Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Unable to Deliver Under the Circumstances

I have sometimes wondered how it was that David Mull (né Muhle) -- the man who built the log-cabin portion of my house -- came to America from Germany, alone, in 1740, at the tender age of nine.

Now, in the course of researching this book, I believe I have something resembling an answer. Purely speculative, but it fits the historical happenstance.

The question I've been trying to nail down is, How did Appalachia come to be settled? How did it get so poor? Where'd we get rednecks?

David was almost certainly an indentured servant. We are taught in our high-school history lessons that the indentured-servant system, which brought over millions of laborers from Europe over the course of nearly two centuries, resembled the sort of apprenticeship deal that taught young men a craft or trade for centuries in Europe. As Jim Goad puts it in The Redneck Manifesto (with a great deal of smoldering rage in his voice), "After I left history class, I carried away the idea that a cabal of muckety-muck benefactors allowed white people to learn a trade in the New World and were so effusively benevolent that they even paid for their passage across the Atlantic. I pictured Ben Franklin teaching Oliver Twist how to run a printing press, or maybe Tom Jefferson instructing the Artful Dodger in Latin."


Do you know where we get the word "kidnap"? It was a common practice in horrible old London in the late 17th century: "Spirits" -- defined by Richard Hofstadter as people who "waylaid, kidnapped or induced adults to get aboard ships for America" -- rounded up orphaned, destitute, homeless children, knocked them on the head, and delivered them up to shipping companies, who bundled them into holds every bit as horrifying as those carrying enslaved Africans, and delivered them to America. Hofstadter says that in 1731, the year Mull was born, a ship called Love and Unity sailed from Rotterdam carrying 150 German Palatines. Thirty-four of them arrived in Philadelphia.

A German musician named Gottleib Mittelberger was a paying passenger on another such voyage, this one in 1750, ten years after David arrived in America. Thirty-two children died on that trip. Howard Zinn quotes him, in A People's History of the United States:
During the journey the ship was full of pitiful signs of distress -- smells, fumes, vomiting, various kinds of sea sickness, fever dysentery, headaches, heat, constipation, boils, scurvy, cancer, mouth-rot, and similar afflictions, all of them caused by the age and the high salted state of the food, especially of the meat, as well as by the bad and filthy water.... Add to all that shortage of food, hunger, thirst, frost, heat, dampness, fear, misery, vexation, and lamentation as well as other troubles. On board our ship, on a day on which we had a great storm, a woman about to give birth and unable to deliver under the circumstances, was pushed through one of the portholes into the sea.
If shanghai'ed to America like this, David would have been a Redemptioner; he'd have had to have established his indenture after arriving -- essentially selling himself to somebody while still aboard ship in the Philadelphia port before having a chance to recover from a harrowing voyage -- meaning there was no guarantee he wouldn't have been thrown into a debtor's prison (yes, we had 'em) for failing to pay the shipping company for the privilege of having enjoyed all that ship's biscuit and salted horse.

And he could have been bought and sold, too. Zinn: "An announcement in the Virginia Gazette, March 28, 1771, read: 'Just arrived at Leedstown, the Ship Justitia, with about one Hundred Healthy Servants, Men, Women and Boys.... The sale will commence on Tuesday the 2nd of April.'"

At the age of nine.

Wonder if he wasn't just a tad bitter.

But David was one of the lucky ones. He did survive, he did work out his indenture, he did establish himself as a prosperous farmer, marry, and raise a brood of children. Others weren't so fortunate. Zinn:
In general, the Indian was kept at a distance. And the colonial officialdom had found a way of alleviating the danger: by monopolizing the good land on the eastern seaboard, they forced landless whites to move westward to the frontier [which in those times was Appalachia] there to encounter the Indians and to be a buffer for the seaboard rich against Indian troubles, while becoming more dependent on the government for protection.
And that, my friends, is where we get rednecks.

Monday, October 29, 2007

This Could Get to Be an Obsession

First off: Duh!

