Lullaby update

‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

“Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
The frumious Bandersnatch!”

(sung to the tune of Greensleeves)

It all works.

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Just what this World Cup needed…

A 38-over-a-side final. From Cricinfo’s commentary,


“38 Overs? How embarrassing,” spits Joseph Kirk from France. “Can you imagine the football World Cup being cut to 70 minutes? A baseball World Series game being reduced to six innings? A rugby World Cup game played in one half?”

Well, no, but this is a fitting ending to the worst World Cup ever. Just when it looked like being an interesting game between the world’s two best (if not two top-ranked) sides. (As I type, Australia are 63/0 in the 12th over and are treating it as a Twenty20 match, which it may well get reduced to if there are further rains.)

I mean, they do have a reserve day! Why can’t they play 50 overs a side (it used to be 60 a side, back in the 1970s) when there’s a whole day to go?

Speaking of the football World Cup, it had 32 teams and took a month. The cricket one had 16 teams and has taken nearly two months. That’s the comparison Malcolm Speed should make, not the one with the last cricket world cup (and even then, he should note that this World Cup, with three fewer matches, is nevertheless a week longer).

Speed, with his usual astuteness, would point out that getting it done in a month would mean some group games would have to be played in parallel. (The football cup had up to 3 games a day, but since it’s a shorter game, they didn’t need to be played simultaneously.) So what? So, he would say, the TV companies would object. But would it really reduce TV viewership? More likely it would improve viewership, by sustaining interest better.


Update – I went to bed before the end, so missed the farce that it ended in. No, I can’t imagine the football World Cup — or any other international sporting event — ending in darkness and officials running back and forth contradicting one another on what to do, and the players finally playing out a tame few minutes to “get it over with”.

Couldn’t the ICC have donated a tiny fraction of its vast revenues from this World Cup to install floodlights at Barbados, if not the other venues?

Just what this World Cup needed…

A 38-over-a-side final. From Cricinfo’s commentary,


“38 Overs? How embarrassing,” spits Joseph Kirk from France. “Can you imagine the football World Cup being cut to 70 minutes? A baseball World Series game being reduced to six innings? A rugby World Cup game played in one half?”

Well, no, but this is a fitting ending to the worst World Cup ever. Just when it looked like being an interesting game between the world’s two best (if not two top-ranked) sides. (As I type, Australia are 63/0 in the 12th over and are treating it as a Twenty20 match, which it may well get reduced to if there are further rains.)

I mean, they do have a reserve day! Why can’t they play 50 overs a side (it used to be 60 a side, back in the 1970s) when there’s a whole day to go?

Speaking of the football World Cup, it had 32 teams and took a month. The cricket one had 16 teams and has taken nearly two months. That’s the comparison Malcolm Speed should make, not the one with the last cricket world cup (and even then, he should note that this World Cup, with three fewer matches, is nevertheless a week longer).

Speed, with his usual astuteness, would point out that getting it done in a month would mean some group games would have to be played in parallel. (The football cup had up to 3 games a day, but since it’s a shorter game, they didn’t need to be played simultaneously.) So what? So, he would say, the TV companies would object. But would it really reduce TV viewership? More likely it would improve viewership, by sustaining interest better.


Update – I went to bed before the end, so missed the farce that it ended in. No, I can’t imagine the football World Cup — or any other international sporting event — ending in darkness and officials running back and forth contradicting one another on what to do, and the players finally playing out a tame few minutes to “get it over with”.

Couldn’t the ICC have donated a tiny fraction of its vast revenues from this World Cup to install floodlights at Barbados, if not the other venues?

Wagner wouldn’t be flattered

I’ve been putting my 4-month-old to sleep by humming “The ride of the Valkyries” to him. It works well.

Green is dirty?

This sort of thing is what gives environmentalism a bad name.
Singer Sheryl Crow has said a ban on using too much toilet paper should be introduced to help the environment.

