The folk- and roots-music world is full of cross-generational collaboration. But it usually takes the form of folksingers pairing up with other folksingers, borrowing from a long musical tradition. It's another thing altogether to take words written long ago and give them musical life. Leyla McCalla does just that on her new album, Vari-Colored Songs: A Tribute to Langston Hughes. Though the disc includes a balance of her original arrangements with Haitian folk songs, what's most intriguing is the way she built many of the songs around Hughes' poetry.
The song featured in this video was taken from Hughes' poem "Vari-Colored Song." The words to "Heart of Gold" are full of questions and observations, and rich with color. There's the red of Georgia clay and the blue of the sky, the gold heart and so on. McCalla has said that this was the first song she wrote for the album, because it seemed to her to provide a window into Hughes' way of thinking. That it's so focused on color and questions could indeed sum up the bulk of Hughes' work.
As a song, it rests on a darkly haunting fiddle melody, which eventually gives way to McCalla's own rich, warm cello. The instrumentation sounds like lonesome nighttime, and the way McCalla's voice leans around the words makes them sound like some back-of-the-mind wonderings. Chances are, Langston Hughes would be pleased.
I recently met up with one of my former high-school English teachers, and talk turned naturally to books. I told her how influential the books I'd read throughout my high school years had been, and mentioned several titles by name — The Count of Monte Cristo, Alas, Babylon, Lord of the Flies, The Great Gatsby, Of Mice and Men.
I leaned closer, admitted that though I'd loved all of those books — indeed, they had become permanent fixtures in my own library — the book I enjoyed the most was Colleen McCullough's The Thorn Birds, which had been assigned to me by a different English teacher in a different year.
My former teacher sneered a little. "I hated that book, and never assigned it for my students," she said. "I really don't think that's appropriate content for impressionable teenagers."
Because of the sex, or because the sex was with a priest? I wanted to ask but didn't.
As a young teen, I'd rarely had a conversation about sex, let alone read about it. Occasionally my Aunt Kay would toss a romance novel in my direction, as if she knew that, at my house, I would learn nothing about boy and girl parts meeting up for a play date. Sex was a verboten topic with my religious mother, right up there with "But how do you really know God exists?" and "Why does Dad sleep on the couch so often?" Not questions she wanted to hear — certainly not ones she'd attempt to answer.
I knew from the buzz at school that The Thorn Birds — a story about the forbidden love between a girl-turned-woman, Meggie, and an older priest, Ralph — would probably not meet with my mother's approval. It was in part the allure of doing something slightly wicked and rebellious that made me eager to sink into McCullough's work. But as I began to read, another, more significant, reason for continuing emerged.
I felt the book like I'd felt no other book before it, and I still have in my possession the paper I presented for that class. The themes of commitment and obligation as they related to love, family and even religion resonated keenly with me. I wrote about all the ironies, like the way Ralph's commitment to God waned and perhaps morphed into obligation when he fell in love with Meggie, or the way Meggie remained committed to Ralph despite her marriage to another — a marriage that, soon after the honeymoon, seemed reduced to obligation.
These values of commitment and obligation were so very different, yet it seemed they could replace one another in an instant — even when a commitment appeared, at first, to be unalterable. I wondered over that. Was it wrong to question commitments and obligations, even those requiring vows, or was it simply ... human?
After the paper was written and the class moved on to Macbeth, my mind stayed on The Thorn Birds. What made people remain latched to one another even after a relationship stopped working? Why would anyone cling to idealistic values rather than test them via deep scrutiny?
I considered pride and ambition and other things that can stand in the way of simple human happiness. What can be gained or lost over a lifetime if a person or couple refused to examine their choices or reflect on whether or not they had made a wrong one? I wondered if religion was a "villain" in McCullough's novel, as well as in my parents' marriage, or if it served a necessary and stabilizing purpose. I wondered if obligation and love could ever coexist, or if someone would always end up on the couch.
McCullough's book marked a turning point for me, an awakening to the ways of human relationships. I even braved up and spoke to my mother a time or two about divorce. And though she stayed with my father until death did they part — and we all miss him fiercely — she has acknowledged that a different choice might have been made. Life is short. Patterns can be broken. And though her path wasn't something my younger self readily understood, time has made clear the complexities involved with committed relationships and the power of obligation. Obligations can help keep people together through life's natural unrest and resist the revolving-door invitation of shiny new possibilities. That good-looking secretary with the ready smile. That friend who is such a great listener, who has invited you out for a drink. Apple after apple, each temptation a test of obligation and commitment, each potentially defining and refining and illuminating those personal boundaries.
Do I believe The Thorn Birds is "appropriate content for impressionable teenagers"? Perhaps not on the surface — sex with a priest and all that. Still, I think it's exactly the sort of "dangerous" book teens should read. McCullough's story invites the reader in with its epic scope and scintillating possibilities, then cracks open the mind with its unexpectedly muddled wide-angle view of the world. It encourages readers to consider the many qualities of gray that can be found in adult relationships — both then, and decades later.
