Recent Hauntings: Does American Democracy Stand a Ghost of a Chance?


I took this photograph shortly after the small tin piano-shaped music box on top of the buffet shelf began playing its song, after several years of sitting silently. The music box formerly belonged to my deceased mother (who happens to be pictured beside the piano with my late father).


I’m a bit bewildered by small, spooky occurrences of late, that resonate with sentiment.

I’ve experienced three such happenings lately.

Now, feminist scholars of 19th century literature, especially written by women,

inform us that sentiment ain’t a bad thing, culturally speaking.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin was the feminine John Brown, they might argue.

Yes, I get that.

But a recent afternoon I was browsing through Tocqueville’s Democracy in America,

feeling burnt and wired, after a lousy night’s sleep.

Then, I hear a slight tinkling, teasing my brain.

I walk into the dining room…

I’ll be damned if it ain’t my late mother’s piano-shaped music box

that’s sat on the buffet silently for a couple of years.

Suddenly, it’s playing its tinny little heart out, a few feet away

from the cassette tape of my eulogy of father Norm’s funeral,

which appeared, out of nowhere, not long ago right on the bookshelf.

The piano’s melody is touching but sappy: “We’ve Only just Begun” by Paul Williams,

which…The Carpenters nailed together into a hit.

The piano’s song “began” a few years ago

when I first wound the tin piano up,

shortly after Sharon’s funeral. I let it play out —

or so I thought — then eventually set it down in the dining room.

Now I’m compelled to ponder Sharon’s affection for the melody, a sunny C major chord

which takes a striking modulation to seven successive minor chords

offset by one E Major 7. The minors help “sell” such sappy lines as “white lace and

promises…” The wide intervals of the phrases do as well.

So, Williams had a craftsman’s command of music.

And now the dippy lyrics nag at my brain

though I wanted to read more of what Tocqueville had to say

about “the people” informing the intelligentsia,

with his certain faith that American people

were fairly intelligent.

My own Tocquevillian faith in “the people” is tested regularly,

as much as my faith in a higher power,

but I seem to persist in such battered, residual beliefs,

still simmering in the petrie dish of my brain.

Rolling Stone lists “We’ve Only Just Begun”

as 405 among The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.

And to be clear, the Paul Williams who wrote that song

is not the same one who started Crawdaddy magazine,

one of the really seminal rock critics.

If Paul Williams the critic were still alive, it would be interesting

for him to meet with Paul Williams, the soft-rock songwriter

and have them argue whether the song

deserves to be in the all-time top 500.

It’s a pop song. Often played at weddings.

These days I sometimes wish I was 30 years old

and could have Jeffrey Foucault sing his wedding song

“One for Sorrow” (two for joy they say) at my wedding.

It always lifts my spirit. And he writes a hell of a lyric.

But then, how different is Williams’ song than

some of the Tin Pan Alley Songs I’ve played on piano —

plenty romantic, and for Norm and Sharon’s wedding anniversary?

“My One and Only Love” and mom’s fave “Here’s That Rainy Day.”

I feel the heart tug and resist, or do I?

After all, The Carpenters sort of made my skin crawl.

Strange thing is, poltergeists don’t seem to. Not quite yet.

As long as they don’t start tossing furniture around the room

or de-alphabetize my CD library, or turn on an “Addams Family” video and, along with

Boris and Natasha, do a steamy tango with my startled cat (supple Chloe could at least handle the kicks, the boleo, the head snaps and the female’s deep backwards back bend. But I doubt she would dig it. And I’d be “Ghost Busters” spooked.)

But what of the weirdness of these occurrences?

Dad’s eulogy tape surfacing mysteriously a few weeks before mom’s piano plays,

out of the blue?

I shrug it off, sort off.

But still.

I’d like Tocqueville to be in the room with those two Paul Williams.

Tocqueville seemed to feel that “we” the people “had only just begun, to live.”

Ditch the “white lace,” expand the lovebirds’ first-person plural to

“We the people…” He wrote a 700-page political science masterpiece

based on America’s “promises.”

It would be a conversation with four writers, if I attended.

I’d prefer not to talk much.

I’d be a Kakfa-esque bug in the corner,

too ugly for anyone to acknowledge.

So, I keep following my psyche through my mid-afternoon Twilight Zones

but also keep thinking and writing because

Norm and Sharon would want me to, I’m sure.

Then, there’s my dead ex-wife Kathy, and the third creepy occurrence — which fit

her impish personality to a T (too complicated to explain here, having to do with a computer screensaver “joke.”)

I’ll just say Kathy, who died in 1999,

was bugging me to finish my long-postponed blog remembrance

of her — by her birthday, which I finally did.

So maybe that’s one spook silenced.


Unless I start pondering the “astrological psychic energy” of birthdays and anniversaries

and of “Occurences at Owl Creek Bridge”  yet to come.


The Kathy Naab remembrance is posted here:

  • An Occurence at Owl Creek Bridge is a haunting 1890 Civil War story short story by Ambrose Bierce, which was aired in 1964 on The Twilight Zone in a film adaptation. It was actually a black-and-white French film, rivière du hibou, directed by Robert Enrico, and won awards for best short subject at the 1962 Cannes film festival and 1963 Academy Awards.
  • The Bierce story’s subtitle is “A Dead Man’s Dream.” I just hope I don’t have a dead man’s dream tonight, or anytime soon. Dad, you can hang onto your dreams, until further notice. Are you listening? Um, hello?
  • Suddenly, I feel like Hamlet, the brooding, haunted Dane…
  • Now what should I do? What’s this? I just heard a small voice somewhere, whispering, “Psst. Hey dude. Your money or your life.”
  • To quote Jack Benny (not Hamlet), “I’m thinking, I’m thinking.”
  • p.s. OK, I made up that last “ghostly” quote. As for any of the rest of this blog, (to quote a contemporary “philosopher”) “I did not make that up.”

