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Incalculable Loss. Enduring Grief.

Angel of Grief

Angel of Grief by W.W. Story

Yesterday the United States passed a tragic milestone: 100,000 of our fellow citizens have died because of the COVID-19 virus. The true number is certainly much higher.

Sunday’s New York Times featured a front page full of names and simple obituaries of just 1% of those who have died. They spoke of the incalculable loss we have suffered from the impact of the pandemic. Because of a botched response to the coronavirus from the administration that continues to this day, many more people died than would have with competent, credible, and empathetic leadership. The United States is, unfortunately, a world leader in an area where we once relegated so-called third world, developing nations.

We have lost our minds. But more importantly, we have lost all that those lives that are being cut short could have contributed had they not been felled by a disease that was allowed to run rampant in support of a political ideology. We have lost world-class scientific knowledge. Soul enriching music. Literature that touches our heart. Hugs and smiles from grandmothers. Fishing trips with dads. What we have lost is, truly, incalculable.

And the grief is enduring.

Side view of W.W. Story's Angel of Grief

More — of both loss and grief, unfortunately — to come.


Images of W.W. Story’s Angel of Grief from the Protestant Cemetery in Rome by DJB.

Hope, Redemption, and U.S. Grant


Grant by Ron Chernow

Last evening the History Channel began a three-part mini-series entitled Grant. The series* is based on the Ron Chernow magnificent biography of the same name. I decided to repost my 2018 review of Chernow’s work here to provide readers with some background along with encouragement to watch the mini-series.

I was thinking of the themes of hope and redemption and how much impact they can have on our lives as I’ve been reading Ron Chernow’s new biography of Ulysses S. Grant.  Chernow is one of the few historians who, through deep scholarship and powerful writing, can drive the country toward a full reappraisal of a historical figure’s life and impact.  David McCullough’s works on Truman and John Adams come immediately to mind as examples of this type of national reassessment, but Chernow has also worked his magic in the past with Alexander Hamilton and George Washington. He does so again with this biography of Grant.

The historical stereotype of U.S. Grant — especially if you grew up in the South — is of a failed businessman and drunkard who stumbled into military success in the Civil War by butchering his men in frontal assaults against the much greater military strategist, Robert E. Lee. The South finally had to succumb due to the North’s overwhelming forces and resources.  Then, the story continues, Grant’s two terms as president were deeply mired in scandal, where ruffians stole anything that wasn’t nailed down (figuratively) from the federal government.

In 1,074 pages, Chernow not only destroys these stereotypes, but he paints a picture of a complex individual, both very wise and at the same time incredibly naïve, who played an outsized role in saving the Union during the war and in protecting African Americans and their rights during the years of Reconstruction.  He was an unassuming underdog who, according to one of his generals, “talked less and thought more than any one in the service.”

When President Lincoln made Grant commander over all the Union armies in 1864, this quiet strategic sense came to the forefront in ways not always appreciated.  He was, in fact, the war’s most brilliant tactician and strategist who — in the words of General William Sherman — coordinated armies across an entire continent while Lee was focused on one small state.  The pleasant surprise of the book for me is Chernow’s description of  Grant’s role as president during a difficult expansionist and unregulated period in the nation’s history.  The South was in utter chaos when he assumed the presidency, yet Grant’s focus and convictions broke the power of the Ku Klux Klan through “legislation, military force, and prosecution” and his support for African American equality through the policies of Reconstruction has not been widely recognized.  Most Americans don’t understand this entire period of our history and its lasting impact today, which is one reason we have battles in the 21st century over Confederate memorials.

There is hope in this story, hopefulness that demands things of us, just as it demanded things of Grant as he dared to hope for the future of his country. The personal redemption of Grant from his period of failed businesses and binge drinking is also key to the story.  However, the ongoing redemption of Grant’s reputation remains important to all of us today, as we seek to understand our true history — the full American story — and how we have yet to face the unfinished business of race, emancipation and equality.

