New Digital Archive Opens Access to Thousands of Digitized African American Funeral Programs (1886-2019)

Funeral rites, burials, and other rituals are held near-universally sacred, not only due to religious and cultural beliefs about death: We preserve our connection to our ancestors through the records of their births and deaths. For many Black Americans in the U.S. south, grief and loss have been compounded by centuries of violence and tragedy, but funerals have still tended to be “celebrations of life” rather than mournful events, says Derek Mosley, archivist at the Auburn Avenue Research Library on African American Culture and History.” African American “funeral programs tend to reflect that,” and therefore offer a wealth of information for historians and genealogists as well as family members.

Mosley is a contributor to a new digital archive that “currently boasts more than 11,500 digitized pages and is expected to grow as more programs are contributed.” These historical documents date from between 1886 to 2019, though “most of the programs are from services during the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries,” notes the Digital Library of Georgia, who houses the collection. “A majority of the programs are from churches in the Atlanta, Georgia area, with a few programs from other states such as South Carolina, Tennessee, Florida, Michigan, New Jersey, and New York, among others.”

The archive offers an incredible resource for people looking for information about relatives. For researchers “these documents also represent a gold mine of archival information,” Nora McGreevy writes at Smithsonian, including “birth and death dates, photos, lists of relatives, nicknames, maiden names, residences, church names, and other clues that can help reveal the stories of the deceased.”

In many cases, those stories were lost when Jim Crow, poverty, and redevelopment displaced families and erased burial sites. The collection, says Mosley, offers “a public space for legacy.”

It is a way for local historians to recover important community figures. One program, for Dr. J.W.E. Linder, “who died in 1939,” Atlas Obscura’s Matthew Taub writes, “and whose memorial service was held in 1940” informs us that the deceased was the son of “Congressman George W. Linder, of the Georgia House of Representatives during the Reconstruction Period.” In the program for Judge Austin Thomas Walden, who died in 1965, we learn that he served as the first municipal judge in Georgia since Reconstruction. His benediction was delivered by the Reverend Martin Luther King Sr. and he received tributes from the Mayor of Atlanta, the President of Morehouse College, and the office of President Johnson.

Such pillars of the community can be found among a host of programs memorializing ordinary, everyday people. The descriptions in the funeral literature open fascinating windows onto their lives and their extended family connections. Mrs. Julia Burton’s program from 1960, for example, tells us she was born on the plantation where her parents were likely enslaved. Her obituary not only describes her many clubs and her character as “a well-informed person in many areas,” but also lists the names of her husband and son, three granddaughters, two grandsons, two sisters, and two brothers—invaluable information for people searching for relatives.

“The challenge for African American genealogy and family research continues to be the lack of free access to historical information that can enable us to the tell the stories of those who have come before us,” remarks Tammy Ozier, president of the Atlanta Chapter of the Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society. “This monumental collection helps to close the gap.” As it grows, it will likely come to represent greater geographical areas around the country. For now, the roughly 3300 digitized funeral programs, some a single page, some elaborate, full-color productions, focus on an area to which thousands of families around the country can trace their lineage, and to which many may find their way back through public archives like this one.

via Atlas Obscura

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

Behold 19th-Century Japanese Firemen’s Coats, Richly Decorated with Mythical Heroes & Symbols

Some firemen today may complain about the boredom of all the time spent doing nothing at the station between calls, but when the hour comes to do battle with a serious blaze, no one can say they have it easy. Firefighting has, of course, never been a particularly relaxed gig, especially back in the days before not just water cannon-equipped helicopters, and not just fire engines, but fire hoses as we know them today. Putting out urban conflagrations without much water at hand is one thing, but imagine having to do it every day in a densely packed, highly flammable city like Tokyo — or rather Edo, as it was known between the early 17th and mid-19th centuries.

“Fires were frequent during this period because of crowded living conditions and wooden buildings, and the firefighters’ objective was to prevent a burning house from spreading its flames to the neighboring residences,” writes Antique Trader’s Kris Manty. With only weak water pumps at their disposal, Edo firemen “did not save the home, but rather tore down the burning structure and extinguished the fire. They did this by using long poles and other fire implements to demolish the blazing house and once the fire was doused, the surrounding homes were once again safe.” In peacetime they “emerged as latter-day samurai heroes, with the motto, ‘duty, sympathy and endurance'” — and bedecked in truly glorious handmade coats.

