Tom Baxter – A journal of progressive Southern culture and politics Wed, 19 Sep 2018 10:58:33 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Tom Baxter – 32 32 Song of the Day: ‘Dixie Chicken’ Thu, 08 Oct 2009 02:45:34 +0000

Little Feat - 1973 - Dixie ChickenI’ve seen the bright lights of Memphis, and the Commodore Hotel

And underneath the street lamps, I met a Southern belle…

Like poles on opposite ends of some weird Midwestern planet, Southern California and the South exist in a state of magnetic attraction and repulsion. In some ways no two areas of the country could be less alike, and yet within each you will find, often quite unexpectedly, aspects of the other.

Bakersfield and Galveston are 1,700 miles apart, but psychologically they’re just down the road from each other. Great swaths of Gwinnett County are like Orange County with pine trees. Drift in to an electronics store in Huntsville, Ala., and you might think you were at the Frye’s out near LAX. Drop by Mr. Pockets’ on Sepulveda on any given Saturday in the fall and you’ll find yourself in a crowd of Alabama fans, though the leaves in their new home never turn crimson. Once a year, they even fly in barbecue from Dreamland.

And what is Florida, really, but a kind of Yankee-Cuban Baja, an illicit appendage mirroring the peninsula on the other side of the continent? With a few twists of history, these two states might easily have wound up in opposite countries, with the University of Baja California as a power in the PAC 11, and zebra-painted donkeys on the streets of Panama City.

Musically, a certain magnetism operates between the two regions as well. There’s no telling how many songs have been written about girls from Oklahoma and boys from Georgia, gone west to strike it big and longing for home. Many of those songs are true.

The gravitational pull moves in the other direction, also. In 1969, the band Little Feat was formed around the nucleus of Lowell George, a guitar player from Hollywood whose father was a furrier for movie stars, and Billy Payne, a keyboard player who’d found his way to California from Waco. Their sound owed its out-there lyrics and jazz tinge to the Mothers of Invention, in which George and the band’s original bassist, Roy Estrada, had played, and its groove and bluesie feel to the Southern boogie bands that proliferated around that time.

It took a few years and three albums for Little Feat to catch on and gain the cult following which has kept them afloat to this day, but well before then they had become a local favorite in Atlanta, gigging at a club, now long gone, called Richard’s. (It helped, perhaps, that they sang an anthemic tribute to our town’s women, “Oh, Atlanta.”)

“Dixie Chicken,” the title song of the album that made them, was often performed in a long jam with “Tripe Face Boogie” – the best version to listen to is on the live album, “Waiting for Columbus.”

“Dixie Chicken”  is ersatz Southern, but that’s the way it is with a lot of Southern songs. The Commodore Hotel is actually located halfway between Memphis and Nashville, but sing “I’ve seen the bright lights of Memphis, and the Peabody Hotel,” and it will be obvious this was lyrically if not factually the right choice of words.

If you’ll be my Dixie chicken, I’ll be your Tennessee lamb…

It’s that classic tale of a young man who takes up with a wayward woman who leaves him. I assume, though I’m not sure, that the Dixie Chicks took their name from it. The song works because of the witty last verse, in which the forelorn lover strays back to his old haunt:

But then one night in the lobby of the Commodore Hotel

I chanced to meet a bartender who said he knew her well

And as he handed me a drink he began to hum a song,

And all the boys there at the bar began to sing along…

After they struck it big, Little Feat played a few big dates at the Fox. I had a backstage pass at one of them, and I remember eavesdropping on a conversation George had with an old friend from his Atlanta clubbing days during one of several encores.

“They’re killing me,” the exhausted slide guitarist said before he bounded back on stage again.

And sure enough, they did. He died after a show in a hotel in Arlington, Va., in 1979. The death was attributed to a massive heart attack, but that was only the final symptom of Rock ‘n Roll Musician’s Disease: Too much adrenalin, too many drugs, too many cheering audiences demanding another encore, when not long before it had been a struggle just to stay on the road. He was 34.

Inara George, his daughter, now plays with Greg Kirsten in the indy-rock duo The Bird and the Bee. There’s a certain studied wackiness to their lyrics her father might have liked. Little Feat went dormant for several years after Lowell George died, but reformed in 1987. They’ve gone through several personnel changes, the most recent this year, when Gabe Ford stepped in for drummer Richie Hayward, who has liver cancer. There was a benefit concert for Hayward on Oct. 4 at a club in L.A. In one of those nasty little ironies, Hayward has been living in Canada when not on the road, but doesn’t have health insurance.

