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Posts Tagged ‘American history’

Jack Kerouac on The Steve Allen Show (1959)

Friday, October 23rd, 2015

In 1959, writer Jack Kerouac and musician Steve Allen cut a record, Poetry for the Beat Generation.

Jack Kerouac has long been one of my favorite American novelists, whose importance and value has only become more apparent with each passing decade. We also share the same birthday, which has always pleased me, and like many young people, when I was in college, I devoured Kerouac’s work, most especially his epic novel Desolation Angels, which was written in the early to mid 1950s, but only published in 1965, after the enormous success of his most popular novel, On The Road (1957).

It’s become fashionable, in some circles, to dismiss Kerouac’s work, the bulk of which was written long before it appeared in print, “published [only] in heaven” as Allen Ginsberg put it – and then, in the aftermath of On The Road, publishers were suddenly eager to print everything he’d written up until then – thank goodness. And so the work of a lifetime came tumbling out.

One of the most quoted jibes of Kerouac’s work comes from Truman Capote, who famously remarked of the non-stop writing blast that produced On The Road, “That’s not writing, that’s typing.” It’s a clever riposte, but it seems to me that in the end, Capote’s claim to lasting literary value lies only with a few books, in particular the “non-fiction” novel In Cold Blood, whereas Kerouac’s vision, which literally encompassed all of American culture, is a sprawling, multi-layered, deeply penetrating look at the society, and the values of the era he lived in.

Kerouac’s style – pure bop writing – is heavily indebted to the art of jazz riffing. Sometimes he’s simply writing to fill up the page, but the best of Kerouac’s work – On the Road, Doctor Sax, The Dharma Bums, Mexico City Blues, The Subterraneans, Desolation Angels, and Visions of Cody – repays repeated readings, and stands as a monument to Kerouac’s passion and restless intensity, which did not mix well with the pressures of overnight fame. Becoming a heavy drinker as he coped with instant celebrity, Kerouac died at the age of 47, yet still managed to leave behind a unique, and utterly compelling body of work.

So it’s nice to see this archival clip from The Steve Allen Show in 1959, in which a visibly nervous Kerouac recites some of his poetry as Allen accompanies him on piano – telling a few jokes along the way in an attempt to ease his guest’s palpable uneasiness – which is some of the only footage of Kerouac reciting his work in existence. Allen, a gifted musician and television personality of the era, made it his business to showcase rising talent – Elvis Presley and Frank Zappa come immediately to mind – and the album that resulted from their collaboration (now available on CD) is a vital and impressive piece of work – and here’s the proof.

Indeed, Kerouac is, for me, sort of an “acid test” of someone’s reaction to American writing – he comes from the tradition of Walt Whitman, Thomas Wolfe and other authentic visionaries (as he makes clear to Allen in this clip) – and Kerouac is simply driven to put down on paper the experiences of his life, and has no time for traditional prose forms. His work flows from one sentence to the next in a sweep of nearly inexhaustible improvisation, and thus he leaves himself open to rather ordinary criticism – “not enough discipline,” “dashed off,” “free form” and the like.

But that’s just the point – Kerouac is clearly working out of a driving need to create, over which he almost has no control – he was compelled to put his life down on paper. As he famously wrote in On The Road, “the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars,” adding later that “I want to work in revelations, not just spin silly tales for money. I want to fish as deep down as possible into my own subconscious in the belief that once that far down, everyone will understand because they are the same that far down.”

So here it is – Jack Kerouac and Steve Allen – a transcendent moment in American culture.

Lost Speech by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Found — Listen Here

Monday, January 20th, 2014

A lost speech from 1962 by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. has been discovered; both on audiotape, and the text.

On Martin Luther King Day, it’s both appropriate and fitting that a newly discovered speech by Dr. King has been released to the public, and presented in a video that allows one to follow along with Dr. King’s speech, as an audio track, while also viewing the text he is reading. As Ashley Hupfl reports in USA Today, “the New York State Museum has unearthed a long-lost audio recording of a 1962 speech from the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., state officials announced Monday. An intern found the recording as museum staff worked on digitizing thousands of audio and video recordings in its collection, [and it] has been posted to the museum’s website.

‘This is a remarkable treasure,’ state Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch said in a statement. ‘More than 50 years later, Dr. King’s voice has come back to life.’ The speech was recorded Sept. 12, 1962, at the Park-Sheraton Hotel in New York City, where Gov. Nelson Rockefeller had convened his state Civil War Centennial Commission. It was delivered at a dinner celebrating the 100-year anniversary of the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation [. . .]

During the talk, King previewed many of the themes he would return to the following year in his ‘Letter from a Birmingham Jail’ and his ‘I Have a Dream’ speech at the Lincoln Memorial during the March on Washington. The online exhibit includes a manuscript of the speech and the original event program. The audio is the only known recording of the 1962 address.”

You can hear, and see, the entire text by clicking on the link above; this is a find of inestimable importance.

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About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. All comments by Dixon on this blog are his own opinions. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at or

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