The Man is an audio novel set in the first decades of the 20th century
The stories and original songs are written by Steve Gillette
Track 16. “St. James Infirmary Blues”
Danny heard from Hammond that Bessie Smith had died in a car accident in Kentucky. Hammond had produced Bessie’s last sessions and had done a lot to help her over the years. First reports said that she had been turned away from a segregated hospital. This turned out not to be true, but Hammond never quite gave up the resentment that it could so easily have been true.
© 2010, Compass Rose Music, BMI
This song stems from a very old tradition of songs with a moral. It’s said to be based on an eighteenth-century traditional folk song called “The Unfortunate Rake,” also known as “The Unfortunate Lad” or “The Young Man Cut Down in His Prime.” It’s a distant cousin to “The Streets of Laredo.”
The earliest versions are about a young sailor or soldier contracting a disease as a result of immoral behavior. When the song moved to America, gambling and alcohol became causes of his or her downfall and premature death.
The song was first recorded as "Gambler's Blues" in 1927 by Fess Williams and his Royal Flush Orchestra. The next year, Louis Armstrong made it famous with his 1928 recording. By 1930 at least eighteen different versions had been released. The Duke Ellington Orchestra recorded the song and Cab Calloway performed a version in the 1933 Betty Boop animated film Snow White.
More recently the song has been recorded by Josh White, Dave Van Ronk and Doc Watson. For our version, Jack Williams plays guitar, Glenn Fukunaga plays bass, Paul Pearcy plays drums, Peter Davis plays clarinet, David Jackson plays the arco bass solo, and Randy Wolchek plays piano.
From the Book:
At Lake Placid, New York on February 4, 1932, Governor Roosevelt declared the Third Winter Games open and called for world peace. Due to the Depression, funding for these games was difficult and some of the land used for events was donated. The United States won the most medals with 12, Norway came in second with 10, and Canada was third with 7 medals. These were the first Olympic Games to feature the three-tier staggered medal podium.
In skating, Norway's Sonja Henie eclipsed the competition, scoring her second Olympic gold. She had won her first at St. Moritz four years earlier. Eddie Eagan became the only Olympian to win gold medals at both the summer and winter games in different sports. He won gold in boxing in the 1920 Antwerp summer games and gold in bobsleigh at Lake Placid twelve years later. The bobsleigh race was held two days after the games' closing ceremonies due to unseasonably warm weather in the region the previous week. In the meantime, the crews had dug tons of snow out of the woods to pack onto the courses.
On May 2nd, we heard Jack Benny's radio show for the first time. He had first appeared on radio as a guest of Ed Sullivan in March and was then given his own show later that year, with Canada Dry Ginger Ale as a sponsor.
In the early days of radio, airtime was owned by the sponsor, and Benny incorporated the commercials into the body of the show. Sometimes, the sponsors were the butt of jokes. Benny insisted in contract negotiations that his writers pen the sponsor's commercial in the middle of the program (leaving the sponsor to provide the opening and closing spots) and the resulting ads were cleverly worked into the story line of the show.
Benny is a master of timing, and he would explore the limits of timing for comedic effect. Sometimes he’d pause for an unbearably long time before giving an answer to a question. One of his long-time writers, George Balzer, described writing material for him as similar to composing music, with the rhythm of delivery equivalent to a musical tempo.
Eddie Anderson played Rochester on the show. He was the first Negro man to have a recurring role in a national radio show. Amos and Andy were played by white actors, Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll. The character of Rochester always had dignity. He had a sardonic wit, and often had the last word.
Once when the entire cast was on the road, they were booked into a famous hotel. Shortly after they had checked in, a manager told Benny that some white guests from Mississippi had complained to him about Anderson staying in the hotel. He asked Benny to please “do something about it.” Benny assured him that he would fix the matter. He moved all his people into another hotel, where Anderson would not be made to feel unwelcome.
