In the Church of the Reverend Gary Davis, Ernie Hawkins Is St. Peter

So here we are in the eighth term of the Reagan administration, in the middle of a heat wave, in the middle of the hottest year on record, in the middle of a likely mass extinction event.

It’s not quite time to say good-bye to your friends and family. It would be time to have a general strike, except nobody’s doing anything, so it’s hard to get jazzed about the prospect of overthrowing the corporate state. Doom is almost certain, yet not imminent enough for focus. What to do until there’s focus?

Me, I’m going to play the guitar. After many years of practice, I still kinda suck. I’m maybe a B-level fingerpicker. There are probably 50 children under the age of 5 on YouTube who play better than I do. That gets really discouraging. But I plod along. Nothing gives me a sense of satisfaction like learning a new move on the guitar neck.

Most of my repertoire consists of songs by John Fahey and the Reverend Gary Davis. Both were Christian mystics, Fahey through several levels of irony and existential philosophy, Davis a pure Pentacostal. Both created astounding, eerie worlds of beauty by absorbing and reconfiguring just about everything in American music in the first half of the 20th century. Both had difficult lives, Fahey struggling with addiction and inability to deal with the onerous details of normal life, Davis traumatized by blindness, racism, poverty and homelessness. Fahey lived from 1939-2001, Davis from 1896-1972.

I’ve been listening to Fahey since college. I could hear him from the first note. Davis has been a more recent acquisition. I didn’t get him for a long time because of his singing, which borrows heavily from his preaching, which is to say that he bellows and roars a lot. It takes a little getting used to. I did not really understand how great his musicianship was until a brilliant guitarist named Ernie Hawkins put out five sets of DVDs teaching a portion of Davis’s huge body of composition. I bought them all because I knew from his other DVDs (teaching Lightnin’ Hopkins, Mance Lipscomb and Blind Willie McTell) that Hawkins was one of those very rare birds who can both teach and play. There are a lot of guitar teachers wandering around out there in the digital wasteland, and most of them aren’t all that useful. Hawkins really has figured out how everything fits together on the guitar neck and how to explain it. Even more important, his love and gratitude for Davis’ music pops though the television. You can’t help but get swept up in it.

At some future date, I’m going to write something about John Fahey in this space. In the meantime, the place to get started listening to Davis is an album called Harlem Street Singer, which is available on iTunes or Amazon.

Davis has many wonderful disciples out there in the acoustic steel-string guitar subculture, most prominently Jorma Kaukonen (in Hot Tuna and solo), Woody Mann, Roy Bookbinder and Stefan Grossman. Hawkins is probably first among equals there. The guy plays amazingly pristine renditions of Davis, plus other songs done in the Davis style, often called “Piedmont blues.” Hawkins’ singing is a little bit of an afterthought—he gets this beatific look on his face when he’s nailing it all over the guitar neck and it seems like he doesn’t want to interrupt all that virtuoso fingerpicking with mere vocalizing. But who cares? The guitar is transporting, both for him and the listener. If Davis were the Messiah, then Hawkins would be St. Peter, Jorma the Apostle Paul.

“No one plays Rev. Gary Davis better than Ernie Hawkins,” says Stefan Grossman, a direct student of Davis back in the 60s.

The Long War: Just Say 'No'

Military violence has such a death-grip on national policy in America, it’s hard for citizens to grasp there are real alternatives to war.

Marine General James Mattis, the man appointed by President Obama to replace General David Petraeus as leader of the Central Command that oversees all US operations in the Iraq/Afghanistan theater, is a colorful case in point.

Mattis is famous for his tough guy statements. My favorite is: “Be polite, be professional, but have a plan to kill everybody you meet.”

His most quoted remark is about how much fun killing is, specifically referring to killing Afghan men who slap their women around.

“You know, guys like that ain’t got no manhood left anyway. So it’s a hell of a lot of fun to shoot them.”

White On Top: Tea Party and News Media Aren't All That Different

Credit the recent NAACP resolution calling out racism within the Tea Party with producing at least one significant result – a sudden and dramatic increase in the number of black faces appearing in mainstream news programs as the media cover the latest ‘controversy’ triggered by America’s oldest civil rights organization.

While news coverage of this Tea Party racism controversy did increase the media’s typically limited use of black analysts, that use didn’t stray beyond the standard media practice of basically segregating black analysts/commentators into civil rights-related issues.

Fools' Errand: Time to Remove the Cap from the Well Head!

Updated July 19, 3:45 PM EST
It is time to ask why on earth the Obama administration and the Coast Guard are allowing BP to continue keeping a tight lid on the top of the run-away, damaged well in the Gulf of Mexico. Leaks from the sea floor are appearing and growing in number, making it clear that the BP Deepwater Horizon well is gravely damaged. That being the case, it is obvious that any effort to restrict the flow of oil from the top of the well, by increasing the pressure inside the 2.5-mile long casing that runs down to the oil reservoir will only make any breaches in the casing worse, allowing oil and gas under high pressure to move into the surrounding concrete liner and the geological formations, where they will force their way up to the surface in an uncontrollable way.

