Thursday, October 07, 2010

"Joe Hill" by Joan Baez

For once I've decided to post a song not in commemoration of the singer's birthday but the subject of their song; here then is Joan Baez performing one of her classics, Joe Hill, in honour of the legendary labour leader, who was born on this day in 1879.

The historical Joe Hill died in November 1915, wrongly executed by the State of Utah for the murder of Salt Lake City butcher John G. Morrison and his son Arling - despite the fact that several eyewitnesses claimed Hill wasn't one of the two masked men who committed the crime.

The case was a cause célèbre in the days before a media circus might have unearthed the truth (or at least created reasonable doubt). Americans as diverse as President Woodrow Wilson and Helen Keller - and many others around the world as well - tried in vain to appeal to Utah governor William Spry for clemency. In the end, Joe Hill faced the firing squad; it has been said that he refused to assert his water-tight alibi (that he'd been in bed with a married woman at the time of the shootings) to save her honour and possibly her life as well.

It was around 1930 that Alfred Hayes turned Joe Hill's story into a poem, and 1936 when Earl Robinson turned that poem into a song. In the years since it's been performed by such artists as Paul Robeson and Pete Seeger, although Joan Baez's performance of it at Woodstock in August 1969 remains the gold standard. The version in the above video is mostly faithful to that earlier one - she tweaked a couple of the lyrics, but the arrangement is identical - and was recorded at a concert in aid of anti-war group Operation Ceasefire in September 2005.
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Happy Birthday Joy Behar

Once upon a time, Joy Behar was the resident loud-mouthed liberal on The View, the go-to gal when it came to controversy. Her clashes with Star Jones are legendary not least of all for their apparent civility; though they clearly didn't like each other, their conflicts never were as personal as those to come...

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketEnter: Rosie O'Donnell.

From the first it appeared that O'Donnell would usurp Behar's position on the show, but I doubt Behar minded; many times when Rosie was spouting off, Behar was leaning back, arms crossed across her chest, a very satisfied smile on her face. This is clearly because Behar is a team player; she was likely glad to have someone else draw fire for awhile.

Not that Behar managed to remain entirely unscathed in this era. Her frequent tangles with the Catholic Church (in which she was raised) have made her as much a hero around the Pop Culture Institute as they have a villain at the New York Archdiocese.

As O'Donnell's differences with fellow panellist Elisabeth Hasselbeck descended into frankly petty name-calling and extreme animosity on both sides, it became obvious that Behar was prepared for her re-ascendancy.

Exit: Rosie O'Donnell, and now not only is Joy Behar the only original member of the panel, aside from Barbara Walters (who doesn't appear daily anyway) she even has her own show; all hail the true Queen of Chat... Long may she kvetch!
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"Jack and Diane" by John "Cougar" Mellencamp

It was on this day in 2007 - John Mellencamp's birthday - I first posted the video he made to accompany a new song he'd written called Jena, which appears on his 20th album, 2008's Life, Death, Love and Freedom; the song decried a particularly loathsome example of racism being committed by high school students - known as the Jena Six - in the Louisiana town of that name. Both the song and its video perfectly encapsulate those qualities which have made Mellencamp the social conscience of the American heartland.

The following year to mark the occasion I decided to go back a quarter of a century, back to what I had always taken to be the beginning of his incredible career, to the first song of his I ever heard, anyway, Jack and Diane. Although it was the second single - I believe Hurts So Good was actually released later in Canada - both of these (plus a third, Hand To Hold On To) were all issued from his 1982 album American Fool. Unbelievably, American Fool was the sixth album from the man then known as John Cougar, whose first album was the no longer in print Chestnut Street Incident from 1976.

My awareness of the pop charts dates from about this time; although I'd always been aware of music through myriad sources, August 1982 was the first month I found myself living in a city with a Top 40 radio station. As a result, just about every song I heard for the next four years is indelibly etched onto my brain, seeing as I spent every spare moment I could in that intense period with a transistor radio* at my side. Throughout that time Jack and Diane was played extensively.

