December 28, 2011

New England as One of the 'Nine Nations' of North America




When I was around 12-years-old, my aunts and uncles thought it'd be fun to take us cousins down to North Carolina, where one of our long-lost relatives had a "beach house" on the coast. As it turned out, that house wasn't exactly on the coast, but was instead on a man-made channel, which the locals referred to as "the ditch."

On the first day of chatting with our neighbors on the ditch, it became clear that we had entered an entirely different world. Our spitfire Boston accents resonated in stark contrast to their laid-back Southern drawls, while our get-up-and-go!-go!-go! approach to the day's events were clearly at odds with their let's-sit-back-and-stay-awhile mentality. After just minutes of conversation, these obvious linguistic and cultural differences prompted one of our North Carolina neighbors to inquire facetiously, "Are y'all from northern North Carolina?"

That trip marked the first time that I would witness, first-hand, the concept of there being different cultural regions, or nations, within the confines of the United States. In 1981, Joel Garreau of the Washington Post divided not only the United States, but all of North America into nine cultural nations. Garreau's divisions were based on social and economic data that he gathered during two years of traveling across the continent.

You can see the nine nations on the map above, as well as on the map below:



One of the first things you might notice about New England as a cultural nation is that it extends beyond the United States. In addition to Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont and Maine, Garreau's New England includes the Canadian areas of Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and Labrador. The reason for their inclusion stems from the fact that these are coastal, predominantly Anglophone (English-speaking) areas of Canada, which share more cultural traits with their Anglophone, American neighbors to the south than they do with their Francophone (French-speaking), Quebecois neighbors to the west.

Here are some of the cultural traits, which, according to Garreau, are characteristic of the New England nation (bear in mind that these are from 1981):

  • New Englanders consider themselves to be more civilized than people from other areas 

  • New Englanders consider themselves to be academic elitists

  • New Englanders have strong, independent characters and are known for their "shrewd trading" and ingenuity

  • New England's cultural imagery includes cast-iron wood stoves, multicolored autumn leaves and maple syrup

  • New England's scenery and surroundings (woodlands, waters) are its primary social and economic assets

  • The dominant industries are leather, apparel and textiles. However, "New England is rapidly transforming itself into North America's first truly twenty-first-century, postindustrial society, and, as such, it is again a land of pioneers." High technology = the future of the New England economy.


 What do you think of Garreau's assessment? Leave a comment below.


Resources:

Marvin Harris and Cultural Materialism: Robert N. St. Clair, University of Louisville
http://epistemic-forms.com/FacSite/Articles/marvin-harris-culture-material.html

Harper College: Nine Nations of North America
http://harpercollege.edu/~mhealy/g101ilec/namer/nac/nacnine/na9new/na9newfr.htm

December 22, 2011

The Puritan War on Christmas in New England: A Timeline



1620

The Pilgrims come to New England, riding a wave of uber-orthodox religious fervor. Christmas is not a recognized holiday. Instead of getting their jollies on with some hearty cups of eggnog (like Captain John Smith's heathens did down in Jamestown back in 1607), the Pilgrims spend December 25th building shelter. Oh, what fun!

1621

Governor Bradford recognizes that some of his Plymouth settlers, specifically those who are sympathetic towards the Church of England (later known as the Episcopal Church), want some time off on December 25th so that they can worship at home. But when the governor discovers these same settlers playing games out in the street on Christmas Day (instead of devoting their attention to the divine), everyone is ordered back to work.

1659

The General Court of the Massachusetts Bay Colony officially bans the celebration of Christmas. The Court also places bans on other holidays, gambling and essentially all forms of merrymaking. According to Court records, anyone who is caught "observing any such day as Christmas or the like, either by forbearing of labor, feasting, or any other way" must pay a fine of five shillings to the county "for every such offence [offense]." 


1681

A glimmer of hope! After two decades of Grinch-like rule, the English-appointed governor, Sir Edmund Andros, lifts the ban on Christmas. However, despite Christmas regaining its legality, the Puritan spirit prevails and the majority of New Englanders continue to abstain from Yuletide celebrations.

