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Sunday, January 31, 2010

Memories of the dome gnomes and phrigs

This happened when pranks were done for their diversion and entertainment value.  I was there for this one, as reported on my alma mater's Facebook site.  The subject of the piece is on how the dome at Augustana College's Old Main was turned into a teapot during a night in November 1955.

This collage shows how much paraphenalia and skill was needed by workmen to maintain the dome, the teapot, and the young man who carried out this mission, Road Fryxell, scaling the outside of the building.  The college's account of the phrig is fairly accurate, as it seems to have been researched from the student newspaper.  However, I was there, and remember the details of  how this came about a bit differently.

Old Main sits on a bluff above the street and high above the Mississippi River some blocks to the north.  A long stairway leads up from the street.  It was not exactly a handicapped accessible site.  Well, that's not true.   One young woman who was wheel chair bound was brought by taxi to the foot of the stairs each day for her 8 o'clock class.  Any young men who passed by on their way to class would carry her up the stairs in the wheel chair.   It usually took four of them.  They not only carried her up the outside stairs to the building's entrance, but once inside they carried her to the 2nd or 3rd floor where her class was.  After class, another bunch of young men would carry her down to wherewever she needed to go for her next class.
Understanding how this building was situated and built is necessary to fully appreciate the story I am about to tell. 

It begins with an elaborate phrig, titled Crazy Connie's Used Car Lot.  Crazy Connie was Dr. Conrad Bergendoff, president of Augustana College.  It happened in the early 1950s when there were still World War II veterans going to school on the G.I. Bill.  Many of them brought small cars to campus--VWs, MGs, Austin Healy's,  economical little sports cars. 

One morning when students came to school, they found a group of these little cars parked around the entrance of Old Main and some were inside on the ground floor under the dome with a big sign proclaiming Crazy Connie's Used Car Lot.  The best part of the phrig was leaving people wondering how in the heck those cars got up that long flight of stairs and inside the building.  Well, many of those young men who hauled wheel chairs and other things up those steps when needed got together and carried VWs and MGs up there.  It was a massive undertaking.

The administration was not so concerned about the cars outside the entrance as it was the ones inside.  It was concerned because the building was being breached.  Crazy Connie's used car lot was just one occasion.  The school was proud of a carillon that was installed in the dome.  It's keyboard was on the chapel pipe organ which was on the seecond and third floor of Old Main.   Every Sunday afternoon at about 4 o'clock,  a music professor would give a carillon concert that would echo out over the river valley in lower Rock Island.  One night some enterprising phriggers broke into Old Main,  ascended to the carrillon in the dome,  unhooked one of  the electrical wires to a carillon chime, and replace it with a fog horn, so that every time that note was struck, it sent an oooh-aaaah blast out in the midst of the music.
I understand that the professor threatened to resign if something was not done to prevent such shenanigans with the organ.

The physical plant went to work and found ways to secure the doors and windows to make it near-impossible to break into Old Main and phrig it.  This challenge was answered after a heavy snow fall when
a bunch of people shoveled snow up against the entrance doors making it impossible to gain entrance until it was all shoveled away again.  (Which was done with volunteers, many of whom probably did the original shoveling.)  Classes were canceled that morning.

The challenge to breach Old Main was responsible for Teapot Dome.  Students could no longer find a way to phrig the bulding from the inside, so they devised a way to do it from the outside.  The culprit was Roald Fryxell, son of the geology professor, Fritioff Fryxell, an expert mountain climber who as part of his doctoral dissertation climbed and named the peaks in Grand Teton National Park.  Roald borrowed his dad's mountain climbing gear and went up the sandstone outside of Old Main, as shown in the picture.  The picture shows the technique, but not the actual place he made the ascent that night.  However, the sandstone blocks of Old Main still bear the pinion holes that were made for the ascent.  Once Roald made it to the top of the dome,  the teapot spout and handle had to be hauled up and put in place, which involved feats of engineering and ingenuity. 

(Sadly, Roald whose specialty was paleontology was well on his way to becoming as prominent a geologist as his father when he was killed in an automobile accident.)

Augustana College also claims to be where panty raids orginated.,  They were also devised and carried out by G.I.s who had learned a thing or two about mounting military-like operations.