Charlie Haden’s bass sang around the world, and back, to The Shenandoah



Blogger’s note: On Aug. 7, I will add to this posting a more complete review of Charlie Haden’s last released recording “Last Dance,” when it is published by The Shepherd Express. 

On the new ECM CD, Last Dance with pianist Keith Jarrett, Charlie Haden’s extended bass solo on “Where Can I Go Without You?” magnificently extends the melodic contours and the meaning of the song, as if he has deposited the questionnaires directly in the heart of the listener.

Yet his epitaph might be another standard, “Everything Happens to Me.” Not as a solipsistic whine, this was a humble man. Rather, this musician lived a remarkably full creative existence, embracing all life’s wonders, cruelty and strangeness with his artful gifts and passion for justice, while battling the infidels of his body and spirit, to the end.

“I want to take people away from the ugliness and sadness around us every day and bring beautiful, deep music to as many people as I can,” Haden said in a 2013 Interview with the Associated Press shortly before receiving his lifetime achievement Grammy Award. Eventually his body, debilitated by post-polio syndrome, took his music and life from him.

Born on August 6, 1937 in Shenandoah, Iowa — Charlie Haden died at age 76, on July 11, shortly after the CD’s release. This great bassist, composer, educator and bandleader has a vast and wide-ranging recorded output (see selected discography below), from powerfully rhetorical, politically acute large-group records to duets, where you hear the man most intimately, which is why I am starting this appreciation with a consideration of his duet recordings with several different pianists.


Keith Jarrett and Charlie Haden recording the sessions that produced “Last Dance” and “Jasmine.” Courtesy

Besides Jarrett, Haden also recorded excellent duet albums with pianists Denny Zeitlin and Hank Jones, actually two superb recordings with the latter — of spirituals, hymns and folk songs, which reveal some of his roots as a boy singer in the popular country radio act The Haden Family.

But Haden’s most artfully beautiful duet album was Night and the City with the master of New York piano jazz, Kenny Barron. Haden the role player understood restraint and understatement, and knew, with a pianist of bounteous pianistic and harmonic resources like Barron, the bassist can slip a bit further into the background. Yet Haden remains the recording’s deep-breathing presence, the knowing inner voice perhaps weighing the difference between the dark and light angels within each human, for this is a musical symbiosis of two sensibilities as one whole.

Haden’s “Waltz for Ruth” from Night and the City:

The CD’s cover image, Georgia O’Keeffe’s famous 1927 painting “Radiator Building – New York” is the perfect visual analog to Haden’s heartland-to-big city career arc. O’Keefe, a Sun Prairie, Wisconsin native, became the student and spouse of New York sophisticate art photographer Alfred Stieglitz, who understood her genius, here interpreting the ultimate urban setting.

Charlie Haden 1996 Night And The City

The cover of “Night and the City” with Georgia O’Keeffe’s painting of the Radiator Building in New York. Courtesy

The painting’s architectural starkness parallels Haden’s stripped-down structural strength, the dancing wisp of smoke suggests his lyricism, and the lights reaching to the heavens, his spirituality. The music echoes not only O’Keeffe but also the poem quoted in the liner notes, Mark Strand’s “Night Piece,” which itself pays homage to Charles Dickens:

…And people moved like a ghostly traffic from home to work

and home,

and the poor in their tenements speak to their gods

and the rich do not hear them, every sound is merged,

this moonlit night, into a distant humming, as if

the city, finally, were singing itself to sleep.

Haden produced the album with his wife Ruth Cameron, who co-produced most of his later work. You get a muted sense of Haden’s gifts for album concepts and socially-consciousness expression. There was a bracing, highly political side to Haden, most evident in the recordings he made periodically with his Liberation Music Orchestra with pianist-arranger-composer Carla Bley.

The first album, Liberation Music Orchestra from 1969, lends pointed purpose to the maelstrom of musical creativity, and social and political unrest that remarkable decade produced.

Charlie Haden LMO

The first Liberation Music Orchestra album in 1969 set a standard for political jazz in a pan-cultural cast. Courtesy

The Liberation Music Orchestra’s last recording, Not in Our Name, recorded in the summer of 2004, is a protest against the Iraq war, among other travesties of justice. The album also introduced many in the music world to the brilliant young Puerto Rican alto saxophonist Miguel Zenon, who may have no peer today on his instrument.

Not in Our Name superbly blends originals and folk-derived pieces by Bley, and various Americana: a sardonically harmonized “America the Beautiful,” part of a medley including a majestically soaring, trumpet-borne, “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” and a quote from Haden’s old bandleader Ornette Coleman’s powerfully searching tone poem Skies of America. There’s alsoAmazing Grace,” and “Goin’ Home” (the folk song used in Dvorak’s “New World” Symphony).

The album closes with their interpretation of Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings. The original material may not match that of the first Liberation Music Orchestra album, one of the great recordings of the modern jazz era, and perhaps this Adagio inevitably, with 12 musicians, couldn’t quite equal the luminous, searing orchestral beauty of Barber’s masterpiece, as scored for strings.

But few artistic statements in recent memory have shown a surer artistic and critical grip on the America of the present, without forsaking, trivializing or glibly diminishing it.

“People sometimes ask, does it make any difference to make a recording like this?” Haden and Bley wrote in their liner notes to Not in Our Name. “What is important is that we choose to express our concerns, when the circumstances warranted and our natural mode of expression is music.”

Haden knew that music has the vibrational power to move people unlike any other art form. He used that power wisely. He toured worldwide until his body began to break down.

