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Billy Bragg: Skiffle Songs Are Railroad Songs

Musicians Billy Bragg and Joe Henry
Billy Bragg and Joe Henry, Shine a Light tour by Egghead06 via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)

I tagged along with a friend to see Joe Henry and Billy Bragg’s “Shine a Light” tour. I knew nothing about the project in advance but “Don’t Try This at Home” remains one of my favorite albums. I was so happy to see Bragg and his battered guitar on stage in a small Seattle theater.

“Shine a Light” is all railroad songs. From the stage Henry and Bragg told stories of the adventures they had recording the album and I thought, “Oh, what a great book this would make!” Bragg’s love for music and the messy tapestry that is America was so apparent. And it’s a steady companion to his leftist politics, his passion for the working man and woman.

There is a book; of course there is, it’s called Roots, Radicals and Rockers How Skiffle Changed the World.  The Paris Review talked with Billy Bragg about the book, skiffle, the history of music, and duck jokes. Really.

I would occasionally have conversations with people like John Peel that led me to realize that skiffle had a huge effect on these people—Morrison, McCartney. Perhaps bigger than the effect punk had on me. The significant thing about the skiffle generation is that they’re our first teenagers. Our first generation to define themselves through their own culture. Previously, there were adults and there were children. Adults listened to crooners, children listened to novelty records, there was no intermediate space until Bill Haley and Lonnie Donegan came along in ’55. And that’s just a year after food rationing ends in the UK. I think it’s significant that this happens when the skiffle kids are twelve, thirteen, fourteen years old. John Lennon is fourteen when rationing ends. He’s had his entire childhood without being able to go into a sweet shop to buy whatever he wants. There’s that pent-up desire to escape having to wear hand-me-downs—because clothing was rationed as well—to get away from the rubble of the war, to make the future happen. And for that generation, the guitar was a symbol of the future arriving. The members of that generation were trying to escape their drab world, their past, by taking up the guitar and playing American roots music—which is paradoxically the opposite of what folk fans were doing in the U.S. In the U.S., they were trying to hark back. Groups like the New Lost City Ramblers were looking to reconnect with the past. The British kids were trying to escape the past as quickly as they could and the guitar offered them the best means to do that.

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Cherokee Artist Jimmie Durham: Not Cherokee

Sculpture by Jimmie Durham, Museu de Serralves, Portugal
Sculpture by Jimmie Durham, Museu de Serralves, Portugal via Wikimedia

When I go look at art, I don’t read the descriptive text until I’ve decided the work merits my attention. The creations have got to stand on their own (in my subjective assessment) before I spend any time learning about the artist.

That’s why I missed the footnote about Jimmie Durham. The artist, who has a retrospective at the Walker Art Center, identifies as Cherokee. On the wall of the gallery there’s short paragraph below the introduction to the exhibit:

Note: While Durham self-identifies as Cherokee, he is not recognized by any of the three Cherokee Nations, which as sovereign nations determine their own citizenship. We recognize that there are Cherokee artists and scholars who reject Durham’s claims of Cherokee ancestry.

Talk about burying the lede.

The gallery footnote absolutely shifted my perception of the work. I found it all  appealing on first blush, but the truth of his identity made his claim to be Cherokee feel like a self-granted license to appropriate  — and it greatly undermined my appreciation of the work. I’d have called it wry and well constructed but upon further research into the artist’s background, it all felt stolen.

On ArtNet, Swedish-Cherokee America Meredith explains Why It Matters that Jimmie Durham is Not a Cherokee. The medium read tackles why it’s not enough to focus on covering Native American artists.

Clearly exasperated with the recent flurries of online discussion about Sam Durant’s Scaffold (2012) and now about Jimmie Durham’s retrospective at the Walker Art Center, the Zuni-Navajo artist Demian DinéYazhi recently posted a request on Facebook: “Every time you post about Sam Durant or Jimmie Durham, how about you follow it up by posting about an Indigenous artist who deserves the same energy and signal boost?”

Every day I post and write about Native artists. That’s my job, and something I love doing since there are so many compelling Native artists whom the world should know about. But the ignore-him-and-he’ll-go-away approach has not worked or done anything to stanch the steady flow of articles, essays, and books positioning Jimmie Durham not just as a Native American, but the Native artist that the rest of us would do well to emulate.

