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Writer Sarah Vowell

Writer Sarah Vowell is a contributing editor for public radio's This American Life. She's also the author of the book Take the Cannoli, and the new book of her pieces, The Partly Cloudy Patriot


Other segments from the episode on September 16, 2002

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, September 16, 2002: Interview with Steven R. Weisman; Interview with Sarah Vowell; Review of Jason Moran's new album "Modernistic."


DATE September 16, 2002 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A

Interview: Steven R. Weisman discusses the establishment of the
federal income tax

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

After leading the way to cut income taxes, the Bush administration is
preparing to wage an expensive war against Saddam Hussein, while already
fighting the war against terrorism. The historical connection between income
taxes and the funding of wars is part of the story told in the new book "The
Great Tax Wars, Lincoln to Wilson," the fierce battles over money and power
that transformed the nation. My guest is the author, Steven R. Weisman. He
has covered politics, economics and international affairs for The New York
Times for more than 30 years, as a reporter and now an editorial writer. His
book opens at the beginning of the Civil War in 1861 and concludes at the end
of World War I in 1920, the period in which the income tax was enacted three
times and overturned twice before it finally became a permanent part of
American life. The first income tax was enacted during the Civil War. I
asked Weisman while President Lincoln wanted to create it.

Mr. STEVEN R. WEISMAN (The New York Times): Well, you know, when the Civil
War began, a lot of people on both sides thought it would last only a few
months and that they could just rely on borrowing to get through. It wasn't
until after the Battle of Bull Run that both sides realized it was going to
go on longer. And Lincoln had some fateful meetings with banks, of all
people, who felt that if they were going to lend the money to the Union cause,
patriots though they were, they wanted to know what the prospect was for being
repaid. Nothing has changed in that respect.

And so the Union was forced, by 1862, to look for revenues. They had raised
tariffs already, which was the main source of revenues those days, and the
income tax became, for a lot of reasons, the thing they had to turn to next.

GROSS: Was there a lot of objection to income tax?

Mr. WEISMAN: There sure was. For one thing, the Union wealth was
concentrated in only three or four states, mostly concentrated in New York.
These were the citadels of Republican support, and there were big objections
that the wealthiest states and the wealthiest individuals were going to have
to pay more than people in other states. So there was a big battle over it,
for sure.

GROSS: What was the argument on either side?

Mr. WEISMAN: Well, the argument was sharpened by the fact that they were at
war, but the argument is the same that we're having now: What's fair? Is it
fair to raise taxes at a higher rate for those who make more money, to, in
effect, punish them for behavior that creates wealth? Or is it fair to expect
everybody, at a time of war, to sacrifice equally, and especially at a time
when so many people from the working class were being slaughtered in the war.
Remember that you could pay $300 to get out of the war if you were on the
Union side. That meant that people of wealth could pay their way out of the
war. Around the middle of the war, the Treasury secretary of the Union,
Salmon Chase, his daughter got married, and he spent $3,000 for a shawl for
her wedding, bought it from one of the best department stores in New York.
Well, it was noticed that that was the cost of 10 men's lives. So it seemed
that you had to have a tax that affected the people who, in fact, were making
money off the war. New York became a great wealthy city because of its role
in producing goods and services for the war.

GROSS: So when the income tax was passed, did it succeed in doing what
President Lincoln wanted, help fund the war?

Mr. WEISMAN: It helped. It did not provide more than a fraction of the
revenue. It only affected the top 2 or 3 percent of taxpayers, at first
anyway. By and large, the Union cause was funded by borrowing, and that
caused inflation, it caused budget deficits in the future, especially when the
debt had to be retired well into the 19th century. And it made people realize
that the next time war came that more money would have to be raised from taxes
and less from borrowing.

GROSS: You know, in spite of that realization, the income tax was rescinded
at the end of the Civil War.

Mr. WEISMAN: In the 1870s and late 1860s, they had the same debate that we're
having now. There was a surplus, and Congress decided, `Guess what? It's the
people's money, we should give it back to the people.' But a lot of people in
Congress said that was unfair because there were big costs mounting up at the
end of the 19th century. One was pensions for Civil War veterans, and the
other was retiring the debt. But the overwhelming tide was to repeal the tax
because it was so hated as a punishment on the wealthy that that side

GROSS: So when was the income tax restarted?

