What the Blazes is a Knickerbocker?

Knickerbocker: The Myth Behind New York. By Elizabeth L. Bradley. Rutgers University Press, 2009, 151+ pp.

 This academic review appeared in NEPCA Journal but might be of general interest. I was fascinated by it!

In his 1963 breakthrough novel Cat’s Cradle, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. coined the term granfalloon to describe hollow collectives to which one accidentally belongs. For instance, if you live in California you are a “Californian” until the day you move to Vermont and become a “Vermonter.” Such identities are intrinsically meaningless—unless they mutate. Elizabeth Bradley’s fascinating study of the Knickerbocker identity suggests that more is afoot when we look at how such terms are created, recreated, and appropriated over time. Her book was originally published in 2009, but is back in the Rutgers University Press limelight at a time in which the larger “American” identity is weakening and Balkanization is ascendant.

Most regional identity terms follow simple grammar rules as they move from noun to adjective. It doesn’t require much mental effort to associate an Iowan with Iowa or a Mainer with Maine. It’s trickier when the adjectives are endonyms, terms used almost entirely by those within a region. Perhaps you can work it out that a “Toner” resides in Washington State, but you probably need to live in South Carolina to identify with Sandlapper, or follow sports to think of Cornhuskers, Tar Heels, and Hawkeyes in the same breath as Nebraska, North Carolina, and Iowa, as none of those terms are officially recognized collective pronouns. Sometimes insider terms become official—Buckeye (Ohio), Hoosier (Indiana), Nutmegger (Connecticut), or Yankee (New England)—but all such unusual adjectives are called demonyms and, as often as not, their Ur usage is obscure and spawn theories ranging from logical to fanciful.

Knickerbocker is rare in that we know its precise origins. It was the pseudonym used by Washington Irving (1783-1859) to perpetuate a great literary hoax. Irving appropriated the surname of a Rensselaer County Dutch family to invent Diedrich Knickerbocker, a deadbeat historian whose manuscript Irving “discovered” in a New York City hotel room from which Knickerbocker fled before settling his accounts. Irving fashioned a brilliant publicity campaign to go with his literary invention; he took out ads stating his intention to publish Knickerbocker’s manuscript unless he came forth to claim it. Not surprisingly, Kickerbocker was a no-show and, in 1809, the struggling Irving made his early reputation with A History of New York from the Beginnings of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty.

You could learn a lot of this by wasting a few hours on the Internet. What you’d not learn, though, is the social history and contemporary sociology associated with Irving’s ruse. Also in Cat’s Cradle, Vonnegut introduced the karass, an intentional network of people connected in significant ways. Though she does not reference Vonnegut, Bradley shows how the Knickerbocker has been appropriated in identity-forming ways. Direct Dutch control over its New Amsterdam colony officially ended in 1665, but the transfer to English control did not change the fact that the colony’s white population was predominately Dutch. Nor did the American Revolution and the passage of 144 years alter the fact that those of Dutch surnames and ancestry were disproportionately distributed among New York’s wealthy families, politicians, and taste arbiters. Many New Yorkers were amused by Irving’s trickery, but not all got the joke; some saw the Knickerbocker icon as confirmation of their assumed social and cultural superiority. Irving’s purpose, of course, was the opposite; he lampooned Dutch calcification specifically and social airs in general, but Diedrich Knickerbocker unleashed proved an infinitely malleable demonym.

Bradley titles her chapters “The Picture of Knickerbocker,” “Inheriting Knickerbocker,” “Fashioning a Knickerboracy,” and “Knickerbocker in a New Century.” Bradley breezily transforms the Knickerbocker into a synecdoche for two hundred years of New York history, politics, culture, commerce, and identity. In effect, one can draw a straight line from the boastful Diedrick Knickerbocker to the insouciant swagger of today’s New York City dwellers. That is, the Knickerbocker became New York City’s brand. No wonder those in the 19th century associated it with everything from bread and buses to “nostalgia and nativism” (59). And let’s not forget Santa Claus. Through time, the Knickerbocker lost some of its Dutch ethnicity in the American melting pot, but there were always Roosevelts, Van Rensselaers, and Vanderbilts to drop hints; German and Dutch brewers to lubricate myths; and basketball heroes, place names, and the mystique of the Big Apple to suggest that Gotham speaks a Dutch dialect. Moreover, as Bradley reminds us, no city comes close to New York in capturing imaginings of the essence of the United States. Never mind that little of this looks like the frontispiece from Irving’s 1809 satire; myths have enormous power even when their veracity is in doubt—just as an intentional karass is generally more empowering than an accidental granfalloon.

Rob Weir
University of Massachusetts Amherst


Don Gallardo, Lighthouse Keepers, Loebe and Napier, Merritt Gibson, Whiskey Wolves

Don Gallardo, Still Here

Loved, loved, loved the latest from Don Gallardo. It's a delightful folk/country/bluegrass mix evocative of the kind of projects the late Steve Goodman used to do with such great aplomb. Like Goodman, Gallardo tempers even his hard times songs with sunny-days-are-around-the-next-bend optimism. Gallardo also has a warm, inviting voice that’s its own balm. In some ways, the opening track, “Something I Gotta Learn,” sums Gallardo’s outlook. He takes kicks in the teeth with, “I don’t want to get over this/Let it hurt” determination and declares, “It could have been worse/Which is something I gotta learn.” That’s wisdom he tries to pass on; “The Golden Rule,” its message enhanced with emotive electric guitar, is a confessional of a man trying to protect his son from repeating his mistakes: “Kept him clean of the bad things I’ve seen/Ain’t that the Golden Rule?” These two, like each of the twelve tracks, grabs us with strong melodies, zinger lines, and memorable hooks.  And what a fine crop he cultivates: a country two-step (“Oh Jane”), a Texas-style weepy (“The Loving Kind”), some clarinet-led Dixieland swing (“Stay Awhile”), classic tonk (“The Bitter End”), several Appalachia-influenced pieces, occasional Dylanesque cadences (“Ballad of a Stranger’s Heart”), and crisp wordplay throughout. A small personal treat is “Alley Talkin’ Blues # 12,” which would be a great song just for the line “On the way to being lost/I got lost along the way.” It’s filled with wry humor in an amusing morality tale gone wrong, the kind Steve Goodman surely would have written had he not died so young. Still Here is a fantastic album; don’t miss it. ★★★★★

