Sunday, August 30, 2015

"Beale Street Dynasty" by Preston Lauterbach (2015)

This book is yet another stone in the path of musical history in the United States. New Orleans may have been the point of entry for much of the music which came from Africa and the Caribbean, but Memphis is one of the towns in which it was reshaped into its own unique form. The Memphis Blues is different than let’s say Chicago Blues, or Delta Blues. They may all have begun at the same place, but the journey up the Mississippi left its own mark on the music with each town it passed through.

Just as in his earlier book “The Chitlin’ Circuit and the Road to Rock and Roll”; which I reviewed here in 2011, Mr. Lauterbach brings to life the tumult of post-Civil War Memphis and the interracial society which sprang up there in the days before Jim Crow.  Memphis was a virtual Mecca of the way things should be regarding race relations. There were African-American lawyers, barbers, accountants, newspapers, hotels and everything else you would expect in any community in the 1870’s.

Politically the town was also seemingly color blind, and with the guidance of Robert Church, a mulatto steam boat Captain, the town continued to thrive. As a matter of fact, in many ways it was the exact opposite of other Southern towns. In many ways the African-Americans were prospering, and even leading, in the areas of finance and entertainment. Interracial marriage was a common thing and African-Americans enjoyed most of the privileges of their white neighbors.

With a deft hand and a keen style of writing, Mr. Lauterbach charts the course of change in Memphis from the riots after the Civil War to the time when it was the gem of the South around the turn of the Century. At that time it was said that any white man who spent even one night on Beale Street would never want to be white again.”

But, with the advent of the First World War came the first harbingers of change. Just as in New Orleans, the authorities clamped down on the music and the prostitution, and strengthened miscegenation laws to keep the races apart.

The story of Memphis, Robert Church and W.C. Handy; along with scores of other musicians; is widely known, but Mr. Lauterbach has taken the politics of the time and melded it with the cultural and criminal elements which made Memphis the place it was then, as well as today, and turned it into an all-encompassing history of Beale Street and the blues in Memphis . 

For a review of Mr. Lauterbach’s “The Chitlin’ Circuit” hit this link;

Monday, August 24, 2015

"Satchmo" by Louis Armstrong (1954)

This is the book which opened up the world of coin collecting to me as a hobby. I was 11 years old at the time I first read it. That was in 1965 and the book had been out since 1954, the year in which I was born. From the very first page, when the reader is told that Mr. Armstrong was born in 1900, I had to have an Indian Head penny with that date. Not a brand new shiny one; that would never do. I wanted a used and slightly worn one, in the hope that this may have been one of those which had been tossed at Louis Armstrong when he played the streets and honky tonks in New Orleans.

The amazing thing to me is that the book is written so vividly that my memories are pretty much in line with the book I just re-read.  All of the color and noise of New Orleans at the turn of the century ring from Mr. Armstrong’s unique prose and his keen sense of observation.

Born the son a big hearted woman and a no count father he never really knew; he was roaming the streets of the city, absorbing the sights and sounds. When he was about 8 he fired a pistol on New Year’s Eve and was sent to the Waifs Home for several years. It was there he first came in contact with the coronet through the school’s band. In short time he was the leader of that band.

Upon release he worked with a mule cart, delivering coal and playing music at night. During the last days of Storyville and the vice crackdown in World War One, he was playing with some of the original greats; particularly Kid Orley and King Oliver; his boyhood idol.

By the early 1920’s he was playing with the King in Chicago; never looking back. This book covers only the first years of Louis Armstrong’s life. It was written in 1954. He wrote one more in the late 1960’s covering the rest of his remarkable career. Both books are equally candid and informative, and I recommend them both highly.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Who is a Citizen Under the Constitution?

The current contretemps concerning who is a Citizen under our Constitution seems to be revolving around the term “anchor baby”, which is a way of referring to a child born on U.S. soil automatically being a citizen. Although that has long been our accepted policy, the Constitution is not crystal clear on this issue.

Since this topic is destined to dominate the news for a couple of days, at least, I thought it might be helpful to post the 2 places in the Constitution where Citizenship is mentioned. The first is from Article 1; while the second is from the 14th Amendment, which seems to have become the “eye of the storm.”

I have synopsized the meaning of each quote from the Constitution in an effort to give them some historical context.

Article 1, Section 4:8 states “Congress shall have the Power to……Establish an Uniform Rule of Naturalization…”

This implies that Congress would be responsible for setting up a bureau to deal with the specifics of Immigration and Naturalization. Today we call that organization Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, as it is more commonly referred. At the time it was written many of our leading citizens; including some of the leading politicians of the time; were not born here; hence the need to define the term Citizen.

