Thursday, February 26, 2009

New York Opera

What is the music of New York City? Okay, it’s a stupid question. Depending on what you like, you can chose almost anything you’d want to listen to, and call it authentic New York music. Genre after genre of American music has its roots in New York City, from classical music—native New Yorkers Copland, Gershwin, and Carter are perhaps the greatest composers in 20th century America—to all of the creators of rap music, from Grandmaster Flash to Jay-Z. But leave us to avoid chauvinism, or ill-becoming boosterism. For most musical genres, New York City has to share the honors with other cities. If nothing says New York City in music like jazz, NYC must share the honors as the pre-eminent jazz city with Chicago, Kansas City, and of course, New Orleans. And New York City, if not quite tangential to the development of the post-war blues and rock and roll, is not nearly as central as say, Detroit or Memphis, or for that matter, Liverpool. But there is one musical genre which was New York City born and bred, and really had no life outside of the city, except for a few of its practitioners who ventured to Hollywood. This is the remarkable flourishing of musical theater in New York City from about 1920 to about 1970, a rough half century that saw the production of masterpiece after masterpiece. It was a synthetic genre, with a foundation in Viennese operetta on which was overlaid ragtime, jazz, and newer popular music styles, but it has a coherence and distinctiveness that was all its own; verbally deft, melodically pungent, nimble in its dance, and elegant in its presentation. In his history of Opera in America, John Dizikes, calls this, quite aptly, “New York Opera” and the name is a good one. For most of the 20th century, some of the most sophisticated, memorable, and lasting musical theater, anywhere in the world, was created in New York City.

These reflections are prompted by the sad news that John McGlinn, an extraordinary conductor of American musicals, passed away last week. Before McGlinn, the performance of American musicals was haphazard, with numbers cut out, added, or reshaped according to the whims of the performers. Little attention had been paid to the original intentions of the composers, or efforts made to search out the original scores, and attempt to create authentic performing additions. What a host of musicologists were doing in the 1980s and 1990s for baroque music, McGlinn did for American musicals. His masterpiece was undoubtedly the 3 CD release in 1988 of the complete score for “Show Boat,” demonstrating an previously unrecognized architecture to the entire work, and salvaging numbers cut from the show. It was a revelation, and he followed this up with similarly vital reconstructions of the works of Cole Porter, Gershwin, and all of the giants of mid century American musical theater. There is nothing automatic about the preservation of our cultural heritage. John McGlinn, in his many recordings, did much to help keep the mighty majesty of the musical “rolling along.”

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

The Changing Meaning of Race

Two hundred years after the birth of Abraham Lincoln, and one hundred years after the founding of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, what does the Obama presidency mean for the identity of Black Americans within the United States? It means that an interracial vision of the United States is emerging, one where "Black is no longer a country," the historian Deborah Gray White argued recently at Rutgers-Newark. Black American identity is not determined strictly by race, but by other factors such as gender, sexuality, religion and class.

All of this, she argued in the 29th Annual Marion Wright Thompson Lecture, is part of a struggle toward an integrated United States that was embraced haltingly by Lincoln and enthusiastically by the NAACP. But that quest was long thwarted by racism and segregation, which forced Black people to construct their own parallel institutions to sustain themselves in a hostile environment. Of course, Black people never lived just by reacting to whites. But they built up their own communities with their own definitions. Today, however, the boundaries around Black communities are more porous than before. What that means is yet to be worked out.

White traces the origins of the present moment to the Million Man and Million Mom marches of the 1990s. She interprets them not as signs of monolithic unity, but as searches for solidarity in a time of changing racial identity and leadership. She concludes that these marches, where gays and women demanded a presence, were a sign that the old unity of Black America was in short supply. Race lost the unifying power that it had a century ago.

White's insightful lecture brought to mind a point that Peter made earlier on this blog: that great historic events change our way of looking at the past. Surely the Obama presidency will set off all sorts of ruminations on what his election tells us about the nation that elevated him to its highest office. That will set historians to searching for the roots of Obama's multi-racial electoral coalition. And inevitably, that will tell us new and surprising things about the significance of race in the United States. Deborah Gray White's presentation was a good effort at leading us in this new direction.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009


When I was in grad school at NYU, back in the salad days of the Carter administration, I took a class in the New Deal with the late Albert Romasco, a gentleman and a scholar if there ever was one, and I know Rob agrees. (For those looking for a refresher on New Deal economic policy, I strongly recommend his two books, the Poverty of Abundance and the Politics of Recovery. His was a voice stilled far too soon.) Anyway, I guess because I knew nothing about it, I became fascinated by federal farm policy in the 1920s and 1930s, and part of the fascination was that farm policy was really in the center of policy debates, in a way it hadn’t (or hasn’t) been in my lifetime. So I ended up writing a paper for Al on McNary-Haugenism, probably because I liked the sound of its name. It remains one of the least remembered “isms” in American history, but if you were around in the 1920s, and cared about politics you definitely would have heard of it. Sponsored by Charles McNary of Oregon (who was, as you remember, Wendell Wilkie’s running mate in 1940, the Sarah Palin of his day), and Gilbert Haugen of Iowa, it was a policy that would have required the federal government to purchase any agricultural surplus from farmers, and then sell it overseas, below the market price in the United States, a practice which has been subsequently given the inelegant label of “dumping” The McNary-Haugen Bill twice passed congress, only to be vetoed by both Coolidge and Hoover, which only made the prairie fire of McNary-Haugenism burn all the more brightly.