Crow has suggested using “only one square per restroom visit, except, of course, on those pesky occasions where two to three could be required”.


Like many in this part of the world, I consider toilet paper an abomination — you don’t use paper to clean any other part of the body, so why use it on the dirtiest orifice of all? So I wholeheartedly endorse the idea of reducing its use: may I suggest switching to a cleaner alternative, for example — oh, I don’t know — water, maybe?

If one must use toilet paper, I suppose using just one square would have some benefits: for example, dissuading gropers on Delhi’s buses. And maybe it will save a few trees too. I just don’t see how it would help one’s personal hygiene.

The article continues:

Crow has also commented on her website about how she thinks paper napkins “represent the height of wastefulness”.

She has designed a clothing line with what she calls a “dining sleeve”.

The sleeve is detachable and can be replaced with another “dining sleeve” after the diner has used it to wipe his or her mouth.


Again, most restaurants in India would offer a nicer alternative — a fingerbowl, or failing that (or “for those pesky occasions where two to three could be required”), a sink. And many people carry a useful device called a handkerchief, meant for just such occasions.


Update: Crow’s full article is here, and I admit her tongue seems to have been in her cheek (as she herself protests).

Green is dirty?

This sort of thing is what gives environmentalism a bad name.

Singer Sheryl Crow has said a ban on using too much toilet paper should be introduced to help the environment.

Crow has suggested using “only one square per restroom visit, except, of course, on those pesky occasions where two to three could be required”.

Like many in this part of the world, I consider toilet paper an abomination — you don’t use paper to clean any other part of the body, so why use it on the dirtiest orifice of all? So I wholeheartedly endorse the idea of reducing its use: may I suggest switching to a cleaner alternative, for example — oh, I don’t know — water, maybe?

If one must use toilet paper, I suppose using just one square would have some benefits: for example, dissuading gropers on Delhi’s buses. And maybe it will save a few trees too. I just don’t see how it would help one’s personal hygiene.

The article continues:

Crow has also commented on her website about how she thinks paper napkins “represent the height of wastefulness”.

She has designed a clothing line with what she calls a “dining sleeve”.

The sleeve is detachable and can be replaced with another “dining sleeve” after the diner has used it to wipe his or her mouth.

Again, most restaurants in India would offer a nicer alternative — a fingerbowl, or failing that (or “for those pesky occasions where two to three could be required”), a sink. And many people carry a useful device called a handkerchief, meant for just such occasions.


Update: Crow’s full article is here, and I admit her tongue seems to have been in her cheek (as she herself protests).

The fake folk blues

“… that peculiar hard core [of folk song lovers] who seem to equate authenticity with artistic merit and illiteracy with charm.” — Tom Lehrer

Today I came across two interesting links on Arts and Letters Daily. The first is a review by Adam Gopnik of a biography of Kingsley Amis, who wrote the brilliant “Lucky Jim” and some execrable later books. It talks of Lucky Jim’s “bracing contempt for culture and higher education” and cultural pretences; but continues:

Hating pretentiousness is a bracing sentiment in “Lucky Jim,” but it jumps easily to the philistinism of “Pseuds Corner” in Private Eye, where not just babies but whole generations of first-borns get tossed out with the bathwater. It is a very good thing to have a built-in bullshit detector, but a bad thing when the bullshit detector crowds out the rest of your brain; that’s why they call it being narrow-minded. You quickly reach the stage where anything ambitious, complicated, or merely foreign gets spat on along with the things that are genuinely phony. Pretense and ambition are different words for the same thing, and a writing without pretense pretty soon becomes a literature without ambitions, content to congratulate itself on its own insularity. Blimpishness is not a step away; it is all you have left.

The second link is a review of a book by Hugh Barker and Yuval Taylor, “Faking it: the quest for authenticity in popular music”, and connects directly — especially in the sections on the folk blues — with the Tom Lehrer quote above, and indirectly with the Amis article.

