Leave It To Pete

On July 23 Pete Seeger, performing at a Gulf Coast Oil Spill fundraiser at Manhattan’s City Winery, unveiled a new song of protest and hope inspired by the events of the BP disaster. Penned by Pete and his friend Lorre Wyatt, the song it titled ‘God’s Counting On Me, God’s Counting On You.’ It’s funny, it’s warm, it’s moving, it’s classic Pete in its call to action being divinely inspired. Just a little nudge from the Great Spirit to get things going in the right direction.


lacewellThis month TheBluegrassSpecial.com introduces Reality Check, a monthly blast of common sense from wherever we can glean it. Leading off is one of our favorite political/cultural observers, Melissa Harris-Lacewell, from her essay, "Katrina Is Not a Metaphor," published In the August 2-9 issue of The Nation. In the essay, Ms. Harris-Lacewell, an associate professor of politics and African-American studies at Princeton University and an MSNBC contributor, offers some pointed observations about the plight of New Orleans five years after Hurricane Katrina, and how the Crescent City's tragedy is being exploited by the media in such a way as to mute the truth of the facts on the ground.

These days it is fashionable to use Katrina as a discursive tool. In March 2009, Frank Rich wondered if AIG bonuses would become Obama's "Katrina moment." A few months later Politico reported that "Republicans hope General Motors is President Obama's Hurricane Katrina," only to be topped by the Washington Times, which asked, "Will Swine Flu Be Obama's Katrina?" By January of this year the Wall Street Journal readily declared that the Haiti earthquake was Obama's Katrina, while Arianna Huffington recently assured readers that it was jobs, not the BP oil spill, that would be Obama's Katrina.

Sometimes it feels like commentators can't wait for another Hurricane Katrina. After all, catastrophes focus public attention, reveal institutional shortcomings and evoke powerful emotional responses. Maybe it was inevitable that Hurricane Katrina would be reduced to a casual metaphor. For thirty years pundits have described political scandal involving intrigue and corruption with the handy suffix "gate." Now Katrina is shorthand for administration-crippling unresponsiveness. Mention Katrina to remind politicians that they need to look concerned and engaged when citizens are suffering. Deploy Katrina as a lesson in bureaucratic incompetence. Shake a scolding Katrina finger at leaders who seem overwhelmed by a current challenge. Katrina is unexpected disaster. Katrina is spectacular debacle. Katrina is the beginning of the end of a flawed leader.

Except that it is not. Eighty percent of the city flooded when the levees failed. More than 1,500 people were killed. Tens of thousands were permanently displaced. Billions in property was lost. The levee failure caused by Katrina wiped away entire communities, irreparably damaging homes, schools, churches and stores. It stole decades of family memories. It altered centuries of tradition in a matter of moments. It left a legacy of blight, economic devastation and personal suffering in its wake.

Each time Katrina, whose fifth anniversary is on the oil-soaked horizon, is evoked as a political metaphor, we risk a dangerous mediation of experience. These metaphors reduce catastrophe to an object lesson, implying that the effects of the disaster have been resolved, that the plot has been resolved and that the continued suffering of our fellow citizens is little more than a literary device.

Read Melissa Harris-Lacewell's complete essay, "Katrina Is Not a Metaphor" at The Nation website

A Happy Gentoo Penguin

Refusing to be an Orca whales blue-plate special, this Gentoo penguin finds a novel solution to a perilous problem.

Some orca whales were out to snare a Gentoo penguin for lunch. The resourceful would-be blue-plate special found a unique route to survival. This video was posted but not filmed by TsavenNava, who pointed out in an accompanying note that he did not add the annoying music either. On his blog, "Antarctica. Srsly.", Tsaven describes himself as "your average white-collar professional" who owned a profitable computer repair business, "couple of muscle cars, even a motorcycle. Fairly spacious apartment, extensive collection of high-powered computers with huge screens, absurdly hot girlfriend, the works. Then I sold everything I owned, and moved to Antarctica." Truly a man after our own heart.



By David McGee

With Paradise, a strong and typically adventurous new album, Judy Collins continues her transcendent aesthetic journey, even as nine reissues of her earlier work illuminate nearly a half-century of bold strokes and exciting discoveries. Appreciating and reappraising an American icon. Plus, TheBluegrassSpecial.com Interview with Ms. Collins.

