A fourteen year old Apache girl testified that Berry raped her fourteen times in two weeks.

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Chuck Berry Fan Club membership card (Source: Elvis Echoes of the Past)

“And Janice, how old are you?” the US Attorney asked Janice Escalanti, at the start of Chuck Berry’s trial. “Fourteen years old,” she said, quietly. It was her quietness that first appealed to Berry.

The attorney often had to ask Escalanti to speak louder, to clarify, to repeat what Berry had said to her, word for word. Her answers edged forward in whispered “yes, sirs” and “no, sirs.” She didn’t look fourteen, the attorney thought, but the more she talked, the younger she seemed.

Berry looked at Escalanti. She was, he wrote in his autobiography, “the spitting image of a teenage photo of my mother’s younger sister, Aunt Alice, with an olive complexion, pie face, and stout, high cheek bones.” According to Berry’s lawyer, speaking to Berry’s biographer, she was “very, very homely” and “not very pretty at all. …

When white supremacists bombed Louis Armstrong.

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Louis Armstrong And His All-Stars at the Jacob Building, Knoxville, February 1957 (Image: The Knoxville History Project)

Let’s start this story, a story about resonant old songs and old prejudices, of dynamite and jazz, of segregation and schools, where so many of these kinds of stories start, so many stories of American racism, in a small town, with white men carrying guns.

Chilhowee, on a bend in the Little Tennessee River beneath Chilhowee Mountain, was a Cherokee town. Its people sang love songs and war songs, composed or improvised. They sang of violence and memory. In late 1781, as the newly United States were set to win the Revolutionary War, Thomas Jefferson, then governor of Virginia, sent men to the lands around Chilhowee. On Christmas Day, they burned the village to the ground. According to a letter that the commanding officer wrote to Jefferson, the soldiers destroyed eleven “principal towns,” “besides some small ones, and several scattered settlements… all of which were committed to the flames.” …

In 1944, an eighteen year old boy became famous for throwing eggs at Frank Sinatra. Then he disappeared.

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Alexander Dorogokupetz (Image: The New York Daily News)

In the queue at the Paramount Theater, Alexander Dorogokupetz carried a small bag containing three eggs. A colossal image of Frank Sinatra loomed over the entrance, with hundreds of women and girls below, in their sweaters and skirts, socks and bow ties. The eggs were the biggest and freshest eggs that Dorogokupetz could find. He planned to throw them at Sinatra.

There was a lot that irritated Dorogokupetz about Sinatra and his fans. In particular, the bow ties frustrated him, those famous bow ties they were famous for wearing. Why, he thought, did people say he looked like Sinatra if he wore one, and not that Sinatra looked like him? He had a collection of two hundred bow ties at home, and had got his first when he was seven years old. …

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Aaron Gilbreath recently wrote about the state of longform music writing for Longreads, where he kindly tipped my Jesus Jellett story. Roxane Gay also recently asked on Twitter for recommendations of essays about music, which lead to dozens of great links. In that spirit, here are some of my current favourite pieces of longform music writing, both “classic” and more recent.

I’d love to hear what your favourites are.

Lillian Ross — Dancers in May: I love Lillian Ross. This story about a teacher and her class preparing for a May Day dance competition is beautiful, and a reminder that the best music writing doesn’t have to be about pop stars. …

Sources for ‘The Rotten Etymology of Punk’

These are the sources and notes for The Rotten Etymology of Punk.

The full story is here.

As Otto Wise exhaled… The original story about the B’nai B’rith “smoker” appeared in the San Francisco Call, 3rd October 1899. The other information about Otto Wise and Eugene Levy is from the San Francisco Call (10th September 1890, 18th January 1900, 1st November 1900, 8th February 1904), San Francisco Chronicle (16th April 1888, 25th March 1889, 27th July 1889, 21st December 1886, 1st July 1911), Sacramento Record-Union (28th November 1888, 3rd November 1899), and New York World (4th June 1896). The image of Eugene Levy is from San Francisco Call, 10th September 1890. The image of Otto Wise is from San Francisco Chronicle, 1st July 1911. …

“Punk” has been used to describe music since at least 1899.

