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Tenement Museum

How we came to be the people we are today

One of my favorite historic sites in the world began life in the 19th century as a tenement house on New York’s Lower East Side.

Historians Ruth Abram and Anita Jacobson co-founded the Tenement Museum in 1988…

…to honor, preserve, and interpret the stories of the hundreds of thousands of immigrants to the neighborhood that was, at the turn of the 20th century, the country’s most densely populated area. They began with educational programs and walking tours, and in the mid-1990s they purchased a former tenement building at 97 Orchard Street. It had housed nearly 7,000 people between its construction in 1863 and its conversion to a commercial building in 1935.

There they restored the apartments of seven families, including Irish, Italian, German, and Eastern European–Jewish immigrants. Visitors got an immersive, experiential window into the residents’ lives, as educators gave interactive tours. The museum became both a National Historic Site and a National Trust Historic Site in 1998.

Preservation Magazine, Winter 2018

Ruth served as the Tenement Museum’s president for twenty years and was recognized last year for her lifetime of vision and work with preservation’s highest award, the Louise duPont Crowninshield Award from the National Trust. Ruth is, to put it simply, a national treasure. She was followed as president at the museum by Morris Vogel, who filled that position two different times beginning in 2008 and, to put it simply once again, is also a treasure and one of my favorite people.

Morris took the impossible task of following a visionary founder of one of the country’s most unique cultural institutions and not only ensured its survival, but helped it thrive through good times and bad. That is no easy job, but his success ranks him, in my estimation, as a great leader.

His second go-round as Tenement Museum president is nearing its close, as he moves (again) into retirement. But I was delighted to receive a note from Morris earlier this week with his thoughts about some of the things he’ll miss. He mentions the Lower East Side neighborhood walking tours and the in-building “meta-tour” overviews of the two National Historic Sites that he has given since 2008; tours which allowed him to set the stories the museum tells against the larger backdrops of American history.

That’s Morris at his core: a teacher. He writes some of the best monthly updates to his board and supporters that I’ve ever read. And they are so good in part because he uses those opportunities to teach those of us who provide financial and other backing to the museum about why this place, and the immigrant stories it embodies, is so important in telling us today who we are as a people.

Morris has said that there is no more professorial a habit than sharing the books that have shaped his thinking. And then, in his most recent note, he recommends a thoughtful list of books “that might occupy, inform, and perhaps even delight you as we wait out the last stages of the pandemic.”

Most are old—classics, even—and reveal lots about our current circumstances; some are new, but with enough of a nod to the past to suggest how we’ve come to where we are now. All are available through online orders at the Museum’s independent bookstore, and you can purchase them here. As an added bonus, all shop purchases support the Museum.

I think seeing the books someone recommends opens a small window into their mind and heart. Here’s just a small sampling of Morris’s list that he provided, along with his comments on their importance. If you click the link to go to the museum bookstore (which you should) you’ll see more of “Morris’s Reading List.”

  • Daniel J. Boorstin, The Americans, Vol. 1: The Colonial Experience, 1958; The Americans, Vol. 2: The National Experience, 1967; The Americans, Vol. 3: The Democratic Experience, 1973. Brilliant panoramic overview of the full sweep of American history — as least as it was defined in the premodern period. Boorstin was Director of the (Smithsonian) National Museum of American History and later Librarian of Congress — and before that my professor at the University of Chicago. Another of his books, The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America, 1962, explains everything you need to know about Donald Trump (emphasis added).
  • Oscar Handlin, The Uprooted: The Epic Story of the Great Migrations That Made the American People, 1951. The classic overview of immigration history: scholars have been disputing its interpretation since it appeared. Pulitzer Prize in History — and Handlin trained the generation of scholars who created immigration history as a field.
  • John Higham, Strangers in the Land: Patterns of American Nativism, 1860-1925, 1955. The best overview of American nativism.
  • Gary Gerstle, American Crucible: Race and Nation in the Twentieth Century, 2001. Good contemporary scholarship on the subject.
  • Isabel Wilkerson, Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, 2020. Oprah’s Book Club and Pulitzer Prize in Journalism. Wonderful contemporary overview about the intersection of race and class in American history.
  • Tyler Anbinder, City of Dreams: The Epic History of Immigrant New York, 2016. Smart and novellic.
  • Annie Polland and Daniel Soyer, The Emerging Metropolis: New York Jews in the Age of Immigration, 2012.  Annie, formerly the Museum’s executive vice president for programs and interpretation, is the most creative historian with whom I’ve ever worked.
  • Jacob Riis, How the Other Half Lives: Studies Among the Tenements of New York, 1890. Powerful journalistic expose of conditions on the Lower East Side. With the author’s photographs.
  • Andrew S. Dolkart, Biography of a Tenement House in New York City: An Architectural History of 97 Orchard Street. Our story, by the scholar who did so much to preserve 97 Orchard Street.

And, from the history of medicine (Morris’s own field):

  • Charles E. Rosenberg, The Cholera Years: The United States in 1832, 1849 and 1866, 1962. Rosenberg wrote or edited more than a dozen books (including one we did together) and nearly 100 articles. The Cholera Years, his first book, focuses on New York City’s tenements to explore how epidemics shifted from being understood as God’s judgment against the poor and socially marginal to disorders amenable to government intervention.
  • Judith W. Leavitt, Typhoid Mary: Captive to the Public’s Health, 1996. How far can government go in restraining an asymptomatic carrier to protect the public? A great early 20th-century New York story about an Irish immigrant cook in a world of class divisions and prejudice against immigrants and women.

I’ve read about one-tenth of this list, but find Morris’s pithy descriptions so evocative in helping understand their impact on his work that they encourage me to go online and buy the whole lot. (I’m not, but I’m tempted.)

