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Archive for the ‘Music’ Category

Pulchritude, Passion, and Some Marketing Tips for Crisis-time Entrepreneurship

Posted by Stephen Lewis on August 31, 2009

My friend Abu Cihan (out of respect for his cultivated anonymity I am using his honorific rather than his real name) is a great historian of Ottoman and Turkish identity and an almost equally great admirer of ladies both big and bigger.  He also is treasure trove of American pop culture trivia.  Still,  Abu Cihan was surprised recently when I told him that the great Jewish-American singer and vaudevillian Sophie Tucker was not only a very big woman but a very passionate one as well, with a string of husbands and a very liberated lifestyle long before the late-20th century idea of  “liberated” was ever articulated (Note: Tucker was also a union activist and a generous giver to charities).

Like all moderately emotional one-time Lower East Siders, I still unashamedly weep at Tucker’s over-the-top Yiddish-language tribute to the ur-Lower-East-Side stereotype of  “Mayn Yiddische Mammeh” but I love even more the tough and resilient acceptance of the fleeting nature of sexual and emotional attachment that radiates from her theme song “Some of These Days” (a powerful tonic, by the way,  for any readers emerging from broken relationships).  For the story of “Some of These Days” in Sophie’s own words click here.  For a terse time-line of the life of its unsung, and most likely under-compensated, composer, African-American songwriter Shelton Brooks, click here. Better yet, to listen to a 1920s recording of  Tucker performing  “Some of These Days” (with the Ted Lewis Orchestra) click here.

Thinking in an East Side way often sets me to thinking of Joe and Paul.  Joe and Paul, in fact, were really just Paul, Paul Kofsky.  The short version of the story (for a longer one click here) is this: Early in the twentieth century Paul Kofsky opened a clothing store in Brooklyn.  Times were tough and most one-person operations were doomed to failure.  So, to add substance and repute to his ailing venture, Paul invented an imaginary senior partner, Joe, changed the name over the door to Joe and Paul, and business soon boomed.

During the Great Depression, Kofsky turned to advertising.  He paid legendary Yiddish music hall composer Sholem Secunda (who wrote the original “Bei Mir Bist Shayn” only to make the mistake of selling it to a promoter for $25.00) to compose a radio advertisement jingle for Joe and Paul.  Kofsky, who had always dreamed of  a life on the stage, performed the jingle live himself, dashing from one Yiddish- and English-language New York radio station to another to sing it.  The tune soon became a hit and remained ubiquitous into the 1950s, when Cuban-born band leader Pupi Campo even recorded a cross-over Latin version of it, more likely than not with a young Tito Puente in the background.

To listen to Kofsky singing his original ode to Joe and Paul click here and click here for Pupi Campo’s cover.  For those who do not understand the vanished interim wandelsprache of NYC Yiddish, my own bland translation (minus Kofsky’s Yiddish-language scat-like embellishments) is: “Joe and Paul, a store, a pleasure; there you can cheaply buy a suit, a coat, a caftan, all perfect, so be sure to buy only at Joe and Paul.”

Why do I tell these stories?  Simple, because in the midst of the present “crisis” it is important for all of us to look for the imaginary senior partner within, to be confident enough to sing our own praises, and never to bemoan what or who we have lost.  And now … will someone please point me to the nearest radio station!

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Posted in Broadcasting, Change, Eclectic, Identity, Music, Popular Culture | 1 Comment »

Pete Seeger, The Machine that Kills Fascists, Irving Berlin, and Eddie Cantor’s Handkerchief

Posted by Stephen Lewis on January 26, 2009

What I am writing in this post is old news to many in America but not so well known abroad.  One of the highlights of the US presidential inauguration celebration last week was a final act of the day-long outdoor public concert held on the Washington Mall: Nonagenarian (may he live to be 120!) folksinger legend Pete Seeger joining pop star Bruce Springsteen to lead an audience of hundreds of thousands in a rousing performance of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land.”

Guthrie, a rural- turned-urban folksinger during the Great Depression wrote “This Land is Your Land” in 1940 as a people- rather than divinity-based, Popular Front alternative to Tin Pan Alley composer Irving Berlin’s maudlin “God Bless America.”  Berlin’s song, originally written as a Broadway entertainment ditty, made it into the mainstream in the late 1930’s when it became one of the theme songs of North Carolina-born radio singer Kate Smith.  By the late-1980s, the song had morphed — beyond anything Russian-Jewish immigrant Berlin might have ever imagined — into an unofficial anthem of the political right.  Indeed, at the start of the “War Against Terror” (sic) some Republicans and fellow religious-right-ers wanted to have “God Bless America” declared the US’s official national anthem (not that Francis Scott Key’s convoluted and bellicose “Star Spangled Banner” isn’t long overdue for replacement).  “This Land is Your Land,” on the other hand, has the this-world sentiments that one would expect from singer-composer Guthrie whose guitar was emblazoned with the text “This Machine Kills Fascists.”  Yet, over the years, the song’s lyrics were bowdlerized into mainstream political and broadcasting acceptability and stripped of  a number of stanzas and sentiments that once made it an ode to egalitarianism and a challenge to the failings of the status quo.

