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Book Review: Night of the Animals, by Bill Broun

Cover: 'Night of the Animals,' by Bill BrounA couple reviews of Night of the Animals have alluded — unconvincingly, I think, despite superficial similarities — to Noah’s ark and/or more generally the Bible’s Book of Genesis.

Yes, it’s true: the novel’s mainspring is the saving of the world’s creatures; both the world’s destruction and its salvation are at stake. But if you hope and believe you’ll be getting a “retelling” of those Biblical stories, updated to a 21st-century landscape, you will be very surprised (maybe disappointed) by what you find in the book’s pages:

The genre, murky — a sort of near-future, dystopic science fiction/fantasy cast in prose perhaps a bit more “literary” than you’d expect; the time, about forty years from now, with numerous flashbacks to the 1960s; the setting, mostly London (and in the flashbacks, up in the Midlands region — the “waist” of the island). The dialogue is littered with dialect obscure enough to require clarifying footnotes.

But the biggest surprise among Night of the Animals’ conventional elements lies in its protagonist, Cuthbert Handley.

Sounds like the name of a stereotypically anal-retentive, mousey-in-stature librarian or clerk, eh? Maybe. But this Cuthbert Handley — well, no. He’s enormous in size, three (approaching four) hundred pounds of, well, fat. (Not that fat people cannot be heroes, but it defies convention.) He’s old (not that the aged cannot be heroes…): in a point in history where living to 120 years of age is common, Cuthbert himself is over 90, and held together not just by his own flesh and bones but by numerous artificial “BodyMods.” He belongs to a class referred to as the capital-I Indigent — all but homeless, rough-sleeping in parks and alleys, the lot.  Finally, he’s almost suicidally addicted to a hallucinogenic beverage called Flōt (not that penniless addicts cannot etc.); Flōt is apparently legal, and the book suggests that its use is both tacitly approved by the government and sneered at by the unaddicted upper class. (Not at all to suggest that they themselves don’t use it, but they — you know — have such better self-control, right?)

More deeply, Cuthbert lives in thrall to a specific childhood event: the drowning of his elder brother Drystan, while little Cuthbert could do nothing to save him. (Cuthbert himself nearly drowned in the same “adventure.”) Since Drystan’s body never turned up, Cuthbert has lived his entire life — while in a state of mental health declining to the point of near-madness — believing that Drystan never died: he was simply lost, waiting for Cuthbert to find him. Surely this is a delusion. Surely his Flōt addiction has compounded the problem.

That much is obvious to everyone Cuthbert has ever known, will ever know. And naturally, that much is obvious to the reader of Broun’s book…

[Read more…]

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Things I Know: The (Election) Year of Living Dangerously

I’ve probably written about 5,000 words into this post’s editing screen since I began fussing with it over a month ago. And I’ve deleted about that many words, and started over, and over, and over…

Here’s the essence, though, presented at last as a bulleted list of Things I Know (or Imagine I Do):

  • Florida’s Presidential primary election is now less than a week just a day away, on Tuesday 3/15/2016. And no, I don’t know for whom I’m voting yet. I (early-)voted a couple days ago; obviously, I know for whom I voted, but it makes no difference to this post.
  • That said, it won’t be wasn’t for a Republican.
  • About the Democratic candidates:
    • It’s about damned time we had an opportunity to vote (or not to vote, as the case may be) for Hillary Clinton. If anybody has earned a seat in the party’s saddle, it’s her.
    • I sorta-kinda believe the conventional wisdom about the Clinton-vs.-Sanders choice: it presents us with a referendum on the world we have, vs. the world we want (or the world we might have, etc.).
  • About the state of the country and the world:
    • We have got a hell of a lot of stuff pressing in on us from all sides in 2016: climate change, economic inequalities, famine/plague/drought conditions, wars and more wars, religious extremism, all but the collapse of the public education and infrastructure systems, ignorance and superstition, criminal-justice nightmares, a growing dependence on energy just as energy resources are disappearing, the weight of history…
    • Solving all — solving any — of the crises cataloged in that previous bullet will require one thing (besides willpower, of course): money.
  • About the Democratic candidates in light of the state of the country and world:
    • Clinton can probably tackle any or all of it — and move us (maybe) a quarter-inch towards solutions. It may take her two terms to do it, but she can do that much.
    • Sanders is a complete cipher — an unknown along almost every dimension, at least in terms of executive skills.
    • And yet:
      • Everything is broken. It’s not just because of technology; it’s because of the urgency of the problems with which “business as usual” politics has presented us.
      • That — everything is broken — is the message voters are sending the two parties this year, and neither party is listening.
      • Much though I admire Clinton, I have great, great, nearly insurmountable difficulty imagining her prepared to upset “business as usual” politics. She’s a product of those politics, after all.
    • Remember Sarah Palin asking us, mockingly, “How’d that hopey-changey thing work out for ya?” — after hope and change had been Obama’s watchwords? It didn’t work out very well at all, in fact… because hope and change are the first victims of business-as-usual.
    • President Obama seemed, at first, to be the start of something big. Actually, I think, he was a fitting conclusion to all the something-little that had preceded him.
    • Boy — both parties are going to be in a shambles if they don’t wake the heck up between now and November (and afterwards, when it comes to actual, y’know, governing).

