Posts Tagged ‘Jeff Sypeck’

Digging history

Saturday, July 6th, 2013
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hugo3

 

The problem with most of my gardening efforts is that when I get excited about growing flowers or herbs, I go out and buy some books about the subject, and that satisfies the impulse entirely, and soon it goes away. I rarely get to the messy business of actually digging around in the dirt with my fingernails, what with worms and bugs and all.

belfryThis time I’ve gone so far as to actually get some seeds, thanks to Nora Munro over at The Belfry.  I met Nora through one of my favorite medievalists, Jeff Sypeck, over at Quid Plura.  His link to “où dort la mélancolie” enchanted and intrigued me. Nora is trying to grow as many authentically medieval plants as she can – but the mid-Atlantic weather isn’t helping.  ”I still love the flowery fields in mediaeval paintings, and it pleases more than is probably reasonable that this columbine is exactly the same as the ones in Hugo van der Goes‘ Portinari altarpiece of 1476,” she wrote.  Yes, it’s that Portinari family.  The altarpiece was commissioned by Tommaso Portinari, an agent for the Medici bank in Bruges, and he’s somehow related to Dante‘s beloved Beatrice.

Can you see the flowers in the altarpiece above?  I thought you wouldn’t.  Try looking at the photograph from Nora’s garden left.  Then compare with the enlargement from the Portinari altarpiece at right.  Pretty cool.  So I was thrilled when the envelope arrived from Annapolis a few hours ago with … my own seeds.

columbinesNow, I had thought columbines are supposed to symbolize folly, as in the “Columbine” character in commedia dell’arte.  But Nora corrects me: “During the Middle Ages, the flower was associated with the Holy Spirit (columbine < L. columba, dove).  In the Portinari Altarpiece, the detail I linked above with the columbines is in the central panel, as part of a depiction of the nativity, with lilies and irises, both of which were associated with the Virgin.”

The Enclopedia Britannica has yet another version: “The scattered violets indicate Christ’s humility; the columbine flowers represent the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit with which Christ was endowed at birth. The flowers in the albarello (pottery jar) are in royal colours, for Christ was of the royal line of the Israelite King David.”

But the big queston is: will they grow?  I’ll let you know how it goes…

Happy Halloween – here’s the best pumpkin evah.

Wednesday, October 31st, 2012
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Happy Halloween, everybody!

Enjoy the day with the best pumpkin of the year – perhaps the best pumpkin evah.  This beauty was commissioned for New York City’s Museum of Modern Art, and carved by Marc Evan and Chris Soria.  I wonder how long it took to make.

Meanwhile, in the spirit of the day, you might want to revisit Dana Gioia’s ghost story, or more recently the Jeff Sypeck’s take on the spooks from the rooftops of Washington’s National Cathedral.  Or how about George Orwell on love, sex, religion, and ghosts. Or… or… or… Dostoevsky, Coetzee, Vargas Llosa, and Paul West on evil — just in time for Halloween.

Enjoy the day, and take it easy on the candy.  Read a book instead.

Postscript:  From high art to pop art in a few quick hours.  Here’s another pumpkin to celebrate the day.  Sculptor Andy Bergholtz created the jack-o-lantern Joker in one manic 8-hour stretch:

“Surprisingly, Bergholtz has only been carving pumpkins for a year. He said that another sculptor he knows, Ray Villafane, had been encouraging him for years to sculpt squash, but he resisted.  Then last year Villafane recruited him to help carve pumpkins for Heidi Klum’s Vegas Halloween party. Bergholtz said, ‘I instantly fell in love with the art form and haven’t looked back since.’”

Want to know how the artist did it?  See video below.

Goyle of my dreams: Things are Looking Up for Jeff Sypeck

Thursday, October 25th, 2012
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Our Washington-based medievalist and occasional correspondentJeff Sypeck, author of Becoming Charlemagne, walked past these stones every day.  At last, he succumbed  to the impulse to write formal poems in honor of the gargoyles at the National Cathedral.  As he wrote on his blog Quid Plura: “Some books you plan to write; others simply happen. Looking Up definitely falls into the latter category. It’s a great surprise to me that it even exists; I hope you’ll find something pleasantly surprising in it as well.”

