Mavis and the Staple Singers: More Than Amazing Music

When I read a good book, I want to share it. When I read a really good book, I want many other folks to read it – and I want to read it again. That’s how I feel about I’ll Take You There: Mavis Staples, the Staple Singers, and the Music That Shaped the Civil Rights Era. You can borrow, but I will want it back – and soon. 

The contours of Mavis Staple’s life and that of her family are well-documented. She grew up in the public eye. The Staple Singers started singing publicly in 1950 in Chicago churches. Her father, Pops Staples, in addition to being a musical genius, was also an incredibly sharp businessman and leader, steering the family musical group through very difficult waters. Their first hit was in 1956 and they were an influential presence in popular music for decades. Based in Chicago and traveling throughout the US, the Staple Singers emerged from the gospel circuit and “crossed over” to folk, to R&B, to soul, and more.

Mavis Staples is in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Blues Hall of Fame, and has been awarded honorary doctorates. It’s easy to read about her online. A long-time Chicago music critic, Greg Kot, authored I’ll Take You There. He is interested in Mavis’s life, her family, and her connection and role with massive transformations in American life – all while paying close attention to their music. Their songs were written and performed with talent, integrity and feeling in a context of faith, opportunity and conflict. The Staple Singers were at the heart of the Civil Rights movement. Their story is, in many ways, American history.

What truly makes reading the book a joy is doing so with music at hand. Every now and then I recognize just how convenient technology can be – and reading this book reminded me why. When Kot referenced a song or an artist, I called them up on Spotify. Threads of music history, and artists’ relationships, took a different shape. Sam Cooke was a neighbor growing up in Chicago. Bob Dylan proposed to Mavis (she turned him down). Reading and listening played off each other. It made for a very special experience. The connections and interactions are too numerous to count, building a fascinating web of relationships and artistry.

Just one example: I am writing this while listening to Freedom Highway, a Staple Singers album recorded live at the New Nazareth Church in Chicago in 1965. Kot explains that the recording was made just after Dr. King’s march in Selma, Alabama. The title song, refers to Selma, with references to Emmitt Til and the march to civil rights. The songs capture a moment of history that is relevant today. The music is beautiful and meaningful.

I heartily recommend I’ll Take You There. It will.

David Potash

Like A Vision He Appeared

Back in the day, I grew up in New Jersey. It is easy to stereotype the Garden State, from the “Jersey Shore” to Atlantic City to Frank Sinatra’s Hoboken. But for those who have lived there, we know that the state’s diversity resists easy simplification. It is densely packed with history and people, rich in cultures and distinctive communities. The northern part of the state skews to New York City, the southern part is influenced by Philadelphia. It has great poverty and tremendous wealth, rural farmland and robust cities, all surprisingly close to each other. It is, in no uncertain terms, a complicated place without multiple sites and sources of identity.

Jersey heritage figures prominently in my reading of Bruce Springsteen’s wonderful autobiography, Born to Run. Springsteen has become many things to so many people throughout the world over the years. That kind of impact first took place in Jersey back in the 1970s. Appointed and anointed as perhaps the state’s only unifying force, Springsteen made fantastic music that spoke to northern Jersey, southern Jersey, to rural Jersey and urban Jersey, in the burbs and down the shore. I heard bar bands cover Springsteen, give tribute to Bruce, and do a good job with “Rosalita” just a few years after the album “Born to Run” was released. He is a New Jersey state treasure. How did it do it?

Springsteen has a way with words, in music and on the page. He’s a genius – and it is a beautifully written book. It is frank, candid, dark and optimistic. Springsteen’s focus is, rightly, on his journey – and not the reasons that so many of us see him as ours. His prose is grounded in “how”: how he grew up, how he was loved and rejected, how he developed his career, and how he dealt with his battles, failures, and successes.

We know that Springsteen has tremendous talent and is a great showman. His autobiography highlights that wrapped up in the very core of the man is discipline and an extraordinary work ethic. The artist “Springsteen” is an authentic creation, the outcome of thoughtful choices and boatloads of effort. He worked at his music, his career, his image and, in many ways, his friends and family. He has struggled with depression. He has consistently mined his pains as catalysts of creativity. It has not happened easily. While we may think of it as just the triumph of talent, the book makes clear that it has happened through deliberate hard work.

