Walk the Line –the Redemption of a Prison Song

My father, raised as one of 17 kids on a Canadian farm — a true country boy — was a big fan of America’s country music and one of its brightest stars, Johnny Cash.  I thought of my childhood days growing up in Detroit but also immersed in country culture, as I watched the movie “Walk the Line” again recently, which is based in part on the legendary  singer’s two autobiographies.*  The film details how Cash first forged a bold path in country music in the mid-1950s by focusing on train and prison song folk styles, only to descend into drug addiction, climaxed by a miraculous recovery with the help of June Carter.

The film impressed me because of its honesty about the personal struggles of both Cash and his future wife as they built their careers.  June was divorced shortly after she met Cash and a strong attraction developed between them that she resisted, although they continued to tour together. Cash was trapped in an unhappy marriage, which contributed to his addictive behavior.

The film was most remarkable for its honesty in probing the family scars that led to disastrous marriages for both country stars – scars they had to heal before they could eventually marry and become a force for recovery for others through their music. Cash had idolized his older brother Jack, whose tragic death was blamed on him by an alcoholic father – there had to be a confrontation before Cash could forgive himself.   In addition, while the father eventually was a recovered alcoholic, he continued his dismissal of the importance of a musical career until Cash stood up to him.

June, on the other hand, had felt overshadowed by the talent of an older sister and then caught in the shame of being a single mom in an unforgiving southern culture.   Once they overcame their own challenges and were happily married, the Cashes embraced the idea of redemption for everyone through their music by reaching out to the convicts in Folsom Prison, who were among Cash’s biggest fans.  A live version of Cash’s early hit “Folsom Prison Blues” was recorded among inmates at Folsom State Prison in 1968 and instantly became a #1 hit on the country music charts.  As I can affirm, this redemptive music reached far beyond the South.

 

*Man in Black (1975) and Cash: The Autobiography (1997)

 

 

Detroit’67: The On-going Pain

I grew up in a vibrant Detroit, the proud and thriving automobile capital of the world.  And in 1967, as I studied for my undergraduate degree at Wayne State University in the heart of the city, I had no idea that a raid on a nearby after-hours club that summer would ultimately signal the collapse of many of the city’s neighborhoods and eventually ignite massive white flight.  I thought our country’s involvement in Vietnam would remain the focus of protest that year, not our own angry citizens burning down the inner city.

In 2017, media attention on the 50th anniversary of the Detroit riots, revolution or uprising (depending on who you ask) is forcing residents to reassess what brought on such rage.  The violence lasted five days following the original police raid on July 23 – and Stephen Henderson, the editorial director of the Detroit Free Press, and others are  questioning if the city has really learned the lessons of those violent days. While it is clear that change is coming to some areas of Detroit –focusing for now heavily on the vibrant downtown and some midtown neighborhoods, including around Wayne State University –  many angry black residents still live in neglected areas and continue to question whether their lives will ever improve.

On Sunday the 23rd, I joined college friends to watch the local ABC-TV premiere of the Detroit Free Press documentary on those five days – “12th and Clairmont.”   I found that the focus on the home-made films submitted by those swept up by the violence gave an authentic voice to the complex emotions behind the turmoil and lingering anger. Now a movie is premiering here called “Detroit” by award-winning filmmaker Kathryn Bigelow that details the particularly brutal deaths of three black teenagers in the Algiers Hotel in the course of those five horrific days.  I hope the local Free Press documentary and the nationally distributed film will give Americans a greater understanding of that ominous year in Detroit – and an appreciation for the on-going struggle facing not only the Motor City, but cities across our nation.  Let’s continue to listen to the anger, learn and move forward.

For more information, click on the links below:

http://www.freep.com/story/news/local/michigan/detroit/2017/07/23/detroit-67-numbers/493523001/

www.detroitnews.com/story/entertainment/…/kathryn-bigelow…detroit…/103908230

 

Great Summer Reading on Drama in DC and Chicago

Friends of mine have penned two amazing books recently – a former PR partner, David Hamlin, wrote the mystery Winter in Chicago on drugs, death and rock and roll on Chicago’s AM radio dial, while Jenny historian Deason Copeland has self-published a non-fiction book she researched for many years, Tiananmen West: Why Nixon Ordered the Kent State Massacre.

Both talented friends have been busy interviewing and visiting book stores – David out in southern California and Jenny in suburban Michigan.  David and his wife Sydney met in Chicago in the 70s, where she was breaking barriers for women in radio news broadcasting and he was the head of the local ACLU.  The novel was inspired by Sydney Weisman’s trailblazing news career, which later took the duo to California where I encountered them in the early 90s and eventually became a marketing partner in their firm, WHPR, following the LA riots.  You can read more about Winter in Chicago and order it on the publisher’s website at http://www.open-bks.com/library/moderns/winter-in-chicago/about-book.html

As the cover states, Jenny’s book Tiananmen West “encompasses decades of research by the author in hope of replacing conspiracy theories with facts.  The FoIA (Freedom of Information Act) requests reveal some interesting new perspectives of not only the Kent State Massacre, but how the mind of Richard Nixon could justify such an event.”  Jenny ends the book with a call to action to require psychological profiling of Presidential candidates to block another Nixon from the White House.  Jenny’s website and more information is at http://www.crazyredheadpublishing.com/   Both books are available on Amazon.com.