1712

Reverend Cotton Mather (son of Reverend Increase Mather, who was involved in the Salem Witch Trials) condemns the "wanton Bacchanalian" that is Christmas. According to Mather, Christmas is "dominated by a lord of misrule, who did not hesitate to invade the churches in a time of service..." Despite this condemnation, New England's Church of England/Episcopal Church congregations openly celebrate the December holiday. A few New Englanders from other congregations participate in the Christmas festivities, but the puritanical Congregationalists continue on with their abstention.

1823

In Connecticut, Hartford's Brick Meeting House, which also serves as the city's First Congregational Church, holds its inaugural Christmas service. The Hartford Courant endorses this progressive move, citing, "It has been the wish of many pious people among those whose form of worship differs from the Episcopal Church that the day which gave birth to the Saviour of the world should be generally commemorated by appropriate religious services." Throughout the 1820s and 1830s, Christmas celebrations become more widely accepted across New England. 

1832

German immigrant and Harvard professor, Charles Follen, introduces the tradition of the decorated Christmas tree to New England during a party at his Cambridge home. However, instead of setting up an evergreen tree on the floor in the corner of a room, Follen set up his tree on the dining table.

1870

Christmas is declared a federal holiday on June 26th; the Puritan war on Christmas in New England is officially over.

Source materials: 
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December 20, 2011

5 Reasons Why 'Fairytale of New York' Is the Greatest Christmas Song Ever


If you've never heard "Fairytale of New York" by The Pogues (featuring Kirsty MacColl), stop what you're doing, grab yourself an eggnog, a hot toddy or an equally heartwarming beverage and prepare your ears for some Yuletide euphoria.

Released in 1987, and written by Pogues' founders Shane MacGowan and Jem Finer, "Fairytale of New York" is a sweeping ballad that follows the drunken Christmas Eve exploits of an Irish emigrant in New York City. As IrishCentral recently reported, the song is the "most played Christmas classic of the century."

So what is it about "Fairytale of New York" -- a song that National University of Ireland lecturer, Joe Cleary, once referred to as "a twisted love song" -- that makes it so popular? Here's what I've come up with: 

5. Unorthodox Narrative 

How many Christmas songs begin with the song's protagonist languishing away in a police station's drunk tank? Answer: none (although, that could change if I move forward with writing the much anticipated, "Fairytale of Boston"). In contrast to your typical Christmas songs, "Fairytale of New York" does not focus on the merrymaking of jovial characters, like Frosty, Santa or the mommy that kisses Santa. Instead, it focuses on two young people -- with a love/hate relationship -- who are struggling with alcoholism and drug addiction. Merry Christmas!

4. Underlying Social Significance

In addition to having an unorthodox narrative, the backstory to "Fairytale of New York" is unusual for a Christmas song. While one might argue that "Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer" is a vehicle for promoting racial equality, the message becomes a bit convoluted by the flying reindeer and nasal luminescence. In comparison, "Fairytale of New York" has very clear social undertones, as the two bickering lovers in the song are undoubtedly Irish emigrants, who are bewildered by the "cars big as bars." As the song progresses, we learn about the realities of Irish emigration and how fairytale lives are not always possible (even in a city with "rivers of gold").


3. Duet Dynamics 

Think of a popular Christmas song that is almost always performed as a duet. Exactly, "Baby, It's Cold Outside." Good job! Now, think of another one.

Apart from the 1944 Frank Loesser classic (mentioned above), "Fairytale of New York" is really the only Christmas song that unambiguously requires male and female  -- or low and high -- parts. The call-and-response portions of the song, when the two characters exchange blows, are especially entertaining. And in the original recording of "Fairytale of New York," the way MacGowan's crude, pagan voice contrasts with MacColl's sweet, angelic voice has a certain enchanting quality to it.

