Saturday, December 5, 2009

Upcoming Mini Tour

I've been a little preoccupied the last couple of weeks preparing for an upcoming mini book tour.
Tuesday afternoon I'll be speaking at the W.T. Bland Public Library in Mount Dora, FL, at 2PM, about "David Crockett in Congress," the new political biography I wrote with Allen Wiener. Mount Dora is a lovely town, so come early and take a stroll around the downtown shops before joining us.

Following my Mount Dora appearance, I'll be making a solo drive to Tennessee for a few events around Crockett's old stomping grounds.

December 15, I'll be at the Tennessee State Museum, speaking at a 4PM event sponsored by the Tennessee Historical Society. I'm looking forward to this special program because, before my talk on Crockett's congressional career, the museum is offering a tour of Crockett artifacts from their collection.

On the 16th, at 11AM, I'll be signing copies at Rhino Booksellers' Charlotte Avenue location, also in Nashville. Plan on spending a lot of time winding through the stacks and browsing through the massive and eclectic selection. Fred Koller, the shop's owner, is an old friend of mine and I'm looking forward to catching up with him. Who knows, maybe we'll even break out a couple of guitars.

The 17th brings me to Murfreesboro, where Crockett met with the State Legislature. I'll be signing at Books A Million on Old Fort Road from 5PM - 7PM.

Stop by and say hello if you're in the neighborhood!

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Go Down Together

A couple of weeks ago it was my pleasure to attend and speak at the Texas Book Festival in Austin, a wonderfully managed event staged in and around the impressive and beautiful Capitol Building.

Of course, it was great fun to meet and greet “Crockett in Congress” readers and hear their stories, but it was also a blast to sit in the audience and listen to presentations from fellow authors. My friend Jim Donovan (author of the wonderful book, “A Terrible Glory: Custer and the Little Bighorn,”) advised me to try and catch Jeff Guinn’s talk on Bonnie and Clyde in support of his new book, “Go Down Together,” and, boy, was that a good tip.

Guinn’s delivery was what might be described as “folksy,” meaning he seemed relaxed and comfortable, and he made the audience feel as if he were talking to each one of us individually. Jeff is a wonderful story teller, and his tale of the Barrow gang, a tragedy if ever there was one, pulled me right in and made me want to know more; exactly what a successful presentation at a book festival should do. After his close I strolled right over to the sales tent and bought a signed copy of his book, which I’ve been reading and enjoying for the last couple of evenings. From its vivid depiction of the conditions in the West Dallas slum that sparked the duo’s criminal career to the blood-spattered and bullet-riddled end of the line for Clyde and Bonnie, the book is a rollicking read, and is sure to pull you in.

If you think you know the real story because you saw Warren Beatty’s film, think again. It’s a riveting movie, but it’s Hollywood. Guinn gives you the real rundown on a couple of kids (both Bonnie and Clyde were dead before they hit their mid-twenties) from the wrong side of the tracks that made a lot of bad decisions, became media darlings in the process, and paid the ultimate price.

Guinn is not an apologist for the duo, and is quick to point out that most people who labored under the same crushing poverty as the Barrows and the Parkers did not turn to crime as an avenue of escape. Readers are encouraged, however, to ponder our own complicity in a media environment that showcases base criminal behavior as entertainment, and as members of a society that tends to turn a blind eye toward social Darwinism until we’re staring down the barrel of some kid’s gun.

Go down together indeed.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Happy Birthday

Today is my son Sam’s 17th birthday. While all birthdays are cause for celebration, Sam’s birthday is special. Every year I celebrate Thanksgiving on October 22. I’m grateful for Sam every day, but on his birthday I’m especially aware of how fleeting life can be and I’m reminded that miracles can and do happen.

Ten years ago Sam was too sick to enjoy his 7th birthday. He was experiencing joint pain so intense that he couldn’t walk. He was unable to eat and had dropped so much weight that his already slight frame was skeletal. The two weeks leading up to his birthday were spent shuttling him to pediatricians and specialists who were unable to determine the root of the problem. At first, it was suggested that he had a virus and there was nothing to worry about. One doctor thought he might have juvenile rheumatoid arthritis. The doctors scratched their heads, and Sam got sicker. He developed a low-grade fever that refused to subside. He continued to lose weight. Finally, an appointment was scheduled with a hematologist who diagnosed acute lymphocytic leukemia. Sam was rushed into the hospital and began a three year regimen of chemotherapy that ultimately saved his life.

