Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Natural Born Eastmen Don't Have to Work...

Well, I don't think anyone read part 1 of this piece, regarding Furry Lewis and his version of the story of Casey Jones, but here is part 2 anyway. There may or may not be a part 3.

In the next verse, we finally meet Casey, but only indirectly. The train is preparing to leave the station:

When the conductor he holler “hello!”

Fire man he holler “all aboard!”

The people tell by the whistle’s moan

The man at the throttle was old Casey Jones

But this construction is in the historical present. Is this the final trip for Casey? Or any trip? The drama of meeting Casey is left to hang in the air, as “Old Casey Jones” is not repeated. Instead the narrator moans

Oh, on the Road Again

And stays silent through what would normally be the sixth and final line of the verse.

Then we turn abruptly to the narrator’s own life and perspective. It turns out that he is a bootlegger:

When I've sold my gin, I sold it straight

The Police run me to my woman's gate

His woman offers him her “folding bed.” This sounds generous enough, but the next verse seems to complicate the picture.

I’m gonna leave Memphis, to spread the news

That Memphis women don’t wear no shoes

The shoelessness of these women has a significance that is lost on me, but I like the image a lot. He goes on.

I got it written on the back of my shirt

I’m a natural born eastman and I don’t have to work.

I don’t have to work.

I’m a natural born eastman and don’t have to work.

You can search for quite awhile before coming up with an interpretation of this lyric that actually makes sense. The difficulty is the word “eastman” which is hard enough to make out (“easement” is one common mishearing, “easy” is another), but even more difficult to interpret. Although you can turn up evidence for what “eastman” meant to African Americans in the delta of that time, it is probably just as easy to gather it from context: an eastman is a man who lives off his woman’s income, maybe even a pimp. We should have guessed. But what does this shiftless narrator have to do with the mighty Casey? The next verse offers a clue:

When I woke up this morning at half past nine

I saw little Casey’s chillun on the doorstep crying

“Mama mama we can’t keep from crying

My daddy got killed on the Southern Line.”

That southern line

My daddy got killed on the southern line.

The narrator is able to bear witness to the human tragedy of Casey’s accident, and establish Casey as a family man (The real Casey’s children were between ages twelve and four at the time of the accident). In the midst of all his shiftlessness, the narrator is IN the story. In real life, Mrs. Jones wore black every day for the rest of her life, more than fifty years after the accident, and never remarried. In the ballads, however, she is sometimes portrayed as a pretty cool customer, in contrast to her grieving offspring:

She cried “Children Children, won’t you hold your breath

We’re gonna draw another check from your father’s death.

From your father’s death

We’re gonna draw another pension at your father’s death.

Other versions of the story even have her telling the kids that they have “another papa” on a different railroad line.

The perspective shifts again, this time back to Casey, and before the accident itself.

Now Mister Caseysaid, just before he died

There was two more roads that he would like to ride

Fireman asked Casey, "What road is he?"

"That’s the Southern Pacific and the Santa Fe.”

That Santa Fe…

The Southern Pacific and the Sante Fe

Casey’s fireman, Sim Webb, was the last man to see Casey alive, so that statement feels authentic. Casey had spent his whole career working on North-South railroad lines, and the Southern Pacific and Sante Fe presumably run East-West. But the thing from this verse that haunts me is the repetition of “Santa Fe.” “Santa Fe” means “holy spirit” in Spanish, and so the simple unfulfilled ambitions of a dedicated railroad man become freighted with spiritual portent. Underscoring this is that "Santa Fe" is rhymed with the odd pronoun "he" (which appears where we would, grammatically, have expected to hear "that.")

Now, “On the Road Again” is a late performance of Furry Lewis. A lot of verses from the earlier “Kassie Jones” are missing. The last two verses, however, are a startling departure—even in a song that has already pointed out the unusual customs of Memphis women regarding footwear. Here is the first.

Now you come all you men if you want to flirt

Here come a lady with a mini skirt

She got a half-yard ribbon wrapped around her leg

She step like she stepping on a scrambled egg

I’m on the Road again.

Step like she step on a scrambled egg.

