Bobby’s in the Basement


…. and the Band’s down there as well. The tape recorders were on and over 100 songs were recorded on and off over several months in the summer and autumn of 1967. The music gradually filtered out into the wider world in dribs and drabs as the Basement Tapes. First up was an acetate pressing distributed to other musicians and friends. This led to hits for Manfred Mann ( Mighty Quinn ) and Julie Driscoll with Brian Augur and Trinity ( Wheel’s on Fire ) among others. The Basement Tapes was released as a double album in 1975 and in the early 1990s a 5 CD completist box set was released. Greil Marcus provides tasting notes to each song once his story of the Basement Tapes has been told.

Hillary Clinton told us that it takes a village to raise a child. In Marcus’ reading it takes a whole country to rear a Nobel Laureate. Bob as the distillation of the restless, ever questing, democratic American spirit (TM) etc. So:

  • John Winthrop’s City on a Hill speech to the Puritans as they sailed across the Atlantic
  • Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural address – “…until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be repaid with another drawn with the sword.”
  • Martin Luther King “I have a dream”

Add to this mix such incidents as the West Virginian Miner’s war of the early 1920’s, the lynchings and killings associated with the Civil Rights movement and America’s war on Vietnam and we can see how history is bearing down on Big Pink in upstate New York.

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The Book of Mormon – Gold plated entertainment

We had the pleasure of seeing The Book of Mormon last week which is a wonderful satire of religion in the form of a Broadway musical. The evolution of the relations between the Mormons and the Ugandans gives some nice insights into “human development” and what can be thought of as “white privilege”. The Mormons will go back to a safe place while the Ugandans remain in a country terrorised by religious and tribal warlords. The stakes are much higher for the Ugandans in relation to any affiliations they choose, while the Mormons have a return ticket to Salt Lake City.

There are some good insights into the foundations of religion, at least at the sociological and historical level. How best to meet human beings spiritual needs is a very different question to enquiring into the motivations of the founders and the spiritual / ideological foundations of organised religions. The foundational periods of the world religions are so far back in time and so shrouded in myth it is difficult to clearly see them at the moment of their formation. An additional question is what documents survived to tell us about the foundation moment – were critical documents destroyed, were “fake news” propaganda documents written down much later, etc.?

This is why I love Mormonism and Scientology – the foundation moment is so recent that there are plenty of observers out there who were and are able to provide real time commentary on the character and beliefs of the founders and on the subsequent institutional evolution of the “church” founded in their name. It is all very well to say of religion that it provides community and welfare for its adherents but if these positive features are built on a gimcrack fantasy set of beliefs is this a fair trade off – modest psychological security in exchange for blind obedience to potentially dangerous and anti-scientific beliefs? Perhaps we can look back at Galileo and Darwin and think – that was a long time ago, – but the conservative religious are those most easily duped into believing global warming does not exist. Jesus F. Christ you people.

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Hoax squared- New York Sawed in Half

Many people have written about specific historic feats of building and engineering such as the construction of the Erie Canal. Others have written about particular hoaxes which fooled large numbers of people, and biographies of the hoaxsters have also been written. The career of PT Barnum seems as if it would repay study to prepare us for Herr Drumpf.

New York Sawed in Half by Joel Rose traces a story without the solidity of an engineering feat and without even the crowd of slack jawed rubes left behind as the hoaxster rides out of town on a fast horse with some of their hard earned cash in his pockets.

The story goes that an old Market Butcher in around 1860 sought to preserve the history of New York’s markets from the early days before refrigeration, reliable waste disposal, trains, cheap popular newspapers and all the other mod cons of the mid C19. One of his sources for tales of old New York was a distant cousin who incidentally passed on the tale of how he and an associate (“I’ve forgotten his name.”) had convinced a desperate group of the unemployed during an economic downturn in about 1825 that they were in charge of digging a ditch across Manhattan to stop the lower end becoming overburdened with its 150,000 people and sinking into the sea. Reputedly hundreds of men turned upon the appointed day with picks and shovels ready for work while butchers had already set up holding pens with livestock ready to be slaughtered to feed the workers.

There was a degree of plausibility around this large scale ditch digging enterprise in the aftermath of the completion of the Erie Canal which connected Buffalo and the Great Lakes with the Hudson River at Albany via an 8 foot wide barge canal and it’s many locks hacked out of over 300 miles of creeks and swamps at the cost of over 1,000 lives. Admittedly many of the casualties were just cheap, expendable bog Irish migrants. This canal fundamentally changed New York’s status among North American ports by giving upstate New York and the mid-west access to New York’s all weather port instead of the seasonally frozen St Lawrence River. This was one the critical events in the economic history of New York, the USA and the world as it gave Europe regular access to the food products and resources of the American Mid-West before the rail era.

