Archive for March, 2016

The Time John Lennon Went Too Far

Posted in African American Interest, CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, CULTURE & POLITICS, Rock and Pop, Women with tags , , , on March 31, 2016 by travsd


Hey, it’s still Women’s History Month! I bet you forgot all about women, didn’t you? I know that you did.

In the spirit of our St Patrick’s post which savaged “The Luck of the Irish“, we treat today of another ill-considered song from John Lennon’s 1972 Some Time in New York City LP, the Song Whose Name May Not Be Mentioned in Polite Society. Why have I been in such a Lennon-beatin’ mood lately? I dissed him a few weeks back when George Martin died, too. Maybe it’s because I loved him so much when he was ineffably himself, and there were so many times when he was led around by the nose by whatever crackpot commanded his attention. But I’ve always criticized him on that account. The Elephant in the Room is that I am now old enough to be Beatle John’s father, and I find myself now having the clarity to see many of Lennon’s mistakes for what they were: the follies of youth. Those who die young are like Peter Pan, imprisoned forever in youth.

Now, everyone has their own personal “Time When John Lennon Went Too Far.” For some more conservative folks it might be much earlier. It might that Jesus remark in 1966, it might be “Revolution #9”, or hanging out in a bag with Yoko in a press conference in Toronto, or returning his MBE, or for even existing at all. For McCartney it seems to have been the song “Cold Turkery” (a mistake on his part, I think. Lennon’s solo single of it is amazing, truly interesting, and really pushes the expressive power of rock ‘n’ roll into some unprecedented places. It would have been a credit to the Beatles had they recorded it).

But I think we can all agree that the time Lennon went too far for EVERYBODY is when he released “Woman is the Nigger of the World” (there, I said it). I have never, in all my travels, met a single person who didn’t shake their head in wizened scorn and bewilderment when it comes to this song.

Let us not, as so many are wont to do, blame Yoko for this egregious lapse in judgment, coherence, sensitivity, and taste. I find her to be a genuinely interesting artist. Up to a certain point she was a good influence on Lennon, I think. The intersection of Japanese minimalism and rock ‘n’ roll is not only interesting and original, but it clicks. It really works. Songs like “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” and “Don’t Let Me Down” , much of the White Album, and Lennon’s first two solo LPs are all quite remarkable and they bear her influence.

But for someone who is so associated with leadership and domination, Lennon could be peculiarly passive and susceptible to the voices of others. It seems as though this was particularly the case in the mid to late 60s when several years of daily ingestion of hard drugs had broken down his ego and turned him into something like an existential vessel or void. When you hear many of his great songs, you often hear the voices of othersLewis Carroll, Edward Lear, Bob Dylan. But in Some Time in New York City, I think it is safe to say that voices of others (not just Yoko’s but those of the east Village radicals he was hanging out with) grew too strong. Lennon had always been at his best when he was somewhat elusive and ambiguous, hard to pin down, hard to figure out. Now he was literal, on the nose, obvious. That quality had been a virtue when he was dealing with his own emotions and his demons in the early solo work. It came across as raw, painful honesty. But when it came to social issues and politics, he was no longer saying broad, universal things (e.g., “All You Need is Love”, “Give Peace a Chance”) he was saying “It ain’t fair, John Sinclair…we got to, got to, got to, got to set him free.” While his music itself was often interesting and great, the lyrics were now strident and boring and singularly unrewarding to play more than once or twice, and DEFINITELY embarrassing to sing along to.

Now his voice was not even his own. He was playing second fiddle on his own album. One of the most gifted popular wordsmiths of the late 20th century, he was ceding control of that gift, sitting back and letting other people do the literary driving. And we can’t blame anyone but Lennon for that weakness. It’s his name above the title.

