January 14, 1500: For the Ass Was a Donkey, You See

The Feast of the Ass held on January 14 from around 1100 until 1500 was meant as much as teach-in as a party-in, a way to present religious doctrine to the illiterati who had no books or Internet access. This festival, held primarily in France as a cousin to the Feast of Fools, celebrated the flight of Joseph, Mary and Jesus into Egypt.

Traditionally, the most beautiful young woman in the village splendidly attired in gold-embroidered cloth, carrying a small child and riding a donkey would be led in a solemn procession through the town to the church. The donkey would stand beside the altar while a mock Mass was performed. Instead of the usual responses to the priest, the congregation would “hee-haw.” At the end of the service, instead of the usual benediction, the priest would bray three times and the congregation would respond with another round of hee-hawing. The choir would then offer up a hymn and everyone would bray along — except for the ass who thought the whole thing rather ridiculous and that these people were all making you know whats of themselves.

Another story from these Years of the Ass featured King Henry IV (of France not England as in yesterday’s post). The king was visiting a small town where he found himself listening to and growing tired of a long and rather stupid being delivered by the mayor. As the mayor spoke a donkey brayed loudly and the king with a tone of the greatest gravity and politeness, said: “Pray, gentlemen, speak one at a time, if you please.”

How Cold Was It?

January 14 is also St. Hilary’s Day which honors 4th century bishop St. Hilarius who sounds like a pretty jolly fellow.  In England, the day is considered the coldest day of the year, probably because of the great frost that began on this day in 1205 and lasted through March.  In many subsequent years, folks would hold festivals with thousands of them stomping around on the frozen Thames.

. . . pickpockets were sticking their hands in strangers’ pockets just to keep them warm.

. . .  politicians had their hands in their own pockets.

. . . the squirrels in the park were throwing themselves at an electric fence.

. . . when I turned on the shower I got hail.

. . . mice were playing hockey in the toilet bowl.



January 13, 1404: Silver Threads and Golden Needles

On January 13, 1404, the British Parliament under the guidance of King Henry IV signed into law an act that would endear them all to millions of today’s schoolkids — the Act Against Multipliers. Oops. Turns out he wasn’t outlawing multiplication tables. Back then multipliers were what we know as alchemists.

Alchemy actually had a somewhat noble background. Alchemists sought to purify, mature and perfect certain things — an elixir of immortality here, a cure-all for disease there, perfection of the human body, perfection of the human soul. But what really got the alchemists’ juices flowing was the use of philosopher’s stone to transform base metals into “noble metals” such as gold and silver.

And that’s exactly what Henry was making illegal — the possibility of some commoner making himself very rich, causing a redistribution of wealth and income equality that would bring ruin on the state. It would be as if in the U.S. today any Tom Dick or Harry could own as large and garish hotel as a president.

Therefore “none from henceforth should use to multiply gold or silver, or use the craft of multiplication, and if any the same do, they incur the pain of felony.” Off with their heads, most likely.

Philosopher’s stone is available from Amazon.

Where’s a Henry IV When You Need Him?

On January 13, 1854, alchemist turned musical inventor Anthony Foss received a patent for his accordion, a strange device shaped like a box with a bellows that is compressed or expanded while pressing buttons or keys which cause pallets to open and air to flow across strips of brass or steel, creating something that vaguely resembles music. It is sometimes called a squeezebox. The person playing it is called an accordionist (or squeezeboxer?)

The harmonium and concertina are cousins. And, yes, there is a World Accordion Day.

M – I – C.  K – E – Y . . .

The first Mickey Mouse comic strip appeared on January 13, 1930:


January 10, 49 BC: Wade in the Water

Back in 49BC, Julius Caesar was a mere governor commissioned by the Roman Senate to oversee a portion of the empire that stretched from Gaul to Illyricum (pretty much most of today’s Europe except Italy). When his term of governorship ended, the Senate ordered Caesar to disband his army and return to Rome. Whatever you do, Julie baby, don’t bring that army across the Rubicon River for that is treason and insurrection and very bad manners. Oh, and the punishment is death.