Born to Run left me with more admiration for Springsteen, more understanding of him, and appreciation for the pain that has haunted him. His father’s mental illness, the challenges of his childhood, and his demons have been real and powerful. It is a testament to the man that he has had the gifts, skill and temperament to use them and much more to make music that the entire world sings. I will re-read Born to Run. It will be worth it, just like revisiting older Springsteen favorites.

David Potash

And a big thanks to my sister for giving me the book!

Lines in the Permafrost

Some changes are irreversible.

When I entered my local public New Jersey high school, expectations for science learning were high: earth science freshman year, biology in the sophomore year, chemistry as a junior, and physics your senior year. Everyone in my cohort took those subjects in that sequence. I am sure that some kids questioned it, some kids dropped it, and some were never placed into it. Not me. For science, at least, I went where I was told.

A teacher gave us the outline when we were in junior school. I looked forward to physics, biology and chemistry. Earth science, though, did not excite me. It sounded a bit fake. I had no idea what it was. Today, I think about it and its lessons often.

Our earth science teacher was Mr. Caprio, a pleasant, non-intimidating man who seemed old to me. He was not, but when you are fourteen, everyone seemed old. He had a gentle manner. The word around school was that he was “nice.” In my high school, that was faint praise. Mr. Caprio was methodical and patient. I decided that he was OK.

We read about the formation of the earth. Geology figured prominently in the fall semester and we handled samples of igneous, metamorphic and sedimentary rocks. We had sections on earthquakes and even a bit on plate tectonics, which was cutting edge back in the day. We identified types of clouds and learned about the atmosphere, which also meant sections on the oceans and currents. It was a good class. I can’t say that it made me excited, but it was solid.

A little more than half way through the year, when working on climate, things changed.

Mr. Caprio had spent years in Alaska. It might have been research – I don’t remember – but he was passionate about the Arctic. The first day he showed us slides from his time in northern Alaska, his voice was different – and that I remember distinctly. He brought passion and immediacy to the lecture. We saw images of him in a Snow Cat (this was before The Shining), pictures of glaciers and icebergs, and of endless horizons of snow and ice. Mr. Caprio had traveled to Alaska regularly. The place, its people and nature, mattered to him – and this came through the lecture. He showed slides of the areas he had traveled and where he lived, clicking through the carousel.

A series of slides, taken over the years of the same area, stood out. They were tracks of a Snow Cat carved in the permafrost. Not exciting. Simply two lines of dark moving away from the viewer on a flat terrain. Mr. Caprio explained that when the vehicle traveled over the permafrost, the frozen cover would be broken. The grooves become deeper and deeper over time. The permafrost was broken. There was no “fixing” it. The tracks were indelible and had spread over the years.

Mr. Caprio emphasized the fragility of the permafrost and told us that human action in the Arctic had real consequences, things that could not be changed. He forecast problems for the future.

Mr. Caprio did not preach any idealized conservation. He did not portray the Arctic as romantic or glamorous. His method was rational. Actions have consequences. He stressed that figuring out science was one problem and that figuring out human behavior was a different problem. The science of the permafrost presented one set of issues. The science of how and why people did what they did – like driving around in the Arctic – was a different set of issues. He could not tell people what to do or not to do in Alaska. What he could do is make certain that we understood the impact of what they did.

Thank you, Mr. Caprio, for the lesson. You taught a good class. You were right then and right today.

David Potash

Gotham Art

Ever read a well-reviewed book and simply have it not click? You may like the topic and think highly of the author – but still, the book just refused to engage with you. Reading it becomes a chore and a source of frustration. It isn’t just that the book isn’t working. More troublesome is a worrisome sense of personal shortcoming – or at least that is what I feel. It has to be me, the reader, and not the book. Or maybe I just read too much into

That, in a nutshell, is what happened to me with Jed Perl’s New Art City: Manhattan at Mid-Century. Perl is a well-known art critic. I do not always agree with him, but I’ve read his pieces in the popular press and have been impressed. He produces a new book every few years, too, and they are usually well-received.

