Levon Helm, 1940-2012

Levon Helm, September 2011

Levon Helm died five years ago today. Here is the post I wrote that day.

The other night I was sitting on the sofa when the voice of Levon Helm wafted from the other room. The Hayfoot was watching a video clip of “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.” Instinctively I got up and went into the bedroom, where we watched it lying down. Like so many other songs sung by Helm–“Up on Cripple Weight,” “Don’t Do It,” The Weight”–it never fails to move. Sadly, the voice has been silenced; Helm died of throat cancer in New York City on Thursday. The drummer was born in the Mississippi Delta town of Elaine, Arkansas and grew up in nearby Helena. When he was a teenager Helm became the percussionist for Ronnie Hawkins. The two Arkansans eventually ended up north of the border and playing in a unit known as Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks. After breaking off from Hawkins, the unit morphed into Levon Helm and the Hawks. Soon they were backing Bob Dylan just as the Hawks. Eventually the five members of the group–Helm, Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel, Garth Hudson–went out on their own as simply…The Band.

The group released its first album, Music From Big Pink, in July 1968. Big Pink was the group’s rented communal house in upstate New York. The album is notable for many reasons. First, it was a fully realized piece of work, created by musicians who had already woodshedded for a number of years. Released during the worst excesses of the Age of Aquarius, Big Pink manages to avoid the indulgences of the era. The reason for this, I believe, is because Helm especially was so grounded the American Songbook. You can’t have been a musician growing up in the Mississippi Delta in the 1940s and 1950s and not absorb its traditions. The first music group Helm saw in person was Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys in 1946, the incarnation of that band that included Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs. He was six years old. Helm later saw Elvis play in person several times–Memphis being less than an hour’s drive from Helena–before the man who would be King was a cultural phenomenon.

Tradition meant a great deal to Helm and to everyone in The Band. 1968 was a year of turmoil throughout the world. A short list of incidents include: the Tet Offensive, the assassination of Martin Luther King Junior and subsequent rioting in hundreds of American cities, the Events of May in Paris that almost overthrew the French government, and the assassination of Bobby Kennedy in June. And that is just the first six months of the year. At a time when the battle cry for many baby boomers was “Don’t trust anyone over 30,” the group members pointedly posed with their extended family wearing their finest for what would be a widely disseminated group photo. Roots.

The Band’s original incarnation dissolved in 1976 after the famous Winterland concert filmed by Martin Scorsese and released as The Last Waltz in 1978. The breakup was probably inevitable given the tension, creative and otherwise, between Mr. Helm and Mr. Robertson. Helm later went on the road with other iterations of the lineup but to less effect. He was first diagnosed with cancer in the late 1990s and fought the disease, with periods of remission, up until the end. Helm was always an active musician, but in part to pay his medical expenses he was especially productive over the last several years of his life. Two of his finest efforts came during this period: Dirt Farmer (2007) and Electric Dirt (2009). He was proof positive that a rock star can age gracefully if he acts his age and stays himself.

With some artists it is just a lifelong thing. Thankfully for us.

(image/Parker JH)

Preparing for war in Brooklyn

Originally the City Hall of the independent municipality of Brooklyn, Borough Hall was where the Brooklyn Section of Mayor Mitchel’s Committee on National Defense appointed Dykman to be chair on 17 April 1917. The wider commiitee held its meetings at the Manhattan Municipal Building.

Colonel William N. Dykman was appointed chairman of the executive committee for the Brooklyn Section of Mayor John Purroy Mitchel’s Committee on National Defense one hundred years ago today. The meeting of two dozen committee members met at Brooklyn’s Borough Hall, though oddly enough Dykman himself was not in attendance. That his colleagues would appoint him in absentia leads one to think he had agreed to take the post in advance. Mayor Mitchel’s National Defense Committee dated back to November 1915, when pacifist sentiment was strong in the United States. Cleveland H. Dodge, Elihu, Root, and Al Smith were just some of the prominent New Yorkers involved in the Mayor’s Committee on National Defense (MCND). The mayor’s group was an offshoot of Governors Charles S. Whitman’s New York State Committee on National Defense, which had been formed in late October 1915. The now aged Joseph H. Choate brought the statewide principals together at a meeting a few weeks later to see about creating a committee specific to New York City.

