Country Music: Ken Burns, PBS

Can The Circle Be Unbroken?

Country Music.Ken BurnsSixteen hours of the history of country music. I watched it all. Some bits of it I knew about, but I learned a lot, especially the parts before I was born. It starts with the 1920s when the birth of radio and the growth of the phonograph record propelled country/hillbilly music as well as other musical genres.

The beginning of the Grand Ole Opry is outlined. The documentary posits that there were two early giants of country music, the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers. Rodgers brought forth the yodel in recorded music, often replicated by others for decades. The second episode, “Hard Times (1933-1945),” touches on Gene Autry and Bob Wills.

Oddly, it was the story about the creation of the music licensing entity BMI that was a big revelation for me. It was “founded by a group of radio industry leaders meeting in September 1939 at the National Association of Broadcasters annual convention in Chicago. The move [was] prompted by ASCAP requesting to double license fees to the radio industry…”

“Hillbilly Shakespeare 1945-1953” certainly described Hank Williams, who dominates Episode 3. Eddy Arnold and Bill Monroe are also included. Episode 4 is called “I Can’t Stop Loving You 1953-1963”, which meant that it had to mention the seemingly unlikely crossover of Ray Charles. Johnny Cash, Patsy Cline, Willie Nelson, and early Elvis are some of the others highlighted.

The parts I remember

“The Sons and Daughters Of America (1964-1968)” is the title of Episode 5. Loretta Lynn, Charlie Pride, Merle Haggard, and Roger Miller are among the stars. The Beatles even get a mention with their Buck Owens cover. This is the period of my first recollections listening to WWVA in Wheeling, WV late at night.

Episode 6, “Will The Circle Be Unbroken (1968-1972),” gets into the period I was collecting music. More than one person I know discovered Kris Kristofferson from this show. Bob Dylan and The Byrds get coverage, as well as The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band.

“Are You Sure Hank Done it This Way? (1973-1983)”, in Episode 7, discusses the ongoing tension between “traditional” country and countrypolitan. Olivia Newton-John beats out Loretta Lynn for the best female artist at the CMA? Highlights include Dolly Parton, George Jones, Tammy Wynette, Hank Williams Jr, Roseanne Cash, Waylon Jennings, and Emmylou Harris.

Finally, Episode 8, “Don’t Get Above Your Raisin’ (1984-1996)”, shows the development of Ricky Scaggs, Reba McEntire, George Strait, Randy Travis, The Judds, Dwight Yoakum, and especially Garth Brooks.

Among the complaints were that Burns, et al. left out any number of artists from Jim Reeves to Linda Ronstadt, while spending too much time on Johnny Cash. I suppose this may have some legitimacy. Sometimes, for licensing, artistic, or other reasons, you work with what you have. On the other hand, Marty Stuart’s knowledge of the genre continues to amaze.

The music

There’s a five-CD set of the music mentioned in Country Music. I thought I’d link to just a handful. I’m ignoring any cuts I already own, such as tracks by JR Cash, Charles, Cline, Kristofferson, Lynn, and Williams.

Can the Circle Be Unbroken – The Carter Family
Blue Yodel No. 8 (Mule Skinner Blues) – Jimmie Rodgers
Fox Chase – DeFord Bailey, the first black at the Grand Ole Opry
Mountain Dew – Grandpa Jones and his Grandchildren; by the time Jones was on the TV show Hee Haw, he didn’t need the makeup anymore

I Want to Be a Cowboy’s Sweetheart – Patsy Montana & The Prairie Ramblers
New San Antonio Rose – Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys
Wabash Cannonball – Roy Acuff
It’s Mighty Dark to Travel – Bill Monroe & his Blue Grass Boys

New Mule Skinner Blues – Maddox Brothers and Rose
Foggy Mountain Breakdown – Lester Flatt & Earl Scruggs, who I first knew from The Beverly Hillbillies
It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels – Kitty Wells
Crazy Arms – Ray Price

The Long Black Veil – Lefty Frizzell; I have The Band and Mick Jagger versions of this
El Paso – Marty Robbins
Stand by Your Man – Tammy Wynette, later covered by Lyle Lovett
Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way – Waylon Jennings

Boulder to Birmingham – Emmylou Harris
Pancho and Lefty – Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson
He Stopped Loving Her Today – George Jones
Don’t Get Above Your Raisin’ – Ricky Skaggs

Somebody Should Leave – Reba McEntire
Why Not Me – The Judds
Streets of Bakersfield – Dwight Yoakam with Buck Owens
Where’ve You Been – Kathy Mattea
Go Rest High on That Mountain – Vince Gill
I Still Miss Someone – Rosanne Cash

Columbus v. Indigenous Peoples’ Day

a statue of Columbus at Columbus Circle at Columbus Avenue

indigenous peoplesIn May 2019, the Institute of History Archaeology and Education’s Peter Feinman started a series of articles about Columbus Day versus Indigenous Peoples’ Day. Part I was A Lose-Lose War.

He noted how, in April, New Mexico, Vermont, and Maine all joined “the growing number of cities, states, and municipalities that have renamed the October holiday for the people who lived in America long before the explorer arrived.”