2. Memorable References

If you're going to write a song that references other songs, as well as a famous person, follow MacGowan's and Finer's lead: reference awesome, classic songs and an awesome, classic famous person. "Fairytale of New York" mentions two, well-known traditional Irish songs in the following lines: "And then he sang a song / 'The Rare Old Mountain Dew'" and "The boys of the NYPD choir /
Were singing 'Galway Bay'." By referencing these two classics, MacGowan and Finer illuminate the Irish roots of the characters, despite the fact that the all of the action takes place in New York. Conversely, to emphasize the New York setting, the songwriters' mention Frank in the memorable line, "Sinatra was swinging / All the drunks they were singing."

1. Offensive Language

Let's face it: Christmas songs suffer from a deplorable lack of profanity. MacGowan and Finer did their best to change that.

The first time you listen to "Fairytale of New York," you're swaying, you're getting in that Christmas spirit, you're feeling jolly and then all of a sudden you stop and think to yourself, "Wait, did he really just call her that?" And then soon after you think, "Holy crap, did she really just call him that?!?" Of course, the answer to both of these questions is "Yes." The lyrics are here for you to read. But before you label The Pogues a bunch of intolerant bigots, remember that the "F" word in question apparently has a different meaning in Irish/Liverpudlian slang: it refers to a lazy person.

Controversy aside, offensive language is a part of everyday life, both in New York and elsewhere. MacGowan and Finer use this language to bring a sense of realism to a genre of music that is typically overrun with whimsical, fairytale-like prose.

"Fairytale of New York" Chords and Lyrics 

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December 19, 2011

A Wicked Bard Review of 'A Christmas Celtic Sojourn' in Boston

Melissa McCarthy performing a slip jig at A Christmas Celtic Sojourn (image courtesy of The Irish Echo)
Prior to attending A Christmas Celtic Sojourn with Brian O'Donovan at the Cutler Majestic Theatre this past weekend, my aunt warned me that I would need to "drink heavily" if I were to enjoy the show. This was my dad's sister, on the Irish side of my family.

A few years back, my mother had gathered up the Devaney clan -- my aunt included -- and gleefully brought them to the Culter Majestic for A Christmas Celtic Sojourn. She was fully convinced that my father's siblings, all spirited Irish Americans, would thoroughly enjoy the festive display of traditional Irish music, dance and storytelling. Boy, was she wrong.

Apart from my father, who has a penchant for Celtic culture (Druidism is his current religion of choice), my mother, who is half Swedish and half Italian, was the only one who truly enjoyed the show. The others found it uneventful and boring.

I think the issue here is that a A Christmas Celtic Sojourn is not a Christmas spectacular: there is no flying Santa Claus, no pyrotechnics and while there are plenty of high kicks with the Irish step dancing, there is not chorus line of Rockettes. Furthermore, if you think Celtic music is all about no nay never no mores (The Wild Rover) and mush-a ring dum-a do dum-a das (Whiskey in the Jar), A Christmas Celtic Sojourn may disappoint. There are lots of instrumentals, a handful of slow airs and several traditional Irish Christmas carols that the average New Englander might not be familiar with.

Personally, I enjoyed the show immensely. And I think part of the reason for my enjoyment was due to the fact that I could recognize A Christmas Celtic Sojourn for what it was: a gathering of incredibly, incredibly talented performers who are passionate about what they do.

Hammer dulcimer virtuoso, Simon Chrisman





There was Kieren O'Hare, who has inspired me to invest in a set of uilleann pipes (much to the dismay of my girlfriend and -- more-than-likely -- my neighbors). There was Simon Chrisman, who pushed the limits of what one can accomplish with the hammer dulcimer (which is an instrument that you've likely heard before even if you've never heard of it before). There was Rhode Islander Kevin Doyle, the US Irish dance champion who seemed to defy gravity with his steps. And, of course, there were the young step dancing sensations from the Harney Academy of Irish Dancing who brought ear-to-ear smiles to the faces of audience members.

