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An Old Romance Blooms Anew In 'Love Of My Youth.'

In Mary Gordon's luscious, wistful new novel, two former lovers meet in Rome after not having seen each other for almost 40 years. Book critic Maureen Corrigan praises the book's "undeniable appeal."

06:03

Other segments from the episode on April 19, 2011

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, April 19, 2011: Interview with Susan Freinkel; Review of CD boxset "The Bristol Sessions, 1927-1928: The Big Bang of Country Music"; Review of Mary Gordon's novel: The…

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Our 'Toxic' Love-Hate Relationship With Plastics

TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

We all know that plastics are common in modern life, but our guest, Susan
Freinkel, says they're really everywhere: in our toothbrushes, hairdryers, cell
phones, computers, door knobs, car parts and, of course, in those ubiquitous
plastic bags we get just about every time we buy anything.

They're made from polyethylene, the most common type of plastic in use today.
By one estimate, the amount of polyethylene produced in America every year is
nearly equal to the combined mass of every man, woman and child in the country.

Freinkel's new book, "Plastic: A Toxic Love Story," chronicles the rise of
plastics in consumer culture and its effects on the environment and our health.
For example, she notes that plastics have had enormously beneficial effects,
like making blood transfusions safe and common, but scientists are also finding
that chemicals from blood and IV bags are leaching into the fluids we take into
our bodies.

Susan Freinkel is a science writer whose work has appeared in the New York
Times, Discover, Smithsonian and other publications. She spoke with FRESH AIR
contributor Dave Davies.

DAVE DAVIES, host:

Well, Susan Freinkel, welcome to FRESH AIR. Let's begin with a little
experiment that you describe at the beginning of your book. You were going to
spend a day without touching plastic. What happened?

Ms. SUSAN FREINKEL (Author, "Plastic: A Toxic Love Story"): Right. I didn't
think through the idea very hard, which is why I walked into the bathroom that
morning and looked down, and there is my plastic toilet seat. So I had to
change my plan, and instead of spending the day not touching anything plastic,
I decided I would spend the day writing down everything I touched that was
plastic.

And by the end of the day, my notebook was filled with pages and pages of
plastic things - things that I went into the experiment knowing were plastic,
you know, like the sandwich bags, but then things I never imagined were plastic
like the doorknob of my front door, which I thought was brass but when I looked
closely I realized was plastic.

I didn't really understand how my life had become so permeated by plastic, and
I realized I didn't know the first thing about this stuff. I didn't know what
plastic was, where it came from or whether there were reasons to be concerned
about it. And I figured if I was asking those questions, probably other people
were, too.

DAVIES: Give us a layman's understanding of what plastic is, chemically.

Ms. FREINKEL: Well, you know, we talk about plastic like it's one thing, but
plastic is really - plastics are a huge family of materials. There are
thousands of different plastics. And in many ways, they're as different from
one another as paper can be from glass.

So in plastic, I call them daisy chains. They're giant molecules that are
hooked together like daisy chains. And another way to imagine them is like a
string of beads. And how those beads are arranged, what the beads actually are,
how they're strung on that string, how the strings are arranged with one
another can affect what a plastic looks like, how it behaves, how it feels.

What these all have in common, though, is that they're polymers. They're these
gigantic molecules, these long daisy chains. And as I said, you can get them
having very different properties.

So take for instance something like nylon. You know, nylon can be stretchy like
in pantyhose. It can be silky like a parachute. It can be bristly like the end
of your toothbrush. Or it can be a solid, smooth material like the wheels of a
roller skate, or bushy like Velcro.

You know, plastic has this kind of pejorative connotation, but it's pretty
amazing that we've managed to make this family of materials that has so many
different properties and that we can engineer, kind of, to do and be exactly
what we want them to be.

DAVIES: Now, why was the development of plastics driven, in part, by the oil
industry?

Ms. FREINKEL: Well, plastics come from the byproducts that are produced in the
refining of oil or the processing of natural gas. Actually, in this country,
most plastics come from natural gas.

And those processes throw off these byproducts which, you know, could just be
wasted. But really, since the early 20th century, the petroleum and chemical
industries got very good at taking these byproducts and reprocessing them, in a
sense, to create new products like raw plastics.

DAVIES: Can you give us an example of a byproduct of, you know, of oil refining
that led to a plastic?

Ms. FREINKEL: Sure. You know, I'll give you the example of ethylene, which is a
byproduct of oil refining. There is a sort of legend that Nelson Rockefeller,
founder of Standard Oil, was looking out over his, you know, vast refinery
complex and saw flares burning off some gas.