“Each firefighter in a given brigade was outfitted with a special reversible coat (hikeshi banten), plain but for the name of the brigade on one side and decorated with richly symbolic imagery on the other,” says the Public Domain Review, where you can behold a gallery of such garments.

“These coats would be worn plain-side out and thoroughly soaked in water before the firefighters entered the scene of the blaze. No doubt the men wore them this way round to protect the dyed images from damage, but they were probably also concerned with protecting themselves, as they went about their dangerous work, through direct contact with the heroes and creatures represented on the insides of these beautiful garments.”

At the top of the post appears an example of an Edo fireman’s coat held by the Philadelphia Museum of Art, one emblazoned with imagery from perhaps the best-known Japanese fable of all. “The center of this coat shows Momotaro, a legendary boy born from a peach, stomping on an ogre,” says the museum’s web site. “The smoke billowing behind him reminds us of the use of this coat, as does the fireman’s hook pictured on the left sleeve. After their duty, firemen reversed their coats to display the bold and inspiring designs.” As with many prominent figures of the age, Edo firefighters were also immortalized, coats and all, in ukiyo-e woodblock prints.

The noble image is not least thanks to the fact, writes Artelino’s Dieter Wanczura, that “the great master Hiroshige I was the son of a fire warden in the service of the shogunate,” and indeed a firefighter himself, keeping the job years into his printmaking career. The prints featured there include one depicting an 1805 clash “between sumo wrestlers and fire-fighters at Shinmei shrine,” not an entirely unexpected occurrence given the rowdy public image of the kind of men who joined fire brigades. But “the average Japanese always cherished a liking for what they considered to be honorable bandits and outcasts” — and who today, anywhere in the world, could argue with their style?

via the Public Domain Review

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

Édith Piaf’s Moving Performance of ‘La Vie en Rose’ on French Television (1954)

Édith Piaf’s life was anything but rosy. Born in a Parisian slum, she was abandoned by her mother and lived for awhile in a brothel run by her grandmother. As a teenager she sang on the streets for money. She was addicted to alcohol and drugs for much of her life, and her later years were marred by chronic pain. Through it all, Piaf managed to hold onto a basically optimistic view of life. She sang with a lyrical abandon that seemed to transcend the pain and sorrow of living.

On April 3, 1954 Piaf was the guest of honor on the French TV show La Joie de Vivre. She was 38 years old but looked much older. She had recently undergone a grueling series of “aversion therapy” treatments for alcoholism, and was by that time in the habit of taking morphine before going onstage. Cortisone treatments for arthritis made the usually wire-thin singer look puffy. But when Piaf launches into her signature song, “La Vie en Rose” (see above), all of that is left behind.

Nine years after this performance, when Piaf died, her friend Jean Cocteau said of her: “Like all those who live on courage, she didn’t think about death–she defied it. Only her voice remains, that splendid voice like black velvet.”

Note: An earlier version of this post originally appeared on our site in February 2013.

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Comedians Speaking Truth to Power: Lenny Bruce, George Carlin & Richard Pryor (NSFW)

No matter how strenuously people claim to support free speech, hardly anyone believes we should get to say whatever we want, however we want, wherever we want. We all just draw the lines differently between speech we find tolerable and that we find beyond the pale. There are reasonable arguments for establishing legal boundaries, but comedy—goes one line of thought—should never be subject to constraints. Anything goes in stand-up, since the comic’s role is to say the unsayable, to shock and surprise, to speak truth to power, etc.

Rising comic John Early (“the left’s funniest comedian,” The Nation proclaims) finds all this gravitas a little absurd. “It’s just a weird, weird, time to be a comedian,” he says in a recent interview. “I feel there’s no greater testament to the fact that our public institutions have failed us than the fact that comedians are somehow moral authorities of this moment. We give so much power to comedians and their platforms, and I’m absolutely horrified by it.” To expect people who tell jokes for a living to have the best handle on what power needs to hear may be expecting too much. “Please don’t ever listen to me,” says Early.

