Is a Lot of ‘Learnings’ a Dangerous Thing?

The other day I got an email from a colleague, Richard Gordon, which opened up:

I officially surrender on this one: “trainings” and “learnings” and other plural gerunds. …

Even academic papers now include the plural of gerunds:

“Expanding the Pipeline: Key Learnings on Retaining Underrepresented Minorities and Students with Disabilities in Computer Science  from CRA Bulletin”

Coincidentally, just a few days earlier, the same thing had come up on a Facebook thread about new words and phrases. A friend commented “the absolute worst is ‘Learnings.’ My brain needs a reboot every time I hear it, as in, ‘What were the learnings from the meeting?’”

I had to confess, learnings was a new one on me, but I quickly learned it’s definitely not a new one. While learning is traditionally a noncount or mass noun meaning the act of acquiring new knowledge, the Oxford English Dictionary has a definition of it as a count noun meaning “a lesson, instruction,” with citations dating back to Piers Plowman in 1362 and including this line from Shakespeare’s Cymbeline:  “The king … Puts to him all the Learnings that his time Could make him the receiuer of.” That is the final citation, and the definition has a dagger next to it, indicating obsolete status.

But the obsolete status is obsolete. Commenting on the Facebook thread, Mike Pope noted that that very day, the OED had responded to a question on the subject on Twitter:

Screen Shot 2017-12-07 at 9.43.29 AM

In fact, the revival of learnings seems to have started before that. This Google Ngram Viewer chart indicates a spike in use from about 1920 to 1960.

Screen Shot 2017-12-07 at 10.25.23 AM

Most of the uses in that period came from the field of education. A 1930 edition of a physical-education journal gave this report of a conference address:

He then made the following points: Learnings in character are subject to the same laws and principles as learnings in the ordinary intellectual fields. … Direct learning, however, will probably be the smallest part of the processes. Therefore concomitant learnings must be as carefully planned. …

Learnings seems to have made its move to the corporate world around the turn of the 21st century and shows no signs of letting up. In a November 14 New York Times Dealbook conference, Oscar Munoz, CEO of United Airlines, said,  “One of the key learnings that I project out to folks — because we all at some point in time could be affected by this — is that you have more time to respond than you think.

The first complaint about learnings I’ve found came in 2003. In 2004 someone wrote this complete blog post: “Attention, Masters of Business Administration of Corporate America: Quit using the word ‘learnings.’ It makes you sound really stupid. The word you really want is ‘lessons.’” More peeving came in 2009.

Currently, the use of the word in academe is robust, to say the least. A Google Scholar search for learnings in 2017 alone yields 5,620 hits. The first four:

  • “Building the capacity of early childhood educators to promote children’s mental health: Learnings from three new programs” –chapter in Health and Well Being in Childhood.
  • “The digital journey: Reflected learnings and emerging challenges” –International Journal of Management.
  • Review of LCA datasets in three emerging economies: a summary of learnings” –International Journal of Life Cycle Assessment.
  • “Review of LCA datasets in three emerging economies: a summary of learnings” –presentation, International Association for Energy Economics.

Was the 2004 blogger right? Does learnings make you sound stupidIt probably depends on the setting. No in a meeting on Madison Avenue, yes in the English department. It’s certainly not an affront against the English language, what with the Shakespeare pedigree and such parallel constructions as teachings, findings, leavings, and readings. Should you, as the blogger said, use lessons instead? I do discern a slight difference in connotation: lessons emphasize the data, person, or persons imparting the information, learnings the person or persons receiving it. Lessons also has a slight punitive feel, as in “learn your lesson.” (Another option is a a slightly less buzzy buzzword, takeaway.)

As for me, I would never use learnings. But that doesn’t mean a hill of beans in this world, as I learned long ago.

How Old Is Gaslighting’?

220px-gaslight-1944The American Dialect Society met in January and chose dumpster fire as Word of the Year. The winner in the “Most Useful/Likely to Succeed” category was gaslight, a verb is defined as  to “psychologically manipulate a person into questioning their own sanity.” (Of course linguists would use singular they.)

There was immediate pushback. On the ADS email list, John Baker asked, “What is the rationale for naming ‘gaslight’…? The word has been around for decades. Did it come to some special prominence in 2016?” Arnold Zwicky chimed in: “Over seven decades, in fact. The movie that’s the source of the expression came out in 1944.”

Similarly, when I posted the winners on Facebook, my friend Pat Raccio Hughes commented, “How is that on the list? Isn’t it supposed to be new stuff?” She added that she and her husband had been using it since 1990.

The society addressed this issue in its press release on the voting: “The words or phrases do not have to be brand-new, but they have to be newly prominent or notable in the past year.” So does that apply to gaslight?

Yes, I’d say. The new prominence came from Donald Trump’s habitual tendency to say “X,” and then, at some later date, indignantly declare, “I did not say ‘X.’ In fact, I would never dream of saying ‘X.’” As Ben Zimmer, chair of the ADS’s New Words Committee and language columnist for The Wall Street Journal, pointed out, The New Republic, Salon, CNN, The Texas Observer, and Teen Vogue (“Donald Trump Is Gaslighting America”) all used the metaphor as the basis for articles about Trump.

