Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Abraham Lincoln and the Health Care Debate

I urge anyone interested in American history to read the lengthy review essay of recent works on Abraham Lincoln by Sean Willentz in a recent issue of the New Republic. (For those of you who don’t read the New Republic regularly—and I don’t know anybody who does—the article can be read on the Arts and Letters Daily.) Willentz looks at some recent books on Lincoln very critically, and saves as the main target of his barbs an anthology on Lincoln and race edited by Henry Louis Gates (yes, that Henry Louis Gates) and a collective biography of Lincoln and Frederick Douglass by Harvard professor John Stauffer. Willentz’s main point is that the recent curve of Lincoln scholarship hypothesizes two Lincolns, the moderate racist whose biggest problem with racism was that it interfered with the rights of white men, which was the dominant Lincoln until about 1862, when, under the influence of white and black abolitionists, especially Frederick Douglass, Lincoln underwent a conversion (with some regrettable backslidings) to a true belief in racial equality, and this basically misconceives Lincoln. Lincoln was always first and foremost a politician, not a writer (Willentz has an animus against studies that emphasize Lincoln as a literary stylist), not a theorist of American democracy, not an agitator for radical change, but a canny politician, whose main focus was, in keeping with his deep anti-slavery convictions, the art of the politically possible. To give Douglass and others the agency in “converting” Lincoln is to fail to understand what made Lincoln tick, and how politics works.

If Willentz and his critics to some extent, as generally is the case in such debates, talk past each other, I am broadly sympathetic to his position; the change in Lincoln c. 1862 is probably best explained by the exigencies of the war and his ability to work towards creative solutions to his problems, rather than a sea change in his basic views on race, and if people like Douglass played a role in this, the main point is that the war simply narrowed the gap between anti-slavery free soilers and radical abolitionists, and no one was more responsible for the war and the way it was being fought than Abraham Lincoln.

Well I’ll let the civil war warriors thrash out the details of whose right and wrong in this dispute. Willentz is certainly acerbic in his criticisms, and several of his critics respond in kind, but what is most interesting about the debate is that much of it concerns Barack Obama, and Willentz’s very public defense of Hillary (and occasional blasts against Obama) during the primaries last year, and several historians treat Willentz’s views on Lincoln as a stalking horse for his views on Clinton-Obama, and that his basic point is to refight the primaries, with his opponents as naïve Obamaphiles, with Willentz positing a wise and temperate Hillarified Lincoln. Willentz says these sort of criticisms are besides the point, and he is no doubt right, but there certainly is, as with all historical debates, a contemporary angle.

If Lincoln is our greatest president, it is because of what he achieved and how he achieved it. He rose to the apex of political power in this country, and did so the only way to accomplish this; slowly and deliberately, making friends, making deals, with his two feet firmly planted on the political coalition that brought him into office. And yet, by early 1865, there was simply no gap between what he had achieved, and what the most radical of abolitionists, Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison had for so long fought for; the immediate, unconditional, uncompensated end of slavery, the institution that had shackled the American republic since its founding. The political pragmatist, without ceding his pragmatism, had become the true radical.

I don’t know what Wilentz thinks of Obama; and he says that since Hillary bowed out last June, he has been an Obama supporter, and I have no reason to doubt him. And what Obama has showed himself to be, above all, is a political pragmatist and a possibilist, a Fabian reformer. And the issue of our time is health care, and it has bedeviled our country almost as long as the time between the constitutional convention and the outbreak of the Civil War. It has hobbled our politics and well-being for over a half century, despite various Wilmot Provisos, Missouri Compromises and other half measures to change things. And Obama was elected, in part, to address it. If he is finding it difficult, it is because it is difficult, and there are vested interests galore to challenge and overcome. And, to paraphrase Lyndon Johnson, he will overcome, or at least he better. And since announcing his candidacy in Springfield, Illinois, Obama has compared himself implicitly, and been compared by others explicitly, to Lincoln. And we will see if he has the talent, the ability, and the fortune of being presented with the right set of circumstances, to see if he can use his genius for pragmatism and garnering a wide current of political support to the utterly radical ends the current situation demands.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Arresting Words

While we work our way toward the bottom of the Henry Louis Gates case, some words from Lisa Keller's book, Triumph of Order: Democracy and Public Space in New York and London (Columbia, 2009), bear pondering. They were written to edify the London Metropolitan Police in 1830, but they might also have improved police conduct in Cambridge, Mass.

