Charlie Chaplin had many high-profile fans in his day, including some of the luminaries of the early twentieth century. We could perhaps be forgiven for assuming that the writer and activist Hellen Keller was not among them, given the limitations her condition of deafness and blindness — or “deafblindness” — would naturally place on the enjoyment of film, even the silent films in which Chaplin made his name. But making that assumption would be to misunderstand the driving force of Keller’s life and career. If the movies were supposedly unavailable to her, then she’d make a point of not just watching them, but befriending their biggest star.
Keller met Chaplin in 1919 at his Hollywood studio, during the filming of Sunnyside. This, as biographers have revealed, was not one of the smoothest-going periods in the comedian-auteur’s life, but that didn’t stop him from enjoying his time with Keller, and even learning from her.
In her 1928 autobiography Midstream, she would remember that he’d been “shy, almost timid,” and that “his lovely modesty lent a touch of romance to the occasion that might otherwise have seemed quite ordinary.” The pictures that have circulated of the meeting, seen here, include one of Keller teaching Chaplin the tactile sign-language alphabet she used to communicate.
It was also the means by which, with the assistance of companion Anne Sullivan, she followed the action of Chaplin’s films A Dog’s Life and Shoulder Arms when they were screened for her that evening. When Keller and Chaplin met again nearly thirty years later, he sought her feedback on the script for his latest picture, Monsieur Verdoux. “There is no language for the terrifying power of your message that sears with sarcasm or rends apart coverts of social hypocrisy,” Keller later wrote to Chaplin. A politically charged black comedy about a bigamist serial killer bearing little resemblance indeed to the beloved Little Tramp, Monsieur Verdoux met with critical and commercial failure upon its release. The film has since been re-evaluated as a subversive masterwork, but it was perhaps Keller who first truly saw it.
Damien Hirst is into NFTs. Some will regard this as a reflection on the artist, and others a reflection on the technology. Whether you take those reflections to be positive or negative reveals something about your own concept of how the art world, the business world, and the digital world intersect. So will your reaction to The Currency, Hirst’s just-completed art project and technological experiment. Launched in July of last year, it produced 10,000 unique non-fungible tokens “that were each associated with corresponding artworks the British artist made in 2016,” as Artnet’s Caroline Goldstein writes. “The digital tokens were sold via a lottery system for $2,000.”
Hirst also laid down an unprecedented condition: he announced “that his collectors would have to make a choice between the physical artwork and its digital version, and set a one-year deadline — asking them, in effect, to vote for which had more lasting value.” For each buyer who chooses the original work, Hirst would assign its NFT to an inaccessible address, the closest thing to destroying it. And for each buyer who chooses the NFT, Hirst would throw the paper version onto a bonfire. The final numbers, as Hirst tweeted out at the end of last month, came to “5,149 physicals and 4,851 NFTs (meaning I will have to burn 4,851 corresponding physical Tenders).” Hirst also retained 1,000 copies for himself.
“In the beginning I had thought I would definitely choose all physical,” Hirst explains. “Then I thought half-half and then I felt I had to keep all my 1,000 as NFTs and then all paper again and round and round I’ve gone, head in a spin.” In the end he went wholly digital, having decided that “I need to show my 100 percent support and confidence in the NFT world (even though it means I will have to destroy the corresponding 1000 physical artworks).” Perhaps this was a victory of Hirst’s neophilia, but then, those instincts have served him well before: few living artists have managed to draw such public fascination, enamored or hostile, for so many years straight — let alone such formidable sale prices, and not just for his stuffed shark.
“I’ve never really understood money,” Hirst says to Stephen Fry in the video above. (You can watch an extended version of their conversation here.) “All these things — art, money, commerce — they’re all ethereal,” ultimately based on nothing more than “belief and trust.” Returning to the techniques of his early “spot paintings” — those he made himself before farming the task out to steadier-handed assistants — and minting the results into unique digital objects for sale was perhaps an attempt to get his head around the even less intuitive concept of the NFT. All told, The Currency brought in about $89 million in revenue. More telling will be the price of its tokens on the secondary market, where they’re changing hands at the moment for around $7,000: a price impossible properly to evaluate for now, and thus not without the thrilling ambiguity of certain modern artworks.
