Sunday, December 30, 2012

My Books of 2012

It's the time of the year for "best" and "top" lists.  As in 2011, 2010, and 2007, I've looked back over the books I've read this year to come up with  my top book list. I'm considering only books I read for the first time this year and ones published fairly recently, basically in 2010-2012 and for the most part I am excluding books on economics and unions which deserve separate list. That will help keep the total to just over ten. This is not a rank listing.

1. Sam Farber, Cuba Since the Revolution of 1959: A Critical Assessment.

I really enjoyed reading Farber's book. One of the most well-informed and astute analysts of Castro's Cuba,  Farber writes from what he describes as "the classical Marxist tradition that preceded Stalinism in the USSR."  In the intro, Faber says he will concentrate on "those questions that I believe have been subject to a great deal of mythmaking, fallacies, and misunderstandings..." So there is a polemical quality to this books which makes it delightful reading.

Farber's book has won endorsements from leading academics such as Carmelo Mesa-Lago, Jorge Dominguez, and Adolfo Gilly.  It has also received in-depth coverage from Havana Times, and has been favorably  reviewed by Pablo Velasco and Sacha Ismail at Workers' Liberty and Charles Post at New Politics.

2. Sean Wilentz, Bob Dylan in America.

This is must reading for all serious Bob Dylan fans. Wilentz is a Professor at Princeton University and author of such works as The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln (W.W. Norton, 2005) won the Bancroft Prize.  He also has an interest in American popular culture, having teamed with rock historian Greil Marcus to edit Rose and the Briar: Death, Love and Liberty in the American Ballad.

Wilentz knows his Dylan and he knows American popular culture and links them in enlightening ways.  There are occasions when I think Wilentz lets his aesthetic judgment be outweighed by his appreciation of Dylans ties to earlier American culture.  For example, I don't understand Wilentz's praise of Dylan's Christmas CD, which I thought was horrible.

3. Stewart Acuff Playing Bigger Than You Are - A Life in Organizing

A fascinating memoir/autobiography by Stewart Acuff, former organizing director for the AFL-CIO.  It is essential reading for every youngish labor organizer and social justice and activists and for those who are not so youngish.

4. Thomas Frank, Pity the Billionaire: the Hard-Times Swindle and the Unlikely Comeback of the Right.

Frank is great, as usual. And, for this one, he not only gave a reading at Wichita's Watermark Books, but went out for pizza afterwards with a number of  local activists.  Cool.

5. Chuck Collins, 99 to 1

This is a concise (124 pages, plus 14 pages of notes) examination of how wealth inequality is wrecking the economy.  It is well-organized with lots of tables and graphics.  If you want to know how the 99/1 economic divide means in the real world and the damages that it does, this is a great place to start.

One limitation, Collins analysis doesn't really discuss the central role of the attacks of unions and limits on the ability of workers to organize in the dramatic rise of inequality.  Or the necessity to increase the power of workers in turning the situation around.

6. Michael Kazin, American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation.

Kazin, co-editor of Dissent and professor of history at Georgetown has written a new history of the American left, a sort of companion to John Nichols, The S Word, which made my 2011 list.

The publisher describes it this way:

Kazin tells a new history of the left: one in which many of these movements, although they did not fully succeed on their own terms, nonetheless made lasting contributions to American society that led to equal opportunity for women, racial minorities, and homosexuals; the celebration of sexual pleasure; multiculturalism in the media and the schools; and the popularity of books and films with altruistic and antiauthoritarian messages.

7. Manning Marable, Malcom X: A Life of Reinvention

Michael Glitz has a good review on Huffington Post.
The scholar and author Manning Marable died just on the eve of publication of his magnum opus, this sober, detailed, engrossing biography of Malcolm X. One trusts he is resting easy, knowing that the early reviews were rapturous and that the book did justice both to his lifelong work as an educator and champion of progressive causes and to Malcolm X's ever-growing importance as a figure both in the black community and impassioned fighters for freedom and justice around the world.
I'm not sure about the "ever-growing importance" of Malcolm X.

