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Morning Song – Things Ain’t What They Used To Be

This little blog has a well-documented love of cover songs, but we also love great originals like this impeccable (really, it’s seamless; there is not a note or a rest out of place) recording of Mercer Ellington’s “Things Ain’t What They Used To Be” by the inimitable Johnny Hodges and his orchestra back in 1942.


Beauty All Around Me – Backlit Clouds #3

Blog At 10 – Boston’s Other Big Dig

(One in a series of posts reflecting on 10 years of this little blog.)

Part of how I built up to this little blog was by blogging on established sites. I’d been reading Commonweal, a lay Catholic magazine on religion, politics, and culture, for decades, and followed the magazine online—first reading, then commenting, eventually blogging for a while as one of a team of volunteers before it became clear that the costs associated with overseeing that blog were too great for a small, understaffed, nonprofit to sustain.

Somewhere along the way, about a year after I’d started this blog, the editors invited me to write for the magazine about the then-new pastoral plan being unveiled by the Archdiocese of Boston. It’s one of the pieces of writing of which I’m most proud, partly because it was just more work: it’s longer than what I usually write; it required more research; and it has a more complex structure. It is also immeasurably better for the work of Commonweal’s editors, who patiently and skillfully guided me through the writing and editing process, improving the essay in ways small and large at every turn.

When the French bishops, stripped of their priestly robes, knelt at the shrine in Lourdes last fall in public penance for their role in their national church’s decades of child abuse, it brought to mind what I’d written about then-Cardinal Law’s response to the Boston Globe’s 2002 revelations of the archdiocese’s decades-long coverup of sexual abuse by its priests:

“Early in 2002, there was a moment when it was unclear how Cardinal Bernard Law—arguably the most powerful prelate in the country—would respond, and how the archdiocese he had led for eighteen years would be affected. If ever a situation called for reckless penitence—confession and begging for forgiveness regardless of the legal, personal, professional, and institutional costs—on the part of a bishop, this was probably it. One can imagine an alternate history in which Law walked out of the Cathedral of the Holy Cross after Ash Wednesday Mass, led a procession 1.5 miles down Washington Street to the Boston Common, where he rent his garments, poured ashes on himself, and then set off on a forty-day pilgrimage of repentance around the archdiocese, walking from one parish to the next, listening—not speaking—to the those who’d had their bodies violated, their trust betrayed, their faith shattered.

Who knows what would have resulted? Would such efforts have become a powerful channel for the public expression of private pain, even healing? Or would they have been viewed as a pathetic attempt to evade accountability? It’s impossible to say.

In any case, it didn’t happen that way. Rather than draw upon the church’s wealth of symbols and ritual, Law drew upon the resources of his Harvard education and his decades as a prominent figure in American public life—and lawyered up.”

I once went on a retreat held at a magnificent property on the east end of Long Island. It was a former seminary, built in the 1930s at the depths of the Great Depression. The priest leading the retreat commented as we drove up to the (gorgeous, beautifully detailed, finely appointed) main building, “Every time I come here I don’t know whether to be more outraged at the arrogance of the hierarchy or in awe of the devotion of the faithful.

I don’t know either, but I’m more convinced then ever that it’s the devotion of the faithful (and whatever humility the hierarchy has acquired) that’s sustained the American Catholic Church thus far this century, and that is responsible for whatever signs of hope exist for its future.

Morning Song – Star Time (Tribute To James Brown)

“Are you ready for star time?”

For years, that was the question James Brown’s announcer/hype man would ask to audiences around the world just before “Soul Brother No. 1” made his exquisitely coiffed, dazzlingly dressed, high-stepping, smooth-gliding way onto the stage.

Given that Tower Of Power—like every funk band and singer in the land—basically owes their entire collective career to the “Godfather of Soul”, it’s only fitting that when they put out their Great American Soulbook album three years after “Mr. Dynamite’s” demise, they included this utterly tight medley (It’s A New Day/Mother Popcorn/There It Is/I Got The Feelin’) as a tribute to him.

Ow, there it is….”

