Bluesman Robert Johnson: New Photograph Discovered

The man on the left has been identified as Robert Johnson, the legendary blues singer and guitarist.

The man on the left has been identified as Robert Johnson, the legendary blues singer and guitarist.

Only two verified photographs of Johnson (1911-1938) existed until now. Eric Clapton once said Johnson was “the most important blues musician who ever lived.”  A third, newly cleaned-up and authenticated image has been released by the Johnson estate showing him standing next to musician Johnny Shines.

Work on the photograph began in 2007, when Lois Gibson, who works with the Houston police department, analysed the features of the long-fingered figure holding the guitar. Gibson, who found the identity of the sailor kissing the nurse in the Life magazine photo of Times Square on VJ day during the second World War, said forensic techniques showed a match between this photograph and Johnson’s image in two other photographs, which were previously thought to be all the photographs of Johnson that existed.

William Gass: On Being Blue

The estimable The New York Review of Books has reissued William Gass’s On Being Blue, a philosophical romp through moods, colours and much more. Gass is a writer who, one hundred years from now, may emerge as one of the few contemporary writers whose work will enter the American canon. Here’s the NYRB description:

“On Being Blue is about everything blue—sex and sleaze and sadness, among other things—and about everything else. It brings us the world in a word as only William H. Gass, among contemporary American writers, can do.

Gass writes:

“Of the colors, blue and green have the greatest emotional range. Sad reds and melancholy yellows are difficult to turn up. Among the ancient elements, blue occurs everywhere: in ice and water, in the flame as purely as in the flower, overhead and inside caves, covering fruit and oozing out of clay. Although green enlivens the earth and mixes in the ocean, and we find it, copperish, in fire; green air, green skies, are rare. Gray and brown are widely distributed, but there are no joyful swatches of either, or any of exuberant black, sullen pink, or acquiescent orange. Blue is therefore most suitable as the color of interior life. Whether slick light sharp high bright thin quick sour new and cool or low deep sweet dark soft slow smooth heavy old and warm: blue moves easily among them all, and all profoundly qualify our states of feeling.”


Richest 1 Percent Control Half of World’s Wealth

Where is the world heading, and where are the populism and egalitarian mass movements when we need them? Where are the enlightened leaders brave enough to speak the truth? Has Big Money forever silenced people who would stand up for the poor and underprivileged?

Where is the outrage of the masses? What will it take to turn governments around so that the elected leaders will represent the majority of people instead of a minuscule minority who have money? Tax them, tax them, tax them and let’s recalibrate our elected representatives to stand up for common sense and fairness. What’s going on in most of the world’s developed countries is economic rape.

Just 1 percent of the world’s population controls nearly half of the planet’s wealth, according to a new study published by Oxfam ahead of the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting.

The study says the 85 richest people control $110 trillion, or 65 times the total wealth of the poorest 3.5 billion people.

Other key findings:

— The world’s 85 richest people own as much as the poorest 50 percent of humanity.

— 70 percent of the world’s people live in a country where income inequality has increased in the past three decades.

— In the U.S., where the gap between rich and poor has grown at a faster rate than any other developed country, the top 1 percent captured 95 percent of post-recession growth (since 2009), while 90 percent of Americans became poorer.

“Oxfam is concerned that, left unchecked, the effects are potentially immutable, and will lead to ‘opportunity capture’ — in which the lowest tax rates, the best education, and the best healthcare are claimed by the children of the rich,” the relief agency writes.

Support Oxfam, which works for economic fairness and justice throughout the world.

Tracking is the future of technology

The Edge, an idea-oriented collective of innovators and thinkers, has a new issue here.

It includes a 9,000-word interview with Kevin Kelly, one of the founders of Wired magazine. Kelly ranges across the future of technology, the good and the bad. He says technology is “telling me” it wants to track. I immediately nodded my head, and thought, “We are technology,” and we’re telling ourselves we want to track. Why, for more reasons that we can imagine, and I hope, on balance, it will be a positive phenomenon, and I hope I’m not being characteristically positive here.

