Monday, April 20, 2015

Billie Holiday Records "Strange Fruit" Today, 1939

A deceptively disturbing song. Sung slowly as if it were merely another sad ballad to a lost love. A voice of warm silk reflecting upon a painful memory. But this is all but a sweet pudding meant to mask the bitter pill of the lyrics.

Southern trees bear strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.

Today in 1939, Billie Holiday recorded Strange Fruit, the first American song to combine social protest and popular music.

Strange Fruit is so closely associate with Billie Holiday many assume that she wrote the song. In fact, the lyrics were first published in 1937 as a poem, Bitter Fruit, written by a white, Jewish, New York City school teacher, Abel Meeropol. Meeropol, also an amateur musician, set the poem to music and played it for his friend, Barney Josephson, owner of the integrated jazz club Cafe Society. Josephson connected Meeropol and Holiday. A week later Holiday first performed the song at Cafe Society.

Fearing the reaction of southern record retailers Columbia, Holiday's recording label, refused to produce the song. But Columbia released Holiday from her contract for one session for Commodore Records. Strange Fruit sold 10,000 copies in the first week of its release and eventually reached #16 on the Billboard charts.

If the beauty of Holiday's voice distracts the listener from the imagery of the first stanza, the remainder of Meeropol's lyrics lay bare their terrible subject:

Pastoral scene of the gallant south,
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth,
Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh,
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh.

Here is fruit for the crows to pluck,
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck,
For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop,
Here is a strange and bitter crop.

For more on Strange Fruit, click through to either of these articles:
The Strange Story of the Man Behind 'Strange Fruit'
Strange Fruit Is Still a Song for Today

And here is a 1959 performance of what Time later named as the greatest song of the 20th century.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Bettie Page Reveals All: A Peak at Pop Culture Iconography

Pop Culture Iconography

"Pop Culture Icon"

Let's add this label to the collection of words whose meaning has been debased through overuse. Enter it into a search engine and you'll be lead to articles of the generalized format "Top NN Pop Culture Icons Of/That XX", In which NN represents the length of the list, from about 10 to 200, and XX defines the frame of reference, "...of the 1970s" for example, or "...That Mean Your a Baby-Boomer". You'll also find names which have been so annointed by the discretionary powers of the author. The Beatles, Mickey Mouse and Elvis are in the pantheon. Today The Times-Picayune awarded the title to Nelson Mandela, as if the other accolades he earned just aren't adequate.

But when portraits of Jerry Garcia and Jerry Mathers (Leave It To Beaver) hang on the same wall, you begin to feel the need for a device which mitigates the obvious dissimilarity, an "Iconic Scale" perhaps. Or maybe we just need more stringent qualifications, qualifications which also capture the spirit of the label "Pop Culture Icon".

If you don't happen to have any of your own, please feel free to borrow my criteria which I believe are necessary to qualify as a Pop Culture Icon. To be considered a Pop Culture Icon, a candidate must be Popular, that is, they must have some breadth of appeal. This low and obvious hurdle seems to be the sole criterion for inclusion on the lists that I've mentioned, but does nothing to capture the spirit of the word "Iconic". The appeal needs to go beyond mere likeability to something more akin to Passion. For any candidate to be a true Pop Culture Icon they must be able to ellicit an emotional connection with their fans. The final qualification, and perhaps the most stringent, is that a Pop Culture Icon must Personify a set of values which are important to their fans and form the basis of the relationship.

These three criteria--popularity, passion and personification--when applied even casually, can help us parse the few true Pop Culture Icons from the many pretenders.

You may disagree. The challenge of defining a Pop Culture Icon deserves more space than I can justify in this post. But the subject helps me as I try to understand Bettie Page.

Bettie Page Reveals All

The latest treatment of the pin-up queen's story opened in theatres across the country last weekend. The documentary "Bettie Page Reveals All" covers much of the same content as the 2005 biopic "The Notorious Bettie Page". What makes this telling a significant contribution to our understanding of Bettie Page is that it is narrated by the star in her own words. So much of what we believe we know about Bettie Page has been filtered through the interpretation of others. If nothing else, Page's narration complements the facts of her life with a greater appreciation of her unique personality. If you're a fan of Bettie Page, or like me, fascinated by her story and it's place in popular culture, "Bettie Page Reveals All"  is well worth your time. If not, you're likely to leave the theatre wondering what all the fuss is about.

