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Morning Song – O Little Town Of Bethlehem

The Rev. Phillips Brooks didn’t think he was writing a blues-gospel hymn when he wrote “O Little Town Of Bethlehem” in the mid-19th century.

Fortunately for us, Sister Rosetta Tharpe didn’t care what kind of song he thought he was writing. She knew what kind of song she was singing.


Morning Song – Carol Of The Bells

You know that thing great jazz musicians do when they take a familiar song and then play it so that you’re looking forward to each note because you don’t know how they’re going to play it and you don’t know what they’re going to do to make it sound great but you know that they will…and then they do?

Yeah, that’s what Dianne Reeves does with “Carol Of The Bells”.



Noted Without Comment – Not Ready To Make Nice Edition


Children Of The Sun – Fire & Cooking

(One in a series of posts on Alfred W. Crosby’s book, Children Of The Sun: A History Of Humanity’s Unappeasable Appetite For Energy.)

Crosby begins the main narrative of Children Of The Sun by setting humans in context. We live on a planet that is “no more than a mote of debris left over from (the sun’s) formation.” The sun is almost unimaginably large, and dense and powerful and “exponentially more hellish than Dante could have conceived“. (p. 2)

Earth, which “receives a half billionth of (the sun’s) radiation” (p. 3), is also “unique among the planets of our solar system in its inclination to catch fire.” It is photosynthesis, beginning billions of years ago with the creation/evolution of single-celled algae that creates both organic matter and our oxygen-rich atmosphere, “assuring that ignition and fires are possible, indeed unavoidable.” (p. 7)

Unique among earthly creatures, humans have domesticated fire, using it “to fend off predators…harden wooden spearpoints and to drive game…to burn off forests to make grasslands…to burn off old brush, dead straw, and leaves to make way for tender grass plants.

In a carefully worded book, Crosby comes right out and flatly asserts that the “greatest advantage gained by domesticating fire” was cooking. (p. 8) He emphasizes that “(c)ooking is cultural, not genetic, an unprecedented innovation“. Cooking allowed our hominid ancestors access to the calories in meats and grains wherever they traveled.

“Cooking tenderizes hide and husk; pops open cells to digestive juices, changes protein and starch molecules so our enzymes can get at them, makes small digestible molecules out of big indigestible molecules, kills bacteria, and defangs many toxins. In general it transforms organic matter, which when raw is unpleasant to eat, difficult or impossible to digest, unhealthy, and even deadly, into nourishing, palatable food.” (p. 12)

Crosby waxes poetic about the wonders of cooking. “Cooking is universal among our species. No explorer ever found a human society that did not cook. Cooking is more unequivocally characteristic of our species than language. Animals do at least bark, roar, chirp,, sending signals by sound; only we bake, roast, and fry.” (p. 13) So far as we know, he adds, the female of the species has generally taken the lead in all aspects of cooking from the gathering of kindling to the tending of fire to cooking and feeding.

Cooking, Crosby argues, changed our bodies—likely aiding in the tripling of our brain size over the past 4 million years, and the shrinking of the relative sizes of our teeth and our guts. (p. 13 – 15)

Crosby points to what paleoanthropologists call the Upper Paleolithic (starting roughly 40,000 years ago) as a documented turning point when the use of hearths by Homo sapiens became widespread. Simultaneously human culture changed rapidly:

  • the number of tools humans made and used more than doubled (from 40 to 100);
  • humans invented art (painting, sculpture, ornamental tools);
  • they “took to living in a variety of shelters from caves to houses“;
  • (t)heir burial of valuables with the dead suggests that humans began to believe in existences beyond the immediate and visible“. (pp. 17 – 20)

In all of this, Crosby theorizes that cooking played a critical role…and it had another pervasive influence. “Cooking required members of a band to gather at a single location to eat, and thus it multiplied the socializing influence of the fire…. It was around the fire gnawing on barbecued ribs that humans supplemented kinship with friendship and the band exfoliated into the tribe.” (p. 22)

Morning Song – Little Drummer Boy

I think we all agree the world could use more retro-surf-punk instrumental covers of classic Christmas songs…but until then, we’ll just have to make due with the frenetic, hallucinatory goodness of The Bomboras’ “Little Drummer Boy”.

h/t: CAH


Beauty All Around Me – Fog Lifting From The River To The Sky


Head Of Falls

Near the end of Bruce Springsteen’s autobiographical Broadway show, there’s a line— delivered in a raspy, slightly weary, yet determined voice—he uses as a kind of explanation/confession for what he’s done, both in the show and with his lifelong vocation:

I wanted to know my story…your story….where are we going together as a people.

I suspect a similar impulse drove the creation of Earl Smith’s lovely, evocative, coming-of-age novel, Head Of Falls. Set in Smith’s hometown of Waterville, ME during the magical (television!, cars with fins!, rock and roll!) and terrifying (strikes, mill closings, “duck and cover” drills, Sputnik) 1950s, Head Of Falls gives voice to young Angela Jamal and the people of her dilapidated working-class neighborhood: her struggling family, her feisty best friend Margaux Mathieu, her wise and kindly piano teacher Mr. Moussalem.

Following Angela through her tumultuous high school years, Smith lovingly recreates the sights and sounds and smells of mid-20th century Waterville: Jabbur’s restaurant on Temple Place, Al Corey’s 2nd floor music store on Main St., the smell of incense wafting through St. Joseph’s Maronite Church on Front St., the pungent sulfur fumes from the mills when the wind changed direction, logs rolling down the Kennebec, the “La-Di-Das” living in the grand houses up on the hill.

In small places like Waterville, the tensions and divisions that big city academics write about in abstract terms of class and gender and ethnicity and religion are up close and personal. Smith captures them beautifully and honestly—how Angela and Margaux decide to genuflect when walking past Maronite and Roman churches (because, in the end, they’re both Catholic)…but hurry past Protestant churches because they’re so foreign as to be almost haunted. And how a Lebanese suspect in a fatal hit-and-run accident almost gets wrongly convicted (but for the skilled help of his Jewish lawyer), and the guilty driver’s connections to a family that runs one of the city’s largest businesses allow him to escape without a criminal record.

Centrally, Smith tells how Angela, by a mix of good fortune, talent, hard work, and luck—embodied in the individual characters of Head Of Falls and, critically, in the institutions (of family, neighborhood, church, union, and school) that surround and embrace and uphold her—ends with an opportunity to, as Smith writes in the book’s epilogue, “make (her) dreams come true“.

Since retiring as dean of Colby College, Smith has carved out a second career as a local historian. It’s fortunate for us—and for future historians—that he’s also a gifted novelist.