The Carnival Barker: Recalling a Dying Art

Fairs–that is, open-air public festivals at which entertainment is provided for a price–are both a current phenomenon and a tradition dating to ancient Rome. Fairs tend to be held in rural areas–there is already sufficient amusement in cities–and they serve as occasions for the loosening of inhibitions that bind fairgoers in their everyday lives.

Southwark Fair by William Hogarth (1697-1764)


There to encourage the fairgoer to depart from his workaday virtues of thrift and reserve is the carnival barker. At the lowest level of the profession, he encourages children and adults to part with their money in the hope of winning hopeless games of chance. At the higher reaches of the guild, he entices farmers and tradesmen to inspect deformed beasts–the six-legged pig, the two-peckered billy goat; to contemplate without embarrassment a human oddity; or to purchase a ticket to a show featuring music and dancing girls.

Barkers are, within the world of the traveling carnival, the most learned of professions, glib persuaders. The grizzled carney who takes tickets on the Tilt-a-Whirl is a ditch-digger compared to the lawyerly status achieved by a barker who can coax people into a tent to look at Lizard Boy, the bearded fat lady, Jo-Jo the Dog-Faced Boy, or the bored hermaphrodite.

The licentious atmosphere that fairs create has historically resulted in public disturbances, causing governments and the respectable burghers whom they serve to regulate fairs by means of charters; one town is granted the right to hold a fair for a certain number of days, usually at the end of the summer harvest, since fairs often include competitive exhibitions of farm animals, produce and rural crafts and skills.

In fair towns such as the one I grew up in the annual event would attract 100,000 people to a county seat whose normal population was 23,000, transporting the residents from rural slumber to a moderate-sized city without moving an inch.

Left at liberty to wander the carnival midway, an impressionable young mind with an ear for a well-turned phrase becomes a connoisseur of carnival barkers. The man who claims that, within his tent, there is a boy who walks, who talks, who wriggles on his belly like a reptile, is to be avoided. We know who’s inside; it’s Brad, the kid with the bad eczema, finally turning a profit from his affliction–with the addition of a green rubber mask.

The man who drones into the microphone outside the show that promises “Live models, in the nude, definitely not for Junior!” loses our interest after awhile. Because of our age, we won’t be able to get in to see whoever’s on display inside, and the customers who do part with their money are a forlorn crew; hare lips, club foots, and teenaged boys in blue jeans and white t-shirts with rolled-up sleeves, trying to prove they are men. No wonder they have to pay good money to see a naked woman.

No, the best show, even if you can’t afford it or they won’t let you in because you’re too young, is the Club Ebony. The barker’s patter is the best on the midway, and it is recited over a thumping backbeat, a precursor of sorts to Jamaican dub and rap. Jimmy Rushing, the rotund singer who is featured on some of Count Basie’s most memorable recordings, called the come-on before the black revue the “bally-hoo.” Rushing was a product of the traveling “territory” bands of the midwest, and knew whereof he spoke.

Jimmy Rushing


The revue you will see more of–if you part with the price of admission–is brought out one by one; the ribald comedian, the dancing girls, the R&B house band, a soul shouter, a sultry female blues singer. Each gives a tantalizing taste of the full range of his or her talents, then stops; you don’t give away what you can sell.

When the crowd has been whipped to a froth of anticipation, the barker makes his final pitch; “It’s showtime–if you’re in line you’re in time,” he begins to call. The entertainers leave the stage and disappear behind the curtain, and the rubes follow them into the tent if the barker has done his job.

The air of sadness that hangs over a fairgrounds at night is a reflection of its artificiality; beyond the tents and the rides one can see farmland and the road out of town, and the hard work that is to be done the next day looms over the gaiety. The spectacle of the carnival is a momentary illusion for the fairgoer, and for the hard-bitten men who must strike the tents and hit the road for another town soon, it is just a job. Their manufactured enthusiasm is sustained by electricity, like the calliope one hears from the merry-go-round that the children ride.

