Wednesday, 25 May 2016

The Address

"[Delivering the Address] is a minefield for these kids [which involves] acts of courage which are embedded in this speech." (Ken Burns)

Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, written over 150 years ago, is arguably the most famous speech delivered by an American President (  Ken Burns' documentary follows Greenwood's students as they memorize and recite the Gettysburg Address.

The Greenwood School is a boarding school for fifty boys with learning disorders such as dyslexia and ADD.  Vermont's Greenwood School has used the Address as a teaching tool for over 35 years.  The boys spend a good chunk of time learning and memorizing the Address which they recite at a recital.  Ken Burns has served as a judge at the recital for ten years.

Ken Burns says that due to their learning disorders,, "[Delivering the Address] is a minefield for these kids [which involves] acts of courage which are embedded in this speech."
 Headmaster Stewart Miller points out that the Gettysburg Address is about "finding the inner strength to push through. What we talk about is grit -- setting a goal and sticking to it."

Lincoln's speech served to embolden the Union troops to keep fighting, to persevere against all odds after one of the worst defeats in the Civil War.  His speech marked the turning point in the war.  The Union regained its courage and fought on, achieving victory a year and a half later.

Greenwood's Headmaster explains that if you put something to memory, "you own it".  Ken Burns' is challenging all Americans to learn or relearn the Address, which is inscribed on the wall of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC.  The speech may be short, but it is powerful and gains more meaning with the passage of time.  Like the Greenwood students, we can all learn something from this speech.

Greenwood School student recites Gettsyburg Address courtesy 

Tuesday, 24 May 2016

Yosemite: A Gathering of Spirit

"I bless Yosemite for waking me up to the natural wonders but also for waking me up to my own history.  I was able to reclaim an entire trip that I had put away and lost.  I could feel my dad's hand in mine as we walked and the hike we took to the little waterfall." (Ken Burns)

Vernal Falls, Yosemite circa 1889 by Thomas Hill courtesy

After three intense days of filming his documentary Yosemite:  A Gathering of Spirit, Ken Burns found himself restless and unable to sleep.  That night he had a vivid memory of visiting another National Park, Shenandoah in Virginia, with his father when his mother was dying of cancer.  The trip was a chance to realize nature's beauty, to lift his demoralized spirits.  It was also a chance to reconnect with his father.  "I bless Yosemite for waking me up to the natural wonders but also for waking me up to my own history.  I was able to reclaim an entire trip that I had put away and lost.  I could feel my dad's hand in mine as we walked and the hike we took to the little waterfall"  (

Yosemite:  A Gathering of Spirit focusses on the fact that "National Parks have a way of connecting people not just to their soil, but to their soul."  While all the National Parks are beautiful, people who have visited more than one tend to have a favourite.  It's not just what people see in the Parks, but who they experience it with.  Writer Dayton Duncan, who has visited all 59 National Parks, prefers National Glacier Park, which he visited with his future wife.  

Glenns Lake

Glacier Park, Montana courtesy 

There is something revolutionary about America's National Parks.  As Duncan explains:  "National Parks are the Declaration of Independence expressed on the landscape.  We were the first nation in the history of mankind to say that the most special places should be set aside not for royalty, not for the rich, not for the well-connected, but for everyone and for all time."  

Since 1904, 13.5 billion visitors have flocked to America's National Park sites.  As of 2014, over 3.8 million people have visited Yosemite alone.  The beauty of Yosemite is its giant sequoias.  For someone who has never visited a National Park, Ken Burns recommends starting with the original one, Yellowstone, for its "geysers, thermal pools, waterfalls, and wildlife".  

However, Burns points out that Americans don't have to travel very far to find a Park:  every state has a National Park or a national monument except Delaware.  

Monday, 23 May 2016

The Dust Bowl

Abandoned farm north of Dalhart, Texas circa 1938 courtesy

John Steinbeck wrote books about it.  Dorothy Lange photographed it.  Woody Guthrie wrote ballads about it.  It was the Great American Dust Bowl.  In the 1930's, the American west was struck by Black Blizzards. Dust choked people's lungs and blinded their eyes.  It invaded people's houses and destroyed their crops. It stopped automobiles and derailed freight trains.   The resulting drought drove tens of thousands of families from their farms.  You can read about the Dirty Thirties in Don Brown's picture book The Great American Dust Bowl (