Mr. WEISMAN: It was restarted during what was the worst economic crisis in
American history up until that time, and then indeed until the Great
Depression. It was called the Panic of 1893. It caused tremendous
unemployment all around the country. Armies of hobos and unemployed boarding
trains looking for work. A tremendous amount of instability all around the
country. And, as happens with all recessions and depressions, a huge budget
deficit in the federal budget. And the Congress and President Grover
Cleveland had to raise taxes to make up the deficit.

GROSS: You point out that by the time this second income tax is being
debated, the wealthy were kind of different than they were before that. They
were no longer simply the owners of large plantations in the States. What was
the new breed of the wealthy American?

Mr. WEISMAN: Well, after the Civil War, of course, or along with the Civil
War, came the industrial revolution. You now, back in the 1830s, when
Tocqueville visited the United States, he noted that there wasn't that much
resentment of the wealthy because they weren't the aristocracy of Europe
living in chateaus. They were people who were self-made men and women, or
families, who made more money than others, but everybody else looked upon that
as a goal and an ideal for everyone, and they didn't want to punish people who
could do that. By the end of the 19th century, there was a sense of
imbalance, that wealth was a product not simply of hard work and risk and
saving and investing, but of collusion, of coziness with government, getting
favors from government, the trusts made, deals, the railroad trusts with
government. And there was a feeling that wealth was not something that was in
reach for the average person.

We've been having that debate for a long time, how do we think about wealth?
What interested me as I researched this book is that it goes back a long way.

GROSS: Well, Congress passed a second income tax in 1894, but then the
Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional. What was the Supreme Court's

Mr. WEISMAN: According to the United States Constitution, all direct taxes,
which were thought to be property taxes, had to be paid proportionately in
every state by that state's population. So if you had an income tax in which
everyone paid the same, that meant that the rates would have to be different
depending on the wealth in that state or the wealth of the individual. It was
a completely--it would be completely unwieldy to have such a system, but that
was what the literal interpretation of what the Constitution required. The
main argument before the court was: Was the income tax a, quote, "direct" tax
or not? And when the court decided that it was, it threw out the income tax.
But, you know, the Supreme Court then was as controversial as it was in the
year 2000. Nobody saw the Supreme Court as acting as anything but the agent
of the wealthy and as a group of men who were imposing their vision of society
and what was fair. So we have seen the court fall into these controversial
periods in the past, just as we have recently.

GROSS: My guest is Steven Weisman. He's an editorial writer for The New York
Times and the author of the new book "The Great Tax Wars," which is about the
history of the income tax.

Let's take a short break here and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Steven Weisman. He's the author of the new book "The
Great Tax Wars" about the history of the income tax. He's also an editorial
writer and former reporter for The New York Times.

When we left off, you were telling us that the Supreme Court ruled the income
tax unconstitutional in the mid-1890s. How did Congress end up getting around
the fact that the Supreme Court ruled the income tax unconstitutional?

Mr. WEISMAN: There were several attempts to reintroduce the income tax in
Congress after the Supreme Court ruled, but congressmen were afraid to send
something back to the court that would be rejected again. They didn't want
to, many of them, confront the court quite that way. Even some who favored
the income tax didn't want another episode in which the court would be
discredited in people's eyes.

Then came the turn of the century and one of the great accidental presidents,
of course, of American history, Theodore Roosevelt, who surprised a lot of
people with his agenda. It was seen as radical: busting the trusts, starting
conservation programs, taking on business, attacking the malefactors of great
wealth. Toward the end of his presidency, Theodore Roosevelt proposed an
income tax, but he had no way of figuring out how it was going to happen. It
took his successor, William Howard Taft, a much more conservative man, to
agree to a deal in 1909 with Congress over a tariff bill in which he agreed,
`Let's have an amendment added calling for an income tax,' and it would have
to be ratified by three-quarters of the state legislatures. In fact, almost
nobody thought that it would be ratified. For Taft, it was kind of a freebie.
He just threw it in because he could get more votes for his tariff bill.