Apart from the show's host, master storyteller Brian O'Donovan, the star of A Christmas Celtic Sojourn was undoubtedly singer/songwriter Ruth Moody of Wailin' Jennys fame. There's nothing I can write that can do her talent justice. Just listen to her voice (and her original songs). If I were to make one preachy, over-the-top statement about the state of music in America, it would be as follows: we need fewer image-obsessed, overly theatrical, overproduced showboats, like Lady Gaga, and more artists, like Ruth Moody, who let their raw talent and passion do the talking for them.

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December 14, 2011

Top 10 Quotes About New England: The Land of 'Ironic Pessimism'



In no particular order...


"What New England is, is a state of mind, a place where dry humor and perpetual disappointment blend to produce an ironic pessimism that folks from away find most perplexing." 
- Willem Lange

"To the rest of the country, New England has always stood in much the same relation as England has to America -- that of spiritual homeland and mother country."
- B.A. Botkin

"New England is quite as large a lump of earth as my heart can really take in."

- Nathaniel Hawthorne

"The New England conscience does not stop you from doing what you shouldn't -- it just stops you from enjoying it." 
- Cleveland Amory

"The most serious charge which can be brought against New England is not Puritanism but February."
- Joseph Wood Krutch

"New England has a harsh climate, a barren soil, a rough and stormy coast, and yet we love it, even with a love passing that of dwellers in more favored regions."
    - Henry Cabot Lodge

"There is no pleasing New Englanders, my dear, their soil is all rocks and their hearts are bloodless absolutes."
- John Updike

“If you don't like the weather in New England now, just wait a few minutes.”
- Mark Twain

“Oh, the ignorance of us upon whom Providence did not sufficiently smile to permit us to be born in New England”
- Horace Porter

"I moved to New England partly because it has a real literary past. The ghosts of Hawthorne and Melville still sit on those green hills. The worship of Mammon is also somewhat lessened there by the spirit of irony. I don't get hay fever in New England either."
- John Updike

Sources:

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December 9, 2011

Boston Irish by the Numbers: Some Insight into the Early Days of the Irish in Boston

In 1847, the first big wave of Irish emigrants escaping the Irish Famine (also known as the Great Famine, the Great Potato Famine and An Gorta Mor) made their way to Boston.

During this year, 37,000 Irish landed in the Hub.

Prior to the arrival of these Irish immigrants, Boston was a primarily Anglo-Saxon community with approximately 115,000 residents.

Many of these residents were descendants of English Puritans and could trace their lineage back to 1620, when the Mayflower landed in Plymouth.

Needless to say, when Irish Catholics came pouring into Boston some 230 years later, the English Protestants were none too happy.

'Emigrant arrival at Constitution Wharf, Boston' by Winslow Homer
These English Bostonians mocked and laughed at the Irish immigrants, due to the fact that their clothes were "out of fashion" by 20 years.

Landlords in Boston would charge Irish families $1.50 per week to live in single rooms, which lacked ventilation, sanitation, water and -- in some instances -- windows.

A typical room rented to an Irish family in Boston had dimensions of 9 ft by 11 ft.

By dividing up a three-story house room-by-room, a Boston landlord could accommodate 100 Irish, which made for a tidy profit.

Due to the unsanitary living conditions that the Irish were faced with, 60% of Irish children born in Boston during the mid-19th century died before the age of 6.

Approximately 1,500 Irish children roamed the streets of Boston begging and stirring up mischief during this time. 

On average, Irish adults lived just 6 more years after arriving in Boston.

In Boston, an Irish worker could earn up to $1 per day, which was considerably more than the per day an Irish worker might earn back in Ireland. Unfortunately, English Bostonians were largely unwilling to hire the Irish and hung up signs reading "No Irish Need Apply" on the oustides of workshops, factories and stores.


For more information on Boston Irish history, as well as Irish American history in general, check out The History Place, which was where I found the info for this post.

