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Orphan Songs
Part 2: Why so many?

Children in yard of Home for the Friendless
New York City, about 1870

I’ve cataloged a lot of songs about orphans (or the death of parents) from the old 78s of the 1920s and 1930s, as well as later songs inspired by them. I've begun to wonder — why are there so many of these songs?

For starters, there simply used to be a lot of orphans around to sing about. Today, I suppose they would be in state-run foster care systems and wouldn't be called "orphans" at all. Contraception and safe and legal abortions probably keep their numbers down. Certainly, parents are kept alive and families are kept together longer by less dangerous childbirth, safer working conditions, and a longer life expectancy.

But there must be a more permanent reason to sing about orphans, considering that the songs are still well-loved today. Maybe it's that, as I said in Part 1, parents usually die before their children, so we are almost all “orphaned” at some point. And most of us, in turn, make more orphans when we die. It’s almost the fabled “universal experience.”

These songs seem to have blossomed in the 1800's, when Americans had a peculiar obsession with Death, fetishizing and sentimentalizing it in ways rarely seen today. The outpouring of public grief over the death of Abraham Lincoln was an expression of this, as were momento mori, the gothic novel, and the many sentimental death-songs that appeared then. The artists of the 1920s and 1930s plundered the sheet music of the 1800s in search of material for the new recording industry, so I think a lot of these attitudes got a "second wind" as a result.

Most of all, though, I think life in pre-WWII America was just plain lonesome and arduous for most people. Feelings of abandonment are part of what it means to be poor, especially in a country so full of other promises. It would seem natural to empathize with The Orphan.

America was, and is, a place of hard work, empty spaces, and physical displacement. It’s no wonder we love media like recorded music like we do — they keep us company. When they brought songs about how "sometimes I feel like a motherless child" and how "motherless children have a hard time," wondering "will the circle be unbroken," it’s no wonder they were welcomed into the home and taken to heart.

Part 1   Part 2   Part 3   Part 4   Part 5   Part 6   Part 7   Part 8

"Einstein Was A Pig"

Somewhere around 1998, a book about Einstein appeared that (according to the evening news) detailed his relationships with women, showing that he was a fairly lousy husband and father.

The woman I was dating at the time said, "I knew it! Einstein was a PIG!"

"Well, in that case," I thought to myself, "I guess objects with mass can travel faster than the speed of light."

We split up a week or two later — purely coincidentally, as I recall.

Stalked by the Northern Lights

Often, great displays of the Northern Lights (aurora borealis) do insane things. Several times, over many years, they seemed to hover directly over me, personally. They swirled wildly overhead, as if they knew where I was standing. Looking straight up, I saw:


I never understood how this could be ... until one night, standing under a great display, puzzling very hard over the problem, it hit me. It felt like a Nobel-Prize-worthy discovery. ah-HA!

Imagine you're lying on your back on the floor in somebody's living room, looking up at a set of lace curtains. The curtains to either side of you will fall down in straight lines to your left and right. But directly above you, you'll see a complex, maybe S-shaped curve, surrounded by lines radiating from a point above your head. If you move to another spot along the curtains, you'll see the same thing, due to perspective.

NASA photos taken looking down from Earth orbit aboard one of the Space Shuttles confirm that this is pretty much what's actually happening:

Aurora space shuttle

Ezekiel Saw the Wheel
Part 1: Dem Bones

Third Man Ferris Wheel
(from "The Third Man")

During a recent morning commute, a small-time public radio station played "Ezekiel Saw the Wheel" by the obscure Selah Jubilee Quartet. Sounding like an intensely cool, rhythmic barbershop quartet, they sang about how the prophet Ezekiel saw a wheel "way in the middle of the air." I'd heard such songs before.

But suddenly, they changed direction and broke into "the hip bone's connected to the thigh bone, the thigh bone's connected to the knee bone ..." The station then played two other Ezekiel songs from the quartet tradition, and they all sang about dry bones in the valley and how they're connected.

