Music Is History

After I watched the documentary Summer of Soul that was put together by Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, I discovered a book he wrote called Music Is History. Both set me thinking about how music figures into our collective history but also how it chronicles our personal history.

You might know Questlove as the bandleader of The Roots which is the house band for The Tonight Show with Ju=imy Fallon. He is also a passionate collector of records and an encyclopedia of music.

I saw Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) at home (it is currently streaming on Hulu and Disney+) but it would have been even better on a big screen with an audience.

It is definitely a music film, but it is also a historical record about an event that celebrated Black history, culture and fashion. It was 1969 and another music festival north of Harlem called Woodstock overshadowed the Harlem Cultural Festival.

The footage was forgotten and when Questlove found it he realized that it was more than just a good concert film (though it is that) but a document about that important year in cultural history.  It is hard to imagine why the footage didn’t emerge earlier because it has performances by Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, Sly & the Family Stone, Gladys Knight & the Pips, Mahalia Jackson, B.B. King, The 5th Dimension and other major artists.


Watching the documentary got me digging and I found Questlove’s book Music Is History.  He covers 1971 (the year he was born; the year I started college) to the present. This is his personal history of 50 years of music and cultural history.

His musical choices are understandably around Black identity and we don’t overlap much in our musical histories. But that’s fine because pivotal songs are pivotal even if you didn’t buy the album or turn it up on your stereo or cr radion when it was played. I knew about a lot of this music from the more obscure Sun Ra (though not his opus “Nuclear War”) to the more familiar Police and Tears for Fears tracks.

All of us should be able to write a kind of personal music history that probably also tells some larger history. My own from around that early time would include things like my memories of listening to Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young (who I knew from their earlier bands – The Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, The Hollies) and hearing their quickly produced and released “Ohio.”  That song came out of a day in 1970 when Neil Young was inspired by the horror of the Kent State shootings.

OhioTin soldiers and Nixon’s coming
We’re finally on our own
This summer I hear the drumming
Four dead in Ohio…
What if you knew her
And found her dead on the ground
How can you run when you know?

As a kid entering his senior year in high school and being in the draft that might send him and his friends to Vietnam, the song was a lot more than a good song. I immediately bought the 45 rpm single (it wasn’t on an album for quite a while) The B side was “Find the Cost of Freedom” whose lyrics were also something that were on the minds of myself and my classmates and some of our parents that year.

Find the cost of freedom, buried in the ground,
Mother Earth will swallow you,
Lay your body down.

On the good times’ side of the record, I strongly remember driving to the Jersey Shore with my girlfriend, who would be my wife in two years, to the sounds of Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours. It seemed that everyone owned that album and it was all over the radio. The songs “Go Your Own Way”, “Dreams”, “Don’t Stop”, and “You Make Loving Fun” were all top 10 singles.

A Day of No Labor

Today is Labor Day in the United States. It’s another holiday that seems to have lost a lot of its meaning.  Like some other holidays – Veterans Day, Memorial Day, some would even say Christmas – we now view this as a day off and a long weekend.

Many children associate this 3-day-weekend-holiday with the end of summer. Though some schools start the new year in August, in my part of the country most schools begin actual classes after Labor Day.

American Labor Day was first celebrated on a Tuesday – September 5, 1882 – and was organized by the Central Labor Union in New York as a day of rest for working persons.

The Haymarket Riots (or Haymarket affair or Haymarket massacre) was a demonstration on Tuesday, May 4, 1886, at the Haymarket Square in Chicago. It started out as a rally in support of striking workers. Someone threw a bomb at police as they dispersed the public meeting and that resulted in gunfire from the police, the deaths of eight police officers (most from friendly fire) and some civilians. The legal proceedings that followed got international press and eight “anarchists” were tried for murder. Four men were convicted and executed, and one committed suicide in prison, although the prosecution conceded none of the defendants had thrown the bomb.

There were efforts to use that May date as a holiday but U.S. President Grover Cleveland supported moving the holiday to a September date to avoid associations with the Haymarket riot and the Socialist May Day associations. He signed a bill into law making the September Labor Day observance a federal holiday in 1894.

Most other countries celebrate workers on May first of each year. “May Day” refers to several public holidays but is associated with International Workers’ Day, or Labour Day, a day of political demonstrations and celebrations organized by unions and other groups.

Americans don’t really do much to celebrate work or workers today. We have barbecues, backyard blowouts, watch early college football games. And yet, now might be the time we should consider workers. Unemployment is high, businesses are cutting back and there are still battles to raise the minimum wage to a living salary. It’s not a good time for labor unions either. There are lots of demands for concessions by unions on their contracts. Some politicians and corporations are calling for an end to unions and trying to stop new unionization of workers.

America is a work-obsessed culture. Many people are still working this weekend, just as during the worst of the pandemic when workers labeled as “essential” still had to go to their workplace while other workers were able to more safely work from home. Are those essential workers at the top of the salary guide and corporate ladder? No, it’s almost the opposite. Some of the lowest-paid and least respected workers were deemed “essential” in this very limited way.

