Posted by: Jeremy C. Young | September 11, 2012

Who would you support in historical presidential elections?

Herewith, my personal picks for who I’d support in every presidential election from 1789 to the present.  Feel free to chime in with your own choices or explain why you disagree with mine.

A note on what I mean by “support”: I’m making my calculations based on a combination of which candidate I like the most and what I think candidates’ chances are of winning. I’m also not counting strategic voting (voting my conscience for a minor candidate in a state where my vote doesn’t matter). Nor am I considering regional “favorite son” status (i.e., the 1836 election). In addition, I’m not allowing the electoral college to influence my choice — so I won’t be voting for my favorite electors, rather than my favorite candidates, in early elections where real Americans likely made the opposite calculations. Finally, I’m making these choices based on who I am today — not who I would have been with a different upbringing in a different period of time (so I’m not imagining myself as a Midwestern farmer, for instance). If you choose to play along, make sure you play by these rules!

Here goes:

1789: George Washington (no party). No choice in the matter.

1792: George Washington (no party). Again, no choice in the matter.

1796: John Adams (Federalist). Now things are getting a bit tricky. I wouldn’t exactly be a Federalist partisan, not with that crazy royalist Hamilton knocking about. But I also don’t think I would have supported a party defined by Southern plantation owners and a decentralized government. So I’d be a Federalist-leaning independent. In this case, despite my respect for Jefferson, I’d go with Adams, whom I also respected.

1800: John Adams (Federalist). Adams was coming off a pretty disastrous first term, but he’d also shown he could keep Hamilton in check and control his own presidency, so that’s all to the good. I’d also be one of those voters who was actually disturbed by the allegations of slave-rape leveled against Jefferson.

1804: Charles C. Pinckney (Federalist). Pinckney’s campaign was a feeble one, but I still wouldn’t have been a fan of Jefferson’s administration.

1808: James Madison (Democratic-Republican). Madison and George Clinton would be the only two Democratic-Republicans I’d consider supporting at this point. I’d have a soft spot for the author of Federalist No. 10, so he’d get my vote. As for Pinckney, I’d still be a nominal Federalist, but it’s, well, Charles C. Pinckney.

1812: DeWitt Clinton (Federalist). DeWitt Clinton was an odious partisan and nowhere near the man his uncle was, but I’d still have supported him over the lackluster Madison administration that had almost wrecked the country in war.

1816: Rufus King (Federalist). Finally a Federalist I could be proud of again! The turncoat King was a brilliant and able man, and would earn my enthusiastic vote.

1820: James Monroe (Democratic-Republican). No choice in this election either.

1824: Henry Clay (no party). In a wide-open field, I’d go with the able and charismatic Clay. Andrew Jackson would be my last choice of the four candidates.

1828: John Quincy Adams (National Republican). Adams’ administration was a disaster, but I’d still take his brilliant mind any day over the wild Indian fighter from the West.

1832: Henry Clay (National Republican). In this three-way race, I’d again pick the charismatic Clay over the jingoistic Jackson and Wirt.

1836: Daniel Webster (Whig). In this election, the Whigs ran three favorite-son candidates against Jackson successor Martin Van Buren in an early primary for 1840. I wouldn’t pick Van Buren, but I also wouldn’t go with William Henry Harrison, who was a bit of an empty suit, or with Southern Whig Hugh White. That leaves Webster, brilliant, charismatic, and moderately opposed to slavery.

1840: William Henry Harrison (Whig). Sure, Harrison was an empty suit, but I’d be voting for his handlers. He’d still be better than the conniving Van Buren. My heart would be with James Birney of the new Liberty Party, but at 0.31% of the vote, he wouldn’t win my support.

1844: Henry Clay (Whig). At this point I would feel that I had a party to really call my own, led by the magnificent Clay. I might name my second son Henry Clay Young (after Jeremy Jr. of course). Birney’s 2% would be more appealing, but I’d still support Clay.

1848: Martin Van Buren (Free Soil). Probably the toughest election on the list. Should I pick Whig empty suit Zachary Taylor, an able man from the wrong party in Lewis Cass, or a surprisingly strong antislavery candidate whho, unfortunately, was the hated Van Buren? It would be a difficult choice, but, not much caring whether Taylor or Cass won in the end, I’d probably trust Van Buren to at least send a message to the Whigs about their lukewarm relationship with abolition.

1852: Winfield Scott (Whig). Much as I dislike the Whig tradition of nominating generals with little political experience, they actually picked an insightful one this time. John Hale of the Free Soil Party wouldn’t be as tempting because of his lack of support.

1856: John C. Fremont (Republican). With the party of Clay busted up beyond recognition, I’d turn to the Republicans for a true radical abolitionist.

1860: Abraham Lincoln (Republican). No real question here: obviously I’d oppose the various pro-Southern campaigns of the other candidates.

1864: Abraham Lincoln (Republican). Again, I wouldn’t consider voting for what essentially was a campaign of Southern sympathizers. Plus, um, Abraham Lincoln.

1868: Ulysses S. Grant (Republican). At this point I would be primary an issue voter: maintain Radical Reconstruction, and I’ll vote for you. This time, that vote would go to the able General Grant.

1872: Ulysses S. Grant (Republican). Another tough one. Horace Greeley was everything I wanted in a President: brilliant, thoughtful, charismatic, a man of letters. Meanwhile, Grant’s administration had been a disaster. Nevertheless, the need to maintain Radical Reconstruction would prevail over my personal preference.

1876: Rutherford B. Hayes (Republican). Again, Samuel Tilden was the abler of the candidates, but Hayes was at least nominally for Reconstruction, so I’d stick with the party-line vote.

1880: James A. Garfield (Republican). Despite my almost total disgust with the Republican Party for abandoning Reconstruction, I’d still vote for them one last time. Garfield had a reputation as a reformer, while Hancock was a political newcomer running for a party that still had a great deal of Southern influence (if not domination).

