Month: March 2016

Book Review – The Dollmaker by Harriette Arnow

The last several years have seen remarkable changes to the American way of life. In a period of “unprecedented” economic uncertainty many long for the halcyon days following the Second World War. At the time America witnessed the largest economic expansion in world history. The US produced more than half of all manufactured goods on the planet. While I can sympathize with those who pine for these idyllic days of our nation’s past, I wondered what the people who lived through it felt about the time. Lucky for me, I discovered a “voice from the era” in the form of Harriette Arnow’s classic 1954 novel The Dollmaker.

The time period from the Second World War through its immediate aftermath was anything but idyllic in this fictionalized account of 1940s Detroit. The novel described capitalism run amok, the financial struggle to raise a family and a society riddled with a blatant hatred of foreigners. Sound familiar?

The novel traced the journey of Gertie Nevels from her Kentucky farm to wartime Detroit. Due to a labor shortage her husband got recruited to work in a Detroit factory. Gertie transitioned from a woman who helped support her family by raising and selling goods on their farm to a person struggling to survive in an environment totally alien to her.  While all of these elements made for a compelling story, I didn’t care for The Dollmaker. For me the clichés, melodrama and merciless assaults on capitalism made for an excruciating read.

This novel brought to mind the “myth of the yeoman farmer” elucidated so eloquently by Richard Hofstadter in The Age of Reform. He described how numerous politicians during the Progressive Era picked up on the idea of the “yeoman farmer” expressed by Thomas Jefferson. I’m paraphrasing, but Hofstadter wrote something to the effect that the poorest subsistence farmers in the country could take solace in the fact that America’s wealthiest continually talked about how people should envy them.

It’s ludicrous to describe farm life as Edenesque. It entails arduous labor from daybreak until sunset. One always has to fear poor weather and bad harvests. So for Ms. Arnow to portray an agrarian lifestyle as exponentially superior to working in industry is naïve. She correctly pointed out in the book that union politics, greedy business owners and “changeovers” in the economy can make manufacturing employment somewhat tenuous. Still, it does have advantages over farm life. For example: the promise of a paycheck for time worked. It also provides opportunities for more money in the form of overtime. Gertie’s husband, Clovis, took in a good deal of the latter during the course of the story. Because of this, I would’ve appreciated more balance in the narrative.

Gertie’s and her children’s culture shock with life in the city served as one of the themes of the book. Instances where the family struggled to hold on to its roots abounded. A touching one took place when her daughter, Clytie, instructed her brother to stop saying ‘hoped’ for ‘heped’. (Page 324) In other cases I found it silly. After one of her children’s teachers conferred with Gertie to discuss his inability to ‘adjust’ she reacted as follows:

Gertie cracked a knuckle joint. “You mean that when they’re through here they could—if they went to Germany—start gitten along with Hitler, er if they went to—Russia, they’d get along there, they’d act like th Russians an be”—Mr. Daly’s word was slow in coming—“communists…” (Page 335)

It’s a real stretch to compare living under totalitarianism to adjusting to life in Detroit.

The author also used the book as a platform to critique capitalism. Some were subtle, others not so much. Here’s a good example of the former:

She could raise bushels of sweet potatoes, fatten a pig, kill it, and make good sausage meat, but she didn’t know how to buy. (Page 350)

There’s no question that capitalism has flaws. With that acknowledgement it’s done more to raise the standard of living and lift more people out of poverty than any other economic system. While I defend the author’s right to disparage its deficiencies, most of her negative observations centered on corruption or unscrupulous business practices. (i.e. Kickbacks, selling bad fruit, and overcharging.) These things represent the abuse of capitalism; not a tenet of it. That’s a big difference. Ms. Arnow failed to make this distinction.

I’m sure some readers would enjoy The Dollmaker. The portrayal of a woman’s effort to hold her family together in uncomfortable surroundings during challenging times will, no doubt, resonate with many. The political views expressed lacked a full understanding of how they corresponded to the real world. Next I’m going to read an Ayn Rand novel to get the same experience from the other side of the political spectrum.