The New York Times first used the common gerund form, gaslighting, in 1995, in a Maureen Dowd column. But there were only nine additional uses through May of last year. From June 2016 through the end of the year, the Times used gaslighting 10 times, including a Susan Dominus essay called “The Reverse-Gaslighting of Donald Trump,” which riffed on Hillary Clinton’s line in a September debate: “Donald, I know you live in your own reality.”

As so often happens when you get a lot of language observers together, the discussion shifted: from whether gaslight was newly prominent to precisely how old its verb use is. The history begins with Patrick Hamilton’s 1938 play Gas Light (known in the United States as Angel Street). It inspired a 1940 British film and the more famous 1944 American production, directed by George Cukor and starring Ingrid Bergman, Joseph Cotten, and Charles Boyer. (Spoiler alert.) The Boyer character tries to drive the Bergman character (his wife) crazy, notably by insisting that the gaslights in their house did not flicker, when in fact they did.

But there is no verb gaslight in Gaslight. As I noted on the ADS email list, in response to Baker and Zwicky, this use emerged some 20 years later, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. Its first citation is a sentence from a 1965 article in the magazine The Reporter: “Some troubled persons having even gone so far as to charge malicious intent and premeditated ‘gaslighting.’” The quotation marks around the word are a sign that it was a recent coinage.

Jonathan Lighter, editor of The Historical Dictionary of American Slang, responded that he had noted in the book an oral use from 1956, by a 41-year-old woman, revealed to be none other than his mother. Lighter also said he has a strong memory of the verb’s being used in an episode of I Love Lucy the same year. That set Ben Zimmer to work. He posted:

There’s a 1956 I Love Lucy episode called “Lucy Meets Charles Boyer,” in which Ricky conspires with Charles Boyer to make Lucy think that Boyer is merely a lookalike. There are obvious parallels to Gaslight, but I watched the episode here and I didn’t hear anything about “gaslighting.”

Bill Mullins replied: “I vaguely recall an episode of the The Lucy Show [a later Lucille Ball sitcom] in which gaslighting is a plot element.” Mullins went to  Google and and found a web page titled “The Ten Best THE LUCY SHOW Episodes of Season Six” (perhaps proving that there is a web page for every conceivable topic). One of the 10 was “Lucy Gets Mooney Fired,” which aired in November 1967. The web page gives a plot summary and commentary:

Lucy inadvertently gets Mooney [Gale Gordon] fired after she covers up a bank shortage. To convince Cheever [the bank president] to give Mooney his job back, Lucy gives him the Gaslight treatment.

I love how kooky this episode is WITHOUT managing to insult its audience’s intelligence. Taking a cue from Gaslight (1944), Lucy decides to make Cheever think he has gone crazy, so that he’ll agree to rehire Mr. Mooney. The script itself isn’t that funny, but the bits Lucy does to make Cheever flip are great. This is, deservedly, a fan favorite.

The estimable Zimmer wasn’t done. Consulting with Josh Chetwynd, author of Totally Scripted: Idioms, Words, and Quotes From Hollywood to Broadway That Have Changed the English Language, which has an entry on gaslight, he located and watched a 1952 episode of The Burns and Allen Show called “Grace Buying Boat for George.” (It’s a tough job but somebody’s got to do it.) Zimmer wrote, “At 16:20 in the YouTube video, Harry (Fred Clark) says to Gracie, ‘Give him the gaslight treatment!’ and then explains what that means. A bit later you hear George say, ‘So they sold Gracie on the gaslight bit.’”

Still no verb, you’ll notice. Zimmer took care of that a few hours later:

Here’s an example of the verb “gaslight” in “The Grudge Match,” an episode of Gomer Pyle: USMC that aired on 12 Nov. 1965 (antedating OED’s 1969 cite for the verb, as well as the Dec. 1965 cite for the verbal noun).

Duke: You know, you guys, I’m wondering. Maybe if we can’t get through to the sarge we can get through to the chief.

Frankie: How do you mean?…

Duke: The old war on nerves. We’ll gaslight him.

Leading me to muse on the fascinating possibility that the writer of the Reporter piece heard the verb on Gomer Pyle and put it into print just a month later.

But then more detective work was done on the ADS list. Stephen Goranson discovered that an even earlier use of the verb far, in Anthony F.C. Wallace’s 1961 book, Culture and Personality:

It is also popularly believed to be possible to “gaslight” a perfectly healthy person into psychosis by interpreting his own behavior to him as symptomatic of serious mental illness. While “gaslighting” itself may be a mythical crime, there is no question that any social attitude which interprets a given behavior or experience as symptomatic of a generalized incompetence is a powerful creator of shame[….]

(The OED has the quote but credits it to a 1969 reprint.)

In any case, the term was picked up, especially in reference to abusers of spouses, partners, and children, and was commonplace by 1990, when Pat Hughes reports starting to use it. I myself first heard it the year before, when, on assigment for Rolling Stone, I interviewed the 19-year-old Uma Thurman for Rolling Stone, who used it in a context I don’t recall. The word was new to me, and I meant to look it up, but I never got around to it.

Cheat Sheet: Identifications and Ages

Among the hardest things for my journalism students to master are the capitalization and punctuation of identifying people, and the punctuation of ages. Here’s a cheat sheet I hand out to them:

The rules—in terms capitalization and commas—are kind of complicated, so let’s take a look at some examples, first with IDs.