Yet the pieces announcing these changes often “fail to note that the indigenous people presumably being lifted up have actual proper names, which are seldom mentioned.” Conversely, the pieces about the ditching of Columbus Day were usually not simple articles “of reporting. It mocked Columbus as well.” This was not helpful.

How did the Genoan sailing for Spain become “a revered figure in the first place?” There must have been “reasons to explain how this individual, sometimes in the masculine form and sometimes in the feminine form ‘Columbia’ became a symbol of the country, the capital city of the country, the name of cities, and the name of the renamed Kings College that Alexander Hamilton had attended.”

In Part II, Columbus and America, Feinman noted: “From the capital of the country to the unofficial anthems of the country to the symbol of the country to a big extravaganza celebration, Italian immigrants who wanted to become part of the melting pot as Americans saw the place of importance Columbus had in their new country.

The Italians [were not considered] white when they arrived. [They] and went back even further in time [than the Irish or Germans] to link themselves to the American experience: all the way to Columbus, a person they knew America already revered. Those efforts would take physical and calendric form.

“In conjunction with the World’s Columbian Exposition, New York City erected a statue of Columbus at Columbus Circle at Columbus Avenue. A commission of Italian businessmen from around the United States contributed 60% of the funding needed to build the statue…

“The Knights of Columbus, an international Roman Catholic fraternal benefit society, lobbied state legislatures to declare October 12 a legal holiday. Colorado was the first state to do so on April 1, 1907.

“New York declared Columbus Day a holiday in 1909 and on October 12, 1909, New York Governor Charles Evans Hughes led a parade that included the crews of two Italian ships, several Italian-American societies, and legions of the Knights of Columbus. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt designated Columbus Day (then celebrated October 12) a national holiday in 1934.”

Part III tackled The Meaning of “Indigenous” and how tricky it is to truly define.

“The debate over Columbus Day provides an opportunity to discuss a number of serious issues” that I think have been addressed in an oversimplified manner.

Diahann Carroll as Julia was a big deal

“Are you just trying to be fashionable?”

Diahann Carroll.TV GuideWhen Diahann Carroll played the title role in the sitcom Julia in 1968-1971 on NBC, it was a very big deal in America. She was the first black woman to star in her own network program not playing a maid. She was the first black star of a scripted show since the controversial Amos and Andy a decade and a half earlier.

With the number of television outlets now, it may be difficult to imagine how rare it was any for any blacks on TV who weren’t maids or other marginalized roles. The trick with the show Julia is that a black person was expected, by various factions, be all things African American, an impossible task. Julia was a middle-class, attractive, professional woman (nurse) and didn’t speak like folks from the “ghetto.”

She was a single mom, which irritated a number of people who felt an emasculation of the black family. (Conversely, read What Diahann Carroll meant to black single moms like me.) Julia was a war widow raising her pretty perfect, cute “little man” (Marc Copage as Corey).

The show actively eschewed social issues at a time in America when there was war, racial divide, and assassinations. When “Julia” talked to her potential employer and told him on the phone about her race, he quipped, “Have you always been a Negro, or are you just trying to be fashionable?”

Magic?

Carroll was acutely aware of this tension. In a 1968 interview, she said, “With black people right now, we are all terribly bigger than life and more wonderful than life and smarter and better—because we are still proving. For a hundred years we have been prevented from seeing ourselves and we’re all overconcerned and overreacting. The needs of the white writer go to the superhuman being.” In other words, what would be later dubbed The Magic Negro.

Still, our household watched it. Every black person I knew watched it, because “WE” were on the screen in a positive light. “Julia” was beautiful, talented, and poised when “WE” had hardly been represented at all. It was just as most African Americans watched the short-lived Nat King Cole Show a decade earlier, my parents told me.

Julia was ranked seventh by Nielsen among the most popular show in its first season. In its second season, it was ranked twenty-eighth. It may have been canceled not because of her race but because it was a tad bland and the creative team wanted new horizons. Still, it was a major step for television.

Before and after

Diahann Carroll had already been making major strides. She was featured in some of the earliest major studio films to feature black casts, such as Carmen Jones in 1954, and Porgy and Bess in 1959. She was the first African-American woman to win a Tony for lead actress in a Broadway production, for the Richard Rogers musical No Strings.

Later, Diahann Carroll starred as Dominique Deveraux – great name, that – in the nighttime soap operas Dynasty and its crossover, The Colbys. I’ll admit I did NOT watch. But I did see her as recurring characters on A Different World (1989-1993), and Grey’s Anatomy (2006-2007).

Diahann Carroll, born Carol Diann Johnson in NYC on July 17, 1935, was a trailblazer in the entertainment industry. When Tyler Perry opened his new movie studio in Atlanta, he named one of the sections after the illustrious actress, even before she died October 4, 2019.

David Crosby: Remember My Name

not an exercise in hero worship

David Crosby.Remember My NameI had seen the documentary David Crosby: Remember My Name at the Spectrum Theatre in Albany the day after a friend of mine did. He loved it.