I am not sure what a woman stepping on a scrambled egg looks like, but apparently it is highly alluring. But I am more intrigued by the re-emergence, for the first time since we met Casey Jones, of the narrators old cry of “on the road again.” Perhaps we are reminded too of the “rambling mind” of the second verse.

Then the narrator takes another sharp turn, before bidding us farewell:

If you wanna go to heaven when you D-I-E

Just put on a collar and a T-I-E

Is this meant to be a warning? Why the spelling? Do we really just need to dress nicely? Or is dressing up just shorthand for going to church and being “respectable”? The next two lines do not offer any clarification.

If you wanna scare a rabbit out of L-O-G

Just make a little stunt like a D-O-G.

Does that help? I don’t think it does. What are you going to do about it.

I’m on the Road Again.

And we’re done.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

On The Road Again part one: Furry & Casey

My good friend, the webby-winning Melanie MacFarlane, told me when I first started blogging to avoid entries longer than about 500 words. This has always struck me as good advice. So I will be breaking up my magnum opus on Furry Lewis's "On the Road Again" (which is currently about 1500 words) into at least three parts. Here is the first.

Like a lot of kids, I went through a big song lyric phase in my late childhood and early teens. I remember slowly, agonizingly, trying to piece together the lyrics to Cheap Trick’s “Surrender” and treasuring albums that came with lyric sheets. Then, pretty suddenly in my mid-teens, I got to be a big classical music fan. When I got back into more popular forms of music, it was by way of the blues. Obsessing over blues lyrics seemed like a real waste of time—when it wasn’t downright uncomfortable. What was Sonny Boy going to do with his “shooting iron”? It didn’t sound like the sort of thing an enlightened guy with a lot of female friends should be endorsing.

Fast forward twenty years and more, and lyrics are interesting to me again, and the more primitive they are, the better I like them. A case in point is Furry Lewis’s “On the Road Again.” This particular song is mostly a rewrite of Lewis’s own longer song “Kassie Jones pts 1&2” in which “Kassie” is really “Casey” (the spelling is thought to have been changed by the record company for copyright reasons). Anyway, for “On the Road Again” swapped out a few number of “Kassie”’s more narrative verses, and replaced them with a curious series of lyric observations. The result is a lyrical oddity, like Bob Dylan’s masterful “Tangled Up in Blue,” where third person narration alternates with first. Who is the song then about? Casey and his fatal accident? Or the narrator and his own life and loves? What is the relationship between these two threads, between the “he” and the “I”?

The song opens with a throbbing guitar chord that doesn’t really move, almost like a kind of blues raga, or delta version of minimalist music.

I woke up this morning was a shower and rain

Around the curve was a passenger train

Under the bottom was a hobo John

He was a good ol’ hobo but he’s dead and gone

At the end of the fourth line, the chord shifts dramatically into a high and eerie territory, and Lewis repeats the end of the fourth lyric line.

He’s dead and gone

Then the chord shifts back to center and the fourth line is repeated, usually slightly altered.

He’s a good old hobo but he’s dead and gone.

What are we supposed to make of this verse? In most related versions of the Casey Jones story, the rainy morning, the passenger train are images associated with Jones and his crash. Instead the narrator tells us of a “good old hobo” who is dead. Whether he is a victim of Casey’s train accident or some other fate is never told.

In the next verse, we meet the infamous Alice Fry. Alice Fry was (in some versions) the Other Woman in the “Frankie and Johnnie” tale. Why is Alice here? Is she Casey’s mistress too? We don’t know. But she tells us something important about herself.

She said “I’m gonna ride with old Casey and die

I ain’t good looking, but I takes my time

I am a rambling woman; I got a rambling mind

I got a rambling mind.”

And is if to sum it up, the singer adds:

A rambling woman with a rambling mind.

