Let's cut to the chase on Ken Burns's Jazz, which rolled out on PBS January 8, by invoking Wallace Stevens.
1) Is it entertaining TV? Mostly, in PBS fashion.
2) Does it leave out people and places and whole periods and genres
normally considered vital parts of jazz history? Yes.
3) Does it need more editing? Yes.
4) Does Louis Armstrong claim 40 percent of its nineteen hours? Yes.
5) Does post-1960s jazz claim 10 percent? Yes.
6) Does it tell an informed and informative story? Usually.
7) Does it identify the 500-odd pieces of jazz that serve as its soundtrack? Rarely.
8) Does it have rare and evocative pictures and film footage? Absolutely.
9) Is it good history? It's made-for-PBS history.
10) Will it satisfy jazz fans and musicians and critics? Seems like it already hasn't, and it hasn't even aired yet.
11) Will it save the jazz industry? That depends: CDs labeled Ken Burns's Jazz are bullish.
12) Will it make jazz a part of mainstream American culture again? Not likely, but it may help make it an official part of American popular history.
13) Is it part of the transition jazz has been making for three decades into the academic world? You bet.
Now let's dolly back and try to tell the story.
The numbers have to come first. The ten-episode, nineteen-hour series was six years in the making, and it sprawls: seventy-five talking heads, thousands of still photos and pieces of film, some 500 pieces of music and so on. Costing some $13 million, about a third of it from General Motors, it's the biggest documentary that's been done about jazz.
And yet a lot of jazz musicians and critics and fans, in print and on the web, have been complaining that it's too constrictive. It's easy to see why. It's certainly not comprehensive. For Burns and collaborator Geoffrey Ward, history unfolds in the textures of individual lives. (Ward won the Francis Parkman prize for A First-Class Temperament, one volume of his biography of FDR.) Jazz for them is the story of a few great men (and the odd woman) who changed the way Americans, then the world, hear and think and act. Chief among them: Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington. There are places of honor for the likes of James Reese Europe and Jelly Roll Morton, Sidney Bechet and Bix Beiderbecke, Benny Goodman and Count Basie, Artie Shaw and Charlie Parker, Miles Davis and Dave Brubeck. This sort of survey is easier to sustain until about 1929, because jazz musicians were few (though not as few or as limited to New Orleans, Chicago and New York as the series implies). But Burns & Co. can tell a credible story of jazz's first decades using a handful of pioneers.
One reason for the noise is that this overlaps the story of jazz according to the Jazz at Lincoln Center program, a flashpoint in the jazz world. JALC teaches that jazz is a clear-cut genealogy of a few outstanding figures, and it excludes many important artists, especially after 1960, often for ideological reasons. The basic plot for both: Taking its building blocks from slave music, marching bands, blues, the church, European dance and classical music, jazz began life as a mongrel in New Orleans, came up the river to Chicago, met up (via Armstrong) with New York proto-swing bands and Harlem stride pianists and exploded, drawing young white players into a black-developed music. This is true enough, though it ultimately means ignoring uncomfortable parallel developments (Red Allen and Armstrong) or scenes (between-the-wars LA jazz) or entire genres (Latin jazz, European jazz). But schematic history can be good TV, and Burns, like earlier PBS filmmaker Frederick Wiseman, makes long, long movies that depend on strong, heavily delineated characters and themes to keep them from dissipating.
His story's heart is Armstrong. Its head is Ellington. And its soul is the Jazz Age and the Swing Era.
In episode five, "Swing: Pure Pleasure (1935-1937)," writer Albert Murray declares, "Jazz is primarily dance music." Though that hasn't been true for nearly half the music's history, it's clear he's speaking for Burns: Three episodes, nearly six hours, discuss the big-band era, when jazz underpinned popular music, lifted Depression-era spirits, saved the record industry and dominated that new omnipresent technology, radio. Nevertheless, as the often-intrusive talking heads tell us, from Ellington on down the musicians knew the difference between the business and the music; stage shtick and chart slots were as important then as now. This is a bittersweet Golden Age of speakeasies, hoods, the Great Depression, squealing bobby-soxers, lynchings, jitterbugging, novelty tunes and early moves toward racial integration. It is described as a time of "adult sensibility" and is the series' gravitational center.
The great-man schematic creates escalating difficulty for the plotting starting with episode seven, which begins with Charlie Parker and spends nearly as much time on Satchmo as it does on bebop. By the mid-1940s, the musicians had multiplied and moved on--out of Harlem and swing time. And so jazz dissolves into hundreds of musicians searching for different sounds, styles, approaches, languages, multimedia formats. The last forty years of Jazz are a choppy and unreliable ride; a lot disappears, and what's left can be telegraphic or confusing and look exactly like JALC speaking.
Burns says post-1960s jazz is too controversial even in the jazz world to be history. Maybe he should have ended, then, with John Coltrane; Baseball, after all, stopped at 1970. For in less than two hours, faces from Charles Mingus's to Sonny Rollins's flash across the screen between inevitable reprises of Duke and Satchmo. Miles Davis's push into fusion shrinks to his alleged desperation for teen fans. Ornette Coleman is dismissed. Keith Jarrett and Chick Corea don't appear. The 1970s and 1980s are a quick-blur artistic wilderness until the arrival of Wynton Marsalis, artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center and the film's senior creative consultant and prime talking head. And there, after a brief survey of new stars (Cassandra Wilson, Joshua Redman) and a recapitulation of key figures and themes, it ends.
The signal irony: If Burns had cut the final episode and billed this as Jazz: The First 50 Years, more of the discussion might be where it belongs--on the movie.
Until pretty recently nobody thought enough of jazz to point a movie camera in its general direction for very long. There are snatches of footage of Armstrong, Ellington, Fats Waller, Bessie Smith and the like from the early days. By the mid-1930s the popular swing bands cropped up in films and then in "soundies." But the video record of what fans like to call America's greatest art form is sporadic and discouraging.
This problem plays to Burns's strengths: He loves having his staff dig up old photos (for this, they turned up millions), and he loves working stills to make them kinetic. He pans across and slowly zooms in and out of a single shot to give it a movielike temporal depth. In one vignette about Harlem's Savoy Ballroom, where drummer Chick Webb held court and introduced Ella Fitzgerald in the 1930s, Burns intercuts shots of separate white and black dancers to hammer home the voiceover's point about its integrated patrons--a first in America. He assembles a deft mix of photos and film to re-create the stage-fright-to-triumph of Benny Goodman's 1938 "Sing Sing Sing" concert at Carnegie Hall.
The series boasts tours de force. The evocative segment called "The Road" strings out a head-turning daisy chain of wondrous footage: bands on trains and buses and touring cars, chugging 500 miles a day, six days a week, making whoopee and changing tires, riding high onstage and coping with breakdowns and prejudice offstage. The recently deceased bass and photography great Milt Hinton recalls how at band stops his wife would head into town to look for black homes where the musicians could eat and stay, how musicians were people of prestige in the community. Readings from journals and newspapers and diaries sample big-band life's dizzying ups and downs, while the film rolls from impromptu baseball games to a couple of female jazz fans puffing fake reefers while hugging the sign of a town named Gage.
And in the background rolls out more jazz by far than 99 percent of America has heard. Much of the time, it's as snippets in the background when one after another talking head pops up. The heads are duly identified time after time. The tunes aren't, unless they're keyed to a biographical or sociological set piece. Why not flash a subtitle to tell the audience what's playing?
Because jazz is the soundtrack for this series as much as or more than it is its subject. To put it another way, this isn't really a movie about jazz history. Think of Burns as PBS's Oliver Stone. Like the Civil War and baseball, jazz for Burns and Ward is a lens to focus on basic questions: Who are Americans, and how do they manage to get along--or not? And their central query concerns race.
So they film jazz as the tale of black redemption in and of America, a narrative of conversion and triumph whose shape recalls St. Augustine and Dante. From the days of slavery through the humiliations of Jim Crow and minstrelsy to the assertive freedom of the blues and jazz, Burns's movie resounds with the apocalyptic ring of apotheosis, as it examines a few crucial candidates for cultural sainthood. For it wants both to carve jazz greats into the American pantheon and to underline jazz's pivotal centrality to twentieth-century America as an affirmation of African-American creativity and endurance.
This, coupled with Marsalis's camera-savvy polish as a spokesman as well as his insistent championing of jazz education over the years, explains why a filmmaker like Burns would feel drawn to JALC's version of jazz history. (Actually, Dan Morgenstern, the respected head of the Rutgers Institute of Jazz Studies, was the film's senior historical consultant and vetted the script; there were twenty-three consultants in all, so until the final episode there are inevitable points of similarity, but not identity, with Lincoln Center's tale.) But dramatic necessity also helps explain why some characters, like Armstrong and Ellington, are the story's recurrent focus.
