My Country Tis of Thy People You’re Dying, Buffy Sainte-Marie, and Native American History

The recent announcement that Buffy Sainte-Marie will be opening for Morrissey has got me pulling out her records again.  (That is a concert I would die to see!)  I just became aware of the above song, My Country Tis of Thy People You’re Dying, a song that tells the history of the United States from a Native American perspective.  I find it inspiring that a small Native American girl in a cotton dress had the courage to stand up and sing this song in the 60’s.  You won’t find many large macho males with the courage to do something like that today when, although their are miles and miles to go, things are somewhat better.  I have read a lot of history dealing with Native Americans.  While it is true that no song, however brilliant, can communicate the full complexity of that history, the lyrics of this song ring true to my understanding of that history.

Now that your big eyes have finally opened
Now that you’re wondering how must they feel
Meaning them that you’ve chased across
America’s movie screens

Now that you’re wondering how can it be real
That the ones you’ve called colorful, noble and proud
In your school propaganda, they starve in their splendor
You’ve asked for my comment, I simply will render

My country ’tis of thy people you’re dying

Now that the long houses breed superstition
You force us to send our toddlers away
To your schools where they’re taught
To despise their traditions

You forbid them their languages, then further say
That American history really began
When Columbus set sail out of Europe
Then stress that the nation of leeches that conquered this land
Are the biggest and bravest and boldest and best

And yet where in your history books is the tale
Of the genocide basic to this country’s birth
Of the preachers who lied, how the Bill of Rights failed

How a nation of patriots returned to their earth
And where will it tell of the Liberty Bell
As it rang with a thud o’er Kinzua mud
And of brave Uncle Sam in Alaska this year

My country ’tis of thy people you’re dying

Hear how the bargain was made for the West
With her shivering children in zero degrees
Blankets for your land, so the treaties attest
Oh well, blankets for land is a bargain indeed

And the blankets were those Uncle Sam had collected
From smallpox-diseased dying soldiers that day
And the tribes were wiped out and the history books censored
A hundred years of your statesmen have felt
It’s better this way

And yet a few of the conquered have somehow survived
Their blood runs the redder though genes have paled
From the Gran Canyon’s caverns to craven sad hills
The wounded, the losers, the robbed sing their tale

From Los Angeles County to upstate New York
The white nation fattens while others grow lean
Oh the tricked and evicted they know what I mean

My country ’tis of thy people you’re dying

The past it just crumbled, the future just threatens
Our life blood shut up in your chemical tanks
And now here you come, bill of sale in your hands
And surprise in your eyes that we’re lacking in thanks

For the blessings of civilization you’ve brought us
The lessons you’ve taught us, the ruin you’ve wrought us
Oh see what our trust in America’s brought us

My country ’tis of thy people you’re dying

Now that the pride of the sires receives charity
Now that we’re harmless and safe behind laws
Now that my life’s to be known as your ‘Heritage’
Now that even the graves have been robbed

Now that our own chosen way is a novelty
Hands on our hearts we salute you your victory
Choke on your blue white and scarlet hypocrisy
Pitying the blindness that you’ve never seen

That the eagles of war whose wings lent you glory
They were never no more than carrion crows
Pushed the wrens from their nest
Stole their eggs, changed their story

The mockingbird sings it, it’s all that he knows
“Ah, what can I do?”, say a powerless few
With a lump in your throat and a tear in your eye
Can’t you see that their poverty’s profiting you?

My country ’tis of thy people you’re dying

Here are three great books about Native American history and our country’s Indian Wars.  (Keep in mind that these are simply three out of many.  I chose these books not only for the history that they tell, but also because all of them are absolutely captivating reads of the first order.):

Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Brown – This is a comprehensive overview of the wars that the United States government fought with Native Americans.  This is probably the best place to start.

Blood and Thunder by Hampton Sides – This book focuses on Kit Carson, the Western tribes and predominately the Navajos, and the Indian Wars fought in New Mexico.  This is history truly brought to life through exceptional writing.  It has the descriptive beauty and pace of a great novel.