Little Feat: Dixie Chicken


The Bird and the Bee: Love Letter to Japan


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Etiquette in the age of ‘friends’ Sun, 06 Sep 2009 03:17:12 +0000

Last week, for the first time, I defriended somebody on Facebook.d_silhouette

This individual, who will go nameless, posts scripture online on a daily, often hourly, basis, but tossed the seventh chapter of Matthew out the window within a few hours of Ted Kennedy’s death and launched into the sort of bitter, vile spew which has poisoned public discourse in this country.

It’s vulgar to defame someone who’s just died, whether it’s Jesse Helms, Ted Kennedy or even Saddam Hussein, but that’s not entirely the reason I defriended this person.

Others have committed this offense on Facebook and I haven’t gone and found that checkbox which removes them from my sight. Recently, when someone made a tasteless joke about Michael Jackson, I called him out about it in terms I deemed just as vulgar as he’d been.

I didn’t know the author of the Ted Kennedy invective well enough to write a defriending note, but the anonymity of the act nevertheless left me uneasy. Yet, what would I have said? It wasn’t the offensiveness of a single act that warranted excommunication, but the combination of spite, sanctimoniousness and verbosity taking up so much room on my computer screen. I was, to be frank, just tired of this person, who never posted any good links or said anything thoughtful.

I felt better about directly challenging the other “friend,” but I doubt my reproof was viewed as good form. On Facebook, where 60-year-olds send each other virtual lollipops, teddy bears and hugs, it’s not cool to be parental.

I wrestle with which of my reactions was the correct one, and indeed with a host of questions about what constitutes proper etiquette in an age of instant, yet largely impersonal, response. I care deeply about manners, even if mine are sometimes lacking. As Sam Adams wrote and John Oxendine recently posted for me and his other Facebook “friends” to be edified by, “Neither the wisest constitution nor the wisest laws will secure the liberty of a people whose manners are universally corrupt.”

These questions have come up before. There’s even a Facebook etiquette group – probably more than one, if I’d looked hard enough. But these are hard questions, not given to any casual how-to. Generally, moral questions are hard because we don’t like the answer, not because we don’t know the answer. In questions of manners, we often really don’t know the answer.

There is first the question of proffering or accepting an invitation to be a “friend.” We all understand this as a term of convenience. People use social networking sites to do business and politics (in my case the two are closely intertwined) and a host of things that don’t really imply the deepest friendship. We friend people we haven’t seen since high school, and some people friend those they’d like to meet, but haven’t. Social networks are the new town square, and we speak of “friends” in the same way local boosters used to speak of some little burg being a friendly town. It’s a generality, not intended to be genuine.

If you’re in certain kinds of work that demand a lot of networking, you can’t get around Facebook anymore, though the only really good paying gig I’ve gotten from one of these sites, I got from a connection on LinkedIn. I don’t Twitter yet, although I expect before long I will have to. But how much networking is proper?

I generally accept anyone’s offer of friendship, so long as we have some legitimate connection or enough “friends” in common. I’ve got over 400 “friends,” and other people I know, those who really network for a living, have over 4,000. Others, like my daughter, view such an open policy as too promiscuous.

“I have a loose definition of ‘friend,’” she says, “but I still have one.”

My “friends,” as you might imagine, span the political spectrum, and occasionally, responding to some post of mine, they get into it with each other. Do I have an obligation to referee?

Even fairly gentle advice to those I agree with about how to improve their presentation is not, I sense, much appreciated. In the absence of any really sensible standards for how to act, only unrelenting, unthinking positive reinforcement seems to be acceptable.

There are etiquette questions which pertain to political and professional connections, and those that are purely social. If you were someone’s “friend” because they were married or going steady with a real friend, should you defriend them after they split? And should I have written a note to the person I defriended, even if I’d only met this “friend” in person once?

Some people post with astonishing frequency and vapidity, play those games and take narcissistic quizzes that take up a lot of screen room. There are filters you can use to weed these “friends” out without completely disassociating yourself from them. But when someone writes that they’re experiencing chest and neck pains (this happened yesterday), are you obliged to tell them they should get offline and go see a doctor?

Here we cross that fuzzy line between etiquette and ethics. It seems pretty obvious that some people are shilling for corporate and political interests. Ethically, it’s questionable to take money for your opinions without revealing this to your “friends.” But is it proper etiquette to challenge them, if you have no proof they’re on the take?

There are such things as stalkers, who cruise other people’s profiles to hit on their “friends,” and employers who spy on their employees or potential hires. There’s a considerable literature about this already on the web.

