Saturday, August 31, 2013

The 5 Best American Historical Fiction Books to Read Aloud to Your Kids

Posted By Paula Bolyard On August 19, 2013 @ 9:00 am In Books and Magazines,Children,Education,History,Home Schooling,Literature | 12 Comments

Johnny Tremain Summary
Jim Trelease, author of the The Read-Aloud Handbook, shares four important reasons for reading aloud to children:

• Conditions the child to associate reading with pleasure;
• Creates background knowledge;
• Builds “book” vocabulary;
• Provides a reading role model.

The Department of Education reported back in 1983 that “the single most important activity for building the knowledge required for eventual success in reading is reading aloud to children” and said it was important that reading aloud continue throughout all the grades.
Whether your kids are in preschool or high school, whether they are homeschooled or attend public school, reading aloud is important for a child’s development. In these days when electronic and digital media pervade nearly every area of our lives, reading together as a family can provide an oasis and a joyful refuge from the daily deluge of smart phones, the internet, TV, and video games.

Our family especially enjoyed historical fiction as our boys were growing up. While we did read textbook-style narratives of history to get an overview, it was while reading historical fiction that the stories of our American heritage came to life for our children — stories of adventure, war, poverty, success, perseverance, and American exceptionalism.

I’ve listed below a few of our family’s favorites. Though not all are perfectly historically accurate on every point, they give an excellent sense of the times and the historical events. Moreover, the powerful stories will make history three-dimensional as your family is transported to another time and place a few chapters at a time. Though some of these books are written at a level kids in grades 5-8 can read for themselves, they’re so inspiring and educational that you should read them together.

1. Johnny Tremain — Esther Hoskins Forbes

Johnny Tremain is a 14-year-old silversmith apprentice in Boston in 1773. A tragic accident leaves him with a deformed hand and inadvertently plunges him into the intrigue and excitement of the early stages of the American Revolution. He meets famous Boston patriots and witnesses the Boston Tea Party and the Battle of Lexington. You’ll love Johnny’s courage and determination and root for him chapter after chapter as the Revolution unfolds.

2. Carry On, Mr. Bowditch — Jean Lee Latham

Jean Lee Latham’s 1955 Newbery award winner fictionalizes the true story of Nathaniel “Nat” Bowditch. Though denied a Harvard education, as an apprenticed bookkeeper he discovered a talent for math and complicated calculations. The book is set in Salem, Massachusetts, shortly after the American Revolution. Nat revolutionizes the world of maritime navigation. Bowditch wrote a book that is still a standard among mariners. The black and white illustrations enhance the charm of the book and will have your kids looking over your shoulder as you read to them.

3. Across Five Aprils — Irene Hunt

Jethro Creighton is 9 years old when the Civil War breaks out. The southern Illinois farm boy sees most of his male relatives go off to fight for both the North and the South. When his father falls ill, Jethro takes responsibility for the family farm and encounters a myriad of hardships and adventures. This book will have you on the edge of your seat as the Civil War unwinds and then drags on. We listened to the audio book on a cross-country car trip and found ourselves sitting in the car at rest stops because we wanted to see what happened next!

4. Little Britches: Father and I Were Ranchers – Ralph Moody

Little Britches was first released in 1950 and, along with the other books in the series, has been in print continuously since then. It’s the autobiographical tale of a young boy whose family moves to a Colorado ranch in 1906. After his father’s death, Ralph becomes the Man of the Family (the title of the second book in the series). Life on the ranch is exciting, dangerous, and complicated. Landowners battle over water rights and go to extreme lengths to supply their farms and ranches.

5. Miracles on Maple Hill — Virginia Sorensen

This 1957 Newbery winner tells the story of a father who returned home from World War II a broken man, detached from his family. His wife decides the family needs to spend some extended time at Grandma’s country house. Dad slowly regains his physical and mental health as winter turns to spring and the family witnesses a series of small miracles. The description of maple sugaring is fascinating — it will make you want to run out and hang buckets on your maple trees this spring!

Reading historical fiction not only teaches your children about the facts of history, but teaches them to love and enjoy it. Rather than reading dreary textbooks that do little more than recite dates and events in order, historical fiction personalizes the stories and puts the reader right in the middle of the action. Textbooks do have their place, but supplement them with vibrant, living historical fiction — and enjoy history together as a family!

