LOCATION. Any public place where barbecue is on offer. Up hereabouts it's infernally hard to get good barbecue, so I'm not as interested in the quality of the meat as I am in the quality of the scene. Are the people happy? Does the searing smell of Meat-is-murder increase their happiness? Is the band playing, are hearts light, are men laughing, do children shout?
The residents of the Drug House down the block (magnet for loudly talkative men in oversize basketball jerseys, broken front door, throbbing car stereo) sometimes roll out a Weber and grill chicken parts and dogs on the sidewalk, but I doubt I will be invited. I have other offers cooking, so to speak. But if they fall through, I will be content to see the folks gathered at the north end of McCarren Park, coolers stocked and opened, family-size-paks opened on blankets, grillin' like a villain and enjoying the sunshine and the blessings of liberty.
MOVIES. The 'plexes will be busy. I may choose to enjoy Young Mr. Lincoln alone so that no one can see me cry. It's just about my favorite movie, certainly the best on American themes. It is set in the interval between Lincoln's early political failure and his apotheosis, when the young man was trying to make his way as a country lawyer and thinking about life, and it is riddled with historical foreshadowing of the baldest sort. The plot has Lincoln working on a murder case involving two brothers (whose Maw, a witness, won't finger one or t'other; "it'd be like choosing between 'em"). At one point Lincoln rides along on a mule and plays a new tune on his Jew's-harp that his companion says "kinda makes you feel like marchin'"; the tune is "Dixie." He meets Stephen Douglas ("Mr. Lincoln, I trust I shall never make the mistake of underestimating you again") and Mary Todd ("You said you wanted to dance with me in the worst possible way, and that is exactly what you have done"). And at the end he walks to "the top of that hill" where a storm is beginning to rage.
This is the romantic, Sandburgian Lincoln who regards his fellow countrymen with love but also with a very large grain of salt. He suspiciously bites a coin offered for his services, and foils a lynching by offering violence ("I can lick any man here!") and then eloquence ("Don't want t' put that log down, boys? Ain't it gettin' kinda heavy?"). He stands among but not of them, deliberating loftily but folksily over a country fair bakeoff as he would in the time of Civil War. It is easy to forget that this was not always the settled view of the Railsplitter; The American Mercury had earlier published a very good essay defending Douglas' view of federalism against Lincoln's (I have lost my copy but I believe it was written by Stephen Vincent Benet, who also wrote the 1930 Griffith sound film of Lincoln's life). We know Ford was interested in legends, though (see truth, legend, Liberty Valance); we know, from The Informer (and maybe from The Whole Town's Talking and Judge Priest), what Ford thought about justice; and we know it was 1939. If there was ever a confluence that might encourage a filmmaker to say what he thought America was, that was it.
Or I may watch JFK. It's utterly ridiculous. ("Daddy, are they going to kill us like they killed President Kennedy?") But who but a patriot could have made it?
MUSIC. I wish I had the Bear Records compilation of Uncle Dave Macon. As it is I'll have to make do with some tapes. We played an Uncle Dave tune in an old band of mine: "Go 'long Mule, don't you roll them eyes/y'kin change a fool, but a doggone mule is a mule until he dies." He was the shit. This is from Shelton and Goldblatt's The Country Music Story, a horribly compromised official telling but no less interesting for it:
David Macon was born in Cannon County, Tennessee, in the township of Smart Station on October 7, 1870. He was of a large family of prosperous farmers who moved, when he was still young, to open a hotel on Broad Street in Nashville. It was here that Uncle Dave was bitten by the virus of show business... According to [Judge] Hay, it was not until Macon was forty-eight years old (which would be in 1918) that he left his farm and decided to become a professional musician...And how. Get a load of Uncle Dave. But he had something for the folks and maybe the ladies too: Old Judge Hay said that when Uncle Dave came onstage, "we moved the microphone back so he had plenty of room to kick." He certainly sounds like he was kicking. In the stuff I've got, he croons/gargles the verses, but when the choruses come in (usually accompanied by what sounds like an old Confederate regiment), he roars and wails like there was no such thing as electricity.
Cousin Minnie Pearl recalled the "Opry" tent shows with Uncle Dave during World War II. "Uncle Dave used to carry a black satchel with him on those tours. In it was a pillow, a nightcap, a bottle of Jack Daniels [Tennessee Sour Mash bourbon] and a checkered bib. He was quite a ladies' man, which proved to me that some men never believe themselves to be irresistible, no matter how old they are..."
You may wonder what a city boy like me loves about country music. It's simple... oh, were you waiting for an answer? Because that was it. Of course, being a stuck-up type, I prefer old men hollering into gramophone horns to the new breed, but improvements in technology and costuming don't necessarily mean that nobody feels what Uncle Dave felt anymore. When Anna Nalick sings "Breathe," for example, I think she has it: under that awful Mariah Carey melisma I hear that old Patsy Cline plaint. It's a pissy modern recording, but I don't care: she's there. At this moment there are hundreds of singers, most of them playing in the most bought-off formats you can imagine, in a bar or a wedding band, opening up and letting something out. If that ain't country, Tejano, blues, rock 'n' roll, dancehall, emo, etc., etc., etc., I'll kiss your ass.
I might also find time for Neil Young's Hawks and Doves, which just sounds better and better every year: "Got people here down on their knees and prayin'/Hawks and doves are circlin' in the rain/Got rock 'n' roll, got country music playin'/If you hate us, you just don't know what you're sayin'/Ready to go, willin' to stay and pay/ (big, fat minor chord) Yew-ess-AAAAY! Yew-ess-AAAAY!..."
READING. "The delusion into which the X. Y. Z. plot shewed it possible to push the people; the successful experiment made under the prevalence of that delusion on the clause of the constitution, which, while it secured the freedom of the press, covered also the freedom of religion, had given to the clergy a very favorite hope of obtaining an establishment of a particular form of Christianity thro' the U. S.; and as every sect believes its own form the true one, every one perhaps hoped for his own, but especially the Episcopalians & Congregationalists. The returning good sense of our country threatens abortion to their hopes, & they believe that any portion of power confided to me, will be exerted in opposition to their schemes. And they believe rightly; for I have sworn upon the altar of god, eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man..." -- T.J.
On our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor, dudes: rock over London, rock on Chicago. Thy banners make tyranny tremble when borne by the red, hot, and blue.
UPDATE. Tad Gallagher has a lovely and deeper reading than mine of Young Mr. Lincoln. His is also a more manichean reading of Lincoln's morality. But if Abe is "not above a bit of dissimulation, cheating or force to get things done," as Gallagher says, I can't see that his visual connections to the infinite (mainly via the river) are as binding as Gallagher makes them. Ford's Lincoln is certainly attuned to the elements (like the new moon that reveals Jack Cass' lie), but that doesn't make him Nature Boy: it just makes him a more complete human being than his adversaries, who are mainly about social connections. Ford, like countless authors before him, created a balanced hero who could upend his unbalanced adversaries. He was not about destiny (though he was equipped, at the end, to face it) but about common sense.