1884: Grover Cleveland (Democrat). At this point, my allegiance would tip decidedly toward the Democrats. Cleveland, a man of integrity and honor, would be a better choice than the charismatic but scurrilous James G. Blaine, the railroads’ man in Washington.

1888: Grover Cleveland (Democrat). An even easier choice, since I’d have no love at all for the taciturn and pro-tariff Benjamin Harrison.

1892: Grover Cleveland (Democrat). A tough choice between Cleveland and Populist James B. Weaver. My heart would be with Weaver, but since I’d see Cleveland as a clear upgrade over Harrison and wouldn’t think Weaver had much of a chance, I’d vote for the candidate who could win.

1896: William Jennings Bryan (Democrat). At this point I would become a rabid Democratic partisan, in the most clear-cut election in decades between the people and the “interests.”

1900: William Jennings Bryan (Democrat). Given the same choice, I’d pick the same candidate again. I just wouldn’t expect a different result.

1904: Theodore Roosevelt (Republican). Since the Democrats repudiated Bryan and nominated the conservative Alton B. Parker, I’d go with the progressive-flavored Roosevelt. This is the last election in which I’d vote for a Republican (though not the last in which I’d think about it).

1908: William Jennings Bryan (Democrat). I’d be slightly tempted by the Roosevelt-endorsed William Howard Taft, but not nearly enough to keep me from voting for my hero. Nevertheless, I wouldn’t be overly disappointed when Taft won.

1912: Theodore Roosevelt (Progressive). In a wide-open election, I’d be torn between the newly-radicalized Roosevelt and the less radical, but still progressive, Woodrow Wilson. I wouldn’t consider Taft, who’d proven to be a conservative, or Eugene Debs, whose congenial views would be outweighed by his lack of support. Once I was convinced that Taft didn’t stand a chance, I’d probably vote my conscience among the big three candidates.

1916: Woodrow Wilson (Democrat). The Republicans didn’t nominate the worst candidate in Charles Evans Hughes, but I’d be pretty happy with Wilson at this point.

1920: James Cox (Democrat). I’d continue to vote Democratic against the odious Warren G. Harding.

1924: Robert La Follette (Progressive). I’d consider the lackluster John Davis if I thought he had a chance, but since I’d be convinced Coolidge was winning in a landslide, I’d vote the Progressive ticket here. This is the last election in which I’d vote for anyone other than a Democrat.

1928: Al Smith (Democrat). Herbert Hoover, though a former Wilsonian, came from the wrong side of Progressivism for me. Al Smith came from the wrong side of the tracks, but that only made him more appealing.

1932: Franklin Delano Roosevelt (Democrat). As clear-cut a choice as ever there was.

1936: Franklin Delano Roosevelt (Democrat). Alf Landon wasn’t the worst Republican, but I’d see no reason to abandon the fabulously successful Roosevelt.

1940: Franklin Delano Roosevelt (Democrat). The most difficult choice of FDR’s four elections. I wouldn’t want to see even a great president like FDR serve more than two terms, and Wendell Willkie was a uniquely appealing candidate, but ultimately I’d come down in favor of the candidate I liked more, term limits be damned.

1944: Franklin Delano Roosevelt (Democrat). I still wouldn’t be thrilled about Roosevelt’s lifetime appointment, but Thomas E. Dewey certainly wasn’t the man to succeed him.

1948: Harry S Truman (Democrat). My heart would be with Henry Wallace, but I’d have no problem supporting Truman’s fantastically populist campaign — especially not after the Democrats came out in favor of civil rights for African Americans.

1952: Adlai Stevenson (Democrat). As a fellow egghead, I’d enthusiastically support Adlai.

1956: Adlai Stevenson (Democrat). Same candidates, same choice as before.

1960: John F. Kennedy (Democrat). I’d enthusiastically support Kennedy over the already-odious Richard Nixon.

1964: Lyndon B. Johnson (Democrat). I’d enthusiastically back the author of civil rights and the Great Society.

1968: Hubert Humphrey (Democrat). Humphrey wouldn’t be my first choice in the primary (though he’d probably be my second, after Eugene McCarthy), but I’d definitely back him over Nixon.

1972: George McGovern (Democrat). McGovern — what a fantastic leader. I’d be thrilled to support him over Nixon.

1976: Jimmy Carter (Democrat). I wouldn’t share Arthur Schlesinger’s opposition to this evangelical liberal who promised always to tell me the truth. Gerald Ford was a nice man, but he voted against civil rights when he was in Congress, and that’s a deal-breaker for me.

1980: Jimmy Carter (Democrat). Am I better off than I was four years ago? Sadly, no. Am I better off than I would have been under Reagan? Absolutely. I wouldn’t really consider John Anderson, though of course he’d be better than Reagan.

1984: Walter Mondale (Democrat). Another great leader who never really had a chance — I’d be thrilled to support him.

1988: Michael Dukakis (Democrat). A lackluster candidate with a good heart — but a damn sight better than the opposition.

1992: Bill Clinton (Democrat). Another bad candidate (the worst in the primary field, outside of Bob Kerrey), but better than Bush, though I would have appreciated Bush’s neoliberal foreign policy. I wouldn’t really consider Ross Perot’s government-by-billionaire-technocrats independent campaign.

1996: Bill Clinton (Democrat). I’d probably consider Perot a little more seriously this time, since Clinton turned out to be every bit as bad as I’d feared, if not worse. But ultimately, Clinton would still be a better president than Bob Dole.

2000: Al Gore (Democrat). I actually really liked Al Gore, and I still do. He was a terrible campaigner, but a visionary politician — certainly much better than the empty suit on the other side of the aisle (though I would have thought seriously about backing John McCain if he’d won his primary).

2004: John Kerry (Democrat). A truly terrible primary choice (especially over the fiery progressive Howard Dean), but I’d still grudgingly vote for Kerry over Bush, as, indeed, I did.

2008: Barack Obama (Democrat). Obama was my grudging choice in the primary, and I was certainly happy to see him defeat John McCain.

2012: Barack Obama (Democrat). In real life, I’m voting for Green nominee Jill Stein, but only because I don’t live in a swing state. Obama has turned out to be terrible, but he’s still better than the other choice, faux-moderate though it may be.