Pete Seeger is one of the people who has kept American folksong alive and for almost 3/4 of a century.  He has also been one of the people who has kept America’s conscience and progressive spirit alive — from his early days using song to challenge America’s economic takeover of Latin America, to his stint with the the politically-hounded Almanac Singers and the less controversial Weavers, to his courageous defiance of the House Un-American Activities Committee and years of house arrest, to his pro-civil rights and anti-Vietnam War years, to his more recent decades as an environmental activist.

And so it was only fitting that on the day of Obama’s inauguration Seeger should lead black and white, young and old, and middle-class, working-class, and poor in singing aloud that “This Land is Your Land.”  It was no less fitting that he should also present Obama and the country with a challenge and a renewal of activism by reinserting into Guthrie’s song its very timely, long-omitted closing stanzas:

In the squares of the city – By the shadow of the steeple
By the relief office – I saw my people
As they stood there hungry, I stood there wondering
If this land’s still made for you and me.

There was a big high wall there – that tried to stop me;
Sign was painted – it said private property;
But on the other side – it didn’t say nothing;
That side was made for you and me.

Nobody living can ever stop me,
As I go walking – that freedom highway;
Nobody living can ever make me turn back
This land was made for you and me.

Due to censorship in at least one of the countries in which this weblog is read, I am including two links to videos of Seeger’s Inauguration Day performance.  The first is on Blip.tv and the second is on the weblog NYC Public School Parents.

Eddie Cantor’s Handkerchief

As a coda to this entry, I should mention that I first came across the “This Land is Your Land” clip on David Bellel’s very personal and very eclectic Knickerbocker Village weblog, dedicated to the Lower East Side of Manhattan housing project of the same name and featuring an encyclopedic amalgam of pop-historical and nostalgic entries on the neighborhood.  Knickerbocker Village itself first came into my consciousness during the trial and execution of KV-residents Ethel and Julius Rosenberg during the poisonous anti-communist purges of the early 1950s.  Later, when I was a student at Seward Park High School, once the proud working class high school of the Lower East Side, many of my classmates were KV-ers.

I stumbled on Bellel’s site when doing research for some as-yet-unfinished writing on the tougher sides of Jewish life on the Lower East Side and in Brooklyn and a half-remembered tale overheard in my childhood concerning an encounter between a close relative of mine and the infamous Jewish and Italian gangland assassins known as “Murder Incorporated.”  I also found entries on tamer subjects, including this magnificent 1930 clip of the great Lower East Side-born entertainer Eddie Cantor singing an arch, satirical version of “Makin’ Whopee,” a song that was later performed in toned-down, maudlin versions by a legion of middling performers.  Cantor’s own performance is filled with the gestures, understatement, and subtle timing that marked the work of generations of Lower East Side troubadors and comics.  Click here to see it.

I’m ending this post with a reference to Cantor because few people know about his political side.  In  most of his films, Cantor portrayed a stereotypically Jewish pint-sized innocent bumbling his way into the larger White-Anglo-Saxon world of the time.  During the 1930s, however,  Cantor’s outspokenness against Fascism and Nazi Germany brought him into confrontations with radio stations and broadcast advertisers time and again.  During the early years of television, Cantor was one of the first TV hosts to consciously challenge broadcasting’s unwritten but very strictly-enforced color barriers.  On a 1950s live television broadcast of the Eddie Cantor Show, following a signature exuberant performance by African American singer-dancer Sammy Davis, Jr., Cantor did what at the time was unthinkable: he hugged the out of breath and sweating Davis and took out his pocket handkerchief and with it wiped the sweat from Davis’s face.  Television station management and advertisers threatened to bar Cantor from the air for this breach of the wall between the races.  Cantor’s response was to book Davis on every remaining broadcast that season. (Note: Dinah Shore similarly landed in hot water for embracing Nat “King” Cole while on nationwide TV, leading to a scandal almost worthy of that surrounding the early-1940s cinema short of Anita O’Day’s vocal rendition of “Drop Me Off Uptown” with Roy Eldridge on trumpet. Rascists were furious with O’Day’s familiar and seductive stance toward Eldridge; Eldridge, on the other hand, was furious that O’Day had upstaged him and stolen the show.)

Posted in Broadcasting, Cities, Music, Politics | 2 Comments »

Gerrymandering the Internet, Continued

Posted by Stephen Lewis on December 17, 2008

Further to my last post, Doc Searls expands on the fragmentation of the web in Splinternet.  In World-Wide Regions, James Robertson relates the absurdities of geographic coding of DVDs.  As an additional absurdity, I quote below the well-meaning and obviously pained text of a webpage that popped up when I tried to log-on to the music service Pandora from my desk in Sofia, Bulgaria:

Dear Pandora Visitor,

We are deeply, deeply sorry to say that due to licensing constraints, we can no longer allow access to Pandora for listeners located outside of the U.S. We will continue to work diligently to realize the vision of a truly global Pandora, but for the time being we are required to restrict its use. We are very sad to have to do this, but there is no other alternative.

