Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Joan Baez – "Love Is Just a Four-Letter Word" (1968)

I can say nothing to you
But repeat what I heard
That love is just a four-letter word

In the summer of 1983, the late Steve Jobs – the 28-year-old co-founder and chairman of Apple Computer, Inc. – met a 21-year-old University of Pennsylvania student named Jennifer Egan at a dinner party.  

Steve Jobs in 1983
According to Walter Isaacson’s biography of Jobs, Jobs was immediately smitten with Egan, and the two dated for about a year.  

Years later, Egan wrote A Visit from the Goon Squad, a tour de force novel that examines life through the lens of pop music.  The iPod and the iTunes Store – two of Jobs’ signature achievements – had transformed the pop music universe by the time Egan’s novel was published.  Since Isaacson’s biography was published over a year after Goon Squad, I was surprised that  Isaacson didn’t mention Egan’s novel.

(If you haven't read it,
what are you waiting for?)
That omission is even more surprising when you think about the fact that the tour de forcest  chapter of Goon Squad is written in the form of a PowerPoint presentation.  As Isaacson notes more than once, Jobs loathed the PowerPoint software and refused to sit through PowerPoint presentations.  Years before Egan wrote Goon Squad, Apple had released a rival presentation software program called Keynote, but Egan didn’t use Keynote for her chapter – she used PowerPoint.  (I’ve been buying Macs for years, but I had never heard of Keynote before now.  PowerPoint continues to dominate the presentation software space.)

*     *     *     *     *

Jobs came to the dinner party where he met Egan in the company of Joan Baez.  

He was 27 and Baez was 41 when they met in 1982.  “It turned into a serious relationship between two accidental friends who became lovers,” Jobs told Isaacson.  “I thought I was in love with her, but I really just liked her a lot. We weren’t destined to be together.  I wanted kids and she didn’t want any more.”  (Baez had a 14-year-old son.)

Joan Baez in 1983
Jobs could have used a little help when it came to romancing women.  One night he told Baez about seeing a red Ralph Lauren dress that he thought would be perfect for her.  He drove her to the nearest Polo store, showed her the dress, and told her, “You ought to buy it.”

Baez told him she couldn’t really afford it – she was a world-famous musician, but wasn’t wealthy – and was taken aback when he didn’t offer to buy the dress for her.  (How could such a smart guy be so dumb?)  After he bought several shirts for himself, they left the store.

“He was both romantic and afraid to be romantic,” Baez told Isaacson.

*     *     *     *     *

One of Jobs’s college friends believed that one of the reasons Jobs was attracted to Baez was that she had been Bob Dylan’s lover.

Dylan and Baez
From the time he was a teenager, Jobs had worshipped Dylan – he had no fewer than 21 Bob Dylan albums on iPod when Isaacson asked to see his playlist.

Jobs’s iPod also had selections from four albums by Joan Baez, including two different versions of today’s featured song, which was written by none other than Bob Dylan.  

Baez recorded “Love Is Just a Four-Letter Word” a total of four times.  I’m not sure which two of those four recordings were on Steve Jobs’s iPod, but I’m guessing that her original 1968 recording of the song was one of them.

Here’s Joan Baez’s 1968 recording of “Love Is Just a Four-Letter Word”:

Click below to buy the song from Amazon:

Sunday, May 27, 2018

Beatles – "Strawberry Fields Forever" (1967)

I think I know 
I mean, oh yes
But it's all wrong

We learned in the previous 2 or 3 lines that the late Steve Jobs had seven Beatles albums on his iPod when his biographer, Walter Isaacson, asked to see his playlist in 2005. 

Jobs had three of the Fab Four’s first five LPs on his playlist, plus Sgt. Pepper, Magical Mystery Tour, Abbey Road, and Let It Be.  But his iPod did not include Rubber Soul, Revolver, or The Beatles (a/k/a “The White Album”).

Nothing from “Revolver” on Steve Jobs’s iPod?
Jobs was pretty nuts about the Beatles, but he was even more nuts about Bob Dylan – he had no fewer than 21 Dylan albums on his iPod.