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Barack Obama is proving an embarrassing amateur on the world stage compared to George W. Bush

30 August 2013

George W. Bush was widely mocked by the Left during the Iraq War, with liberals jeering at the “coalition of the willing,” which included in its ranks some minnows such as Moldova and Kazkhstan. Michael Moore, in his rather silly documentary Fahrenheit 9/11, went to great lengths to lampoon the Iraq War alliance. But the coalition also contained, as I pointed out in Congressional testimony back in 2007, Great Britain, Australia, Spain, Italy, Poland, and 16 members of the NATO alliance, as well as Japan and South Korea. In Europe, France and Germany were the only large-scale countries that sat the war out, with 12 of the 25 members of the European Union represented. The coalition, swelled to roughly 40 countries, and was one of the largest military coalitions ever assembled.
As it stands, President Obama’s proposed military coalition on Syria has a grand total of two members – the US and France. And the French, as we know from Iraq, simply can’t be relied on, and have very limited military capability. It is a truly embarrassing state of affairs when Paris, at best a fair weather friend, is your only partner. John Kerry tried to put a brave face on it at his press conference today, by referring to France “as our oldest ally,” but the fact remains that his administration is looking painfully isolated.
There can be no doubt that David Cameron’s defeat in the House of Commons was a huge blow to President Obama, and has dominated the US news networks this morning. The absence of Britain in any American-led military action significantly weakens Obama’s position on the world stage, and dramatically undercuts the Obama administration. The vote reflected not only a lack of confidence in the Commons in the prime minister’s Syria strategy, it also demonstrated a striking lack of confidence in Barack Obama and US leadership.
In marked contrast to Obama, President Bush invested a great deal of time and effort in cultivating ties with key US allies, especially Britain. The Special Relationship actually mattered to George W. Bush. For Barack Obama it has been a mere blip on his teleprompter. Bush also went out of his way to build ties with other allies in Europe, including with Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar, and an array of countries in Eastern and Central Europe. Obama simply hasn’t bothered making friends in Europe, and has treated some nations with sheer disdain and disrespect, including Poland and the Czech Republic. He has found common currency with France’s Socialist President Francois Hollande, an ideological soul-mate, but finds himself in a very lonely position elsewhere across the Atlantic.
In addition, and most importantly, George W. Bush was a conviction president on foreign policy matters, driven by a clear sense of the national interest. President Bush emphatically made his case to the American people and to the world, explaining why he believed the use of force was necessary, and dozens of countries decided to follow him. In the case of Barack Obama, whose foreign policy has been weak-kneed, confused and strategically incoherent, the president hasn’t effectively made the case for military intervention in Syria, and has made no serious effort to cultivate support both at home and abroad. President Bush may not have been greatly loved on the world stage, but he was respected by America’s allies, and feared by his enemies. In marked contrast, Obama hasn’t generated a lot of respect abroad, and he certainly isn’t feared.

Obama’s bread and circuses


August 29, 2013

Over the past week, President Barack Obama and his senior advisers have told us that the US is poised to go to war against Syria. In the next few days, the US intends to use its airpower and guided missiles to attack Syria in response to the regime’s use of chemical weapons in the outskirts of Damascus last week.

The questions that ought to have been answered before any statements were made by the likes of Secretary of State John Kerry and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel have barely been raised in the public arena. The most important of those questions are: What US interests are at stake in Syria? How should the US go about advancing them? What does Syria’s use of chemical weapons means for the US’s position in the region? How would the planned US military action in Syria impact US deterrent strength, national interests and credibility regionally and worldwide? Syria is not an easy case. Thirty months into the war there, it is clear that the good guys, such as they are, are not in a position to win.

Syria is controlled by Iran and its war is being directed by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps and by Hezbollah. And arrayed against them are rebel forces dominated by al-Qaida.

As US Sen. Ted Cruz explained this week, “Of nine rebel groups [fighting the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad], seven of them may well have some significant ties to al-Qaida.”

With no good horse to bet on, the US and its allies have three core interests relating to the war. First, they have an interest in preventing Syria’s chemical, biological and ballistic missile arsenals from being used against them either directly by the regime, through its terror proxies or by a successor regime.

Second, the US and its allies have an interest in containing the war as much as possible to Syria itself.

Finally, the US and its allies share an interest in preventing Iran, Moscow or al-Qaida from winning the war or making any strategic gains from their involvement in the war.

