Monday Sep. 28, 2015

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What I’ve Lost

A taste for Southern Comfort. Umbrellas:
two in a week when I was down
to eight bucks in the bank halfway
to payday and rain in the forecast, tail
end of a hurricane that blew
through Cuba, kissed the coast
of Florida and ricocheted into Philly
where its gray buttocks of sky squatted
over us for days. I tied a garbage bag
turban style, swanned past
the row of four-star restaurants
on Walnut Street, imagining I
was a forties movie queen shooting
a scene on a wet set. Next payday, I dropped
seventy bucks on a steak and a bottle
of rosé, something French
and unpronounceable, curly
on the tongue. The sun
was out. I forgot
about rain and sweet
whiskey thick
in my throat.

“What I’ve Lost” by Sarah Freligh from Sad Math. © Moon City Press, 2015. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

W.C. Handy published “Memphis Blues” on this date in 1912. William Christopher Handy came from northern Alabama, the son of a Methodist preacher who didn’t approve of secular music. The boy saved his money to buy a guitar, but his father made him buy a dictionary instead. Mr. Handy agreed to pay for organ lessons only, but his son wanted to play the cornet. W.C. Handy went to college and was teaching music by the time he was 19. He eventually made his way to Kentucky, and was asked to lead the band for W.A. Mahara’s Minstrels in 1896.

Handy didn’t invent the blues, which he called “a sort of a musical soliloquy,” but he brought it to the attention of the wider public. In 1903, he was living in Clarksdale, Mississippi, and leading a band called the Knights of Pythias. One day, he took a trip to the little town of Tutwiler. He later wrote in his autobiography, Father of the Blues (1941): “A lean loose-jointed Negro had commenced plunking a guitar beside me [...] His face had on it the sadness of the ages [...] As he played, he pressed a knife on the strings of the guitar in a manner popularized by Hawaiian guitarists who used steel bars [...] The singer repeated the line three times, accompanying himself on the guitar with the weirdest music I had ever heard.” He added, “The tune did stay in my mind.”

That was the first time he heard the style of music that would come to be known as the blues. The genre was fairly new, just since the 1890s, and it was typically made up of three chords — tonic, subdominant, and dominant seventh. Handy later said it was played by “roustabouts, honky-tonk piano players, wanderers, and others of their underprivileged but undaunted clan from Missouri to the Gulf.” He began collecting the blues songs that he heard while he was on the road with his band.

Handy moved to Memphis in 1909, and brought that musical style with him, taking what he’d heard in Mississippi and shaping it, adapting it, and arranging it for his own band. “It did the business, too,” he later wrote. “Folks went wild about it.” A man named E.H. Crump was running for mayor of Memphis, and asked Handy to be his campaign’s bandleader. Handy wrote a theme for Crump’s campaign and merged the blues with the ragtime music that was currently all the rage. He called the tune “Mr. Crump.” Crump was elected, and Handy self-published a new arrangement of the campaign song, calling it “Memphis Blues.” It was the first written blues arrangement that Handy published. He sold the rights to a sheet music publisher for $50, to pay his debt to the printer. The publisher added lyrics, and it became one of the most popular songs of 1912; dance hall bandleaders bought the sheet music in record numbers.

Two years later, Handy joined forces with a businessman and lyricist named Henry Pace. “St. Louis Blues” was Handy’s follow-up to “Memphis Blues,” and it was an even bigger hit. The sheet music sold a million copies. It became a standard and was performed by the likes of Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, and Bessie Smith. Smith even filmed an early music video for “St. Louis Blues”; the video told the story of a woman with a cheating boyfriend. The Pace and Handy Music Company produced many blues hits over the next several years, including “Beale Street Blues,” “Joe Turner’s Blues,” “Yellow Dog Blues,” and “Careless Love.”

It was on this day in 1066 that William the Conqueror of Normandy arrived on British soil. He defeated the British in the Battle of Hastings, and on Christmas Day, he was crowned King of England in Westminster Abbey. What nobody knew at the time was how much this would affect the English language. The British back then were speaking a combination of Saxon and Old Norse. The Normans spoke French. Over time, the languages blended, and as a result English became a language incredibly rich in synonyms. Because the French speakers were aristocrats, the French words often became the fancy words for things. The Normans gave us “mansion”; the Saxons gave us “house.” The Normans gave us “beef”; the Saxons gave us, “cow.”

The English language has gone on accepting additions to its vocabulary ever since, and it now contains more than a million words, making it one of the most diverse languages on Earth.

It’s the birthday of Kate Douglas Wiggin (books by this author), born in Philadelphia, (1856), who wrote Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1903) and many other novels. She also started the first free kindergarten on the West Coast, in San Francisco. She spent much of her own life working as a teacher, and she once said, “Every child born into the world is a new thought of God, an ever fresh and radiant possibility.”

It was on this day in 1928 that Scottish bacteriologist Alexander Fleming peered into a petri dish at his basement laboratory in London and noticed a blue-green mold growing. The mold, he observed, was killing the staph bacteria he’d been cultivating in that petri dish. He called the mold “penicillin.” Penicillin is now considered the world’s first “miracle drug,” and it sparked the modern era of antibiotic development.

Fleming’s discovery of penicillin has often been called serendipitous. He’d left the petri dish out by accident instead of putting it away in the incubator, and then he’d gone off on holiday for a couple of weeks. The damp, chilly London air had given the mold the right conditions to grow in.

But, as scientist Pasteur said, fortune favors the prepared mind. When Fleming looked into the dish and saw that blue-green mold and the growth pattern of the bacteria, he deduced that the moldy bit must be the thing that was preventing the bacteria from spreading. Noticing that penicillin was an antibacterial agent was a big deal, but it was still many steps away from making penicillin the world’s most effective antibiotic. To do this, scientists needed to find a way to purify the mold — and then a way to mass-produce it.

It took a team of Oxford scientists, a Rockefeller Foundation grant, and more than a decade of experimenting to make the strain of penicillin that would become the amazingly effective infection-fighting, lifesaving antibiotic that it is today. The task became extra urgent with the start of World War II. Soldiers would survive a wound in battle only to be killed by a nasty infection from that wound later. Penicillin could cure these infections.

The team of scientists working on purifying penicillin moved their lab out of England, for fear that it would be bombed, and over to the U.S. There they experimented with the best way to grow large amounts of penicillin. They used big vats for fermenting the mold. They found that the mold from a moldy cantaloupe was the best kind of mold to start with. And they found that dumping in a by-product from corn production called corn steep liquor really helped — it made their penicillin broth about 15 times more productive. They shot UV rays and X-rays at their molds, hoping to make more productive strains. They knew they had finally succeeded when they gave lab mice lethal doses of bacteria, and then used penicillin to save the lives of those mice.

Penicillin works to kill bacteria because it prevents bacteria from correctly forming new cell walls. Without the new cell walls, the cells cannot divide properly, and so they cannot reproduce, and so the bacteria die off.

Fleming and the scientists who purified penicillin won the 1945 Nobel Prize in medicine. There are several versions of penicillin now, and they are still prescribed to treat a variety of infections. It’s the most widely used antibiotic in history.

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