Hope is not easy. Redemption is not always around the corner.  As in Grant’s case, it may take over a century.  Yet hope that demands things that despair does not can help bring us — as individuals and as a nation — to a redemption we may not clearly understand but desperately need.

More to come…


*Available for viewing on the History Channel website

Remembering the Uncounted

War Memorial Image by Luxstorm from Pixabay

Today we pause to honor and mourn the military personnel who have given the last full measure of devotion for our country. As we fight a worldwide pandemic on this particular Memorial Day, we would do well to recognize the global identities of those American service men and women we honor.

Let us remember the more than 57,000 Filipino soldiers who died fighting as members of the U.S. Army from 1941-1945. We should add our gratitude for the 23 members of the Army’s 65th Infantry Regiment, a segregated Hispanic unit made up primarily of Puerto Ricans, who were killed in World War II while participating in the battles of Naples-Fogis, Rome-Arno, central Europe and Rhineland. And we should never forget the more than 600 soldiers who died while serving in the 442nd Regimental Combat Team — the most decorated unit for its size in U.S. military history and almost entirely composed of second-generation American soldiers of Japanese ancestry (Nisei) — fighting valiantly in Europe against the Axis powers although many had families confined to internment camps in the United States.

These men and women were U.S. citizens or U.S. nationals. Yet we seldom take the time to recognize their heroism and the sacrifice made for their country. In fact, they are often purposefully forgotten.

Stories of military heroes from the territories of the Philippines, Guam, Puerto Rico, Hawai’i, and Alaska — along with the reasons they are often overlooked — are part of the remarkable 2019 book How to Hide an Empire: A History of the Greater United States by Northwestern University historian Daniel Immerwahr. The “Greater United States” was a term used by some at the turn of the 20th century to describe the states and territories of the U.S. As a lifelong student of history who learned new lessons from virtually every page of this unexpected and enlightening work, I am here to say that How to Hide an Empire should be required reading for all Americans.

Immerwahr is standing on the shoulders of many scholars who have focused on aspects of U.S. imperialism in the past. Yet he brings their work together in a narrative of impressive scope and depth, changing the way one thinks about the U.S. The history we’ve learned growing up is that America is a republic, born out of a desire to overthrow an empire. When someone talks about Americans as imperialistic, it raises our hackles. But as Immerwahr writes, “At various times, the inhabitants of the U.S. Empire have been shot, shelled, starved, interned, dispossessed, tortured and experimented on. What they haven’t been, by and large, is seen.”

That blindness continues today, when barely half of mainland Americans know that Puerto Ricans are fellow citizens. And an important reason is that what we think we know as the United States, coming from what the political scientist Benedict Anderson called the “logo map,” doesn’t begin to capture the full amount of territory the United States has controlled in the past and continues to control today.

Empire Map

The “logo” map of the U.S. mainland at the top, and the map showing the full extent of U.S. territories in 1940 to scale. Both Alaska and Hawaii stretch almost coast to coast across the mainland.

Immerwahr’s more accurate map shows the inhabited parts of the Greater United States at the beginning of World War II at the same scale and with equal-area projections. When you do that, Alaska isn’t shrunken down to fit into a small insert, as we normally see it. Nope, it is the right size — or, to put it simply, it’s huge. The Philippines are also large and the entire Hawaiian chain — not just the eight main islands — “if superimposed on the mainland would stretch almost from Florida to California.” 

Introduced in the opening section of this imminently readable work, the map is used throughout to show how little we know of our country. The “logo” map showed the true extent of American territory for only three years, from 1854-1857. We began acquiring and annexing overseas land in the middle of the 19th century, and in some ways we haven’t stopped. In 1940, one in eight of the people in the United States lived outside the mainland. They were not fully counted in the census of that year, however, which only focused on “the United States proper,” which isn’t a legal term.

And so, Immerwahr writes, “as with the logo map, the country was left with a strategically cropped family photo.”

Readers of the 1940 census were told our largest minority was African American, that our largest cities were nearly all in the East, and that the center of our population was in Indiana.

