Tuesday, May 27, 2008

We demand (somewhat limited) free speech

Imagine it is 2004 and you read that Michael Moore was arrested for making Fahrenheit 9/11 or his comments about the Bush administration. Or, more topical, that Scott McClellan's recent book led to his arrest for maligning the administration during wartime or some such nonsense.

These suggestions seem improbable nowadays in our society. After all, we have free speech. Always have, always will, right? Possibly, first amendment rights are actually deemed by Americans to be the most important of all our rights (leaving aside those passionate gun advocates spurred on by the present partisan debate that feel the second amendment should be first).

It should be noted at first that there was, and sometimes still is, a debate as to whether it was necessary to have a bill of rights, including the first amendment, at all. Alexander Hamilton, for one, believed it would be counterproductive. These rights against the federal government were already in existence, he argued, as well as others. If some of them are set out in constitutional amendments, then the others might be deemed not to exist. He had a point, and it has been argued, successfully and unsuccessfully.

Literally, the first amendment reads as follows:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

This post deals with the second clause of that amendment, "abridging the freedom of speech," sometimes called freedom of expression.

The law on this subject is vast, and no attempt here will be made to do anything but just lightly touch upon some aspects of it it is hoped you might find interesting.

Just to simplify the arguments here, we will take "speech" to mean "expression," as it is commonly accepted (although I know one thick headed Montanan reader who might give me grief about it). Thus, accept for the sake of argument that pictures, writings, symbolic actions, etc., have at least some first amendment protection.

I am actually using the first amendment as an example to make a point that is actually a political heresy, possibly unique to myself. We are trained to say only worshipful things about the constitution and to give credit to the founders for their unworldly foresight. I would argue that it never worked in a myriad of ways. However, this is not an anti-patriotic or anti-constitutional scree. It merely reflects that the constitution was made by failable men who compromised in order to get the job done, and who had no crystal balls which would enable them to write for the ages.

Faced with text that just didn't work in many situations, judges, throughout the two hundred plus years of the country's history, have interpreted the constitution as they saw fit, sometimes reflecting the changing culture and sometimes leading it. While many argue that we need to stick to the meaning of the founders, or, for others, the intent of the founders, I do not believe that even the most assiduous of proponents of this view stick to it when the result would not please them. After all, Thomas Jefferson coined the phrase "strict construction" but derided such lack of flexibility as soon as he obtained the high office.

Even the godfather of modern originalism, Antonin Scalia of The Supreme Court of the United States (and coincidentally the college roomate of my boss in my first law job), acknowledged at his Senate hearing that he understood, for example, that although lashing was not deemed to be cruel or unusual punishment to the framers, he would be happy to draw a line there and forbid it now. It is a fair question (which I would have asked, were I Senator [brief pause for laughter]) to ask if he was willing to draw a line where he thought necessary, how could he complain on principal when others draw different lines? Originalism, although a great theory, falls in upon itself the first time it is comprised.

Frankly, it is a good thing that the "freedom" of speech (or expression) is not taken literally. It would not satisfy any of us if we could say what we wanted but not write it or paint what we wished. The converse is true as well. Imagine a world where no expression could be infringed by the government. Perhaps that sounds great at first. Although in that world, no president could speak in public for the hecklers, no teacher could silence a student in order to teach, no police officer could stop verbal threats, no pornography could be banned in any environment including prime time television, no court, indeed, could carry on its mission if those who chose to speak determined to do so in court. And so on.

Because society could not function were total freedom of speech allowed and culturally seemed not to be able to bear certain other speech (obscenity - but has the internet made that law obsolete outside of child porn and public displays?) various devices were created by judges so that society could, in fact, infringe upon speech all the time. Yet, none of it is found in the constitution.

Despite the appearance of the amendment in 1791, when it definitely only applied to the federal government, it was not until the 1920s when it even began to have much effect and even to be applied to the states through a highly questionable series of judicial rulings that makes sense only if you disregard what the constitution says and just want the world to be a certain way.

Most famous historically speaking, is, of course, the alien-sedition act of the Adams administration which permitted some actual imprisonment of the press (freedom of the press is linked with speech in the first amendment) under limited circumstances.

The actual results of that act were not extreme, and it was was nothing compared to the federal government's actions during the first world war (I'll skip the Civil War -- but Lincoln's intolerance for free speech and press in wartime is well documented), when a many time socialist presidential candidate, Eugene Debs, was imprisoned for just making a speech during which he tried to be very careful about what he said, when an anti-war Senator, Robert LaFollette, was almost expelled from the Senate for his constitutionally protected words (he eventually shut up and survived) and, even crazier, when a movie maker, Robert Goldstein was actually imprisoned for 3 years (sentenced to 10) for making a film about the American Revolution, The Spirit of '76, in which, naturally, the Brits (our allies in WWI), were the bad guys. LaFollette had an eventual resurgence in his career, but Debs' and Goldstein's lives were destroyed. These are only examples. There were many others.

