Public Domain Day advent calendar #21: Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out by Jimmie Cox

The winter solstice arrives today in the US, the day when the sun is down and out of sight for the longest time all year. It’s a good day to break out a song with a similar theme that also comes around year after year, “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out”, by Jimmie Cox.

Just as the seasons change as the sun gets higher and lower through the year, the narrator of this blues standard finds his company to be quite different when living the life of a free-spending millionaire than when falling on hard times.  It’s a sentiment that many of the song’s listeners could relate to.

Cox published and copyrighted the song in 1923 (with the title in the registration record saying “…When You Are Down and Out”, eschewing contractions like no one I’ve heard singing the song).  Its first known recording, by Blind Bobby Baker, didn’t come out until 1927.   But in 1929, Bessie Smith released her own recording just in time for the big crash of the stock market that heralded the start of the Great Depression.  The combination of her performance and the sudden topicality of the song for many listeners made it a big hit.

Since then, the song has been performed and recorded by a wide array of musicans, keeping it fresh even as other songs I’ve discussed so far in this calendar seem more tied to their time.  Wikipedia’s list of artists who’ve covered the song reads like a Who’s Who of popular musicians of the last century, with names like Count Basie, Leadbelly, Janis Joplin, Odetta, Sam Cooke, Nina Simone, and Otis Redding.  I’m probably most familiar with Eric Clapton’s version, which is a staple of his live performances, and still gets played on the radio fairly often.

For me, the song is also a reminder that while the world often is the way that the singer relates, it shouldn’t be that way.  True friends stick together, and support each other both when they’re riding high and when they’ve fallen low.  Gary Burnett discusses the song in his “Down at the Crossroads” blues and faith blog, and notes that those of us celebrating Christmas as a religious holiday in a few days are particularly reminded not to ignore the down and out.  In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus makes it clear that he will consider our treatment of the “least ones” to be how we treat him, and that if we simply invoke the name of the Lord without doing his will, he may say to us “I never knew you”.

“Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out” joins the public domain in the US eleven days from now.  By then the sun should be making notably longer appearances in the sky here.  I hope, and plan to work, for brighter days for all of us in the year to come. And I hope that a growing public domain will be at least a small part of that.




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Public Domain Day advent calendar #20: The Vanishing American by Zane Grey

The American West has long been a cherished place of myth in American imagination. Frederick Jackson Turner may have pronounced the western frontier “closed” in 1893, but in the decades that followed, stories set in the frontier-era Western US, with varying degrees of resemblance to the actual historical West, made up one of the most popular American fictional genres.  Owen Wister set many of the conventions of the Western genre with his 1902 novel, The Virginian, and many other authors followed in his footsteps.  One of the most popular of those authors was Zane Grey, who’d found success with novels like Riders of the Purple Sage.  By the 1920s his reliably popular books were not only selling widely, but were also frequently adapted for film and radio.

In 1922 and 1923, however, Zane Grey tried publishing a story that didn’t hew to the expectations of his audience, and caught enough grief for it that he eventually retreated to safer, if less sincere, territory.  The Vanishing American, his first novel with a Native American protagonist, began running in serial form in the November 1922 issue of the Ladies Home Journal.  Over six installments, Nophaie seeks reunion with his people after having been separated from them by whites at a young age, but finds them exploited by government agents and Christian missionaries, and himself changed enough from his separation that he can’t go back to living among them as before.  Eventually, he meets Marian, a white missionary, and they fall in love, and make plans to marry (while discussing frankly the problems they expect their “half-breed” children to face).  The story ends with Nophaie lamenting the “vanishing” of his race, but if he ends up being “absorbed” by Marian’s love and their children, “it is well!”

Many Native Americans, as well as many other present-day readers, may look askance at the “vanishing” trope that Grey uses for his Native American characters.  But in the 1920s, that wasn’t the cause of the loudest protests.  Westerns were written largely for a white Christian audience, and letters from them started pouring into the Journal complaining about the general portrayal of the Christian missionary characters.  The Bureau of Indian Affairs likewise denounced the book’s description of their work.  And in an era of increasingly prominent white supremacist movements (as I noted in a previous post), a mixed-race marriage was not what many white readers were ready to see as a happy ending, whether it involved “absorption” or not.

Something had to give, if the story was going to turn into the popular film and best-selling book that his publisher and film company now expected.  Ultimately, Grey agreed to change his story rather than forgo expectations. In the film adaptation, delayed until 1925, a designated villain was given the bad qualities that the missionaries and officials had more generally in the original story, and the Native American protagonist ends up dead rather than wed.  Grey also made changes for the book version that came out the same year.  He didn’t sanitize as much as the movie did, but he still changed the ending, making his protagonist die on the page as he does on the screen.  “This is the first time in my life I have been driven away from the truth,” he lamented in a letter to his editor, “from honor and ideals, and in this case, from telling the world of the tragedy of the Indian.  It is a melancholy thing.”