The phrase “Woman is the Nigger of the World” had come from Yoko. She had said it to Lennon in a conversation, and most of the lines in the song sound like things she had said to him as well. And well…to be charitable these “thoughts” could have done with the contribution of an editor. They are undigested; they have not been turned into lyrics. Many or most thinking people sign off on the thesis that women have been second-class citizens placed in a role of subservience for millenia in nearly every culture on earth. And most agree to one degree or another that change is in order. The objection is to HOW these thoughts are expressed. Most of the phrases in the song (including above all the title) sound like what they are: the kind of “brilliant revelations” potheads have when they are having a “heavy discussion”. Some of them are dubious. “We make her paint her face”? With apologies to Naomi Wolf, try and STOP some women (and some men) from putting on make-up. Who’s making BOY GEORGE paint his face and dance? That’s a different issue from being brutalized and kept down, I think. Ugh, and the self-important way he instructs us to “Think About It”. It’s unbearable.

Lastly, and most importantly, there’s the clumsy and callous and clueless trivialization of the N word, which to me seems like it ought to be equally offensive to both women and people of color. It’s also a singularly weird use of language, which I suspect can be partially attributed to the fact that English is not Yoko’s first language. This may have made it seem original and provocative to Lennon, but it’s really just kind of inept.  African Americans and women are two separate, traditionally subjugated groups of people. Using one as a metaphor for the other makes no sense. It’s like saying “lemons are the limes of this fruit bowl” — not that they’re equivalent but you can’t deny that in the context of this conversation they are similar. And it blows off the plight of black people even as it insults them by using a derogatory epithet to describe them. It’s, like, wrong in about 100 kinds of ways. Which is why radio stations didn’t play it…and you may have never played it or even heard of it, although it’s on most Lennon “best of” collections.

On the other hand, the sax player is great. If you’d like to play it go here: I’ve stopped embedding youtube clips here because they have a way of asserting themselves PAST my post links when I share them on social media.

For Women’s History Month: 15 Famous Females in My Family

Posted in Women with tags , , on March 31, 2016 by travsd

I was going to post this on March 1 for the launch of Women’s History Month, but I have been very pokey on the blogging front lately. I’m no less pokey today, but let’s consider this a second chance at redemption. Besides, as so many have said, a celebratory month or holiday is a rather lame bone to throw half (actually slightly more than half) of the human race. Reparations would be giving them dominance for the next 10,000 years; justice would be giving them full equality everywhere from now on. So we post this on the last day of Woman’s History Month as a reminder to consider the contributions of women EVERY DAY OF THE YEAR.

Here are several important women to whom I have discovered connections in my family tree. I’ve skipped some of the older ones I’ve learned about for the reason that they are so far back that nearly every European or every Briton can claim relation or ancestry. Lady Godiva is supposedly my (29th) great grandmother; Eleanor of Aquitaine a (22nd) great grandmother, but these are practically like claiming a relationship to Eve.


Anne Hutchinson (1591-1643)

Religious dissident and leader and one of the founders of Rhode Island. She was my (12th) great aunt. More on her and my Rhode Island family here. 


Abigail Adams (1744-1818)

One of our most remarkable (and best educated) first ladies, and close adviser to her husband John Adams. We are distantly related via our common ancestors in the Boylston family. More on the Adamses and other presidential relations here. 


Jane Austen (1775-1817)

I am related to the author of Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility via our common descent from Sir Thomas Leigh (1504-1571), London businessman and alderman and, briefly, Lord Mayor.



 Sarah Helen Whitman (1803-1878)

While I was delighted to learn I am related to so many of my 19th century literary heroes (see list here), I was disappointed to know that I’m not connected to one of my absolute favorites, Edgar Allan Poe. So it came as a wonderful consolation prize to find out that I am related to one of Poe’s closest friends, the Providence poet Sarah Helen Whitman, whom we first learned much about from our friend Rory Raven. Rest assured we’ll blog about her in future once I’ve read more of her work.


Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811-1896)

As Uncle Tom’s Cabin is one of my favorite novels, I was extremely happy to recently learn I was related to her through a common ancestry with my (7th) great grandfather Richard Lyman and (9th) great grandmother Elizabeth Charde. My earlier post about her is here.


Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815-1902)

As we blogged about here, our maternal grandmother was a Cady, and the famous abolitionist and feminist hero was of the same family. She is one of the personages on this page we are most closely related to. Read the full blogpost here.


 Susan B. Anthony (1820-1906)

I probably share the most early colonial ancestors with this icon of woman’s rights, including John Russell, Philip Sherman, Simon Stone, William Carpenter, Humphrey Atherton and John Titus.


Emily Dickinson (1830-1886)

I discovered this great poet in my late teens via a girl I was crazy about who considered her one of her favorite writers. I looked for ages to find a family connection. It seemed impossible I didn’t have one, although I do have fewer relatives in the western part of Massachusetts. But I did finally find one common ancestor, my (10th) great grandfather Richard Wright


Louisa May Alcott (1832-1888)

Believe it or not, I never read Little Women until quite recently, convinced to do so by the Mad Marchioness’s enthusiasm for it, which I now share. The Alcott name was originally rendered “Alcock.” My (10th) great grandfather Thomas Alcock is where we align.


Laura Ingalls Wilder (1867-1957)

As we blogged here, Edmund Ingalls is our common ancestor. My brief post on Little House on the Prairie is here. Naturally, I am also related to Wilder’s daughter, the writer Rose Wilder Lane, an equally interesting character.


Eleanor Roosevelt (1884-1962)

As we blogged here, Eleanor Roosevelt’s great grandmother, like myself, was a Stewart.


 Ruth Hale (1887-1934)

Both my great grandmother and a (3rd) great grandmother were of the southern Hale family, which stretches back to Richard Hale of Virginia, our common ancestor. Although not well known today, Ruth Hale was important to feminism by being a co-founder of the Lucy Stone League, which championed the right of married women to use their own given surnames, among other issues. She was married to the writer Heywood Broun. 


Katharine Hepburn (1907-2003)

I am related to this proud New Englander and Hollywood icon through the Mayflower’s Brewster family (via marriage) and share many medieval ancestral connections.


Bette Davis (1908-1989)

Bette Davis, like Hepburn, was from Connecticut. We share several medieval connections, notably the Beauchamps. Other classic era movie actresses I am related to include Jean Arthur, Gene Tierney, Anne Baxter and Elizabeth Taylor. 


Janis Joplin (1943-1970)

I am especially proud of this association. Although Joplin was from Texas, she had many colonial New England ancestors. We share common descent from the Winthrops, the Shermans, and John Russell among others.

James Cruze: Of Wagons and Waterfronts

Posted in Hollywood (History), Melodrama and Master Thespians, Movies, Native American Interest, Silent Film, Westerns with tags , , , , , , on March 27, 2016 by travsd


Today is the birthday of the legendary James Cruze (Jens Vera Cruz Bosen, 1884-1942). Cruze’s early life sounds like excellent preparation for his most famous film as director, The Covered Wagon (1923). Born on an Indian reservation near Vernal, Utah, he was part Ute Indian, and raised in the Mormon faith.  (While his stage name sounds Spanish, he was mostly of Danish extraction. The “Vera Cruz” part of his given name was in honor the Siege of Veracruz, an action in the Mexcican-American War).  Cruze ran away from home as a teenager because he disliked farm work. He is said to have performed in medicine shows, and later worked as a fisherman to earn his tuition for drama school.


Cruze made his fame first as an actor, becoming one of the top stars of the Thanhouser Film Company between 1911 and  1916, in films ranging from classics like David Copperfield (1911) to cliffhangers like the serials The Million Dollar Mystery (1914) and Zudora (1914).  While at Thanhouser, he married another of the studio’s stars Margueritte Snow.


