Tag: 1900-1929

Mississippi Delta Bluesmen, as Relevant Now as Ever

Posted by – June 29, 2015

Bringing together strands of recent thoughts … the blues…

Recently I updated the “Got the blues so bad” mix/Nick’s True Blues Playlist – skewing heavily to the first bluesmen recorded vs later interpreters, the Southern backwoods “sundown comin’ & klan caught up to me at the crossroads” blues and that type of bluesman. Muddy Waters, B.B. King, Buddy Guy, Magic Slim, John Lee Hooker, the genuine article, the real bluesmen and those true to their spirit, like The Animals, or The Rolling Stones or Eric Clapton in their harder blues moments…

Mick Jagger knows the old blues lyrics, somehow Muddy Waters and Harpo Slim and recordings like that made their way across the pond to London, but ol’ Mick doesn’t convey the visceral blues that caused early American bluesmen to shout and stomp it…maybe Mick Jagger could pull off “so many beautiful supermodels (Jerry Hall Blues)” or the “Bad Music Video Dancing Blues” but can’t convey the blues felt down on the plantation, the woes of the dispossessed sharecropper’s son turned-itinerant musician…though, in fairness, the Stones pulled off some authentic blues standards and genuinely bluesy original tunes, and Keith Richards certainly comes from the ugliest corner of the wrong side of the tracks, England, and can definitely firmly grasp the blues, could shout the “1950s dentist got no anesthetic Blues“.

But I’m talking about the Southland that birthed the blues (about the song), the blues that began as slave stomps and chain-gang hollers, then grew increasingly sophisticated with the addition of guitars, harmonicas, piano, and eventually electrified instruments (none have really plumbed the depths of fully electric synthesizer blues, The Animals did lots with the organs and early synth-keyboards available in the ’60s, Steve Winwood had the whole enchilada of synthpop tech but just scratched the surface).

Listening to the electric blues on Florida St. and Imogene by the old freight train junction, Mobile, Alabama, thanks to fellow-Spring Hill College Class of 2004 Mobile kid Daniel Spotswood, I learned something about the blues that isn’t in the books, that the blues isn’t just a musical style, it’s an emotion.  It’s something visceral, intangible, possibly magical or at least existing in the undefined anthropological ether… something that might be non-recordable on tape.

The blues, the Real Blues, came from the systematic oppression, de facto (sharecropping) and actual outright slave economy of the deepest Deep South, songs of hell, songs of humanity persisting within the fieriest of Beelzebub’s trials…

The life of Robert Johnson illustrates what I mean. He was born from Julia Dodd’s re-marriage after Mr. Dodd got run out of town by a literal lynch mob over a woman and the white plantation caste that owned the area probably dispossessed the Dodds of everything.  In the Mississippi Delta counties especially, generational socio-economic gains could be washed away as fast as the Mississip’ risin’ if you were on the wrong side of the vicious legal and police-state-enforced Apartheid system—AKA Jim Crow— in effect in the first half of the 20th century. In Robert Johnson’s times, racism wasn’t just hateful attitudes but enshrined in law, enforced by the state; segregation, oppressive discrimination, denial of economic advancement/freedom in socio-economic space, and sudden death sentences by angry mob… all of this was essentially the law.

One of Johnson’s most covered songs, “Crossroads Blues”—even Cyndi Lauper recorded a rendition, 2010—refers to these Jim Crow laws. The second verse includes “the sun goin’ down now boy, dark gon’ catch me here”: alluding to the “sundown laws” or curfew, that was ubiquitous in the Deep South.  The blues still have a great deal of saliency.

When unrest erupts following the conflicts in Ferguson, MO, for example, and the news is analyzing the sundown curfews, few grasp the painful history. It’s shrugged off as necessary “to maintain order.”
But, when black people hear “sundown curfews imposed in Ferguson,” many probably think of “don’t be found when the sun’s gone down.”

I think of Robert Johnson.