By David McGee

In A Heartbeat and a Guitar: Johnny Cash and the Making of Bitter Tears, author Antonino D’Ambrosio explores a moment in time when Peter La Farge and Johnny Cash put the plight of Native People at the forefront of the folk boom of the ‘60s, the former with his songs, the latter with his controversial album, Bitter Tears, which included five La Farge songs among its eight tracks and was branded un-American by one disc jockey as radio stations across the nation boycotted it. Also: a new CD, Setlist: The Very Best of Johnny Cash Live, captures the Man in Black in the critical years of 1968 to 1972, when his popularity was at its height and his live shows with his troupe of the Carter Family, the Statler Brothers and Carl Perkins, ranked with the finest concert spectacles of their day. And in a piece reprinted from GlobalComment.com, the author discusses how he got interested in Johnny Cash and Bitter Tears, and uncovered the hidden story behind its creation.



*Who Is Harvey Pekar?
An appreciation of the artist by David McGee, and an in-depth interview with Pekar, originally posted at Walrus Comix, by ZEITGEISTY.

*Harvey Pekar: Jazz Critic
Having spent, in his own words, "literally thousands of dollars on rare records," Harvey Pekar was writing about music—specifically jazz—long before he met Robert Crumb, and continued to do so after American Splendor brought him fame. The Austin Chronicle was one of his regular port of calls as a critic, and from those archives we offer one of The Pekar's gems—an informed, passionate, empathetic piece about NANCY WILSON.



A look back at Dr. Seuss (Theodor Seuss Geisel) on the occasion of the 50th anniversary month of Green Eggs and Ham
*In ‘Sam I Am Turns 50,’ we chronicle the backstory of how Green Eggs and Ham came into being in the first place, and also discover ‘The Greater Lessons of Green Eggs and Ham,’ courtesy author and motivational project leader DEREK HUETHER, who drew parallels between himself and Sam one night while reading the book to his son, and ultimately realized green eggs and ham ‘are ideas and opportunities.’ In ‘Dr. Seuss Goes to War’ we explore the hidden side of Theodor Seuss Geisel, in the years 1941 to 1943, when he was the chief editorial cartoonist for the New York newspaper PM, for which he drew more than 400 editorial cartoons that mercilessly mocked Hitler and Hirohito. Still another side of Geisel is exposed in Richard H. Minear’s book Dr. Seuss Goes To War, that of the virulently anti-Japanese crusader who supported the internment of Japanese-Americans but tried to make amends for his feelings in Horton Hears a Who. Seven of the PM editorial cartoons are included in this section.

lorax*In ‘The Political Dr. Seuss,’ filmmaker RON LAMOTHE is interviewed by HAYLEY WOOD of the Massachusetts Foundation For the Humanities. Lamothe’s 2004 documentary, The Political Dr. Seuss, reveals how Geisel advocated social change, denounced racism, isolationism and spoke bluntly about the issues of the era, not always in ways we can admire today (to wit, his aforementioned low regard of the Japanese). ‘What I found most intriguing was that many of the best stories surrounding Dr. Seuss—anecdotes that had been published in books and articles year after year after year—turned out not to be true,’ Lamothe says. ‘Well, that's not quite right...most of them contained some kernel of truth but were altered to make for a better story.’ Lamonte also discusses the growth and development of Geisel as an artist, his influences, his early success and even his one book flop—The Seven Lady Godivas, a 1939 effort full of naked ladies that Geisel said ‘came out just ridiculous.’


THE BLOGGING FARMER: Alex Tiller’s Blog on Agriculture and Farming
This month: ‘The Rewards of Diversification’—Why monoculture (the practice of raising a single cash crop on extensive acreage), though a common business model in agriculture, is a bad idea. ‘On the other hand,’ Alex Tiller writes, ‘diversification of crops not only protects a community from famine is one crop should fail, it could actually be quite profitable.’ In part two of his blog, ‘Pestilence Points Up The Dangers Of Monoculture,’ Tiller explains why new industrial-grade pesticides, supposedly environmentally friendly, may be no match—and bad for the consumer besides—against the ever-adaptable corn earworm.


By Jules
Up-and-Coming Illustrator Ben Clanton, and 7 Imp’s 7 Kicks

As is her custom once a month in her 7 Impossible Things Before Breakfast blog, JULES, our kids’ lit blogger shines the spotlight on a student illustrator or someone otherwise brand-new to the field. BEN CLANTON is the latest honoree, and in addition to some background on his modus operandi, we’ve also included several examples of his distinctive illustrations. Jules winds up her visit with her current list of 7 Kicks—these being, in her own words, “Seven(ish) Exceptionally Fabulous, Beautiful, Interesting, Hilarious, or Otherwise Positive Noteworthy Things, whether book-related or not.” Good stuff here, including some of Jules's favorite new music.