The Mayor’s Committee on National Defense advocated for preparedness in the 1 1/2 year lead-up to American involvement in the First World War. Lest one forget however, the United States had been involved in another expedition in the meanwhile; from March 1916 to February 1917 a Regular Army force of 15,000 supported by at least 100,000 National Guardsmen were engaged on the Mexican border. Of the National Guard troops, about 10,000 were from the Empire State. The Mayor’s Committee was determined to learn from the mistakes of the Mexican Punitive Expedition. One way it did this was by conducting a survey of the Guardsmen’s experience. This included questionnaires asking the troops what most frustrated them during their deployment to Texas, as well as a study of the Guardsmen’s civilian employers. The Committee was interested in such things as if the men received civilian pay when called to active service, if their jobs were held for them, and the disposition of civilian employers to losing workers to the call-up. Dykman had been active in all of these endeavors and was eager to put this knowledge to practical use in what would be the significantly larger task of training and equipping men to join the fight in France.


Easter 1917

Germans had just survived the Turnip Winter of 1916-17 when an Easter cold snap threatened the spring 1917 crop. (New York Tribune, 12 April 1917)

Easter Sunday 1917 fell on April 8, just two days after the American declaration of war. Americans were not caught off guard by the measure; most citizens had reconciled themselves in March and early April that the declaration was a formality by this point. Traveling south for a tournament on April 4 and realizing war was imminent, the Yale baseball team announced that it would disband upon returning to New Haven. Building managers across New York and Philadelphia, inspired by a call from the American Review of Reviews, turned off lights in their skyscrapers to form Crosses of Light over Easter weekend. The New York Tribune had been doing this during Christmas for several years at their Park Row headquarters and others found Easter 1917 a good moment to expand the gesture. Holiday enthusiasm was muted. The Fifth Avenue Easter parade was an understated affair, with crowds staying home due to the seriousness of the moment and the unseasonably cold weather.

The churches were full that first Sunday after the declaration of war. Mayor John Purroy Mitchel attended services at St. Francis Xavier on 16th Street. Vanderbilt, Harrimans and other prominent families were represented at services throughout the city. People grasped the historical moment. It also would not have been lost on many older Americans that the assassination and death of Abraham Lincoln had fallen on Good Friday and Holy Saturday fifty-two years earlier. Brooklyn’s Reverend Dr. S. Parkes Cadman gave a Good Friday address at St. Johns Methodist Episcopal Church in Manhattan asking the congregation to “pray for the United States” and to think of the soul of the nation as well as their own. The ubiquitous Cadman delivered the Easter sermon at his home church, Central Congregational, that Sunday.

Happy Easter, everyone.



Archie Roosevelt’s wedding

Boston’s Emmanuel Church was where Archie Roosevelt married Grace Lockwood one hundred years ago today.

Archibald Bulloch Roosevelt married Grace Stackpole Lockwood one hundred years ago today at Emmanuel Episcopal Church on Newbury Street in Boston. It was a quick betrothal for Archie and Grace; he proposed on April 6, not coincidentally the day Congress declared war on Germany. Theirs was just one of literally thousands of such engagements that April; in the two weeks after the declaration of war there were over 6,200 marriage licenses issued in the five boroughs of New York City alone. Many of these young newlywed men were hoping for deferments, which as it turned out were not forthcoming; the War Department would announce on April 19 that married men of draft age would not be exempt from conscription, should it indeed come to pass.

His mother and father, Edith and Theodore Roosevelt, stayed at the Hotel Victoria (the larger building). Most of Archie’s siblings and spouses too stayed the Victoria.

