Jan. 31, 2011

At the Berkeley Free Speech Cafe

by Thomas R. Moore

The students are seated,
one to a table,
at tables for two,
ears wired,
laptops humming,
cell phones buzzing,
fingers texting,
iPods thumping,
toes drumming,
email flashing,
lattés cooling,
textbooks open,
reading for an exam
in Issues in Contemporary Culture 102.

"At the Berkeley Free Speech Cafe" by Thomas R. Moore, from The Bolt-Cutters © Fort Hemlock Press, 2010. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of musicologist Alan Lomax, (books by this author) born in Austin, Texas (1915). His father, John Lomax, was also a musicologist and wrote books like Cowboy Songs and Frontier Ballads (1910) and Songs of the Cattle Trail and Cow Camp (1918). Alan went to the University of Texas and then to Harvard to study philosophy, but after his mother's death he dropped out of Harvard to accompany his dad on one of his folk song-collecting missions. He loved it so much that he decided to make it his life's work.

He wrote: "Our way of work is simple. From letters and books and word of mouth, we hear of someone, perhaps a Vermont woodsman or a Kentucky miner, who knows a store of old folk tunes. We get into our car and go to visit him. But my father and I don't burst in like college professors in search of quaintness. We make friends. We live in the neighborhood. And before we even go to a place, we find out about the kind of work in that section so that we can talk about it. Only then do we go and ask for songs. [...] Generally the reaction of people is friendly. They're proud you consider their music important, and they want to do the best job possible. I remember one Finnish singer in the Middle West, from whom we were recording a song about a Finnish Robin Hood. It took 20 minutes to sing. When we had cut the record, we played it back for him. His sharp ears discovered one tiny mistake, and he was so eager for perfection that he made us do the entire record over again."

The Lomaxes went to the Louisiana State Penitentiary, where they met Huddie William Ledbetter, better known as Lead Belly. Lomax wrote: "I'll never forget: He approached us all the way from the building where he worked, with his big twelve-string guitar in his hand. He sat down in front of us and proceeded to sing everything that we could think of in this beautiful, clear, trumpet-like voice that he had, with his hand simply flying on the strings. His hands were like a whirlwind, and his voice was like a great clear trumpet. You could hear him, literally, half a mile away when he opened up."

Lead Belly had been playing music since he was a kid with an accordion, and entertained his fellow inmates with his concerts. The Lomaxes were so impressed with Lead Belly that they cut a whole record of his singing, and they agreed to record a song he wrote for the governor of Louisiana, begging to get out of jail. The lyrics were: "In nineteen hundred an' thirty-two, / Honorable Guvner O.K. Allen, / I'm 'pealin' to you. / If I had you, Guvner O.K. Allen, / Like you got me, / I would wake up in de mornin', / Let you out on reprieve."

The Lomaxes took the song to Governor Oscar K. Allen, and not long afterwards Lead Belly was let out of prison — it was actually an early release for good behavior, but both Lead Belly and the Lomaxes thought the song had helped. After that, the Lomaxes helped put Lead Belly in the national spotlight.

Alan and John Lomax headed up the Library of Congress "Archive of American Folk Song," recording and preserving thousands of songs. Alan was particularly interested in doing more extensive interviews with their subjects, and he recorded the oral histories of musicians like Lead Belly, Woody Guthrie, Jelly Roll Morton, Muddy Waters, and Vera Hall.

In August of 1940, Alan started a prime-time radio program called Back Where I Come From. The first episode was hosted by literary critic Clifton Fadiman and featured Woody Guthrie, Burl Ives, Len Doyle, Josh White, and the Golden Gate Quartet. Performers took turns saying, "Back where I come from, we always say..." and filling it in with a local saying. Each episode was centered around a particular theme — for the first episode, it was "weather." The cast sang "It Ain't Gonna Rain No More," "The Erie Canal," "The Foggy Dew," and "So Long, It's Been Good to Know You," which was interwoven with Guthrie's commentary about the Dust Bowl. Back Where I Come From aired three nights a week, for 15 minutes. Soon Pete Seeger signed on as well. Besides "Weather," other themes included "Jails," "Nonsense Songs," and "Love True and Careless." The cast and crew thought the show was a success, but CBS unexpectedly canceled it in February of 1941.

Lomax wrote to Guthrie: "Our agent William Morris told us we were set for life. And then the great paw of America reached out and stopped it: Mister William B. Paley said that he didn't want any of that goddamn hillbilly music on his network. And that was that." Guthrie replied: "Too honest again I suppose? Maybe not purty enough. O well, this country's a getting to where it cain't hear its own voice. Someday the deal will change."

For the rest of his life, Lomax continued to record folk artists, champion folk music, and publish books. His books include American Ballads and Folk Songs (1934), Mister Jelly Roll (1950), Folk Song Style and Culture (1968), and The Land Where the Blues Began (1993).

The award-winning, best-selling soundtrack to the film O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000) begins with a recording that Lomax made in 1959 of James Carter and fellow prisoners in the Mississippi State Penitentiary singing "Po' Lazarus." More than 40 years after Carter sang "Po' Lazarus," Alan Lomax and his Lomax organization teamed up with an investigative reporter and T Bone Burnett — the producer of the soundtrack — to track down Carter and pay him royalties. Carter's first check was for $20,000, and he was amazed to hear that the soundtrack was outselling albums by Mariah Carey and Michael Jackson. That was in March of 2002. A few months later, Alan Lomax died at the age of 87.