Emahunn Campbell wrote, just before the publication of Marable's biography, on the Activist blog of the Young Democratic Socialists.
I hope that Marable’s book will uncover and develop Malcolm’s relationship to socialists and socialism. Although one cannot refer to Malcolm as a socialist–he did not have a chance to fully develop or move towards a socialist position–he did have strong opinions about the depredations of capitalism, especially after his split with the Nation of Islam (NOI). To be sure, he went from being a proponent of black capitalism, which was an ideological residue from his time as the national spokesman for the NOI, to becoming anti-capitalist due to his engagement with socialist and Marxist literature as well as his travels to Cuba and a number of decolonizing nations in Africa and the Middle East that claimed to be developing their respective national paths to socialism. ...
While no socialist organization can claim Malcolm, one can definitely imagine how profoundly developed his thought would have been if he was around long enough for it to manifest itself in his organizational pursuits.
Lawrence Gulotta describes the relationship between Malcolm X and democratic socialists A. Philip Randolph, Bayard Rustin, and James Farmer here. Gulutta notes

No church wanted to receive Malcolm X’s body, after the assassination, for fear of retribution by the NOI. Finally, after a week of calling Harlem churches, the Faith Temple Church of God in Christ was willing to arrange the funeral and made its auditorium available. A thousand people came to pay respects to Malcolm X and his family. The national civil rights leaders, and Harlem civic leaders, including Congressman Adam Clayton Powell, stayed away from the funeral. It was a small group of democratic socialists, including Bayard Rustin, James Farmer, James Furman, and John Louis, that were present at the funeral. Dick Gregory, not a socialist, was present. King, Whitney Young and Kwame Nkrumah sent condolences. Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee presided over the program. Marable doesn’t mention Clifton DeBarry or George Breitman attending the funeral.
8. Cornelius L. Bynum, A. Philip Randolph and the Struggle for Civil Rights

I've written on the importance of A. Philip Randolph before here on the NAR, so I looked forward to this book. And I was not dissapointed. Bynum, Associate Professor of History and Associate Director, African American Studies and Research Center, Purdue University, has written a very valuable intellectual history of A. Philip Randolph through the post-WWII campaigns to end Jim Crow in the military and to establish a permanent Fair Employment Practices Commission. It does not explicitly discuss Randolph's key role in the civil rights movement of the 1950s. the 1963 March on Washington, or the 1965 Freedom Budget for All Americans
Bynum's books discusses the evolution of Randolph's thought and action as he dealt with the dual problems of class exploitation and racial repression.

9. Michael G. Long (editor) I Must Resist: Bayard Rustin's Life In Letters

A fascinating and educational collection of 150 letters by Rustin, the organizer of the 1963 March on Washington, advisor to Martin Luther King, Jr., and trainer of generations of activists in non-violent social change.

Sociologist William Julius Wilson writes

"I Must Resist: Bayard Rustin's Life in Letters provides fascinating insights into Bayard Rustin’s activist life. It includes hundreds of letters in Rustin's own words that reveal his tireless and brave efforts to promote American civil rights, as well as his personal tragedies. All aspects of Rustin’s experiences are captured in these letters, including his struggles with opponents dedicated to silencing him as an international symbol of nonviolent protests against racial injustice. This remarkable and deeply moving publication is a must-read."

10-11  Van Jones Rebuild the Dream and Robert Kuttner, A Presidency in Peril

Two leading progressives examine frustrations with the Obama administration and what the left should do.

12.  William Cunningham, The Green Corn Rebellion

A reprint of the 1935 novel by William Cunningham about  the 1917 rebellion by Oklahoma farmers against the draft and World War I. There is a fine, informative introduction by historian Nigel Sellars, author of  Oil, Wheat, and Wobblies: The Industrial Workers of the World in Oklahoma.  I half-expected this to be mainly of historic and regional interest.  But, I was pleasantly surprised. It was a really good read and stands alongside Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath and Upton Sinclair's better works.

