Celebrating the 1st American Library on this date

Time to say “Thanks” to Ben Franklin. On this date in 1731, Ben and some friends opened The Library Company – the very first lending library in America. There were libraries in England but none in the American colonies. Even for a person in Boston or Philadelphia, it was nearly impossible to read a book you didn’t own. Books were expensive, had to be shipped from overseas, and were often in languages – like Latin – that only educated people could understand. Ben and his friends decided to change that. They pooled their money, ordered some books and opened The Library Company in Philadelphia. The books covered a wide range of subjects, and many were written in English so that lots more people could read them. For a yearly fee, members could borrow books. If not a member, you could leave a deposit and take a book home.

What a great idea! Which, of course, we take for granted now. Thanks, Ben.


Louie Louie, da da da da da! Play that guitar!

Rock & Roll made the guitar super popular. One of the most popular songs was “Louie Louie” written and recorded by Richard Berry in 1955. It became a huge hit in 1963 when  the Kingsmen recorded it. Lots of guitars! Helped to make the guitar a big deal.

There was another long haired Louis who did the same thing for the guitar, oh, about 400 years ago. Louis XIV was king of France, and the most powerful monarch in Europe. He also loved to play the guitar, which made everybody else want to play the guitar. The court of “The Sun King” at Versailles influenced everybody. The nobility and royalty of Europe started speaking French, dressing French, and eating French. And, playing the guitar. The “kingly” guitar was popular all over Europe. Since Louis XIV played the guitar, the king of England started too. So did the kings of Spain and Germany. Their families took guitar lessons, their upper class and noble friends, etc etc. It was a guitar craze that lasted until the later 1700s. Had to wait until the 1950s for it to come back again. Crazy.

Blue Jean Blues

If you’re like me, when you think about bluejeans you think about American cowboys out west. And their Big Hats, French Poodles, and Jewish Tailors. No! Really?

Bluejeans are made from denim, a cotton fabric died blue with indigo. Denim got its name from the city of Nimes in southern France where it was first made – “denim” is short for “De Nimes” which means “from Nimes” in French . We call denim pants jeans because the first denim pants were made in Genoa, Italy and were worn by sailors, who were called “genes”.

Blue jeans as we know them were invented by a Jewish Tailor from Latvia who immigrated to the US in the mid-1800s. After moving around a bunch, he ended up in Reno Nevada where he made tents, blankets, and pants. He used cotton twill and denim he bought from Levi Strauss and Company, a dry-goods supplier, in San Francisco. After trying rivets as a way to strengthen the pockets, he contacted Levi Strauss about going together to get a patent. They did, and the rest is history. Except, we remember the fabric salesman’s name (also Jewish) but not the tailor who invented the pants. His name was Jacob Youphes, which he changed to Jacob Davis.

Thanks for the jeans, Jacob.

Yankee Doodle Independance Day Music

Yankee Doodle was written by an English surgeon in the 1750s to poke fun at the “hick” colonists. In England at the time, “Macaroni” was a nickname for young British men who dressed in very flamboyant Italian style – sticking a single feather in your cap definitely didn’t make you a Macaroni. The colonists took to the song anyway, and Geo. Washington had it played as the English General Cornwallis surrendered.

Yankee Doodle Boy was written by George M Cohan for his Broadway musical. His parents were from West Cork, Ireland (original spelling Keohane). He also wrote You’re a Grand Old Flag, Give My Regards to Broadway, and Over There among hundreds of others.

  God Bless America was written in 1918 by Russian Jewish Immigrant Irving Berlin. It got cut from his show, he revived it later for Kate Smith. He also donated most of the royalties to the Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, and Campfire Girls.



Hot Dog!

Franks and Wieners get their names from the cities of Frankfurt, Germany and Vienna, Austria (Wien, in the local language). Each had a particular type of sausage. Frankfurt’s were all pork, Vienna’s were a mix of pork and beef. Hot sausages in bread were served during royal coronations in Germany back to the 13th century, so it’s an old fast-food.

Fast-forward to late 1800s America. Lunch wagons become popular on college campuses, called “dog wagons” since they looked like the dog-catcher’s wagon. The Kennel Club lunch wagon at Yale gets its own bit in the Yale Record humor magazine about biting a “dog” in a bun. Boola Boola!