But let me preface with why I found it interesting. I find the blues fascinating as a style in jazz and in rock. Whether it’s Louis Armstrong singing “Basin Street blues”, or the Modern Jazz Quartet playing “Willow weep for me”, or the Allmans playing “Statesboro blues”, it’s all up there with some of the most amazing music I’ve ever heard. But when a “peculiar hard core” of people say “the blues”, they don’t mean these people. They mean a particular subcategory of musicians, mainly from the Mississippi Delta in the 1930s and 1940s — people such as Leadbelly, Mississippi John Hurt, Robert Johnson, Sonny Boy Williamson — and their successors into the electric blues era of the 1950s, Muddy Waters, Howling Wolf, B B King, Willie Dixon and others.

Some of the electric blues is fun, in the way rock and roll is fun. But it gets way too repetitive for my tastes. And as for the acoustic blues — not only can’t these people hold a tune (nor could the electric guys), they can’t even keep time! This is music?

It was especially strange to me since the blues had been clearly defined as a genre since at least the early 1900s, and people like Bessie Smith had made masterly recordings of blues songs by the 1920s. (These recordings are still available.) Why the regression, then, into a crude “delta blues” in the 1930s?

Messrs Barker and Taylor have the answer, and it stunned me. Here are some quotes from the review.

Leadbelly, Barker and Taylor reveal, was by necessity a master of “faking it”, a sophisticated musician of cosmopolitan taste limited to a repertoire of “Negro” songs and told by his manager to perform in prison garb. That manager was John Lomax, one of the early 20th-century giants of what has come to be known as “roots music”. “The music that was, for Lomax, the most authentic,” write the authors, “the most black, the most free from ‘white influence’, was the most primitive.” That doesn’t mean Leadbelly was primitive, only that Lomax and, decades later, Cobain decided to believe that he was, the better to break the bonds of artificiality they felt modernity and celebrity imposed. Leadbelly was a tool. This shifty truth comes to us by way not of postmodernism, but of old-timey Marxist analysis. In 1937, the novelist Richard Wright, profiling Leadbelly for the Daily Worker, declared his coerced performances “one of the greatest cultural swindles in history”.

But that’s not quite right, either. Wright recognised Lomax’s manipulation of Leadbelly (who later successfully sued Lomax), but he assumed there was a genuine Leadbelly behind the music, a real black expression minstrel-ised by the white man. In fact, many of Leadbelly’s songs came from white folks, who’d learned them from black musicians, who’d composed them with African inflections as reinterpreted by white musicians eager to add “floating” rhythms to the marching beat of Scots-Irish reels. The strongest argument of Faking It is for the endless “miscegenation” of music. Great popular music is always a collage of cultures, while the quest for authenticity all too often functions as a means of policing racial boundaries.

Jazz is a collage of cultures that emerged as a coherent style in the 1910s, and as a respectable art form in the 1920s. Jazz musicians took the blues well beyond the crude 3-chord format it started with: particularly with Charlie Parker and others in the bebop era, the standard 12 bars of a blues “chorus” became a maze of substitutions on those basic 3 chords.

Meanwhile, the “folk blues” actually regressed on what Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith had already achieved. The Delta blues, it seems, were a mistaken step backwards in the quest for “authenticity”. And who were responsible? Not the musicians: it was the record companies, the same people who are responsible for Britney Spears today. And it was marketed to people whose finely tuned “bullshit detectors” (to use Gopnik’s phrase) steered them away from the pretentiousness of “serious” twentieth-century music, and into quite another form of bullshit.

