I am a history professor who grew up in Western New York, but now find myself teaching in Western Montana. My primary areas of interest and research are in American cultural history, especially in relation to the intersection of popular culture and politics. This blog is primarily to help me keep in touch with my far-flung family and friends, and give me the chance to spout off a bit on whatever happens to be on my mind.
Dr. John's Record Shelf is my weekly radio program on KDWG, 90.9 FM broadcast from the University of Montana Western. My goal is to offer an eclectic mix of various styles, genres and eras, focusing primarily (but not exclusively) on music that you won't hear anywhere else on the dial (at least not in SW Montana). My co-host, Art Vandelay and I (with the assistance of station flunky Rico Muckman) also provide some additional bits to liven up the show, including Three People I Know (where I mention three people I know), The Cultural Corner (where we engage in lively banter on art, literature and poetry), Dr. John's Top Five (where we take a shot at ranking almost anything), and Record Shelf Theater (where we re-create a scene from some famous movie, play or TV show). If you find yourself in Dillon, tune us in; otherwise, below are some lists of songs that have been aired on recent shows:
Dr. John's Record Shelf 121104
Bill Fay, "This World"
Steve Goodman, "Turnpike Tom"
Ani DiFranco, "Which Side Are You On?"
Bruce Springsteen, "We Are Alive"
Decemberists, "Don't Carry It All"
Carole King, "Pleasant Valley Sunday"
Bruce Cockburn, "Wondering Where the Lions Are"
Neil Young & Crazy Horse, "Oh Susannah"
Bob Dylan, "Soon After Midnight"
Charms, "American Way"
Belle & Sebastian, "I Want the World to Stop"
Krayolas, "Find a Girl"
Beatles, "Tomorrow Never Knows"
Neko Case, "Things That Scare Me"
Avett Brothers, "Will You Return"
Craig Finn, "New Friend Jesus"
Dr. John's Record Shelf 121028
Fleet Foxes, "Helplessness Blues"
Golden Shoulders, "I Will Light You on Fire"
Spoon, "Finer Feelings"
Girls, "Just a Song"
Devandra Banhart, "Shabop Shalom"
Gaslight Anthem, "The '59 Sound"
Those Darlins, "Mystic Mind"
Son Seals, "I Can't Hold Out"
Johnny Ace, "Pledging My Love"
Charlotte Gainsbourg, "Dandelion"
Aimee Mann, "Borrowing Time"
Elliott Smith, "Between the Bars"
Carpenters, "It's Going to Take Some Time"
Hayes Carll, "Girl Downtown"
Fiery Furnaces, "Even in the Rain"
Billy Ward & the Dominoes, "Chicken Blues"
Anna Kramer & the Lost Cause, "You Think You Know Me"
Sophie Zelmani, "Most of the Time"
Dr. John's Record Shelf 121021
Cabaret Voltaire, "No Escape"
Us3, "Cantaloop (Flip Fantasia)"
Hank Mobley, "The Break Through"
Rodriguez, "Sugar Man"
Mary Weiss, "My Heart is Beating"
Pete Shelley, "Think For Yourself"
Buddy Holly, "Take Your Time"
Raincoats, "No One's Little Girl"
Detroit Cobras, "Ya Ya Ya"
Public Image, LTD, "Public Image"
Joan Jett & the Blackhearts, "Bad Reputation"
Love Is All, "Wishing Well"
Louie & the Lovers, "I KNow You Know"
Forty-Fives, "The Devil Beats His Wife"
John P. Strohm, "Better Than Nothing"
The Naysayer, "Currency"
Sir Douglas Quintet, "Who'll Be Next in Line"
The Seeds, "Mr. Farmer"
Dr. John's Record Shelf 121014
TV on the Radio, "Second Song"
Can, "Oh Yeah"
White Stripes, "300 MPH Torrential Downpour Blues"
Mary Lou Lord, "You're Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go"
T-Bone Burnett, "The Murder Weapon"
New Bomb Turks, "Statue of Liberty"
Ramones, "Surfin' Bird"
Paris Sisters, "Dream Lover"
Lee Dorsey, "Ride Your Pony"
Michael Hurley, "Sweet Lucy"
Gary Numan, "Cars"