*     *     *     *     *

Jobs had a bootleg CD containing all the different takes of “Strawberry Fields Forever” the Beatles recorded.  The group spent 55 hours in the studio working on that song before they were happy with it.

The recording that was released was actually a combination of two different takes.  Producer George Martin had to slightly speed up one take and slow down the other one in order to be able to accomplish that.

Jobs was a perfectionist even when it came to the smallest details of Apple products, and he told Isaacson that the Beatles’ insistence on getting “Strawberry Fields Forever” just right – John Lennon seems to have been the guy who kept pushing to do it one more time – “made a big impression on me when I was in my thirties.”

Ironically, you couldn’t buy “Strawberry Fields Forever” or any other Beatles song from the iTunes Store until 2010, when EMI (the Beatles’ record company) finally agreed to allow Apple to sell digital copies of the Beatles’ music.

*     *     *     *     *

To say that Steve Jobs didn’t suffer fools gladly is an understatement.

According to Isaacson, Jobs’s most salient personality trait was his intensity:

This intensity encouraged a binary view of the world that colleagues referred to the hero/sh*thead dichotomy.  You were either one or the other, sometimes on the same day.  The same was true of products, ideas, even food: something was either “the best thing ever,” or it was sh*tty, brain-dead, inedible.

Tina Redse was the first woman Jobs asked to marry him.  (She turned him down – not because she didn’t love him, but because she couldn’t bear how uncaring and self-centered he could be.)

Tina Redse
Redse eventually concluded that Jobs’s lack of empathy and his propensity to demean, bully, and belittle others were clear indicators that he suffered from Narcissistic Personality Disorder:

It fits so well and explained so much of what we struggled with, that I realized expecting him to be nicer or less self-centered was like expecting a blind man to see.

*     *     *     *     *

“Strawberry Fields Forever” was originally intended to be included on the Sgt. Pepper album.  But the Beatles’ record company insisted on releasing the song as a single, and the group didn’t like to include previously released singles on their albums.  (It’s too bad that they didn’t do the world a big favor and put it on the album instead of “When I’m Sixty-Four,” “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” or “She’s Leaving Home.”)

Here’s “Strawberry Fields Forever”:

Click below to buy the song from Amazon.  

Friday, May 25, 2018

Bob Dylan – "Someday Baby" (2006)

Someday baby
You ain't gonna worry
Poor me any more

The late Steve Jobs revealed a lot to his biographer, Walter Isaacson, before he died – including the contents of his iPod.

Jobs’s musical choices were mainstream for someone of his generation.  (Jobs was born in 1955 – smack dab in the middle of the post-World War II baby boom.)  

For example, he had seven Beatles albums on his iPod.  (Oddly, those seven did not include Rubber Soul, Revolver, or the white album.)

Jobs also had selections from six Rolling Stones albums on his iPod, but only one classic Stones album – Sticky Fingers – was represented on his music player.  (Nothing from Let It Bleed or Exile on Main Street?  Wazzup with that?)

He had a fair number of classic sixties tunes (including songs by Buffalo Springfield, Donovan, the Doors, Janis Joplin, Jefferson Airplane, and Simon and Garfunkel), some songs by more contemporary musicians (including Alicia Keys, the Black Eyed Peas, Green Day, Moby, U2, and the Talking Heads), and a few classical selections (Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos and three Yo-Yo Ma albums).

Jobs doesn’t seem to have been much of a Grateful Dead fan, which is surprising – after all, he was a Northern California kid who took a lot of LSD, studied Eastern religions, didn’t eat meat, and had a serious body odor problem when he was a young man.  (Jobs believed that you didn’t have to shower regularly if you ate only fruits and vegetables.)

*     *     *     *     *

The recording artist whose music took up the most space on Jobs’s iPod hard drive was Bob Dylan.  Jobs owned no fewer than fifteen of Dylan’s studio albums (mostly the pre-Blood on the Tracks albums) and the first six volumes of Dylan’s Bootleg Series (which consisted of previously unreleased recordings – mostly live performances – that his record label began to release in 1991).

