Thursday, September 30, 2021

The Screaming Horror of the 20th Century’s Most Famous Painting Echoes Today

Guernica, 1937 by Pablo Picasso. 

Note—On August 29 as the U.S. was scrambling to meet an August 31 deadline to have its troops finally out of Afghanistan and after an ISIS bomb exploded outside Kabul Airport killing 13 American soldiers and scores of would-be Afghani refugees, an airstrike killed Zamairi Ahmadi, an aid worker with international aid organizations and nine other members of his family including seven children.  It was, the Pentagon would confess, a hasty case of mistaken identity in the rush to avenge the earlier American deaths as promised by President Joe Biden.  A tragic mistake, they said.  But it was the latest, if not the last, of thousands of such civilian deaths in Afghanistan by drones and manned aircraft over almost two decades of undeclared war in that country.  Similar atrocities were and are routine in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and other “War on Terror” hot spots.  Americans hardly seem to notice or care that we have routinely become clones of the Nazis who once shocked the world by their air attack on a sleepy Basque town.   

The smoldering remains of incent civilian Zamairi Ahmadi's car where he died with nine members of his family in a US air attack in Kabul, Afghanistan.

A very large painting arrived in London on September 30, 1938, the very day British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain signed the Munich Agreement with the Axis Powers.  It had previously been exhibited at the 1937 Paris International Exhibition (World’s Fair) in the exhibit of the Spanish Republic.  It had created a sensation and was soon sent on a world tour to raise support for the Republican cause in the devastating Civil War wracking that country.  This is the story of that painting which became perhaps the artistic symbol of an entire bloody century.

On April 26, 1937 aircraft of the German Condor Legion and supporting Italian forces unleashed a two hour aerial bombardment of the Spanish Basque market town of Guernica.  The Nazi and Fascistvolunteers” were supporting the so-called Loyalist forces of General Fredrico Franco against the Republicans, a loose alliance of anarcho-syndicalist unionists, Social Democrats, Communists, democrats, and Basque Nationalists in the Spanish Civil War. 

In addition to supporting a fellow Fascist, the Germans and Italians viewed the war as a laboratory to test new weapons and tactics.  Guernica, a civilian population center without direct military value, was targeted because it was a cultural center of the Basque region, which was firmly on the Republican side of the war.  The aim was to terrorize and demoralize the population that supported troops in the field. 

Guernica after the bombing.

The bombing commenced about 4:30 PM on a Monday.  The first wave of planes hit bridges and roads leading in and out of the city.  General Wolfram von Richthofen, commander of the Condors, reported heavy smoke shrouded the city when flights of heavy Junker bombers came over obscuring targets, so the planes simply dumped their bombs on the center of the city, destroying most of the homes and buildings there.  Subsequent waves dropped incendiaries creating an inferno, which he officially reported “resulted in complete annihilation,” of anyone below. 

He claimed, however that most residents were out of town because of a holiday or had time to flee.  Reports on the ground contradict that claim.  Many residents were in the center of town for a market day when the attack began and were unable to flee because the bridges were destroyed and the roads blocked with rubble. 

The dead in the Market after the Nazi air raid.

The attack was the first systematic aerial attack in force on a civilian population center.  Similar attacks behind the lines of opposing armies would become a standard tactic of the Nazi blitzkrieg of World War II. 

The fate of the town became an international cause célèbre.  Spanish-born painter Pablo Picasso was working in Paris on a commission from the Republican government for the 1937 Paris International Exhibition. He scrapped original plans and began sketching a mammoth mural commemorating the raid on Guernica.  The 11 foot by 25½ foot painting in stark black, white, and, gray captured the horror of the raid in a Cubist style—a screaming woman leans from a window with an oil lamp, an injured horse whinnies in pain, a mother clasps her dead infant. 

After the victory of Franco’s forces, the painting was sent to the United States at Picasso’s request.  It formed the centerpiece of a Picasso exhibition at New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA.)  During and after the war it was shown across the U.S., in Latin America, Europe before returning to the MoMA for another Picasso retrospective, where it stayed until 1981. 

