E. B. White, The Beatles, and “Piggies”

On July 11, 1899, Elwyn Brooks White was born in Mount Vernon, New York. White became the famous writer we know as “E. B. White.”

As a young man, White joined The New Yorker in its early years and helped shape the magazine. In 1959, White reworked William Strunk Jr.’s The Elements of Style, creating one of my favorite handbooks on writing that is now commonly referred to as “Strunk & White.” But most of us first encounter White’s work as children.

Charlotte’s Web

White’s classic children’s books include Stuart Little (1945) and The Trumpet of the Swan (1970). His most famous book, though, may be the story of a pig named Wilbur who becomes friends with a spider named Charlotte, Charlotte’s Web (1952).

Several years ago, Publisher’s Weekly listed Charlotte’s Web as the best-selling children’s book of all time. Wilbur is certainly one of the most famous pig characters in popular culture, along with Babe, Arnold (Green Acres), and Porky.

The Beatles and “Piggies”

There are not many famous songs about pigs.  The most famous may be “Piggies” by the Beatles, even though the song is not really about four-legged porkers.

“Piggies” was written by George Harrison and appeared on The Beatles album, also known as “The White Album,” in 1968. As recounted in Steve Turner’s book, A Hard Day’s Write: The Stories Behind Every Beatles Song, Harrison described the song making fun of the middle class as “as social comment.”

The lyrics are not very complex.  The song refers to people as “piggies.” And the song also notes that things are “getting worse” for the little piggies while the bigger piggies “[a]lways have clean shirts to play around in.”

Although “Piggies” is not on anybody’s list of top Beatles songs, the effectiveness of the song lies in its simplicity.  The song captures the sound of a classical nursery rhyme, as shown in the live version below.

Charles Manson

Unfortunately, “Piggies” is another song like “Revolution” that got hijacked by Charles Manson. Reportedly, the crazy man liked the line about the piggies needing “a damn good whacking.”  Also, variations on the word “pig” were written on the walls in blood at the site of Manson family murders.

Understandably, Harrison was appalled with Manson’s foolish interpretation of the song. The “damn good whacking” line was only added to the lyrics after Harrison’s mom suggested it as something to rhyme with “backing” and “lacking.”

E.B. White and Death

It was unfortunate that “Piggies,” designed as a short commentary, ended up associated with horrible deaths. But E. B. White, who wrote about the death of a real pig in a 1948 essay and passed away in 1985, understood that death is everywhere.

In White’s book about a pig and a spider, he wrote, “After all, what’s a life, anyway? We’re born, we live a little while, we die.” The best we can do is try to live a worthwhile life.  That is not a bad lesson coming from a spider and a pig.

Leave your two cents in the comments.

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    Maya Angelou’s Best Advice

    Poet and author Maya Angelou has passed away at the age of 86. In this video, the poet who has dispensed wisdom in numerous ways, discusses the best advice she has ever given and the best advice she has ever received. Check it out.

    When she speaks of forgiveness, she speaks from experience, having experienced horrible trauma as a child. Through her struggles, she helped make us better. Rest in peace.

    Leave your two cents in the comments.

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    Anniversary of “The Grapes of Wrath”

    John Steinbeck‘s novel The Grapes of Wrath was published on April 14, 1939. The book, which recounts the struggles of the tenant farmers Joad family moving from Oklahoma to California, went on to win the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize. It also helped Steinbeck win the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1962. Steinbeck’s book seeped into popular culture, aided by a great John Ford movie as well as songs.

    Less than a year after the novel’s publication, 20th Century Fox released John Ford’s vision of The Grapes of Wrath in January 1940. The film starred Henry Fonda, Jane Darwell, and John Carradine, and it contained some differences from the book, and in particular the ending.

    While the book was written as an indictment of the greed that led to the Great Depression, the conservative Ford maintained some elements of that vision while also giving the story a somewhat more optimistic ending. The Grapes of Wrath thus became one of those instances where a novel and its movie version both attained greatness even with some significant differences.

    The film would go on to inspire others. In particular, the speech by Tom Joad (Fonda) would inspire both Woody Guthrie and Bruce Springsteen to write songs. Check out our post about the story behind Guthrie’s “Tom Joad,” a song written at the request of a record company during an all-night session after Pete Seeger helped Guthrie find a typewriter.

    Bruce Springsteen used his stark “The Ghost of Tom Joad” as the title track of his somber 1995 album. In 2014, though, he released a new version of the song on High Hopes that features the raging angry guitar of Tom Morello, highlighting the defiance in Tom Joad’s speech. While Springsteen’s original acoustic version captures the sadness of the novel, his rock version of the song might be more comparable to John Ford’s vision. Check out this performance featuring Springsteen, Morello, and the E Street Band from Allphones Area in Sydney, Australia from March 2013.

    What is your favorite version of “The Grapes of Wrath”? Leave your two cents in the comments.

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    Interview with Richard Fulco, Author of “There Is No End to This Slope”

    Richard Fulco’s new novel, There Is No End to This Slope, is out today. We are excited about the new book from Fulco, who is the founding editor of the wonderful online music magazine Riffraf. The novel, published by Wampus Multimedia, tells the story of John Lenza, a struggling writer haunted by the death of a woman who was his best friend.

    Before we get to your upcoming novel, tell our readers a little bit about yourself.

    I’m a New Yorker who has a vehement love/hate relationship with his hometown. I moved (not very far) to Montclair, New Jersey but occasionally dream of moving back home. I’ve been a singer, electrical apprentice, high school English teacher and playwright. Now, I’m a father of twins, founder/editor of Riffraf.net (a music blog) and my debut novel There Is No End to This Slope is being published by Wampus Multimedia.

    That’s a lot on your plate. What made you decide to write There Is No End to This Slope?

    I never consciously decided to write a novel. In 2005, I wrote a bunch of poems and a one-act play that were based on a full-length play I had in the New York Fringe Festival. My harrowing experience at the Fringe was enough to send me into hibernation where I embarked on the novel, which took seven years to write. After two years of teaching myself how to write a longer work, I committed to the project and slogged away. I’m still not sure that I know how to write a novel.

    I think many writers would agree with you about the writing process. Where did you come up with the idea for There Is No End to This Slope?

    Have you ever consciously made a poor decision, knowing full well that the outcome would be disastrous? I made so many of them from 2002-2007 that it had become a lifestyle.

    I think that is a part of life and growing. From the description of the book, the novel seems to address some important themes about death and loss. Have any other books influenced how you think about those issues?

    A partial list of works that influenced the writing of There is No End to This Slope includes: Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, Michael Thomas’ Man Gone Down, Frederick Exley’s A Fan’s Notes, Charles Bukowski’s Post Office, J.M. Coetzee’s Waiting For the Barbarians, Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer, Samuel Bekett’s Waiting for Godot and Endgame, Harold Pinter’s Birthday Party, Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis and The Castle, Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road, Joshua Ferris’ Until We Came to the End, William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, the poetry of Robert Desnos, the songs of Lennon and McCartney, George Harrison, Jeff Tweedy, Bob Dylan, Paul Westerberg, Jagger and Richards, Otis Redding, Stevie Wonder and Lou Reed.

    That’s a great list. And we have seen some of those artists discussed on your music blog at RiffRaf. Did your work on the blog influence There Is No End to This Slope in any way?

    I can’t escape music. It’s what sustains me. Well, a good book excites me too, but nothing gets my juices flowing like a great guitar riff or drum fill or lyric.

    The novel’s protagonist, John Lenza, played guitar for a short-lived band in high school. As an adult, his guitar sits in its case inside a closet, buried underneath boxes of his wife’s journals just gathering dust. Depressing, isn’t it?

    Yeah. Unfortunately, that happens a lot to musicians as they grow older and get overwhelmed with life’s other demands. I’m interested to see how it comes out in the novel. Where will we find the book when it comes out?

    Amazon and other fine stores.

    I look forward to reading it. Finally, I’m always interested in the writing process. While writing your novel, how did you balance other commitments? Did you follow a set schedule or work on the book as you found time?

    While I was teaching, I wrote mostly at night and on the weekends. When my twins were born, I had to be more flexible. I wrote in the morning, during their afternoon nap and when they went to bed.

    Thank you for your time Richard, and good luck with the novel. We look forward to reading it.

    A Christmas Carol: Dickens, Edison, Sim, and the Fonz

    On December 17, 1843, London publishing house Chapman & Hall published a novella called A Christmas Carol. In Prose. Being a Ghost Story of Christmas.  The novella, by Charles Dickens, would become a classic.

    Charles Dickens had already found success from writing projects, including The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club (1836), Oliver Twist (1838) and Nicholas Nickleby (1839). His new book, which he only started writing three months earlier in September 1843, was an immediate success, and many today credit it with reviving Christmas traditions in Victorian England.

    We now know the book simply as A Christmas Carol. While it may seem odd that a book about ghosts would become a Christmas classic (instead of a Halloween story), Dickens was not the only one telling yuletide ghost stories. In Victorian England, it was a tradition to tell ghost stories around the fire on Christmas Eve. I guess many places still have that tradition, but it is now called, “watching A Christmas Carol on television.”

    Adaptations of “A Christmas Carol”

    Soon after the novella was published, people began adapting the story for theater productions. Dickens himself often gave readings of the book throughout his lifetime.

    As technology changed, there were adaptations for radio and screens. Thomas Edison created an early silent version of the story in 1910.

    One of the most famous movie versions of the book — and the most highly regarded in many quarters — is 1951’s Scrooge, starring Alastair Sim. Sim, who was born in Edinburgh in 1900 and starred in a number of projects on stage and screen before his death in 1976, had the perfect voice and face for Mr. Scrooge.

    And now with modern technology, we can add the tradition of watching Scrooge on the Internet.

    Other famous versions of the movie feature George C. Scott, Jim Carrey, and Albert Finney as Scrooge. The Alistair Sim one remains my favorite.

    An American Christmas Carol

    But I must admit I have a soft spot for a 1979 made-for-television movie called An American Christmas Carol, starring Fonzie himself, Henry Winkler as the Scrooge character named Benedict Slade.

    Maybe I was at an impressionable age when I first saw An American Christmas Carol. Or maybe I liked the way it put a new twist on an old story by setting it during the Depression in New England.

    You also may watch An American Christmas Carol below.

    No matter who is your favorite Scrooge, may the future find that it always be said of him (or her), “that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us! And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless Us, Every One!”

    What is your favorite version of A Christmas Carol? Leave your two cents in the comments.

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