My friend noted, correctly, that the musician had been brutally honest about his many, many character flaws. The film is certainly not an exercise in hero worship, as Crosby takes the blame for the several relationship breakups, both romantic and musical.

Crosby tells us he started becoming full of himself when he joined the Byrds and they began achieving success. He started spouting political messages onstage, including his beliefs about JFK assassination conspiracy theories, that Roger McGuinn, leader of the group, didn’t think were appropriate.

He shows us the house where he, Stephen Stills, late of Buffalo Springfield, and Graham Nash, soon to leave the Hollies became Crosby, Stills, and Nash. We even see their brief “second gig,” at Woodstock. Then Crosby alludes to the fact that while he really wanted Neil Young in the group, there proved to be only room for three egos. Or something like that.

He speaks fondly of his friendship with the late Mama Cass Elliot. He notes that Joni Mitchell, who he idolizes musically, was a better fit with Nash than with him.

Crosby describes the freeform process by which his solo album If I Could Only Remember My Name was made. Each of the CSNY members put out an LP after the massive success of Déjà Vu. David’s included Nash, Young, Joni Mitchell, plus members of the Grateful Dead (most notably Jerry Garcia), Jefferson Airplane, and Santana.

In 1982, he was convicted of several drugs and weapons offenses and spent nine months in a Texas state prison. Now, after surviving numerous health scares, he’s surprised to be alive. He’s caught between the need to go out on the road in order to make music and money, and wanting to be a homebody with his wife Jan.

With all that, I felt there was something lacking in Remember My Name, as directed by A.J. Eaton. We know why Neil Young won’t talk with him, based on a Crosby insult about a Young friend. But what about Stills? And especially Nash, with whom Crosby could almost harmonize? They hadn’t talked in two years.

Mark Kennedy of the Associated Press put it this way: “Crosby is left to awkwardly narrate outside. It’s clumsy filmmaking – either go in or cut it out. That’s the problem with the overall film, too – it stands outside respectfully and just doesn’t go for it.”

It felt, even with all the confessions, a bit at arm’s length. Oddly unsatisfying, yet, in part, because I have so much of his music, I’m glad I saw it.

Sigourney Weaver turns 70

Journeyer

Sigourney Weaver
by David Shankbone, from Wikipedia, 2008
Given the relatively few roles of hers that I’ve actually seen, I’ve nevertheless felt as though I’ve watched Sigourney Weaver in lots of films.

The first movie she was in, I’ve viewed several times, a non-speaking part as a date for Alvy Singer (Woody Allen) in Annie Hall (1977).

Then I went to see Alien (1979). OMG. She was fierce and strong and smart, and that was very appealing. No doubt that her character, Ripley, is one of the most significant female protagonists in all of cinema. I never watched any of the sequels – there were at least three – but I’m glad I saw the original. She did reprise Ripley briefly on the TV show Full Frontal with Samantha Bee in 2019.

In Ghostbusters (1984), Sigourney held her own as Dana in the mostly male film. I saw the sequel (1989) to this, but honestly, I’m not remembering it that much.

The performer played a real person, Dian Fossey, in Gorillas in the Mist (1988), a woman studying the primates and trying to stop their decimation. She was nominated for an Academy Award and won the Golden Globe for Best Actress for this role. She’s become a supporter of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund and is now its honorary chairwoman.

Sigourney is the mean boss in Working Girl (1988). I know we’re supposed to root for the Melanie Griffith character over the conniving boss stealing her ideas, but Weaver, Oscar-nominated, was such a good villain! The Golden Globes picked as best supporting actress, meaning she won BOTH GG acting awards in the same year.

I loved Dave (1993), even though the Constitutional premise is absurd. Sigourney plays the First Lady, estranged from President Bill Mitchell (Kevin Kline). The White House staff use his doppelganger Dave (Kevin Kline) to cover up the fact that Mitchell had a stroke.

My, but The Ice Storm (1997) was depressingly good at portraying suburban ennui. She won the BAFTA Award – think British Oscars – for Best Actress in a Supporting Role.

Sigourney played The Warden in Holes (2003), and the voice of the ship’s computer in WALL-E (2008).

I wish I had seen the performer, trained at the Yale University School of Drama, on stage. She was a 1985 Tony nominee as Best Featured Actress In A Play in Hurlyburly.

On television, she’s hosted Saturday Night Live twice; I saw the 1986 episode but not the one in 2010. I’ve heard her speak fondly about her father, the late Sylvester L. Weaver Jr., better known as Pat. He virtually pioneered the very concepts of morning and late-night television programming in creating both the Today Show (1952) and Tonight! (1953).

Sigourney and Pat went to the Academy Awards together in 1987, when she was nominated for Best Actress for Aliens; she lost to Marlee Matlin in Children of a Lesser God.

Susan Alexandra “Sigourney” Weaver took her first name from a minor character in The Great Gatsby. My spellcheck does not like that first name, wanting to change it to Journeyer, which would also be appropriate.

She received her star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in December 1999. Sigourney Weaver turns 70 today. Read this June 2019 interview in PARADE.