A shake-up at Thanhouser in 1916 resulted in Cruze being let go. He continued acting with various studios for a couple of years, and by the end of the decade he was a director at Famous Players-Lasky, soon to become Paramount. He went on to become one of the most successful directors of the silent era. In the late teens he directed several Wallace Reid pictures; then most of Roscoe Arbuckle’s features in 1920 and 1921; One Glorious Day (1922) with Will Rogers; then his breakthrough western epic The Covered Wagon (1923), one of the most successful Hollywood movies of the silent era. He divorced Snow that year; in 1925 he married actress and frequent collaborator Betty Compson. There came the first screen versions of the Kaufman and Connelly comedies Merton of the Movies (1924) and Beggar on Horseback (1925). He made more historical epics, like The Pony Express (1925) and Old Ironsides (1926). In 1926 he shot a comedy with Raymond Griffith called The Waiter from the Ritz which was never released. In 1927, there was the racy The City Gone Wild with Louise Brooks.

Like many of the people he worked with (Brooks, Reid, Arbuckle), Cruze was known for being a Hollywood hell-raiser, partying wildly and raising the roof through the heights and depths of the Roaring Twenties and Prohibition. Unlike most of the characters about whom that can be said, Cruze suffered no catastrophic downfall. He divorced Compson in 1930, but he continued to direct films nearly ’til the end of his life.


The work of the sound era was solid, if less exalted. There was the delightfully strange The Great Gabbo (1929) a deranged ventriloquism romance starring Erich Von Stroheim and Compson (read my account of it here). He contributed to the multi-partite comedy If I Had a Million (1932). He directed many pre-code gems like She Knew What She Wanted (1930) with Compson and Lee Tracy, and Washington Merry-Go-Round (1932), also with Tracy. Probably his best known sound picture is the gritty crime thriller I Cover the Waterfront (1933). One of his last pictures (1938) was an early attempt to bring Herbert Asbury’s Gangs of New York to the screen in a script co-written by Sam Fuller for low-budget Republic Pictures.

For more on early film history don’t miss my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from etc etc etc


Paul Specht

Posted in Ballroom/ Big Band/ Swing, Music, Radio (Old Time Radio), Stars of Vaudeville, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 24, 2016 by travsd


Today is the birthday of big band leader Paul Specht (1895-1954). Much like Paul Whiteman, his contemporary and competitor, though he often used the word “jazz” to describe his work, his was both a pre-swing sound, and a post-New Orleans one. It was mainstream dance music in a predominantly white culture which had only just emerged from Victorianism. It was fun, it was even sometimes peppy, but never “low-down”, “dirty”, “feverish” or some of the other adjectives  that are often used to describe other forms of jazz.

But it was wildly popular, especially during the 1920s and 30s. In addition to live performances in ball rooms, night clubs and big-time vaudeville, Specht’s bands recorded for Columbia records, and had shows on ABC radio with The Three X Sisters. He even played the 1929 inaugural of President Herbert Hoover.  Originally from Pennsylvania, Specht started his career in 1916 and led bands through the 1940s. In later years he worked as an arranger in the broadcast industry.

To learn more about vaudevilleconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.


A Night of 1,000 Vaudevillians! (A Benefit Show for “I’ll Say She Is”)

Posted in Contemporary Variety, ME, My Shows, PLUGS with tags , , , , on March 23, 2016 by travsd


Much afoot! We’re nearing three milestones: 1) the 20th year of Trav S.D.’s American Vaudeville Theatre; 2) the 1,000th vaudevillian to be profiled on Travalanche; and 3) the brand spankin’ new production of our hit 2014 production, the Marx Bros.’ “I’ll Say She Is” coming your way to the Connelly Theatre, May 28.

To celebrate, we’ve looped it all into one event, with an all-star roster of talent not to be believed!

Save this Date for The Night of 1,000 Vaudevillians: April 20, 7:30pm

At the One and Only Slipper Room, 167 Orchard Street, NYC

On the bill we have none other than the following STARS:

MOLLY POPE! (with WILL HALL at the piano!)

Hosted by the one and only TRAV S.D. (abetted and assisted by his diabolical yet unindicted co-conspirator Mr. PINNOCK. )

Magic! Comedy! Ventriloquism! Song! Dance! Burlesque! and Celebrity Impersonation! If we ain’t got it, it ain’t vaudeville!

Not to mention which WHO THESE PEOPLE ARE. So much star power, so much talent, I am afraid the stage will collapse beneath the weight of the supernova.

