Same train, a different time

I hope everyone’s Thanksgiving weekend has been restful. I did not leave the house once yesterday. I spend so much time running that it was good to stay in. About two months ago in the waning days of summer I told myself I would watch Ken Burns’s 2019 “Country Music” over Thanksgiving weekend. I started Wednesday night and have now watched five of the eight two-hour segments. I mentioned in a post not long ago that late stage Burns has been his strongest period. His films have taken on a purpose and gravity that was sometimes lacking in his earlier work, especially some the projects from the mid-1990s and early-2000s. I believe it is his most-watched work, but parts of “Baseball” for instance are just so treacly and overly sentimental. There has been none of that in the recent projects that he and his colleagues have done.

“Country Music” does a great job of putting the genre into historical context. The music’s evolution is much more complicated than listeners tend to realize. Part of that, I suppose, is because those in the industry–and make no mistake, country music is, was, and always has been an industry–want you to think of this or that artist in the carefully created manner they have curated. The sooner we get past our conceits about “authenticity” the better.

I always read the media commentary when such films come out and am always taken aback at the lack of generosity from so many observers. Many cannot grasp the amount of work that goes into creating a film like this. They simply watch and take what they’re seeing for granted. Just digging up the thousands of still and moving images, let alone sifting through it all and creating a narrative around it all, is a task for which we should be appreciative. One can argue with this or that editorial decision, and I myself would have emphasized this or that artist a bit less or more, but one should respect anyone who puts themselves out there in any medium. If one is looking for a good place to begin exploring the genre, “Country Music” is a great place to begin.

(image/University of Missouri at Kansas City library)

The Richard Varick Society of the Cincinnati punch bowl

I write a little content for the Morristown National Historical Park Museum and Library and a few weeks back they posted my article about Richard Varick’s Society of the Cincinnati punch bowl. I’m trying to carve out a niche for myself during the 250th anniversary of the Revolutionary War, which in some ways has already begun. It was a great privilege to be one of the American Revolution Institute 2022 Society of the Cincinnati research fellows. I will write more about my research in the coming weeks and months.

Simple and Direct

I was on the reference desk this afternoon when a young woman, certainly not even yet twenty, walked up and asked about books to help one become a better writer. I asked a few questions to figure out what she was trying to do. As it turned out, she was seeking advice not so much for assignments but on how to become a writer herself. Once I learned that I asked her a question one should ask of all aspiring writers: what do you read? I would rather not go into the details but her answer included many well-respected novelists and essayists, most of them from the past 30-40 years. She also expressed an interest in Renaissance art, which came up because of the discussion about the writers. I told her to start keeping a journal and that while it was not necessary to fill it with Deep Thoughts, it is crucial to establish a routine. Even one paragraph a day is sufficient. What I ultimately suggested was a book that all aspiring scribes should read at least once, Simple Direct: A Rhetoric for Writers by Jacques Barzun. I remember buying my own copy of the cultural critic’s classic twenty-five years ago. Writing simply and directly is about the most difficult thing one can do. I don’t claim to be on Barzun’s level by any stretch, but his lessons I have always taken to heart. Thankfully the young woman indeed checked it out. Hopefully she will have the same experience that I did all those years ago.

(image/portrait of Jacques Barzun by Eric Robert Morse)

Armistice Day 1934

I received a missive yesterday from someone asking if I had today off, which at first surprised me; as a general rule November 11 is no longer a bank holiday in most locales, at least here in the States. It has been a long time now, but as I remember it when I worked at the public library twenty-five years ago we were closed for the observation. Many schools were off as well. I don’t believe that is still the case. Nineteen thirty-four was the first year that Armistice Day—today called Veterans Day—was marked as a legal holiday in the United States. Armistice Day 1934 was observed on November 12th, because the 11th fell on a Sunday. Seven thousand New Yorkers, including the Gold Star mothers we see above, turned out in Pelham Bay Park in the Bronx to mark the sixteenth anniversary of the end of the Great War. Almost 1000 men from the Bronx were killed in France. They had the traditional invocation and two-minute silence along with featured speakers and the like. Curiously, there was even a battle reenactment. It was just one of several events spread across the boroughs. Wherever you are, pause and reflect on those not-so-long-ago events still very much shaping our circumstances today.

