Plaintive Anthems

22 January Joel Paterson and the Modern Sounds, Eddie Clendening, Ruby Ann
23 January Hoyle Brothers

“Adieu! adieu! thy plaintive anthem fades” as the poet rued, not knowing he would be remembered for not being James Dean, and Eddie Clendening and Ruby Ann played their final show in Chicago Friday night —at least for a while—at the always-urbane Ventrella’s Cafe on the North Side. The show itself was terrific—Eddie’s voice is more than remarkable, while the Modern Sounds are perhaps the best dance band in the city—but the occasion was bifurcated by two moods: a joy for Eddie, who’s moving on as part of Million Dollar Quartet’s expedition to Mt. Broadway, but also a sense of, if not melancholy, at least diminishment. Not only for Eddie, but also for Ventrella’s, which for a while in 2009 was maybe the best venue in the city: BYOB, only a nominal cover, ridiculously talented musicians, a dance-friendly crowd, and a passable dance floor. We are in the season of endings, and not yet beginnings, and so maybe it was inevitable that the evening ended forcibly with a martial display by Chicago’s Finest.

The CPD, however, walked away with nothing more than a citation for an unauthorized jukebox, making the evening’s final note in the key of slapstick. My friend the connoisseur of obscure emotional states argued it was the perfect Chicago night: screaming joy mixed with sorrow, ending with farce blended with terror of authority and the historical memory of the Depression. No one who heard it disagreed, though it may not have been heard by many as we did the quickstep out the back door while the badges flashed in front.

The humor at the end of Friday was mirrored by the weather late Saturday: the temperature rose enough to raise hopes of another season with it, hopes not dashed by the brief rainstorm that accompanied it. Saturday night was Friday’s younger brother: the mixtures of humor and pathos were reversed. The occasion was the Hoyles’ final show before their departure to points south—I am reliably informed that the front of Hoyles’ headquarters has a sign, “Gone to Texas,” ready for placement at the proper time. The Hoyles are no strangers to these notes, and they’ve also been the subject of glowing reviews in both the Reader and the Trib lately, so I’m not going to discuss much about their last Chicago show before their expedition to Mt. Austin. But the brief rainstorm last night, towards the end of the last set, brought with it whispers of the next season.

Saturday’s show had other hints and allegations surrounding it, along both directions of time’s arrow. Three younger dancers turned up—it was odd to find out I’m now somewhat of a veteran, after a bit over a year—curious and questioning. And yet at the same time another friend, a veteran in more or less the same sense I am, i.e. not very, asked some questions regarding what I knew of the past of this dance stuff, a history that more or less by chance I know something about. As I watched those younger kids struggle with 6-count turns, it occurred to me that writing that knowledge, however poor it is, might be valuable to someone, sometime.

To tell the story of where we’ve been after all, Lincoln remarks in a speech somewhere, is to tell the story of where we are going. I don’t particularly know where things are going, but I’ll tell what I know in a short capsule history anyway. (It would be great if people could add what they know—people, places, bands.) The genre of the story is itself kind of fascinating. As it’s been told to me by more than one source, the story of swing dance in Chicago, at least since the revival at the end of the last century, has a kind of post-apocalyptic, “and I alone am escaped to tell thee” flavor. It’s also reminiscent of And the Band Played On …, in that it is an epidemiological story, with a “Patient Zero.” There’s a history as well as a mythology about it.

The patient was Howard B., who brought swing back to Chicago for the first time in decades sometime during the mid-90s, probably at least by 1996 and not earlier than 1993. Howard was a doctor who’d transferred from Los Angeles, where he’d been part of the Pasadena Ballroom Association along with Erin Stevens and Steven Mitchell, two dance partners who, after viewing some old films (Hellzapoppin’ and A Day at the Races), were led to down an investigatory trail that eventually wound up at Frankie Manning, a New York City postal worker who’d long since forgotten his dance career. Arriving in Chicago, Howard danced all over town, including the country bar Whiskey River (which later became the celebrated Liquid) where eventually someone asked him just what he was doing. Eventually Howard began teaching a small group of students. These were some of the people now noted as Chicago’s best instructors.

Yet after some period described to me as being either a few months to as much as a year, the group remained small. They practiced together by dancing to old records, apparently in each other’s apartments, but nowhere else. That however changed with the first show by the Chicago band, the Mighty Blue Kings, at MadBar on Damen in the space now known as Cans. At this point mythology begins to turn to history—the Blue Kings formed sometime in 1994, and put out their first record in 1996. For several years thereafter, Howard rented space in a dance studio on Lincoln Avenue in the city, teaching swing once a week, advertising by word of mouth and a small ad placed in the Chicago Reader which read, simply, “Learn to Lindy.” Around this time, a few of the pioneers made the trip to Catalina Island in California, home to a dance camp hosted by Erin Stevens and Steven Mitchell. And then, in the spring of 1998, jean company The Gap released a television commercial.

What happened next is fairly well-known to many, and is a good example of what the writer Malcolm Gladwell, borrowing from epidemiological studies, has called “the tipping point”: a break-out moment when what was underground becomes mainstream. Whiskey River became Liquid, and classes that had once had only a few students were now being taught to dozens, even hundreds at a time. The stories of those who were there at the time all have certain common threads: many were completely absorbed, to the exclusion of everything else. Some others, particularly those who were there at the beginning, were making money, sometimes substantial amounts.

