Langston Hughes Presents the History of Jazz in an Illustrated Children’s Book (1955)


I can imagine no better guide through the history and variety of jazz than Langston Hughes, voice of the Harlem Renaissance and poetic interpreter of 20th century black American culture. Hughes’ 1955 First Book of Jazz is just that, a short primer with a surprisingly high degree of sophistication for a children’s book. I would, in fact, recommend it as an introduction to jazz for any reader.

Hughes thoroughly covers the musical context of jazz in brief chapters like “African Drums,” “Old New Orleans,” “Work Songs,” “The Blues,” and “Ragtime.” He then “discusses the mechanics of jazz,” writes author and blogger Ariel S. Winter, including “improvisation, syncopation, percussion, rhythm, blue notes, tone color, harmony, break, riff….” Through it all runs the life and career of Louis Armstrong, whose story, Hughes states “is almost the whole story of orchestral jazz in America.”

Old New Orleans

The book is very patriotic in tone, a fact dictated by Hughes’ recent appearance before Senator McCarthy’s Subcommittee, which exonerated him on the condition that he renounce his earlier sympathies for the Communist Party and get with a patriotic program. Having fallen out of favor with the public, Hughes began the nonfiction children’s series to win back readers, also writing the quaintly named cultural history First Book of Negroes and the Whitmanesque First Book of Rhythms. All of the books were illustrated by different artists. The First Book of Jazz received special treatment from popular illustrator Cliff Roberts, who made its pages closely resemble classic album covers by artists like Jim Flora.

Jazz Pianists

Although Hughes may have been somewhat conciliatory in his attitude toward inequality, he nonetheless makes the origins and importance of jazz clear:

A part of American music is jazz, born in the South. Woven into it in the Deep South were the rhythms of African drums that today make jazz music different from any other music in the world. Nobody else ever made jazz before we did. Jazz is American music.

“The particular Americans in question,” writes Winter, “are undeniably black,” and “when Hughes covers the vast array of American styles that went into jazz, they tend to be (as they should be) black interpretations of each musical form.” But as he had always done, whether under pressure from McCarthyism or not, he proudly declares jazz yet another invaluable contribution African-Americans, as well as European immigrants, made to the national culture. However far left his political sympathies, Hughes was always a patriot, in the best sense, an admirer of his country’s achievements and genuine lover of its people.


Although it is a children’s book, Hughes’ First Book of Jazz is still a scholarly one, with a host of references in the Acknowledgements, and a list of famous jazz musicians, and their instruments, at the end. Also rounding out the short course on jazz history and musicianship is a two-part list of “Suggested Records for Study” and one called “100 of My Favorite Recordings.” Hughes even convinced Folkways records to release The Story of Jazz, an LP Hughes narrated with examples of each style of jazz he discusses. You can read the full First Book of Jazz at Winter’s Flickr, where he has posted scans of every page. Vintage copies can be purchased online. See a gallery of Roberts’ full page illustrations here.

First Book

via Brain Pickings

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Washington, DC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Isaac Newton Creates a List of His 57 Sins (Circa 1662)

isaac newton list of sins

Sir Isaac Newton, arguably the most important and influential scientist in history, discovered the laws of motion and the universal force of gravity. For the first time ever, the rules of the universe could be described with the supremely rational language of mathematics. Newton’s elegant equations proved to be one of the inspirations for the Enlightenment, a shift away from the God-centered dogma of the Church in favor of a worldview that placed reason at its center. The many leaders of the Enlightenment turned to deism if not outright atheism. But not Newton.

In 1936, a document of Newton’s dating from around 1662 was sold at a Sotheby’s auction and eventually wound up at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, England. The Fitzwilliam Manuscript has long been a source of fascination for Newton scholars. Not only does the notebook feature a series of increasingly difficult mathematical problems but also a cryptic string of letters reading:

Nabed Efyhik
Wfnzo Cpmfke

If you can solve this, there are some people in Cambridge who would like to talk to you.

But what makes the document really interesting is how incredibly personal it is. Newton rattles off a laundry list of sins he committed during his relatively short life – he was around 20 when he wrote this, a student at Cambridge. He splits the list into two categories, before Whitsunday 1662 and after. (Whitsunday is, by the way, the Sunday of the feast of Whitsun, which is celebrated seven weeks after Easter.) Why he decided on that particular date to bifurcate his timeline isn’t immediately clear.

Some of the sins are rather opaque. I’m not sure what, for instance, “Making a feather while on Thy day” means exactly but it sure sounds like a long lost euphemism. Other sins like “Peevishness with my mother” are immediately relatable as good old-fashioned teenaged churlishness. You can see the full list below. And you can read the full document over at the Newton Project here.