GROSS: So how was it ratified?

Mr. WEISMAN: It was ratified slowly at first. You know, only 12 states could
could have blocked it. And at first, it looked like the 12 states were there,
including New York, especially, that could block it. But what happened then
was a split in the Republican Party between Taft and Roosevelt. Roosevelt was
beginning to think about running again for president in 1912. But by 1910, he
split his party open so badly that the Republicans were thrown out of office
all across the country in the 1910 elections, including in many state
legislatures where they had dominated for many years. The most important was
New York, where for the first time in many, many years, the Democrats took
over both houses of the state Legislature. And the tax--the constitutional
amendment which had earlier been rejected by the New York Legislature was
ratified. That encouraged other states to go along, and it was put over the
top in 1913, literally weeks before the inauguration of Woodrow Wilson.

GROSS: So Congress passed a resolution to amend the Constitution to permit an
income tax in 1909 and that was ratified by the states in 1913.

Mr. WEISMAN: Right. Right.

GROSS: This basically happens just in time for World War I. How was the
income tax used during World War I?

Mr. WEISMAN: Well, it became an essential part of the war effort in raising
money to fight the war. Wilson and his Treasury secretary, one of the great
characters I came across in researching this book, William McAdoo--he was also
Wilson's contemporary and son-in-law--realized, after studying what happened
to Lincoln during the Civil Warm that they had to prosecute this war with
taxes as well as borrowing. And they were determined not to make the same
mistakes that had been made before. And since the income tax had just been
passed, they had a basis for doing so. It only started at a tax rate of 10 or
11 percent. By the end of World War I, amazingly, the highest tax rate that
was enacted was 77 percent.


Mr. WEISMAN: You know, it amazed me to see that.

GROSS: That was a progressive tax, so it was the wealthiest who got the 77
percent tax.

Mr. WEISMAN: The very wealthiest, only the top couple percentage of taxpayers
in America.

GROSS: I assume the rates changed after the war?

Mr. WEISMAN: Immediately. In the 1920s. Andrew Mellon, who was Treasury
secretary throughout the 1920s--in fact, people said that he was such a
powerful Treasury secretary that three presidents served under him. He led
the way. He was probably the biggest tax cutter in America until Ronald
Reagan came along, to returning it to lower rates. But even then, it was the
Republicans who knew that the income tax was here to stay. And they never
tried to repeal it as they did after the Civil War.

GROSS: So after World War I, when everybody agreed, basically, the income tax
is here to stay, what was being taxed? Were stocks and bonds considered
income that you could tax? What about inheritance? Was there an estate tax?

Mr. WEISMAN: Well, the estate tax has come and gone throughout American
history, too. There was also an estate tax during the Civil War and then
again in the Spanish-American War. Then it was repealed and then it was
enacted again later and has stayed as an ingredient. There was also a
corporate tax that was enacted as part of the original 1909 agreement. That
has remained.

And, of course, the income tax by definition taxes income from stocks and
bonds. In fact, it was only when Americans realized that the Andrew Carnegies
and the great wealthy of the late 19th century, whose wealth was tied up in
investments and who were getting income from investments, but not paying any
taxes on it--they realized that that was the great inequity that had to be

GROSS: When the income tax was started, it taxed the wealthy. At what point
was the income tax more or less across the board?

Mr. WEISMAN: That didn't happen until the 1930s with the Depression, the New
Deal and later World War II. And, of course, the Social Security tax of the
mid-1930s, which taxed every worker on his or her salary. But the foundation
for the income tax, and the reason why I stopped the book in 1920, really did
occur during World War I. But it became a universal tax after the New Deal.

GROSS: So again, we have a war affecting the tax.

Mr. WEISMAN: Absolutely. The income tax was born of war, but it eventually
was the means by which we finance the social democracy that we have today.

GROSS: Well, we're in a time of tax cuts and, at the same time, we're
preparing for war. We're already in a war with terrorists. We're preparing
for another war against Iraq. Is it unprecedented to have tax cuts during a
time of war?