The song, of course, is about the novelty of youth - 'hold on to sixteen as long as you can' it exhorts - and describes its title characters looking back at their halcyon youth through a bittersweet haze of present-day apathy and regret over missed opportunities.

Now, of course, it's played on the Oldies station or - just as frequently - on my iPod; whenever it comes on I'll stop what I'm doing for a minute and, if I close my eyes, I'll just be able to see and feel and taste that time as surely as if I were still there. That's when I'll make a wish... Of course, my eyes will open and I'll still be here, not 12 years old again with the brain of a 38-year-old determined to relive it all without the mistakes I made the first time around. For just a second I'll be disappointed, until it occurs to me that without all those mistakes I wouldn't be me, and that if I did it all again I'd probably just make different (possibly worse) ones.

Still, it's nice to have that feeling of unlimited possibility back, if only for a moment...

*You see, kids, in the bad old days (circa 1982) we didn't have MP3 players, we had transistor radios, which were about the size of an old-school Game Boy; back then if we wanted to steal music we recorded it off the radio - or made cassettes from our friends' records - but the Walkman was still a couple of years off, and CDs weren't widely available for some years even after that.

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The Life and Times of Desmond Tutu

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Born on this day in 1931 in the Transvaal, Desmond Tutu moved with his family to Johannesburg in 1943; although as a child he originally wanted to be a doctor, he couldn't afford the tuition, so became a teacher instead (like his father). He was ordained an Anglican priest in 1960, and between 1962 and 1966 earned both his BA and MA in Theology at London's King's College.

Tutu first rose to prominence in the 1970s when his was among the first of the chorus of voices opposed to South Africa's policy of apartheid to be recognized internationally; as bishop of Lesotho during the Soweto Riots - which event pop culture enthusiasts may recognize from Richard Attenborough's film Cry Freedom - he was instrumental in helping black South Africans turn their destructive rage into constructive activism.

Desmond Tutu was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984 for his efforts; unbeknownst to everyone except him, he wasn't done yet, not by a long way.

In 1986 he became the first African (as opposed to Afrikaan) to head the Anglican Church in South Africa, a post which he held for a decade. In that time apartheid was abolished and majority rule returned to South Africa; in 1995 he was made chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which sought to avoid the usual pitfall of vengeance and reprisal that generally accompanies regime change.

Despite being diagnosed with prostate cancer in 1996, Desmond Tutu has continued to work tirelessly on behalf of the oppressed, which work is necessarily informed by his spirituality. His translation of Christian doctrine is clear, but bears repeating:

"Jesus did not say, 'If I be lifted up I will draw some." Jesus said, 'If I be lifted up I will draw all; all, all, all, all. Black, white, yellow, rich, poor, clever, not so clever, beautiful, not so beautiful. It's one of the most radical things. All, all, all, all, all, all, all, all. All belong. Gay, lesbian, so-called straight. All, all are meant to be held in this incredible embrace that will not let us go. All."

And so say all of us... Amen.

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Pop History Moment: The Death of Edgar Allen Poe

For all the spooky and macabre inventions of his imagination, I doubt even Edgar Allen Poe could write a mystery as gripping as that of his own death...

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketPoe had been found, incoherent and babbling, in a Baltimore gutter just four days earlier by an acquaintance of his, the printer Joseph W. Walker; at that point Poe had been missing for a week, having last been seen in Richmond, Virginia, as he left to return home to New York City on September 27th.

When he was found, Poe was bloated, unclean, and not wearing his own clothes - none of which were in character for the normally fastidious author.

Walker took Poe to Washington College Hospital in Baltimore where he died on this day in 1849, never again regaining enough lucidity to explain how he'd gotten into such a sorry state.

Theories as to what had befallen him ranged from attempted suicide gone wrong, attempted murder gone wrong, cholera, rabies, even syphilis; the most credible one, though, points to Poe's having been a victim of cooping. Not helping in the matter was the man who claimed to be Poe's literary executor, Rufus Wilmot Griswold; they were actually bitter rivals.

