My latest Newsbud video looks at signals from Secretary of Defense Mattis’ trip to Asia and what it means for the South China Sea, East China Sea, and North Korea flashpoints.
For now, Trump Asia policy looks pretty mainstream.
One point I make in the piece is that Trump isn’t necessarily eschewing bloody American military mischief; he’s just keeping its focus on the Middle East, rejecting the Obama promise to “pivot” militarily out of the Middle East and into Asia.
And it looks like he’s decided that the politically most advantageous US security play is 1) anti-radical Islam (pleases his base) and 2) anti-Iran (pleases Saudi Arabia and Israel and freezes the Democrats).
What seems to be on the horizon is a “whack Iran” anti- radical Islam strategy that avoids tussling with Saudi Arabia and the other GCC countries, and will fund and enable and empower Sunni militants in the Iran side of the patch even as JSOC tries to whack Sunni militants elsewhere in the Middle East.
I don’t think that is going to solve the radical Islam problem, but I guess that’s not the point of this geopolitical and political exercise.
Anti-Iran strategy inevitably raises the China sanctions conundrum and Trump and China will both be walking a tightrope when the Iran situation heats up.
Watch my piece for an interesting discussion on the MEK Iranian emigre group as, it seems to me, a stalking horse for KSA and Israeli agitation to derail the Iran agreement.
The MEK has lavishly rewarded US political and military figures across the political spectrum, and I wonder if their largess—and the willingness of US political figures to affiliate themselves with a rather fringe group—is related to Saudi and/or Israeli sponsorship.
US supporters of the MEK who wrote a public letter to Trump urging renegotiating the Iran deal includee General James Jones (previously Marine Corps commandant and National Security Advisory), Robert Joseph (the neocons’ neocon), two ex-governors of Pennsylvania (Rendell and Ridge), Joseph Liebermann (Israel’s reliable defender in Congress), Louis Freeh (ex-FBI director), Michael Mukasey (ex-Attorney General), and so on.
Given the support that Iran can muster from Europe, Russia, and China, it seems unlikely that Trump will take a military swing directly at Iran. And I think Trump, who had the good sense to avoid a land war in Asia in his youth and has excoriated the US blunder into Iraq, is less than interested in trying to take down Iran with a military attack right now.
That means more bad times for Yemen, I think, as a weak and vulnerable opponent for an American president looking to make a geopolitical statement–and pump up his Commander in Chief credential.
Yemen is a war crime that should be shut down, in my opinion.
But it doesn’t look like it will happen.
The extent to which Yemen’s Houthis are now characterized as Iranian proxies, not just by the White House team but also by the Beltway security establishment, is a sorry sign that the US will probably continue to enable and abet Saudi Arabia’s brutal and futile Yemen war, perhaps as a placeholder and justification for more direct anti-Iran military action later.
(Reprinted from China Matters by permission of author or representative)
Afghanistan, as a crossroads of empire and a key stage in the Silk Road, is dotted with important archaeological sites that go back 5000 years and can provide insights into the evolution of civilizations across Asia and, in fact, civilization itself.
Most of these sites are beyond the reach of the Afghan government’s woefully underfunded archaeology department, and within the grasp of the Taliban and other banditti, who either destroy or loot and sell the precious pre-Islamic artifacts depending on their iconoclastic or economic priorities.
Fortunately, an important Afghan archaeological site, Mes Aynak, resides within a compound defended by 1500 Afghan troops and administered by a prosperous and capable international entity.
Unfortunately, Mes Aynak also sits on one of the world’s largest copper deposits, one that the Afghan government has leased for 30 years in a contract with two major Chinese transnational companies, the Metallurgical Corporation of China (MCC) and Jiangxi Copper.
Development of the open-pit mine means that sooner or later the archaeological site at Mes Aynak will disappear into the maw of MCC’s bulldozers and buckets.
A film by a Northwestern University professor and documentarian, Brent Huffman, “Saving Mes Aynak” has gone a long way into alerting international opinion as to the urgency and importance of preserving the site. It’s available for streaming at Netflix. The link is here.
Unfortunately, saving Mes Aynak appears to be a daunting task, one that involves taking on the Afghan government and even the United States, as well as China.
The Mes Aynak copper bonanza is seen by the Afghan government as a vital source of revenue. Per the announced contract, the Chinese side will pay a bonus of over half a billion dollars when the mine commences commercial operations, a big chunk considering Afghanistan’s total GDP is only $7 billion. The United States sees income from the mine as an important step in weaning the Afghan government off its reliance on foreign aid (like Southern Sudan, the Kabul government is a foreign-aid state, with 72% of its budget coming from overseas sources).
The Afghan government is unambiguously eager to see construction at the mine begin. It appears the collection of several hundred photogenic artifacts that survived the looters (the site was discovered in the 1960s and only secured in 2008 when the Chinese perimeter went up) for preservation and display at the national museum has exhausted the government’s interest in Mes Aynak’s archaeological angle.
The United States government, which provided a million dollars of military funding for the archaeology work, now also maintains a studied indifference to Mes Aynak. Brent Huffman told me he contacted the US embassy in Kabul repeatedly for interviews, but was rebuffed.
The Chinese are usually cast as the heavies in these sorts of scenarios and saving Mes Aynak from destruction “by a Chinese copper mining company chasing corporate profits” is the hook for the Indiegogo fundraising campaign. MCC and Jiangxi Copper also receive a certain amount of stick in Huffman’s documentary as corrupt, indifferent, and not too good at running a copper mine, which occasioned some resentful pushback in Global Times.
However, the Chinese seem to be the ones dragging their feet on digging up the site.
China’s reticence about ripping up Mes Aynak perhaps has less to do with its love of archaeology than the fact that the copper project is more of a geostrategic placeholder for PRC rather than an economic opportunity. Copper prices have collapsed since the deal was signed in 2007, and spending hundreds of millions of dollars to transform Mes Aynak from a windswept waste into a world class industrial and export center is probably not the highest priority for MCC and Jiangxi Copper.
Add to the practical difficulties of the site the fact that the area, although only forty kilometers outside of Kabul, is controlled by the Taliban. Recently the Taliban, much to the resentment of the Afghan government and, perhaps, in response to some financial outreach from China, announced they would “protect” Mas Aynak instead of shelling it and occasionally murdering people on the road leading to the site. Huffman views the Taliban statement as an ominous sign that a significant obstacle to active development of the mine by MCC has been removed.
The Chinese government, as opposed to MCC and Jiangxi, can regard Mes Aynak primarily as control over an economic lifeline of the Afghan government—and a pre-emptive move blocking other interested parties, like the United States and India—that provides effective leverage for China in Afghanistan and reach in Central Asia, a region seen as key to the PRC’s national security.
The PRC allegedly paid a $30 million bribe to Afghan officials to secure the concession and dribbles out “signing bonuses” progress payments, so the lease agreement remains valid—and the expectation of a $500 million payday at the start of commercial operation, realistic or not, might be enough to keep the Afghan government on the hook even as the deal drags on. At the same time, China is demanding a renegotiation of royalty terms and faults the overwhelmed Afghan government for failure to execute its population relocation, infrastructure, landmine removal, and matching resource commitments.
It is a point of interest whether MCC resents the furor over the archaeological site, or welcomes it as another excuse to let the project and renegotiations drag on to the frustration of an increasingly anxious Afghan government.
So Mes Aynak sits there, with a contingent of MCC engineers residing and working or not working in neatly built blue and white portable structures.
The construction hiatus should provide a golden opportunity for archaeologists to excavate and document the site but it isn’t happening.
For Afghan archaeologists, their work at Mes Aynak is hampered by government disinterest, lack of funding, and mortal peril from the Taliban. As Huffman’s film documents, the World Bank, for whom Mes Aynak is a key Afghan project, allocated millions of dollars for archaeological work, but virtually none of that money has found its way into the hands of the people actually doing the work.
Archaeological work started in 2010, was supposed to be finished by 2013, wasn’t, and limps along amid widespread indifference by the copper-centric interests. In 2013, the Afghan government claimed 75% of the excavation work was complete, which doesn’t quite jibe with the estimate in Huffman’s film that 90% of the site remained to be excavated as of 2014.
Today, only a skeleton crew works Mes Aynak when the weather permits.
It seems rather absurd that this well-protected, accessible, and important site should not be the object of intensive archaeological efforts. And based on his information from Afghanistan, Huffman tells me he fears that the archaeological site is at imminent risk of destruction now that the Taliban has shifted from threatening the copper project to—supposedly—protecting it and MCC may have sufficient incentive to proceed with demolition.
Beyond the various actors pushing for rapid development of the mine, Huffman speculates that the usual suspects in international art and archaeological preservation work—like the Getty Trust, which has made preservation and even duplication of another key Silk Road site, the Dunhuang caves in western China, a showcase for its conservation efforts—shy away from Mes Aynak to avoid offending the PRC.
Huffman asks interested parties to petition the Afghan government to declare Mes Aynak a protected site. He also urges support for the Afghan government’s beleaguered Department of Archaeology, now run by Qadir Temori, the young man who serves as a focus for Huffman’s documentary, with the unfortunate caveat that any financial or material assistance that isn’t hand-carried to Kabul by Huffman will probably vanish.
The “Get Involved” page at the Saving Mes Aynak website offers several suggestions and opportunities to participate in the effort to preserve the site. There is also a contact form on the site for anyone seeking to contact Huffman and his team.
Let’s hope the world will get to see more wonders and knowledge emerge from Mes Aynak, not just copper.
(Reprinted from China Matters by permission of author or representative)
Over the last month, I’ve been busy making videos for Newsbud, the indie news outfit run by Sibel Edmonds. Don’t be a free media leech! Go to newsbud.com, view my stuff, retweet it, and pay a few bucks and become a member!
My most recent Newsbud video keyed off the CCTV New Year’s Gala to make some points about CCP ideology and strategy. Watch it! Don’t make me ask again!
As a reward for watching the video and reading this post, at the end I explain the mysterious reference to “the dragon”.*
The gala’s musical numbers are BigBIGBIG! With the exception of the feed from the Shanghai satellite which, quite frankly, was kinda lame. The centerpiece attraction for the Shanghai number was a reprise of the Ringling Brothers warhorse EIGHT MOTORCYCLISTS IN THE GLOBE OF DEATH!!
On the other hand, now that Ringling—a destination for dozens of Chinese acts over the decades—has shut down, I hope circus performers, not just Chinese but also foreigners—like the Ukrainian contortionist who popped up in the last hour of the telecast—will find rewarding employment at the Chinese New Year’s gala.
But I wondered if Jiang Zemin’s Shanghai gang wasn’t interested in putting its shoulder to the wheel bigly for Xi Jinping’s propaganda/softpower jamboree.
No such reticence at the satellite venue at Liangshan, in Sichuan, home of the PRC launch site at Xichang where those Chinese rockets go up and sometimes, unfortunately come down, with horrific consequences. (Interestingly, now the PRC considers Hainan secure enough to move its main geosynchronous launch operations down there and Xichang is shifting into a backup role).
I must say I had my kneesocks knocked off by this number. You might want to put this on the big screen TV and crank it. Full screen on the PC at the very least. Or, if you’re watching on a phone, put your eye real close, I guess.
Quite a few interesting matters illustrated by this video other than its over-the-top awesomeness.
First off, it showcases nationalities, specifically the Yi nationality of the Liangshan Autonomous Prefecture. As I point out in the video, a theme of the gala was the synergies between national harmony, strength, and prosperity, not a terribly unwelcome message as the United States descends into rancor and polarization that brings to mind the Cultural Revolution. As I see it, the message of the gala was that the best future for minorities lies in whole-hearted integration with big/strong/rich Mother China, and Hong Kong and Macau and Taiwan should weigh the advantages pursuing that same path instead of independence/autonomy/impotent resentful grumbling/whatnot.
Second, the singer, Jike Junyi. She’s ethnic Yi from Liangshan. It was not just a question of local girl makes good and gets to perform in a titanic musical spectacle in her home town that gets beamed to a global audience of close to one billion.
She’s a major pop star in China, not just because she has a good set of pipes, but she’s being groomed for the cross-cultural icon/diva role by China’s Mandopop industry.
I will confess, I didn’t know Mandopop was a thing until I started reading up on Jike Junyi, but apparently the corporate and cultural powers that be have decided that the PRC cannot rely on South Korean boybands and potentially subversive Hong Kong Cantopop to besot the nation’s youth.
By now there is a well-oiled international machine the devoted to the discovery, grooming, and promotion of global pop stars, exemplified by South Korea’s SM Entertainment musical agency (and profiled in John Seabrook’s book The Song Machine). In female diva-dom, the process is well represented by Rihanna, who couldn’t sing very well but blew them away at her audition with her devastatingly chic turnout (which she had spent half the night agonizing over) and regal demeanor.
Jike Junyi’s breakthrough moment came on The Voice of China, which is basically The Voice in China, a competitive audience-vote-driven talent show.
The song that won the audience’s heart was Jike Junyi’s rendition of a plaintive Yi folksong paired with…paired with…well, I’ll just show you:
Jike Junyi didn’t win the overall competition, placing third, but she did establish a strong, winning presence and a good look that, I’m guessing, like Rihanna’s, could serve as raw material for the diva machine. Interestingly, she wasn’t even the only Yi singer in the competition. Alu Azhuo, a successful Yi ethnicity singer who was more of an ingénue type, did well, but not as well as Jike Junyi.
Maybe a bakeoff to find a minority popstar was going on, and Jike Junyi was perceived as the coolsexysassy type who could wear the diva mantle…and also, interestingly, checked the “dusky” box for, not so much for minority exoticism as her ability to bestow cool transnational/transracial cred on her largely Han audience.
She is now in the hands of TH Entertainment and has the full retinue of career managers, songwriters, producers, stylists, and whatnot tasked with giving a diva’s career escape velocity.
Her tanned skin color and passionate personality also made her a favorite of the fashion industry. She was featured on the cover of the Chinese edition of Vogue magazine soon after she won third place in The Voice of China.
Lucia Liu, one of China’s most prominent fashion stylists, who is the style director of Harper’s Bazaar China, has been working closely with Jike after she signed on with TH Entertainment in early 2013. Liu will also design the costumes for Jike’s upcoming concert, which, as she describes, will be eye-catching and cutting-edge.