I suspect that most people today may recognize the name "Bettie Page", and some will associate the name with "pin-up" or the 1950's. I know of Page as I know of most things which predate me, through my parents, who were even greater victims of popular culture than their son. But even her fans must admit that there is very little reason today for a broader appreciation of Page. Her career was short, long-ago, and even then obscure.

More detailed bigraphies of Page than are justified here are easily available on the web, but for the purposes of this post, I'll provide a very brief summation of her story. Bettie Page was a model for lingerie, nude, bondage, and s&m photographs and short films from about 1950 to 1957. She drew wider attention when she was featured as the 1955 centerfold for the Christmas pictorial of Playboy, and then again in 1957 when she was called to testify before Senator Estes Kefauver's committee investigating the production of pornagraphy. Page soon left the public eye and assumed a private life for the next thirty years.

In the mid 1970's Page was rediscovered by several artists fascinated by her persona. Thus Bettie Page was introduced to a new, broader audience through a series of caricatures which referenced her earlier lingerie poses and trademark dark, banged hairstyle. Interest in Page grew through the early '80's, intensified by the complete vacuum of information which surrounded the star. Page herself was unaware of the new interest she was receiving, spending most of her life from 1979 to 1992 in mental hospitals.

With the help of friends and fans, Page eventually regained control of her image and recouped some of the royalties she was due. She granted several interviews, hoping to correct what she believed to be misperceptions about her life. Page never allowed herself to be photgraphed in her later period, going as far as attending public "appearances" by speakerphone. Page died in 2008 on this very date.

Mark Mori, the director of "Bettie Page Reveals All" met Page in the late 1990's. He began conducting interviews with Page, often picking her up at her group home in Los Angeles and taking her to a nearby diner for their conversations. The recordings of those interviews, originally intended only as background, now serve as the narration of the film.

Though long past her infamous modeling career, Page's narration reveals a personality that I believe served her throughout her life. Page was smart, smarter than you would ever expect given the story of her family, career and later struggles. Her honesty is often surprising as she recalls her career and romances with an uninhibited frankness. She is unashamed as she describes her love of modeling as well as her love of sex. And this lack of shame is not born from a naivete but from a refusal to accept, both then and later, society's rules regarding women and sex. Any attempt to imply a moral judgment of her life is quickly and confidantly rebuffed.

Bettie Page's life can and has been the basis of an interesting and entertaining story. My own fascination with Bettie Page is less with Page herself and more with the young women who, more than fifty years later, are still drawn by her persona. "Bettie Page Reveals All" opened in Chicago at a the Music Box Theatre on a bitterly cold Friday evening. The crowd was small compared to an opening night of a typical Hollywood blockbuster. About 20 or so young women were dressed in a style appropriate to the 1950's, about a third of them were dressed in a style which would have been considered inappropriate in the period.

I'm sure some in attendance were drawn by a broad nostalgia for anything associated with the 1950's. Some may have been satisfying a hipster aesthetic which feeds itself on constant association with the obscure. But these young women showed up and dressed seemingly to testify that they too subscribed to some set of values which they shared with Bettie Page.

Bettie Page has frequently been described as a "Pop Culture Icon". And though I began this post with a discussion of the misuse of this label, I have no interest in evaluating its application to Bettie Page. But I suggested earlier that a true Pop Culture Icon personifies some set of values which are important to their fans.

Less because of her behavior than her personality, and helped by history's capacity to refine and redefine distant events, Bettie Page resurfaces as needed to provide young women with a model for accepting sexualty on their own terms.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

The "Boo" We Won't Forget

Seventy-five years ago tonight Orson Welles lead the Mercury Theatre Players through a radio performance of H. G. Welles "War of the Worlds". The hour-long broadcast, an adaptation that portrayed the events of the novel as a live news broadcast entertained many, terrified some, and gave the then 23 year old Orson Welles creative license to write, direct and act in film classics "Citizen Kane" and the "Magnificent Ambersons". And in the 75 years since the broadcast, the facts of the evening were quickly transformed into a myth that still has the power to generate controversy.

The story of the broadcast is well-covered elsewhere, and there's little we can add to a retelling. We recommend this week's excellent special that aired on PBS's American Masters. If you're so inclined you can stream it from here.

Also this week Slate offered up an interesting analysis of the possible size of the broadcast's audience which helps put the claims of a mass panic by listeners into perspective. You'll find that here.

