It’s been 30 years since the group SNAP! released their signature song “Rhythm is a Dancer”. It remains one of my favorite tunes and was a favorite of one of my closest friends, Daniel, who died of AIDS in 1993. Another close friend, Paul (who died this past April), also liked it. It’s so emblematic of the 1990s.
Looking back – as I have the tendency to do – things were pretty good for me in 1992; a time before cell phones and personal computers were common and when the future seemed wide open, as the world moved closer to the new millennium.
My sentimentality may be getting the best of me now, as I’ve been going through some times these past few months. Still, music always has a way of soothing the troubled mind.
Phan Thị Kim Phúc probably didn’t think anything of the photographer who snapped a photo of her running stark naked down a dirt road. She was in excruciating pain and – as a child – had no idea what was going on around her. The photographer, Nick Ut, certainly had no idea of what he had captured on film. But that one single image of people scampering down a road in Trang Bang, Vietnam on June 8, 1972, following a napalm attack, captured the true horror of war and the carnage it unleashes upon innocent civilians.
For most Americans in 1972, the Vietnam quagmire had become unbearable. Gone was the glamor and nobility of war as instilled by World War II. Often called the “living room” war, Vietnam brought home the reality of what happens when nations can’t agree on what’s right and decide to fight it out like wild dogs. In some ways, things haven’t changed.
Amazingly Phúc survived the attack and now lives in Canada. She no longer views herself as that “Napalm Girl”. But that she did live through such an event is a true testament to the human spirit – something no chemical can destroy.
Who would have thought a mirthful challenge would last two centuries and spark a horrific enterprise?
Last month a first-edition copy of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein sold for USD 1.17 million at auction at Christie’s Auction House; much more than its estimated value of USD 300,000. Only one of 500 known existing first-print copies, the book is the most expensive tome by a woman ever sold. Published in 1818, Frankenstein: or, the Modern Prometheus is now considered to be the first science fiction novel. At the time, however, it was met with lackluster reviews – many of which bore an obviously sexist bent. “The writer of it is, we understand, a female; this is an aggravation of that which is the prevailing fault of the novel,” noted one reviewer in the “British Critic”.
I happened to see this classic music video the other day: “Centerfold” by the J. Geils Band. Both the song and the video came out in 1981; meaning they’re both FORTY YEARS OLD! Yes, folks, those of us who recall when this song was brand new are officially – mature. Yeah – mature. To make you feel even more vintage, this video was among the first that appeared on MTV, which debuted in 1981. That’s the same year I began my senior year in high school. Um…good God!
The first photograph of a U.S. presidential inauguration was taken by John Wood on March 4, 1857, when James Buchanan assumed the presidency. Wood was the first presidential photographer who also documented the construction of the U.S. Capitol from 1856 to 1861.
Wood used the newly-discovered wet-plate collodion method invented by British photographer Frederick Scott Archer. The process involved coating a glass plate with a mixture of a soluble iodide and a collodion solution. Although complex and requiring a portable darkroom, the collodion method produced sharper images without lengthy exposure times that also could be more easily duplicated than the then well-used daguerreotype technique.
We have so many reasons to be thankful for the times in which we live: air conditioning, television, cell phones, cars, and no creepy Victorian-era Christmas cards. It may be difficult to imagine, but our ancestors of the 19th and early 20th centuries either had a distorted idea of what the yuletide season is supposed to represent or they had too much alcohol and not enough sex.
Whatever was wrong with them, we can undoubtedly determine their bizarre mindsets from a glance at some of their holiday cards. I mean…what reasonable person would glean Christmas joy from images of dead birds and dancing frogs? Then again, look who’s talking!
This year marks a century since the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution assured women the right to vote. But it’s tough to imagine that only now will we be getting our first female vice-president. Still, it’s equally difficult to understand there was a time when the concept of women voting was radical and almost subversive. The old guard of White men who bore something like 99% of the nation’s wealth and power 100 years ago usually had trouble extending those privileges.
In 1917, the National Woman Suffrage Publishing Company (the publishing arm of the National Woman Suffrage Association) came out with “This Little Book Contains Every Reason Why Women Should Not Vote.” And all of its interior pages were blank. It was essentially a comical publication, but at its core was a serious message: there are no good reasons to deny women the right to vote.
