Friday, January 28, 2011

Today in History, 1958: Murder in the Heartland

While everyone else notes the Challenger disaster anniversary today, I would like to mention an infamous murder spree.

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Charles Starkweather, a 19-year-old high-school dropout from Lincoln, Nebraska, and his 14-year-old girlfriend, Caril Ann Fugate, killed a Lincoln businessman, his wife and their maid, as part of a murderous crime spree that began a week earlier and would ultimately leave 10 people dead. The killer couple’s deadly road trip, which generated enormous media attention and a massive manhunt, came to an end the following day, when Starkweather and Fugate were arrested near Douglas, Wyoming. The crimes later inspired a slew of books, movies and music, including Terence Malick’s 1973 film "Badlands," starring Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek, and Bruce Springsteen’s 1982 song "Nebraska."

Growing up, Charles Starkweather (1938-1959) was bullied and did poorly in school. He later idolized James Dean and identified with the actor’s rebellious, outsider image. Starkweather committed his first murder on December 1, 1957, when he robbed a gas station and killed the attendant. Reportedly, an attendant at the station had previously refused Starkweather’s attempt to buy a present for Fugate (1943- ) on credit.

Starkweather turned serial killer on January 21, 1958, when he shot Fugate’s stepfather and mother after arguing with them at their home, and strangled Fugate’s two-and-a-half-year-old sister. Starkweather and Fugate remained holed up at the scene of the crime for several days, before taking off in Starkweather’s car and murdering three more people--a farmer and two teenagers--on January 27. On January 28, the couple killed another three people--the Lincoln businessman, his wife and their maid. Starkweather and Fugate’s final victim, a shoe salesman, was killed on January 29; the couple was captured later that day.

Starkweather and Fugate were convicted of murder. He was given the death penalty and died in the electric chair on June 25, 1959. Fugate was sentenced to life in prison, but was released in 1976.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

The Most Important Day In American Musical History

Here is the Introduction of my current writing project, titled Doin' the Charleston: The Music and Dance That Defined a Generation.

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The Most Important Day in American Musical History

Thursday, May 2, 1912. The concert that night was an unusual affair, a benefit for the Music School Settlement for Colored People, a Harlem institution for artistically gifted children. This was going to be the largest group of African-American artists ever gathered in New York to perform together in the most famous white-owned, white-operated theater in the United States - Carnegie Hall. More than three hundred black American musical artists were scheduled to perform before a sold-out mixed race audience on the same stage that had hosted Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, and Arthur Rubinstein.

David Mannes, concertmaster of the New York Symphony believed that music was the universal language and that this concert would bring whites and blacks together in a way most never believed possible. Mannes was, to be honest, a bit na├»ve and more hopeful than most white Americans at the time. The majority of whites did not understand black music and derisively called it “coon” music. It was considered to be vulgar, crude and primitive, little more than chants brought over by African slaves to sing on the plantations. Certainly black music was not the equal to the symphonies of the current European masters. This "coon music" had no Brahms, no Puccini, no Gilbert and Sullivan. It probably didn’t even have a John Phillip Sousa.

Obviously, the concert was a risky venture for Mannes and things were not looking positive. He feared the concert would play to a half-empty house. Two days before the big night and barely 1000 tickets had been sold; Carnegie Hall held 2800 people.

That would be a public relations disaster not only for Mannes personally, but also for the school he was attempting to benefit. Despite his increasing fear and nervous reservations, Mannes had extreme confidence in the black musician who had convinced him to host the event – James Reese Europe.

Jim Europe was the head of the first black music society in New York, the Clef Club. Although some members of the Clef Club were professional jazz musicians, Mannes knew that most of them were also “barbers, waiters, red caps, bell-hops” and could only attend rehearsals only when their other jobs allowed. Mannes' confidence was not bolstered when he discovered some of these “musicians” could not even read music! His deepest fear was that the concert would be not be just a "production of chaos,” but an out-and-out disaster.