Defenders of Sgt. James Crowley will argue that he behaved coolly while Gates went off, setting off a spiral that ended in arrest. Defenders of Gates will argue that a police officer confronted Gates in his own home in a suspicious and authoritarian manner.

My hunch is that this was a confrontation between two strong-willed men from entirely different worlds, each of whom is accustomed to a great deal of deference on the job. My other hunch is that this was a confrontation that did not need to end in an arrest.

In the end, professors are paid to be knowledgeable and smart. Policemen are paid to be cool in a crisis.

In the words that Lisa found in London, police were admonished that "a Constable who allows himself to be irritated by any language whatsoever shows that he has not that command of his temper which is absolutely necessary in an officer vested with such extensive powers by the law."

Police officers would do well to remember those words today.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Anne's Ashes

Well, Frank McCourt passed away the other day. He will be missed. I certainly liked Angela’s Ashes, but I was disturbed by its undercurrent of self-pity, and if it was tolerable in that book, it rather disfigured his others. And though I am a Stuyvesant graduate, I never had him as an English teacher, and the scuttlebutt among my friends was that he was the sort of teacher who was most interested in hearing the sound of his own voice. Whatever.

Well, Frank McCourt passed away the other day. He will be missed. I certainly liked Angela’s Ashes, but I was disturbed by its undercurrent of self-pity, and if it was tolerable in that book, it rather disfigured his others. And though I am a Stuyvesant graduate, I never had him as an English teacher, and the scuttlebutt among my friends was that he was the sort of teacher who was most interested in hearing the sound of his own voice. Whatever.

Today I want to write about someone else born in Brooklyn of Irish extraction, who also recently passed away, my mother-in-law, Anne Kenney DeLuca. She was, in her voice, in her mannerisms, in her interests, her predilections, her eccentricities, New York Irish. Her father was an Irishman working on the Caledonian Railway in Scotland, where she met her mother, the daughter of the Catholic undertaker of Motherwell, near Glasgow. They moved to the United States in 1908, settled in Brooklyn, of whom, Anne, the sixth, was the youngest. She grew up in Flatbush, and thereafter moved to Suffern, New York, and after she married Louis DeLuca, to Bristol, Pa., outside of Philadelphia, and thence to Levittown (PA), and then, in the mid-1970s, to a farm in Addison, NY, near Corning, where these two urbanites and suburbanites spent twenty years growing and tending to crops and flocks. They moved to Corning in 1997. Lou died in 1999.

Anne was vibrant till the end. On our last visit, on the 4th of July, she gave her theories on the death of Michael Jackson, on the best fish fries in the greater Corning area (and offered the opinion that she never understood why the church had abandoned meatless Fridays in the 1960s), talked about the Preakness winner Rachel Alexandra (she was a lover of playing the horses all her life, and often spoke of the time she met the legendary trainer Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons. ) She wasn’t in good health, but her death was sudden and quite unexpected. She loved to tell the story of her cousin, Eugene Daly, an Irishman who immigrated to the United States in April 1912 on that most ill-fated of ships, the Titanic, and lived to tell the tale. It represented her philosophy of life. Life has its ups and downs, but even if you hit the occasional iceberg, just keep your wits about you, and you will probably live to tell the tale, and drinking a beer while telling it. She was fun-loving and vibrant to the end. During her funeral, which was lovely, the priest’s cellphone went off, not once, but twice. When my wife Jane began her eulogy, she laughed and said her mom would have gotten a real kick out of the cellphones, and everyone in the church, including the priest, had a good laugh. Like Frank McCourt, she will be missed.

