Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

April 19, 2014

Cheo Feliciano, Debonair Salsa Singer, Dies at 78

Filed under: music,obituary — louisproyect @ 10:20 pm

NY Times, April 2014

Cheo Feliciano, Debonair Salsa Singer, Dies at 78

Cheo Feliciano, a leading salsa singer renowned for both his love songs and his upbeat improvisations, died in an automobile accident on Thursday in San Juan, P.R. He was 78.

He was killed when the car in which he was driving alone ran into a light post, the police told The Associated Press. He was not wearing a seatbelt, they said.

A handsome and debonair baritone, Mr. Feliciano overcame drug addiction and became a celebrity in Puerto Rico and in the larger community of Latin music. He was equally impressive as a sonero — a singer who can improvise rhymes and melodies over Afro-Caribbean dance rhythms — and a romantic crooner, delivering suave, smoldering boleros.

During the 1970s he became a major star of salsa (the name was used by American marketers as a catchall for various Latin rhythms) when he recorded for the New York label Fania. His first solo album, “Cheo,” included songs that became his signatures: “Anacaona” and “Mi Triste Problema.”

“He was an icon, beloved by the females,” Joe Conzo Sr., a music historian and a longtime friend of Mr. Feliciano, said in an interview on Thursday. “His boleros, they had the women swooning.”

Mr. Feliciano spent several years in the late ’50s and early ’60s singing, in both Spanish and English, with the Joe Cuba Sextet, a popular ensemble that helped introduce Latin music to a mainstream American audience.  He also recorded with top Latin bandleaders including Eddie Palmieri and Tito Puente, and he was a longtime member of the Fania All-Stars, the group organized by Fania Records that included virtually all the major figures of salsa’s ’70s heyday.

In 1973, Mr. Feliciano was with the Fania All-Stars when they performed at Yankee Stadium. A 1975 album of that concert, “Live at Yankee Stadium,” was inducted into the Library of Congress’s national registry of recordings that are “culturally, historically or aesthetically important.”

In 2008, at the Latin Grammy Awards, Mr. Feliciano was honored for lifetime achievement. The same year, he celebrated 50 years in music with a concert at Madison Square Garden, a performance reviewed by Jon Pareles, the chief pop music critic for The Times.

“Mr. Feliciano, who turns 73 on July 3, is still a formidable singer at any speed,” Mr. Pareles wrote. “His baritone voice sounds richly assured, even when he sings, as he often does, about the pains of love. Backed with the rumbas and guaguancós of salsa dura (hard salsa), he is a sonero who volleys percussive syllables and improvised rhymes over the beat. Easing the tempo back to bolero, he is an equally skillful romantic crooner steeped in Latin ballads, with a touch of Sinatra, who’s suave yet still rhythmically unpredictable. Guests joined Mr. Feliciano for duets, some improvising their own rhymes of praise for him. None outsang him.”

 Cheo Feliciano was born José Luis Feliciano Vega in Ponce, P.R., on July 3, 1935. His father was a carpenter, and the family was poor but musical. Young Cheo (a common nickname for José), who received some rudimentary musical education in a government-sponsored school, was initially a percussionist and established his first group before he was 10, calling it El Combo Las Latas — the Can Combo — because they made their instruments out of tin cans.

“Everything happening around us had to do in some way with music,” Mr. Feliciano said in an interview in 2000 with the website descarga.com. El Combo Las Latas, he added, “was all kids, but at that very early age we understood about percussion, melody and singing.”

When Cheo was a teenager his family moved to New York City, where he played congas and would sing when a group needed a vocalist. He met well-known musicians after he registered as a percussionist at the musician’s union, and he served as a band boy — a kind of errand boy and valet — to several of them, including the bandleader Tito Rodríguez, who gave young Cheo his first chance to perform in public.

Mr. Feliciano became addicted to heroin in the ’60s and by the end of the decade was forced to suspend his singing career. He returned to Puerto Rico, where he entered a program, known as Hogar CREA, to treat his drug dependency.

He spent three years in self-imposed retirement, and when he felt he was ready he initiated his comeback, signing with Fania. Over the next decades he made dozens of recordings, for Fania and other companies, and toured throughout Latin America and Europe.

Mr. Feliciano is survived by his wife, Socorro Prieto De Feliciano, known as Coco, whom he married on Oct. 5, 1957, the same day he made his debut with the Joe Cuba Sextet. The Associated Press reported that he is also survived by four sons.

In the 2000 interview, Mr. Feliciano remembered the youthful hubris that led him to take the stage as a singer for the first time. Someone, he said, had told Tito Rodríguez that a young man named Cheo could sing a little bit.

“Tito knew me as Cheo but he didn’t know they were talking about me,” Mr. Feliciano recalled. “ ‘What Cheo?’ ‘Cheo, Cheo, your valet, your band boy.’ He said, ‘Cheo, you sing?’ And I had the nerve to say, ‘I’m the world’s greatest singer.’ And he laughed. He said, ‘Well, you’re going to have to prove it now.’ ”

One night shortly thereafter, onstage with his big band at the Palladium in New York, Mr. Rodríguez introduced him to the crowd.

“He gave me the maracas and said: ‘Sing. Show me you’re the greatest,’ ” Mr. Feliciano said. “And I sang.”

April 13, 2014

Fred Ho, Saxophonist, Composer and Radical Activist, Dies at 56

Filed under: music,obituary — louisproyect @ 2:35 pm

NY Times, April 13 2004

Fred Ho, Saxophonist, Composer and Radical Activist, Dies at 56

Fred Ho, a composer, saxophonist, writer and radical activist who wrote politically charged operas, suites, oratorios and ballets that mixed jazz with popular and traditional elements of what he called Afro-Asian culture, died on Saturday at his home in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. He was 56.

The cause was complications of colorectal cancer, his student and friend Benjamin Barson said. In books, essays, speeches and interviews, Mr. Ho said he had been at war with the disease, his preferred metaphor, since 2006.