For the past two-and-a-half years, Israel has been doing an exemplary job of securing the first interest. According to media reports, the IDF has conducted numerous strikes inside Syria to prevent the transfer of advanced weaponry, including missiles from Syria to Hezbollah.

Rather than assist Israel in its efforts that are also vital to US strategic interests, the US has been endangering these Israeli operations. US officials have repeatedly leaked details of Israel’s operations to the media. These leaks have provoked several senior Israeli officials to express acute concern that in providing the media with information regarding these Israeli strikes, the Obama administration is behaving as if it is interested in provoking a war between Israel and Syria. The concerns are rooted in a profound distrust of US intentions, unprecedented in the 50-year history of US-Israeli strategic relations.

The second US interest threatened by the war in Syria is the prospect that the war will not be contained in Syria. Iraq, Lebanon and Jordan specifically are threatened by the carnage. To date, this threat has been checked in Jordan and Lebanon. In Jordan, US forces along the border have doubtlessly had a deterrent impact in preventing the infiltration of the kingdom by Syrian forces.

In Lebanon, given the huge potential for spillover, the consequences of the war in Syria have been much smaller than could have been reasonably expected. Hezbollah has taken a significant political hit for its involvement in the war in Syria. On the ground, the spillover violence has mainly involved Sunni and Shi’ite jihadists targeting one another.

Iraq is the main regional victim of the war in Syria. The war there reignited the war between Sunnis and Shi’ites in Iraq. Violence has reached levels unseen since the US force surge in 2007. The renewed internecine warfare in Iraq redounds directly to President Barack Obama’s decision not to leave a residual US force in the country. In the absence US forces, there is no actor on the ground capable of strengthening the Iraqi government’s ability to withstand Iranian penetration or the resurgence of al-Qaida.

The third interest of the US and its allies that is threatened by the war in Syria is to prevent Iran, Russia or al-Qaida from securing a victory or a tangible benefit from their involvement in the war.

It is important to note that despite the moral depravity of the regime’s use of chemical weapons, none of America’s vital interests is impacted by their use within Syria. Obama’s pledge last year to view the use of chemical weapons as a tripwire that would automatically cause the US to intervene militarily in the war in Syria was made without relation to any specific US interest.

But once Obama made his pledge, other US interests became inextricably linked to US retaliation for such a strike. The interests now on the line are America’s deterrent power and strategic credibility. If Obama responds in a credible way to Syria’s use of chemical weapons, those interests will be advanced. If he does not, US deterrent power will become a laughing stock and US credibility will be destroyed.

Unfortunately, the US doesn’t have many options for responding to Assad’s use of chemical weapons. If it targets the regime in a serious way, Assad could fall, and al-Qaida would then win the war. Conversely, if the US strike is sufficient to cause strategic harm to the regime’s survivability, Iran could order the Syrians or Hezbollah or Hamas, or all of them, to attack Israel. Such an attack would raise the prospect of regional war significantly.

A reasonable response would be for the US to target Syria’s ballistic missile sites. And that could happen. Although the US doesn’t have to get involved in order to produce such an outcome. Israel could destroy Syria’s ballistic missiles without any US involvement while minimizing the risk of a regional conflagration.

There are regime centers and military command and control bases and other strategic sites that it might make sense for the US to target.

Unfortunately, the number of regime and military targets the US has available for targeting has been significantly reduced in recent days. Administration leaks of the US target bank gave the Syrians ample time to move their personnel and equipment.

This brings us to the purpose the Obama administration has assigned to a potential retaliatory strike against the Syrian regime following its use of chemical weapons.

Obama told PBS on Wednesday that US strikes on Syria would be “a shot across the bow.”

But as Charles Krauthammer noted, such a warning is worthless. In the same interview Obama also promised that the attack would be a nonrecurring event. When there are no consequences to ignoring a warning, then the warning will be ignored.

This is a very big problem. Obama’s obvious reluctance to follow through on his pledge to retaliate if Syria used chemical weapons may stem from a belated recognition that he has tethered the US’s strategic credibility to the quality of its response to an action that in itself has little significance to US interests in Syria.

And this brings us to the third vital US interest threatened by the war in Syria – preventing Iran, al-Qaida or Russia from scoring a victory.

Whereas the war going on in Syria pits jihadists against jihadists, the war that concerns the US and its allies is the war the jihadists wage against everyone else. And Iran is the epicenter of that war.

