Thursday, September 25, 2014

Night on Bald Mountain

The only reason that anybody outside of  Russian classical music aficionados know about this piece of haunting and dramatic music is because of Disney's Fantasia. Night on Bald ( or Bare) Mountain was that scary piece of music that went along with the cartoon segment featuring none other than the devil himself! Hooray! I admit that I was a bit freaked out by this part of Fantasia when I was little, but it quickly became my favorite due to the scary nature (if you couldn't tell, I'm all about scary). Disney still gets complaints to this day about the Night on Bald Mountain sequence in Fantasia. Disney even left it off of its original video release. Of course it has now been added back on, as it should be. What may be surprising to some, and certainly was to me, is that the Night on Bald Mountain that we hear is one of many compositions of the original, created by Modest Mussorgsky in 1867. While many of us may recognize Fantasia's version, it is by no means the original, nor even the preferred version.

Modest Mussorgsky was born in Russia in 1839. He was mentored by Miliy Balakirev, who didn't actually approve of his composition of what was first called St. John's Eve on Bald Mountain. Doesn't exactly have the same ring to it. St. John's Eve was the celebration before the holy day celebrating John the Baptist, which occurs on June 24th every year. St. John's Eve is still celebrated all over the world, and usually involves starting a fire. No, not like on Devil's Night. The bonfires, usually referred to as St. John's Fire, are burned as a tradition to ward off evil spirits and witches. Think of St. John's Eve as sort of a Halloween. Some kind of thing, the eve is when evil is afoot, and the next day is a holy one. When Mussorgsky wrote his tone poem, he focused on a witches' sabbath happening on St. John's Eve, while Chernobog (slavic deity, meaning dark god) gathers evil forces around him. Mussorgsky called it a "musical picture," but as I mentioned before, his mentor didn't like it enough to want to perform it, so Mussorgsky tried to insert his composition into different pieces. That didn't really work out, and Mussorgsky never got to hear his "musical picture" performed. After his death, his friends raided his stuff so they could try to piece his unfinished work together. One friend, Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov decided to come up with a different composition of St. John's Eve on Bald Mountain, and thankfully shortened it to the title we know today.

Rimsky-Korsakov didn't have Mussorgsky's original tome to work with, (it didn't show up until the 1920's) so he based it off of one of Mussorgsky's later versions that was supposed to be used for Sorochinsty Fair. They are pretty similar, but you can definitely tell he changed quite a few lines. He finished his version five years after Mussorgsky died, with its publishing coming shortly after. The piece became a concert favorite, and was undeniably a success for Rimsky-Korsakov.Though the biggest exposure the song has attained was from Disney. Seventy years later and you still hear this played at concert venues during October, and it's all thanks to Fantasia. Leopold Stokowski, Fantasia's composer, didn't have Mussorgsky's original work either, so he had to do a mix of both Mussorgsky's and Rimsky-Korsakov's. He took the form and content from Rimsky-Korsakov, but used the orchestration from Mussorgsky. While recognizable to this day, this version is not considered the best, and is passed over in favor of Rimsky-Korsakov's interpretation. You can definitively see that Disney and their animators took the context of the original tome poem and put it to screen beautifully. The last section of Fantasia is probably the most memorable of them all. Listen to each version and see if you can tell the differences between them. It's a favorite piece of mine to listen to, though mostly during the Halloween season, which is almost upon us. The song is epic, and it's a shame Mussorgsky never got to hear it performed.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Mail Order Homes

Mail Order Homes, also known as Kit Homes or Catalog Homes, were a type of housing popular in the first half of the 20th century. The most famous, and most successful, company to sell these homes were Sears, Robuck and CO. Sears started selling various home goods through catalog in 1888, after noticing that many farmers were having to spend lots of money at overpriced general goods stores. Their solution was cutting out the middle man and sending the product straight to the consumer. Sears was very successful in this endeavor, recording record profits for years to come. By 1906, most of their products were selling famously, except for their lumber. It ended up just sitting their in their warehouses and they weren't sure what to do about it. Frank W. Kushel, who was put in charge of the fledgling building materials department, came up with the idea for getting together all the components needed for building a house and selling it to consumers. Richard Sears loved the idea and the company started selling Kit Homes. Sears was by no means alone in this idea, as many companies starting in and around that same time developing whole house kits. The Aladdin Company, based out of Bay City, MI, is credited as being the first company to offer Kit Homes, starting in 1906. What Sears had that Aladdin and many other companies didn't was a hugely successful catalog that was in just about every American's house.

