Monday, May 27, 2019

In Your Hands My Dissatisfied Countrymen: The Jaquess-Gilmore Mission

“I worked night and day for twelve years to prevent the war, but I could not. The North was mad and blind, would not let us govern ourselves, and so the war came.” —Jefferson Davis, July 1864

By the time Sherman’s armies had scorched and bow-tied their way to the sea, by the time Halleck had followed Grant’s orders to “eat out Virginia clean and clear as far as they go, so that crows flying over it for the balance of the season will have to carry their own provender with them,” and by the time Winfield Scott’s Anaconda Plan was finished squeezing every drop of life out of the Confederacy, there had to be those who wondered what possible logic would lead intelligent men like Jefferson Davis to make such a catastrophic choice.

Yet, the South almost won the gamble. With secession, they had challenged the core of the American Experiment, the democratic principle of equal rights, general (male) suffrage, government by a majority, and a peaceful transition of power when that majority so indicated. They also posed an existential question for the North: Was adherence to a principle, even a cherished one like the Union, worth lives and property?

The Civil War is fascinating on so many levels, but what made it fundamentally different than any other conflict that preceded it was that, for the first time, two peoples with the ability to exercise electoral oversight engaged in a protracted armed conflict. This implied something new. The simplest mechanisms of civic beliefs: the right to disagree publicly, to organize, to place elected leadership on notice that their jobs could be at risk, would all play an unexpectedly crucial role in the manner in which the war began and was ultimately prosecuted.

There is no question that the issue was ripe. The Jefferson Davis quote, self-serving though it may be, reflects the reality of a political war that had been going on for more than a decade. The South (or at least the Fire-Eaters, who were more influential than their numbers would imply) had talked themselves into eternal dissatisfaction. They had also convinced themselves that the North would lack backbone when pushed. Threatening to leave if Lincoln were to win the election wasn’t just bluster. The South saw him as a real threat, and secession mutterings progressed to secession organizing. Several Southern States did legislative groundwork in anticipation of a Lincoln win, and they swung into action immediately thereafter. Between December 20,1860 and February 1, 1861, South Carolina, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, and finally Texas seceded, all before Lincoln could even take the Oath of Office.

Of course, that wasn’t the entire South—there was significant Unionist sentiment in many places, and slaveholding Border States actually remained loyal. Bear in mind as well that in no state, even in the Deep South, did slaveholders or even slaveholding families represent a majority. But, as William Freehling points out in The Reintegration of American History, a different type of political culture predominated, one that was far more hierarchical and patriarchal. It wasn’t just that the economic elites (often meaning the Planter Class) held power. It was the way they expressed that power: A plantation required a self-sacrificing leader making all the decisions and receiving in return obedience from inferiors—slaves, employees, tradesmen, wives, and people of a lower social standing. Apply that mind-set to politics, and you have the few choosing for the many.

As to the North, the picture was more complex, in part because divergent views had greater access to power. There were plenty of Southern sympathizers, not just Copperheads but also “Doughfaces” like outgoing President James Buchanan. There were bankers and business people who wanted access to Southern markets. There were also many rank and file Democrats who stuck, out of loyalty, with an increasingly Southern-dominated party. But, just as Southern anger burned, so did resentment in the North. The constantly escalating Southern demands, always couched in hyperbolic terms, grated. Lincoln himself had made this point powerfully at Cooper Union in 1859—the South demanded not just Northern obeisance, but also Northern complicity in what many thought of as a profound moral wrong.

Secession made it palpable, real, and now. It forced Northerners to decide whether the whole thing was worth it. Maybe another set of concessions would work, but, if not, why not just let the slavemongers go their own way, and be done with the problem altogether? The entire country held its breath.

It was at this point that the South (or, at least South Carolina) took a fateful step: They fired first, shelling Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor on April 12, 1861. Northern public opinion moved sharply in the direction of intervention, but Lincoln’s call for 75,000 volunteers to respond also induced four Southern States, first Virginia, the big prize, then Arkansas, North Carolina, and Tennessee, to join the Confederacy.

Why did South Carolina do it? There was no strategic reason—Major Anderson lacked the supplies to sustain his command for any length of time. It’s reasonable to suspect that the aristocratic Southern leadership, steeped in the culture of honor and duels, and contemptuous of a presumed Northern lack of manly fiber, simply assumed it would be easy.