Although free speech has grown (thanks to judicial activity) the following are situations where the courts have allowed limited governmental infringement of speech despite the first amendment's supposed protection:

-pornography/obscenity
-speech at or near places of government activity
-hate speech/fighting words
-speech in school, both secondary and college
-speech that might disrupt the lives of private citizens (e.g., an injunction
prohibiting speech too close to an abortion clinic).
-private lawsuits against commercial speech (e.g., a suit against a magazine that
published an advertisement for a mercenary, leading to a murder)
-slander and libel
-fraud and deceptive advertising
-time, place and manner restrictions (when, where and how you may exercise your speech rights)
- political speech (e.g., the McCain-Feingold laws)

I would suggest that except for the first and last of that list, virtually everyone agrees (once they think about it) with these limitations. The reason for most of them is simple. As Justice Robert Jackson once wrote (I'm paraphrasing here, a lazy blogger's perogative) -- It's not a choice between liberty and order. It's about liberty with order. He is also sometimes credited with the thought that the constitution is not a suicide pact, although, like the first example, he merely restated the thought in his legal opinion. In other words, in real life, the first amendment (among other constitutional provisions) didn't work.


Similarly, Justice Learned Hand, a favorite of this blog, wrote (again paraphrasing)that without order, liberty becomes a license which would actually lead to the denial of liberty for those without the strength to enforce their will against stronger persons.

The fact that most of us like many of these limitations, although possibly to different degrees, is not surprising. It is also true, and becoming more true, that many people don't mind invasions of their privacy if it means a greater feeling of security. I have a somewhat different opinion about that issue though, which I will not go into here.

Still, the degree of these limitations are bitterly fought over and there will never be agreement on any of them. It keeps the courts busy. One problem is that very often in constitutional law, too much liberty for one person may bleed over into depriving the liberty of someone else. For example, if you tell someone they can't have organized prayer in school because it is unconstitutional, they might feel they are being deprived of their right to free exercise of their religion. If you tell someone they can have organized prayer in school, others feel that government is violating the prohibition on establishing religion.

You'll note, I hope, that the above limitations aren't, for the most part, about the content of the expression (again, excepting the first example and arguably the last one) and shouldn't be. Without freedom of content, at least in an alternate venue, the limitations would be intolerable, atleast to modern Americans, who have become used to it.

School free speech scenarios make good examples of the difficulty of deciding these cases. The Supreme Court ruled on one last year in Morse v. Frederick (aka, the Bong Hits for Jesus case). Contrary to some reviews of it, no new law was made. The court applied what is known as the Tinker test, after another case, balancing the child's right to speech against the school's need for order so that it can fullfil its educational mission.

The court held that the school could prevent the student involved from holding up his "pro-drug" sign during a school event. Although Justice Clarence Thomas would have held that school kids have absolutely no free speech rights to begin with, that is certainly the minority position, and one I don't believe withstands close scrutiny.

I'm guessing, of course, but I think most Americans would agree with the court's decion in Morse v. Frederick case if they didn't know which judges voted which way (thereby ruling out partisan influences). But other similar cases are not so simple. Take a west coast federal case in which a student's tee shirt included, among other anti-gay material, writing saying "BE ASHAMED OUR SCHOOL EMBRACED WHAT GOD HAS CONDEMNED" worn after a pro-gay program in the school district was held.

The federal appeals' court upheld the school's punishment of the "offender," at least in part based on the notion that the message struck at gay students' "dignity and self-worth". Another judge actually wrote that it was ok to protect one student psyche from another student's speech based upon a misinterpretation of the bible. Hopefully, he will be the last judge to base an opinion on his biblical interpretation as opposed to an individual's own view.

The Supreme Court reversed the appeal's court's decision without issuing an explanatory opinion. Maybe they interpreted the Bible the same way the t-shirt wearer did. The important thing to ask yourself is if you were the judge, would your acceptance or rejection of gay marriage or "gay rights" would make a difference to you in coming to a decision.

Even more recently, just earlier this month, in fact, a federal appeals court in the middle of this country refused to allow a school to punish a student who wore a Be Happy, Not Gay t-shirt in response to pro-gay t-shirts that other students wore the day before on a school sponsored pro-gay day. Have the courts gotten the message. You can't stop students from wearing anti-gay t-shirts, particularly if there is pro-gay propagandizing in play. The two anti-gay t-shirt cases have been much discussed in legal circles in publications and online.

There are all kinds of permutations of this. Say a t-shirt reads George Bush Sucks, or, George Bush Rocks, depending on your prediliction, and the school has barred political material on shirts. Recently, an east coast federal court refused to permit a school to punish a student whose shirt mocked the president for being a "chickenhawk". Political speech often gets more protection than any other kind, but what if it were a more popular president and we were engaged in a war eliciting violent riots?

How about the rebel flag example? Can a student wear one on his shirt even if it upsets other students who believe it is meant to be a racist statement? How about if there is a Halloween party that day? How about if it is the first day the first black student starts in that school? How about if the flag has a cross in the corner? Or a picture of Robert E. Lee, who is practically a national hero at this point? How about if there are many types of rebel flags on the shirt in a collage (there actually were many different confederate flags)? How about if the words "Honor, Heritage and Equality" appear on the shirt underneath the flag? What if the wearer goes to school in a town where Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson both used to live and are still celebrated (Lexington, Virginia)?

We could go on in that fashion for quite a while, of course, but will give it a rest there. The point is, go ahead and keep telling yourself that the constitution works just fine without judicial tinkering. You'll be in good company, as almost everyone you know will almost certainly agree with you.

All I can do is disagree with you and hope that judges for the most part interpret cases in a way that makes me comfortable, because no constitution really can work without constant help and fiddling around with its meaning adjusted to the ever changing culture. There is always the danger that they will limit speech beyond our desire, of course, and then we might have to rely more on those self centered, cowardly representatives that we actually democratically elected to make decisions.