These women’s contributions to the movement were considerable, but Krasner and deKooning spent much of their careers overshadowed by celebrated husbands – fellow Abstract Expressionists Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning.
The New York-based Abstract Expressionism deposed Paris as the center of the art world, and was the most macho of movements. Krasner, Frankenthaler, and Elaine de Kooning often heard their work described as “feminine”, “lyrical”, or “delicate”, the implication being that it was somehow less than.
Hans Hofmann, an Abstract Expressionist who ran the 8th Street atelier where Krasner studied after training at Cooper Union, the Art Students League, and the National Academy of Design, and working for the WPA’s Federal Art Project, once praised one of her canvases by saying, “This is so good you would not believe it was done by a woman.”
Payne and Shurvell detail how the sociable Krasner, already established in the NYC art scene, shared important contacts with Pollock, with whom she became romantically entangled shortly after their work was shown alongside Picasso’s, Matisse’s , and Georges Braque’s in the pivotal 1942 French and American Painting exhibition at the McMillen Gallery.
She was an energetic promoter of his work, and a cheerleader when he flagged.
They married and moved to Long Island in an unsuccessful bid to put the kibosh on his drinking and extracurricular affairs. He commandeered a barn on the property for his studio, while she made do with a bedroom.
While Pollock ranged around large canvases laid on the barn floor, famously splattering, Krasner produced a Little Image series on a table, sometimes applying paint straight from the tube.
MoMA’s description of an untitled Little Image in their collection states:
Krasner likened these symbols to Hebrew letters, which she had studied as a child but could no longer read or write. In any case, she said, she was interested in creating a language of private symbols that did not communicate any one specific meaning.”
After Pollock died in a car crash while driving under the influence – his mistress survived – Krasner claimed the barn studio for her own practice.
It was a transformative move. Her work not only grew larger, it was informed by the full-body gestures that went into its creation.
Ten years later, she got her first solo show in New York, and MoMA gave her a retrospective in 1984, six months before her death.
In a wildly entertaining 1978 interview on Inside New York’s Art World, below, Krasner recalls how early on, her gender didn’t factor into how her work was received.
I start in high school, and it’s only women artists, all women. Then I’m at Cooper Union, woman’s art school, all women artists and even when I’m on WPA later on, there’s no – you know, there’s nothing unusual about being a woman and being an artist. It’s considerably later that all this begins to happen, specifically when the seat moves from Paris, which was the center, and shifts into New York, and I think that period is known as Abstract Expressionism, where we now have galleries, price, money, attention. Up ’til then it’s a pretty quiet scene. That’s when I’m first aware of being a woman and “a situation” is there.
Elaine de Kooning was an abstract portraitist, an art critic, a political activist, a teacher, and “the fastest brush in town”, but these accomplishments were all too often viewed as less of an achievement than being Mrs. Willem de Kooning, the female half of an Abstract Expressionist “it couple.”
Great Art Cities Explained suggests that the twenty year period in which she and Willem were estranged – they reconciled when she was in her late 50s – was one of personal and artistic growth. She took inspiration from the bullfights she witnessed on her travels, turned a lusty female gaze on male subjects, and was commissioned to paint President Kennedy’s official portrait:
All my sketches from life as he talked on the phone, jotted down notes, read papers, held conferences, had to be made very quickly, catching features and gestures, half for memory, even as I looked, because he never sat still. It was not so much that he seemed restless, rather, he sat like an athlete or college boy, constantly shifting in his chair. At first this impression of youthfulness was a hurdle, as was the fact that he never sat still.
Like Krasner and Elaine de Kooning, Helen Frankenthaler was also part of an Abstract Expressionist golden couple, but fortune decreed she would not play a distant second fiddle to husband Robert Motherwell .
This surely owes something to her pioneering development of the “soak-stain” technique, wherein she poured turpentine-thinned oil paint directly onto unprimed canvas, laid flat.
