The last few months, while we’ve all been sheltering-in-place, I have been teaching my grandniece and grandnephew some painting and music lessons. We live about 3,000 miles apart, so, these wonderful Sunday events are brought courtesy of phones, meeting software, and social media – anything that can help us keep a connection. Recently, we sang old folksongs together – some by Woody Guthrie and others traditional. The children are very young – for them they are sweet songs, they don’t yet know the stories behind them.
When I was their age I began to learn to play the guitar and sing. A few years later, when I was about eleven I discovered the great song collector and ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax. At my music teacher’s shop there was a big thick book of more than 600 pages that fascinated me. It was Lomax’s 1960 Folk Songs of North America: In the English Language that included the melodies and guitar chords transcribed by Peggy Seeger, sister of the beloved folk singer Pete Seeger. Somehow I scraped the money together, and about a year later, I bought this treasure chest representing all regions of the United States, song stories about sailors, farmers, pioneers, railroaders, hoboes, dam builders, cowboys, folks in good times and folks in bad times, and singing the stories taken from the countries of immigrants transplanted to this new country, many from the British Isles. The book includes a section called The Negro South where spirituals, work songs, ballads, and the blues are archived. In the 1960s it was a victory to say that African-Americans had a history, had a part in the American Story. A generation ago that was a step towards the light yet, as I opened the book to prepare for teaching my grand ones a few things about folk songs, the label used for the collection of African-American songs hit me hard. The framework is dated. It is a record documenting that era, but how do I tell little children about the pain and suffering that comes from the racism, which is the source of some of these songs? How do you tell that story? What do they need to know? As a historian and archivist, I understand and appreciate the book’s artifactual value, but from the perspective of an uninformed reader, without any context, I wonder. History is complex; when and how do you introduce the complexities? Some fifty years later, that book has traveled with me across the country and across my many paths. It’s been a constant in my life; and as I grew the music taught me empathy and I began to learn about the complexities. It opened the door to so much wonderful music – music I’ve played and sung, and music I’ve listened to and helped me become an archivist and historian. It put me on the path to discover the stories behind the songs. The book is a catalog of our roots, Americana, a music visited by many artists during the 1960s ranging from Peter, Paul, and Mary to Eric Clapton, the Rolling Stones to the Grateful Dead, and more recently by musicians such as Dave Alvin and Tony Dubovsky. That wonderful big black book and the stories it tells has played an important part in my life. And perhaps that is what I tell my grandniece and grandnephew; learn the truth about what was and with empathy be part of writing the new story and writing their new song.
Big Bill Broonzy (1903-1958) was an American blues singer, songwriter, and guitarist, who wrote and copyrighted more than 300 songs – some of his songs are included in the Folk Songs of North America. The Smithsonian Folkways Recordings also captured Mr. Broonzy singing both some of his songs and traditional songs like Trouble in Mind, C.C. Rider, and Midnight Special. On late nights, I love listening to Mr. Broonzy then turning around and trying to play his songs myself. I do OK on the singing, but he was a master guitarist, so I just try to get the rhythm guitar going. Born in Mississippi, he worked as a sharecropper, preacher, soldier in World War I, and later, after moving to Chicago as a Pullman Porter, a foundry worker. But through it all, there was always the music he wrote, played and recorded including folk songs, spirituals, country blues, urban blues, and some jazz. His voice is authentic, it is strong, it is ironic, it is sad, it is angry, it is wise, it is brilliant, and it is beautiful.
One of Mr. Broonzy’s most poignant blues compositions is the Black, Brown, and White Blues. It’s a song about the relentless Jim Crow…it always finds some place to roost. Mr. Broonzy “had written this protest song, which addressed the experiences of black war vets and the painful issue of preferential treatment by gradations of skin color, in 1945 and had offered it to RCA Victor, Columbia, Decca and several of the newly formed independent record companies, but none of them wanted to record it. As a result Mr. Broonzy had to wait until 1951 before he could record the song commercially in Europe for a white and overseas audience. In the US it took until after his death in 1958 to be released and was titled Get Back.” Relentless. I share the lyrics below. The Reverend Dr. Joseph Lowery giving the benediction paraphrased the song at the 2009 inauguration ceremony of President Barack Obama stating “we ask you to help us work for that day when black will not be asked to get back, when brown can stick around, when yellow will be mellow, when the red man can get ahead, man, and when white will embrace what is right.”
And here we are in May 2020, and once again we are a nation pushing the contours of its historic founding documents, hoping that those long cotton threads are strong and flexible. We are engaged in a mighty struggle. What vision of America will triumph: the fearful authoritarian contraction or the confident democratic expansion? Will our Bill of Rights be torn to pieces as we fight oppression with our questions, our demands, and our protest? Taking inspiration from Dr. Lowery, it is a good time to write and sing a new song about these struggles. The new song will be righteous, like Bill Broonzy’s, but it will sing a story about the struggle for justice and a vision of political power, economic opportunity, and respect for all.