Posted by: Jeremy C. Young | January 15, 2012

You Git Out!

It looks like Newt Gingrich is experiencing some of the problems that go along with having an inexperienced and disorganized campaign:

Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich was greeted with a standing ovation when he was announced at a barbecue.

Too bad the former House speaker wasn’t around to see it.

He was inexplicably missing, and his absence forced the event’s moderator to ask awkwardly, “Can we check and see where the speaker is?”

It was just one in a string of clumsy, head-scratching events staged by the Gingrich campaign since the Republican primary moved to South Carolina, a state that the candidate says he must win if he wants a shot at the nomination.

The entire article is hilarious — check out J. C. Watts’ immensely-relieved “I think I see the speaker’s bus!” after filling time for half an hour, or Gingrich fielding questions on a conference call that had no callers because the number was invalid.

It reminded me of this passage from Theodore White’s The Making of the President 1960 in which a broke Hubert Humphrey goes on the air for a half-hour telethon with no money for pre-screening of calls. The results are predictable:

Then came a rasping voice over the telephone, the whining scratch of an elderly lady somewhere high in the hills, and one could see Humphrey flinch (as the viewers flinched); and the rasp said,

“You git out! You git out of West Virginia, Mr. Humphrey!”

Humphrey attempted to fluster a reply and the voice overrode him, “You git out, you hear! You can’t stand the Republicans gitting ahead of you! Why don’t you git out?” …

He had barely begun to answer [another] question when a clipped voice interrupted on the party line of the caller, “Clear the wires, please, clear the wires this is an emergency!”

Humphrey attempted to explain that they were on the air, they were answering questions to a TV audience.

“Clear the wires, clear the wire at once, this is an emergency,” repeated the operator on the party line. …

The lesson, as White points out, is “that TV is no medium for a poor man.” Nor is campaigning a medium for a disorganized man, Newt.

Posted by: Jeremy C. Young | December 31, 2011

The Best of Everything, 2011

I’ll return to the classic Western sound series soon, I promise. At the moment, it’s time for another year’s worth of “bests.” I did this for the first time last year, and felt like doing it again.

Best book I read in 2011. This is tough because I read so many books, yet I think of them in terms of whether they help my dissertation, not whether they are “great” books. By that standard, the best book I read in 2011 was Ann Taves, Fits, Trances, and Visions: Experiencing Religion and Explaining Experience from Wesley to James, which fundamentally altered how I think about my dissertation. Is it the best book I read in 2010? Probably not, but it’s a damn good one.

The other book I should mention here is Roger Ebert, The Great Movies, Vol. I. This spawned a mad rush for classic films on my part, and I’m looking forward to Vols. II and III, which I got for Christmas.

Best article I read in 2011. David Von Drehle, “150 Years after Fort Sumter: Why We’re Still Fighting the Civil War.” Imagine that — a cover article on history in a major trade publication that interviews the major figures in Civil War memory studies, discusses historiography (including a just condemnation of William A. Dunning), and acknowledges that racism is deeply embedded in our understanding of the Civil War. Hands down the best article on history I’ve ever read in a non-peer-reviewed publication. I’d recommend this to anyone as a general introduction to Civil War memory.

Best recording I listened to in 2011. Winner: The Secret Garden, by Lucy Simon and Marsha Norman. A magnificent and generally overlooked musical that actually improves on the timeless novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett. Mandy Patinkin as Archibald Craven, Rebecca Luker as Lily, and Daisy Egan as Mary are standouts; also listen for a surprisingly showstopping Dickon from John Cameron Mitchell, now better known as an actor/director. One sour note is Robert Westenberg’s inferior voice as Neville; I would have preferred Philip Quast in the role (he performed it in the original Australian cast).

Runner-up: Kan R. Gao and Laura Shigihara, “To the Moon” Soundtrack. A gorgeous soundtrack from Kan Gao (one track is by Shigihara) for a comparatively-simple indie adventure game. Professonal games would be lucky to have this soundtrack. You can listen to the entire thing for free at the link, but do Gao a favor and buy a copy when you’re through.

Best game I played in 2011. Winner: Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. A large and fascinating game that has stood the test of time. Well worth playing if you haven’t yet.

Runner-up: Jade Empire, also by Bioware. A prettier game, but with less-developed characters (particularly the female characters — this is a real problem). Still fascinating and expansive, though.

Best film I watched in 2011. This is difficult for me because I’ve seen a number of good movies made this year, but no truly great ones. The only time I left the theater thinking I had seen a masterpiece was with the inspired Rango, but it hasn’t worn well with me. I saw two of the films likely to be nominated for an Oscar this year: The Help and Moneyball. I found The Help dreadful and Moneyball excellent but inferior to Aaron Sorkin’s previous creation, The Social Network. Other than Rango, the only films that exceeded expectations were Water for Elephants (largely on the strength of the acting) and Tintin (largely on the strength of the CG). Neither was a great film.

The best films I saw this year were made before 2011. They include The Social Network, the documentary Hoop Dreams, and the 1950s Indian art film Pather Panchali. None of them makes my all-time top 10 list (the last film to do that was Up, in 2009), but all are great films and well worth watching.

Best acting performance I saw in 2011. Winner: Christoph Waltz, Water for Elephants. This is an actor who has made two films in the United States. His first role won him an Oscar; this one won’t, but should. Waltz has the uncanny ability to fill an entire shot with his menacing, hulking presence. You simply cannot take your eyes off him for as long as he is in the frame. He reminds me of no one so much as Orson Welles. Anyone who can steal every scene he shares with Reese Witherspoon is a talented actor indeed.

First runner-up: Justin Timberlake, The Social Network. I was quite impressed by the scene-stealing performance of the actor who played Sean Parker in the film, but I was floored to discover afterwards that it was Timberlake. Here is a man with no acting training who outdoes professionals such as Jesse Eisenberg. Simply a phenomenal talent; I can’t wait to see what he does in subsequent roles.