And he said, you know: What is that? What is that that we're burning off? And
somebody said: Well, that's ethane. And he said: ethane - which is a precursor
to ethylene - well, I don't want to waste that. I don't want to waste anything.
And, you know, the - well, let's figure out something to do with it. And that
something turned out to be ethylene, which is now used to make polyethylene.

DAVIES: And so what did they do? You have a gas that's being vented from the
stack of a refinery. Is it captured and then cooled so that it becomes a
liquid, and then, what, turned into a plastic resin or something?

Ms. FREINKEL: Well, that makes it sounds like a really simple process. And, you
know, when I went to go visit Dow Chemical's polyethylene plant in Freeport,
Texas, that very simple process that you just described takes place over miles
and miles of pipes, stretching out over acres.

And basically what happens is the ethylene is piped in a series of pipes and
subjected to different ranges of pressures and temperatures, and different
other gases are fed in with it. And eventually they all go into this thing
called the reactor, which I had envisioned was going to be like some lab with,
you know, bubbling flasks and vats, but actually was this huge, two-story room
with these gigantic pipes - looping up and down, floor to ceiling.

And at the start of that room, where the gases first go in, they go in at the
start of the room, and then other chemicals are fed in to trigger a chemical
reaction that will cause the gases to hook together into these daisy chains and
become liquid. And out the other end comes polyethylene.

I couldn't see any of that, but I was walking along the outside of the reactor
chamber, and all of a sudden, I realized I smelled plastic. It was like
sticking my nose in the - you know, in an empty bottle of milk, or jug of milk.

And then I looked around on the floor, and suddenly I could see these little
clumps of this waxy, white stuff that was raw polyethylene.

DAVIES: So just to simplify to the beginning and the end, this gas that's being
thrown off by a refinery is turned into what? What is it used for?

Ms. FREINKEL: The gas is turned into, essentially, liquid plastic that then is
extruded into tiny little pellets that look like rice grains. And those are
sort of the raw material from which plastic products are made.

DAVIES: And which plastic products come from - is it polyethylene?

Ms. FREINKEL: In this case I was looking at polyethylene, but this is more or
less the process for all kinds of plastics. They start with gases, chemical
reactions that take place that turn them into these polymers, these giant
molecules that are liquid, and what comes out are pellets or powders that are
sent out from Dow and other companies that make - they call them resins, raw
plastics. And those are shipped out to, you know, manufacturers and processors
around the world, really, who then turn them into plastic stuff.

DAVIES: You say the dawn of the age of plastics was 1941. Why?

Ms. FREINKEL: What happened in 1941 is that the guy who was in charge of
provisioning the U.S. military at the outset of World War II started
requisitioning plastic to replace strategic metals that were really needed.

And that led to a huge ramping-up of plastics production. A lot of plastics had
been discovered and invented in the '20s and '30s but hadn't really made their
way into major production. And it was kind of the military needs of the war
that got those plastics going strong.

DAVIES: And what military supplies were they used to make?

Ms. FREINKEL: Oh, a wide range, I mean, from, you know, the basic, standard-
issue combs that GIs got, which up until that time had been made from rubber,
to, you know, mortar fuses to the acrylic turrets that were used on planes for
gunners. They were throughout the military - plastic bugles.

DAVIES: And then after the war, you had this more developed plastics industry,
and it, what, it needed a market, right?

Ms. FREINKEL: Exactly. You know, imagine all of these manufacturers with these
huge, built-up supplies of plastic and huge capacity, and they needed to do
something with it.

DAVIES: Now one of the things that I like about your book is that it isn't just
about, you know, the dangers and toxic effects of plastics but the ways in
which they have enriched the lives of a lot of Americans. Describe ways in
which plastics in effect democratized - had a democratizing impact on American
life.

Ms. FREINKEL: Well, that was something that started really early on with
plastics. And I tell this story of the comb as an example of that. Now, combs
in the mid-19th century were often made from things like tortoiseshell or
ivory. But by the mid-19th century, people were beginning to get worried that
both ivory and tortoiseshell were becoming in short supply because the animals
were being sort of hunted into extinction.

And that actually was a goad to the development of early plastics. One of the
big uses of ivory was for billiard balls, and a billiard-ball manufacturer in
the 1860s put an ad offering $10,000 for anybody who could come up with a
viable substitute for ivory.

