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December 2005

My Lobotomy

Howard before his lobotomy
Howard Dully before his lobotomy


The other day, I heard one of the best stories I've ever heard on NPR — one of those stories you think about for years.

I can't say I really recommend it, since it's extremely troubling and sad, and rather rage-inducing. But when a piece of art — such as a radio documentary — is very, very well done and needs to be done, it's hard for me not to feel uplifted. Good work is rewarding, regardless.

The story is about Howard Dully, who had a transorbital lobotomy (also known as an "ice pick lobotomy") in 1960 at the age of 12, at the hands of the procedure's inventor, Dr. Walter Freeman. Howard leads the listener through his search to figure out what exactly happened, and why his father and stepmother had the procedure performed.

At one point in the documentary, Howard reads from his medical records, to which he has finally gained access:

HOWARD: It’s pretty much as I suspected ... my stepmother hated me. I never understood why, but it was clear she’d do anything to get rid of me ... Evidently she heard about Dr. Freeman and figured he could help.

DR. FREEMAN: Mrs. Dully called up to say that Howard has been unbelievably defiant with a savage look on his face and at times she is almost afraid. He doesn’t react either to love or to punishment. He objects to going to bed but then sleeps well. He does a good deal of daydreaming and when asked about it he says “I don’t know.” He turns the room’s lights on when there is broad sunlight outside. He hates to wash…

November 30th. Mrs. Dully came in for a talk about Howard. Things have gotten much worse and she can barely endure it. I explained to Mrs. Dully, that the family should consider the possibility of changing Howard’s personality by means of transorbital lobotomy. Mrs Dully said it was up to her husband, that I would have to talk with him and make it stick.

December 3 1960. Mr and Mrs Dully have apparently decided to have Howard operated on. I suggested them not tell Howard anything about it.

The documentary tells Freeman's story too, and with much more sympathy than you'd expect — but with less sympathy than others seem to have. I think it's good for the mind and the soul to try to embrace, for a little while, ideas you find abhorrent ... and sympathy for Freeman is certainly a case to sharpen these skills.

Freeman did his work in a very trying era. Patients and families no longer thought of mental illness as some sort of demonic possession, or the like — they medicalized mental illness instead, which should have been a step in the right direction. But they did so before there were any real medical treatments for essentially any mental health problems. With doctors facing extremly ill patients and desparate families, and armed with virtually no treatments, the conditions were ripe for someone like Freeman to come along, with his pick and his mallet.

... well ... no, it doesn't really fly with me either ...


Cold Cold Ground

Tom Waits in a tree    Stephen Foster not amused
Tom Waits (in a tree) and Stephen Foster (not amused)


A collection of thousands of recordings originally made on cylinders has just gone online. I've only just begun to explore the collection, but it seems like a gold mine.

For one thing, the audio quality is often surprisingly good. The medium is often casually called "wax cylinders" — at first they were only playable a dozen times or so before they wore out. But listening to this collection reminds me that the technology improved quickly — the wax was made harder and was then replaced with early plastics. The Wikipedia entry for cylinders is well worth the read.

Anyway, point is ... the collection includes several versions of Stephen Foster's plantation song (or coon song, or ethiopian song) "Massa's in de Cold Cold Ground." There's an impressive 1916 banjo instrumental, a 1914 quartet that sings the lyrics, a 1912 military band that puts the song in a medley, and a 1903 version that's in the collection but not online, apparently. [Editor's Note: See comment below.]

When I first heard "Massa's in de Cold Cold Ground" in December 2000, I immediately felt that a favorite Tom Waits song, "Cold Cold Ground," was probably directly inspired by it — although, if that's the case, Waits thoroughly re-imagined the old Foster version.

Musically, the two melodies both have a mournfulness and that "formal feeling" Emily Dickinson wrote about. There may be more specific musical similarities that I'm not bothering to shake out — their key, a chord progression, etc.