The dialogue between these two spreads appears to be a tale of socially-determined masculine energy and feminine composure. Though Pollock’s dominant stance is a key part of his artistic praxis, the issue is not that he is standing while she is sitting. Rather, it is that, with Pollock, we are allowed to glimpse into the intimate sides of his tortured and groundbreaking practice. In stark opposition, Parks’ images of Frankenthaler reinforce our need to see women artists as highly curated, polished figures who are as complete as the masterpieces that they produce. Even if those works appear highly abstracted and visceral, each stroke is perceived, at some level, to represent a calculated, perfected moment of visual enlightenment.
Thirteen minutes was an awful long time for The Ramones, since they could play an entire album of songs in a quarter of an hour. Thus, when Ramones fan Mark Gilman snuck a Super-8 sound camera into the Grenada Theater in Kansas City in July of 1978 to secretly film the band, he managed to capture an awful lot of The Ramones on film before he was forced to shut it down. The band, as you can see above, was in top form.
I exaggerate a little…. Ramones albums are longer than this film clip. Their self-titled 1976 debut is over twice the length at 29 minutes, which is still three or four minutes shy of the shortest LPs of the time (back when albums only meant vinyl). Into that almost-half-hour, the ultimate 70s New York punk band crammed 14 songs, at an average of two minutes each: no solos, no filler, no extended intros, outros, or remixes….
That’s exactly what we see above: mops of hair and a sweaty, leather-and-denim-clad wall of pure, dumb rock ‘n’ roll, played blisteringly fast with maximum attitude. It’s quality, audience-level footage of about half a classic Ramones show, which usually spanned around 30 minutes: no banter, chatter, tuning up, requests, or encores. This is what you came for, and this — full-on assault of bubblegum melodies, thudding chants of “I wanna” and “I don’t wanna” played with chainsaw precision — is what you get.
Musically, songs like “Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue” were already in the band’s repertoire, but the songs were plagued by erratic tempos, blown notes, and other sorted sonic miscues. Between-song bickering also marred the band’s earliest shows. For a second, Dee Dee and Tommy seem like they’re almost ready to come to blows when they can’t agree on what song to play next.
“I didn’t like them at all,” Melnick remembers. “It was pretty raw. They were stopping and starting and fighting. They could barely play.” They didn’t meet a devil at a crossroads in the years between these early gigs and their 1978 live album It’s Alive (recorded at London’s Rainbow Theatre on the last day of the year as the band finished a 1977 UK tour). They played a hell of a lot of gigs, and pushed themselves hard for a rock stardom they’d never really achieve until their founding members died.
Allmusic’s Mark Deming describes the band in 1978 as “relentless…. a big-block hot rod thrown in to fifth gear” and calls their live album of the time “one of the best and most effective live albums in the rock canon.” Watch them play “I Wanna Be Well” at the Rainbow Theatre, just above, and catch a rare bit of stage banter from Joey regarding the previous night’s chicken vindaloo.
Dumplings are so delicious and so venerable, it’s understandable why more than one country would want to claim authorship.
As cultural food historian Miranda Brown discovers in her TED-Ed animation, dumplings are among the artifacts found in ancient tombs in western China, rock hard, but still recognizable.
Scholar Shu Xi sang their praises over 1,700 years ago in a poem detailing their ingredients and preparation. He also indicated that the dish was not native to China.
Lamb stuffed dumplings flavored with garlic, yogurt, and herbs were an Ottoman Empire treat, circa 1300 CE.
The 13th-century Mongol invasions of Korea resulted in mass casualties , but the silver lining is, they gave the world mandoo.
The Japanese Army’s brutal occupation of China during World War II gave them a taste for dumplings that led to the creation of gyoza.
Eastern European pelmeni, pierogi and vareniki may seem like variations on a theme to the uninitiated, but don’t expect a Ukrainian or Russian to view it that way.
Is the history of dumplings really just a series of bloody conflicts, punctuated by periods of relative harmony wherein everyone argues over the best dumplings in NYC?
Brown takes some mild potshots at cuisines whose dumplings are closer to dough balls than “plump pockets of perfection”, but she also knows her audience and wisely steers clear of any positions that might lead to playground fights.