We believe that you are in Bulgaria (your IP address appears to be 87.126.21.115). If you believe we have made a mistake, we apologize and ask that you please contact us at pandora-support@pandora.com

If you are a paid subscriber, please contact us at pandora-support@pandora.com and we will issue a pro-rated refund to the credit card you used to sign up. If you have been using Pandora, we will keep a record of your existing stations and bookmarked artists and songs, so that when we are able to launch in your country, they will be waiting for you.

We will be notifying listeners as licensing agreements are established in individual countries. If you would like to be notified by email when Pandora is available in your country, please enter your email address below. The pace of global licensing is hard to predict, but we have the ultimate goal of being able to offer our service everywhere.

We share your disappointment and greatly appreciate your understanding.

Sincerely,

Tim Westergren
Founder

Readers not familiar with the word “gerrymander,” its etymology, history, and effects might find it worthwhile to click here.  How we chart geopolitical boundaries shapes legal jurisdictions, national identities, and the very “non-rationalized” emplacement of infrastructure.  It also interprets how we interpret the significance political mandates (see this past post on the mapping of the recent US presidential election).  New and old forms of gerrymandering, apparently, affect how we use and envision the internet, are served by it, and structure and control its services and infrastructure.

Posted in Identity, Infrastructure, Internet, Media, Music, National Identity | Leave a Comment »

Apple’s iTunes, NPR, Barriers to Giving, and the “Appliancing” of National Boundaries

Posted by Stephen Lewis on December 10, 2008

A central element of the ethos and significance – or at least the rhetoric – of the Internet Age is the transcendence of the arbitrary geographic and political boundaries we have inherited from the past and the liberation of the exchange of information, the conduct of commerce, and the formation of communities from the constraints of physical locations and boundaries.  Consider the following case to the contrary …

“This American Life”

I am – or rather was – a regular listener to Ira Glass’s wonderful eclectic radio program This American Life, broadcast over non-commercial, listener-donation-supported National Public Radio (NPR) in the USA and available courtesy of NPR worldwide over the internet.  The ubiquity of the internet had given me the luxury of listening to the program “on demand” during my long periods of work and residency abroad –  that is, if and when I can find an internet connection with sufficient bandwidth to stream the show.  To ensure enjoying This American Life without being tethered to my computer, whenever I stumbled upon suitable signals I took to downloading current and back episodes as podcasts via iTunes for later on my iPod and Blackberry.

Paid Podcasts

A few weeks ago, this system “crashed,” so to speak, and fatally at that.  While downloading podcasts to my computer in preparation for a long flight from New York to Istanbul and a few internet-less weeks thereafter, I discovered that I could gain access only the most recent episode of This American Life.  Podcasts of past episodes were only available for sale from Apple’s iTunes store at a price of $0.99.  This sounded very reasonable. By paying $0.99 for each one-hour-long weekly episode, I could  both obtain the programs and conveniently make regular donations to its support – an excellent alternative to the disruption of writing out a check or calling in a credit card number donating during National Public Radio’s seasonal on-the-air and over-the-internet fund raising drives.

Reinforcing Artificial Boundaries

Excellent, or so it seemed, until I read the fine print.  As it does with its iPhone, Apple “appliances” its services to geopolitical strictures inherited from the pre-Internet age and to a jingoistic concept of national identity quite contrary to the expansive spirit of This American Life and to the “worldwide” as in Worldwide Web.  Podcasts of This American Life are available for purchase and download via iTunes only from IP addresses within the boundaries of the United States.  Also, even within the US, Apple does not accept for payment credit cards issued by overseas banks.  Last, even when listeners from within the US attempts a purchase a credit card issued by a US bank, Apple will not sell them podcasts if their iTunes Stores accounts were originally registered from abroad.

By jigsawing its services to fit national boundaries, Apple fragments the efficacy and global scope of the internet and denies NPR broader listenership, international impact, and potential revenues.  By outsourcing  exclusive sales of podcasts of the This American Life to Apple’s iTunes Store, NPR denies the benefits and insights of listenership and the pleasure of contributing to the support of Public Radio to Americans living and working abroad, not to mention citizens of all other countries.

The Internet and Its Infrastructure

Those who participate with me off-line in the examination of the future of  infrastructure and the Internet will recognize in the above case a familiar conundrum.  The Internet — in its role as prime infrastructure for the formation of community and conveyance of the information, entertainment, knowledge and transactions — is intangible and without physical location.  However, the infrastructure that supports it is quite physical, an ad hoc non-purpose-built amalgam of fiber, copper, and wireless  strung together, enabled, and animated by protocols.  By resting on a “borrowed” infrastructure, the Internet has inherited the “gatekeepers” that own and control, charge for, and regulate these legacy elements – telecom operators and service providers, cable TV companies, governmental authorities, etc.).  Such organizations still carve up the world according to geopolitical entities and borders defined between the late-eighteenth century and the mid-twentieth and gerrymander services and access accordingly.  Apparently, so does Apple.  Apple’s method of “appliancing” country-by-country reinforces anachronistic borders and undermines the potential of the internet to transcend past divisions.