“Had overseas territories been factored in, as western territories had previously been (my emphasis), census readers would have seen a different picture. They would have seen a country whose largest minority was Asian, whose principal cities included Manila (about the size of Washington, D.C. or San Francisco), and whose center of population was in New Mexico.”

Immerwahr divides the history of the Greater United States into three periods. The first looks at our period of westward expansion and the Indian wars. Most Americans actually know at least some of this history. But by the middle of the 19th century, we’ve begun to move into the second period, as the U.S. starts to annex land overseas, including more than 100 uninhabited islands whose main attraction is bird droppings.

Yes, in a remarkable chapter entitled “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Guano But Were Afraid to Ask,” Immerwahr demonstrates his considerable skills as a storyteller who brings his readers along with a quick pace and wry observations. It turns out that guano — or the droppings of seagulls and other feathered friends — had a wonderfully restorative effect on U.S. land that was already deteriorating due to over-farming. And while his tales of these remote “shit-spattered rocks and islands” make for some good laughs*, he points out that the legal, strategic, and agricultural legacies of these acquisitions continue to influence our country today. Soon afterwards, the U.S. was acquiring much larger land-masses, including the granddaddy of them all: Alaska. We kick into high gear with the Spanish-American War and our one president who wasn’t afraid to talk about American Empire: Teddy Roosevelt. Around the turn of the 20th century we acquire the Philippines, Guam, Cuba, Hawaii, Samoa, Wake Island, and Puerto Rico.

Immerwahr takes the reader through the arguments made at the time about the question of empire. “In essence, it was an argument about a trilemma. Republicanism, white supremacy, and overseas expansion — the country could have at most two.” The country’s anti-imperialists had generally accepted republicanism and white supremacy, noting the inconsistencies between the concepts of republicanism and empire. Imperialists such as Roosevelt were willing to sacrifice republicanism, “at least as applied to so-called backward races.” The third option — to jettison white supremacy — was never seriously considered by most mainland politicians, but it had strong support in the territories, where the multi-ethnic populations pushed for a pathway to statehood but were blocked by America’s long-held focus on maintaining a country with a racially-based hegemony and hierarchy.

There are fascinating chapters on the impact of World War II on U.S. territories and the implications of that conflict that still reverberate today. We think of Pearl Harbor as the greatest attack ever to occur in America, but Immerwahr points to the combination of American shelling and Japanese slaughter of civilians in the Philippines and rightly notes that this part of the war was “by far the most destructive event ever to take place on U.S. soil.”

The third period of this history looks at the extraordinary act of the United States to win World War II and then give up territory — most famously with the Philippines which gained independence on July 4, 1946. Again, Immerwahr takes us through the reasons why we distanced ourselves from colonial empire (including a riveting chapter — and I’m being serious — about Herbert Hoover and the standardization of screw threads). The U.S. figured out how to achieve “domination without annexation,” and took on what Immerwahr describes as a pointillist empire — small dots all over the globe where technology and man-made substitutes for raw products allowed us to maintain global advantages without having to manage enormous amounts of territory.

To maintain control of our interests, the U.S. has 800+ agreements granting us access to foreign sites for bases and other support facilities. By contrast, Britain and France have 13 such foreign bases between them, Russia has nine, and various other countries have one. But even though they are small points on a map, there were multiple unforeseen problems that arose from having even a pointillist-sized empire.

Here, again, Immerwahr’s storytelling skills shine.

Liverpool England in the 1950s was near one of the largest U.S. bases in the world, Burtonwood, which was the gateway to Europe. The American influence on the area was enormous in all sorts of ways. One we may not immediately identify is entertainment. U.S. soldiers at Burtonwood looked for music that sounded like home (among other pleasures). Four musicians from the city were more than happy to oblige. While the rest of England was stuck in the vaudeville era, Liverpudlians had a special advantage with access to American records — especially from African American artists — and a big financial incentive to master that music. The first song that the Beatles recorded was a Buddy Holly cover. “They cut it in 1958, the same year the antinuclear marchers moved on Aldermaston” (a nearby nuclear facility in England) so that the Beatles and the peace symbol debuted within months of each other and were both side effects of the U.S. basing system.