Famous photo by Dorothea Lange courtesy

Ken Burns "The Dust Bowl chronicles the worst man made ecological disaster in American history in which the frenzied Wheat Boom of the Great Plow Up, followed by a decade long drought during the 1930's nearly swept away the breadbasket of the nation" (  

At the turn of the last century, European immigrants, as well as Americans, settled the Great Plains, a grasslands area that had not previously been farmed.  In the 1920's, these farmers enjoyed a wheat boom thanks to advanced technology and the thriving economy in the United States.  However, prices plummeted after the Stock Market Crash of 1929.  Rather than harvesting less wheat, farmers harvested more in an attempt to counteract the effects of the Great Depression.  Fields were left exposed and vulnerable to drought, which hit in 1932 (

Panic sets in on Wall Street in New York City after Stock Market Crash of 1929 courtesy 

The previously fertile soil turned into dirt.  The wind stirred it up and it accumulated into massive clouds called "black blizzards" ( The dust lodged itself in people's homes and in their lungs.  Many developped "dust pneumonia".  No longer able to farm, they joined the mass exodus of Okies headed to California to pick fruit, a journey so aptly illustrated by Steinbeck in his novel The Grapes of Wrath (

Black Blizzard approaches Elkhart, Kansas circa 1937 courtesy

Ken Burns says that The Dust Bowl is also a story of perseverance. Burns interviewed 26 survivors and shared their stories.  His documentary chronicles the families who struggled to hold onto their land, New Deal programs which kept families afloat, and attempts by government and farmers to develop new strategies of farming and land conservation (

FDR talks to farmer and his son circa 1936 courtesy

Sunday, 22 May 2016


"When the mayor of Berlin, Gustav Boess, visited New York City in the fall of 1929, one of the questions he had for his host Mayor James J. Walker, was when Prohibition was to go into effect.  The problem was that Prohibition had already been the law of the United States for nearly a decade.  That Boess had to ask tells you plenty about how well it was working." (Michael Lerner)

The Alcoholic Republic talks about the great alcoholic binge that took place in America from 1790 to 1830.   Wives were worried about their husbands drinking away their pay cheques, about them coming home and taking out their frustrations on them and their children, about the possibility of living on the streets ( The Temperance Movement, a direct response to this problem, peaked in 1850 with 238,000 women (


In time, the Temperance Movement's strategy changed from one of moral to legal reform.  The Prohibition Party debuted in 1869.  The Women's Christian Temperance Union emerged in 1874.  Their strategy focussed more and more on empowering women.  One way to do this was by securing the vote for women.  The W.C.T.U. joined forces with the suffragettes to make this happen.  
It is no surprise then that right on the tails of the women's right to vote (1919) came Prohibition (1920).  

Reformers were hoping that Prohibition would not only curb drinking, but also improve the quality of life in American towns and cities.  Merchants expected sales of clothing and household goods to rise. Real estate agents expected house prices to rise with the closing of saloons and the improvement of neighbourhoods.  Soft drink companies expected their profits to skyrocket.  Theatre producers expected bigger crowds as Americans looked for new outlets for entertainment.  According to historian Michael Lerner, however, this did not happen.  

Instead, the closing of breweries and saloons led to the loss of thousands of jobs.  Restaurants closed because they could no longer make a profit without a liquor licence.  Theatre revenues also declined.  On the other hand, Prohibition did lead to the rise of bootlegging, speakeasies and organized crime.  Corrupt police officers succumbed to bribes.  The number of "pharmacists" in New York tripled since a pharmacist could prescribe alcohol for many an ailment.  Enrollment at churches increased as well as the number of "self-professed" ministers who could obtain liquor through legal means.


By 1933, the 19th Amendment was repealed.  Many Americans agreed that the experiment had failed, even though Prohibitionists intentions were well-founded.