That ad caught the eye of an inventor in New York named John Wesley Hyatt, who
was kind of an amateur inventor, and he started looking at ways to develop an
adequate substitute. And what he actually ended up coming up with was the early
plastic celluloid, which was made from cellulose - actually from cotton.

And one of the first uses - or common uses - for celluloid was combs because
you could take celluloid and make it look like any kind of valuable material.
It was really good - it was very easy to make it look like tortoiseshell or to
make it look like ivory, and indeed that was what was done.

And so you had sort of these exquisite combs that looked like they'd come, you
know, from tortoiseshell or ivory, it looked like they cost a fortune, but
actually, you know, you could get them for quite cheap, and anybody could have
one.

DAVIES: And then, you know, once plastics became much more ubiquitous, you had
consumers that suddenly, now, they could get cheap combs. They could get a
cheap toothbrush. They could buy a suitcase that was light and strong. They
could have clear packaging that could wrap food and allow them to see whether
or not it was fresh. There was fishing line - all this stuff. How did we feel
about plastic? Did we embrace this artificial stuff, or were we suspicious of
it at first?

Ms. FREINKEL: In the early days, people were enthralled. I mean, imagine
something like cellophane, this clear material. People loved cellophane so much
that in the '40s, it was - the word itself was considered the third-most-
beautiful in the English language, after mother and memory.

I think, you know, people continued to love it until they started seeing it
being increasingly used for schlocky kinds of things, you know, like lawn
flamingos.

There was a fiasco in the early '60s when DuPont tried to develop a synthetic
leather, Corfam, and, you know, touted it as good as leather, but, you know, it
really didn't work very well.

And so, you know, by the time I was coming, growing up in the '70s, plastic had
pretty much become a cultural joke. It was the punch line to the movie "The
Graduate."

You know, when I was writing this book, almost every single person who I told I
was working on a book about plastic invariably mentioned that line. You know,
40 years later, it still resonates.

DAVIES: We're speaking with Susan Freinkel. Her new book is called "Plastic: A
Toxic Love Story." We'll talk more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

DAVIES: If you're just joining us, our guest is writer Susan Freinkel. She's
written a new book about the ubiquitous presence of plastics in our lives and
some of the effects thereof. It's called "Plastic: A Toxic Love Story."

You take us through some commonly manufactured plastic items like the single-
form chair, of which there are probably billions made and sold cheaply. The
Frisbee is another one you write about.

But I wanted to talk about some of the uses in medicine. And it was interesting
that it had a powerful effect on modern medicine, right? I mean, it really
allowed scientists to do things that they couldn't do before.

Ms. FREINKEL: Oh, absolutely. I mean, plastic, you couldn't have modern
medicine without plastic, you know, going back to the in the '40s, when Willem
Kolff invented the first kidney dialysis machine, using cellophane, in fact,
and said: What God didn't grow, man can make.

I was reminded of that recently when my mother broke her hip, and I was looking
at the hospital and looking all around at all the plastics in her room from,
you know, the machinery monitoring her oxygen levels to the actual replacement
hip in her body.

DAVIES: Explain the effect of plastic on the ability to transfuse blood and
store blood.

Ms. FREINKEL: Okay, I tell the story of the blood bag, and I chose that object
because it's made out of vinyl, and it was something that I think perfectly
kind of illustrates the benefits and problems of plastic in medicine.

Blood, up until the '50s, really, to the extent that blood collection took
place, it was in glass bottles. If you went to get blood drawn, up until the
1950s, you know, they would use a steel needle, and the blood would be taken
out through that needle, through rubber tubing, into a glass bottle with a
rubber stopper.

It didn't work very well. The blood cells were damaged in the process. And of
course, those glass bottles were breakable. It wasn't a great system.

And in the 1950s, a Boston surgeon named Carl Walter started looking for a
better way. And he came up with the idea of using one of the new plastics that
was out, vinyl, as a way to collect and store blood. And he invented the vinyl
blood bag.

And, in fact, you know, to prove its advantages to colleagues, he took it with
him to a meeting filled with blood and stepped on it to show them, you know,
this is really unbreakable.

And it was a huge technical advantage. You know, you had bottles not only that
wouldn't break, but they made it possible to store blood more safely, to
collect it more safely and to separate out the components in a sort of sterile,
secure fashion so that a single unit of blood could go - instead of just going
to one patient could go to three. So it was a great, great development.

DAVIES: And the final tubing that was used for IVs and all kinds of other
procedures, that was better than rubber?