Beauty All Around Me – Backlit Clouds #2


Louis Armstrong’s New Orleans

Genius is never solitary, certainly not for a collaborative art like music. Louis Armstrong was the most influential musician of the 20th century. Someone else might have invented/popularized the backbeat—thereby giving rise to jazz, blues, gospel, rock, soul, funk, hip-hop, and virtually every other popular musical genre of the past century—but Louis Armstrong of New Orleans is the one who did it.

And it’s Louis Armstrong’s New Orleans that is the subject of Thomas Brothers’ superbly researched, brilliantly argued, and terrifically written 2006 book. As with Peter Ackroyd’s histories and biographies in and around London, Brothers is writing about a barely literate society. There are no real records—written or aural—of many of the great musicians who influenced, competed with, and mentored Armstrong. So Brothers proceeds like a detective, taking shards of evidence, much of it indirect (property records, legal cases, oral histories taken decades later), and carefully piecing together an ultimately convincing case “that Armstrong was immersed in the vernacular music that surrounded him much more thoroughly and extensively than biographers have acknowledged.” (p. 5)

Among the elements Brothers explores and illuminates of the turn-of-the-century city and its music that shaped Armstrong:

  • The parades & marching bands: in the late 19th century as Redeemer governments established the legal architecture of Jim Crow, New Orleans’ brass bands became one of the few opportunities for Black people to walk the streets on their own terms. “In New Orleans, second lining brought the ecstatic behavior of the ring shout into the streets.” To be a musician—in a band, marching down the street, leading a parade, admired by the crowds—was to be a prominent man, despite not being a full citizen. (p. 21)
  • It was a man’s, man’s, man’s world: …the musical scene in New Orleans was bound up with masculinity at many different turns…. Women were almost completely excluded from the scene of professional musicians.” Sexual seduction, pimping and promiscuity, “cutting” contests, “inventing” (i.e., improvising solos), mutual aid and pleasure societies, funeral marches—all were integral parts of New Orleans’ musical life, and to the way New Orleans musicians defined manhood. For a poor dark-skinned boy like Armstrong, becoming a musician was more than finding a job or a trade; it was a way to become a man. (p. 198)
  • The collision of cultures: In the late 19th century, approximately 40,000 Black people migrated from the surrounding plantations and countryside into New Orleans, where they encountered a different social structure than they one they’d left behind. In addition to whites, New Orleans had Creoles: light-skinned Black people with a higher social status and (generally) more formal education than the former farmhands. Creole “Downtown” musicians read music and studied European forms and styles. Black “Uptown” musicians played by ear and placed a premium on improvisation. Armstrong’s eventual goal “was not to be like white people; the goal was to get paid by white people.” That meant excelling at all aspects of New Orleans music—in the streets and the whorehouses and the downtown parties; reading music and improvising, playing for Black audiences and Creole audiences and white audiences. (p. 7)

Brothers concludes with an important, revisionist point that is no less powerful for seeming inevitable, coming as it does after 300 pages of evidence carefully documented and interpreted:

“Jazz as Armstrong learned it was a creation of the ratty people, as Isidore Barbarin would have called them, the ‘roustabouts unloading banana boats on the wharves—all of my folks,’ which is how Armstrong once identified his community, the common laborers, domestics, hustlers, and prostitutes who found themselves confined by the color line to the economic bottom of society. His success was theirs too. It was a victory for the people who nourished him, the Saints in church who applauded his singing as a child, the rags-bottles-and-bones men who held him spellbound with soulful talk, his buddies in the vocal quartet, his teacher at the Waif’s Home, the honky tonk musicians, parade musicians, and little routine musicians who circulated around town every day on advertising wagons. A victory for those people who loved to move their bodies in time with rhythmically exciting music, who spoke in musical ways, who admired instrumentally inflected singing and vocally inflected instruments, who regarded blue notes as the strongest notes you could play. People who looked forward to Sundays in church, where the music they made brought the sum of their community to a greater whole, who relied on music to proudly proclaim who they were in public events, who admired musicians with professional skills but could also appreciate music played by an amateur, as long as he showed willingness and heart. Out of their values and practices came the fruits of an expressive culture that are with us still.” (pp. 304-305)

Morning Song – I’m Blue

Ike Turner wrote “I’m Blue” in 1961 as a piano-based “girl group” song for The Ikettes, his longtime backing singers, and it’s less about the lyrics than it is the call-and-response ecstatic utterances between the singers.