Nothing encaptures the concept of higher education like scaling the dome of a a towering sandstone building.  People admired the initiative and ingenuity, even if grudgingly.  The closest thing to it of late was the young people from Greenpeace last summer who asended Mount Rushmore and dropped a huge banner over the presidential faces.  Education doesn't get much higher than than. 

Saturday, January 30, 2010

The grammar of libel

I received e-mails and blog comments asking why I said what I said.  I had made an error.  Not an error of fact but an error of judgment swayed largely by my growing conviction that the Internet, which has the potential and sometimes the realization of being one of the most useful tools devised by humankind, is often rendered worthless and intellectually  carcinogenic.  The error was made in my previous post in which I ridiculed the Supreme Court for engaging in semantic shysterism in defining corporations as persons in the same sense that individual humans are. 

The statement for which clarifications were suggested is:

The English lexicon has from its inception defined a person as a human, an individual of specified character, the personality of a human self. To contend that a corporation, which is a political contrivance of humans with an agenda, is in any way a person is to fly in the face of an essential linguistic and semantic distinction that is deeply rooted in the language.

My mistake was in eliding a paragraph that defined more thoroughly what  "essential linguistic and semantic distinction" exists regarding the word "person,'  In composing the original post, I had a paragraph that gave some etymologic history of the word person.  In transferring the post to the blog composer,  part of the post was cut because of some technical glitch in trying to copy it. I decided not to try to recall and rewrite that section because it seemed a bit overly pedantic in relation to the rest of the post.   I thought the phrase "essential linguistic and semantic distinction" would be a sufficient qualification for literate readers. 

The word person has been the subject of contention throughout the history of literacy.  The evidence is in the way the word is handled in most dictionary entries.  They provide the definition of a person as an invidividual human as the prime one and list other usages and meanings in the  sub-entries.  Good descriptive dictionaries (as opposed to prescriptive dictionaries) provide lists of all the usages that one might encounter for a word.  The American Heritage Dictionary, for example, has a sub-entry under the category law that lists a usage as a human or organization that has rights and duties. 

From the earliest attempts to codify the usage, the writers of dictionaries have stressed that "essential linguistic and semantic distinction."  The early lexicographers were careful to make clear that a humanperson is a "natural person" and an organizational person is an "artificial person."  This distinction is alluded to in Justice Kennedy's dissent to the United Citizens Supreme Court decision.  The literature of America deals extensively with the idea that inalienable rights accrue to natural persons but not to artificial ones. 

The issue with the Supreme Court decision is that the majority opinion does not adhere to that distinction of what is considered an authentic person and equates corporations with natural persons in defining that matter of rights.

In putting the legal usage of person down under specialized sections, dictionary writers are also demonstrating that there is an inherent contradiction in the usages.  In the natural sense, a person is an individual with distinctive identity traits.  In the legal sense, a person is a collective amalgamation in which those distinctive traits are lost.  Norman Mailer once commented that totalitarianism is the obliteration of distinctions.  He was referring to the loss of individual identity that corporatization imposes. 

The use of the word person is dealt with in manuals of writing style to preserve the essential, natural definition,  The meanings of words come out o.0f their history.  Tone style book used at a newspaper for which I worked, anytime we referred to corporations in terms of their rights and obligations, we were required to refer to them as "corporate entities" to emphasize that they were contrivances that had no claim to natural, inalienable rights. 

But this obliteration of distinction by the Supreme Court has deeper implications.  Every state legal code has statement that one of the rights held by persons is the right not to be defamed.

In South Dakota law it is stated thusly:  "Obligation to refrain from defamation.  Every person is obligated to refrain from infringing upon the right of others not to be defamed.”

The state constitution lays out the grounds for holding people responsible when their exercise of free speech defames: 
     § 5.   Freedom of speech--Truth as defense--Jury trial. Every person may freely speak, write and publish on all subjects, being responsible for the abuse of that right. In all trials for libel, both civil and criminal, the truth, when published with good motives and for justifiable ends, shall be a sufficient defense. The jury shall have the right to determine the fact and the law under the direction of the court.

