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Archive for the ‘Books & Music’ Category

Who would’ve thought Robert Johnson’s step-sister, a person who personally knew the famed blues guitarist, would still be alive? Who would’ve thought that person — his step-sister, 94-year-old Annye Anderson — would today reside in Amherst, Massachusetts? And who would’ve known that she would still have the faculties, and ability, to tell intriguing stories of perhaps the most important American musician in history?

Robert Johnson, who died in 1938, is still quite an enigma. He’s a larger-than-life figure who, legend says, sold his soul to the devil in exchange for writing the best blues songs in history. Johnson was a vagabond, a hobo, a showman, a visionary, and (according to some) the most important guitarist to ever exist. Johnson single-handedly re-invented the blues, and provided the musical DNA that evolved into rock & roll, inspiring acts from the Stones to Led Zeppelin to Cream, Fleetwood Mac, Bob Dylan, and more. The devil met him at the crossroads, and together they changed the world.

To Mrs. Anderson, well, he was Brother Robert.

Brother Robert cuts right through all the mythical nonsense, and tells as much of the true story of Robert Johnson as one will ever read. She knew him, knew his roots, knew what he liked (Jimmy Rogers yodeling, for one), and what kind of man he was. Although she never knew how he died, or where he’s buried (beyond the various rumors), she does know how shady lawyers and the general music industry tried to screw her family out of any royalties from his work, about how fraudulent “descendants” tried to sneak their way into the legends (and the profits), and the pain all these dealings caused other members of her family.

None of that stuff, however, makes this book special. The heart of this book is Mrs. Anderson’s recollections of life in Jim Crow, Depression-era, Memphis, Tennessee. She tells stories of a hardscrabble life, where everyone worked every possible job imaginable to make some money to feed their families. She tells stories of moving in the dead-dark of night, the only way for a black man to survive when accused of pestering a white woman. She tells stories of juke joints and sewing circles and church socials and life of a long-dead era. This is a first-hand account of life lived well in a very dark time, and the way it both brought her family together and tore it apart.

Brother Robert is an engaging read, and highly recommended.

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Book Review

There was only one topic I wanted to discuss in a blog post on Jimmy Carter, and that was how a Presidency could fail. It is as important, if not more so, to study failure as it is to study success. I scoured Amazon & Google for books on the Carter presidency, hoping to find a treatise on how it went so wrong.

Unfortunately, I found myself knee-deep in the right-wing hate machine. Boy, how conservatives use the failings of Jimmy Carter’s presidency as as a way to prop up their own agendas. Book after book after book is set up to just drag the 39th president through vitriol-laden mud, leaping to grandiose conclusions about “character” and “socialism”. Here’s a man, a guy who truly cares about people, whose character is almost above reproach (especially compared to most politicians), treated so harshly by such an abundance of writers, all to “prove” how right-wing ideals are just so great for this country …

Mattson Book

Anyway, before I get too high on my political soapbox, I eventually came across “What The Heck Are You Up To, Mr. President?” by Kevin Mattson. His book isn’t an analysis of the entire Carter presidency, but it is an insightful piece on the infamous “malaise speech” of 1979. Through interviews and research, he assembles not just a narrative on the crafting of the speech, but a collage of the various bad decisions leading up to it. It’s not hateful, or condescending, or serving some personal agenda. It is a fair analysis, a decent read, and, in my opinion, helpful for anyone studying not just the Carter presidency, but leadership in general.

Unbiased, analytical approaches to contemporary political events are rare. They do exist, though. You just have to dig a little deeper to find them.

——————–

Kevin Mattson at Ohio University

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Book Review: DARK HORSE: The Surprise Election and Political Murder of President James A. Garfield

The last few years have been a bit rough. Between home improvement projects, a near-career meltdown, and some (albeit minor) health problems, I’ve not only been away from blogging, but I’ve been away from my favorite hobbies. I allowed other, less interesting facets of my life to distract me from the things I love doing: traveling the National Parks and reading books on American history.

Various physical and financial barriers are easing up, and I hope to resume traveling in earnest when spring comes. In the interim, I knew I needed something to rejuvenate my reading. Unfortunately, the next subject for my blog — the home of James Garfield, 20th President of the United States — didn’t seem too promising. I knew very little about the man, and few people discuss his life or presidency. He’s all but forgotten, like a pointless tchotchke in America’s attic. I feared I would be in for another dull read. I still haven’t finished my densely boring pick for the French & Indian War. I wasn’t looking forward to a repeat of that.

I surfed around the Amazon store, and found Ken Ackerman’s Dark Horse. It had decent reviews, but I still wasn’t too confident in my selection, simply because of the subject matter.

I aDark Horsem immensely thankful I was proven wrong. Dark Horse was an excellent selection.

What Ackerman did with Dark Horse is something I really enjoy. Instead of focusing on every trivial tidbit about Garfield’s days in some ramshackle schoolhouse, Ackerman tells the important story: the sequence of events that set Mr. Garfield, tragically, on a path to his own assassination. Ackerman tells the story of Garfield’s surprising nomination and eventual election to the highest office of the land, including all the backroom dealings of allies and foes, and how a delusional slob would use factional loyalty as an excuse to commit murder. Ackerman takes all the items important to the narrative, and to the development of the characters involved, and weaves the story as a story, not as a lecture. This makes a topic as seemingly banal as Garfield’s assassination and makes it actually riveting.

Sure, this is no John Grisham novel. This is history, and history rarely lives up to Hollywood panache. But Ackerman did a great job telling the tale as it truly occurred. I am very grateful I picked this book to rejuvenate my hobby, it was exactly what the doctor ordered. I already have my next selection for my next historically-themed post on my Kindle.

So thanks, Mr. Ackerman. You’ve helped a hobbyist regain his motivation.

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