September 27, 2009
I once overheard an acquaintance of mine, who was 15 years old at the time, making a self-denigrating comment about her height. I told her, “If anyone had asked me to describe you, I might have said you were about five feet tall, but it would not have occurred to me to say that you were ‘short.’ You’re probably more self-conscious about your height than other people are conscious of it.” I said that from my vantage point a full foot above hers, but I’m sure the reality is that each person has his own standard – probably related to his own stature – for what height requires the adjective “short.”
Anyway, that conversation took place about three years ago, and it came to mind today when I saw a presentation on the Los Angeles Times web site regarding short people. It didn’t amount to much. It was the sort of thing newspaper companies put on their web sites in order to demonstrate something that itself has not yet been defined.
The Times said the feature had been inspired by an article in Pediatrics, a medical journal, about a study of the effect of short stature on emotional, behavioral, and social functioning. The Times explained, somewhat imprecisely: “This recent study from the journal Pediatrics, suggesting shorter 6th graders are not victimized any more than the average student, got us thinking: Aren’t lots of famous people really short?” This brief introduction was followed by photos of eight people whom the Times delicately described as “vertically challenged”: Voltaire, Charlotte Bronte, Edith Piaf, Andrew Carnegie, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Pat Benatar, Wallace Shawn, and Gloria Swanson. The least tall of these was Edith Piaf at four-foot-eight; the tallest was Voltaire at five-foot-three. This information came a web site called Short Persons Support (www.shortsupport.org) which includes a list of 371 people ranging in height from Gul Mohammed at one-foot-ten and a half inches to nine persons (including Dustin Hoffman, T.E. Lawrence, and Horatio Nelson) at five-foot-five and a half inches.
I was surprised that I didn’t find on that list five-foot-five Albie Pearson, an outfielder who batted .270 in a nine-year major league career and went on to have a very active life in Christian ministry.
Nor did I see another major leaguer — three-foot-seven Eddie Gaedel, who walked on four pitches in his only time at bat — a promotional stunt engineered by Bill Veeck, then the owner of the St. Louis Browns.
And I missed four-foot-eleven “Little” Jimmy Dickens, an iconic figure in country music when it really was country music. I’ll let Jimmy sing us out with one of his own compositions, particularly appropriate to the topic:
A lot of folks have told me
I was pulled ‘fore I was ripe
A winter apple picked off in the fall
But even as a youngin’
I was not the bashful type
‘Cause I could yell the loudest of them all.
I’m little, but I’m loud
I’m poor, but I’m proud
I’m countrified and I don’t care who knows it
I’m like a banty rooster
In a big, red rooster crowd
I’m puny, short and little, but I’m loud.
March 18, 2009
This morning, I came across an account in the Los Angeles Times of last night’s “American Idol” broadcast. I missed it. How careless of me to have accepted an invitation to a dinner party on “Idol” night. Well, truth be told, I wouldn’t have watched it anyway. In fact, I have never seen more than a minute or two of an “Idol” broadcast, and that only two or three times when someone else was watching it. This has as much to do with my not watching television very much as it has to do with any objection to that show in particular. But what caught my attention in this article was the reference to the contestants’ “reverence for the most traditional of American genres – country music.” What did the writer mean by “country music”? How did country music – whatever the writer meant by it – become more “traditional” than folk music – whatever I mean by that? And, Miss Turner, what’s “reverence” got to do with it?
I presume the writer had a straight face when he or she wrote that several contestants delivered “solid but respectful versions of country standards by Garth Brooks, Dolly Parton, and Carrie Underwood.” That’s Carrie Underwood – the “American Idol” graduate who was salutatorian of her high school class in Oklahoma. And the writer soberly added that Adam Lambert’s “psychedelic, sitar-backed” rendition of “Ring of Fire” was – according to an audience member visiting from Missouri – “disrespectful to country music.”
If we owe some sort of “respect” to country music, is it to be found in the over-produced material that Dolly Parton has been disgorging for the past few decades? To me that’s as “country” as Jackie Wilson’s “Alone at Last” was classical. “Country” has the smell of stale beer about it. “Country” is what we used to find in the 1960s at the old Coral Bar in East Paterson when Elton Britt, a singer with gold hanging on his wall, would drive himself up from Maryland to perform for a few dozen patrons who would recognize his voice even if their vision was blurred. “Country” is what we found back then at open-ended shows at the old Mosque Theater in Newark, where headline acts sometimes had to be nudged off the stage to make room for Little Jimmy Dickens or Ray Price or Webb Pierce, who were waiting in the wings. If a singer appeared in a torquoise outfit covered with rhinestones, the clothes just emphasized the common nature of the man or woman inside. “Country” was real, and if there was anything to respect in it, it was the unfiltered, unapologizing reality. But then, “reality” has taken on a different meaning in our time.