Normal computer tracking capabilities (built into the Internet/computer system) and government surveillance are two separate issues, and each will require different answers and regulations to make them work positively within society.

Here’s Kelly on technology and tracking:

“How far will we share, when are we going to stop sharing, and how far are we going to allow ourselves to monitor and surveil each other in kind of a coveillance? I believe that there’s no end to how much we can track each other—how far we’re going to self-track, how much we’re going to allow companies to track us—so I find it really difficult to believe that there’s going to be a limit to this, and to try to imagine this world in which we are being self-tracked and co-tracked and tracked by governments, and yet accepting of that, is really hard to imagine.

Kevin Kelly

Kevin Kelly

“…How does this work? How can we have a world in which we are all watching each other, and everybody feels happy? I don’t see any counter force to the forces of surveillance and self-tracking, so I’m trying to listen to what the technology wants, and the technology is suggesting that it wants to be watched. What the Internet does is track, just like what the Internet does is to copy, and you can’t stop copying. You have to go with the copies flowing, and I think the same thing about this technology. It’s suggesting that it wants to monitor, it wants to track, and that you really can’t stop the tracking. So maybe what we have to do is work with this tracking—try to bring symmetry or have areas where there’s no tracking in a temporary basis. I don’t know, but this is the question I’m asking myself: how are we going to live in a world of ubiquitous tracking?

“I call myself a protopian, not a utopian. I believe in progress in an incremental way where every year it’s better than the year before but not by very much—just a micro amount. I don’t believe in utopia where there’s any kind of a world without problems brought on by technology. Every new technology creates almost as many problems that it solves. For most people that statement would suggest that technology is kind of a wash. It’s kind of neutral, because if you’re creating as many problems as it solves, then it’s a 50/50 wash, but the difference in my protopian view versus, say, a neutral view is that all these new technologies bring new possibilities that did not exist before, including the new possibility of doing harm versus good.

61jtoj2lJVL“One way to think about this is if you imagine the very first tool made, say, a stone hammer. That stone hammer could be used to kill somebody, or it could be used to make a structure, but before that stone hammer became a tool, that possibility of making that choice did not exist. Technology is continually giving us ways to do harm and to do well; it’s amplifying both. It’s amplifying our power to do well and our power to do harm, but the fact that we also have a new choice each time is a new good. That, in itself, is an unalloyed good—the fact that we have another choice and that additional choice tips that balance in one direction towards a net good. So you have the power to do evil expanded. You have the power to do good expanded. You think that’s a wash. In fact, we now have a choice that we did not have before, and that tips it very, very slightly in the category of the sum of good. …”

Personally, I want to be optimistic, like Kelly, and see tracking, in spite of the current cultural dread, as becoming a force for positive good in culture and society. On balance, I want to believe it will somehow expand our possibilities for change that is good even though we can’t envision that at this moment – how that will take place. To do otherwise, is to fall into the Big Brother trap. It’s not that simple, and we shouldn’t  reduce tracking to a dangerous rubric or else we help to create Big Brother rather than to see this as a technological moment which moves us into a new future that carries with it all the possibilities of good and bad, just as technology has done throughout history.

That said, the tracking issue demands some immediate innovative codifications of principles that offer people choices, some protections, and some control over unbridled tracking. This need, of course, will be on-going in order to keep up with technology.

The challenge is on the par with the long road of codifying democratic and human rights principles. It will take a lot of seriousness of purpose, work and time.

The Rain Tree at the Gymkhana Club

The rain tree at the Gymkhana Club in Chiang Mai

The rain tree at the Gymkhana Club in Chiang Mai. Photograph by Bruce Bridges

The Rain Tree at the Gymkhana Club

By Roy Hamric

This essay appeared in the Kyoto Journal, Issue 79, Spring 2014.

     Do not require a description of the countries toward which you sail. The description does not describe them to you, and tomorrow you arrive there and know them by inhabiting them. – Emerson, The Over-Soul

Many writers have left exact descriptions of their first taste of Asia. For Joseph Conrad, the East’s charm lived in his heart, in a state of mind he called romantic reality. It’s what drove many of his best-known characters, like the young seaman in Lord Jim, who longed to lose himself, to be stripped down to a bare, primitive moment.