A deferment was not the objective for Archie Roosevelt. Like his three brothers, he was eager to join the Allied fight. Even their father Theodore Roosevelt, as we have been discussing the past few days, was hoping to join the Allied fight. It is interesting that he married a Boston girl. Presumably he met her while a students at Harvard, which is how his father met his first wife in the 1870s. Theodore, Edith and other family had taken the train from New York the evening before and ensconced themselves in a group of suites at the Hotel Victoria. The Colonel was still waiting on Wilson’s decision regrading his division.

Archie was Theodore’s third son and in some ways the most troubled. He had been expelled from Groton while a teenager. In April 1916 he was almost expelled from Harvard itself in a curious incident involving an unpaid $5 lab fee that with fines came to $15 before the thing was resolved. Reading between the lines, one can only speculate if there was more to the threatened Harvard expulsion than became publicly known. In October 1916 he had a speeding incident in Long Island in which he led a policeman on a minor police chase before pulling over and accepting his ticket and a court appointment to explain himself.. With the war on now however, all these things were in the past. Archie Roosevelt and Grace Lockwood’s wedding took place at noon. It seems to have been a quiet affair with just the immediate families in attendance. Quentin Roosevelt was the best man.

(images/Boston Public Library)

Wilson hears out Roosevelt

Last week I mentioned Theodore Roosevelt’s brief stopover in Washington DC on his way back to Oyster Bay from Florida. Roosevelt was in the capital for all of a few hours to wish Woodrow Wilson good tidings after the president’s call for war. Congress of course declared hostilities on Germany four days later, on April 6. As I noted, Roosevelt did not get his audience with the overburdened commander-in-chief and headed quickly back to New York. Four days after the declaration of war on Germany however Roosevelt was back in Washington determined to meet with the man against whom he had run for the presidency (along with the other two candidates Taft and Debs) just five years earlier. Roosevelt was determined to push his proposal for a division–to be organized and led by the one time Rough Rider himself–that would fight in France. He and Wilson met for about forty-five minutes at around 11:00 on the morning of Tuesday April 10.

Wilson was polite but noncommittal. The president had a number of competing concerns already on his mind, not least an Army Bill that would allow for a Selective Service draft. Wilson was wary of Roosevelt–how could he not be after everything The Colonel had said about the Administration since the start of the war 2 1/2 years earlier?–but understood the need to at least hear his predecessor out. For one thing Roosevelt was a champion of universal conscription, the measure for which Wilson was now most advocating. After the meeting Roosevelt made clear to the several dozen reporters gathered on the White House lawn that his division would be in addition to any American troops raised via a draft. What is more, Roosevelt declared, the men of his division would fall outside any age, marital or other criteria established by the War Department.

Roosevelt averred that he could equip his division and have it ready for transport to France within two months. This was wildly optimistic, especially given Roosevelt’s experience cooling his heals in Tampa waiting for bureaucratic snafus to be worked before he and the Rough Riders could sail for Cuba during the Spanish-American War. Any American Expeditionary Force sent to Europe would be significantly larger than the fighting force sent ninety miles off the coast of Florida to fight the Spanish. Roosevelt may have forgotten those lessons but he proved prescient about what it would take to field an American Army and have it battlefield ready. Speaking to reporters back in New York the following day, April 11, 1917, he predicted it would take the War Department a full twelve months at a minimum.


The Yankees support General Wood

The New York Yankees play their home opener this afternoon against the Tampa Bay Rays. In 1917 the Yankees opened their season at the Polo Grounds versus Babe Ruth and the Boston Red Sox. Leonard Wood threw out the first pitch. I wrote about that two years ago on Opening Day. Here today are two more images of that event. This was 11 April 1917, in between Wood’s lateral demotion from the Department of the East and his move to South Carolina. Dorey had worked for Wood from their time together in the Philippines through the Preparedness movement on Governors Island. President Wilson had relieved Wood of command there a few weeks before this photo was taken. Wood however was still in New York wrapping up in preparation for his transfer to the Department of the Southeast.

