It is the excitement of becoming – always becoming, trying, probing, falling, resting, and trying again – but always trying and always gaining . . .
– Lyndon Baines Johnson, 36th U.S. President, Inaugural Address, January 20, 1965
An Austin bluegrass brunch to remember
Thanks to a recommendation from Irene Koch at BHIX, we set our sights on the Sunday gospel brunch at Threadgill’s (301 W. Riverside Drive, Austin, 512.472.9304). We arrived early, secured a corner booth, and enjoyed our Southern breakfast, but it turned out that the choir thought there wasn’t a performance today (perhaps because it was Super Bowl Sunday?) and wasn’t going to show up. Thinking quickly, we decided to hot-foot it to the other Threadgill’s location (6416 N. Lamar – Austin, 512.451.5440) and arrived a half-hour after the bluegrass performance began.
Though I would have loved to have waved and clapped my hands to a soul-stirring gospel performance, I am very glad we heard Out of the Blue, a trio comprising Jamie Stubblefield on guitar, Ginger Evans on bass, and Rob Lifford on mandolin. What a treat! We heard traditional bluegrass, as well as their renditions of Bob Dylan and the Beatles’ “My Life.” The best song was the lively one that, of course, I didn’t record. It’s called “The Hangman’s Reel,” and required a lot of flying fingers on the strings. I really love the sound of the mandolin, though I am fond of the guitar and the bass, as well. All three were terrific on their respective instruments. I was hoping to link to one of their songs, but the size of the files were too large. Definitely check out their site to hear their music.
Here’s an interesting piece of local history: Kenneth Threadgill, a country singer and tavern owner, opened his gas station at the Austin city limits in 1933 and sold gas, food, and beer – when the Prohibition law was repealed. In fact, he was the first one in the state to get a liquor license post-Prohibition. He transformed the gas station into a tavern that featured live entertainment. After the war, Threadgill and his Hootenanny Hoots played to packed houses, which included local college students who also performed on stage. One such University of Texas student was Janis Joplin, who became good friends with the Threadgills and sang at his venue. While some credit Threadgill’s for starting her career, the modest Threadgill said that she “started herself” at his place. Austin is known for its musical roots, and we were lucky to get a taste of local bluegrass.
The Living-large legacy of LBJ
After brunch, we went to the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum (2313 Red River Street, Austin, 512.721.0200, donation of $8 for adults), which is on the grounds of the University of Texas. The museum covers three expansive floors, and his archives alone house 45 million pages of documents, photographs, video, and audio files, which are the raw materials documenting his life and times.
While LBJ is known to many of my contemporaries as the President who was mired in the Vietnam War, it should be mandatory for all school children to visit this museum and see just how much LBJ transformed America and continues to influence all of us to this day as a result of his Great Society vision and legislation. It’s staggering to catalog the many groundbreaking pieces of legislation he pushed through Congress, but you know me, I have to give it a go.
I was familiar with the bigger pieces of legislation, namely the 1964 Civil Rights Act that ended segregation, the 1965 Voting Rights Act that eliminated poll taxes that African-Americans had to pay to vote and deliberately confusing literacy tests they were subjected to before they could vote, and finally the Civil Rights Act of 1968. I was also familiar with his Economic Opportunity Act, which was the centerpiece of LBJ’s War on Poverty and signed into law in 1964. The act created several social programs in the areas of education, healthcare, and the general welfare of those people in the lower-economic class. Head Start and Job Corps are two of the few remaining programs. I remember the now-defunct Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA) program when I was growing up, and much admired its work, along with Kennedy’s Peace Corps.
In 1963, JBJ signed the Clean Air Act, which was established to combat air pollution and the first of many acts to protect the environment. LBJ was the first President to sign into law clean air and water quality legislation, and he went on to sign laws for pesticide control, water resource planning, solid waste disposal, highway beautification, air quality, and water and sanitation systems in rural areas, among other areas. The Water Quality Act combatted water pollution by seeking higher water quality standards, and the Wilderness Act formalized the process of designating wilderness areas for protection.
In 1965, he signed the Immigration and Nationality Act, which allowed immigrants of color – not just immigrants of European descent – to come into America. The Social Security Amendment in 1965 created Medicare and Medicaid. While the system needs an overhaul today, it remains, in my opinion, a critical safety net for older Americans, and indeed, for us all. I for one can say that without Medicare my sisters and I would have had to borrow money out of our homes to pay for the seven-plus total weeks that our mother was in the ICU and then an acute-care facility. Our mother was a hard worker, paid into her pension and Social Security, saved a lot of money, and even took out secondary health insurance, but there was no way she could have paid for those last weeks of her life.