All that aside, we recommend that you go back to the original broadcast, back to a time when the power of story was in the skill of the teller and the imagination of the listener. Here is a link to the original radio broadcast on YouTube.

Yes, you'll only see a single static title card for 60 minutes. But sit back, close your eyes and imagine a time in which radio was your only live gateway to the world, pretend that over the previous six months it was on that radio you heard the coverage of the burning of the Hindenberg and the ravings of a German mad man who was threatening to plunge the world into war, and witness the already formidable ability of the young Orson Welles to transfix an audience.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

George Russell

Forty years ago, almost to the month, the revolutionary jazz album by Miles Davis, and the best selling jazz album of all time, Kind of Blue was released. George Russell, the jazz musician who laid down the theory of modal jazz which created the possibility of Kind of Blue, passed away last week.

From Swing to Bebop

Prior to World War II, swing jazz was the popular music of America. Swing was based on large bands playing tightly orchestrated arrangements with individual musicians playing improvised solos based on the underlying melody. During the war these large bands became financially difficult to maintain profitably. Music shifted to smaller clubs and smaller bands. At the same time, younger musicians such as Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, developed and popularized bebop, which stripped down the melody to a basic bed of chords which the soloists aggressively improvised over, chopping the standard four beats per bar into a whirling 16 beats. The solos increasingly wandered from the underlying melody. Bebop became the dominant style among technically accomplished musicians but lost its popularity among traditional fans.

Attack on the Chord

George Russell came to New York in 1945 while in his early twenties to play drums in a jazz band. Shortly after his arrival, Russell contracted tuberculosis and took up residence at a sanitarium for his recovery. At the sanitarium, he found an unused piano and began exploring alternatives to chord progressions as the basis of jazz. In 1953 he self published his new approach to jazz entitled “The Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization for Improvisation'. In Russell's approach to jazz, the dominance of the chord was replaced by the scale or “mode”, in this case the Lydian scale. This new “modal jazz” provided new opportunities for improvisation, all based on a reassertion of melody into the music. Compared to bebop, modal jazz was less technically challenging and more approachable, more contemplative and less pyrotechnic.

Russell and Davis were close friends since the mid-forties. Both were among the handful of musicians who gathered regularly at freelance arranger Gil Evans' Manhattan apartment to discuss and play jazz. Davis, who had started playing trumpet alongside Charlie Parker, had never completely accepted the dominance of bebop. By the late 1950's, Davis was actively looking for an alternative.

In 1958 Russell was near completion of an expanded version of The Lydian Chromatic Concept. Davis immediately realized the potential of the new approach. In the same year Davis released Milestones in which he began to experiment with modal jazz. He then assembled a group of musicians who he felt would embrace the scale over the chord. In the spring of 1959 they began the recording sessions for Kind of Blue. Released that summer, the album brought both melody and fans back into jazz.

Russell Lead his own bands throughout the '50's and '60's, but became frustrated by his failure to earn recognition or financial reward. He moved to Scandinavia in 1964 and had more success. Russell became a teacher at the New England Conservatory of Music from 1969, where he stayed until 2004. His 1985 recording of "The Africa Game" received two Emmy nominations. But few in the general public know of him or his seminal contribution to contemporary jazz.


This post could conclude with a sample of modal jazz from Davis or saxophonist John Coltrane, but many would likely be familiar with that music. Instead, we offer up “Cubano Be, Cubano Bop”, performed by the Dizzy Gillespie band, featuring Chano Pozo on congas. Gillespie commissioned the 23 year old George Russell to compose the piece.

Cubano Be, Cubano Bop

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Little Fugitive

"Little Fugitive" is a 1953 film by Morris Engel, Ruth Orkin, and Ray Ashley that many credit as the beginning of the American independent film movement.

The Studio System

Prior to the 1950's film production and distribution were controlled by six major studios. The films of this "studio system" were almost exclusively well-budgeted, shot on a set, and included star performers whose carefully nurtured popularity helped market the finished product. The limited variety of the stories and plots of these films were chosen for their broad appeal to assure the financial return on the investment. Very few producers, directors and actors had the resources to create films which didn't fit in the studio system business model.

