From the Archives • March 3, 2014

Isabel Wilkerson’s Leaderless March that Remade America

Isabel Wilkerson is the epic tale teller of the Great Migration of Southern black people that remade America — sound, substance and spirit — in the 20th Century. The proof is in the soundtrack — ...

Isabel Wilkerson is the epic tale teller of the Great Migration of Southern black people that remade America — sound, substance and spirit — in the 20th Century. The proof is in the soundtrack — musical highlights of a comprehensive revolution. It was one of two modern migrations, it’s been said, that made American culture what it is — of blacks from the Jim Crow South, and of Jews from Central and Eastern Europe. The movement of masses is an ageless, ongoing piece of human history: in India and China today, more people migrate internally from village to city in one year than left the South from the onset of World War I (1915) to the end of the Civil Rights era (1970), as Isabel Wilkerson frames her story. But was there ever a migration that beyond moving people transformed a national culture as ours did? Songs, games, language, art, style, worship, every kind of entertainment including pro sports — in fact almost all we feel about ourselves, how we look to the world, changed in the sweep of Isabel Wilkerson’s magnificent story, The Warmth of Other Suns. Great swaths of the pop and serious culture I grew up in – my children as well – were fruit of Ms. Wilkerson’s story: Jazz and its immortals like Louis Armstrong, Nat King Cole, Illinois Jacquet, Miles Davis, the Basie and Ellington bands and stars like Duke’s greatest soloist Johnny brussellHodges, whose family moved from Virginia to Boston very early in the century; Mahalia Jackson and Gospel music; Rhythm and Blues, Ray Charles, the Motown sound, the Jackson family and little Michael; sports immortals like Bill Russell and Jackie Robinson, and athletes without number are players in this story. Writers, actors, politicians, comedians… Toni Morison, Spike Lee, Michelle Obama are all children of the Great Migration.

It was “the first big step the nation’s servant class took without asking,” in one of many graceful Wilkerson lines about “a leaderless revolution.” But it was a graceless, usually violent, threatened, lonely experience. Isabel Wilkerson is speaking of the mothers, fathers and families that faced it down — the Russells of Monroe, Louisiana, in one example, who gave the world the greatest team-sport winner we ever saw (13 seasons with the Boston Celtics, 11 NBA championships), the most charismatic defensive player in any game on earth. But for the migration, Wilkerson observes, Bill Russell “might have been working in a hardware store. It’s hard to know — there are a lot of mills around Monroe, LA. It’s hard to imagine what would have happened to that enormous talent that changed a sport…

They lived under a caste system … known as Jim Crow. Bill Russell’s family experienced some of the harsh realities of that. One story involving Bill Russell’s father involves a day where he was just wanting to get gas. The custom in the Jim Crow South is that when an African American was in line for something, any white southerner who came up could cut in line. One white motorist after another had shown up and gone in front of him, and he had to wait, and he had to wait, and he had to wait. Eventually he decided he would just back out and drive the half-hour to the next gas station where he might be able to get served. As he was beginning to back out, the owner of the gas station stopped pumping gas for the white motorist he was working with and got a shotgun, held it to Bill Russell’s father’s head and said “You’ll leave when I tell you to leave. Don’t ever let me see you trying that again.” His mother was, around the same time, stopped on the street because she was dressed in her Sunday clothes. … A police officer stopped her and said “You go home right now and take that off. That is not what a colored woman should be wearing.” … The family decided that they would leave Monroe Louisiana, a very difficult decision, for a far away place, Oakland California. And it was there that Bill Russell had the opportunity to go to integrated schools, to be able to go to an NCAA school; he would never had had the opportunity to do that had they stayed in the South. He ended up leading the Dons of UCSF to two NCAA championships, and then of course came to the attention of the Celtics… Basketball would not be what we know it to be, had this Great Migration not occurred. And he’s but one person out of this entire experience of six million people who migrated.

Isabel Wilkerson in conversation with Chris Lydon, October 5, 2010.

September 24, 2013

Linda Ronstadt: The Best Singers and Songs

  When I bend my ear to a singer’s performance, I often try to track who it was that influenced him or her. For instance, I can hear Nat “King” Cole in early Ray Charles, ...