Lighthouse Keepers, Lighthouse Keepers

First things first, this six-piece outfit is a group of Harvard friends, not the Australian band of the same name. Second, this Lighthouse Keepers lineup spins musical magic—some of it sprinkled with fairy dust. They peg themselves an “indie” band, but I found them more in the ork-pop vein. (The “ork” here is a play on orchestral, not Tolkien baddies.) If you imagine the chamber rock band Renaissance as jazzier and infused with more bluegrass influences, you’d be on the same shoals as Lighthouse Keepers. They are powered b the vocals of Abby Westover who, if not quite Renaissance’s Annie Haslam, is a dynamic presence in her own right. Her strong, clear voice has the emotive impact of pop jazz and she is especially adroit at letting her tones swirl with the instrumentation: ukuleles, fiddle, bass, and guitar. “Liar’s Dice” is upbeat and poppy and the lovely “Edinburgh” harkens back to great folk balladry, but Lighthouse Keepers grab us with music that swirls in trance-like ways. “Worryblur” is a fine example of this; it’s jazzy, but also and trippy enough to evoke 60s psychedelia. That same feel comes through in the experimental “Oblivion.” Although Ms Westover has a great voice, Lighthouse Keepers won’t have you hanging onto each word; their goal is to let listeners drift with notes that bend and blend—floaty music in the very best sense. I’m impressed by how they manage to create this effect with acoustic instruments. Lighthouse Keepers are a young band, and I’m already to take a ride on whatever magic carpet ride they have up their sleeves. ★★★★

Rebecca Loebe and Findlay Napier, Filthy Jokes

Sure wish this one had landed in my inbox earlier than it did because "Joy to World" is one of the best new holiday songs I've heard in ages—a New Year's ditty with honest advice and salutations such as "Laugh more, fight less/Joy to the world I guess." It's a great song, even if it is a few months late. Lucky for us there are a few other songs on this EP that grew out of a songwriting retreat between the Austin-based Rebecca Loebe and Scotland's Findlay Napier. Let me just say that if either of these names is unfamiliar to you, it's time to get up to speed. Napier is not just a great songwriter, he has a terrific and powerful voice, as you will hear on "BadMedicine," a folk song with polished studio production. (The link is live.) Celtic fans might know his work with the band Back of the Moon. Loebe is no slouch either; her voice is soft and pretty, but it's adorned with a splash of husk at the edges. Both have great senses of humor as well. We hear Napier's wry commentary on making relationships work in "Option to Buy," and Loebe in the lead on the title track, a honky tonk explanation to a marriage made somewhere other than heaven: "Finally you've found someone/To laugh at all your filthy jokes." The stunner is "Kilimanjaro," a passage through life song in 4:21 with a poignant ending. ★★★★

Merritt Gibson, Eyes on Us

Merritt Gibson, a 19-year-old singer/songwriter who grew up in Boston, pens songs about love, breakups, loyalty, and how hard it is to let go. Her debut record is an impressive effort that shows influences from indie rock and new wave power pop, though it's often strongest when she tamps down the noise. You'll hear definite new wave touches on the heavy bass and edgy instrumentation of the title track. "Burning Hot" features clipped, quick machine gun runs reminiscent of The Cars, and the eerie keyboards and melody of "I Heard" is strongly suggestive of the Eurythmics. We'll get back to that. "When You Were Mine" has an intriguing point of view: that of a past relationship that seems sweeter in retrospect than it was at the time. It's also hard to resist "My Best Friends," in which Gibson lays down the law: "I don't intend/To choose a boy over my best friends." These pop songs have appeal, but also betray Gibson's youth. When songs invite comparisons it's easy to say she's no Annie Lenox. Few are. It also reveals that Gibson's voice is pretty and powerful, but it's not yet clear. Many of the songs are within the same range, which is why my favorite tracks by far are the quieter ones in which she competes with fewer things. "Area Code" is a nice song— one of desperate yearning built around unanswered phone calls. In "Truth and Myth," Gibson is tender and vulnerable; in "Cold War II" she's dark and pessimistic (even if the metaphors are forced). I was glad she finished with "Faraway," a love song of wishing to freeze time. Since she claims her work is autobiographical, I was worried she's been really unlucky for one so young. Let's call Merritt Gibson a gem in need of more polish, but definitely a rising talent. ★★★½

Whiskey Wolves of the West, Country Roots

Can you make a country record that’s so retro modern audiences will find it new? The Whiskey Wolves of the West are hoping so. The lineup is really the songwriting duo of Tim Jones (vocals and guitar) and Leroy Powell (vocals, guitar, and everything else from pedal steel to clarinet). Their approach is to unveil original material that sounds faintly like dusted-off outlaw country from the 60s and 70s as power vocalists such as Levon Helm and Waylon Jennings might have sung it. “Sound of the South” has everything from rolling organ, references to Elvis, and soulful Muscle Shoals evocations in a track that good ‘ole Southern music cures what ails you. “Lay That Needle Down” also takes up back to the age of vinyl in an “… all I need right now/Is the comfort of your company” song; and “Song Ain’t Gonna Write Itself” is the ultimate retro potpourri: a two-step rockabilly number with some surf guitar, some pedal steel, and big vocals. “Rainy Day Lovers” is also filled with old country tropes; it unfolds in a “honky tonk haze” and is about a hard luck man looking for a woman who, “Knows how to treat a man… [a] crazy kind of company to put me back where I belong.” Does this work? Yes and no. There are lots of borrowed riffs and vibes and its seven tracks feel about the right number for us to recall some of good-time feel of old-style white Southern country without getting into its problematic politics. ★★★


May Musings on Baseball & My GM Fantasies

I Wanna Be a GM for a Day!