It seems a shame that this holiday doesn’t have more of a connection to the positive aspects of work and workers and as a time to reflect on how labor is treated in the country.

In Our Own Secret Annex

Annelies
Annelies in her school photograph, 1941

Anne Frank’s diary was first published in English in 1952 and is known as Diary of a Young Girl. The first edition was first published in Dutch in 1947, under the title Het Achterhuis. which is translated as “the house behind,” “the annex” or “the secret annex.”

I read the book when I was between 13 and 14 which was the same age that she was writing it. It was only recently that I discovered that Anne Frank had two versions of her story.  The first version is her spontaneous journal entries. The second version is a revised version by Anne herself started when she was thinking about her writing being published.

I did the same thing myself in my own teenaged-years journals. I changed how I wrote though my initial idea of “publication” was it being found by my family and then later by a wife or my children. At 13, I know even thought about being a famous writer one day and having my biographers reading it.

I also think that we all have our secret annexes where we sometimes hide. And some of us write there and write about there.

Anne was her nickname. Annelies was her birth name. I like that name better than Anne.  Annelies Marie Frank was born June 12, 1929, and when I saw her birthday on the almanac last Saturday I decided to get a copy of that revised diary if I can and (re)read it this week.

We know that after the war, Anne’s father, Otto Frank, was given the diary, along with some other papers, which had been left behind when the family was taken to concentration camps in 1944.

He said that at first, he couldn’t bear to read it. When he finally read it, he believed that Anne wrote it with the intent of trying to publish it one day and he worked at getting it into print. We know he edited it himself combining parts of the two versions together.

Though it is a perennially read book, 16 American publishers rejected the English translation before Doubleday picked it up in 1952.

There are now a number of newer editions with parts restored and annotated versions.

At 13, I think I had a crush on Annalies. It may have been that I wanted to save her. Anne probably died of typhus in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. To add to that sadness, it was about two weeks before the camps were liberated in spring 1945.

I wrote on another blog about a poem by Andrew Motion (“Anne Frank Huis“) that was written immediately after his visit to the Anne Frank museum/house (huis) in Amsterdam. I finally got to Amsterdam in 2019 and I had mixed feeling about visiting the Secret Annex. I read online that it is very small and very spare. It didn’t feel like it would be similar to when I visited writers’ homes before. It felt like it would be sad. The poem set me thinking about how houses are “haunted” by those who lived in them. Not in a ghost or poltergeist way, but supernatural in the dictionary sense of “relating to an order of existence beyond the visible observable universe.”

It turned out that we couldn’t get tickets for the time that we would be there, so the universe decided for me. My wife and I did walk by the place. They call it a house but they lived in rooms above her father’s place of business attached to a warehouse. The front doors were painted a very somber black. I think Annalies would prefer that we read the words she wanted us to read rather than visit a place she never wanted to be.

ane frank house door

Cinéma Vérité in Less Than a Minute

On December 28, 1895, the Lumiere brothers – Auguste and Louis – hosted the world’s first commercial movie screening with a paying audience. It was held at the Grand Café in Paris.

Their film, “La Sortie de l’Usine Lumière à Lyon” (“the exit from the Lumière factory in Lyon” – commonly known in English as “Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory”) was only 46 seconds long.

The title sums it up very well. It is a single static shot. You see a concierge at the end of the day’s work opening the factory gates and the workers exiting to the street. A few men have bicycles. A dog bounds out. A horse-drawn wagon comes at the end of the film.

It does not seem extraordinary today but it was exactly that at the time – beyond ordinary.

“Lumiere” means light and it’s a perfect name for these early filmmakers who were “painting with light” and exploring what might be done with this new invention. (Disney’s Beauty and the Beast has a brought-to-life candlestick named Lumiere.)

The brothers were manufacturers of photography equipment. Their Cinématographe motion picture system was used to make their first short films which they produced between 1895 and 1905.

They had screened their short film earlier that year (March 22) in Paris for an audience of about 200 who were members of the “Society for the Development of the National Industry,” That was probably the first presentation of films on a screen for a large audience. The December 28 screening with about 40 paying visitors and invited relations is generally regarded as the launch of commercial cinema. Earlier filmmaking efforts, including Thomas Edison in America, focused on individual viewing of films rather than projection.

Those first 10 films were 17 meters of film stock and when hand-cranked on a projector correctly would be about 50 seconds.

Though the Lumiere brothers are important to film history, they weren’t really the ones who moved filmmaking into a commercial enterprise. Like Edison at first, they said that “the cinema is an invention without any future.” They moved on to experimenting with color photography. They would not sell their camera to other early filmmakers, such as Georges Méliès. They certainly did not see cinema as a possible new art form. It would take others, like  Méliès in France, to begin to film fictional stories and add their own special effects.