Even more intriguing is the photograph below.The men to the extreme right are Yankee owners Colonel Jacob Ruppert and Tillinghast L’Hommedieu Huston. Ruppert is the better known today and was the George Steinbrenner of his era: a German-American who bought the Yankees at a low point and turned them into a juggernaut. On April 13, two days after this photo was taken, Ruppert and other German-Americans met with New York City mayor John Purroy Mitchel at City Hall to announce their formation of a Committee of Men of Teuton Blood in support of the American war effort.

All but forgotten today is his co-owner, with whom he bought the sputtering Yankees in 1915. Tillinghast L’Hommedieu Huston had served in the Spanish-American War nearly two decades earlier. In February 1917 when things were heating up with Germany he proposed a Sportsmen’s Battalion of athletes to fight should war indeed come. When it finally did, Huston returned to military service and served in France as part of the 16th (Engineers) Regiment. He eventually became the colonel of that unit.

Yankee owners Jacob Ruppert and Tillinghast L’Hommedieu Huston (in suits, far right) went out of their way on Opening Day 1917 to publicly express their support for Major General Leonard Wood. One month later Huston himself would join what became the A.E.F.

(images/Library of Congress)

Roosevelt passes through Washington

Theodore Roosevelt and Russell J. Coles in Florida, March 1917. This Library of Congress image is misdated 16 March 1917 in the LOC record. Roosevelt however did not leave for Florida until the 23rd of that month.

Theodore Roosevelt was at the White House briefly on this date one hundred years ago. He was trying to gain an audience with President Wilson, who intentionally or not snubbed his predecessor by claiming to be too busy with Cabinet meetings in the wake of his speech to Congress the afternoon before. Wilson likely knew what Roosevelt was there to propose: that he, Roosevelt, be allowed to raise a division and then fight in France in the war. The Colonel had been talking about it ever since diplomatic relations had been severed with Germany some week before. Roosevelt had made plans in late winter to travel to Florida with scientist Russell J. Coles and fish for shark and devilfish. When Wilson called for Congress to convene a special session for April 2 Roosevelt felt no reason to revise his plans, reasoning that there was little he could do in the meantime. And so Roosevelt boarded a train on March 23 and traveled south to fish both the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts of Florida. Roosevelt harpooned two large devilfish, one of them nearly a seventeen footer that was the second largest ever caught.

Like much of America Roosevelt was watching the news intently in those late March and early April days. Roosevelt did not gain an audience with Wilson on April 3, and he missed seeing his friend and confidante Henry Cabot Lodge as well. Roosevelt’s DC excursion must have caught official Washington off guard; Lodge certainly would have made himself available had he known Roosevelt was to be in town. At the White House Roosevelt left a flattering note for Wilson, which may or may not have been genuine, The 26th president had certainly campaigned for Preparedness and war since 1914 and so would have approved of Wilson’s call to arms; on the other hand both he and Lodge disliked Wilson intensely and the note may have been little more than an attempt to get on the president’s good side pending any decision on Roosevelt’s desire to fight in the war. Either way, Roosevelt left Washington in the late afternoon and was back in New York City by 9:00 pm, eager to see his sons and discuss the matters at hand.

(image/Library of Congress)

Wilson asks for war

The men of the 23rd’s Third Battalion were the first from New York State to enter Federal service in the Great War.

I’m sorry about the lack of posts this past week. Things have been so busy with the semester in full swing and spring break coming next week that there has not been much time for posting. I did something I rarely do and took a full day off yesterday: no work, no writing, no anything. Instead I went into the city and did a few things. Among other things I went to The Strand and bought a copy of Yale historian Timothy Snyder’s On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century. Some might know Snyder’s best known work Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin. I remember ordering it for our library when it came out five years ago. I am always pleased to note that it circs well too.

Speaking of historians and books I’ve ordered, I am going to see Anne Applebaum, the author of Gulag: A History, lecture tomorrow night at the CUNY Graduate Center on the future of the West. Though I am wary of drawing “lessons” from history, circumstances are always more complex and varied to draw exact parallels between historical moments, the past can inform of us where we are and how we got here. There is comfort too in the awareness that the people before us faced challenges just as we ourselves do today.

