A Progressive’s Guide to Christmas

Thanksgiving Day used to be a holiday, not just another day at the mall. I’ll add that to my list of things for
which I’m not grateful. The holiday season is when one is supposed to feel cheerful, charitable, and optimistic. Bugger that! I’m ready for a mass burning of Obama “Hope” posters and I’m in full Blue State Revenge mode. Progressives need to spend their holiday time and money as if politics matter. Each year I post on ways people can opt out of a crass capitalist Christmas, but this year I want to expand my reach.

Here’s a looming national fact:  Solid blue states are way more prosperous than the scarlet red ones. Let’s keep it that way. Here are some ideas.

Have a Blue (State) Christmas

Stop economically greasing reactionaries. “Buy Local” has become a cliché, but it remains a great idea. Do it. That doesn’t mean shopping at a Walmart near you. Buy fewer things and pay a bit more for them by purchasing them from independent merchants. If you must buy from a big store—or if you’re not lucky enough to live in a place that still has a downtown—buy from a corporation with higher ethical standards. Target makes that list; Walmart doesn’t. Check to see where the corporate headquarters is located for all products under consideration. Dell is cited as an ethical company, but its HQ is in regressive Texas, so let those laptops gather dust on the shelves.

You can Google—an ethical company located in blue California—a list of ethical companies. Levis have fallen off the list, but Oshkosh is on it. So is H & M, toymaker Hasbro, and cosmetics purveyor L’Oreal. That’s a good start. You can buy developing world handicrafts from Ten Thousand Villages. Amazon is not ethical, so buy your stuff directly from the manufacturers if you must shop online. Don’t get lazy and click on Amazon because it’s convenient.

The best way to make sure your money stays blue is to buy from local artists, crafters, musicians, and restaurateurs: original art, unique handmade items, CDs (or vinyl) instead of downloads, and gift coupons.

Music that Matters:

Folks think about music during the holidays, whether it’s to purchase it as a gift, or to enjoy as a pastime. If you’d rather have giant corks surgically implanted in your cochlea than hear a single bar of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” or “Little Town of Bethlehem,” there are alternatives. See if you can locate Nowell Sing We Clear recordings to enjoy old English carols you’ve seldom heard. Maddy Prior has similar projects. There’s a brand new release from the incomparable Rani Arbo and daisy mayhem [sic] titled Wintersong that’s holiday music with an old-timey/bluegrass flair. Generally, albums promoting themselves as midwinter offerings are less generic and offer either self-penned or rarely heard offerings.

As for gift-giving and concert-going, once again check out the politics of the performer and the location of their label. I’m swearing off Nashville and Austin music until Texas and Tennessee join the modern world, though I’ll make exceptions for known progressives like Emmylou, Patty Griffin, Sheryl Crow, and Brandy Clark. A Google search usually unveils a performer’s politics. Alas, you can generally assume any white country male not named Willie, Garth, Steve (Earle), or Tim (McGraw) is a jerk, as are nearly all metal bands.

Travel in Blue Circles:

I have relatives in North Carolina and Pennsylvania and dear friends in Texas, Florida, and Arizona. Sorry, but I will not be coming to visit. I’m not going to spend my cash in your states. I know it’s not your fault, but I’m not going to empurple your red state treasury with my blue dollars.

Progressives have to start thinking like this. Need a warm winter beach? Don’t go to Florida. Either spring for a trip to Hawaii, or jet off to a Caribbean island (preferably not a U.S. possession). If the plane lands in Atlanta for an equipment change, don’t buy anything at the airport as you wait. Does your firm want to send you to a conference in Orlando or Charleston? Beg off. It’s worth having a discussion about whether conference states are consistent with your firm’s ethical standards. Many companies already eschew North Carolina, for instance, because of its discriminatory practices toward transgender people.

Apply the same standards when traveling abroad: yes to Scotland and Ireland, but no to xenophobic England. No to India until it adopts environmental standards higher than those found in a sulfuric acid pit; and no to Muslim nations whose views of women are straight out of the 10th century.

Root for the Home Team (unless it’s staffed with Good Old Boys):

What are the holidays without wall-to-wall sports? A lot of friends tell me that sports and politics can be separated. Bullshit! Tell that to Colin Kaepernick. No, you don’t get a free pass because a horse’s patootie is wearing a blue state jersey. If you root for Tom Brady or turn the other cheek for Curt Schilling, you’re metaphorically sleeping with the enemy. If you are outraged by Kaepernick but sing the praises of Bill Belicheck, your morals are shaky. Ditto if you applaud Harvard’s suspension of its men’s soccer program but think it’s fine that Penn State still has a football program. Another blogger suggested that progressives should be on the safe side and follow hockey because it’s dominated by Canadians and Europeans. Not a bad idea.  