In the years that followed Griswold did nothing to clear up the mystery, but instead defamed Poe's memory to all who would listen, beginning with a scurrilous obituary - widely reprinted - written under the pseudonym 'Ludwig'; yet even one of Griswold's friends described him as 'one of the most irritiable and vindictive men I ever met.' We may safely add plagiarist as well, since Ludwig's depiction of Poe is lifted from a description of a villain by Edward Bulwer-Lytton.

Far from destroying Poe's reputation, Griswold's character assassinations made Poe more popular than ever, likely because it conformed to the public prejudice about what sort of person might write such works as Poe's; Griswold himself died in obscurity eight years later, while Poe's works have been out of favour 'nevermore'.
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POPnews - October 7th

[With Arnold Schwarzeneggar on the right and Gray Davis on the left - although the would-be Governator actually ran against fellow Republican State Senator Tom McClintock, Davis' Lieutenant-Governor Cruz Bustamante, blogger Arianna Huffington, former child star Gary Coleman and porn star Mary Carey as well as about 130 others - the 2003 Recall election was one of the strangest on record. Even for California.]

336 CE - Pope Mark died, leaving the papacy vacant; his successor, Julius I, would not be elected until February 337 CE.

1542 - Explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo discovered Santa Catalina Island off the coast of California.

1769 - Captain James Cook arrived in New Zealand during his famed First Voyage, heading only the second European expedition to the islands, more than a century after Abel Tasman; while in the vicinity Cook mapped the entire coastline, making only minor errors.

1840 - Willem II became King of the Netherlands when, following the loss of territory brought on by the Belgian revolution and the scandal of his desire to marry the Catholic Belgian Henrietta d'Oultremont, his father Willem I abdicated.

1868 - Cornell University was inaugurated in Ithaca, New York.

1886 - Spain abolished slavery in Cuba.

1919 - Dutch airline KLM was founded.

1944 - An uprising at Birkenau concentration camp resulted in the destruction of one of its crematoria; it had been coordinated with an Allied air strike and a revolt of Polish civilians at Auschwitz.

1949 - The German Democratic Republic - better known as East Germany - was created.

1950 - Tibet was annexed by China, an illegal occupation which persists to this day.

1952 - American Bandstand debuted on Philadelphia's WFIL-TV (now WPVI-TV); the show was originally called Bandstand, and its first host was Bob Horn.

1955 - Allen Ginsberg gave his first public reading of Howl at San Francisco's Six Gallery.

1982 - Cameron Mackintosh's musical Cats opened on Broadway at the Winter Garden Theatre where it ran for 7,485 performances before closing on September 10th, 2000.

1985 - The cruise ship Achille Lauro was hijacked by four Palestinian terrorists, in an action coordinated by Abu Abbas; during their three-day occupation of the vessel they shot passenger Leon Klinghoffer - a wheelchair-bound stroke victim who was nearly 70 - and threw him overboard to die simply because he was Jewish.

1996 - Fox News Channel was launched.

1998 - Matthew Shepard was found staked to a fence outside Laramie, Wyoming, having been robbed and savagely beaten by Russell Henderson and Aaron McKinney simply because he was gay.

2001 - The US and the UK invaded Afghanistan.

2002 - The US government, with the knowledge and cooperation of the RCMP, ordered Syrian-born Canadian citizen Maher Arar deported to Syria knowing he was not a terrorist and that he'd be tortured there; not only was he repeatedly refused counsel in American custody, when he was returned to Syria he was indeed tortured and held without charge for 10 months before being returned to Canada, at which time he proceeded to expose the War on Terror for the tyranny in liberty's clothing that it is. Both Canada and Syria have cleared him of all charges; the US won't.

2003 - Gray Davis was recalled as Governor of California, only to be replaced by Arnold Schwarzenegger. The recall effort was the fifth in California history - efforts to recall governors Pat Brown, Ronald Reagan, Jerry Brown, and Pete Wilson had all failed - but only the first successful one in the Golden State; the only other successfully recalled governor in American history was North Dakota's Lynn Frazier in 1921.
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