When I bend my ear to a singer’s performance, I often try to track who it was that influenced him or her. For instance, I can hear Nat “King” Cole in early Ray Charles, Lefty Frizzell in early Merle Haggard, Rosa Ponsell in Maria Callas, Fats Domino in Randy Newman. In a recent duet with Tony Bennett, the late Amy Winehouse was channeling Dinah Washington and Billie Holiday to great effect, yet she still sounded like Amy Winehouse…

Linda Ronstadt in Simple Dreams: A Musical Memoir.

This is fun. Linda Ronstadt, the multi-platinum queen of crossover singing — country and folk rock to Puccini’s “La Boheme” to Gilbert & Sullivan on Broadway to flamenco to Mexican wedding songs to the Great American Songbook and duets with Sinatra — throws out the line in her memoir Simple Dreams that the American popular song is the greatest gift this country ever presented to the world. So for a Coolidge Corner movie house packed with loving boomers, we’re just riffing here about singers and songs — the personal favorites, the masterpieces, the ones we called “pop” and “love songs” that may last as long as Schubert and Brahms. It is touching to hear this modest star say that she was never competitive, didn’t chase hits, but realized at midlife that she’d always aspired to raise the best material she could find to the distinction of “art songs.” So, doubtless, did Frank Sinatra, Smokey Robinson, Rosemary Clooney, Marvin Gaye, Frank Loesser, Sarah Vaughan… Judgment takes a while, even among the principals — as in Ira Gershwin’s famous line that “we never knew how good our songs were until I heard Ella Fitzgerald sing them.” But Linda Ronstadt was a sport when I asked: could we close with a fast baker’s dozen of pearls in the pop music of our times — songs we could send to Mars to show what’s possible. 13. Someone to Watch over Me, from the Gershwins, Ella Fitzgerald and Nelson Riddle. 12. Little Girl Blue, from Rodgers and Hart, Janis Joplin and Nina Simone. 11. Billy Strayhorn’s Lush Life, the song Sinatra couldn’t handle but Johnny Hartman and John Coltrane immortalized. 10. What’s New? by Bob Haggart and Johnny Burke. This is the Linda Ronstadt version with Nelson Riddle. And then there’s Coltrane. 9. The Londonderry Air, the melody of “Danny Boy,” which my mother sang every day of our young lives to the words: “Would God I Were the Tender Apple Blossom.” “The most beautiful melody ever,” as Linda said, but it’s Irish! at least till Ben Webster found it and wouldn’t let it go. 8. George and Ira Gershwin’s “Embraceable You,” the Sarah Vaughan version with Clifford Brown and Roy Haynes. 7. A Frank Loesser threesome: Marlon Brando singing “I’ll Know When My Love Comes Along” in the movie Guys and Dolls.  “Never never will I marry,” a Linda choice.  Betty Carter and Ray Charles singing “Baby It’s Cold Outside,” my pick, and “one of my favorites of all time ever, ever, ever,” Linda said. 6. Al Hibbler singing Duke Ellington’s “Do Nothing till you hear from Me.” 5. “Famous Blue Raincoat,” Jennifer Warnes singing Leonard Cohen’s song. 4. Estrella Morente, singing “En el alto del cerro de palomares.” 3. Lola Bertran singing Paloma Negra. 2. Trio Calavera, singing “almost anything.” 1. Marvin Gaye singing “What’s going On?”  “O my God, I kissed Marvin Gaye one night… He was vocalist extraordinaire,” Linda said, at the crossroads of jazz, R’n’B and pop.  “And he was a good kisser. No question, this is an art song!”

Podcast • February 17, 2011

Jaimy Gordon’s Racetrack Revelation in Lord of Misrule

Jaimy Gordon impels us to find the other great small-press writers we’ve never heard of. She is this winter’s longshot winner of the National Book Award, for her gorgeous racetrack novel Lord of Misrule. The ...

Jaimy Gordon impels us to find the other great small-press writers we’ve never heard of. She is this winter’s longshot winner of the National Book Award, for her gorgeous racetrack novel Lord of Misrule. The 40-to-1 payoff is for readers who, but for the big prize, might never hear of non-commercial fiction or savor it’s very distinctive pleasures.