Immerwahr also tells the story of how two enterprising Japanese men, working in a country on the brink of starvation, used contacts with American soldiers and bases to crib materials and ideas as they started a technology company in the aftermath of World War II.  That company eventually became Sony — the Apple of the 1960s, 70s, and 80s — and in using Japan to launch its military campaigns in Asia, the U.S. sowed the seeds of its own deindustrialization.

“Sony’s story was similar to that of the Beatles. Enterprising young men living cheek by jowl with the U.S. military get their start by imitating what they see around them. They learn guitar licks from Buddy Holly songs or struggle with stiff paper and raccoon-hair brushes to replicate a tape recorder. But give them time, and soon enough you’re listening to Abbey Road on your Walkman.”

Most memorably, Immerwahr reminds us that the September 11th attacks were Osama bin Laden’s retaliation against the U.S. empire of bases…sites that his family’s construction company had built for the Saudi’s and the U.S. over several decades in the holiest land of Islam.

Immerwahr has written a remarkable work with the important thesis that territory matters. It matters not only for those who live there, but it matters for the entire country. World War II began for the U.S. in the territories and, Immerwahr adds, the war on terror “started with a military base.” Politicians up to and including John McCain, Sarah Palin, Barack Obama, and Donald Trump, have all been touched by colonialism.

You simply cannot understand the history of the United States without understanding territory. Because, as Immerwahr ends this highly recommended book, “The history of the United States is the history of empire.”

Remembering on this Memorial Day those U.S. citizens and U.S. nationals from the territories who died — often in obscurity — fighting for this country.

More to come…


UPDATE: As if to press the point that many in America forget – or want others to forget – the sacrifice made by U.S. citizens living in our territories, the Puerto Rican Veterans Memorial in Boston’s South End was vandalized during a weekend dedicated to honoring service members.

Image by Luxstorm from Pixabay.

*It was no laughing matter if you were involved with Guano mining. Immerwahr suggests that the tunneling, picking, and blasting of guano, along with hauling it to waiting ships, was arguably the single worst job you could have in the nineteenth century. It featured the backbreaking labor and lung damage of coal mining, but “you had to be marooned on a hot, dry, pestilential, and foul-smelling island for months” and you were subject to shrieking seabirds who darkened the skies and unleashed “the occasional fecal rainstorm.”

Saturday Music: Quarantine Essentials

Record player image by Mike Gattorna from Pixabay

Eleven years ago I posted a short series on More to Come entitled Five Albums for a Desert IslandIt was a way to expand on a Facebook challenge at the time to list your five favorite albums. And while the original posts sound slightly dated, they nonetheless stand up pretty well in describing five albums that have shaped my musical interests.

I thought about these albums again in this time of global quarantine. If I had to choose only five albums to have on my live-stream for a long period of sheltering-in-place, how would these do? Well, I think I could more than live with these five…I’d still very much enjoy them! Yes, I would miss not having Nickel Creek‘s self-titled 2000 album to enjoy. (Click the link to read the recent NPR article about the album: “How Nickel Creek made Americana the new Indie Rock.”) And I love The Best of John Hiatt. Nonetheless, with the original five I would not only survive, but would thrive.

I’ll encourage you to go back and read the original reviews which go into some depth, but here are snippets about the five in the order I posted them. Feel free to use the comments section to let me know which albums would be on your playlist.

David Grisman Quintet

David Grisman Quintet (1977) — The David Grisman Quintet’s self-titled debut album blew me away the first time I put needle to vinyl back in the mid-70s and I still love to listen to the amazing musicianship of Grisman and his jazzy mandolin, Tony Rice on guitar, Darol Anger on fiddle, Todd Phillips on second mandolin, and Bill Amatneek on bass. CD Universe‘s review noted that the album “comes flying out of the speakers from the word go, crackling with the excitement of a group of musicians heading somewhere nobody has ever quite been before.” Watch a later version of the DGQ with Grisman, Rice, and Mark O’Connor — in a hideous pair of purple pants — play the album’s opening tune E.M.D.

