How a Gang of Harmonica Geeks Saved the Soul of the Blues Harp

Harmonica players will suck and harmonica players will blow, but mastering the harmonica is tougher than its diminutive size and simple mechanics suggests. “The harmonica is actually pretty hard to play well,” says harmonica virtuoso Mickey Raphael, who has shared the stage with Willie Nelson for the better part of 40 years. “If you have a harmonica in the right key for a song, you can … (continue reading)

Warning! These 1950s Movie Gimmicks Will Shock You

Welcome to summer movie hell—another blockbuster season filled with costly digital effects that disappoint more often than they surprise. During a University of Southern California film symposium in June, two directors guilty of creating this trend, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, predicted the imminent collapse of their mega-budget film industry. In its place, they suggested a future of immersive technologies, where theaters would offer thrills you couldn’t … (continue reading)

From Little Fanny to Fluffy Ruffles: The Scrappy History of Paper Dolls

In the cookie-cutter conservative era of the 1950s, even good, wholesome girls were undressing Elvis, and not just in their minds. Young women across America indulged their fashion-fueled fantasies with little paper playmates of the rock-’n'-roll king, the latest subject from a thriving paper-doll industry that knew its audience well.

“Young women identified with her independence, even if they could not yet claim it for themselves.”
During the mid-20th … (continue reading)

Singing the Lesbian Blues in 1920s Harlem

When Gertrude “Ma” Rainey—known as “The Mother of Blues”—sang, “It’s true I wear a collar and a tie, … Talk to the gals just like any old man,” in 1928′s “Prove It on Me,” she was flirting with scandal, challenging the listener to catch her in a lesbian affair. It might not seem like a big deal to us now, but back then, pursuing same-sex … (continue reading)

Trailing Angela Davis, from FBI Flyers to ‘Radical Chic’ Art

On August 18, 1970, Angela Yvonne Davis’s name was added to the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted List for kidnapping, murder, and interstate flight. Davis was already a darling of the left for her membership in the Communist Party and outspoken support for the Black Panthers, which caused then-California governor Ronald Reagan to personally orchestrate the 26-year-old’s dismissal from a teaching post at UCLA. Being hunted by J. Edgar Hoover … (continue reading)

A Filthy History: When New Yorkers Lived Knee-Deep in Trash

It’s tempting to think of sacred tombs and ancient monuments as our best window into other cultures. But archaeologists have long known that if you really want to understand a civilization, to know its people’s passions, weaknesses, and daily rituals, look no further than their garbage.
Robin Nagle has spent much of her life fascinated by trash, and its oft-unseen impacts on our society, our environment, and our health. … (continue reading)

California Cool: How the Wetsuit Became the Surfer’s Second Skin

When Bob Meistrell started surfing in Northern California during the early 1950s, 20 minutes was about all he could stand in the frigid coastal waters. Despite the constant rush of adrenaline, after three or four good waves, the late Body Glove co-founder was hightailing it back to a dry towel in the warmth of his car. With water temperatures near Santa Cruz hovering in the mid-50s, the surf … (continue reading)

Our Dad, the Water Witch of Wyoming

“And the Lord said unto Moses, Go on before the people, and take with thee of the elders of Israel; and thy rod, wherewith thou smotest the river, take in thine hand, and go. Behold, I will stand before thee there upon the rock in Horeb; and thou shalt smite the rock, and there shall come water out of it, that the people may drink. And Moses … (continue reading)

The Unfiltered History of Rolling Papers, Plus Tommy Chong’s Big Fat Jamaican Vacation

It’s kind of ironic that Tommy Chong, the smokiest half of Cheech and Chong, is so closely associated with rolling papers. Sure the character he played on stage and in the movies was endlessly smoking fatties, and the comedy duo’s second album, “Big Bambu,” 1972, opened up like a booklet of Bambu rolling papers, with a Cheech and Chong-watermarked sheet inside. Then, in 1978, the … (continue reading)

Pin-Up Queens: Three Female Artists Who Shaped the American Dream Girl

It’s easy to think of pin-up art as a charming relic of the old boys’ club—images that might line the walls of a Mid-Century smoking room where Don Draper and Roger Sterling slap each other on the back. And the names of the artists that come up over and over again are men: Alberto Vargas, George Petty, and Gil Elvgren.

“She was an icon for women … (continue reading)

Say Ahhh: An Oral Surgeon’s Quest to Reimagine the Garage-Band Guitar

It’s not unusual for men of a certain age to have a soft spot in their hearts for the look of vintage guitars and the sound of rock ’n’ roll. Some get as far as a high-school garage band, others might learn enough covers to tear it up at the neighborhood bar, but most guys with even a grain of common sense between their … (continue reading)

‘The Great Gatsby’ Still Gets Flappers Wrong

Have you heard? There’s a new swell in town named Gatsby, and he’s bringing flapper flair back into fashion. Baz Luhrmann’s latest cinematic spectacle—his take on “The Great Gatsby”—promises to be a sensational commercial for Prada and Brooks Brothers, who partnered with Luhrmann’s wife, costume designer Catherine Martin, on the film’s clothing. Fashion-world heavyweights, like Vogue and WWD, are already gushing about the new Roaring … (continue reading)

Love at First Kite: How Pizza and Pente Led to One Oklahoman’s High-Flying Obsession

Vintage kites from all over the world hang from the ceiling and walls of the late Richard Dermer’s popular Hideaway Pizza restaurant in Stillwater, Oklahoma—and that’s only a fraction of his collection. To many locals, the kites might just seem like another piece of quirky décor. But not so. Dermer, who spoke with us before he passed away in March 2014, was an avid kite enthusiast, and each … (continue reading)

Digging for the Perfect Beat: Davey D on the Vinyl Roots of Hip-Hop

When Dave “Davey D” Cook got into hip-hop in the late ’70s, he didn’t see himself as an archivist. A teen growing up in the Bronx, New York City, he was digging through his mom’s records looking for a great funky beat to rap over. At the time, hip-hop was only five years old. Cook was inspired by Afrika Bambaataa, Grandmaster Flash, and DJ Kool Herc, a … (continue reading)

Dying To Go Retro? This Modern-Day Morticia Gives Death A Makeover

Caitlin Doughty gushes about death like it’s her high-school crush. “I don’t just pretend to love death. I really do love death,” writes Doughty. “I bet you would too if you got to know him.” The young mortician’s web site even includes a checklist of tips for improving your relationship with death, like magazine dating advice (“Spend quality time together,” “Review your expectations,” etc.).
Like a character straight out of HBO’s … (continue reading)