"It profits me but little that a vigilant authority always protects the tranquillity of my pleasures and constantly averts all dangers from my path, without my care or concern, if this same authority is the absolute master of my liberty and my life."

--Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Birthdays Today

A lot of interesting birthdays today, but not a lot of time to talk about them.   There's Christopher Wren, the great English architect of St. Paul's Cathedral in London, born in 1632; the doomed French poet, Arthur Rimbaud, born in 1854; the American philosopher and "educator," John Dewey, born in 1859 (I put the quotes around "educator" because Dewey's philosophy of progressive education has done a great deal of damage in America; Charles Edward Ives, the American composer, born in 1874; Mickey Mantle, the great Yankee slugger, born in 1931; and Tom Petty, the rocker, born in 1950 (just another classic rocker now over 60 years old).

But the two that leap out for me are two figures who provide echoes of my childhood.   First, Margaret Dumont was born in 1889.   Dumont was the "straight man" in the greatest of the Marx Brothers' movies, playing an older society lady outraged by the wildness of Groucho Marx, as here, in the 1933 movie Duck Soup:

Great stuff.    I used to watch these movies on Saturdays when I was a kid, and I don't think I've ever seen anything any funnier in American movies since.  

Meanwhile, the soundtrack of my youth was the classic jazz my Dad played all the time, and his favorite was also born today, in 1890 -- Jelly Roll Morton.   Here's Morton playing one of his greatest compositions, "The Pearls," from 1926:

I recall learning how to play this in high school so I could play it for Dad.   Pretty sure I never played it that well, but I hope he didn't mind.   It's beautiful music and arguably, with the rest of jazz from the 1920s through the 1950s (as in everything else, jazz veered off course in the 1960s), the one true American art form.  

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