Sunday, April 16, 2017


 Nina Simone performed “Little Liza Jane” throughout her career. 

In 1927, the poet Carl Sandburg declared, “There are as many Liza songs in the Appalachian Mountains as there are species of trees on the slopes of that range.” This unmagnified observation would help introduce one of two “Liza” compositions in his crucial effort, The American Songbag, a celebrated, voluminous compilation that bestowed significance upon numerous folksongs. “Liza Jane” depicted lonesome drifters who attempted to ranch the “flat prairies and level horizons” on the western plains of the Appalachians, but a second tune, “Good-By Liza Jane,” apparently accompanied a Midwestern circus as a minstrel song. The character, Liza Jane, is rather incidental to the silliness of the circus minstrelsy—a horse falls partway down a well, a snail bursts through the tail of the goose that swallowed it, a woman crosses a bridge that that wasn’t yet built—but in the mountain range version, Liza Jane (the character) assumes more prominence. In that piece, the narrators make jugs of molasses in order to “sweeten little Liza Jane” and contrast the hardest work of their lives (“a-brakin’ on the train”) with the easiest, “a-huggin’ little Liza Jane.” Questions about the relationships of these variations as well as their origins might not persevere in the inquisitive mind of the listener would the song not persevere among recording artists. Nina Simone, for example, delivered stirring renditions of “Li’l Liza Jane” throughout her career, including a fabulous live performance at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1960. Wynton Marsalis, David Bowie (as Davie Jones), The Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Pete Seeger, Taj Mahal, Vince Gill, Duane Eddy, Doc Watson, Slim Harpo, and Fats Domino, among others, recorded the song. (Some of these recordings, Dear Reader, leap out of the ol’ phonograph better than others!) In many renditions of the tune, Liza Jane represents an object of courtship, one who eludes the promises of gifts and affection with elegiac steadfastness. 

 The Hill Billies recorded “Mountaineer’s Love Song” in 1926. 

Step Back
When investigating John Lomax’s early 1930s recordings in the penitentiaries (and other areas) of Louisiana, the writer Joshua Clegg Caffery encountered “Little Liza Jane,” terming it a “crossover dance number” performed by African American string bands and jug bands. In his book, Traditional Music in Coastal Louisiana: The 1934 Lomax Recordings, Caffery parses a version of the song performed by Wilson “Stavin’ Chain” Jones. The most charming passage of the tune, “Some people tell me Liza don’t steal, Little Liza Jane / And I caught little Liza in my cornfield, Little Liza Jane,” stamps a humorous realization onto a piece that otherwise, according to Caffery, veers between “unrelated episodes constructed out of stock phrases.” Even as that might be an unfair qualification, the author draws an incontrovertible distinction between Stavin’ Chain’s version of “Liza Jane” and the repertoire of Appalachian fiddle tunes such as “Susan Jane” and “Lasses Cane,” songs quite similar to the mountaintop variation introduced by Sandburg (although not the minstrel piece.) Terming them “second cousins once removed,” Caffery still acknowledges distant lineage between the Louisiana and Appalachian compositions. Many early recordings of “Li’l Liza Jane” predate the Lomax field recordings, among them these two popular versions: Earl Fuller’s Famous Jazz Band recorded “Li’l’ Liza Jane—One Step” in 1917 and The Hill Billies recorded “Mountaineer’s Love Song” in 1926, both in New York City. The former, recorded by white musicians, carries the African American melody, whereas the latter, its “second cousin once removed,” clips along with obvious Appalachian fiddling qualities. While “Mountaineer’s Love Song” doesn’t mention Liza Jane in its title, the singers frequently recall her throughout the piece. Neither rendition, however, accounts for the genesis of “Li’l Liza Jane”—not nearly. The untraceable Countess Ada De Lachau published sheet music for a version of the song, “Li’l Liza Jane,” that was performed as entr’acte incidental music for a thriving Broadway three-act comedy, Come Out of the Kitchen, starring Ruth Chatterton, an actress who knew Amelia Earhart and would later fly solo several times, herself, across the United States, in addition to becoming a best-selling novelist. Broadway audiences heard “Li’l Liza Jane” as many as 224 times between the play’s opening in October 1916 and closing in May 1917, not long after Congress voted to declare war on Germany as part of the mobilization for World War I. Don Tyler, in his book, Music of the First World War, cannot classify “Li’l Liza Jane” easily, dubbing it “part folk song, part [minstrel] song, part early jazz, and part early country.”