LBJ also passed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, and the Higher Education Act, which provided financial assistance for low-income families. The latter act provided Pell Grants, which my sisters and I received – and put to good use. The Heart Disease Care and Cancer and Stroke amendment to the Public Health Service Act and the Cigarette Labeling and Advertisement Act paved the way for research of diseases caused by tobacco use and awareness about the dangers of smoking.
The Child Protection Act of 1966 ensured that manufacturers made safe toys. The National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act mandated safety belt use. (He also signed the Highway Safety Act the same year.) It reminded me of an older friend who used to give me rides to the evening choral rehearsals with the San Francisco State University choir. Whenever we would come to a stop sign, her right arm instinctively shot out, a reflex of the pre-safety belt days when it was common practice to put one’s arm out to protect the passenger. In that same year, LBJ signed the Freedom of Information Act, which allowed citizens to access formerly classified documents, and the Fair Packaging and Labeling Act, which was designed to provide more information to educate consumers.
In 1967, the Public Broadcast Act enabled the formation of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which in turn established the Public Broadcasting System and National Public Radio, which David and I enjoy, as do many of our friends. LBJ was responsible for creating the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities under the National Foundation on the Arts and the Humanities Act. And in that year, he appointed Thurgood Marshall as a justice to the Supreme Court.
In 1968, he signed the Fire Control Act, Fire Research and Safety Act, and the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. The Fair Housing Act guaranteed that people of color were not discriminated against when they tried to buy a home. By signing the National Trails System Act, LBJ created the 2,663-mile-long Pacific Crest Trail enjoyed by many a nature lover.
We spent three and a half hours at the museum, and that was only because the museum was closing. We hurried through the 10th floor, which had a smaller-scale version of LBJ’s Oval Office. I think another half-hour would have sufficed, but I learned so much about a man who had a vision about creating a better America and world through his Great Society but was tortured by an unwinnable war that he could not end. (A side note: The Fog of War, a 2003 documentary by Errol Morris about LBJ’s secretary of defense Robert McNamara, illustrates the complexities of the Vietnam War and LBJ’s dilemma. This documentary is highly recommended!) What is amazing is the legacy LBJ did leave, which I so anal retentively and chronologically cataloged.
Here are some amazing statistics that I took with me: When LBJ entered the presidency, the percent of Americans living in poverty in the U.S. was 22 percent. When he left, it was 13 percent. (Another source in the museum said that the reduction went from 20 percent to 12 percent.) No other president has been able to make such an impact on this scourge. He was instrumental in adding 36 sites – a total of 10 million acres – to the National Park System. And he was the founder of the U.S. space program, which fostered the belief that humans could achieve anything.
LBJ understood poverty after his freshman year in college when he took a teaching assignment in a small rural town in Texas called Cotulla, where his predominantly Mexican-American students were poor and often came to school on empty stomachs. Back then he understood that poverty is a symptom not a cause, and that in order to eradicate poverty, we would have to as a great society work together to ensure quality healthcare, education, housing, and job training, and address violence in our communities. The vision of the Great Society was not meant to be a handout but rather a hand up, to make individuals and their communities self-sustaining.
I doubt my kids – at ages 10 and 12.5 – would have had to patience to go through every display and exhibit as we did, but even if they could retain just a smidgeon of what I learned today, their knowledge of one of the most visionary presidents in modern times would have been enhanced greatly. There is truly not a day goes by that someone in our country is not impacted by legislation signed by LBJ. That’s quite a legacy. To quote LBJ: “The Great Society asks not how much, but how good; not only how to create wealth, but how to use it; not only how fast we are going, but where we are headed. It proposes as the first test for a nation: the quality of its people.”
A Meal to end an eventful day
How to end such a full day? After hitting up Feathers again, we decided to take on another suggestion by our friend at Uncommon Objects. We settled ourselves at Woodland (1716 S. Congress Avenue, 512.441.6800), which features appetizers such as spiced pork empanadas, southern corn fritters, and crispy fried Gulf oysters. We enjoyed the roast duck tostada as appetizer (slow-cooked pork seasoned with cumin, cayenne, and red chili in a masa crust with a tomatillo dipping sauce) and the porcini-dusted salmon on a blanket of leek risotta and drizzled with truffle oil. Both were worthy meals to close out my last full day as a tourist in this fun city.