You can still find the book The Vanishing American for sale online, and in many libraries, but you may well end finding the sanitized version.  The first three magazine installments are in the public domain now, and 12 days from now the last three will join them.  Once that happens, the story as Zane Grey meant to tell it will be free for all to read and evaluate for themselves.

(My thanks to Thomas Pauly’s 2005 biography Zane Grey: His Life, His Adventures, His Women, for most of the information I relate here about Grey and his novel.)

2019 update: Link to full text of The Vanishing American as published in the Ladies Home Journal in 1922 and 1923, now in the US public domain.  The link goes to scans of issues provided by HathiTrust.  One correction from my original post: The ending even in this serialization is different from Grey’s original ending, though also different in some ways from the movie and the 1925 book publication.  Pauly’s description of Grey’s original ending is based on a later book edition published in 1982, with an introduction Zane Grey’s son Loren.

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Public Domain Day advent calendar #19: Souls for Sale (photoplay) by Rupert Hughes

“Anything you can do, I can do meta” is a quip that’s been gleefully adopted (literally or in spirit) by philosophers, geeky computer scientists, and performers.  It’s a tweak of a line from Annie Get Your Gun, a show about show business, and a reminder of how we often enjoy entertainment that’s in some way about itself.  Some of Hollywood’s most acclaimed movies are themselves about the movies, such as Singin’ in the Rain, Sunset Boulevard, and La La Land.

Robert Hughes’ Souls for Sale (1923) is an early silent movie in that tradition that will be joining the public domain in the US thirteen days from now.  It’s a Hollywood movie about Hollywood, the movies it made, and the scandalous behavior it was already known for.  Based on Hughes’ 1922 novel of the same title (now readable online), it features aspiring actors, jealous and murderous lovers, and directors who insist on keeping the cameras rolling through danger and disaster in order to get the perfect shot.  Many of the stars of the silent era make appearances in the film, either as featured characters or in cameo roles.  For instance, the film shows Charlie Chaplin, as himself, filming a scene from A Woman of Paris, one of his 1923 films that will also be joining the public domain in January.  The film even turns its sardonic commentary on itself.  After a character on a train makes a head-scratching (but plot-advancing) decision not to do anything about his bride’s sudden disappearance, a title card appears asking “Why didn’t he tell the conductor and stop the train?”

Souls for Sale was popular when it was released, but isn’t as well-known today as the other films about Hollywood that I mention above.  That may be in part because it disappeared for decades, and until recently was believed to be one of the many “lost forever” films from the silent era that I noted in a previous calendar post.  Luckily, prints were eventually found in various vaults, and the film was restored, in time for Roger Ebert to see it and write a memorable appreciation of the film in 2009 for his “Great Movies” series.

Unfortunately, many other films and videos, both from that era and from much later, have not escaped the fate we once thought this movie had suffered.  Limited numbers of copies combined with fragile media doom much of our audiovisual cultural memory to oblivion, unless active steps are taken to preserve it.  An article in the latest issue of the Science History Institute’s Distillations magazine describes the ways in which various film technologies remain vulnerable to deterioration.  Videotape also degrades faster than many people think; a 1995 CLIR report for libraries warns that tapes can easily deteriorate beyond use within 10-30 years.

The migration of audiovisual media to the digital realm introduces new preservation problems.  While digital video files can be refreshed through copying, those in digital-restriction management (DRM) formats, like much of what’s released to consumers, may not be easily replayed or reformatted, particularly if the DRM scheme becomes obsolete, as eventually tends to happen.   Even when DRM is not an issue, the specialized, high-information formats that are often used in video and movie production (and which are often the best sources for later remastering for new technology) can become unsupported alarmingly fast.  Apple recently posted a warning to users of Final Cut Pro and Motion, two software packages popular with many video creators, that many formats they supported would no longer be viewable or convertible after installing versions of macOS released after Mojave.

The perils for audiovisual content are severe enough that in 2014 Joshua Ranger posted a plea to libraries and archives to stop digitizing paper, and redirect their resources to preserving what they can of their more rapidly deteriorating audiovisual holdings.  But even if libraries don’t shift their priorities that radically, they can still invest in relatively low-cost equipment and services for rescuing not only their own audiovisual works, but also those of their users.  Examples of such services include the portable PROUD and PRAVDA systems developed at the University of Wisconsin, and the Memory Lab services offered by the DC Public Library.

Once works enter the public domain, the legal barriers to copying them drop, and preservation through propagation can become much easier.  With long copyrights and short shelf-lives for audiovisual works, we in cultural institutions have a lot of work to do to ensure that the works we should preserve outlive their copyrights.  In less than two weeks, though, we can celebrate, and copy, Souls for Sale and other 1923 films that have done so.