On Sunday my Dad, Kenneth Hinds Chandler, passed away, and today I honor my “centurion:” a life that spanned our American Century. In addition to being a loving husband, father, brother, uncle, grandfather, great-grandfather, and friend to the many that loved him, he was a farmer, soldier, administrator, fisherman, hiker, artist and avid reader of history.
When I was six we began tramping together, sharing the spaces and places of American History from New England to Virginia: Plymouth to Williamsburg; Boston Harbor to Yorktown; and Gettysburg to Bull Run. Walking in his footsteps history came alive and helped guide me to my career as an archivist.
So, ‘tis not strange, in this time of sorrow to reach for Walt Whitman and his elegy to President Abraham Lincoln in the Spring of 1865:
And the great star early droop’d in the western sky in the
I mourn’d, and yet shall mourn with ever-returning spring.
Ever returning spring, trinity sure to me you bring,
Lilac blooming perennial and drooping star in the west,
And thought of him I love.
Late Saturday afternoon, walking my neighborhood, and thinking about my Dad, I chanced upon a beautiful lilac bush blooming in the fullness of this Spring. And oh I shall mourn with ever-returning Spring. Farewell Dad. Thank you for bringing me into this world…for taking the risk of having a child…for taking the time to teach me about integrity…for devoting your life to giving me a home where I could grow and learn and dream of the person I would become and the worlds I would explore. You put me on the road of life and set an example for me as I met life’s challenges. Farewell Dad. I love you, until we meet again.
From Limantour Beach at Point Reyes you can see the edge of San Francisco and all the sea between. Some hundred years ago steam schooners, barkentines, and four- masted ships would have plied the waters beyond the Golden Gate. I think of Ishmael leaving Nantucket in search of the great white whale….
“At last the anchor was up, the sails were set, and off we glided. It was a sharp, cold Christmas; and as the short northern day merged into night, we found ourselves almost broad upon the wintry ocean, whose freezing spray cased us in ice, as in polished armor. The long rows of teeth on the bulwarks glistened in the moonlight; and like the white ivory tusks of some huge elephant, vast curving icicles depended from the bows….as the old craft deep dived into the green seas and sent the shivering frost all over her, and the winds howled and the cordage rang, [Lank Bildad, as pilot] his steady notes were heard
“Sweet fields beyond the swelling flood,
Stand dressed in living green.
So to the Jews old Canaan stood,
While Jordon rolled between.”
Some thirty-five years ago, while I worked as a Photo Archivist at the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park, I solo bicycled part of the Pacific Coast. On that ride, I made a point of visiting the legendary Captain Frederick Klebingat (see his fine biography on the Online Archive of California finding aid for his photography collection). It was a great honor to meet the ninety-five year-young gentleman, who voiced great concern for my safety cycling the Pacific Coast. Expressing my deep admiration for the man who at sixteen (in 1905) rounded Cape Horn as a deckhand on a full-rigged ship, I reassured him that his risks had been much greater than mine. Imagine the strength, skill and courage it would take to furl the sails a’top the masts in the wind and rain ‘round the Horn all the while diving deeply into Ishmael’s great green seas! Talk about taking risks! Captain Klebingat was a person forged by nature’s forces; a rarity in a time when now most are shaped by a reality more virtual. During his lifetime, Captain Klebingat sailed barks, schooners, Liberty Ships and tankers, and served as a key figure in the restoration and preservation of historic sailing ships, particularly Honolulu’s Falls of Clyde. Captain Klebingat’s research papers about restoring the Falls of Clyde can be found at the University of Glasgow (the vessel was built in Glasgow’s shipyards). During our visit, Captain Klebingat autographed and gifted me his book Christmas at Seainscribing To Robin, May All Your Christmases be Merry. Frederick Klebingat. I keep the book remembering my visit with the great sailor. About six months later in March 1985, Captain Klebingat passed away; but our visit that fall day in 1984, remains a treasured memory. In fond remembrance, for Captain Klebingat at Christmas, I share an excerpt from his book.
On a Christmas Eve a few years after the 1906 Earthquake, young deckhand Fred Klebingat, his friend Tommy, and first mate Hagen are on watch aboard the barkentine the S.N. Castle, anchored in San Francisco Bay. The sailors are grateful to have a job and thankful for the turkey roasting in the ship’s galley for their Christmas dinner. On deck they watched as
“the great beam [of lighthouse on Alcatraz Island]…searched out the hills of Richmond as it turned; momentarily it glanced by the brightly lighted windows of the houses in Berkeley…and blinked at the ferry boats…the searchlight also winked at those Bohemians who lived on Telegraph Hill, and for a second it peered into the windows of Nob Hill. It flashed by and lit up the spars of the ships anchored off Meiggs Wharf. On it turned, to beacon those mariners bound through the Golden Gate…[and Hagen said] “to me that light seems to be a beacon of liberty, to guide you to freedom – to all of us who first came here through the Golden Gate…there may not be all the freedom we may want, but it is much more than what we left behind.”