Here's a nice review by Elizabeth Breau.  

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Blues on a Saturday: Fontella Bass

Fontella Bass, most famous for her 1965 hit "Rescue Me" died this week on December 26 at age 72. ht: Mick Hartley

The song has been described in Allmusic as "the greatest record Aretha never made." It was certainly an immense hit. It went "pop." I heard it on the radio in small town Kansas and a few years later found it in the bins at a little operation that stocked jukeboxes in the area.


Bass got her start on the blues scene in St. Louis where she played piano in Little Milton's band and met her husband trumpet player Lester Bowie. After unpleasant experiences, to put it mildly, with Chess Records where she had recorded "Rescue Me" she performed with the Art Ensemble of Chicago and recorded the acclaimed The Art Ensemble of Chicago with Fontella Bass. Here is a AEC song featuring Fontella Bass from a movie soundtrack.

I'm putting the AEC with FB album on my "listen to" list, but for now it seems right to close with Rescue Me."

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Holiday MusticThat Doesn't Suck #9 (2012 edition)

The Modern Jazz Quartet - England's Carol or God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen.

Holiday Music That Doesn't Such #8 (2012 edition)

I think that the best version of "Baby It's Cold Outside" is 1961 hit by Ray Charles and Betty Carter, which I remember hearing as a youth. In recent years, many have criticized it as a date rape anthem , but it has become an even more popular recording vehicle. I can't claim to have listened to all of the performances listed in the wikipedia article, but if you want something different from the Charles-Carter duet, I recommend Blossom Dearie and Bob Dorough.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Holiday Music That Doesn't Suck #6 (2012 edition)

With Elvin Jones on drums, Jimmy Garrison on bass, and McCoy Tyner on piano,John Coltrane performs "Greensleeves/What Child Is This?" a popular Christmas carol written in 1865. At the age of twenty-nine, English writer William Chatterton Dix was struck with a sudden near-fatal illness and confined to bedrest for several months, during which he went into a deep depression. Yet out of his near-death experience, Dix wrote many hymns, including "What Child is This?", later set to the traditional English tune "Greensleeves."

This version is from the classic 1961 album Africa/Brass. With a little searching, you can find several life versions.

Holiday Music that Doesn't Suck #5 (2012 edition)

Ms. Jody "It's Christmas. Baby". A contemporary Southern soul singer. I really like this gem that I discovered quite by chance.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Support Eric Looms

I have added my name to this statement. I urge other bloggers and academics to do the same. 

Statement on Erik Loomis

by Erik Loomis Statement on December 19, 2012

Erik Loomis is no stranger to this blog. A gifted young scholar of US labor and environmental history, Loomis is also a blogger at Lawyers, Guns and Money. Many of us have tussled and tangled with him, most recently over whether leftists should vote for Obama. We have often disagreed with Loomis, not always pleasantly or politely, and he has certainly given as good as he has got.
But now we must stand by Loomis’s side and speak up and out on his behalf, for he has become the target of a witch hunt, and as an untenured professor at the University of Rhode Island, he is vulnerable. Loomis needs our solidarity and support, and we must give it to him.
This past Friday, in the wake of the tremendous grief and outrage millions of people felt over the Newtown mass shooting, Loomis tweeted the following:

I was heartbroken in the first 20 mass murders. Now I want Wayne LaPierre’s head on a stick.

Wayne LaPierre is the head of the National Rifle Association. It seems obvious to us that when Loomis called for LaPierre’s head on a stick, he had in mind something like this from the Urban Dictionary:

A metaphor describing retaliation or punishment for another’s wrongdoing, or public outrage against an individual or group for the same reason. After the BP Oil Spill; many Americans would like to see Tony Hayward’s head on a stick, myself included.