Swing, you might guess, is a buzzword in this series, and you'd be right, even though the film itself doesn't swing much. The earnestness that suffuses PBS cultural products won't let it float for long. At times, the music's lilting ease and fire contrast vividly with its deliberate, self-conscious pace. That's exacerbated by Burns's seventy-five talking heads: Watching can be like sitting through a course team-taught by the UN.
Besides Marsalis, Burns's other main soloist is writer Gary Giddins, and Giddins swings: His wide-ranging erudition rides his love for jazz easily. Other commentators--Stanley Crouch, Albert Murray, Artie Shaw, Gerald Early, James Lincoln Collier, Dave Brubeck--give good camera and consistent historical edutainment. But too many proffer vague impressions, clichéd memories, breathless interpretations and warmed-over anecdotes. They could easily have been edited or edited out. Then there are periodic pileups. In episode seven Joya Sherrill, Mercedes Ellington (Duke's granddaughter) and a few others repeat that Duke and Billy Strayhorn were a rare and wonderful match. In episode five, the same two dancers appear twice with virtually the same observations about Harlem's Savoy Ballroom.
Sometimes the anecdotes are fun or fabulous, sometimes they're bad history. Take Jon Hendricks, who in episode four retails the disproven mythic origin of Armstrong's scatting (sheet music fell off his stand at a recording session). Or director Bertrand Tavernier, who gushes about Django Reinhardt and Stéphane Grappelli introducing the guitar-violin combo to jazz, though they themselves would have fingered Eddie Lang and Joe Venuti. Ballplayer Buck O'Neil rambles good-naturedly about Billie Holiday giving listeners "the greatest moments" and "the saddest moments," demonstrating how a tighter edit could have sliced out the lapses into vacuity.
Marsalis's starring role has several sides. He delivers very effective musical glosses and explanations, polished by years of shows and clinics with adults, teens and kids. His knowledge of and passion for the jazz he loves, and his conviction that it represents American life in full, are infectious, if sometimes hyperbolic. But when he holds forth about Ellington and Armstrong and the semilegendary Buddy Bolden as if he knew them intimately, it's TV, not history.
History can be light-fingered instead of heavy-handed, and Jazz could use more humor, more of the "light" Marsalis ascribes to the best jazz musicians. It has some fabulous vignettes from Crouch, the third-ranked talking head. Except for the last two hours, Crouch swings. In one priceless bit he mimics pre-Armstrong pop vocalists and then Armstrong himself, and asks why anyone would want to revert. "That would be a bad choice," he deadpans. Anybody who makes that choice, he adds, should be deported--count a beat--"to somewhere." Another beat. "Maybe Pluto." It's impossible to disagree, especially when you're laughing.
To some extent, Burns has himself to blame for the unjoyful noise in the jazz world. In conversation, he tends, rightly, to underplay his work's ambitions. It's not the history of jazz, he says. Viewers will get to know a handful of musicians, meet another dozen or two and brush past a few dozen more. He can't possibly compete with books like Giddins's Visions of Jazz or jazz histories like those of Ted Gioia or Marshall Stearns; he's made a movie that tells an educational story for a mass audience. This is reasonable, accurate and no small feat. And, in fact, the movie is steeped with rich human detail of the sort most music historians rarely touch on. But the PR bombast trumpets him as jazz's Joan of Arc, and once he's on-message he can't stop selling. Jazz, like academia, is small and marginal with plenty of defensive, combative types; "the music" is a secular religion. Burns's perceived power inevitably lights the territorial fuses.
As it happens, the jazz industry, now down to about 1 percent of US music sales once you exclude Kenny G and his clones, looks like a Victorian maiden lashed to the tracks awaiting her hero. Burns's movie is a mantra, as record labels crunch despairing numbers and weed out personnel and artists after the latest wave of megamergers and Internet terrors. For his well-designed five-CD companion set (subtitled The Story of America's Music), the filmmaker brokered a deal between Sony and Verve (Universal), bitter corporate rivals, then brought in other labels; all are hoping for sales like the companion book's, which had a first printing of 250,000. This is mind-blowing if you're a jazz-label head used to dealing in niche sales (Marsalis himself rarely moves more than 10,000 CDs) and waiting for the next guillotine stroke.
Potential audience numbers get tossed around fervently: 40 million viewers for Baseball and The Civil War, and Jazz will probably draw less, but... It fascinates me that few of the film's critics address that. Why not consider an America where 20 million more people--or 3 million, or however many finally watch--know something, anything, about Armstrong, Ellington, Parker, Davis and a few others? Where, if they survive the overstatements, talking heads and pacing, they learn some hidden history?
Am I a Pollyanna? Maybe. Reality check: This is a made-for-TV movie. But I too think race is America's central issue, even more multifaceted in the twenty-first century. What holds this joint's pasted seams together, beyond the Founding Documents, is the frequently intangible glue called culture. TV is a major place American culture gets made. Can anyone measure what it meant to have Bill Cosby playing an upper-middle-class dad-next-door for a generation? What it means now that there are black and Hispanic and Asian and gay and you-name-'em channels filling cable and satellite TV? Can anyone guess what it might mean in five years to have Jazz, whatever its warts, playing over and over to a country as terminally divided and in search of itself as this one?
These are not delusions of grandeur about the power of jazz or Ken Burns. They are possibilities written in the history of jazz in America. Take Burns's vignette about Charlie Black, a white Texas teen who saw Armstrong perform in the 1930s. It changed his life. He joined the NAACP's legal team working on what became Brown v. Board of Education. The sociology of jazz is full of such stories. And they are very real.
For instance, no one with a brain disputes that jazz was initially an African-American creation. But as Marsalis, Giddins, Crouch, Murray and Early point out over and over, jazz was welcoming, inclusive, open. It replaced minstrelsy with a cultural site where all Americans could participate, speak to one another, override or ignore or challenge or slide by the society's fixations on racial and ethnic stereotypes. Black Americans (and other ethnic outsiders) could use it to enter mainstream society, white Americans could flee to it from mainstream society, and the transactions created a flux and flow that powered American cultural syntheses.
Jazz, the theme goes, represents America at its best--the dream of America. In the Depression, as Early reminds us, it rivaled MGM musicals in lifting the country's spirits. Of course, since jazz is a human activity, it also reflects the deepest divisions as well as the ideals at America's core. Race, sex, money, power, capitalism, creative freedom, the interaction of the individual and the group--these are all questions embedded in jazz history. They're the questions Burns and Ward are truly interested in. At its best, Jazz gets us interested in them too.
Burns admits he never listened to jazz until he started considering it as a subject. Ward became an Armstrong fan at age 10, when he was hospitalized with polio. Jazz is lucky they're interested in it.
Right now, jazz's commercial future is murky. The major labels are mostly wreckage. Marsalis, who used to get $1 million a year to make niche-market records in the hope that they would turn into catalogue gold, doesn't have a label; neither does Redman. High-profile jazz promoters are hemorrhaging. The Knitting Factory is reportedly in the hole for $2 million, after luring a big entertainment firm to take a stake, opening a club in LA and losing its annual jazz-festival sponsor. The Blue Note chain is said to be spurting red ink from expansions into Las Vegas and midtown Manhattan. Nor are jazz's nonprofit arms thriving. The Thelonious Monk Institute, so closely aligned with the Clinton/Gore Administration that its head was reportedly hoping for an ambassadorship if Al won, is looking pale. And the long-dormant board of Jazz at Lincoln Center has just fired executive director Rob Gibson in a swirl of intrigue: changed door locks and computer codes, fired and rehired personnel, amid persistent rumors of financial malfeasance, bullying and drug abuse.
Jazz has been on a commercial slide since the 1970s, when it racked up 10 percent of retail music sales. At the same time, it began entering the groves of academe. Today most jazz musicians are trained at schools; jazz history is laced through American studies and music curriculums.
This process has already fundamentally changed jazz itself and its relation to American culture, though how isn't always clear at first. As a colleague reminded me recently, in the jazz heydays celebrated by Burns's Jazz, musicians fashioned their own idiosyncratic solutions to musical problems, drawing on oral tradition (which varied considerably) and their own ingenuity and needs. This meant finding individual creative solutions to problems--how to finger this note or sequence, how to get that timbre, how to connect those chord changes. Now, a professor distributes computer analyses of famous solos, templates for solutions that are shared by hundreds and thousands of students. This has a paradoxical effect: It raises the general level of and standardizes jazz training, but it also tends to vitiate the individuality traditionally at the music's heart. This is why older musicians routinely complain that younger schooled players all sound alike. On the other hand, they're well suited for jazz repertory programs like JALC.