The United Citizens case before the Supreme Court was about a film that the court termed “perjorative” about Hillary Clinton.  While public figures do not have the right to seek action against defamation in political speech about them,  the matter of the right not to be defamed and the right to exercise free speech to the point of defamation is in conflict. 

Now that corporations have no restrictions on their right to use their profits for engaging in political speech, it might be time to find ways to hold defamers truly responsible for what they say. 

But that could put an end to the blogosphere as we know it.  And it could elevate the level of persons we encounter.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Feeding useless eaters and nurturing corporations

Madville Times has lent its chortle to the incredulous laughter at the Supreme Court ruling that the McCain-Feingold bill passed in 2002 is wrong in limiting corporations from making direct contributions from its profits to use for political attack advertising.  It is not the finding of five members of the court that is cause for derision, but their reasoning demonstrated in the opinion. The ruling sounds like something George Orwell would concoct if he were a writer for The Daily Show,.

In  all, it has been a crowning week for the right-wing agenda.  Rush Limbaugh, the most pathological of the conspiracy theorists, warned that contributions for Haitian relief would contribute to something insidious.  Sarah Palin is still struggling with her reading list. The lieutenant governor of South Carolina suggested that poverty-dependency could be eliminated if school lunches were withheld from poor kids so they would die out and not breed.  And the Supreme Court majority hinged its decision on the premise that corporations are persons.  They must have been tutored at the Sarah Palin Institute for Intellectual Excellence.

Those who snickered at the corporations-are-persons contention were immediately assailed by the wing-dingers and informed that they were confused and ignorant and stupid.  The English lexicon has from its inception defined a person as a human, an individual of specified character, the personality of a human self. To contend that a corporation, which is a political contrivance of humans with an agenda, is in any way a person is to fly in the face of an essential linguistic and semantic distinction that is deeply rooted in the language.  But such affronts to literacy are not something new.

In Orwell's 1984, the protagonist's job in the Ministry of Truth is to purge the language of words that might convey to the people knowledge of historical realities that might cause them to question the totalitarian regimen under which they live.  If the word itself cannot be eliminated, its definition is changed.  That is what the Supreme Court had to do to bring corporations and their arbitrary uses of their power and wealth under the protetion of the First Amendment,  which has previously been understood to apply to persons, not contrived entities.  Corporate totalitarianism and the privileges of power it wants for its fascistic elite are a basic GOP premise.  The Supreme Court hacks found a crude way to bring them under a Constitutional protection.   Wily, if not particularly edified or brilliant. 

 The McCain-Feingold bill and previous court rulings were attempts to keep huge, powerful entities from dominating and controlling political discussion to the point of diminishing, even eliminating, the voices of private citizens in political debate.  The Supreme Court majority has found a way to employ the protections of the Constitution against the very things it was written to protect.  It has done so by demolishing the language, by purging it of the semantic content of certain words and changing definitions.  Libel, disinformation, and mendacity are endorsed as the language of the realm. 

The literate will have to suffer.  And democracy will now mean that individual persons have been demoted to a powerless serfdom while corporations assume the prime mantle of personhood. 

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

A clear message

For the jobless, the poor, and those who cannot afford healt-care, their countrymen sends a clear message:   you don't have a country. 

Friday, January 15, 2010

Ignorance: America's growth industry

A few weeks ago, a CNN poll revealed that 55 percent of Americans have spurned the H1N1 vaccine.  The main reason is that despite no clinical evidence that there is any unusual danger in the vaccine, people believe that it may have dangerous side effects.   With Swine Flu  causing  10,000 deaths since April and infecting 50 million people, one must wonder why people fear the side effects more than the flu itself, despite the efforts of health officials to publicize data that shows the vaccine does not cause the side effects that people seem to fear.  The answer is "the new media."

Actually,  the answer is in  how the "new media" has hooked up with and exploited an audience that has become a mainstay of the older media, talk radio.  A study published by the American Pyschological Association takes a look at the "dysfunctional" people with "aberrant behaviors" who dominate the call-in portions of sports talk radio.  In short, the study finds a disproportionate number of callers who demonstrate abusive and confrontive behavior because they "over identify" with their teams and favorite figures.