Kit Homes were shipped by railway and then typically trucked to a home site. Depending on the size of the home being built, it could include anywhere from 10,000-30,000 pieces of lumber which filled just about two boxcars. While everything needed to build the actual house was included, there were no bricks, cement, or mortar. This meant that you would have to at least get a handyman or contractor to help you with the house, that is if you weren't up to it yourself. With help, the Kit Homes could be put together within a few weeks, or a few months. Each home was delivered with detailed instructions on how to build it, so you weren't completely lost if you wanted to do it yourself. Constructing Kit Homes became a family or neighborhood event, similar to a barn-raising. It was all very different from house building today. Today, you have a company put one together for you, like a subdivision house, or you have an independent contractor do it for you. All those companies back in the 20th century made it easy for even the most dimwitted person to build a house. It wasn't the affair that we all see now. My grandfather built his house by himself, and so did his father. While Kit Homes may have been easy to build thanks to instructions, I still believe that earlier generations were just more educated on handyman work. I have never heard of anyone building their own house these days. It just doesn't happen unless you're already a builder. Even then, they typically need other builders to help with specialties.

Kit homes were by far the more economical choice back then. Kit Homes could cost you as low as $300 and no more than $3,000 (prices would eventually go up until about 1930). By doing the work themselves, people could cut out the contractors for most of the building process. Companies like Montgomery Ward and Sears also could get building materials at much lower prices than a lumber yard, so they were able to pass the savings down. Mortgages were also affordable and didn't discriminate like many real estate agencies and banks. All these companies wanted to know was whether you owned the land you were building on, and whether you had a primary income. Considering how hard it was for many African-Americans and certain immigrants to get decent mortgages at that time in America, the Kit Houses were a miracle. The Kit Homes could be bought completely pre-cut with instructions, or many other ways to cut down the cost. You could have the pieces sent without being pre-cut, or have cheaper materials sent, or even just the house plans with no materials. It all depended on what was the most cost effective for the customer. Depending on where the customer lived, it may be more economical to buy materials from a local shop that happened to have cheaper materials. Sears and Montgomery Ward also knew that tastes changed all the time and included additions to past models. You could even design your own house and send the blueprints to the manufacturer so they could make all the pieces for you. There was not a shortage of options when it came to Kit Homes.

House prices depended on the size of the house, grade of materials, and amenities inside. Electricity and indoor plumbing were still pretty novel early in the 1900's and it cost a little bit more to have them in your home. For most of the companies, the houses all had fancy names like, The Washington or The Ardmore. Advertisements for these homes wasn't limited to catalogs. You could find ads inside lumber yards, hardware stores, and any other home improvement center. Ads were also put out in popular magazines like National Geographic, Saturday Evening Post, and Good Housekeeping. You could even take a tour of a Kit Home if you were willing to drive to one of the manufacturer's outlets. The advertising for Kit Homes really paid off because it became a huge sensation. It didn't matter if you were a blue collar worker, or incredibly wealthy, you wanted to get one of these unique homes. Walt and Roy Disney even bought a couple for themselves in 1928.

Alas, the Kit Home bubble burst during the Great Depression. Many companies dropped their Kit Home divisions and went back to selling building materials. Montgomery Ward decided to get out of the business when they weren't making a profit in mortgages anymore. The reason for the bubble bursting was not because people couldn't pay their mortgages, in fact, the New Deal encouraged people to refinance existing mortgages to a lower rate. People just lost interest in building their own homes, and the fad died away before WWII with Sears ending their line of Kit Homes in 1940. Many families instead went for the new inexpensive tract houses found in subdivisions. The three Bay City, MI companies, Aladdin, Sterling, and Liberty, stayed in the business the longest, though they would all go out by the 70's and 80's. You can still buy Kit Homes today through manufactured home companies, but they mostly are for log cabins. The closest we've come to seeing a resurgence of Kit Homes were the Katrina Houses sold by Lowe's Home Improvement starting in 2006. These homes were meant to be permanent solutions for housing issues in post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans and other Gulf Coast areas. They were designed specifically to withstand hurricanes and high water. While they filled a certain niche, Gulf Coast politicians feared that they would drive down property costs, so they eventually died away too in 2011.

