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.
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.
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.
I emailed someone today to acknowledge and pay my respects to the great Loretta Lynn. I would have to say hands down that she was favorite female country singer. One of the things I always found most intriguing about Lynn was how little she spoke publicly while seeming to emanate so much wisdom and intelligence. The cliche of country music is that its essence boils down to three chords and truth. With no one was this truer than Lynn; sexuality, motherhood, marital strife, spirituality, and just the everyday struggles of life were all grist for her mill. As a cultural figure she also seemed to cut across generations and fan bases in a way that, unlike with certain other country artists of her time who latched on to whatever genre was happening at the moment, seemed uncontrived. I have no way to verify this, but I read this morning that more Loretta Lynn songs were banned from the radio in the twentieth century than those of all male Country Western artists combined. It seems plausible. Outlaw artists singing about dance floors and booze is one thing, but a woman discussing the independence accorded her via The Pill at the height of the Sexual Revolution was too much for many.
Like so many, for Loretta Lynn it began with gospel and the church.
I don’t have anything particularly new or original to say about the death of Queen Elizabeth II but I couldn’t let the moment pass without comment. The foibles and banalities of the British royals—or any royals—are not something I have ever concerned myself with. It can be rather tawdry, and caring too much about the daily lives of such people seems diminishing. As an institution itself however the Royal Crown is a thread and continuity across time that when it is working well serves an important function.
I have always been put off by the public displays of over-the-top pathos and emotionality we have sometimes seen in the past 20-30 years at the passing of certain royal and other public figures. It has always struck me as inappropriate and unseemly in a way I cannot quite articulate. Thankfully, I have a feeling we are not going to see that this time. I was talking to a friend yesterday, a person of full middle-age who grew up in a Commonwealth nation and whose relatives saw the Queen when she came through their remote community many decades ago dedicating public works projects, who called Elizabeth II “the last of the stoic rulers.” Living in London through the Blitz as a teenager will do that to a person.
I suppose once could say this of any time and moment, but the passing of Queen Elizabeth II truly is the end of an era.
A friend and I visited Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx a week ago today. We had a map with us but decided instead to meander without purpose and take in what we saw along the way. Woodlawn was found in 1863, twenty-five years after Brooklyn’s Green-Wood though very much part of the same Garden Cemetery Movement of the mid-eighteenth century. The thing that strikes me the most about Woodlawn vs. Green-Wood is that, generally speaking, the residents of the former were clearly wealthier than the residents of the latter. You can see the Gilded Age wealth in the mausoleums of Frank W. Woolworth, J.C. Penney, and numerous others. On the whole Woodlawn’s resting place are much bigger and on a grander scale than the ones in Green-Wood. Another contrast is that Woodlawn contains many more twentieth and twenty-first century artists. Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, and Illinois Jacquet are there with others in Jazz Corner, a silent testimony to the fact that while most of these men came from elsewhere they saw New York as their home. In our meandering last week we happened upon LeRoy Neiman. I took the pictures you see below and told my friend I would post today, the tenth anniversary of Neiman’s passing.
I read with shock and sadness this morning of the death of cultural critic Terry Teachout. I sent the news to someone this morning who emailed a few minutes later saying the he was about to send me the news when my own missive came through. I never understood why Teachout was not better known than he was. His output was prolific and his intellectual interests vast. He also had a generosity of spirit, liked artists, and wanted to see them and their work succeed creatively and financially. Among other things he gave us biographies of H.L. Mencken, Louis Armstrong, and Duke Ellington. There is also a fine anthology assembled in 2004 entitled simply “A Terry Teachout Reader.” He also wrote the successful one-man play “Satchmo at the Waldorf.” This barely touches the surface of his career. He wrote on a number of topics about which I have little interest, like the theater. Still, I almost always found myself reading until the end because the prose was so tight his wit so sharp. He suffered a great blow several years ago when his wife died. Both were too young to leave when they did. I can hardly believe we now live in a world with Terry Teachout not in it.
They have my article up and running over at Roads to the Great War about husband and wife team John Jacob and Edith Nourse Rogers. This was a fun piece to write.
People have been texting and emailing over the course of the day with the news and their thoughts on the passing today of Henry Louis “Hank” Aaron. I don’t know what I have to say about his career and life that others have not said already, so I won’t go in to them too deeply. Still I felt it necessary to take a few minutes and recognize the man and everything he represented, and I don’t mean merely on the playing field.
