John Wesley Harding

Friend to the poor, my aunt Fanny.

Bob Dylan released the album John Wesley Harding around Christmas of 1967, in the middle of my sophomore year of college. I bought it shortly thereafter, and I probably listened to it a thousand times over the ensuing decade.

I never thought too much about the title track. I knew that Bob Dylan was familiar with Woody Guthrie’s “The Ballad of Pretty Boy Floyd.” I also knew that the last name of the famous outlaw was Hardin, not Harding. Dylan, or at least someone associated with the album, surely knew this last fact. So, the mistake must have been deliberate.

I did not really think any more about this until I recently watched a televised biography of the real John Wesley Hardin. The portrayal made it quite clear that JWH was one of the most ruthless, cold-blooded, and prolific killers in all of the west. Moreover, he did much of his killing while still a teenager. He was arrested at the age of 24, and he was sentenced to spend 25 years in prison. While there he wrote his autobiography, in which he claimed to have killed roughly forty people. Nobody doubts that he killed at least two dozen.

Here are the lyrics to the three verses of Dylan’s puzzling song:

John Wesley Harding
Was a friend to the poor
He trav’led with a gun in ev’ry hand
All along this countryside
He opened a many a door
But he was never known
To hurt a honest man.

The documented examples of JWH helping poor people, are few and far between, especially if you don’t count his many cousins. He spent most of the eight years after he left home on the run from the law. He definitely was seldom unarmed. When he opened a door, it was often to escape the law. He also used windows. He would just as soon kill a man as look at him, honest or crooked. No one ever accused the young JWH of having a strong sense of honesty.

It was down in Chaynee County
A time they talk about
With his lady by his side
He took a stand
And soon the situation there
Was all but straightened out
For he was always known
To lend a helping hand.

There is no such place as “Chaynee County.” The only Cheney County is in Washington, and JWH never visited there. He was married twice, but he spent very little time with either wife, and he certainly never took a stand with either of them. He often did lend a helping hand to his relatives, but usually the hand contained a knife or a gun. The closest that he came to having a job was his participation in a cattle drive.

All across the telegraph
His name it did resound
But no charge held against him
Could they prove
And there was no man around
Who could track or chain him down
He was never known
To make a foolish move.

The telegraphs definitely announced the $4,000 reward offered by the state of Texas for his capture. He was convicted of murder and, in a separate case, manslaughter. The evidence that he was involved in dozens of crimes is overwhelming, even if one discounts all of the bragging in his autobiography. He was tracked down by Texas Rangers in Pensacola, FL. After his conviction he tried to escape from prison many times, but he was never successful. He was released after seventeen years for good behavior. He did, however, escape several times prior to his capture in Florida. He made many foolish moves. In fact his whole early life was arguably a foolish move.

So, what in the world was Bob Dylan trying to say in this song? It is tempting to conclude that he was satirizing Guthrie’s homage to the two-bit thug of the twentieth century by praising one of the most notorious thugs of the nineteenth century. However, nine years later Dylan himself wrote “Hurricane,” which is squarely in the “trial by folk song” genre. In general it is “a foolish move” to read too much into Bob Dylan’s poetry, at least everything after the first two albums. He was a musician and a poet, not a crusader or a storyteller.

Here is what the Nobel Prizewinner had to say about this song.

I was gonna write a ballad on… like maybe one of those old cowboy… you know, a real long ballad. But in the middle of the second verse, I got tired. I had a tune, and I didn’t want to waste the tune, it was a nice little melody, so I just wrote a quick third verse, and I recorded that… I knew people were gonna listen to that song and say that they didn’t understand what was going on, but they would’ve singled that song out later, if we hadn’t called the album John Wesley Harding and placed so much importance on that, for people to start wondering about it… if that hadn’t been done, that song would’ve come up and people would have said it was a throw-away song.

So, Dylan evidently got tired of the song halfway through writing it. However, he still liked the melody, which is certainly superior to Guthrie’s. So, to forestall people from thinking that the whole thing was junk, he made it the title track. Maybe someone should appropriate the melody for a story worth telling. Here’s a start: “F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote no books ’bout the poor.”

