Thursday, January 29, 2015

The Democracy Wall - China (1978)

I’ve run across references to the Democracy Wall in several books I’ve read about China over the past few years. I have this image in my head of a wooden board, posted in the middle of town on a wall, where people post things; opinions; items of local news; and maybe some swapping of goods and services, are all what I would imagine to be on that sort of thing. I envision it as something akin to what we have at the laundromats and supermarkets. But, I’m not really sure.

So, I’m going to find out and tell you about it. I mean, what are they reading about in the picture above; and where are the women? Was this photo taken during the Mao years? And where did the guy get that green jacket from?

Well, the answer to the first question; what is it and where; is pretty cool. The Democracy Wall actually sprang up out of one of the Communist Party purges, in which the people were encouraged to post their opinions concerning the Four Evils. At the time; shortly after Mao’s death; there was mass dissatisfaction on the part of the Chinese people.
In October of 1978; when these events occurred; the Communist Party was engaged in a campaign of "seeking truth from facts," which was a way of trying to get to the bottom of the way people were feeling in the aftermath of the death of Mao Tse Tung. As with most things in China at the time, and to a certain extent even today, the phrases are not always in line with the outcomes. In other words; what you hear is not always what you get.

Literally, thousands of Chinese citizens posted written grievances of protest on a stretch of blank wall located on Chang'an Avenue; to the west of the former Forbidden City, and close to Mao’s tomb. This site became known as "Democracy Wall."

At first the postings were news and ideas. These were in the form of the large character posters known as “daziba”; similar to the ones in the picture above. The first posting of note was by Huang Xiang. It was posted after he had planned the event and told 3 of his fellow poet/dissidents about it.  Those men were Mo Jiangang, Li Jiahua and Fang Jiahua. They arrived at their destination on October 11, 1978. They had a bucket of handmade flour paste and went to the alley off Wangfujing Avenue Beijing near the offices of The People's Daily. There they began to posting over one hundred of Huang Xiang's poems. The first posting was “The Fire God Symphony.”

With not much else to do, a crowd began to form and watch as the 4 men posted these writings and then they began reading them. A traffic jam ensued, calling attention to the event and bringing the police. When they arrived the crowd linked arms to prevent them from getting Huang; who then began to recite his poetry out loud. The crowd was dispersed but returned that evening to re-read the poems by torchlight.

This was a huge victory, and would have remained so had not the 4 men returned to the same location in November, when they posted another 70 yards of poetry; this time overtly dissident in nature. As a matter of fact, that particular 70 yards was on the fence surrounding the mausoleum of Mao Tse Tung in Tiananmen Square. Here is an excerpt from the first posting;

“Of course, internal problems cannot be solved overnight but must be constantly addressed as part of a long-term process. Mistakes and shortcomings will be inevitable, but these are for us to worry about. This is infinitely better than facing abusive overlords against whom there is no redress. Those who worry that democracy will lead to anarchy and chaos are just like those who, following the overthrow of the Qing dynasty, worried that without an emperor the country would fall into chaos. Their decision was to patiently suffer oppression because they feared that without the weight of oppression, their spines might completely collapse! To such people, I would like to say, with all due respect: We want to be the masters of our own destiny. We need no gods or emperors and we don't believe in saviors of any kind...we do not want to serve as mere tools of dictators with personal ambitions for carrying out modernization want to modernize the lives of the people. Democracy, freedom, and happiness for all are our sole objectives.”

Now, this alone took balls, but then Huang crossed another line; one which would have severe repercussions for him. Dipping his brush once again, he penned the following two slogans right outside Mao’s tomb;

"The Cultural Revolution Must Be reevaluated!" and "Mao Zedong was thirty percent right and seventy percent wrong!"

Both of these sentiments were unthinkable; even two years after Mao's death. This was something which the authorities felt called for immediate action. Apparently there was a limit to what you could post. Moreover, he used his real name and address  and named Deng Xiaoping by name.

Accordingly, Premier Deng ordered Huang’s immediate “detention.” Now while you and I think of detention as being kept after school for a few hours, the Chinese have a completely different concept of the matter. Hence, Wei was promptly arrested and convicted of "counterrevolutionary" activities “. He was then “detained” for 18 years and not seen again until he was briefly released in 1993.
Even when he was released in 1993 Huang continued his activities by speaking to visiting journalists; which was forbidden by the terms of his release; and as a result he was imprisoned again until 1997, when he was granted Medical Asylum in the United States.