“I am quite inspired by her skin color, which balances the clothes I chose for her,” says Liu, who works between Beijing and London. “We are also good friends. She really likes eating hotpot.”
In one of her hits, Colorful Black, Jike sings, “I have dark skin, an intuitive soul and I stick to my color. It doesn’t matter how you look at me. You will see my colorful black.”
“I used to hate my skin color,” giggles Jike, who, like many Chinese young women, was obsessed with white skin tone. She bought lots of whitening toners, but all failed to work.
“Now, I love my skin color because it makes me special. I guess that is my natural gift, like singing,” she says.
Her aspirations to post-racial vanguard status were announced by the adoption of an English-language handle, “Summer” and a trip to Los Angeles to record a duet paired with…paired with…well, I’ll just have to show you.
This video is, by the way, a G thing not as in G for gangsta, but G for General Audiences. There are obviously still limits to the lengths PRC popstars will go in their quest for global R&B cred.
The next what the actual f*ck moment in Jike Junyi’s career was appearance in a Western-Chinese movie coproduction entitled Outcast in which her role was, in the immortal words of her publicity machine, “starring as the dumb wife of Hollywood star Nicolas Cage”.
Ahem. “Mute” wife, please.
Outcast was an early (2014) entry in the burgeoning “Western medieval warrior transplanted to China” genre (no, seriously, that’s also the premise of that The Great Wall movie with Matt Damon you’ve been seeing all the posters for). In the movie, the bad guys cutting out the tongue of Jike Junyi’s character (mercifully a pre-existing condition, not an action beat, perhaps to spare Jike the burden of wrestling with English dialogue) serves as fuel for Cage’s intense feelings of grievance.
You can see the movie now on Netflix. It was absolutely flayed by critics but whatever. Mysteriously, the movie missed out on the big China payday it was undoubtedly banking on as suddenly, literally days before it was going to open in 5000 Chinese theaters, the PRC government yanked it without explanation. Maybe the Chinese government said, What?! You put her in the movie and she’s not singing? Get outta here!
In any case, Jike Junyi got the prize job of singing the theme song for the mainland Mandarin language release of the Disney animated feature Moana. I feel pretty confident the Chinese government won’t yank that one.
Moving beyond Mandopop, let’s dig into that song that Jike Junyi belted out at the gala.
It’s a fifty year old chestnut, 情深谊长，which can be translated as Deep Love and Eternal Friendship or, more simply, Friendship. The song was popularized by the dance opera The East is Red, which presented the official history of the victory of the Chinese Communist Party to Chinese audiences, first as a song/dance/drama stage extravaganza, and then as a legendary film released in 1964.
Friendship commemorates a key episode in the Long March when Liu Bocheng, on behalf of the Communist forces, shared chicken blood in a ritual with an Yi chief to form a bond of blood brotherhood and obtain safe passage through Yi lands. The chorus, “The Red Army are our brothers” pretty much says it all. You can see why the song would be a slam dunk for Jike Junyi at the 2017 gala.
Here’s how the song originally appeared in the movie, as sung by Deng Yuhua (who interestingly continues the ethnic theme by being, if not Yi, Manchu):
I apologize for the quality. Criterion ought to do a restoration/rerelease number on this one.
The East is Red is fondly remembered as a piece of idealistic kitsch from the pre-Cultural Revolution days that gave China the title song as its de facto anthem during the Mao years and provided the soundtrack for the lives of a generation of PRC citizens. When I first came to Beijing, the PTT clock tower on Changan Jie still tolled the hours using the melody. Ah, memories!
Unfortunately, The East is Red was also a key step in the establishment of the Mao Zedong personality cult and, when viewed in retrospect, a disturbing harbinger of the impending Cultural Revolution.
The title song, The East is Red, was written in the 1940s. Mao loved it, for obvious reasons:
The east is red, the sun is rising.
From China comes Mao Zedong.
He strives for the people’s happiness,
Hurrah, he is the people’s great saviour!
And so on. There’s a video of the movie version lower down in the post. It looks and sounds much worse on film than it does on paper.
Greenlighting a stage extravaganza titled The East Is Red wasn’t the case of the Chinese Communist Party, by an act of unanimous acclamation, giving a grateful shout-out to the guy who kicked Chiang Kai-shek’s ass and handed China to the CCP.
In the 1950s, General Peng Dehuai had refused to permit the singing of The East is Red in the PLA as too cultish, which no doubt contributed to Mao’s feeling that Peng was “China’s Khrushchev” angling to tear down “China’s Stalin”.
So the decision to commemorate the 15th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China with a big big show titled The East is Red was a big political statement, more like Mao throwing down the gauntlet.
And Mao’s gauntlet-wrangler in chief was none other than Zhou Enlai.
I am deeply, heck, exclusively indebted in the following discussion to an article by Hon-Lun Yang, Unravelling The East Is Red (1964): Socialist Music and Politics in the People’s Republic of China. The article appears in a collection Composing for the State: Music in Twentieth Century Dictatorships (Esteban Buch, Igor Contreras Zubillaga, Manuel Deniz Silva, Routledge, 2016). Yang draws on some reminiscences by participants in the stage and film production recently published in China.
Yang traces the roots of TEIR back to North Korea. Apparently, cast of thousands Arirang style spectaculars were already a fixture in the DPRK in 1960 (interesting point in the China/Korea cultural parity debate, no?); a Chinese Air Force general was suitably impressed by a 3000-person performance in North Korea and came back and mounted a similar effort in China, which subsequently morphed into a Party-centric (as opposed to Mao-centric) effort in Shanghai.
Zhou grabbed the Shanghai show, Under the Banner, and directed its Mao-ization as The East Is Red in a two-month crash program.
[S]everal participants claimed that Zhou’s ideological guidance was a crucial factor in the creative process, and that his instructions saved them the trouble of deciding what the ‘correct’ political stance was and what details of the history of the CCP to include.
For one thing, the Nanchang Uprising (which marked the first significant action of the PLA after the split with the KMT and whose anniversary, August 1, is commemorated as Army Day in the PRC) was downplayed since Mao wasn’t there (and Zhou Enlai was! Smart career/survival move, Zhou, to avoid upstaging Mao!); instead, Mao’s Autumn Harvest Uprising, a rather half-assed exercise that took place a few weeks later, was pumped up in the narrative.
Further, Zhou directed that major play be given to the Zunyi Conference, whose dramatic attributes were pretty limited (guys sitting around in chairs) and subject matter kind of fraught (internal Party strife) but marked the key inflection point in revolutionary history, at least for Mao, as he faced down his opponents and seized direction of the CCP.
Zhou was…reported to have insisted the Zunyi Conference on stage despite the initial doubts of some members of the artistic team…In the end, the image of the conference site was projected on the screen, the meeting was represented with a dance, and its meaning explained by means of a recitation.
Zhou didn’t stop with micromanaging the scenario. He also paid close attention to the staging, directing modifications to the auditorium to accommodate a massive 1000-voice choir, getting carpets installed on stage for the acrobats, handling personnel matters, and attending numerous rehearsals. Zhou also was involved in meetings related to the movie version.
Zhou was apparently universally revered by the talent putting on TEIR, and Yang credits Zhou with using the show to showcase, legitimize, and thereby shield artists and artistic concepts from attack by the culture warriors constellated around Jiang Qing. Having Western-instrument and Chinese-instrument sections in the orchestra pit is presented as an example of Zhou’s solicitude.
For posterity–and in the eyes of the Party leadership at the time–I doubt that was the message received.
Consider the reaction of Party members—many of whom felt a deep sympathy with Peng Dehuai’s criticism of Mao’s excesses, including his disastrous pursuit of the Great Leap Forward, and were finally seeing some daylight after years of struggling with the crisis Mao had dumped on them—to take their seats in the concert hall to be confronted with a 1000-person choir and musical troupe roaring out song after song in one-sided praise of Mao Zedong. Then consider the jamboree had been personally staged by party elder and premier political weathervane Zhou Enlai to lay down the popular and cultural line concerning the unique and unassailable stature of Chairman Mao.
The Nuremberg-rallyesque overkill is well captured in the movie’s opening. There’s a couple minutes of framing/overture, so you can pretend you’re going into the Great Hall of the People just like a citizen of Beijing in 1964 to catch this mind-blowing perf! Be patient: the song The East Is Red starts at about the 2:15 mark and it’s worth waiting for.
Since the subtitles cut out toward the end of the song, if you’re keeping score it’s one verse praising the CCP, three extolling Mao, including the big finish about Chairman Mao being the people’s savior that I quoted above.
Then consider passages like the dramatic narrative of the Zunyi Conference, describing how Mao took down internal doubters and enemies inside the Party:
Revolution marches on victoriously. The red base areas flourish. But opportunists lead the revolution down the wrong path. Once again, the cause of the people is endangered. In this critical moment, the Zunyi Conference, like the red sun disperses the heavy fog. Mao Zedong, our great helmsman, puts the ship on the right course.
The Zunyi sequence comes in at the 41:00 mark.
It doesn’t get much more cult-of-personality-ish than the end of the Zunyi sequence, when the fourth wall is broken and an image of Mao on an immense red flag becomes an object of universal veneration by the actors on stage, the audience in the theater, and the viewers in the cinema.
Clever move by Wang Ping, a stage actress turned revolutionary turned one of the era’s most accomplished film directors.
And those pictures of evil landlords getting led off-stage in dunce caps for a taste of revolutionary justice…
If I was a Party member not in favor with Mao, after the Zunyi sequence I’d be, you know, packing my toothbrush…
The song The East is Red doesn’t appear too often in China today since it is an utterly unapologetic Maoist artifact.
Friendship is, by comparison, ubiquitous. Maybe because the song—which was composed in 1962 by Zang Dongsheng for a military revue in Shandong and was pulled in during a TEIR brainstorming session wrestling with a shortage of musical material covering the Long March—celebrates the achievement of Deng Xiaoping’s close associate Liu Bocheng, and not Mao.
But also, I suspect, as Jike Jinyu’s performance indicates, it’s a kick-ass song. Deng Yuhua, who sang it in the movie, had a big hit reprising Friendship in 1995; and it’s been reworked as a highbrow chamber piece and accompaniment to modern dance.
Even when it’s redone as the ultimate power ballad, Friendship still has echoes of the terror and wonder of the Chinese revolution when it was still just a 15-year old teenager.
*The producers didn’t think much of my proposed video cue for the sequence, which would have run out the previous number to its conclusion: a cheesy CGI dragon flying into the frame, then my oh so clever comment. Too laggy! Well, talent proposes, editor disposes. That’s how it goes!
(Reprinted from China Matters by permission of author or representative)
I’m doing some video and text work for Sibel Edmond’s Newsbud. Visit the site and support them. Please! And read my article about the TPP and NAFTA ! The TPP Is Now Deader Than Ever Thanks to Trump. Double please! Recommend it to your friends!
We’re now in the “Murrow moment” phase of liberal journalism i.e. journos thirsting to take down Trump, you know, just like Ed Murrow took down big bad Joe McCarthy back in the day.
There is a certain desperate energy to do a Murrow moment on Trump. Now that Trump got elected, it seems the #NeverTrump media is kicking itself for not doing more to turn the juicy but dubious Steele dossier on Trump’s Russia links into a pre-election firestorm.
Time to make amends! And make up for the lost time!
The strategy pretty much boils down to Accentuate the negative / Eliminate the positive / Don’t mess with Mister In-Between all day every day.
Warning: Winning the news cycle against Trump each and every day may cause some regrettable slippage in journo standards.
Like making a complete hash out of the history of NAFTA in order to employ it as a Trump-bashing weapon. That’s what I cover in my Newsbud piece on Trump and TPP, and journos getting history on rewrite to whitewash the political and economic catastrophes NAFTA inflicted on Mexico in the 1990s.
I’m a fan of leaks and investigative journalism. I’m not a fan of skewed reporting designed to take down a public figure, a.k.a. advocacy journalism an exercise which, when not conducted by the parfait knights of the American Fourth Estate is known as agitprop/infowar/*gulp* fake news. Or ratf*cking.
I’ve lived long enough to fart through silk by Mencius’ standard, and I’ve seen enough ratf*cking to be skeptical of the process by which journos demagogue a demagogue. Didn’t see McCarthy, but I saw Nixon. And Khomeini and Gaddafi and Saddam and Kim Jong Il and Kim Jong Un and Putin and Assad and Chavez and, of course, Trump.
“Burn the witch!” reporting seems better suited to generating moral panics and stampeding public opinion toward a pre-ordained outcome, rather than generating that reasoned focus and debate that, you know, might keep us out of a trillion dollar war in Iraq.
My skepticism is also grounded on the backstory behind the original “Murrow moment”. The takedown of McCarthy is celebrated as the ultimate journo righteous kill—and the model and justification for subsequent exercises in advocacy journalism– but it wasn’t quite a clean hit.
Long story short, journos did not speak truth to power in 1954; they piped agitprop to the people on behalf of a systematic campaign to 86 McCarthy orchestrated by President Eisenhower.
If your preferred method for studying history is George Clooney movies, you might find something new here.
The ethical issues involved in overtly going after a pol with one-sided reporting because he was “a threat to the republic” did receive an airing at the time of the Murrow telecast.