2019 update: Link to full silent video of Souls for Sale, now in the US public domain, at the Internet Archive.

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Public Domain Day advent calendar #18: The Art Spirit by Robert Henri

“Art when really understood is the province of every human being.”

That’s the opening sentence of The Art Spirit, a book of articles, notes, and addresses by Robert Henri, an American painter and art teacher.   One of the key figures in the Ashcan School of art drawn from everyday life, Henri stressed the importance of art that did not limit itself to elite audiences or subjects, or imitate existing styles.  “The whole value of art,” he says in the book, “is in the artist’s ability to see well into what is before him.”  Technique is important to effectively express what the artist sees, he says, noting that an artist may need to “invent technique that will especially fit his need” to make “the most precise statement”.  But the effectiveness of art, as Henri sees it, ultimately flows from the insight and perception of the artist, who looks beyond obvious surface features.  “A genius is one who can see,” he says.

Henri’s book has stayed in print in multiple editions since its initial 1923 publication.  His teaching has influenced generations of artists in a variety of fields, including fellow painters like Edward Hopper as well as filmmakers like David Lynch.   Maria Popova has a good summation of Henri’s philosophy in a 2013 post on her BrainPickings blog, “Beloved Painter and Philosopher Robert Henri on How Art Binds Us Together”.

The Art Spirit was edited by Margery Ryerson, who had been a student of Henri’s.  (One section in the book is entirely made up of notes she took in Henri’s classes.)  Ryerson went on to be an influential artist and teacher in her own right, and you can see many of her paintings and a tribute catalog online.  One can see in her career the principle that Henri stated, and that Popova restates in her post, of creativity building on the work of past creators: “All any man can hope to do is to add his fragment to the whole… He belongs to a great brotherhood, bears great kinship to his kind. He takes and he gives. He benefits by taking and he benefits by giving.”

In 14 days, the book that Henri and Ryerson created will be given to the public domain in the US.  I hope that artists of all kinds will be able to take things of value from it, to help them in turn give their own creations to the world.

2019 update: Link to full text of The Art Spirit, now in the US public domain, courtesy of HathiTrust.

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Public Domain Day advent calendar #17: Jeeves by P. G. Wodehouse

Prolific humorist P. G. Wodehouse has many fans, both in his native Britain and in his adopted home in the United States.  Due to our differing copyright laws, we in the US get his early work in the public domain first, but the UK will get his later work before we do.  His first published novel, The Pothunters (1902), has been in the public domain here since 1958.  The works from the end of Wodehouse’s career won’t be public domain here until the start of the 2070s, while they’ll join the public domain in the UK along with the rest of his works in 2046.

Wodehouse’s most famous creation is Jeeves, the ultra-competent valet to a less-competent Bertie Wooster, an idle rich English gentleman who gets into many difficult situations with various friends and relations.  Jeeves is often the person who gets Bertie out of those scrapes, winning Bertie’s frequent adulation. “A most amazing cove,” says Bertie of Jeeves.  “So dashed competent in every respect”.

The basic character of Jeeves is in the public domain in the US, having first appeared in print in the story “Extricating Young Gussie” in the September 18, 1915 issue of The Saturday Evening Post.  Jeeves continued to appear in various stories throughout the rest of Wodehouse’s career, making his final bow in Aunts Aren’t Gentlemen (1974; published in the US as The Cat-Nappers).

In 1923, Wodehouse took 11 Jeeves stories that had previously appeared in magazines and turned them into a novel of sorts, published in the UK as The Inimitable Jeeves and in the US simply as JeevesJeeves is the name used in the book’s 1923 copyright registration, and in its 1950 renewal. The magazine stories are already in the public domain in the US, having appeared in The Strand, The Saturday Evening Post, and Cosmopolitan between June 1918 and December 1922.  Wodehouse was still entitled to claim copyright on changes he had made for the book version, however.

Wodehouse’s changes for Jeeves seem to be mostly intended to create a “fix-up”, with more continuity between the stories than they had in their original separate publications.  For instance, the “Purity of the Turf” chapter in the book starts with a couple of new paragraphs connecting it with earlier incidents, and then continues as the magazine version does.  Sometimes, though, Wodehouse made more significant changes between magazine and book versions.  The serialized magazine version of Leave it to Psmith, Wodehouse’s other major 1923 work, and the last to feature another of his well-known characters, has a notably different ending than the revised book version does.

In 15 days, we’ll have both the first Jeeves novel and the last Psmith novel joining the public domain in the US.  With both of those becoming free next month, I can see American Wodehouse fans then thinking to themselves as Bertie Wooster does in one of the Jeeves stories, “I can’t remember having been chirpier”.

