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Book review: "His truth is marching on, John Lewis and the power of hope" Posted - Sep 17, 2020
The first thing you need to know about John Lewis is that he always wanted to be a preacher. The second thing you need to know is that the goal of the 1960's Civil Rights movement–of which Lewis was a key player–was for African Americans to achieve equality before the law, as guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution, and that included the right to vote. The author of this book, Jon Meacham, is a Pulitzer-Prize winning writer, who has produced a number of best-selling books, notably "Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power", "American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House", and, more recently "The Soul of America: The Battle for our Better Angels." His prose style is graceful and easy to comprehend; at 249 pages his book on John Lewis has religious overtones, that strikes me as a labor love.

John Lewis was born on February 21, 1940, on a small farm outside Troy, Alabama, the third of ten children. His parents were dirt-poor sharecroppers wed to the unforgiving red clay of Pike County, Alabama. Early on Lewis discovered that he hated the hardscrabble life of his parents; picking cotton was backbreaking work, that generated barely enough money for the family to live on. At the age of five, Lewis decided he wanted to be a preacher, and began by preaching to the chickens in the backyard.

Segregation so embraced Alabama at the time, that by the age of six, Lewis had seen only two white people in his life. As he grew older, he began taking trips into town with his family, where he saw first-hand that being black in the Jim Crow south, was a shameful thing to be, and incredibly unfair; that segregation kept him from attending the best schools, and his parents from shopping in the best stores.

When he was 11, an uncle took Lewis to Buffalo, New York, a trip that opened his eyes, and made him acutely aware of the evils of the South's Jim Crow laws. "Segregation was dehumanizing, demoralizing, depressing–and of course that was its purpose," recalled a college friend of Lewis's. "To John and many people obeying the rules of segregation was agreeing that we were lesser people."

Meanwhile, Lewis learned about Rosa Parks, a black woman in Montgomery, Alabama. One day, on her way home from work, Ms. Parks refused to yield her seat to a white passenger on a Montgomery city bus. She was summarily arrested, and later with the guidance of Dr. Martin Luther King and the NAACP, she spear-headed a protest among Montgomery's black community to boycott public transportation, a boycott designed to hurt the Montgomery bus line where it counted most–in the pocketbook, as 75 percent of the bus riders were African Americans. Instead of using public buses, she urged them to find another source of transportation. Some walked to work, while others formed car pools, and some took taxis (the price of a taxi ride was roughly equal to the cost of taking the bus). The boycott lasted one year–from December 1, 1955 to December 21, 1956–before the city backed down and agreed to integrate their bus service.

After graduating from high school, Lewis attended American Baptist Theological Seminary (ABT) in Nashville, Tennessee, in pursuit of his dream of becoming a preacher. However, having seen the results of the bus strike, and having heard Martin Luther King Jr. speak on the radio, encouraged Lewis to forsake his dream of being a preacher, and instead to pursue a new dream of ending segregation in the South, by joining the Civil Rights Movement. His fellow students at ABT chided him about his change of plan: "You're supposed to preach about how to get to heaven, not on how to change history."

In pursuit of his new dream, Lewis began attending a workshop held in the basement of the United Methodist Church in Nashville, conducted by civil rights leader James Lawson. The subject was the merits of non-violent resistance as a means of changing segregation laws. As with so many leaders of the Civil Rights movement, Lawson was a well-spoken and well-educated Christian minister. A native of Ohio, he was educated at prestigious Baldwin-Wallace College, and Boston University. After graduation, he was imprisoned for refusing to register for the military draft during the Korean War, and spent thirteen months behind bars. After his release, he traveled to India as a Christian missionary. While there he learned about the nonviolent example of Mahatma Gandhi, who had used passive resistance to help liberate India from British Rule. As a pacifist, the idea appealed greatly to Lawson.

Lawson was furthering his studies at Ohio's Oberlin College, where by chance he met Dr. Martin Luther King, who was impressed with Lawson's advanced studies in nonviolent protests. King urged him to move to the South. "Don't wait," King said. "Come now. You're badly needed. We don't have anyone like you."

Lawson heeded King's words and moved to Nashville about the time Lewis was finishing up his sophomore year at ABT. "Jim came south, almost like a missionary," Lewis recalled. "A nonviolent teacher, a warrior, to spread the good news."