Tix are $10 general admission/ $25 for preferred seating. Get ’em here:

The Barrison Sisters: Don’t Call it Vaudeville

Posted in Art Models/ Bathing Beauties/ Beauty Queens/ Burlesque Dancers/ Chorines/ Pin-Ups/ Sexpots/ Vamps, Burlesk, Sister Acts, Vaudeville etc., Women with tags , , , , , , , , on March 22, 2016 by travsd


I’ve dithered about this post for a long while, but ultimately decided it can’t go in my Stars of Vaudeville series, for the simple reason that there’s no way in hell that you could ever call this act “vaudeville”. The reason for the quandary: the word appears next to their name wherever it is rendered on the internet. In typical fashion, once an error like that gets out there in gets replicated ad infinitum, and then bounced around forever like a pinball in a machine.


Here’s the thing: the Danish born Barrison Sisters (Lona, Sophia, Inger, Olga and Gertrude) had a dirty act. Like many sister acts of their day, they performed cute musical numbers. But the Barrison Sisters were said to have discovered the path to success through sexy double entendres. Their most notorious routine is said to have consisted of the girls asking the audience “Do you want to see my pussy?” — at which point they would flip up their skirts to reveal kittens strapped to the front of their vajayjays. In the 1890s. Though the great vaudeville circuits were just in the process of being created the tone of the industry was already well established by Tony Pastor, Keith and Albee, F.F. Proctor, Sylvester Poli, Percy Williams and others. Vaudeville was clean. If you did an act of this description in vaaudeville you’d be shown the door before your act was even finished.

So this act can only be said to have been in vaudeville in the broadest, broadest possible use of the term. Perhaps as they might use it in some place like Paris or Moscow, to mean something equivalent to “varities”. In fact, it even sounded too dirty for 1890s burlesque to me. My guess would have been saloon variety, as it might be seen at Koster and Bial’s or on the Bowery or someplace, or your local wild west saloon. But then I went to my go-to reference for early burlesque, the must-own Horrible Prettiness: Burlesque and American Culture, by Robert C. Allen. There, he mentions a strip act by Lona Barrison in burlesque, being reported on in the Police Gazette in 1896, in which she disrobed completely, which back then meant down to her underwear. And really that’s all you gotta know, friends. The Barrison Sisters were not vaudeville but burlesque, friends, and were even getting busted there. 

To learn more about vaudevilleconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.


Anatole Friedland and His Affairs

Posted in Broadway, Music, Stars of Vaudeville, Tin Pan Alley, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on March 21, 2016 by travsd


Today is the birthday of Anatole (sometimes spelled Anatol) Friedland, although there is some disagreement about the year, claims ranging from 1881 to 1888. He died in 1938. Born in St. Petersburg (Russia, not Florida) he was educated at private schools in his native contrary, then emigrated to the U.S. with his family sometime around the turn of the century. He studied architecture at Columbia University, while composing music for amateur shows at night.

He enjoyed performing his own songs, and often performing them in vaudeville. In 1911, he got his first Broadway show, writing the tunes for The Wife Hunters starring Lew Fields and Emma Carus. Then he wrote songs for the Shuberts The Passing Show and Broadway to Paris (1912), with Gertrude Hoffman, Louise Dresser and Irene Bordoni. Starting in 1913, his frequent songwriting partner became L. Wolfe Gilbert, with whom he wrote many hits. He continued to perform in vaudeville as a solo, as a duo with Gilbert, or as the producer of tab musicals with full choruses with names like Anatol’s Affairs of 1924, earning him the nickname “the Ziegfeld of Vaudeville”. Barbara Stanwyck and Mae Clarke were among those who performed in these choruses. As vaudeville began to fade, he continued to mount these revues in the big presentation houses that gradually replaced big time vaudeville house, presenting his shows as the opening acts for movies. During prohibition he also ran a speakeasy named Club Anatol, which also featured his floor shows.

To learn more about vaudevilleconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.


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