I, Daniel Blake Indicts Heartlessness


Directed by Ken Loach
eOne Films, 100 minutes, not-rated
* * * * *

I, Daniel Blake is one of the saddest films I’ve seen in some time and that’s saying something as its director, Ken Loach, has never been known for making uplifting films. Loach is an unabashed champion of the British underclass and the sort of director who is unafraid to call out phonies and power abusers.

His target this time is privatization of the British safety net. I, Daniel Blake plays like a blue-collar version of Bleak House or The Trial. Its titular character is, simply, a decent human being. Everyone likes Dan (Dave Johns): his mates from the shop where he worked, people he meets on the street, even his Afro-British neighbor who Dan yells at to take his garbage to the bin instead of leaving along the flat complex balcony. And would they not like him? Dan is a standup guy, the sort who doesn’t have to be asked to help out a person who needs assistance. That includes Katie Morgan, a down-on-her-luck single mom of two children: the sullen, mildly feral Dylan and mixed race Daisy. To make matters worse, British social services relocated Katie (Hayley Squires) from London to Newcastle because the latter has housing for welfare cases such as she. Never mind that Katie knows no one in Newcastle and her mother is in London. 

Dan has problems too. He had a heart attack and can’t work—at least that’s what his cardiologist says. The privatized employment office says otherwise; according to their work capability assessment he is eligible to work because, of course, some tick-the-boxes form knows way better than a heart surgeon. The upshot is that Dan can’t work and he can’t get benefits unless he looks for work that he can’t accept even if he secures it. He can, of course, appeal, but that involves filling out an online form and scheduling a hearing—except he’s a carpenter who has never touched a computer and he has no income. His is the ultimate Dickensian nightmare merged with a Kafkaesque labyrinthine absurdity.

Dan does all he can to maintain his dignity and composure and then some. He is a veritable lifeline for Katie and her kids and the conduit through which Dylan leaves his shell. Katie’s struggles alone will break your heart, but if you think you can’t keep a good man down, maybe you’re naïve. The system Dan encounters isn’t just complicated, it’s so heartless and cruel that even Ann (Kate Rutter), the welfare agent who tries to help him, gets into trouble for not following protocol. I do not exaggerate when I say that Dan’s treatment is the sort that would lead an American to lock, load, and shoot everyone in sight. Dan’s response, as befits a good man, is somewhat less aggressive.

Loach’s film is a searing indictment of the callous profit-makers and mindless pencil-pushers who don’t give a damn about decent people or poor mothers who burst into tears and cram unheated beans into their mouths at food banks. It is also an indictment against all those who watch and merely tut-tut the injustices before their eyes or actively enforce rules they know to be immoral. The sort thst doesn’t think they are to blame if their actions cause antisocial responses. Okay, this is a film script, not a documentary, but if a tenth of what we see on the screen is accurate, Great Britain should hang its collective head in shame. Except, of course, this film could have been made in the United States as well. In fact it was. Moonlighting or Florida Project anyone?

I know I’m soap boxing but dammit, it just shouldn’t be this way. What does a man like Daniel Blake have to do to reclaim his humanity? He shouldn’t have to do anything; decency should be its own ticket to personhood. This film will leave you shattered, but shame on you if you think it too depressing to watch. I’m glad we still have directors like Ken Loach with the courage to speak for those whose tongues are silenced by sanctimonious monsters.

Rob Weir


Sing, Unburied, Sing a Powerhouse


By Jesmyn Ward
Scribner, 304 pages

Sing, Unburied, Sing hits you like a punch you should have seen coming but didn’t. When I first began reading it I was underwhelmed and wondered why it had won the National Book Award. Then, Bam!!!  It slammed me between the eyes.

It is set in the fictional town of Bois Sauvage, Mississippi, somewhere near the Gulf of Mexico. When we meet “Pop” and his 13-year-old grandson Jojo, they are about to butcher a hog for the latter’s birthday—Jojo steeling himself and trying to remain stoic amidst the blood and viscera. As we meet the rest of the family living in a shotgun cabin, we are lured into a timeless rural mindset. There is Jojo’s 3-year-old sister, Kayla; their mother, Leonie; and Pop’s wife, “Mam,” lying in a back room and wasting away from cancer. The feel is that of a Toni Morrison or Alice Walker novel set in the Reconstruction South. Then small references begin to unsettle us—first of mechanical devices, then of motorized vehicles, which forced us to think maybe it’s the 1920s. Then come mentions of Hurricane Katrina and Deepwater Horizon and it hits you that this is now, not the sleepy past. Bam!!!

