Thursday, March 31, 2016

Anne Baxter In The Blizzard -With The Film O. Henry’s Full House In Mind


By Zack James


“The turn of the 20th century short story author known as O. Henry sure knew how to do the ‘hook,’ knew how to grab a reader and throw him or her a curve ball,” Jack Callahan was telling Sam Lowell after he had just seen a DVD that he had ordered from Netflix, O. Henry’s Full House, a black and white film anthology produced in 1952. Jack further mentioned “this cinematic effort to put some of O. Henry’s more famous short stories on the screen was interesting. What they did was pick five beauties from his treasure trove of work, had five different screenwriters shape up the plotlines for film, brought in five different director and not B-film hacks either, and a slew of stars famous then or would be famous later like Marilyn Monroe and David Wayne and wrap the thing up with a bow. The bow being bringing the big time writer, John Steinbeck, a guy who was very familiar with the ‘hook’ in his stories from desperate Tom Joad Grapes of Wrath to the Cain and Abel lusts of East of Eden to introduce each story.”         

Sam Lowell who fancied himself an amateur writer told Jack that he was surprised that he had seen the film since usually Jack’s interests were with detective stories or sci fi eyes treats. He told Jack, “I remember reading O. Henry’s The Gift of the Magi as part of anthology of great American short stories for English class sophomore year in high school and telling you guys about the twist in the story when we were sitting at Jimmy Jack’s Diner over on Thornton Street chewing the fat one Friday night when for some reason we had nothing else to do, no dates and no dough for dates, the usual story, and you all rained hell down on me for even talking about a school subject. I remember you said, I think it was you because you used your favorite expression back then, “you didn’t give a rat’s ass” about a couple of goofs getting mixed up getting each other the wrong Christmas gifts. That’s right isn’t it?”

Jack thought for a moment and said he was not sure that is what he said, or whether he even said it but he probably had. He realized that Sam was trying as usual to one-up him when it came to so-called literary matters just like always so he uttered, “Sam, I glad you brought that up because that is a classic case of where if you “deconstruct” what O. Henry did you will see what I mean about his ability to use the “hook” to draw you in. You know I could, Chrissie too who watched that segment with me, relate to the part about the young couple “from hunger” but desperately in love just like us getting their signals mixed up. She goes off to sell her hair to get him a geegad for his heirloom watch he had eyed at a jewelry store and he on his own hook gets her some barrettes for her long hair that she had eyed at another store after he sold his precious watch. Yeah, great hook.”

Sam, knowing that Jack had for once set the bait for him, had tried to one-up him so he let it pass, let Jack have the point although he felt a ping of regret about doing so as he asked Jack what the other segments had in the way of the “hook.” Jack responded, “One story I forgot the name of it was about a bum, a high-style fancy talking bum, played by grizzled old actor Charles Laughton, who once winter came in cold ass New York City would do something illegal to get himself put in jail to ride out the cold. Spend the winter in the cooler with three squares at city expense. That year though he couldn’t get anybody to arrest him no matter what he tried to do and so he had an epiphany, decided to go straight, but while he is making that decision outside a church a brutal looking bull of copper pulled him in and the judge gave him his him three months. So much for going straight. Not as good a hook as that Magi thing but the way Laughton played it was funny in its own way.”

Sam thinking seriously about the name of that short story that Jack could not remember knew he had read at some point, probably in another anthology since he did not remember reading any O. Henry collected stories when he was younger asked Jack, “Was the name of the story The Cop and the Anthem?”  Jack snapped his fingers, an old habit from the corner boy days, “Oh yeah, I think that was the name.”         

Jack continued after thinking for a couple of minutes about the plots of the other segments, “Another segment titled The Clarion Call had Richard Widmark, you know the guy who played all those psycho criminals like Tommy Uno which won him an Oscar, in another criminal role as this burglar who wound up killing a the guy at one of his break-ins. The only clue the coppers had was a dropped at the scene gold pen engraved with the words Camptown Races like the old, old song by that name that my grandmother used to sing while she was doing her household chores which he had won when he was kid in some kind of barbershop quartet competition.”

Sam interrupted, “Didn’t we sing that song in Mister Dasher’s Music class in seventh grade over at Myles Standish?” “Yeah, that’s the one and the reason that is important is that it just so happened that one of the coppers at the precinct in which the crime took place had been in that same quartet. So he knew exactly who had done the crime,” Jack laughed. “Just coincidence right, and there would be no problem finding old Widmark and bringing him to justice. Except this copper, played by Dale Robertson whom I didn’t recognize at first but who played on television in some Western when we were kids was in Widmark’s debt. See he had gotten in over his head with some high- roller gamblers, had written a bad check for a thousand bucks and Widmark covered him, covered him with the proviso that he would get paid back some day. Well that killing was the pay-back day and since, if you can believe this, although I can believe anything about coppers these days just like when they hassled us when we were kids, old Dale couldn’t pay up. Widmark walked away, walked away laughing at Dale as he made his plans to get out of town.

“But you know as well and I do since we saw a million 1930s and 1940s gangster films at the Majestic Theater on those Saturday matinee double-headers whether we had money for popcorn or not, that no stone-cold killer was going to get away  with murder. What Dale did was to go to the editor of the town newspaper The Clarion and have him put out a reward for a thousand bucks for information leading to the killer of that guy who was robbed. Of course Dale stone-cold knew who the killer was and grabbed the dough. Grabbed it and paid Widmark off. All even, right. A little gunplay ensued when Widmark resisted but Dale brought his man in, no problem. Sam chortled, “How many times have we seen that same scenario, or something like it, in gangster movies and then the guy gets grabbed anyway. Those gangster scriptwriters were ripping off O. Henry just like I do when I read something that hits me between the eyes. Go on”                                      

Jack told Sam that he had dozed off through something called the Ransom of Red Cloud. “It was nothing but a goof story about a couple of city-slickers who are con men looking to fleece some rube farmers down in rural Alabama by kidnapping their kids for ransom. They picked the wrong kid in this one, a wild boy who would just as soon kick your ass, big or small, as look at you, like Billy Bradley used to in elementary school, except this kid thought his was channeling some Indians or something. The long and short of it was that the con men were so baffled by the situation they paid the rube farmers to take the kid off their hands. Like I said a snoozer.”

Jack pleaded tiredness, said he didn’t want to talk about the last segment he had not mentioned yet but suggested that he would let Sam take the DVD  home and watch the segment (watch it soon because he wanted to return the DVD so he could get Out Of The Past with Robert Mitchum and Kirk Douglas  which was next on his list and the faster he returned it the quicker he would get his next selection that he really wanted to see, see after having not seen it for many years since he had seen it as part of a film retrospective at the Brattle Theater in Cambridge).