The "good news" was a hybrid of the New Testament Gospels, and of Gandhi. "It was the Sermon on the Mount, rather than a doctrine of passive resistance, that initially inspired the Negroes of Montgomery to dignified social action," Dr. King recalled. "It was Jesus of Nazareth that stirred the Negroes to protest with the creative weapon of love . . . As the days unfolded, however, the inspiration of Gandhi began to exert its influence. I had come to see early that the Christian doctrine of love operating through the Gandhian method of nonviolence was one of the most potent weapons available to the Negro in his struggle for freedom . . . Christ furnished the spirit and motivation while Gandhi furnished the method."

Meanwhile, at his workshop in Nashville, Lawson was training many of the future leaders of the Civil Rights Movement, of which John Lewis was one. Lewis was a quiet but diligent student. He didn't speak often, but when he did, it was with a conviction that surprised his fellow students, and got their attention. As Lawson remembers it: "Lewis grabbed the ideas, and the ideas grabbed him. He was gentle but extremely strong."

It wasn't long and Dr. King heard about "the boy from Troy," as Lewis was known at the time. As a result, Lewis now had two mentors: Lawson and Dr. King. Writes the author: "King and Lawson gave Lewis an intellectual framework, but Lewis's motivation was by all accounts innate." Lawson's workshops gave Lewis armor for the missions he was to seek. "It changed my life forever, set me on a path, committed to the way of peace, to the way of love, and I have not looked back since," Lewis recalled later.

"Hate is too heavy a burden to bear," says Lewis. "If you start hating people, you have to decide who you are going to hate tomorrow, who you are going to hate next week." As Lewis saw it, the anecdote was love: "Just love everybody."

Besides the Gospels and Mahatma Gandhi, the Lawson workshop studied the works of Reinhold Niebuhr, Mo Ti, Lao-tsu, and Henry David Thoreau. Of particular interest was Thoreau's 1849 essay, "Civil Disobedience", with a special emphasis on the following text: "Unjust laws exist; shall we be content to obey them, or shall we endeavor to amend them, and obey them until we succeed, or shall we transgress them at once?" Why, he asked, do governments "always crucify Christ, and excommunicate Copernicus and Luther, and pronounce Washington and Franklin rebels?" In the essay's closing lines, Thoreau asks, "Is a democracy, such as we know it, the last improvident possible in government? Is it not possible to take a step further towards recognizing and organizing the rights of man? There will never be a really free and enlightened State, until the State comes to recognize the individual as a higher and independent power, from which all its own power and authority are derived, and treats him accordingly."

Armed with the lessons of nonviolent protest, Lewis and his companions set their sight on their first encounter with entrenched segregation. The place was the lunch counter at a Woolworth's department store in Nashville. Going in, Lewis and his compatriots were warned that a group of white thugs was nearby waiting to harass them. This news did not phase them in the least. Dressed in their Sunday best, they respectfully and unobtrusively entered the store, sat at the counter, and ordered lunch. The waitress advised them they were sitting in the "whites only" section, refused them service, and asked them to leave. They didn't budge. Soon, the white thugs arrived with their taunts and threats. "Go home, nigger!" they shouted. "Go back to Africa!"

The white thugs wanted a fight, but they weren't getting the kind of fight they understood. "What's the matter? You chicken?" they said, as Lewis and his friends remained silent and refused to react. After that the violence began: Lewis was hit in the ribs and knocked to the floor. There was pulling, punching, and jabbing; some burned the students with lit cigarettes–both on their backs and in their hair, while others poured water and hot coffee on their heads. Soon thereafter the police arrived and arrested them for "disturbing the peace."

Meanwhile, in other college towns across the Deep South, similar lunchtime protests with similar white violence, was occurring, as part of a coordinated effort to bring national attention to unjust Jim Crow laws. And national attention it got in newspapers and in magazines across the land, so much so that local elected officials put the blame on Northerners who were invading the South "to stir up unrest among Negroes."

Bruised and in jail though he was, Lewis was elated. "Now I knew," he recalled. "Now I had crossed over, I had stepped through the door into total unquestioning commitment. This was not just about that moment or that day. This was about forever. It was like deliverance. I had, as they say in Christian circles when a person accepts Jesus Christ into his heart, come home. But this was not Jesus I had come home to. It was purity and utter certainty of the nonviolent path."