As for the New York City art scene, I am an engaged fan – historically and in terms of contemporary art. From the work of Samuel Morse in the early 1800s through PS1 in recent years, New York City has been a hive of artistic creativity. It has been a particularly important site for collaboration and competition for certain groups of artists at set times. The Ashcan School in the early years of the 1900s, Harlem in the 1920s, and the modernists after World War II stand out as exemplary case studies of the power of Gotham to shape artists and the art world. I’ve read, visited, viewed, talked and learned about art in NYC for many years. I picked up New Art City with high hopes.

Unfortunately, I could not make the book work for me. Perhaps it was the black and white illustrations of colorful and vibrant art. It might have been the encyclopedic nature of the tome: everyone who painted in NYC from WWII until the mid-1960s gets a mention, a paragraph or a chapter. Maybe it was an absence of any real discussion of what was going on in the city at the time: the changing physical landscape, the vitality of so many other forms of creative expression: music, dance, theater, and popular culture. It could stem from Perl’s linkage and comparisons of artist to artist from a critic’s perspective. I, however, wonder if the call and response was real (my instinct is that it is often the creation of critics). If Hans Hoffman truly was the gatekeeper to mid-century art, was it due to his teaching, his talking, or his work? Or it might be the lack of a clear reason to bounce from artist to artist to artist.

In the end, I stopped caring as artist after artist and painting after painting found its way into the narrative. Was everyone really rebelling against the abstract expressionists? Was de Kooning that charismatic? The island might serve as a good organizing principle for a book or exhibit, but that does not make it compelling. Even as I like Hoffman, de Kooning, Pollack, and so many others discussed here, New Art City just is not my cup of tea. And having giving the book time and consideration, I am also sure it’s not just me.

David Potash

Shining a Light on Ghettoside

America’s criminal justice system is most challenged – and most ineffective – in African-American communities in high-crime, high-poverty areas. Once a culture of violence begetting violence takes hold in these neighborhoods, crimes go unpunished and justice become an abstraction. The costs for those who live and die in these areas is horrific. Sadly, broader society often turns a blind eye – and often has for centuries.Ghettoside

Jill Leovy, a Los Angeles Times reporter, investigates this and more in Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America. Its focus is one murder, the shooting of Bryant Tennelle, a sweet 18 year old African-American male with a future ahead of him. From that crime, though, a window opens on another world – a world that needs our collective attention. The victim’s father is Wallace Tennelle, an African-American detective with LAPD who lived with his family in South Central LA. A well-respected cop and father, Tennelle brought up his children in a way that we can all connect with: good children, good values, and high hopes. You want these people to succeed. You root for them, even though we know that the odds are not positive.

Leovy maps the neighborhood, its history, its residents, and the police who try to bring some sense of order and justice to what is, in essence a war zone. She writes with patience, understanding and compassion. She is deeply interested in understanding why the cycle of crime is happening and what it means to those around it. The killing is senseless, like almost all murders. In a culture of honor, poverty, no real order and easy violence, however, it becomes easier to understand why it happened. If you find yourself needing assistance in navigating such complex situations, consider seeking the expertise of the best private investigator West Midlands. For more information, check out this site at

We hear the voices of the community: the people who live in city and the police who patrol it. It is an unforgiving environment. Leovy does not romanticize. However, Ghettoside has a protagonist detective, John Skaggs, who is outstanding at his job. He represents order, or the possibility of an ordered society. Skaggs is tireless and very much believes in the pursuit of justice. Brilliant at what he does – and Leovy shows us how he thinks and operates – Skaggs unearths the killers and what led to the crime. There is justice, in the sense that the murderers were convicted, but the lessons learned are neither cathartic nor transformational.

The argument Leovy makes is that areas like South Central need a criminal justice system that stops the crime and provides reliable and prompt justice. She is aware that our current system is racist and that far too many people of color are caught up in it. She references The New Jim Crow and related works. That said, Leovy believes that what the community is hungry for is real justice and stability. People have to be able to believe that a successful life untouched by violence is possible. For the residents in her study, it is not.

Leovy thinks that a robust effort aimed at preventing violence, rooting out the causes of violence, and providing economic opportunity could break the dysfunctional cycle of crime. It is not glamorous and it does not demonize. Her argument is compelling – and one that few political leaders seem willing to take up.