Okay, I'm eating crow on the Arizona Diamondbacks, whom I picked to finish dead last in the NL West. I still don't think they will win the West, but when you take twenty of your first thirty, odds are good you'll make the playoffs. To put that in perspective, if the D'Backs won just half of their remaining games, they'd finish with 85 wins—probably good enough. If they scratched that to 90, it's definitely good enough. As of this writing, they've won 25 of 43. May I please have some sauce for my crow?

I've also been wrong about the Texas Rangers, whose pitching I figured would at least be mediocre. That's what it's been—except for ageless wonder Bartolo Colon—but everything else has gone south. Is Joey Gallo a bust (like Profar)? What happened to Odor? I predicted management would break up the team midseason, but now I think it will come earlier. It's probably not too soon to begin that process in Baltimore, Kansas City, or Cincinnati either.

We will see what the Boston Red Sox are made of. It has to be disheartening to have the greatest start in team history and still be looking up at the Yankees. If David Price doesn't pitch better, the Sox rotation might not be as solid as anticipated. They also have bullpen issues and are probably going to have to make trades they'd rather not make. One sensible move would be to trade Jackie Bradley while he still has some value. He's a streak hitter who is better than his current .171, but not much better. Great glove, but lifetime he's a .235 hitter. The Sox perennially overhype players; if you can get a decent middle reliever for Bradley, you make the trade. Swihart will definitely be moved and he won't get top value either as the Sox didn't showcase him.

Speaking of showcasing, a boo hiss to the Red Sox for burying Rusney Castillo in Pawtucket, where he's knocked the cover off the ball. Release him so he gets his shot at the Bigs. Yes, you'll have to eat some money, but it's just not fair to let such considerations keep a talented player down on the farm. Alternatively, in Boston he'd probably hit better than Bradley.

How long will the rope be before the Dodgers give Dave Roberts a tug?  It also looks as if the Buck Showalter train has jumped the track.

The Mets dumped Matt Harvey—shocking, but needed. Other teams with tough decisions include the Yankees, who simply must cut ties with Jacoby Ellsbury. There are six current outfielders ahead of him on the depth chart and several more just a year or two behind. Put me in GM Brian Cashman's place and Ellsbury goes on revocable waivers. If no direct rival claims him, wave goodbye. By the way, who had spring training in the annual "Jacoby Goes Lame" pool? The Yankees may also face an issue with Greg Bird, whom I believe isn't a real person. There's a zipper in his back and Nick Johnson resides within. Seriously, folks, trade Bird. Tyler Austin has been fine and first basemen aren't that hard to replace.

Speaking of trades you don't want to make, the Yankees desperately need another pitcher if they want to go deep into the postseason. That probably means they'll have to part with Clint Frazier, who is blocked by Ellsbury's contract.

I said the Phillies might mature earlier than expected. Looks like that is happening. The Braves also seem well along on their youthful rebuild and are currently in first in the NL East. I don't think that will last—this year—but the Braves have seriously good young prospects. And I really like the Brewers.

Raise your hand if you're happy your team didn't sign Yu Darvish. Or Lance Lynn. Or Jaime Garcia.

I wonder why no one has taken a flyer on Matt Garza or Melky Cabrera? 

The biggest disappointment early on has to be the Twins. Maybe those young prospects just aren't as good as advertised. Lucky for the Twins, they are in the AL Central and the Indians have had a horrible start.

Since I've been speculating, time for one of my favorite games: If I Were a General Manager. Here are: Rob's Rules for Being a Smart GM.
            1. Never ever sign a speedy player to a long-term contract unless his name is Ricky Henderson. When speed merchants slow down you're left with: Jacoby Ellsbury.

            2. Never trade even middling prospect pitchers for position players unless the position players are named Trout or Stanton. 

            3. Never shell out big bucks for an infielder over 30 or an outfielder over 32.

            4. Fire every trainer and pitching consultant in your system and start over. It's time to recognize that all the Tommy John surgeries have something to do with flawed training habits. For starters I'd not allow a pitcher anywhere near a weight room. Let's hear it for Bartolo Colon body types.

            5. Never waste roster space on one-trick ponies. What good is a lefty specialist who tosses 2/3 of an inning per week, or a DH you can't send onto the field? On my team, every position player gets a day off, as my DH and utility players are good enough to play multiple positions. Ideally my backup catcher can also play first base. And a lefty specialist who gets clubbed by right-handed batters is a thrower, not a pitcher. No thanks.

            6. Conventional wisdom is wrong about how hitters should be distributed in the lineup. Why put your contact hitters 1-2 when they will only hit that way in the first inning. And why stack all the power 3-6? For most clubs, 7-9 is where you try to hide weak hitters. My ideal lineup would look like this:

                        1. Fastest player on team if he is a high OBP player that doesn't whiff.
                        2. Contact hitter who puts the ball into play and has decent power. (Although I like the Yanks using Judge as #2.)
                        3. Slugger # 1
                        4. High OBP player who is patient at the plate.
                        5. Slugger # 2
                        6. Contact hitter
                        7. Player with highest strikeout rate
                        8. Slugger # 3
                        9. Contact hitter

            7. Use rational metrics and tell the crazies to get lost. On-base percentage matters, dammit! And so do strikeouts. There is no excuse for not advancing a runner from second with nobody out, or failing to plate a runner on third with less than two outs. Statheads can kiss my Home Plate: Wins matter for pitchers. Look at Jack Morris. He never worried about gaudy stats; he pitched to the situation and won 254 games. I'm still miffed that Felix Hernandez took the Cy Young in a year he won only 14 games. While I'm ranting, I've had it with the Michael Pineda/Sonny Gray/Kevin Gausman/Chris Archer types that manage to hit bats at the worst possible time yet keep their Stathead numbers high. 

