"Pick Yourself Up: Dorothy Fields and the American Musical" By Charlotte Greenspan


The moon makes frequent appearances in love lyrics, be it a harvest moon, a blue moon, a desert moon or an old devil moon… Dorothy’s lyric [for “Don’t Blame Me”] has “doggone moon”, suggesting the singer’s discomfort, almost irritation, with being in love.  One can speculate that as a woman lyricist, Dorothy was especially careful to avoid the overly sentimental or overly earnest love ballad…  Even the most urbane of lyric writers, such as Cole Porter or Lorenz Hart, had their moments of purple prose, but Dorothy Fields seldom did. — from “Pick Yourself Up”

A fine romance, with no kisses! A fine romance, my friend, this is! We should be like a couple of hot tomatoes,
But you’re as cold as yesterday’s mashed potatoes…

"When You Live by a River" by Mermer Blakeslee


Open the spigot on the water faucet over any sink on Manhattan’s Park Avenue or in Harlem or The Bronx and clear, unfiltered water from Upstate New York will come pouring out.  Reservoirs in the Catskills provide parts of the USA’s biggest city with reputedly the finest water supply on Earth.  City folks with little knowledge of the Upstate regions still recognize names like Ashokan and Cannonsville, reservoirs that trickle 15 billion gallons of water a day to Gotham, the sites under constant surveillance by a special branch of the NYC Department of Environmental Protection Police and now further protected by political power against incursion by gas drilling. http://stream.publicbroadcasting.net/production/mp3/national/local-national-1021982.mp3

To build these reservoirs many miles of farmland had to be sacrificed and personal lives altered  That is some of the background for Mermer Blakeslee’s new novel “When You Live By a River”, which opens in 1931 just as the city was planning to expand its water supply.  The farmers and those who dwell along the East Branch of the Delaware are “not on edge, but on watch”. It was turning cold, but Digger could still smell the river.  It hadn’t frozen yet and it was low, down to the mudflats.  As a boy, when the weater dropped this low he’d roll his wagon down to the mud and spend a morning getting it stuck and pulling it out like he was three or four men.  A few times the wheels sunk in so deep, he had to run to the barn and get a shovel.  It never did turn to work, though — in that silt, a shovel seemed to dig of its own accord.  The river smell always brought him some relief.  As if his soul, like the East Branch, reached all the way up to the headwaters in Grand Gorge, and downriver too, through Peaceful Valley and into Shinhopple until just west of Fish’s Eddy, where it gave itself to the Delaware.  There, at the junction, he seemed to end.    –from “When You Live by a River”
The river may run past their farmland, but for the Benton family it only accompanies a flow of life.  This is the story of Leenie, a bright fifteen year old who “wasn’t cut out to be a farm girl”.  Her family saw a good teacher in her and thought she should go on to college.  Her uncle’s wife, Addie, died giving birth to a baby girl and Leenie is assigned the task of caring for and nursing the child, which also meant caring for Uncle Willis — known to all as “Digger”.  He has buried Addie beneath a plain stone by the riverbank.  As a reward for raising the child Leenie’s college expenses will be paid by Digger and other family members and friends.  Leenie goes to Vassar, earns a degree, visits back home as the waters start to rise.  The author’s sense of setting and her feeling for her characters is impeccable.  An excerpt from “When  You Live by a River” won the 2006 Narrative Prize from Narrative Magazine.

"Putting the Barn Before the House" By Grey Osterud


At the dawn of the 20th century 38% of the US labor force was in agriculture.  In 1950 it was 12.2%.  By the start of the current century a mere 2% of the workforce can be found on the farm, and that may include someone who takes visitors on tours.  Most people today have never been to an actual producing farm and tourism has become the latest sideline.  So during the first half of the 20th century, farm population declined while productivity rose till today, according to the American Farm Bureau, each farmer can feed himself and 155 others. Or herself and 155 others. http://stream.publicbroadcasting.net/production/mp3/national/local-national-1021479.mp3

The family farm is still a genuine American institution, and the family gathered around the farmhouse dinner table with fresh meat and produce from their own land remains a beloved image.  That scene always includes “Ma” in her apron presenting a succulent roast chicken on an heirloom Knowles china serving dish.  But women’s roles were and are more varied and a new study of women and farming tells how the needs of farm labor and family structure both coincided and collided.  The book is called “Putting the Barn Before the House” and it traces the history of agriculture in the first half of the 20th century as experienced by women and their families in the Nanticoke Valley of Broome County, NY. The author is award-winning historian Grey Osterud, who began her research some thirty years ago while teaching at SUNY-Binghamton. At that time there were women still farming in the towns of Maine and Nanticoke, just north of the Triple Cities, who had lived through the technlogical, agricultural and social changes of the century and vividly recounted those developments.  Dr. Osterud also discovered extensive diaries, journals and letters that add detail of day-to-day life across many years. “Did I rake hay!  Get on the hay rake in the morning and never get off till noon and night.  My boys had to be taken care of by my husband’s brother; he was maybe eight or nive years old, and he used to wheel him around.  My husband’s mother had to work, too, out in the hayfield.”