Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Hans Conried does Dixieland

One of the strangest LP's I can remember stumbling upon at a used record shop in many years of browsing, this LP features the inimitable Hans Conried narrating, of all, things, a Dixieland version of Prokofiev's "Peter and the Wolf." I rather suspect that rarely, since Conried's turn as "Dr. Terwilliker" -- the mad piano teacher who condemned "screechy violins" and "nauseating trumpets," did he -- or his listeners -- have quite so much musical fun.

The Polar Dog

Many songs have been sung of the thrilling exploits of Polar explorers, but what of Polar Dogs? This particular dog, exhibited by one "Professor Faber" in 1846 alongside other curiosities such as a dwarf in a bear-skin, may not have in fact hailed from the Arctic seas, but many expedition dogs were publicly exhibited -- three of Dr. Elisha Kent Kane's dogs, "Etah,""Whitey,"and one known as "Myouk, the celebrated Singing Esquimaux Dog" were exhibited in the United States in the 1850's and 1860's.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Goddard College Trail Map, 1979

I picked up this map of the trails on the campus of Goddard College when I was a student there from 1978 to 1980 (the map is dated "Spring 1979"). I knew all of these trails well, and even added a few items to the map and key: two of the improvised treehouses where free spirits could enjoy a vertiginous sojourn, the "Puppeteer's Grave" (this was a memorial to Bill Dalrymple, a key early member of the Bread and Puppet Theater), and the "Zen Garden," established -- along with mysterious wooden xylophones and flutes made out of PVC piping that hung on strings -- by Dennis Murphy, music professor and wizard of these woods. You can also download this map as a .pdf here.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Lucky Bucks

Not long after I was born, my great-grandfather Dr. Elbert H. Clarke left me a note -- I note that I still have today. With it, he enclosed two "Lucky Bucks" -- US "silver certificate" dollars which had already, by the 1960's, grown scarce in general circulation. Dr. Clarke was a math professor at Hiram College, as well as a minister, a lecturer on astronomy, a political writer, and a bit of an adventurer (he decided to try out the Alaska Highway for a drive in 1957, just a few years after it was completed). I still keep one of these "Lucky Bucks" with me at all times!

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Lenormand's Astro-Mythological Cards

I've collected Tarot and other fortune-telling card decks over the years, but one of the strangest of all the decks I've seen is one of the first I ever purchased -- the "Astro-Mythological" deck credited to Mademoiselle Lenormand. Like many of my early acquisitions, it was made by B.P. Grimaud in France; the cards are oversized, on very heavy card-stock, and printed in full color. As with other Lenormand decks, cards depicting a man and a woman are used to represent the querent, but this deck has numerous correspondences: each card shows a standard paying card, a constellation, a flower, and an illustrated scene -- on this card, a man in red (a cardinal) is shown in his study next to a clock and a magnetic dip-circle.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Dear Music Sender

Back in 1978, after I'd finished recording an album's worth of solo guitar compositions, the first place I thought to send a tape was the legendary Takoma Records, home to my guitar hero John Fahey. Alas, my demo tape was rejected -- with a letter addressed to "Dear Music Sender" no less! -- but happily, I persevered, and released two LP's on my own Black Snake Records label; keep an eye out for the re-issue of the second of these, coming later in 2018!

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Caribou Bill

William Frank "Caribou Bill" Cooper led a storied life, from his days as a dog-musher in Alaska, to the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific exposition of 1909, to New York's Coney Island, to being the proprietor of his own film studio in Saranac Lake, NY. Among the films he produced at his facilities was 1915's "The Shooting of Dan McGrew," based on Marvin Dana's prose adaptation of the Robert W. Service poem -- you can see dozens of stills from this lost film in the GoogleBooks version of the book. In his later years, Bill worked as a consultant for RKO Pictures; he died in a tuberculosis sanatorium in Takoma, Washington on November. 2, 1933.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

A Girl and Her Dog

A girl and her dog -- an all-American family moment -- except that this was Nancy Columbia, the most famous Inuit girl of her day. This stereoview was taken at the "Esquimaux Village" at the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair, where Nancy and her family were appearing. Nancy had, in fact, been born at a world's fair -- the 1893 Columbian Exposition  -- and would go on to be a fixture at more than twenty major fairs in the United States, France, Germany, and Spain, as well as appearing in a dozen early silent films, for one of which -- 1911's "The Way of the Eskimo"-- she wrote the scenario (the equivalent of a screenplay for a sound picture). You can read more about Nancy here, and here, and here.