Mr. Ho, who was of Chinese descent, called himself a “popular avant-gardist.” He was inspired by the Black Arts movement of the 1960s and by the ambitious, powerful music of African-American bandleaders, including Duke Ellington, John Coltrane, Sun Ra and especially Charles Mingus. But he rejected the word jazz, which he considered a pejorative term imposed by Europeans.

Self-reliance was a priority for Mr. Ho. He rarely played in anyone else’s band. Among the exceptions were stints with the arranger Gil Evans and the saxophonists Archie Shepp and Julius Hemphill. Describing himself as a “revolutionary matriarchal socialist and aspiring Luddite,” he never owned a car and made many of his own clothes from kimono fabric.

Despite his determination to stand outside the mainstream, he found support from grant-giving organizations, academic music departments, which hired him as artist in residence, and nonprofit arts institutions, including, in New York City, the Public Theater, the Kitchen and the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

Born Fred Wei-han Houn on Aug. 10, 1957, in Palo Alto, Calif. — he changed his surname in 1988 — he moved with his family when he was 6 to Amherst, Mass., where his father taught political science at the University of Massachusetts. He felt a powerful attraction to the art and rhetoric of black culture. As a teenager, he audited college classes taught by Mr. Shepp, the drummer Max Roach and the poet Sonia Sanchez, who were all putting progressive politics in their art. He never formally studied music, but began teaching himself baritone saxophone when he was 14.

In interviews, Mr. Ho recalled that his father physically abused his mother. “One of my first insurrections,” he told Harvard Magazine, “was to defend my mother against his physical beatings and give him two black eyes.”

He joined the Marines in 1973 and learned hand-to-hand combat before being discharged in 1975 because, he said, he had fought with an officer who had used a racial slur. In his 20s, Mr. Ho briefly joined the Nation of Islam and then the I Wor Kuen, a radical Asian-American group inspired by the Black Panthers. Like his two younger sisters, Florence Houn and Flora Houn Hoffman, he attended Harvard University, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in sociology in 1979.

His sisters and his mother, Frances Lu Houn, survive him.

Mr. Ho moved to New York in the early 1980s to pursue a career as a musician. He formed the Afro Asian Music Ensemble and became associated with other Asian-American musicians working on a newly emergent hybrid conception of jazz. They included the pianist Jon Jang and the saxophonist Francis Wong. His first records, “Tomorrow Is Now!” and “We Refuse to Be Used and Abused,” were released by the Italian jazz label Soul Note.

In 1989, Mr. Ho had his first work performed at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the bilingual opera “A Chinaman’s Chance.” He then created two ballet operas based on the Chinese novel “Monkey,” by Wu Ch’eng-en, “Journey to the West” (1990) and “Journey Beyond the West: The New Adventures of Monkey.” Both used Mandarin Chinese in their librettos, and both reimagined Monkey, a trickster figure, as a political agitator, upsetting the power structures of the gods. Mr. Ho called them “living comic books.”

Other ambitious works, many of which were recorded, were on the subjects of Chinese folklore, physical combat, domestic abuse, the black power movement and revolutionary feminism — and sometimes all of those subjects together, as in the opera “Warrior Sisters: The New Adventures of African and Asian Womyn Warriors” (1991), written with the librettist Ann T. Greene.

That work imagined a meeting of Fa Mu Lan, the Chinese fighter who was the subject of a sixth-century folk ballad; Yaa Asantewaa, who in 1900, in what is now Ghana, led the Ashanti rebellion against British colonialism; Sieh King King, a young Chinese-American woman who agitated for women’s rights in early-20th-century San Francisco; and Assata Shakur, the Black Liberation Army activist.

After learning in 2006 that he had colorectal cancer, Mr. Ho documented his fight against the illness in a book, “Diary of a Radical Cancer Warrior: Fighting Cancer and Capitalism at the Cellular Level,” followed by another, more prescriptive one, “Raw Extreme Manifesto: Change Your Body, Change Your Mind and Change the World by Spending Almost Nothing!” He wrote about his treatment in a blog, naming the doctors he mistrusted, thanking his friends and theorizing about his illness.

In “Future’s End,” a lecture from 2010 that he published at the site of the artists’ collective Commoning, he wrote that the cause of cancer is “capitalist industrialism” and “social toxicity,” and praised Luddism, his philosophical passion, as the only alternative: “The opposition to technology (any of it) that is harmful to people or to the planet.”

Even in his final years, as Mr. Ho underwent multiple operations, he was still working: on “Deadly She-Wolf Assassin at Armageddon!,” a choreographed martial-arts opera based on the 1970s manga comics of Kazuo Koike, performed for two weeks at La MaMa in May and June 2013, and on “The Sweet Science Suite,” for a 20-piece band and dancers. Dedicated to Muhammad Ali, it had its stage premiere at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in October 2013.

April 9, 2014

Arthur Smith Dies at 93; Wrote ‘Dueling Banjos’

Filed under: music,obituary — louisproyect @ 8:45 pm

It turns out that the “Dueling Banjos” composer was a gifted guitarist who influenced Les Paul. In the clip below you will see the obvious influence of Django Reinhardt.

NY Times, April 9 2014

Arthur Smith Dies at 93; Wrote ‘Dueling Banjos’

Arthur Smith, a country musician known for the hit “Guitar Boogie” and for “Feuding Banjos,” a bluegrass tune that became “Dueling Banjos” in the film “Deliverance,” died on Thursday at his home in Charlotte, N.C. He was 93.

His death was confirmed by his son Clay.

A nimble guitarist and banjo-player, Mr. Smith was a virtuoso with an approachable manner. Inspired by Broadway show tunes, the gospel tradition and jazz artists like Django Reinhardt as well as by country music, he became popular playing on Southern radio stations as a teenager.

