Vaccination Nation

 

“What made eradication possible was a really good vaccine and political support. There was a real incentive to do it. You don’t ask a cow if it wants to be vaccinated. You just do it.”
β€” Ron DeHaven, former CEO of the American Veterinary Medical Association, speaking about the eradication of rinderpest, a cattle disease related to the measles virus.

Rinderpest and smallpox are the only two infectious diseases that have been eradicated around the world. Smallpox is the only disease to be eradicated that infects only people. Eradication of other infectious diseases, like COVID-19 for one, is unlikely because there are alternate hosts in the animal population, and while it may be feasible to vaccinate domesticated animals such as cows to the point of herd immunity, it is unrealistic to think the same can be done for wild animals.


Ruins of 19th-Century Smallpox Hospital - Roosevelt Island - New York City - USA - 01 (41147019525)
Ruins of the Smallpox Hospital built in the 19th century on Roosevelt Island in New York City. Photo by Flickr user Adam Jones.

Cows have another favorable trait in reaching herd immunity besides being easily available for their shots, which is that they don’t subscribe to bizarre, illogical, and unscientific conspiracy theories egging them on to refuse vaccinations, if that was a possibility for them. Rinderpest, like its cousin infecting humans, the measles virus, is among the most contagious diseases on the planet, and the more contagious a disease is, the higher the percentage of a susceptible population must be vaccinated in order to achieve herd immunity. For measles and rinderpest, that’s over 90 percent.

Smallpox is – was – in the middle of the scale as far as its contagious qualities, but among the deadliest at around 30 percent fatalities. Influenza, with notable exceptions throughout history, such as the 1918-19 Spanish Flu outbreak, is at the lower end of the scale for both contagiousness and deadliness. COVID-19, like the other Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) viruses to which it’s related, is higher up the scale for contagiousness than the annual flu, but it is nowhere near as deadly as smallpox, though deadliness as always is strongly affected by a victim’s socioeconomic circumstances. The poor, as always in any affliction, die in droves, while the better off have access to the best care and are less likely to be infected in the first place.

One by one through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, diseases that had killed hundreds of millions over thousands of years were brought under control with vaccines and other public health measures, such as better sanitation. There have always been people of skeptical of the effectiveness of vaccines or suspicious of the motives of the medical people, often affiliated in one way or another with a government entity, who administered the vaccines. The difference in then from now is that before about 1980 evidence of a world without vaccines was still readily available to everyone, rich and poor, living in the industrialized northern hemisphere or in the largely agricultural southern hemisphere.



In 1947, when the threat of disfigurement or death from smallpox was still very real to everyone, the citizens of New York City lined up for blocks to receive vaccinations in order to stem a possible outbreak.

 

Today, people in richer countries no longer see the effects of smallpox at all, and rarely do they see the effects of less disfiguring, less deadly diseases like measles. If COVID-19 were to leave visible scars on those who suffered and survived, instead of just the internal scars it does leave, one wonders if at least some of the people ready to dismiss the seriousness of the disease and the severity of the outbreak would be as obstinate about complying with public health measures.

If there were still children crippled by polio in every neighborhood, would there still be people who are more willing to believe an insane theory about vaccines they read in their Facebook “news” feeds than the scientific fact of once rampaging infections brought to heel in the past two hundred years? No doubt there will always be some hard cases who can’t be reached through reason, no matter what. The amount of the U.S. population vaccinated against COVID-19 is currently about 43 percent, and it needs to be over 70 percent to reach herd immunity. It will be best to cross that threshold before cold weather sets in again, forcing people back indoors. If it’s not, then COVID-19, a disease that will likely never be eradicated, only controlled, could surge once more, making this summer of relative freedom appear in retrospect like a fool’s paradise.
β€” Vita

 

Hello, Sports Fans

 

The finale of the National Football League season comes next Sunday with the Super Bowl contest between the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Kansas City Chiefs at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida, and it marks the end of a season when relatively few fans attended games in person due to coronavirus social distancing restrictions observed by the league’s teams. Attendance at this Super Bowl will be limited to 22,000 fans, in a stadium that can seat over 65,000. For hard core fans used to watching the games in person rather than on television, it must have been a peculiar season.

Crowd in Polo Grounds grandstand; Cubs at Giants - final game (baseball) LCCN2014682317
Crowd in the Polo Grounds grandstand for the final game of the 1908 baseball season, watching the visiting Chicago Cubs play the New York Giants. Library of Congress photo from Bain News Service.