Morris, thank you. What Ruth, Anita, Annie, you and others have done is to remind us that in America, just about all of us came from somewhere else. The Tenement Museum and other places where we came together — places where, as the poet Remo Fasani phrased it, we see “the past live in the present and in the future both, to have time again vibrate as one” — are worth saving. And our stories — all our stories — are worth remembering, honoring, and cherishing in the years ahead.

All the best, my friend, as you head into your next retirement.

More to come…

DJB

Image: 97 Orchard Street (credit: Tenement Museum)

Saturday Soundtrack: Andrew Bearden Brown

This special Wednesday edition of the Saturday Soundtrack features our own Andrew Bearden Brown as part of the concert series Music at Emmanuel in the program Dream & Escape. Featuring works by Samuel Barber, Mozart, and Gerald Finzi, the program was inspired by the vivid and strange dreams many of us were experiencing at the beginning of the lockdown. Christian Lane is the pianist, and the concert was beautifully edited by Max Kuzmyak. The recital was taped in lovely Emmanuel Episcopal Church in downtown Baltimore and premiered earlier this evening.

We, of course, know and love Andrew as our son. But we have also been thrilled to watch and support his professional singing career over these past twenty years. Having a chance to attend the taping of the concert last month was just the latest highlight in our two decades of marveling at his talent and dedication. Yes, in baseball parlance, I’m proud to be a “homer” when it comes to Andrew.

For those looking for more information than my familial bragging, here’s the link to the program information, text translations, and professional bio. I’ve highlighted Andrew’s bio here:

Andrew Bearden Brown is a new resident of Baltimore and recent graduate of the Royal College of Music, where he was awarded a Masters of Music in Vocal Performance under the tutelage of Justin Lavender. His studies were further supported by the Their Serene Highnesses Dr Prince Donatus and Princess Heidi Von Hohenzollern Scholarship and the Mason Scholarship. Lauded by The Washington Post for his “pure” and “poignant” sound, he began his singing career as a treble in the Washington National Cathedral Choir of Men and Boys under the direction of Michael McCarthy. At the Cathedral he sang for services of national importance, including the state funerals of President Ronald Reagan, President Gerald Ford, and most recently John McCain. During this time he also soloed at the Kennedy Center and with Leonard Slatkin in acclaimed performances of Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms. 

Following his undergraduate years at Brown University, Andrew Bearden Brown returned to Washington, where he developed a career as a Baroque soloist, specializing in Handel (Messiah – Providence Baroque/Brown University) and Bach (St. John Passion (solo) – Academy of Ancient Music & Voces8, Mass in B Minor – American Bach Soloists Academy, St. Matthew Passion – Providence/Brown (solo) & Buckingham Choral Society (Evangelist), Christmas Oratorio – Providence/Brown).

Andrew Bearden Brown’s operatic roles include Ernesto in Brown Opera Production’s Don Pasquale, Torquemada in RCM International Opera Studio’s L’heure espagnole, Ferrando in Felici Opera’s Così fan tutte, and Adolfo Pirelli in RCM’s Sweeney Todd.

Andrew Bearden Brown (credit: Kristina Sherk)

After the concert, Christian interviewed Andrew, where they discuss singing Messiah in the pandemic, the influences of London on his interpretation of art song, and why he loves the Maryland flag among other topics. We get to hear two very interesting gentlemen with a great passion for music.

Thanks, Andrew and Christian, for the beautiful evening.

Enjoy!

More to come…

DJB

Image: Andrew Bearden Brown (credit Kristina Sherk)

Go act in the world: Frederick Douglass and our escape from captivity.

In the introduction to his Pulitzer Prize-winning biography Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom, historian David W. Blight sets out the work we still face today, more than 200 years after the birth of this former slave, social reformer, abolitionist, orator, writer, ambassador, and statesman who changed his world and became one of the most famous, influential, and important individuals of the 19th century.

As he tries to balance the narrative of Douglass’s life with “analyses of his evolving mind,” Blight writes of how he returns to that narrative, because…

“It is Douglass’s story, though, that lasts and gives and instructs. There is no greater voice of America’s terrible transformation from slavery to freedom than Douglass’s. For all who wish to escape from outward or inward captivity, they would do well to feel the pulses of this life, and to read the words of this voice. And then go act in the world.”

I recently finished reading this monumental 2018 biography, the first on Douglass in a quarter century, and I came away humbled, enlightened, and inspired. By Douglass’s life and work, certainly. But also by Blight’s efforts to capture, in very human form, the essence of his most extraordinary subject.

Frederick Douglass

Much of Douglass’s early life is well-known, in part because he wrote three different autobiographies before he died in 1895. His escape from slavery in Baltimore, his early work with abolitionist leader William Lloyd Garrison, his role in support of women’s suffrage, his travels across the country as he honed his amazing oratorical skills, his later break with Garrison, and his support for the Republican party and, eventually, Abraham Lincoln are pieces of the story many know, at least at the superficial level. When Douglass came to the White House on the evening of March 4, 1865, and is pulled aside from a crowded reception into a private conversation, he is able to tell Lincoln that his second inaugural address was “a sacred effort,” forever cementing his connection with The Great Emancipator in history.

Douglass, as much as anyone in his time, made the case that “a society that sanctioned cold-blooded murder and fostered homicidal madness as necessary steps to social order could only be called by its names — piracy and tyranny.” His memories and story gave him the voice and power of authenticity that few could match.

Blight goes into great detail throughout this 764-page work, so even those who know the Douglass story and perhaps see him through an iconic lens learn a great deal about his humanity, his character, his flaws, and the issues that drove the man toward greatness every day of his life. On a personal note, I was delighted to find a half-page detailed description of a visit Douglass made to Staunton, Virginia, my Shenandoah Valley home for 15 years, in 1879. There he gave his famous “Self-Made Man” lecture to a church full of listeners who include some 200 white citizens and the members of the City Council. These small vignettes and attention to detail make Blight’s work come alive.