In the history of the Nazi U-Boat war called, afterwards, the Battle of the Atlantic, during World War II, the year or so directly after the entry of the United States into the war was known by the Germans submariners as the “Happy Time,” because it was so easy to torpedo U.S. ships. The United States did not do even elementary things like try to protect their fleet by bunching them up in convoys for safety in numbers, or bother to blackout the lights on the coast. Analogously, the time from the summer of 1998 through, as near as I can make out, sometime in the fall of 2001, was a “happy time” for swing—bands played out everywhere, everyone knew or wanted to know how to dance, and money was, at least for a fortunate few, almost falling from the sky.

It’s difficult to know just why that time ended. Perhaps the “swing fad,” like other such fads before it—disco, anyone?—had simply run its course, like a disease that has just run out of potential victims. Eventually anyone left not already brought down by the illness has developed some resistance to it. Dance is something for young single people, after all: eventually most dancers get steady jobs, marry, have kids—the kinds of things that don’t allow for late nights chasing bands and dance partners. Some people, though, have speculated that there might be some correlation with those jetliners in New York City in the early fall of 2001. It isn’t hard to see some historical rhyme like that: swing dance’s big revival happened during that time of “irrational exuberance” called by some the Roaring ’90s. Maybe in that way the end of swing’s “happy time” merely foreshadowed the economic crash that we are seeing now, the crash held back from its natural arrival by the war and unrelenting Republican military Keynesianism. But all songs, as Keats knew before he could know he was James Dean, come to an end, anthems or not. 


Elements of Show

18 January Dale Watson; Hoyle Brothers

19 January Rhythm Rockets
20 January Western Elstons

Dale Watson blew into town Monday on a breeze that must have got lost leaving Austin, but since the weather was not actively trying to kill me—despite what the Texans had to say about it—I trundled up to Martyrs’ on the Damen bus to see him. The Damen bus has been described to me as one of the more entertaining routes in the city, though I think this is only true if you are from out of town, extraordinarily cute and intelligent and naive all at once, and not very tall. If you are those things, then I can see the point: the Damen bus travels through some interesting neighborhoods, for white people anyway. It also travels a very long stretch of the city, from deep on the South Side to Andersonville. I tend to think the Western Avenue bus is far more interesting, since virtually anything can happen on it, but short cute white girls tend to get plenty of adrenaline in their life already without actively courting it. There was no excitement of any kind on the Damen bus this evening, however, and I arrived at Martyrs’ unscathed and refreshingly early; opening act the Hoyle Brothers hadn’t even started yet. I anticipated a great show: I saw Dale in the spring last year at the same venue and it was, really, one of the better nights I’ve ever spent.

Now, I’ve had it in my mind to try to organize these short blog essays around some sort of theme rather than allowing them to be just recitations of dates and band names—ideally you’ve noticed. In an earlier entry I examined the notion of continuity, places and bands that are consistently good, over and over. These three shows this week, however, are wild examples of discontinuity: each show was different from the others. Their differences though illustrate the three elements that construct a good show, the interplay between performer, venue, and the oft-overlooked third element, the audience.

Dale Watson is already a kind of living legend, the “Lone Star Troubadour” as he’s billed since Ernest Tubb was the Texas Troubadour, and his band is no-less outstanding. They play honky-tonk music, exactly the sort (well, better than most) that you might hear in a Texas roadhouse, and can hear at the internationally-famous Ginny’s Little Longhorn Saloon in Austin where Dale holds down the Sunday afternoon spot. There’s little to say about the music, which is wonderfully danceable. The crowd, however, differed substantially from those I saw Dale’s show with in the spring of ’09.

That crowd had been larger than the crowd at Martyrs’, but while large crowds usually spell the end of dancing, in that case part of it was made up of people from Austin, who quickly and mysteriously made room for a dancefloor in the midst of it. (I’d still like to know how they did it—if anyone knows, please write.) No such luck on this night, though. During the Hoyle Brothers set, which was great and excellent prep for their scheduled tour to Austin, there was plenty of room on Martyrs’ floor, but during the break the floor gradually filled. A friend did ask Dale to mention something about making space for dancing, which Dale was gracious enough to do when he started his set, but it had almost no effect, particularly on the large couple that had settled in front and center and who collectively weighed enough to feed most of Port-au-Prince for the rest of the year, if not the decade. They were of course surly (as who wouldn’t be if if your life was a constant series of children frightened that you’d ate the sun), singlehandedly sending dancers to search for unused floor space elsewhere—floor space that was of course concrete instead of the nice wooden floor Martyrs has in front of the stage. But the music was so ridiculously fine that this had little effect on the evening’s fun.

Still, there is one caveat: whereas at the spring show Dale had played at least 3 and possibly 4 encores after playing for 3 hours straight (no set breaks), this time he only came back for the first encore after the bass player literally told the crowd they’d have to do better if they wanted an encore. Enthusiasm did pick up, and Dale did play another encore afterwards, but then the show was done, and the crowd did not seem disappointed. Perhaps it was because the work-week started the next day—Monday being MLK Day—but the spring’s show was also during the week, so it’s hard to see how that mattered. No, I think that there was some difference between the two crowds; perhaps it was the presence of the Austinites the first time around. In any case, the night demonstrated the effect a crowd can have on a show quite effectively, if also depressingly.

