The Writer’s Almanac for August 4, 2018

“To Jane: The Keen Stars Were Twinkling” by Percy Bysshe Shelley. Public domain. (buy now)

The keen stars were twinkling,
And the fair moon was rising among them
Dear Jane!
The guitar was tinkling,
But the notes were not sweet till you sung them
Again.

As the moon’s soft splendour
O’ er the faint cold starlight of Heaven
Is thrown,
So your voice most tender
To the strings without soul had then given
Its own.

The stars will awaken,
Though the moon sleep a full hour later,
Tonight;
No leaf will be shaken
Whilst the dews of your melody scatter
Delight.

Though the sound overpowers,
Sing again, with your dear voice revealing
A tone
Of some world far from ours,
Where music and moonlight and feeling
Are one.


Today marks the printing of the first edition of the Saturday Evening Post in 1821. The magazine originated in Philadelphia in 1728 as The Pennsylvania Gazette, one of the American Colonies’ most prominent newspapers, and was owned and run by Benjamin Franklin, who established a form of journalism and freedom of speech that would become the foundation for modern American news coverage. In 1752, the Gazette published Franklin’s third-person account of his pioneering kite and electricity experiment, and on the front page of the July 10th, 1776 edition, printed the entire Declaration of Independence alongside ads offering a £7 reward for two runaway servants, a £3 reward for the thief of a white horse and a black mare, and a 10-shilling reward for the return of a runaway milch cow.

In 1821, the Gazette changed hands and was renamed The Saturday Evening Post, but kept its format of an illustration-free newspaper that tackled political controversy. Sometime later, the magazine was rededicated to morality and commercial affairs, and it already boasted an impressive circulation when it was purchased in 1898 for $1,000 by Cyrus K. Curtis, the publisher of The Ladies Home Journal. Curtis redesigned the newspaper to its present-day journal form, focusing on business, public affairs, and romance. The new journal took great care with its illustrations, which now appeared on every page and would become a hallmark of the magazine.

The Post began commissioning articles from top journalists like Willa Cather and Jack London, as well as their creative work, and serialized the first publication of London’s most famous novel, The Call of the Wild. In 1916, the Post‘seditor agreed to meet a 22-year-old painter from New York City and, upon seeing his work, immediately bought two paintings to use as covers for the magazine. One of these, an image of a nattily dressed boy with a baby bottle shoved in his pocket, pushing a baby carriage and being mocked by the other lads who are clearly off to play baseball, became young Norman Rockwell’s first Saturday Evening Post cover and the start of a 50-year collaboration that spanned more than 300 paintings and made Rockwell into one of America’s best-loved artists.

A list of authors and poets that have appeared in The Saturday Evening Post runs like a who’s who of the literary world: the Gothic horror of Edgar Allan Poe; the short stories of William Faulkner and adventure stories of Louis L’Amour; F. Scott Fitzgerald, who found his best story market in the magazine; humorist and curmudgeon Kurt Vonnegut; Robert Heinlein, whose science fiction first broke into a wider audience in the Post; the British crime writer Agatha Christie; P.G. Wodehouse, the English humorist who was given his first break when the Post purchased and serialized one of his novels; the reclusive novelist J.D. Salinger; Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Carl Sandburg; Ogden Nash’s lighthearted poems; the wit and poetry of Dorothy Parker; and countless more.

Readership began to decline in the 1950s and ’60s, and The Post’s editors blamed the popularity of television, which was now competing with the Post for its readers’ attention as well as its advertisers. The public’s taste in fiction was changing too, and the Post‘s conservative politics and old-fashioned values made it difficult for the magazine to obtain the work of popular writers. The Post began relying more heavily on articles on current events and followed cost-cutting measures such as replacing its famous illustrated covers and advertisements with far less expensive photographs, but was still forced to cease publication in 1969. Two years later, in a strange kind of hearkening-back to its origins, The Saturday Evening Post was back in circulation under the ownership of the Benjamin Franklin Literary and Medical society, with a new mission to use its credibility as a way of connecting readers and medical professionals to important topics in health and medicine.


On this day in the year 1181Chinese and Japanese astronomers recorded the appearance of a supernova, what they called a “guest star” — one that appears where none was before, is visible for a time, and then disappears again — in a group of stars shared across several constellations, including the Black Tortoise of the North and the White Tiger of the West. The appearance of the guest was recorded in eight separate sources, including a pessimistic courtier to the Emperor of Japan who wrote that it was “a sign of abnormality” and expected it foretold of tumult and lawlessness. The new star was one of the three most brilliant objects in the sky and remained visible for six months before disappearing again.

