Tag Archives: Culture

Johnny Otis, an all-American original

With the passing of rock ‘n’ roll pioneer Johnny Otis, who died last week at the age of 90, America lost a musical creator and curator who, in his own way, did as much as Elvis Presley or Chuck Berry to shape the soundtrack of the modern world. This San Francisco Chronicle appreciation story makes that clear:

He discovered Little Richard and songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. He produced their song “Hound Dog” with Big Mama Thornton when Elvis Presley was still at Humes High. He met 14-year-old Etta James backstage at a concert at the long-gone Primalon Ballroom on Fillmore Street and, that very night, whisked her to Los Angeles to make her first record the next day.

Otis’ musical contributions were rich and varied, and his 1994 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame was greatly deserved. But perhaps the most remarkable thing about Otis was the brave way he lived his life, and what it says about the complexity of race and culture in America.

Here’s something a lot of people didn’t know: Johnny Otis was not a black man. He was the child of Greek immigrants, and his real name was Ioannis Alexandres Veliotes. He grew up in a largely black neighborhood in Berkeley, Calif., where he developed his love and affinity for African-American culture.

But Otis didn’t just immerse himself in the all-American culture of black people in this country — he consciously reinvented himself as “black” (or “black by persuasion,” as he called it). His remarkable musical dexterity flowed from that deep well of cultural understanding and allowed him to communicate with all Americans in the national language of the blues, which Ralph Ellison described as “an art of ambiguity, an assertion of the irrepressibly human over all circumstances.”

In the wake of his death, some have framed Otis’ life as an expression of “anti-racism.”  It’s true that he arrived at a deeply segregated time in our history, and the arc of his life proves that racial categories are meaningless. It’s also true that the rock ‘n’ roll music he pioneered has done more on a human level to shatter those rigid categories than any legislation could.  But anti-racism is too simple an evaluation of his importance.

At his core, Otis is an extravagant example of the subtly multiracial society that Albert Murray revealed in The Omni-Americans:

“American culture, even in its most rigidly segregated precincts, is patently and irrevocably composite. It is, regardless of all the hysterical protestations of those who would have it otherwise, incontestably mulatto. Indeed, for all their traditional antagonisms and obvious differences, the so-called black and so-called white people of the United States resemble nobody else in the world so much as they resemble each other.”

Greek immigrant child Ioannis Alexandres Veliotes, who became black musical impresario Johnny Otis, helped point America back to its miscegenated heart. For that, we should all be thankful.


Is survivalism really anti-humanism?

Virginia Postrel, in her final Commerce & Culture column for The Wall Street Journal, explodes some of the assumptions behind survivalism and what drives it in these deeply uncertain times. Along the way, she reveals how trade and the specialization of labor have benefited civilization:

Here we get a hint of the survivalist instinct’s fundamental error. In focusing on extreme situations, it forgets about the capacities built up during less-stressful times. Self-sufficiency limits knowledge and productive skills to whatever a single individual or locality can comprehend. Specialization and trade allow the system to expand those capabilities almost without limit. What looks like ignorance permits the growth of knowledge.

Carried to their logical conclusions, survivalist arguments would sever the very connections that make modern societies like Japan prosperous and resilient. If Japan were an isolationist nation of rice farmers, its suffering would indeed have fewer effects on our distant shores. We wouldn’t notice the absence of its people or what they produce, because we would have never gained from their efforts nor they from ours.

Read the whole thing.

Welcome to the United States of Umbrage, LLC

Americans can certainly be touchy about our perceived differences.

It’s understandable, given our history. “All men are created equal” has been a point of noisy, bloody contention from the beginning.

But in an America that’s radically different from the slave-holding, immigrant-bashing nation of the past, is constant vigilance against ethnic offense always a good thing?

As this classic 2002 article from Reason‘s Tim Cavanaugh points out, our  industriousness extends beyond cars, steel or hamburgers. We’re also pretty good at manufacturing bad feelings toward each other under the well-intentioned rubric of “anti-discrimination.”

Some good points from the article:

  • “Call it the anti-defamation industry, the anti-discrimination lobby, or maybe the umbrage market.”
  • “An anti-discrimination group has little motive to report improvement, or even stasis, in cultural relations, because that would lessen the perceived need for the group.”
  • “This may explain why anti-discrimination is a growth industry even — or especially — while identity politics fades into history, more Americans decline to identify themselves by ethnicity, and actual discrimination is, by virtually all measures, at historically low levels.”

The piece is long, but well worth your time.