But what of the Democracy Wall today? While there is ample evidence and history of the Wall here in the west, it has been largely eliminated from all official accounts of Chinese history of the period.  Which is a shame because the event marked one of the first attempts by the Chinese government to right some of the problems caused by the reign of Chairman Mao. It should have been celebrated rather than erased. The whole event took place only a few streets from the offices of what was called the Third Plenum of the 11th Central Committee; which was engaged in enacting reforms.

As for the “Democracy Wall” itself, today there is no trace of the wall, no monument to mark the spot; as there is in Berlin to mark the places where the “wall” once stood. Rather, it is now a shopping mall with no evidence that the people who live, shop and work there are even aware of the history which happened where the fancy shops and boutiques now stand. And that’s sad; because without Huang and his 3 friends, those shops would not be there today.

And, as for the green jacket; apparently it has no significance. It’s just a green jacket. I suppose that; unlike the “Democracy Wall”; even in China, sometimes things are just what they seem to be. But I never did find out where the women were.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

"Portrait of a Delta Bluesman" - Pinetop Perkins

This is the 3rd time in the past 5 years that I have posted something about Pinetop Perkins, the iconic jazz/blues pianist. He was still playing up until his death in 2011 at age 98.  Born July 7, 1913 he had been performing since 1927. At that time he played guitar, but he felt as if he were drowned out by the piano player. So, he took up the piano and a legend was born. The truth is that he hurt his arm in the 1940’s and the piano was easier on him.

This album is kind of like a personal story, with Joe Willie “Pinetop” telling stories about some of the wilder adventures on the road back in the 1930’s. The Chimney tale and the John Lee Hooker story are the two best. His wit and sense of humor were still intact until his passing.

In 1969 he was the replacement for Otis Spann in Muddy Waters Band. He was with Muddy for 12 long years; which sounds like the title for a great blues song. One of the most amazing things about Pinetop Perkins is that he did not begin to perform as a solo artist until he was in his eighties. And then he released an album per year for the next 15 years! He was even nominated for a Grammy in 1997; 2000 and again in 2005. That has to be some sort of record; to be nominated at age 92!

If you have never listened to Pinetop Perkins this album is one of the best ways to become familiar with both the man and his music. You will be enchanted by every word and note. Just look at those weathered hands on the cover. The leathery, worn skin tells it all.

Note: The photo above was taken in 2010 when Pinetop was performing in Spain. He was 97 at the time.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

"Lilyhammer" with Steven Van Zandt (2011)

Here’s a series I never heard of before. It was at the Library, filed under L for Lilyhammer. There’s no telling how many times I may have passed it by without notice, but for whatever reason this time I took it home with me. Glad I did.

Frank the Fixer; played by Steven Van Zandt; has testified against his “boss” in New York and as a result he needs to go into the Witness Protection Program. But he chooses not to head to Arizona or Florida; warm climates where most of the people in the program usually opt to relocate; he decides it would be safer if he were to relocate somewhere more obscure; and cold.

Remembering that he has seen Lillehammer on TV during the Olympics a few decades ago, he decides to cast his himself as a former restaurant owner and heads off to begin his new life in “Lilyhammer”; which is the way he pronounces it.

Once there he has to come to terms with life in a social democracy; where political correctness is the norm and hunting is not allowed. All of these things come into play as he navigates his new life, meeting his neighbors and in some cases corrupting them.

From the very first episode it is apparent that this man; who is trying to live his life unnoticed; is not going to quietly “fit in” with his new environment. He has troubles with the Employment Office; a personality conflict with one of the town’s police officers; is mistaken for an Islamic terrorist newly released from Guantanamo; and extreme difficulty understanding the passivity of the people.

But in spite of all the social differences; or perhaps because of them; Frank quickly discovers that people everywhere are really the same. They all want to be one step ahead of one another.  Great viewing; get ready to binge watch this one.

Monday, January 26, 2015

"Tinseltown" by William J. Mann (2014)

There is something unique about reading a book which has no conclusion. The 1922 murder of Billy Taylor has never been solved. And that’s the pleasure in this type of book; you can read it and draw your own conclusion. Then you can read it again and convict somebody else; and never be wrong either time.