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Those Happy-Go-Lucky Poor Folks: “I’ve Got Sixpence”

[Video: the credit line from the YouTube uploader says, “From the LP More Do-Re-Mi: The Songs Children Love to Sing, Kapp Records, 1963.”]

[Don’t know what this is? See the series introduction here.]

The first statement I ever heard of the “Poverty can be fun!” theme came from a 33-1/3 RPM record album my parents bought when I was a kid. The album (first described here) was one of a set — probably twelve — designed to introduce children to music of various kinds; the disc in question, I think, was called “Songs of Work” or some such.

The version in the video above is not from the album I remember. I don’t remember kids’ voices singing this song, although it has supposedly been a traditional summer-camp favorite for decades. No, my version featured a men’s chorus, strong and hearty, and you could almost imagine them marching home from the mines as they sang. It sounded more like this truncated, one-verse version, from Mitch Miller and “The Gang” (as he styled them):

Either way, whether you listen to the full-length cover or the foreshortened, you get hit with the message right there in the first two lines:

I’ve got sixpence,
Jolly, jolly sixpence…

Even if we can’t think of a single item which now can be obtained for a mere six cents, we get the point: the guy carries a mere handful of change in his sweaty workingman’s palm… and is happy about it. How can this be? We look to the rest of the first verse:

…I’ve got tuppence to spend,
and tuppence to lend,
and tuppence to send up to my wife (poor wife).

So not only does he start out with mere pennies; he looks forward to divvying his fortune up even further. A third for pleasure! a third to share! and a third, presumably, for expenses (managed by a loving — albeit poor — wife)! And if we’re still skeptical, he continues:

No cares have I to grieve me,
No pretty little girls to deceive me.
I’m happy as a king — believe me —
As [I/we] go rolling home!

The one-verse version of the song misses the finely sharpened knifepoint of the entire song, though. For with each succeeding verse, the amount of cash on hand dwindles, and he must adjust his choices accordingly:

…I’ve got fourpence
To last me all my life.

I’ve a penny to spend
And a penny to lend
And tuppence to take home to my wife, poor wife…

…I’ve got tuppence
To last me all my life.

I’ve got no pence to spend
And no pence to lend
And tuppence to take home to my wife, poor wife…

…I’ve got no pence
To last me all my life.

I’ve got no pence to spend
And no pence to lend
And no pence to take home to my wife, poor wife…

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Introducing a New Series: “Those Happy-Go-Lucky (and Singin’ and Dancin’) Poor Folks!”

'Dance at Molenbeek,' by Pieter Brueghel the Younger

[Image: Dance at Molenbeek (1564), by Pieter Brueghel the Younger. Shown are pilgrims suffering from the so-called dancing mania of 14th- to 17th-century Europe.]

Any artist in any medium — particularly those in pop culture — confronts a dilemma in depicting the poor, the downtrodden and hungry and homeless: how to do it, period. It’s possible to manage the trick accurately, compassionately, and without condescension, but it can’t be easy. Such a goddam downer of a topic, y’know? “Why would I do that to my audience?!?”

In general, you’ve got three easy choices, at least if you’re a writer — all of them satisfying no real need but to make the audience feel better about themselves:

  • Maudlin “weepies”: stories of tragedy and despair
  • Tales in the noble-savage genre: “Look! These people have nothing… but see how heroically they have it!
  • Inside-out and upside-down celebrations of the experience of poverty: well, they do have a joyously carefree life — no bills! no bank accounts! no jobs…!

