Wynton Marsalis has become the poster child of the conservative movement in post-1970s jazz, which tends to view the genre as something entirely mapped out with well defined boundaries that has survived certain “failed” formulations that are only worthy of being derided or ignored. He is relied upon as the “definitive” musician-commentator on jazz. And so he has been regularly featured in films, etc. pontificating about the meaning of the music as a whole. Naturally he does so from within the narrow confines of his own definitions of what jazz is and should be. And, naturally, I hate his fucking guts for that. But Black Codes (From the Underground) is still a success. In spite of its scarcely-concealed agenda of skipping over all jazz history since Miles Davis’ second great quintet from the mid-1960s, there is conviction behind it. This doesn’t exactly wow or thrill me, or even surprise me. I still have to admit that this is a good album.
The early 1970s were a turbulent time in America, with the Watergate scandal, the Vietnam war, the biggest economic crisis the Western world had faced in many decades, continued fights to implement integration, women’s liberation, and much more. Oh, and there was a lot of stuff happening to celebrate the 200-year anniversary of the nation’s independence from England in 1776. Along comes Johnny Cash, with this album, depicting him on the cover in a military-style jacket on a decrepit farmhouse porch behind a flag, and subtitled “A 200-Year Salute in Story and Song”. The theme is American history. It looks pretty heavy-handed on paper. The thing is, he does a pretty good job with this concept. He re-records a few tunes he had done before, and performs an assortment of other songs, mostly new ones written himself. There is a lot of between-song spoken dialog, and even a recitation of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. Some of these tracks were recorded exclusively for the astronauts on the Apollo 14 space mission (the one where Alan Shepard hit golf balls on the Moon), but ended up here instead. Like much of Cash’s early 70s output, the songs have a minimalist, folky feel, and there are only a couple of cuts with his trademark boom-chicka-boom rhythm (“Paul Revere,” “These Are My People”). And while this looks a lot like a very rudimentary recitation of the standard “story of America” taught to little kids in grade school, it ends up being slightly more nuanced than that. “Big Foot,” about the Wounded Knee Massacre, wasn’t something frequently taught in school history classes — would Cash have dug Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States when it came out years later? This release predated the Pine Ridge Incident, erupting in response to the anniversary of Wounded Knee, by only a matter of months. Yet Cash elsewhere celebrates genocidal madmen like Christopher Columbus, so there are still contradictions. Listeners who want Johnny in good voice, recorded well with a crisp and talented backing band will probably find lots to like here. Those who focus on lyrics more than the instrumental contributions probably will care a lot less for this one. In any event, this was one of Cash’s last concepts albums.
Johnny Cash’s recordings of the 1970s aren’t usually regarded well. He seemed to struggle with issues that tend to face every big star eventually: what happens when you’ve been around the business for long enough that popular tastes have changed and new trends and fads have come along? Stay true to what you always did (even if that is less popular) or adapt to the times (can you pull it off)? Interestingly, Cash tries a little of both with Ragged Old Flag.
The title track finds Cash displaying his most chauvinistic, nationalist populism, which is presented as mere patriotism during the midst of the Watergate scandal. It’s always hard to pin down Cash on politics, but it is common for people who lived through the Watergate era and fully understood Nixon’s crimes to insist that the president shouldn’t have gone to prison or been removed from office, just out of some vague sense of “patriotism”. Cash seems to take a similar view, at least by implication. It’s maybe also worth noting that Cash had met Nixon personally by this time, and had performed for him at the White House.
The album often recalls the “old” sound of Cash’s 50s recordings. But Charlie Bragg is the co-producer, and he seems responsible for providing a more contemporary country flair to some of the material here, most notably “Southern Comfort.” Cash has good support from Earl Scruggs on banjo and The Oak Ridge Boys on backing vocals throughout. Some of the folkier moments build on what was achieved on Hello, I’m Johnny Cash and Man in Black too, with a little more slick and polished sound.
Cash wrote (or co-wrote) everything here. Some of those efforts are worthy of note. “Don’t Go Near the Water” is an environmentalist paean. It’s something unusual for a country star. Then there is “King of the Hill,” a song that prefigures a lot of what Bruce Springsteen would become known for a few years down the line. It’s a song about “manly” men who want to succeed in life and go to the coal mines rather than the cotton mill to do it. But by the end, the song conveys that eventually all the coal will be gone, and if you’re not dead already you can call yourself king of the hill. But it’s a kind of sad prize, and Cash very subtly makes it an ironic one, implying (without clearly stating it, except through a little chuckle) that maybe it was all a waste.
This album is among the better of Cash’s efforts of the decade. Much of side two runs a little thinner after the good “Lonesome to the Bone,” but side one in particular delivers some good performances and songwriting with energy and conviction. This isn’t the place to start with Cash. Still, admirers may want to take a listen at some point as it would be a full twenty years before he made another album this good.