Relax, kids, however your grandma makes dumplings, she’s doing it right.
It’s hard to imagine sushi master Naomichi Yasuda dialing his opinions down to preserve the status quo.
A purist – and favorite of Anthony Bourdain – Chef Yasuda is unwavering in his convictions that there is one right way, and many wrong ways to eat and prepare sushi.
He’s far from priggish, instructing customer Joseph George, for VICE Asia MUNCHIES in the proper handling of a simple piece of sushi after it’s been lightly dipped, fish side down, in soy sauce:
Don’t shake it. Don’t shake it! Shaking is just to be finished at the men’s room.
Other takeaways for sushi bar diners:
Use fingers rather than chopsticks when eating maki rolls.
Eating pickled ginger with sushi is “very much bad manners”
Roll sushi on its side before picking it up with chopsticks to facilitate dipping
The temperature interplay between rice and fish is so delicate that your experience of it will differ depending on whether a waiter brings it to you at a table or the chef hands it to you across the counter as soon as it’s assembled.
Explore TED-Ed’s Brief History of Dumplings lesson here.
Many of us avoid turning on the oven during a heatwave, but how do we feel about making cookies in a Dutch Oven heaped with glowing embers?
Justine Dorn, co-creator with other half, Ron Rayfield, of the Early American YouTube channel, strives to recreate 18th and early 19th century desserts in an authentic fashion, and if that means whisking egg whites by hand in a 100 degree room, so be it.
It’s hard work but still I love what I do. I hope that everyone can experience the feeling of being where you belong and doing what you know you were born to do. Maybe not everyone will understand your reasoning but if you are comfortable and happy doing what you do then continue.
Her historic labors have an epic quality, but the recipes from aged cookbooks are rarely complex.
The gluten free chocolate cookies from the 1800 edition of The Complete Confectioner have but three ingredients – grated chocolate, caster sugar, and the aforementioned egg whites – cooked low and slow on parchment, to create a hollow center and crispy, macaron-like exterior.
Unlike many YouTube chefs, Dorn doesn’t translate measurements for a modern audience or keep things moving with busy editing and bright commentary.
Her silent, lightly subtitled approach lays claim to a previously unexplored corner of autonomous sensory meridian response – ASMR Historical Cooking.
The sounds of crackling hearth, eggs being cracked into a bowl, hot embers being scraped up with a metal shovel turn out to be compelling stuff.
So were the cookies, referred to as “Chocolate Puffs” in the original recipe.
Dorn and Rayfield have a secondary channel, Frontier Parrot, on which they grant themselves permission to respond verbally, in 21st century vernacular, albeit while remaining dressed in 1820s Missouri garb.
“I would pay a man $20 to eat this whole plate of cookies because these are the sweetest cookies I’ve ever come across in my life,” Dorn tells Rayfield on the Frontier Parrot Chat and Chew episode, below. “They only have three ingredients, but if you eat more than one you feel like you’re going to go into a coma – a sugar coma!”
He asserts that two’s his limit and also that they “sound like hard glass” when knocked against the table.
Early Americans would have gaped at the indulgence on display above, wherein Dorn whips up not one but three cake recipes in the space of a single episode.
The plum cakes from the Housekeeper’s Instructor (1791) are frosted with an icing that Rayfield identifies on a solo Frontier Parrot as 2 cups of sugar whipped with a single egg white.
“We suffered for this icing,” Dorn revealed in an Instagram post. “SUFFERED. Ya’ll don’t know true pain until you whip icing from hand using only egg whites and sugar.”
The flat little pound cakes from 1796’s American Cookery call for butter rubbed with rosewater.
If you are a graduate of a U.S. school system, the words “Remember the Lusitania” may be as vaguely familiar to you as “Remember the Alamo.” And you may be just as fuzzy about the details. We learn roughly that the sinking of the British luxury liner was an act of German aggression that moved the U.S. to enter World War I. That lesson is largely the result of a propaganda effort launched at the time to inflame anti-German sentiments and push the U.S. out of isolationism. But it would take almost two years after the attack before the country entered the war. The Lusitania did not change President Woodrow Wilson’s position. While the “sinking of the Lusitania was a crucial moment in helping to sway the American public in support of the Allied cause,” it was only kept in the public eye by those who wanted the U.S. in the war.