Nick

Boardwalk Empire, Corruption, And Incentives For Public Servants

Posted by – October 18, 2010

Like described by Abby Jean on the Feminists with Disabilities blog recently, I’m obsessed with public policy.

It’s true. I am a policy wonk. I am endlessly interested in it. I read about it, think about it, talk about it and … write about it. (As in, what I’m doing right now.) And I do all of this because I think it’s immensely important. Crucially important. Vitally important.

Public policy is how the government – whether local, state, provincial, federal, or any other level – takes action on a particular issue. It covers a whole huge range of potential state actions – allocating and spending money, setting and enforcing professional guidelines and standards, creating agencies and staff, structuring tax incentives, even defining what constitutes criminal behavior. That’s an extremely big category that clearly has an enormous and unparalleled effect on the world.

Excerpted from I Love Policy | FWD (Feminists With Disabilities) by Abby Jean (not me)

I am captivated by political decision making, how it works and the impact it has on our lives. True, I am super nerdly; I can’t read something or watch a movie without ideas about the history of policy and the effects it has had firing around in my brain. That means the new HBO series Boardwalk Empire is like catnip for me. It brings the history of the ’20s and its politics to life in lush, vivid photography and provides fascinating context and insights into Prohibition, the mafia, suffragettes, corrupt politicians and politics of the era, fashion, the flapper girls, and the feminism of the era. The intense dissimilarities and the intense similarities the ’20s have with life today also really draw you in. Recently *yet another* economic study confirmed that the 2000s have the most unequal division of wealth in U.S. history, excepting the 20s. Unprecedented corruption is similar, struggles over prohibition similar too. What isn’t similar is the feeling of free-wheeling American personal freedom, including the “feminine liberation” of the time that went the way of the stock market after the Great Depression, and the economic boom that brought incredible opportunities–people are super nostalgic for those dissimilarities.  I heart the show; it’s triggered a major ’20s obsession for me.

I especially liked last week’s episode, it took us inside the back room and explicitly explored policy and the politics of divvying up new state-level funding for highways; we got an anatomy of the back room deal.   Notorious Jersey City machine boss Frank Hague was pitted against the show’s principal protagonist (and anti-hero) “Nucky” Thompson, the machine boss of Atlantic City, and Republican Senator Walter Edge trying to arbitrate between them.  Hague wants all the road appropriations to go to Jersey City, and Nucky wants everything to go to Atlantic City, where he says he has new hotels (at this point in the timeline, the Ritz-Carlton Atlantic City had recently opened) but tourists can’t get to them because the current roads to South Jersey are so muddy and inadequate.  Both men are corrupt bosses used to getting everything they want (and expect to skim off a nice slice of any new funding for themselves) and compromise is difficult to impossible.  Nucky pretty much created Edge’s political career, serving as his campaign manager and using his money and connections to win him the gubernatorial race (then he moved from the governor’s mansion to the U.S. Senate) so Nucky expects him to go to bat for Atlantic City, but Hague tipped the Democratic vote for Edge, crucial to win anything; Edge has presidential ambitions and can’t afford to alienate either of them, so he plays the diplomat.   The fact that Nucky, Hague and Senator Edge were all REAL POLITICIANS and that the dynamics at play are real (Nucky really was Edge’s campaign manager, etc.) makes it all the more riveting.

Here’s a clip from that scene.

Fair Use law lets me use this copyrighted material because its 1) a really brief clip and 2) used for the purpose of critique (i.e. it’s legal for the same reason Roger Ebert or Jon Stewart showing a clip in order to comment on it is legal).  See Code of Best Practices in Fair Use for Online Video.

80 Second Clip from HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire”: Back room Dealing

Coarse language warning: Nucky drops many F-bombs on Frank Hague in this clip, he thinks Hague just wants “a payoff” and is really frustrated and angry.

So,  after watching this scene, my policy mind started buzzing.  The corrupt incentives of the 1920s were perhaps different than the corrupt incentives of today. Both Nucky and Hague are motivated by corruption, but that corruption is motivating them to fight really hard for highways going to their respective counties (unquestionably a benefit for the economy and the average voter).  In cases like this, is corruption helping the public?