Mr. WEISMAN: It's always dangerous to use the word `unprecedented,' but I
sure can't find any precedent for it. And I'd be willing, although I'm not in
the business of making predictions, to certainly predict that this debate will
intensify and that the tax cuts that are planned for the coming years, that
our debate over that will intensify if we go to war in the coming months.
It'll have to be. First of all, the money will have to come from somewhere.
Remember that the Gulf War of a decade ago was paid mostly by our allies. It
doesn't look like this war is going to be paid mostly by others, so it's going
to cost American taxpayers.

And, as I say, if the past is any guide, war sharpens that debate over what's
fair and whether the rich should be getting tax cuts or whether they should be
paying more for government. And there's another, if I could go on, debate
that takes place in wartime, which is a generational one. If you look at the
Civil War, the Spanish-American War, World War I and, I think, World War II,
although that's outside my book, there's always an argument, `Should we borrow
and saddle the cost of this war to the next generation, to our children, or
should we pay for it ourselves?' And you can make that argument both ways.
`Well, gee, going to war now, that's going to be good for our children, so let
them pay for it when they come of age.' On the other hand, you could argue,
`Why saddle them with the debts of the wars that we undertake now?'

GROSS: One of the things that President Bush ran on and that he delivered on
was tax cuts. Now the surplus that we had is a deficit plus we're facing war
with Iraq and we're already at war with terrorists. And now there's a push to
convince the president to rescind some of the tax cuts that he enacted.
Looking back historically, do you see any examples where that happened, where
recent tax cuts were quickly rescinded because of an emergency situation and
because the whole color of the budget had totally changed?

Mr. WEISMAN: Not too much precedent for that, but remember that taxes were
raised in recent history twice: once by the first President Bush and, of
course, then by President Clinton. The crisis in that case was an economic
one. There was a feeling that the budget deficits were creating a drag on the
economy. And then, of course, also tax increases in those years were the
price that Republicans had to pay to get Democrats to go along with spending
cuts in their area.

I think we're in a period now that doesn't have too much precedent except in
one important respect. As I said, we're about to go into war. War is going
to be costly, it's going to intensify our debate about the fairness of our tax
system and when that debate takes place, I don't see how we're going to avoid
really arguing seriously in the next year or so about whether or not the tax
cuts for the wealthiest Americans, maybe the wealthiest 5 percent of
Americans, but that's gonna--I'm sure that's gonna be reconsidered by Congress
in the coming year or so.

GROSS: Steven Weisman, thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. WEISMAN: Thank you for inviting me.

GROSS: Steven R. Weisman is the author of a new book "The Great Tax Wars."
He's on the editorial staff of The New York Times.

I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.


(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Coming up, jazz critic Kevin Whitehead reviews "Modernistic," the new
solo recording by pianist Jason Moran. And we talk with Sarah Vowell about
her new book "The Partly Cloudy Patriot."

(Soundbite of music)

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

Interview: Essayist Sarah Vowell discusses why she loves history
of music and movies

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

My guest, Sarah Vowell, often reads her funny and perceptive essays on the
public radio program "This American Life." She's a contributing editor for
the show. If you know her work, then you know that she is immersed in music
and movies. Her first collection of essays was even named after a line in
"The Godfather," "Take the Cannoli." So the focus of her new book may seem
somewhat out of character, her life as a history buff. Her new book is called
"The Partly Cloudy Patriot." In her chapter "God Will Give You Blood To Drink
In A Souvenir Shot Glass," she confesses that she often spends vacations
touring historical sites and devotes a considerable part of the rest of her
life to reading about history. I asked to read an excerpt of that chapter.

Ms. SARAH VOWELL (Contributing Editor, "This American Life"): (Reading) `I am
one 1 (800) number away from ordering the Time-Life World War II series off
the TV. I have set my alarm so I wouldn't miss a C-SPAN morning live remote
from the house of the Revolutionary War pamphleteer Thomas Paine. I
celebrated my 30th birthday at Grant's Tomb. My airport reading material--a
novelization of Gettysburg here, a Lyndon Johnson biography there--always
receives an approving glance from whatever middle-aged man on my flight is
perusing the new Stephen Ambrose book. Because every domestic flight requires
a middle-aged man with a Stephen Ambrose book in his carry-on luggage. It's
an FAA regulation.