Wilson “Stavin’ Chain” Jones is pictured during 
John Lomax’s field recording sessions in 1934.

Step Back, Twice
According to The American Songbag, one C.W. Loutzenhiser of Chicago recalls seeing a performance of the minstrel song “Good-By Liza Jane” as a child attending the circus. No date accompanies this information, but we can assume that minstrels may have been performing versions of the song in the nineteenth century. (According to Caffery and other sources, Liza and Eliza were stock characters in many minstrel shows.) At least two writers published scores earlier than the mysterious Countess Ada De Lachau, one being Harry von Tilzer’s “Good Bye Eliza Jane” (1903) and the earliest being Eddie Fox’s “Good Bye Liza Jane” (1871.) The Fox version doesn’t appear to lampoon blacks, and instead, bills itself as a “comic song,” offering rural themes and silly couplets such as “Chickens and hens have gone to roost / A hawk flew down and bit an old goose.” The von Tilzer sheet music, on the other hand, portrays two black men in a stereotyped cover image and narrates a dialect-heavy scenario in which Eliza Jane has betrayed a lover, who then demands his belongings and promises to skip town before having to pay the rent. To be sure, the song’s estimable legacy exceeds sheet music and popular recordings, and we must take an important moment to understand that “Li’l Liza Jane” also served as a dancing game, or more specifically, a “Stealin’ Partners” dance-game song. In her 1918 collection, Negro Folk Songs, Book 4, the ethnomusicologist Natalie Curtis Burlin informed the tune “‘Liza Jane” as one during which an unaccompanied man would dance in the center of a circle, surrounded by couples. He would ‘steal’ a female partner, and the resulting single man would repeat the process, amid joyous lyrics in which a suitor urges Liza Jane to follow him, to Baltimore: “I got a house in Baltimo’, L’il’ ‘Liza-Jane / Street-car runs right by ma do’, L’il’ ‘Liza-Jane / O Eliza, L’il’ ‘Liza-Jane / O Eliza, L’il’ ‘Liza-Jane.” (As an aside, Natalie Curtis Burlin famously spent time transcribing songs on Native American reservations, including one stay accompanied by her pal, Theodore Roosevelt.) Additionally, Burlin would note an observation by Charles N. Wheeler, who wrote about a tune, “‘Liza Jane,” sung by African American soldiers in France, during World War I, perhaps the New York 15th (Colored) Regiment. According to his article in the Chicago Tribune, Wheeler related the words, probably sung as cadence, which began, “I’se got a gal an’ you got none—L’il’ ‘Liza Jane / House an’ lot in Baltimo’—L’il ‘Liza Jane.” 

The Countess Ada De Lachau helped popularize  
the song by publishing this sheet music in 1916. 

Roots in Slavery, Africa, and England
Whether or not the African American soldiers drew from Countess Ada De Lachau, they nevertheless restated her entry to “Li’l Liza Jane,” a phrase—“I’se got a gal an’ you got none”—that reinforces, however in reverse, the basic situation of the stealing partners dance game. The placement of Baltimore in many versions of “Li’l Liza Jane” may comment on some of the song’s evolutionary twists or may offer poetic convenience, seeing as “Baltimore” can be (and is) end-rhymed with words like “door” and “floor,” both evidence of house ownership, and both cited as reasons why Liza Jane should follow her suitor. The Countess Ada De Lachau’s sheet music, despite being billed as a “Southern Dialect Song,” contains a curious English tilt, “I will take good care [of] thee,” a line that Nina Simone maintains in her 1960 Newport appearance. Many of the African American recordings of “Li’l Liza Jane” offer melodic parallels to the African song of welcome, “Funga Alafia.” While several sources corroborate this observation, a listener can simply verify the claim by playing virtually any recording of the African American “Li’l Liza Jane” and virtually any recording of “Funga Alafia.” It might follow that the melody of “Funga Alafia” accompanied enslaved Africans as they were brought to the United States. How then the melody became affixed to English words, and where these English words ultimately originated, may be anybody’s guess, but one slave narrative from the Federal Writers’ Project of the Works Progress Administration confirms that a version of “Li’l Liza Jane” was being sung in Louisiana before the Civil War. This blogger found the narrative of Lucy Thurston extremely painful to read, but she recited, at 101 years of age, quite a few lines of the Liza song she sang: “Hair as [black] as coal in de mi--ine / Lil Liza Jane / Eyes so large and big and [fine] / Lil Liza Jane / OHooooo Lil Liza, Lil Liza Jane / OHooooo Lil Liza, Lil Liza Jane.” Indeed, the score by Countess Ada De Lachau emphasizes a refrain similar to Lucy Thurston’s rendition. “Ohe—————Liz – a, Li’l Liz – a – Jane,” it reads, with weight placed on the “Ohe,” before plunging toward the name of the woman who, either lightheartedly or earnestly, the crooner courts.