One “friend,” who actually is a friend, recently posted a list of ethics rules – not, appropriately enough, in sequential order – dealing with problems like these. This is a salutary effort, but as regards right and wrong, the old guideposts are as reliable online as off.

It’s the gray area between right and wrong, the zone in which most of our daily contacts are made and where manners are indispensable, that is really tricky. What we really need is a Facebook Emily Post.

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(All Around the Water Tank) Waiting for a Train Mon, 10 Aug 2009 16:03:30 +0000

Riding the first real hot streak of his short life, Jimmie Rodgers hit town in October, 1928, recruited a backup band in an Atlanta speakeasy, and in two sessions the following week recorded four of the songs that would send his name around the world and into our century: “Blue Yodel No. 4,” “My Carolina Sunshine Girl,” “I’m Lonely and Blue,” and his greatest hit, “//

target=”_blank”>Waiting for a Train.

All around the water tank, waiting for a train,
A thousand miles away from home,  sleeping in the rain
I walked up to a brakeman to give him a line of talk
He says “If you’ve got the money, I’ll see that you don’t walk.”

Rodgers, who billed himself as “the Singing Brakeman,” here takes on the persona of a hobo. The song is about the power relationship between these two classic American types: the hobo and the brakeman, the rootless and the rooted, the footloose and the marginally employed.

Except as an anachronism, the term “hobo” disappeared from American English at roughly the same time “homeless man” came into common usage. We romanticize one and denigrate the other, but in reality hobos were, by and large, as much destitute and addicted as homeless men, and homeless men make their choices in life as much as did hobos. Only the mode of transportation has changed.

I haven’t got a nickel, not a penny can I show
“Get off, get off, you railroad bum.” He slammed the boxcar door.

This is about the only song, besides “Trouble in Mind,” that I can remember my father singing. As was the case with most railroadmen, I think, he called it “All Around the Water Tank.” He sang it blusier and with a harder swing than the corny //

target=”_blank”>rendition – click here to hear.  Rodgers later gave in the film short you’ll find on YouTube. It was more like the original recording, or the //

target=”_blank”>Jerry Lee Lewis version:  “All a-ROUND the wah-tah TANK, Wait-ing for a train…”

My old man was a cold realist about hobos, whom he knew primarily from tense encounters in the dead of night, on the edge of the L&N yard in Montgomery. But he was also a there-but-for-fortune kind of guy. He understood that the line between the hobos who rode the boxcars and the high rollers who rode the Pullman cars was narrower than either class of passenger might realize.

Something of the same ambiguity appears in the song between the first and second verse. Did the brakeman kick the hobo off the boxcar before he slammed the door, or let him ride on another stretch? And how much of the hobo’s plight is real oppression, and how much of it self pity? It seems open to interpretation:

He put me off in Texas, a state I dearly love,
The wide-open spaces all around me, the moon and stars up above
Nobody seems to want me, or lend me a helping hand,
I’m on my way from Frisco, I’m going back to Dixieland.
Though my pocketbook is empty and my heart is full of pain,
I’m a thousand miles away from home, just waiting for a train.

Within months of their release in the United States, Rodger’s “blue yodels” were being played in South Africa, where they were greeted in the black townships with an electric shock of recognition not unlike that of the Congolese when they first heard recordings of Cuban music. By as early as 1930, artists like Griffiths Motsieoloa were producing their own blue yodels in Sesotho, Zulu and other African languages.

In his semi-autobiographical novel, “Familiarity Is the Kingdom of the Lost,” the South African author Dugmore Boetie wrote about growing up in the 1930s as a street urchin in the mixed-race Johannesburg suburb of Sophiatown, which holds a place in the imagination of that country similar to Storyville or Harlem. In one scene, the boy listens to a 78 record on a stolen gramophone in the storm-sewer hideout he shares with an older mentor:

The voice in the record belonged to Jimmy Rodgers. He was singing a song called “Waiting for the Train” with guitar accompaniment. The first time I heard that record, it took me like a drunkard takes to drink.

I must have been dreaming. Of what? Only my ancestors know…. I didn’t want anything to go wrong. Not while I was listening to that record.

South Africa’s apartheid government, which despised everything Sophiatown //

target=”_blank”>represented, began the forced removal and bulldozing of the section in February, 1955, the year Fats Domino and Pat Boone had hits in the United States with their black and white versions of “Ain’t That a Shame.”

