Saturday, January 31, 2009

And I am kind when Chloe is crying

My five-year-old daughter is making her way with the written word.

Her excellent public school teacher in the Parkway District has been showing her how to sound out words and approximate their spellings phonetically - with pretty good results.

Yesterday we waited about an hour in a post office for a passport (that we weren't even able to get, in the end). I spent my time reading Thomas Nashe. Leyla spent her time writing.

She stood at the island counter, using the post office's ink pen on the little chain - you know, so no one can walk away with it. This was her first effort:

I ma kend wn I Ld
Jessica to hr sr.
and I ma kend
wn Chloe is crn I
Ic wt is The mtr
Chloe Jessica mte
my Fln.
I kind of get the picture, but I wanted to hear the author's own reading of her work. This is her reading - her translation:

I am kind when I lead
Jessica to her sister
and I am kind
when Chloe is crying. I
ask, "What is the matter,
Chloe?" "Jessica hurt
my feelings."

I like the use of dialogue - fairly sophisticated! But here is my favorite line:

and I ma kend
wn Chloe is crn.

It really looks like Middle English, like Chaucerian English, when the language was on the move from archaic to modern, unstable and unpredictable.

Or like Renaissance English - like Thomas Nashe's language, or Shakespeare's, when the language had gone positively spastic, as had the printing industry, with printer's errors so rife that trying to scan a line could become a game of pin the vowel on the donkey.

It makes the emotion somehow more plangent, when you need to find it lurking in ruins of words like "wn Chloe is crn".

POTUS #14: Franklin Pierce, by John Morris

All of this text is provided by my friend John Morris, who responded some years ago to my request for new portrait songs of U.S. presidents with the wonderful "Franklin Pierce's Last Ride".


John Morris writes:

Franklin Pierce is remembered as one of our worst presidents (if he's remembered at all), not for any particular misdeeds, but simply for not being up to the task. In the end it took a Lincoln to resolve the long crisis of slavery and state's rights, and Pierce was no Lincoln. Not even close.

But he was a handsome, amiable, well-spoken man, and despite the harm he did by not doing much of anything, it's hard not to feel some sympathy for him.

I chose Pierce for this project because I knew almost nothing about him except that Nathaniel Hawthorne was his friend in college, at Bowdoin. (Pierce was with Hawthorne when he died, too.)
About the song: I think of Pierce as living out one of those dreams where you show up for class for the first time and find that it's the final exam.

The first verse is Pierce as a general during the Mexican War. He served with distinction, but is best remembered for falling off his horse during battle. (It could have happened to anyone.)

The second verse is Pierce just before his inauguration. And the third is Pierce on his deathbed. There's no pass/fail option on that last test.

I do the lead vocal, and James Hughes and Michaela Giesenkirchen join in bravely on the chorus. I also play all the instruments: guitar, harmonica, bass, and mandolin. (The harmonica should have been a trumpet, but I never got around to borrowing one.)

About myself: I'm working now as an editor at Penn State Press, in State College, Pennsylvania, where I grew up. I lived in St. Louis during two different periods of my life, for nine years altogether. I recorded a project as The Accomplices, with Scott Haycock, thankfully, on most of the vocals, and some wonderful St. Louis musicians rounded up by Roy Kasten, who produced the record, as well as one track with Three Fried Men, who were also wonderful.

Now here's something bizarre: there's a site out there called, which consists of a page of pictures of Pierce, with my song playing over them. I don't get it. But the guy, who calls himself notbobdylan, does credit me in his documentation, so I'm not going to complain.

(Editor's note: John neglects to mention that I also put him in touch with some poor soul charged with coming up with the music to accompany a documentary film about this subpar president; memory no longer serves as to what, if anything, came of that.)

Free mp3
By John Morris
(With James Hughes and
Michaela Giesenkirchen)

More in this series

POTUS #17: Andrew Johnson, by William Tonks
POTUS #18: Ulysses S. Grant, by Waterloo
POTUS #26: Theodore Roosevelt, by Tim McAvin
POTUS #43: George W. Bush, by Steve Allain


Daguerreotype of Franklin Pierce in his Brigadier General's uniform, ca. 1847. courtesy of Dr. Willam J. Schultz and the Pierce Manse.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Plain, intense, searching talk around a small table

It's sort of hard to imagine someone will read a few words here and then run right out on their otherwise unscheduled Saturday night to see The Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra, but the possibility someone might do so is the only reason I am doing this.

I saw the Symphony's Friday matinee this morning. It was sublime. They do the same show again Saturday night at 8 p.m. I would go see it again if I didn't have a date with a five year old.

The program involves two premieres for the orchestra: Szymanowski's Symphony No. 4 and Dance Figures by the contemporary composer George Benjamin.

In a perfect parallel I have come to associate with musical director David Robertson, the other two pieces are a little more familiar and accessible - Richard Strauss' Burleske in D Minor - and a lot more familiar and accessible - Haydn's Symphony No. 92 (the only KWMUesque snoozer, to my temperament).

I have a small collection of Szymanowski on CD and have an ear for his odd mishmash of musical elements - he was a Ukrainian who had a yen for Arabic culture and the Near East and liked to break the rules - but I'll admit something really stupid.

The booklet had the Strauss piece second on the program and Szymanowski last. They switched their orders. I didn't notice the insert pointing this out until intermission - that is, until after I had listened to the Szymanowski doing my damndest to hear it as a Strauss piece. I recommend this for a Jorge Luis Borges fiction experiment, but it's no way to hear a Szymanowski composition for the first time!

I was better prepared for the Benjamin and the Strauss. Benjamin's piece is a fluid, minimal passage through nine miniatures, each intended for choreography, and involving tonal experiments you don't often hear from a symphony orchestra, not even David Robertson's. One passage sounded like nothing so much as the rhythmic and melodic whipping of plastic Hot Wheels tracks in the wind. It was violins, somehow, doing that. Uncanny.

Strauss' Burleske was something else again. Guest artist Emanuel Ax took over on this one, without upstaging the conductor or the orchestra. Quite the contrary. Playing without a score, he was in constant communication with David and the other players, especially timpanist Richard Holmes.

In the closing moments of the performance, the communication between these three men - these three musicians (David conducts very much like a player) - was intense, palpable, human. I'd say "cinematic," but it was much more intimate than that. Much more real and in your face. It was plain, intense, searching talk around a small table. It left me speechless.


This old Polaroid of mine is the only thing I could find at the moment that visually suggests the intensity and immediacy that I am talking about here, though it has nothing to do with music or conversation.

It takes a village to comp a disappointing dinner

I'm something of a rarity - a guy who spent a number of years in a penniless traveling rock band yet never took a shift in a restaurant or a bar (discounting some time washing dishes at a Chinese restaurant in high school).

I was lucky - when I started playing rock music, I had decent income as a college lecturer and freelance journalist. You would be surprised how long I managed to keep some kind of college teaching load while still disappearing for as long as two weeks at a time on the road (it was all about co-teaching night classes that met twice a week); and traveling only goosed up my career as a journalist, introducing me to new publications, new mastheads to crack.