Another argument goes that since comedians are just entertainers, they can say whatever they want, no matter how vicious or demeaning, because it’s “just a joke.” Whatever the merits of this position, when we look back to the greatest comics who shocked, surprised, spoke truths, etc., we see that they took jokes seriously—and that the targets of their humor were institutions that actually held power. This was maybe a prerequisite for how enduringly funny they still are, and how relevant, even if some specific references are lost on us now.

Before Early, Lenny Bruce went on TV to tell viewers of his 1959 jazz special that all entertainers, himself included, are liars. It’s just the nature of the business, he says, then goes through a bit where he shows—with real newspaper headlines all printed on the same day—how news media also exaggerates, embellishes, and lies to sensationalize crime. In under two minutes he rips through the cherished illusion of journalistic objectivity; just as Carlin, who also built a career on saying the unsayable, tears up the U.S.’s most cherished beliefs, above.

The American Dream is a scam, Carlin says. Argue over free speech all you like, but politics is a distraction. “Forget the politicians. The politicians are put there to give you the idea that you have freedom of choice. You don’t.” (One is reminded of Devo.) In a scathing rant, Carlin goes after the biggest game, the corporate owners who control the politicians, the land, and “all the big media companies, so they control just about all of the news and information you get to hear.” He delivers his most famous line: “It’s a big club, and you ain’t in it,” and the audience applauds with recognition of a truth they already know.

Leave it to Richard Pryor, the comedy standard of speaking shocking truths to power, to bring these observations together in the interview clip above that takes digs at his own integrity as a TV entertainer, the slippery nature of television executives, and why they feared the kinds of truths he had to tell. “What do you think [they’re] afraid you’re going to do to America?” he’s asked (meaning specifically white America). He responds in all seriousness, “probably stop some racism.” If people can laugh at hard truths, they can recognize and talk about them. This is a problem for those in power.

“If people don’t hate each other, and start talking to each other, they find out who’s the problem,” Pryor says. “Greedy people.” Racism is a strategy, like sensationalist crime headlines or promises of a better life, to keep people distracted and divided. Those who promote it don’t need personal reasons to do so. “It’s part of capitalism to promote racism,” Pryor says. It’s how the system works. “That separates people. And if you keep people separated it keeps them from thinking about the real problem.” Maybe we are free to say what we want, but Pryor has a warning for those who emulate people in power, even if they think they have the best of intentions. The interview segment ends with the sounds of dueling cesspools.

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

Hear the Cristal Baschet, an Enchanting Organ Made of Wood, Metal & Glass, and Played with Wet Hands

Playing a musical instrument with wet hands usually falls somewhere between a bad idea and a very bad idea indeed. The Cristal Baschet, however, requires its players to keep their hands wet at all times, and that’s hardly the only sense in which it’s an exceptional musical instrument. Have a listen to the performance above, Erik Satie’s Gnossienne No. 1 by Marc Antoine Millon and Frédéric Bousquet, and you’ll understand at once how exceptional it sounds. Both ideally suited to Satie’s composition and like nothing else in the history of music — a history which may ultimately remember it as, among other things, one of the most French musical devices ever created.

“It was invented in France, so perhaps that’s why I have one,” says composer Marc Chouarain as he prepares to demonstrate his Cristal Baschet in the video above. “I put water on my finger and I have to put pressure on the glass rods, and the sound is amplified.” That amplification happens, like every other process within the instrument, without the involvement of electricity. Despite being fully acoustic, the Cristal Baschet produces sounds so loud and otherworldly that few could hear them without instinctively imagining a sci-fi movie to go along with the soundtrack.

Perhaps it’s no coincidence that Chouarain is a film composer, nor that the Cristal Baschet was invented in the early 1950s, when the cinematic visions of the future as we know them began to take shape. That era also saw the dawn of musique concrète (1964), with its use of recorded sounds as compositional elements, and the influence of the early Moog synthesizer, which would go on to change the sound of music forever. What influence the brothers Bernard and François Baschet expected of the Cristal Baschet when they invented it is unclear, but it has surely left more of a legacy than their other creations like the inflatable guitar and aluminum piano.