Racial tension and inequality has been with us a long, long time, but we forget how recently the strict physical and cultural separation of the races occurred, and how much conscious energy went into creating the illusion that this had been a permanent condition. Yet, a quarter century before the artificial segregation of Fats and Pat, Big Mama Thornton and Elvis Presley, the “father of country music,” as Rodgers was known, recorded “//

target=”_blank”>Blue Yodel No. 9” with Louis Armstrong, the George Washington of jazz.

The farther back one investigates, the more it becomes apparent that the different kinds of music represented by Rodgers and Armstrong are, in fact, the same music. Any attempt to discover the roots of “pure” mountain music, blues music or any other kind of American music soon dissolves into a confusing amalgam of German hymn tunes, Scottish ballads, Italian operatic themes and Yoruba rhythm patterns, among dozens of influences.

“All music is folk music,” Armstrong once pronounced. “I ain’t never heard no horse sing a song.”
Jimmie Rodgers was never really forgotten in the years after his untimely death in 1933, but the memory of the tubercular, soft-spoken singer who performed in a railroadman’s work clothes was overshadowed by flashier performers like Hank Williams, Elvis and Otis Redding, who achieved a sort of popular apotheosis with the rise and spread of mass media.

But another sort of deification awaited Rodgers. As the years passed, his 78s made their way out of Africa’s urban centers, up the rivers, down into the valleys and out into the deep bush. Around 1950, visitors to the remote Kipsigi tribe in Kenya noted the use of the 78s in connection with rites to a recent addition to the Kipsigi pantheon, a half-man, half-antelope to whom maidens sang in ceremonies to promote their fertility.

The new god’s name was Chemirocha. Click here to play it.

Note: This story is another in the continuing series, “Southern Song of the Day.”

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Time, as it was Tue, 07 Jul 2009 23:38:26 +0000 It is a summer night in South Alabama, shortly before the 20th Century’s first great collision with hell. Austria-Hungary will declare war on Serbia in five days; within two weeks, the slaughter will be under way on both the Eastern and Western Fronts. The pace of events throughout the world is accelerating like a teamless wagon clattering down a hillside, but as Sarah Clementine Murdock picks up a pencil to write her daughter, time still moves at its immemorial pace.

Clio, July 23, 1914

My darling Belle,
I have been trying to get the chance to write to you all this week; but it just looks like I never will do any thing. I just want to talk to you so much more than to write. I am trying to make Dad some shirts, and it worries me so to sew. I reckon I am getting too old; but I am always tired when I start. I was sorry that Minie wrote you about Nat, for you all have enough there. He is some better I think, all-though he is suffering with his back. They are treating it and going to try to keep from operating if they can help it. I hope so. Anyway, Lucy came back Monday, and brought her aunt and little sister with her; but I enjoyed it. She is a nice good girl, and I enjoyed her company, and she did not mind helping me. You would like her.



It is a summer night in South Alabama, shortly before the 20th Century’s first great collision with hell. Austria-Hungary will declare war on Serbia in five days; within two weeks, the slaughter will be under way on both the Eastern and Western Fronts. The pace of events throughout the world is accelerating like a teamless wagon clattering down a hillside, but as Sarah Clementine Murdock picks up a pencil to write her daughter, time still moves at its immemorial pace.belle2

Clio, July 23, 1914

My darling Belle,
I have been trying to get the chance to write to you all this week; but it just looks like I never will do any thing. I just want to talk to you so much more than to write. I am trying to make Dad some shirts, and it worries me so to sew. I reckon I am getting too old; but I am always tired when I start. I was sorry that Minie wrote you about Nat, for you all have enough there. He is some better I think, all-though he is suffering with his back. They are treating it and going to try to keep from operating if they can help it. I hope so. Anyway, Lucy came back Monday, and brought her aunt and little sister with her; but I enjoyed it. She is a nice good girl, and I enjoyed her company, and she did not mind helping me. You would like her.

Things seem much easier these days. Wives don’t make their husband’s shirts, and back surgery, though no pleasant prospect, isn’t as dreadful as it would have been then. But we have paid a price for these luxuries.

Well it is awful still, everybody asleep, but me and the clock. Ha. It has been awful hot for the last few days but we had a little shower this eve, and it is right pleasant tonight.

Listen. You can hear the ticking of the clock, as if Sarah’s cursive traced the path of a phonograph needle. You can hear the quiet of the night, the stillnesses between every word and sentence, a rhythm that can no longer be reproduced.

A couple of weeks ago, my stepson called me from Los Angeles to tell me he’d just heard my colleague at the Southern Political Report, Hastings Wyman, talking about the Mark Sanford affair on National Public Radio. From his home in Westwood, he could see news choppers circling the UCLA Medical Center, taking the pictures I was watching on CNN of the crowd gathering to hear the news of Michael Jackson’s death.