The patter of the barkers is heard less frequently these days; traveling carnivals have nothing to bring to a small town in the summer that can’t be found on the internet every day of the year. Traveling side shows are expensive, because they require a number of talented or unique human beings, unlike automatic games of chance or carnival rides, which can be operated by a single person, unskilled and normal.  A carnival that stopped in a town not to far from where I raised my children featured a barker whose patter consisted entirely of imitations of characters from South Park; as Charlie Brown used to say, good grief.  The genus has thus evolved, and the descendants of the pitchmen of the midway can be found on Rush Street in Chicago, luring convention-goers into nightclubs to drink overpriced beer and watch pole dancers.

As a matter of fact, the last time I saw Brad the Lizard Boy was on the northside of Chicago. He was on his way to an underground film festival, and was excited about a particularly grotesque childbirth film that he’d heard about.

A taste for bizarre spectacle, once acquired, can apparently be refined but is never lost.

Summer Fun Series Sours Due to Debbie Downer Divas

BOSTON.  When Axionix Properties bought the office building known as One Hancock Place here last year, they planned a roof-to-basement upgrade that would ensure the address retained its first-class rating for years to come.  “We owed it to the tenants, but more importantly to ourselves,” says Regional Vice President Rick Smasto.  “If we want to continue to charge sky-high rents we’ve got to deliver a lot of cheap intangibles in addition to basics like heat and air conditioning.”

“The thing I really hated about you, Fred,
was you were so damn lousy in my bed.”


And so a series of live musical performances dubbed “Summer Fun!” was planned for the pedestrian plaza leading to the refurbished entrance, with a rotating cast of female singer-songwriters drawn from local music schools.  “These kids are desperate for the exposure, so you can get them cheap,” Smasto says as he watches Heather Unrike adjust a microphone before she begins her set.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the feel-good outcome that the new landlord anticipated; with current vocal styles trending towards hostility and depression among young women, the public relations benefits of free music haven’t materialized, and instead office workers in the building are staying away in droves, leaving the plaza populated by winos sleeping off hangovers.

“This one’s for a guy who said he’d call me . . .”


Unrike is typical of the negative vibe produced by local musicians who take their lead from today’s crop of popular female singers, who seem interested in romance only as a source of bitter post-mortems over loves gone wrong.

Today I saw you, Harold, Unrike begins,
walking along with that bitch, Carol.
You seemed to look so pleased,
I hope you catch her disease.

Smasto glances nervously at the lawn chairs that have been set up for the lunchtime crowd to use as overflow seating for an upscale restaurant on the ground floor, and notices that the looks on some patrons’ faces reveal emotions ranging from distaste to annoyance.  “Geez, that chick needs to get an attitude adjustment,” says Mike Oliverio, a broker with SunStates Investments on the 8th floor.  “Feel free to get a life,” he says as he checks his phone, then crosses the street to Della Famina, an Italian restaurant whose only music is piped-in middle-of-the-road fare.

Next up is Chloe Festrunk, a Berklee School of Music student who hopes to follow in the footsteps of the many other musicians who have used their education at the Back Bay institution as a launching pad for successful careers.

You didn’t take your toothbrush when you left, she sings.
It’s in good shape, it’s hardly been used.
Maybe that explains the awful smell of your breath,
It still holds some tuna salad that you chewed.

“Wasn’t that great!” Smasto says unconvincingly as the willowy singer finishes to awkward silence from the few passers-by who were caught in traffic while she sang.  “Why don’t we give, uh, Chloe a big round of applause!” he says to a few stragglers who are caught awkwardly mid-stride between the building and portable speakers, too late to scurry away in unseemly haste.

“I’m gonna rip that thing off, and hit you with the bloody stump of it!”


“Was that concert free?” asks Vince Pagliardi, an accountant at a firm across the street.

“You bet,” Smasto says.  “Just one of the many benefits of renting space at One Hancock Place.  If you’d like, I can send you brochure.”

“No thanks,” the CPA says.  “I’d rather pay for something good.”

Summer’s End Finds Grade School Cougars on the Prowl

NATICK, Mass. Emily Adams is a twelve-year-old who will be entering sixth grade at Mosi Tatupu Middle School in this western suburb of Boston next month, and today finds her with her mother shopping for back-to-school needs.