Slim Harpo and His King Bees play “Little Liza Jane” in 1961.

Apologies, Further Listening, and Listening
“I apologize for the imperfections in this work,” wrote Carl Sandburg, in the prefatory material to The American Songbag. “No one else is now, or ever will be, so deeply aware and so thoroughly and widely conscious of the imperfections in these pages.” Your humble blogger would like to express the same feelings—obviously on a much smaller scale—as those of Sandburg, a stately character revered for his writings, politics, and humility alike. To the contrary, The American Songbag stands out as a work of massive significance. Together with a few other sources, including The Acoustic Music Sourcebook and the online Traditional Tune Archive, it led me to a host of electrifying Appalachian-themed recordings of the song. Look for Uncle Am Stuart “Old Liza Jane” (1924), Fiddlin’ John Carson, “Goodbye Liza Jane” (1926), Tenneva Ramblers “Miss Liza Poor Gal” (1928), Bradley Kincaid “Liza up the ‘Simmon Tree” (1928), and Charlie Poole “Goodbye Liza Jane” (1930), among others already mentioned. Don’t neglect its second cousin once removed, either. Among others already mentioned, seek Huey “Piano” Smith and His Rhythm Aces “Little Liza Jane” (1956), Fats Domino “Lil’ Liza Jane” (1959), Art Neville “Little Liza Jane” (1965), Scott Dunbar “Little Liza Jane” (1970), and the Slim Harpo version, “Little Liza Jane,” that sits atop this concluding paragraph. What is it about Slim Harpo, man? Recorded blurry from the public address system at the National Guard Armory on Sage Avenue in Mobile, Alabama, on July 1st,1961, the King Bees and their leader play this version Through-The-Roof. By then, more than one hundred years had elapsed between Lucy Thurston singing “Li’l Liza Jane” in slavery and James “Slim Harpo” Moore inhabiting the song as part of a raucous celebration. The shouting and hollering in 1961 ought to learn us a thing or two about the magnificence of human transformation.

Likely personnel for Slim Harpo’s version of “Little Liza Jane”—James “Slim Harpo” Moore (vocals and harmonica), Rudolph Richard (guitar), James Johnson (bass guitar), Sammy Brown (drums), and Willie Parker (tenor sax).

Sources of Information
Carl Sandburg, The American Songbag  (Harcourt, Brace & Company, New York, 1927)
Nina Simone recording information for Nina at Newport (1960)
Joshua Clegg Caffery, Traditional Music in Coastal Louisiana: The 1934 Lomax Recordings (LSU Press, Baton Rouge, 2013)
Wilson “Stavin’ Chain” Jones recording information for “Little Liza Jane” (1934)
Earl Fuller’s Famous Jazz Band recording information for “Li’l’ Liza Jane—One Step” (1917)
The Hill Billies recording information for “Mountaineer’s Love Song” at Discogs (1926)
Come Out of the Kitchen production information at Internet Broadway Database
Ruth Chatterton entry at Wikipedia
“Li’l Liza Jane” (song) entry at Wikipedia
Don Tyler, Music of the First World War (ABC-CLIO, Santa Barbara, Calif., 2016)
Harry von Tilzer sheet music for “Good Bye Eliza Jane” (1903) at Library of Congress
Eddie Fox sheet music for “Good Bye Liza Jane” (1871) at Library of Congress
Natalie Curtis Burlin, Negro Folk Songs, Book 4 (G. Schirmer, New York, 1918)
Natalie Curtis Burlin entry at Wikipedia
Countess Ada De Lachau sheet music for “Li’l Liza Jane” (1916) at Duke University Library
Lucy Thurston Works Progress Administration slave narrative (late 1930s)
Traditional Tune Archive (various pages) 
Martin Hawkins, Slim Harpo: Blues King Bee of Baton Rouge (LSU Press, Baton Rouge, 2016)
Slim Harpo Sting it Then! (1961) at AllMusic


Please forgive me my amateur filming technique. 