The next night though effectively demonstrated the positive effect a crowd can have, even when a band might not be at its best. The Rhythm Rockets performed at Martini Park, a good venue marred by sometimes odd managerial decisions. I don’t want to dwell on the show, since it was marked by an at-times uneven vocal performance—the rest of the band was excellent—but the crowd, though not as large as it’s sometimes been at Martini Park, pulled the band through. Whereas at Dale’s show a great band and a terrific venue was marred by an unenthusiastic crowd, this show was enlivened by support from the crowd, which cheered even the often-inane patter of the band leader, Dave Downer.

Crowd support is not much of an issue for the Western Elstons, an incredible supergroup of Chicago musicians. Jimmy Sutton, Joel Paterson, Scott Ligon, Casey McDonough, and Alex Hall are each in several other groups, but together they make up what might be the best dance band in Chicago, if not the Midwest generally. The crowd at Simon’s is aware of that; sometimes during slow songs the entire bar will be eerily silent while conversely, at the end of songs, the whole place will erupt into deafening cheers. Simon’s is a fun venue—during good weather Scott the bar-owner will cook free hot dogs outside on the grill—though it has almost no space for dance. The venue is the weakest part of the show; Simon’s almost makes up for it with cheap drinks, friendly staff, and the aforementioned hot dogs. But it does make you wish the Elstons would play, at least once in a while, somewhere else with a proper dance floor.

Each of these shows then illustrated a different facet of what makes a great show: band, venue, and audience. Dale’s show at Martyrs’ demonstrated how a difficult crowd can detract from a great band in a great venue; the Rhythm Rockets’ show at Martini Park displayed how a good crowd can help a band; and the Western Elstons’ show at Simon’s revealed how a great band together with a good crowd can overcome a limited venue. Searching for a good show comes down to finding the best combination of these three facets. Finding that combination is like a smooth ride on the Western Avenue bus: unexpectedness enhances the pleasure.

Mice, Men, and Why Firefighting and Fighting Terror Are the Same

“Our war on terror begins with al Qaeda, but it does not end there,” President George W. Bush said during an address to a joint session of the U.S. Congress on September 20, 2001: “It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated.” It sounds a laudable goal—until Bush’s word every is taken into account. The word places U.S. policy toward terrorism on a historical continuum with federal policy in another, seemingly far-removed context: environmental policy. In 1914 and 1915, the government had made exterminating wolves, coyotes, mountain lions, bobcats, and raptors federal policy—in line with various state-level policies, such as California’s decision in 1907 to pay a twenty-dollar bounty on mountain lions. In 1930, with words that with only a few tweaks could be dropped into an anti-terrorism speech like Bush’s, a Senior Biologist at the Bureau of Biological Survey for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, E.A. Goldman, could say to an academic conference that “Large predatory mammals destructive to livestock and game no longer have a place in our advancing civilization.” But even as Goldman was speaking his words, perhaps the most famous “experiment” in what happens when predators are removed was already unfolding on Arizona’s Kaibab Plateau on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. Perhaps Bush’s words will not have the same result.

After 1906, when President Theodore Roosevelt established a national game preserve at the Kaibab, hunters employed by the government essentially destroyed all predators within the park’s boundaries: 674 mountain lions, 3000 wolves, and 120 bobcats. As a result, a deer herd that was estimated to be between 5,000 and 10,000 deer grew tenfold. By 1924, there were estimated to be 100,000 deer inside the reserve. The following winter, however, the population crashed: in the next two years over half the herd died. The same mistake might be considered similar to the U.S. Forest Service’s “total fire suppression” policy during the same decades.

By 1935 it was the policy of the United States Forest Service to suppress all fires by ten a.m. the morning after a wildfire was first spotted. Just as on the Kaibab, that policy had unintended consequences. During the late 1950s and early 1960s, it became noticeable that no Giant Sequoia tree had grown in the state of California since the nineteenth century. That was due to the Forest Service’s total fire supression policy: giant Sequoias are not merely tolerant of fire, but actively require it to release their seed. Sequoias, like other evergreen trees, produce cones of seeds; unlike other evergreens, these cones only release their seed after being dried out by fire. Also, sequoia saplings require direct sunlight to grow, the sort of direct sunlight that can only be found in a forest directly after a wildfire. Since the Forest Service actively prevented forest fires in their parks—the only places where sequoias survived—the result was inevitable: no sequoia saplings.

Such consequences might appear to be minor, at least from a human standpoint. Other enactments of the policy, however, were not quite so benign, such as what happened in Taft, California on the night of the 24th of November in 1926, as told by Mike Davis in Ecology of Fear: Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster. On that night, an estimated 100 million field mice overran the town, as noted by a local history: “The mice invaded beds and nibbled the hair of horrified sleepers, chewed through the sides of wooden storehouses to get at food supplies, and crawled boldly into children’s desks at Conley School.” The siege of the town lasted three months, yet despite the best efforts of the Bureau of Biological Survey to poison the mice en masse, the mice onslaught ended not because of chemical warfare, but by the hand of a plague, a septicemia bacillus.

The reason for the invasion became the subject of controversy, says Davis, when E. Raymond Hall, a biologist from the University of California, Berkeley, “attributed the Taft event to the efficiency of the Biological Survey’s predator control campaign in Kern County during 1924-25, which had eradicated natural mouse enemies like coyotes, skunks, and red-tailed hawks.” The Bureau of Biological Survey doughtily defended itself and attacked Hall, who was himself defended, however, by fellow biologists. In 1931, the American Society of Mammalogists  issued a report decrying the Bureau’s war on predators and “the propaganda of the Survey.” Gradually, biologists learned of the importance of predators within a total ecosystem, just as they learned of the importance of fire. Today most, if not all, top predators are protected to one degree or another by law, particularly the Endangered Species Act of 1973.

