Archive for September, 2010

Commencement photo

September 26, 2010

(A little personal posting, with no content of linguistic value.)

From back in June, a photo of me at the Stanford Linguistics graduation ceremony. These departmental ceremonies take place after the big event in Stanford Stadium, with its Famous Speaker and the hordes of graduates performing their Wacky Walks. The graduates actually get their diplomas at these departmental events, and our department is small enough that we can provide an encomium for each student, delivered by the student’s adviser. It’s a wonderful custom.

The photo was taken by Laura Staum Casasanto, shortly before she received her Ph.D. diploma and an encomium from Penny Eckert (I was merely the co-adviser for her dissertation, Experimental Investigations of Sociolinguistic Knowledge). It catches me in a spot in the shade — on an extraordinarily hot day — that Daniel Casasanto, Laura’s husband, thoughtfully set up for me. I don’t like most photographs of me (and sometimes go to some trouble to avoid having my picture taken), but I like this one.

And it catches me in the fag-lavender shirt that I’ve mentioned twice on this blog (here and here), with its color somewhat intensified by my manipulations of the jpg file that Laura sent me a few days ago.

It’s been a week of In Your Face t-shirts for me. Starting with a simple Pansy shirt (advertising Pansy Brand citrus fruit) on Monday, then on Tuesday my F Word shirt (advertising Jesse Sheidlower’s book, in silver block letters on basic black), on Wednesday back to to pansy advertising (but more in your face, a Pansy Brand label with the added caption “Pansy Brand Homo Grown Premium Fruits Available Worldwide”), on Thursday “Be All You Can Be: Militant Homosexual”, on Friday a t-shirt with the Gran Fury “Read My Lips” image of two sailors kissing, and yesterday a shirt with the Gay Pride “Visible” shirt (with a pink triangle for the V). I guess that the wrangling over the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy and over marriage equality in California finally got to me.

Some images for your amusement: two Pansy Brand labels (not the ones on my t-shirts):

Then the Gran Fury poster:

And the Visible graphic:

Notes on shapenote singing

September 23, 2010

The story starts in late-18th-century New England, with four-part hymns set by America’s first composers (in particular, William Billings of Boston).  Though pretty clearly related to English “artistic” hymn-writing, this music was “rustic” and “naive” in various ways — the lines often travelled in parallel fourths and fifths, and the harmony was “dispersed”, with lots of open chords (not always filled with thirds, and very rarely with seconds) and with the voices distributed over as wide a range of pitches as possible.  Although sometimes sung with instrumental or organ accompaniment, the music was arranged so as not to need accompaniment; this allowed it to be sung in places that lacked the instruments.  As an aid to learning, composers began writing the music with different shapes for the different notes of the scale; the shapes had the additional virtue of freeing the music from the particular key chosen by the composer (or, more often, printer), so that the songs could be sung in any key that fit the voices of a group of singers.

Music masters could then travel from place to place and quickly teach the techniques, and then locals could pass them on; soon, professional musicians could be dispensed with entirely, as they have been for nearly two hundred years now.  Originally associated with church services, the singing soon became a communal event for occasions when there was no church service (two or three sundays out of four, in many places).

Printed books of songs sprung up, hundreds of them eventually, most in the oblong shape that allowed a whole line of text and tune to be fitted into a single printed line. The now-dominant book — the one I sing from — is The Sacred Harp (Denson Revision, first ed. 1844, last rev. 1991), though there are also singings from the “Cooper Book” (The B.F. White Sacred Harp, revised Cooper edition) and from The Christian Harmony (with a 7-shape notation shared by a number of other books). And from auxiliary books like Northern Harmony and Northampton Harmony, which provide a constant source of new songs, some of which are eventually incorporated into the “Denson book”. (Other added songs are revivals from the 18th and 19th centuries. Billings keeps expanding over the years; in my opinion, Boston — “Methinks I see a heav’nly host of angels on the wing” — deserves a place in the next revision, but then I’m very big on angels and trumpets.)