David Potash

Naturalization and the Global Citizen

Immigrate into a country, have your papers approved, and you are “naturalized.” If you lack a passport or the right documents, you are considered “stateless” and your state of being is “unnatural.” Words often underscore complicated truths. We live in a world that demands allegiance to a nation-state. Those that lack it – refugees, undocumented, trans-nationals – live at the mercy of bureaucracies, courts, and an increasingly xenophobic public. Cosmopolites

Atossa Araxia Abrahamian examines the stateless from an unusual perspective – the selling of citizenship – in The Comsopolites: The Coming of the Global Citizen. A journalist, opinion editor at Al Jazeera America (recently shuttered), and current resident of Brooklyn (where else?), Abrahamian’s primary focus is on the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Comora, and the rearranging of citizenship and passports for a price. At issue, though, are much broader questions. A more ambitious book lies beyond this work, and Abrahamian wrestles with keeping it in check. She is smart, curious, and as much interested in stories and histories as she is in policy.

The bedoon (not the Bedouin) are the stateless people living in the UAE and Kuwait. Legal status and the accompanying paperwork did not matter much thirty or forty years ago in the Arabian peninsula. The Gulf War, changing economics and global politics, shifted the government’s priorities as Kuwait’s independence became a bureaucratic reality. Those who resided in Kuwait and UAE but originally hailed from Iraq, Iran, or Saudi Arabia were caught in a legal and geographic limbo. Their families were enshared, too. Unwilling to grant these people citizenship, governments had no clear way to deal with them. The state wanted security, ways to take advantage of the stateless’s labor and resources, but without a long-term commitment. A significant percentage of the Kuwaiti army is bidoon. What sort of rights should they have?

One of the poorest countries in the world, Comoro are a series of islands in the Indian Ocean between Mozambique and Madagascar. Comoro’s political leadership was enticed into trading citizenship for money, first with the Emirates and then Kuwait. Abrahamian uses her journalistic skills to tell a story of wheeling-and-dealing figures, scrambling to make deals and profits. It reads like an espionage movie with a thread of farce: undercover deals, private jets, and all-expense covered shopping trips.

The story of the bidoon introduces the larger issue of purchased citizenship. It is not a theoretical question. Many countries have provisions for it. The very wealthy, or “ultra high net worth individuals” as they are called in the trade, often possess multiple citizenships for convenience and tax purposes. The Caribbean island of St. Kitts, for example, was well-known for offering citizenship for a significant investment in the local economy. Abrahamian talks with some of the citizenship/passport brokers about their business and the competitive market.

Stepping back, then, the two groups that are representatives of a new global citizenship are the very wealthy and the dispossessed. The size of the latter group has swelled tremendously as wars like the conflict in Syria have driven millions from their homes. Recent estimates put the number of refugees around the world at more than 60 million. If the world’s refugees were to claim a country of their own, it would be ranked in the top 25 in the world in terms of population, holding about as many people as France. The Cosmopolites does not look at the refugee crisis but it lurks at the narrative’s door.

Driving Abrahamian’s book is a sense of justice. She emphasizes that we live in a globally interconnected world that enables the freely flow of capital but prohibits the same freedom of movement to people. It is a good argument. She explores alternatives: a few of history’s characters who have challenged the idea of belonging to one nation and early policy attempts to help the dispossessed. She sees the issue of statelessness as something that could be resolved with the right bureaucratic commitment. The Nansen passport, a brilliant product of international agreement following the Russian Civil War, gave the stateless a means to travel safely. It helped thousands and thousands of refugees. We have evidence that when there is political will, reforms are possible.

It is a tall order. If we look at the questions Abrahamian raises through different lenses: immigration patterns, refugee histories, border-free zones such as in the European Union, and the persistence of nationalism, it is difficult to be optimistic in the near future. The past few centuries have not been kind to people who have lacked the political organization of the state. The power of nationalism to strengthen shared identity and to shape policy and practice cannot be underestimated. Even the universal citizens of the cosmos need passports.

David Potash

Theodore Roosevelt and an Historian’s Obsessions

Tell someone you want to be a history teacher and you’re likely to get an old joke: if you’ve studied it once, you don’t need to study it again. History, after all, doesn’t change.