Fred Friendly, Murrow’s associate, was quite frank about the fact that to get McCarthy, they needed to do a hit piece on him, as described in this excerpt from Friendlyvision: Fred Friendly and the Rise and Fall of Television Journalism by Ralph Engelman (Columbia University Press, 2011). Friendly is not at all frank about the key role Eisenhower played in the campaign against McCarthy, perhaps out of solicitude to Ike, who became a significant CBS news partner after leaving the presidency. Ah, journoism!:
“A Report on Senator Joseph R. McCarthy” is a sophisticated hybrid of two genres: objective reportage and public argument. The opening suggest the conventions of journalistic objectivity…Murrow “trails the Senator like a Greek chorus”…linking and interpreting the sequences…Visual clues reinforce the underlying message…In a departure from normal documentary technique, the camera lingers beyond the conventional edit at the end of the statement to reveal awkward or unsavory imagery…some commentators…criticized the program as a dangerous precedent for the use of the powerful visual medium of television for advocacy journalism…Friendly did not dispute the one-sidedness of the program, recalling that he and Murrow were aware that they had “crossed the line into editorial comment”…Reflecting upon the McCarthy program two decades later, Friendly characterized it as an exception to the general rule that broadcast journalists should avoid taking sides. Under extraordinary extenuating circumstances, “where the future of the republic is involved,” an exception can and should be made…Friendly argued that See It Now could legitimately present for public consideration a critique of a senator who had skillfully used for his own ends a press—print and electronic—that reflexively reported his charges without routinely examining their veracity:
And in the final analysis, what if we hadn’t done the broadcast? And supposing McCarthy had triumphed, as he might well have, then where would…those who criticized the broadcast be?…I think we were balancing how what we knew how to do well against what he did superbly well, which is to be a demagogue. And I’m sorry we had to do it that way. But it was the challenge of a lifetime, a desperate moment for the country, and not to have used it because of a series of rules that we would apply to ourselves and that Senator McCarthy would abuse to the ultimate would have made history judge us very harshly.
The legendary See It Now episode is embedded in my 2015 McCarthy/Trump post, so viewers can judge for themselves.
Subsequently, according to Engelman, CBS jefe Bill Paley sidestepped the whole advocacy issue by saying the news programs don’t editorialize but feature or documentary programs did and in those cases CBS delegated responsibility for content and opinon to those “in whose integrity and devotion to democratic principles CBS reposes complete confidence…” and who are “bound by the overriding policies of fairness and balance”.
So you can see where this is heading. The criteria is “where the future of the republic is involved” and the decisionmakers are journos with “integrity and devotion to democratic principles” and “bound by the overriding policies of fairness and balance”.
Who will police the journos blah blah blah. Especially now that Eisenhower’s dead and can’t share his moral compass.
I imagine there are whole courses at J-schools to teach aspiring journos how to recognize the magic moment when it’s time to engage in a righteous ratf*cking of a dangerous pol. Maybe in the case of Trump critical mass was reached when angry and worried journos received the 10,000th gut-churning anti-Semitic or racist tweet from Trump supporters.
If so, can’t blame them too much. It’s easy to advocate for dispassion and objectivity when you’re puttering along on your little blog and not receiving a torrent of abuse, threats, and explicit targeting.
But the bottom line for me is, a license to practice one-sided journalism creates, with alarming frequency, bad journalism. And when one-sided journalism melds with bad journalism, you get journalism that readers simply tune out as just more ratf*cking, not a precious Murrow moment.
(Reprinted from China Matters by permission of author or representative)
If by fascist, you mean “adherent of a movement determined to seize state power with the help of violence committed by a disciplined and armed auxiliary, if necessary, to reorder society to achieve extra-constitutional, self-defined racial or ethnic objectives embodied by a charismatic leader”, that is.
Narendra Modi and his BJP party, in my reading, plays the democrat for advantage in the electoral game, but acts the fascist through deniable cutouts—the RSS Hindu nationalist movement and its constellation of affiliates, known collectively as the Sangh Parivar.
The BJP has a membership of about 100 million. Members of Sangh Parivar organizations number in the tens of millions. The VHP, which does the heavy lifting for the Sangh as far as virulent Hindu nationalism goes, reportedly has a membership of almost 3 million.
So if you’re eager to punch fascists in India, better bring some friends…maybe bring a chopper…well, maybe bring a gun…maybe bring a lot of guns.
And read this, about the battle to come out on top in the Uttar Pradesh state assembly election, which will be held in stages between February 11 and March 8 in seven phases.
Uttar Pradesh, a.k.a. UP, in addition to being an immense electoral prize in India’s heartland—if independent, its population of 200 million would make it the sixth largest country in the world—is 20% Muslim.
The BJP views that percentage as a challenge, a threat…and an opportunity to display its core competence in the science of communal polarization, intimidation, and worse.
One of the less savory expressions of the philosophy of Hindu nationalism, or Hindutva, that prevails among followers of Modi, the BJP, and the RSS, is the sentiment that Muslims are an affliction, a contamination and, especially via Pakistan, a threat to the purity and vigor of the Hindu polity.
“Reconverting” Indian Muslims back to Hinduism—on the grounds that the vast majority of Hindu Muslims are that way only because of forcible conversion to Islam back in the day and should be helped to return to their true religion—is a big deal for the BJP.
“Our target is to make India a Hindu Rashtra by 2021. The Muslims and Christians don’t have any right to stay here.”
“So they would either be converted to Hinduism or forced to run away from here,” Uttar Pradesh DJS head Rajeshwar Sing said.
In case you’re laboring under the mis-impression that this is just the frothing of a bunch of marginalized extremist goombahs, for Rajeshwar Sing, the guy quoted above, running Hindu reconversion circuses in UP was his ticket to the big show.
The next year, Sing got promoted to the RSS, the organization Narendra Modi serves as a pracharak, or lifetime cadre, and whose political arm is the BJP.
In 2015, the Times of India reported on Singh’s new responsibilities. Singh obligingly schooled the Times on the hierarchy/deniable cutout arrangement that informs the relationship between the RSS, its multitude of affiliates, and the BJP:
Dharam Jagran Samaj’s Rajeshwar Singh, the force behind the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s high-octane ghar wapsi programme in western Uttar Pradesh last year, who was quietly sent on a three-month leave by the RSS later, is back with an elevation. From the fringe body, Singh has now been promoted to the parent organization. According to regional RSS leaders, this is indeed a shot in the arm for Singh.
Singh, who will now be shifting base to Meerut from Agra on April 7, told TOI over phone, “According to our internal hierarchy, RSS is at the top, followed by VHP and others, while DJS is at the bottom of the rung.
Talking about his new role, Singh said, “I have continuously worked for the Sangh’s campaigns and programmes. I will wait for the orders. Even earlier, there were orders to conduct ghar wapsi [“Homecoming” ceremonies for Muslims converting “back” to Hinduism], which I followed.”
“My hard work and struggles have paid off as I am now associated (directly) with RSS.”
To appreciate the tactical coordination between the RSS and the BJP and the endless PR games played by the BJP while it preserves political deniability as it exploits the communal polarization strategy executed by the RSS, it was elsewhere explained that Singh had been sent on vacay for a few months before his promotion not because he was doing a bad job, but because he was doing too good a job. Muslim conversion started to generate too much political heat for the BJP & it was deemed necessary to cool things down:
In December 2014, the RSS leadership had relieved senior pracharak Rajeshwar Singh of his duties in its Dharm Jagran wing for creating an embarrassment for the BJP government through his reconversion drive in Uttar Pradesh, something that he had been doing with RSS’ blessings since 1998.
“There is an understanding where every issue is allowed to be raised with the government, but there is an understanding also that it should not be taken to a stage to create an embarrassment for the government — our government,” said a person privy to the larger understanding in the leadership of the Sangh Parivar.
Uttar Pradesh is historical ground zero for BJP’s politics of Hindutva nationalism and anti-Muslim agitation.
The signature piece of BJP incitement in its career in India–and perhaps the key inflection point in modern Indian history– was the successful campaign to tear down the Babri Masjid mosque in Ayodhya in eastern UP in 1993, on the pretext that it had been sacrilegiously built there by the Moghuls 400 years ago on top of the actual birthplace of Lord Ram.
Here’s a capsule video report. Kar sewaks are religious volunteers, in this case mobilized by the BJP and other Hindu nationalist parties; a lakh = 100,000, so 200,000 people participated in storming the mosque. A puja is a routine religious ritual that was used as a pretext for assembling the 200,000 kar sewaks.
As to consequences, thousands have died in communal violence directly related to the conflict ginned up over the Ayodhya mosque by the BJP. The 2002 pogrom that stains Modi’s tenure in Gujarat was sparked by the deaths of BJP kar sewaks on a train returning from a ceremony at Ayodhya.
Ayodhya defined and affirmed the BJP as a dominating national party and the intimidating voice of Hindu chauvinism.
Narendra Modi was there, by the way. In the 1990s he was a go-fer and organizer for LK Advani, the BJP head at the time, who built the BJP into a national force through his “Rath Yatra” a ceremonial procession through India led by a Toyota converted into Lord Ram’s chariot that that left a trail of communal violence and death in its wake, and culminated with an assault on the Ayodhya mosque.
If you have an hour to spare, watch this documentary, In the Name of God, on the BJP’s Ayodhya campaign and its impact on issues of caste, religion, and class in UP. I found it a riveting piece of social history.
Here’s a picture of Modi at the time.
Modi had a junior but important role in organizing the Yatra. Among his many duties, he was Advani’s “mike holder” when the BJP chief issued his pronouncements.
The Ayodhya dog doesn’t quite hunt anymore, as far as stoking outrage over Muslim presumption goes. The Babri Masjid was destroyed over 20 years ago…
… and a ramshackle temple to Rama stands in the ruins today.
But BJP ugliness in Uttar Pradesh is not just a matter of nostalgia for the bigoted thuggery of the Ayodhya mosque demolition.
The BJP and its surrogates returned to the reliable anti-Muslim program by, according to credible accounts, carefully orchestrating and exploiting an outbreak of communal violence in western Uttar Pradesh in 2013.
Then there’s the Muslim vote. There are quite a few Muslims in UP, maybe 20% of the population, potentially decisive in the highly fragmented world of UP politics. The BJP is never going to win Muslim votes for obvious reasons, so its strategy is to strip away Hindu votes from the BSP and SP by resorting to its core competency in “polarization” i.e shifting the terms of political discourse away from communal interests to communal hatred, and rely on the marginalized and intimidated Muslims to fragment their votes among the various local parties instead of organizing as a bloc.
The BJP strategy was demonstrated in the outbreak of communal violence in western Uttar Pradesh against the backdrop of elections to the national parliament, the Lok Sobha, in 2014 that the BJP was determined to win.
A path to victory was to break the electoral solidarity of a key “backward caste” the Jats, comprised of both Hindus and some Muslims. Jats served as the coveted local “vote bank” for the BSP, which relied on a combination of Jat and Muslim votes for its electoral fortunes in dozens of constituencies in western Uttar Pradesh.
The region is 25% Muslim, a demographic that, for understandable reasons, is largely beyond the reach of the BJP. The key was to polarize the Jat electorate so that it would identify with the Muslim-despising national BJP more than the “all politics is local/Jat+Muslim tactical alliance” competing parties.
Unfortunately, western Uttar Pradesh already had some a history of communal violence between non-Jat castes and Muslims, so it was a matter of building on existing tensions rather than ginning up a pogrom from scratch.
According to a report compiled by ANHAD, a human rights group, after extensive site visits, RSS activists fanned out around the western UP city of Muzzafarnagar to create an atmosphere of communal tension by promoting the manufactured threat of “love jihad”—the seduction of Hindu women by Muslim men for the purpose of converting them to Islam—by sending provocateurs to pose as Muslims to taunt Hindu girls and, just to make sure the communal pot got boiling, sending Hindus out to taunt Muslim girls:
About 10-15 young men were recruited by the Sangh Parivar in each town and village and were deputed to spread hate. Systematic and organised, incidents of eve-teasing [current term of art not just for sexually harassing speech directed to women in public but also other forms of physical molestation—ed.] had increased many folds. The method was simple, use skull caps to eve tease a Hindu woman and wear Kalawa while eve teasing a Muslim girl in a Burka. The anger against this escalation prepared the grounds for spreading notion of „love jihad‟ by Sangh Parivar in a highly male chauvinistic society, a campaign, which made the two communities suspicious of each other. Every instance where a Hindu Girl was found talking to a Muslim boy was publicised and seen as an invasion. This method had been successfully used in Gujarat before 2002 carnage.
I speculate that the profoundly ugly foundation for this RSS strategy was awareness that western Uttar Pradesh is not just “traditional” or “chauvinist”–it leads India in honor killings. In fact, in 2003, Muzzafarnagar district reported 13 honor killings in 9 months, which probably made it the honor murder capital of all India.
Extreme private/public violence to control female behavior is practiced in Jat communities and is reportedly an emblem of power and authority for the village heads,as one study described:
The khap leaders are a handful of self-appointed, self-styled protectors of the ‘purity’ of the Jat community in rural Haryana. Baljit Malik, a leader of the Jathwala khap, says: “We do not subscribe to these killings. It is the families that execute such murders. Khaps are needed today like never before, given the exposure to the outside world. The village cannot depart from conventions which form the basis of civilisation.” He is speechless when asked why they do not issue fatwa, osctracising families indulging in such killings or repressing women.
The authority the khap has in a village makes its leaders demigods. Their word is law and any digression is enough to invite the severest punishment.
So, what better way for the RSS/BJP to insinuate itself into the Jat polity and put itself on the side of the conservative khaps by fomenting a moral panic based on the sexual threat to Jat womanhood from Muslim men.
The campaign of communal violence was encouraged at inflammatory rallies with BJP attendance. In time honored fashion, trishuls—the signature BJP trident and a rather nasty looking metal implement–were distributed, a pretty good predictor that things are going to turn bloody.
And they did.
A cycle of eve-teasing offense, punishment, and retaliation led to the deaths of three people in a town outside Muzzafarnagar city. Fatally, the incident involved Muslims & Hindus, providing the BJP and khaps with the opportunity for a mass mobilization on the pretext of the Muslim threat to Jat lives and honor.
Per the ANHAD report:
Despite prohibitory orders … proclaimed by the administration … about 100 thousand people were allowed to assemble. Many of them were armed as was requested by BJP-RSS combine. The slogans that were used by the coming crowed were highly provocative and communal. For example „Musalmano Kaeik histhan, Pakistan ya qabristan (for Muslims there is only one option Pakistan or graveyard), Modi Lao Desh Bachao (Bring Narendra Modi Save the Nation), Tumne do Ko mara hai ham sau katwe marenge (you have killed two Hindus we will kill 100 Muslims).
Fearing an attack Muslims started collecting in Madarsa (sic) and Mosques.During the Mahapanchayat [meeting of khaps ostensibly called by Jat leaders but actually organized by the BJP in this case-ed.], the leaders spitted venom against Muslims. A fake video [showing two youths being brutally murdered, actually showing events in Pakistan—ed.] was used to raise the temperatures. The same was circulated, by the BJP and RSS workers in the form of MMS and CDS. It was uploaded on the social Media as well. Sangeet Som (BJP MLA) was the first to upload the video on his social networking site account
The butcher’s bill: 46 Muslims killed and 13 Hindus. Officially. About 50,000 residents, overwhelmingly Muslim, fled to refugee camps.
