Archive for the Crackers Category

Of Folk and White Folk (Forward Back to Babylon)

Posted in AMERICANA, Crackers, CULTURE & POLITICS, My Family History with tags , , , , on February 24, 2017 by travsd

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I saw this bar graph on social media this morning and found it very telling. It explains a lot.  The chart shows Democrats and Republicans differing wildly in their perceptions of whether the Trump administration is “uniting” or “dividing” the nation. How can that be? They’re looking at the same phenomenon.

The answer, of course, is that the two factions don’t define the concepts the same way. One side acknowledges America’s diversity and asks whether the various components coexist in harmony and mutual respect. And that’s “unity”.  The other approach attempts to impose cultural uniformity by stifling dissent and punishing difference. And that’s their idea of “unity”. The liberal way attempts to achieve unity by rational agreement and consensus. The conservative way is to force compliance to an approved norm. One asks only, “Are you a person?” The other, “Are you a white, male, Christian heterosexual person of property?”

Theoretically, superficially, I am of the traditionally dominant culture. As we’ve blogged ad nauseam over the past couple of years, my American roots go back 400 years. Yet I find myself unutterably opposed to the Trumpian agenda. Not just for emotional reasons (so many of the people I love or have learned from don’t fit into the approved category), but for reasons of science and logic. I want the world to be a better place. You don’t create the conditions for that by limiting exposure to information, including the countless varieties and manifestations of human culture you get in a free and diverse society.

So the irony is, at the very time I’m discovering how “American” my pedigree is, I find myself far, far away from the contemporary American poster boy with similar roots. I’m about the roots themselves, and maintain that I remain truer to those roots than the millions of angry, red-faced people who go around waving flags and demanding conformity to their values. I am forever seeking out the old, the fecund and the folkish. I prefer that quality even over fealty to my own ethnic subculture. I have no use, for example, for most contemporary country music. I’m into TRADITIONAL music, rough hewn antique folk music, bluegrass, and country music from the golden age. I have no use for modern commercial rubbish, whether it comes from Nashville (a town founded by some of my ancestors) or the Bubble Gum Factory.  I likewise adore the stately old poetry of the King James Bible and the Book of Common Prayer; I have no liking for modern language translations which boil out all the interesting parts of speech, leaving only the bare information. And if you tell me I’m not a Christian, Fundamentalist, I’ll have to spit in your eye. Then I’ll wipe off the spit and apologize because, ya know, I’m a Christian. 

And the beauty of the love of the traditional is that its qualities of richness are shared in common across cultures, national boundaries and religious divides. In plenty of ways I feel more of a kinship with an old black man in South Carolina, or the Italian peasants who lived across the street from me when I was growing up, than I do with some guy who has my last name and looks just like me, but thinks it’s duty as an American to remain ignorant of anyone or any way else. 

In recent months I’ve felt like I was really beginning to understand the ideological underpinnings of the American folk movement of the mid-twentieth century for the first time, and WHY there was such an uproar and feelings of betrayal when Dylan went electric and “commercial”. I’ve always had misgivings about corporate control of popular culture, especially mainstream Hollywood films since the 1980s (for their violence, materialism, and encouragement of conformism). And also the video experience, which happens alone, dispassionately, less empathetically. The danger becomes more apparent when you see corporate forces so closely allied with government power as they now are. In the age of corporate media, the message is disseminated from the top down. It is controlled and it is designed to condition spectators to conform. Whereas folk culture: rich, ancient and organic, is intrinsically subversive to those aims. It works from the bottom up. It is presented from many perspectives, it sings with many voices. You get the truth from all sides, you get eternal truths. There is precious little support for folk culture in America that operates outside the corporate cookie-cutter. With the promised shut down of the National Endowment for the Arts, there will be even less support (and that is by design). Trump aims at a monolithic autocracy that talks with one voice, the voice of white Christians. But we also know that white males are only 31% of the population, and white male, heterosexual, conservative Christians is some number substantially smaller than that.