The wisdom gained in relation to the environment, however, has not transferred to other aspects of U.S. policy. Since 2001 the United States has been engaged in a “total suppression” strategy when it comes to terrorism. Such has been the philosophy behind not merely the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but also the policy behind security checkpoints at airports, such as the frankly embarrassing concern of the Transportation Security Administration for footwear—an embarrassment not because of the hassle of removing shoes, but that the TSA would regard it as an adequate safeguard against terror, as described by such observers as Patrick Smith, a working airline pilot who writes the “Ask the Pilot” column at Salon magazine. Smith decries anti-terror policy by asking:

For example, how is it that our sworn protectors manage to spend tens of billions of dollars each year, yet failed to stop an extremist saboteur whose own father had contacted officials to alert them to his son’s behavior and potential violence?

Well, it’s partly because the government’s list of known or suspected terrorists—the Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment, or TIDE—contains more than half a million names.

Because, in other words, the government is determined to eliminate every possibility of terrorist acts—because the net is cast so widely and indiscriminately—the possibility of the success of such an act is actually increased, not decreased. “Our overzealous obsession with terrorism,” says Smith, “together with bureaucratic bungling, has, predictably, bit us in the rear end.” It’s possible to make similar sorts of arguments regarding many other aspects of U.S. policy, including both South Asian wars.

Such a view will of course be dismissed as a kind of “category mistake,” a term introduced by the English philosopher Gilbert Ryle in his 1949 book, The Concept of Mind. Ryle gave an example of a “category mistake” as being made by the foreign visitor to Oxford or Cambridge who asked, after being shown the colleges and libraries and museums and so on, “But where is the university?” The visitor, that is, has made a fundamental midjudgment: she took the university to be something other than the mere sum of its parts.

In the same way, some might argue that a terrorist is not a mountain lion, a wolf, a grizzly bear, or an eagle—not, in fact, an animal at all—and so to think of counterterrorism policy in terms of counterpredatory policy is to make a similarly fundamental mistake. Human beings are not animals; to think of one in terms of the other is the most base kind of conceptual error possible. Conservatives will accuse such a perspective of draining the evil—only humans are capable of evil, goes this line—out of terror acts; liberals will make similar accusations though for opposite reasons—how can we hope to solve terror without understanding the human motives of the terrorists? But both are merely opposite versions of the same problem.

The right, in other words, sees terrorism as requiring a military answer, while the left sees it as another opportunity for social services. But neither might be the most effective response: when it comes to our adventures abroad, the best course might be to thin out predator population—as biologists might put it, proper gamekeeping—while for the most part leaving the larger ecosystem alone. When it comes to terrorist acts conducted in the United States, Europe, and other industrialized countries, the best course might just be solid police work: the routine application of standard procedure, itself a kind of gamekeeping. Security measures should be handled similarly: instead of indiscriminately scattering resources, they should be marshaled into focused and disciplined hunts. As the editors of The Nation have put it, “the best antidote to terrorism is not military action but good intelligence, police work and appropriate security measures.” We ought to be hunting with rifles, not shotguns. Such a course of action might be denounced as treating terrorists as somehow “better” or “worse,” depending on perspective, because it does not treat terrorism as a “human” problem.

The distinction between the human and the non-human was precisely Ryle’s target. He addressed those people who, faced with the human brain, asked “But where’s the Mind?” as if the mind could somehow be separated from the brain—as if human beings were somehow separate from the rest of nature. Whatever anyone says, though, human beings are not so separate: human beings are themselves a “top predator,” with many similarities to other top predators like wolves or eagles. Handling terrorism should not be different, in principle, from coping with an excess of mountain lions or sharks. Making a mistake about terrorism is a much bigger error than, say, invading mice. But it is the same mistake to treat the two as belonging to different categories.

How William Haenke Saved the World

Nay, the very design of God in giving you this light was, that it might shine.

—Matthew 5:15.

If you were a subscriber to The Eveleth News or the Virginia Daily Enterprise in St. Louis County, Minnesota, some time during the first decades of the twentieth century, you were probably reading by candlelight or gaslight, because electricity didn’t come to much of the rural United States until the 1930s. While reading, you might be struck by the repeated mentions of the doings of a local resident named William Haenke. Over and over again, the newspapers proclaim William an “Expert Farmer,” as The Eveleth News did in Sept. of 1910, or that William’s “Haenke Farm Is Model One,” as the Virginia Daily Enterprise did in Feb. of 1915. The Eveleth News reported in Sept. of 1907 that William would be visited that week by a “party of Duluth real estate men who want to see a St. Louis county farm where the owner is making a living from his farm alone and not from any other source.” Each of these notices seems innocuous in itself, as simply stories of “local color” of a genre familiar to anyone who’s ever read a small town newspaper. But that last one is a bit more odd: Who are these Duluth men, and why should it be so strange to make a living from a farm alone—strange enough that it requires a trip to verify reality? The reason why is surprising: it turns out that explaining just why what William Haenke was doing that St. Louis County found so newsworthy also explains why the United States is the most powerful and richest nation on earth.