In January, Los Angeles’s Hammer Museum launched an ambitious traveling retrospective, “Jimmie Durham: At the Center of the World,” which just opened at the Walker and will continue to the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Remai Modern. I waited and hoped for someone else to voice a protest, but finally James Luna (Luiseño), Nancy Mithlo (Chiricahua Apache), and myself all realized we had to speak up.

The Whitney Museum was recently the center of a protest about the work of painter Dana Schultz when the museum chose to exhibit a painting of Emmet Till. The artist, who is white, claimed license to paint Till — a black teenager who was lynched in Mississippi — as a figure that represents the pain of all mothers who have lost a child.  Black families, artists, and activists begged to differ.

Durham’s retrospective is scheduled to go the Whitney next.

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Inside the Content Machine

Assembly line workers

Many of the freelance writers I know cobble  together their income from a mix of projects:  journalism, copy writing, web production work, and cranking out content widgets. Call that last bit what you will — content marketing, brand journalism, native advertising — skilled writers can make good money in this sector of the word market.

And there’s a fat supporting industry to all that content marketing gold — books, classes, fancy conferences. On Tablet, Sean Cooper attends a content marketing conference to find out how the content industry is selling itself — and selling itself out.

…the roaring fire that was 20th-century nonfiction magazine literature has been hosed down to wet coals. In this new 21st-century post-literature era, the techniques and tools of the journalism trade have been plundered by scavenger industries, which rightly foresaw profit opportunities in what has been called branded content, native advertising, or content marketing, which agglomerates techniques used to build characters, create narrative arcs, and establish tones of voice that once served as conduits for nonfiction writers attempting to intimately mind-meld with readers. While journalism continues to struggle, burgled storytelling devices are being leveraged at scale by content-marketing agencies and branding studios that publish content stories to satisfy shareholder expectations. One industry analysis estimates that the content-marketing business will be worth $215 billion in 2017. The Struggling Writer is here to see them count the money.

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Scarred by a Rubber Doll

Row of life-like dolls in Japan
Human Cloning in Japan by Danny Choo via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

The original piece is a lot to digest. It’s a delicate look at Japanese men who claim they’ve found true love with life-like dolls. But there’s a back story, too. On CorrespondentAlastair Himmer and Tokyo photo chief Behrouz Mehri talk about how they were affected by their work on this story.

You don’t expect to be emotionally scarred by a lifestyle story — and certainly not by a rubber doll. It seemed like such a good idea at the time: write a story that takes a look at the lives of Japanese men and their silicone lovers. I’m AFP’s lifestyle and sports correspondent in Japan and if this wasn’t a lifestyle story, I don’t know what was. I admit that I have previously had odd experiences doing my job. I once ran off the set of a porn shoot. But that was child’s play compared to sex dolls.

But poor Behrouz. He hadn’t been exposed to something like that before. I feel awful about what I did to the Tokyo photo chief. But you have to understand my perspective. It took me nine months to set up this story. You don’t just approach someone on the street and ask them “Can we photograph you and your sex doll.” You make contacts, you get to know the people, you develop trust. I didn’t want to blow all those efforts with some hackneyed, tabloid-style guffaw at Japanese men who go on dates with lifesize dummies. So when Behrouz asked me to ask one of the men, Senji Nakajima, if he could spend the night at his place for the story, I spat coffee all over my shirt. But I asked and Senji agreed and Behrouz went.

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A Whale Hunt on Facebook

Whale bones and boat frames, Barrow, Alaska
Whale bones and boat frames, Barrow, Alaska via Wikimedia

What happens when a Greenpeace activist finds a Native Alaskan whale hunter on Facebook? Trolling, that’s what.

At High Country News, Julia O’Malley visits Gambell, Alaska, a community that relies on subsistence hunting for survival. And she meets a skilled hunter, Chris Apassingok, who has been targeted on social media since news of his successful whale hunt went public online.

It used to be that rural Alaska communicated mainly by VHF and by listening to messages passed over daily FM radio broadcasts, but now Facebook has become a central platform for communication, plugging many remote communities into the world of comment flame wars, cat memes and reality television celebrity pages.

That is how Paul Watson, an activist and founder of Sea Shepherd, an environmental organization based in Washington, encountered Chris’ story. Watson, an early member of Greenpeace, is famous for taking a hard line against whaling. On the reality television show, Whale Wars on Animal Planet, he confronted Japanese whalers at sea. His social media connections span the globe.