Activist filmmaker Gopal Menon did extensive local interviews as well as rounding up footage of the inflammatory mahapanchayat assembly organized by the Jat khaps and the BJP for his documentary, The Killing Fields of Muzzaffarnagar, which is well worth watching. According to Menon, the Muslim death toll was more like 150.
Rape, as one would expect from the sexually charged campaign, was a feature of the pogrom.
So was police and official collusion in leaving victims unprotected during the attacks and without redress afterwards, and studied indifference to the plight of refugees.
The electoral payoff in the UP segment of the Lok Sabha (national assembly) races: the Jat Hindu community was successfully polarized between its Hindu and Muslim members. Many Jat Hindus cleaved to the BJP instead of continuing to back the BSP, and the BJP dominated while the local parties scrapped over the leftovers.
The BJP clobbered the local parties statewide, but no region came out in bigger numbers for the BJP than the Jat core in western UP. Not even eastern UP, the home of Ayodhya, a center of Brahminism, and the BJP traditional heartland.
One of the alleged insigators of the unrest, BJP UP executive committee member Umesh Malik, subsequently claimed, somewhat hyperbolically:
“During the Lok Sabha election, the embers that rose from Muzaffarnagar spread to the state, and from there to the entire nation. The embers that you created made Narendra Modi the Prime Minister”.
The good news, at least temporarily, was that in a handful of UP 2014 state assembly races held soon after the Lok Sabha polls, the BJP won only 3 of the eleven contested seats despite energetically turning the communal hatre crank, stalling the Modi juggernaut.
Gilles Vernier, a professor of political science at Ashoka University, looked at the fresh wave of violence in the run-up to the state polls and observed in 2014:
The amplitude of the current outbursts of violence seems disproportionate for the political gains at stake … The real objective is the next assembly elections in 2017…
This pratfall apparently forced the BJP to re-evaluate its UP-wide strategy and pull back from aggressive statewide Hindutva agitation this year: the 2017 assembly elections, the big one, when all 403 state assembly seats are at stake.
In the run-up to this year’s polls, demonetization is being advertised as the magic bullet for the BJP’s UP hopes, on the theory that sucking almost half of the nation’s cash out of circulation would disproportionately discommode the BJP’s adversaries in their vote buying/campaigning exercises. At the same time, so the theory goes, demonetization would be understood by the little people of all castes as the sure sign that the BJP and Modi are the only guys fighting for them in UP against the forces of black money and corruption which, to be sure, dominate the political and economic culture in the state.
On hot button Hindutva issues, moderation, at least on the surface, is seen as the key:
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s appreciation of the canonisation of Mother Teresa or the snub to cow vigilantism recently may run against the common strand of RSS belief, but the Sangh has not made them an issue to confront the government, they said.
The RSS has …only desisted from raising heat over the Ram Temple, Common Civil Code [promoted by the BJP to supplant shariah and other religious laws in family matters—ed.] or Article 370 [constitutional amendment granting limited autonomy to Jammu & Kashmir], …
In the current campaign, the BJP expended considerable energy to try to sell itself in UP as a suitable destination for Dalit votes, even though it is founded on a vision of returning to the glory days of Brahmin dominion. Apparently, the effort faltered and the BJP Dalit outreach program, instead of culminating in a supercolossal rally addressed by Modi in UP’s state capital of Lucknow, petered out as a meeting in Kanpur chaired by the head of the UP BJP.
Nevertheless, the BJP recently announced a slate of 80 Dalit candidates for the UP assembly, a sign that the leadership is pinning serious hopes on duplicating its 2014 success in eating into the BSP’s base for the Lok Sabha elections…and relying on its adversaries hopelessly splitting the Muslim & other vote blocs between them.
Apparently some discreet Hindutva dog whistling is apparently still required to show that the BJP’s heart is still in that deep, dark place where communal violence is the ticket to electoral success.
The president of the BJP in Uttar Pradesh called for prompt erection of a magnificent temple to the Hindu god Lord Ram…on the site of the demolished Muslim mosque in Ayodhya…that triggered communal violence throughout India…and the notorious Gujarat pogrom of 2002…presided over by Narendra Modi as chief minister of Gujarat.
Here’s a photo of the scale model of the envisioned temple that serves as the BJP’s Ayodhya temple fetish. Rama not shown actual size, natch.
Modi also discreetly honored his Hindutva roots during an appearance at a ceremony honoring Lord Rama by echoing the battle cry of the militants who had demolished the Ayodhya mosque, the god whose birthplace was supposedly defiled by Babri Masjid.
As for western Uttar Pradesh, the Hindutva bell had been rung emphatically in 2013 in Muzzaffanagar, and it was re-rung in Muzzaffanagar in February 2016 when the BJP won a state assembly by election in the miserable district on the platform of defense against gangrape and love-jihad in a campaign run by the alleged Jat and BJP orchestrators of the 2013 pogrom.
The durability of the polarization strategy in the Jat regions of western Uttar Pradesh, with its promise that the RSS/BJP has permanently cracked this pillar of the BSP vote bank—and hope that the BSP and SP will cripple themselves competing for the limited untouchable/Muslim votes remaining—probably accounts for the professed public confidence of the BJP as it goes into this year’s state assembly election.
Umesh Malik, who was an alleged linchpin of the 2013 pogrom, is on the BJP’s candidate list for the upcoming election for Budhana, a small town in the Muzzaffanagar district.
The election in Uttar Pradesh is crucial because it is a test, in India’s biggest state, of the “Modi Magic” which has failed to deliver big wins for the BJP in recent by-elections.
The formidable Modi machine—which, by the way, takes advantage of generous reporting in the Western press accruing from India’s importance as an anti-China counter and techlords’ dream date to feed back images of Modi as a global darling to the Indian market—will be on full display in conventional media, social media, and local organizing in Uttar Pradesh.
What’s the staying power of fascism in the 21st century? Modi’s India, more than Trump’s America, will give us an answer.
 Per Economic Timesthe social structure and vote bank state of play in Uttar Pradesh:
There are 79 castes under other backward classes (OBCs). There are sub-categories of backward classes (BCs) and most backward classes (MBCs) within OBCs. Yadav, Lodh, Kurmi and Jat come under BCs and constitute around 18% of the population, while all MBCs make up around 16.7%. Together, they have dominance in 145 assembly seats across UP . Yadavs are dominant OBCs and hold sway in 75 assembly constituencies with a population of over 20%. These include Etawah and the adjoining areas in west UP and Azamgarh and areas border ing Bihar in east UP . Dalits have 66 sub-castes and to gether they make up more than 20% of the population in near ly 100 assembly constituen cies. Muslims are over 20% in 145 assembly seats.
Brahmins play a crucial role in 60 assembly seats (over 20% of the population) in central and east UP and Thakurs are important in 85 seats (over 15% of population) mainly in central and east UP , such as Pratapgarh, Amethi, Domariaganj and Sultanpur, and some in west UP like Fatehpur Sikri. To win an election, a party needs at least 30% of the total votes, which cannot be achieved through one caste alone. Parties thus cobble up caste and communal alliances to sail through.
“The role of MBCs and subcastes comes into play here. Though the numbers differ from west to east UP , the demographic distribution and concentration of castes is such that a minor tilt of one caste or sub-caste can influence the election in a seat or even a region,“ says analyst Ashish Awasthi.
For example, among OBCs, Jats constitute only 2%, but they are over 17% of the populace in 11 districts of west UP , influencing 55 assembly seats. Similarly, Kurmis are 4% and Lodhs 2% of the population but have influence in many seats in Bundelkhand, central and east UP .
Among MBCs -Mauryas, Shakyas, Sainis, Kushwaha, Nishads and Binds -have influence in central and east UP , Rajbhars in east UP . Together, they can play a crucial role in about 100 seats. Parties with bases among BCsMBCs and sub-castes have also come up.RLD has influence over Jats, Apna Dal over Kurmis, Mahan Dal over Mauryas, Shakyas, Sainis and Kushwaha, Suheldev Bhartiya Samaj Party over Rajbhars and Peace Party over a section of east UP Muslims. A swing of 4,000-5,000 votes can win you an election in a particular constituency. This explains why major parties ally with smaller ones,“ says an analyst. Akhilesh Yadav’s move to recommend the inclusion of 17 sub-castes from OBCs into the scheduled caste category is aimed at getting their votes. These castes are Kahar, Kashyap, Kewat, Nishad, Bind, Bhar, Prajapati, Rajbhar, Batham, Gaur, Tura, Majhi, Mallah, Kumhar, Dheemar and Machua -spread across UP .
Similarly, among Dalit subcastes, BSP holds sway among Jatavs, which is why other parties are wooing sub-castes like Pasis and Balmikis, which are a good number in central UP.
(Reprinted from China Matters by permission of author or representative)
Kompromat–the term for the acquistion and exploitation of compromising material, often of an embarrassing sexual nature–is very much in the news today, thanks to the allegation that Russian security services have dirt on Donald Trump and are blackmailing him to follow Kremlin policies.
On Martin Luther King Day, we can remember a great American–and one who was subjected to the most notorious kompromat exploit in US history–Martin Luther King Jr.
I’m re-upping a post I did last year on the FBI sextape/suicide campaign against King.
I’d also like to point out that the most successful kompromat dossier assembled on a US president was Monica Lewinsky’s blue dress.
You know, the dress spotted with Bill Clinton’s semen that she put at the back of her closet and forgot to take to the cleaners?
The blackmail element, though denied and ignored by loyal liberals by myself and softpedaled during the impeachment hearings, was there as well. If you think it was a matter of disinterested benevolence that caused President Clinton to set up a job interview for Monica Lewinsky with Vernon Jordan, well…
A president yielding to sexual blackmail and lying about it was stone impeachable. Didn’t happen, though.
The best we got was Peggy Noonan enriching the vocabulary of American political ratf*ckery with her allegation that Castro was blackmailing Clinton with tapes of his phone sex sessions with Lewinsky, justified by the statement–which seems to be the lodestar for current discourse– “Is it irresponsible to speculate? It would be irresponsible not to.”
Presidential semen, one might think, is the best kompromat there is but, as readers of thrillers such as Primal Fear and Gone Girl will tell you, there are ways even to mess with that!
Once the security services get involved, we’re all the way down the rabbit hole.
As an illustration, consider this:
There is plausible speculation that the US government forged a typewriter to convict Alger Hiss. The typewriter was in question was convincingly identified as Hiss’s (he’d gotten rid of it but the FBI tracked it down) and shown to be the same machine that produced the notorious “pumpkin papers” produced by Whitaker Chambers.
But the scuttlebutt (including an alleged statement by Richard Nixon that “we built [a typewriter] on the Hiss case”) is that the FBI couldn’t find the Hiss typewriter; instead, a similar model was obtained and modified so it could reproduce the “fingerprint” of the original machine that typed the pumpkin papers. Wikipedia has an excellent account of the case and the typewriter controversy.
But this rumor is layered on top of the conclusion that the FBI had identified Hiss as a Soviet agent thanks to the Venona intercepts, whose existence it did not want to reveal in open court as the price of nailing Hiss.
As someone once commented in the case of the TV show “Making of a Murderer” sometimes the cops frame guilty people…
…or people they think are guilty…
…or people they hope are guilty.
Something to remember!
As in don’t let the IC push a particular political agenda, maybe.
So shoulda woulda Buzzfeed published the MLK sextapes? Remember, it published the Trump dossier not because it could vouch for the accuracy of the allegations; release was justified by the fact that the dossier was circulating throughout official Washington and the media and the public had a right to know, even if was the last to know.
Apparently, lots of people in Washington got a listen to the MLK tapes, just as multitudes pored over the Trump dossier. The authenticity of the events on the Martin Luther King tapes–if not the sexually heroic composite generated by the FBI–is, as far as I can tell, challenged by no-one.
As for the public interest/puppet of Moscow angle, the proximate justification for surveilling King and trying to destroy him with sex tape was Hoover’s conviction–never successfully documented by the FBI, at least in the public realm– that a key King adviser was a Soviet agent.
Gosh, should the American public have a right to judge for itself as to whether America’s top civil rights leader was vulnerable to Soviet manipulation by listening to a mixtape of his alleged sexual exploits provided by an intelligence service?
The assumption is, however, that all copies of the King tapes were destroyed when Hoover died, sparing Buzzfeed the heartburn of a genuine, real-life choice.
But we can appreciate the bizarre spectacle of Donald Trump appearing as Martin Luther King’s 21st century doppelganger if only in the matter of deep state sexually-tinged kompromat campaigns.
In the case of Martin Luther King, America’s deep state intersected with politics and civil rights and Thurgood Marshall’s strategy for African American legal equality in some ugly and dangerous ways.
And they intersect at a most unpleasant and unhappy point, one that is largely ignored when putting an optimistic, feel-good gloss over Dr. King’s struggle for civil rights: the infamous MLK sex tape gambit cooked up by the FBI.
The most uncomfortable issue raised by the existence of tapes is not the matter of Dr. King’s human appetites and deficiencies in the area of marital fidelity. It is the potential for blackmail, the leverage that the FBI and the US government could have brought to bear against Dr. King and his direction of the civil rights movement by exploiting the tapes.
And the case of the tapes also shines an awkward light on the relationship between America’s deep state and another African-American civil rights giant: Thurgood Marshall.
For background, I highly recommend Gilbert King’s Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America. Reading it in the context of Ferguson, Garner, etc. this book really f*cked me up, as they say nowadays. Based on my experience, I’d recommend just picking up the book and reading it, without googling “Groveland Boys” or looking at some reviews of the book. All I can say is that, despite that determinedly sunny subtitle, it will take you into some very dark places.
Actually, what I will say is that the book also offers some more fascinating insights into the relationship between J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI, the political civil rights movement served by Dr. King, and the “lawfare” civil rights legal battle fought with similar dedication and personal courage by Thurgood Marshall.
As I wrote in a previous post, “Everybody Wants Their Own Stasi,” Hoover disliked and distrusted Martin Luther King as a troublemaker and, possibly, a communist asset.