 

To be at a stadium or ballpark for a game is to experience something beyond the game alone, which really can be viewed more intelligibly on a television screen or computer monitor from the comfort of home. The sports fanatic can spend hundreds of dollars for the experience, counting ticket price, parking, concessions, and other sundry expenses, and still the sports fan prefers bearing those costs instead of staying home to watch the game for free or at very little cost. One hundred years ago, there were no such contrasting choices.

At the beginning of 1921, there was no broadcast medium at all involved in bringing sporting events to the masses. In the United States, radio broadcasts of sports began later that year, with the airing of a boxing match on April 11 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and a baseball game on August 21 from Forbes Field in Pittsburgh. In both cases, the broadcasting station was KDKA in Pittsburgh. On October 8, KDKA broadcast a college football game. The first American television broadcast of sports didn’t occur until May 17, 1939, when NBC covered a college baseball game in New York City. Hard core sports fans didn’t get to listen to a sports talk radio show until New York’s WNBC started airing one in March 1964.

One hundred years ago, people either bought tickets to see sporting events or read about them the next day in a newspaper. Talking about sports was a first hand endeavor limited to friends, family, neighbors, and co-workers. Now there are several options besides buying tickets for vicariously experiencing athletic contests, and with sports talk radio and television shows and social media, there are many options for sports fans to gab on and on about their obsessions to familiars and strangers alike, both near and far.



One of the subplots from a 1995 episode of Seinfeld involving Patrick Warburton as David Puddy, the boyfriend of Elaine Benes, played by Julia Louis-Dreyfus. Michael Richards played Cosmo Kramer, and Jerry Seinfeld played a fictional version of himself.

 

Social norms of public appearance and behavior loosened after World War II and particularly in the ’60s and ’70s, resulting in sports fans changing over the 50 years from the ’30s to the ’80s from men (they were overwhelmingly men in the stands) who attended the games largely in suits and ties, to people who wore casual clothing, often comprised of the merchandised parts of their favorite team’s uniform. Some went shirtless and painted themselves in their team’s colors. In the 1950s, only little boys and some working class adults wore baseball caps regularly. Now, almost everyone wears one at least occasionally, and many of the caps bear team logos at a price. No one has to grow up anymore (or wants to), and sports merchandisers, who had very little business at all before the 1970s, are counting money in the billions each year now, even without sports fans filling the stands.
β€” Vita

 

A Twist of Peppermint

 

When Joey Dee and the Starliters had a hit with the song “Peppermint Twist” early in 1962, they were merely combining the name of a dance craze – the twist – with the name of the Peppermint Lounge in New York City, where they were headliners. The band was notable at the time for being integrated, with three white members and three black members. The lyrics of the song make no mention of peppermint candy, either of white twisted together with other colors or of anything deeper than a repeated entreaty to get out on the dance floor and gyrate, a plea few could resist when hearing the tune, forgetting for the moment the different colors of the bandmates together producing such an irresistible groove.

 

Peppermint, the flavor, has always been hard for people to resist, especially when it’s used in candies. Most peppermint candies are sold during the holidays at the end of the year, though it’s not clear why people don’t prefer peppermint’s cooling effect more in summer than in winter. Candy canes, with their indelible association with Christmas, are a big reason for the inflated sales of peppermint candies in December. Hot chocolate with peppermint schnapps for the adults is popular, while children will get a candy cane with their hot chocolate instead of schnapps. Other peppermint candies and baked treats abound over Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s celebrations.

1962 White House Christmas Tree - John and Jacqueline Kennedy 1
President John F. Kennedy and First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy introduced Christmas Tree themes in 1961 with a “Nutcracker Suite” theme from the ballet by Tchaikovsky. Ornaments included gingerbread cookies, tiny toys and packages, candy canes, and straw ornaments made by disabled or elderly craftspeople throughout the United States. White House photo by Robert Knudsen.

The peppermint plant (Mentha x piperita) contains up to 40% menthol, as opposed to less than one percent found in spearmint (Mentha spicata), and with such a high concentration of menthol there are indications that ancient peoples initially used peppermint medicinally, discovering along the way that of course the addition of sweeteners helped the medicine go down. Since menthol is a proven balm for distressing respiratory and gastrointestinal problems, it makes sense that the most popular incorporation of peppermint oil into sweets would be as a lozenge or hard candy, meant to be sucked over a long time rather than chewed quickly, which would enhance its effectiveness in relieving respiratory or gastrointestinal distress.

Piedmont Candy in Lexington, North Carolina, has been making peppermint candies since 1890, though not candy canes. They don’t use corn syrup, the ingredient which makes candy shiny, hard, and brittle.