Other runners-up: Simon Baker, The Mentalist; Pruitt Taylor Vince, The Mentalist; Julia Ormond, Law & Order: Criminal Intent; Robert Picardo, Star Trek: Voyager; Treat Williams, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit (episode: “Spiraling Down”). I could add others; I’ve seen a lot of great performances this year.

Best TV Show of 2011. Winner: The Mentalist. Producer interference has taken this show down a notch since the start of the new season, but the second half of Season 3 was amazing. The season finale was some of the best television I’ve seen in years.

Runner-up: NCIS. This show has only gotten better with time, particularly once Donald Bellisario left and the new writing team decided to jettison the show’s sexism and conservatism while keeping the excellent characters and chemistry. This year featured some fascinating backstory on one of the show’s most underrated and interesting characters, NCIS Director Leon Vance.

Best non-sexual chemistry on film. Winner: Julia Ormond and Vincent D’Onofrio, Law & Order: Criminal Intent. In a series of scenes over the show’s eight-episode final season, D’Onofrio’s mercurial, unstable Detective Bobby Goren matches wits with Ormond’s sly and self-possessed psychologist. The screen fairly crackles with electricity when the two of them are on screen together. If USA Network put together a DVD featuring only their scenes together, I’d buy it.

Best blog of 2011. Winner: AZ Snakepit. As I’ve gotten back into baseball this year, the ‘pit has been my lifeline when I couldn’t watch or listen to a game. Excellent analysis, conversation, and news.

Runner-up: Independent Political Report. After years of reading the Web’s premiere third-party blog, I became a poster there a few months ago. As a lifelong supporter of third parties (I was a fan of Ross Perot when I was eight years old), I enjoy the horserace aspects of third-party politics as well as its potential to cater to unique, more principled ideas than do the the two major parties. I’m looking forward to casting my first presidential vote for a third-party candidate (likely Green Party nominee Jill Stein) in 2012.

Best new cause. Winner: <a href="http://www.350.org350.org. I’ve been looking for an organization dedicated solely to big-picture work on solving the politics of climate change, and Bill McKibben’s organization fits the bill. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in solving the only political issue that will matter to our future if it’s not solved soon.

My best blog post of 2011. The only one that fits the bill comes from early January: Historians under Attack: A Response to Anthony Grafton. This one got me noticed in Grafton’s February column in Perspectives. There may not be a category like this one next year, though. I don’t know that I’ll be doing so much blogging in future, and I envision this being more of a personal blog than a history-oriented one.

My greatest achievement of 2011. I don’t know that I can answer this one; it doesn’t feel as if I’ve accomplished too much this year. Probably the work I’ve done on understanding myself better (I’m being deliberately vague here) would rise to the top. I think I’ve been a pretty good partner this year. As far as my academic work goes, this has been a year of study and thought; hopefully I’ll have more to show for myself next year.

My favorite moment of 2011. There are several I won’t be getting into on the blog, but one I’ll mention is seeing my three uncles in the same room together for the first time in over 35 years. The occasion was incredibly sad, but that was a sight to behold. I wish that could happen more often.

Other than that, there have been moments when I’ve simply looked around at the trees and the sky and been really happy to be alive. Those are good moments. And when my partner is around, that’s always a best moment.

Feel free to add your own “bests” in the comments. What kind of year have you had?

Posted by: Jeremy C. Young | December 22, 2011

The Classic Western Sound, III: The American Romantic

It’s 1953, fourteen years after Max Steiner’s triumph in Stagecoach, and not much has changed in the classic Western sound. Today, we’ll look at the theme for Shane, written by Steiner’s best friend, Victor Young. You know the drill by now: listen to the video, then we’ll talk about it.

You know, there’s a lot we could talk about here: that remarkable four-note trumpet figure at the very beginning of the piece that serves as a marker of Westernness (and is the only melodic figure in the entire work played by the brass); the sudden entrance at 1:56 of the harmonica in the melody, which will be important later as a key component of the Western sound; the intervals at 1:06 that echo the “Western” ones Steiner used earlier in Stagecoach. None of that really matters, though, does it? Despite these minimal attempts at Westernness, Victor Young isn’t really interested in giving you the trappings or the folk music of the West. He wants you to understand the heart of the West.

As an exotic construct of American culture (see Henry Nash Smith’s Virgin Land or Richard Slotkin’s Gunfighter Nation for more on this), the West has often served as a repository of American emotionalism, just as it has been the receptacle of American dreams of conquest and violence. The real West, of course, was all of these things and none of them; it was a place where people lived their lives just like everywhere else. But in American memory and culture, it has become a place of lonely beauty, of depth and sadness. This constructed nature of the West is part of the Western sound, just as much as are xylophone licks and folk songs.

For his part, Victor Young was well-positioned to define the West as an emotional heartland. An American original, Young studied piano and violin in Poland as a teenager, but returned to the United States to make a living as a composer and arranger. He was well-known as a film composer, but today his most enduring standards are his popular songs. At heart, Young was a jazz balladeer. Among his compositions are “Stella by Starlight,” “My Foolish Heart,” and “When I Fall In Love.” Let’s listen to that last one, written in 1952 for Doris Day, and see if you can’t spot the similarities to Shane.

No, I’m not just talking about that exciting and out-of-place opening. I’m talking about the raw emotionalism of the music. There’s that lonely heart of the West, only it’s not in the West at all, but in the urban medium of Jazz. Clearly, this emotion was part of Young’s musical language, and it’s not surprising to hear him bring it to his conception of the West.

I wanted to play you Shane not because it’s in any way innovative; indeed, Steiner clearly put more thought into his conception of the Western sound than Young did. Instead, I want to use Young’s theme to suggest that the idea of loneliness is embedded in all conceptions of the Western sound. If you don’t get that from the music itself, listen to how Young’s soundtrack interacts with the iconic closing scene of the film (start the following clip at 34:08).

We’re going to talk a lot in subsequent posts about instrumentation, intervals, and other musicology stuff. But the emotion of the music is real, too, and it’s important not to lose sight of that, or of the lonely heart of the classic Western sound.