Will the Circle Be Unbroken

Will the Circle Be Unbroken (Vol. 1) (1972) — I still remember coming home sometime in 1972 and putting Will the Circle be Unbroken on my stereo turntable. I had started focusing on acoustic music which led me to the record bin on that fateful day when I found this record with the funny looking cover by the country-rock ensemble The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. There was a little patter to start the record, with Jimmy Martin‘s comment on John McEuen’s banjo kick-off, “Earl never did do that….” But then Martin, the Dirt Band, and their musical guests were off with a rollicking version of The Grand Ole Opry Song and they didn’t stop until you got through all 3 LPs (6 album sides)! Decades before O Brother Where Art Thou, there was Will the Circle Be Unbroken, when some long-haired hippies and rockers took country, bluegrass, and mountain music on its own terms and showed how wonderful it could be. Listen to McEuen and Earl Scruggs play a masterful banjo duet on Nashville Blues.

Time Out

Time Out (1959) — This was the first jazz album that really caught my ear, and that’s the reason it is on my top five list. Thanks to influences from my father and older brother Steve, I have come to love jazz. In Time Out I was captivated by the changes in time signature and rhythm. It all sounded so effortless and so cool. Paul Desmond was a wonderful soloist, and even my untrained ears could hear that he was special. The album was recorded when I was four years old, but the fact that I found it some ten years later — not to mention the fact that it is still in print and available — speaks to its staying power. Check out this live version of the band playing the signature Take Five with an amazing extended solo by Desmond.

Sgt. Peppers

Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967)There’s not much you can add to all the words that have been written about The Beatles and their album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The Wikipedia entry is one of those that drives people who hate crowd sourcing to rants, because it probably runs longer than the entry for World War II. (I haven’t actually checked that out, but it makes a good line so I’m sticking to it.)  Sgt. Pepper’s has been a source of endless fascination since it was released, and I was certainly smitten as a young teenager. This is probably on my list as much for what it represents about my youth as for the album itself. The Beatles were constants in our house growing up, because Steve and I listened to them all the time. And since my kids learned about the album from U2 and similar versions, give a listen to Paul McCartney with Bono and U2 playing the title track from the Live8 concert in 2005.


Aereo-Plain (1971) The last in my review of top five albums may be my all-time favorite. I’ve long loved John Hartford’s quirky, hippy-bluegrass Aereo-Plain album. What do I love about this album? Let’s start with the cover. My mother hated this cover when I was a teenager. But how could a scruffy 17-year-old guitar player who was getting into bluegrass not love a picture of a scruffy, hippie, banjo picker who had just made a fortune as the writer of the monster Glen Campbell hit Gentle on My Mind. Then there are the songs. The first thing you hear is a gospel quartet led by Hartford singing a snippet of A.J. Brumley’s Turn Your Radio On. This morphs into a set of the most amazing mixture of original Hartford tunes he’s ever produced. Next, I love the production values of Aereo-Plain. David Bromberg was the album’s producer and Hartford gave him almost total authority in putting this record together. The choices were inspired. Bromberg had the band play everything live, and it was all completed in a few short takes. Finally, I love the players. Besides Hartford on banjo and guitar, Aereo-Plain featured Norman Blake on guitar and mandolin, Vassar Clements on fiddle, Tut Taylor on flat-picked dobro, and Randy Scruggs on bass. They were among the best in the bluegrass business at the time, and I’ve heard their playing on Aereo-Plain compared to that of a jazz quintet. Unfortunately, only Norman Blake is still with us. For so many people who played acoustic music, Aereo-Plain gave them permission to try new things, as Hartford showed how to mix a hip, youthful sensitivity with a love for bluegrass music. Here’s an all-star band from the 1980s playing with Hartford and Clements on the title track Steam Powered Aereo Plane.*

So there you go…influential music from the 1950s, 60s, and 70s that still shivers my spine here in the 2020 pandemic. Go figure, but go enjoy.

