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The American Press, 'Infamous' from Day One

A new book details the scandalous, sensational, partisan press — of the 1700s. Fox News journalist Eric Burns' Infamous Scribblers: the Founding Fathers and the Rowdy Beginnings of American Journalism tells the stories.

21:24

Other segments from the episode on March 1, 2006

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, March 1, 2006: Interview with Eric Burns; Interview with James Allen.

Transcript

DATE March 1, 2006 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Eric Burns, author of "Infamous Scribblers," discusses
the time when press was partisan, covering period just before and
after Revolutionary War
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

A new book describes a period when the press was partisan and at times vile,
crude, unjust and more or less likely to incite than to inform. The period
being described here? Colonial America.

My guest, Eric Burns, is the author of the new book "Infamous Scribblers: The
Founding Fathers and the Rowdy Beginnings of American Journalism." It covers
the period just before and after the Revolutionary War. Among the people
Burns writes about are Founding Fathers Ben Franklin and Sam Adams, who are
also publishers. Burns is the host of "Fox News Watch," the Fox News
channel's weekly roundtable of media criticism featuring a panel of liberals
and conservatives. Burns is also a former NBC News correspondent. He won an
Emmy award for media criticism. In his book, "Infamous Scribblers," Burns
writes that the golden age of America's founding was also the gutter age of
American journalism. Here's an example:

Mr. ERIC BURNS (Author, "Infamous Scribblers: The Founding Fathers and the
Rowdy Beginnings of American Journalism"): Samuel Adams who makes a much
better brand of beer than he did a brand of journalism. Samuel Adams so
wanted to incite his fellow Bostonians and countrymen to revolution, to
independence, that he wrote, Terry, fiction. He would write articles about
soldiers who were on patrol in Boston, for instance, assaulting women on the
streets. Incidents that never happened. He encouraged, once the Stamp Act
was passed, encouraged in an article violence against a man named Andrew
Oliver, whose charge it was to collect the Stamp Act taxes.

Not only that, but after he wrote the article, and I'm not sure exactly what
the article said, but I know one of the things he suggested was that Oliver be
hanged in effigy. That night he gathered some of his friends who were known
to fellow patriots as the Sons of Liberty and known to the British by far more
derogatory terms. He gathered them together, and he told them how to take
matters into their own hands. His article, in other words, wasn't enough in
terms of being insidiary. He said, `Listen, fellas, go to Oliver's house.
Throw bricks and stones and rocks through the windows. Trash the guy's house,
and when you see him, tell him there will be a lot more in store for him if he
doesn't resign his position.' This was done. Oliver resigned his position.

GROSS: Did this change your impression of Samuel Adams?

Mr. BURNS: Tremendously. I read several biographies of Sam Adams. And
his--he was a journalist longer than he was anything else, and he was also the
governor of Massachusetts for a while. And he did a lot of really admirable
things. But the people who write the overarching biographies, as opposed to
what I do, which is to say, look at Adams simply through the prism of his
journalistic practices, tend to dismiss his journalism in just a few phrases
by saying that he was rebellious, he tried to stir the colonists to
independence. He might not have been the most factual fellow, but his heart
was in the right place, that kind of thing. And that is, in fact, the reason
he has been not just forgiven but exalted by history. He was thoroughly
disreputable as a journalist in the most noble of causes. And so, when we
look at the whole man as most biographers of Adams do, we can conclude that he
did the right thing. It's a question of means and ends, and this is a case of
the ends justifying the means, in the case of most historians and biographers.

GROSS: I think we'd like to think that journalistic ethics does not forgive
making up lies for a just cause.

Mr. BURNS: Well, journalistic ethics don't, but when you write a biography
of someone like Sam Adams, you make journalistic ethics simply one category.
And, you know, to me, Terry, that was the real interesting thing about writing
this book. If you write, let's say, a biography of Thomas Jefferson, it's
like standing in front of Jefferson and seeing him head to toe. It's a look
at the whole man. But when you do what I did, which is examine Jefferson and
various other founders just in terms of how they reacted to and how they were
a part of the world of journalism, it's like bringing him very close to you
and then putting a magnifying glass under a small part of him. It's not an
accurate total picture of the person, but it's a fascinating view of one part
of that person.

GROSS: OK. You mentioned Jefferson. What's his connection to the press?

Mr. BURNS: When Jefferson served in the Washington administration--he was
the secretary of state--he would take state department money and use it to
fund a newspaper called the National Gazette which trashed the policies of the
administration, the Washington administration, in which he served. Government
money going against government policy.

And not only that, Terry, what he would do is occasionally he would leave his
office door, the door to the state department, unlocked at night. He would
leave paper on his desk which either in and of themselves, or quoted out of
context, would make the Washington administration look bad and the editor of
the National Gazette, that most famous poet at the time, Philip Freneau, would
come in at night and sneak these papers out, put them in the National Gazette.
And when Washington at some point later on wondered about this and said to
Jefferson, `Is there anything we can do to get the National Gazette to tone it
down?' Jefferson said, `Well, I'll try but I don't really know Freneau that
well and I don't really have that much of a connection with the paper.' He was
telling a lie, and he was being in his own way as unethical as Sam Adams had
been for his cause.