Ms. FREINKEL: That was better than rubber, and it was seen at the time as not
only, you know - it was considered better than rubber, and it was considered
inert. People assumed that this was stuff that wasn't going to cause any
problem to human health.

DAVIES: Now, what are some of the issues that have arisen with the use of vinyl
blood bags and IV tubes?

Ms. FREINKEL: Well, vinyl, the plastic vinyl, is made from a plastic called
PVC. And on its own, PVC is a pretty rigid and brittle plastic. The way that
you make it into something soft and pliable that you can use for, say, a blood
bag or an IV bag is by adding in sort of oily chemicals called phthalates and,
in particular, one called DEHP.

The problem is that DEHP doesn't really bond with the plastic. And it's -
remember I compared earlier a polymer to a long strand, well, imagine those
long strands, and then the DEHP is like little snips of spaghetti, say. It
comes out really easily, and it leaches out easily. It leaches into the blood
that's contained in the blood bag. It particularly will leach out if there's a
fatty liquid present.

But we've known since the early '70s that DEHP leaches out of vinyl, and the
way that we know is that there were a pair of scientists at that time who were
doing some experiments with rat livers. It doesn't really matter what they were
trying to do.

But they kept finding this weird, strange compound that was fouling up their
experiments, and when they set out to figure out what it was, they discovered
it was DEHP. And they were very surprised because everybody had assumed that
this is, you know, an inert material.

They then did a bunch of research, and, you know, they came to the conclusion
that this was not harmful, that this was fine for human health except under
some very, very particular and rare circumstances.

Fast-forward about 20 year, in the late '90s, our understanding about sort of
toxicology has changed, and a couple of things had happened. One is that there
was sort of a new science discovering that some chemicals don't work like
traditional toxins.

They - instead of sort of there being kind of a straight line of exposure to
something like, you know, birth defects or cancer, these chemicals act in a
sort of more convoluted and complicated way.

They interfere with our hormones, and they interfere with the endocrine system,
which is the network of glands that orchestrate growth and development. And
there's some research done showing that DEHP, this chemical that's in vinyl,
has this property. It interferes with testosterone.

Most people aren't exposed to those kinds of levels, even in hospital settings
where you are, you know, being transfused for a long time, or a little baby is
being transfused for a long time. It's not approaching those levels. It is more
subtle, probably. But we don't know what the safe level is.

DAVIES: All right, so then these materials that we've been using, you know,
everywhere for blood bags and for IV solutions and for tubes, there might be
some concerns about them. Are there alternatives that people are exploring?

Ms. FREINKEL: There are alternatives. There's kind of - actually, it's a huge
and growing area. And that's the irony and frustrating thing to me, to be
honest.

Vinyl, polyvinyl chloride, there are alternatives for that in medicine, and
there are actually companies who are using them. B. Braun, for instance, went
into the market with the deliberate mission of finding alternative materials.
So they make IV bags and tubes out of things like polyethylene and
polypropylene or silicon tubes.

The problem is these are more expensive, and so for cash-strapped hospitals,
you can understand why they may be reluctant to go with an alternative when
they don't even completely know whether it's okay.

GROSS: Susan Freinkel's interview with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies will
continue in the second half of the show. Her new book is called "Plastic: A
Toxic Love Story." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Let's get back to the interview that FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies recorded
with science writer Susan Freinkel about her new book "Plastic: A Toxic Love
Story." It's about how dependent we've become on plastic - it's in nearly
everything - and the hazards some plastics pose to the environment and the
human body.

When we left off, Freinkel was talking about the vinyl bags and tubes used for
blood transfusions in IV medicines, which scientists discovered are actually
leaching chemicals into those fluids.

DAVIES: Well, what's been the reaction of the chemical industry to these
critiques of vinyl bags and tubes?

Ms. FREINKEL: You know, the chemical industry basically maintains that this
stuff is safe, that the argument about phthalates, for instance, is they've
been in use for 50 years; there's no evidence of widespread human problems and
therefore, what's the issue? And, you know, the vinyl industry has its own
trade association, which rebuts studies. The American Chemistry Council is very
quick to rebut any negative studies that come out. And, you know, they are
right. The science on this is still uncertain. It is still evolving. We are
looking at a whole new world of risks.

But, you know, I talked to one researcher who pointed out that, you know, there
are similarities between the way the chemical industry responds to a lot of the
studies that are suggesting problems and the way the tobacco industry defended
tobacco for 50 years. You know, it's hard to make a slam dunk showing that
these things are dangerous. You make that case through epidemiological studies
and through animal studies and, you know, you very carefully piece it together.