Sam did so, actually watched the whole film since Jack had been so clever about the literary device that many authors use, the hook, to draw a reader in, had watched the missing segment titled The Last Leaf, starring Anne Baxter. That night after he had watched the film though when he went to bed he had a dream, a dream connected back to the time when he had had a serious schoolboy “crush” on Ms. Baxter after seeing her in her devilish role in All About Eve.  Everything got a little mixed up when he started to write about the dream the next day in his journal in hopes of getting some story out of the experience for the blog he wrote for occasionally, The Black and White Film Classics:

A young man, a little disheveled as befits a struggling artist new to town, new to New York City and its delights and hassles as he tries to get his first recognition as a budding new star, is looking through a narrow window in his small garret apartment, the normal student art league fold-up bed and kitchenette complex that a thousand students occupy through the Village. Through that narrow portal he see a  young woman, a young women that he vaguely recognizes through her artist carrying bag and her stolid hat not worthy of the day’s weather struggling as the winds howled in all directions and the snow is blowing fiercely every which way blocking his view at times after she had come down the stairs from the apartment building across the street.

A few minutes early also on occasion blocked from a clear view out that frosted window he had seen that same young woman arguing, or maybe better, pleading, with a man, an older man with mustaches, dapper, well-dressed, or at least his dressing jacket and the fine crystal holding a good portion of what looks like high-grade liquor in his hand tells that tale, a man whom seemed at first glance recognizable, seen in the newspapers, no, on stage, an actor, that makes sense since at the corner of the street as we zoomed in on the scene we can see a sign which says McDougall Street, which means nothing other than Greenwich Village, the Village in New York City at earlier age when the immigrants, the artists, the actors all vied for space in the cheap rent districts while they waited for their fortunes to come in. The look on the man’s face and his surroundings indicate some success, that of the young woman not so, she has the look of being one in a long line of beauties who have succumbed to the older man’s charms and is now being shown the door, maybe a rising starlet who even in the times we are talking about, the early 1900s knew that one way to stardom was through the casting couch, or the couch of a leading male actor.     

The pleading fruitless, endlessly fruitless, at times half-hysterical at others an almost murderous look on her face but that might have been his imagination plotting out some headline grabbing scenario, all the while the Lothario was exquisitely indifferent, she had dragged herself in a heap to the door and down the stairs. That is where the young artist picked her up again. She was next seen walking, walking bareheaded, having taken off the ill-fitting and inadequate for the weather conditions despite the snows swirling madly about her, despite the shawl she has in her left hand that could have been used to cover that long luscious black hair that she owned, handbag in her right hand. That is when the young man decided in a fit of hubris or maybe just curiosity to throw on his oilskin jacket and run down the stairs of his own building and see where she was headed. Once on the street he could she had stopped and started going down one street and up another and over time as he followed within a block she had crisscrossed many blocks, stopping occasionally in anguish, then moving on almost unaware of the traffic in the street, the horse-drawn carriages and transoms which she could have taken to wherever she was going.

More blocks, more snow, the snow swirling in such a manner that it could only be a blizzard she is attempting hatless to walk in, a couple of stops to moan, then gather herself, a couple of gentlemanly offers of a ride, and who knows what else but she finally makes it to Green Street, Green Street and home at the south end of Greenwich Village, the place where the newest arrival immigrants from Southern Europe, but mainly artists and actors down here, find themselves shelter when they hit the city looking, well, looking for something not to be found in Albany, Utica, Syracuse, Rochester, Buffalo, hell, Lima, Ohio either.

At the corner of a six-story building on Green Street she ran into an older man, an artist of some sort from the framed painting he has in his left hand sheltering it against the winds and snows. The young man decided that she had not spied him as some kind of stalker walked on pass them and walking slowly overheard part of the conversation, she had begun to unburden herself to the old man who worried about her health as she moaned, moaned the moan that the old artist as a man of the world, a man of the old country, and wise knew meant that she had been forsaken by that gigolo Joe Stella, whom he had told her over and over again was nothing but a womanizer, and liar too. Ah, that is where that older man across the apartment street, this Stella, had seen him on student rush day on Broadway in Hamlet.

Yes now the young man too knew what the Oldman was wailing about, knew that she is now “tarnished” goods having given herself mistakenly to that bastard hoping that would ease the way for her onto the Broadway stage. Such has been the fate of women since Adams’s evil apple time. The old man groaned the groan of the knowing and tells her to get upstairs and get the wet clothes off and dry her hair which has become a Medusa mass of snarls in the wind and snow. The young man just shook his head in sorrow for the naiveté of the young woman since he too had been taken in by an older person, a woman in this case when he was “from hunger” even worse that his situation now and she had forced him to do naughty things to her, and let her do things to him that  no man should have had to suffer before she one day without notice and without leaving him a parting “salary” left for Italy, Rome, Italy on a transatlantic steamer without as much as a fare you well. Probably had some silly pretty boy Italian to work her evil on by now.  

Back to our lady in distress though. As she stumbles and rumbles up the stairs she can barely make it to her third floor apartment but does so, knocking faintly. Her sister, let’s call her Sue, as we will call our bedraggled beseecher, Anne, Anne Baxter, of the long black hair, opens the door into their studio apartment, a sure sign that they are newcomers (later finding out they had arrived from upstate Albany a few months before so he was not wrong in the greenness factor) Sue the budding young artist and Anne, well, Anne as the besmirched young actress. Sue is appalled at Anne’s appearance and orders her to bed, orders that old man artist Anne had talked to on the street, called Cezanne, who had just come up the stairs as she was closing the door since he lives above them to fetch the doctor. Pneumonia, pneumonia, but not fatal in a young heart determined to live another day. Some medicines are bought and things look on the surface to be going okay.                    

Sue of course having lost her own formerly cherished virtue to a fellow Art Student League member whose whereabouts these days is unknown although she had no regrets surrounding what she had to surrender to the lad as it turned out knew full well what ailed Anne, had like a million young women moved from the country and small towns to the big city lost her moorings and lost her virginity to Stella, for no gain. She is distraught, cannot sleep is feverish, as she keeps to her bed, her shelter from the storms in her body, in her life outside the studio as she watches the winds blow against some remaining leaves from a tree that shed late, late before the early winter blizzard was coming to finish the task.

Strange what thoughts the feverish, the lost, the forsaken will draw from the slightest object. Anne had been in the throes of her fever counting the leaves as the fell off the single cityscape tree. Dying down in the alley somewhere to be fertilizer for some future tree, perhaps. The dying leaves, Anne dying inside (Sue suspects the worse that Anne is with child and tries to approach her on the subject of, a delicate matter, then and now, abortion so more dying to no avail) has cast a spell on her romantic imagination. She will cast her fate with the blizzard blown last leaf. If that cannot withstand the swirl and whirl of winter’s hardest blows then she cannot either. The morning light will tell the tale. Anne threatens seven kinds of hell if Sue does not open the night curtain to expose the branch, expose that one last life-giving leaf. No leaf. After a few awful days of struggle for the death she craved they buried Anne several days after that up in the family plot in Albany.       


Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Hard Times Come Again No More-With The Horrors Of Mister James Crow In Mind

By Zack James

Josh Breslin never forgot the night his father, Prescott, not a talkative man about anything from his service in the Marines in World War II to his younger days in misbegotten coal country Kentucky, told him about some of the things that he had experienced and noticed when he was young back in the hills and hollows of the Appalachian range. Josh was perhaps eleven or twelve on that night we are speaking of. Prescott may have been “in his cups,” had had a few drinks too many after learning that at the end of the year in 1955 the MacAdams Textile Mill which had provided work for many in Olde Saco up in Maine for over fifty years would close its doors forever and head to cheap labor North Carolina not all that far from where he had grown up. That closing meant that a man with few salable skills in a tight labor market like Prescott would be reduced to any awful work he could get to feed four hungry growing boys, Josh the youngest, if he stayed in the area. The thought of going back to the South had crossed Prescott’s mind for a minute but then he dismissed it out of hand. He could not go back, he would not. Hence Josh was that night privy to some of the specifics of what his old man could not go back to.

Prescott had been born in Prestonsburg, really in a hamlet, Olden, outside of that town, the former then barely a town, more like one of those five stores and a post office that you still see in extremely rural areas in this country. Outside of town things were even more primitive with scattered tarpaper shacks, some owned by Peabody Coal Company, others the result of families in some back generation being too lazy to head west to better land and letting things run down even more, if that was possible. All one had to do was picture a photograph by say Dorothea Lange or somebody like that with the classic shack, broken down crooked porch, maybe windows maybe not, tarpaper coming off in spots, some old pappy setting on that porch smoking his corncob pipe, a million kids running around half naked, overgrown weeds, and X number of old rusted out cars totally useless to clutter up the landscape. That would sum up the look of the Breslin estate.       

Needless to say that Peabody Coal Company owned everything in sight that was not nailed down, except a few ancient shacks like the Breslin one which had been there since before the coal mines came in. Owned the company store and exploited every resource it could, including the Breslin labor as far back as the mines existed. Included Prescott’s labor who at fourteen worked his way into the mines like his kindred and brethren before him without a peep from his father or anybody else. World War II came along to get him out from under the miner’s life. He had joined the Marines after the damn Japs bombed Pearl Harbor. Said to his father that between dying of the black lung and getting hell from the Nips he would take his chances with the latter. So Prescott except in very private moments of despair like the mill closing never looked back, never wanted to look back.   

Oh sure he told Josh not all of it was unrelieved anguish and despair. He had had as a guy they locally called the “Sheik” for his dark Valentino-like good looks his fair share of the young girls come Saturday night barn dance time with the fiddles and guitars playing and the corn liquor going down smooth. Had taken “advantage” of more than one young girl (that was not the way he expressed it to young but growing Josh but that is what Josh remembered later) and a couple of older woman too (again not the way expressed at the time). Went fishing and hunting on those precious minutes off from the mines. Enjoyed running up and down the hills and hollows too. But there was no future there except black lung and if not black lung the some irate husband or some misbegotten other thing.      

After speaking about those younger days “for a piece” (one of the few expressions he retained from down home as he tried to become a Yankee as much as he could although with at times little success with that soft southern drawl of his) his father suddenly changed tact, began to speak about the “nigras” who lived over on the other side of Prestonsburg, over in “Nigra-town” (that was the term used then and which Prescott used when he spoke of black people-so this is not politically correct by todays’ standard but that was the reality in white Prestonsburg, and not just there, or just back then).   

Prescott spoke about how his mother, the real locus of family life repeatedly warned him and his siblings away from going to that side of town, told then the “nigras” would corrupt or steal white children for some evil purpose. Would practice some awful blood ritual to hear Mother Breslin tell the tale (always Mother not Ma or Mom) and besides that they stank up every place they went and that was the reason that they were kept on that side of town, down in the hollows where no respectable whites would go. Told her charges that when they went into Prestonsburg not to let themselves mix with “those people.”

What Prescott noticed most of all though was that “those people” when they did come to town walked on the road since the sidewalks were “reserved” for whites, they could only drink from “their” water fountain at the small town square, purchase goods only on “their” side of Mister Peabody’s store and could not hang around like white people could. He noticed all this but did not even think to question that social order, it seemed immutable. That things but be otherwise he really did not understand until he had lived up North for a while where such restrictions were not evident which made him very uncomfortable (he would never for example until his dying breathe be able to call a black person anything but “nigra” despite Josh’s efforts).          

That night thought he did tell Josh about the one Saturday night that he and Rick Jackson when they were about sixteen went over to, snuck over really, to “Nigra-town” to see what those people did for entertainment since he had heard in town that they raised holy hell on those nights. Fighting, drinking old mash, changing women around and dancing very seductively. The dance was held in the Baptist Church (black version) after they had cleared the pews and chairs back to allow for dancing. The band, an odd mix of fiddle players, drummers, guitarists and a lead female vocalist, set up on what on Sundays was the altar area. He and Rick stepped to the back so as not to be seen and waited for the dance to start expecting who knows what. What actually happened was that the young bucks and young women dances to tunes like Sitting On Top Of The World and the latest Robert Johnson tune Dust My Broom very much like he and his kindred did down at Brown’s red barn on Saturday nights except the band was a little jazzier than Frank Jackman and the Bow Men who creeped along. Prescott mentioned to Rick that he did not know what the big deal was, didn’t know why those people were thought to be wilder, drunker, more sex- crazy than they were come Saturday night.       

Still Prescott Breslin, a good if much put upon man, never called a black man or woman anything but nigra.

Monday, March 28, 2016

When The Hound Dog Began To Howl-With Big Mama Thornton’s Hound Dog In Mind  

By Jack Callahan

Bart Webber, reflecting on some songs from their school days back in the late 1950s and early 1960s one night when he was in a reflecting kind of mood, a mood that had settled over him more frequently of late surprising a lot of people including the guy who was listening to him, Jimmy Jenkins, said on the face of it there was no way some of the songs they loved, or were popular, or girls liked which was important made sense. Bart had the Elvis Presley version of Willa Mae “Big Mama” Thornton’s Hound Dog in mind which as he explained to Jimmy was supposed to be directed toward a girl, a girl the singer of the song was in love with who, as will happen between men and women, okay, okay boys and girls, treated him worse than some old mangy cur. Made his almost cry with her crying she was so mean to the lad. But how did it fit with the persona of Elvis, or with any guy who tried to call his gal of interest nothing but a hound dog. The least the guy should have expected to be in a deep freeze for about six months and then buried in some small abyss. Done for.