I found in reading Blight’s book that I knew much less about Douglass and his work during Reconstruction and the period that followed “when white people made peace with each other” and African Americans slid into new depths of poverty and racism with Jim Crow laws as a result. Douglass spoke a great deal about history and memory during this period. For instance, he was appalled by the veneration of Robert E. Lee following his death, and the sentiment that he had “died of a broken heart.” Douglass, always quick to make his point, said simply that Lee “was a traitor and can be nothing else.”

Those words about escaping our own captivity stayed with me through the entire work. I heard someone say recently that a prophet is someone who sees what is happening in his or her day and calls for a change in how we do things if we wish to avoid the future consequences of those actions. Blight is not afraid to bring Douglass’s prophetic voice into today’s world as he analyzes his words and evolving mind. As he was drawing closer to death in 1893 and 1894, Douglass found his old voice and, as Blight phrases it, “preached an old creed.”

“Men talk of the Negro problem. There is no Negro problem. The problem is whether the American people have honesty enough, loyalty enough, honor enough, patriotism enough to live up to their Constitution.”

And so the question from the prophet remains today: are we willing to change in order to live up to the ideals of the constitution? We all have to face it on both a personal and community level. Douglass is a 19th century prophet, but like most great prophets, his words still ring true in the 21st century, if we’ll only listen.

Highly recommended.

More to come…

DJB

Saturday Soundtrack: Women Sing Waits

Tom Waits is one of our generation’s great songwriters. His work, it is noted, often focuses on the “underbelly of society” while his songs are “delivered in his trademark deep, gravelly voice.” That voice is an acquired taste that I only take in very small doses. Thankfully, there are hundreds of covers of Tom Waits songs, which run the gamut from “brilliant” to “meh.”

When I recently ran across a cover or two closer to the brilliant side it started me down a path of gathering some favorites for a Saturday Soundtrack post. But after I pulled together a couple of ones that I enjoy — such as Bruce Springsteen’s live version of Jersey Girl and Jerry Douglas’s quirky take on 2:19 — I realized that I was discovering a whole group of talented women singers providing their perspective on Tom Waits songs. When I stumbled across the 2019 album released by Nashville’s Dualtone Records entitled Come On Up to the House: Women Sing Waits, and then the earlier Female Tribute to Tom Waits collection, I knew I had my hook.

This week, let’s focus on some of the female singers who have interpreted the quirky wisdom of Tom Waits.

I was first drawn in by one of my favorite alt-country singers, Courtney Marie Andrews, and her aching version of the sad and lonely Downtown Train. The song has been covered by others, including Mary Chapin Carpenter with her folk/pop sensibilities. But I prefer Andrews’ country voice, which seems to fit the mood of the lyrics.

Will I see you tonight
On a downtown train
Where Every night its just the same
You leave me lonely
Will I see you tonight
On a downtown train
All of my dreams just fall like rain
All upon on a downtown train

Waits is a songwriter whose tunes are open to all types of interpretation. Take a listen to his version of Come on Up to the House — a gospel-type song that isn’t really a gospel song — and then listen to the talented Sarah Jarosz move it out of the grit into a different direction. For another interpretation you can also check out the version by the trio Joseph from the Women Sing Waits album.

Well the moon is broken
And the sky is cracked
Come on up to the house
The only things that you can see
Is all that you lack
Come on up to the house

All your cryin don’t do no good
Come on up to the house
Come down off the cross
We can use the wood
Come on up to the house

Come on up to the house
Come on up to the house
The world is not my home
I’m just a passin thru
Come on up to the house

I mentioned the Springsteen version of Jersey Girl, which is a classic for all sorts of reasons, including, of course, the singer’s Jersey roots.

“cause tonight I’m gonna take that ride
across the river to the Jersey side
take my baby to the carnival
and I’ll take you on all the rides

down the shore everythings all right
you with your baby on a saturday night yeah
don’t you know all my dreams come true
when I’m walkin’ down the street with you”

But then I found this interpretation by the jazzy R&B British singer Corinne Bailey Rae from the Women Sing Waits album. It is affecting and warm.

Iris DeMent’s voice has been described as sounding like your loopy old aunt, but her version of one of my favorite Waits songs, House Where Nobody Lives, is as arresting as it is unique. An NPR description of her work is pitch perfect, when they note that DeMent “makes music that celebrates humanity’s efforts toward salvation, while acknowledging that most of our time on Earth is spent reconciling with the fact that we don’t feel so redeemed.” I find the lyrics for House Where Nobody Lives a perfect fit for this search for redemption.

There’s a house on my block
that’s abandoned and cold
Folks moved out of it a
long time ago
and they took all their things
and they never came back
Looks like it’s haunted
with the windows all cracked
and everyone calls it
the house, the house where
nobody lives.

Once it held laughter
Once it held dreams
Did they throw it away
Did they know what it means
Did someone’s heart break
or did someone do somebody wrong?

What makes a house grand

Ain’t the roof or the doors

If there’s love in a house

It’s a palace for sure

Without love

It ain’t nothin but a house

A house where nobody lives

I could write forever here but now I’m just going to include a variety of clips of women singing Tom Waits and encourage you to pick and choose…or listen to them all. They are:

  • Beth Hart and Joe Bonamassa with Chocolate Jesus
  • The always wonderful Patty Griffin singing Ruby’s Arms
  • The elegant Norah Jones and her interpretation of The Long Way Home
  • Amiee Mann singing Hold On
  • Sally Norvell with her jazzy, piano bar version of Please Call Me, Baby
  • And we’ll end this set with Clara Bakker’s smoky Temptation

One of my all-time favorite covers of a Tom Waits tune is Nanci Griffin’s version of San Diego Serenade. The lyrics are pure poetry, and she makes them her own.

