Thursday, November 21, 2013

Henry Ford

from The New Vulgate:

Henry Ford was a nut, but he was an ungodly rich American nut, and when he got a bug up his butt, he had the resources to do something about it. He started his own newspaper, The Dearborn Independent, and when that was insufficient for spreading the hot news about the Hebrew-haters preferred hoax, “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” he distributed it through Ford dealerships and had it translated into German. When he decided he needed a dam, he hired forty Negroes to dig him one, specifying an all-colored crew to his contractor, then had them knock off work to sing him Stephen Foster songs — he was especially fond of “Old Black Joe” and “Old Kentucky Home.” Once he decided that the contemporary world had gone to hell in a handbasket, he set himself up with a Never-Never Land right there in Dearborn and named it Greenfield Village. It was a psychic twin to John D. and Abby Aldrich Rockefeller's Colonial Williamsburg (and both places were kin to Walt Disney's seven-eighths scaled Main Street USA, with its banjo-spanking Dixieland band, striped coats and straw hats direct from the blackface minstrel walkaround.)

These were industrialist fantasies of pre-industrial feudal villages — once she'd presided over the founding of the Museum of Modern Art, Mrs. Rockefeller sent forth her minions, collectors who would shortly be dubbed "curators" and they worked New England and the Mid-Atlantic states the way maidenly New Englanders were working the mountains of the South, hunting for the pure and the purer. Her employees gathered up weather vanes and quilts, pried Pennsylvania Dutch hex signs off the front of barns, loaded trucks with cigar-store Indians and sewing baskets and duck decoys, each and every one of them by that celebrated and super-prolific folk artiste "Anonymous." Then she commissioned her curators to come up with a definition of "folk art" that would fit a collection that included no totem poles or kachinas or Navajo blankets or santos or bultos or bottle trees or wrought iron work or anything else made by anyone who wasn't rustic, white, and located on the eastern seaboard. Mary Black, the director of Abby's collection, declared, "The genesis, rise and disappearance of folk art is closely connected with the events of the 19th Century when the dissolution of the old ways left rural folk everywhere with an unused surplus of time and energy." It was a theory to warm the heart of any Rockefeller.

Henry Ford, on the other hand, was a nouveau riche buttinski who supplied his own damn theories, and plenty of 'em. He turned collectors of his own loose, hunting for backwoods fiddlers who could remember the words and melodies of the old tunes, the fiddle tunes that were American's true pure heritage. He set himself up a dance hall in his factory's Engineering Lab, with his fiddle-and-dulcimer orchestra on hand at all times. He hired a dance instructor and produced a book, Good Morning — After a Sleep of 25 Years Old-Fashioned Dancing Is Being Revived by Mr. and Mrs. Henry Ford, then distributed hundreds of thousands of copies, just as he did with the Protocols. The book's rules of etiquette were as rigid and unwavering as a manual for a mass-production line.

By now, Henry Ford had dance fever. He traveled the country preaching the gospel of his square-danced etiquette. At his factory, engineers were constantly being dragged onto the dance floor, and on his Georgia plantation, Negro children were taught the polka. He created his own record label for "Henry Ford's Old Time Dance Orchestra." When his collectors brought Stradivarius violins for his approval, he'd saw off a fiddle tune, then write a check. He purchased the cottage where Stephen Foster was born and had it moved to Greenfield Village. He bought a Cape Cod windmill, and English shepherd's cottage, the schoolhouse where the author of McGuffey's Reader swatted his first sleeping students, the Springfield courthouse where Abe Lincoln lost his first court case and the Ford's Theater chair Lincoln was sitting in when John Wilkes Booth shot him. He came within days and dimes of buying a pickled corpse alleged to be Booth. He tried to have Foster's Old Dog Tray exhumed and stuffed but the operation was a failure. He purchased a dozen railroad cars of research on the folkloric history of "Mary Had A Little Lamb." (The poem's author died at seventeen, the lamb was gored by a cow, and Mary herself ended up in an asylum.)

Henry Ford had hated farm life when he was a boy stuck on a farm, and he invented his way out of it — a couple of ways. Late on a night in 1936, one of the many family acts who were making it through the Depression off country music drove down a Michigan road trying to find a tourist court so they could sleep. It was the Rhodes Family — brother Speck Rhodes would play bass with Porter Wagoner for many years, all the while playing the Toby role, a black-toothed rube variant from the minstrel days, the white Jim Crow, the Arkansas Traveler's squatter. Exhausted, they found a country road — it sure seemed like a country road — so they pulled over and slept in the car. A guard woke them in the morning; they had spent the night in Henry Ford's driveway. He'd let them stay there because they drove a Ford. "Sure enough," says Speck's brother Dusty, " comes Henry Ford with two bodyguards. He was a real nice fellow and after we talked to him for a while he asked us to plays some music. He really did like country music." He asked Dusty Rhodes if he wanted to play one of his fiddles, then sent the servants to fetch it. "This is a genuine Stradivarius violin," Ford told him, "and is worth $150,000." He asked me if I would play 'Red Wing' for him because that was his favorite fiddle tune. So I played 'Red Wing' and several other tunes for him on that Stradivarius fiddle."

Ford sure did love country music. "Red Wing" had been written and published in 1907 by Tin Pan Alley's Kerry Mills, author of "Rastus On Parade" and of "At A Georgia Camp Meeting" as well, the biggest cakewalk hit of the whole coon song era. Mills had been head of the violin department of the University of Michigan School of Music; he'd snagged the melody, all too appropriately, from Schumann's "The Merry Peasant." To this day, "Red Wing" is known as an old fiddle tune. (My mom, Lawrence Welk's cousin, Francesca Schweitzer Bull, has always played it oom-pah accordion style on the organ, but that's pretty much how she plays everything.) It is an old fiddle tune, just as it was in 1937, maybe just as it was by 1908. The vogue for coon songs was cooling down, and a brief fad for frontier Indian romance numbers came and went. It was a coon song of a different sort, and Henry Ford was right. It was country music, just as his driveway was close enough to a country road to fool country folks in a country band. Henry Ford, the man who killed off the horse-and-buggy-era, once the fastest man in the world, died by the light of a coal lamp. And that $150,000 fiddle of his? "Well," says Dusty Rhodes, "I have to admit that I didn't like it any better than the one Daddy made for me."