The result is Looking Up: Poems from the National Cathedral Gargoyles.  Just in time for Halloween,  Jeff’s book offers us “monsters both malevolent and benign.”

According to the book jacket:  “Looking Up: Poems from the National Cathedral Gargoyles gives voice to the National Cathedral’s famous gargoyles and grotesques. From light verse and straightforward sonnets to strange soliloquies and songs, the 53 poems in this book draw on medieval myth and legend, local lore, and the weirder side of Washington. Across 138 pages, you’ll find a tragic octopus-lobster love story, a broken angel, a fish with a cryptic riddle, a Cajun alligator, an agnostic hamster, quarreling rabbits, wistful cavemen, a knife-wielding goblin, mother-son monsters, and dragons galore.”

Looking Up exists “through the kindness of the folks at the National Cathedral, who graciously let their publication-shy gargoyles appear on its pages.”

Jeff is offering a little kindness of his own:  since much of the cathedral is still in desperate need of repair after last year’s earthquake, he’s donating 75 percent of the net profits from this book to the cathedral’s fund for reconstruction.  Says Jeff: “It’s my way of saying thank-you for the many quiet afternoons I’ve spent on the cathedral grounds.”

Jeff, who taught medieval literature for a decade at the University of Maryland, has been pleased by the response so far to his “unfashionable folly.” He wrote me: “This book has everything working against it: it’s local, formal, print-only, and medieval-inspired – but people seem to be getting a kick out of it, which is gratifying.”

The book is available on Amazon (I’ve ordered mine already) – or pick one up in the National Cathedral gift shop, if you’re in D.C.

Meanwhile, to tide you over, here’s one of the small volume’s more popular poems, with photo of the lobster and octopus in question.

An Octopus Reappraises Her Lobster

I hear the hot breath of the lobster I love.
The trees wilt below us; there’s nothing above.
You snore and I shudder, for sleepless I know
The oath of adventure we swore long ago:

“Between us, our limbs number eighteen in all;
Let’s creep from this tank and slip over the wall
And forever be free! Let’s aspire to perch
On a spire of our own on the loftiest church.”

You clawed at my tentacle, tender and green,
Like the first awkward kiss of a king and his queen.
You scuttled, I swam; through the garden we went.
Where grass gripped the stones, we began our ascent.

A lobster lives long, as no octopus can,
But a lobster has in him but one perfect plan.
I longed for longevity. No girl expects
To ask of her lobster, “So what happens next?”

You curl up contentedly, dreaming of me;
I cling to my cornice and scarcely feel free.
“I won’t let you down,” you once vowed, and I sighed.
I love that you’re honest. I wish you had lied.

Who’s next? One by one, we fall off the “free speech” bandwagon…

Tuesday, September 18th, 2012
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Many nonsensical things have been written about First Amendment rights since a completely obscure schleppe made an anti-Islam  Youtube video that sparked riots across the Islam world.

Salman Rushdie has come out on cue with a disappointing statement, and in “Does ‘Innocence of Muslims’ meet the free-speech test?Sarah Chayes at the Los Angeles Times discusses actions that might fall outside protected speech, arguing that First Amendment freedoms distinguish between speech that is simply offensive and speech that deliberately aims to put lives at immediate risk. She concludes:

Disappointing

“Finally, much 1st Amendment jurisprudence concerns speech explicitly advocating violence, such as calls to resist arrest, or videos explaining bomb-making techniques. But words don’t have to urge people to commit violence in order to be subject to limits, says [First Amendment authority Anthony] Lewis. ‘If the result is violence, and that violence was intended, then it meets the standard.’

“Indeed, Justice Holmes’ original example, shouting ‘fire’ in a theater, is not a call to arms. Steve Klein, an outspoken anti-Islamic activist who said he helped with the film, told Al Jazeera television that it was ‘supposed to be provocative.’ The egregiousness of its smears, the apparent deception of cast and crew as to its contents and the deliberate effort to raise its profile in the Arab world a week before 9/11 all suggest intentionality.

You can read the rest here – but don’t skip the comments.  Problem is, the vague wish to be  “provocative” doesn’t necessarily anticipate torched embassies, murdered people, and riots in 20-or-so nations.