I never saw the morning ’til I stayed up all night
I never saw the sunshine ’til you turned out the light
I never saw my hometown until I stayed away too long
I never heard the melody until I needed the song

I never saw the east coast until I moved to the west
I never saw the moonlight until it shone off of your breast
I never saw your heart until someone tried to steal it away
I never saw your tears until they rolled down your face

Let’s recognize what we have, while we still have it.

Enjoy!

More to come…

DJB

Observations from a lockdown: Being grateful. Giving thanks.

This has been a difficult year in which to give thanks. Turmoil, hate, distrust, discord, pain, suffering, loss, and much more stare us in the face every single day. The most recent coronavirus surge has come just as we want to gather to celebrate with loved ones and friends. Instead of large gatherings, we find ourselves in lockdown once again.

It is easy to give thanks when everything is going well. It is in the most challenging of times, however, when it is most important to be open to gratefulness and to remember to be thankful. Abraham Lincoln’s famous Thanksgiving proclamation came in the midst of some of the worst times of the Civil War.

There is a difference between gratefulness and thankfulness. A Benedictine monk makes the case that at least some of what we think of as thankfulness is actually gratefulness. He describes the two in this fashion:

“Remember a night when you stood outdoors looking up at the stars, countless in the high, silent dome of the sky, and saw them as if for the first time. What happened? Eugene O’Neill puts it this way: ‘For a moment I lost myself – actually lost my life. I was set free! I dissolved in the…high dim-starred sky! I belonged, without past or future, within peace and unity and a wild joy, within something greater than my own life…to Life itself!’…”

Our thoughts may quickly turn to thankfulness for the opportunity to witness this beauty, but in the first few seconds the monk notes we are in some other state.

Why do I call that wild joy of belonging “gratefulness”? Because it is our full appreciation of something altogether unearned, utterly gratuitous — life, existence, ultimate belonging – and this is the literal meaning of grate-full-ness. In a moment of gratefulness, you do not discriminate. You fully accept the whole of this given universe, as you are fully one with the whole.

In the very next moment, when the fullness of gratitude overflows into thanksgiving, the oneness you were experiencing is breaking up. Now you are beginning to think in terms of giver, gift, and receiver. Gratefulness turns into thankfulness. This is a different fullness. A moment ago you were fully aware; now you are thoughtful. Gratefulness is full awareness; thankfulness is thoughtfulness.

I like that distinction.  If we are fully aware, fully mindful, we will often be grateful when we see something that connects us to things beyond ourselves. To a sense of belonging. It may result in joy, but in this year it may elicit other emotions. When we turn our minds to how to respond to those connections, then that thoughtfulness becomes thankfulness. And 2020 is a good time to give thanks for some of the things that have helped get me through a year like no other.

As I suggested the other day, I am grateful in the moments of wonder and joy my family brings to my life. I am so appreciative of how they helped me navigate this year with whatever grace I’ve been able to muster.

Several times — when it seems I have needed it most — friends have reached out and suggested a socially distanced coffee, drink, or meal. After months of separation, I look up in those moments and am grateful for the human touch, even six feet away. Their thoughtfulness triggers my thankfulness.

Helping hands (photo credit: James Chan from Pixabay)

The sound of live music often brings me into the “wild joy of belonging,” for which I am grateful. But that experience, perhaps with the exception of the occasional busker at the farmers market, has been limited this year. In its absence, I give thanks for musicians such as Matthew Steynor at St. Albans Parish in Washington, who work tirelessly to bring both professional and volunteer singers together online for choral music to touch the soul each and every week of the pandemic. There are tens of thousands like Matthew across the country. And I am also thankful for those musicians who are unable to tour and earn a living through their live shows, yet have still prepared online offerings that soothe us in these troubled times.

These times have featured a nation roiled with systemic racism trying to come together to understand how to provide social justice for all. It may not be joy I’ve experienced, but I am grateful to be called to belong to this moment. And I am thankful for those who have called most effectively: protestors in the streets of the nation’s cities and towns, authors like Ibram X. Kendi, heroes we’ve lost like John Lewis, and new heroes we’ve found all around the world.

Of course, the fight for social justice has come in the midst of a worldwide pandemic. My thankfulness is for those battling this disease on the front lines and for those who are donating out of their own generosity, resources, and heart to find a cure.

Finally, when our nation realized that we are in a battle for the future of democracy, I am thankful for all those who turned out to vote and who helped turn out the vote. Working together, we are helping to bring a new day.

Gratefulness is a recognition that we belong. We all count on the kindness of others: friends and strangers alike. No one got to where they are by themselves, and that’s especially true in a year like 2020. Recognizing this basic fact of life is key to a deeper understanding of grace.

I am thankful that I have so much, in my 65th year of life, for which to celebrate on this Thanksgiving Day. As I wrote on my birthday, I want to say thank you to the many family, friends, colleagues, and even strangers who have been there for me over 65 years.

I count myself lucky to have crossed paths with so many people who have, in the words of Fred Rogers, loved me into being. You may, or may not, remember what you did to lift me up. But I remember.

Thank you all. Have a wonderful Thanksgiving.

More to come…

DJB

Image by Kerstin Riemer from Pixabay

Put on a sweater like Patti Page: an update

(EDITOR’S NOTE: I thought of this 2014 post when I was sitting at an outside table yesterday, catching up over coffee with a friend. As the weather turns colder, some members of the family may be tempted to turn up the thermostat in our hermetically sealed houses. But in this year of the coronavirus, we have found out once again how much we need fresh air and good ventilation. We find we are often safer outdoors than inside where both fresh air and circulation may be minimal. We can benefit from, as Lloyd Alter calls it, the Dumb House. Unfortunately, Alter’s blog post was updated in 2018 to capture more of the newest technology, but in the process he lost some of the humor of the original, along with the great picture and line about Patti Page. But I still have them! So this post is slightly updated but more relevant than ever.)

