Wednesday, September 30, 2015

In The Time Of The Two-Timing Woman-That Damn Two-Timing Woman-With A Red Cadillac And A Black Mustache In Mind
From The Pen Of Bart Webber
Jack Sydney had a long good-bye memory, a memory attached to some instant replays when some event, some name, some place, hell, something brought him up quickly. Yeah, Jack had been cursed by that long good-bye memory more than once to his sorrows none more so than when a song did the dirty deed. It always amazed him how he had since he was a growing up kid back in the 1950s, back when he was present at the creation, present when the music of his generation, rock and roll, got blasted over the airwaves (although he was a bit too young to fully appreciate that fact) that some song would remind him of stuff he had buried in the back of his mind. Some song like the one he had heard the other night when he was eating out with his long-time companion, Emily Ross, at Diamond Jack’s Café over in Cambridge and heard, of all things, Warren Smith’s version of A Red Cadillac And A Black Moustache which reminded him of long good-bye memory Josie Davis, his first serious love back in Carver down in Southeastern Massachusetts, down in the bogs, the cranberry bogs which for a long time he was ashamed to admit he was from, hating the very name “bogger” forever attached to the place even now when it is nothing but a bedroom community for high tech people working up the road on U.S. 495 where he grew up.  But Jack has other business today, long good-bye memory business.
Now the lyrics to the song are pretty standard stuff for rock or popular music. A guy goes away for some reason, a gal gets fretful, or some other wide-eyed guy sees a chance to make his play, or both and there you have it. There you have it for the first guy who is now irrevocably single, at least until he gets over the hurt or some soft fluff comes his way. What gets varied up is how it happened, and why the guy went out of town and why that gal could not stay true. That’s what was eating at Jack that night, and Emily who knew the story of Josie cold since she had been with Jack a number of years before when she had heard it in his company the first time and so she knew he would be morose about the damn thing, probably have him down for a few days. But she was that soft fluff way about Jack and that too was that.   
Here’s why Emily had that feeling about her fate for the next few days. Jack had grown up in “bogger” family in his growing up town of Carver down about thirty miles south of Boston. That derisive term “bogger” reflecting the part of the town’s population wedded to the cranberry bogs for which it was then famous, the derisive part being that the boggers were the working poor of the town mainly living in the town’s “projects” (public housing) in the rough-hewn neighborhoods adjoining the vast cranberry plantations. So no question that Jack was “from hunger” and like Josie whom he had met at a school dance during sophomore year at old Carver High (now meshed in with a regional school), they had done the twist, the dance, together and wound up dancing the last chance last dance together, Sam Cooke’s You Send Me and from then on they were an “item” (and an item of school “lav” gossip since Jack was so-so looking but Josie was a beauty all dark-eyed, full-breasted, nice figure, and shining blues eyes so everybody assumed that Jack had some other quality, some “doing the do” quality from the scuttle-bud that escaped the girls who had turned Jack down and the guys who had ogled Josie. In the case they were “doing the do” after the summer of sophomore year but kept very quiet about it and, according to Josie later when she confided in a girlfriend Jack had no special quality that love-making way but she loved him anyway)          
So they went through high school like a lot of kids went through high school in the early 1960s before the great cultural break-out that was forming out in some quarters then, Cambridge, Manhattan, Grosse Point, Ann Arbor, Madison, Denver (a little) L.A. and always, always Frisco town, but not Carver, Christ not Carver, and would blossom later in the decade. The “norm” in Carver, then strictly a working-class town was high school graduation, usually, get married, have kids, maybe a little house a little bigger than the one you grew up in and that was that (if you were not a bogger then you worked the shipyards, skilled labor work mostly, about ten miles away, that occupation putting you significantly ahead of the lowly boggers). Jack, although not scholar, could work with his hands and so got a job at the Hingham shipyard as a welder. With that in hand he and Josie had planned to get married in a couple of years after high school when they had saved up enough from his job and hers as a bank clerk.
Then the other shoe dropped. The curse of Jack’s generation landed on his head, he was drafted, drafted with the damn war in Vietnam heating up to a froth, so he was sure to go and he was a little afraid of that. In places like Carver then, and all through the war, probably now too if they still had a draft if you were called you went (in places like Nashua, New Hampshire, Daly City, California, the Bronx in New York City, Detroit, you went, none of the draft-dodging stuff or running away to Canada or someplace). And so Jack went, went with doubts but went, got his regulation bald haircut at Army Basic down at Fort Dix, then advanced infantry training at Fort Benning, and then with a month’s leave order to report to Fort Lewis in Washington for transport to Vietnam.              
Naturally nobody was happy about Jack’s going, not with the casualty figures growing higher each week despite all the blah, blah from Saigon headquarters and the White House, especially the White House which seemed to be in cloud cuckoo land about the prospects of victory, but nobody thought to challenge anything and naturally as well Josie swore to be true, would be waiting for him with open arms when he got home and they could proceed with their lives.
That rather commonplace plan was in effect for the first six months Jack was in Vietnam, getting weekly letters from Josie which boosted him up, and then the letters stopped. Worse, his letters to her would be returned as “not at address.” Jack then wrote to his mother asking her to find out what had happened to Josie, was she sick or something. Asked his friends more frantically what had happened. No Josie, gone.    
The way the story from here got pieced together from his mother’s, his friends’ efforts then and later when he came back to the “real” world Jack’s own investigation was that Josie had run off to parts unknown with a guy, a guy from Cohasset, a guy named Jason Warren although that name meant nothing to Jack and it could have been any name attached to Josie’s fate, who seemed to have money and a car. It seemed that Josie was getting bored just sitting at home waiting for Jack, or her own other shoe to fall if Jack was killed and their lives together were to be cut short and when asked by her girlfriend, Nancy Jackson, to go to the Surf Ballroom down in Hull to hear a local rock and roll cover band she agreed. There she met this guy Jason who was good-looking, dressed well (Jack was careless in his dress) and had one dark green new Mustang all the rage then and wound up (secretly) meeting him places all along the South Shore of Boston, including times she was writing to Jack about all their future plans together.