Steve Jobs in high school
Jobs had been a fan of Dylan’s since he was a teenager.  (At one point, he had more than a hundred hours of Dylan music on reel-to-reel tape, including bootleg recordings of dozens of Dylan concerts.)  He told Isaacson that the only time he was ever tongue-tied was when he was invited to meet Dylan at his hotel before a 2004 concert:

We sat on the patio outside his room and talked for two hours.  I was really nervous, because he was one of my heroes.  And I was also afraid that he wouldn’t be really smart anymore, that he’d be a caricature of himself, like happens to a lot of people.  But I was delighted.  He was sharp as a tack [and] he was really open and honest.

*     *     *     *     *

In 2005, Jobs decided he wanted to offer the digital equivalent of a boxed set of every song Dylan ever recorded – more than 700 in all – through the iTunes Store for $199.  But Sony BMG, Dylan’s record label, wasn’t happy with the amount of money that they were getting from Apple for iTunes downloads, and also believed that $199 was too low a price for the entire Dylan oeuvre.

A Dylan album cover was the backdrop when
Jobs introduced the iTunes Store in 2003.
Sony BMG’s CEO left the company the next year, and Jobs promptly made his pitch to the new management.  He and Sony BMG agreed to a deal that allowed Apple to release a package of 773 Dylan songs for $199 and also gave Apple the exclusive right to take pre-release orders for Dylan’s new Modern Times album.

In addition, Dylan agreed to do a TV commercial for the iPod.  Apple didn’t have to pay Dylan or other recording artists who appeared in their ads because appearing in an Apple ad  helped promote an artist’s brand as much as it helped sell Apple products.

Dylan’s ad helped attract younger listeners, and his new album blew past albums by Outkast and Christina Aguilera and took over the #1 spot on the Billboard album chart the first week of its release.  (Dylan hadn’t had a #1 album in 30 years.)

*     *     *     *     *

The Apple commercial wasn’t Dylan’s first.  Believe it or not, he had previously appeared in a TV ad for  . . . Victoria’s Secret?  He subsequently appeared in ads for Cadillac, Chrysler, and IBM – to the horror of some of his fans.

 “I’m going to have to go blow my brains out,” one fan told The Wall Street Journal in 2004 upon hearing of Dylan’s appearance in the Victoria’s Secret spot.  

Bob Dylan shilling for IBM
Jerald Podair, a professor of history and American studies, said the idea of Dylan’s shilling for big corporations was “almost unfathomable” back in the day.  “Somewhere, Woody Guthrie, Dylan’s inspiration and muse, is shedding bitter tears,” Podair told Variety in 2014.

*     *     *     *     *

The song from the Modern Times album that Jobs decided should be in the Apple spot was “Someday Baby,” which Dylan stole from Muddy Waters.  (You can click here to listen to Muddy’s 1955 recording of “Trouble No More.”)

Of course, Waters had previously stolen it from Sleepy John Estes.  (You can click here to listen to Sleepy John’s 1935 recording of “Someday Baby Blues.”)

The Modern Times album gave credit to neither man. 

Here’s the Dylan TV spot for Apple:

Click below to order the song from Amazon:

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

The Essex – "Easier Said Than Done" (1963)

Deep in my heart I know it,
But it's so hard to show it

When today’s featured song popped up on the Sirius/XM “The ’60s on 6” channel the other day, this photo was displayed on my car’s navigation/multimedia screen:

It turns out that those uniforms were the real deal.  Each member of the Essex was an active-duty U.S. Marine when “Easier Said Than Done” was recorded in 1963.

The Essex were formed by guitarist Walter Vickers and drummer Rodney Taylor when the two were stationed in Okinawa.  When they were transferred to North Carolina’s Camp Lejeune, they recruited three other Marines – Billy Hill, Rudolph Johnson, and Anita Humes, who became the group’s lead singer.