And now, for the innovators. Next time, we’ll talk about a composer whose music played a critical transitional role between the sound of Steiner and Young on the one hand and the mature Western sound on the other — but who is probably unknown even to the most assiduous of you film buffs. Stay tuned!

Posted by: Jeremy C. Young | December 21, 2011

The Classic Western Sound, II: The Austrian Wunderkind

[Update] Somehow, I’ve mistakenly assigned this score to Max Steiner. The score was in fact arranged by a number of studio composers, none of whom was Steiner. Accordingly, much of the post below is incorrect, though I will stand by my analysis of the music. Please disregard the portions of the post that reference Max Steiner. –Jeremy

Here’s our object of interest for today: Max Steiner’s 1939 score for the film Stagecoach. Give it a listen, and then we’ll discuss it.

What do you think? Does that sound Western to you? It does to my ear. Nevertheless, it lacks a whole bunch of the markers that you hear in the mature classic Western sound (see the video in my first post). So who is this guy, and what exactly is he doing to make us hear the Western sound in this piece?

Maximilian Raoul Steiner was not the sort of fellow you would expect to find involved in Westerns. Born an Austrian Jew in 1888, Steiner was a musical prodigy. He studied piano with Brahms and conducting with Mahler. He was steeped in the German Romantic tradition. Because he was in the wrong place at the wrong time when World War I broke out, Steiner had to flee to the United States. He spent a decade working in Broadway and then migrated to Hollywood, where he established himself as perhaps the most brilliant of a generation of classically-inspired film composers. By 1939, Steiner had scored everything from Gone with the Wind to King Kong. He was experienced, successful, a big star. And more than any of his colleagues, he was a specialist in Westerns. Nobody did Westerns like Max Steiner in the 1930s. He owned the Western sound.

The Stagecoach theme clearly shows off Steiner’s origins in the classical world; his full orchestra, thick instrumentation (Mahleresque in places), and symphonic structure are classic outgrowths of German romanticism. But if you look more closely, you can see that Steiner is doing some really innovative things for the time; using those classical tools, he’s trying to capture a distinctly American sound. So how do you do that if you’re Max Steiner and you write classical music?

First of all, you use actual American folk songs in your music. This would have been an obvious move for a guy like Steiner, because European Romantics believed that folk songs contained the authentic character of a people. In Europe, you had professional folk song collectors (like Cecil Sharp) and composers who used folk elements in their own music (like Edvard Grieg and Franz Liszt). The Czech composer Antonin Dvorak, visiting the United States during the 1890s, wrote a “New World Symphony” based on African American spirituals and Native American music — and cheekily offered to rewrite the National Anthem along the same lines. So it’s not surprising to see folk songs make an appearance in Steiner’s Stagecoach. There are two of them. At 0:35, you hear a jaunty version of “O Bury Me Not on the Lone Prairie,” which you may recognize as sharing an origin with the hymn “O Waly Waly.” And at 1:16, you hear a rendition of the Stephen Foster ballad “I Dream of Jeannie with the Light Brown Hair.”

In addition to borrowing real folk songs, Steiner also utilizes folk elements elsewhere in the piece. The most obvious one is around 3:44 when he starts beating the Native American tom-tom. (The film treats Native Americans in a stereotypical fashion, and Steiner’s music is no exception; he doesn’t seem to have made any effort to actually understand Native American music, opting instead for a stereotyped drumbeat.) There are more subtle examples elsewhere; he uses some intervals and syncopations that he thinks sound like American folk music.

It’s worth pointing out all this folk influence in Steiner, because it makes perfect sense for a Western soundtrack — and because in our tour of the classic Western sound, you will never see it again. As stereotyped and simplistic as is Steiner’s use of American folk music, his successors simply jettisoned the whole idea. Their Western sound was a constructed, not an authentic, sound. And it was constructed out of materials Steiner and his contemporaries brought to them from European classical music, not from American folk music.

There are some other interesting things Steiner does in Stagecoach that bear mentioning, mostly because they were influential for Steiner’s successors. You barely notice it in this piece, but Steiner uses some unusual syncopations in the opening theme (for instance, at 0:12). He uses brass instruments more prominently than you’d expect from a classically-trained composer (notice the trumpet call at 2:05, for example). His use of percussion is interesting, too. Listen at 0:56 for his use of the triangle [edit: is it a xylophone?] to punctuate his rhythm — not something you’d hear a lot of in the film music of Steiner’s time. None of these things has anything to do with the folk influences Steiner is trying to foreground, but they’re a part of the musical style he brings to the Western sound. They’ll be more influential going forward than his folk tendencies are.

We’re not going to get there just yet, though. Next time, we’ll look at a piece by Steiner’s best friend and fellow composer that, if anything, sounds like a step back in defining the classic Western sound — even though it was written fourteen years later.

Posted by: Jeremy C. Young | December 19, 2011

The Classic Western Sound, I: Introductions

Try something for me: watch this commercial shot by students at the International Film College twice.  First, listen to it with your eyes closed, and describe what’s going on in the scene.  Then, watch it again with your eyes open.

 

You already knew what the commercial was about, didn’t you?  You’ve just heard the classic Western sound — a type of music that somehow evokes virtually every romanticized notion Americans (and others) have about the American West.  No matter what type of music you like to listen to, you know the classic Western sound.  You’ve absorbed it through osmosis somehow; it’s part of your cultural identity.

Here are some interesting facts about the classic Western sound that you probably don’t know:
– There is nothing about it that is authentic to the old West, or any type of West except the Hollywood West.
– In large part, it is the work of just two outstanding composers, one of whom was an Italian, the other a New York Jew.
– It was the product of a gradual evolution — out of classical music.

Hopefully I’ve caught your interest.  What I propose to do in the next few short posts is to explain to you what this is all about and how it happened.  In each post, I’ll play you an important Western soundtrack theme, show you what the composer is doing to evoke the West, and explain what’s new about it and what’s consistent with what came before him. You don’t need any musical knowledge to follow along; your cultural understanding of the classic Western sound will be plenty.

