Lost in the Rain in Juarez and its Eastertime, too

"William wants a doll."  We got Caleb an anatomically correct pal because he'd taken an interest in the day care dolls and we thought it might help with potty training.  To claims that the doll has girl hair and a pink blouse despite its plastic male parts, we say: "It's a wide world, baby."  Maybe s/he's from Brazil.

Hunting up Easter eggs at Grandma and Grandpa Greenhoe's.

The loot.


Caleb does somersaults at Grandma and Grandpa Greenhoe's.

Caleb, Sam, and Ian belly up to the bar at Easter dinner.

Putting handprints on the French doors at Uncle Paul and Aunt George Ann's.

No one can eat fifty eggs.

Those walruses look a bit long in the tooth.  Sam, Olin, and Caleb at the Milwaukee Public Museum.

Visiting India.

A little leftover Easter ham.

Sculpting in shaving cream at the Children's Outing Association.

Four twins:  Caleb and Sam and Will and Jason.

A beautiful Saturday at Back Bay Park.  (Moments after this picture was taken, your photographer was covered in leaves.)


Let's Loot The Supermarket Again (Like We Did Last Summer)

Back in January, I proclaimed The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Vol. 1: The Pox Party the best book I'd read this year, and I'm somewhat disappointed to say I still feel that way after reading the second and final volume in the series (Vol 2: The Kingdom of the Waves).

This volume is still a valuable read, and the second half of the book is quite good, but Anderson's decision to begin this volume at the same point that ends the first volume means that there's a lot of shuffling about for the first hundred pages or so, painting a portrait of life inside of crown-controlled Boston during the Revolutionary War with perhaps too much attention on how the characters get clothing and money and lodging, details that could have been elided with a jump forward in time.

Ultimately, Octavian heads to coastal Virginia to join up with the appointed Governor, Lord Dunmore, who has offered freedom to the colonial slaves who agree to join his Ethiopian Regiment and fight with him against the rebellion. Interestingly, the minutemen and soldiering farmers we tend to view as heroes of the American Revolution are here presented a villains, in that they stand for slavery and against the British Marines who fight alongside Octavian and his fellow recruits.

After some early defeats, the Ethiopian Regiment is confined off the coast of Virginia, in ships and on one occupied island, and the majority of the book takes place under these circumstances, with little action and lots of black soldiers dying of smallpox. It's an interesting bit of history, not quite the ripping yarn of the first volume. It's ultimately history that confines the story, because ultimately we know that the colonial rebels declare themselves independent and hold as self-evident that certain men are created equal. Slavery would continue for another 90 years, and inequality much longer.

When we last see Octavian, he's lighting out for the territories in the manner of Huck Finn's Jim, which is fitting enough for a happy ending, however rare such an ending may have been for escaped slaves in late 18th century America.

I'm still not certain why these two books -- which contain quite a few scenes of brutal killing, slow death by disease, and even attempted rape -- are marketed as Young Adult books. Anderson acknowledges, in his afterword, that the book follows many of the rules of the fantasy novel, and certainly there's plenty of thirteen year olds out there who would benefit from the education and entertainment on hand in Octavian's story, but the scope and aim of these books are far from adolescent.

I'm impressed, from both novels, with Anderson's ability to write in a number of styles and voices, each particularly suited to their character and the times, and I'm eager to read more of his work. This book, though, has left me hungry for non-fiction for some reason, something just as crackling and full of American lore and the issue of racial inequality that's haunted us from our very beginning, and so I'm off, now, to my local bookstore...


The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite

The song "Wimoweh" began its life in 1939 as a composition by Solomon Linda, a songwriter for the Evening Birds, a dandified acapella group in South Africa. The record -- then titled "Mbube" -- sold well in Johannesburg, which led Alan Lomax, then a song collector working for the Library of Congress, to lend a copy to Pete Seeger. Seeger developed the song for his 1950's group, the Weavers, and ultimately recorded the song with it's new title, "Wimoweh," which likely came from a mis-hearing of a word repeated in "Mbume"'s chorus: "uyiMbube" (translated: "You are a lion.")

The Weavers recorded the song for the Folkways record company, and as of its first pressing the song was credited to "Paul Campbell," a pseudonym of Folkway's parent compony owner Harry Richmond to copyright the public-domain folk songs which The Richmond Organization published. (This is one of the more nefarious tactics employed by certain folksong collectors, recorders, and artists -- copyrighting material that rightly belonged in the public domain or -- as in this case -- a living author. ) Seeger received an arranger's fee, a standard way to credit artists with an impact upon an existing or public domain work.