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(L-R) Eugene Levy, in 1890; B’nai B’rith Hall, San Francisco; Otto Wise, in 1911 (Sources: San Francisco Call, Jewish News of Northern California, San Francisco Chronicle)

As Otto Wise exhaled, one night in the final few months of the nineteenth century, the smoke from his cigar curled towards the ceiling of B’nai B’rith Hall, San Francisco. Wise, a twenty-seven year old attorney, was “director” for that nights’ “smoker” at the fraternal lodge, encouraging attendees to do a turn for the entertainment of the two hundred other guests. After drinks and a light meal, at his insistence, someone sang. Someone else gave a dramatic recitation. The sound of an amateur violinist resonated in the haze. Wise urged another man to dance, to perform a “cakewalk,” he said. The man demurred. …

For decades, William Jellett danced at gigs and festivals, and told people he was the Son of God. Then, it seemed, he disappeared.

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Jellett at the Reading Festival, 1974 (Source: Vin Miles, UK Rock Festivals)

It was a Saturday evening, St Valentine’s Day 1970, when William Jellett first thought he might be Jesus. He was on the London Underground, travelling back from work, and noticed the headline of the newspaper unfurled opposite him: “Cambridge riots — two policemen beaten up”. There had been student protests the night before, on Friday the 13th.

Feeling “hurt for my brothers,” he later told 19 magazine, he put his head in his hands. He had the sense that everyone was his brother or sister, and that the music and freedom he had found over the last few years were slipping away, with this rising violence. …

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Yellow Submarine sculpture, Festival Gardens, Liverpool, 1984 (Credit: Tyger Who Came To Tea)

On Facebook recently, a friend of mine asked what my favourite album by the The Beatles was. I answered that it is Revolver.

“But…,” the friend replied, disagreeing, “what about ‘Yellow Submarine’?” He finds the song unlistenable.

This my reply, which is far too long for a Facebook post.

I like “Yellow Submarine” for two reasons.

The first reason is the “charm” it shines on the band’s more avant-garde songs. …

Twitter: @MrJPRobinson

Fanatics and Collectors (Few Press), a collection of versions of some of the stories below, plus others, in book form. A print version will be out when things return to some degree of normality but, for now, a PDF version is available for free.

The mystery of Jesus, the naked hippie dancer (Medium), in which a man dances at gigs most nights for decades, tells people he is the Son of God, and disappears. As recommended by The Guardian and Longreads, a Most Popular story on Longform and a Most Read on Medium.

The Forgotten Song That Made The Beach Boys Cool Again (Medium), in which a hippie poet tries to make The Beach Boys cool, as Charles Manson’s trial begins. As recommended on Longreads and Medium. …

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The Beach Boys at May Day demonstrations, May 1971 (Jeff Albertson, University of Massachusetts Special Collections)

The Beach Boys were no longer a hit band when Bob Burchman sat in his car in early July 1970, listening to a tape that Dennis Wilson had given him. Bob wasn’t a Beach Boys fan — he preferred Sly Stone or Marvin Gaye or Bob Dylan or Joni Mitchell or The Beatles — but Dennis, an acquaintance more than a friend, liked Bob’s poetry. He had given him the tape earlier that day, and asked him to write lyrics for an instrumental the band had just recorded. The song — congas, guitar, hypnotic bass and looping drums — was more like what Bob normally enjoyed. Parked high in Benedict Canyon, he listened over and over, pressing play and rewind on his portable cassette player. His lyrics came quickly, more quickly than the few songs he had written before. …


J.P. Robinson

Recommended by Longreads, Digg, The Guardian. Most Popular pick by Longform, Medium. Fanatics and Collectors out now via Few Press. Twitter: @MrJPRobinson

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