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.

Friday, May 5, 2017

Health Care Bill

There will be millions of words written. Here's a good start:


I've been in a certain quandary about Republicans and the Republican party for a long time. I was convinced back in the days of Nixon that there was never a good reason to pick a Republican, at any level of government. So in a sense I've sort of shot my wad, as they say. Nonetheless, it does seem to get worse and worse. During the era of Nixon I could have voted for Lowell Weicker, for example. And while there were a lot of issues with Sam Ervin (a Democrat), after Watergate I would have voted for him too. The Republicans have been getting worse and worse. I don't see how to ascribe much of this trend to anything other than racism. A great number and percentage of Republicans were simply incensed that a black man achieved the Presidency, and was reelected. One of those Republicans was of course Donald Trump.

One can hope that the Senate will simply fail to pass a cruel and evil bill aimed primarily at destroying Mr. Obama's legacy. Predictions I've read are not so sanguine. American tribalism continues to thrive. Back in the '20s and '30s, the United States government sic-ed the US Army on a variety of its citizens. Veterans who were protesting for pensions were violently driven from Washington under Herbert Hoover's orders. Hoover then lost to Roosevelt. Strikes were put down in Detroit and other places under Roosevelt.

Money has always been power. Money has mostly been greedy, and willing to lie and deflect. The top one percent of Americans, ranked by income, get over $800 billion from this bill when and if it is passed. Oddly enough, the same amount vanishes in support of Medicaid.

The Old Vet may soon be dependent on Medicaid, after serving his country bravely in France, Belgium, and Germany, in 1944-45. Hopefully it will be there for him.

I plan to never vote for another Republican. But as I say, my conviction in that regard was sealed well before this particular legislative cruelty won the US House of Representatives.