Next time, we’ll start with a composer whose deep roots in German Romantic classical music should have made him ill-suited to write Western soundtracks — yet who played a major role in the development of the classic Western sound.

Posted by: Jeremy C. Young | November 6, 2011

In Memory of Elijah

Sad news: friend of the blog Ed Blum has lost his infant son, Elijah James Blum, to a medical disorder. I urge you to read the linked post; it’s beautiful but unspeakably sad. Our hearts go out to Ed and Jennifer as they mourn their loss.

The history department at San Diego State University, where Ed teaches, has established a memorial fund in Elijah’s name. Details are below. I encourage you to contribute whatever you can.

The History Department at San Diego State University would like to announce its fundraising efforts to create the “Elijah James Blum Memorial Fund.” Elijah, son of Associate Professor Edward J. Blum and Jennifer Blum, passed away on August 31, 2011, from complications related to a mitochondrial disorder. After developing cataracts in his eyes and degenerating muscularly such that his eating and breathing were impaired, Elijah died peacefully at home with his family. His favorite game was peek-a-boo and he laughed far more in life than he cried. He was just over eight months old.

The “Elijah James Blum Memorial Fund” will be used to support teaching and learning in the History Department at San Diego State University. Tax-deductible contributions to the fund may be made by writing a check to “The Campanile Foundation,” referencing the Elijah James Blum Memorial Fund on the memo line and sending it to Bonnie Akashian, SDSU Dept. of History, 5500 Campanile Dr., San Diego, CA 92182-6050. Please contact Beth Pollard (Associate Prof. of History, epollard@mail.sdsu.edu) or Nancy Lemkie (Senior Director of Development in CAL at SDSU, nlemkie@mail.sdsu.edu or 619-594-8569), if you have any questions.

Posted by: Jeremy C. Young | September 9, 2011

Pianos In My Dreams

Once I had a dream about pianos. In the dream, my college had a secret warehouse, hidden in plain sight, in which were contained dozens of spare pianos, in various stages of repair, but all climate-controlled and in perfect tune. I discovered that the room to this building was unlocked, and I went in and sat down at a beautiful grand piano. This was a piano with no manufacturer’s stamp on the key cover and no parallel in the physical universe. I remember its dimensions well: ten feet long (full concert grands are nine feet), nine octaves (standard pianos are just over seven, with the Bosendorfer Imperial maxing out at eight), shiny as new, with divine action and soundboard. Playing that piano was a magnificent, heartbreaking experience. I can’t describe it properly, really; it had to do with the even, lush, sharp timbre and the particular feel of the keys. How sad it was to wake up and realize that I could never play that piano again, because it did not exist.

Playing that piano in my dream was a fascinating experience. It’s one thing to do something in a dream that you’ve never done — kiss a woman you’ve never kissed, for instance — and feel the emotional response. It’s quite another to do something that isn’t possible in the physical universe, like play a piano with impossible sonic properties and unrealistic dimensions, and have it feel real and inspire real emotions. (Although possibly I was just dreaming up David Rubinstein’s piano.) I don’t suppose any piano I ever play in real life will play quite like that ideal piano in my dreams.

I think this is about more than just pianos. No person can lead a perfect life, just as no one can play a perfect piano. At the same time, one does experience moments of perfection. How is one supposed to react to the fleeting nature of those moments? How does one experience an ordinary piano as anything other than ordinary when one has played an extraordinary piano in one’s dreams?

In truth, I’ve played some extraordinary pianos in real life, too. The two best ones I actually played in the same day. I went to a music school in Arizona to audition for a scholarship, and was presented with what I believe was a Hamburg Steinway L. That’s only the 6-foot grand, not a large piano by any means, but the action and sound quality were delightful. Later that day, getting a sample lesson with a member of the piano faculty, I had an opportunity to play a couple of notes on his seven-foot Falcone, a collector’s instrument hand-crafted by an American master pianomaker. There were two pianos in the studio, and of course the Falcone was his; I was allowed to use the consolation prize of a seven-foot Steinway B, which was pretty magnificent in itself. I surreptitiously played a chord on the Falcone on my way out — I’m sure he wondered why I was touching his piano — and I had the feeling of touching a spectacular instrument.

How does one “settle” for such joys? David Rubenstein wasn’t content with the merely great pianos; neither was Santi Falcone, who made the piano I played in the professor’s studio. Unwilling to settle for what pianos they had, they devoted their lives to making the pianos of their dreams. Rubinstein is now hoping someone will pay $350,000 for his piano. Falcone makes gourmet chocolates and wonders wistfully how he got pushed out of his own company by rich investors.

I know now that I am not like them. It’s not that I’m satisfied with the merely great pianos; it’s that I’m much happier when I don’t make enormous sacrifices chasing a dream. I have begun to settle for the good and the great in my life. It’s a stage I’ve always dreaded and am now, strangely, coming to enjoy. There’s a peace in accepting that I am building a good life, one that I value and that makes me happy, one in which I can become comfortable. What bothers me is the wistfulness. It’s not a good feeling, but a sort of dull ache, not as bad as I feared it would be, but not as absent as I had hoped. It is not even directional, really; I can’t tell whether the piano in my dreams is what I really want. I do know that it is not worth the trouble of getting it.

Still, its memory throws the pianos of my life into stark relief. I have done well, I am going to do even better, but I will never quite do my best. I am happy, I am becoming happier, but there is a level of happiness that I will never attain. This makes me a normal human being, which is fine. But I am not quite sure what to do about that piano in my dreams.

Posted by: Jeremy C. Young | September 4, 2011

Take your Eisenhower Republicanism and…

Yeah, you too, Mamie.