Conrad wrote, “This in itself may be a curse, but, when disciplined by a sense of personal responsibility and a recognition of the hard facts of existence shared with the rest of mankind, it becomes but a point of view from which the very shadows of life appear endowed with an internal glow. It only tries to make the best of it, hard as it may be; and in this hardness discovers a certain aspect of beauty.”

To be under the spell of a place, or a state of mind, is to quicken the blood. But behind such spells lies a deep mystery imprinted in our subconscious – the desire to answer some indefinable call.

In the novel Youth, Conrad described the exact moment when Marlow, his narrator, first sensed the East: “… and suddenly a puff of wind, a puff faint and tepid and laden with strange odors of blossoms, of aromatic wood, comes out of the still night – the sigh of the East on my face.”

Marlow never escaped the spell of that sublime moment – the sense of life flowing from a new direction, a shift of culture from western to eastern. For some of us, it is a seduction of the soul.

Writing as Marlow, Conrad said, “But for me, all of the East is contained in that vision of my youth. It is all in that moment when I opened my young eyes on it…and I saw it looking at me.”

In the short story The Shadow-Line, he described the Bangkok of the 1890s, at the time of his first sighting: “One early morning we steamed up the innumerable bends, passed the shadow of the great gilt pagoda, and reached the outskirts of town. There it was, spread largely on both banks, the oriental capital which had yet suffered no white conqueror. Here and there in the distance, above the crowded mob of low, brown roof ridges, towered great piles of masonry, king’s palaces, temples, gorgeous and dilapidated, crumbling under the vertical sunlight, tremendous, overpowering, almost palpable, which seemed to enter one’s breast with the breath of one’s nostrils and soak into one’s ribs through every pore of one’s skin.”

A very different writer, the cosmopolitan Somerset Maugham, in the early 1920s, toured Burma and Siam. In a nearly forgotten travel book, The Gentleman in the Parlour, he captured a fading moment when Bangkok had yet to blend in with the West:

“The traffic of the river ceased and only now and then did you hear the soft splash of a paddle as someone silently passed on his way home. When I awoke in the night, I felt a faint motion as the houseboat rocked a little and I heard a little gurgle of water, like the ghost of an Eastern music travelling not through space but through time.

“A leisurely tram crowded with passengers passes down the whole length of the street, and the conductor never ceases to blow his horn. Rickshaws go up and down ringing their bells, and motors sounding their claxons. The pavements are crowded and there is a ceaseless clatter of the clogs the people wear. Cloppity-clop they go, and it makes a sound as insistent and monotonous as the sawing of the cicadas in the jungle.”

Alex Waugh left a portrait of expatriate, turn-of-the-century Siam in Hot Countries, published in 1930, nearly three generations removed from today. Describing colonial life and the “natives” in Chiang Mai, he reflected the racist attitudes and language that permeated colonial culture. A well-educated Englishman, he presumed Western superiority, and his attitudes reflected the repression and guilt surrounding sexual mores. He used the expression “gone native” as a rebuke to Westerners who entered the normal life of Asian culture, or who openly took wives or girlfriends and shared their lifestyle. As a journalist who racked up books about exotic countries like they were way stations on a news beat, Waugh described “white life” in old Chiang Mai.

It was especially difficult on Western women, he wrote, and he urged them to stay home rather than endure a life of isolation, boredom and disease. He admitted he’d never personally known of a case of a white man who had “gone native,” but he’d heard rumors and had constant suspicions. The “gone native” phrase was nuanced – most of the time it was a code word for sexual relations or cohabitation.

“In the popular imagination,” he wrote, “the ‘gone native’ myth has become identified with that very different, very real problem of the tropics – the white man and the brown woman.”

