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Archive for April, 2010

Dear Prodigy pioneers,

This week and next, the undergrad dorm where I’m a resident tutor is putting on their annual musical—this year Guys and Dolls. And complete Carrie Bradshawesque narcissist that I am, that got me thinking back to my own theatrical past, specifically trying out for my high school’s production of Guys and Dolls my freshman year. The task, of course, was geared to traumatize the weak of vocal skill—sing the opening verse of “Luck Be A Lady.” Simple enough, except I started about two octaves too high. I dropped out a few days later, and so my on-stage career ended. I found a few years later, that I much preferred a place behind the scenes, in the audience, or, apparently, at the computer.

The digital archive, in fact, contains a host of valuable sites dedicated to the performing arts. For an appetizer, try the Hansen Collection from UNC. It includes beautiful broadsides, like the one to the right, from an 1870 Boston performance of Rip Van Winkle, adapted by Dion Boucicault (more on him here).  You’ll also find correspondences, posters, and some stirring photographs. And if you were wondering, celebrity sponsorship didn’t start in the twentieth century. Witness below, soprano Minnie Hauk hawking the Warner Brothers’ corsets. (I initially misread “Abdominal” and “Abominable.” So much for truth in advertising).


Over at the University of Louisville, the Macauley’s Collection chronicles the life of a family-owned theater in the Bluegrass State. The archive includes photographs of countless actors unknown today, including Anna Boyd, dressed below left as a man. For cross-dressing in the other direction, you can see a photograph on the right of once-famed performer Julian Eltinge. (Check out Sharon Ullman’s excellent chapter on Eltinge in Sex Seen to learn more, and click here for yet more cross-dressing from the Macauley collection).

Eager for other images of 19th century actors and actresseses? Try this collection of cartes-de-visite from the University of Washington. There you’ll find, lo and behold, photographs of Mr. Joseph Jefferson himself in his role as Rip Van Winkle, before and after his big sleep. (How do you like that for continuity, dear reader!)

As Benjamin McArthur explores in his well-received study, The Man Who Was Rip Van Winkle, made his name playing the famous napper, and became one of the best-known comedic actors of the American stage.

Alas, that’s all for this time.

Curtains down,

Stephen

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Dear iTunes addicts,

Today’s post comes to you courtesy of Jack Hamilton, a fellow PhD student in Harvard’s American Civilization program. He is currently at work on his dissertation titled ‘Rubber Souls’: Rock and Roll and the Racial Imagination, 1963-1971. Before coming to Harvard, Jack was a contributor to Rolling Stone and Paper, among other publications. You can catch him these days playing keys in the Abbie Barrett Band.

We have met dark days; the catalog of present horrors and dire morrows is so familiar there’s not even any point in running through it again. It may be a copout, but people will do almost anything now to escape from the pall. The (first) Age of Anxiety gave way to the clammy retreat of the Fifties, when every citizen kept a tight bomb shelter, then to the sense of massive change in the Sixties, but the passing of that agitated decade has brought a new Age of Implosion, yesterday’s iconoclastic war babies siphoned off en masse, stumbling and puking over each other at the festivals which were celebrations such a short time ago. Tying off their potentials and shooting them into the void in bleak rooms.

-Lester Bangs, “Bring Your Mother To the Gas Chamber”, CREEM, June/July 1972

It’s both thrilling and vaguely embarrassing that a renowned rock critic once opened a two-part(!) profile of this band with such an overheated cop of Ginsberg’s Howl, much as it’s both thrilling and vaguely embarrassing that, once upon a time, people wrote about rock and roll music this way in the first place.  But indeed they did, and a surprising number of them, as even a cursory journey through the tantalizing and frustratingly incomplete online archives of pioneering publications Crawdaddy! and CREEM reveals.

Established by Swarthmore College undergraduate Paul Williams in 1966, Crawdaddy! is widely considered to be the first American venue of serious rock and roll criticism.  Although the magazine existed well into the 1970s, its online archive is limited to 1966-1968, a sadly incomplete selection that nonetheless offers a glimpse into the unruly first steps of a significant cultural institution of the 1960s.

And what intriguing steps they were.  The first two years of Crawdaddy! feature names that would become storied in music criticism (Richard Meltzer), the music industry (Sandy Pearlman, producer of Blue Oyster Cult and the Clash), and, in at least one case, both (Jon Landau, who transitioned from Crawdaddy! to Rolling Stone to a gig as manager for an up-and-coming singer-songwriter named Bruce Springsteen).  Perhaps the most eye-catching recurring byline from Crawdaddy!’s early years is that of Samuel Delany, the esteemed African-American science fiction writer who holds forth here on artists from Janis Joplin to Randy Newman, whom he favorably compares to Igor Stravinsky in the June 1968 issue.

