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the work of history

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    April 19, 1960: In South Korea, the April 19 movement begins, eventually toppling President Syngman Rhee.

    On April 11, 1960, a fisherman discovered the body of a teenager washed up in the harbor of Masan. Kim Chu Yol had been a student at a local high school, and he had been wearing his uniform when he died, and he was wearing it still when he was discovered. Authorities, when pressed, had insisted that Kim had drowned, accidentally and unsuspiciously. There was no reason to suspect that, for example, he had been killed almost a month before his body floated to its unceremonious chance discovery among fish and putrid bay water, that he had been killed in a clash with police, or that, because of those hypothetical circumstances of death, there were fragments of a tear gas shell still lodged in his eyes. 

    A strong tradition of student protest in South Korea drove masses of students, among them Kim, out to rally against President Syngman Rhee in March 1960. Rhee had tallied up near 90% of the votes in the presidential election that month. In his previous twelve years as the first and thus far only president of the new Republic of Korea, Rhee had crushed dissent in the name of national security. The Republic was new, and so was its unity - a heavy ask, when the two separate Republics had been declared, on little rational basis, in 1948. Internal political strife still racked South Korean politics, “dominated by a rivalry between Rightists and the remnants of the Left Wing People’s Committees,” the latter led by communists.

    Contemporary CIA reports described Rhee and his cohort as “essentially demagogues bent on autocratic rule,” but mostly suitable for the purposes of ruling South Korea, since Rhee both favored the West and had not, as had many belonging to the traditional South Korean ruling class and political elite, pandered to the Japanese during Japan’s colonial rule of the peninsula. In fact Rhee had legitimate nationalist credentials - and better yet, was an obstinate anticommunist. CIA reports also noted, however, even under the steady hand, or clenched fist, of such a leader, South Korea was not a unified anticommunist stronghold but one with its own longstanding divisions; it had its own irreducible history and politics, vested class powers and upstart ones: radicals, guerrillas, organizers of the untapped mass power of labor and peasantry. Under national security and anti-subversion laws, South Korea’s major political, military, educational, and cultural institutions were purged of Leftist influences. Such suppression characterized the Rhee regime. 

    As the country emerged from the Korean War, Rhee obtained a second presidency and then, in 1960, at age 84, pushed through a constitutional amendment obliging him yet a third. Discontent over suspected electoral fraud strew embers of anti-government discontent across the country. In Masan, thousands, including students, had marched and demanded to see Kim Chu Yol’s body and had dredged out the truth. This news spread far beyond the bay. Embers looked to combust into inferno. Students coordinated across Korea’s universities to ready one massive demonstration, set to begin on April 19, 1960. Members of all levels of Korean society were to participate - although anti-communist suppression continued to strangle the growth of even labor unions, and the energy of mass civil protest did not quite rejuvenate an anemic organized Left. Time magazine correspondents were quick to differentiate these “eager, patriotic youngsters” from “communist invaders,” and to characterize this as an outburst, an acting out of a “single, sudden impulse of youth.”

    On April 19, 1960, the day after Rhee’s 85th birthday, some 100,000 South Koreans took to the streets. Police and protestors clashed for a week. Hundreds of professors eventually joined the demonstrations. Rhee attributed the uprising to communist subversion, declared martial law, and eventually began to offer concessions as, outside the executive Blue House, government forces killed dozens of demonstrators (ultimately at least 150) over the course of that week. Finally, on April 26, Rhee resigned and fled via American airlift to Honolulu. This time, he was gone for good - but not forgotten. One of Rhee’s legacies was the succeeding constitutional system and its deliberately weak executive office, but this was not to last, either

    Further reading:

    “North Korean Perspectives on the Overthrow of Syngman Rhee”
    Tim Shorrock: “South Korea’s First Revolution Through the eyes of an American boy in Seoul”

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    Harold Lloyd
    April 20, 1893 - March 8, 1971

    One of the trinity of silent godfathers of early film comedy, Harold Lloyd combined the spunk of Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp with the physical daring of Buster Keaton. His best-known film, Safety Last! (1923), contains one of silent film’s indelible images: Lloyd’s bespectacled, boater-hatted character, high above the city, hangs flailing from the face of a clock.