1. On Wednesday, President Barack Obama addressed Congress.
2. The president, Barack Obama, addressed Congress.
3. Barack Obama, the president, addressed Congress.
4. The Commencement speaker was billionaire Bill Gates.
5. Bill Gates, a billionaire, spoke at commencement.
6. Bill Gates, the seventh richest man in the world, spoke at commencement.
7. The seventh richest man in the world, Bill Gates, spoke at commencement.
8. The software pioneer Bill Gates spoke at commencement.
9. Software pioneer Bill Gates spoke at commencement.
9. Speaking out against the rule was sophomore Ellen Jones.
10. A sophomore, Ellen Jones, said she is against the new rule.
11. Ellen Jones, a sophomore, said she is against the new rule.
WRONG: Ellen Jones, sophomore, is against the new rule.
WRONG: Sophomore, Ellen Jones, is against the new rule.

Here are some rules that hopefully will make sense of the above:

Capitalize identification only right before name, and only if it is an official title (President, Senator), as opposed to a description/characterization (billionaire, software pioneer, sophomore).

If identification is after name, always surround it with commas (as in 3, 5, 6 and 11).

If identification is before name, use comma if this is the only person that fits this description (chairman of Microsoft, seventh richest man in the world), or if the identification starts with the word “A” (as in 10).

Ages (Note: with ages, always use numeral rather than spelling out the word)

1. The winner was Jimmy Smith, a 10-year-old.
2. The winner was 10-year-old Jimmy Smith.
2. The winner was Jimmy Smith, who is 10 years old.

Yagoda’s Rules for Quotes, 2.0

Some years ago, I put together for my journalism classes a guide to the use of quotations. I realized it could use a little revision, so here’s an updated version.

I. The Care and Use of Quotes

1. What Are Quotes and Why Use Them?

A direct quote is the material presented inside of quotation marks. It tells the reader that these are some exact words a speaker said. If (and this is a big if) the source is qualified to speak about the subject, a quote is a good—probably the best—way to get opinionated, funny, emotional, metaphorical, personal, ungrammatical, hyperbolic, and generally colorful language into your story. Quotes also enliven a story by bringing in (metaphorical) voices. Also, editors and readers expect them.

Note: if someone is not qualified to speak on the subject, or if the person says something banal, predictable, boring, clichéd or in any way ignorant, do not use that quote. This is also true if the quote contains merely factual information. (See Paraphrase.)

2. Accuracy of Quotes

The short answer is that if you’re using quotation marks, it’s not permissible to change anything the speaker said, such as including in the quote anything he or she did not say.. However, it’s okay not to include meaningless filler words and sounds like “um” and “you know.” Beyond that, different organizations have different rules and policies on quote fidelity, so when in doubt, consult with your editor.

3. Paraphrases and Indirect Quotes

An indirect quote is a paraphrase or summary of what someone said. It is not surrounded by quotation marks, and therefore you are not indicating that the person used those exact words (though the person may well have done so). Indirect quotes are used to convey purely factual information that would not lose anything if expressed in “journalistic” language.

Poor use of direct quotes: “The university will be closed tomorrow,” Jones said.

Paraphrase is preferable: The university will be closed tomorrow, Jones said.

Or: Jones said the university will be closed tomorrow. Note: no comma after “said.” (You might also notice the absence of word “that” after “said.” Use “that” before an indirect quote if you need it to prevent ambiguity or confusion. )

4. How Long?

In newspaper writing, quotes should be short. It’s the “sound bite idea,” borrowed from radio and TV. That means that quotes should generally be one or two sentences long. To go beyond that, the quote must be really, really good.

Quite often, a mediocre or poor quote can turn into a good quote by losing one or two sentences. (There is absolutely no ethical problem with trimming a quote, as long as you’re not twisting it to mean something other than what the speaker intended.)

5. How Many Quotes?

Quotes are like cayenne pepper or some other strong spice: a little goes a long way, and too much is a disaster. Quotes are very tempting; for one thing, they take up a lot of space. Resist the temptation. The more quotes you use, the worse the story usually is. Rule of thumb: at least twice as many paragraphs should have not have quotes as have them. Put another way, a quote has to earn its way into your story. If a potential quote doesn’t add substantial value, just say no and don’t use it.

6. Quotation Marks, Commas and Periods

In all circumstances (except in the United Kingdom and certain countries that were formerly in the British Empire), commas and periods always go INSIDE quotation marks, never outside. This is also true for titles and “air-quote” style expressions (which should be avoided anyway—see “Dos and Don’ts of Feature Writing.

Wrong: Winning the game was “very lucky”, Brunswick said.

Wrong: His favorite movie is “Inception”.

NEVER use single quotes (‘like this’) except to indicate a quote within a quote.

7. Attribution Verbs

All quotes have to be attributed—that is, you have to say who said them.

For the verb of attribution, almost always use “said.” Other words come off as hokey and forced (“stated,” “asserted,” “gasped,” “smiled,” “quipped,” “remarked,” etc.) or amount to editorializing. “Claimed” implies you doubt the person; “admitted” implies you think he or she is guilty of something. “Asked,” “replied” and “recalled” are okay when appropriate in the context.

Use past tense (“said”), not present (“says”), except in features and magazine stories.