“Guitar Boogie,” an instrumental with a deft solo released in the late 1940s, was his first major hit, recorded when he was 24 and serving in the Navy. The song, a precursor to the rock ’n’ roll of the coming decades, has been covered by musicians like Les Paul, Chuck Berry and Alvino Rey.

Mr. Smith recorded the call-and-response banjo song “Feuding Banjos” with Don Reno in 1955. Another version of it appeared as a deceptively amiable musical duel in “Deliverance,” the 1972 film starring Jon Voight and Burt Reynolds.

Mr. Smith was not credited as the writer and filed suit against Warner Brothers after a version of the song reached No. 2 on the Billboard pop chart in 1973. The studio offered a $15,000 settlement, Clay Smith said in an interview, but Mr. Smith wanted to go to trial. The judge ruled in his favor.

“He recouped all past royalties and all future royalties, and the credit was changed” to show he had written the song, Clay Smith said. He added that the song has since been used in many commercials advertising, among other things, the Mini Cooper and Mobil and Mitsubishi products.

Arthur Smith was born on April 1, 1921, in Clinton, S.C. His father, a mill worker, taught music and played in a band. Arthur grew up in Kershaw, S.C., and was playing cornet with his father’s band by the time he was 11. By 14 he had a radio show in Kershaw, and by 15 he had made his first record, for RCA Victor.

He turned down two college football scholarships and an appointment to the Naval Academy to focus on his radio work. He moved to Charlotte in the early 1940s to work for a CBS affiliate radio station, WBT, then performed with the Navy band during World War II.

From 1951 to 1982 he hosted “The Arthur Smith Show,” a syndicated television country variety show that featured guests including Johnny Cash and Roy Orbison. At its peak it was seen in 87 markets. He also wrote or collaborated on hundreds of songs, many recorded in his Charlotte studio, where James Brown recorded the 1965 funk hit “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag.”

Mr. Smith married Dorothy Byars in 1941. She and his son survive him, as does another son, Reggie; a daughter, Connie Brown; seven grandchildren; and 10 great-grandchildren.

More than a decade after “Guitar Boogie” was released, a nervous young guitarist bungled the solo during his first performance with a Liverpool group called the Quarry Men.

“When the moment came in the performance, I got sticky fingers,” Paul McCartney recalled in a documentary series whose title, “The Beatles Anthology,” bore the Quarry Men’s subsequent name.

He added, “That’s why George was brought in.”

 

April 7, 2014

Mickey Rooney, Master of Putting On a Show, Dies at 93

Filed under: Film,New Deal,obituary — louisproyect @ 12:22 pm

NY Times, April 7, 2014

Mickey Rooney, Master of Putting On a Show, Dies at 93

Mickey Rooney at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Beverly Hills, Calif. in 2012. Credit Mario Anzuoni/Reuters

Mickey Rooney, the exuberant entertainer who led a roller-coaster life — the world’s top box-office star at 19 as the irrepressible Andy Hardy, a bankrupt has-been in his 40s, a comeback kid on Broadway as he neared 60 — died on Sunday. He was 93 and lived in Westlake Village, Calif.

His death was confirmed by his son Michael Joseph Rooney.

He stood only a few inches taller than five feet, but Mr. Rooney was larger and louder than life. From the moment he toddled onto a burlesque stage at 17 months to his movie debut at 6 to his career-crowning Broadway debut in “Sugar Babies” at 59 and beyond, he did it all. He could act, sing, dance, play piano and drums, and before he was out of short pants he could cry on cue.

As Andy Hardy, growing up in the idealized fictional town of Carvel, Mr. Rooney was the most famous teenager in America from 1937 to 1944: everybody’s cheeky son or younger brother, energetic and feverishly in love with girls and cars. The 15 Hardy Family movies, in which all problems could be solved by Andy’s man-to-man talks with his father, Judge Hardy (played by Lewis Stone), earned more than $75 million — a huge sum during the Depression years, when movie tickets rarely cost more than 25 cents.

full article

I wrote this on August 8, 2000:

Babes in Arms

As you can well imagine, this recent bit of nastiness involving my free speech rights has left me feeling stressed out. So, taking a break from my usual Saturday night routine of poring through leftist journals while listening to Bel Canto opera on my stereo, I turned on the 1939 film “Babes in Arms,” starring Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland, based on the Rogers-Hart plan and directed by Busby Berkeley. This film combines Busby Berkeley’s “rags to riches” ethos and popular front sentimentality. Anybody who wants to understand the 1930s through the prism of popular culture should rent this garish little jewel without delay.

Mickey Moran (Rooney) is an adolescent songwriter and aspiring director whose vaudevillian father is unemployed. His girl friend is Patsy Barton (Garland), who likewise comes from an impoverished show business family. All of their friends are in the same boat. The film opens with Moran and Barton performing the great Rogers-Hart tune “Good Morning” to a couple of stony-faced music publishers, who are trying to make up their mind whether they will buy the song or not. When they tell the boy that they will pay $100 for it, he faints. After coming to, he rushes home to turn the check over to his desperate parents.

His parents have figured out a scheme that will solve their financial woes. They will go on the road again with an old-time vaudeville show. When the kids suggest that they be brought along as part of the act, they are turned down. Their role would be to stay at home to watch over things.

This sets in motion the basic plot of just about every Rooney-Garland vehicle. They decide to put on their own show, which will be called “Babes in Arms.” Late at night, after the youthful crew of singers and dancers have embraced Rooney and Garland’s proposal, they march down main street singing and dancing, while carrying torches. Their excitement culminates in a bon fire in a deserted square. Since this scene was shot at the same time Nazi torch-light parades were a daily occurrence in Germany, one might surmise that the film-makers were subconsciously reflecting the kind of warped sense of “volkish” optimism at work in the Third Reich. We do know that the director Frank Capra, another quintessential depression era popular front figure, was an admirer of Mussolini, who had managed to get the trains to run on time. Oddly enough, the original inspiration for Hitler’s torch-light rallies were American football pep rallies that he learned about from an aide, who had been educated at Harvard.