Picasso’s will had stipulated that the painting could not be displayed in Spain until it was rid of the fascist dictatorship and restored to a Republic.  He also stipulated that once returned it must be exhibited in the national art gallery, the Museo del Prado in Madrid.  After Franco died in 1978, ten years after Picasso, the reluctant MoMA finally allowed the painting to be sent to the Prado in 1981. 

In 1992 it was moved to Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía along with most of the rest of the Prado’s Twentieth Century collection.  It can be seen there yet today. 

Guernica, the town and the painting, remain potent symbols of modern war’s brutality.  The painting was often used by Vietnam protestors.  A tapestry reproduction hung for years at the United Nations in New York at the entrance of the Security Council Room. 

Photos of Secretary of State Colin Powel speaking in front of the covered Guernica tapestry in the United Nations Security Council are perhaps not so mysteriously hard to find.  This painting literally pulls back the curtain on the hypocrisy. 

In February 2003, as the United States was about to launch its Shock and Awe air bombardment of Bagdad, the tapestry was covered by a curtain to prevent embarrassment to Secretary of State Colin Powell as he laid out the case for war against Iraq.  In 2009 the tapestry was permanently removed from display at the United Nations and sent to London’s Whitechapel Galley occupying the same space where the painting was displayed in 1939.

Wednesday, September 29, 2021

By Some Reckonings Today is the U.S. Army’s Birthday

General George Washington demobilized the Revolutionary War Continental Army in May 1783 and bid a formal farewell to his officers at Fraunces Tavern in New York City in December.  His hope that Congress would authorize a small regular army under General Henry Knox was dashed.

If asked about the origin of the United States Army, most folks, if they have a clue, would point to the American Revolution.  On June 14, 1775, the Second Continental Congress created the Continental Army and the next day unanimously elected George Washington commanding generalVolunteer units from several colonies already besieging Boston alongside militia units were mustered as the First Regiment of the Line.  Washington soon joined the troops, and the war was on as a seriously united effort.

All of that, of course, is true.  But almost as soon as the war ended the Continental Army was demobilized and essentially disbanded by order of General Washington on May 12, 1783 after Congress, now under the Articles of Confederation, rejected his appeal for a small standing army to be placed under the command of General Henry Knox.  Congress was deeply fearful that a standing army would lead inevitably to monarchy or dictatorship—and more than a few feared that the popular Washington might use it to have himself made king.

One hundred artillerymen and 500 infantry were kept on the payroll.  The artillery company was stationed at West Point, essentially security guards for the large arsenal there.  The infantrymen were scattered in small numbers at forts and outposts across the long western frontier and the border with British Canada.

Those infantrymen were totally unable to face the challenge of continuing warfare on the frontier by native tribes still allied with the British.  The plight of settlers west of the Alleghenies and south of the Ohio was soon desperate.

And this tiny Federal force was not even regularized, it operated out of necessity but with no legal foundation.

In June of 1784 Congress formally rejected Washington’s scaled back plans for a 700 man army.  On May 12 they discharged all the troops except for 25 caretakers at Fort Pitt and 55 at West Point.  On June 14 of that year Congress reluctantly agreed to raise a force of 700 men for one year’s duty on the frontier under the command of a Lt. Colonel.

Members of the Army's First Regiment on frontier post duty.

On September 29, 1784 the War Department formally issued the order creating what many considered just a temporary resurrection of the Continental Army.  Four companies of infantry and two of artillery dubbed the First American Regiment came under the command of Colonel Josiah Harmar of Pennsylvania

The creation of the First Regiment is considered the true birthday of the Regular U.S. Army.

The idea that a tiny regular army supplemented with local militia and, if need be short term musters of volunteer regiments would be enough to keep a lid on the powder keg on the frontier was ludicrous.

Some of the bloodiest, most intense, and widest ranging Indian warfare in American history continued for years on the frontier.  On November 4, 1791 a large force of volunteers, militia, and some regular companies under General Arthur St. Clare was routed and nearly massacred by native forces of the Western Confederation near Fort Recovery in Ohio.