The music traveled in this way down the Appalachians, picking up other musical influences along the way (English folk traditions; European art music; Scots-Irish folk music; the music of the many American revivalist movements and camp-meetings); setting itself off from (or being actively rejected by) other musical waves of the period (Lowell Mason’s “good music” movement; what came to be American gospel musics, white and black); retreating to rural communities of the deep South, especially in Georgia and Alabama, especially in Primitive Baptist and Primitive Methodist churches, where it served as an ecumenical bond between churches riven by their endless doctrinal schisms.

This history gave rise to at least two of the characteristic 20th-century features of the tradition: a resolute anti-doctrinarian stance (which has made it possible for non-believers, Jews, Quakers, Mormons, and other outlandish types to find some kind of place under the larger Sacred Harp umbrella) and the communitarian ethos manifested most clearly in the tradition of “dinner on the grounds” after a singing, typically supplied pot-luck style by the participants, sometimes by the host.

Along with these traditions go the many democratic customs of shapenote singing, in particular, passing the leadership for songs from person to person (the leader selects a song, announces which verses and which repeats will be sung, pitches the song, and beats the time — or assigns some of these responsibilities to someone else); and the amiable negotiation of pitches.

As the music came to be seen by some people as irredeemably old-fashioned and rustic, there was a real threat that it might have vanished, but an assortment of forces combined to preserve and invigorate the tradition — among them, long-standing efforts between communities to join together in singing conventions, now made easier by modern communications, and growing outside interest in the tradition, from displaced Southerners and from “folkies” in the East, the upper Midwest, and California.

I came to shapenote singing through a boyfriend in Columbus, Ohio, who got it from his housemate Fred (they were both English country dancers), and Fred got it from the Christmas folk celebrations in Berea, Kentucky, that his parents participated in. So my boyfriend said to me, “Fred’s starting this singing group, and I think you would really like this stuff.” He’d already introduced me to Bare Necessities — one of the great pleasures of a much younger boyfriend is finding out about things you might never otherwise have come across — and to his assortment of local friends, including his best female friend Barbara, who eventually, through the modest mediation of my partner Jacques and me, met and then married Geoff Pullum.

So I trusted his judgment, and boy, did I like that stuff. Put it down to the folk movement and gay liberation.

I think this is a truly wonderful story, all parts of it, and I’ll never tire of telling it, in variants both brief and embellished with personal details.

The Bay Area has a Sacred Harp group in San Francisco, one on the peninsula, two in Berkeley/Oakland, and one in Santa Cruz. So in addition to my very tiny local family of blood (my daughter and grand-daughter), I have a shapenote family as well as a linguistics family and an lgbt family. And they overlap. We’re singing on Sunday for the linguists, and the singers will include my daughter and several gay friends.

Shapenote singing: some basics

September 23, 2010

To my department on Monday, an announcement of a special event

4-6 on Sunday [January 26], in the lobby of Margaret Jacks, to celebrate my 25th anniversary at Stanford: a shapenote singing by the peninsula Sacred Harp singers.  I’ll post some description of the tradition and practices of shapenote singing very soon; the briefest of descriptions is that it’s four-part a cappella white gospel music that flowered in the rural deep South in the 19th century and has been handed down as a folk tradition.  More details to follow.

A crucial bit is that the singers sing for and with one another, not for an audience — it’s participatory music, not a performance —  though on certain occasions (like this one) listeners are welcome (and invited to participate, if they wish).

Special thanks to Elizabeth Traugott, who arranged my peculiar appointment on the Stanford end, and to Ilse Lehiste, who arranged things on the Ohio State end, and to Lise Menn, who, when I asked Facebook friends about how to celebrate my 25th anniversary, suggested:

Get some musician friends together and give an outdoor concert!

Well, it’s not actually outdoors, but just inside the doors of Building 460 (Margaret Jacks Hall) at Stanford.

Readers who will be in the area Sunday afternoon are welcome to join us.

Now some background on shapenote singing.


Memorial singing

September 23, 2010

Personal notes on shapenote singing: a bulletin, a letter to friends, from 9/17/01, in the aftermath of 9/11; then some notes on singing in memory of the dead.