Neil Diamond, "Delirious Love"
Undertones, "We All Talked About You"
Shadows of Knight, "Shake"
Cub, "Magic 8 Ball"
Rilo Kiley, "The Frug"
Terry Allen, "Lubbock Woman"
Kinks, "Lincoln County"
Dr. John's Record Shelf 121007
Corin Tucker Band, "Summer Jams"
Go-Betweens, "Too Much of One Thing"
Feelies, "Change Your Mind"
Billy Bragg & the Blokes, "Baby Faroukh"
Marcia Griffiths, "Don't Let Me Down"
Velvet Crush, "Hold Me Up"
Chris Mills, "Calling All Comrades"
Insect Trust, "Hoboken Saturday Night"
Broken West, "So It Goes"
REM, "Exhuming McCarthy"
Dire Straits, "Twisting By the Pool"
Tom Rush, "Urge for Going"
Paul Westerberg & Joan Jett, "Let's Do It"
Fred Astaire, "Cheek to Cheek"
The Who, "I Can See For Miles"
Liz Phair, "Uncle Alvarez"
Steve martin & the Steep Canyon Rangers, "King Tut"
Hannah Arendt (1906-1975) was a German-born American political philosopher. This particular nugget was published posthumously in 1977:
"It is more than likely that if men were ever to lose the appetite for meaning which we call thinking, and cease to ask unanswerable questions, they would lose not only the ability to produce those thought- things which we call works of art but also the capacity for asking all the unanswerable questions upon which every civilization is founded"
Back in the 1960s "Hey Joe" was one of those songs that every rock band needed to know and an awful lot of them recorded versions of the tune. Over the years, I've heard several stories about the song's origins, and I doubt that even now there is a total consensus on where it came from. Given that groups like the Byrds and Jimi Hendrix Experience covered the song, it's a little ironic that the biggest hit version (at least in the US) was by an otherwise forgotten band called the Leaves. Here's their take on the classic:
You can easily place the Leaves' version into the jangly pop genre associated with the Byrds, Buffalo Springfield and a bunch of other West Coast groups. But here is another take, by Tim Rose, coming out of a straighter folk-blues tradition (he also offers up one version of the song's pedigree). Be forewarned: this is a considerably darker, scarier rendition than you saw above:
This looks a little hazy, because it's cropped from a corner of a bigger photo taken in low light and blown up. But clearly, you can see Andromeda and Ben, and on the left edge a hint of the hand of someone who has attracted Andromeda's attention. The question is, who? Leave your answers in the comments section.
Last week, in another dog & hands themed quiz, you were asked to identify the mystery child playing with Pilgrim. I think I must've been too clever in how I phrased the question (I used the word "conductor") which was a dead giveaway for Liz to identify her daughter Marenka (who has in the years since this pic was taken become a fine musician and conductor). Tom also named Marenka, and I suspect he got it by calculating Pilgrim's age in the picture. In any case, thanks to all who played and good luck with this week's teaser. Here's the full version of last week's picture:
Here are a couple of shots from a very nice day in the summer of 2008. Natalie, Ben, Nicky and Helen and I walked down to where the Erie Canal runs into Ellicott Creek just before flowing into the Niagara River, and just hung out for the afternoon. Good times.
I'm about a week late on this, but Happy Birthday to my sister-in-law Eileen. That's her above with brother Nick (we won't speculate on how he got so lucky). Eileen, I hope you've had a great week and that the good times continue for the rest of the year (and beyond!).