However, all of my fellow band members at one time or another stocked a bar or slung hash or flipped pizzas. I also love to eat out, and so respect those professions (and professionals) who make it possible. All these things make me pretty easy to wait on - I tend to be patient and gracious. So I have had a lot of good customer service experiences in restaurants and bars, since I usually enjoy being there so much and try to make my pleasure known to the people making it possible (and then tip them at least 20 percent).

But nothing I had ever experienced before quite matched what happened last night.

I was dining out with my wife and child. Having a five-year-old tends to end finer dining experiences, at least since I left my travel editor job in New York (when baby Leyla snoozed through some of the greatest restaurants on Earth, where I was being paid to eat, rather than the other way around).

Leyla likes to eat out, don't get me wrong, but she is looking for one thing only - a tasty plate of chicken nuggets. McDonalds will do (I know, I know ...), but her favorite by far is a local family restaurant sports bar type place called Krieger's, on Clarkson Road just south of the Highway 40. Not that she would know it by name or location.

As part of her joy in eating out, whenever I first started taking her to a bar or restaurant, as Leyla became gradually verbal she would crow, "Oh yeah!" This entered the family lexicon as her name for a bar or restaurant - an "Oh yeah." There are "Daddy's Friend's Oh Yeah" (Senor Pique's on Manchester, owned by my friend Angel), "Daddy's Other Friend's Oh Yeah" (the late, lamented Bastante, owned by Aaron Whalen), "The Downtown Oh Yeah" (The Tap Room), and "The New Oh Yeah" -that would be Krieger's.

The girl slipped on an invisible patch of ice, last night, approaching The New Oh Yeah. Her mother was holding the girl's hand and managed to keep her from hitting the cold, hard sidewalk. We then told the young girls at the reception stand that they needed to spread some salt out front, that temperatures had dropped and it was started to freeze. I guess we mentioned that Leyla had almost wiped out.

We were seated and ordered some food. Leyla had the usual. Her mother ventured into something new, a blackened tilapia. I was stuffed from lunch (the delicious buffet at India Palace, Highway 70 and Lindbergh), but was presented with a downturned lower lip by the little girl when I said I wasn't eating dinner, so I got a pizza, something I could take home for lunch the next day. I ordered the barbecued chicken pizza; it was delicious.

Mom, however, wasn't loving the blackened tilapia. Too salty, she said. Too much of that lemon pepper that also has salt in it. When the pretty young waitress asked how things were going, Karley politely said she wasn't enjoying the fish and wished she had ordered her usual (a turkey melt). The waitress wanted to substitute a dish for free. I said, "Come on, look, she's eaten almost all of it, it's okay," and we would have thought that was that.

When the girl came back with the box for my leftovers (I actually had showed discipline and didn't scarf down the pizza), she stunned us by saying her manager had taken care of the entire bill. "You guys are in here all the time," she said. That is true, but still it was a crazy generous gesture, to pick up the entire bill. We asked to see the manager, Mark Marion.

He came out. Big man with a kind baby face. He said, "You guys are regular customers. I want you to enjoy your food - I don't want to lose your business." I pointed at Leyla and said - "You're not about to lose her business." And then he said, "I heard she almost slipped outside. I didn't want you to have a bad experience with us tonight."

The fact that Leyla's near slip had been communicated to him specifically and had registered with him made me oddly emotional. This is the way it's supposed to be, I felt. We got a little community going here. It takes a village to comp a dinner and keep the little kids from wiping out on the ice.

I'll never forget Mike Marion or that pretty waitress eating Skittles or The New Oh Yeah, which actually cares about my little family, my little kid.


Tilapia pic from a food blog.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

A good day at the day job

Wednesday night is usually my night to not think about The St. Louis American. Deadline has been met, the paper is at the printer, and there's not much that can happen in the next 24 hours that will still count as news by next Thursday.

But tonight I'm left lingering over the paper in a good way, owing to good things that all happened today. I'll share them in the order of impact.

The media rep for the Obama campaign who took such good care of our paper and who knows our value - who was hired for the transition team and then the inauguration team - has landed a job at The White House!

Leave it to Barack Obama to hire an African-American communications staffer who specializes in minority media! We are still one phone call away from Obama! We will still get the speeches before they are delivered, just like the big boys! I am very happy.

Relatedly, today our publisher, Donald M. Suggs, was admiring a spread in the conference room of all our major front pages about Obama, starting back in the spring of 2007. He called me in to look at them with him. He was proud. I was proud. We were a part of a history. We knew it.

He was talking about the little extra effort that goes into doing a job right, and that he sees me trying to put into the paper.

"It's like when you go for that far back stitch," he said (he's an oral surgeon). "The patient will heal without it, but it's better that they have it, so you peel the cheek back and dig back in there and you put in that far back stitch." I do indeed feel like I put in the far back stitch on the Obama campaign coverage.

And then there is this news:


(Jan 28, 2009) The St. Louis American has been named second best weekly newspaper in the nation by Inland Press Association, an industry association with more than 1,200 member newspapers.

“The purpose of the Inland Press Foundation's Nation's Best Weekly Newspaper Contest is to recognize non-daily newspapers' efforts in producing high-quality editorial material; presenting innovative, attractive packaging of that material; and serving their communities effectively as a source for news and information. The contest is open to all U.S. newspapers published for general circulation at least weekly but not more than three days per week.”

Judging criteria:
1. Quality of writing
2. Story Selection
3. Design and Presentation
4. Community Focus

Nation’s Best Weekly Newspapers
First Place The Taos News, Taos, NM
Second Place The St. Louis American, St. Louis, MO
Third Place Shawnee Dispatch, Shawnee, KS

Inland Press Association was founded in 1885, and is a pioneer in newspaper research and standards. (The American is not a member of Inland Press).


I often say I don't put any stock in awards - except the ones we win. Or the ones where we place second.

(Vintage newstand shot from The Library of Congress.)

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Twenty years and three or more fried men

I spent the past weekend locked into a garage in Nashville, Tennessee with these guys. It wasn't nearly as bad as that sounds.

The garage has been converted into a state-of-the-art recording studio, with an upstairs loft suitable for sleeping (if you are used to being in rock bands together and sleeping on floors); and we locked the doors at night simply so none of the fancy gadgets would walk away down the alley into the night.

As of this year, I have been recording music with these three guys for twenty years. For it was in the summer of 1989 that we recorded the 90-minute cassette Why It's Enormous Richard's Almanac with the band Enormous Richard, which featured Matt Fuller (stocking cap) on drums, Elijah Shaw (the most bald head) on color instruments, and me (shades) on vocals. Dave Melson (far left) wasn't in that band, but he played on a song that ended up on the Almanac, so 2009 counts as an anniversary for him, too.

We found each other through the Washington University rock band scene, which seemed pretty fertile at the time, though I couldn't have guessed that it would yield my lifelong companions and collaborators. It's funny - I lived for six years in New York City, one of the best music cities on the planet, but I was musically miserable the entire time, because I was too far away from any of these guys to play music with any of them on a consistent basis.