Like US deterrent power and strategic credibility, the US’s interest in preventing Iran from scoring a victory in Damascus is harmed by the obvious unseriousness of the “signal” Obama said he wishes to send Assad through US air strikes.

Speaking on Sunday of the chemical strike in Syria, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu warned, “Syria has become Iran’s testing ground.... Iran is watching and it wants to see what would be the reaction on the use of chemical weapons.”

The tepid, symbolic response that the US is poised to adopt in response to Syria’s use of chemical weapons represents a clear signal to Iran. Both the planned strikes and the growing possibility that the US will scrap even a symbolic military strike in Syria tell Iran it has nothing to fear from Obama.

Iran achieved a strategic achievement by exposing the US as a paper tiger in Syria. With this accomplishment in hand, the Iranians will feel free to call Obama’s bluff on their nuclear weapons project. Obama’s “shot across the bow” response to Syria’s use of chemical weapons in a mass casualty attack signaled the Iranians that the US will not stop them from developing and deploying a nuclear arsenal.

Policy-makers and commentators who have insisted that we can trust Obama to keep his pledge to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons have based their view on an argument that now lies in tatters. They insisted that by pledging to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power, Obama staked his reputation on acting competently to prevent Iran from getting the bomb. To avoid losing face, they said, Obama will keep his pledge.

Obama’s behavior on Syria has rendered this position indefensible. Obama is perfectly content with shooting a couple of pot shots at empty government installations. As far as he is concerned, the conduct of air strikes in Syria is not about Syria, or Iran. They are not the target audience of the strikes. The target audience for US air strikes in Syria is the disengaged, uninformed American public.

Obama believes he can prove his moral and strategic bonafides to the public by declaring his outrage at Syrian barbarism and then launching a few cruise missiles from an aircraft carrier. The computer graphics on the television news will complete the task for him.

The New York Times claimed on Thursday that the administration’s case for striking Syria would not be the “political theater” that characterized the Bush administration’s case for waging war in Iraq. But at least the Bush administration’s political theater ended with the invasion. In Obama’s case, the case for war and the war itself are all political theater.

While for a few days the bread and circuses of the planned strategically useless raid will increase newspaper circulation and raise viewer ratings of network news, it will cause grievous harm to US national interests. As far as US enemies are concerned, the US is an empty suit.

And as far as America’s allies are concerned, the only way to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power is to operate without the knowledge of the United States.

An Accidental War

Perfunctory and ineffectual war-making in Syria is worse than nothing. 

Friday, August 30, 2013

Today's Tune: Bob Dylan - Pretty Saro

Slate Editor: Private School Parents Are Bad People, Or Something

Posted By Matt Vespa On August 29, 2013 @ 3:45 pm In Culture,Economy,News,Politics | 8 Comments

Slate, a Washington Post-affiliated site, is known for being a cesspool of left-wing drivel.  Yet, it was the usual nonsense – with the occasional piece that slammed Obama on the lack transparency, drones, or whatever liberals thought was wrong within his administration. Now, Allison Benedikt, the managing editor for Slate‘s feminist Double X blog, has a problem with private school.  If you send your kid to private school, you’re a bad bad person.  And people wonder why feminism is other bad f-word.

In Benedikt’s August 29 post, she admits she’s not a “educational policy wonk.” She’s just “judgmental.”  Yeah, this sounds like a girl you want to bring home to mom and dad.  Yet, wait for her grand policy proposal to fix education:
It’s simple! Everyone needs to be invested in our public schools in order for them to get better. Not just lip-service investment, or property tax investment, but real flesh-and-blood-offspring investment. Your local school stinks but you don’t send your child there? Then its badness is just something you deplore in the abstract. Your local school stinks and you do send your child there? I bet you are going to do everything within your power to make it better.
Many of my (morally bankrupt) colleagues send their children to private schools. I asked them to tell me why. Here is the response that most stuck with me: “In our upper-middle-class world, it is hard not to pay for something if you can and you think it will be good for your kid.” I get it: You want an exceptional arts program and computer animation and maybe even Mandarin. You want a cohesive educational philosophy. You want creativity, not teaching to the test. You want great outdoor space and small classrooms and personal attention. You know who else wants those things? Everyone.
Whatever you think your children need—deserve—from their school experience, assume that the parents at the nearby public housing complex want the same. No, don’t just assume it. Do something about it. Send your kids to school with their kids. Use the energy you have otherwise directed at fighting to get your daughter a slot at the competitive private school to fight for more computers at the public school. Use your connections to power and money and innovation to make your local school—the one you are now sending your child to—better. Don’t just acknowledge your liberal guilt—listen to it.
So, Benedikt isn’t a fan of school choice – a typical liberal view – and calls her colleagues “morally bankrupt.”  This isn’t a policy proposal, or a call for a “moral adjustment.”  It’s a whiny rant.

