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Posts Tagged ‘American history’

(Above: The primitive beauty of unaccompanied fireworks over the national Mall on July 4, 2010.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

WASHINGTON, DC – Soul legend Gladys Knight took the stage staring into a sea of empty seats. It was three hours before show time, and the VIPs with reserved seats wisely avoided the blistering afternoon sun.

Knight, however, was undeterred. “This is a thing we used to call audience participation,” she hollered to the groundlings on the Capitol lawn who arrived hours before to stake a prime spot. Knight drew out each syllable of “par-tic-i-pat-ion” and drew cheers of delight from the exhausted but excited assembly of hundreds.

When Knight launched into a call and response, her words were thrown back with force and a smile crossed her face. After a few volleys, the band pumped the final vamp as she threw up her arms and walked from the stage. The 30-minute mini-set, which included a few instrumental runs through made the risk of heat stroke seem reasonable.

The blazing sun had been replaced with bright stage lights and television cameras when Knight re-emerged shortly after 8 p.m. After a brief welcome by MC Jimmy Smits, American Idol David Archuleta opened the show with the “Star-Spangled Banner.” Then it was time to get down to business.

The Empress of Soul emerged in a golden gown, flying into “Midnight Train to Georgia.” Knight’s voice was strong in the afternoon, but now she sang with even more soul and emotion. The words are the same, but the phrasing was different and they were delivered with a power has been honed over Knight’s half-century career.

Her voice rises in sharp contrast to Darius Rucker’s, who also sound checked in the afternoon. I realize his laid-back, what-you-see-is-what-you-get charm is a large part of his appeal, but there was very little difference between the run-through and televised performances. Rucker has a fine voice, but I hope he was paying attention.

Barely pausing after “Georgia,” the band hic-cupped into Knight’s 1969 hit “The Nitty Gritty.” Knight used the upbeat number to pay tribute to two of her departed Motown label mates, dropping in a healthy portion of the Jacksons’ “Shake Your Body (Down to the Ground)” and a sample of a Rick James number. Then it was time to finish business with her biggest hit, “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” which showed no signs of age.

And that was it. Ten minutes, three songs, and she was walking offstage. Afterward people started asking me if it was worth it to trek to the Mall so early and broil for so long. Absolutely. Knight’s presence cemented my attendance, but I likely would have gone anyway. As far back as I can remember, my family always gathered around the television on the Fourth of July to watch the PBS broadcast from the capital. And now, with my parents rooting me on from their air-conditioned living room, I was there.

The performances I remember from growing up were classical and marching band pieces, so the National Symphony Orchestra’s patriotic overture from “George M.” and classical pianist Lang Lang’s solo adaptation of “Stars and Stripes Forever” resonated the most deeply. Once the shock of hearing Sousa’s most famous number without horns wore off, Lang’s performance was quite profound. The lines typically dominated by trombones and tubas was intricate and dissonant, while the familiar piccolo refrain had a ragtime feel.

Although the Capitol lawn is vast, it was easy to forget about the thousands of people standing behind me and the hundreds of thousands gathered behind the stage, on the Mall. In a way, the “Capitol Fourth” broadcast felt like any concert in the park, albeit one with TV cameras and A-list talent. As John Schneider (aka Bo Duke) led a recap celebrating the 30th anniversary of the broadcast, I abandoned the concert grounds and headliner Reba McEntire and to be part of the teeming masses camping around the Washington Monument.

The high-profile event disappeared with every step. The lawns on the Mall were filled with tents, displays and crowds oblivious to the concert behind them. Walking through one block I encountered an expanse of grass filled with multi-colored tents bearing signs like “Yoga and Meditation” and “Free Feast.” The tent most intriguing to me featured live traditional Indian music. The artists onstage were nearly obscured by smoke, and the crowd was sparse, but there were more people dancing than watching.

A block further, I spotted what I thought to be a poetry slam backed by a live drummer. Upon closer inspection it was a different sort of poet, a fevered evangelist in the middle of a passionate altar call. I briefly raised my hand in solidarity and pressed on.

