God bless America

I keep thinking about the two jackasses who show up at virtually every Yankees’ home game, at least the ones televised  from The Bronx.

They bring a big American flag with them to every game. And in the seventh inning, when the Stadium’s PA system plays a snippet of Kate Smith’s rendition of Irving Berlin’s superficial and stupid “God Bless America,” the YES Network camera zooms in on these two as they smugly belt out the lyrics, hold up the flag — and occasionally look around to see if everyone else is watching.

Never mind that the song sucks. Never mind that Woody Guthrie heard it, also thought it sucked, and wrote “This Land Is Your Land” — which should be our National Anthem — in response. Perhaps more important are the misguided patriotism and jingoism that have overtaken baseball and other sports.

“God Bless America” was added to the seventh inning stretch after 9/11. OK. But now it’s nearly two decades later.

Perhaps most disturbing: People stand up, hold their caps to their hearts, bow their heads and sing along — none of which is called for or required. And I guarantee you that many of those people think “God Bless America” is the OTHER National Anthem or might even be THE National Anthem.

As for “The Star-Spangled Banner” itself, the tune has been played at baseball games for 80 years — but as a part of the tradition of the American Pastime. It’s not required. And it’s a song that glorifies war. If they play it before each game, fine — but bear in mind that it didn’t even become our National Anthem until the 1930s.

And “God Bless America” does not require holding your cap to your heart. Me, not only do I refuse to doff my cap, but if the two yahoos who bring a big flag to every game ever said anything about it, I’d tell them to kiss my red, white and blue you-know what.






Hard times

It may be that the economy’s on the upswing, but New York City’s homeless people might argue with that analysis. So, too, might the folks I encounter nearly daily in central New Jersey.

As my son and I walked along Canal Street and up Second Avenue in lower Manhattan, a few days ago, we saw more homeless people than I remember seeing in NYC for a while, including a young couple camped out on a sidewalk in late morning, the girl sleeping on a pile of blankets while her companion stayed awake and kept watch.

Next day, early in the morning, at a park along the Raritan River in central New Jersey, I saw what has become a familiar sight: three homeless men, wearing all of their clothing (including winter parkas in 80 degree weather, as they left a small, wooded nature preserve in Highland Park where they apparently spend the night and then headed toward a long-established encampment along the riverside in the shadow of the New Brunswick-Highland Park bridge.

I believe that many of us these days are so distracted by our own lives and other issues — that the problem of poverty, both urban and rural, has faded from our view. There’s a feeling, I think, even among well-meaning and caring people, that food pantries and government programs and volunteerism have got the problem under control. But, just walk around Manhattan these days, just visit rural Virginia as I did last fall, and drive around the old section of my old hometown of Yonkers, New York, and it’s clear that as the rich are getting so much richer, the poor are getting so much poorer.

Here’s Woody singing his “Hobo’s Lullaby” —

Here’s Dylan, singing Stephen Foster’s “Hard Times” —

And here’s John Prine, singing his classic song about being invisible and lonely, “Hello In There” —

If they ain’t got that do-re-mi…

The title of this post refers, of course, to the song “Do-Re-Mi” by Woody Guthrie — which is perfectly apt, since Woody’s buddy Pete Seeger is lending his voice to a campaign to raise money for the trailblazing Sing Out! magazine, which has hit a fiscal sour note as it marks its 60th year of publication.

Here’s Pete:

And here’s a treat. Woody sings about how folks treat you if you ain’t got that “Do-Re-Mi”:

A sensitive matter

I recently strolled around the magnificent grounds of the Brooklyn Botanical Garden, and there were many things worth remembering: the garden filled with each and every plant mentioned by Shakespeare in his plays and poems (apparently donated by Henry C. Folger, he of the Folger Shakespeare library); the incredibly old bonsai trees; the Japanese meditation pond filled where turtles sunbathed on the stones; the greenhouse filled with rain forest plants, the lily pond and the rock garden. and the Celebrity Path with its paving stones engraved with the names of famous Brooklynites (including Joe Torre, Woody and Arlo Guthrie, Jackie Gleason, Bill Gaines of Mad magazine, Marianne Moore, Mae West, Henny Youngman and Harry Houdini!).

But best of all was my discovery of a plant called the Sensitive Plant, which is found in the tropics and semi-tropics, and which has leaves that curl up and droop when touched. The scientific name is mimosa pudica mimosa is from the Greek word for mimic and pudica is from the Latin word meaning bashful or reticent.

Here’s a photo of the Sensitive Plant:

//media-2.web.britannica.com/eb-media/75/9975-004-28B60ACF.jpg” cannot be displayed, because it contains errors.

Did I touch the leaves of the Sensitive Plant? Yes, I did, and, yes, the leaves did curl slightly. Did its reaction remind me of some people I’ve known?  Did I think of people I’ve known who couldn’t let down their guard, people who were unreachable and prickly and defensive? Yes, I did, and I even saw a few of them, prickly and threatening, when I went from the rain forest greenhouse to the desert greenhouse, and strolled amongst the somber and silent cacti.