Who killed William Desmond Taylor, the President of the Motion Pictures Directors Association? That’s a question which has been bandied about Hollywood since his death in 1922. What makes the case so hard to crack? Well, it could be that so many people had so many reasons to kill him. He wasn’t a bad man, really. Just a fellow caught up in an extraordinary place at an extraordinary time in the history of entertainment.

Hollywood was fairly new in 1922, and author William J. Mann paints a concise and compact picture of its history; from the first film efforts in New York and New Jersey, to the first film studios, stars and early scandals of Hollywood. Little has changed over the course of almost a century in Tinseltown. The actors and actresses who died from drug overdoses; as well as the ones caught up in sex scandals back then were just the first of a long unbroken line of broken lives that chronicle the history of Hollywood.

There were 3 actresses involved in this scandal, which is also the story of the rivalry between 2 ex business partners; Adolph Zukor and Marcus Loew; who were embattled in a struggle for the control of the film industry, from the making of the film and its distribution, all the way through to the ownership of the theaters where the films would be shown. Had the book been only about these 2 men it would have been enough to hold the interest of the reader.

But, even as these 2 titans raced literally to the top; both would build skyscrapers in New York City, with theaters on the ground floor; they faced a battle of public opinion over the influence of moving pictures on the morals of the nation. Zukor’s building still survives at 1501 Broadway, although the theater is long gone. His daughter would marry Loews son; much to the chagrin of her father. These men were so different, yet possessed the same desire to rule. The big difference was that Loew was compassionate and well loved by all who worked with him; while Zukor was detested and feared by all who worked for him. One was a tyrant; while the other was more akin to the captain of a team.

Both men found themselves facing public outrage over the drug use and violence which seemed to continually be pouring out of Tinseltown in the years after the First World War and the advent of the talkies. These were the troubles that brought about the first movie codes; issued by the Hays Office. William Hays was an odd man, too. He was lured into the position of being Hollywood’s first real censor from his government job, and was even paid by Zukor’s studio. Talk about the fox guarding the hen house! .

At first Hays was compliant and willing to do whatever the studio bosses required of him to keep his $100,000 a year position. But as the scandals became increasingly frequent, and the public outrage grew, Hays was finally forced to take a stand on the side of the “decency leagues” and really perform the job he was paid to do. This aspect of the book sheds light on the history of Motion Picture Codes and how they came to be.

There is also the murder itself, which is the core of the book. Three young actresses; Mabel Normand, Mary Minter and Margaret Gibson; are all connected to the victim in one way or another. But the one most suspected of the murder is the 19 year old actress Mary Miles Minter, who had been in love with the older Desmond Taylor for some time. He kept her at arm’s length, careful not to upset the girl, while also remaining mindful of her mother; a woman who had on occasion threatened to kill him if he did not stay away from her daughter.

That was a pretty big request on her part, considering that her daughter worked with the older man. It was also rumored that she was in love with Taylor herself. The prevailing theory was that she had discovered them flagrante de lecto and killed him. Her gun was discarded by the grandmother, who made a special trip to Louisiana to dispose of it in the Bayou. The gun had been given to Mary’s mother by the Chief of Police in Hollywood, who was rumored to be having an affair with her. But there was a secret which Mr. Taylor held very close; rendering his own affair with either woman unlikely at the very least.

Mabel Normand was a recovering cocaine addict. She was aided and befriended by Taylor, who had even gotten into some shouting matches with the blood sucking dealers who would come to her home to leave drugs for her. His life had been threatened by at least one of them, and so this was another avenue of investigation.

Then there was Margaret Gibson who had a checkered past. She had been arrested in a raid on a drug house where she was working as a kimono clad dancer.  Rumors were that this was also a brothel. She had managed to wriggle out of a conviction, though her reputation was already tarnished by the time of Taylor’s killing. Her connection to him, along with the unsavory con artists and bunko operators with whom she lived, also led the police to believe that he was the victim of blackmailers. He did; after all; have a big secret to hide.

The author makes an analogy of the events depicted here to the book “The Day of the Locusts.” In that book; later made into a very bad film with Donald Sutherland; the author likens the people who come to Hollywood to prey upon the successful ones as locusts. This group of people is composed of those who come to Hollywood to achieve stardom but fail to attain that elusive prize, instead becoming part of the nefarious atmosphere of Tinseltown, replete with "hangers on."

