When my 50th college reunion at Brown was cancelled in May due to the pandemic, a virtual symposium was held on Zoom addressing the topic “Did Our Generation Fail?” I think the answer was Yes, but under the circumstances the verdict was rendered indirectly and diplomatically by the five panel members. I wish I had submitted as evidence the following excerpt from a late chapter in All People Are Famous, the 1974 autobiography by the eminent theater director and critic Harold Clurman, discussing “the younger generation” (us) and quoting from a letter of Anton Chekhov’s: “As long as our boys and girls are still students, they are still honest and good, they’re our hope, our future; but as soon as those students have to stand on their own and grow up, our future goes up in smoke, and all that’s left of the future are cottage-owning doctors, rapacious public officials, and thieving engineers.”
Clurman: “It would surely prove historically disastrous if the generation with a will to change society were to cool off into a neurotic complacency or into the quiet desperation Thoreau spoke of. I ask my students to bank their fires and to clean their weapons of language and thought and use them for something more than a parade.”
I was sort of startled by tripping my way yesterday to the unexpected subject of George W.S. Trow, who turns out to be a figure of interest to me now. As they say, Who knew? I suspect I might not have liked him if I knew him personally (just a hunch) but from a distance he looks significant, however thoroughly his intellectual remains have been swept off the beach. The description of his big book about television, In the Context of No Context, or something to that effect, makes me want to read it or at least look at it. I found a long article about him in The Nation, published just last year, so I guess he’s not entirely forgotten. The article posited that he wasn’t so much trumpeting his own pre-Tina Brown/Roseanne Barr literary aesthetic as superior so much as conceding it was inevitably being supplanted by the inescapable sensibility of TV. (Which itself would be supplanted or subsumed by social media.) It’s all a process, he was merely observing. Which is probably true but depressing all the same.
However resigned he was to this cultural transformation in print, it sounds like he had a nervous breakdown and really just couldn’t find his way forward after leaving The New Yorker at a fairly young age. And who knows what else was going on in his personal life. But such a dramatic, even extreme retreat from the zeitgeist stands out as something hard to ignore, like a neon sign. How good was his prose? I’d have to revisit it, but safe to say he was no slouch.
It occurs to me that if you were in Dallas, as you once were, we could convene a book group or one-off salon with a few others to discuss the meaning and influence of George W.S. Trow — or other topics. Exactly the sort of thing he was pointing out has been replaced by the surrogate intimacy of television. My own stab at irony for the day. Anyway, we’d have to wait til the coast is clear, which, despite the insane rantings of the salesman we call POTUS, is much further down the road.
Lu Mitchell, my mother and satirical songwriter, died March 25 at the age of 95. A memorial service was held May 5, 2019, at Sons of Hermann Hall in Deep Ellum. This is the eulogy I delivered.
“MOM” – the word might sound odd when attached to the name of the woman who wrote “The Night John Bobbitt Lost His Weeny.” I was reminded of this when one of her musician friends said to me, “I keep forgetting that when you refer to ‘Mom,’ you mean Lu.” True enough.
It’s hard to remember when Lu – that is, Mom – was not a performer and something of a public person. We presume she was born a performer, though her working class parents, Irish and Hungarian, were not musical or theatrical. She found her voice singing in Girl Scouts, and in her early 20s discovered acting at the Bethlehem Civic Theater in Pennsylvania, where she met and married my dad, Gene, a director and playwright. They both had day jobs at the Bethlehem Steel Company – not a place that encouraged creative types. They needed something different and in 1949 took off for Texas after seeing an article in Holiday Magazine promoting the new Southwest. They didn’t know a soul here. Dad originally wanted to go to Vancouver or San Francisco, but Mom hated the Pennsylvania winters and insisted on someplace warm.
THOSE FIRST years in Dallas – South Oak Cliff, in fact – were not just warm but a scramble to make ends meet, with no time left for self-expression beyond the occasional charades party. The turning point came when she met Hermes Nye, a lawyer and writer who played the guitar and sang old English ballads and cowboy songs. Mom wanted in on that right away and started taking guitar lessons. She and Hermes and a couple others founded the Dallas Folk Music Society and helped bring Pete Seeger to town when he was still blacklisted.