The Burning of the Crystal Palace

On the evening of November 30th, 1936, Mr. Edgar McWilliam was living at 35 Sydenham Park Road not far from the great Crystal Palace, and was on his way to a dinner party a short walk from his home. He and his wife saw a strange glow in the sky -- it was a little after 8 p.m. -- and "wondered what it was." It was the Palace itself, on fire. As they wound their way past fire-engines and hoses up a nearby road, the full extent of the conflagration became apparent, as they saw "the blinding blaze of the C.P. alight from end to end." Edgar wrote an detailed eyewitness account to his son, and quoted the entire text in this letter, which he wrote to his mother the next day. You can read the full letter here.  (I am grateful to Mary Melling of Rancho Palos Verdes, California, for making her great-uncle's letter available.)

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

New Wave meets Bluegrass, 1980

Back in 1980, Cleveland was a proving ground for all kinds of New Wave and experimental music. And one of the more unusual experiments was this bluegrass version of DEVO's "Mongoloid" which I produced on my own Black Snake label. Bob Frank of the Hotfoot, a musical omnivore, was a fan of DEVO's music and eager to to give it a try, so I booked him and his band into the legendary Boddie Records studio for the recording, with guest mandolinist "Bobbie Smack" (Bob Smakula). The recording session was a hoot, and for good effect Bob rented fake radiation suits and hired John Thompson of "The Drome" record store, who'd done a lot of the early cover work for DEVO, to design the cover. You could spend years searching for this rare '45 -- or you could just listen to it here.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Imaginary Maps

Along with invented languages and manuscripts, maps are often the key to imagined worlds. Certainly, Tolkien's maps of Middle-Earth gave his realm a definite sense of reality, but there are maps, too, of other imagined realms: Utopia, Earthsea, Oz (including its lesser-known neighbors Ev, Ix, and Mo), and the Hundred Acre Wood. This map, which I drew when I was 14, was, like A.A. Milne's a projection of the imagination onto an actual landscape: just sixty acres of trees, brush, and fields -- including part of an abandoned tree-farm -- that lay behind my childhood home on Brainard Road in Ohio.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Invented Artifacts

The invention of seemingly ancient artifacts, from fake rune stones to Tolkien's laboriously-burnt and bloodstained facsimile of the Book of Mazarbul, is an old and perhaps even honorable tradition. Those who turn their gifts to forgery, employing re-used parchment and ancient oak-gall ink, fall far lower, in my view, than those who invent the whole thing. The above "ancient" manuscript is of this latter sort: it's written in Edglash, a language I invented when I was seventeen, along with its own alphabetic script. It's the first page of the Teklo ge Krissor Kal, the "Book of the Children of Kal" -- part of a saga of stories I wrote along Tolkienesque lines. Amateur cryptographers may have at it; I'll post a transcription as soon as I can find one in the "ancient" manila folders in which this imaginary world is stored.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Origins of the (animated) Hobbit

Despite the success of Peter Jackson's in-progress live action Hobbit trilogy, many still fondly remember the Rankin/Bass animated version, which aired on NBC in 1977 and is readily available on DVD today. What's less well-known is that the original treatment of Bilbo was based on work by RISD grad (and later faculty member) Lester Abrams, whose illustrations of Bilbo and Gollum for an excerpt of The Hobbit published in the February 1974 issue of the Children's Digest must have caught their attention. Abrams ended up doing all the original concept art for the animated version, and was also responsible for suggesting to Rankin and Bass that they use the art of Arthur Rackham -- one of his personal favorites -- as a reference. This cover, which predates the animated version by three years, is little-known today, but quite striking in the context of how it shaped Bilbo and Gollum for the boomer generation. More details here on my Tolkien course blog.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Police Woman