After the cast is assembled, Moran makes the decision to use Dody Martin (Leni Lynn), a new arrival in town, for the lead female role instead of his girl-friend. Dody is a stand-in for Shirley Temple, and a risible figure in the film. She is surrounded by a retinue of butlers and handlers. When Moran has dinner with her at her mansion, the audience sees the opulent settings from his point of view. The class differences are palpable as the boy apologizes for his squeaky shoes.

When the show debuts on an outdoor stage, we see another side of 1930s popular culture, which was unfortunately on display almost universally. The opening skit is “Oh Susannah” performed in blackface. This kind of racist “humor” was a stock element of many 1930s musicals and comedies, including those made by the leftist-leaning Marx brothers. Fortunately a rain storm comes along and forces the show to close in the middle of the “coon show.”

After a few trials and tribulations, the youthful troupe receives some funding and they present a show which provides the climax of the film. It is a rather grotesque but musically effective production number featuring Mickey Rooney as FDR and Judy Garland as his wife Eleanor. They sit on what amounts to a throne in the middle of a stage, while various characters plucked from the fabric of American society plead their case. A “hillbilly” needs to be rescued from bankruptcy. You shall receive it, says FDR. An unemployed worker demands a job. He too shall receive it. The curtain falls with flag waving and patriotic high spirits. Despite the reputation 1930s films enjoy as being socially aware, this was the extent of it far too often.

March 6, 2014

Simon Diaz and Sean Potts pass on

Filed under: music,obituary — louisproyect @ 9:39 pm

NY Times, February 25 2014

Simón Díaz, Venezuelan Folk Musician Heard Worldwide, Dies at 85

By

 Simón Díaz, one of Venezuela’s most popular singers and comedians who also earned recognition worldwide for his prowess as a player of the cuatro, a guitar-like instrument, died on Feb. 19 at his home in Caracas. He was 85.

His death was announced by his daughter, Bettsimar Díaz, who did not offer further details. In recent years he had been treated for Alzheimer’s disease.

Known as “Uncle Simón,” Mr. Díaz had been a presence in the cultural life of Venezuela and neighboring South American and Caribbean countries since the mid-1950s. He first gained attention as the host of a radio show of folk music called “The Plainsman,” whose popularity led to a recording contract and more than 50 albums and CDs in which he mixed traditional songs and original compositions.

full: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/02/25/arts/music/simon-diaz-venezuelan-folk-musician-dies-at-85.html

New York Times, March 5 2014

Sean Potts, 83, Master of the Tin Whistle and a Founder of the Chieftains, Dies

By

Sean Potts, who learned to play the tin whistle from his grandfather in the 1930s and for a time made an international career out of it as a founding member of the traditional Irish band the Chieftains, died on Feb. 11 in Dublin. He was 83.

His death was confirmed by his son Sean.

Mr. Potts was self-conscious as a boy because, unlike many of his peers, he was drawn to the old music his grandfather John would play with friends in the parlor of his house in Dublin. The grandfather, who had moved to the city from County Wexford, in southeastern Ireland, in 1891, favored tin whistles and uilleann pipes.

Sometimes, after tilling the soil of the small plot where the family grew vegetables during World War II, John Potts would play a tune, then insist that his grandson try to match him note for note.

full: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/06/arts/music/sean-potts-who-played-tin-whistle-for-the-chieftains-dies-at-83.html

February 19, 2014

Bob Casale, Guitarist in Devo, Dies at 61

Filed under: music,obituary — louisproyect @ 5:22 pm

NY Times February 19, 2014
Bob Casale, Guitarist in Devo, Dies at 61
By PETER KEEPNEWS

Bob Casale, a guitarist who was an original member of the influential rock band Devo, died on Monday. He was 61.

His death was announced by the bassist Gerald Casale, his brother and fellow band member, who said in a statement that the cause was “conditions that lead to heart failure.” He provided no further details.

Devo (the name is short for “devolution”) began in Akron, Ohio, in the early 1970s and first attracted national attention in 1977 with a frenzied version of the Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.”

The group’s first album, “Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!,” produced by Brian Eno, was released in 1978; its off-kilter rhythms, deadpan lyrics and use of electronics quickly attracted a following and had a strong influence on the music that came to be known as new wave.

The singer Mark Mothersbaugh and Gerald Casale were the band’s leaders. Mr. Mothersbaugh said in a statement on Tuesday that Bob Casale was “integral in Devo’s sound.”

The band’s popularity peaked with the 1980 album “Freedom of Choice,” which was certified platinum and contained Devo’s best-known song, “Whip It,” which reached the Billboard Top 20 and became an MTV favorite.

Devo broke up in 1991, but re-formed five years later. In 2010 the band released “Something for Everybody,” its first new album in 20 years.

Mr. Casale’s survivors include his wife, Lisa; a son, Alex; and a daughter, Samantha.

Devo’s longtime drummer Alan Myers died last year.

February 13, 2014

Sid Caesar, legendary comedian, dead at 91

Filed under: Catskills,comedy,obituary — louisproyect @ 2:57 pm

Sid Caesar died yesterday at the age of 91. The N.Y. Times obituary (http://www.nytimes.com/2014/02/13/arts/television/sid-caesar-comic-who-blazed-tv-trail-dies-at-91.html) pays tribute to his remarkable breakthroughs as a comedian that Alfred Hitchcock compared to Charlie Chaplin and who counted Albert Einstein as one of biggest fans. Speaking of Chaplin and Einstein, a couple of lefties, I can’t say I am surprised that the obit did not pay attention to Sid Caesar’s early leftist affinities. While they never were manifested in his hugely popular TV show, his evolution as a comic was definitely just as much a product of the New Deal popular culture as Pete Seeger’s.