Maybe you're way ahead of me here, but ...

It turns out all those Ezekiel songs (with their wheel in the middle of air), and "Dry Bones" by Bascom Lamar Lunsford (it's on the Harry Smith Anthology), and "Dem Bones," which I grew up thinking of as a secular children's song (shin bone connected to the knee-bone, etc.) are all part of the same song complex, held together by the Book of Ezekiel.

You know, maybe I should read that Bible thingy someday ... NAH!

Part 2

The Oldest Story Ever Told


The stars of the Big Dipper look nothing like a bear. But ancient cultures all over northern Asia — from Scandanavia to Siberia — did see them as a bear. Even the Greeks saw them that way. More strangely, a number of Native American cultures have traditions of seeing these stars as part of a bear narrative.

It's hard to confirm, but the image of these very un-bear-like stars as a bear may well have crossed into North America with the migration of humans over the Siberia-Alaska land bridge during the last Ice Age. If so, this story, this metaphor, is one of the oldest acts of imagination we know.

Note, also, that one of the first signs that the genus Homo had begun to have a kind of imaginative life is the appearence of burials deliberately using bear iconography and bones to lay the dead to rest — the so-called "Bear Cult" of Europe.

I first read about it in an article in Sky and Telescope in the 1980s, but a good article is now online at The Discovery Channel, Canada.

Segregation and The Anthology


When I first heard the Anthology of American Folk Music, I was stunned by its implication that the folk music of The South has always been deeply de-segregated. It makes no mention of race at all, and it's often hard to tell whether a performer is black or white. At least in the North, this was much of its impact when it was first released in 1952.

But after 7 years of thinking and reading, The Anthology has begun to change my notions of what Southern (and Northern) segregation were really about.

I grew up outside Chicago, historically one of the most segregated cities in America. You had to get in a car and really drive to see any African Americans. Drinking fountains labeled "Colored" and "White" would have been absurd in my hometown — not due to our great enlightenment, but just because our drinking fountains would have to wait years before ever seeing a black face.

I now see that there was rarely any place in The South so segregated in quite this way. Historically, the African American experience there has been largely rural (hard to picture for me), so rural whites and blacks breathed the same air, however uneasily. It wasn't unusual for white children to be raised, to a degree, by black servants.

Many linguists even believe that the various "Southern accents" derive some of their characteristics from West African languages. If this is true, Northerners have no Southern accent because they have so few African influences.

Chicago was segregated geographically, physically, bodily. The South was more segregated by custom and law. It's no wonder that the musical intimacy of blacks and whites in The South came as a shock to me. It didn't square with my experience as a Northerner, studying old photographs of those drinking fountains labeled "White" and "Colored".

Banjo Spikes

Banjo Spikes

Banjo spikes are little L-shaped pieces of wire that old-time banjoists, especially, drive into their banjo fretboards, underneath the fifth string (sometimes called the short, drone, or thumb string). They use these spikes like permanent capos for the 5th string — just tuck it under the spike to raise its pitch, usually in combination with a regular capo on the other four strings.

So, here's the thing: They're called "spikes" because they're literally railroad spikes — used by model railroaders to hold down their HO-scale model train tracks. Banjoists have to buy them at hobby-train supply shops.

If you like your metaphors straight up, and no chaser, this is your poison: That banjo string is the lonesome old Long Steel Rail. Sometimes old-time banjoists die with a teeny-tiny little hammer in their hand, trying to beat that itsy-bitsy steam drill ...

For vivid, multi-page instructions on installing railroad spikes in your banjo, see Richie Dotson's

Lost Globe Just Misplaced


A guy vacationing in Naples has stumbled across one of the most desparately sought pieces of ancient scholarship, long thought lost forever when the great Library of Alexandria Egypt was destroyed around 400 AD.

Apparently, it had been right in front of millions of tourists for decades.