I could find no recordings of “John Wesley Harding” by Bob Dylan anywhere on the Internet. The cover versions are decidedly not to my taste.

Modified Manfield Convention

Opponents double our 1M opening.

Circumstance: Partner bids one of a major, and the opponent in the direct seat doubles. Responses:

1. Redouble: 10+ points, fewer than three pieces in the major. This is the standard treatment of “Redouble implies no fit.”

2.1 after a 1 opening: 4+ spades. Unlikely but possible.

3. 2: three-piece constructive raise.

4. 2: four-piece constructive raise.

5. Simple raise: three-piece support with fewer than eight support points.

6. Jump raise: four-piece support with fewer than eight support points.

7. 2 of other major: four-piece limit raise with a singleton. Opener bids 2NT to ask for singleton. If interference, opener doubles to ask for singleton. Responder doubles (stolen bid) or bids the singleton.

8. 2NT: standard Jordan with no shortness.

9. 3 of an unbid suit: Fit-showing jump with three-card support and no shortness.

10. 4 of an unbid suit: Fit-showing jump with four-card support and no shortness.

11. Jump to 4: Standard weak freak: five or more trumps, less than ten points, and shortness.

12. 1NT: artificial, forcing relay to 2. Responder’s second calls are listed below.

  1. Pass: weak hand with long clubs and no support.
  2. 2: weak hand with long diamonds and no support.
  3. Simple raise: three-card limit raise.
  4. 2 of other major: four-piece limit raise with a void. Opener bids 2NT to ask for void. If interference, opener doubles to ask for void. Responder doubles (stolen bid) or bids the void.
  5. 3 of a minor: invitational values, long minor with no support.
  6. 2NT: 5-5 in the minors, singleton or void in opener’s major.

Note that the jump raise after the relay is not defined.

Three Popes Resigned

What became of them?

Most popes died while still in office. However, quite a few popes were deposed by one means or another, and at least a handful were assassinated or, in at least one case, lynched by a mob. Only four pontiffs certainly resigned, and one of them, Gregory XII, would have been deposed by the Council of Constance if he had not agreed to its demand for his resignation.

The most recent resignation was by Benedict XVI in 2013. He spent his first few weeks in retirement at the summer residence in Castel Gandolfo. Since then he has only occasionally appeared publicly. I was unable to determine where he is living now, but all of his public appearances have been in Italy. He probably has an apartment in Rome. Hardly anyone seems to care about him, but if you do, you can buy some memorabilia here.

There is no mystery about what happened to Pope Celestine V after he resigned. His successor, Pope Boniface VIII, had him captured and imprisoned. He died shortly thereafter. You can read the fascinating details of his selection and his short pontificate here.

The first pope to resign was Benedict IX, back in 1045. My favorite pope was deposed the previous year, but he gathered his supporters together and regained the Throne of Peter. His second pontificate, however, lasted only a few months. He decided to resign in order to get married. As unlikely as this sounds, I have never read anyone who has posited an alternative explanation. In any case, he evidently negotiated a large sum of cash in exchange for turning the papacy over to his godfather, John Gratian, who became Pope Gregory VI.

At the insistence of the emperor, Gregory was deposed by the Council of Sutri and replaced with the emperor’s choice, who took the name of Clement II. Clement died after only a few months, and Benedict, who apparently never did get married, retook the Throne. Eventually the emperor managed to gather enough force in Italy to force Benedict to flee in July of 1048.

What happened to Benedict after that? It is hard to explain why no one seems to know. Luke, the hegumen (abbot), of the Basilian monastery at Grottaferrata, wrote a biography of one of his predecessors, St. Bartholomew the Younger. In it he asserted that Benedict came to the saint, repented, became a Basilian monk, and died at the monastery. A plaque commemorating these events was reportedly on display at the monastery (which still is in operation 1,000 years later), but the marker was destroyed in the allied bombings of World War II, or so the story goes. The Catholic Encyclopedia endorses this tale.