[to be continued]

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

When Direct Democracy means Bad Government

Over the last few days I have slowly been working my way through George A. Romero’s seminal Night of the Living Dead. It is an absolutely horrifying film, part art house and part grindhouse. Parallel to this uncharacteristic project, I have been reading about Gordon Wood’s Radicalism of the American Revolution. Wood’s book is largely about the defeat of the basically elitist legal project of the Founding Fathers and its displacement by the more radical democracy typically symbolized by Andrew Jackson. Wood’s thesis celebrates the replacement of disinterested elite with a broad-based system where the competing interests of many relatively ordinary citizens balance each other out. Getting back to the Zombie picture, the main problem of Night of the Living Dead is precisely that the self-interests of the various living characters utterly fail to achieve any kind of balance. They cannot agree on leadership, or see even a simple plan through to its conclusion. As a result, despite their relative intelligence, agility, secure position, and weaponry, they are easy prey for the mindless Zombies. So, although I find it hard to disagree with Wood’s description of the facts, I am not sure that I am as convinced of their unalloyed usefulness.

So this brings us to my real concern right now, and that is ballot initiatives. Ballot initiatives have a long and checkered history in this country, dating back to the Progressive era. The idea then (and the idea now, at least nominally) is that legislatures, especially at the state level, are easily held hostage by special interests or by ridiculously powerful leadership structures (this last is certainly true here in my home state of Massachusetts). But there is some evidence that ballot initiatives, under the guise of “direct democracy,” create many more problems than they solve, and disrupt other aspects of a functioning democracy.

The first problem is that ballot initiatives are usually calculated by their proposers to appeal to passion over reason. They tend deal with questions about which people have strong emotional reactions based on social values or self-interest. Tax policy, animal rights, gay marriage, minimum sentencing—these are the stuff high profile ballot questions are usually made of. If they aren’t appealing enough, you can always put a little girl’s face on it, and call it “Betty’s Law,” or something like that. Often a sensible ballot initiative (such as the one to allow alcohol to be sold in grocery stores here in MA) can be derailed by similar emotional tactics, stirred up by the infusion of incredible amounts of cash into the public discourse.

A second problem is the practical tendency of ballot initiatives to pile up and create conflicting mandates. The textbook case of this tendency is California, the state where the ballot process is possibly most open and frequently employed. Although it is probably the wealthiest state in the union, its government is hobbled by a complex web of voter-mandated restrictions on the state’s ability to raise revenue combined with a large number of voter-mandated expenses. To a lesser extent, even Massachusetts suffers from similar ballot driven madness, thanks to the thirty-year-old ballot initiative that led to proposition 2 ½.

The third, and most vexing problem with ballot initiatives is that, although they embody democracy in a direct and powerful way, they run directly counter to other, less glamorous, but vitally important principles of American government. One of these is the separation of powers. In most jurisdictions where ballot initiatives apply, the results of the ballot trump all three branches of government. And this leads to a profound imbalance, wherein the hands of the other branches of government become tied to whatever the outcome of the ballot question. It is hard to be effective at getting things done with tied hands, so we complain of ineffective government, and (to fix the problem) propose more ballot initiatives to tie those same hands tighter.

Related to this question of separation of powers, are the ends that such separation serves. One of these is the principle of civil rights. These rights, these freedoms which we prize so highly, are guaranteed in federal and state constitutions precisely because this is supposed to make it extremely difficult to modify or do away with them. At the federal level, this remains true. At the state level, in many cases, this has become a joke. If rights are acknowledged that a majority dislikes, then those rights can be done away with on the simple principle that a majority dislikes them. That is not true democracy; that is mere force majeure, a technical term for rule through the possession of strength, rather than moral or legal right.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Pope Benedict Goes Fishing...

I have been following this debate as an interested Episcopalian. Just to lay out all my credentials on the table: I consider myself a liberal in both politics and religion, and (though some may see this as a paradox) a traditionalist on matters of faith and scripture. I am perfectly happy with the Episcopal church’s actions (including the ordination of Gene Robinson), but somewhat distressed by the words of some of its other leaders.

So, the current pope would like to facilitate the entrance of disgruntled Anglicans into some sort of branch office of the Catholic church. What does that actually mean? Well, for one thing, said Anglicans can keep their liturgy, the Book of Common Prayer (for the benefit of all you non-Anglicans out there, this is a really big deal. Sentimentally speaking, the BCP is for Anglicans what Ikons are for the Eastern Church). Besides being a little more archaic in places than the Catholic English Liturgies typically are (think 1560’s vs 1960’s), in substance this difference is beyond trivial and symbolic. Oh, and by the way, this change also means that that dissident Anglican priests can switch over to this new Anglo-Catholic church even if they are married.