But if the firing on Fort Sumter misjudged the situation, a second Southern assumption was far better. No quick strike was going to end the rebellion. They could fight a largely defensive war—the North would have to come to them, and they felt they had superior military leadership, easier logistics, and far better knowledge of the topography. In short, the South could win just by not losing, and the longer the war went on, the greater the risk to Lincoln that public support would erode.

In the short run, this is exactly what occurred. Poor generalship and tactics led to Northern defeats on the battlefield and at the ballot box: In 1862, Democrats gained 27 seats in the then-184-seat House of Representatives. Northern fortunes picked up militarily in 1863 and early 1864 with the victory at Gettysburg and the capture of New Orleans, but by midsummer they were back to slogging it out again, with heavy loss of life.

Criticism of Lincoln intensified. Seemingly everyone from across the Northern political spectrum found something to dislike in his policies. Influential thought-leaders like William Cullen Bryant, Horace Greeley, and Theodore Tilton came to the conclusion that Lincoln was a failure and needed to be replaced. Others started a John C. Frémont movement, which would have seriously impacted Lincoln’s chances in the general election. At the Republican National Convention in Baltimore, whispers began for a Grant candidacy. Lincoln did secure re-nomination, but, right afterwards, hostilities broke out again with his own party after he pocket-vetoed the Wade-Davis Reconstruction Bill, which was far more punitive than he wanted and would have seized control of the process from the Executive Branch.

The disappointments mounted. In June 1864, Confederate General Jubal Early launched a surprise raid on Washington itself, and almost broke through. By August, against a backdrop of continued military frustrations and a revitalized Democratic Party about to nominate General George McClellan, Lincoln wrote his famous “Blind Memo” to his Cabinet: “This morning, as for some days past, it seems exceedingly probable that this Administration will not be re-elected. Then it will be my duty to so co-operate with the President elect, as to save the Union between the election and the inauguration; as he will have secured his election on such ground that he cannot possibly save it afterwards.” At the very time that memo was written, a serious attempt was made to have a second convention, in Cincinnati, on September 28, to replace Lincoln as the nominee.

Weariness with the war wasn’t confined to the North, although Davis was more secure as a result of his six-year term. The public wanted something done. This gave rise to an unusual number of peace talks, peace feelers, and ad hoc peace conferences. Lincoln even sent the ever-complaining Horace Greeley to one. But perhaps the most interesting is the only one that engaged Jefferson Davis directly, the ragtag Jaquess-Gilmore Mission.

Colonel James Jaquess was a Methodist preacher and soldier from Illinois, James Gilmore a businessman from New York with contacts in the South. Jaquess had long had an obsession with bringing peace to both sides, and requested leave to travel South to meet with like-minded people. Finally, in June of 1864, Lincoln gave a pass to the two to travel to Richmond and attempt to connect with the Confederate President. They were given no formal status or negotiating authority, but were made generally aware of Lincoln’s bottom line—a reconstituted Union, the end of hostilities, and emancipation.

After a preliminary meeting with Judah P. Benjamin, then the Confederacy’s Secretary of State, they were granted an audience with Davis himself on July 17, 1864. What followed was an extraordinary back and forth that may give us as clear a roadmap to Davis’s thinking as we could possibly find. Jeffries later published an account of the meeting, and, making allowances for period language and perhaps a little puffery, it is worth reading in its entirety.

What first strikes you is how absolutely clear Davis was: The war could only end with the North withdrawing. The blame was entirely on them (“At your door lies all the misery and the crime of this war—and it is a fearful, fearful account.”). The North, by insisting on Union, “would deny to us what you exact for yourselves—the right of self-government.” When Jaquess suggested that he had many Southern friends who wished reconciliation, Davis disagreed: “They are mistaken… They do not understand Southern sentiment.”

Jaquess was a determined man, and he pressed his case. Surely peace was desirable? Davis was unmoved: “I desire peace as much as you do. I deplore bloodshed as much as you do; but I feel that not one drop of the blood shed in this war is on my hands; and I look up to my God and say this. I tried all in my power to avert this war. I saw it coming, and for twelve years I worked night and day to prevent it, but I could not. The North was mad and blind; it would not let us govern ourselves; and so the war came, and now it must go on till the last men of this generation falls in his tracks, and his children seize his musket and fight his battles, unless you acknowledge our right to self-government. We are not fighting for Slavery. We are fighting for independence, and that or extermination we will have.”

