Archive for February, 2010

Sporting Attire

February 15, 2010


It seems to be fashion week up in this cucurbite head of mine. I couldn’t let the Aldous Huxley passage below sit there without adding this clip from Jelly Roll Morton’s Library of Congress interview with Alan Lomax. Both Morton and Huxley are reflecting on turn of the century fashion from the vantage point of the 30’s. Both see very different worlds.

There is a wonderful transcription of the Jelly Roll Sessions over at

I’ve copied and pasted it here:

Nert had a burned hand, and he used to wear a kind of stocking over it. He was seemingly simple, to me. I think he was a half-wit. In fact I’m sure that he was.

He would laugh and go on and he wanted to have a some kind of a important — and he wanted to be known as such.

All those boys in New Orleans dressed very well. But they all had the real tight trousers, those days. When they’d get into their trousers, why, they’d fit ‘em like a sausage.

Of course, Bertenards and Wagners were the tailors, and they know’d just how they wanted those clothes and they would fit ‘em that way.

I’m telling you, it was very, very seldom that you really could button the top button of a person’s trousers. They had to leave the, had to leave the trousers’ top buttons open. And they had the suspenders and — of course, they didn’t really need any suspenders because they was so tight fitting. And it was one of the fads that they would take one suspender down, as they would walk along, oh, er, with a walk that they had adopted from the river, which they call shooting the agate.

Well, Nert would come along shooting the agate, and leave his shirt open in the summertime, so you could, er, discern his red flannel undershirt. That was considered a big thing with some of the real illiterate women. If you could shoot a good agate, and had a nice high-class undershirt with a flannel shirt with the, the collar turned up, boy, I’m telling you, you liable to be able to get next to that broad. She’d like that very much.

What . . . How did they walk when they shot the agate?

Well, of course, er, by not being able to walk, I can’t explain it to you. But I tell you, it was a kind of a very mosey walk, with the holding two fingers down of one finger on each hand, the, the front finger next to, er . . . in other words, the index finger. Yeah, like that, you know, and with their arms stiffed out, you know, especially when they would be standing. And if . . . of course, if they was dressed up and you tried to talk to ‘em, they would find the, the nearest post — when, they have a lot of creases in their clothes, or get to a house — and they’d stiffen their arm out and hold theirself so far away, as just as far as their arm would allow, so they wouldn’t get any, er, their clothes soiled. They was very particular about that. Especially . . . Yeah . . .

Especially some of ‘em, er, they wore . . . That’s right, you’ve got the right idea — with that kind of a broken up, er, stand. Especially some of them would wear overalls — er, overall jumpers, with a high-class, er, pair of trousers maybe costin’ fifteen, or eighteen, or twenty dollars during those days. And of course they wore the best of shoes. And not only shoes. They, they would never . . . nobody would wear a Stetson hat. In those days, myself, I thought I would die unless I had a hat with the emblem of a . . . in it named Stetson. And I wou . . . didn’t rest until I got myself a Stetson hat and a pair of Edwin Clapp shoes.

Of course, there was many of ‘em that didn’t wear ready-made shoe . . . shoes at all, during those times. Er, they wore a lot of shoes, er, what they call the St. Louis Flats and the Chicago Flats. These shoes [clears throat] were made, er, with the cork soles on ‘em and no heels and would turn up in the front. A lot of times they would have different designs in the toes of the shoes, er, such as gamblers’ designs, er, such as, er, maybe a club, or a diamond, a heart, or a spade. I have, er, heard later on, that even some of ‘em had made arrangements to have some kind of a electric lightbulbs in their shoes with a battery in their pocket, [laughs] and when they would get around some jane or something that was kind of simple, and thought they could make her — as they call makin ‘em — why, they’d, er, they’d press a button in their pock . . . in their . . . their pocket and light up the . . . the little bitty bulb in the toe of the shoes.

Oh, it is really the fact. And I’ve known it to be fact because it has come . . . that part has come from authentic source. But the others, I have really seen myself to know it’s really original stuff.

Er, these boys were tremendous, and they were great sports. It was nothin’ like spending money that even worried their mind. If they didn’t have it, somebody else had it and would spend it for ‘em.

At the end of the passage sampled here is this note:
On the dust jacket, Alan Lomax has sketched a caricature of a man ‘Shootin’ The Agate’ along with the following text: Truckin’ originated from Shootin’ the Agate.