Before Whitsunday 1662

1. Vsing the word (God) openly
2. Eating an apple at Thy house
3. Making a feather while on Thy day
4. Denying that I made it.
5. Making a mousetrap on Thy day
6. Contriving of the chimes on Thy day
7. Squirting water on Thy day
8. Making pies on Sunday night
9. Swimming in a kimnel on Thy day
10. Putting a pin in Iohn Keys hat on Thy day to pick him.
11. Carelessly hearing and committing many sermons
12. Refusing to go to the close at my mothers command.
13. Threatning my father and mother Smith to burne them and the house over them
14. Wishing death and hoping it to some
15. Striking many
16. Having uncleane thoughts words and actions and dreamese.
17. Stealing cherry cobs from Eduard Storer
18. Denying that I did so
19. Denying a crossbow to my mother and grandmother though I knew of it
20. Setting my heart on money learning pleasure more than Thee
21. A relapse
22. A relapse
23. A breaking again of my covenant renued in the Lords Supper.
24. Punching my sister
25. Robbing my mothers box of plums and sugar
26. Calling Dorothy Rose a jade
27. Glutiny in my sickness.
28. Peevishness with my mother.
29. With my sister.
30. Falling out with the servants
31. Divers commissions of alle my duties
32. Idle discourse on Thy day and at other times
33. Not turning nearer to Thee for my affections
34. Not living according to my belief
35. Not loving Thee for Thy self.
36. Not loving Thee for Thy goodness to us
37. Not desiring Thy ordinances
38. Not long {longing} for Thee in {illeg}
39. Fearing man above Thee
40. Vsing unlawful means to bring us out of distresses
41. Caring for worldly things more than God
42. Not craving a blessing from God on our honest endeavors.
43. Missing chapel.
44. Beating Arthur Storer.
45. Peevishness at Master Clarks for a piece of bread and butter.
46. Striving to cheat with a brass halfe crowne.
47. Twisting a cord on Sunday morning
48. Reading the history of the Christian champions on Sunday

Since Whitsunday 1662

49. Glutony
50. Glutony
51. Vsing Wilfords towel to spare my own
52. Negligence at the chapel.
53. Sermons at Saint Marys (4)
54. Lying about a louse
55. Denying my chamberfellow of the knowledge of him that took him for a sot.
56. Neglecting to pray 3
57. Helping Pettit to make his water watch at 12 of the clock on Saturday night

via JF Ptak Science Books/Public Domain Review

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Jonathan Crow is a Los Angeles-based writer and filmmaker whose work has appeared in Yahoo!, The Hollywood Reporter, and other publications. You can follow him at @jonccrow. And check out his blog Veeptopus, featuring lots of pictures of badgers and even more pictures of vice presidents with octopuses on their heads.  The Veeptopus store is here.

President Obama Chats with David Simon About Drugs, The Wire & Omar

Back in 2012, President Obama, already on record as being a fan of The Wire, was asked by ESPN to name his favorite character on the show, to which he replied “It’s got to be Omar, right? I mean, that guy is unbelievable, right?” Fast forward to 2015, and we find Mr. Obama hosting David Simon (the creator of The Wire) at the White House, and having a frank conversation about the TV show and the war on drugs, and what lessons we’ve learned along the way. Of course, the conversation doesn’t end without Omar getting a mention … or without us getting to see Obama as TV host. A sign of what’s to come after 2016?

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The Visionary Thought of Marshall McLuhan, Introduced and Demystified by Tom Wolfe

Marshall McLuhan and Tom Wolfe: both writers, both astute observers of modern humanity, and both public figures whose work has, over the years, enjoyed high fashionability and endured high unfashionability. You might think the connection between them ends there. But when the 100th anniversary of McLuhan’s birth and the centennial-celebrating site Marshall McLuhan Speaks came about, whose eloquent introduction to the thinker (who famously declared the world a “global village” where “the medium is the message”) got used there? Why, the man in white’s.

In the 20-minute video above, Wolfe lays out not just a précis of the insights that made McLuhan “the first seer of cyberspace,” but gets into his biography as well: his humbly respectable origins in Edmonton, his background as a literary scholar, his conversion to Catholicism, the beginnings of his teaching career in Cambridge and Wisconsin, his “extracurricular gatherings devoted to the folklore of industrial man,” his struggle to reconcile his interest in the writings of philosopher-paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin with his own religious convictions, and the considerable fame he accrued making pronouncements on the media in the media.

“No doubt the internet would have delighted him,” says Wolfe. “He would have seen it as a fulfillment of prophecies he had made thirty years before it was born, as an instrument for the realization of his dream of the mystical unity of all mankind. [Watch him predict the world would be knitted into a global village by digital technology in some vintage video.] Here, in a specific, physical, electronic form, was the seamless web of which he had so often spoken. Today thousands of young internet apostles are familiar with Marshall McLuhan, and are convinced his light shines round about them. From the editors of Wired magazine to the most miserable dot-com lizards of the chat room, they have made him their patron saint.”

