Music for a Friday — ‘Gunfighter Ballads’

Boy do we need a diversion right now. At this rate October is going to last until 2022. From the debacle that was the first presidential debate to the revelation that the president has contracted COVID-19, we’re off to a helluva start.

So let’s change the mood and talk about one of the great albums of all time, Marty Robbins “Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs.” Released by Columbia Records in September 1959, the album was recorded in a single eight-hour session earlier that year.

In an appreciation over at the website Medium, Brian Braunlich writes:

It’s truly odd listening to an album like Gunfighter Ballads & Trail Songs in the midst of the Corona crisis. The tunes are not hopeful or optimistic for the most part, but the feeling of listening to these warm campfire tunes is nostalgic for a more hopeful time, when the villains were simple (and human), the stories easy to follow, the problems invented or retold and not lived. It’s … kind of comforting.

“El Paso” on this record is evidently the first Country song to win a Grammy, and it’s well deserved. A beautifully tragic story filling its space with rich details of Rose’s Cantina, the beautiful Fellina’s eyes, the slow fade of death. It soars, a perfect classic country song.

Robbins as a songwriter is responsible for the real gems here — “El Paso,” but also “Big Iron,” which kicks the album off on a strong note. “The Master’s Call” later is another strong contribution. But the remainder of the more traditional country ballads or tunes here are well presented by Robbins and his band.

While I was familiar with some of the songs, “El Paso” in particular, I only recently became acquainted with the full album, picking up a vinyl copy at the urging of my college-senior son who has long been a fan. In fact, the first time I heard “Big Iron” was during a jam session in my living room, performed by that same son. He also does some mean Johnny Cash stuff, but that’s a story for another post.

It’s a classic album for a reason. Pick up a copy if you can, and for the full impact, make it vinyl. Check out this really good video from Esoteric Internet, giving the story behind the album and, in particular, the archetypal gunfighter song, “Big Iron.”

And here’s the song itself.

Duck and Cover

How to prepare for tonight’s presidential debate.

Donald Trump and Joe Biden square off in the first of three presidential debates tonight starting at 9 pm. And while I’d like to treat it like the fellow above, I’ve got to watch it so I can sound smart on the radio tomorrow. Because misery loves company, you should watch it too.

So what should we watch for? Well, the New York Times suggests this is Trump’s best chance to change the narrative of a race where he’s lagging far behind. So from Trump expect a lot of personal attacks on Biden and his family, and a loose relationship with facts and the truth. Biden has to avoid taking Trump’s bait and keep rein on his temper and emotions.

Meanwhile, The Washington Post points out that Trump hasn’t really prepared, believing his experience as president is preparation enough, and testing out attack lines on close aides and with rally audiences; moderator Chris Wallace doesn’t intend to act as a live fact checker; and any slips of Biden’s will likely pale besides those of his counterpart.

Over at Politico, the writers compile what they expect to be the “10 biggest whoppers” told on the stage tonight. Brace yourself for this, but they expect most of these — 7 out of 10 — will come from Trump.

John Dickerson at The Atlantic reminds us that debates are about more than facts. Rather they are a window into a candidate’s temperament, character, and style of leadership. As I suggested last week, I think we have that covered when it comes to Donald Trump. But we might see something interesting about Joe Biden tonight. Besides, the burden of fact checking really ought to be on us as viewers.

Finally, will tonight’s debate really matter? Well, according to the folks at fivethirtyeight.com, first debates tend to help the challenger more than the incumbent, though that may not play out this time around. There are frankly too few undecided voters left to be persuaded. And Biden may have the most to lose because he’s so far ahead.

So there you go. You can read all of that, or just take it like the guy in the photo. I know which one I’d choose if I could.

If you’re curious about that photo, it’s a still from the classic 1951 Civil Defense film “Duck and Cover,” starring Bert the Turtle. Watch it here.

The man he’s always been

The convictions that leaders have formed before reaching high office are the intellectual capital they will consume for as long as they continue in office.

Henry Kissinger

Being president doesn’t change who you are, it reveals who you are.

Michelle Obama

I’m opening this post with these quotes because I’m spending a beautiful early fall afternoon depressing myself by reading over the last nearly five years of pieces I’ve written in this space about Donald Trump. I link to a bunch of them individually below, but if you want to suffer along with me, here’s a link where you can find all, or nearly all of them.