Randolph Bourne was a giant in American intellectual circles around the time of World War I. Unfortunately a variety of physical ailments led to his early death, depriving the country of an incredibly insightful thinker. Here's a selection from an essay he wrote called "The Experimental Life":
"It is good to be reasonable, but too much rationality puts the soul at odds with life. For rationality implies an almost superstitious reliance on logical proofs and logical motives, and it is logic that life mocks and contradicts at every turn. The most annoying people in the world are those who demand reasons for everything, and the most discouraging are those who map out ahead of them long courses of action, plan their lives, and systematically in the smallest detail of their activity adapt means to ends. Now the difficulty with all the prudential virtues is that they imply a world too good to be true. "
This is kind of a sloppy performance, but count this among the tunes I never expected to see on YouTube (or anywhere else really). I can't believe I don't remember a show that would have Philip Glass, Loudon Wainwright and Pere Ubu on, all at the same time. This is from a little past Pere Ubu's golden age, but I always liked this song, and it's cool to see Debby Harry lending some backup vocals on this version. On the one hand, these guys deserved to be stars, but on the other, I'm glad they never made the compromises necessary to achieve that goal (appearing on a Lorne Michaels produced program notwithstanding):
Here's one last set of photos I took in Las Vegas a couple weeks ago. These are from the indoor garden at the Bellagio Hotel. I think the fountain show out front gets more attention, but the indoor garden is a lot more impressive, and they change it around according to the season.
As you can see, they had an Autumn display up, with a pretty clear nod to Halloween (see the creepy faces in the trees).
It was kind of weird-- I was walking around for a few moments before I even noticed the faces. And this was at about 4:00 am, so there were not the usual crowds around oohing and aahing, so it came as a surprise.
Las Vegas isn't really a kid-oriented place, but this is one spot that I think youngsters would really enjoy.
Interestingly, the scarecrow below was about the least creepy part of the display.
One of my favorite young comedians is Demetri Martin. He's got a whimsically offbeat perspective and manner of delivery, which you can say about almost anybody without necessarily meaning exactly the same thing. Anyway, here's a clip that'll give you some idea of what I mean:
I have been thwarted at every step of this baseball season, as far as either picking the winners or seeing teams I like succeed. I was wrong on virtually all of the division races (I think I got two out of six), missed on the wild card teams, was .500 in the division series, but missed on both of the League Championships (I really wanted an all-LA World Series, if only to avoid the prospect of the World Series unfolding amidst snow showers). I have to admit that despite all of those misses, this does shape up as being a pretty good Series, with two extremely powerful and well-matched teams going at each other. I'm picking the Phillies, because I am constitutionally incapable of saying anything positive about the Yankees. But given my recent track record, if I actually want Philadelphia to prevail, I probably should back the AL champs. I'm not going to do that, mainly because I'm not really a fan of the Phillies, and if they lose, that'll just feed my ongoing hatred the Yankees, which I've been cultivating for thirty plus years. So, in a way, I really can't lose. Here's hoping for a seven game Series, so that we can (at least figuratively) delay winter as long as possible (snow or no snow in the Northeast).
Albert Einstein (1879-1955) was one of the most brilliant scientists of the modern era, and as such dealt in ideas and concepts that can make a layperson scratch their head in confusion. Here's his attempt to render one of his most famous theories a bit more comprehensible:
"When you are courting a nice girl an hour seems like a second. When you sit on a red- hot cinder a second seems like an hour. That's relativity."
Back in 1985 I went to see REM play the Springfest at the University of Buffalo, and ended up being blown away by the opening act: Billy Bragg, the one man punk band. Here's one of the songs he did then (and which instantly became one of my all-time favorites):
While in Las Vegas, I again had the opportunity to practice my night photography (not the one above, which I just wanted to slip in). Here are a few of the images I collected, shooting in black and white. I think I'm getting better, but as always any tips would be appreciated.
This is the walkway across Las Vegas Blvd. that connects the MGM Grad to New York, New York, near Tropicana. I liked the juxtaposition of the Statue of Liberty with the palm trees.