If only.

When Trumpets CallWhen you really dig into a historical subject, start to obsess about it, write about it and argue it, you see it in new ways. You don’t tire of it and instead, re-interpretation and re-re-reinterpretation becomes natural. Interest leads to curiosity, which in turn catalyzes ever more curiosity. It’s a strange feeling and a good one, too – humbling.

I had that sensation when doing graduate research on the early part of the twentieth century in American politics. It emerged slowly, over years of work. Reading primary sources complemented secondary sources, which in turn gave me insight into different primary sources. I read and read and read, to the point when I was working on my dissertation that I dreamed of living in the early 1900s. Reading newspaper from the period again and again will do that. Even though today I do not teach or write history, I find myself pulled to that period out of interest and familiarity. It has become part of me.

Recently I finished When Trumpets Call: Theodore Roosevelt After the White House – another biography of Theodore Roosevelt. There are many biographies of the man. The broad outlines of Roosevelt’s life are well-known, as is his over the top personality, and his emergence as a popular culture icon. It’s no accident that Robin Williams played a touching TR in the Night at the Museum movies.

Roosevelt is a fascinating figure to study and there is much to admire in his early years. His post-presidency rhetoric, though, and his strident militarism can make for a difficult subject. O’Toole – a writer, not a professional historian – renders him with patience and deep appreciation. Her research was with direct sources, so her reading of Roosevelt’s correspondence and those of his colleagues helps to flesh out the man’s complexities. She is a skilled author. O’Toole is able to add drama and impact to the history.

That said, O’Toole does not add anything really new to the study of the man. This is no closely argued academic tome. She comes to the subject with no broad argument, no ax to grind, and no key thesis to prove. She writes for understanding and to sell books. In these goals, she succeeds.

What is missing from the book is the sort of deep appreciation and understanding of a trained historian. She writes history without an historian’s passion. And somehow I doubt that she dreams about what it was like in the summer of 1912, in Chicago, as the Republican Party tore itself apart trying to find a candidate and consensus. As I said, I’m a little bit obsessed.

David Potash

A Writer’s Writer and His Cats

John D. MacDonald is a brilliant writer. He is a writer’s writer, a master at clear prose and a strong narrative voice. His plots are tight, his humor insightful, and a special kind of wisdom infuses his texts. Something of an American Trollope, MacDonald writes about people but tells us much more. Steven King, Kingsley Amis, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., and many other outstanding authors have paid tribute to MacDonald. He is very good. Or was – he passed away nearly twenty years ago. House Guests

Like many other fans, my first MacDonald’s were Travis McGee mystery/thrillers. Over time I expanded to other novels by him, some short stories and the occasional non-fiction piece. The man wrote constantly and consistently well. However, I picked up The House Guests, his book about his cats and other pets, with misgivings. It is a book about his pets – two cats and a goose – or so the cover claims.

People’s fascination with cats puzzles me. Cat people talk cats. The rest of us have little to say. When my inbox features links to cat videos, their only source are the feline-obsessed. Look at rankings and ratings on the internet, though and it’s clear felines are trending. Some say that cats are poised to take over the internet. But why? Cats – and I’ve had good relationships with more than a few – are usually supremely indifferent to us. MacDonald, I was certain, was a dog person.

I had him wrong. He wrote The House Guests, in part, to settle a debt he had with the species, a way of righting a childhood wrong. He also wrote it as a love letter to the animals that made his family life so much richer. I suspect that his devotion to his cats and other pets, stemmed from the same sense of empathy. When we care about our pets, we slow down, think and feel. MacDonald understands that and much more.

Still, it is not a good book in the sense of what a book ought to be. There is no real beginning or end, save the animals’ eventual demise. (Books about animals almost always end with the animal’s death. I don’t know who made that a rule. I recognized it as a young reader after Old Yeller, Charlotte, and a children’s book of animal stories that had me weeping.) The House Guests is series of anecdotes, stories and observations from a very smart and funny man. It is warm, enjoyable, and makes you wish that you had time to visit the MacDonald family and their animals all those years ago. It is a sweet book. And in many ways, it can be easier to hear about a friend’s pets than to hear about their children.