Pete Seeger has said that the song refers to Shaka the Lion, the last king of the Zulus, who would return from death (or a long sleep) to once again rule his people, similar to Western legends concerning King Arthur or Richard Milhouse Nixon. "Wimoweh" was a hit for the Weavers, and several other folk groups performed the song. Seeger, who claimed that he had little understanding of how record royalties worked, sent his arranger's fee of $1,000 to Solomon Linda and asked the record company to forward royalties as well. It's a bit unclear whether this happened.

In the early sixties, the song was reworked again by songwriters George David Weiss, Hugo Peretti and Luigi Creatore on behalf of RCA recording artists The Tokens. This song, now called "The Lion Sleeps Tonight," retained much of the "Mbube"/"Wimoweh" melody but added in some trite English lyrics that only half-heartedly refer to the Shaka legend: "In the jungle, the mighty jungle, the lion sleeps tonight..." Claiming sole writing credit for the song, this arrangement cut Solomon Linda out of the proceeds altogether. The song's appearance in Disney's The Lion King alone earned the song an estimated $15M. A Rolling Stone expose in 200 has ultimately led to some compensation agreements with the family of the now-deceased Solomon Linda (who died near penniless in the early '60s), and has also led to the South African documentary "A Lion's Trail," which appeared on PBS a couple of years ago. (A 2004 suit claimed that Disney owed the family $1.6M in royalties, and TRO/Folkways now delivers an estimated $3,000 per year for the Weaver's version.)

Regarding the catchy "Lion Sleeps Tonight," please consider that: a) Lions live in the savanna, not in the jungle, and b) there are no jungles in Johannesburg. The Seeger/Weaver's version of the song -- and the Evening Birds version -- do not contain such inanities.


Revolution Rock

Pete Seeger Week Part Three

To my mind, there are three important periods in the 20th century history of American folk music: 1932-1942 in Washington D.C., 1955-1965 in New York City, and 1974-1984 in London, U.K. In the first period, academics and folklorists began to collect and record the songs and stories of long overlooked Americans and spurred on the careers of the likes of Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, and Leadbelly. The second period encompasses the folk revival of Greenwich Village and Washington Square Park, leading to the careers of Bob Dylan, Dave Van Ronk, and many others. In the last, British rockers shed the excesses of post-Beatles pop music to return to more a accessible, grassroots/Do-It-Yourself approach to music and politics. So, yeah, I'm making the argument here that The Clash -- four punks from Ladbroke Grove -- were essentially an American folk act.


Oh what will you give me?
Say the sad bells of Rhymney.
Is there hope for the future?
Cry the brown bells of Merthyr.
Who made the mine owner?
Say the black bells of Rhondda.
And who robbed the miner?
Cry the grim bells of Blaina.
-- From "The Bells of Rhymney," words from "Gwalia Deserta" by Idris Davies, music by Pete Seeger

You owe me a move
Say the bells of St. Groove
Come on and show me
Say the bells of Old Bowie
When I am fitter
Say the bells of Gary Glitter

No one but you and I
Say the bells of Prince Far-I
-- From "Clash City Rockers" by Strummer/Jones

Certainly, the punk era had it's share of protest songs in the form of "God Save the Queen" or "Straight to Hell," just as Seeger's "Waist Deep in the Big Muddy" or Phil Och's "I Ain't Marching Any More" give a taste of punk's anger. And American folk tunes turn up on all manner of punk records: Nirvana did Leadbelly's "In the Pines," Billy Bragg does "Which Side Are You On?" and an entire record of previously unrecorded Guthrie songs, and my city's own Violent Femmes produced a seminal punk record on mainly acoustic instruments. Greil Marcus once called Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska and Elvis Costello's King of America -- two records steeped in the folk tradition -- two of the "quietest punk records ever made."

Both Pete Seeger and The Clash's Joe Strummer sought aspects of the universal in the music of other cultures, merging their own folk traditions with those of Africa and Jamaica, Germany and Spain, Chile and Guatamala. They both were interested in developing newer artists and at the same time looking back upon the routes that wind back through time. (A friend of mine was lucky enough to meet Joe Strummer in Chicago in the late '80s. Strummer signed his T-shirt with the message: "Keep listening to the roots sh!t.")