Time and space have become conflated. It’s no longer enough to know what time it is, but what time, where. Things happen in a sort of distended now, the star’s death anticipated and announced repeatedly, the moment captured at the top of every news cycle.

We are more connected, superficially, than Sarah could have dreamed. We text; we twitter. When we see the news about a mass shooting or a bridge collapse we grab the cell phone and anxiously call our children, wherever they are. But how much do we really say to each other?

I think it was too sad about that poor girl, looks so hard for one to have to go that way; but we never know what way one will go. I read an account of it in the Journal, but girls ought not to go to such places, without some one to protect them.

bellewithcatrI wonder what it was that happened to that poor girl. Her tragedy has been obscured, not by time in the neutral sense but by our times, by the multiplication of tragedies, a century full of poor girls and boys without someone to protect them.

Time travels in one direction, but progress does not. My wife grew up keenly aware of the horrors her mother and father suffered in the Holocaust. But it was not until she accompanied her mother on her first trip back to Poland that she realized her mother had known one joy she could never share: a youth unshadowed by the memory of the roundups, the selections and the terrible trains.

I think Belle had a harder life than her mother, but that is unknowable. I do know her children were surprised when they discovered the 1914 letter. They remembered  Clemmie, as they called her, as a woman of austere visage — it was said she had some Creek Indian blood — who could sometimes be more affectionate toward Dusty, her dog, than her grandchildren.  (Not that they weren’t a handful. Once when Clemmie was visiting, the boys put my Aunt Myra up to crawling under her bed and doing push-ups while she was taking an afternoon nap; Clemmie awoke, grabbed her cane and whacked at Myra every time she tried to crawl out from underneath the bed.) For these children of the Depression era, the tenderness of this letter was, like my wife’s trip to Poland, a revelation.

They are expecting Estelle Baxter Brown to die, she has a cancer. So you see there is all ways something. There is lots that I could tell you but I will wait and tell you; would not have anything to talk about if I told it all – yes one thing – Ma Dillard quit the Baptist Church and went to Methodist. Would you believed it?

There is always something. Belle was living with her brother Aubrey and his family in Macon, working in a hat shop, when her mother wrote to her. She came back home and married her school sweetheart, Guy Baxter, settling down to life on a farm between Clio and Louisville. They had nine children, my father among them, and came to be known by everyone in those parts as Buddy Guy and Mother Belle. Buddy Guy was a man with a famous temper and a farm to tend. They say the night he learned my Uncle Jack had joined the Marines in 1942, leaving him with one less hand for the fields, the black family who lived a half-mile down the road came out in their yard to listen to his raging fit.

Bert is coming before long. I told him you were coming home, and he was awful proud. Haven’t heard from Cliff in some time; am afraid they are all sick. Has been so hot and dry down there. He has an Engine now.

The Murdocks were mostly railroad men. Bert later got my father a job with the L&N in Montgomery, where I grew up. In the summers I would go Down Home for long visits. Late at night I would lay in bed with Buddy Guy and he’d tell me the old stories of Rabbit and Fox, and the Old Man of the Woods. In the afternoons, Mother Belle would call when she saw the rolling store coming down the road, and my cousin Linda and I would scamper out on the steaming asphalt, hopping barefoot like Indian firewalkers, to buy Nehis and Ike and Mike gingerbread cookies. Clemmie had died in 1942, but the crepe myrtle she planted over Dusty’s grave still grew in the yard.

Those days have also passed. If you drive the straightened road from Clio to Louisville, you will find no trace of the Baxter farm, or the railroad section house in Clio where that letter was written in 1914. There is nothing but the graveyard at the Pea River Presbyterian Church where generations of Baxters and Murdocks, including Sarah Clementine, Belle and Guy, are buried. But on those six handwritten pages, we can hear the rhythm of that time. On this quiet night in the early years of a loud century, the clock ticks patiently, and stillness offers a salve to worried hearts.

Well it is nearly ten – guess I better stop and sleep a little – I am so anxious to hear from Aubrey – do hope he is getting on alright, bless his heart – I know he is tired – Hope it won’t be long before you all can come. I miss you so much. I got your things all right – think they were all so nice. I got them all put away for your honey-moon. Be sweet and let me hear from you real soon.