Even if we think in the abstract that judges shouldn't be making up law and even when we don't like the decisions, for the most part, be glad they do. Because whatever administration is in power, it is not likely to give a lot of thought to your liberty. And on the whole, we have much greater speech rights now thanks to judicial intervention than we did two hundred or a hundred years ago.

Dedication to democracy is crucial as is dedication to liberty; Both are impossible to perfect and the pursuit of each sometimes conflicts with the other, almost requiring some error by courts in making a decision. When there is friction between them, and the answer is not clear, put one finger, and one finger only on the scale for liberty.

I invite your voracious disagreement. It's a difficult subject and you might actually convince me I'm wrong.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Political update for May, 2008 - Let the absurdities begin!

But they are funny

Love politics for the hypocrisy. If we don't, the constant torrent of it from the candidates, their supporters and the media will drive us crazy.

This post will continue to be anti-partisan, anti-Democrat, anti-Republican, anti-Liberal and anti-Conservative. Not that each of these groups do not have some sound ideas and claims, but their opposition to each others ideas, and single mindedness about their claims to having all the logical thoughts, the purest ideals and the most superior morals is just so much unadulterated nonsense, that even the reasonable notions are drowned out by all of the sound and fury, signifying . . . . (query for the audience -- do you need to reference an obvious quotation like that, or, can you reasonable rely on the intelligence of the readers? I say yes).

The latest round of flummery (a great word Rex Stout puts in his detective hero, Nero Wolfe's mouth) dominating the headlines are beauties like the transformance of Clinton's noting of a historical event (Robert Kennedy's assassination) into a slap at the apparently royal Kennedy clan when their eldest has just gotten a death sentence from cancer, and, because why not got to the extreme, a veiled threat as to what might happen to Obama if he wins. A pat on the back to Robert Kennedy, Jr. for quickly noting the silliness of the charges.

Obama was himself the subject of partisan buffoonery when he accidentally referred to the 57 United States. Rush Limbaugh implied that he may have been been thinking of his true constituency,the 57 Muslim nations. Oh, brother. Which is he Rush? A racist Christian or a clandestine Muslim? Because partisanship makes people illogical, there are those who actually have no trouble holding both of those beliefs.

But, to be absolutely fair to Obama, he said he had already campaigned in 57 states and had one to go, meaning he knew there were actually . . . 58 states. He must have been estimating.

Not for nothing, but McCain too suffered from one of these non-story stories when he accidentally mixed up Shia's and Sunni's and Al-Qaeda and Iranians on recent occasions. You know what it means -- nothing. Certainly nothing more than the fact that when you talk a real lot, every once in a while you are going to say something really stupid. I blather a lot about history and politics and every once in a while catch myself saying something that a moment's reflection would tell me I know better. Not to mention those mistakes this blog's Gotcha Gang (I purloined that name from the wise and wonderful William Safire and promise not to use it again) catches me on. Imagine the stupid stuff we say that we don't catch.

Not to pick on Obama, but his factual mistakes have been the most Dan Quaylish of the three. And, they are funny. McCain's just don't compare and Clinton's mistakes tend to come from having her being a little heavy to dance with (an expression I learned from an English pilot in Denmark) and due to the over-sensitivity of our current culture. Here are Obama's best, or is it worst (excluding the one about the 58 states):

- His parents got together because of the events at Selma, Alabama during the civil rights struggle. Unfortunately, he was born a couple of years before Selma. It is, of course, possible in a scenario suggested by a few highly accurate movies, that his parents met at Selma, realized their son would run for president, traveled back in time . . . .

- 10,000 people died from the tornadoes in Kansas this year. Well, to be fair 12 times 833 almost equals ten thousand and you would do that because -- quick look over there -- it's Brangelina.

- Suggesting that Clinton did better than he did in Kentucky because of the proximity of it to Arkansas, where she is well known. Huh? Now, how did he forget that the good people of Illinois, who elected him Senator, actually live next door to Kentucky, as opposed to Arkansas, which isn't (although not far).

- That we could be using the translators we now have in Iraq in Afghanistan if we had left. Problem is, the people in those two countries speak different languages. I guess he hasn't read the papers in a few years. So, just what does his being a former president of The Harvard Law Review really tell us about his education?

To drop out or not to drop out

Leaving gaffes for strategy, I am still perplexed by the debate over whether Clinton should get out. There is a very fair argument that her dropping out would benefit the Democrat party. But, since when have candidates put the party above their personal ambitions? And, really, why should they if they believe that they are best thing for their party (and you know they do)? Politics is a little like capitalism. People have to have some self interest in their hearts to do it. Leaving aside a couple of secular saints, why else would they go through that hell?

Arguably, the Democrats would also have been better off if Obama dropped out when Clinton was in the lead, avoiding a bit of unpleasantness (exaggerated, in my humble opinion) and the whole Reverend Wright thingee (which I feel certain will make a difference in the general election). There is the difference, of course, that it is virtually impossible for her to win now absent some unforeseen political time bomb going off, and that wasn't true when she was leading.

A few pundits, not many, have had the wisdom to see that maybe all the fuss between them has driven John McCain out of the news, except when he says something stupid, and, it the continued race might actually be good for the Democrats. All the fussing of McCain and even Pat Buchanan in '00 did not stop Bush.

Global Warming

More and more I gear myself up to try and learn something about the global warming debate, but, I have the feeling that the topic has been too infected by partisan warriors to find much on it that is a fair examination. Frankly, I have little interest in a book or article that has come to a strong conclusion, because I do not know how this is possible given the limited information we seem to have.