GROSS: So, Jefferson was not only a Founding Father, he was a founding
leaker, one of the first leakers in America.

Mr. BURNS: Actually, you know, historians say the leak was invented by
George Washington, and that it was done with all the sophistication of a
modern president leaking. Washington, I think, Terry, was the greatest victim
of the American press ever to sit in the White House. Of course, he did not
sit in the White House. We did not have the White House then. But to try to
control--damage control is the phrase we would use today--it was Washington
who first come up with the idea of the journalistic leak and had his Cabinet
offices take people out, buy them a beer or two and say, `Listen here's some
information just for you.'

GROSS: You brought up Washington and how he was handled in the press as a
good example of how partisan the press was back in early American history.
There was a campaign in the paper called the "Aurora" which was published by
Ben Franklin's grandson...

Mr. BURNS: Right.

GROSS: ...to force Washington out of office...

Mr. BURNS: I don't know...

GROSS: ...to retire immediately.

Mr. BURNS: Yeah. I don't know that it was necessarily a campaign. It
might, Terry, have been the whole reason that the paper existed. But one of
the--one of the articles that wanted Washington out of the office in fact
began with the phrase you just mentioned, `retired immediately.' And then it
went on as follows: "Let no flatterer persuade you to rest one hour longer at
the helm of state. You are utterly incapable to steer the political ship into
the harbor of safety. If you have any love for your country, leave its
affairs to the wisdom of your fellow citizens. Do not falter yourself with
the idea that you know their interests better than other men. There are
thousands amongst them who equal you in capacity and who excel you in
knowledge."

Terry, this was not an editorial. There were no editorials at the time. This
was simply an article in an American newspaper of the colonial period.

GROSS: Well, you said it was in a way the function of that paper, The Aurora,
to get Washington out of office. How was the paper founded by Ben Franklin's
grandson?

Mr. BURNS: How was it founded?

GROSS: Yeah. I mean, did he actually create it with the purpose of getting
Washington out of office?

Mr. BURNS: He created it with the purpose of getting federalism discredited
because once Washington was out of office, the paper continued to exist for a
while, although Bache, Benjamin Franklin Bache, died at the age of 29 so it
didn't last terribly long. But he was just as vicious with Adams who was also
a federalist.

GROSS: We were talking about how partisan the press was in colonial times and
in the early United States and how some things were just made up. There is a
paper called "The Wasp." This is a small paper in Hudson, New York. And on
the mast head, where The New York Times for instance has `all the news that is
fit to print,' "The Wasp" had `to lash the rascals naked through the word.'
What a motto! What was that paper like?

Mr. BURNS: That paper was like the motto would suggest. To me, the really
salient point here is why were papers like this at a time when such
intellectual giants strode the earth? The two problems with the press then,
and why I think they existed, unfairness and viciousness.

Papers were unfair at the time, most simply put, Terry, because there was no
tradition of fairness. If you owned a press, you were a businessman. And to
ask--for someone to ask you to be fair would be to ask you to include points
of view other than your own, which would be to ask you, in effect, to
advertise your competitors. That's how people looked at it back then. And
with no tradition of fairness to call on, the printer of a paper would say,
`Why should I'--I mean, it would be like a blacksmith saying, `Well, sure, I
can shoe your horse, but if you take it down the street, the guy will do it
more quickly and more cheaply.' It wasn't going to happen.

Why was it so vicious? I believe that two most important events in American
history, and I would rank the Civil War third, happened during this era.
First, of course, was the Revolutionary War, and second was the battle to
interpret the Constitution, which is to say to decide what kind of country the
Revolutionary War was going to produce. With events of this magnitude
following one upon the other, I think that even the noblest of people felt
this. There is simply too much at stake these days for civility. And I think
these are the reasons that the press, at this time, was what it was like.

GROSS: And you're making it sound like publishers saw their papers as just
mouthpieces and megaphones for their views.

Mr. BURNS: They did. They did. Fairness didn't really come into the
press--and I don't even get into this in the book, because I am talking about
colonial times--but the single most important event in making the press fair,
Terry, didn't happen until after the Civil War when wire services started.
The telegraph allowed the Associated Press to come into existence, and the
Associated Press simply didn't have time to come up with several different
versions of one story. You know, the right wing version, the left wing
version, the sensational version, the restrained version. Fairness came about
because the Associated Presss really had time in conveying all the news to all
its subscriber papers, just to write one version. So they tried to be as
middle-of-the-road as they could. But, before that, few people saw the reason
for a newspaper to be fair, because the guy who owned it would have been
working against his own ideological interests if he were fair.