This is outside of Bill's Gambling Parlor on the corner of Las Vegas Blvd. and Flamingo (across from Caesar's Palace).
The El Cortez is a downtown hotel, near the Fremont Experience. Just a couple blocks away, there were crowds of people, but here it was pretty deserted.
All the neon in Vegas makes it a great place to shoot at night, but most of it is found around the various hotels/casinos.
Even this, a parking garage at a hotel, isn't much of a stretch. Next time I'll have to make an effort to expand the range of my subjects.
Here is the video of an audio piece that we did this past Sunday on Dr. John's Record Shelf. In addition to the list, you get a little plug for an old movie that I believe I've mentioned here on the blog before (in a way, the blog and the radio show are really the two sides of a metaphorical Dr. John coin). I hope you like this:
Voltaire was the pseudonym of Francois-Marie Arouet (1694-1778), one of the most widely read and remembered of the French Enlightenment thinkers. His most famous work was probably the picaresque novel Candide but here's a snippet of what he wrote on "equality" in the Philosophical Dictionary:
"All men have the right in the bottom of their hearts to think themselves entirely equal to other men. It does not follow from this that the cardinal's cook should order his master to prepare him his dinner, but the cook can say: 'I am a man like my master; like him I was born crying; like me he will die with the same pangs and the same ceremonies. Both of us perform the same animal functions. If the Turks take possession of Rome, and if then I am cardinal and my master cook, I shall take him into my service.' This discourse is reasonable and just, but while waiting for the Great Turk to take possession of Rome, the cook must do his duty, or else all human society is disordered."
Normally I follow the Battle of the Bands Update with a video of one of the victorious groups from that week. But today I thought I'd give you a little taste of the Monks-- possibly the most obscure act to make the competition at all, and though they will not be moving on to Round 2, probably deserve at least another moment in the spotlight. You gotta love a rock band that includes a banjo-- not to mention those crazy haircuts! This is from a German TV appearance circa 1965:
Last night we had a couple of easy advances in the Battle of the Bands competition unfolding on my radio program, Dr. John's Record Shelf. No. 1 seeds Chicago (Midwest Bracket) and Velvet Underground (Northeast) easily dispatched the 16 seeds, the Cryan Shames and Monks, in their respective divisions.
Velvet Underground& Nico
It was a unanimous decision on behalf of the Velvets, whose "Sweet Jane" trounced the Monks' "Boys Are Boys and Girls Are Choice." Our guest judge this week was the Rock Doctor, Rob Thomas, who somewhat grudgingly went along with Art Vandalay and I on the Velvets. He was much firmer in his support of Chicago, behind "Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is," over "Sugar and Spice" by the Cryan Shames (Art, expressing a strong dislike for brass in rock and roll did vote for the underdog in this contest).
There are six more weeks in Round 1 of our competition. You can see the full slate of matchups, by region, here, here, here, and here. Those groups that have already advanced to Round 2 include The Byrds, Creedence Clearwater Revival, the Lovin' Spoonful, the Gants, the Cowsills, the Outsiders, Steppenwolf, Spirit, the Beach Boys, the Sir Douglas Quintet, the Kingsmen, the Standells, the Crickets, the Shadows of Knight, the Remains, the Electric Prunes, the Bobby Fuller Four, and the New York Dolls. The whole competition will continue to unfold over the next few months on my radio show, which can be heard Sunday nights at 5:00 at 90.9 fm if you happen to be in SW Montana (at 90.9 fm).