Monday, July 20, 2009

A House of Terror

In some of the ugliest decades of the twentieth century, Number 69 Andrassy utca in Budapest, Hungary served a nasty series of occupants: Hungarian fascists, the Gestapo, and the Communist secret police. A museum in such a building would be a great place to meditate on thugs of the left and right and the twists and turns of Hungary's history. Instead, the "House of Terror" museum is a living example of some of the more disturbing beliefs of the Hungarian right today: that Hungary has been uniquely wronged among the nations of the world, that it has never been fairly compensated for its suffering, and that the greatest threats to Hungary come from the left.

Hungary, like other countries of Central and Eastern Europe today, is very much in a conservative and nationalistic mood. Some of this can be blamed on the impact of the Great Recession, but the bitter, xenophobic and authoritarian tendencies of Hungarian conservatives predate the current economic crisis. And they are very much on display at the House of Terror.

The House of Terror formally criticizes totalitarians of the right and left. It also recognizes the deaths of Hungarian Jews in the Holocaust at the hands of both the Hungarian Arrow Cross and German Nazis.

Nevertheless, the deaths of the Hungarian Jews at Auschwitz take place "off camera," so to speak. Hungary in World War II is presented as a nation trying to avoid being swept into the Nazi orbit. In a museum that is deeply emotional in its presentation, you don't sense much anguish over Hungary's own anti-Semites or the presence of Hungarian troops alongside the German forces that invaded the Soviet Union.

The House of Terror saves its greatest anger for the period of communist rule in Hungary. Touring the dungeons and execution chamber in base of the museum made me angry, too.

But what disturbed me about the museum is its sense of unresolved grievances: enduring resentment at the reduction of Hungary under the Treaty of Trianon after World War I, deep suspicion of anyone on the left, and a sense of grievance and victimization that can't be easily addressed.

My best hope is that someday, the borders in Central Europe will mean so little that Hungarians from Hungary proper and from Romania can meet without a fuss and forget about old woes. Until that happy day, the anger that pervades the House of Terror will fuel not a healthy desire for democracy, but a bitter politics of suspicion and revenge.

Fly Me to the Moon (Again!)

It is obligatory today, I suppose, for all bloggers to blog on the first manned lunar landing, forty years ago today, so here goes. I was fifteen, in a left-wing summer camp in the Catskills, a newly-minted Marxist, a would-be rebel with multiple causes, always eager to find another to wrong to right. But we stayed up late that night, listening to a crummy little transistor radio. Sure we guffawed when Nixon spoke to the astronauts, and mocked when Armstrong planted an American flag on the moon, warning the moon people to watch out for napalm raids. So we saw America as the incarnation of all imperialistic rottennesses; we certainly hadn’t forgotten or forgivern Vietnam, and we certainly knew that the prime motivation for the space race had not been an objective pursuit of knowledge, but to beat the Ruskies to the punch. None of this mattered. We sat around the little radio, entranced and enthralled, waiting for Neil Armstrong to plop down his foot, and say something. (The first thing he said on the moon, btw, was “contact light. Okay, engine stop. ACA out of detent. Modes control both auto, descent engine command override, off. Engine arm off. 413 is in.”) It was, we were sure, one of the greatest moments in the history of humanity. And it was.

And, where are we, forty years on? Why has space exploration seemed so paltry ever since? Why haven’t any humans been to the moon since 1972? Why no attempt to land on Mars? Why has space exploration (save the occasional spectacular accident) failed to generate headlines? 2001 will be remembered for September 11th, and not for voyages to the Moon or Jupiter. There are many theories as to what happened. Tom Wolfe, in the Times yesterday, to my surprise, actually wasn’t too bad. Someone I read last week blamed Philip K. Dick, for replacing the science fiction dreams of space exploration that filled the stories of Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke with drugged out dystopias. Perhaps, but I really liked Ubik, Dick’s moon novel.
Anyway, my pet theory is that for some reason, on July 20, 1969, Americans stopped caring transportation, and started to think about communication. From 1903 to 1969 we went from a thirteen second trip in a Wright flyer, to a two-week voyage to the moon. We went from Stanley Steamers to cars going at 200 mph at racetracks. And it seems to me, in the past forty years, our technological innovations in transportation have been absolutely nil; we drive the same way, we fly the same way, and we fly in the space in the same way, except we don’t fly to the moon. In the interim, we have invented generation after generation of new computer technology, we download, we tweet, we google, but as we have wrapped ourselves in layer upon layer of electronic communications, we have forgotten about the world we live in, or the worlds we might explore. The need for energy efficiency, for better mass transit, and all the mundane transportation modes, if done properly, will lead to the stars. Today, the giant leap mankind needs (excuse the gendered language, political correctness fans), will be composed of myriad small steps. The sermon endeth.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Walter Cronkite