I loved the original Treehugger post from 2014 entitled In Praise of the Dumb House.

In that post, Lloyd Alter talked about all the newfangled gadgets to keep your house temperature perfect — and environmentally correct. But he points out the problem with this line of thinking:

As Victor Olgyay noted exactly 50 years ago in his book Design with Climate, comfort is not determined by temperature alone, but by a combination of temperature, humidity and air movement. The Nest thermostat turns an air conditioner or furnace on or off, where you might be just as comfortable opening a window or turning on a fan. That’s what you would do in a dumb home. Instead, the Nest causes you to use energy to do what used to be free.

In his original post he went on to say:

There is also another problem with the smart thermostat: people no longer put on such smart sweater sets like Patti Page used to wear.

Exactly.

…because we are too lazy to put on a sweater or take off a jacket, we have let the thermostat and the mechanical engineer behind it change the way we make buildings.” A smart thermostat might actually increase the energy used, not because it drops the temperature when you are not home, but because it increases it while you are there, when you could in fact get just as comfortable by putting on a smart looking sweater.

This rang so true to me. Every day during the 2013 holiday break, a member of our family who shall go nameless but who had become acclimated to Southern California weather would come downstairs — often wearing pajama bottoms, a t-shirt, and standing  barefoot — to exclaim, “I’m cold. Turn up the heat.” To which I — attired in my natty pullover or warm hoodie “repping” said family member’s college — would reply, “Put on a damn sweater.” Now I know I should have added, “like Patti Page!”

It was at this moment that I realized that I’ve turned into my father. This is exactly the type of thing he would say. For example, when I used to go around our offices at the Watergate and turn off lights in meeting rooms (that would later cut themselves off automatically), some folks would look at me quizzically. I usually responded by saying, “Sorry, but my father worked his entire career for the Tennessee Valley Authority. When we left a light on in a room, he would come in, flip the switch to off, and say ‘I work for the electric company, I don’t own it.’”

Yep, Daddy would definitely be in the “put on a sweater like Patti Page” camp.

More to come…

DJB

Isolated minds. Dead hearts.

Benefactors ennoble us through praise, a comment, recognition, a simple gesture, or a note. They also inspire our minds and touch our hearts.

I was fortunate enough to hear one of my benefactors, The Rev. Dr. Francis Wade, on a weekly basis from 1998 until he retired in 2005. Frank is universally recognized as a great preacher. He speaks and writes with clarity and a thoughtfulness that has touched countless individuals, as I was in 2001 when he observed:

“This past week has shown two of the ways that evil can affect human beings. It isolates the mind and kills the heart.”

I recently revisited The Face of Evil, Frank’s thoughts from the Sunday after the attacks of 9/11. His words were powerful at the time and they have stayed with me ever since.* After building a strong case that evil is a reality in life, Frank made this observation about the isolated mind killing the heart. Reading it again in the context of the divisions of 2020, it struck me like a bolt of lightening.

My thoughts immediately went to the recent news that plans by a domestic terrorist group to kidnap the Governor of Michigan also included televised executions and the burning of the state capitol. Those thoughts jumped to politicians and their enablers who have such a desire to retain power at all cost that they call for the disenfranchisement of millions of our fellow Americans because of disagreements with their politics or the color of their skin. And yes, I thought of the horrific murder of George Floyd, a 46-year-old black man who died in June in Minneapolis after Derek Chauvin, a white police officer, knelt on his neck for almost eight minutes while Floyd was lying face down handcuffed on the street. We have reached the point in our civic lives where we can be easily overwhelmed by evil and hatred.

Theologians are not the only ones who see humans as possessing both an intellect and a soul that work best when they work in tandem. Scientists, ethicists, philosophers, activists, and poets have all reminded us that to live fully is to live with both mind and heart engaged.

What happens, however, if they are separated? When the mind becomes isolated and the heart is left to wither? Frank has some ideas.

“An isolated mind disregards the essential value of others. Isolated minds allow others to become faceless, unique-less, discounted, and expendable. That sort of isolated thinking is the root of all prejudice….When evil kills the heart it takes away love, compassion, understanding, forgiveness, and gentleness.”

“The hatred we let flourish in us is a heart-killer,” Frank notes, and we are as susceptible to it as those whose work we saw on 9/11.

Hatred is seductive. When we get to the point where the hatred in our isolated minds is killing our hearts, we may find it satisfying to hold onto our grudges and pass judgement without thinking of the consequences to ourselves and to others. We undertake actions that may be against our best interest simply to “own” or “trigger” another group. And we may not see it as evil, because in the modern world we have avoided evil’s reality for a long time.

Much of what we are seeing in today’s polarization is designed to isolate the mind and kill the heart. It is evil, feeding on hatred and sowing discord. There are those who work to control our financial systems, branches of government, and mass media who benefit from polarization. And they are a force in our lives, a force that requires résistance.

Think about it. We can only put children in cages, separated from their parents, when our hearts are not involved in the decision. We can only dismiss the pain of under-employed, drug addicted, hate-filled rural residents and put their plight out of our minds if we take our hearts out of the equation. We can only deny the systemic racism that is part of our national DNA and evident for those who care to look if we rationalize our choices while refusing to give our hearts any voice in the matter.

As David Charles Rodrigues, the director of the film Gay Chorus, Deep South has said, in light of the growing hate and intolerance we all need to step back and begin “judging our judgements.” We need to resist the hatred that profits from polarization and do the hard work of reconciliation with those who have hurt us and who we have hurt.