Einstein at Princeton

Albert Einstein
Einstein on the steps of his Princeton home. It’s a photo I have always liked because as a young person I had several pairs of those fuzzy slippers and thought Albert and I had a kind of connection. Photo: Historical Society of Princeton

I have admired Albert Einstein since I was a young teen.  I believe my early attraction was to him was because he was “the genius” of that time and because of some quotations of his I saw that I loved – and the photos of his crazy hair, riding a bicycle and sticked out his tongue that made this genius seem human. I bought a poster of him that had the quote “Imagination is more important than knowledge,” which at the time probably made me feel better about my solid “B” average in school. It was years later that I saw that famous quote in context. That sentence is followed by “For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.”

When I was a student at Rutgers College, I drove to nearby Princeton, New Jersey to find the little house he had lived in at 112 Mercer Street for the last part of his life. It wasn’t a museum and there were no markers to say that he had lived there. I was once told on a walking tour of the town by the Historical Society of Princeton that Einstein and his family did not want it to become a museum. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places and designated a U.S. National Historic Landmark. I also learned that when I visited in 1971, the house was owned by his step-daughter Margot Einstein who lived there until her death in 1986.

I have always liked the town of Princeton and the University campus looks the way I had imagined as a teenager that college campuses were supposed to look. It seemed like a good place for Albert Einstein to live after he escaped Nazi Germany.

Today I read that it was on this day in 1933 that Albert Einstein officially moved to the United States to teach at Princeton University, and I discovered something disturbing about that arrival.

Einstein was visiting the United States in February 1933 and he realized that he could not return to Germany with the rise to power of the Nazis under Germany’s new chancellor, Adolf Hitler. He was a visiting professor at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. He and his wife Elsa were returning to Europe in March and learned that the German Reichstag had passed the Enabling Act, which transformed the government into a de facto legal dictatorship with Hitler as Chancellor. They could not go on to his apartment in Berlin.

They later learned that the apartment and their summer cottage had been raided and all his papers confiscated. When they landed in Antwerp, Belgium, Albert went to the German consulate and surrendered his passport, formally renouncing his German citizenship. They found out years later that their cottage had become a Hitler Youth camp.

Einstein's Princeton home today

Einstein received offers from all over the world, including Paris, Turkey, and Oxford University, but he decided that Princeton’s offer of a teaching position at the Institute for Advanced Study, a home, and a good salary far away from Europe was best.

What I only learned today was why he hesitated about coming to Princeton University.

The University had a covert quota system that only allowed a small percentage of the incoming class to be Jewish. The Institute’s director, Abraham Flexner, was worried that Einstein would be too directly involved in Jewish refugee causes, so he carefully controlled public appearances, including declining an invitation to meet with President Roosevelt at the White House. Eventually, Einstein found out about the missed opportunity and called Eleanor Roosevelt and arranged for a visit. There is a letter he wrote to a rabbi friend of his about the incident. The return address on the letter is “Concentration Camp, Princeton.”

That was 1933. Did the campus become more welcoming to Jews as a possible war with Germany seemed more likely?  Five years after Einstein settled on campus, incoming freshmen at Princeton University ranked Albert Einstein as the second-greatest living person. They ranked as the greatest living person Adolf Hitler.

Amending the Constitution

The Bill of Rights

It was in September of 1789 that the First Federal Congress of the United States approved 12 amendments to the Constitution that had only been ratified two years earlier.

We have been hearing a lot about our Constitution in the news lately. People are talking about following it and interpreting it and violating it. There are those who consider themselves to be constitutionalists – adherents or advocates of constitutionalism. Constitutionalism is defined as “a compound of ideas, attitudes, and patterns of behavior elaborating the principle that the authority of government derives from and is limited by a body of fundamental law.”

As much as we revere those “founding fathers” and framers of the Constitution, it didn’t take long for some of them to believe that the Constitution had some flaws and gaps that needed to be amended. It was not perfect. It could be improved.

George Mason was a statesman and delegate from Virginia and he was not happy at all with the United States Constitution. Now, he had helped craft it, but he saw too much power concentrated in central government authority. He didn’t see protections for individual rights. On September 15, 1787, the final vote was made to approve the Constitution, and Mason was one of only three who protested. Patrick Henry didn’t feel the Constitution offered enough safeguards against tyranny.

Mason and other “anti-Federalists” called for a “bill of rights” to be added to the document. They were able to, over the course of the next two years, bring Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and James Madison over to their view. Madison introduced a set of 17 amendments to Congress in 1789. Those were trimmed to 12 which were approved on September 25 and sent to the states for ratification. The required two-thirds of the states only ratified ten, which became our Bill of Rights.

Those amendments include a citizen’s right to freedom of religion, speech, assembly, a well-organized militia, and a speedy and public trial, freedom from unreasonable search and seizure, excessive bail, the quartering of troops, and self-incrimination.

Article Ten declares that “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”

The two failed amendments were about a formula for determining a minimum number of seats in the House of Representatives, and one that prohibited Congress members from voting to raise their own pay without allowing their constituents to have a say in that raise.

There was no statute of limitations on ratifying the original 12 amendments, and that pay raise amendment finally got pushed through on May 7, 1992. It took more than 200 years after it was originally proposed, but those politicians got their right to give themselves more money without our permission. Yes, the Constitution is a living document.