Watson posted the story about Chris on his personal Facebook page, accompanied by a long rant. Chris’ mother may have been the first in the family to see it, she said.

“WTF, You 16-Year Old Murdering Little Bastard!,” Watson’s post read. “… some 16-year old kid is a frigging ‘hero’ for snuffing out the life of this unique self aware, intelligent, social, sentient being, but hey, it’s okay because murdering whales is a part of his culture, part of his tradition. … I don’t give a damn for the bullshit politically correct attitude that certain groups of people have a ‘right’ to murder a whale.”

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Now Airbnb is Wrecking Mountain Towns, Too

Log cabin in the woods
My Log Cabin by Anoldent via Flickr (Creative Commons)

We had a little trouble finding a place for the extended family to stay when we chose to meet in Sedona, Arizona for my mom’s 75th birthday. Most places wouldn’t book us for under a week thanks to a regional law limiting short term rentals. Several mid-size Arizona cities and have taken a stand against companies like Airbnb, which make renting a place for a family’s gathering a more lucrative choice than renting to locals. But for visitors and property owners, Airbnb has been mostly a good thing, and the state of Arizona recently agreed. Last year it overturned the local laws and made short term rentals legal.

It’s not news that Airbnb has caused limited rental options in places like San Francisco and New York City, but now residents in rugged places are feeling the pinch too. At Outside, Tom Vanderbilt looks at how home-sharing services are affecting the character of places like Bozeman, Boise, and Crested Butte.

From Barcelona to Boston, the world has been grappling with the ­arrival of home-sharing platforms. Amid any number of skirmishes—neighbor against neighbor, tourist against townie, lobbyist against legislator—cities have scrambled to get a handle on this “wild west” (one of the most common descriptors of the new home-rental landscape) and rushed to enact regulations. Everywhere you look, the battle is raging. In Flagler County, Florida, just north of Daytona Beach, 150 people turned out for a March meeting over a bill, backed by home-­rental companies, that would limit how ­local governments can regulate short-term rentals, or STRs, as they are now frequently ­abbreviated. In Asheville, North Carolina, the issue proved so contentious that, late last year, a task force created to study STRs publicly splintered, according to the ­local Citizen-Times. In March, the city of San ­Diego—where residents of neighborhoods like Ocean Beach have decried the loss of ­local identity as rentals have proliferated—had to move a meeting on STRs to a bigger venue because of overflow crowds.

In the Mountain West—“God’s country, renter’s hell,” as one alt-weekly tagged it—where towns are already chronically beset by housing shortages, traffic problems, and the invariable ambivalence about sharing one’s slice of heaven with the tourists who help sustain it, the entrance of Airbnbs and VRBOs and HomeAways has heightened the tension. Some places, including Boulder and Denver, have passed tough regulations that permit only primary residents to rent out their properties for short periods. Other towns have taken the opposite tack, changing laws to allow previously illegal renting that was already on the rise, as happened late last year in Missoula, Montana.

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A (Disney) Pirate’s Life for Me

Pirates of the Caribbean, Wench Market
Pirates of the Caribbean, Wench Market via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)

When my siblings were youngish and my parents still married, we’d have a family vacation nearly every summer near the Magic Kingdom. We’d leave San Jose while the morning was still dark and we’d drive through the California’s Central Valley while the heat and the light came up. My dad had a friend in Anaheim, California; the kids were close to us in age. A day or two later, we’d all be in Disneyland, begging to see the same things — The Haunted House, The Enchanted Tiki Room, and of course the Pirates of the Caribbean. Of course. Every time.

At the LA Times, Todd Martens looks at Disney’s enduring magic and how the Pirates of the Caribbean continues to captivate new generations of park visitors.

“I’ve tried to analyze what is happening in that ride,” says Tony Baxter, a former senior executive at Walt Disney Imagineering and now a creative consultant for the division. “Is it a book report of some movie? I think it’s more metaphorical to falling asleep and having this incredible dream-like experience.”

Years later, my brother and I went with two of his friends from Sweden, towering boys who we insisted wear mouse ears the whole time, including when our tiny Honda Civic crapped out somewhere near Tracy, California. The local sheriff did not like the looks of us, not one bit, but we couldn’t stop laughing at his suspicion. Two nostalgic California 20-somethings and two harmless foreign visitors; I’m sure we were singing “A pirate’s life for me…” for much of the drive.

