Always a Song

Always a Song coverAlways a Song: Singers, Songwriters, Sinners, and Saints: My Story of the Folk Music Revival
Ellen Harper
Narrated by Janina Edwards
Chronicle Prism, January 26, 2021
$24.91 for Audible members, more for nonmembers
purchased with an Audible credit

I follow my alma mater, Pitzer College, on social media. One recent post mentioned an interview on NPR’s Fresh Air with Terry Gross that featured Ellen Harper and her son Ben Harper. Ellen married Leonard Harper, who was an administrator at Pitzer College in the seventies. He was in some respects a pioneer, as an African American in a college administration role early in that decade. Ellen is a graduate of Pitzer through the New Resources program, which offers a degree path to people who are past traditional college age. Her son Ben is a famous musician (of whom I had never heard until listening to the interview). Ben’s younger brother Joel is a Pitzer graduate as well. Ellen and Ben were on the show to promote Ellen’s new book, Always a Song. There were so many familiar names and places mentioned in the interview I knew I had to get the book.

Ellen’s childhood began in Massachusetts in the fifties when the House un-American Activities Committee was active and people were busy trying to root out Communists. Her father was a schoolteacher who had associations with the Communist Party. He eventually lost his job because of that. Both parents had lives focused on music. Her father repaired musical instruments and her mother gave banjo and guitar lessons. Family friend Pete Seeger (yes, that Pete Seeger) suggested that they move to California and set up a shop to repair musical instruments. They did just that. Thus the Folk Music Center in Claremont, a place with which I was quite familiar during my years there, was born.

It amazed me to read about the prejudice in Claremont in the late fifties and early sixties. Ellen’s mom went looking for a house to rent with the kids and found one place that looked ideal. The landlady looked at them and said that she had rented it. When her dad called the landlady on the phone she said, “Oh, you’re Jewish, that fine. I thought they were Mexican.” The family had an African American neighbor who was a doctor. He faced a great deal of prejudice. When he was renting a house in town he was barely tolerated, but when he bought a lot on which to build a house he received serious threats. Scripps College, the women’s liberal arts school of the Claremont Colleges, expelled a stellar student in the early sixties simply for having a same-sex relationship with a graduate student. Not the Claremont that I loved so much in the early and mid-seventies.

Ellen eventually married Leonard Harper. What I didn’t know, what very few if any of us knew at the time, was that Leonard was an alcoholic and abused Ellen. They had three sons together, but she eventually left him and raised the kids on her own. The Leonard Harper we knew at Pitzer was a popular administrator who was well-liked by the students. Sadly, he died an alcohol-related death at a young age.

Music pervades this book. Ellen herself played the guitar and gave lessons. Growing up she worked the front counter at the Folk Music Center. Well-known musicians regularly showed up there and were guests in the home of Ellen’s parents. Ellen never knew what well-known musician she might find in her in her living room when she came home from school. Perhaps a traditional folk musician in the lineage of Lead Belly, or perhaps the likes of Jackson Browne. Joan Baez’s father taught at the Claremont College’s science and engineering school, Harvey Mudd, for one year. One day a high school-aged Joan showed up at Ellen’s doorstep wanting to see her parents. She was upset because traditional Dad wouldn’t let her boyfriend spend the night with her at their house.

When her sons were grown, after getting her B.A. at Pitzer Ellen did the additional work to get her teaching credential. She was successful and popular as a schoolteacher. Ellen went on to get an advanced degree and moved into teacher training. She describes her frustration at dealing with the bureaucracy in the Bush II administration’s No Child Let Behind program. Ellen doesn’t use the term, but I can’t help but thinking that she would appreciate the label the late, incisive Molly Ivins gave to the program: “No Child Left Untested.”

Janina Edwards reads the book capably and effectively. After the first hour I felt I was listening to Ellen herself. I found Always a Song to be a delightful listen.


getting acquainted with Alexa

Terry and I have for many years listened to music in the bedroom while the source of the music was elsewhere in the house. We use a Recoton 900 MHz transmitter with a compatible speaker. The transmitter is connected to the internet radio in my office. We listen to jazz on KCSM in San Mateo six nights a week and a station serving up NPR’s Classical 24 on Sunday evenings. The speaker, obviously, is in the bedroom.

Now this is not exactly new technology. It was, in fact, old technology twenty years ago. Back in Gilroy, around 2001 or so, I had to scrounge around on eBay to find additional speakers and transmitters. So replacing components these days is hardly an option.