            8. Hire a manager to make decisions, not make buddies or placate agents. They may turn out okay but turning over a team like the Red Sox or the Yankees to guys who've never managed is like building a world-class research lab and hiring a junior high school chemist to run it. 

            9. Never believe a single word out of Scott Boras' mouth.

            10. Never build a roster around two or three superstars and backfill the rest. You'll end up like the Orioles or the Reds—or like the Angels until they decided it might be a good idea to have a few decent pitchers.  



Our House as Advertised: A Twisty Mystery

Our House (2018)
By Louise Candlish
Simon and Schuster, 416 pages.

Imagine you are living in your dream house, a large elegant home in an exclusive part of South London where your neighbors brag about soaring house values and are talking millions, not thousands. You have everything you ever wanted—a handsome husband, an interesting professional job, two adorable young boys, a nice car, and a leafy manicured backyard. Then it all goes wrong. It's bad enough when you catch your husband bonking a neighbor in the kids' playhouse and throw him out. It gets worse when you go out of town for a few days, come home, and your furniture is gone, and another family has moved into your house. Apparently it's all perfectly legal, as there's a bill of sale signed by your estranged husband and yourself!

That's the nightmare facing Fiona Lawson in Louise Candlish's domestic noir Our House. She knows she never signed over her home, but Bram (Abraham) is nowhere to be found. Slowly Fiona comes to the realization that she's been a naïve dupe. It wasn't the first time Bram strayed, and what was she thinking when she entered into a "nesting" separation agreement in which she and Bram rented a nearby apartment so that, in the name of stability for the children, they could split custody and live-in dates until the divorce settlement?

Candlish's novel seems as if will be a cookie cutter gullible woman versus deceitful man tale. That's part of it, but this is indeed—as promos tag it— a "twisty mystery." In many ways it's a cautionary tale of the snowballing effects of bad decision-making by both Bram and Fiona. Bram is the mug shot for testosterone poisoning and male rage, and clueless Fiona is the quintessence of a helicopter parent who sacrifices her own desires and commonsense in the name of protecting her children. But, again, if this was all it was, Our House could be relegated to the pulp fiction bin. Louise Candlish is too skilled to stop at the clichéd or obvious.  

Before this novel concludes we tread a lot of ground, including peeks into the Dark Web, con artistry, blackmail, and even podcasts. Fiona willingly participates in a series called "The Victim" to warn other women of what can happen to them and detail how easily she was duped. This, of course, means she opens herself for comments from both sympathetic listeners and trolls. Collectively they act as a makeshift Greek chorus that judge her every action, presuppose her motives, and cast her as either courageous or an idiot. Listener comments are one of three voices in the novel, which also switches between Fiona's point of view and Bram's, his both in the present and in Word documents.

Our House could be seen as a confirmation of Sir Walter Scott's line, "Oh what a tangled web we weave/When first we practice to deceive." Candlish takes it step further and shows how deceit snowballs to the point where each new falsehood is a shovel for a self-dug grave. In such a novel, trust is a moving target and the book's very conclusion rests upon how one decides upon whom and where to place one's trust. I will admit I did not see coming the things that transpired.

Candlish creates characters with depth, a touch that extends beyond Fiona and Bram to both secondary and incidental figures. Like all gifted suspense writers, she is so gifted in misdirection that it's only after you've finished that you realize that several of the setups are implausible. Do we use the phrase page-turner any more? If not, call Our House a real finger-swiper!

Rob Weir



History Repeats? Moralists versus the Oneida Community

The Ministers’ War: John W. Mears, the Oneida Community, and the Crusade for Public Morality. By Michael Doyle. Syracuse University Press. 2018.

This review originally appeared n NEPCA Journal. I re-post it because there are parallels to how today's self-appointed moralists react to those whose lifestyles are outside the mainstream. 

Antebellum activism is often refracted through an abolitionist lens, though few Northern evangelicals compartmentalized reform. Protestant ministers spearheading change could be found among any of a number of reform groups.  In this regard, the subject of Michael Doyle’s fascinating study, the Rev. John W. Mears (1825-1881), was typical of men from the rising Northern middle class whose passions were inflamed by the religious revivals of the Second Great Awakening, which reached their height in the 1830s. There wasn’t much that Mears didn’t see as a sin in need of extirpation: prostitution, birth control literature, Mormonism, water pollution, Roman Catholicism, Valentine’s Day cards, obscenity…. The last of these, obscenity, really distressed Mears who was, as Doyle, a Washington, DC-based reporter, puts it, a “virtuous man (44).”

Battles over obscenity often stumble over its definition and parameters. As Doyle suggests, this was Mears’ problem. In the crucial decades before the Civil War, virtue was generally synonymous with the values of the middle class, but it took Mears some time to direct his prodigious energies at the targets that consumed him: John Humphrey Noyes (1811-1886) and the Oneida Community. On the surface, the Oneida Community was what we’d today call a “soft target.” It was, after all, rooted in ideals located far from the banks of the mainstream, the least controversial of which was shared property and living arrangements rooted in spiritual communism. Members also practiced a system of “complex marriage” in which all men and women could (in theory) have carnal relations with each other. Moreover, Noyes equated unwanted pregnancy as enslavement of women, hence the keystone practice of “male continence.” More shocking still, young men learned this discipline through intercourse with postmenopausal women. Noyes himself was a bail jumper who escaped Putney, Vermont, and a possible jail term for adultery back in 1847. So why did it take Mears and the other ministers he recruited until 1881 to force the dissolution of the Oneida Community?