The review continues:

Consider the case of Mississippi John Hurt, the subject of the book’s longest and most powerful essay. First, there’s his name: Mississippi was an add-on from the record company. Then there’s his reputation as a patriarch of the Delta blues: Hurt wasn’t from the Mississippi Delta and he insisted he wasn’t a blues musician. And then there is the problem of his blackness, thought by the white fans who rediscovered him in the 1960s to be pure and profound (“Uncle Remus come to life,” write the authors). When Hurt was “discovered” the first time, he was performing for black and white audiences backed by a white fiddler and a white guitar player who also happened to be the local sheriff. He recorded blues because the record company insisted he do so. Meanwhile, Jimmie Rodgers, a white musician who happened to be a bluesman, recorded what came to be known as “country” music because the blues were reserved by the market for black men. One more twist: when Harry Smith included two of Hurt’s songs on his great Smithsonian Folk Anthology, most listeners mistook the black musician for a white hillbilly.

The term “folk” itself presents more problems. Until 1949, country music was simply “folk”, as was much “black” music. Racism was the centrifuge that separated them…

Fascinating stuff. I think I’ll buy the book (which also apparently has caustic comments on the authenticity of contemporary musicians, from John Lennon to Nirvana).

(PS – That’s post number 100.)



Addendum: The second review, and my review of the review, may give the impression that the folk blues musicians were all sophisticated musicians with wide interests and influences who got pigeonholed by John Lomax. This may have been true of Leadbelly and John Hurt, and not true of others like Robert Johnson. That is to say, there really was a “Mississippi Delta blues” style in the 1930s, which should have remained in that place and that decade, but was pushed by the record companies and later picked up by aspiring rockers; and because it existed, black musicians like Leadbelly were straitjacketed into it, while whites like Jimmie Rodgers were forcibly labelled into other styles.

The fake folk blues

“… that peculiar hard core [of folk song lovers] who seem to equate authenticity with artistic merit and illiteracy with charm.” — Tom Lehrer

Today I came across two interesting links on Arts and Letters Daily. The first is a review by Adam Gopnik of a biography of Kingsley Amis, who wrote the brilliant “Lucky Jim” and some execrable later books. It talks of Lucky Jim’s “bracing contempt for culture and higher education” and cultural pretences; but continues:

Hating pretentiousness is a bracing sentiment in “Lucky Jim,” but it jumps easily to the philistinism of “Pseuds Corner” in Private Eye, where not just babies but whole generations of first-borns get tossed out with the bathwater. It is a very good thing to have a built-in bullshit detector, but a bad thing when the bullshit detector crowds out the rest of your brain; that’s why they call it being narrow-minded. You quickly reach the stage where anything ambitious, complicated, or merely foreign gets spat on along with the things that are genuinely phony. Pretense and ambition are different words for the same thing, and a writing without pretense pretty soon becomes a literature without ambitions, content to congratulate itself on its own insularity. Blimpishness is not a step away; it is all you have left.

The second link is a review of a book by Hugh Barker and Yuval Taylor, “Faking it: the quest for authenticity in popular music”, and connects directly — especially in the sections on the folk blues — with the Tom Lehrer quote above, and indirectly with the Amis article.

But let me preface with why I found it interesting. I find the blues fascinating as a style in jazz and in rock. Whether it’s Louis Armstrong singing “Basin Street blues”, or the Modern Jazz Quartet playing “Willow weep for me”, or the Allmans playing “Statesboro blues”, it’s all up there with some of the most amazing music I’ve ever heard. But when a “peculiar hard core” of people say “the blues”, they don’t mean these people. They mean a particular subcategory of musicians, mainly from the Mississippi Delta in the 1930s and 1940s — people such as Leadbelly, Mississippi John Hurt, Robert Johnson, Sonny Boy Williamson — and their successors into the electric blues era of the 1950s, Muddy Waters, Howling Wolf, B B King, Willie Dixon and others.

Some of the electric blues is fun, in the way rock and roll is fun. But it gets way too repetitive for my tastes. And as for the acoustic blues — not only can’t these people hold a tune (nor could the electric guys), they can’t even keep time! This is music?