For myself, I wish we were called upon more often to defend heroic, brilliant, artistically accomplished efforts at free speech, and less often called to defend idiotic, immature, and deliberately offensive expressions of free speech. But on the other hand, someone may find my statements fit into exactly that category.  In fact, I believe someone said so just the other day.

Hence, the most eminently sane comment came, as it often does, from my colleague medievalist Jeff Sypeck over at Quid Plura?  An excerpt:

… I wrote a book in which Muslims guzzle wine, Jews own slaves, and Christians kill in the name of religion—so even when the spotlight is on some inept, ne’er-do-well “filmmaker” and a loony pastor, I don’t find it hard to imagine myself in their shoes. As I wrote in 2010:“If doodles can incite worldwide riots, how can I know that my 20-page depiction of a liberal, even libertine, Baghdad won’t light a madman’s fuse?”

Should that happen, I hope I won’t be condemned by diplomats, denounced by the Secretary of State, investigated by the Department of Justice, or blamed by the White House. I hope the government won’t ask publishers and distributors of my work to consider shutting me down. I hope my supporters won’t get phone calls from generals. I hope I won’t be encouraged to hide. I hope artists, writers, and scholars will realize it could be them next.

Read the whole thing here.  It’s short, readable, and to-the-point.

So who’s next?  Tom Lehrer’s tune from the 1960s was running through my head as I wrote… I checked it out on Youtube, and though it’s on a different subject entirely, what the hey…I include it for the fun of it…

Newspapers, advertisers, and book reviews – cont.

Wednesday, August 31st, 2011
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A few days ago, I posted about “The future of book reviewing and one cranky man.”

I wrote about the absurdity of newspapers expecting book review sections to be supported by advertising from the strapped book industry:  “Of course, sports sections aren’t asked to support themselves by the advertisements of sports stores or the manufacturers of catcher’s mitts, so this standard has always been unevenly applied.”

In the comments section, medievalist Jeff Sypeck asked:

Is there a reason newspaper executives have behaved as if the ads in a book-review section could only be for books and publishers and similar literary/cultural products? Is it a lack of demographic info about book buyers for the ad sales people to tout? The unwillingness of, say, tire manufacturers to advertise alongside reviews of novels? A belief that the book section ought to be free of commercialism? Mere tradition or habit?

Good question.

Frank Wilson at Books Inq. explained the simple demographics of newspaper advertising succinctly: “the point is that a book section would attract more readers to a newspaper – even a lot of people who watch baseball read – and the more readers you have, the more advertisers you get.”

Not a reader anyway

Literary people read lots of things besides great literature and book reviews – they’re more likely to read newspapers in general.  As Jeff has pointed out before, that’s a much better bet than trying to get stoners to read.  Said Frank:

Newspapers flap their wings hoping to attract young readers by reviewing pop music, but those (theoretical) young reader don’t care what newspapers think about what they’re listening to. I certainly didn’t care that the local pop music reviewers thought little of Elvis when I was in high school. I also wouldn’t have cared if they’d thought the world of him.

But the experience of listening to music is fundamentally different from the experience of reading. Readers want to know what others have to say about what they have read. It’s an extension of the reading experience. Reading about the music you have heard is not an extension of the listening experience.

Maybe if more newspaper executives did some reading of their own, they would understand.

More comments followed. Jeff again:

Your last point reminds me of how for more than 15 years, the Washington Post has been trying to lure young people with reviews of video games and hip-hop concerts, apparently misunderstanding how many outlets are already devoted to discussing those subjects with greater affection and thoroughness. Time has shown them to be unlikely and unsuccessful ways to lure new readers to old media.

More comments at Books, Inq. here.
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The future of book reviewing and one cranky man…

Tuesday, August 23rd, 2011
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By "Drew" at "Toothpaste for Dinner" blog

More lamentations on the demise of the book review industry – if it was ever an industry – and the elimination of free-lancers and staff at the once-great Los Angeles Times Book Review (I wrote about that here, and I wrote about the demise of the Washington Post Book World here).

