Wednesday, June 7, 2017

The Old Vet Goes Home

Melvin Rudolph Sexton, September 29, 1923, June 6, 2017

The picture is from September, 2016, perhaps one of the last moments when Rudy looked "like himself." By his birthday celebration at the end of September he was noticeable thinner, fading. But it was a slow, slow march to yesterday, the 73rd anniversary of D-Day. Rudy was a sergeant in the 35th Infantry Division, known as the wagon-wheel division. He walked on to the beach in early July, '44, then walked all the way to liberating a German concentration camp in April of '45. He was at the Battle of the Bulge, and in many other engagements. He wasn't one to talk about that year much, in the thirty plus years I knew him. He told a couple of stories that affected him deeply. In one, he was the last man on a deuce and a half going out on some patrol or errand, and was shoved off--"we don't need you this time" someone told him. And that truck was hit by a shell and all of the guys were killed. Another time he was dug in for a night, perhaps this was in Belgium in December or January, but he never said. There was a barn door nearby and he pulled that over his foxhole for more cover. A shell went off on top of it. He was close to the men. For many years after the war he visited the parents of a good friend who'd been killed. They lived up in Pennsylvania. He made it back, and probably always questioned why. He met his wife, a beautiful, feisty girl who'd been very briefly married to a tail-gunner who'd flown off and gotten blown up in the air. They found his body in the Alps years later, then decided it wasn't his body, then found him again. Lucile was buffeted by all this, as was Rudy. She got breast cancer in the '50s and survived. She and Rudy became very devout Southern Baptists. He worked for the Rural Electric in eastern North Carolina, rising to be its director. She worked at the Court House in Tarboro. They were life-long Democrats, and Rudy was fond of saying that he'd rather give the tax money directly to the poor folks that needed it, rather than to Republicans who would just keep it for themselves. The Civil Rights Movement turned Tarboro Republican by the late '60s. It didn't change Rudy's party. He and Lucile remembered Roosevelt, just like my folks did.

I met Rudy in the winter '83-'84, and told him I wanted to marry his daughter. He was just 63 then, ten years younger than I am as I write. We were always friends, and he was pleased I'd "joined the family." That was probably one of the very last things he said to me, in the last dwindling weeks. It was a long march, this last year. Rudy was from start to finish a man who could take care of business. As his body and mind failed, he held on to the basic principle of his life until the very last--and so was tormented by the sense that he had to "fix" things, but couldn't exactly figure out where to start, what to do to get things back on the right track. He became so anguished by this feeling of just not being able to make things better that he couldn't drift off to sleep at night. He'd always taken good care of himself, never smoked, jogged, played golf. After he retired he learned how to play guitar. His heart was the very last thing to go. Except for the part that he lost when Lucile died in 2000, a delayed casualty of the stress of Hurricane Floyd passing over Tarboro the fall previously. Lucile and Rudy made a great team. He was unable to find some effective way to cope with her loss. He grieved until his memory faded.

We're left with the irony that his passing is a great blessing to him, and nonetheless leaves in all of us a great hole. I'm so glad to have known him all these years, and to have been a part of the Sexton family.

From Wiki entry on the 35th Division in World War II:

Actions during World War II

The 35th Infantry Division arrived in England on 25 May 1944 and received further training. It landed on Omaha Beach, Normandy July 5–7, 1944 and entered combat on 11 July, fighting in the Normandy hedgerows, north of St. Lo. The division beat off twelve German counterattacks at Emelie before entering St. Lo on 18 July. After mopping up in the St. Lo area, it took part in the offensive action southwest of St. Lo, pushing the Germans across the Vire on 2 August, and breaking out of the Cotentin Peninsula. While en route to an assembly area, the division was "flagged off the road," to secure the Mortain-Avranches corridor and to rescue the 30th Division's "Lost Battalion" August 7–13, 1944.[8]

Then racing across France through Orleans and Sens, the division attacked across the Moselle on 13 September, captured Nancy on 15 September, secured Chambrey on 1 October, and drove on to the German border, taking Sarreguemines and crossing the Saar on 8 December. After crossing the Blies River on 12 December, the division moved to Metz for rest and rehabilitation on 19 December. The 35th moved to Arlon, Belgium December 25–26, and took part in the fighting to relieve Bastogne, throwing off the attacks of four German divisions, taking Villers-laBonne-Eau on 10 January, after a 13-day fight and Lutrebois in a 5-day engagement. On 18 January 1945, the division returned to Metz to resume its interrupted rest.[8]

In late January, the division was defending the Foret de Domaniale area. Moving to the Netherlands to hold a defensive line along the Roer on 22 February, the division attacked across the Roer on 23 February, pierced the Siegfried Line, reached the Rhine at Wesel on 10 March, and crossed 25–26 March. It smashed across the Herne Canal and reached the Ruhr River early in April, when it was ordered to move to the Elbe April 12. Making the 295-mile dash in two days, the 35th mopped up in the vicinity of Colbitz and Angern, until 26 April 1945 when it moved to Hanover for occupational and mopping-up duty, continuing occupation beyond VE-day. The division left Southampton, England, on 5 September, and arrived in New York City on 10 September 1945.[8]

Total battle casualties: 15,822[11]
Killed in action: 2,485[11]
Wounded in action: 11,526[11]
Missing in action: 340[11]
Prisoner of war: 1,471[11]

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Cuffy, or Cuffee?