We still mostly don't live in the same town. I'm back in St. Louis with Dave, but Matt has lived for many years in Los Angeles, where he draws storyboards for a living, and Elijah (who now goes by the family nickname of "Lij") is feeding his family making great records in that Nashville garage, known as The Toy Box.

But we have studio options in St. Louis (shout out to Grammy-nominated Adam Long), and St. Louis is close to Nashville, just a road trip away, so being back home has returned me to my musical center. I am deeply grateful for the opportunity to make music again with these talented, diligent fellows who - for whatever reasons - have always been willing to work with me and develop my inchoate ideas into living, breathing songs.

We went to Nashville to work on the poetry score to The Sydney Highrise Variations by the Australian poet Les Murray. Our band name on poetry scores is Three Fried Men. I have posted rough mixes of the ten tracks we worked on over at the Poetry Scores blog, and probably I am saying these things (all true) about my buddies as an excuse to point Confluence City visitors over to that there Poetry Scores blog to hear them there rough mixes.


The picture was taken by some stranger at Yazoo Brewing, where the beer is delicious, the people are nice, and the girl who conducts the brewery tour we didn't take is incredibly beautiful. My fellow beer geek Dave Melson and I collaborated on a new Toy Box tradition in buying a Yazoo growler and leaving the empty bottle at the studio with eight bucks under it to pay for a refll so the next band that comes through has a little starter beer. It's the least you can do when you're living on free studio time.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

How Obama worked his way up from the back of the book


Last you heard from me, I was talking about how I buried in the back pages the first exclusive interview I snagged with Barack Obama during the Democratic primary. A lot changed between then and my second (and, I suspect, last) opportunity to speak one-on-one with this special man.

For one thing, he raised a hell of a lot of money. I edit The St. Louis American under the direction of our publisher, Donald M. Suggs, who has been observing and, in his own way, playing power politics since long before I was born. He knows why people follow the so-called "money primary," the fundraising race - because money follows momentum as much as it creates it.

We always wanted to endorse Obama for many reasons, but his emergence as a fundraising powerhouse added viability to his list of virtues and more as less guaranteed our endorsement and partisanship.

Then Bill Clinton began to act like a fool on the campaign trail and squander all of the considerable love he previously had in the bank with Black America - and which Hillary Clinton had been confidently drawing upon as a base that was hers to lose and Obama's to win.

The way Terry McAuliffe and other Clinton campaign surrogates (including, appallingly, a number of black women) attempted to backpedal from Bill's divisive comments while still keeping the race card offensively in play against Obama only made it worse. It occasioned an enormous shift at the African-American grassroots, away from Clinton and toward the guy who had been my candidate all along and The St. Louis American's guaranteed candidate for quite some time.

We officially endorsed Obama in the Missouri primary - though without demonizing Clinton, whose campaign tactics smacked of the bad old days but whose policy stands still made her a great candidate for the White House.

Almost immediately after the worst of Bubba's goofs in South Carolina - and not coincidentally - Obama won the Missouri primary. This came as something of a delight and a shock. Polls show Obama won with 80 percent of the votes cast by black men and 72 percent of the votes cast by black women. This looked good for the most widely distributed and influential black newspaper in the state (ours) and for the black congressman from St. Louis (Wm. Lacy Clay) who endorsed Obama from the beginning and directed his campaign to pay attention to our paper.

Then something happened that no one could have predicted and that I still don't entirely understand, for it has some of the qualities of magic or providence that defy rational accounting. This is the photograph of Obama that went around the world, starting from our tiny newsroom.

On the 4th of July weekend, Obama honored a previous commitment to come St. Louis to speak at an African Methodist Episcopal conference. As our young reporter Jessica Bassett said in the news piece that accompanied the now-famous photo, "Before addressing the convention, the Illinois senator met privately with church bishops who prayed for his safety, health and good guidance during his historical race to the White House."

Our staff shooter Wiley Price was quietly given the hometown, brotherly hookup and invited into the private room where this prayer took place. As the national press corps were left stranded outside the closed door, Wiley held his camera in the air over the heads of the bishops laying hands on Obama and he snapped some shots.

One of them - the one above - would keep circulating the world on email chains - initially, with the subject line "Photo of Obama you won't see on Fox news!!!" - up until the day Obama was elected, and my blogpost explaining the origins of the photo continues to get numerous hits every single day from every corner of the globe.

The Obama campaign - we were in daily contact, by this time - assured me that this photo was critical in softening any remaining resistance to Obama in the black community, based upon dubious fears that he wasn't sufficiently "black," American or Christian to be embraced as a native son. The bishops had embraced him - and, now, everybody embraced him.

All of this prepared the ground for my second (and, sadly, probably final) exclusive interview with the man of the new century. It helps to explain why, when he made one and only one local call right before he went onstage in downtown St. Louis in front of an audience of more than 100,000 people, that call went to our newspaper (to me).

But this is so dang long already I'll have to come back to that next time.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Why I buried my first exclusive with Barack Obama

Yesterday I had to bail on an opportunity to say a few words about covering the Barack Obama campaign during the celebration of his inauguration at The Royale. Before I realized that, with half the staff of The St. Louis American on assignment in Washington, D.C., I needed to remain close to the home base, I did think of a few words I might say. So I will say them here.

I have spoken personally to Barack Obama twice, during two personal phone calls he placed to me as editorial director of The St. Louis American - once very early in the Democratic primary, when (believe it or not) not everyone even knew who he was, and once just two weeks before the general election, as more than 100,000 people waited to hear him speak on the Gateway Arch grounds in Downtown St. Louis.

When Obama called during the primary, I was out and about with my friend Frank Di Piazza. I was writing a feature for St. Louis Magazine, and Frank was shooting it. I took him down to the subject's house in the States Streets neighborhood, near the Mississippi River. While Frank was shooting the photo, I fielded the call from Obama's media handler and had about 15 minutes to ask the candidate questions.

It is difficult to remember those days, but there was a time when many people did not know the name, face or voice of Barack Obama, let alone his signature views. I did not expect most of our readers to know Obama's stump speech. In fact, most of our newsroom still did not believe Obama had a ghost of a chance to win the Democratic primary, which was the main reason I was doing the exclusive interview.

In no way am I trying to show up my colleagues when I say this. All along, I have argued that it was easier for a white progressive like myself to embrace Obama as a viable candidate than for black Americans, because white progressives had so much more reason to believe in a large plurality of educated, open-minded non-black people who would vote for the best candidate, regardless of race - or for whom Obama's race might actually be an incentive.

Early in the primary, however, many black folks in St. Louis were not buying it. I know, because that's one of the things I do every day - I talk to black folks in St. Louis about politics. Many black folks here thought Obama was not American or black enough to get their vote - or, alternately, that he was too black to get America's vote. Or they thought he was an irrelevant nuisance getting in the way of a credible and attractive known phenomenon in Hillary Clinton (or John Edwards, not yet in baby mama disgrace).