Getting to those heights however requires knowing something about William Haenke. He was the son of a sausage-maker in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, descendant (so the stories say) of a Prussian officer who escaped a duel by fleeing for America. William came to the North Country—as Bob Dylan, the poet of Hibbing, Minnesota, called it—in 1891, to take a job at a sausage-maker’s there. He had, in other words, no special experience as a farmer; he came from an urban, not a rural, life. But in 1894, a year of economic depression following the Panic of 1893, William took advantage of a federal program originally passed by Abraham Lincoln’s party: the Homestead Act. By pledging to improve some uninhabited and unclaimed land in the far north, William was granted several hundred acres of unprepossessing Minnesota tundra by President Grover Cleveland. With the assistance of the federal government, William set out to make his fortune.

He did.

In September of 1910, The Eveleth News reported that Haenke “easily distanced all competitors at the county fair at Hibbing.” In total, William won twenty first-place ribbons in that year’s competition. The reason the newspaper gave for William’s success might be considered odd for a man who did not grow up as a farmer: “Credit,” the paper said, “in the main is due to Mr. Haenke’s methods of farming.” A clue to the mystery might be found in December of the same year, when the same paper reported that William “believes in up to-date methods and farms with the best and most modern tools.” Yet in another sense that merely deepens the problem, for how could William know the most innovative methods and obtain the best tools when he lived, for all intents and purposes, at the ends of the earth? After all, the land he obtained through the Homestead Act could only be gotten because of its distance from the modern world.

To see how that was possible—and how, through explaining William’s success, we can also chart the rise of a new world power—requires that we too turn from the far northern periphery to the urban center, or in this case from the productions of the printshops of the Iron Range a century ago to productions made with a different readership than small-town farmers in mind: that magazine supposedly written only for the cosmopolitan elite, the New Yorker. The article that makes sense of William Haenke is an article about health care, but in order to investigate health care, the writer (Atul Gawande) treats an earlier episode in American history when an “indispensable but unmanageably costly sector was strangling the country.” That “sector” was, it so happens, farming. “In 1900,” Gawande writes, “more than forty per cent of a family’s income went to paying for food,” while simultaneously “farming was hugely labor-intensive, tying up almost half the American workforce.” The United States, “partly as a result, [was] still a poor nation.” A century later, however, about eight percent of the average family’s income goes to food, while about two percent of the workforce is involved in agriculture. The United States is no longer poor.

It should be noticeable to William Haenke’s many descendants that almost none (that I’m aware) of those same descendants are involved in farming. Most of us ascribe that fact to vague notions like “better schooling” or maybe just how much easier it is to leave the Iron Range than it was in William’s day—though that bit in the article about how the Duluth businessmen were traveling to see William, by train, a mode of transport that probably hasn’t been in service in the Range since the 1960s at the latest puts a bit of a wobble on that idea. But in fact none of those things are the reason why Haenkes, like most other Americans, don’t have to spend their days digging out weeds or milking cows for a living.

A hint that explains both William’s success on the small-scale (that is, his ability to farm successfully without himself being raised as a farmer) and the United States’ success on the big-scale (that is, the nation’s rise from poor nation to wealthy one) can be found in The Eveleth News description of William “as one who studies his business closely and is in constant communication with the officials of the state agricultural department.” This is a sentence that reveals worlds, because it just so happens that at about the same time that William Haenke was becoming a successful farmer the United States government was getting involved in agriculture in a big way—a way that some people at the time denounced as “socialism.”

“In February, 1903,” Gawande tells us, “Seaman Knapp arrived in the East Texas town of Terrell to talk to the local farmers.” Knapp was an agent of the United States Department of Agriculture, which was originally founded by the 37th Congress of the United States—the one whose House members were elected in 1860, with Lincoln, and whose membership changed radically the following spring, when the Southern representatives and senators left suddenly. That event then allowed the Northern Republicans who were still left to pass legislation like the bill founding the Department of Agriculture and also such things as transcontinental railroads and land-grant colleges, both of which proved useful later to Knapp because the one educated him in agriculture technique and the other allowed not only him to get to Terrell, but anything Terrell produced to go further than the next town. Anyway, when Knapp got to Terrell he talked to the local powers to find him a local farmer willing to try some of the innovations the USDA had been working on. The town of Terrell provided Knapp with Walter C. Porter, a farmer who agreed to devote a portion of his eight hundred acres to “scientific” farming.

At the end of the season, Porter had cleared a seven-hundred dollar profit on his “scientific” parcel—during the worst growing season in the South in twenty-five years. Porter said he would devote all of his land to “scientific farming” the next year, as did many other farmers around Terrell. Knapp himself set up thirty-three more “extension agents,” like himself, to set up demonstration farms like Walter Porter’s in Texas and Louisiana the next year.

In 1914, over heavy opposition, Congress passed the Smith-Lever Act, which established agents like Seaman Knapp in virtually every county in America. By 1930 there were over 7,000 of those agents, and 750,000 demonstration farms like Walter Porter’s. The Agriculture Department began the first professional weather forecasting service in the US to tie those agents together, and a statistics service that provided accurate crop forecasts—so accurate, in fact, that Wall Street and the Chicago Board of Trade begged them to make the crop forecast private, so as to better the chances of speculative bubbles in commodities, which the government did until the farmers yelled hard enough to make them make it public again. “By 1930,” as well, “food absorbed just twenty-four per cent of family spending and twenty percent of the workforce.” It was a massive achievement.