Mainstream U.S. coverage immediately afterward was not overly belligerent. A week after the disaster, in a May 16th, 1915 issue, the Sunday New York Times ran a two-page spread entitled “Prominent Americans Who Lost Their Lives on the S.S. Lusitania.” Two weeks later, another photo spread honored the ship’s dead, reflecting a “panorama of responses to the disaster,” the Library of Congress writes, including “sorrow, heroism, ambivalence, consolation, and anger.”
For one thing, stories reported that the ship had been hit by two torpedoes when there was only one. Immediately after its impact, however, a secondary explosion from inside the ship caused the Lusitania to list perilously to one side (rendering most lifeboats useless) and take on water. Where the Titanic had taken 2 hours and 40 minutes to go down, the Lusitaniasank in 18 minutes — as you can see in the real-time animation above — killing approximately 1,200 passengers including around 120 Americans. The second explosion lent credibility to German accusations that the passenger ship was carrying munitions from New York to Britain. (Divers in a 1993 National Geographic expedition found four million U.S.-made Remington bullets on board.) While this could not be proven at the time, the British had taken to hiding arms on passenger ships, and the Lusitania was outfitted to be commandeered for war.
Not only did British authorities put the Lusitania in harm’s way by allowing civilian passengers to sail through blockaded waters in which German submarines had been sinking merchant ships, but passengers knowingly put themselves in danger. The German High Command had warned of attacks in American newspapers in days before the ship set sail. Yet “only a couple of people actually canceled,” says Erik Larson, author of the book Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania. No war at sea or recent memory of the Titanic could dissuade them.
They saw this ship as so fast it could outrun any submarine. They saw it as being so immense, so well built, so safe, and so well equipped with lifeboats in the wake of the Titanic disaster that even if it were hit by a torpedo, no one imagined this thing actually sinking. But no one could imagine a submarine going after the Lusitania in the first place.
Larson’s last point signals the critical difference between this attack and all of those previous: the sinking of the Lusitania was a shocking turning point in the war, even if it didn’t force Wilson’s hand as Churchill hoped. No one had expected it. “In the history of modern warfare,” the Library of Congress notes, the Lusitania signaled “the end of the ‘gentlemanly’ war practice of the nineteenth century and the beginning of a more ominous and vicious era of total warfare.” While the Germans ceased the practice after British outcry, they resumed the targeting of passenger and merchant ships in 1917, finally prompting U.S. involvement. The era that began with the Lusitania continues over a century later. Indeed, the wanton destruction of civilian life no longer seems like tragic collateral damage in current war zones, but the very point of waging modern war.
“She’s doing something very, very brave right now for you guys. This is a trust fall, and she picked the right people to do this with.” — Brandi Carlile introducing Joni Mitchell at the Newport Folk Festival, 2022
Comeback queen Joni Mitchell stunned fans with her recent appearance at the Newport Folk Festival this summer, her first full public concert since 2000. In Newport tradition, surprise stars make an appearance every year. Former guests have included Dolly Parton, Chaka Khan, and Mitchell’s friend David Crosby. Mitchell’s arrival this year was a revelation. She appeared out of the blue, when most people reasonably assumed she’d never perform again after suffering a debilitating brain aneurysm in 2015 that left her unable to speak or walk.
Yet, as we pointed out in an earlier post, Mitchell’s return to the stage has been years in the making. Since her aneurysm, she has confounded even the neurosurgeons with her recovery, teaching herself to play guitar again by watching online videos and learning to sing again not long after she re-learned how to get out of bed. When Mitchell’s longtime friend Brandi Carlile announced her arrival on the stage with, “This scene shall forever be known henceforth as the Joni Jam!,” Carlile referred to years of recent musical get-togethers in Mitchell’s living room.