But this attempt to force the other two thirds of the country to bend to their will is like trying to tie up a lion in pretty pink ribbon. It might hold for a minute, but no more. Then the lion is going to burst its bonds — and it will be complaining loudly. I’ve been saying this more and more. It’s likely to be a miserable time for artists, but a good time for art. Nothing motivates people to shout loudly like being told to shut up.

Stars of Vaudeville #1026: Max Terhune

Posted in AMERICANA, Crackers, Hollywood (History), Movies, Vaudeville etc., Ventriloquism & Puppetry, Westerns with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on February 12, 2017 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of Max Terhune (1891-1973). Originally from Indiana, Terhune was a ventriloquist, whistler, animal imitator, juggler and magician in the last days of vaudeville (early 1930s), occasionally performing with the Hoosier Hot Shots. But the most astounding thing he was, was a movie actor. Friendships with guys like Kermit Maynard (Ken’s younger brother) and Gene Autry got Terhune picture work, notably in the Republic and Monagram western serials  The Three Mesquiteers and The Range Busters. 

These films were where I first became aware of Terhune, and not just aware, but entranced, dumbfounded, slack-jawed. For in these movies, he is never to be seen without his ventriloquial dummy “Elmer”. The reality in which this situation takes place is MOST ambiguous, to say the least. Is Terhune’s cowboy character also an amateur ventriloquist? A professional one? Is it just completely meta, and he is just an actor, not a cowboy? Or is it the opposite, as it often seems? In other words is Elmer a sentient entity with his own action and volition, an actual character? I’ve seen episodes where Elmer gets kidnapped and cries for help with no ventriloquist around! (Warning: do not watch if that is your idea of nightmarish horror). The other characters talk directly to Elmer, laugh at his jokes, and never acknowledge that Terhune is the ventriloquist making him talk (except for the occasional films where Terhune plays a literal ventriloquist).

Terhune continued to be featured in B movie westerns through 1949, usually with the character name “Lullaby” or “Alibi”. Through the first half of the ’50s he got some work in TV westerns and bit parts in films (his last was Giant, 1954). After this, he continued to perform ventriloquism and magic live for a number of year in Hollywood area venues like the Magic Castle and the Corriganville Movie Ranch. 

For more on vaudeville historyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

White Trash: The 400 Year Untold History of Class in America

Posted in BOOKS & AUTHORS, Crackers, CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, CULTURE & POLITICS with tags , , , on February 5, 2017 by travsd

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I find myself much disappointed in Nancy Isenberg’s much hyped White Trash: The 400 Year Untold Story of Class in America. If anything, as far as I can tell this particular “untold story” happens to be WELL KNOWN to anyone whose head is attached.

While the book is impressive in scope and exhaustive in detail, it is also shallow in useful insight. Once again, we come upon a cultural product that treats of those at the bottom from the perspective of a great height. This is another book “about” poor whites, without perceptively being “by”, “of” or “for” them. It is essentially a sequential chronicle of how the powerful in America (planters, politicians, presidents, the ruling class and later the media) have dealt with the masses beneath them, culturally, socially, legally and politically. We learn (if we didn’t already know) that large numbers first came to America as convicts or indentured servants, and were kept down. Then we learn that they were scorned in polite society and depicted derogatorily in pop culture. What we don’t learn is who they are, how they think and feel, or what they’ve ever made or accomplished. In fact, it’s rather difficult to tell from the tone of this book if the author feels differently from the elites in her opinion of the titular “rubbish”. Since, let’s be frank, those very elites are the very people who’ve been reading this book and touting it as some sort of lodestone of understanding into the mind of the Trump voter, I am not particularly heartened by the book’s success. It bridges no gaps, blazes no trails, brokers no new understanding. What it does do is provide us with an alarming revelation: if the elites take this book’s self-evident truisms for insights, it means that they hadn’t even thought that much about poor white people.