Saturday, 21 May 2016

The National Parks: America's Best Idea

"The National Parks:  America's Best Idea" is nonetheless the story of people...who were willing to devote themselves to saving some of the precious land they loved and in doing so, reminded their fellow citizens of the full meaning of democracy." (

The National Park Service has a presence in 49 of the 50 states (all but Delaware).  It overseas 58 national parks as well as 333 national monuments and historic sites.  "As America expanded westward, pioneers would 'discover' landscapes of such breathtaking and unusual beauty, that written descriptions of the lands were sometimes assumed by people in the East to be works of fiction.  Eventually there emerged a belief that these places should be kept untarnished by development and commerce so they could be experienced by all people." (

US 6th Calvary on top and beside the Fallen Monarch Tree, Yosemite, circa 1899 courtesy

"The National Parks:  America's Best Idea is nonetheless the story of people...who were willing to devote themselves to saving some of the precious land they loved and in doing so, reminded their fellow citizens of the full meaning of democracy."  John Muir, a deeply religious man, found inspiration in the mountains of Yosemite.  James Mason Hutchings, a magazine publisher who promoted Yosemite.  George Masa, a Japanese immigrant, took photographs of North Carolina and Tennessee's Great Smoky Mountains, which later became a national park.  Marjory Stoneman fell in love with the Florida Everglades and convinced the powers that be to make it a national park.  Adolphe Murie, a young biologist who focussed on protecting the land but also the animals that inhabited it.   And city slicker Thomas Moran, who joined the trek through the Rocky Mountains to Yellowstone River and painted the mural which later convinced Congress to make it a national park. (

Friday, 20 May 2016

The War

"Only the soldier really lives the war." (Eric Sevareid)

It is hard to imagine the scope of a war that took 50 to 60 million lives including 400,000 Americans. It touched every corner of the globe.  During the 1940's, everyone was affected by the Second World War.

Ken Burns studies the effects that "the greatest cataclysm in human history" had on residents of these four cities: Mobile, Alabama.  Sacramento, California. Waterbury, Connecticut.  Luverne, Minnesota.  The series is an attempt to explain "the things men do in war and the things war does to men" (

Resident expert Geoffrey Ward wrote the script for Ken Burns series The War and provides much of the commentary.  The War series is divided into seven episodes:

Episode One:  A Necessary War
Episode Two:  When Things Get Tough
Episode Three:  A Deadly Calling
Episode Four:  Pride of Our Nation
Episode Five:  FUBAR
Episode Six:  The Ghost Front
Episode Seven:  A World Without War 

Thursday, 19 May 2016

Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise & Fall of Jack Johnson

"The press reacted [to Johnson's victory] as if Armageddon was here.  That this might be the moment when it all starts to fall apart for white society." (Randy Roberts)

The Battle of the Century in Reno, Nevada circa 1910 courtesy

Black American Jack Johnson started boxing as a teenager in Galveston, Texas.  A relatively new sport, boxing was banned in some states.  In the late 1800's, Blacks were permitted to box as long as they didn't compete for the ultimate title, Heavyweight Champion of the World.  Johnson made considerable money winning numerous fights against both blacks and whites.  However, one opponent eluded him, James Jeffries, the Heavyweight Champion of the World.  He refused to fight a Black, and chose to retire instead.

In 1908, new heavyweight champion Tommy Burns agreed to box Jack Johnson in Australia for the hefty sum of $30,000.  After Johnson beat on Burns for fourteen rounds, the match was stopped and Johnson declared the Heavyweight Champion of the World.  Johnson biographer Randy Roberts explained:  "The press reacted [to Johnson's victory] as if Armageddon was here.  That this might be the moment when it all starts to fall apart for white society." (

Johnson's victory sparked a search for a "great white hope", someone to challenge Johnson for the title.  James Jeffries returned to the ring to fight Johnson.  "The Battle of the Century" took place in Reno, Nevada on July 4, 1910.  Johnson won the match in the 15th round, sparking nationwide race riots.  "Congress eventually passed an act banning the interstate transport of fight films for fear that the images of Johnson, beating his white opponents, would provoke further unrest." 

Equally troubling for America was Johnson's penchant for white women.  He was frequently seen in the company of white prostitutes Hattie McClay and Belle Schreiber.  In 1910, congress passed the Mann Act prohibiting the transportation of women in interstate and foreign commerce "for the purposes of prostitution, debauchery or any other immoral purpose."  Johnson did not take well to being told what to do.  As James Earl Jones explained:  "He was a self defined man.  And this issue of being black was not that relevant to him.  But the issue of his being free was very relevant."  He was about to lose that freedom.  

In 1913, Johnson was convicted of violating the Mann Act after Belle Schreiber testified against him in court.  Johnson fled the country and spent several years as a fugitive in Europe.  In the meantime, he lost his world title to Jess Willard in Cuba.  Finally, in 1920, Johnson returned to America where he served his time in prison.  In 1946, after someone directed a racist comment at him in a restaurant, he drove home, swerved and was killed in an accident.