This has been controversial, because (as everyone on the news points out) [1] regular Catholic priests cannot marry, and [2] there is a global shortage of Catholic priests which (many claim) could be obviated if celibacy were chucked as a requirement. This has led to a charge of opportunism on the part of the Roman See, seeking to gather wealthy first world discontents into its fold, even if it comes at the expense of doctrinal principle.

I am not so sure that this is really true; it certainly isn’t a novelty. I would point the interested reader to the so-called “Eastern Catholic Churches.” These churches (there are 22 of them) were gradually incorporated, with their “rites” (that is both liturgy and canon law) intact, over a period starting in the sixteenth century and continuing to the 20th. Of course, the various Orthodox Churches of the East cried foul (and sometimes worse), but—in the case of the Ukraine, for example—such compromises have probably avoided the kind of bloodshed that can often accompany religious divisions. Here is what Pope Leo XIII had to say on the subject in 1894:

that the ancient Eastern rites are a witness to the Apostolicity of the Catholic Church, that their diversity, consistent with unity of the faith, is itself a witness to the unity of the Church, that they add to her dignity and honour. He says that the Catholic Church does not possess one rite only, but that she embraces all the ancient rites of Christendom; her unity consists not in a mechanical uniformity of all her parts, but on the contrary, in their variety, according in one principle and vivified by it.”

It is a beautiful thought, one that I have had before…

It may seem strange, but I am pretty happy about the Pope’s move. I would much rather see dissident Anglicans be accommodated within another church, than see the Anglican Communion (or the Episcopal Church USA) riven by a schism. Pope Benedict isn’t high on my list of people I want to hang around and discuss gender issues with; but I would rather talk with him—about anything at all—than Peter Akinola, the hate-mongering archbishop of Nigeria, who is one of the Anglican prelates that disgruntled American Episcopalians have been turning to.

In the meantime, American Episcopalians like me have some discerning to do. It is easy to castigate the dissidents as prudish and intolerant. In fact they are, themselves, uncomfortably aware of this and have been trying to shift the terms of the debate onto the Episcopal Church’s apparent wishy-washiness on much more fundamental doctrinal issues than who gets to be a bishop. It is easy to read statements of the most theologically liberal Episcopalians as a kind of Crypto-Unitarianism. Unitarians are fine, of course, if that’s what you want for a religious life. But there already is a Unitarian church, and it is hard to see why we need another one. If you can’t recite the creed, and really mean it, then what is the point? I am not saying that one needs to be certain on every point of it, or clear about the meaning of each and every assertion. But the good Christian, I think, has to have hope and faith that it is true, that the Gospel really is the truth, not just a truth. Because frankly, if it is just a truth, who wouldn’t rather just sleep in on Sundays?

Sunday, September 6, 2009

A Library for the Jetsons

We all remember the Jetsons, right? A cheesy cartoon about a stereotypical '60s family set in the future? The Jetsons travel everywhere by either rocket or helicopter and talk on videophones all the time.

I was reminded of the Jetsons when I read this story in the Boston Globe: the headmaster at Cushing Academy is all fired up about how the library there is going to shed all of its books. “When I look at books, I see an outdated technology, like scrolls before books,’’ is what the headmaster told the paper. The plan is to create "A Learning Center" (a hilarious name, I think, because if the library is now the center of learning on campus, what are we supposed to think about the rest of the school?). This includes the replacement of 20,000 volumes with a set of 18 Amazon Kindles. Maybe this figure is based on the library's circulation data from recent years, but it seems a little low for a school of 450 students. I will admit that the cappucino bar sounds appealing, but the whole project starts to sound to me more like a Café with good wifi than a "Learning Center."

So is this the wave of the future? Is the bound book (and printed media generally) headed to the fate of the scroll? I don't think so; and this is where the Jetsons come into it. Fifty years ago, many people made assumptions about the future based on the new technologies of the present. Videophones would become normative; everything would be atomic powered and automated; communications would be constant (well, they got that right), all buildings would be high-rise; and the wheel would be as obsolete as , well, the scroll.