I think Joan Jett may be the greatest female rock and roller of all time. I'd have to think a bit about who her competition may be (Grace Slick? Wanda Jackson?), but in the meantime, here's a bit of evidence in support of her case:
I've mentioned before that one of my favorite soups is the Chicken Tortilla variety served at the Baja Fresh chain of restaurants on the west coast. I'd go a few miles out of my way to have a bowl of that stuff. I think I've also mentioned that when I've had Chicken Tortilla soup in other places, it's been kind of hit or miss. Yesterday I had a bowl at one of my favorite Mexican Restaurants, Christina's La Cucina in Butte, and it was pretty good, but not outstanding. I actually didn't detect any tortillas in the mix (nor did it have a slice of avacado, part of what makes Baja Fresh's version so great), but is was suitably tangy and somewhat cheesy, with a bit of sour cream as well, so it definitely made a nice prelude to my meal. I imagine there are proprietary interests in the various recipes used by these places, so I'll never have exactly the same experience in different places, which is okay; but I do wish that I could get ahold of something as good as Baja Fresh's more than a couple times a year.
Much like the H.T. Webster panels I featured here a couple of weeks ago, J.R. Williams offered up little slices of life in his classic Out Our Way. He too captures a certain essence of small town middle class life, with a special emphasis on kids and dogs, and those memorable moments which last a lifetime.
There's something inherently nostalgic about Williams' depiction of life in America between the World Wars, and I wonder if that wasn't true even at the time they were first published; one can certainly see that element in the panel above.
Even though they portray a time long past, they still retain their humor. I mean, there's something timeless about the joke of the fire chief caught in his chair, even as it defies the impression we have of the modern firefighter.
Here's an example of a Sunday page of Out Our Way, featuring the Willets. The color version strikes me as more typical of other strips, while the daily panel displayed a more personal style and perspective (but maybe that's because I've only seen what's been reprinted, and didn't experience it daily as they appeared).
The above makes me think of Tom Sawyer and Aunt Polly. Ever notice that mothers in the older strips (and movies too) actually looked matronly?
See what I mean by timeless? I think that the turnout in my town for non-state or national campaigns might be around 20%. I guess it was always like that.
Something else that Williams had in common with Webster: he liked to do cartoons about dogs. His tend to be rather scruffy mutts.
I like the way his kids are always a little disheveled themselves-- evidence of the hard work of chores and play.
This one's a real classic! Just count the number of ways that the hostess has to feel embarrassed by this episode.
I think if I sent my laundry out, I'd be tempted to adopt this strategy myself. This was the age of the classic gag panel (in addition to Williams and Webster, there was also Gene Ahearn's Our Boarding House and Clare Briggs' work), which comics historian Jerry Robinson summarized as "extracting humor from the mundane." I'm not sure what the modern counterpart would be (I don't think we'd find it on the comics page), but I'm glad these cartoons exist as one means of reconnecting with the day-to-day aspects of life in this country's past.
Today's quotation comes from the famous novelist W. Somerset Maugham. I'll let you decide if you want to buy into this idea or not:
"From the earliest times the old have rubbed it into the young that they are wiser that they, and before the young had discovered what nonsense this was they were old too, and it profited them to carry on the imposture."
Here are a few more shots taken at Red Rock Canyon in Nevada last week. Above you get a good sense of the desert plain that sits between the outcroppings of rocks and the mountains.
Here's a view looking up a canyon towards, if I recall correctly, Turtlehead Mountain. By this point in our visit, we were pretty parched and not quite willing to hike up any closer.
These next two are from the one shady spot we found, so we lingered a bit to beat the heat. The colors of the trees against the backdrop of the mountains made for some stunning views.
There were a bunch of chipmunks running around this spot, and I suspect that I aimed my camera here to catch one perched on the rock. Also, he scurried off before I snapped the picture, though I still think it turned out pretty good.
One last shot of a lonely tree up at the lookout point overlooking the desert floor of the park (this was from the highest elevation accessible without actually climbing up on the rocks). Going up to the conservancy was a nice break from the city, but the latter was what we came down to Vegas to experience, so after a couple hours in the mountains, we were heading back....
