Music for a Friday

The Fall River disaster of 1874, as depicted in Harper’s. (Credit: ATHM)

For the past week I’ve been driving by the gates of our local General Motors assembly plant on my way to work in the morning, honking my horn to signal solidarity with the striking UAW workers walking the picket line.

Organized labor has taken a beating in this country over the last few decades. I suppose folks have forgotten the abuse and exploitation of workers that made unionizing necessary.

The lyrics of The Granite Mills, a haunting song which I first heard some 25 years ago on a recording by the punk-influenced Amherst, MA folk band Cordelia’s Dad, are a reminder of why we have a labor movement in this country:

In this vain world of trouble,
many accidents occur.
I’m going to sing about one,
as sad as you ever heard.
It was in Fall River city.
They were all burned up and killed,
imprisoned in the factory
known as the Granite Mills.

The origin of the song is a bit of an historical mystery. The Granite Mills tells the story of a disastrous 1874 mill fire in Fall River, MA. Yesterday, Sept. 19, was the 145th anniversary of the catastrophe. A contemporary news account (the original source has been lost) described the incident this way:

FIRE AND GREAT LOSS OF LIFE! DESTRUCTION OF GRANITE MILL NO. ONE! 

A TERRIBLE CALAMITY!

This morning, a little before 7 o’clock, an alarm of fire was sounded from boxes 72 and 74, and it was soon found that Granite Mill No.1 was on fire in the central part – the spooling room in the fifth story. The fire is supposed to have been occasioned by the friction of one of the mules. It spread so rapidly that the help were immediately bewildered and panic stricken, and could not avail themselves of the fire escape, which was ample to save all. The room was instantly filled with smoke, and the help huddled into the south end where the flames had not come.

Men, women, and children rushed to the windows gasping for air, pushed their arms through the glass and screamed for help. Some in their desperation broke through the glass and frames, and pitched themselves headfirst to the ground, where they were killed instantly or shattered in a terrible way. The sight to the spectators was sickening in the extreme. The screams of the injured and the groans of the dying with the roar and crackle of the flames made a scene of horror which was terrible to every beholder. 

The origin of the song is a bit of a mystery. A version appears in a collection of traditional songs and ballads from Nova Scotia published in 1932, but it puts the scene of the fire in New York rather than Massachusetts. It’s unclear where the lyrics of the Cordelia’s Dad’s version came from (you can check them out here), perhaps the band’s own an adaptation of some of the other examples. For those of you with an interest in traditional music and ballads, The Mudcat Cafe, where I found this background information, is a fantastic resource.

I’ve been singing this song for a long time, almost since I first heard it. My hunch is that the tune was written for the lyrics by Tim Eriksen, the lead singer of Cordelia’s Dad, but that’s just a guess. Sometimes I try to accompany myself on the mountain dulcimer. This morning I picked up my old 1890s-era banjo and tried that for the first time while I ran through the lyrics. I was pretty pleased with how it went.

Click on the video below to see and hear the band perform The Granite Mills at their 20th anniversary show at the Iron Horse Music Hall in Northampton, MA, way back in 2007.

Music for a Friday

(Credit: Warner Bros.)

Despite having it in the name of this blog, I find that I have a hard time actually writing about diversions. A lot of observations. A fair bit of research. But on diversions … not so much.

So let me try to change that a little today.

There’s a song I’ve been thinking about lately which, in a lot of ways, seems to capture the spirit of the times. Written by singer-songwriter Jason Isbell, formerly of the Drive-By Truckers, “Maybe It’s Time” has struck a real chord with me. The song, performed by actor Bradley Cooper, is featured in a scene from the 2018 remake of A Star is Born, which Cooper both directed and starred in alongside Lady Gaga. I first heard it, though, a couple of weeks ago when my wife, playing it on her guitar, asked me if I wanted to learn to sing it.

And I surely did. The melody is fittingly melancholy, and Isbell’s lyrics beautiful, poignant, and thought-provoking. Here’s how it starts:

Maybe it’s time to let the old ways die
Maybe it’s time to let the old ways die
It takes a lot to change a man
Hell, it takes a lot to try
Maybe it’s time to let the old ways die

I’m going to enjoy singing this song with my wife, and I hope you enjoy listening to it. It’s a fine song for a late summer Friday.

The scariest thing on television

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If you’ve decided to cancel HBO now that Game of Thrones is finished, let me suggest you wait long enough to watch all of the network’s terrifying miniseries, Chernobyl. It is, hands down, the best, and most frightening, show I’ve watched on TV in a very long time.

Thirty-three years ago, on April 26, 1986, the No. 4 reactor at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant near the Ukrainian city of Pripyat exploded, releasing catastrophic amounts of radiation into the atmosphere. An exclusion zone spreading 19 miles in all directions from the ruined reactor site has been deemed unsafe for human habitation for the next 20,000 years.