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December 7, 2011

Massachusetts Remembers Pearl Harbor with Ceremony at Battleship Cove

Today, December 7, 2011 marks the 70th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor; an attack that claimed the lives of more than 2,000 Americans and prompted the United States to enter World War II.

Battleships Burning at Pearl Harbor: December 7 (courtesy of History.com/Corbis)
To commemorate the victims of the attack on Pearl Harbor, a memorial ceremony will be held today at Battleship Cove in Fall River, Massachusetts. The ceremony is set to begin at 12:55 p.m., which is the time (on the East Coast) when the Japanese commenced their two-hour long aerial assault on the American naval base near Honolulu, Hawaii.

Today's ceremony at Battleship Cove will feature Manuel Martin of Westport, who is one of the area's last remaining survivors of the Pearl Harbor attack. A film, “The Pearl Harbor Experience at Battleship Cove” (complete with specialized visual and audio effects), will also be played.

Battleship Cove is home to a Pearl Harbor exhibit, which is on the second deck of the USS Massachusetts. Two Pearl Harbor memorials are also on board the battleship: one is inside the BB59 Memorial Room while the other is at Turret Three. The Massachusetts Chapter of the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association dedicated both memorials.

The largest Pearl Harbor memorial in the Bay State, however, stretches directly over Battleship Cove. Braga Bridge, which connects Fall River to Swansea via I-195, is named for Fall River-native Charles M. Braga, Jr.

Braga, who was a sailor aboard the USS Pennsylvania, lost his life in the Pearl Harbor attack. He is remembered as the first serviceman from Fall River to die in World War II.

The USS Massachusetts with Braga Bridge in the background (courtesy of travel.gather.com)
For more information about Pearl Harbor history, Battleship Cove and today's memorial ceremony, visit:

December 2, 2011

Boston's Celtic Music Fest (BCMFest) to Celebrate 9th Anniversary in January, 2012


Do you live in the Boston area? Do you love Celtic music? Are you looking for something fun to do on Friday, January 6th and Saturday, January 7th?

If you answered "yes" to the above questions, you should seriously consider picking up some tickets to the ninth annual BCMFest (Boston's Celtic Music Fest). The weekend festival will showcase Greater Boston's top musicians and dancers from the Irish, Scottish, Cape Breton and other Celtic traditions.

Founded by local Celtic musicians Laura Cortese (Scottish fiddle) and Shannon Heaton (Irish flute), the BCMFest organization, which puts on the annual concert as well as other Celtic music events, lists the four following objectives on its website:
  1. To produce locally-based Irish, Scottish and Cape Breton music and dance in an upbeat and all-ages friendly environment. 
  2. To bolster appreciation for traditional Celtic music and dance among youth and the greater Boston community. 
  3. To support a living, changing tradition by encouraging cross-genre collaboration and innovation among dancers and musicians of all generations. 
  4. To produce a variety of collaborative projects and performances for, in and of the greater Boston community. 
    BCMFest 2012 will kick off on January 6th at 7pm with the Roots and Branches concert at Club Passim. The concert promises to offer a "fresh take on Celtic music from North America to Europe and back again" and will include a "diverse roster of special guests." 
     
    Triple Spiral
    Following Roots and Branches, a parade will leave from Club Passim and make its way to The Atrium for Boston Urban Ceilidh.  At Boston Urban Ceilidh, festival-goers will be able to experience a variety of dance music styles, including Scottish (Neil Pearlman and Friends), Breton (Triple Spiral) and New England contra (The Reiner Brothers).
     
    At BCMFest 2012's Saturday Dayfest, performers will include:

    Matt Heaton and Flynn Cohen will spearhead the festival's Saturday finale concert. They will be joined by "some of Greater Boston's most notable Celtic musicians, singers and dancers."

    For more information on BCMFest 2012, visit http://bcmfest.com/.
    Click here for ticket prices.
    You can find BCMFest on Twitter at @BCMFest.
    You can find me on Twitter at @TheBardOfBoston.