Donald's Blog

  This old house was only a few blocks from the state Capitol in Madison, Wisconsin. All the neighborhood cats lived in the basement during the winter. The house has long since been torn down, but in 1972 there were AR2ax speakers in the front room, and a lot of good music was heard there.

«Jun 2013»

In the 21st century I am just as opinionated as ever, and I now have an outlet. I shall pontificate here about anything that catches my fancy; I hope I will not make too great a fool of myself. You may comment yea or nay about anything on the site; I may quote you here, or I may not. Send brickbats etc. to:


June 11, 2013

A good book

Joe Gioia is an editor and a writer on the subject of photography; his new book, The Guitar and the New World: A Fugitive History, is a departure. He is studying the guitar, ten years after having bought his first instrument, but his book is not very much about the guitar at all, but a memoir, sparked by his discovery that his uncle, Carmelo Gugini, had been a maker of guitars in Buffalo, New York.
      The uncle was a craftsman who experimented; another luthier said, "He tried out a lot of different designs. Some of them sounded like they were made of cardboard." Having driven to Buffalo to buy a magnificent archtop, Gioia writes, his new guitar was not one of those. "Back in Chicago, with a new set of strings, the sixty-year-old Gugino sounded as loud as a train, twangy, and bluesy as hell." This set him off on a journey covering his Italian-American family (with some Jewish blood possibly mixed in, expelled from Spain by Ferdinand and Isabella). Along the way we find out a lot about Rochester and Buffalo, and American history in general. I had never heard of Buffalo's 1901 Pan-American Exposition; it was quite a big deal at the time, but subsequently buried in history, perhaps because it was where President McKinley was shot.
      The book is the best kind of American memoir, because it moves easily and naturally from one subject to another (apparently) quite different subject, adding up to an essay on what it means to be an American. It is only 220 pages long, and the best non-fiction page-turner I have read in quite a while.
      The most astonishing chapter is the third, called Hey-Hey. The experts usually come to the conclusion that we cannot say where the blues came from, but the question is similar to that of jazz: as ragtime and blues were not jazz, but two of the elements that went into it, so it is impossible for me to believe that blues does not have African, African-American, and European elements in it. Gioia's thesis is that there must also be an Indigenous element, that is, Native American. I don't know if this is a new thesis, but it was new to me. He provides plenty of quotations, historical descriptions and facts, but makes his point straight off:

Between 1600 and 1840, three cultures--Native American, African, and European--each with a highly evolved choral tradition, came to encounter one another, in war and peace, by choice and under duress, in the old and new settlements of the vast interior east of the Mississippi. To assume that only one of these cultures predominated in how the music evolved, or that another had no influence whatsoever, flies not only against logic but also in the face of any practical knowledge about how musicians work.

The evidence is overwhelming that early observers found the whoops, hollers and passionate falsettos not only in African Pygmy music and in blues, but that the sheer strangeness to European ears of early blues was very similar to that of the music of the Indigenes. Some Indian tribes had black slaves; some treated their slaves better than others; runaway slaves had nowhere to go except deep into the woods, where the Indians were. When the Indians were cruelly cleared out of the South by Andrew Jackson, there were impenetrable swamps and forests useless for growing cotton where thousands of Indians remained. As far back as the 1840s, the government of Virginia was petitioned to seize the property of a local Indian tribe because they had effectively become black (the petition was denied). And very late in the 19th century, or very early in the 20th, when note was first taken of what we now call blues, its antecedants were already lost in the unrecorded mist. Or almost lost. In 1835, when 23,000 Creek Indians and hundreds of their slaves were being driven from Georgia to Oklahoma, a witness wrote,

an old woman carrying a small bundle of her belongings...began a sad song which was later taken up by the others..."I have no more land. I am driven away from home, driven up the red waters, let us all go, let us die together."

In later chapters, Gioia writes about Harry Smith's famous Anthology of American Folk Music, a collection of old 78s on six Folkways LPs that inspired a generation of American musicians, describing the unheard-of strangeness of Dock Boggs, whose 1927 recordings "opened a window on a closed-off world" (Colin Escott). And so along with Gioia's beautiful affection about his ancestors and about American history, we are reminded that the invisible republic, the strange, old America that Greil Marcus and others have described was not about My Baby Left Me or My Car's Been Repossessed, but about being kidnapped by Indians who've killed your parents, or about being an Indian murdered by the United States Army, or about being a Mexican gunned down by a Texas Ranger for the crime of possessing a cow. In short, our cultural history must include the hardship, the heartbreak and the terror of winning a new continent.
      We need books like this one, lest we forget who we are.


June 11, 2013

I read the news today oboy

I read in the paper today (the Wall Street Journal, not some tabloid) that some people, if they quit drinking coffee, suffer withdrawal symptoms including headaches that can last for days.

And as if Lime disease wasn't bad enough, I also read today that there is another deer tick that can make you allergic to red meat. Months after you get bit and after you eat a hamburger, in the middle of the night you wake up with cramps, hives, breathing problems, maybe even death. In which case you don't wake up, I suppose.

I may decide to quit reading.


June 11, 2013

In the Universe

In a recent issue of the Time Literary Supplement I read a review of Thomas Nagel's Mind And Cosmos: Why the Materialist neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly Wrong. The review was written by Gideon Rosen and is the second or third review I have read of this book, and I can only wonder why the Oxford University Press published it.

Nagel is not arguing for creationism, or for the concept of God. Rosen writes:

Nagel's starting point is the conviction that the existence of minds like ours is a fact of such overwhelming cosmological significance that any acceptable theory must represent the emergence of such minds as "to be expected". Since neo-Darwinism cannot do this, it is "almost certainly false". 

Nagel thinks that physics, which explains how things work, must make room for the inevitability of our consciousness. He apparently thinks that the behaviour of each molecule in the Universe is as it is because minds like ours will eventually emerge. And he is wrong, simply and foolishly and pathetically wrong. The fact that, unlike dogs or cats, he can write a book and I can argue with him about it is... Wonderful! As amazing as anything we will ever encounter! A miracle leading to Beethoven string quartets and the poetry in the King James Bible and the riotous humor of Fats Waller! I would use the word "awesome" if it had not been stolen from us by children who think that a hot dog is awesome. But our brains are containers of electrical impulses and chemical exchanges which have evolved a little further than those of orangutans. There is every reason to be grateful for our consciousnesses, but no reason whatever to conclude that the Universe did this on purpose, or that any far corner of the Universe, where (I presume) stars are still being born, gives a damn how smart we are.
      Nagel is a professor of philosophy and law at New York University. He and his book are a good example of the hubris that can overtake philosophers, theologians, and even lawyers.