With a goodnight kiss, and a heart full of love,

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On Taste Sat, 06 Jun 2009 00:32:32 +0000

car54Some years ago the St. Petersburg Times ran a feature story about a former neighbor of the writer William Faulkner, who reminisced that on Sunday nights, the Nobelist would sneak across their adjoining back yards to watch “Car 54, Where Are You?” at his house. Scholarly research on Google indicates Faulkner eventually made no secret of his fondness for the ‘60s sitcom, but I like the image of him sneaking next door to watch it.

That old story came to mind recently when I read that Bob Dylan, pressed in an interview with Rolling Stone to name his favorite songwriters, replied: “Buffett I guess. Lightfoot. Warren Zevon. Randy. John Prine. Guy Clark. Those kinds of writers.”

Nothing against Parrotheads, or Canadians. But Dylan is not only the poet of his generation but a listener of famous erudition and, on his late-lamented radio show, a disc jockey extraordinaire. We know he’s familiar with the Gershwins, Hank Williams, Joni Mitchell and Caetano Veloso, and he’s probably heard Chamillionaire. He knew personally, and owes a great debt to, Woody Guthrie and Johnny Cash.

bobdylan1Yet when asked for his favorites, Dylan, with perfect honesty, named several white guys of about his age, language and genre, performers with whom from time to time he may have talked guitars or shared a beer.

Elsewhere in this interview, Dylan makes a distinction between his music and those of his generation who have entered the mainstream. “My stuff is different from those guys. It’s more desperate,” he says. But in his personal preferences, his taste, there is none of this edginess. “I’m not exactly obsessed,” he says, “with writing songs.”

There’s no accounting for taste, matrons used to say, and on one side of the coin they were right. Robert Spano, whose conducting suggests the deftness with which Vladimir Nabokov wrote, recently said in an Atlanta Journal-Constitution interview that as a youth he read and reread the works of another White Russian emigre’, Ayn Rand, the most excruciatingly polemical writer since the Marquis de Sade. How do you account for that?

376451127-u-s-comedian-jerry-lewis-at-press-conference-where-itWe shake our heads at the French adulation of Jerry Lewis, and the deep affection of the British for Joan Rivers. The tastes of others may baffle or disappoint us, or if we think about them long enough, put our own tastes in a new and surprising light. But there are some things you can say about taste in the broad sense, diverse as tastes can be.

Although one can have good or bad, provincial or cosmopolitan taste, there is nothing right or wrong about it. Taste is not style, either, though one thing might influence the other. Befitting the word, taste is more intimate, like the olive that slides along the tongue or the last bite of apple pie. And like Proust’s famous madeleine, our taste in art, music or books triggers complicated networks of associations that make this more than a process of categorizing what we admire and what we don’t.

Some tastes seek out compatibility the way we are drawn toward an old sweater. Some need the exotic. Why one person’s taste runs to mac ‘n’ cheese and another’s to jangeo-gui is often hard to say. The striking thing is that both tendencies lead to similar sensations. We have a taste for things that can be enjoyed warmly, things that draw us toward that tonic-chord comfort zone, which some call home, but which can be near or far.

jazz-ear-ben-ratliffThis comes across strongly in Ben Ratliff’s “The Jazz Ear: Conversations Over Music,” a series of interviews with jazz musicians listening to their favorite recordings. For Sonny Rollins, the pull toward home is quite literal. The first recording he wants to listen to is Fats Waller’s “I’m Going to Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter,” a song he heard on the radio as a child in Harlem. From the beginning of the song, Ratliff writes, it is like the great saxophonist has “just stepped into a warm bath.”

“I believe in things like reincarnation, and it struck a chord someplace in back lives or something,” Rollins tells him.

Ornette Coleman, a very different kind of genius, is moved by associations as cosmic as Rollins’ are familiar, but they bring him to a very similar place. His first choice is a 1916 recording by Cantor Josef Rosenblatt.

“He’s making the sound of what he’s experiencing as a human being, turning it into the quality of his voice, and what he’s singing to is what he’s singing about,” Coleman observes. “We hear it as ‘how he’s singing.’ But he’s singing about something. I don’t know what it is, but it’s bad.”

The cab driver smitten by Puccini or the soccer mom secretly hooked on hiphop would nod their heads in understanding. Whatever it is that turns them on, it’s bad, and yet somewhere in that strangeness there is the shock of recognition, the sound or image or sentence which speaks to us so deeply of what the other is “experiencing as a human being.” We may not be able to account for our own tastes, any more than those that puzzle us in others. But at some level – maybe at a different place for all of us, but somewhere deep down – we know what we like.

Click here to read the Bob Dylan interview.

