On the December Issue:
Cresson and Zion
To the Editor:
Thank you very much for Michael Medved’s fascinating article “The Forgotten Proto-Zionist” (December). It is always a pleasure to read about the visionaries (and sometimes crackpots) who advocated for the return of the Jewish people to Zion when such a reality would have seemed quite absurd to most rational observers. Without those dreamers, it is hard to imagine we would be living here today.
I live only a stone’s throw from Emek Refaim, the area of Jerusalem in which Warder Cresson bought land for his farming projects—the area whose name Medved translates as the Valley of the Healers. To my knowledge, the Hebrew name is generally translated into English as Valley of the Giants or Valley of the Dead (or Ghosts) when not rendered as Valley of the Rephaim. The Rephaim are mentioned a few times in the Bible, and they may have been giants.
Regardless of the translation, it would be interesting to know how Warder Cresson would have felt to know that this last leg of the Ottoman train route from Jaffa would be converted to one of the most popular walking and biking paths in the city. Would he have been distressed to learn that local residents were spending time and effort fighting the government’s plan to run part of the Jerusalem Light Rail down Emek Refaim Street rather than spending their time on more spiritual matters, or would he have understood this material manifestation of the Jews’ return to Zion as a natural extension of his initial project?
Michael Medved writes:
Thanks to Josiah Rotenberg, who is, of course, entirely correct in pointing out my mistake. It’s a tribute to the attentive and knowledgeable readership of Commentary that others also contacted me directly on the mistranslation, which was based on punchlines I’d heard for years about the preponderance of physicians, dentists, and other professionals in Emek Rephaim—one of the most vital neighborhoods in Jerusalem.
As to Warder Cresson’s reaction to recent developments, I suspect he’d be gratified by the rich variety of Jewish religious (and secular) communities flourishing in the vicinity of his former property, and in Israel in general. He’d also feel vastly gratified that the lonely, struggling American Consulate that he established in 1844 has, after so many years, been replaced with a proper embassy linking the two miraculous nations that he loved.
To the Editor:
Living on the North Side of Chicago, I had always been sorry that I missed Susan Sontag when she came to give a talk in the nearby suburb of Skokie some years ago (“Susan Sontag, Savant-Idiot,” December). Here was a world-class intellectual, I later thought, a woman whose brains and beauty had propelled her to the summit of our cultural life, a cutting-edge talent whose gifts were critical to the survival of our civilization. At the time, I could think of nothing better to do that night than watch Monday-night football.
I thank Joseph Epstein for putting my conscience at ease. I might otherwise have continued having nightmares for years.
To the Editor:
As an avid fan of Ken Burns’s documentaries, I appreciated Lauren Weiner’s article about Burns’s Country Music (“The Grand Ole Melting Pot,” December). At times, however, I find Burn’s work a bit too politically correct, and that political correctness can serve to bury substantive information.
What was most fascinating about his country-music series was the archival photography and the insight into the development of the radio stations that brought country music to a greater audience. Best of all were the first five or six episodes. Most notable was country music’s Shakespeare: Hank Williams. What I got out of the series was the fluidity in the borrowings of musical styles.
This was not political. Rather, it was an economic necessity if a particular group was to survive. The borrowing of ideas permeates all kinds of music. What would Beethoven be without Mozart?
To mandolinist Bill Monroe, father of bluegrass music, Elvis’s version of “Blue Moon of Kentucky” was an abomination. Flamboyant, loud, grating—for Monroe this was simply rock ’n’ roll. When country music found itself in trouble in the late 1950s, the reason was rock ’n’ roll. String bands had an aversion to amplification, yet Monroe used an electric guitar on some of his early recordings of Jimmie Rodgers’s songs. Music became big business, and disc jockeys began to avoid playing country in favor of sounds that appealed to teenagers who had money to spend on records. As I say, borrowing musical styles was good business. True, radio stations had been racially segregated, but times were changing, and to stay alive in the music industry, singers and groups innovated, changed, added, borrowed and, yes, stole. This has always been the nature of music.
Lauren Weiner writes:
Ithank Jenene Stookesberry for her insightful comments. Although I did not stress this aspect, she makes a good point: that Ken Burns’s history of country music is also a history of the country-music business. She mentions the old AM radio stations, the music disseminators that were so important to the business. Burns’s program called these to mind very colorfully, and it also covered the producers whose companies shaped the industry, such as Chet Atkins of RCA and Owen Bradley of Decca. As a business, country music saw its ups and downs—especially, as Stookesberry says, with the arrival of rock ’n’ roll. Episode Four describes how, in 1956, Ray Price, fearing that country was being taken over by rock, insisted that fiddles and the pedal steel guitar be featured in his hit “Crazy Arms.” It seems to have been an important act of preservation. By the 1960s, of course, Price had adjusted, as did many other artists, to the lush, not-very-homespun “Nashville Sound” created by Atkins, Bradley, and the entrepreneurs at other record labels. An Atkins quip that’s noted in the program: The real definition of the “Nashville Sound” was the jingling of money in his pocket. Indeed commercial concerns did press upon modern country music, for better or for worse, and that is still true today.