Unlike millions of other Americans, I didn't grow up listening to Walter Cronkite. My parents were newspaper readers (Bergen Record plus the Sunday New York Times), and I encountered Cronkite more as a figure of history than as a nightly presence in my home. It is easy to take shots at Cronkite's age of television news as stodgy, deferential to the establishment, and too sure of itself. ("And that's the way it is....") But Cronkite and the television journalists of his generation had traits much in need today.

Above all, they thought of news as a public service. Their conversation with the public may have been one-way, but they took seriously the obligation of informing our national conversations.

They could do this because they worked for a regulated oligopoly that was required to serve the public "interest, convenience and necessity." Networks made plenty of money. In return, their news divisions produced news and documentaries. Since the deregulation of television, the documentary units are gone and news broadcasts are ever more beleaguered. The worldwide ring of CBS news bureaus no longer exists.This has been a disaster for journalism.

In an age when Republicans have made it a commonplace to attack "the liberal media," it is instructive to recall how patriotic Cronkite was, how deferential he could be to government officials. His famous commentary after witnessing the Tet offensive is revealing for its use of the word "we":

To say that we are mired in stalemate seems the only realistic, yet unsatisfactory, conclusion. On the off chance that military and political analysts are right, in the next few months we must test the enemy's intentions, in case this is indeed his last big gasp before negotiations. But it is increasingly clear to this reporter that the only rational way out then will be to negotiate, not as victors, but as an honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy, and did the best they could.

Cronkite thought of himself as one American among many, not as an outsider journalist. There are problems with this stance, but it is thoroughly dishonest to suggest that Cronkite and his generation of television newsmen were anything like conspirators against the war in Vietnam.

After his retirement Cronkite was involved with the Media Studies Center, where I worked. I worked on a few projects with him. I found him amiable, professional, and utterly certain in his own judgment.

He wasn't openly political. Still, over time the word got out that the thought the economy was becoming dangerously unequal, that media moguls who pursued profits above all else were bad for journalism, and that television news had become trivial. He also thought the Iraq War was the worst foreign policy disaster that he had seen in his lifetime.

All of these strike me as sound judgments. They also strike me as the products of a mind formed in the era of the New Deal. I miss that sort of thinking, and I miss television journalism grounded in those kind of assumptions. And that's why I'll miss Walter Cronkite.

Thursday, July 16, 2009


I read with some sadness that the New York Times, has agreed to sell WQXR, along with its traditional position on the radio dial at 96.3 FM, where it has been for many decades. There’s no point being sentimental I suppose, business is business, and its no news that the news business has become a bad business, and I haven’t been a regular listener to WQXR for decades, long before I moved up to Rochester in 1995, seduced by hipper stations. But when I was first getting interested in classical music, WQXR was my beacon, where I turned to every night to hear some new wonders—I remember particularly my first hearing of Schubert’s Erlkonig, Smetana’s Ma Vlast, and Strauss’s Rosenkavalier as music moments that opened for me entire new worlds. There were all sorts of wonderful programs; Robert Sherman’s Listening Room and his Woody’s Children, his weekly folk music show; George Jellinick’s the Vocal Scene, from which I learned so much about opera, and of course the weekly Metropolitan Opera broadcasts themselves, which will now continue (I hope) somewhere else.