These are the questions I wrote this post to ask: Did the certainty that they would get a hefty slice of any new project make them fight harder than politicians today to get projects for the public good?

Should we incorporate such incentives into the current system, like bonus pay or free stuff or public accolades if a politician helps the general population?   Because right now, we have a system of open, legal bribery; ALL the incentives and thus, inevitably, ALL the policymaking energy is lined up against efforts to help normal constituents, and lined up for the special interests that give money to elect candidates. I always refer to this as giving “campaign bribetributions.” It’s essentially bribery, it totally skews the system so that the corrupt incentives make the government serve powerful private interests first and the public good only accidentally, but it remains completely legal.

At least in this scene, the corrupt incentives make public officials do something for the public good. I am desperate to address the crisis of campaign bribetributions making government only serve moneyed interests (not democracy but bribeocracy). If the powerful will never let us remove campaign bribetributions from our system, how do we realign the corruption to serve the people NOT just narrow interests with fat stacks of $$$$???

Nick

It's all about the Benjamins.

When Zeppelins Attack

Posted by – July 20, 2007


Some Jews are offended by the Ride of the Valkyries, and any music by Wagner, because it was revered by Hitler, and used
heavily in Nazi propaganda. I get that…

But it’s still a musical masterpiece.

For some reason, whenever I hear the Ride of the Valkyries, and those famous (almost Darth Vader Imperial March-esque) bombastic horn lines, I don’t think of Nazism. I think of World War I Germany, the Kaiser, and a fleet of imposing zeppelins flying over England.


While WWI-era German imperialism is sorta part of a continuity with Nazism, it’s not the same thing.

It makes me think of German zeppelins attacking England in WWI.


Did you know Germany used zeppelins like this one to attack the British mainland during WWI? They flew very high (away from anti-air artillery) and dropped 5,806 bombs on England, killing 557 people and injuring 1,358. This was a minor toll compared to the mass devastation wrought by the Luftwaffe in WWII, but when random explosions could fall from the clouds without warning, it had a terrorizing, intimidating impact beyond any concrete damage.

This plaque marks a part of London obliterated by zeppelins

However, zeppelin raids became obsolete in the latter part of the war, with the advent of fighter planes that could easily shoot them down, and military zeppelins never appeared again.

Learn more here: Zeppelins during World War I.

So that’s what I think of when I hear Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries: a fleet of the Kaiser’s scary, imposing zeppelins on the march.

There’s your historical oddity for the day….

😛

Nick

EDIT: No, I don’t support the Kaiser. Germany was evil. Ride of the Valkyries and a fleet of zeppelins on the march are scary.
I’m just describing history. It fascinates me.

What The U.S. Can Learn From “Lawrence of Arabia”

Posted by – April 11, 2007

In my post, Why did they create the new nation of Iraq? I discussed T.E. Lawrence (“Lawrence of Arabia”) and his vision of the Middle East’s borders after WWI, which would’ve amounted to the Shias getting their own state in the Mesopotamian Basin, a single state for most of the Sunnis of what are now the fake nations of Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Syria, and the whole region transitioning to Arab self-rule. The British shot down Lawrence’s proposal, because they were imperialists in the purest sense, and wanted an Empire of “civilized” and orderly Western governments sending them resources and profits.


The real T.E. Lawrence

It should almost go without saying that America is failing in Iraq today mainly due to our woeful ignorance of history and the nature of the region and its people.

We can learn a lot from the British Empire’s mistakes in their Mandate of Mesopotamia.

1) There is a natural tissue rejection of any foreign body. The Iraqis in 1919 and 1920 revolted against British rule. The Ayatollahs in Karbala and Najaf declared jihad against the English. The Kurds resisted as well. The area was only controlled with heavy bombing from the Royal Air Force and use of poison gas.