Now, admittedly, I’m a product of private education, and it was great.  At the same time, emphasizing this investment in public education has its problems, which are egregiously omitted from this piece.  Additionally, I’m not even scratching the surface, but here are a few.

First, confidence in public education is abysmal.  In fact, confidence levels have reached historic lows.  There isn’t a lot of room for positive advocacy when only 29% of Americans trust the system.  Second, teachers unions incessant habit to protest for unsustainable pay and benefits raises isn’t helping the image of teachers or education.  Keep in mind, teachers only work nine months out of the year, unlike the rest of us.  Also, while the teachers are protesting, they’re not instructing their students.  Yeah, talk about a crackerjack education. Lastly, we need to talk about the family.

This is probably one of the most important aspects of the crisis.  The growing number of single mothers in America – and the erosion of the American family – has played a part in the crumbling education system.  Single mothers aren’t to blame.  After all, there are only so many hours in the day.  Yet, in 1966, the Coleman Report was released, which shattered the typical liberal equation that x amount of dollars should equal y results.

It stated that the success of a school district depended on the family structure of the respective student body.   Granted there were other factors such as the amount of television watched, how many days were missed, how much reading material was present in the home etc. but family is the key to it all. George Will noted in a lecture at Washington University in St. Louis in December of 2012 that because the family structure has dissolved – and we still don’t know why – there’s an emerging class of youngsters who don’t know their shapes or colors.  Yes, the benefits of a family dinner are quite astounding.  As Will noted, you’ll be surprised how much of an impact saying “here honey, have a round green pea” will have concerning development of your child’s skills in this area.

Regardless, the shortfalls in our system are stark. Recently, 11,000 – or 80% – of NYC’s high school seniors had to re-learn basic skills in reading, writing, and arithmetic to enter community college. So, frankly, it’s rational parents have questions about public education.
James Pethokoukis of AEI cited his colleague Michael McShane in a response post published today saying Benedikt’s piece lacked data – and logic for that matter:
Oh, by the way, do we have any data on the educational impact of helping lower-income and poor kids escape the public education monopoly? Like, say, data from the District of Columbia Opportunity Scholarship Program? Well, the US Education Department’s OSP study found the program, McShane points out, “produced $2.62 in benefits for every dollar spent on it. In other words, the return on public investment for the private-school voucher program during its early years was 162 percent.” What’s more, “The OSP increased the high-school graduation rate of students by 12 percentage points if they were lucky enough to win the annual scholarship lottery.”
One more from McShane:
It’s also a proud tradition in America (since Pierce v. Society of Sisters in 1925) to recognize that children are not instruments of the state. They do not exist to promote the goals of the government or the community, they (and their parents) are free to (within limits) to be educated as they best see fit.  Obviously this person has no idea about the anti-Catholicism and anti-immigrant racism that lead people to make the same argument that she is making, albeit 100 years ago.
In all, Benedikt is pyromanic in a field of straw men.  Additionally, she has called the president a bad man for sending his daughters to private school.  Within the liberal worldview, that’s so racist.

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Shamed into War

If Obama is going to strike Syria, he should do it constitutionally and with purpose. 

Obama is talking America into a war


August 28, 2013

President Obama is in a tough position on Syria and all options present diplomatic quandaries.