I learned this tune about ten years ago, which is quite recent in my tune learning history. Most of the tunes I play I learned in the '70s. This tune, "Cuffy" or possibly "Cuffee," is rather like a tune I've known since my time with the Fuzzy Mountain String Band, which was called "Magpie." Alan Jabbour had collected this "Magpie" from either Henry Reed, his primary source fiddler, or perhaps a fiddler more local to Piedmont NC. If you compare the two tunes you will hear their relationship. I've found that if I play "Cuffy" first I have a hard time switching immediately to "Magpie," because the similarities draw my fiddling mind back into the first tune. I've found that little mental feature of either my mind or the tunes themselves to appear in various other tune pair settings. Where are you Bishop Berkeley?

The way the fiddler in the video plays "Cuffy" is rather different in style from how I play it, although the notes are almost identical. I hear "Cuffy" as a very "swingy" tune, with a lot of syncopation, a sort of "strut" or maybe "cakewalk." Back when I was in the musical play "Diamond Studs," about the life of Jesse James and his gang as romanticized by some southern college boys so as to entirely whitewash the story of unreconstructed rebels (except for the acapella singing of the actual ballad "Unreconstructed Rebel" by Jan Davidson, who went on to become the chancellor of the John C. Campbell Folk School where they taught such things), we had a song called "Cakewalk into Kansas City," written by Jim Wann and Bland Simpson. It had something of that "strut" feeling I hear in "Cuffy." If I could play you some of this music I'm pretty sure you'd hear what I'm talking about. As it is, this digression is probably pointless. Oh well.

It should be noted that Jim Watson and I performed Henry C. Work's "Kingdom Comin'" in the play as well, as a kind of counterpoint to "Unreconstructed Rebel." Work's song is actually rather hilarious on one level. The slaves revolt when they see the "Lincoln gumboats" coming down the river and throw "massa" down the well. This song was very popular after the Civil War, in minstrel shows, and appears in some movies depicting that world as Hollywood did in the era of Gone with the Wind. But just as the name Cuffee turns out to be laden with implications of white supremacy, so too the "Negro dialect" Work uses to tell the tale of liberation. Thank god some of the monuments to this ongoing American fantasy are at last coming down. Our 4th graders should all be required to read Malcolm X.

Today I came upon this very interesting historical post on Lawyers, Guns, and Money, a great blog I read more or less daily. Here's the post:

We tend to forget most of the history of America. It's not seriously taught except at a graduate school level, which means the only Americans who get a pretty good idea of American History as it really is are a relative handful of people who hope, perhaps vainly in many cases, to eventually teach the subject in various colleges. There are no doubt a few other people--again a relative handful--who are just interested enough, on their own, to do the research and reading to educate themselves. The entire cohort of these folks, educated in true American History, are probably far short of the number of citizens capable in theory of electing one Congressman, even in a place like, say, Montana.

As you'll see if you click over to the post, there was a man named Cuffee who holds a significant place in American History. He was a slave and lived in the early 1700s in New York City, and he was suspected of committing arson, and was burned at the stake after being tortured into giving up (true or not) other names of slaves to the fearful white property owners in New York.

I don't know--no one can know--whether the tune "Cuffy" is a reference to this slave martyr, "Cuffee." I've always wondered just what the name of the tune "meant." Fiddle tune names fall into a small variety of classes. A lot of tunes are named for people. In some regions, such a Nova Scotia, this style of naming is very common. In other areas tunes tend to be named after tasks, or daily events. The other day I was reminding myself of how "Bull at the Wagon" goes. It's a western feeling tune. The name might mean or describe oxen pulling a wagon. Or maybe it's cowboys bulls**tting around the chuckwagon. There's "Cattle in the Cane." That's pretty easy to get. Then there's "Dog Passed a Ryestraw." That's actually a kind of scatological song, and also one of the greatest of American fiddle tunes at least in its rendering by the Indiana fiddler John Summers. A lot of tunes come from song names. "Fortune," a great Mt. Airy tune in Tommy Jarrell's hands, comes from a temperance hymn. Tommy and the rest of the Round Peak bunch would sing a verse or two of the song with more than a little irony, since they were usually sitting close to a jar of moonshine.