I should be spanked for wondering -- in public, no less -- where bluegrass got that boom-chucka beat, a beat I discern in the proto-bluegrass I'm studying intensively. Last night, during the World Serious, there came on a mildly funny commercial on the teevee featuring chimpanzees doing Irish step-dancing to some of that flutes-and-bodhran Riverdance goo.


Never mind.

On a recommendation from Jason Chervokas, I've also picked up Greil Marcus' The Old, Weird America: The World of Bob Dylan's Basement Tapes. Great book, if you're at all interested in the placement of Dylan in American folk music; among many other virtues, it features the most cogent defense I've ever read of Dylan's decision to go electric in 1965/66.

I'm reading it not so much for the Dylan angle as the "the speculative intelligence with which Marcus chases the specters and wraiths of this country's musical past" dodge. (Quote from a blurb by Robert Polito of the NYT Book Review.)

In the chapter about Harry Smith's "Anthology of American Folk" (a work that becomes more endlessly fascinating the more I know about it), I find this quote from Old Zimmy Himself:
What folk music is, it’s not Depression songs. …its foundations aren’t work, its foundations aren’t "slave away" and all this. Its foundations are – except for Negro songs which are based on that and just kind of overlapped –the main body of it is just based on myth and the Bible and plague and famine and all kinds of things like that which are nothing but mystery and you can see it in all the songs. Roses growing up right out of people’s hearts and naked cats in bed with spears growing right out of their backs and seven years of this and eight years of that and it’s all really something that nobody can really touch.
Yeah. Aw hell yeah.

Here's what Bob's talking about...

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Me and the Georgia Potlickers: Buddies or Just Good Friends?

How little I know...

I have been guilty of post hoc ergo propter hoc reasoning.

I assumed that the rhythmic emphasis on the second and fourth beats in bluegrass and country music arose out of the similar emphasis in jazz -- boom-chucka, boom-chucka. How wrong I was...

In my research for this book I've been listening very hard to a couple of collections of very early country recordings, "The Stuff that Dreams Are Made Of," a set of extremely rare 78s of blues and proto-country; and Harry Smith's magisterial "Anthology of American Folk Music," which was perhaps the most important factor in the rise of the folkie movement in the late 50s and early 60s.

These records are, needless to say, astonishingly evocative.

But the most amazing thing about them is that it becomes instantly clear that country music had that boom-chucka beat long before jazz was a factor in rural life. If I'd thought with any clarity about it, I could have come to this conclusion without immersing myself in these collections; I'm not unacquainted with these tunes.

What bluegrass did was not to appropriate a rhythm from jazz; what happened instead was it took that rural dance-beat, and sped it up and gave it that wonderful drive that makes it such a compellingly toe-tapping medium, where the banjo is free to do all that great riffing a good picker can do.

(No insignificant thing, that fifth string. I'm doing a whole chapter on it.)

So the question becomes, When did this music acquire this beat? You don't hear it in "authentic" recordings of Celtic or even any other European folk music -- not so far as I can tell, anyway. Is it African? More listening sessions in store, methinks....

Another stunning thing is how much larceny went on in the first half of the twentieth century. I'll be humming along with Dock Boggs' "Country Blues" (1927) and it will suddenly hit me: Bloody hell, that's "Darlin' Corey"! Up comes John Byrd's "Old Timbruck Blues," and it becomes eminently clear where Bill Monroe "acquired" "Molly and Tenbrooks."

This is capital fun. Why didn't I think of this unemployment dodge earlier?

Sunday, October 21, 2007

ALCS, Game 7

This has bugged me for years....

I'm not a sports freak. I don't obsess over the box scores; I'll check 'em occasionally, but not very morning. I don't know every batting average in Major League Baseball.

But I do have a little bit of accumulated knowledge of baseball -- enough to know that somebody's last 12 at-bats are an absolutely meaningless criterion in judging his dangerousness at bat. A far better standard is the batter's whole-season record.

