Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘history’

23 AUGUST, 2011

11 Piano Lessons in 9 Minutes from Iconic Jazz Pianist Earl Hines

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A brief history of jazz piano techniques.

Earl “Fatha” Hines is considered by many the most influential jazz pianist in history. In this fantastic vintage television segment, Fatha explains his influences through delightful and fascinating biographical anecdotes and, in the process, offers what’s essentially 11 piano technique lessons in just 9 minutes. Marvel and enjoy:

For more on Fatha’s legacy and key role in shaping jazz, see Ted Gioia’s sweeping The History of Jazz, part of our (Almost) Everything You Need to Know about Culture in 10 Books omnibus.

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23 AUGUST, 2011

The Myth of Popular Culture: Why ‘Highbrow’ & ‘Lowbrow’ Don’t Work

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From Dante to Dylan, or what nineteenth-century phrenology has to do with the codification of bigotry.

We’ve come to accept intellectual stimulation and pop culture fetishism as diametric opposites, frequently pulling us, our attention, and our personal growth in conflicting directions. But, it turns out, this might be a tragic oversimplification at best, if not a complete fallacy. In The Myth of Popular Culture: From Dante to Dylan, cultural critic Perry Meisel offers a bold defense of pop culture by arguing against the traditional, socialized distinction between “high” and “low” culture through a thoughtful analysis of three hallmarks of contemporary culture — the American novel, Hollywood, and British and American rock music. He traces back some 500 years of influences, sociopolitical anxieties and historical events, from the evolution of music genres like folk and soul to the legacy of political ideologies like Marxism to the social footprint of Freudian theory, ultimately showing how Bob Dylan — the epitome of pop culture — not only blurred but fully erased the line between “high” and “low” culture.

Meisel takes the seminal work of philosopher and critic Theodor Adorno and practically turns it against itself:

The myth of pop culture — Adorno’s myth — is that it is not dialectical. The truth is that it is. Like high art, pop, too — contra Adorno — has a conversation both with its sources, which it revises and transforms, and with cultural authority as a whole, which it also revises and transforms.”

(This idea, of course, isn’t entirely new. Five years prior to Meisel, Steven Johnson argued in Everything Bad is Good for You: How Today’s Popular Culture is Actually Making Us Smarter that IQ scores in the west have risen steadily in the past few decades not merely despite but because of pop culture.)

Among Meisel’s fascinating semi-asides is a discussion of the origins of “highbrow” and “lowbrow,” rooted in some of humanity’s most shameful episodes of socially condoned bigotry.

The terms ‘highbrow’ and ‘lowbrow’ come from phrenology, the nineteenth-century science of regarding the shape of the skull as a key to intelligence. A ‘high’ forehead meant intelligence; a ‘low’ one meant stupidity. Phrenology thrived as a popular science in the late nineteenth century and led eventually to the racial theories of the Nazis, for whom the Jewish cranium and pale, sunken face were clear indications of Jewish racial inferiority.”

Dense but remarkably articulate, with a formidable citations list spanning from the Sex Pistols to Susan Sontag, The Myth of Popular Culture spins a fascinating story of how our common culture came to be and why we should think twice about our intellectual reservations towards the products of pop culture.

HT The Atlantic; image via The Library of Congress

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22 AUGUST, 2011

Noam Chomsky Explains the Cold War in 5 Minutes

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What the gist of the Cold War can teach us about the nature of international violence, peace, and democracy.

The projects of art photographers notwithstanding, the Cold War was no Wonderland. It was, rather, arguably the most significant nonviolent political conflict in modern history. In this rare footage from a 1985 discussion, Noam Chomsky — one of our era’s greatest living thinkers — explains the whole complex phenomenon of the Cold War in just over five minutes, without resorting to reductionism and oversimplification.

Through history, there has been no correlation between the internal freedom of a society and its violence and aggression abroad. For example, England was the freest country in the world in the 19th century, and in India it acted like the Nazis did. The United States is the most open — politically speaking, forget any social issues — and freest society in the world, and it also has the most brutal record of violence and aggression in the world.”

For an intelligent history of the Cold War, you won’t go wrong with The Great Cold War: A Journey Through the Hall of Mirrors by former British diplomat Gordon Barrass, and for a more controversial take, see David Hoffman’s Pulitzer-winning The Dead Hand: The Untold Story of the Cold War Arms Race and Its Dangerous Legacy, the first comprehensive account of how the Cold War arms race finally came to an end and what its legacy means for today’s concerns about nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons.

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19 AUGUST, 2011

Savoy Cocktail Book: Retro Recipes for Drinks from the 1920s-1930s

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Derby Fizzes, Gin Daisies, Harvard Coolers, and other Prohibition-era treats for your next dinner party.

For all its blessings and fascinations, retromania is easily at its most delicious when it comes to vintage food and drink, from the cocktails of Mad Men to yesteryear’s bizarre food concoctions. But there’s hardly a better way to add some vintage class to your life than with the Savoy Cocktail Book — a compendium of drink recipes from the 1920s and 30s when Prohibition-dodging Americans visited London’s iconic Savoy bar for “tea-dances” and “mixed drinks” shaken and stirred by iconic American barman Harry Craddock, who invented the White Lady and popularized the Dry Martini. Originally published in 1930, the book features 750 of Craddock’s most beloved recipes, from Slings to Smashes, Fizzes to Flips, alongside stunning art-deco illustrations that capture the era’s elegance and sophistication.

Currently out of print but snaggable used on Amazon, the Savoy Cocktail Book is at once a priceless time-capsule of a long-gone era and a powerful weapon for impressing your guests at your next dinner party.

via How To Be A Retronaut

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