Saturday, August 27, 2011

He Wants It Back!

And I hope he gets it back.

Three days ago, former Nebraska State Sen. Ernie Chambers announced that he wanted to get his seat back from his District 11 (Omaha's north side of town) predecessor, Brenda Council (a one-time Omaha City Council member who twice- unsuccessfully- ran for mayor here in town during the 1990s).

Chambers (he's a barber by trade) first was elected to this state's legislature in 1970; after taking the oath of office in January 1971, the Creighton Law School graduate went on to serve another 38 years...the longest tenure of any state senator in Nebraska history.

Here's the reason:

Chambers has spent his whole professional life speaking up for this state's rank-and-file citizens...especially Nebraska's downtrodden people.

He'd still be in Nebraska's Unicameral right now...except in 2000, most of those Cornhusker Staters who went to the polls that November decided it was time to put term limits on the state's senators.

As a result, if you're a Nebraskan and you want to be a state senator (yep, it's a $12,000-a-year gig), you're restricted to a pair of four-year terms. Want to get back in once the eight years are up (if you didn't get voted out of office first)? Wait another four years.

That's what gives Ernest W. Chambers the legal right to run next year for his old seat in America's sole one-chamber legislature.

If you've ever seen a 1966 documentary called "A Time for Burning," you might remember watching Chambers (cutting a customer's hair) talking to an official from Augustana Lutheran a time when (let's face it!) Omaha was running neck-and-neck with Birmingham, AL in housing discrimination.

When your state's got a one-chamber legislature, the chances are more likely that a lot of bills that really don't help citizens in your state will get to become law than in a state with a two-chamber government. In America's other 49 states, their senates often act as checks-and-balances to those states' houses of representatives (and vice versa).

Here in the state that gave us Carl Curtis and Jim Exon, the state's voters are supposedly the legislature's buffer.

For 38 years, Ernie Chambers was a much more effective buffer than any group of voters.

He helped make sure a lot of bad bills didn't get out of committee, let alone become law.

Dig this: In the two years since Chambers last served as a state senator, lots of those questionable bills got proposed; some even became law. (For example, Sen. Charlie Janssen of Fremont introduced a bill allegedly designed to curtail illegal immigration here in the state where Taylor Martinez is finishing up his formal education...but the bill was really set up to allow Nebraska's law enforcement officials to use ethnic profiling, a la Arizona's bill. And earlier this year, another bill was announced designed to restrict the presidential and vice presidential field to those candidates whose parents were born here in the United States. And then there was the bill designed to abandon Nebraska's "winner take all" system of allocating electoral votes...because John McCain didn't get to pocket all five of the state's electoral votes in 2008. On top of all this, you've got a bill calling for teachers and school administrators to carry guns to class!)

Chambers will tell you that many of the things that should've gotten done in the Unicameral these last two years (such as a few remaining state senators not fighting hard enough to keep bills out there that DO help most Nebraskans) haven't been getting done...and that's why he wants back in.

Nope...I don't live in EWC's district (I live in District 23). I still admire him because he speaks his mind and makes a lot of sense.

Common sense is what Chambers brings to the table. He wants people to start using their minds more and start thinking for themselves more; in addition, he wants us to start fighting for the things we really want instead of waiting on Someone Else to hand them to us.

CTI (Cox Cable Channel 22 here in the Big O) just got through rerunning his Tuesday night call-in program. Ernie talked about how we've become reluctant to vote whenever there's an election...yet we want to start petition drives (especially a drive to wipe out the law that makes affirmative action illegal here in the state that gave us Bob Gibson and Gale Sayers).

Can't sign a petition of this kind if you're not a registered voter.

Yes, there's a big hole in the Nebraska Legislature now that Ernie Chambers isn't a part of that legislature anymore...and, as he likes to put it, nobody's really stepped up in Lincoln to speak up for those America's Establishment likes to step on. (Sadly...that also means Council.)

And I hope he gets back in next year.

This state's legislature could use a real wake-up call.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

One Fine Day...and Night (Part 2)

Well, the lone workshop at the 2011 Ragtime to Riches Festival went fine.

The next measuring stick for the festival happened immediately afterwards...and that stick was the first of two concerts at this year's event at Omaha's First Central Congregational United Church of Christ.

And I felt really at home up there...really comfortable.

I started my one-hour set with 1899's "Tickled to Death," written by Charles Hunter (a man who also went by the name Robert Hampton). That number got included because I felt lucky that the folks at First Central UCC came to R to R's rescue.

"Tickled to Death" was also the first competition piece I ever heard at Illinois' World Championship Old-Time Piano Playing Contest. I started going to that event in 1993, when it was held at the then Holiday Inn in Decatur, IL; that year, thirteen-year-old Julie Ann Smith (who was still living in and going to school in her home town of Hastings, NE) got the competition going by playing "Tickled to Death." (Julie Ann grew up to become one of the world's top classical harpists.)