So why -- please god, why!?!?!? -- do the television people insist on giving us completely useless information? I don't give a blistering fuck what a guy has done in this series; I want to know what he's done in his last 600 at-bats. That would give me some useful data.

All that said, in the second inning, Boston has this thing sewed up. Varitek just bounced one off the tippy-top of the Green Monster, and Dice-K looks unhittable.

The mortgage-equity money looks safe.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Before the Shit Went Down

This past weekend, before The Shit Went Down, I took a jaunt up to Bobby Lightfoot's joint in Western Massachusetts. He's been going through some relationship shit, and I wanted to soothe his brow with wet cloths and place hot poultices on his chest. What's a brother for?

Bobby's living in a fantastic house-sit in the Berkshires. Gorgeous view. Would have taken a picture but my camera-batteries were fried. House is stuffed full of great musical instruments, a grand piano, drum kit, some ten guitars, every amp you can imagine, and Bobby's got them all miked with mindbendingly great condenser mics. He's got his recording gear all perfect, and he flies around on this digital eight-track at speeds approaching that of the sound coming out of his NS-10s.

Beforehand, we'd discussed doing a short little recording project while I was there, just for snicks. Since we do form a brother act, we considered a few songs to cover that featured close harmonies. We settled for a bit on the Fabs' "If I Fell," until it occurred to me that, with our perverse shared sense of humor, it would be more fun to do the Rutles' parody, "With a Girl Like You."

So we did. Enjoy, won't you?

With a Girl Like You (pops)

Guitars and low (shaky!) harmony is me. Bobby sings the confident vocal lead, and plays drums, bass, percussion, and the piano in the solo.

Boy knows his way around audio, I tell ya. I have never made recording that's anywhere near this ballpark.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

White Rover

Commenter JC (a very old pal from college) reminds me of an incident that bears recounting here...

It was about 1979 or so. We were spectacularly dissipated sophomores, taking far too many drugs and drinking ocean-loads. Just... horrible.

On a holiday break, JC kindly assented to let me bum a ride from New York to Boston to visit my girlfriend, who was sharing a flop in Aliston with a quite-good rock band called The Zoo Types. (Reading this back, it occurs to me that I was kinda hip in those days...)

JC's parents owned a late-Sixties Rover TC2000 -- a car you don't see much, and which you didn't see much even then. Though common in Britain, the Rover didn't get exported to the States; so if you wanted to own one, you really had to work at it. There might be 500 of them in the country now.

When we were stationed in Finland, my parents drove a Rover TC2000. "TC" stands for "Twin Carburetter," in case you're interested. I imagine the "2000" is the engine size in cc's. Not a particularly powerful car, but British cops used them; I remember a TV series called "Zed Cars"; I was particularly chuffed to see my parents' car being used in car chases.

I suppose my affection for that car is of a piece with my purchase of that 1964 Triumph bike; I will go to my grave believing that human civilization hit a high-water-mark in the mid-Sixties, and it's been a long, slow slide down the crapper ever since. I saw a Rover for sale in the Giant parking lot in Purcellville last year; I was sorely, sorely tempted to make an offer.

(What, are my neuroses showing?)

So there we were, driving up to Beantown, me waxing nostalgic in this great car. We hit a tollbooth (Mass Pike? Seems likely...) -- and the Rover crapped out. Dead as vaudeville. Neither of us knew a damned thing about engines.

Panic began to set in. Where the fuck were we gonna find a shop off the Mass Pike that can work on a twelve-year-old British import -- and did I mention it was two in the morning?

It was cold. It was late. We were tired. We were fucked.

Then, the most amazing thing happened.

A white Rover TC2000 -- of course it was white! -- pulled up behind us. Guy has tools, parts, I dunno, exploded diagrams. A Rover freak. Loves 'em. Has three. You guys stranded? Here, lemme take a look...

He had us back on the road in maybe twenty minutes.

What are the odds? I mean, seriously, what are the odds?

