Saturday, June 10, 2006

Miniver Cheevy

This weekend has been a busy one for me, so rather than making a long entry, I thought I would post one of my favourite poems by one of my faovurite poets. Edward Arlington Robinson was a late 19th century/early 20th century poet, born in Maine. His style was very traditional and owes a lot to both William Shakespeare and Ben Johnson. While his style was traditional, however, his subject matter was very untraditional. Many of his poems took the form of short, often tragic character sketches of the sort of people he might encounter in his native New England. "Miniver Cheevy" is one of those character sketches, a poem about a man who feels he was born in the wrong time. I am sure many have had this feeling at one time or another, but very few have probably taken it to the extremes that Miniver does in the poem.

"Miniver Cheevy"
by Edwin Arlington Robinson

Miniver Cheevy, child of scorn,
Grew lean while he assailed the seasons;
He wept that he was ever born,
And he had reasons.

Miniver loved the the days of old
When swords were bright and steeds were prancing;
The vision of a warrior bold
Would set him dancing.

Miniver sighed for what was not,
And dreamed, and rested from his labors;
He dreamed of Thebes and Camelot,
And Priam's neighbors.

Miniver mourned the ripe renown
That made so many a name so fragrant;
He mourned Romance, now on the town,
And Art, a vagrant.

Miniver loved the Medici,
Albeit he had never seen one;
He would have sinned incessantly
Could he have been one.

Miniver cursed the commonplace
And eyed a khaki suit with loathing;
He missed the mediaeval grace
Of iron clothing.

Miniver scorned the gold he sought,
But sore annoyed was he without it;
Miniver thought, and thought, and thought,
And thought about it.

Miniver Cheevy, born too late,
Scratched his head and kept on thinking;
Miniver coughed, and called it fate,
And kept on drinking.

Friday, June 9, 2006

A Few Passings

It is often said that celebrities die in threes. I am not sure that is true, but they certainly do seem to die in bunchs at times. Lately, there have been a few celebrity deaths of note. I thought I would cover them all in one post.

Among those deaths was special effects innovator Arthur Widmer. Widmer died of cancer at age 92. Widmer was born in Washington, D.C., and attended the University of Michigan. He worked for Kodak's research labs and later Clinton Laboratories (later to become the Oak Ridge National Laboratory).

At Kodak Widmer worked on colour photography, including Kodachrome. Following World War II, Kodak sent Widmer to Hollywood. There he was part of introducing Kodak Color Negative and Color Positive to the movie studios. He was at Warner Brothers when he developed the Ultra Violet Travelling Matte, an early version of what we now call "bluescreen." Quite simply, bluescreen involved the process of shooting actors against a monochromatic background (usually the colour blue, hence the name) in order to replace the background with another background or scene. Widmer was also pivotal in developing such technologies for film as 3-D and wide screen. For his contributions to the movie industry, Widmer received an Acadmey Award of Commendation for his development of the Ultra Violet Travelling Matte.

Another celebrity to die of late was comic book and animated cartoon artist Alex Toth. Toth died at age 77 in Burbank, California. He was born on June 25, 1928. At age 15 Toth started his career in illustrating comic books. He was first hired by illustrator and editor Steve Douglas to work on Famous Funnies. He would later be hired by legendary editor Sheldon Mayer to work on various titles at All-American Comics. After All-American merged with National Periodical Publications (better known, and now officially known, as DC Comics), he would continue to work with Mayer. At All-American and National, Toth worked on such titles as All-Star Comics (featuring the Justice Society of America) and Green Lantern. After a stint in the military Toth would work for Dell Comics.

While Toth worked extensively in comic books, he is perhaps best known for his work with Hanna-Barbera. He joined the animation studio in 1965. There he developed such characters as Space Ghost, the Herculoids, and Birdman. He would also work on such cartoons as Josie and the Pussycats and Superfriends. Toth's Hanna-Barbera characters, such as Space Ghost, entered American pop culture and would prove to be an influence on future comic book artists and writers (Mike Baron and Steve Rude credit Space Ghost as the inspiration for their comic book character Nexus). Following his work for Hanna-Barbera, Toth went back to work in comic books, working for such companies as DC, Dell, and Warren.

I was always a fan of Alex Toth. Although his work was often simple and uncomplicated, it was also realistic. With a few simple strokes, Toth could endow any given scene with a sense of immediacy and realism that many artists with more complex styles could not. Fittingly, Toth died at his drawing table.

