Sunday morning coffee

Basking Ridge, NJ / image via NYPL Digital

I hope everyone’s weekend is going well. I’ve been staying in and working on a writing project about which I will divulge more when the time comes. I’m having my coffee and gearing up for another day here in my little command center. I slept in today, which is rare for me. I ground out 500 words yesterday and am hoping to repeat that today. Writing is an exhausting process whose basic tenets never get easier. One thing I will say is that the piece I’m working on includes William Alexander, who among other things fought at the Battle of Long Island. Alexander died 240 years ago today on January 15, 1783 in the waning months of the Revolution. I don’t want to say more because I want to save some for the project I’m working on.

The week before the holidays I was having lunch with someone during which we were talking about what sites we may try to visit in the coming year. I even sent my friend a running list of venues potentially to explore. I don’t know what is there to see but I’m going to add Lord Stirling Park in New Jersey to my list.

Elizabeth “Libba” Cotten, 1893-1987

Of all the individuals discovered or rediscovered during the Folk/Blues Revival of the 1950s and 1960s by far my favorite is Elizabeth Cotten, who was born 130 years ago today. Ms. Cotten was left-handed and instead of restringing her guitar simply flipped it over and taught herself how to play it backward. Here is a bit more from Smithsonian Folkways. In that great Folk/Blues tradition, the article lists a different birth year. I have seen other years given in yet other sources as well. By most accounts however, including Cotten’s, she was indeed born on January 5, 1893. For one thing she played a commemorative show at Folk City in Greenwich Village in January 1983 a few days after her 90th birthday.

Hank Williams, 1923-1953

Seventy years ago at this moment Americans were waking up and hearing on their radios that Hank Williams had died in the backseat of his car on the way to a show in the early hours of 1 January 1953. There is a saying that the Blues is for Saturday night and Gospel for Sunday morning. What is fascinating about Country is that the sacred and profane are equally embedded in the mix. For no one was this truer than the King of Hillbilly himself. I have been listening to Hank Willams for 40+ years now, and can say that listening again in full middle age brings its own rewards. People grew up faster in the early decades of the twentieth than they do today. In his twenties Williams was singing about work, marriage, death, and salvation. There are no songs here about curfews missed or allowances being taken away.

I don’t romanticize the notion of the artist tragically dying young. Hank Williams left us far too early so much still to say. He was also a husband and a father. Still it is difficult to imagine him adjusting to the changes that took place in Country Music in the years immediately after his death. How he would have reconciled to the Nashville Sound is something we will never know. In a piece David Halberstam wrote for the July 13, 1971 edition of Look magazine, later anthologized in The Hank Williams Reader, the journalist asked, “And what would he be like now [at 47]—bald, pudgy in the middle, his sharp, reedy voice gone mellow, his songs backed by violins, pianos and worse? On the late-night talk shows beamed from New York, and dressed in Continental-cut suits?”

These are all good questions. I would add to these how Hank Williams might have adjusted to the rise of the twelve inch, 33 1/3 long playing record, which was invented in 1948 and only coming into its own at the time he died. Here is one he the Drifting Cowboys recorded for his Mother’s Best Flour radio transcriptions when Hank was still in his full powers.

Edson Arantes do Nascimento, 1940-2022

Pelé with ball vs Sweden in World Cup final, 29 June 1958 / El Gráfico

I’m here with my coffee gearing up to proofread a project before sending it back to the editors. I’ve been off this week but intentionally staying away for most work- and writing-related things. The past twenty-four hours I’ve been reading of Pelé’s passing with great sadness. It was not unexpected; news of his illness was widespread during the World Cup. Still, when someone so iconic passes away it is always a shock. Soccer is not something I follow regularly and although losing interest the last few cycles due to people and events related to the organizing bodies, I do enjoy the World Cup when it comes every four years. There are different ways of putting it but watching makes you feel like an international citizen, or something like that. Not to mention that the game is, well, beautiful.