Link to an article on the substitution of prisons for social welfare programs in the USA by Loïc Wacquant, author of Punishing the Poor: The Neoliberal Government of Social Insecurity (2009), which came out around the same time as Michelle Alexander’s similar (but more well-known) The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (2010).
Various Artists – The Golden Age of Movie Musicals: The MGM Years MGM P6S 5878 (1973)
While showtunes and soundtrack music might not be things that I personally enjoy all that much, you can’t go wrong with this set if you want an introduction to those genres. I really respect what was done here. From a historical perspective this collection of recordings is amazing. It features some of the most well-known music of the 20th Century. People who wouldn’t consider themselves music listeners in the slightest probably still know the melody to “Over the Rainbow” and “Singin’ in the Rain”, or could recognize “Theme from ‘A Summer Place'”. The common denominator of this music is its simplicity. In terms of rhythm, nothing here is beyond a remedial level. The melodies are all straightforward and uncomplicated. The vocals often lack much subtlety, but instead focus on brute force vibrato. The instrumental film music on the final two “bonus” discs deals only in broad strokes, with lots of syrupy string arrangements and melodramatic surges. Despite the enormous popular recognition of this music, it would seem that already most of it is nothing more than an anachronism. The theatrical and vaudevillian aspects of this stuff — cartoonish, larger-than-life emoting that doesn’t leave any room for a reaction other than the one intended — isn’t all that common outside of Bollywood just a few decades on. It’s a wonder how tastes change so fast. I guess that Bollywood comment might make for an interesting comparison: is this music something that is borne out of socioeconomic conditions to fill a gap between the general public’s cultural sophistication and its more rapidly rising disposable income? At its worst, that is probably exactly what it does. But here we get some of the best and brightest moments, where there’s something more at work. “Over the Rainbow” and “Singin’ in the Rain” are so well known because they simply are great songs. And there are plenty more great songs here. There was also a book of the same name by Lawrence B. Thomas released just before this LP box set, which might be of interest. There are no liner notes to speak of with this set, so perhaps the book has more information about the music (I haven’t read it).
Drunk History Comedy Central (2013- )
There is a silly television show called “Drunk History” on a cable network in which comedians consume alcohol to the point of drunkenness and then re-tell the story of some historical incident or personality. Well-known actors reenact the story and lip-sync to the narration of the drunken storyteller, with absolutely meticulous fidelity to the words of the storyteller, belches and all. There is a hidden secret as to what makes the premise of the show intriguing. The reenactments are not faithful to “historical fact”. Instead, they are faithful to the inebriated ramblings of the storyteller. The historical accounts are like myths. The drunk storytellers clearly have some sort of script in hand, and have done some amount of research beforehand. But they act (or maybe really are) too drunk to tell the story in an articulate and nuanced manner. So the show dramatizes the myth in a way that makes the act of mythologization evident–that’s the funny part. This is like the famous line from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” It also makes the show a “pragmatic reflective history,” according the G.W.F. Hegel in Reason in History (1837), because it “nullifies the past and makes the event present.”
Many organizations stress the supposed importance of reducing or eliminating entirely the “appearance of impropriety”. These policies should be viewed for what they really are: attempts to reduce transparency, encourage misinformation, and concentrate power. Shouldn’t the real goal be to reduce or eliminate actual impropriety? And should an organization that is engaged in actual impropriety not visibly reflect that actual impropriety to the public? This latter question gets to the heart of the matter. These “appearance of impropriety” policies are all about manipulating public confidences to maintain power within a small group, to the exclusion of others. Organizational leaders attempt to control the flow of information. They only reveal to the outside world selected facts. Any that tend to portray the organization as corrupt, inept, malicious, etc. are suppressed, as best as possible. The public is thereby cajoled and misled to form an opinion of the organization, and of individuals within it, that is not based on all available facts, but rather only those that portray the organization in a positive light. This ideological “filtering” is a form of coercion, albeit one that does not rely directly on the use of physical force. Robert Lee Hale noted this long ago. For that matter, so did Leo Tolstoy in The Kingdom of God Is Within You (1894). They argued against a very old concept though. Plato’s endorsement in The Republic (380 BC) of a “noble lie” used by elites to maintain social harmony within a system of their design is one of the earliest recorded examples. The question of the “appearance of impropriety” comes up extensively when dealing with the lawyers and the judiciary (see the Judge Kopf affair), but also with other governmental branches, businesses, churches, journalistic publications, or any other organization. These sorts of policies, at worst, protect the social status of the relevant organization–especially the leaders of those organizations–while suppressing actual impropriety involving particular individuals. Quite hypocritically, many calls for reducing of the appearance of impropriety simultaneously call for increased transparency, without noting that these are contradictory objectives in the end, when viewed from the standpoint of public welfare rather than from a self-interested viewpoint of the organization (and its leaders) involved. With these ideas in mind, it is actually quite brazen that organizations publish any guidelines seeking to limit the “appearance of impropriety”. Such rules speak in condescending, anti-democratic tones. They imply that the public cannot properly assess facts. Nonsense.