Have a Safe New Year’s Eve (Billy the Kid Rises Again)

Today it was announced that New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson will not pardon Billy the Kid. People debated this year whether Billy the Kid should be pardoned. The debate was based on a deal that Billy allegedly had made with the territorial governor in exchange for testimony in a case.

According to USA Today, Gov. Richardson, whose term ends at midnight tonight, said that the evidence of the deal was ambiguous, so he chose not to act on the pardon. Others on both sides debated whether or not the evidence was so ambiguous.

The descendants of the territorial governor and of Pat Garrett, the sheriff who shot and killed Billy the Kid, asserted that they were outraged that Gov. Richardson had considered the pardon. We are invested in the legacy of our families, even for things that happened more than 100 years ago.

Nobody knows what happened in that secret meeting between Billy the Kid and the territorial governor in March 1879. But, like Tom Petty in the song “Billy the Kid,” Billy keeps getting up in our American imagination.

Chimesfreedom has been out of town, but we will have a New Year’s Post tomorrow, so be sure to stop by again in the new year.  Thanks for your visits and comments in 2010 as this site has got off the ground, and we look forward to seeing you in 2011!

May you continue to get up from any adversity in the new year.

The King’s Speech (short review)

The King’s Speech (2010), about King George VI, is one of the best movies of the year. It is entertaining, interesting, and an excellent mix of drama, humor, and history.

Do not be deceived about the “king” in the title and be turned off or expect a story focusing on royalty. Although the movie does give great insight into the life of the royals, it is mainly a movie about human beings. The movie begins with the future king as the Duke of York, known to his friends as “Bertie.” He is second in line to the crown behind his father and older brother, but events beyond his control will later propel him toward the throne. In carrying out is royal duties, he sometimes has to give speeches, and his speaking is hindered by a severe stammer. After various experts failed to help him with his stammer, Bertie’s wife (Helena Bonham Carter) encourages Bertie to try one more expert, Lionel Logue, played by Geoffrey Rush.

When Rush enters the movie, it really takes off in its study of the relationship between the commoner and the future king. Rush is outstanding in the role, and Colin Firth is also exceptional in making the viewer come to understand the imperfect person underneath the king. The acting all around is excellent, including Carter and including Guy Pearce as King Edward VIII. Timothy Spall’s portrayal of Winston Churchill was the only weak point in the cast. But the problem may have been in the difficulty of portraying someone as recognizable as Churchill without slipping into caricature.

[This paragraph reveals small potential spoilers.] The title’s reference to “The King’s Speech” refers both to Bertiie’s difficulties in speaking and to the climactic speech at the end where he addresses the nation. While the focus on the former is compelling, the shift to the focus on the latter fell a little flat for a movie climax. Because of the tone throughout the movie, as well as maybe from previews, there was no suspense about whether the final speech would succeed. Plus, the uplifting movie’s ending foreshadows some dark clouds with the images of Hitler near the end and the introduction of Neville Chamberlain, who after the movie ends will have a policy of appeasement to the Nazis. So, the movie did not quite convince me of the speech’s importance, although it was important. It is hard to fault the movie for the climax, though, when it portrays true events and is not responsible for our knowledge of the upcoming events. But it is too bad that his speech alone could not have immediately defeated the Germans, in both the movie and in real life.

Conclusion? The story, acting, and movie are excellent. In a year of few great movies, The King’s Speech is near the top of the crop.

If you have not seen the movie, stop reading here and go see it. If you have seen the movie, you might enjoy hearing the actual speech from King George VI featured at the end of the movie here:

Leave your two cents in the comments.

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    The WWI Christmas Truce: a Beatle, a Beagle, and a Brooks

    On Christmas day in 1914, peace broke out on the battlefield among common soldiers. Several artists have interpreted the World War I Christmas Truce, including two of the biggest recording artists in history — Paul McCartney and Garth Brooks. Although the songs about the truce ignore some of the nuances of the historical record, there is only so much one may do in a three-minute song.

    The Christmas Morning Truce

    On Christmas morning in 1914 at several places along the trenches, an informal peace broke out among the troops.  At some places, German troops started singing carols, and then the British joined in.  Soon, some of the soldiers began showing themselves, and the enemies met in no-man’s land to exchange food and cigarettes, and in some places they played soccer.

    The truce occurred spontaneously at different locations with different men.  And it is estimated that more than 100,000 British, French, and German soldiers participated.

    Reactions to the Informal Truce

    But the World War I leaders on both sides did not appreciate the common soldiers’ truce.  Many days later, after word spread about the Christmas Truce, officers ordered that soldiers who possessed gifts from the enemy would be punished. At many places along the lines, the leadership broke up groups who participated in the truce and transferred the men elsewhere along the front lines.

    The following year, there would again be some informal truces, but due to pressure from the officers and due to the increasing brutality of the war, the 1915 truces were not nearly as widespread as the 1914 truces. The moment of peace had passed.

    Paul McCartney’s “Pipes of Peace”

    The video to Paul McCartney’s 1983 song, “Pipes of Peace” — from the album of the same name — shows a dramatization of the truce.  In the video, we see English Paul and German Paul meeting on the battlefield. (Fortunately, none of the Pauls from the “Coming Up” video appear).

    The lyrics of “Pipes of Peace” do not describe the Christmas Truce and are vague enough to be used either as an anti-war song or a love song.  It is sort of like “Love is All You Need.”

    In “Pipes of Peace,” Paul sings: “All round the world little children being born to the world/ Got to give them all we can till the war is won / Then will the work be done.”