GROSS: Was there anything that could be called independent journalism back in
the early period of American history....

Mr. BURNS: Independent...

GROSS: I mean, you've got publishers using newspapers as a mouthpiece. Are
there reporters? Are there reporters who have, you know, who actually go out
and report actually on what they are seeing?

Mr. BURNS: Actually, Terry, there weren't even reporters until
probably--certainly not in any great numbers--until after the war. The way
the Revolutionary War was covered, for instance, is quite instructive. I know
of one man, the publisher of The Massachusetts Spy, who went out and covered a
couple of stories himself. But, by and large, the Revolutionary War was
covered through the mail, that is to say, soldiers would send letters back
home to loved ones, and those would be given to newspapers. Sometimes letters
would be written specifically to newspapers. But there were no such things as
reporting staffs. By and large, the printers stayed in the shop and hoped
that someone would come in with some information. In terms of independent
journalism, if by that you mean journalism that was unbiased, no. I
encountered none of it. Now I did encounter some professions of it, which is
to say there were a few papers at the time which claimed that they were
beholden to no one, that they would print the truth as they saw it. But they
almost always saw it through one particular set of lenses.

GROSS: My guest is Eric Burns. His new book is called "Infamous Scribblers."
We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

GROSS: My guest is Eric Burns. His new book is called "Infamous Scribblers:
The Founding Fathers and the Rowdy Beginnings of American Journalism." He's a
former NBC news correspondent and now hosts "Fox News Watch," the Fox news
channel's weekly roundtable of media criticism.

One of the things I find interesting about your show is that the two liberals
and the two conservatives with you as moderator usually have a pretty civil
conversation with each other and even laugh at each other's jokes, assuming
there's any wit behind the jokes.

Mr. BURNS: Wait a minute. Are you criticizing the jokes that we write and
saying that they don't work?

GROSS: That was the main point of the question. No, but--but, I mean--and
sometimes people surprise you, and a liberal and conservative on the show will
agree with each other instead of arguing with each other. Do you feel like on
a lot of shows that liberals and conservatives are almost playing a part in a
play that's already been written and that they--it's their job to represent
the official conservative or the official liberal point of view and to never
waiver from what that official position is to be? And to never think that an
issue is ambiguous?

Mr. BURNS: Without question. There--on most shows, they're like a
repertoire company. They know their roles, the dialogue changes, because the
issues change. But they know who they're supposed to be. I--as far as I am
concerned, and you may either back me up, criticize me or move on to another
topic, but I don't think that happens on"Fox News Watch." Every possible
pairing you can imagine has happened--has taken place on that show. Gabler,
the self-described aggressive, agreeing with Thomas, the family values
conservative. I mean, there are some issues that bring everybody together, it
seems to me. Because It's not just a matter of addressing political bias on
the show, which frankly I find a little tedious and predictable occasionally.

There are far bigger problems with the media today than political bias,
because political bias, it seems to me, Terry, is a pretty easy thing to
identify. But sensationalism, misplaced priorities, laziness, stories that
should be covered and that are not covered, just plain inaccuracy. These to
me are much more important issues than whether President Bush was traduced by
this paper or whether John Kerry during the election got an unfair shake from
this paper.

GROSS: Now do you identify yourself publicly as liberal or conservative?

Mr. BURNS: No. And I take a great deal of pride in getting e-mails that I
get, with some frequency, who say, `I've been watching your show for years,
and I have no idea what you are.' I have not been hired by Fox to express
political views. My own personal feeling is that my political views are, A,
my own business, and, B, not a part of "Fox News Watch." There are four people
on that show who have been chosen, not just because of journalistic expertise,
but because they have certain political starting points from which they
approach issues. A half-hour program doesn't need a fifth person like that,
and I have made it a point, and in fact--I hope I am not overstating the
case--a badge of honor to be unidentified politically. And I hope you don't
know what I am. Do you? You watch the show.

GROSS: No, I don't, but I assume a lot of people say to you, `Oh, sure, you
don't identify publicly as liberal or conservative, but Fox hired you. You
must be conservative.'

Mr. BURNS: Well. There's nothing I can do about that. Neal Gabler is
rabidly not conservative; Alan Colmes is. As a matter of fact, I saw an
article some time ago about--you know, Fox has more opinion givers than any
other network, and therefore you can put what I am going to say right now into
that context, but Fox has, according to some article I read in one of the
broadcast publications, more openly avowed liberals on its payroll as
contributors, which is to say people who are called on from time to time to
offer opinions, than any other network.

GROSS: Do you watch "The Daily Show" and "The Colbert Report"? And I wonder
how you think they're--they're affecting the news and how people see the news.

Mr. BURNS: Actually, I am going to be on "The Daily Show" pretty soon so...

GROSS: Good.