Apple and AK

Last month, a chance glace at Freedom Against Censorship Thailand led me to this report from the Christian Science Monitor re: Turkey’s current blockage of YouTube and Blogger, a reprise of its blockage of WordPress a year ago.  The present affair stems in part from a YouTube video posted by Greek football fans cast aspersions on the sexuality of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the iconic father of the modern Turkish state. Turkish law forbids the insulting of Turkishness and of the Republic, its founders, and symbols. Last year’s ban on all weblogs containing the name “wordpress” in their URL’s derived from a order issued by the local court of a religious neighborhood in Istanbul in response to a law suit filed by a Turkish “creationist” who claimed to have been libelled by an entry in a weblog hosted by WordPress.Com – an Internet Age case of “killing the messenger.”  The AK Party is Turkey’s ruling political party; the question of whether and how its incumbency prompts or facilitates such bans is a matter for discussion in another context.  For the moment, let’s leave it at saying that the heading to the present paragraph is a matter  of alliteration.  As to Apple, its geopolitical-entity-based approach to distribution of and access to podcast material is similar to Turkey’s operation of a “Great Firewall” congruent with its national boundaries and in accordance with its whims.  Opinions to the contrary?

Afterthoughts:

1. No More Newsprint, No More Disk(c)s

The Christian Science Monitor is America’s first venerable mainstream newspaper to end its print edition and become an exclusively online publication.  For details on the Monitor’s shedding of  its corporeality click here.  Not long after the Monitor gave up newsprint, Atlantic Records reported that for the first time its sales of music in mp3 format surpassed its sale of Compact Disc recording.  Music is by its very nature ephemeral and incorporeal and, in the scheme of things, the mere 100 or so years over which music has been distributed in the physical embodiments of phonograph cylinders and records, tape and CDs has been but a curious aberration.  A sad farewell to album cover art and liner notes, thus … and to slyly shaped invitations for guests to come over to look at one’s record collection.

2. Google and “The Great Game”

The Emergence of Google as the world’s prime search engine and the proprietary of Gmail, YouTube, and Blogger has given the “Company that Does No Evil” unparalleled knowledge of what is on the Web as well the ability to control how to find it. It also has given Google an unparalleled knowledge of who uses the web and how.  This has turned Google, a private company with no accountability to any constituency, into a negotiating partner of national governments whose laws or policies do not  reflect or respect the ethical stance claimed in Google’s own slogan.  Thus, Google now functions on a diplomatic level with the ability and clout to forge country-by-country compromises affecting internet activity and the free flow of information and opinion, Turkey’s YouTube and Blogger ban not least among them.  Click here for a journalistic portrait of Google’s emergence as a party to “The Great Game” of diplomacy via the New York Times Sunday Magazine.

Posted in Censorship, Commentary, Content, Infrastructure, Internet, Media, Music, Podcasting, Politics | 2 Comments »

Grandmother S. Redux: The Benefits of Early-Morning Schnapps and Mega-Doses of Red Wine

Posted by Stephen Lewis on June 4, 2008

A couple of summers ago, I wrote a newspaper piece about my former summertime host and guru, Grandmother S. of the Black Sea village of K. in northeast Bulgaria, and the lessons I learned in her garden (click here for the full text and photos). Grandmother S. was well into her 80s at the time and still worked non-stop at subsistence farming. Her secret? Every morning at sunrise she drank a full-to-the-brim juice glass of homemade grape brandy on an empty stomach. “Styefko,” she used to tell me, “my brandy will give you the energy to work and will disinfect your stomach as well. But,” she advised, “drink it in the morning; morning drinking is good for the health, evening drinking is for alcoholics only.”

So, I took Grandmother S. up on her challenge. For three months, I arose at dawn and, before I allowed water, coffee, oatmeal, or yogurt to touch my lips, I downed a juice glass of Grandmother S.’s best homemade grape brandy (made with no seeds and with no sugar added to kick-start fermentation). The daily schnapps made me feel full of energy and raring to go. The only problem: I couldn’t think. Turning off the brain might help when faced with a day of hoeing vegetables but it can get in the way of writing, photographing, and even consulting.

I am reminded of Grandmother S.’s advice by Doc Searls’s link to this article in the New York Times announcing that red wine may be “potent” (sic) in preserving human longevity. Apparently, laboratory mice do better on treadmills when dosed with the equivalent of 35 bottles of red wine and humans may prolong their lives by drinking four five-ounce glasses of red per day. The article does not say whether the four glasses should be downed morning or night — but ever since the Judith Miller and Jason Blair affairs, I’ve tended to trust Grandmother S. more than the “newspaper of record.” From tonight on, I’ll keep my corkscrew next to my alarm clock.

Coda

Click here for a taste of Lambert, Hendricks, and Ross’s famed song Gimme that Wine. And, as the chorus of the song goes: “Unhand that bottle!”

Posted in Bulgaria, Commentary, Food, Health Care, Innovation, Links, Media, Music, Work | Leave a Comment »

The Costs of Bandwidth and an Appeal to Help Meet Them, Anti-Fascists and Proto-Fascists, Blues and Lenya

Posted by Stephen Lewis on June 3, 2008

Costs of Bandwidth and an Appeal

This week’s podcast (The Prosecutor) from listener-supported Chicago Public Radio’s This American Life begins with a soft-spoken and cogent fundraising appeal from the program’s chief commentator, Ira Glass. Glass reports that ever since the station began its experimental podcasting of weekly episodes of This American Life a year-and-a-half ago, weekly downloads of the program have risen to 400,000,, and in some weeks have even exceeded a half-million.