Morris Engel, Street Photographer

Morris Engel was born in 1918 in Brooklyn, New York, the city that he loved, inhabited, and photographed for his entire life. Engel joined The Photo League in the year of its founding, 1936. The Photo League was begun in New York by Paul Strand initially to provide radical newspapers with photos of trade union activities. It quickly broadened its mission to photographing working-class communities. It was as an assistant on the production of Strand's 1942 film "Native Land" that Engel received his first and only lesson in film making.

Though he also worked as a protographer for popular magazines, Engel is best know for his photography of everyday street life in New York. Engel worked with a Hasselblad camera which allowed him to hold the camera discretely against his chest and photograph his subjects without intrusion. He pointed his camera at unknowing pedestrians, merchants, and children capturing undramatic but endearing moments of everyday life.
Engel's ambition was to create this same effect on film, which was impossible at the time because the tripod needed for 35mm movie cameras was both immobile and distracting to his subjects. Engel and fellow photographer Charles Woodruff modified a standard 35mm camera to make it lighter and attached a single strap which Engel wore around his neck and shoulder allowing him to hold the camera under his arm.

The Story of a Boy

"Little Fugitive" is the story of seven-year old Joey and his adventures in Brooklyn and on Coney Island. Joey is in the care of his twelve-year old brother Lennie, while their mother visits a sick relative. To break the boredom of a summer day, Lennie's friends persuade him into tricking Joey into believing that he shot and killed his brother.
After being taunted with the possible punishment he could expect, Joey takes the family food money and escapes to the amusement park at Coney Island.

Little happens at Coney Island that constitute plot, but Joey is followed scene by scene as he lives out his fantasies and learns to navigate the adult world. There is very little dialogue in the movie, all of which had to be added during editing. The power of the movie comes from the personality of Richie Andrusco, who portrays Joey, and from Engel's remarkable eye and patience in capturing street life. Each scene is filmed in such a way that individual frames could stand alone as photographs.
Engel also takes advantage of several instances in which situations unexpectedly occur which would otherwise have no purpose in the story. In one scene, Engel captures the reaction of the crowd as the body of drowned boy is brought to the beach. In another, Engel captures the chaos as a sudden storm sends the crowds running for protection. As the storm lifts, he uses the opportunity to great effect to film Joey walking the abandoned beach.

International Attention

"The Fugitive" inspired other directors, such as John Cassavettes, to pursue their vision for flim making outside of the studio system. Stanley Kramer, then a young director working on "The Wild One" reportedly wanted Engel's camera for himself. Most famously, Francois Truffaut credited Engel for inspiring the French New film movement: “Our New Wave would never have come into being if it hadn’t been for the young American Morris Engel, who showed us the way to independent production with [this] fine movie.” The impact of Engel's spontaneous approach to filming can be scene in Truffaut's 1959 masterpiece "The Four Hundred Blows".

The movie went on to be nominated for an Academy Award for writing and won a Silver Lion at the venice film Festival.


For articles about "Little Fugitive", click here and here.

For a gallery of Engels photographs, click here.

Below is the link to the trailer for "Little Fugitive"

Friday, February 27, 2009

The Selfish Gene

The Selfish Gene is a 1976 book by biologist Richard Dawkins. The book generated a controversy because of its argument for a gene-centered theory of evolution. It also is owed a debt by students of culture for the establishment of the concept of the meme as a unit of cultural evolution.

The Gene-Centered Theory of Evolution

The two established theories of evolutionary biology prior to The Selfish Gene were organism-centered and population-centered. The former argued that the dynamics of evolution occurred at the level of the organism, with the outcome being the survival and reproduction of the organism. The later argued that evolution occurred at the level of the group, similarly for the survival and reproduction of the characteristics of the group.

Richard Dawkins took a position which at the time was, and somewhat until today is, a source of controversy. To Dawkins, the scientific observations associated with evolution were best explained by placing the gene at the center of the evolutionary dynamic. Evolution is a process by which genes as “replicators” increase their chance for biological survival by creating “survival machines” ranging in complexity from the amoeba to the human that best serves their purposes. Behavior of these greater survival machines can be interpreted as purposeful strategies by the genes. Referring to genes Dawkins writes
They are in you and in me; they created us, body and mind; and their preservation is the ultimate rationale for our existence. They have come a long way, those replicators. Now they go by the name of genes, and we are their survival machines.