Pelé is the only player to have won three World Cups, in 1958, 1962, and 1970. I don’t think I quite understood until reading some of the obituaries and tributes the extent to which his playing elevated the nation of Brazil in those decades just after the Second World War. Prior to Brazil’s 1958 victory the only three nations to have won the Cup were Uruguay, Italy, and West Germany. England won in 1966 before Brazil’s third title in 1970. The symbolism of this seventeen-year-old from the barrios of Brazil leading his country to victory at the height of the decolonization movement would not have been lost on many. The details are different but he was much like Muhammad Ali in this respect, which explains their respective international stature. I remember when he played for the North American Soccer League’s New York Cosmos in the mid-1970s. Pelé’s best playing days were behind him at this point, but his presence brought soccer to millions of Americans who otherwise would never have been exposed. And oh yes, he led the Cosmos to the Soccer Bowl title in 1977. (I was having lunch with someone a week ago when we got on the topic of ins and outs of the NASL shootout.) If you want to read a good book and/or watch a good film, check out Once in a Lifetime: The Extraordinary Story of the New York Cosmos. You want to talk about 70s excess? Yikes.

Like all persons Pelé could sometimes disappoint. I found it unseemly the way he sometimes denigrated the accomplishments of later players like Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi. I never understood why he felt the need to do that. Still, people’s feet of clay are part of their humanity and thus what make them even more interesting. I feel fortunate to have lived in the world at the same time Pelé was in it as well.

Trivial . . . Vulgar . . . Noisy . . . Crude

I was in the city at 7:30 this morning freezing my head off on the way to some appointment when the above message caught my eye. It was on one of those electric signs that rotates little factoids in between giving the temperature, subway delays, and other tidbits that pedestrians might find helpful. Thankfully I got my phone out and snapped the image a nanosecond before it flipped over to the next one. Just for fun I went to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, whose reviewer submitted the following in the next day’s edition. I love the way he employs the adjectives he does as compliments.

Excerpt from 14 December 1928 Brooklyn Daily Eagle review of Gershwin’s “An American in Paris”

St. Andrews Day

St. Andrew’s Society Parade, Montréal circa 1831-1859 by James Duncan / Royal Ontario Museum

In recent years of one my small pleasures has become what for lack of a better expression I’ll call lesser holidays, annual observations unknown to the vast majority of the general public but commemorated and meaningful to certain populations. Such holidays, for instance, may be observed in other nations but not the United States; or, observations once widely celebrated here but eventually forgotten due to cultural and demographic change. How and why they got to be forgotten can be interesting in its own right. Evacuation Day is one example. And if you don’t know what that is, I rest my case. Some holidays have been forgotten here but are still very much observed in other parts of the world, and if so it is a connection to others elsewhere. This is all a long-winded way of saying that today is St. Andrew Day. Above we see Canadians on Rue Notre Dame celebrating on some November 30th in the early decades over the nineteenth century.

Appreciating Charles Schulz

Charles M. Schulz in 1956, World Telegram & Sun photo by Roger Higgins via Library of Congress

I was texting and emailing a few people yesterday about the life and career of Charles M. Schulz, whose 100th birthday was yesterday. “Peanuts” is one of those things that for many Americans, certainly of my generation, has just always been there. The person with whom I have always paired Charles Schulz is Kurt Vonnegut, who was also born one hundred years ago this month, on November 11. Like Vonnegut, Schulz was a Midwesterner of German descent who served in World War II and after the conflict got on with his career. War was never far away from either’s work. Think of Snoopy and his Sopwith Camel. One friend with whom I was corresponding yesterday had sent me a “Peanuts” cartoon a few weeks back on Veterans Day in which Schulz had worked in a reference to Willie and Joe. The war was always there.

I was on the reference desk at work last week when a student came up looking up for something. I have helped this young fellow a few times over the semester and every time he comes in we chat for a few minutes. We had somehow gotten on the topic of graphic novels and comic strips. I asked him if he had ever heard of Mad magazine, which he had not. I wrote it down on a piece of scrap paper and told him he might want to look into it. Hopefully he will. Two years ago I wrote about the retirement of Al Jaffee, who at 101 is still with us. In that piece I linked to a Washington Post article in which the author noted Schulz’s appreciation for Jaffee. Each cartoonist’s sensibility was different, but they each understood what the other was doing. Mad spoofed on “Peanuts” all the time, which is the ultimate compliment. Schulz managed to work Alfred E. Neuman into his strip on July 5, 1973. As I said in that Jaffee post in July 2000, in recent years I have come to see pop culture more warily. Consumed too much it has a numbing effect on individuals and society. Done well it can touch millions of people in real and meaningful ways, which in turn creates a shared experience.