In 1968 The Sweet Inspirations, one of the all-time great backing groups, covered “I’m Blue” on their first solo album as a guitar-and-horns-based “grown woman” love song, and reworked it thoroughly enough to easily pass the bar set by this little blog’s First Rule Of Cover Songs. Basically, they changed all the vocals except the lyrics—and even there Cissy Houston’s (yes, Whitney’s mama; also Dionne Warwick’s aunt and Leontyn Price’s cousin) delivery is utterly her own.

(Making it an entirely new song would have to wait another 25 years, when Salt N Pepa sampled The Sweet Inspirations’ version of “I’m Blue” for their hit single, “Shoop”.)


Beauty All Around Me – Mel King Mural

Blog At 10 – On Having, & Not Having, Nice Things

About four months after I started blogging, I came into the main office building here at MassCommons World Headquarters, sat down in my cubicle, turned on the computer, and found that I’d had over 1,000 hits overnight. This was approximately 1,000 more than I’d had on any previous day, so my first assumption was that there’d been some kind of glitch in the intertubes.

Upon further examination, it wasn’t a glitch; James Fallows had linked to a piece I’d written the day before, praising it as a good example of writing about the journalistic problem of what he had for years identified as “false equivalence“: the mainstream political reporting frame that requires the writer to point out that “both sides” are at fault. (We see this currently in the spate of commentary that President Biden is “failing” because Senate Republicans unanimously refuse to support voting rights legislation.)

In the early years of this blog I wrote a number of such pieces, most of them targeting fellow white, male, college-educated liberals like Bill Galston. I’ve got to say, few opinion columns from a decade ago hold up better than the “this is why we can’t have nice things” genre. In the intervening years, leadership of the GOP has passed from the casual mendacity of establishment Republicans like Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan to the crazed, anti-democratic torrent of lies that spews from the mouths of Donald Trump and his allies. There’s nothing like a violent coup attempt to make the point—at least to Bill Galston and many other liberal opiners—that for whatever problems the Democratic party had and continues to have, there really is a difference between the two parties that did not exist when Galston was growing up.

At the time, Fallows was part of a “Murderer’s Row” of terrific bloggers at The Atlantic…and reading them was free! (This was before newspapers and magazines figured out how to make paywalls work so as to: 1) keep enough of their readers; and 2) be able to pay their bills.) Some of them, most notably Ta-Nehisi Coates, had moderated comment sections that were the online equivalent of a particularly thrilling and far-ranging graduate seminar. Others, like Fallows, didn’t allow comments but regularly posted items inspired by correspondence from readers…and linked to outside pieces either to reinforce a point they wanted to make, or to debate someone making a point they disagreed with.

I’ve admired and learned from Fallows’ reporting since shortly after he left the Carter administration, so it was a great thrill that he would link approvingly to something I wrote. And it was a great boost to my blogging ego. I had determined before I started that if I relied on outside motivation (how many clicks, likes, views, or links I got) to sustain my blogging, I wouldn’t last long. I would have to write about things I was interested in—even if almost nobody else noticed or was interested—or I would find myself “chasing clicks” and writing to try to satisfy what I thought the clickers would want. Then I’d find myself resenting this blog as another burden…and there are enough of those in life without creating new ones.

That said, it’s nice to receive recognition, and Fallows’ link in the early days of this blog was higher praise than I could have dreamed of…and helped spur me on in the months and years to come.

Morning Song – Walk On

Lucinda Williams’ “Walk On” is for the young women out there who are having a hard time. Maybe they’re at a crossroads in life and don’t know which way to go. Maybe they’re in a relationship that’s good…except when it isn’t. Maybe they’ve got a job that pays the bills but leaves them dreaming of more.

Well, baby, Aunt Lucinda knows how you feel. She’s been there and she knows. She’s done a lot of traveling and seen a lot of things and she wouldn’t say it if it wasn’t true, because she’s not like all those other elders who are always full of advice about the “right” thing to do.

Listen to your Aunt Lucinda, girl. It might be hard right now, but you’re going to thank her someday.

“I know you’re fighting an uphill battle
But you’ll win with a little struggle
‘Cause you’re really not that fragile
So walk on….”