Caesar may have misunderstood for didn’t he just up and cross the Rubicon into Italy on January 10. His biographer suggests that he was under the control of a supernatural apparition (the Devil made him do it). Willful or not, Caesar is said to have shouted “alia iacta est” as he and his merry men waded across the shallow river (or ‘the die has been cast,” certainly more dramatic in Latin).

Crossing the Rubicon was a declaration of war, but instead of arresting Caesar the Roman Senate fled Rome in fear. Caesar, far from being condemned to death, became dictator for life. Sometimes it’s good to cross the Rubicon. Crossing the Rubicon has endured as a phrase meaning passing a point of no return.

The Hole in My Record Is Bigger Than the Hole in Your Record

RCA Victor it might be said crossed the Rubicon when on January 10, 1949, it introduced a new kind of record — a vinyl disc, just seven inches in diameter with a great big hole in the middle, the 45 (referring to its revolutions per minute). The 45 replaced the big noisy shellac disc that rotated at a breakneck 78 rpm. The first 45 rpm single was “Peewee the Piccolo.” Remember it?

January 6, 1993: Swinger in Chief

Legendary jazz trumpeter John Birks Gillespie, who was born in 1917 and died on January 6, 1993, was instantly recognizable by his beret and horn-rimmed glasses, his bent horn and puffed cheeks. “Dizzy” was known for his bebop improvisation and scat singing. What he wasn’t known for was being President of the United States, although he might have had things gone a little differently back in 1964.

“Dizzy for President” badges began to appear in 1963 although Lyndon Johnson and Barry Goldwater didn’t feel all that threatened by a Dizzy candidacy. What started as a joke and a bit of fundraising for CORE (Congress of Racial Equality) gathered a pretty good head of steam before the money ran out. But what a presidency he offered.

He wrote and performed his own campaign song: “Your politics ought to be a groovier thing, so get a good president who’s willing to swing. Vote Dizzy! Vote Dizzy!” He promised, if elected, to work for civil rights and equal opportunity in the workplace. To make certain employers were blind to race, he would have job applicants where sheets over their heads to hide their skin color.

He planned to change the name of the White House to the Blues House.

He even went so far as to name his dream cabinet. Miles Davis would be director the the CIA, Louis Armstrong Minister of Agriculture. Ray Charles, Ella Fitzgerald, Thelonious Monk, Woody Herman, Peggy Lee, and Count Basie would all have positions in his administration. Drummer Max Roach wanted to be Secretary of War, but Dizzy said no, because there wouldn’t be one.

If Only He’d Carried a Trumpet Up San Juan Hill

Although he was not a swinging prez, Teddy Roosevelt who died on rooseveltJanuary 6, 1919, was a president of many firsts – and mosts and onlys. Taking office in 1901 at the age of 42, he was our youngest president. (In 1904, he became the first president elected to a term in his own right after having ascended to the presidency from the Vice-Presidency upon the death of his predecessor.) In 1902, he became the first president to ride in an automobile, and in 1905, the first to submerge in a submarine. He was also the first to fly in an airplane. He was the first American to win a Nobel Peace Prize (1906) and one of only three Presidents to ever win it.

Roosevelt was probably the only president to carry a big stick, which may have given him the confidence to be the only president never to use the word “I” in an inaugural address. He was the only one-eyed president, after losing the sight in one eye in a 1904 boxing match with a professional fighter. Though not the only military hero who became president, he was the only one to lead a charge up San Juan Hill.

And he was the only president named after an animal – the teddy bear – although two later presidents were named after plants.



January 2, 1920: Here Come the Commies, Build That Wall

It was 1920 and America was gripped with fear. The country was under siege by moral perverts bent on destroying goodness, virtue and the American way of life. Spawned by the Russian Revolution of a few years earlier, the Red Menace was upon us.

Where was an American hero who would do something — build a wall, perhaps, to keep out the Bolsheviks, anarchists and labor militants not to mention Mexican rapists and murderers? U. S. Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer stepped to the fore. On this day in 1920, he dispatched federal agents to pool halls, restaurants and private homes in thirty-five American cities (sanctuary cities?) to round up some six thousand radicals. No warrant? No problem. Civil liberties were meant for true Americans.