Leukemia used to be a death sentence, but thanks to the tireless efforts of selfless researchers and doctors committed to finding a cure, most children with ALL now survive. The fact that Sam was saved through medical treatment doesn’t make his survival any less a miracle. I use his birthday to reflect on all the people who helped us in our difficult time, and to offer a special prayer of thanks for them and to thank God for his grace and mercy.

So thank you, Doctors Selsky and Hajjar, for dedicating your lives to pediatric oncology when you could have chosen a medical field that was far more lucrative.

Tonight, we’ll have cake and ice cream and Sam, 7 years cancer-free and healthy, will be able to join the party. Of course, he’ll open presents. And everyone gathered around the table will know that every day is a gift.

Happy birthday, Sam. May you have many, many more.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

"Not Yours to Give": A Fable Re-Examined

Any Google search for “David Crockett” or “Davy Crockett” will eventually turn up dozens of hits on conservative websites that relate the story of a speech Crockett allegedly gave in congress called “Not Yours to Give.”

A number of years ago, The Crockett Chronicle published an article I wrote, “Crockett and Bunce: A Fable Examined,” that debunked this story, but recently I’ve received a number of emails asking about the veracity of “Not Yours to Give,” so I figured it might be a good time to readdress the issue. Plus, in the process of researching “David Crockett in Congress,” I came upon new information that updates my Chronicle article.

The short answer is that “Not Yours to Give” is a fabrication.

The tale originated as “Davy Crockett’s Electioneering Tour,” a January 1867 article in Harper’s Magazine written by James J. Bethune, a pseudonym used by Edward S. Ellis. Ellis included the story in an 1884 edition of his Crockett biography, which has subsequently been republished repeatedly on the web by groups hoping to benefit from the Crockett association.

The story, as it is most commonly told, begins with Congressman Crockett delivering an address to the U.S. House of Representatives in opposition to an appropriation for the widow of a "naval officer" who is unidentified in the retelling.

Crockett goes to some lengths to explain to his colleagues that they have collectively no
right to bestow public monies in the form of charity to any individual, even out of "respect for the dead or our sympathy for the living."

He goes on to state that such matters are more appropriately funded by charitable contributions from private individuals and offers to donate one week's pay to the widow's relief if every other member of Congress will do the same. The tale then reports that the motion for the charity failed to pass due to Crockett's erudition.

Congressman Crockett, usually a champion for the poor and disenfranchised, is later challenged about this rather uncharacteristic vote. In explanation,he recounts a story about a meeting with a constituent while on an earlier campaign, one Horatio Bunce, who refuses to support Crockett's reelection effort. Bunce dresses David down for previously voting in favor of a bill that appropriated $20,000 in relief for the victims of a Georgetown fire, and expounds on this misuse of government funds. He accuses Crockett and his cohorts of a frivolous miuse of tax dollars for private gain, and then goes on to teach the Congressman about how the federal tax system should operate under the Constitution.

Crockett, awe-stricken, sees the error of his ways. He fears that Bunce will cost him votes because "he was the oracle of the whole country around him, and his fame had extended far beyond the circle of his immediate acquaintance." David vows that the scales have fallen from his eyes and that Bunce has shown him the light. He promises that he will never again vote to award tax receipts for relief efforts. Bunce, in turn, accepts Crockett's change of heart as sincere and endorses his reelection bid.

This oft-repeated story is amusing, but problematic for a number of reasons.

The first part of the story gives a partially accurate account of Crockett's opposition to the relief effort. Mrs. Brown was the widow of a General Brown, a veteran of the War of 1812. The General contracted an illness during his service that ultimately led to his demise, but he went on to serve in the public sector until his death some years later. A lengthy debate took place in the House of Representatives on April 1, 1828, over whether or not to award public funds to Mrs. Brown, who was portrayed as an indigent mother in desperate need of assistance.

Gale's and Seaton's Register of Debates of the House of Representatives 20th Congress, First Session, records that though David cast a vote against the bill, he was not present for the discussion.