While this study is limited to sports talk radio, the behavior it describes is common to most talk radio, to comments on discussion boards, and to bloggers.

In the case of the poll about H1N1 vaccine, the pollsters do not ask what the respondents are basing their opinions on.   The people who listen to the midnight radio show, Coast To Coast AM with George Noory as host, hear regular assertions that the Swine Flu epidemic is a hoax and that the vaccine is fraught with dangers.  The show has 4.5 million listeners a night, some of whom go on the internet as bloggers and commenters and spread their news.  George Noory, an unctuous replacement of Art Bell as the show's main host, does not just tolerate wackiness; he encourages and contributes to it.   He has regular guests who deny the H1N1 pandemic and state things about the riskiness of the vaccine, and he asserts the same himself.

Coast To Coast AM concentrates on UFOs, aliens, grotesque creatures, out-of-body and out-of-mind experiences, conspiracies galore, and all manner of hallucinatory stuff.  Midnight radio talk is representative of the alternative media and the integral role it plays in the deterioration of the intellectual and social culture.  While the discussion of  the paranormal and those aspects of news that give cause for doubt need open examination, Coast To Coast AM feeds on and exacerbates that part of the human psyche that chooses ignorance, superstition, urban legends, and the disinformation of the psychotic and hateful as its preferred intellectual level. Not all the hosts of the show conduct it at that level, but George Noory has  built a huge audience out of shilling for the wacky and downright fraudulent.  The originator  of the show, Art Bell,  who still hosts occasionally, is more challenging and skeptical and more discerning in his choices of guest.  Weekend host Ian Punnett is considered, sometimes downright intellectual, in his approach to topics, although he generally bases his programs on entire books and elicits thorough, critical discussion. 

George Noory's fixation on aliens and evil spirits in various forms goes beyond the unexplained into deep psychosis.  His mainstay is ignorance and superstition, spiced up on occasion with outright fraud.  He cultivates guests who make grossly erroneous statements about everything from native American religions to current political affairs that generally contend that everything is driven by evil conspiracies.  Noory repeatedly had guests who espoused the theory that Obama was not born in Hawaii.  The debunking of global warming is among his favorite topics. 

Noory's programs are considered ludicrous by people of reasonable intelligence and some education, but the nation-wide audience indicates an alarming number of people who, with their counterparts on sports talk radio, over-identify with ignorance and superstition and live under huge intellectual rocks that permit no penetration by evidence-supported facts and the rigors of reason.  The reach this appeal to wackiness has is indicated by the 55 percent of Americans who decided not to inoculate themselves from a deadly flu virus because the false information generated by the intellectually and morally deficient and transmitted through the new media has possessed a majority of Americans.

Any time one criticizes the quality of information being flung around us, one is accused of wishing to limit free speech or of disparaging dissent.  Those accusers tend to ignore the fact that free speech includes exposing bad information and people who do not have the mental or moral wherewithal to provide good information.  The real issue is that some factions that want political power depend upon the ignorant, the malicious, and mentally indigent to be duped into political movements.  Opposing stupidity, malice, and falsehood is contended by them to be an un-American opposition to free speech. 

The fact is that superstitions and falsehoods are a force in shaping American life.  Their propagation has money and resources behind it.  A New York Times story notes that the influence of the forces of ignorance in Congress are  "the culmination of more than a generation of partisan polarization of the American and political system, and a precipitous decline in collegiality and collaboration in governing that seemed to move in inversproportion to a rising influence of lobbying, money, the 24-hour news cycle and hostilities on talk shows and in the blogosphere." 

Some professors are encouraging their students to take a break from the new media and let their minds work free from the constant assault on sensibility.  And a distinction between internet sources that strive for the integrity of legacy journalism and and those that cater to the lowest and most dangerous of human motives is being made.

 A colleague of mine insists that the times of superstition and ignorance are an important aspect of the natural selection process that improves the human race, as history has shown.  She says, for example, those who declined the H1N1 vaccination are the ones who will bear the brunt of a pandemic and be eliminated from passing their traits on to  other generations. 

And she makes the point that times when ignorance and scurrility are immensely popular are times when the genuine elite can identify those currents drifting through human affairs that must be avoided.  The future of the race depends very much on education in discernment.