I had pretty strong connections to Sid Caesar even though I never spoke a word to him. This is partly a function of my being a young kid when he used to show up in Woodridge, my hometown, from time to time but also a function of his intimidating presence. He used to show up at the pharmacy next to my dad’s store “strapped”—he was heavily into guns. Plus, he was a big guy who gave off “don’t bother me” vibes. As it turned out, Sid was a health food nut even if he was not above developing a spoof on the bean sprout scene.

I know for a fact that he was a health food nut because the owner of the hotel where he got his start used to call my father up to order his best fruits and vegetables for Sid. This is captured in the excerpt from my abortive memoir below, as well as the leftist connections. (Btw, if any of my enemies—you know who you are—needs wising up, I am posting the excerpt under the provisions of the Fair Use provisions of the copyright laws.)

My first reference to Sid’s leftist past that formed the basis for the comic book passage was prompted by a visit to a conference on the Catskills organized by Phil Brown, a Brown University sociologist whose parents ran a small hotel not far from my home town. The entire report is at http://www.columbia.edu/~lnp3/mydocs/jewish/borschtbelt.htm

Here’s the relevant part:

Most people know about the resort hotels and the famed Jewish comedians who got their start there, including Jerry Lewis, Danny Kaye, Rodney Dangerfield and Buddy Hackett among others. What is not so well-known is that the area was a hotbed of left-wing politics. I suppose that wherever Jews can be found there is bound to be left-wing politics, except Israel that is.

Sid Caesar got his start at the Avon Lodge about a mile from my father’s fruit store. His comedy show was the biggest thing on television in the fifties. The writing staff included Woody Allen, Neil Simon and Mel Brooks at one point. Caesar had a violent temper and during a writing session once held an errant writer outside the window of the NBC offices by his heels.

He would come to my village to do some shopping whenever he was upstate for a weekend getaway. Sid was a gun-nut and would always come to town with big revolvers in his holster and a cartridge belt fully loaded. He would spend hours at a time on the firing range at the Avon Lodge venting his rage on tin cans and bottles. When I drove my bicycle down the road near the Avon Lodge, I could always hear him shooting. Ka-boom. Ka-boom. Ka-boom.

The Avon Lodge was co-owned by the Arkins and the Neukrugs. Sid Caesar had married an Arkin. The Neukrugs were rumored to be red. I studied piano briefly with Henrietta Neukrug in 1957 and in the middle of practicing “Row-row-your-boat” one afternoon, I turned to her and asked, “Mrs. Neukrug, are you a Communist?” She glared at me and told me that I was rude. Many years later as my exploits as a globe-trotting radical became common knowledge in town, the Neukrugs decided to turn over a box of Henrietta’s mementos after she died. It included many pamphlets by William Z. Foster, WEB DuBois and Sy Gerson, etc., and a hand-painted portrait of Joseph Stalin. Her family’s gesture meant a lot more to me than the contents of the box.

Here’s the graphic version:

Pages from UnrepMarx_Page_1Pages from UnrepMarx_Page_2Pages from UnrepMarx_Page_3Pages from UnrepMarx_Page_4Pages from UnrepMarx_Page_5

February 11, 2014

Shirley Temple, tool of racism and capitalism, dead at 85

Filed under: Film,obituary — louisproyect @ 5:26 pm

I imagine that most people under 40 have no idea who Shirley Temple was but she died yesterday at the age of 85. Good riddance, I say.

Temple was a big child star in the 1930s. The rather sanitized NY Times obit refers to the films she did with Bill (Bojangles) Robinson, who was immortalized in the Jerry Jeff Walker song from 1968. Robinson, an African-American, was cast in the kind of role that Stepan Fetchit made infamous, a grinning, shuffling and deferential Uncle Tom. In real life, Robinson was nothing like his character. He was a proud and assertive Black man who after being refused service in a restaurant once asked the owner to give him a ten dollar bill for a minute, which he did. Robinson then took 5 ten-dollar bills out of his wallet and shuffled all the bills together. Which one is mine, Robinson challenged.

The worst of the Temple-Robinson collaborations was undoubtedly “The Littlest Rebel” that starred Temple as Virgie, a little girl trying to save her Confederate officer dad from the Union army. You can get a flavor of the film from this Wikipedia article:

The film opens in the ballroom of the Cary plantation on Virgie’s sixth birthday. Her slave Uncle Billy dances for her party guests, but the celebration is brought abruptly to an end when a messenger arrives with news of the assault on Fort Sumter and a declaration of war. Virgie’s father is ordered to the Armory with horse and side-arms. He becomes a scout for the Confederate Army, crossing enemy lines to gather information. On these expeditions, he sometimes briefly visits his family at their plantation behind Union lines.

One day, Colonel Morrison, a Union officer, arrives at the Cary plantation looking for Virgie‘s father. Virgie defies him, hitting him with a pebble from her slingshot and singing “Dixie”. After Morrison leaves, Cary arrives to visit his family but quickly departs when slaves warn of approaching Union troops. Led by the brutal Sgt. Dudley, the Union troops begin to loot the house. Colonel Morrison returns, puts an end to the plundering, and orders Dudley lashed. With this act, Morrison rises in Virgie’s esteem.

This scuzzy movie is online:

Turn to 05:50 for a flavor of the racism in this film.

For what it’s worth, “The Littlest Rebel” is a 20th Century Fox movie, the same studio that brought us “12 Years a Slave”. The executive most closely associated with the 20th Century Fox brand name was one Darryl Zanuck. To his credit, Zanuck was responsible for “Pinky”, a 1949 film that tackled racism in the Deep South. Of course, racial attitudes were a lot different by then.

After her film career ended, Temple married one Charles Alden Black in 1950 and became Shirley Temple Black, a figure long associated with rightwing Republican politics even though she caught flak in 1938 for sending a friendly letter to a French newspaper with CP ties. My guess is that when she was a kid, she had no idea about what was going on in the world. By the 1950s, she had wised up. Anti-Communism was a good career movie, for liberals and conservatives alike.