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    April 21, 1934: The ‘Surgeon’s Photograph’ first appears in The Daily Mail.

    One spring day in the Scottish Highlands, “West End surgeon” Robert Kenneth Wilson took his reflex camera out to Loch Ness to enjoy the countryside district, an area which he “[knew] fairly well.” A storm had passed; the sky was clear. The loch’s natural appeal to tourists was plain on a mild day like this - that, and the fact that Loch Ness had very recently become the subject of rumors, sightings, even blurry photographs, all of them telling of a massive creature said to dwell somewhere in the depths. Intrigued tourists trundled down the newly-refurbished road to spot the loch, and throughout 1933 the stories had accumulated. Wilson, however, had come down for a smoke and a stroll. Camera in hand, he took his smoke. And then movement in the water alerted him, suddenly, to the head of “some strange animal” rising out of the water. Too excited to “observe it properly,” Wilson was able to snap four photos before the creature “began gradually to sink from view.”

    At least, that was how Wilson - the eponymous ‘surgeon’ - told it to The Daily Mail. Wilson had no guess for what it was. The Mail consulted various experts, who dismissed that it could be a seal, hypothesized that it was a bird, or offered general curious befuddlement. One said that, had the photograph been taken at sea, he might have entertained “the theory of a sea-serpent.” The Mail advised the reader to note that the long-necked monster depicted in “Mr. Wilson’s picture” was “entirely different from the whale-like Cherbourg monster.” This monster, whatever it was, was its own phenomenon, no Anglo cousin to a French original but the Isles’ own, Scotland’s own, Loch Ness’ own monster. 

    Generic tales of a sea monster inhabiting Loch Ness dated back centuries, but in the sense that any large natural landmark might inspire a mythos following familiar tropes. Water horses and other lake-dwelling creatures commonly featured in Scottish folklore. The modern Loch Ness monster lore was born in 1933 and was consolidated when it found its modern iconography, when the Surgeon’s Photograph appeared on the front page of The Daily Mail. Efforts to both prove and disprove the monster’s existence were energized by Wilson’s photo, which became as singularly emblematic of the mystery of the monster itself, and the mania of the search, as the Patterson-Gimlin film. 

    Wilson would equivocate on what he ‘saw’ that day until his death in 1969 (side-stepping the cultural phenomenon he helped stoke, he had seen only “something in the water.”) In 1994, it was revealed that, in fact, Wilson had seen in the water a modified toy submarine. Its maker was one Marmaduke Wetherell, who had previously attempted to orchestrate a Loch Ness monster hoax and, upon its failure and his disgrace, began to scheme another. The surgeon was in on it, although he could not have predicted how successfully the joke would play out. 

    See also:“The Loch Ness monster’s Hollywood origins” argues that King Kong (1933) directly inspired 1933′s string of Loch Ness monster sightings

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    April 23, 1967: The Soviet Union launches Soyuz 1 into orbit.

    Yuri Gagarin was the first man to fly in space, but Colonel Vladimir Komarov was the first man to fly twice - and, when Soyuz 1 returned from orbit and hurtled to the Earth at terminal velocity, failed by a malfunctioning parachute, Komarov became the first to die in flight.

    The colonel had in 1964 successfully commanded the Voskhod 1 mission, carrying a three-member crew. He and Gagarin were two of the Soviet Union’s premier cosmonauts, and more than that, they were close friends. Gagarin was to be Komarov’s backup pilot for the Soyuz 1 mission. This was why, although both men knew that the craft was seriously technically flawed, perhaps even doomed, Komarov would not back out — at least according to one account of that fated friendship and flight (note: this account, while vivid, is of questionable scholarship):

    [Komarov] said, “I’m not going to make it back from this flight.”

    Russayev asked, Why not refuse? …

    Komarov answered: “If I don’t make this flight, they’ll send the backup pilot instead… That’s Yura. And he’ll die instead of me. We’ve got to take care of him.” Komarov then burst into tears.