Then one day Josie just disappeared, told her parents she was heading west to meet Jack when he came back home to America. Which should have set alarm bells off although given the times perhaps not since everybody who had bus fare, train fare, expensive plane fare or even a thumb was heading west to see what the new dispensation was all about but Josie had not exhibited much interest in that counter-cultural movement or at least she said noting remarkable about it. The alarm part being that Jack was not due to get back to the “real” world for five months when she left. Josie did sent one postcard from saying she was fine, had met a man and was going off with him for a “new” life away from damn Carver. After that nothing. Nada. Jack tried and tried to find her trail to no avail, tried to work the Jason angle but his parents were as baffled as he was about what happened, didn’t know he had a steady girl since he had brought no one to the house before he left around the same time as Josie. Saved some dough and about a year after he got back and still perplexed and angry he hired a detective in Denver to see if there were any leads to follow. The only evidence was that she had maybe, maybe, been in a commune around Boulder for a time but she was travelling alone then, had if it was her gone the whole hippie road, including some serious drug use given what one commune member said was her physical condition by then. And she was never heard from again. (Neither was Jason, according to his anguished family when Jack would periodically check in.)
Jack was shattered for a long time and then one day he went into a record shop to buy a Jefferson Airplane album and saw a 45 RPM Sun Record copy of Warren Smith’s Red Cadillac and a Black Moustache and remembering the lyrics purchased it. Played it over and over again for a long time. After a while he got over the loss of Josie, or though he had. Had even recently looked on Facebook to see if he could any trace of her. Emily was hoping that he would, hoping hard for some word. And you wonder why Jack Sydney flinches every time he hears that song. You would too if you were in his shoes.  


This Land IS Your Land- With Folk Troubadour Woody Guthrie In Mind.              


Some songs, no, let’s go a little wider, some music sticks with you from an early age which even fifty years later you can sing the words out chapter and verse. Like those church hymns that you were forced to sit through with your little Sunday best Robert Hall white suit complete with tie or best dress on when you would have rather been outside playing, or maybe doing anything else but sitting in that forlorn pew, before you got that good dose of religion drilled into by Sunday schoolteachers, parents, hell and brimstone reverends which made the hymns make sense. Like the bits of music you picked up in school from silly children’s songs in elementary school (Farmer In The Dell, Old MacDonald, Ring Around Something) to that latter time in junior high school when you got your first dose of the survey of the American and world songbook once a week for the school year when you learned about Mozart, Brahms, Beethoven, classic guys, Stephen Foster and a lot on stuff by guys named Traditional and Anonymous. Or more pleasantly your coming of age music, maybe like me that 1950s classic age of rock and roll when a certain musician named Berry told Mr. Beethoven and his ilk to move on over certain songs were associated with certain rites of passage, mainly about boy-girl things. One such song from my youth, and maybe yours too, was Woody Guthrie surrogate “national anthem,” This Land is Your Land. (Surrogate in response to Irving Berlin’s God Bless America in the throes of the Great Depression that came through America, came through his Oklahoma like a blazing dust ball wind).    


Although I had immersed myself in the folk minute scene of the early 1960s as it passed through the coffeehouses and clubs of Harvard Square that is not where I first heard or learned the song (and got full program play complete with folk DJs on the radio telling you the genesis of a lot of the music if you had the luck to find them when you flipped the dial on your transistor radio or the air was just right and for a time on television, long after the scene had been established in the underground and some producer learned about it from his grandkids, via the Hootenanny show, which indicated by that time like with the just previous “beat” scene that you were close to the death-knell of the folk moment). No, for that one song the time and place was in seventh grade in junior high school, down at Myles Standish in Carver where I grew up, when Mr. Dasher would each week in Music Appreciation class teach us a song and then the next week expect us to be able to sing it without looking at a paper. He was kind of a nut for this kind of thing, for making us learn songs from difference genres (except the loathed, his loathed, our to die for, rock and roll which he thought, erroneously and wastefully he could wean us from with this wholesome twaddle) like Some Enchanted Evening from South Pacific, Stephen Foster’s My Old Kentucky Home, or Irving Berlin’s Easter Parade and stuff like that. So that is where I learned it.