Today’s Quick Bite

The Sandwich: According to writings from the time, the sandwich got its name from John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich, a British nobleman in the 1700s. One story says that he loved playing card games and wouldn’t get up to eat. He’d ask the servants to bring him cold meat between two slices of bread. Then, other folks would ask for “the same as Sandwich!” The other story is that he was such a hard worker (he served in the government) that he’d eat at his desk rather than leave his work.

I like the first story better.








Image By Ollie Palmer. Original image A mezzotint print of the noble earl engraved by Valentine Green, after Johann Zoffany, published 30 August 1774. [GFDL (www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

You Speak a Foreign Language!

Do you like finding hidden treasure? Perhaps you enjoy a bit of archaeology or other types of snooping and sleuthing? Do you think it’s cool to look at foreign money, or stamps, or other stuff that’s travelled a long way? I do, and I’ve found an endless source for all of these things:

WORDS! Language, the stuff we use everyday.

For years I never thought much about words. They were just there. I didn’t much care where they came from. But now I think about them a lot. I never knew how many words were immigrants from somewhere else. Words get around, I mean it!

I speak English most days. It’s classified as a Germanic language. It has its roots in the same stuff as German and many other northern European languages. If you listen to some of them, you can hear words that sound familiar. Dutch is great for that. In Dutch, a knee is, well, a knee (pronounced k-nee). We say no, Swedes say nej, and Germans say nein. If you’ve ever talked about kindergarten, ordered a hamburger or a frankfurter with sauerkraut you’ve been speaking some German words. You’re speaking a foreign language, and you might not have even known!

But, we also have picked up words from the Romance languages, too. Those are the languages like French, Spanish and Italian that came from Latin. Toilet is a from a French word. So are adolescent, admire, defect, defend, timid, tissue, voyage, and vulture. Pizza, and spaghetti are Italian, you probably knew that. Did you know that balcony, carpet, pistol and zany are also? We eat tacos, I like them a lot! That’s of course a Spanish word. But, so are bronco, chocolate, and hurricane. As a matter of fact, a lot of those words came from somewhere else, too – a lot of them are actually words from the Arabic language. That just blows me away!

We all are using words every day that have travelled a long way for a long time – starting out in Africa, or Europe, or India, and making their way to our homes after being on the road for 1000 years. That’s pretty cool.

Adios for now, comrades!

Road Food

When Filibert & The Travelers are exploring, one of the great adventures is the food we find to eat. Lots of countries have fast food these days, but before burgers and pizza moved in people had their favorite foods, local-style. Our newest song “The London Beat” has to do with that. My nephew lives in London, we were chatting and he let it slip that he works in a Pie and Mash shop. I’d never heard of this. It turns out that, particularly in the East End, eels were a very popular meal. Cheaper than beef (a good thing for the working folks) shops opened specializing in stewed eels, baked into a pastry crust with a side of mashed potatoes, and covered with a sauce (the “liquor”) that is a mixture of butter, parsley, and the liquid from the pot used to stew the eels. So, Pie and Mash have been around since the 1800s and are now having a happy bit of a revival. My nephew works at Chase Side Pie and Mash, which is very near the post code EN2 0QZ.  Mick’s Pie and Tash in Enfield is carrying on that tradition, too. To honor their father Mick, who was a butcher in the area known for his moustache (his “‘tache”) his sons gave their shop the name. Way to go, you guys.

I haven’t enjoyed pie and mash yet, but I will next time! I’ve enjoyed black (blood) pudding in England and Ireland, calf brains and rabbit in France, little itty bitty whole fried fish in Japan, squid and octopus in Korean restaurants. I ate surströmming in Sweden, too – that’s spoiled herring packed in a can. According to Wikipedia, a Japanese study determined that a freshly opened can of surströmming is the most putrid food smell in the world. It should be eaten outside. We did eat it outside, on crispbread with cucumbers, pickles, mustard, and tomatos. I also understand it’s illegal to board an airplane with it, as well. For real. And, I’m still around so it wasn’t poisonous, right?

These foods are all part of the scenery in any place, doesn’t make sense to avoid them! Forget the fastfood drabness. Live a little!!!!!!