Speaking of historical moments, today marks one of the most pivotal days in the history of the Great War. It was on Monday 2 April 1917 that President Woodrow Wilson addressed Congress asking for a declaration of war on Germany. I don’t think I realized until recently that the country was already on a war footing in the weeks and days prior to Wilson address. Here in the city the men of Manhattan’s 71st Regiment and a battalion of Brooklyn’s 23rd became the first units from the Empire State to enter national service when they mobilized over the weekend. For its outsized role in the war New York was surprisingly a little late to the game. Men from around the nation had already been doing so for much of the past week at least.

(image/Brooklyn Museum/Brooklyn Public Library, Brooklyn Collection)

Leonard Wood’s reassignment

The Outlook, a pro-Preparedness magazine for which Theodore Roosevelt wrote, told the story of Wood’s transfer in this 1917 article.

The United States was all but on a war footing by the last week of March 1917. There had been several sinkings of American ships that month. On March 20 Woodrow Wilson had called for a special of Congress to be held on April 2. In the meantime National Guardsmen were boarding trains and shipping out to various posts. No one therefore thought anything too amiss when on the afternoon of March 24 Wilson left the White House and traveled to Newton Baker’s office in the State, War, and Navy Building. It seemed natural that the President and Secretary of War would discuss the fluid situation. Instead the two made the fateful decision to relieve Major General Leonard Wood of his duties as commander of the Department of the East on Governors Island. Wood was notified that evening and responded the following day, Sunday March 25. The rest of the country found out the following day.

While some claimed at the time that Wood’s transfer was unexpected, more aware individuals had seen the writing on the wall for some time. Wood had been making increasingly passionate pleas for Preparedness for much of the past year, and was never more publicly vocal than in those last winter days of 1917. Remember that then as now New York City was the media capital of the nation. The city had nearly a dozen daily newspapers, most of which were sending reporters around following Wood’s many appearances.

Technically Wood was not demoted. He remained in the Army and kept his rank. Wilson got rid of Wood by dividing the Eastern Department into three separate jurisdictions. The number of military departments went from four to six. J. Franklin Bell was to move from the Western Department to take over in New York. Wood was given the option of taking over in Hawaii, the Philippines or a new Department of the Southeast in Charleston, South Carolina. Wood chose the latter and effective May 1, 1917 would leave Governors Island island for the Southeastern Department. The Wilson Administration said all the right things, publicly claiming that it was merely a lateral move, but everyone new that this was not the case. New York City was obviously going to be the focal point of any American involvement in the Great War. Wood would now not only be far removed from Governors Island and the New York limelgiht but banished out of the Northeast itself, where support for the American war effort was much stronger than in the more isolationist, solidly Democratic South. Wood was stoic and put on a brave face. When the news came down he responded simply “I am a soldier and I go where I am sent.”

(image/New York Public Library)

The 4th film shoot

It was colder than I thought it would be when I met a colleague this morning at the CUNY Graduate Center to take some location footage for our WW1 documentary. We shot here for a bit before moving down to 30th Street to get a better angle to film the Empire State Building. I got my masters degree here over a decade ago. One thing that is so unique about the Grad Center is that it has no campus per se, You felt less detached and more connected to the metropolis that was going on just outside while you were sitting there in class. I always found that comforting and felt it gave what I studied more immediacy. People who know Old New York may recognize this building as the site of the B. Altman’s department store. I believe my grandmother took my aunts here when they would visit the city back in the day. I’m sure they followed their excursions with a trip to the Automat.

Back in Brooklyn we filmed some exteriors at our own campus. Again, the school has that urban feel with a strong energy and so much going on all around it. Speaking of our campus, I received the good news today that our library will almost likely receive a significant Great War display from a particular European organization this coming September-October. If it seems like I am being a little vague that’s because I am. I will go into greater detail when things are truly finalized. I cannot tell you how excited we are about this. The Great War is proving a timely opportunity to raise public awareness of this shared history; with various public officials unduly straining our relations with long time allies, it seems up to those interested in public history to remind the public of the historical ties that bind us to others.