Mr. Dasher might have mentioned some information about the songwriter or other details on these things but I did not really pick up on Woody Guthrie’s importance to the American songbook until I got to that folk minute I mentioned where everybody revered him (including most prominently Bob Dylan who sat at his knee, literally, Pete Seeger, the transmission belt from the old interest in roots music to the then new interest, and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott who as an acolyte made a nice career out of continued worshipping at that shrine) not so much for that song but for the million other songs that he produced seemingly at the drop of a hat before the dreaded Huntington’s disease got the better of him. He spoke of dust bowl refugees of course, being one himself, talked of outlaws and legends of outlaws being a man of the West growing up on such tales right around the time Oklahoma was heading toward tranquil statehood and oil gushers, talked of the sorrow-filled deportees and refugees working under the hot sun for some gringo Mister, spoke of the whole fellahin world if it came right down to it. Spoke, for pay, of the great man-made marvels of the West and how those marvels tamed the wilds. Spoke too of peace and war (that tempered by his support for the American communists, and their line which came to depend more and more on the machinations of Joe Stalin and his Commissariat of Foreign Affairs), and great battles in the Jarama Valley in Spain where it counted. Hell, wrote kids’ stuff too just like that Old MacDonald stuff we learned in school.     


The important thing though is that almost everybody covered Woody then, wrote poems and songs about him (Dylan a classic Song to Woody well worth reading and hearing on one of his earliest records), affected his easy ah shucks mannerisms, sat at his feet in order to learn the simple way, three chords mostly, recycled the same melody on many songs so it was not that aspect of the song that grabbed you but the sentiment, that he gave to entertain the people, that vast fellahin world mentioned previously (although in the 1960s folk minute Second Coming it was not the downtrodden and afflicted who found solace but the young, mainly college students in big tent cities and sheltered college campuses who were looking for authenticity, for roots).                 


It was not until sometime later that I began to understand the drift of his early life, the life of a nomadic troubadour singing and writing his way across the land for nickels and dimes and for the pure hell of it (although not all of the iterant hobo legend holds up since he had a brother who ran a radio station in California and that platform gave him a very helpful leg up which singing in the Okie/Arkie “from hunger” migrant stoop labor camps never could have done). That laconic style is what the serious folk singers were trying to emulate, that “keep on moving” rolling stone gathers no moss thing that Woody perfected as he headed out of the played-out dustbowl Oklahoma night, wrote plenty of good dustbowl ballads about that too, evoking the ghost of Tom Joad in John Steinbeck’s’ The Grapes Of Wrath as he went along. Yeah, you could almost see old Tom, beaten down in the dustbowl looking for a new start out in the frontier’s end Pacific, mixing it up with braceros-drivers, straw bosses, railroad “bulls,” in Woody and making quick work of it too.      


Yeah, Woody wrote of the hard life of the generations drifting West to scratch out some kind of existence on the land, tame that West a bit. Wrote too of political things going on, the need for working people to unionize, the need to take care of the desperate Mexico braceros brought in to bring in the harvest and then abused and left hanging, spoke too of truth to power about some men robbing you with a gun others with a fountain pen, about the beauty of America if only the robber barons, the greedy, the spirit-destroyers would let it be. Wrote too about the wide continent from New York Harbor to the painted deserts, to the fruitful orchards, all the way to the California line, no further if you did not have the do-re-mi called America and how this land was ours, the whole fellahin bunch of us, if we knew how to keep it. No wonder I remembered that song chapter and verse.             

Once Again On The 1960s Folk Minute-The Cambridge Club 47 Scene


Joshua Breslin, Carver down in the wilds of Southeastern Massachusetts cranberry bog country born, had certainly not been the only one who had recently taken a nose-dive turn back in time to that unique moment from the very late 1950s, say 1958, 1959 when be-bop jazz (you know Dizzy, the late Bird, the mad man Monk the guys who bopped swing-a-ling for “cool” high white note searches on the instruments) “beatnik” complete with beret and bop-a-long banter and everybody from suburban land was clad in black, who knows maybe black underwear too something the corner boys in front of Jimmy Jack’s Diner salaciously contemplated about the female side, was giving way to earnest “folkie” (and no alluring black but flannel shirts, unisex blue jeans and unisex sandals leaving nothing in particular to the fervent corner boy imagination) in the clubs that mattered around the Village (the Gaslight, Geddes Folk City, half the joints on Bleecker Street), Harvard Square (Club Blue, the place for serious cheap dates since for the price of coffees and pastries for two you could linger on, Café Blanc, the place for serious dates since they had a five dollar minimum, Club 47, the latter a place where serious folkies and serious folk musicians hung out) and North Beach (Club Ernie’s, The Hungry Eye, all a step behind the folk surge since you would still find a jazz-poetry mix longer than in the Eastern towns) to the mid-1960s when folk music had its minute as a popular genre. Even guys like Sam Eaton, Sam Lowell, Jack Callahan and Bart Webber, who only abided the music back in the day, now too, because the other guys droned on and on about it under the influence of Peter Markin a guy Josh had met  in the summer of love, 1967 were diving in too. Diving into the music which beside first love rock and roll got them through the teenage night.