The Legion of the United States during the campaign against the native Western Confederacy leading to the decisive Battle of Fallen Timbers in 1794.

This disaster finally encouraged Congress to expand and reorganize the Army.  With the approval of new President Washington and his Secretary of War Knox, the Legion of the United States was created with General “Mad” Anthony Wayne in command.  It was organized into four sub legions, two of which were converted from the First and Second Regiments, and two more to be recruited and trained. 

After extensive training in 1792 and ’93 the Legion took to the field for operations against the Western Confederacy south of the Ohio.  The large, disciplined force, with the assistance of by now veteran militia, was successful in a campaign in Kentucky that drove most of the hostiles north of the river. 

Wayne and the Legion pursued the tribes into their home territory north of the river, burning several principal towns and finally decisively defeating them at the Battle of Fallen Timbers on August 4, 1794.

With the frontier seemingly secured, the Legion was disbanded in 1796 and the reduced Army was reorganized into regiments the following year.  Some historians take this as the real origin of the Regular Army, but since the First and Second regiments were reconstituted, most take the 1784 date.

Major General James Wilkinson, first Commanding General of the U.S. Army,  was a brave soldier in combat, but an inveterate schemer, Spanish secret agent, and plotter of various treasons.

The new Army was placed under the command of General James Wilkerson, an officer with a checkered reputation for rascality, but a splendid battle record in the Revolution and under Wayne at Fallen Timbers—despite the fact that as a double agent for the Spanish in New Orleans he may have leaked some of the Legions operational plans to British agents active with the Indians.

Later that year the Whiskey Rebellion broke out in Western Pennsylvania.  To suppress it Washington, at the urging of his closest advisorAlexander Hamilton raised the largest army the new nation had ever put into the field, over 12,000 troops, mostly federalized militia including for the first time, draftees, and a handful of Legion troops.  He personally took to the field to command the force, which made quick, and largely bloodless, work of suppressing the rebellion.  But that confirmed the worst fears of old anti-federalists and Thomas Jefferson’s nascent Republican faction that a large army would be used to suppress the people in defense of a powerful elite.

President George Washington took command of the large army raised to suppress the Whiskey Rebellion in western Pennsylvania is seen here reviewing the troops.  Alexander Hamilton to command in the field for the brief, largely bloodless campaign. 

After retirement Washington was recalled to command the Army in 1798 by President John Adams as a possible war with France loomed.  A large force was raised, mostly Volunteers with regular Army regiments.  Washington helped plan the formation and logistics but left operational command to his favorite Hamilton who expected to take the field in operational command.  Hamilton had grandiose dreams of martial glory, including the conquest of Louisiana. 

Washington died at home in Mt. Vernon still nominally in command on March 1, 1799.  The crisis with France passed, much to Adams’s relief and to the disappointment of Hamilton.  The Volunteer Army was disbanded, and the Regular Army shrunken. 

Wilkerson was restored to command and embarked on more plots with the Spanish and later with disgraced Vice President Aaron Burr who planned a filibustering campaign to either capture Texas from the Spanish or perhaps create a break away nation west of the Appalachians. At the last moment the Commanding general betrayed Burr, but that is another story.

The Regular Army remained undermanned and scattered in coastal defense fortifications and along the frontier.  It was totally unprepared for the War of 1812...yet another story.

The Old Guard of the 3rd Infantry Regiment still marches in the post-Revolutionary War of first U.S. Regular Army troops for special ceremonial occasions like this Presidential Inaugural parade.

The First Regiment was consolidated with four other regiments in the post War Of 1812 reorganization in 1815 as the 3rd Infantry Regiment, which is the oldest active Regiment in the Army.  Now known as the Old Guard it has mostly ceremonial duties around Washington including soldier funerals at Arlington National Cemetery, standing guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, Presidential escort, and providing troops for review for visiting foreign dignitaries.  It is the only unit in the army to always march in parades with fixed bayonets in honor of its charge at the Battle of Cerro Gordo in the Mexican War. Units from it fought in Vietnam and companies have been dispatched to support deployments in the Horn of Africa, Djibouti, and at Camp Taji, Iraq in recent years.