That is part of jazz's changing contemporary dynamics. So is Ken Burns's Jazz.
A cold snowy start to the new year, the first day of the new millennium. Not the fun one with champagne at the Pyramids and the all-night, round-the-globe pseudoprofundities and the secret letdown when our computers didn't turn into pumpkins at midnight. I mean the real millennium, with the bad news bears basking on their ice floes as the stock market sinks and thousands tremble as The Anxious Consumer ponders whether to spring for the new Chevrolet Astro or live with the old Dodge Caravan a bit longer. On the radio a mom explained that her kids just wanted gift certificates for Christmas so they could take advantage of the post-holiday sales. How old are these kids? 50? This morning, same station, a man from the Cato Institute instructs us to count our blessings: We are all a lot better off than a hundred years ago; after all, Americans are two inches taller now.
On New Year's Day, a stern young black man missing his front teeth preaches on the subway: "Mr. Black Man! Mr. White Man! What is the meaning of Eternity? Repent! Repent!" He stalks the aisle, dressed all in black and carrying a blood-red Bible, like a mad priest in an opera, while passengers stare stonily into the headlines: I'm Sacking Satan, declares ex-Jet Marc Gastineau in the New York Post, once again evading jail for beating his wife, who like him has gone into Christian therapy ("'I contributed to a lot of the violence,' said the slight, 5-foot-5 woman"). In the passageway between stations, a tiny man of unguessable age wearing a filthy Ralph Lauren American Flag sweater plays a violin as if it were an unfamiliar object he had found in the trash; a young black man sings Beatles songs expertly and with unflagging good cheer. The Christmas-caroling street minister with the fantastic baritone voice is gone, but the Chinese musician is still seated on the L train platform, bending in total concentration over his pipa, an elegant longnecked stringed instrument that emits at the touch of his bow a thin wail, like a dying cat.
My father turns 81 in his hospital bed. After three brain surgeries, who knows what he understands? Flowers arrive that he does not look at; cards are read that he does not listen to. Friends arrive with "get well" offerings--a sleep mask, earplugs, pictures of their children--and leave quickly, stricken. Newly arrived from England, a Kazakh friend complains, "They won't move him to the other bed, although I keep asking!" It seems that bed is the lucky one, the one where the patients get better. A staggering amount of medical help and equipment swirls around my father; it is as though experts have been summoned from all over the world--a doctor from Korea, nurses from the Philippines and Ireland, aides from Jamaica and Guyana and India and Central America--all for the express purpose of tending a few limp, pale Americans. And yet the simplest realities--that my father has eaten essentially nothing for almost two weeks--seem to evoke no sense of urgency, to fall into the spaces between specialists and between changing shifts.
In Man's Fate, the Russian Communist Katov prepares himself to be thrown alive into a furnace after the Shanghai rebellion he helped organize is betrayed by Stalin. He says to himself, "Let's suppose I died in a fire." What style, I thought as a teenager, what cool. Today I think: Well, it would be scary and painful, but at least it would be quick. And by dying in 1927, Katov got to keep his political dignity: He didn't have to persuade himself that voting for a protest candidate was a radical act or inveigh against "global capitalism," or "corporate capitalism," as if there were some other kind--national capitalism? mom-and-pop capitalism?--that could be brought out of the closet of history, and donned like a comfy old suit.
I had planned a very different column--upbeat and energetic, with exhortations to do more and a list of clever resolutions. I e-mailed my whole address book asking for suggestions for feminist activism. I don't know what I was hoping for--seize the TV stations? Dangle John Ashcroft off a skyscraper till he promises to spend the rest of his life cleaning abortion clinic toilets? Raise a lesbian militia to fight the Taliban? What came in was nothing like that. Write letters, the activists said, make phone calls, raise money, bother your politicians, volunteer. Challenge the sexism of daily life, the writers wrote: racist and sexist remarks, panels with no women, all-male magazine forums and debates. Link issue A with issue B, the academics urged.
Fine, but according to Newsweek, there are now 1 million slaves in America, mostly women and girls--cleaning houses, making clothes, servicing men sexually to pay off traffickers and pimps. Ask yourself what kind of man would fuck a slave, some Chinese or Albanian or Thai teenager in a plywood cubicle with a mattress on the floor. Do you think he cares if you write a letter to your congressman? Maybe he is your congressman.
The world spins only forward, says Prior Walter in Angels in America. But which way is that? Most members of my study group think intellectuals and activists have no special role to play in history. They only perch atop its shifting tectonic plates, ready to jump on the backs of the workers at the first sign of autonomous action. "The working class is revolutionary or it is nothing," quotes the Last Marxist at least once per meeting, which goes on all day and ends with a wonderful meal. Last time, we invited the Race Traitors--Noel Ignatiev, John Garvey, Beth Henson--and accused them of daring to think they could spark a movement with a magazine and a book. Wow, said Noel, you guys are really depressed. Yes, I said, usually it takes us all day to feel this irrelevant, and it isn't even lunchtime yet.
I go home in the snow, I e-mail the President to save the Alaskan wilderness, proving yet again that I have no dignity and do not read my own columns. At bedtime we read aloud from Mona in the Promised Land, by my daughter's favorite contemporary American writer, Gish Jen.
"If there's a depression, will we have enough money?" Sophie asks as we turn out the light. "Don't worry about it," I say. "Everything will be fine. We can always sing in the subway."
Our drug laws, like those concerning voting, reveal bias and backward thinking.
Was it only a few short weeks ago that I turned on the TV in my hotel room to hear conservative commentator Tucker Carlson explain to Don Imus that Gore would win the Floridian chadfight because Republicans were too nice, polite, modest and fair to get down and dirty like the Democrats? That was before a small army of rowdy Republicans descended on Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade counties and successfully intimidated election officials while turning themselves into a media spectacle halfway between a fraternity brawl and an ancient Roman mob. Like the false announcement of a Bush victory on election night--courtesy, we now know, of a Fox TV reporter who is a cousin of George W. Bush--the demonstrators helped produce the mistaken but widespread impression that Bush had won an election that Gore was trying to undo, when in fact the election, as I write, is still undecided. According to the Wall Street Journal and other papers, the demonstrators, originally portrayed as John Q. Publics following their hearts to Florida, are GOP operatives and Congressional staffers financed by the Bush campaign, which is putting them up in Hilton hotels and entertained them on Thanksgiving with turkey and a performance by Wayne Newton.
Al Gore's position is that there should be an accurate count of the Florida vote--the fraudulent nature of which becomes daily more obvious. What's wrong with that? Outrageous, say the Republicans; boring, say the media, which from the start urged "closure," like a prosecutor urging a quick lethal injection so that grieving survivors can start "the healing process." Flip a coin, advised Ralph Nader, fliply.
And what of Nader? Campaigners have been quick to put a brave face on his unimpressive 2.7 percent--unmentioned now is the magic 5 percent that would bring the Greens federal funds and that they themselves had made a central rationale for a Nader vote. "We accomplished what we set out to do," Nader campaign manager Theresa Amato told me. "We helped the Greens, we raised issues, we got new people into the political process. The Greens are now the leading third party, the only viable third party. I'm positive, I'm upbeat, I'm not depressed in any way." Longtime Green activist and former member of the town council of Princeton, New Jersey, Carl Mayer was even cheerier, telling me that Nader had mobilized 150,000 volunteers and 50,000 donors and sparked the formation of some 500 local Green organizations and 900 campus groups, and crediting him with "changing the tenor of the whole race" by pushing Gore to take populist stands against the drug and oil industries. Mayer even argued that it was because of Nader that President Clinton declared wilderness areas national monuments in several Western states and that the FDA approved RU-486. Unlike virtually every other Nader supporter in America, Mayer not only accepted the mainstream analysis that Nader votes had cost Gore the election (assuming Bush wins), but said it didn't bother him a bit.
One hesitates to inject a discouraging word, but 2.7 percent of the vote is not a lot. It puts him in the company of conscience candidates like Barry Commoner, but behind most major third-party challengers in recent memory. Even John Anderson--who?--and his National Union Party--what?--eked out 6.6 percent in 1980. Sure, you can spin these gloomy stats--Nader got more votes than any progressive third-party candidate since 1948! Nader would have gotten lots more votes but for the closeness of the Bush-Gore contest, which kept Dems in the fold! Third-party runs aren't about votes, they're about changing the discourse! But when I think about how many furious letters and e-mails I got for writing skeptically in this space about the possibility of a meaningful third party, especially a progressive one, I have to say events have borne me out. I said that in the end most voters would stick with the two parties because the differences that seem small to Naderites are concrete and significant to them, because the two-party system is the way civic favors and services are distributed and because people understand that the winner-take-all system insures that a left-leaning third party throws elections to the Republicans--as the Republicans understood when they ran Nader's attacks on Gore as ads for Bush.