One of the most interesting chapters in Hoover’s history is the lethal dance that the Kennedy brothers led with Hoover over the issue of Martin Luther King and, in particular, the purported Communist ties of King’s white advisor, Stanley Levison. Levison had apparently broken with communism as an ideology in 1956 over Hungary, before he started working with King.
Cognizant of the epic sh*train that would descend on anybody who irresponsibly alleged that King was acting on the advice of a Soviet agent, today everybody is extremely cautious and circumspect in their verbiage concerning this issue. [Here is an excellent, judicious parsing of the Levison matter, albeit from 2002, by David Garrow in The Atlantic. CH, 1/14/15] But not Hoover and the FBI in the 1960s. Hoover was determined to establish Levison’s current communist ties in order to discredit King and the movement, and Robert Kennedy as AG greenlit Hoover to blackbag, wiretap, and bug King, Levison and his associates to the nth degree in an attempt to establish the link. The smoking gun never emerged (Levison did get hauled before a secret session of a Congressional committee, where he denied “now or ever having been” and then took the 5th on all other queries), and the Kennedys did not allow themselves to get buffaloed into turning against King by Hoover and the non-stop stream of anti-King tittle-tattle that the FBI funneled into the Oval Office, and to their allies in Congress and the media.
Well, not completely. Hoover’s campaign had made Levison toxic enough that the Kennedys prevailed on King to break overt ties with him as a condition of White House support for King’s efforts. Levison continued to work with King through a cutout.
And thanks to the Kennedys’ desire to hedge their security and political bets, the FBI did collect enough tapes of King’s bedroom activities in order to produce one of the seamiest COINTELPRO crimes: the attempt to drive King to suicide by sending the tapes and a jeering letter to his home urging him to commit suicide (not at the behest of the Kennedys, I might point out).
Remarkably, the relationship between Thurgood Marshall and Martin Luther King, two civil rights icons, does not seem to have been any closer or sympathetic than the ties between Marshall and J. Edgar Hoover, judging by Marshall’s attitude toward the sex tape compiled by Hoover.
Readers can judge for themselves, with this excerpt from interviews recorded by Marshall’s biographer, Juan Williams:
Q: Did (Hoover) fear that King was a communist?
A: He just had an absolute blur on communism. It’s unbelievable. I don’t know what happened to him, I don’t know what happened but something happened.
No, it was personal. He bugged everything King had. Everything. And the guy that did it was a friend of a private detective in New York who’s a good friend of mine, Buck Owens. He called up and said, Buck, do you know Martin Luther King? And he said, no. He said do you know anybody that goes? He said yes. He said well you please tell him, don’t use my name but I’m in the group that’s bugging everything he’s got. Even when he goes to the toilet. I mean we’ve bugged everything and I think it’s a dirty damn trick and he ought to know about it.
So Buck called me and I called Brother King. He was in Atlanta then. And I told him about it and he said, oh forget it, nothing to it. Just didn’t interest him. That’s what he said. He didn’t care, no.
Q: How do you interpret that?
A: I don’t and I’ve never been able to. That he wasn’t doing anything wrong. Well they ain’t nobody who can say that. Right. Right. And when I called him up and told him that his house was bugged and all, he said so what? Doesn’t bother me. That’s what he said.
Q: Did you guys know about all this sex stuff that they talk about these days?
A: I knew that the stories were out. And I knew who was putting them out.
Q: Mr. Hoover?
A: No, it was a private police business. They used to settle strikes and everything. [Pinkertons] I’m not saying whether, I don’t know, I don’t know whether he was right or Hoover was right. I don’t know which one was right.
Q: What did you think about the fact that he didn’t care about being bugged?
A: Well, the answer was simple. I don’t know if a man can humanly do all the things. Five and six times a night with five and six different women. We add it all up, I mean he just couldn’t be all them places at the same time. I don’t believe in it personally. But I don’t know, when I was solicitor general, a lot of things came by, arguments between the attorney general and the director of the FBI and I, by internal rules, had to get copies of all of it. And we had to have a special safe and I know that of all the things that I listened to and read, I never found Mr. Hoover to have lied once. Not once. I don’t know, I’m not saying he always told the truth -
Q: You never found him to have lied? A: That’s right. I mean he was never proved to be a liar. He always came up with the right stuff, usually it would be a taped thing. You can tell by the tape. I don’t know. But that’s between him and, I think the only way to do it would be him and King and put ‘em in the same room. And it’s too late to do that.
Marshall’s remarks support Tim Weiner’s portrait of Hoover in Enemies as an unnervingly astute and capable bureaucrat who effectively performed his impossible mission—navigating between the conflicting demands of the Constitution for civil liberties and the Executive Branch for universal intelligence—with marked success for five decades…
…perhaps as astutely and capably as Marshall shrank the grey areas between the Constitution, state law, and justice in his epic struggle for civil rights.
Contrast with Marshall’s dismissive attitude toward King and Jesse Jackson:
Who made Jesse Jackson? The press. Who made Martin Luther King? The press, they do it. Because it writes good, it writes well. And you know Martin Luther King didn’t have a publicity person. No sir. The press did it all. The press did it all.
Reading Marshall’s account of his awkward exchange with King over the surveillance issue, I find it hard to believe that King’s reaction to the intense surveillance was really “oh forget it, nothing to it. Just didn’t interest him…He didn’t care, no.”
I have a feeling King didn’t really feel that way. Maybe what he was thinking, “Marshall, he’s close to Hoover. I’m not going to let it get back to Hoover that I’m upset or afraid. That’s what he wants.”
David Garrow’s biography of King, Bearing the Cross, tells us of the actual aftermath of the letter:
The FBI’s frightening threat sent King into an even worse state of mind. He became so nervous and upset he could not sleep…”They are out to break me,” he told one close friend over a wiretapped phone line. “They are out to get me, harass me, break my spirit.”…King…had decided that something must be done about the FBI’s threat. He had tried resting at a private hideaway known to just two other people, only to have Atlanta fire trucks turn up at the door in response to a false alarm that King correctly surmised had been turned in by the FBI so as to upset him further…As a deeply depressed King…discussed the FBI situation [the Bureau had bugged King’s hotel room in New York]…The conversation revealed how greatly disturbed King was…King [characterized] the mailing of the tape as, “God’s out to get you,” and as a warning from God that King had not been living up to his responsibilities…When King was in Baltimore, [Andrew] Young and [Ralph] Abernathy met in Washington with [the FBI’s Deke] DeLoach [who denied] that the FBI had any interest in…King’s private life. Young and Abernathy knew that DeLoach’s assertions were false…Its one value, Young explained later, was to show him how FBI executives like DeLoach had “almost a kind of fascist mentality. It really kind of scared me”…DeLoach gloated to his superiors that he had tried to make the talk as unpleasant and embarrassing as possible…Meanwhile the Bureau kept its campaign on full throttle. Assistant Director Sullivan tried to derail a dinner honoring King…and two prominent Georgia newsmen…were contacted to offer them tidbits on King’s personal life…” [pp. 373-77]
A complicating element of the situation that King had been previously aware of Hoover’s hostility, and that the FBI was building a file on his sexual activities. At first, in November 1964, King tried to go on the offensive against Hoover. King critiqued Hoover’s alleged shortcomings in investigating civil rights cases and went the extra mile in denouncing Hoover (in calls wiretapped by the FBI) as “too old and broken down” and “getting senile.” Then King proposed, in Garrow’s words, that Hoover “should be ‘hit from all sides’ with criticism in a concerted effort to get President Johnson to censure him.” [p. 361]. As one might expect, this gambit failed to sway Johnson.
Instead, King was in the unhappy situation of realizing he had mortally offended a supremely ruthless, capable, and vindictive national security bureaucrat, one who also had documented evidence of details of King’s personal life that could destroy him.
King’s efforts to backtrack and reconcile with Hoover in a meeting arranged by Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach were, if not doomed from the start, too little too late, and King spent the next weeks under a pall of anxiety that even overshadowed his triumphal appearance to receive his Nobel Peace Prize at Stockholm.
Then the FBI dropped the hammer in January 1965, sending the tape and suicide letter. His wife, Coretta, heard the tape; King gathered his advisers to deal with the imminent threat of humiliation, disgrace, and failure.
King, bearing this unimaginable mental and emotional burden, descended into the vortex of Selma…
…and that is, apparently, where the saga of the King sex tape ends.
The next reference to Hoover in Garrow’s biography occurs in May of 1965, after King’s triumph at Selma and Montgomery, Alabama and LBJ’s endorsement of federal voting rights protections for African-Americans:
King knew the FBI still had an active interest in his personal life, and he worried greatly about a public revelation of the Bureau’s embarrassing tapes. He asked a longtime family friend, Chicago’s Rev. Archibald J. Carey, Jr., to speak with his friends in the FBI hierarchy. Cassey did so, reporting back to King that it would be wise to keep up his public commendations of FBI accomplishments.
Hmmm. That’s all? Recall that Hoover bore an intense personal dislike for King, had information that could destroy King’s reputation and public standing and, indeed, had already played the sex tapes for much of official and unofficial Washington. Judging by the FBI’s machinations, Hoover would have been glad to see King commit suicide. For King, suppressing the tapes had been a matter of desperate, existential importance and endless worry.
After all this, all the lethal J. Edgar Hoover wanted was just a few generous public attaboys from Martin Luther King?
Don’t think so.
I can only draw the inference that LBJ, the only individual with the necessary stroke and personal relationship with Hoover to channel and modify the Director’s actions, convinced Hoover that the tapes should stay in the safe.
And Hoover, perhaps, stayed his hand because LBJ convinced him that there were plenty more radical and scary African-American leaders out there to destroy and King, in contrast, was actually a manageable, moderating force.
And perhaps, with the sex tapes in his safe–and serving as a sword of Damocles over King’s head–Hoover believed he could regard King as something of a beholden asset that could be accessed, guided, cajoled, bullied, and if need be publicly discredited in the course of the Bureau’s operations involving the African American civil rights movement.
King was the idealist who advocated for America “as it could be”.
Hoover and Marshall were two insiders “present at the creation”, their exalted status and power the result of a hard-won, superior understanding of the contradictions and potentialities of American government “as it is”.
Their lives–and services to the state–followed different paths.
At the time of the King surveillance, Marshall was serving as an appellate court judge; the next year LBJ appointed him Solicitor General and, in 1967 nominated Marshall for a seat on the Supreme Court. Hoover served as director of the FBI until his death in 1972. Martin Luther King, of course, was assassinated in Memphis on April 4, 1968.
Maybe declaring April 4 as “Martin Luther King Day” would be a more meaningful recognition of Dr. King’s suffering, struggle, and sacrifice.
(Reprinted from China Matters by permission of author or representative)
It’s now publicly accepted that the CIA, factions in the CIA, whatever, object to Trump and are making life difficult for him.
The interesting question is, is President Obama just a passenger on the runaway Deep State train, thoughtlessly rattling through his hollow valedictories, or is he the conductor? or the engineer?
I was struck by this possibility while reflecting on David Ignatius’ revelation on Thursday that intercepts showed that Trump’s security adviser, Michael Flynn, had been on the phone with the Russian ambassador several times on the day President Obama announced the expulsion of the Russian diplos.
Hmmm. I thought. With all due respect, David Ignatius doesn’t do reporting. He does top-drawer steno. He didn’t dig this factoid out. It was fed to him. Specifically, the fact that Flynn’s communications were being intercepted–normally, one would expect, the kind of tittle-tattle kept from the public eye under the rubric of “protecting sources and methods”–was being made part of the public discourse.
The Obama administration is aware of frequent contacts between President-elect Donald Trump’s national security adviser Michael Flynn and Russia’s ambassador to the United States, including on the day President Barack Obama hit Moscow with sanctions in retaliation for election-related hacking, a senior U.S. official said Friday.
Flynn’s contacts with the Russian ambassador were first reported by Washington Post columnist David Ignatius. The official who spoke to The Associated Press was not authorized to confirm the contacts publicly and insisted on anonymity.
So, the story, relying on covert surveillance, that Flynn is canoodling with the Russian ambo is being determinedly and repeatedly fed to the press.
Consider: for eight years the Obama administration has been resolute/overbearing/fanatical, choose your adjective, in plugging leaks. But now we get this concerted blabberai.
Is Obama just phoning it in while his aides run riot at the end of his administration.
Is Obama condoning and perhaps even directing the hit on Trump–Obama in the library with a candlestick–while making sure his fingerprints aren’t on the weapon?
Time to re-up one of my favorite pieces, on the 1954 campaign against Joe McCarthy. It’s a useful corrective for young journos craving their “Murrow moment”–when the press seemingly rises up in spontaneous democratic revulsion to mete justice out on a demagogue.
But it also provides an instructive primer on how the executive branch can use the deep state, dossiers, allies in Congress and–of course!–a cooperative press to do its dirty work.
Spoiler: taking down McCarthy was the result of a carefully planned campaign executed by bureaucrats, spooks, and pols at the order of President Eisenhower and bringing in the press at the last stage to administer the coup de grace.
I wrote this piece a year ago. But as you can see, it stands up pretty well today, in the last days of the Obama administration and, possibly, the last days of Donald Trump.
In the course of researching an article on five HSBC whistleblowers for CounterPunch magazine, I got to know one of them, Nicholas Wilson from the UK. Wilson, a lawyer, exposed a sleazy bit of business in which HSBC’s personal finance unit loaded its debt recovery with millions in improper fees. He lost his job while HSBC, thanks to high levels of support/toleration whatever you want to call it from the government and the British establishment, has evaded publicity, liability, restitution, or any uncomfortable consequences, and simply chugged along.
Wilson is that most rare and precious of whistleblowers: the insider who did the right thing from the git-go, went through channels, and can’t be accused of having a personal stake either in avoiding prosecution or garnering a financial award.
[He] exited his firm in 2006 for a life of frustration and severely straitened circumstances as a whistleblower. Thirteen years after the original incident, Mr. Wilson is near the end of a long and rather frayed rope.
Well, fast-forward to December 2016 and Mr. Wilson is facing bank repossession of his house for being in arrears on £1800 plus £325 in court costs. He needs to come up with the money before January 13 to dismiss the action.