It was especially strange to me since the blues had been clearly defined as a genre since at least the early 1900s, and people like Bessie Smith had made masterly recordings of blues songs by the 1920s. (These recordings are still available.) Why the regression, then, into a crude “delta blues” in the 1930s?

Messrs Barker and Taylor have the answer, and it stunned me. Here are some quotes from the review.

Leadbelly, Barker and Taylor reveal, was by necessity a master of “faking it”, a sophisticated musician of cosmopolitan taste limited to a repertoire of “Negro” songs and told by his manager to perform in prison garb. That manager was John Lomax, one of the early 20th-century giants of what has come to be known as “roots music”. “The music that was, for Lomax, the most authentic,” write the authors, “the most black, the most free from ‘white influence’, was the most primitive.” That doesn’t mean Leadbelly was primitive, only that Lomax and, decades later, Cobain decided to believe that he was, the better to break the bonds of artificiality they felt modernity and celebrity imposed. Leadbelly was a tool. This shifty truth comes to us by way not of postmodernism, but of old-timey Marxist analysis. In 1937, the novelist Richard Wright, profiling Leadbelly for the Daily Worker, declared his coerced performances “one of the greatest cultural swindles in history”.

But that’s not quite right, either. Wright recognised Lomax’s manipulation of Leadbelly (who later successfully sued Lomax), but he assumed there was a genuine Leadbelly behind the music, a real black expression minstrel-ised by the white man. In fact, many of Leadbelly’s songs came from white folks, who’d learned them from black musicians, who’d composed them with African inflections as reinterpreted by white musicians eager to add “floating” rhythms to the marching beat of Scots-Irish reels. The strongest argument of Faking It is for the endless “miscegenation” of music. Great popular music is always a collage of cultures, while the quest for authenticity all too often functions as a means of policing racial boundaries.

Jazz is a collage of cultures that emerged as a coherent style in the 1910s, and as a respectable art form in the 1920s. Jazz musicians took the blues well beyond the crude 3-chord format it started with: particularly with Charlie Parker and others in the bebop era, the standard 12 bars of a blues “chorus” became a maze of substitutions on those basic 3 chords.

Meanwhile, the “folk blues” actually regressed on what Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith had already achieved. The Delta blues, it seems, were a mistaken step backwards in the quest for “authenticity”. And who were responsible? Not the musicians: it was the record companies, the same people who are responsible for Britney Spears today. And it was marketed to people whose finely tuned “bullshit detectors” (to use Gopnik’s phrase) steered them away from the pretentiousness of “serious” twentieth-century music, and into quite another form of bullshit.

The review continues:

Consider the case of Mississippi John Hurt, the subject of the book’s longest and most powerful essay. First, there’s his name: Mississippi was an add-on from the record company. Then there’s his reputation as a patriarch of the Delta blues: Hurt wasn’t from the Mississippi Delta and he insisted he wasn’t a blues musician. And then there is the problem of his blackness, thought by the white fans who rediscovered him in the 1960s to be pure and profound (“Uncle Remus come to life,” write the authors). When Hurt was “discovered” the first time, he was performing for black and white audiences backed by a white fiddler and a white guitar player who also happened to be the local sheriff. He recorded blues because the record company insisted he do so. Meanwhile, Jimmie Rodgers, a white musician who happened to be a bluesman, recorded what came to be known as “country” music because the blues were reserved by the market for black men. One more twist: when Harry Smith included two of Hurt’s songs on his great Smithsonian Folk Anthology, most listeners mistook the black musician for a white hillbilly.

The term “folk” itself presents more problems. Until 1949, country music was simply “folk”, as was much “black” music. Racism was the centrifuge that separated them…

Fascinating stuff. I think I’ll buy the book (which also apparently has caustic comments on the authenticity of contemporary musicians, from John Lennon to Nirvana).

(PS – That’s post number 100.)