The name of the book is a reference to the observed behavior of organisms which is typically called “altruistic”. Altruistic behavior, actions which are consistent with the success of others, is often cited as evidence that evolutionary processes are centered on the organism or, more likely, the group. “The Selfish Gene” alludes to the possibility that altruism may be only one strategy arrived at by genes which which serves its own, selfish, needs.

The Meme as a Unit of Cultural Evolution

The Selfish Gene has extended its impact well beyond the field of evolutionary biology and into cultural analysis. In the book's last chapter, “Memes: The New Relicators”, Dawkins introduced a cultural analog to the gene, and inspired an academic discipline which applies the principles of evolutionary biology, especially Dawkins' own ideas, to the transmission and survival of cultural ideas.

Dawkins explains the coinage of the new word:
I think that a new kind of replicator has emerged on this very planet...It's still in its infancy, still in it's primeval soup...The new soup is the soup of human culture. We need a name for the new replicator, a name which conveys the idea of a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation. 'Mimeme' comes from a suitable Greek root, but I want a monosyllable that sounds a bit like 'gene'. I hope my classicist friends will forgive me if I abbreviate mimeme to meme.

As examples of memes, Dawkins offers “tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches”. Analogous to genetic evolution, memes “propagate themselves in the meme-pool by leaping from brain to brain via a process which, in the broad sense can be called imitation”.

Dawkins describes three qualities of a meme which can lead to successful replication. The greater a meme's “longevity”, that is the longer it exists, the greater is its opportunity be imitated by another. More important than longevity to Dawkins is the meme's fecundity or ability to reproduce. In this case, the meme of a cloying advertising jingle may replicate successfully because of the contagious nature of the tune. The third quality of a successful meme replicator is copy fidelity, the ability to create relatively, stable and faithful reproductions. It is his in discussion of this third quality that Dawkins insightfully describes how a meme may be successful not because of the overall complexity of the idea it represents, but because of the essence of its idea or the strength of one of it's parts.

The Propagation of an Idea

Of course the idea of a meme, is itself a meme, and as such will be expected to evolve and flourish or perish. The Selfish Gene inspired a new discipline in cultural analysis called Memetics. Memetics has flourished somewhat, but not without the opposition of critics. An explananation of this criticism will be left to a forum other than KultureKat.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Bettie Page

This week marked the passing of Bettie Page, perhaps the most famous of 1950s pin-up models.
By the late 1940’s Page had become a popular model with New York photography clubs. These clubs gave a cover of legitimacy for the production of erotica. In 1950 Page developed a professional portfolio that lead to her appearance in glamour magazines such as Wink, Titter, Eyeful, and Beauty Parade. Page worked as a model until 1957.
In 1952 Page began doing bondage material with Irving Klaw, who distributed her photos and short films through his mail order business. In 1954 Page modeled for Bunny Yeager, herself a former pin-up. This collaboration produced a very popular series of “jungle” photos of Page posing in a leopard skin bikini and with live cheetahs. An example from the Klaw bondage material is below, as is one of the Yeager jungle photos.

In 1955, Hugh Hefner featured Page as the holiday centerfold for the two-year old Playboy magazine. Given the time of the year, we thought it appropriate to include that photo also (removed).

More Than a Pretty Face
Recent coverage of her death refers to Ms. Page as a “secretary turned model” which may be misleading. She had moved to New York in the 1940’s with the aspirations to be an actress, using a job as a secretary for income while she looked for acting jobs.
Page faced many difficulties before her fame. She was born in Tennessee to an impoverished family. Her parents divorced and her father began molesting his young daughters. Page was sent to an orphanage after her father was sent to prison for stealing a police car.
Page began acting in high school, where she was also a successful student, and received a college degree in dramatic arts. This was an unlikely outcome for a woman of her time and situation.
Lasting Impact
Many credit Page with helping to lay the foundation for the sexual revolution of the 1960s. Page, perhaps more than anyone, helped move erotica from low-quality, clandestine productions to the higher-quality, more socially acceptable material which followed her career. Page also communicated her personality in her photos, seeming fun and flirtatious instead of tawdry.
Page regained a cult following in the 1980s and 90s, leading to two biopics Bettie Page: Dark Angel (2004) which focused on the Klaw years, and The Notorious Bettie Page (2005). The documentary Bettie Page Reveals All, is scheduled for release in 2009.
For obituary coverage of Page's death in the Wall Street Journal, click here, and from the New York Times, click here.