In Memoriam – Keith Emerson

“From the beginning” it seemed as though “The Three Fates” predestined Keith Emerson to be an “iconoclast”. “The hand of truth” deemed that Mr. Emerson would become a veritable “tiger in a spotlight”. He approached the keyboards like Jimi Hendrix played the guitar: tilting and contorting the instrument and performing “the miracle” of melding feedback into a melody. Other keyboardists had to “step aside” after he entered the music scene. Emerson, Lake and Palmer’s sheet music became like “paper blood”. While I never possessed the skill to play Mr. Emerson’s compositions, I’m a “lucky man” for having had the opportunity to listen to them. I have immense admiration for the composer.

Keith Emerson passed away at the age of 71 this past March 10th. I send my deepest condolences to his friends and family during this difficult time. I didn’t have the pleasure of knowing him personally. As with any artist I feel like I got to know him a bit through his work.

I first encountered his music in the early 1980’s. Synthesizer driven ditties were ubiquitous staples of pop radio. Based on what I heard over the airwaves I figured the instrument rather facile to master. As I matured musically and began exploring Progressive Rock, Mr. Emerson proved me wrong. He approached the instrument as a substitute for an entire orchestra on covers of “Fanfare for the Common Man“, “Mars, The Bringer of War” and “The Barbarian”. In fact, I first heard a rock group play with an orchestra on ELP’s 1979 release In Concert. The Third Movement from Mr. Emerson’s “Piano Concerto Number 1” inspired me to learn more about Classical Music.

Not that Mr. Emerson’s capabilities were limited to that one genre. Had he so chosen, he would’ve made an outstanding Jazz Pianist. His playing on tunes such as “Step Aside” and “Show Me the Way to Go Home” exhibited his range with the instrument. One should also include his proficiency with ragtime playing, as well. He delivered a fine rendition of Scott Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag” on ELP Works Volume Two. With the aid of a synthesizer he even covered Blues legend Freddie King’s “Hideaway”; a tune Eric Clapton also recorded.

In addition, the man had a fantastic ear for pop music. I can still recall the days in 1986 when Emerson, Lake and Powell’s “Touch and Go” received continuous play on MTV as well as the radio. His playing on “Karn Evil 9 First Impression, Part Two” served as a unique melding of classical and pop music. Of course, his addition of the modest synthesizer solo at the end of “Lucky Man” gave that track a unique character.

While not known as a balladeer, Mr. Emerson wrote the music for some of my favorites. “Farewell to Arms” from 1992’s Black Moon earned a special place in the band’s catalogue for its message. 1986’s “Lay Down Your Guns” featured the most intricate musical arrangement I’ve ever heard on a song about a troubled romance.

Musicians such as Mr. Emerson convinced me that the keyboards were too challenging for someone of my limited abilities. After trying to learn the instrument for years, to the relief of friends, family and neighbors, I gave up in favor of the bass guitar. The man even intimidated me at that! The bass line he played on his Moog during the “Battlefield” section of “Tarkus” on the live 1974 album would’ve given Bach a run for his money. The fact he managed to do this with one hand while playing the chord progression on an organ with the other made this achievement even more remarkable.

In addition to these outstanding attributes of Mr. Emerson’s abilities, he truly excelled as an arranger. The way he coordinated all the parts to “Pirates” made that song one of the best ever recorded. I liked how the orchestra, the band and the melody all worked together in such a way that didn’t clutter the mix. While a great accomplishment, he reached his true apex on 1994’s In the Hot Seat. On that album he directed an arrangement of Bob Dylan’s “The Man in the Long Black Coat”. (Yes, you read that correctly. Even ELP covered Bob Dylan’s music.) While ELP played numerous classical pieces, I always felt this one their best non-original recording.

I did have one issue with Mr. Emerson. On the cover of 1979’s Love Beach he showed off his washboard abs. The man was a classically trained rock musician who spent a lot of time on the road. The fact he managed to keep himself in that kind of shape took away any excuse I had for letting myself go when I worked as a performing musician.

The next time I hear Greg Lake utter the iconic line, “welcome back my friends to the show that never ends” I’ll feel a tinge of sadness. Perhaps Mr. Lake said it best in the lyrics he wrote appropriately enough for “The End” section of “Pictures at an Exhibition.”

There’s no end to my life

No beginning to my death

Death is life.

C’est la vie.