Generally, I think a lot of fiddle tune titles are in one way or another "commemorations." They remind people of something else. It might be someone who's moved away, or married, or died. It might be something that was fun, missed, regretted, something from the even older days when the fiddlers all played without cross-tuning, or perhaps when they all cross-tuned.

I think maybe we should remember Cuffee. There's already a ready made tune, and a good one at that, which bears his name. From now on, I'm going to spell the tune that way. It makes a damn good Memorial Day commemoration, better than an overflight of Steath Bombers surely. While we're at it, let's give some consideration to Ben Franklin's recommendation for the National Bird. He nominated the Wild Turkey. Which could certainly be sipped whilst playing Cuffee the last weekend of any May that might come along.


The excellent comment, that "Cuffy" is noted at Wikipedia as a "name for a Negro," cuts deeper than one might first imagine. On the surface my suggestion for renaming the tune is little more than a suggestion to alter the spelling of the word, which would be the same word. Also, it's very interesting that there are other similar stories of black slaves martyred in revolt in other lands, and with the same name. Deeper perhaps is the implication that, in the dominant culture, which has the power to name, there are "names for Negroes." Just as in the culture there are "names for cats, horses, dogs." So Cuffee was a name for a black man in the sense that if you saw or heard the name you would know that it referred to a black man. And parallel, if you heard someone talking about "Fido" you would know the reference was to a dog. The other part--these names, which float in the sea of human culture, mostly do not exist in a world where "spelling" is much of an issue. Most people in the 1700s didn't write and couldn't read. And that would in turn be one cultural reason why some names are understood by everyone to be "names for black people." Information is imparted. If the suspect is named Pedro he is likely to be Hispanic. A lot of this stuff is there. All you have to do is read it.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Your Lyin' Blue Eyes

I've been watching the news week like almost everyone else. The Teevee brings the news to us here in the woods. It's been raining most of the week, so there's not a whole lot to do outside. Last night Jared's name has been explicitly added to the list. The lad has a nice dimple and seems an unlikely black hat. He's much too young. But his looks deceive, and his family company is apparently as ruthless as Trump's. Likes attract sometimes.

I was thinking of writing about the Gianforte thing. It's surely notable that a reporter asks the candidate about the horrible Republican "health" care plan and the candidate responds by beating him up. In early coverage the fact that the candidate beat him up was so remarkable that the question that elicited the assault got kinda lost in the glare. Gianforte also won his election and actually raised $100 K on the story! A news story last night featured photos of a teeshirt at some right wing rally, possibly Gianforte's, which was touting the lynching of journalists. Really, this is what the shirt "said": "Tree. Rope. Journalist. Some Assembly Required." We have arrived in Mussolini-land. (Speaking of which, I read today that Mussolini did not allow non-Italian aircraft to overfly Italy, which caused travelers on long trips such as, say, going from London to Sydney, Australia, to depart aircraft altogether at Italy and take a train across the Italian peninsula.) Laura Ingraham made fun of the assaulted Ben Jacobs on her radio show, saying he was crying about someone stealing his lunch money. A California Republican congressman said Jacobs should not have been assaulted. Unless he deserved it.

One of the better features of the Gianforte/Jacobs story was that it turned out that a Fox news team witnessed the action, and could counter the rather blatant lies of the Gianforte response, which tried to accuse Jacobs of being the aggressor, Gianforte the victim of the of course liberal press. But what doesn't get attention is the subtlety of spin these days. We're not still living in Mussolini's Italy. Ezra Pound, who was once a notable American man of letters, called Mussolini Italy's Jefferson back in the '30s, and even wrote a book on that subject.


We get played. Over and over.

The most remarkable event in the Trump/NATO visit might be this, captured and preserved on Youtube (for as long as Google cares to maintain its extensive and expensive bank of servers).

There are of course many other candidates.

I was interested to see that Gianforte has antecedents. Of course the most notable is, again, Mussolini. A reporter once asked him what his first plan was, should he be elected. "Why, to kill you!" Mussolini responded. I've always thought this was actually a pretty good definition of fascism. Turns out Senator Joe McCarthy also assaulted a journalist, the notable Drew Pearson, in 1950. Richard Nixon broke up the fight.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Paging Mr. Chaplin

[Alexander Shcherbak/TASS]