Mr. BURNS: ...so I have been studying it more than ever. It is an
intriguing show, isn't it, because the interviews are very often with serious
people. I would like to consider myself one. And the rest of the show isn't
serious. I--I will quote from one of my panelists, Neal Gabler, about "The
Daily Show," and I think he makes a very perceptive point. It's frightening
to think that there might be people who depend on "The Daily Show" as their
sole source of news. That charge is leveled against young people. I don't
know how accurate it is--how accurate it is. But the point Gabler makes that
he thinks is so valuable about "The Daily Show" and I agree is--and this is
his phrase--"The Daily Show gets it."

A conventional newscast is supposed to be objective. It just doesn't--I am
looking for a phrase other than cut through the BS--because I would like to
say something a little more eloquent than that, but nothing comes to mind.
That's what that show does. That show, it seems to me, tells you the truth in
a manner, not only humorous, but if you analyze it, pretty hard-hitting. It
points out the fakery of the political statement, the facetiousness of certain
things that on a regular newscast would be presented without comment because
that's what journalists are supposed to do. So apart from the humor, the
service it performs I think is to present--it just presents truth at deeper
level. It doesn't buy the pretense of a lot of--in particular--politicians'
statements.

GROSS: Eric Burns, thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. BURNS: The pleasure was mine, Terry. Thank you for the invitation.

GROSS: Eric Burns is the author of "Infamous Scribblers: the Founding
Fathers and the Rowdy Beginning of American Journalism." He hosts the media
show "Fox News Watch" on the Fox news channel.

I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

(Soundbite of Addicts Rehabilitation Center Choir song)

A-R-C Choir: (Singing in unison) "I just want to thank you, Lord. I just
want to thank you. Thank you, Lord."

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: We're listening to the Addicts Rehabilitation Center Choir of Harlem.
One of their gospel tracts was sampled in Kanye West's hit, "Jesus Walks."
Coming up, we'll talk to choir founder, James Allen, who kicked his own habit
in 1957, and bassist and choir leader, Curtis Lundy.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Interview: James Allen, founder of Addicts Rehabilitation Center
Gospel Choir and Curtis Lundy, choir leader, discuss the choir
which members are all former addicts
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

One of the great things about Kanye West's hit, "Jesus Walks," is the gospel
record that it samples with that great vocal bass line. I wanted to find out
more about that group, so my guests are the two leaders of the A-R-C Choir,
the Addicts Rehabilitation Center Choir of Harlem.

James Allen founded the choir in 1970 to help support the Addicts
Rehabilitation Center which he had worked with since giving up alcohol in
1957. Curtis Lundy is a jazz bass player who is the choir's director. When
Lundy first came to the choir in 1992, he was addicted to cocaine. All the
singers in the choir are former addicts.

Before we meet Allen and Lundy, let's hear the tract that Kanye West uses on
"Jesus Walks." It's the title tract of the A-R-C Choir's 1996 recording "Walk
With Me."

(Soundbite of "Jesus Walks" by Kanye West)

Mr. KANYE WEST: (Rapping) "Yo, we at war. We at war with terrorism, racism,
and most of all, we at war with ourselves."

A-R-C Choir: (Singing in unison) "Jesus walks."

Mr. WEST: (Rapping) "God show me the way because the devil try to break me
down."

A-R-C Choir: (Singing in unison) "Jesus walks with me with me with me with
me."

Mr. WEST: (Rapping) "You know what the Midwest is? Young and restless, where
restless...(censored by network)...might snatch your necklace. And next
these...(censored by network)...might jack your Lexus. Somebody tell
these...(censored by network)...who Kanye West is. I walk through the valley
of the shadow of death is. Top floor of the view alone will leave you
breathless."

A-R-C Choir: (Gasping for air) "Uhhhh."

Mr. WEST: (Rapping) "Try to catch it."

A-R-C Choir: (Gasping for air) "Uhhhh."

Mr. WEST: (Rapping) "It's kind of hard getting choked by detectives, yeah,
yeah, now check the method. They'd be asking us questions, harass and arrest
us, saying, `We eat pieces of...(censored by network)...like you for
breakfast.' Huh? `Y'all eat pieces of...(censored by network)...what's the
basis? We ain't going nowhere but got suits and cases. A trunk full
of...(censored by network)...rental car from Avis. My momma used to say only
Jesus could save us. Well, Momma, I know I act a fool but I'll be gone till
November I got packs to move. I hope."

A-R-C Choir: (Singing in unison) "Jesus walks."

Mr. WEST: (Rapping) "God, show me the way because the devil try to break me
down."

A-R-C Choir: (Singing in unison) "Jesus walks with me."

Mr. WEST: (Rapping) "The only thing that I pray is that my feet don't fail
me now."

A-R-C Choir: (Singing in unison) "Jesus walks."

Mr. WEST: (Rapping) "And I don't think there's nothing I could do now to
straighten my wrong."

A-R-C Choir: (Singing in unison) "Jesus walks with me."