An orange band hovered on the horizon above the Lincoln Memorial when the fireworks started shortly after 9 p.m. Unlike all previous July 4th celebrations I have attended, the carnival of explosions around the Washington Monument burst without accompaniment. The muffled pops and sizzles from each multi-color detonation was met by the collective oohs and ahs of thousands. In place of orchestration, my ears were treated to a kaleidoscope of accents, dialects and languages, punctuated by the occasional far-off siren or barking vendor. It was one of the rare moments in my life when music was rendered completely redundant.

For 20 minutes we stood united by a common gaze in the sky, a diverse collection of tourists from all parts of the map. Although the horde easily exceeded the audience created by the simultaneous emptying of Kauffman and Arrowhead stadiums, the Kansas Speedway and Sprint Center, there was no whiff of anger or danger. Small children danced in front of their strollers as teen-agers texted their friends and old-timers remembered when. It would be poetic to say that when the display ended we all went back to our respective lives, but in reality we all just swarmed to a different location – the subway stations.

Keep reading:

Stuck in a Moment: 9/11 and U2

“Tippecanoe and Tyler Too:” Original Campaign Music

Folkways gets trampled underfoot at renovated Smithsonian

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(Above: U2 encourage America to “Walk On” in a live appearance broadcast less than two weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks.)

By Joel Francis

U2’s “All That You Can’t Leave Behind” had been out for nearly a year the morning two planes slammed into the World Trade Center, another collided with the Pentagon and a fourth flight was forced into the Pennsylvania farmland.

Following the trend of “The Joshua Tree” the first three songs were released to huge acclaim as singles. It was the fourth cut, though, that found the greatest resonance. By the time “Walk On” came out in November, 2001, the song had become an unofficial anthem of hope.

When the quartet performed the song live on the “America: A Tribute to Heroes” special just 10 days after the attacks it was prefaced with the first verse of “Peace On Earth.” Written about an Irish terrorism attack, the lyrics were poignant: “Heaven on Earth, we need it now.”

The words that didn’t make the broadcast, but ended most concerts on U2’s then-current tour were just as affecting. As pictures of missing loved ones were plastered on every available surface in New York City, and the names of the departed rolled up the video boards in arenas each night, Bono sang “They’re reading names out on the radio/All the folks the rest of us won’t get to know.”

I had only been to New York City briefly at that point. On our way to Cooperstown, N.Y., to watch my childhood hero George Brett get inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1999, my dad and I saw Kansas City,Mo.-native David Cone make his first start in Yankee Stadium after throwing a perfect game. He got shelled and after driving in that afternoon for the game we slept at a hotel in New Jersey.

At that time, I didn’t know Battery Park from Battery Island. But listening to Bono sing “New York,” I felt like an honorary citizen. Songs like “When I Look at the World” and “Grace” spoke to my feelings of grief and confusion. Several months later, when Bruce Springsteen released “The Rising” my soundtrack was expanded. That album ended with “My City of Ruins,” the most poignant performance on the “Tribute to Heroes” telecast. As the first anniversary of the attacks rolled around, “Into the Fire” and “You’re Missing” helped quell all the resurfaced sentiment.

If the Big Apple was largely unknown to me, the Middle East was a greater enigma. The only images I had of the region and its inhabitants were those pumped over the news. Surely that wasn’t right. Not all of these people were monsters. They were regular Joes and Janes like you and me, trying to do whatever it was they did to make ends meet and survive, right?

“Passion,” Peter Gabriel’s 1989 soundtrack to the uber-controversial film “The Last Temptation of Christ,” was filled with music from the Middle East and Africa meant to evoke the time of Christ. The instrumental album was my way of relating to the people of Afghanistan and the region that gave birth to al Qaeda and the Taliban.

These albums were my balms in 2001 and 2002. Starting the album when I backed out of the driveway, it took me exactly four cuts off “The Rising” to reach the first anniversary 9/11 memorial service in downtown Kansas City. For more than an hour, Christians, Jews and Muslims celebrated and mourned together. We weren’t three sects, we were one collective.