I didn't argue with anybody about this. I just said, over and over, "Hey, I'm a white progressive, and Obama is our candidate." And in that spirit I accepted the exclusive interview opportunity, which in other circumstaces I would have passed off to a reporter.

I then did another thing I never do: I asked the candidate questions I already knew the answer to. Why would I do that?

Because our readers didn't know his stump speech yet, so I gave him a chance to air it out for them. The only thing I asked him that was even remotely off the beaten path was what he would say to someone who questioned whether or not he was really "black enough". (I prefaced the question by saying I thought it was a ridiculous question, but people were asking it and they deserved an answer.)

I knew the answer to that question, too - and he dutifully gave it to me.

We spoke on a Friday afternoon, and hotter local news had come around before we went to press again the next Wednesday (deadline day) - and I knew that most black folks in St. Louis still really didn't want to hear about this Barack Obama nobody - and that is why the first exclusive interview with Barack Obama in the St. Louis media market during his presidential campaign ran INSIDE a black newsweekly.

Yes - I buried my first exclusive with Barack Obama! I ended our interview by telling him he had my vote - but I buried the interview in the back pages! And not one person asked me why I downplayed it like that, or made any remark about the exclusive interview at all. After all, who was Barack Obama and what chance did he have of being the next president?

Tomorrow, I'll tell you about my second exclusive with Obama, when everybody knew his name, and everybody wanted to take that call - but I hogged it for myself because I felt like I had earned it.


Photo of myself in the background as Obama talks to Michael McMillan and April Ford Griffin (and other local black leaders) by Wiley Price. I know, the shades are ridiculous, but they are prescription and I had stepped on my frame with the non-tinted lenses and destroyed them!

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

President Barack Obama's Inaugural Address

My fellow citizens:

I stand here today humbled by the task before us, grateful for the trust you have bestowed, mindful of the sacrifices borne by our ancestors. I thank President Bush for his service to our nation, as well as the generosity and cooperation he has shown throughout this transition.

Forty-four Americans have now taken the presidential oath. The words have been spoken during rising tides of prosperity and the still waters of peace. Yet, every so often the oath is taken amidst gathering clouds and raging storms. At these moments, America has carried on not simply because of the skill or vision of those in high office, but because We the People have remained faithful to the ideals of our forbearers, and true to our founding documents.

So it has been. So it must be with this generation of Americans.

That we are in the midst of crisis is now well understood. Our nation is at war, against a far-reaching network of violence and hatred. Our economy is badly weakened, a consequence of greed and irresponsibility on the part of some, but also our collective failure to make hard choices and prepare the nation for a new age. Homes have been lost; jobs shed; businesses shuttered. Our health care is too costly; our schools fail too many; and each day brings further evidence that the ways we use energy strengthen our adversaries and threaten our planet.

These are the indicators of crisis, subject to data and statistics. Less measurable but no less profound is a sapping of confidence across our land - a nagging fear that America's decline is inevitable, and that the next generation must lower its sights.

Today I say to you that the challenges we face are real. They are serious and they are many. They will not be met easily or in a short span of time. But know this, America - they will be met.

On this day, we gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord.

On this day, we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn out dogmas, that for far too long have strangled our politics.

We remain a young nation, but in the words of Scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things. The time has come to reaffirm our enduring spirit; to choose our better history; to carry forward that precious gift, that noble idea, passed on from generation to generation: the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness.

In reaffirming the greatness of our nation, we understand that greatness is never a given. It must be earned. Our journey has never been one of short-cuts or settling for less. It has not been the path for the faint-hearted - for those who prefer leisure over work, or seek only the pleasures of riches and fame. Rather, it has been the risk-takers, the doers, the makers of things - some celebrated but more often men and women obscure in their labor, who have carried us up the long, rugged path towards prosperity and freedom.

For us, they packed up their few worldly possessions and traveled across oceans in search of a new life.

For us, they toiled in sweatshops and settled the West; endured the lash of the whip and plowed the hard earth.

For us, they fought and died, in places like Concord and Gettysburg; Normandy and Khe Sahn.
Time and again these men and women struggled and sacrificed and worked till their hands were raw so that we might live a better life. They saw America as bigger than the sum of our individual ambitions; greater than all the differences of birth or wealth or faction.

This is the journey we continue today. We remain the most prosperous, powerful nation on Earth. Our workers are no less productive than when this crisis began. Our minds are no less inventive, our goods and services no less needed than they were last week or last month or last year. Our capacity remains undiminished. But our time of standing pat, of protecting narrow interests and putting off unpleasant decisions - that time has surely passed. Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America.

For everywhere we look, there is work to be done. The state of the economy calls for action, bold and swift, and we will act - not only to create new jobs, but to lay a new foundation for growth. We will build the roads and bridges, the electric grids and digital lines that feed our commerce and bind us together. We will restore science to its rightful place, and wield technology's wonders to raise health care's quality and lower its cost. We will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories. And we will transform our schools and colleges and universities to meet the demands of a new age. All this we can do. And all this we will do.

Now, there are some who question the scale of our ambitions - who suggest that our system cannot tolerate too many big plans. Their memories are short. For they have forgotten what this country has already done; what free men and women can achieve when imagination is joined to common purpose, and necessity to courage.

What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them - that the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply. The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works - whether it helps families find jobs at a decent wage, care they can afford, a retirement that is dignified. Where the answer is yes, we intend to move forward. Where the answer is no, programs will end. And those of us who manage the public's dollars will be held to account - to spend wisely, reform bad habits, and do our business in the light of day - because only then can we restore the vital trust between a people and their government.

Nor is the question before us whether the market is a force for good or ill. Its power to generate wealth and expand freedom is unmatched, but this crisis has reminded us that without a watchful eye, the market can spin out of control - and that a nation cannot prosper long when it favors only the prosperous. The success of our economy has always depended not just on the size of our Gross Domestic Product, but on the reach of our prosperity; on our ability to extend opportunity to every willing heart - not out of charity, but because it is the surest route to our common good.

As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals. Our Founding Fathers, faced with perils we can scarcely imagine, drafted a charter to assure the rule of law and the rights of man, a charter expanded by the blood of generations. Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience's sake. And so to all other peoples and governments who are watching today, from the grandest capitals to the small village where my father was born: know that America is a friend of each nation and every man, woman, and child who seeks a future of peace and dignity, and that we are ready to lead once more.

Recall that earlier generations faced down fascism and communism not just with missiles and tanks, but with sturdy alliances and enduring convictions. They understood that our power alone cannot protect us, nor does it entitle us to do as we please. Instead, they knew that our power grows through its prudent use; our security emanates from the justness of our cause, the force of our example, the tempering qualities of humility and restraint.