All of which may help to explain the popularity of peppermint sweets in winter over summer. Certainly respiratory illness is more common in winter than summer because people are cooped up with each other indoors, where contagion spreads more easily. Gastric problems may be more plentiful over the holidays because of the tendency to overeat then, and to overeat rich foods particularly. A soothing, minty dessert, made with real peppermint oil instead of artificial flavor, may fit the bill in those circumstances the same as popping one of the red and white swirled peppermints, known as starlites, offered in many restaurants at the end of a meal.



Joey Dee and the Starliters perform “Peppermint Twist” on the American Bandstand television program in 1962.

 

As for the crook in one end of a candy cane, all stories aside about its possible religious significance, it was most probably put there for the purely practical purpose of making it possible to hang candy canes on Christmas trees. The same practicality most likely applies to the red and white twisted colors, along with some secular aesthetics, because they add visual interest to the candy and contrast well against Christmas greenery. Until the 20th century, peppermint candy sticks had been plain white. There is nothing inherently red about peppermint. It’s nice to imagine there may be something more profound about an object such as a candy cane than meets the eye, but really any deeper meaning can be found in eating it, not in looking at it.
β€” Vita

 

30 Years of Hate Radio and Faux News

 

There has been some buzz lately about how the country would benefit more if former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg bought Fox News rather than throwing away his money on a futile chase for the Democratic Party presidential nomination in 2020. Never minding that Fox News is not for sale, the suggestion ignores that the popularity of Fox News is bolstered by its viewers, and not imposed on them against their will. Take away the right wing slant of Fox News and its viewers will simply migrate elsewhere, perhaps to One America News (OAN).

It’s condescending to say Fox News viewers are passive recipients of brainwashing. They are being brainwashed, certainly, but they are hardly passive about it. People believe what they want to believe. The same applies to listeners of right wing hate radio programming like The Rush Limbaugh Show. In the case of radio programming, repeal of the Fairness Doctrine in 1987 helped clear the way for right wing radio shows, and it turned out there was an enthusiastic audience ready to embrace them. The Fairness Doctrine applied only to broadcast outlets, however, and not to cable television networks. Fox News did not need repeal of the Fairness Doctrine to clear the way for the debut of its “Fair and Balanced” brand of news coverage mixed with right wing opinions nine years later, in 1996.


An Illustration of The Allegory of the Cave, from Plato’s Republic
An Illustration of “The Allegory of the Cave”, from Plato’s Republic, by 4edges.

 

There is little doubt that the constant drumbeat of liberal baiting and demonization coming from the right wing media on radio and television over the past 30 years has contributed to the current state of political dysfunction and social polarization in this country. It is doubtful no dysfunction and polarization would exist had there been no such drumbeat. “Give the people what they want” has long been a truism held by media companies, one that they also perceive conveniently absolves them of responsibility for highlighting sex, violence, and outrageous behavior, shifting it onto consumers instead. CNN and other media companies gave the current president millions of dollars worth of free publicity during his 2016 election campaign, and they continue to do so today, because his outrageous behavior and pronouncements, viewed by some as coarsening public discourse and by others as “telling it like it is”, have been worth even more millions to them in increased advertising revenue from higher ratings.

Who’s rubbernecking at the dumpster fire of our current presidential administration and all the fires it has sparked downwind in the political and social life of the country? Most of us are, or at least enough of us are watching and listening to make media executives like Rupert Murdoch and Michael Bloomberg billionaires many times over. So what if Michael Bloomberg buys Fox News from Rupert Murdoch and turns it into a version of CNN, the centrist cable news outlet? We already have CNN, and it already covers dumpster fires. For right wing opinions and conspiracy theories on dumpster fires, viewers inclined to find that sort of thing entertaining, if not informative in any sense other than they themselves imagine, will seek out another dealer for their daily fix. If no dealer is available at the moment, one will soon pop up to fill the void, because there are billions of dollars at stake.



“Lover’s Return”, a song meditating on regrets, was written and first performed in 1934 by Sara Carter, Maybelle Carter, and A.P. Carter. It is sung here by the Trio of Emmylou Harris, Linda Ronstadt, and Dolly Parton on their 1999 album Trio II.