    Garth Brooks and “Belau Wood”

    By contrast, in Garth Brooks’s 1997 “Bellau Wood” — from one of his last pre-retirement albums, Sevens (1997) — the lyrics directly describe the Christmas Truce. The story is a fictionalized version of the truce set at the location of a later 1918 World War I battle.

    Brooks describes the peace starting with someone singing “Silent Night”: “As we lay there in our trenches / The silence broke in two/ By a German soldier singing / A song that we all knew.” But in the end, the message is similar to the message of the McCartney song:

    But for just one fleeting moment
    The answer seemed so clear
    Heaven’s not beyond the clouds
    It’s just beyond the fear

    No, heaven’s not beyond the clouds
    It’s for us to find it here

    I recall an official video of the Garth Brooks song “Bellau Wood,” but it does not seem to be available on the Internet. You may hear the song with a fan video below or go to this link where he sings the song and introduces it by describing how emotional it makes him.

    The Film Joyeux Noel and a Book

    An excellent 2005 French movie is based on the truce, Joyeux Noel (Merry Christmas). Also, a nonfiction book by Stanley Weintraub called Silent Night tells the real story in more detail.

    Although the movie Joyeux Noel is a fictionalized account of the truce, it does a good job of portraying the reaction to the truce, something that is often overlooked in the sweet versions of the story.

    In Weintraub’s book, he described how the High Command on both sides were not happy, but “many troops had discovered through the truce that the enemy, despite the best efforts as propagandists, were not monsters.  Each side had encountered men much like themselves, drawn from the same walks of life — and led, alas, by professionals who saw the world through different lenses.”

    At the end of his book, the author wonders what the world would be like today had the informal truce led to an immediate end of the war that was just beginning.

    Although the leaders’ reactions against the truce show the darker and realistic side of war, the fact that the truce took place at all is somewhat hopeful for our species. When France dedicated a WWI Christmas Truce memorial in 2008, German and French soldiers played a game of football (soccer) where there predecessors had played in 1914. This time, the peace endured.

    Snoopy and The Red Baron

    Finally, here is one more song that incorporates the WWI truce, featuring someone more famous than Paul McCartney and Garth Brooks: Snoopy.

    In this holiday season and in the upcoming year, may you understand that your enemies are not so different from you.  Peace to all the world and good will to men and women. Happy holidays.

    [November 2014 Update: The grocery store chain Sainsbury incorporated the Christmas truce story into a commercial.] Which song do you prefer? Leave a comment.

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    Blue Christmas & the Elvis TV Special

    It was the Christmas television special that never was. Peter Guralnick explained in his wonderful two-volume biography of Elvis Presley how Elvis’s famous 1968 “Comeback Special” started with the idea of a holiday special. But it turned into something completely different.

    By the late 1960’s, Elvis had become largely irrelevant to the current music scene.  In recent years he had spent his time in a wasteland of movies of declining quality.

    For a change in strategy, Colonel Parker negotiated a deal with NBC for a TV special around the holidays.  And Parker envisioned it as a Christmas special.

    But Elvis and Steve Binder, the director of the program, had something else in mind. They designed the special in a way to reestablish Elvis as a relevant music artist.

    The special featured several big set productions and an outstanding closing number written just for Elvis.  But the centerpiece of the special featured Elvis in black leather singing out the raw blues of his early work — both in stand-up and sit-down segments.

    Binder recorded two sit-down sessions with Elvis on June 27, 1968 for the December TV special.  Both versions of “Blue Christmas” are available on DVD. In one of the sessions, Elvis also sang “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town,” but it was not used in the show.

    The special, promoted as “Elvis” but now known as The ’68 Comeback Special, was a turning point in Presleys career. It relaunched him as a relevant music artist who would soon record such great songs as “Suspicious Minds.”

    “Blue Christmas”

    In the special, which was broadcast on December 3, 1968, Binder agreed to allow only one Christmas song in the show.  The song was “Blue Christmas,” which Elvis had first recorded in 1957.

    Elvis’s 1957 rock and roll performance defined “Blue Christmas.” But the song had been recorded almost a decade earlier in 1948 by Ernest Tubb. One of the most recent covers of the song was released by Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band with a horn section on a fun version of “Blue Christmas.”

    One can see why Binder allowed this one holiday song in the 1968 special.  “Blue Christmas” is steeped in the blues, and Presley knocks it out of the park.

    Watching the performance  feels like being in the living room jamming with the greatest singer in the world. The King had returned.

    Bonus Ranking: See where “Blue Christmas” ranks among the top depressing holiday songs of all time here.

    Bonus History Trivia: This week in 1957, Elvis was at Graceland celebrating the holidays when he received his draft notice on December 20, 1957.

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    Google Ngram Reader & Word History

    Google Labs recently released a new tool, the Google Books Ngram Viewer. It allows you to chart the frequency of the use of any words you choose for any time period from 1800 through 2008. CBS Sunday Morning featured a story about the new search tool yesterday.

    Google has digitized more than fifteen million books as part of an ongoing project, and the Ngram Viewer uses more than five million books in various languages. Within that set of books, you can see the frequency of any word or phrase you choose, tracing it throughout history, even comparing various words (like “war” and “peace” to find “war” has always been ahead). Try it out and play around with it. Here is the frequency of the four words in the Chimesfreedom subtitle. It is not surprising that the word “life” has been used so much more throughout history than the word “movies.”

    You may also narrow the time period and adjust some of the factors. Although it is from a large number of books, one may argue about the accuracy and what conclusions one may really draw. But it is fun. You may even try curse words.

    Here is a comparison of two famous movie icons and two music icons. The use of Bob Dylan’s name passed the use of Marilyn Monroe’s name in the last decade, but he is still behind John Wayne and the Beatles.

    What searches did you try? Leave a comment.

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