Coast To Coast AM is like a horror show.  I suppose I will tune in now and again to see what grotesque things dementia can conjure.  

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Resigning politics. Or, it's the stupidity, stupid.

There was Sen. Joe Lieberman on CNN Sunday morning calling for vengeance against those who allowed the underwear bomber onto Detroit-bound Flight 253 on Christmas Day.  They must be held accountable, Lieberman said.  Who are they? asked anchor John King.  Well, we have to find out, said the Senator; somebody has to be held accountable. 

That exchange is just another example of the kind of thinking that is propelling America along the course of failure.  There is no doubt that some things did not work in the case of the Nigerian with the explosive underwear. And there is no doubt that people who screw up should be held accountable.  But there is also no  doubt in this case that the fault probably lies in a massively unwieldy task put on a system that has some technical bugs that had not revealed themselves until this incident.

Anytime some complex and massive system is implemented, it goes through a debugging period.  It is an expected part of the routine, for example, of when Microsoft introduces a new operating system.  Or when the South Dakota Department of Transportation changes it computer system for dispensing license plates.  It is something that every new model of aircraft goes through, before it is approved for passengers to fly on it.  And as a new model airliner is put into service,  its performance is tracked with service bulletins and the model is grounded if some feature needs correcting and reworking.  Such procedures are part of making any system efficient and reliable.

When a glitch is discovered, the usual procedure is for the people in charge to say, we've had a close call, let's roll up our sleeves, examine the problems diligently, and correct and perfect the system.  But in the case of the Nigerian with the explosive undershorts, the predominant response has been to call for a scapegoat, as Joe Lieberman did.  The current furor is to find some soul to blame, humiliate, and publicly hang in the wind as the object of our fear and scorn.  In the case of the Al Qaeda's latest zombie, there probably is no identifiable persons whose incompetence or lack of diligence can be held up for an American five-minutes-of-hate session.  The fault probably lies in a hastily and ponderously constructed system that had not and could not be fully tested.  In today's political climate, it is more important to find somebody to excoriate than it is to rework the system to make Americans safe.  It has become the highest priority in American politics to find some basis for accusation and character assassination than it is to develop systems that work--whether in national security, health care, or recession recovery.  The American leadership is more concerned with providing citizens something to hate rather than something to trust and believe in, or benefit from.  Our culture has changed.

America is burying itself under the debris of dysfunction.  Government is not working because a significant portion of the people have been led to an Al Qaeda-type rage against anyone and anything that does not fit their small-minded preferences.  What takes place in the Senate, and comes from the mouths of representatives like Joe Lieberman, reflects a culture that has immersed itself in pettiness, malice, and cranky stupidity.

Gary Hart explains what has happened in a Huffington Post:

But, having held office in the 1970s and 1980s, I can testify to the fact that politics used to be more civilized, more collegial, and more, well, enjoyable. It certainly was more honorable. Since then, the confluence of exorbitant campaign costs, special interest influence, and the meanness of "consultants" have all conspired to remove almost all joy from public service. The net result is, with a few notable exceptions, the decline in the caliber and quality of Americans willing to serve.

For the tea-baggers and government-haters, this is all to the good. They claim to love our country even while hating its government. So, the worse the government performance, the more it proves their point. And the less thoughtful, intelligent, and wise the elected officials, the worse the government.

The U.S. Commission on National Security for the 21st Century reported this in January 2001: "the United States finds itself on the brink of an unprecedented crisis of competence in government. The maintenance of American power in the world depends on the quality of U.S. government all levels. In this light, the declining orientation toward government service as a prestigious career is deeply troubling." Deeply troubling not for some reason of abstract civics, but deeply troubling for the security of this nation.

So, the cynics and trolls who scream like banshees at town hall meetings and scan the blogosphere to post cynical put-downs of their country's government are hurting no one but themselves. Not one of these people has the courage to stand for public office. And the most qualified Americans will continue to choose not to serve their country and we will continue to be weaker for it.