Roulette Records – a New York City-based label – signed the group to a recording contract after they submitted a demo.  I don’t know if they recorded “Easier Said Than Done” somewhere near Camp Lejeune, or if they got leave to travel to a New York City recording studio – but hopefully they got permission from their superiors before traipsing off to record the song.  (Camp Lejeune had a notorious brig back in the day, but I haven’t seen anything to indicate that the members of the Essex served time there for being AWOL.)

The sleeve for the 45 of “Easier Said Than Done” depicts only four musicians.  The Marines sent Rudolph Johnson back to Okinawa about this time, so I’m guessing that he’s the one missing from the photo.

*     *     *     *     *

“Easier Said Than Done” reached #1 on the Billboard “Hot 100” in July 1963.

The group follow-up single made it to #12, but the next two singles failed to crack the top 40.

That was pretty much the end for the Essex.  No doubt it was difficult (if not impossible) for the group to tour or make TV appearances to promote their records given they were Marines.

*     *     *     *     *

“Easier Said Than Done” held down the #31 spot on Billboard’s “Top 100 Songs of 1963” list.

“Surfin’ U.S.A.” was the number one song of 1963
The songs that were ranked ahead of it included “The End of the World” (Skeeter Davis), “Blue Velvet” (Bobby Vinton), “Hey Paula” (Paul & Paula), “My Boyfriend’s Back” (the Angels), “Sukiyaki” (Kyu Sakamoto). “Puff, the Magic Dragon” (Peter, Paul & Mary), and “Blame It on the Bossa Nova” (Eydie Gormé).

Let’s be honest: most of those songs suck.  (Believe me, there are plenty more where those came from on the 1963 “Top 100” chart.)

The 1964 year-end chart looks very different.  It was dominated by the Beatles, who placed nine singles on the top 100 – five of which were in the top twenty.  Lesser “British Invasion” groups – the Kinks, the Dave Clark Five, Gerry and the Pacemakers, Peter and Gordon, and Billy J. Kramer & the Dakotas, among others – were responsible for another dozen-plus top 100 singles.  

The Supremes and other Motown groups also began to make their presence felt in 1964, and the Beach Boys made a big impression with “I Get Around.”

Sure, there were still a lot of backward-looking songs aimed more at the parents of teenagers instead of the teenagers themselves on the 1964 year-end chart – like “Everybody Loves Somebody” (Dean Martin), “There! I’ve Said It Again” (Bobby Vinton), and a couple of Al Hirt instrumentals.  And there were several dated-sounding girl-group songs on the chart (including “Chapel of Love” and “Leader of the Pack”) and the truly horrible “Last Kiss.”

But Elvis Presley was thankfully absent from the 1964 “Top 100” list.

*     *     *     *     *

For me, four songs on the 1964 “Top 100” list really stand out.

Roy Orbison’s “It’s Over” and Lesley Gore’s “You Don’t Own Me” were traditional pop songs taken to the next level – Orbison’s performance is truly jaw-dropping, while it’s the message of Gore’s song that made it ahead of its time.

Sneaking in at #99 on the “Top 100” chart that year was the Kingsmen’s “Louie Louie,” in all its haphazard glory.  (Was there a 9th-grade garage band in America that year that couldn’t have done a more professional-sounding job on that song?)

And finally we have “The House of the Rising Sun” by the Animals.  There’s nothing on the 1963 year-end chart that compares to that tour de force.  Of course, there have been few (if any) songs recorded since then that have come close to the intensity and raw power of the Animals’ masterpiece.

*     *     *     *     *

Here’s “Easier Said Than Done”:

Click below to buy the song from Amazon:

Friday, May 18, 2018

Fairport Convention – "The Bonny Black Hare" (1971)

If your powder is willing
And your bullets play fair
Why don't you keep firing
At the bonny black hare?

Thanks to the previous 2 or 3 lines, you now know the difference between alligators and crocodiles.  But do you know the difference between rabbits and hares? 

Rabbits and hares are members of the same animal family – Leporidae – so they are more closely related than alligators and crocodiles (which belong to distinct animal families).  