And then it all seemed to evaporate. The services and events of Sept. 11, 2003 weren’t quite as elaborate. Within a couple years it seemed the only experience available away from the crash sites was a prayer breakfast or moment of silence. In 2007, the day was marked by rapper 50 Cent’s boast that he would sell more copies of his new album than Kanye West. He didn’t.

I have no problem with an open marketplace on national holidays. Johnny Cash’s final album, “American V: A Hundred Highways,” came out on July 4, 2006. I can think of no artist better suited to that day, but his record was merely a window-dressing to the occasion. Heck, I made time on Sept. 11, 2001, to pick up Bob Dylan’s new release, “Love and Theft.”

I take issue, however, when ephemera overshadow history. No one cared about 50’s album. All of its singles had vanished from the charts by Thanksgiving, yet the competition he invented to sell more records eclipsed the anniversary. This year the other artist to release a masterpiece on Sept. 11, 2001, Jay-Z, was going to put out the third installment in his “Blueprint” series on Sept. 11. (Because the album leaked the date was pushed up to Sept. 8.)

A proud New Yorker, Jay-Z appeared at the Concert for New York benefit in October, 2001, and is donating all profits from his Sept. 11, 2009, concert at Madison Square Garden to the New York Police and Fire Widows’ and Children’s Benefit Fund. If anyone gets Sept. 11, it’s Jay-Z, yet on his new album, he reduced the events to a crude metaphor for his prowess:

“I was gonna 9/11 them but they didn’t need the help
and they did a good job, them boys is talented as hell,
so not only did they brick but they put a building up as well
then ran a plane into that building and when that building fell
ran to the crash site with no mask and inhaled, toxins deep inside they lungs”

A friend recently reminded me that American culture doesn’t handle history very well. It can market the hell out of nostalgia, but history is another matter. Dec. 7, 1941, the Day of Infamy, has been reduced to a scratchy FDR soundbite. Memorial Day is for mattress sales. On top of that, the events of Sept. 11 are awkwardly unresolved. Victory has been declared, but not achieved. Were it to happen, no one in America or the Middle East has any idea what it would look like. There are no holidays, my friend said, marking the Tet Offensive or the charge at San Juan Hill. Additionally, Sept. 11 has become so politicized any organized event tied to the day is instantly and cynically scrutinized.

If record sales and a proposed day of community service aren’t the answers, perhaps the best solution is subtle one that’s somehow gone underground and survived: prayer. After all the speechifying, 8:46 and 9:03 a.m., EST, are always observed with a moment of silence. Each Sept. 11, take a moment to converse with whatever Supreme Being you believe in. Spill your guts, pause and listen for twice as long as you spoke. It might not change the world, but it could change your day.

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Above: Smithsonian patrons deserve a space to discover and learn more about American musicians like Big Bill Broonzy.

By Joel Francis

The Smithsonian National Museum of American History’s two-year, $85 million facelift is a lot like the plastic surgery aging stars get – it attracts a lot of interest at first and does a good job of hiding the wrinkles, but ultimately accentuates all the other flaws.

A visit to the renovated Washington, D.C. museum in the week after it re-opened to the public revealed Kool Herc’s turntable and Afrika Bambaataa’s pendant as the most prominent exhibits of 20th Century American music. There was no acknowledgement to the richness of the museum’s own music archives and label, Smithsonian Folkways.

The National Museum of American History needs a showcase dedicated to the legacy of Smithsonian Folkways recordings. A place for visitors to learn about its artists – not only better-known names like Pete Seeger, Guthrie and Leadbelly, but the anonymous rural musicians label founder Moses Asch sought to document.

Asch founded Folkways Records and Service Co. in 1948 to “suppor(t) cultural diversity and increase understanding among peoples through the documentation, preservation, and dissemination of sound,” Much like his contemporary and fellow musicologist Alan Lomax, Asch captured songs from primitive villages to New York City’s avant-garde, ancient Greek literature to Russian poetry.

The permanent space should include an interactive map where visitors can hear and learn about indigenous music styles in a given area, and see how those forms migrate and influence each other. They should also house several kiosks where listeners can listen to recordings while learning about the performers. Rotating exhibits of instruments, lyrics and other memorabilia would also enhance the space.