Therese Walsh's latest novel is The Moon Sisters.
The sense that Washington is hopelessly gridlocked has become a source of national despair.
Approval ratings for both Obama and Congress continue to tumble. A Washington Post-ABC News poll released Tuesday found that only 22 percent of voters are inclined to give their own representatives another term — a record low for that poll.
Despite this disapproval, though, a stalemate might not be all bad.
It's not just Congress that's split — the public is divided on nearly every issue, too. So, if Washington were, in fact, able to act, it's possible Americans might be even angrier than they are now.
"If the federal government were passing a constitutional amendment restricting abortion, or if they were passing a national gay marriage act, you'd actually find much more unhappiness," says Lara Brown, a political scientist at George Washington University.
Is Gridlock Good?
Failure to deal with the nation's serious problems is a righteous source of frustration. But — absent majority support in the country for nearly any policy approach — voters might be even more unhappy if Congress were to act in any robust way, Stanford University political scientist Morris Fiorina suggested recently on the Washington Post's popular Monkey Cage blog.
Gridlock may be maddening, in other words, but the alternatives might be worse.
"Gridlock is good," says William Connelly, a political scientist at Washington and Lee University. "I'm not the first person to say it."
Neither party is happy when the other attempts to ram through one-sided legislation. Democrats didn't like it in 2005 when President George W. Bush wanted to privatize parts of Social Security, and Republicans have never stopped complaining that Democrats were able to take advantage of their congressional majorities in 2010 to push through the Affordable Care Act.
Republicans may have been playing politics by withholding any support for Obamacare, but the health care law certainly hasn't gained popularity since its passage.
"Passing it without any Republican support was problematic, at best, and paved the way for the contentiousness and doggedness of Republicans now in aiming to repeal and replace it," Connelly says. "The system is not meant to be simple majority rule, where a fleeting majority, as measured by public opinion polls, dictates legislation."
The Need For Consensus
By contrast, most major pieces of legislation in the 20th century — the creation of Social Security back in the 1930s and the interstate highway system in the 1950s, or the civil rights laws of the 1960s — received bipartisan congressional support in the end, reflecting consensus in the country. In that regard, Obamacare was a departure.
There's no such consensus now on changes to tax policy or immigration law or education. If Congress were to push through major legislation on a regular basis, it would invite a backlash, much as Obamacare did, suggests Brown, the George Washington political scientist.
Americans might hate inactivity, but they'd like finished products even less, according to Brown. That may be one reason why power has kept seesawing in elections over the past decade, as the two parties have taken turns winning and then overreaching.
"People are polarized, it's so clear on just about every issue," she says. "It is just a fact that we don't have the public consensus that once existed."
No Chance For Compromise
Democrats can make a fair case that Republicans had no interest in negotiating when it came to the health care law — or just about anything else that's come up during Obama's time in office.
When power is divided, there's no alternative to negotiation and compromise, says Lee Hamilton, an Indiana Democrat who served in the House from 1965 to 1999. That's the way the American system of government was set up.
But today's politicians often seem more interested in scoring points and waiting for the next election than coming up with a deal.
Congress passed hardly any laws in 2013. This year threatens to be even less productive.
"The premise when I was there, and for 200 years in the Congress, was that we have to reach an agreement," Hamilton says. "Today, I'm not sure that premise exists."
If the Tabernas Desert in Spain's Almeria region looks like the set of a Hollywood Western, that's because it was one.
In the 1960s and '70s, it was a Hollywood outpost in Europe where dozens of American film stars — Clint Eastwood, Henry Fonda, Charlton Heston, Sophia Loren, Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor — made a temporary home while filming movies, including the kind that the area became most famous for: Spaghetti Westerns. The genre's name originates from Italian directors like the late Sergio Leone, who built film sets in the windy, barren desert an hour from the Mediterranean Sea.
Hundreds of films were made here, including Leone's famous Dollars Trilogy — A Fistful Of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More and The Good, The Bad And The Ugly — as well as parts of Lawrence Of Arabia and Cleopatra.
A Hands-On Experience
Today, the sets where those movies were made have been converted into Western-style cinema theme parks where tourists can stroll through a saloon, spend time behind bars in a local jail or reenact a shootout in the town square. Actors in cowboy hats and chaps put on daily stunt shows in which Western movie themes are piped through a fake town square. The First City Bank gets robbed every day; the same gun-slinging bandit is always handed over to the hangman. There's also a zoo and water park.
"It looks quite authentic, it looks quite like the Wild West, like Arizona a little bit," says Shadae Talebi, a Californian who lives in Europe and brought her two young children on vacation to Spain.
In general, the theme parks attract aficionados of Westerns.
"My husband has always watched them, so John Wayne is always around and so is Clint Eastwood," says British tourist Angela Thorogood.
Many of the workers are aging stuntmen who fell off balconies or galloped on horseback alongside Clint Eastwood back in the day — now they perform at children's birthday parties. The same people get shot every day, says actor Jose Francisco Garcia Pascual, who drives a horse-drawn cart while packing heat.
