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Archive for October, 2009

Dear idling experts,

I’ve lived in Massachusetts for three Halloweens now, counting tomorrow, but I’ve yet  to trek to Salem for their ghoulish festivities. From what I hear, they’re a real hoot—if by hoot, you mean a gross misappropriation of the past. Why worry about Puritans persecuting each other when you can visit  a psychic fair?

For a more historical Halloween experience, check out Cornell’s Witchcraft Collection. Sure, you know the story of John Proctor—but what about the Salem dogs that were put to death, for afflicting people with their stares? Or read Increase Mather’s account too, whether the original manuscript or transcribed.

If that’s not spooky enough, take a look at these adorable/terrifying trick-or-treaters in 1965 Greenville, from East Carolina U’s Daily Reflector collection.

legendofsleepyhollowBut the best way to get into the Hollow’s Eve spirit for the die-hard Americanist: watching Disney’s still charming adaptation of Washington Irving’s”Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” with tunes sung by Bing Crosby himself. Tim Burton has nothing on this! Watch one of the highlights, “The Headless Horseman,” here.

Bewitchingly yours,

Stephen

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Dear die-hard dilettantes,

Some of you know that I’m a teaching fellow this semester for a popular course at Harvard called, “Gender and Performance,” taught by the extraordinary Professor Robin Bernstein. This week’s all about Bertolt Brecht, an artist I’ve had a love-hate relationship with ever since my freshman year encounter with Mother Courage.

Lotte LenyaI’m a bigger fan of The Threepenny Opera, the operetta Brecht wrote with Kurt Weill in the late 1920s. You can get a taste with this clip from this 1966 TV broadcast of Lotte Lenya recreating her role as Pirate Jenny from the 1954 off-Broadway production, with a translation by one of my all-time favorite queer, Jewish socialists, Marc Blitzstein (you can hear songs from his Brecht-inspired Cradle Will Rock on the Internet Archive). Feel the alienation!

The Lenya clip comes from the spectacular website BlueGobo.com, which recovers videos of musicals from the 1930s to the present, as were broadcast to national audiences on the Tony Awards and other TV specials. Where else would you find a clip of the great Zero Mostel performing “If I Were a Rich Man” from Bock and Harnick’s Fiddler on the Roof? Or any clip at all from their lesser-known Fiorello! about the rise of, yes, New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia.

DeLariaTwo more favorites: Chita Rivera singing “All That Jazz” on Sammy Davis Jr.’s variety show (you’ve never seen jazz hands like these, people!). And lesbian comic Lea DeLaria performing “I Can Cook Too” from the underappreciated Bernstein, Comden, and Green musical On the Town.

So long, farewell, auf wiedersehen, for now.

Musically yours,

Stephen

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Dear La-Z-Boy loungers,

I don’t know about you, but I vastly preferred board games as a child over the more dangerous (and potentially embarrassing) pursuits of the athletics field.  Still I can’t help but think all of those hours spent on the living room rug must have prepared me in some way for adulthood. “Monopoly” taught me about finance; “Sorry” introduced me to the art of passive-aggressive apologies; “Candyland” revealed the dangers of psychotropic drugs; “The Game of Life,” taught me about forming a heterosexual family—not that I’ve followed all of their instructions.

Fat Boy's GameIf that leaves you wondering about the history of board games past, try digging through the rich archives of Life magazine, now available (and searchable by keyword) on Google Books. In 1970, the great glossy pointed readers towards some socially conscious board games perfect for readers of the Moynihan Report. In “Black and White,” for instance, every “black” player starts off with $10,000, and every “white” player starts out with a cool million. How’s that for disparity! And in the classroom-friendly “Ghetto,” your kids can learn what it’s like to live as a “typical slum dweller.”

Or why not commemorate the Civil War with a board game specially designed for Life. In “1863,” “everyone gets a chance to fight it over again. ”

Doll for Black GirlsAnd last but not least, some diversions from Parker Brothers. Sure, you can still find “Clue,” but what about “Fat Boy’s Game,” perfect for Christmas 1951! Read more about it, and the bestseller on which it was based here, courtesy of the blog “Isn’t Life Terrible?” (From the same Life issue, don’t miss the article, “Doll For Negro Children,” across from a cigarette ad with the tagline “Discriminating People Prefer…”).

That’s all for today, dear readers! Until next time.

Yours in indoor entertainment,

Stephen

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To the easily exhausted,

Believe it or not, I was a lazy scholar even in high school. Ah yes, the days of Netscape and dial-up service, I remember them like they were yesterday! Even then you could find me at my family’s computer, scouring online archives for primary sources sooner than I’d touch the dusty tomes of the local library.

One of my first discoveries was the vast and amazing archives of the Library of Congress, which, all these years later, still reward a careful search or casual browse. Among the most evocative of their many collections has to be Voices from the Dust Bowl. The songs, beautiful, haunting, and fascinating, open a unique window into the lives of migrant workers in 1940s California.

Take, for instance, the talented King family playing “The Kickin’ Mule,” with the memorable chorus,

Whoa there mule I tell you
Miss Liza you keep cool
I ain’t got time to kiss you now
I’m busy with that this mule.

You can read the complete lyrics here.