Because the disaster and its effects were so unbelievable, show creator Craig Mazin has said it was essential for the show to be as historically accurate as possible:

If I have a choice between going for something that sounds dramatic or something that sounds less dramatic, I actually try to opt for less because I think what is dramatic about Chernobyl doesn’t need extra.

Believe it or not, this is the restrained version of what actually happened because believe it or not, there are some accounts where it gets even worse.

Some of those who would know best, who lived through that era of Soviet life, have hailed the show for its remarkable realism.

Chernobyl is a simultaneously horrifying, inspiring, and infuriating chronicle of the catastrophe and the Soviet government’s response. As National Review puts it:

The show is not fun to watch, unless you take a certain grim satisfaction in watching Soviet Union officials squirm in their seats, so terrified of the consequences of telling the truth that they assent to brazen lies that will lead to the painful deaths of hundreds and perhaps thousands of their countrymen.

Chernobyl  is horrifying in showing the effects of acute radiation poisoning, burns, and runaway nuclear energy seeming to scorch the very sky. It is inspiring in depicting the extraordinary heroism of first-responders, medical staff, miners, scientists, and officials brave enough to force their superiors to face a reality they were desperately trying to ignore.

And it is infuriating in laying bare the cravenness of those bureaucrats and leaders unwilling to acknowledge, even actively deny, facts they deemed politically or professionally dangerous. It is this last point which makes Chernobyl especially relevant to our times. Back to National Review:

But it’s worth keeping in mind that shameless dishonesty in order to avoid embarrassment is a human trait, not just a Socialist one. In almost any governmental system on earth, those running the system can blur their sense of their personal interest and the national interest.

A bad leader will prioritize his image above all else and see every issue through that lens. A bad leader will deny the seriousness of threats because speaking honestly about an emerging danger would require admitting being wrong earlier. A bad leader will insist that a failing solution is really working. When challenged, those types of leaders focus on finding scapegoats instead of solutions.

Or, as venerable horror author Stephen King tweeted yesterday:

Winter was a MacGuffin

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Really, after all this time, is that all we get?

Obligatory spoiler warning — I’m about the talk about last night’s episode of Game of Thrones. Quit reading now if you haven’t seen it and intend to catch it later.

The White Walkers, and the dire warning that “Winter is coming” have been a constant of the both the novels, and the HBO production since the literal beginning. It was the looming existential threat that put the worldly machinations of noble houses and their quests for power into perspective.

The Night King, as leader of the White Walkers and reanimator of the legions of the dead, was the very embodiment of that fatal, destined winter. Until he wasn’t.

Thanks to Arya’s mad ninja assassin skills and her trusty, well-travelled Valyrian-steel dagger, the Night King and the existential annihilation he represented was gone without so much as a whisper of explanation of his nature, motivation, or purpose. After driving the plot for seven seasons (and five novels and counting), the Night King and his minions are ushered off the stage, destined to be forgotten in the final scramble for the Iron Throne.

Frankly, I found it all deeply unsatisfying. Which is when I realized that the Night King was no more than a MacGuffin. In fiction, a MacGuffin (a term coined, depending on whom you believe, by famed filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock), is a plot device — an object, goal, or other motivator — that protagonists pursue but with little or no narrative explanation itself.

As the team over at Slate remarks, this captures the Night King perfectly:

[O]ther than Bran’s little monologue last episode about destroying human memory, I never really understood what the Night King’s motivation or backstory was. Yes, he was created by the Children of the Forest for … some reason, but I feel like his villain arc was a very icy one note.

That’s because his villain arc was peripheral to the real plot. Instead, like any good MacGuffin, the point of the Night King and his permanent winter was not about the Night King and his permanent winter at all. His role was to drive the other characters, shaping their motivations and actions.

The team at The Atlantic understood this as well, and were less enthusiastic about it:

The White Walkers were a means to unite ice and fire—Jon and Daenerys—and build an alliance in the North in order to sort out all the lingering conflict in the South. They served no plot purpose other than to threaten to bring about the apocalypse, and the only thing more boring, story-wise, than defeating the Night King would have been letting him win and cover the world in mute zombies.

In this the Night King joins other famous examples of film MacGuffins, the shiny briefcase in Ronin, the Ark in Raiders of the Lost Ark, the grail in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, the Maltese Falcon in the classic film of the same name. In each of these examples, the nature of the MacGuffin is immaterial to the actual plot of the story.

For me that’s kind of a drag. I really did want to know more about the Night King (Just like I really, really wanted to know what was in that shiny briefcase in Ronin. It still annoys me that Robert De Niro’s character keeps the secret to himself at the end.)

Still, I guess it makes sense. George R.R. Martin has made blowing up the tropes of heroic fantasy a central element of this series. So dumping the supernatural army of the undead, whose main point seems to have been to take most of Daenerys’ army and dragons away, yanks the story out of traditional swords-and-sorcery territory and re-anchors it once and for all in the down-and-dirty politics and intrigue of dynastic succession.

Fine. But I’m still going to miss the Night King.

Farewell … We hardly knew ye.