Strummer's Earthquake Weather, his widely panned (and yet exceedingly excellent) first solo record from 1989, strikes me as a street-level exploration of American folk music, similar in its nature to King of America and Nebraska, and Graceland to boot. A listener can pretty well map Strummer as he moves through Louisiana ("King of the Bayou") and southern Florida ("Island Hopping") to the industrial Midwest ("Passport to Detroit") and the idealized American plains ("Sleepwalk"). In "Leopardskin Limosines": "People gonna wanna Xerox you, baby, it's a good thing you ain't a Chickasaw or your soul would take an overnight train to Pittsburgh, calling Baltimore." And "Highway One Zero Street" is not only the place where "Elvis buys his Pabst," it's also there that "they hung Fatty Arbuckle's balls" and where your little sister sits, "kicking drugs on a Bedouin rug in the hall." So I'm going to guess Los Angeles.

In some ways, Strummer is a truer succsessor to Peter Seeger than any American folk musician I'm aware of, in that where Seeger can collect a song like "Wimoweh" or "Guantanamera" and make it known to the public, but Strummer (in later work with the Clash, on Earthquake Weather, and the records with the Mescaleros) took the next step of stitching some of these traditions together, fusing a Global-a-Go-Go that befits a legacy of folk, punk, and what's oddly called world music. By yesterday's taxonomy, that makes Joe Strummer a Bob Dylan to Pete Seeger's Woody Guthriedom.

More on "Wimoweh" tomorrow, as Pete Seeger Week continues.

We All Scream

We interrupt Pete Seeger Week for this commercial break:

Ben & Jerry's has announced a contest ("Do The World A Flavor") that will allow you to create your own ice cream flavor, although sadly taste testing is not allowed. You can, however, design the flavor and the packaging. My entry, at left, involves sweet cream ice cream with chocholate chip and oatmeal cookies, as well as a chocoalte crumble swirl.

The winning ice cream will be sold in stores in 2010, and it's inventor will recieve a trip to the company's fair trade cocoa co-op in the Dominican Republic.

Townblog has long admired the progressive and socially responsible company culture that Ben & Jerry's has maintained, and is a proud -- if perhaps too frequent -- consumer of its products.

Perhaps you'd like to try your hand at developing a Seeger-themed ice cream? Something rustic, involving coffee or granola...?


We Workers Do Not Understand Modern Art

Pete Seeger Week Part Two

Within the tradition of the Meyers-Briggs test, Carl Jung, and Facebook quizes, there stands William Irwin Thompson's four achetypes of man: the Chief, the Shaman, the Hunter, and the Fool. The best use of these archetypes, as far as I can see, is to use the rubric as a way to think about and essentialize any group of four: the Beatles, the cast of Seinfeld, the four Ghostbusters. It's an especially good way to use up five or six years' worth of college -- was John Lennon the Chief or the Shaman? If your Dad is Shaman and Mom is Chief, and your brother clearly the Hunter, what's left to describe yourself?

Anyway, I want to develop a similar (and probably just as reductive-slash-useless) rubric for the dissemination of ideas, utilizing key figures from the folk music revivals of the 1930s and late 1950s/early '60s as avatars. As a kind of thought experiment, or perhaps to explain why certain people are secretly awesome.

The Woody Guthrie: A rough-hewn original, kind of shaky and odd and not entirely palatable. It's palatable enough for Pete Seeger or Ramblin' Jack Elliott or Alan Lomax to see as something valuable and worth distributing, but would need some commodification to appeal to the public. Often more noteable for those they influenced or their historical import than for their effectiveness within their own lifetime. Examples of Guthries: the Xerox Alto or the Apple Newton, Galileo Galilei, early abolitionists, Walt Whitman, the Velvet Underground.

(NOTE: Woody Guthries, of course, is not entirely original, as he adapted much of his shtick from earlier folk or country stars and is beholden himself to people like Huddie Ledbetter and countless, nameless Appalachian song purveyors, but I said above I aimed to be reductive and so here -- like a French sauce that's been on the stove since morning -- is your thick and syrupy reduction.)

The Pete Seeger: Like Johnny Appleseed or a garage band with an account at Kinko's, the Seeger takes an original idea (The Guthrie) and disperses it among the populace. This requires some gestures towards the mainstream, a smoothing of some but certainly not all rough edges. For Seeger, his involvement with pro-Union organizations and the Communist Party of the 1930s and 40s got in the way of his post-WWII mission to bring folk music back to the folks, but it's equally clear that he would not have done one without having first done the other. Examples of Seegers: the Macintosh SE, Martin Luther King, William Carlos Williams, the Clash, Ralph Nader, Julia Child, Jim Henson, Dave Eggers, the Milwaukee County Parks System. (It strikes me that most of my heroes are Seegers.)