Be a Values Celebrator:

It boils down to what you say versus what you do. Do you care about working people? Don’t shop on Thanksgiving. Are your politics something you treasure, or do you just talk about them? If they matter, celebrate by not cheapening them in the name of expediency.


Melancholy in Words and Images


Melancholy: noun: a feeling of pensive sadness, typically with no obvious cause.

Sure—that's the way your online dictionary defines melancholy, but this time of the year most of us know the cause. The shadows deepen, the last gold leaves burnish to brown and tumble, the days shorten, and the air grows cooler. As they say on Game of Thrones, "winter is coming."
I suspect that those of us who live in places where the seasons turn feel the pensive sadness a bit more profoundly than folks where the changes are less dramatic. It is said that there are four seasons north of the Mason-Dixon Line, but it's more like six. Walk through the calendar and January through March are winter, April is the season of unlocking, May and June are spring, July through mid September are summer, then it turns to autumn and runs through most of October. Then there's a weird interval that arrives just before Halloween and lasts until winter returns in December. Someone wiser than I dubbed that 'tweener season "locking" and it's the one that most induces deep thoughts and melancholy. You know what lies on the other side of locking, but you seldom know exactly when the lock will snap shut. Call it melancholy mixed with angst. 

In my view, the melancholic essence of locking occurs in shore towns. It's oddly appropriate that residents of oceanside towns tend to be very creative when decorating for Halloween. All those ghosts and ghouls are emblematic of the haunted ambience of places where boisterous streets become the silence of the sepulcher in the wink of an eye. 

The photos in this article come from Cape May, New Jersey– a lovely place, but a melancholic one by November 1. One goes there in locking season to be pensive, not to party. The old line about rolling up the sidewalks is metaphorically true. Mini-golf courses pack their windmills and concrete dinosaurs in bubble wrap and put them in storage; the few hulking hotels still accepting visitors seem especially cadaverous with their darkened exteriors punctuated by a few dimly illuminated third floor rooms. The occupied rooms appear so separated from other life that one imagines sad loners sitting in front the TV blue light in striped boxers and socks held up by garters. There is nobody on the beach and only the occasional jogger on the Promenade. The sunset is framed by skeletal structures than once held the billowing canvas of cabanas; cotton candy kiosks and pizza ovens are shut away in storage sheds. Mercifully, so too are the karaoke machines. The bars are silent, more trash than cars shuffles down the main drag, and if you can find an open eatery, maybe three tables are occupied and everyone seems to be talking in a whisper.

Locking season at a beach town is one of the few places where daybreak comes with a louder soundtrack than the nighttime. Except the sounds you hear are more locking activities: plywood being nailed to arcade fronts, wood being scrapped for painting, and loose shingles being stripped from roofs. You know it's quiet when your Prius is the nosiest thing on the road. I like it that way, but it's both peaceful and a tad unsettling. A driver can almost welcome the Garden State Parkway. At least it's an affirmation that one hasn't slept through the Apocalypse. 

Yeah—locking season is like that. Time to relax a bit, but also a time to muse and brood before getting down to the serious task of making it through winter. Still, it's a thoughtful sadness, not a soul-crushing depression—the sort that seems to brighten the first time the snowshoes get strapped on, and further lightens when the seed catalogues arrive in the mail. The attached photos are my attempt to capture in images what it feels like when Nature begins to lock down.