More Holidays: Dec 26th – Boxing Day, Wren Day, St Stephen’s Day

Today is, in many countries of the British Commonwealth of Nations, a holiday. Known by several names, particularly in England it’s called “Boxing Day.” Where did this come from? It’s not clear, truth be told. The concept of giving gifts to servants and other hired hands goes back centuries. Some claim that the deeds of Good King Wenceslaus in the song the origin. The Good King sees a peasant who is gathering fire wood in a snowstorm. He’s also travelled  a very long way to find it and so must return the long way carrying his load. Wenceslas was actually Duke of Bohemia in what today would be the Czech Republic. The day of the events in the carol is the Feast of Stephen- St Stephen’s Day, Dec. 26th – Boxing Day. Wenceslaus gives the poor man food and drink, and probably allows him to warm himself by the fire. Indeed, Wenceslas is considered a saint, and after his murder in 935 (by agents of his own brother (Boleslav the Cruel!) he was instantly considered saintly and a martyr. A cult grew up in Bohemia, and in England, around his legend and his legendary generosity. Was he truly that generous? We don’t know really. But, since the carol was written as late as 1853 and the holiday predates that, it isn’t the origin.

The “boxing” appendage could refer to a couple of things: the boxes given to servants on the day after Christmas containing gifts, bonuses, perhaps left-over wine and food. The original re-gifting….

Or, it relates to the breaking open of the alms box, the poor box at the churches that contained money collected through the year for the needy of the community.

What it doesn’t refer to is pugilistic pursuits, unless there’s a fight breaks out over the re-gifted beverages I suppose.

And in Ireland, it’s Wren Day today. Today, Wren Boys dress up in straw outfits and parade through town with a (fake) wren bird on a pole. In centuries past, it was a live wren hunted, affixed to the pole, and later killed. That tradition is no more, lucky for the bird. They’re accompanied by mummers and musicians playing traditional Irish tunes, and as they sing songs they collect money. The money is used to have a dance that evening. There is no clear history of the origins of Wren day, or of the wren’s specific symbolism. There are legends of the wren’s song having disrupted some Irish battles, and of the wren having represented the past year. Whatever its origins, it’s a holiday that predates the Christian St Stephen’s Day.

However you plan to spend this day, please find time to be generous to someone or something. Perhaps I’ll share my smoked trout with the cat.

Must go.

Rudolph and Johnny

As I was saying,

We continue our investigation of famous Christmas song lyricists and composers who also happened to be born in the Jewish faith. We now turn our attention to a fellow who might have been more associated with Christmas songs than any other composer: Johnny Marks. Johnny Marks was born in Mount Vernon, NY. He studied music in college, even went to Paris.

Mr. Marks wrote a number of popular, and pop, Christmas songs. I’ll bet you have heard, and probably sung, at least one of them. You have if you’ve ever sung Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer.

Rudolph –

The words were from a poem written by his brother-in-law Robert L. May, and Mr. Marks provided the music. The original idea for Rudolph was pitched by Mr. May, an advertising copy-writer for Montgomery Wards. “Monkey Wards” as it was sometimes called, was a huge catalogue sales company at the time. Every holiday season they gave away coloring books. Finally, in 1946 they decided to make their own rather than buy them from someone else and Bob May got the job. Several million were distributed, and Bob May was (due to the generosity of Montgomery Wards) allowed to retain the copyright.              Bob and Johnny thought it would make a great song, and Johnny Marks set about making a melody.

Selling the song-

They had a bit of trouble trying to get anybody to sing it. Bing Crosby turned it down, as did Dinah Shore, the most popular male and female vocalists of the time. Finally Gene Autry, the singing cowboy, agreed. Good thing, too. It went on to become the biggest hit of Autry’s career with millions of sales every year. The only other holiday song to outsell it is, of course, White Christmas. Indeed, sales of that single recording made all three men very wealthy!

Mr. Holiday Music –

The success of that song convinced Johnny Marks to start his own publishing company for his songs. He named it Saint Nicholas Music. What sort of songs did he concentrate on, do you think? Hmmmm. Maybe…Christmas Songs? Right you are!

Johnny Marks went on to write some of the most memorable Christmas songs, at least for the Baby Boomer Generation. He set to a beautiful melody the poignant words of H.W. Longfellow’s “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day”; Brenda Lee had a huge and enduring hit with Marks’s “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree”; and, of course, the songs he is best known for – the entire score for the 1964 animated special “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer”. Yep, that’s right, all those songs. Have a Holly Jolly Christmas, The Most Wonderful Day of the Year (Island of Misfit Toys), We Are Santa’s Elves, Silver and Gold, We’re a Couple of Misfits.

Mr. Marks was Mr. Christmas Music in so many ways. He was also a WWII hero with a bronze star and 4 battle stars.

Oh, yeah, and he was jewish.

What a wonderful world!

Oops. There’s my taxi. Must go. More later.