Perhaps one of the first documented clues to this tireless creative musician’s deteriorating condition arose in an interview he did for Jazz Times in May 2011. Writer Don Heckman wrote:

“At the moment, seated in an Italian restaurant near his home in northwest suburb of Los Angeles, it’s a coffee he’s drinking that’s bothering him. He’s been coughing since he took the first sip. ‘Coffee!’ He mutters. ‘I keep drinking it, and I keep coughing,’ And then in his typically whimsical fashion, he laughs at the inadvertent pun.”

Respiratory problems are among the symptoms of post-polio syndrome. Heckman aptly characterizes Haden as a Renaissance man, and the interview ends with the journalist asking Haden if he thinks Renaissance men are born or made.

“Well, my parents were like that, too, and I’ve always, from the beginning, wanted to play different music from different parts of the world,” Haden replied. “And then, as I was exposed to the problems of society as I was growing up — racism, Vietnam — that affected me, too. But I think the simple answer is this: who you are and what you do comes from what’s inside you.”

A humble man of vision and ambition, who knew who he was, and what he became, and how to share that with world. In his speech given when he received a Lifetime Achievement Grammy award, you sense vulnerability in his crumbling stature and unsteady voice. Yet he always seem to know where he was going with or without anyone else.

His career had a magnificent sense of purpose, perhaps no more overtly is when he formed the Liberation Music Orchestra, one of the most powerful and eloquent ensembles ever dedicated to the idea of freedom. His eloquent solo on “Song for Che,” from the first Liberation Music Orchestra album from 1969, will burn through the ages as surely as the memory of Che Guevera, the man it commemorated.

Haden’s “Song for Che” preformed with Ornette Coleman:

I saw him play twice in Madison, once years ago with Keith Jarrett’s American Quartet with Dewey Redman and Paul Motian, a concert of lyrical and acerbic urgency. The second time was with his Quartet West, a project which explored his noirish, romantic side. The great Joe Lovano was to be special guest but needed to cancel, so an old West Coast compadre, Gary Foster, flew in for the gig.

Foster’s a fine post-bop/post-cool school player, but the concert didn’t fully persuade without Lovano, who can do romantic on tenor sax as well as anybody (see Lovano’s Celebrating Sinatra album). Some fans longed to hear a fiery Liberation Music Orchestra-type concert, but it’s good to remember that Charlie was also a romantic, which was part of his LMO idealism, but also his natural lyricism. And jazz concerts by definition always risk not fully working because they’re all partly improvised.

Regardless, Haden played magisterially, in the center of the stage, behind see-through studio-type acoustic baffles, always supremely attuned to his songful tone quality.


haden bass


At his strongest, Haden sounds like a man carving his bass notes into an ancient oak tree.

Now people are commemorating him, singing songs for him, as he was once able to do with his family’s country music repertoire. The Haden Family was a popular Midwestern radio act when he was a boy and known as “Cowboy Charlie,”  on the verge of being a star singer. Polio struck, robbing his singing voice.

He switched to bass and became interested in jazz after hearing Charlie Parker perform with Jazz at the Philharmonic. He headed to Los Angeles to study music and began performing with such local musicians as pianist Hampton Hawes and saxophonist Art Pepper before meeting iconoclastic saxophonist Ornette Coleman.


Charlie Haden on bass in the early 1960s, with Don Cherry on pocket trumpet, Ornette Coleman on plastic alto saxophone and Ed Blackwell on drums. Courtesy

“Ramblin'” by Ornette Coleman with Charlie Haden:

Almost a lifetime later, Haden’s soft tenor voice gives a stunning rendition of “Wayfaring Traveler” on his Quartet West album The Art of the Song from 1999. You hear a man who’s willing or compelled to wander and yet, as he did as bassist in the “free” jazz of Coleman’s pioneering quartet, he always seemed to know where he was headed. That was a secret of his success as an intrepid improviser. “Wayfaring Traveler” is actually a spiritual.

Haden founded the jazz studies program at the California Institute of the Arts in 1982, and emphasized the spirituality of improvisation. So he was always on his way home, at least in spirit. He died in Los Angeles, with his musical family beside him, says ECM label publicist Tina Pelikan, who announced his death.

Rambling Boy from 2008 is a gorgeous, moving and fascinating document and, in effect, a modern-day Haden Family album, with a gaggle of guest roots-music stars – a measure of the respect he’s earned across musical vernaculars and

in the jazz, country, folk, classical and world music realms. This is Charlie the global rambler finally coming full circle.

You hear Haden, wife Ruth Cameron, the piquant harmonies of their triplet daughters Rachel, Petra and Tanya, their son Josh and son-in-law, actor Jack Black — and Elvis Costello, Rosanne Cash, Vince Gill, Jerry Douglas, Dan Tyminski, Bruce Hornsby, Ricky Skaggs, Pat Metheny and others.

“My roots have never left me … because the very first memory I have is my mom singing and me singing with her,” Haden said in a 2009 interview. The CD includes Haden’s first recorded performance – an excerpt from a 1939 Haden Family radio show on which 22-month-old Cowboy Charlie yodels on a gospel tune, already with an innate feel for phrasing.

Haden family

A vintage photo of the original Haden Family with “Cowboy” Charlie Haden in center, (wearing a vest). Courtesy

Amid the bigger names, Haden’s unheralded son Josh offers “Spiritual,” a stunningly confessional supplication to Jesus: “I don’t want to die alone.”

The last song on Rambling Boy is Haden himself singing “Oh Shenandoah,” like a prodigal ghost. He returned, longing to hear Shenandoah, again, that rolling river.

The Shenandoah will always sing, for Charlie Haden. Night, and the city, singing itself to sleep, will as well.


Editorial assistance by Harvey Taylor, Michael Goldberg, Howard Landsman, Gary Alderman and Steve Braunginn.