I caught Sleaford Mods at Warsaw in Brooklyn on March 30 of this annum, and won’t forget that show anytime. For those who don’t know the Nottingham-based Mods, they are one part vocalist Jason Williamson and one part ‘beat-master’ Andrew Fearn. On that chilly evening in Brooklyn, the first night of their North American tour, Williamson famously brought the howling, gruff intensity, and Fearn, shouting off-microphone, shook and danced with trademark can of lager. It was quite ‘sausagey’ on line to get inside, but inside, many cute girls bounced around. Perhaps the audience could’ve misbehaved a bit more, but that’s an inconsequential quibble. Why admire the Mods without reservation? Why declare this the greatest show I’ve ever seen? It’s quite selfish really. They’re the performers I’d like to be. Unafraid to rage, to skewer, to curse madly, to bounce, to spit, to croon, to be odd, to be more energetic than groups half their age, to find their own space, to resist commercial molding—Sleaford Mods should be a lesson to every band and every poet who might (unaccountably) seek any other route.

You can listen above to one song, “Moptop,” I recorded on me phone, mate, from the show. It’s a song off the group’s newest album, English Tapas. In part, the song refers to the “moptop hairdo” of Boris Johnson, a British politician to whom some might apply words that rhyme with “punt” and “yacht.” According to the band, the song also delves into: “…the void that is modern music, internet attention spans, one-dimensional acts and the current trend of reformed bands looking to cash in with PR-heavy assaults that try to conceal their pointlessness.” Working from a few online lyrics sources, here are, what I think to be, the lyrics. Enjoy.


Do you mind? You biffed my nose!

He’s got a blonde mop, he’s got a moptop
He’s got a blonde mop, he’s got a moptop

I’m sick of what I tell you for note
Saying fucking sorry to the catalogue vote
Having to be a bit naff and inclined
When all I really wanted was to batter ‘em blind
These pleasantries and intelligence
Are no real match for the spoon and tuppence
Of ale stops and tired minds
I think before I say it better be in line

I think before I say it better be in line
I think before I say and let the words slip by
I think before I say it better be in line
I think before I say and let the words slip by

He’s got a blonde mop, he’s got a moptop
He’s got a blonde mop, he’s got a moptop

I feel like I’m not gonna cope
The game has changed its proper
Now it comes with no hope
Rotten clementines, no socks, no pants
All reformed band and dead pop chants
Like the tinsel mate it’s the ‘70s
Reminds me of a time when we were little kids
Reminds of a time when the coast was clear
But now it’s meatballs and jam as I float around, oh dear
Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear, oh dear, oh dear…

I think before I say it better be in line
I think before I say and let the words slip by
I think before I say it better be in line
I think before I say and let the words slip by

He’s got a blonde mop, he’s got a moptop
He’s got a blonde mop, he’s got a moptop

I think before I say it better be in line
I think before I say and let the words slip by
I think before I say it better be in line
I think before I say and let the words slip by

He’s got a blonde mop, he’s got a moptop
He’s got a blonde mop, he’s got a MOPTOP!


The gloomy liberal and the crabby liberal pursue severe doctrine.
Both suckle a cage-free, pasture-raised hoompty doompty.
Allow the word “haunt.” It’s a looker’s word.
Allow, allow, allow, allow, allow.
The sun bulges through a puncture.
Body temperature climbs another tenth, enjoyable.
Once again, condensation overcomes the hierarchies of disorientation.
The gutters of mysterious syllables muddle
the bootblack echoes of central thoroughfare. [Consider:
moments de-installed from servitude, untethered
mechanisms that meter (1) inference or
(2) deduction.] As to the affiliations of reanimated cruelty?
A bullet can rend the corners of a woman’s impoverished overcoat
the gray corners of her mouth an “O” of perpetual outrage.