Empire of the Summer Moon by S.C. Gwynne – This book focuses on Quanah Parker, Texas, and the U.S. and Commanche War.  Another book where the writing is simply exceptional.  This book is also essential to understanding the culture of Texas.

Apologies about the title error earlier. Sometimes autocorrect gets the best of you!

The Strange Origins of Valentine’s Day

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NPR: Origins of Valentine’s Day

The above article over at NPR tells the original story behind Valentine’s Day.  To be fair I think the origins are slightly murky.  This article, and several other I read this morning, make it known that no one is quite sure of the exact origin.  Anyway, as with many holidays and traditions, it has become sanitized over time.  Sample from the article:

From Feb. 13 to 15, the Romans celebrated the feast of Lupercalia. The men sacrificed a goat and a dog, then whipped women with the hides of the animals they had just slain.

The Roman romantics “were drunk. They were naked,” says Noel Lenski, a historian at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Young women would actually line up for the men to hit them, Lenski says. They believed this would make them fertile.

The brutal fete included a matchmaking lottery, in which young men drew the names of women from a jar. The couple would then be, um, coupled up for the duration of the festival — or longer, if the match was right.

Obama Secretly Supported Gay Marriage In First Presidential Run

Obama Secretly Supported Gay Marriage All Along

Was just reading the above article over at Huffington Post that features an excerpt from David Axlerod’s new book, Believer: My Forty Years in Politics.  In the excerpt Axlerod claims that Obama supported gay marriage all along, even while he claimed that he favored the more politically popular civil unions during his first run for the presidency.

I’m sure this will make some heads on the right explode.  I am also sure that even some of his supporters will claim this shows a lack of character.  However, this is really not out of step with politics in general.  Having been reading Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals about Lincoln, even our greatest president engaged in this kind of thing.  (Well, I was reading it until my Kindle exploded!  I will finish it as soon as possible.)  Lincoln was often told by the left wing of his party that he was not moving fast enough on slavery, even though he eventually was the president that put an end to slavery.

The idea is that leaders have to take the temperature of the populace on issues.  A good leader will be out front of the public on issues, “leading” them to do the right thing, but they can’t be too out front of the general population.  If they are too out front they risk a backlash and giving the opposition a chance to make political inroads.  So they have to have enough courage to move the ball down the field, but enough smarts to do it in a way where they don’t risk creating a situation where they don’t have enough political capital to get things done.

On top of this political leaders, especially at a national level, have a many other issues that they also need to treat in this same manner.  It’s a complex puzzle that is not an enviable task.  This is not to say that the general public should not express outrage if they believe a politician is acting against their interests.  It is expressly this growing political “heat” that will eventually give a leader enough cover to make it politically expedient to act.  Those that try to change the national dialogue through protests and other forms of peaceful serve a very important role in democracy, one that has often been ridiculously belittled in the mainstream media, but it is not the same role that a leader elected by popular vote has.

This is not to say that one can not criticize Obama on his decisions.  It is fair to say that Obama was not far enough in front of the general population.  If someone wants to make the argument that he lacked the courage to act in a timely manner, I don’t know if I would agree given all of the other issues at stake when he took the presidency, but it is again a fair criticism.  However, I think history shows that a political leader who has a different opinion in private and in public is not out of the ordinary, and might even be smart politics when trying to accomplish a larger goal.  Although it is too early to tell, and I am more willing to hear arguments against this belief, I think the gains that gay couples have made during Obama’s presidency will leave Obama looking favorably on this issue in the history books.  Change, important change, and I do believe that gay marriage is an important issue as everyone deserves the chance to find love and happiness, is not always pretty.  To change the way people think takes real people doing real work.  It requires those that are willing to stand up for justice on the front lines and, yes sometimes, it also requires political leaders that are willing to bend political will in using the often unseemly machinations of politics.

Why Did Germany Produce So Many Great Composers and Why Does Art Flourish?