It may be countered that this is the very point: spending all our time in the heads of the aristocrat Thomas Jefferson or the eugenics-friendly Teddy Roosevelt points up the aloof, cold distance between those at the top and those whom they pay lip service to admiring, even as they take steps to keep them culturally quarantined. And there are clues that that may be the strategy. I came across a perceptive quote in the book from an Australian observer to the effect that in America we place great stock in adopting democratic manners without actually being democratic. The supreme example of this of course is Donald Trump, born with a silver spoon in his mouth and eats a thousand poor people every morning for breakfast, but somehow won the allegiance of millions of them merely on the strength of being coarse and crass and thus “authentic.” Another great quote I found in the book and must always remember, “It’s better to be a Corleone than a Loud” (i.e. of a genuine, human folk culture than part of the antisepctic, vapid, modern American suburban middle class). And I walked away from the book with an enhanced and renewed respect for Lyndon Johnson, a problematic figure to be admitted, but the sort of man I would vastly prefer to the present autocrat in the oval office. Johnson of course, may have done the poor some good. Trump’s plan seems to be to wipe them out.

My stake in this of course is that I am of the benighted class and care about them, even as I have moved away from the majority of them in how I look at things politically. It pains me to see them duped for the millionth time and once again politically disempowered. It seems right now America’s only hope as a nation is for some kind of conversation to happen between its starkly polarized halves. This book won’t break the ice.

Stars of Vaudeville #1007: Clem Bevans

Posted in Broadway, Crackers, Hollywood (History), Movies, Television, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , on October 16, 2016 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of character actor Clem Bevans (1879-1963). 

I’d undoubtedly seen Bevans in dozens of movies and tv shows, but didn’t finally become aware of him until a few months ago when the indomitable explorer Mr. Pinnock, sent me a link to a remarkable 1950 tv movie called Hurricane at Pilgrim Hill, produced by Hal Roach JrOriginally presented as an episode of Magnavox Theatre, the plot of this bizarre romantic comedy is based on a magazine story by James Charles Lynch. It concerns the culture clash when a Western codger comes to visit his granddaughter in an old Massachusetts town. When his fiance’s snooty family don’t approve of the marriage, the old man uses a Native American spell to conjure a hurricane that puts the boy’s father out of the way for a while. Then he rescues the guy and everyone kisses and makes up. It’s not exactly a “good” movie, but I was especially intrigued by Bevans’ performance, which I found oddly detailed, realistic and just plain weird. And so I investigated…

Bevans was born in Cozzadale, Ohio. He started out in vaudeville around the turn of the last century with a boy and girl act with Grace Emmett. From here he went onto burlesque, and three roles on Broadway, in the shows The Errand Boy (1904), Patsy in Politics (1907) and Monte Cristo Jr. (1919). He was 55 years old when he made his film debut in the 1935 remake of Way Down East. From here he worked constantly in film and television for the next 27 years. He amassed scores and scores of credits. Some notable films he appeared in include: Zenobia (1939), Dodge City (1939), Abe Lincoln in Illinois (1940), Sergeant York (1941), The Yearling (1946), The Paleface (1948), Portrait of Jennie (1948), and Harvey (1950), and the Disney miniseries Davy Crockett as well as the movie Davy Crockett and the River Pirates (1956). He was almost always typecast as a rural old geezer, but one notable departure was his casting as a Nazi in Alfred Hitchcock’s Saboteur (1942).

He was closely related (either the brother or cousin of, I’ve seen both online) of character actress Merie Earle, also always cast as an old codger, and when I show a photo, you’ll know her too in an instant:

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For more on vaudeville historyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

Tammy Faye Starlite is Back (and My Rave About Her is Up)

Posted in Art Stars, Comedy, Contemporary Variety, Crackers, CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, Indie Theatre, Jews/ Show Biz, Singers, Singing Comediennes with tags , , , , , , on September 21, 2016 by travsd

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I caught opening night of Tammy Faye Starlite in Holy War 2016 at Pangea and it was every bit as dazzling as I knew it would be. Read my rave here in Chelsea Nowhttp://chelseanow.com/2016/09/the-transcendent-tension-of-tammy-faye-starlite/

Fess Parker: American Icon

Posted in AMERICANA, Crackers, Hollywood (History), ME, Movies, My Family History, Television, Westerns with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 16, 2016 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of Fess Parker (1924-2010 — how did I not notice that he died so recently?)