One of the many merits of Doyle’s book is that he captures aspects of the nineteenth-century Zeitgeist in just 172 briskly written pages. Mears shared commonality with others emboldened by the Second Great Awakening, but as Paul Johnson and others have demonstrated, conversion in Western New York State’s “burned-over district” was weighted heavily toward the middle class.  Most locals were farmers and artisans. Although they disapproved of Oneida Community practices, most were also intrigued (possibly titillated) by them, found the group to be good neighbors, and were willing to live and let live. This adds an under-examined class dimension to the crusade against Oneida.

It is important to note that neither Mears nor Noyes should be viewed through modern eyes. The Presbyterian Mears was meddlesome, but he was not akin to contemporary moralists. Northern evangelists were not fundamentalists—the concept barely existed then. Mears studied theology at Yale, revered Immanuel Kant, and was an exacting professor of moral philosophy at Hamilton College. Nor was Noyes a proto-hippie free lover; the Dartmouth/Andover Seminary-educated Noyes based community sexual practices in conceptions of primitive Christianity and a belief in moral perfectionism, the latter a key element of Second Great Awakening thought. In one of the books many concise summaries, Doyle details ways in which Mears and Noyes were quite similar in many respects. The sexual practices gap, though, was simply too wide for the stern Mears to bridge.

Mears prevailed—sort of; Oneida disbanded in 1881, but Mears expired that same year. One is tempted to draw parallels between the minister’s campaign against Oneida and today’s culture wars but, again, Doyle’s objective is to shed light on the nineteenth century, not our own time. Oneida was an endlessly intoxicating experiment about which much has been written. The dissolution narrative generally ends with the incorporation of the community’s chief source of income, its flatware manufactory. Doyle deftly illumines the lesser-known details of the organized opposition that forced the community’s hand. Metaphorically, Noyes represents the utopian impulse and Mears what Robert Wiebe famously dubbed “the search for order.” Doyle's small gem of a book should prove invaluable in facilitating discussions of ante- and postbellum America. Undergraduates will appreciate its clarity and brevity; general readers will find it fascinating.

Robert E. Weir
University of Massachusetts


Heartworn Highways Relives 1970s Outlaw Country Music

Directed by Jim Szalapski
MVD Visual, 92 minutes, Re-release of 1981 original.

In the United States, anything that isn’t classical, opera, or jazz gets lumped into the category of “popular music.” For now I’ll ignore the fact that such distinctions are looser than old elastic. Many film buffs would say that the greatest "popular" music documentaries of all time are Martin Scorsese's The Last Waltz (1976) and Jonathan Demme’s Stop Making Sense (1984). If either film has a flaw, it is that each is simply a concert film—glorious ones shot in path-breaking ways, but there wasn’t a whole lot of script work to be done. Let’s add another to the list of top popular music films, Jim Szalapski’s Heartworn Highways. It was shot in late 1975 and early 1976, but wasn’t released until 1981. That’s rather fitting, as many of its country music subjects didn’t attract a lot of notice until around then.

Heartworn Highways is also script-challenged, but its visuals reveal volumes. Scorsese and Demme sought to iconize The Band and The Talking Heads, but they were already famous. That was not the case of those in Szalapski’s film: Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt, Rodney Crowell, Larry Jon Wilson, Steve Young, Gamble Rogers, David Allan Coe, and an unrecognizably young Steve Earle. Back then, even the Charlie Daniels Band filled high school auditoriums, but not big arenas. They folks were “outlaws” in that their brand of country music evoked old-time country music, especially its balladic traditions. To put matters in perspective, they were the contemporaries of chart toppers such as Glen Campbell, John Denver, Merle Haggard, Ronnie Milsap, Dolly Parton, Kenny Rogers, and Tanya Tucker. Not to take anything away from them, but theirs was a country music defined by big labels, mass markets, and image-makers. It was not necessarily what made the heart sing down at Big Mack McGowan’s Wigwam Tavern, the kind of place where really good (and really awful) players came together to sing old-style country. It’s also where you’d find Glenn Stegner, who once played with Uncle Dave Macon.   

The folks in Heartworn Highways are those hanging out in the dirt-poor back roads of Texas and Tennessee. There’s no context or explanation in this loosely structured film, but we infer they’re all connected to Guy Clark. We visit Van Zandt at his Austin trailer, where dogs, chickens, rabbits, and squalor surround him. We drop in on Wilson in the recording studio the morning after he had partied the night away, watch Clark rebuild his guitar, witness one of Rogers’ stand-up good ‘ole boy comedy routines, and join Coe as he pilots his bus towards a gig at the Tennessee State Prison—a place where his daddy spent most of his life and Coe also did time. Check out Coe’s concert duds; by contrast they make Vegas Elvis, Gene Simmons of KISS and Alice Cooper look like GQ covers. There’s hardly a scene in which we don’t see the men with a cigarette in one hand and a bottle of whiskey in the other. The women are mostly in the kitchen or putting up with small barbs from their men, a reminder of how different the world was before second wave feminism trickled down. You might even be tempted to dismiss all of these guys as deplorable—until they sing. There’s an amazing encounter between Townes Van Zandt and his black neighbor, 79-yeard-old Seymour Washington. Van Zandt rambles incoherently and Washington holds forth on the virtues of moderation. (Wrong audience!) Then Townes picks up the guitar, sings “Waitin’ Around to Die,” as Washington washes the tears from his face. It’s a helluva song and a tender moment that reminds us that these country outlaws drew from streams watered by hard times, the blues, heartbreak, folk music, and pain. It’s impossible not to be moved by songs like “Ohoopee River Bottomland” (Wilson), “Bluebird Wine” (Crowell), or “Alabama Highway” (Young). Above them stood Clark, who sings with ease and writes with grace. He zings off a masterpiece like “L.A. Freeway” and just put down the guitar. Everyone of these folks could/can pick a guitar like a demon—their connections to African American country blues evident in each finger movement.

