Thursday, December 23, 2010

Sunday, December 19, 2010



There was a whispering in my hearth,
A sigh of the coal,
Grown wistful of a former earth
It might recall.

I listened for a tale of leaves
And smothered ferns,
Frond-forests, and the low sly lives
Before the fauns.

My fire might show steam-phantoms simmer
From Time's old cauldron,
Before the birds made nests in summer,
Or men had children.

But the coals were murmuring of their mine,
And moans down there
Of boys that slept wry sleep, and men
Writhing for air.

And I saw white bones in the cinder-shard,
Bones without number.
Many the muscled bodies charred,
And few remember.

I thought of all that worked dark pits
Of war, and died
Digging the rock where Death reputes
Peace lies indeed.

Comforted years will sit soft-chaired,
In rooms of amber;
The years will stretch their hands, well-cheered
By our life's ember;

The centuries will burn rich loads
With which we groaned,
Whose warmth shall lull their dreaming lids,
While songs are crooned;
But they will not dream of us poor lads,
Left in the ground.

Photograph by Lewis Hine

Photograph by Ben Shahn

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Far, Far Beneath

I've always been fascinated by sea monsters. The giant squid in particular is a creature that represents the intersection of myth and reality, where the tall tales of sailors proved based in truth. The image of a tentacled behemoth--a kraken--has fascinated artists and writers for millennia, but not until recent times have scientists finally been able to begin to illuminate this entity previously consigned the deepest depths of fantasy, science fiction and cryptozoological speculation. Even as we begin to understand the great beast as a living, breathing creature, it still maintains its allure as a manifestation of the darkest reaches of the human psyche.

Illustration source: Somefield.

"The Kraken" by Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Below the thunders of the upper deep,
Far, far beneath in the abysmal sea,
His ancient, dreamless, uninvaded sleep
The Kraken sleepeth: faintest sunlights flee
About his shadowy sides; above him swell
Huge sponges of millennial growth and height;
And far away into the sickly light,
From many a wondrous grot and secret cell
Unnumbered and enormous polypi
Winnow with giant arms the slumbering green.
There hath he lain for ages, and will lie
Battening upon huge sea worms in his sleep,
Until the latter fire shall heat the deep;
Then once by man and angels to be seen,
In roaring he shall rise and on the surface die.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Soldier as Child

A parent's memorial to a teenage son killed in the last days of the U.S. Civil War. The childhood tintype of a soldier named Carl is accompanied by a lock of his hair and a note which quotes from Shakespeare's Hamlet:

"My beloved son Carl taken from me on April 1, 1865, at age 18, killed at Dinwiddie. Flights of angels sing thee to thy rest."

Source: Liljenquist Family Collection, Library of Congress.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

With an Identity Disc

(Note: "Identity disc" refers to the British equivalent of the U.S. "dog tag" worn to identify a soldier in the case of his death)


If ever I had dreamed of my dead name
High in the heart of London, unsurpassed
By Time for ever, and the Fugitive, Fame,
There taking a long sanctuary at last,

I better that; and recollect with shame
How once I longed to hide it from life's heats
Under those holy cypresses, the same
That keep in shade the quiet place of Keats.

Now, rather, thank I God there is no risk
Of gravers scoring it with florid screed,
But let my death be memoried on this disc.
Wear it, sweet friend. Inscribe no date nor deed.
But let thy heart-beat kiss it night and day,
Until the name grow vague and wear away.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

United We Stand

"United We Stand. Divided We Fall."

Portrait of Civil War veterans Frank M. Howe and Velorus W. Bruce, 1865-1866. Howe was a member of the 20th Michigan Infantry whose leg was amputated due a wound he received in the Petersburg Campaign. Bruce was in the 17th Michigan and wounded at Campbell's Station, Tennessee. Source: Archives of Michigan.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Pretty Saro

"Pretty Saro" is an old ballad first documented in 1911 in the Appalachian Mountains of North Carolina by folk music collector John Lomax. It is likely much older, though its exact provenance is up for speculation. Here are two versions. The first is a modern rendition by Sam Amidon (video by Jeremy Blatter). The second is a great example of the traditional unaccompanied ballad style. Cass Wallin performs it on a porch in the Burton Cove, Sodom Laurel, North Carolina in 1982.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Let Me Fall

"If I get drunk, if I get drunk,
just let me fall, little darling, on the ground..."

"Let Me Fall," performed by Tommy Jarrell and company at the Peach Pie Festival, Mount Airy, North Carolina. Recorded by Alan Lomax and crew, July 1983. More videos from the American Patchwork fieldwork and info about Alan Lomax and his collections at

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Newark Athlete - 1891

A Thomas Edison Kinetoscope film recorded in 1891.