A selected Charlie Haden discography:

With Ornette Coleman: The Shape of Jazz to Come, Change of the Century, This Is Our Music, Atlantic, early 1960s recordings; Beauty Is A Rare Thing (box-set reissue) Rhino/Atlantic, 1993; Crisis, Impulse! 1972, The Complete Science Fiction Sessions, with Bobby Bradford, Jim Hall, Cedar Walton, Ashla Puthli,  and others, recorded 1971, Columbia, 2000.

With The Keith Jarrett Quartet: Death and the Flower, Impulse! 1977; Survivor’s Suite, ECM 1977

With Rickie Lee Jones: Pop-Pop, Geffen,  1991

With Abbey Lincoln: You Gotta Pay the Band, Verve, 1991

With Joe Lovano: Universal Language Blue Note 1992

With John McLaughlin: My Goal’s Beyond, Douglas 1970

With Helen Merrill: You and the Night and the Music, 1998 

With Pat Metheny: Song X, with Ornette Coleman, Jack DeJohnette, Geffen 1986

With Old and New Dreams: Old and New Dreams, with Don Cherry, Dewey Redman and Ed Blackwell, Black Saint (Italian) 1977; and Old and New Dreams ECM 1979 (re-issued in 2005 as Lonely Woman on Universal.)


Charlie Haden:

Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra, with Carla Bley, Don Cherry, Dewey Redman, Gato Barbieri and others. Impulse! 1969

Closeness (Duets), with Keith Jarrett, Ornette Coleman, Alice Coltrane, Paul Motian, recorded 1976. Jazz Heritage

Time Remembers One Time Once, duets with (pianist) Denny Zeitlin, ECM 1979

Silence, with Chet Baker, Enrico Pieranunzi, Billy Higgins, Soul Note (Italian) 1987 (six months before Baker’s death)

Etudes with Paul Motian, featuring pianist Geri Allen, Soul Note (Italian) 1988

Dream Keeper, Liberation Music Orchestra, with Joe Lovano, Branford Marsalis, Ken McIntyre, Tom Harrell and others, Blue Note, 1991

Haunted Heart, Charlie Haden Quartet West, Verve 1992

Night and the City, duets with pianist Kenny Barron, Verve, 1994

Steal Away: Spirituals, Hymns and Folk Songs, duets with pianist Hank Jones, 1995

Beyond the Missouri Sky (Short Stories) with Pat Metheny, Verve, 1996

The Art of the Song, Quartet West, with Shirley Horn, Verve 1999

Not in Our Name, Liberation Music Orchestra, with Carla Bley, Miguel Zenon, Curtis Fowlkes and others, Verve 2005

charlie haden cover

Rambling Boy, Charlie Haden Family & Friends, with Elvis Costello, Rosanne Cash, Jerry Douglas, Dan Tyminski, Bruce Hornsby, Ricky Skaggs, etc. Decca 2008

Jasmine, duets with Keith Jarrett ECM 2010

Sophisticated Ladies, Quartet West, with Cassandra Wilson, Diana Krall, Norah Jones, Renée Fleming and others, Decca Emarcy (import) 2010

Come Sunday, duets with Hank Jones (Jones’ last recording) Verve 2012

Last Dance, duets with Keith Jarrett, ECM 2014


“Rambling Boy” CD cover courtesy 

Wisconsin gave John Steuart Curry a home. He gave back the state’s idea as image

curry Wisconsin Farm Scene

John Steuart Curry’s “Wisconsin Farm Scene,” oil on canvas, 97 by 89 inches, 1941. Lent by The Chazen Museum of Art, Madison.

John Steuart Curry’s relationship with his native state of Kansas was as troubled as a convulsing tornado, and the raging soul of John Brown. Curry became famous when he gave that state indelible public images.

His paintings of their swirling escalators to Oz and the anarchistic, slave-liberating Brown, and of fundamentalist baptismal dousings in a wood barrel, embarrassed early Kansas critics likely hoping his fame might help boost the state’s nation image in the newly modern and chic 1920s.

But Curry painted “the American scene,” with the same rough-hewn, real-life observational sensibility of Thomas Hart Benton and more craftsman-like Grant Wood. They would become renowned as the three major Midwestern regionalist artists,  comparable to another new American storytelling art form, the more urban “Ash Can School” artists, who preceded them  by a decade or so.

While Kansas worried about flying witches and other cultural blights, Wisconsin and in its visionary Big Ten university lay poised, deep in its rolling hills and forests, to woo the man to help artistically express its ideals, a man who created a new art largely independent of modern European influences.

Wisconsin made all the right moves, as is evident in the artwork and underlying story of John Steuart Curry at Home in Wisconsin, the new exhibit at the Museum of Wisconsin Art in West Bend, which is running through September 14.

This show title is slyly docile, domestic as a curled-up cat. But more’s afoot at this ambitious flagship for Wisconsin art. MOWA made a good move itself, when it re-defined part of its mission to exhibit not only native Wisconsinite artists like photographer Edward L. Curtis, but also artists, like Curry, who “lived in the state for a period of time and had a transformative experience here,” as MOWA executive director Laurie Winter explains.

An impressive show in Madison at the Elvehjem Museum of Art (now, The Chazen Museum) in 1998 traced Curry’s impact in defining the Midwest from the standpoint of the era’s natural and societal turmoil. The MOWA exhibit provides Wisconsinites with a fuller sense of a crucial if more internal story – of outreach-style rural education and collective state-side war efforts. But the cumuli-graced air he painted was also sometimes filled with UW flying footballs and a big buzzing vibration called “The Wisconsin Idea”, which helped the painter transform into a state citizen and ambassador for his adopted state in the progressive sense the idea espoused.

In November 1936, Curry was the first artist featured in the new LIFE magazine which would help “America’s foremost painter of cyclones and circuses” move squarely in the middle of American consciousness.