The 14th Amendment states in Section 1; “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and the State wherein they reside.

The point of contention here seems to rest not in the opening phrase that all persons born here are Citizens, but rather in the phrase “subject to the jurisdiction thereof.” The phrase was included as a way of addressing the issue of “Indians not taxed” in the 2nd Section of the Amendment.

I hope that this information will prove helpful to the reader as the controversy rolls forward.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

"Paper Doll" by Molly Hart (2015)

One of the best things that can happen to me on any given day is receiving a box of stuff from Molly and Julia, my granddaughters who live in Rochester, New York. Due to circumstances beyond my control I don't get to see them except by digi-cam. But the boxes of stuff kind of keep me connected to them.

This paper doll cutout was drawn by Molly, who is 6 years old. It has hair! It's definitely going up in the kitchen- probably on the refrigerator. And it immediately put me to mind of the old song by the Mills Brothers, which is one of my all time favorites. Here they are on TV sometime in the 1950's, singing about the paper doll my granddaughter was going to make for me in about 50 years. I don't know how they knew about that...

Monday, August 17, 2015

The Sunday After Midnight (2014)

Midnight, my prized stray cat, passed away one year ago today. He was a true friend to me, in spite of my severe allergy to cats. Some things can't be explained; except to say that he came along right when I needed a companion the most. This is free verse but it has a rhythm if read properly. 

You could never tell where the kitten
would be sittin’.
He had so many places he liked to hide.

In the summer it was the porch
lying in the shade.
In the winter he found shelter inside.

In the garage there was a heating pad and chair.
And on summer stormy nights
there was a Christmas tree in there,
and he took special comfort from the lights.

We ran them anytime,
when the wind began to whine
or thunder cracked.

And it worked in winter, too,
making him feel that he was warmer than he was.
He loved that tree.

And the shadow from the lights grew longer
as the kittens time grew shorter;
‘til there was an empty place on my porch.

In my garage, the Christmas tree is gone;
the lights only lit the empty spaces in the night.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

A Midnight Tail (2014)

I live in a development. We have a home Owner’s Association. Along with all of the usual rules there is one that makes no sense to me at all. It is the rule which forbids screens in the front windows of the houses, as well as barring any screen doors.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I like a bit of fresh air on those rare North Carolina days when the sky is blue and cloudless. More so on the days when there is a nice breeze going. These are the days I like to “air out” the house, placing fans in open windows and letting the breeze course through.

The other day was one of those beautiful days I have just described. I opened every window I could and even one of the front ones without a screen.  Our resident stray, Midnight, was quick to exploit the opening; coming in through the window next to the chair he likes to occupy on our front porch.

I was a bit surprised, as he is not a “house cat” by any means. Also I have severe allergies, so I was a little worried about the effect on me from having him inside. But with such a nice breeze going I thought I’d take a chance and let him stay for a while. He immediately began exploring the premises.

It was about 10 minutes later when I noticed Midnight’s friend “Ghost” had elected to come in through that same window, looking for him. She was shortly joined by her “significant other”; at least when she is not “catting” around with Midnight; “Lucky”, who lives down the street.

Well, before too long I had about 4 cats roaming all over the place, happily purring as I watched them explore every nook and cranny of the house. It was a nice sight, but I had decided; only Midnight would be staying. The others would have to go. After all, they have homes; unlike Midnight; who lives on my porch or in the garage, depending upon the weather.

To this end, Midnight was already marking territory in the living room near the fireplace. I guess even on such a nice, balmy day he was thinking of where he would be spending his winter. I hustled the other cats outside and closed the windows after them. Now it was just me and Midnight. I was ecstatic.

But I was suddenly seized with panic as I realized that he simply could not stay due to my allergies.  Already my asthma was kicking in big time. Accordingly, I went to pick him up and place him outside. This was getting to be like a bad dream; he had to go! And when I awoke, I was already reaching for my inhaler…

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Happy Birthday Uncle "I" - (1895-1975)

Today my Uncle Irving would be 120 years old if he were physically here. Perhaps because I was denied the opportunity to pay my respects when he passed away 40 years ago, he is still very much alive to me. Anyone who knows me well knows of Uncle “I” and the high regard in which I hold him. He is eternal.

One of the strangest things which happened; and pre ceded his final illness by several years was the time he didn’t die. I was about 17 and was at Mona Obrien’s house when I got a call from my Mom. This in itself was an indicator that something bad had happened.