The Burl Ives: (I'm going to pick on Burl Ives here, though there are other names that might be equally or even more appropriate. But the guy's name was Burl, so likely he can take it. Plus, he was a HUAC rat.) This is the point in the progression where a once revolutionary movement or idea is allowed a bright wool sweater and a seat by the fire. The teeth are dulled, and the sound homogenized and made safe. But just because something is milquetoast and market-ready doesn't necessarily mean it's bad -- the Police, for example, may be punk rock's fury and pose made acceptable for pop audiences, but I still kind of like their records. Other Ives: Will & Grace, David Sedaris, Billy Collins, Microsoft Windows, the Milwaukee County Public Transit System.

The Bob Dylan: Almost a new Woody Guthrie, the Bob Dylan takes an established, Seeger-ed idea that is heading for (or already mired in) Ives-ishness and turns it into something altogether new. While Dylan's move from acoustic folk into electric rock may be an aspect of this, I'd argue that it's Dylan's surrealist bent that makes him unique within the folk form. (He's also strangely without form himself-- while he has a mystique, this comes from a kind of invisibility. Compared to what is publicly known about Guthrie and Seeger, we know astonishingly little about Bob Dylan. While you know what you expect from a Bob Dylan song, we don't get a list of causes to support or clear emotional or intellectual stances that are common to other songwriters. Whatever you imagine of him, for example, Bob Dylan never wrote a song that overtly opposed the Vietnam War.) Other Dylans: Alan Moore, maybe Andy Warhol, and I'm going to claim Donald Barthelme. Also Denis Johnson's Jesus' Son. And to illustrate the way that the line blurs between the Guthrie and the Dylan: Ezra Pound is both Guthrie and Dylan.

Of all of these, I'd argue that the Seegers are the workhorses, the under-appreciated, the University Academic Staff, those who knowingly sacrifice for little personal gain or at risk to themselves. They teach, they read, they march, they write, they -- like Pete Seeger -- sing out.

Pete Seeger week continues tomorrow...


A Hammer of Justice

Pete Seeger Week, Part One:

There's not much salacious gossip to be had in a biography of Pete Seeger, whose only vice seems to be an at-times overbearing earnestness. He's not one for wine and women -- just the song, thanks.

Like many a 20th or 21st century self-identified progressive, I hold Pete Seeger (who turns 90 on May 3rd) as a hero. He stood up for unions and brotherhood in the thirties, signed up for Army service in World War II, campaigned for Wallace '47, brought to the masses the songs of Leadbelly and Guthrie as well as songs from South Africa and dissident Germany, stood up to HUAC over his association with the Communist Party and -- largely -- for co-writing the lyrics to Wasn't That A Time?, put the Old New England "Shall" in "We Shall Overcome," struggled back from the black list to sing out against the Vietnam War on national television (and essentially get himself blacklisted again), was an early adopter of conservation, and, in all of this, acted both locally and globally. Both literally and figuratively, Pete Seeger is a real live nephew of your Uncle Sam, a man who can trace his roots back to the Mayflower and an American patriot in the service of our better angels.

He has two chief talents, employed in all of the above: he finds songs and he teaches people to sing them. Perhaps my favorite Seeger performance is this version of "If I Had a Hammer," recorded live in Sanders Theatre on the Harvard Campus in 1980, where he does not so much sing the song as facilitate (and harmonize with) the audience of bookish students and reserved Cantabridgians.

After recording more than 150 records and countless concerts, Pete Seeger has rarely accepted payment for a performance over the last 25 years, though he continues -- at 89 -- to show up with his banjo at benefits and demonstrations and inaugurations.

David King Dunaway's How Can I Keep From Singing?: The Ballad of Pete Seeger is an effective and suitable biography of Seeger, one which couples the man with his times and confronts his character. Seeger was a child of privilege who devoted his life to folk in the broadest sense of the term, and Dunaway makes clear the further contradictions that lie within that larger one. Seeger is both a pacifist and a man capabale of great temper (though the rumor that he took an axe to the electric cords at Bob Dylan's 1963 electric debut at Newport is not true -- he only threatened to do so). Within his selfless approach to worthy causes and people, there lies a kind of selfishness, a patriarchal reliance upon his wife Toshi for all the details and organizing and washing-up. And yet, Seeger can carry these faults on his sleeve and, brandishing them, is still probably a better man and a better American than you or I can reasonably hope to be.

I highly recommend the film Pete Seeger: Power of Song which ran as an episode of PBS' American Masters last year but which is now available on DVD. At the end of that film, as you get a sense of Seeger readying himself for mortality, there's is a moving final portrait of Seeger with his children and his grandchildren, a family as large and as rainbow-hued as the America he surely hope to leave behind.

