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Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Remembering Amelia Earhart in folksong and legend, July 2, 2014

On the Anniversary of her Disappearance, Amelia Earhart Still Inspires Us

She upended archaic gender roles, captivated pop culture, dominated the news, and much more. A song about her is still played today (song links and lyrics below).

By Larry Wines

So much about her life and how she vanished resonates today. Malaysian Airlines flight 370 is gone without a trace. The news media and popular culture develop an obsession. Economic times are hard, people are struggling, and in their imaginations, they project themselves halfway around the world to find the plane and solve the mystery. Television plays a riveting role in the aftermath.

We've been there before. In 1937, starting on this very day, July 2nd. It was then that Amelia Earhart disappeared forever. The nation became preoccupied with finding her. Once it was clear that wouldn't happen, a song proclaimed, "Farewell, First Lady of the Air." (Music video links are below.) And, yes, even television came into play, that early.

Amelia Earhart vanished on a long ago July 2nd while attempting to become the first woman to fly around the world. In so many ways, she still speaks to us, a compelling feminine presence from long before the feminist movement, a determined woman who made up her mind to achieve bold things, and set about doing them.

Amelia Earhart already held numerous altitude and speed records and aviation "firsts" before beginning the adventure that would be her last.

In the depths of the Depression, her smiling optimistic sense of adventure -- and looks that would have made her a supermodel today -- inspired millions. And that was an age when women "just didn't do those things!" Except for Amelia and her temperamentally opposite anything-but-femine female rival, Pancho Barnes.

And so Amilia was out there, an airborne Magellan over the vast ocean, circumnavigating the globe.

The last known position of Amelia's state-of-the-art Lockheed Electra twin-engine airplane was near remote Howland Island in the South Pacific. That became the center of the largest sea and air search in history. No trace of the plane, of Earhart, or of her non-pilot navigator Fred Noonan, was ever found.

That vaccuous absence of information gave rise to one of America's earliest flurries of enduring conspiracy theories. It included one that Amelia was "a secret spy on a mission for the government," though that speculation was vague as to why. The predicate -- presumably to survey an expanding Japanese naval presence -- would come four-and-a-half years later, after Pearl Harbor was attacked.

As with Flight 370, rampant speculation has never stopped. There have been expeditions to search for wreckage of her plane, bones, pieces of leather shoes. Anything.

Another, and the most improbable of today's connections is literally happening right now.  Another young woman pilot, whose name also happens to be (wait for it) Amelia Earhart, is attempting to retrace -- and this time, to complete -- the first Amelia Earhart's route around the world. She is scheduled to be in the sky over the South Pacific today, flying a modern, GPS-tracked twin-engine propeller-driven airplane. Watch for sparse news coverage amidst the gang shootings, dumb car chases, intransigent obstructionist politicians and passing fad of soccermania, or check-out her progress with your browser.

Will today's Amelia "go viral"-? Popular culture works differently today, with page views counted and hits logged as measures of relevance.

In 1937, it was quite straighforward. The economic side was about selling newspapers, and for radio, luring listeners to the new media of mass one-way communication. Radio was already an omnibus as varied and inclusive as a newspaper, plus it had music.

Flight 370 in pop culture is re-flown on home computers. The disappearance of Amelia Earhart was all over the front page and airwaves, and commemorated in popular song.

That song has been played ever since and recorded by numerous musicians, especially bluegrass bands. You still hear it performed today at folk festivals.

Written by "Red River" Dale McEnery, it seems certain to have been the first song ever performed on a television broadcast.

That was in 1939, from the New York World's Fair. Thus, Amelia's final "first" was more than two years after her death.

The song was notably recorded by the Country Gentlemen. Much more recently, there was a fun jazzy honky tonk version by Kinky Friedman that you can watch (with great sound quality) at:

Numerous other YouTube performances of the song are available in various arrangements by many people.

One that feels very old-timey is this, by Jim Kweskin of jug band fame. But it's a rather slow rendition, at:

Here are the lyrics:

"Amelia Earhart"

(sometimes listed as
"Amelia Earhart's Last Flight")

by D. McEnery

Oh a ship out on the ocean just a speck against the sky
Amelia Earhart's flight was set that day
With her partner Captain Noonan on the second of July
Her plane fell in the ocean far away

There's a beautiful beautiful field
Far away in a land that is fair
Happy landings to you Amelia Earhart
Farewell first lady of the air

A half an hour later an s.o.s. was heard
The signal weak but still her voice was brave
In shark-infested waters her plane went down that night
In the blue Pacific to a watery grave.

Now you have heard my story of that awful tragedy
And prayed that she might fly on safe again
In years to come when others blaze a trail across the sky
We'll never forget Amelia and her plane.

÷ ÷ ÷

Indeed, we have not forgotten you, "First Lady of the Air" of so long ago. You continue to inspire women to be bold, to challenge society's repressions and reject enforced gender roles. You remain as thoroughly modern as you were in the age of art deco. And you inspire all of us to reach higher than the tops of the far flung clouds to achieve our dreams.
More, soon, as always.
♪  The Guide has made some CH-CH-CHANGES – turn, embrace the change – with more to come as spring becomes summer of 2014. There are, and will be, points of departure to make room (and time) for the new. We’ll do what we can, because as always, we operate with the editor’s motto, “One does what one can.”
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Contents copyright © 2014,
Lawrence Wines & Tied to the Tracks.
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