Barack Obama’s foreign policy dream — cordial relations with a Middle East tranquilized by “smart diplomacy” — is in a death grapple with reality. His rhetorical writhings illustrate the perils of loquacity. He has a glutton’s, rather than a gourmet’s, appetite for his own rhetorical cuisine, and he has talked America to the precipice of a fourth military intervention in the crescent that extends from Libya to Afghanistan.
Characterizing the 2011 Libyan project with weirdly passive syntax (“It is our military that is being volunteered by others to carry out missions”), he explained his sashay into Libya’s civil war as preemptive: “I refused to wait for the images of slaughter and mass graves before taking action.”
With characteristic self-satisfaction, Obama embraced the doctrine “R2P” — responsibility to protect civilians — and Libya looked like an opportunity for an inexpensive morality gesture using high explosives.
Last August, R2P reappeared when he startled his staff by offhandedly saying of Syria’s poison gas: “A red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized.” The interesting metric “whole bunch” made his principle mostly a loophole and advertised his reluctance to intervene, a reluctance more sensible than his words last week: Syria’s recidivism regarding gas is “going to require America’s attention and hopefully the entire international community’s attention.” Regarding that entirety: If “community” connotes substantial shared values and objectives, what community would encompass Denmark, Congo, Canada, North Korea, Portugal, Cuba, Norway, Iran, Britain, Saudi Arabia, Poland and Yemen?
Words, however, are so marvelously malleable in the Obama administration that the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition of “coup” (“a change in the government carried out violently or illegally”) somehow does not denote what happened in Egypt. Last week, an Obama spokesman said: “We have made the determination that making a decision about whether or not a coup occurred is not in the best interests of the United States.” So convinced is this White House of its own majesty and of the consequent magic of its words, it considers this a clever way of saying the law is a nuisance.
Section 508 of the Foreign Assistance Act forbids aid to “any country whose duly elected head of government is deposed by military coup” until the president determines that “a democratically elected government” has been restored. Secretary of State John Kerry was perhaps preparing to ignore this when he said something Egypt’s generals have not had the effrontery to claim — that the coup amounted to “restoring democracy.”
Perhaps Section 508 unwisely abridges presidential discretion in foreign policy, where presidents arguably deserve the almost unfettered discretion they, with increasing aggressiveness, assert everywhere. And perhaps if Obama were not compiling such a remarkable record of indifference to law, it would be sensible to ignore his ignoring of this one.
But remember Libya. Since the War Powers Resolution was passed over Richard Nixon’s veto in 1973, presidents have at least taken care to act “consistent with” its limits on unilateral presidential war-making. Regarding Libya, however, Obama was unprecedentedly cavalier, even though he had ample time to act consistent with the Constitution by involving a supportive Congress. As Yale Law School’s Bruce Ackerman then argued:
“Obama has overstepped even the dubious precedent set when President Bill Clinton bombed Kosovo in 1999. Then, the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel asserted that Congress had given its consent by appropriating funds for the Kosovo campaign. It was a big stretch, given the actual facts — but Obama can’t even take advantage of this same desperate expedient, since Congress has appropriated no funds for the Libyan war. The president is simply using money appropriated to the Pentagon for general purposes to conduct the current air campaign.”
Obama is as dismissive of “red lines” he draws as he is of laws others enact. Last week, a State Department spokeswoman said his red line regarding chemical weapons was first crossed “a couple of months ago” and “the president took action” — presumably, announcing (non-lethal) aid to Syrian rebels — although “we’re not going to outline the inventory of what we did.”
The administration now would do well to do something that the head of it has an irresistible urge not to do: Stop talking.
If a fourth military intervention is coming, it will not be to decisively alter events, which we cannot do, in a nation vital to U.S. interests, which Syria is not. Rather, its purpose will be to rescue Obama from his words.
Read more from George F. Will’s archive or follow him on Facebook.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Bob Dylan: facing the music

Bob Dylan once dismissed his 1970 album Self Portrait as a joke. But newly released recordings from that era suggest that something serious was going on in the singer's mind