Will Marion Cook was also skeptical. A brilliant violinist and classical composer, who had studied in Germany and performed for the English royal family, Cook was mercurial, moody, prone to quick anger. Several years before Cooke had become enraged when a newspaper reporter had called him “the world’s greatest Negro violinist.” He sought out the reporter at his newspaper office and declared, “I am not the world’s greatest Negro violinist. I am the greatest violinist in the world!” Cook was hesitant to participate in the Carnegie Hall concert due to the fear that it might “set the Negro race back fifty years.” But in solidarity to his fellow black musicians, he decided to take his place in the string section of the Clef Club Orchestra and hope for the best.

The night before the concert a local New York paper published a story which concluded, “The Evening Journal hopes that many of its readers will attend the concert, enjoy it and perhaps find prejudice based on ignorance give place to sympathy and good will.”

The concert sold out. More than one thousand people showed up at the box office that evening. The audience contained the elite of white and black New York society and culture. The best white musicians arrived. Music editors from the papers were in attendance. Prominent black ministers, lawyers and businessmen were present. Less than half an hour before the concert hundreds of people were still arriving by cabs, subway, buses, and on foot. Blacks and whites, all elegantly dressed, were seated together in the grand hall. In most theaters at that time, blacks were still forced to sit in the far left of the theater or in the balcony. No one was sure what to expect, or how to behave so when Jim Europe walked on stage before the 125 piece Clef Club Orchestra there was a palatable anticipation in the audience. He raised his baton to cue his musicians and as the first notes of Reese’s composition “The Clef Club March” filled the hall American music was never the same again.

Gunther Schuller wrote that Reese “had stormed the bastion of the white establishment and made many members of New York's cultural elite aware of Negro music for the first time.”

America was in the midst of an amazing transformation during this time. The United States was doubling its size, admitting twelve new states. Within the next eight years seven new constitutional amendments would be made into law. The population doubled, as did the number of foreign-born citizens. Americans were becoming more diverse, more urban, and more mobile. But in the shabby old city of white Charleston, most of the tried and true conventions still applied. Despite the encroachment of modern life, formal rules of conduct in Charleston were well-defined. Etiquette, cleanliness and polite conversation in the parlor were all components of the finer southern lifestyle. For many, the rules of etiquette defined a civilized society. Blacks were still expected to address whites as “massa” and “missus.” If they were employed by a white family, blacks were only to use the back door, never the front street entrance.

No one could have anticipated that the political and social fall-out from this concert would resonate across America, and ultimately, the world. It would not only give legitimacy to African-American music in mainstream (white) culture, it would, over the next decade, ignite the largest dance craze in American history. And to prove that God does have an ironic sense of humor, the most overt symbol of this upheaval would bear the name of the “most mannerly city” in America. Within a decade millions of people across the world would be “doin’ the Charleston.”

Friday, January 21, 2011

Today in History -1959: "Alfalfa" Killed

Carl Dean Switzer, the actor who as a child played "Alfalfa" in the Our Gang comedy film series, died at age 31 in a fight, allegedly about money, in a Mission Hills, California, home. Alfalfa, the freckle-faced boy with a warbling singing voice and a cowlick protruding from the top of his head, was Switzer's best-known role.

As a child, Switzer, who was born August 7, 1927, entertained people in his hometown of Paris, Illinois, with his singing. On a trip to California to visit relatives, Switzer's mother took Carl and his brother to the Hal Roach Studios, a film and television production company that launched the careers of comedy legends like Laurel and Hardy. The Switzer brothers were signed by Hal Roach and Carl was cast as Alfalfa in the Our Gang series, which Roach began producing as silent films in the early 1920s.

Our Gang revolved around a group of ragtag children and their adventures. Along with Alfalfa, other popular characters included Spanky, Buckwheat and Darla. Our Gang was considered groundbreaking in that it featured white and black child actors interacting equally. Switzer played Alfalfa from the mid-1930s to the early 1940s. In 1955, the Our Gang films were turned into a hugely popular TV series called The Little Rascals; however, Switzer never received any royalties from the show.

After Our Gang, Switzer found small roles in movies and on television, but his most successful days in Hollywood were behind him. He made money working odd jobs, including stints as a hunting guide and bartender, and had several run-ins with the police.

On January 21, 1959, Switzer and a friend went to the Mission Hills home of Moses "Bud" Stiltz, to collect a debt Switzer believed he was owed. A fight broke out, during which Stiltz shot and killed Switzer. A jury later ruled the incident justifiable homicide.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

TODAY IN HISTORY: The First Shot of the Civil War - Yes, or No?