 

As in the so-called War on Drugs, our society seems always more inclined to attack the symptoms of a problem rather than the cause. We attack supply, when we should really address demand. It’s not far fetched to claim that mainlining much of right wing radio and television programming is an unhealthy addiction, one that can lead to dangerous consequences for the greater society. Some people want that junk, and as long as they do, other people will give it to them. Fox News junkies are not passive receptacles then, and while they may deserve some amount of sympathy, the best recourse for the rest of society in abating the destructive consequences of the Fox News junkies’ addiction is not to relocate their pusher, but to address the root causes of their jonesing for that junk in the first place. No one’s born that way, after all.
β€” Vita

 

A Confusion of Mums

 


How hardy are the chrysanthemums sold at nurseries, garden centers, and grocery stores in the fall? What is a Dendranthema mum? Are any of the mums used for a fall display going to survive if planted in the ground afterward? The answers are “somewhat”, “no one really knows”, and “maybe”. Welcome to the wonderful world of chrysanthemums, a flowering plant second in popularity only to the rose, and just as susceptible to hybridization and the fickleness that is often a byproduct of botanical experimentation.

 


If a gardener is concerned at all about procuring a truly hardy, perennial mum when out shopping, he or she might be better off disregarding most of the confusing nomenclature and instead following the rough rule of thumb that the more daisy-like the chrysanthemum flower, the hardier the plant. All those pom-pom and button flowered cultivars have been created by plant hybridizers who were motivated by producing what they presumed to be the showiest flowers, in profusion and in a wide range of colors. As in anything else in life, there are trade-offs, and in the case of hybridized chrysanthemums, generally known as florists’ mums, the trade-off for an abundance of puffed up flowers in nearly every color was a weakened plant that many buyers treat as a tender annual.


Reading in the garden, (15468717167)
A mass of Korean chrysanthemums in bloom in October 2014 at the Conservatory Garden of New York City’s Central Park. Photo by Flickr user David McSpadden.


Here is a plant that has a short season of bloom, typically lasting only a month, which is not bad for a perennial, but is terrible for an annual. What makes most annuals a good value for gardeners is their tendency to bloom continuously for three or more months. Plant them in a particular spot in the garden and they will fill it with color for a season. Some annuals reseed themselves, making them yet a better value. Perennials typically flower a month or two in the year, but since gardeners don’t have to buy new ones each year, they are a good long term value. Many perennials also increase themselves by various means, such as underground runners in the case of truly hardy chrysanthemums.

The florists’ mums that take over stores in the fall are a marketer’s dream plant. Firstly, they demonstrate very well the axiom that “the flower sells the plant” because they have flowers to spare when the plants are at their relatively brief peak period of bloom. Secondly, their fickle requirements for success when planted out among the other perennials in a garden ensures they are only nominally perennials and are in practice annuals, and that translates to turnover for sellers, a yearly marketing bonanza as buyers get new plants each year. Lastly, the genetic pliability of chrysanthemums rewards the efforts of plant hybridizers to produce new and unusual cultivars year after year, driving novelty in the market and the higher profits accruing to patented plants.
Chrysanthemum zawadskii1
Chrysanthemum zawadskii in Osaka, Japan. Photo by KENPEI. These are also known as Korean chrysanthemums. The confusion of names makes plant selection difficult for people, but honey bees have no difficulty choosing to visit the flat, open flowers of these truly perennial chrysanthemums, which they prefer over the often tight quarters of the flowers on florists’ mums.

For gardeners who can’t resist picking up a few florists’ mums in the fall, the good news is that they can plant them out and get more than one brief season of bloom from them if they educate themselves about the plant’s requirements and take great care with them the first winter at least. Many gardeners may decide coddling florists’ mums is not worth the trouble, and for them the most pleasing mum in their gardens will be the truly perennial chrysanthemum, and it goes by many names, most often Dendranthema. There is a confusing history to that genus name, a name which for much of the late twentieth century actually applied to all chrysanthemums. Or most of them. It’s hard to tell. Probably it’s best not to bother about it too much. The truly perennial mums can be hard to find in plant nurseries and shops, and much easier to find in old cottage gardens. They’re the waist high mounds of plants covered in masses of daisy-like flowers that honey bees love visiting.
β€” Izzy

 

Of Thee I Sing

 

Recently an Etsy entrepeneur started marketing “Make America Greta Again” caps, “Greta” being Greta Thunberg, the young Swedish climate activist who has been in the news lately after her speech at the United Nations in New York City and her participation in the Climate Strike, which she inspired with the Fridays for Future school strikes she started a year ago. The entrepeneur, Johan Hansson, claims 100 percent of the profits from cap sales will go to Greenpeace, and if that is indeed the case, then it appears his primary goal in making the caps is trolling the current president and his followers, the MAGA crowd.

 

Mr. Hansson did not think up the slogan for his caps, which has shown up on placards at climate change protests since Greta Thunberg became an internationally famous figure, but he did think to put the slogan on caps that look exactly like the original MAGA caps. The typography and colors are the same, and all Mr. Hansson had to do was switch around two letters. It’s a clever twist, and as for trolling the trolls it is bound to be effective. The question is whether that is the best way to read the science behind climate change, as Ms. Thunberg continually stresses is the driving force of her activism, or whether it is merely a satisfying way to get under the skin of MAGA people by giving them a dose of their own medicine.