Such success, however, wasn’t merely due to the extension agents or other programs for diffusing knowledge, in a way that equally intersects with William Haenke’s story because, as it happens, he was not reading The Eveleth News by candlelight during the early twentieth century because he was wealthy enough to afford his own electrical generator for his farm. He installed it in the first decade of the twentieth century, at a time when many of his neighbors were not so lucky, as in fact most Americans were not. “Only 10 percent of rural homes had electricity in 1930,” observes one recent historian, Glenn Fleishman, put it in a piece entitled “The Killer App of 1900”; fifteen years later, nearly half did. The story of how that happened is also, in large measure, due to the efforts of the same United States Department of Agriculture.

The Rural Electrification Administration, part of the USDA, was created on 11 May 1935 by Franklin Roosevelt. FDR argued “that the quality of life—and clearly the economic output—of rural Americans would suffer without electricity,” one reason why the effort to electrify the countryside was brought under the aegis of the USDA: as William Haenke recognized a generation before, electricity increased production by leaps and bounds. But that argument had long been distrusted: as a lawyer named Henry Anderson argued in October of 1905, on behalf of two clients who did not want to pay a tax for a municipal electrical utility,

Unless we adopt the principles of socialism, it can hardly be contended that it is the province of government, either state or municipal, to undertake the manufacture or supply of the ordinary subjects of trade and commerce, or to impose burdens upon the whole community for the supposed benefit of a few …

Electricity, it was argued by many, was a luxury, only for those few successes like William Haenke. Luckily, however, FDR did not listen to such arguments—because the output of American farms would become crucial in a way that few could have imagined very soon after the REA began to bring light to rural America.

Because of increasing knowledge, and increased technology, American farms were by the 1940s the most productive and efficient farms in the world. That proved to be handy, since at the same time there was a sudden call for labor beyond the borders of the United States: what we call the Second World War. As a matter of world history, it could be argued, the actions of people like William Haenke ultimately weighed more than, say, the efforts of the physicists involved in the Manhattan Project: without farmers like William Haenke, in other words, no VE-Day. American farms, technologically-advanced enough to function without vast amounts of labor, and far removed from the frontlines and the reach of long-range bombers, could outproduce those of any other nation. Seaman Knapp of course could not have been thinking about Hirohito the day he arrived in Terrell, just as William Haenke was not preparing for the Normandy landings when he arrived in northern Minnesota sometime during the late 19th century. It’s too much to say that what these men did are what won the world wars of the twentieth century, or the long cold war that followed. But without what they did, none of what happened afterwards would have been possible. And without a little help, Knapp and Haenke could not have done what they did.

Sometimes it’s hard to see the future, and large organizations can cast scary big shadows in uncertain light—especially, you know, if you are reading by a candle. Nevertheless, the story of William Haenke might help to guide us today like a lighthouse on a rocky shore. Today it is often argued, for instance, that health-care for everyone is “socialism,” or that, for instance, Internet access should be limited to those who can pay for it. Such topics are, of course, tremendously complicated, just as farming and electricity are difficult subjects. But by making farm techniques and electrical power freely available, the United States unleashed the potential of its own people, making possible an explosion of productive force that, by 1945, allowed the descendants of people like William Haenke to leave the farm and make new lives for themselves. Perhaps as a byproduct that production, it just so happens, on battlefields from Murmansk to Iwo Jima, saved the world. Whether you think that matters, one can only suppose, depends on what you think the odds are of lightning striking twice—or whether you think, as the verse of Matthew says, that “Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone.” It’s worth noting, to Americans, that this verse comes directly after the one that mentions the “city on a hill.”

What Are We Talking About When We Talk About Tiger?

