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The Late Movies: Even (Cow)girls Get the Blues

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Ransom and I have both done Late Movies posts on blues music before, and they've gotten great responses, so I won't fix anything that isn't broken. Tonight, though, is Ladies Night, featuring great blues musicians with two X chromosomes who've made their mark in a genre dominated by men. Hit it, ladies!

Big Mama Thornton - Hound Dog
Only hearing Elvis Presley's version of this song is sort of like only ever drinking light beer or eating imitation crab meat or jarred spaghetti sauce. Once you get a taste of the real thing, it's like you've been living life with the volume turned down and the color washed out. Willie Mae "Big Mama" Thornton recorded this Leiber and Stoller tune, which they brought in written on the back of a paper bag, in 1952. In the studio, Thornton worked the song like a ball of clay, playing around with the rhythm, adding extra bars to choruses, getting the band to bark and growl and moving the downbeat of her lines a round almost constantly. This video is from a live TV presentation of the 1965 European tour of the American Blues and Folk Festival, featuring Buddy Guy on guitar.

Mamie Smith - Crazy blues

Despite the fact that Mamie "The Queen of Blues" Smith wasn't much of a blues singer and only sometimes included blues numbers into her vaudeville act, she made history when she made the first vocal blues recordings by an African American in 1920. One of the songs recorded was "Crazy Blues," which sold a million copies in one year and was later inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame and chosen for permanent preservation in the National Recording Registry at the Library of Congress.

Ann Cole - Got My Mojo Workin'
Preston Foster's 1956 song "Got My Mojo Working" was first recorded by Ann Cole, and popularized by Muddy Waters a year later. When Waters attempted to copyright his modified version of the song, Waters' and Coles' record companies settled out of and the court the two versions are still separately copyrighted. Both versions have been covered by numerous artists, like Conway Twitty, Manfred Mann, The Zombies, The Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Canned Heat, Elvis Presley, B. B. King, Buddy Guy and Eric Clapton. For me, though, Cole's original stands well above the others.

Susan Tedeschi - Hurt So Bad
Susan Tedeschi (te-DES-ki) made her debut public performance at 6 years old in a Broadway musical. She later got her B.A. in musical composition and performance from the Berklee College of Music and immersed herself in the Boston blues scene. Since the release of her second album, Just Won't Burn, she's become one of the most recognizable women in blues. Here she is live at the Rhythm & Roots Festival in Charlestown, Rhode Island in 2007.

Koko Taylor ft. Little Walter - Wang Dang Doodle
Chess records songwriter Willie Dixon wrote "Wang Dang Doodle" for Howlin' Wolf, but both Wolf and Dixon wound up hating it. For whatever reason, the versions recorded by women (Koko Taylor, the Pointer Sisters, PJ Harvey) tend to be better than those done by men (the Grateful Dead, Ted Nugent).

Cassandra Wilson "Death letter"
Grammy winner Wilson is better known as a jazz singer and her version of Son House's signature "Death Letter" manages both to reflect her background and amplify the emotional weight of the song.

Gillian Welch - Elvis Presley Blues + The Weight (w/ Old Crow Medicine Show)
Gillian Welch is a little bit of country, a little bit of Appalachian folk, a little bit of blues and a little bit of bluegrass, depending on the song, but she's always sparse, always dark and always just a little bit unnerving, which is sort of how my favorite musicians, blues or otherwise, tend to be. Both of these songs come from the BBC Four Sessions in 2007.

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Stephen Dunn/Getty Images
Paw Enforcement: A History of McGruff the Crime Dog
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Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

Jack Keil, executive creative director of the Dancer Fitzgerald Sample ad agency, was stuck in a Kansas City airport at three in the morning when he started thinking about Smokey Bear. Smokey was the furred face of forest fire prevention, an amiable creature who cautioned against the hazards of unattended campfires or errant cigarette butts. Everyone, it seemed, knew Smokey and heeded his words.

In 1979, Keil’s agency had been tasked with coming up with a campaign for the recently-instituted National Crime Prevention Council (NCPC), a nonprofit organization looking to educate the public about crime prevention. If Keil could create a Smokey for their mission, he figured he would have a hit. He considered an elephant who could stamp out crime, or a rabbit who was hopping mad about illegal activity.

A dog seemed to fit. Dogs bit things, and the NCPC was looking to take a bite out of crime. Keil sketched a dog reminiscent of Snoopy with a Keystone Cop-style hat.

Back at the agency, people loved the idea but hated the dog. In a week’s time, the cartoon animal would morph into McGruff, the world-weary detective who has raised awareness about everything from kidnapping to drug abuse. While he no longer looked like Snoopy, he was about to become just as famous.