For 150 years, cadets at The Citadel, a military school in Charleston, SC, have been claiming the honor of firing the first shot of the Civil War. Today, on the 150th anniversary of that event, here is what happened.

  • Dec. 30, 1860. Pres. James Buchanan orders General Winifield Scott to reinforce Maj. Robert Anderson at Ft. Sumter (Charleston, SC.)
  • Jan. 5, 1861. A civilian supply ship, Star of the West, sails from New York with 250 Federal troops and supplies.
  • Jan. 9. 1861. Star of the West enters Charleston harbor and is sighted by sentries posted on Morris Island. More than 300 SC troops were stationed on Morris Island, including 40 Citadel cadets.
  • 7:00 am. Maj. P.F. Stephens orders troops to open fire. Cadet G. E. Haynesworth pulled a lanyard and opened fire on an unarmed civilian vessel. Seventeen shots were fired, three of them direct hits. Star of the West retreated.
The next morning, the Charleston Mercury newspaper read:
Yesterday will be remembered in history. The expulsion of the Star of the West from Charleston harbor yesterday morning was the opening ball of the Revolution. We are proud that our harbor has been so honored. The state of South Carolina, so long and so bitterly reviled and scoffed at, has thrown back her enemies.


Lt. Smith on the Star of the West said: "The people of Charleston pride themselves on their hospitality, but it has exceeded my expectations. They gave us several balls before we landed."

Is opening fire on an unarmed civilian vessel who doesn't (who CAN'T) return fire enough to be considered the "first shot of the war?"

If a tree falls in the woods and no one can hear it, does it make a sound? If Glenn Beck tells you to buy his book, should you? If Bill Clinton tells you he did not have sex with that woman, Miss Lewinsky, did he? If Al Gore tells you to believe in global warning, should you?


You be the judge.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

2010 Review: Best & Worst

MarkJonesBooks.com

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MOST SIGNIFICANT EVENT OF THE YEAR

I joyously became Mr. Rebel Sinclair on January 20.

MOST SIGNIFICANT HISTORICAL EVENTS

1st Place: The WikiLeaks scandal.

2nd Place: The Tea Party Effect.

The effect and ramifications from the WikiLeaks and the Tea Party influence on elections will linger for the next decade. Things like the Gulf Oil Spill, war in Afghanistan and earthquakes in underdeveloped countries are mere blips – we always have disasters and wars.

SOUTH CAROLINA’S MOST SIGNIFICANT EVENT

Election of the first female governor, Nikki Haley, or as she is known in political circle, Nookie Haley. I voted for her for that reason. Hoping and praying we get another good juicy sex scandal from our governor this year. Note to the Charleston Post & Courier: Univ. of South Carolina’s athletic achievements were NOT the biggest story in the state in 2010.

FAVORITE NOVELS of 2010

The Girl Who Chased the Moon / Sarah Addison Allen. Allen writes quirky little books full of magic, wonder and romance. I highly recommend all three of her novels.

61 Hours / Lee Child. It’s not often that the 15th book in a series is the best, but this may be the best ‘Jack Reacher’ book yet. A great thriller.

Fatal Error / F. Paul Wilson. Over the past 20 years, Wilson has been writing one of the most entertaining sagas in fiction, the life of Repairman Jack. These books are a rich combination of action, sci-fi, horror and mystery. And according to the reality contained within these books … the end of the world is one book away.

Fall Of Giants / Ken Follett. Follett is THE current master of historical fiction. This is Vol. 1 of a trilogy.

The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest / Stieg Larsson. The conclusion of the Millennium Trilogy is an outstanding crime novel.

MOST PERSISTENT HILARIOUS NEWS HEADLINE

Unemployment rises ‘unexpectedly’

Unexpected for whom? Only for the news people and Obama’s White House staffers. For the rest of us, it was never ‘unexpected’ when the unemployment figures kept rising.