I would have been thrilled as a child to have known that I am distantly related to this film and tv actor through my grandmother Flora Parker. He is best known for playing frontiersmen such as Davy Crockett (1955-56), Daniel Boone (1964-1970) and the dad in Old Yeller (1957). Though these were all before my time, they were still shown frequently on tv when I was a kid, and I was encouraged to embrace them (and did). Our family has strong historical connections to Crockett (whom I’ll be blogging about some more tomorrow) and Boone, and like the hero of Old Yeller I am named “Travis”.

Given his rustic and rough-hewn persona, one is surprised to learn that at the time Parker began finding employment as a movie extra in 1951 he was working on a master’s degree in theatre history. His undergrad major at the University of Texas had been in history, a background that would stand him in good stead when he began to be cast in westerns and frontier stories. His Texas accent and imposing height (6′ 6″) were even bigger assets.

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Parker’s progress was rapid. Based on his appearance in several minor roles in westerns and guest appearances on television, Walt Disney himself cast Parker as Davy Crockett in the titular mini-series in 1956, which was so popular it set off a national craze for coonskin caps among American schoolchildren. The kid in Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom sports one in homage to that fad.

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Parker and coon-clad fans

Parker and coon-clad fans

 

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Sure! He won’t grow up to be a tower shooter or anything!

It was during his time as a contract player for Disney that he appeared in Old Yeller, but he grew dissatisfied with being typecast and with repeatedly being asked to take small, non-starring roles, so he left Disney in 1958.

One of his notable roles during this period was the title part in a 1962 series based on Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. This is wonderfully fortuitous casting. If Parker’s acting chops aren’t up to Jimmy Stewart’s, he is without a doubt the right type to a T. (Interestingly, Davy Crockett had been a Congressman. The concept of playing a simple, honest country man who must confront the cynical sophisticates in Washington was not a new one to Parker).

Parker as Daniel Boone. Notice the difference?

Parker as Daniel Boone. Notice the difference?

Ironically, his next iconic role was to be so similar to his first one that he may just as well have remained working for Disney. In 1964 he was cast as the title character in the series Daniel Boone, attired in nearly the same costume, and put in the same setting, log cabins in the Tennessee/Kentucky frontier. I was in the first grade when the series went off the air in 1970; I still remember the theme song after all that time. It was a very popular show, as its six year run testifies.

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But by 1970, tastes were rapidly changing. In the late Vietnam era, westerns were dying faster than the buffalo. Parker would have to reinvent himself if he wanted to remain in the game. Astoundingly, he turned down a perfect chance to do just that. In 1970 he was the first choice to play the title character in McCloud, the NBC police drama about the culture clash that arises when a New Mexico marshal is loaned to the New York City police department. Along with Columbo and McMillan and Wife it was one of the shows presented in rotation on the NBC Sunday Mystery series, which would prove a blockbuster success, and the role of McCloud would have been perfect for Parker, casting him as a rustic type thrust into the modern world. But Parker passed, and the role went to Dennis Weaver, who had earlier achieved stardom on Gunsmoke. 

In 1974, he made a pilot for The Fess Parker Show, in which he played the harried dad of “three feisty daughters.” It was not picked up. He retired from show business after that. He went on to found the Fess Parker Winery (and Coonskin Cap Store), which was used as a location in the movie Sideways. And he invented that new soft drink: “Fess Up” (kiddin’!)

“Kentucky” Opens Tonight

Posted in AMERICANA, Crackers, Indie Theatre, PLUGS with tags , on April 20, 2016 by travsd

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