Ever since putting someone’s head on a stick ceased to be a routine form of public punishment—indeed, the last instance of it we can think of is fictional (Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, though it references an actual event from the French Revolution)—calling for someone’s head has been a fairly conventional way to express one’s outrage or criticism. Two months ago, for example, right-wing blogger Glenn Reynolds voiced his anger over the State Department’s lax provision of security in Benghazi by demanding, “Can we see some heads roll?” Yet that very same Glenn Reynolds is now accusing Loomis of using “eliminationist rhetoric.”
Other conservative voices have joined in. The Daily Caller says Loomis “unleashed a flurry of profanity-ridden tweets demanding death for National Rifle Association executive Wayne LaPierre.” Townhall put Loomis’s tweets in the context of NRA members and leaders getting death threats. And just this morning, Michelle Malkin wrote at National Review Online:

What’s most disturbing is that the incitements are coming from purportedly respectable, prominent, and influential public figures. Consider the rhetoric of University of Rhode Island professor Erik Loomis….
Unfortunately, Loomis is not alone….
So, it’s come to this: Advocating beheadings, beatings, and the mass murder of peaceful Americans to pay for the sins of a soulless madman. But because the advocates of violence fashion themselves champions of nonviolence and because they inhabit the hallowed worlds of Hollywood, academia, and the Democratic party, it’s acceptable?
Blood-lusting hate speech must not get a pass just because it comes out of the mouths of the protected anti-gun class.

This campaign has now brought Loomis into the crosshairs of the state and his employer. Loomis has already been questioned by the Rhode Island State Police, who told him that someone had informed the FBI that Loomis had threatened LaPierre’s life. Loomis also has been hauled into a meeting with his dean.  And now the president of the University of Rhode Island, where Loomis teaches, has issued the following statement:

The University of Rhode Island does not condone acts or threats of violence. These remarks do not reflect the views of the institution and Erik Loomis does not speak on behalf of the University. The University is committed to fostering a safe, inclusive and equitable culture that aspires to promote positive change.

We do not expect any better of the orchestrators of this campaign—this is what they have done for many years, and doubtless will be doing for years to come. We do expect better of university administrators. Rather than standing behind a member of their faculty, the administration has sought to distance the university from Loomis. Even to suggest that Loomis’s tweet constitutes a “threat of violence” is an offense against the English language. We are dismayed that the university president completely fails to acknowledge the importance of academic freedom and of scholars’ freedom independently to express views (even intemperate ones) on topics of public importance.  This statement—unless it is swiftly corrected— should give alarm to scholars at the University of Rhode Island, to scholars who might one day consider associating themselves with this institution, and to academic and professional associations that value academic freedom.
However, this is not merely a question of academic freedom. It also speaks to a broader set of rights to speak freely without the fear of being fired for controversial views that many of us have been flagging for years. Everyone should be clear what is going on. As a blogger at Atrios has pointed out, what the witch hunters want is for Loomis to be fired. Indeed, the calls have already begun (see comment thread here). Though Loomis has a union, his lack of tenure makes him vulnerable.
We insist that the University of Rhode Island take a strong stand for the values of academic freedom and freedom of speech, that it not be intimidated by an artificially whipped-up media frenzy, that it affirm that the protections of the First Amendment require our collective enforcement, and that all employers—particularly, in this kind of case, university employers—have a special obligation to see that freedom of speech become a reality of everyday life.
We urge all of you to contact the following three administrators at the University of Rhode Island:

Dean Winnie Brownell:
Provost Donald DeHays:
President David Dooley:

Be polite, be civil, be firm.

We also call upon all academic and other bloggers to stand in support of Loomis. We invite others who wish to associate themselves with this statement to say so in the comments section to this post, and to republish this statement elsewhere.

Holiday Music That Doesn't Suck #4 (2012 edition)

Tenor saxophonist Dexter Gordon performing Mel Torme's "Christmas Song." I like the way that Gordon's improvises around the melody and that he improvises in the spirit, mood, and tempo of the song. Very nice.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Holiday Music That Doesn't Suck #3 (2012 edition)

"Hey Santa Claus" by The Moonglows (1953), a doo-wop and r-and-b group from Cleveland, who recorded for Chess and discovered Marvin Gaye.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Holiday Music That Doesn't SucK #2 (2012 edition)

Ella Fitzgerald is widely considered to one the great female jazz vocalist. My Uncle Lloyd rated her the best by far. Nothing would sour him on a new singer more quickly than a reviewer who compared her to Ella.