The best way to describe that turn from b-bop beat to earnest folkie, is by way of a short comment by the late folk historian Dave Von Ronk which summed up the turn nicely. Earlier in that period, especially the period after Allen Ginsburg’s Howl out in the Frisco poetry slam blew the roof off modernist poetry with his talk of melted modern minds, hipsters, negro streets, the fight against Moloch and Jack Kerouac’s On The Road in a fruitless search for the father he and Neal Cassady never knew had the Army-Navy surplus stores cleaning out their rucksack inventories, when “beat poets” held sway and folkies were hired to clear the room between readings he would have been thrown in the streets to beg for his supper if his graven voice and quirky folk songs did not empty the place, and he did (any serious look at some of his earliest compositions will tell in a moment why, and why the cross-over from beat to folkie by the former crowd never really happened. But then the sea-change happened, tastes changed and the search for roots was on, and Von Ronk would be doing three full sets a night and checking every folk anthology he could lay his hands on (including naturally Harry Smith’s legendary efforts and the Lomaxes and Seegers too) and misty musty record store recordings to get enough material.

People may dispute the end-point of that folk minute like they do about the question of when the turn the world upside down counter-cultural 1960s ended as a “youth nation” phenomenon but clearly with the advent of acid-etched rock (acid as in LSD, blotter, electric kool aid acid test not some battery stuff ) by 1967-68 the searching for and reviving of the folk roots that had driven many aficionados to the obscure archives like Harry Smith’s anthology, the recording of the Lomaxes, Seegers and that crowd had passed.

As an anecdote, one that Josh would use whenever the subject of his own sea-change back to rock and roll came up, in support of that acid-etched dateline that is the period when Josh stopped taking his “dates” to the formerly ubiquitous home away from home coffeehouses which had sustained him through many a dark home life night in high school and later when he escaped home in college, cheap poor boy college student dates to the Harvard Square coffeehouses where for the price of a couple of cups of coffee, expresso then a favorite since you could sip it slowly and make it last for the duration and rather exotic since it was percolated in a strange copper-plated coffee-maker, a shared pastry of unknown quality, and maybe a couple of dollars admission charge or for the “basket” that was the life-support of the performers you could hear up and coming talent working out their kinks, and took them instead to the open-air fashion statement rock concerts that were abounding around the town. The shift also entailed a certain change in fashion from those earnest flannel shirts, denims, lacy blouses and sandals to day-glo tie-dye shirts, bell-bottomed denims, granny dresses, and mountain boots or Chuck Taylor sneakers. Oh yeah, and the decibel level of the music got higher, much higher and the lyrics talked not of ancient mountain sorrows, thwarted triangle love, or down-hearted blues over something that was on your mind but to alice-in-wonderland and white rabbit dreams, carnal nightmares, yellow submarines, satanic majesties, and wooden ships on the water.             


Some fifty years out others in Josh-like fits of nostalgia and maybe to sum up a life’s work there have been two recent documentaries concerning the most famous Harvard Square coffeehouse of them all, the Club 47 (which still exists under the name of the non-profit Club Passim which traces its genealogy to that legendary Mount Auburn Street spot in a similar small venue near the Harvard Co-Op Bookstore off of Church Street).


One of the documentaries put out a few years ago (see above) traces the general evolution of that club in its prime when the likes of Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Tom Rush, Eric Von Schmidt, the members of the Jim Kweskin Jug Band (the forming of jug bands, a popular musical form including a seemingly infinite number of bands with the name Sheik in them, going back to the early 20th century itself a part of the roots revival guys like Josh were in thrall to), and many others sharpened up their acts there. The other documentary, No Regrets (title taken from one of his most famous songs) which Josh reviewed for one of the blogs, The American Folk Minute, to which he has contributed to over the years is a biopic centered on the fifty plus years in folk music of Tom Rush. Both those visual references got Josh thinking about how that folk scene, or better, the Harvard Square coffeehouse scene kept Josh from going off the rails, although that was a close thing.        


Like about a billion kids before and after Josh in his coming of age in the early 1960s went through the usual bouts of teenage angst and alienation aided and abetted by growing up “from hunger” among the very lowest rung of the working poor with all the pathologies associated with survival down at the base of society where the bonds of human solidarity are often times very attenuated. All of this “wisdom” complete with appropriate “learned” jargon, of course figured out, told about, made many mistakes to gain, came later, much later because at the time Josh was just feeling rotten about his life and how the hell he got placed in a world which he had not created (re-enforced when questioned by one Delores Breslin with Prescott Breslin as a behind-the scenes back-up about his various doings) and no likely possibilities of having a say what with the world stacked against him, his place in the sun (and not that “safe” white collar civil service job that Delores saw as the epitome of upward mobility for her brood), and how he didn’t have a say in what was going on. Then through one source or another mainly by the accident of tuning in his life-saver transistor radio, which for once he successfully badgered to get from Delores and Prescott one Christmas by threatening murder and mayhem if he didn’t when all his corner boys at Jimmy Jack’s Diner had them, on one Sunday night to listen to a favorite rock and roll DJ that he could receive on that night from Chicago he found a folk music program that sounded interesting (it turned out to be the Dick Summer show on WBZ, a DJ who is featured in the Tom Rush documentary) and he was hooked by the different songs played, some mountain music, some jug, some country blues, some protest songs. Each week Dick Summer would announce who was playing where for the week and he kept mentioning various locations, including the Club 47, in Harvard Square. Josh was intrigued, wanted to go if only he could find a kindred for a date and if he could scratch up some dough. Neither easy tasks for a guy in high teen alienation mode.           