(image/Gold Star mothers in Pelham Bay Park, Armistice Day observation 1934/NYPL Digital)

Operation Torch plus 80 years

It has been a long day with another, longer one coming tomorrow but I would be remiss if I did not mention that today is the 80th anniversary of the American invasion of North Africa. One of the Second World War’s great ironies is that American troops’ first major engagement in the Atlantic Theater came largely against . . . the Vichy French. It was all over in seventy-two hours but don’t let the quick timeline fool you. It all could have gone so differently. The truth is we were fortunate things went the way they did. Marshall, Eisenhower and all the others had a steep learning curve.

(image/American troops land near Algiers, 8 November 1942/FDR Library)

The 1927 Stockton Knights of Columbus

After the World Series of 1927 a barnstorming tour is organized with Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth who appear in the promotional printed in New York City in October of 1927. (Photo by Transcendental Graphics/Getty Images)

I was having lunch with some folks last weekend when we got on the topic of the extended playoff system. I have found the twelve-team formula more interesting and exciting than I thought I would. Still, I understood others’ concerns that in a short series—3, 5, or even 7 games—baseball becomes a crapshoot. Unlike in basketball where the best teams wins almost all the time, baseball comes down to who is hot at the time. We have already seen more than one team with 100+ regular season wins get bounced out of the post-season. I’ve been enjoying the games, but we can’t really say that we’re watching the best teams at this point of the season. That said, it’s a tough game and you are only as good as you are playing in the moment. That’s why they play the games. Ninety-five years ago today the 1927 Murderers’ Row Yankees had clinched their World Series and its biggest stars were on a barnstorming tour of the Midwest. I love this image on so many levels.

Loretta Lynn, 1932-2022

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.

Sunday morning coffee

I was doing a class this past Thursday in which the students were high schoolers taking one or two college classes to get a leg up on future course credits. They would have been born in the mid-2000s. Their regular instructor had sent me a list of topics selected by the students for their upcoming assignment. One of the students had selected artistic futurism. With that in mind I took two record albums from our library collection to show the students, one by Duke Ellington and the other by Miles Davis. My main purpose was to show the evolving nature of media itself, but I also wanted to make the point that what we think of as “traditional” was “modern” in its own time. What is more, we often regard some things as remaining modern even after they have long entered the canon; whereas other things come to be seen as staid and conservative. A century later the Cubism of Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso is still considered avant-garde, but the music created by Ellington and Louis Armstrong at more or less the same time is perceived by many as nostalgia.

Above is the actual record set I showed the students, sides 1-2 of “This is Duke Ellington” released on RCA Victor in the early 1970s. Many had never seen an actual album, and so I took the record out of its sleeve and passed it around like the Rosetta Stone.

Antietam 160th

1864 engraving via NYPL Digital

Today is the 160th anniversary of the Battle of Antietam. I was talking to someone yesterday, a retired National Park Service ranger who worked for decades at sites here in New York City and who over his career has visited scores of NPS and other sites across the country. He and I agreed that between Sharpsburg and Gettysburg the former is the better historic site. Of course that does not mean Gettysburg is not a special place; anyone who has been to that small Pennsylvania town feels its power when there. Still, the grandeur and expanse of Antietam—at least for some—resonates more. And of course it was essentially the same men and officers who fought in both places less than a year apart. So many of them are buried here in Brooklyn not far from where I’m writing this. One sees their gravestones in Green-Wood Cemetery. Some of them were killed that September day, and others survived the battle and war and would live into the twentieth century.

It is hard to believe the sesquicentennial anniversary of the Battle of Antietam was a decade ago. It seems longer than that given all that has happened in so many areas. Intellectually I have moved on to different time periods but when all is said and done I will always be a Civil War historian. I checked the weather in Sharpsburg, Maryland this morning and it is a beautiful late summer day, with temps in the early 80s and clear skies. Alas like many I cannot be there today, but let’s pause and remember the bloodiest day in American history.