Fifty years later, the Jetsons were obviously wrong, even though the technology was (in many ways) right. We could all live in high-rises, but we don't. Video-chatting is easy and cheap, but far from normative. And we still travel on wheels, every day. The reason for this is technological progress is not a zero sum game. New technology only rarely supplants old tech; it supplements it. Often it comes to dominate the old tech, but the old tech remains (an example: the printed book superceded the handwritten book, but did not supercede handwriting). We still have a land line in our house, ands we still have one phone where the receiver is attached to it by wires. The cordless and mobile phones are fine, except when they aren't (their charge runs down, or they get lost), and then it is a good thing to have a hard line.

Bound books are the like the wheel: a simple and elegant technology that requires nothing more than itself. Once made they can be read through any kind of conditions with minimal care, and no external technology to support their use. They require no batteries, no electricity, no signal, no annual subscription fee, no changes in licensing agreement. Are they sometimes heavy? Sure. But for all that, they are incredibly liberating in a way that a kindle, for all its stunning capabilities, just isn't.

As for Cushing, I think this is not much more than a recruiting/publicity stunt. I know that sounds cynical, but times are hard for boarding schools, and Cushing is venerable without being particularly notable. No one will care if they end up keeping some of their books, but by announcing their radical plan they did manage to get themselves on the front page of a major (albeit struggling) newspaper, and tout their new Wifi Café. On the other hand, the whole thing could be totally sincere: I see that the Cushing head likes to be addressed as "Dr. James Tracy," a vanity that the Globe (bless them) declined to indulge. There is no surer sign of an educational windbag than wanting to be called "doctor" based on an Ed. degree.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

A friend (tanyabraganti.com) sent me a video about performance pay for teachers based on a "value-added" approach. This is my reply...
Don't get me started. Too late, I am starting....The performance evaluation question isn't likely to find an answer at all. Of course teachers should be paid based on how well they do their jobs; shouldn't everyone? (CEO's? How about THEM apples?) But looking for a quantifiable basis for performance evaluation in teachers is a Snark Hunt of the first order. The problem, I think, lies in our world view which is dominated by tropes of money and science (think of all scientific formulae in the video, or the use of the term "value-added" which is straight out of manufacturing). These are very good lenses in their proper areas (business, say, or medicine) but they have a deeply distorting effect on education. The value of an education (I can't even talk about it without resorting to that monetized word "value") cannot be measured by the tools of science and business, because the things that an education should carry, must carry, go so far beyond so-called "basic skills" and beyond anything testable.

On some level, "education" isn't synonymous with "school"; "education" is really synonymous with "childhood." As a father of three, I can see that only a very small part of what my children learn comes through school. As a high school teacher, I see the same thing: the most interesting prior learning my students bring to the table is almost never from school, but from life.

Here is what school does do, and I think this is more or less true even of a pretty weak school: it provides a structured and limited environment for the learning of skills that cannot easily be absorbed by our spongelike childhood brains without some repetition, some discipline, and the partial elimination of the blooming buzzing wondrous confusion of daily life. By doing that it sets us up with some extra tools for living and learning—but we still have to do most of that on our own.

But instead we look to (and credit or blame) schools for children's entire success or failure at life. And in private—excuse me—"independent" schools, the monetizing side, the "mere cash nexus" of education can be particularly vile and open, because of the nature of the transaction. The sense is that by shelling out $80,000 or more over a period of years, one should be guaranteed a successful "product," usually in the form of admission to a prestigious college, which in turn will (through the infusion of even more ridiculous amounts of money) lead to a successful (i.e. moneymaking) adulthood. The spiritual poverty of this entire view of education is hard to bear. And to be fair, almost all individual parents, when speaking and thinking of their own particular children, have a deeper, richer, and more intuitive hopes and dreams about what education and life might hold for them. But these individual aspirations are completely lacking from collective and public discourse about education and schools.

I could go on... and on... and on. But I will stop. For now....