8. Provenance of Quotes.

When readers encounter a direct quote and attribution, they will rightfully assume that the person made that statement in an interview with the writer of the article, i.e., you. If that’s not the case, you have to make that clear. For example, if the quote was previously published (not desirable but sometimes unavoidable), you have to write something like:

“My job is to ask the questions, not get the answers,” Stewart said in a 2008 New York Times interview.

9. E-mail quotes

E-mail is a great resource, especially for obtaining facts. However, if you want to get any nuance or insight from your source, it’s a poor substitute for face-to-face or even telephone interviews. If you use a quote from an e-mail exchange, you must make that clear, for example, with an attribution like “said in an e-mail.” For subsequent quotes from that e-mail exchange, it’s okay to merely say “said.”

II. The Mechanics of Quotes

1. Standard form:

“That is the most ridiculous thing I ever heard,” Jones said. (Or “he said.”)

Wrong: “That is the most ridiculous thing I ever heard.” Jones said.

Wrong: “That is the most ridiculous thing I ever heard” Jones said.

Wrong: “That is the most ridiculous thing I ever heard”, Jones said.

2. In quotes of two or more sentences, put attribution after first sentence:

“That is the most ridiculous thing I ever heard,” Jones said. “It’s mind-boggling. More sentences can follow.”

Wrong: “That is the most ridiculous thing I ever heard. It’s mind-boggling,” Jones said.

Wrong: “That is the most ridiculous thing I ever heard,” Jones said, “It’s mind-boggling.” (The comma after “said” turns this into a comma splice.)

3. When speaker needs to be identified or described:

“That is the most ridiculous thing I ever heard,” said Alex Jones, a journalism professor.

In this case, the verb goes before the i.d. of speaker, because otherwise the result would be clunky: “That is the most ridiculous thing I ever heard,” Alex Jones, a journalism professor, said. Otherwise, put name or pronoun first and avoid “said Jones” or, especially, “said he.”

In such cases (long description of speaker), attribution can also go before the quote:

Jones, a journalism professor, said, “That is the most ridiculous thing I ever heard.” Note: uppercase “T” in “That.”

Occasionally, a long or dramatic quote is preceded by a colon rather than a comma, as in:

Smith said: “I deplore everything the president stands for.”

4. Setting up quotes

Quotes almost always have to be “set up” by a sentence in your own words that introduces the idea of the quote without being too bland or too similar to it. Never use a key word from the quote in the setup.

Too similar (and repeats word):
Coach Brett Brown said the 76ers have a long distance to travel in order to be a playoff contender.

“This team has a long way to go,” he said.

Set-up doesn’t do enough:
Coach Brett Brown had some comments about the 76ers.

“This team has a long way to go,” he said.

Just right (and note use of understatement, which is often effective):
Coach Brett Brown made it clear he wasn’t completely satisfied with the 76ers.

“This team has a long way to go,” he said.

5. Multiple quotes

Two quotes can’t come right after each other. Instead they must be separated by material from you, the writer.

Wrong:
“This has been the most beautiful autumn ever,” said Kelly Jones, a sophomore.

“I love it when the leaves change color,” said sophomore Audrey Martin.

Better:
“This has been the most beautiful autumn ever,” said Kelly Jones, a freshman.

Sophomore Audrey Martin agreed. “I love it when the leaves change color,” she said.

6. “Orphan” quotes

Every quote has to be attributed, even if it’s clear from the context who said it.

Wrong: Sophomore Bill Kent thought the film wasn’t Tarantino’s best work. “It sucked.”

Right: Sophomore Bill Kent thought the film wasn’t Tarantino’s best work. “It sucked,” he said.

However, a single quote should only be attributed once.

Wrong: “Halloween is the best holiday of the year,” junior Alicia McConnell said. “It’s all candy, all the time,” she added.

Right. “Halloween is the best holiday of the year,” junior Alicia McConnell said. “It’s all candy all the time.”

7. Paragraphing

If you are using a relatively long quote, or want to emphasize a short one, it makes sense to give the quote its own paragraph. Make sure to include attribution.

Sophomore Bill Kent thought the film wasn’t Tarantino’s best work

“It sucked,” he said.

8. Partial quotes

Partial quotes can be as short as one word or as long as a phrase, but are less than a complete clause or sentence. These can be effective, but too many of them create a herky-jerky sensation, so use sparingly (no more than two or three per story), and mainly for vivid words and phrases. They are not preceded by a comma and the first word is lower-casd.

Right: Jones described the proposal as “mind-boggling.”

Wrong: Jones said it was, “mind-boggling.”

9. Quote within a quote

“The guy said to me, ‘Your money or your life,’” Jones recalled. (Hint: people tend to naturally be good storytellers, so when your source says what someone ELSE says, that’s often a sign that this is a good quote.)

10. Attribution in middle of sentence

This should be used only when the end of a sentence is dramatic, surprising, or funny, and only at natural pauses:

Not dramatic enough: “The best holiday of the year,” she said, “is Halloween.”

Not a natural pause: “I did every assignment except,” he said, “for the term paper.”

Good: “I did every assignment,” he said, “except for the term paper.”

11. Brackets and ellipses

Brackets—[ ]—are used within quotes to indicate a word that was not said by the speaker. Even though they’re tempting and commonly used, best practice is never to use them. They are clunky and remove the illusion that we’re hearing the speaker, taking away the quote-ness of a quote.