By Duncan Strauss

Host of the Talking Animals show on NPR affiliate WMNF-FM (Tampa, FL), DUNCAN STRAUSS makes his debut this month as a regular contributor with literary spinoffs of his superb radio show, which airs on the first and second Wednesday of each month, 11:30 a.m. to noon. Animal news, animal songs, animal comedy and a quick quiz feature, ‘Name That Animal Tune,’ are all part of the package, but the heart of the show is his interviews with notable inhabitants of the animal world—luminaries such as Jane Goodall, Jean-Michel Cousteau—as well as those who run sanctuaries and shelters (including actress Tippi Hedren) and animal newsmakers on the order of Ringling Bros. whistleblower Tom Rider and other assorted animal experts. In his initial installment of the print version of Talking Animals, Strauss takes a look at W. Bruce Cameron’s new book, A Dog’s Purpose: A Novel For Humans, which is purportedly written by a dog, hence the subtitle. Read on, and be enlightened.



gauhar‘My Name Is Gauhar Jaan: The ‘First Dancing Girl, Calcutta’
Still considered the greatest of all female Indian vocalists, GAUHAR JAAN, one of the first artists to record music on 78 RPM records in India, left behind more than 600 songs in ten languages, and a legacy and legend that continues to influences other artists 80 years after her death. Suresh Chandvankar of the Society of Indian Record Collectors considers the life and music of Gauhar Jaan in a piece that concludes with a review of a new biography, My Name Is Gauhar Jaan! The Life and Times of a Musician by Vikram Sampath, that attempts to demystify and the myth and legend of the enigmatic icon.



*Cool Photo of the Month: Doomed Star Sheds Gassy Skin Before Death
SPACE.com reports on a doomed star caught in the act of shedding its gassy skin in a new photograph from the Hubble Space Telescope.

*Remembering Hank Cochran
A tribute to one of the great country songwriters of all time, who died of pancreatic cancer on July 15, plus excerpts from a 2009 interview with Cochran originally published in American Songwriter magazine.

*Sincerely: A Tribute to Harvey Fuqua
HARVEY FUQUA founded the Moonglows and had a short-lived solo career, but it was his multiple roles as  talent scout, producer, label owner, songwriter, arranger, confidante to soul stars and leader of an organization he founded to work with underprivileged inner-city and third world youth made him one of the most important figures in popular music in the last half of the 20th Century. The whirlwind that was Fuqua's life came to an end on July 6, when he died of a heart attack in a Detroit hospital.

*‘Who’s That Guy Over There?’ “Neil Young.’
BEN KEITH, for nearly 40 years the pedal steel guitarist for Neil Young as well as being a stellar producer and in-demand session musician, died of a heart attack while at Young’s ranch on July 26.

steinbrennerGeorge Steinbrenner From All Angles
Love him or hate him—and plenty did, often all at once—the controversial, larger-than-life New York Yankees owner GEORGE STEINBRENNER, who died suddenly of a massive heart attack on July 13, was different things to different people, depending on what he needed or who was in his sights. In tribute to an owner the likes of which we may never see again, we offer four unique perspectives on his unusual modus operandi.
*Former New York City Mayor ED KOCH, writing in the Huffington Post, also remembers a testy Steinbrenner, with whom he came to have a positive working relationship. On a less positive note, noted sports law authority ROGER ABRAMS, also writing in Huffington Post, recalls "George Steinbrenner Was a Bully."
*In an exclusive to TheBluegrassSpecial.com, former Yankees batboy and public relations executive JOE D'AMBROSIO remembers his tumultuous years with the World Champions on the field, and the day the Boss stood up for him when he was a new and beleaguered rookie in the PR office.
*And LONNY STRUM, managing director of the Strum Consulting Group, recalls his memorable, early-career encounter with the mercurial Steinbrenner in ‘The Day ‘The Boss’ Kicked Me Out Of His Office,’ a thoughtful reminiscence by a businessman who never lost his respect for Steinbrenner’s passion for winning.


The stadium voice of the New York Yankees (1951-2007) and the New York Giants (1956-2006) passed away at his home in Baldwin, NY, on July 11, three months shy of his 100th birthday. Elegant, dignified and classy, Sheppard, he of the precise diction and professorial tone, epitomized what the Yankees wanted the franchise to stand for, even when things were at their craziest on the field during late owner George Steinbrenner’s early years.

*RALPH HOUK: Ten days following Bob Sheppard’s death, eight days following George Steinbrenner’s, the Yankees organization suffered another blow when Ralph Houk, who as manager guided the team to three straight American League pennants and two World Series championships in the early ‘60s, died at his home in Winter Haven, FL.