Mr. WEST: (Rapping) "I want to talk to God but I'm afraid 'cuz we ain't
spoke in so long."

A-R-C Choir: (Singing in unison) "Jesus."

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: James Allen, Curtis Lundy, I want to welcome you both to FRESH AIR.
What can you tell us? What do you know about how Kanye West decided to use
your choir's records in his tract "Jesus Walks"?

Mr. CURTIS LUNDY: Well, in my conversation with Kanye, Kanye heard it and he
liked it, and he, said that, you know, it just gave him some different kind of
energy that he felt he could work with. And from that, I think he started
working on the actual lyrics for the rap, and it all came together.

GROSS: James Allen, how do you like it musically?

Mr. JAMES ALLEN: I like it better when we do it, but...

GROSS: I know you are not part of the hip-hop generation or generation.

Mr. ALLEN: Sure. But, actually, I had been trying to arrange that song for
a couple of years, and then I turned it over to Curtis, and he added a unique
background and rhythm to it that really moves people.

GROSS: Yeah. Well, Curtis Lundy, I love what you have done with this song.
First of all, what made you think of doing it as march? I mean, Kanye West
really makes it as a march. He adds snare drums.

Mr. LUNDY: Right.

GROSS: But it's a march just with the choir. What made you hear it that way?

Mr. LUNDY: Well, the word "walk."

GROSS: Um-hmm.

Mr. LUNDY: And wanting Jesus to walk with me. It just, you know, as a
musician, imagination is a big part of music. And if you don't use your
imagination, then, you know, you end up sounding like everybody else.

GROSS: Why don't we hear a A-R-C Gospel Choir recording of "Walk with Me,"
and this is the recording that Kanye West sampled and--and for his tract. So
here's how it sounds, just the A-R-C Choir alone.

(Soundbite of "Walk with Me" by A-R-C Choir)

A-R-C Choir: (Singing) "Jesus walk, Jesus walk, Jesus walk with me."

Unidentified Man #1: (Singing) "I want Jesus..."

A-R-C Choir: (Singing in unison) "Jesus walk, Jesus walk."

Man #1: (Singing) "...to walk with me."

A-R-C Choir: (Singing in unison) "Jesus walk with me."

Man #1: (Singing) "I want Jesus..."

A-R-C Choir: (Singing in unison) "Jesus walk, Jesus walk."

Man #1: (Singing) "...to walk with me."

A-R-C Choir: (Singing in unison) "Jesus walk with me."

Man #1: (Singing) "When I'm on my..."

A-R-C Choir: (Singing in unison) "Jesus walk."

Man #1: (Singing) "...pilgrim journey..."

A-R-C Choir: (Singing in unison) "Jesus walk, Jesus walk."

Man #1: (Singing) "...I want Jesus..."

A-R-C Choir: (Singing in unison) "Jesus walk, Jesus walk."

Man #1: (Singing) "...to walk with me."

A-R-C Choir: (Singing in unison) "Jesus walk with me."

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: That's the Addicts Rehabilitation Center Gospel Choir, and my guests
are James Allen, the founder and executive director, and Curtis Lundy, the
choir director.

James Allen, you founded the Addicts Rehabilitation Center in 1957 and then
founded the choir in the early...

Mr. ALLEN: In 1970.

GROSS: ...in 1970. Tell us the story of how the choir grew out of the rehab
center.

Mr. ALLEN: In 1970, we were given a building as a donation, for--as a rehab
residential drug-free treatment center. And it had a mortgage of $150,000.
And we didn't realize that we had a low track record in raising money and that
mortgage was going to come due, and we were going to lose the building. So
somehow or another, when I was frustrated and wanted to quit, my wife said to
me, `Why don't you pray about it,' which I did. And the next day I went to
work, and one of the guys I was going to put out of the program because he was
always running around singing, I got with him, and he suggested we--that we
form a choir. And we did, and we started singing in local churches and
telling them that we were going to lose our building. And they started
contributing to us. And that's how the choir started. It started as a group
that was going to raise money to pay off the mortgage. And we did. We paid
off the mortgage, but then I realized that God had a deeper message than just
paying off the mortgage. And we just kept on singing.

GROSS: What made you start to think that singing in the choir was actually
helpful to addicts who were trying to stay straight?

Mr. ALLEN: They are the ones that convinced me of that. They kept saying
that, `I've never been in a program where people had the spirit.' And
I--people are hungry--some people--for the Spirit of God to permeate their
lives, and these people are the ones who got the message through my thick
head. I'm a frustrated person who really had plans to play jazz music also on
the guitar. And somehow or another, God has kept me so busy doing this stuff
I haven't had time to practice my chops.

GROSS: Do you sing at all?

Mr. ALLEN: Well, yes.

GROSS: You said that slightly hesitantly. Do you sing in the choir?

Mr. ALLEN: I do. There are some songs that I sing on.

GROSS: OK. So what are the ground rules for staying in the choir? I imagine
part of the rules are that you have--you have to stay straight.