“Let’s see–Artgum eraser, backpack, boyfriend . . .”


But Emily’s eyes aren’t on her new pencil box and three-ring binder as she waits for the cashier to ring up her purchases. Instead, she’s looking at rising fourth-grader Timmy Fallman, who’s with his mother two cash registers to her left. “He doesn’t know it yet,” she tells this reporter, “but he’s going to be my new boyfriend.”

“Sure it’s fine . . . if you want me to marry the manager of a Jiffy-Lube.”


Like penguins, Emily practices a form of serial monogamy, dumping her boyfriend for a new one every fall, but this year she has sworn off boys in her own grade and is looking for a younger man. “It’s due to a constellation of factors,” says her mother Trish, an assistant producer of Nova, the public television science program. “Boys in her grade learned how to belch on cue and make armpit farts last year, so she’s looking for someone . . . how shall I put this . . . more malleable.”

“My fifth-grade boyfriend could never satisfy me this way!”


Emily and girls like her form a new sociological group within the K-12 demographic; pre-teen “cougars” who seek out younger men rather than put up with the gross habits that boys acquire as they near puberty.  “In many ways, it’s a wise choice,” says actuary Mike Mildam of Modern Moosehead Life Insurance, whose headquarters is just a frisbee toss away at the entrance to the Massachusetts Turnpike. “A young girl can expect to live five years longer than a boy her age. What’s she going to do for the last half-decade of her life–twiddle her thumbs and watch Wheel of Fortune?”

“She’s a year older than me. What would we talk about?”


There is a financial aspect to the trend as well, as many older boys are saddled with obligations to “legacy” girlfriends that act as a drag on their spending power, like alimony. “Brian Forsh asked me to go to the movies but I said no,” says Vicki Swinson, who will be head cheerleader for the Oil Can Boyd Middle School Vikings this fall. “He gave his old girlfriend a ring over the summer, and I know he hasn’t got two Chuck E Cheese tokens to rub together now.”

Emily knows her younger man will eventually acquire all the nasty traits of boys her age, but she hopes to teach and guide him as he matures in order to modulate their more baleful aspects. “He’s a guy, so I know he’s going to pick his nose,” she says with resignation. “But if I get to him when he’s young, maybe he won’t eat it.”

The Lot of the Poet’s Wife

The poet’s wife must endure a lot,
it’s usually not Housman he’s forgot,
or Coleridge, Wordsworth, one of their ilk.
More likely it’s a quart of 1% milk.
Of woolgathering he is often and rightly to blame
for leaving a child at a youth soccer game.

He’ll generally find there’s hell to pay
if he compares her to a summer’s day.
“It’s hot, and humid and very muggy,
if I go outside it’s also buggy.
What a terrible, horrible thing to say,
likening me to a summer’s day.”

But worst is the meter he may beat
on her back in the midst of passion’s heat
as he hugs his beloved’s entire diameter
and taps on her shoulder iambic pentameter.
“For a second, put poetry out of mind’s sight
and focus entirely on me for tonight.”

Sunrise Service With the Don King Worshippers

A South Seas island tribe worships boxing promoter Don King. 

                                             New York Times

Praise the Lord!

I have come to Vanuatu as so many pilgrims have before me, seeking religious freedom.  The freedom to worship as one chooses is a basic human right, and yet people of my faith–the Church of Don King–are persecuted wherever we go.

Just as the Puritans were driven out of England, just as the Mormons were driven out of Missouri, just as the early Christians were offered as guilt-free low-salt snacks to carnivorous lions in the Roman Coliseum, we few, humble Don King worshipers must practice our religion and the rituals of our forefathers in hiding, in exile.

“Let us pray.”

And so it is with a gigantic breath of relief that I look out over the assembled masses of Kingons–Kingites?–Kingians?–who are gathered here for an inspirational sunrise service.  We face east, back towards Cleveland, Ohio, our Mecca.  It was there that our Lord and Savior was born on Kingmas Day.