The "freedom rides" were yet another attempt to expose the evils of segregation, in this case national bus lines that, upon entering the Southern states, reverted to segregating passengers, similar to what the Montgomery city bus line had done in 1955–with whites seated up front, and blacks seated in the rear. Lewis and his colleagues protested the practice by riding the bus lines and, upon entering the South, refused to move to the back of the bus. The risks were considerably greater than the sit-ins at lunch counters, as the buses were sometimes stopped in the countryside between cities, and away from national scrutiny. In one case, the Ku Klux Klan stopped a bus, and prepared to burn it, with the protestors still inside. While a few suffered burns, no one died, as occupants escaped through broken windows and fled. Fortunately, a TV crew filmed the crisis and the image made the nightly news.

John Lewis led so many demonstrations, and was arrested so often, that he became nationally known, so much so that when, in 1963, Martin Luther King Jr., organized a protest on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. Lewis was among the featured speakers. Afterwards, he and the others were invited to meet President Kennedy in the White House. However, talk of legislation to put an end to segregation, never got past the talking stage, as Kennedy feared losing southern support in the next presidential election.

That changed, after Kennedy's assassination, and Lyndon Johnson became president. In 1965, Lewis led a march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. As scheduled, the march was to begin in Selma and conclude at the state capital in Montgomery, as an appeal to change the restrictive (to Negroes) voting laws of that state. As it turned out the focal point was the horrific violence reigned down on the marches after they had crossed the bridge. "We were silent," recalls Lewis. "Just six-hundred of us walking in quite persistence." They were attacked by horse-mounted police, with billy clubs, lead pipes, rocks, bricks, and attack dogs, to no avail. "To me, it felt like a holy march . . . I had made peace with the understanding that if I died on that bridge, I would have offered my life in a contribution to an effort that was larger than myself."

Lyndon Johnson was so put off by the images from Selma broadcast on the evening news, that he was determined to pass legislation to end Jim Crow once and for all. The following Monday evening, March 15, 1965, Johnson delivered a televised speech drafted by his speechwriter, Richard Goodwin. The text drew deeply on religious themes. "The biblical imagery is part of the American tradition no matter what your personal beliefs are," said Goodwin. "The Old Testament, the New Testament, it is woven into who we are. Christian, Jew, or whatever. Religious metaphors and religious language form a kind of common bond in America–you can think of it either in a literal or literary terms . . . Most Americans believe there is a higher power at work, whether they call it God or not, and I was trying to frame the civil rights question in terms of what was right, what was just, what was fair–and that was to me at least, and certainly to Johnson, is partly religious."

Johnson's speech: "I speak tonight for the dignity of man and the destiny of democracy. I urge every member of both parties, Americans of all religions and all colors, from every section of this country, to join me in this cause. At times history and fate meet at a single time in a single place to shape a turning point in man's unending search for freedom. So it was at Lexington and Concord. So it was a century ago at Appomattox. So it was last week in Selma, Alabama . . .

Further on, Johnson said: "There is no Negro problem. There is no Southern problem. There is no Northern problem. There is only an American problem. And we are here tonight as Americans–not as Democrats or Republicans–we are here as Americans to solve this problem . . . This was the first nation in the history of the world to be founded with a purpose. The great phrases of that purpose still sound in every American heart, North and South: 'All men are created equal' – 'government by consent of the governed'–'give me liberty or give me death.' Well, those are not just clever words or those are not just empty theories. . . .Many of the issues of civil rights are very complex . . . But about this there can and should be no argument – Every American citizen must have the right to vote . . . What happened in Selma is part of a far larger movement which reaches into every section and State of America. It is the effort of American Negroes to secure for themselves the full blessings of American life . . .

"Their cause must be our cause too. Because it is not Negroes, but really it is all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice . . . And we shall overcome."

Lewis and King watched he address together on TV, and wept for joy. Civil rights legislation followed, which included the Voting Rights Act, which in a bipartisan vote passed both houses of Congress without delay. The day Johnson signed the Act into law, Lewis was present. It had taken six hard and often painful years, but he had fulfilled his mission, and the South and millions of African Americans would be the better for it.

Still, rough waters lay ahead; in 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, and in cities across the nation, riots and burning broke out. It was heartbreaking for Lewis, but he saw it as a temporary setback (more about that later).

On a personal and happier note, later that year, Lewis met the love of his life, Lillian Miles. The two were married before Christmas, in 1968. Martin Luther King Sr. performed the ceremony, in Atlanta's Ebenzer Church.