Almost always, you can tell the reader what you would have put into brackets by taking the time and effort to set up the quote.

Consider how the brackets spoil this quote:

“Arnold [Schwarzenegger] is a wuss,” said Bustamante.

Instead, write something like:

Bustamante made it clear that for him, Schwarzenegger’s tough-guy image is all hype. “Arnold is a wuss,” he said.

Ellipses [ … ] indicate material from a quote has been omitted. Do not use ellipses when quoting from speech. If the material you want to omit is filler, repetitive, or brief, it’s okay to just leave it out.

For example, If in your interview Bustamente said, “Arnold is, you know, a wuss,” your quote should be either the exact words or “Arnold is a wuss,” not, “Arnold is … a wuss.”

However, if the material you want to leave out is a sentence or more, or was uttered at different times, make two separate quotes.

Wrong:

“LaGuardia airport is a disaster area,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said. “…We expect to replace it with the finest urban airport in the world.”

Right:

“LaGuardia airport is a disaster area,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said.

“We expect to replace it with the finest urban airport in the world,” he said later in the interview.

When quoting from written material, brackets and ellipses are okay.

Will Rogers: “Bacons, Beans, and Limousines”

My first book, and in some ways still my favorite, was Will Rogers: A Biography (Alfred A. Knopf. 1992). I have since kept up an interest in Rogers (1879-1935), the great Oklahoma-born commentator, humorist, and entertainer. I was please and honored to be asked by the Library of Congress to write an entry about him for their National Recording Registry, a program that “showcases the range and diversity of American recorded sound heritage.” Specifically, I was asked to write a short essay about a radio address Rogers gave in 1931. You can listen to it online; the essay is below.

___

In 1931, Americans were beginning to understand that the stock market crash of two years earlier was a harbinger of a deeper, broader slump. Most obviously, the unemployment rate had more than doubled, to more than 13 percent. A sign of the times was the popularity of a relatively unfamiliar word. The word “depression” appeared 651 times in “The New York Times” in 1929, 3,279 times the following year, and 5,974 in 1931.

President Herbert Hoover had come relatively late to a realization that the economy was in a pickle. He had instituted some public works projects that prefigured the New Deal of his successor, Franklin D. Roosevelt, but he was unwilling to provide federal relief to the unemployed, or to farmers, who were suffering from the effects of a drought and a steep drop in crop prices.

The alternative Hoover promoted was to ask local groups to help out people in their own communities. In August 1931, he created the President’s Organization on Unemployment Relief (POUR) to assist private and local relief efforts around the country; two months later, he kicked off a $90 million fund-raising campaign with a radio broadcast carried by 150 stations nationwide.

Hoover asked Will Rogers to speak on the program. It was a sensible idea. Born fifty- two years earlier in the Indian Territory that would become Oklahoma (he was about one quarter Cherokee), Rogers was probably the most popular and perhaps the most well- respected figure in the country. He had started his career as a rope-spinner on the vaudeville stage. His off-the-cuff wisecracks between tricks had turned into Ziegfeld Follies monologues that were mainly pointed commentaries about politics. (He’d characteristically come out carrying a folded newspaper and open up with the line that would become his motto: “All I know is just what I read in the papers.”) His act had led to a daily newspaper column that, by the time of Hoover’s call, was carried in the “New York Times” and some 400 other newspapers around the country. He also starred in genial comedies for the Fox studio. Two years hence, the country’s motion-picture exhibitors would name him the country’s top box-office attraction, ahead of Clark Gable and Shirley Temple.

Hoover knew that Rogers’ observations, while prescient and sometimes barbed, were never mean. That was a big part of why he was so beloved. A New York newspaper perceptively observed that he had “a curious national quality. He gives the impression that the country is filled with such sages, wise with years, young in humor and love of life, shrewd yet gentle. He is what Americans think other Americans are like.”

So it made sense that Hoover would ask Will Rogers to contribute to the broadcast. But it turned out to be a very bad idea. One would have to considerably stretch the point to call Rogers a radical; any sort of militant ideology would violate the geniality that was integral to his on-stage and real-life persona. Yet the unemployment numbers, the spectacle of bread lines in the cities, and the suffering he’d witnessed on a recent drought-relief tour for farmers in the Southwest had awakened the populist within him.

On the day of the broadcast, Rogers drove from his home in Pacific Palisades, California, to the studios of radio station KFI in downtown Los Angeles. He started off in his familiar wry/amiable mode, joshing about radio commercials: “Now don’t get scared and start turning off your radios. I’m not advertising or trying to sell you anything. If the mouthwash you’re using is not the right kind and it tastes sort of like sheep dip why you’ll just have to go right on using it.” At various points in the broadcast, he said all the things Hoover had hoped for, asking towns and cities to do their part and even venturing the opinion that the President “would rather see the problem of unemployment solved then he would all the other problems he has before him combined.” But Rogers also confronted the issue with a solemn and eloquent fervor that put the administration’s inaction to shame:

Now we read the papers every day, and they get us all excited over one or a dozen different problems that’s supposed to be before the country. There’s not really but one problem before the whole country at this time. It’s not the balancing of [Treasury Secretary Andrew] Mellon’s budget. That’s his worry. That ain’t ours. And it’s not the League of Nations that we read so much about. It’s not the silver question. The only problem that confronts this country today is at least seven million people are out of work. That’s our only problem. There is no other one before us at all. It’s to see that every man that wants to is able to work, is allowed to find a place to go to work, and also to arrange some way of getting more equal distribution of wealth in the country.