What’s that you say?  Didn’t our God kill two men?  Well, yes he did–but who among us hasn’t?  As Jesus said, let he who is without sin cast the first stone.  We’re talking about a God here–a member of the Gaming Hall of Fame.

And anyway, the Christian God kills people all the time with floods and avalanches and hurricanes and tornadoes.  At least our God has the decency to shoot them in the back or stomp them to death on an individualized basis–it’s the personal touch that makes the difference!

Besides, our God was pardoned when he got letters of recommendation from Jesse Jackson and Coretta Scott King.  Your God gets recommendations from–Jimmy Swaggart.  ‘Nuf said.

A hush falls over the congregation as acolytes bearing candles, incense and free throwback “Rumble in the Jungle” t-shirts emerge from the sacristy to the altar.  They make their way up the aisles with collection baskets in their hands.  Sure it’s cheaper to watch at home on Pay-Per-View, but nothing beats the experience of a seeing a figh–I mean a religious ceremony live.

I give the guy five bucks and he hands me a slightly faded but still crisp “Thrilla in Manila” one-size-fits-all cap.  Sweet!  Unlike a lot of your establishment religions that offer you nothing but pie-in-the-sky, worship at the Church of Don King produces immediate and tangible rewards.

We bow our heads, fold our hands and kneel in anticipation as the God Who Walks the Earth and Controls All Weight Classes appears.  He makes a grand entrance, clothed in a multi-colored robe and stars ‘n stripes accessories.  He raises his hands heavenward and intones the familiar words that, like the referee’s injunction to “Protect yourself at all times” begins a boxing match, serves as introit to our worship.  “Let us pray,” his Donhead says.

“Let us pray,” we all repeat.

“Only in America–could a South Seas island tribe worship an ex-convict!”


Available in Kindle format on as part of the collection “Oh . . . My . . . God.”

Cedar Walton: Hard Bopper With a Soft Side

Labels in jazz are often flags of convenience that mask the identities of musicians whose talents are more varied than a single ensign would suggest.  One such mismatch is “hard bop,” coined by jazz critic and pianist John Mehegan of the New York Herald Tribune to describe music that developed on the East Coast in the late 1950’s as a reaction to the softer “cool” jazz of the West Coast.

The earliest and longest-running school for the development of this music was The Jazz Messengers, originally a quartet composed of pianist Horace Silver, tenor Hank Mobley, trumpeter Kenny Dorham and drummer Art Blakey, which Blakey continued as a sort of bookmobile for boppers, traveling the country with a constantly-changing student body who would typically go on after graduation to become headliners themselves.

Art Blakey, trumpeter Clifford Brown, Horace Silver, alto Gigi Gryce


As a result, if you played with Blakey you may have acquired the brand “hard bop” even if your music was more gentle or varied than that tag would imply.  One such victim of at least partially-mistaken identity was pianist Cedar Walton, who played with The Jazz Messengers from 1961 to 1964, an era in the band’s history that is often cited as its period of greatest influence.

Cedar Walton

Walton was born in 1934 and learned piano from his mother, who taught the instrument.  He took up the clarinet in high school and served his apprenticeship in the rhythm and blues bands in Dallas, where he was born and grew up.  After attending the University of Denver, he moved to New York in 1955, but his career was interrupted by Army service.  Stationed in Germany, he nonetheless hooked up with American musicians including trumpeter Don Ellis and tenor Eddie Harris.  When he was mustered out in 1958 he gigged with altoists Gigi Gryce and Lou Donaldson, among others, then joined trombonist J.J. Johnson’s band in December of that year.  In 1959 he was the first pianist to record “Giant Steps” with John Coltrane, a daunting task since the song changes chords on every note.  He would play with trumpeters Kenny Dorham and Art Farmer before joining Blakey in 1961 for a three-year run.

Walton accompanied singer Abbey Lincoln in the mid-sixties, and was a member of trumpeter Lee Morgan’s band later in the decade.  He was part of Mobley’s group in the early 70’s before re-joining Blakey for a tour of Japan in 1973.