McNary-Haugenism was a response to an endemic problem that faced farmers at that time, that of declining price levels for their produce. For farmers, the depression started in 1920, not in 1929, and the low farm prices in the 1920s was simply a replay of a problems farmers had faced many times before. In 1889, in the midst of a long decline in farm prices, the US Department of Agriculture was created, the first government department that had as its main purpose the bolstering of asset prices. Henry Wallace, the Secretary of Agriculture in FDR’s first two terms (and who defeated McNary for the vice presidency in 1940), appreciated the sentiment behind McNary-Haughenism but thought it was ultimately self-defeating. First, no country was going to want to undercut its own domestic food production by letting American produce sell cheaply, and second, the basic problem with McNary-Haughenism was that it failed to limit agricultural production. Without some agreement, and some federal assistance to limit production, the underlying problem would remain. And during his eight years as Secretary of Agriculture, that is just what Wallace did, introduce and implement all sorts of programs that encouraged and paid farmers to limit production and not to farm.

Okay , you say, this is all very interesting, but why are you telling me this? For the most part, Americans want to keep government out of their business when asset prices are rising, but come calling to the government when asset prices are falling. We are suffering through a huge collapse in asset prices, particularly in housing. And all sorts of people; realtors, bankers, and homeowners, have been flocking to government, looking for help. And I am very afraid that what Obama proposed today in terms of helping on mortgage foreclosures is a form of McNary-Haughenism, in that it involves the government with bolstering asset prices, but fails to address the underlying problem; there are too many homes and too many homeowners. Without making the United States less of an ownership society, and more a place to live without having to assume ridiculous levels of indebtedness society, the basic problem will remain unaddressed.

Farm policy has never again been as important, or at least as politically volatile, as it was during the New Deal. (And never again has there been a politician like Henry Wallace, who came to national prominence because of the farm issue. ) And one reason for this is that one result, not entirely intended, of Wallace’s farm policy is that we greatly reduced the number of farmers. Whether this was a good thing can be debated, but at least it got the marginal farmers off the land. And at the same time we reduced the number of farmers, we started to increase the number of home owners, often by farmers selling their potato fields to real estate developers. And we continually added to the universe of home owners until they became increasingly marginal. But it is no more important that everyone own their own house than it is than everyone grow their own food. And housing has become the farm crisis of the early 21st century, a crucial commodity with a perpetually unstable asset price, that government will try, with greater or less success, to control its swings. I think what is really needed is less government price support for housing prices, which like agricultural price supports will last forever, but alternatives to private homes and mortgages, in the form of decent, affordable moderate income housing, into which we could move millions of people. When the government merely assumes responsibility for maintaining asset prices without trying to control the underlying speculative nature of the commodity in question, we have returned, as Al Romasco would say, to the siren song of McNary-Haughenism.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Waltzing with Bashir

Many films have meditated on the tormented intersection of history and memory, but I can't think of a better one than the Israeli filmmaker Ari Folman's Waltz with Bashir, which I saw yesterday in Manhattan at the Sunshine Cinema. Researched like a documentary but presented as an animated film, Waltz with Bashir explores Folman's attempts to confront his own memories of the 1982 Lebanon War and the Sabra and Shatila massacre. See it for its urgent lessons on the past and present.

The film opens with two middle-aged Israeli veterans of Lebanon. One has a recurring nightmare from the war whose meaning is obvious. But the other, Folman, has no memories at all. The film takes the form of his conversations with others, above all veterans, who share recollections with Folman as he attempts to fill in the blank spaces on his canvas.

With a few exceptions, the voices in the film are the voices of real people who were interviewed for the film. The genius of Waltz with Bashir is that it presents the sounds of these voices underneath animated images that are perfect for depicting surreal memories of war and tortured dreams about war. In its blend of documentary and animation, Waltz with Bashir expands the domain of animation just as Maus made us think in new ways about history, comics and the graphic novel.

But for me, this film was more than an artful history lesson. From my own efforts to recall my brush with death on 9/11, and from listening to veterans' unfolding conversations about my friend Frank Carvill's death in Baghdad, I've learned how memories of violence are riddled with time bends, distortions, and blank spots. Waltz with Bashir conveys all of these brilliantly. For me, it was helpful to see how other men who went through extreme experiences walk around with complicated stories in their heads.