23 August 2013

Photograph by Al Clayton © Sony Music
"I don't know if I should keep playing this. Nobody's calling in and saying they want to hear it or anything … usually when something like this happens people say, 'Hey, the new Dylan album,' but not tonight." The words are those of an unspecified radio DJ, quoted in a 1970 Rolling Stone review of the album Self Portrait, a collection of 24 pieces of music that completely confounded its audience. The writer was Greil Marcus, who would go on to write some of the best commentary and criticism about Bob Dylan and his art, and whose opening sentence on this occasion eventually made his piece the most famous record review ever written: "What is this shit?"
  1. Face Value, an exhibition of pastel portraits by Bob Dylan
  2. National Portrait Gallery,
  4. London
  5. WC2
  1. Starts 24 August 2013
  2. Until 5 January 2014
  3. Venue details
All musical oeuvres contain duds. Plenty of musicians fall into phases where such things are all they can produce. This was Dylan's fate for much of the 1980s, as owners of such albums as Empire Burlesque and Down in the Groove will know. Self Portrait, though, is rather different: this was a deliberately bad record, apparently created to distance its creator from his public, and earn him some peace and quiet. "The reason that album was put out [was] so people would just at that time stop buying my records, and they did," Dylan later reflected. That explanation came in 1981; three years later, he described Self Portrait as "a joke".
It reached number one in the UK charts, and number four in America. Even now, millions own it – a strange package, fronted by faux-naif Dylan painting, in keeping with its title. It comprises covers of songs made famous by the Everly Brothers, Simon and Garfunkel, the singer-songwriter Gordon Lightfoot, and more. Plenty of the tracks are smothered in syrupy arrangements, dubbed on to Nashville sessions at which Dylan was not even present. In three songs taken from his 1969 performance at the Isle of Wight festival with The Band, he sounds tired and detached: even the version of that biting countercultural anthem "Like a Rolling Stone" suggests something played by a half-cut cabaret performer.
The whole thing is stretched over 73 minutes, and the idea that it amounts to some kind of neo-Dadaist prank is there in its opening track. The music could soundtrack the opening titles of a spaghetti western, and a chorus of backing singers intones the same couplet 15 times: "All the tired horses in the sun / How'm I s'posed to get any riding done?" The approved version of the lyrics says "riding"; at times, though, it sounds distinctly like "writing".
In the first volume of Chronicles, the memoir he published in 2004, Dylan explained the genesis of Self Portrait thus: "I just threw everything I could think of at the wall, and whatever stuck, released it." He also put it firmly in the context of a time when he was a new father, trying desperately to keep his life simple, while running away from the droves of young Americans who still thought he was their king, and a purveyor of "message songs".
Having recovered from the motorcycle accident he suffered in June 1966, Dylan had remained in the upstate New York settlement of Woodstock, where he was quickly joined by the musical soulmates who would soon call themselves The Band. To his horror, though, Woodstock also became a magnet for exactly the kind of people he was trying to avoid. Attempting to shake himself free, he wrote, he did "unexpected things like pouring a bottle of whiskey over my head and walking into a department store and act[ing] pie-eyed, knowing that everyone would be talking amongst themselves as I left". His image, he resolved, "would have to be something a bit more confusing, a bit more humdrum". Unintentionally, that serves as a pretty good description of Self Portrait, a record both far too ordinary and completely perplexing.
self portraitSelf Portrait, the 1990 album
And then, 43 years after it was recorded, there came some unexpected news. In July this year, Dylan's record company announced the 10th instalment of the so-called Bootleg Series, whose sporadic collections of unreleased archive material began in 1991. From those who follow Dylan closely, there were gasps of surprise at what was about to be released: an anthology, available in both standard and "deluxe" versions, titled Another Self Portrait. A four-minute YouTube film told the essential story: in 2012, a tape had been found containing material from the sessions that produced the original album, which had sparked the idea of returning to this period anew. On the face of it, this rediscovered music told the story of a project that Self Portrait travestied – whose working title, according to one of the musicians involved, might have been Folk Songs of America, pointing to two later albums on which Dylan re-explored the folk repertoire, Good as I Been to You (1992) and World Gone Wrong (1993).
Was this, perhaps, further proof of the modern music industry's tendency to wring even its most lifeless assets dry? The opening sentence of the Marcus review still hangs heavy, and the fact that Self Portrait has long been understood as an act of self-sabotage suggested an obvious update: "What is this new shit?"
But Another Self Portrait is not like that at all. A lot of it is revelatory, confirming that Dylan did indeed begin the Self Portrait period with the intention of creating an anthology of songs that would simultaneously tap back into his roots in orthodox American folk music, while also pushing him somewhere new. There are songs written by the Pennsylvania-born singer-songwriter Eric Andersen and Tom Paxton and Bob Gibson, both folk singers whose age and musical style kept them clear of the counterculture that almost buried Dylan under the weight of its expectations.