The third celebrity to die of late was keyboardist Billy Preston. Preston died June 6 at age 59 after a long battle with chronic kidney disease. Preston was born in Houston, Texas, although he grew up in Los Angeles, California. He started playing piano when he was only three years of age. His first work was with the likes of Little Richard and Ray Charles. Perhaps his greatest claim to fame was his work with The Beatles. Appearing on The Beatles albums Let It Be and Abbey Road, he was the first non-Beatle to receive a credit on a Beatle record. For this reason he was sometimes called "the Fifth Beatle." Preston would work again with George Harrison on the song "My Sweet Lord."

Preston would go onto work with such artists as The Rolling Stones, Sly and the Family Stone, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. He would also have a successful solo career of his own. Preston's first two singles went nowhere on the Billboard charts, but he had a hit and a Grammy win with his third single, "Outta Space." He would have two number one singles with "Will It Go Round in Circles" and "Nothing From Nothing."

In my humble opinion, Preston was one of the greatest keyboardists of the Sixties and Seventies. His work with The Beatles was impeccable. Indeed, I don't think any of The Beatles could have done better than him when it came to playing keyboards. I also enjoyed his some of his solo work, particularly "Will It Go Round in Circles." I am truly saddened by his passing.

Thursday, June 8, 2006

Two Hangmen

Among my favourite songs is "Two Hangmen," a song released by the band Mason Proffit in 1969. The late Fifties had seen folk music soar in popularity with the emergence of the Kingston Trio and such artists as Bob Dylan. By the mid-Sixties many artists, such as The Byrds and Simon & Garfunkel, had blended folk music with rock music to create the subgenre known as folk rock. Mason Profitt fell into this category. The band was formed by brothers Terry and John Talbot. Terry Talbot had performed with such artists as Glen Campbell, Sonny & Cher, and Chad Mitchell.

Mason Proffit developed a bit of a following, with successful tours and soldout concerts. They opened for The Grateful Dead and Janis Joplin, among others. From 1969 to 1974 they released five albums. Depsite this, they were never a huge success commercially. In 1974 the band disbanded so that John Talbot could engage in religious pursuits. His brother Terry continued to perform, even touring with The Eagles. The band was reformed in 2003 by Terry Talbot. While John's religious obligations keep him from touring with the band, he does still record with them. The band has released two albums since reforming.

"Two Hangmen" was perhaps their biggest hit. To this day it still receives airplay on radio stations across the country. For me the appeal of the song is that it tells a story which can be interpreted on many levels. The lyrics are below:

As I rode into Tombstone on my horse whose name was Mac
I saw what I'll relate to you goin' on behind my back
It seems the folks were up in arms a man now had to die
For believin' things that didn't fit the laws they'd set aside
The man's name was I'm a freak the best that I could see
He was the executioner a hangman just like me
I guess that he'd seen loopholes from workin' with his rope
He'd hung the wrong man many times so now he turned to hope

He'd talk to all the people from his scaffold in the square
He told them of the things he found;
But they didn't seem to care
He said the laws were obsolete, a change they should demand
But the people only walked away, he couldn't understand

The Marshall's name was Uncle Sam he said he'd right this wrong
He'd make the hangman shut his mouth if it took him all year long
He finally arrested Freak and then he sent for me
To hang a fellow hangman from a fellow hangman's tree

It didn't take them long to try him in their court of law
He was guilty then of thinking a crime much worse than all
They sentenced him to die so his seed of thought can't spread
And infect the little children; that's what the law had said

So the hangin' day came 'round and he walked up to the noose
I pulled the lever but before he fell I cut him loose
They called it all conspiracy and that I had to die
So to close our mouths and kill our minds they hung us side by side

And now we're two hangmen hangin' from a tree
That don't bother me at all
Two hangmen hangin' from a tree
That don't bother me at all

At its most basic level, "Two Hangmen" is a protest song. The song is ostenisbly set in the Old West. The narrator rides into town on a horse. There is a reference to Tombstone (presumably, Tombstone, Arizona, where the gunfight at the O.K. Corral took place). There is also a reference to a marshall (the profession commonly held by heroes in Westerns). Despite this, the lyrics would seem to be directed against the Vietnam War and perhaps other percieved injustices of the time. Freak speaks from his gallows, telling the folks of the injustices that he has seen. Sadly for Freak, the people do not wish to listen. This reflects the situtation as percieved by many protesters in the late Sixties. For all their protests, many of them could not help but feel that the general populace did not want to hear what they had to say. Furthermore, many felt as if they were being condemned for their views; not condemned to death, as Freak was, but condemned nonetheless.