Any time you get an epidemiological study suggesting a correlation between
exposure to a phthalate or bisphenol A, for instance, and a health outcome, the
chemical industry quickly points out that this is just a correlation. There's
no evidence of direct cause-and-effect. That's true. That's what
epidemiological studies do, but they are the gold standard for determining
public health hazards. And this was the same strategy that was used by the
tobacco companies when they were trying to fight growing evidence that tobacco
causes lung cancer. It's been called a strategy of selling doubt.

DAVIES: What's the state of government regulation of plastics and their
potential health effects?

Ms. FREINKEL: Unlike pesticides or drugs, there's no real explicit government
regulation of plastics. We have a very fragmented and fairly ineffective
patchwork of laws to regulate synthetic chemicals. The central regulation there
is something called the Toxic Substances Control Act, which was passed in 1976.

People's criticisms of that law are that it has tended to treat chemicals as
safe until proven to be dangerous. But the way that the law is written is very
difficult to establish that a chemical is dangerous because manufacturers do
not have to volunteer information about that, and the EPA is - the
Environmental Protection Agency is fairly hamstrung in its ability to collect
information.

DAVIES: So of all the thousands of different kinds of plastics in all of their
many, many different uses, I mean how secure should we feel that somebody's
looking out to see whether it's hurting us?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. FREINKEL: I think it depends on how worried you want to be. Look, you know,
they're a lot of plastics out there. Plastics are not created equal and I think
there are a lot of plastics that we don't have to worry about. I'm not so
worried about polyethylene. I'm not particularly worried about polypropylene,
which is the stuff that's used - the plastics that's used in like yogurt
containers or margarine tubs. But we know...

DAVIES: And you mentioned polyethylene, that's what? The...

Ms. FREINKEL: Polyethylene, that's the stuff of like plastic baggies.

DAVIES: The grocery bags, right? Yeah.

Ms. FREINKEL: Grocery bags. Sort of a film, that film plastic. But we know that
hazardous chemicals are used in plastics and we know that some of those
plastics will leach chemicals that may be harmful to our health, and we don't
know the full extent of that.

I'll give you an example, which is PET - polyethylene terephthalate. It's the
plastic that's used in soda bottles and water bottles, another plastic that we
have for decades considered an inert plastic. Well, in recent years, there have
been several studies showing that PET can leach some kind of compound that
seems to have estrogenic activity - that seems to act like an estrogen. We
don't know what that compound is. We don't know whether it's being leached in
sufficient quantities to have any impact on human health.

The fact that we're suddenly discovering it is a little disconcerting. You
know, that said, I think those kinds of findings are why we need to have
stronger laws that require manufacturers to demonstrate the safety of chemicals
that they put into commerce, because we don't want to be finding these things
out decades after the fact.

DAVIES: So the basic difference is if you want to market a new pharmaceutical,
you need to demonstrate its safety, to test it. If you want to put a new
plastic product out you put it out and then wait to see if somebody figures out
there might be a problem.

Ms. FREINKEL: Exactly. I mean plastics came - when plastics came bursting onto
the scene the presumption was that these were inert materials. And what we're
finding is that they may actually be much more biologically active in some
cases than we ever imagined.

DAVIES: If you're just joining us, we're speaking with writer Susan Freinkel.
She's written a new book about the presence and effects of plastic in our
lives. It's called "Plastic: A Toxic Love Story."

Have there been problems with plastics leaching from baby bottles?

Ms. FREINKEL: The plastic that used to be used to make baby bottles is
polycarbonate. It's a hard, clear, glass-like plastic and one of the main
ingredients in that is a chemical called bisphenol A, which is an estrogen
mimic. If you look at a diagram of that molecule, it looks just like an
estrogen molecule. And bisphenol A has been associated with a bunch of health
problems, including obesity, breast cancer, heart disease and others. And so,
you know, when research about bisphenol A started coming out, you know, people,
parents especially were understandably horrified at the thought that the
bottles that they were using to feed their babies could potentially be leaching
this chemical into their babies.

You'd be hard-pressed to buy a baby bottle now that contains BPA. You know,
this is one of those instances where the government didn't step in but Walmart
did and, you know, the big-box stores won't carry BPA bottles. I actually was
in San Diego a couple of years ago and saw this display of sports water
bottles, which also used to be made of polycarbonate, and they were, these
things that usually costs like $15 were marked down to a dollar because they
still had bisphenol A in them.