In 1979, the public service advertising nonprofit the Ad Council held a meeting to discuss American paranoia. Crime was a hot button issue, with sensational reports about drugs, home invasions, and murders taking up the covers of major media outlets like Newsweek and TIME. Surveys reported that citizens were concerned about crime rates and neighborhood safety. Respondents felt helpless to do anything, since more law enforcement meant increased taxes.

To combat public perception, the Ad Council wanted to commit to an advertising campaign that would act as a preventive measure. Crime could not be stopped, but the feeling was that it could be dented with more informed communities. Maybe a clean park would be less inviting to criminals; people might need to be reminded to lock their doors.

What people did not need was a lecture. So the council enlisted Dancer Fitzgerald Sample to organize a campaign that promoted awareness in the most gentle way possible. Keil's colleagues weighed in on his dog idea; someone suggested that the canine be modeled after J. Edgar Hoover, another saw a Superman-esque dog that would fly in to interrupt crime. Sherry Nemmers and Ray Krivascy offered an alternative take: a dog wearing a trench coat and smoking a cigar, modeled in part after Peter Falk’s performance as the rumpled TV detective Columbo.

Keil had designs on getting Falk to voice the animated character, but the actor’s methodical delivery wasn’t suited to 30-second commercials, so Keil did it himself. His scratchy voice lent an authoritarian tone, but wasn't over-the-top.

The agency ran a contest on the back of cereal boxes to name the dog. “Sherlock Bones” was the most common submission, but "McGruff"—which was suggested by a New Orleans police officer—won out.

Armed with a look, a voice, and a name, Nemmers arranged for a series of ads to run in the fall of 1980. In the spots, McGruff was superimposed over scenes of a burglary and children wary of being kidnapped by men in weather-beaten cars. He advised people to call the police if they spotted something suspicious—like strangers taking off with the neighbor’s television or sofa—and to keep their doors locked. He sat at a piano and sang “users are losers” in reference to drug-abusing adolescents. (The cigar had been scrapped.)

Most importantly, the NCPC—which had taken over responsibility for McGruff's message—wanted the ads to have what the industry dubbed “fulfillment.” At the end, McGruff would advise viewers to write to a post office box for a booklet on how to prevent crime in their neck of the woods.

A lot of people did just that. More than 30,000 booklets went out during the first few months the ads aired. McGruff’s laconic presence was beginning to take off.

By 1988, an estimated 99 percent of children ages six to 12 recognized McGruff, putting him in Ronald McDonald territory. He appeared on the ABC series Webster, in parades, and in thousands of personal appearances around the country, typically with a local police officer under the suit. (The appearances were not without danger: Some dogs apparently didn't like McGruff and could get aggressive at the sight of him.)

As McGruff aged into the 1990s, his appearances grew more sporadic. The NCPC began targeting guns and drugs and wasn’t sure the cartoon dog was a good fit, so his appearances were limited to the end of some ad spots. By the 2000s, law enforcement cutbacks meant fewer cops in costume, and a reduced awareness of the crime-fighting canine. When Keil retired, an Iowa cop named Steve Parker took over McGruff's voice duties.

McGruff is still in action today, aiding in the NCPC’s efforts to raise awareness of elder abuse, internet crimes, and identity theft. The organization estimates that more than 4000 McGruffs are in circulation, though at least one of them failed to live up to the mantle. In 2014, a McGruff performer named John Morales pled guilty to possession of more than 1000 marijuana plants and a grenade launcher. He’s serving 16 years in prison.

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Watch a Panda Caretaker Cuddle With Baby Pandas While Dressed Up Like a Panda
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Some people wear suits to work—but at one Chinese nature reserve, a handful of lucky employees get to wear panda suits.

As Travel + Leisure reports, the People's Daily released a video in July of animal caretakers cuddling with baby pandas at the Wolong National Nature Reserve in China's Sichuan Province. The keepers dress in fuzzy black-and-white costumes—a sartorial choice that's equal parts adorable and imperative to the pandas' future success in the wild.

Researchers raise the pandas in captivity with the goal of eventually releasing them into their natural habitat. But according to The Atlantic, human attachment can hamper the pandas' survival chances, plus it can be stressful for the bears to interact with people. To keep the animals calm while acclimating them to forest life, the caretakers disguise their humanness with costumes, and even mask their smell by smearing the suits with panda urine and feces. Meanwhile, other keepers sometimes conceal themselves by dressing up as trees.

Below, you can watch the camouflaged panda caretakers as they cuddle baby pandas:

[h/t Travel + Leisure]


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