On May 21st, Amelia Earhart became the first woman to fly non-stop across the Atlantic. She flew her Lockheed Vega from Newfoundland to Northern Ireland in just under fifteen hours. She was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. She had originally intended to land in Paris as Lindbergh had done, but she had to land early due to poor weather and some technical problems.
One evening when I arrived at home, a neighbor caught me to tell me that Lorraine had collapsed that afternoon, but that she seemed to be OK. It might have just been a dizzy spell, or possibly a ‘lady’s thing’ but she wanted me to make sure that Lorraine was alright.
Lorraine was casual about it. She said that she was sitting outside in the sun and that she must have gotten up too quickly and just felt faint for a moment, and that she was sorry that she had caused anybody to worry.
I made her promise that she would make an appointment for a checkup which she did. She went to the clinic on her own. She was vague about her conference with the doctor, but assured me that she had no symptoms of any illness, and felt fine.
Between Lorraine and young John, I was encouraged to look into buying a little vacation cabin that would get us out of the city in the hot and dirty summer. We had taken some trips into New England in previous years and had particularly enjoyed one winter weekend with treks on snow shoes and a sleigh ride. We finally settled on a little village in Southern Vermont not far from a small lake.
There was a neighbor who looked after the cabin for us. He and his wife had lived in it before building a more modern house nearby as their family expanded. In the winter he would build a fire in the wood stove on the appointed day when we were arriving on the train and would meet us with the car.
We thought we might retire some day and live in that little community, but it would take some renovation to make the cabin a home. When Johnny moved onto the campus at Columbia, we were able to spend more time in Vermont.
On one of those trips we had a chance to hear the poet Robert Frost give a lecture at Middlebury College. He was by then a well-respected poet and had already won two Pulitzer Prizes. “Stopping by Woods” was one of the poems he had written while living not far from our little cabin in Vermont.
Lorraine was much more familiar with his work, and with his methods, and to be honest, I had not realized how much engineering went into a poem, until I heard him read a new one that he called “Two Tramps in Mud Time.”
On first hearing, the poem presented an interesting drama of a man chopping wood for his own wood stove, when two unemployed men from a lumber camp came up the road. It became clear that they would have welcomed the work for any payment or possibly food, but the narrator seems resentful that he has to justify enjoying chopping and splitting his own wood.
One line that grabbed my attention and brought the poem to life for me was in his description of the two tramps. He said, “Except as a fellow handled an ax, they had no way of knowing a fool.”
The poem engages the listener in a question of responsibility to others, and begins to take on some political or social implications. I wanted to revisit the poem and think about it some more, but it was to be another year before it was published. Lorraine found it in the Saturday Review of Literature in October of 1934.
When I was finally able to spend some time with the poem, I found that it wasn’t that first question that struck me, but a device of logic and imagery that brought me the realization of how much thought had gone into the work. I’ll just share the passage and let you see what it is that impressed me so much.
“The sun was warm but the wind was chill.
You know how it is with an April day
When the sun is out and the wind is still,
You’re one month on in the middle of May.
But if you so much as dare to speak,
A cloud comes over the sunlit arch,
A wind comes off a frozen peak,
And you’re two months back in the middle of March.”
Art Tatum had lost most of his sight by the age of four. He was completely blind in one eye and had only partial sight in the other. He received some formal piano training as a teenager at the Toledo School of Music and learned to read Braille sheet music.
Otherwise, he was self-taught, learning from piano rolls, phonograph recordings, radio broadcasts, and various musicians whom he encountered as a young man in the area around Toledo and Cleveland. He acknowledged Fats Waller as his primary inspiration, as well as a popular radio pianist whose name was Lee Sims.
By the time he was 19, Tatum was playing with vocalist Jon Hendricks at the Waiters & Bellman's Club in Toledo. This was a local jazz club that also hosted some national touring acts. A few of those, including Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Count Basie all took notice of his phenomenal speed and dexterity. It was John Hammond who told us about him when he first arrived in 1932.