More to come…


Image by Mike Gattorna from Pixabay.

*Yes the spellings are different for the song and the album title. It was the 70s.

Widening the Circle of We

Network image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

A friend recently raised concerns about the increase in messages when discussing the COVID-19 pandemic using an “us-vs-them” frame. His point was that in this day and age, public health emergencies should not be cast as fights between tribes. Yet, that type of framing began almost immediately after the outbreak, when some labeled COVID-19 as the Chinese virus. The attempt to separate us into groups as we consider and respond to the coronavirus has since increased in countless ways, against multiple targets.

Us-vs-them framing is dangerous. It is tribal in nature and uses fear to inflame prejudices, driving hostility and hate. Such reactionary framing, legal- and social-policy writer Stephen L. Carter noted in another context, is “designed to bypass the rational faculties of its targets.” Framing conversations and thinking as us-vs-them reduces the number of people we feel responsible for or connected to. It contracts the circle of “we,” usually by highlighting how others are different from our “tribe” and therefore not worthy of our support or concern.

I sometimes write about topics that I need to hear. This is definitely one of those times. My concern over our country’s shift into an authoritarian attitude and disregard for the rule of law drives my thinking and leads me into my own us-vs-them way of speaking. I have no doubt that others who have a different perspective feel just as passionately.

I’m not suggesting that we dismiss real conversations around policies and accountability. But at this particular moment in time, we may have the opportunity to break out of the worst habits driven by this tribal mindset. Surprising as it seems, as we shelter-in-place our circle of contacts may, in fact, be increasing.

Many of us are now talking with individuals we haven’t engaged with in recent months or even years; people outside our tribe. In the past two months, I have either been involved with — or have heard of — online Zoom conversations among families, siblings, cousins, neighborhoods, high school and college classes, fraternities and sororities, and old business teams. People are sending notes via snail mail to friends and those they have known in the past. I’ve certainly had more telephone calls of the “how are you doing” variety in recent weeks. My younger brother has taken to showcasing his grilling skills with a daily Facebook Live post. We’re all trying new ways to connect to those outside our four walls, and we’re only limited by our imaginations.

The pandemic is leading many of us to move beyond our normal circle of friends and colleagues. Pressures and calls on our time no longer seem as pertinent or simply no longer exist. As a result, many of us are at a point where we begin to think about those in our lives who were once close but who have drifted away; who perhaps helped love us into being but who we’ve lost contact with over time. As a result, in this era of polarized politics we’re talking with people outside our political tribes, people who have different perspectives about a wide variety of things that matter.

Significant majorities of Americans across the political spectrum support continued sheltering and distancing policies. What they mean by that no doubt differs, but often at the core of those feelings is the love they have for their parents and grandparents, who are most at risk. Our particular “circle of we” really matters to each of us, especially when it includes those who gave us life. In this particular crisis, we have the opportunity to use language in our conversations with friends, families, co-workers, and neighbors that takes those personal feelings and connects individual action to the common good. We can begin by using a broad “us,” and look for opportunities to talk about the positive aspects of interconnection. Rather than contracting our circles, we can talk about how this affects us all and widen our circles of “we.”

Conversations of this type can help us explore and shape meaning for ourselves and others.* Good stories can “challenge our acceptance of the world as immutable and provide both critique and optimism,” Susan Nall Bales has written in Nonprofit Quarterly. She adds that for our stories to work in moving others, they need to reveal “how they impede the outcomes we value (my emphasis). These ‘how the world works stories’ fill in missing pieces in people’s everyday repertoire. They invite what Daniel Kahneman calls ‘slow thinking,'” Bales continues, “overcoming the tendency to instantly evaluate all social issues through one’s partisan lens.”

There’s a great deal of commentary these days about how the “new normal” will need to differ from the old way of doing things; how we need to get to work “building the America we need.” One simple way is by recognizing that we have taken this significant break from our normal ways of communicating, and are having conversations with individuals outside our tribes. With some effort we can work to keep them engaged. We can widen our circle of “we.”