Waltz with Bashir also conveys urgent lessons about Israel's past and present. The emotional climax of the film is the filmmaker's confrontation with the Sabra and Shatila massacres. In that awful episode, Christian Falangist militiamen (angry at the assassination of Bashir Gemayel, their leader and newly-elected president) slaughtered Palestinians while Israeli troops stood by. The still-disputed death toll was at least in the hundreds, and the film's Web site gives a figure of 3,000.

Protests and outrage in Israel prompted an Israeli investigation of the massacre; it found the Falangist militiamen directly responsible for the killings, but held that Israelis were indirectly responsible. Then, as now, it seems like the minimum acceptable judgement. Nonetheless, it was a sign that Israel's moral core was still vigorous. Watch the film and see what you think.

Then ask yourself if the years since Sabra and Shatila have helped or hurt many Israelis' sense of national morality. Waltzing with Bashir is a sign that there are still Israelis who can ask tough questions about themselves and their country. The recent Israeli elections, which show a strong drift to the right, are another story.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

The Call

One hundred years ago today, on February 12, 1909, the 100th anniversary of the birth of Abraham Lincoln, a group of concerned individuals issued a call for a meeting to discuss race relations in the United States. The immediate catalyst was a race riot in Springfield, Illinois--the one-time home of Lincoln¬— the previous year. The initiators of the call were primarily white progressives, concerned about the continuing deterioration of black rights in the United States, the series of political and legal actions that had neutered the intentions of the mighty 14th and 15th amendments to the constitution (and to some extent, even the 13th amendment), returning blacks to a form of bondage in the South, and keeping them from enjoying the rights and privileges of full citizenship anywhere in the United States. The Call, as it came to be known, asked for a meeting to be held in New York City to discuss these problems. The meeting, which was held later in the year, became the founding convention of what became known as (by 1910) as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the NAACP.

One hundred years ago today, the Civil Rights Movement began. There had been efforts, since 1865, since the beginning of Reconstruction, to advance the rights of racial minorities, and to arrest their decline. They were all, more or less, failures, if honorable failures, sporadic, short-lived, ineffective, and largely marginal to the political debate. With the founding of the NAACP, this changed, albeit slowly and awith all deliberate speed. The NAACP had the stature and status to make politicians and the general public take notice, and the path that would make it possible for another one-time legislator in Springfield, Illinois to become president in 2009 started one hundred years ago today.

Only seven of the sixty signers were black, including W.E.B.DuBois, who would become the voice and epitome of the NAACP for the next quarter century, in addition to such prominent figures as Ida B. Wells and Mary Church Terrell. But most of the signers were white, including a cross section of progressive reformers, social workers, ministers, rabbis, journalists, academics, and socialists. Let us particularly honor the chief initiators of the Call (all white), William Walling, Mary White Ovington, Charles Edward Russel, and Oswald Garrison Villard, grandson of William Lloyd Garrison.

Today is also the 100th anniversary of the day when the greatest and largest city in the United States first began in a serious way to concern itself with the greatest social evil in the country. New York City was, throughout the 19th century, probably the most racially conservative of large northern cities. New York State’s honor in fighting for racial justice was largely preserved upstate, through individuals like Frederick Douglass and Gerritt Smith. Today, a century ago, New York City started to pull its own weight, and started down the path that would make it, certainly by mid-century, a center, and in many ways the national center for progressive racial reform and reformers.

I was searching for a list of the signers of The Call on the web, and after a quick search this is the best I could do. It does not have sixty names, and perhaps reflects its original signers, omitting those who signed it subsequently. I'm not sure. Perhaps the most notable omissions are the brothers Spingarn, Arthur and Joel, two philanthropists and educators who played a crucial role in the organization for its earliest days. The Spingarns were Jewish, and I had forgotten that two rabbis signed The Call, Stephen Wise, and Emil Hirsch (a Chicago rabbi), and that Henry Moskowitz (husband of Belle Moskowitz, of Al Smith fame) also signed it. Today is also perhaps the 100th anniversary of the Black-Jewish alliance, and the transfomation movement of the cause black equality from one associated with Christian evangelism to
a broader coalition, at once multi-religious and more secular.

I do not know why The Call has received so little attention today. As an event in the movement to an America which is truly governed “of the people, by the people, and for the people” it rivals anything done by Abraham Lincoln. And when we think of our hopeless causes today, let us remember how hopeless the cause of racial equality seemed in 1909, and how far we have come in a mere hundred years.