Chief Inspector Lilian Wyles was the very first woman to serve as a fully attested, ranking officer at Scotland Yard, having already been among the very first women to serve in the "Women's Police Force" instituted in 1914. The WP was disbanded not long after WWI, but Wyles managed to stay on as just one of three women in the MET. She came to prominence in part due to the notorious Savidge case, in which a male police inspector was accused of intimidating a female witness. After the case was settled, it was decided that women police should always take statements from women; Wyles was promoted to Inspector and later Chief Inspector, in charge of training up a large force of statement-takers. She retired in the early 1940's, and her memoir, A Woman in Scotland Yard, was published by Faber & Faber.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Successful Attempt to See by Wireless

This haunting image, taken from the Graphic of 28 February 1925, depicts one of John Logie Baird's earlier attempts at television. This apparatus was capable only of transmitting a sort of harshly-outlined silhouette of its subject, a thing Baird referred to as a "shadowgraph." Baird did not perfect the transmission of the image of a human face illuminated via reflective light until about a year after this article was published, on 27 January 1926.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Stookie Bill

National Media Museum, Bradford
It may perhaps come as no surprise to those who criticize television as mostly mindless entertainment that the first face ever seen, transmitted, or recorded on television was that of a dummy. A very specific dummy, known cordially as "Stookie Bill," was the test subject for television pioneer John Logie Baird, who demonstrated the first practical television transmission from reflected light in 1926, made the earliest broadcasts of TV in Britain, the first trans-Atlantic broadcast, and the earliest recordings of a television signal -- in 1928! Stookie Bill, who was able to stand in front of a hot bank of lights longer and more patiently than any human subject, was Baird's go-to guy for all these early firsts.

George Washington Slept Here

In this 1941 photograph taken by George Vaillancourt on North Main Street in Providence , there's a view of a long-gone building, the Mansion House Inn (it's the two frontages on the left, the one with a balcony and the other with a fire escape). Established by  in the 1780's as the Golden Ball, it hosted not only George Wasghington but also General Lafayette, John Adams, James Monroe, and even Edgar Allan Poe. In the 1790's it was even home to a Celebrated Learned Pig, who spelled out answers to audience questions with letters on cards. Alas, the sum of all its famous denizens could not save the Golden Ball from the wreckers' ball; it was demolished in 1942, not long after this photo was taken; the building at the far right still stands, and houses Geoff's sandwich shop. The photo is part of HABS, the Historic American Buildings Survey collection at the Library of Congress, all of which is in the public domain.

NELA Men's Octet

Here we have, from circa 1964, a photo of the NELA Men's Octet, a smaller group within the larger NELA Men's Chorus. My dad is third from the right, and his lab-mate Bob Woodhouse fifth. No doubt many corporations and civic groups had a chorus back then, but NELA, with its campus-like buildings and collegiate atmosphere, seems as though it would have been especially congenial to such choral conviviality; the text suggests that concerts were held regularly. The pencil-thin ties and tapered slacks add a little extra delight to this period photo. 

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Another Eskimo advert from 1904

Lest one assume that, in 1904, all images of Inuit or "Eskimos" in advertisements were negative, I present this one for Eskay's Food, a popular solid food for babies. It's based on a photograph of Esther Eneutseak and her son Norman (the text mistakenly uses just the surname for the baby). They had, as the ad states, been part of an "Eskimo Village" at the Louisiana Exposition of 1904 in St. Louis, where Eskay's had a promotional presence.