Lord of Misrule was reviewed in the Daily Racing Form before it was noticed by the New York Times. It may never get noted in the Times Sunday Book Review. But anyone who opens it will recognize instantly the real old American thing: horses, jockeys, trainers and touts with Damon Runyon names like Medicine Ed and Suitcase and Two-Tie, loners and outcasts on their own crummy racetrackers’ planet in far West Virginia. Just as quickly we meet characters, both equine and human, whose lives, language and trials feel entirely new.

I wanted to write a social novel of a kind, I wanted to represent, in one way or another, all the orders of humanity of this world. I think my previous books were usually dominated by one reckless human being, usually a young woman, whose fortunes would horrify and interest the reader.

In the case of Lord of Misrule, I think I was getting to be of an age where I could identify as much with the family-less loan shark, Two-Tie, and Medicine Ed, who’s looking for a home at the age of 72, not sure that he’s made the right career choice in being a groom for 60-some years … I think that since, as a writer, I felt that my career had never broken big and I was getting into my sixties myself, [I wondered] had I made the right career choice here? I think that, like Medicine Ed, I didn’t feel competent to do anything else and I couldn’t have pictured myself anywhere else than on my racetrack, which is the world of American fiction, but I couldn’t see exactly where I was heading.

I think that the charm of the book, if it has any, is that the writer is fully as much inhabiting Medicine Ed and Two-Tie as the young woman. I used to be the young woman in my books, but now I am just as much the old guys, looking into a kind of bitter and insecure unknown.

Jaimy Gordon with Chris Lydon at the Boston Athanaeum, 2. 11. 2011.

One of the great epiphanies of her life, Jaimy Gordon remarks, came at 17, working illegally in a bar on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. It was the first time she was surrounded by people who “didn’t speak proper English,” and she was amazed at the poetry in their conversation.

I venture that Jaimy Gordon’s work is marked by a kind of comic maximalism in the manner of Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, every type of literary effect exploding on every page. Indeed, she’s telling me, she claimed maximalism as her métier when she studied writing at Brown — with John Hawkes and Keith Waldrop, among others — and minimalism was all the literary rage. She points to John Updike’s novel The Centaur, which also won a National Book Award, as her inspiration for transferring the kind of far-fetched, daring metaphors common in poetry into plot-driven prose.

Jaimy Gordon assures us that despite the echoing laments for the death of literature, we are in a sort of “Golden Age of American letters,” fueled by more than 350 college-level creating writing programs. In this conversation she gives us some of her favorite practitioners, well-known and unsung: Katherine Davis for Hell, Labrador, The Girl who Trod on a Loaf; Kellie Wells for Skin, Compression Scars; Joanna Scott, Russell Banks, Peter Carey and Paul Harding for his out-of-nowhere small-press Pulitzer Prize Tinkers. We are blessed.

Podcast • February 15, 2011

Elliott Colla: “The Poetry of Revolt” in the New Egypt

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Elliott Colla. (50 minutes, 23 mb mp3) Elliott Colla is sharing the soundtrack in his head of Egyptian revolts, today and yesterday, going back to the 1880s. Poets ...

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Elliott Colla. (50 minutes, 23 mb mp3)

Elliott Colla is sharing the soundtrack in his head of Egyptian revolts, today and yesterday, going back to the 1880s.

Poets were invariably major players — in heady, optimistic, galvanizing roles as popular risings took off. Novelists (including the great Naguib Mafouz) got the darker job afterward of detailing regrets and reversals. Most of Egypt’s ten popular rebellions before the epochal events of this winter were against the British, and most of them were sorry failures.

We’re talking about the “the poetry of revolt,” street songs, chanting for courage, the tradition more than a century old of satire, ridicule and invective that has finally toppled a US-chummy police state and, for now, beaten the odds against a people’s rebellion.

Memo for the next explosion: tune in on the poets and the jam bands; tune out the newspapers. So much of what we’re told about places like Egypt — and so little of the story now unfolding — gets centered on the geopolitics of the place, and its holy books. It’s the novels and the pop culture, as Elliot Colla’s reminding us, that suggest how people live and love, aspire and mourn. Astonishing, isn’t it, how little we hear from the earth-shakers in Tahrir Square about the U.S. or Israel. Or the Koran. Or, for example, about the Arab nationalist giant of the 1950s, Gamal Abdel Nasser, who seems as remote from today’s proceedings as the Sphinx.