Over and over Davis returns to his central themes. Independence is non-negotiable. The South hates the North and will never rejoin it, and the North has no right to demand it stay. Each State is only in the Union as a result of a consent that can be withdrawn at any time.

Jaquess then proposes something so far-fetched that it is incredible he could have possibly thought either Lincoln or Davis would ever agree to it: An armistice, followed by a national vote that would choose between two competing proposals—(1) Peace with Disunion, or (2) Peace with Union, emancipation, no confiscation, and universal amnesty.

Davis rejects it, first with the technical objection that one Southern State had no legal right to end slavery in another. But then, in just a few words, he defines why any vote would never be acceptable, no matter the terms: “We seceded to rid ourselves of the rule of the majority, and this would subject us to it again.”

With that, the substantive part of the discussion is over. Jaquess and Jeffries take their leave, and on the way out are met by Judge Robert Ould, who had helped arrange the meeting. Judge Ould inquired about the results: “Nothing but war—war to the knife,” said Jeffries. Jaquess, who had staked so much emotionally on his ability to broker peace, was clearly disappointed at Davis’ fixation on an impossible result. Quoting Hosea 4:17, he adds, “Ephraim is joined to his idols—let him alone.”

Lincoln was too shrewd to let pass the political gold that had just been handed him, and he let the interview be published. For many months, he had been criticized for expanding his war aims to include the end of slavery, allowing his opponents to claim that peace was being held up for the (despised) black man. But Davis’s position, made clear and explicit, showed that peaceful reunion was out of the question, regardless of the disposition of the slavery issue. A conference the next month, between Jeremiah S. Black and Jacob Thompson, who had served together in Buchanan’s Cabinet before Thompson resigned to join the Confederacy, broke up over the same issue: There was nothing Lincoln could offer on any collateral issue that was generous enough to convince Davis to give up on the idea of independence.

If Davis was gambling on either military successes or electoral ones to turn the tide, they turned out to be singularly bad bets. McClellan was nominated by the Democrats on August 31st, but had to repudiate a key portion of the Democratic Platform that called for an immediate cessation of hostilities without preconditions. Sherman took Atlanta on September 2nd, and Republican opposition to Lincoln’s nomination began to crumble. Philip Sheridan’s successes in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley become front page news, and Lincoln was reelected handily on November 8th.

The walls begin to close in on the South: Former Supreme Court Justice John Campbell, who had resigned from the Court shortly after Fort Sumter, and been named Confederate Assistant Secretary of War, refers to “the bereavement, destitution, impoverishment, waste, and overturn that war had occasioned on the South.” Letters from desperate wives and family members cause the desertion rate in Lee’s and Joseph Johnston’s Armies to soar. Richmond itself falls, and Davis and the remnants of his Confederate government flee. Lee surrenders. A few days later, Lincoln is dead, and, dying with him, any chance of a compassionate Reconstruction.

Davis is unrepentant (and somewhat delusional) to the end. He holds fast to his dream of victory, even after Appomattox. He writes to his wife on April 23rd, “[I]t may be that a devoted band of Cavalry will cling to me and that I can force my way across the Missi. and if nothing can be done there which it will be proper to do, then I can go to Mexico and have the world from which to choose a location.”

That image, of Davis riding off, a nearly abandoned majority of one, might be a metaphor for his Presidency. Jaquess was right: Ephraim was joined to his idols

"In Your Hands" was first published on Memorial Day, May 27th, 2019 on

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Monday, April 29, 2019

After Mueller: Seeing What is Before You-On 3Q

“Read your fate, see what is before you, and walk on into futurity.” —Henry David Thoreau

It has been a little over a week since the redacted Mueller Report was released, and so many words have been spilled that there could be a drought by summer if the umbrage reservoirs are not refilled. Can we just retire the word “closure”?