In 1967 Temple ran for Congress against Pete McCloskey, a staunch antiwar Republican liberal—yes, Virginia, there were such people around back then. Despite losing the race, her political future remained rosy. Nixon appointed her representative to the United Nations and later on Ford made her ambassador to Ghana.

Back in 1974, Charles Eckert wrote an article for Jump Cut—a radical film magazine—titled “Shirley Temple and the House of Rockefeller” that made the case for her films functioning as a damper against working-class militancy. I find his arguments persuasive, especially since they are formulated in terms of rejecting the “Hoover-Roosevelt” solution for economic misery:

If we add to all of this Shirley’s function as an asset to the Fox studios, her golden locks and the value of her name to the producers of Shirley Temp dolls and other products, the imagery closes in. She is subsumed to that class of objects which symbolize capitalism’s false democracy: the Comstock Lode, the Irish Sweepstakes, the legacy from a distant relative. And if we join her inestimable value with her inability to be shared we discover a deep resonance with the depression-era notion of what capital was: a vital force whose efficacy would be destroyed if it was shared. Even Shirley’s capacity for love is rendered economic by our awareness that Fox duplicated the Hoover-Roosevelt tactic of espousing compassion for anterior economic motives (specifically, by making a profit from the spectacle of compassion). And because of the unique nature of the star-centered movie industry of the thirties, Shirley was a power for monopoly control of film distribution.

February 4, 2014

The Devil and Philip Seymour Hoffman

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film,obituary — louisproyect @ 2:29 pm

Counterpunch February 04, 2014
Coming Off as Anybody

The Devil and Philip Seymour Hoffman

by LOUIS PROYECT

Most people probably had the same reaction to Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death by heroin overdose that they did to Heath Ledger’s on painkillers in the same kind of posh downtown neighborhood. Why would somebody earning millions of dollars and the adulation of countless fans ever become a drug addict, and as was the case with both superstars, an alcoholic as well? The dirty little secret of the acting profession is that many people attracted to it are compensating for deep feelings of inadequacy that no amount of money or fame can relieve. When I was an undergraduate at Bard College, I became good friends with a woman who would become a film and theater star of some magnitude but most of the time she could not shake the feeling that she was not smart as the other students. When she was on stage being applauded, that was when she felt like a human being. Of course, when you are not on stage or on the silver screen, reality has a way of bringing you down.

Hoffman earned the kind of accolades that do not usually come the way of “character actors”. Most movie stars are the sorts of prime meat in their twenties and early thirties who end up on David Letterman’s sofa talking about the cute things their pet schnauzer does and promoting their next film, an exciting tale of Navy Seals rescuing San Diego from mutant flying sharks. Wikipedia says that the earliest known use of the term character actor is from the November 9, 1883 edition of The Stage, which defined it as “one who portrays individualities and eccentricities, as opposed to the legitimate actor who [...] endeavours to create the rôle as limned by the author”.

read full article

January 28, 2014

Pete Seeger, Songwriter and Champion of Folk Music, Dies at 94

Filed under: music,obituary — louisproyect @ 4:12 pm

NY Times, January 28 2014

Pete Seeger, Songwriter and Champion of Folk Music, Dies at 94

By

 Pete Seeger, the singer, folk-song collector and songwriter who spearheaded an American folk revival and spent a long career championing folk music as both a vital heritage and a catalyst for social change, died Monday. He was 94 and lived in Beacon, N.Y.

His death was confirmed by his grandson, Kitama Cahill Jackson, who said he died of natural causes at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital.

Mr. Seeger’s career carried him from singing at labor rallies to the Top 10 to college auditoriums to folk festivals, and from a conviction for contempt of Congress (after defying the House Un-American Activities Committee in the 1950s) to performing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial at an inaugural concert for Barack Obama.

For Mr. Seeger, folk music and a sense of community were inseparable, and where he saw a community, he saw the possibility of political action.

In his hearty tenor, Mr. Seeger, a beanpole of a man who most often played 12-string guitar or five-string banjo, sang topical songs and children’s songs, humorous tunes and earnest anthems, always encouraging listeners to join in. His agenda paralleled the concerns of the American left: He sang for the labor movement in the 1940s and 1950s, for civil rights marches and anti-Vietnam War rallies in the 1960s, and for environmental and antiwar causes in the 1970s and beyond. “We Shall Overcome,” which Mr. Seeger adapted from old spirituals, became a civil rights anthem.

Mr. Seeger was a prime mover in the folk revival that transformed popular music in the 1950s. As a member of the Weavers, he sang hits including Lead Belly’s “Goodnight, Irene” — which reached No. 1 — and “If I Had a Hammer,” which he wrote with the group’s Lee Hays. Another of Mr. Seeger’s songs, “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?,” became an antiwar standard. And in 1965, the Byrds had a No. 1 hit with a folk-rock version of “Turn! Turn! Turn!,” Mr. Seeger’s setting of a passage from the Book of Ecclesiastes.

Mr. Seeger was a mentor to younger folk and topical singers in the ‘50s and ‘60s, among them Bob Dylan, Don McLean and Bernice Johnson Reagon, who founded Sweet Honey in the Rock. Decades later, Bruce Springsteen drew the songs on his 2006 album, “We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions,” from Mr. Seeger’s repertoire of traditional music about a turbulent American experience, and in 2009 he performed Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” with Mr. Seeger at the Obama inaugural. At a Madison Square Garden concert celebrating Mr. Seeger’s 90th birthday, Mr. Springsteen introduced him as “a living archive of America’s music and conscience, a testament of the power of song and culture to nudge history along.”

Although he recorded more than 100 albums, Mr. Seeger distrusted commercialism and was never comfortable with the idea of stardom. He invariably tried to use his celebrity to bring attention and contributions to the causes that moved him, or to the traditional songs he wanted to preserve.

Mr. Seeger saw himself as part of a continuing folk tradition, constantly recycling and revising music that had been honed by time.