In any event, let us honor The Call and its signers, the famous, the not-so famous, and the obscure:

Jane Adams, Chicago; Samuel Bowles (Springfield Republican); Prof. W.L. Bulkley, New York; Harriet Stanton Blatch, New York; Ida Wells Barnett, Chicago; E. H. Clement, Boston; Kate H. Claghorn, New York; Prof. John Dewey, New York; Dr. W. E. B.DuBois, Atlanta; Mary E. Dreier, Brooklyn; Dr. John L. Elliott, New York; Wm. Lloyd Garrison, Boston; Rev. Francis J. Grimke, Washington, D.C.; William Dean Howells, New York; Rabbi Emil G. Hirsch, Chicago; Rev. John Haynes Holmes, New York; Prof. Thomas C. Hall, New York; Hamilton Holt, New York; Florence Kelley, New York; Rev. Frederick Lynch, New York; Helen Marot, New York; John E. Milholland, New York; Mary E. McDowell, Chicago; Prof. J. G. Merrill, Connecticut; Dr. Henry Moskowitz, New York; Leonora O’Reilly, New York; Mary Ovington, New York; Rev. Dr. Charles H. Parkhurst, New York; Louis F. Post, Chicago; Rev. Dr. John P. Peters, New York; Dr. Jane Robbins, New York; Charles Edward Russell, New York; Joseph Smith, Boston; Anna Garlin Spencer, New York; William M. Salter, Chicago; J. C. Phelps Stokes, New York; Judge Wendell Stafford, Washington; Helen Stokes, Boston; Lincoln Steffens, Boston; President C. F. Thwing, Western Reserve University; Prof. W. I. Thomas, Chicago; Oswald Garrison Villard, New York Evening Post; Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, New York; Bishop Alexander Walters, New York; Dr. William H. Ward, New York; Horace White, New York; William English Walling, New York; Lillian D. Wald, New York; Dr. J. Milton Waldron, Washington, D.C.; Mrs. Rodman Wharton, Philadelphia; Susan P. Wharton, Philadelphia; President Mary E. Wooley, Mt. Holyoke College; Prof. Charles Zueblin, Boston.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

A Populist Moment

Decades ago, the historian E.P. Thompson said something to the effect that "the people need to see themselves experimenting with democratic forms." There was something of that in Congress today, when Rep. Barney Frank and others in the House of Representatives grilled the bankers. Americans could see the "malefactors of great wealth" questioned by their elected representatives. Whatever policy comes out of it, it was good political theater--a demonstration of the idea, so important to the health of the Democratic Party, that government can tame the raging powers of capitalism. A populist moment is at hand.

Speaking later on the Rachel Maddow Show, Frank said that he planned to bring the financial industries to heel as Roosevelt did in the New Deal. I can only wish him well. (It is interesting to note that the account of the same hearing in the New York Times, unlike that on the Maddow Show, depicted the event as a more tepid affair.)

For too long, worship of Wall Street has gone relatively uncontested. But now, in The Street's failure, politicians are voicing the anger of their constituents. By itself, of course, this doesn't make good policies.

But the key to winning a fight as big as President Obama's struggle over the future of the American economy lies in setting the terms of the debate. For Obama, that means overcoming decades of market fundamentalism and anti-regulatory cant that have dominated the Republican Party and won over too many Democrats. (Think of the Clinton years.)

The Democrats in the House made a good start. They identified the bad guys, proposed government solutions, and voiced anger that millions feel. All this may not finish the fight, or even guarantee the outcome. But it's a good start.

Jabotinsky's Israel

I was in Israel in May, 1977 when Menachem Begin was elected prime minister. On the kibbutz where I was staying, this was accompanied by a gnashing of teeth, a rending of garments, and flags flying at half-mast. I remember invoking January 30th, 1933, by means of comparison. For the first time in the almost thirty years of Israel’s history, governance had passed from Mapai, the labor party, the party of Ben-Gurion and Golda Meir, the party that had led Israel since its founding. That was more than half a lifetime ago for me. I left Israel that September to start graduate school at NYU, and my life has taken various twists and turns, none of which, however, has brought me back to Israel. There was another election in Israel yesterday. I don’t know how the results will be judged by those on the kibbutz where I was staying, but I suspect it will be more a shrugging of shoulders than anything else. Israel has changed, and has moved steadily to the right. It is not clear who is going to be the next prime minister, but it either will be Tzipi Livni, who started out in Likud and moved somewhat towards the center, or Benjamin Netanyahu, who has always been in Likud. Right-wing governmental coalitions are not news anymore. But I do think that this election represents a turning point, perhaps as profound as that in May 1977.

But explaining this requires a bit of background for those not up on Israeli politics. The great confrontation in interwar Zionism was between David Ben-Gurion of the Labor Party and Vladimir Jabotinsky of the Revisionists, Ben-Gurion of the moderate socialist left and Jabotinsky of the hard militant right. It appeared in 1948, and for several decades thereafter, that Ben-Gurion, the first prime minister of Israel, was victorious in this struggle. But it is now clear that Ben-Gurion only won the first battle; Jabotinsky won the war. (And to keep a New York thread to the blog, I would point out that Jabotinsky died of a heart attack in the Catskills in 1940.) All of the three largest parties in this election, representing the moderate right, the immoderate right, and the extremist right, can trace a lineage to Jabotinsky and the revisionists. Israel is Jabotinsky’s.