Tuesday, September 28, 2021

Ian Tyson—The Damned Ol’ Cowboy Who Keeps Rolling On

Ian Tyson--the old cowboy still sings and looks good doing it.

It is possible you may never have heard of Ian Tyson who turned 87 earlier this week.  But then you wouldn’t be a fan of classic ‘60’s folk music, gritty contemporary Cowboy tunes—note I didn’t say Country music—or most of all Canadian.  After all Tyson’s wistful ballad Four Strong Winds was voted the Greatest Canadian song and he comes from roughly the same cohort as such astonishingly gifted songwriters Oscar Brand, Leonard Cohn, Gordon Lightfoot, Joni Mitchell, Buffy Sainte-Marie and Neil Young. That’s some tough competition!

Tyson was born to British immigrant parents on September 25, 1933 in Victoria, British Columbia and raised in the idyllic small city of Duncan, BC on the southern end of Vancouver Island.  As a boy he was fascinated by the cowboys he saw in the movies and idled his time drawing.  He was a fan of Wilf Carter a/k/a Montana Slim, the cowboy singer and yodeler who became Canada’s first country music star.  Never a ranch kid, he none-the-less became a rodeo rider and contestant in his teens and steadily climbed to bigger events.  He also pursued art in school.

Injuries—including serious ones—are part and parcel with the rough and tumble life of a rodeo rider.  While he was laid up with broken bones and studying at the Vancouver School of Art, Tyson first picked up a guitar.  By his own admission he wasn’t very good.  He claimed to know just two chords—surely an exaggeration since most songs have at least 3—when he started playing occasionally at the Heidelberg Café, a rathskeller catering to students. 

Taken by the American rock-a-billy sound and particularly Buddy Holly and the Crickets he joined a band called the Sensational Stripes.  Within a few months thanks to Musician’s Union rule that concerts include Canadian acts, the band shared stage with the Crickets, Gene Vincent, and Paul Anka in one of those packaged tours when it came to Vancouver.

When Tyson graduated from Art School in 1958 his heart told him to stay on the rodeo circuit, but his battered body was saying something else.  Never seriously considering a musical career, he ended up in Toronto after bumming down to California and across Canada hitch-hiking.  He took a straight gig as a commercial artist but within a few months was drawn to the dawning folk music scene in local clubs. That’s where he met Sylvia Fricker, a 19 year old escapee from a middle class home in Chatham, Ontario who dreamed of a singing career.

Sylvia was lovely, talented, and more serious about a career than the restless Tyson.  But her voice blended perfectly with his rich baritone.  By 1959 they were playing together at the Village Corner and other clubs as Ian & Sylvia.  The duo quickly matured as musicians, Tyson’s guitar playing got much better, they explored harmonies, and developed a wide repertoire.  First Tyson and then Fricker began writing original material.

In the early ‘60’s not only were they good—and popular—enough to give up their day jobs and become full time musicians.  They migrated to the epicenter of the exploding folk scene—New York’s Greenwich Village.

Ian & Sylvia--the Greenwich Village years.

The duo adapted quickly and well.  They were soon in the orbit of Dave Van Ronk, the Mayor of McDougal Street and a friend and mentor to many young musicians.  It was not long before they caught they ear and eye of Albert Grossman, the young agent who already managed Peter Paul & Mary.  Grossman quickly got them a record deal with Vanguard, the leading folk music label.  Their first album Ian & Sylvia contained mostly traditional British and Canadian folk songs, spirituals, and a taste of blues.  It was critically well received and a modest commercial success.  It was good enough to get them invited to participate in the legendary and seminal 1963 Newport Folk Festival.

It was their next album that was a creative breakthrough and a career maker.  In addition to their staple traditional ballads, the album included a version of Bob Dylan’s early song Tomorrow is Such a Long Time.  Grossman was then also managing Dylan and their paths frequently crossed in the Village.  Tyson, like everyone else was struck by Dylan’s genius.  But he was also put off by his arrogance and tendency to use and discard people in his meteoric rise.  Also on the album was a Tyson original.  The lonesome and yearning Four Strong Winds as written in a cramped apartment just off McDougal and captured Tyson’s own restlessness and affection for Canada and its vast spaces.  The song became a major Canadian hit and popular in the U.S. as well where it was covered by numerous artists. 