Hart supplies the reasons many people are choosing to resign from American politics.   As some one involved in recruiting candidates, I have found that the more intelligent and principled people are, the more they are repulsed by the idea of running for public office or taking public service jobs.  A common reason for not considering public service is that people feel they have a responsibility to protect their families and friends from the kind of insult, abuse, and defamation that has become the standard fare of political campaigns.  And a few moments watching cable television, surveying talk radio, or surfing the blogosphere shows they are right.

I, for one, am diffident about voting, let alone getting involved again in any campaigns.  America has been an experiment, which succeeded for more than 200 years.  The experiment has gone awry.  Those who say that we who criticize America hate America are right.  We hate the America they conceive in their minds.  If an experiment with a system does not work, it can be either corrected or abandoned.  The experiment is no longer working.  People of the progressive bent are no longer members of a political viewpoint; they have been branded as the enemy of America.  Political dialogue has been abandoned for war.  People must shrewdly ask if they have a country.

Like many people who hopefully voted in 2008, I have been shown that there is an element who cherishes a tradition of oppression and hatred that makes hope foolish.  Public service and civic interest offer careers of dishonor.

For many of us, it is time for a new experiment.  The ballot box is obsolete. Its integrity probably cannot be restored.  

Sunday, January 10, 2010

If it weren't for him, there wouldn't be any of us.*

*Dizzy Gillespie on Louis Armstrong
A new biography of Louis Armstrong was published in November.  It is Pops by Terry Teachout, the drama critic for the Wall Street Journal and culture critic for Commentary.  

Reviewers note that this is a comprehensive biography, long overdue on a man who changed the culture of America.  They also note "liberals" and bop era figures disparaged Armstrong as a popular entertainer who shuffled on the stage as an Uncle Tom.  That is an overblown  generality, because he was an inspiration and a revered master to musicians and serious appreciators of jazz.  Louis Armstrong was a powerful presence in my own life in ways that not only whetted an interest in music, but also shaped a political sense.

There has been disagreement among jazz fans about Armstrong's influence and significance, but I do not know of any trumpet player who, like Dizzy Gillespie, did not give Armstrong his due recognition as an inventor and innovator.  Miles Davis said, "You can't play anything on a horn that Louis hasn't played."
I grew up in a household with two older brothers who were more than casual jazz appreciators.  My oldest brother played piano and collected records.  My next older brother was an avid record collector.  One of the 78 rpms that they played until it wore out was Armstrong's "Black and Blue," and it echoes in my memory of those formative years.

At the age of 15, I became a full-fledged accolyte at the altar of jazz.  Having played trumpet for five years, I decided to quit the high school band because I, like many young musicians, got tired of playing the background music for sporting events with the Moline High School band.   However, it was some hip musicians in the marching band, particularly a hard bopping tenor sax player named Lenny, who led to my conversion.  I took lessons at a music store owned by Louis Bellson's father, and my instructor, bound to a wheel-chair from polio, led a local dance band.  The music store did the booking for a number of bands, and I eventually became a floating side man for bands that played high school proms and dates for country clubs and fraternal organizations.   However, those bands played Lombardo-like arrangements of pop tunes with a few swing charts thrown in, because the parents, teachers, and the more sedate dancers preferred that we stick to the tamer stuff, so I would not call these  jazz bands.

The summer I was 14 was the transforming one.  I had a part-time job working on the lawn and greenhouse crew at the Deere-Wiman estate, a mansion built by John Deere's son where the president of Deere  Co. lived at the time.  I  worked in the mornings.  In the afternoons I trekked  a block to a garage down the alley where a neighbor boy, whose Brazilian grandfather taught him to play the guitar, was trying to organize a jazz band.   Generally, we started after lunch, took a break for supper, then played in the evenings until Karl's mother chased us out of the garage, saying that we would disturb the neighbors.  Actually, the garage was a brick double that had been built for heating, so it had insulated walls.  You had to be standing almost next to the garage to hear the cacophony going on inside.

We scrounged up a phonograph for the garage on which we played records over and over again and tried to copy what we heard.  We filched the records from parents and older siblings. Initially, we chose records that seemed within our range of abilities to imitate.  Traditional jazz bands, dixieland style, were our first focus of study.  Most prominent among the recordings were Armstrong's.