One thing I find signficant about "Two Hangmen" is that the protagonists are both hangmen. Hanging was the traditional method of executing criminals going back to the times of the Anglo-Saxon kings. In Anglo-Saxon paganism it may well have been associated with the god Woden, who was known to the Vikings as Odhinn, whom the Vikings did associate with hanging. According to myth Odhinn hanged on the World Tree and obtained knowledge of the runes. He was further said to sit beneath the gallows to get knowledge from hanged men. As Odhinn was the god of wisdom and was associated with hanging, it is perhaps signficant that Freak's crime was "thinking" and that he was condemned to death so that he would not spread his thoughts. The song would then seem to be rooted in views possibly held by the ancient Germanic peoples (to which both the Anglo-Saxon peoples and Vikings belonged) on a link between arcane knowledge and hanging.

The link between hanging and knowledge doesn't seem to have been limited to the ancient Germanic peoples. While interpretations of Tarot cards vary greatly, I seem to recall that many associated the Tarot card called the Hanged Man with the pursuit of knowledge. The poet Maurice Ogden also associated hangmen with mysterious knowledge, as well as dealing out justice, in his poem "The Hangman."

Regardless, the general theme of "Two Hangmen" would seem to be that many people consider knowledge to be dangerous and are willing to silence those who possess such knowledge. At the same time, however, given that the two hangmen die for their beliefs, it is a statement on the importance of remaining faithful to one's beliefs regardless of the costs. In this respect, the meaning of "Two Hangmen" goes well beyond that of the typical Vietnam War protest song. It is a song about the importance of belief that can have meaning for nearly anyone of any faith or creed. While I can see that the song links to myths and folklore, its most important message is one that is ageless and universal.

On their latest album, Mason Proffit has a remake of "Two Hangmen." It is good, as might be expected, but it doesn't nearly match the original.

Sunday, June 4, 2006

A Shroud of Thoughts 2nd Anniversary

It was two years ago today that I first started writing this blog. A lot has happened since then. In fact, I think there may well have been more changes in my life in the past two years than in the four years before that. Some of it has been good. I have a decent job making decent money. I finally got a new PC after my old one was threatening to give up the ghost. For the most part my family is doing well. Of course, that is not to say that my life has not had its share of sorrows. Two of my aunts passed on (although it must be pointed out that one was in her eighties and the other was in her nineties). We've had our share of family crises. And one dream I'd held for a few years (the one closest to my heart, in fact) just came crashing down in flames. I haven't quite been happy ever since. Life, as ever, is a very mixed bag.

I suppose many of you might be wondering where the title of this blog comes from. I got it from Lord Byron's Childe Harold's Pilgrimage canto iii stanza 113, which is below:

I have not loved the world, nor the world me;
I have not flattered its rank breath, nor bow'd
To its idolatries a patient knee,
Nor coin'd my cheek to smiles, nor cried aloud
In worship of an echo; in the crowd
They could not deem me one of such; I stood
Among them, but not of them; in a shroud
Of thoughts which were not their thoughts, and still could,
Had I not filed my mind, which thus itself subdued.

As with last year, I thought I would give you a list of what I think are the best posts I have made over the past year. The exception is "The Blonde Mystique." I do think it is one of the best posts I've ever written, but technically it belongs to the first year of publishing A Shroud of Thoughts. That having been said, I made it right before the first anniversary of the blog and didn't include it in last year's "Greatest Hits" for that reason. Anyhow, here are the best posts of the past year (and one week, counting "The Blonde Mystique," I guess) in chronological order:

The Blonde Mystique

A Night at the Movies

Simon and Garfunkel

The Rise and Fall of the Independent Televison Station

Words From Pop Culture

Les Belles Dames Sans Merci: Elf Maidens and Men

From the Small Screen to the Big Screen

The Fleischer Superman Cartoons

Blondie Turns 75

Forty Years of The Wild Wild West

The Name Game

Dracula on Film

Roald Dahl's Critics

Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade Balloons

Days in a Life: John Lennon Remembered

The Week of December 18, 2005 (one of my better weeks this past year)

The Nostalgia Wave of the Seventies

The Week of January 8, 2006 (another good week)

The History of Heavy Metal (all five parts and another entry thrown in for good measure)

Vikings on Film

Mary Ann Versus Ginger

The Week of February 26 ("The Dramatic Roles of Gene Kelly," "Great Expectations," and eulogies for three of my favourite actors)

The Music of the Monkees

Star Wars

The Harry Potter Movies

Kellogs' 100th Anniversary

Men and Musicals

And Now a Word From Our Sponsor...

Anyhow, I think I've done fairly well with this blog over the past year. I hope to do better in this next year. And I hope this coming year is even happier than the past one!