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On this day in 1955 — 68 years ago — Allen Ginsberg first read his new poem, "Howl," at Six Gallery in San Francisco
Allen Ginsberg first reads Howl in San Francisco, 1955
Photo by Walter Lehrman
On this day in 1955 — 68 years ago — Allen Ginsberg first read his new poem, "Howl," at Six Gallery in San Francisco.
The poem was an immediate success that rocked the Beat literary world and set the tone for confessional poetry of the 1960s and beyond.
Ginsberg was born in 1926 to a high school English teacher father and Marxist mother who later suffered a mental breakdown. Her madness and death were the subjects of Ginsberg's poem, "Kaddish."
Ginsberg's father raised Allen and his older brother to recite poetry by Poe, Dickens, Keats, Shelley and Milton. Ginsberg attended Columbia University, intending to study law.
At Columbia, he met Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs and Neal Cassady, who would become central figures in the Beat movement. Ginsberg was expelled from Columbia in 1945 for a series of minor infractions, then bummed around, working as a merchant seaman, a dishwasher and a welder.
He finally finished Columbia in 1948 with high grades but was arrested when a drug-addict friend stored supplies in his apartment. He successfully pleaded not guilty on the grounds of insanity and spent eight months in the psych ward at Columbia.
After his arrest and trial, Ginsberg went through a "straight" period, working as a successful market researcher and helping to develop a successful ad campaign for toothpaste. He moved to San Francisco and soon fell back in with the Beat crowd.
In 1955, over a period of a few weeks, he wrote his seminal work, "Howl."
The poem was printed in England, but its second edition was seized by Customs officials as it entered the United States.
City Lights, a San Francisco bookstore, published Howl itself to avoid Customs problems. Yet, the publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti was arrested and tried for obscenity. He was defended by the ACLU. Following testimony from nine literary experts on the merits of the book, Ferlinghetti was found not guilty.
Ginsberg was center stage at numerous milestone counterculture events during the 1950s and 1960s. His name made it onto J. Edgar Hoover's list of dangerous subversives.
He wrote about his own experiences as a gay man, experimented with drugs, protested the Vietnam War, was clubbed and gassed at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, studied Buddhism, toured with Bob Dylan and recorded poetry and music with Paul McCartney and Philip Glass.
He became a popular teacher and lecturer at universities across the United States. He won the National Book Award in 1973 and was a runner-up for the 1995 Pulitzer Prize for poetry.
He wrote and read poetry in New York until his death from liver cancer in 1997.
Below, Ginsberg is shown in 1975 with Frank Beacham
Writer Amiri Baraka was born 88 years ago today.
Formerly known as LeRoi Jones, Baraka was a writer of poetry, drama, fiction, essays and music criticism. He taught at a number of universities, including the State University of New York at Buffalo and the State University of New York at Stony Brook.
He received the PEN Open Book Award in 2008 for Tales of the Out and the Gone.
Critics within the African-American community compare him to James Baldwin and call Baraka one of the most respected and most widely published black writers of his generation.
In 1954, he moved to Greenwich Village working initially in a warehouse for music records. His interest in jazz began during this period. At the same time, he came into contact with avant-garde Beat Generation, Black Mountain and New York School poets.
In 1958, he married Hettie Cohen, with whom he had two daughters, Kellie Jones (b. 1959) and Lisa Jones (b. 1961). He and Hettie founded Totem Press, which published such Beat icons as Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. They also jointly founded a quarterly literary magazine, Yugen, which ran for eight issues (1958–62).
Baraka also worked as editor and critic for the literary and arts journal, Kulchur (1960–65). With Diane di Prima, he edited the first twenty-five issues (1961–63) of their magazine, The Floating Bear.
In the autumn of 1961, he co-founded the New York Poets Theatre with di Prima, choreographers Fred Herko and James Waring and actor Alan S. Marlowe. He had an extramarital affair with Diane di Prima for several years. Their daughter, Dominique di Prima, was born in June, 1962.
Baraka visited Cuba in July, 1960 with a Fair Play for Cuba Committee delegation and reported his impressions in his essay "Cuba libra." In 1961, Baraka co-authored a Declaration of Conscience in support of Fidel Castro's regime.