The “Joni Jams” at Mitchell’s Los Angeles home included “a very special circle of friends,” music writer and radio host Aimsel Ponti notes, including “Herbie Hancock, Paul McCartney, Elton John and Bonnie Raitt. Mostly, from the way Carlile described it, Joni would crack jokes and take it all in rather than participate all that much.” But she was listening, learning, and becoming inspired by her peers and the younger artists who joined her onstage: Carlile, Wynonna Judd, Marcus Mumford, and others. As Carlile finished her own Newport set, the stage filled with cushiony chairs and couches, and several more musicians.
“We’re here to invite you into the living room,” Carlile says in her passionate introduction (above), while the audience holds their breath awaiting the announcement of her special guest. Then Carlile “told us about all of Joni’s pets and her many orchids and the hidden door to the bathroom,” writes Ponti. “Then she told us how it doesn’t feel complete without Joni there to crack jokes and nod with approval.” Then her hero took the stage to gasps, in a blue beret and sunglasses, and hundreds of fans born too late to see her in her glory days wept as she joined with Carlile on the first song, “Carey.” The New York Times’ Lindsay Zoladz describes the moment:
When Mitchell first came out onstage, she seemed a tad overwhelmed, clinging to her cane and backing up Carlile, who took the lead on a breezy, celebratory “Carey.” But over the course of that song, a visible change came over Mitchell. Her shoulders loosened. She began to shimmy. And all at once she seemed to regain her voice — her voice, sonorous and light, seeming to dance over those balletic melodies at a jazzy tempo all her own.
The first time Mitchell took the stage at Newport in 1967, she came at the behest of Judy Collins. She was a young unknown, about to become a folk goddess. When she returned to Newport in 1969, she was a star in her own right. Over the decades, she has left fans with memories of her performances that they have guarded like treasures as they’ve aged with her. (The Guardian has collected a few of these poignant reminisces.) Now she’s an inspiration to an entirely new young generation and, one hopes, to older artists who might feel they have little left to contribute.
“The 78-year-old Mitchell’s performance,” Kirthana Ramisetti writes at Salon, “showcased an artist transcending the challenges of aging and serious health issues…. To hear music written in the full blossom of her youth, yet performed with a weightiness and knowing perspective from having weathered so much in her life, arguably gave these songs a greater power than when they were first recorded.”
Such is often the case with artists as they mature beyond youthful sentiments and grow into their youthful precocity. (It has been so for Paul Simon, whose own reappearance at Newport this year seems overshadowed by Mitchell’s comeback.) Ramisetti quotes Mitchell’s “The Circle Game,” with which she closed out her surprise set — “We’re captive on the carousel of time / We can’t return, we can only look behind from where we came.”
Watch Mitchell’s full live Newport set (in jumbled order) at the top of the post (or on this playlist), and see the setlist of originals and classic covers from her historic performance just below.
The wordless chorus has become a gimmick in sing-along balladry and throwaway pop. Done badly, it sounds like lazy songwriting or — to take a phrase from Somerset Maugham — “unearned emotion.” At its best, a wordless chorus is a moment of sublimity, expressing beauty or tragedy before which language fails. Either way, it usually starts as a placeholder, in brackets. (As in, “we’ll put something better here when we get around to it.”) Only later in the songwriting process does it become a choice.
In what may be one of the greatest choices of wordless choruses on record, Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Boxer” channels its raw power in only two repeated syllables (and possibly a word?): “Lie-la-lie, Lie-la-lie-lie-lie-lie-lie….” The chorus of Paul Simon’s hit from 1970’s Bridge Over Troubled Water needs no more elaboration than the “arresting whipcrack of a snare drum” (played by wrecking crew drummer Hal Blaine), Dan Einav writes at Financial Times:
[The Boxer] was the result of a painstaking and protracted recording process that took more than 100 hours, used numerous backing musicians and even spanned a number of locations — from Nashville, to St Paul’s Chapel at Columbia University, to the somewhat less ethereal setting of a hallway abutting an echoey elevator shaft at one of Columbia Records’ New York studios.
Simon’s epic narrative song was hardly like “the unvarnished, homespun records that were perhaps more closely associated with folk music at the time,” and that was exactly the idea.