Richard Rayner and Susan Salter Reynolds, evacuees from the L.A. Times Book Review debacle, have been absorbed by the Los Angeles Review of Books. “Once you step past the rubble, the smoking ruins,” Reynolds says, “you see that there are still places for book reviews that care more about readers and writers than bottom lines and bean counters, more about the future than fashion, more about the thrill of reading than the so-called death of the book. The Los Angeles Review of Books is such a place and I am delighted to be a part of it.”  One problem:  It doesn’t pay its contributors. Just like other online sites.

Their editor-in-chief Tom Lutz writes:

Book review supplements have been shuttered at the Washington Post, the Boston Globe, the Chicago Tribune, and elsewhere, all for the same reason: the sections were not (and never had been) profit centers. Traditionally, of course, the editorial side of the paper dictated what to cover and the business side figured out how to pay for it. This allowed decisions about what was “fit to print” to operate independently from the courting of advertisers. Zell came to the Times vowing to break down what he called this “artificial wall” between editorial content and advertising sales, a misunderstanding of the most basic precept of ethical journalism. Worse yet, each section of the paper, it was decided, needed to make its own profit or die, like subsidiaries of a company. Since book advertising had never fully supported the Sunday supplements, they were preordained casualties.

Of course, sports sections aren’t asked to support themselves by the advertisements of sports stores or the manufacturers of catcher’s mitts, so this standard has always been unevenly applied.  It’s a shortsighted policy in any case.  As the ever-wise Jeff Sypeck commented on my earlier post about the L.A. Times:

“As I see it, one of the ironies here is that the paper is gutting the section that attracts obsessive readers–not just of book reviews, or books, but potentially the entire rest of the paper. (I’m reminded of your post from earlier this year about how one Washington Post blogger made fun of Donald Hall while the newspaper devoted virtually no coverage to the artists and writers who received the National Arts and Humanities Medals.) I often think that the final obituary for the newspaper business will conclude that, among other causes of death, they chased imaginary audiences of people who otherwise don’t really read instead of catering to the inquisitive, hard-core readers they already had.”

Much is made of how difficult it is to support oneself as a book reviewer.  Heavens,  I’m surprised that they even tried.  During my free-lance days, my book reviewing was my high-profile prestige work, a habit supported by magazine features that paid better.  As Edward Champion puts it so pointedly on the website Reluctant Habits:

"We'll be living in small ghettos..."

The dirty little secret is that freelancers get paid hardly anything. A fortuitous freelancer can count on a sum just under $200 if a review is commissioned by the Dallas Morning News, the San Francisco Chronicle, or the Philly Inquirer. But shouldn’t one expect more from three of the top 50 United States newspapers? If we translate that $200 into labor — let’s say that it takes about fifteen hours to read a book and five hours to write the review — the freelancer basically earns around $10/hour before paying taxes. You could probably make more money working at a touchless car wash. Small wonder that so many, including yours truly, have dropped out of this dubious racket, leaving it to increasingly sour practitioners. Book reviewing has reached a point where those who are left practically have to beg editors to get into a slot. And if book reviewing has become a vocation in which veteran and novice alike must debase themselves for scraps, one must legitimately ask if there’s any real point in such an uncivilized and undercompensated trade carrying on.

A few years ago I asked Adam Zagajewski about the future of poetry poetry-lovers in the world of tweets and sound bites – but his words might apply to book lovers as well:

“We’ll be living in small ghettos, far from where celebrities dwell, and yet in every generation there will be a new delivery of minds that will love long and slow thoughts and books and poetry and music, so that these rather pleasant ghettos will never perish — and one day may even stir more excitement than we’re used to now.”

On a less cerebral note, Harlan Ellison rants on youtube about the about the unpaid labors of writers.  It’s been viewed more than half a million times:

The most beautiful words in the English language. And the nominations are…

Wednesday, July 13th, 2011
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For Frank in Philly.

“I’ve always been fond of lavender,” said Frank Wilson of Books Inq.  That was his nomination for the most beautiful word in the English language.  (Earlier nominations here.)

Others chimed in on my Facebook page:

Agustín Maes voted for murmur, also, florid.

Artur Sebastian Rosman was full of ideas:  noctilucent, donut, iris.  Donut? Doesn’t he mean doughnuts, at least?  (Artur, get something to eat.)  He also favored  “TSE words like chthonic.”  TSE is T.S. Eliot – of haruspicate fame (which always sounds like a man clearing his throat, not prophesying). “Filiation is also a lovely word,” Artur added.