Something was in the air, the times were a changin’, and because of Mom, I was surrounded by it – albums by the Weavers and Judy Collins and Bob Dylan, plus the hootenannies, where she and other grownups strummed these big, beautiful Martins and Gibsons, transmitting songs that settled in my soul. The music seemed important and different from what was on the radio. It was full of history and the blues, storytelling and poetry – and righteous. Songs about the struggles of the common man, the Civil Rights movement and against the War. Lu and Gene had left the Catholic Church, and the three of us happily became Unitarians. If someone had asked me then what kind of music was played in the Unitarian Church, I would have said Woody Guthrie and Odetta. Folk music and Unitarians seemed to go together.
AT THE TIME, I took all this for granted, as a kid does. Only later did I come to appreciate what a gift it had been. She also taught me to play the guitar and banjo and even allowed me to back her up on occasion. If that’s not love…
She didn’t want me to play football – evidence that she was not a native Texan. “It hurts me to see you lying on the ground like that,” she said after watching me get crumpled as an undersized quarterback on the 9thgrade team at St. Mark’s. To spare her further angst – and there might have been other reasons – I gave up football after that season. She worried a year earlier that my being at an all-boys school was stunting my social development. The red flag? Unlike her, I didn’t know how to do the Twist, let alone the Foxtrot and Waltz. Nor, at age 14, did I seem to care. She enrolled me in Dick Chaplin’s dance studio at Preston Center – tough love – and drove me there faithfully from Farmers Branch every Tuesday night, at least once in an ice storm.
SHE BELIEVED in education. She wanted to go to college after high school and certainly had the ability, but her father, a crane operator at the Steel Company, did not support that ambition. No one in her family had gone to college at that point, and if anyone did, it wasn’t going to be a woman, her father said. She never forgave him for that. She later earned a two-year associate degree at Richland College, going to classes after work. She helped make it possible for me to go to Brown and later for her two grandchildren, my son and daughter — Devin and Susannah — to attend top colleges. She was generous. She was generous toward her band, too, and shared her appearance fees equally with all who played with her, not typical of someone whose name is on the marquee.
She had talents apart from music. She could sew, really sew. When my dad joined the staff at the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts (as it was then known) and was expected to attend the beaux arts ball and other classy events, she couldn’t afford to buy a gown from Neiman’s so she made her own – from sheets! You look at photos of those dresses, and they don’t look cheap. They look like they were designed by somebody. Which, of course they were.
Whenever I moved, which was often, the first thing she wanted to know about my new apartment was the dimensions of the windows so she could make curtains. She was always concerned about my living quarters and how she could help improve them. She could have been an interior designer. She had an eye. Which is not to say we always saw eye to eye in this regard. There came a point where I had to say, “Mom, enough with the decorating help. I’m 42 years old.” I moved to New York from L.A. about that time, and I was not yet married. She wanted to come along. “Mom, really? This is not a good look for a grown man, moving to New York with his mother.”
But she was stubborn, harking back to her childhood during the Depression when, as she said, “families helped each other with everything.” Right, well, eventually I gave in because she had been taking care of my dad, who was ill, and I thought she could use a break. I had rented a truck and so on we went to Manhattan in an Isuzu cabover, Mom riding shotgun. I think she composed “The Great K-Mart Singalong” somewhere in Tennessee, and I might have contributed a line or two. Families helping each other with everything.
SHE WORKED 29 years as a secretary for the Dallas office of Eastman Kodak, a company that also did not encourage creative types – or women. The political climate there was such that the day John Kennedy was shot, she noticed her office manager was not at work and thought he probably did it. She wrote a song about wanting to stuff her boss in the paper shredder, but she never gave up that day job until she qualified for a pension.
