Monday, February 12, 2024
Friday, February 2, 2024
Bill C. Malone, a name unknown to many people who are performers or fans of country music is the man who virtually invented a body of research and experience which has helped to define and broaden various kinds of music referred to as Country. Without his thoughtful scholarship informed by his rural roots in East Texas, country music would be less widely distributed and understood. His book, Sing Me Back Home: Southern Roots and Country Music, published in 2017, contains sixteen meticulously annotated essays exploring the roots, spread, influences, and importance of Country Music, not only in music, but in the wider American musical culture.
Born in East Texas near Tyler (where we lived for three years while I taught at what was then Texas Eastern University and is now The University of Texas at Tyler) Malone grew up on a hard-scrabble cotton farm, where his first interest in music was sparked by his father’s bring a battery operated radio into the home in the mid-1930’s. Soon, his inexpensive first guitar was given to him as a gift. Malone, showed an interest in the music he heard, and later, as a student at the University of Texas at Austin, widened his interest into his studies and his research. Encouraged by his faculty advisor, he wrote his doctoral dissertation at UT on country music. It was published as the still-in-print book Country Music U.S.A.
Sing Me Back Home: Southern Roots and Country Music, published in 2017, is a collection of serious, well documented essays previously published in scholarly journals or delivered as speeches to university audiences. Despite his academic excellence, Malone’s country roots and essential decency shine through on every page. Examined in its overall focus, lies Malone’s highly knowledgeable awareness of the deep variety and wide-reaching roots of what has become known as country music. He looks carefully at the roots from which much of the music sprang, discovering more complexity and nuance than most fans attribute to their own version of the sources and nature of their preferred version of country.
In his chapter on Bill Monroe, for instance, he looks at the lonely boy who picked up a mandolin, as well as the young man who followed his brother to the industrial Midwest. He was influenced by all the musical strands he encountered as well as bringing his own personality and strength towards developing the basis of what others came to call bluegrass music. He finds the same diversity in early country music, discusses the influences of going to war, the wide dispersal growing from radio and, later television, on the development of country music. He examines how jazz, pop, the movement of rural people to the cities, and other factors make country music and bluegrass variants on the same tree trunk. He particularly examines how various ethnic and cultural communities in America have contributed to the music. Purity is not what you find, but, perhaps, a greater understanding of much of what makes America great emerges.
If you’re interested in a book that helps you solidify your personal conception of what country music really is, this book may not be your best choice. If, on the other hand, you think you can benefit from getting a more eclectic understanding of how common people from America’s rural roots became one of the most powerful and influential musical formats in contemporary life around the world, this book will thrill you.
I bought Sing Me Back Home: Southern Roots and Country Music as a used book from ThriftBooks.com in a hardback edition. The book is published by the University of Oklahoma Press and is widely available
Friday, December 15, 2023
The plight and treatment of Native Americans in this country cannot be overemphasized as we become more aware and sensitive to the way they have been treated throughout our history. Killers of the Flower Moon stands out, at least partly because it has provided both the title and the source for a hugely popular movie, just released for streaming on Apple+. However, the book was a best-seller, listed as one of the top ten nonfiction books of 2017. Author David Grann, spent a number of years digging into the story of exploitation, murder, government disinterest, and simple graft which allowed this too typical rape of a people and the land during the first quarter of the twentieth century.
The Osage people were settled on a barren piece of unwanted territory in Osage County, Oklahoma, the largest county in the state, with Tulsa anchoring it at the southeast corner. It was sandy, dry, and unwanted until oil was discovered underneath it in 1897. The Osage people owned the mineral rights underneath land, making them, for a while, some of the richest people in the world. Soon, a number of white entrepreneurs and politicians realized the could gain control of the oil money only by marrying some of the women on the reservation. This led to a period, between 1917 and 1925 of local and imported men marrying Native people. Soon, a strange increase in the death rate of these Indian wives and the increased riches of the men, who gained control of much of the oil, began to occur.
When called upon to investigate what was happening in Osage County, J. Edgar Hoover, the Director of the FBI was just at the point of organizing his agents as a national police force and creating the FBI myth for integrity and efficiency that lasted for nearly eighty years. He had little time and less inclination to seriously investigate the situation. Moreover, there were numerous investigation of the deaths and trials, all featuring extensive corruption, the the increasing exploitation of these not well educated or sophisticated people.
The story, told by David Grann, brings the characters and the setting to life. Furthermore, his deep dives into archives long gathering dust in the State Library and other depositories lay waiting to be carefully collated, read, and interpreted. While the Osage people knew much of the history, they were not able to become good advocates in their own interests. As he digs through the various archives he uncovered, the horror of the treatment the Osage people received becomes increasingly horrifying to Grann and to his reader. This is a story you should read to shed additional light on the story before seeing the film.
