Saturday July 25, 2015

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The Blues

Much of what is said here
must be said twice,
a reminder that no one
takes an immediate interest in the pain of others.

Nobody will listen, it would seem,
if you simply admit
your baby left you early this morning
she didn’t even stop to say good-bye.

But if you sing it again
with the help of the band
which will now lift you to a higher,
more ardent and beseeching key,

people will not only listen;
they will shift to the sympathetic
edges of their chairs,
moved to such acute anticipation

by that chord and the delay that follows,
they will not be able to sleep
unless you release with one finger
a scream from the throat of your guitar

and turn your head back to the microphone
to let them know
you’re a hard-hearted man
but that woman’s sure going to make you cry.

“The Blues” by Billy Collins from Sailing Alone Around the Room. © Random House, 2002. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

On this day in 1952, the archipelago of Puerto Rico became a self-governing commonwealth of the United States. It had been attacked by the Dutch and the French, pillaged by Ponce de León and various pirates, and, much to the surprise of the indigenous Taíno tribe, “discovered” by Christopher Columbus in 1493 and handed over to Spain.

One year after Puerto Rico became a self-governing commonwealth, one of the largest migrations in the world occurred: more than 70,000 Puerto Ricans emigrated to the Unites States, settling mostly in New York, New Jersey, and Florida.

On this day in 1897, American writer Jack London set out to join the Klondike Gold Rush in the Yukon, a remote and unforgiving region in northwest Canada and Alaska (books by this author). His cabin was situated at a busy crossroads and was a popular stop for other miners and adventurers, who regaled London with stories. The Yukon wasn’t kind to London in terms of health or wealth: he never found gold and he lost four teeth to scurvy. But he wrote down what the prospectors, miners, and adventurers told him, and when he returned to California, he set about writing a series of stories. They became The Son of the Wolf (1900). In a few short years, London was the most successful writer in America.

It was on this day in 1814 that a man named George Stephenson made the first successful demonstration of the steam locomotive in Northern England. His engine pulled eight loaded wagons of 30 tons’ weight about four miles an hour up a hill.

It’s the birthday of writer Eric Hoffer (books by this author), born in New York City (1902). He spent most of his life working on the docks as a longshoreman, and he wrote philosophy in his spare time, including The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements (1951). Eric Hoffer said, “When people are free to do as they please, they usually imitate each other.”

It was on this day in 1788 that Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart entered into his catalog the completion of one of his most beloved works, Symphony Number 40 in G Minor (sometimes called “The Great G Minor Symphony”). It was written in the final years of Mozart’s life, when things were not going well. An infant daughter had died a few weeks earlier, he had moved into a cheaper apartment, and he was begging friends and acquaintances for loans. But in the summer of 1788, he wrote his last three symphonies: Symphony Number 39 in E-Flat, Symphony in G Minor, and the Jupiter symphony. It is not known for sure whether Mozart ever heard any of these symphonies performed.

It’s the birthday of Elias Canetti (books by this author), born in Ruse, Bulgaria (1905). He’s best known for his novel The Tower of Babel (1935). He grew up in an area of Bulgaria that was so ethnically diverse that his grandfather had to speak 17 languages in order to succeed as a grocer. In 1927, he was caught up in a street riot in Vienna, which became the formative experience of his life. He started researching crowds and their importance in history and published Crowds and Power in 1960. He won the Nobel Prize in literature in 1981.

And it’s the birthday of saxophonist Johnny Hodges, born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1906. He took up the soprano sax when he was 14, and later specialized on the alto. Hodges joined Duke Ellington’s orchestra in 1928, and he was a soloist and mainstay of the ensemble until his death in 1970. Among his best-known solos are those on “Warm Valley” and “Passion Flower.” His nickname, “Rabbit,” came from his love of lettuce-and-tomato sandwiches. As he grew older, Hodges used fewer and fewer notes in his solos, preferring to stay closer to the melody.

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®