She and my dad had both known real financial hardship as children. They were tough in ways that my own generation did not have to be. She had an iron will and determination that I wish I had inherited. My dad brooded – not her. Therapy? What was that? The whole notion was foreign to her, like anxiety itself. That is, until her last years, when she started having some episodes, and I found a therapist for her. I took her to see him four or five times, but it didn’t seem to be helping. I asked her, “Do you want to continue to see Dr. Fogle?”
“I don’t think so,” she said. “He’s a nice man, but he asks me questions, and I don’t want to give the wrong answer.”
“What kind of questions?” I said.
“Like, ‘What’s bothering you?’”
I MOVED to Los Angeles about the time she took the Kodak buyout that allowed her to go full speed into songwriting and performing. So I missed a lot. But she called regularly to keep me informed and report on the latest show she had done with Catch-23, the name she gave to the group backing her up. Catch-23 had different members through the years, but they were all good. Some of them are here tonight. (Would all members of Catch-23 past and present please stand and be recognized?) She attracted fine musicians – including the many who played only on her albums – and you can hear that for yourselves on the compilation CD we’ve put together and are giving out for everyone to take home.
Looking back, she was smart about making a place for herself in the herd of talented pickers and singers who filled the stages of coffee houses and folk clubs in the wake of The Kingston Trio, Joan Baez and Dylan. She did her own thing, writing new lyrics, usually humorous, to the tunes of traditional ballads, in the folk tradition. And though she recorded 11 albums, her best work was in front of an audience.
SHE DREAMED of being on The Tonight Show, and, yeah, that could have happened, but it didn’t. I have no doubt that had the opportunity presented itself, she would have killed, as we say today. She had no fear onstage. She probably should have been on Prairie Home Companion, but that never happened either, for whatever reason. Doesn’t matter now. I want to think she achieved just the right level of acclaim and success, somewhere safely this side of the “big time” in the music business – where she would have needed therapy. She played Uncle Calvin’s 51 times and made it to Musikfest back in her hometown of Bethlehem maybe 10 times. Not counting the hours spent behind an IBM Selectric, helping one boss or another reach his sales quota, she did what she wanted to do and heard a lot of applause.
On a trip to New York for the Dallas Times Herald in the 1970s, I went to a club to hear a great blues singer and piano player named Alberta Hunter, who was 80 at the time. The notion that Alberta Hunter was, my God, 80, and still performing, was newsworthy. I could not have imagined then that I would one day witness my mother take the stage at age 90, during a birthday concert at Poor David’s Pub.
I had moved back to Dallas by then to help care for her as she became more frail and battled nerve pain in her back and legs. I arrived with the apprehension that any son might have contemplating moving back in with his mother in his 60s – even one who had taught him to play the guitar. And the apprehension was justified. It was not easy. I watched her trademark good cheer being eroded by pain and old age. We argued over many things, including the temperature setting in the house. Sauna level was her default.
SHE PREFERRED donuts and coffee cake to anything nutritious, and my attempts to cook healthy meals for her were mostly in vain. “I’m not a big eater,” she would say as she pushed a bowl of pasta or an omelet aside that she had barely touched. Ten minutes later, after the table was cleared, I would spot her in the kitchen spooning out some ice cream or chocolate pudding. A role reversal had taken place, with me now the parent admonishing the child to eat her vegetables. Which, by the way, she never did. Her defense was always, “Well, I lived to be this age.” What could I say?
When her eyesight got worse, and I said it wasn’t safe for her to be driving anymore, she agreed. But often when she agreed to things, she had her fingers crossed behind her back. One morning a few weeks later, before I was up, I heard a car pull into the driveway. I bolted out of bed and went out to confront her. She had driven just a few blocks to Walmart to get milk, but it had been raining, and I could see muddy tire marks on the lawn.
“Mom, you drove over the lawn,” I said.
“Well,” she said, “I’m out of practice.”
There were unexpected pleasures and challenges in this unplanned reunion of mother and son at this stage of our lives. And I should mention that I got a lot of help from Elizabeth Van Vleck, a former dancer whose artistic sensibilities and compassion Mom could sense the moment they met.