In the West, where astrological tradition is largely taken from the ancient Greeks, who populated the sky with their gods, heroes, and famous if ill-fated mortals, the stars that hosted the Chinese guest are seen as a single pattern — the constellation Cassiopeia — a giant capital W revolving around the dome of the night sky, visible year-round in the Northern Hemisphere and associated with an ancient, mortal queen.

Cassiopeia was the wife of the king of Aethiopia [Ethiopia]. She was a vain woman, arrogant and boastful, fond of bragging that she and her daughter, Andromeda, were more beautiful than even the sea nymphs who were the companions of the sea god Poseidon. This so enraged Poseidon that he sent an enormous sea monster to punish the queen by destroying her kingdom. Unfortunately for Andromeda, Cassiopeia sought the advice of an oracle and was told that she could only save Aethiopia by chaining her daughter to a rock at the sea’s edge and leaving her as a sacrifice for the monster. At the last moment, a passing hero, on his way home from such exploits as slaying Gorgons, flew in on a pair of winged sandals, saved the girl, and then made her his bride.

Cassiopeia, on the other hand, was chained to her throne by the gods and flung into the heavens to hang there for all eternity, circling the Pole with her head hung toward the ground as a lesson in humility.

More recently, in 1999, NASA launched its Chandra X-Ray Observatory into orbit, giving astronomers their first good picture of the remnants of the supernova of 1181. The remnant, which goes by the colorful name 3C58, is an oval of matter glowing with X-rays and radio waves 10,000 light years distant. At its heart lies a rapidly spinning neutron star that is blowing out jets of particles moving at near the speed of light. As the star spins, each jet sweeps across the sky like the beam of a lighthouse, appearing to flash on and off 15 times each second against the backdrop of the sky.


Today is the birthday of the man who said, “Poetry lifts the veil from the hidden beauty of the world, and makes familiar objects be as if they were not familiar.” That’s the poet and essayist, Percy Bysshe Shelley (books by this author), born in Field Place, Essex, England (1792). He grew up in a wealthy family and went off to Oxford, where he was kicked out for writing risqué poetry and declaring his atheism in a pamphlet he published. The family cut him off financially at the age of 19.

Shelley left England and eloped to Scotland with his 16-year-old bride. There he was mentored by the English philosopher William Godwin. Chronically broke, Godwin saw in Shelley’s wealthy family his salvation and encouraged the poet to make good with his father. While Godwin’s outspoken socialism appealed to Shelley, so did his intellectual daughter, Mary, and soon the two had left both their families to roam around Europe together.

Shelley and Mary traveled to Switzerland, where they rented an adjoining house to Lord Byron. The two writers were good for one another, and in 1816, Shelley published his Hymn to Intellectual Beauty. That same year, Percy’s previous wife committed suicide, and Percy and Mary married in a failed attempt to gain custody of Percy’s orphaned children. The court refused, citing the poet’s belief in “free love” as the reason, and the children went into foster care.

The next few years were the most productive of Shelley’s life. He wrote “Adonis,” an elegy for his friend John Keats; “Prometheus Unbound,” a drama in verse; and The Cenci, a tragedy. He is also credited with making major contributions to Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein (1818).

He died before the age of thirty, attempting to sail the coast of Spain in his ship, the Don Juan.

Shelly said,” Do it now — write nothing but what your conviction of its truth inspires you to write.”


It’s the birthday of Louis Armstrong born in New Orleans, Louisiana (1901), in a poor section of town known as “The Battlefield.” When he was six years old, Louis formed a vocal quartet with three other neighborhood boys and performed on street corners for tips. The Karnofskys, a family of Russian Jewish immigrants, hired Louis to work on their junk wagon. Louis purchased his first cornet with money the family lent him.

In 1913, he was sent to a reform school as a juvenile delinquent, and that’s where he learned to play the cornet. Armstrong listened to pioneers like New Orleans cornetist King Oliver, who gave Armstrong his big break by letting him play in the Creole Jazz Band in Chicago in 1922. Armstrong’s Hot Five and Hot Seven recordings (1925-1928) were among the first 50 items preserved by the National Recording Registry at the Library of Congress.

Armstrong said, “If ya ain’t got it in ya, ya can’t blow it out.”

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Having reached the end, he continues

The real news these days is about science, and last week the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that life expectancy is dropping in the U.S., and the American male’s average life expectancy is 76.1 years, a figure I reached in October. My expiration date has passed. This comes as a shock, to think that I’m expected to die now, in a state of ignorance, still trying to figure out the basics (What am I here for? Why do rainy days make me happy? Where are my glasses?).