Sing, Unburied, Sing has been compared to Morrison’s Beloved and with good reason: it’s really a ghost story. When Jojo tells us early on, “I like to think I know what death is…” we’re being set up. One of our ghosts is history itself, but not the dead hand of the past moldering in the ground, rather one (in Karl Marx’s words) that “weighs like a nightmare in the brains of the living.” As we work our way through the many racial injustices in this poor, our minds conjure other ghosts: Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner…. We think also of ghosts who departed early dues to the hidden injuries of class.

Ward doesn’t allow us to make this just a novel about race. Jojo and Kayla are biracial, their white father Michael doing time in northern Mississippi’s infamous Parchman Farm*. Stroylines intersect as Pop once did time there himself—back when Parchman was as close to hell as a living black man could get. It was slavery cloaked in legal garb and when Pop was there, so too was a 12-year-old black child named Richie, sent up to do hard adult time for the crime of being so hungry he stole some meat. Pop came home, but Richie didn’t, a story Pop spins out for Jojo in pieces. Richie is another of our ghosts, a wandering spirit seeking to come “home,” wherever that might be. Still another is Leonie’s brother Given, murdered by a jealous white boy he thought was his friend simply because he was a better athlete and woodsman. Death is everywhere in this book: people, goats, hogs, deer, oil-choked dolphins….

The question is whether the dead stay dead or, if like history, they weigh like nightmares—perhaps concrete ones. Mam is a “seer,” as is Kayla and (maybe) Leonie. The book’s structure is deceptively simple; Michael is being released from Parchman and Leonie, Jojo, and Kayla set off to fetch him, along with Leonie’s white friend Misty, with whom Leonie shares a love of booze and drugs. As you can imagine, this is not going to be a routine journey. Think detours into crystal meth, serious medical issues, confrontations with racist cops, and a family reunion that’s not exactly like something out of “Father Knows Best.” And let’s not forget the ghosts. Can we sing them home?

This book has it all: Christianity mixed with voudon, descriptions so vivid we can smell the mud, and repeated patterns of resistance, fear, resignation, and moving on. (A repeated Jojo line: “It don’t matter.”) Do you like metaphors that spring to life? Pop’s given name is River. Read the Langston Hughes poem “The Negro Speaks of Rivers.” Think of shades of meaning embedded in the words “sing” and “home.” Be literal and muse upon Parchman (parched + man). Muse upon Mam’s cancer and think globally. Think upon Black Lives Matter and dare to ask if that’s true, then or now. Let that weigh on your brain. 

What a powerful book. Bam!!!

Rob Weir

*Music fans might recognize Parchman Farms as the subject of several blues songs. It’s also where Alan Lomax famously collected blues classics in the 1940s. [check)


Try These for a Pan-Celtic St. Patrick's Day


A lot people ignore Celtic music until St. Patrick’s Day rolls around. That’s a shame because it is way more creative than anything you’ll hear on Top 40 radio and has been for decades. It’s my favorite genre of music.

St. Patrick’s Day is part of the problem in that many people only think of Irish music when the word Celtic is uttered and associate it with stereotypical drinking songs and canned diddly diddly instrumentation that’s high on cheap theatrics but is seldom played outside of tourist hotels. It bears mention that almost no one in Ireland can stomach the idea of green beer, paper shamrocks, and plastic leprechauns. So let's use St. Patrick's Day to Celtic all Celtic music.

The term “Celtic music”—and pronounce Celtic with a hard K unless you mean a Boston basketball team—is a misnomer. Ditto any sort of national music such as Irish or Scottish music. The late Tommy Makem of the Clancy Brothers hailed from County Armagh in Northern Ireland and once told me he never heard the phrase “Irish” music as a lad; the tunes and songs he heard in his village of Keady were completely different from those played twenty miles away.

Celtic actually refers to many peoples, only some of whom lived anywhere near Ireland. In tribal Europe, pretty much anyone who wasn’t Germanic or Slavic was a Celt. Many Celts also found their way to Asia and Asia Minor. Today, though, we use Celtic to reference areas with a sizable concentration of Celtic bloodlines and cultural saturation: Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Brittany, Cornwall, Galicia in Spain, Asturias in Portugal, the Isle of Man, and Canada’s Cape Breton Island. Each has great music, but I will share ideas from the places in bold.


There really isn't any such thing as a "Celtic" instrument per se, aside from three that are actually very universal and were probably the world's oldest instruments: bagpipes, flutes, and stringed zithers, including the harp. There are many varieties of bagpipes—the subject of a future post. Celtic bands generally have a preference for fiddles and accordions—they set great dance tempos—but you name it and they use it: cittern, bouzouki, piano, cello, hand drums, acoustic and electric guitars, tin whistles—even brass and woodwinds.