Mr. ALLEN: Yes, you have got to be straight and sober. And if you are in
the program--many of the choir members are graduates of the program. There
are some people who have been singing in it almost since its inception. And
you have to remain sober. You have to have a behavioral pattern that is
acceptable in the community because you are profiling yourself out there. And
pretty much, you don't have to be the best singer in the world because I have
found that you can take bad voices, and if you can teach them how to breathe
correctly, that it compensates for the bad voices, and they can learn how to
carry a tune.

GROSS: What are they--what are the auditions like?

Mr. ALLEN: Sometimes very--sometimes like Simon on "American Idol."

Mr. LUNDY: He's right.

GROSS: But I could see that if you are like Simon on "American Idol," that
you would not only be insulting their singing voices but maybe challenging
them about their ability to stay sober.

Mr. ALLEN: Well, actually what happens is we don't--we don't come down heavy
on people unless we are going to give them a shot afterwards. We may say,
`You sing terrible, but we'll let you stay and we will teach you how to sing
if you listen and pay attention.' So, that's the difference between us. If
it's someone who really cannot sing at all, we sort of soften the blow, you
know. If you are parting company with someone, you should leave them with a
good spirit. But you can come down on people if you plan to put pressure to
them and teach them how to do something.

GROSS: My guests are James Allen, the founder of the A-R-C Choir, and Curtis
Lundy, the choir director. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

GROSS: We are talking about the A-R-C Choir, the Addicts Rehabilitation
Center Choir of Harlem. The members are all former addicts. My guests are
choir founder, James Allen, and choir director, Curtis Lundy.

So you both got to this point through being former addicts yourselves. James
Allen, can you tell us your story, like what was your addiction and how did
you--how did you get over it?

Mr. ALLEN: Well, the first seven years of my addiction was smoking
marijuana, thinking it wouldn't lead on to something else. And then the next
10 years of my addiction, at least seven of them, I slept in the streets of
New York--literally--from basement to basement. And then somewhere in one of
my cleanup periods, I met my wife, and we started staying together. She
didn't know I was an addict, and when she found it out, she convinced, I say,
tricked me into going to Lexington, Kentucky, to kick my habit. And while I
was at Lexington, kicking my habit...

GROSS: That's a prison, isn't it?

Mr. ALLEN: Yes. Back in the '50s, you could volunteer to go there for six
weeks...

GROSS: Oh, for rehab?

Mr. ALLEN: ...yes, and from all over the United States. And you could stay
there for six weeks. I only stayed there for 30 days. While I was there, as
soon as I sobered up, I realized two things. One was that I had better go
back to my wife, who was not my wife at the time, but I had better go back to
her--I hadn't planned on it when I left her--because she was the best woman I
ever met in my life. The second thing was that I should try to embrace God
whom I had met with my grandparents down on a farm in Louisiana. So those two
things worked for me.

And how I got involved in drugs and drug rehab was, as soon as I got back to
New York a week later, we went to a local church that I was planning on
joining and eventually did join, and the minister was announcing that he was
going to start working with addicts. So he wanted to have meetings with
anybody interested to come. So I became part of those meetings. And once
that minister left the church, somehow or another, God put me in charge of the
church's day-care program which resulted in this establishment of the A-R-C
residential program.

GROSS: James Allen, you founded the Addicts Rehabilitation Choir in 1970.

And, Curtis Lundy, it was years after that, it was in 1992, that you came to
the choir. You had become an addict yourself. What was your addiction?

Mr. LUNDY: Cocaine in whatever way I could use it. The only thing that
might have saved me a little bit is I was terrified of needles so--but
that--at the same time, that's one of the reasons I started ingesting it by
smoking. And you know, of course, when you start to use drugs, nobody figures
they are going to end up being an addict. And one day, I was actually going
out to the car to get some drugs, and I was walking one way on---what was
it--120th Street, I'll never forget that one. And I passed by this gentleman,
and he passed by me and after about 10 paces, both of us stopped and turned
around. It turns out the gentleman who turned around was someone I went to
college with at the University of Miami. And he said, `I've been looking for
you. I heard you were here.' And later that day, he took me to A-R-C. And at
that particular time, I didn't realize that it was going to be the beginning
of my life--getting my life back...

GROSS: Did he take you there to hear it or because he thought you should be
part of it?

Mr. LUNDY: No, he took me to it because I looked like death walking, and he
wanted me to get my life together. I didn't hear the choir until I was at
A-R-C about two weeks after...

GROSS: Oh, I see, so he took you to the rehab center, not the choir.

Mr. LUNDY: Yeah. He took me directly to the rehab center.

GROSS: Oh. Got it. Got it. James Allen, when you realized that Curtis
Lundy was a jazz musician--how long did it take you to find out about his
background, that he played with Betty Carter, for instance?