It’s easy to pass over 19th-century Western attitudes and the social barriers faced by both Westerners and Asians. But a careful reading makes you cringe. Waugh wrote: “In Bangkok, it would be impossible for a white man to have a Siamese girl living in his bungalow, but on the plantation there is fairly often a Malay girl who disappears discretely when visitors arrive. There the relationship has a certain dignity.  There is faithfulness on both sides. Custom creates affection. But in neither case is there any approach to the ‘gone native’ picture.  In neither case has the white man done anything that involves loss of caste.  He observes the customs of the country.”

In scalding sentences that magnify the distance, he wrote: “All the same, I believe it is extremely rare for there to exist a profound relationship between a white man and a brown woman.” Again, “I have yet to meet the man who will say that he has really loved a coloured woman.”

And,  “Love, as we understand it, is foreign to these people.” And, “Between brown and white there can be only a brief and superficial harmony.” And finally, “Between brown and white there can be no relation interesting in itself.”

To get to Chiang Mai, Waugh took the Bangkok passenger train for the 27-hour journey north. If you went by river, it was a five-week journey. Chiang Mai was the administration center of two large timber companies, the Borneo and Bombay Burma. Waugh felt he was going to the end of the road where the “white community” had to unite together against a “common foe.”

“There are not, I fancy, more than thirty white people in the station,” he wrote. “There is the bank manager and the English consul; there are the forest manager, and an occasional assistant who has come in from the jungle for a rest; there is an American mission which is responsible for schools and the hospital and a big sanatorium for lepers.”

The social “white life” of Chiang Mai was centered around the Gymkhana Club, chartered in 1898, which is still in operation today.  As I write this, I sit near a majestic rain tree that is older than the club, its huge limbs casting shade over outdoor tables.

“It is a large field set a little way out of town which serves as a polo ground, a golf course and a tennis court,” Waugh wrote. “By five in the evening, most of the white community is there. There is 75 minutes of strenuous exercise, then there is a gathering around a large table on which have been set out drinks, glasses and a little lamp. There are rarely more or rarely less than a dozen people there…the women have slipped their legs into sarongs, sewn up at one end in the shape of bags. Their life is hard and testing.  It has many dangers, many difficulties. It is only by mutual tolerance, by interdependence, by loyalty and friendship that it can be made tolerable.”

The rain tree is a stone’s throw from the northern bank of the Mae Ping River as it winds past the city’s old Chinese night market and main tourist hotels. For decades, the club remained a tranquil oasis of white privilege, but after WW II it fell on hard times. By the 1950s, the last of the Western lumber concessions had disappeared. Club membership had dwindled to less than 20, and to avoid bankruptcy the directors voted to offer 12 Thais full membership. By early 2000, the club membership rebounded to around 300 people. Thais numbered about 60 percent and one Westerner served on the board of directors.

The centerpiece of the club is still the venerable rain tree, marking the passage of time. Its shade certainly fell across the figure of the visiting Waugh, whose cultural blinders prevented him from truly knowing Asians. To know the other is as hard as to know one’s self, if not harder.

      To live here one would be charged in the quiet, small currency of the conscience. – Graham Greene, describing Vietnam in  his essay collection, Reflections.

The three generations between Waugh’s Hot Countries and Greene’s The Quiet American, published in 1955, saw sweeping changes in cultural attitudes. The world grew smaller.  In The Quiet American, the correspondent Thomas Fowler, Greene’s alter ego, admits his love and his desire to marry his Vietnamese mistress, Phoung. But his cynicism and sense of superiority still color the relationship. At first, it’s as if he is taking on a beautiful naïf, a woman perfectly designed to be of service to a superior Western man. Later, Fowler learns that the reverse might be closer to the truth.

Phuong is a classic Vietnamese mistress, a heroine who deftly controls and dispenses her emotions and affections between her interests in Fowler and his nemesis, the wide-eyed, naive American, Alden Pyle. She’s capable of breaking the idealistic Pyle’s heart, but she presents little romantic danger to Fowler, who strives to be the dispassionate observer, a stoic who sees emotional attachment as vulnerability. Fowler is a post-colonial man poised at a moment of romantic growth, but just barely. He starts with the typical, Western cultural baggage that is still lugged around today by too many expatriates arriving on Boeing 787s.