Sunday, February 19, 2017


Paul Gonsalves playing at Newport, 1956.

When the featured saxophone player for the Duke Ellington orchestra introduced his solo for “Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue” at the 1956 Newport Jazz Festival, a ‘platinum blonde’ concertgoer provoked the crowd to dance in the aisles.  The raucous scene inspired the soloist Paul Gonsalves to blow through twenty-seven rollicking choruses, a famous and heroic effort that singlehandedly revitalized the orchestra’s slumping fortunes. In an interview with the New York Times many years later, the dancer, Elaine Anderson, also credited Count Basie drummer, Jo Jones, for emboldening her and the Ellington musicians, by rapping a rolled-up newspaper near the bandstand. “I went mad,” Anderson said, referring to the uninhibited wildness of her dancing. “And the madder I went, the madder Paul Gonsalves went.”

Many great studio and live jazz performances had yet to be recorded, and many great bandleaders would realize (one or more) signature moments in the ten years following Ellington’s triumph at Newport: Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue and John Coltrane’s Village Vanguard material are but two examples. If jazz had coined a soaring new idiom—bepop—that would fuel post-war exhilaration, it would arguably become a more abundant form in the 1950s and 1960s, one that would ultimately interrogate convention with such discordant effects, it might’ve extinguished itself with furious abandon. Eventually, listeners would charge toward rock ‘n’ roll. (Have you heard of this phenomenon?) They charged, did these listeners, toward Elvis Presley of the U.S.A. and The Beatles of Great Britain. The Rolling Stones would emerge. Bob Dylan, too. These titans prospered. But surely, this wasn’t the only racket in town.

Kind devotees of this blog may recollect my jump blues
post from a few years ago, one that attempted to summarize my lengthy foray, as anthologist, into that impressive, if nearly forgotten music. During said decade-long endeavor, I would encounter “other infectious tunes” that couldn’t be included, stylistically, but not for lack of merit. The descriptor, “titty shaker”, might’ve accompanied a given song, and whether the term blustered into vulgarity, it probably distorted some of the fine musicianship on display: saxophone, guitar, piano, and/or organ work. Jean-Paul Sartre, in his 1938 novel, Nausea, would banish such talk—“My titties, my lovely fruits”—to the head-swimming dolor of a Paris café, and besides, dear reader, I shake to this music, I, a man who sporteth not shakable bosoms. Let us not designate a sex, a cleavage. The person shakes! Elaine Anderson (as well as the entire Newport Jazz Festival) still shakes to the Paul Gonsalves saxophone workout! 

  The ‘platinum blonde’ Elaine Anderson dancing. 

Once the jump blues compilation neared completion, I experienced the melancholy of discovering no new (old) music. Noting my mopey disposition, a friend encouraged me to double back. Thinking that I might modestly compile two hours of these “Shakers”, I embarked, instead, upon another voyage rife with eventful discovery. I would often admit “I can’t believe what I’m hearing” in response to a string of obscure recordings, many of which don’t exist in digital platforms such as iTunes or Pandora. I commenced to acquire these songs, twenty-five at a time, until I’d amassed 600 of them, produced by 500 different leaders or bands. They fit, broadly, into two categories—Shakers and R&B Shakers—yet most of the songs share traits, virtually none of the music offers any suggestion of burlesque, more than half the songs don’t employ lyrics. Most of the tunes were recorded between 1958 and 1964, an important little period that would give way to the British Invasion.

Before we continue, please understand that I have no idea what I’m talking about. The many genres (or subgenres) represented in my Shakers compilation—early rock, instrumental rock, instrumental rockabilly, early R&B, garage, surf, Latin, reggae, soul, northern soul, early punk, and so forth—each require a substantial volley of scholarly activity, in order to comprehend various dynamics. Some of the leaders and bands—Link Wray, Duane Eddy, Sandy Nelson, Johnny and the Hurricanes, Bill Black’s Combo, King Curtis, Gary “U.S.” Bonds, Huey “Piano” Smith, Barry White, Little Willie John, and a few others—would deservedly garner broader attention for their vibrancy, but the vast majority of the Shakers compilation features nearly-forgotten fast-cookers.
 I’ve listened to a lot of records, but I’m undoubtedly missing a lot of records. And if I’ve learned one thing, it’s never to overlook the B Side.

