Monday, February 24, 2014

The little streams of the mountains

After he died, I enjoyed reading transcripts of Pete Seeger's "interviews" with the House of Un-American Activities in the 1950s.  He was so young and brave and gently defiant.

I've always loved this version of Guantanamera by the Sandpipers.

Seeger recites part of the original poem by Jose Marti, saying, "My poems are a like a wounded fawn seeking refuge in the forest."

Guantanamera is one of my favorite songs ever, though, and I am convinced that in a past life, I was an old Cuban woman, fat and frumping in a housedress, yelling at kids and singing along to Guantanamera from a wavy record.

Guantanamera is a traditional Cuban song and is extremely popular there.  Jose Marti was a prolific writer and activist and subsequent Cuban national hero.  He traveled the world during his lifetime, and returned to Cuba in time to be killed in a battle for independence from Spain around the turn of the 20th century.  Now everything is named after him.

Anyway, I even love the hilarious 1980s Julio Iglesias version, un-ironically.  Got something to say?

Nothing is sweeter the Joan Baez's version, though, singing in her American-inflected Spanish.

And Celia Cruz

And Joe Dassin

Everything is so shitty in Cuba, but I've always kind of idealized it anyway.  The conflux of races and subsequent strange and heady blending of tradition is very romantic to me.  I'm also inspired by the constant low boil of protest happening among the citizenry, who, in response to the internet embargo, have been burning smuggled international and local news to cds, which are hand-delivered all over the country.  R. Castro's government is pretty powerless to combat this offline transmission of information, which trades hands like produce in a market, or drugs in an alley.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Best History Podcasts

With Mean Observations About Each.

I have culled the entire internet for good history podcasts, and have been shocked at the lack of them.  My only explanation for this is the way that historians often come to modernity only when forced, and often with tears and gnashing of teeth, rending of garments, etc.  Conduct an experiment: go to any children's museum in the world, and observe the technology.  Then go to any history museum.  At the children's museum, you will probably enter a room where you can test out an app that allows you to levitate while mentally texting your bff.  At the history museum, they'll hand you a walkman with foam-covered headphones that plays Wanda Landowska playing Dixie on her harpsichord.

I went to the Phoenix Art Museum with my grandma yesterday and asked if she remembered taking me to the massive exhibit of Egyptian art back in the mid 90s.  It might've been the highlight of my year, because I was still going to be an Egyptologist then.  I studied every item closely and read every line of text.  I still have the Eye of Horus pendant I bought at the gift shop.

Her memory of that day: "Remember when you wouldn't put on the headphones?"
Me: "No?"
Her: "You thought you'd get lice."


1. Backstory with the American History Guys

Covers topics in a conceptual way instead of event by event, with topics like how America came to standardize the concept of time, or how we arrived at our opinions about children.  Each of the three hosts specializes on a century: 18th, 19th or 20th.  Each has bonafide history credentials, and I think one is on the board at Monticello or something.  They are almost never annoying, which is amazing, and when their guests attempt to speak untruths, they are slapped down instantly and with vigor.  In the Civil War episode, some old Confederate enthusiast tries to explain that flying the Confederate flag is ok in contemporary times because freed slaves enlisted to fight for the south.  It's already a stupid fucking connection to make, but the guy implied that MANY freed black men did this when in reality, it was just a few, and this was made clear to him in a quietly ferocious and punctilious way.  In your face, idiot.

2. Civil War Series with Dr. James Robertson

Dr. Robertson tells short stories about the war in a familiar and sensitive way which is only made more adorable by his slight lisp.  He seems to have let the project lapse, but there are plenty of old episodes to listen to.  He covers little known topics in a way that is both brief and very interesting.  My mental image of him is a little more stylized than the reality - no muttonchops, no vest!  No replica "US" belt buckle.  Well, we like him anyway.

3. History Extra by BBC History Magazine

THEY ARE ALWAYS SELF-PROMOTING.  IT IS SO DISTRACTING.  Did you know the BBC History magazine is the best-selling history magazine in the UK and maybe the universe?  Did you know you can get it for $5?  Did you know you could learn more at the website, and buy a shirt, and subscribe, and make a donation?  Well you can.  That said, the topics and guests are very good and I have learned all sorts of interesting things that I didn't know, about things like the black plague, and Henry VIII's mom, and peasant casualwear of the 18th century.

4.  Lapham's Quarterly Podcast

I don't know.  One of the editors narrates this podcast and he has the most incredibly horrible, annoying voice.  I listened to one in which Dick Cavett was interviewed by Lewis Lapham himself, so that one was fine, but I don't know if I can listen to the others if that hideous guy is on all of them.  Lapham's is a pretty good magazine, though, so I am keeping the hope alive.  Why doesn't someone tell him his voice is so bad?  Dealbreaker material.

5. The Bowery Boys

NYC history.  These guys aren't annoying at all.  Topics are interesting and well-researched.  They make me want to go back and tour "George Washington's New York," which is something I think I made up, but is probably an actual tour.  I'm currently reading a book about GW, and all of the talk about Manhattan spots that are still there, and what a hideous little shithole he thought it was, makes me want to go stand in the same places and pretend to be a 6'7 gentle giant who can't have any fun because everyone admires him too much.