Please feel free to write in and tell me that it is crystal clear that A) global warming is a fact (as well as man's contribution to it) or B) Global warming is no more than a bad dream Al Gore had, and that everyone knows it. It's not that partisans choose to refuse to believe only what those people they identify with politically have to say, they just do it without thinking. If people actually believe that disagreements on federalism and the construction of the constitution also have meaning when we discuss the weather, well, what are the limits, really?

Iraq

I've said this before probably, but need to emphasize it. When it comes to Iraq, I don't care whether Obama, Clinton or McCain are in office. The facts on the ground there, and the opinions of the chiefs of staff will dictate what the next president does, whether we go or stay, and how soon.

I do not believe that a Democratic president will allow chaos to reign in Iraq by removing too many troops too soon, nor do I believe a Republican one will allow us to drain our last drachmas down the Tigris River. At some point we will go, of course, except for a symbolic force. We may leave a relatively peaceful country or not, but we will go. After all, Lebanon is about to implode again and we can do nothing about it. Nor do we try much. (Self promotion flash - if you are interested in the Hezbollah-Israeli war fought a couple of Summers ago, take a look at the 10/25and 11/12 posts on the subject. I may not be right, but I think my slant on the unseen importance of that conflict is different than any one else's [and, by the way, I'm right]).

A personal indulgence

Permit me a little self indulgence here. While I'm busy self promoting (to what end? you may ask - I'm not selling coffee mugs with my picture on it?), I was looking at the archives of this post, and have to admit, felt a little pride there (don't get excited -- not that much). It started in September '06 and I had no idea whether I would continue to write it or not, but have done so roughly once a week since then. That is much longer than all but two relationships I've had and about half as long as my longest job. If I'm going to have a problem with committment, at least it does not seem to be with writing. And that is true even if they are all awful.

I have no idea of the size of my audience, but if it is more than ten people regularly (perhaps much less), I'll be surprised. I know I'm surprised when people I would not have guessed tell me they read it.

Looking back, I've written several times on Civil War stories, General James Longstreet, who hated whom among the forefathers, Winston Churchill, possibly the greatest runner in history (4/11/07), an American Olympian that will surprise you (not saying more -- 1/6/08), the worst vice presidents, Abraham Lincoln (about to fight a duel?, Lincoln the racist?), Abraham of the Bible (wait to you read this one), the Epic of Gilgamesh, the atomic bomb, the guy who invented radio and whose inventions allowed modern electrification (not who they taught you either -- 12/7/06), the ancient Greek language, famous people named Moses, George Chuvalo (a boxer, if you didn't know), abortion, evidence of early man (or lack thereof), the assassination of a world leader you never heard of (4/28/08), Bruce Lee, chimeras, who wrote Night Before Christmas (a personal favorite – 9/26/06), atheists and their spirituality, a scary opinion poll (my first post - 9/6/06), cell phones manners, the educational system, an Alexander Hamilton sex scandal and an Alexander Hamilton murder mystery, George Washington and civility, at least two attacks on Thomas Jefferson, the Nazi Invasion of Long Island, Louis Prima, the problem with predictions, quantum physics, the great writer/explorer, Richard Burton (no, not the actor), the planet Pluto, secrecy in war, the Santa Claus/Thor connection (another personal favorite –- 11/2/06), Superman and Hugo Chavez, Elliot Sptizer, Anna Nicole Smith (in case you thought tv lawyers are unrealistic), The Lord of the Rings, proof of Jesus' existence, the Supreme Court, bureaucracy, UFOs, inspirational readings, the second amendment, national security letters, a number of posts on various forgotten mountain men, movie trivia, political and geographic trivia, recurring posts on politics, and some desert island furbishing (purely aesthetic, I assure you). There is also one piece of fiction (3/6/07) and a bit on a lady friend (who does read this) who has a penchant for saying some unusual things (4/26/07) which always tickle me. I'm sure there are others I've forgotten.

One more small personal indulgence -- happy birthday to my great friend of almost 40 years (38, but whose counting) -- Bear, likely the most frequent visitor to this site, who weighs in regularly with either a bouquet of roses or a battering ram in the comment section, and who too infrequently posts himself at incorrect-bear.blogspot.com.

End of indulgences.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Ladies and Gentleman: I give you Louis Prima

Fell down on the job, did I (my Yoda voice)? On December 10, 2007 I posted “Sing, Sing, Sing,” which essentially made the argument, even if I didn’t exactly say it, that Louis Prima’s Sing, Sing, Sing is the greatest instrumental piece of the 20th and 21st centuries. Although it is always iffy to write on anything subjective being the “best,” the arguments in favor of Prima’s masterpiece being exceptional, perhaps unique, are formidable (I’m not writing it all over again – please go look at the post).

I promised then, and promptly forgot, to write more on Prima. I’ll start with my personal opinion and take it from there. Prima is my favorite musician, bar none, ahead of Louis Armstrong, Richard Wagner, Peter Tchaikovsky, Bruce Springsteen and even Emerson, Lake & Palmer, the favorite group of my teenage years.

As with SSS’s pre-eminence, there are a host of supporting arguments why Prima should be counted at least in the top tier of twentieth century musicians, much more than say Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, Frank Sinatra and other obvious choices might deserve it. The Capitol Records Collection of Prima’s hits has been played by this little blogger literally hundreds of times, both in my car and at parties. Almost every recording on it is infectious, charming, pulsing and clever. Rarely have I played it for guests without exceedingly positive comment or inquiry about it.