The question was what was Lewis to do with the rest of his life? In the seventies, he accepted a position in the Carter Administration. In a 1981 election, he won an at-large seat on the Atlanta City Council, and served in that capacity until 1986. After that he ran for a seat in the House of Representatives, for the 5th district in the state of Georgia, and won. Lewis served for 31 years, from 1988 until his death in 2020. About serving in Congress, Lewis said: "(It was) a step down a very long road. The results were harder to see, but the work goes on. When people say, and they sometimes do, that things aren't better now than they were in the sixties, I say, 'Come and walk in my shoes.' We are a better people now in spite of everything. In the final analysis, we're good, we're decent. Yes, we still have miles to go, but that's what a journey is . . . "

"The journey begins with faith–faith in the dignity and worth of every human being. That is an idea with roots in Scripture and in the canon of America, in Genesis and in the Declaration of Independence. . . ."

Lewis's years in Congress were not overtly remarkable as his years in the movement, but nonetheless his was an unusual House career. He was arrested fives times as a member of Congress–twice at the embassy of South Africa to protest apartheid, twice at the embassy of Sudan to protest the genocide in Darfur, and once at the U.S. Capitol to call for immigration reform.

He didn't attend the inauguration of President George W. Bush out of protest for how the 1980 presidential election was settled by the Supreme Court ("Bush v. Gore" had stopped a recount in Florida, giving Bush the presidency over Al Gore, who won the national popular vote). Yet, Lewis then worked with both President Bush and Laura Bush as part of a long effort to build the National Museum of African American History and Culture on the Washington Mall.

Late in his life, Lewis said of his earlier life as a protestor: "There is a power of the mind to believe and think on the higher drama of it, the higher things of it, the light, not the dark. We truly believed that we were on God's side, and in spite of everything–the beatings, the bombings, the burnings–God's truth would prevail . . ."

"We've come too far, we've made too much progress as a people, to stand still or to slip back . . . you have to believe it. It's all going to work out."

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Abraham Lincoln: three movies/three reviews
Posted - Sep 05, 2020
ABE LINCOLN IN ILLINOIS (1939)

"Not much to look at, nothin' to see . . . " That would be Abraham Lincoln. And while he never spoke these exact words (they're from a popular song, "She's Funny That Way") they pretty much summarize Lincoln's view of himself–as a country bumpkin whose hair wouldn't stay combed, and whose clothes rarely fit him. That's the Abe Lincoln who emerges in "Abe Lincoln of Illinois" played to perfection by veteran stage actor Raymond Massey (who bears a striking facial resemblance to Lincoln). As Lincoln, the Canadian actor assumes a backwoods accent that sounds completely convincing when he describes himself as, "a plain common sucker with a shirttail so short I can't sit on it." The movie follows Lincoln's years as a resident of Illinois, up to his election as our nation's 16th president.

The movie begins with Lincoln's formative years in the rustic town of New Salem, Illinois, where he takes up the study of law, falls in love with Anne Rutledge (who was destined to die young), fails as a businessman, and runs successfully for a seat in the state legislature; to his years in Springfield, where he practices law, woos and marries Mary Todd, runs unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate (losing to Stephen Douglas), and attracts national attention in the famed Lincoln-Douglas debates, that in 1860 leads to his nomination as the Republican party's candidate for the U.S. presidency.

Despite his woeful appearance and self-deprecating humor, Lincoln was a self-educated man of exceptional intellectual gifts; this is the Lincoln who emerges in "Abe Lincoln of Illinois", a charismatic leader who, despite appearances, was a brilliant thinker and politician. This is brought into sharp focus in a single 10-minute scene (that summarizes the six Lincoln-Douglas debates), where Lincoln makes a compelling case for the abolition of slavery, and concludes with these immortal words, "a house divided against itself, cannot stand."

The winds of civil war are blowing in the closing scene, where a saddened, sobered Lincoln bids his neighbors goodbye, and boards a train bound for Washington D.C.

Based on Robert E. Sherwood's Pulitzer Prize-winning play, "Abe Lincoln of Illinois" the movie stands as a prequel to "Lincoln," Stephen Spielberg's 2013 movie starring another Lincoln look-alike, Daniel Day-Lewis.


