Our Ancestors’ Looting and Corpse Robbing Ways

Bruce Catton’s writing on the Civil War is every bit as fascinating as its reputation.  (I have read in several places that if he is not the best writer on the war, than certainly he is one of them.)  Right now I am reading his second book in his trilogy about the Army of the Potomac, Glory Road.

It’s really interesting getting into the lesser known details of this war, that we are still dealing with the political ramifications from.  This war is a large part of our country’s DNA, even if it is something not always dealt with. I often marvel at the lack of movies and TV shows that deal with this period in comparison to something like World War II, which is much more of an easy sell, as it is one of the few wars where people can be proud of.

Because the Civil War was a war of a people, there are many moments in the war when different sides strangely put down their arms, only to resume horrible bloodshed later.  Different sides would often trade with each other.  They also made deals where they would promise not to shoot each other at night so that they could get a comfortable nights sleep.  In one instance in the book, an argument between a Confederate and a Union regiment gets so heated, that they all put down their weapons for a fist fight between two members, only to pick up their weapons and go their separate ways once the fight was settled.

But for every story like this, there are also stories of typical wartime behavior that often don’t make it into the more popular accounts we see on TV documentaries and such.  Here is a passage that deals with the looting of Fredericksburg:

“The city had been rudely sacked; household furniture lined the streets.  Books and battered pictures, bureaus, lounges, feather beds, clocks, and every conceivable article of goods, chattels, and apparel had been savagely torn from the houses and lay about in wanton confusion in all directions.  Fires were made, both for warmth and cooking, with fragments of broken furniture.  Pianos, their harmonious strings displaced, were utilized as horse troughs, and amid all the dangers animals quietly ate from them.”  A solider in another Pennsylvania regiment noted “great scenes of vandalism and useless destruction of books, furniture, carpets, pianos, pictures, etc.,” and reported a grotesque carnival aspect in the streets still swept by Confederate shell as Union soldiers cavorted about in women’s dresses and underwear.  “Some of these characters,” he added, “might be seen with musical instruments, with big horns, violins, accordions, and banjos”; and he noted that his own regiment took several hundred bottles of wine out of someone’s cellar, a part of this wine appearing later on the colonel’s own mess table.  One illiterate private rifled an express office and carried off a huge bundle of receipts and canceled checks under the impression that he was robbing a bank and getting money.

It should be noted that some of the soldiers looking upon this were horrified.  It should also be noted that this kind of behavior was not by any means only on the Union side of things.  There is a passage roughly around this one where the Confederates rob a large amount of dead Union soldiers, leaving them naked by the time they are picked up for burial.  And that is only one story.  Both sides acted in surprising ways, good and bad, at times.  Catton does go into explanations for this behavior, but I will not get into that here.

The point, or question, that I wanted to make was that this is only 150 years ago, carried out by many of our ancestors against one another.  What kind of strange blood is flowing through our National veins, inherited from this time period?

As a side note, again, I don’t know why more films and shows aren’t made of this time period. Only a small way through this book, though I have read others, and there are endless scenes that one could fashion interesting story lines around.



Americans Largely Unconcerned About Climate Change

Americans Largely Unconcerned About Climate Change

The headline story over at Huffpo today was about how Americans don’t seem to be overtly concerned about climate change.  This is exactly why the problem of climate change worries me more than any problem.  It’s the kind of problem that is going to be too late to do anything about once it affects people in a way that they can’t ignore it.  At the same time, unlike a lot of other problems, there is a definitive timeline in getting it right.  Not only has the right wing created a long running disinformation campaign to discredit climate scientists, but the problem itself is not the kind of problem that human beings seem genetically dispositioned to to deal with.  We are much better at dealing with problems that are immediate.  Especially in our culture, where short attention spans seem to be the norm, we seem to lack the ability to make changes based on our long term future.