This successful podcasting service, Glass continues, is free to the program’s listeners but not to the station. In Glass’s words: “… the bandwidth itself to do that much internet traffic costs our home radio station $152,000 this year.” His appeal is for each subscriber to the program’s podcasts to donate a single dollar per year to offset these costs. Such a minuscule donation would cover the program’s bandwidth bill three-fold. Of course, Glass acknowledges the sad fact that most internet users are unwilling to pay for the value they receive and, so, he suggests that responsible listeners give $5.00 each thereby making up for the unfulfilled donations of four slackers.

I plan to respond to Glass’s appeal by putting my money where my podcast-listening ear is and donating $5.00 to support the free distribution of Glass and colleagues’ excellent show. I challenge all those involved with me in debates on the future of internet infrastructure and fellow followers of Doc Searls’s worthy Project VRM (an attempt to gear “markets” to the wants and needs of individuals) at Harvard Law to do the same. Dare to join me?

Anti-Fascists and Proto-Fascists

Recently, during a walk through the Garden of Tsar Boris III (in communist times the Garden of Freedom) in Sofia, Bulgaria. I encountered a gathering of “anti-fascists” commemorating the anniversary of the denouement of the Second War World in Europe. Bulgaria had been an enthusiastic ally of Nazi Germany during the Second World War but switched to the side of the Allies following the Soviet occupation of the country in September, 1944. Those Bulgarians who fought against the Nazis after the country changed sides have been relegated to a historical purgatory in the post-communist era in which the rhetoric of anti-communism has come to outweigh the memory of anti-fascism. There were fewer than 200 people, most of them quite old, at the anti-fascist gathering. On the other hand, rallies of Bulgaria’s antisemitic, anti-Gypsy, anti-Muslim Ataka party (which won 25% of the votes in Bulgaria’s last presidential election) still attract thousands.

Only hours before the stumbling across the gathering in the Sofia garden, I had heard the word “fascist” used in a more contemporary context. In an interview on the weekly podcast of the BBC’s Front Row, the 82-year-old American literary doyen (and eternal curmudgeon) Gore Vidal responded to a request to forecast the outcome of the upcoming US presidential election by saying that “… the likeliest outcome is that the Republican party, which is not a political party in any sense that Britain might know, (but which) is a mind set of crypto-fascists, will steal it from any Democrat who wins it, as they did with Albert Gore … they are quick to steal, look at the mess they’ve made.” And this is only the beginning of Vidal’s take on the party of Bush and McCain! The Front Line interview also includes Vidal’s recollections of fellow post-war literary giants Norman Mailer and Kurt Vonnegut. Bravo to Gore Vidal on all accounts!

Blues and Lenya

As an antidote to exposures to fascism, or to an excess of radio talk shows, two musical podcast suggestions: For a regular doses of the blues, try The Blues File. For background and anecdotes covering the all types of music and musical personalities, subscribe to Sarah Fishko’s excellent Fishko Files with, as a delightful, haunting, and anti-fascist starting point, this broadcast treating the great Lotte Lenya, wife of Kurt Weill and iconic interpreter of the music and lyrics of Weill, Bertolt Brecht, and others.

Posted in Bulgaria, Commentary, Infrastructure, Internet, Links, Literature, Media, Music, Podcasting, Uncategorized | Leave a Comment »

Dizzy Gillespie, Ignacz Paderewski, Sonny Rollins, Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, Vito Marcantonio, and the Benjamin Franklin High School Riots of 1946

Posted by Stephen Lewis on February 6, 2008

Further to “Vote for Jordan for President!”

Dizzy for President

During the 1964 US presidential election, I spent a few days handing out leaflets urging voters to bypass Democratic and Republican candidates Lyndon Johnson and Barry Goldwater and write in the name of be-bop trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie as their choice for president instead. Promoting “Dizzy for President” was a late-beat-era fringe protest against the the dryness of mainstream politics but, as I look back, Dizzy’s beret-in-the-ring might well have augmented the political field. A brilliant innovator, a disciplined and inspiring orchestra leader, and an African -American whose adopted Baha’i faith strengthened his inherent humanism, Dizzy had much to offer.

Should musicians run for president? Legendary classical pianist Ignacz Paderewski, the only musician I am aware of ever having been a head-of-state, served only a single year, 1919, as the premier of newly-independent Poland before he was pressured to resign — but Paderewski was a soloist and not a seasoned band leader like Dizzy.

For me, a musician in the White House would be no less unthinkable than an aging B-movie actor as president or a one-tine professional body-builder as governor of California. In contemporary Russia, even former chess grandmasters entertain political careers. Musicianship, like other endeavors, can generate requisite empathy and responsibility. My friend Ben Salzano — himself one of the generation of young Italian-American jazz musicians that flourished in the 1950s in the Rochester, New York — relates the following anecdote about how jazz saxophone great Sonny Rollins discovered the social responsibility of musicianship while a high school student in New York in 1946.