One of my most vivid memories as a baseball fan was watching him hit number 715 off Al Downing, the Dodger pitcher destined to become a trivia question. There is a great recording of Frank Sinatra doing a live show in New York City and mentioning to the audience from the stage that Aaron had broken Babe Ruth’s record. Sinatra even mention Downing by name. Like most people, I had no idea what the man was forced to endure. I remember being excited in the late 1990s when players like Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, and Barry Bonds were breaking home run records seemingly every year. In September 1998 a friend and I visited the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown and there in the front entranceway was McGwire and Sosa’s memorabilia. Did we happily pose for pictures in front of it all? Of course we did.
My friend and I were hardly alone in our excitement. Most Americans got caught up in it. Looking back with twenty plus years of hindsight it all seems so tawdry, and I don’t just mean because many players of the era were/are alleged to have taken performance enhancing steroids. I know that previous eras had their own similar scandals which, as with steroids, were often hushed up by people in position to do something about it. In the 1950s-70s that usually meant the amphetamines, or “greenies” as players called them, that some used to get through the grind that is a major league season. All that said, there was something obscene about so many players hitting so many home runs day in and day out as they were in the late 90s and early 2000s.
I love the photograph directly above of Aaron’s Braves uniform juxtaposed with that of Sadaharu Oh, the slugger who for the Yomiuri Giants in Nippon Professional Baseball hit more home runs than any other professional player. Football is America’s passion and soccer has always been the world’s leading sport. Basketball has come into it own over the past several decades on the international level–long gone are the days when the Americans could assume the Olympic gold medal. One however should never underestimate baseball’s cultural reach. Today one of baseball’s greatest and most dignified men has left us. It’s all very difficult to process.
(images: White House staff photographers, NARA; Motokoka, Wikimedia Commons)
This past Monday I read with sadness of the passing of Reggie Foster. The name may not be familiar to many, but Reginald Foster was one of the great Latinist of the past half century. Father Foster was born in Milwaukee in 1939 and died of COVID in an assisted living facility in the early morning hours of Christmas day in that same city. For decades this Carmelite monk had translated anything that came into the Office of Latin Letters of the Vatican Secretariat of State, toiling at a bare desk in a modest space for four decades stretching from 1969-2009. Foster—or Reggie as he was known to generations of Latin enthusiasts—was much more than that. A man of great intellectual capacity with a strong body constitution and an incredible capacity for work, for years he also taught as many as ten classes each academic year at the Pontifical Gregorian University to all levels of learners. His students included the lowest beginners to the most advanced trying to take that final step to mastery.
I myself had not known who Father Foster was until this past fall. Early this year, for reasons still unknown to me, I felt an urge and urgency to begin studying Latin. I started in earnest in early summer and when the busy fall semester began I found the time by studying from 6:00 – 7:30 am each morning before I began the workday. Foster’s name and life’s work came to my knowledge around September when I read Ann Patty’s poignant memoir “Living with a Dead Language: My Romance with Latin.” After reading that book I began the inevitable deeper dive into Foster, including a JSTOR search where I found several pieces of longform journalism about the man. Apparently someone is well along the way on a biography at the current moment.
What made Foster so respected and admired was his commitment to the language itself. He had little patience for anyone who saw Latin as a means of “self-improvement,” improving SAT scores, or any faddish motives that diminished the language itself. That’s why people came from around the world to study under him. Foster’s students admired and respected the man greatly, but his bosses at the Vatican and at the Gregorian University often found the outspoken priest difficult to rein in. The university let him go eventually because, well . . . he was telling students not pay for the courses. When anyone showed up he was always happy to have them if they took the work seriously. He spoke often and loudly also when he saw things in the Vatican that he believed were silly, ridiculous, or just plain wrong. His superiors did not like that, but he was just too good at his job as a Latin translator to let go. If an encyclical or other document had to go out quickly for release, and with assurance that there would be mistakes, the task inevitably fell to Father Foster. The final denouement came when he gave an outspoken on-camera interview to Bill Maher—standing in front of the Vatican—that appeared in Maher’s 2008 documentary “Religulous.” None of that meant Foster had lost his Faith, his love for the Vatican, or for the Discalced Carmelite itself. Far from it. He almost certainly would have gotten fired, but because he was so close to retirement his bosses let it go and he held on for the few months he remaining.
Foster returned to Milwaukee after his many decades in Rome. Health issues eventually confined him to a wheelchair and the retirement facility. Still he continued teaching classes, again almost always for free, to anyone who took the work seriously. There are many lessons to take from the life and experience of Reginald Thomas Foster: his belief in committing to and mastering difficult tasks is one of them; his work ethic and intellectual rigor are others. He found beauty in simple things and led an ascetic life dedicated to the search for truth and meaning. Though I never met him, I’m glad I learned who he was while he still alive. What is more, I will try in my own modest way to live up to his ideals.