“My favorite word of all time and by far the liveliest in any language is…. vivificantem.“  Well, as he noticed, that’s not really English; it’s Latin.  So it shouldn’t count.

Marianne Bacon quarreled with Deshoda, the blog that started the contest:  “I think that list on Deshoda (whatever that is) is a bit silly. How about Chestertonian words, or Jack Lewis words- like woodsmoke, or pipe, or fireplace, or snow, or Christmas, or pudding, or child. Or elf, or lamppost, or courage.”  But the contest isn’t for words with pleasant context or associations, but beautiful sounds.   “OK, inglenook.”  I thought, at first she meant the wine – but no, inglenook is “a chimney corner, is a small recess that adjoins a fireplace.”

Jim Erwin wrote: “prestidigitation and Terpsichore are good examples of fingerpoia and feetpoia.”  Wait a minute, he made those last two up.

Daniel Rifenburgh made half a nomination – Sussurus

From Edward Haven yielded to my entreaties: “I’ve started to like Giraffe, but I have to agree nothing compares to authenticity.”  A son after my own heart.

What?

Erën Goknar is “SO glad you mentioned the much-maligned [Edgar Allan] Poe and his bells!”

Finally, Sarang in my comments section offered “a little stream-of-consciousness: myrtle [in my fancy a portmanteau of myrrh, squirt, and turtle], scavenger, flounder, interred, fever, recalcitrant, splay, stray, splatter, vespers, pageant, expunge, effulgent, excrescence, gun, cleave, hew.”

Jeff Sypeck favored shorter-is-better:

My first impulse is to go with big, fun-to-say words like tatterdemalion, but I don’t think many of our little Anglo-Saxon words get enough credit for euphony: Read. Comb. Sleep. Yore. Soft little words can be beautiful, too!

Postscript on 7/15: A few more suggestions –

Joe Loya: Efficacious; ventriloquy; or supple. I love the way they look, sound, and their flexibility in application.

Another one from Artur Sebastian Rosman: Reconciliation is overused and under-practiced, but what a beautiful word.

And a few late nominees from Patrick Kurp incarnadine, philtrum, wan, atrorubent, flange .

Orwell Watch #11: One man’s lonely war against cliché

Thursday, June 23rd, 2011
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“The internet is not destroying the language after all, then, but giving us new ways of shaming its most prominent practitioners into using it better. Let us set politicians a quiz. What are guarantees always made from? Cast iron. And with what are their bottoms made? Copper. And what are they not worth? The paper they are written on. (Or, alternatively, the paper that they are not written on.) For whom do politicians speak? The silent majority. Or hard-working families. Especially the ones who work hard and play by the rules.

Well, it turns out that the silent majority want to read and hear fresh, clear and original language. So go to independent.co.uk/bannedlist and nominate your suggestions for inclusion. I’d say we should crowd-source this project, but I’ve put crowd-source and project on the Banned List.”

A man after my own heart (whoops! another one!)

These are the … dare I say it? … fighting words from John Rentoul of the Independent, and I’ve just discovered his cliché column.

The phrases that make him grind his teeth don’t necessarily make me grind mine – apparently, “any time soon” is the one kicked him over the edge – but he’s fingered “progressive” as an empty bit of self-congratulation, a charge that earned me some brickbats when I wrote about it here.  But how did he miss “heads up”?  Or “take responsibility for” when referring to those who will do nothing of the kind (I wrote about that one here)?

From the top 100  (check them out for yourself here:

1. Celebrating diversity.
2. Inclusive.
3. Black hole (in a financial context).
4. The elephant in the room.
5. Perfect storm.
6. IMO, IMHO, LOL, ROFL and so on. I mean, whose opinion is it going to be? Genuinely witty abbreviations, however, are permitted, for example, QTWTAIN, YYSSW, IICRS (Questions to Which the Answer is No; Yeah, Yeah, Sure, Sure, Whatever; Iraq Inquiry Coverage Rebuttal Service).  [Shall we add WTF? – Ed.]
7. Vibrant (when used to mean lots of non-English people).
8. It’s in his/her/their DNA.
9. Let’s be clear.
10. “The truth is…” before the peddling of an opinion.
11. Any journey not describing travel from A to B.
12. A no-brainer.
13. What’s not to like?
14. Max out (in relation to credit cards only).
15. Coffee, the waking up and smelling thereof.
16. Out of the box (especially thinking).
17. Radar, to be on someone’s, or to be under the.
18. “All the evidence tells us” to mean “I’ve read something about this somewhere that confirms my prejudices”.
19. Stakeholder.
20. Who knew?
21. “And yet, and yet …”
22. The suffix -gate added to any news theme supposedly embarrassing to a government.