He came to New York with Adelaide Hall, a fine jazz singer who had worked with Cab Calloway and Fats Waller, and who had recorded the well-known “Creole Love Call,” with Duke Ellington in 1927.
She had starred on Broadway with Bill ‘Bojangles’ Robinson in Blackbirds of 1928. The show became the most successful all-Negro show ever staged on Broadway and made Hall and Bojangles household names. In 1929, the production was taken to Paris, where it ran for four months at the Moulin Rouge.
In the fall of 1932, Adelaide and her husband bought a home in the Village of Larchmont in the New York suburb of Westchester County. She began to encounter racial opposition from her white upper-middle-class neighbors, who threatened court action to have her evicted.
After her home was broken into and an attempt was made to destroy it by fire, news of the attack hit national newspapers. She received hundreds of letters of support imploring her to stick it out. She stood her ground and in a press statement she insisted that she was a true American citizen, her ancestry could be traced back to the Shinnecock Indian tribe of Long Island and she had every right to reside where she wished.
Art Tatum’s reputation had preceded him and some of New York's finest jazz musicians were eagerly awaiting his arrival. Once he walked into a club where Fats Waller was on stage, and Waller said, “Ladies and gentlemen, God is the house!”
The following year, with some help from Hammond, he cut his first sides for the Brunswick label. The first song was “Tea for Two,” which became his signature tune. On the same session he recorded “Sophisticated Lady,” “Tiger Rag” and “St. Louis Blues.”
By 1932, national income, which had been close to $90 billion in 1929, had fallen to less than $42 billion. One quarter of Americans suffered from want of food and at the same time, farm prices declined and forced many families to lose their farms. To add to the emergency, a drought, combined with some unsustainable cultivation practices, caused the loss of topsoil. Huge dust storms drove many families out of the central US as their land literally blew away.
Schools shut their doors. Farm families, displaced by debt and drought, wandered westward, carrying what they could in decrepit jalopies. The experiment in democracy that had begun with American independence seemed on the very edge of defeat.
The New Republic published a series of articles on the future of self-government which had the line, “At no time since the rise of political democracy have its tenets been so seriously challenged as they are today,”
The term “Hooverville” is a spin on the last name of the 31st President. It describes the encampments that appeared during the Great Depression from 1929 through the 1930s. These often formed in blighted neighborhoods or desolate areas and consisted of dozens of shacks and tents that were temporary residences of the unemployed and the homeless. People resorted to building their residences out of box wood, cardboard, and any scraps of metal they could find. Some individuals even lived in drain pipes and culverts.
Several other terms came into use during this era. A “Hoover blanket” was old newspaper used as bedding, a “Hoover flag” was an empty pocket turned inside out. “Hoover leather” was cardboard used to cover a hole in a shoe. A “Hoover wagon” was a car drawn by horses because it needed repair, or the owner simply could not afford gasoline. In Canada, these were known as “Bennett buggies.”
The Pecora Commission had been established in 1931 by the U.S. Senate to study the causes of the Crash. Based in part on the commission's findings, the U.S. Congress created the Glass-Steagall Act which was passed in 1933. The Act mandated a separation between commercial banks, which take deposits and extend loans, and investment banks, which underwrite, issue, and distribute stocks, bonds, and other securities. The use of savers’ money in speculation had been a major contributing factor to the crash.
The World War Adjusted Compensation Act of 1924 had awarded war veterans bonuses in the form of certificates. Each veteran was to receive $1.00 for each day of domestic service, and $1.25 for each day of overseas service. These certificates could not be redeemed until they matured in 1945.
Veterans demanded that Congress pay those benefits now when the money was desperately needed. They began to gather in Washington from all over the country, many with wives and children. More than twenty thousand came. Most camped across the Potomac River from the Capitol on Anacostia Flats.
Congress took up a bill which would have paid the bonus. It passed the House, but was defeated in the Senate. Some veterans who were discouraged did leave, but most of them stayed. Some camped in government buildings near the Capitol; the rest created what shelters they could on Anacostia Flats.