`The historical periods I like to learn about aren't so much costume dramas as
slasher flicks. The French Revolution is a favorite because it features the
beloved plot of carnage in service of democracy but I prefer American history.
And if I had to pick my pet domestic bloodbaths, nothing beats Salem or
Gettysburg. I'm a sucker for Puritan New England and the Civil War because
those two subjects feature the central tension of American life, the conflict
between freedom and community, between individual will and the public good.

`That is a fancy way of hinting that sometimes other people get on my nerves.
I'm two parts loner and one part joiner, so I feel at home delving into the
epic struggles for togetherness. Plus, Puritanism and the war between the
states inspired some of the greatest American writing, scary sermons and
Lincoln speeches, writing which asks, to me, the question: If you're so gung
ho on the fellowship of your countrymen, why have you had your phone off the
hook for the last four days?'

GROSS: That's Sarah Vowell reading from her new book, "The Partly Cloudy
Patriot." Describe why you titled your book that.

Ms. VOWELL: Well, I guess there are a couple of answers to that. Well, for a
long time I didn't have a title and I was trying to come up with something
that captured my ambivalence toward the country because I can be incredibly
patriotic, but, on the other hand, I have a lot of misgivings and qualms and
no problem with expressing those. And I was reading Thomas Paine's pamphlet
American Crisis, which was written during the American Revolution, and it
starts with that famous passage about these are the times that try men's souls
and that the sunshine patriot and the winter soldier will, you know, shrink
from duty. And I really like that passage because it's just so unambiguous
about, you know, we have to win this war and let's get cracking. And while I
admire that sentiment, I'm always a little more gray than that, and so I
thought I'm not sunshine patriot, but I'm partly cloudy.

GROSS: Sarah, you love history, and you write about that in your first essay
in your new collection, and this essay finds you at Gettysburg on the 137th
anniversary of the Gettysburg Address. So you're there for another reading of
it. There's a paragraph here I'd like you to read about loving history.

Ms. VOWELL: (Reading) `I could say that I've come to Gettysburg as a
rubbernecking tourist, that I've shown up to force myself to mull over the
consequences of a war I never think about, because that would make a better
story: A gum-chewing youngish person who says "like" too much comes face to
face with the horrors of war and learns something. But, like, this story
isn't like that. Fact is, I think about the Civil War all the time, every
day. I can't even use a cotton ball to remove my eye makeup without spacing
out about slavery's favorite cash crop. And that line from Lincoln's second
inaugural address that, "It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a
just God's assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men's
faces." Well, that, and why does black eyeliner smudge way more than brown?'

GROSS: Sarah Vowell, reading from one of her essays in her new collection,
"The Partly Cloudy Patriot."

Sarah, when did you become that interested in history?

Ms. VOWELL: Well, I was always interested in it I guess because of my father
and my grandfather, and they would always talk about--they would always talk
about history just as `history starring our family,' you know, so the reason
we were all born in Oklahoma was because of Jacksonian Indian removal policy,
because of the removal of our Cherokee ancestors on the Trail of Tears to
eastern Oklahoma. So that's why we were there. Or the Civil War wasn't just
some abstract thing; our great-great-grandfather was in it, as a Confederate.
Or, you know, the Depression was something that happened to my grandparents,
and one day a guy shows up for supper and my grandmother feeds him and he
leaves $20 under the dinner plate, and that was Pretty Boy Floyd. So I guess
we always had this kind of Zelig-like feeling for history as just something
that we had been vaguely part of.

GROSS: And what about in school? Did history classes work for you on that
same level?

Ms. VOWELL: Mmm, not really. I mean, I don't know that it was always taught
so inspiringly. You know, they never really gave a reason for it. Or like on
the first day they would always say that thing about, `We must learn history
in order not to repeat it,' which isn't really true if you end up, you know, a
silly person like me. Like they would teach us about Napoleon, so then I
would know not to invade Russia in winter, which I really don't use very

GROSS: I see your point.