Baraka also was a member of the Umbra Poets Workshop of emerging Black Nationalist writers (Ishmael Reed, and Lorenzo Thomas among others) on the Lower East Side (1962–65).
Baraka's brief tenure as Poet Laureate of New Jersey (2002–2003), which involved controversy over a public reading of his poem — "Somebody Blew Up America?" — and accusations of anti-Semitism, brought Baraka's work a barrage of negative attention from critics, politicians and some of the general public.
Other critics, most notably, Jerry Gafio Watts explained Baraka's expression of violence, misogyny, homophobia and racism as evidence of psychological projection to avoid personal positions or his past (i.e. homosexual relationships) that would undermine the "credibility of his militant voice.”
Baraka died on January 9, 2014, at Beth Israel Medical Center in Newark after being hospitalized in the facility's intensive care unit for one month prior to his death. He died from complications after a surgery.
Here, Baraka performs “Somebody Blew Up America” with Rob Brown on saxophone recorded on February 21, 2009 in Troy, New York.
Yo-Yo Ma is 68 years old today.
A cellist, Ma has received the National Medal of Arts in 2001, Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011 and the Polar Music Prize in 2012.
Born in Paris to Chinese parents, Ma had a musical upbringing. His mother, Marina Lu, was a singer, and his father, Hiao-Tsiun Ma, was a violinist and professor of music at Nanjing National Central University. The family moved to New York when he was five years old.
At a very young age, Ma began studying violin, and later viola, before settling on the cello in 1960 at age four. The child prodigy began performing before audiences at age five, and performed for Presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy when he was seven.
At age eight, he appeared on American television with his sister, Yeou-Cheng Ma, in a concert conducted by Leonard Bernstein.
Ma attended Trinity School in New York, but transferred to the Professional Children's School. He graduated at fifteen years of age.
He appeared as a soloist with the Harvard Radcliffe Orchestra in a performance of the Tchaikovsky Rococo Variations.
Here, Yo Yo Ma does a Tiny Desk concert.
John Mellencamp is 72 years old today.
Mellencamp is a rock singer-songwriter, musician, painter and occasional actor known for his catchy, populist brand of heartland rock which emphasizes traditional instrumentation.
He has sold over 40 million albums worldwide and has amassed 22 Top 40 hits in the United States. In addition, he holds the record for the most tracks by a solo artist to hit #1 on the charts.
Mellencamp is also one of the founding members of Farm Aid, an organization that began in 1985 with a concert in Champaign, Illinois to raise awareness about the loss of family farms and to raise funds to keep farm families on their land.
The Farm Aid concerts have remained an annual event, and the organization has raised more than $50 million to promote a resilient family farm system of agriculture.
Mellencamp’s biggest musical influences are Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie, James Brown and The Rolling Stones.
"Mellencamp has created an important body of work that has earned him both critical regard and an enormous audience,” wrote Anthony DeCurtis, a music critic. “His songs document the joys and struggles of ordinary people seeking to make their way, and he has consistently brought the fresh air of common experience to the typically glamour-addled world of popular music."
Here, Mellencamp performs “Crumblin’ Down” in 1983.
Illustration by Sabotsabot
Joe Hill, labor activist whose life is celebrated in song, was born 144 years ago today.
Hill was Swedish-American labor activist, songwriter and member of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW, also known as the "Wobblies"). A native Swedish speaker, he learned English during the early 1900s while working various jobs from New York to San Francisco.
As an immigrant worker frequently facing unemployment and underemployment, Hill became a popular song writer and cartoonist for the radical union.
His most famous songs include "The Preacher and the Slave,” "The Tramp,” "There is Power in a Union,” "The Rebel Girl" and "Casey Jones — the Union Scab,” which generally express the harsh but combative life of itinerant workers, and the perceived necessity of organizing to improve conditions for working people.
In 1914, John G. Morrison, a Salt Lake City area grocer and former policeman and his son were shot and killed by two men. The same evening, Hill arrived at a doctor's office with a gunshot wound, and briefly mentioned a fight over a woman.