SINCE SHE COULD no longer read, I read to her, something we had never done before and, it occurred to me, represented another role reversal. Both at home and after she moved into assisted living, we read almost every night, a chapter or two at a time, biographies of Leonard Cohen and Paul Simon, folk producer Jim Rooney’s memoir, Maureen Corrigan’s wonderful book about the The Great Gatsby (her favorite novel) and others.
She loved crossword puzzles but needed a partner to read the clues. Despite her memory loss, she was amazing at coming up with correct answers — truly. She figured out words before I did.
We also watched television, though she would have to sit close. Some of her favorites might surprise you. She liked Breaking Bad, Six Feet Under and House of Cards, in addition to historical dramas from the BBC in which sexual relations were portrayed more candidly than in the days of Alistair Cooke.
“Did they sleep together?” she asked me one night. We were watching an episode of Poldark, and Ross, the series’ attractive hero (“He’s so good looking!”), after months of virtuous resistance, had finally taken the comely maid, Demelda, to bed. Unlike the racier Tudors,which she loved, the mechanics were not clear, and with her failing eyes she could not be sure if the romance had been consummated.
AT A YOUNGER AGE, my mother would not have asked me such a question. In fact I would not have been watching shows and movies like this with her. She sang in public about mammograms and the tawdry motel hook-ups of Jimmy Swaggart, but frank talk about sex had never been part of dinner table conversation. Now, in her last years those inhibitions were suspended, and I was hearing pronouncements like, “I don’t think I’d kick him out of bed.” What does a son say to that?
And the news about all her boyfriends! After my return to the family homestead on Eric Lane, she shared with me, for the first time, photos of all the suitors she had before marrying Dad at age 23. Where these photos had been all these years, I have no idea, but now she had them organized in an album, which she reviewed with me on several occasions. “He proposed to me,” she would say, staring at the headshot of a nice-looking guy in uniform. Next page, different guy. “He asked me to marry him.” And next page, “I almost married him,” a guy she said was headed to Harvard after the war – that being World War II. Hmmm. Wonder how that would have turned out? Would she have come to folk music from another direction, in another place – or found a different outlet for her irreverence? Obviously, I would not be standing here if she had picked one of those other guys. But she didn’t. She and my dad had a marriage that lasted 50 years, until his death in 1996.
I’ve told you a lot about her and the many gifts she gave me, including the gift of herself. But the greatest gift was that she was supportive of anything and everything I did. I know not everyone gets that. I’m sure it’s going to take a while for me to get used to her not being here and asking me how my day went and could I bring her some sugar cookies? (The right kind, Pepperidge Farm.)
“Just didn’t want to see that obit,” Tom Adams said – Tom Adams, the Dallas cultural pioneer and a founder of the Texas International Theatrical Arts Society, known as TITAS. I’m sure he echoed the thoughts of many. “She was uncommon,” he said in his email, “You can’t copy that. She fed herself life. She was part of the great family of theater. She was made for the theater — theatrical hair, those oversize glasses. She will be missed.”
“She was, in many ways, ahead of her time,” Mike Granberry wrote in the admiring obit he did for The Morning News. I think he was right, and the proof of that to me is in the number of young women who recognized her in recent years when Elizabeth and I took her out in public — to a play or a concert. They would come over to her wheelchair and say, “Are you Lu Mitchell? I saw you at such and such place in such and such year…” And invariably they would add what an inspiration she had been to them and thank her. That would make her day. And mine, as well.
I ONLY WISH some of those encounters could have been shared across time and space with the nun at Bethlehem Catholic High School who once said to her…“Miss Reiser, we’ll never make a lady out of you.” That nun knew what she was talking about. But she didn’t know the rest.