Melville, Herman. Moby Dick. New York, New York: The New American Library, 1961. p.113
Taos, New Mexico is a beautiful place. Imagine a warm summer evening sitting by a creek that rolls quietly to the river Rio Grande; you feel the magic of water in the desert. Water grants life; renews life. So precious is a life. My mind’s eye travels miles in seconds. Looking down from the bridge that crosses the narrow Rio Grande gorge, I toss a pinyon branch and I watch it travel through the canyon by the pueblos on it’s journey to Santa Fe; and then at Albuquerque where the river flattens and widens and water birds play along the shore; and on past El Paso where the river becomes the border between Texas and Mexico – a shallow river – a place of crossings for wild things – those beings naturally wild, we call free and others made wild by violence and fear, tired, poor and hungry seeking relief and asylum. Precious lives. There is no need for brick and mortar; we have built a wall of fear. An informative article in the April 23, 2018 New Yorker “A Voyage Along Trump’s Wall” sought to inspire discussion; discussion and compromise all seem so romantic now as we enter this the latest chapter of shock and awe.
Blessed am I able to freely sit and breathe and feel the special magic of a place. On this solstice day may the light shine and illuminate our way.
Happened upon the new Ry Cooder recording The Prodigal Son. It’s a good one. Keep thinking of the lyrics of his song Jesus and Woody inspired by Woody Guthrie’s song Jesus Christwhere Woody (writing in 1940) speculates modern capitalist society would kill Jesus too. Listen to Woody sing here on YouTube. Ry’s lyrics – singing from Jesus’ perspective – stick with me:
“so sing me a song ‘bout this land is your land’
and fascists bound to lose
you were a dreamer, Mr. Guthrie, and I was a dreamer too…..”
Situated on the northern side of the river Neckar, the Philosophenweg or Philospher’s Walk, provides beautiful views of the picturesque city of Heidelberg, Germany. After a good hike from the train station, I found myself gazing down upon the ruins of the schloss, the old bridge, the medieval marketplatz and the imposing late Gothic Church of the Holy Spirit. My friend Astrid had encouraged me to visit Heidelberg, and soaking up the southern exposure tucked amongst the vineyards and vegetable gardens dotting the hillside and the industrious bees, I was glad I took her advice. Below me the sounds of a bustling city travelled across the river and up the hillside. Sited on a major tributary to the Rhine Heidelberg has become a tourist destination – whose history spans the Romans, the Reformation and the third Reich – it is also the site of a major University making significant contributions in scientific research. Being September, the faculty and students – like migratory birds – were winging their way back to begin anew the cyclical learning experience. In such a place, history is everywhere – you sense the very vineyards surrounding you have roots in the pax Romana. Reaching for my watercolors, I began sketching, attempting to capture the moment before returning to the bahnhof and Frankfurt.
Although painting requires focus, it also provides a quiet time for reflection and anticipation. Thirty years have passed since my first trip to Germany. In 1982, my youth, love of history, and study of Existentialism brought me to Cold-War Berlin, Hitler’s Munich, and the Nazi concentration camp at Dachau seeking answers to difficult questions. Germans have a phrase – Vergangenheitsbewaltigung or Aufarbeitung der Geschichte which means the working through of history. Returning in 2012, this trip is a continuation of a conversation started. History is a heavy responsibility. It can be crippling or it can be a reservoir of evidence preserved by archivists supporting scholars, who sift through the past seeking patterns, providing perspectives, guiding us in the present. Ahead still lay my journey from Bingen to Bauhaus (tempted to sing out the lyrics to the tune of Emmylou’s Boulder to Birmingham, I delayed the impulse). On this journey we would visit Bingen on the Rhine near Niederwalddenkmal the monument commemorating Bismark’s 1871 Prussian victory and the beginning of the German Empire, the former ghettos and cemeteries of Jewish Frankfurt, Zollverein the coal-mining complex of the Ruhr Valley, the gardens of Sanssouci, the Einstein Tower an Expressionist masterpiece by Erich Mendelsohn, the 1936 Olympic Stadium site of Jesse Owen’s triumph, Bertohlt Brecht’s Archives & Museum in former East Berlin, and Walter Groupius’ Bauhaus in Dessau.
For the trip, I brought with me Stephen Ozment’sA Mighty Fortress: A New History of the German People. Ozment puts forward what he calls the Tacitus challenge: can a more than 2,000 year old civilization be defined by its last 150 years? Paraphrasing German Historian Thomas Nipperdey, Ozment writes it is one thing to know the end of a story and to be moved by it to learn the whole story, and quite another to tell that story from its known outcome. Because of this visit, my personal tapestry of European history is more complete. Over the years, I have made many journeys to France, Great Britain, and Italy and solo excursions to Austria, Czech Republic, Hungary, Norway and Slovakia. Because of this visit, the weak threads connecting Germany with her neighbors are strengthened to more fully support my understanding of the warp and weft of European history. Working through history is good advice — grapple with the past – but engage fully and openly in dialogue with the present.