I’ve previously posted songs by J.C. Davis (“The Splib, Part 1”), Frank de Rosa (“Irish Rock”), Willene Barton (“Rice Pudding”), The Royaltones (“Royal Whirl”), and the luminous Plas Johnson (“Downstairs”). Some of my other favorites include The Yum Yums (“Gonna Be a Big Thing”), The Monitors (“Mama Linda”), Piano Slim (“Squeezing”), Cozy Cole (“Cozy’s Mambo”), Big Bo Thomas and the Arrows (“Big Bo’s Iron Horse”), the Nomads (“Icky Poo”), The Saxons (“Camel Walk, Part 1”), The Revelairs (“Ridin’ High”), Al Duncan (“Cossak Walk”), and The Ricco-Shays (“Damascus”). These are but a few of the outrageous dancers, stompers, rockers, grinders, head-bouncers, groovers, crawlers, swingers, walkers, and shakers. I deejay off this music just about every Thursday night at the Black Squirrel in Adams Morgan. “Come on down”, as they say.

Today, I’ve posted a Shaker from 1962 or 1963, “The Sinner”, by the Terri-Tones, and an R&B Shaker from 1960, “A Night with Daddy G, Part 1”, by the Church Street Five.

The Sinner” by the Terri-Tones (1962 or 1963).

A Canadian group, the Terri-Tones were named for leader Terry Kelly, who described the band’s chief output as “R&B-sourced instrumentals.” Wives and girlfriends of the musicians can be heard whispering “Sinner” just before the band launches into a piece that defies category, but includes unequal parts of frantic horn charging off a cliff, guitar boogie shuffle, early chime of  surf constellation, western (movie) motif, and the gnawing bells of incisive realization. It occasionally slows for the band’s benefit as well as ours. The A-side, “Go”, appears in the Shakers compilation as well. (Wives and girlfriends holler “Everybody go!” just before the band rockets forward.) The Terri-Tones played in Canada and the States, and backed Dick Clark’s Caravan when it toured through their burgh. To this blogger’s knowledge, they recorded only two songs, even as they demonstrate a greater knowledge of “the sinner” than everybody else. 

A Night with Daddy G, Part 1” by the Church Street Five (1960).

Gene “Daddy G” Barge founded The Church Street Five, which recorded for Legrand Records in Norfolk, Va. A saxophonist who admired Lester Young and played on Chuck Willis’ hit, “C.C. Rider” and Jimmy Soul’s hit, “If You Wanna Be Happy”, among others, Barge also played with heavyweights Bo Diddley, Jackie Wilson, and Muddy Waters, among others, and knew everybody. (Even as he is Gene Barge, with a G, his nickname derives from a Norfolk pastor.) Barge never prospered off his recordings, and taught high school in Norfolk before working for Chess Records in Chicago. “A Night With Daddy G” was divided into two parts, an A-side and a B-side, (both are R&B Shakers), before Gary “U.S.” Bonds recorded lyrics to the song, by then repurposed as “Quarter to Three”, an eventual number one hit. Barge honks wildly on “Quarter to Three”, “A Night with Daddy G”, and everywhere else. There is no finer party. Amen. 

Sources of Information:

Bill Dahl page for Gene Barge 
Wikipedia page for Gene Barge 
Jean-Paul Sartre book Nausea 

Likely personnel for “The Sinner”: Terry Kelly (bass), Wayne Malton (keyboards), Kerry Cornelius (saxophone), Tony Langlaan (drums), and Gary Delaney (guitar).

Likely personnel for “A Night with Daddy G”: Gene Barge (saxophone), Nabs Shields (drums), Junior Fairley (bass), Willie Burnell (piano), Leonard Barks (trombone), and voices. 


Are you in-country or incontinent?
Is your auntie’s bedroom an auntie chamber?
Do you fuck the fascists?
What is the rate of error with man-made lakes?
How can I overcome institutional inertia?
Who were the forebears of The Three Bears?
Isn’t the bullet harvested (more or less) the way the potato is harvested?
To the wounded, who insists upon stitching his own wound—‘ok, suture self!’

Why are there rowboats in the woods?
Is it a moon-colored day or a rain-colored day?
Can a bird be both scarf and insinuation?
Why does a person mourn within the apparatus of erosion?
What will our brothers be singing?
What will our brothers be singing, when we return their bodies to the earth?