So I’ve read this article that’s been making the rounds on Facebook, and I’m not impressed. The article, written by former GOP Congressional staffer Mike Lofgren, describes how the GOP has become a “cult” of the corporatist far right. I think people enjoy Lofgren’s attacks on the Tea Party, Libertarian-style theory, and the corporatism of the Republican Party. “The GOP,” Lofgren writes, “cares solely and exclusively about its rich contributors.” All well and good — so why was Lofgren a Republican in the first place? He finally reveals the answer in two quotes near the bottom of the page:

But how did the whole toxic stew of GOP beliefs – economic royalism, militarism and culture wars cum fundamentalism – come completely to displace an erstwhile civilized Eisenhower Republicanism?

It is this broad and ever-widening gulf between the traditional Republicanism of an Eisenhower and the quasi-totalitarian cult of a Michele Bachmann that impelled my departure from Capitol Hill.

Ah yes, here it is: more Republican handwringing about how the GOP has left him behind. There was nothing wrong with plutocratic, corporatist Eisenhower Republicans — those Republicans who tolerated McCarthyism, who tolerated Southern segregation, who in their very complacency committed unspeakable crimes. The problem is when they become vocal about it.

Let me tell you the difference between the Tea Party and Eisenhower Republicans: the Tea Party has the good grace to be outraged by the situation modern America faces. That’s it; that’s the only difference. Tea Party Republicans want to rush headlong into the same corporatist abyss that Republicans have occupied for generations, but at least they recognize that something is rotten in Denmark. That’s more than you can say for Eisenhower Republicans, who believe that nothing is wrong with America that a little gradualism won’t fix. I disagree with Eisenhower Republicans (and Nixon Republicans, and Reagan Republicans — what, wasn’t Lofgren bothered by either of these treasonous rogues?) on both solutions and strategy; I disagree with the Tea Party only on solutions.

Tell you what, Mike Lofgren: you can take your Eisenhower Republicanism and shove it. The solutions you promote are no better, and possibly worse, than those of the Tea Party Republicans you criticize. And while you’re trying to figure out where to shove your Eisenhower Republicanism (hint: where the sun don’t shine), give some thought to these three truisms:

1) Corporations are fundamentally evil institutions. The purpose of the corporation is to make money and grow in size. That is its job — to help itself. Since the money has to come from somewhere, the purpose of the corporation is to make money off everyone who comes in contact with it — who then, by definition lose money. Corporations are the exact opposite of government; government’s job is to help people, while corporations’ job is to hurt people. If you see a good, kind, selfless corporation, you are seeing a corporation that is not doing its job. All successful corporations are by definition evil. If you can’t see this obvious truism, you have no place in our political conversation.

2) Fiscal responsibility is synonymous with dramatically raising taxes on the rich. There are three, and only three, possible answers for dealing with the future of American national debt: taking away government aid to the poor; going deeper into debt; and taking away money from the rich that they don’t need. If you can’t see that the third option is the only good one, you have no place in our political conversation.

3) Nothing is as important as preventing climate change. According to UN reports, we are looking at a certainty of a mass extinction, coupled with millions of human deaths, from global warming within the next fifty to a hundred years. If you don’t recognize that doing whatever it takes to stop that from happening — even if it results in wholesale economic collapse for corporate interests — you have no place in our political conversation.

So Mike Lofgren, when you’ve figured out that the Republican Party you thought you were joining three decades ago is the exact same Republican Party you’re part of now — that the Republican Party, in all its iterations, needs to be ended forever as a political institution — then come talk to me. Until then, you can take your self-righteous effulgence about how much worse Tea Party corporate criminals are than country club corporate criminals, and shove it.

Posted by: Jeremy C. Young | September 2, 2011

Grading Third-Party Presidential Candidate Websites

For a break from my usual fare, I decided to take a look at the campaign websites of the main declared 2012 minor-party presidential candidates. I’m doing this because there’s not a one that’s particularly good. I’m a supporter of third parties across the board, and I’d like to see them get their message out. With websites like these, they won’t be able to do it.

Here are the candidates whose websites I looked at:

Wayne Allyn Root (Libertarian)
Lee Wrights (Libertarian)
Roger Gary (Libertarian)
RJ Harris (Libertarian)
Dave Redick (Libertarian)
Carl Person (Libertarian)
Joy Waymire (Libertarian)
Kent Mesplay (Green)
Stewart Alexander (Socialist)

Wayne Root is a handsome man. Unfortunately, the photo he chose to place on his website makes him look like a cross between a used car salesman and a vampire. I’m not going to criticize him for failing to state on the website that he’s running for President — he’s not yet an officially-declared candidate, after all — but it’s not clear what he IS doing. After looking at his website for five seconds, I learn that he likes to “Root Rant,” that he goes by the acronym WAR, and that he really, really loves the American flag. I also learn that he gets a lot of media attention — there are videos all over that site. That’s not a bad thing, but what kind of media attention is it? Is he even a Libertarian? What does he stand for? On the plus side, the banner header is at least minimally acceptable, except for the photo of course. Grade: D+.

I know that I like Lee Wrights, and from looking at his website for five seconds I know that he wants to “stop all war.” That’s good presentation. I also like the color scheme, which identifies the LP as a brand. What I don’t like is the lack of a photo of Wrights on the front page, or indeed any introductory content at all. Wrights apparently feels that his blog should go on the front page, as if everyone reading his website will already be familiar with who he is and what he stands for. That’s terrible strategy and terrible presentation, and Wrights should do something about it. Meanwhile, the photo of Wrights on his bio is pretty good — why couldn’t that be in the header? Grade: D+.

Roger Gary‘s website is somewhat better organized — the blog is still on the front page, but it’s below some headers that tell me about upcoming events and how to join the Libertarian party or get involved in the Gary campaign. Unfortunately, I have no idea why I should get involved in the Gary campaign, because there’s no clear statement of what Gary stands for (like Wrights’ “Stop All War”). Gary has “Rock-Solid Experience, Dedication, Leadership,” but this is the sort of empty platitude a Libertarian just can’t get away with. Everyone on the planet knows that Roger Gary doesn’t have as much experience as Barack Obama or Mitt Romney. Again, why should I vote for him? What am I getting? Meanwhile — and this is really astonishing, I think — if I click on the tiny link that says “Who is Roger Gary?” I STILL don’t get a photo. As far as I know, Roger Gary looks like the Elephant Man. Grade: D.