I’ve sent Wilson some money and I hope that people interested in justice, protecting whistleblowers, and seeing the good guys win—or at least not get thrown out of their homes—will follow suit.
Here’s the link to Mr. Wilson’s crowdfunding appeal on his Mr. Ethical website, where you can read about his case, get up-to-date on HSBC skullduggery, satisfy yourself concerning Wilson’s bona fides, confirm the extremely modest character of his home and the dire nature of his need, and click on the Donate button to make a contribution for any amount by Paypal or whatever.
Do it! Thank you.
(Reprinted from China Matters by permission of author or representative)
Donald Trump has made China hot takes a busy and profitable enterprise. Thanks to his tweetings on Taiwan and other matters, I’ve put up a clutch of essays on Asia Times:
November 23, 2016: Atlas Stumbledexplores implications of a transactional Trump diplomacy for the tottering US pivot and its promise that China would fall on its *ss in Asia before America did.
December 1, 2016 Donald Trump, Bombs, and Burgersholds out hope that a Trump presidency just might dance its way out of the denuclearization cul de sac of the Obama years.
December 4, 2016 Trump in the Taiwan China Shoplooks at the tactical dynamics of diplomacy a la Trump and posits that Trump is going with an aggressive Taiwan policy because the only available FP boffins left standing after the pro-Hillary crowd self-immolated is Dick Cheney’s Taiwan-loving neocons.
December 9, 2016 The hole in the Heart of Asiatakes an extremely disapproving look at America’s efforts to keep its fingers in the AfPak pie by putting all its eggs in Modi’s basket while sidelining the PRC. Yes, it’s as ugly as the mixed metaphor I just laid out.
December 14, 2016 One China? Never, Trump!Back into the Trumptweet salt mines. I point out NeverTrump liberals are compelled to consume the rather unpalatable “Donald Trump is too hard on Communist China” menu item and point out that the hand on the wheel is Tsai Ing-wen’s, not Donald Trump’s. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
December 18, 2016 Drone Piracy in the South China Sea!Not a hot take, an extremely cool facty take on the PRC theft of a US Navy underwater glider thingy off the Philippine coast. Marshals a lot of not-widely-known information on the US Navy drone program, the PRC’s interests and concerns, and explains that the core issue the US Navy’s attempt to claim “sovereign US Navy vessel immunity” for these devices. With an absence of modesty I might point out this piece absolutely tore it up on China expert twitter thanks to Bill Hayton faving it. Thanks, Bill!
But the big news is I got totally fed up with the anger and negativity in the world today and decided to do humanity a favor by updating my epochal Elvis Presley Christmas post.
If you don’t have the time to wade through the full Elvis+Xmas, one of the longest pieces I’ve ever written, do yourself a favor and scroll to the very end of the piece. Play Elvis Presley’s rendition of “Peace in the Valley”, listen to the lyrics, and view the magnificent painting by Edward Hicks. You won’t be disappointed!
How Elvis’ Christmas Records Celebrate and Define American Music
Elvis’ Christmas recordings provide a remarkable and perhaps unique opportunity to explore his profound gospel, rhythm and blues, country, bluegrass, and polka! dirty ditties! roots, the evolution of the American recording industry and Elvis’ career, and the postwar development of African-American music. For people interested in the revolution wrought in gospel music by Reverend Dorsey, race, appropriation, and how Elvis dealt with it, I particularly recommend Day 9: Hearing the Light: Elvis & Black Gospel
It’s all here, folks, in a 12 Days of Elvis Christmas epic I originally put together in 2014, now with the Youtube videos recurated. Enjoy! And Happy Holidays!
Elvis’ triumphant synthesis of American music is even more remarkable when you consider that most of his greatest achievements were recorded before he turned 23.
Day One: Santa Claus Is Back in Town
One of the early pinnacles of Elvis’ achievement is, rather surprisingly, the Christmas album he released in 1957. It is divided into secular and sacred sides. On the second side, Elvis beautifully sings some religiously-tinged Christmas songs and delivers magnificent and memorable renditions of “Peace in the Valley” and other gospel standards. It’s clear that Elvis loves his gospel, and his renditions are full of the power and dignity that characterize these noblest of popular songs.
The pop/rock/R&B action is on the first side, and Elvis gets right down to business with the opener, “Santa Claus Is Back in Town”, a blues carol written by ace songwriters Leiber and Stoller in the studio on a dare in fifteen minutes. It is capped by the memorable couplet, sung in an ecstatic shout by Elvis:
Hang up your pretty stockings, turn off the light
Cause’ Santa Claus is comin’ down your chimney tonight!
In their joint autobiography, Hound Dog, Leiber and Stoller recalled:
The Colonel doesn’t laugh and the Colonel doesn’t smile when we run down the song for Elvis. I know the Colonel thinks it’s too bluesy and too black, but just before he can say anything, the King speaks out.
‘Now that’s what I call a goddamn great Christmas song!’ he tells the Colonel, ‘I told you these guys would come through’. And with that, Elvis proceeds to sing the [expletive] out of it.
He does it in just a couple of takes. …
For me, ‘Santa Claus Is Back in Town’ lives on as one of Elvis’ great blues performances. It took him back to his Beale Street roots, a place where he was always comfortable.
Elvis was all of 22 at the time.
I had the honor of communicating with Mike Stoller’s management team (Jerry Leiber has passed on) and was assured that the innuendo was completely intentional.
Given this context, it is rather remarkable that the lyric apparently provoked no conspicuous ruckus.
Maybe Irving Berlin had more than an inkling; he called for a boycott of the album, ostensibly because Elvis took some vocal liberties in his cover of White Christmas, which was sequenced right after Leiber & Stoller’s racy cut. Berlin’s objections did not stop the RCA from selling a mind-boggling 3 million units of Elvis’ Christmas Album in its original release, making it that decade’s biggest seller and a holiday soundtrack for generations of Americans (another 10 million sold as a budget-priced edition in the 1970s; indeed Elvis’ Christmas Album is his top-selling album, period, and No. 142 on Billboard’s all time list).
Sneaking Santa Claus double entendres into pop songs seems to have been quite the vogue around this time. In 1950 Ella Fitzgerald sang about “fat and round” Santa Claus who “got stuck in my chimney.”
About the same time, Sonny Boy Williamson II recorded “Santa Claus Blues” for Chess Records. Williamson’s double entendre of choice involves “drawers”:
“Lookin all in my baby’s dresser drawers.
Tryin to find out,
What did she bought me for Santa Claus.
When I pulled out the bottom dresser drawer,
The landlady got mad and called the law..”
In fact, in the R&B world in which Leiber and Stoller and Elvis were steeped at the time, “Santa Claus” had been invoked as the good thing, male principle division, since the pre-war era, as Gerry Bowler relates in his Santa Claus: A Biography. Blues scholar Paul Oliver has a chapter on Santa Claus in Screening the Blues and quotes a melancholy lyric from the great Texas country bluesman Blind Lemon Jefferson:
Just the day before Christmas let me bring you your present tonight,
I wanna be your Santa Clause even if my whiskers ain’t white.
So Santa is black and white. Get used to it! Happy holidays, everybody.
Day Two: The Passion of Elvis
A listener expresses her approval of Elvis’ canny alchemy of R&B, bluegrass, country, & gospel:
Found this at a reddit photoshop battle (no credit, sorry). Says it was shot in the audience at an Elvis Presley concert in 1957, the year he recorded his Christmas album. What’s with the ping pong balls?
Day Three: The Dirty Xmas Ditty: Who Sang It Better, Elvis or Ella? Or Jimmy Boyd!?!
Elvis, hands down.
Elvis Presley and Ella Fitzgerald both did riffs on the venerable Santa Claus/chimney double entendre described in the First Day of Elvis post above.
Elvis’ rip-roaring performance of Santa Claus Is Back in Town is one of the highlights of his catalogue.
Ella Fitzgerald’s entry, Santa Claus Got Stuck In My Chimney, well, not so much.
In fact, Ella’s Santa dud is frequently invoked to illustrate how she languished in artistic purgatory at Decca Records before she was rescued by impresario Norman Granz in 1956. Granz built the Verve record label around Fitzgerald and secured her finances and artistic reputation with the Songbook series of releases.
Granz also engaged in what might be characterized as d*ck moves to extract Fitzgerald from her management and Decca contracts, so traducing her Decca work is perhaps necessary to burnish his white knight credentials.
Actually, a lot of Fitzgerald’s work on Decca is great, created under the supervision first under her mentor and bandleader, Chick Webb, and then A&R executive Milt Gabler. Gabler is impervious to efforts to paint him as Ella’s Mitch Miller.
Miller notoriously subjected Ol’ Blue Eyes—then Young Blue Eyes and, in the eyes of Columbia Records, a problematic has-been—to a novelty duet with Dagmar (a television personality in vogue in 1951), Mama Will Bark, in which Sinatra impersonates (perhaps the correct term is “indoginates”) a lustful canine.
Gabler’s artistic legacy is secure. Before moving to Decca, he ran Commodore Records, which released the “Song of the Century” according to Time Magazine, Billie Holiday’s Strange Fruit, when Columbia was afraid to put it out.
Gabler started work with Fitzgerald during the 78/jukebox era, when an individual release was a single song (well, an A side and a B side) and it had to push the popular button on the first try. Gabler worked to ride the trends, and try to score the novelty record that might knock it out of the park, sales-wise (Mitch Miller was the king of novelty tunes; Mama Will Bark might have sunk without a trace and spurred Sinatra’s departure from Columbia, but I Saw Mummy Kissing Santa Claus sold 2.5 million copies in 1952-3).
Yeah, I know. But Columbia scored two gold records for this ditty, in the days when RIAA gold records were literally made out of gold.
Keeping with the theme of Christmas lewdness, the whiff of scandal also helped propel I Saw Mummy Kissing Santa Claus into the sales stratosphere. Per Wikipedia:
Boyd’s record was condemned by the Roman Catholic Church in Boston when it was released on the grounds that it mixed kissing with Christmas… Boyd was photographed meeting with the Archdiocese to explain the song. After the meeting, the ban was lifted.
Gabler also paid attention to art & Ella, using commercial efforts to “pay for all the good things we want to do.” Ella Sings Gershwin, the first of Fitzgerald’s great American songbook triumphs, was actually recorded as an EP for Decca in 1950, immediately before the Santa Claus date.
In 1954, just prior to Norman Granz’s successful effort to wrest Fitzgerald’s recording contract from Decca (Decca could not complete its soundtrack to The Benny Goodman Story biopic without obtaining releases from some Granz artists), Decca presented Ella Fitzgerald with a plaque commemorating sales of 22 million units over her career. Not too shabby.
While celebrating the Granz era, which saw the rise of the LP, massive prestige recording projects like the Songbook series, and Fitzgerald’s elevation to The First Lady of Song, dumping on Santa Claus Got Stuck in My Chimney has become something of a cottage industry.
I’ve seen references on the Intertoobs along the lines that Decca was at first afraid to release it because of its salaciousness (I’ve seen no confirmation of this) and that during Fitzgerald’s lifetime her lawyers blocked its re-release (not sure how they could do this).
Certainly, Santa Claus didn’t re-emerge during her lifetime. Verve did put it on a Christmas release bizarrely titled Yule Be Miserable a few years back. It was also repackaged into an omnibus Ella Fitzgerald Christmas CD titled Ella Wishes You a Swinging Christmas. Since this CD includes the full Ella Fitzgerald Wishes You a Swinging Christmas—her first Christmas album, and an extremely successful release for Verve in 1960—some Internet commentators have incorrectly inferred that Santa Claus was cut in 1960 instead of 1950. I passed this error on to readers of China Matters in the original edit of the First Day of Elvis segment, and take this opportunity to issue a correction and an apology!
As an example of 1) Ella Fitzgerald’s achievements during the Decca era 2) her fondness for novelty songs and 3) transgressive subject matter, here is a joyful performance of When I Get Low I Get High from 1936. Yes, it means exactly what you think it means.
Day Four: The Elvis Presley Debt to Polka
On the adult side of the pop music spectrum, “Santa Claus” can refer to the mindless male member…or the generous sugar daddy.
Elvis recorded a rollicking cover of “Just Because” at Sun Records in 1954. It includes the verses:
You’ve caused me to spend all my money.
You laughed and called me old Santa Claus.
Well, I’m telling you,
Baby, I’m through with you.
Because, well well, just because.
Well, well, well,
There’ll come a time when you’ll be lonesome
And there’ll come a time when you’ll be blue.
Well, there’ll come a time when old Santa
He won’t pay your bills for you.
Ample qualification, therefore, for an Elvis/Christmas tie-in.
“Just Because” is a country perennial that first surfaced in the 1920s during the Hawaiian craze in pop music. It was first recorded by the “Nelstone Hawaiians”, an Alabama combo led by Hubert Nelson & James Touchstone (hence the portmanteau name), which was a pioneer in the use of the Hawaiian steel guitar.
In 1933, Leon’s Lone Star Cowboys, a seminal blues/western swing group, took an uptempo crack at “Just Because”:
Then the Shelton Brothers (who had been involved in the founding of the Lone Star Cowboys and, depending on whose story you read, either wrote the song or ripped it off), recorded their version in 1935. The Shelton Brothers were a big deal in country music in the 1930s, recording 150 or so sides for Decca.
America’s Polka King Frankie Yankovic launched his lengthy career with a cover of “Just Because” in 1948 (“Who Stole the Kishka?”, one of his last records, released in 2001, featured a cameo by the puckish, accordion-inclined, but unrelated “Weird” Al Yankovic). Yankovic believed so strongly in “Just Because” he offered to buy the first 10,000 copies himself to overcome the resistance of Columbia Records to releasing it. His confidence was rewarded as “Just Because” struck gold (actually platinum, selling over two million units).
Elvis was, in his early years, serious about his music. One of the most striking photos of young Elvis shows him riding “the train” (what we rode before airplanes, kids) back to Memphis and listening again and again to the the acetates of his latest “records” (oversized storage media) on his “portable turntable” (like an iPod but the size of a small suitcase).
However, he was no obsessive musical archivist with a stack of Bluebird and Decca 78s in his basement. Elvis showed up at Sun Records with little more than bits and pieces:
You know, he sang a bunch of the old songs, but he didn’t know much of them—maybe just a verse and a chorus of each!