“Ravi Shankar, Damon Albarn (Gorillaz), Daft Punk, Radiohead, Tom Waits, and Manu Dibango are among the musical acts who have used the Cristal Baschet,” writes Colossal’s Andrew Lasane, citing the official Baschet Sound Structures Association brochure. The instrument also continues to get respect from adventurous film composers like Cliff Martinez, who tickles the glass rods in the video above. According to an interview at Vulture, Martinez first encountered the instrument when composing for the Steven Soderbergh remake of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris. He seems to have become a serious Cristal Baschet fan since: the video’s notes mentions that he now “incorporates the instrument in all of his scores,” for more pictures by Soderbergh, as well as by Nicolas Winding Refn — another director of possessed of distinctive visions, and thus always in need of sounds to match.

via Colossal

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

Hear the Sound Of Endangered Birds Get Turned Into Electronic Music

Bird-watching is having a moment, thanks to the pandemic.

As non-essential workers adjusted to spending more time at home, their ears adjusted to the increasingly non-foreign sound of birdsong outside their windows.

Those sweet tweets are no doubt largely responsible for the record breaking turnout at this year’s Global Big Day, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology‘s annual birding event, held earlier this spring.

50,000 participants logged 2.1 million individual observations, and 6,479 species.

Apparently, there are even more birds in this world than there are sourdough starters

…though for the immediate future, civic-minded birdwatchers will be confining their observations to the immediate vicinity, as a matter of public health.

We look forward to the day when bird enthusiasts residing outside of Belize, Mexico, or Guatemala can again travel to the Yucatán Peninsula in hopes of a face-to-face encounter with the Black Cat Bird.

Til then, the animated video above, in which a Black Catbird unwittingly duets with Belize’s Garifuna Collective, makes a soothing place holder.

The catbird and the collective appear along with nine other electronic musician / endangered native bird teams on the fundraising album, A Guide to the Birdsong of Mexico, Central America & the Caribbean.

Black-cheeked Ant-Tanager joins NILLO, a producer and DJ from Costa Rica who draws musical inspiration from the tribal communities around him.

Siete Catorce, a producer who helped popularize the popular border genre known as ruidosón—a mix of cumbia and prehispanic tribal sounds—is paired with a Yellow-headed Parrot.

Jordan “Time Cow” Chung of Equiknoxx seamlessly integrates a Jamaican Blackbird into his unique brand of organic, experimental dancehall.

The album follows 2015’s Guide to the Birdsong of South America, and as with its predecessor, 100% of the profits will be donated to regional organizations focused on birds and conservation—Birds Caribbean, La Asociación Ornitológica de Costa Rica, and Mexico’s Fundacion TXORI.

Birds, as the project’s founder, Robin Perkins, told Gizmodo’s Earther, are the most musical animals in the world:

There’s something really nice about focusing on endangered species and songs that are disappearing and not being preserved and to use music to raise awareness about the species. I believe music has a big power for social activism and social change and for environmental change.

Listen to A Guide to the Birdsong of Mexico, Central America & the Caribbean for free on Spotify.

Buy the album or individual tracks on Bandcamp to benefit the charities above.

Robin Perkins’ limited edition prints of the featured birds also benefit the bird-focused regional charities and can be purchased here.

via MyModernMet

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

Why Fleetwood Mac’s Peter Green (RIP) Was the Most Underrated Guitarist in British Blues

Debates about whether a guitarist is underrated often involve a lot of posturing and needless name-dropping—they don’t tend to go anywhere, in other words. This is not the case with Peter Green, founder and former singer, songwriter, and guitarist for Fleetwood Mac, who died this past weekend. He is, probably most definitely, “the most underrated guitarist in British Blues,” argues the Happy Bluesman, or at least he became so in the last decades of his life.

Green experienced a tragic end to his career with Fleetwood Mac when his mental health declined precipitously in 1970, and he was eventually diagnosed with schizophrenia. His legend lived long among musicians (and fans of the band who preferred their early work), but Green more or less disappeared from public view, even after releasing a handful of solo albums in a period of recovery.

