Sep 21

What was your first concert?

It was a productive and quiet Thursday, which allowed me to catch up on things and prepare for tomorrow, which will be productive and hectic.

I had a great memory this morning.

This is Ray Charles’ birthday. He was born in Georgia. I saw him when I was a little boy at Opryland, in Tennessee. My mother and my grandmother were at the park. And, to be honest, it was probably just an excuse to get out of the sun and heat for an hour or so. But, as I recall, they opened the doors for general admission seating and I, being smaller than everyone waiting to get inside, weaved through the crowd and got us seats close to the stage and right in the center. Maybe six or eight rows back.

Pretty great first concert.

Charles came on from stage right, sat at his piano, and The Raelettes came in behind him. At some point my mother leaning over and saying “I remember, he was old when I was young!”

He would have been about 54 or 55 at the time, my mother was in her mid-20s. That sentence is now hilarious.

He played to the crowd for a nice long matinee set. He leaned way back on his stool. He sang all of the songs you’d expect. He wailed on Hit the Road Jack. I remember that clearly. This isn’t from that show, but a concert about two years before.

I’m sure my grandmother knew some of his songs. Probably some of the country catalog and the stuff that, by then, had become American standards. I wonder what she thought about the show.

Here’s the sports show from last night. It’s just a barrel full of IU sports. What transpired, and what’s coming up. It’s all on Hoosier Sports Nite.

And here is one of the planters out front of Franklin Hall. This area, in the Old Crescent, is one of the campus highlights, and it’s always photogenic. The landscape and facilities people are putting out their best fall colors. They always do terrific work on campus. Just imagine this sort of thing all over the heavily landscaped parts of a sprawling campus.

We’re waiting for them to return my call about whether they work on private residences. I’ll let you know.

Aug 21

Listen to some music, read some books

Just a week ago yesterday I mentioned Nanci Griffith here. She figured into one of my first blog posts. Back then I said “God Bless Nanci Griffith.” I’ve been listening to her for a long time, about a quarter of a century. This evening it was announced that she’d passed away.

God bless Nanci Griffith; he blessed us with her.

The Flyer, looking back, has a certain mid-century weariness that is overcome by the un-replaceable mid-century optimism she put into so much of her work. It was a wonderful entrance to her folkabilly style.

“These Days in an Open Book” sticks with you.

And there are parts of “Grafton Street” that can haunt you. Indeed, I can hear every important note perfectly well in my mind, even now.

She produced 19 records over the course of her career, which spanned most of my life until her health turned a few years ago. It’s an impressive body of work from a gifted storyteller. The nature of the entertainment industry, of course, is such that an artist’s work never leaves us, thankfully. What a gift it is to have all of this to return to.

I’m not ready to listen to them again just now — one day soon, I hope — but you should definitely try them out.

The planned event for the day was the return to the books section. We made it back there in just a shade under two years. That’s a perfectly average turnaround time, if you ask me. Perfectly average if you are Voyager 1 and you are in between Jupiter and Saturn.

This section of the site is a casual study of some of my grandfather’s books. I didn’t have the good fortune to meet him, but I know him from family stories and some of his things that I’ve inherited. Like a giant box of periodicals I rescued. So, today, we’re beginning a look at an issue of “Popular Science,” January 1954. Click the image to see the first five ads I’ve selected.

At this rate, it’ll take a while, and that’s the point. If Popular Science isn’t your speed, you can see the rest of the things I’ve digitized from my grandfather’s collection. There are textbooks, a school notebook and a few Reader’s Digests, so far. It’s a lot of fun.

And fun is what you’re supposed to have over a weekend. I hope that’s what you have in store for you. Come back and tell me about it on Monday, won’t you?

Jul 21

Rocks and washing machines

I was gripped, a few years ago, by an article that made the case for the washing machine as the most important invention of the 20th century. Sure, you say, there’s also the refrigerator and the computer and/or the microchip. Penicillin, a discovery rather than an invention, doesn’t count.

The argument has been spelled out in many other newspaper opinion columns, in historical research and even in one of the 20th century’s oddest inventions, TED Talks. Simply put, doing the laundry was once an all day exercise. It was hard, backbreaking labor. It was almost exclusively ‘a woman’s job.’ And when the first powered washing machines came along, they freed up people, almost all of them women, to do other things. Probably it helped with their hand care, too.

I asked my grandmother about this article at some point. She always called it The Wash. If you heard her say it, you heard the capital T and capital W. The Wash. Do you remember, I said, a time before you had a washer and dryer?

“Of course,” she said, in that not-dismissive-but-entirely-obvious way that your elders can use on you.

I asked her when she got her first washer. It was when they’d built and moved into that very house, the only one I’d ever known my grandparents in. It was the 1950s. She was a young woman still starting a new family. The washer and dryer lived on the covered back porch. (Where the laundry connections are is almost a tell. Back porch, that’s hedging your bets on this technology at best, an afterthought at worst. In the two houses I grew up in the connections were in the basement. Out of the way, but inherently inconvenient. In our house today the laundry is upstairs, very near the bedrooms.)