Commentators will be analyzing the Nader vote for months, and no doubt the campaign could have done some things better or not at all: the invisible and tokenistic vice presidential candidacy of Winona LaDuke, the waffling over whether to go for votes in toss-up states, the attacks on "frightened liberals." But even a perfect campaign would run up against the structural obstacles that have rendered marginal every modern attempt to build a strong and lasting third-party alternative to the two- party "duopoly."
Future elections will be even tougher. Whoever wins the presidency, people now know every vote counts--the frightened liberals are really frightened now. If Bush wins, the energy left of center will go into re-electing Democrats--any Democrat. Meanwhile, the small Nader vote--only 2 percent of Democratic voters chose him, while 11 percent chose Bush--means that the Democratic Party will move, if anywhere, rightward. The Greens may move that way also; after all, they failed to dislodge the old progressive voting blocs--feminists, blacks, Hispanics, Jews, labor. The typical Nader voter was a young white man, college educated but income poor. Nader did well among students, independents and Perot voters; outside a few left strongholds--Madison, Portland, Berkeley, western Massachusetts--his best counties were rural, his best state Alaska (10 percent), of all places. None of this sounds like a recipe for a powerful progressive voting bloc. In an interesting post-mortem on the Newsforchange website, Micah Sifry argues that the Greens may be too far left for the actually existing electorate and that the future lies in the "radical middle," from which sprang Jesse Ventura and Ross Perot. In other words, for leftists to achieve even the momentary electoral prominence of the now-moribund Reform Party, they have to be more, well, conservative.
LOUIS ARMSTRONG AT 100
In 1927 a young cornetist led his band into a meticulously hilarious version of a classic composition Jelly Roll Morton had made famous, "Twelfth Street Rag." The recorded track sounds like the opening shot of a revolution--except that the revolution had already been in full swing in Louis Armstrong's head and hands for years.
Unlike most revolutions, though, from the first this one displayed an ingratiating, inviting sense of humor and charm. "Dippermouth," as his early New Orleans pals dubbed him, used the rag as a flight vehicle: As his horn fractures the tune's familiar refrains, the precise, cakewalking rhythmic values of ragtime suddenly coil and loop and stutter and dive, the aural equivalent of a bravura World War I flying ace in dogfighting form. Every time Armstrong comes precariously near a tailspin, he pulls back the control stick and confidently, jauntily, heads off toward the horizon, if not straight into another virtuosic loop-de-loop. The cut is from an astonishing series of recordings Armstrong made in 1925-28 that amount to the jazz-creating legacy of his Hot Fives and Hot Sevens, a succession of studio groups that virtually never performed live. And now, in time for his centennial--he claimed he was born in 1900 but wasn't--it's all been reissued.
The relentless joy brimming in the sound of young Satchelmouth's horn, the glorious deep-blue and fiery-red Whitmanesque yawp of it, has an undeniably self-conscious edge to it. Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray first pointed out a half-century ago that it is also the sound of self-assertion, a musical realization of the double consciousness W.E.B. Du Bois posited for African-Americans. Within this compound of power and pain, a racial revisitation of the master-slave encounter in Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit, Du Bois explained that African-Americans were inevitably alienated, stood both inside and outside mainstream American culture and its norms, prescriptions, hopes, dreams. Such alienation, Du Bois pointed out, could cripple black Americans by forcing them to internalize mainstream cultural values that held them to be less than human, but it could also liberate the brightest of them. The "Talented Tenth," as he called this group, could act on their perceptions of the contradictions between the high ideals grounding basic American cultural myths (for example, that society believed "all men are created equal," as the Declaration of Independence puts it) and gritty daily reality, where blacks were not exactly welcomed into concert halls, schools, restaurants or the front of buses.
In the bell of Armstrong's barbaric (which means, in the sense Whitman inherited from Emerson, non-European) horn is the sound of a new, all-American culture being forged from the stuff of the social sidelines. In 1957 Ellison wrote to Murray,
I've discovered Louis singing "Mack The Knife." Shakespeare invented Caliban or changed himself into him. Who the hell dreamed up Louis? Some of the bop boys consider him Caliban, but if he is, he is a mask for a lyric poet who is much greater than most now writing. Man and mask, sophistication and taste hiding behind clowning and crude manners--the American joke, man.
Armstrong himself was no naïve artist; he certainly wasn't a fool. From his earliest days he saw race as a key issue in his life, his art and his country, with a wit and understanding evident in his music. As he wrote of the composer of "Twelfth Street Rag" and jazz's self-proclaimed inventor, "Jelly Roll [Morton] with lighter skin than the average piano players, got the job [at New Orleans's leading whorehouse, Lulu White] because they did not want a Black piano player for the job. He claimed he was from an Indian or Spanish race. No Cullud at all. They had lots of players in the District that could play lots better than Jelly, but their dark Color kept them from getting the job. Jelly Roll made so much money in tips that he had a diamond inserted in one of his teeth. No matter how much his Diamond Sparkled he still had to eat in the Kitchen, the same as we Blacks."
In The Omni-Americans, Murray explains how Armstrong's music limned human talents needed in the frenetic, fast-changing twentieth century. Drawn from the pioneer, Indian and slave, the key American survival skill was improvisation, the soloist's ability to mesh with his surroundings. Ellison's Invisible Man uses Armstrong's version of "Black and Blue," a tune from the 1929 Broadway play Chocolate Dandies, to demonstrate the Du Boisian nature of improvising as epistemological tool.
This was the lesson Armstrong started teaching in the Jazz Age, when flappers reigned and sexual emancipation knocked at the door of mainstream culture, when the Harlem Renaissance redefined African-Americans, when Prohibition created a nation of outlaws who, thanks to associating with booze and gangsters and the demimonde's jazz soundtrack, saw that Negroes, as they were called, were subject to legal and extralegal restrictions and prejudices more arbitrary and inane than the constitutional amendment forbidding booze.
The elastic rhythms and fiery solos on the sides by the Hot Fives and Hot Sevens spoke to these people. On tune after tune, Armstrong cavorts and leaps and capers over and around his musical cohorts with the playful self-possession of a young and cocky top cat. Nothing can hold him down. He traverses keys and bar lines and rhythms with impunity, remolding them without missing a step.
"Black and Blue"--originally written as a lament by a dark-skinned gal for her man, who's attracted to high-yellow types--made him a star. Armstrong's brilliant, forceful reading renders it as mini-tragedy, the musical equivalent of Shylock's speech in The Merchant of Venice. "My only sin," he sings in that growl that compounds the earthy humanity of the blues with an unflinching dignity (this is no grovel), "is in my skin/What did I do to be so black and blue?" The short answer: in America, nothing. The color line did it all.
Subversive and powerful, Armstrong's music was the fountainhead of the Jazz Age and the Swing Era, when jazz was America's popular music and the sounds of syncopated surprise filled the nation's dance halls while young folks skittered and twirled and flounced and leaped and broke out of lingering Victorian constraints to loose-limbed beats and blaring horns that emerged from America's Darktowns in New Orleans, New York and Chicago.
One of Armstrong's 1936 recordings is "Rhythm Saved the World." Like many, this banal tune is transformed by his syncopating personality. Its idea still echoes across America's teeming subcultures: Decades later, Parliament Funkadelic sang, "Here's my chance to dance my way out of my constrictions."
If Armstrong claimed he was born on July 4, 1900, who could blame him? As one of America's primary declarers of cultural independence--and interdependence--he should have been. But in his rich biography Satchmo, Gary Giddins (who insists that all American music emanates from Armstrong) proves that Louis's birth date was August 4, 1901. Armstrong and his sister were born in a hard district of New Orleans; their father left before either could remember him. In his early years Armstrong was raised by his grandmother, whom he credited with the Emersonian values--hard work, self-reliance, artistic daring coupled with personal amiability--that guided him. His mother may or may not have been a prostitute for a while; Louis returned to live with her when he was 5.
At 7 he quit school and went to work for a Jewish family, the Karmofskys, and picked up his first instrument--a tin horn. He'd been dancing and singing on the street for pennies with other kids, but working coal wagons with the Karmofsky sons, he learned to blow the cheap horn by putting his fingers together in front of the tube (he'd pulled off the mouthpiece). The boys encouraged him, their clients loved his melodies, and Little Louis, as he was known, had found his calling.