I had been following the rise of smart speakers like the Amazon Echo for a while, but never had felt the need to buy one. My brother, who was at least at one time a self-admitted Luddite, had two Echo devices when we were at his house for Thanksgiving in 2019. Apparently my dad (we miss him) bought at least one of them for him. Why Dad bought Brian an Echo and not me I have no idea. But that’s another matter.

Fourth Generation EchoIn any case, I was getting along quite well without a smart speaker. But the Recoton speaker in the bedroom had its problems. It would make awful static noises when I would try to adjust the volume, and I would have to spray the knob with contact cleaner, making something of a mess. That worked for a while, but at some point I would have to repeat the process. Then, one recent Saturday evening I really got tired of the snapping and popping which we would experience periodically. I opened the Amazon app on my iPad and started searching for Echo devices. There were cheaper models, but I wanted quality sound in the bedroom, so I ordered a fourth generation Echo with premium sound, and, of course, Alexa.

It has been a genuine delight. It recognizes all of our favorite radio stations, and I can ask Alexa to play the NPR hourly news or Writer’s Almanac. I can ask for a local weather forecast and get it. I have even connected my SiriusXM account so I can listen to The Bridge, which is where my car radio is set most of the time. I can also listen to my Pandora channels. The sound quality is impressive, and the device on the table in the bedroom is much less ubiquitous than that big honkin’ black speaker we had for so long (and still have in the dining area).

Of course, once you have one Echo device…

Amazon Echo DotAfter enjoying our Echo in the bedroom it occurred to me that it would be useful to have an echo in the kitchen. (Naturally Amazon reinforced that idea with the many “ways you can use Echo” emails that they kept sending me.) But I thought that when I’m in the kitchen fixing dinner or emptying the dishwasher it would be nice to have an Echo so I can listen to NPR or music or continue with my audiobook.

So I did, I bought a second echo for the kitchen. It is a third-generation Echo Dot, smaller and a lot less expensive than the fourth-generation model in the bedroom, but perfect for the kitchen. One review I read said that the only difference between the third and fourth generation Dot models is the design. That’s fine. I much prefer the smaller third-generation disc design in the kitchen as opposed to the globe design in the bedroom.

I often listened to my audiobooks with my iPhone in the kitchen, but since the sound went through my hearing aid, Terry didn’t know when I was listening and would start to talk to me. She would then get irritated when I asked her to wait a second so I could pause the audio book. Now, listening to my audiobooks in the kitchen with the Echo Dot, that’s no longer a problem.

Of course Amazon can’t stop there. They kept trying to tempt me with a $24.99 smart plug at a “new Echo owner” price of ninety-nine cents. I finally gave in, so now when we sit down to dinner we can tell Alexa to turn on the floor lamp in the dining area.

We have even connected Alexa to our Shark robot vacuum cleaner and I have it set up so I can ask Alexa to play the radio broadcast of a Dodgers game. We’ll see if that latter works: the first spring training game is Sunday.

It’s all a bit unnerving, but wonderfully convenient and enjoyable. I think the millennials are correct when surveys say that they have no expectation of privacy, but I guess that’s the price we pay for convenience and instant access, Amazon’s claims about privacy with the Echo notwithstanding.


Seriously Funny

Seriously Funny: The Rebel Comedians of the 1950s and 1960s
Gerald Nachman
Pantheon (2003), 672 pages
Kindle edition $12.99, hardcover and paperback editions: out of print

When I started this book I was looking for a diversion, and from that perspective it was a particularly good choice. Nachman starts with Mort Sahl and concludes with Joan Rivers. Along the way he covers all the major names, including Steve Allen, Tom Lehrer, Phyllis Diller, Bob Newhart, The Smothers Brothers, Woody Allen, and many others. The writing is lively and the material interesting. My only issue with this book is that at 672 pages in the print edition it is just too damn long. I would reach a point where I wanted to say, “All right, enough already about Shelley Berman! Now let’s please move on.” Most, though not all, of the chapters could have been cut by half. Perhaps that is why the book is no longer available in a print edition.

Still, one learns some interesting things about folks, all of whom broke new ground in one way or another. I remember Mort Sahl from the sixties more than the fifties (I was too young in the fifties), but he appears in the fifties section of the book. While he was popular onstage people who knew him personally didn’t like him much.