Ms. VOWELL: Whereas if they just told you, `You know, you can learn about
this thing, and then the world is just full of all these stories. And
everywhere you go, you can feel part of this continuum,' or just the
perspective it gives. Like my whole motto in life in any situation is `It
could be worse.' And history is great for my motto, because in any situation,
it could always be worse if you know the stories of history.

Like one thing I think about all the time is Andersonville Prison, the
Confederate prison, you know. So if something doesn't go my way--I can't
get a cab in the rain, I just say to myself, `Andersonville,' and I imagine
myself dying of gangrene as a prisoner of war. And then I'd perk up.

GROSS: So love of history is in part a way to make you feel better about...

Ms. VOWELL: Yeah.

GROSS: ...facing the problems in your own life.

Ms. VOWELL: Yeah. I guess.

GROSS: My guest is Sarah Vowell. Her new book is called "The Partly Cloudy
Patriot." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Let's get back to our interview with Sarah Vowell. She's a
contributing editor for the public radio program "This American Life." Vowell
often writes about movies and music. Her new book "The Partly Cloudy Patriot"
is about her life as a history buff.

You go to a lot of historic landmarks. And you even do this on vacations.
What are some of the places you've visited in the past few years?

Ms. VOWELL: Let's see. Dallas, where Kennedy was shot. Salem--I love
Salem--where the witch trials happened. Little Bighorn battlefield--I've been
there maybe three times in the last two years. The Teddy Roosevelt cabin in
North Dakota. A lot of presidential libraries, including Nixon, Eisenhower,
Kennedy--somebody else--oh, Johnson, my favorite--Johnson. Yeah, Gettysburg.
I've been to Vicksburg. I was just somewhere--oh, Wounded Knee. I was just
at Wounded Knee on vacation this summer.

GROSS: In your book you write about how you spoke to a friend of yours about
your love for historical places and your emphasis on historical places that
have some kind of disaster attached to them. And the friend you talked to
about this is somebody who counsels people who survived torture.

Ms. VOWELL: Right.

GROSS: So what did you tell her? What did she tell you?

Ms. VOWELL: Well, I called her right after I got back from Salem--and I had a
really good time in Salem, but I felt kind of guilty about it. You know, like
one of my favorite things that happened in Salem was that I was at this gift
shop and a guy in the gift shop asked the cashier, `Hey, you got any
witchcraft trivets?' And she said, `You mean, a trivet with a witch on it?'
And I just thought that was really funny; you know, that this guy wanted--you
know, that this--I don't know.

I mean, it was horrible. This horrible thing happened here and 20 innocent
people were executed, but this guy wanted to remember it by buying a thing he
could protect his table from a burning saucepan with. And that just cracked
me up. But then I felt bad about it. And then I got--and I had such a good
time in Salem. And I mean, it's a really pretty town, and there's a lot to
do. And, you know, just it's kind of kooky, like the Witch Dungeon Museum and
things like that. And so I got home and I felt guilty, because, you know,
ultimately this whole town's tourism industry is based around the fact that 20
innocent people were executed.

And so I called my friend, Kate. And Kate is a psychologist with the program
for survivors of torture. And she's one of the funniest people I know, but
it's weird that she has this torture job talking to--she talks to people with
actual historical problems. So I called her with mine, which was, `Why do I
go to these places? And why don't I ever go anywhere fun? Why don't I go to
Hawaii or Martha's Vineyard or the Caribbean? Why I'm--you know, like I went
to the homestead of this elderly woman who was executed for witchcraft this
weekend, and had a great time. What is wrong with me?'

And she basically told me--well, she said, `It's not denial. It's the
opposite of denial.' And her idea was that I go to these places and I enjoy
them, but that my humor about them is full of--she called it--anxious giggles.
And that I use my--that I have an uneasy relationship with American history,
which I do, because it's really bloody and dark, besides being inspiring. And
that I go to these places and joke around and stuff, and I use humor as a way
of managing my anxiety.