Granting women the right to vote was just one major step in the ongoing struggle for voting rights in the United States. As much as detractors tried, they couldn’t squelch the myriad movements to ensure that very basic right, such as the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Considering what’s happened in this year’s elections, it appears that struggle is not over.
If you see some of the earliest films, one characteristic is almost always obvious: they often appear to be in stop-motion. But footage in “The Flying Train” from 1902 is as impressive as the feat of engineering it captures. Depicting a ride on a suspended railway in Germany in 1902, it gives the contemporary viewer a sense of 21st-century drone footage. Throughout the two-minute film, riders see residents of Wuppertal (Wupper Valley), Germany walking across pedestrian bridges and down dirt roadways beneath the city’s schwebebahn – a style of hanging railway that’s unique to Germany and first appeared in 1901.
The Museum of Modern Art recently pulled the film from its vaults and – upon closer examination – were surprised to learn it had been shot in 70mm, instead of 68mm. While the difference may seem small, it’s considerable in the technology of film formatting. It’s also a unique footnote in cinematic history, since 35mm has been the standard for decades. But many of those early films by studios such as Biograph were recorded on either 68 or 70mm and displayed on then-state-of-the-art devices like a Kinetoscope or a Mutoscope. These larger formats provide a larger image area affords stunning visual clarity and quality, especially compared to the more standard 35mm or 16mm.
There have always been and always will be people who step boldly from the shadows of their environment, regardless of the risks or the criticisms, and challenge what is known and accepted. Shirley Chisholm was one of those individuals. In 1968, she became the first Black woman elected to the United States Congress, representing New York’s 12th Congressional District. In 1972, she went even further, when she made a concerted effort to secure the Democratic National Party’s presidential nomination. It induced the usual cacophony of snickers and eye-rolling from the party elite, but Chisholm remained undeterred.
“I am not the candidate of black America,” she noted in her official candidacy announcement in January of 1972, “although I am black and proud. I am not the candidate of the women’s movement of this country, although I am a woman and equally proud of that. I am the candidate of the people and my presence before you symbolizes a new era in American political history.”
Despite an underfunded campaign and struggling to be taken seriously by anyone in the political world, Chisholm persevered. She didn’t even come close to earning the Democratic Party’s nomination, but her efforts paved the way for countless numbers of future non-White and female political candidates.
Chisholm passed away in 2005 and received the Presidential Medal of Freedom a decade later.
The current COVID-19 crisis has been compared to the “Black Plague”, which ravaged much of Eurasia in the middle of the 14th century C.E. Historians and scientists now believe the scourge first appeared in Western Asia in the 1330s, before storming into India and the Middle East via the legendary “Silk Road” and then into Europe and Northern Africa. It even reached the Danish outpost of Iceland. It’s a wonder, I believe, it didn’t make it to North America, as Viking explorers had already reached what is now Newfoundland. Europe was the hardest hit region, with some 50 million estimated fatalities. Overall, it killed roughly 350- 375 million people. But, since they had no accurate population counting system at the time, the death rate very well could have been several times worst.
There are some chilling similarities to the COVID-19 debacle. It began in Asia and seems to have struck Italy first. Back then religious leaders convinced their ignorant, illiterate followers that the pestilence was God’s condemnation for whatever sins they’d committed. On top of that, national commanders initially didn’t realize the severity of the pandemic and concocted whatever excuses sounded plausible.
Politics aside, one other element remains relatively unchanged: the love of music and dance. We’ve seen people across the globe cope with isolation and mandatory quarantines by singing and dancing; playing music on their doorsteps or balconies for neighbors to hear; connecting with family and friends through cyberspace to share melodies. Again, there are similarities with the “Black Plague”.
Medieval Europeans also often used music and song to celebrate life’s various events. I find music from this time and place beautifully intriguing and even somewhat familiar to current musical trends. As usual, Italians always rose to the occasion; creating a number of songs and dances to express the beauty of life. The saltarello is a perfect example. An Italian dance style dating to the 14th century, it involved leaping and skipping and was performed to music done in a triple meter tempo; usually accompanied by tambourines, guitars, and singing. Saltarello survived into the 18th century and, by then, had become a popular folk dance. Saltarello rhythm and energy bears similarities to tarantella; another popular Italian folk dance also often performed at weddings and dating to medieval times. A well-known contemporary model appears in the final movement of Felix Mendelssohn’s ‘Italian’ symphony.