Addendum: The second review, and my review of the review, may give the impression that the folk blues musicians were all sophisticated musicians with wide interests and influences who got pigeonholed by John Lomax. This may have been true of Leadbelly and John Hurt, and not true of others like Robert Johnson. That is to say, there really was a “Mississippi Delta blues” style in the 1930s, which should have remained in that place and that decade, but was pushed by the record companies and later picked up by aspiring rockers; and because it existed, black musicians like Leadbelly were straitjacketed into it, while whites like Jimmie Rodgers were forcibly labelled into other styles.

University violence at home

These weren’t deranged students like the one at Virginia Tech. They were ABVP activists (ABVP, of course, being the student wing of the rabid right BJP/VHP/RSS family) and knew what they were doing. 6 physics teachers were beaten up at Warangal on Tuesday, because they failed 14 of 49 students in the examinations.

According to an email I received from a colleague:

Two of the people mentioned, Ramakanth and Gangadhar Reddy are personally known to many of us. They are sincere and committed condensed matter physicists and teachers. They have worked hard under the difficult conditions that prevail in a state university to build up the physics department there. Ramakanth is a senior professor (more than 60 years old), well respected, both locally and by the condensed matter community in the rest of India. Their academic integrity is unquestionable.

Of course, even if their integrity were questionable, mob violence is not the answer. And this is not the first time the ABVP has assaulted teachers: they murdered a professor in Ujjain not long ago.

The events at Virginia Tech have thrust the spotlight on university violence. But at home, we seem to take it for granted. A search on Google News reveals a grand total of four news items to mention Kakatiya University, of which one is an unrelated story.

Horror and empathy

Where there is no imagination there is no horror. — Sherlock Holmes

More details are emerging from the Virginia Tech horror. It seems that, following earlier complaints and suspicions that he may be suicidal, the killer had voluntarily gone to the Police Department, who referred him to an off-campus psychiatric institution; but he was not determined to be dangerous (though he was mentally ill) and it is not known whether there was follow-up counselling.

He was not the only student on campuses around the world to face problems. The_Girl_From_Ipanema has a heart-warming post about her friend V who was pulled from the brink by the timely intervention of a good doctor. But many students aren’t so lucky. Several commit suicide (on top campuses, in the US and in India, it could be one a year; in my six years at graduate school were at least three suicides that I remember, and one thankfully unsuccessful attempt). But somehow a suicide doesn’t capture world headlines the way a massacre of 32 others does.

Why are we horrified by Virginia Tech? One reason is that we can relate to the students, imagine their lives, put ourselves in their shoes: many of us have been on US campuses, or know young people who study there. In fact, two of the victims were Indian: one a professor from a very modest rural background, whose parents and brother had never even visited the US in his lifetime and are making their first trip to administer his last rites; and another a young student, like so many others we know, extinguished at the threshold of her life. I wonder whether a massacre in Peru or Poland, countries not much visited by Indian students, would command so much attention. Cenk Uygur (who is rapidly becoming one of my favourite writers) points out that many Virginia Techs happen in Iraq every day, and we somehow remain unmoved.

So part of our horror comes from how close we feel to the victims. But why aren’t we horrified by the number of suicides on campuses? Those victims are people like us, too. According to some estimates, there are about 1,100 suicides on US college campuses every year. That’s over 30 times the Virginia Tech toll. I don’t know the numbers in India, but I suspect they’re pretty high; and they’re even higher in our schools — the papers regularly report children committing suicide as a result of being pressurised by parents or chastised by teachers, or for even more avoidable reasons; but such news is confined to the city pages and does not make national, far less international, headlines. Why don’t these things occupy our news-space and our attention?

Is it that we can’t relate to the depressed and unstable? If so, why not? Many of us have known depression and almost all of us know people who are depressed.

If we could empathise better with those that need help, would we be able to prevent future massacres like the one at Virginia Tech, as well as some of the thousands of annual suicides that dwarf the Virginia Tech toll?

A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic (attributed to Stalin)