GROSS: How does that strike you?

Ms. VOWELL: That seems about right. But I mean, I manage my anxiety a lot, I
guess. Yeah.

GROSS: Do you wonder what it would be like if, say, a couple of decades from
now, a young version of Sarah Vowell spends a holiday weekend at ground zero
and buys some souvenirs? Is that the kind of thing that you think about?

Ms. VOWELL: Well, I mean, yeah, that's my nightmare, but I think one thing
about historical places is the distance, you know. Like that makes me cringe
when you said that, because that just happened and it's still happening. And,
yeah, but there's something about distance that enables you to think about
them. But, I mean--and it's not completely sarcastic on my part. I don't
have a lot to offer the world. I have very limited talents. And one thing I
can do for the dead is I can remember them. And I'm not necessarily the
spokesperson they would want, but, you know, they got me anyway. And even
though I do joke around and have fun at places I'm not necessarily supposed to
have fun at, I do tell their stories, albeit in a very often peculiar way.

GROSS: Sarah Vowell is my guest. She has a new collection of pieces. And
it's called "The Partly Cloudy Patriot."

Now you mentioned parenthetically someplace in the book that you had a hearing
problem as a kid. What was the problem? And how was diagnosed? You love
music so much. Music is so much a part of your life.

Ms. VOWELL: That's how it was diagnosed. I was very small and I was--my
parents just thought I was really obstinate, because I would never do what
they would tell them. And one day I was watching "The Mickey Mouse Club" show
on TV, and there's that part that goes, `Forever let us hold our banner high.'
And I was singing, `For every little polar bear to hide.' And my mom was like
`What? What are you singing?' Because I think a bear was holding the banner,
so I was just taking clues, you know. And so then I had to get my hearing
checked, and then those tests just terrified me because I would just--I would
just fake my way--you know, where you hold your arm up...

GROSS: Right.

Ms. VOWELL: ...and I would just fake it the whole time. I couldn't hear
anything. And so--yeah, I had to get tubes in my ears for quite a while. I
think that might also--to like compound neuroses--it might be another reason
I'm afraid of water, because when you have tubes in your ears, you can't get
your ears wet. And so I was terrified of getting my ears wet. And, oh, it
happened so early and it was diagnosed so early, I think the whole thing was
taken care of by the time I was maybe five.

GROSS: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

Ms. VOWELL: And I still probably talk a little weird, but I don't know it
has anything to do with that. I think maybe it has to do with being raised by
Okies, but otherwise, yeah.

GROSS: Well, since we've established that you love music, I'm going to ask
you to choose something that you've been listening to lately that you really
love a lot that we can play to close.

Ms. VOWELL: Oh, let's see. This is such an opportunity. I really love Ricky
Nelson's "Lonesome Town."

GROSS: Oh, OK. Why have you been listening to it?

Ms. VOWELL: I just--I like those kind of panoramic, atmospheric songs like
that, you know. Kind of like Eddy Arnold's "Cattle Call," you know, that has
that yodeling at the beginning and there's just this kind of very American,
desolate, open feel.

GROSS: Now is Ricky Nelson somebody who you knew from childhood or somebody
who you caught up with later?

Ms. VOWELL: Yeah, I think my uncles were big rockabilly fans, so, yeah, I
heard him as a kid, but it's really only within the last couple of years that
I've come back to him.

GROSS: Well, a good choice.

Ms. VOWELL: Well, that...

GROSS: Thanks for choosing that.

Ms. VOWELL: Going to "Lonesome Town" is like coming home.

GROSS: OK. Sarah Vowell, thanks so much for talking with us.

Ms. VOWELL: Oh, thank you, Terry.

GROSS: Sarah Vowell's new book is called "The Partly Cloudy Patriot."