Steve Allen also appears in the fifties section of the book, although he had a very long career. Nachman writes, “Allen had an astonishing skill at seizing on a word or a phrase, on someone’s name, occupation, or hometown, and, in a flash, finding its comic essence…. For no reason at all except that he liked the sound of a word or a phrase, Allen would get obsessed with it and repeat it because it cracked him up.” Indeed. When Terry and I lived in Mountain View on the San Francisco Peninsula in the 1990s we went to see Steve Allen at a comedy club in neighboring Sunnyvale. I was a technical writer in those days. Steve took questions from the audience, and he asked the first questioner what his occupation was. The questioner replied, “technical writer.” Without thinking I began clapping. Allen stopped and looked over in my direction, though he couldn’t see me because of the stage lights. He said, “Why would someone applaud at the mere mention of the words ‘technical writer’?” After that, “mere mention” popped up throughout the evening. My five minutes of fame with Steve Allen.

Nachman writes about Woody Allen and Mel Brooks. Both, of course, are well-known for their movies, but both had standup careers as well. While the author writes extensively about their standup work, he also discusses their movie careers. His chapter on Bob Newhart is interesting, and it is revealing reading about how Newhart got started recording vinyl albums to support his standup career before making it big in television.

Fun stuff, all of this. Well, most of it. Nachman does mention police violence in the civil rights movement and briefly notes Woody Allen’s less than stellar personal life. Bill Cosby gets a pass, but the book was published in 2003, before his reprehensible behavior really became public. Still, interesting reading if too long by half.


farewell to a family home

My dad’s house went on the market recently and we quickly received an offer. On the same day that we said goodbye to Tasha I learned the buyer had accepted the counteroffer that my brother, as co-executor of our dad’s estate, had submitted. That is good news for many reasons, of course, but it is sad to think that a house that contains so many memories will no longer be in the family.

Dads houseMy Grandma and Grandpa Monaghan, my mother’s parents, built it. They moved into the house in 1958, the year I turned five. When I was young the greatest treat I could have was staying overnight with them. I called it staying “all day and all night,” but it really was just late afternoon on Friday to midmorning on Saturday. Grandma would fix my favorite foods for dinner and breakfast. Grandpa would give me a lot of attention.

The house was the site of many family gatherings over many years. We would have Thanksgiving, Christmas, and birthday celebrations there. It has a medium-sized family room and a big living room, so it could accommodate a lot of people. We had some pretty large Christmas and Thanksgiving events with family members coming in from out of town. I had many birthday celebrations there with more immediate, local family. Those events generally included Broasted chicken and spice cake with chocolate frosting.

Grandpa died in 1980, and when Grandma eventually moved into an independent living community my mom and dad moved into the house. Dad stayed there after my mother’s death in 1989 and remained in the house until his own passing last August.

The house is on a corner, with the front door facing north and the driveway on the other side of the house facing west. Next to the driveway is a gate onto the patio, which takes you directly to the family room via a sliding glass door. Local family and friends always came into the house that way. Out-of-town extended family and less frequent guests might use the front door. One time when Terry and I lived in the Bay Area and were visiting Hemet we went out to see Dad. For reasons I don’t recall we went to the front door. My dad’s greeting: “You think you’re so special coming in the front door?”

So many memories, indeed.


Remembering Tasha

We said goodbye to our four-footed child Tasha on Monday. She had had a very difficult weekend, not being able to keep down any food, and moving around with great pain and discomfort. The vet said that he suspected kidney failure as well and confirmed for us we had made the right decision.

TashaTasha had quite the life and we are glad that she had it with us. We had lost Misty, the fox terrier that Terry brought home from Oklahoma after her grandmother’s death when Misty was already ten years old. Terry was between jobs and had time on her hands, so she went to the local shelter. She was looking at a terrier who looked a bit like Misty when behind her this small, energetic dog seemed to be saying, “Hey, you. Over here. You don’t want that sad, blue-eyed dog. You want me!” Terry and I had agreed that we would name our next dog either Tasha or Kira, both Star Trek names. She called me at work and said, “I think we’ve found our Tasha.” We went to the shelter together to visit her and she did everything she could to entertain us in the play area. We put down our money and visited her every day until we could take her home, after being spayed and getting her shots.

We brought her home on All Saints’ Day, November 1, 2005. When we took her to our vet, she told us that Tasha appeared to be about a year and a half. We decided we would establish her birthday as May 1st, in memory of my Grandma Monaghan, whose birthday was that day. That made her two on May 1, 2006. So Tasha was over sixteen years old when we lost her.

On that same visit to the vet she told us that Tasha looked like a beagle-terrier mix. That made sense to us. But one of Terry’s friends gave her a dog calendar each year for Christmas, and one day Terry pulled off the picture for the day and there was Tasha! The caption read “border terrier.” We were well versed in Tasha’s herding tendencies, so we knew that was it: she was a beagle-border terrier mix.