2) Subjugating people who don’t want to be subjugated is ugly. It was ugly when Saddam did it, it was ugly when the British did it, and it is ugly with our new version Subjugation 2.0 that we’re attempting today. It is immoral, and lends itself to atrocities. Facing the 1920 rebellion in Iraq, Winston Churchill wrote, “I do not understand this squeamishness about the use of gas. I am strongly in favour of using poison gas against uncivilised tribes.” And use gas on tribes they did. “gas was used against the Iraqi rebels with excellent morale effect,” Churchill said. Phosphorus bombs were also employed. The West today acts outraged that Saddam gassed the Kurds, but had no problem selling Saddam said gas, nor with gassing rebellious tribes themselves decades earlier.

3) Iraq, and Arabs, are not what people think.
Iraq is a fake construct, and though Iraqis are now attached to the current territory, the borders were drawn by the British in such a way to engender instability and dependence on foreigners.

Everyone should watch Lawrence of Arabia. While it is flawed, it did win seven Oscars (including Best Picture) and it gives real insight into the turbulent birth of modern “Arabism” and the struggles with it today.

What struck me most in Lawrence of Arabia was that the concept of “Arab” is also a new construct, and an identity, to an extent, also imposed by outsiders. The line in the movie when the Bedouin chieftain Auda abu Tayi says “what’s an Arab? I am Howitat!” says it all. Not only did he not have a unified Arab national identity, he did not know what an Arab was!!! He knew only a tribal identity.

Then after Lawrence and the chieftains seized Damascus from the Ottoman Turks, the Howitat and the Harith tribes can’t agree who will control what city services. Water is offline because the Howitat who control electricity won’t coordinate with the Harith who control water and need power to run the pumps (or visa versa). “Being an Arab will be thornier than you suppose, Harith!” Auda abu Tayi says. They blame each other and despise each other. I don’t know what happens, I think they end up giving the British the water duties and eventually the Imperialists play the tribes off each other as further pretext for foreign rule, but Lawrence says “There may be honor among thieves, but there’s none in politicians” and leaves Damascus.

The Damascus situation and the failure of the independent Arab state post-WWI seems like an eerily similar forerunner of the disturbing reports coming out of Baghdad lately, with tribes in gridlock and some areas devoid of basic government services like water and trash collection because sectarians will attack anyone working for the government as a “collaborator.” One of the most powerful quotes in the movie that hits home today is when Lawrence says, “So long as the Arabs fight tribe against tribe, so long will they be a little people, a silly people – greedy, barbarous, and cruel…” and while this statement had plenty of imperialism behind it, it’s hard not to see insight in it given the current tribal bloodbath in Iraq.

Though decades of nationalist rule created a strong Iraqi identity (check out Hometown Baghdad for a great vlog by ordinary Iraqis) and many Iraqis demand the old borders and stability be maintained, much of the population seems to have reverted to the same kind of pre-national tribalism and sectarian infighting seen in Lawrence of Arabia. Once tyranny is removed, whether it be Saddam or the Ottomans toppled, Arab society seems to inexorably revert to the more basic tribal forms. When in crisis, you go with what you know.

WWI created the outlines for all the disasters that we have in the Mideast today. The British stacked up the House of Cards that was Iraq. Now the U.S. has toppled it, but doesn’t know what the cards and identities even mean as they try to stack something back up, and are probably just making it worse.

We would do well to heed the lessons of history, and abandon our fruitless quest to pacify and remake the Middle East. It’s 2007, and we should know better than to retrace British blunders.

Leave Iraq to Iraqis; it’s the only way.

“Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” — George Santayana.

Nick

Why did they create the new nation of Iraq? UPDATED

Posted by – April 9, 2007

After World War I destroyed the Ottoman Empire, why did the British decide to create the new nation of Iraq out of the 3 different Ottoman provinces?

The British divvied up the Ottoman Empire’s holdings and created Iraq out of the three Ottoman “vilayets” (regions) of Mosul, Baghdad and Basra. Why would they do this? If we understood why Iraq was formed, we might could answer why Iraq should remain united or break apart into three states.