"This is very, very hard work. Every day I kill three, four [people]," he says, chuckling.
What The 'Golden Age Of Western Films' Left Behind
Western film directors chose the Tabernas Desert because it resembles the American West with its windswept plains crisscrossed by dry riverbeds and rocky ravines. It was also cheap. But by the late 1970s, directors had found better bargain locations — in Morocco and Turkey — and Almeria's film industry dried up.
In the tiny village of Tabernas — the only real settlement for dozens of miles — elderly residents trade tales of their glory days in the golden age of Westerns.
"This was considered the Spanish Hollywood," says Jesus Laguna, a former stuntman who still wears a cowboy hat. "All types of actors came through here — American Oscar winners, they were all here. But not anymore."
Like much of Spain, the Tabernas Desert has fallen on hard times. Unemployment in the Almeria region tops 30 percent. Recently, Spanish photographer Alvaro Deprit spent a month living in the desert, documenting the lives of those left behind when the film work dried up.
"It's a melancholy feeling," Deprit says, "because their world has finished. It was the golden age of Western films, and now it's an imitation of what it once was."
Those left behind include a member of the Blackfoot Indian Nation who worked as a film extra and has been living in a rustic desert camp ever since.
There's also a local actor, Jose Novo, who looks nearly identical to the late Henry Fonda. Novo says his mother was friendly with the American actor, and gave birth exactly nine months after Fonda was last in Almeria shooting a film, in 1968. It was aptly titled, Once Upon A Time In The West.
Military radar indicates that the missing Boeing 777 jet may have turned back, Malaysia's air force chief said Sunday as scores of ships and aircraft from across Asia resumed a hunt for the plane and its 239 passengers.
There was still no confirmed sighting of debris in the seas between Malaysia and Vietnam where it vanished from screens early Saturday morning en route to Beijing from Kuala Lumpur. The weather was fine, the plane was already cruising and the pilots didn't send a distress signal — unusual circumstance for a modern jetliner to crash.
Air force chief Rodzali Daud didn't say which direction the plane might have taken when it apparently went off route.
"We are trying to make sense of this," he told a media conference. "The military radar indicated that the aircraft may have made a turn back and in some parts, this was corroborated by civilian radar."
Malaysia Airlines Chief Executive Ahmad Jauhari Yahya said pilots were supposed to inform the airline and traffic control authorities if the plane does start to return. "From what we have, there was no such distress signal or distress call per say, so we are equally puzzled," he said.
Authorities were checking on the suspect identities of at least two passengers who appear to have boarded with stolen passports. On Saturday, the foreign ministries in Italy and Austria said the names of two citizens listed on the flight's manifest matched the names on two passports reported stolen in Thailand.
This, and the sudden disappearance of the plane that experts say is consistent with a possible onboard explosion, strengthened existing concerns about terrorism as a possible cause for the disappearance. Al-Qaida militants have used similar tactics to try and disguise their identities.
Earlier Sunday, Malaysian Transport Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said that authorities were looking at four possible cases of suspect identities, and that Malaysian intelligence agencies were in contact with their international counterparts, including the FBI, in this regard.
Later, civil aviation chief Azharuddin Abdul Rahman mentioned only two passengers with unverified identities.
Two-thirds of the jet's passengers were from China. The rest were from elsewhere in Asia, North America and Europe.
A total of 22 aircraft and 40 ships have been deployed to the area by Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia, China and the United States, not counting Vietnam's fleet.
Li Jiaxiang, administrator of the Civil Aviation Administration of China, said some debris had been spotted, but it was unclear whether it came from the plane. Vietnamese authorities said they had seen nothing close to two large oil slicks they saw Saturday and said might be from the missing plane.
Finding traces of an aircraft that disappears over sea can take days or longer, even with a sustained search effort. Depending on the circumstances of the crash, wreckage can be scattered over many square kilometers (miles). If the plane enters the water before breaking up, there can be relatively little debris.
A team of American experts was en route to Asia to be ready to assist in the investigation into the crash. The team includes accident investigators from National Transportation Safety Board, as well as technical experts from the Federal Aviation Administration and Boeing, the safety board said in a statement.
Malaysia Airlines has a good safety record, as does the 777, which had not had a fatal crash in its 19-year history until an Asiana Airlines plane crashed last July in San Francisco, killing three passengers, all teenagers from China.
Investigators will need access to the flight data recorders to determine what happened.
Aviation and terrorism experts said revelations about stolen passports would strengthen speculation of foul play. They also acknowledged other scenarios, including some catastrophic failure of the engines or structure of the plane, extreme turbulence or pilot error or even suicide, were also possible.
Jason Middleton, the head of the Sydney-based University of New South Wales' School of Aviation, said terrorism or some other form of foul play seemed a likely explanation.
"You're looking at some highly unexpected thing, and the only ones people can think of are basically foul play, being either a bomb or some immediate incapacitating of the pilots by someone doing the wrong thing and that might lead to an airplane going straight into the ocean," Middleton said on Sunday. "With two stolen passports (on board), you'd have to suspect that that's one of the likely options."