I’ve been thinking for a while about posting occasionally on popular music which goes in that third direction. Granted, when they were written, and as they continue to be performed, these songs do not intend cruelty or snobbism. But they just as often exist in fact in a moral vacuum — penned and performed by artists far removed from ghettos and slums, soup kitchens, food stamps and other social safety nets, the simple desperations attributable to life at the very bottom of the food chain.

I recently came across a great passage in Peter Bogdanovich’s Who the Hell’s in It: Conversations with Hollywood’s Legendary Actors (2010) which sort of speaks to the whole thing:

Preston Sturges wrote in Sullivan’s Travels a passionate testament to the crucial and uniquely human need for laughter. He told of a film director (played by Joel McCrea), noted for making ultra-light entertainment, who decides that he wants to create a meaningful social document about “life,” about poverty and suffering. Out into the world he goes with a dime in his pocket to discover what being poor, homeless, and on the run is all about. Eventually he finds himself in serious trouble on a horrific Southern chain gang where the only small respite for the miserable prisoners is the Sunday movies they’re allowed to see at a run-down country church nearby. There he watches a silly Disney cartoon that gives him and his fellow convicts the only pleasure they’ve had all week. After he is rescued, flying back to Hollywood, his producers tell him that they’re now ready to back his serious film. But sullivan explains that all he wants to do now is make comedies. “There’s a lot to be said for making people laugh,” he tells them. “Did you know that’s all some people have. It isn’t much but it’s better than nothing in this cockeyed caravan. Boy!”

By the way, I’m aware of another danger here, for me: elevating myself to some moral high ground — as though I’m superior to anyone who’d stoop to producing Busby Berkeley-style ensembles of dancing hobos and such. When it it really comes down to it, after all, what the hell do I know about poverty? I’m not wealthy by a long shot, but I’ve got a car in the garage. I’ve got a refrigerator full of food — two of them, in fact — as well as a mini-fridge at the bar which contains such subsistence-level items as craft beers and name-brand sodas. I’ve got a JOB, for crissake, and I often look knowingly in the other direction when approached by panhandlers…

Consequently, I really, really do not want this project to come off in an “I myself am so noble and praiseworthy” way. If you catch a whiff of this, please call me on it!

I should add one more caveat: I genuinely like the songs in this series. I like most (all?) of the performers. I’m not humorless, and I don’t think we need to take life — or these songs — too seriously. True, it’s worth sometimes catching ourselves in the act of having, y’know, a bit too much of a good time. But please: do enjoy whatever music ends up in the series — enjoy it as music, as comic relief, as (un)intended social commentary, whatever: on any level at all.

The first entry in the series appeared (coincidentally enough) on Labor Day, 2015.

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Of Scotland, and Towers of Strength


As you likely know, whether you’re in the United Kingdom or not, tomorrow Scottish voters will determine their independence from the rest of the UK. I have no personal stake in the outcome, other than having a Facebook friend who’s been very active in the “Independence YES” movement.

But I do have a philosophical/political stake in it.

As an American lefty of long standing, I’m accustomed to what might be termed Political Bipolar Disorder (PBD). Horror (at the enthusiastic handiwork of those on the right) alternates with disillusion (when my political heroes, inevitably, turn out rather wobbly-kneed once they actually get into office). Elections — even midterm ones, even primaries — can be exhausting affairs.

But what seems to be happening in Scotland — oh my. Which is to say, Go, YES!

On September 7, New York Times columnist (and Nobel Prize-winning economist) Paul Krugman contributed his own view on the debate. (With a title like “Scots, What the Heck?” it was bound to trigger inflamed opinion on both sides.) His central point: a YES vote makes no sense on economic grounds. (Scotland may or may not end up with a national currency called “the pound,” or possibly “the Euro,” and whatever it’s called, it may have little or nothing to do with any other such currency of the same name.)

Krugman is right, or at least not flat-out wrong, about one thing: the Scots need to be clear-eyed about the election, no matter the outcome. If (as seems about to happen) YES succeeds, disentangling themselves from a “partner” of centuries’ standing will likely bring many, many pains.

I sincerely hope the American experience will not be any guide. If it is, Alex Salmond — who heads the Scottish National Party, or SNP, and would likely become an independent Scotland’s first leader — may turn out to be something quite other than what he has seemed all along.