I included Fitzgerald's Ella Wishes You a Swinging Christmas in my 2009 post on Best Jazz Christmas CDs. A Swinging Christmas was recorded in 1960. Scott Yarnow describes it as "a lightweight but enjoyable set of Christmas cheer." A Verve 2002 reissue has some bonus tracks.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Holiday Music That Doesn't Suck #1 (2012 edition): Lowell Fulson "Lonesome Christmas"

This is my second annual installment of Holiday Music that Doesn't Suck. In 1950, West Coast bluesman Lowell Fulson recorded "Lonesome Christmas." According to comments on the youtube clip it is Andy Harwick on sax and Ray Charles on piano.  The Charles is unmistakable.

Blues on a Saturday: B. B. King "Three O'Clock Blues"

Three O'Clock Blues was B.B. King's first big hit in 1952.

West Coast(via Tulsa) bluesman Lowell Fulson recorded it first in 1946 and it was a hit when it was released in 1948. I think you will recognize how B.B. made it a classic.(Fulson also was the first to record "Tramp" which Otis Redding made a hit.)

Naturally, the tune became a staple of B.B. King's live shows over the years.

And here's the up and coming Gary Clark Jr. playing it very much in a B. B. vein.

Tax the rich: An animated fairy tale

Tax the rich: An animated fairy tale is an 8 minute video about how we arrived at this moment of poorly funded public services and widening economic inequality. Things go downhill in a happy and prosperous land after the rich decide they don't want to pay taxes anymore. They tell the people that there is no alternative, but the people aren't so sure. This land bears a startling resemblance to our land.

The video is narrated by Ed Asner, with animation by Mike Konopacki. It was written and directed by Fred Glass for the California Federation of Teachers. For more info, © 2012 California Federation of Teachers.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Everyday is Once in a Century

How many times did you hear or read that yesterday December 12, 2012 was once in a century? Dozens, if not hundreds. At my large workplace, fully staffed and many working overtime for the holiday mail, the social and recreation committee gave out two prizes every hour at, you guessed it, 12 clicks past the hour. And, every time, it was said this is a "once is a century" day. Guess what? Today, December 13, 2012 is once is a century. Seriously, there are 12 dates every century where the month, day, and year have the same numerals. So, it seems to me that it would have been far more accurate to have said that "December 12 is twelfth is a decade."

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Tom Hayden Speech at Wichita Peace and Social Justice Center

Tom Hayden, a leader of the student new left and antiwar movement in the sixties and a long-term activist, writer, and thinker for progressive politics, was keynote speaker at the 20th anniversary dinner of the Wichita Peace and Social Justice Center on Dec. 7 2012. My friend and fellow DSAer Russell Fox has written an insightful post on Hayden and his Wichita talk. [Dec 13 corrected: on the first version, the sound wasn't complete. This one should have the complete video of the speech.] Tom also spent about an hour answering questions from the fully packed audience. I haven't yet edited that recording.

Saturday, December 08, 2012

Four Takes on American Music

1. Marc Myers, proprietor of the excellent Jazz Wax blog,  has written a different kind of jazz history Why Jazz Happened (University of California Press). It the focuses on the economic and social changes that facilitated the creation of be-bop, cool jazz,hard bop and a few more styles leading up to jazz-rock fusion. I haven't read it yet, but Myers was interviewed by Jeffrey Siegel for his Straight No Chaser online jazz show (go here) up in Massachusetts. You can listen for free to the podcast. It's a fascinating interview and there are some great tunes played.

