Friday, May 8, 2015

The Hard Hat Riots, On this Date in 1970

The period of American culture bearing the convenient handle "The Sixties" is a tangle of images and ideas which in retrospect seem easily identifiable from the preceding decade and the decade which followed. The tougher task is answering the more basic questions. What were the characteristics of The Sixties that made it so unique in American cultural history? When did The Sixties, the culture not the decade, begin? When and how did it end? As worthwhile as these questions are, I'm incapable of providing a complete answer to any of them, but today I'll try to provide a partial answer to the last.

Because on May 8th of 1970, the Hard Hat Riot occurred in Manhattan, throwing youths and adults, the educated and blue-collar workers, in to open battle, and ending forever the utopian dream of a student-led democratic reformation of American society.

In the American Left Movement, students had traditionally been relegated to the support role of organizing the industrial workers who would serve as the impetus of change. But several events of the 1960's - the Mississippi Summer Project, the Berkeley Free Speech Movement, the Columia University Protests, among others - convinced student organizations they could help lead social change.

The relationship between American students and establishment groups was conflicted throughout the second half of The Sixties. But by 1969 a common ground was beginning to form in the growing impatience with the war in Vietnam.

On April 30th, 1970, President Richard Nixon, who had campigned on a promise to end the war, announced an escalation of hostilities which would target North Vietnamese bases in Cambodia. Campuses erupted in a nation-wide student strike. Nixon, caught on tape referring to the students as "bums", added more fuel to their anger.

Kent State University in northwest Ohio was home to one of the more aggressive branches of the SDS, the Students for a Democratic Society. In the days following Nixon's announcement, Kent State students attacked police, burned the campus' ROTC, and ignored the curfew established by the governor. On May 4th, while trying to disperse a protest on campus, the National Guard inexplicably fired into the students, killing 4 and wounding 70.

The student left and its supporters were enraged, sparking further protests across the country. But the Kent State Shootings had the opposite effect on the other Americans. Many believed the shootings were justified, seeing the students as unappreciative of their priviledge and violating acceptable standards for protest. In a Gallup Poll taken after the shooting, 58% of the respondents blamed the students for the deaths, while only 27% blamed the National Guard.

In the wake of the riot, New York Mayor John Lindsay ordered the American flags on city buildings to be flown at half-mast. On May 8th, and estimated 1000 students gathered in lower Manhattan for a memorial to those killed at Kent State and to continue their protest against the war.

At noon, approximately 200 construction workers appearred at the protest, many wearing hard hats and carrying American flags. Some also carried pipes and crowbars. The workers quickly swept past the police.  Some forced their way into City Hall, climbing to the roof to fully raise the flag from half-mast. Many climbed over the police cars and attacked the students, punching them with their fists or beating them with their hardhats. Hundreds of bystandards shouted their encuragement to the workers. In total, about 60 people were injured, mostly students, along with a handful of police.

One week later 150,000 construction and other workers peacefully marched through New York as workers in the surrounding buildings showered the marchers with ticker tape.

Many student organizers were demoralized. Political activity on campuses lost energy. Those who maintained the fight became more radicalized, calling for the violent overthrow of the US government, and becoming even more isolated from mass politics. Nixon instinctively sensed the power of this new mainstream anger, and used it to justify increasingly aggressive tactics agains the Left.

Events of 1969 had begun to erode any hope of lasting cooperation between student and establishment groups. The random violence of the Days of Rage in Chicago. The seeming moral corruption of the counter-culture as symbolized by the Charles Manson murders, The killing of a young man by the Hell's Angels at the Altamount Music Festival. The early activities of the Weather Underground. But it was the tragedy at Kent State that proved to be the final fracturing of the generations.

For the New York Times coverage of the Hard Hat Riot, please click here. For more images related to the Hard Hard Riot, please visit the KultureKar Pinterest board.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Mary Doyle Keefe, Model for Rosie the Riveter, In Passing

Have you ever heard of Rosie the Riveter?

My guess is most have heard the name, but few remember the context in which she came to American culture. To a previous generation of Americans - my parent's generation - she was a character who symbolized the critical role of women who fought the battle of the home front during World War II.

The character of Rosie evolved from several independent sources. Her last, and perhaps most enduring manifestation was as the Norman Rockwell painting featured on the cover of The Saturday Evening Post May 29th edition.

In the painting, Rosie sits atop a piling, her rivet gun across her lap and a battered copy of Mein Kampf crushed under her penny loafers. Her overalls are rolled up at the ankles suggesting they were borrowed from the man who previously held the job, now fighting the Axis. Rosie is impossibly well-muscled, but Rockwell maintains her femininity with a glaze of nail polish, lipstick and rouge, while her compact and lace handkerchief peek out from a hip pocket.

The model for Rosie was Rockwell's 19 year old neighbor, Mary Doyle Keefe. Aside from the face and red hair, the petite Ms. Keefe bore no resemblance to the burly Rosie most people remember. And she never used a rivet gun.

Ms. Keefe died last week at the age of 92.

Though Rockwell and Ms. Keefe gave Rosie the Riveter a face, the painting was inspired by a 1942 Four Vagabonds hit song with the same name:

All the day long whether rain or shine
She’s a part of the assembly line
She’s making history, 
working for victory
Rosie the Riveter

Keeps a sharp lookout for sabotage
Sitting up there on the fuselage
That little frail can do more than a 
male will do
Rosie the Riveter

Rosie was propaganda to bolster morale and sell war bonds, but she resonated with the American public because she embodied the commitment, sacrifice and contribution of American women during the war. Between 1940 and 1945, the percentage of women in the US workforce increased from 27% to 37% and by 1945 one in four married women were working. By 1943, 65% of the workers in the US aircraft industry were women. And for most women, work was there way to support the sons, husbands, and boyfriends risking their lives in battle.

Of course when the boys came home, the women went home to their traditional roles where, 25 years later, the home front was their own battlefront.

Ms. Keefe's obituary, which includes a history of the painting can be found here. For more pictures of other Rosie's, please check out the KultureKat Pinterest board . And to hear the song by the Four Vagabonds with lyrics, go here.

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"