Let’s be more controversial though. Prima should be in the most select of musical hall of fames celebrating 20th century musicians and singers along with Louis Armstrong, The Beatles, Sinatra, Chuck Berry and few others.

Of course, the first powerful argument why Prima should be in this stellar group is, of course, that he wrote (and played and recorded) SSS. That alone makes him an immortal. One of the central arguments of my post about that song was how many times it has been used in film to help set the mood for the swing error. Only a few months after that post was written, we could already add another film to the list – George Clooney’s Leathernecks used it even though SSS was written and recorded long after the time period signified in that movie (the 20s) and I have found a number of other films I didn’t include.

There are other arguments though. Prima’s musical versatility, his highly popular Vegas stage act, his virtuoso performances on the trumpet, the extraordinary length of his music’s popularity right up to today (even if no one knows it), his unique singing style and skat singing credentials, are all extraordinary.

Prima has been dead since 1978, but we are continually hearing his music. Rarely a month goes by when I don’t stop what I’m doing and point out to whomever I’m with that the song on a television or radio commercial is a Prima piece, possibly by Prima himself. Although I have searched for information on all the commercials his music has been featured on, I have come up empty, but it is an enormous amount.

Since Prima’s death, aside from new versions of SSS, two other of his trademark songs have been re-recorded and made into hits. Few seemed to know at the time that they were even remakes. (I know this, because I asked).

David Lee Roth’s hit Just a Gigolo, a rollicking and fun recording from 1985 started the recent Prima band wagon going. I note that the Wikipedia article on Roth does not mention his indebtedness to Prima at all for ratcheting up his career. Still, I have to admit that Prima did not write Just a Gigolo, or even first record it. It actually is an Austrian song, and was first adapted to English in the 1920s. Yet, for good reason, we can have no problem giving Prima credit for inspiring Roth and even an earlier version by The Village People from the 70s.

How can we do this? Because Prima did something unique with his 1956 recording and Roth and the Village People both copied it. He merged Just a Gigolo with another song, I Ain’t Got Nobody, with such skill, everyone thinks it is all one song. Both Roth’s recording and The Village People’s effort actually bear the names of both songs, just like Prima's did.

Just as Goodman co-opted S, S, S, so Prima has co-opted Just a Gigolo. It is his so much, that words from it were put on his tombstone.

Roth wasn’t the last to successfully honor Prima. Brian Setzer’s Jump, Jive and Wail was a faithful copy of Prima’s swing classic, which had been largely forgotten by the populous. It was also picked up by The Gap clothing stores as the theme for a popular commercial if you are trying to place it. Written in ’39 by Prima, a few years after SSS, it actually won a Grammy award with Setzer’s performance SIXTY YEARS after Prima wrote and performed it and over forty years after Prima’s most famous recording of the song. That’s staying power.

Although winning a Grammy is hardly part of the recipe for musical greatness (hasn’t Britney Spears won?), Prima actually won himself in 1959 for That Old Black Magic, a song he covered with such pizzazz that his version makes all others seem dull and listless in comparison.

In fact, although Prima did not write all his hit songs, when you listen to his covers and compare them with anyone else’s, including the much more famous Sinatra, it is like comparing a search light with a light bulb. There is one exception I can think of – both Prima and the combination of Danny Kaye and The Andrews Sisters released covers of Civilization: Bongo Bongo Bongo at about the same time in 1947, when it was a hit in a Broadway play, and the Kaye/Andrews version did slightly better. No excuses, it is better (and one of my favorite non-Prima pieces).

How many classics can you name by Bing Crosby (mostly holiday songs, which is almost unfair) or Glenn Miller (maybe two) or Benny Goodman (probably one, and Prima wrote it)? Prima has a long list of hits you can still hear on television shows, movies and commercials today that he was recording until a few years before he died. Think about it, he wrote SSS in his mid-twenties and Jump, Jive an’ Wail before he was 30, both in the 1930s. The first is still the classic swing song and the second again a recent Billboard hit. Leaving aside Christmas songs, for who else does this repeatedly happen?

When you hear Louis Prima, there is no mistaking him. His voice, his Italian ethnic/jazz mixture is entirely unique and personal to him. I doubt it could be duplicated well, although someone should right the Broadway musical (if I had any musical ability, I’d give it a shot). When he sings, and he can sing well, he doesn’t worry about staying with the beat, or laughing in the middle of a song. Although scat singing is by definition a style unique to each practitioner, Louis Prima’s scat is somehow more unique than others, if that makes any sense. Just for the hell of it, here are this blog’s list of the three greatest scat singers in history (and Ella Fitzgerald is not one of them).

Louis Armstrong
Louis Prima
Danny Kaye (I know, who would have thought, but download the recording of Kaye and Armstrong doing When the Saints Come Marching In and you will see what I mean).

Prima swerves back and forth between English and Italian effortlessly and sometimes seemingly chaotically. He clowns with his band and especially with Keely Smith, his fourth wife and partner on stage. Sometimes he will challenge a band member to mimic his voice with his instrument. It is well known, and Sonny has confirmed it, that the dour faced Cher to Sonny’s happy sprite is a Prima/Smith copy. Often the songs seem like one big improvisation, but it was all the product of endless rehearsal.