Tasha was always the energetic girl, and she made sure she had two walks a day. She was very active going up and down our stairs in Gilroy. When we moved south to Hemet in 2015 Tasha did a superb job of making that dreaded I-5 trek with us. She was happy to be with us in our new one-story house, and when our furniture arrived three days later she was pleased to have all of her familiar smells.

Tasha was a dog of routine, more than any other pet Terry or I have ever had. Here in Hemet, when 6:30 p.m. came around she wanted to make sure that one of us was in the kitchen starting dinner. After dinner, when it was time to put our feet up on the bed, read the newspaper, listen to jazz, and enjoy our adult beverage, Tasha (being the beagle-border terrier mix that she was) made sure that we were headed in the right direction, and checked up on us if one of us was in the wrong part of the house.

She was always the loyal and loving dog. Terry had her knee replacement surgery in October 2018. I had my intestinal surgery in February 2019 and a setback in March. Tasha was fully there for us each step of the way. Terry’s surgery was outpatient and we were home that evening, but I had two hospital stays. Terry says that Tasha wondered where I was when I was gone, and I experienced her right there for me when I came home.

Tasha had her health issues, as older dogs do. She was on thyroid medication for several years. Later added to that was a probiotic for her digestion, and after that pain medication for her arthritis. Still, she thrived and did well, and she was an integral part of our lives each and every day. She did pretty darn well until the last few days.

We love you, Tasha. We miss you big time. And we are relieved to know that you are no longer in pain.


A Place for Everything

A Place for Everything coverA Place for Everything: The Curious History of Alphabetical Order
Judith Flanders
Narrated by Julia Winwood
Basic Books, October 20, 2020
$25.94 for Audible members, more for nonmembers
purchased with an Audible credit

A Place for Everything is, as the subtitle makes clear, a study of the history of alphabetical order, and it is a fascinating one. The author reminds us early and often that alphabetical order is not necessarily the most logical way in which to arrange material. In the introduction she points out that in the eighteenth century colleges that we now refer to as Ivy League schools did not list their students in alphabetical order, but rather in descending order of the social status of their parents.

Flanders gives her chapters titles such as “A is for Antiquity” and “Y is for Y2K.” The material is largely in chronological order, though she does circle back at times. She tells us that the ancient Greeks accepted that their alphabet had a set order, though they did not necessarily arrange content that way. The author does demonstrate that the idea of alphabetizing material began very early on, but for many centuries it was used inconsistently.

We learn that in medieval times scholars had a variety of ways of organizing material. For example, a list of characters in the Bible might be in the order in which they first appear. An encyclopedia-like compendium of information might be arranged hierarchically: God, archangels, angels, humankind, animals, etc. Flanders tells us that as monasteries began to build up their libraries they might have a list of the books they owned, but it was not a catalog in the sense that the list didn’t tell one where to find the book on the shelves. She explains that in the early modern era a wealthy gentleman might catalog his library by noting a book could be found five volumes to the right of the bust of Cicero.

I was interested to read that in the eighteenth century playing cards were cheap and abundant, and that the backs were blank. They were, therefore, used like 3 x 5 cards were in the twentieth century. A major government cataloging effort in France used playing cards, but the project was never finished due to the French Revolution.

Flanders finishes the book by noting how, in the twentieth century, we simply assumed that alphabetical order was the correct way to arrange material. She then states the obvious, describing how, with Google and Wikipedia, alphabetical order is in some respects irrelevant.

Julia Winwood does a marvelous job of reading the audiobook, and it was a delight to listen to her pleasant English accent. If you enjoy the pleasures of language and literature you will like this book.


The Human Cosmos

The Human Cosmos coverThe Human Cosmos: Civilization and the Stars
Jo Marchant
Dutton (September 1, 2020), 399 pages
Kindle edition $14.99, Amazon hardcover $24.21

The Human Cosmos is a look at how humankind has looked at the heavens through the ages.

The author describes how the earliest civilizations tracked the movement in the sky and how a king’s astronomers could help him solidify his power. The ability to predict an eclipse could reinforce his legitimacy, while an error could make him vulnerable.

The book goes on to follow human achievements in astronomy through classical, medieval, and early modern times. Marchant describes how observing the cosmos influenced the transition from the American colonies to the new United States. Oddly, the author goes off on a tangent recounting the events of the American and French revolutions, the only connection seemingly being that Thomas Paine used some of Newton’s principles in his writing.