Kit Homes are very hard to find, unless you know where to look. Sears sold by far the most, and all their records were destroyed during some routine "house cleaning" in the 60's. That being said, there are still many ways to identify a Kit Home. There are whole websites dedicated to it, so if you are curious whether you live in a Kit Home, or if that house down the road is, then go do some research! There are a surprising amount of Kit Homes in my area (Ypsilanti/Ann Arbor, MI) and my wife and I even saw one yesterday in Lansing. Once you see the designs, the houses are pretty hard to miss. Happy hunting!


Monday, January 20, 2014

Paul Bunyan

There are many stories that involve Paul Bunyan, the giant lumberjack who is always accompanied by his animal companion, Babe the Blue Ox. Most tell of his involvement in shaping our country today. Let me share a few. When Paul was born it was said that it took five storks to deliver him to his parents. Even as a child, his claps would shatter glass in the windows. He took an early penchant for wood cutting, evidenced by his sawing the legs off his parent's bed. Some tales claim that Paul found Babe in the cold and saved him, thus becoming fast friends, while other tales claim that Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett gave Babe to Paul. With his large blue friend in tow, Paul set about to clear out all the trees across the northern U.S. Along the way Paul and Babe managed to create many waterways and landmarks. Paul created the Great Lakes when he needed a watering hole big enough for Babe. While Paul and Babe were trekking across Minnesota in a deep blizzard, their footsteps ultimately became the 10,000 lakes. Paul created the Grand Canyon when he dragged his giant ax behind him. Paul made the Missouri River to ship his logs downriver. He also created Pike's Peak just so he could see where else needed to be logged. I could go on and on with these, but you get the picture. Paul and Babe were two larger than life characters that were the epitome of westward exploration and expansion. 


According to writer James Stevens, the first Paul Bunyan myth came from the French Canadians during the Papineau Rebellion in 1837 (Canada's answer to America's Revolutionary War, though this one failed). This assertion is under a bit of scrutiny, as many folklorist claim that there is no mention of Paul Bunyan in writing until James MacGillivray's story, The Round River Drive, published in 1910. Some peg it a bit earlier at 1906, in other MacGillvray articles published in the Oscoda (Michigan) Press. Jennifer Granholm, our last governor, has decided that 1906 is good enough proclaimed that starting on the centennial, August 10th (the first articles publishing date) would forever be known as Paul Bunyan day. The funny thing about MacGillvray's stories is that they don't say anything about Paul being a giant, or that he was friends with large blue ox. That came in early 1910 when J.E. Rockwell described Paul as being eight feet tall and weighing three hundred pounds. The Paul Bunyan and all the tales we know and love all came in 1914 when William Laughead, who had once worked in lumber camps, reworked the tale for Red River Lumber company as an advertisement pamphlet. Laughead named Babe and made both character humongous giants. In fact, basically everything we know about Paul Bunyan comes from this guy and his ad. 

This has caused a lot of controversy in terms of the validity of Paul Bunyan being a American folktale. I'm not sure what the statute of limitations is on folktales, but apparently Paul Bunyan doesn't meet it. That's what historian Carleton Ames believes, calling the whole character part of "fakelore". Bunyan was just a creation of the 20th century, passed off as a 19th century lumber camp legend, he believed. Now, this is pretty interesting, since I'm sure there was a Paul Bunyan like character out there since the 1800's, but like I mentioned before, that version was not a giant or owned an ox. So, is that Paul Bunyan, or is the one we know now Paul Bunyan? I would say that the real one was created by Laughead, since what we all know is what he made up, it just happens to not be as old as we thought. I'm not sure it's as big of a problem for me as it might be for others. It hasn't seemed to stop many cities from claiming to be the hometown of Paul Bunyan, ranging from California, all the way to Maine. In my book, it would probably have to be Oscoda, or maybe Grayling, MI. That's where MacGillvray got most of his inspiration for his stories. So yeah, suck it other northern states! There are a ton of statues and parks dedicated to Bunyan, and as you've probably guessed, I've been to a ton of them. There's a bunch in my home state and the Paul Bunyan Land theme park located in Brainerd, MN was a favorite of my families when we visited our family's old stomping grounds. Yes, it was an awesome theme park. Paul Bunyan even talked to you as you came in to the park, even calling you by name. Fun or terrifying? The answer will not surprise you. America doesn't have a whole lot of folklore compared to countries in the old part of the earth, so it's not surprising that many Americans love Paul Bunyan, a larger than life character who reminds us of the early days of America.