YOUNG MR. LINCOLN (1940)

Lovingly directed by John Ford, "Young Mr. Lincoln" is more a character study than a carefully plotted Hollywood motion picture. Indeed the movie is something of a think-piece. It's beautifully photographed, and captures the pioneering spirit that dominated Lincoln's early years in New Salem, Illinois. The perfectly cast Henry Fonda reveals Lincoln as a modest man, and a thinker, who reads books, and enjoys the company of his rustic, rough-and-tumble friends. Highlights include Lincoln facing down a lynch mob, a telling scene in which he quotes the Bible to quell their hostility ("Blessed are the merciful, for they shall be obtain mercy" [Mathew 5: 7]); Fonda delivers the lines with appropriate modestly and under-stated conviction. The other big scene shows Lincoln the lawyer in action, as a persuasive speaker to a jury of peers. On the surface, the case appears hopelessly lost, his clients (two brothers) are faced with being hanged for a murder they did not commit, until Lincoln realizes the testimony of their accuser (played by veteran actor, Ward Bond) has a flaw; his testimony is based on the fact that a full moon was out the night of the murder thus enabling him to clearly identify the killer. Lincoln then checks in the Farmer's Almanac and learns the moon was not out that night. Exposed to the truth, Bond admits that, yes, he and not the brothers is responsible for killing the victim.

A young Milburn Stone, who would go on the play Doc in the hit TV series "Gun Smoke" makes an appealing if under used Stephen Douglas. Accompanying the DVD are two essays: one about Mr. Fonda, and the making of "Young Mr. Lincoln", the second about John Ford and his films. If you are an admirer of Abraham Lincoln, or of the classic films of John Ford, this DVD is for you.

In 2003, YOUNG MR. LINCOLN was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".

LINCOLN (2013)

Stephen Spielberg’s “Lincoln” is as much about passage of the Thirteenth Amendment as it is about our 16th president. This is a good thing, as there’s nothing quite like conflict to reveal character, and Abraham Lincoln was a man of infinite character. He was not a flatterer, neither was he moved by flattery. He was passionate, honest, plain-spoken, and while every inch a politician, he never stooped to pettiness, jealousy, or grandstanding. As historian Alistair Cooke once observed (and the movie illustrates perfectly), “Abraham Lincoln had an extraordinary feel for the humanity of quite inhumane people and tolerated them long enough to get what he wanted from them—contractors, war profiteers, wheeler-dealers, the scum of the republic. He dignified the trade of politician like few men before or since.”

In this time of covid and poisonous political rhetoric, these three movies reveal a brighter and more assuring side of American politics and politicians, that will uplift your spirits.

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The Green Tree of Democracy
Posted - Aug 22, 2020
In thirteenth century England, King John was forced to sign the Magna Carta, in reluctant acknowledgement that he was not the absolute ruler of England (thus ending the charade of "The Divine Right of Kings"). Article Twelve stated that no money could be taken from the King’s subjects unless the levy was imposed “by the common council of our Kingdom.” The "common council of the Kingdom" was duly created and became known as Parliament.

This early form of representative government worked so well that when Englishmen crossed the Atlantic and began colonizing the east coast of North America, representative government transferred with them. Ms. Marchette Chute, an independent scholar who researched and wrote "The Green Tree of Democracy", likens this phenomena to a piece of earth that each of the first settlers brought with them from England. In this piece of earth was a seed, and wherever planted this piece of earth with its seed sprouted roots and started to grow. The result was the flourishing of representative government in all thirteen colonies. In time these colonies joined forces, broke with England, and created the United States of America.

The subject of "The Green Tree of Democracy" is mainly about the fight to win the right to vote. In the beginning, in England, only men of property had the right to vote, and to serve in Parliament. And this was equally true of the English colonies that sprang up in America. The men who made the laws and enacted the taxes, were men of property. And it was still true in 1776 when delegates from throughout the thirteen colonies met in Philadelphia. The document they drew up—the Declaration of Independence—which had been intended as a “mere act of diplomacy,” contained five little words that would become a manifesto for human equality. The five little words were “All men are created equal.”

These five words (to paraphrase Galatians 5:9) were "the leaven that leavened the whole lump." In time, property restrictions were eliminated, so that all white men could vote. This eventually would include African Americans, Native Americans, and women. (Note: 2020 is the 100th-year anniversary of passage of the 19th Amendment, which granted women the right to vote). Recently, there have been several articles about the fight to win women's right to vote. And it was a fight. I highly recommend you read one of these articles, to learn something of what it took. (African-American women were not included in the 19th Amendment, and didn't win the right to vote until 1962.)