Other than Keely Smith, the best known of Prima’s compatriots is the great Sam Butera, an electrifying saxophonist, who, like Smith, is still alive and still playing. Sam and Louis kid around like they grew up together. I’m still waiting for him to come around someday so I can hear him live.

Prima started out with a small band, but then had to go the big band route like everyone else in the 30s. When big band faded he went back to a smaller band and headed for Las Vegas where he was one of the greatest acts ever to play the City of Lights. After that, he slowly started to move into rock n’ roll, even progressive rock, although these are not among the bands greatest work.

Late in his career, a few years before he slipped into a three year coma and died, Prima recorded for Disney the voice of King Louie, an orangutan determined to get the secret of fire from Mowgli in Jungle Book. It is still being covered by other bands. For a while, the legendary Mitch Miller produced Prima in a series of novelty songs which are not among my favorites, although some are up to his usual standards.

Actually, before the animated Jungle Book, Prima was in a few movies himself, although these I have never, and will never likely, see. Although, if I did, it would be Hey, Boy! Hey, Girl!, if for nothing else, to see Louis and Keely perform the song.

Back in the Stone Age, I would just recommend you buy The Capitol Collectors Series: Louis Prima, but nowadays, you can just download the songs you like. Here’s my recommendation for the classic Prima download, many of them with, Keely Smith, although, if you want to buy a CD, that is still the one. Here’s the list:


- Sing, Sing, Sing (get both the Prima vocal version and the Goodman 1938 classic recording with Gene Krupa and other stars)
- I’m Just a Gigolo/I Ain’t Got Nobody
- Jump, Jive an' Wail
- Buena Sera (there are several great versions – all good. I’d get at least two at different tempos)
- St. Louis Blues (perhaps the first great Jazz song; like most Prima covers, he just does it better than everyone else; again, try to get two with different tempos)
- Angelina/Zooma-Zooma medley
- Brooklyn Boogie (a real instrumental oldie, but one that really boogies)
- I’ve Got the World on a String
- Hey, Boy! Hey, Girl!
- I’ve Got You Under My Skin
- The Lip (this is one of his novelty songs, and lots of fun)
- The Music Goes Round and Round
- Oh, Marie- Pennies From Heaven
- That Old Black Magic
- Twist All Night (early rock & roll from a jazz master born in 1910)
- When You’re Smiling/The Sheik of Araby medley
- I've Got You Under My Skin
- I Want to be Like You (the Disney classic)

Leave aside SSS, for which I have already tried to list every movie and tv show which played it that I could find in the 12/10/07 post (and have found more since), Among the many, many uses of Prima’s other works in film and television includes:

Mission: Impossible III (2006)(A Sunday Kind of Love)Find Me Guilty (2006) (When You're Smiling (The Whole World Smiles with You))Where the Truth Lies (2005) (Josephine, Please No Lean on the Bell)Kicking & Screaming (2005) (Zooma, Zooma)Elf (2003) (Pennies From Heaven)Anger Management (2003) (When You're Smiling)Mafia: Lost Heaven (2002) (Long About Midnight, Sing It 'Way Down Low’, I'm Living In A Great Big Way)Don't Say a Word (2001) (Fee Fie Foo)Liberty Heights (1999) (A Sunday Kind of Love)Mickey Blue Eyes (1999) (Just a Gigolo, Buena Sera Senorita)Swing (1999) (Five Months Two Weeks Two Days)Analyze This (1999) (Angelina/Zooma Zooma, When You're Smiling/The Sheik of Araby)City of Angels (1998) (Hey! Ba-Ba-Re-Bop)Lolita (1997) (Civilization (Bongo Bongo Bongo)Big Night (1996) (Buona Sera, Oh Marie, Love of My Life (O Sole Mio), Five Months, Two Weeks, Two Days)Casino (1995) (Zooma Zooma, Zooma Zooma, Basin Street Blues/When It's Sleepy Time Down South, I'm Confessin' (That I Love You)Forget Paris (1995) (Lazy River)Cobb (1994) (That Old Black Magic)Mad Dog and Glory (1993) (That Old Black Magic, Just a Gigolo, I Ain't Got Nobody)Mystic Pizza (1988) (I Ain’t Got Nobody)The Man Called Flintstone (1966) (Pensate Amore)

This is just a small sample based on what shows or movies I would guess would be familiar to you. There are many, many more, and endless commercials.

When I write about someone on this post, it is almost always because I feel like they should be reverred and don't get enough ink. Prima was one of the all time greats, even if he is barely remembered today except by the older generation, despite the fact that his music is still recorded and used by others more than any almost anyone else (maybe I don't need the "almost" either). He started out and was successful in the dixieland era, through big bands, small stage bands and even some limited success in the rock era. Although Danny Thomas, the late comedian, is not exactly a musical authority, I'll go with his quote during the Las Vegas years about Louis Prima and the Witnesses (including Sam Butera): "Man for man, pound for pound, it is the greatest music organization in the world," although I could have went with Ed Sullivans "Greatest act in show business today".


Benny Goodman got the title "King of Swing" primarily for his great work on a Louis Prima song. If he's the king, the Prima should be emperor (Louis Armstrong fans, don't kill me. I know, I know -- can we call it a tie?).


Mark my words, some day, some Broadway producer is going to wake up and realize that a Louis Prima celebration would run for years. You’ll see.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

The Battle of Buchanan (and other stuff)

Just having been in New York for a week or so, I noticed I was longing to go back to my new home in Buchanan, Virginia. Naturally, when I’m here, I miss New York. Humans are confusing. But, I thought I’d write a little about where I live now, including about the Battle of Buchanan which raged here in 1863. To tell the truth, it's all about the pictures.

