Watch “Geometry of Circles,” the Abstract Sesame Street Animation Scored by Philip Glass (1979)

Look into the childhood of any highly innovative American artist of the past couple generations, and you’ll probably find at least a trace of Sesame Street. The long-running children’s public television series, though widely regarded as a sound source of entertainment and education for the country’s youngsters, has also done more than its part to expose its quite literally growing audience to the vast possibilities of creation. This has proven especially so in the realm of music, where the show’s performing guests have included Herbie Hancock, Nina Simone, and Grace Slick — to name just three of the ones we’ve previously featured here.

But Sesame Street, known in its heyday for a steadfast refusal to talk down to its viewers, no matter how small, has also demonstrated a reach far outside rock, pop, and soul. In 1979 it aired “Geometry of Circles,” a series of four animations with music by minimalist, “repetitive structure”-oriented composer Philip Glass, who turns 80 years old today. Producer Cathryn Aison, according to the Muppet Wiki, commissioned Glass to score her visual work, whose storyboards had already gotten the go-ahead from Children’s Television Workshop.

The music she received from Glass to accompany this show of shape, line, and color “underscores the animation in a style that closely resembles the ‘Dance’ numbers and the North Star vignettes written during the same time period as his Einstein on the Beach opera.”

“Glass has written scores to The Truman Show and Notes on a Scandal and his style is much imitated,” writes Telegraph “opera novice” Sameer Rahim by way of background on the composer’s wide range of other work in a review of his five-hour formalist collaboration with experimental theater director Robert Wilson. “Anyone, like me, born in 1981 has absorbed his musical grammar without realising.” Though a few years too young to have caught “Geometry of Circles” in its first run (and having grown up in the wrong country in any case), the willingness of creators like Glass to work in all kinds of settings, and the willingness of venues like Sesame Street to have them, planted the seeds for countless careers, both today’s and tomorrow’s, in art, in mathematics, and no doubt even in experimental opera.

Below you can listen to an 47-track collection of Glass’ work. The Spotify playlist is simply called, “This is: Philip Glass.” If you need Spotify’s free software, download it here.

Related Content:

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‘The Ballad of the Skeletons’: Allen Ginsberg’s 1996 Collaboration with Philip Glass and Paul McCartney

Watch Jazzy Spies: 1969 Psychedelic Sesame Street Animation, Featuring Grace Slick, Teaches Kids to Count

Watch Nina Simone Sing the Black Pride Anthem, “To Be Young, Gifted and Black,” on Sesame Street (1972)

Watch Herbie Hancock Rock Out on an Early Synthesizer on Sesame Street (1983)


Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Joan Jett Sings “Love is All Around,” the Theme Song from The Mary Tyler Moore Show

There’s lots of sturm und drang here in America–enough that we didn’t get to pay our respects to Mary Tyler Moore, an icon of 1960s and 1970s television.

Above, we give you our favorite tribute. Joan Jett performing a sweet rocking cover of “Love is All Around,” the original theme song from The Mary Tyler Moore Show. If you came of age during the 70s, you’ll surely know the song.

Jett’s performance was recorded on The Late Show With David Letterman back in 1996.

Mary, you will be missed.

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Willie Nelson and His Famous Guitar: The Tale of Trigger: Watch the Short Film Narrated by Woody Harrelson

There are those albums that can change someone’s perception of an entire genre of music. Willie Nelson’s Red Headed Stranger was such an album for me. But Nelson’s approach on his 1975 concept record not only challenged my preconceptions, it challenged the sureties of the country scene of the time. By perfecting the music’s capacity for aching beauty and sadness in spare, austere folk songs, Nelson paradoxically expanded its possibilities. His fellow artists thought it was “practically blasphemous and insubordinate,” notes Kelsey Butterworth, “to record country in so sparing a manner.”

Record buyers disagreed. Nelson fans loved Red-Headed Stranger’s dusty, wide open spaces, its ballads full of loneliness and regret. Without the overwrought production so many country singers received at the time, the songs became showcases for the plaintive cragginess of Nelson’s voice, and for the unmistakable sound of Trigger, his famous Martin N-20 classical, “a gorgeous instrument,” writes Texas Monthly, “with a warm, sweet tone,” bought in 1969 by “a struggling country singer, a guy who had a pig farm, a failing marriage, and a crappy record deal.”

Trigger has been with Willie Nelson ever since, a companion as faithful as the horse it’s named after. The instrument is famous, mostly, for its beat-up condition, including a large hole near the bridge. But in the video above from Rolling Stone (narrated by Woody Harrelson) we learn much more about the relationship between man and guitar. The love was first kindled by Nelson finding in Trigger the tone he had been searching for—the tone of his guitar hero Django Reinhardt, “the best guitar player ever.”