Still, I’m not getting a cat.

David Potash

Paying To Play – And Illinois Is Still Paying

The recent election of Governor Rauner and the Chicago mayoral election have many folks in Illinois talking about the state’s finances. It is not a happy story. According to George Washington University’s Mercatus Center, Illinois is in the US’s bottom five states when it comes to ranking in categories like cash solvency, budget solvency, and fiscal condition. This is not due to anemic business activity. Illinois has the nation’s fifth largest GDP. Other factors are very much at play.

Pay to PlayTo learn more about Illinois’ economy, I look to history and politics. One solid case study that provides insight into how and why is the legacy of Governor Rod Blagojevich. Leading the state from 2003 to 2009, Blagojevich was impeached, convicted of corruption, and imprisoned. He is currently serving a twelve-year sentence and will be eligible for release in 2024. He also has the dubious distinction of being the fourth Illinois governor to do time in a federal penitentiary. Joining former governors Otto Kerner, Jr., Dan Walker and George Ryan, Blagojevich is an unfortunate example of a long-standing culture of corruption.

In 2009, after his impeachment but before prison time, journalist Elizabeth Brackett wrote Pay to Play: How Rod Blagojevich Turned Political Corruption Into a National Sideshow. It is a chilling book, highlighting a amoral political climb and an environment that fostered self-serving leadership. How could it happen? It turns out that it was not all that difficult to elect an ethically empty politician. Especially one who married the daughter of a well-connected and powerful alderman.

Brackett’s book may not be the final word on Blagojevich, who probably is not worthy of the time or effort of a more serious analysis. There is no epic tragedy here. What Brackett does bring to the table is a heightened awareness of how the system worked for politicians and their teams. Self-serving interests were consistently placed ahead of any sense of shared responsibility or stewardship. The consequences were clear and critics pointed them out. But behavior did not change. Politicians awarded contracts, jobs, and resources for personal gain. Graft was prevalent. Future generations were left to pick up the bill. And here we are, today, paying for it.

One of the basic hopes of democratically elected government is that the whole will be greater than the sum of the parts. The exact opposite was the result under Governor Blagojevich. Many sought what was best for themselves. Few considered the collective interests of the community. The result was a culture and political landscape bereft of a well-funded and considered shared public good. It is a depressing story.

I have to hope for a better future.

David Potash

Old School Chicago Politics and Journalism: Boss

Mike Royko is a Chicago legend. A giant in American journalism, he wrote thousands upon thousands of columns. Most were about Chicago – its neighborhoods, its characters, its perennial hapless Cubs. For those of us who read his syndicated work – he died in 1997 – Royko’s perspective shaped our understanding of America’s Second City.

BossI have lived in Chicago just under two years. Dipping into Royko now and then has been interesting. What has been truly informative, though, is reading Royko’s best seller, Boss, an unauthorized biography of long-term Chicago mayor Richard J. Daley. Written in 1971 and reflecting the political and social upheaval of the period, Boss is a brilliant work of history and commentary. Royko is an amazing writer.

A short read with punchy sentences and a master’s flair for capturing the feel of a group and the nature of a person, Boss captures the rise of Daley and Chicago. The first mayor Daley was brilliant, ambitious, anti-democractic, and relentless. A product of the neighborhoods with a keen understanding of power, he brought tremendous benefit to the city at tremendous cost. Daley defined much of Chicago in the 1950s and 1960s. Inspiring both admiration and hate, he was a fascinating figure whose priorities, values and vision are visible in Chicago today. Controversial does not begin to describe Daley.

Truly outstanding biographies do much more than explain an individual. Like Robert Caro’s four volumes on Lyndon Banes Johnson, Royko’s book sheds as much light on context as subject. The complexities of America’s post-wire economic boom, the prosperity and racism, the conflicted ways in which we thought about cities, are all part of Royko’s narrative. The very concept of “downtown” is best understood in a context of geography and time. Royko gets this – and also how Daley and his contemporaries thought about it.

Boss is still a relevant book, well worth your time and consideration. And it is particularly relevant as we ready for Chicago’s first “real” mayoral election in decades. We live in a much different Chicago today – yet the legacy of Daley still looms.

David Potash