Rob Weir


Roddie Romero, Charlie & the Rays, Stewart Eastham, Jon Reynolds

Want some Cajun and zydeco filtered through blue-eyed soul? Check out Roddie Romero and the Hub City All-Stars. The "Hub City" is Lafayette, Louisiana, a place where the climate, the food, and the music are hot. Gulfstream (Octavia Records) features fifteen sizzling tracks. Titles like "My Baby is the Real Thing," "Ma Jolie," and "Rock 'n' Roll & Soul Radio" suggest it's time to party, and Romero obliges. The first is catchy pop-infused soul evocative of a Muscle Shoals/Motown mash; "Ma Jolie" has a swampier feel and some cool slide guitar; and the last song spotlights Erick Adcock pounding the piano keys with Jerry Lee Lewis energy. Romero fronts the band with robust vocals, guitar, and high-impact accordion, with Chad Viator manning most of the guitar duties. Toss in the drumming of Gary Usie and the bass (and occasional tuba!) of Chris French, and you've got a lineup that can make some serious noise in a variety of styles. "Donne-Moi Donc" is a jazzy boogie-woogie dance piece in which they keys are tickled and keep on tinkling; "Windmill in a Hurricane" is grits with grit; and "Po'Boy Walk" spotlights a hooky bass line on an instrumental bump-and-grind. And these guys know that when they wind us up, they have to let us down easy. The album's final two tracks soften the mood. The title track is acoustic and borders on tender; "I Must Be a in a Good Place Now" is quiet piano and vocals with hints of gospel influence. Call this one rhythm and roots music.

Keep the good-times vibes flowing by checking out a young Seattle ensemble calling itself Charlie and the Rays. Not sure why they're called that as they are the brainchild of two sisters, Jordan and Rebecca Stobbe, and longtime friend Gracia Bridges. They list The Beatles, The Band, and The Dixie Chicks among their influences, though only the last of these is evident on their debut EP Black Licorice. Like the Dixie Chicks, the young women build songs around call-and-response harmonies, with a strong lead voice providing the bridge to three-part singing. To my ear, though, this is rhythm and blues music with an updated early 1960's "girl group" vibe. Songs such as "Just Say that You Love Me" and "Can't get You Off" evoke the party pop of the early '60s and some of the harmonies remind me of early records by The Nields.  "Oh My My" is an especially fun offering in which the horns and mouth harp jump, and so do the vocals. The only misfire is "Girl," which would probably work well on stage. It's the moodiest piece that subsumes the vocals within the aural mix that doesn't translate well within the restricted sound band of MP3. I'll keep an ear out for these folks, though, as there's promise a-plenty.

If you're a fan of that combination of Nashville and rock 'n' roll labeled "New Country," Stewart Eastham is the guy for you. His Dancers in the Mansion is where electric guitar meets pedal steel. This is Eastham's third full-length album—he also has an EP–and though it surveys country's three H's–heartbreak, hard times, and hope–it's heavier on the last of these than past efforts. Dancers is also a sampler of four distinct styles. On songs such as "Sometimes, the Road," "Pretty Little Songbird," and "The Barroom," Eastham fronts big production numbers in which everything from keyboard to horns and stringed instruments punch through the mix. "Barroom" features power chord choruses so pronounced that you could mentally conjure stage light colors changing on each down beat. Then there's the guy with a Hank Williams-like collection of honky-tonk material such as "She's My Gal" and "Leavin' By Sundown," the latter with the suggestive line "I know I wasn't the first one/And I surely won't be the last."  Then he goes Texas two-step style on "Lonesome Melody" and the wonderfully titled "Old Lovers in a Cheap Motel." Finally there's the sensitive Eastham that emerges on quieter material such as "Carry On" and "2023Miles," songs I found more impressive, if less fun. But Eastham keeps things on the lighter side. There's not much message music here beyond the downscaled dreams of the working stiff in "Fruit Cannery Blues." For those who don't know Eastham, his vocals are reminiscent of Dwight Yoakam, though his twang is mostly affected–he hails from California, not Texas.

When confronted with pervasive discrimination, Jon Reynolds chose the high road. His EP Generation Love is a response to having moved from Oklahoma to Tennessee, where his wife encountered sexism and the couple confronted racism because they have black in-laws and friends. It doesn't speak well for the Volunteer State, but Reynolds acquits himself well. In a quiet way, Reynolds uses retro moods to suggest how both music and social values can join the 21st century. Musically, his EP is–excuse the seeming oxymoron–an updated throwback. In mood it invokes 1950s pop music, but with dashes of other influences: The Four Seasons, The Zombies, Iron and Wine, and Ray Charles. The 50's part comes in catchy pop melodies and the stripped down instrumentation, the latter often just down strums on an electrified hollow-bodied Ibanez. The Ray Charles part comes in the form of Reynolds' emotive, soulful vocals that sometimes rise to falsetto heights. The update comes when you listen to the pleas for social justice embedded in the title track, or "'63," in which Reynolds sings: "I believe you're living in '63." It's a clever double entendre—the style harkens back to 1963 and, apparently, so too do some attitudes.
★★★ ½