Sam Phillips

People who saw the recent, highly entertaining Repertory Theatre production of The Million Dollar Quartet may have been surprised to note that the main character of the piece was not Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, or even Elvis. It was Sam Phillips, the legendary founder of Sun Records of Memphis. He narrated the play, and took it from scene to scene while the story, such as it was, played out.

This got me to thinking that I was long past due in learning more about the man whom all of these stars credited, at least to some degree, with discovering them and setting them on the path to stardom, and who always referred to him reverentially as ‘Mr. Phillips,’ never ‘Sam.’

The book I found was Peter Guralnick’s 2015 work, Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock n Roll. Guralnick is a long-time music journalist and writer for The New York Times, Rolling Stone, and other major publications. He has also published an impressive shelf full of books on American blues music, early rock and roll, and more.

At well over 600 pages, his Sam Phillips is likely to be the definitive biography of the man. It would be hard to imagine more thorough coverage of a life. And in some ways that is too bad, since the book is deeply flawed.

For the first 400 pages or more, the story flows through Phillips’ triumphs and failures in the music business, as he finds his way towards the sound, the essence of the music he hopes to record and publish. Working in the early days almost exclusively with black artists, he discovers Howlin Wolf, Junior Walker, and other blues greats. He also records the seminal rock and roll anthem Rocket 88, by Ike Turner’s band, though in one of the great stories of the cavalier attitude of early music publishers, the song gets credited to Jackie Brenston and His Delta Cats.

Everything changed when a young factory worker named Elvis Presley came into the studio one afternoon asking to record a song. Within a year Phillips had abandoned most of his black artists to record white artists who ‘sounded black,’ the shift in emphasis that truly signals the beginning of what we know as rock n roll.

All great history. But at a certain point, the story of Sam Phillips becomes less interesting. He spent the last decades of his life jumping from one investment, one project, one pipe dream to another. He had affairs. He fought with his sons, who both became involved in the Memphis music industry. But for the most part he collected accolades and attended awards shows.

Peter Guralnick has written a two-volume biography of Elvis, a history of American blues, a biography of Sam Cooke. He has known people like Sam Phillips and his whole family for a long, long time. And so in working to make the last half of his life more interesting, he serves up one long chapter after another about his interviews with them. How he met them, what it was like interviewing them, what his impressions were. From a writerly perspective, this may all hold some interest, but for readers looking for more rock and roll history, the last 100 to 150 pages of the book are, frankly, a slog.

Still, if you want to know all there is to know about Sam Phillips, how he came to found Sun Records, and how he came to ‘invent’ rock and roll, the first 400 pages are as good a story as you’re likely to find.

The Undoing Project

‘People don’t make decisions about things, they make decisions about descriptions of things.’

This is one of the mind-boggling and provocative quotes from Amos Tversky and Danny Kahneman, the two Israeli psychologists whose work stood the the field of psychology on its head in the 1970s and 1980s—followed by the fields of economics, history, business, politics and many more. By challenging conventional wisdom about how people thought, about the basic assumption that people were by nature rational, they proved that much of what we considered true in many areas of academic endeavor was simply not so.

Michael Lewis’s book, The Undoing Project tells the story of these two remarkable men and their close working relationship. They came of age in the early days of the Israeli state, and both men had their academic careers repeatedly interrupted by military service in Israel’s many wars. Yet they continued to work and learn, and when they met one another at Hebrew University, it was a fortuitous meeting of minds.

Lewis, the author of Moneyball, The Big Short, Liar’s Poker and many other highly acclaimed books, brings both men to life and makes their somewhat difficult work accessible to the interested reader. He also deals with the eventual breakdown of Tversky and Kahneman’s relationship, and Tversky’s early death. Kahneman would go on to win a Nobel Prize in economics—no small feat for a professor of psychology.

A highly recommended read.

Electoral Dysfunction

Imagine a country where the right to vote is not guaranteed by the Constitution, where the candidate with the most votes loses, and where paperwork requirements and bureaucratic bungling disenfranchise millions. You’re living in it.

This quote is from the introduction to Electoral Dysfunction, a book by Elizabeth Bassetti which tries to explain the ins and outs of the American election process, and why it is so riven with difficulty and controversy. I recently became interested in our election process, particularly the Electoral College, which every several years gets people angry and confused. I must confess I did not really understand it, and so I went in search of a book that might explain it. This is the one I checked out.