“If you go back, the amusement business didn’t tell stories,” former Imagineering chief Marty Sklar says of theme parks before Disneyland.

“They were just thrill rides. Walt [Disney] changed that by creating stories. That’s the basis of everything that Imagineering does. When I talk to Imagineers, I always say I’m jealous because they have so many new technologies, but you have to have a good story or else you’re wasting your time.”

Disney is tangled throughout my early childhood memories, and somewhere in my house there are mouse ears with my name in looping script on the back.

The black felt has lost much of its integrity over time. The Disney-Industrial Complex has no place for decay, though.

There also will be a spotlight on Pirates of the Caribbean, which even in its middle age is serving as a microcosm for Disney’s need to adapt to generational shifts. Those who are resistant to change will no doubt have strong opinions about the recent announcement that the bridal auction scene in Pirates will be modified at Disneyland, Walt Disney World and Disneyland Paris; by the end of next year, looted trinkets, not women, will be on the block.

Those fans who object can console themselves with the knowledge that the red-headed woman, who currently seems to approach her precarious position with a bit of a femme fatale attitude, will be staying.

Related: Podcast The Memory Palace has an excellent episode up about the day the Yippies “invaded” Disneyland. Listen here.

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The 1972 Movie of the 1969 Musical, “1776”

Assembly Room, Independence Hall, Philadelphia via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 2.5)

There’s no going out on the 4th of July at my house. The evening is allocated to the soothing of an anxious dog. The shift runs from dusk (around 8:30 in my Northwest corner of the U.S.) until the bad noises stop. It’s a good night for movies. Thanks to a recommendation from Salon, I landed on 1776, the 1972 movie version of the 1969 musical.

“1776” brings to life the vibrant personalities that helped bring America to life. You have Daniels as the acerbic, indignant and unshakably honorable Adams, Da Silva as the sly and charming but deeply idealistic Franklin and Howard as the quiet and cerebral Jefferson. Like all of the best works about history, it forces audiences to see important figures from the past as flesh-and-blood human beings rather than stodgy icons.

Spoiler alert: the vote goes to independence and the rest is (sorry) history.  I did not read the entire Salon piece up front; I didn’t want to know anything more than “Yep, this movie is a great choice (for those of you stuck under 15 pounds of quaking dog) for July 4th.”

Because I didn’t read the entire write up, I didn’t know that none other than President Richard Nixon had feelings about the movie. It’s thanks to him the song “Cool, Cool, Considerate Men” was cut; it’s since been restored.

In the musical “1776,” the song “Cool, Cool, Considerate Men” depicts Revolutionary War era conservatives as power-hungry wheedlers focused on maintaining wealth. So it’s not surprising that then-President Richard Nixon, who saw the show at a special White House performance in 1970, wasn’t a big fan of the number.

What is surprising is that according to Jack L. Warner, the film’s producer and a friend of the president, Nixon pressured him to cut the song from the 1972 film version of the show–which Warner did. Warner also wanted the original negative of the song shredded, but the film’s editor secretly kept it intact.

Small wonder — it’s a scathing number. “Don’t forget that most men with nothing would rather protect the possibility of becoming rich than face the reality of being poor,” scowls John Dickinson. (Dickinson refused to sign the Declaration of Independence.) The cast breaks into a second verse about the joys of conservatism.

We’re the cool, cool considerate men
Whose like may never, ever bee seen again
With our land, cash in hand
Self command, future planned

And we’ll hold to our gold
Tradition that is old
Reluctant to be bold

We say this game’s not of our choosing
Why should we risk losing?

No wonder Nixon hated it. It was the Broadway version of the 1776 version of “We’ve got ours, we’re good, thanks.”

The movie holds up well enough for 1972, though I’m fairly certain Martha Jefferson would not have sung to John Adams and Ben Franklin about her husband Thomas’ prowess at… violin, sure, that song is about his musical skills, sure. I found Franklin too cartoonish, though I liked William Daniels’ Adams a lot (he played Benjamin’s dad in The Graduate). I was riveted by “Molasses to Rum,” the number praising, among other things, the slave trade.

Once the credits rolled, I had to research any number of things — where Edward Rutledge stood on slavery, what happened to John Dickinson after he declined to sign the Declaration, and what about that Abigail Adams anyway?