Racism for Breakfast

Of all the prejudices about Inuit people, the notion that somehow their food is inferior because it is not cooked is perhaps the oldest and most pernicious. Indeed, it was once believed that the word "Eskimo"itself meant "eater of raw meat: in the Algonkian language (this has since been questioned). This advert goes further, suggesting that "energy" spent on digestion would reduce the value of the food, and make those who ate it lethargic and "dull" when compared to those who ate supposedly more advanced, cooked, or "pre-digested" foods.  I hasten to add that this ad, which dates from c. 1904, does not reflect on the current cereal of that name or its manufacturers!

Blow for Edison Mazda

Since my dad worked for 30 years in their lighting research division, I've always had a soft spot for anything to do with GE lightbulbs. This particular collectible came as an unexpected gift from a friend; dating to some point in the history of GE's "Mazda" brand (1909-1945) it came with this curious instruction: "Blow for Edison Mazda Lamps." And indeed, the little strip of paper at the top right forms  a whistle, which still works! It's also interesting to note that, though the bulb shown is one of the round "tipless" variety first made in 1919, the whistle itself has a "tip" (a protruding daub atop the rounded part, where the bulb was sealed).

Monday, July 15, 2013

Practically in your lap ...

Image courtesy Ad*Access/John Hartman Center for Sales, Advertising, and Marketing history, Duke University. Used by Permission.
The early days of television were certainly a lot more dynamic and unpredictable than they later became, either in the three-network era, the cable era that followed, or today's hundreds of channels. The very first national network, DuMont, advertised heavily for its television sets, since after all, how could you watch the DuMont network if you didn't have a set? Print ads sought to appeal to the more prosperous of the soon-to-be postwar generation, whose shoppers -- at least when it came to electronics -- were presumed to be men. Thus this racy advert, which ran in the New York Times in 1945.


News that linguists have discovered a new language being spoken in northern Australia made me think at once of Slim Gaillard, the hip jazz guitarist and songwriter who employed his invented language "Vout" in many of his hits ("Yep-Roc-Heresay," "Arabian Boogie"). In the tradition of Cab Calloway's Hepster's Dictionary and Lavada Durst's Jives of Dr. Hepcat, he even issued his own "Vout-o-Reenee Dictionary." Curiously, although most of the entries, e.g. "chicken feed" for corn or "the track" for a dance floor, are similar to other sources such as Calloway's, "Vout" in Gaillard's actual practice meant a mish-mash of Arabic, Yiddish, brand-names and nonce-words created by putting "Mac" at the beginning of a word and "Vouty" or "o-reeny-mo" at the end. He was once introduced by an MC as a man who "speaks seven languages -- Arabian, Hindu, Greek, Egyptian, Spanish, Hebrew and Vout ... and what's more, Slim is now studying an eighth language -- Slim, what is this eighth language you're studying?" Without missing a beat, Slim replied, "English."

Sunday, July 14, 2013

My great-great Grandfather, Transported

Many people were born, lived, and died in the nineteenth century without leaving much more than a note in a church register -- if that. Oddly enough, criminals often led much better-documented lives, and this tuned out to be the case with my great-great Grandfather, William Henry Brunt. His grandson -- my grandfather -- used to recite a bit of doggerel verse about him that began "Bill Brunt was a thief and that we all know." Little did I suspect that, years later, I'd find Bill Brunt in the convict records of Tasmania, then known as Van Diemen's Land. The Tasmanian Archives are a wonderful -- and free -- resource, and I was fairly quickly able to locate his official conduct record. After the particulars of the voyage, the ledger gives his name and crime -- housebreaking and larceny, 10 years. He admitted to taking a pair of Trousers and handkerchiefs, however, yet curiously declared "he was never in the House of Correction," although his report from there stated his conduct was good. His physical appearance was given -- "Slightly freckled. man flag. anchor mermaid. on rt arm ring on middle finger rt hand H.B. hearts and darts M x S flower pot on left Arm." Like many convicts, he'd had his initials tattooed on his arm, in case he were to be be lost or drowned -- but happily for him (and me) he survived both the voyage and hard labor, and was discharged 17 June, 1851. 

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Raise 'em high!