Sunday, December 18, 2016


One woman in the foreground of the market (third from left) resembles my grandmother’s mother.

Many families all over the world can narrate accounts of their relatives who went missing in the Holocaust—to a point. Some narrators, like my maternal grandmother, would have to stop at a certain juncture, and with a shrug, with empty palms balancing even weights, painfully state, “We never heard from them again.” That phrase of resignation, which I encountered dozens of times from youth through adulthood, referred to my grandmother’s mother, Meresse Offen, and my grandmother’s young brother, David Offen, trapped in their native village, Mielec, after the German army invaded Poland. The 1939 Nazi incursion would be “the point” beyond which the narration could not continue with certainty, and the speaker would be left to repackage the grief, storing the information of the loss temporarily, until the impetus for reiteration would recall the names—Meresse and David—to the lips, to be restored by the elegiac necessities of speech.

Speculation on the plights of our relatives abounded. Some family members contended that Meresse had been shot to death after digging her own grave. They averred that David had been sent to work (and die) in a nearby Polish aircraft factory, one that the Nazis had repurposed to produce German warplanes. Two family members traveled (separately) to Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, where they offered conflicting testimony, one declaring the veracity of these events (shooting, aircraft factory) while the other placed question marks on the part of the form reserved for cause of death. My mother references a blurry event from her childhood, when a former neighbor from Mielec was said to have visited her household in New York, conveying information about how Meresse and David perished. I grew interested in the story, and in researching it, hoped to unearth evidence that might help us shift “the point” of knowledge toward a place of greater detail.

To some extent, this voyage becomes a tale of “Internet triumph.” Email communication with a Jewish Records Indexing researcher led me to the 1941 Nazi census of Mielec, one that listed “Meresa Offen” and “Dawid Offen” as living at “3-go Maya”, the purported site of a family lumber business. Other web sites (including that of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum) contained testimonies or oral histories that established the brutality of the Nazi regime when it first occupied the small town in 1939: burning many Jews inside a ritual bath, to cite one example. Knowing, however, that my relatives had survived until the census, I sought details on how they might have fared under occupation. Many of the oral histories suggested that each household supplied a worker for the occupiers, but otherwise, many of those living in Mielec struggled beneath the twin burdens of poverty and travel restriction: few strayed far from home. 

A German soldier snapped the market photo and inscribed the back: October 2, 1940, Market in Milec.

Most of my grandmother’s family had emigrated to the United States in the years leading up to the outbreak of World War II in Europe, but her parents and a younger sibling remained in the Old Country. The family, as a unit, had traveled to Vienna between World Wars, owing to political and military instability in Poland. After Germany annexed Austria as part of the Anschluss, Meresse Offen and her youngest son, David, returned to Mielec, hoping to resuscitate the family lumber business. The invasion of Poland separated husband and wife, father and son. Markus Offen, the aged patriarch, would flee Europe on one of the final passenger missions of the Italian vessel, the S.S. Rex, departing Genoa for New York City in early 1940. Official records describe him as suffering from senility, but he wasn’t senile, he was extremely distraught over having to choose between an unlikely reunion with his wife and son—and self-preservation.

A few months after weary, depressed Markus Offen reached his children in New York, a German soldier garrisoned in Mielec snapped several photographs of the village, carefully inscribing each with date and setting. Perhaps he meant to document his travels as a soldier, but he indirectly created a portrait of Jewish life that would later be discovered by a Canadian soldier after the German had been killed in battle. The Canadian soldier returned home with these (and other) photographs, eventually bequeathing them to his nephew, who, as part of the “Internet triumph”, posted them online as a photoset. Since the Wehrmacht soldier had inscribed many of his photographs “Milec”, the German spelling of Mielec, a Google search for “Milec” would reveal these wonders. I conducted such a search. Up came the photoset, which, by itself, would have been a find, but one of the photographs in particular would draw my family’s attention.

(L) Meresse Offen in later life. (R) Meresse and David Offen, hale and hearty, in earlier days.