John Steuart Curry portrait

Curry, the nation’s first artist-in-residence at a university, poses in front of “Madison Landscape,” a painting familiar to Madisonians for having hung previously in The Madison Civic Center lobby, and currently part of the collection of the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art. 1941 photograph courtesy of UW Archives.

Wisconsin’s savvy talent scout was Chris L. Christiansen, Dean of the College of Agriculture, who lured Curry to Wisconsin in a telegram on display here, and hired him for $4,000 a year as the nation’s first “artist in residence’ at a university. By then, fame had virtually compelled Curry to move to the East Coast, but he was never comfortable in the high modernist climate there, and he longed to return to the Midwest.  Unsurprisingly, Kansas sent no zephyr whispers his way and, by 1939, the state became immortalized as the ultimate tornado state, when Dorothy murmured “Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.”

Nor was Curry who, though possessing the least draftsman skills among the three big Regionalists, had a big-sky state vision that understood the power and meaning of the brawling and sprawling American landscape. As the often-acerbic Benton himself wrote of Curry’s famous “Wisconsin Landscape”: “(It is) a strange picture. It is at first sight slightly repellent.” But Benton’s second thought was, “this damn thing is a masterpiece of some sort.” 1 The painting, property of The Metropolitan Museum of Art and not in this show, is surely Curry’s masterpiece.

Benton sensed how Curry’s Kansas eye fell hard for Wisconsin’s far shapelier curves, and the work reflected the way UW-driven Wisconsin Idea was modernizing the farmscape, striving to bring modern technology and know-how in synchronicity with extraordinary natural resources.

MOWA curator and director of collections Graeme Reid explains that the UW’s art and art history departments were in the mix for getting Curry as their department star. But Oskar Hagen, head of the school’s department of art history and criticism, anticipated the political “bickering” that would likely ensue among the culture-vulture departments. So he let Ag have Curry, and the whole university and state ultimately benefited from his prominence.

The shy but affable Curry embraced his state ambassador role here and, like the other American scene painters, was also well attuned to symbolic resonance of their work, drawing connections “from Capitol domes to silo domes,” as Reid puts it.

curry View of Madison with Rainbow

“View of Madison with Rainbow,” 1937, oil on canvas, lent by the Kiechel Fine Art Collection.

This is more than simple realism; clearly something vast and even heroic radiates from the verdant potency of the three great landscapes seen at MOWA shoulder to big shoulder — “Wisconsin Farm Scene,” “Madison Landscape” and “Landscape with Grouse” — all painted in 1941, for the First National Bank as a sort of triptych. Together for the first time in decades, Reid says, they convey the sweep and grandeur of “God’s country” in the deep wheat fields and swelling hills and skies that seem to float among the tree canvases like a big-as-the-sky entity.

curry Landscape with Grouse

“Landscape with Grouse,” oil on canvas, 1941, lent by the Milwaukee Art Museum, gift of The First Wisconsin Corporation and The First Wisconsin National Bank of Madison

Curry’s technical mastery of the big landscape seems to increase with each ensuing section that he did, as if he was bringing it all slowly into focus for us. The underbellies of the clouds increasingly glow golden, reflecting the sun-drenched wheat and haystacks below. He illustrates how the UW Ag department has taught area farmers to till across the grain of a hill to minimize runoff erosion which, in rainy growing seasons, steadily produced a sort of inversion of the biblical Red Sea flood, dispersing valuable fields into decimated catastrophe which contributed to the 1930s Dust Bowl.

And Curry’s fairly breathtaking view of Madison shows the capital city, a virtual “city on a hill” as New England Puritan pioneer John Winthrop once idealized, on its verdant isthmus. The the rainbow and cathedral-like clouds seem like the rising revelations of a new way of living, working and thinking about the relationship between a forward-looking government and university and an increasingly educated citizenry — courageous European immigrants and their offspring — and the state’s vast natural resources and industry. The Wisconsin Idea gestating.

curry Our Good Earth

Curry painted a somewhat aggrandized portrait of an iconic Wisconsin farmer in “Our Good Earth” in 1941, as part of Wisconsin’s World War II-era public relations effort. Lent by the Chazen Museum of Art, UW-Madison, College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, gift of US Treasury Department.

Then, when Curry zoomed in from his sky view his gift for symbolic image gave the state a full makeover that proved iconic with the majestic “Our Good Earth.” A photograph of Curry painting it reveals his model as a gawky hayseed farmer whom Curry transformed into a square-jawed, musclebound symbol of America’s impervious sense of “manifest destiny” which, in 1941, signified a defiance of the fascist Axis of the world war. But here and in other works Curry’s palette renders his humans as at one with the landscape and environment. The golden-hued children in “Our Good Earth” seem almost like rootsy cherubs growing right out the soil.

The notion is akin to the ideals of human and environmental harmony espoused by other progressive Wisconsin cultural leaders of Curry’s era, like architect Frank Lloyd Wright and naturalist and environmentalist philosopher Aldo Leopold, who was also a pioneer at The UW-Madison in conservation and forestry.

“What is the meaning of John Steuart Curry, Thomas Hart Benton and Grant Wood?” Leopold once wrote. “They are showing us drama in the red barn, the stark silo, the team heaving over the hill, the country store, black against the sunset. All I’m saying is that there is also drama in every bush, if you can see it. When enough men know this…we shall then have no need of the word conservation, for we shall have the thing itself.” 2

curry paintring mural

John Steuart Curry (at the top of the scaffolding) and an assistant work on his 1942 mural “Wisconsin Agriculture Leads to Victory.” The mural is not in the MOWA exhibit because “it is MIA,” says curator Graeme Reid. Its whereabouts has been unknown for a number of years. 