On April 2, however, he and Thomas Chilton (who would go on to help Crockett write his autobiography) spoke out "in opposition to the principle of the bill" and Crockett followed by "offering to subscribe his quota, in his private character, to make up the sum proposed."

Unlike the tale told in the Ellis version and on the web though, Crockett's opposition was countered by a spirited oration by Congressman Clark of New York. The motion for Mrs. Brown's relief was then carried by a vote of 97 to 74,with both Crockett and Chilton voting in the negative.

Perhaps the most egregious falsehood of the Ellis account is his rendering of Crockett's explanation of his vote and his encounter with Horatio Bunce. Bunce's opposition to Congressman Crockett is allegedly based on a vote Crockett made in favor of appropriations to the victims of a Georgetown fire. Crockett never made such a vote. The fire in question was not in Georgetown as stated, but in Alexandria, and the l9th Congress voted on the motion for relief for the victims on January 19, 1827. David Crockett served his first term in the 20th Congress, which convened on December 3, 1827 . In the spring of 1827, David was still on the campaign stump in Tennessee. He won the election in August of 1827.

Ellis also apparently confuses the widow Brown with the widow of naval officer Stephen Decatur. In 1830, Crockett was involved in a similar congressional debate over awarding some unremitted funds to Mrs. Decatur that her husband had claimed as bounty earned in a combat action. Crockett opposed the measure, but likely because of her reputation for profligacy and the fact that she hadn’t been married to Decatur when he’d won the contested prize.

Crockett typically considered petitions for individual relief on a case by case basis, but certainly wasn’t opposed to the government giving its wealth to his constituents despite what many of these websites claim.

His primary goal in congress was to acquire for his constituents legal title to the lands upon which they’d settled, and he petitioned the government repeatedly to provide this public acreage at little or no cost. Crockett was a tireless advocate for the poor, a populist who knew poverty firsthand, and he saw nothing wrong with government helping the little guy get ahead.

Now, back to our regularly scheduled blog...

Sunday, October 18, 2009

My Favorite Song

My iPod Classic is currently packing somewhere in the neighborhood of 11,000 songs, nearly a month’s worth of music if I listened non-stop, 24/7. Many artists are well represented: there are hundreds of tunes by Eric Clapton, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Harry Nilsson. Generous helpings of Sam Cooke, Marvin Gaye and Al Green. Jazz from Miles Davis and John Coltrane. Genre-bending acoustic ragas from Harry Manx and Gutpuppet. Snaky slide guitar courtesy of Derek Trucks and Ry Cooder. New Orleans funk by the Meters and Allen Toussaint. Playlists dedicated to “Groove,” “Blues,” “Psychedelic,” and an eclectic collection of cover tunes: indie-rockers Clang twisting Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love” into something altogether new, yet familiar; Cake turning “Mahna, Mahna” into a fractured, angular, stomp.

Some titles and artists get a lot more airtime than others. Some are there waiting for a certain mood to strike (I don’t want to listen to Tin Hat Trio every day), some are new releases cued up for a first listen when I have a long drive or flight ahead of me. Some see daily play: a day without Muddy Waters, well, I don’t want to think about it.

The last time someone asked me, “What’s your favorite song?” was probably in junior high school. You might think that with so many selections from which to choose, the question would be a difficult one, but nestled among these thousands of songs by hundreds of artists in dozens of genres is one clear favorite.

My all-time favorite song is “Up On the Roof.”

Favorite song as opposed to favorite recording...there’s a difference. Everyone knows “Good Vibrations” is a great recording but, personally, strictly as a song it doesn’t stand up against something like, say, “Someone to Watch Over Me.” “Won’t Get Fooled Again” leaps out of the speakers, rocks like nobody’s business, and features the best scream in the history of recorded music. It’s a great record. I don’t think there’s been a definitive recording of “Up On the Roof.” But I love the song.