While CREEM’s archive is even more sporadic than that of Crawdaddy!, the magazine’s pedigree among rock snobs is probably unmatched.  Audaciously declaring itself America’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll Magazine” and wielding its iconic, R. Crumb-illustrated “Boy Howdy!” logo, CREEM persevered from 1969 to 1989 and boasted many of rock criticism’s most storied names on its masthead: Dave Marsh, Robert Christgau, Greil Marcus, and of course Lester Bangs himself, who assumed editorial duties in the early 1970s.  CREEM spent its heyday as a sort of unruly, black-sheep stepbrother to Rolling Stone, the West Coast behemoth that was always three steps ahead in terms of money and publicity but could never quite shake its comparatively “establishment” reputation.  Much like the Stooges, the MC5 and other bands it championed, the Detroit-based CREEM wore its rust-belt chip on its shoulder with a bravado that might have been cloying if it weren’t so raucously fun.

Now, about those archives.  Crawdaddy!, as mentioned before, is sadly incomplete but wonderfully preserved, replete with page-scans of entire issues that allow for such nifty finds as a full-page advertisement for the debut album of a young Joni Mitchell only a few pages away from Delany’s encomium to Randy Newman.  The interface through which one views the scans is admittedly cumbersome, though not enough to deter the curious browser.  CREEM is even more selective about its online content and has declined to make page-scans available (excepting an impressive gallery of covers), but there are good reads to be had, and as traffic increases one hopes the online collection will as well.  It’s also worth mentioning that substantial portions of these and other publications are available at the predominantly subscription-based Rock’s Backpages resource, although RBP’s own collecting criteria are maddeningly opaque and their archives difficult to navigate.

It’s not a lot, but it’s a start, and while CREEM and Crawdaddy! may never enjoy the slickly-packaged, completist DVD-ROM treatment that Rolling Stone has recently received, to be able to peruse two of the more noteworthy theaters of late-20th century cultural criticism, even in severely abridged form, is a welcome experience. In closing, dear reader, and as a bookend to the opening of this post, I leave you with another piece of vintage Bangs, from a 1979 essay on Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks:

Astral Weeks, insofar as it can be pinned down, is a record about people stunned by life, completely overwhelmed, stalled in their skins, their ages and selves, paralyzed by the enormity of what in one moment of vision they can comprehend.  It is a precious and terrible gift, born of a terrible truth, because what they see is both infinitely beautiful and terminally horrifying: the unlimited human ability to create or destroy, according to whim.  It’s no Eastern mystic or psychedelic vision of the emerald beyond, nor is it some Baudelairean perception of the beauty of sleaze and grotesquerie.  Maybe what it boils down to is one moment’s knowledge of the miracle of life, with its inevitable concomitant, a vertiginous glimpse of the capacity to be hurt, and the capacity to inflict that hurt.

While the charming effusiveness of Crawdaddy! and CREEM might occasionally make us embarrassed that people once wrote this way about rock and roll music, passages such as this should make us wish they still did.

Until we next say “Boy Howdy,”

Jack Hamilton

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Dear hump day hurdlers,

Welcome to the second Lazy Scholar interview, this time with Margot Canaday, Assistant Professor of history at Princeton University. Professor Canaday’s first book, the insightful and inspiring The Straight State: Sexuality and Citizenship in Twentieth Century America, came out from Princeton University Press last summer. Drawing on a wealth of diverse sources, the book traces the regulation of what would become known as homosexual behavior and “the homosexual” throughout the twentieth century, particularly in the realms of immigration, welfare, and the military. That story still has immense relevance for Americans, gay and straight, today—just read the review of Canaday’s book in The Nation for evidence. (You can read the introduction here. Or if you read just one page, try 53, as Canaday recommends.) Professor Canaday’s new project, if I can use her university bio against her, is an interdisciplinary look at the queer workplace in America. If I could pre-order it on Amazon, I would.

What digital resource do you rely on, or would you recommend?

Law professor Nan Hunter’s blog, “Hunter of Justice: A Blog about Sexuality, Gender, Law, and Culture.”

What non-digital resource would you recommend?

G.T. Kurian, A Historical Guide to the U.S. Government.

What is the best research and/or writing advice you’ve ever gotten?