Mr. ALLEN: Well, he made sure that I knew all that. And when he did, I made
him promise me something. I made him put his bass down, for how many months?

Mr. LUNDY: Three months.

Mr. ALLEN: I made him put his--promise to put his bass down for three months
and not touch it. But to focus in on himself because I recognized that he was
using that as a badge of distinction and forgetting about the real Curtis
behind that. So I made him zero in on himself. Except for those times that I
am sure he cheated.

GROSS: So you wanted him to find himself outside of the fact that he had
stature in jazz. To just find his...

Mr. ALLEN: Right.

GROSS: ...beyond the success he had achieved as a musician?

Mr. ALLEN: Yes.

GROSS: Curtis Lundy, does that make sense to you?

Mr. LUNDY: At the time, no. But as I prayed on it and thought about it,
yes, it did because, you know, I felt like God had given me the talent and my
musical awareness, and so if he wanted me to have it, he wouldn't take it away
from me, you know. What was more important was that I realized I needed to
use it to help further what God's word is, which is to help each one be a
better person. And you know, if I got my life together, I knew my music would
come back. So, you know, what came first, my life or my music? My life came
first.

GROSS: James Allen, do you find you sometimes have to be very tough with some
of the people in the choir to give them a sense of discipline and also just to
keep them straight?

Mr. LUNDY: She--you ask him, but I can tell you, yes, he is a taskmaster
and...

GROSS: What does he do? What does he do?

Mr. LUNDY: Sometimes all he does is look at you, and that's enough. But you
know, he can cut with the tongue a little bit. But you know what, he doesn't
unless there is a message there and I will give him that. Sometimes, you
know, but one of Mr. Allen's--and this is something I have learned from
him--one of the things that I love about Mr. Allen and I have seen him do it
so many times. And he explained it to me, he has no problem tearing you down,
but he will build you back up. He won't leave you broken and discouraged.
But to get the message, sometimes you've got to cut a little deep, and he
don't have a problem with doing that.

GROSS: Does somebody do that with you, James Allen? Does somebody play that
role in your life?

Mr. ALLEN: My grandfather did. Understand I am 81 years old. I knew both
my great-grandparents on both sides of the family. In fact, one of my great
grandmothers was a former slave. When the Civil War was over, she was 15.
And I had all of these people on my back growing up...

GROSS: So--but after you were addicted, was there somebody in your life who
was really tough on you who helped you stay straight?

Mr. ALLEN: I didn't need that. Only God.

GROSS: My guests are James Allen, the founder of the A-R-C Choir, the Addicts
Rehabilitation Center Choir, and Curtis Lundy, the choir director. Here's a
tract from the choir's 2004 album, "Thank You, Lord" which is available in the
States as an import. Lundy wrote the music and lyrics to this song, "I Know a
Man."

(Soundbite of "I know a Man" by A-R-C choir)

Unidentified Man #2: (Singing) "I know a man..."

A-R-C Choir: (Singing in unison) "I know a man you see..."

Man #2: (Singing) "...name is Jesus."

A-R-C Choir: (Singing in unison) "...oh, he's the...(unintelligible)."

Man #2: (Singing) "When I was down, down..."

A-R-C Choir: (Singing in unison) "...he picked me up and turned me around..."

Man #2: (Singing) "...placed my feet..."

A-R-C Choir: (Singing in unison) "...placed my feet on solid ground..."

Man #2: (Singing) "...Jehovah's the Rock..."

A-R-C Choir: "...(unintelligible)...in time of need..."

Man #2: (Singing) "...gave his life..."

A-R-C Choir: (Singing in unison) "...a sacrifice for you and me..."

Man #2: (Singing) "...that is why..."

A-R-C Choir: (Singing in unison) "...that is why..."

Man #2: (Singing) "...that is why..."

A-R-C Choir: (Singing in unison) "...that is why..."

Man #2: (Singing) "...that is why..."

A-R-C Choir: (Singing in unison) "...that is why..."

Man #2: (Singing) "...that is why..."

A-R-C Choir: (Singing in unison) "...that is why..."

Man #2: (Singing) "...that is why..."

A-R-C Choir: (Singing in unison) "...that is why..."

Man #2: (Singing) "...oh, why..."

A-R-C Choir: (Singing in unison) "...that is why..."

Man #2: (Singing) "...I'll serve him..."

A-R-C Choir: (Singing in unison) "...serve him until I die..."

Man #2: (Singing) "...Oh, I know a man..."

A-R-C Choir: (Singing in unison) "...I know a man you see..."

Man #2: (Singing) "...his name is Jesus..."

A-R-C Choir: (Singing in unison) "...oh, he can set you free..."

Man #2: (Singing) "...when I was down, down..."

A-R-C Choir: (Singing in unison) "...he picked me up and turned me around..."

Man #2: (Singing) "...he placed my feet...."

A-R-C Choir: (Singing in unison) "....placed my feet on solid ground..."