During the McCarthy era Mr. Seeger’s political affiliations, including membership in the Communist Party in the 1940s, led to his being blacklisted and later indicted for contempt of Congress. The pressure broke up the Weavers, and Mr. Seeger disappeared from television until the late 1960s. But he never stopped recording, performing and listening to songs from ordinary people. Through the decades, his songs have become part of America’s folklore.

“My job,” he said in 2009, “is to show folks there’s a lot of good music in this world, and if used right it may help to save the planet.”

Peter Seeger was born on May 3, 1919, to Charles Seeger, a musicologist, and Constance de Clyver Edson Seeger, a concert violinist. His parents later divorced.

He began playing the ukulele while attending Avon Old Farms, a private boarding school in Connecticut. His father and his stepmother, the composer Ruth Crawford Seeger, were collecting and transcribing rural American folk music, as were folklorists like John and Alan Lomax. He heard the five-string banjo, which would become his main instrument, when his father took him to a square-dance festival in North Carolina.

Young Pete became enthralled by rural traditions. “I liked the strident vocal tone of the singers, the vigorous dancing,” he is quoted in “How Can I Keep From Singing,” a biography by David Dunaway. “The words of the songs had all the meat of life in them. Their humor had a bite, it was not trivial. Their tragedy was real, not sentimental.”

Planning to be a journalist, Mr. Seeger attended Harvard, where he founded a radical newspaper and joined the Young Communist League. After two years, he dropped out and came to New York City, where Mr. Lomax introduced him to the blues singer Huddie Ledbetter, known as Lead Belly. Mr. Lomax also helped Mr. Seeger find a job cataloging and transcribing music at the Archive of American Folk Song at the Library of Congress.

Mr. Seeger met Mr. Guthrie, a songwriter who shared his love of vernacular music and agitprop ambitions, in 1940, when they performed at a benefit concert for migrant California workers. Traveling across the United States with Mr. Guthrie, Mr. Seeger picked up some of his style and repertory. He also hitchhiked and hopped freight trains by himself, trading and learning songs.

When he returned to New York later in 1940, Mr. Seeger made his first albums. He, Millard Lampell and Mr. Hays founded the Almanac Singers, who performed union songs and, until Germany invaded the Soviet Union, antiwar songs, following the Communist Party line. Mr. Guthrie soon joined the group.

During World War II the Almanac Singers’s repertory turned to patriotic, antifascist songs, bringing them a broad audience, including a prime-time national radio spot. But the group’s earlier antiwar songs, the target of an F.B.I. investigation, came to light, and the group’s career plummeted.

Before the group completely dissolved, however, Mr. Seeger was drafted in 1942 and assigned to a unit of performers. He married Toshi-Aline Ohta while on furlough in 1943.

When he returned from the war he founded People’s Songs Inc., which published political songs and presented concerts for several years before going bankrupt. He also started his nightclub career, performing at the Village Vanguard in Greenwich Village. Mr. Seeger and Paul Robeson toured with the campaign of Henry Wallace, the Progressive Party presidential candidate, in 1948.

Mr. Seeger invested $1,700 in 17 acres of land overlooking the Hudson River in Beacon and began building a log cabin there in the late 1940s. In 1949, Mr. Seeger, Mr. Hays, Ronnie Gilbert and Fred Hellerman started working together as the Weavers. They were signed to Decca Records by Gordon Jenkins, the company’s music director and an arranger for Frank Sinatra. With Mr. Jenkins’s elaborate orchestral arrangements, the group recorded a repertoire that stretched from “If I Had a Hammer” to a South African song, “Wimoweh” (the title was Mr. Seeger’s mishearing of “Mbube,” the name of a South African hit by Solomon Linda), to an Israeli soldiers’ song, “Tzena, Tzena, Tzena,” to a cleaned-up version of Lead Belly’s “Goodnight, Irene.” Onstage, they also sang more pointed topical songs.

In 1950 and 1951 the Weavers were national stars, with hit singles and engagements at major nightclubs. Their hits included “Kisses Sweeter Than Wine” and Mr. Guthrie’s “So Long (It’s Been Good to Know Yuh),” and they sold an estimated four million singles and albums.

But “Red Channels,” an influential pamphlet listing performers with suspected Communist ties, appeared in June 1950 and listed Mr. Seeger, although by then he had quit the Communist Party. He would later criticize himself for having not left the party sooner, though he continued to describe himself as a “communist with a small ‘c.’ ”

Despite the Weavers’ commercial success, by the summer of 1951 the “Red Channels” citation and leaks from F.B.I. files had led to the cancellation of television appearances. In 1951, the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee investigated the Weavers for sedition. And in February 1952, a former member of People’s Songs testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee that three of the four Weavers were members of the Communist Party.

As engagements dried up the Weavers disbanded, though they reunited periodically in the mid-1950s. After the group recorded an advertisement for Lucky Strike cigarettes, Mr. Seeger left, citing his objection to promoting tobacco use.

Shut out of national exposure, Mr. Seeger returned primarily to solo concerts, touring college coffeehouses, churches, schools and summer camps, building an audience for folk music among young people. He started to write a long-running column for the folk-song magazine Sing Out! And he recorded prolifically for the independent Folkways label, singing everything from children’s songs to Spanish Civil War anthems.

In 1955 he was subpoenaed by the House Un-American Activities Committee, where he testified, “I feel that in my whole life I have never done anything of any conspiratorial nature.” He also stated: “I am not going to answer any questions as to my association, my philosophical or religious beliefs or my political beliefs, or how I voted in any election, or any of these private affairs. I think these are very improper questions for any American to be asked, especially under such compulsion as this.”

Mr. Seeger offered to sing the songs mentioned by the congressmen who questioned him. The committee declined.

Mr. Seeger was indicted in 1957 on 10 counts of contempt of Congress. He was convicted in 1961 and sentenced to a year in prison, but the next year an appeals court dismissed the indictment as faulty. After the indictment, Mr. Seeger’s concerts were often picketed by the John Birch Society and other rightist groups. “All those protests did was sell tickets and get me free publicity,” he later said. “The more they protested, the bigger the audiences became.”