Since I’m involved, however tangentially, with the golf business—I’m a caddie at a well-known Chicago golf course—and also a former graduate student with some passing familiarity with academia, I’ve been asked about Tiger Woods’ unfortunate holidays for at least a month. So here’s my bit, which I think of as following from the three salient facts I have about Tiger Woods based on the few times I have seen him in person and thousands of times on televion:
1. Tiger Woods has treated golf like a vocation since birth. I don’t know about you, but there’s very few people in the world who have known what they wanted to do since, essentially, attaining the ability to formulate the thought—and been able to do it. That is a very peculiar life.
2. Tiger Woods expands what’s humanly possible. He does things on the golf course nobody’s ever done before. I have seen a LOT of golf shots (somewhere in the hundreds of thousands), and I have seen Tiger Woods up close, and nobody I have ever seen hits it like Tiger. I begin with this point because I think not many are actually aware of how good (and how different from anyone else playing) he is.
3. Tiger Woods’ sex life is a great deal different than almost anyone else’s in the United States. I think everyone agrees on this.
Everyone is, for the most part, agreed on these three points. Everyone diverges immediately after these three points. The question posed by his critics is some version of this question:
Does Tiger’s difference make him better than anyone else?
The short answer is, when it comes to hitting a small ball, yes Tiger is better.
But the real question is something like this:
Does that difference mean he should be treated differently?
That’s almost a real question, and points toward the actual nub of the matter.  But it doesn’t actually get there, because it is a question that begs its own answer. You might as well ask, were not the question risible in the context of what might be a domestic violence situation, “When did you stop beating your wife?” In other words, what do you mean by the question? It’s the sort of thing you ask ten-year-olds when you are trying to enforce some behavioral standard—it’s a rote response you yourself probably learned by being at the receiving end of such a question. The answer expected is “No,” but if the answer is expected that means this sentence isn’t an actual inquiry but rather a coercive instrument. Still, behind that coercive intent it’s still possible to recognize a genuine curiosity. To get at it, though, means asking the question differently. I propose asking it like a logician:
Does #3 above follow from #1 and #2?
That is, if we are really about trying to understand Tiger, and not just shuffle him off to celebrity jail or whatever—I’m interested here in the way in which anthropologists talk about the function of celebrity culture to regulate our own behavior—then what we are interested in is whether Tiger Woods’ different abilities and biography are a necessary or sufficient cause of whatever his social life actually is. To put it another way,
Do #1, 2, and 3 form a syllogism or not?
On one level #3 does necessarily follow from #1 and 2. Without the wealth and famed amassed by the operation of 1 and 2, TW probably ends up in the military and nobody gives a damn.
But if that’s the answer then the question must be bad, because that isn’t really what we want. What we want is something like this:
Would ANYBODY, given Tiger’s circumstances, do the same?
Here we’ve made some actual progress, I think. This is the flip side of the coercive, “treating him differently” question. What still matters about it, though, is that it is ultimately what we could call a “normative” question: that is, it is about determining social rules and roles. Notice that is a variation of Kant’s “categorical imperative,” which itself is merely a restatement of the Sermon on the Mount: “do unto others as you would have done …” Nietzscheans and/or Marxists would describe all of this as historically-bound: we ask questions like this because we are in a Judeo-Christian society much concerned with laws and regulations, perhaps primarily in order to make sure goods get where they have to on time. That doesn’t mean that Tiger Woods’ problem is of world-historical interest. That is, though, a cop-out, because you can always presuppose some other planet, some other society, where things are done differently. If we are serious about asking the question, though, maybe we can ask it better. Like this, say:
Does a single-minded pursuit of a goal imply sacrificing a “normal” life?
If it is asked like that, then it becomes obvious how stupid a question it is, because it is circular. We might as well ask, “are different people different?” Of course they are. But that gets us somewhere, and where that is lifts this whole matter out of the realm of tawdry supermarket tabloids. Because what we are really talking about when we talk about Tiger Woods isn’t gossip or even the important question of marriage.
What we are really talking about is the Tortoise and Hare.
Let me explain. Tiger has for years been the symbol of the New Economy: multicultural, cunning, and above all, professional. That was why his chief endorsers, once you got away from Nike and other sports-related companies, were ones like Accenture and American Express. The societal philosophy secreted through the pores of such companies—it never really got argued out—was something like this: let a few Supermen make huge advances, that will “move the median” so to speak. “A rising tide raises all boats.” That is the philosophy of the Hare and arguably it’s been the dominant idea in the Western industrialized democracies, with some minor quibbles, since the Eighties.
The other, contrary philosophy is that of the Tortoise: if you make the Supermen stick around, instead of letting them dash off as far as their whims will go, everyone’s lot in life improves. Sure, if you let the faster runners go someone will have a fast time, but that doesn’t get everyone there any faster—and some would say it might even slow things down. This hasn’t been a popular philosophy for quite some time now, perhaps since the 1950s, and some would say the 1930s. Maybe you get the idea now.
What gets people interested in talking about Tiger Woods, I’d submit, is the interest of talking about these two different philosophies, with the bonus of salacious details instead of boring talk about Chinese import taxes and the rest.

New Year’s Dances

Joel Paterson Dec. 27.
Bill Porter Dec. 29
Western Elstons Dec. 30
Lesley Byers Dec. 31
Art Adams Dec. 31.
Fairfields Jan. 1
Del Moroccos and Los Straitjackets Jan. 2.
Fulton County Line Jan. 2.

Rainy and dreary, Christmas itself just missed being green this year, but the day after brought the kind of storm that recalls the end of James Joyce’s Dubliners: “Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland.” We saw shows all over Chicago in the last days of 2009, beginning with Joel Patterson’s combo the Modern Sounds on the 27th at Simon’s, and after a ten-day holiday stretch of rigorous testing, from Christmas Eve to now, three days after New Year’s, the best place in Chicago to dance just might be the California Clipper. Let’s take inventory one night at a time to inaugurate this blog, which I intend to provide in-depth discussion of swing, rockabilly, and Western swing dancing in Chicago during what inevitably will be called the Obama era. I, your host, am a relative newcomer to this scene, only having learned how a bit more than a year ago; my girlfriend however is a gritty veteran, and part of the fun of learning to dance has been the opportunity to listen to her dish about favorite Chicago venues, bands, and old nasty gossip about people who kicked that habit or that crazy boyfriend ten years ago. There won’t be much of the latter (at least, names will be changed to protect the known guilty) but I hope to outline something about what it is to dance in Chicago right now. Without more ado, then:

Joel Patterson may or may not be familiar to you, but this fall another musician—a guitarist himself—in conversation called Joel Patterson the best guitarist in Chicago, period. That is not a bad sobriquet to have; the show at Simon’s in Andersonville on 27 December did not disappoint any expectations. Joel usually isn’t the best with stage patter, perhaps no surprise given the intensity that has given him the aforementioned priority in the Windy City, but tonight he was pretty loose between songs while the band (Alex Hall, Beau Sample) was, as always, tight during them. The venue, Simon’s, however was packed with a post-holiday crowd, many of them college types home for break, and we left after the first set. How could we do that? Well, Simon’s (if you haven’t been) has almost no room to dance even if the place is empty, and though we did take some turns during the less-crowded first set by the start of the second it became impossible. Listening to Joel without being able to dance is somewhat excruciating, hence a quick exit.