Lyrically, the two songs are clearly siblings. They share that almost morbid interest in nature that people sometimes have during a time of great loss (I think of Walt Whitman's elegy to Abraham Lincoln). The two songs are also fully fixated on The Grave.

In a 1987 interview, Tom Waits said his song is "Just kind of a harkening back to earlier times; a romantic song thinking about home, and all that" — not a bad summary of Stephen Foster's signature themes. Waits' work has often reminded me of Stephen Foster, in that it seems rescued from some crumbling sheet music lost in an old piano bench somewhere.

I should mention that Waits ditched Foster's racist condescension and the fake black dialect. But Waits is at least as maudlin and nostalgic ... and is that a bad thing?


Massa's in de Cold Cold Ground
(by Stephen Collins Foster)

Round de meadows am a ringing
De darkeys' mournful song,
While de mockingbird am singing,
Happy as de day am long.
Where de ivy am a reeping
O'er de grassy mount,
Dere old massa am a sleeping
Sleeping in de cold, old ground.

Down in de cornfield
Hear dat mournful sound:
All de darkeys am a weeping
Massa's in de cold, cold ground.

When de autumn leaves were falling,
When de days were cold,
'Twas hard to hear old massa calling,
Cause he was so weak and old.
Now de orange tree am blooming
On de sandy shore,
Now de summer days am coming,
Massa nebber calls no more.

Massa made de darkeys love him,
Cause he was so kind,
Now dey sadly weep above him,
Mourning cayse he leave dem behind.
I cannot work before tomorrow,
Cause de tear drop flow,
I try to drive away my sorrow
Pickin on the old banjo.


Cold Cold Ground
(by Tom Waits)

Crest fallen sidekick in an old cafe
Never slept with a dream before he had to go away
There's a bell in the tower, Uncle Ray bought a round
Don't worry 'bout the army in the cold cold ground

Cold cold ground
Cold cold ground
Cold cold ground

Now don't be a cry baby when there's wood in the shed
There's a bird in the chimney and a stone in my bed
When the road's washed out, we pass the bottle around
And wait in the arms of the cold cold ground

The cold cold ground
The cold cold ground
The cold cold ground

There's a ribbon in the willow and a tire swing rope
And a briar patch of berries takin' over the slope
The cat'll sleep in the mailbox and we'll never go to town
Till we bury every dream in the cold cold ground

In the cold cold ground
The cold cold ground
In the cold cold ground
In the cold cold ground

Give me a Winchester rifle and a whole box of shells
Blow the roof off the goat barn, let it roll down the hill
The piano is firewood, Times Square is a dream
I find we'll lay down together in the cold cold ground

The cold cold ground
The cold cold ground
In the cold cold ground

Call the cops on the Breedloves, bring a Bible and a rope
And a whole box of Rebel and a bar of soap
Make a pile of trunk tires and burn 'em all down
Bring a dollar with you, baby, in the cold cold ground

In the cold cold ground
In the cold cold ground
In the cold cold ground

Take a weathervane rooster, throw rocks at his head
Stop talking to the neighbors until we all go dead
Beware of my temper and the dog that I've found
Break all the windows in the cold cold ground

In the cold cold ground
In the cold cold ground
In the cold cold ground
In the cold cold ground
In the cold cold ground
In the cold cold ground
In the cold cold ground
In the cold cold ground
In the cold cold ground
In the cold cold ground


Yes, I Guess They Oughta Name a Drink After You

Ebony hillbillies
The Ebony Hillbillies in front of Astor Wine & Liquors, Manhattan


(This is part of an occasional series on John Prine's second album,
Diamonds in the Rough:   Everybody  The Torch Singer  Souvenirs
The Late John Garfield Blues  Sour Grapes  Billy The Bum  The Frying Pan
Yes I Guess They Oughta Name a Drink After You  Take the Star Out of the Window  The Great Compromise  Clocks and Spoons  Rocky Mountain Time


What's the difference between a fiddle and a violin?