But there are a number of differences between hares and rabbits, the most significant of which is that hares are relatively mature when they are born while newborn rabbits are blind, hairless, and completely dependent upon their mothers.  (That last part sounds a lot like my children until they reached the age of 30 or so.) 

Rabbit (left) vs. hare (right)
Also, hares are usually larger than rabbits, with more elongated ears and larger hind legs. 

And unlike hares, which live a relatively solitary life in aboveground nests, rabbits live underground in social groups.

Hares and rabbits don’t interbreed in the wild.  When they have been cross-bred in the laboratory, the fertilized eggs don’t develop because hares and rabbits have different numbers of chromosomes.  (Rabbits have 44 chromosomes, while hares have 48.)

100% chance they're fighting over a female
Here’s something I didn’t know:

Some herbivorous animals consume part of their own feces, thus recovering fermentation products that have passed through the digestive tract.  Reingestion of feces is an especially well-developed practice in [rabbits and hares] and is important for their adequate nutrition.


(Maybe that’s why rabbit meat is not kosher.)

*     *     *     *     *

Rabbits are legendarily prolific breeders, as Australians know all too well.  In the next 2 or 3 lines, I’ll tell you about the 1139-mile-long State Barrier Fence of Australia, which was built in the early 1900s to protect sheep and cattle-grazing areas from rabbits.

*     *     *     *     *

“Bonny Black Hare” is an old English folksong that has nothing to do with hares.

What it is about will become quickly apparent if you pay close attention to the lyrics.

The “Angel Delight” album
Here’s Airport Convention’s version of “Bonny Black Hare,” which was released on their 1971 Angel Delight album – their first without the legendary Richard Thompson:

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Bill Haley & His Comets – "See You Later, Alligator" (1956)

See you later, alligator
After ’while, crocodile

What is the difference between an alligator and a crocodile?  Do you know?

Both alligators and crocodiles are members of the Crocodilia order of reptiles, but they are members of separate families.  You might have heard that alligators have broad, U-shaped snouts while  crocodiles have narrower, V-shaped snouts, but that’s not really true.

There are two ways to tell the two apart.  First, alligators have an overbite, so only their upper teeth are visible when the mouth is closed.  (Crocodile teeth interlock, so you can see both upper and lower teeth.) 

Second, both alligators and crocodiles have integumentary sense organs (ISOs) – which look sort of like pimples – on the skin of their heads, but crocodiles have ISOs all over their bodies as well.

Crocodile's teeth
Alligators and crocodiles are not as closely related as you might think, so they can not interbreed and produce live offspring.  Even if their DNAs were more similar, alligators and crocodiles rarely cross paths.  In fact, the only place where crocodiles and alligators live near each other is in south Florida.  But alligators stick to freshwater areas, while crocodiles prefer saltier water.

Click here to watch a video that explains all this is some detail.

By the way, there are no alligators in Australia.  That’s why the movie character was named Crocodile Dundee.

Crocodile Dundee
(You don’t see many Crocodile Dundee hats these days.)

In the next 2 or 3 lines, I’ll explain the difference between a rabbit and a hare.

*     *     *     *     *

“See You Later, Alligator” was written and originally recorded by Cajun singer-songwriter Bobby Charles (whose real name was Robert Charles Guidry) in 1955.  Its title was inspired by a teenage catchphrase that had become popular a few years earlier.  (Other rhyming catchphrases that were popular around the same time were “You’re cruising for a bruising” (which was a favorite of my parents), “Don’t get tough, powder puff,” and “What’s buzzin’, cousin?”

Bill Haley & His Comets
The next year, a cover version of the song was a big hit for Bill Haley & His Comets.  It was featured in the Rock Around the Clock movie:

Click below to buy the song from Amazon:

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Glen Campbell – "Walls" (2008)

I can’t hold on forever
Even walls fall down

The first thing that struck me about Fort Frederick – an 18th-century fort located on the Maryland side of the Potomac River about 100 miles northwest of the U.S. Capitol – was how thick and high its stone walls were.