I asked how she did The Wash before she had a washer and dryer. She took it down to the creek. Soap, boards, stones, the old antiquated thing. That’s just what you did. This is the middle of the 20th century.

Which is where my story gets a little foggy. My grandparents’ house was surrounded by a creek. It’s just a small bit of water that breaks off a larger waterway which is itself a slough of a tributary of the Tennessee River — and we talked about that yesterday. If you saw it on a map, my grandparents’ road and the creek almost make a four-way intersection. I started wandering through their woods at a young and early age, when some of those creeks looked like wild, untamable testaments of God and nature. And to my young mind that water was everywhere.

The water was nice. It was always cool, and it always looked clean. But it was never the water that interested me the most, it was the rocks.

Where I grew up was far enough away from my grandparents that the soil was, in places, noticeably different. All of my family lived in this area, a place around a massive river, where the water was a dominant element of everyday life. Having different topographical features where I grew up meant I spent a lot of time playing in the little streams and on the rocky shores.

On a physiographic map this is on something called the Highland Rim, the southernmost section of the Interior Low Plateaus of the Appalachian Highlands Region. By name and almost everything else, it’s a series of contradictions. It’s messy and beautiful.

How the underlying rocks erode in different ways define the area. The rocks formed during the Mississippian period (353 to 323 million ago. Explain that to a kid taken in by the many colors and the smooth polished feel that ages in the water have created.

I lived in a different physiographic region, a bit to the south, in the Valley and Ridge province. Our soil was exclusively clay and, to me, the rocks didn’t have the same sort of interesting character. Has to be that river, I always thought when I was young. I told you yesterday, the river figures into everything, so why not the rocks?

It actually has to do with the mountains.

Kaiser Science tells us:

The mountains of the British Isles and Scandinavia turn out to be made of the same kind of rock, and formed in the same historical era.

Evidence shows that in the past all of these were one mountain system, torn by the moving of the tectonic plates – continental drift.

Put another way, if you like the hypothesis of continental drift, you look at this as a broken mountain range, making these mountains older than the Atlantic Ocean.

A few years ago, longer after the Atlantic Ocean was formed, we visited London and caught a changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace.

There’s a lot of standing around and waiting and jockeying for position and wondering who you’ll see and what the bands will play. It’s good fun if you are patient, and you don’t mind crowds.

We walked to the palace, from wherever we’d been before, through Green Park, and we returned that same way. At one point there in the park I looked down and picked up this rock. It looked familiar. Looked like home.

I brought it back with me, and later took it to my grandmother.

The queen has the same rocks you do!

As ever, my enthusiasm was what amused her most.

If you look at that map, you can see it. The rocks you saw when you were doing chores are the same sort of rocks the queen of the United Kingdom was used to. Their rocks, your rocks, same kinds of rocks.

I wonder when the queen got her first washing machine.

Jul 21

This post was a century in the making

Water is the predominant geographical feature of the area where all of my family live. I didn’t grow up there, but I understand the story of the Tennessee River. It dips down into the northern part of Alabama, creating a topography that has defined generations and generations of people that lived there. The Tennessee River forms near Knoxville, Tennessee and flows to the southwest, into Alabama, before looping back up, helping form the Alabama-Mississippi-Tennessee borders and then heading on up to Kentucky.

The Yuchi tribe, the Alibamu and the Coushatta, and maybe some other members of the Muscogee Creek Confederacy lived their lives on it. They called it the Singing River. White people moved in and, a little over two hundred years ago, Alabama became a territory, in 1817, and then a state in 1819. Some of my ancestors were among the first white people into the area, some even before the Native Americans were forcibly displaced. They became hardscrabble dirt farmers, for the most part. Agriculture and water transit came to define this era, but even then the shipping was difficult. The Muscle Shoals were the problem. It was shallow and swift and turbulent. It typified the area for generations. Predominant geographical features figure into everything.

Then the Great War came.

There was a worry that the Imperial German Navy would cut off shipments of nitrates from South America. Nitrates make explosives. Things that go boom are important for the military. So the National Defense Act of 1916 called for nitrate plants. Hydroelectric power would run them and the U.S. could produce its own nitrates. Muscle Shoals was understood to have the greatest hydroelectric potential east of the Rockies.

So in 1918 they started building a dam.

We’ve driven over it, jogged over it, fished underneath it, taken photographs of it, watched the ships pass through the locks and dined above it. During the build it became it’s own city, employing thousands, and had a school, barbershops, a hospital and more than a hundred miles of sewage lines. But the war ended before the construction did. And the soon-to-be named Wilson Dam didn’t contribute to the war effort.

It wasn’t finished until 1924 and began generating power in 1925. The promise of that hydroelectric power is what we’re looking at today, and, indeed, in 1921, it was full of potential. So we go to a now century old edition of The Florence Herald.