I have searched diligently for Hegumen Luke’s work, but I have been unable to locate it. It was translated into Italian a few years ago, but my efforts to obtain a copy were unsuccessful. The most complete write-up that I have discovered is in the book Deaths of the Popes by Wendy J. Reardon. Benedict IX’s period as Pope Emeritus is discussed on p. 81.

There were no fact-checkers in the Middle Ages. Is Luke’s story credible? I posed this very question to Santo Lucá, a scholar who has devoted a great deal of study to the documents at Grottaferrata. I discussed his unequivocal negative response in a previous entry.

If Benedict IX did not join the monastery, what happened to him? I wish that I had Mr. Peabody’s Wayback Machine. I would definitely set it to the middle of the eleventh century.

The Killing Lead

Can you find the killing lead?

At Saturday’s bridge game my partner and I were defending a boring 2 contract. It was boring because as soon as the dummy came down we realized that our opponents were in the wrong contract. We took three of the first ten tricks, and I was in the lead. Since declarer still had the highest remaining trump, we could not hope to set the contract, but we had a good chance to take five tricks because I still held a trump.

On trick #11 I led the thirteenth club, which the declarer let me win. I was disappointed to see my partner discard the K. This was the two-card finish:

9 7

I spent a few seconds deciding what to do. Can you find the lead that allowed us to take one of the remaining tricks? The answer is below.

The answer is the 7!

We called the director to adjudicate my partner’s lead out of turn. The declarer accepted the lead, and I ruffed it.

E-mail Jail

Somebody must’ve gone my bail.

I have been in e-mail jail for the last two weeks. I was out for about one day, but then I was thrown back into the clinker. I may have violated my parole. I do not know. You never know. No one ever tells you why you were put in jail; in fact, no one even tells you that it happened. All that you know is that something that worked for a long period of time no longer works.

I send a lot of e-mails. As webmaster of the New England Bridge Conference, I keep a database of players in New England, and every month or so I try to keep them apprised of developments. I use a program that I wrote to send the e-mails, which are customized for the group receiving them. Unfortunately, the last two times that I attempted this I was thrown in the hoosegow in the middle of the project. I only found out when I never received my test e-mails.

After thirty or so (no exaggeration) exchanges with my ISP I learned a little bit about what is going on. The company that runs the server, iPower, uses a “spam filter” program to determine whether to send an e-mail that is generated from a script (program). I assume that the spam filter actually runs on a different server or at least was developed by someone else. Most of the technical support people seemed totally unaware that it was even possible for a script to generate an e-mail that never got sent. They kept checking the e-mail logs for the e-mails. When they were not there, they repeatedly asked me to debug my scripts more carefully.

Evidently there are independent companies that keep “blocklists” of known spanners. If you are on one of these lists, and your ISP’s filter program checks them, you will not be allowed to send a mailing. You won’t be informed of what happened, why, or when. You will need to figure it out yourself. On iPower I could still use their webmail program to send individual e-mails even after the scripted mailings stopped working. I was also able to receive e-mails.

Here is how I think that the process works. Someone received an e-mail. He/she did not ask me to remove them from the list. I always respond to those requests immediately. Instead he/she complained to his/her ISP (Comcast, Cox, AOL, Google, or whomever). The ISP complained to one or more of the spam detection companies, and I got blocklisted.

The problem is not that individuals got irritated by e-mail from unwanted sources. The people who provide the e-mail software could solve that problem easily by allowing users to maintain a list of “from addresses” that they want to delete immediately. Outlook has this feature, and I have used it for years. I suspect that the ISP’s are actually concerned about the e-mails using up precious bandwidth. Their approach cannot do much to stop spam. Since I have no idea who registered the original complaint, I will probably send them another unwanted e-mail.

There is no court for spam offenses. It is like support for terrorism. If someone suspects you of committing the crime, you are thrown in jail without notice. You have to find someone who can get you out of jail and convince them to do it.

I expect to be back in jail before the year is out. Could someone send me a cake with a hacksaw in it?