The country wasn’t used to hearing this kind of message, least of all from a quintessentially mainstream figure like Will Rogers. Did Rogers introduce into the national dialogue the notion that unequal distribution of wealth is deeply problematic, or that it’s the government’s responsibility to provide work for the unemployed? That case is impossible to prove, but there’s no doubt that Rogers’ speech (dubbed “Bacon, Beans and Limousines” by “The Survey” magazine, which reprinted it the following month) helped bring those issues to the forefront of the national conversation.

Rogers, for his part, eased back from the forceful positions he had voiced in the speech. In the 1932 presidential election, he tacitly backed Franklin D. Roosevelt, whom he’d long been friendly with. Roosevelt’s election—and his New Deal to combat unemployment and depression—seemed to be exactly what Rogers had in mind as a plan of action. For the rest of his life (Rogers died in a plane crash over Alaska in 1935), he was with the Roosevelt program.

But back in October 1931, Rogers had been one of the first to voice outrage over economic conditions, and the response had been overwhelming. A couple of days after the speech, he wrote in his newspaper column:

I can’t answer all the telegrams and letters, but I want to take this means of thanking the most people that ever wired or wrote me on anything—my little speech over the radio for the unemployed—and will send them copies as soon as I can think of what I said.

Iwo Jima Letter

IMG_1873This past Saturday, my wife was going through some old papers and found a letter her cousin Bob Terese had written to his parents almost precisely sixty years earlier. Years later, Bob would cofound a major philanthropic venture called Lambs Farm, which is still in operation. But at the time, he was a twenty-year-old Chicago kid, half a world away from home. Here’s what he wrote.

 

IN PORT

March 22, 1945

Dear Mother and Dad:

I guess this might be called “An Anniversary”, because it was a month today that I received my Battle Colors – in the invasion of IWO JIMA. Inklings of the momentous engagement came to me from the thunderous salvos of our warships tearing the Japs and their island to bits. From three o’clock when I first answered the call to man my battle station I could see the crimson and orange of cannon lightning and the brilliant bursting of star shells as they radiated their glow of death. And in the clear of the dawn I saw the midget of land – small, and so out of place in the vastness of the ocean, like a tree on a desert – “Hell’s Acre”, two and a half miles wide and five miles long.

Even in the happy newness of an early morning sun, the island looked desolate and grimly pale – first from the haze of exploding Jap guns and the bursting of our bombs from dive bombers and later from the mist of a miserable rain that kept falling throughout the day. On the signal bridge I watched the first assault of our Invading Amphibious Units that struck about a mile from Mount Surabachi, which was the strategic key to the whole island. The amphibious detachments from the ARTEMIS followed in another of the early landings.

Up until today, I have never given you the full “dope” quote about the ARTEMIS. I told you it was a cargo ship – but neglected to mention that it is also Amphibious. I only did this because I didn’t want you to fret too much – but now that a major engagement has been accomplished without a single casualty to our Crew, I feel that now is the time, for your mind ought to be more at ease. Please remember that I do not hit the beach with Amphibious Units. I remain on the mother ship (ARTEMIS) to discharge cargo, man the anti-aircraft guns and haul our invasion boats aboard when they return for fuel or a night’s lodging. It’s a good thing you are not up on our Navy symbols, or you might have discovered my well meant secret along time ago. It’s all in the address as “A “stands for Attack, “K” for Cargo and “A” for Amphibious – (AKA-21)

I believe you have seen the type of invasion small boats we have, either in the movies or in the newspapers. They are nick-named “Sea Going Jeeps.” I’ve ridden in them a number of times for transportation purposes and each trip is a new thrill as their flat bottoms make them as unpredictable as a “hobby horse”. They ride the waves as stoughtly as a beer truck churns down Division St. The front collapses and forms a ramp when they drive up on the beach so the troops can disembark faster and safer – and that’s about all there is to the hidden talents of the “”Mighty A”. Our convoy had formed back in Pearl Harbor and then went to the Marshalls and from there to our last jumping off place, Saipan, in the Marianas. Naval Regulations prohibit any mention of contact with enemy units until thirty days after the initial encounter, so you can see why I did not tell you about it sooner.

A horde of wonderings must be creeping into your mind, and all without answers. Most of them usual queries and having the usual answers. Was I scared? – and how! My nomination for the supreme heroes of IWO JIMA are the United States Marines who left four thousand comrades behind to be buried in the volcanic rock hundreds of miles away from those they love. To a thousand of that immortal four thousand who never made the summit of Mt. Surabachi, but whose death were stepping stones for the Marines that did, there should be some higher tribute.

I saw the American flag raised atop the crater and I cheered – but I did not know how blood red was that Star Spangled Banner. We had a few air raids that made me a few years older – but then one expects those things when stealing apples from under his enemy’s nose. After all, it was the boldest assault we’ve pulled so far, only six hundred miles from Japan. I had a box seat in fact, our ship was so close that the shells from our battleship screamed and whistled as they passed directly overhead. It’s no use telling you about the strategy or progress of the battle, because those who know how to tell it have already done so a hundred times. We won only because we out-fought the Japs.