Man #2: (Singing) "...Jehovah's the Rock..."

A-R-C Choir: (Singing in unison) "(Unintelligible)...in time of need..."

Man #2: (Singing) "...he gave his life..."

A-R-C Choir: (Singing in unison) "...a sacrifice for you and me..."

Man #2: (Singing) "...that is why..."

A-R-C Choir: (Singing in unison) "...that is why..."

Man #2: (Singing) "...Oh, why..."

A-R-C Choir: (Singing in unison) "...that is why..."

Man #2: (Singing) "...that is why..."

A-R-C Choir: (Singing in unison) "...that is why..."

Man #2: (Singing) "...oh, why..."

A-R-C Choir: (Singing in unison) "...that is why..."

Man #2: (Singing) "...that is why..."

A-R-C Choir: (Singing in unison) "...that is why..."

Man #2: (Singing) "...I'll serve him..."

A-R-C Choir: (Singing in unison) "...serve him until I die."

Man #2: (Singing) "Oh, I'm gonna serve..."

A-R-C Choir: (Singing in unison) "(Unintelligible)."

GROSS: We'll talk more about the Addicts Rehabilitation Center Choir after a
break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

GROSS: We're talking about the A-R-C Choir, the Addicts Rehabilitation Center
Choir, a gospel choir whose members are former addicts. My guests are choir
founder, James Allen, and choir director, Curtis Lundy.

Was religion a part of your life before you got sober?

Mr. ALLEN: When I was a child, it was part of my life. But I
don't--religion is not necessarily a part of my life now. Faith in God is a
part of my life, but when it comes to religions, I respect them all, and I
learn from all of them, but I don't subscribe to any particular one. Well,
protestant religion, any protestant religion, that's what I'm a part of, it's
inherent in me because it's a part of my growing up. But I am not a faithful
participant in what you would call religion. In fact, I conduct a Bible
fantasy where people can come and sit down and say what they believe and
nobody can argue with them because we say we made it up in our mind, nobody
knows for sure, but if you like it, you can pick up pieces of it and add it to
your life.

GROSS: Curtis Lundy, was faith a part of your life before--before joining the
Addicts Rehabilitation Center and before joining the choir?

Mr. LUNDY: Yes. Of course, to be honest with you, God bless her, my mother
told me that I was not going to get my life together until I put God back in
my life, and she was right. You know, I grew up in the church with my mother
singing, and my whole family--my grandfather built the church that I attended
as a child. So, to answer your question, yes.

GROSS: Curtis Lundy, you've been the choir master of the Addicts
Rehabilitation Center Gospel Choir for over a decade. So I'm wondering, do
you still play in jazz bands? Do you still play bass in jazz bands? What's
become of that part of your life?

Mr. LUNDY: It's still there. It's never left. After I took my three-month
layoff, I took my instrument back up, and as a matter of fact, Betty Carter
called Mr. Allen one day and said, `I need Curtis to do some gigs with me,'
and he graciously let me go, and Betty at that particular time was basically
giving me an opportunity for other musicians to see I was clean and sober and
back on the scene.

GROSS: Right.

Mr. LUNDY: So she--she helped me in that way, and I could never--never repay
her. You know, I am indebted to Betty all my life. To answer your question,
I'm back on the scene. I'm working and recording and doing my own CDs and
things like that and working with my sister a lot. And people like Bobby
Watson and John Hicks. So I've been blessed to be accepted back to my
position.

GROSS: James Allen, you've been running an addict rehabilitation center since
the late 1950s, and you've been running the choir since 1970. You were an
addict before doing this work. That was a long time ago. That was in the
1950s. Do you feel--you're 81 now. Do you still feel like it's hard work to
keep sober or is that like very much behind you?

Mr. ALLEN: All of that is behind me. I enjoy life. Somebody said to me
once, `If you do work that is gratifying, you'll never work again.' So I don't
look at this as being work.

GROSS: Let me thank you both very much. James Allen is the director and
founder of the Addicts Rehabilitation Center Gospel Choir. Curtis Lundy is
the choir director. Thanks to both of you.

Mr. ALLEN: Thanks.

Mr. LUNDY: Thank you for having us.

GROSS: We'll close with another tract from the 1996 recording, "Walk with Me"
by the A-R-C Choir, the Addicts Rehabilitation Center Choir.

(Soundbite of tract from A-R-C Choir 1996 recording "Walk with Me")

(Credits)

(Soundbite of tract from A-R-C Choir 1996 recording "Walk with Me")

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Sign-off: Fresh Air
TERRY GROSS, host:

On the next FRESH AIR, living on the front lines of the abortion wars. We
meet Eyal Press, his new memoirs about his father, an ob-gyn who provides
abortions as part of his practice in Buffalo. He was the target of protests
and death threats. His associate, Dr. Barnett Slepian, was murdered by an
anti-abortion extremist.

I'm Terry Gross. Join us for the next FRESH AIR.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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