WQXR was a great station from which to learn about classical music. One of its major functions was educative, one place where everyone could turn to for classical music ranging the light classical pops in the afternoon to the sterner stuff they played in the evenings. There are a lot more resources available now, but the burden for self-education now falls to the individual. It was so much easier back then; just listen regularly to WQXR for a year or two, and you have learned the rudiments of the major works of classical music. Anyway, I know I learned about classical music from WQXR, and I know, over the decades, many hundreds of thousands of other people did as well.

The end of WQXR means the effective end of commercial classical music in New York City; and its sad that classical music is now reduced to permanent mendicancy, begging for subventions from all and sundry. I liked the ads on WQXR, from the ridiculously expensive restaurants that were advertising their snobbishnss, to the hyped announcements for the latest phenom to make a debut at Carnegie Hall. And I liked the fact that it was the “radio station of the NY Times” and in those pre-internet days, it was always interesting to hear, at 9 PM, the headlines for the next day’s paper. The demise of WQXR speaks to the fallen state of classical music in the United States, and that’s the way it goes. But it will be missed.

Friday, July 10, 2009

A Tragedy of Democracy

One of the pleasures of having a blog is the opportunity to properly puff the work of friends, and I have just finished reading my friend Greg Robinson’s A Tragedy of Democracy: Japanese Confinement in North America, just out from Columbia University Press. It is a masterful overview of this sorriest episode on the WWII homefront. It starts with from the beginning of anti-Japanese discrimination in North America, to the decision to evacuate Japanese from the West Coast, the camps and the legal challenges to them, to the postwar fight for redress and recompense. It is somber in its tone, nuanced and careful in its conclusions, with just the right mixture of anger and sober analytical prose. It is at once concise (only about 300 pages)and utterly authoritative; really the first place to turn for an overview of this critical subject.Greg, a native of New York City, who teaches at the Universite de Quebec a Montreal, has written the best example of “"North American” history that I have ever read, with the seamless and pertinent integration of the histories of the US and Canada (I had no idea that the treatment of the Canadian Japanese was as atrocious as it was, in many ways worse than the treatment meted out in the USA.) Another fascinating aspect of the book is its in depth treatment of the racially motivated decision to keep Hawaii under martial law for almost the entire duration of the war. Anyway, its a remarkable book, and one that can be properly judged by its remarkable cover, of faceless people in a confinement camp, designed by Greg’s partner, Heng Wee

It is a story replete with analogies for the recent past and the present. All the progressive groups who might have been expected to stand up for the Japanese, with the exception of Christian pacifist organizations, decided to take a powder, cowed by the government or too intent on following their own agendas to raise a peep. (I learned that the American Communist Party expelled all Nisei members after Pearl Harbor) And in the United States, all of this took place under perhaps the greatest American president of them all, certainly the greatest of the 20th century. As Greg concludes, if stalwart liberals such as FDR and Hugo Black (author of the majority opinion in the Korematsu decision) cannot be trusted to defend minority liberties, “it seems to me that no lesser figures should. Rather, we owe it to ourselves to be jealous of our liberties,” and this is just as important in the age of Obama as it was during the dark days of his regrettable predecessor.

Scum of the Earth, I Believe

Well, next month marks the 70th anniversary of the Hitler-Stalin Pact (I am sure that Greater New York will have a proper post or two about it then), and when I think of the pact, the first thing that usually comes to mind is the famous David Low cartoon, with Hitler and Stalin smiling and doffing their caps to one another over the prostrate body of Poland, exchanging pleasantries: “The scum of the earth, I believe” says Hitler to Stalin’s “The Bloody Assassin of the Workers” I Presume. “ No invidious comparisons are intended, but was hard not to think of this exchange yesterday, listening to Pedro Espada’s press conference, on how he has returned to the fold of the Democratic Party, having double crossed his original colleagues in double crossing, and is now the Senate Majority Leader. (Scum, as Hitler would say, rises to the top.)