I’ve been reading about classical music again lately.  It is one of the forms of music, along with jazz, that I don’t have a real deep understanding of the history of, or that I don’t understand the forms and technical terminology.  It is this insanely large and diverse body of work that I didn’t grow up on, which can be intimidating if you try to dive into as an adult.  My parents taught me to see it on rare occasion.  Sometimes they played it around the house.  I also had the typical public school music education, but honestly a lot of that has been lost to the cloudy fog of memory.  So I am left to my own devices to navigate something the size of an ocean.  The book I’m reading is a really good introduction.  It is called Classical Music:  The 50 Greatest Composers and Their 1,000 Greatest Works.  It is by Phil G. Goulding.

The author begins the book by telling the reader how he came up with the list and is very conscious that this list, or any other, is not perfect.  It is simply a means to start a conversation and to initiate the new.  What amazed me at the very beginning, and what I never put together on my own, was how many of the titans of Western music were German.  The author puts 18 Germans in the top 50 on his list.  (The author is American.)

So in learning about classical music a new set of questions arise.  What was going on in Germany that allowed for such an wealth of talent?  What was going on culturally, economically, and politically that set the stage for a certain art form to thrive?  Why in 1960’s America and England did rock and pop music suddenly explode into being, at a level of quality that has not since been equaled?

Art of any kind is not created in a vacuum.  Artists have to be able to earn a living so that they can focus and hone their talents.  If someone has to work 12 hours a day in a mine they are probably not going to be able to develop the high level of skills that especially something like classical music takes.  Whether it is paying for recording time now, or assembling an orchestra in the past, there has to be the means to do so.  There also need to be a culture that is at least somewhat receptive to new ideas and talent.  Their needs to be some kind of audience, even if it is just the wealthy, that has the skill set to appreciate and demand more of art.  That’s not saying that there won’t always be some kind of brilliant art in any society, but for it to be widespread there must be an audience that is receptive and appreciative of what is going on for it to thrive.

Also, although political turmoil can often inspire great works of art, too much political turmoil can also crush art in its cradle.  Mikhail Bulgakov is an interesting study.  He was a novelist and playwright in Russia who wrote the classic The Master and Margarita among others.  That book is considered a masterpiece and it was inspired partially by what was going on in Stalinist Russia.  On one hand he might never have created his masterpiece if he did not find inspiration in the political events of the day, which were extremely oppressive.  However, many of his works were banned.  Would he have possibly written more in an open society?  That is something we will never know.  However, he was spared when many others were not because he was liked by Stalin.  How many other writers work was destroyed, or how many writers were themselves destroyed, before their work ever came to be?  Even in Stalinist Russia there was still the basics of a functioning society, however repressive.  What if there was a war so brutal in a country that it descended backwards to where everyone was living in a primitive tribal society, and if so how much art would be created then?

Again, these are all questions I don’t have answers for, but I think they are worth thinking about, especially in relation to modern life.  Why is it that television is producing so many great shows that have some degree of mass appeal, while the most popular recording stars are often completely vapid?  Questions, questions, questions…

Powdered Wigs, Syphilis, and Tradition

Today I was at a friend’s house watching the new History Channel miniseries about the Revolutionary War.   While we were watching it my friend asked me why people wore wigs back in that time period.  I had to find out and upon doing so found this article:

Why Did People Wear Powdered Wigs?

A sample:

For nearly two centuries, powdered wigs—called perukes—were all the rage. The chic hairpiece would have never become popular, however, if it hadn’t been for a venereal disease, a pair of self-conscious kings, and poor hair hygiene.  

The peruke’s story begins like many others—with syphilis. By 1580, the STD had become the worst epidemic to strike Europe since the Black Death. According to William Clowes, an “infinite multitude” of syphilis patients clogged London’s hospitals, and more filtered in each day. Without antibiotics, victims faced the full brunt of the disease: open sores, nasty rashes, blindness, dementia, and patchy hair loss. Baldness swept the land.

At the time, hair loss was a one-way ticket to public embarrassment. Long hair was a trendy status symbol, and a bald dome could stain any reputation. When Samuel Pepys’s brother acquired syphilis, the diarist wrote, “If [my brother] lives, he will not be able to show his head—which will be a very great shame to me.” Hair was that big of a deal.

The rest of the article is interesting as well.  Eventually Louis XIV, King of France, and Charles II, King of England, also started wearing wigs.  (Both of these kings were also thought possibly to have had syphilis.)  Well once kings start wearing wigs it is only a matter of time until others do.