2019 Austrian World Summit Climate Kirtag (47958591021)
Greta Thunberg speaks at the May 2019 Austrian World Summit Climate Kirtag (or Fair). Photo originally posted to Flickr by the Austrian Foreign Ministry. Like the enlarged image of Ms. Thunberg on the screen at the left of the stage, her influence on the climate debate has grown in the past year such that journalists and politicians have attributed the tripling of seats gained in the Austrian parliament by the Green Party in the September 2019 election to what they call “The Greta Effect”.

The problem is not the altered slogan itself, but in how the design of the new cap mimics the original so closely that even from several feet away most people would be unable to distinguish the difference. The original MAGA cap has over the course of a few years become strongly associated with hatred and hatefulness, and the wearers delight in how its appearance “owns the libs”, or trolls them. For MAGA people, that’s part of the fun of wearing the cap. Since the new cap looks exactly the original from a distance, most reasonable people, associating the wearer with hateful beliefs and often unpleasant behavior, would probably steer clear, under the assumption the wearer is a devoted follower of the current president, a hateful person who often exhibits unpleasant behavior.

 

MAKE AMERICA
GRETA AGAIN

 

Fellow MAGA travelers, on the other hand, upon companionably sidling up to the wearer of a cap with a slightly changed slogan, may not even notice the difference until the wearer gives out unexpected opinions or points out the change to them. The old trick of switching two letters in a familiar word derives its surprise from how often people will gloss over the change in their minds and never even notice it.

 

MAKE AMERICA
GRETA AGAIN

 

Trolling trolls may seem satisfying at first, but the long term result is like that of a wrestling match between a person and a pig in a muddy pen (once considered a fun event at county fairs), in which the person ends up filthy and exhausted, and the pig is happily in his or her element. The altered slogan would probably serve its ultimate, positive message of taking action against climate change better by rising above the muck where the current president and his followers wallow in hatred and hatefulness. To do that with the slogan on caps, perhaps changing the color or font or point size of “Greta” would make all the difference in signaling to friend and foe alike that the original was only a point of departure, and a lowly one at that. Maybe change colors of the cap and the typography of “Greta” entirely so that it stands apart, the way Greta Thunberg herself has demonstrated in dealing with the trolls. Nothing infuriates trolls more than not being taken seriously and having their distractions ignored as reasonable people go on about the business of taking serious action on real problems, and that can give climate activists some measure of satisfaction in denying the power of climate change deniers in MAGA caps.
β€” Izzy

MAKE EARTH
GRETAΒ AGAIN
The possibilities are endless.

 

You Don’t Have to Do This

 

Shop for a new smartphone and the choice of operating system appears limited to Apple’s iOS or Google’s Android. The choice of wireless carrier network for the new smartphone is limited to five or six companies, and while there are more than a dozen smaller carriers, they all lease their networks from the larger carriers. Mergers of technology companies and globalization of supply chains have made it difficult for consumers to entertain enough options to simultaneously suit their desires for reasonable prices, efficient service, and in the best case scenario, ethical marketplace behavior.

 

To be a large player in the technology industry, as in many other industries, it seems engaging in horrible practices is simply a necessary cost of doing business. It’s as if economies of scale and ethical behavior are mutually exclusive. Apple iPhones are manufactured under terrible labor conditions in China, and the cobalt required for manufacture of those iPhones is mined using child labor in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Google, Facebook, and Twitter all sell their users’ information to advertisers while double-dipping by generating enormous ad revenues from the wide use of their services. That’s the cost of “free” to the users. As an online retailer, Amazon’s reputation for egregious labor practices is as bad or worse than that of its major brick and mortar competitor, Walmart.

Ilhan Omar speaking at worker protest against Amazon (45406484475)
U.S. Representative Ilhan Omar (D-MN) speaking in December 2018 to about 200 workers protesting conditions at an Amazon workplace in Shakopee, Minnesota. Photo by Fibonacci Blue. Protests by workers in this country against unfair labor practices by giant companies like Amazon would get a slingshot-like boost if lawmakers would repeal the anti-union legislation passed in the last 50 years at the behest of corporations.