Electoral Dysfunction is a quick read, well-written, and pretty eye-opening. Its basic premise, which comes as a surprise to many, is that there is no guaranteed right to vote in our Constitution. That’s only the beginning. It tells of a system of 13,000 individual state, county, and municipal election authorities who all do things pretty much how they want. It details the long and painful history of providing suffrage to everyone, not just white male landowners, as our Founding Fathers intended.

Most disturbing of all, it tells of the efforts by various factions to make sure large numbers of people are denied the vote. All major political parties have done this at some point in our history. From Southern Democrats with their strict Jim Crow laws–poll taxes and strict registration requirements–to modern Republicans and their ID laws, nobody who’s paying attention can ignore the fact that these are all attempts to disenfranchise the poor and most minorities.

The book is full of interesting and often maddening anecdotes about things that have  taken place at the polls. It is all in all a very interesting and informative read, although, even though there was an entire chapter dedicated to it, I still don’t think I understand the Electoral College any better.

Books and Facts

A few weeks ago I took a trip out west, mostly to New Mexico. I drove nearly 4,000 miles, mostly on U.S. Interstate highways. It fascinated me that no matter how much the scenery changed–and believe me, it changes between the Missouri Ozarks and the high desert country of the Sierra Nevadas–the road you’re traveling on stays remarkably the same. I told myself that when I got back I would find a good book about the highway system in the United States.

The book I found is The Big Roads: the untold story of the engineers, visionaries, and trailblazers who created the American superhighways, by Earl Swift (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011). It is a fascinating and well-told history of our highways, starting even before automobiles were much of a force on American roads. Did you know that it was bicyclists, participating in the two-wheeled craze of the late 19th century, who first insisted on having good, paved roads? Did you know that one man, a highway engineer, invented the cloverleaf, and held the patent on it?

But the thing that struck me most about the story is that the things we take as gospel truth in the development of America’s highways are simply not true, or at best, exaggerations. For instance, President Eisenhower is often cited as the creator of the highway system. Fact is, the entire system was conceived, planned, and begun, down to the nitty gritty details such as what signs to use, decades before his administration. His signature on a bill lending federal support to the project was about the extent of his involvement: and most of the work on that bill was handled by Vice President Nixon, while Ike was in the hospital. Eisenhower later mostly washed his hands of the project when he saw highways running places he believed they made no sense–such as right through the heart of most American cities.

It’s also believed by many people that the Interstate system was built to allow for planes to land on the highways when it was needed for national defense. The book dismisses this old canard as something ‘still alive on the Internet.’ It was talked about by some involved in the project, but quickly dismissed as infeasible for many reasons.

I found the whole book enlightening, and I am so glad I read it. It also drives home to me the truth that today, there is so much disinformation, bad information, and intentionally misleading information being shopped around that it’s hard to know what’s true. Many libraries, both public and academic, have been conducting workshops in how to spot ‘fake news,’ how to know when you’ve read something from a reliable source. It’s more than just a source you trust, since ‘a source you trust’ most often means a source that expresses opinions similar to yours.

I guess that in the end, this is a recommendation to stay informed by reading good books. They have long been, and will likely continue to be, one of the best places to get good information.This is not to say that all books contain nothing but truth. That is an unrealistic assumption. But a well researched non-fiction book, which cites its sources in careful footnotes, is almost always better than something your buddy posted on Facebook.

Genghis Khan

In the popular view, Genghis Khan is one of the most vile people in history: a conquering, murderous barbarian who sowed a path of destruction all across Asia and up to the very gates of Europe in the 13th century. So it surprised me a number of years ago to read the book Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World by J. McIver Weatherford (Crown, 2004). It was the author’s intent to show that although Genghis Khan did lead a massive army across Asia, conquering anyone who stood in his way, the empire he built was a model of enlightened thought. Religious freedom was emphasized, as was equality of women. People from all conquered nations and cities were allowed to become administrators and officials in his governments, and he took advice from anyone would offer it.