Kol Nidre

September 18, 2010

It’s Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, and the evening service is preceded by Kol Nidre(i), the renunciation of vows. Only a few days ago did I discover (through NPR) that there’s a rich vein of versions of the Kol Nidre chant, including one by Johnny Mathis.

Of course, as a collector of unusual musical juxtapositions — I especially prize the Marlene Dietrich German sleigh-ride version (“Schlittenfahrt”) of “Surrey with a Fringe on Top”, and only this morning was introduced, via Facebook friends, to the Cleverlys’ bluegrass rendition of the Bangles’ old hit “Walk Like an Egyptian” — I had to check these things out.

So now I have a Kol Nidre sung by a legendary cantor, Manfred Lewandowsky, plus a version sung by cantor Theodore Katchko with his cantor daughter Deborah Katchko-Gray; a whole Kol Nidre service sung by cantor Richard Tucker (I think this is the version, powerful and intense, I remember from my childhood, heard on the radio); the moving Johnny Mathis version (with orchestral accompaniment); a klezmer version (I could have predicted that — but not the version on Johnny Mathis’s Good Night, Dear Lord album); a respectful and passionate, but (to my mind) deeply misguided surf-guitar version on the Chosen Surfers’ album Meshugga Beach Party (I swear on this holy day that I am not making this up); and of course the Electric Prunes’ celebrated English-language rock version (also intended to be respectful, but tending to the theatrically unhinged) on their Release of An Oath album.

And how, you ask, does Gracenote categorize these pieces? Cantor Lewandowsky’s chanting is Classical, and so of course is Richard Tucker’s (the man was, after all, a celebrated opera singer in his alternative career). Johnny Mathis’s version is Pop, since he’s a pop singer. The Chosen Surfers count as Rock.

And that brings us to the Elie Rosenblatt and Pete Rushefsky klezmer version and the Klatchkos’ version. At some point someone decided that these had to be recognized as pieces of religious music, and, alas, put them into the Christian & Gospel genre. Maybe Religious & Gospel wasn’t available at the time (it certainly is now), but Christian & Gospel is a singularly inept piece of categorization; we can only hope that the people who chose this classification didn’t think that Christian meant ‘religious’, and I suppose we can be a tiny bit thankful that Lewandowsky and Tucker didn’t get swept under the cross of Christ as well.

Update: the law of attraction

September 17, 2010

That’s “like attracts unto like”, pursued with respect to sexual attraction here, though the discussion in that posting veers off at one point into Esther Hicks and the Teachings of Abraham — Abraham is a group consciousness — and somewhat loopy self-improvement material with religious overtones.

Now the loopy stuff is featured in a short “Critic at Large” piece in the September 13 New Yorker: “Power Lines: What’s behind Rhonda Byrne’s spiritual empire” by Kelefa Sanneh, about Byrne’s fabulously successful documentary and book The Secret and its successor The Power (just out, and already topping the best-seller lists). Hicks figures prominently in early versions of the documentary but is erased from later versions and from the two books.

Sanneh manages to be critical and analytical without lapsing into mockery — quite an achievement — though he does get in some wonderful sly digs:

In one passage [of The Power], [Byrne] advises readers to imagine that the front side of a dollar bill is the “positive side,” associated with “plenty of money,” and the back side is the “negative side,” associated with “a lack of money.” Accordingly, she suggests a ritual: “Each time you handle money, deliberately flip the bills so that the front is facing you. Put bills in your wallet with the front facing you. When you hand over money, make sure the front is facing upward.” One can imagine devotees in the distant future holding fast to this practice and repeating this explanation to one another, doing this in remembrance of her.

And this comes in a work that offers (in Sanneh’s words) “a spritual message that claims to be compatible with all religious traditions.”