I was at the start not all that engaged with the gigantic story of 1973-74 that we now know as Watergate. I was working as a copy editor at Duke Press, in Durham. In my spare time I was helping to build the Red Clay Ramblers, with my bandmates, Tommy Thompson, Mike Craver, and Jim Watson. This meant weekly practices, as we worked up songs and tunes that each of us would bring to the table. The practices were a lot of fun, with each of us taking arranging lead depending on the number, and all of us having whatever input we wanted. Democracy in action. We found gigs, mostly local, at a club called the Cat's Cradle that had started up in Chapel Hill about the same time we'd started up. Now and then we'd drive out to some out-of-town venue. One time we played in Greensboro, and the great fiddler Bobby Hicks showed up and even let me try out his blue Barcus-Berry 5-string fiddle--which I found impossible to play because of the 5th string. We went up to New York City on a Piedmont Air prop-jet and did a show with cajun greats the Balfa Brothers, a wonderful weekend trip set up by Tommy's friend Peter Gumpert, who was teaching at Columbia. We drove down to Athens, Alabama and competed in a fiddle and band contest. Alabama fiddlers play like they're all from Major Franklin's family, so I tried playing and singing a Doc Boggs song, Prodigal Son, on the banjo.

We weren't paying any attention to Watergate. But somewhere in there they started running the Senate Hearings, and Sam Ervin showed up. I started paying more attention. I still remember some of the names. Ain't No Way Inouye (D, HI), Lowell Weicker (R, CN), Howard Baker (R, TN). The most important thing was Senator Ervin's incredulity, as he confronted lie after lie, coverup after coverup. When Mr. Butterfield arrived to testify, you might as well have closed business for the day.

Just as in Vietnam, apparently the Republicans have learned almost nothing. One begins to draw deeply pessimistic conclusions about the, well, the human race to be specific. Mr. Trump fires the head of the FBI, who is conducting an investigation into, well, Mr. Trump, concerning Russian manipulation of the election just past, wherein Mr. Trump became President. And it gets better. After having his minions come out over several days and tell a long, complicated story about how Mr. Trump was just following the recommendations of his esteemed Assistant Attorney General, his esteemed Attorney General having been forced to recuse himself from all matters concerning Russian manipulation of the election because he didn't disclose meetings he himself had with said Russians during the campaign just past, yesterday Trump himself debunked that whole story in an interview with NBC's Lester Holt and asserted that he'd already decided to fire Mr. Comey no matter what the Assistant Attorney General might or might not say.

There are many many threads. Mr. Trump's spokesmen are now joining Ron Zeigler in the cavalcade of shame. That would include Mrs. Hucakabe Sanders, who knows too many FBI agents for her own reputation. There is reasonable speculation, including by people of legal note such as Lawrence Tribe--who played a role in the Watergate hearings!--that Mr. Trump may have actually built a case for his personal obstruction of justice indictment by telling Mr. Holt, in yesterday's interview, that he wanted to affect the investigation headed by Mr. Comey into Mr. Trump. This legal risk was perhaps why more acute legal minds had concocted the Assistant Attorney General story. "One never knows, do one" (Fats Waller).

The day after the actual firing event, Mr. Trump met with the Russians in the Oval Office. TASS was there and took the only photos available, when were then published. Mr. Trump seems, in the photos, to be the delighted host. I would say he's almost dancing a happy dance. I would guess he was thinking, during that meeting, "at last." I'm just guessing. As usual with Mr. Trump there are now reports that the White House is most unhappy that the photos were published. Someone from the White House even says "The Russians lied to us."

In other news, a big new commission has been commissioned to look into voter fraud on a national level. It is chaired by some AG from Kansas who is known for his draconian voting laws, and his general concern with the undocumented. It seems like the great plan continues no matter the choppy waters of each moment. There is no doubt that voter ID laws and such have tended to disenfranchise more likely Democratic than Republican voters. A national campaign is going to be needed in 2018. Not only is the House Republican majority at stake. So, as well, is the possibility of Trump's impeachment. The potential charges are pretty much now in place.

It's hard to know what will happen. We're always in the historical moment. Every day comes a new drama. Anybody even remember Sally Yates, or wonder why Mr. Trump took so long to fire General Flynn compared to, say, Mr. Comey. Mr. Comey got the news on TV, whilst giving a speech. He had to charter a plane home.

Paging Mr. Chaplin.

By the end of '74 Nixon was gone. I think he resigned on a day when we were playing the Cradle. By the end of '74 we were up in New York City again, this time polishing a musical play called "Diamond Studs: The Life of Jesse James." It went on to open in an off-Broadway theatre on New Year's Eve, got fantastic reviews, and then to run successfully well into the summer of 1975. In the spring of that year, during the run, people were helicoptering out of Saigon and onto US aircraft carriers, and Vietnam was finally, blessedly, over. Some 58,000 American soldiers had died for pretty much nothing, in a bipartisan effort to stop the flow of history in a little country in southeast Asia.