The reasons for this are not hard to discern. The Labor Party vision is complex, but basically envisioned a land at peace, ingathering the exiles, built by labor, the Revisionist vision was a Jewish state perpetually at war with unforgiving neighbors, defending itself as best as it could, with an iron wall between itself and the Arabs. The Revisionist vision, alas, has proved more realistic. Wars of course are self-confirming. One almost always leads to another, and another, and so it has proved for Israel and its Arab neighbors. The more wars you start, the more you get to finish. This is the Israel of 2009, created, it must be said, in large part through the failures of the Labor Party. Where we go from here is anybody’s guess. The prospects are not encouraging.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Stompin' at the Savoy

Geithner’s and Obama’s plan for disbursing the final $350 billion of the TARP money richly deserves a full excoriation—Obama’s hundred days is more and more seems to be like that of Napoleon, rather than that of FDR. But this will have to wait for another day. This a big week for bicentennials, with Darwin’s and Lincoln’s coming up on Thursday, but today is a centennial worthy of note, the 100th birthday of the great big-band leader and drummer, Chick Webb.

Chick Webb was born in Baltimore, and it was a difficult birth. He was born with tuberculosis of the spine, was short and hunchbacked, and various illnesses led to his death at the tragically early age of 30. He was one of the large number of Baltimoreans, black and white, who had a major impact on New York City in first half of the 20th century (Billie Holiday, Babe Ruth, H.L. Mencken, for starters.) Few loomed larger.
By the mid-1920s he was in New York City, already attracting attention for his drumming prowess, and by the end of the decade he had one of the best swing bands in the city. The Chick Webb band will always be associated with the Savoy Ballroom, Harlem’s famous dancehall, immortalized in their best-known recording, “Stompin’ at the Savoy,” and where they were the house band from 1933 until Webb’s death. The Savoy Ballroom was a place of display and contest, where jitterbuggers and lindyhoppers would strut and jump their stuff, and where huge crowds would listen to various bands battle for audience acclaim, battles that Chick Webb’s band invariably won.
Chick Webb was a marvelous drummer; lithe, supple, and precise. His bands embodied the mysterious quality that came to be prized during the 1930s as “swing,” the ability to play with energy and propulsion while retaining a certain lightness, music of rhythmic precision married to a playfulness and unexpectedness. Chick Webb had in it spades. Perhaps no New York City band of the 1920s and 1930s, at least until Count Basie arrived from Kansas City in 1936, could rival Chick Webb in the essential, fundamental quality of their swing. Chick Webb did not live long and did not make that many records, and many of those, after 1935, very devoted to displaying the vocal talents of his discovery and protégé, Ella Fitzgerald, but if you listen to his early recordings, you can hear a true master. (The Decca collection “Spinnin’ The Webb,” if it still available, is a great place to start.) The Savoy Ballroom was famous for many things, and one of those was its function as one of the few generally open meeting place (and occasional trysting place) for blacks and whites. Chick Webb had a symbiotic relation with the Savoy’s dancers, each feeding off the others energy, and the energy was about more than just happy feet; it was about the propulsion of racial change, the gathering challenge to the post-Reconstruction order, and the hipness of integration. Chick Webb’s music, was in the best sense, if I may borrow a phrase from Rob, the sound of the city. Happy 100th.

Monday, February 9, 2009

A-Rod and Citicorp

So Alex Rodriguez, the Yankee’s star-crossed superstar, has admitted that he took steroids earlier in the decade, but not since early 2003, and not since coming to the Yankees. Well, the old biddies of the sports pages will cluck about nothing else for weeks, and whatever it is that swirls around him will continue to swirl around him for much of the season, and the Yankees, and their horrible new stadium (the house that Ruth didn’t build, though, to say something in its favor, unlike the Mets new stadium, it is not named after a major recipient of bailout money from the TARP stadium.)

This, I guess, gets to the point of this post. Who should we be madder at, A-Rod or Citicorp?
And who will we be madder at? (A-Rod, of course.) What the baseball steroid scandals and the Wall Street horrors have in common is a lax regulatory structure that encouraged every participant to think that everyone else was trying to get something over on them. This is the free market; you assume everyone else is a cheat and cutthroat, and that the only way to get ahead is to be as devious as the next fellow. This is why baseball players bulked up on steroids, and our investment houses bulked up on worthless mortgage derivatives. From the schoolyard to the locker room to the trading floor, there is no argument more powerful than—hey, they’re all doing it, why are you picking on me? (And don’t be a snitch.)