That is by no means a comprehensive list of all the technology companies with reputations for treating customers, workers, suppliers, or the environment badly. Just as Americans are becoming more concerned with what is in their food and how it’s produced, they can devote some time and attention to how their technology products are produced and how companies are using the personal information they hand over in the course of using their services. It may seem like there are few to no alternatives to some technology products and services, but there are alternatives, and it may require effort put into research to find out about them, and then some sacrifices as it turns out they don’t offer absolutely everything consumers are used to getting from Microsoft’s Windows operating system, for instance, or Facebook’s one-stop social media and news sharing platform.

Some people simply won’t care, of course, and will remain interested only in what’s easiest and most convenient for them. This is not for them. Others who are concerned about voting with their dollars, however, should know there are ways to find alternatives to signing on with the big technology companies, and that informing themselves doesn’t have to suck up an inordinate amount of their time and energy. Currently there is almost no labeling on technology products and services such as there is on food for sale in supermarkets, informing consumers of organic and non-GMO options, and of nutritional content. There should be similarly easily apparent labels for technology, listing ratings from an impartial source, if such is possible, on a company’s treatment of workers, suppliers, and the environment. The companies are now required by law to enumerate the ways they use customer information, but that is for the most part buried in fine print legalese that few consumers bother to read.

In episode #1938, “Theresa Syndrome”, from the radio show Car Talk, the portion of the show relevant to this post starts at the 10:45 mark with a call from Brian in Harrisonville, Kentucky. Questions of ethics come up every day in everyone’s lives, and in this case as in many others, arguments of efficiency that mask motives of self-interest are all too common.

Until the technology industry catches up with at least the halting steps the food industry has taken to inform consumers about what they are buying and what kind of ethical or unethical behavior they in turn support with their purchases, it will remain up to individual consumers to inform themselves. Globalization has made it easy to hide the ugly details of technology manufacturing halfway around the world. Out of sight, out of mind. It’s not as if things were far better 100 years ago, though, because at that time for most Americans a sweatshop on New York City’s Lower East Side was as much on the other side of the world as a sweatshop in Bangladesh is today. Speed of travel and communications have changed the seeming size of the world, but sadly not the willingness of businesses and governments to exploit the less fortunate, and of the more fortunate to turn a blind eye.
β€” Techly

Editor’s note: Bonus points to readers who note advertising on this site for the products of one of the companies criticized in this post. It’s hard, maybe impossible, to exist in the modern world without some compromises, and like everybody else, writers have to eat. With a little effort and attentiveness, people do what they can to make the world a better place, but no one is without faults, and as Joe E. Brown said at the end of the movie Some Like It Hot, “Well, nobody’s perfect.”

 

The Sound of Their Voices

 

A documentary retrospective called Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice has been making the rounds of film festivals this summer, most recently at the Toronto International Film Festival, where it was a popular offering. Linda Ronstadt came to prominence in the 1970s covering songs in a style so distinctively her own that listeners could be forgiven for thinking the songs originated with her. Her first big hit, for example, was “Different Drum”, which she recorded in 1967 with the Stone Poneys. The song was first recorded by the Greenbriar Boys in 1966, and it was written in 1965 by Michael Nesmith of the Monkees.

 

An interesting twist to the story of “Different Drum” being written by Michael Nesmith is that most of the Monkees own hit songs were written by the Brill Building songwriting team of Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart. One hit for the Monkees, “Pleasant Valley Sunday”, was written by another Brill Building songwriting team, Carole King and her husband at the time, Gerry Goffin. Those two wrote many hit songs for various artists during the 1960s, and after their divorce in 1969 Ms. King went on to a distinguished solo career singing her own songs.

CaroleKingHWOFDec2012
Carole King at the ceremony to receive her star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in December 2012. Photo by Angela George.

Her 1971 album, Tapestry, became an enormous success, enjoyed by both men and women, but it made its greatest connection with women who came of age in the 1960s, and in the 1970s were staking claims to have their voices acknowledged and heard independently of men. The female singer-songwriters of the 1970s enjoyed popular and critical success in a music industry dominated by men, and despite the obstacles, such as male promoters encouraging them to push their sexual allure ahead of their singing and songwriting talents, they persevered and became strong, independent voices.

In this 1974 episode of the television show The Midnight Special, Melissa Manchester performed “Midnight Blue”, a song she co-wrote with Carole Bayer Sager, an alumna of the Brill Building. Ms. Manchester released an album including “Midnight Blue” the following year, and the song became her first hit. It takes skill and artistry to sustain intensity and interest in a slow song, as Ms. Manchester did beautifully in this rendition.