Writing in the context of 9/11, Frank noted that “The Middle East is filled with the rhetoric of dead hearts where people foolishly seek the absence of their neighbors rather than community with them.” I believe we can take Frank’s statement and rewrite it to say, “America in 2020 is filled with the rhetoric of dead hearts….” We are just as susceptible to hatred as anyone else.

I have written before about ways we can get past the haughtiness of certainty and the toxicity of stubbornness that is at the core of the isolated mind. In terms of the intellect, we should heed the words of economist Jeffrey Sachs who has written that, “We are a technology-rich, advertising-fed, knowledge-poor society.” Correcting our information crisis requires both individual and community action. For my part, I have stopped reading progressive sites and writers where attacking our fellow citizens seems to be part of the sport. Those on the right might consider ditching FOX News and the rest of the right-wing infotainment network for similar reasons.

In terms of our hearts, we need to nurture empathy so that we are better equipped to appreciate the challenges others face. It is difficult to remain stubborn when you bring in your heart and are empathetic to the needs of others. According to recent neuroscience, empathy is hardwired into all mammals. Our default — our authentic self — is to have the courage and strength to help others. But as Frank notes, the force that wants to isolate our minds and kill our hearts is very strong. That force is working on us to suppress our authentic selves in the hope that we will only focus on our needs and our grievances.

This week of Thanksgiving is as good a time as any to begin to change. Resist those forces of hatred, discord, and polarization with both your mind and heart.

More to come…

DJB

*The sermon is included in Frank’s 2002 collection entitled Rites of Our Passage.

Image by Gordon Johnson from Pixabay

The Browns, December 2019

Our year in photos – 2020

Is there a better way to start our annual “year in photos” collection than with the screenshot of our Zoom Mother’s Day brunch? In May of this Year of the Quarantine we gathered to celebrate from the four corners of the world — well, actually, London (Andrew); Silver Spring (Candice and David); and Berkeley (Claire, Blair Kittle, and Chai) — using an online tool we didn’t know existed at this time last year. That’s 2020 for you.

Mother’s Day 2020, courtesy of Zoom

As we enter this season of Thanksgiving, I once again return to the roots of this blog as a way of sharing family stories and trips. While the focus of the blog has changed over time, I continue my annual tradition of posting family photographs from the past year on More to Come.

After living through one of the worst years in recent memory, we remember the heartbreak and loss for millions around the globe. But it is also important to use this time to focus on those things for which we can be thankful in 2020. And for me, that begins with family, friends, and community.

We would usually be getting in the car this week to drive to Staunton to spend the weekend of Thanksgiving with our dear friends, Margaret and Oakley Pearson at their “family and friends” celebration. Here’s the view from 2019, showing about two-thirds of those who joined in the feast. We will miss seeing all these lovely people in 2020, but are already anticipating a return next year.

Thanksgiving 2019 at the Pearsons

While in Staunton last November, the three founders of the Table Grace catering service — Mary Rust, Margaret Pearson, and Candice (l to r) — had a mini-reunion at the Shenandoah vineyard owned by Mary’s boys.

Table Grace

After the excitement of the Washington Nationals run to the 2019 World Series championship, I was all set for the 2020 season and a chance to visit some more of the baseball parks on my bucket list. Claire gave me this cool map at Christmas to chart my progress, and I’m now two-thirds of the way through visiting all 30 stadiums. Alas, with the pandemic baseball cut back to a shortened season and eliminated all fans in the parks…so I haven’t made any progress on my quest. I’ve used that old baseball cry, “Wait ’til next year!” as I have surveyed my lost season. (That will have to be the Nats mantra as well, as they didn’t make the playoffs this year…but that’s okay. The season was so weird that it hardly counts — except for Dodger fans.)

Tracking my bucket list

Our 2020 plans called for multiple trips to London and California to visit Andrew and Claire, but it turned out that the visit over Christmas and New Years 2019 was the only time all four of us were in the same town…until next month, when we’ll all be together for the twins’ birthday and Christmas. We were able to celebrate Andrew and Claire’s 27th birthday last December at Pesce in Dupont Circle, where we had some birthday crumble.

Birthday crumble at Pesce, December 2019

Andrew had a busy fall and winter at the Royal College of Music. In November he sang in a production of Haydn’s Il mondo della luna, and then in January he had the role of Adolfo Pirelli in Sweeney Todd. Andrew was all set to sing the role of the clockmaker Torquemada in the college’s production of Ravel’s L’heure espagnole when COVID closed down London the day of the dress rehearsal.

Andrew (r) as Adolfo Pirelli in the Royal College of Music production of Sweeney Todd

In March we were beginning to hear premonitions in the U.S. about a possible shutdown because of coronavirus. That made my 65th birthday celebration at A Rake’s Progress the last time we made it out to eat in a restaurant for quite a while. Unfortunately, this delightful DC eatery was a COVID casualty, so our meal there — where they were already serving at socially distanced tables — was among the last. So many wonderful businesses have fallen during this pandemic, hitting service industry personnel especially hard.

Happy 65th at A Rake’s Progress

And then lockdown came…and my Nationals celebration took on this look.

A Nats fan…even in lockdown

In the early days of the quarantine, all sorts of things were in short supply. Claire scored some highly-sought-after toilet paper, while I made sure my quarantine supply cabinet was well stocked at home!

Claire scores the ever elusive rolls of toilet paper early in the life of the pandemic
The wine store said their business has never been better…I helped build that!

