Tuesday, February 26, 2013
Well written history can be more gripping than a good novel, help the reader develop deeper insights into our world, and develop greater understandings about the people involved. The Supreme Court of the United States is perhaps the most opaque branch of our government, working in secret sessions, writing opinions behind a wall where the only insight into the discussions is seen in the arguments made when a decision is handed down. We don't have much of an understanding of the Justices as people beyond their history, previous writings, and ocaissional speaches to law students and other lawyers and judges. Sandra Day O'Connor's chatty book Out of Order: Stories from the History of the Supreme Court does little to address these issues and thus becomes a minor contribution to the literature of the Supreme Court. By contrast, Jeffrey Toobin's The Nine, written with careful journalistic insight, and to which Justice O'Connor herself was reputed to have been one of the major sources, casts light on the politics and workings of the Court in exciting and useful ways helping us to see more deeply into a mostly hidden world. My 2007 review of The Nine can be found here.
O'Connor's story begins with the early years or our republic and seeks to trace the development of the Court's power and influence over its history, focusing on cases that defined its role and the people whose work gave its added clout. She seeks to place the Court's role, people, and interactions with other branches of government within an historical context, but by not providing sufficent illustration, her writing often becomes mired in lists of appointments by various persidents and brief recountings of landmark cases without sufficient context to give them meaning. Seeking to list the important and influential Justices, her narrative devolves into a list of the names of Justices appointed by each president while not really making them important to the reader. While, in a later chapter she discusses Justice Douglas, she neglects his appointement in her catalog while heaping fulsome praise on Justice Byron White which is tedious at best. In discussing the movement of the Court from New York to Philadelphia before finally settling in the District of Columbia where it moved through a variety of courtrooms until the current Supreme Court building was erected in 1935 she again becomes quite pedestrian without really creating a context or sense of interest in these moves or, for that matter, in the practice of riding circuit, which Justices maintained for over a hundred years.
Justice O'Connor's weakness as a writer lies in her inability to give up telling and to really allow the judges to speak for themselves while showing us who they were, or are. She frequently tells the reader that a particular case or Justice was “interesting” without making him (for they are mostly hims until Justice O'Connor herself became the first woman Justice) interesting or human or showing how decisions they wrote altered the course of history. In her writing, too, she is prone to use the phrase “of course” without providing the course which made her point inevitable. Generally, there is no “of course.” Things happen for a reason and are moved along by events and individuals. Good history writing charts the course ideas and events take, making them stand or fall through the events and people themselves. When the book occasionaly comes to life, it does so with the help of the colorful judges she chooses to profile. Justice Iredell's letters to his wife detail the rigors of being on circuit. The story of Justice Douglas leaving a decision as a note on a rock demonstrates both his idiosyncracy and his curmudgeonlyness.
Her discussion of humor on the bench falls flat because the few amusing moments that occur either require a much better narrator than Justice O'Connor or count as one of those “you had to have been there” moments that defy the telling of them. When she tells stories or allows the words of the Justices to speak for themselves, her narrative picks up some steam. The book is stronger when it relies on anecdotes and personalities than when it discusses principles or practices. Material about the various oaths Justices have taken on being sworn in through the Court's history, fall flat because they have no relevence to how the individuals behaved as judges. On the other hand, the section on dialogue between Justices and the great advocates who appeared before them could be expanded and enriched hugely, perhaps to the point of seeking to explain Justice Thomas's silence from the bench or Justice Scalia's needy bombast.
The chapter on resignation and retirement, although containing some interesting and touching stories about Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. and William O. Douglas' overstaying their intellectual capacity soon devolves into another list. O'Connor peaked my interest by mentioning the Slaughter House cases, but never explains them at all, leaving quickly for another list. Remarking that allowing retired Justices to sit on lower courts once they achieve senior status was “particularly interesting,” she fails to make either Stanley Reed or Harold Burton into interesting figues, while she mentions their names. The book is filled with many such missed opportunities in its desire to be comprehensive. Again, O'Connor writes, “Each court has its own customs and ways of operating. And I have had the opportunity to meet so many interesting people from all walks of life along the way.” Where are they? An anecdote from Justice Thurgood Marshall regarding a capital case involving a black man in the murder of a white woman and her white maid is, perhaps, the most affecting moment in the entire book, mostly because O'Connor has an arresting story to recount and allows Marshall to be the central character in telling it.
Sandra Day O'Connor
Out of Order: Stories of the History of the Supreme Court by Sandra Day O'Connor, the first woman to serve as an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court (Random House, 2013, 256 pages) is easily readable but pretty light stuff for any reader with a strong interest in the workings of the Court. It contains the text of the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution, largely as padding, as well as notes and an index. The book is not very ambitious and achieves this lack of scope and interest. I received the book in galley format from the publisher through Edelweiss.com.
Monday, February 25, 2013
Saturday at Palatka dawned warm and breezy. The humidity promised a warm evening, if the rain held off. Jammers were out across the campground. We had already seen two wonderful days of bluegrass music and there was a sense of anticipation looking forward to the day's lineup culminating with the appearance of 70's and 80's country singer Gene Watson, whose career seems to have been resurrected through performing at bluegrass festivals. The schedule for the day would be somewhat re-organized to fit the long final set as well as the appearance by the Stevens Family Band inserted in the late afternoon.