If you’re tempted to cite The Chieftains, Clancy Brothers, or Irish Rovers as the forerunners of modern Celtic music, dont; it was Ireland’s Bothy Band, the first to appreciate that there’s no such thing as “traditional music.” It is the nature of folk music to change and no well-traveled tune or song should ever be called the original version" unless accompanied by the phrase “earliest known.”

The Bothies turned Celtic music upside down in the early 1970s by bringing modern influences into older tunes and songs, including using amplification so that harps and fiddles could hold their own with louder instruments. They practically invented the “Big Set” featuring textured melodies, stitched tunes, and big swells. They still hold up simply because few have ever done it better.

Lunasa is the more recent band I think comes closest to The Bothy Band’s instrumental vibe, with more groove: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uG4lNbXTBAs

Altan is surely the most beloved of current bands and the best exemplar of Donegal music, whose tunes often feature two fiddles. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uG4lNbXTBAs 
A review of Altan's new record The Widening Gyre is forthcoming on this site.

I tend to prefer Scottish bands, and my favorite of all time was Ossian,* which has a delicate side seldom matched and wove sounds and tunes together like fine tailor: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h4jzFowWZIA

For pure bring-the-noise excitement, try The Tannahill Weavers, a band that preserves tradition and isn’t just a rock band whose members have accents: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0FANYQIFdtE

Silly Wizard* had it all: the whimsical duels of the brothers Cunningham, the dulcet vocals of Andy M. Stewart, solid fiddling, and terrific stage presence. It was always a tossup which was more fun: the musicianship or the jokes: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UIdz87JsTgY

Kornog was responsible for bringing Breton music into the limelight and if you’ve never heard Breton dance music, you’re in for a treat: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-j1kHJnJZ9A

Breton music also features instruments you don’t hear a lot, like the strident bombarde and the hurdy-gurdy. Ad Vielle Que Pourra is half Breton, half Quebecois, and 100% exciting: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PYw8xL7ICrw

The Rankin Family is the standard to which all other Canadian Celtic bands aspire. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DBD_faUIThQ

For a Spanish Celtic flair, try Milladoro: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OZ5NtUSQX4E

A preview of bagpipe variety: Susana Seivane from Galicia: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ioTUmP9qYVI

If you want to hear an amazing international Celtic offering, Skydance is The Bothy Band gone global: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rePzNVFf_Ac


This instrument has come to define modern Celtic music. There are scores of great fiddlers, but in my mind four stick out.

Scotland’s Alaisair Fraser is one of the best violinists in the world—of any genre. He can paralyze you with a single note. That's him with Skyedance above. Try this one as well. It explains my love for Scotland and Alaisdair's music : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S2d-4dy-lCY

Ireland’s Martin Hayes is in that same league. Check out his focus. His is boiling frog music that starts slow, simmers, and comes to a rolling boil: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o5hg3iuoJoM

Chicagoan Liz Carroll is unmatched as an Irish-American performer who puts her unique stamp on each piece: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ITdV3rRL8oQ

I imagine that Cape Breton’s chief import is fiddle strings. Normally it would be hard to pick just one Cape Breton fiddler—except everyone pretty much agrees Natalie MacMaster is the queen bee. You try fiddling and step dancing at the same time; I’ll swing by and sign your cast. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=59VGEME-iAE


If you like great voices, Celtic music provides in spades. Here are some to try:

Ireland has given us amazing voices, including:

Mary Black used to head De Dannan and went onto to global fame as an interpreter of Irish song. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P17wWpr2usk

Dolores Keane, also once led De Dannan: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Rc3KRw6nN20 

Mairéad Ní Mhonaigh who fronts Altan. For the Irish-impaired an approximate pronunciation is Mar' ray' ed'  Nuh-wee'-nee. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b1734yzunow

Maura O'Connell who went on to prove there's no genre she can't slay. 

My favorite Scottish singers include:

Andy Stewart of Silly Wizard and his sweet tenor voice: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=appBtXoxfb8

Dougie MacLean who has written some truly amazing songs. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wP8A9rtg0iI

Karen Matheson of Capercaillie might well be my favorite singer since Sandy Denny died. Notice how Scots Gaelic differs from Irish: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OZe9N1vNGh0

Karine Polwart If not Karen, Karine is my favorite! 


**Both Ossian and Silly Wizard and Ossian have been cursed by bad luck. Both George Martin and gentle soul Tony Cuffe of Ossian have died, as have Andy Stewart and Johnny Cunningham of Silly Wizard. I knew all four and miss them terribly. Johnny C was maybe the funniest human being I've ever known. 