We are the keepers of this legacy. Guided by these principles once more, we can meet those new threats that demand even greater effort - even greater cooperation and understanding between nations. We will begin to responsibly leave Iraq to its people, and forge a hard-earned peace in Afghanistan. With old friends and former foes, we will work tirelessly to lessen the nuclear threat, and roll back the specter of a warming planet. We will not apologize for our way of life, nor will we waver in its defense, and for those who seek to advance their aims by inducing terror and slaughtering innocents, we say to you now that our spirit is stronger and cannot be broken; you cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you.

For we know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness. We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus - and non-believers. We are shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of this Earth; and because we have tasted the bitter swill of civil war and segregation, and emerged from that dark chapter stronger and more united, we cannot help but believe that the old hatreds shall someday pass; that the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve; that as the world grows smaller, our common humanity shall reveal itself; and that America must play its role in ushering in a new era of peace.

To the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect. To those leaders around the globe who seek to sow conflict, or blame their society's ills on the West - know that your people will judge you on what you can build, not what you destroy. To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history; but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.

To the people of poor nations, we pledge to work alongside you to make your farms flourish and let clean waters flow; to nourish starved bodies and feed hungry minds. And to those nations like ours that enjoy relative plenty, we say we can no longer afford indifference to suffering outside our borders; nor can we consume the world's resources without regard to effect. For the world has changed, and we must change with it.

As we consider the road that unfolds before us, we remember with humble gratitude those brave Americans who, at this very hour, patrol far-off deserts and distant mountains. They have something to tell us today, just as the fallen heroes who lie in Arlington whisper through the ages. We honor them not only because they are guardians of our liberty, but because they embody the spirit of service; a willingness to find meaning in something greater than themselves. And yet, at this moment - a moment that will define a generation - it is precisely this spirit that must inhabit us all.

For as much as government can do and must do, it is ultimately the faith and determination of the American people upon which this nation relies. It is the kindness to take in a stranger when the levees break, the selflessness of workers who would rather cut their hours than see a friend lose their job which sees us through our darkest hours. It is the firefighter's courage to storm a stairway filled with smoke, but also a parent's willingness to nurture a child, that finally decides our fate.

Our challenges may be new. The instruments with which we meet them may be new. But those values upon which our success depends - hard work and honesty, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism - these things are old. These things are true. They have been the quiet force of progress throughout our history. What is demanded then is a return to these truths. What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility - a recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation, and the world, duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character, than giving our all to a difficult task.

This is the price and the promise of citizenship.

This is the source of our confidence - the knowledge that God calls on us to shape an uncertain destiny.

This is the meaning of our liberty and our creed - why men and women and children of every race and every faith can join in celebration across this magnificent mall, and why a man whose father less than sixty years ago might not have been served at a local restaurant can now stand before you to take a most sacred oath.

So let us mark this day with remembrance, of who we are and how far we have traveled. In the year of America's birth, in the coldest of months, a small band of patriots huddled by dying campfires on the shores of an icy river. The capital was abandoned. The enemy was advancing. The snow was stained with blood. At a moment when the outcome of our revolution was most in doubt, the father of our nation ordered these words be read to the people:

"Let it be told to the future world...that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive...that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet [it]."

America. In the face of our common dangers, in this winter of our hardship, let us remember these timeless words. With hope and virtue, let us brave once more the icy currents, and endure what storms may come. Let it be said by our children's children that when we were tested we refused to let this journey end, that we did not turn back nor did we falter; and with eyes fixed on the horizon and God's grace upon us, we carried forth that great gift of freedom and delivered it safely to future generations.


Cartoon by Kevin Belford for The St. Louis American.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Ancestral tribute to Bascom Lamar Lunsford

So many people have had so long to reflect upon the meaning of Barack Obama in the context of the prior life and work of Martin Luther King Jr. that nothing new remains to be said about their connections, and the subject is in danger of being reduced to the numb meaninglessness of a cliche.

So I'd like to break the relationship down to its essentials and apply those essentials to something personal to myself. Their essential relationship is ancestral. This is one reason I have been thinking even more than usual of my own ancestors these days. And it's why, as the 2009 MLK holiday fades into the dawn of the Obama presidency, that I would like to reflect upon Bascom Lamar Lunsford.

I have written often, here and elsewhere, about Bascom Lamar Lunsford: a songster, song collector, proto-folklorist, folk festival impressario (the first!), and archivist who relied only on the original archive, the ur-hard drive, the human memory.

I am thinking about him tonight as a remarkable model of cross-cultural repect and engagement. Bascom was collecting songs in the Southern mountains as a white man when most white men had little interest in African Americans or their culture and nothing good to say about them. The Civil War was a living memory, barely thirty years in the past, when Bascom began traveling the Southern mountains as a fruit tree salesman and beekeeper to gather ballads.

It is remarkable, then, that he went out of his way to attend sermons and tent revivals led by black preachers ("Negro" was the term of respect, at the time) and to remember the songs he heard there. He preserved them, along with the old English ballads and mountain banjo shouts, and recorded them with the rest of his memory collection twice: in 1935 at Columbia University Library and in 1949 at the Library of Congress.

I have been working with the 1949 recordings to curate a boxed set to be released this year by Locust Music out of Chicago. I was thinking tonight about the introduction Bascom gave in 1949 to the "Negro" spiritual "Little David."

"To enjoy a Negro spiritual, one should sing it in the proper spirit," Bascom urged. "When you put into it a phraseology or expression rather in derision, it definitely injures the song, because the Negroes are a very religious people and they are always serious and in a fine spirit when they sing these spirituals."

That is a simple demand of respect for a people and a culture. It would take a long time for the majority of other non-black people to catch up with Bascom Lamar Lunsford on this score.

I have always been struck in particular by one "Negro" spiritual that Bascom learned, remembered, and recorded, "Dry Bones." A commercial recording of the song he did appeared on Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music, and that recording was what first put me on Bascom's trail in the early 1990s.

My band Eleanor Roosevelt later recorded "Dry Bones" in the Southern mountains inside a small, A-frame cabin on property along South Turkey Creek owned by Bascom's daughter, Jo Lunsford Herron (since deceased). Just outside that cabin was the platform where Bascom had called square dances almost until the day he died in 1973.

Here is Bascom's very rare and unreleased Library of Congress recording of "Dry Bones" and our version of the song.


Free mp3s

Bascom Lamar Lunsford
To appear on Memory Collection (Locust Music)

"Dry Bones"
Eleanor Roosevelt
To appear on Water Bread & Beer (Skuntry Music)

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Call to art for Naughti Gras, with naughty free mp3s

Okay, I wouldn't call this my best stab at erotic art, this silly phallic image copied from some ancient artifact at The Louvre, but it's just about as close as you get to erotic in my oeuvre, which consists mostly of the faces of people drinking beer.

Why am I thinking about erotic art on the eve of the MLK holiday, mere hours before the historic Barack Obama inaguration? Because I want to share the call for art for Naughti Gras 2009 ... and because I am a contrarian on my personal time.

As a parent, I'm making sure my kid knows all about Dr. King and Obama. She surely does. As a professional, I'll make sure The St. Louis American publishes a dignified historic edition of the paper on Thursday. We surely will. And on my personal time, I'm going to be a little irreverent and offbeat.