Work became weird in 2020 as well. In a bit of impeccable timing, I launched my new consulting business — Bearden Brown LLC — on March 1st and used the photo below taken by Claire as my professional head shot. The name comes from our family. Bearden is my father’s maternal family name (as well as the middle name for both my father and son), while the Brown…well you can guess where that came from. Even with the bad timing, I have wonderful clients who are giving me the opportunity to work on exciting projects around the globe, made all the more relevant due to the health and racial justice crises.

The founder and principal of Bearden Brown LLC

Claire finished up her first year of counseling in the Oakland school system in May and then began her second year there this fall. Working with children can be difficult when you are in the same room, so having to work last spring and this fall online is taxing. Many of us can relate to Claire’s work situation, as she handles her clients by Zoom…with a little help from Chai.

Chai helps with a Zoom meeting

Candice and I have largely stayed at home since March 13th, and we give thanks every day for our deck, which provides an “outdoor” room that we have used extensively. For Candice’s birthday in late May we picked up take out at Pesce (see a pattern here, it is one of our favorite restaurants) and enjoyed the feast on our deck. I was also a busy grill man over the summer, none better than the Father’s Day feast we savored in June. Once we decided we could take a chance at dining out again, we went directly to Pesce, as well as to a few great Baltimore restaurants to eat with our friends John, Bizzy, and Mary Lane during John’s treatments. Those were meals and times we will always treasure, as we lost John to cancer in September. He was a great influence in all our lives.

Happy birthday, Candice!
On the deck…our “extra room” this summer
The Grill Master on Father’s Day
Finally! A dinner out in late summer at Pesce

All of us have worked to get outside for fresh air and exercise. Candice and I took our bikes out a couple of times, but tried to walk every day. Andrew was a regular traveling the streets of London on foot (even visiting quarantined friends from a distance), and has been out on his bike since moving to Baltimore in September. Claire and her friends Hannah (shown below) and Charlie have hiked many weekends in the beautiful woods and landscapes of the Bay area.

Andrew visits with Karen, his quarantined friend, in London (look up)

When he returned from London at the end of August, Andrew moved to Baltimore, where he lives with his partner Mark in a rowhouse in the hip Hampden neighborhood. We have visited them a few times and are enjoying exploring a range of Baltimore restaurants (or at least those with outdoor seating).

Mark and Andrew in their rowhouse in the Hampden neighborhood of Baltimore

What would a year in photos post be without a shot of the grandkids? Chai (Claire’s cat) gives us a glamour pose. Flour (Mark’s dog who lives with Mark and Andrew) shows off a pensive moment.

I have written so much about the election in other posts, that all I plan to say here is that we did our job, voting in early October to change the direction of the country.

We voted…Bye Don!

Andrew, Mark, and Flour took a road trip to Michigan this fall to see Mark’s family and to give Andrew his first trip to the Upper Peninsula (known locally as the U.P.). All reported that they had a grand visit.

Road trip!

As Halloween rolled around in Silver Spring, the parents in our townhouse community who have small children at home came up with the wonderful idea of a costume parade. All the residents turned out on their decks to cheer and we came up with a variety of ways to get candy into those trick-or-treat bags in the safest way possible. It was a festive event and will probably change how the community celebrates the holiday in the future.

In spite of all the hurt, hate, and loss in America and around the world, I am incredibly thankful for our family and the many ways we are blessed. Connecting with thoughtful friends and readers on More to Come through this challenging year has helped see me through. I appreciate your taking the time to read.

The Browns, December 2019, photo credit: John Thorne

We remain grateful for each of you and the friendships we share. Happy Thanksgiving to all.

More to come…

DJB

Photo at top of the Browns, December 2019, credit Ellen Pentz

Saturday Soundtrack: Doc Watson’s Deep River Blues

Heading into the week of Thanksgiving, I began considering music focused on thankfulness. Livingston Taylor’s short and lovely Thank You Song came to mind, but then I shifted my gaze and thought about musicians I am thankful to have had in my life. After a short mental inventory, I quickly came to the conclusion that one individual captured my ear in high school, and — fifty years later — remains there today to still give me pleasure.

Because a part of Thanksgiving is paying tribute to those who came before, I present this as my thank you for the life and music of the inimitable Doc Watson.

Doc passed away at age 89 in 2012 just a month after I saw him at his signature MerleFest music festival. That long life was filled with milestones. This blind singer and guitarist from Deep Gap, North Carolina became well known in what he laughingly called the early 1960s ‘folk scare.” Doc saw his career take off again in the early 1970s when he was featured on the landmark Will the Circle Be Unbroken album, leading to another generation — including me — discovering, and loving, his music. In 1988 he founded the Merle Watson Memorial Festival (MerleFest) to honor the legacy of his late son and musical partner Merle Watson. It now attracts more than 80,000 music lovers and musicians to North Carolina, usually in the last weekend in April but moved to September for 2021 due to the coronavirus.

Doc played with a wide range of musicians through the years and won eight Grammy Awards, including a Lifetime Achievement Grammy in 2004. In 1997 President Bill Clinton said, when giving Doc the National Medal of Arts award, that every baby boomer who picked up an acoustic guitar tried, at some point, to emulate Doc’s playing. I certainly did.

And that’s the point of this post. Doc was my first guitar hero, but I wasn’t alone. I’ve written about my serendipitous conversation with guitar great Muriel Anderson where she mentioned that Doc was her first guitar hero. The line leading out from Doc is long and full of everything from prestigious musicians to basement buskers.

Doc made a wide variety of music his own, and he was famous for flatpicking fiddle tunes on the acoustic guitar. However, the Doc Watson tune that so many have worked to learn through the years is his famous fingerstyle version of the old Delmore Brothers song Deep River Blues. The Delmores were a 1930s brother duo from Elkmont, Alabama, and their version of the song was called Big River Blues. Doc took that simple country blues, which he probably heard on the radio as a young boy, and made it his own by using the Travis picking style made famous by country music star Merle Travis.