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Red states? Maybe, but lots of ‘blues’ Thu, 07 May 2009 22:01:31 +0000

blues_stay_away_from_me_3Life is full of misery
Tears so many I can’t see
Seems somehow
I never can be free
Blues stay away from me
Blues why don’t you let me be
Don’t know why
You keep on haunting me
(“Blues Stay Away from Me”)

The Centers for Disease Control last month released what amounts to a map of the blues, though befitting a government study, it was wrapped in a colorless title: Geographic Patterns of Frequent Mental Distress.

The map and the report it’s in, published in the April issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, are based on data from the CDC’s Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System, which bills itself as the world’s largest on-going health survey system. During 1993-2001 and 2003-2006, the BRFSS asked some 2.4 million Americans how many days over the past 30 they would say their mental health had not been good, and mapped the results by county.

picture-2The results show that the land where the blues was born still has a lot of it.

Two Southern regions, Appalachia and the Mississippi Valley, had particularly high and increasing rates of Frequent Mental Distress (FMD), while the Upper Midwest, for all its dour Scandinavians, had low and decreasing rates. Mississippi, Oklahoma and West Virginia had the biggest increase in FMD over the two survey periods, and Kentucky had the highest overall rate: 14.4 percent, compared to 6.6 percent in Hawaii, which had the lowest rate.

The study’s authors note a number of factors – poverty, obesity, domestic violence, smoking, drinking and drugs – which go along with FMD and could affect the geographical distribution. However one accounts for it, the distribution has been consistent over a very long survey period, and there’s a good argument the map would have looked much the same in 1930 or 1870. Those lowdown blues and mournful country songs didn’t materialize out of thin air.

On a purely wonkish note, this means that the need for public mental health services is greatest in some of the states where the budget for these departments tends to drag the national average.

From a political perspective, there are interesting similarities between the FMD map and that often referred-to map of the counties that voted more Republican in 2008 than in 2004. People in this swath of the American heartland were dealing with a lot before Barack Obama got elected, as the FMD map reflects. Their mood today is likely to be darker than in the nation at large, to judge from recent national polls showing a positive response to the new administration and a surprising degree of optimism about the direction the country is headed in, despite the frequent economic distress.

Politics in the South generally awards cheerfulness in its politicians, even in the worst of times. Kentucky had Happy Chandler, and Louisiana’s songwriting Gov. Jimmy Davis wrote “You Are My Sunshine.” But as the next political season approaches, the South has more than its share of mentally distressed voters.

Editor’s note: This article was distributed by the Georgia Online News Service and originally appeared in Southern Political Report:

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Straight, Cheap and Digital: What to Expect in Next Year’s Campaign Ads Wed, 06 May 2009 09:43:17 +0000

jeneretteadMeet Katherine Jenerette, a former aide to US Rep. Henry Brown (R-S.C.) who hopes to unseat him in next year’s Republican primary. This ad – direct and somewhat unconventional in approach, low budget and lodged on the Internet – is a harbinger of more to come in 2010.

We have some idea of what the campaign pitches we’ll see next year will look like based on the trends that were so evident in 2008. Predicting what particular kind of political ad will work next year – and in what medium — is still a tricky proposition.

“This may be the most fluid time in political campaigning we’ve seen in a while,” said John Rowley of the Nashville-based Democratic firm Fletcher Rowley Riddle, which won seven “Pollie” awards from the American Association of Political Consultants (AAPC) for its work in 2008.

A recent AAPC survey showed political consultants think that a decade from now they will be utilizing the internet more than television and direct mail to get their candidates message across, but between now and then, no one’s sure what the correct mix of old and new media will be. Barack Obama, last year’s “internet candidate,” spent $120-150 million on television, Rowley pointed out.

While social network sites, blogs and email trees allow candidates to “attract and keep and motivate a band of supporters,” Rowley said, they don’t reach a generation of loyal voters who haven’t yet caught up with Facebook, much less Twitter, and independent voters who aren’t in the internet political orbit. The new media already seems to have as many facets as the old, making it more difficult for strategists to know where to put their resources. Television may also remain attractive to campaigns next year because with news-hour ad rates plummeting, it’s likely to be cheaper than in elections past.

What you’ll see will be cheaper, too: “a lot less tinsel and glitter,” said Mark McKinnon, former President George W. Bush’s media advisor. In the old days, campaigns might spend days in the studio crafting “high-concept” ads. Now, McKinnon said, “one-man bands with a camera and a Mac computer” can produce ads for far less. The ease with which video can be produced, compressed and transmitted via the Internet has also dramatically shortened the turn-around time for political advertising.