I don’t know how I got through the 70s without seeing 1776. When I posted to Facebook that I was watching it, my feed lit up with commentary — including one friend admitting he would like to play Andrew McNair, the long suffering custodian/bell-ringer who keeps trying to open the windows to let some air into what’s now known as Independence Hall.

All those men in brocade, arguing in the heat of a Philadelphia summer. It must have stunk to high heaven in the room where it happened.

Stories mentioned:

In South Korea, Gentrification Goes Global

Mural in Seoul by mmmmngai via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

I get wrapped up in issues about gentrification in my hometown of Seattle. When I do look up to see how the story plays out elsewhere, it’s often in nearby San Francisco or Oakland or Portland. I look there for what we can learn and what we have to lose.

My own narrow focus is why I was surprised to read about the gentrification of Mullae, an industrial-artistic district in Seoul, South Korea, where “the neighborhood’s unique features were destroyed through over-commercialization.” It’s a familiar story, as artists to join with residents to keep neighborhoods like Mullae — or Boyle Heights in Los Angeles or New York’s Chinatown — authentic and alive.

The situation in Mullae now calls for artists and factory owners to unite in resistance to speculative capitalism. Otherwise the neighborhood will follow the model of Daehangno, Bukchon, Seochon, Garosu-gil, and Jogno in becoming a generic shopping district. Landlords in those areas earned fortunes by raising rents until the neighborhood’s unique features were destroyed through over-commercialization. What followed was not prosperity but hollowness. Young people stopped visiting areas that were no longer seen as “authentic,” and as retail dropped off, building owners chose to leave spaces vacant rather than lower rents. We see a hint of this now in Mullae, as several spaces on Dorim-ro have sat empty for the past few months, despite strong interest. The sole hostel, Urban Art Guest House, is on the last year of its contract, and proprietor Lee Seung-hyuck is not sure whether he will stay, as the building owner intends to triple the rent.

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Where Have All the Guitar Heroes Gone?

Fender Telecaster guitars hanging on a wall rack.
Many Fender Telecasters via Wikimedia/Dennis Brown (CC0 1.0)

Guitar sales have dropped by a third over the past decade. On the Washington Post, Geoff Edgers tries to find out why.

Maybe it’s because we don’t have guitar gods anymore. Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, that sound is — well — it’s old. And the new crop of stars don’t inspire the pursuit of guitar god status the way someone like Carlos Santana did.

Here’s Dave Gruhn, a 71-year old Nashville guitar dealer who helped sell off part of Eric Clapton’s collection:

“What we need is guitar heroes,” he says.

He is asked about Clapton, who himself recently downsized his collection. Gruhn sold 29 of his guitars.

“Eric Clapton is my age,” he says.

How about Creed’s Mark Tremonti, Joe Bonamassa, John Mayer? He shakes his head.

“John Mayer?” he asks. “You don’t see a bunch of kids emulating John Mayer and listening to him and wanting to pick up a guitar because of him.”

Sir Paul McCartney has a similar take on the decline in the guitar’s popularity.

“The electric guitar was new and fascinatingly exciting in a period before Jimi and immediately after,” the former Beatle says wistfully in a recent interview. “So you got loads of great players emulating guys like B.B. King and Buddy Guy, and you had a few generations there.”

He pauses.

“Now, it’s more electronic music and kids listen differently,” McCartney says. “They don’t have guitar heroes like you and I did.”

Something Edgers doesn’t address in his article?  Uke sales have doubled in the same period in which guitar sales have declined.  In her Ukulele Anthem, Dresden Dolls front-woman Amanda Palmer says you can teach someone to play the ukulele in  “about the same to teach someone to build a standard pipe bomb — you do the math.” A kid can pick up the uke and find it satisfying in considerably less time than it takes to master the guitar. A few years back, a young Hawaii resident named Jake Shimabukuro made heads spin with his ukulele cover of While My Guitar Gently Weeps, proving that the uke’s simplicity doesn’t limit its musical possibilities.

The ukulele has replaced the recorder in many public school music education programs, too. And the forgiving little axe serves well as a stepping stone to the guitar. The next generation of wanna-be guitar gods could well be out there; they’re just taking a different route to blazing, finger-blistering stardom.

Not so confidential to Grover Norquist — you can absolutely get your kid a starter uke for 35 bucks, including sales tax.


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