At this perilous time for our democracy with the right to vote threatened by the current administration, it's important to be reminded of how far we've come, and what's at stake–our hard-won democracy.

DONALD TRUMP AND THE BIBLE

It was a gesture designed to shore up Donald Trump's sagging evangelical religious base, the photo op of him standing in front of St. John's Church in Washington D.C., holding up the Bible for all to see. Prior to this, the path to the church had been cleared of protesting American citizens by federal police.

It reminded me of a scene from "Young Mr. Lincoln", director John Ford's take on the 16th president, as a young lawyer making his way in Springfield, Il, a movie based on Carl Sandburg's Lincoln biography. The scene shows Lincoln, quite alone, facing down a hostile crowd intent on busting his client out of jail, whom they intend to hang. Lincoln does not hold up the Bible but rather quotes from it, "Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy." These words eased the tension; the crowd put down their battering ram and hangman's noose, and peacefully dispersed. It's a great cinematic moment that reveals Lincoln's character–and the power of Scripture.

"Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy," is one of the beatitudes given by Jesus Christ, in "The Sermon on the Mount" (Mathew 5, 6 and 7). "The Sermon on the Mount" also contain the Lord's Prayer, and these words (from the King James Version), "Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men do to you, do ye even so to them." The Sermon on the Mount is nothing less than Christ Jesus' words on how to live peaceably among men of differing beliefs and values.

The one word used to describe Jesus' acts, as he preached, healed, and taught the Gospel, is "compassion." Again and again, the Bible says Jesus had compassion on those in need of his help, which was nearly every one he encountered in the Holy Land.

THE TWO GREAT COMMANDMENTS

When asked which was the greatest commandment, Jesus answered, "'Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.' This is the first and great commandment. And there is a second like it: 'Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.' The whole of the Law and the prophets depends on these two great commandments."

The Bible is the very book our presidents place their right hand on while swearing to uphold our U. S. Constitution. Why the Bible? Because the Founding Fathers turned to it again and again for instruction and inspiration, while struggling to found our democracy, in a world mostly hostile to such a radical ideal. The Bible is a book that promotes decency, equality, fair-play, and above all, love. These very words are often used by the Apostle Paul in his Epistles to the various young churches he founded throughout Asia Minor and in Southern Europe. Paul also used such words as "tolerance", "peace", "patience" and "humility". In his letter to the church at Ephesus, he wrote, "Be kind to each other, be compassionate. Be as ready to forgive as God for Christ's sake has forgiven you (quoting from The New Testament in Modern English, by J. B. Phillips)."

All our great leaders in times of crisis have turned to the Bible's immortal words for comfort and guidance. No doubt, that's what made them great.

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Four by Frank – Four albums/Four reviews
Posted - Aug 15, 2020
Reviewed below are four excellent, though less heralded, albums by Frank Sinatra.

(1) NO ONE CARES (1959)

It seems the wounds inflicted by Ava Gardner ran deep. After the breakup, Sinatra recorded not one but four suicide albums in five years. After making “No One Cares”—the fourth and most emotionally devastating of the series—Sinatra must have been satisfied with the result. He wouldn’t return to the genre for another 22 years (with the equally devastating “She Shot Me Down”).

With “No One Cares,” Sinatra’s plan was to make the single saddest album ever conceived, choosing 12 of the most melancholy songs he could find, and chose as his accomplice dour string master Gordon Jenkins to envelop the songs in the weepiest string arrangements ever imagined. The result is pure misery set to music. Obviously, “No One Cares” is not intended as a party album, unless the party is being held at the county morgue. Personally, I find the album difficult to enjoy. One or two sad songs, perhaps, but not enough to fill an entire album. Unlike the previous suicide albums (or saloon albums as they are better known—“suicide” was Frank Jr.’s term), there is no relief. It's as if the sun has been blotted out and all light and love and hope have been forever vanquished. “A Cottage For Sale” may be the darkest of all songs on the subject of divorce. And the darkness continues with “Here’s That Rainy Day,” “I’ll Never Smile Again,” and “None But The Lonely Heart”, and continues with seven more gloomy cuts. While listening, avoid sharp objects–and by all means keep a box of tissues nearby.