2.  Tom Hurka, a Professor of Philosophy at the University of Toronto, writes about Rob Bowman's Soulsville, USA: The Story of Stax Records in normblog's writer's choice series.  I'm an  admirer of Peter Guralnik's 1986 Sweet Soul Music, which as published more than a decade before Bowman's book and with a broader focus. Hurka's  mini-essay persuades me that Soulsville deserves to be read widely as well.  As Hurka  observes 

A running theme in the book is the contrast between soul music, as at Stax, and the music of Motown. (Whereas the sign outside Stax said Soulsville, USA, that outside Motown said Hitsville, USA. Bowman thinks that encapsulates the difference.) The Motown sound was slick, northern, and urban, while Stax was rough, southern, and rural.

3. Ricky Ricardi, archivist for the Louis Armstrong House Museum in Queens, has a great blog The Wonderful World of Louis Armstrong. He's written a highly-praised book  (2012) with the same title about Armstrong's later years, but the blog for the last year has been devoted to Armstrong's early and seminal Hot Fives and Hot Sevens recordings, which marked the first revolution in jazz.  Ricardi did 10 blog posts on the 5 and 7s over six month period--they are listed here. Really fascinating stuff.

4. Dave Brubeck was one of the few jazz artists to achieve mass popularity in the 1950s and 1960s. Russell Fox comments here and Norm Geras here. I'm sure I heard "Take Five" and "Blue Rondo a la Turk" before I began to explore jazz in high school.  A class mate, out reliable guide to what was cool in rock, was a drummer and a fan of Burbeck's drummer Joe Morello. His parents had the famous Time Out . A few years later I spent an evening hanging out with couple of Brubeck's kids who had a jazz rock fusion group and had played at a college gig in my hometown. Despite this exposure, I didn't feel a burning desire to get the album and I was well into  adulthood before I got it. 

Burbeck wrote some great jazz standards and I have enjoyed many of the Quartets performances, but I don't really like his playing; it seems heavy handed, lacking subtlety, and not really swinging. I prefer John Lewis and Thelonious Monk.  I tend to think that the strange time signatures was a dead end.

Monday, December 03, 2012

Libertarian Anti-Semitism

I just came across a very interesting mini-essay "Documenting Anti-Semitism Within the Libertarian Movement" by an unidentified Jewish libertarian. It certainly rings true from what I know of the libertarian movement. But the extent of anti-Semitism appears to be greater than I had thought.

He writes

In recent years, as the libertarian movement has grown, so has the anti-Jewish movement within this clan of activists supposedly concerned with promoting liberty and freedom for all of humanity.

 ...In the U.S., the libertarian movement, broadly speaking, consists of think-tanks, Ron Paul activists and organizations, and those affiliated with the Libertarian Party.

The anti-Semitism in the libertarian movement has manifested itself in all three categories at alarmingly high levels. It's difficult to imagine how any libertarian activist or scholar can envision success for their movement with such anti-libertarian sentiment and malicious bigotry in its midst.
The essay concludes with this observation:
Jewish libertarians or classical liberals -- or others who are pro-equal rights (pro-decency, really) should refrain from further participation in the libertarian movement
 The author of the document has also written a useful essay on Ron Paul's Disdain for Jews and Israel.

Saturday, December 01, 2012

Blues on a Saturday: Mickey Baker and Coleman Hawkins

Mickey Baker playing with Coleman Hawkins, probably recorded in France.

Egypt: Old and New Unions Split on Morsy's Power Grab

Union Law Decree May Mean Government Interference, New Egyptian Unions Say [Solidarity Center] 2012-12-01

Mubarak-era state-run trade unions backs Morsy’s declaration [Daily News Egypt] 2012-12-01

Workers march against Morsy [Mena Solidarity Network] 2012-12-01

Independent union federation rejects president’s power grab [MENA Solidarity Network] 2012-12-01

New Egyptian trade unions issue demands regarding proposed IMF loans [ITUC] 2012-11-21

It has been fairly widely reported that Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood has accommodated the military, I  hadn't known that they have apparently made a deal with the corrupt and ineffective state-controlled Mubarak unions.

Also, check out LabourStart's  outstanding Eygpt labor news page.