Baby Huey was the quintessential ugly duckling-- right up to the end of the cartoon, when he inevitably saves the day! I remember watching these old theatrical shorts repackaged for TV, along with Heckle & Jekyll, Little Audry, and I think Caspar the Friendly Ghost, though I don't remember the programs they all appeared on in the mid sixties. Oh well, glad to see they're still available on YouTube:
I've read that Will Rogers may have been the biggest celebrity in the country circa 1930. This was largely due to his talents as an entertainer, but he was also a thoughtful individual with a plainspoken way of hitting on some important truths, as in this comment from a newspaper column he wrote in 1929:
"People talk peace, but men give their life's work to war. It won't stop till there is as much brains and scientific study put to aid peace as there is to promote war."
This is very short, but quite sweet. You'll see John Cleese as Basil Fawlty reaching his limit, which actually happened pretty regularly on the classic Fawlty Towers. In fact, Basil could compete with "the terrible tempered Mr. Bang" for the title of all-time shortest fuse in all of popular culture.
Here's a nice picture of good old Pilgrim, being urged to smile by some unknown conductor. The question is, who? Place your guesses in the comments section.
Last week, I asked two questions about a picture of Gramma and Helen, where it was taken and on what occasion. Evidently this was too easy, as everybody (Sally, Natalie, Ben, Dan, and Mom) all got it right: it was taken at Nestor's Restaurant after Helen had won her heat in the annual Canal Fest Diaper Derby (sadly, she didn't fare so well in the finals). Hopefully, this week's quiz will pose more of a challenge.
Finally, a soup I can really rave about! The potato leek soup (complete with fried onion garnish) at the Alehouse brew pub in Bozeman is really, really good. In fact, it was easily the best part of the meal I had there a couple nights ago prior to the Hold Steady show. When I was a kid, my Mom made potato soup pretty often, and so it has real comfort food connotations for me; the oniony twist on this version made it near perfect, and the crunchy onions on top were an extra treat. This is one I'm going to try and make myself sometime, though I doubt I'll nail it so well as the chef (or my Mom!). When I find a soup this good, it makes me want to go out looking for something else to tickle my palette, but it looks like my travels are winding down for awhile (and there is no place here in Dillon to get good soup). I guess that should just be more incentive to try and make my own.
Here's one especially for Helen and Nicky (and Emma too, if she's interested): do you recognize the little girl in the bonnet above? Anybody else remember that little portable TV in the background? How about the baby picture up on the shelf; I know it's indistinct, but does anyone have any idea who it is?
Here's a slightly older picture than I usually post, of Dad with his pipe, Catie and Nick. This was taken during a visit to Gramma's house sometime back in the seventies. I like the poster in the background, which I'm guessing Uncle Dick got from the Sisters (any other guesses on that?).
There are some clips out there that sound a little better than this one, but visually this is closest to what I saw the other night (though we saw them in a much smaller venue). Singer Craig Finn was a bit more animated on Tuesday night, but he's hardly a statue in this video. Let me know what you think:
Last Friday Bill and I spent most of the morning driving and hiking around the Red Rock Canyon nature conservancy about fifteen miles west of Las Vegas (hard to believe it was actually that close). Above you can see some of the rocks that give the place its name.
This shot gives you a better idea of the desert like landscape that comes right up to the edge of the mountains. The terrain was very sandy, and the creek bed that lay just below this spot was bone-dry.
The blocks in the foreground here were cut out of a nearby sandstone quarry that was opened in 1906 and closed just a couple of years later. It proved to be too remote to make it worthwhile lugging the stones to where someone might actually want to use them (back then, I don't think Vegas was any more than a tiny crossroads village, if that).
This shot of Bill was also taken near the old quarry. I liked the two-tone features of the rocks rising up behind him.
And here's one of me-- wearing my souvenir cap purchased at the visitors center. I wish I'd spent the money on a couple bottles of water, as we got pretty parched hiking around the trails in close to 90 degree heat. Next time, we'll be better prepared in that regard (I suspect Bill will opt to wear something than sandals next time too). I've got a few more pics to post from Red Rock, which I should have up tomorrow.