THE 60s LIVED ON a little longer last night watching and listening to Joan Baez onstage at Strauss Square, presumably the last time she’ll play Dallas. This is her “Fare Thee Well Tour.” She is 78. Never the chummiest of performers (maybe she and Dylan made a pact not to charm audiences back in 1965), she seemed at first as chilly as the unseasonable April breeze. No “Big D, how ya doin’?” show biz from her. She gets right to the music and remains a folk singer with issues and justice on her mind and in her voice. With only 2 sidemen (one of them her son, Gabriel, a drummer) and a backup singer who appeared mid-show, she stood center stage for more than 90 minutes, picking and strumming a few acoustic guitars with a singular skill and conviction, reminding the thousand or so faithful at the outdoor venue of her history of marching for peace and civil rights. I wondered what number show this would be in a career that started in the late 1950s at Club 47 in Boston and the Newport Folk Festival?
She opened with Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice” and did two more by Bob, “It Ain’t Me, Babe” and the protest era standard “A Hard Rain’s a Gonna Fall.” She sang them without the sharp edges of the originals, more laments than confrontations. Not known primarily as a songwriter, she did deliver a stellar “Diamonds and Rust,” her killer song about Dylan and herself when they were young together. Other numbers included Phil Ochs’ “There But for Fortune,” Donovan’s “Catch the Wind,” John Lennon’s “Imagine” and Woody Guthrie’s “Deportee,” tagged to a plea for respect for the migrant workers who pick our fruits and vegetables. (A reminder that some things haven’t changed much since Guthrie wrote that song in 1948.) She did lesser knowns by Tom Waits, a song about coming to terms with mortality, the ironic Chilean protest anthem “Gracias a la Vida,” Paul Simon’s “The Boxer,” “House of the Rising Sun” and the Negro spiritual “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” she performed at Woodstock in 1969. She introduced it with a story of how she once sang it for a slumbering Martin Luther King in Alabama during the freedom march days in order to rouse him in time to give a speech. Close to charming, that one. I did miss “Amsterdam” and maybe one or two more from her Newport days, but the set list was solid. Does she still sing “The Night They Drive Old Dixie Down?” Possibly not.
AFTER A COUPLE encores, she closed with a distinctive take on “Dink’s Song,” the public domain classic about having wings like Nora’s Dove in order to fly away to one you love. Oscar Isaac sang it in Inside Llewen Davis. “Fare thee well, my honey, fare thee well” goes the refrain. Which took on additional meaning now for her audience last night. Who wants to think about that?
MUCH AS I ADMIRED Chris Thile during his time in Nickel Creek, I’ve been slow to accept him as the worthy successor to Garrison Keillor. He hosts Live from Here Saturday afternoons on your local NPR station, and Saturday the show was live from the Winspear Opera House here in Dallas. I went, curious, and also eager to hear The Head and the Heart, one of the featured bands. Seeing the show in person completely won me over to Thile, who is surely the Eric Clapton of the mandolin, covering Bach to the Pixies with a dexterity that seems impossible. Winning stage presence, too. Charming, warm, humble, funny.
I was introduced to Thile and Nickel Creek back in 2000 during Prairie Home Companion’s visit to the Pasadena Civic. Loved him and his modern bluegrass band instantly — put them on the annual family mix tape (“Reasons Why”). Hard to believe that was 19 years ago.
Let me connect more dots: I learned about The Head and the Heart from my son, Devin, circa 2012, and put “Down in the Valley” on another mix tape. It could have been the theme song for my drive back to Dallas after 28 years in Los Angeles (“I am on my way back to where I started…”). The band did not disappoint at the Winspear, and their last song, a new one, “People Need a Melody,” shouted “keeper.” The lyrics, about musical touchstones in the mind and memory pack a punch (“People need a melody to open their eyes / Like a key to a memory frozen in time…Boy, when you gonna learn that the world moves fast”).
IT’S DIFFICULT AND PROBABLY futile to try to explain why a song can have such meaning and power because of one’s own history and references. But the Head and the Heart clobbered me with that one, onstage with Thile, not long after my musical mom left us, she being my introduction to all this kind of music going back to when I was 10 years old. Well, there you have it. An extraordinary show that seemed more than the sum of its parts, and I haven’t mentioned the half of it. Esperanza Spalding? Who knew? I guess Thile knew. I hate to use the word “magic,” and maybe it was just me, but I felt something transcendent took place in Arts District Saturday. And I am newly grateful that the forces of darkness did not succeed in defunding the National Endowment for the Arts and public broadcasting. KERA. Go public!