This is a very detailed book which has been extensively annotated and researched. Not only does it explore the various aspects of the crime at hand, it also gives a great insight into the early days of the studios and how they merged and grew. Written in a highly entertaining fashion the book moves along almost like a film noir story. The big difference, of course, is that this story is deliciously real.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Tal Henry & his North Carolinians (Undated)

There’s a great misconception of North Carolina when it comes to music. Many people think of the state as being predominantly represented by such musical acts as Earl Scruggs and Andy Griffith, or “shag music” from the shore. And we’re proud of that stuff. But our musical history is much more diverse than that. It covers all genres; including the rare and elusive traveling jazz -dance band orchestra and comedy act of Tal Henry and His North Carolinians.

Well, in actuality Tal Henry was born in Georgia in July of 1898. He arrived in North Carolina; Burlington to be exact; after he had completed his education at Shenandoah Conservatory of Music located in Dayton, Virginia. In North Carolina he worked at Elon College, near Burlington, where he taught violin, an instrument he had been playing since he was 7 years old.

His first experiences playing for entertainment seem to have been in the Burlington area around 1919. He was the violinist with Frank Hood and his band; now making his home in Greensboro. By 1924 he had taken over the band which he named Tal Henry and His North Carolinians. It’s not clear just how many of the band members were from North Carolina, but the name was a big draw at college campus parties and social events in the surrounding area.

Next the band found work in Washington, Pennsylvania doing the same thing as they had in Greensboro; playing dances and events; only now they had a home at the Washington Hotel where they were under contract as the house band. Remember that radio was just coming into play as a major means of entertainment, and so “society bands”; as they were known at the time; were still in great demand.

The next move the band made was to Charlotte; which at the time was poised to become the great center of music that Nashville became later on. Charlotte only lost her hold due to the logistics of the vaudeville circuit. At the time her 50,000 Watt transmitter at WBT-AM was the largest one in the South, and as such the station drew all kinds of entertainers to its studio on Tryon Street. Arthur Smith was a regular and had his own show. He loved Charlotte so much that he never left it; dying there (here to me) just about a year ago. There the orchestra performed at the opening of the Hotel Charlotte in 1924. But the bands big break finally arrived in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania when they were introduced to Bob Hope and George Burns. They were booked to join the troupe for a sixteen week tour beginning immediately.

From then on the band worked more or less non-stop for about 27 year; appearing on stage, at galas and celebrations, on radio, television and even a few movies along the way. They worked with just about everybody in show business at the time, including; Bob Hope, ,Mary Pickford, Kate Smith, Kay Kyser, Fred Waring, Paul Whiteman, Jan Garber, Duke Ellington, Vincent Lopez, Randolph Scott, Tommy Dorsey, Jimmy Dorsey, Hal Kemp, Jack Marshall, Nat "King" Cole, Ina Ray Hutton and even a young Lionel Hampton.

I have run across the name of the band several times over the years while reading both fiction and non-fiction books. I figured it was high time to find out who he was and how he fit in to the history of music in North Carolina. He may not have been born here, but North Carolina is the place he learned how to swing.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

"The Rise of ISIS" - PBS Frontline (2014)

The basic message of this film is that our policy failures under the Bush; and later Obama; administrations are the primary cause of the radical Sunnis going berserk; cutting off heads, burning schools and going back to Sharia law. They ask you to believe that this is all due  Iraqi President Maliki; who is Shiite; double crossing the US and persecuting the Sunnis in violation of the Constitution worked out with the US for governing Iraq after we left. Remember, we had deposed Saddam Hussein; who ruled with an iron fist in order to avoid the chaos which you are seeing now; which is nothing more than the rise of Al Qaeda on steroids, masquerading as ISIS.

This film asks me to believe that the stupidity of Bush and Obama is a legitimate excuse for the barbaric behavior by ISIS. The premise that this is solely in response to Maliki’s double cross is absurd. This is simply the true agenda of Radical Islam unmasked. Maliki and the US aside; this is the chance that the radical Islamics have been waiting for. That we provided them with that opportunity is no excuse for their behavior; either before or after the fact.