I am asking Elliott Colla why the rebels who busted Mubarak have been so tender about his great backer, Uncle Sam. Are they playing to President Obama, who could still be their partner? Or to their young Facebook Friends in America? Or are they just ignoring us? Or maybe unaware of us?

This is a new generation, a generation of activists who are not ideological. In other words, they have looked at the struggles of their parents and even grandparents against imperialism, against capitalism, against all the “isms.” By and large, they are saying that’s not how they want to understand the world, and that’s not how they’re going to organize their response to the problems that they face. In this sense, many in the leadership have no ideological platform; they are starting their analysis and their project from how they live their daily life, what they see, what they experience, what they would rather have. …

Look at their demands, these aren’t specific to Egypt, these are simple, straightforward civil and human rights that they started with. They’re confident in this: if they can have those things, they can have a government that actually represents their interest, and not the interests of a ruling elite, and then they can handle these other things that might be called ideology. It’s a completely new way of doing revolution. We usually think you get your ideology straight first, and then you do your program; this is doing it the other way around.

Elliott Colla of Georgetown University in conversation with Chris Lydon at Brown, February 15, 2011.

Podcast • April 5, 2010

Arundhati Roy’s Version of Disaster in India

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Arundhati Roy. (52 minutes, 31 mb mp3) Arundhati Roy is giving us “the other side of the story” in this “Year of India” at Brown University and elsewhere. ...

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Arundhati Roy. (52 minutes, 31 mb mp3)

Arundhati Roy is giving us “the other side of the story” in this “Year of India” at Brown University and elsewhere. Media consumers in the US don’t get it all in the TED talks, or in Nandan Nilekani‘s success epic, much less in Tom Friedman‘s relentless celebrations of the Bangalore boom in the New York Times. I sat with Ms. Roy for an hour and a half near MIT last Friday — first time since her book tour in another life, with the Booker Prize novel, The God of Small Things in 1998. This time she was just off a remarkable journalistic coup for Outlook India — an “embedded” report from the so-called “Maoist” uprising in the Northeastern states of India, the rebellion that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has called India’s greatest security threat and Arundhati Roy calls a battle for India’s soul.

AR: What does the boom do? It created a huge middle class — because India is a huge country, even a small percentage is a huge number of people — and it is completely invested in this process. So it did lift a large number of people into a different economic bracket altogether — now more billionaires in India than in China, and so on. But it created a far larger underclass being pushed into oblivion. India is home to the largest number of malnourished children in the world. You have 180,000 small farmers who’ve drunk pesticide and committed suicide because they’ve been caught in the death trap. You have a kind of ecocide where huge infrastructural projects are causing a drop in the water table. No single river now flows to the sea. There is a disaster in the making.

The way I see it, we had a feudal society decaying under the weight of its caste system, and so on. It was put into a machine and churned and some of the old discriminations were recalibrated. But what happened was that the whole separated into a thin layer of thick cream, and the rest of it is water. The cream is India’s market, which consists of many millions of people who buy cellphones and televisions and cars and Valentine’s Day cards; and the water is superfluous people who are non-consumers and just pawns who need to be drained away.

Those people are now rising up and fighting the system in a whole variety of ways. There’s what I call a bio-diversity of resistance. There are Gandhians on the road, and there are Maoists in the forests. But all of them have the same idea: that this development model is only working for some and not for others.

CL: How do we Americans listen for a true Indian identity in this period of fantastic growth and, as you say, fantastic suffering?

AR: You know, I have stopped being able to think of things like Americans and Indians and Chinese and Africans. I don’t know what those words mean anymore. Because in America, as in India and in China, what has happened is that the elites of these countries and the corporations that support their wealth and generate it form tham have seceded into outer space. They live somewhere in the sky, and they are their own country. And they look down on the bauxite in Orissa and the iron ore in Chhattisgarh and they say: ‘what is our bauxite doing in their mountains?’ They then justify to themselves the reasons for these wars.

If you look at what is going on now in that part of the world, from Afghanistan to the northeast frontiers of Pakistan, to Waziristan, to this so-called “red corridor” in India, what you’re seeing is a tribal uprising. And it’s taking the form of radical Islam in Afghanistan. It’s taking the form of radical Communism in India. It’s taking the form of struggles for self-determination in the northeastern states. But it’s a tribal uprising, and the assault on them is coming from the same place. It’s coming from free-market capitalism’s desire to capture and control what it thinks of as resources. I think ‘resources’ is a problematic word because these things cannot be replenished once they are looted. But that is really the thing. And the people who are able to fight are those who are outside of the bar-coded, cellphone-networked, electronic age — who cannot be tracked and who can barely be understood.