The list of women who made indelible marks in the popular music of the 1970s is long and would inevitably leave out some names. Not all of them wrote the majority of the songs they made famous, but in the song choices they made they exhibited an independent spirit. Linda Ronstadt, for instance, as she expanded her repertoire to include the Great American Songbook, chose songs that reflected character, strength, and respect. Melissa Manchester, who learned songwriting in a course taught in the early 1970s at New York University by another Brill Building alumnus, Paul Simon, had several hits with songs she co-wrote, and has also been a song stylist like Ms. Ronstadt and has followed a similar path since the 1970s and ’80s with distinctive renditions of standards.

Carole King’s Tapestry, with its well-known cover photo of her, barefooted and wild-haired, on a window seat with her cat, started out a decade of great music from female singer-songwriters with songs that eventually became standards themselves, covered dozens of times by other artists, male and female. Incidentally, that famous cover photo was taken by Jim McCrary at Ms. King’s home in Laurel Canyon, outside Los Angeles, and in the 1970s Laurel Canyon became the locus of much musical talent, and especially singer-songwriters.

In a 1993 concert at Bushnell Hall in Hartford, Connecticut, Carole King performed “You’ve Got a Friend”, one of the several hit songs from her 1971 album, Tapestry.

The decade closed with Linda Ronstadt, another inhabitant of Laurel Canyon in the ’70s, as the most successful female rock and pop singer of the time. Singing out throughout the time in between, and whether coming from the cramped quarters of the Brill Building in New York City or the openness of sunny southern California in Laurel Canyon, were Melissa Manchester and dozens of others every bit as talented, and all with new and interesting statements to make, creating music that expressed their unique times and has lasted beyond, affirmation of their skill and artistry in giving voice to their experience.


β€” Vita


A story from a February 2019 edition of the television magazine show CBS Sunday Morning.

 

Do Your Own Thing

 

“You, who are on the road,
Must have a code
That you can live by.
And so become yourself
Because the past is just a goodbye.”
β€” Opening lyrics of “Teach Your Children”, written by Graham Nash.

Organizers of Woodstock 50 have canceled the event scheduled for this weekend that was intended to commemorate the 1969 concert on a scale commensurate with the original. There were mounting difficulties in putting together the 2019 concert, and at the end of July the organizers threw in the towel. Instead there are small scale events scheduled for the weekend that have been organized by the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts near the site of the 1969 concert, and there are also some informal events happening at the original site.


It’s just as well Woodstock 50 fell through the cracks, because these continuing reboots of past successes have become tiresome and shallow scavenging for meaning grafted Frankenstein-like onto the present, as if clinging to the past would revive only the good times. For the promoters of such events and movies and television shows like them, there is profit to be made borrowing on memories. And since people continue paying for these popular culture revivals, there is no reason for promoters and Hollywood producers to stop digging up old things, slapping a modern sheen on them, and charging admission to the public for the dubious enjoyment of reliving the old days.

Guns are not healthy for children and other living things, March For Our Lives, Washington DC
A protester holds up a sign at the March for Our Lives demonstration in Washington, D.C., in March 2018. Photo by Flickr user Lorie Shaull.

Let the past be past. “Why seek ye the living among the dead?” (Luke 24:5). Let the past be its own thing. For the important things that face everyone today and in the future, it appears children are taking the lead, while adults around them are either in denial or slogging along, many of them disheartened and looking in the wrong directions for answers. In the last couple of years, youngsters have marched in protest against legislators who drag their feet in addressing gun violence, and have struck from school and marched in protest against legislators’ unwillingness to effectively tackle climate change.

Swedish teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg is now on a sailboat crossing the Atlantic Ocean in order to attend the United Nations Climate Change Summit in New York City next month. She started striking from her school in Sweden last August, founding the Youth Strike for Climate movement, and she has attracted so much attention to the cause since then that earlier this year three Norwegian parliament members nominated her for the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize. If she wins, she would join 2014 winner Malala Yousafzai of Pakistan as the second teenage activist to win the Prize.


Greta Thunberg 4
Greta Thunberg with her sign outside the Swedish parliament building in August 2018. The sign reads “School Strike for Climate”. Photo by Anders Hellberg.

More importantly, she will gain international validation for the cause, an essential step in repudiating and ultimately sidelining the hateful antagonism of skeevy jackasses such as British businessman Arron Banks, who tweeted to Ms. Thunberg as she set off on her Atlantic cruise “Freak yachting accidents do happen in August.” He later claimed his vile suggestion was “a joke.” Ha ha. It was a joke like the 2016 campaign trail hint from the skeevy jackass now occupying the Oval Office was a joke when he floated the idea of “Second Amendment people” assassinating his Democratic Party rival. Ha ha.