When I moved this year to Buchanan, Virginia, I was attracted to three things about it. The Blue Ridge Mountains, the James River and the Mayberry RFD feel.

Buchanan bills itself as The Gateway to the Shenandoah Valley. I don’t think that is precisely accurate as this is clearly the James River Valley and the Shenandoah Valley starts pretty far north of here. It is sort of like calling Atlantic City the Gateway to New York City. But, “Gateway” sounds a lot better than “One River Valley South of . . .”. And Shenandoah has a pizzaz that the more important James River doesn’t.

Buchanan is, though, without doubt part of The Great Valley, which is one big super valley within the Appalachian mountain chain in which the Shenandoah and James River Valleys sit. The James runs right through Buchanan itself, just northwest of the main street, and cutting the town essentially in half. If I walked in a straight line from my home, the river is roughly 300 yards away. While no Mississippi or Hudson River, it is no brook either, and nearly 80 miles of the River is open to commercial traffic before it empties into the Atlantic (trust me; I've been planning a boat trip). It is roughly 50 yards wide passing through this little town.

Buchanan is surrounded by two separate strands of the Blue Ridge Mountains which parallel the Valley. This is made clearer than glass when you ride south on the Blue Ridge Parkway (aka Skyline Drive), just a few miles from my house, which runs along the very top of the ridge to the East of us. You can look blithely down on the valley from there and see our barely visible town.

Itself nearly 900 feet above sea level, Buchanan sits in the shadow of Mount Purgatory, a broad, furrowed and deep mountain just shy of 3000 feet at its peak, which is about as average a Blue Ridge Mountain as you can get (between 2,000 and 4,000 feet is as close to an “average” as I can find anywhere).

Purgatory dominates the town, towering above it, and is supposedly named after the feeling stage riders got when they rode alongside the river on its hilly edge (meaning you felt like you were in Purgatory until you finished the run).

When I look out my back windows, Purgatory is what I see, studded with trees, which even run along the upper ridge, and also some areas of bare rock due to fires. It is highly visible on I-81, the interstate that bypasses the town, at least 15 miles away in the right spots and perhaps much further in areas I can’t access. To my surprise, this wild looking and substantially undeveloped mountain is privately owned.

The George Washington and the Thomas Jefferson National Forests surround the town. Aside from the signs, it is difficult to tell when you are in the parks or outside them. The animals don’t care where the borders are and streams run throughout the town as they do inside the park.

In any direction, you find that you are also surrounded by these streams, interrupted with beaver damns, boulder fields and fallen timber. They cut through the landscape, mostly farms and ranches, and come from or lead to the James.

So far, I haven’t run into any bears, but a 20 something waitress told me they are here and she goes bear hunting herself. I met a divinity student/extreme kayaker (who sold me a kayak) that has one living on his property for years. He knows it is a she-bear because he has seen cubs on occasion. She leaves them alone and they her.

I have seen deer, wild turkey, beaver, heron, one buzzard (trust me, ycccch, and it was eating something on the side of the road), and the usual farm animals, including alpaca. I have read up on the Eastern cougars and bobcats that are rare around here and feel fairly confident I will not run into any on a hike (my guess is that they are extinct or nearly so).I haven’t heard any howling, but, apparently, we have coyotes too. Snakes are another problem. We have rattlers, cotton mouths and water mocassins. A week or so ago I walked past one sunning itself on a stone wall.

Hunting seems to be the main pastime around here. Quite a few of the men wear camouflage and hunting caps. Many also sport long thick beards, as if they just came from casting for a Civil War movie. Actually, although I don’t think this is why they do it, they have a re-enactment here, I believe every year, of their own Civil War battle.

The town is not named for the 15th president, but for early settler John Buchanan, who was consulted by the young future president when he was seeking troops here for the French and Indian War. Washington met Buchanan at Looney’s Ferry on Buchanan’s property, which crossed the James a short walk outside of the village as it exists now. I’m not sure where precisely Washington slept, but it had to be somewhere around here. I’m going to speculate it was on my property, just because it is fun.

They have found evidence of the ferry and an historical road sign now approximates where it was located. It must have been quite important as on a 1741 survey made by Thomas Jefferson’s father which now sits in the chapel where Robert E. Lee is buried, the map includes the ferry among the very few features on it.

As Buchanan has a river, it also has a bridge. The modern one crosses the James at the North End of town right on the main road, Route 11, which runs right through the town and keeps going on pretty much forever in both directions. The remainder of an old bridge is still there and part of it stands as a base for the flexible foot bridge which also crosses the river at the same spot. I crossed it, but it scared me. Felt like the whole thing would blow right off its pedestal. During the rare floods, the bridge can be covered.

Route 11 was once known as The Great Warriors Path, an Indian trail from Canada to Georgia, and then became know as the Great Wagon Road in colonial times. It parallels Route 81 for a long distance, but is much smaller and a little more rural looking. On either route, it is one long beautiful picture show.

On my side of the river sits the commercial area, mostly mom and pop shops, including, a pizzeria, a larger Italian restaurant and a few other restaurants, two banks, town hall, an auto parts store, a pharmacy with a grill, a movie theatre showing second run and art movies, a medical office, an insurance office, several antique shops, an art gallery, a furniture store, a used book store (excellent) and a library among a few other shops. Near the bridge is a gas station, and they a mini-market, within which there is a window which Burger King, smaller and much less conspicuous than any BK you have ever seen, operates. I will be greatly disturbed if a typical fast food place or chain store opens here. Perhaps, it is inevitable and this quasi-BK is just an opening gambit.