*BILLY LOES: A mainstay of the Brooklyn Dodgers’ pitching staff from 1952 through the team’s 1955 World Championship, Billy Loes dsied on July 15 at a hospice in Tuscson, AZ, at age 80. His wife, Irene, said her husband had suffered from diabetes for years. During his Dodgers career, Loes won 50 games and lost 25, his best season coming in 1952, when he recorded a 13-8 record, four shutouts and a 2.69 earned run average. He is better remembered in baseball lore, however, as an odd duck who stood out on a team of odd ducks, most notably for claiming he muffed a ground ball back to the mound because he lost it in the sun.

nora-janeALBUM SPOTLIGHT: Nora Jane Struthers, Nora Jane Struthers
By David McGee

Before she was who she is today, Nora Jane Struthers was an English lit teacher in Brooklyn. Now she's one of the most impressive new roots artists of the year, a singer and songwriter whose carefully crafted, literate tales are born of the soil, strife and little joys of a life beholden to traditional values, before that term took on an unfortunate political tint. Politics is not Ms. Struthers's concern. How people live, what they gain, what they lose as the years roll on, how they respond to the ebb and flow of their days-and most certainly their attachment to the earth under their feet—is where she comes in on this, her first album.

ray-charlesALBUM SPOTLIGHT: Ray Charles, Genius + Soul=Jazz
By David McGee

There's more than meets the ear when it comes to the expanded edition of Genius + Soul=Jazz, which includes the 1960 album that gives this set its title, as well as the complete editions of three other '70s album of similar concept: My Kind of Jazz, Jazz Number II, and My Kind of Jazz Part 3. On the other hand, would anyone really be surprised? We are talking, after all, about Brother Ray. Okay? Okay.


In this month's Gospel News & Notes:

walter-hawkins*Blessed With Peace of Mind and Joy In His LifeA tribute to gospel giant WALTER HAWKINS, Grammy Award winning singer/composer and pastor of Oakland's Love Center Church, who succumbed to pancreatic cancer on July 11.

*MATT FELTS Joins PERFECT HEARTOne of Southern Gospel's legendardy groups, Perfect Heart, is back on the road, and sporting a new member in Matt Felts, one of the genre's top tenors.

ami-rushes*Gospel Album Review: AMI RUSHES, TestifyJoining us from The Black Gospel Blog, BOB MAROVICH weighs in on an exciting new long player from the Rev. James Cleveland’s protégé, Ami Rushes.


JOHN COWAN, The Massenburg Sessions Having made many an outstanding record in his time, John Cowan has topped himself by delivering a classic, and George Massenburg earns a salute too for giving the music an empathetic sonic framework designed to enhance not only the bold strokes but the discreet, subtle ones as well. This is one for the ages.

DANGERMUFFIN, MoonscapesA tight, eclectic trio coming out of Folly Beach, SC, Dangermuffin may not be unique among roots bands in tapping various strains of bluegrass, '60s rock, folk, pop, reggae and blues, then mixing and matching those styles at times, but the fellows do stand apart on the strength of their musicianship, writing and vision. I'm trying to avoid saying "jam band" because of the term's radioactive effect on some, but Dangermuffin may be the jam band with a difference many did not believe existed. On Moonscapes, the band's third album, all its strengths coalesce into an impressive whole.

THE FAREWELL DRIFTERS, Yellow Tag MondaysReminiscent of a mellower Giving Tree Band, the fine young roots outfit from up near Chicago, the Nashville-based Farewell Drifters have picked up high-profile endorsements from Peter Rowan and Jim Lauderdale, and after a few years of honing their sound live the quintet is making its national debut with Yellow Tag Mondays, an impressive sophomore album that positions the group firmly in the line of Nickel Creek and W.P.A.—largely acoustic, roots-oriented aggregates whose original material betrays multiple and varied influences in the realms of ‘60s rock ‘n’ roll and country-rock, as well contemporary pop-influenced bluegrass a la Alison Krauss + Union Station.

HORSE OPERA, Sounds Of The DesertOn its first studio album, Sounds of the Desert, Horse Opera has come up with nothing less than superb long player that fairly reeks of sweat, beer and sawdust-covered hardwood floors, but also has a lot going for it as narrative. Like its Austin compatriots Heybale, Horse Opera plays so fiercely and with such commitment to hard country music that you want to be wherever their music is playing.