East Harlem 1946

1946 saw the opening of an immense new high school building in working-class Italian East Harlem just north of Manhattan’s Upper East Side. The school, Benjamin Franklin High School, like much of the infrastructure and services of East Harlem, was a product of the perspicacity and idealism of the neighborhood’s long-time congressman, Vito Marcantonio. Marcantonio’s power-base was rooted in East Harlem’s insular Italian-American community and also in the neighborhood’s growing Puerto Rican and African American populations. A socialist, an egalitarian, and a political realist, Marcantonio ensured that Benjamin Franklin High would admit both local white students and black and Hispanic students from throughout Harlem, in the process accelerating racial integration of schools city-wide. Residents of Italian East Harlem, however, thought otherwise. When the first black students (Sonny Rollins among them) showed up at Benjamin Franklin for the start of the school year they were greeted with catcalls and a rain of bricks, bottles, and garbage thrown from the roofs of neighborhood tenements. Fracases erupted between Italian and black teenagers and the atmosphere remained tense for weeks. To calm the situation, Marcantonio and the principal of Benjamin Franklin High invited Frank Sinatra to perform at the school.

Sinatra and Nat King Cole

In 1946, Frank Sinatra was not yet the cynical rat-packer and Nixon hanger-on of later decades. He still had the crystal-clear voice and dark good looks of a young working-class urban crooner. He also had ideals and didn’t hesitate to express them. He had just recorded and performed in a film short of him singing “The House I live In,” New York City leftist school teacher Abel Meeropool’s ode to an egalitarian vision of post-war America, a country-wide hit that came to be an unofficial second US national anthem in the years between the defeat of fascism in Europe and the chill of the McCarthy era back home. From the stage of the auditorium at Benjamin Franklin High, Sinatra told the students, white and black, to knock off the violence and learn to live together, advising, as Sonny recalled it: “… you don’t have to love everybody but you don’t have to kill them either.” A few days later, according to Rollins, Nat King Cole showed up at the school to give a concert of his own and make the same appeal for peace. The violence soon ended and integration of Benjamin Franklin High School was underway. This, Rollins claims, taught him what musicians can and should accomplish.

Coda

Recently, Ben Salzano told me that he had recounted Sonny Rollins’s tale to a fellow musician, a native of Italian East Harlem who attended Benjamin Franklin High School at the same time as Sonny and who remembered the 1946 disturbances clearly. Was Sonny Rollin’s narrative accurate? Salzano asked. His colleague answered in an accent and tone once characteristic of the neighborhood: “Sonny? Nah! Sonny’s full-a-shit; Sinatra and Nat played Benjamin Franklin on the same day.”

More…

Additional entries on Vito Marcantonio and on the social, economic, and ideological roots of the ethos and infrastructure of New York will follow in subsequent postings.

For more on the life and music of Sonny Rollins including, I am told, a tighter retelling of his recollections of Benjamin Franklin High School anno 1946, see Eric Nisenson’s “Open Sky: Sonny Rollins and His World of Improvisation”, St. Martin’s Press, 2000.

For a timely posting by my friend and colleague Doc Searls, a long-time independent-voter, on his decision to support Barack Obama in the present primary elections click here.

Posted in Books, Cities, History, Infrastructure, Music, Politics | 6 Comments »

An Obama Endorsement and … “Vote for Jordan for President!”

Posted by Stephen Lewis on February 2, 2008

(Warning: Partisanship Ahead!)

For the last six weeks or so, the pressure of finalizing new commercial projects had kept me from posting to this site. Now that the crunch is past, I’ll try to get back to posting more regularly. For the moment I’ll begin with the US presidential primaries….

As an unabashed leftist, I’ve followed the Republican primaries with detachment and schadenfreude, breathing a sigh of relief that the authoritarian and divisive former mayor of New York, the self-styled hero of “9/11”, has logged a poor showing and left the race and that the proposed candidacy of Mike Huckabee has hinted at the collapse of the axiomatic live-poor-vote-rich behavior of America’s Evangelical Christians.

Obama

As to the Democratic primaries, I’m for … Obama! The logic is simple. Two fault lines of inequality continue to divide and poison America: Poverty and income disparity on the one hand, and race and the unattended legacy of the three centuries of slavery on the other. The candidacy of John Edwards attempted to address economic inequality while the candidacy of Barack Obama, at least symbolically, addresses the issue of race. Now that Edwards has stepped aside, for me the choice is clear.

As to the third democratic candidate: Hillary Clinton is half of a duo that helped push the Democratic Party to the right, more distant than ever from its New Deal-era commitments to egalitarianism, security, and opportunity. Hillary attacks Obama for his lack of experience, awkwardly rhyming that Obama offers “inspiration and not perspiration.” What hypocrisy! Hillary’s current campaign hatchet-man and prospective “first-laddie,” ex-president Bill Clinton was no less inexperienced and displayed no less of a reliance on “inspiration” and charisma when he stood for his first campaign. Under the veil of gender politics, Hillary is a mainstream politician, and not just in her initial support for the misadventure in Iraq. Throughout her first-lady-ship as throughout her career, she has dedicated a good portion of her “perspiration” to the good of corporate interests. Both her “inspiration” and her “perspiration” flagged miserably in her loudly-publicized but ineffectual short-lived campaign to provide Americans with health insurance coverage worthy of citizens of an economically developed nation.