While this film is an important one to see; if only to gather some facts; it is important also to realize that it has an agenda. It seems to be aimed squarely at blaming the current reign of ISIS on the Obama and Bush administrations; and hence the West in general; for the terror and insanity of Radical Islam; which ISIS represents. But remember that Islamic extremists have been terrorizing the world for decades now; long before the current state of events. Keep that in mind when watching this film.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Pete Seeger, PS 197 and Kindergarten - "If I Had a Hammer"

This post is for my Kindergarten teacher at PS 197 in Brooklyn,Mrs. Gerber. Read on and you will find out why.

Of all the songs we learned as kids, few have had as many obstacles thrown in its way as was the case with the iconic song “If I Had a Hammer.” Most folks will remember the song as being a smash hit for Peter, Paul and Mary in the late 1950’s. But the songs beginnings were steeped in controversy when the Weavers did their original version of it in 1949 at the Peekskill concert with Paul Robeson, and then when the song was published in the “Sing Out” collection of songs the following year. People actually cancelled their subscriptions over this song.

Pete Seeger had spent the war years working as a Merchant Mariner aboard cargo vessels. After the war; in 1948; he founded the folk group known as the Weavers. They did folk songs along the line of Woody Guthrie, along with some original compositions and other folk ballads from around the world.
Their first hit was a 45 RPM with “Tzena, Tzena”as the A side; a song much heralded at the time by Israeli soldiers; backed with “Goodnight Irene”, written by Leadbelly, on the B side. It was a hit on Decca Records, which couldn’t press the record fast enough to keep up with the demand.

By 1957 they were banned from most radio stations and all of TV. Seeger would not be seen on a major network again until 1968 when he appeared on the Smothers Brothers Show. It all began with “If I Had a Hammer.” The House of Un-American Activities; which they clearly were; was in the middle of its decade long sweep of the entertainment industry looking for subversives; or Communists, when they set their sights on The Weavers and Pete Seeger.

HUAC was not only aimed at the Hollywood crowd; they were also involved with policing the meaning of song lyrics such as “The Rock Island Line”; and later on even “Louie, Louie”. For “Louie, Louie” the FBI infamously spent over one year and 100 agents in order to come to the conclusion that they had no idea what the lyrics were; let alone what they meant. With “If I Had a Hammer” their job was much simpler.

The song speaks about a hammer; the Soviet Union used one in its flag. The song spoke about “the danger” and “the love between my brothers” all across this land. (Peter, Paul and Mary added and my sisters to the lyrics for their recording, in addition to some changes in the melody.) Surely these “brothers” were comrades in the sense that they were allied with communism. And, as if that weren’t enough, the HUAC committee was very concerned just what was meant by “freedom” and “justice”.  (You have to laugh when you think that hey actually had to ask that last question!)

Seeger was charged with 10 counts of Contempt of Congress in 1955; a badge which he wore proudly; and was sentenced to 10 years in prison. His appeals went on in a court fight which lasted until 1962. And, although his career was interrupted, his fight was celebrated by his many loyal fans. In 1969 he launched the Clearwater Campaign to clean up the Hudson River in New York and was an activist until his death.

Here he is in 1956; already charged and being tried for Contempt; singing the song anyway. This is one of the earliest versions in which he sings “my brothers and my sisters.”

Now, here’s the part which will explain why this is dedicated to Mrs. Gerber;

We were actually singing this is Kindergarten at PS 197 in Brooklyn. It was 1959 and HUAC was still going and the blacklist had just been "broken" with Dalton Trumbo being listed as a screenwriter on "Spartacus". I have to wonder what risk the teacher was taking by using that song in class. New York's Feinberg Law of 1949 placed a security officer in charge of each school district. Their job was to know the politics of every teacher. Reading the wrong book could preclude your being hired. And voting the wrong way could get you fired.  

In 1955; only 4 years before my Kindergarten teacher sang this song with us; New York City teachers were required to inform upon their colleagues political views. Refusal meant dismissal. Of 40 teachers who were ordered to do so; 35 submitted and the remaining 5 were actually fired. In all, 60,000 public school teachers in NYC alone were investigated and 500 were forced to resign or were fired for political views. One actually committed suicide. That Mrs. Gerber sang this song with the class is a tribute to her individuality. The Board in charge of the Feinberg investigations remained in force for 2 more years; disbanding in 1961.