Monday, November 1, 2010

A Smoke and a Wiggle with Mark Twain


A colorized "wiggle animation" from Clicksy Pics. Clicksy creates these images by layering the two sides of a stereo card into an animated gif. They've recently begun adding color to the images, and in this portrait of Mark Twain, they've even added blinking eyes and rising smoke. The resulting looped animation is surreal. Is Twain shaking his head in disapproval, is he dancing, or do I just keep switching eyes?

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Pretty Polly

A little creepiness for Halloween. An animated video by Jonas Tarestad based on Dock Boggs awesomely unsettling (unsettlingly awesome?) 1927 rendition of the old murder ballad "Pretty Polly." Before the true crime novel--and long before Law & Order--America got its murder fix from ballads. Weird.

Lingering Faces

A private collector of U.S. Civil War-related photographs recently donated his collection of nearly 700 portraits of soldiers and sailors to the Library of Congress. The Liljenquist Family Collection is the largest collection of its kind the organization has received in years. The LOC has made most of them available online in its Prints and Photographs Reading Room and is planning to release the rest in the coming weeks. It's a haunting gallery of faces, many of which are quite young.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Photographs of Life in Kentucky in the 1960s and 1970s by William Gedney

Photographer William Gedney recorded these moments in the lives of Kentucky mining families in 1964 and 1972. These images are from the Duke University Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library, which provides the following description:

William Gedney made two trips to eastern Kentucky. In the summer of 1964, he traveled to the Blue Diamond Mining Camp in Leatherwood, Kentucky and stayed for awhile at the home of Boyd Couch, head of the local United Mine Workers Union. Then Gedney met Willie Cornett, who was recently laid off from the mines, his wife Vivian, and their twelve children. He soon moved in with the Cornett family, staying with them for eleven days. Twenty-two of the photographs from Gedney's 1964 visit to Kentucky were included in his one-man exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York (December 1968 through March 1969). Gedney corresponded with the Cornetts over many years, and finally returned to Kentucky to visit and photograph the family again in 1972. In his notebooks Gedney writes about these lives he witnessed and photographed, the complicated relationships within such large families, the importance of the automobile. Gedney made notes about a creating a book dummy of the Kentucky work, but no completed dummy exists in the archive. With the exception of one image, the Kentucky photographs were never published during William Gedney's lifetime.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

R.I.P. Tuli Kupferberg

Tuli Kupferberg, a founding member of the Fugs, beat poet, punk prophet, and "world's oldest rockstar" died on July 12 at the age of 86.

I was fortunate enough to see a Fugs reunion show back in 2004. I was so moved that I wrote a review about it, which is kind of embarrassing to read now, but I'm going to share it anyway. I was corresponding with author (and Eclectica reviews editor) Kevin McGowin at the time, and he said he'd help me edit it and would consider for publication in his zine. After McGowin's tragic death that January, I tucked the review away in the far recesses of my "Documents" folder and hadn't looked at it until now. Anyway, here it is:

Enduring the “Torturous Twists of Time”
An Evening with the Fugs

Before I say anything else, I have a confession to make: I love America. There, I said it. It hasn’t been easy for me these days, but dammit, I love America.

Like many members of my generation, certain recent events and a certain current political regime left me feeling outraged, alienated, and sometimes even utterly helpless. My musical tastes have followed accordingly—I’m once again in a punk rock phase. It seems blaring the Dead Kennedys out the windows of my Volvo is usually enough to both nourish and sooth my angst. My renewed interest in the genre led me to stumble across a band that ironically rekindled in me a new patriotism, of sorts.

Several months ago, I read Steven Taylor’s memoir, False Prophet: Field Notes from the Punk Underground. In it, Taylor discusses the punk phenomenon from an ethnomusicological perspective, drawing on his experiences as a guitarist with the hardcore punk band False Prophets. In an overview of punk’s origins in the US, Taylor credits a rather colorful, albeit obscure band, the Fugs, with having been a significant influence on the precursors to punk. Started by poets Ed Sanders and Tuli Kupferberg on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in 1965, the Fugs combined rock n’ roll with the beatnik building blocks of radical politics and, of course, poetry. What resulted was an early form of art-rock which Taylor contends laid the foundation for the birth of punk over the next decade. My imagination tickled, I turned to the internet to tell me more.

Lo—the Fugs still existed, with (surprise surprise) Steve Taylor as their current guitarist. I’ll admit, this made me a little skeptical, but I was still curious. In a happy coincidence, I found that in a week they were playing the Knitting Factory, just a hop, skip, and a train ride away. I mentioned the show to my father, whose face immediately lit up.