To get an even deeper sense of how much Wolfe has thought about McLuhan, have a look at his first annual Marshall McLuhan Lecture, delivered at Fordham University in 1999. And unlike many intellectuals who only turned back to re-examine McLuhan after the age of the internet had retroactively validated even some of his wildest-sounding speculations, Wolfe has been tuned in to McLuhan’s frequency since way back. In 1970, the two even got together for a televised chat in McLuhan’s back yard (a clip of which you can watch just above), which revealed that, for all the fascination Wolfe had with McLuhan, the interest was mutual.

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Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture as well as the video series The City in Cinema and writes essays on cities, language, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

How Can I Know Right From Wrong? Watch Philosophy Animations on Ethics Narrated by Harry Shearer

The history of moral philosophy in the West hinges principally on a handful of questions: Is there a God of some sort? An afterlife? Free will? And, perhaps most pressingly for humanists, what exactly is the nature of our obligations to others? The latter question has long occupied philosophers like Immanuel Kant, whose extreme formulation—the “categorical imperative”—flatly rules out making ethical decisions dependent upon particular situations. Kant’s famous example, one that generally gets repeated with a nod to Godwin, involves an axe murderer showing up at your door and asking for the whereabouts of a visiting friend. In Kant’s estimation, telling a lie in this case justifies telling a lie at any time, for any reason. Therefore, it is unethical.

In the video at the top of the post, Harry Shearer narrates a script about Kant’s maxim written by philosopher Nigel Warburton, with whimsical illustrations provided by Cognitive. Part of the BBC and Open University’s “A History of Ideas” series, the video—one of four dealing with moral philosophy—also explains how Kant’s approach to ethics differs from those of utilitarianism.

In the video above, Shearer describes that most utilitarian of thought experiments, the “Trolley Problem.” As described by philosopher Philippa Foot, this scenario imagines having to sacrifice the life of one for those of many. But there is a twist—the second version, which involves the added crime of physically murdering one person, up close and personal, to save several. An analogous but converse theory is that of Princeton philosopher Peter Singer (below) who proposes that our obligations to people in peril right in front of us equal our obligations to those on the other side of the world.

Finally, the last video surveys one of the thorniest issues in moral philosophical history—the “is/ought” divide, as problematic as the ancient Euthyphro dilemma. How, asked David Hume, are we to deduce moral principles from facts about the world that have no moral dimension? Particularly when those facts are never conclusive, are subject to revision, and when new ones get uncovered all the time? The question introduces a seemingly unbridgeable chasm between facts and values. Moral judgments founded on what is or isn’t “natural” flounder before our terror of much of what nature does, and the very partial and fallible nature of our knowledge of it.

The problem is as startling as Hume’s critique of causality, and in part caused Kant to remark that Hume had awakened him from a “dogmatic slumber.” What may strike viewers of the series is just how abstract these questions and examples are—how divorced from the messiness of real world politics, with the exception, perhaps, of Peter Singer. It may be instructive that political philosophy forms a separate branch in the West. While these problems are certainly difficult enough to trouble the sleep of just about any thoughtful person, in our day-to-day lives, our decision making process seems to be much messier, and much more situational, than we’re probably ever aware of.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness


Leo Tolstoy’s 17 “Rules of Life:” Wake at 5am, Help the Poor, & Only Two Brothel Visits Per Month

tolstoy rules 2

Many aspiring epic novelists surely wouldn’t mind writing like Leo Tolstoy. But can you write like the writer you admire without living like the writer you admire? Biographies reveal plenty of facts about how the author of such immortal volumes as War and Peace and Anna Karenina passed his 82 years, none more telling than that even Leo Tolstoy struggled to live like Leo Tolstoy. “I must get used to the idea, once and for all, that I am an exceptional human being,” he wrote in 1853, at age 25, underscoring that “I have not met one man who is morally as good as I am, or ready to sacrifice everything for his ideal, as I am.”

Clearly, excessive modesty didn’t count among Tolstoy’s faults. Seven years before making that declaration, he had already envisioned for himself a life of virtue and industry, laying out what he called his “rules of life,” perhaps a foreshadowing of his search for a rigorously religious life without belief in a higher being. The website Tolstoy Therapy has posted a selection of these rules, which commanded him as follows:

  • Wake at five o’clock
  • Go to bed no later than ten o’clock
  • Two hours permissible for sleeping during the day
  • Eat moderately
  • Avoid sweet foods
  • Walk for an hour every day
  • Visit a brothel only twice a month
  • Love those to whom I could be of service
  • Disregard all public opinion not based on reason
  • Only do one thing at a time
  • Disallow flights of imagination unless necessary

