Sunday, February 27, 2011

The Baby Dolls

Mardi Gras is in full swing in New Orleans- there's a parade every day it seems, and the city is gearing up for Fat Tuesday as only AGC can. As a public service to lucky L by L readers, I've set up a camera on the parade route! Well, not really- but someone else has and here's the address:

A quote from Gumbo Ya Ya, reprinted in Al Rose's invaluable Storyville, New Orleans:
"A crowd of Baby Dolls came along, all dressed up in tight, scanty trunks, silk blouses and poke bonnets with ribbons tied under dusky chins. The costumes were in every color of the rainbow and some that are not. They joined the crowd, dancing and shaking themselves."

The Baby Dolls, an African American all- female Krewe (for lack of a better term- I doubt there's a formal krewe) still parade during Mardi Gras, sometimes in conjunction with the Zulu celebration. The  earliest known activity of the Baby Dolls is recorded in 1912, well prior to the closing of Storyville.

In 2003, the irrepressible Antoinette K- Doe revived the flagging Krewe. Under her tutelege, the Baby Dolls enjoyed a resurgence in popularity.

Antoinette K- Doe's Baby Dolls
In an article published in the Gambit shortly after Antoinette's death on Mardi Gras Day,  2009, she said, "The Baby Dolls had disappeared, and I brought the Baby Dolls back. I named them the Ernie K-Doe Baby Dolls. The reason I did that was to show the new Baby Dolls are career ladies. We all working ladies. The history of Baby Dolls, from years ago when I was a little girl, I thought they were baby dolls that I could play with.

"My grandmother told me, 'No, it’s ladies.' It developed into getting history on the Baby Dolls, because I was always fascinated by our culture. And I understood that the Baby Dolls was whores. I knew they had the Red Light District, the Baby Dolls here. So when I brought the Baby Dolls back, I didn’t want them to have the reputation they had before. I said, 'You know what? Let’s clean up the act.' So we made it career ladies."

Ms. K- Doe was due to lead the Baby Doll Krewe on the very day she died. They marched without her, knowing she'd want the parade to keep going.

This set of photographs, found in the excellent Louisiana Digital Library show the Baby Dolls circa 1942. There's no real caption information beyond that and the people in the pictures are not identified.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The Carmonica

First there was this article, from the New Zealand Herald:

Naturally this made me curious, because I play harmonica. And know how to drive a car.

So then I found this:

This was interesting. The harmonicas are not only larger than your standard diatonic Hohner Marine Band, but they are completely unmarked. No branding whatsoever. They are also double reed harmonicas- the kind that invoke the image of cape- wearing gendarmes strolling along the Seine on a warm Parisienne night.

Further research uncovered this:

Well, gentle reader, you know me- when it comes to getting the low- down skinny for my loyal L by L readers, I leave no stone unturned.

Finally I found this:

So now we know. Three hundred and thirty harmonicas traveling at 100 km/h sounds sort of like the end chord of "Day in the Life" by the Beatles.

After listening to the video I can tell you that a) the harmonicas are, thankfully, all in the same key and b) if you were driving this car and needed to use the horn in a life or death situation, you'd be completely screwed.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Chinese Toilet Waterfall

When I saw this, I couldn't help thinking of a Lowell Thomas- type travelog, "From deep inside mysterious China comes a hidden marvel all but incomprehensible to the Western mind and way of life!"

This is from the blog Damn Cool Pics, via Dinosaurs and Robots.

And I quote: "China always amazes world with weird and astonishing things. China’s Toilet Seat Waterfall is in South China’s Gunagdong Province. Its made from thousands of recycled toilet seats, urinals, and sinks. It is about 100 meters long and 5 meter tall.

"This art project is a part of local tradeshow for pottery and porcelain products. It attracts many visitors to take a look for this weird waterfall."

I'm sure the sound of all that water from all those toilets is very soothing, and talk about inventive recycling! My guess is this is only one of the many interesting things we'll be seeing in the coming years from our future Chinese masters.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Happy Birthday, Irma: February 18th, 1941

It's the early stuff that really gets to me, the songs where she sounds on the edge of giving up or letting her despair wash over her. Songs like It's Raining, or Ruler of My Heart, or I Wish Someone Would Care. No one except Billie Holiday sings about emptiness better than Irma Thomas.