So after a month of denouncing Espada as the personification and epitome of all political rottennesses, the Democrats now have to look to him as their leader. I have felt from the beginning that the Republicans are basically to blame for this mess, and their desperate efforts to cling to power, but now the Democrats are equally tarnished. One thing is clear, the long-term solution to the problem cannot possibly be generated from within the senate itself. “Reform” is a bootless and footless phrase, signifying nothing. Both parties will be hurt by this; but New York State politics is uniquely straightjacketed into a political system that demands that power be shared equally by both the Democrats and the Republicans, and over time this has reduced both parties to ideological meaninglessness. There is a tradition of third parties in New York State; the Progressive Party (in three incarnations), American Labor Party, Liberal Party, Conservative Party, Working Families Party over time they are reduced to insignificance, become an adjunct to the major parties, or become part of the problem. It is time for a revitalization of the third party tradition in New York State, one that sees its purpose of providing a genuine political alternative. Any party that makes Pedro Espada one of its most powerful leaders is not my party, and please don’t try to convince me otherwise.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Go, Gov Paterson

Okay, the ability of Gov. David Paterson to appoint a lieutenant-governor is of questionable constitutional authority, though it seems to be less open and shut then it seemed a week ago to this non-authority. But as constitutional authority Bruce Ackerman has argued, many of the greatest constitutional innovations in American history, starting with the 1787 Philadelphia convention itself, the 14th amendment, and the legislative agenda of the New Deal, were all of questionable constitutional legitimacy. But the point was, when you’re facing a constitutional crisis, you deal, find the loophole, expand it to get a coach and four through it, and go from there.

Look, New York State is a genuine constitutional crisis, the jokers in the senate seem unable to conduct the people’s business, and the “negotiations” that have been going on for weeks are particularly laughable, and clearly are revolving around the perquisites of the most power-grubbing members of a remarkably power-grubbing bunch.
Paterson is properly taking power away from the senate in an effort to be able to break ties. The Oliver Wendell Holmeses and William Brennans in the state senate, Republican and Democrat alike, are screaming foul, that Paterson’s eminently reasonable decision runs afoul of some constitutional arcane. Screw ‘em. You can include Andrew Cuomo’s preemptive legal opinion (who the hell asked him?) that Paterson has no power to name a lieutenant-governor in my anathematization. (Not for the first time in his career, Andy Cuomo has allowed his gubernatorial ambitions to commandeer his better judgment. Down boy.) I hope a judge promptly rules that exigent circumstances call for exigent solutions, and Paterson’s naming Richard Ravitch as lieutenant governor stands. I’m no big fan of Richard Ravitch, but he’s just the sort of quasi-impartial eminense grise goo-goo power broker who has been around forever, and is just the sort of person he should have chosen.
I think that Paterson has been a real disappointment as governor, but this is by far the best thing he has done since his sudden elevation last year. The members of the senate have completely forfeited the trust of New Yorkers, and the right to disentangle their squabble themselves. The only power that can possibly resolve this in a way that doesn’t reward these bastards is the governor. We need a strong, courageous executive branch to rescue our traduced state from the morass of the state senate. I hope every New Yorker supports Paterson’s constitutional innovation. One good coup deserves another. This is one of the best days of executive power exerting itself in a power vacuum in New York since the heyday of Leisler’s Rebellion in 1688.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

On the Blues Highway

New York City is a long way from the Mississippi Delta, but if you have any love for the blues, it’s your musical home. The influence of the blues musicians from this region is vast. I was lucky enough to catch one of them, Millage Gilbert, at Red’s Lounge on a June visit to Clarksdale, Mississippi.

Gilbert, pictured here, who hails from Clarksdale, was on a visit from Kansas City. Red’s rough and ready décor, and Gilbert’s deep voice and scorching guitar, made my visit to Clarksdale unforgettable. But Clarksdale is only one of many Delta towns that now caters to blues travelers.

The Mississippi blues may have emerged in a region of sharecropping and country towns, but that world has vanished. The mechanization of agriculture sent sharecroppers packing for cities like Memphis and Chicago; the farming that remains in the Delta is on a large scale that has more to do with agribusiness than small-time farmers.

The Delta towns that were once hubs for regional agricultural economies have lost their old functions. Most businesses have migrated out to highways and strip malls. The once-bustling streets in Indianola where B.B. King broke in as a musician are now quiet.