DAVIES: So this is a case where concerns were raised about health issues
associated with bisphenol A and it became such a publicly known issue that
retailers responded but there was no regulatory authority that stepped in and
did anything?

Ms. FREINKEL: No. No. Bisphenol A is still - manufacturers are still free to
use bisphenol A, although it's acquired such a bad rep that not many do. But
yeah, this is one of those cases. Now, you know, there are other countries -
there are some states – and I don't know the exact number – there are some
states that have outlawed bisphenol A and there are some countries that have
said it can't be used in products that are being used by children. The problem,
of course, is, you know, you end up with this sort of patchwork of regulations
and no consistency or guarantee.

DAVIES: You know, your book is called "Plastic: A Toxic Love Story," and you
maintain this metaphor throughout it of our relationship with plastic. And it's
clear we're not going to break up. There are just too many things that we use.
But at the end of the book there's this really troubling set of statistics you
offer that we have produced nearly as much plastic in the last 10 years as in
all of the previous decades combined. Plastic production is accelerating.
Plastic goods are spilling out across the landscape. A culture of use and - use
and dispose is being exported to a developing world. You say plastic production
could reach two trillion pounds a year by 2050, four times today's levels.

This is just kind of depressing, isn't it? I mean, is there a way to produce
and use less of this stuff?

Ms. FREINKEL: I think there is. I think that we are going to have to. I mean
part of the reason you're looking at two trillion pounds is that we're
exporting not just, you know, good plastic consumer goods to the developing
countries, but also a kind of throwaway culture, and that's really what we have
to get away from. Half of the plastics made now are for throwaway items and
that is the biggest and sort of most troubling use of plastic, because a lot of
those are just trivial things that we don't need and which, you know, end up in
swaths of the world's oceans.

I think that the changes that are going to have to take place in the way that
we deal with plastic are changes that are going to have to come from everyone
with a stake in the future of plastics. So that means, you know, manufacturers
are going to have to be thinking more carefully about the way they make
plastics, the chemicals that are used in them, the kinds of applications they
have. And we as consumers have to take responsibility and look more carefully
and thoughtfully at the way that we use plastics.

DAVIES: Well, Susan Freinkel, it's been interesting. Thanks so much.

Ms. FREINKEL: Thank you, Dave.

GROSS: Susan Freinkel spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies. Her new
book is called "Plastic: A Toxic Love Story." You can read an excerpt on our
website, freshair.npr.org.

Coming up, rock historian Ed Ward reviews the new box set "The Bristol
Sessions, 1927 to '28." The sessions gave Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter family
their commercial debuts. This is FRESH AIR.
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How The Bristol Sessions Changed Country Music

(Soundbite of music)

TERRY GROSS, host:

In 1927 and 1928, Ralph Peer, a talent scout for the Victor Talking Machine
Company set up recording sessions in Bristol, a town which straddles the
Tennessee and Virginia borders. The result was essentially the birth of country
music.

Rock historian Ed Ward explains.

(Soundbite of music)

THE STONEMANS (Country Group): (Singing) I love my Lula belle, I do yes I do. I
love my Lula belle, I do yes I do. But I don't expect to see her any more.

ED WARD: The Victor Company will have a recording machine in Bristol for 10
days beginning Monday to record records: inquire at our store.

That was the text in a small box that appeared in the Bristol News-Bulletin on
July 24, 1927. Three days later, one of the paper's reporters sat in on a
recording session, where Ralph Peer cut a few sides on Ernest Stoneman and his
family. The Stonemans were locals, well-known in Bristol, and had a successful
career with Victor.

He received from the company $3,600 last year as his share of the proceeds on
his records, the story said. In other words, about three and a half times the
average national wage.

That did it. Starting at nine on the morning of July 28th, musicians by the
score showed up at the Taylor-Christian Hat Company building on State Street -
Virginia on its north side, Tennessee on the south side - and waited for their
chance.

The first soon-to-be-famous name to step in front of the microphone was Blind
Alfred Reed, a fiddler who would later record the classic "How Can a Poor Man
Stand Such Times and Live." But aside from a train-wreck ballad, he recorded
sacred material.