“The nation owes a debt of gratitude to A. Mitchell Palmer,” said the New York Herald. “And now let there be no mawkish sentimentality about these rascals, no prattling of the sacred right of free speech from parlor socialists and others of that ilk.”

The near hysteria subsided in a few months when Palmer’s “imminent revolution” was a no-show, but ethnic profiling and guilt by innuendo had been let out of the bag. Perhaps, they would wither and die here? Or perhaps not. Among the army of federal agents unleashed by Palmer was a 24-year-old staunch anti-Communist fanatic named J. Edgar Hoover.

They’re Not Folk, They’re Fellow Travelers

The Weavers burst onto the popular music scene in 1950.  The group, founded in 1948 by Pete Seeger along with Lee Hays, Ronnie Gilbert and Fred Hellerman, brought a hard-driving string-band style to a mix of traditional folk songs from around the world, blues, gospel music, children’s songs, labor songs, and American ballads. Their recording of “Goodnight Irene,” held the Billboard #1 spot for 13 weeks that summer.

The Weavers went on to sell millions of copies of songs such as “Midnight Special” and “On Top of Old Smoky” at the height of their popularity. Then as fast as their careers had skyrocketed, they were nearly destroyed by the Return of the Red Scare, this installment brought to us by the jovial Joe McCarthy. When it became known that Seeger and Hays had openly embraced the pacifism, internationalism and pro-labor sympathies of the Communist Party during the 1930s, the backlash was swift and brutal. Planned television shows were canceled, the group was placed under FBI surveillance, and Seeger and Hays were called to testify before McCarthy’s House Un-American Activities Committee. The Weavers lost their recording contract with Decca in 1951, and by 1953, they were barred from television and radio and unable to book concert venues. They soon disbanded.

The Weavers enjoyed a comeback in the late 1950s, but the group never shook its right-wing persecutors. Even as late as January 2, 1962, with anti-communist passion declining, their politics were used against them, On that afternoon they were told that a scheduled appearance on The Jack Paar Show would be canceled if they didn’t sign an oath of political loyalty. Every member of the group refused to sign.

Lee Hays died in 1981 shortly after a reunion brought the wandering minstrels back together for a picnic that led to a triumphant return to Carnegie Hall on November 28, 1980, the group’s last ever performance. Pete Seeger never stopped singing until his death in 2014. Ronnie Gilbert died in 2015, Fred Hellerman in 2016.

“If you can exist, and stay the course — not a course of blind obstinacy and faulty conception — but one of decency and good sense, you can outlast your enemies with your honor and integrity intact.” Fred Hellerman, accepting a Grammy Lifetime Achievement  Award for the Weavers in 2006


barry-goldwaterIt’s a great country, where anybody can grow up to be president … except me. – Barry Goldwater, born January 2, 1909 (died 1998)


December 27, 1895: You Can Step on My Blue Suede Shoes, But Don’t You Touch My Stetson

The night was clear and the moon was yellow
And the leaves came tumbling down

Many of us remember the hit recording from 1959 about an unfortunate bit of a barroom business between Billy Lyon and his good friend Stagger Lee. “Stagger Lee” topped the pop charts for Lloyd Price that year. Fewer of us will remember 1928’s “Stack O’ Lee Blues,” a version of the story by Mississippi John Hurt. And fewer still will remember the incident that inspired the song. It took place on December 27, 1895, in St. Louis, Missouri.

Shooting, fighting and general mayhem have found their way into many songs over the years, and often pop songs are based on true incidents – “Tom Dooley,” the “Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” “Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polka Dot Bikini.” The case of “Stag” Lee was duly reported by the St. Louis Daily Globe-Democrat under the headline “Shot in Curtis’s Place.”