Szalapski’s camera work is on par with the music. You might often wonder who is on screen as there are no title boxes to inform you, but it doesn’t matter. Szalapski uses montage, collage, rapid sequences, and artful shots—like those of trucks shedding sheets of water during a downpour—with slow pan shots that bathe us in life among the other half and it’s a more effective lesson than any sociologist could teach. Contrast all of this with the airbrushed glitz of Dollywood and you’ll know what made them outlaws. Listen to today’s country music with its blistering guitar work and the willingness (of some) to tackle social issues, or the very renown now held by Charlie Daniels and Steve Earle, and you’ve got you answer about why these rebels mattered. Guy Clark, in my opinion, remains one of the most underappreciated geniuses of our time.

This is not your average documentary. It lets image and song tell the story and expects viewers to fill in the gaps. It is truly remarkable film and we should be thankful that DVD Visuals has made it available again.

Rob Weir


The Square: Too Enigmatic for its Own Good?

Directed by Ruben Östlund
TriArt, 151 minutes, R (nudity, language, disturbing images)
In Swedish, Danish, English, and English subtitles

The Square was Sweden's entry for Best Foreign Language Film at the 2108 Oscars. Watching it explains instantly why it was nominated and why it did not—indeed could not—win. It has much to say, but it's an experimental film marked by insight and incoherence, poignancy and puzzlement, and fine performances and mediocre ones. Director Ruben Östlund seems aware of these contradictions, yet embraces them, integrates them into the plot, and uses them to parody the very world of conceptual art to which he belongs.

Let's start with how the film is routinely digested for movie listings. It uses the artist's statement for the work at the film's periphery: "The Square is a sanctuary of trust and caring. Within it we all share equal rights and obligations." This leads one to think the film is some sort of docudrama about an enigmatic piece of art: a literal square cut into courtyard paving stones whose borders are marked by a solid line of white light. That certainly did not propel me into the theater. In the movie, though, the work is talked about more than actually shown. This suggests that The Square needed a better marketing campaign, but marketing is one of the targets of Östlund's lampoon—another odd choice given that such a work actually exists and was not fashioned by the film's fictional Lola Arias, but by Östlund himself and two others.

What's going on here? The Square's protagonist is Christian (Claes Bang), the curator of the Stockholm X-Royal Art Museum, whose forte is edgy conceptual art the likes of which straddle the razor's edge between bold and just plain bullshit. There is, for example, a room filled with conical piles of dirt. What do you make of that? And what if I told you that Yoko Ono actually made such an installation? Östlund's own Square is a riff on environmental artists such as Julian Schnabel and you'll also find sneaky references to Robert Smithson, Carl Hammond, and Oleg Kulik. That is, if you even know who these people are. This too is a cloaked insider joke. To know these people requires a level of familiarity that often presents as sophistication. Is it, or is it self-reverential snobbery? There's a delicious early scene in which Anne (Elisabeth Moss), a journalist, asks Christian to explain one of the museum's own statements about an exhibit. She reads him the verbatim postmodern mangling of language and Christian can but parrot back a few of the words Anne has just read. She replies that she has no more questions, though it was just her second. This won't prevent the two from bedding, though, so let's cut to a few other things in play.

The Square also skewers bourgeois and sophisticate values, especially the hypocrisy of how the well heeled speak with such passion of how the art and their lives identify with "the voiceless," yet each day they rush by street beggars. Another scene—which actually happened—finds Christian unable to complete a public interview as he is constantly interrupted by vulgarities from a man with Tourettes Syndrome. The very idea that this person should not be allowed to remain in the auditorium is met with vigorous protest from those decrying that those with such problems should not be marginalized. In fact, this is a double parody; it also explores the tension between the cultural decorum of Swedes versus the dilemmas posed by absolute tolerance. Such conundrums rise again when an ad firm produces a buzz video. A blond child stands in the Square and a voiceover challenges viewers to prove they truly are passionate. A clock ticks down and the little girl is blown to smithereens. (Echoes of the famed "daisy" ad from the 1964 POTUS campaign.) An outraged media descends upon Christian, but their outrage is all over the map. Some denounce the videos' poor taste, some want to know why the child was blond and not representative of those more likely to be downtrodden, and still others accuse Christian of self-censorship when he announces the ad has been pulled and that he has tendered his resignation. This one has a very surprising resolution.

The Square is filled with questions about the limits of altruism and tolerance, including a performance art dinner for big donors in which simian-like actors pose as wild beasts. How tolerant can we be before our own atavistic instincts reemerge? As you might surmise, Christian is the biggest hypocrite of all—though he will be challenged in poignant ways.

Bang is terrific as Christian and Dominic West shows up speaking, from I can tell, fluent Swedish. Christopher Læssø is riveting as a black man who is never quite sure of whom to trust and whom to fear. Moss, however, is a noticeable weak link. That startled me as she has attracted attention for past performances and is considered by many to be a rising serious actress. In The Square though, she is clingy, libidinous, and shallow. That may be what the script called for, but if so, it doesn't work very well. The real question is whether audiences will get what is essentially a satirical drama, or simply get lost in all the unexplained weirdness. The Square won the Palme d'Or, but the Cannes festival delights in honoring quirky films. I liked this film, but it has holes and it's simply too outré for mass tastes. Is that another message?