On July 28th, President Hoover ordered the army to evict them. Four troops of cavalry, four companies of infantry, a machine gun squadron, and six tanks assembled near the White House. General Douglas MacArthur was in charge of the operation, Major Dwight Eisenhower was his aide. George S. Patton was one of the officers.
MacArthur led his troops down Pennsylvania Avenue, used tear gas to clear veterans out of the old buildings, and set the buildings on fire. Then the army moved across the bridge to Anacostia. Thousands of veterans, their wives and children, began to run as the tear gas spread.
When the soldiers had destroyed the encampment and the smoke had cleared, two veterans had been shot to death, an eleven-week-old baby had died, an eight-year-old boy was partially blinded by gas, two police had fractured skulls, and a thousand veterans were injured by gas.
At the end of August we went back up to Vermont, and we were able to see much of the solar eclipse. A total eclipse was so rare, and it was an amazing sight, although most of the time the cloud cover really only allowed us to see the changes in the light, almost to total darkness. We were not quite far enough north to be in the path of totality. Still, it was pretty magical.
At the end of September, we were captive to the radio for the World Series. The Yankees vanquished the Cubs in just four games. The first two games at Yankee Stadium were pretty uneventful, and tickets did not sell out. Babe Ruth only hit two singles, as he was walked four times by the Cubs pitchers.
When the Yankees showed up in Chicago for game three, angry crowds met them at the train and jeered them at their hotel. On the field the local crowd was shouting insults and some threw lemons at Ruth. Franklin D. Roosevelt who was still Governor of New York and was campaigning for the presidency sat with the Mayor of Chicago, Anton Cermak.
Ruth was resentful of the hostility of the crowd. He hit a three-run homer in the first inning. The Cubs tied up the score in the fourth inning, partly because of a fielding error by Ruth, and that only increased the animosity of the crowd.
The one moment that everyone remembers came in the fifth inning, when Ruth took his turn at bat. The first three pitches brought the count to two balls and one strike. The next pitch was a strike and he let it pass, but brought his hand up to gesture toward center field as the pitcher, Guy Bush, wound up for the pitch.
This one he hit over the center field fence. It was estimated to have traveled nearly five-hundred feet. Some controversy remains about whether this really was a ‘called shot,’ but given all the rancor and emotion of the series, it has gone into the realm of legend.
On October 23rd, Fred Allen’s comedy show made its debut on CBS, and on November 7th, “Buck Rogers in the 25th Century” was heard for the first time. It was the first science fiction radio program.
At Columbia Johnny really came into his own. He expected to go into some form of law practice, but also had an interest in international affairs. He was very fortunate to be in such a prestigious university, and many of his professors were famous in their fields.
He was particularly influenced by a professor he had for a class on early Christianity. Dr. Dominic was an amiable man who seemed to be able to navigate some thorny questions with people of various religious beliefs, and the dialog always seemed to yield a greater understanding.
He had not changed Johnny's views so much as given him a way to go deeper into the questions and reconcile what he found with his concern for a fairer way to relate to others.
Dr. Dominic said that to understand Christianity, you had to take it from the perspective of the Romans. When the Roman authorities were confronted with rebellion with an organized military messianic force, their policy was to crucify the leader and all who followed him, and place their crosses in a neat row for all to see. This is the way they had dealt with Spartacus and Vercingetorix and others.
But the Romans had a greater fear of a peaceful leader who could arouse the deep loyalty of his people in a non-violent revolution. In such a case it was the policy to crucify only the one person. That would generally serve as warning enough to others. The fact that Jesus was executed while his disciples were spared is evidence that he was seen as a person who was in peaceful rebellion, and that he was not a military threat.
Dr. Dominic always hastened to point out that everyone in the lands occupied by the Romans resented their presence and yearned to be delivered from them, so it wouldn't do for the Roman overlords to react with undue force to each dissident.