One Saturday afternoon Josh made connections to get to a Red Line subway stop which was the quickest way for him to get to Harvard Square (and was also the last stop on that line then) and walked around the Square looking into the various clubs and coffeehouses that had been mentioned by Summer and a few more as well. You could hardly walk a block without running into one or the other. Of course during the day all people were doing was sitting around drinking coffee and reading, maybe playing chess, or as he found out later huddled in small group corners working on their music (or poetry which also still had some sway as a tail end of the “beat” scene) so he didn’t that day get the full sense of what was going on. A few weeks later, having been “hipped” to the way things worked, meaning that as long as you had coffee or something in front of you in most places you were cool Josh always chronically low on funds took a date, a cheap date naturally, to the Club Blue where you did not pay admission but where Eric Von Schmidt was to play. Josh had heard his Joshua Gone Barbados covered by Tom Rush on Dick Summer’s show and he had flipped out so he was eager to hear him. So for the price of, Josh thought, two coffees each, a stretched-out shared brownie and two subway fares they had a good time, an excellent time (although that particular young woman and Josh would not go on much beyond that first date since she was looking for a guy who had more dough to spend on her, and maybe a “boss” car too).


Josh would go over to Harvard Square many weekend nights in those days, including sneaking out of the house a few time late at night and heading over since in those days the Red Line subway ran all night. That was his home away from home not only for cheap date nights depending on the girl he was interested in but when the storms gathered at the house about his doing, or not doing, this or that, stuff like that when his mother pulled the hammer down. If Josh had a few dollars make by caddying for the Mayfair swells at the Carver Country Club, a private club a few miles from his house he would pony up the admission, or two admissions if he was lucky, to hear Joan Baez or her sister Mimi with her husband Richard Farina, maybe Eric Von Schmidt, Tom Paxton when he was in town at the 47. If he was broke he would do his alternative, take the subway but rather than go to a club he would hang out all night at the famous Harvard Square Hayes-Bickford just up the steps from the subway stop exit. That was a wild scene made up of winos, grifters, con men, guys and gals working off barroom drunks, crazies, and… almost every time out there would be folk-singers or poets, some known to him, others from cheap street who soon faded into the dust, in little clusters, coffee mugs filled, singing or speaking low, keeping the folk tradition alive, keeping the faith that a new wind was coming across the land and they, Josh, wanted to catch it. Wasn’t that a time.          

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

John Brown’s Body Lies A Moldering In The Grave-With The Massachusetts 54th Black Volunteer Regiment In Mind.


Every time I pass the frieze honoring the heroic Massachusetts 54th Black Volunteer Regiment across from the State House on Beacon Street in Boston, a unit that fought in the American Civil War, a war which we have just finished commemorating the 150th anniversary of its formal ending (April 1865) I am struck by one figure who I will discuss in a minute. For those who do not know the 54th Regiment the unit had been recruited and made up of all volunteers, former slaves, freedmen, maybe a current fugitive slave snuck in there, those were such times for such unheralded personal valor, the recruitment a task that the great abolitionist Frederick Douglass, himself an ex-slave had been central in promoting (including two of his sons). All knew, or soon became aware that if they did not fight to the finish they would not be treated as prisoners of war but captured chattel subject to re-enslavement or death.  The regiment fought with ferocious valor before Fort Wagner down in South Carolina and other hot spots where an armed black man, in uniform or out, brought red flashes of deep venom, if venom is red, but hellfire hatred in any case to the Southern plantation owners and their hangers-on (that armed black men acting in self-defense of themselves and theirs still bringing hellfire hatred among some whites to this day, no question).
I almost automatically focus in on that old hard-bitten grizzled erect bearded soldier who is just beneath the head of the horse being ridden by Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, the white commander of the regiment who from a family of ardent abolitionists fell with his men before Fort Wagner and was buried with them, an honor. (See above) I do not know the details of the model Saint-Gauden’s used when he worked that section (I am sure that specific information can be found although it is not necessary to this sketch) but as I grow older I appreciate that old man soldier even more, as old men are supposed to leave the arduous duty of fighting for just causes, arms in hand, to the young.
I like to think that that old grizzled brother who aside from color looks like me when he heard the call from Massachusetts wherever he was, maybe had read about the plea in some abolitionist newspaper, had maybe even gotten the message from Frederick Douglass himself through his newspaper, The North Star, calling Sable Brother to Arms or on out the stump once Lincoln unleashed him to recruit his black brothers for whatever reason although depleting Union ranks reduced by bloody fight after bloody fight as is the nature of civil war when the societal norms are broken  as was at least one cause, he picked up stakes leaving some small farm or trade and family behind and volunteered forthwith. Maybe he had been born, like Douglass, in slavery and somehow, manumission, flight, something, following the Northern Star, got to the North. Maybe learned a skill, a useful skill, got a little education to be able to read and write and advance himself and had in his own way prospered.
But something was gnawing at him, something about the times, something about tow-headed white farm boys, all awkward and ignorant from the heartland of the Midwest, sullen Irish and other ethnic immigrants from the cities where it turned out the streets were not paved with gold and so took the bounty for Army duty, took some draft-dodger’s place for pay, hell, even high-blown Harvard boys were being armed to defend the Union (and the endless names of the fallen and endless battles sites on Memorial Hall at Harvard a graphic testament to that solemn sense of duty then. And more frequently as the days and months passed about the increasing number of white folk who hated, hated with a red-hot passion, slavery and if that passion meant anything what was he a strong black man going to do about it, do about breaking the hundreds of years chains. Maybe he still had kindred under the yolk down South in some sweated plantation, poorly fed, ill-treated, left to fester and die when not productive anymore, the women, young and old subject to Mister’s lustful appetites and he had to do something.
Then the call came, Governor Andrews of Massachusetts was raising a “sable” armed regiment (Douglass’ word) to be headed by a volunteer Harvard boy urged on by his high abolitionist parents, Colonel Shaw, the question of black military leadership of their own to be left to another day, another day long in the future as it turned out but what was he to know of that, and he shut down his small shop or farm, said good-bye to kin and neighbors and went to Boston to join freedom’s fight. I wonder if my old bearded soldier fell before Fort Wagner fight down in heated rebel country, or maybe fell in some other engagement less famous but just as important to the concept of disciplined armed black men fighting freedom’s fight. I like to think thought that the grizzled old man used every bit of wit and skill he had and survived to march into Charleston, South Carolina, the fire-breathing heart of the Confederacy, then subdued at the end of war with his fellows in the 54th stepping off to the tune of John Brown’s Body Lies A-Moldering In The Grave. A fitting tribute to Captain Brown and his band of brother, black and white, at Harper’s Ferry fight and to an old grizzled bearded man’s honor.             