Yet Hill was reluctant to explain further, and he was later accused of the grocery store murders on the basis of his injury.
Hill was convicted of the murders in a controversial trial. Following an unsuccessful appeal, political debates and international calls for clemency from high profile people and workers' organizations, Hill was executed in November, 1915.
After his death, he was memorialized by several folk songs. His life and death have inspired books and poetry.
Here Joan Baez sings “Joe Hill” at Woodstock in 1969. The song was originally a poem written by Alfred Hayes in 1930, with the music added eight years later by Earl Robinson.
(The video mistakenly says Phil Ochs wrote the song. Ochs wrote “The Ballad of Joe Hill” — a different song but a tribute to the same man.)
On this day in 1975 — 48 years ago — a New York State Supreme Court judge reversed a deportation order for John Lennon, allowing him to remain legally in his adoptive home of New York City.
Protests against the Vietnam War had escalated significantly following the announcement of the Cambodia invasion on April 30, 1970, and the shooting deaths of four student protestors at Kent State just four days later.
Many such gatherings would feature peaceful demonstrators singing Lennon's 1969 anthem, "Give Peace A Chance," but others were more threatening.
Newly relocated to New York City, Lennon began to associate publicly with such radical figures as Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin and Bobby Seale, and the White House reportedly grew concerned.
According to the 2006 documentary, The U.S. vs. John Lennon, the case arose over Lennon’s powerful influence with a generation of 18-to-20-year-olds who would be allowed, for the very first time, to vote in the 1972 presidential election.
"I suppose if you were going to list your enemies and decide who is most dangerous," Walter Cronkite would later say, "if I were Nixon, I would put Lennon up near the top."
Sen. Strom Thurmond, the right wing racial segregationist from South Carolina, was of the same opinion, and it was a letter he wrote to the White House in his capacity as Chairman of the Senate Internal Security Committee that prompted the White House to action.
An FBI investigation of Lennon turned up no evidence of involvement in illegal activities, but the matter was referred nonetheless to the Immigration and Naturalization Service, which began deportation proceedings against Lennon and his wife, Yoko Ono, on the basis of a 1968 marijuana conviction in England.
Leon Wildes, the immigration attorney who would handle Lennon's case over the next four-plus years, would say of his client's reaction to the case: "He understood that what was being done to him was wrong. It was an abuse of the law, and he was willing to stand up and try to show it — to shine the big light on it."
Lennon's persistence in fighting the case finally paid off on October 7, 1975, with a court decision that left no question as to the real motives behind the deportation:
"The courts will not condone selective deportation based upon secret political grounds," wrote Judge Irving Kaufman, who also went on to say, "Lennon's four-year battle to remain in our country is testimony to his faith in this American dream."
Less than one year later, in June 1976, John Lennon got his green card.
The “Touch of Venice” mural on Windward Avenue in Venice, California is an homage to the history of Venice, culture and a great film by Orson Welles.
Artist Jonas Never created the 102-foot-by-50-foot adaptation of Welles' 1958 film, "Touch of Evil."
Welles used the film to create an opening with the longest tracking shot in cinema history. The three-minute, twenty-second shot is widely considered one of the greatest long takes ever made in movies.
Set on the U.S.-Mexico border, a man plants a time bomb in a car. A man and woman enter the vehicle and make a slow journey through town to the U.S. border.
Newlyweds Miguel "Mike" Vargas (Charlton Heston) and Susie (Janet Leigh) pass the car several times on foot. The car crosses the border, then explodes, killing the occupants.
The famous scene was shot along Windward and Pacific Avenues with Venice doubling as a Mexican border town in the film about drug cartels, corrupt cops and interracial marriage.
In 1993, Touch of Evil was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically or aesthetically significant.”
The film was placed #64 on American Film Institute's 100 Years, 100 Thrills.
"Venice is one of the last cities you'll find with someone's Mercedes parked next to some homeless guy's stuff," Never said. "People really kind of embrace the seediness here. It's very lawless, but a self-governed kind of lawless."
Thanks to Jim and Alexis Fancher!
Above photo by Frank Beacham
Pablo Picasso draws a centaur in light, 1949
Photo by Gjon Mili