So, okay, maybe it didn’t  have to do with the song when Elvis sang anything in his golden days, say 1955 to about 1958, after which he fell off the face of the earth, died or something, and was resurrected as this yucky (teenage girl talk for someone who in on the outs, someone who doesn’t matter in the great teenage girl scheme of things) foolishly miscast teenage idol movie star (compare the magic of say the 1956 movie Jailhouse Rock when he gave his all with 1960s Blue Hawaii where he mailed it in and if you don’t see a different then well maybe move on to another of my blog entries). Some people say he went into the Army (which was true) but most serious aficionados, meaning those who have seen Elvis recently on the street, or worse, are waiting for his return outside Graceland in Memphis, know he had some hideous operation and came back as a drug addict and cheapjack hustler in a large jumpsuit.                   

But that hard fact, if it is a hard fact, doesn’t explain why he could sing Hound Dog and nobody did anything but scream to the rafters when he sang the song (girls, girls mainly, but I remember a few guys who, trying to emulate the King screamed too but they went on to become Elvis impersonators, or some kind of impersonators, and never got a play from those girls despite the sideburns, the wiggly hips and the patented snare they tried unsuccessfully to copy), why girls started throwing their underpants (the older girls, young women, and some not so young women the younger girls not understanding anything about what was making them all, well, all hormonal and leave it at that), and buying up every copy at Trader Bill’s Records up in Carver Square with their allowances (most guys I knew then either didn’t get an allowance because they, we, were so poor an allowance would have meant not paying the rent or something or if they did preferred not to spend it on Elvis records and let their sisters grab those platters).        

That was then and now is now and Bart had a better handle on the sources of the rock and roll music that he and his crowd lived for. It was long after Elvis had died, had been resurrected, or people had started waiting for the “second coming” when Sam Lowell, a guy he knew a little in high school, got him interested in the blues and was making a small argument in favor of the key influence that rhythm and blues, meaning “black” music, Negro music to use the phrase of the times (the polite phrase, others were nastier) had on rock and roll and let him listen on his stereo record player (it’s had been a while, okay) to a record by Big Mama Thornton which had her version of Hound Dog on one side of the album. Bart’s immediate response, after he said he liked the subterranean hip beat on her version, was to wonder if “Big Mama had covered Elvis’ great hit.” Sam laughed, told Bart that Big Mama had cut that number in 1951 and made about six dollars off of the royalties. Elvis made millions.

That was the hard fact of 1950s “race records” and their audience, explained the lynchpin of how Sam Phillips at Sun Records who put rock and roll on the map almost single-handedly was able to put “race music” and a good old white boy together to make northern girls (and others) throw their underwear on to any stage Elvis appeared on,  make project boys like Bart and Sam grow silly sideburns, almost injury themselves trying to make Elvis-type moves and spent hours before the mirror working on that snarl. But also explained why Big Mama’s version made more lyrical sense since she was talking about her no good rascal man. Explained why in every way Big Mama’s version would make Elvis blush with shame for his grand larceny felony if he ever was in the same room with her. Yeah.    


Sunday, March 27, 2016

Before The Jug….Was The Jug-With John Sebastian’s Hungry Eye Jug Band In Mind 

By Lester Lannon
A while back, maybe two three years ago just after they had witnessed the fiftieth anniversary union performance of what was left of the original Jim Kweskin Jug Band (Jim, Maria Muldaur and ex-husband Geoff Muldaur) at the Club Passim in Harvard Square Sam Lowell, Bart Webber and Jack Callahan had been sitting in Jack’s down the street sipping some high end whiskeys when they started to cut up old touches about their own experiences at jug music and jug band under the long ago influence of that very jug band(and of course through them finding out running back to genesis to the Memphis Jug Band, Cannon’s Stompers, The Mississippi Shieks and a half dozen old state name in front Shieks where all the really good jug band material was to be found). Jack, the old-time washboard player, had blurted out what was on everybody’s mind after that performance-“what the hell we have time now let’s get a hold of Laura Lynn and Frank Riley and give the old Riverdale Jug Band a local revival.” (Riverdale the home town of all five of the original named players, an occasional sit in fiddler and magic kazoo player were from neighboring Gloversville and hence Riverdale).

Sam, the jug man supreme, was at first hesitate for the very same reason the band had disbanded after a couple of years and some local success-there was not enough space in the then fading folk revival minute to support, support as a professional operation more than one serious jug band and that band was clearly the Jim Kweskin outfit (which in their turn would split up for various reasons, personality clashes, declining energies, declining public interest and the usual hubris). Fifty years later and a look at the greying demographics at Passims’ only made Sam more sanguine about such prospects. At least that night Jack was unsuccessful in persuading either Sam or Bart both who were in the slow process of giving up the day to day running of their respective law office and print shop to know that they had needed more time think about reforming the old group. His argument that the Kweskin Jug Band was, except for ceremonial occasions, not now an on-going operation went for naught. His other argument, a historical argument, that even the Kweskin experience back in the day had only been possible because of various reconfigurations in the personal of that band after various “raids” on other jug bands also fell on deaf ears that night.

But Jack sensed that there was some mulling over going on and so he went for the jugular (no pun intended) and brought Laura and Frankie into the mix. Did it in a very tricky way. John Sebastian, well known from the folk and folk rock days as the leader of the group The Lovin’ Spoonful (that left out “g” all the rage back then when everybody wanted to be at one with the “folk” although one never saw a real “folk” who were trying to get away from that designation and could not be found within ten miles of any folk revival site) which had hits with Summer in the City, Lovin’ Spoonful (remember no “g”) and Nashville Cats, was scheduled to appear at the Newport Folk Festival down in Rhode Island like he had in the old days. Jack had purchased a block of five tickets in order to entice them back to that old summer stomping ground where they had done a daytime, although no primetime, stage performance a couple of years in a row when their star was rising (and the lack of any serious follow-up, follow-up in the way such things counted in those days with a record contract except a small nimble from Dollar Records who thereafter passed on producing their first album claiming their work was too derivative, derivative of the Kweskin Jug Band particularly which started Riverdale Jug band members, first of all Laura to get married, to go their separate ways).

The hook of Newport for Jack was that he was privy to something that the others were not aware of. John Sebastian in the old days before the Lovin’ Spoonful success had been the founder (and re-founder) of various jug band combinations in the Village in the early 1960s when jug music was getting a lot of play in the folk revival. Sebastian’s most famous group, his most famous effort was the Hungry Eye Jug Band with the great Fritz Diamond on wash basin and Maria Donato on vocals and tambourines. That grouping was ready to break out, make it to the night stage at Newport when Fritz and Maria abandoned ship, went over to another unnamed jug band (but one could figure that out easily enough) and that was that. John as we know landed on his feet and so he therefore claimed no foul. The source of the story-John Sebastian himself one night when he was playing by himself in a stellar performance at the now defunct Boston Folk Festival.           