Some saw the “lie-la-lie” as a dig at Bob Dylan’s inauthentic presentation as a Woody Guthrie-like figure. Simon debunked the theory in a 1984 interview quoted in the Polyphonic video at the top. “I think the song was about me: everybody’s beating me up.” He explained the theme of the beaten but unbowed contender as coming out of the figurative drubbing he and Art Garfunkel had taken from the critics:
For the first few years, it was just praise. It took two or three years for people to realize that we weren’t strange creatures that emerged from England but just two guys from Queens who used to sing rock ‘n’ roll. And maybe we weren’t real folkies at all! May we weren’t even hippies!”
He wisely steered the song away from a narrative about a guy who wasn’t even a hippie. And being a guy from Queens, he could tell a New York Story like few others could. Simon references his frustration at being misunderstood, but his protagonist’s struggle to make it in the big city is far more universal than a songwriter’s angst.
The boxer is an “archetypal character representative of the struggle and loneliness that can come with working class life,” notes Polyphonic. “The second verse is a careful portrait of this existence, depicting the boxer as a young man trying to find his footing in a harsh world.”
When I left my home and my family I was no more than a boy In the company of strangers In the quiet of the railway station Running scared Laying low, seeking out the poorer quarters Where the ragged people go Looking for the places Only they would know
The middle-class Simon didn’t live this character’s life, nor did he pursue a boxing career. But his ability to imagine the lives of others through story-songs like “The Boxer” has been one of his greatest strengths as a writer. Simon’s narrative gift served him well over and over in his career, and has served his fans. We can feel the feelings of Simon’s schoolyard delinquent, his frustrated lover looking for a way out, and his bitter, down-and-out tragic hero trying to make it in the big city, whether or not we’ve been there ourselves.
In the videos above, you can learn more about the writing of this classic cry of desperation and struggle from Polyphonic; and, learn about the recording from musicians who played on it, including drummer Hal Blaine. Then, see Simon and Garfunkel fill out the song’s melody with their timeless harmonies live in Central Park, and, just above, see Simon by himself in 2020, playing a solo version dedicated to his fellow New Yorkers combating the fear and suffering of COVID during lockdown.
Some histories tell us more about their narrators than their characters. The story of tattoos in ancient Egypt is one example. While tattoos and other forms of body modification have been part of nearly every ancient culture, Egyptologists have found many more tattooed female than male mummies at ancient burial sites. Since tattooing seemed to be an almost “exclusively female practice in ancient Egypt,” writes archeologist Joann Fletcher, “mummies found with tattoos were usually dismissed by the (male) excavators who seemed to assume the women were of ‘dubious status,’ described in some cases as ‘dancing girls.'”
There is no evidence, however, to suggest that tattoos in ancient Egypt specifically marked dancers, prostitutes, concubines, or individuals of a lower class (and thus of little interest to some early archaeologists). One mummy described as a concubine “was actually a high-status priestess named Amunet, as revealed by her funerary inscriptions.” Early archaeologists stubbornly clung to derogatory 19th-century assumptions about tattoos (and class, dancing, sex, and religion), even when discussing tattooed Egyptian women whose burials obviously showed they were priestesses or extended members of a royal family.
Until relatively recently, “the most conclusive evidence of Egyptian tattoos,” writes Joshua Mark at the World History Encyclopedia, “dates the practice to the Middle Kingdom” — spanning the 11th through the 13th Dynasties (approximately 2040 to 1782 BC). In 2018, however, researchers at the British Museum took another look at two naturally mummified 5,000-year-old Predynastic bodies, one male one female, dating from between 3351 and 3017 BC. They looked specifically for signs of body modification that might have gone unseen by earlier Egyptologists.
Known as the Gebelein predynastic mummies, these bodies are two of six excavated at the end of the 1800s by Egyptologist Sir Wallis Budge. Through the use of CT scanning, radiocarbon dating and infrared imaging, the British Museum has found that previously unexamined marks “push back the evidence for tattooing in Africa by a millennium,” the Museum blog notes, describing the findings in detail.