So, anyway, Naughti Gras is back! Naughti Gras is an Erotic Art Exhibition held right before Mardi Gras at the Koken Art Factory(2500 Ohio Avenue). The event goes down Saturday, February 14 (7 p.m. - 1 a.m.), admission five (bearded) clams - but only for those who are street legal (18+).

Timeline for artists:

January 25 - Submission Deadline
February 2 - Acceptance Notification
February 6-7 - Art Drop-Off.

The Submission Guidelines are rather detailed and available online. I'm also going to agree with event organizers that artists had best understand obscenity laws in Missouri before submitting signed work. After all, this is Missouri. And there are obscenity laws.

You've got to like the curatorial criteria, though: "Our main criteria are, 'Is it erotic?' closely followed by 'Is it good?' We'll admit, some art goes way over the edge; if you can shock us, you will most likely end up on the wall."

I'm not submitting any art for the show, I ain't got anything erotic, but here is some music that might get working artists in the, a'hem, mood. The mood, that is, to go over the edge.

Free mp3s

"Honk If You're Horny"
(Jim Saltsider)
Bloody Ebsen

South Side altcountryrock legend Jim Saltsider (Rugburn), leading his last local project before he moved to the desert, with bumperstickers on his mind.

"Bearded Clams"
(Dug Hagen)
The Foolish Virgins

I think Saltsider was in on this thing, too - anyone who fronted a band called "Rugburn" deserves multiple appearance in a Naughti Gras posting! Thanks to Mike Burgett for this and the preceding. Burgett is on this.

"Alice of Eleven Dresses"
(Leo Connellan)
Leo Connellan
From Crossing America

note, before you play this in mixed company, that this is the tale of a bum date-raping a bag lady. Let me say that again: THIS IS THE TALE OF A BUM DATE-RAPING A BAG LADY. Produced by Lij and me, on the first Poetry Scores CD, still available at independent shops in St. Louis and wherever my car is parked.

POTUS #43: George W. Bush, by Steve Allain

Steve Allain's angry portrait song for George W. Bush on Bush's way out of The White House comes complete with a letter to the soon-to-be-ex president from Steve's MySpace blog:

Hey George,

You probably don't get on myspace that much. I'm assuming you're busy doing other things like wiretapping my phone, destroying the environment somewhere, or bombing some random country.

But I wrote a song for you as a farewell present seeing as you will be out of a job soon. Well, I didn't so much write a new tune as I really just reworked an older one. It's probably a favorite of yours. It's "The Star-Spangled Banner," just updated a bit.

I hope you like it. Feel free to download it and listen to it as much as you like. Oh and you can share it with your friends too - Alberto "let's waterboard" Gonzales and Dick "watch your face I've got a gun" Cheney. I also mention them in the song so they might get a kick out of it.

Well, I gotta go. I don't pretend to run a country, but I do have things to do. Hey let's do lunch sometime.



Free mp3

"The Star-Spangled Banner (Revisited)"
(Steve Allain)
(After Francis Scott Key and John Stafford Smith)
Performed by Steve Allain


Steve now lives in Providence, Rhode Island after completing graduate studies in music in Pittsburgh (I think). I know him because he was briefly housemates in St. Louis with Meghan Gohil, our longtime engineer and producer. Steve studied classical guitar at Webster University and can flat out play.

Just before leaving St. Louis, Steve recorded with Meghan a small selection of classic guitar pieces for future use on poetry scores. His adaptation of Dusan Bogdonovic's tune "Mysterious Habitats" became the musical bed for Stefene Russell's reading of "Blind Cat Black," the title track to (you guessed it) our poetry score Blind Cat Black.


Also in this series

POTUS #17: Andrew Johnson, by William Tonks
POTUS #18: Ulysses S. Grant, by Waterloo
POTUS #26: Theodore Roosevelt, by Tim McAvin


Photo of Bush in Beijing by Charles Dharapak of the Sydney Morning Herald.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Sarah Truckey is no turkey with that camera of hers

I am shilling for local photographer Sarah Truckey here, hoping somebody who honchos an art space in this town will be as blown away by her work as I am and contact her regarding a show. Please double-click on each of these images to savor them in a little more detail.

I have tried to organize this little flow of images to tell a story visually, playing off shapes and themes shared from frame to frame. I have also tried to suggest the range of what she can do (though her range is much wider than suggested here).

See? She can do food as Old Master painting, food as artifact, beer as food, man as artifact, man as clown, food as food, food as Naked Lunch, dinner as dinner, dinner as indictment of the suspicious interiority of women and the cowardly inaccesibility of men, family as symphony, family as Naked Lunch, bridge as landscape, bridge as poem, architecture as truth, beer tank as screaming shiny electric guitar solo, and beer tank as architecture.

Did I leave everything out? I left everything out. But Truckey didn't. She got it. She's got it all.

I was even present when she shot two of these images. I didnt see her do it. It couldn't have taken her long to do it. I don't know how she did that.

I pilfered these shots, among many just as compelling, from her Flickr site, where I am sure you can contact her after you get lost browing through her work. If not, contact me and I'll deliver Truckey to you. The only thing better than Truckey? More Truckey, with a real job in St. Louis.


More Truckey on Confluence City

Truckey and King on Meehan breakdown, river sunset
King and Truckey on Calhoun County landscapes
Character studies by Truckey and me
Me and Truckey on Brett's party bus sideshow

* p.s. I have no affiliation with Truckey and scarcely know the lass. Just an enthusiast.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Evidence that I knew Bob Putnam when there were no cool people in this town

Dana Putnam - the daughter of Bob Putnam, of The Way Out Club fame - posted this image up on her MySpace page recently, and boy am I happy to have this as evidence.

That's her dad on the left, looking a little like Charles Manson when the Family was happy, me in the middle, looking young in the way Jeff Tweedy looks young in Uncle Tupelo images of that era (about 1988 or so, is my guess), and Sean Hilditch on the right. Sean is a lad from Shakespeare's birthplace (really) who came to Wash. U. as an exchange student and became my best friend while he was here.

Together, the three of us formed a little imaginary production company called Single Point of Light. We did benefit poetry readings with musicians and activists. Got on NPR once when we did something around the Tiananmen Square massacre. This group later evolved into the poetry events that Bob produced with Sherri Lucas (soon Sherri Lucas-Putnam), which then evolved into The Way Out Club when Bob and Sherri got tired of raising a crowd for somebody else and decided to start their own venue.

Bob became something of a rock star during the six years I lived in New York. Him and Fred Friction. Seems like when I left town about ten years ago, they were the same inspired but obscure dudes I had always known. And then subcultures in St. Louis began to blossom and produce their own microrock stars, and suddenly I would come home to visit and find myself in a bar owned by someone I had been friends with for fifteen years and there would be some young fellow with adventurous facial hair there trying to compete with me like they knew my old friend better than I did and were determined to prove it.