I’ve been talking a lot with colleagues of late about the difficult problem of the second book (perhaps a struggle that as a profession we should be a bit more vocal about since so many seem to suffer with this one more or less alone. We all knew we needed support groups for writing dissertations, but after that?). So someone recently gave me advice on this that I found really liberating. She said to ignore all the people who tell me to find something “small” and “manageable” for the second project. She said you have to write the kind of book that is *your* kind of book—for the second just like the first. If your kind of book is either “big” or intensely archival, you should do it anyway. This is such a refreshing perspective…one that momentarily released me from my fears that I am not sufficiently strategic.

What advice would you give someone working on their dissertation?

Selecting a dissertation topic might be the most important intellectual and professional decision you will ever make. So do it carefully. And not *before* you arrive at graduate school.

Name one book or article published before 1970 that has inspired or haunted you?

Edmund Morgan, American Slavery, American Freedom. (Okay, it’s 1975).

Name the last book or article you read to inspire or haunt you.

Nancy MacLean, Freedom is Not Enough: The Opening of the American Workplace. It has inspired rather than haunted. A truly astonishing piece of scholarship.

What website most often draws your attention away from work?

I definitely passed through the standard Facebook phases: 1) fear; 2) fascination; 3) fatigue. I now go days, even weeks, without looking at it. So right now the website that more often draws my attention away from work is “The Slatest.” It makes me feel a lot better about myself on the days I can’t manage to read the paper.

What do you see as the most annoying tendency in contemporary scholarship?

I think there is currently too much pressure exerted on even first time authors to write books that are commercially successful beyond the academy.

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Dear seventh-inning stretchers,

With President Obama’s high and wide pitch, baseball season is officially upon us. So I turned to Matthew Mugmon to dig into the archive for signs of the pastime’s past. Matthew is a graduate student in music at Harvard, whose dissertation looks at the relationship between American modernism and the music of Austrian composer Gustav Mahler. And when you’re done reading his musings about baseball, check out his recent guest post on Gershwin at Amusicology.

Warm weather, the smell of hot dogs and stale beer, the sound of summer songs blasting from car radios, and the sight of too many Jonathan Papelbon jerseys all make me think about one thing: baseball.  I’m the first to admit that it’s not a perfect sport.  Actually, let’s face it — baseball is about as interesting as NASCAR.  Nothing happens for 10 minutes, then the batter calls a timeout, then the infielders meet on the mound, then the manager calls the bullpen, then a kid runs out to get the relief pitcher’s jacket, then…  Maybe this is why baseball has so much ephemera.  We need a real way to pass the time while consuming America’s painfully boring “pastime.”

There’s no better way to get into the baseball mood than to think about what music you might hum to yourself while you’re at the game waiting for something to happen.  And so to get ready for the new season, I browsed the Baseball Sheet Music Archive, one of the digital collections of the Library of Congress’ online Performing Arts Encyclopedia.  Among other things, these scans from the late-19th and early-20th centuries shed light on an innocent time, an era when baseball moves hadn’t yet developed into a kind of crude code for specific kinds of sexual activity.  Take the song “Base Ball Game of Love” by Edith Barbier and Arthur Longbrake, whose cover is pictured.  After some corny lines that we might imagine A-Rod telling Cameron Diaz (“When first I gaz’d into your eyes, Your image made a home run to my heart,/ I tried to tag the feeling which into my heart was stealing,…”), things get racier to modern ears, especially with the chorus:

I was on first and you on second,

Cupid held the third base down,

He coax’d me to lead off and catch you,

But you saw me start I found;

And as we two reach’d third together,

Cupid gave me such a shove,

That we both slid for the home plate,

In our baseball game of love.

Nice.

And from the cover, Monroe Rosenfeld’s “I’m on the right side of the right girl at the right time and place,” would seem to have nothing to do with baseball.  But only a few seconds in, it starts to sound like a high-school cafeteria conversation:

I have been as far as Third Base,

That’s as far as I ever got;

It’s a Home Run this trip,

I’ll take care not to slip,

It means winning or losing a lot!

And that’s all before the chorus.

If music isn’t your thing, you can always chew gum during the next string of 30 foul balls.  And if you’re like I was as a young Baltimore Orioles fan, you got some of that sugar-coated, rock-hard gum in packs of baseball cards that you bought to make you forget that your heroes made absurd salaries for standing around spitting and doing other unsightly things with their bodies for three or more hours a day (except for Cal Ripken, Jr., the greatest player of all time).  As a kid, Senator Richard B. Russell had a similar idea, but his cards seem to have gotten him into smoking, not gum-chewing.  The late Georgia politician’s collection of American Tobacco Company cards from 1909-1911, “Forgotten Heroes of the Dead-Ball Era,” resides online at the Richard B. Russell Library for Political Research and Science at the University of Georgia.  (By the way, it’s called the “dead-ball era” because the games — believe it or not — were even less exciting than they are today.)