See in those free and easy 1960s days s groups formed, reformed, talent got stolen away and every other thing that has happened in the music industry since there was an industry, maybe before. Jack though if the other members of the old jug band heard John’s story they might reconsider their position of not re-forming the band. He also figured once they were back together, back on the road a few nights playing small coffeehouses and cafes to grab some work in order to work out the kinks in their material that they too could “raid” the talent pool. Might have some name in lights like John Sebastian and the Riverdale Jug Band. Or the Riverdale Jug Band with Jim Kweskin (it would emphatically not be the Riverdale Jug Band with Maria Muldaur not if he didn’t want to lose Laura and with her the whole enterprise since her vocals and good looks had gotten them plenty of play and she would not then nor now abide playing second to any other female vocalist). But he needed to get them on board, needed to get them to sunny Newport, needed to have them heard that patented John Sebastian story. 

Jack need not have worried because there must have been something in the air as the next time the group of five gathered in Cambridge for drinks and conversation Laura asked if it was still possible to sign up to do a daytime workshop at Newport. The subject- jug music. And Sam was talking feverishly about where he could find a worthy jug these days, and so it went. Yeah, before the jug was… the jug.  

Saturday, March 26, 2016

The Legends Of The West-With Bob Dylan’s John Wesley Hardy In Mind

By Zack James

Phil Jackson had his high hat on that night. The night he regaled Josh Breslin with some of his odd-ball and seemingly far-fetched stories as they sat in the Anchor Steam Grille overlooking San Francisco Bay with old time prison Alcatraz lighted up in front of them in the distance. That “high hat” by the way was not Phil wearing a real high hat, he generally as a child of the Kennedy brothers, Jack and Bobby anyway, times wore no hat at all, or trying to high hat Josh, as the old crowd would do somebody but a term that Phil (and Josh) had used when they wanted to talk history. Usually nothing more cosmic than their family histories since neither man unlike the late Peter Markin whom they had both met out here on the West Coast back in the 1960s, in their “hippie days” they liked to call the times, were history buffs. That reference to Markin was not accidental (that is what everybody had called him and had since childhood and it stuck even in hippie days when everybody was changing their names to monikers like Be-Bop Benny and Butterfly Swirl to break with their old lives as the new dispensations hit their generation). They had both met the mad man sainted bastard through travelling on Captain Crunch’s merry prankster yellow brick road converted school bus turned to travelling communal circus/ride/dope den back in that mist of time (“merry prankster” in lower case to distinguish that crowd from the more famous and ground-breaking Ken Kesey-led Merry Pranksters written about by Tom Wolfe in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test).

Josh had been in the summer of 1967, what they called the summer of love in San Francisco when every kind of flower child madness laid over that land by the bay, rather restless and curious as the same time under the influence of having re-read Jack Kerouac’s On The Road, before going to State U after graduation from high school up in Olde Saco, Maine. He had hitchhiked out to see what was what. Josh had met Markin first. Markin himself, under a less august purpose than Josh having had number twenty-seven blowout over some aspect of his life with his hard-bitten mother, had hitchhiked West a couple of months earlier right after the spring session at Boston University was completed from North Adamsville, Massachusetts and picked up the Captain Crunch caravan in Golden Gate Park a few days after he arrived. Josh thereafter in turn had sighted the yellow brick psychedelically-painted bus when it was parked near a small park on Russian Hill and had asked a guy in long hair and beard, Markin, for a joint (marijuana) and he had handed him a huge blunt (another name for a joint, marijuana). And so Josh had joined the caravan (and would take the moniker Prince of Love, reflecting his success with the stray women who also traveled on the bus or who hung out at Golden Gate Park as he travelled along with the brethren).

They had picked up Phil (who would travel under the name Popeye the Sailor for he was forever trying to pick up this long tall thin girl fellow prankster named Olive who always wore a granny dress and sandals and who was always half-stoned on the Captain’s dope or on her medications) just outside of Carmel hitchhiking heading south as they were heading to Big Sur for a big encampment of “youth nation” at Pfeiffer Beach. Phil was a native Californian, having grown up in Richmond on the other side, the East side of San Francisco Bay. He was travelling to San Diego just for the hell of it after school got out for the summer at San Francisco State and decided that the merry prankster bus seemed like as good a place as any to spend his time.

Olde Saco, North Adamsville and Richmond, all working-class towns and they all sons of working class people, was the glue that tied this threesome together, that and the fact of wanting to break out of the rut like a lot of middle class kids, elite college kids, kids who made up the majority of people who would be travelling on the Jade Arrow, the name given to the bus by the Captain, that summer. The Captain, for example, real name Stanley Stevens, Yale Class of 1957 and his girlfriend (or whatever she was since the Captain was always fretting when she ran off on a tryst with some guy, including one time Josh), Mustang Sally, real name Susan Stein, Michigan Class of 1960, were both from upper-middle class families and were on the Coast to “find themselves.”         

That fact about Phil though, that growing up in California as opposed to Maine or Massachusetts, was important for it was the reason that Phil was on his high hat that night with Josh. Back in the 1960s neither Phil nor Josh could have given a “rat’s ass” (Markin’s expression picked up by them) about their family histories, how they got where they were but as they got older, as they headed toward their middle ages they got more interested in how they fit into whatever had made this big old melting pot of a county tick. They were not into going back forever in their family trees to find that they were in the seventh degree related to the King of England and hence had a touch of royal blood but how their forebears scratched the earth on the new continent, what Josh said F. Scott Fitzgerald called that “fresh green breast of land” that was Long Island when the old Dutch sailors came exploring for whatever they were looking for.   

Josh’s family story had been pretty straight forward. His people on his mother’s side, the LeBlancs, had come down in the early twentieth century from Quebec up in Canada when there wasn’t a damn thing going on except extreme poverty on the dinky farms that bordered the Saint Lawrence River for several generations, since they had left France under an unrecorded cloud. They had come down in his grandfather’s time to work in the textile mills in Olde Saco along with streams of other no farm to work farmworkers to create French-American communities in the area-and stay, stay anyway until the mills headed south after World War II, and many to stay until this day. His father’s people, the Breslins, had come over from England sometime in the 1800s also under a cloud. Josh had heard through his father Prescott that the original Breslin had been a poacher and had a choice of exile or the hangman’s noose. He/they had not prospered in the cities and so headed to the wilderness, the wilderness then being the Kentucky territory, down along the Ohio River in the hills and hollows of Eastern Kentucky. Had not prospered there either and some had headed ever westward and others, his father’s branch, had stayed put and lived shabbily in the shacks that dotted the countryside and which have provided many a stirring photograph of samples of Appalachian hill country poverty, white trash mostly. Josh’s paternal grandfather and after him his father when he came of age worked the coalmines when there was work.

Then World War II came or rather the Japanese bombed the hell out of Pearl Harbor, the bastards, and Prescott Breslin decided to take his chances against the Nips (Prescott’s term of abuse) as against wasting away of lung cancer at a young age and joined the Marines with both hands. By war’s end he was stationed at the Portsmouth Naval Base after fighting his share of fighting in the famous Marine-led battles of the Pacific War where he met Josh’s mother at a USO dance in Portland. That was that once they met and soon after got married. They stayed in Olde Saco for no better reason than it was not coal country, Prescott worked in the textile mills when there was work before the mills headed south, raised four boys, and did not prosper.                               