But in Nelson’s hands, and playing his songs, Trigger became the distinctive sound of so much Outlaw Country, the “blasphemous and insubordinate” subgenre pioneered by Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash and others. “You hear that guitar,” says luthier Mark Erlewine, “even without him singing, and you go, ‘That’s Trigger.’” I think even casual fans of Nelson who only know his greatest hits can instantly pick up on the distinctiveness of his guitar’s mellow voice. “There’s a Hoodoo about Trigger,” says Erlewine, “that you just can’t mess with it.”

The biography of Trigger is inseparable from the story of Willie Nelson’s rise to fame, and we get a brief tour of his career above. Nelson began as a traditional buttoned-up Nashville crooner, but he decided to retire his act and move back to Texas to farm. Then he found Trigger. That meeting of player and guitar possibly reinvigorated Nelson’s entire career, inspiring his move to Austin and his complete reinvention of country music.

“Willie Nelson and His Famous Guitar: The Tale of Trigger” will be added to our collection, 4,000+ Free Movies Online: Great Classics, Indies, Noir, Westerns, Documentaries & More.

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

Albert Camus, Editor of the French Resistance Newspaper Combat, Writes Movingly About Life, Politics & War (1944-47)

Image by United Press International, via Wikimedia Commons

When totalitarian regimes around the world are in power, writing that tells the truth—whether literary, journalistic, scientific, or legal—effectively serves as counter-propaganda. To write honestly is to expose: to uncover what is hidden, stand apart from it, and observe. These actions are anathema to dictatorships. But they are integral to resistance movements, which must develop their own press in order to disseminate ideas other than official state dogma.

For the French Resistance during World War II, one such publication that served the purpose came from a cell called “Combat,” which gave its name to the underground newspaper to which Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus both contributed during and after the war. Camus became Combat’s editor and editorial writer between 1944 and 1947. During his tenure, he “was suspicious,” writes Michael McDonald, and he urged his readers to “be suspicious of those who speak the loudest in defense of democratic ideals and absolutes but whose goal is to instill fear in opponents and to silence dissent.”

Camus witnessed and recorded the liberation of France from the Nazi occupation in moving passages like this one:

Paris is firing all its ammunition into the August night. Against a vast backdrop of water and stone, on both sides of a river awash with history, freedom’s barricades are once again being erected. Once again justice must be redeemed with men’s blood.

After the previously unthinkable event that ended the war in the Pacific, the 1945 bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Camus explicitly critiqued the “formidable concert” of opinion impressed with fact that “any average city can be wiped out by a bomb the size of a football.” Against these “eloquent essays,” he wrote darkly,

We can sum it up in one sentence: our technical civilization has just reached its greatest level of savagery. We will have to choose, in the more or less near future, between collective suicide and the intelligent use of our scientific conquests.

Camus heavily documented the early post-war years in France, as the country slowly reconstituted itself, and as coalitions formerly united in resistance collapsed into competing factions. He was alarmed by not only by the fascists on the right, but by the many French socialists seduced by Stalinism. The very next month after the liberation of Paris, Camus began addressing the “problem of government” in an essay titled “To Make Democracy.” Government, writes Camus, “is, to a great extent our problem, as it is indeed the problem of everyone,” but he prefaced his own position with, “we do not believe in politics without clear language.”

By December of 1944, a few months before the fall of Berlin, Camus had grown deeply reflective, expressing attitudes found in many eyewitness accounts. “France has lived through many tragedies,” he wrote, and “will live through many more.” The tragedy of the war, he wrote, was “the tragedy of separation.”

Who would dare speak the word “happiness” in these tortured times? Yet millions today continue to seek happiness. These years have been for them only a prolonged postponement, at the end of which they hope to find that the possibility for happiness has been renewed. Who could blame them? … We entered this war not because of any love of conquest, but to defend a certain notion of happiness. Our desire for happiness was so fierce and pure that it seemed to justify all the years of unhappiness. Let us retain the memory of this happiness and of those who have lost it.

These lucid, passionate essays “include little that is obsolete,” wrote Stanley Hoffman at Foreign Affairs in 2006. “Indeed it is shocking to find how current Camus’ fears, exhortations, and aspirations still are.” Hoffman particularly found Camus’ demand “for morality in politics” compelling. Though “deemed naïve… [by] many other philosophers and writers of his time,” Camus’ insistence on clarity of thought and ethical choice made for what he called “a modest political philosophy… free of all messianic elements and devoid of any nostalgia for an earthly paradise.” How sobering those words sound in our current moment.

Camus’ Combat essays have been collected in Princeton University Press’s Camus at Combat: Writing 1944-1947 and in Between Hell and Reason: Essays from the Resistance Newspaper Combat, 1944-1947 from Wesleyan.