Ian & Sylvia became a major touring act in both countries as well as in the British Isles and Europe.  They also sealed their professional partnership by getting married in 1964.  For Tyson’s sake they established a home in rural southern Alberta which became the base from which they launched frequent tours and worked on a succession of Albums on Vanguard and later on American commercial labels including MGM and Columbia.

                   Ian and Sylvia get married--1964.

Their marriage coincided with their third album, Northern Journey which featured Sylvia’s original tune You Were on My Mind which became a #3 Billboard hit in the U.S. when it was covered by the California power folk combo We Five.  Tyson also had a memorable original, a second signature song in fact.  Some Day Soon harkened back to his rodeo days but was unusual in being from the viewpoint of the girl who falls for the itinerant wild man.  It also had a swinging country music feel different than the duo’s ballads.

Judy Collins, who had already recorded other Tyson songs, added the song to her classic 1969 album Who Knows Where the Time Goes and released it as a hit single.  Collins, a girl from Denver, became so associated with the song that many thought it was autobiographical.  But the song had legs for other artists as well including Cheyenne’s singing rodeo cowboy Chris LeDoux in 1973 on an album that would recharge the cowboy genre, country music crooner Moe Brady in 1982, and country thrush Suzzy Boggus in 1991.

Ian & Sylvia’s follow up album recorded in ’64 and released early the next year was Early Morning Rain which boosted the career of fellow Canadian singer/song writer Gordon Lightfoot on its title track and with That’s What You Get for Loving Me.  The album also included songs from rising Canadian stars Steve Gillette and Tom Campbell.  It cemented their reputation as the anchors of Canadian folk music.

In 1965 they helped shake up the folk music scene at the Newport Festival when they showed up with an electric band in support of their newest album Play One More.  They joined The Byrds and the Lovin’ Spoonful as early creators of the folk/rock sound.  Bob Dylan’s former girlfriend Suze Rotolo in her memoirs credited Tyson with inspiring Dylan to go electric himself despite their prickly relationship.

By now Ian & Sylvia were popular worldwide, but certifiable super stars in Canada. By 1967 they had a weekly TV program on the Canadian Broadcasting Company (CBC) where they showcased the deep pool of Canadian talent, including Neil Young.  They also signed a second record deal with MGM Records.  For the next few years, they would alternate releases on their two labels with MGM steering them in a direction of a more mainstream country music sound.

In the late ‘60’s the couple relocated to Nashville where they recorded two albums, one for Vanguard and one for MGM.  The Vanguard effort Nashville was cut in February 1968, one month before The Byrds’ Sweetheart of the Rodeo and is widely considered the first collaboration of rock and Nashville session players and the first country/rock album.  Both albums included cuts taken from Dylan’s then unreleased Basement Tapes with The Band.

Ian and Sylvia, left, with members of The Great Speckled Bird.

In 1969 the duo assembled a band of all-star Canadian and Nashville side men and session musicians including Buddy Cage on pedal steel guitar, Amos Garrett, on guitar and backup vocals, Ken Kalmusky on bass, N.D. Smart on drums, David Briggs on piano for a big cross-Canada rock-and-roll rail tour, Festival Express.  Dubbed The Great Speckled Bird after the song that became the first vocal ever performed on the Grand Ol’ Opry when Roy Acuff stepped to the microphone, the band was a tight, swinging, dynamic combo.

Tyson’s good friend Todd Rundgren was also on the rail tour and was so impressed by the band that he helped it get a record deal with newly established Ampex label, a division of the company that dominated reel-to-reel tape recording.  Rundgren himself produced the recording sessions in Nashville.  Norbert Putnam sat in for Kalmusky for most sessions.  Ian or Sylvia wrote all but one of the of the album’s tracks and sang lead but were not identified separately from the band on the original label to emphasize it as a separate project from their duo.