Rob Weir


Lincoln in the Bardo: Strange and Wondrous

By George Saunders
Random House, 368 pages

What happens the moment we die is the ultimate mystery, so it’s hardly surprising that not even religious traditions agree. Eternal non-existence? Reincarnation? Life after death? Quite a few belief systems speculate a temporary middle ground; Roman Catholicism’s Purgatory is by no means the only doctrine on such matters. George Saunders’ Booker Prize-winning Lincoln in the Bardo draws upon a Tibetan belief in an in-between space in which the departed is neither alive nor dead—the novel’s namesake bardo.

Lincoln in the Bardo was a controversial choice for the Booker Prize and not just because of its subject matter; Saunders is the first American writer to win the Booker and it infuriates many in the Brit Lit crowd that Yanks are even considered. That such an “experimental novel” has been honored is another level of debate, though the Booker often goes to works that cause traditionalists to spit out their Earl Grey. The only real question is whether this is a great novel. My verdict? Almost.

The year is 1862 and it has become apparent that the American Civil War will be more charnel house than a hall of heroes. Death becomes very personal to President Lincoln when a typhoid epidemic carries off his eleven-year-old son Willie, a jovial boy beloved by all and the president’s favorite child. This would be a fine book for its unvarnished look at grief alone—many speculate that Willie’s death drove Mary Todd Lincoln mad—but Saunders has a far more ambitious goal in mind. NPR called this book a “worm’s-eye view of death,” and that’s a pretty good way of describing it. Saunders claims part of what he wanted to communicate is embodied in the way Mary cradles the crucified Jesus in Michelangelo’s sculpture The Pieta.

The bardo is where one comes to grips with being dead; hence many there are as yet unaware of their fates. Each is present in the condition in which they arrived plus whatever ravages time takes on the physical body. The bardo is imbued with Edward Gorey levels of creepiness stripped of its Edwardian sense of propriety. Young Willie has been (temporarily) laid to rest in a Georgetown crypt until he can be carried back to the family home in Illinois. He doesn’t have much to say, but 166 other “ghosts” have views on everything—some of it unsettling, some amusing, some philosophical, but little of it self-aware. The narrators come from all walks of past lives: slaves, soldiers, hunters, prostitutes, laborers, homemakers…. This many voices would be a muddle, thus Saunders focuses mostly on three. The Rev. Everly Thomas knows he’s dead, but hasn’t moved on for a reason. Our sad ghost is Roger Bevins III, a closeted gay man who committed suicide; and the resident Falstaff is Hans Vollman, an older man who married a younger woman and was just about to consummate their union when a beam fell from the roof and snuffed out of his life, but not his engorged erection.

Saunders spins tales in snippets, few of which are longer than few sentences. His is a masterful job of imagined dialogue stitched to cut-and-paste passages from diaries, history books, memoirs, newspaper accounts, and other written sources. The ghosts are aware of each other and interact—often in unexpected ways. Sometimes they are as amusing as the movie-obsessed ghosts in the film Truly, Madly, Deeply; often their stories are more poignant and tragic.

It’s clear that Lincoln in the Bardo isn’t any kind of historical novel, but it’s much harder to say what, exactly, we should call it. It’s a fascinating read that I devoured in just two sittings, but I’m less willing to slap the “experimental” label onto it. Saunders’ technique is quite similar to that of Edgar Lee Masters in his 1915 Spoon River Anthology, which has the added merit (and difficulty) of having been written in verse. It also bears resemblance in set-up and tone to Kevin Brockmeier’s underappreciated masterwork The Brief History of the Dead (2006). Brockmeier built upon Eastern African tribal eschatology in which the living become Sasha at death—a kind of holding pattern where one stays until the last person still alive who remembers you passes away. Only then is one Zanan (dead).

So perhaps Saunders’ book isn’t quite as unique as some would have it. It is, however, beautifully written. If, along the way, you wish also to see it as capturing the collateral damage of war, an elegy, or commentary on something grander (the Holocaust?), it is testament to Lincoln in the Bardo that it provokes such thoughts. I can only tell you this: you will know within ten pages whether or not this is your cup of Earl Grey. If you like those ten pages, you will zip through the rest; if not, leave it on the shelf, as the next 358 pages are similar. As for its UK naysayers, the Brits need to get over themselves; this book is far more deserving of the Booker than a lot of previous winners.

Rob Weir


T C Cannon at Peabody through June 10

Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, MA
Through June 10, 2018

People caught between two cultures often produce fascinating art, especially the type often labeled “outsider art.” We can extol the virtues of hyphenated identity all we wish, but those on both sides of the hyphen often view those who carry bifurcated identities with suspicion. They occupy cultural spaces that practically define the term liminal.

I first saw the paintings of T C Cannon (1946-1978) at the Heard Museum of Art in Phoenix in the 1980s and was instantly drawn to his bold colors, ambiguous facial expressions, and the tensions inherent within a blended body whose Caucasian background (American/French) was valued, but the Indian identity he held most sacred (figuratively and literally) was, at best, exoticized (and often racialized).

In a life cut short by a fatal auto accident in 1978, Cannon explored the borders of several art forms: music, poetry, and painting. Salem’s Peabody Essex Museum has assembled 90 works to shed new light on Cannon’s underappreciated genius. Much of this work is either self-consciously autobiographical or inherited expressions of the collective unconscious as embedded in the Native past. Even the latter was splintered; Cannon’s strongest bloodline was Kiowa, closely followed by Caddo, which isn’t a single tribe or people, rather a confederation of Southeastern groups. And there is also the fact that Cannon came of age during the tumultuous 1960s and 1970s. An early painting is of Bob Dylan, but it’s an attempt to capture Dylan’s attitude and vibe, not his exact likeness.

