How Long Ago It Truly Was

Originally posted December 2, 2008

I talked to my mother yesterday as she celebrated her eighty-seventh birthday. She’d been able to get to a meeting of her women’s group for the first time in a while, and she was in good spirits. We chatted briefly about that, about the gifts that the Texas Gal and I had brought her on Saturday, and about plans for the week ahead. After we hung up, I sat at my desk and tried to put into perspective how long ago 1921 actually was.

There are a few ways to do that. One is purely historical: World War I had ended just more than three years earlier and was still known simply as the Great War, as its sequel was still eighteen years in the future. Babe Ruth was twenty-six and had just completed his second season with the New York Yankees. The discovery of penicillin by Sir Alexander Fleming was still seven years in the future; its widespread use as a literal lifesaver would come some years after that.

Another way of thinking about how removed we are from the year of 1921 is technological. Mom was born in a farmhouse not far from the little town of Wabasso, Minnesota. There was no electricity in the house; more than a decade later, the family was living on another farm near the small town of Lamberton when the area was first wired through the work of the federal Rural Electrification Administration.

I look at the stuff on my desk as I write. The only things on it that would be recognizable to someone visiting from 1921 would be my coffee mug and the small woven mat I use as a coaster, the box of tissues, the case with a pair of eyeglasses, the antique brass urn from India I use as a pen holder, maybe some of the pens (there may be a pencil or two in the holder as well) and a small, flat stone found in the Mississippi River. Everything else, from the computer, the monitor and the CDs to the headphones, the portable telephone and the two plastic pill bottles, would be strange, ranging from the disconcertingly odd to the utterly alien.

I recall a drive in 1975 or so. My folks and I had driven down to Lamberton and were taking my grandfather – my mom’s father – out for dinner for his birthday; the nearest nice restaurant was in the town of Sleepy Eye, about thirty miles away. As we drove along U.S. Highway 14, Grandpa and I looked out the window and saw a jet plane leaving a distant contrail just above the northern horizon. As we watched the airborne white line fade into the blue sky, Grandpa shook his head. “You know,” he said, “I drove away from my wedding in a horse-drawn buggy. And I saw men walk on the moon.”

My mom was born just six years after that horse-and-buggy wedding, and it’s astounding to think of the changes she’s seen – not all of them changes she’s approved of – as she’s lived into the cyber-age. (She doesn’t use a computer, though I occasionally show her something of interest on a computer either at my home or in the library at the assisted living center. She was fascinated by the fact that I could find pictures online of the small town in Germany from which her grandfather emigrated. I occasionally send emails for her to her distant cousins there, and she occasionally buys things on the ’Net with my help.)

And as I wrote this morning, I thought of one other way of putting into perspective how long ago 1921 was, a view that takes into account my own fascination with music history: In 1921, Robert Johnson was ten years old.

A Six-Pack of Futures

“The Future’s Not What It Used To Be” by Mickey Newbury from ’Frisco Mabel Joy, 1971

“Future” by the Panama Limited Jug Band from Indian Summer, 1970

“Future Shock” by Curtis Mayfield from Back To The World, 1973

“Future Games” by Fleetwood Mac from Future Games, 1971

“Future Blues” by Canned Heat from Future Blues, 1970

“The Future” by Leonard Cohen from The Future, 1992

A few notes:

Mickey Newbury’s music has popped up here once before, as an epitaph for Dave Thomson of Blue Rose. Newbury is one of those artists whose work I always intend to share here but always forget about when doing my minimal planning. ’Frisco Mabel Joy is a forgotten gem – some call it country, others folk-rock and still others tag it as singer-songwriter. But it’s a great album, and “The Future’s Not What It Used To Be” is only a taste of it. I’ll try to remember to post the whole album very soon.

Speaking of forgotten, that wasn’t the case with the Panama Limited Jug Band, which supplied the second track here. I hadn’t forgotten the group because, honestly, I’d never heard of them until early this year, when Lisa Sinder at the blog, Ezhevika Fields, posted Indian Summer, the group’s fourth “and best,” Lisa says, album. The whole album is filled with trippy pieces, entirely in synch with the aesthetic of the late 1960s and early 1970s. If I had to categorize the album, I’d call it a poor man’s Jefferson Airplane: Interesting but not nearly as good as the original. “Future” is pretty representative of the album.

The Canned Heat track is an adaptation of a much older blues track, as was a lot of the group’s catalog. In this case, the original recording of “Future Blues” was done in 1930 by Willie Brown, the same Willie Brown whom Robert Johnson name-checked in “Cross Road Blues.” As was typical of their approach, Canned Heat’s members had the tune do some work in the weight room and then put it on speed before sending it out into the world in 1970.

Speaking of typical approaches, the future Leonard Cohen envisions will be one dark and unhappy place to live, at least according to the title song of his 1992 album, The Future. Musically, it’s a fascinating track – as is the entire CD – but lyrically, it’s a downer. Cohen’s songs have never been particularly cheerful, but what’s most fascinating to me about “The Future” is the matter-of-fact delivery that Cohen gives it, as if he’s saying, “Of course the future will be an obscene train-wreck. What else did you expect?”

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