Here, I perked up my hometown spirit by searching for John McGraw, an early Orioles legend who shared a nickname with me: Mugsy.  As the archive’s section “It Aint’ Cheatin’ If You Don’t Get Caught” notes, Mugsy — who in this card looks a bit like George W. Bush — “routinely cut inside bases, impeded baserunners by blocking them or pulling on their belts, and maddened umpires and the opposition with his short fuse and sharp tongue.”  Russell’s six McGraw cards depict Mugsy as manager of the New York Giants.  Mugsy’s antics as manager, we find out from the archive, apparently got him ejected 131 times.  If only Mugsy’d had access to the Library of Congress’ baseball sheet music collection, he could have sung “Let’s Get the Umpire’s Goat,” by Nora Bayes and Jack Norworth.  Or maybe Mugsy secretly wrote the song.

Sadly, in the years of Russell’s collection, my Orioles were a minor league team.  The modern pro Orioles would migrate from St. Louis in 1954; the previous pro Orioles had moved to New York in 1903 and eventually became today’s New York Yankees.  I can’t imagine collecting minor-league cards, but it wasn’t so ridiculous in Russell’s day.  Aside from players on teams you’ve probably never heard of — like the Southern Association’s Nashville Volunteers — I found nine Orioles in the senator’s stockpile.  This includes Jack Dunn, shown here because it’s one of those unusual cards that shows the subject actually doing something baseball-related.  This guy ran the Orioles and was responsible for having sold the great Babe Ruth from the O’s to the Red Sox in 1914.  (For a nice account of this disaster, see Kal Wagenheim’s Babe Ruth, pp. 24-25).  So here’s to you, Jack, for starting an Orioles’ tradition — acquiring and then getting rid of good players.  The baseball sheet music collection has a few Babe Ruth songs, but you can bet Mr. Dunn never reached first base with any of them.

Baltimoronically yours,

Matthew Mugmon

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To the spring-attired,

I never imagined myself an auto enthusiast. In fact, for years, I had nightmares about losing control of my car on the parkway, and wasn’t sure if I should interpret them as a Final Destination-ish prophecy of my own demise or a mere anxiety dream. Yet after driving 3000 miles through Southwestern mountains, deserts, and valleys last month, I think I feel a little bit more of the sense of possibility and freedom Americans must have experienced when automobiles were new. Every couple of hours, it seemed, we stopped and stepped out of our car, only to gaze back on what looked like a Hyundai commercial. Case in point:

To judge by the images in the New York Public Library’s Taking the Wheel Collection, even the earliest car drivers expected their vehicles to cross any terrain. The Franklin car company, for one, went out of business during the Great Depression, but not before taking its owners into the woods and to the horse race!

Alas, the auto catalog below from the now-gone Haynes company  seems less interested in showing how well their cars navigated water, than suggesting how poorly women steered not only cars, but, to judge by their suffragette style, the country.

But, you ask, were these exciting images just a promoter’s fantasy? Thankfully, The Making of Modern Michigan’s Automotive Collection holds hundreds of photographs, which come closer to the catalogs than one might expect. Yes, now women could travel to political conventions in style: cramped in an open-air car, in multiple layers of clothes.

The nascent AAA also sponsored what became known as the Glidden tours, where cars were sent across the country to see the types of roads they would encounter. The results were sometimes disastrous.

If all this auto-arousal is too much for you, then you might prefer to check out a new book by Brian Ladd titled, Autophobia. Also, a shout-out to the Journal of American History whose excellent reviews of web archives pointed me to Taking the Wheel.

Until next time, I remain yours on the passenger side,

Stephen

P.S. You can now follow the Lazy Scholar on Facebook. Become my fan here!

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To the holiday-cheerful,

Today’s post comes to you from a very special guest, someone who can speak with far more authority about Easter than I ever could (and far more irony than I would ever dare), Mollie Wilson O’Reilly. Mollie is an associate editor of Commonweal Magazine, and blogs at Restricted View. You may have also caught her writing in The Village Voice, Nextbook.org, and Television Without Pity. 

“The child of today will probably remember Easter as a sort of minor Christmas,” proclaimed this Life magazine article from 1939. “Easter today is second to Christmas as toy-buying time.”