On January 1, 1913, he was busted for firing his stepfather's pistol, and sentenced to the Colored Waif's Home. There he joined the band and got his first musical training, which he characteristically never forgot. According to clarinet great Sidney Bechet, who in the 1920s was Armstrong's only peer as a virtuosic improviser, the cornet-playing young Louis mastered the chops-busting clarinet solo for "High Society" before his teens--an astounding feat that only hinted at what was to come.
Little Louis danced in second-line parades, following cornetist Joe "King" Oliver in the Onward Band as they wound through the Crescent City streets. Oliver was a catalytic force for Armstrong, who always insisted he learned his stuff from Papa Joe. When Oliver left for Chicago, following post-World War I black migration from the South to Northern and Western cities, he left Little Louis his slot in the Kid Ory band, which led the young cornetist to Fate Marable and the riverboats plying the Mississippi in 1920-21.
Marable, impressed by the young hornman's dazzling facility and ear, hired him for his riverboat band, and one of his sidemen trained the youngster to read and write music. What they played was a mix that would confound the Dixieland revivalists who decades later took Armstrong as their figurehead: adapted arias and classical overtures, quadrilles and other dance music, and the like. (Historian Dan Morgenstern has pointed out the suggestive influence of classical music on Armstrong.) At Davenport, Iowa, when the riverboat docked, a white kid named Bix Beiderbecke first heard Armstrong with Marable and decided to make the jazz cornet his life.
In 1922 Oliver sent for his protégé, who kissed his mother goodbye, packed the fish sandwich she made for him and headed north to Chicago. When he got to the Lincoln Gardens Cafe, where Oliver's band was wailing, he looked like a rube and was so shy he stayed by the door to watch. He couldn't believe he'd be playing with these masters of jazz. Yet in a very short time, first in recordings with them, then with his own Hot Fives and Hot Sevens, he would make them all sound like musical relics.
Rube or not--and his mode of dress quickly became Chicago-style sharp--Armstrong got the girl. His second wife, piano-playing Lil Hardin, married him while they were both playing with Oliver. Hardin was conservatory-trained and middle class, and for the next few years her ambition would drive the modest genius she married to make his mark in the rapidly exploding Jazz Age. Convinced that Oliver kept Louis in his band to keep him from fronting his own, Lil persuaded her husband to grab Fletcher Henderson's offer to join his New York-based big band. When Armstrong arrived in the Big Apple in 1924, Henderson's band was, as Morgenstern notes, "designed for Roseland's white dancing public...rhythmically stiff"; when he left fourteen months later, both arrangers and soloists were extending his sound.
It was Lil who persuaded Armstrong to go back to Chicago after scarcely more than a year in New York, and there he joined her band, then Carroll Dickerson's, and rocked the town. The night he returned, he was greeted by a banner she had unfurled over the bandstand: world's greatest trumpet player. Armstrong later told Morgenstern the reason he left Henderson's band was that the "dicty bandleader," college-educated, light-skinned and prone to look down on dark blacks, wouldn't let him sing, except occasionally for black audiences or for novelty and comic effect. Armstrong had been singing before he ever picked up a horn--it was a fundamental part of who he was and what he had to say. Ultimately, his vocals would make him a world-famous star. More immediately, they were another virtuosic tool he used to change jazz and, in the process, American culture.
Armstrong pioneered so many firsts in jazz and America that a list seems implausible. Here's a sample: He invented the full-fledged jazz solo. He invented scat singing. He introduced Tin Pan Alley and Broadway tunes as jazz's raw material. (When Armstrong replaced New Orleans standards and blues with Tin Pan Alley tunes in the 1930s, he forged the model followed by swing, jazz's most successful invasion of American pop music. His model was followed literally: Key arrangers like Don Redman, who worked for many bandleaders, including Benny Goodman, adapted Armstrong's runs and rhythmic moves to section-by-section big-band arrangements.) And Armstrong performed in interracial settings. Once, in New Orleans, when a bigoted announcer refused to introduce his band, he did it himself--so well that the radio station asked him to do it for the rest of the band's stint.
His voice engulfed America. Among his major disciples was Bing Crosby, who called him "the beginning and the end of music in America." His influence rippled across American popular and jazz singing like an earthquake. As he reconfigured pop tunes, the apparently natural force of his voice's cagey dynamics and loose rhythms seized the imagination of talents like Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday, Crosby and Frank Sinatra.
With his last Hot Sevens recordings for Okeh in 1928, in which tunes like "I Can't Give You Anything But Love" were issued as B-sides, Armstrong had moved closer to the new American cultural mainstream he was inspiring. When he started recording for Decca in 1935, the impetus accelerated. A couple of interim managers gave way that year to Joe Glaser, a thuggish, mob-connected scion of a well-off Chicago family. He and Armstrong shook hands on a deal that lasted till they both died. As Armstrong put it, "A black man needs a white man working for him." It was the beginning of his big crossover into mainstream American culture--another Armstrong first in undermining de facto segregation in America. And his years at Decca were his workshop in change.
He fronted a big band, which critics hated and fans enjoyed. The outfit was run by Glaser, since Armstrong, who occasionally hired and fired personnel, didn't want to shoulder a bandleader's nonmusical burdens. And he agreed with Glaser on a new musical direction: setting his solos off in sometimes inventive, sometimes indifferent big-band charts; smoothing his blues-frog vocals into a more sophisticated sound without losing their rhythmic slyness--something he was also doing with his trumpet solos, reshaping his early frenetic chases after strings of high-altitude notes into less eye-popping, more lyrical solos.
Physical damage to Armstrong's lip and mouth from high and hard blowing forced the issue. Joe Muranyi, who played with him years later, says, "Part of the change in Louis's style could be attributed to the lip trouble he had in the early thirties. There are tales of blood on his shirt, of blowing off a piece of his lip while playing. This certainly influenced the way he approached the horn; yet what we hear on these tracks has at least as much to do with musical development as with physical matters." Limitation was, for Satchmo's genius, a pathway to a matured artistic conception. As Giddins argues forcefully in Satchmo, Armstrong had never separated art and entertainment; jazz for him was pop music. And if his bands irritated critics, there were plenty of gems, and besides, people loved him.
By World War II, his audiences were more white than black.
The war years broke the big bands. The culture had changed: Singers and small groups were hip. It was the era of a new sound, what Dizzy Gillespie called modern jazz and journalists dubbed bebop. Bop's frenetic, fragmented rhythms restated the postwar world's rhythms, and it deliberately presented itself not as entertainment but as art. The musicians forging it, like Gillespie and Charlie Parker, were fully aware of the stirring civil rights movement. World War II had fostered widespread entry of blacks into industry and the American military. Not surprisingly, after the war, they weren't willing to return to the old values of accommodation and deference. Instead, they demanded equality and freedom. In this context, boppers and their followers saw Armstrong's lifelong mugging and entertainment as Uncle Tom-ism rather than artistic expression.
The Dixieland revival, based in Chicago, occurred at about the same time. The (mostly white) revivalists needed an artistic figurehead. With a healthy historical irony they ignored, they chose Armstrong--the very soloist who blew apart old-style New Orleans polyphony, their idea of "pure" or "real" jazz. By 1947 Satchmo reluctantly abandoned his eighteen-piece outfit for the All Stars, a New Orleans-style sextet that included Jack Teagarden and Earl Hines. Though they often made fine music, the group was seen as a step backward by boppers. They jabbed at Satchmo, he jabbed back, and the split between revivalists and modernists escalated into a civil war that, in different stylistic and racial modes, still divides the jazz world.
Sadly, it was another Armstrong first. And his audiences began to turn lily-white. Giddins deftly shows Armstrong's world-famous onstage persona--the big grin, the bulging eyes, the shaking head, the brandished trumpet, the ever-present handkerchief, the endless vaudevillian mugging--to be an organic conception of the artist as entertainer. Still, from the 1950s until just before his death in 1971, Armstrong had to deal with accusations and slurs.
But if he never forgot who he was, while retaining his characteristically modest manner and only privately protesting how much he'd done to advance black civil rights, he could still be provoked, as President Eisenhower and the public discovered in 1957. Armstrong was poised to go on the first State Department-sponsored tour of the Soviet Union, a cold war beachhead by jazz. He abruptly canceled it because the Southern states refused to integrate schools, and he publicly excoriated Ike and America.
Early jazz musicians often refused to record, because they felt competitors could steal their best licks from their records. This was why the all-white Original Dixieland Jass Band made jazz's first records; black New Orleans trumpeter Freddie Keppard refused, fearing for his originality.