Update: an endnote on shirt-lifting

September 17, 2010

We’ve seen the display of shirt-lifting with sexual intent (explored here with some examples mostly from men’s underwear ads having gay men as their target audience; and here in some analysis of the XXX-rated collage “Exposure”), and it’s all about exposing the torso (just a little, a bit more, or in toto). Now, through a chain of  postings by friends, this teasing example of rear, rather than frontal, shirt-lifting, from the fashion model Romulo Arantes (handled by Red Model Management):

Not all men’s fashion/advertising shots have clear sexual overtones, but a lot of them do; for some further examples, with the pits ‘n’ tits display rather than the shirt-lifting display, look here.

Some deaths

September 14, 2010

Three death notices in today’s New York Times, two from September 8. One touched me especially: evolutionary biologist George Williams of Stony Brook University, who died Wednesday at the age of 83. George and I were fellows together at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences in 1981-82, and George was responsible for my having published in the Quarterly Review of Biology (only a review, but still).

In addition to being one of the most influential evolutionary theorists of the 20th century, an incisive proponent of the gene as the unit of natural selection, George was extraordinarily nice, a kind and gentle man, genuinely welcoming to ideas contrary to his.

Walking on the foothills above Stanford with George and his wife Doris was one of the great pleasures of that year at CASBS for me.

You can find appreciations of George and his work by pretty much everybody in evolutionary biology and related areas.

Today’s other death notices were for two people who have given me pleasure by their work: the film and tv character actor Harold Gould, especially known for “two television roles in which he played dignified, self-possessed and understanding men trying to look out for the women in their lives” (from Bruce Weber’s obit); and essayist Barbara Holland, especially well-known for her 1995 book Endangered Pleasures: In Defense of Naps, Bacon, Martinis, Profanity, and Other Indulgences. Gould and Holland, two small but real pleasures.

Then last week, the fortuitous pairing of two obits of gay interest: for Seymour Pine, who led the police raid on the Stonewall Inn back in 1969 and eventually came to say, “If what I did helped gay people, then I’m glad”; and Virginia Smith, a very visible figure in higher education (as president of Vassar, a public official in Washington, and a member of research groups), “survived by her partner of 57 years, Florence Oaks”.

Guns and fountain pens

September 14, 2010

The fountain pen is mightier than the Glock, at least in Dingburg’s dream world:

The real-world Emory Parnell was a vaudevillian and character actor — yet another of Griffy’s film associations (see Theophylact’s comment here).

Meanwhile, guns and pens are of course phallic symbols, and I’ve been slogging my way through a series of postings on phallicity on my X blog.  So far:

9/5/10: Phallicity: the introduction (link)

9/12/10: Phallicity: Würste (link)

9/13/10: Phallicity: innocent? (1) (link)

9/13/10: Phallicity: innocent? (2) (link)

Several more to come.

Aroo, Abie, and Nibsy

September 13, 2010

John Baker wins the Language Glass Prize (announced here) with samples of all three of the classic comic strips from the Zippy strip in that posting: King Aroo, which Griffy cited for its big words; Abie the Agent, for its Yiddish dialect humor; and Nibsy the Newsboy, for its almost nonsensical syntax.

Baker notes that King Aroo “tended to be a pretty intellectual strip, by mainstream newspaper standards, but most of the strips did not use particularly long words”. Here in the 10/28/1951 strip, the reader is expected to know the word seismograph:

(for all the strips, click on the image to embiggen it)

and in the 12/2/1951 strip, a firefly gives an explanation that really delivers the vocabulary goods:

And Abie the Agent — Abie is Abraham Kabibble, an agent for an automobile manufacturer — was generally rich in Yiddishisms, as in this strip from 7/20/1917:

But Nibsy the Newsboy, Baker reports, is pretty disappointing in the syntax department; the strip seems to have relied heavily on casual speech forms and Irish-English pronunciations, but otherwise to have been unsurprising in its syntax, as in this strip from 7/1/1906 :

(Aroo from ProQuest Historical Newspapers, Chicago Tribune; Abie from Wikipedia; Nibsy from Blackbeard, Crain & Vance, 100 Years of Comic Strips (2004). Baker apologizes for the cutoff in scanning the Nibsy in. Other image-massaging by my own hand.)