Growing up a Catholic kid in the 1980s, I was reminded by my teachers every year that Easter is really the most important Christian holiday. Kids need to be told this because, in terms of secular hoopla (and toy-buying), Easter is a “minor Christmas” at best. For religiously motivated joy, you can’t beat it, but the consumer side of Eastertide never quite took off.

The failure to make a second Xmas out of Easter was not for lack of trying, as a perusal of Google’s online archive of midcentury Life magazines will show. Easter-themed advertising pops up every spring. Clothing gets a big push—gotta look good for that parade!—as do Whitman’s chocolates (right: “A woman never forgets the man who remembers”) and seasonal foods like Armour ham. (Or just ham in general.)

Then there are the less obvious seasonal tie-ins, like this ad for—well, see how long it takes you to figure it out: “Bright Easter finery. A smart Easter hat. Gay Easter flowers. It’s every woman’s right to glow with pride in the Easter parade. And, it’s no woman’s wish to go home and spend the rest of the day in the kitchen. There’s a hint for husbands here. Take the family out for dinner—where they have Wurlitzer music.”

Phonographs! Of course.

The 1939 article about the thriving Easter toy market referred to “bunnies that have grown to monstrous sizes” as a particularly popular treat. I think that phrasing really gets to the heart of what’s wrong with the commercial side of Easter in our culture: the total failure of imagination that is the Easter Bunny. Our Santa Claus legend is pretty solid: We know what he looks like, where he lives, what he does. But when it comes to the Easter Bunny, all we really know is that he’s an overgrown rabbit who delivers eggs and/or candy. But where does he come from? Where does he get the eggs? What, if anything, does he wear? And isn’t the whole idea sort of, well, frightening?

In 1939, as far as Life was concerned, the Easter Bunny was a Continental oddity. “In Europe, the hare is considered a sort of St. Nick who comes at night to leave colored eggs for good children,” the article above explains. But by 1947, E.B. is on the scene in America—and judging from this ad for Listerine toothpaste, he may or may not have genie-like powers: “If the Easter bunny could grant one wish, about your child’s appearance, you’d be wise to choose a friendly, radiant smile! However, if you don’t believe in the Easter bunny, and do believe in Oral Hygiene…”

A Life photographer caught these brothers (left) confronting the Bunny in Los Angeles in 1947: “To startled, half-frightened Christopher, older brother Peter explained the Easter legend. Enormous bunnies like this mysteriously appear every Easter, leave brightly colored eggs in hidden places and, just as mysteriously, disappear.” That is certainly not *the* Easter legend, but I’m not even sure it counts as *an* Easter legend. Are there really multiple Easter Bunnies?

Along with widespread uncertainty about what, exactly, the E.B. does, there is our collective failure to figure out what he should look like. In the meantime, we keep scaring children with giant rabbit costumes—a tradition that dates back at least to the 1950s, as you can see in photos from the University of Southern California’s digital library. This one below, from the 1958 Beverly Hills Easter Parade, is captioned “nineteen-months-old Mary Lee Anderson…cries as she is surrounded by three Easter Bunnies who jumped off float to greet little girls.” Can you blame her?

Pamela Schmidt, the “Easter Seal Sweetheart” of 1958 (below) held up much better when she came face to face with the Easter Bunny and the March Hare (I wonder if she could tell which was which?), while these little Los Angelenos, ca. 1951, look happy to be posing with their baskets, and no bunnies in sight.

Nobody sends Easter cards anymore, but considering the kinds of cards people used to send, that may not be such a bad thing. The University of Louisville’s Newton Owen Postcard collection has a large collection of Easter greetings from the earlier decades of the twentieth century, most featuring anthropomorphized animals that have grown to monstrous sizes. And what could be more monstrous than “two chickens in human clothing”?

Sometimes the chickens are beasts of burden, as in this image, captioned “woman in a chariot drawn by three very large chicks.” (Or perhaps it’s just an abnormally small woman?)

 

Many of these images have military overtones, perhaps in relation to the Great War. In some, uniformed rabbit soldiers bring you Easter wishes, astride their sturdy chickens:

But at other times the rabbits are the beasts of burden, and the chicks their masters:

Whimsy may be the intent, but I find these illustrations slightly nightmarish. And none gives me the willies more than this “Loving Easter Greeting,” which depicts a chick roasting eggs over a stove. Is this proof that “Suicide Food” is not a recent phenomenon? Please note that the person who sent this card back in 1911 scrawled “This is I” across the apron of the cannibal chick. Loving Easter Greetings indeed!

Yours in waiting for the Easter Bunny,

Mollie

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