The amateur historian duly inserted the story in his book about the New York markets and soon discovered his leg had well and truly been pulled by his cousin. He was not pleased by this, but the story eventually attracted enough amused attention to become part of New York’s folklore. Joel Rose thought he was undertaking an archival research project tracking down the hoax through contemporary journals, letters and diaries of the 1820’s, only to find that all roads led back to the same source – the first and only mention in the Markets book of 1860. New York Sawed in Half was in fact a story about a hoax of a hoax, spun into whole cloth one day in the 1850’s by an old man happy to chatter away to his younger and more earnest cousin.

Well played, that man!

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Elmer Gantry, American Huckster

Sinclair Lewis was born in 1885 and died in 1951. He was the first American author to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1930 after a phenomenally productive 1920’s when he produced five classic bestselling novels which helped to create for America and the world a picture of the first modern consumer society: the small towns and rapidly expanding mid West provincial cities peopled by T Model driving, radio owning, movie watching first, second and third generation Americans whose forebears arrived from all over Europe to build their dreams in a land cleared of native Americans.

Lewis was a bestselling author of the 1920’s and Main Street (small town conformity), Babbitt (bourgeois materialist’s mid life crisis), Elmer Gantry (hypocritical preacher) and the later It can’t happen here (US fascism) have become proverbial, in a way that few novels since have done. For all of his success Lewis was not simply a go-go booster of the American way, but rather an incisive researcher and mimic of the world around him. His first wife thought that he had written Main Street straight, but when the world took it as satire he was prepared to play along in his later novels. His 1930 Nobel Prize was a literary peak for Lewis and the quality and relevance of his work declined thereafter and his audience dwindled.

An early biographer helped to bury his work by performing a literary hatchet job on Lewis’ personal and literary failings. By the mid 1980’s he was not even rating a mention in the Norton’s Anthology of American Literature, which is a big comedown from the heights of 1930. It is also some sort of indictment of the compilers of Norton’s Anthology’s judgement.

The estimable Gore Vidal wrote a mainly positive essay about Sinclair Lewis and his post Nobel fall from grace in the American consciousness in which he left the last word to Lewis’ first wife – he influenced public opinion more than he influenced literature. Even the hostile biographer conceded that Americans could not imagine themselves without Lewis’ contribution.

I was inspired to read Elmer Gantry in this, the year of Drumpf, to see how American hypocrisy and pandering to people’s hopes and fears played out a century ago. Elmer Gantry is a somewhat reluctant preacher from America’s Mid West. Sinclair Lewis set many of his novels in the state of Winnemac and its capital Zenith City, located in between New York and Chicago.

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The Oldest Profession

Sapiens by Yuval Harari is a “long view” history of humanity. Harari’s view is that history only starts about 70,000 years ago with the “cognitive revolution” which helped to separate “Homo Sapiens” from all the other members of the genus “Homo”. About 100,000 years ago there were Neanderthals, Denisovans, the Flores dwarf Homo species and several other human species spread across the Earth. Then we happened to them, as we also did to other large animals in any new habitat we reached – eg Australia, the Americas, the New Zealand Moa and the Mauritian Dodo.

In Harari’s view the cognitive revolution enabled Homo Sapiens to tell stories to one another, to trade with other bands of Sapiens and to plan ahead. The capacity for longer distance trade was a distinct advantage Homo Sap had over the Neanderthals and other hominids.

The cognitive revolution led to the development of more complex societies built on the fictions of religion, monarchy, the state and money. As Harari points out tellingly, no chimpanzee would willingly hand over a banana now on the somewhat vague promise of six bananas in the afterlife. Humans have the ability to conceptualise the ideas of trade, co-operation, religion and the hierarchies of power such that the bargain at least seems plausible or politic.

There is plenty of long view history to enjoy in this book and the illustrations are well chosen too.

“Between 3,500 and 3,000 BC some unknown Sumerian geniuses invented a system for storing and processing information outside their brains …. writing.