Fort Frederick has some big-ass walls
Construction on Fort Frederick, which was one of a chain of forts built during the French and Indian War to protect the British colonists who lived on the western frontier, began in 1756.  

Many of the frontier forts of that era were made of wood.  The Indian tribes who were allies of the French were certainly capable of setting fire to wooden forts.  But Fort Frederick’s stone walls are three to four feet thick and 17 feet high.   Walls that thick and high would have stymied them completely.

The French troops in the area may have possessed some light field artillery, but nothing that would have made a dent in a three-to-four-foot thick stone wall – that would have required much more formidable weaponry, like siege mortars or shipborne cannons.

Given the lack of roads and the shallowness of the Potomac River, there was no reason for the colonists to worry about mortars or ocean-going men of war.

*     *     *     *     *

Horatio Sharpe, Maryland’s colonial governor, was the driving force behind the construction of fort Frederick.  He told the colonial legislature that the fort “will not be completed for less than £5000.”

Fort Frederick from the air
That turned out to be an understatement.  A year later, the legislature expressed alarm at the amount of money that had spent on Fort Frederick, which was nowhere near being complete:

Near the Sum of £6000 has been expended . . . and tho’ we have not any exact Information what Sum may still be wanting to compleat it, (if ever it shall be thought proper to be done) yet we are afraid the Sum requisite for that Purpose, must be considerable . . . 

The legislators were also concerned about the size of the force necessary to man the very large fort:

[W]e are apprehensive that Fort is so large, that in Case of Attack, it cannot be defended without a Number of Men larger than this Province can support, purely to maintain a Fortification.     

The fort had barracks sufficient to lodge some 300 soldiers.  That may not sound like many, but the area surrounding the fort was very thinly populated.

*     *     *     *     *

In 1758, a British expedition captured Fort Duquesne, a French fort located in what is now downtown Pittsburgh.  That victory freed western Maryland from the threat of attack, and whatever militia garrisoned Fort Frederick at that time were sent back home.

The fort was abandoned until 1763, when several hundred settlers took refuge there during Pontiac’s War, a wide-ranging Indian uprising that broke out just after the British and French signed the Treaty of Paris, which brought a temporary end to hostilities between those two empires.

Fort Frederick reenactors
The tribes who united under Chief Pontiac’s leadership attacked several British forts in western Pennsylvania, but never got as far as Fort Frederick.  After a month or so, the settlers returned to their farms.

Fort Frederick was pressed into service to hold British prisoners of war during the Revolutionary War.  Nearly a thousand British soldiers and officers – including some family members – were housed there at the end of that war.

The fort fell into disrepair over the next decades.  Some of its stones were removed and used in the construction of the C&O Canal and for the foundations of several houses in the area.

Maryland sold the land around Fort Frederick to a local farmer in 1791.  (The fort was occupied by a Union regiment during the Civil War, and there were some skirmishes between Union and Confederate forces in the area early in that war.)  The state repurchased the property in 1922, and the Civilian Conservation Corps restored it during the Great Depression.

*     *     *     *     *

I visited Fort Frederick recently during a two-day bike ride on the C&O Canal towpath.

Before entering the fort proper, I sat down on a shaded bench and enjoyed an egg salad sandwich, dill pickle-flavored potato chips, and some Dr. Pepper, which I had picked up at a truck stop just a few miles away.

I posted a photo of the egg-salad sandwich on Facebook, claiming that I had purchased it at a gas station the morning before, stuck it in my backpack, and promptly forgot about it for 24-plus hours.

What a kerfuffle this caused among les femmes d’un certain âge who are my Facebook friends.  

“Don’t eat it!” said one.  “Don’t you eat that!” said another.  “If you decide to eat it, please post the name of the hospital where you're being treated so we can send get well wishes,” said a third.  (HOW STUPID DO YOU THINK I AM, LADIES?)

Imagine the psychic cost of being the husband or child of one of these literal-minded neurotics . . . these worry-warts! . . . these nervous Nellies!