Imagine if we could have destroyed the Nazi regime before they led millions to the gas chamber.  Would that be a worthy goal?  Millions of people are going to suffer from climate change, including our descendants.  The poorest and most vulnerable people of the world are going to suffer the worst and the suffer sooner.  Their suffering is going to increase due to our indifference on this issue.  Not only will weather become more destructive, but experts are predicting more famine and war due to climate change.

Fighting and winning World War II put the U.S. in the position of being a super power.  Wouldn’t it feel good to wave the flag again knowing that we did something that made the world better for a long time to come?  Or are we content to be thrown on the heap of history’s chumps?


War Makes a Mockery of a Benevolent God

The following describes how commonly held illusions were shattered by the Civil War:

Eighteen months after the first shot at Fort Sumter, there were certain truths that the soldiers had come to know.  Death in war was neither picturesque nor peaceful, and dying bravely didn’t make you any less dead, or mean that you would not be dumped into the cold earth of a mass grave with everyone else, brave and not brave.  Nor was there likely to be anyone to hear your last miserable words.  People of the era cherished the idea of a “good death” – a peaceful, dignified passing wherein God was embraced and sins repented and salvation attained, preferably in your own bed with your family gathered devotedly around to hear your last murmurs of Christian resignation.  War made a mockery of all that.  War made a mockery of the idea of a benevolent God.  It replaced the family home with the rank, powder-scorched horrors of the battlefield.  There were the new truths.  In war you lived outdoors like a wild animal.  You lived in blistering heat, drenching rains, and knifelike cold.  You were exposed and vulnerable.  The majority of men who died did not even have the honor of dying in a fight.  Two out of three were carried away by diseases that killed them just as surely as mine balls.  Those who survived did so on a quarter pound of bacon and eighteen ounces of flour a day – one-third the regular meat ration – with infrequent small issue of rice, molasses, or sugar.  (The rice ration was an ounce.)  Men lived without shoes or coats or blankets.  Food was short all over the South.  Soldiers hunted up sassafras buds and wild onions to ward off scurvy.  Horses died for lack of forage.  In Richmond, where much of the eastern army’s fare was gathered and transshipped, there were bread riots.   

The above is an excerpt from S.C. Gwynne’s Rebel Yell: The Violence, the Passion, and the Redemption of Stonewall Jackson.

What illusions do we hold due to the relative comfort of our lives, when compared to humanity at large, both now and in history?



Where I’ve Been

Recent days have found me with my first week off (well almost a week) in many moons.  This particular post will probably only be of interest to those that have been reading along consistently.  By I felt i owed an explanation for those of you that come here often as to the slow positing rate as of late.  I’ve been catching up on things I have needed to do, on things I have ignored for too long due to travel.  I have also been writing and working on things music related.  But a good bit of the time I have been replenishing the well, diving into books, records, and films that I have been meaning to finish or check out.  This is definitely stuff I want to be doing, it’s what I enjoy.  However, as I am trying to make this a fully functional site, I also need to consume enough information that I can make this site interesting on a regular basis.

I’ve been reading S.C. Gwynne’s Rebel Yell: The Violence, the Passion, and the Redemption of Stonewall Jackson.  I think the Civil War is a period worth understanding if you want to understand many of the national issues of our day.  So many of them have their roots there.  I am trying to finish Patti Smith’s great memoir Just Kids, and because of her I finally got around to reading Rimbaud’s A Season in Hell.  I am also trying to finish Alain de Botton’s The Architecture of Happiness, Erik Larson’s Isaac’s Storm, and Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose.  I finished Pete Townshend’s autobiography, Who I Am, a week ago and can definitely recommend it to anyone that is even slightly interested in him.  He has had a tremendous impact on our culture, even if he has never directly meant anything to you.

Musically I have been diving into the career of Big Star, as well as Chris Bell’s and Alex Chilton’s respective solo careers.  Although I had some kind of bootleg Big Star compilation growing up, and I knew many of my favorite musical artists were influenced by them, this is the first time I have truly understood their brilliance and the arc of their careers.  This is largely due to the excellent documentary Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me, which is streaming on Netflix for free right now.