(Soundbite of "Lonesome Town")

Mr. RICKY NELSON: (Singing) There's a place where lovers go to cry their
troubles away, and they call it Lonesome Town, where the broken hearts stay.
You can buy a dream or two, last you all through the years, and the only price
you pay is a heart full of tears. Going down to Lonesome Town where the
broken hearts stay, going down to Lonesome Town to hide my troubles away. In
the town of broken dreams, streets are filled with regret. Maybe down in
Lonesome Town I can learn to forget. Maybe down in Lonesome Town I can learn
to forget.

Backup Singers: Lonesome Town.

GROSS: Coming up, jazz critic Kevin Whitehead reviews "Modernistic," the new
solo piano CD by Jason Moran. This is FRESH AIR.

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

Review: Jason Moran's new CD "Modernistic"

The 27-year-old jazz pianist Jason Moran has studied with keyboard modernists
Jackie Byard, Muhal Richard Abrams and Andrew Hill and recorded with veteran
jazz star Sam Rivers and Vaughn Freeman. For the last five years, he's also
enjoyed a close touring and recording collaboration with forward-looking
saxophonist Greg Osby. Moran's fourth album, his first solo record, is now
out. Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead says it's the one he's been waiting for.

(Soundbite of "Modernistic")


Jason Moran on stride pianist James P. Johnson's 1929 composition, "You've Got
to be Modernistic." It gave Moran the title for his new Blue Note CD,
"Modernistic," and set the tone for the whole program. `I'm not cutting edge
and avant-garde,' Moran says. `I'm modernistic. I bring new ideas to old
things.' That was Johnson's method, too. His tune combined old-fashioned
ragtime rhythms with then modern harmonies and whole-tone scales. James P.
Johnson respected and kidded the past at the same time. Jason Moran? Same

(Soundbite of "Modernistic")

WHITEHEAD: From the first, it was obvious that Jason Moran is a gifted piano
player, but he did have one bad habit. He'd ride the sustain pedal that lets
notes keep ringing after the fingers have moved off the keys. When he used it
too much, his sound could get muddy. But here he's banished that tick,
sounding more crisp even on the romantic numbers. His combination of original
and classic pieces lets you hear what he gets from and adds to his
inspirations. One unlikely classic he treats is the 1982 hip-hop breakthrough
"Planet Rock" by the Bronx's Afrika Bambaataa & Soul Sonic Force. Moran
evokes the rhythm of the rapping and a catchy riff sampled off an old
Kraftwerk record. He also prepares the piano by clipping small objects to or
wedging them between the strings for a nice snappy drum sound. You remember
the original?

(Soundbite of "Planet Rock")

AFRIKA BAMBAATAA & SOUL SONIC FORCE: (Singing) The Soul Sonic Force--Mr.
Biggs, Pow Wow and M.C. Globe. We emphasize the show, we got ego. Make this
your night, just slip it right, and by day as the people say, `Live it up,
shucks no work or play, our world is free,' be what you be--be.

(Soundbite of "Modernistic: Planet Rock")

WHITEHEAD: That's a nice example of how music can take on a totally different
character with a change of instrumentation. Jason Moran's version of "Planet
Rock" also touches on another project of his, translating the pitches and
rhythms of various spoken languages to piano. On his new CD he transforms
"Planet Rock" even further. Working on his arrangement, Moran came up with a
new bass line which grew into another piece even more removed from its source,
"Planet Rock Postscript." The hip-hop rhythm and sing-song tune are barely a

(Soundbite of "Modernistic: Planet Rock Postscript")

WHITEHEAD: That sequence says a lot about how Jason Moran's mind works,
making his CD "Modernistic" a sort of autobiography in progress. In an echo
of his early classical training, he plays a piece by 19th-century composer
Robert Schumak, shedding new light on his own more romantic stuff, which I
confess I like less than his flashier numbers. Jason Moran is a curious
listener who's humble about what he knows and what he doesn't, who's obviously
committed to long-term growth and who's able to fold widespread material into
a personal vision. That's enough to make him one of the rare up-and-comers
who make you optimistic for the future of jazz.

GROSS: Kevin Whitehead writes for the Chicago Reader and The Chicago
Sun-Times. He reviewed pianist Jason Moran's new solo CD, "Modernistic," on
Blue Note.

(Soundbite of "Modernistic")


GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
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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