Out In The Red Scare Cold War Night- Sterling Hayden’s Five Steps To Danger-A Film Review

DVD Review

From The Pen Of Frank Jackman

Five Steps to Danger, Sterling Hayden, Ruth Roman, 1957

Recently in reviewing a 1940s black and white melodrama, Daisy Kenyon, I noted that looking back into the film archives for such films gave us a feel for the social sensibilities of the times, in that one a glimpse at the subject of adultery and subsequent divorce proceedings in the then hard divorce state of New York. The film under review, 1957s 5 Steps To Danger, can serve the same purpose as a glimpse at the political sensibilities of the times, the high-end hard red scare Cold War night. To somebody looking at the film today who was born say in 1980, maybe a little before, and certainly after whose world view has been shaped by the demise of the Soviet Union the whole thing might seem a mystery sealed with seven seals as to what the big deal was. Yet any viewer, young Saturday matinee double-feature attendee or adult night viewer, would have immediately recognized the dreaded Soviet bad guy versus good FBI –CIA guy struggle of the titans played out in the film. That Cold War adversarial theme played pretty straight up here invaded all kinds of films from science fiction with its aliens (read “reds descending’) to, by implication, the myriad J.D. (juvenile delinquent) films put out by Hollywood when every golden age of America parent was worried to perdition about sullen uncommunicative sons and daughters being loss to freedom’s cause.      

Here is the straight up “skinny” on this one. Average citizen riding the roads home to see his folks out in the great Western night, John (naturally), played by the rugged and non-nonsense Sterling Hayden gets into some car trouble and after one thing or another ditches that car and gets a ride from Ann (naturally) played by seemingly sensible Ruth Roman who is heading his way, part way anyway, toward Santa Fe. Driving on a mission it will later turn out. Ann seems like an ordinary pretty girl and so John hops in.

Then the mysteries begin. John is stopped at truck stop diner by a woman who says she is a nurse and that the seemingly sensible Ann is really, well, off-balanced, and needs help. Then they are stopped by guys who say they are cops looking for her in a murder case. From there Ann starts to come eye-drop at a time clean with John. Tells him she is an emissary from the anti-Soviet resistance in Germany, which could mean from East Germany, trying to get top secret information to a German scientist who obviously was working at top secret atomic site Los Alamos or its environs.  

From there the chase is on as John has been enlisted by Ann in her scheme, enlisted in the fight against the red menace night, and incidentally into her charms which even in the deepest part of the red scare night Hollywood could not help throwing in as a romantic element, here including a marriage of convenience. Needless to say as the plot unfolded it turned out that the doctor who was treating Ann was actually a Soviet spy looking for that information which was to be forwarded by Ann to the so-called America friendly German scientist. Needless to say as well that the good doctor was foiled in his efforts once the American spy-catchers got to work and took him out, took him out permanently, of the equation. John, an average American citizen and Ann now also an average American citizen thereafter go off to live their happy lives after they did their bit to curb the Soviet menace. I watched this film when I was one of those Saturday afternoon matinee double-feature attendees and remember I bought into the whole good FBI-CIA guys theme. Yeah, the world was fresher then, for good or evil.       

Joan Crawford In The Fog- Otto Preminger’s Daisy Kenyon- A Film Review

DVD Review

From The Pen Of Frank Jackman


Daisy Kenyon, starring Joan Crawford, Dana Andrews, Henry Fonda, directed by Otto Preminger (1947)   


Jack Kerouac, the “king of the beat” writers once wrote a sketch based on observing the filming of a movie starring Joan Crawford which was being shot up in the hills of San Francisco in the fog. And in the fog seems to be a proper metaphor for the situation Ms. Crawford find herself in as Daisy Kenyon in the film of the same name directed by Otto Preminger in the immediate post-World War II period. It seems that Daisy, a successful career woman, a high-end fashion designer, at a time when women were either being forced back into the home after the shortages of men gone off to World War II war had returned or had simply never left home, not had been encouraged to do so out in the great big competitive world, can’t decide on her proper place in the post-war universe. Her proper place in the endless male-female mating game. And hence the appropriateness of the fog metaphor.    