    Embellished or not, the high stakes that surrounded the tragedy were real. The Space Race had entered its lunar stretch. John F. Kennedy had, in 1961, announced the United States’ intent to land a man on the Moon before the decade’s close; Kennedy would not live to see either close or landing, but the Apollo program was now deep underway, and the Soyuz program was the Soviet response. In contrast to the earlier phase of the Space Race, it was now the Soviet effort that stumbled a few steps behind. Much was riding on the success of Soyuz 1 - all the hopes of the Soviets’ future on the Moon! - and all of this rested equally on the shoulders of Colonel Komarov.

    Gagarin, along with an engineer and head cosmonaut trainer Nikolai Kamanin, accompanied Komarov to the rocket before dawn on the morning of April 23, 1967. Gagarin “went all the way to the top of the rocket and remained there until the hatch was closed.” He was likely the last person to see Komarov before his ill-fated flight, which was to return to Earth just over a day later, after 18 orbits.

    Originally, Soyuz 1 was to remain in orbit for four days, during which it would rendezvous with Soyuz 2, but technical problems plagued the mission from the beginning. These could not be smoothed over; Soyuz 1 had to come down. Technical problems even in emergency re-entry sentenced the mission to its violent, fiery end. The idea that the colonel began to scream and bitterly curse the engineers and politics and politicians that had condemned him to this immolation is likely another embellishment. In a mission so shrouded in confusion and so amplified in its drama and lurid horror, rumors about the gruesome details and about the final hysterical moments of a betrayed cosmonaut before death were quick to fill in the spaces of the unknown.

    But based on what is known, such a reaction on Komarov’s part would have been reasonable. Without a parachute, the re-entry capsule became a veritable missile fired into the Earth and, had anything managed to survive impact, it would have been swallowed in the explosion that engulfed the Soyuz afterward. It was only after careful assessment and excavation of the wreckage that the Soviets were able to recover what remained of Komarov’s body - “a small burnt lump measuring 30 to 80 centimeters.”

    Vladimir Komarov was posthumously awarded the Gold Star Medal of Hero of the Soviet Union and the Order of Lenin. Gagarin would die, less than a year later, in a jet fighter crash during a routine training exercise. Both were cremated, interred in the walls of the Kremlin. And the Soyuz outlived both, outlived the Soviet Union itself, and it soldiered on, and to this day the Soyuz line continues to ferry flights to and from the International Space Station (since the termination of the American Space Shuttle program, American astronauts now rely on the Soyuz for ISS-related transport). At the foot of a lunar mountain, Komarov’s name is enshrined on a plaque with thirteen others, alongside that of his friend, Yuri Gagarin.

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    Berkeley Barb Issue 507, May 2-8, 1975

    Berkeley Barb

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    Spike Lee
    Japanese poster for She’s Gotta Have It (1986)

    Film on Paper

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    “As to the question as to what I mean by — or what my philosophy is — I haven’t the least idea. And if I told you one, it wouldn’t be true. I don’t like people to be hurt or hungry or unnecessarily sad. It’s just about as simple as that.”

    - John Steinbeck, in response to a graduate student’s thesis questionnaire, 1938.

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    Eugène Delacroix
    April 26, 1798 – August 13, 1863

    Something else about Delacroix - he had a discussion with a friend about the question of working absolutely from nature, and said on that occasion that one should take one’s studies from nature - but that the “actual painting” had to be made “by heart.” This friend was walking along the boulevard when they had this discussion - which was already fairly heated. When they parted the other man was still not entirely persuaded. 

    After they parted, Delacroix let him stroll on for a bit - then (making a trumpet of his two hands) bellowed after him in the middle of the street - to the consternation of the worthy passersby: 

    “By heart! By heart!” (“Par coeur! Par coeur!”) 

    I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed reading this article and some other things about Delacroix…

    Vincent van Gogh, c. 1885.

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    April 27, 1945: While fleeing the country, Benito Mussolini and his mistress are captured by partisans in north Italy. Both are executed the next day.