When they got together at Sun, it was undoubtedly Scotty Moore—a veteran of the local music circuit, and member of a country band, the Starlight Wranglers, that was probably intimately familiar with the Shelton Brothers repertoire—serving as de facto arranger, who helped Elvis put the pieces together.
This July, on the 60th anniversary of the first Sun session, Peter Cooper recreated the scene in the pages of the Tennessean:
The evening began in self-conscious discomfort as Presley stumbled through versions of pop and country songs.
Moore and Black were good enough musicians to replicate famous recordings, but Presley was raw and green and nervous.
Phillips wasn’t interested in replication. The room filled with frustration, with failure in sight. This wasn’t working. It was getting late, and early morning would mean hats and tires to make, and a Crown Electric truck to drive. The men took a break, and Presley started fooling around and banging on his guitar. If he was going to blow his big audition, he might as well act like it was no big deal.
That night, in staunchly segregated Memphis, Presley started goofing on an old blues song, “That’s All Right, Mama,” by Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup. Black jumped up and grabbed his bass, and Moore started playing some speedy guitar fills.
“Fast music was what I liked,” Moore wrote in his memoir, “Scotty & Elvis: Aboard the Mystery Train.” “For years I had been making up guitar licks for uptempo music. … It wasn’t until Elvis was flailing away at his guitar that I suddenly knew where those licks belonged.”
Turns out, those licks belonged everywhere. Phillips rushed to turn the microphones back on and captured the sound of the world’s shifting axis.
A few weeks later, with ”That’s All Right” a local sensation, the trio took a crack at “Just Because”.
Even though Elvis’ version seems closest in style and spirit to the Lone Star Cowboys’ take, I doubt anybody dug up that old chestnut. I expect the Yankovic polka was in the air when Elvis was a kid, and he was entranced with the clever lyric and the melody. Presley, Moore, and bassist Bill Black then put their heads together in Sun’s recording studio and came up with an fresh, energetic reboot.
The alchemy that Elvis, Moore, and Black achieved with a stripped-down band, an untrained amateur singer, and a tired old retread of a country song that had most recently been fed through the Polka-matic is quite remarkable. Elvis gives a confident, joyful performance (he was 19 at the time) and Scotty Moore generously showcases Elvis’ vocal while at the same time driving the tune forward instrumentally with a forceful guitar-picking style that made a virtue of the empty spaces left by the small combo and inadvertently revolutionized popular music.
Sun didn’t release the cut, but the master followed Elvis to RCA and was released on his first RCA LP.
Amazingly, 37 years after Elvis’ death, Scotty Moore is still with us at the age of 83 (though he isn’t a much of a presence on his website & facebook pages and gave up personalizing guitars and other memorabilia a while back). The title of his autobiography, That’s All Right, Elvis, while riffing on one of the first revolutionary cuts at Sun, “That’s All Right”, refers to Moore’s grace in forgiving Elvis for letting Colonel Parker’s management team kick Moore to the curb and replace him with Hollywood studio talent after the move to RCA. The contribution of polka to Elvis’ sound may be forgotten, but Scotty Moore’s is, thankfully, remembered.
Day Five: Blue—woo-woo-woo Christmas
I am glad to learn that Elvis Presley apparently shared my lack of enthusiasm for “Blue Christmas”, a New York jingle writer’s gambit to cash in both on Irving Berlin’s White Christmas and white audiences’ rising postwar interest in the blues. Earnest Tubb had a hit with “Blue Christmas” in 1950, turning the mopey ballad into a mainstay of country acts during the holiday season. So it isn’t surprising that the sheet music for “Blue Christmas” found its way into the pile of possibilities for the 1957 Elvis’ Christmas Album recording session.
We can thank Millie Kirkham for the fact that “Blue Christmas” actually made it onto the album.
On December 16 of 2014, Millie Kirkham, who provided the distinctive soprano backing for the track, passed away at the age of 91. Her obituary noted:
Singing as a sort of unofficial fifth member of The Jordanaires, Kirkham didn’t just lead the “whoo-ooh-oohs” on “Blue Christmas,” her first session with Elvis in 1957 — she came up with the part. As the story goes, The King originally didn’t want to record the song, but had to, and called on the singers to come up with something silly enough to keep RCA from releasing it.
“I started going ‘Whoo-oo-oo-oo,’ “…[Elvis] motioned for me to keep doing it, so I did it all the way through the whole song. When we were through, we all laughed and said ‘That’s one record the record company will never release.’ But they did. And if I got royalties, I’d be a rich old woman.”
When he sang it during his 1968 comeback special, Elvis called “Blue Christmas” his favorite Christmas song “of the ones he recorded.” He was perhaps engaging in some sly mockery.
Wikipedia has something more favorable to say about the high level of musicianship that Kirkham and the Jordanaires brought to their work with Elvis:
Presley’s version [of “Blue Christmas] is notable musicologically as well as culturally in that the vocal group the Jordanaires (especially in the soprano line, sung by Millie Kirkham), replace many major and just minor thirds with neutral and septimal minor thirds, respectively. In addition to contributing to the overall tone of the song, the resulting “blue notes” constitute a musical play on words that provides an “inside joke” or “Easter egg” to trained ears.
Well, if you say so.
The Jordanaires were a successful vocal quartet A.E. (Ante Elvis) with a recording contract, a spot on the Grand Ole Opry, and a lot of backing work for country vocalists. They also had several gospel songs in their performing repertoire, apparently a distinctive feature at the time.
After hearing them perform their version of “Peace In the Valley” (much more about that on subsequent Days), Elvis, at that time still on the financially-strapped Sun label, declared to them that, if he got a big record company deal, he would use them as his backing group. Indeed, when he joined RCA, the Jordanaires, after some minor hiccups, joined him.
The Jordanaires became pillars of the Nashville music scene and a major catalyst for its growth to prominence. The Jordanaires backed an astounding 2,000 artists and are heard on records with cumulative sales of 2.6 billion units. They also created the Nashville commercial jingle segment and are commemorated in the biz for their important role in setting up the Nashville branch of the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists/Screen Actors Guild union.
The Jordanaires also developed an easy-to-use musical notation, the now universally employed “Nashville Number System” or NNS, which assisted musicians without formal musical training to identify & play chords and was also present at the spawning of thousands of garage bands. Here’s what “Blue Christmas” looks like with NNS notation.
I have a blue Christmas without you
I’ll be so blue just thinking about you
E E7 A
Decorations of red, on a green Christmas tree
won’t be the same dear, if you’re not here with me.
And when those blue snow flakes start falling,
that’s when those blue memories start calling,
E E7 A Bbdim7
you’ll be doing alright, with your Christmas of white,
but I’ll have a blue blue Christmas.
Ohh, ohh, ohh Ahhh Ahh ahh a ahh ohhhh
ohh, ohh, ohh Ahhhhh Ahh ahh a ahh ohhhh
E E7 A Bbdim7
You’ll be doing allright with your Christmas of white
but I’ll have a blue blue Christmas,
And if you’re really, really hooked on “Blue Christmas” and NNS notation, and want to play the song yourself, here’s a nice tutorial from Eric Blackmon.
Ironically, I guess, the blackest song on Elvis’ Christmas Album is “White Christmas”.
Elvis’ version doesn’t harken back to Bing Crosby’s iconic 1942 version.
Instead, he invokes the spirit of Clyde McPhatter, who cut a doo-wop version of the song with the Drifters in 1954.
I daresay McPhatter is mostly remembered today by doowop, R&B, and rock musicologists. But he was a major figure in the development of R&B, soul, and rock, and a major artistic and commercial force in the music business, most notably with the Drifters and as a solo act, in the 1950s.
McPhatter started out in gospel, and is credited with being one of the first—and most successful—at transferring the emotional gospel sensibility to secular pop. Sam Cooke, among many others, followed in his footsteps.
So did Elvis. Indeed, Elvis’ long reach into gospel, both directly and via R&B, and appropriation of its vocabulary of emotional transcendence is perhaps what made him the transformative pop culture figure we know today, and not just another in a long line of smooth-voiced entertainers.
Elvis adored McPhatter’s singing, as Sam Phillips recalled:
‘You remember Clyde McPhatter? Elvis thought Clyde McPhatter had one of the greatest voices in the world. We were going somewhere one time – down to the Louisiana Hayride or to Nashville – and we were singing in the car. Well, Bill Black couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket, and Scotty was worse.
So Elvis and I were the only good singers in the car. But we were talking about Clyde McPhatter, and he said, ‘You know, if I had a voice like that man, I’d never want for another thing.’
McPhatter deployed melisma and slipped on and off the beat as he embarked on his emotional and musical journeys. In other words, he took liberties. I will admit I am not a fan of McPhatter’s demented-castrato take on “White Christmas”, but it was very popular with record buyers, and with Elvis Presley. It not only rose to No. 2 on the R&B chart in 1954 and reappeared on the chart the next two years, it was the first Drifters record to crack the mainstream i.e. white pop dominated Billboard 100 chart.
When Elvis mimicked the Drifters’ “White Christmas”, these liberties attracted the baleful attention of the tune’s author, Irving Berlin.
Berlin had not taken public notice of the Drifters’ version, but when the wildly popular Presley converted his beloved standard into a doo-wop yodelfest, Berlin took umbrage. In addition to resenting the rise of the loosy-goosy rock and roll performer at the expense of respect for the material and the Tin Pan Alley songsmith, Berlin may have had additional reasons for his anger. His three-week old son had died on Christmas Day, and Berlin and his wife visited the grave on every anniversary.
In any case, Jody Rosen, the author of a book on White Christmas, told NPR:
“Berlin couldn’t stand Presley, and Presley recorded a cover version of ‘White Christmas’ for his Christmas album, which Berlin took as kind of sacrilege,” Rosen says. “He really thought it was degrading to his song. So he and members of his staff launched a furious campaign to try and get radio stations to ban the Presley record.”
The campaign to get radio stations not to play the song didn’t really get anywhere, though one DJ was reportedly fired. The Elvis commercial and artistic juggernaut could not be sidetracked even by Irving Berlin, composer of “God Bless America” and perhaps the most successful and prolific pop songsmith in American history.
So Elvis’ take on “White Christmas”, though bland and unthreatening, is perhaps the most revolutionary cut on the album.
Day Seven: Elvis/Jesus
“Will Elvis take the place of Jesus, in a thousand years?” Jello Biafra
Maybe he already has.
Yes, it’s a thing, though tongue in cheek. I think.
Jesus is spelled with five letters, ending in S.
Elvis is spelled with five letters, ending in S.
A star appeared when Jesus was born. (Matthew 2:2)
Elvis almost appeared in A Star Is Born.
Joseph wasn’t Jesus’ father.
Elvis didn’t think Vernon was his real dad.
Jesus’ parents took him to Memphis, Egypt (to escape Herod).
Elvis’ parents took him to Memphis, Tennessee (to find work).
Jesus said, “Don’t store away gold or silver, travel without money.”
Elvis never carried any money on his person.
Jesus is the Lord’s shepherd.
Elvis dated Cybill Shepherd.
Visit the web page of The Velvet Elvis homage artist (not “Elvis impersonator”, please!) for more parallels and imagery.
Day Eight: Elvis/Nixon
On December 21, 1970, on the cusp of Christmas, this historic meeting took place:
This indelible image is the most requested photograph from the U.S. National Archives.
In 1970, Elvis flew to Washington to request credentials as “Federal Agent at Large” to help the government deal with the illegal drug problem. Beatle envy–resentment that the drugged-out Fab Four had eclipsed the King–has been cited as the underlying motivation. In any case, Elvis, an avid police badge collector, sought out President Nixon because the Bureau of Narcotics and Drugs had denied him the precious tin.
A George Washington University website documents the meeting and includes a PDF of Elvis’ letter to Nixon setting up the meeting. It states, in part:
“I have done an in-depth study of drug abuse and Communist brainwashing techniques and I am right in the middle of the whole thing…”
The punch line is that Elvis was allegedly stoned at the meeting.
I guess we could recapitulate the Elvis/Jesus meme as Elvis/Nixon:
“Elvis” & “Nixon” both have five letters, two syllables, two vowels, and one funky consonant each
Both broke nationally in 1956
Both had comebacks in 1968
Both hated Communists and the Beatles
Both abused licit psychoactive chemicals and both became more than a little paranoid
And so on…
Day Nine: Hearing the Light: Elvis & Black Gospel
On his 1957 Christmas album, Elvis essays a gospel standard, “Take My Hand, Precious Lord”.
It is, to my ears, pretty but also pretty bland. And that, unfortunately, is something of an indictment of Elvis.
TMHPL is, without too much exaggeration, the national anthem of American black gospel. It was composed in 1937 by Thomas A. Dorsey, himself the progenitor of 20th century black gospel.
It was Martin Luther King’s favorite song. Literally his last words before he was shot down on the balcony in Memphis were to musician Ben Branch: “Ben, make sure you play “Take My Hand, Precious Lord” in the meeting tonight. Play it real pretty.”
Mahalia Jackson, per King’s stated wish, sang “Take My Hand, Precious Lord” at his funeral in Atlanta (the private service). Aretha Franklin sang it at Jackson’s funeral in 1971. Leontyne Price sang it at LBJ’s funeral in 1973. And so on.
The song is most closely identified with Mahalia Jackson, who had performed it since the 1930s in her role as Thomas A. Dorsey’s chosen musical emissary to the African-American religious community. Her first known recording was on a Columbia LP released in 1956.
Jackson keeps her fires well-banked in this version, probably reflecting the careful direction of Dorsey, who developed some “slow sentimental songs” like TMHPL for Jackson to use to reassure conservative churchmen about the dignity and value of his gospel approach.
This Jackson version is, perhaps, more definitive:
The Rise of Gospel Blues: The Music of Thomas Andrew Dorsey in the Urban Church (Harris, Michael W., 1992 Oxford University Press, New York) links his music to the social and economic revolution wrought by the emigration of impoverished African-Americans to northern cities, especially Chicago, and the challenge they brought to “old-line” African American urban churches and their “talented tenth” emphasis on European music, seemly upper-class behavior, and the preacher’s dominance over the emotional and religious content of the church service.