I have a lot more sympathy for the roided up ball players than the Wall Street firms. We should recognize that in baseball in the early 21st century it became very difficult for those seeking a competitive edge not to engage in steriodical activities. No one really cares if you play by unwritten rules. In the end, the moral outrage at our ballplayers will be more fervently felt, and longer lasting, than our outrage at our bankers. We are mad at our bankers because they failed, struck out like Mighty Casey, not because they cheated. When, as eventually will happen, the economy will turn around, all, or almost all will be forgotten. Part of this is of course that we understand baseball, and really don’t understand banking. And part of the problem is that we have forgotten how to be angry at capitalists in productive ways.. Melvin Urofsky recommended in the Times the other day that we all re-read Louis Brandeis’s “Other People’s Money,” to regain a sense of moral indignation. I think it is a great idea, and we need to remember how it was possible for a relatively conservative Democratic president (Woody Wilson) to name to the Supreme Court a jurist best known for attacking our financial system.
We can imagine a baseball world without A-Rod, but most of us can’t imagine a financial system without Citicorp or its facsimiles, so we accept it. In any event, when A-Rod gets booed in the New Yankee Stadium, and when the Mets take the field in the grotesquely named CitiField, there will be no joy in Mudville.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Irish Pirate Ballads and More

My friend Dan Milner, whom I first met when he ran concerts at the old Eagle Tavern on Fourteenth Street in Manhattan, has been a lyrical presence on the Irish and folk music scenes in New York City since the 1970s. His latest CD, Irish Pirate Ballads and Other Songs of the Sea, brings together good music, stellar supporting artists, and splendid liner notes.

The selection of songs on this CD is generous, with classics such as "The Flying Cloud" and less-known numbers such as "Larry Maher's Big Five-Gallon Jar," a delightful inheritance from mid-nineteenth-century New York. As befits a man who is studying for a graduate degree in cultural geography at the City University of New York (I'm the second reader on his M.A. thesis), Dan's notes shed sound historical light on all his songs.

What is especially enjoyable about these notes, though, is their autobiographical content. Dan's recollections of his family's immigration from Ireland to England to Canada to New York, his stories of growing up in Brooklyn a Dodgers fan, and his reminiscences of the trans-Atlantic folk scene are sensitive and deftly rendered. Together, they help us grasp the many people, places and influences that have made him such a fine musician and folklolrist.

Dan celebrated the release of Irish Pirate Ballads on Smithsonian Folkways Friday at New York University's Glucksman Ireland House. There, Don Meade continues the concert series that Dan began many years ago at the Eagle.

As usual Dan's unaccompanied singing was excellent, with superb phrasing and great tone. When he was joined in various combinations by his wife Bonnie, Gabriel Donohue, Don Meade, and the Washington Square Harp and Shamrock Orchestra, the results were delightful.

The concert was also a great opportunity for me to revisit to my own musical history. My love of Irish folk music dates to about 1968, when my patrol leader in the Boy Scouts, Larry Burke, introduced me to the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem. Two of my favorite numbers on their albums were "The Lowlands Low," a song about the flight of the Wild Geese, and the beautiful lyric, ""Will Ye Go, Lassie, Go?" Both found their way onto the program Friday and I much appreciated them--as I think listeners will appreciate this CD.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Raymonds and Rexfords

One of the main criticisms of our former president, now blessedly entering into obscurity somewhere in Texas, is that he used the proclamation of various “states of emergency” to wrest extraordinary powers for his administration, and that this is one of the ways that modern governments, democracies or non-democracies, extend their powers. I concur, and I believe I made a similar argument on this blog at one point, no doubt citing trendy, show-offy authorities like Carl Schmitt and Giorgio Agabem. But what works for foreign policy or domestic threats of terrorism doesn’t quite work the same way for the economy. There, declaring a state of economic emergency can limit the options of the declarer of emergency, as everyone concludes that what needs to be done is to fix the emergency, while the underlying problem goes unaddressed.

Let me propose a new typology. In every economic emergency, there are two types of presidential advisors, Raymonds and Rexfords. Raymond Moley and Rexford Tugwell were two charter members of FDR’s “brain trust,” advising him in the early phases of his presidency how to deal with the deepening crisis of the depression. (Both were Columbia professors, by the way.)

Moley agreed with FDR on the need for emergency measures, but ultimately broke with FDR over the way the New Deal was increasingly antagonistic to big business (an antagonism that was returned in spades), and urged reconciliation. By the late 1930s he was writing anti-New Deal columns, in the Hearst papers, I believe.

Rexford Tugwell, on the other hand, was a prime example of what Howard Brick in his very useful book, Transcending Capitalism, has called “post-capitalists,” progressives who weren't socialists, but believed that capitalism needed to evolve to something better and fairer, and it was the job of government to push that evolution along, and he helped to push along many New Deal policies.

It seems to me that Obama has been listening to too many Raymonds, and not enough Rexfords; the reason why the stimulus package has bogged down (beyond the usual Republican perfidy) is that it is being sold as an emergency, a jolt, a stimulus, an economic deus ex machina that somehow hovers outside the economy and will descend to make everything right. It is too “slow,” and will take too long to enter the economic bloodstream, Republicans argue. But of course, the quickest way to get something into the bloodstream is by injection, and injections are dangerous if they are too big, so in the end we will get 10ccs of cure and 100ccs of placebo.