I was standing on the corner
When I heard my bulldog bark
He was barkin’ at the two men
Who were gamblin’ in the dark

It was Stagger Lee and Billy
Two men who gambled late
Stagger Lee threw seven
Billy swore that he threw eight

The Globe-Democrat didn’t mention any gambling. According to its account, Stagger Lee and Billy were in “exuberant spirits” thanks to several rounds of John Barleycorn when they got to discussing politics. Well, a couple of “nattering nabobs” and “right-wing Neanderthals” later, the discussion took on heat, and Billy, in a precipitous move, snatched Stagger Lee’s hat from right atop his head. Such a move cannot go unanswered, and it didn’t.

Stagger Lee told Billy
I can’t let you go with that

You have won all my money
And my brand new stetson hat

Stagger Lee went home
And he got his forty-four
Said, I’m goin’ to the barroom
Just to pay that debt I owe

Go Stagger Lee

Stagger Lee drew his revolver and shot Billy in the stomach. When that poor boy fell to the floor Stagger Lee just took his hat from the dead man’s head and coolly strutted away into musical immortality. Go Stagger Lee, Go Stagger Lee.

December 26, 1921: Hi, Ho, Stevarino

Although Steve Allen, born December 26, 1921, was a musician, composer, actor, comedian, and writer, he is best known for his career in television. He first gained national steve-allenattention as a guest host on Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts and then became the first host of The Tonight Show, initiating the format that television talk shows would follow from then on.

Moving from late night to prime time television, he hosted numerous game and variety shows, most notably The Steve Allen Show, going head to head with Ed Sullivan and Maverick on Sunday evenings. It was there he developed the man on the street interviews which featured Don Knotts, Tom Poston and Louis Nye among others.

Allen was a comedy writer and author of more than 50 books, both fiction and nonfiction, including Dumbth, a commentary on the American educational system, and Steve Allen on the Bible, Religion, and Morality.

Allen was also a pianist and a prolific composer, writing over 14,000 songs, some of which were recorded by Perry Como, Margaret Whiting, Steve Lawrence, Eydie Gorme, Les Brown, and Oscar Peterson. He won a Grammy in 1963 for best jazz composition, with his song The Gravy Waltz. He also wrote lyrics for the standards “Picnic” and “South Rampart Street Parade.” He once won a bet with Frankie Laine that he could write 50 songs a day for a week. His output of songs has never been equaled.

He died in 2000.


December 25, 1914: Over There

Just after midnight on December 25, 1914, British, French and Russian troops at European battle fronts were stunned as German joyeauxtroops ceased firing and began to sing Christmas carols — in some cases, even backed up by oompah bands.

World War I had begun five months earlier and would continue for another devastating four years. This spontaneous Christmas truce continued through the night and into daylight when many of the German soldiers emerged from their trenches and called out “Merry Christmas” in their enemies’ native tongues. Finally, Allied soldiers, seeing that the Germans were unarmed, climbed out of their trenches as well. Men from both sides ventured through the so-called No Man’s Land to shake hands with the enemy. The men exchanged small presents and sang carols and songs. In one case, soldiers played an international soccer game.

It was, of course, short-lived as both sides went back to their business of killing each other.  (This true story is told in the 2005 French film Joyeux Noel.)

On Christmas Day in 1941 Bing Crosby introduced a new Christmas song on his weekly NBC radio program. The song, written by Jewish composer and lyricist Irving Berlin, went on to become the gold standard of Christmas music — the top-selling Christmas single ever and the top-selling single of any kind for another 55 years.

The success of “White Christmas” came as no surprise to Berlin, who was already a musical legend. He modestly called it “the best song I ever wrote…the best song anybody ever wrote.” Although Berlin did not celebrate Christmas, it was a day that did hold special meaning to him: his infant son died on December 25, 1928. That perhaps explains some of the ambiguous emotional strength of the song.


November 29, 1924: Don’t Shoot the Soprano

Giacomo Puccini, who died on November 29, 1924, was a giant in Italian opera, unrivaled in orchestration and a sense of theater. Passion, sensuality, tenderness, pathos and despair infused such operas as Manon Lescaut, La Bohème, Madama Butterfly, and Turandot.