MOST DISAPPOINTING MUSIC RELEASE

Charleston, SC, 1966 / Darius Rucker

Darius Rucker’s 2010 country release was named in homage to one of the greatest country LPs of the past 30 years, Radney Foster’s seminal Del Rio, Tx, 1959. Both albums were named after each man’s respective hometowns and their birth years. Darius and Radney have become friends and musical buddies through the years while Radney has helped ease Darius’ transition into mainstream county music. However, Radney’s LP was filled with brilliant self-penned songs of soul-searching angst and universal truths, while Darius’ CD is middle-of-the-road mainstream country at its finest (or worse.) Twenty years from now, music critics will NOT be listing Charleston, SC, 1966 as one of the most influential records. Sooner or later, Darius will get around to creating a classic but this is not it.

Note: In case anyone interested, Radney Foster is coming to perform at the Windjammer this May14. I’ll see you there.

FAVORITE MUSICAL RELEASE

Mojo / Tom Petty. Great rock and roll. Petty is one of those artists who started out good and slowly crept into greatness, and has managed to sustain that greatness for more than 20 years, with very little letdown. Petty’s quasi-reggae workout, “Don’t Pull Me Over” will have you tapping your toes with a smile on your face.

Memphis Blue / Cyndi Lauper. Yes, a blues album by the girl who just wants to have fun. And this is loads of fun. Not to be missed.

LEAST SURPRISING ANNOUNCEMENT OF THE YEAR

Joe Riley seeks 10th term as Charleston mayor.

As long as he can continue to brainwash all the SOBs, why wouldn’t he keep running for mayor? But of course, history does prove that Charleston has never been known for its intelligence.

THIS YEAR’S ‘ AVATAR

Definition: a movie that was hyped by everyone that turned out to be completely awful. You know, like Avatar.

Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps. Not only was it a bad movie, it also ripped off its subtitle (with a slight re-wording) from a great Neil Young LP. Oliver Stone is the 2nd most overrated director of the last 30 years.

WORST NOVELS I READ THIS YEAR

The Ghost / Robert Harris. A joke of a book. My review on Amazon has created a lot of hate-filled responses. I pointed out a huge lapse in the main character’s behavior and for some reason it pissed off a lot of people who were loving the book because its liberal political ideology. It’s not my fault these people want to passionately defend a poorly written book. Read my review.

Revolutionary Road / Richard Yates. When the academia critics all pontificate that a book is “brilliantly written” that’s my clue to leave it alone. However, I was forced to read this book in college in the 1970s and found it awful (my professor found it “brilliant” of course) so when all the hype of the movie came out, I gave it another reading. IT STILL SUCKS. Truly a piece of 60s crap. People this tortured over their lives, deserve to be depressed and alcoholics. Superficial and silly.

THE PASSAGE / Justin Cronin. Over-hyped horror novel. This year's The Road. Read my review.

Freedom /Jonathon Frazen. Rule #1: Fiction should be entertaining. Rule #2: Fancy writing should not get in the way of the story. Mr. Frazen, try following the rules next time out.

Men and Dogs / Katie Crouch. So bad, there is no way to describe it. Read my review (it’s better than the book.)

JOKE OF THE YEAR

What’s the difference between a lawyer and a prostitute?

A prostitute won’t screw you after you’re dead.

MOST USELESS PEOPLE IN THE PUBLIC EYE

1st Place (Tie): Sarah Palin / Keith Olbermann

Runner Up: Lady Gaga

BEST NON-FICTION BOOKS

Composed / Rosanne Cash. This is NOT a by-the-numbers biography; Cash focuses her memoirs on the journey she took to become a great songwriter. Fabulous and poignant.

Last Call / Daniel Okrent. THE definitive history of Prohibition and the Roaring 20s. Outstanding!

Me, the Mob and the Music / Tommy James. James recounts (with some good humor and bits of harsh honesty) his odd and wildly successful career as a 60s and 70 hitmaker, while under contract to the "Godfather of the music industry", Morris Levy. This HAS to become a movie!!!!

SIGNS THAT THE APOCALYPSE IS PENDING

  • Snow on the ground twice in Charleston, SC in the same year – February and December, 2010.
  • Keith Olbermann is still taken seriously.
  • More people know who the Kardishians are than who Nevil Shute was.
  • Lady GaGa is considered a musician.
  • Jane Fonda is being marketed as sexy.
  • Michael Vick is out of jail.
  • NASA has been releasing information about what’s out there, subtly preparing the TV news-watching masses for some of the reality that is coming in the next two decades.