Have a good week.

More to come.


Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

*While there are a number of online resources for ways to rethink our conversations in a time of crisis, one of the most effective I’ve used comes from The FrameWorks Institute. The institute is a nonprofit think tank that works with groups to frame communications in order to build public will and further public understanding…Their work is designed for organizations, but in a series of nine (to date) short papers on topics that connect people to the bigger picture around the pandemic, their advice is equally as helpful for individuals.

Saturday Music: Hawktail


Hawktail — composed of fiddler Brittany Haas, bassist Paul Kowert, guitarist Jordan Tice, and mandolinist Dominick Leslie — plays some of the most beautiful, complex yet accessible music from the American contemporary acoustic music scene you’ll ever want to hear. After beginning life as a trio, this band’s first album, Unlesswas released in 2018, and earlier this year their second offering, entitled Formations, hit the streets. Both are excellent, but in Formations the band really hits its stride.

Kowert and Haas are probably the two best-known members of Hawktail, although Tice and Leslie more than carry their musical weight. Kowert is the bassist for The Punch Brothers (with mandolinist Chris Thile, guitarist Chris Eldridge, banjoist Noam Pikelny and violinist Gabe Witcher). A graduate of the Curtis Institute of Music, Kowert has also played with David Grisman Quintet (DGQ) alum Mike Marshall and David Rawlings.

Haas began touring with DGQ alum Darol Anger’s Republic of Strings at the age of fourteen and at seventeen released her debut, self-titled solo album. Haas continued to tour and record while simultaneously earning a degree in Evolutionary Biology at Princeton University! It was during her time at Princeton that Haas was asked to join the seminal “chamber-grass” band Crooked Still, with whom she has made four recordings and toured the world. Since then she has played with Steve Martin, Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn, Tony Trischka, Yonder Mountain String Band, The Waybacks, and Alasdair Fraser & Natalie Haas (her cellist sister and a Saturday Music alum).

The band has a number of excellent videos showcasing their music over the last several years. Recorded at the iconic McCabe’s Guitar Shop in Santa Monica, California in 2017, Hawktail gives us the wonderful medley of three great fiddle/old-time tunes: Polly Put the Kettle On / Say Old Man, Can you Play a Fiddle? / Johnson Boys. Brittany Haas and Paul Kowert shine throughout, with a special mention of their work in Johnson Boys.

The meditative In the Kitchen comes from their 2018 album. Another beautiful piece of modern chamber music from the same album is the title tune, Unless.

More recent work includes the new-traditional string-band tune The Tobogganistrecorded live at Radio Heartland. I see myself sitting on a porch overlooking a lake, with a glass of wine, listening to this scrumptious tune. Also from the Radio Heartland session is Last One on the Line, featuring wonderful interplay between Haas on fiddle and Leslie on mandolin while offering up surprises along the way.

Annbjørg, a Scandinavian polyrhythmic romp inspired by one of the band’s heroes of fiddling, Annbjørg Lien, opens the new album Formations. Everyone in this band plays with great skill, touch, and passion, and you see that to great effect on this tune. In Dandelion, also from the most recent albumcheck out the work throughout of Kowert on the bass, but especially after the 3:40 mark in the video. Kowert also shows a variety of bass techniques in this medley of Say Old Man, Can You Play The Fiddle? / In the Kitchen.

Hawktail plays acoustic instrumental music of the highest quality. Pull up a chair and enjoy!

More to come.


Image from Healthy Music Obsession.

Finding Our Way


Dr. Jennifer Eberhardt’s powerful 2019 book Biased has been where I turned over the past week when I had wanted to read more than New Yorker cartoons or internet comment boards. And it has been worth the investment of time.

As an African American scientist helping to teach and train groups as disparate as the Oakland Police Department, prisoners in the San Quentin penitentiary, and Silicon Valley tech companies, Dr. Eberhardt is helping us understand the way that prejudice hides below the surface of polite society yet shapes so much of what we see, think, and do. She calls on the latest neuroscience to track how our brains develop, react, and think. Then she lays out stories and studies that establish the pervasiveness of unconscious bias, even in those of us who work to fight tendencies toward prejudice.