I shudder to think how many of these I have used – and not in the distant past, but recently. Sometimes hourly.

Also banned this month:

“What a difference a day makes”, which was used on Newsnight to mean: “Yesterday we reported something and today the Government has done something about it.” It is a bit like “a week is a long time in politics”, which is as hard to eradicate as cockroaches.

Rentoul ends with George Orwell‘s six rules from “Politics and the English Language.”  Great comments section, too.  What’s not to like?

Postscript on 6/25: Some interesting feedback from Jeff Sypeck in the comments section:

I’d like to see pundits, commentators, etc., stop saying “You want fries with that?” when they talk about college kids majoring in unmarketable subjects. Not only is it unoriginal–Google News shows 27 news outlets using the phrase this month alone–but no one at a fast food joint has even asked a customer this question since the late 1980s! For 25 years, we’ve been ordering complete fast-food meals, with fries, by number. (I also question whatever truth supposedly underlies this cliche, because class distinctions generally mean that the recent college grad with an English or Sociology degree is more likely to be doing filing or photocopying in an office or perhaps working in retail. He’s not the most common sight in the fast-food biz.)

Go to the comments section for the rest of his remarks (about the use of “urban” to mean “black”) and also, Dave Lull directs you to the clichés of love.

The beginning and the end: Fishkin’s revamped editorial on the n-word and Huck Finn

Wednesday, January 5th, 2011
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Twain

The latest round of the n-word controversy started with NYC Councilman Charles Barron’s suggestion that Huckleberry Finn be banned from schools, as we discussed in our Dec. 30 report about Shelley Fisher Fishkin‘s editorial in the New York Daily News on that topic.  Perhaps it will end, now, with Shelley’s revamped editorial, reconfigured to discuss the the publication of Alan Gribben‘s edition of Huckleberry Finn with NewSouth.  The link is published on the Daily News‘ homepage today.

An excerpt from “Take the n-word out of ‘Huck Finn’? It’s an insult to Mark Twain – and to American history“:

Fishkin (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

“Sanitizing the language which aided and abetted white America’s denial of the humanity of black Americans from the nation’s founding doesn’t change that history. It papers it over and allows us to dodge its rawness.

Facing that history in all its offensiveness is crucial to understanding it and transcending it, and literature is uniquely positioned to help us do that. …

For to expose a racist society for what it is, you have to show racists as they are, speaking as they would speak.”

Perhaps the controversy will end now.  But don’t hold your breath.

Postscript: Just got an interesting p.o.v. from Jeff Sypeck:

You know, if I were a publisher looking to defend this new, n-free version of Huck Finn, I’d send a couple of enterprising interns to the library, and to Google, to research and catalog the history of adaptations of the novel. I suspect there’s a long history of retellings–comic books, kids’ books, cartoons, etc.–that sanitize the language in much the same way. The publisher might at least have been ready to argue from precedent.

Sypeck

That said, I was pleased to find a 1985 interview with (the great) Roger Miller about his musical adaptation, Big River, and the necessary use of That Word. “I hate to even say it, it’s so far from my spirit,” he told the Chicago Tribune, “but we have to use it because it’s in the novel. Huck is a young boy who, being a kid, doesn’t have all those prejudiced feelings and, being a kid, he hears the grown-ups say all this stuff that he hasn’t grown into yet. So the book shows the innocence of youth and the wisdom of the black man, and it makes for a great friendship. They become like two fiddles that play together. I never got a chance to write about things like that in my music business.”

Interestingly, when Big River was staged in Utah earlier this year, the producers got permission to eliminate half of the uses of That Word, but they were proud enough of keeping the other half in the script that the director could say, “You don’t make apologies for it”!