Carole King wrote it with Gerry Goffin back in her Brill Building days. While King is probably best remembered for her mid-70’s singer-songwriter masterpiece “Tapestry,” she cranked out a lot of hits before the general public knew her name. “Locomotion” for Little Eva, “Will You Love Me Tomorrow?” for the Shirelles, “One Fine Day” for the Chiffons. She and Goffin also wrote the best record the Monkees ever released, “Porpoise Song,” an absolutely gorgeous slice of psychedelia that should have been an enormous hit, and would have been a year earlier when the Monkees were still appearing weekly in America’s living rooms. Instead, “Porpoise Song” was the signature tune in the band’s one and only movie, “Head,” an avant-garde art film that masqueraded as a comedy and stiffed; disappearing from theaters almost immediately. Thankfully, “Head” became a cult classic and “Porpoise Song” has found a home on numerous greatest hits collections and is readily available.

“Up On the Roof” was a hit for the Drifters, who recorded a bouncy version of the song that gets a lot of play on oldies radio. It’s okay, but not my favorite interpretation. James Taylor cut the song, and did a fine job with the exception of adding a middle eight that moved the song a little too close to eighties rock territory. Carole King has recorded the song herself a number of times too, and I prefer her renditions because they capture a sense of pathos the other covers miss. That’s not an easy task in a song that’s so hopeful.

And that’s what I like about “Up On the Roof.” While the song acknowledges that the world is a crazy place and that life is a rat race full of never ending obstacles, it also promises that, despite it all, we can find peace. That somewhere there is a place where we can hear the still, small, voice that whispers inside the whirlwind. When we’re up on the roof, all our cares “just drift right into space.”

It tells us of the delight we can take in the simple things once we stop and take the time to look and listen. And best of all, there’s room enough for two.

So maybe the next time you come home feeling tired and beat, take a loved one by the hand and head for the stairs. Climb on up to paradise. Remember, you just have to wish to make it so.

Lets go up on the roof.

Friday, October 16, 2009

The Beatles...Again

I was reluctant to invest in yet another reissue of the Beatles catalog. Like most first generation Beatlemaniacs, I bought the original albums or 45's on vinyl editions in the '60's, then downgraded to 8-tracks and cassettes in the '70's, and made the jump to compact discs in the '80's. In between, there were colored vinyl and picture discs, assorted boxed sets of imports and ep's, promotional flexi-discs and, of course, the budget busting collection of bootlegs that is a testament to the passion of the true fanatic. Somehow I missed picking up the catalog on mini-disc. Oops.
When Capitol Records released the newly remastered Beatles albums on September 9th, I decided to pick up one title, my favorite Beatles album, "Revolver," and give it a spin. I went back to the store later that afternoon and purchased "Abbey Road." The next day I threw down for "Sgt. Pepper's" and "Magical Mystery Tour." Throughout the rest of the week, like a junkie copping his next fix, I managed to acquire the rest of the catalog including the newly released mono remasters.
I have listened to little else since these pristine new editions have become part of my vast collection. The remastered versions of these classic albums sound absolutely fabulous. The bass and drums have more punch, the guitars ring out like never before, and the harmonies soar. The clarity of the recordings allow the listener to focus on the subtleties of the arrangements and, even after all these years, pick out little ruffles and flourishes that went unnoticed on older, muddier, editions.
For those who'd like an eye-opening sample of these sonic masterpieces without throwing down on the whole catalog, I'd suggest purchasing "Abbey Road," which, to my ears, benefits the most from the new remastering. Be prepared though, to make additional trips to the store.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Book Escapes

I'm a voracious reader. I spend most of my time with history books and literary fiction, but sometimes I just want to be entertained, and there are a couple of authors I can always rely on for a few hours of fun.
Most recently I've been snatching up titles by John Sandford. You've probably seen his work in bookstores and super-market check out lines; lots of books with Prey in the titles...Mind Prey, Naked Prey, Invisible Prey, and so on. The Prey series revolves around a Minnesota cop named Lucas Davenport; a smart, hard-edged guy with a heart of gold. The novels are intricately plotted, with snappy dialog and occasional humor (though not as much as say, Elmore Leonard or Carl Hiassen books) and usually keep me guessing until late in the game. Just what you'd want in a thriller.
Sandford has recently spun-off the Prey books with another series that features Detective Virgil Flowers, a bit player in some of the Davenport books. I've read two of the three entries and really liked both of them. Virgil is an odd-ball, a literary guy who writes for outdoor magazines on the side, who has a taste for vintage rock and roll t-shirts and serial relationships...he's been married a number of times and is always on the prowl. I'm looking forward to digging in to the latest offering.