AS SOMEONE WHO came to golf later in life, there’s a lot about the game I still don’t understand – like some of the inscrutable rules and the rigid and senseless dress code in force on the pro tour. Just how rigid and senseless was underscored last week when Rickie Fowler made headlines at Torrey Pines by daring to wear a shirt not tucked into his slacks, bucking the custom that has been in place for golfers since at least the First World War. The daring part is overstated; he had to ask permission first from the Lords of the PGA, who for some reason (Fowler has been ranked as high as #4 in the world) granted his request. Oh, let’s take a flyer on this one, guys. It’s California.
Predictably, golf’s hidebound clan immediately took to Twitter to decry this violation of country club tradition, dissing Fowler’s full-buttoned and collared Hawaiian-style shirt (from Puma) as “unprofessional.” Some said he “looked like a bum.” “I thought he had manners?” “What’s next, shorts?” Please. What’s “professional” about John Daly’s fashion-crushing outfits? Or the unsightly bulk of Trump stuffed into standard links attire. I guess by PGA standards ugly doesn’t matter as long as you’ve got all the extra yards of fabric tucked into pants cinched with a white patent leather belt that could have belonged to Pat Boone or the guys on “The Love Boat.” By the way, who made that the modern golfer’s uniform? Not Ralph Lauren or Tommy Hilfinger.
I THOUGHT FOWLER looked great, but then I’ve been waiting and waiting for someone on the tour to bust this move. It’s long overdue and likely here to stay because untucked shirts can not only be flattering but are cooler and more practical if you’re walking 18 in the Sahara summers of Texas. And who wants to keep tucking in a wet shirt every other hole?
It defies logic and common sense that businessmen in the great Southwest still adhere to the obligatory coat and tie in July, when temps soar into the sweat-soaking 100s, but at least they spend most of their days indoors. Golfers get no such shelter and, with enough sunscreen, could play naked. At least let them wear loose shirts that allow more air flow to the upper body.
ON PUBLIC COURSES around here some amateurs already wear their shirts outside their pants in the summer (not to mention shorts) but they occasionally get the evil eye from purists who view such behavior as disrespectful of “the royal and ancient game.” By the way, the royal and ancient game had its beginnings in Scotland, where too much clothing was never a problem in any season.
Tennis gave up its archaic all-white dress code at the 1972 U.S. Open. Forty-seven years later, Rickie Fowler is giving the untucked among us the encouragement of a top-ranked player to be cool on the golf course. I’ll take it.
WATCHING THE NEW Robert Redford movie, The Old Man & the Gun, a song popped up onscreen that sounded familiar. It recalled Fred Neil’s “Everybody’s Talkin'” from Midnight Cowboy: solo acoustic guitar, 2-finger picking, restless male vocal, spare arrangement. Eric Andersen? “Wherever I have played, the blues have run the game…” I liked it immediately and gave the director (David Lowery) points for picking a forgotten song that deftly underlined the story of a romantic outlier robbing banks (nonviolently) for the thrill of it, in Texas and other places, in the 1970s and ’80s. A tamer, older Sundance perhaps, with Redford, now past 80, looking comfortably crusty and dusty in the role, a mysterious drifter whose compulsive illegality is complicated by a chance encounter with a winsome ranch widow (Sissy Spacek).
But what was that song? The end credits rolled by too fast to I.D. it, and the movie’s official website and IMDB listing do not include the songs in the soundtrack. (What’s up with that, by the way?) Finally I found a website, filmmusicreporter.com, that showed the movie’s song list, followed by a reader comment, “At last, someone else has discovered Jackson Frank. Beautiful song from an underrated and tragic singer/songwriter.” That had to be it, and a trip to i-Tunes confirmed as much, along with discovering it’s used in one of the film’s trailers.