But the normally perceptive Krugman strikes me as wrong, wrong, wrong on the overall case for or against independence. So wrong, in fact, that his column (on which comments were closed by the time I read it) induced me to write a letter to the editor.

The Times‘s policy is to notify you if your letter will be printed, and they claim a seven-day response time. Given then that I have not heard from them, I think it’s safe to share my letter with you:

Re: Paul Krugman’s “Scots, What the Heck?” (2014-09-07)… I don’t live in Scotland, or anywhere in the UK, but I’ve been following the news about the upcoming independence vote. And I believe Krugman’s got it wrong, for one of those very rare occasions.

He writes eloquently and persuasively of the economic risks for an independent Scotland. But the Yes movement seems not to be about the economy (although they do talk of economic issues, wisely or not). It reminds me instead of the old Gene McDaniel song, “Tower of Strength,” which begins: “If I were a tower of strength, I’d walk away / I’d look in your eyes and here’s what I’d say / ‘I don’t want you, I don’t need you / I don’t love you any more’ / And I’d walk out that door.”

Scolding Scottish Yes supporters for not using their heads in this vote — especially over the economics — strikes me as rather like scolding a woman in an abusive relationship with her otherwise “respectable” husband: at some point, you’ve just gotta walk out that door.

For at least thirty years, official Britain has seemed (from a distance) determined to ape the worst practices and policies of its American counterparts. Yes, yes, the country still does what it needs to stay “quaint,” “historic,” “charming,” and so on. It’s getting harder and harder to believe that’s more than a two-dimensional façade, though. Driving on the left, half-timbered houses, and royal ritual just don’t carry the same weight as they used to for me. You can’t revere Margaret Thatcher, place a surveillance camera every fifty or hundred yards along every street, snuggle up to the American right, and somehow still convince me that you — no, really! no kidding! — remain, y’know, jolly old England.

On the other hand, Scotland’s got a history of leaning left. It’s just been held relatively powerless by the UK political system and constitutional constraints. Specifically, in the case of this vote, the YES party seeks to dispense with British nukes and British control over North Sea oil, overturn British immigration policies, shore up social resources like education and the National Health Service… It’s like a laundry list of things that American lefties wish would happen on this side of the pond.

So maybe it’s projection — maybe even nothing more than projection — but I really, really hope that Scots go the tower-of-strength route tomorrow.

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Midweek Music Break: Harry Belafonte, “Lead Man Holler”

'Island in the Sun' promotional posterPromotional poster for Island in the Sun. Lurid, eh? Note the helpful logo-ish device at the top right, depicting a, y’know, actual island literally in the sun. Just in case you hadn’t already gotten the message!

You may be surprised — as I was — to learn that this week was once designated as “Harry Belafonte — Island in the Sun Week.”

Of course, this wasn’t a true national celebration but a promotional ploy for the film which opened this week in 1957, starring Harry Belafonte (also James Mason, Joan Fontaine, Joan Collins, Dorothy Dandridge, and Michael Rennie). The film needed whatever promotional help it could get, because the Alec Waugh novel it was based on had ignited an uncomfortable firestorm of controversy, especially around the US South.

(The South Carolina legislature threatened to fine any movie theater which showed the film $5,0000. It was banned outright in Memphis. And according to the Turner Classic Movies site, “in New Orleans, the American Legion launched an unsuccessful campaign to halt the film’s screening on the grounds that it ‘contributes to the Communist Party’s aim of creating friction between the races.'” But the protests against it reached at least as far north as Minneapolis. Not that any of this actually hurt its box office much: it was the sixth biggest-earning film of the year.)

So what was the big deal?

If you didn’t know any of the cast, and didn’t know anything about the book, but relied solely on the poster above for information about the film, well, you might still have the question. I mean, look at them: about as homogeneous as it’s possible to be, ethnically speaking.

An illusion, of course, thanks to some artful work with color saturation, lighting, and watercolors. The main character, Harry Belafonte’s David Boyeur, is an up-and-coming black labor leader and politician on the fictional island of Santa Marta, during its transition from English colonial to black rule. (Strike 1 for the film’s chances in the mid-’50s South.) Boyeur develops not-quite-a-relationship with wealthy white socialite Mavis Norman (strike 2), but at least it goes nowhere — ultimately broken off, for both of their noble sakes. (They never quite kiss, even.)