    On a morning in late April 1945, a column of trucks, carrying German troops in retreat, made its way to the Swiss-Italian border. Allied armies had launched an offensive on Lombardy weeks earlier, and the German occupation of northern Italy, like Axis efforts across Europe, was still extant in name only. Soviet Army forces had begun to shell Berlin while Hitler wrung his hands in his Führerbunker, weighing the pros and cons of different methods of suicide; within two weeks the Soviets would wrest the capital from the tatters of the German military and militia.

    The trucks passed outside Dongo, a township on the western shore of the glacial lake Lago di Como, nestled at the crook of the southern Alps. It was outside this peacetime vacation village that Italian partisans (‘patriots’ as described by The New York Daily News, with many communists among them) stopped this fleeing German entourage. The partisans looked only to check that there were no Italians hidden among the troops in retreat - the unit had been notified that Il Duce was somewhere in flight out of the country. One volunteer, Urbano Lazzaro, spotted an awkward figure wrapped in an overcoat and hiding his face behind sunglasses. Lazzaro grew suspicious, and he approached:

    Urbano Lazzaro recalled, “I called out ‘excellency.’ But he didn’t reply. I also shouted ‘comrade.’ Still nothing. So I got into the lorry. I went up to him and I said: ‘Cavaliere Benito Mussolini.’ It was as if I had given him an electric shock.”

    Lazzaro’s instincts were right: here was his ‘excellency,’ father of Italian fascism, sitting in a vacation district in a truck surrounded by Italian antifascists. Mussolini was shocked, but so were they: “They had no idea what to do with him.” The partisans seized the disgraced dictator. The details of what happened next remain, to this day, and complicated by Lazzaro’s later investigations and revised accounts, fuzzy. Conspiracy theories, as with the death of Hitler, abound. But whatever happened over the next twenty-four hours, it ended in the execution of Mussolini and his mistress, and if their deaths were a private, understated affair - according to the traditional narrative, a simple death by firing squad against the wall of a secluded lakeside villa - then their fate after death was a wholly public event, in which every person in Milan had occasion to participate. 

    The partisans loaded Mussolini, Petacci, and their companions, high-ranking party officials, in a van, which arrived in Milan on the morning of April 29. In the Piazzale Loreto, a mob of thousands, far too many for the partisans to hold back, began to trample and spit on the bodies. It was the same piazzale where, in 1944, Italian fascist police and the German army had executed fifteen members of the Italian resistance. One woman, reportedThe New York Times, “fired five shots into Mussolini’s body, according to Milan Radio, and shouted: ‘Five shots for my five assassinated sons!’” When the blood and dust cleared, the bodies were strung up, upside down, from the roof of a gas station. Reports of the morbid display reached Berlin the next day, hardening Hitler’s resolve to die quietly, and to die without ever having to face and to answer, dead or alive, the rage of the people. 

    My men shot them all together… Among them was the brother of Mistress Petacci. When they were led out to be shot, Petacci tried to escape but he was shot down… These men died well. Mussolini died badly.

    An Italian partisan describes the execution of Mussolini and co.

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    Yves Klein
    April 28, 1928 – June 6, 1962

    As the story goes, Yves Klein’s love affair with the color blue began when the artist was seduced by the deep cerulean skies of the French Mediterranean. “He was obsessed by the luminosity of the blue sky in Nice,” Daniel Moquay, the manager of Klein’s archive and second husband to Klein’s widow Rotraut Klein-Moquay, told me over the phone from France. “He tried to have a blue as powerful as this.” For Klein, color—particularly the most vivid shade of blue—represented a kind of freedom, an antidote to what he saw as the restrictive limits imposed by lines… 

    Color enabled viewers to “bathe in a cosmic sensibility,” Klein said. He would sometimes refer to the literary critic and philosopher Gaston Bachelard, who wrote: “First there is nothing, then there is a deep nothing, then there is a blue depth.” Discovering, in collaboration with a chemical retailer, a polymer binder that could fix his blue pigment so that it didn’t lose any of its intensity on the road to becoming paint, Klein dubbed the shade International Klein Blue (IKB) and set about making objects of various forms with it: textured canvases, sculptures composed of sea sponges soaked in pigment, horizontal fields of the powdery blue substance.