Tony Holt & the Wildwood Valley Boys
Tony Holt's traditional bluegrass band features much material from his father Aubrey Holt's fine band The Boys from Indiana as well as good material selected from a large bluegrass catalog. Michael Cleveland made an unannounced guest appearance with the band, lifting them to new heights. Furthermore, the size and enthusiasm of the Palatka audience seems to have affected each of the bands performing there this weekend, raising them to new levels of excellence.
Little Roy Lewis & Ron Thomason
Ron Thomason - Dry Branch Fire Squad
He's Coming to Us Dead"
A Visit from Little Elvis Lewis
Dry Branch Fire Squad and Friend
The Moron Brothers
The Moron Brothers are a side-splittingly funny bluegrass duo who tell stories and jokes, sing novelty songs, and pack a gently punch with their off-beat humor. While a serious note lies under the surface, the two do their best to hide it. Mike Carr and Mike Hammond, Lardo and Burley, have fashioned a highly enjoyable novelty act growing from a Firehouse jam in their native Kentucky. Their sometimes biting humor never hurts while it consistently entertains. It works and it's fun.
On Vendor's Row
The Little Roy & Lizzy Show
The Clown Prince of Bluegrass, Little Roy Lewis effectively recalls us of bluegrass's roots in minstral shows, baggy pants, and vaudeville. He's a whirling dervish of an entertainer. He had his seventieth birthday a day after this performance. I remember seeing him for the first time at Pickin' in the Pasture in Lodi, NY and wondering what in the world I was seeing. I know now and appreciate more what he achieves each time I see him. Able side-people Al Hoyle, Lisa Hoyle, and Nathan Stewart know what the show's about and remain quietly in the background, except for their solo performances, doing the necessary work to help highligh the principals.
Little Roy Lewis (Bill Gaither Style)
Scotty Bolen on the Sound Board
I mentioned Scotty Bolen to the promoter of another festival. Simply put, he remarked, "He's the best"
Little Roy & Emcee Sherry Boyd
The Stevens Family
The Stevens Family Band, a formerly gospel bluegrass band going mainstream, was inserted into the Palatka schedule, disrupting the break and the schedule while lengthening an already long day. The Stevens Family Band has a web site which can be found here, but only through the Internet Explorer search engine.
The Golf Cart Brigade
Lizzy Long & Friends
Rhonda Vincent & the Rage
There's lots of news about Rhonda Vincent. A month or so ago she asked Josh Williams to rejoin her band, and Josh took the difficult step of giving up his own band and taking a job with Rhonda as a featured side man. It's a good deal all around. Rhonda gains sideman who's one of the best male voices in bluegrass and also a superlative guitar player. Josh gets a level of job security he didn't enjoy while fronting his own band. Rhonda's band has become more versatile and entertaining with each of the changes she's made over the past few years. Her son-in-law to be, Brent Burke, is one of the fine young Dobro players, sporting a recent degree in bluegrass music from ETSU as well as a distinctive sound which works in a range of solo opportunities while helping fill out an already full sound. Hunter Berry has joined the family while being a mainstay of the band for eleven years. Aaron McDaris on banjo is quietly excellent. Mickey Harris continues with his fine bass play and harmony singing. Vincent's repertoire is so deep her shows never become repetitive. A certain bird made a surprise appearance to once again attempt to disrupt Josh's singing.
I Knew Lizzy Was Behind This
Josh and Friend
Raffle For the Boys
In the end, the Palatka Bluegrass Festival is a fund raiser to support the Rodeheaver Boys Ranch which so ably hosts it. Fifty boys, from age six or seven into their teens, live and are cared for on the ranch at any one time. They live in family-style homes and attend the local public schools. They work on the ranch, study, and learn, play and pray. It's a wholesome environment presided over by loving and caring people. The ranch has developed the camping area into a comfortable place to camp, the porta-potties are always kept clean and pumped out, there's a new toilet facilty near the camping area. The ranch has continually updated its facility as the festival has grown. This year's crowd appeared to be the largest ever. There's another one held in October which deserves support, too.
Carlton Spence with Development Director Jeff King
Gene Watson & the Farewell Party Band
Country singer Gene Watson closed out the weekend with a ninety minute set during which he sang many of his hits from a generation ago and a couple of very effective duets with Rhonda Vincent, with whom he's also recorded. His show was warmly received by the packed out house.
Rhonda Vincent & Gene Watson
Adams and Anderson festivals have become the gold standard for commercial bluegrass festivals. The lineups are carefully and thoughtfully developed and they are very well attended. Sound provided by John Holder's Blue Ridge Sound is wonderful. It's clear, resonates well, not too loud, and always presents each band as it should be heard. The site holds a large crowd comfortably, although some seats have limited visibility. The provision of two jumbo-trons help alleviate this problem. Ranch concessions and vendor offerings are varied and tasty. This year's festival appeared to be the best attended yet. We've already renewed our reservations for next year and suggest you put the Palatka Bluegrass Festival on your schedule.