The legal verdict is in, and I don’t plan to re-litigate it here. Robert Mueller determined there was not enough to charge President Trump with collusion, and Attorney General William Barr decided that Trump did not obstruct justice. We all can look at the (unredacted) facts they based their judgments on, and question whether those judgments were correct, but this phase of it is almost certainly over. The President and his inner circle are not going to be indicted.

That certainly is life-affirming. What’s next? How do we read our fate, see what is before us, and walk on into futurity?

We might start with perhaps the most under-reported angle of the cycle: the practical implications of Mueller’s finding that the Trump Campaign’s scores of contacts with the Russians and WikiLeaks were not, per se, illegal. Despite diligent efforts, despite countless dots, Mueller could not find what he thought would have been determinative—a hard agreement that would have nailed down collusion. His team evaluated a lot of meetings, a lot of discussions, a lot of timing coincidences, but, in the absence of a specific exchange of quid pro quos, smoke, no fire.

I’m not critiquing Mueller’s thought process. I accept it. But it leaves us with a serious problem.

If we concede that what Trump did was legal, then he created a template for the future: Meet as much as you want with a foreign power, talk, explore points of mutual interest, but don’t actually “agree” to anything. Apparently, as long as you don’t say, “Wouldn’t mind some traffic problems in Cuyahoga County, what would you want on sanctions relief?” it’s not criminal. This is exactly the thinking that leads the Trump team to send Rudy Giuliani out there on a Sunday morning to tell Jake Tapper, “There’s nothing wrong with taking information from the Russians.”

Let us all hope that when we get a little distance from this, smart principled people from both sides will realize the incredible threat Rudy’s ravings constitute. You don’t talk to the Russians, or the Chinese, or any other country, or a stateless entity like WikiLeaks, whether they are friend or foe of the United States, to gain an advantage in an election. Those folks will see it as transactional and, sooner or later, if something is not paid for, will present a bill for services rendered that can only be redeemed in the currency of national interest.

But what Trump did, he did. The election is over; Mueller is not the Deus Ex Machina. Big win for Trump, no matter how you spin it. He’s been fundraising off it from the moment Barr dropped the four page summary with the smiley-faces plastered all over it.

Of course, some wins are more pleasurable than others, and Trump is not feeling the love quite so much anymore. That’s why he keeps up a stream of invective-laden tweets and comments including phrases like “hit job” and “true Trump-haters” rather than just taking a lap. The Mueller Report is terribly damaging to Trump’s image. What we have is a portrait of a grifty, swampy, unserious, unqualified man and his grabby, often corrupt team playing footsie with the Russians and WikiLeaks, then lying about it continuously, screaming “fake news,” and letting (and encouraging) his underlings do the same. What’s more, Trump’s impulses are awful. Mueller documented 10 close calls which, if Trump’s staff had actually done what their boss demanded, clearly would have constituted obstruction. Since their scruples led them to refuse, and Mueller had some concerns about indicting a sitting President, he passed the obstruction decision to Barr, who then applied his somewhat more idiosyncratic moral code to assume the dual role of defense counsel and judge and then exonerate his own client.

What about all that nasty “spying” on the Trump campaign? Mueller thoroughly undermined the rationale for that one, although it won’t stop Trump and his conservative allies in Congress and the media from screeching about it and demanding investigations. Ask yourself seriously whether the intelligence agencies should ignore roughly 140 contacts between any Presidential campaign and a foreign power, much less one with which we have been fighting proxy wars in Eastern Europe and the Middle East, and to which we just gave notice of withdrawal from a major nuclear arms control treaty over its non-compliance.

In a way, Mueller and perhaps even Barr did us a favor. A legal solution was never going to be satisfactory. Trump’s actions as a candidate and then as a President need to be judged in a political forum. Congress has to do its job and decide whether remedies like impeachment or censure are appropriate, and the electorate has to do theirs, by making their preferences known to their representatives, and marching to the voting booth next November.

Impeachment? The House can certainly start if it wants. We impeached a President for skanky personal behavior with a White House aide; why can’t we impeach one for actions that challenged the legitimacy of our elections and potentially compromised our national security? But see what is before you. It is not done in a vacuum. Nancy Pelosi and Steny Hoyer are almost certainly right. The public doesn’t currently support it, and the chances of 20 Republican Senators voting to convict are roughly equal to those of William Weld knocking Trump out in the primaries.