*     *     *     *     *

Glen Campbell, who died last year, was one of 12 children of a poor Arkansas sharecropper.  An uncle gave him a five-dollar Sears guitar when he was four years, and within a few years, he was performing on local radio stations.  He was a talented and highly sought-after studio musician in the sixties, and later became a very successful solo artist.  He eventually released over 70 albums – 12 went gold, four went platinum, and one was double-platinum.

Today’s featured song – which was released on his 2008 album, Meet Glen Campbell – was written and originally recorded by Tom Petty.

Meet Glen Campbell also includes covers of songs by John Lennon, Jackson Browne, Lou Reed, U2, Green Day, and the Foo Fighters.  (Bet you didn’t see that coming.)

Here’s “Walls”:

Click below to buy the song from Amazon:

Friday, May 11, 2018

Kaiser Chiefs – "I Predict a Riot" (2004)

Watching the people get lairy
Is not very pretty I tell thee

Life today is incomprehensibly different today than it was in the 19th century.

If you don’t believe me, all you have to do is take a bike ride along the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, which follows the course of the Potomac River between Washington, DC, and Cumberland, Maryland.

Boat on the C&O Canal
Thousands of men equipped only with picks, shovels, and wheelbarrows labored from 1828 to 1850 to dig that 184.5-mile-long canal.

*     *     *     *     *

Most of the workers who worked on the C&O were Irish immigrants attracted by advertisements in the newspapers of Belfast, Cork, and Dublin.

Frances Trollope – whose son Anthony was the most prolific and probably the greatest of all the 19th-century British novelists – described the life of these Irish immigrants in her 1832 book, Domestic Manners of the Americans:

Of the white laborers on this canal, the great majority are Irishmen; their wages are from ten to fifteen dollars a month, with a miserable lodging, and the large allowance of whiskey.  It is by means of this hateful poison that they are tempted, and indeed enabled for a time to stand the broiling heat of the sun in a most noxious climate: for through such, close to the romantic but unwholesome Potomac, the line of the canal has hitherto run. 

The situation of these poor strangers, when they sink at last in “the fever,” which sooner or later is sure to overtake them, is dreadful. . . . Details of their sufferings often reached us; on one occasion a farmer calling at the house, told the family that a poor man, apparently in a dying condition, was lying beside a little brook at the distance of a quarter of a mile.  

The spot was immediately visited by some of the family; he was conveyed to the house, and expired during the night.  By inquiring at the canal, it was found that he was an Irish laborer . . . . He did not appear above twenty, and as I looked on his pale young face, which even in death expressed suffering, I thought that perhaps he had left a mother and a home to seek wealth in America. 

*     *     *     *     *

Not surprisingly, many of the canal workers turned to alcohol to assuage their suffering.  (Wouldn’t you?)

The canal company soon prohibited the consumption of spirits by its workers.  You can imagine how well that went over.  (We’re talking about the Irish, after all.)

From National Park Service historian Harlan Unrau’s history of the C&O:

The company had considerable difficulty enforcing its prohibition in the absence of sup- porting Maryland laws, as the contractors continually faced trouble with shopkeepers along the line who maintained grog shops or surreptitiously sold liquor to the men. . . .

Drunkenness had actually increased during the period of prohibition as the men, deprived of a steady supply of spirits during the day, drank excessive quantities of alcohol at neighboring grog shops in the evening.  The intoxicated men rioted throughout most of the night, and morning found many of them lying on the ground where they had fallen exhausted, unfit for work that day.

*     *     *     *     *

Fights among the canal workers were an everyday occurrence.

Harlan Unrau described the most serious outbreak of violence, which took place in 1834:

In 1834 open warfare broke out between two long feuding rival factions of the Irish workers – the Corkonians and the Longfords, sometime called Fardowners – during the idle winter months.

[Note: The “Corkonians” hailed from County Cork, the southernmost county of Ireland.  Longford County in central Ireland was a very small and very poor county.]