Indeed, Curry allegorizes the conservationist’s universal impulse in another drama, the mural “Youth Helps Rebuild a World.” A group of rural Americans march towards something an oracle-like farmer points to: the smoky haze of a desolate, bombed-out city, in the far-right portion of the mural. Yet this work from 1946 implicitly acknowledges that this political and environmental tragedy could be the Allies-bombed Dresden, or even Hiroshima, profoundly tempering whatever jingoism one might initially detect.

curry Youth Helps Rebuild a World

Curry’s sprawling (308 by 95 inches) mural “Youth Helps Rebuild a World” from 1946 conveys Wisconsin’s progressive spirit of socially-conscious activism. Lent by the collection of the Helen W. Schultz Revocable Trust.

The young woman in the mural curiously wears a skirt far shorter than 1940s fashion. UW-Madison art historian James Dennis sees a pattern in Curry’s depiction of women. This contrasted with Benton, who often sensually objectified his female subjects.

Curry’s paintings “transgressed any fixed art historical label in their woman imagery,” Dennis has written. So a young woman like this “left traditional academic forms of allegorization behind, the first requirement of (her) modern independence.”

Dennis adds that, beyond 19th-century conventions of migrating womanhood, Curry created “a contemporary ‘girl-woman’ to whom he assigned his most crucial social causes.” 3

Curry died in 1946 of a heart attack at age 49, right after finishing “Youth Helps Build a New World,” with the help of assistant Bob Hodgell, in time to see the mural’s installation at The Wisconsin State Fair.

The show’s paintings and drawings of UW football action seem lighter fare, but they convey the powerful communal spirit that college football engendered. Back then, it had become much easier for the children of rural farmers and outlying city dwellers to get education from the UW, which would develop one of the nation’s leading multi-campus extension systems, a crown jewel of “The Wisconsin Idea.”

curry An All American

Curry, an athlete himself, exulted in the school’s sports fever. Harry Stuhldreher, one of Knute Rockne’s legendary “Four Horsemen” of Notre Dame, coached the Badgers, and the receiver catching the football in “An All-American” (1941) — is David Shriner, a two-time UW All-American who, though drafted by the Detroit Lions, would join the Marines and die fighting at Okinawa.

A large question hovers implicitly in this show: How well do the state’s current citizens, educators and political leaders live up to the ideas and ideals that forged Wisconsin’s modern identity?

One wonders what visionaries like Curry, UW Ag department’s Chris Christiansen, and Wisconsin Sen. Robert LaFollette would think of current Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s efforts to dismantle the internationally respected UW and its extension system, in the name of “freedom.” Charles Pierce, political blogger for Esquire magazine, examines Walker’s political machinations in a recent post, and re-defines The Wisconsin Idea quite well, without the bias of a Wisconsin native.
Pierce writes:

“The Wisconsin Idea was a manifestation of the creative process of making a self-governing political commonwealth that had its beginnings with the Mayflower Compact and that had been, in fits and starts, the main engine of American political and social progress for the entire life of the country. Specifically, the Wisconsin Idea was a manifestation of that process that arose in response to the vast centrifugal forces of corporate power and organized money operating within the government during the previous Gilded Age.

“The Wisconsin Idea produced improvements in agriculture and medicine through the university’s laboratories. The Wisconsin Idea produced improvements in government because it produced people like its greatest political advocate, Robert LaFollette, and his successors in Madison after LaFollette moved on to the Senate.”

Curry publicly embodied the creative process of the idea, which Pierce describes. In a post-modern culture morphing into a pluralist, multi-cultural, global and inter-connected world, there’s plenty of flashier, more exotic, and more cutting-edge art around, compared to Curry’s. His work, clearly is a product of its historic moment and place.

Yet the significance of the pioneering regionalist artists seems to grow in time, partly because pluralism is a fertile culture, less restrictive, and elitist, than post-modernism and much of modernism arguably was.

I’ll never forget UW-Milwaukee English Professor Ihab Hassan, the great literary critic who helped define post-modernism, say to our graduate English seminar in 1985, “We are all pluralists now.” Hassan seemed amazed by how fast the times were changing, even then.

The phenomenal growth of so-called American “roots musics” is kindred to Curry’s kind of art. And is the underlying idea of Curry’s art passe? Wisconsin’s progressive ideal is far from moribund. 5

Though only mildly modernist, Curry’s artwork has a straight-talking, “big-shouldered” heartland strength, akin to that which poet Carl Sandburg famously attributed to Chicago, Wisconsin’s big, noisy, dynamic neighbor.

And even before he ever got to Wisconsin, Curry understood and captured the historic, radical, and transformative import of abolitionist John Brown. Though not part of this show, his John Brown images are central to Curry’s legacy. He titled his incendiary mural of Brown, in the Kansas Statehouse, “Tragic Prelude.” The apt title allows the controversy and potency of John Brown’s legacy to resound through time, on its own terms.

In 1859, Herman Melville described Brown as “the meteor of the war,” in his superb poem “The Portent.” 6.

Curry shows us the meteor, ablaze.


“Tragic Prelude,” a mural portion by John Steuart Curry, in the Kansas Statehouse. Courtesy

Curry saw Brown as “a living symbol of mankind’s need to fight oppression,” wrote art critic Theodore Wolff, who knew the artist. 7 Also, Curry’s scenes of destruction from the 1929 Kaw River flood had produced wrenching images such as “Mississippi Noah” (1935), a black father imploring the merciless heavens, with his family and cat huddled on their cabin’s roof. Did Wall Street investors have it worse in 1929? And by the evidence of the photo below, today’s college students at Kansas University have embraced the vivid power of a Kansas artist, who died before their births, deemed too crude for wanna-be modernist Kansas critics.

ku curry

Kansas University students brandish a modified reproduction of John Steuart Curry’s famous mural of John Brown at a KU sporting event. Courtesy

Yes, it’s a fast world. Still, as time passes, Curry’s tornadoes and firebrands — and his brawny Wisconsin landscapes and pulsing, progressive scenes — seem to stand taller, in the wind, in the stately clouds, and in the long light of history.