Related Content:

Albert Camus: The Madness of Sincerity — 1997 Documentary Revisits the Philosopher’s Life & Work

Albert Camus Talks About Nihilism & Adapting Dostoyevsky’s The Possessed for the Theatre, 1959

Albert Camus’ Historic Lecture, “The Human Crisis,” Performed by Actor Viggo Mortensen

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

1,000 Musicians Play Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” Live, at the Same Time

In July of 2015, 1,000 musicians gathered together in Cesena, Italy and performed in unison a rollicking version of the Foo Fighters’ song “Learn to Fly.”

Now, they’re back and playing the best-known song from Dave Grohl’s earlier band. We’re talking, of course, about Nirvana’s hit, “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”

Here we are now. Entertain us. Ladies and gentlemen, the world’s largest rock band.

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If you would like to support the mission of Open Culture, consider making a donation to our site. It’s hard to rely 100% on ads, and your contributions will help us continue providing the best free cultural and educational materials to learners everywhere. You can contribute through PayPal, Patreon, and Venmo (@openculture). Thanks!

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Henry David Thoreau on When Civil Disobedience Against Bad Governments Is Justified: An Animated Introduction

“In March 1845, the United States acquired a new president – James K. Polk – a forceful, aggressive political outsider intent on strengthening his country and asserting its pre-eminence in front of other world powers, especially Mexico and Great Britain,” says The Book of Life. “Within a year of his inauguration, he had declared full-scale war on Mexico because of squabbles over the Texan border, and was soon rattling his saber at Britain over the ownership of Oregon. To complete the picture, Polk was a vigorous defender of slavery, who dismissed the arguments of abolitionists as naive and sentimental.” How did Americans who disagreed with this vicious-sounding character endure his term?

Though Polk did enjoy popular support, “a sizeable minority of the citizenry disliked him intensely,” especially a certain citizen by the name of Henry David Thoreau. The author of Walden; or, Life in the Woods believed that “true patriots were not those who blindly followed their administration” but “those who followed their own consciences and in particular, the principles of reason,” even when it meant publicly standing against not just the man in office but the many who agree with him, or even when it meant running afoul of the laws of the land. He elucidated the principles behind this position in the 1849 essay “Civil Disobedience,” which Josh Jones wrote about here last November.

The animated video above from Alain de Botton’s School of Life, also the producer of The Book of Life, places Thoreau’s ideas on the role of the individual versus the state in the context of Thoreau’s life — one he lived without fear of, say, getting thrown into jail for refusing to pay taxes to what he saw as an immoral state. “Under a government which imprisons any unjustly,” the transcendentalist figurehead declares in “Civil Disobedience,” “the true place for a just man is a prison.” Well over a century and half on, Thoreau still reminds us that political systems, no matter how long they last, remain ever subject to breakdown, adjustment, and even dismantling and rebuilding at the hands of the rulers and the ruled alike. Politics, as history occasionally and forcefully reminds us, is negotiation without end, and sometimes negotiations have to get ugly.

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Read the CIA’s Simple Sabotage Field Manual: A Timeless, Kafkaesque Guide to Subverting Any Organization with “Purposeful Stupidity” (1944)

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Hannah Arendt on “Personal Responsibility Under Dictatorship:” Better to Suffer Than Collaborate

Image by Bernd Schwabe, via Wikimedia Commons

When Eichmann in JerusalemHannah Arendt’s book about Nazi officer Adolf Eichmann’s trialcame out in 1963, it contributed one of the most famous of post-war ideas to the discourse, the “banality of evil.” And the concept at first caused a critical furor. “Enormous controversy centered on what Arendt had written about the conduct of the trial, her depiction of Eichmann, and her discussion of the role of the Jewish Councils,” writes Michael Ezra at Dissent magazine “Eichmann, she claimed, was not a ‘monster’; instead, she suspected, he was a ‘clown.’”

Arendt blamed victims who were forced to collaborate, critics charged, and made the Nazi officer seem ordinary and unremarkable, relieving him of the extreme moral weight of his responsibility. She answered these charges in an essay titled “Personal Responsibility Under Dictatorship,” published in 1964. Here, she aims to clarify the question in her title by arguing that if Eichmann were allowed to represent a monstrous and inhuman system, rather than shockingly ordinary human beings, his conviction would make him a scapegoat and let others off the hook. Instead, she believes that everyone who worked for the regime, whatever their motives, is complicit and morally culpable.

But although most people are culpable of great moral crimes, those who collaborated were not, in fact, criminals. On the contrary, they chose to follow the rules in a demonstrably criminal regime. It’s a nuance that becomes a stark moral challenge. Arendt points out that everyone who served the regime agreed to degrees of violence when they had other options, even if those might be fatal. Quoting Mary McCarthy, she writes, “If somebody points a gun at you and says, ‘Kill your friend or I will kill you,’ he is tempting you, that is all.”