Phil’s story was a little more complicated and a little more interesting since his forbears had come to this country as indentured servants in Boston from England on his mother’s side, the Stuarts, and no there was no relationship to the kingly Stuarts some who had lost their heads, literally, and once freed from their contractual servitude headed South where there was skilled work in the small towns adjoining the cotton plantations. They mainly prospered in a small town way until the American Civil War when between Lincoln freeing the slaves who worked for them and the destruction of the Union armies as they burned and pillaged their way across the south uprooted that whole way of life. Shortly after Appomattox was when Jedidiah Stuart, who had fought under the hard luck, hard-boiled, hard-headed  General Johnston in all his campaigns and survived to tell the tale started the family trek west. He first headed to Louisville, tried his hand at raising horses but couldn’t make a go of it for lack of capital and poor judgment of horse flesh. There he married Mary Lane, and had three children, all boys, by her before she passed on. He left the three boys in the care of his dead wife’s sister and headed west to Missouri then pretty wild country on the edge of the West. He then remarried, this time to Sarah Goode, and had two sons by her. Eventually he sent for the three boys and all five were thereafter raised Sarah. He had tried his hand at running a small salon in Joplin but by the 1880s had busted out again for lack of capital and no way to get any in the general poor economic climate of the times.              

Then one day old Jedidiah snapped, nobody quite knew why but maybe it was just the years of doing the right thing in his eyes and getting nothing for it. He had had his fill of losing propositions, of having no dough and single-handedly robbed the Second National Bank of Joplin in broad daylight. (That would however be the last time that he did such a deed alone.) That was the start of the second trek that would eventually lead to California. It turned out that old Jedidiah was finally good at a profession and over the next several years he robbed many a bank in Missouri, the Dakotas, Wyoming, and Colorado. And he was not alone for as his sons came of age they joined him, started getting known as the Diamond Aces gang since he or one of the boys would leave the ace of diamonds on the teller’s shelf as a calling card. Then one day they tried to rob the First National Bank in Laramie. Jedidiah had been a minute too slow in leaving and was shot dead by some civilian deputy sheriff.

Thereafter two things important to the Stuart westward trek occurred. Randolph Stuart, the eldest son took over the gang, brought in other fast guns and kept to the west side of Laramie, started working the Denver area. He also married Louella Parrish, Phil’s maternal great-grandmother. By around 1900 the Diamond Aces gang was working the other side of the Rocky Mountains, working Reno, Mormon Salt Lake City with its treasures, and the Arizona territory. Then one day Randolph got “religion,” decided to “retire” and he did so disbanding the gang, his brothers going off to find other gangs to join while he bought a cattle ranch on the California border with Nevada. He prospered for a time but a sudden heart attack took him at fifty.           

The other brothers found “work” with the Dalton gang, The Two City gang and other such ventures. The important one here was Damon since he would eventually after being caught in a shoot-out in Gallup, New Mexico trying to rob the hard to rob Southern Pacific train and serving a five year sentence settle in what is now Bakersfield. There he met Laura Lawrence and had a daughter by her before he, maybe restless, maybe just trying to get to the ocean, maybe feeling what that professor from Harvard was talking about, Professor Turner and his thesis about the frontier ending, about the bad boys becoming scarce and mostly filling up the prisons, wound up being shot down in a cross-fire trying to rob the Glendale Bank.

That daughter Lanny would marry Seymour Jackson, a card shark and when he died in a gunfight over cards in Fresno she would marry his brother, Leonard. And Leonard of course would marry Phil’s grandmother. Leonard was a bastard to Lanny by all accounts and eventually took to the China Seas as a sailor on a tramp steamer abandoning her and her son, Marvin, Phil’s father. Phil’s father who was too young to get into World War II must have had that original gene that old Jedidiah cursed the family with, the wandering, restless gene because in the 1950s Marvin ran off with another woman, ran off to Spokane the last anybody had heard and left his mother in the lurch. Phil was raised by her, and eventually she remarried and his step-father, Jeff Hamilton, really raised him.

After reciting his story about his desperado forbears Phil said to Josh that maybe he too had had old Jedidiah’s gene back in the 1960s when he had had that wanderlust that he never really got rid of until he met up again with that long tall Olive in the mid-1970s up in Mendocino and married her. Yeah, Phil Jackson had his high hat on that night with Josh. Josh agreed to.                  

Friday, March 25, 2016

Lucy On The Edge Of The World

People, ordinary night owls, strung out on bennie or cousin coke and counting the hours until day break and sun, hung-over sotted refugees from the now closed bars and cabarets filled with cheap liquors and quaffed beers, average sainted vagabond Saint Francis of Assisi dream  wanderers of the Harvard Square night, the shiftless watch out for dark alleys when they stalk the benighted earth, the toothless homeless, coming into the all-night Hayes-Bickford seeking relief from their collective woes with a cup of weak-kneed coffee from the giant spouted tureen all aglow from the cloudburst above trailing off to the chipped paint ceiling which only those looking to some misbegotten heaven paid attention to did not bother Lucy (the first name Lucy was all anybody ever found out about her name as far as he knew) sitting alone at her “reserved” table in the back of the cafeteria toward the well-abused rest rooms. Lucy Lilac (nicknamed by some ancient want-to-be fellow bard perhaps but like her surname the genesis undisclosed to him by the other regular tenants of the night when he asked around and so he called her by that moniker as well) spent her youthful middle of the nights just then hunched over a yellow legal notepad filling up its pages with her writings and occasionally she would speak some tidbit she had written out loud, not harmful offensive so you prayed for shut ears, a well-placed handkerchief in mouth, a metaphorical gun like some of the drunks at a few of the tables, or some homeless wailing banshee cry, but just sing-song out loud.

Some of it was beautiful, and some of it was, well, doggerel, about par  for the course with poets and other writers, But all of it, whatever he heard of it, was centered on her plight in the world as a woman torn, as a woman on the edge, the edge between two societies, between as one professor that he had asked about it later stated it, two cultural gradients if that term has any meaning, and maybe she had been, had been between those two cultural gradients,  but let him try to reconstruct what it was all about, all about for Lucy Lilac night owl.

See he had become so fascinated by where she was going with her muse in 1962 summer nights, about how she was going to resolve that battle between “cultural gradients” and about the gist of what she had to say to a callow world in those days that he turned up many a two in morning weekend to try to figure her dream out. He had more than a passing interest in this battle since he was also spooked by those same demons that she spoke of.   