Battle of the Sexes Too Camp?


Directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris
Fox Searchlight, 121 minutes, PG-13 (sexual situations, blurry nudity)
★★★ ½

As I have noted before, comedy-dramas tend to dilute both genres to the point where they’re either not funny enough, or they are too silly for us to take seriously things we’re supposed to. However, if ever a real-life event was both ridiculous and poignant at the same time, it came in 1973, with the $100,000 winner-take-all tennis match between 29-year-old Billie Jean King and 55-year-old Bobby Riggs.

King (b. 1943) is important to women’s tennis in more ways than merely winning 39 Grand Slam titles; she was the first tennis player to embrace second- wave feminism and insist that women be treated equally to male stars. In 1970, King confronted U.S. Lawn Tennis Association president Jack Kramer (Bill Pullman in the film) over the 12:1 pay differential between men and women. She was told to take it or leave it. She left it. King was a founder of the Women’s Tennis Association and a leading light of the Virginia Slims tournament.

In the movie, we meet King (Emma Stone) in the aftermath. Although World Tennis Magazine founder Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman) helped organize the Virginia Slims circuit, it was a shoestring operation in which competitors roomed and traveled together. Moreover, King, Margaret Court (Jessica McNamee), Rosie Casals (Natalie Morales), and a handful of others were recognized as superb female stars, but only the men were viewed as true athletes. Battle of the Sexes takes us to several breakthrough moments.

Meet Bobby Riggs (1918-88), a former tennis #1 in his own right, but that was in 1939 (as an amateur) and in 1946 and 1947. By 1973, he was basically a hustler running strange exhibitions such as playing matches while sitting in chairs between returns, dressing in bizarre outfits, or while leading dogs on leashes.

His marriage to the wealthy Priscilla Wheelan (Elisabeth Shue) was on the rocks and all attempts to give up gambling failed for the simple reasons that Bobby loved to gamble and he was good at it. He sensed that he could literally cash in on the women’s movement by showing that the top women’s players couldn’t hold their own even against a long-retired male such as himself. Billie Jean King knew Bobby and his antics, and refused to take part in his freak show—until he annihilated Margaret Court, who was then the top-ranked woman. Then it was soooo on.

As Casey Stengel once said, “You could look it up;” King ran Riggs ragged and defeated him in straight sets, an event that many credit as a breakthrough for female athletes. Less heralded was that King, who was married to Larry (Austin Stowell), a very devoted man, was also ambivalent about her attraction to women and the affair she was having with beautician Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough).

For younger readers, if the idea of women needing to prove their worthiness strikes you as incomprehensible, allow me to remind you that, yes, they did back then. And it was much, much harder for gays and lesbians. Only a handful—like King’s uniform designer Teddy Tinley (Alan Cumming)—lived openly gay lives and they did so at great peril. Virginia Slims organizers worried that a “scandal” such as the King-Barnett romance could sabotage all their efforts.

Lesbianism is handled tenderly in the film. It is, however, one of the few places where the direction doesn’t veer toward being over the top. King was/is a key figure in women’s rights and tennis, but the game depicted on the screen is more robust and powerful than it was at the time. King pointed the way to the muscularity that would come, but at 5’5” was not the sort who could physically dominate many opponents.

Of course, most sports films exaggerate the action. I didn’t think, though, that it was possible to make Riggs’ antics appear more outrageous than they were. The events you see actually occurred, but the tone is ramped to garish arena rock-meets-World Wrestling Federation levels. In my view, it is another confirmation that mixing comedy and drama risks losing magnitude and perspective. What do we recall when the movie is done: the folly or the triumph? The performances are superb, especially Stone, Riseborough, the spitfire Morales, and the sensitive Stowell. I was less enamored with Carrel, who seemed more like he was in a Saturday Night Live sketch. But we must still ask if we are witnessing history at the crossroads or history as camp.

Forty-four years later, Riggs’ hype-fueled style is the norm in the sports entertainment world. But is it actually true that the 1973 Battle of the Sexes was a breakthrough moment for women’s sports and sexual freedom? (Roe v. Wade was also upheld in 1973.) I’m tempted to say both changed in 1975, when an open lesbian fled communist Czechoslovakia and was granted asylum in the USA: Martina Navratilova. She became arguably the greatest female tennis player in history—and on her own terms. If King versus Riggs was the Battle of the Sexes, Navratilova in her prime versus Serena Williams in hers would have been the Battle of the Ages.

Rob Weir