All reproductions courtesy MOWA, except as noted. For information, visit:


A shorter version of this review was published in

1 Thomas Hart Benton, “Wisconsin Landscape” an essay on Curry, in Demcourier, April 1941, 13

2 Aldo Leopold, “The Farmer as a Conservationist,” 1939] Q2tET4&hl=en&sa=X&ei=lnm9U5WmEIqNyATJr4LACw&ved=0CB0Q6AEwAA#v=onepage&q=Aldo%20Leopold%20John%20Steuart%2

3 James M. Dennis, Renegade Regionalists: The Modern Independence of Grant Wood, Thomas Hart Benton, and John Steuart Curry, University of Wisconsin Press, 1998, 245

4 Author and journalist Charles Pierce is Esquire magazine’s chief political blogger, and contributes to ESPN and NPR. A Massachusetts native, Pierce graduated from St. John’s High School in Shrewsbury, Massachusetts and from Marquette University in Milwaukee, with a journalism major in 1975. So his perspective may be informed by both classic New England political values and Wisconsin’s progressive tradition.

5 Wisconsin’s progressive ideals regained international visibility with the massive populist protests and recall election against Gov. Walker’s draconian budget cuts and cronyism policies which undid, among other things, some of the work of a truly popular three-term Republican governor, Warren Knowles, who believed in another aspect of “The Wisconsin Idea”: “That it was possible to reduce political pressures on the governing process by putting professionals in charge of determining whether the books balanced,” writes John Nichols, in Uprising: How Wisconsin Renewed the Politics of Protest, from Madison to Wall Street, Nation Books, 2012, 74. To date, Walker’s flagship job creating agency WEDC has produced a documentable 5,840 jobs, ninth best out of 10 Midwestern states, barely a percentage point higher than Illinois, which Walker’s belittles for its job creation horrors. Yet he just hired an Illinois audit firm to investigate Wisconsin’s job creation. Who’s in charge here, doing what?

Yet he just hired an Illinois audit firm to investigate Wisconsin’s job creation. Who’s in charge here, doing what?

Another excellent example of the state’s ongoing tradition is the annual political chautauqua Fighting Bob Fest, named for Robert LaFollette, which features an array of prominent progressive leaders, writers and activists. In recent years, the event has drawn upwards of 10,000 people. The festival will be held this year on September 13, at its original site in Baraboo, at The Sauk County Fairgrounds. For more information, visit

6. “The Portent” is the opening poem of Melville’s under-appreciated work of poetic experience and evocation of the Civil War, Battle Pieces, and Aspects of the War. Prometheus Books, 2001, 11

7. Theodore Wolff, “John Steuart Curry: A Critical Assessment,” essay from John Steuart Curry: Inventing the Middle West,  Hudson Hills Press, 1998, 87

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CC readers, introducing (bugle fanfare) the new house cat, Queen Cleopat- er, Chloe

clo cheek

Ahem…Introducing my readers and friends to…ta da!… Queen Cleopat — er, Chloe.  Well, you see,  I’m still getting used to talking to her, which begins with properly addressing her. I’m not on bended knee, yet.

But I did call her “Cleo” already by mistake. Worse, at this point I call her Maggie more often than Cleo, after 11 years of living with my previous dearly departing cat, Maggie (a.k.a. Magpie, Poopface, Super-Duper Pooper).  As you’ll soon see, Her highness Chloe has some slightly eccentric preferences, as long as you don’t think your consideration is among them. A dog’s world is: “Me, meat and you, dear master.” A cat’s world is: “Me, myself and tithes, my servant!” 

But she also has ways of ingratiating one’s best service. And she’s a natural charmer for the camera, whereas my dear neurotic Maggie actually became wary of the clicking shutter. But now, it’s hard not to get a good photo of gorgeous Chloe the calico cat. She’s sort of my “soul sister” as I think you’ll see in her face (though I dare not say that in her presence, yet). So forgive me if I overdo it a bit with the pictures here.

Without further ado, I will proceed with the introducing-you-to-Chloe photo essay, with appropriate captions. . clo closeup clo dusthead Unfortunately, lovely as she is, Chloe sometimes is too busy nosing into dusty corners to always put her absolute best face on for the camera, as was the case in these two early close-ups of her — after she had just spent some time rooting around in the basement. She came up with dust goobers on her left ear and forehead. She’s very exploratory and somewhat fearless, so I’ll have to keep my eye on her, Note to self: Assign her personal secret service agents. clo table Chloe’s a serious chow hound, er, cat. I’m trying to resist giving her table scraps but with a pretty puss like hers…it’s just a matter of time. Here she was, behind my back so who knows how much she wolfed down, er, ate? When she gets her squishy canned Fancy Feast she does tend to wolf it. “You’re a cat, Chloe. Don’t wolf you food,” I say.

She’ll glance at me with a withering glare.

“Your Highness, that is! Seconds?” clo and subject Here she is, sizing up her subject (moi), deciding whether she’ll keep me. I offer a tentative petting hand for her pleasure… clo strokes I start with fingers to the neck, a slight nuzzling stroke and slowly work my way to the relative royal intimacy of a full palm massaging of her upper body. “Hmmmm, yes, I believe he’ll do, for now…But what sort of a name is Kevernacular?” 

