Why I Want to Go to Omaha

Why is Omaha on my travel list?  Two words, okay three:  The Bodmer Collection.

In 1832, German naturalist Prince Maximilian zu Weid-Neuweid led one of the earliest expeditions to the American West.*  As anyone who has snapped a picture of the Grand Canyon or the Grand Bazaar knows, expeditions need to be recorded.  Instead of a Canon Powershot, Prince Maximilian brought along Karl Bodmer, a young Swiss artist with a talent for watercolor.

Prince Maximilian and Bodmer traveled the rivers of the American West for two years, going from Saint Louis to North Dakota and back. They saw an Indian raid, a wild prairie fire, and herds of buffalo and elk at close range. They suffered through a harsh winter in North Dakota, trapped by snow and bitter cold. At one point their boat caught fire.

Bodmer painted through it all, even when it was so cold that his paints froze solid. He captured images  of the landscape, the animals, and. most notably, the Native American peoples they met.  Bodmer’s depictions of the early American West have been described as the visual equivalent of Lewis and Clark’s journals.  Although originally intended as “notes” to Prince Maximilian’s account of their journey, Bodmer’s paintings and sketches are now seen as the most important work of the expedition.


Today the Bodmer Collection is housed at the Joslyn Art Museum in Omaha, Nebraska.  Put it on your list.


*Prince Maximilian wasn’t just a rich man with a yen for travel.  He had a bee in his bonnet.  He thought the native peoples of the Missouri and Mississippi river basins would help him prove that humankind developed from a single set of parents, presumably Adam and Eve.

William Howard Russell, Special Correspondent to the Times

William Howard Russell, “Special Correspondent for the Times”, was the original war correspondent.

His unexpected career began in the Crimean War. As Russell later wrote, “When the year of grace 1854 opened on me, I had no more idea of being what is now–absurdly, I think, called a ‘War Correspondent’ than I had of being Lord Chancellor.” Already a well-known “color” writer for The Times of London, Russell accompanied the British expeditionary force on its trip to show support for Turkey against Russian aggression.  When the show of force unexpectedly developed into a full-scale war, Russell was in place, ready to report on the war first hand.

Russell was a correspondent in the most literal sense.  His reports were written in the form of letters to John Delane, editor of The Times. Sent to London by steamer, they took two to three weeks to arrive.  Sometimes five or six of his letters would appear on the same day.  According to his biographer, Alan Hankinson,  “it was like getting long letters, hastily but honestly set down, from a soldier son who was fair-minded and fearless, who had an insatiable appetite for information of all kinds and a lively no-nonsense way of putting it down on paper.”

Russell’s reporting was accurate, intelligent, and unrelenting.  For two years, he painted a picture of official incompetence by British generals, suffering among the troops, and the “steady courage” of the British soldier.   His descriptions of battle are realistic, detailed and clear, if a bit florid by modern standards.  Many of his most vivid phrases have attained the status of cliches at the hands of his successors.

Russell is generally hailed as the father of war journalism.  Russell described himself in less grandiose terms as “the miserable parent of a luckless tribe”.

Reporting live from Chicago…


Estonia’s Singing Revolution

Most revolutions have a symbolic moment that defines them:  the Boston Tea Party, storming the Bastille, Gandhi’s march to the sea.  In Estonia, the struggle for freedom from Soviet Russia began on June 10, 1988, when 300,000 people stood up and sang.

After two hundred years of control by Tsarist Russia, Estonia became an independent nation in 1920, one of the post-World War I legacies of Woodrow Wilson’s belief in national self-determination.  Independent Estonia was a success, with a booming economy and a western-style democracy.

Independence didn’t last long.  In September, 1939, Stalin threatened to invade Estonia unless the country allowed Russia to establish military bases within its borders. Faced with the recent example of Poland, Estonia agreed, clinging to Stalin’s promises that Estonia would retain its national sovereignty if it opened its borders to Soviet troops.  Estonians soon found out that Stalin’s promises were worth no more than Monopoly money. In June, 1940, the Soviets took over the Estonian government, killing or deporting most of the country’s leaders.  Stalin announced that Estonia had “volunteered” to become part of the Soviet Union.

Like other countries under Soviet control, Estonia suffered under the program of cultural genocide known as “russification”. Tens of thousands of Russians were settled in the country in an effort to dilute the ethnic Estonian population.   Russian became the official language.  The Estonian flag was outlawed. And nationalist songs were banned from the Estonian Song Festival (Laulupidu)–at least in theory.

Amateur choral singing was an important element of the Estonian national identity.  The first Laulupidu was held in 1869, part of the Estonian nationalist movement under Tsarist rule. The soviets didn’t try to outlaw the Lauhupidu, but they did try to control what the Estonian choirs sang.  One song in particular was a point of struggle.  In 1947, Estonian composer and choir director Gustav Ernesaks wrote a musical setting for the nationalist poem Mu isama on minu arm ( Land of My Fathers, Land That I Love), written by  Lydia Koidula a century earlier. The song quickly became Estonia’s unofficial national anthem, and was just as quickly banned from the song festival program.*

In the mid 1980s,  Mikhail Gorbachev changed the relationship between Russia and its satellites with his policies of perestroika  (restructuring) and glasnost (openness).  Estonians began to press for greater freedom from Soviet control.  A handful of rock songs joined Mu isama on minu arm as rallying cries for Estonian independence.

The desire for independence came to a head on June 10, 1988, when  Soviet authorities closed down a rock concert in the Old Town Square in Tallinn, the country’s capital.  The crowd walked several miles to the song festival grounds, where the concert evolved into a massive sing-a-long of illegal patriotic songs.  For six nights, hundreds of thousands of people gathered  to sing, sway in unison, and wave Estonian flags that had been hidden in attics and basements for almost fifty years.  It was the first step in the non-violent “singing revolution” that ended with Estonian independence on August 21, 1991.

Choral singing is just as important as ever in Estonia.  The next Laulupidu will be held in 2015.  In the meantime, enjoy this sample of Estonian choral music:

[If you’ve received this post by e-mail, you may need to click on the post title to see the music clip.  This will take you to the blog website.]

*In the 1960s, Estonians began singing Mu isama on minu arm at festivals whether it was on the program or not.  One hundred thousand determined singers can easily drown out a  hundred-piece brass band.