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Public Domain Day advent calendar #16: Emily of New Moon by Lucy Maud Montgomery

“For one glorious, supreme moment, came ‘the flash.’ … It couldn’t be described–not even to Father, who always seemed a little puzzled by it. Emily never spoke of it to any one else. It had always seemed to Emily, ever since she could remember, that she was very, very near to a world of wonderful beauty. Between it and herself hung only a thin curtain; she could never draw the curtain aside–but sometimes, just for a moment, a wind fluttered it and then it was as if she caught a glimpse of the enchanting realm beyond–only a glimpse–and heard a note of unearthly music.”

By 1920, Canadian writer Lucy Maud Montgomery had an extremely popular heroine who she was tired of writing about.  Anne of Green Gables, her first book, had been an instant success when it was published in 1908, and Montgomery soon issued a number of sequels featuring the plucky orphan Anne Shirley, her friends and relations, and the town of Avonlea where she lived.  In 1921, Montgomery announced that Rilla of Ingleside, a novel about the experiences of Anne’s daughter in the first World War, would be the last “Anne” book.

In 1923, Montgomery introduced a new orphan heroine, Emily Starr, in Emily of New Moon.  Emily was in some ways more like her author than Anne was.  Like Montgomery, Emily was a writer, and aspired to write professionally.  “I think I shall be either a great poetess or a distinguished novelist,” Emily says to Dean Priest, a young man she meets in this book, and with whom she would have a complicated relationship in the book’s two sequels.

But another resemblance of the character to the author was the fleeting feelings of transcendent joy she would sometimes experience, which she called ‘the flash’.  The quote at the top of this post is how it’s described in Emily of New Moon.  Montgomery describes a similar experience in her 1917 autobiography, The Alpine Path, where she writes “I caught a glimpse of the enchanting realm beyond – only a glimpse – but those glimpses have always made life worth while.”  It’s an experience that others have had as well.  Brenton Dickieson compares it to the ineffable “joy” that C. S. Lewis relates in his autobiography as experiencing in his youth.  In The Alpine Path, Montgomery’s description of that “enchanting realm” appear alongside her appreciation of nature and her passionate fondness of reading, suggesting that both of those pleasures could be occasions of that ‘flash’.

Sadly, much of Montgomery’s later life was not so joyful.  She suffered increasingly severe outbreaks of depression, exacerbated by her husband’s worsening mental illness and the stress she felt about the developments of the second World War, and her mental and physical pain appears to have been what killed her, directly or indirectly, in 1942.

Emily of New Moon was copyrighted in 1923, with a renewal filed in 1951.  Like the other creative works we’ve now spent half of December discussing, it will join the public domain in the US 16 days from now.  I hope that some of them may be occasions for flashes of joy or inspiration in many of us.  If there are works that have done that for you, whether or not they’re part of the imminent public domain cohort, I’d love to hear about them.

2019 update: Link to full text of Emily of New Moon, now in the US public domain, courtesy of Project Gutenberg Australia.


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Public Domain Day advent calendar #15: Keen by Edna St. Vincent Millay

“Weep him dead and mourn as you may,
Me, I sing as I must:
Blessed be Death, that cuts in marble
What would have sunk to dust! ”

The poems of Edna St. Vincent Millay made frequent appearances in print in the early 20th century.  She first caught the public’s attention in 1912 with her poem “Renascence”, written while she was still a teenager.  In 1923 she won the Pulitzer Prize for various works of poetry that she had published the previous year.  The works specifically recognized were The Ballad of the Harp-Weaver, A Few Figs from Thistles, and a group of sonnets that appeared in American Poetry: A Miscellany. All were published in 1922 and are in the public domain now.

Her published output didn’t slow down in 1923.  In the 1950 Catalog of Copyright Entries I find renewals for several of her poems published in well-known magazines during 1923, all of which will be joining the public domain 17 days from now.  One 1923 poem that particularly sticks with me is “Keen”, which was published in the July 1923 issue of the Century magazine.  The first stanza, quoted at the top of this post, sets the mood of the poem, which takes cold comfort in the sudden death of a loved one lost at sea.  At least, the narrator muses, I’ll remember the happiness of the relationship we had, which never had time to deteriorate.

Millay herself died suddenly in 1950 at the age of 58, and was discovered at the bottom of a staircase in her home.  A number of friends and relatives of mine have also lost loved ones around this time of year.  If those close to Millay were like them, I think that given the choice, they’d want to stay with her longer, even if joys like the poem’s “summer month” did not last.   And I think the narrator of the poem, who sings “as I must”, might ultimately agree.  But without the power to make that choice, the narrator continues to hold this small bit of consolation “to my heart”.

In 17 days, we’ll have this poem and several others by Millay joining the public domain in the US.  I hope we all will be around to enjoy them then.  And I hope that even before then, we can all spend some meaningful time with those around us who we love.

2019 update: Link to full text of “Keen” as published in the July 1923 issue of The Century Magazine now in the US public domain, courtesy of HathiTrust.

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