“The Fugs? They still exist?” Although it’s difficult to see it now, my father was a hippie in college, back when the Vietnam War was in full swing. The pictures of him during this time never cease to astonish me—the man looked like Jesus and wore a peace sign as big as my fist. Now he’s a Reagan-convert, as clean cut as can be, working at an investment banking firm in Manhattan. Despite his current guise, at the mere mention of the Fugs a spark of nostalgia appeared in my father’s eyes so bright I knew what had to be done.

“Want to see them one more time?”

“I’ll meet you there.” Excellent, I thought, this will be nothing if not interesting.

Like any great venue for underground music, the Knitting Factory is, put simply, a shithole. Now this is perfect for me—I mean, with two-dollar PBRs, freaky people, and cheap live music, this place was heaven. The club is used to a young crowd, so it was quite a spectacle to see an audience of people who were mostly in their fifties or over, well past their partying days. Actually, I suppose a few of them looked as if they were still partying as hard as ever, but I digress. Certainly, the majority of these aged hippies and beatniks had been laying low for a while. “Where are the seats?” I overheard one woman ask an amused bouncer. “You mean we’re supposed to stand here the whole time?”

What followed was one of the most bizarre performances I’ve ever witnessed. Ed Sanders looked like an old professor and was just as fond of lecturing about relevant political issues. This was not, of course, without a sense of humor. A sense of self-awareness over their own preposterousness pervaded the Fugs’ entire performance. The band and their audience remembered the battles of the past with a certain pride mixed with incredulity over the memory of their rebellious generation’s triumphs and ordeals. They had once stood with open umbrellas to face a tidal wave, and now the Fugs were singing the old hymns with a new twist. When Sanders started an “impeach George Bush” chant, I could not help but chuckle at its obvious futility, yet I came to be moved by the band’s ability to revive the unapologetically idealistic spirit of American rebel rock.

Tuli Kupferberg received the most emphatic response from the audience. “Tuli! Tuli!” they chanted in between songs. This was not surprising, nor was it undeserved—the man is eighty years old and still going strong. Kupferberg reminded me of an old billy goat, thin and wrinkled, a natty little goatee hanging from his chin. His most hilarious performance was “Septuagenarian in Love,” set to the tune of Dion and the Belmonts’ “A Teenager in Love.” With a gruff voice like Jewish grandfather, he delivered delightfully childish lines like “If you should say ‘fuck off!’ today / I would still whack off to you.” The crowd was rolling. Kupferberg smiled, flexing a flabby bicep.

Other crowd-pleasing songs included “Slum Goddess,” “Kill for Peace,” and a rousing sing-along of a Mel Brooks classic. The crowd seemed to have mixed reactions to the Fugs’ slower, humorless adaptations of classic poems by Emily Dickinson and William Blake. The last few numbers were all mellow poetry tunes, and after each one, the fans would scream out requests for their favorite comical ditties. A man near me kept on shouting for a song called “Boobs-A-Lot.” When the last piece turned out to be another Blake poem, I thought I would surely see some of the worn-out old folks heading for the door. Instead, I was awed to see the bearded silhouette of the “Boobs-A-Lot” guy swaying in the dim light of the Knitting Factory, his whiskers bouncing as he sung along. In fact, I did not see anyone leave or even seem disappointed that some of their requests had not been met. What I did see was a small mob of aged hippies and a smattering of young punks and indie kids grooving together to a simple melody that was neither apologetic nor pretentious. It was music, pure and simple.

To be sure, the show was wrought with obvious mistakes. The band clearly had not rehearsed much, but their clumsiness actually added to their charm. A lot of bands like to brag about sincerity, inclusiveness, and their ability to “make the crowd part of the act.” This was truer for the Fugs than any other band I’ve seen. The show I saw was less a concert than an overall experience, albeit a bizarre one. The band’s childlike playfulness, coupled with a political idealism that would seem anachronistic to some, left me with a sensation I had not felt in a very long time: hope. The spirit of rebellion the Fugs captured in their performance is one that is as absurd, varied, and paradoxical as the American Left has been throughout its history. I could see why art-rockers, beats, hippies, and punks could all find inspiration from this band. As for me, I felt that I had caught a fleeting glimpse at the sort of revolution my father had been a part of in his earlier years and I felt that my generation could rekindle that passion and build upon it. My country was starting to seem less dismal again.
After the show, my father headed for home and I made for the Knitting Factory’s bar with a couple friends. Upon seeing Steven Taylor walk past the door, I bolted out after him.

“Dr. Taylor, you were awesome out there,” I said, shaking his hand. “Would you like to take a shot of tequila with me and my friends?” At the word “tequila,” he stopped in his tracks, his eyes widening. He considered it for a moment.

“Tequila? You know what…thank you but I better not. I really should help the band pack up.”