Iraq today

Clearly the Brits created a lot of rage by drawing colonial borders all over West Asia, but what I’m asking is, “why did they draw Iraq’s borders the way they did?” Was it just, “hey, this is a good shape!” ????

These are the borders proposed by T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) of new states from the parceling-out of the Ottoman Empire, based on sensibilities Lawrence observed talking to the local populations. This is fascinating to me.

Lawrence has most of Syria and all of Jordan and Saudi Arabia as one state under King Faisal. This makes a lot of sense given tribal patterns.

He has “Irak” defined as the Shi’ite regions of the Mesopotamian Basin, and the Sunni West as a separate state.

It’s entertaining that he puts “?” over central Iraq and a “?” over Kurdistan, lol. He didn’t know what to do with them. The only outright oddity here is a state for Armenians in Southern Turkey. wtf?

But overall Lawrence’s map would make way more sense than the current divisions. Jordan, Syria and Arabia aren’t separated unnecessarily like they are today, Shias in Iraq have their own state, etc.

Lawrence’s proposal was shot down.

My question for historians is this: why were the borders of Iraq we have today chosen vs. Lawrence’s or others? The current boundaries make no sense.

UPDATE: I got a great response from a history professor. This is what she wrote:

Nick — I’m an American historian, but I study empire, so I have some expertise to answer your excellent question. The answer is (and this may strike you as cynical) that the current borders were drawn to create instability that would require sustained British involvement in Iraq. They’d had interests in the area for a long time (Suez Canal was hugely important to the British economy), but had been held in check by the Ottoman Empire. At the end of WWI, with the Ottoman Empire in eclipse, they had the chance to expand influence in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Palestine, etc and control both the geopolitics and the economy. (Hey, they were very successful imperialists. This is what imperialists do!)

Lawrence’s plan was envisioning self-rule, which is something that the British government did not want to bestow. Their plan (see “imposition of empire game plan, version 53.0”) was to “civilize” and “modernize” the Middle East, slowly apprenticing them to the demands of life in the free capitalist Christian global marketplace and constitutional monarchy rather than sheikdoms. During so-called British Mandate period, the Brits imposed a puppet Haashemite monarchy, gave most of the land to the Sunnis, then proceeded to look for oil). Because few Arabs had the money to invest, the prime investments were purchased by the British and the money directed out of Iraq and back to Bristol, Manchester, and London.

There were also other reasons to keep all the three groups together. The plan was a regional one that would keep the warring groups of Iraq weak and focused on their internal divisions rather than going to war with Saudis, etc.

Did it work? No. Both the Shia and the Kurds fought for independence under the Brits and the Brits bombed them with phosphorous bombs (a chemical weapon — only wrong, apparently, when European or American trops are targeted). In 1941, when Iraqi Petroleum (a British corporation and subsidiary to British Petroleum, I think) interests were threatened, the Brits again shot up Iraq with troops from British India and Jordanian mercenaries. (Their own army was somewhat engaged in WWII.) The monarchy was finally overthrown in 1958 (after the British were forced to give up the Suez Canal in 1956…the post WWII empire fell apart pretty quickly.)

So…that’s the long and short of it. I’m so glad you asked something that I knew something about, as I’ve been reading you lately and really learning a lot. Nice to have something to give in return.

She is right that the British used WMD against Iraq. Winston Churchill wrote about Iraq: “I do not understand this squeamishness about the use of gas. I am strongly in favour of using poison gas against uncivilised tribes.”

What we are coping with today in Iraq are the scars of the British Empire. They set up a fractured amalgam of a country that would, since then, be forced to rely on strongmen to achieve stability. Yet most of the Iraqi bloggers I read want the old (British) borders maintained, they don’t want Iraq redrawn and they don’t want to lose what status they had.

Iraq is changing, and unfortunately, neither the Iraqis nor the new American “managers” can predict how it will turn out.

Nick