Fleetwood Mac, the group he founded and carried to its first years of major stardom became, of course, “a household name, widely recognized as one of the best soft rock bands ever for hits like ‘The Chain,’ ‘Go Your Own Way,’ and ‘Everywhere’”—songs Peter Green had nothing to do with, though he had the soft rock chops, as the melancholy “Man of the World” beautifully demonstrates. Hear him in some of his other finest moments in the band, including a phenomenal “Black Magic Woman” at the top, before Carlos Santana made the song his signature.

The argument for Green’s most underrated-ness as a blues guitarist is more than compelling, with endorsements from B.B. King—who said Green had “the sweetest tone I ever heard”—and John Mayall, who said he was better than Clapton when Green joined the Bluesbreakers at age 20. After founding Fleetwood Mac, Green wrote “Black Magic Woman,” sent a guitar instrumental, “Albatross,” to the top of the British Charts in 1969 and, that same year, recorded at Chess Records with, among other blues legends, Willie Dixon and Buddy Guy.

Was he the “best” British blues guitarist? He was “the only one who gave me the cold sweats,” King confessed, which sure is something, even if you prefer Clapton or Jeff Beck. Is he the most underrated? Probably most definitely. “Within a few short years, Peter Green had achieved greater commercial success than two of the world’s most famous bands,” selling more records in 1969 than “both The Rolling Stones and The Beatles, combined.” Then he disappeared.

Green is receiving the recognition in death that eluded him in his last years, though fame never seemed to truly motivate him at any time in his life. Fellow musicians have spared no superlatives in online memorials, including Metallica’s Kirk Hammett, not known for going anywhere near an early Fleetwood Mac sound. But Green was a consummate musician’s musician (he named his band after the rhythm section!), and he earned the respect of serious rock artists and serious blues artists and serious metal artists.

A longtime friend and admirer, Hammett owns Green’s ’59 Gibson Les Paul (nicknamed “Greeny”). He recently covered Green’s last Fleetwood Mac song—“The Green Manalishi (With the Two Prong Crown)”—live onstage and was collaborating on new material with his idol. “Our loss is total,” Hammett wrote in tribute, perhaps the most succinct and devastating tribute among so many. Fleetwood Mac would never have existed without him. And his influence on the British Blues and beyond goes even deeper. See Green revisit his lovely “Man of the World” in a more recent performance, just below. He steps back from the fiery leads, playing subtle rhythm parts, but he still has the old magic in his fingers.

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

A Free Stanford Course on How to Teach Online: Watch the Lectures Online

Earlier this month, Stanford’s Online High School offered (in partnership with Stanford Continuing Studies) a free, five-day course “Teach Your Class Online: The Essentials.” With many schools starting the next academic year online, this course found a large audience. 7,000 teachers signed up. Aimed at middle and high school teachers, the course covered “general guidelines for adapting your course to an online format, best practices for varied situations, common pitfalls in online course design, and how to troubleshoot student issues online.”

The videos from “Teach Your Class Online: The Essentials” are all now available online. You can watch them in sequential order, moving from top to bottom, here. Or watch them on this Stanford hosted page. Day 1 (above) provides a general introduction to teaching online. See topics covered in Days 2-5 below.

Please feel free to share these videos with any teachers. And if anyone watches these lectures and takes good class notes (ones other teachers can use), please let us know. We would be happy to help share them with other teachers.

Finally, just to give you a little background, Stanford’s Online High School has operated as a fully-online, independent, accredited high school since 2006. Stanford Continuing Studies provides open enrollment courses to adults worldwide. All of its courses are currently online. For anyone interested, Coursera also offers a specialization (a series of five courses) on online learning called the Virtual Teacher. It can be explored here.


Day 2

  • Getting Specific: Situations and Tools
  • Science: Labs in Online Pedagogy


Day 3

  • Online Classroom Example Clips
  • Building and Maintaining a Classroom


Day 4

  • Review of Submitted Sample Lesson Drafts
  • Troubleshooting Obstacles to Success in the Online Environment


Day 5

  • Math: Using Writing Tablets and Whiteboards
  • Modern Languages: Tips for Highly Interactive Class During Which Students Actively Speak and Write in the Target Language
  • Humanities: Productive Classroom Conversations About Challenging Subjects
  • Closing Thoughts


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