    … it’s hard not to read a certain egotistical flair in the branding of a shade of blue with his name. Moreover, there is a muscular virulence to the way Klein talked about his work. He referred on several occasions to his role as an artist in inseminating the world with his sensibility. When the Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin described the earth’s blueness as seen from outer space, Klein declared that he had saturated the whole globe with I.K.B. His blue sculptures, he said, were portraits of the viewers who, “having voyaged in the blue of my pictures, return totally impregnated in sensibility, as are the sponges.”

    Yves Klein’s Legacy

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    Somebody on Twitter dug this up - sometime during a desperate late April stretch of the 1975 ABA playoffs, the Denver Nuggets called on a professional witch to hex their competition, the Indiana Pacers, into a Game 5 loss for the Western Division finals. Via the Sports Illustrated vault: “Robota The Rent-A-Witch… arrived complete with broom, to stir a cauldron at mid-court before Sunday’s game” and “stuck pins into a poster of [George] McGinnis.” Her hex seems to have failed, since McGinnis led the Pacers to smash the Nuggets in a 109-90 win and gain a 3-2 lead in the series. 

    Then again, the Pacers moved on only to lose in the Finals 1-4. And after the ABA and NBA merged in 1976, the Pacers would post mostly losing records for the next decade and would fail to win any post-season series at all for the next 17 years, the fourth-longest drought in league history, so Robota’s hex may have worked, after all… happy Playoffs. 

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    Dan Budnik
    The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth at Brown Chapel A.M.E. Church in Selma, Alabama, March 1965

    Both were here photographed, in the beginning days of the Selma to Montgomery marches, eulogizing James Reeb, the Unitarian minister who had traveled south from Boston to participate and was beaten to death by segregationists.

    Dan Budnik photography

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    George Clinton
    Computer Games, 1982

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    Some vibrant covers for the short-lived radical magazine The Liberator
    c. 1918-1924

    The magazine was founded by Max and Crystal Eastman to succeed The Masses, which ran from 1911 until it was shut down in 1918 under the Espionage Act.

    NYU Libraries

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    May 2, 1952: The beginning of the ‘Jet Age’ — the de Havilland Comet makes its maiden voyage.

    118 feet long, 29 feet tall, unassuming in design, the de Havilland Comet that departed London on May 2, 1952, touched down the next day and was greeted at the Palmietfontein Airport in Johannesburg by so many spectators that the pilot wondered what was going on. They were there, Capt. R. C. Alabaster learned after landing, to see the Comet, the world’s first commercial jet airliner.

    Like the Kitty Hawk craft and the Concorde, the flight of the Comet seems to represent much more than its own time in the air - the beginning of a new era of travel and communication. In the Western imagination, the Comet shrunk the Atlantic, the sky itself, and the world. In 1989, Tony Fairbrother, a Comet flight test engineer, remarked that “the world changed from the moment its wheels left the ground” in 1949. The Comet 1’s first years of operation were marred by disaster and tragedy, but the Jet Age had, in that moment, arrived: coexisting an age in which atomic energy was supposed to save the world, in which whole suburban communities, homes and lawns, were raised from nothing; soon man would fly in space, and new luxuries, like intercontinental travel, became widely available to the middle class. 

    When Frank Sinatra sang, in 1957, “There’s a bar in far Bombay / Come fly with me, let’s fly, let’s fly away,” they imagined that they just might - and they could.

    The de Havilland Comet was a British invention, a peacetime marvel that emerged out of wartime. American aircraft like the Douglas DC-3 and the Boeing Stratocruiser (a descendant of the World War II Superfortress bomber) had already anticipated mass commercial flight through the 1930s and ‘40s, making the idea of travel by air palatable to the average traveller. But the Comet, powered by jet engines instead of propellers, was different — it flew higher, faster, smoother, quieter. The engines themselves were encased in metal, hidden in aerodynamic designs that bespoke the Chevrolet Bel Air in your driveway, or the smooth capsule of a rocket - that is, the modern and the future. 