TMHPL seems to have created a sensation in African-American congregations with its direct emotional appeal for divine help. To my unreligious ears, it seems to partake of the same sort of emotional outcry directed by Catholics to the Virgin Mary and by Buddhists to Kuan Yin for merciful intercession that belies the theology of a stern and/or indifferent universe.
In 1973 Dorsey supervised a recording of the song by Marion Williams. This track includes Dorsey’s first-person account of the terrible personal trial that inspired him to write the song and also perhaps best illustrates the kind of vocal Dorsey valued: one that used “trills, twists, and turns” both to excite the audience and elevate it to a religiously exalted state of awareness.
The proliferation of African-American churches with a “gospel choir” headed by a female fire-eater, often trained in the school of Dorsey, leading a call and response with the audience, completely changed American perceptions of the character of black worship.
Aretha Franklin’s first record, recorded in 1956 when she was 14–and a year before Elvis recorded his take–gives an idea of the kind of workout a gospel diva would bring to the tune.
Compared to this incendiary performance, Elvis’ dutiful version is pretty much a damp squib.
Elvis’ love of gospel, including black gospel is well-known.
However, his perception of what was the best and most suitable presentation of gospel was filtered through his love of the white gospel quartets that dominated the southern scene when he was a boy. Elvis, if I may say so, religiously attended the monthly gospel musicales at the Ellis Auditorium in Memphis, a stone throw from the Presley home.
The most conspicuous display of Elvis’ love for these quartets is his elevation of the Jordanaires to the position of his backing group on secular as well as religious recordings. As this documentary demonstrates, Presley was besotted with all gospel quartets and, indeed, had auditioned for membership in one the leading groups, the Blackwells.
The white quartets often included black gospel numbers in their repertoire. However, it appears inclusion was often an act of appropriation, substituting the controlled, disciplined presentation by a white quartet for the emotive desperation frequently seen in black performance.
As black assertiveness became more political and social and not just religious, white gospel seems to have become more defensive, retreating to a “southern white gospel” affirmation of white social and moral attitudes that, I suspect, always cohabited with the religious universalism that the white quartets could assert so blandly in more secure times.
And Elvis, I’m afraid, turned to gospel to achieve the feelings of control and unity he craved in his increasingly disordered life, not the release and liberation he had witnessed in black churches.
Day Ten: Death, Rebirth, and Elvis
Alfred Wertheimer passed away in October of 2014. Wertheimer created a brilliant photographic record of “Elvis at 21”, following Presley as he navigated the choppy waters of celebrity in 1956.
Wertheimer’s most famous picture is “The Kiss”.
Vanity Fair tracked down the woman involved in 2011, just soon enough for Wertheimer to enjoy a final jolt of fame and prosperity before he died.
Elvis was unique in that he permitted closeness, not six to eight feet away, which was standard, but right up close, three to four feet away. He was so intensely involved with what he was doing: it was as if he were laser focused; whether he was combing his hair or chatting up the girls, he would be himself.
Here’s another great but less-known Wertheimer photograph: Elvis relaxing with his musicians while recording “Hound Dog” and “Don’t Be Cruel” at RCA’s 24th Street studios in New York City.
The background to this photo is provided by Baruch College, which took over the building from RCA for its “Newman Vertical Campus” and contributed a historical essay:
The seven floor stable next to the horse mart [in the pre-automobile era, 24th Street was the equine center of the universe just as New York City was the world capital of horsesh*t—ed.] became a recording studio in 1955 when RCA-Victor Records moved their offices there from Rockefeller Center. A few months later, a young, still relatively unknown singer named Elvis Presley visited the studio and recorded some of his first songs that would make him known worldwide. Alfred Wertheimer, a photographer who followed Elvis described the last time that they had recorded in that studio.
On July 2, 1956, a defining moment in the history of rock and roll took place. Elvis recorded “Hound Dog” and “Don’t be Cruel,” which were released by RCA as two sides of one single. This was the only time both sides of a single reached number one on the charts. The session at RCA Studio was also the last time Elvis would record in New York. Of course, I wasn’t aware of any of this when I arrived at the building on 24th street between Lexington and 3rd Avenues. I did sense that this recording session would provide with me[sic] a rare opportunity to observe another stage in the evolution of my subject.
Located on the ground floor, the main studio where Elvis recorded was a large room with a lot of acoustical padding covering the walls. There were two small adjoining rooms, one of which was reserved for the sound engineers. Instead of having to book orchestra musicians for three-hour gigs, Elvis brought his own crew – Scotty Moore on guitar, DJ Fontana on drums, Bill Black on bass, and four Jordanaires as back-up. Shorty Long was hired as the piano player. Also present were Steve Sholes from RCA and the always necessary Junior, Elvis’s go-fer. The recording session began early in the afternoon and lasted until dusk. (The Recording Session: Studio One in Elvis at 21, San Rafael: Insight Editions, 2006)
Death and rebirth are the traditional preoccupation of the winter solstice, and got rolled into the Christian celebration of Christmas. The sun goes out; the son is born.
Elvis himself has enjoyed post-mortem vitality, and dominated the Forbes list of top-earning dead celebrities until Michael Jackson, onetime spouse of Presley’s daughter, exploded onto the scene in 2009. Today, Elvis is a solid No. 2, his earnings eclipsed by Jackson but, at $40+ million dollars, but way ahead of Albert Einstein (who earns a relatively paltry $11 million for his estate).
Day Eleven: The Power and the Glory…Without the Joy
Elvis’ life transition from pure joy to pure bullsh*t was pretty quick.
In 1956—the period so hauntingly documented in Alfred Wertheimer’s photos—Elvis experienced music, fame, girls, and an intoxicating awareness of his own achievement.
By 1958, Elvis was in the Army (where he apparently commenced his lifelong romance with amphetamines and, eventually, other legally prescribed pharmaceuticals); his adored mother, Gladys, had passed away; and the stage was set for a decade of fame, financial security, growing emotional and spiritual turmoil, and an infuriating harvest of crappy music and crappy movies courtesy of Colonel Tom Parker.
A clear sign of where things were headed is Elvis’ historic 1956/57 TV appearances on the Milton Berle Show, the Steve Allen Show, and the Ed Sullivan Show.
On June 5, 1956, Elvis appeared on the Milton Berle show in full gyrating fig. The Elvis Australia fan site has done a great job of locating and archiving Elvis footage and you can see Elvis’ performance of “Hound Dog”—which Elvis has clearly worked up as a salacious crowd pleaser for his live performance (with a slowdown grinding interval) even before he went into the studio to cut the track. When Elvis recorded the song in New York a month later, he pushed his musicians through 31 takes, a sign of the high expectations he held for his music at the time, and his respect for Leiber & Stoller.
Berle is generous and good natured and the after-song patter celebrates Elvis’ burgeoning status as a sex symbol, while coyly dances around Berle’s legendary sex-machine prowess (google Jackie Gleason’s plea “Just enough to win, Milton” to get the idea).
In an interview that Berle did for the Archive of American Television, he recollects that he got 400,000 “pan”– “not fan”–letters after the appearance, a sign not only of the powerful reaction that Elvis’ sexual display had on Americans, but also of the central place broadcast TV occupied in the US psyche in the 1950s.
This was when the “sh*t got real” for Elvis. . Elvis was reportedly driven to tears by the imputation that he was “vulgar”. In July Steve Allen imposed his vision of the “new” housebroken Elvis, subjecting Elvis to the humiliation of dressing up in a tuxedo and singing “Hound Dog” to a noticeably disinterested basset hound.
When it came time for Elvis to collect $50,000 dollars of Ed Sullivan’s money for three appearances in the fall of 1956 and early 1957, the game got more complicated. Sullivan, who considered Elvis’ act insufficiently family friendly, rather counterintuitively let Elvis do the full hound-doggin’ act on the October 28, 1956 show. Well, maybe not counterintuitively. After Elvis’ performance elicited a spasm of outrage—which apparently included burning him in effigy in two towns—and stoked the publicity engine, Sullivan, ostentatiously exercising his responsibilities as gatekeeper of American entertainment decency, ordered up some adjustments for the final show, on January 6, 1957.
This was the notorious show in which Elvis was shot only from the waist up in efforts to transform him into a pop-music eunuch. Elvis’ sudden interest in world affairs and Hungarian relief, I suspect, is a further piece of image-burnishing that emerged from a summit between Sullivan and the Colonel. At the end, Sullivan gives the condescending showbiz “he’s a real decent fine boy” imprimatur, confirming, I guess, that Presley was qualified to follow the same path to the non-threatening adult entertainer pioneered by Crosby & Sinatra.
In this context, Elvis’ closing number, “Peace in the Valley”, is quite interesting. “Peace In the Valley”, together with “Take My Hand, Precious Lord” (see Day 9) are the two signature creations of Thomas A. Dorsey, the founding father of 20th century black gospel.
I have my issues with Elvis’ take on “Take My Hand, Precious Lord”, whose core identity as a desperate black call for religious support he doesn’t quite seem to grasp. “Peace In the Valley” is much less problematic, a reassuring vision of sanctuary, safety, and acceptance that had already been a huge hit for Red Foley, a talented and sophisticated star who could be considered the Bing Crosby of country music.
Elvis, backed by the Jordanaires, turns in a flawless performance, delivered with a style of “Do my vocal demonstrations please you, Earthlings?” detachment that became more and more pronounced in his later years.
The most convincing stories I’ve seen state that Elvis insisted on closing with a gospel number over the objections of CBS. I tend to think Elvis turned to gospel in order to asset his identity, dignity, and self respect as a musician and entertainer, maybe to his mom as well as to himself, and defy the “rock and roll vulgarian”/”safe as milk popstar” pigeonholes that the music industry and his manager had prepared for him.
Elvis’ subsequently recorded a four song EP of gospel tunes (“Peace In the Valley”, “It Is No Secret (What God Can Do)”, “I Believe” and “Take My Hand, Precious Lord”), which became the core of the second, “religious” side of the 1957 Christmas Album.
Elvis was not an enthusiast for the Pentecostal theology his parents practiced, and his own religious views became more and more idiosyncratic—and more scandalous to close and critical observers in the Christian world– as he grew older.
“I’ll tell ya, Larry, I’ve always believed in God, but my church really turned me off,” Elvis said. “I always knew there was a truth to my religion, and somehow I never lost faith in God, despite those ol’ preachers tryin’ to make people feel guilty for things they never done. I always knew that deep inside me there were answers that went beyond their rigid old closed minds.”
“The first time I ever heard about the Almighty I Am was from my mom when I was a little kid. She believed in the supernatural and the Holy Spirit. She was mystical, man. She just naturally knew things. She raised me on it.”
When Elvis’ father, Vernon, not a religious man, took his son to his first movie, the innocent “Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein,” it was their secret, not to be shared with Gladys. She would have disapproved very strongly of her son going against the strictures of the church, which forbade attendance at motion pictures. Considering Elvis’ later involvement with the movie industry, it’s interesting to note that it was the discovery of this forbidden medium that was the first fissure in his relationship with the church of his youth. He was at the naturally rebellious age of thirteen, but he was also realizing for the first time that the preachers were humans whose teachings were colored by their own personal values and opinions. What was so bad about a funny movie? Was it indeed evil—and was he evil for seeing it?
“They said movies were the work of the devil. But after I saw “Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein” with my daddy, I knew somebody had to be wrong. And it for sure wasn’t Abbott and Costello.” Elvis’ eyes sparkled. “Man, I loved that movie. We laughed all the way through it.”
He turned serious again. “I’ll never forget that movie. You know, there’s got to be something wrong with a religion where everything you like is a sin. Man, that congregation would jump up and down, stomp their feet, and get themselves worked up to a frenzy. It really got wild. And there was the preacher threatening us with Satan. It used to scare me half –to death. He would march across the platform, screaming bloody murder, yelling about hellfire and damnation, fire and brimstone. I guess he was afraid God wouldn’t hear him if he didn’t yell.
“But something good did come out of it. All that dancin’ and the free movement, it taught me that God is natural, and to move my body was natural. I give credit to my church for that. You know, I took a lot of heat when my career first took off. They said I was ‘controversial.’ And there were some preachers who actually said that my music was dirty, and I was leading the kids to hell. They even had a bonfire and burned my records and albums. Can you imagine that? Hell, all I did was what came naturally—what I learned when I was a little kid in church, movin’ my body to the music.”
Religious orthodoxy, aside, Elvis appears to have maintained a core identity as a singer who understood, respected, & delivered genuine gospel music, even as his mind and body were inexorably blown by the unprecedented fame, temptation, weakness, and manipulation he experienced from the time he exploded on the scene as a 21-year old.
Perhaps this sense of inner worth is what allowed him to sleepwalk through his movie and musical career under the direction of the artistically maladroit and venal Colonel Tom Parker; but it also allowed him to return to the power and glory of his first year of fame when he felt he needed it.
Elvis’ twin 1960s triumphs are his 1968 NBC comeback special and the 1969 “Memphis Record” sessions.
The TV special was an embarrassing necessity; the steady procession of dismal movies and soundtracks had eroded Elvis’ appeal to the point that the Colonel needed to throw in a TV program as a lagniappe in order to keep Elvis’ asking price from falling below the iconic $1 million/picture level.
The TV special was originally planned as a cheapie Christmas schlockfest with Elvis singing a few carols. We can thank producer/director Steve Binder for reimagining the program—which aired on December 3, 1968– as a triumphant return to Elvis’ musical roots. In the end, the only Christmas song performed was “Blue Christmas,” off the 1957 album. Though I have my reservations about the original recording (Woo-oo-oo-oo-oo; see Day 5), Elvis nails it in this version.
Day Twelve: Peace In the Valley
To accompany Elvis’ rendition of Reverend Thomas Dorsey’s “Peace in the Valley” from his Christmas album, here is a supersized image of Edward Hicks’ The Peaceable Kingdom, inspired by the same passage from the Book of Isaiah,for viewing, contemplation, reflection, and consolation (use your scroll bar!) during Elvis’ magnificent performance. Hicks, an itinerant Quaker preacher in Pennsylvania, painted this blissful scene approximately one hundred times.
Happy Holidays, Everybody! Peace on Earth!
(Reprinted from China Matters by permission of author or representative)