One of the virtues of going back deep into the black and white film archives from the 1930s and 1940s is that one gets a better handle on the social sensibilities of those times, at least as portrayed on the screen. You see this film has Daisy in an adulterous (and tempestuous) relationship something that would draw a yawn from today’s movie-goers but which meant something then, with a high-end Wall Street lawyer, Dan O’Mara played by a suave and ruggedly handsome Dana Andrews who was a matinee idol in such witty urbane guy roles then, who is not only married to a high-end boss’s daughter which allows him to lead a merry life of privilege but has two charming children to boot whom he loves in his own not uncommon then distant father way but which no question would cause problems in court. And for most of the film merry Dan is, one way or the other, not very interested, not enough anyway, to break the link to the gravy train and three martini lunches. That is where Daisy the successful career woman got off her tracks, wound up in the fog. She loved Dan in her own way but at some point realized she would always be “the other woman” and so one night, one stood up by Dan night, she had a date with a forlorn widowed (young wife died in an accident) ex-G.I. Peter played by good solid Midwestern salt of the earth values guy Henry Fonda. And they wind up having a short whirlwind romance and get married. End of story.        

Well, not quite, remember that fog business. Dan, now the odd man out, got “religion,” realized that Daisy was worth fighting for and of course Daisy still had some conflicts of her own about her marriage to Peter and her unresolved feelings for Dan. The conflicts abounding in her head including being the correspondent in a divorce proceeding initiated by Dan’s wife when she decided that he had had enough of Dan’s philandering, drove Daisy to distraction causing her severe mental anguish to speak nothing of interfering with her creative work. The whole thing got worked out in the end and just so you know despite his earnest pleas and promises hustling Dan was the odd-man out in this one. If you want to see a high-end 1940s melodrama well directed you can watch this one with some interest.      

Monday, September 28, 2015

In Search Of Lost Time… Then-With 1960s School Days In Mind


From The Pen Of Bart Webber

Several years ago, maybe in 2007 or 2008 Sam Lowell, the locally well-known lawyer from the town of Carver about thirty miles south of Boston, wrote some small pieces about the old days in the town, the old days being for him the 1950s and 1960s, the time of the golden age of the automobile and relative abundance but also if mocking the ephemeral materialist nature of the times also the red scare Cold War night with its threats of some errant Russkie bomb landing of top of us. At that time the town was mainly a rural outpost, the usual Main Street and drive on through like many such places in outer America, where instead of the usual rural occupation of farming, truck or raising staple crops on fertile land  the cranberry bogs, the marches and water pits, and boggers (as kids we called them “boogers” not knowing what the hell bogs were about although knew what nasty boogers were from the eternal kids picking their noses) held sway and dominated a fair part of town life, ran the town politics and determined the ethos, determined the ethos to the extent that was possible in post-World War II America where the older cultural norms were rapidly being replaced by a speedier and less homespun way of doing business. In the teenage life line-up, the only one that was important in Sam’s world then, since he was not a low-life bogger and had no bogger roots he had gravitated to those whose families like his  that were connected with the shipbuilding industry about twenty miles up the road. So you would have seen Sam and his corner boys on any given Friday or Saturday night if not dated up holding up the wall in front of Jimmy Jack’s Diner over on Main Street daring, with the exception of Jack Callahan the great school football running back and fourth generation bogger who hung with them because he thought they were “cool,” any of the bogger clan to do anything but go in and order food or play the jukebox. (Seemingly every boy in town from junior high on, if not before, had his corner boys for protection against a dangerous world outside the corner, or something like that if you asked them. If you wanted an explanation more than self-preservation professional sociologists and cracker barrel philosophers of the time spent endless hours of their time analyzing that angst-driven night and could give you their take on the phenomenon.)

Sam had seen that small town Americana all change over his long association with the town, including a few terms as a town selectman, although the boggers were still there, still moaning about their collective water tax bills, and still a force on the board but the drift over the decades was for the town to become a bedroom community for the sprawling high tech industry running the Interstate corridor about ten miles away. Sam though hung up with some old age nostalgia twist wrote about the old neighborhood now still intact as if time had passed that hell’s little acre by (the new developments were created on abandoned bog lands to the benefit mainly of Myles Larson, the largest bogger around), largely still composed of the small tumbledown small single family homes with a patch of green like that he grew up and came of age on “the wrong side of the tracks” (along with three brothers all close in age in a five room shack, Sam had never, except in front of his parents, ever called it anything but that). Sam sighed one time to his old friend from that very neighborhood Pete Markin after they had put the dust of the old town behind them for a while on the hitchhike road west that the “acres” of the world will always be with us. Markin, in his “newer world” turn the old world upside down phase did not want to hear that, blocked it out when Sam would bring the idea up on the road. That said a lot about Markin, and about Sam as well.   