(Soundbite of song, "You Must Unload")

BLIND ALFRED REED (Musician): (Singing) You fashion loving Christians you'll
surely be denied. You must unload. You must unload. You are robbing God of
treasure if you feed yourselves with pride. You must, you must unload. The way
is straight and narrow and the few are in the road. My brother and my sister
and there's no other mode. If you want to get to heaven, your future uphold.
You must, you must unload.

WARD: Peer must have figured the rural market wanted white gospel music,
because he sure recorded a lot in Bristol. One of his favorites - and mine - is
the very formal-sounding Alfred G. Karnes, who had just bought a Gibson harp-
guitar for $375 to accompany himself.

(Soundbite of song, "Called To The Foreign Field")

Mr. ALFRED KARNES (Musician): (Singing) In the far and heathen country where
the people know not God, I am going there to preach his precious word. Where
they bow to worship idols I am going there to stay, where I'll labor in the
vineyard of the Lord. I'll soon be with my loved ones in my happy heavenly
home. Even now, the thought my soul with rapture thrills. So goodbye, my
friends and brethren, for the time has come to go. I must leave you on the dear
old battlefield. I am called to bear a message...

WARD: But Stoneman and his friends and family had also shown Peer that
traditional material sold, so J.P. Nester and Norman Edmonds got their chance,
too, and recorded a classic.

(Soundbite of song, "Train on the Island")

Mr. J.P. NESTER AND Mr. NORMAN EDMONDS (Musicians): (Singing) Train on the
island, (unintelligible) go and tell my (unintelligible) I can't go.

WARD: Nobody seems to know what the lyrics to "Train on the Island" mean, but
picking like that, who cares? Nester and Edmonds led off Monday, August 1st,
sessions at 12:30, but at 5:30, two women and a man stepped into the room, and
everything changed.

(Soundbite of song, “Bury Me Beneath The Weeping Willow”)

THE CARTER FAMILY (Country music singers): (Singing) My heart is sad and I'm in
sorrow for the only one I love. When shall I see him? Oh, no, never, till I
meet him in heaven above. Oh, bury me under the weeping willow. Yeah, under the
weeping willow tree. So he may know where I am sleeping and perhaps he will
weep for me. They told me that...

WARD: A.P. Carter, his wife Sara and Sara's teenage sister Maybelle Addington
were from the surrounding countryside, in Maces Springs, Virginia, and Peer
knew he'd struck gold - especially when Maybelle and Sara came back the next
morning and cut two duets. The Carter Family, as they called themselves, became
one of the biggest acts in America, continuing on in its original form until
1942.

Lightning struck again on Thursday the 4th. The Tenneva Ramblers were four
young men who'd been working out of Asheville, North Carolina, who Peer had
encouraged to audition. Nobody's sure just what happened, but by the time
Thursday came around, their lead singer had left them and recorded two songs by
himself.

(Soundbite of song, "Sleep Baby Sleep”)

Mr. JIMMIE RODGERS (Musician): (Singing) Sleep, baby, sleepy. Close your bright
eyes. Listen to your mother, dear. Sing these lullabies. Sleep, baby, sleepy,
while angels watch over you. Listen to your mother, dear, while she sings to
you.

WARD: Tuberculosis would kill Jimmie Rodgers five years later, but he probably
sold more records for Victor than any artist before Elvis. And, yes, the
Tenneva Ramblers got their chance later that afternoon, but they don't sound
very special.

Peer packed up his equipment and took his masters with him to Camden, New
Jersey, to start pressing the many keepers he'd recorded. He returned to
Bristol the next year, between October 27th and November 4th, 1928. His only
major find this time was the Stamps Quartet, whose "Come to the Savior" sold
13,792 copies, the most of any of the Bristol recordings.

The Stamps, in one form or another, continued through 1980, and counted Elvis
Presley as a major fan. But my favorite from the 1928 sessions was the
wonderfully named Shortbuckle Roark and Family, who concluded Ralph Peer's epic
act of discovery with a classic.

(Soundbite of song, "I Truly Understand That You Love Another Man”)

SHORTBUCKLE ROARK AND FAMILY (Country singers): (Singing) I wish to the Lord I
never been born, nor died when I was young. I never would've seen them two
brown eyes or heard that flattering tongue, my love, or heard that flattering
tongue. I truly understand that you love another man, and your heart shall no
longer be mine. Who will shoe your little feet? Who will glove your hand? Who
will kiss your red rosy cheeks when I'm in the foreign land, my love, when I'm
in the foreign land? I truly understand that you love another man, and your
heart shall no longer be mine.