 

 

America – Signs it is Still Great….

In a column this week, New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman described the complex America he witnessed  in a four-day car trip through the heart of the nation.  As he wrote, the tour started in Austin, Ind., went down through Louisville Ky, wound through Appalachia and ended up at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee.

His conclusion was that while we do have an epidemic of failing communities,  we also have a bounty of thriving ones – not because of Washington, but because of strong leaders at the local level.  (Full column is at https://www.nytimes.com/2017/05/24/opinion/rusting-and-rising-america.html?_r=0)

What Friedman found this year parallels what Atlantic Magazine’s national correspondent James Fallow found a year earlier and reported in the March 2016 issue, which asked on its cover “Can America Put Itself Back Together?”  Fallow described how  innovators in centers across the country were reweaving the national fabric in various “laboratories of democracy” and that their progress and goals will soar once the mood of the country changes and embraces it.  (Read more at  https://www.theatlantic.com/press-releases/archive/2016/02/the-atlantics-march-issue-how-america-is-putting-itself-back-together-by-james-fallows/462180/).

I would add that if you study history, America has always swung back and forth in terms of those voted into political power, with resulting shifts in levels of confidence in the future.

We have just rightly celebrated our military heroes over the Memorial weekend holiday. Now  I hope  the country will also recognize the greatness of our on-going ability to constantly reinvent ourselves and embrace the challenges of the future.   Yes, I still believe America in all its diversity and contrasting landscapes, remains an unmatched super power. 

The Power of Local Journalism in Alabama

For the first time since 2006,  I didn’t make it to Birmingham, Alabama in the spring for the Timothy Sumner Robinson Forum at Samford University in honor of my late husband, a pioneering legal journalist.   There were delays this time in scheduling the busy speaker, Brian Lyman, a political reporter for the Montgomery Advertiser. He was tentatively scheduled to appear in March, but local political events kept interfering – and even the April 10th appearance was cancelled that morning when the Alabama Governor suddenly resigned in a major scandal.

In the end, I was grateful that Samford’s  Journalism and Mass Communications department was able to set up a live electronic  feed when the Forum was finally rescheduled to May 1st and I got to be a faraway participant.*  Lyman had a positive message for Samford’s journalism students – arguing that despite the struggles, local newspapers like the Montgomery Advertiser  were evolving in exciting times.  He explained that the declining newspaper revenue that resulted in fewer editors monitoring a reporter’s copy also could have a positive result:  a new freedom to pursue the kind of human stories first crafted by heavyweights like Jimmy Breslin back in the 60s.  He concluded that today’s reporters must be story tellers – “we must show how facts are experiences.”  Lyman further said  that political journalism focuses on power – and stories about the use and abuse of power are important and need to be covered, summing it up with the challenge that  “Reporters must be the bridge between the council chamber and the living room.”

In a time of change and increasing public distrust of the media, it was refreshing to hear a reporter champion the challenges today, and glorify the local beat .  My late husband started on local beats in Alabama during a time of great change in the 60s and was always just as proud of those years as his later part in pioneering legal journalism on a national scale. I was thankful for this affirmation of the power of local news.  And this fall I plan to visit Tim’s amazing family in Birmingham – and also look forward to meeting the latest students to benefit from the Robinson Forum , as well as from the scholarship program and an internship at the Washington Post.  Go Samford!

For more background, visit https://www.samford.edu/news/2017/04/Alabama-Politics-Reporter-Lyman-To-Speak-at-Samford-May-1 and https://www.samford.edu/arts-and-sciences/robinson-forum

 

*My thanks to Bernie Ankney, Chair, Journalism and Mass Communications Dept.  and Jackie Long, Recruitment and Alumni Affairs Officer for coordinating the electronic feed – and to my brother in law Michael Robinson and his wife Carolyn, who kept me informed on all the changes and represented the family in person this year.

Earth Day and The New Reality of April Showers

A few years ago, I wrote about April showers as a time for inspiration and poetry.  I even posted a reminder on face book this year to look up some favorite poets.  But sadly spring rains are now also a reminder of  climate change.  In my case, it is ground water that has risen faster this year than in the past because of a mild winter that produced regular rain storms, not snow,  as soon as February.

 

I remember growing up in northeast Detroit and heeding tornado sirens that warned us on occasion to wait for the all clear in the basement cellar;  luckily the storms always moved past the city – and I never remember running to the cellar during a rainstorm. Now almost any spring storm sends me to the basement to check water levels around my sump pump.  I realize that I remain lucky compared to the millions in the direct  path of tornadoes across the Midwest and south.  Still I miss the youthful innocence that loved the idea of spring showers and never felt threatened.

 

I watched Bill Nye, the Science Guy, appear on national television during Earth Day coverage this year to show us how global warming is really, really seriously damaging our oceans and lakes and threatening our future even beyond destructive storms.  I believe him and worry that our legislators don’t seem to believe in science.  Oh, for the days of Gene Kelly, dancing through the streets in a rainstorm,  rejoicing in the downpour!  Still,  I continue to love spring poems and even believe it’s not too late to reduce climate change!