The earliest messages left by our ancestors read, for example ‘29,086 measures barley 37 months Kushim’. The most probable reading of this sentence is ‘A total of 29,086 measures of barley were received over the course of 37 months. Signed Kushim’

‘Kushim’ may be the generic title of an office holder, or the name of a particular individual. If Kushim was indeed a person, he may be the first individual in history whose name is known to us! …It is telling that the first recorded name in history belongs to an accountant, rather than a prophet, a poet or a great conqueror.”

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Music and dance in Liberia in the 1930s

Graham Greene took a Journey without Maps in the mid 1930’s to Liberia. “I examined the usual blank map on the wall, a few towns along the coast, a few villages along the border.” One other map Greene saw had the interior of Liberia inhabited in part by “Cannibals”. The mapping of a smaller world was really only partly complete.

Liberia is an oddity among African states as it was partly colonised from the Americas by C19 freed slaves, some of whom bore a close resemblance to the slave owners. By the 1930’s the descendants of these freed slaves numbered around 15,000 people who exerted a degree of colonial control over the lives of 1 million tribal Africans. The Government, such as it was, was funded mostly by revenues paid by Firestone Rubber for the long term lease of vast areas of land used as rubber plantations. The Afro-American elite had recently been sanctioned by the League of Nations for engaging in “labour hire” practices regarded as being close to slavery.

The roads were almost non existent but Europeans could be admitted on “Explorer” visas. Graham Greene and his cousin Barbara Greene took a month to travel 300 miles overland from the border with Sierra Leone down to the coast, often by guesswork, supported and sometimes carried by around 20 local “bearers”.

Greene’s description of “Music at Night”

That night Gissi, a Buzie man, came up to play the harp. A row of black heads lined the verandah, while he sat with dangling legs picking out of the palm fibres light melancholy monotonous music, beautifully superficial music, which just tickled the surface of the mind, didn’t tiresomely claim any deep emotion whether of grief or exaltation, the claim which fixes strained masks on the faces in a concert hall. This was the music of a cigarette box; it was sad but it didn’t really care, everything would always be the same. The little recurring notes plucked with four nails died out and began again unvaried against the night, the black faces the hurricane lamp and the moths that drove by in swarms to shrivel their wings against it. ….

The goatherd came and danced, stamping and flinging out his arms, and one by one the men came out of the dark and on to the verandah, into the lamplight, hurling themselves this way and that, sending the shadows flying from their arms and legs. Their faces were strange but soon they were to become familiar, for these were the labourers who Vande, my newly appointed headman, had found for me, to carry fifty pound weights for four weeks on end, for three shillings a week and their food. It sounded to stranger next door to slave labour, but these were not slaves stamping up and down with a controlled wildness and an unconscious grace. …

They didn’t speak a word as they swayed and stamped; each improvised, dancing alone with no reference to the others; it was only the music and the shadows which lent them unity. I was to see these improvised dances again and again during the long trek. The slightest hint of a tune would set them off; if there was no music someone would tap a twig on an empty tin. They were more easy to appreciate than the communal dances. They had obvious dramatic qualities and one could see hidden under the personal idiosyncrasies the germ of the Charleston. But to the native, I suppose, the communal dance was on a higher, more subtle level; only one hadn’t oneself got a clue to their appreciation. I saw such a dance in the village. A band of youths with drums chanted an air, while about seven boys shuffled in a small circle with their hands at their sides, one foot forward, the other brought up beside it, then forward again. Presently three girls joined them and the circle became smaller than ever; a girl’s nipples bulged against the back in front, her buttocks were pressed by the girl behind. Round and round they went to the monotonous beat, a snake eating its own tail.     ……

More recently the Financial Times interviewed Ellen Sirleaf, Liberia’s President since 2007 about the difficulties of governing a country with a recent history of large scale civil war and the Ebola virus.

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Derivation of Silly Mid Off

It is well known that the breaking of the non striker’s stumps by the bowler prior to delivering the ball is called a “Mankad” after Vinoo Mankad, the Indian bowler who dismissed the Australian batsman Bill Brown in this manner in 1947.

Less well known is the story of the personal name behind two of the fielding positions on the cricket field. In 1840 Fyodor Zilimidov, the younger son of a prominent Russian noble, was studying at Cambridge University in England. He was one of the first Russians to do so.

Two weeks into his first term at Cambridge Zilimidov was induced to play in a game of cricket for his Cambridge college despite never having previously seen the game played. The other students suggested, for a spot of amusement, that he stand only five feet from the batter; a position in which no-one had ever stood previously for the very sensible reason that they were concerned for their own safety.

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