No one knows for sure how many recordings Armstrong made during the course of his half-century recording career. All agree, however, that he helped create both the art and the industry. After all, "race" records, especially Armstrong's hits, were as important as Bing Crosby's in saving the fledgling record companies from collapse during the Depression. (And there was more to it than that. Through the phonograph Armstrong made infinite disciples, shaping what jazz would become.)
During the 1950s and 1960s, when he was largely considered a period piece, Armstrong recorded important documents, like his meetings with Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald. The best thing about them is their apparent artlessness, the easy, offhand creativity that was as much Armstrong's trademark as his trumpet's clarion calls. The pleasure is doubled by the response of his disciples.
Ella fits that description easily, since her trademark scat singing owes so much to Armstrong's. Yet she made it her own, purging scat of its overt blues roots. Producer Norman Granz supported them with his favorite Jazz at the Philharmonic stars--Oscar Peterson, Herb Ellis and Ray Brown. The results: Both Ella and Louis and Ella and Louis Again are incandescent yet low-key, full of generous pearls (from "Can't We Be Friends" to "Cheek to Cheek") that can almost slip by because of their understated yet consummate ease.
The 1961 session with Armstrong and Duke Ellington was hasty and almost haphazard, a simple melding of Ellington into Armstrong's All Stars; and yet it produced a wonderful, relaxed, insightful album. After all, Ellington had shaped his earliest bands around trumpeters and trombonists who could serve up Armstrong's New Orleans flair.
Like most postwar babies, I grew up knowing Louis Armstrong as the guy who sang "Mack the Knife" and, most famously, "Hello Dolly." It was only later that I'd discover the old blues stuff with singers like Bessie Smith, the Hot Fives, Ella and Louis, Fletcher Henderson and--one of my faves--Armstrong's accompaniment on early hillbilly star Jimmie Rodgers's "Blue Yodel No. 9." But even as a kid I felt strangely drawn to the little guy singing and grimacing on TV, wiping his perspiring brow with his trademark handkerchief. Although it all seemed corny, there was something, a hint of irony--though that wouldn't have been what his audiences, black or white, noticed unless they were old-timers who knew the ironic physical language or Satchmo fans or, like me, just a kid.
Why would a white kid in America catch a glimpse of Armstrong's abundantly joyful and potentially dangerous ironies? I'd love to claim precociousness, but it was a lot simpler. I could tell Armstrong was real because he filled the little blue TV screen so overwhelmingly that he made everything around him look, as it should have, fake.
If Gore loses the White House--and some of you reading this will know whether or not he did--he'll have no one but himself to blame. Readers of this page know I've been something of a Naderskeptic all along (I'm planning a tactical vote for him here in Gore-solid New York, but if I lived in a toss-up state I'd vote Democratic and hope you would--or did--too). Still, it's not Nader's fault that huge numbers of voters don't care if Bush is a reactionary moron and find his Christian frat boy act appealing. Ralph didn't tell Gore to go after the dithering undecideds and to forget about energizing his base and reaching out to suburban and working women. Remember when abortion and gun control were going to be key issues? When the Million Moms were going to sway the election? Ralph didn't make Gore distance himself so far from Clinton--a genius campaigner with a 60 percent approval rating--that he couldn't plausibly claim the "good" economy as his own, even as he also wasn't willing to acknowledge the millions who have been victimized by Clinton's policies on prisons, welfare, drugs, civil liberties, privacy. Who was stopping Gore from announcing that on second thought, sending a $1.3 billion anti-drug aid package to Colombia was a terrible idea? Wouldn't that have been a better way to prove he was his "own man," not Clinton's, than spouting sanctimonious pieties about faith and family?
Or take capital punishment: When the issue came up in the debates, Gore and Bush both said they were for the death penalty. Gore could easily have said that, like Republican Governor Ryan of Illinois, he supported the death penalty but was troubled by studies showing an alarming number of false convictions in capital cases, and so he also supported a moratorium on executions. Sure, some of the undecideds would have peeled off to Bush--you can imagine the campaign ads in which relatives retell ghastly murders of loved ones and accuse the Vice President of denying them "closure." But then Gore could have run ads highlighting Bush's appalling record as death-penalty king of Texas, and his lazy and frivolous approach to the whole issue, which troubles some conservatives and has even become a standard laugh line for David Letterman. By taking a political risk--in a righteous cause--Gore would have been able to counteract the popular view of him as calculating and expedient, which is doing him more harm than his actual positions, which voters tell pollsters they like.
The same could be said of Gore's problems to his left. If Gore wants to defuse Nader, why doesn't he fire back on a whole range of substantive issues instead of acting like Nader has stolen votes that somehow belong to Gore by right? Gore has a record as Vice President, and he presumably believes in the positions that drive Naderites wild--for NAFTA, for military interventions around the globe, for welfare reform, for ladling vast sums of money into the Pentagon. He could take the trouble to explain why he is right and Nader is wrong on the issues that divide them, or why he is being wrongly blamed for policies that were actually the work of a Republican Congress, or why he is the best person to undo the damage Nader has identified.
Nader's not perfect, after all--Gore could ask why he doesn't belong to the party whose ticket he heads, why he told Outside magazine he would prefer a win for Bush (readers will remember he told me the opposite), why he has so little support among the people--minorities, women, blue-collar workers--whose interests he claims to represent. He could point out that while four years of Republicanism may move a few to the left, it may also drive far more people to embrace the Democrats, any Democrats, so the whole Nader phenomenon contains the seeds of its own destruction, in which case why not cut to the chase and vote for the Democrat now? He could make plenty of hay out of Nader's ill-informed and self-serving insistence that a Bush win will not endanger reproductive rights--most recently, Nader told Sam Donaldson that even if the Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade, "it just reverts it back to the states." Just! As if there aren't at least fourteen states ready to criminalize abortion the minute they get the go-ahead. As if there aren't already more than 300 restrictions on abortion already on the books! At one time Gore's ferocity as a debater was going to be his decisive strength. It may have backfired with the feel-good nincompoop Bush, but Gore could always try getting down off his high horse and asking Ralph how he would feel about letting other freedoms lose their constitutional protection. Should fifty state legislatures decide every year how much freedom of speech Ralph Nader is going to have?
It's perfectly fair to attack Nader. It's even fair to attack him in nasty, personal ways, the way Naderites attack Gore--by, for example, spreading the right-wing disinformation that Gore said he invented the Internet and was the model for Love Story. But it's absurd and kind of pathetic for Toby Moffett and the "Nader's Raiders for Gore" to wring their hands and beg Nader to step aside for the good of the country--it would make more sense to beg Gore to address the concerns of Nader voters. It would even make more sense for them to address--since Gore isn't doing the job--the fence-sitters who are moving toward Bush: pro-choice women, for instance, who think Bush isn't serious about working to limit abortion (an illusion not shared by the Christian Coalition, one might add), and union men who are having trouble choosing between their guns and their job protection.
According to a group of seven academic political forecasters, Gore is supposed to win because the man and the campaign and the issues are unimportant: Whether the incumbent party stays in the White House all depends on the state of the economy, both actual and perceived. This alone can explain the outcome of every election since 1948. If Gore loses despite his tremendous structural advantages, what can you say except he screwed up monumentally? Clinton triangulated against the left, but Gore acted as if the left didn't exist. You can't blame the left if it came back to bite him on the behind.
I keep reading that the election turns on women's votes. Yet apart from the issue of abortion, women seem curiously invisible this election season--except of course for the endlessly focus-grouped, interviewed and psychoanalyzed women of Ohio and other toss-up states, who can't decide whether to vote for Gore because he kissed his wife or for Bush because they like his mother. Are these ninnies really representative, or is their prominence more a symptom of the emptiness of political reporting, which has cast the race as a personality contest between a Fibber and a Dope? What, for example, do women tell pollsters is their most important issue? Hint: It's not whether Al Gore or George W. would be more fun on a date or make a better babysitter. It's pay equity.
Yes, women are apparently unpersuaded that they earn 71 cents on the male dollar because, as the Independent Women's Forum insists, they choose low-paid jobs in order to have lots of time and energy for childcare and housecleaning. Yet when Bernard Shaw asked Dick Cheney and Joe Lieberman about pay equity in their Veep debate, the two men quickly turned to the marvels of their respective tax proposals. Shaw let them--what's pay equity to him? Even issues that are on the table are discussed as if they have no gendered aspects--affirmative action, for instance, or proposals to privatize all or part of Social Security, which will affect women much more than men: Not only do women on average live longer, they make up the large majority of retirees and dependents who survive on Social Security alone. Violence against women has gone unmentioned--as opposed to media violence and smut, a major theme and supposed woman-pleaser--ditto insurance coverage for contraception (Viagra's already covered, but you knew that), high-quality daycare, the near-impossibility of collecting court-ordered child support from an ex-husband who doesn't want to pay it (there's a middle-class issue for you) and dozens of other problems facing real-life women. There are a number of women running for national office, but you don't hear much about them. From the media point of view, the continuing scandal of women's underrepresentation in government is as musty as the ERA. Women had their year back in 1992.