I have seen very reasonable arguments that the rule of law needs to be defended, that history demands it, and that public hearings might be cathartic and informative, as Nixon’s were. There is a lot of truth in them. But Trump’s America is not Nixon’s. Yes, this could be a great civics lesson, but it could also turn into a circus. What’s more, I cannot see Kevin McCarthy, Mitch McConnell, and Lindsey Graham making a solemn visit to the White House to deliver the bad news that time is up. This isn’t your father’s Republican Party.

So what are Democrats to do when it just burns us up to see all this? Not only is Trump President because, in part, he had an affair with Putin, but he’s kicking the crap out of us—going after everything we care about with the venom of an outlaw-biker-gang leader on meth. It burns even more that, after all those lies, he calls us the traitors (the dirtiest word in the English language) and blasts as an Enemy of the People anyone in the media who dares cover him with anything less than fulsome praise.

See what is before you. We Democrats have to control ourselves. To beat Trump, to start the process of cleaning the stables, we need to see him thoroughly repudiated by the electorate. That is not going to be easy. He cheats—we know that. The Russians are already sowing discord in Democratic ranks and targeting Bernie voters, and reports are that the subject can’t even be discussed in the White House. He’s the incumbent and has a tremendous amount of leverage to use taxpayer assets for his benefit. Republicans control voting procedures in some critical states—and no, Brett Kavanaugh is not going to help us out on voter suppression. Trump’s base remains a rock—his approval ratings have a hard floor. As for money, the people who have quietly benefited from Trump, even those who wouldn’t be caught dead with him, are going to hold their noses and write some seriously big checks to protect their investments.

All this is known. And, at times like this, what do we Democrats do? We see what is beside us, and form a circular firing squad. Amy was mean to her staff; Kirsten was mean to Al Franken; Kamala was mean to criminals; Joe can’t be mean (he’s not a mean guy), but he is a little touchy. Pete is not mean, but he’s so many things at the same time we can’t even keep track of them. He’s also not really a Liberal. Bernie, on the other hand, is not really a Democrat—and, from looking at last year’s tax return, not really a Socialist. Elizabeth is not really a Native American. And Beto is not nearly as neato as Pete-O. And that’s just the first tier! Wait until we get to Dancer and Prancer and Vixen and Comet—have you heard what they have been saying about reindeers? Personally, I was rooting for Sherrod Brown (but isn’t he kind of rumpled?).

Come, on, Democrats. Surely, we can get past this crazy, fault-finding variation on the “Blind Men and the Elephant” where we feel a tusk and think it’s Amy Klobuchar’s salad-scooping comb? Even the Rushmore Four were flawed. No one ever achieved high office (maybe not even Mayor of South Bend) without being a little sharp-elbowed or “flexible” at times. It’s not like we’ve always been pure ourselves—after all, we nominated both Clintons.

Arizona, Iowa, Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Florida, North Carolina. We need a good candidate. Articulate, tough, fearless, willing take a punch to give one. Americans admire someone who is willing to fight for something they care about—it’s part of the reason why some of them took a chance on Trump in the first place. We have to compete for those votes—just energizing our base will lead to bigger margins in Blue States and more complaints about the Electoral College.

So, let’s play Trump Voter eharmony (or Tinder, depending on whether you want a long term relationship or would be content with an Election Day fling). How are we going to woo enough of those folks who decided to date the bad-boy with the cool convertible last time, particularly since we’ve been telling them for the last 2 ½ years they have terrible taste in partners and must have some moral flaw for sticking with him?

See what is before you. It’s not just about Trump, because many Trump supporters have internalized his excesses and still see something that they like in him. It’s us—our failure to offer an attractive alternative, not merely in a candidate, but also in ideas and vision. It is possible, by being the Anti-Trump and hoping he self-destructs, that we might chip away just enough votes to regain the White House. But that’s betting on an inside straight.

What we need to do is remake ourselves on the fly and, in the words of a very smart Millennial I know, give the voters something they did not get with Hillary—the sense of being part of a movement and not merely supporting a candidacy. “I’m with her” was a terrible slogan. “She’s with us” would have been the better one.