David Grann is an award winning writer whose works have received best-selling status. Several of his books have been New York Times best-sellers, and he was a longtime staff writer for The New Yorker magazine. I bought the book and read it on my Kindle reader.
Monday, December 4, 2023
The seemingly ubiquitous biographer, scholar, university president, think-tank director, CNN chief, and editor of Time Magazine, Walter Isaacson, wrote The Innovators way back in 2014, which looks like a lifetime in the history of the development of computers. Nevertheless, with the exception of scanty attention paid to the development of artificial intelligence, this volume presents a lively and comprehensive picture of the development of calculating machines that have become indispensable in the modern world. Author of at least twenty volumes during the last thirty years, Isaacson has focused on the "great man (or woman)" theory of human progress, always writing about the people behind the ideas while making the ideas cogent for the thoughtful reader.
The story begins with Ada Byron (Lord Byron's only legitimate child) who became Ada Lovelace, and whose reputation remains bright in the world of applied mathematics, who saw the possibilities of Babbage's counting machine for more advanced applications. She is so important in the development of the idea of computers, that at least one major modern computer system was named after her. From mechanical devices, the computer industry developed as a variety of mechanical and then electronic devices made their appearance. Each idea, from learning to program machines to produce answers, electric wires to transistors, to microchips, and more required reliance on past advances and the imagination to advance to the next step, as well as applications for those advances. Neither the microchip, the computer, the Internet, software, nor the World Wide Web itself was inevitable without the foregoing work or forward looking visionaries.
Isaacson is a master of making links between advances that don't always easily emerge as inevitable advances growing in an ever widening universe of possibilities and making them coherent. Thus, the works of industrial giants like Bill Gates or Steve Jobs become necessary, but not sufficient, cogs in an ever-widening electronic universe. This is all presented in an approachable, almost friendly, writing style which makes the ideas we can't quite grasp into concepts the reader can see an appreciate without ever having any of the necessary skills to contribute to the ever expanding world of computers.
Isaacson takes a great person approach to the development of the ideas needed to culminate with the cyber world in which we're currently living, while also emphasizing the fact that great advances in nearly all areas of advance rely upon cooperation and collaboration between innovators, organizers, and entrepreneurs. Often great ideas in seeing the implications of an advance or in doing the math require someone to make the connections. It takes a different sort of personality to turn the resultant innovation into a salable product, making it possible for consumers to understand that they have a need it might fulfill. Thus, he emphasizes conjunction of brilliant ideas, useful applications, and finished products.
Radio Shack TRS-80
I have one, perhaps, personal quibble with the account of innovators who made computers available to the masses. Isaacson left out the role of Radio Shack and their TRS-80 home computer. Released in 1977, this home computer was the first computer I owned and where I began my learning curve. I got it from my mother and, later, sold it to a friend, so it did mighty work, back when so many of us were learning to function in the cyber world...I never did learn to be a programmer, but I sure have worked any number of computers to the death over the years.
Wednesday, September 27, 2023
Pulitzer Prize winning writer David McCullough could always be relied upon to tell a terrific story while presenting the reader with a good read. With eleven major titles to his credit, he managed to pick up a couple of Pultizer Prizes, a National Book Award, and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. He also narrated some of Ken Burns' PBS historical series, and kept busy with freelance writing. McCullough was a great writer who kept his readers' attention with lively prose that keeps the reader with him to the end. The Pioneers, published in 2019, two years before his death at age 89, showed he had lost none of his narrative skill.
The Pioneers opens in Massachusetts around the end of the Revolutionary War, in June of 1787. The book focuses on the lives of Manasseh Cutler pastor of the First Congregational Church in Ipswich and Rufus Putnam, who fought with Washington during the Revolution, who began to look westward. They helped lead the move westward from New England at a time when, having won The Revolution, the United States suddenly found itself as a country hugging its Atlantic coastline and having won control of millions of acres west of the original states, most of which was unexplored wilderness as far as they were concerned. He managed to commit Congress and President Washington to support a trip West with Revolutionary War General Rufus Putnam. The land they were headed for was the vast Ohio valley, west of Pennsylvania and across the Muskingum River, hundreds of thousands of acres of vast, mature woodlands inhabited only by a variety of Indian tribes. Forty-eight men set off for the Ohio River in the Winter of 1788.
Along the way, the first company encountered rough or nonexistent roads, cold winter hardships, and dense wilderness that none of them had ever encountered before. They had to break a trail across western Pennsylvania, cutting their way through deep forests and building rafts to cross rivers or to use them for transportation. Overcoming great hardships, the men reached the Marietta River separating western Pennsylvania from the Ohio Territory, built rafts to travel down-river, and chose to settle near what became Marietta, OH. They found the land filled with huge trees that had never heard the sound of an axe, as well as plenty of game for food. These men were determined to maintain Ohio as a non-slave territory, as the issues leading to the Civil War were already lively concerns. On their next trip West, they were joined by family members and more people seeking land and riches.