We worked on such standards as "When the Saints Go Marching In,"  "Sunny Side of the Street," and "St. James Infirmary," that latter which satisfied the adolescent taste for drama and tragedy.  Our efforts got some professional help when a sax player from the Rock Island High School marching band joined us.  My all-white neighborhood was in some consternation when it saw this young black man getting off a bus and trudging through their alley each day.  But after a summer of working and working and actually being able to play some songs all the way through, the sax player's aunt, who was the music director at an AME church, invited us to play with her at the church.  We had not had a keyboard instrument up to that point, only the guitar.  The woman played black gospel music on a Hammond organ, and began coaching us and finding some arrangements for us.  She gave us a strong grounding in and appreciation of the blues. 

Louis Armstrong was a musical role model for us, but as our constant hours of practice and rehearsal enabled us to play, our tastes led us to other musicians.  When we listened to Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, we were at once intimidated and challenged.  No one, we said, could actually play that well, but we started working up a version of "Salt Peanuts."  At the same time, Stan Kenton brought a new sound to big bands.  I was impressed with a chubby trumpet player named Ray Wetzel, who played screamer with both the Kenton and Woody Herman bands.  He inspired me to working on high range playing, which led to both some band jobs and some embouchure problems.  For long periods of time, I had to give up playing to give damaged lips a chance to repair themselves.

Although I followed musical trends in jazz,  Louis Armstrong was always a presence.  He knew how to provide both entertainment and an artistic experience for his audiences.  So did Dizzy Gillespie, who earned his nickname from his on-stage antics.  While jazz fans and critics were dividing themselves between traditional jazz and be bop, aspiring musicians were trying to absorb both styles.  We found that one form led rather naturally into the other.

I saw Louis Armstrong perform many times, but the first time was when members of the garage band learned he was coming to town.  At the foot of the Centennial Bridge in Rock Island, Ill., was a club, variously known as the Paddock Club and Horseshoe Lounge, that featured name musicians.  We decided to go down town Rock Island and hang out near the door for a chance to see and hear Satchmo.  The place was mobbed.  There was standing room only, and the staff was furiously trying collect cover charges and see that all customers had drinks before the show started.   We managed to squeeze in the door with a group of people and thread our way to the back wall, where we could not be seen.  Nor could we see.  But we could hear, and got to hear the first set  while pressed up against the wall behind people who had to hold their drinks above their heads to keep them from being spilled.

When I was a freshman in college, my English professor was a well-known jazz collector.  He was a school classmate and friend of Bix Beiderbecke's, sponsored the college jazz club, and had one of the most extensive collection of jazz recordings in the country.  He was a personal friend of Louis Armstrong's, a friendship that apparently extended back into the 1920s.  When Armstrong came to town, Dr. Richter and Louis  got together.  One of the stories told by Dr. Richter was that when Armstrong was playing a date in the area, a grade school teacher from Rock Island's inner city asked he if would visit her school and  talk to the children.  Armstrong said he would visit the school and say hello.  When he got there, he asked what kind of music the kids were being taught.  The teacher sat down at the piano and began to play a tune to which the children marched in a circle.  Armstrong got out his trumpet and began weaving a jazz tune around the teacher's clunky piano playing, and soon the children were laughing and dancing and happy to be with their visitor.  As my professor said, it was Louis doing what only Louis could do, and he registered something on the people he was in contact with not by lecturing, but by performing.

I got into one of the few fist fights in my life when in the early 1950s someone dismissed Armstrong as an Uncle Tom has been.  Like many of my generation, I thought Armstrong represented a racial breakthrough.   While he did not aggressively speak out in behalf of civil rights, his presence and his demeanor advocated for them.  In the autumn of 1957 that all changed.

I was at Fort Bliss, Texas, training to be a guided missile crewman in September 1957.  A fraternity brother with whom I had been drafted was also stationed there.  He was a dancer and performer and was assigned to work in a special services unit.  They were working up a show, when he made a frantic visit to me.  The show was to feature a big band and they needed another trumpet player.  Some of the musicians had suddenly been reassigned and shipped out.  I said I had no trumpet and hadn't played in months.  He and his fellow performers scrounged up a horn (I had a mouthpiece with me) and I practiced and rehearsed when not on duty until I was in shape enough to join the band.  The band members were talking about a  Louis Armstrong  story that had made the news.