While this circumstance may provide a “legal excuse,” for killing, Arendt seeks to define a “moral issue,” a Socratic principle she had “taken for granted” that we all believed: “It is better to suffer than do wrong,” even when doing wrong is the law. People like Eichmann were not criminals and psychopaths, Arendt argued, but rule-followers protected by social privilege. “It was precisely the members of respectable society,” she writes, “who had not been touched by the intellectual and moral upheaval in the early stages of the Nazi period, who were the first to yield. They simply exchanged one system of values against another,” without reflecting on the morality of the entire new system.

Those who refused, on the other hand, who even “chose to die,” rather than kill, did not have “highly developed intelligence or sophistication in moral matters.” But they were critical thinkers practicing what Socrates called a “silent dialogue between me and myself,” and they refused to face a future where they would have to live with themselves after committing or enabling atrocities. We must remember, Arendt writes, that “whatever else happens, as long as we live we shall have to live together with ourselves.”

Such refusals to participate might be small and private and seemingly ineffectual, but in large enough numbers, they would matter. “All governments,” Arendt writes, quoting James Madison, “rest on consent,” rather than abject obedience. Without the consent of government and corporate employees, the “leader… would be helpless.” Arendt admits the unlikely effectiveness of active opposition to a one-party authoritarian state. And yet when people feel most powerless, most under duress, she writes, an honest “admission of one’s own impotence” can give us “a last remnant of strength” to refuse.

We have only for a moment to imagine what would happen to any of these forms of government if enough people would act “irresponsibly” and refuse support, even without active resistance and rebellion, to see how effective a weapon this could be. It is in fact one of the many variations of nonviolent action and resistance—for instance the power that is potential in civil disobedience.

We have example after example of these kinds of refusals to participate in a murderous system or further its aims. Arendt was aware these actions can come at great cost. The alternatives, she argues, may be far worse.

Related Content:

Hannah Arendt Explains How Propaganda Uses Lies to Erode All Truth & Morality: Insights from The Origins of Totalitarianism

Hannah Arendt’s Original Articles on “the Banality of Evil” in the New Yorker Archive

Henry David Thoreau on When Civil Disobedience and Resistance Are Justified (1849)

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

The Harlem Jazz Singer Who Inspired Betty Boop: Meet the Original Boop-Oop-a-Doop, “Baby Esther”

Jazz Age cartoon flapper, Betty Boop, inhabits that rare pantheon of stars whose fame has not dimmed with time.

While she was never alive per se, her ten year span of active film work places her somewhere between James Dean and Marilyn Monroe. The market for Boop-collectibles is so vast, a definitive guide was published in 2003. Most recently, Betty has popped up on prepaid debit cards and emoji, and inspired fashion’s enfant terrible Jean Paul Gaultier to create a fragrance in her honor.

As noted in the brief history in the video above, Betty hailed from animator Max Fleischer’s Fleischer Studios and actress Margie Hines provided her voice.

Physically, she bore a close resemblance to popular singer Helen Kane. Their babyish vocal stylings were remarkably similar, too. But when Betty put the bite on a couple of Kane’s hits, below, Kane fought back with a lawsuit against Paramount and Max Fleischer Studios, seeking damages and an injunction which would have prevented them from making more Betty Boop cartoons.

The Associated Press reported that Kane confounded the court stenographer who had no idea how to spell the Boopsian utterances she reproduced before the judge, in an effort to establish ownership. Her case seemed pretty solid until the defense called Lou Bolton, a theatrical manager whose client roster had once included Harlem jazz singer,“Baby Esther” Jones.

Two years before Betty Boop debuted (as an anthropomorphic poodle) in the cartoon short, Dizzy Dishes, above, Kane and her manager took in Baby Esther’s act in New York. A couple of weeks’ later the nonsensical interjections that were part of Baby Esther’s schtick, below, began creeping into Kane’s performances.

According to the Associated Press, Bolton testified that:

Baby Esther made funny expressions and interpolated meaningless sounds at the end of each bar of music in her songs.

“What sounds did she interpolate?” asked Louis Phillips, a defense attorney.

“Boo-Boo-Boo!” recited Bolton.

“What other sounds?”


“Any others?”

“Yes, Wha-Da-Da-Da!”

Baby Esther herself did not attend the trial, and did not much benefit from Kane’s loss. Casual cartoon historians are far more likely to identify Kane as the inspiration for the animated Boop-oop-a-doop girl. You can hear Kane on cds and Spotify, but you won’t find Baby Esther.

With a bit more digging, however, you will find Gertrude Saunders – the given name of “Baby Esther” – belting it out on Spotify. Some of her intonations are a bit reminiscent of Bessie Smith… who hated her (not without reason). Saunders appeared in a few movies and died in 1991.

via Urban Intellectuals

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Her play Zamboni Godot is opening in New York City in March 2017. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

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