But what we need to do is to recognize that is not a one-time emergency, but a crisis of capitalism, and we need to address the underlying condition, and not the surface symptoms. (Or rather we need to address both, and recognize that any stimulus package, however perfectly designed, will still leave us deep in an economic slough.) In this, I am not calling for socialism, but for post-capitalism. A better and more efficient capitalism.

The problem is that when FDR became president in 1933, he benefited from 20 years of progressive thought on a post-capitalist future. For the past two decades, Democrats have tried to find ways to love market capitalism at its most aggressive, and for the most part, the party is utterly unprepared for the dimensions of the crisis at hand. That is why the decision to limit compensation to half a mil for executives taking TARP money is so salutary.

It is not the money per se—-though it is touching to hear the caterwauling of business types saying this will ruin American business—-but the way in which excessive compensation packages have utterly distorted the way in which American capitalism and especially American finance has functioned, and encouraged systemically risky behavior. This is a popular move, but it is far more than, as some would have it, an expression of populist envy at their betters. It is Obama’s first serious step to the post-capitalist future he will need to create for our nation to emerge from this economic morass relatively intact; it is Obama summoning his inner Rexford Tugwell.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Irv Feiner

My mom knew Irv Feiner. Not well, I think, but she was about the same age, grew up in the same place (the Jewish Bronx of the interwar and war years), and had the same politics (leftish-Communist.) They probably met during the Wallace campaign of 1948. There were a lot of communists in the Bronx at the time, but not so many that those in the club would not have at least a passing acquaintance.

My mom taught social studies in a Queens high school for a quarter century, and she always got a kick out of teaching about the 1951 US Supreme Court case, Feiner v. New York, which gave Feiner his moment of fame. Mom would say, you know, I never knew Dred Scott, Homer Plessey, Fred Korematsu, or anyone who ever spent any time in Topeka, Kansas. But I knew Irv Feiner.
In 1949, Feiner was a student at Syracuse University (the only important upstate school that did not try to keep out Jewish students, BTW), and he helped plan a demonstration to support the Trenton Six, six black defendants railroaded (that is to say, tortured) into confessing to the murder of an elderly shopkeeper. There was to be a rally in Syracuse, with the lawyer for the Trenton Six, O. John Rogge to speak, along with a performance by Pete Seeger (who is still performing, and appeared in one of the pre-inaugural concerts for Obama, along with the usual tiresome redbaiting.) The meeting was cancelled on orders from the mayor, and Feiner addressed an interracial crowd of some 120 with information on new plans for the rally. There was heckling, and Feiner was threatened. The police twice asked him to stop speaking. He refused, and was arrested. (He supposed called President Truman a bum, but he always disputed this.) The case eventually made its way to the US Supreme Court, where in a 6 to 3 opinion Chief Justice Fred Vinson (generally reckoned to be the worst chief justice in the history of the court) ruled against Feiner, establishing the principle of the so-called “heckler’s veto,” the ability of authorities to curtail free expression by invoking the threat of violence against the speaker (while protecting the “free speech rights” of the heckler threatening violence.) This terrible decision was later overturned by the Warren Court (Vinson providentially died just in time to allow Eisenhower to appoint Earl Warren chief justice, and steer the Brown case to its unanimous decision), but the damage to Feiner was considerable. In addition to a fine and 30 days in an Onondaga County pokey, he was expelled from Syracuse University, and his admission to several law schools was revoked. Feiner became one of the many Communists, faced with the reality that he would never be hired by any government agency or any sizable company, who became a capitalist, a small entrepreneur, living his life in Rockland County, working as a printer, a movie-distributor, a merchant of tropical fish.

Irv Feiner died the other day, and a very nice obituary appeared this morning in the Times. I am sure he was glad he lived to see the inauguration of a black president, something that in his own way, he helped to bring about. Historians have paid considerable attention to the civil rights agenda of the post-war communist left in recent years, emphasizing the very years Feiner was active, the late 1940s, as the real beginning of the civil rights movement, in places as far away from Montgomery, Alabama, as Syracuse, New York in midwinter. At times this literature has been uncritical of the Communist Party’s weird and self-destructive trajectory in the late 1940s and early 1950s, and at times the lauding of the Communist left has unfairly ignored the non-Communist left, and their parallel (and often linked) struggles for civil rights during the same years. But their broader point stands. The Communist contribution to the civil rights struggle has been overlooked, put to the side, and ignored. Whatever the faults of the Communist Party, and they were legion, there were many Communists, like Irv Feiner, who at great sacrifice to their own careers, dedicated themselves to the cause of equal justice before the law, and paid a great price for their beliefs. I hate the Communist Party, and what it did to the American left, but I love many individual Communists, starting with my poor mother. Rosa Parks is perhaps a safer and easier person to laud (you can talk about her without having to apologize for Stalin's crimes), but in the select hall of the pantheon of the struggle for civil rights and civil liberties in this country, there should be a pedestal with Irv Feiner’s name on it.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Felix Mendelssohn and Lucas Foss: Two Hundred Years of German-Jewish Music