My Mom had gotten a phone call from one of Uncle I’s circle of old friends; old as in age; who had not seen him at breakfast that morning in the restaurant where they all ate; the Stage Delicatessen on 7th Avenue where Max Asnas reigned supreme as the owner and somewhat of a celebrity. The walls there were covered with autographed photos of everyone of any consequence who had ever eaten there. Legendary comedian Jack E. Leonard once bought me a 12 cent bottle of ginger ale when I was sick on the sidewalk outside. (Note:My upset stomach had nothing to do with the food.)

Anyway, this friend had set about calling everyone who knew my Uncle and told them that he was dead; simply on the basis of having not seen him that morning; setting off a chain of events which ended a friendship that was twice as old as I was at the time. Uncle “I” went on to live several more years until his death in 1975. He was about 80 years old when he passed away.

If you have read the following before please indulge me. I had no Grandfathers, but Uncle “I” filled those 4 shoes and still had several feet left over as far as I’m concerned. He was small in stature but his heart was as expansive as the universe, and he had a mind as deep as space. And as far as his personality was concerned, if you have ever seen William Demarest on screen or TV, then you have known my Uncle. He was that kind of guy. 

This is the post from August 15, 2010. It was as true then, when I wrote it, as it is today.

This is my great Uncle Irving's 115th birthday. We called him Uncle "I" because it was easier than saying Irving when we were so small. But as we got older we took a secret delight in calling him Uncle "I" simply because it sounded like we were saying Uncle "Lie", in deference to some of the tall tales he told.

Irving lived alone in the "city", which meant Manhattan. He also lived in a hotel! This was so strange to me that it was almost shocking. He had lived with my Grandmother Dorothy (his sister) and their father, Max, along with my parents, until they got a place of their own. When Dorothy moved to California after Max passed away, Irving was left with no place to go. So he got a room in a hotel and lived that way for the next 25 years or so, until he passed away. It wasn't until years later, when I was bouncing around the world and staying in a lot of hotels myself, wishing that I were somewhere else, did I come to realize the singular loneliness of Uncle I's existence. He was kind of like a prisoner in a prison with no bars. He could roam at will, all over the city, but where did he will to roam?

Anyone who knows me knows of Uncle "I". Some of my oldest friends actually knew him. He was 68 years old in this photo, which was taken at Idewild (later JFK) Airport in October 1963. In the original photo he is holding both my brother and I. I was 9 at the time. Uncle "I" colored every aspect of my life as a kid. I couldn't wait for him to come over every Friday night. I would pepper him with questions about the old days, and he would regale me with stories, some of which were true, about his youth on the Lower East Side, his exceptional athletic achievements and his wit and cunning in the Garment Industry.

And every Friday night would end the same way. We would walk together on Avenue R to East 16th Street and then to the Quentin Rd. entrance of the Kings Highway Station, where he would catch the BMT back to Manhattan and his little hotel room. Then he would belong to the rest of the world for another week. But each Friday, he always came back, and I was always waiting. Happy Birthday Uncle “I” - and thanks for everything you gave, asking nothing in return.

And here is the link to the story of Uncle Irving's family and how they arrived from Russia in the early part of the 1890's.

Monday, August 3, 2015

"The Constitution" by Michael Stokes Paulsen and Luke Paulsen (2015)

Finally; a book about the Constitution which doesn’t have an agenda! I had almost given up hope. The only complaint I could possibly have with this highly informative and unbiased look at our Nation’s most sacred document is the same as with most books about the Constitution; they don’t include a copy for reference. Since the authors refer to Articles and Amendments on just about every page, it would have been convenient. Fortunately I have several copies strategically located throughout the house and 2 more in the car. Beyond that oversight, this book is a refreshing look at the Constitution; absent of any political bent.

The authors begin at the beginning; a very good place to start; and then take us chronologically through the history of the document itself and it’s remarkable life through over 2 centuries of tumult, chaos and division. The resiliency which the Founding Fathers built into this document is clearly on view; and easily understood in the treatment afforded it by this book.

Different readers will favor different parts of this work; but all readers will take away new insights and understandings from reading it. So nuanced is the Constitution that; in many ways just as with the Talmud;  you can read something several times over, only to have the apparent meaning change with each successive reading. Add in over 2 centuries of social change and you have quite a range of interpretations!

From the beginnings of Marbury v Madison; all the way through the latest controversial Supreme Court rulings; this book, and these authors, have presented us with a gift for these tumultuous times. To avail yourself of the wonderful fruits this gift offers, you need only open the first page.