Beheld Holds the Pilgrims in an Unforgiving Light


BEHELD (2021)

By TaraShea Nesbit

Penguin, 266 pages.





If you need a reminder that historical figures seldom wear halos, Beheld will rattle you back on track. This slim volume by TaraShea Nesbit is fictional, but rings true.


Since 1971, when historian John Demos tried to rescue the Pilgrims and Puritans a bit from the perception that they were bigoted, other scholars have demonstrated that Plymouth Colony or the Massachusetts Bay settlements were commonwealths in name only. The latter is certainly Nesbit's view. Her tale begins in The Netherlands, where William Bradford's followers had fled after leaving the Church of England.* The beautiful Dorothy, who is in an arranged marriage to the Rev. Bradford,  and plain-faced Alice are best friends. Against her wishes, Dorothy boarded The Mayflower to help build a Separatist colony in North America. Dorothy drowns when the ship made landfall in today's Provincetown and the question is whether it was a suicide or a homicide. Three years later, Bradford sends for Alice to be his new wife, also against her desire.


In 1620, The Mayflower sailed on to a spot dubbed Plymouth for the English port from which boats left the Old World for the New. At some point during the journey, the Rev. Bradford is said to have penned “The Mayflower Compact,” a treatise on how settlers were to live together in their new home. Whether he read this document to those aboard The Mayflower is shrouded in myth. (If you care, there's no truth whatsoever to Plymouth Rock as the final landfall site. The legend of Plymouth Rock emerged 121 years after the fact.) What we do know is that the persecuted Pilgrims turned the tables on anyone who didn't share their views: non-church members, newer arrivals, indentured servants, and Wampanoag natives. (You can add the First Thanksgiving to a list of events that are more legend than fact.) Today there's a statue in Plymouth to intrepid Pilgrim women, but Nesbit's Alice Bradford might have laughed at it.




Nesbit tells her tale through alternating viewpoints from Dorothy, Alice, John Billington, his wife Eleanor, and John Newcomen, the last who became the Colony's first murder victim. The Billingtons wanted more and appropriated fields that had been promised to and cleared by Newcomen. That really happened. Billington took advantage of shifting political alliances, toadied up to Myles Standish, and literally got away with murder. Nesbit alternates points of view, but hers is mainly a story about women told in their voices. Very little is flattering to the Pilgrims. Plymouth is a place where a 13-year-old girl is raped, self-righteousness reigns, and women are pawns in games devised by men. The crucial question is how women negotiated their status. Eleanor does so by hitching her fate to that of her ambitious husband; Alice through bursts of defiance and outspokenness. Nesbit speculates about Alice's character but it certainly couldn't have been easy being a stepmother to Dorothy's two sons or the wife of a stern minister.


I reiterate that this is a novel, not the work of a professional historian, but Nesbit's extrapolations fit within a society marked by vengefulness, discontent, and hypocrisy. As we observe with distressing regularity today, much can be justified by those who are convinced they are doing God's will. Nesbit writes in concise language and constructs a plausible emotional world for women in a new land that nonetheless governed through old-style patriarchy. Nor was Nesbit fanciful in imagining a precarious world in which casual cruelty was an element of life itself. Plymouth Colony was certainly a better place to be than Jamestown, which was far more violent and starvation ran rampant. Still, Plymouth was no utopia for men or women. As I used to say on a regular basis in the classroom, history is messier than myth. You could subtitle Nesbit's novel Pride and Sanctimony.


Rob Weir


* Quick primer: Pilgrims and Puritans would not be interchangeable until 1691, when the Puritans of Massachusetts Bay absorbed Plymouth in the aftermath of wars against Natives (King Philip's War). The Pilgrims felt the Church of England was so corrupt they “separated” themselves from it and were anathema in a world in which the ruler (the king) determined the religion of England and its colonies. Those in Massachusetts Bay (Boston, Salem and beyond) agreed the Church of England was debased but did not withdraw from it; they hoped to purify it from within, hence “Puritans.”



Get Carter a Violent Late Noir



Directed by Mike Hodges

MGM-EMI, 112 minutes, R (violence, sex, language)





I recently opened my morning paper and saw that British director/writer Mike Hodges had died. Most of his films and TV productions were forgettable. Many critics, though, consider his directorial debut and script writing for Get Carter to have been his signature piece. It was the last film made by MGM’s U.K. Borehamwood division.