But the old towns need a function, the region needs an economy, and the blues are as great an inheritance as our country has to offer. The result: Mississippi has embraced the blues in big way.

Throughout the Delta historical makers lay out important sites in blues history. There are museums dedicated to the blues and an enduring network of juke joints. Together, they help give blues fans hear the music they love and learn something about its history.

My journey began in Memphis, where I attended a conference in honor of Pete Daniel discussed in another Greater New York post. Armed with three different but very good books—Alan Lomax’s The Land Where the Blues Began, Marybeth Hamilton’s In Search of the Blues and Ted Gioia’s Delta Blues, I drove south on Highway 61 to Clarksdale. It was a quiet Sunday afternoon when I got there, but a conversation over a beer in a small bar got me directions to Red’s and one of the greatest musical evenings of my life.

After a night of Millage Gilbert’s music, I slept in a motel on the highway. The next day drove south past the Parchman Farm, the prison where Lomax recorded so many work songs, to Indianola. My destination: the B.B. King Museum and Delta Interpretive Center.

I was expecting Graceland in a blues key, but I was wrong. The B.B. King Museum certainly praises its subject, but never loses sight of the region that produced him and the musical influences that shaped him—from country to blues to big band jazz. I left Indianola with a better appreciation of the blues, the Delta and a man whose music I have loved ever since I heard “The Thrill Is Gone” when I was in high school.

From Indianola I drove to Greenwood, site of one of the graves said to be the resting place of Robert Johnson. In all likelihood the Greenwood grave is the real deal. I was moved by the headstone, where admirers have left behind guitar picks, plastic flowers, mardi gras beeds, and a bottle of the Turkish liquor called raki. (I like the possibility that Johnson’s army of admirers reaches all the way to Istanbul and beyond.)

In Greenwood I grabbed a lunch of fried green tomato blt with iced tea, then headed north past Avalon (where John Hurt worked and played ) to catch a flight from Memphis to New York.

I’m already itching to go back to the Delta. And when I do, I’ll be sure to stop in Red’s.

: Millage Gilbert after a session at Red’s Lounge, 395 Sunflower Ave., Clarksdale, Mississippi.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Let Us Now Praise Pete Daniel

Since 1984, when I arrived at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History as a pre-doctoral fellow, I’ve valued Peter Daniel’s friendship. I’ve also admired him as a historian who is always up for a good fight and a good time. This summer, I learned that I have a lot of company.

The occasion was a conference in June at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee, "Region, Class and Culture: New Perspectives on the American South.” Over a weekend that many recalled as the best conference they ever attended, we celebrated Pete’s work and extended the knowledge we gained with him. (So much of this talk has taken place over mugs of beer that one participant described himself as something like an “Irish Times” fellow with Pete, a reference to a splendid bar in Washington, DC.)

Pete’s still a curator at the National Museum of American History; his interests in subjects as varied as Southern history, rural history, photography and popular culture prompted excellent presentations and illuminating discussions. At the same time, Pete has always known the value of blending work and play. Breaks for bourbon, barbecue and a fantastic evening concert called “Petefest” on Beale Street brought much joy to our proceedings.

It is easy to admire Pete for his many attributes: his democratic manner, his craftsmanship, his presidency of the Organization of American Historians, his ability to blend a heartfelt love of Southern culture (and NASCAR) with firm opposition to racism and inequality. At the Smithsonian or in the Irish Times, he’s the same person. I’ve long thought that if you stranded Pete on a desert island, he would still write insightful essays on sharecropping and rock and roll. He’d just send them out as messages in bottles, following his calling as the circumstances allow.

As Pete has observed quoting Thomas Pynchon, and as participants recalled at the conference, “If they can get you asking the wrong questions, they don't have to worry about answers.” Here’s to Pete’s many years of asking his own questions and providing his own answers. We’re all richer for his work and his friendship.

from left to right: Elvis Presley and Pete Daniel at Presley's home on Audubon Drive in Memphis, where "The King" lived before moving to Graceland.