GROSS: Ed Ward reviewed “The Bristol Sessions, 1927-1928” on Bear Family
Records. Coming up, Maureen Corrigan reviews Mary Gordon's new novel, “The Love
of My Youth.”

This is FRESH AIR.
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An Old Romance Blooms Anew In 'Love Of My Youth'

(Soundbite of music)

TERRY GROSS, host:

Novelist and memoirist Mary Gordon is known for her clear-eyed writing on such
themes as guilt, the shakiness of personal identity, feminism and Catholicism.
But critic Maureen Corrigan says that most of those themes resurface in
Gordon's new novel “The Love of My Youth,” which also serves up nourishing
portions of nostalgia and good pasta. Here's her review.

MAUREEN CORRIGAN: To fully give yourself over to Mary Gordon's luscious,
wistful new novel, you first got to make yourself forget that the Internet
exists.

Let me explain. Gordon's novel, called “The Love of My Youth,” opens in Rome in
2007. The premise is that two former lovers - Americans named Adam and Miranda
who haven't seen each other in nearly 40 years - are brought together for a
dinner party at the flat of a mutual friend.

Adam and Miranda fell in love at 16 and remained together throughout college
and beyond. This was the real deal - the two were going to be married, have
children together - until Adam, in a bumbling move whose exact details we
readers don't find out about until the end of the novel, betrayed Miranda and
they parted. They've each gone on and lived their lives, had solid careers,
married other people, spawned children who are now themselves adults.

When fate throws the ex-lovers together again in Rome, they're pushing 60. And
neither of them has ever once trolled the Internet to find out whatever
happened to the person who was once the passionate center of his/her life? I
suppose it's possible: Adam and Miranda are better, more dignified people than
most of us are. In the privacy of their home offices, during down time at work,
they do not Google.

If you can muzzle your skepticism on this matter, “The Love of My Youth” is an
enchanting read: A travelogue through time, as well as through some of Rome's
most beautiful spaces, Gordon's novel dangles out the fantasy of the
faultlessly executed second chance. It's a testament to Gordon's sure touch as
a writer that she manages to set up the cumbersome pretext of the aging ex-
lovers' reunion with as little clanking and hammering as possible.

The mature Miranda is an epidemiologist; she's in Rome, conveniently sans
husband, for a three-week conference. Adam, a music teacher, is there
chaperoning his 18-year-old daughter, a violin prodigy. After that reunion
dinner, Adam, whose Italian-American family hailed from Rome, proposes that
they meet for a few hours every day so he can show Miranda some gorgeous Roman
locale the tourists haven't totally mobbed. What gal could refuse such an
extended act of expiation?

And, so begins a time out of time where Miranda and Adam stroll the Villa
Borghese and nestle into cafes, while the book itself shifts into a light novel
of ideas. The pair talk about mortality and concepts of identity. Thankfully,
all the talk isn't so highfalutin. Here are snatches of a long passage where
Miranda opens up to Adam about what it's like for a woman to enter, what she
calls, the age of embarrassment.

What a strange thing it is, embarrassment, so powerful, yet no one acknowledges
it as one of the important human states. And it's so physical. Think of hair
color. You have to do it well, because if it's done badly everyone has to feel
sorry for you having to dye your hair. And you have to avoid dying it certain
colors so that it appears that you're pretending not to dye it or that you're
making a joke of yourself by acknowledging too loudly that it's fake. More than
anything, though, I fear being thought of as a game girl: those women traveling
around in groups wearing red hats. Or maybe they're purple hats. Better subtle,
neutral shades: blacks, taupes. A bit of mourning for the end of youth is
called for.

As you can hear, Miranda is the judgmental one; Adam the quiet listener -
personality differences whose fatal implications become more telling through
Gordon's evocative flashbacks to the couple's shared youth during the 1960s.

“The Love of My Youth” has all the undeniable appeal - and the contrivance - of
that perennial PBS Brit com “As Time Goes By,” a show whose premise also is
hard to imagine in the Internet age. But, much more is at stake in Gordon's
novel than the will-they-or-won't-they suspense of a possible holiday hookup.
Gordon's characters explore the hard costs of changing, maturing. They share
the dazed epiphany of late middle age - namely, that it takes so long to grow
up, and then you die. Readers may well feel that same shock at the end of “The
Love of My Youth,” it takes a while to settle into Gordon's world here, and
then it's all over much too quickly.

GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She
reviewed “The Love of My Youth” by Mary Gordon. You can read an excerpt on our
website, freshair.npr.org.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
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Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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