The male mummy, called “Gebelein Man A,” showed a design on his bicep:
Dark smudges on his arm, appearing as faint markings under natural light, had remained unexamined. Infrared photography recently revealed that these smudges were in fact tattoos of two slightly overlapping horned animals. The horned animals have been tentatively identified as a wild bull (long tail, elaborate horns) and a Barbary sheep (curving horns, humped shoulder). Both animals are well known in Predynastic Egyptian art. The designs are not superficial and have been applied to the dermis layer of the skin, the pigment was carbon-based, possibly some kind of soot.
The female mummy, or “Gebelein Woman,” showed more intelligible markings:
[A] series of four small ‘S’ shaped motifs can be seen running vertically over her right shoulder. Below them on the right arm is a linear motif which is similar to objects held by figures participating in ceremonial activities on painted ceramics of the same period. It may represent a crooked stave, a symbol of power and status, or a throw-stick or baton/clappers used in ritual dance. The ‘S’ motif also appears on Predynastic pottery decoration, always in multiples.
In Middle Kingdom tattooing practices, a series of marks seemed to provide protection, especially in fertility and childbirth rites, functioning as permanent amulets or a kind of practical magic. Even if their meanings remain unclear, Marks writes, it does, “seem evident that they had an array of implications and that women of many different social classes chose to wear them.” And it does seem clear that tattooing was important to ancient, Predynastic men and women, maybe for similar reasons. Tattooing tools have also been found dating from around the same time as the Gebelein mummies, excavated at Abydos and consisting of “sharp metal points with a wooden handle.”
The dating of Gebelein Man A and Gebelein Woman place them as approximate contemporaries of Ötzi, a naturally mummified man covered in tattoos. Discovered in 1991 on the border of Austria and Italy, Ötzi was previously considered the oldest tattooed mummy. You can learn more about how the British Museum re-examined the Gebelein bodies in the “Curator’s Corner” video above with curator of physical anthropology Daniel Antoine. Read more about the findings at the British Museum’s blog and the Journal of Archaeological Science.
“We’re drowning in music,” says Michael Spitzer, professor of music at the University of Liverpool. “If you were born in Beethoven’s time, you’d be lucky if you heard a symphony twice in your lifetime, whereas today, it’s as accessible as running water.” We shouldn’t take music, or running water, for granted, and the comparison should give us pause: do we need music –- for example, nearly any recording of any Beethoven symphony we can think of -– to flow out of the tap on demand? What does it cost us? Might there be a middle way between hearing Beethoven whenever and hearing Beethoven almost never?
The story of how humanity arrived at its current relationship with music is the subject of the Big Think interview with Spitzer above, in which he covers 40,000 years in 8 minutes: “from bone flutes to Beyoncé.” We begin with his thesis that “we in the West” think of music history as the history of great works and great composers. This misconception “tends to reduce music into an object,” and a commodity. Furthermore, we “overvalue the role of the composer,” placing the professional over “most people who are innately musical.” Spitzer wants to recover the universality music once had, before radios, record players, and streaming media.
For nearly all of human history, until Edison invents the phonograph in 1877, we had no way of preserving sound. If people wanted music, they had to make it themselves. And before humans made instruments, we had the human voice, a unique development among primates that allowed us to vocalize our emotions. Spitzer’s book The Musical Human: A History of Life on Earth tells the story of humanity through the development of music, which, as Matthew Lyons points out in a review, came before every other metric of modern human civilization:
The earliest known purpose-built musical instrument is some forty thousand years old. Found at Geissenklösterle in what is now southeastern Germany, it is a flute made from the radial bone of a vulture. Remarkably, the five holes bored into the bone create a five-note, or pentatonic, scale. Which is to say, before agriculture, religion, settlement – all the things we might think of as early signs of civilisation – palaeolithic men and women were already familiar with the concept of pitch.
If music is so critical to our social development as a species, we should learn to treat it with the respect it deserves. We should also, Spitzer argues, learn to play and sing for ourselves again, and think of music not only as a thing that other, more talented people produce for our consumption, but as our own evolutionary inheritance, passed down over tens of thousands of years.
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