All preceding photos by Ann K. Peterson. All ensuing photos by Kevin Lynch, except as noted.clo chained Sunlight does wonders for Chloe’s queenly complexion… clo hi jinks …But she’s far more than just a porcelain-pretty kitty. Here she springs into action, pursuing a real (or imagined) bug by squeezing herself into the one-and-half-inch-wide space between the window screen and the window frame. Maggie would never have dreamed of trying a stunt like this. BTW The wood sculpture is “Chained Life Force” by Kevin Lynch (Kevernacular).clo caged panther Queen Chloe really likes basking in the balcony sun, but the flora and fauna soon get her dreaming of the wilds of the jungle. Before long, she is prowling around, doing her best “caged panther” routine. At least she seems to strike terror in the heart of my concrete gargoyle! KINDLE_CAMERA_1401965608000 (1) Chloe decides to try out my office desk. She measures the space and the clutter… IMG_20140627_104813 …and decides it suits her just fine, to my great relief. clo editor …before long she realizes in that position she is too subject to my inadvertent elbowing, not to mention the ongoing clutter of papers, books, CDs and pens… So she decides to relocate to my messy “inbox” above my desktop computer’s keyboard. Here she takes on a new and greatly valued role as my sharp-penned editor in, among other things, my quest to complete my novel about Melville. Soon I may need to fit her with reading glasses. clo weary But any truly royal Kitty soon tires of the lonely pursuits of the the literary life.  clo ideas I push my luck by suggesting some good reading material for her. “Ach, it’s just a bunch of ideas and opinions,” she sniffs. “Did that Einstein fellow have any good theories about  perfecting the ultimate squishy cat food? Huh?” Photo by Ann Petersonclo ballgame I’d much rather you take me out to the old ballgame,” she persists. “You can have the beer but I’d gladly try the hot dogs and brats. I especially like biting into dogs and, then, not having to run.” Photo by Ann Peterson clo bathtub Then at the end of the day, another faux pas by yours truly: “Why has my bubble bath not been drawn?!!” the queen cries. “Off with his head!” (…I know the sleazy tabloid video cameras will be rolling for this, she thinks, [Sigh] ‘Tis a queen’s burden. I must keep the peasants and riff-raff entertained every blue moon, or they get surly and start grumbling about filthy streets and other weary rubbish…)

“What’s that? Let them eat cake, as long as they leave me an offering of squishy Fancy Feast. I stole that ‘cake’ line from that French hussy who stole my Antony, in a time warp, I’m told… I have not yet begun to fight.  I stole that line from, um..yes, one of those hot-headed American revolutionaries. Remind me to hang onto my court historian, the next time I purge the ranks of useless hangers-on and boot-lickers, though I do like some schmoozers, when I’m in the mood.”clo fast friend Well, it seemed like a trial under fire, a harrowing gauntlet, for me to gain the queen’s approval and trust, when suddenly she leapt up to the desk and…Fast friends!…so it seems. clo fast friends 2 Yep, fast friends. Everything’s purrr-fectly hunky dory. I’m OK and she’s my queen.

clo snooze 2

Ah, but the afternoon light grows dim, and a queen’s royal duties can take their toll on her regal brow. Her eyelids grow heavy. Shhhh.



American Players Theatre’s Sarah Day makes Didion’s devastating “Year” magical

print-9952Sarah Day as Joan Didion. Photos by Zane Williams

The audience laughed at, “You know when they assign you a social worker you’re in trouble.” But  the humor often hangs uneasily in American Players Theatre’s staging of Joan Didion’s adaptation of her riveting memoir of death, suffering, mental surreality and “magical thinking.”

On the night before New Year’s Eve in 2003, noted author John Gregory Dunne died from a fatal dining-room table coronary, while sitting across from Didion, his spouse and partner of nearly 40 years. The title phrase is Didion’s term for her wishful striving to save him and, somewhat less improbably, to save her only child, Quintana — in extended intensive care for septic shock  from flu-related pneumonia in both lungs, contracted a week before her father’s death.  “You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.” One’s tempted to keep quoting Didion, a lapidary phrase turner.

And despite the difficult subject and at times, searing intensity, it’s an exquisite pleasure to hear one of the Midwest’s finest actors, APT’s Core Company member Sara Day, handle the entire script. This one-woman show is, at times, breathtaking, with no dramatic theatrical effects: a small two-level stage garlanded with a few flickering candles, a non-descript waiting room-type chair, an end table and book.

The power derives from Day’s skills and attunement. She often bores her intense gaze right into the audience. You feel she’s handing you her bared soul, showing you how trauma and grief make might make you crazy, a theme of the story. Didion’s stage adaptation cuts back on her book’s obsessive poring through records and arcane medical books, but Day conveys the woman’s self-aware mental surreality. Dunne’s dead, and she returns from ER, and “blood and the EKG electrodes are still on the floor.”


Such details trigger the desperate detective in her who, if she can just piece together enough information, might just resurrect him or save Quintana. Her denial fuels her quest, especially potent in pursuit of Quintana’s recovery. The newlywed had fallen sick on Christmas Eve 2003, placed in an induced coma and life support.

The work’s success is curious: Didion’s character adopts a reportorial tone and isn’t particularly likable, more supercilious — alluding several times to the Arthurian knight Guwain, to tiffany bracelets, fancy writing assignments and films adapted from her work.  Guwain is metaphorically apt, the denied rightful heir to Camelot’s kingship. And grandiosity is clinically common “magical thinking.”

Day’s virtuosity fascinates, myriad nuanced gestures and emotions, on the brink of “the void.” The play breathes, through deft pacing, with director Brenda DeVita’s able collaboration. Day often pauses or strolls around her chair and ponders silently. In one superb moment, she suddenly asks the audience, “Do you remember when I told you I got her a bracelet like this one?”

The long pause — her wrist raised in the air — is clarity, and her farewell to magic and Camelot.

Quintana Roo Dunne died in 2004, after this story’s end.

The Year of Magical Thinking runs through Oct. 4 in Spring Green in APT’s indoor Touchstone Theater. For tickets, visit


This review was first published in The Shepherd Express.