Thursday, August 13, 2009

I like this graphic. Something about the way it suggests that there is a tidiness to knowledge is appealing. Of course it is easy to dismiss it as simplistic or naive. But the thing about knowledge is that it is kind of limited and limiting. Maybe this schematic is simplistic, but the idea that raw knowledge can be systematized isn't really. It's just that knowledge by itself isn't really that useful or important.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

PHB's Mad Skills

Peter Boisvert is a child of many accomplishments.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Spring Break Productivity

One of my goals for Spring Break (and for 2009 in general) is to complete the ongoing video project I have been working on called Rotten Dock.  It is the kind of project I could fuss over for years, and which could stretch on for hours when finished.  I would just as soon neither of those things happened.

The movie concerns my grandparents' house on Harbor View, Marblehead, which was sold in 2007 and demolished in 2008.   The House (caps intentional) played an enormous role in the life our family, and the movie is meant to pay tribute to that, and also to preserve its memory for those too young, or yet unborn, to get a sense of its quirks and pleasures.

I will continue to post new bits here and on YouTube as they become completed.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Settling In

I am getting used to a new laptop.  I don't want to say "breaking in," because of the damage that implies to something we can barely afford or justify.  One expects a new computer to arrive, trailing clouds of glory, solving every problem that had become so irksome about the old machine.  It doesn't really work that way, however.  The new MacBook has many excellent qualities, mind you. But it is also a little bit like moving into a new house.  It takes forever to unpack, to get used to the new appliances, to figure out how to configure the furniture relative to the electric outlets and so forth.  Every ten minutes, it seems like it is time to make another trip to the hardware store.

It is the same with a computer.  This external thingy needs a different adapter.  That application's license doesn't transfer to the new machine.  There is an uneasy period of being neither in the old world nor the new...

But the electric ukelele sounds UNBELIEVABLE in the new version of GarageBand.  Oh, yeaahhhh.  Clouds of glory.  Uh huh.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Dining Out for Lent


Taco Bell has special menus for Lent.  That makes it the first fast food chain I am aware of to demonstrate any awareness of the potential for a spiritual life on the part of its customers.  I am still in awe.  I was trying to imagine the MacDo' Lenten Menu for instance.  That also reminds me that Oliver was musing today on the subject of fast food, and he said that when he was in preschool (ancient times, in his book), he thought that Burger King was a restaurant where "people sneezed a lot,"  "burger" being preschool-cognate with "booger."

Saturday, February 7, 2009

My (unsolicited) Contribution to the NYTimes

I made this exceptionally wise and insightful post this morning at NYTimes.com, in response to an op-ed piece by Charles M. Blow (what a monumentally unfortunate name!), but also inspired by the ever-marvelous Gail Collins, and the news of the last couple of days.

Doesn't this remind anyone of 1993? The situation is much more dire, of course. But the expectations (almost millenial) are quite similar. Republicans may have felt the same way in early 2005, I suppose. "We've won the whole shooting match" think the voters (and office-holders) of the victorious parties. Like W. in 2005, they believe that "political capital" has been won, fair and square, and can be spent like cash.

But as Clinton, W., and probably any president with working majorities in Congress has found, the system is way more complex than that. Both parties have ridiculously large tents, and party discipline is never something that can be counted on... especially in the majority party. This is only natural, given that the majority party, at least theoretically, has the bigger tent at any given moment, and cannot possibly please all of its diverse occupants simultaneously.

Happily, unlike most of his predecessors, and because his prior experience is legislative, not executive, Obama seems to understand this. Blow is quite correct to warn him against getting sucked into the same old game; instead, it is time to give some serious love to Senators Collins, Specter, Snowe, and even Lieberman... and also to the moderate democrats who dropped their sense of victor's entitlement to work with them. Thanks be to God. Let's hope it works.

Moving on Over

With a bit of wrench, I have decided to abandon the wilful, homespun obscurity of my previous blog address (here), for the polish and a updatability of something more (or is it less?) technically sophisticated.  Really, I got tired of posting, and then glumly pondering the fact that even the three or four people who might be regular readers, given the opportunity, would never know I had updated unless I told them.  Gah. 

I am hoping that I will be able to duplicate some of the graphic sensibility of the old site, but who knows.  In the meantime, the cool little widgets from last.fm and goodreads.com will keep things sort of fresh even when I totally forget to write anything.