In the end, everyone worries about the future, and his or her part in it. Trump addresses that: Put aside every tweet, every insult, and every rant, and the core of his campaign (especially his focus on immigration) is that the solution to the future is to restore the America of the past. This may be regressive, but it is particularly potent with voters who feel their standing is challenged.

We have to do better. Our balance is off—inequality and injustice are important issues, but so also are healthcare, the environment, opportunity at a time where technology is increasingly replacing jobs, and privacy in a pervasively intrusive world. We should work to make the latter four ours.

If we Democrats can, then we can construct a new winning coalition and begin to recapture the things we value. But, if we can’t, if all we can do is bicker and fall back on self-indulgent outrage, then we are doomed to repeat recent history.

But it will be a worse history. As Steve Bannon said in an interview with Politico, “You’re going to get pure Trump off the chain. Four years of Donald Trump in payback mode.”

See that before you.

"After Mueller: Seeing What Is Before You" was first published on on April 29, 2019.  For it, and other original content, please visit:

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Michael Liss

Monday, April 1, 2019

Tales From An Audiophilic Childhood-On 3Q

By Michael Liss
How do you raise kids in an increasingly harsh and atonal world?  
We all have our templates for seeking harmony. Mine were my own parents. They were not performing artists or even musicians; neither played an instrument (I think the kazoo doesn’t qualify), and neither could sing. But, as listeners, they were virtuosos. Classical, of course, but also big band and swing, boogie-woogie and jazz, klezmer, folk and protest songs. My father even harbored a secret passion for some pretty hardcore mountain music—the real thing, serious pickin’ and fiddlin’ without the Nashville gloss. My sister and I think he gave this up, along with drinking and smoking, when he met my mother.
Then, there was opera. I’ve written before about being tied to a chair in the Orchestra section of the old Met when my legs were still too short to make it all the way to the floor. It was all true: I saw Tosca jump off the parapet, and Madame Butterfly do herself in, and Mimi tragically pass, and Violetta tragically pass, and Radames and Aïda jointly and severally tragically pass, and Baron Scarpia and Don Giovanni not-so-tragically pass. All that passing was inescapable; to quote Bugs Bunny in the towering “What’s Opera Doc?” (as even he passed, a victim of Elmer’s spear and magic helmet), “What did you expect in an opera, a happy ending?” 
In retrospect, I should have been honored that my parents had such confidence in my emotional stability that they felt assured I could cope with all that passing. In the moment, however, I don’t think it ever entirely registered with me, especially since all the adults would then cheer wildly. Brava, she’s dead?
Of course, one couldn’t spend all one’s days in the stalls, but the music didn’t stop when the fat lady sang. It surrounded you. At home there was a NASA-like command center featuring a lot of ten-stop switches, open-reel tape decks, a variety of vacuum-tubed paraphernalia, and multiple sets of mics and speakers strategically placed through the apartment. Not unlike the Pyramids, the design and construction phase of this involved immense human labor and suffering, a variety of exotic curses, and the discovery of some unexpected talents—my mother proved to be extraordinarily gifted with a soldering iron.   
On the road, whether driving or actually having arrived at a destination, the challenges were different. You can’t lug half a ton of audio equipment with you, even in a car with a trunk the size of a swimming pool. As for sound quality, car radios were for keeping cars company, so they wouldn’t be lonely, and not for people. Besides, if you didn’t like what was on WQXR, you were going to be out of luck. Let me just add that silence in an automobile, in which you were a captive, seat-belted audience, was not always a blessing, as Nature abhors a vacuum, and my Dad would fill it.

Into the breach stepped the “Miracle in a Matchbox” Uher 4400 Report Stereo, a compact, battery powered, five-inch reel, multiple-speed tape deck. This machine was not only versatile, it was actually cool (they used it in the TV version of “Mission Impossible”). Since the Uher could go anywhere, it replaced the scorned car radio sound with “Parent” mixtapes.  