It’s a clash of civilizations, but not in the way that (Samuel P.) Huntington meant, you know. It’s an inability to understand that the world has to change, or there will be — I mean, as we know, capitalism contains within itself the idea of a protracted war. But in that war… either you learn to keep the bauxite in the mountains, or you’re not going to benefit from preaching morality to the victims of this war. A victory for this sort of establishment and its army and its nuclear weapons will never be a victory. Because your victory is your defeat, you know?

Arundhati Roy in conversation with Chris Lydon in Cambridge, April 2, 2010.

Arundhati Roy’s new collection of essays — for “those who have learned to divorce hope from reason” — is titled: Field Notes on Democracy: Listening to Grasshoppers.

Podcast • June 10, 2009

Thoreau’s Fire: the Spark of "Walden"

Baskin’s Thoreau: nickel first-class (1967) Is it too late to celebrate Henry David Thoreau (1817 – 1862) with an honest, unblushing American face? Have we laid too much pavement, built too many Cheesecake Factories in ...
Baskin’s Thoreau: nickel first-class (1967)

Is it too late to celebrate Henry David Thoreau (1817 – 1862) with an honest, unblushing American face? Have we laid too much pavement, built too many Cheesecake Factories in too many malls, imprisoned and executed too many harmless rejects and overextended our military rule too far ever to put Thoreau on our postage again?

That’s the major reservation in this otherwise festive gab about the making of one of the universally cherished American writing minds, Henry David Thoreau – to this day an exemplar of simplicity, conscience, naturalism, non-conformity, the power of solitude and great prose.

John Pipkin’s argument in the form of a novel, Woodsburner, is that what fired young Thoreau to bust out of his father’s pencil factory, to hole up in the woods of Concord, Massachusetts and eventually to write the secular scripture known as Walden, was strangely enough, a real raging wildfire that Thoreau himself carelessly started – a fire that burned 300 acres and could have destroyed his town.

Click to listen to Chris’s conversations with John Pipkin about young Henry David Thoreau. (31 minutes, 14 mb mp3)

John Pipkin: never too late

John Pipkin’s take is that the fire in fact rescued the 26-year-old Thoreau from what was beginning to look like a life of failure. With his doomed brother John, Henry had paddled through their famous week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, but he hadn’t yet composed any of its signature wisdom. As for instance: ” …steady labor with the hands, which engrosses the attention also, is unquestionably the best method of removing palaver and sentimentality out of one’s style, both of speaking and writing.”

It was the shock and embarrassment of the fire he started — the “woodsburner!” whispers in Concord — that got Thoreau in gear as a writer, Pipkin supposes. The Pipkin premise makes Thoreau (who admitted being thrilled by the blaze) more socially sensitive than the “hermit and stoic” that Emerson recalled in his brilliant memorial essay. “It cost him nothing to say No,” Emerson wrote. “Indeed, he found it much easier than to say Yes… Hence, no equal companion stood in affectionate relations with one so pure and guileless. ‘I love Henry,’ said one of his friends, ‘but I cannot like him; and as for taking his arm, I should as soon think of taking the arm of an elm-tree.'”

Whatever effect the fire had on Thoreau, it may have been part of what prompted Emerson to buy the land at Walden Pond where he then invited his friend to build his writing camp. Even then they were both vexed by the intrusion of the railroad through Concord and the pace of “development” in their woods. So the fire makes a plausible moment to reimagine the hatching of American doctrine.

John Pipkin (born in Baltimore, now a Texan) was a student at the University of North Carolina of Philip Gura, keeper of the Transcendentalist flame. Professor Gura’s lament on Open Source not so long ago was that we have traduced Thoreau and Emerson not just by ignoring their earnest advice but spinning them into literary abstractions. Pipkin’s rejoinder is that the environmental emergency arrived with the first European settlers in America and that the model activist, even at this late date, is still Thoreau. “He was the attorney of the indigenous plants,” as Emerson said, “and owned to a preference of the weeds to the imported plants, as of the Indian to the civilized man.”