Michael Caine stars as Jack Carter. Caine later gained a reputation as a guy who doesn’t need to read a script before accepting a part, but back in 1971 he was considered a first-rate actor. His Jack Carter is a chilling portrait of a mobster with zero sense of remorse or humanity. He is a key figure in the Fletcher family London syndicate, but the death of his brother Frank sends him back to Newcastle, where he got his start in all things tawdry.


Jack isn’t buying the tale that Frank died in a drunk driving accident and, though the Fletchers warn Jack not to cause trouble with Newcastle boss Cyril Kinnear (John Osborne) and even send two toughs to dissuade him, Jack is intent upon avenging Frank’s murder. Jack didn’t even particularly like his brother but it’s a family thing, ‘ya know. He does have some fondness for Frank’s daughter, Doreen (Petra Markham), whom he initially sees as an innocent.


It would be safe to say there are no innocents in this film. It was made in 1971, when the censorship and code cuffs had come off of moviemaking. Like numerous films in the early 1970s, Get Carter is violent, titillating nudity was still shocking, and few directors felt the need to inject redeeming social value into a film. That’s why most of the characters are as amoral as Jack.


Jack got his start in Newcastle, but he’s been away for a while and local thugs have moved on. It’s thus uncertain which (if any) of Jack’s former associates is feeding him information about his brother and which are setting him up. Jack has a way of dealing with double-crossers, though. Jack doubles down on his quest for revenge when he views a porno film with Doreen having it off with one of those former associates. It hardly matters that he’s having sex with Glenda (Geraldine Moffat) at the time–she a rescuer or maybe another double-crosser. Jack takes no chances and stuffs her in the boot of his car before heading out to check new leads.


He will chase clues that take him to Cliff Brumby (Bryan Mosley), another connected guy whose front is an amusement park business. Every move confirms Jack’s intuition that everyone is out to get Carter. He’s used to it; after all, he was sleeping with Anna (Britt Ekland), the girlfriend on one of his London bosses. All roads lead back to Kinnear, or is Kinnear and the Fletchers? It doesn’t matter. Like I said, Jack has a way of dealing with double-crossers that does not involve sending them advance happy birthday wishes.

Caine is convincing in his role, so much so that if he had rung the front doorbell after it came out, you’d probably run to the backdoor. This is a collateral damage film that drew parallels to Blaxploitation films, the likes of which were seldom over until most of the characters were bumped off. Happy ending? Ummm… no!


Aside from Caine’s performance, why watch such a movie? Another reason is that it’s often seen as a late film noir film. That’s true if we mean that it’s gritty and dark. It might be what some noir films would have been had there been no censorship during their heyday. Get Carter’s visual style is also classic 1970s in that it favored odd camera angles and a narrative structure that was more episodic than linear. The latter could also be a reason not to see it if that’s not you cup of bourbon. The pacing does make Get Carter seem dated, as does a script that requires viewers to figure out who’s who on their own.


In my estimation, though it’s a period piece, it’s worth trying. You won’t like the characters, but you’re not supposed to. I wouldn’t call Get Carter a masterpiece, Mr. Hodges’ death notwithstanding, but it’s often thrilling and drives home the point that crime seldom pays. Mostly it’s nice to see Michael Caine act instead of going through the motions.



Rob Weir   


January 2023 Music Reviews: Julian Taylor, Lodestar, Voyagers, Fenya Rai, Ivy Ryann, Etc.


It’s time for another cleanout. You’re welcome for eliminating most of the Clonevilles, those sound-alikes who think their road to Nashville is to sound like everyone else trying to make it there. These days I only review them I find something of interest in their work.


I only needed a few tracks to once again sing the praises of Julian Taylor. His latest, Beyond the Reservoir is a departure. The vibe of Wide Awake” reminded me of something Garnet Rogers might have done if the lyrics were darker and we replaced Taylor’s smoothness with Garnet’s booming power. They’re both Canadian, though. (Taylor is of First Nations and Carib descent.) Beyond the Reservoir finds Taylor shifting from his earlier folk approach to something more rootsy and soulful. ”Opening the Sky” unfolds as if he’s going full troubadour, but he turns up the juice and immerses himself in an electric mix. Check him out in his coolest goes-down- easy mode on his official video of "Seeds." To invoke one of my favorite descriptors, he’s the real deal.