Fowler thinks: “It is a cliché to call them children – but there’s one thing which is childish. They love you in return for kindness, security, the presents you give them – they hate you for a blow or an injustice.  They don’t know what it’s like – just walking into a room and loving a stranger. For an aging man, it’s very secure. She won’t run away from home so long as the home is happy.”

Later, his cynicism is shaken and his emotions expand when he realizes Phuong “was as scared as the rest of us – she didn’t have the gift of expression, that was all.” Greene gives Fowler an emotional breakthrough when he finally grants Phoung equal emotions – something he should have understood long before, but worth learning at any age.

Red Pine’s Canny Commentaries on Buddhist Sutras

Red Pine hitching a ride in China. Photograph by Ted Burger.

Red Pine hitching a ride in China. Photograph by Ted Burger

Red Pine’s probing and understanding of the major Buddhist sutras: The Heart Sutra, The Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch, The Diamond Sutra and, the latest, The Lankavatara Sutra, in addition to his earlier translation and commentary on The Tao Te Ching continue to deepen. With each translation his commentaries have grown more profound, especially on how all the sutras, taken together, form a whole, offering an approach to the difficult metaphysics that bewitch people looking for the answer to life’s riddles.

Red Pine’s latest commentary on the Lankavatara Sutra is a good example of how he draws all the sutras together. For instance:

“Buddhism is concerned with suffering, which is the inevitable result of desire. But the real issue is the self, which is the cause of the desire, which is the cause of the suffering. In the centuries following the Buddha’s Nirvana, instructions centered around a trio of concepts designed to focus attention in such a way that the nonexistence of the self would become evident and the liberation from suffering would follow. These included the five skandas (form, sensation, perception, memory and consciousness), the twelve ayatanas (six powers and six domains of  sensations), and the eighteen dhatus (the ayatanas  with the addition of six forms of consciousness). These were three views of the same thing: our mind.

The were simply different ways of dividing any given moment of awareness into a manageable matrix to demonstrate to anyone willing to wander around these matrices that they contained the universe of our awareness, its inside and its outside, and yet they contained no self. This was their function: to show practitioners that there was no self.

While these three schemes dealt with the problem of the self, they didn’t help explain how we become attached to a self in the first place, and how we go from attachment to detachment to liberation. Hence, to these were added three more schemes, all of which play a much larger role in the Lankavatara Sutra than the previous trio. The three new schemes are the five dharmas, the three modes of reality, and the eight forms of consciousness.

The five dharmas divide our world into name, appearance, projection, correction knowledge and suchness. The three modes of reality do the same thing with imagined reality, dependent reality, and perfected reality; and the eight forms of consciousness include the five forms of sensory consciousness, conceptual consciousness, the will or self-consciousness, and an eighth form known as repository consciousness, where the seeds from our previous thoughts, words and deeds are stored and from which they sprout and grow.

As with earlier trios of concepts, these were designed to account for our awareness without introducing the self. But they had the advantage of also providing a look at how our worlds of self-delusion and self-liberation come about, how enlightenment works, how we go from projection of name and appearance to correct knowledge of suchness, how we go from an imagined reality to a perfected reality, how we transform our eightfold consciousness into Buddhahood.

….But then the Lankavatara Sutra sets all these schemes aside in the interest of urging us to taste the tea for ourselves….Cup of tea or not, no one said it was going to be easy…”

He goes on to explain how the Lankavatara confounded his understanding for 35 years. Everyone’s approach may differ, but a good step would be to try the sutras in a sequence such as this: the Tao Te Ching, The Heart Sutra, The Platform Sutra, The Diamond Sutra and the Lankavatara Sutra.

Good advice from someone whose life has been devoted to translating these sutras to deepen his own understanding and wisdom.

Also, as his wisdom – and his humor – ripen, he becomes more humble. The mark of a good teacher…

Red Pine’s Yellow River Odyssey












Bill Porter, aka Red Pine, has a new book scheduled to be released in February 2014, titled Yellow River Odyssey. It’s a collection of photographs and recollections of a trip along the river when China was just beginning to open up in small ways. The book is published by a great, small publisher called Chin Music Press based in Seattle. It is a bestseller in China, where it was first published.