I am a bit obsessive compulsive about music.  As soon as I become interested in a band or artist, I tend to want to understand everything that I can about them.  With literature I try to always keep one fiction and one non-fiction book going.  I feel like reading fiction is better for songwriting and that non-fiction helps the kind of writing I do here.  I usually do not read this many books and have definitely bitten off more than I can chew!

Unlike some people who need to be forced to read anything, the opposite is true for me.  I could easily get lost down the rabbit hole of books, sometimes failing to take care of things in the real world.  But there are so many interesting things out there, and as always, so little time…



Burning Witches in 2015

They Burn Witches Here

One would think in the year 2015 that burning witches was behind the human race.  However, as this Huffington Post article goes to show, it still goes on in parts of the world.

Reason and science are why much of humanity has moved beyond such practices.  We should remember that when we make choices on how to proceed concerning a whole host of political issues.  Before one reads the article, one should think about what choices we, as a people, are making due to “belief”.  Perhaps someone far away is looking upon us in dumbstruck horror.

What The Civil War Has To Say About Now

I’m about halfway through S.C. Gwynne’s Rebel Yell: The Violence, Passion, and Redemption of Stonewall Jackson.  It’s a fascinating book.  Jackson was someone who was mostly quiet, mild mannered, and kind in his private life.  He was a humble man of strong Christian faith.  But when he took to the battlefield he became a fiery psychopath that was hard on his men and even more vicious in regards to his enemies.  (His men loved him despite how hard he pushed them.)  Strangely enough, before the war, Jackson was a ineffectual teacher at VMI that was often mocked by his students.

The battle scenes in the book are often truly horrific.  Artillery only accounted for about 5% casualties in the Civil War.  However, in one battle they account for almost 50% of the casualties.  When artillery is fired into a formation of men it often removes heads and limbs, and sometimes just leaves a puddle of decaying ooze.

While I was reading the other day I was wondering if this was something that was worth my time.  There is no doubt that the book is informative and interesting.  But what does learning about the Civil War or Jackson or grisly battles have to do with my life?

But as I look out at our country, our culture, and our political landscape I realized that this war is still in our bloodstream.  Although there are very few Americans that would willingly turn their neighbors into puddles of decaying ooze, the fact that our ancestors did so affects us.  Through generations the fires of the war have dwindled, but that doesn’t mean they are completely gone.

The last Civl War veteran, Albert Woolsen, died in 1956.  That was after my parents were born.  So we’re not talking about a long time ago.  This isn’t like reading about ancient Rome.

It was only earlier this year that our country had an argument about the Confederate Flag.  (As a side note a friend remarked today that, “How can you claim to be a patriotic American when you are a waving a flag of succession?”  The conversation had nothing to do with the book, but about how some people were “confused” in regards to history.)  Most people understand how slavery affected issues concerning race in America.  But only a hundred and fifty years ago we were all too willing to kill each other by the thousands not only over slavery, but states rights and other issues that we are still debating.

My point is not to say we haven’t come a long way, or that given how contentious our current political climate is that we are surely doomed to repeat the past.  The fact is that even the most insane political arguments of the day seem mild compared to sending men to die by the thousands.

But often when people argue, especially people that have known each other a long time, it can be hard to figure out what they are really arguing about.  Often they are seemingly arguing about meaningless surface issues when really there  are deeper issues going on.  It might be hard to mediate a fight between lovers or relatives unless you can get to the root issues causing the argument.

While comparing such a situation to a political climate isn’t perfect, I think there is some use to it.  A lot of things get left behind when a generation disappears.  But it can’t help but to untangle the roots of our long term political and cultural problems.