“Blues Run the Game” is the title, but who is Jackson C. Frank? Turns out I’d heard of him but forgotten. Born in 1943 in Buffalo, New York, he was a singer-songwriter who in his early 20s found his way to England about the same time as Paul Simon — both drawn to the rich folk scene there as the Beatles were conquering America. They became friends. (Robert Hilburn mentions him in his recent biography of Simon.) Frank recorded his only album there in 1965, which Simon produced, and it included “Blues Run the Game,” the cut that is heard in The Old Man & the Gun.
SIMON & GARFUNKEL recorded a version and almost put it on their Sounds of Silence album. (It’s included on a later collection, Old Friends.) Eric Andersen, as best I can determine, did not record the song, but many others did, including English folk icon Bert Jansch, Fairport Convention’s Sandy Denny, who dated Frank for a time. Many others have covered it — John Renbourn, Nick Drake, John Mayer and Counting Crows. The song was also used in a 2016 episode of the TV show This is Us.
So, yeah, I knew I’d heard it somewhere. Frank, sadly, is not around to enjoy his newfound fame as he died in obscurity in Massachusetts in 1999, at the age of 56 of pneumonia and cardiac arrest after years of schizophrenia, ill-health and a period of homelessness. This, according to Wikipedia. He seems to have led a hard life that could be traced back to surviving a furnace explosion in grade school that killed 15 of his classmates and left him with lasting injuries. You figure he could not have imagined his words and voice — and a song he wrote and recorded in England in 1965 — one day matched to the big screen face of the actor who played the Sundance Kid, Bob Woodward and so many other memorable roles.
It occurs to me that underappreciated ’60s folksinger Dave Van Ronk is someone who could have relished Frank’s posthumous recognition, but then he, too, died before witnessing his own cinematic redemption, as the model for the title character in the Coen brothers’ 2013 film Inside Llewen Davis.
One o’ dese days, an’ it won’t be long,
Call my name an’ I’ll be gone.
Fare thee well, O Honey, fare thee well.
I am sorely disappointed by today’s news that you will vote to confirm Judge Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, proving that your request for a further FBI investigation was merely a show, winning you some national attention while playing the American people for stooges. In the end you concluded the White House-constrained FBI investigation was “thorough,” when it is public knowledge now that significant leads were not followed and key witnesses not interviewed. It was a sham. So you are a liar as well as a showman.
Your brief and misleading turn as a putative hero in this crisis of partisanship threatening our democracy will be replaced permanently in chronicles of American history with the plain truth that you are, on the contrary, a profile in cowardice. You will indeed be famous—or, more accurately, infamous. I’m trying to imagine what that would feel like.
You had nothing to lose by voting your conscience on Kavanaugh, but that assumes that you have a conscience.
ONE OF THE MOST jarring pieces of cultural news in Dallas this fall concerns something that is not going to happen. Ben Fountain, the distinguished local author of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, will not be speaking at the Dallas Museum of Art about his newest book, Beautiful Country Burn Again as expected. According to published accounts, he’s been disinvited by the museum’s new director, Augustin Arteaga, because Beautiful Country Burn Again, a collection of essays about the 2016 presidential election written for U.K.’s Guardian newspaper, is presumed to be “divisive,” in Arteaga’s words, as quoted in D Magazine’s online blog that broke the story.
The book is not out yet, but its subtitle, Democracy, Rebellion and Revolution, plus the publisher’s synopsis were apparently all Arteaga needed to yank Fountain from an “Arts & Letters Live” appearance that coordinator Carolyn Bess had been planning with him. (Fountain has appeared at the DMA’s speakers series before.) “Ben Fountain argues that the United States may be facing a third existential crisis,” reads the advance advertising from Harper Collins, “one that will require a ‘burning’ of the old order as America attempts to remake itself.”
“The museum is all about inclusivity,” Arteaga said, by way of explaining his decision. Inclusivity that does not include Ben Fountain.