It goes without saying that the economic downturn could necessitate many campaigns doing their ads on the cheap. This unvarnished approach also meshes with what McKinnon perceives as a desire for unpackaged, straightforward messages.

“An approach will work for a cycle or two and then become outdated,” the Austin-based ad expert said. “The public is very skeptical about political advertising, so it’s very difficult to create something that’s credible and gets the message across.”

Some signs are encouraging. Rowley believes it will be harder than ever to pull off the last-minute sneak attack, a practice which has already been pushed back dramatically by the ability to get responses out quickly over the internet. And the Internet gives campaigns the opportunity to deliver more targeted and longer messages – say, a podcast on the issue that’s most on your mind.

But if you’re sitting in your living room next summer watching a barrage of raw, cheap politics, those advantages may not be apparent. Increasingly, we could be moving toward a style of politics that draws an even sharper line between the involved, who will have a host of new opportunities to connect and inform themselves about next year’s races, and the uninvolved, who could find the political advertising of 2010 an even bigger nuisance than ever.

Editor’s note: This article was distributed by the Georgia Online News Service and originally appeared in the Southern Political Report

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Running for governor? Watch your back Thu, 30 Apr 2009 02:24:57 +0000

bodybuilding_back_smallMaybe it says something about how next year’s governor’s race in Georgia is shaping up that the early jostling has involved two back surgeries.

The more widely publicized of these was performed, reportedly with good results, this week on Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle. He had been viewed as a top contender in the race for the Republican nomination until he announced at a tearful press conference earlier this month that a back problem had convinced him to abandon the governor’s race and run for his current job.

There was so much skepticism about the real reason for Cagle’s departure that he showed his X-rays and MRIs to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Jim Galloway as proof he genuinely is in too much pain to take on such a big race. No doubt pain did have a great deal to do with Cagle’s surprise decision, but the timing – a week after the end of the session, long enough to get on the phone and test the climate for political fundraising – suggests money might have had a little to do with it also.

images-14Since Cagle’s departure, the Republican dominos have fallen in a striking pattern. Three potential contenders from the Atlanta metro area – U.S. Rep. Lynn Westmoreland, Cobb County Commission Chairman Sam Olens, and state House Speaker Pro Tem Mark Burkhalter – have decided they’re not getting in the governor’s race.

Again, there must be a lot of reasons why they all opted not to get in this race. But a casual glance at the business pages suggests one overriding factor: Any campaign that might have counted on Atlanta development money is finding out there’s a lot less of it available in this election cycle. (Not to mention that there are four Republicans already dialing for dollars: Secretary of State Karen Handel, Insurance Commissioner John Oxendine, state Rep. Austin Scott of Tifton and states rights advocate Ray McBerry.)

Meanwhile, two candidates from outside metro Atlanta who weren’t on the radar for this race have jumped in it. Senate President Eric Johnson of Savannah switched from the lieutenant governor’s race, thus avoiding the returning Cagle and upping the ante on his own ambitions. U.S. Rep. Nathan Deal, who wasn’t even on the short list of Republican congressmen interested in the race, has also been letting colleagues know he intends to announce soon.

Both add some intriguing dimensions to the race. Johnson has the potential to benefit from the GOP’s growth in eastern Georgia, and he’s already put together an organization. As an up-and-coming legislator and during his first couple of years in Congress, Deal enjoyed a best-and-brightest image in the Democratic Party that reminded some of Roy Barnes. Since his party switch in 1995, Deal has swung more to the right on issues like immigration, and he never really assumed the leadership position in his adopted party that some had envisioned for him as a Democrat. But it will be interesting to see what cross-party appeal he might have next year.

images-24Speaking of Barnes, the other back surgery was the one performed on him back before Christmas of last year. He told a former staffer the week after that operation that he was about 50-50 on getting in the race. If he was 50-50 after going through something like that, Barnes might seem likely to make his fourth bid for governor. But sources who’ve talked with him in recently haven’t seen any signs that he’s committed.

Until he makes his intentions known, which should be some time in May, the Democratic field consists of three people with whom the former governor has important connections: David Poythress, whom Barnes appointed state adjutant general; Attorney General Thurbert Baker, with whom Barnes carefully coordinated his 1998 and 2002 races, and House Minority Leader Dubose Porter, who was a floor leader for Barnes when he was governor. Whether Barnes is in this race or not, he’s going to have a lot to do with how it’s run.

Editor’s note: This article was distributed by the Georgia Online News Service.

Photos: Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle (center) and former Gov. Roy Barnes (bottom right).

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