Why would anyone want this to happen?

Well, clearly BP doesn’t care. The company is financially on the ropes anyway, and so its executives may well be figuring they have nothing to lose by making a long-shot bet (the company doesn’t even mention the leaks of gas from the seafloor in its Monday afternoon press release on its public information site).

Hold on to Your Hats: This Thing's Gonna Blow!

What the hell are they thinking in Washington, and down at the “Unified Command” in New Orleans, letting BP try to close off the oil volcano spewing out the top of the damaged Blowout Preventer (BOP) stack?

And what the hell is the mainstream press doing not asking about the clear evidence of oil or gas spewing out under pressure from cracks in the seafloor around the base of the BOP? (See the image of oil spewing from the sea floor here.)

Sure the initial partial closing of the valves is working, but they haven’t built up much pressure yet–just to 6000 lbs/square inch, which isn’t much above the 5000 lbs/square inch at that depth of the ocean–and a lot could go wrong. seriously wrong, and good reason to think it will.

I made a call to the media office of the Unified Command, the office set up to respond to public and media inquiries about the disaster, which is supposedly composed of people from the US Coast Guard, other federal agencies, and BP. When I mentioned the videos taken by BP’s own remote operating vehicles (ROVs) of the oil and/or gas spewing from cracks in the sea floor, I was told I had to call the press office in Houston, “because you’re asking us a question about the sub-surface well.”

If You're Going to Do Something Illegal in America, Do Something Spectacularly Illegal

If you want to avoid facing a tough prosecution for malfeasance, be a banker, not a biker.

That appears to be the lesson of Saturday’s Wall Street Journal, where the lead story was about how Bank of America repeatedly hid its massive bad debt holdings from regulators and investors through a creative accounting device called “repurchase agreements.” A second story just above the fold told how US Food and Drug Administration prosecutors are “Casting a Wider Net” investigating the use of steroids by competitive cyclists.

According to the BofA story, the bank, during a Securities and Exchange Commission investigation into the real financial condition of the nation’s biggest financial institutions, admitted that at the ends of all the quarterly reporting periods from 2007 through 2009, it had used repurchase agreements, or “repos,” to temporarily shed bad debt before drawing up and releasing its required public filings. That is to say, the bank lied about and hid from view its weakened liquidity position all through the financial crisis. 

 bikers who dope themselves, or bankers who dupe us?Which is the bigger crime: bikers who dope themselves, or bankers who dupe us?

South Africa: The Ugly Underside of World Cup Soccer Mania

Soweto, South Africa – Less than seven miles from the carefully crafted glitter of Soccer City, the host complex for the World Cup, two legendary South African football players told fascinating often fearsome stories that powerful people want suppressed.

Two days before the recent World Cup championship match won by Spain “Smiley” Moosa and Nkosi Molala spoke at a community center in Soweto discussing their lives under apartheid and that ugly era’s lingering legacy on South African society.

Moosa and Molala both made their marks on South African soccer in the 1970s.

Under apartheid’s rigid racial categories Moosa carried the classification of Indian while Molala was African – designations barring these talented players from South Africa’s then whites-only national team.

Wanted: Some Journalists With Guts to Take on the Government and BP!

UPDATE 7/13: ProPublica reports that the Coast Guard, under pressure from news organizations (hey, and maybe the threat of journalistic civil disobedience?) has changed its access rules. The 65-foor rule barring all journalists from any scene of environmental mayhem is gone, and now journalists who first obtain “press credentials” from the Unified Command (that’s the Coast Guard, other “involved agencies” like the Dept. of Interior, and, troublingly, BP), will be allowed unfettered access to such sites, though the general public will still be barred. We need to know how the so-called Unified Command is going to determine who qualifies for those press credentials. Will it just be corporate organization journalists, or will freelancers and journalists from the smaller publications like this one who are issued such documents? If the latter, we may still have to challenge the law, which still makes crossing that 65′ barrier a Class D Felony with a $40,000 fine and significant jail time.

The Obama administration and BP have clearly been conspiring to hide the magnitude of the Gulf oil catastrophe from the public. One way they’re doing this is by threatening jail terms and $40,000 fines against those who go to document the fiasco.

That is ridiculous. There is not a conceivable justification for banning the media from fully covering this environmental disaster.

'Just Business': Capitalism is an Anti-Social Disease

Looking at the catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico, where the results of the greed of corporate executives at BP, TransOcean and Halliburton, not to mention the greed of paid-off regulators in the Minerals Management Service and the members of the House and Senate who took dirty money to water down drilling regulations are on ready display, I was reminded of a prominent business leader in New York, recently deceased.

Told by his sister of a young woman she knew who had posted a sign on her wall saying, “Happiness is not having what you want, but wanting what you have,” this executive, who had held a top position in the multinational media industry, sniffed, “Ugh! That’s terrible. If people thought like that, no one would strive to do anything.”