(At least, that’s how the film works out — a hastily cobbled-together outcome, the book having ended with a real Boyeur/Mavis relationship.)

And finally, throw in a handful of other interracial twists: Boyeur’s principal antagonist, white Governor Maxwell Fleury (James Mason), is exposed as the grandson of a black man; Maxwell’s sister Jocelyn (Joan Collins) becomes pregnant, doesn’t want to saddle her white lover with an interracial love child… but is relieved to find out that at least her and Maxwell’s mother was white; and Maxwell’s aide Justin (Stephen Boyd) develops a romance with the mixed-race Margot (Dorothy Dandridge). Indeed, Jocelyn and Margot wind up moving with their lovers to England, where they can perhaps put all the societal judgment behind them. (Strike 3, and maybe by now we’re even working our way into the next inning.)

The film came out while Belafonte was at a popular peak, and featured two songs — the title song, and “Lead Man Holler” — to whose composition he had (at least in theory) contributed. They became two of his biggest hits.

“Lead Man Holler” itself might be called a cadence calypso number: one meant primarily to supply a rhythm to manual laborers working repetitive tasks. It reminds me a lot of some of the call-and-response chants Boy Scout leaders and drum majors, with their charges, used to sing out during parades when I was a kid, e.g.:

You ain’t got no friends on your left!
(Your LEFT!)
You ain’t got no friends on your right!
(Your RIGHT!)
Sound off!
(SOUND off!)
Cadence count!
(CADENCE count!)
One, two, three-four…
(One, two… THREE-FOUR!)

However, various sources I’ve checked point out that while Boyeur’s singing does guide sugar-cane workers in their jobs, it’s hey, Harry Belafonte up there: almost inexpressibly handsome, gleaming, and (wouldn’t you know it) apparently directing at least part of the rhythmic sing-song at a photo of Joan Fontaine…

Subtext. When it comes to “race” (whatever that is) — at least in the US, especially through a Hollywood filter — there’s always subtext.


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Midweek Music Break: Bob Dylan, “The Times They Are A-Changin'”

Bob Dylan and friendWhen Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin'” first came out in 1964, I wasn’t paying much attention to contemporary popular music. But when I did hear it the first time, even benighted I recognized what a great song it was. I could feel my mind and spirit churning restlessly: the lyrics (which I never had trouble hearing) ostensibly addressed parents and other authority figures, but seemed meant to be heard by me and my peers. It described the dangers of the coming years: conflict and tumult, bubble and ruin, destruction and, finally, the joy of a fresh start. It didn’t say anything (nor did I think) about how, exactly, all this would come to pass. But ye gods, what a stirring (and literate) bugle call…!

I still marvel that the lyrics, and the very title, work at all. The times they are a-changin’ sounds like the malformed offspring of Appalachian corn and parody Italian (The meatballs, they-a so spicy!).

The way things played out over the next few years — around the world, not just in the US — seemed to bear out the song’s prophecies, such as they were. But then, more or less without warning, all the excitement dissipated. Having driven many of us insane, Nixon suddenly was gone. Having reached a plateau, the revolution ran out of gas. Music followed suit; with bubble-gum and disco, the medium’s core felt hollowed out. And since 9/11, oh gods…

On my (rare) pessimistic days anymore, I now imagine that the song sends the opposite message. It seems a lament sung to aging lefties who can find only traces of their own (half-forgotten) idealism in the faces of their kids and their neighbors. People we elected in hopes of turning things around simply haven’t turned out as promised — or, at any rate, as we imagined they promised. The country seems sliding into a slough of suspicion, paranoia, flimsy justifications for militarism, institutionalized intolerance, and careless consumerism.

Luckily, I don’t feel nearly so gloomy on most days: most people are better people than they think they are, or (at any rate) than they will consistently allow themselves to be.

When Dylan’s Love and Theft album came out in 2001 — hailed (like so many of his albums in terms like “He’s back!” — I found myself less than bowled over. But the album has grown on me with replaying. And just like the first time I listened to that album, when I get to the last track* and find an alternate out-of-nowhere take (from 1964, no less!) of “The Times, They Are a-Changin’,” why, my old spirit soars anew.

The Times They Are A-Changin'



* Your own copy of the album/CD may not include it; it’s a bonus track on the digital edition.

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