Two days later, after giving the Holiday edition of Fizz a miss—we are, I had better make clear, anti-Fizz for a number of reasons that I may provide in a later post—found us at Green Dolphin Street to see the Bill Porter Orchestra. Green Dolphin Street is named after a song that was named after a movie, providing a theme for the interior design but also a signal about the character of the place: the movie is about a man who sends the wrong letter to the wrong girl, and the management of the venue is similarly confused. Is GDS a bar or a restaurant? Are they either one of those first, and a dance venue second, or the other way around? If it is a music venue, what sort of venue, gay dance party for some of Chicago’s hippest, as it is on Monday nights for the Boom Boom Room, or sedate ballroom for highly-polished pro jazz band, as Bill Porter’s outfit is? Not to mention the salsa—the dance, not the condiment. GDS is always talked about as a potentially great venue (the room really is great, and floor is one of the best in the city), but one held back by insensitive, not to say incompetent, management. It isn’t a place we often hit because Tuesday is usually reserved for Martini Park, especially when the Flat Cats play but a holiday crowd brought with it some oldtimers known to my gf, so … It was what GDS and Bill Porter always are: smooth, relatively polished, but with some irritating features, such as a $10 cover. There a few bands I’d pay $10 for; Bill Porter is not one of them.

It was back to Simon’s on Wednesday for what might be my favorite show in Chicago right now, the Western Elstons. Sure, there isn’t much room to dance, but there’s enough of a critical mass that shows up every show that we can usually make it work. It helps that usually the mass part is filled with follows, meaning that leads like myself can stay out on the floor one song after another with a different follow each time. I would mention how attractive they all are, but that might mean that other leads might start showing up. Nix that. I won’t be saying much more about the Western Elstons other than to mention that Joel Patterson, the above-mentioned best guitarist in the city plays steel guitar for them. Think about it.

Thursday was New Year’s, and we took ourselves to fdm, or fonda del mar, for dinner and Lesley Byers for post-meal entertainment. Both meal and band were, unfortunately, a little overcooked—Lesley has a nice voice and the band is solid, but the music doesn’t swing or rock, particularly by comparison with the Western Elstons the night before. Also, the musicians had an irritating tendency to stretch out songs, leading to 8-minute versions of “Fly Me To the Moon” and the like, which is fun if the song is fun but if not, not. But the evening was salvaged by a trip up Lincoln Avenue to the Horseshoe to catch the end of the rockabilly New Year’s show: Art Adams and his band closed, and we were lucky to get there while the embers of the place—Art having been engaged in burning it down since he took the stage—still smoldered. Adams is a living legend for the rockabilly kids because he is one of the keepers of flame: after two hits in 1959 and 1960, Art quit the music business in 1968 for thirty years, until 2003. He is a kind of time machine allowing direct access to the past—no joke, because Art plays as if the past fifty years never happened. It’s like imagining what might have happened had the Beatles never went to Hamburg. Art Adams, used to salvaging careers and lives, saved New Year’s.

The Friday following, New Year’s Day, was expectedly quiet. The girl and I barely arose to make what is usually the Hoyle Brothers Honky Tonk Happy Hour slot at 5:30 (yep, that’s right) at the Empty Bottle. The Hoyles were taking a well-deserved break however, with their time filled by the Fairfields, Tim Tobin’s band. With low expectations, we joined a sparse crowd that had fought its way through the Arctic chill, provided free of charge by our Canadian continent-mates, to the Bottle. The Fairfields however put up a sonic barrier against the cold, playing a loud and aggressive sound that was fun to dance to—which was easy since, as usual, the dance floor at the Bottle was virtually empty. Tim ought to get his guys to play out more.

That was it as far as dancing went on the night of the First, leading in to Saturday’s show at Fitzgerald’s out in Berwyn on Roosevelt Road. Now, let’s talk a minute about the venue. First, several of the best shows I’ve seen and danced to have been at Fitzgerald’s—yet, I also wouldn’t say that it is the most dance-friendly venue around either. In part of course this is due to the dance-unfriendliness of the larger Chicago music scene; whereas in, say, Austin, Texas dancing is expected, the default, in Chicago quite the reverse. Most people, when they go to a show, expect to stand around looking at the band the whole time. This is, I now realize, horrifying on several levels, but it isn’t really until you look into the mouth of the beast that the numbers of teeth become readily apparent. There were a lot of teeth, or tools, at Fitzgerald’s last night. Often that sort of resistance can be countered by quickthinking and movement-in-force (we can define those terms later), but without support from the rockabilly kids, admittedly not unexpected, the space we managed to clear for the opening act, the Del Moroccos, dissipated by the time Los Straitjackets came out. By which time, so did our tolerance for Blues Brothers-suits-matched-with-Mexican-wrestling-masks-and-surf-music.

That brought us to the California Clipper, maybe the best bar in Chicago. Fulton County Line, one of the better bands in town, was playing, first. But let’s go out singing the praises of the Clipper: it’s run by folks who understand their business and won’t put up with Lincoln Park shiny shirts (they will take their money, unfortunately), you can get a grape soda, the dance floor is empty most nights (and if it isn’t it’s easy to intimidate the drunks out of the way), and did I mention the bands they get. I swear to god every weekend it is the same: we go out trying some new band or venue, and end up crawling, with apologies to Joyce, “like the descent of our last end,” back to the Clipper every time. Clipper forgive us, for we know not what we do.