So basically you had a bunch of rich people that were fucking too much, got syphilis, started wearing wigs, and then they influenced a whole lot of other people to start wearing wigs.  What is so funny is that judges used to wear wigs in the U.S.  Judges in England still wear them.  So you had and have all of these so called respectable people carrying on a tradition that in part started because of an STD.

It kind of makes you wonder what other respectable traditions have their basis in bullshit too…

Death, Mortality, Abraham Lincoln, and His Secretary of War

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If you want to know why Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals is such a thing of beauty, look no further.  The following two pages (at least on my Kindle) shows you how jam packed this book is with ideas and humanity.  Abraham Lincoln and Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton were polar opposites in personality, but were a perfect team when working together.  The one thing they both personally shared was a deep understanding of mortality due to the fact that both of them suffered the tremendous loss of loved ones.  As well as losing family members, Lincoln’s first love died when he was young.  Stanton lost his first wife at an early age.  Excerpt:

That Lincoln was also preoccupied with death is clear from the themes of many of his favorite poems that addressed the ephemeral nature of life and reflected on his own painful acquaintance with death.  He particularly cherished “Mortality,” by William Knox, and transcribed a copy for the Stantons.

Oh!  Why should the spirit of mortal be proud?
Like a swift-fleeting meteor, a fast-flying cloud,
A flash of lightning, a break of the wave,
He passeth from life to his rest in the grave.

He could recite from memory “The Last Leaf,” by Oliver Wendell Holmes, and once claimed to the painter Francis Carpenter that “for pure pathos” there was “nothing finer…in the English language” than the six-line stanza:

The mossy marble rest
On lips that he has prest
  In their bloom,
And the names he loved to hear
Have been carved for many a year
  On the tomb.

Yet, beyond sharing a romantic and philosophical preoccupation with death, the commander in chief and the secretary of war shared the harrowing knowledge that their choices resulted in sending hundreds of thousands of young men to their graves.  Stanton’s Quaker background made the strain particularly unbearable.  As a young man, he had written a passionate essay decrying society’s exaltation of war.  “Why is it,” he asked, that military generals “are praised and honored instead of being punished as malefactors?”  After all, the work of war is “the making of widows and orphans – the plundering of towns and villages – the exterminating & spoiling of all, making the earth a slaughterhouse.”  Though governments might argue war’s necessity to achieve certain objectives, “how much better might they accomplish their ends by some other means?  But if generals are useful so are butchers, and who will say that because a butcher is useful he should be honored?”  

Three decades after writing this, Stanton found himself responsible for an army of more than 2 million men.  “There could be no greater madness,” he reasoned, “than for a man to encounter what I do for anything less than motives that overleap time and look forward to eternity.”  Lincoln, too, found the horrific scope of the burden hard to fathom.  “Doesn’t it strike you as queer that I, who couldn’t cut the head off of a chicken, and who was sick at the sight of blood, should be cast into the middle of a great war, with blood flowing all about me?”  

Great Moments In American Politics: Pulling a Gun While Being Drunk in the Senate

A lot of people hate Congress, but what they don’t realize is that it has improved!  What follows is the behavior of Senator Willard Saulsbury of Delaware as reported in Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals.  (Sualsburg was pat of the group that opposed the Emancipation Proclamation):

In the Senate, Willard Saulsbury of Delaware took to the floor to prevent a vote sustaining the administration on the suspension of habeas corpus.  He could hardly keep his footing during a liquor-fueled harangue, while he inveighed against the president “in language fit only for a drunken fishwife,” calling him “an imbecile” and claiming that he was “the weakest man ever placed in high office.”  Called to order by Vice President Hamlin, he refused to take his seat.  When sergeant at arms approached to take Saulsbury into custody, he pulled out his revolver.  “Damn you,” he said, pointing the pistol at the sergeant’s head, “if you touch me I’ll shoot you dead.”  The wild scene continued for some time before Saulsbury was removed from the Senate floor.

Just remember what’s out there in the American bloodstream, right below the surface.  Happy New Year!