I used to go home early a lot from Frederick's Music Lounge or The Way Out Club, feeling like some kind of Rip Van Winkle of the hipsters. It was a weird feeling.

Now, I finally have some evidence! Look! When there were almost no cool people in all of St. Louis, I knew Bob Putnam! And man, was he cool. He mixed paint at a Chrysler plant and owned a used book store on the Loop, when the Loop was still gritty and scary. A dyslexic guy, who owned a bookstore. Read all those amazing books backwards.

Took in strays like me. I had gone AWOL from the Navy (literally) and was running around with a guy from Shakespeare's village (really), trying to escape from graduate school - which I did. Single Point of Light became The Way Out Club for Bob. For me, it became Enormous Richard and the open road.

Giants walked the earth in those days. And they wore really loud clothing!

Keith Westbrook paints the White House black

Paint the White House black
Kevin Westbrook show opens Friday at Left Bank Books

By Chris King
Of the St. Louis American

Local artist Keith Westbrook knows how to seize the moment.

The dude has a show going up the Friday after the inauguration of President Barack Obama titled "Black House" – with a centerpiece portrait of Obama posed in front of The White House painted black.

"Black House" opens 6-8 p.m. Friday, Jan. 23 in the basement gallery at Left Bank Books, 399 N. Euclid.

The show is not entirely Obama-themed, though; it shows the range of Westbrook’s work.

"My work is all over the place," he said. "I deal with a range of themes. I fluctuate from politics to sexual issues to relationship issues to cultural issues."

Westbrook loves him some Barack Obama – he calls the new president "the embodiment of Martin Luther King’s dream, everything Dr. King stood for" – but his head was actually full of music when he painted "Black House."

"I wanted to take the old slogan from Parliament Funkadelic of a Chocolate City," Westbrook said."They were talking about cities after the Civil Rights Movement that had elected African-American mayors. Those cities had pretty significant African-American populations – like Washington, D.C., which is known as a Chocolate City, with a very heavy African-American population."

That was just part of the soundtrack in his head while he was painting in his bedroom/studio in South City. Here’s the other track in the mashup.

"There’s this song by the rapper MC Breed, who just died maybe a month ago – he’s from Detroit, another Chocolate City. His song is called "Ain’t No Future in Yo Frontin.’" It has a line that says, ‘I’m gonna paint the White House black.’"

Add it all up, and …

"I called it ‘The Black House’ because an African American is now occupying it for the first time."
No other way to say it: that’s cool.

Age 44, Westbrook is a St. Louis native. He went to high school in SLPS at Visual and Performing Arts and then had the extreme and rare good fortune to study art with the great John Rozelle at St. Louis Community College at Forest Park.

"He taught me a lot of the formal issues," Westbrook said. "That was really my introduction to formal art. He taught me the elements, principles, foundations of art."

Westbrook jumped across the river to finish his undergraduate degree at SIUE with another local African-American master, Philip Hampton. "He was a great supporter of mine," Westbrook said. "I learned a lot of what I know of color from him."

Other "formative influences" from his undergraduate days include African art, black protest art of the 1960s, Jacob Lawrence and Jean-Michel Basquiat.

Westbrook went on to earn his MFA at the University of Iowa in 1992. Now he is back home, teaching art at Central VPA, where it all began for him.

"Funny how life happens," he said.

He numbers among his friends in the local art scene Seitu James Smith, Thomas Sleet and Cbabi Bayoc.

He spoke to the American before the historic inauguration, but he was planning at the time to get into the act and make a party out of it.

"Maybe I’ll go out, find an inauguration party, celebrate like everybody else," he said. "With Monday being Dr. King’s birthday, it will be two days of celebration."

Friday will be another for him.

Kevin Westbrook’s show "Black House" opens 6-8 p.m. Friday, Jan. 23 in the basement gallery at Left Bank Books, 399 N. Euclid. It closes Feb. 23.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

It's alright, ma, I didn't run away and join the circus

When you self-publish a skinny little book of poetry, have one book release party at a bar with a drunk on guitar, and then put the book away in your trunk to give away to girls (and poets, and girl poets) at bars.

When you do that.

When that's your publishing strategy.

Marketing ha ha ha ha ha ha ha strategy.

And then a guy you used to drink canned beer with in high school.

Finds you on the enter net.

Says, "I run the library now. If it gets in, it's through me. And I want you."

"Your book." Signed by me.

Heck, it's almost a publishing event.

Bear with me one more day.

This is the one I like the most.

Compare the title to the first letter of each line. Taking into account the stanza breaks.

It's a game! I play games.




don't know why
I like the looks of
danger on the midway
nasty sword swallowers
tattooed in halter tops

runaways, eyes astray
under transient carnival lights
not quite watching their own lives

as they exchange kids' quarters for
wet promises to win the race
and a big stuffed nothing as
yawning plastic clowns

accept tiny blasts of squirt guns
never in my life
did I walk away from a hot dog

joint fully possessed
of whatever honorable or honest
intention was keeping me intact
never was my managed future safe from

threat of gummy pink cotton candy
hair swept up in sweaty bandanna
everything always on the line

circus, carnival, halfway house happy hour
I love you more than I can say
reality simply can't be you
cold and dark and empty and your carny girls all
under their motionless rides
sleeping, alone


It's a video, too~! A video*!

Directed edited conceived uploaded burped rode wet and put away dry by Kevin Belford. My hero.

Guitar by Tom Hall. who is not a drunk. who is not a drunk.

My voice. who is not a drunk,

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Hometown public library wants my little chapbook

They say no man is a prophet in his own hometown, and that sounds about right, though today I was pleased to get a request from my hometown public library for an autographed copy of my chapbook of poetry, A Heart I Carved for a Girl I Knew.

It turns out the honcho librarian there now is a guy I grew up with, Paul Macios. How he knew I have a chapbook of poetry in print, I don't know, as I got an email over the Letters to the Editor transom at work and have not yet actually spoken with the man.

I grew up in Granite City, Illinois, what is now a dying steel town. You might think it doesn't produce many authors, and that's probably so, though it produced my mother's cousin, Robert Olen Butler, and he won a Pulitzer Prize for short fiction for his truly wonderful book A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain.

I always appreciated the fact that, even after he won the Pulitzer, Bobby (as he is known in the family) continued to make the Granite City Public Library a stop on his book tours.

Unfortunately, Bobby also wrote a really truly whacked email when his wife left him for Ted Turner (!) that got leaked to Gawker and made his life miserable for a minute, maybe longer.

I have at least a hundred copies of this thing to get rid of, so rather than giving away one of the poems in my book, I'll give you an outtake here, one that didn't make the final cut.