Here’s where the fun came in—how to arrange the playlists. The five-inch reels created a challenge; even when recorded at half speed, they had a maximum 45 minute run time per side. Opera just didn’t fit (since the Statute of Limitations has run, I now can say I wasn’t terribly upset about that.) Nor did a lot of the rest of the classical oeuvre—either too short or too long. Very often, Beethoven, Brahms, and the gang showed a lack of foresight when it came to the importance of hitting that 45-minute mark, or an exact fraction of it. Take the Saint-Saëns Symphony No. 3: powerful, but 37 minutes. Dad-favorite Mendelssohn Violin Concerto in E Minor, or mine, the Mozart Clarinet Concerto in A Major? Both 29 minutes. That’s a lot of extra tape to try to fill without constantly adding snippets from the Polovtsian Dance No. 2 by Borodin.

The situation demanded creativity, and here is where my parents truly excelled. Yes, they were dedicated to the real adult stuff—the brown liquor of staffs and clefs and notes and intimidating sopranos. And they never wanted to infantilize their children: once we got out of the Itsy Bitsy Spider and Sing a Song of Sixpence phase, if theyenjoyed it, then so should we. But they also liked to have fun (with a purpose, of course), and therein came a chance for a little cultural-political-musical proselytizing.

Mom and Dad were devout New Deal Liberals. They held to a bunch of antique ideas, like the unbreakable connection between Labor and the Democratic Party, freedom of speech and the press, civil rights, and wars being generally bad things, unless fought for good reasons. And they wanted to pass it on.

So, when there wasn’t enough room on those reels for Tchaikovsky or Sibelius, they threw in a bit of Pete Seeger, a little Paul Robeson, and, for extra flavor, a schmear of Allan Sherman. Just a touch of subversiveness amidst all that solemnity, a peek behind the parental curtain, like Bug’s grin in Rhapsody Rabbit.

There was a kind of magic to all this. Pete, both in solo and with The Weavers, drew on a tremendous traditional songbook filled with the music of causes and ordinary folks, such as When the Saints Come Marching In, Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream16 Tons, Brother Can You Spare a Dime, Pay Me My Money Down, Waist Deep In the Big Muddy, and The Rock Island Line. With Lee Hays, he wrote The Hammer Song, later popularized by Peter, Paul and Mary, and recorded by artists as diverse as Trini Lopez and Johnny Cash. Paul Robeson’s mighty bass-baritone lit up Ballad for AmericansThe House I Live In, Old Man River, and Joe Hill. And Allan Sherman was just a goofball. He sang about Muddahs and Faddahs, Harvey and Sheila, and Hungarian Goulash No. 5. My parents didn’t mind a little silly.

Sadly, we lost them way too soon, but both my sister and I, with the cooperation of our tolerant spouses, thought we should keep with tradition. My kids were raised on all of the above. We played our video of “The Weavers: Wasn’t That a Time” so often we wore it out. We added Marriage of Figaro and Rabbit of Seville (operas with happy endings), sang Burl Ives, Chattanooga Choo Choo, and We’re Your Friendsfrom The Jungle Book (I provided the questionable bassline)They got early training in conducting from Stokowski himself in Long Haired HareAnd what sophisticated childhood would be complete without Tom Lehrer’s “The Elements” and “Poisoning Pigeons in the Park”?

It was a perfect fit, because serendipitously, both my children (and my sister’s) showed some musicality, perhaps indicating a previously hidden ancestral gene expressing itself in a later generation. One very early indicator: when my daughter was just a peanut, barely talking, she would wait for the chorus in Pete and Lee Hays’ “Kisses Sweeter Than Wine” and squeak out “WINE!” on cue, and with the correct pitch. Two decades later, she’s a Mahler enthusiast who hopes to sing Tosca.

Puccini and The Weavers. Somehow that just seems right. Our recording of “Kisses” has Pete and Ronnie Gilbert the soloists, Lee Hays and Fred Hellerman joining in the chorus. A couple goes from young love to old—first kiss, marriage, working their farm, raising their kids, having grandchildren, and then looking back in gratitude.  

“Now that I’m old and ready to go
We get to thinkin’ what happened a long time ago
We had a lot of kids, trouble and pain
But, oh Lord, we’d do it all again”

The four of us were together last weekend for dinner and then a seriously competitive game of Hearts, and our kids are still singing the same songs, just with grown-up voices. Their grandparents would be pleased. They probably would have joined in the refrain.

“Oh kisses sweeter than wine
Oh kisses sweeter than wine”

Tales From an Audiophilic Childhood was first published on April 1, 2019 in
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