This might be my favorite photo from my family archives: on the left there's my dad, probably aged about 12 (which would date this photo to 1939), on the right, a man who looks every bit the real cowpoke, from his Stetson hat to his gun-belt down to his alpaca chaps. The only thing that looks a bit less than authentic here is the primitively-pained backdrop, complete with a flat-looking saddle on a flat-looking fence, with a sign that reads [I think] "Tenderfeet Rodeo." I'd guess this might have been taken at the annual Skagit County Fair.

Eskimos in New York, 1862

Hall Papers, Smithsonian Institution
Most people today remember P.T. Barnum as a name associated with the Barnum & Bailey/Ringling Brothers Circus --but in his heyday he was primarily a showman of curiosities, freaks, and human wonders. He introduced the midget "Tiny Tim" to the world, and later "Commodore Nutt" (as seen above); displayed an elderly woman claimed to be George Washington's nurse, and arranged the phenomenally successful singing tour of Jenny Lind. He operated, in New York City, a year-round flagship attraction known as "Barnum's American Museum," and it was here in 1862 that he displayed three Inuit, brought to America by the explorer Charles Francis Hall. These were Tookoolito (known as "Hannah"), Ebierbing (known as "Joe") and their infant child Tarralikitaq ("Butterfly"). Hannah and Joe had served as Hall's translator and guide, and continued to do so throughout his career until his death in northwestern Greenland in 1871.

Metropolitan Police Districts, 1929

No one who has read a classic British detective novel, or seen any movie depicting Scotland Yard's detectives going diligently about their work, can have missed them: the distinctive letters on the collar of uniformed officers marking them by division. Even if the collars aren't mentioned, references such as "have to ring up C division," while they have the sound of authentic police jargon, raise a question: Where exactly is "C division"? Happily, there exists a map of these divisions as they stood in 1929, prepared by J.F. Moylan for his book on Scotland Yard -- and here it is, along with a key to the divisions. Alas, since the MEPO switched to the "borough policing model" in 1999, these lettered divisions are no longer in existence.

Friday, July 12, 2013

The Great God THOOM

Here is a portrait of one of the most important mentors I've ever had in my life, a true Gandalf to my Bilbo: Dennis Murphy. Dennis was my teacher at Goddard College, where he worked with me on a set of guitar solo versions of Irish fiddle tunes, many of which ended up on my 1980 LP, "Neither Here Nor There." But he was also much much more than that -- trained as an ethnomusicologist, he built the first full Javanese Gamelan in the United States, using old oil drums, tin cans, and scrap wood; he invented his own god (THOOM) and his own language (THOOMESE); he also wrote and directed original Javanese shadow plays, a series of "theatre of the absurd" plays such as "The Goat Painter," and a song cycle (which he called an "operina"), "A Perfect Day," based on the different animals who represented stages in human life. Dennis -- or "Das" as we often called him, was a professor of music at Goddard -- but he was also, more than that, a wiz of a wiz. Here you see him in his garb as a priest of THOOM, on the stage of the Haybarn Theatre at Goddard.

Best Friends

Among my grandmother's things, this old "Real Photo" postcard always stood out. I believe the woman on the left is my grandmother Pearl Eugenia Walmach's sister Dodice, though it looks so much like her that sometimes I think it's her. It dates from a time when her father, my great-grandfather Herman Herbert Walmach, ran a boarding house in Yakima, probably around 1910 or so. On the back is this message: "Dear Sister & Brother, This Picture was taken one noon. The girl that is with me is a stripers [sic] daughter. Her name is Lunetta Murphy. It isn't a very good picture but it shows you how I look when I am working. Your loving Sis, Dodice." This makes me wonder about the exact nature of the boarding house, or perhaps its neighboring establishments! But I have always loved this image.

A letter in the wall ...