There's only one woman on the political scene who seems to evoke any kind of passion--and that's Hillary Clinton, or "Hillary." But most of the passion is negative: She's like a Rorschach test of feminine evil. Through direct mail aimed at Hillary-haters across the land, the Conservative Leadership Political Action Committee has raised almost $2 million for her Republican opponent, Rick Lazio, a hyperaggressive nobody whose wife boasts that she cleans her own house--I suppose that's the contemporary equivalent of Pat Nixon's good Republican cloth coat. The First Lady, a supporter of the death penalty, welfare reform and interventionist foreign policy, is depicted as an "angry woman who is abusive to White House staff and obsessed with imposing her radical left vision on the rest of America." How hated is Hillary? Eighteen percent of Democratic primary voters pulled the lever for her totally obscure challenger, a doctor who subsequently revealed himself to be a Lazio supporter. Maureen Dowd has completely lost herself in an ecstasy of psychological projection--her Hillary is like Joan Crawford in an old weepie: While the Gores and Liebermans bill and coo, she rattles around in her empty new house, loveless and lonely, and excluded from society as "Manhattan's dread extra woman." On the Drudge Report, Juanita Broaddrick accused Hillary of threatening her at a political function two weeks after her alleged rape: The threat was conveyed by thanking Broaddrick effusively--too effusively--for her support.
Disapproval of Hillary for sticking with her marriage cuts across party lines--Jimmy Breslin and George Will together at last with all those suburban harpies happy to knife a woman who steps out of the box. But her devotion to Bill has brought her an odd defender, Linda Waite, author with right-wing columnist Maggie Gallagher of a book-length soundbite called The Case for Marriage. In a New York Times Op-Ed, Waite castigates conservatives like Will for taking opportunistic potshots at Hillary's decision to stay married: After all, Hillary is honoring the institution of marriage and making the choice conservatives--although presumably not Will, who is divorced--think people should make when faced with marital trouble. "Staying in an imperfect marriage is a perfectly reasonable choice for many women," writes Waite, not to mention good for society. Interestingly, Waite seems to have forgotten her own potshot at Hillary: In their book, Waite and Gallagher torment a remark of Mrs. Clinton's that seems clearly aimed at gossips and Nosy Parkers ("I learned a long time ago that the only two people who count in any marriage are the two that are in it") to portray her as a standard-bearer for the idea that marriage is a private contract with no social significance. In fact, as they should know, Mrs. Clinton is quite a conservative on marital matters; she supported the Republican-authored Personal Responsibility Act, which begins by stating that "marriage is the foundation of a successful society"; in It Takes a Village, she wrote favorably of making divorce harder to get.
If you want to see a woman politician boldly standing up for the right to privacy--or anything else--you have to go to the movies. In The Contender, a swell political thriller, Joan Allen plays Laine Hanson, a Republican-turned-Democrat senator who is nominated to fill out a dead Vice President's term and finds herself under withering attack for supposedly participating in a fraternity sexfest as a college freshman. The movie, which is dedicated to "our daughters," is one long prayer for the abolition of the double standard--which it then, in typical Hollywood fashion, endorses. Laine is so pure and idealistic that she survives only because Jeff Bridges, as the wily Clintonesque President, stoops to tactics that would never even occur to her. In other words, in order to be in politics, a woman has to be too good for politics.
The sound of Wrecking Ball (Elektra), Emmylou Harris's 1995 album produced by former Brian Eno/Neville Brothers associate Daniel Lanois, drew me back toward her. But it was her fiercely energetic if unevenly recorded live disc, 1998's Spyboy (Eminent), and the tour that followed with her postpsychedelic power trio that made me want more for the first time since Harris started singing trios with Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt in 1987. I went back and listened to Elite Hotel and Pieces of the Sky (Reprise) and Luxury Liner (Warner Bros.), her early country rock-outs with the Hot Band, which she mostly inherited from the late Gram Parsons (who'd mostly stolen it from Elvis Presley). And even 1972's GP and 1973's Grievous Angel (both Reprise), the two albums on which she duetted with Parsons. Parsons, of course, is the man who turned the Byrds (and subsequently all of Los Angeles) toward what became country-rock, founded the Flying Burrito Brothers, partied (and co-wrote songs) with the Rolling Stones, elevated Harris to national attention and in 1973 was found dead (of coroner-ruled "natural causes") in a motel in Joshua Tree, California. Friends stole his body and burned it in the Joshua Tree National Monument.
How rock and roll can you get? Parsons, never widely famous, became a cult figure. Harris went on to conquer Nashville, continuing the vector Parsons had sketched in his crossover country lilts like "Hickory Wind," "Wheels" and "Sin City" ("On the 31st floor/A gold-plated door/Won't keep out the Lord's burning rain"), all of which became minor classics. She went deep into it, performing at the Ryman Auditorium and so on. Her pretty, soulful, folky voice with the surprisingly resilient country-meets-blues cri de coeur got under my skin less as it settled into Nashville's more predictable contours. I was waiting for the shakeup, for the rock in country-rock to re-emerge and maybe even, with luck, take over.
That's what happened on Wrecking Ball and Spyboy. Fired first by Lanois's Eno-inspired wall-of-sound approach, then by her interracial power trio (guitar whiz Buddy Miller, bass monster Daryl Johnson, agile drummer Brady Blade), Harris didn't so much tear up her country roots as reinfuse them with another set of musical ideas. It was the sound of a perceptual door opening.
And now there's Harris's first studio disc since Wrecking Ball, this time via arty Nonesuch Records, home of the sleeper hit Buena Vista Social Club. Yeah, there may be ironic hay to be made by somebody (not me) out of the fact that Nonesuch has made its bucks as the trendy yuppie label of the eighties and nineties, marketing leather-and-lace Eurotrash hits like the Gypsy Kings. The label's stock in trade is (justly) its critically ratified, near-automatic intellectual heft and its consequent ability to target boomers who scan the Sunday Times each week for what to absorb.
They could do a lot worse than Harris's Red Dirt Girl, most of which--rarely, for her--she wrote herself.
It's a cliché that most people in America want someone else's life. Ever since the Gold Rush was augmented by Hollywood and John Steinbeck's Depression, California has been the golden wet dream for Americans' imaginings of new identities, the place where you could retool yourself and ditch the nasty nagging past you might someday have to answer for--or to.
Yet Harris has been a kind of bellwether of pop music's directions partly because she's so rooted in her past; she's aware of where changes of direction are likely to blow in from. When she started singing with Parsons, country and rock hated each other; over the past decade, as her boomer generation has settled comfortably into middle age, country stars have sounded like the Eagles, who were glossing pages from Parsons's book. Before the current refashionability of bluegrass and that already gone moment of alt-country, Harris was there. On Red Dirt Girl, she connects the dots between the sixties, Springsteen and the post-Hendrix production style that Lanois has refined.
You could argue that Red Dirt Girl updates Hendrix by way of electronica, but with a (relatively) conservative ear cocked backward, for the boomer audience's sake. The entire album is a potpourri of styles, somehow overstuffed and lavish and rippling with suggestive overtones even when it's spare. On the title track, for instance, wisps of overdriven guitar leak almost discreetly into the corners of the soundstage, a sympathetic echo of successive dislocations in the lyrics. Multiple basses rumble and snort through "I Don't Wanna Talk About It Now," reflecting the disoriented but overwhelming focus shaping the singer's emotions. Every cut finds sounds spurting, drifting, poking or sizzling into the deeply textured stereo image, with unexpected and sometimes unsettling results: bits of shock, humor, recognition. Repeatedly, jigs and reels, the staples of Appalachian-descended country, get bushwacked and overlaid or saturated with fuzz and wah-wah washes and distant, jangly electric piano and guitars--of course, always guitars, of every aural hue and cry.
The guitar, rock and roll's conceptual anchor, is the symbol that links Harris and Springsteen. Consider her in-concert staple, "Born to Run": Not Springsteen's song, it takes an angle on male-female relationships that puts the woman in the rock-and-roll driver's seat. In fact, the title track of Red Dirt Girl is a very Boss-like tale of doppelgängers, one of whom gets stuck in the old hometown:
Nobody knows when she started her skid
She was only 27 and she had five kids
Coulda been the whiskey, coulda been the pills
Coulda been the dreams she was tryin' to kill
But there won't be a mention in the News of The World
About the life and the death of a Red Dirt Girl
Who never got any further across the line than Meridian.