Despite being widely anticipated in the industry and the music press the label was unable to get a distribution deal and collapsed before much more than a handful of copies shipped.   Thousands of records were locked in a warehouse and unavailable as they were caught up in litigation over the assets of the failed venture.  The few copies that did surface were well ecstatically reviewed.  The LP became a sought-after cult collection piece and bootlegged tape versions circulated.  Years later some of the albums were released with stickers added to identify Ian & Sylvia as the front artists.

Promoting the Ian Tyson Show on Canadian TV as Ian & Sylvia redefined themselves as country artists.

It was not the end of the band, however.  In 1970 they became the house band on Nashville North, a country music variety show on the CTV Network, the main corporately owned competitor to the CBC.  The next year the program was re-named The Ian Tyson Show and ran on the network until 1975. 

The omission of Sylvia’s name was significant.  By then the couple’s marriage was beginning to fray.  Although she appeared on the show as part of the band and had occasional solo numbers, her husband was out front as the star.  As the program ran she appeared less frequently.

Meanwhile, their recording careers had hit the commercial doldrums with changing popular tastes.  Although established as Canadian country music superstars, American audiences still thought of them, mostly as a folk act and U.S. country music radio thought of them as interloping folk-rockers.  With both their Vanguard and MGM contracts at an end they were picked up by industry giant Columbia Records whose Nashville operation was overseen by Chet Atkins.  Despite those advantages the label didn’t know what to do with them or how to market them.

Their first Columbia LP was called Ian & Sylvia, the same name as their original Vanguard album leading to confusion on whether it was a re-issue and at the same time failing to plant a flag as a country act.  Some of the songs were strong but bland mainstream country arrangements meant to be radio friendly.  In 1972 a follow up You Were On My Mind featured a later incarnation of the Great Speckled Bird and included electric updates of some of their early folk hits.  Neither record sold well and You Were on My Mind was their last original album together. 

The next year Tyson backed by members of the Great Speckled Bird released his first solo album, Ol’ Eon which was a mid-level Canadian hit.  Shortly after Ian & Sylvia broke up as an act and the couple amicably divorced in 1975, the same year as Tyson’s TV show ended.

Sylvia went on to a successful and varied career on her own.  Her 1975 debut solo album on Capital Records, Woman’s World out-performed Tyson’s debut in Canada.  She later established her own independent label Salt Records in the 80’s and became part of the all-female country folk group Quartette in the early ’90’s with other solo artists Cindy Church, Caitlin Hanford, and Colleen Peterson.  After Peterson’s death Gwen Swick replaced her in the group.  Sylvia also became an influential country music journalist, a founding board member of the Foundation Assisting Canadian Talent on Recordings (FACTOR) which helps finance recordings of emerging Canadian artists, and a board member for the Juno Awards, the Canadian equivalent of the Grammies.  Along the way Sylvia was herself a 7 time Juno Award nominee, inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame as part of Ian & Sylvia in 1992, and added to the Canadian Country Music Hall of Fame on her own in 2003 She was made a member of the prestigious Order of Canada in 1994.

After the break-up Ian Tyson first seemed to have a harder time adjusting.  His follow-up album to Ol’ Eon failed to chart.  He slowed down his touring and mostly retreated to his horse ranch near the tiny village of Longview, in southern Alberta, about 40 miles south of Calgary in the Canadian Rockies foothills.  He was a cowboy for real once again.

In 1980 Tyson hooked up with Calgary based music promoter and manager Neil MacGonigill.  It was a turning point to a phenomenal second act to his musical career.  He decided to dedicate himself to resurrecting all but moribund tradition of cowboy music including the old herding ballads and yodeling songs of the 1930’s and ‘40’s but updated with original music on cowboy, Western, and rodeo themes beginning with his 1983 release, Old Corals and Sagebrush.

Tyson receiving his Platinum Record for his classic LP Cowboyography

Between 1987’s Cowboyography and 1996’s he had a string of 5 Canadian hit albums and dozens of charting singles.  Along with the Chris LeDoux and a handful of other musicians Western or Cowboy music was successfully resurrected as genre distinct from Country music.  Radio station formatting the style full or part time sprang up across Western Canada and the U.S.  Although it has strong regional appeal, there are now fans across both countries and in the British Isles.