Life's amazing sometimes.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Well, It Was a Good, Long Run

Eight years, I gave that company.

They kicked me to the curb today.

It was a great beginning. I was gonna be an AOL Millionaire, just like my neighbor Steve, who drove a bitchen Audi and remodeled his kitchen before moving to the nicest house in the neighborhood. The stock split the day after I was hired.

The options I was granted on my hiring are by now utterly, utterly worthless. Have been since just about the day I got them in 1999.

I sat at Jim Bankoff's elbow -- invited as the UI designer who'd drawn the first concepts for a music subscription service that would eventually become the disastrous MusicNet -- as he divided the digital distribution of three-fifths of the world's music with slick-assed snakes from Sony and BMG, in a sleekly metallic meeting-room in CC1. iTunes wasn't yet even a gleam in Steve Jobs' eye.

I attended a Design Summit in Columbus -- Netscape, CompuServe and AOL graphic designers -- where the immortal Rob Raines and about ten designers ran up a $3500 tab at the Columbus Morton's. One guy was so flush with it that he bought a jeroboam of Dom Perignon that was on display -- the kind of thing they put up with a ridiculous price-tag to make the hoi-polloi feel like a Player. Stupid asshole walked around with the huge thing cradled in his arms all night, getting warmer and warmer.

I was there for the big media event consummating the AOL Time Warner merger, what, maybe late 2000. I walked to the cafeteria to get some food; on my way I ran into Ted Turner, bored and hungry, waiting for lunch to be served to the executives. He was fingering a ball-chain blind-puller. He mused aloud for my benefit -- and mine alone -- "Not very high-tech, is it..." The contempt dripping from his voice on the words "high-tech" are something I'll take to my grave.

Oh, I've got stories. Now that I'm no longer a member of the family, and when the dust has settled and I'm safely employed again, I'll get around to telling them.

I'll be able to explain this thing, (last two paragraphs) which I was constrained by professional circumspection at the time from telling.

There's one story I can't tell even after I'm safely employed elsewhere. Suffice to say: The bastards richly, richly deserved their comeuppance.

I had a front-row seat for the Great AOL Train Wreck. And I finally went under the wheels. Can't say fairer than that.

Now, with a few months to relax, I'll write my book, I'll get back on top of the yardwork, put the garden to bed for the winter, ride the Triumph, get that damned Historical Society website hammered together....

I think I'm one of the lucky ones.

Some program notes: NeddieJingo at aol dot com is at least temporarily out of service. I can now be reached at hbsherwood at mac dot com. For stupid reasons, the Neddie address won't bounce back, so if I appear not to be answering your emails, that's why. I hope and pray they'll see reason and let the Neddie address become a non-business account, after which things will be back to normal. Should take about a week.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

The Land of the Free and the Home of the Extremely Frightened

Washington, D.C., the city of my birth, has been transformed into East Berlin.

This was the thought that struck me this morning when I attempted to park in the underground lot at the (I can barely bring myself to type the name) Ronald Reagan Building to attend a work-related conference in the Mellon Auditorium next door.

The last time I saw anyone use a mirror to inspect the underside of an automobile for contraband was when I went through Checkpoint Charlie between East and West Berlin in 1980. I was reminded of this when it was done to my truck this morning, after I had handed proof of my identity to a surly policeman, who protected the Homeland from, well, from me, by checking out my undercarriage.

Seething slightly from the good officer's presumption of malice aforethought, I descended into the most hellish parking garage I have ever in my life experienced. Descending level after level into this dank, dimly lit, claustrophobic concrete Hades, seeking a place to deposit my truck for the day, I had on the CD player a marvelous recording by Dock Boggs, circa 1930, of a tune called "Old Rub Alcohol Blues":
When my worldly troubles are over
And my last goodbye I've said
Bury me near my darling's doorstep
Where the roses bloom in their bed
Honestly, I began to freak out.