The widely-hailed book looks at bias against a range of individuals and communities, yet Dr. Eberhardt speaks most often about our prejudice towards African Americans. “In this country,” she writes, “blacks have become a reminder of the racial bias that we refuse to see. Indeed, blacks have become symbolic of the unwanted.”

Many of Eberhardt’s stories are personal, including the “you can’t make this up” episode of being with a female friend when she was pulled over, handcuffed, and arrested by a group of white cops in Boston. The police showed up with five cruisers for Eberhardt’s “crime” of having a slightly expired license plate on her car…the day before she was to carry the flag for the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences during Harvard’s 1993 commencement exercises!

So the race researcher was seeing first-hand what bias looks like the day before she received her PhD and was recognized for her exceptional work at one of the country’s top universities. She used her one call from jail to reach out to the Dean of the Graduate School. After a short (and probably spirited) conversation with the officer in charge, Eberhardt and her friend were released without having to post bail (showing the all too infrequent occurrence for blacks of having someone in power vouch for them when they are arrested.) Eberhardt and her friend did have to go to court a few days later, however, where the judge became more and more incredulous as she read the police report. “It’s not against the law to sit in the car” she thundered from the bench, before banging her gavel to signal that all the charges were dismissed.

Biased is, in many ways, a troubling read. But Eberhardt spends the last half of this very accessible book thinking through concrete ways out of our challenges in the areas of housing, elementary and higher education, and employment practices. Her examples come from real life, and it is clear why she co-founded her research lab at Stanford as a “do tank” as opposed to a “think tank.” This recipient of the MacArthur Genius Fellowship is interested in bringing together practitioners and researchers to address real social issues.

Near the end of the book, Dr. Eberhardt notes that, “It’s true that we are wired for bias. But the problem with narrowly settling for that perspective is that it can lead us to care less about the danger associated with bias, instead of more. When something is regarded as the norm, people cease to judge it as harshly.”

“Bias is not something we exhibit and act on all the time,” she continues. Instead, it is conditioned, so we begin to battle bias by understanding the conditions — especially speed and ambiguity — under which bias is likely to come alive. The hopeful message of this book is that “we all have the capacity to make change — within ourselves, in the world, and in our relationship to that world.”

Asian Americans on PBS

As I completed Biased, I began watching the five-hour PBS series Asian Americans. The series, which is available for streaming on the PBS video app, examines the significant role of Asian Americans in shaping American history and identity.

The story of prejudice against Asian Americans harkens back to bias against other people of color in the United States. In our understanding of American history, we too often forget (or never knew) that Asian Americans were lynched with the same type of “mob justice” applied primarily in the South against African Americans. The Chinese Americans who helped build the trans-continental railroad were omitted from pictures and histories at the time. More of us may know of the Japanese internment camps of WWII, but we turn our gaze from the atrocities committed there in our name. I found that my buried memories of the LA riots following the acquittal of the murderers of Rodney King and the subsequent burning of Koreatown were resurrected by this documentary.

The story of the Asian American contributions to this country are varied and remarkable. Contributions in construction, engineering, and technology are well chronicled by now. What is less appreciated is the role Asian Americans have played in the push for equality and justice.

As much as I valued the stories of overcoming challenges to realize the American Dream, I found myself drawn even more to other accounts of how the children and descendants of those who lived in the internment camps are now fighting the horrible separation of families at the southern boarder by the Trump administration.

How Filipino immigrants joined with Mexican farmers to fight injustice for migrant workers in California in the 1960s.

How Korean American and African American activists are working together in LA to overcome the fears and misunderstandings that led to the burning of Koreatown.

How Asian American comics are using laughter to force all of us to think beyond our comfort levels.

There is so much to consider in these two important works. Both are excellent, worthy of your time, and highly recommended.

More to come.