    The British hoped to claim a foothold in the burgeoning industry, in which the Americans already claimed several advantages - not least of which included the size of the population (a population of prospective air travelers) and the wartime infrastructure for a peacetime aeronautics industry, ready to cash in.

    Within a year the troubles began, and with them the beginning of the end for this short-lived aircraft. Exactly one year after the 1952 London flight, a Comet departing Calcutta was incinerated “in a streak of smoke” in a thunderstorm, along with all 43 people aboard. Investigations into this and other fatal disasters found serious structural issues with the Comet - in the construction of its hull and window, and in its general inability to handle the stress of pressurization. 

    These accidents repeatedly grounded the early Comet models, and subsequent investigations and periods of commercial idle effectively ended the British rush toward the vanguard of the Jet Age. While de Havilland revamped the Comet (and eventually produced the more durable Comet 4), American companies gained ground, taking note of safety findings and engineering commercial crafts that were even bigger and faster than de Havilland’s latest designs. In 1958 Boeing rolled out, as part of the Pan Am fleet, the Boeing 707.

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    Umetada Motoshige
    Ceremonial arrowheads (Yanonē) (detail), c. 1645

    Large arrowheads, pierced and elaborately chiseled with landscapes, birds, flowers, dragons, and Buddhist divinities, were created to be admired for the beauty of their metalwork and design rather than for use in archery. This arrowhead is dated 1645 and signed by [Edo period smith] Umetada Motoshige, a member of the Umetada school of swordsmiths, tsuba makers, and iron chiselers.

    Metropolitan Museum of Art

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    May 3, 1963: In Birmingham, Alabama, city authorities begin to deploy violent force against black protestors.

    Fifty-five years ago today, in schools across Jefferson County, Alabama, thousands of students dropped their pencils, laced their shoes, and walked out of their classrooms. Some would march together ten miles, and all were headed for the county seat of Birmingham. For a month, a mass nonviolent campaign against segregation had been underway there, under the cooperative leadership of the local Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

    Even among Southern cities, Birmingham was afflicted by a racism so stubborn on the systemic level, and so bitter and violent on the personal, that it was nicknamed ‘Bombingham’ and described as “the most thoroughly segregated city in the United States” by Dr. King. Here there was no pretense of genteel Southern hierarchy. For a month black protestors had gathered at city hall, launched boycotts, organized lunch counter sit-ins, stood in the doorways of white churches. In the course of the demonstrations Martin Luther King, Jr. had been jailed for a week (during which he published his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”). 

    James Bevel, the SCLC’s direct action mastermind, came up with the idea to organize the children and students of Jefferson County. They came from elementary schools, high schools, and colleges. (The plan was later dubbed the ‘Children’s Crusade’ by Newsweek.) As the students arrived in Birmingham in the direction of City Hall, the hardline segregationist Commissioner of Public Safety, “Bull” Connor, directed police attack dogs, hoses, and mass arrests against the protesters.

    The shocking images (people huddled on the ground and against buildings; snarling dogs; cruel water and crueler men) splashed onto the pages of Life and Time, and into the national discourse. The Life magazine spread, famously photographed by Alabama native Charles Moore, depicted the scene in terms at least as explicit as much of mainstream America outside the South had hitherto ever heard. 

    Its coverage struck a cynical tone: Connor was playing right into the hands of the organizers; that a man having his pant leg ripped off by a police dog was “the attention-getting jack pot of… provocation” and a woman knocked down by a “hose blast… like a battering ram” had been struck in the act of “[taunting] the police.” Mobilizing children was low, nearly as low as sending grown men with clubs out to beat them. But people saw, and at least some listened.

    On May 4, Burke Marshall, head of the Justice Department’s civil rights division, arrived in Birmingham. Between bad publicity for the city and bad economics for white business leaders, Marshall was sure that they would give a little. The next week, the City of Birmingham agreed to desegregate lunch counters and drinking fountains, and to hire some black employees.