But when she returns to the world of astronomy the book gets interesting again. She describes the current science and shows how a meteorite found in Antarctica turned out to be a chunk that was blown off of Mars. She also talks about pulsars and writes about the desire of many to believe that the signals occurring at precisely timed intervals were artificial and the creation of an intelligent source out there. So far, most of the signals seem to be natural events, emitting from rapidly spinning stars near the end of their life cycles. She does tantalize us, however, by saying a couple of the detected signals have not been adequately explained.

If you enjoy astronomy and/or the history of science you will like The Human Cosmos.


On Highway 61

On Highway 61 coverOn Highway 61: Music, Race, and the Evolution of Cultural Freedom
Dennis McNally
Counterpoint (October 14, 2014), 384 pages
Kindle edition $13.99, Amazon paperback $15.61
Purchased during an Early Bird Books sale for $3.99

This book is Dennis McNally’s attempt to document the fight for racial equality and social justice in America through the nation’s popular music. The idea of Highway 61 is that it roughly parallels the Mississippi river, near which so much of the social justice movement had its roots. However, he begins with Henry David Thoreau at Walden Pond outside of Concord, Massachusetts and ends with Bob Dylan in (mostly) New York, though he makes a token attempt to return to the Highway 61 theme in the closing paragraphs of the book.

McNally writes about the early music of the slaves before the civil war, and the white musicians who adopted their style, put on blackface, and made a living doing minstrel shows. He discusses the earliest days of jazz and follows the art form into the twentieth century, with the likes of Thelonious Monk and Louis Armstrong. In fact, a disproportionate portion of the book is focused on jazz and blues.

The final section is focused on Bob Dylan, though others in the folk movement, including Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, and Peter, Paul and Mary are mentioned. McNally describes how the group Peter, Paul and Mary was put together by promoter Albert Grossman, which I knew. That Grossman was also Dylan’s personal manager I didn’t know. But that explains why the group sang so many Dylan songs. McNally says of Grossman, “In a left-wing folkie world that valued spirit over finance, Grossman was a barracuda surrounded by dinner.” ‘nuff said.

McNally writes briefly about the relationship between Joan Baez and Dylan, but not enough to really make clear its importance to the music of each. But there are other books to discuss that. Positively 4th Street comes to mind.

I bought this book in the Kindle edition when it showed up in an Early Bird Books email for $3.99. It was well worth the price. But $13.99 full price for the Kindle edition? Maybe. Maybe not.


Thebes: The Forgotten City of Ancient Greece

Thebes coverThebes: The Forgotten City of Ancient Greece
Paul Cartledge
Narrated by David Timson
Blackstone Publishing, September 22, 2020
print edition published by Abrams Press
$13.99 for Audible members, more for nonmembers
purchased with an Audible credit

The study of ancient Greece in large part focuses on the history and culture of Athens and its relationship with its sometime ally, sometime enemy Sparta. Certainly that was my experience as a classics major at Pitzer College in the 1970s. It so happens, however, that Thebes was central to the history of ancient Greece as well, both in its own right and in its interactions with Athens and Sparta.

Paul Cartledge, Emeritus A. G. Leventis Professor of Greek Culture at Clare College in the University of Cambridge, goes a long way to correcting that omission in this book. He looks at both the Thebes of myth and the Thebes of history and provides some insight into the importance of the polis in the ancient world.

The author reminds us that the Oedipus myth cycle comes out of Thebes, and the god Dionysus had a close association with the city. He points out that Hesiod, the early post-Homeric author of The Works and the Days and the Theogony was from Thebes. He explains that the lyric poet Pindar made his home in Thebes as well.

Cartledge describes Thebes in its political alliances, sometimes allied with Sparta and other times with Athens. He discusses in detail the importance of Thebes in both the Persian and Peloponnesian wars.

The book is ably narrated by David Timson, who delivers an enjoyable listening experience, keeping up a lively pace even at those few points when the text is dull. The downside to listening to the audiobook is that the illustrations, of which there are a couple dozen, are missing. Still, if you enjoy ancient history you will find this book very much worth your time.


Epiphany 2021

Epiphany stained glassToday is a day of great animosity and acrimony in Washington, D.C. and it is causing many of us, myself included, a fair amount of stress, something I am trying to manage as best I can. One way of managing that stress is to remember that today is also the Feast of the Epiphany, celebrating the arrival of the Wise Men in Bethlehem and bringing to an end the season of Christmas. Just because that season is ending, however, doesn’t mean that we should let go of the spirit. I think Howard Thurman expresses the essence of celebrating the Epiphany and moving forward into the new year about as well as can be done. I have shared this here more than once before on Epiphany, but I think his words are especially important to remember this year. Peace, Joy, and Love to all.

quote

When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild nations,
To bring peace among brothers and sisters,
To make music in the heart.