This said, I truly hope that Obama indeed proves to have the integrity and wherewithal to confront in words, policy, and deeds the evils of the economic and racial divides that handicap America and compromise its quality of life, potential, and image in the eyes of the rest of the world.

“Vote for Jordan for President!”

To US citizens who work or reside abroad, the American electoral process appears increasingly and appallingly sophomoric and ineffectual at shaping the informed electorate on which a well-functioning democracy rests. Candidates’ positions are pushed in 30-second-length self-serving television advertisements and in so-called “debates” that are really little more than TV-talk-show-like trades of one-line platitudes and limp barbs. Candidates in both parties — Obama included, unfortunately — tout themselves as agents of “change” without clarifying what they want us to change to or how. Most US journalistic coverage focuses more on the “horse-race” spectacle of who’s ahead rather than on analysis of candidate’s programs, approaches, and qualifications. Worse, “horse-race” coverage has also enabled the press to arbitrarily isolate and derail candidates that it feels will not sell papers or boost broadcast ratings.

A depressing scenario? I have my own panacea for election-induced blues. To keep my humor and my objectivity tip-top during US primary and election seasons, I blow the dust off of my scratched copy of Louis Jordan’s ever-timely 1952 hit “Vote for Jordan for President!”

Louis Jordan was a band leader, saxophone virtuoso, rich-voiced crooner, lyricist, and, for a short time, cinema cowboy. He was also the father of rock and roll and a great-grandfather of hip-hop as well. From the 1930s to 1950s Jordan recorded a steady stream of hit songs that kept black feet and white feet tapping and fans of all races memorizing complexly rhyming humorous lines from his “Choo-Choo-Cha-Boogie”, “Caldonia”, “Peckin’ and Pokin'”, Beware”, “Coleslaw” and other hits. At one time in the late-1940s, several of Jordan’s tunes simultaneously competed against one another for the top place on the charts.

In “Vote for Jordan for President!” Louis Jordan satirized the vapidity of campaign rhetoric. After announcing that he is ready to move “… from the phonograph record to the ‘Congressional Record'”, Jordan promises to help listeners “… get straight on all the candidates” and “… make the proper selection in the coming election.” His generous characterization of competing candidates anno-1952: “… if you want a man with an offer, vote for Kefauver … if you want the man of the hour, vote for Eisenhower … if you want no graft, vote for Taft … if you want a hipster who takes no sassin’, vote for Stassin … if you want to hustle with Russel, go ahead … but don’t sob, ’cause Truman don’t want the job.” The alternative? “For an administration that’ll move you, groove you, and keep you fit” and “… to walk on the sunny side of the street with the candidate with the beat … vote for Jordan for President!” Jordan’s electoral promises: “Every American will get his portion — after I get mine” and “… we’ll all serve — time!”

Underlying Jordan’s light-tongued satire was a crueler humor. In 1952, only a half-century ago — even with the emergence of Negro local and congressional office holders in a number of northern cities and states, not least my native New York — it was laughably absurd to even think of a black man as candidate for the highest national office in the US. An Obama candidacy and presidency will render this one-time shameful reality as dead and buried as Louis Jordan’s lyrics, humor, and music are alive and timely. It may also prove to Americans and the world that this country is the inclusive democracy it purports to be.

Posted in Change, Commentary, Media, Music, Politics | 2 Comments »

Post-Hiatus Notes: Kudos and Quixote, Markets and Soup-Kitchens, Hip-Hop and Zoot Suits, Podcasts and Dante

Posted by Stephen Lewis on November 10, 2007

During the September to October hiatus in my postings to this site (see Turkey’s Ban on WordPress), I was unable to respond to a number of links and comments …

Kudos and Quixote

In a September 28 posting to his weblog, Doc Searls delved into the dichotomy between individuals’ and society’s passive acceptance of manipulative “marketing” and the possibility of “consumers” actually raising their voices and marshaling emerging technology to turn the tables on corporations and “marketeers” by articulating, broadcasting, and demanding responsiveness to their own needs and desires. Doc ended his post by pointing to our conversations and collaborations over the past four decades. In Doc’s words:

“By the way, when I want to talk to somebody about what a real market is, my first source is Stephen Lewis. Like me, he has in his life labored far too long in the mines of marketing. Unlike me, he has lived in, and studied deeply, real markets in the real world. We need more of that.”

My thanks to Doc for this acknowledgment. Doc has always been generous in his references to me. In a piece he penned seven years ago, he compared me to both Raul Julia and Lenny Bruce, an honor that I still try (albeit ever more quixotically!) to live up to.

Markets and Soup-Kitchens

At the moment, Doc and I are examining the human and infrastructural aspects of traditional markets and marketplaces as models for using the internet to reestablish the modes of interaction and responsiveness that were once the hallmarks of face-to-face commerce. Traditional markets were tangible physical places, powered by the integrity and quality of goods and running on reputations and trust. In the modern age, however, the word “market” become a metaphor for statistical abstractions and the word “marketing” for the artificial creation of demand and the manipulation of the economic behavior of individuals and groups. Doc dug into this theme in his contributions to the 1990’s business bestseller Cluetrain Manifesto. For the subjective underpinning of my own take on the issue look at Markets and Marketing, Fishes and Faces on my alter ego weblog Bubkes.Org.