Oh, Jesus, Dock, I thought. You couldn't have known. You died, and anything like humanity, like things measurable on a human scale, died with you. You were at least allowed to have the blues. You could sing about it, and somebody -- even some poor Morlock in a concrete bunker 150 below the surface of the earth trying to find a parking spot -- would hear you, and know what you meant.

And I get... this.

Back on the street again, grateful just to see daylight, I wandered, misinformed, into the Environmental Protection Agency Building to ask for directions. I ran smack-bang into another crowd of surly cops, daring me to brave their metal detectors and magnetic wands. Staring down at me from the wall, smiling like oblivious goons, were the grinning gargoyle visages of both George Bush and Dick Cheney. The Fear sank its claws even deeper into my skin. Having received a reasonably coherent answer to my question from one of the scowling DHS minions, I turned and made to leave the lobby.

As I left, it occurred to me that a photograph of those two hideous, grinning faces on the wall of EPA would make a marvelously ironic memento of an encounter in the lobby of a once-proud agency that those two bastards had done their best to destroy. This idea lasted just about long enough for me to make one impulsive move toward my camera-case in my backpack.

Then I thought better of it.

They'd have had me down on my stomach, knees on my neck, Tasers sparking my spine, cuffs around my wrists, before I knew what hit me.

East Berlin.

I did get to have lunch with Jared Spool, though. That was cool. Nice guy.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Automechanical Royalties

I love being reminded just what a magnificent, gonad-stomping job the Clash did with "Pressure Drop."

And it makes me want to chew broken glass until my mouth is a maw of blood and gore that the thing doing the reminding is a fucking Nissan commercial.
Oil pressure
Oil pressure
Oil pressure gonna drop on you...

Monday, October 08, 2007

The Most Desperate Band

From History of the Independent Loudoun Virginia Rangers, U. S. Vol. Cav. (Scouts), by Briscoe Goodhart, Company A, originally published in 1898. Goodhart's memoir is the standard volume for students of the Loudoun Rangers, the only militia raised in Virginia to fight for the Union. It consisted mainly of men from Waterford and Lovettsville, two loyalist border towns.

Goodhart's name now honors a road near Taylorstown.
The close of every twenty-four hours demonstrated most fully and beyond question that the days of the Confederacy were numbered and very few, yet the Confederate bands that inhabited Loudoun grew more desperate in their attitude toward the citizens of that county. It was almost impossible for the citizens to keep horses, as bands of guerrillas would take them. In many cases it was known that this stock was appropriated for their own use, although the Confederate government was directly responsible. As early as April, 1862, that alleged government passed an Act authorizing the recruiting of guerrilla bands, who were to receive compensation for their service from horses and other property taken from Union citizens....

Perhaps the most desperate band of this military banditti was John Moberly's, who belonged to White's command, although he committed most of his atrocious deeds on his own hook. He had become so desperate and such a terror to the citizens that Gen. Stephenson, the commander at Harpers Ferry, found it absolutely necessary to offer a reward for his body. A detail of twelve of the Rangers was ordered to the Loudoun Valley to capture or kill Moberly and his band. The band had, at most, about twelve men, although generally only three or four.

This squad of the Rangers learned where Moberly was expected to be, and endeavored to catch him at that place. They concealed themselves and waited, and it was not long before he approached, coming down the road, with drawn saber, chasing a negro boy who was driving a cart. The boy was badly frightened, which Moberly seemed to enjoy. As he approached, our boys rose to their feet and demanded a surrender. Moberly lay down in in his saddle, put spurs to his swift-footed horse, and, making a sharp turn in the the road, darted out of sight. Every one of our boys fired at him at close range, but did not strike him. We were on foot and could not follow, but returned to camp without the coveted game.
To be continued...

The Mighty Deejay

I've always felt this about people who consider such things as mix tapes to be some kind of Art Form.

Get a fuckin' instrument, dope.

Found through StumbleUpon.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Johnny's In the Basement

Easily the funniest thing anybody's taken time out to create for me today...