[Oh, by the way, Lucy Lilac, was drop-dead beautiful, with long black iron-pressed straight hair as was the style then after the folk singer Joan Baez, her sister Mimi and Judy Collins set the pace and the Square and college air was filled singed hair smells, alabaster white skin whether from her daylight hours of  sleep or by genetic design was not clear, big red lips, which he did not remember whether was the style then or not, the bluest eyes of blue, always wearing dangling earrings and usually wearing some long dress so it was never really possible to determine her figure or her legs important pieces of knowledge to him, and not just to him, in those sex-obsessed  days, but he would have said slender and probably nice legs too. Since neither her beauty, nor the idea of sex, at least pick-up sex, enter into this sketch that is all that needs to be pointed out. Except this, her beauty, along with that no-nonsense demeanor, was so apparent that it held him, and others too, off from anything other than an occasional distant forlorn smile. ]              

What Lucy Lilac would speak of, like a lot of the young in those days, was of her alienation from parents, society, just everything to keep it simple, but not just that. On that she had kindred spirits in abundance.  She was also alienated from her race, her white race, her nine to five, go by the rules, we are in charge, trample on the rest of the world, especially the known black world, like lot of  the young, him included, were in those days as well.  Part of it was that you could not turn open a newspaper or turn on a radio or television without having the ugly stuff going down South in America (and sometimes stuff in the North too confronting you headlong). But part of it was an affinity with black culture (the gradient, okay), mainly through music and a certain style, a certain swagger in the face of a world filled with hostility. Cool, to use just one word. 

Now this race thing, this white race thing of Lucy’s had nothing to do, he did not think, at least when she spoke this never came through, with some kind of guilt by association with the rednecks and crackers down in places like Alabama and Mississippi goddams. It was more that given the deal going down in the world, the injustices, the not having had any say in what was going on, or being asked either made her feel like she was some Negro in some shack some place. Some mad priestess fellaheena scratching the good earth to make her mark. And as she expanded her ideas (and began to get a little be-bop flow as she spoke, a flow that he secretly kept time to), each night he got a better sense of what she was trying to say. And while they both were comfortably ensconced in the cozy Cambridge Hayes (well maybe not cozy but safe anyway) and had some very white skin to not have Mister James Crow worry about he began to see what she meant.

Yes, those nights he knit a secret and unknown bond with Lucy Lilac, Lucy who a few months later vanished from the Hayes-Bickford night, Lucy from the edge of the world, and wherever she wound he knew just what she meant by the white Negro hipster-dom she was seeking, and that maybe he was too…

A Compact Eighteen (Okay, Okay Sixteen)-The Trials And Tribulations Of Sand-Bagger Johnson-Part Four  

Sand-Bagger Johnson was thinking to himself as he, Lucky Pierre and Zow were heading toward the dreaded first tee at Pine Pond Golf Course (not the real name of the course which has been redacted for legal reason-or literary license take your pick) that this Sunday was as brisk if not more so than that previous day. Today unlike yesterday though there was no foursome so today would be a round-robin of individual. Is round-robin the right way to say what they were about to do? (Not to rub it in, well, actually to rub it in, the previous day Zow and he had crushed the team of Pierre and lanky Casey who was out of action this day-some lame excuse about having to attend to family matters-whatever). Sand-Bagger noticed that unlike the day before neither Pierre nor Zow were intimidated by the fact that Big Emma, Sand-Bagger’s name for his number one metal wood which others call the driver for some unknown reason, was in his bag. He smiled the smile of the knowing that they would rue this day for underestimating that little darling.  

This three-some had played individual matches against each other over the previous couple of years so that other than settling handicaps (which I will not go into here as I have had space limitations dictated to me by certain unnamed parties) and wishing they had access to leader-board computers to figure out who was ahead and why the first couple of holes were played out uneventfully. The only problem was that the group in front of them was playing on the slow side which all agreed was not to their liking. Suddenly on the third tee seeing that there was nobody behind them Lucky Pierre came up with an idea, and idea to put some distance between themselves and the group in front. Why not play eighteen, or really sixteen holes. Or rather a compacted version of that number. Play two balls on each hole one from the blues as they had already started and then from the whites (the tees in front of the blues which made each hole shorter by some yards). Not an Einstein idea but a good one.

This new match set-up meant that rather than five dollar bets per man each man was liable for ten dollars. The set-up worked well except all agreed that some even some Stone Age Univac computer would have helped to figure out who won and why. Oh yeah, Sand-Bagger split his with Zow, and beat Pierre on both ends, Pierre beat Zow.


Summary for Casey-a Jefferson for Sand-Bagger from Pierre via Zow. Bring ‘em on.  

Thursday, March 24, 2016

You Can’t Get There From Here- With The Appalachia Hills And Hollows In Mind

You Can’t Get There From Here- With The Appalachia Hills And Hollows In Mind

By Zack James


“Damn, those shacks we just passed by looked like they could have come out of some John Steinbeck or Erskine Caldwell novel from the dustbowl, tobacco road 1930s or something, ” Bradley Fox, shaking his head, mentioned to his companion, Sarah Simon, as they travelled down Highway 7 toward Prestonsburg, and “home.” That “home” rightly in quotation marks since Bradley Fox for whom this journey had been planned had never to his conscious knowledge been to that town in his life. Had for many years never even though to go there until his brother, Jamison, told him a story about how when he, Jamison, was young, about a year old, back in 1946 or so, their parents, Bolton and Delores Fox, had taken a trip from Riverdale in Massachusetts where Delores had grown up and which had been their residence after they got married when Bolton was discharged from the Marines, and gone down to Prestonsburg where Bolton had grown up to see if prospects there for work and living were any better than in post-World War II Riverdale. The textile mills which had sustained that town’s economy for most of the previous century were heading out, were heading south and would eventually leave for foreign shores as the century progressed and so staying pat looked like a wasted option. 

The intriguing part was that Delores had been pregnant with Bradley when this attempted move took place and so although he was only in the womb he had been “home” to the Appalachian hills and hollows before he breathed his first air breathe. What made the story all the more dramatic was that Yankee born and bred Bradley, or he liked to present himself to the world that way, always was ashamed, or if not ashamed then always hiding that element of his roots, from where his father came from. Like his father had had any say where he had come from. This distain would come out on anything from Bolton’s slightly southern drawl which would made Bradley’s friend laugh whenever they heard that (calling Bolton damn “reb” and other silly stuff until Bradley no longer brought friends around until high school when Bolton’s accent was seen as “cool” if not by Bradley then by his friends who thought-since Bolton was not their father-that Bolton was cool in the language of the time. 

His feelings of shame came out as well when Bradley was old enough to recognize that his father, when he was able to find work, got the short end of the stick, got into that last hired, first fired (or rather laid-off, pink-slipped which meant the same thing) syndrome which meant that there was never enough of life’s goods around in good times or bad. Bradley resented that, resented that because of those shortage his family abode looked like, especially in over-grown summer, those Dorethea Lange photographs he had seen in a magazine of some places down south, down in Appalachia, down not too far from where he and Sarah were heading on State Highway 7.  