Within the few hundred yards that makes up the main part of town there are four churches, three of which sit within a stone’s throw of each other. I haven’t been inside any of them yet, but they are all quaint on the outside and exactly what you would expect as you drive through the town.

Houses surround this part of town on both sides of the river. Two railroads also parellel it (one at the end of my backyard – you quickly learn to sleep through it). I live one block up from the main street on the other side of the tracks, which I cross to get to just about anywhere. There is a good seventy-five yards to the next house on my right and two hundred to the one on my left. When I go outside, I can see a good part of the town, including a cemetery I have investigated, a short way up Purgatory.

Small towns dot the valley at distances of ten to twenty miles. Sometimes, depending in which direction you go, the distances are much greater. I have visited many of the nearby ones. Although I had little time to pick one of them to live in before I moved, Buchanan was a great choice as it is almost devoid of the franchises that plague the other small towns (rendering them ugly in my mind), and, although the houses and buildings here are old, they are better kept than most every other town I have seen so far in the near vicinity. Perhaps I shouldn’t let the world know about this gem. Then again, perhaps I don’t have to worry. Not too many people want to move to a town too small for Barney Fife to consider living in.

A half hour north of here is a larger town, Lexington, created a few years after the namesake battle in Massachusetts. It is where Stonewall Jackson lived. His home is still there and you can take a tour, which I did years back when I first wandered through here. Lexington retains some of its Civil War character in the historic part of town. Washington & Lee University, where Robert E. Lee is buried in a chapel (his horse, Traveler, is buried right outside) sits side by side with Virginia Military Institute, dominating the historic part of town. Students kindly leave apples and carrots on the campus for Traveler’s ghost.

The City of Roanoke, a half hour south of here, sits in a broad valley which separates the northern and southern parts of the Blue Ridge Mountains. It has everything larger cities have, a nice downtown area, beautiful hotels, shopping centers with every chain store you can imagine from Dick’s Sporting Goods to The Olive Garden. It too has a river, but it is small, worn out and kind of dirty looking. It was my disappointment with the housing there that led me to look into Buchanan in the first place, which I only knew then as the small mountain town without a McDonald’s sign that I had passed by on the Interstate.

Mill Mountain overlooks Roanoke and bears a hundred foot metal star on its top which they light at night. From there you can overlook the entire city which is ringed with mountains and is actually its own mini-valley.

One sight which must not go unmentioned, out of the endless beautiful sites within a few minutes of my home, is the Natural Bridge, about ten miles from my home. It is a natural phenomena, a tall narrow loop in a 215 high rock with a river running through it. Pictures do not do it justice and it has to be seen in 3D and in perspective to be truly appreciated. The river walk, about three quarters of a mile long is just as spectacular and ends in a picturesque waterfall I can’t stop photographing.

Jefferson actually bought the bridge and the land around it just before the Revolutionary War from King George. Presently, Route 11 runs right over the top of it, although they block the view for safety's sake.

On June 13, 1864 Union General David Hunter was moving south on the orders of Grant to capture an important southern hub. He had come down the Great Wagon Road through Staunton, Lexington and Natural Bridge. When he came to the town of Buchanan he was met with a burning bridge. It had been set fire with straw and oil by the confederate Brigadier General John McCausland, who had been playing cat and mouse with Hunter and his generals for the entire raid. It didn't stop the northerners but slowed them considerably. The Union cannons wreaked havoc on the town, shelling Oak Hill, a mansion still standing high on a above the river banks and the canal (which is no longer there). Sparks flew back across the river and set fire to Pattonsburg (the part of the town on the north side of the river).

The northern troops were easily able to ford the river slightly upstream. They tried to help save the bridge for the townspeople, but to no avail. However, something like 15,000 troops briefly stayed over in the small town, quickly bleeding it dry. When troops are hungry they beg, borrow and steal whatever they please. Hunter burned the home he stayed in while fording the river and hung a man who shot a soldier defending his property.

The victory did the Union little good. They hurried on down to the target of the raid, Lynchburg, another James River town (now better known as the city of Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University) and the rebels turned the tables and defeated Hunter there, sending them running.

The pictures I attach here tell the story better than I can. Here's some other images to take home with you (click to enlarge).











About Me

My photo
I started this blog in September, 2006. Mostly, it is where I can talk about things that interest me, which I otherwise don't get to do all that much, about some remarkable people who should not be forgotten, philosophy and theories (like Don Foster's on who wrote A Visit From St. Nicholas and my own on whether Santa is mostly derived from a Norse god) and analysis of issues that concern me. Often it is about books. I try to quote accurately and to say when I am paraphrasing (more and more). Sometimes I blow the first name of even very famous people, often entertainers. I'm much better at history, but once in a while I see I have written something I later learned was not true. Sometimes I fix them, sometimes not. My worst mistake was writing that Beethoven went blind, when he actually went deaf. Feel free to point out an error. I either leave in the mistake, or, if I clean it up, the comment pointing it out. From time to time I do clean up grammar in old posts as, over time I have become more conventional in my grammar, and I very often write these when I am falling asleep and just make dumb mistakes. It be nice to have an editor, but . . . .