My part-time studies and work at the fringes of the field of Ottoman history has kept me close to the vision of markets as accretions of individual interactions, conversations, and trust. Over the course of more than a half millennium, the Ottomans evolved physical infrastructure and institutions that enabled commerce and information exchange as well as conquest. One facet of this infrastructure was the Imaret — a publicly- or foundation-financed combination of travelers’ lodge and soup kitchen — a veritable “internet” of which dotted the roadways of the Ottoman Empire from the Balkans to Anatolia to the Middle East and North Africa. Those interested in this aspect of the dynamics of Ottoman infrastructure, travel, and trade should turn to a newly published volume of essays edited by historians Nina Ergin, Christoph Neumann, and Amy Singer: Feeding People, Feeding Power; Imarets in the Ottoman Empire (Istanbul, 2007).

Hip-Hop and Zoot Suits

In a comment on this post, hip-hop commentator Rafi Kam expressed surprise at “being on my radar.” As they used to say in the Bronx in the 1970s: “What can I tell you?” I may prefer Louis Jordan to Fifty Cent — and certainly have more of a weakness for Borsalino hats and zoot suits (reat-pleat, stuff-cuff, drape-shape and all) than for sagging jeans and baseball hats worn backwards — but I am still open to new music, ironic humor, good writing, and all that cuts through common wisdom and accepted ideology.

Apropos of both Kudos and Markets above, Rafi Kam’s and Dallas Penn’s YouTube clip Bronx Bodega (which I have mentioned previously on this site and on Bubkes.Org) is not only disarmingly humorous but in its 7-minute length portrays exactly the same point that Doc Searls and I are trying to examine in our far more pedantic styles, i.e. that marketing in its extreme is a one-way affair that targets people’s’ weaknesses rather than strengths. Marketing reduces people to “consumers” and attempts to dictate what they can buy and limits their access to competing outlets, goods, and services — a demographics-driven twist on plain old imperialism.

The same combination of wit and debunking that go into the Bronx Bodega clip also characterizes the weblog of Rafi’s fellow self-styled “Internet Celebrity” Dallas Penn. Dallas Penn’s blog lights up the integrity of street-driven hip-hop and pinions the marketing-driven cynicism of the music industry; his takes on the marketing of political “personalities” (e.g. US Republican presidential “wannabe” Giuliani) are delightfully unsparing. Most remarkably, Dallas Penn seems to have the rare talent of being able to write exactly as he speaks (or is it the other way around?).

Podcasts and Dante

To close: A confession. I have not always been as kind to Doc Searls as Doc has been to me. Three or four years ago, I was vocally skeptical when Doc was amongst the first to enthuse about the Copernican revolution podcasting was about to occasion by liberating content from limits of time and geography and by enabling listeners to choose and pull broadcasts rather than having them pushed at them. At the time, I saw podcasting as technology without worthy content. Events proved me totally wrong; I now live from podcasts. I reload my I-Pod daily, supplementing my usual mix of Bartok, Turkish and Armenian Oud virtuosi, Monk and Ellington, Aretha Franklin and Rev. James Cleveland, and the like with the latest podcasts from the BBC’s Melvyn Bragg, PBS’s Bill Moyers, the New Yorker magazine, NPR’s Car Talk Plaza, and WNYC’s Sara Fishko, Leonard Lopate, Brian Lehrer, and John Schaeffer. A few days ago, I admitted to Doc that if there isn’t a special circle in the Inferno for those of us who doubted podcasting, there should be. With magnanimity, Doc offered to release me from such a fate if I posted my confession on this site … thus this entry!

Posted in Books, History, Infrastructure, Markets, Media, Music, Podcasting | 1 Comment »

Singing Cowboy and Early-Adopter, Movie Idol and Media Mogul

Posted by Stephen Lewis on June 8, 2007

Singing cowboy Gene Autry was an icon of the early years of commercial country music, 1930’s and 40’s Hollywood, and the so-called “golden ages” of radio and of television. But Autry was also an entrepreneur with a keen eye for new media, even before their business models became clear. An early investor in television broadcasting, what would Autry have made of the internet? For Autry’s life story, interspersed with excerpts from his songs and a film soundtrack lament for his dying horse “Champion,” go to the May 1st edition of WNYC New York’s Soundcheck. For those interested in the roots of R&B and rock-and-roll, I’d also recommend recent Soundcheck broadcasts on Sister Rosetta Tharpe, the cross-over gospel and R&B vocal and electric guitar great who inspired Elvis Presley, and Doc Pomus, a New York Jewish kid invalided with polio who was a popular blues musician amongst black audiences in Brooklyn during the 1940s and who went on to become one of the famed pop music writers at the Brill building on Broadway in the early-1960s. Finally, to bring us back full circle to the realm of tech innovation, do listen to Sara Fishko’s recent broadcast about the Theremin, the Science-Fiction-like musical instrument that was a creation of 1920s Soviet science and later gave mid-twentieth-century American Sci-Fi movies their characteristically Sci-Fi sound.

Posted in Innovation, Media, Music, Popular Culture | 1 Comment »