The CDC says life expectancy is declining due to substance abuse and an increase in suicide rates, neither of which apply to me, unless the substances include coffee or unless they now consider lack of daily strenuous exercise to be suicidal. So I am hopeful that I will exceed the average. My dad made it to 88, my mom to 97, so I am counting on reaching 94.

President George Bush reached 94 and that is why his eulogies have been so kind and gentle. The world is not generally so kind to oilmen and Texas Republicans, especially one known for his tangled syntax, whose job for a time was to defend Richard Nixon, but Mr. Bush, as a one-termer, got into less trouble and he outlived his controversies. And he was married to a gallant woman who once said, “I married him because he made me laugh.” A Republican could hope for no greater recommendation.

On the heels of the CDC report came the news from China — the birth of the first genetically edited babies — the door opening to a whole new phase of history, well-designed human beings. Babies coming down the chute, each with an IQ of 143, no allergies or addictive tendencies, no syndromes or complexes, good teeth and strong bones, and eyes and hair in your choice of the many colors available.

We 76.1-year-olds shudder at the thought but we know that our descendants will accept this as commonplace, just as we accept social media as a useful replacement of actual conversation. Designer babies: why not?

I grew up with kids who were deeply flawed in so many ways. There was no therapy back then, just people yelling at you to shape up. I was a very quiet boy, kept to myself, didn’t say much — which back then people thought meant I was gifted, so I went along under that illusion — now they’d say “high-functioning end of the autism spectrum” but autism hadn’t been invented yet — so I was gifted instead. Ignorance spared us from knowing the severity of our problems.

Cruelty was rampant in the schoolyard of my day. We played Pom-pom-pullaway and for most of us it was enough to simply tag a runner, not tackle, kick, or bite him, but for others it was open warfare. In the boys’ lavatory, you had to beware of boys who, as you stood at the trough, would jerk your trousers up so that you’d wet yourself. I’ve lost track of the bullies in my class — I assume they’re in federal penal institutions — and would I feel deprived if genetic editing had been around back then so that everyone would be just as nice as I? I don’t think so.

I sat at supper last night next to a friend with a basketball under her blouse, a little girl fetus due to make her big entrance in mid-January, and so the future is on my mind and what sort of life this heroine will enjoy. She’ll grow up in a house in the woods and I hope the natural world brings her pleasure and at the same time she comes to love our language and to devour it in books. I hope she’ll have a dog. When I am 92, I’d love to see her, tall and rangy, take a pass, go high in the air, and hit a swisher from the free-throw line. Or sit at a piano and play a Chopin étude. Or both. And one day a door will open — maybe math, physics, history, poetry, art — and she’ll go marching through it.

Meanwhile, I must figure out what to do with these bonus years I have coming to me. At 76.1, one’s world gets smaller, the ambition to triumph and conquer has pretty much receded. My glasses sit beside the computer, next to the coffee cup, and there is bread in the kitchen waiting to be toasted and spread with peanut butter. Onward.

One more week, its little successes, etc.

It’s a father’s duty to take at least one long trip with each of his children, the two of you, nobody else along, and now that my daughter and I have traveled by rail, the old 20th Century Limited route from Chicago to New York, the trip Cary Grant took with Eva Marie Saint in North By Northwest, we are ready to take another. Nineteen hours from Chicago’s magnificent Union Station to Manhattan’s wretched Penn Station, including a fast run along the Mohawk and Hudson rivers, and the bond between young woman and her old man is sealed solid.

Highly recommended, especially for us newspaper readers constantly fussed-up over national crises — from a train, you see the solidity of the country, its infrastructure, factories, warehouses, everything working remarkably well.

And now I return to business, which is to move from a big house to a small apartment. I have a habit of taking off my glasses and setting them down and wandering away and forgetting where I set them, which means spending time roaming around searching for them, so we’re moving to a modest apartment to reduce the search area.

The house is in St. Paul, built in 1919  by a prosperous lumbering family (by which I mean a family that was in the lumber business, not a family of heavyset persons who clomp around awkwardly). We bought it because it was sunny and looked out at the Mississippi and now, ten years later, too busy to throw the big raucous parties that the house deserves, a band playing on the terrace, people doing the Lindy Hop and jumping into the fountain, the gin flowing, we’re looking for a buyer. Our friends don’t jump into fountains; they sit around and discuss the crisis in public education.

Meanwhile, I look back at hundreds of hours wasted looking for glasses: a crisis for a man of 76, though, being a writer, I am no stranger to wasted time: wastage comes with the territory. You sit down with a brilliant idea and a few weeks later you have fifty-five pages of mishmash and goulash. It happens to every writer. If physicians worked as effectively as we, their waiting rooms would be littered with dead bodies.