Yeah times had been tough for Bradley, when he got “caught,” got caught out when Jack Kennedy whom he idolized for being everything his family was not decided to do something not only about improving the lives of black people down south, which he was okay with, but with the poor benighted “white trash” as well. The whole thing from what he gathered later had been started when guy named Michael Harrington wrote a book, The Other America, about poverty in white bread Appalachia and mentioned Prestonsburg, Christ, Prestonsburg of all places and him with a birth certificate which showed his father’s place of birth that very same place. That was not the worst of it though because nobody really needed to know, or probably gave a “rat’s ass” an expression that he and his boys used excessively then about where his father was born and raised and what his condition of life had been if some damned school do-gooders didn’t decide that the citizens, students anyway, should put together a clothing drive for the poor misbegotten residents of Prestonsburg and have that campaign announced day after day for several weeks over the P. A system at school making him feel like crawling under the seat in homeroom when that announcement for goods came over the loudspeaker.

So Bradley Fox had a serious history of denial about one half of his roots (the Delores half was pure Riverdale Irish and thus he could “pass” and unfortunately his father Bolton P. Fox went to an early grave being reconciled with his son over that silly stuff). It took a long time, too long, and too much estrangement, too many missed chances to right wrongs before he realized that simple truth that his father could not help where he had been born anymore that Bradley could be. By the time he realized that, realized that his father was good and honest man who never got break number one in his life it was too late. But that sense that he had committed a grave injustice to the man never stopped haunting him. And hence the trip south “home”

Maybe it was that father guilt, maybe it was Sarah continuously telling him over the previous decade that he needed to physically confront his fears and maybe it was that mountain music that lately he had been drawn too. The music of the Saturday night barn dance down in the hills and hollows with the mist coming down over the mountains to blanket the night, music to take the sting out of Willie’s White Thunder and to let those young lovers do their courting ritual in peace. Whatever combination prevailed one day a few months after Bradley had given up the day to day operation of his roofing company to his younger son he cell-phoned Sarah and asked her if she would be willing to go south with him. She made him laugh when she said that was her in the front of his house with the car motor running so get moving. And so they did. That didn’t stop Bradley as they headed south of the Mason-Dixon Line from feeling queasy, very queasy as they approached the Ohio River and entered into coal country with its beauty, starkness, and decay all mixed up. Then he saw those tar-paper shacks with their open air window and old papas sitting on the bent porch, kids and animals running every which way and he thought back to those photographs from his youth and started to get those old-time feelings of disgust. No this would not be an easy trip “home,” not easy at all.          

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

If Your White Your Right, If Your Black Get Back-With Big Bill Broonzy’s White, Black And Brown In Mind.


By Lester Lannon

Selena James had been clueless about life, about how the other half lived, about the horrors of black racial oppression that she had carefully avoided thinking about all though high school before she graduated and then began to attend Boston University (Class of 1964). She had managed to go through Riverdale High about fifty miles away from Boston without thinking of much except who would she have dates with on Saturday nights, whether she would be the head cheerleader for the championship Red Raiders football team come senior year and whether Captain Bill Clemens of that team would sweep her off her feet like he did to opposing defenses, and who would be taking her to the senior prom when that time came. And of course how far to let those dates and that Bill go with her in the back seat of some fogged up car (pretty far although that fact is not germane to the subject here so we will let that pass). Not an atypically high school student for the time although the news of the black civil right struggle and the unfathomable straitjacket of Mister James Crow were being shouted out in every newspaper, and on every radio and television.

Selena, a good student if not a great one, had applied to Boston University, NYU and Georgetown down in Washington (the latter mainly because her best friend Gloria Davis had applied and would wind up going there) in order to get freed from a dreary home life which with curfews, rule this and that, was driving her crazy although not enough to either forgo college which would have been a mistake or to go to State U and work her way through like her  second best friend Alfreda Barnes who faced the same dismal home life. So off to BU in the fall of 1960 Selena went with not much notion of the swirl that was just starting to send thunderbolts through the 1960s campuses.

Naturally Selena lived the chaperoned freshman dorms (or else her parents would have balked at sending her there-such were the concerns of parents in those times-now too from what I hear). What was not natural or fore-ordained was that her roommate would be Josie Dallas from Manhattan. Josie who was miles ahead of Selena socially but also something of a wild card in her concerns about what was going on in the world beyond whose sheets she would wind up under on any given Saturday night party night. Josie worried, along with Selena, about those sheets but from the beginning, from when they had met at Freshman Orientation and found out that they were slated to be roommates (even roommate selection was done by the administration then for freshmen looking to get a mix and unless there was some major differences not reconcilable then the roommates were glued to each other for the duration, for the year). But Josie had also been in high school, been at prestigious Hunter College High, a leader of the student support group providing materials and raising money for the student civil rights workers who were staging sit-ins and other actions down in forlorn Alabama and hellish Mississippi.        

Moreover through a high school boyfriend, Sam Lawrence, met under the arch at Washington Square one summer Sunday afternoon between junior and senior years she had imbibed the folk scene in the Village which was extending out to the colleges in the area. Sam, a sophomore at NYU, and a budding folksinger, had also been an ardent supporter of the black civil rights workers and had settled on a playlist that included covering many protest songs from the young musicians who were gathering in the Village to perfect their craft, work out the kinks, Sam called it. Once Sam and Josie got together Sam would, at first, drag Josie to all the big venues in the city, Geddes Folk City, Village Vanguard, The Jagged Rock, Mike’s across from the Village Vanguard (that’s the way everybody described the place once folk because big enough that not everybody could get into the big clubs and so places like Mike’s drew the overflow). That is when she first heard Blake Sams doing covers of an old black artist, Big Bill Broonzy. One that stuck out was White, Brown and Black with the puzzling line “if you are white you are right, if you are brown stick around, if you are black get back” in the lyrics. Sam explained to Josie that that whole color scheme, right or wrong, described far better than all the sociology books and political treatises the nature of the racial structure in America. The more she thought about that sequence the more she became committed to the civil rights struggle down south.

Once Josie realized after meeting Selena that she was clueless about the big race question tearing through America and about folk music too (she swore that the music that Selena had brought with her to listen to while studying would “rot her brain” and eventually Selena would go from listening to that music, called “bubble gum music” by Josie, when she was not around to shipping the records back home after freshman year) she decided to “tutor” her. That tutoring included a night at the Club Blue coffeehouse in Harvard Square when Blake Sams would be coming up from New York City to play his covers of Big Bill Broonzy (and others like Lead Belly, Woody Guthrie and Josh White). That night Selena heard White, Brown and Black for the first time. While Selena did not understand all the intricacies of race relations she, like Josie before her, sensed that there was a deeper meaning in that song than all the stuff she was learning in the Modern Civics class that was required for freshmen.  

Oh yeah, it did not hurt that Blake Sams, the first Negro (the common proper term of usage at the time) she had known personally had asked her out on a date while he was in town. And from the way he asked her and his whole gentlemanly demeanor Selena did not think they would be only talking about race relations. Not at all. She would be able to hold her own now …..