Those songs are a part of an extremely fortuitous relationship between songwriter/ producer/ pianist/ genius Allen Toussaint and Irma. Some of them were written in Toussaint's mother's living room, if legend is to be believed. The origin of It's Raining  is as casual as a glance out the window at a weather- darkened sky.

The young Soul Queen
But it's way more than the compositions themselves. Just look at the rest of Toussaint's overtures from that era: Mother-in- Law for Ernie K-Doe, Lipstick Traces for Bennie Spellman, all the semi- forgettable Allen Orange songs. It's the life that Irma is able to breath into them. If Toussaint has had two great interpreters of his material, from the scores of singers that he's worked with, it would have to be Irma and Lee Dorsey. Those are his two voices.

But today's not Lee's birthday, or Allen's.

It's Irma's.

Irma's version of Time on My Side outdoes the Stones by a factor of about 5:1. And her Ruler of My Heart was so deep that Otis Redding recorded it, retitled it Pain in My Heart and scored his first big hit. (Otis claimed the writing credits, but Toussaint successfully sued.) Otis' version is a killer, for sure, but Irma's has that plaintive quality, along with a perfectly placed piano triplet from Toussaint.

I used to drive to New Orleans before it became much cheaper to fly, and the drive took two days with an overnight usually outside of Knoxville TN. I started that drive one time with It's Raining on my tape deck and pulled up in front of my hotel on Royal Street with the same song on WWOZ. And-- it was raining!

 The story of Irma is the story of New Orleans, which is why she plays a free concert every mother's day, and why she still lives in AGC, and why, when our old friend Irving Banister describes a musician he admires, he simply says, "He played for Irma."

 A living New Orleans' treasure, still beautiful (at 70!), still full- voiced and going strong. Irma Thomas, the Soul Queen of New Orleans.

And, as long time L by L readers know, as goes New Orleans, so goes the world.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The Latest From the Photoblog

The newest posting in the photoblog, as promised in the previous entry here, has shattered the old viewing record!

Okay, it's not exactly viral, but it is pretty hot.

Check out "Life Is But a Drag". Then tell me what you think.


Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Photo Blog

This Thursday will mark the first thirty days of serious posting on my photo blog, found here: I will have posted a picture every day since the 17th of January. Only eleven more months to go!

I've also posted a portfolio of pictures taken at this year's Auto Show. In the next few days, a new portfolio is going up. I won't say what it is, but if you check the blog around tomorrow afternoon, I hope you will enjoy what you see.

So far the reaction has been very encouraging, but I wish more people were tuning in. In the current climate, artistic self- expression, as opposed to waiting for an assignment, becomes more important than ever.

Well, that does sound a little pretentious, but, hey- I'm an artiste!

In the meantime, why not make my photoblog an everyday viewing habit. The Picture of the Day awaits!

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Cairo- practical

Mostly I'm writing this so I can use this title before someone else does.

I like Cairo- it's a truly great city, ancient and modern, primitive and sophisticated, breathtaking and heartbreaking.

Let's wish the Egyptian people the best in their efforts to join the twenty- first century.

©2011 Breton Littlehales. Cairo in 1978, shot on Kodachrome II.

©2011 Breton Littlehales. Same as above. Why didn't I go in? Ah, youth.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Union Station Again

I want to thank everyone who wrote in to comment on yesterday's post re: the police and Union Station. I received more comments on that entry than any other I've done.

I guess it touched a nerve.

Those of us who came of age in the mid- to- late 1960's may have felt a sense of deja vu- I know I did as it was unfolding. But to those readers who grew up before or after events during the misnamed "hippy era", perhaps all of the behavior described, mine included, may have seemed a tiny bit extreme.

Unfortunately, all of us in this post 9/11 world have to remember that heightened paranoia is merely another security tool these days. As inconvenient or humiliating as it may be, the times serve to justify this kind of behavior. Or so I was told yesterday, and perhaps it is so.

Anyway, thanks again- it's always nice to know someone's out there reading.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Union Station Update

I went to Union Station here in Washington DC to update the beautiful architectural photograh from the last blog. I knew in advance that I would be disappointed with the current Station, but I was stunned to find out just how disappointed I could be.

Let's get right to it: in the course of photographing down there, I was reported to the DC police, detained, sniffed by a dog, told to hand over my driver's license, and made to tell my story (what story?) to three different cops.

