Category Archives: book reviews

The Monday Book – Colonel Cody

Jack gets to do the Monday book again – –

The Monday Book: Colonel Cody and the Flying Cathedral by Gary Jenkins

Regulars will know that I have a fascination with air travel, and particularly early air pioneers. Jenkins tells the story of a remarkable one, an American who became British and made the first powered flights in the UK.

The research is deep and impressive and the writing carries the reader along at a clip. Cody’s story is amazing, but he seemed to have encountered a fair bit of anti-American attitudes while he was trying to interest the UK Government in his inventions. These inventions ranged from balloons to kites carrying people, and then aeroplanes. But he was a classic showman, got the public behind him, and eventually did win over the war office as well. He even tried to suggest he was related Buffalo Bill Cody at one point but since the ‘Colonel’ had adopted the name that didn’t go anywhere.

I was aware of Cody’s planes and knew he was a contemporary of the Wright Brothers and French experimenters. But I didn’t know very much about him. The movie ‘Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines’ is clearly based on one of the competitions he took part in, and the American cowboy character is obviously meant to be him.  

Sadly, he died in a crash in his latest machine along with his assistant just before the 1st world war broke out. If he had lived, he might have been much more recognized!

For anyone who is interested in the history of aviation, I can thoroughly recommend this book.

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The Monday Book – Lonesome Traveler, The life of Lee Hays by Doris Willens

Guest reviewer this week is Jack Beck

A few weeks ago I reviewed a book about Woody Guthrie and Cisco Houston and this one which I purchased at the same time is something of a companion to that.

Lee Hays was the left wing son of a Methodist preacher and became active in the New York folk scene in the 1940s alongside Woody, Pete Seeger and others in a group called ‘The Almanac Singers’. Eventually Seeger, Hays, Fred Hellerman and Ronnie Gilbert formed ‘The Weavers’ who went on to enormous success and sold millions of records worldwide.

Willens lived next door to Hays in a New York apartment block and recorded many interviews with him, which are the basis of this book. It covers both his early life in Arkansas and his later involvement with radical organizations such as the ‘Highlander School’ in Tennessee, which led to his meeting up with Seeger.

This work is well researched, with a full section of references and doesn’t shirk from describing his difficult relationships with his family, the Almanacs and the Weavers.

Hays wrote a number of songs that have become part of the folk ‘canon’ and been recorded by numerous well known artists – ‘If I had a Hammer’ and ‘Kisses Sweeter than Wine’ may be the best known. He had a particular love of children and alongside his work with ‘The Weavers’ he formed a group called ‘The Babysitters’ which included the author of this book. They made a number of albums of songs either wholly or partly written by Hays.

The final chapter includes a very poignant description of the final farewell concert by The Weavers at Carnegie Hall where Hays was in a wheelchair after having both legs amputated due to diabetes.

I enjoyed reading this and recommend it to anyone interested in US left wing politics and folk music of the 1930s, 1940s, into the McCarthy era and beyond.

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