He said: "We now have cultural machines so powerful that one singer can reach everybody in the world, and make all the other singers feel inferior because they're not like him. Once that gets started, he gets backed by so much cash and so much power that he becomes a monstrous invader from outer space, crushing the life out of all the other human possibilities. My life has been devoted to opposing that tendency."

It's the birthday of Norman Mailer, (books by this author) born in Long Branch, New Jersey (1923). He grew up in Brooklyn, went to Harvard, and then got drafted during World War II. He served in the Philippines, and although he didn't participate in much fighting, he got enough material to go home and write a novel, The Naked and the Dead (1948), published when he was just 25 years old. It was a best-seller, it made him famous, and for the next 60 years he continued to publish books.

Mailer was incredibly productive, and stuck to a strict writing regimen. He said: "Over the years, I've found one rule. It is the only one I give on those occasions when I talk about writing. A simple rule. If you tell yourself you are going to be at your desk tomorrow, you are by that declaration asking your unconscious to prepare the material. You are, in effect, contracting to pick up such valuables at a given time. Count on me, you are saying to a few forces below: I will be there to write."

He wrote every day from 9 to 5, up until his death at the age of 84. For the last 27 years of his life, he shared a studio with his sixth and last wife, Norris Church Mailer, an artist and writer. They each had their own space. Mailer sat on a wooden chair looking out at the Provincetown Bay — he liked to be near water when he wrote — but he closed the curtains when he really needed to concentrate. Mailer and his wife ate breakfast and lunch on their own schedule, but they would meet up at 6 p.m. to drink wine and eat dinner.

The routine worked for most types of writing, but he couldn't force his novels. He said: "It's very bad to write a novel by act of will. I can do a book of nonfiction work that way — just sign the contract and do the book because, provided the topic has some meaning for me, I know I can do it. But a novel is different. A novel is more like falling in love. You don't say, 'I'm going to fall in love next Tuesday, I'm going to begin my novel.' The novel has to come to you. It has to feel just like love." He carried a small, spiral-bound notebook with him at all times, in case inspiration struck.

He wrote by hand — he usually wrote in the morning and then typed it up in the afternoon, or gave it to an assistant to type. He said: "I used to have a little studio in Brooklyn, a couple of blocks from my house — no telephone, not much else. The only thing I ever did there was work. It was perfect. I was like a draft horse with a conditioned reflex. I came in ready to sit at my desk. No television, no way to call out. Didn't want to be tempted. There's an old Talmudic belief that you build a fence around an impulse. If that's not good enough, you build a fence around the fence. So, no amenities. (But for a refrigerator!) I wrote longhand with a pencil and I gave it to my assistant, Judith McNally. She would type it for me and the next day I would go over it. Since at my age you begin to forget all too much, I would hardly remember what I had written the day before. It read, therefore, as if someone else had done it. The critic in me was delighted. I could now proceed to fix the prose. The sole virtue of losing your short-term memory is that it does free you to be your own editor."

He wrote novels, short stories, essays, and plays. His books include The Deer Park (1955), The Armies of the Night (1968), The Executioner's Song (1979), and his last novel, The Castle in the Forest (2007), the story of Hitler's childhood.

He said, "I become an actor, a quick-change artist, as if I can trap the Prince of Truth in the act of switching a style."

From the archives:

It's the birthday of novelist Kenzaburo Oe, (books by this author) born on the island of Shikoku, Japan (1935). He fell in love with literature at an early age, after his mother gave him a translation of Mark Twain's novel Huckleberry Finn (1885). He spent most of his childhood playing in the forest near his house, and he often fantasized about flying away from his home like the geese he saw above the forest.

He was in grade school during World War II, and he always remembered the moment Japan surrendered to the United States. He wrote: "The adults sat around their radios and cried. The children gathered outside in the dusty road and whispered their bewilderment. We were most surprised and disappointed by the fact that the emperor had spoken in a human voice. ... How could we believe that an august presence of such awful power had become an ordinary human being on a designated summer day?" He was shocked when the American soldiers arrived in his village, and instead of killing everyone, he handed out chocolate bars and bubble gum.

He became the first member of his family to leave his island when he went to school in Tokyo. He began writing fiction with some success, and then in 1963, his first son was born with a cerebral hernia, which resulted in permanent brain damage. He was devastated when he got the news, and found that he felt ashamed, as though his son's handicap were his own fault. During that time, he took a trip to Hiroshima where he met people suffering from radiation sickness, and he began to see that his feelings about his son were similar to Japan's feelings about its past.

Oe used his experience to write a novel called A Personal Matter (1964), about a father struggling to love his deformed son. It was a huge success, and Oe went on to win the Nobel Prize in literature in 1994. His most recent book to be translated into English is The Changeling, which was written in 2000 but published in English just last year. It's the story of a novelist who becomes obsessed with reconstructing the life of his best friend, who has just committed suicide.

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