By then, the folk revival was prospering. In 1959, Mr. Seeger was among the founders of the Newport Folk Festival. The Kingston Trio’s version of Mr. Seeger’s “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” reached the Top 40 in 1962, soon followed by Peter, Paul and Mary’s version of “If I Had a Hammer,” which rose to the Top 10.

Mr. Seeger was signed to a major label, Columbia Records, in 1961, but he remained unwelcome on network television. “Hootenanny,” an early-1960s show on ABC that capitalized on the folk revival, refused to book Mr. Seeger, causing other performers (including Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and Peter, Paul and Mary) to boycott it. “Hootenanny” eventually offered to present Mr. Seeger if he would sign a loyalty oath. He refused.

He toured the world, performing and collecting folk songs, in 1963, and returned to serenade civil rights advocates, who had made a rallying song of his “We Shall Overcome.”

Like many of Mr. Seeger’s songs, “We Shall Overcome” had convoluted traditional roots. It was based on old gospel songs, primarily “I’ll Overcome,” a hymn that striking tobacco workers had sung on a picket line in South Carolina. A slower version, “We Will Overcome,” was collected from one of the workers, Lucille Simmons, by Zilphia Horton, the musical director of the Highlander Folk School in Monteagle, Tenn., which trained union organizers.

Ms. Horton taught it to Mr. Seeger, and her version of “We Will Overcome” was published in the People’s Songs newsletter. Mr. Seeger changed “We will” to “We shall” and added verses (“We’ll walk hand in hand”). He taught it to the singers Frank Hamilton, who would join the Weavers in 1962, and Guy Carawan, who became musical director at Highlander in the ‘50s. Mr. Carawan taught the song to the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee at its founding convention.

 The song was copyrighted by Mr. Seeger, Mr. Hamilton, Mr. Carawan and Ms. Horton. “At that time we didn’t know Lucille Simmons’s name,” Mr. Seeger wrote in his 1993 autobiography, “Where Have All the Flowers Gone.” All of the song’s royalties go to the “We Shall Overcome” Fund, administered by what is now the Highlander Research and Education Center, which provides grants to African-Americans organizing in the South.

Along with many elders of the protest-song movement, Mr. Seeger felt betrayed when Bob Dylan appeared at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival with a loud electric blues band. Reports emerged that Mr. Seeger had tried to cut the power cable with an ax, but witnesses including the producer George Wein and the festival’s production manager, Joe Boyd (later a leading folk-rock record producer), said he did not go that far. (An ax was available, however. A group of prisoners had used it while singing a logging song.)

As the United States grew divided over the Vietnam War, Mr. Seeger wrote “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy,” an antiwar song with the refrain “The big fool says to push on.” He performed the song during a taping of “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” in September 1967, his return to network television, but it was cut before the show was broadcast. After the Smothers Brothers publicized the censorship, Mr. Seeger returned to perform the song for broadcast in February 1968.

During the late 1960s Mr. Seeger started an improbable project: a sailing ship that would crusade for cleaner water on the Hudson River. Between other benefit concerts he raised money to build the Clearwater, a 106-foot sloop that was launched in June 1969 with a crew of musicians. The ship became a symbol and a rallying point for antipollution efforts and education.

In May 2009, after decades of litigation and environmental activism led by Mr. Seeger’s nonprofit environmental organization, Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, General Electric began dredging sediment containing PCBs it had dumped into the Hudson. Mr. Seeger and his wife also helped organize a yearly summer folk festival named after the Clearwater.

In the ‘80s and ‘90s Mr. Seeger toured regularly with Arlo Guthrie, Woody’s son, and continued to lead singalongs and perform benefit concerts. Recognition and awards arrived. He was elected to the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1972, and in 1993 he was given a lifetime achievement Grammy Award. In 1994, President Bill Clinton handed him the National Medal of Arts, America’s highest arts honor, given by the National Endowment for the Arts. In 1999, he traveled to Cuba to receive the Order of Félix Varela, Cuba’s highest cultural award, for his “humanistic and artistic work in defense of the environment and against racism.”

In 1996, Mr. Seeger was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as an early influence. Arlo Guthrie, who paid tribute at the ceremony, mentioned that the Weavers’ hit “Goodnight, Irene” reached No. 1, only to add, “I can’t think of a single event in Pete’s life that is probably less important to him.” Mr. Seeger made no acceptance speech, but he did lead a singalong of “Goodnight, Irene,” flanked by Stevie Wonder, David Byrne and members of the Jefferson Airplane.

Mr. Seeger won Grammy Awards for best traditional folk album in 1997, for the album “Pete,” and in 2009, for the album “At 89.” He also won a Grammy in the children’s music category in 2011 for “Tomorrow’s Children.”

Mr. Seeger kept performing into the 21st century, despite a flagging voice; audiences happily sang along more loudly. He celebrated his 90th birthday, on May 3, 2009, at a Madison Square Garden concert — a benefit for Hudson River Sloop Clearwater — with Mr. Springsteen, Dave Matthews, John Mellencamp, Joan Baez, Ani DiFranco, Roger McGuinn of the Byrds, Emmylou Harris and dozens of other musicians paying tribute. In August he was back in Newport for the 50th anniversary of the Newport Folk Festival.

Mr. Seeger’s wife, Toshi, died in 2013, days before the couple’s 70th anniversary. Survivors include his son, Daniel; his daughters, Mika and Tinya; a half-sister, Peggy; and six grandchildren, including the musician Tao Rodriguez-Seeger, who performed with him at the Obama inaugural. His half-brother Mike Seeger, a folklorist and performer who founded the New Lost City Ramblers, died in 2009.

Through the years, Mr. Seeger remained determinedly optimistic. “The key to the future of the world,” he said in 1994, “is finding the optimistic stories and letting them be known.”

Emma G. Fitzsimmons contributed reporting.

 

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