Wrote too about the old (painful, the painful being that the school drew the more prosperous new arrivals staring to come into town leaving the boggers over at John Alden Junior High and subjecting him to lots of taunts about his brother hand-me-down clothes, stuff like that) days when he attended the then newly built Myles Standish Junior High School (such places are now almost universally called middle schools) where he and his fellow class- mates were the first to go through starting in seventh grade. In that piece he mentioned that he was not adverse, hell, he depended on “cribbing” words, phrases and sentences from many sources. One such “crib” was appropriating the title of a six-volume saga by the French writer Marcel Proust for one of those sketches, the title used here In Search of Lost Time as well. He noted that an alternative translation of that work was Remembrances of Things Past which he felt did not do justice to what he, Sam, was trying to get a across. Sam had no problem, no known problem anyway, with remembering things from the past but he thought the idea of a search, of an active scouring of what had gone on in his callow youth (his term) was more appropriate to what he was thinking and feeling.       

Prior to writing those pieces Sam had contacted through the marvels of modern technology, through the Internet, Google and Facebook a number of the surviving members of that Myles Standish Class of 1962 to get their take on what they remembered, what search that they might be interested in undertaking to “understand what the hell happened back then and why” (his expression, okay). He got a number of responses, the unusual stuff that people who have not seen each for a long time, since the old days as school and so are inclined to put up a “front,” show that trajectory toward state prison or whore-houses had been put behind them long ago, so endlessly going on and on about beautiful houses in beautiful neighborhoods putting paid to the dust of the dingy old town, what they had done with their lives in resume form, endless prattle about grandchildren (Sam admitted to a certain inclination that way himself so he was more forgiving on that issue) and so forth who also once Sam brought the matter up wanted to think back to those days. One of those classmates, Melinda Loring, whom Sam in high school although not in junior high had something of a “crush” on but so did a lot of other guys, after they had sent some e-mail traffic to each other, sent him via that same method (oh beautiful technology on some things) a copy of a booklet that had been put out by the Myles Standish school administrators in 1987 commemorating the 25th anniversary of the opening of the school. Sam thoughtfully (his term) looked through the booklet and when he came upon the page shown above where an art class and a music class were pictured he discovered that one of the students in the art class photograph was of him.        


That set off a train of memories about how in those days, days by the way when the community freely offered every student a chance to take art in school and outside as well unlike today when he had been recently informed that due to school budget cuts art is no longer offered to each student but is tied to some cumbersome Saturday morning classes at the out-of-the-way community center, when Mrs. Robert’s encouraged him to become an artist, thought he had talent (later at Carver High Mr. Henry thought the same thing and was prepared to recommend him to his alma mater, the Massachusetts School of Art in the Back Bay of Boston).


Art for Sam had always been a way for him to express what he could not put in words, could not easily put in words anyway and he was always crazy to go to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston to see some artwork by real professionals, especially the abstract expressionists that he was visually drawn to (and would leave after viewing feeling like he at best would always be an inspired amateur). The big reason that he did not pursue that art career had a lot to do with coming up “from hunger,” coming up the hard way and when he broached the subject to his parents, mainly his mother, she vigorously emphasized the hard life of the average artist and told him that a manly profession (her term, although she did not mean the practice of law but like all second generation Irish mothers in that town when they got their tongues wagging some nice white collar civil service job to support a nice wife, nice three children and a nice white picket fenced house outside the “acre,” such were motherly dreams) was better for a boy who had come up from the dust of society. He wondered about that after seeing the photograph, wondered about the fact that after a lifetime of working the manly profession of the practice of the law all he could conclude was that there were a million good lawyers but far fewer good artists and maybe he could have at least had his fifteen minutes of fame in that field. He resolved to search for some old artwork stored he did not know where, maybe still in the attic of the old house which after his parents passed on his unmarried older brother, Seamus, took over, to see if that path would have made sense.     


Sam had had to laugh after looking at the other photograph, the one of the music room, where he spotted his old friend Ralph Morse who went on in the 1960s to some small fame in the Greater Boston area as a member of the rock group The Rockin’ Ramrods. Many an after concert party found Ralph and Sam drunk as skunks talking about the old days when rock and roll music was not even let into the Morse household (his parents were Evangelical and hated “the devil’s music”) and barely tolerated in the Lowell household (a truce declared when Sam’s parents purchased a transistor radio for him one Christmas at the Radio Shack so they could not hear the music). Ralph had eventually headed west to seek his fame and fortune but kind of fell off the face of the earth and nobody even with today’s technology has been able to find out his whereabouts, if any.


That look too set off a train of memories about how in those days, days by the way when the community freely offered every student a chance to take music in school and outside as well like with art classes unlike today when he had been informed recently that due to school budget cuts music is no longer offered to each student but is also tied to some cumbersome Saturday morning classes at the out-of-the-way community center. However unlike with his art teachers Mr. Dasher the music teacher often went out of his way to tell Sam to keep his voice down since it was gravelly, and off-key to boot.


At the time Sam did not think much about it, did not feel bad about having no musical sense. Later though once he heard folk music, the blues and some other roots music he felt bad that Mister Dasher had put a damper on his musical sensibilities. Not that he would have gone on to some career like Ralph, at least Ralph had his fifteen minutes of fame, but he would have avoided that life-long habit of singing low, singing in the shower, singing up in the isolated third floor of his current home where no one, including his longtime companion, Laura Perkins a woman with a professional grade voice that would make the angels weep, would hear him. The search for memory goes on….