To this list of precepts drawn up at the dawn of his adult life, most of which wouldn’t seem out of place as any of our 21st-century new year’s resolutions, Tolstoy later added these:

  • Never to show emotion
  • Stop caring about other people’s opinion of myself
  • Do good things inconspicuously
  • Keep away from women
  • Suppress lust by working hard
  • Help those less fortunate

Even if you haven’t read much about Tolstoy’s life, you may sense in some of these general principles evidence of battles with particular impulses: observe, for instance, how his twice-monthly limit on brothel visits becomes the much more stringent and much less realistic forbiddance of women entirely. But perhaps his technique of working hard, however well or poorly it suppressed his lust (the man did father fourteen children, after all), benefited him in the end, given the vast and (often literally) weighty body of work he left behind.

“Between ‘rules of life’ and life itself, what a chasm!” exclaims biographer Henri Troyat in Tolstoy. But as rich with interest as we find books like that, we ultimately care about writers not because of how they live, but because of how they write. The young Tolstoy knew that, too; “the publication of Childhood and ‘The Raid’ having made him, in his own eyes, a genuine man of letters,” writes Troyat, “he soon added no less peremptory ‘Rules of Writing’ to his ‘Rules of Life’:”

  • When you criticize your work, always put yourself in the position of the most limited reader, who is looking only for entertainment in a book.
  • The most interesting books are those in which the author pretends to hide his own opinion and yet remains faithful to it.
  • When rereading and revising, do not think about what should be added (no matter how admirable the thoughts that come to mind) … but about how much can be taken away without distorting the overall meaning.

Then again, War and Peace has in the modern day become a byword for sheer length, and few readers not already steeped in 19th-century Russian literature would turn to Tolstoy for pure entertainment. Perhaps the writer’s life implicitly adds one caveat atop all the ever-stricter rules he made for himself while living it: nobody’s perfect.

via Tolstoy Therapy

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Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture as well as the video series The City in Cinema and writes essays on cities, language, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Download Images From Rad American Women A-Z: A New Picture Book on the History of Feminism

patti smith letter

The next time story hour rolls around, you can give a mouse a cookie or you can awaken pre-readers (and yourself) to some key figures in women’s history. 26 of them, to be precise. It’s no accident that that number corresponds to the exact number of letters in the alphabet.

Author Kate Schatz and illustrator Miriam Klein Stahl actively sought to include women of color and a variety of sexual orientations when choosing whom to feature in Rad American Women A To Z, a progressive feminist text cum ABC primer. (Illustrations from the book, like the ones featured on this page, can be downloaded here for free.)

odetta letter

Hopefully Gloria Steinem was not too upset to learn that G is for the Grimke sisters. Actually, I suspect that the second wave’s most recognizable superstar would be pleased if readers are moved to educate themselves as to some of the book’s more obscure references.

ursula letter

B is for Billie Jean King who whooped male chauvinist pig Bobby Riggs on the court in 1973’s Battle of the Sexes. I remember her! A Billie and Bobby-themed pumpkin took top honors in my school’s Halloween carving contest that year.

It’s funny how when a woman does something they always think we only affect half of the population, and people will come up to me and say thanks for what you did for women’s tennis all the time, and I know they’d never say that to a guy.

E is for civil rights activist Ella Baker, a secretary who rose through the ranks of the NAACP to become director of branches. She recognized the press often overlooked her role, as did history.

You didn’t see me on television, you didn’t see news stories about me. The kind of role that I tried to play was to pick up pieces or put together pieces out of which I hoped organization might come. My theory is, strong people don’t need strong leaders.

J is for Jovita Idar, educator and cofounder of the Mexican Feminist League.

Mexican children in Texas need an education…. There is no other means to do it but ourselves, so that we are not devalued and humiliated by the strangers who surround us. 

Godmother of Punk Patti Smith, author Ursula K. La Guin, and Odetta, legendary blues singer and “Voice of the Civil Rights Movement,” are among the marquee names to be canonized. See their illustrations above.

To get all 26 illustrations in a downloadable format, click here. To order your own copy of the book, go here.

via Good

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine. Follow her @AyunHalliday

George Mason Students Create Revolutionary Fire Extinguisher That Uses Sound Waves to Blow Out Fires

If you haven’t seen it already: two George Mason University engineering students — Viet Tran and Seth Robertson — have created a potentially revolutionary device, a new-fangled fire extinguisher, that uses low-frequency sound waves to snuff out fires. According to TechExplore, Tran (a computer engineering major) and Seth Robertson (double e major) “started with the simple idea that sound waves are also mechanical or  (due to the back and forth motion of the medium in which they pass through), which can cause an impact on objects.” Through trial and error, the students figured out that ultra-high frequencies didn’t do very much, but lower frequencies (in the 30 to 60 Hertz range) can blow a small fire right out. Just watch above.

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