Like Springsteen and Tom Waits, Harris often imagines the characters in her songs as people (or aspects of herself) she's left behind. But in contrast to America's standard-issue California dreamin', she doesn't want to erase her past or disappear beneath each new persona. Which is one of several reasons Gram Parsons hovers, never far, from her music.
"Michelangelo," the CD's second cut, is yet another in a long line of Harris tunes that invoke his ghost, the tragic figure of the flawed genius surrounded by his past choices, via a melody that could have come out of Leonard Cohen and a spare but textured aural background speckled with rumbling bass and acoustic guitar strums and jet-stream wisps of overdriven feedback. "Tragedy" sets its tensions between industrial drumming, a clutch of guitars (including a floating pedal steel) and Springsteen and wife Patti Scialfa on backup Everly-Brothers-go-rhythm-and-blues-flavored vocals after the Boss-ish opening: "Some say it's destiny/Whether triumph or tragedy/But I believe we cast our nets out on the sea/And nothing we gather comes for free."
That sense of responsibility is why Harris doesn't erase history, no matter how she may recast it in literary or imaginative terms. ("Bang the Drum Slowly," a eulogy for her father co-written with Guy Clark, is unabashedly sentimental and biblical, for instance, with an e-bow winding through it like a church organ.) It's also why, along with the likes of Springsteen and Waits, she has struggled with the theme of redemption time after time, whether singing refurbished old hymns in her soaring vibrato or switching to more profane journeys taken from her own and others' searching. Understanding, guilt, salvation and love are bound together in lines like these from "The Pearl": "Like falling stars from the universe we are hurled/Down through the long loneliness of the world/Until we behold the pain become the pearl."
It's a story older than that of Piers Plowman, but it may seem quaint in a day when the word "character" has been vastly reduced in meaning, when the world seems like a welter of wannabe victims lining up for a camera shot. The process of living leaves us scarred, as it did Michelangelo, but that's the price. Cameos come relatively cheap. On the other hand, there's always the twilight solace of Prozac Nation.
Startlingly produced by Malcolm Burn (who engineered and mixed Wrecking Ball), featuring a dozen or so musicians (also including Dave Matthews and Jill Cunniff), Red Dirt Girl is roughly two-thirds dynamite, one-third breathing space. Sonically, it never stops pushing into those post-Hendrix wah-wah soundscapes, including telephone rings and background conversations, tunes starting with the whirr of a tape machine being turned on--a deliberate carelessness of sonic references from outside the soundstage that paradoxically underscore that stage's fierce integrity. Conceptually, the album does what the best country music (which it only vaguely is) has always done: tells us stories about where we come from and warns us to look twice about where we're going.
For Harris never forgets for long our only inevitable destination--which is one big reason you might call this music for grown-ups. Sure, it's boomer music, so there's inevitably some nostalgia, but in Harris's capable, determined, ironic hands, the disc raises more questions than it settles neatly down to bed. And you can hum nearly all of it through the jabs at the job and downers from your parents and/or kids and adrenaline rushes of joy and outbreaks of road rage and those late, ominously clear and sparkling nights when everyone else is finally out cold and you're rhapsodically wishing you had a telescope.
Harris is on tour now. Don't miss her.
Every five years the psychologist Judith Wallerstein updates her ongoing
study of 131 children whose parents were going through divorce in Marin
County, California, in 1971, and every five years her warnings about the
dire effects of divorce on children make the headlines, the covers and
the talk shows. Her new book, The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce,
ups the ante: She now believes that parents should grit their teeth and
stay together, so traumatized were her interviewees even into their 20s,
contending with drugs and drink, bad boy-friends, unsatisfactory jobs,
low self-esteem and lack of trust in relationships. Before you young
cynics out there say welcome to the club, remember: This is not a
moralistic sermon dreamed up by Dr. Laura, the Pope, your relatives or
even Judith Wallerstein. This is science.
But what if it isn't? Scholars have long been critical of Wallerstein's
methods: She had no control group--kids just like the ones in her study
but whose unhappily married parents stayed together. (In her new book
she has attempted to get around this flaw by interviewing a "comparison
sample" of people from intact families who went to high school with her
subjects, but the two groups are not carefully matched.) She generalizes
too quickly: Can sixty Marin County families really stand in for all
America? Are the seventies us? Doesn't it make a difference that fathers
today are more involved with their kids both before and after divorce,
that mothers are better educated and better able to support themselves,
that divorce is no longer a badge of immorality and failure? It never
occurs to Wallerstein, either, that the very process of being
interviewed and reinterviewed about the effects of parental divorce for
a quarter-century by a warm, empathetic and kindly professional would
encourage her subjects to see their lives through that lens. "Karen" may
really believe divorce explains why she spent her early 20s living with
a layabout--blaming your parents is never a hard sell in America--but
that doesn't mean it's true.
The media tend to treat such objections rather lightly. Wallerstein's
critics "don't want to hear the bad news," wrote Walter Kirn in
Time's recent cover story. The real bad news, though, is the way
Wallerstein has come to omit from her writings crucial information she
herself presented in her first book about her research, Surviving the
Breakup, published in 1980.
How did Wallerstein find her divorcing couples, and what sort of people
were they? In her new book, she writes that they were referred by their
lawyers "on the basis of their willingness to participate." Surviving
the Breakup gives quite a different picture: "The sixty families who
participated in this study came initially for a six-week divorce
counseling service. The service was conceptualized and advertised as a
preventive program and was offered free of charge to all families in the
midst of divorce. Parents learned of the service through attorneys,
school teachers, counselors, social agencies, ministers, friends, and
newspaper articles." In other words, Wallerstein was not just offering
people a chance to advance the cause of knowledge, she was offering free
therapy--something she today vehemently denies ("Naturally I wanted to
be sure that any problem we saw did not predate the divorce. Neither
they [the kids] nor their parents were ever my patients"). Obviously,
people who sign up for therapy, not to mention volunteering their kids
for continuing contact, have problems; by choosing only therapy-seekers,
Wallerstein essentially excluded divorcing couples who were coping well.
Today, Wallerstein provides no information about the psychological
well-being of the parents before divorce, but in her 1980 book, she is
very clear about how troubled they were. Only one-third displayed
"generally adequate psychological functioning." Fifty percent of the men
and almost as many women were "moderately troubled"--"chronically
depressed, sometimes suicidal individuals...with severe neurotic
difficulties or with handicaps in relating to another person, or those
with longstanding problems in controlling their rage or sexual
impulses." Fifteen percent of the men and 20 percent of the women "had
histories of mental illness, including paranoid thinking, bizarre
behavior, manic-depressive illnesses, and generally fragile or
unsuccessful attempts to cope with the demands of life, marriage, and
family." Some underwent "hospitalization for severe mental illness,
suicide attempts, severe psychosomatic illnesses, work histories ridden
with unsatisfactory performance, or arrests for assault." It's not for
me to say whether a sample in which two-thirds of the participants range
from chronically depressed to outright insane represents the general
public--but attributing all their children's struggles to divorce is
The way Wallerstein describes her sample has changed also. In a table in
her 1980 book, she places 28 percent of the families in the two lowest
of five social-class rankings, as defined by the Hollingshead index, and
23 percent in the highest. In the new book, these figures are mentioned
in passing, but at the same time she calls all the families "middle
class"--including a famous wife-beating TV executive and his former
spouse, a wealthy travel agent who spent her life globe-trotting. All
are now "educated," as well, including the substantial percentage of
parents (24 percent of the mothers and 18 percent of the fathers at
initial contact in 1971) who hadn't been to college. Gone too are such
relevant facts from the earlier book as that one-third of the couples
had "rushed into a precipitous marriage because of an unplanned
pregnancy" and that half the wives, "because of their age and lack of
job experience, were viewed realistically as unemployable."
In short, what we have here are not generic white suburbanites who threw
away workable marriages in order to actualize their human potential in a
Marin County hot tub. We have sixty disastrous families, featuring crazy
parents, economic insecurity, trapped wives and, as Wallerstein does
discuss, lots of violence (one-quarter of the fathers beat their wives;
out of the 131 children, thirty-two had witnessed such attacks). How on
earth can she claim that divorce is what made her young people's lives
difficult? The wonder is that they are doing as well as they are.
I still think third-party politics is mostly a crock, but then, so is two-party politics.