More Pete Seeger stuff throughout the week...


Box Full of Letters

On Thursdays, we stop to answer viewer mail.

First, Trevor asks:  When is the next book report coming out?


(Singer-songwriter Billy Bragg tells a story about being stopped by a reporter while on his way to a Port-a-Potty backstage at a music festival.  "Do you have any forthcoming releases?" asked the reporter.  "I can promise your readers exclusively," Billy replied, "that I will very shortly be releasing something quite substantial indeed.")

Second, Peter Paul and Mary ask:  Where have all the flowers gone?

Gone to young girls, every one.  When will they ever learn?

Finally, Anonymous asks:  Do you have any photos of well-dressed children eating spaghetti?

In fact, I do.  Enjoy:


The Tigers Have Spoken

More photos from the merry month of March...

Sam, Sheta, and Hiwot share some Tika Masala.

Renata, Olin, Julian, and Isaac explore the train set.

A tiger, Hiwot, Renata, Sheta, Sam, Isaac, an excavator, and Caleb make a trampoline of our marital bed.  One rolled over and the next one said...

Hiwot and Caleb discuss the poetry of William Blake.

Sam and Caleb sneak up on a peacock at the zoo.

This sign hangs on the portable headquarters of the construction crew who have been digging up the neighborhood and hogging all the parking spaces.

Caleb eagerly awaits cake at Summer's birthday party.  (Milwaukee County's 3rd District Supervisor Gerry Broderick sits at the bar in the background.  Please send all blackmail inquiries courtesy this website.)

It's hard to know what Caleb likes more:  the cake or blowing out the candles.  Here he bogarts Summer's birthday wishes alongside Maia, Summer, Julian, and Kobe.

Sam, on the other hand, covets Summer's gifts. 


Cheeses Take The Wheel

In our continuing mission to bring you up-to-the-minute news about Wisconsin cheeseshops, we bring you breaking news that the Mars Cheese Castle is moving.

Somehow, this is part of Obama's financial recovery plan and has something to do with a billion dollar expansion of the highway leading between Milwaukee and Chicago.

The Mars Cheese Castle will be moving into a to-be-constructed location 10 acres south of where they are currently. Meanwhile, Tim and Tom's Cheese Shop, also located at the Mars interchange, will close its location and perhaps open later, one interchange to the south. The Journal-Sentinel reports that Tim and Tom's will "liquidate more than 1,000 pounds of Wisconsin cheese and sausage" during the Milwaukee Brewer's opening game. (If I were a reporter working on a story about cheese and sausage, I would probably do whatever I could to avoid the verb "liquidate.")

Bobby Nelson's Cheese Shop, also near the Cheese Castle in Paris, WI, thankfully remains unaffected by the highway expansion. Nelson, who died at 84 in 2002, was a former professional wrestler who originated the full- and half-nelson holds. I've also been made to understand that he made a heckuva sausage.

Let's hope that the University of Lawsonomy and the Bong Recreational Area are similarly spared.


It's been a week of reunions so far in the Townblog house. My parents returned from Naples, Florida, over the weekend so the boys got to see their Granny and Papa for the first time since Christmastime. Just as important, however, is the return to our household of Batman, who'd been missing since mid-summer. (Somehow, Batman returned in store packaging, despite being lost to the Wisconsin wilds.)

Batman was presented to Sam early this morning, and Sam responded:

"Batman! I've missed you!"

Sam then posed Batman in a lengthy and welcoming embrace with his fellow Super Friend known as The Flash. The two are currently cohabitating in Daddy's coat pocket, perhaps discussing their pride in the Supreme Court of Iowa.


One Day When The Weather Is Warm

In the middle of an otherwise typical March, a 70° day fell upon us on St. Patrick's Day, bringing a glimmer of hope that this long winter might actually end. Grandma Glenda provided some bubble machines, and the boys spent the early evening in the park overlooking the lake.

I'm reluctant to call them guns...

Caleb on the offense.

Always a Ham Samwich.

Our little Hessian Soldier.

One day when the weather is warm / I'll wake up on a hill
 and hold the morning / like it was a plow.
 And cut myself a road / and follow it until 
I know better, by God / than I know now.
(Joe Henry, off Kindness of the World)

Winter returned the next day, like a hangover to the holiday's revelers, and we duck back in the gopher hole to wait on summer.  The Gaelic word "sgriob" describes the shiver of anticipation felt in the upper lip before sipping whiskey.  There should be similar words for blossoming trees, ripe tomatoes, and severe clear skies.