Tosca was one of Puccini’s greatest operas, but it seems to have taken on a bit of a curse, like that Scottish play whose title shall not be uttered in the theater. More things have evidently gone awry in Tosca than in any other opera.tosca  A few vivid examples:

Exit Stage Left . . . Exit Damnit: In Act II of a performance of Tosca featuring Maria Callas in the title role, Tosca stabs her tormentor Scarpia, and then leaves the stage. After doing the deed, Callas who suffered from myopia but couldn’t wear contact lenses wandered the stage, unable to find her way out. Baritone Tito Gobbi, our Scarpia, while lying dead, tried to discreetly point out the exit, but started laughing so much that both his laughing and his pointing were obvious to the audience. The next morning, newspapers raved about his memorable portrayal of Scarpia’s death.

They Shoot Divas, Don’t They?: In another performance, a firing squad is called upon to execute Tosca’s lover Mario in the final act. The players were instructed to enter and shoot the person they found onstage, and then to exit with the principals. But when the players got onstage, they discovered two people and didn’t know which one to shoot. They aimed at one then the other as both principals said not to shoot them. They finally chose Tosca, but when they shot her, Mario keeled over dead. They stood there, further bewildered; they had been told to exit with the principals but neither of the principals were exiting. Mario remained lifeless while Tosca tried to shoo them away. Finally, when Tosca jumped to her death from the castle parapet, they seized the opportunity to exit with at least one principal, and they jumped after her, adding immeasurably to the tragedy.

Follow the Bouncing Diva: Tosca’s leap to her death  from the parapet of the Castel Sant’Angelo is the dramatic conclusion to the opera. Various methods have been employed to keep the jumping soprano safe; usually a mattress does the trick. In a Lyric Opera of Chicago performance,  stage hands replaced the usual mattress with a trampoline to provide added safety for a British soprano. They also added some unintended encores as Tosca bounced back into view several times.


One thing kids like is to be tricked. For instance, I was going to take my little nephew to Disneyland, but instead I drove him to an old burned-out warehouse. ‘Oh, no,’ I said, ‘Disneyland burned down.’ He cried and cried, but I think that deep down he thought it was a pretty good joke. I started to drive over to the real Disneyland, but it was getting pretty late. — Jack Handey


November 27, 1703: What Do We Do with a Drunken Sailor?

The Eddystone Lighthouse sits atop the treacherous Eddystone Rocks off the coast of the United Kingdom. The current lighthouse is actually the fourth to hold sway there.

eddystoneThe original Eddystone Lighthouse was an octagonal wooden structure whose light first shone in November of 1698. It was destroyed just five years later on November 27 during the Great Storm of 1703. The unfortunate builder Henry Winstanley was on the lighthouse, completing additions to the structure at the time. No trace was found of him, or of the other five men in the lighthouse.

The fame of the lighthouse spread well beyond those using it for guidance in the English Channel. It became the subject of a sea shanty sung by drunken sailors around the world. Shanties are those songs sung on board ship to relieve the boredom of shipboard tasks, but during the 20th century and particularly during the mid-century folk craze, sea shanties were adopted by landlubbers everywhere. The Eddystone Light became a particular favorite of many a drunken sailor, armed with a guitar or banjo and a good supply of beer, no matter how far away the nearest navigable waters.

Oh, me father was the keeper of the eddystone light
And he slept with a mermaid one fine night
From this union there came three
A porpoise and a porgy and the other was me

Yo ho ho
The wind blows free
Oh for the life on the rolling sea

One day as I was a-trimmin’ the glim
Humming a tune from the evening hymn
A voice from the starboard shouted, “Ahoy”
And there was me mother a-sittin’ on the buoy

Yo ho ho
The wind blows free
Oh for the life on the rolling sea

Oh what has become of me children three?
Me mother then she asked of me
One was exhibited as a talking fish
The other was served in a chafing dish

Yo ho ho
The wind blows free
Oh for the life on the rolling sea

Then the phosphorus flashed in her seaweed hair
I looked again, but me mother wasn’t there
But I heard her voice echoing back through the night
The devil take the keeper of the eddystone light

Yo ho ho
The wind blows free
Oh for the life on the rolling sea