A statue of Atlas carrying the Universe on his shoulders turns out to have used the lost celestial globe of Hipparchus, the Greek astronomer who first discovered the precession of Earth’s axis, observed a nova, precisely calculated the length of the year, and invented the stellar brightness scale used today.

And he also made this newly-rediscovered, amazingly accurate star map, complete with celestial equator, ecliptic, and Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn.

Cooking with Banjos

Uncle Dave Macon

The round drum of a banjo is called the "pot" — you say your open-back banjo has an 11-inch pot, and so forth.

Obviously, I'm not the first to notice the cooking association. One of the best-known stringbands before WWII was The Skillet Lickers. It's like guitar "licks," except played on a banjo, which if you hold it by the neck, looks like a skillet.

The signature song of the great banjo songster Uncle Dave Macon was "Keep My Skillet Good and Greasy". I like that the design of a 5-string banjo is "written into" this song's tune. The SKILL syllable is high and loud and you can easily play it by snapping the high 5th string. The word TIME in the rest of the line ("Keep my skillet good and greasy all the time, time, time") slides up several notes each time it's said, so it goes: "Keep my SKILLet good and greasy all the slide, slide, slide". The melody seems to spring naturally from the design of old-time fretless banjos.

There's also an old banjo tune called "Sugar in the Gourd," which may refer to the fact that banjos used to be made from gourds, and there's a great sweetness to the sound of a gourd banjo.

Of course, all of this might be sexual innuendo, as well.

The Vatican Observatory

Vatican observatory
Father George V. Coyne, S.J.
Director of the Vatican Observatory

Pope John Paul II died a few hours ago. One of his first actions after becoming Pope in 1978 was to appoint a commission to study the matter of Galileo, with an eye toward formally setting the record straight regarding the Church's attitude toward his condemnation 350 years before. In Vatican jargon, John Paul wanted to move toward Galileo's "rehabillitation." In 1984, the commission presented its findings and acknowledged that the Church had been in error when it put Galileo under house arrest for the rest of his life.

The "pardon," as it was popularly called, was taken as high symbolism by the public, but from a point of view within the Vatican, I doubt it was much of a stretch.

John Paul II said, without much fanfare, that the Bible holds no specific scientific information and discusses natural phenomena for metaphorical purposes only. He was alright with Darwin. Long before John Paul II, the Vatican had never been as backward about to astronomy as people imagine. A Vatican observatory was built in the 1500s to help with calendar reform, and was formally established as The Vatican Observatory in 1891. Since then, it's been among the most advanced astonomical institutions in the world. It's staffed by a bunch of Jesuits, naturally.

Corn Stalks and the Milky Way

My momma done told me ... when I was a boy ... that when she was growing up on a Wisconsin farm, the corn would grow so fast in late summer you could hear it grow — it was noisy. Being a suburban kid, and a born skeptic, I didn't believe her at first. An April Fool's joke?

She explained that at the height of the growing season, little fibrous strands on any given stalk of corn will snap on occasion, maybe once a week or so. But when you have a whole field of many thousands of stalks of corn, the field crackles like a campfire.

So, in that Wisconsin farmhouse, late at night in the dog days of summer during the Depression, with the windows of her bedroom wide open, she used to fall asleep listening to the corn grow ... crackling, crackling, all night long.

This was a lesson in statistics: very rare events happen all the time. I thought of it years later, reading how radio astronomers map our galaxy.

The vast, star-forming clouds in our Milky Way Galaxy's spiral arms are mostly made of hydrogen atoms — simply, one electron circling one proton. They both spin on their axes like tops, usually in parallel directions. But very rarely, the electron will flip and spin in the opposite (or anti-parallel) direction from its proton. When this happens, the atom emits a light wave at a wavelength of 21 centimeters — a radio frequency.

It only happens to a given hydrogen atom every 10 million years or so, but because our galaxy contains trillions of hydrogen atoms, it happens everywhere, all the time. So radio astonomers can map the galaxy, because the Milky Way softly hums with radio noise, all night, all day, for billions of years.