Dylan returns to the old Scots ballad "The Daemon Lover" – given its American title "House Carpenter", just as it had been when he first recorded it in 1961 – and the American folk standard "Railroad Bill". As with material that eventually made it on to Self Portrait, where it was adorned with drums, bass and strings, all these songs are arranged simply: Dylan's voice and guitar, additional guitar parts by the New York multi-instrumentalist David Bromberg, and his arranger and bandleader Al Kooper on occasional piano.
But most suprising is the quality of Dylan's singing. As part of the build-up to Another Self Portrait, Sony Music put out a video to accompany a version of an 18th-century English folk song titled "Pretty Saro" – and on this recording, among others, his voice seems able to stretch single syllables into miniature melodies. Sight unseen, you would probably not think it was Dylan you were listening to. His approach develops the softened, country tones he used on Nashville Skyline, which can also be heard in exerpts from the Isle of Wight concert, spruced up and included in the "Deluxe" edition. Around eight years later, after he had reverted to the coarser vocal stylings he developed during the 1960s, Dylan's voice began to slowly fade: it is on this material, much of which has never even made it on to illegal bootlegs, that one probably hears him peak as a singer.
another self portraitAnother Self Portrait
And there is more. Amid the Self Portrait material and Isle of Wight recordings are a smattering of pieces that were recorded during sessions for the albums that book-ended Self PortraitNashville Skyline and New Morning.(The latter, chiefly because of the reaction to Self Portrait, was acclaimed as a stunning return to form: "his best album in years", wrote Marcus.) Two items stand out: a version of New Morning's euphoric title track, with an added part for horns written by Al Kooper, and a take of "Sign on the Window" to which Kooper added strings, harp and piccolo.
In contrast to the schmaltzy Self Portrait, no Dylan recording has ever sounded so poised, not least when the music drops and he delivers four great lines: "Build me a cabin in Utah /Marry me a wife, catch rainbow trout / Have a bunch of kids who call me pa / That must be what it's all about."
If this period of Dylan's career has one overriding meaning, these lyrics spell it out. Most of his audience surely did not want to hear such things – not when Vietnam was tearing the country apart and some people were still looking to him for a sign. Moreover, although on paper such lyrics might look so hokey as to suggest an ironic put-on, I think he meant every word: in Chronicles, after all, he writes of fantasising about "a nine-to-five existence, a house on a tree-lined block with a white picket fence, pink roses in the backyard".
In the ultimate irony, Woodstock became not just the name of his adopted hometown, but the setting for the festival that traded on his association with the place, and led him to accept the offer to play the Isle of Wight as a means of escape. Again, Chronicles captures his horror at what was afoot: "The events of the day, all the cultural mumbo jumbo, were imprisoning my soul – nauseating me – civil rights and political leaders being gunned down, the mounting of the barricades, the government crackdowns, the student radicals and demonstrators versus the cops and the unions – the streets exploding, fire of anger boiling – the contra communes – the lying, nosy voices – the free love, the anti-money system movement – the whole shebang. I was determined to put myself beyond the reach of it all. I was a family man now, didn't want to be in that group portrait."
Self-evidently, all this was profoundly political. Dylan, after all, could easily be understood as someone now following small-c conservative impulses, founded on a disdain for the tie-dyed degeneracy into which the hippies had tumbled, and a horror at how divided America had become. On Music for Big Pink, the debut album The Band released in July 1968, the four Canadians and a southerner, who dressed like gold-rush prospectors – had made the same thoughts explicit. That album began with "Tears of Rage", a song with Dylan lyrics that surveyed the USA's generational war: "What dear daughter 'neath the sun / Would treat a father so / To wait upon him hand and foot / And always tell him, No?" On the front of the record was another faux-naif Dylan painting; the gatefold featured a photograph in which the group posed with their families, parents in the foreground – a symbol, their leader Robbie Robertson later said, of "rebelling against the rebellion".
The Band had accompanied him on the homemade recordings that were eventually released as The Basement Tapes – evocations of a long-lost America, captured not just in such original pieces as "I Shall Be Released" and "This Wheel's on Fire", but scores of folk songs. In turn, that music was followed by John Wesley Harding, the pared-down Dylan album full of biblical allusions which led on to Nashville Skyline and the music Dylan recorded with Kooper and Bromberg.
Too many accounts of Dylan's progress have characterised this period as a long, fallow spell in which he lost his way: in fact, aided by some of the most capable musicians he ever worked with, fascinating recordings were pouring out of him. This was not pop music. It remains for grown-ups, full of ambiguities and sadness, and a profound sense of American history. How great to hear it at last, removed from the games its author went on to play with it: a self-portrait so improved as to make the first almost irrelevant.
• Listen to an exclusive album stream from Another Self Portrait (1969-1971): The Bootleg Series Vol 10