Depressing Debate Commentary

I was thinking today about how I hadn’t seen the Democratic debate yet, although I have seen clips.  Then I started thinking about how every clip that I saw was either about who “won” or about some joke or sensational moment from the debate.  There were no clips about anything meaningful, insightful, that gave you a deeper sense of who these people are and what they believe.  Then most of the commentary was about how the candidates looked, who seemed authentic, and who got the best jabs in.  There was a lot of sports terminology being used.  Who appears the most presidential?  Not exactly the kind of stuff that helps you pick the leader of the free world.  Oh well, better luck next time!  I realize that this kind of thing has been going on forever.  But nevertheless, it’s fucking depressing.

I Don’t Want Something That Can Do Everything

Recently I got a Kindle as a gift.  I purposely got the Paperwhite, which is expressly for reading.  I still believe in supporting local bookstores, and Austin has a great one in BookPeople.  However, with the amount of traveling I do, a Kindle does save me from having to bring a small library on the road.  Last time I went out I had six books with me, some hardcover, which is just ridiculous when you are carrying luggage in and out of hotels every day.

However, even though I definitely understand the convenience of devices, there are two things that I think are worth thinking about.  The one is to make sure that we still spend some of our money at local shops.  I know what has happened to the record industry.  I think it is important to not only reward those who create intellectual property that is important to our culture, but also to protect jobs in our community.  In our free market system, unless we come up with a collective way to take care of more people, we must make individual choices that reflect our values.

Bookstores and record stores also are a communal place where likeminded people can share ideas.  I have discovered many things that were important to me in these places.  A month or two ago I wrote a blog where I talked about how a clerk in a used bookstore steered me towards two great books that I might not have discovered otherwise.  Also, in Austin, BookPeople has many events where writers come and speak.  These kinds of things help bring life to a community.

Another less important thing to think about is the fact that I still think in some ways it is preferable to have devices that don’t do everything.  I have noticed a decrease in my attention span in the years I have had a smart phone.  While there are many times I am glad to have one, there are other times when they are a distraction.  (Good:  When on tour recently I found myself camping unexpectedly and used my phone as a flashlight.  Bad:  I have been reading many times when I unconsciously picked up my phone and began fiddling with it, only to realize what I have done afterwards.)

I don’t want to be tempted to check messages when I am listening to music.  I don’t want to have the games a touch away when I am trying to read a book.  I still use an iPod instead of putting music on my phone.  On a long walk I find that I am more likely to have creative ideas without the extra distraction.  When I am reading I find it easier to get a lot more done when again there is no added distraction.

In this modern world we have everything at our fingertips.  There needs to be some kind of balance in not only what we spend our money on with regards to technology, but also what we do with that technology once we have it.

The Last Detail, Francis Ford Coppola, and the Market Forces of New Hollywood

The Last Detail

Last night I watched the movie The Last Detail staring Jack Nicholson, Otis Young, and an extremely young Randy Quaid.  The movie is about two men in the Navy (Nicholson and Young) who are supposed to take the character played by Quaid to a military prison.  Not liking the task they are given from the beginning, and growing to like it even less as the movie progresses, they take longer then they need to complete it.  As the task at hand grows more distasteful, they decide to show Quaid’s character a good time, taking him out drinking and to a whore house, among other things.  The movie was directed by Hal Ashby and written by Robert Towne.

I found out about the movie by reading Peter Biskind’s book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls.  This is a book that examines New Hollywood, a period that runs roughly from the late 60’s with Easy Rider and up through the 70’s.  Ashby was one of the directors who came up during this period, along with Paul Schrader, Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, and others.

This movie is a good example of the character driven films being made during this period.  The camera barely moves compared to modern filmmaking.  Other than a few scuffles, there is very little action.  Most of the movie revolves around the personality of the characters and the dialogue, which is fantastic.  There is also a strong anti-authoritarian streak running in this film and others from this period.  Watching this film is closer to, if not reading a novel, at least reading a well written short story.  The language is realistic for the time, in markedly different contrast to older Hollywood films.

I wanted to mention the movie, as I believe, if you are interested in well written character driven films, that it is worth seeking out.  However, this isn’t a review.  I would just feel amiss if I didn’t mention it.  Although I was at least aware of many of the movies in the book, this is one that I had never heard mentioned before.