LAINIE MARSH, The Hills Will Cradle Thee Herein Lainie Marsh speaks of life as one who has traveled far from her point of origin, soaked up experiences she might not have had otherwise, as well as musical influences perhaps less accessible had she remained cloistered in the hills. Thus the grist for this album.

BECKY SCHLEGEL, DandelionThese aren't songs about love newly fled, but about the contrast between feelings years, maybe decades, old, and the weight of those on the present day. Sadness permeates the baker's dozen tunes here, but Dandelion refuses to buckle under to despair-there's a resilience in Schlegel's tender, winsome voice, a searching, Alison Krauss-like quality, even a pentimento of hope under the ache, because there was a point in time when hearts engaged on a positive, spiritually elevated plane and forever seemed within the realm of possibility, so close at hand as to be palpable.

JUNIOR SISK AND RAMBLERS CHOICE, Heartaches And Dreams Junior Sisk and Ramblers Choice got it together beautifully on Heartaches And Dreams. The songs share a common narrative thread, but no two are alike otherwise, either in vocal interpretation or musical attack; the arrangements hew to traditional approaches but in that framework allow these gifted musicians to show what they're made of; and, always, you can't fake the feeling, so the conviction Junior Sisk and company always bring to their work, as well as the love for it, is the icing on quite a tasty cake.

KEVIN WELCH, A Patch of Blue SkyHere he is in 2010, timeless as ever, writing exquisite, insightful memos to us from the bloodstream of life experience. A Patch of Blue Sky is a wondrous thing, marked by impeccable songcraft, beautifully restrained and deeply evocative musicianship, heartfelt singing and meaningful stories abounding.


CHOP CHOP BOOM: The Danderliers and Other Great Groups on States Chop Chop Boom retrieves a moment in time, in group harmony and Chicago music history, once thought lost. The States label may have had little success on the national level, but not for lack of good records. Ditto for the groups represented here-most made laudable music in their time with the label, and the Danderliers and Hornets at least proved themselves players on a large scale, had States been blessed with the financial and distribution resources necessary to play the game on a larger scale. The honest effort put forth by all parties to these proceedings deserves the dignified presentation their efforts receive here.

PAUL CURRERI, California It's been a long road back from the throat surgery that took Paul Curreri off the active list for some three years, but with California he reminds us of how compelling a singer-songwriter he can be, and how sure-handed a producer he is as well. Sonically, musically, lyrically, Curreri's California is a wondrous place, and like the Sunshine State itself embraces interludes both unsettling and uplifting in a certain weird, self-affirming California way.

JOHN DOKES SINGS, GEORGE GEE SWINGSThis unassuming album reveals itself as one of 2010’s top pop offerings, as bracing in spirit as it is assured in musicality. Splendid work by all concerned.

ANN SAVOY, Black CoffeeBest known for her compelling mastery of Cajun music as a member of both the Savoy Family Band and the Savoy Doucet Band, as well as an incredible duet album with Linda Ronstadt, 2006's Grammy nominated Adieu False Heart (on which the two were billed as the Zozo Sisters), and not least of all as part of the all-woman band The Magnolia Sisters, Savoy can clearly do pretty much whatever she wants musically and have it turn out vital and memorable. She does the songs on Black Coffee proud, her versions standing toe-to-toe with many of the original treatments. How great would it be for this music-and for us—if she hung around these parts for awhile?

MORRY SOCHAT & THE SPECIAL 20S, Eatin' Dirt Later for the Wall Street Journal, and don't worry about the blues. Morry Sochat & The Special 20s are taking care of business, and so are a bunch of younger, equally inspired artists, male and female alike. In these hands the blues will survive and thrive, and will be there when fans of Citizen Cope, Massive Attack or Lady Gaga hunger for the real thing. Then we'll see exactly who's eatin' dirt.


JOHNNY CASH performs the entire BITTER TEARS album: ‘As Long As The Grass Shall Grow,’ ‘Apache Tears,’ ‘Custer,’ ‘The Talking Leaves,’ ‘The Ballad of Ira Hayes,’ ‘Drums,’ ‘White Girl’ and ‘The Vanishing Race.’

Recent Issues

(For all back issues go to the Archive)

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Laura Fissinger, Christopher Hill, Derk Richardson
Logo Design: John Mendelsohn (www.johnmendelsohn.com)
Website Design: Kieran McGee (www.kieranmcgee.com)
Staff Photographers: Audrey Harrod (Louisville, KY; www.flickr.com/audreyharrod), Alicia Zappier (New York)
E-mail: thebluegrassspecial@gmail.com
Mailing Address: David McGee, 201 W. 85 St.—5B, New York, NY 10024