The soldier’s market photograph features three women in the foreground, including one who stares downward, unwilling to glance at the camera. Her image compares favorably—eerily—to a family photograph of Meresse Offen, the print presumably carried to the States by her husband, Markus, having fled from persecution aboard the S.S. Rex. The wig style, the jaw-line, the frown: it might be our lost relative, my great grandmother. We can’t say for sure, of course, but the Nazi census doesn’t list many women in their sixties, and even if it isn’t her, it might as well be her, for the woman in the soldier’s snapshot as well as my great grandmother (were they not the same person) probably lived the same desolate, anguished lives under occupation. Subsequent scholarship by Rochelle Saidel, in her book Mielec, Poland: The Shtetl That Became a Nazi Concentration Camp, would authoritatively describe the end of Mielec’s Jewish population.

Even before Saidel wrote her book, it wasn’t a secret that Mielec’s Jews were deported on March 9, 1942, a bitterly cold, snowy day. But Saidel’s book probably helps us adjust “the point” where facts trail off, and speculation begins. Had the elderly Meresse Offen, useless by Nazi standards, lived to the day of the deportation, she was almost certainly shot to death, or if not shot to death, then transported to the Lublin District, before being rerouted to a death camp. (In all likelihood, she did not dig her own grave.) Had her son, David, survived until the brutally cold day in March, 1942, then he might’ve been sent to the labor camp—the airplane factory—outside Mielec, or if he wasn’t selected for slave labor, then he might’ve been transported to the Lublin District, before further transport, in all likelihood, to a death camp. Just as we can’t say whether the woman in the soldier’s photograph is my great grandmother, we can’t say exactly what happened to these two humble relatives. Still, we can shift “the point” of understanding a little bit further into the clarified light.

David Offen was a handsome fellow who perished in the Holocaust. (Worked to death, typhoid sickness, gas chamber, executed by soldier, asphyxiated in cattle car?) I wonder if he was ever “whistled out” (ordered around) as were the Jews in Paul Celan’s famous poem, “Todesfuge.” David had ten siblings, one of whom, Anna, became my grandmother. She famously toiled as a maternity ward nurse in New York, sending the vast majority of her earnings to Europe, in order to assist members of her family and her husband, Emil Ringel, to emigrate. While the Offen family did experience large-city life in Vienna, I’ve got to imagine that New York bedazzled them: the lights, vivacity, melting pot, mechanization, jazz. It was the trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie who declared “no him, no me,” when referring to another trumpeter, Louis Armstrong, and the same is true on my end, when thinking of my grandmother: no her, no me. I’m lucky to be alive.

Sources of information:

Oral history of Offen family
Jewish Records Indexing, 1941 Nazi Census of Mielec
Markus Offen immigrant identification card, passenger manifest for S.S. Rex
Milec (Mielec) photoset, including email communication with the owner of the photographs
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum oral histories, including one by Jack Sittsamer
Rochelle Saidel. Mielec, Poland: the Shtetl That Became a Nazi Concentration Camp
Mark Verstandig. I rest my case
Yad Vashem
Wikipedia, Mielec entry
Paul Celan, “DeathFugue”, as translated by Michael Hamburger
Dizzy Gillespie quote, regarding Louis Armstrong 

Saturday, November 12, 2016



Noun  |  Poll ∙ ster ∙ geist  |  ⁄  ˈpōl-stər-ˈgīst  ∕

: A spirit that disrupts questions for a political poll, the tallies of a poll, the presentation of a poll, and the effects of a poll in determining the outcome of an election.

Examples of pollstergeist in sentences:

1. The pollstergeist replied “Hillary” every time the pollster asked a voter for his or her preference in the election, thereby leading experts to conclude that Clinton would defeat Trump.

2. The Democrats were toppled when a pollstergeist spread misinformation during the 2016 presidential contest, the results from which caused the party’s relevance to decline sharply.

First definitive use of pollstergeist: November 9, 2016.

Synonyms: Ouija Wedgie, Seer Sucker, Tedium Rare

Antonyms: Chekhov, Scalia, van Leeuwenhoek

Word origin: Pal (Dutch, chum) Stir (Old English, porridge manipulation), Gas (Greek, flatus).


poultrygeist: A haunted chicken. A cage-free, pasture-raised, foraging, haunted chicken that lays deviled eggs. Eating the eggs will increase your ghostly cholesterol. Sucking on the eggs will mimic the recent anguish of Democrats [n.b. Not to be confused with poultryheist (grand theft chicken.)]