I’ve also just come across a fan Facebook page for Porter, which you can see here.

Here’s the Amazon blurb on the book: “Bill Porter follows the Yellow River, the world’s sixth longest river, from its mouth to its source high in the Tibetan Plateau, a journey of more than three thousand miles through nine Chinese provinces. The trip takes the master translator into what was once the cradle of Chinese civilization and to the hometowns and graves of key historical figures such as Confucius, Mencius, Lao-tzu, and Chuang-tzu. Porter’s depth of knowledge of Chinese history and culture is unparalleled. Yellow River Odyssey, already a bestseller in China, reveals a complex, fascinating, contradictory country. Porter masterfully digs beneath China’s present-day materialism and the deep wounds of the Cultural Revolution to get at the roots of Chinese culture.”

Where’s Roxy Gordon?

3341388I looked for Roxy Gordon’s website today, and couldn’t find it. I’ve written his wife, Judy, for more information. I still can’t write about Roxy, who’s dead and buried outside of Talpa, Texas, near his “house up” home/campsite in West Texas. It’s one of those small, flat-top hills with the mesquite-desert spaces in between. Roxy was a writer-artist-musician-poet. Even more important, he had what Indians call medicine. People in Asia would say he was a man of The Way. He knew some things.

Here’s a link to Smaller Circles, his poem/talking word song (also the title for a book of poetry).

Here’s a poem/talking word song Indians.

Here’s a story written upon his death by a Dallas friend.


l                                                                       Roxy Gordon,  Dallas, circa 1980s

2014! Year of the Horse

self portrait

self portrait

Back in business…it’s been a while since I last posted. What’s happened? A lot and not enough. I finished  The House of No Mind, my travel-memoir, tried to get an agent/publisher, etc., and hit the “No go” sign, which wasn’t a good way to end the Fall season but there it is. I like the book, but you know the story. I had a range of feedback, but no takers. I don’t have the energy or the brilliant idea right now about what to do to make it work (other than find an agent/publisher who would take it on as is…), so I’ll let it rest for now and come back to it later. If you know of a good small press that might like a vivid travel/memoir that ranges across Vietnam, Laos, Thailand and Myanmar, drop me a line.

IMG_1266Meanwhile, I’ve read a score of books in the past six months. Right now I’ll mention only one: Philip Larkin’s Jazz Writings. It’s a great education on the transition from the old-time jazz to the modern jazz that most people know today. The great Louis Armstrong is the key symbol of the transition (and a Larkin idol). Of course, he was one of the original giants, but his great experimentation, freshness and techne was left behind as he slipped into the image that become the later day, worldwide icon for American jazz. Larkin knew his jazz, and he couldn’t comfortably ride the Coltrane/Davis/et al dominance over older, original masters who created the art form (and languished in later life, forgotten). The moderns essentially took jazz to more abstract levels with greater individuality. But the crazy spontaneity that Larkin cherished had disappeared: the feeling that makes you tap your feet and snap your fingers when a big jazz band or ensemble cranks it up.

Check out these tunes on Youtube, one slow and one fast.

If you have one hour, listen to this compilation track featuring Armstrong with notables such as Sinatra, Jackie Gleason and others. Rare and wonderful…

M. H. Abrams celebrates 100th birthday


Here is a revealing birthday profile of M.H. Abrams, who turned 100 years old, peer of Lionel Trilling, teacher of Harold Bloom, and editor of the Norton Anthology. The article, here, appeared in The Tablet.

A quote from the article by Adam Kirsch:

“What he demonstrates in The Mirror and the Lamp is that the intellectual lenses through which we understand the world and ourselves are always changing; what he shows in Natural Supernaturalism is that our deep longings for transformation and redemption are constant. The combination of these two insights naturally leads to a certain tolerance, a forgiving kind of relativism, when it comes to ideas and theories, none of which is allowed to have a monopoly on truth.”


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