When the Smithsonian acquired Asch’s library after his death in 1987, they adopted his mission of document “the people’s music” as their own. They also guaranteed that all the label’s 2,000 releases would forever remain in print. One wouldn’t know this promise has been kept by visiting the museum’s gift stores.

In the old configuration, the main retail store on the bottom floor was a clearinghouse for the Smithsonian Folkways catalog. Nearly every title and artist was at the shopper’s fingertips. All that remains today is a few compilations of blues, bluegrass, train and labor songs and the essential Woody Guthrie box set. Patrons deserve better than this. They deserve a place to flip over the rocks of American roots music and discover what lies underneath.

Addressing this need would not correct all the problems of the renovated museum. The public would have been better served had the curators waited until all their exhibit space was completed before re-opening.  More than a third of the building is still under construction and closed to the public. But the tapestry of American music the Smithsonian has preserved is too rich to be swept under the rug.

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Above: They Might Be Giants do “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too.”

By Joel Francis

The eve of Election Day means the airways will soon no longer be clogged with campaign ads, and liberal songwriters can stop suing conservative politicians for hijacking using their music.

Music has a long relationship with politics, but the idea of the modern campaign song started with 1840s “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too.” The song, written by an Ohio jeweler, celebrated Whig presidential candidate William Henry Harrison’s role in the 1811 Battle of Tippecanoe. The Whigs’ election themes were timeless: War hero Harrison was just the man (of the people) to stand up to incumbent president democrat Martin Van Buren – an East Coast-elite, Washington insider! – who’d lived on the public dole too long.

The Battle of Tippecanoe occurred when some states were literally battlegrounds. As governor of the new Indiana Territory, Harrison negotiated the title to Indian lands in hopes enough whites would settle into the area to qualify it for statehood. These negotiations culminated at the Treaty of Fort Wayne in 1809.

Outraged, Shawnee leader Tecumseh preached resistance to the treaty and tried to get Harrison to nullify the agreement. Harrison, whose father-in-law was a congressman who held a healthy second job as developer and seller of many of the lands claimed in the treaty, was unmoved. On Nov. 8, 1811, Harrison led stationed troops at Tippecanoe in an attempt to intimidate the insurgent Indians. Undaunted, the natives charged Harrison’s encampment, but were beaten back. After they were forced to abandon their settlement, Harrison’s troops burned the Indian town to the ground.

Tecumseh, who was visiting the South at the time, continued to secretly build an army and wage war against the United States. He aligned with the British during the War of 1812. Tecumseh was killed in 1813 at the Battle of the Thames in Ontario near Detroit, when his tribal army was overtaken by Harrison’s troops.

It’s hard to believe these events would inspire a song more than a generation after the fact, especially since the 1840 election was essentially a rematch Van Buren and Harrison’s 1836 contest. That election was the only time a major party placed more than one candidate on the ballot. Although Harrison led the ticket in most states, the plan was to deny Van Buren the popular vote and let the Whig-controlled House decide the election. The plan backfired when Van Buren squeaked out barely 51 percent of the vote.

The lyrics of “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too” mention hard cider and log cabins, a reference to Harrison’s home whiskey distillery during his decade of retirement in Ohio. Tyler is Harrison’s running mate, John Tyler, who later served as 10th president of the United States. Little Van, the used-up man, is, of course, Martin Van Buren.

At just 90 seconds, the song is basically an extended jingle, but it’s a catchy and effective one. The repetition and echo of the lyrics not only reinforce its message, but lodge the melody in your head. It’s not hard to imagine Whigs tauntingly whistling this tune for months after the election.

Van Buren’s camp countered with a song of their own. Set to the tune of “Rockabye Baby,” this is the second of its three verses:

Rockabye, baby, when you awake
You will discover Tip is a fake.
Far from the battle, war cry and drum
He sits in his cabin a’drinking bad rum.

The song failed to motivate voters, however, and Harrison carried 19 states and 53 percent of the vote for the win. Van Buren only carried seven states; Missouri, the western-most state in the union, was one of them.

Harrison only served 32 days in office, but the impact of his song lives on today.

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