One thing is really clear to me. We have known all along who and what Donald Trump is, and we elected him anyway.

Take this example, from Dec. 7, 2015, my very first entry on him, right after Trump called for “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States …”

And so Trump takes the fear and xenophobia already rampant in Republican ranks, already being stoked by his slightly less hysterical rivals, and ramps it to new, nauseating heights.

When he declared, most everyone, myself included, played the Trump candidacy as a diversion, an amusing little gag. Well the joke’s not funny any more. It’s really not.

As I wrote four years later, Trump’s pitch was not a bug but a feature:

Way back in 2015, Donald Trump began his run for the White House with a naked appeal to fear rooted in racism. And for the last four years, as he first campaigned and then as he has governed, his tune has remained the same.

In hindsight, the joke never was funny, no matter how many people fell for it then, and still fall for it now. Trump, ever the showman with the uncanny ability to manipulate the media while lying with the ease of one for whom it comes naturally, knew how to give the people what they wanted, and what they wanted was someone who appeals to their base instincts, angers, and resentments. And he knew then, and knows now, who his best friends are, European fascists and American racists and anti-semites.

Which squares perfectly with his fondness for and admiration of authoritarian strongmen, his lust for the adulation they can command, and his craving for the power they enjoy but our system (so far) has managed to deny him. His refusal to commit himself to a peaceful transfer of power should he lose in November is no surprise given his refusal to commit to honoring the outcome in 2016 if Clinton won. That he has armed militia followers who might back that play in 2020 should not surprise either given the pro-Trump stance militias took four years ago.

So what are we to do now, with less that 40 days until the general election? My answer today is the same as what it was in March 2019, when Democrats were still entertaining the fantasy that Robert Mueller, or impeachment, or the US Attorney for the Southern District of New York, or the 25th Amendment, or some other deus ex machina might rid the country of Trump.

We’ll have to beat him at the polls. By voting early and in person where allowed, by mailing in our absentee ballots as soon as possible to ensure our votes are counted, or by walking into our local polling place on Nov. 3 and filling out our ballots, which is what I am going to do.

Joe Biden wasn’t your first choice? Hey, mine either. But given the stakes, #ADWD.

A 27-year walk in the woods

Lena Friedrich’s award-winning documentary of the North Pond Hermit.

In 1986 a young man drove to the end of a dirt road, left his keys in the car, and carrying a tent he’d never before slept in, walked into the Maine woods. Over the next 27 years his personal interactions with other humans consisted of a single word, “hi,” to a passing hiker who took him by surprise.

Christopher Thomas Knight chose a life alone, camping in the deep forests of the Kennebec Valley, subsisting off the food he would steal from camps and cabins in the area, fattening up in the fall in anticipation of lean times over the brutal Maine winters. He was simultaneously myth and mystery, a legend in the region and an enigma to those whose cabins he’d burgle for boxes of macaroni and cheese, propane tanks, or batteries to power his radio and flashlight.

A beautiful short film by documentarian Lena Friedrich, embedded below, doesn’t so much as tell Knight’s story as it does the story of the people and the community whose lives crossed paths with his hermit ways.

In introducing the film, a featured documentary at The Atlantic, Emily Buder writes:

In the area near North Pond, Knight’s hermitage fomented outrage, intrigue, reverence, and every response in between. Filmmaker Lena Friedrich decided that she had to learn more. In her short documentary, The Hermit, she interviews residents of North Pond who piece together the fabric of a local legend.

“Everyone had a very strong opinion about Knight, and none of them had the same opinion,” Friedrich told me. Some residents viewed Knight as a villain; others saw him as a folk hero of sorts. “I realized that, as with every legend, this one had many versions and interpretations,” Friedrich said. “I tried to find characters who would provide personal layers of understanding to the enigma.”

There’s something deeply appealing about the idea of walking into the woods and disappearing, if only for a little while. This is even more true given what this year has brought. Not that I want to over-romanticize Knight or his experience. As Nathaniel Rich writes about him:

Knight’s hermitage was not entirely pure—he stole processed food and a twin-size mattress, listened to talk radio (a lot of Rush Limbaugh), played handheld video games, and even watched a miniature Panasonic black-and-white television, charged with stolen car batteries …

What Knight sought was solitude and peace, and for 27 years, he found it. Rich continues, “the forest granted him freedom, privacy, and serenity.” It’s not romantic to envy that even if it’s not a life I would choose for myself.