6. BBC In Our Time: History

Pretty entertaining because the host/guests are all very invested in their comments and ready to get into a heated match of words at any time.  The problem is that they do, constantly, and it starts to sound like the Jerry Springer version of a history podcast as they bicker away unintelligibly.  The topics are very intense and they get into them instantly, leaving no time for laypeople to catch up.  If you are not at least semi-familiar with the incident they'll be discussing, then forget it.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Downton Abbey always reminds me of the Channel 4 reality shows in which modern people are made to live for a few months in a perfect replication of some other period of time.

My favorite is 1900 House.  A family moves into a Victorian rowhouse which has been impeccably restored to its original era.  There is not a trace of modern convenience except a secret room which contains a phone, in case of emergencies.  Otherwise, the house is arranged and decorated in strict compliance with the day.  My favorite was one of the set historians who admitted (resentfully?) that they used modern paint for the walls and adhesive for the wallpaper, because he supposed it wouldn't be appropriate to use materials containing lead and arsenic.  Ugh!  The patronizing society we live in.

The family also has to dress in strictly Victorian attire and use only products that would have been available at the time.  Incidentally, the Victorians didn't have shampoo as we know it now, which was of greatest concern to the women of the family.  I don't exactly blame them.  There's a reason hair often looks so limp and waxen in historic portraiture.  Not only was there no shampoo, there was hardly any proper soap at all that you could use on your body, because the only soap in the house was the lye for the laundry.  Unless you were a rich French woman, for whom fancy soaps were made as a cosmetic, but this was generally seen as a ridiculous frivolity of the rich.  So it was recommended to just rinse the shit out every few weeks, or maybe put an egg yolk on it, or to use a little castile soap if you had it.  Too dreadful.  Eventually (spoiler alert) the mother and daughter steal into a modern shop and buy some Suave, but they feel like cheaters about it and go back to using the hideous period concoction they probably found in Mrs. Beeton's Book of Household Management (1861) to be good sports.

Another incredible hardship is keeping the coal stove on.  This house had upstairs plumbing, but to get any hot water in the bathroom, someone had to be stoking the coals all the bloody time, including through the night.  If you don't have servants, this pretty much sucks, and you can begin to imagine why people were so economical with the bathing.

Come to think of it, everything you do is harder when you're a Victorian, and if you're a woman, just give up now.  It's hard to cook, because the stove doesn't heat evenly.  The recipes are very complicated and some of the terminology is different, so you don't know what the hell the ingredients even are.  If you're a fancy or even an upper middle class lady, you have to change your clothes and re-do your hair several times a day, and the rest of the time you just spend sitting around, looking out a window and wondering what your neighbors are wearing.  If you're poor or a servant, you have to go grocery shopping every damned day, because you don't have an icebox, or if you do, it's very small.  Cleaning is hard because the house is very dark and you have no Swiffer.  Some people had those roller vacuums, which only function by way of slavish, vigorous rolling motions done over the carpet.  There are no paper towels, so you have to do the laundry all the time too, which takes the entire day and is exhausting and terrible even with your crew of forced labor (children), and you can be burned by the soap.  This helps us to understand why standards of household cleanliness back then were considerably lower than ours are now.  It was just too hard.  Also, no trash pickup.  If you live in the hood, then the streets are actually comprised of compacted horse manure mixed with the trash that people just throw on the street and sidewalk.  Old school and poor people still use chamber pots, which they just empty any old place.  The hems of your skirts are quite foul.

And, of course, the women were doing all of this in corsets and tight, unsupportive leather shoes.  And the corsets weren't those stupid decorative things that goth kids wear to prom.  They were reinforced with steel, to keep you utterly in place.  I've read news clippings from the 1890s talking about women who died after falling off a horse or something, because they were impaled on their own corsets.  Also, the clothes were very heavy.  Dresses weighed many pounds, and your undergarments were voluminous to say the least.  And don't wear makeup unless you want people to think you are a prostitute.

God, even leisure time is potentially awful.  You have to sit in a room with your family and listen to someone read aloud.  If you're lucky, they're reading the latest novel, as long as it's not pornographic or written by a lady.  If you're unlucky, which you probably are, they are reading the bible.  There may be some piano playing or embroidering to get you through.  Perhaps you sing, or study at dancing a reel for a semi-annual dance.  Perhaps you are collecting your own hair to boil, wax, and form into small rosettes that you will frame or have set into a brooch for a loved one.  Oh, and you are supposed to have a whole raft of children, half of which will die as infants.  You just keep cranking them out (this is easy, because there is no reliable birth control other than non-compliance, which your husband can divorce you for which will then get you excommunicated and sent to hell) until a few stick it out through babyhood.  Or worse, they all live and you find yourself having to feed 14 unwashed people every day.  I'm just saying.  It was probably hard.

So anyway.  We don't envy our great-great-grandmothers much, even if they did have better furniture.  I would, however, definitely partake in an experiment like 1900 House, and I very much resent that doing so isn't available as some kind of themed vacation for historians, nerds and escapists.