My dad was a pretty quiet guy, and when he did speak, he was more given to impromptu lectures on osmosis or chemical bonds than he was to talking about his life experiences or feelings. Still, he must have had a pretty intense sense of himself at an early age, as he managed to fulfill all of the plans he made for the future when he was only 14 years old. I know this because he wrote them in a letter, put the letter in a box, and sealed it up in a hole in the wall of his boyhood home in Mount Vernon, Washington. Fifteen years later, the box and note were found as the house was being demolished to make way for a new hospital -- and the newspaper managed to track him (and my grandfather, Ralph Sr.) down.

Bob Woodhouse in the lab ...

Among my parents' photos are a number taken in the laboratories of the Lighting Research Division of GE at NELA Park. This one shows my dad's old friend, Bob Woodhouse, at work (far left). Bob was a bit of a genius, a bit of a raconteur, and a bit of a geek -- I have many memories of him and his family, whose cottage on the shore of Lake Erie was a frequent visiting-place in the summer. Bob was also a dedicated home electronics amateur, and built all kinds of radio receivers and transmitters from scratch. For many years, I had one of his tube receivers in my bedroom -- until one of the transformers blew! -- but I'll always remember the glow of the tubes and the warm analog sound. I'd guess this photo dates to the early 1960's -- I'm not sure who that is in the white coat in the foreground.

Work for Hire

One way I happen to know my father's date of hire at NELA Park is this contract, signed by him on December 1, 1952. Every scientist who worked for GE was expected to sign a similar agreement, the result of which is that everything they invented or developed at GE would be the intellectual property of GE, and GE would be entitled to any patents or other claims originating in it employees' "work for hire." It's an old legal principle, enshrined in Copyright law as well as patent matters -- but just to be on the safe side, this contact was presented to all new hires.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

NELA Park 1962

My dad worked as a research scientist at NELA Park in East Cleveland, Ohio, from 1952 until his retirement in the late 1980's. This photo was taken in 1962, about ten years into his time there; the photographer had the clever idea of posing everyone in a building stairwell. Great idea, though the camera's depth of field was not quite up to the task, and those at the bottom seem to me to be a little out of focus. I think everyone here was part of the Lighting Research division, and from there was organized by having the executives at the top, the research scientists next (grouped by lab), and the engineers and support staff further down. My dad, Dr. Ralph M. Potter, is the third from the left of the stairwell corner in the second tier -- nearby is his longtime boss, John Blank, and lab-mates Dick Hansler, Bob Woodhouse, and Manuel Aven. I don't recognize many of the others -- this was taken when I was only two years old -- but I love the "Mad Men" era clothes, heavy dark-rimmed glasses, and clean-cut lines of this group; it feels like a time capsule from an era when science and technology mattered, and the people with the test tubes held the world in their hands.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Rufus C. Somerby

Rufus C. Somerby (c. 1833 - 1903) was an entertainer, showman, and panoramist in the mid-nineteenth century. He operated several moving panoramas under the management of Boston's George K. Goodwin, including a panorama of "Dr. Kane's Arctic Voyages," and also was involved in mechanical theatres. He worked as an agent for P.T. Barnum, bringing one such mechanical theatre, "Thiodon's Theatre of Arts," from Britain to the US for an exhibition at Barnum's American Museum. He toured with Civil War panoramas, trained dogs and horses, and an entire "Japanese Village" (see below), becoming ons the of the best-known showmen of his day. My thanks to his grandson, Richard Somerby, for sharing this photo from his own family scrapbook, and to the Wikipedia, for the use of text from the entry I wrote for Mr. Somerby.

Monday, July 1, 2013

See the Japs

The headline is at once offensive to modern eye: the Japs? And yet curiously, the word "Japs" was usually used in the nineteenth century in a complimentary context; it wasn't until WWII that the term became intensely, hatefully, prejudicial. This particular "village" had appeared at the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893, and was then taken on a tour of the country by the peripatetic showman Rufus Choate Somerby. The display was meant to convey the industrious abilities and beautiful crafts of Japan, although the 'road trip' version was a bit more "entertainment" than "education," as it was accompanied by a Punch & Judy show and the Shaffers, a couple known for their playing the glass harmonica, along with facial contortions (another curiously popular stage show of the day).