When it turned out I was whom I claimed to be they let me go. They were clearly disappointed.

Let's get the updated pic out of the way:

Skylight blocked, second floor and boutique shops added. At least part of the ceiling is still the same. © 2011 Breton Littlehales

Now, here's what happened: after I shot the pic, I went to the shops near to the gates to the tracks. I walked down the corridor to a hallway with a huge glass window, and I could see a couple of freight trains through the window. I walked into the hallway, which led to a bunch of nearby office buildings, including Kaiser Permanente, and fished out my little Canon Gll. At this point a young man came up to me and asked if I were an employee of the SCC. I said, no, and that I didn't know what the SCC was.

He said I wasn't allowed to photograph there. I said, OK and then he asked what I had been shooting. I said, the freight trains. He reiterated his warning (at this point I was walking away) and of course, rather than just letting it go, I said, "So I can't photograph the trains?" And he said, "No," and I went off to find a men's room.

As I walked down the corridor I noticed him pacing me, which I thought odd. As I approached the public men's room, a policeman with a dog stopped me. "Sir," he said, "this gentleman says you were photographing here by the trains." I said nothing.

He said, reasonably enough, "There is no photography allowed on this side of the station. In fact," he said, "you can't be here without a ticket. Are you a tourist or a sightseer?"

Another policeman arrived and glared at me.

 I said I was sightseeing. He asked if I were a train buff. I said nothing. At this point I knew I was fucked. It was only a matter of how fucked.

He said, "May I see your license?" I gave it to him. Then a policewoman joined us. Now I was surrounded, literally, by the young gentleman from the train station, the policeman with the dog, the policeman without the dog and the policewoman.

As the dog policeman called in my name and address, the second cop began to question me. "What were you doing?" he asked.

"I was taking pictures."

"For who?"

"I have a photo blog." I kept thinking, they don't care, this is just boring.

"Why are you taking pictures here? Did you photograph the trains? Take your hand out of your pocket."

"No. I have a picture of the station from 1910. I wanted to show what it looked like now."

Meanwhile, we're all still waiting to find out if I'm from Silver Spring or here spying.

"No need to worry, sir- this is just routine," dog- cop said.

"I'm not worried." And I wasn't.

"No need for concern," he said.

"I'm not concerned."

"So, where were you taking the pictures?" asked the second cop. I thought of him as the bad cop. The dog cop was the good cop, the second was the bad cop and the third was there for the ride, I guess.

I said I had been down by the Kaiser Permanente entrance. I was going to photograph  through the window.I was going to photograph a freight train.

The bad cop said, "Where's the Kaiser Permanente entrance?"

This question seemed to me to raise the fuck level. "What do you mean?" I asked.

Then he actually said, "I'll ask the questions." Wow... cool! I thought.

So he did. "Where's the Kaiser Permanente entrance?" And then the third cop said, "You know, it's--" at which point I cut her off.

""It's OK- he's testing me. He knows you know where it is."  I turned from her and said, "It's down past the shoe shine stand... do you see that sign? It's past that sign..." Blah, blah, blah, etc, etc.

Then he asked me where I lived. I told him. Then he said, "Didn't you say you weren't photographing trains?"

Actually, no, I thought, but this guy really thinks he's onto something. I just said, "You got me."

At this point, the employee had gotten embarrassed by the whole thing. "I asked him to stop and he did. I'm sorry I said anything," he said. He left.

Meanwhile, dog cop was still waiting to confirm whether I'm really your faithful scribe Bret Littlehales or not.

Of course, it turned out that I am, which, gentle reader, we knew all along.

So they let me go. They were disappointed, yes, especially the bad cop, but hey- it's still the US and I live here so they had to let me go. The bad cop had a parting word for me though.

"I hope you learned your lesson," he said.

Well, maybe. If the lesson is that those new buses are a way better deal to NYC than Amtrak, then yes, lesson learned. If the lesson is I can still piss off authority as much as I could in the '60's and '70's, and therefore might not be as old as I feared, then, yes- lesson learned.

Was there something else? I guess not.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Another From My Home Town

Good old Shorpy.

This pic, taken in 1910, shows the interior of Union Station, one of the grandest and most ignored buildings here in DC, relatively speaking.

Now filled with a second floor plus shops, the space bares little resemblance to the grand open vista one saw in 1910.