    Robert and John F. Kennedy entreated dialogue between the North and South, between black and white. Both publicly lauded Dr. King, but the attorney general also observed: “If King loses… worse leaders are going to take his place. Look at the Black Muslims.” If Americans were fed up with Dr. King’s nonviolence, they would not be able to imagine the alternative. Privately, Robert Kennedy was more critical of the campaign as a whole. “Many in the Negro leadership didn’t know what they were demonstrating about,” Kennedy remarked, and “none of the white community would get near… because they felt that they were being disorderly.” The violence in Birmingham had shocked both Kennedys. Both also feared what else might come - from the whites, but even moreso from black communities with little faith in white leaders. It seemed to Robert Kennedy that “the Negroes are all mad for no reason at all, and they want to fight.” 

    In September 1963, for no reason at all, a Ku Klux Klan bomb injured twenty-two churchgoers and killed four girls at the same 16th Street Baptist Church where the Children’s Crusade had gathered. In June 1963, President Kennedy called for legislation that eventually became the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

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    (Translation) Edward Fitzgerald; (Illustration) Edmund Dulac
    Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, 1937

    Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

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    Diana Davies
    Gay rights demonstration, Albany, New York, 1971


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    May 8, 1911: Robert Johnson is born in Hazlehurst, Mississippi.

    Early this morning / When you knocked upon my door
    Early this morning, ooh / When you knocked upon my door
    And I said “hello Satan I believe it’s time to go”

    Only two confirmed photos exist of Robert Johnson, the guitar pioneer who was born by the Mississippi Delta and died young and was said to have sold his soul, rambling somewhere along a Southern road, to the Devil. Johnson recorded about one song for each year he lived (that is, not very many); he died largely unknown. And from his body, over decades, sprouted the myth of a man in the shape of the blues itself — a little mischievous, a little diabolical, a little blasphemous.

    Son House, one of Johnson’s Delta influences, “insisted” that the young Robert was a “terrible guitarist” until one day he left for Arkansas. And when he returned, he wasn’t. According to myth - or at least one version of it - Johnson took his guitar in the dead of night to meet the Devil at the intersection of highways, an inverted Jacob-wrestles-an-angel episode. Johnson handed the Devil his guitar and struck a deal: his soul, for the mastery of music. The Devil tuned the guitar and handed it back. So it was done.

    The story of Robert Johnson’s soul, like all folklore, was not set on paper in definitive text but told, and retold. Little bits changed; countless tellers added and molded — they two, this down on his luck bluesman and his shadow, bartered at the crossroads of a highway. Or it was in a graveyard, and they shook hands over a tombstone. Its principal characters remain the same: Robert Johnson, and the Devil.

    Blues “was a mode, and a mood,” writes John Jeremiah Sullivan in his investigation of the early, early blues. It was, this music that proliferated across America after the emancipation of the slaves, “jarring and hypnotic” to “white American ears.” It was “weird… sad and sexy.” Elijah Wald argues that the Robert Johnson folk legend grew so powerfully, grew to overshadow in many ways the man and his music, because of a certain racialized allure - the “white fantasies” that gave this music its superstition and romance and ‘danger.’

    Johnson himself could only be cast as a stock character in this rendition of his own life: Born illegitimate in the Delta, he was a drifter and a womanizer and stumbled through fields into the annals of music history with his supposedly supernatural fingers. Even the circumstances of his death were subjected to postmortem mythologizing. He was fed poisoned whiskey by the jealous husband of a married lover and died after days in immobilized agony. Or he died of syphilis. According to Wald, Johnson was to help his case for posterity (where so many of his contemporaries are forgotten) by being an astute pop musician— Johnson knew “what a hit record sounded like” and figured out how to record his music so that it sounded quality on the recording, and would always sound sweet to the ears not of street corner passers-by but of record listeners not yet born. It was the release of the seminal 1961 compilation album King of the Delta Blues that cemented him, decades later, as King of the Delta Blues. 

    Long after his death at the inauspicious age of twenty-seven, Johnson’s reputation and influence expanded, in particular among white musicians, pioneers of rock and roll including Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, Bob Dylan, and Robert Plant, among others. Rolling Stone: “Johnson’s recorded legacy — a mere twenty-nine songs cut in 1936 and ‘37 — is the foundation of all modern blues and rock.”

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