Densely populated cities: Not so great after all

Urbanization enthusiasts gush about the benefits of dense development, or about the remarkable, low-carbon-footprint survival skills of the citizens of megacities like Lagos.

However, urban theorist Joel Kotkin makes the case that many people who live in those places would rather be living somewhere else:

But essentially megacities in developing countries should be seen for what they are: a tragic replaying of the worst aspects of the mass urbanization that occurred earlier in the West. They play to the nostalgic tendency among urbanists to look back with fondness on the crowded cities of early 20th Century North America and Europe.

Kotkin points out that during the past 50 years, Americans have steadily moved away from heavily populated urban cores to more manageable, human-scaled suburban areas. Why, he wonders, do the experts think things should go differently in the developing world?

If you like urbanism — and contrarian thinking — give Kotkin’s piece a read.

Was Steinbeck’s ‘Travels With Charley’ a fraud?

That’s the surprising thesis of this article from Reason that raises some serious questions about the artistic integrity of one of America’s greatest writers.

The author, Bill Stiegerwald, doesn’t say John Steinbeck never went on the 1960 cross-country road trip he documented in Travels With Charley in Search of America. Instead, Stiegerwald asserts that Steinbeck fabricated much of what happened on that 11-week journey from New York to California and back. An excerpt:

From what I can gather, Steinbeck didn’t fictionalize in the guise of nonfiction because he wanted to mislead readers or grind some political point. He was desperate. He had a book to make up about a failed road trip, and he had taken virtually no notes.

Stiegerwald is blogging about his experiences retracing Steinbeck’s steps at Travels Without Charley. Check it out.

Editing: ‘One of the great inventions of civilization’

That terrific line is found in James Fallows’ ode to the wonderful, terrible world of online journalism in the April issue of The Atlantic:

“It’s not so much that American public life is more idiotic,” Jill Lepore said, referring to both press coverage and the public discussion it spawns. “It’s that so much more of American life is public. I think that goes a long way to explaining what seems to be a ‘decline.’ Everything is documented, and little of it is edited. Editing is one of the great inventions of civilization.

I wish to associate myself with Jill Lepore’s remarks.

Snark, the herald angels sing: ‘Spy’ is now online

Google (informal motto: “don’t be evil”) has just done something very good:  it has scanned and posted the entire archives of  Spy magazine.

If you’re not familiar with Spy (and far too many people weren’t, even in its 1986-1998 heyday), think People written and edited by the staff of National Lampoon. It skewered the celebrities, media and politics of its time in a tone of withering sarcasm and irony that’s instantly recognizable — and today, nearly inescapable.

That’s right: Before there was an Internet for Al Gore to invent, Spy took the initiative in creating the double-edged sword we call “snark,” without which the Web as we now know it would probably shut down.

Its high-profile pranks made news. In the most famous one, a Spy writer posed as a talk radio host and called first-year congressmen in 1993 to ask them “Do you approve of what we’re doing to stop what’s going on in Freedonia?” (Freedonia is a fictitious country best known to fans of the Marx Brothers movie Duck Soup.) Being politicians, they all tried to answer the question as if they were jockeying for the chairmanship of the House Select Committee on Freedonian Affairs:

Representative Corrine Brown, Democrat of Florida, said she approved of what the United States was doing in Freedonia, and added, “I think all of those situations are very, very sad, and I just think we need to take action to assist the people.”

Another memorable stunt compared the star power of two fictitious celebrity brothers (“Michael Baldwin” and “Tito Wayans”) when it came to securing spots on the guest lists at big social events. A sample:

SPY: This is the personal assistant for Tito Wayans. I wanted to sneak Tito onto the list for the Mariah party

COSMO: The list is closed; the party has started. You’re quite late

SPY: I am. But Tito’s brother is Keenan Ivory Wayans.

COSMO: I know that.

SPY: Well, then maybe you also know that Mariah and Keenan are friends. He would be upset if his little brother couldn’t go to the party.

COSMO: I’m sorry. I apologize. Tito is on the list.

Spy could also do serious journalism, albeit with an edge. In 1996, Mark Ebner’s first-person expose of the secretive, manipulative world of the Church of Scientology caused a huge stir and inspired threats of legal action.

Whether it was being funny or serious, Spy was always  an enjoyable read, and I always felt smarter after finishing an issue. One of my Facebook friends, Bill Walsh, a copy editor at The Washington Post, put it succinctly in a posting on my wall:

Spy was to me in my early 20s what Mad was in my adolescence — funny but in many ways beyond me, and not talking down to me. An immersion teacher of pop culture.

Wonderfully said, Bill.

Check out Spy‘s archive. You can come back here later and leave a snarky comment.