My one success last week was a sonnet, written at 5 a.m. on the day I realized was our wedding anniversary, an original sonnet written out in a clear cursive hand and set on the breakfast table for my wife to find. I heard her sigh with pleasure and she came into my workroom and threw her arms around me. One poem, one reader, one tight protracted embrace: success. The New York Review of Each Other’s Books will not give it a grudging review (“Marriage Sonnet somehow lacks the dark edge of Mr. Keillor’s work at its best”). It represents an hour of work well spent.

This is why a man takes up writing as a profession rather than plumbing or serving in Congress. What can a Congressperson offer his or her lover? A souvenir calendar? Your name on a rest stop on an interstate?

A writer’s situation is so ordinary — it’s like going to a big family dinner and you are seated next to an in-law you’ve never met and you must somehow make conversation. Where to start? She is nicely dressed, fiftyish, glasses, and you want to ask, “What do you do?” but it’s too blunt. So you say, “This morning I spent half an hour looking for my glasses. I need to get a chain to hold them but I hate how they look.”

Either we’ll have a conversation or she will find an excuse to go in the kitchen and pretend to be helpful. Either one is preferable to silence.

It was easy, talking to my daughter on the train. I talked about her childhood to see how far her memory stretches back. She was a joyful child. She was slow to talk, still monosyllabic when other children were speaking in sentences and using the subjunctive mood, but she got vast pleasure from the company of others. She was a hugger and snuggler. She still is.

Writers don’t hug. We try to get close to people by writing to them. Or we get on a train at night and we talk as the lights of cities flash past. Fort Wayne, Cleveland, Toledo. “I love you, Dad,” she says, apropos of nothing and everything. I love you, too, sweetheart.

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December 16, 2018

Sunday

5:00 p.m. & 8:00 p.m.

Minneapolis, MN

Minneapolis, MN

December 16, 2018

Garrison Keillor returns to Crooner’s with singer Christine DiGiallonardo & pianist Richard Dworsky. Shows at 5:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m.

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The Writer’s Almanac for December 9, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for December 9, 2018

Today is the birthday of John Milton (1608), who coined over 600 words including ethereal, sublime, impassive, terrific, dismissive, anarchy, and fragrance.

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The Writer’s Almanac for December 8, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for December 8, 2018

It’s the birthday of humorist and cartoonist James Thurber (1894), who said, “Humor is emotional chaos remembered in tranquility.”

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The Writer’s Almanac for December 7, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for December 7, 2018

“We come and go, but the land is always here. And the people who love it and understand it are the people who own it — for a little while.”
–Willa Cather, born this day in 1873

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The Writer’s Almanac for December 6, 2018

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Today is St. Nicholas Day; tomorrow, good children around the world will wake up with gifts of sweets, oranges, and nuts in their shoes.

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The Writer’s Almanac for December 5, 2018

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It’s the birthday of the essayist and novelist Joan Didion, who opined, “writers are always selling someone out.”

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The Writer’s Almanac for December 4, 2018

The Writer’s Almanac for December 4, 2018

Today is the birthday of Rainer Maria Rilke (1875), who financed his career as a poet by seducing a series of rich noblewomen who would support him while he wrote his books.

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A Prairie Home Companion: December 8, 2007

A Prairie Home Companion: December 8, 2007

Enjoy a special Christmas script, an SFX script about New York living, and the musical stylings of Geoff Muldaur, Ann Hampton Callaway, Howard Levy, and Odetta.

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The Writer’s Almanac for December 3, 2018

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It was on this day in 1839 that 30-year-old Illinois state assemblyman Abraham Lincoln was admitted to practice law in the United States Circuit Court. 

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The Writer’s Almanac for December 2, 2018

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It’s the birthday of novelist Ann Patchett (Los Angeles, 1963), author of Bel Canto and other books, who co-owns Parnassus Books in Nashville, TN.

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The Writer’s Almanac for December 1, 2018

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On this date in 1955, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Alabama, bus. She’d complied in the past, but this day, she was tired.

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Writing

Having reached the end, he continues

The real news these days is about science, and last week the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that life expectancy is dropping in the U.S., and the American male’s average life expectancy is 76.1 years, a figure I reached in October. My expiration date has passed. This comes as a shock, to think that I’m expected to die now, in a state of ignorance, still trying to figure out the basics (What am I here for? Why do rainy days make me happy? Where are my glasses?).

Read More

One more week, its little successes, etc.