“Fair enough,” I said. “God bless you.” God bless you? Is that an appropriate thing to say to the guitarist for the Fugs? Sure, I’d had a few, but since when did a few beers turn me into Tiny fucking Tim? While I still cannot offer a reasonable explanation, I will say this: as the night progressed, I found myself blessing everyone. I mean, I blessed the boys I drank tequila with, I blessed the bartender who served it to us, the people outside who eyed my friend’s hand-rolled cigarettes with a mixture of suspicion and jealousy, and the cabby who ferried our asses back to Grand Central. Shit, I probably blessed the train.

So God bless you too, dear reader, and God bless the Fugs, Ed, Tuli, Toby, Steve, and Scott, and God bless my father and all the aging hippies, beatniks, punks, new-agers, and the young people like myself who came to absorb their insanity. God bless us, everyone.

And dare I say it—God bless America?

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Photo of Slave Children Found in NC Attic

Just stumbled across this incredible image, which, according to historians, was likely taken by photographer Timothy O'Sullivan in the early 1860s. Here's a link to the original AP story.

Monday, May 31, 2010

A soldier mourns a fallen comrade before the ruins of Richmond, Virginia. Belle Isle, April 1865. Source: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, LC-B815-890.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

A Sight in Camp

Source: Library of Congress

Tomorrow is Memorial Day. There are many things I'd like to write. Not sure I can. For now, I'll let Walt Whitman do the talking. "A Sight in Camp in the Daybreak Gray and Dim" is a poem from Whitman's Drum-Taps, a collection of Civil War poetry originally published in May of 1865 and also enshrined within his voluminous Leaves of Grass.


A SIGHT in camp in the daybreak gray and dim,
As from my tent I emerge so early sleepless,
As slow I walk in the cool fresh air the path near by the hospital
Three forms I see on stretchers lying, brought out there untended
Over each the blanket spread, ample brownish woolen blanket,
Gray and heavy blanket, folding, covering all.

Curious I halt and silent stand,
Then with light fingers I from the face of the nearest the first just
lift the blanket;
Who are you elderly man so gaunt and grim, with well-gray'd
hair, and flesh all sunken about the eyes?
Who are you my dear comrade?

Then to the second I step—and who are you my child and
Who are you sweet boy with cheeks yet blooming?

Then to the third—a face nor child nor old, very calm, as of
beautiful yellow-white ivory;
Young man I think I know you—I think this face is the face
of the Christ himself,
Dead and divine and brother of all, and here again he lies.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

For the History-Obsessed

I've been obsessed with the Civil War since I was a little kid. Why? I've come up with various theories at various points, but the simple truth is, I have no idea. There was no life-changing event that I recall, nor did I have any friends, elementary school teachers, or family members who were likewise fixated on this period of American history. I don't even have an ancestor (as far as I know) who participated in the Civil War. So why the obsession?

I have no theories; I've given up on theories. I'd love to hear from fellow history buffs--why is the past so compelling to you? For many of our peers, our preoccupation with history seems nerdy at best, outright weird and alienating at worst. But how many among us have heard a hoarse, whispered voice where there was no mouth to utter, or, one way or another, felt the touch of a vanished hand?

Don't get me wrong, there is no place I'd rather be than right here, and there's no time in which I'd rather be than right now (no, but at the same time I understand those who feel drawn to the past through some sort of escapist mentality. America's current culture seems to waver between a soulless, consumerist mass media-driven plastic made-in-China flag-waving (phew...) and just plain self-hate. At the same time, we've progressed beyond centuries of bigotry and exploitation, though of course we have a hell of a long way to go.

What is my point? Well, I don't really have one. Though I was a history major, I always felt extremely uncomfortable with the idea of creating and defending a thesis. Regardless of what position I chose, I always felt part liar. Which I think is why I'm so attracting to poetry and the arts in general--I love paradox.

In other news, the U.S. House of Representatives today passed a bill that will repeal the military's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy which bans openly queer men and women from serving in the nation's armed forces. The measure still needs to be passed by the Senate and be approved by a military study group, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Mike Mullen, and President Barack Obama. Still, it represents a significant moment in our nation's history as a major step towards the open admission of gay, lesbian, and bisexual citizens into the armed forces. Since queer men and women have been serving in the military since before there was even any concept of "sexual orientation," it's about damn time. Though I will generally try avoid discussing present-day politics on this blog, this is an issue about which I cannot hold my tongue. Peace.

U.S. Sailors, 1944. Charles Fenno Jacobs. Source: National Archives.

Charlie Poole & The North Carolina Ramblers - "Ramblin' Blues" (1928)

And Waves Wash the Imprints Off the Sand

Richmond, Virginia, April 1865. Source: Library of Congress.

Hobart Smith - "Wabash Blues"