Armstrong was appearing in Grand Forks, North Dakota, that September, and Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus had ordered out the National Guard to prevent the Little Rock high school from integrating. A young reporter from The Grand Forks Herald was assigned to interview Armstrong, got into his room through subterfuge, and got the interview of a life time.  Louis was worked up over the events in Little Rock.

 “It’s getting almost so bad a colored man hasn’t got any country,” Armstrong told the reporter.  He charged President Eisenhower with duplicity and cowardice, and he called Orval Faubus something with the mama-humping adjective attached to it.  A full account of the incident is in The New York Times

When Eisenhower called in the troops to escort the black children into the Little Rock High School,
Armstrong sent him a telegram that said, “If you decide to walk into the schools with the little colored kids, take me along, Daddy. God bless you.”

In 1957, the military was six years into concerted desegregation.  It was not going well.  There was a racial motive behind the transferring of the musicians in the special services band in which I was filling in.  There was a roadhouse outside El Paso where black musicians went to jam, and it was often raided by MPs for various pretexts, but racial harassment was a clear motive.  Blacks were not particularly welcome across the border in Juarez, either, so men with talent had to devise their own opportunities to make music.  Consequently, the news of Armstrong's rebuke of the government was both encouraging and alarming to the black musicians and their friends.  I got pulled aside by a white NCO who, without any sense of irony,  asked if I knew what those black mother-fuckers were saying about General Eisenhower.  They better not say it in front of me, he warned.

The military led the nation in the movement to desegregate.  President Truman and his military staff began serious investigations and policy shifts toward integration, but matters did not change significantly until the Korean War.  Some poor performance by black units led to an analysis that showed inequalities and segregation to be a cause.  Gen. Matthew Ridgway spurred the process when he asked and received permission to fully desegregate units under his command.  By 1953, basic training units were fully desegregated, but there would linger in the military racial hatred and violence.  Eisenhower's decision to call out the troops to enforce desegregation of the public schools was encouraging to soldiers who sought an end to racial discrimination, but it also led to overt and violent actions by those opposed to racial equality.

Black men in the military service had been asked to fight for their country, but when they returned from the wars, they found that their country still discriminated against them.    When Louis Armstrong said "a  black man hasn't got a country," he stated a nasty fact that Ridgway and Eisenhower grappled with.  Why should black men serve a country that does not grant them full status as human beings?  Armstrong backed out of a scheduled  foreign tour to be a musical ambassador.  He could not see representing the freedom and equality of America as a representative of race to which freedom and equality was denied in America.  His words rippled through America and defined the problem to which Eisenhower reacted.  It was an important political moment that defined America.  It recalled the words from the song that Armstrong recorded in the 1920s:  "What did I do to be so black and blue?"

One of the most poorly understood aspects of jazz is why it not only spoke to black peope but why it was so essential to many young white Americans.  From its inception as work songs and gospel songs, American black music has always carried a double message.  It commiserated with the oppressed and deprived and expressed that blues feeling with a satiric edge against the society that oppressed them.   But it also sung of freedom from oppression and deprivation and urged the spirit to keep striving for a brighter future.  Most of the young people who particpated in and lived through the Second World War were the children of a working class that shared some of the same frustrations and  oppression that black Americans experienced.  The forces of denial that discriminated against blacks were also operating against whites of the lower economic classes.  Most of the young people I knew who were going to college on the G.I. Bill were jazz fans, and when they listened to bebop or Stan Kenton, they were inspired by a music that was pushing aside old boundaries.  Long before African Americans found opporunities in sports, Louis Armstrong and his fellow musicians were pushing against the boudaries that limited their people.  Jazz is a music of liberation, and it set the rhythm and the lyrics for generations who sought liberation from the denials of the promise of America. 

When Dizzy Gillespie said if it weren't for Louis Armstrong, there wouldn't be any of us, he spoke not just for trumpet players and jazz musicians.  He spoke for all of us who found solace and inspiration in what Satchmo articulated for America.

His life is worth serious study for what it has contributed to us, and Teachout's book gives a definitive account.

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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States