Fashion Is A Topiary Art

February 15, 2010

August 30th 1933

The snapshots had become almost as dim as memories. This young woman who had stood in a garden at the turn of the century was like a ghost at cock-crow. His mother, Anthony Beavis recognized. A year or two, perhaps only a month or two, before she died. But fashion, as he peered at the brown phantom, fashion is a topiary art. Those swan-like loins! That long slanting cascade of bosom – without any apparent relation to the naked body underneath! And all that hair, like an ornamental deformity on the skull! Oddly hideous and repellent it seemed in 1933. And yet, if he shut his eyes (as he could not resist doing), he could see his mother languidly beautiful on her chaise-longue; or agile, playing tennis; or swooping like a bird across the ice of a far-off winter.

It was the same with these snapshots of Mary Amberley, taken ten years later. The skirt was as long as ever, and within her narrower bell of drapery woman still glided footless, as though on castors. The breasts, it was true, had been pushed up a bit, the redundant posterior pulled in. But the general shape of the clothed body was still strangely improbable. A crab shelled in whalebone. And this huge plumed hat of 1911 was simply a French funeral of the first class. How could any man in his senses have been attracted by so profoundly anti-aphrodisiac an appearance? And yet, in spite of the snapshots, he could remember her as the very embodiment of desirability. At the sight of that feathered crab on wheels his heart had beaten faster, his breathing had become oppressed.

Twenty years, thirty years after the event, the snapshots revealed only things remote and unfamiliar. But the unfamiliar (dismal automatism!) is always the absurd. What he remembered, on the contrary, was the emotion felt when the unfamiliar was still the familiar, when the absurd, being taken for granted, had nothing absurd about it. The dramas of memory are always Hamlet in modern dress.

How beautiful his mother had been—beautiful under the convoluted wens of hair and in spite of the jutting posterior, the long slant of bosom. And Mary, how maddeningly desirable even in a carapace, even beneath funeral plumes! And in his little fawn-colored covert coat and scarlet tam-o’shanter; as Bubbles, in grass-green velveteen and ruffles; at school in his Norfolk suit with the knickerbockers that ended below the knees in two tight tubes of box-cloth; in his starched collar and his bowler, if it were Sunday, his red-and-black school-cap on other days—he too, in his own memory, was always in modern dress, never the absurd little figure of fun these snapshots revealed. No worse off, so far as inner feeling was concerned, than the little boys of thirty years later in their jerseys and shorts. A proof, Anthony found himself reflecting impersonally, as he examined the top-hatted and tail-coated image of himself at Eton, a proof that progress can only be recorded, never experienced. He reached out for his note-book, opened it and wrote: ‘Progress may, perhaps, be perceived by historians; it can never be felt by those actually involved in the supposed advance. The young are born into the advancing circumstances, the old take them for granted within a few months or years, advances aren’t felt as advances. There is no gratitude — only irritation if, for any reason, the newly invented conveniences break down. Men don’t spend their time thanking God for cars; they only curse when the carburettor is choked.’

He closed the book and returned to the top-hat of 1907.

from the opening pages of Aldous Huxley’s Eyeless In Gaza

Master Melville on the drums…

February 9, 2010

In those Hyperborean regions to which enthusiastic Truth, and Earnestness, and Independence, will invariably lead a mind fitted by nature for profound and fearless thought, all objects are seen in a dubious, uncertain and refracting light. Viewed through that rarefied atmosphere the most immemorially admitted maxims of men begin to slide and fluctuate, and finally become wholly inverted; the very heavens themselves being not innocent of producing this confounding effect, since it is mostly in the heavens themselves that these wonderful images are exhibited.

But the example of many minds forever lost, like undiscoverable Arctic explorers, amid those treacherous regions, warns us entirely away from them; and we learn that it is not for man to follow the trail of truth too far, since by so doing he entirely loses the directing compass of his mind; for arrived at the Pole, to whose barrenness only it points, there, the needle indifferently respects all points of the horizon alike.

But even the less distant regions of thought are not without their singular introversions. Hardly any sincere man of ordinary reflective powers, and accustomed to exercise them at all, but must have been independently struck by the thought, that, after all, what is so enthusiastically applauded as the march of the mind,—meaning the inroads of Truth into Error—which has ever been regarded by hopeful persons as the one fundamental thing most earnestly to be prayed for as the greatest Catholic blessing to the world; —almost every thinking man must have been some time or other struck with the idea, that, in certain respects, a tremendous mistake may be lurking here, since all the world does never gregariously advance to Truth, but only here and there some of its individuals do; and by advancing leave the rest behind; cutting themselves forever adrift from their sympathy, and making themselves always liable to be regarded with distrust, dislike and often, downright—though oft times, concealed—fear and hate.

Herman Mellville
Pierre or The Ambiguities p. 224