(2) FRANCIS A. AND EDWARD K. (1968)

The album that almost wasn’t. Yes, Sinatra had been wanting to make a record with (Edward K.) Duke Ellington for a very long time, and Ellington was signed to Sinatra’s label (Reprise Records), but the two could not reconcile their busy schedules and actually get together to make a record. Finally, the opportunity arrived, in December 1967. Recording dates were scheduled. Billy May wrote the charts and flew up to Seattle to meet with Ellington's band. May gave the charts to Duke Ellington who promised to rehearse the new material and be ready to record when his troupe arrived in Los Angeles in two weeks. Of course, nothing of the sort happened. When the Big Day arrived, it was quickly apparent that Ellington and his band had not rehearsed a single note. There was little time to rehearse and, as May discovered, several of Ellington's musicians were having trouble sight-reading the charts. Call off the session and try for another time? No—there might not be another time. May got on the phone and called a number of seasoned studio pros who could sight read music. When they arrived, he placed them around the room as ringers, and began rehearsals. Sinatra arrived some time later and, to complicate matters, had a cold and was not in the best of voice. The singer was determined to go ahead anyway, despite the less-than-ideal circumstances. The result? You’d never know there’d been a problem. The album is a decided change of pace for what was to be another Sinatra swing album: the cuts are longer, the tempos are medium-paced, the playing divine, and Sinatra’s singing is subdued but heartfelt.

(3) Ol' BLUE EYES IS BACK (1973)

Few believed Frank Sinatra would stay retired, and he didn’t. He loved singing too much—and making records. After two years on the golf courses of Palm Springs and Palm Beach, “Ol’ Blues Eyes is Back” marked the Chairman’s return. It’s a pleasant album, comprised of pleasant songs, but it’s hardly a Sinatra classic. Four of the songs were composed by Joe Raposo (of Sesame Street fame), one of which stands out: “There Used to Be a Ballpark.” Sinatra sings it affectionately, probably recalling his days at Ebbets Field, watching the Brooklyn Dodgers, before they packed up and moved to Los Angeles. Two other tunes are notable: Stephen Sondheim’s splendiferous, "Send in the Clowns” (with a lovely Gordon Jenkins' arrangement), and Paul Anka’s ode to optimism, “Let Me Try Again” (arranged by Don Costa). Still, the album does not sound of a whole, possibly because the arrangements were the work of two people rather than one. Indeed, no two arrangers could be such polar opposites as Gordon Jenkins (the dour string master), and Don Costa (the happy prince of pop charts). In the future Sinatra would stick with one arranger and choose songs that put a greater demand on his considerable talents.

(4) L.A. IS MY LADY (1984)

This time, Sinatra’s timing was a tad off. He had scored big with songs about London (“A Foggy Day”), Chicago (“My Kind of Town”), and New York (“Theme From New York, New York”), and now he hoped to do the same with a song about his adopted home of Los Angeles, entitled “L.A. Is My Lady.” It was especially fitting because Los Angeles was hosting the summer Olympics that year. Only someone beat him to the punch, wry singer/songwriter Randy Newman with his artful, infectious “I Love L.A.” Newman's take on L.A. was a huge hit that sucked the air out of “L.A. Is My Lady,” both the song and the album. Too bad. “L.A. Is My Lady”, while unappreciated at the time, has held up remarkably well and sounds more compelling than ever. It's a free-wheeling jazz jamboree featuring an all-star cast of jazz greats, under the direction of famed arranger Quincy Jones.

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Work of My Sons
 

Morning Softly - Water Echoes Movement
-Released in 2014. Bill made guitar riffs and synth tracks at home, got Lya Finston to write some lyrics and sing, and got Scott to provide some bass.

Morning Softly - Early Eerie Feeling
-Recorded in 2014. Songs written by Bill, at home. Synthesizers were added later. Some drumming done by Brendan Lenihan.

Scott Nisley - Brick City Skies
-Released in 2014. With his piano melodies and vocals, Scott entrusted the production of his album to several studio musicians.

The 45's - Roof-Hopping
-Recorded in 2010. A collaborative effort between Scott and Bill Nisley, Adam Sherman, and Zach Belka.


Oh, Yeah...
 

Richard Nisley's Brothers in Cars
Thanksgiving Day, 1967. From L to R: my brothers David, Charles, and Rob. Photo by John Nisley.
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