Make no mistake about it – when Greta Thunberg arrives in this country, the Oval Office Blowhard will heap scorn, derision, and personal insults on her simply for defying the power of entrenched interests in the fossil fuel industry, and his morally bankrupt cult followers will cheer him on because he will frame his invective as salvos in another battlefront of the culture war against politically correct liberals. Never mind that she is a mere child. Never mind that what she has taken upon herself is simply bringing to everyone’s belated attention the scientific fact that our house is on fire and we have to do something about dousing the flames now, not stand around arguing about it as the fire engulfs us. For bearing that unwelcome news, they will heap abuse upon her, and not reflect for even a moment on what they are teaching the children of the world.
β€” Vita


Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young performed at Woodstock in 1969, but “Teach Your Children” was not in their set list even though Graham Nash had written the song earlier, while he was still part of the British group, The Hollies. Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young included the song on their 1970 album DΓ©jΓ  Vu. Here the San Francisco Community Music Center Children’s Chorus sings the song for Mr. Nash and attendees at a Climate One conference in 2013.

 

There Are No Easy Answers

 

Today is the 30th anniversary of the release of Spike Lee’s 1989 film Do the Right Thing, first shown at the Cannes Film Festival in France. May 19 is also the birth date of Malcolm X, whose posthumous influence on the film Mr. Lee acknowledges with a quote from him at the end, along with a quote from Martin Luther King Jr.. The quotes are about non-violent resistance to oppression (the Rev. King) and the occasional need for violence in self defense against oppressors (Malcolm X). As throughout the rest of the movie, Mr. Lee makes no judgements, but merely puts those ideas out there for the audience to consider. Do the Right Thing provokes thought; it does not provide answers, and 30 years later the state of race relations in America has hardly budged from what Mr. Lee portrayed in the film.

 

The film did not win the highest prize at Cannes, the Palme d’Or, though it was nominated. It was not nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars, and the film that won the honor for 1989 was Driving Miss Daisy, a good film about race relations but a safe one for Hollywood, and a film that in the years since has receded in importance in the rear view mirror. Nearly 30 years later, Spike Lee’s film BlacKkKlansman was nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars but lost to another safe film about race relations, Green Book. Both Driving Miss Daisy and Green Book are films produced by largely white filmmakers for consumption by a largely white audience, and are meant to comfort white liberals without unduly upsetting white conservatives. That each received Hollywood’s highest honor is a testament to the institution’s eagerness to pat itself on the back for occasionally making a social message movie without rocking too many boats.

MartinLutherKingMalcolmX
Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X waiting for a press conference to begin in March 1964. Photo by Marion S. Trikosko for U.S. News & World Report, now in a collection at the Library of Congress.

What’s missing in that equation, of course, are African-Americans. In contrast, Spike Lee has made films for everybody, and Do the Right Thing was groundbreaking in that respect. All the characters he portrays are well rounded, with good and bad aspects to all of them. As the late film critic Roger Ebert noted, there are no heroes or villains that we can easily hang labels on. Those portrayals are more true to life than the safe, near-stereotypes portrayed in Driving Miss Daisy and Green Book. The complexity can also leave some viewers uneasy, since they desire the satisfaction of stories that follow a familiar arc leading to either a comforting conclusion or one that at least ties up some loose ends of the story. Do the Right Thing provides none of that. It is a wonder a major Hollywood studio, Universal, backed the film financially and distributed it widely. That it was popular with the public and, eventually, with most critics despite its unconventionality in style and substance is a testament to how well crafted it was by Mr. Lee and his cast and crew.

Ossie Davis as Da Mayor has a confrontation with some youths on the street in Do the Right Thing. Warning: foul language.

30 years later Do the Right Thing stays with people who view it now for the first time as much as it did with people who saw it then, prompting the same questions in their minds. A few years before Mr. Lee made the film, there was the racially charged incident at Howard Beach in the New York City borough of Queens, an incident which informed the events in Do the Right Thing. Two years after the movie came out, there was the police beating of Rodney King in Los Angeles, and despite the incident being filmed by a bystander, showing the excessive use of force by the police, the cops were subsequently cleared in court, leading to riots in black neighborhoods. There has been no end of ugly, often fatal, incidents in America like those portrayed in the movie, and they just keep coming, like waves pounding the shore. The observations Spike Lee made in Do the Right Thing about race relations in America are still relevant today; the question remains – is anybody listening well enough to change things?
β€” Vita

“I just want to say – you know – can we all get along? Can we, can we get along? Can we stop making it horrible for the older people and the kids?”
β€” Rodney King, speaking on television in relation to the riots in Los Angeles on May 1, 1992, after a jury acquitted the police who beat him the year before.

 

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