Everyone who takes up either instrument quickly gets tired of being asked the question. The best answer I've heard so far was from Rique, the fiddler for the New York oldtime stringband The Ebony Hillbillies. He was asked the question at the 2005 Black Banjo Gathering in Boone, NC.

"How it's played," Rique answered. "A fiddler keeps the bow on with the strings at all times, but a violinist lifts the bow off the strings — or bounces it off." And with this, he bounced his bow against the strings of his fiddle, drumming out the first few notes of the William Tell Overture / Lone Ranger theme: badda-bum, badda-bum, badda-bum-bum-bum!

"Yes I Guess They Oughta Name a Drink After You" spotlights Dave Prine's fiddling just as the previous song, The Frying Pan, did his banjo-playing — and his fiddling is a fine example of Rique's lesson. After starting the recording with a quick little solo shuffle before the whole band jumps in, the rest of the song is Dave's demonstration of lazy-sounding, long-bow, honky-tonk fiddling that never rests.

I wish I knew enough about country music to say whether this fiddling is more Hank Thompson than Bob Wills, or whomever. It won't be long, though — I'm about to read a book by Bill C. Malone and get some reissues of some people like Ernest Tubb, Hank Williams, Lefty Frizzel and so forth.

But the thing is ... I'm writing NOW.


According to David Fricke, John Prine says of "Yes, I Guess ..."

I was going for a Hank Williams kind of song. Steve Goodman always told me that if I'd taken another couple of minutes and put a chorus to the song — there isn't any, just a tag line to every verse — that it would have been a hit country song. And I was set in my ways. Once a song was done, it was done. But Steve was probably right; he usually was.

The song is another of Prine's border-line parodies, this time of a honky-tonk jukebox record. From the point of view of the guitars, it's a duet between John Prine and Steve Goodman — but with nothing of the delicate complexity we expect from them. Steve Burgh's upright bass falls right on the beat, as do Prine and Goodman, strumming away, never striking any less than all twelve strings they have between them.

Being a honkytonk record, after all, the beat has to come down heavy, so you can feel it in a noisy juke joint even if you can't actually hear any music. This is the kind of country-western beat that might make you want to keep time by alternately jutting out and drawing in your chin. (Which reminds me ... they say the origins of the term "honky" are unclear, but it must be a close relative of "honky tonk.")

The lyrics, too, are so conventional for this kind of music that they're funny. His woman drives him to drink. And that's about it. But it's always seemed odd to me — if nevertheless appropriate — that the relationship between the singer and his woman develops during the course of the song. It takes twists and turns:

Looks like I had my fill
Guess I better pay my bill
When I started out I only meant to have a few
Someone just said that you left town
I better get a double round
And yes, I guess they oughta name a drink after you
But how is this possible if she's not at least there with him, sitting on the next bar stool? No doubt, his sitting alone in the bar getting ever more drunk is itself the development, the twist in the relationship that happens during the course of the song.


Einstein and Folkways Records



If a movie was ever made about the early years of Folkways Records, someone would have to play Albert Einstein.

It would only be a cameo and its true importance is hard to assess, but nevertheless there is an anecdote that links the father of modern physics with the label that brought us Leadbelly, Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, and the New Lost City Ramblers.


My research is in its early stages. But it keeps getting clearer and clearer to me that Folkways Records wasn't just a label that released folk records. It has been a significant force in shaping the way music listeners in the United States and beyond think about their culture and their past.

For example, Woody Guthrie has sometimes seemed to me, and others, as some kind of mythical legendary superfolk. Much of the reason is that Pete Seeger consciously set out to make sure he was remembered this way. But it seems very doubtful that either Pete or Woody would have had the careers they had without Folkways.

Also, as I understand it, Leadbelly had such a degrading experience under management of the Lomaxes that it's unclear how much recording he would have done if Folkways founder Moses Asch hadn't brought him into the studio.

And Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music came out on Folkways and continues to be a major conduit between Americans and their own musical heritage. But when Smith walked into the Folkways offices, all he wanted to do was sell them his old record collection. Having Harry put together an anthology was the idea of Moses Asch.

And remember that the very first LP of bluegrass music ever released was on the Folkways label.

And on page 15 of Bob Dylan's autobiography, Dylan tells us why he went to New York: "I envisioned myself recording for Folkways Records. That was the label I wanted to be on. That was the label that put out all the great records."


Here's what I know about Einstein's role — plus a little of what I don't know.

Moe Asch was the son of Shalom Asch, perhaps the best-known novelist writing in Yiddish and a leading leftist intellectual. He and Albert Einstein were acquaintances. In the late 1930s, both men were actively trying to rescue German and other European Jews endangered by the Third Reich. They encouraged and enabled Jews to leave Europe and tried to get reluctant governments, including the U.S., to accept Jewish refugees.

The young Moe Asch had recently acquired a new "portable" audio recording machine (an enormous, weighty beast in the 1930s). At this point, accounts vary in certain details. Usually, Shalom Asch brings his son and his son's machine to Princeton, NJ to record a message from Einstein about European Jews for later radio broadcast. In one version, Einstein visits the Asches in their home for the same purpose.

At some point, Einstein apparently asked the young Asch what he wanted to do for a living, and Moe offered that he might like to be a mathematician. (I can imagine a young man answering this way in hopes of pleasing Einstein, then one of the most famous celebrities on Earth.) After the recording was finished, Einstein told Moe Asch that his recording machine was a better path to follow if he wanted a creative and prosperous future.

In some accounts, Einstein speaks expansively about the machine's potential to record and preserve global civilization. In some accounts, it's Asch who speaks of starting a company that would "describe the human race, the sound it makes, what it creates," and Einstein reacts encouragingly. According to Moe Asch himself, Einstein told him:

It's very important for the 20th Century to have someone like me who understood the intellect and who understood the changes of the 20th Century and who understood folk and dissemination.
Given the very real and immediate threat to Western Civilization that was the very reason for their meeting, it's not hard to imagine any of these scenarios.


A little harder to imagine, in detail, is the account Pete Seeger liked to tell his audiences. Seeger was close to Moe Asch and knew him well, but he was also a better entertainer and myth-maker than he was a historian:

... and then over supper, Einstein says, "Well young Mr. Asch, what do you do for a living?" And Mo says, "Well, I make a living installing public address systems into hotels, but I've just bought this recording machine, and I'm fascinated with what it can do. And in New York, I've met a Negro musician named Leadbelly who's a fantastic musician but nobody's recording him. They say he's not commercial. But I think this is American culture and it should be recorded. Down in the Library of Congress they record things and just put it on the shelf there and only a few people ever hear them."

Well, Einstein says, "You're exactly right. Americans don't appreciate their culture. It'll be a Polish Jew like you who will do the job."

I doubt Pete Seeger's account, but mostly because there's too much truth packed into it.

The genius of Folkways Records was that it was the fabled "cool corporation." Asch turned his back on the risky business of making "hits" and instead focused on a sure bet — if you record something great and rare, somebody will want it eventually. So he recorded whatever seemed to be in the spirit of his conversation with Einstein, gave it excellent and exhaustive liner notes, and kept it in print forever. (The "Sounds of North American Frogs" has been available continuously since 1958 — and in 1998 it was even digitally remastered and released on CD.)

I've also recently come to really appreciate the vital roles that Europeans played in preserving American folk music, Northerners played in preserving the sounds of the South, whites have played in keeping black musical traditions alive and kicking ... and so on, ad infinitum. The Celestial Monochord is lousy with such stories if you know where to look. In researching these curious histories, one finds Folkways Records almost continuously at the center of the action.

Moses Asch, Sonny Terry, and Brownie McGhee in 1958 (from a 1-megabyte article from the National Yiddish Book Center, available as a PDF.)