Thanks, Employee of the Month!

You and Your Pussycat Eyes

It's funny how visceral a connection there is between musical timbre and gutwrenching nostalgia.

Tom Jones' monster hit from 1965, "What's New, Pussycat?" which has been on constant rotation in my mental iPod recently, has this ability to transport me directly -- immediately, without any effort on my part -- to 1966, to my family's living room carpet, my six-year-old face buried in its nap as I listen intensely, the smell of sautéing garlic and onion from the kitchen suffusing the air.

I've been thinking rather hard about what exactly it is about the song's arrangement that's so compelling, and I think I've got it.

Play it along with me, won't you? (Pops.)

Harmonically, the chorus that begins the song is quite mundane, a I-IV-V in C major that's designed to be sung along to. The transition from opening chorus to the verse is also bog-standard, a dip to a D major chord that presages the G major of the verse.

(It's occurred to me now, on re-hearing it, that the song's a bit of a pastiche, intentionally corny, even in its original 1965 context -- designed to evoke the hip-ironic nostalgia that was common in pop music at the time. Perhaps this explains the lack of harmonic sophistication in the chorus -- it's trying to sound dumb.)

It's in the verse that things get interesting. The first line is harmonized with the tonic G: "Pussycat, pussycat," but "I've got flowers" is a B flat, which isn't in the home key. It's precisely that intervalic swoop -- both its harmonic surprise and the jangle-piano-and-tuba timbre -- that sends me crashing back to 1966. I don't know enough about psychoacoustics to say with any precision just why that particular chord change does this to me, but Lordy does it do it! I imagine at some future date, research scientists will isolate the Drooling-Nostalgia hormone or endorphin or whatever it is, playing Sixties pop sludge to 46-year-old men hooked up to machines to see what part of the brain lights up when that B flat chord follows that G.

This nostalgia, for you wee ones out there, is not for the Dirty-Hippie Sixties that everyone seems to think of whenever that decade is mentioned. That chord change doesn't evoke student protest or drugs or Maoist ideology; what that swoop away from the home key brings out in me is what the Sixties promised to be for progressive people who admired style and grace: The Sixties of Steve McQueen, of Audrey Hepburn, of "Blow Up," of Cilla Black and Serge Gainsbourg and sleek hair and great clothes and the utterly gorgeous reverb on Petula Clark's voice in "Downtown."

It was a world that was exploding into color -- you have to be just about exactly my age to have recognized this explosion. The first few years of my life happened in black-and-white -- television, film, print: everything was grayscale. Then, just about exactly the time Tom Jones recorded "What's New, Pussycat," everything just blossomed: Marimekko, Pop art, Expo 67, Mary Quant, the British Invasion -- color everywhere.

Jet travel. Skiing. Bitchen cars and cheap gas. Triumph motorcycles. Soldiers not yet dead in Viet Nam.


It's all in there. All of it. G to B flat.

Burt Bacharach, you magnificent bastard.

PS: Absolutely the best-ever version of "What's New Pussycat?" was done by Bobby Lightfoot's Malarians in 1985. You'll have to take my word for it, but it's true. Played without even a lick of irony. Beautiful.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

On the Importance of a Healthy Self-Regard

Some years ago, a couple lived near us whom we liked very much. Slightly hippie, granola-type people who possessed a sense of humor. They had two children, one a very talented twelve-year-old boy, the other a rather precocious two-year-old girl.

It was this girl who was the subject of a story the mother whispered, giggling, to Wonder Woman at the playground where our kids disported themselves. The mom had been changing the little one's diaper. In a state of nudity, freshly wiped down and powdered, the girl pointed to her personal bits and hollered out:

"Yay! 'Ray! Vulva!"

I'm afraid I've never been able to shake that little witticism, and I find myself silently chanting it, like a mantra, at moments of, how shall we put it... Well, the sorts of moments when the phrase is likely to occur to one.

I know just what you mean, little one, and I couldn't agree more.