What to post on? Rob told me I should post more about the continuing economic crisis, which I surely will, but not today. I wanted to say something about the new play about New York’s colonial governor, Lord Cornbury, which emphasizes his supposed cavorting in drag, and which will surely discomfit my dissertation adviser, Patricia Bonomi, who wrote an excellent book dedicated to the proposition that the accusations of wearing female garb (and more generally, Lord Cornbury’s unfitness for high office) were Whig calumnies against this upstanding if somewhat intemperate Tory, and that there is absolutely no reliable provenance to connect the famous portrait, supposedly showing Cornbury in a dress, to anything authentically relating to Cornbury. But as Pat has discovered, nothing is more difficult to kill a good story, regardless of its historicity. Part of it is the difficulty of proving a negative, and part of it is the slovenliness of the popular historical imagination, which continues to throw temper tantrums when historians try to deprive them of their favorite bedtime stories. It is sad that, for the hundred or so years between 1664 and 1775, the best known fact about New York’s government, that Lord Cornbury wore a dress, isn’t a fact.

No. I want to post on the fact that tomorrow is the 200th birthday of the great German-Jewish composer Felix Mendelssohn. February 1809 is a great month for famous birthdays, with Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin as well as Mendelssohn, and I was wondering how to connect these three great men in a post—what else is blogging for except for dragging out obscure and speculative connections?- when I read the sad news in the Times today that Lucas Foss, one of the finest American classical composers of the past half century has died.
Lucas Foss, was born Lukas Fuchs in Germany in 1922, fled Germany in 1933, went to Paris for a few years, and then moved to the United States, where he became a leading American composer. After starting out in a Coplandesque neoclassical vein, such as his opera Griffelkin, not mentioned in his Times obituary, is one of his most charming works. He then, like many composers at mid-century, branched out into gnarlier fare—12 tone composition, bristling dissonances, you name it—his “Baroque Variations,” a neat work of deconstruction, sticks in my ears. He was also an important conductor, with an important career in New York State. As conductor of the Buffalo Philharmonic in the 1960s, he helped make Buffalo an unlikely hotbed of modern music, and later did the same trick with the Brooklyn Philharmonic in the 1970s and 1980s, and helped the music scene in Brooklyn crawl out from under the commanding shadow of its fellow borough across the East River.
Felix Mendelssohn is the father figure of the German-Jewish musical tradition, and part of a remarkable century and a half that included figures such as Mahler, Schoenberg, and Weill, and many, many others. And of course German-Jewish musical tradition is part of the broader German musical tradition, which was, without any doubt, for the century and three quarters a half after 1750—after say, Franz Josef Hayden became the Kapellmeister to the Esterhazys in the little town of Eisenstadt, the center of the classical musical world. This all came to an end, of course, on January 30, 1933, when Hitler became chancellor of Germany, when Germany in a span of 12 years, proceeded to piss away what it had taken centuries to build, and German music, and German culture in general, has never recovered, in one of the lesser tragedies wrought by the Nazis. And the German-Jewish tradition, which was born in Hamburg two hundred years ago tomorrow, came to an end, two days short of two hundred years, in Manhattan over the weekend. This is a good time to listen to some Mendelssohn, from his violin concerto, one of the most perfect pieces of music ever written, to his great symphonies (3,4, and 5), his chamber works, and his overtures (the “midsummer’s night dream” overture is another perfect work), and if you can, listen to some Lucas Foss as well.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

From the Internet to Mohonk

One of the joys of cross-country skiing in the Shawangunks, thanks to the artful design of the old carriageways that become ski trails in the winter, is the combination of big vistas and intimate spots of beauty. Both were available yesterday at Mohonk, which I visited with some handy e-mail information on trail conditions from the Mid Hudson Cross Country Ski Society.

Reliable reports on the state of ski trails can be hard to come by: my telephone calls yielded descriptions ranging from good to fair to poor. But I joined the Society's discussion group on Friday afternoon and had up-to-date reports by e-mail Friday night. Armed with that information, my son Max and I drove to the Traps and spent a great afternoon skiing to Copes Lookout at Mohonk and back. The picture here shows the spot near the lookout where we ate lunch under a rock overhang that sheltered us from the wind but provided beautiful views.

Overall, I would call conditions fair. The snow ranged from hard to chunky to icy, but thanks to Mohonk groomers, skiers and snowshoers who had preceded us, we found decent conditions on at least 4/5 of our trip. And that, with cold and clear weather, made for a great day of skiing.

To learn about the discussion group, go to And here's my thanks to the good people who started this discussion group and keep it going--it is a great service for skiers in our region and a great use of the Web.