All the advantages were on their side as we played in their ball park against fortifications that were impregnable except by direct attack with flame throwers and without the element of surprise for Tokyo have been broadcasting an accurate prophecy about the possible invasion of IWO two weeks before it came off. Yes, we were all scared when we first entered the battle, but I’ll bet the Japs wet their pants too. After the aweness of the fracas wore off nothing bothered us and we spent most of the leisure time of our remaining three days preparing special snacks of toasted cheese and spam sandwiches and large pots of hot coffee. Our reverie was disturbed somewhat by a “big ass Betty” (Jap Bomber) that came to see if the uninvited guests were still around – and damn it, we were!

My most memorable personal experience was the hoisting aboard of Marine casualties with our ten ton boom. It seemed everything was against our getting them safely on deck except GOD, and it was only through Him that we did it. The water had devastating swells that pitched the small boats we were hosting the Marines from unmercifully and to harass matters more, it was pitch dark. It took an hour to accomplish a task that normally would have taken fifteen minutes. Some of the Marines had arms blown off, others suffered shrapnel wounds and one died the next morning from severe burns he received when a tank blew up from a bomb hit. And so that night I witnessed my first burial at sea.

Two shells were strapped to his legs for weights and then he was placed upon a wooden plank that extended over the side of the ship. A huge American flag was placed over the body and threatened to blow off thru out the ceremony. I can’t describe how sad I felt when the plank was raised and I heard the body splash into the water. The empty flag looked so lonely and it seemed to wave farewell to a very dear friend. I guess that’s the first time I’ve cried since I’ve been in the Navy – tears for a buddy whose name I didn’t even know, but in a sense of comradeship I knew him because he played on my team and was an outstanding hero. I don’t know how this sounds to you – I hope not too dramatic, because really I can’t ever write exactly how I did feel – can anyone recite a perfect prayer?

Speaking of prayers moves me to thank the Clan and especially you, who have always remembered me in your daily prayers. I owe you much for the way those prayers have been answered. I nor any other member of the Crew received a scratch.

I’m in pretty safe waters at the present and I have no idea just how long we are to remain here. The best thing about this vacation is all the lost sleep I’m finally catching up on. Also the movies which are all I look forward to. We have them every night and they have all been marvelous such as “Going My Way” (third time I saw it and could see it again) “Since You Went Away”, “The Pirate and the Princess”, “Meet Me in St. Louis” and others. I read “Keys of the Kingdom” four years ago when I was a sophomore and I can remember recommending you to read it as it is one of the finest books I have ever read.

I received a swell letter from you today and was happy to know that Russ is finally on his way and you are all well.

Love,

BOB

 

 

 

Dylan Does Sinatra

Yesterday, Bob Dylan put his rendition of “Stay With Me” on the internet. It’s the second track (after “Full Moon and Empty Arms”) from his forthcoming Shadows in the Night that the singer’s people have made available. Sounds to me like it was recorded on Dylan’s recent tour, where he used the song as an encore.

The lineup of Shadows in the Night, consisting entirely of songs originally recorded by Frank SInatra, is passing strange, and I wrote a piece about it for Slate, to be published tomorrow. In the meantime, a couple of thoughts about “Stay With Me,” a truly obscure number. The melody is Jerome Moross’s theme from the 1963 film The Cardinal. Presumably on Sinatra’s request, Carolyn Leigh–cowriter of his previous hits “Young at Heart,” “Witchcraft,” and “The Best Is Yet to Come”–put lyrics to it:

Should my heart not be humble, should my eyes fail to see,
Should my feet sometimes stumble on the way, stay with me.
Like the lamb that in springtime wanders far from fold,
Comes the darkness and the frost, I get lost, I grow cold.
I grow cold, I grow weary, and I know I have sinned,
And I go seeking shelter and I cry in the wind,
And though I grope and I blunder and I kneel and I’m wrong,
Though the rose buckles under where I walk, walk along
Till I find to my wonder every task least to see,
Or that I can do it, pray, stay with me.
Stay with me.

The pious and (to me) moving simplicity of those words are one of the strange things about the song, as Leigh (born Carolyn Rosenthal) was known for her tricky rhyme schemes and eminently secular concerns. In any case, Sinatra’s recording, with the trademark strings of arranger Gordon Jenkins, peaked at number 81 on the charts.

Dylan probably heard it on the Sinatra ’65! album, whose title, echoing Beatles ’65, was a recognition that in terms of being in the pop mainstream, Sinatra was about to leave the building. The Dylan version, replacing strings with pedal steel guitar, calls to mind the singer’s gospel fling in the ’80s, but is of a piece with his recent explorations of vulnerability in its many forms. He sounds weary and just a little cold; when he sings about the rose, buckling, his voice buckles, too. At all events, a touching and completely unexpected performance.

Remembering Ervin Drake

Drake-obit-articleLarge

Ervin Drake in 2001. New York Times photograph by Maxine Hicks.

I was sad to read in the New York Times the other day of the death of songwriter Ervin Drake, at the age of 95. When I was embarking on The B-Side, one of the first people I walked to was Michael Feinstein, the songwriter, pianist, and drum-beater for the Great American Songbook. He gave me Mr. Drake’s phone number and said I should interview him, as the last living link to the pre-War Tin Pan Alley era of songwriting.