Still others are commentary on the irony of Natives such as himself serving in the very military that sent an Indian lad such as he to Vietnam; Cannon was in the 101st Airborne during 1967-68, a stretch that placed him in the middle of the Tet Offensive. One of the most subversive pieces is deceptively crude and simple: a hastily drawn hangman’s noose that’s labeled “Minnesota.” It’s perplexing unless you know that the largest mass execution in American history took place in Mankato, Minnesota on December 26, 1862, when 38 Dakota Sioux were hanged. It occurred during the Civil War and the president who refused to pardon them was named Lincoln.

Lots of Cannon paintings convey what W.W.B. DuBois called “twoness,” those “two souls … two warring ideals in one dark body.” Several of Cannon’s most powerful works are at core schizophrenic. One cleaves the body in two—the right hand side an Indian proud in his ceremonial paint and braids; the left half a bearded Anglo soldier. Others feature mash ups of Indian garb and military uniforms. Two other canvases satirize Western art by taking one of art’s favorite subjects, the nude Odalisque figure (most famously rendered by Ingres) and pose Indian subjects in the place of Turkish harem slaves. Layer these with as many shaded meanings as you’d like; Cannon intended them all. 

Cannon mostly painted people ill at ease in their cultural time and spaces. There is a haunted lonely quality to canvases such as His Hair Flows Like a River. He gives himself the same treatment in Self-Portrait in the Studio. What is he in this picture? A hippie? A psychedelic cowboy? A John Travolta extra? Or just a playful guy wearing duds so awful they could have only been made in the 1970s?

The Peabody exhibit also features some of Cannon’s poetry. It might not satisfy formalists, but his lines convey power and pain. Do some searching and you might even run across some of his political folk music. Cannon’s Kiowa name was Pal-doung-a-day, “One Who Stands in the Sun.” His rays continue to shed light on ills not yet reconciled.

Rob Weir



Video Review: Step

STEP  (2017)
Directed by Amanda Liptiz
Fox Searchlight, PG, 83 minutes.

Faithful readers know that a criterion I use to evaluate movies is the degree to which they take us inside worlds we're unlikely to enter ourselves. Step certainly does that for me. It's about an all-female charter school, the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women (BLSYW). The BLSYM is mostly African American and the film's subject is about a phenomenon about which I had never heard. We drop in on the seniors of BLSYM in 2015, a tough time to be black and in Baltimore, as that's the year Freddie Gray was murdered by city cops.  School principal Cheronne Hall and head of guidance Paula Dofat have a daunting and audacious goal: keep their students focused, graduate every one of them, and attain a 100% college acceptance rate.

For many of these young women, step is a release from inner-city troubles, personal trauma, the classroom grind, and poverty. Where I live, step dancing evokes Riverdance—Irish music, stiff upper bodies, and flying leg kicks. In Baltimore, think something akin to slices of a Beyoncé video, the step being an increment—those individual pieces stitched together into a choreographed set. Step teams compete, confer street cred, and instill a sense of personal achievement.    

Director Amanda Liptiz's documentary highlights two connected struggles, one academic and the other the fate of the BLSYW step team. She goes broad rather than deep, but gives just enough to keep viewers engaged. We witness both battles in vignette, but step is the star. There's a new coach, Gari McIntyre, who hopes to reverse past history—the BLSYM Lethal Ladies team hasn't done well in recent years—and she dares dream she can whip them into shape to get to the championship round in Bowie, Maryland.

Has anyone been to Bowie? It's an okay place, but Paris it isn't, and aspiring to get to Bowie is its own statement of small dreams. Students cycle in and out of the documentary, but mainly Liptiz focuses on three—who metaphorically represent the top, middle, and low end of the student body. Cori Grainger is the outlier at the crest. She's brilliant, studious, and ambitious Her heart is set on being accepted at Johns Hopkins, but she knows she has to dazzle as she's of six kids and needs a full scholarship to go anywhere, let alone Hopkins. Cori certainly assumes her desired role; call hers a nerd chic look. As she puts it, she got to the top, liked the view, and decided to stay there.

Tayla Solomon is akin to the average student at BLSYM. She does fine in school, but she's not Hopkins material. She is, however, kept in line by her no-nonsense single mom, Maisha, a correctional officer unafraid to wield her discipline at home. And then we have Blessin Giraldo, the founder and captain of the Lethal Ladies. She's bright enough, but she also spends more time on her hair and makeup than schoolwork; she's truant a lot, sometimes angry, and carrying a sub 2.0 grade-point average. Vote her the least likely student to get to college.

Much of what we see in this film defies expectations. Most of the families are poor, but they do not live in squalor. In some ways, their invisible poverty is tougher; the girls look good and their homes are tidy, but there's often no food in the fridge. That's actually one of the burdens Blessin carries; she occasionally goes without food so a younger sibling can eat. She says she doesn’t mind, but we know better. If you think making it to Bowie is a modest goal, most students of Tayla's ilk aren't waiting to hear from Smith or the Ivies; they're really hoping they can make it into schools like Alabama A & M, Potomac State, or Allegany—that is, the ones you won't find battling for prestige in the U.S. News and World Reports college rankings. Each student, though, knows that college—any college—offers hope for a better life.

I won't reveal how any of this—college or step competition—plays out. Nor will I tell you that this is the most brilliant film you'll see. Liptiz has made a film that moves briskly, but has lacunae we'd like to see filled. What's the deal, for instance, with Cori's stepfather—  a bearish white guy with a bushy red beard we encounter in seas of black and brown faces? We don’t learn much about the school, either. How are students and faculty chosen? How does it fit within the Baltimore educational system? Mainly we want to know how these young women fare down the road, the true test of whether the heroic efforts of their teachers and step coach were worth the effort.

Step has been called the Hoop Dreams of the hip-hop generation. There are also parallels to Fame. It’s not on par with either film, but it does take us inside a world hitherto veiled. I hope that Liptiz follows the example of Michael Apted (Seven Up) and does a sequel that updates her charges. Or maybe I don’t. It would break my heart if any of these young women fail.

Rob Weir