Another of my all-time favorites is Jack Bryant singing “Lonely, I’m So Lonely,” but be advised: it might prove difficult to get out of your head once you’ve heard it.

And who can resist the casual misogyny of “A Woman’s Tongue Will Run Forevermore,” sung by “Mrs. Kitt,” who warns, a woman “will talk a man to death.” You can read one version of the lyrics here.

Well, that’s all the time we have for today, dear listeners. But I’ll leave you with one last track, a six-year-old boy imitating a frog, a freight train, and a chicken. We can only hope he eventually found his way to a Hollywood soundstage.

Audibly yours,

Stephen

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Dear snooze-button specialists,

Eating may be one of the more delightful ways to delay work. People who don’t spend their lives in libraries and classrooms for a living might, in fact, be surprised at how many lunches, teatimes, coffee breaks, iced coffee breaks, brownie breaks, suppers, dinners, desserts, and happy hours you can fit into a single day—not to mention those golden moments when you discover free leftovers from a talk or workshop you didn’t attend.

SupergoopOf course, eating well requires work all its own. Thankfully, the A.V. Geeks have posted countless classic (and by classic, I mean truly awful) educational films on their website, including several specifically related to food. Like the Prelinger Archive, the A.V. Geeks specialize in ephemeral films, though their collection weighs a little more heavily towards the 1960s and 1970s (Duke has them to thank for digitizing their Ad Views archive). Many of their films are also available for purchase on DVD, which may explain why the site is so poorly indexed.

Nonetheless, for the devoted delinquent like myself, a quick scan for films of the 1970s reveals such gems as “Soopergoop,” where an animated cat reveals the manipulative techniques of advertising execs looking to sell a new cereal. Or there’s “Munchers: A Fable,” a claymation pic about tooth decay with a psychedelic soundtrack and a black devil named “Jack Sweet.”

BarbecueSpeaking of psychedelic, don’t miss the kids getting down in “Story of a Peanut Butter Sandwich.” And last but not least, there’s a public service announcement about “National Barbecue Month,” where a bunch of teens in cowboy hats learn the joys of a well-cooked steak.

Onto the day! Isn’t it lunchtime yet?

Hungrily yours,

Stephen

P.S. I couldn’t resist highlighting one more video: Believe it or not, my health teacher in eighth grade actually showed us this frightening 1979 film about male puberty, “Am I Normal?“—poorly timed erections and carefully coiffed hair included.

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Dear power nappers,

On Saturday, David and I headed to the vertical Long Island—that is, New Jersey—to meet my new nephew Sammy, a beautiful little boy who has the eyes of his father (my brother), the ears of his mother, and the sleep patterns of a lazy-scholar-to-be: he spent the majority of our visit napping, waking up only to say hello and to eat.

Detail from Baby's Rhyme BookSo in honor of Sammy, I bring you today the marvelous Baldwin Library of Children’s Literature, courtesy of the University of Florida. The digital archive includes over 5000 books from the early 1700s to the present, including Baby’s Rhyme Book, from 1886, which starts out with the rousing tale “Kit-ty’s Day”: “9 A.M. Hungry, and tired of waiting for those people who will not come down; so I am obliged to help myself. Cream not so thick as it ought to be, but I do not complain.” Though if any book deserves a reissue, it’s the handsomely illustrated Jolly Animal ABC (1888), which features a fiddling pig and a truly relaxed hare.

pighare

Far less kid-friendly today is the 1876 book Simple Addition by a Little Nigger, published in New York, which follows an ever-increasing number of black children as they get into trouble.

Simple Addition

For Sammy’s sake, when choosing children’s books for bedtime, I’ll stick to clever fauna, like this finely-dressed specimen from Palmer Cox’s Funny Animals.

Fox

Sleep well little ones!

Sartorially yours,

Stephen

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Salutations to the slothful,

Travel back with me today to the year 1840, when William Henry Harrison led the Whig party to the White House! Thanks to Cornell’s delightful (and remarkably easy to navigate) Political Americana collection, you, too, can relive Harrison’s glorious slaughter of the Native Americans at the Battle of Tippecanoe with this commemorative lithograph (detail below; click for full image). Or sing along to the National Whig Song! Come on, you know the words: “I’ll sing you now a new Whig song / made to a good old rhyme / Of a fine true-hearted gentleman / all of the olden time.”

harrison

Unfortunately, Harrison’s victory wouldn’t last long—he died within a month of his inaugural address. At which point his followers could secure a print of his last bedridden moments (see below).

Death of Harrison, Susan H. Douglas Political Americana Collection, #2214 Rare & Manuscript Collections Cornell University Library Cornell University

The presidential deathbed portrait was apparently a popular genre all its own. Check out below, George Washington, Andrew Jackson,  Zachary Taylor, and Abraham Lincoln, all breathing their last, tearful friends, family, and servants around them (click on images for larger view). Maybe it’s just me, but these scenes definitely bring to mind that final montage from the HBO series Six Feet Under, as well as countless films of the Terms of Endearment variety. Oh, Ann Douglas, where are you now? The “domestication of death” lives on.

Melancholically,

Stephen

Washington's Death, Susan H. Douglas Political Americana Collection, #2214 Rare & Manuscript Collections Cornell University Library Cornell University

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