Is this a big deal? Let’s see. Ben Fountain is Dallas’ pre-eminent writer of the moment. His 2012 novel Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, an unmistakable literary achievement that got under the surface of Dallas, the Iraq War, Hollywood and the NFL all at the same time, was a finalist for the National Book Award and a bestseller made into a feature film by Ang Lee. If Arteaga, who came to the DMA two years ago from the Museo Nacional de Arte in Mexico City, is unaware of this, you’d think someone could tell him. Keeping Fountain out of the museum is likely to bring charges of censorship and timidity at the DMA, not to mention pissing a lot of people off.
MAYBE ARTEAGA (or someone who sets his salary) is afraid that Fountain’s unblinking views of America in the age of Donald Trump are going to piss off museum patrons and donors. Politics. Hard to escape these days. The museum has been in political controversies before, memorably in the McCarthy era of the 1950s when it was assailed by local citizens groups (one funded by oil baron H.L. Hunt) demanding that no works of art created by suspected communists be allowed on the walls – including Diego Rivera, George Grosz and Ben Shahn. Such was the fear in the air.
This is not quite the same – and Ben Fountain is a writer, not a painter – but removing or blocking him from the DMA’s popular Arts & Letters Live series raises the same issue of pre-emptive censorship at the museum, a public institution.
Unacknowledged by Arteaga in his spin-doctored rationale is that Dallas and the nation are already divided – as sharply and emotionally along partisan lines as anyone can remember – and that is likely a part of what Fountain explores in his reporting on the 2016 election. We expect our artists, visual and literary, to reckon with conflict and crisis in our midst, don’t we? Or would we prefer they look away and avoid it altogether?
Back in 1955 the museum’s critics and guardians of the public’s virtue worried that modern art was subversive and politically dangerous. Taking a cue from a Republican congressman’s assertions that art museums were agents of communist aggression, a group called the Dallas County Patriotic Council pressured the Park Board to cut off funding for the museum for “giving aid and comfort and prestige to [our] enemies.”
I remember some of this as a kid whose father was then the business manager of the museum, but the whole saga is chronicled in Francine Carraro’s 1994 biography of former director Jerry Bywaters for the University of Texas Press. It’s worth revisiting to remember how Bywaters and the museum stood up to that pressure. Bywaters rebuffed the Council’s demands to remove paintings by Rivera and others, and his board, headed by Stanley Marcus, backed him up with a statement that said, in effect, the citizens of Dallas were intelligent enough to view the offending paintings and make up their own minds.
THE FOLLOWING YEAR Bywaters and the museum took more flak ahead of the arrival of the traveling exhibit, “Sport in Art” – 85 works, four of them by artists with possible communist ties, including Ben Shahn, a Lithuanian-born American known for his social realism and left-wing views. His piece in the exhibit was a drawing of a baseball player. A prominent banker lobbied Stanley Marcus to have the four works removed, but Marcus pushed back. The show went up.
John Rosenfield, the respected Morning News art critic at the time, supported the museum in an editorial, quoting President Dwight Eisenhower, who at the celebration of the Museum of Modern Art’s 25thanniversary in New York had said, “Freedom of the arts is a basic freedom, one of the pillars of liberty in our land.”
Freedom prevailed against cant and fear in the art world of Dallas in the 1950s, in what looks now to have been a defining moment for the city, a demonstration of courage and principle that comes to mind as the museum today shows a different side of itself in closing the door to Ben Fountain. In the 1950s the attempted censorship was from outside the museum; this time it’s from within. It seems to me that is kind of a big deal.
Fountain will have other opportunities to speak about his book around town (publication date is Sept. 25), but that’s not the point. The point is that if the visitors to the museum were intelligent enough in 1955 to make up their own minds about art, surely they are capable of doing the same in 2018.
Editorial Note: I submitted a version of this column to the Dallas Morning News as an opinion piece for its Viewpoints page, and it was rejected — with the explanation that “the column makes an assertion that it doesn’t back up, that Fountain was censored by Arteaga or the board for political reasons.” Really? What other reasons would there be?
Texas Monthly has a short interview with Fountain about the new book and his being disinvited by the DMA, in which he refers to Arteaga as “gutless.” Not sure if he meant that in a political way or some other way.