Jesus, as a faithful Jewish man, would have observed the laws of Moses. He would have held God as a higher authority than the Romans, and as a rabbi could be relied upon to communicate that belief. Resistance to Roman rule would have put him in jeopardy, and yet, a true teacher would have been incapable of teaching an accommodating lie. If this threatened order, he would be executed.
Dr. Dominic made it clear over the course lessons, that it was Paul who took the legend of the faithful young rabbi, and turned him into a different kind of hero. A Roman hero. In Rome, Caesar was God; he was the redeemer, the savior, the one who could expiate all sin. Paul was a Roman citizen which was unusual for a Jewish man.
Paul saw the opportunity to present his version of what he claimed were the teachings of Jesus to people on the margins of the empire who might be inspired by the story of a peaceful man who had a message of salvation, and offered the promise of eternal life. Many of Paul’s converts had long been wary of the heavy hand of ‘Pax Romana.’
It was Paul who crafted the message that Jesus was a king, he applied the Khristós rank to Jesus, and invoked the concept of the Trinity, making him coequal with God. This is all Paul, none of it from Jesus' teaching as far as we know. It was for the authors of the gospels, decades later, and especially John, to claim that Jesus actually was God.
Johnny said that even though we had clear translations of the original Greek of Paul’s letters, there were still some controversial issues. One example he gave was the phrase δια πιστεος Χριστος from Galatians 2:16. Grammatically, this phrase can be interpreted either as an objective genitive “through faith in Jesus Christ” or as a subjective genitive “through the faith of Jesus Christ.”
But he said that the essential thing for him was Paul’s insistence on faith, that faith was the important thing, the only thing, and that it superseded Jewish law. It rendered moot God’s covenant with Abraham, dietary considerations and even the requirement of circumcision. The faith that Paul insisted on was obeisance to the figure he had created based on an obscure martyr who, as a rabbi, would have taught adherence to all of those things.
From the beginning of Paul’s epistle to the Galatians, even before he attempts to justify his conflict with James and Peter, he defends his own empire, the string of churches he had created in his travels in the provinces of Anatolia, Damascus and Antioch, Thessaloniki, Philippi, and even Athens.
He addresses the letter to the members of his congregation in Galatia who seem to have been listening to other voices, other theories of how to live according to God’s law. He continually rebukes them for rejecting the mythology he has promoted. It’s a territorial dispute, and he demonstrates his fierce attachment to his role as the spokesman for his own new religion.
He wrote: “Wherefore the law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith. But after that faith is come, we are no longer under a schoolmaster. For ye are all the children of God by faith in Christ Jesus.”
When Paul made this statement, he was not referring to any text other than his own. He alone had created the idea that Jesus was the Christ, and that faith in Christ was the only salvation. It is faith in his creation that is the essential teaching of Paul. Paul had never met Jesus. We can be pretty certain that Jesus would never have taught anything like that.
So really there are two Jesuses, one a selfless rabbi who traveled among the people of Judea and taught the Mosaic law from the Torah, and the other, the newly minted ‘king of kings’ who wore the crimson cloak of a Roman and spoke of rendering unto Caesar what is Caesar's.
Paul made it easier for his followers to convert to this new form of Judaism by eliminating the need for circumcision and observance of dietary restrictions. These two issues caused him to break with Jesus’ brother James, and others of the disciples, as he laments in his letters.
Constantine turned over the reins of the empire to the Christian bishops in the fourth century, very much as Labienus had turned them over to Caesar at the Battle of Munda. Constantine never converted to Christianity, but he saw the wisdom of bowing to the superior force of the Christians who then became the Holy Roman Empire. Johnny later wrote his thesis on theocracy in the twentieth century.
Late in the night on December 25th, we heard King George V’s Christmas Day radio message broadcast live from Sandringham. In the speech, which was written by Rudyard Kipling, the King celebrated the power of the wireless to unite all the people of the Empire, and wished them a Happy Christmas.
The winter of 1932 was so cold that Niagara Falls froze completely solid.
© 2010, Compass Rose Music, BMI
More next week.