I’m always interested in why certain forms of art flourish in different time periods.  Although there are many reasons why the 60’s were great for music, the 70’s for film, and modern times have been described as the golden age of television, I think that the economics of a given era are always something to be considered.  The more money that flows to creativity, the more interesting and creative things we will see made.  Not only will those in a given field have more resources to give birth to their dreams, but more creative people will seek out a given medium.  Again, although this is not the only thing that influences culture, this is a big factor that has been proven time and again.  Biskind even talks about this near the end of the book:

Could another group of directors have done it differently, broken the back of studio power, created little islands of self-sufficiency that would have supported them in the work they wanted to do?  Could a hundred flowers ever have bloomed?  Probably not.  The strength of the economic forces arrayed against them was too great.  “We had the naive notion that it was the equipment which would give us the means of production,” said Coppola.  “Of course, we learned much later that it wasn’t the equipment, it was the money.”  Because the fact of the matter is that although individual revolutionaries succeeded, the revolution failed.  The New Hollywood directors were like free-range chickens; they were let out of the coop to run around the barnyard and imagined they were free.  But when they ceased laying those eggs, they were slaughtered.  

The book goes on to talk about how the directors, even the truly great ones like Coppola, were selected by market forces.  However, another interesting point is that the directors that were able to marry the personal with the commercial lasted longer than the ones that were making strictly personal films.  Success seems to be dictated by those that had the strength to create something personal, melded with a flexibility to bend to the commercial forces.  The Godfather is a perfect example.  It was a studio picture that Coppola took, even though at the time he would have rather been making movies that were even more personal to him.  However, he was able to infuse that studio film with enough personality to make it popular and unique for its time.

I don’t know if I have reached any definitive conclusion in all of this.  But I think these things are interesting to think about.  Another thing to consider is now, with so many people wanting intellectual property and artistic products for free, how does that affect the kind of culture around us?  Many people lament the fact that films and music aren’t what they used to be.  Why is this?  Is this simply nostalgia for a time that didn’t exist?  Or have we simply devalued things to the point where they can’t be created at the rate that we would like?

P.S.  I couldn’t help but think that the movie, which I don’t want to spoil, is in some ways a great commentary on this whole period of creativity in Hollywood.  (Even though the movie was created during the middle of this period.)  If you watch it, pay close attention to the relationship between freedom and authority.  


Was Anyone Surprised Yesterday?

I want you to think about the world we live in for a moment:  We live in a society where money is worshipped above all else.  Yet income inequality is increasingly obscene.  While healthcare and mental healthcare are slightly better due to recent laws, we still lag behind many developed nations.  We have a mainstream entertainment culture that is largely vapid and meaningless.  Schools are often not what they should be, especially when you consider that we live in an information age where critical thinking is more and more essential all of the time.  Although technology can connect us to people far away, it can also isolate us.  People can see with the push of a button, or a tap of the screen, all of the things that they lack.  Change is happening faster than ever.  Old orders are dying without anything viable to take their place.

On top of all this we have an insane amount of weapons.

When you add this all together, is it any surprise when someone goes on a killing spree?

I don’t mean to belittle what happened yesterday.  It’s sad and troubling.  But one thing it is not is surprising.

I want to try to drop politics for a moment.  No matter how you feel about gun control, the simple thing is this:

We either need to address the amount of weapons being given out, or we need to address the underlying causes that lead to violent behavior.  We either need a society that is more just and meaningful, where we take care of all of our community, or we need to prevent people from having the tools to live out their troubled inner lives.  Otherwise the violence is just going to continue.  The one option that I know will not work is to add even more killing machines into this modern cauldron of anxiety, created by all of the above issues.  Although there are many people that are able to navigate the extreme absurdity of our modern world and keep it together, we shouldn’t be surprised when this same absurdity pushes those without the proper coping mechanisms over the edge.