The first encounter in January 1834 was the result of a fight between on of the Corkonians and one of the Longfords named John Irons, the latter man being beaten badly that he soon died. . . . The skirmish between the Corkonians, who were working near Dam No. 5 above Williamsport, and the Fardowners from the vicinity of Dam No. 4, below the town, resulted in several deaths and many wounded in the clash before two companies of the Hagerstown Volunteers arrived on the scene to restore order.  The following day the militia returned to Hagerstown with 34 prisoners who were sent to jail. . . .

[A] major battle erupted [on] January 24.  A party of 300 Longfords, armed with guns, clubs and helves [i.e., ax handles], were permitted to cross the aqueduct and march up to Dam No. 5, when they announced that their intentions were merely to make a show of force.  Farther up the line they were joined by 300 to 400 more . . . . In a field on a hilltop just above Middlekauff’s Mill near Dam Mill near Dam No. 5, they met about 300 Corkonians armed with “military weapons.”  

Dam #5 today
Accepting a challenge, the Longfords charged up the hill amid an exchange of volleys that killed a number of men.  Soon the Corkonians fell back and fled before the superior forces of the Longfords.  A merciless pursuit took place until nightfall, and many of the fugitives that were over taken were savagely put to death.  Later five men were found in one place with bullets through their heads.  In addition, the bodies of other dead and wounded were strewn in every direction. . . .

The Maryland House of Delegates passed a resolution asking the President of the United States to order out a sufficient number of troops to preserve the peace at Williamsport.  The Maryland Senate substituted a resolution of its own authorizing the Governor to call out the state militia, but President Andrew Jackson had already issued orders to send two companies of the 1st regiment of the U.S. Cavalry stationed at Fort McHenry to proceed to the canal.  Arriving via the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, the federal force remained along the line of the waterway for several months.

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I recently took a two-day, 60-mile bike ride along the C&O, which ceased operating in 1924 and was eventually acquired by the federal government and turned into a national historical park.  

The first day, I rode from mile 99.8 (Williamsport, Maryland) to mile 72.8, which is just across the Potomac from Shepherdstown, West Virginia.  (I parked in Shepherdstown and arranged for the owner of a local bike store to shuttle my bike and me to Williamsport so I didn’t have to ride that stretch of the canal in both directions.)

The second day, I drove to Williamsport and rode from mile 99.8 to mile 114.5 (where the towpath is adjacent to the paved Western Maryland Rail Trail) and back.  

The most notable canal structure I saw that day was Dam #5, one of several “feeder” dams built on the Potomac to provide a reliable water supply for the canal. 

Dam #5 – which was built by Corkonians – is about six miles upriver from Williamsport.

In December 1861, Stonewall Jackson and his men attempted to destroy the dam, which would have deprived the canal of sufficient water for boats to carry coal from western Maryland to Washington.  But Jackson’s attacks failed to knock the dam out of commission.

The dam currently produces over 1200 kilowatts of hydroelectric power.

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A couple of miles upriver from the dam is the house that was the home of the lockkeeper assigned to operate lock 49.  

Lockhouse 49
Lockhouse 49 is one of six C&O Canal blockhouses that you can rent.  It sleeps eight and costs only $125 a night.  While it has electric baseboard heat, it doesn’t have a kitchen or running water.  There’s a portapotty, however.

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The highlight of my second day’s ride was Fort Frederick State Park, the site of a stone fort built in 1756 to protect settlers during the French and Indian War.  

I’ll tell you more about Fort Frederick in the next 2 or 3 lines.

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“I Predict a Riot” was released in 2004 on Employment, the Kaiser Chiefs’ debut album:

The Kaiser Chiefs aren’t Irish – they hail from Leeds.  (Close enough for government work.)

In case you’re not familiar with the word “fairy,” the Cambridge English Dictionary says it means “behaving in a loud, excited manner, especially when you are enjoying yourself or drinking alcohol.”  

Not surprisingly, the word is almost always used to describe men, not women.

Here’s “I Predict a Riot”:

Click below to buy the song from Amazon: