Sunday, August 30, 2009

The Collyer Brothers, Disposophobia, and excessive hoarding

I've always been interested in the phenomenon of disposophobia, or "excessive hoarding". Long thought to be type of obsessive compulsive disorder, it now appears more likely that it's a separate disorder. One the causes appears to be damage to the part of the brain associated with decision making.

I collected records for many years, and still do in a much more limited way. I never got anywhere close to the excesses I'm talking about here, but I always had more then I could ever listen to.I sold off a couple storage lockers full of records when I moved last year. Many, if not all of them would have sat there for many years, without being listened to.

Hoarding is often associated with isolation and extreme eccentricity, and can be tragic. We have all heard stories of people who have kept large numbers of animals in deplorable conditions.

The most extreme case of hoarding what basically is junk, is the famous case of the Collyer Brothers. They lived in Manhattan in isolation, extreme filth and in a horde of junk that was estimated at 100 tons at the time of their deaths.The disorder disposophobia - the fear of throwing things away - is often referred to as "Collyer Brothers syndrome"

Homer (1881-1947) and Langley (1886-1947) Collyer were the sons of an eccentric New York gynecologist, Herman Collyer, and an opera singer, Susie Gage Frost. They were well educated but never worked regular jobs. Dr, Collyer left his family in 1919, and Susie Collier died in 1929. The brothers remained in the old family home in Harlem,,and increasingly withdrew from the world. Their home was frequently the target of burglars who falsely thought the house was filled with valuables. Langley then boarded up the windows, and set a series of booby traps throughout the house.

Homer went blind in the early 1930's and Langley took care of him, wandering the city searching for food. He also brought piles of junk home with him. Langley once claimed that he was saving the mountains of newspapers stored in the house so that Herman could read them when he regained his sight.

None of the bills owed by the Collyer's were ever paid, and this led to a shutoff of all utilities. Eventually the Bowery Savings Bank, which owned the mortgage on the house began foreclosure proceedings, In 1942 police tried to evict them, following Langley's refusal to allow a cleanup crew sent by the bank into the house. The police could not get past all the junk piled next to the front door. The crisis ended when Langley then wrote a check paying off the entire mortgage.

On March 21, 1947,an anonymous call stating that someone had died in the Collyer house led to the police entering the house through a second floor window,as it was impossible to get in through the first floor due to the piles of junk. A strong stench permeated the house. They found Homer's body, He had been dead only a few hours. Speculation mounted as to the whereabouts of Langley An extensive search for Langley ended when his body was discovered in the house,. It turned out that Langley had died only feet away from Homer. . He had been the victim of one of his own booby traps. Homer had starved to death as a result of Langley not being able to procure food for him.

The hundreds of tons of junk removed form the house included, in addition to massive amounts of books and newspapers, Many bizarre items, including the chassis of a Model T Ford, fourteen pianos, and mounds of trash. The chair Homer died in became a morbid collectors item.

Obsessive hoarding is different from collecting in several ways, most notably that the objects accumulated have little or no intrinsic value. Objects are accumulated with the sense they might be used or become useful someday to one's self or others, no matter how illogical that may be (i.e. Langley holding on to years of newspapers so that someday Homer could read them when he regained his sight). Objects are seen as providing a sense of security, or as a substitute for friends.

Those suffering from disposophobia are often isolated from others. This isolation often helps trigger the hoarding process, and it's perpetuated as the hoarding becomes increasingly obsessive, and living quarters become increasingly filled with possessions

Treatment for disposophobia often involves cognitive-behavioral therapy. Anti-depressant drugs used to treat obsessive-compulsive disorder are generally not effective.

Here are some links:

The Wikipedia article on the Collyer brothers:

An interesting, detailed article on the Collyer Brothers and compulsive hoarding in general:

An article by Franz Lidz, author of a book about the Collyer Brothers, "Ghosty Men........"

The psychology of hoarding:

Some photos:

Langley Collier

Part of the Collyer house:

Another photo of the Collyer house:

The chair that Homer Collyer died in:

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Axolotls - Mexico's endangered salamander

I ran across an article the other day about axolotls, an exotic species of salamanders I didn't know much about. They are now nearly extinct in their native habitat, the Xochimilco Valley of central Mexico. Only about 700-1200 are estimated to survive. The reduction in population is due to a number of factors, including the continuing expansion of Mexico City, which has reduced both the available habitat and quality of water needed by axolotls. The introduction of exotic species, such as tilapia, which compete with axolotls for resources, and eat their larvae, also has been a factor.

They are interesting for many reasons, including their often exotic coloring, their ability to regenerate limbs, and perhaps most of all because they are neotenic, which means they ordinarily remain in a larval stage throughout their lives, and remain strictly aquatic.

Here are several varieties of axolotls.These photos are from:

The "wild type"

The "white axolotl"

This has black eyes and it not a true albino.

An albino axolotl:

A great axolotl site:

An article on the danger of axolotl extinction:

Axolotls as pets:

Lots of axolotls here:

and some videos:

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Photographic hoaxes

I'm going back to hoaxes briefly, before moving on to another topic.

Here are four interesting examples of photographic hoaxes. All are from the Museum of Hoaxes.

First, a political hoax from 1865. when Jefferson Davis was captured by Union forces, The true story is that when Davis stepped outside that morning he grabbed his wife's coat by mistake,. This was satirized by the Connecticut photographers, the Kellogg Brothers. The posted photos of Davis's head onto the body of a model wearing a hoop skirt.

The famous Surgeon's photo" of the Loch Ness monster from 1934, which turned out to be a model of a sea serpents head on top of a toy submarine. The story of this hoax is really interesting, and involves a noted British surgeon, Colonel Robert Wilson, and his father in law, a famous big game hunter named Marmaduke Wetherell (what a great name!).

A celebrity composite photo from 1989. TV Guide had a photo of Oprah on the cover, but it was really Oprah's head placed on a photo of Ann-Margaret's body, taken in 1979. This was done without the knowledge or permission of either woman.

Sometimes photos are edited in a way that while it might improve their composition it distorts the meaning of the photo and misrepresents the scene photographed. A Diet Coke can was digitally removed, from this photo.. This is a picture of Ron Olshwanger, an amateur photographer, who was celebrating being awarded the Pulitzer Prize for spot-photography, in the offices of the St. Louis Post Dispatch. He was a teetotaler, so he was celebrating by drinking a Diet Coke.

Here are the before and after photos.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Chocolate wrappers of the world

I thought I'd do a small post on chocolate wrappers. There are lots of beautiful, interesting, and strange wrappers from all over the world. Here are just a few.

The largest collection of wrappers is from the Chocolate Wrappers Museum.

Here are four I really like:

From Brazil:

From Bosnia:

From Uzbekistan:

From Lithuania:

Here's a wrapper from Marcel's Swiss Chocolate Wrapper Collection:

Monday, August 24, 2009

The Great Spaghetti Hoax

Why not an April Fool's post in August?

I'm going to do a series of posts on hoaxes, and a good place to start is the great "spaghetti harvest" hoax from 1957.

Charles de Jaeger, a cameraman for the BBC news show Panorama, had a reputation as a practical joker. He had wanted to turn a joke one of his teachers had often made about his students being dumb enough to believe spaghetti grew on trees into a visual story. He and Panorama writer John Wheeler convinced Michael Peacock, Panaroma's editor, to approve the idea. The story was filmed in Switzerland where de Jaeger would be on assignment anyway, so costs were minimal.

There were problems preparing the spaghetti so that it would hang from the trees. The solution turned out to be keeping the uncooked spaghetti damp until it was time to hang it. The film showed the spaghetti being harvested and set out to dry.

The story appeared at the end of the April 1, 1957 broadcast. It was narrated, in a tone in keeping with the rest of the newscast, by Richard Dimbleby, the highly respected and trusted anchor for Panorama.

Many viewers got the joke, but some didn't. Others were angry that that An April Fools prank had been part of a serious newscast. The BBC issued a statement later that evening acknowledging the hoax. One probable reason that many fell for it was that at the time,spaghetti wasn't yet a popular food in Britain. Even Sir Ian Jacob, the director-general of the BBC had been fooled.

Here's the film.

An article on the spaghetti hoax, from the great Museum of Hoaxes website:

The BBC News "On This Day" article about the hoax. This also contains the film of the story.

The Museum of Hoaxes spaghetti hoax story:

A list of BBC hoaxes:

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Ephemeral Films: Jim Morrison gets rejected at Florida State University; The Prelinger Archives

The Prelinger Archives were established in 1983.They are a collection of "ephemeral films", including home movies and educational films. The Library of Congress acquired them in 2002. Over 2000 of the 60,000 films in the collection are available online through the Internet Archive. I'm going to be featuring these films from time to time . It's an amazing and very varied collection.

I'm going to start however,with an clip of a promotional film from Florida State University. An archivist looking at some of the films in their archives a couple years ago realized that the young man in the film who gets rejected from FSU was played by Jim Morrison, who was a student there at the time

Here is the clip with Morrison.

A link to the entire film:

From the Prelinger archives:

An amateur film of the 1941 Mardi Gras week activities - silent, and in color. It's all well worth watching; the Mardi Gras parade coverage starts at about 5:30 into the film.

A 1953 film on auto safety: "A Cool Hot Rod"

From 1928, a silent film: "Teeth: A Film Lesson in Health and Hygiene"

A 1946 etiquette film: "Arranging the Tea Table"

A 1962 animated film from Bell Labs- "A Missile Named Mac" - a Cold War film about guided missiles that never mentions nuclear weapons or war.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Folk taxonomies : naming nature

This post will serve as a springboard for several others on taxonomies, neurobiology, and philosophy.

I worked as an indexer for several years, and am very interested in taxonomies and their construction. I indexed articles from a wide variety of publications including military, legal, scientific and financial publications.

While reading updates in the New York Times science section ., I ran across a really intriguing article by Carol Kaesuk Yoon on folk taxonomies and the the loss of interest in the classification of living organisms. Yoon was the only student in a class in biological taxonomy that she took in graduate school She laments this loss of interest in taxonomy, as the ordering and naming of life is essential to an understanding of the world.

Every culture has a "folk" taxonomy for classifying living organisms, and these all bear a certain structural similarity to each other. All population groups have categories corresponding to mammals birds, fish, "crawling things", and various categories of plants, so recognizing, classifying and naming living things is a basic human trait. For example, binomials are the common way of identifying species, i.e.. rainbow trout. Studies of individuals who can no longer recognize living organisms due to brain damage show that they are totally lost in an incomprehensible world.

Yoon claims that the lost of focus on classification has led to an indifference towards the natural world and the ignoring of major problems such as extinction She believes that by rediscovering and refocusing on the naming and ordering of the living world, starting with a focus on a particular organism one can regain their sense of connection to it.

Yoon is also interested in "umwelt" - the idea that each organism - human and non-human - has its own model of the world.More about that in another post.

Yoon's article in the New York Times:

Comments on Yoon's book "Naming Nature"

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

"Cypress Grove Blues" : Skip, Geeshie, John, Pink and Floyd

The URL for this blog comes from "Cypress Grove Blues", one of the best songs from the great delta blues singer Skip James. James recorded this in the early 1930's. His records from this period are among the rarest of all records; only a handful survive of each. James's career was revived in the 1960's as part of the the great rediscovery of several significant blues performers from this era. He recorded several LP's at this time, but to me, while they are well worth hearing, they lack the power and intensity of James's earlier work.

Here is "Cypress Grove Blues"

Geeshie Wiley's "Last Kind Words" is one of my favorite blues records. Haunting, somber, and intense, it was recorded in 1930, and is also extremely rare. Wiley and James recorded for the legendary Paramount record label, owned by a furniture manufacturer in Grafton, Wisconsin. There will be a post on the Paramount label at some point.

"Mississippi" John Hurt was another great blues musician of the 1920's. His records, while still very difficult to find, are not quite as rare as the Skip James or Geeshie Wiley recordings from this period. They have a much softer, gentler sound. Hurt was also rediscovered in the 1960;'s. Here is his variation of "John Henry", called "Spike Driver Blues".

James, Wiley,and Hurt were all from the Mississippi Delta, but country blues recordings were made in hte1920's and 1930's throughout the South. The musicians Pink Anderson and Floyd Council were associated with the Piedmont style of the blues. Syd Barrett took the name "Pink Floyd" from Anderson and Council.

Pink Anderson was born in Lauren, South Carolina in 1900. He spent much of his life. touring with medicine shows. . Although he also recorded in the early 1960's, His most interesting performances are the duets he recorded with Simmie Dooley in 1928.

Here is CC & O Blues.

Floyd Council was born in Chapel Hill, North Carolina in 1937. He was featured on several recordings, and also backed up Blind Boy Fuller.

Here is "Runaway Man Blues" by Floyd "Dipper Boy" Council, , from 1937.

Wikipedia articles on Pink Anderson and Floyd Council:

The next post will be on folk taxonomy.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Mammoths, steppe bison, and very frozen food

I've been thinking, per the post on bog cheese, if the stories about explorers and scientists eating mammoths and other prehistoric animals that were "flash-frozen " are true.

As is often the case , Cecil Adams's great website, The Straight Dope, is the best source for unusual information. According to Adams, there is credible evidence that a few "morsels" of mammoth and and steppe bison have been sampled. Most prehistoric carcasses that have been discovered are rotted, to a degree I'm not sure I want to know about in detail. Many of the stories about eating frozen prehistoric mammals are likely apocryphal.

Dale Guthrie wrote a book on the discovery of Blue Babe a 36,000 pound steppe bison, who appeared blue in part, due to the reaction of chemicals on his skin. His hindquarters were gone; most likely he was eaten by lions. Guthrie mentions that flesh from Babe's neck was put into a stew. He described it as "well-aged but a little tough, ..." . The writer James Oliver Curwood described eating a frozen mastodon in 1912.

The story of Big Babe

A photo of Big Babe:

Again, sorry for the long URL's here.

Parts of Guthrie's book "Frozen Fauna of the Mammoth Steppe" are here:

An interesting article on steppe bison:

Interesting but technical article on prehistoric arctic climate by Guthrie, with a great title.

Origin and causes of the mammoth steppe: a story of cloud cover, woolly mammal tooth pits, buckles, and inside-out Beringia

Three year old Kaleb Kidd, holding a mammoth tooth he found in La Crosse, Wisconsin

Friday, August 14, 2009

What did the songs of the Bible originally sound like?

One more post an ancient music, then on to something else. I've often wondered what the music of Biblical times sounded like. What did the Psalms, the Song of Songs, and other parts of the Bible sound like sound like when they were first sung?

At my Bar Mitzvah, I chanted my Torah and Haftorah portions as everyone does. The sounds of the notes though come from one of a series of oral traditions, and their relationship with the actual way these were originally sung is unclear.

Suzanne Haik-Vantoura, a French musician, began studying the cantillation marks, which appear both above and below the Hebrew text of the Masoretic Bible. This Bible was compiled over several centuries by scholars, and completed in the eleventh century. She concluded that the eight cantillation marks appearing below the Hebrew text (which are always present) represented a series of hand gestures that were used to indicate performance of a musical value. This is known as chironomy, and was used throughout the ancient world particularly in Egypt. Her work has had a mixed scholarly reception

Here's an overview of Haik-Vantoura's work, from NPR's "Morning Edition" (1986)

Psalm 23 from H
aik-Vantoura's "Music of the Bible Revealed" (1982)

Many "Music of the Bible Revealed" clips are available here.

Psalm 29 in the Masoretic text:

An article on chironomy in the ancient world:


Biblical style harps and lyres have been created by Harrari Harps.

An ancient melody played on an ancient lyre.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Don't step on my sandals of sky-blue leather

Following the last post I thought I would do a post on the translation of contemporary music into ancient languages.

I stumbled onto what looks like something I would love to hear, but i can't find any samples online. It looks so great though, that I wanted to do a post about it anyway. -
Dr. Jukka Ammondt, a literature professor at Jyvaskila University in Finland, who had previously recorded several Cd's of Elvis songs in Latin, decided to collaborate with Simo Parpula,, a professor of Assyriology at the University of Helsinki. Ammondt recorded a CD of three songs sung in Sumerian including "Blue Suede Shoes", translated by Parpula. It comes as close to the 1950's meet the 1950's B.C as is possible. Ammondt once met Carl Perkins, who wrote and recorded the original version of "Blue Suede Shoes".

Parpula was interviewed by Reuters in 1999, when the collaboration was in progress, He avoided the temptation to incorporate modern words and phrases into the translations. The rhythm and meter of English and Sumerian are similar enough so translating them wasn't a problem. "Blue Suede Shoes" translated as
"E-sír kusv-za-gìn-g-á"."on my sandals of sky-blue leather do not step". He thinks that Elvis's music would have fit in well with the cult associated with the Goddess Inanna

Here's the interview with Simo Parpula.

Some excerpts of Elvis songs sung in Latin.

Dr. Armont's Cd's seem to only be available from his website.

"Ur's answer to Elvis.

Another interesting article:

Here's Carl Perkins singing "Blue Suede Shoes"

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

"Cattus Petasatus" Dr. Seuss goes Latin

I started out writing a post on Pig Latin, which I probably will still do, but this post is about translations of modern children's literature into Latin.

The earliest example that I know of is the 1960 translation of "Winnie the Pooh" into Latin by Alexander Lenard. "The House at Pooh Corner" was translated into Latin in 1980 by Brian Staples. I used to have a recording of excerpts from "Winnie Ille Pooh", but it's long gone. "Winnie Ille Pooh" is a lot of fun even if you don't know Latin (I don't) when you follow along with the English version.

Here's an article in the satirical linguistic journal Specgram that quotes from Winnie Ille Pooh

Maybe someone will turn "Winnie The Pooh" into a lipogram. "Winni A Pooh". Ursus would be used for bear, and for a touch of Latin. It might be hard to come up with a name for Eeyore though.

For Dr. Seuss there's the wonderful "Cattus Petasatus".

"Green Eggs and Ham"has also been translated into Latin.

And of course there is Harrius Potter et Philosophi Lapis:

Monday, August 10, 2009

Monkeys. language, and learning

I've always been interested in studies that evaluate the ability of non-human primates to learn the basics of language. I'll write about the use of sign language by Koko the Gorilla at some point, but for now I'm going to focus on a study which demonstrated that cotton-top tamarind monkeys can learn the basic affixation rule (the proper use of suffixes and prefixes).

It's important to clearly state what the researchers believe that this study. has shown. It's doesn't show that the monkeys have linguistic capabilities such as understanding the rules of grammar, but that they possess an ability to understand patterns of temporal ordering.

The monkeys in the study were familiarized with a syllable that, depending on the group, was consistently used as a suffix or a prefix. In this study the syllable"shoy"was used as the affix syllable during the familiarization stage, and a group of two letter stem syllables such as "be" " ba" and "pu"were also used. there. For example,words for the prefix group would be shoy-be and shoy-ba, and be-shoy and ba-shoy for the suffix group. There was no formal training process, nor were rewards given

During the test phase of the study one syllable words such as wasp and swan were used instead of the nonsense syllables. When the temporal order of the words was switched (i.e. be-shoy instead of shoy-be) the monkeys acted surprised, based on a change in head orientation. The researchers concluded that the monkeys possessed a psychological mechanism for learning and memory that allowed them to determine affixation patterns,but couldn't' link them to syntax, semantics, and linguistic elements as humans can.

The results on this study relate to another important issue to me: the misreporting and and exaggerations that often happen when the press reports on advances in science. An excellent post on the "Motivated Grammar" blog summarizes the results of this study, then discusses a BBC article on it entitled "Monkeys recognize 'bad grammar". That's not what they are doing though - they are demonstrating an ability to learn temporal ordering patterns.

The article also contains a link to the draft of the original research paper.

Here's the abstract of the article:

The BBC article on the study:

Here's another interesting article:

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Ray Dennis Steckler

My favorite cult/"incredibly strange" film director is Ray Dennis Steckler, who passed away this past January. Steckler's best work is from the 1960's and includes films such as "The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed Up Zombies", (hereafter referred to as "Creatures"), "The Thrill Killers", 'Wild Guitar" and "Rat Pfink A Boo Boo". He also directed videos for Jefferson Airplane, Janis Joplin , Jimi Hendrix, and others

Steckler's best films are fun, unique, and just plain crazy. He was wildly innovative, given the small budgets he had to work with. "Creatures" was advertised as as "the world's first monster musical". It became a musical not because that's what Steckler had in mind when he started the film, but because it fit well the the available costumes. The dancing is really uncoordinated because the numbers weren't even rehearsed. Steckler also saved money by using family members and friends as stars of his films. Steckler ( often under the name of Cash Flagg) and his ex-wife, Carolyn Brandt, starred in many of the films. I remember reading that there was a scene in "The Choopers"where his kids were scared by a monster.The scene is only there because he didn't have a baby sitter that day so he worked them into the film.

"Rat Pfink a Boo Boo" is my favorite Steckler film. It's,fun,bizarre and unique. It features some of the great classic cheapness of his films. The title was supposed to be Rat Pfink and Boo Boo, but he couldn't afford the $30 it cost to have the title changed in the print. The movie completely changes course in the middle as well. What starts out as a thriller about a kidnapping becomes a comedy featuring "Rat Pfink" and "Boo Boo"dressed in cheap, weird, Batman and Robin type costumes. Steckler admitted that he thought the thriller part of the movie was pretty boring, so he finished it by changing it to a Batman and Robin parody. The obscure rockabilly singer Ron Haydock, who also appears in "The Thrill Killers" and other Steckler films, plays Rat Pfink, aka Lonnie Lord. This film also contains Steckler's most outrageous low-budget stunt - Rat Phink and Boo Boo appear at the back of a parade at the beginning of the film. The parade however has nothing to do with the film . Steckler just had Rat Phink and Boo Boo in full costume, stand at the back of the parade. One wonders what the organizers of the parade thought.

Although Steckler himself didn't achieve any commercial success, two who worked with him did. Lazlo Kovacs and and Vilmos Zsigmond. Both had fled Hungary after the 1956 uprising, which they had filmed extensively . They worked together on a number of "B" films, including "Creatures", and moved on to more mainstream films. Both worked on "Easy Rider" and numerous major films . Zsigmond won an Academy Award for "Best Cinematographer" for his work on " Close Encounters of the Third Kind."

Some clips from Steckler films:

The trailer for Wild Guitar, starring Arch Hall, Jr, who made six low-budget films in the 1960's and will be the subject of a future post.

The trailer from "Creatures"

Riding the Pfinkmobile

The song "You are A Rat Pfink"

The "Incredibly Strange Film Show" Steckler episode (1988)


Thursday, August 6, 2009

Michelangelo, St. Anthony, and rye mold

I corrected the Wampus cat post by taking out a stray phrase I forgot to edit out.

Recently , the Kimbell Museum in Dallas acquired a painting , "The Torment of St. Anthony " , which may have been painted by Michelangelo at the age of 12 or 13, when he was a student of Domenico Ghirlandiao's studio in 1477 and 1478.Although the painting is clearly from Ghirlandiao's studio, there is a great deal of scholarly dispute as to whether or not the painting is Michelangelo's. it's based on a lithograph by Martin Schongauer. The painting is not an exact copy of the lithograph, it's larger, and has added features, such as fish scales.

The Schongauer lithograph

The painting is reminiscent of Hieronymus Bosch. Here's Bosch's St. Anthony triptych. (Sorry for the really long URL here).

St. Anthony was a third century Christian ascetic and monastic who spent his adult life in the Egyptian desert, largely in solitude. His time there included living in a tomb and twenty years living in solitude in a small cell in a fort. Food was slipped into the cell through a small crevice. No one was allowed to actually enter the cell where he lived. He had visions of being attacked by wild animals and scorpions, but overcame them. He is credited with a number of miraculous healings of those suffering from ergotism, which became known as St. Anthony's Fire. This is represented in the Bosch triptych shown above. The symptoms included hallucinations , severe pain and gangrene. Amputation was usually required.The disease was caused by ergot, a fungus found in moldy rye flour.

Here's a 1946 painting of Salvador Dali's "Temptation of St. Anthony".

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Historic voices

Here are a few links to historic recordings of famous voices. .The first clip is from 1889, the others are from 1890, except for the Tolstoy clip, which is from 1907.

Robert Browning - This is barely audible, but there are subtitles.

Martin Lanfried - He plays the same trumpet he played to lead the Charge of the Light Brigade, during the Crimean War in 1854.

Edwin Booth - Shakespearean actor and brother of John Wilkes Booth, The sound quality, is pretty poor, but better then the one that's on the Internet Archive, which has the text of the soliloquy Booth is reciting.

Leo Tolstoy - from the book "Wise Thoughts for Every Day".

This is my favorite of these clips. Julius Block recorded several composers and musicians, including Tchaikovsky.

The story of the Block recordings is here:

There are many other early recordings at

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Cryptozoology, wampus cats, and rockabilly

Last night while surfing around, I ran across an article on acid spitting Mongolian death worms, a cryptozoological creature I was totally unfamiliar with. I posted the link to Twitter, and this started me thinking about music,as most things do. Here's the link again:,23739,25874136-5013016,00.html

I remember running across several songs that mentioned "wampus cats". I had no idea what a wampus cat was, but I discovered that it derived from an old Cherokee legend. In the Cherokee legend, a woman disguises herself by wearing the skin of a mountain lion to spy on a hunting party. The medicine men punish her by changing her into a half cat/ half woman forever. There are several high schools in the South whose sports teams are known as the Wampus Cats

There were some pretty good records made by Kitty Gray and her Wampus Cats, who featured the great slide guitar player Oscar Woods, made in the late 1930's. The group featured risque blues songs such as "I Can't Dance, I've Got Ants in My Pants".There may be songs by them with lyrics about wampus cats, but not in any of their songs I've heard.

There are rockabilly songs from the 1950's by Howard Chandler and Johnny Burnette called "Wampus Cat" These songs, rather then referring to wampus cats in the way they are referred to in legend, refers to males who are tough ,on the prowl and not to be messed with. The Chandler song has lyrics such as "I'm a wampus cat and I'm going to hunt tonight". The Burnette song starts with "A lonely wampus cat came to town, took my woman tore my castle down" He vows to find his baby no matter where she is. Wampus cats in rockabilly are more like the prowling tomcat discussed below.

Here's Howard Chandler's "Wampus Cat" - on the Wampus label no less.

An extremely cryptic phrase found in a number of songs is "dead cat on the line", which may have derived from "dead catfish on the line" This lyric shows up primarily in blues and gospel songs. Suggested meanings for the phrase include, 1) a dead fish on a fishing line indicated negligence 2) a dead cat on a power line indicates something is wrong, that can't be covered up - often infidelity. The unfaithful "tomcat" is electrocuted, and it's obvious the unfaithful woman has been with him and 3) as a symbol of sin - needing to clear the dead cat off your line so your call to God can be heard (as in the J.W. Gates sermon).

There are "dead cat on the line" recordings by the preachers Elder Beck and J.W. Gates , and the blues singers Tampa Red and Marion Williams.

Here's the Marion Williams song with the haunting ,mysterious lyric "If a child don't favor his father some day, it's a dead cat on the line".

The definition of "dead cat on a line" from the "Dictionary of American Regional English:

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Bog butter and cheese

I remember reading a few years ago about a 1400 year old piece of cheese being found in Ireland, and wondered if anyone had actually tasted it.. I started researching and learned a little bit about old cheese, but i learned far more about "Bog Butter" , which was made and stored in Scotland,and Ireland from about 2000 years ago until the eighteenth century.

Peat bogs, due to their acidity, cold temperatures,and anaerobic conditions,are excellent for preserving, not only butter and cheese, but also human remains. i will have a post on "bog people" at some point,

It turned out that the cheese may actually have been butter; no one is really sure. Helen Lucy Burke tasted the cheese at the Roscrea Heritage Center, located in an old castle in Tipperary, which stores old cheeses. She described it as cheesy, having an unpleasant but not revolting taste, granular, and like a dried out Wensleydale cheese. I've never had a Wensleydale cheese, but they are described as crumbly, and only good when moist. The aftertaste was described as a "sour cloying,sensation".

Bog butter is waxy,hard, and yellow-white. It's described as rancid tasting - not very surprising.

Approximate dates of burial are determined by the container the butter is buried in. Analysis of the 'butter has shown that while some"butters' are made from dairy products, others are made from animal fats.

There are several theories as to why the butter was buried. Theories include general food preservation, preservation as a means of enhancing flavor, and protecting valued food supplies from invaders. Much of the butter was flavored with garlic, and garlic butter was a special food, usually eaten during Lent.

Here are some students at the Barnderg National School in Ireland with a keg of 300 year old butter.

The article on the cheese tasting is at the bottom of the page.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Found audio

There are endless records that I'm looking for, but it was always exciting, when walking into a record store, thrift store, or record show, to know that there was a pretty good chance I'd find something great that I never knew existed.

I've always loved homemade recordings. Whether recorded in a drugstore, recording booth, professional studio or at home , these recordings provide an interesting glimpse into others lives, and include everything from families talking and singing,to audio letters, many of which were made by soldiers. They tend to be in poor condition, but are usually worth hearing in spite of that. Some are boring, but many are amusing and touching. There are a few that are extremely sad. The advent of the audio cassette in the 1960's made home recording much easier, and tapes of home recordings sometimes show up in thrift stores.

Some the the most interesting ones I have found are a really decent version of the Hank Penny/ Wynonie Harris song"Bloodshot Eyes', the theme song from a a local 1950's TV show, and a 1948 recording of the reunion of a platoon of World War II veterans talking and singing. I've often wondered how these recordings end up in thrift stores, particularly the ones that are very personal.

Here are a few examples.

"The Audio Kitchen", hosted on WFMU by"the Professor", ran for several years. Many of the episodes are archived online. It featured various types of found audio. Some of my favorites were the long tapes that were aired in segments over several episodes. One particularly charming one was the "Grandma Jones" tape, which consisted of a series of letters written to her grandson. One of the episodes discusses the grandsons upcoming visit to see her in Florida. It begins at 7:15 in the 9/10/03 show, and runs until 17:10. All the episodes of 'The Audio Kitchen" are worth checking out.

The 365 Days Project, which I will write more about, in future posts. archived this homemade recording of "Home Sweet Home" by Henry and Mom. It's really strange and dreary, but ends with laughter and warmth.

Ross Campbell's 21st birthday party

Sweet Thunder is another good site for found audio. Here's are two brief answering machine recordings.

One of the saddest tapes I've ever heard was played on "The Audio Kitchen". I'm revising this a bit, as I located the recording I was talking about, and it's a bit different - and even more interesting - then I thought it was. Most of the tape consists of messages from politicians. business associates, etc. to "John" including one deal that seems really sleazy. There are also messages about a scheduled court appearance. The tone completely changes and it's clear, from listening to John's sons their dad had a suffered a major medical event, and it in intensive care, although it's unclear exactly what happened.

The tape is the "Wealthy John"segment at the end.