The Herald began publishing in the 1880s and ran at least until the mid-1960s. In fact that Spillway graphic above is from a 1950s edition of the paper. It was a regular feature of the weekly paper, because predominant geographical features figure into everything. And people from far away take notice, as we shall see.

Henry Ford, yep, that one, wanted to buy in. He was interested in hydroelectric power, too, and dreamed of buying up the area and building factories for his own empire. It was the big news in mid-July, 1921.

But Ford wasn’t the only suitor.

“The publication this morning of the effort of Mr. Ford to acquire Muscle Shoals, followed by the development that several other individuals or corporations would likewise acquire the property, is taken to mean by Alabamians in Congress that Muscle Shoals, instead of being a corpse, is indeed a very live proposition.”

Because the news was coming in so fast the local weekly was having difficulty agreeing with itself, but inside there’s a several-days-old story that gives us more context, and a none-too-subtle bit of cheerleading. Excuse the hasty redesign I’ve made here. Long newspaper columns aren’t always conducive to the web.

There are little unsigned blurbs and letters like this all over this edition of the paper.

And that was the prevailing opinion of the day. That’s the story I always heard. The area was going to be a little Detroit. Roads were laid out and named to mimic the Motor City. Even the advertisements were cheering for Henry Ford.

But a U.S. senator from Nebraska, George Norris, had other plans. He thought the half-finished dam should stay under public management. The debate ran as the river flowed, for about a decade. The dam was completed and Henry Ford bowed out in 1924. The debate continued until the Depression, FDR, and until the TVA was born and took over. Predominant political structures figure into a great deal, too.

Even today you can drive through areas where there are rough old roads named after streets in Detroit, laid out in anticipation of the failed Ford deal. Nothing has ever been built on them.

Speaking of advertisements, here are a few more from that issue of The Herald. “We can’t be particular and so the little girl was smart to shop here, where we can’t be particular about our candy.”

Benjamin Luna was a longtime merchant in the area. He died at his home in 1956.

His wife, Adele Luna, shows up in the paper well into the 1960s. Quite the social figure, her name often appears under that Spillway graphic. She passed away in 1982. They had two daughters and a son. One of the daughters died just last year having lived just shy of 101 years. It was a full life, some 80-years of it right there in the Shoals.

I wonder what she thought about the lamb.

Hard to imagine ads explaining how your phone works, isn’t it?

But easy to imagine the phone companies would like you to spend some long-distance money with them. At least we have this advertisement here to explain long distance rates to younger readers.

This is the last advertisement in the June 15, 1921 Florence Herald. W.I. Swain started his business over in Mississippi in 1910. He was still touring at least through 1931.

Stand where he set up his tents for this show, you could see the river. Predominant geographical features figure into everything.

May 21

What I’ve been doing with myself

Last week we were on the road. It was my first long trip in the car since the lockdown. I don’t think I’ve driven out of the county since then, but we left the state last week. A few weeks ago my happily vaccinated in-laws came to visit, and last week it was time to see my family — the vaccinated ones, anyway — so we drove down to Alabama.

We had some rained a few times on the drive, but mostly we saw dramatic clouds.

They add to the scenery in places where there isn’t much else to look at.

My mother gave me the biggest hug and said I owed her 17 days worth of hugs. I’m not sure how she arrived at that number, but I didn’t question the formula. I expected she would come up with a much higher number. Oddly, the number of days didn’t decrease over the duration of our visit. Canny as ever, my mother.

It was nice to see her, of course, and my grandfather. Both have gotten The Shot. They found a drive-up deal and are proud they didn’t even have to get out of their cars to get dosed. They’ve been quite careful and safe and kept themselves isolated. We’re the most people they’ve each seen outside of a few doctor visits.

So my grandfather came over and I got to give him a hug. What a lovely feeling. We also had hamburgers.

He brought his dominoes and proved how bad we are at math. We are bad at math. Of course he plays all the time — that’s their Sunday thing, they have church via Facebook or television and then he breaks out the bones. Of course he’s played his whole life. The stories he could tell you about his parents counting the domino dots … while I’m over here pointing and mumbling to myself.

They really wore us down in the third round.

When we weren’t losing at dominoes The Yankee got in a few swims. She had a race coming up and has been in the water only once since the weather turned last fall. So we went Rocky IV last week. She donned her wetsuit, tied a rope around her waist and swam while I held her in place.

She had a great race Saturday, finishing just off the podium.

We also made sure to get a few Publix subs during our visit. Around here you have to drive several hundred miles to get a good sandwich.

And then we returned on Thursday evening, with much better weather around us.

That’s such a long drive. But it was a lovely and long overdue visit.

Everyone is doing pretty well, considering. It’s a “not ideal, but we’re still fortunate in a great many ways” sort of circumstance. Normal enough, I guess, or maybe that’s the catching up. It was nice to stare at other walls, to sit at the pool and see and be seen. Fortunate in a great many ways, indeed.