The book so impressed me with its revisionist view of the Great Khan that I was excited to see Weatherford’s next book, The Secret History of the Mongol Queens: How the Daughters of Genghis Khan Rescued His Empire (Crown, 2010). This story went deeper into the Mongol leader’s respect for the women around him, and how when certain of his sons and grandson let him down, the women who had been active participants in his court stepped up to become great and near-great queens of history. As with the previous book, the research was excellent, the storytelling compelling, and the new perspective on this chapter in history was very enlightening.

Weatherford’s third ‘Genghis Khan’ book came out in 2016, and it will likely be the last book in the set. It is called Genghis Khan and the Quest for God: How the World’s Greatest Conqueror Gave Us Religious Freedom. In the introduction, Weatherford describes that it was an investigation into Genghis Khan’s treatment of the various religions practiced in the many lands he conquered that started him on his journey of research into the Mongol Empire. Genghis Khan was himself a deist, worshiping the eternal sky and sea. But he had great respect for holy men of all stripes, Confucian philosophers, Taoist scholars, Buddhist monks, Christian priests, Jewish rabbis, and Islamic imams. He shielded them from harm, exempted them from taxes and compulsory labor. He met with them regularly and held long discussions. His eventual conclusion was that all great religions had some truth to teach, but none was the final, best, or correct faith. He ordered that within his realms, nobody was to be harmed or molested based on what faith they practiced. Sadly, his laws on religious freedom did not long outlive him. His descendants let the squabbling among Taoists and Buddhists, Christians and Muslims resume and grow violent again. But Weatherford paints a direct line of influence through Genghis Khan’s religious law to Enlightenment philosophy and right up to Thomas Jefferson, who owned an influential biography of Genghis Khan, and whose statements on religious freedom, first in Virginia and then in the United States, echo nearly verbatim words of the Great Khan.

For anyone who likes to read history, this set of books should provide a wonderful and instructive reading experience.


Free Book Boxes

Did you know that the phrase ‘Little Free Libraries’ is actually a copyrighted name? One has to pay royalties to the creators of said phrase to use it. So we don’t have Little Free Libraries. We have Free Book Boxes, and they are now installed in three Webster Groves parks–Larson, Blackburn, and Southwest. You can find them near each park’s playground. If you’re looking for a good book to read, please take one. If you have a book you’d like to share with others, please drop it off.

The idea for placing free book boxes originated with Parks & Rec Director Scott Davis a while back. A library staff member was stocking the book cart that we keep by the swimming pool in summer and the skating rink in winter, and Scott suggested that we should have–well, he used the copyrighted term, which we won’t repeat here.

We thought it was a great idea, and the library paid to have the boxes made. We were only finding expensive (overpriced!) boxes, until we made contact with the gentlemen who run a wood shop at Laclede Groves Senior Living Community. They produced four professional looking, sturdy boxes.

Parks Superintendent Yvonne Steingruby picked up three of them last week and had her staff install them in the parks. This morning we went around and filled them with books. The fourth box will be installed somewhere on the library grounds, we haven’t decided where just yet.

We hope people enjoy the Free Book Boxes!

We Vote on November 8?

Were you planning on voting for president on November 1st this year? Were you surprised to find out that the election is actually on November 8th?

Prior to 1845, the federal government did not mandate a presidential election date. States could choose any day as long as it was within the 34 days before the meeting of the Electoral College on the first Wednesday of December. But as travel and communications improved, Congress began to be concerned that states that voted early might affect the results of states that voted later and that voters would travel to different states and vote again.  In 1845, Congress set the date for presidential elections as the first Tuesday in November after the first Monday. The needs of an agrarian society determined the date. November was chosen because it would not interfere with the fall harvest and would be less likely to be affected by winter storms. Tuesday was chosen because farmers would be able to make the long drive into the county seat to vote without having to leave on the Sabbath and they wouldn’t miss the market day on Wednesday.

But why the first Tuesday after the first Monday?  When the first Tuesday is on November 1st, there are more than 34 days before the Electoral College. So Congress added the clause – “after the first Monday.” Now there are always 29 days between the election and the meeting of the Electoral College. Counting this year, there have been 55 presidential elections and only seven have not been on the first Tuesday – 1864, 1892, 1904, 1932, 1960, 1988, and 2016. The next one won’t be until 2044!