Roundup: Central Europe edition

This week I noted how Timothy Snyder and Anne Applebaum got me to thinking about my own experience with the eastern borderlands of Europe; followed that up with some cogent remarks about recent history from Mr. Snyder; and remembered one of the most significant political figures and moral exemplars of the late 20th century.

To end the week, I want to warn the Library of America to prepare for a rush on their Reinhold Niebuhr anthology. James Comey’s A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership hits bookstores next week; it’s already making headlines at CNN and prodding Donald Trump into a frothing rage. Today the New York Times posted Michiko Kakutani’s review of the book, in which she writes:

A Higher Loyalty is the first big memoir by a key player in the alarming melodrama that is the Trump administration. Comey, who was abruptly fired by President Trump on May 9, 2017, has worked in three administrations, and his book underscores just how outside presidential norms Trump’s behavior has been — how ignorant he is about his basic duties as president, and how willfully he has flouted the checks and balances that safeguard our democracy, including the essential independence of the judiciary and law enforcement. Comey’s book fleshes out the testimony he gave before the Senate Intelligence Committee in June 2017 with considerable emotional detail, and it showcases its author’s gift for narrative — a skill he clearly honed during his days as United States attorney for the Southern District of New York.

Kakutani notes that a major figure hovering over the book is Reinhold Niebuhr, the American theologian popular in the 1950s; Niebuhr is also featured in a sidebar interview that accompanies the review. Per Kakutani:

[Comey wrote] his college thesis on religion and politics, embracing Reinhold Niebuhr’s argument that “the Christian must enter the political realm in some way” in order to pursue justice, which keeps “the strong from consuming the weak.”

I paged through Niebuhr’s work a few years ago; clearly I’m in good company. His argument is duly noted, and I will ruminate further. And I lift a glass to his memory this afternoon.


Randy Newman.

This week I reviewed Armando Iannucci’s fine The Death of Stalin, spent a little time listening to Etta Baker, and nodded to Mark Twain’s enthusiasm for the national game, which launched its 2018 season just yesterday.

Not long ago I sampled The Randy Newman Songbook, a three-CD set released in 2016 that covers the four decades of Newman‘s career. It is, though, not strictly a compilation — these are brand new recordings of many of his most (and least) recognized songs, recently performed by Newman alone at a piano. Lacking, then, are the often lush orchestrations and arrangements of the original album releases. But what we gain through these solo performances is a new respect for Newman as a consummate craftsman of American songwriting. Along with his contemporaries Van Dyke Parks and Harry Nilsson, Newman represented perhaps the final generation of an American songwriting tradition that began in the early 20th century in Tin Pan Alley, reached something of an apotheosis in the Brill Building in the 1950s, then began to slowly decline until this kind of songwriting just about vanished in the 1980s.

While much of their music engages nostalgically with the American songwriting tradition, Newman, Parks, and Nilsson didn’t merely indulge in this nostalgia, but aimed it through the prism of an America that was radically changing in the 1950s and 1960s, in which the emotional and cultural certainties of these classic American songs were no longer relevant. While at first listen there are echoes of the Gershwins and Harry Ruby, dissonances (which are still jarring) rapidly appear, and the songs themselves become considerations of a lost world and its peculiar contemporary recollection. Below is a sample of this — an early Randy Newman song, “Vine Street,” which first appeared on the 1970 album Nilsson Sings Newman — a peculiar collaboration detailed in the Wikipedia page about the album, which despite failing commercially won the Record-of-the-Year award from Stereo Review. This performance, an early demo recording, was included in the 1998 boxed set Guilty: 30 Years of Randy Newman, which is now out of print.


Leon Redbone.

This week I typed up a review of the fine Temple University Press publication Philadelphia: Finding the Hidden City; a few vagrant reflections on my recent visit to the Museum of the American Revolution; and an anticipation of the upcoming baseball season.

I leave you with Leon Redbone‘s 1975 performance of Irving Berlin’s 1938 song “My Walking Stick.” A few years ago Redbone retired from recording and performing due to health reasons, but until then he was among the most popular performers of the songs of early 20th-century music, stretching back to Blind Blake. Redbone cultivated an air of mystery. According to his Wikipedia entry, he may have been born in Cyprus under the unlikely name Dickran Gobalian, but it’s more than possible that he was a Philadelphia boy:

According to a Toronto Star report in the 1980s, he was once known as Dickran Gobalian, and he came to Canada from Cyprus in the mid-1960s and changed his name via the Ontario Change of Name Act. However, an article about producer John H. Hammond in a 1973 issue of the Canadian jazz magazine Coda states that he was a native of Philadelphia who moved to Toronto: “Sitting next to Hammond was a young white musician named Leon Redbone from Philadelphia, but currently residing in Toronto.”

Wherever he’s from, he’s missed, by me anyway. “My Walking Stick” appears on his first album, On the Track. See you at Cafe Katja this afternoon.

Roundup: Art, religion and Philadelphia

Over the past two weeks I’ve mused about the relationship of art, religion, and censorship; started listening more closely to the country blues; and, looking forward to a brief visit to Philadelphia, looked back at its unusual self-image.

One of Philadelphia’s pleasures, of course, is its design and its wealth of colonial architecture. A very good guide to these pleasures is George W. Boudreau’s Independence: A Guide to Historic Philadelphia, published in paperback by Westholme Publishing in 2016. It’s far more informative about Philadelphia’s colonial history than most guidebooks, and Boudreau takes the time to throw the spotlight on a few lesser-known figures. Seek it out before your own next visit to Philadelphia. And I also highly recommend the series Philadelphia: The Great Experiment, a series of half-hour documentaries about the city, produced by History Making Productions, scheduled to be completed this year. You can find all of the currently available episodes here. We’ll be staying in Old City, where the likes of Benjamin Franklin once walked; the episode about Franklin of Philadlphia is below.