Sex on a Piece of Limestone

I used to date the daughter
of the strawberry stand
pink pimples and a name
that mirrors in the mouth
mirrors that rock black river
I am flowing like the river
she said when I snuggled
her pink pubis Anubis
jackal headed guard
dog of the dead never
stop me from her salt, her
red moon river did calm
is the desire of my skin
now mirror
mirror now
rock black river

- By Chris King

That's a collage of a Granite City girl (who really was the daughter of the local strawberry farmer), a young activist woman I never quite got to call my own, and an Egyptian hymn. I guess I'm suggesting the poems that actually made it into the book are like this one, only better. I posted one from the book about oral sex in the other direction a little while (what seems like a long while) ago.

My book is available in local independent shops, wherever my car is parked, Kelly Writers House at U. Penn. and (pretty soon) the Granite City Public Library.

That amazing cover art is by my buddy Chris Dingwell of Sanctuary Tattoo in Portland, Maine.

POTUS #26: Theodore Roosevelt, by Tim McAvin

Tim McAvin answered my call for new songs about U.S. presidents with the unpretentious gusto that he brings to most projects. He chose Theodore Roosevelt and approached him with the one-man-band concept, sort of Beatles in a box. Writing as a man who revels in pop music, Tim seized on an obvious rhyme (once you hear it!) with the subject's first name and came up with "We Adore Theodore."

Tim earns a living as a schoolteacher, and I remember him telling me when he first wrote and recorded this song that one of the other teachers heard it and wondered why he didn't make a living writing educational songs. Hearing it again tonight for the first time in a number of years, I wonder the same thing.

Tim is one of these protean characters who can do most any thing he puts his mind to. At the moment, he plays in Tight Pants Syndrome, is on hiatus on playing in Three Fried Men with me (again), and is doing who knows what all else. He's also one of my favorite painters and the artist I've collected more than any other.

Tim and I are on some kind of artistic holding pattern for life. Consider that his first gig as a musician was on the same bill as my first gig as a musician, going all the way back to something like 1987 at the old Bernard's Pub punk club - and we are still, somehow, in this thing together.

I think Tim is one of the most creative and least heralded artists working in St. Louis today - in any medium. Or, in his case, in all media.

Free mp3

"We Adore Theodore"
(Tim McAvin)
By Tim McAvin
Produced by Tim McAvin


Image of Theodore from


Also in this series

POTUS #17: Andrew Johnson, by William Tonks
POTUS #18: Ulysses S. Grant, by Waterloo

Monday, January 12, 2009

Heather Corley is so talented I could just puke

This is a series of details of a piece by St. Louis artist Heather Corley, an image of a fragment of the artist's left hand, and the piece in totoal, photographed by me last week in her studio - in the first of what I hope to make a series of studio visits with local artists (Jon Cournoyer, for one, owes me one).

Though I neglected to record the title of the piece, I do remember it is based upon an actual event, when the artist informed her high school sweetheart that his romantic attachment was no longer welcome nor needed. He seems to have responded from the gut.

This piece embodies many of the elements of Heather's art, which usually incorporates the image of a heart, a theme of romantic disappointment gruesomely construed, consciously simplistic technique (the stick figures), wicked humor (the girl's mean smile and upturned eyebrow), and repetitive labor (the embroidery).

Of course, the frilly, flowery embroidery makes a mockery of the quintessentially homy and matronly craft, given the image that it frames: a boy barfing over his broken heart.

As I was just saying on the Poetry Scores blog, I have invited Heather Corley to contribute to our 2009 Poetry Scores art invitational devoted to Les Murray's poem The Sydney Highrise Variations. No word back on that as yet. When last queried, she had not yet followed the link to read the poem. You know these temperamental artists.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

POTUS #18: Ulysses S. Grant, by Waterloo

I am continuing the revival of a lapsed songwriting project, previously devoted to dead U.S. presidents, but now (out of respect to the 44th president of the United States, whom I would like to see live a very long and productive life) dedicated to anyone who ever held the office of POTUS.

The revival begins by finding and uploading songs written and recorded for the project - and, in many cases, released - back in the late-'90s when I first had the idea.

Waterloo was then a band working in St. Louis, since fragmented by the departure of leader Mark Ray to Oregon (if I'm not mistaken). Mark signed up to write a song about President Ulysses S. Grant and turned in a beautifull crafted and recorded ballad titled "For One Who is True" that appeared on the band's In the Light of Day CD.

I'm not surprised Mark wrote a gorgeous song or recorded it with such satisfying atmospherics (especially since my buddy and coproducer Lij engineered the recording and Matt Pence of Centromatic helped Mark to produce it). The surprise is that it presents a war president as a lover and family man.

When I started the project, I didn't give any instructions to the writers who signed on, though I hoped for a mix of cradle-to-grave portraits and more initimate snapshots like this one. So Mark's piece was gratifying, and it still sounds perfect to me.

Free mp3

"For One Who is True"
(Mark Ray)
From In the Light of Day


Photograph of Ulysses and Julia Grant with their son Jesse from the Ulysses S. Grant Homepage.


Also in this series

POTUS #17: Andrew Johnson, by William Tonks

Saturday, January 10, 2009

POTUS: Andrew Johnson, by William Tonks

As the inauguration of Barack Obama as the 44th president of the United States nears, I think of an abandoned production project of mine - The Skuntry Guide to Dead Presidents - and I get the itch to revive it in slightly different terms.

Some years ago, when The Skuntry Music imprint was active, I commissioned a large number of songwriters to compose a piece about a dead president. The idea caught on, and the songs began to flow in and appear on various releases by the bands - Waterloo, Bad Folk, Bob Reuter - that wrote them.

My band, Eleanor Roosevelt, wrote a power pop song about Grover Cleveland. Lij and Matt Fuller recorded the guts of it in a cabin out at Joshua Tree, in the high desert outside of Los Angeles. That's one of the many songs we intend to finish in Nashville this year.

The idea languished, for no better reason than overcommitment on the part of the guy responsible for finishing it (me). But these presidents are as dead now as they were then, so it's not too late!

However, I'd like to revive it under a different rubric. Skuntry Music no longer exists, and in a minute we'll have a president (won't this be odd?) whose life will be genuinely precious to me. (I don't mean that I ever wished George W. Bush dead, but you know what I mean.)

So, with this post, I jumpstart the revived project, which I'll simply call POTUS, after the acronym for President of the United States. The first post will be "One Bullet Away", a portrait of President Andrew Johnson by my buddy William Tonks from Athens, Georgia.

I have written at some length about Tonks in a previous post. He's a special guy, a sort of sideman to the stars (on dobro and guitar) who also is a prolific and accomplished songwriter and (to my ears) a singer with a wonderful grain to his voice. Any number of zigs rather than zags would have landed Tonks in a career gig as a musician. As it is, he works for the University of Georgia (like half of Athens) and only makes music for the right reasons.

One of the many things I like about this song is it has lines - "He probably wouldn't want the job if he'd known how he would blow it" - that speak to any of us outside of the context of the presidential portrait and American history that is the subject of the song. That's hard to do!

Free mp3

"One Bullet Away"
(William Tonks)
William Tonks

The song belongs to Tonks and music, though feel free to borrow it - and let me know if you want to write a song about a U.S. president, living or dead.


Campaign poster from the Hudson Library archives.