Ghost-hunting on Phila Street

Visited Saratoga Springs this weekend with my son. On Saturday night, we stopped by the famous Caffe Lena on Phila Street in Saratoga Springs, which I’m assuming isn’t much different than the way it was when it opened more than forty years ago — it certainly had that feel. We heard a performance by singer/guitarist Laura Vechionne. We drank coffee and tea. And we checked out the walls, which are filled with an impressive array of photos of the likes of Arlo Guthrie, Dave van Ronk, Nanci Griffith, Don McLean, Ani DiFranco….and scores of others, including very young Bob Dylan.

Bob Dylan, Suze Rotolo and Lena Spencer sit at a table in Caffe Lena. The photo was taken in 1961 by Joe Alper.
Bob Dylan, Suze Rotolo and Lena Spencer sit at a table in Caffe Lena. The photo was taken in 1961 by Joe Alper.

Speaking of Caffe Lena, good friend and very good novelist Christian Bauman performed there in his previous incarnation as a very good singer/songwriter/guitarist. There’s a link to his Web site listed on this page under friends. Chris sometimes share some tidbits from his traveling folkie days — like the time he dueted with Pete Seeger on a Woody Guthrie song — and those days even inspired his most recent novel, In Hoboken.

Speaking of Bob Dylan and Saratoga Springs, it just so happened that His Bobness was performing on Sunday in that very town — and my guitarist/Dylan fan son and I just happened to have orchestra tickets for the daylong music festival held at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center. 

Speaking again of Bob Dylan and Saratoga Springs,  someone was there outside SPAC selling a new book of amazing photos taken by the late Joe Alper — dozens of candid shots he took of young Bob back in the day. Check out  www.bobdylanphotobook.com

“We set out that night for the cold in the North…”

Well, not quite, since it was only mid-November, and right around then winter was bearing down hard on  Niagara Falls, New York, but it was warm enough that — fortified by strong alcohol and a strong sense of destiny — that my friend Phil and I set up camp that night outside the Niagara Falls Convention Center and waited to buy tickets in the morning for a show the next night by Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue.

We were so young. I remember thinking that it was amazing that Dylan was out on the road again, performing again, at the ripe old age of…what, I guess ol’ Bob was about 35 years old!

There was an afternoon show and an evening show on Nov. 15, 1975. We went to the evening show with two girl friends. Here’s the set list from the show we attended: (not including songs by other performers — the featured guest star when we saw Rolling Thunder was Joni Mitchell):

When I Paint My Masterpiece
It Ain't Me, Babe
It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry
The Lonesome Death Of Hattie Carroll
Romance In Durango
Blowin' In The Wind
I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine
Never Let Me Go
Mama, You Been On My Mind
I Shall Be Released
Love Minus Zero/No Limit
Tangled Up In Blue
Oh, Sister
One More Cup Of Coffee (Valley Below)
Just Like A Woman
Knockin' On Heaven's Door
This Land Is Your Land

Friend Phil recalls this: I remember clearly the rendition of “Tangled Up In Blue’, when he changed the lyric “Some are carpenters’ wives” to “Some are truck drivers’ wives”.

Me, I remember that the most impressive and thrilling songs were the songs from the new album “Desire” — “Romance in Durango,” “Oh Sister,” “Hurricane,” “One More Cup of Coffee” and “Sara”; the powerful symbolism of Dylan and his merry band doing a finale of “This Land Is Your Land” in tribute to Woody Guthrie and with a nod toward the upcoming bicentennial (as an idiot wind blew from the Grand Coulee Dam to the Capitol…); and, I believe, a duet with none-other-than Joan Baez on “Mama you’ve Been On My Mind.” I remember being in a bar in Niagara Falls when a girl I knew ran in and excitedly handed me a handbill she’d just been handed by some guy on the street — a handbill for the Rolling Thunder Revue.

I remember that a girl named Lee — blonde and beautiful Lee — came with me to the concert, to which I wore a stupid black fedora, which fedora Lee decided sometime during that evening to wear over her long golden locks, and I never saw that fedora again. As I recall, we had great seats in the middle orchestra, no more than ten rows back from the stage. I have a vivid image of Dylan wearing that clear plastic mask and a hat just like the hat he wears on the cover of “Desire” and he’s standing at the microphone without his guitar doing a sort of hipster pantomine as he sings “Isis.” I remember falling in love, alternately, with Joni Mitchell, Roni Blakely and Scarlet Rivera. I remember that the show opened with a song by Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, who was dressed very much like Dylan and looked very much like Dylan and until he started singing many people in the audience were cheering because they mistakenly thought he WAS Bob Dylan.

Memories of Rolling Thunder from more than thirty years ago….still echoing as I listened last night to the sound of distant thunder and flashes of light in the northwest sky…as my son and I get ready to head North for this weekend’s show in Saratoga Springs featuring Bob Dylan and his band with LEVON HELM and others. I promise to not wear a black fedora and I promise to report back on this coming Sunday’s performance by the man my friend and fellow writer Steve Hart has dubbed “His Bobness.”