RJ Harris has by far the best website of the lot. He has a banner image with a photo (a fairly blurry one, but one that makes him look pretty good) and a good catchphrase: “Constitutional Libertarian.” The rest of his page also looks presidential, from the design of the header buttons to the way summaries of his platform issues display on the page. It’s a good balance between images and videos, too. You can tell this was the only professionally designed website of the bunch (“Designed by The Political Group”). Things Harris should work on: 1) getting a better photo for the banner; 2) Properly punctuating “Wake up America!” (what am I supposed to do, play Reveille?); 3) include a prominent link to the LP’s website. All in all, little things that don’t detract too much from the message. Grade: B.

Dave Redick has a photo! Unfortunately, his photo looks like a painting in a cheap boardroom. The next two things I notice are that Redick’s hawking his book about “Dave’s ‘Private Gold Standard'” (you can get “Parts 1, 2, and 4″ in the sidebar) and that his main page is a single wall of text. In terms of website design, it’s the single wall of text that sinks Redick. Only crackpot candidates use the single-wall-of-text strategy; it’s a dead giveaway. Try again, Dave. Grade: F.

Carl Person only has a Facebook page. That makes him as qualified to run for President as I am. Grade: F. [Update] It’s been brought to my attention in comments that Person has what is indeed a nice-looking website, using the same software Bob Barr used in 2008. That site gets a C+ from me (lowered by the poor photo and the rambling, unedited text on the front page). On the other hand, what is Person doing to advertise the fact that he has a website? His own party lists the Facebook page as his official website. That in itself is a serious PR failure.

“Miss Joy Waymire,” as she prefers to be addressed (howdy, ma’am!), has one of the most curious sites I’ve seen in a while. Her basic site design is clean (Wayne Root could learn something from her) but her choices are baffling. Chief among them: why does the Italian flag appear twice on the front page of her website? Also, as with Gary, no image of Waymire appears even on her bio page. In this case, I’m going to chalk it up to Waymire not having the technological know-how to post images online. Grade: D-.

I had hoped that Kent Mesplay would have a better website, given that this is his third run for President and he had a decent one last time. Unfortunately, Mesplay has decided the strategy of leading with his blog is better than actually bothering to introduce people to who he is and what he stands for. I do know that he’s a Green Party candidate, but I don’t really know what he looks like — he has TWO photos of himself on his website, neither of which is particularly good, and owing to some unfortunate facial-hair changes they look like they are of different people. He also has a slick, professional introduction video — which is squandered by the fact that his campaign apparently knows how to make a production video but not how to embed it in a webpage. Grade: C-.

Stewart Alexander cares. I know this because his website says so. I also know that I am one of his “comrades” (hello, Karl Marx!) and that he’s a Socialist candidate for President. Interestingly, Alexander downplays his involvement in the Peace and Freedom Party, even though their relationship stretches back decades and they control the most important ballot line (in California) he’ll be contending for. The basic presentation in the header is good, though the photo is outdated (it’s the same one he used in 2008) and the important tagline “The time for the working class is now!” is written in a light color that fades into the background. Unfortunately, it’s all downhill from there. The rest of the page is a series of small-print links, half of which go to the SP’s website. There’s no information on Alexander at all, except for a link to a 10MB PDF file that’s only one page long and advises people to visit Alexander’s site “for more information”! There’s also a YouTube video of Alexander essentially reading off a piece of paper at an SP organizing convention two years ago. Remember when Socialists used to be fiery orators? Those days are long gone. Grade: D+.

Conclusion: Third-party candidates don’t have any idea how to make campaign websites for themselves. If you want to run for President as a third-party candidate, hire an experienced campaign firm to make a website for you, like RJ Harris did. Otherwise, your website is going to suck pretty badly.

[Update] Here are three I missed in the original post:

Jim Duensing (Libertarian)
Jim Libertarian Burns (Libertarian)
Robert Milnes (Progressive Libertarian Alliance Independent)

As far as I can tell, Jim Duensing looks like Dylan Ratigan. That’s whose photo dominates the front page of Duensing’s website. Yes, folks, it’s another instance of a candidate making the mistake of putting his blog on the front page. Duensing compounds this problem by never updating his blog, so that Ratigan’s scowling face has been his de facto campaign photo for over a year now. Meanwhile, the website seemingly goes out of its way to deny that Duensing is running for anything. A link at the top takes you to a “Duensing for ???” page, which purports to be “endorsing and championing candidates across the country” but then says that Duensing is running for President and offers a photo of three women wearing “Duensing for President” T-shirts. Is he running for President or isn’t he? Grade: D-.

Jim Burns could have a really good website if he wanted to. His intro text is good, his photo is at least passable, and his issues and platform are organized well. Unfortunately, everything’s in the wrong place. The photo is at the bottom of the page, not the top, the buttons are on the left instead of the header, and the result is another of those awful single-page-of-text websites that denote crackpottery rather than candidacy. Still, there’s potential here. Grade: D.

I really don’t know what to say about Robert Milnes. There are some good things about his website; his photo is front and center (Wrights and Gary, take note!), his intro text is concise, and I like the general site organization (including the prominence of the donations button). But I can’t get past that God-awful photo, which makes Milnes look like a serial killer. This isn’t a comment on Milnes’ actual appearance; rather, like Wayne Root, he desperately needs to go get some professional photos taken. That photo should be a warning to anyone who thinks he can put amateur photos on a campaign website and not have it come back to bite him later. My other problem is with Milnes’ foregrounding of the PLAS (Progressive Libertarian Alliance) in his intro text. I like that Milnes is leading with campaign strategy — many candidates (I’m looking at you, Miss Joy!) don’t seem to have given that any thought — but I have no idea what Milnes stands for or what ideas he sees as a bridge between libertarians and progressives. With a new photo and some more issues-based campaign materials, this could be a good site, but it isn’t one now. Grade: D.

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