It’s February and the Groundhog says spring is coming early. So far, here in Vermont winter has not really come with its typically harsh temperatures and deep snowdrifts. The same cannot be said, of course, for many other parts of North America. I’m hoping El Nino or whatever it is helps Vermont escape the proverbial wrath this time around. No matter the weather, it seems time to share a list of a few books and musical discs that have been making this relatively pleasant winter even more so.
Speckled Vanities by Marc Estrin. A wistfully serious meditation on love told through the prism of chamber music performed by the lovers themselves. Estrin’s always unique take on this modern life informs this pleasant, wonderfully composed novel. The characters include a prison reformer, a wannabe General Curtis LeMay (the real-life General Buck Turgidson of Dr. Strangelove fame), a drone warrior and a couple beautiful women–each with their own mostly uncertain agendas when they cross paths in the Nevada desert. This is a relatively brief novel that is simultaneously erudite and accessible. Estrin has already exhibited in his previous novels a knack for discussing the intricacies of music and politics and what happens when they meet. To this, he adds the phenomenon of love.
Tomorrow is My Turn by Rhiannon Giddens. Ms. Giddens was a founding member of the delightful North Carolina musical ensemble known as the Carolina Chocolate Drops. When I lived in Asheville I saw the group a few times and found their blend of various American roots musical genres to be quite enjoyable and original. This first solo album showcases Giddens’s wondrous voice; sultry but not smoky, like the sweet taste of sorghum and the fire of moonshine. Her take on Geeshie Wiley’s legendary tune “Last Kind Words” transcends them. Another classic tune on this disc that won’t leave my head is her version of Elizabeth Cotten’s “Shake Sugaree.” Give it a listen and you’ll see what I mean.
The Full Catastrophe by William Lee Ellis. Ellis is a musicologist, composer and guitarist from Kingsport, Tennessee. His acoustic blues playing channels the masters. On top of that, he is named after his godfather, bluegrass pioneer Bill Monroe and his father, Tony Ellis, was one of Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys. This disc was released in 1993 on Yellow Dog Records. It includes a mix of traditional and original tunes. The music comes from that place in American music where delta blues and old-timey meet; indeed, if there was a geographical location for that crossroads, it would be right near Ellis’s birthplace. The lyrics range from playful tunes about sushi to gospel songs and the vaguely political. His vocals are deceptively gritty and hearken back to dusty roads in the US South where automobiles had yet to spin their wheels.
Herbert Marcuse’s 1974 Paris Lectures at Vincennes University edited by Jansen and Reitz. This short book is a transcript of a series of seven presentations by the philosopher Marcuse in the wake of the upheavals of the international New Left followed by three essays discussing Marcuse’s impact and the possible meanings of his book One Dimensional Man. What is perhaps the most apparent aspect in reading these lectures today is Marcuse’s prescience regarding the neoliberal capitalist world we live in today. Of course, if he were alive in 2015, he would probably dismiss this prescience by telling his listeners that anyone with a Marxist understanding of monopoly capitalism and imperialism would have made similar predictions once they applied that understanding. The world, and especially the modern left, would benefit highly from a Marcuse revival. This series of lectures proves that. Highly recommended.
Underground—directed by Emile d’Antonio, Haskell Wexler and Mary Lampson, with Bill Ayers, Kathy Boudin, Bernardine Dohrn, Jeff Jones, and Cathy Wilkerson. After hearing of the recent death of Wexler, I pulled my VHS copy of this 1976 film out of a box, plugged in my dusty VCR, and watched this piece of agitprop once again. Its sheer simplicity in setting, style and videography makes the newsreel footage of revolutions and rebellions edited into the film that much more dramatic. Like many things in the 1970s (and almost everything Weatherman/WUO), the politics are what comes through most forcefully in this film. Though Weather will always have its many detractors, one could argue their prescience was on par with the aforementioned Marcuse.