Among the singles hits off these and subsequent albums are Cowboy Pride, Fifty Years Ago, Since the Rain, Springtime in Alberta, Nights in Laramie, and Alcohol in the Bloodstream.  Navajo Rug and Summer Wages were named two of the Top 100 Western Songs of All Time by the Western Writers of America.

In 2006 and ’07 it looked like Tyson’s career might be over due to extreme vocal cord damage.  result of a concert at the Havelock Country Jamboree followed a year later by a virus contracted during a flight to Denver.  A Calgary doctor who also saved Adele’s voice, operated on his vocal cords.  After months of rehabilitation, Tyson got his voice back—but not the rich, smooth baritone for which he was noted.

His new singing voice lost some of the lower register but added range on top.  It also gave it a gravely quality.  Tyson says he prefers the new voice as a better rugged match for his Western themes.  In 2008 just a year after he thought it was gone, Tyson recorded his best reviewed album in years, Yellowhead to Yellowstone and Other Love Stories which garnered a 2009 Canadian Folk Music Awards nomination for Solo Artist of the Year.

Other honors he has picked up along the way are his membership in the Order of Canada in 1984, a 1989 induction to the Canadian Country Music Hall of Fame, a 2003 Governor General’s Award for the Performing Arts, inclusion in the Alberta Order of Excellence in 2006, and the 2011 Charles M. Russell Heritage Award presented by the C.M. Russell Museum in Great Falls, Montana for his tribute song to the artist, The Gift.

Ian Tyson--still a cowboy

In 2010, Tyson issued his memoir The Long Trail: My Life in the West co-written with Calgary journalist Jeremy Klaszus.  According to one review the book “alternates between autobiography and a broader study of [Tyson’s] relationship to the ‘West’—both as a fading reality and a cultural ideal.”

At 87 Tyson is still active, recording, and touring.  He is proud to describe himself as a cantankerous old man who won’t give up.  And he still looks great in a Stetson.


Monday, September 27, 2021

The Train Wreck That Inspired Country Music’s First Hit

The wreck of the Fast Mail not only inspired the song, but this dramatic painting by regionalist master Thomas Hart Benton.

There seems to be something about a train wreck that inspires a song.  Just about everybody knows Casey Jones.  Just two years after the disaster that inspired that tune, the Southern Railroad express known as the Fast Mail came barreling down a steep grade at a high rate of speed and overshot a tight radius turn right before a trestle sending the engine and train to a spectacular fiery crash at the bottom of a steep ravine.

Within 24 hours a witness/rescuer at the scene had penned a ballad set to the melody of a popular fiddle tune, The Ship That Never Returned, the same tune used latter for Charley on the MTA.  Just who that person was later became a matter of great controversy and an epic lawsuit.

The Fast Mail, designated as No. 97, ran on contract with the Post Office for service from Washington, DC to New Orleans via Atlanta.  That made it one of the highest volume mail trains in the South.  To encourage on time performance the contract included penalties for each minute the train arrived behind schedule at several stops along the route, including Spencer, North Carolina.  Railroad officials regularly pressured train crews to make up lost time to avoid the penalties.  As a result, engineers often operated trains well above designated speeds.

The need for speed had contributed to a fatal accident in April of 1903 when the engine smashed into a boulder on the tracks near Lexington, North Carolina derailing the train and killing the engineer and fireman.

On September 27 that same year a brand new Baldwin ten wheel 6-5-0 engine, #1102 which had been delivered just a week earlier was hooked up to No. 97.  For some reason, the train was already running behind schedule when it left Washington.  It rolled into Monroe, Virginia, a division point where train crews were changed, a full hour late.  The new engineer, 33 year old Joseph A. Broady, known to his friends and crew as Steve Broady, was handed orders to make up the time before the next Post Office penalty point at Spencer.  He was told to skip one regular junction stop entirely.  Although not explicitly ordered to go over the average 35 miles per hour limit between Monroe and Spencer, his bosses knew that he would have to exceed that.