In one introduction to a live version of the tune, Doc modestly says that he figured out the bass line and then — after about 10 years — he was able to add the melody. You can see and hear the results in this video of an early Doc from the 1960s.

That simple sounding, yet complex pattern has captured the imagination of guitarists now for fifty years.

One of my favorite versions is also one of the most recent. The amazing Tommy Emmanuel recorded this duet of Deep River Blues with Jason Isbell for his 2018 album Accomplice One. As you would expect with Tommy, the guitar playing is outstanding and Isbell’s soulful singing is icing on the cake.

The next two versions are also from two top-flight masters of the guitar. The first, Leo Kottke, is known internationally for his work on the 12-string guitar. While not as famous, Jim Hurst is an accomplished musician who has toured solo, in a duo with Missy Raines, and as the guitarist in the Claire Lynch Band. Both Kottke and Hurst pay tribute to Doc’s influence on their music and careers with heartfelt versions of Deep River Blues. Hurst has some of the more inventive lead lines in this sampling, and I especially enjoy the fact the Hurst is using a Gallagher Guitar, the guitar that Doc made famous and played for years. If you click on the link, you’ll find that I have a 1977 G-50 Gallagher, purchased after I fell in love with Doc’s music.

I featured singer and guitarist Brooks Williams in a May 2020 Saturday Soundtrack. In the video below, Williams — who is from Statesboro, Georgia but now lives in the United Kingdom — gives the proper songwriting credit to The Delmore Brothers, but his energetic version is pure Doc Watson.

Now for something completely different, let’s turn to the Indian (as in India) bluegrass and folk band No Strings Attached. They play a spirited version of Deep River Blues, with a tasty mandolin break and one of the most unique, bluesy vocal stylings I’ve ever heard on this song.

I’ll end this tribute with another tribute, from singer/songwriter Tim O’Brien. In this 13 minute Talking Doc Watson Deep River Blues, O’Brien expands on a blog post he wrote for his website all the while playing Deep River Blues. O’Brien — a wonderful songwriter — packs whimsy and wisdom into this story of stopping by Doc’s house a few months before Doc died. It is another take on Doc’s amazing legacy.

So listen to one or listen to them all. One of my goals for my gap year was to learn to play a decent version of Deep River Blues after messing around with it for almost 50 years. (I can be a slow and stubborn learner.) But that was one gap year goal I met, and I play my own tribute to Doc and Deep River Blues at least 3-4 times each week. If you could be transported to my house, you could hear the following coming up from my busking spot in our music room:

Let it rain, let it pour, let it rain a whole lot more
‘Cause I got them deep river blues
Let the rain drive right on, let the waves sweep along
‘Cause I got them deep river blues

My old gal’s a good old pal, and she looks like a water fowl
When I get them deep river blues
Ain’t no one to cry for me, and the fish all go out on a spree
When I get them deep river blues

Give me back my old boat, I’m gonna sail if she’ll float
‘Cause I got them deep river blues
I’m goin’ back to Muscle Shoals, times are better there I’m told
‘Cause I got them deep river blues…

Let’s all head back to Muscle Shoals, where I hear that times are getting better. Thanks, Doc Watson.

Enjoy, and have a wonderful Thanksgiving.

More to come…

DJB

Image by DJB of Doc Watson at the 2012 — and his last — Merlefest.

Did you have Dolly Parton helping to fund COVID-19 vaccine on your 2020 bingo card?

Helping to affirm her “living saint status” as Rolling Stone describes her, it was announced today that Dolly Parton provided $1 million back in April to help fund research that…

“…through an early-stage trial, ultimately helped the development of Moderna’s recently announced vaccine. ‘My longtime friend Dr. Naji Abumrad, who’s been involved in research at Vanderbilt for many years, informed me that they were making some exciting advancements toward research of the coronavirus for a cure,’ Parton wrote on Instagram at the time.”

What an amazing woman.

I featured Parton in a Saturday Soundtrack last November. As I said then, few people — much less entertainers and celebrities — can bring together blue and red Americans, straight and gay communities, grandmothers and granddaughters, rich and poor.

Dolly Parton bridges those divides, and more.

And now she helps fund research that could lead to a breakthrough with COVID. “When I donated the money to the Covid fund I just wanted it to do good and evidently, it is! Let’s just hope we can find a cure real soon,” Parton tweeted Tuesday.

One writer on a blog I followed noted that Dolly knows everybody. “How cool is it,” he wrote, “that a hillbilly singer/songwriter and entrepreneur is friends with a refugee from Lebanon’s civil war and surgeon that’s affiliated with the American Surgical Association, the Society for University Surgeons, the Association of Academic Surgery, the American Diabetes Association, the Endocrine Society, the Nashville Surgical Society, and the Tennessee Academy of Medicine.”

As Rolling Stone writes, the pandemic hasn’t kept Dolly down.

“Parton, whose philanthropic efforts also include the childhood literacy program Imagination Library, has remained busy with her music and on-screen projects in 2020 despite the pandemic. On October 2nd, she released the holiday album A Holly Dolly Christmas, and on November 22nd she’s slated to appear in the film Dolly Parton’s Christmas on the Square, available on Netflix.”

Mary Elizabeth Warren wrote about Parton in Salon last fall, saying “Her larger-than-life persona makes her a great entertainer. Her intelligence and authenticity make her an icon.”

She just proved it all over once again.

More to come…
DJB

UPDATE: Here’s a story from today’s Washington Post about how Dolly came to meet Dr. Naji Abumrad. It is as wonderful a story as you would expect.

UPDATE #2: Here’s Alyssa Rosenberg’s take on why Dolly Parton is the superhero America needs in 2020. It is a great read and spot-on in its analysis of the power of doing good and doing it consistently.