Hank Mobley

My introduction to Walton’s music was an anthology of jazz pianists on which his music stood out not because it was hard or boppish, but because it was so lyrical.  As a composer, Walton produced a number of melodies that made their way first into Blakey’s book, then into the jazz repertoire generally, including “Mosaic,” “Ugetsu” and “Bolivia.”  He would eventually form his own band, Eastern Rebellion, a nod perhaps to the East Coast origins of the hard bop he came to be associated with, which he would keep together with a varying cast through the 80’s and 90’s.

Walton died on this day in 2013, largely unsung and unnoticed, at the ripe old age (for a jazzman) of 79.  He produced a body of work as composer and pianist that repays your investment in it with every hearing.

Highway Poet Tells Bureaucrat to Hit the Road

ENFIELD, Connecticut.  Mike Abruzzioni is Assistant Deputy Commissioner of Roads and Bridges at State Highway Department District #2 Headquarters here, a position he earned after many years of service, plus frequent contributions to state legislators.  “It ain’t what a lot of people think,” he says of the keys to his success.  “In addition to hard work, there’s a lot of ass-kissing you gotta do.”

Image result for led highway sign

Still, after two decades climbing the bureaucratic ladder he thought he had achieved some measure of personal freedom to do his job as he pleased, including some latitude as to the messages he posts on the Department’s LED message signs.  “Frankly, I didn’t even know Connecticut had a poet laureate,” he says ruefully.  “Seems like a waste of money to me at a time when I got to lay off two brush-hog cutters.”

Image result for brush hog cutter
“I leave a wake where’er I go/That’s what you get whene’er you mow.”

Abruzzioni is referring to the run-in he had with Tristram Morgan, the state’s official poet until December 31, 2017, after he posted “Stay awake/take a break/for safety sake” along Route 1 over the July 4th weekend.  “I didn’t think nothin’ of it, then I get a call the Monday morning after from the Arts & Cultural Council saying they’re filing a grievance against me.”

Image result for led highway sign
“Zombies ahead/fear and dread/pretty soon you’ll all be dead.”

The complaint referred to the terms and conditions under which Morgan took the largely honorary position of state poet laureate, which pays only a stipend of $2,000 plus a 5-minute shopping spree at Annie’s Gently Used Romance Paperbacks in West Harford.  “POET,” the rider to the standard state contract terms and conditions reads, “shall be the official source of all poetry purchased by the STATE until the expiration of the term hereof,” which the assistant professor at Trinity College says entitles him to craft the traffic messages that are flashed to motorists.

“I found Mr. Abruzzioni’s little doggerel to be deficient in many respects,” Morgan sniffs when the question “Who cares?” is put to him by this reporter.  “An elementary, almost banal rhyme scheme.  The abbreviated line length–surely the marks of a poetaster.”

Image result for state highway headquarters command center
“Take the detour round West Hartford/or what the hell is all my art for?”

In its place Morgan began to post verse that, in the formulation suggested by Archibald MacLeish, tended to “be” rather than “mean” and echoed the work of the state’s most famous poet, the notably obscurantist Wallace Stevens:

Nutmeg State, Dunkin’ Donuts
Please slow down folks, and don’t go nuts.

When Abruzzioni objected, saying his work was protected by civil service regulations, Morgan began to write poems that crossed the line into advocacy, as Byron’s late work was enflamed by his support of the Greek struggle for independence from Turkey:

Poems written by highway hacks–
They give me bad gas attacks.

Image result for highway line painter truck
“Hey–slow down/What the fuck?/Don’t you pass my/painting truck!”

Ultimately the conflict between the two public employees will be resolved by binding arbitration before a three-member panel composed of a writing instructor from the University of Connecticut-Storrs, an industrial accidents court judge, and Bob Nash, the driver of a line-painting truck who is hoping to move up from two-lane state roads to four-lane highways eventually.  “I’m gonna try to be an impartial judge,” he tells this reporter as he squints into the sun at the end of the workday.  “On the other hand, that D I got in senior English means I can never get a job at the Registry of Motor Vehicles.”

Available in print and Kindle format on as part of the collection “poetry is kind of important.”