Soon they were able to establish a ship-building center based on the availability of large timber. Women came to join their spouses, and both shipping and trade on the rivers flourished. The rest of the book contains lively descriptions of the development of communities, the building of churches, and, possibly the most important, the establishment of schools and colleges in an area previously devoid of any formal education. As the Ohio territory grew in population and wealth, many of the heroes of the American Revolution came there to visit, and newer political figures came to marvel at the areas progress and promise.
The Pioneers by David McCollough is top of the shelf history reading for anyone interested in American History, the opening of the West, the resistance to the spread of slavery, or simply a good story-teller bringing American History to life. I bought the book as a used book from ThriftBooks.com, which is one of my go-to sources for good reading at a reasonable price.
Saturday, August 12, 2023
We all grow up in America with an image of who we are and how we got here based on visions of how America was populated and where our belief systems developed. These understandings suggest that English Protestants seeking to escape the Church of England, who came to be known as Pilgrims, first stepped onto the rocky shores of what is now Massachusetts in 1603, establishing a strong community which grew into and spread a new nation. Little in our understandings of who we are and how this country evolved from in indigenous native populations. For instance, the Miamisburg Mound in Ohio may date from 800 BC - 100 AD. The remains of thriving Indian cultures have been discovered in almost every part of what is now North America. These people, perhaps, millions of what are now called Indians farmed, grew crops, herded animals, and fought wars between themselves.
We also have been taught little about the other, earlier explorations of North America from Scandinavia, Spain, and Portugal which took place for several centuries before the Pilgrims arrived. In A Voyage Long And Strange (Henry Holt & Co., 2008) Tony Horowitz sets his readers straight in his own unique and often amusing explorations of places Europeans visited, the peoples they met when they got here, the hardships they endured within the context of how those experiences have been ignored by school history. Written in the context of his own journey in the early 21st century, Horowitz presents the history and reality as well as a strong sense of place in this enlightening and insightful book about whom we are and how we "discovered" America.
Horowitz takes the guise of an interested amateur as he follows the routes taken by Vikings arriving before the year 1000. Columbus, may have sailed the ocean blue in 1492, but he never found the North American continent during his explorations, Evidence suggests that Spanish explorers not only explored what are now the Caribbean Islands, but also crossed what is now the southern United States from Florida to the Midwest as well as Mexico and Texas, as well as sailing up the West coast of California and Oregon. At every placed they explored they found complex cultures which we grouped together as what are now known as Indians. These people lived in complex societies, practiced effective, abundant farming, and fought wars against their enemies. All this happened before explorers landed at what is now Virginia beginning in 1540, where they sought to establish permanent livelihood before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock in 1620.
Horowitz plays the role of an innocent traveler looking for evidence of about the alien (that is: European) explorers to sites in North America and Mexico, as well as the Caribbean Islands. At each site he visits, he plays the role of a naïve visitor with little or no information about the European incursions on local places. In seeking to explore the cultures of an indigenous population and the effects of the exploration and exploitation of this continent the explorers thought of as a large land-mass separating them from the Far East. What they encountered were organized societies from hunter-gatherers to sophisticated kingdoms.
Since most of the explorers were there to chase riches, rumored towers of gold and silver, to return to their native country and gain fame and fortune back home, they were mostly unprepared for the natives they met. Depending on the nature of the lands they found, the explorers discovered a variety of indigenous peoples that, for at least a few centuries of European exploration were lumped together as Indians who lived in tribes. Depending on the climate and resources available in various places, these people were grouped into everything from rather rich kingdoms to highly organized agricultural societies, less organized groups of people able to live off the land. They had not discovered gun powder, so were much to the mercy of their invaders. Worse still, they had never been introduced to the various diseases these explorers brought with them from Europe. They had developed no resistance to the variety of disease common in Europe. Disease, rather than military prowess, probably tipped the odds to the favor of the invaders from the east.
As Horowitz travels, which range from Nova Scotia and Labrador to the Caribbean Islands, Mexico, and much of the The American Southwest, Jamestown, and finally to where we think our history begins, New England. In every location he visits, he finds sites destroyed by time, development, and ignorance of the cultural riches which had once dominated the continent only to be destroyed by visitors who cared not at all for these people they "discovered." Horowitz discovers places that are still preserved, descendants of the local tribes as well as people dedicated to preserving the few remaining sites as well as some serious archeology. He maintains a good humor about the contrasts between contemporary tourists and the genuine wars of conquest fought over a period of two or three hundred years in North America.