Besides Broady the crew included fireman A.C. Clapp, and apprentice fireman John Hodge, conductor John Blair, and flagman James Robert Moody.  Also on board were express messenger W. R. Pinckney and 11 mail clerks.  Safe locker Wentworth Armistead boarded the train at Lynchburg, Virginia making a total of 18 men on board.

The Mail Clerks, express messenger and Armistead were all in the Post Office car attached directly behind the tender and ahead of the freight cars.

The scheduled running time for the 166 miles from Monroe to Spencer was four hours, fifteen minutes, an average speed of approximately 39 mph.  To make up the one hour delay, Broady would have to run at an average 51 mph over track known for its steep grades and tight curves.  Witnesses thought he was running at least 55 mph on the downgrade headed into the 45-foot high Stillhouse Trestle.  Broady applied his brakes but could not reduce his speed enough to make the sharp curve leading to the bridge. 

The Baldwin engine and ruins of the burnt out train at the bottom of the ravine next to the trestle surrounded by gawkers, including a large knot of women just to the right of the engine. 

The engine sailed off the track smashing to the bottom of the gorge next to the trestle.  Fire quickly spread and burned out of control completely consuming all the wooden cars and almost all the mail.  A crate of live canaries broke open in the crash and the birds escaped before the fire consumed the car.  Many lingered in the area and became an odd reminder of the crash.

Eleven men died in the crash, including all the train crew.  The two firemen were burned beyond recognition, and it was impossible to determine which body was whose.  Most of the 7 survivors were injured but survived because they jumped from or were thrown from the wreck.  The distraught express messenger went home and immediately resigned.  Some of the surviving mail clerks did return to service, though none again on the Fast Mail.

Engine #1102 was salvaged, repaired, and put back in service.  It ran for 32 more years before the Southern scraped it in 1935.

The railroad, of course, placed all the blame on the engineer, and even issued a report exaggerating his speed.  They never acknowledged any culpability for issuing the orders that made speeding inevitable.

The Fast Mail continued to run until 1907 when service was canceled in a re-alignment of mail contracts.

Fred Jackson Lewey was one of the first on the scene of the wreck and reported that he wrote a poem about it the next day.  Fiddler Charles Noell tinkered with the lyrics and fit them to the tune of The Ship That Never Returned.  

Among the many local residents who flocked to the scene of the accident to assist in rescue efforts was Fred Jackson Lewey who worked at a cotton mill near the base of the trestle and who was the cousin of fireman Clapp.  He said he sat down and wrote lyrics the day after the wreck.  His friend Charles Noell contributed to the words and suggested the tune.  The Wreck of the Old 97 was widely played in the area and became a standard at barn dances across the South in the next 20 years.

The first recording was made for Victor by the nearly blind primitive fiddle player G.B. Grayson and his partner Henry Whitter who played guitar, harmonica, and sang.  Whitter also altered the lyrics.

                                    Vernon Dalhart's smash hit recording of The Wreck of the Old 97.

Not long after that in 1924 Vernon Dalhart sold more than seven million copies and his version became the bestselling non-holiday recording of the first 70 years of the recording industry.  It is the record that is usually cited for the birth of successful commercial country music.

Success like that often brings people out of the woodwork claiming a piece of the pie.  David G. George, 1927 a former brakeman, railroad telegrapher, and week-end musician claimed that he was on the scene for the rescue efforts and penned the original lyrics himself.  He sued Victor and won a judgment for past royalties from Victor $65,295.  The company appealed three times, losing each time until the case got to the Supreme Court, which overturned the judgment.

Today experts are divided between the conflicting claims but most side with Lewey and Noell.

The Virginia state historical marker near the site of the wreck.

The song has become a staple of country music, bluegrass, and the folk revival.  It has been covered scores, maybe hundreds of times by artists as diverse as Jimmie Rodgers, Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Flatt and Scruggs, Charlie Louvin, The Seekers, Carolyn Hester, Hank Snow, Box Car Willie, Johnny Cash, Patrick Sky, and Nine Pound Hammer.