Good advice. When I called the number, a woman answered; she turned out to be Mrs. Drake, the former Edie Bein, and she turned out to be in charge of his schedule and affairs. In short order I arranged to drive out to the Drake home in Great Neck, Long Island, for a conversation. It was a good talk. He ranged over this long career as a songwriter, television producer, and advocate for songwriters. Here is some of what I wrote:

Songwriter Ervin Drake—born Ervin Maurice Druckman in New York in 1919—had been drawn to the trade in part by his older brother Milton, who’d had some success on Tin Pan Alley, notably with “The Java Jive,” a hit for the Ink Spots in 1940. He got his big break as a result of the radio networks’ 1941 ban of songs by writers affiliated with the venerable licensing group ASCAP. Ralph Peer, a country-oriented publisher who was affiliated with a competing organization, BMI, asked Drake to write lyrics for a traditional Brazilian song called “Tico Tico no Fuba.” The Andrews Sisters charted with the tune in 1944. He developed a specialty in providing English to words South American melodies, including “Yo Te Amo Mucho (And That’s That),” which Xavier Cugat played in a movie called “Holiday in Mexico,” and “You Can in Yucatan,” performed by Desi Arnaz. Also in 1944, Drake wrote the lyrics for Duke Ellington’s instrumental “Perdido.” Between the successes, there was a lot of hustling. “I put in nights sitting in places that were part restaurant, part dance halls,” he recalled. “I’d try to get next to the bandleader and give him a song of my own.”

In contrast to many Tin Pan Alley songwriters, Drake had a social conscience. In 1943, in reaction to the racial and religious segregation practiced by hotels and restaurants, he wrote a tune he called “No Restricted Signs in Heaven.” He took the song to a new recording label, Capitol Records, which had been started just a year before by two songwriters, Johnny Mercer and Buddy De Sylva, and Glen Wallichs, a record-store owner.

“I didn’t want it to seem like a message song so I did it with a boogie-woogie tempo,” Drake said of “No Restricted Signs” in a 1996 interview. “Johnny wanted to record it. He showed it to his partner, and Glen said, ‘John, the way things are in this country if you record that song we will lose our distributorship.’” So Capitol passed, but the musician and producer Enoch Light ended up taking the song to a gospel group called the Golden Gate Quartet, who released their version in 1946.

The biggest hit of Drake’s early career, by contrast, would be unplayable today because it is almost entirely made up of crude racial stereotypes. Lying in the bathtub one day, as he recalls, the song came to him in its entirety: a novelty number called “Rickety Rickshaw Man,” whose lyrics begin “There’s a coolie name o’ Chulee/Runs a rickety rickshaw south of Peking/He goes a clippety-clop-clop/Clippety-clop-clop/As he hobbles down the cobble-stoned street.” Ralph Peer persuaded a sweet bandleader Eddy Howard to record the song, which reached number 6 on the Billboard charts in 1946.

As usual, Drake careered from the ridiculous to the sublime, this time drawing from his own life. He had been dating a showgirl named Edith Bein and felt deeply in love with her. But she began to be courted by “all these Wall Street types,” Drake told Will Friedwald in 2009. “I felt like I couldn’t compete, so I just withdrew from her life.” In the midst of the subsequent depression, he heard a haunting melody by Irene Higginbotham. “It hit me — smack!” he said in the Friedwald interview. “This is exactly what I felt when Edith left me. So in about 20 minutes I wrote the whole lyric to ‘Good Morning Heartache.’” A couple of months later, Billie Holiday made an immortal recording of the song, and it has since become a blues standard.

When I sat and talked to Drake in his Great Neck, New York, home in 2010, sitting in on the conversation was his wife. It was none other than the former Edith Bein. The two had reunited in 1975, after their respective spouses had died.

Drake would go on to co-write the inspirational credo “I Believe” and, on his own, the songs for a Broadway adaptation of What Makes Sammy Run?, which included the swinging “A Room Without Windows.” In 1961, he wrote an elegaic ballad for The Kingston Trio. Four years later, Frank Sinatra heard it on his car radio driving to Palm Springs, California; his recording won him a Grammy award and was a staple of his concerts from that point on. The song? “It Was a Very Good Year.”

Upcoming Appearances

I’ll be hitting the road in the new year to discuss The B-Side: The Death of Tin Pan Alley and the Rebirth of the Great American Song.

January 27
Philadelphia, PA
Free Library
7:30 PM

January 28
Swarthmore, PA
Swarthmore Public Library
7 PM

February 5
New York City
92nd Y
With the Bucky Pizarelli Duo
12 PM

March 9
New York City
House of Speakeasy at City Winery
8 PM

March 10
New York City
New York Public Library – Midtown branch
6:30 PM

March 19
New York City
Library for the Performing Arts
6:00 PM

April 9
Boston, MA
Boston Public Library
6 PM

You Say Expresso, I Say Espresso

I know, enough already about Weird Al Yankovic’s “Word Crimes,” but bear with me for one more comment on the music video that’s given language prescriptivism it’s its biggest shot in the arm since the glory days of Eats, Shoots & Leaves. Perhaps the weirdest of the 17 admonitions Weird Al crams into the song comes at about the halfway point, when he croons, “There’s no x in espresso,” over this image:

weird-al-yankovik Continue reading