It’s a father’s duty to take at least one long trip with each of his children, the two of you, nobody else along, and now that my daughter and I have traveled by rail, the old 20th Century Limited route from Chicago to New York, the trip Cary Grant took with Eva Marie Saint in North By Northwest, we are ready to take another. Nineteen hours from Chicago’s magnificent Union Station to Manhattan’s wretched Penn Station, including a fast run along the Mohawk and Hudson rivers, and the bond between young woman and her old man is sealed solid.

Highly recommended, especially for us newspaper readers constantly fussed-up over national crises — from a train, you see the solidity of the country, its infrastructure, factories, warehouses, everything working remarkably well.

Read More

A great task lies before us, but first we sleep

Small sorrows speak; great sorrows are silent. My current small sorrow is a daily flood of junk e-mail — cheap insurance, health nostrums, hernia repair, free loans, travel discounts, an app to find out if your spouse is unfaithful — a stream of crap generated in Orlando. In tiny print at the bottom is “If you wish to unsubscribe, click here,” and I click there and the stuff keeps coming, an infestation of electronic cockroaches.

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What happened Sunday, in case you missed it

Church was practically full last Sunday, with a few slight gaps for skinny fashion models but otherwise S.R.O., and everyone was in an amiable mood what with several babies present for baptism, and then the organ rang out the opening hymn, the one with “teach me some melodious sonnet sung by flaming tongues above” in it, an exciting line for us Episcopalians who rarely get into flaming stuff, and I sang out from the fifth pew near some babies and their handlers, some of whom weren’t familiar with this famous hymn of Christendom, though later, around the baptismal font, they would pledge to renounce the evil powers of this world and bring up the child in the Christian faith, but their ignorance of “Come thou fount of every blessing” suggested that they might bring up the child to play video games on Sunday morning, but what the hey, God accepts them as they be and though with some reluctance so must we, and I’m sorry this sentence got so long.

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The old man repents of his materialism

Standard Time returned in a cold rain on Sunday but no matter. I’m an old man and every day is beautiful. My past is gone, my future is shrinking, and so when I open my eyes in the morning and don’t see angels bending over me, I’m grateful for another day on Earth. There will be no cold rain in Heaven and I will miss that and the chance to complain about it. I went in the bathroom when I awoke and closed the door so that if I fell down with a massive heart attack, I wouldn’t wake my wife, and I put my pants on, left leg first, then the right, not leaning against the wall, for the sheer excitement of it. Some mornings it’s like mounting a bucking horse. And then downstairs to the coffeepot and back to work on my memoir.

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The old man is learning to dance

I went to a fundraiser for my daughter’s school Saturday and wandered out in search of relief and found myself trapped on the dance floor among demented teens writhing and jerking to the throb of a DJ’s explosive sound unit and there was my girl, in a circle of girls holding hands, bouncing around in a tribal ceremony unknown to me, an old man from the Era of Dance Partners. One more reminder, as if I needed it, that soon I must take the Long Walk out onto the ice pack and not return.

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One more beautiful wasted day

Last Wednesday I was walking briskly toward Penn Station in New York and I tripped and took a nosedive, made a three-point landing, rolled onto my side, and within three seconds, three passersby stopped and asked, “Are you okay?” I said, “Just embarrassed,” and when I started to get up and fell again, a fourth joined them. An old lady my age, a young black guy, a construction worker in an orange helmet, and a teenage girl. I limped east on 34th Street, and turned, and the guy in the helmet was watching me. I waved. He waved back.

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It is a good and pleasant thing not to rant

It’s the details of a story that give it life, not the high moral outlook of the thing, but many people find details confusing: it’s righteousness they crave, righteousness as a rationale for anger, and so you have the current surge in harangues and fulminations and the rarity of true storytelling. It’s just human nature. But it’s sad to see.

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Standing around, watching people suffer

The annual marathon ran by our house in St. Paul Sunday morning, a phalanx of flashing lights of police motorcycles, followed by Elisha Barno of Kenya and other African runners, and later the women’s winner, Sinke Biyadgilgn, and a stream of thousands of others, runners, joggers, walkers, limpers. For the sedentary writer standing on the curb, it’s a vision of hard work I am very grateful not to have undertaken. In the time I’d spend training to run 26 miles and 385 yards, I could write a book. When you finish a marathon, all you have to show for it is a pile of damp smelly clothes.

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Columnist salutes a brother columnist, a red one

George Will is a great American conservative essayist and I am an aging liberal doing the best I can, but even in divisive times I am capable of appreciating him, and his recent column for the Washington Post is so excellent, a new prize is needed, the Pulitzer isn’t good enough, we need a Seltzer or a Wurlitzer. You can Google this at your leisure; “Abolish the death penalty” is the title.

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