Lodestar Trio
consists of Britain’s Max Baillie on violin, Norway’s Olva Laksengård on the hardanger fiddle, and Sweden’s Erik Rydvall on the nyckelharpa. That alone intrigues as all three instruments look like violins, but the second has internal strings that resonate harmonically, the third has a row of keys to alter the pitch, and each has a unique sound. Their recording From Bach to Folk indicates their aim, though the title is slightly deceptive as the music is more drawing room than town hall. Rearranged cello suites and Baroque arrangements dominate with forays into “folk” tunes as interpreted by the bewigged set. They arrange Couperin’s “Les Barricades Mystérieuses” for their instruments, a melody originally written for harpsichord, and give similar treatments to Bach, my favorite being a musette that found old Johann doing his crossover bit 270 years ago. For the record, their take on “Deliverance” has nothing to do with the film of the same name. The closest they get to “folk” as we think of that term today is a couple of Norwegian traditionals. Here’s one.


 A much better-defined crossover album comes from the trio Voyagers. Their album Chasing the Light combines the talents of Yocomba Sissoko, a Malian singer and kora player; Edith Letner on alto and soprano saxophone; and guitarist Banning Eyre. The last name might sound familiar; Eyre is former print media music critic who produces NPR’s Afropop program, and is the founder of Lion Song Records. Chasing the Light shines with talents of all three and puts the “world” back into world music. There aren’t a lot of tracks available online but “Today is a New Day” gives you an idea of what I mean. “Solole” will give you a taste of Sissoko’s gentle vocals and you can hear more tracks on Bandcamp. I love the way Voyagers meld the hypnotic grooves of West African music with the exuberance of modified klezmer music and Eyre’s grounding guitar. This album and Taylor’s are my favorites for January.


Fenya Rai
is a deliberately rough-edged, irreverent group of Catalan band of musical outlaws that befits this rebellious region of Spain. If you like things silky smooth, you probably won’t like songs like “les rondes del vi",” but the raucous accordion-driven "Pastor Cabrer” might put you in mind of a Cajun party that got out of hand! "baixeu al carrer” is another of the 11 tracks on Placa Major. Truth be told, the entire album is like these three. I enjoyed the insouciance of making a record that makes no effort to use studio mixes to smooth out its ragged edges. I suspect, though, that non-Catalan speakers–that includes me–will find that a little goes a long way. 


Ivy Ryann
grew up in a fundamentalist Virginian family. Her A Nonaggressive Extreme Violation of Boundaries holds promise, despite glitches. “Driveway Prayers” is only tangentially linked to her background; it’s mostly about finding understanding and safe places. Her most “extreme violation of boundaries” is a cover of the Johnny Cash standard “Walk the Line,” which she slows down and plays on the piano. It won’t make you forget Cash, but it’s a bold try. “The Weight” is an original, not the song popularized by The Band. She offers two versions of it, one with electric backing and another with an orchestral take. In order to soar, Ryann needs to emote more clearly and can the sonic drone and shapeless instrumental of songs like “In Wanting.” It’s always a good idea to fledge before you try to fly.  



Mixed Feelings:


The three didn’t set me on fire, but they might light yours.


Teddy Grossman
is a white guy who loves old-style soul music. “Leave It on the Line” comes complete with soulful backup singers. “What I Owe” is a bit less raucous but is cut from similar cloth, with some mouth harp tossed in. He even tickles the ivories on “Soon Come,” his album title track. I confess that the LA-based Grossman isn’t the kind of stuff I’ve listened to since the days of Bill Withers–too much high octane singing–but he’s very good at what he does.



Gotta be honest about The Deer’s Cry. Heal the Heart was billed as a blend of Celtic, Americana, and world music. My ears would say it’s a mash of Christian, New Age, and Japanese-style vocals. Harper/vocalist Karen Ballew anchors a quartet that includes a bass player, a banjo artist, and a percussionist. Ballew’s vocals are so high they strike me as strident, but I’m fine if you think they’re different in a good way. Try “I Want to Get Through to You” and “I See His Blood Upon the Rose.”



Rachel McIntyre Smith
has room for growth. I think there’s a good voice in the development, but her songs left me waiting to see where she lands not where she is. I liked her fiddler, but that’s probably not where she wanted me to land. Try “First Love” or “High School Reunion.” I’m willing to believe I just have no desire to relive either of these things.


Rob Weir