Julie Ann...thanks for getting me interested in learning "Tickled to Death!" 

Wanted to get in a tune that marked a first of some kind, so I followed "TTD" with Bob Cole's 1906 biggie, "Under the Bamboo Tree." (Bob was one of the first African-American songwriters in Tin Pan Alley history...and one of the first to hit it big in that Alley.)

This time, I felt comfortable enough to do five rags in my eleven-song set (including "Funny Folks," the 1914 W.C. Polla rag I botched up at the 2009 OTPP Contest- the last time I'd been able to make it to the Hotel Pere Marquette in Peoria, IL, OTPP's current home).

When I put together a set, I like to get this time, I managed to get a dig in on two now former US representatives from New York- Chris Lee (R) and Anthony Weiner (D). (Okay...I dedicated one of Irving Berlin's first songs to the two ex-lawmakers. The song was..."Telling Lies," a 1910 number where Irving's words were set to Henriette Blanke-Belcher's music.)

And since I had the local weather and the flooding taking place along the Missouri River on my mind, I added Nellie Stokes' 1906 rag, "Snowball."

Well, it was all that snow in North Dakota that triggered the flooding along the Mighty Mo.

NCAA baseball's Division 1 World Series had wrapped up (South Carolina won it again, this time sweeping Florida)...and that's why Scott Joplin's "The Easy Winners" (from 1901) and a 1915 novelty from Ray Sherwood and Bert Rule, "I'm Goin' Back to Old Nebraska (Goodbye)," got in there.

And I closed it all out with "Golden Slippers," James Bland's 1853 winner that they used to play all the time on Gunsmoke. (A month before this year's R to R, James Arness died...a year after his younger brother Peter Graves passed away.)

Well, that was it...and Burns Davis picked up the baton and took R to R 7.0 home.

This time, Burns came up with a five-part concert, "From There to Here;" in it, the Californian-turned-Nebraskan spotlighted rags that contrast changes and reflect similarities in rag styles.

Burns (she's a massage therapist in Lincoln when she isn't playing piano or organ) kicked her set off with folk rags, topping it all off with 2000's "Sutter Creek Strut," the final rag written by another Golden Stater-turned-Cornhusker Stater, the late Gil Lieby (who died two years before Peter Graves did).

Dance rags were next up to bat...and they included, if I remember right, Joseph Lamb's final composition, 1960's "Ragtime Bobolink."

Burns' elegant style of playing continued on in the third segment of "From There to Here;" this segment consisted of three marches/two-steps, led off by Scott Joplin's 1908 "Pine Apple Rag."

Then it was rags based on blues. Two of the four such tunes that made it into Burns' concert were Kathi Backus' 1985 "Omaha Blues" (you don't have to be a Nebraskan to love it) and a number that David Thomas Roberts wrote five years later, "Roberto Clemente." (That one's one of the most poignant rags ever devised...and you don't have to be a baseball fan to appreciate this most famous of all the rags David's come up with.)

The last four rags put over in this year's festival fall into the category Burns called "Band Shell, Bring on the Brass Band, Rags."

Lincoln's massage therapist-church organist-ragtimer started this subset with another 1908 tune, May Aufderheide's "The Richmond Rag." (Me, I'm still working on getting the hang of that one!) The next number, Max Morath's rousing "The Vindicator Rag," also stood did the last song in R to R 7.0, the piece that put rags on the map for good.

Nope...not "The Entertainer."

It was "Maple Leaf Rag."

One of the things the audience enjoyed about Burns Davis' concert was how she, from time to time, passed around the sheet music she was playing from. Because of that, we got a chance to see exactly what the composers were out to convey when they put these selections together...especially the effects the Scotts and Josephs and Mays and Maxes built into their rags.

Speaking of built...this time, Burns and I had two pianos to choose from: A Mason & Hamlin grand from the 1920s and an Anderson & Newton upright from, I'm guessing, the turn of the 20th Century (if not the 1890s).

Instead of clashing, the two pianos were in tune with each other. Matter of fact, the A&N upright turned out to be the hit of the least that's what one of the audience members told me.

The secret was...well, after the workshop about Maceo Pinkard ended, all the talk about Tin Pan Alley gave me the idea of sticking a thumb tack into each of the upright's hammers for that tinny sound. (Don't worry...all the tacks got removed from the Van Wert, OH-built piano before the church emptied out.)

The next day, I made it over to the Omaha Street School and handed staff member Tami Saunders the R to R proceeds- $100. (Man, the staff was happy to get the dough!)

And I'm happy that we were able to pull off a festival that had to find a replacement venue FAST.

On top of that, I can't wait 'til we get to do it all over again in 2012...and I hope you can join us.