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489 Topics: American Authors – Alex Haley; American Bandstand; continuous versus contiguous; let alone and to kick the bucket; the birds and bees talk

Complete Transcript
You’re listening to ESL Podcast’s English Café number 489.

This is English as a Second Language Podcast’s English Café episode 489. I’m your host, Dr. Jeff McQuillan, coming to you from the Center for Educational Development in beautiful Los Angeles, California.

Visit our website at ESLPod.com. Become a member of ESL Podcast. When you do, you can download a Learning Guide that contains a complete transcript of everything we say. Go to our website and download a sample Learning Guide to see what you can get.

On this Café, we’re going to talk about a famous American author, a writer by the name of Alex Haley. We’re also going to talk about a television show that was popular from the 1950s right up through the 1980s called American Bandstand. And, as always, we’ll answer a few of your questions. Let’s get started.

The American writer Alexander Haley, or Alex Haley as he’s more commonly known, was born in August of 1921 in Ithaca, New York. New York is in the eastern part of the United States, and Ithaca is in the northern part of New York State. Ithaca is famous as the home of a well-known university in the U.S., Cornell University.

Alex Haley’s father, Simon Haley, was a student at Cornell. He eventually got his master’s degree studying agriculture. “Agriculture” is the science and practice of farming, of raising what we would call “crops” (crops). “Crops” refers to plants that are used as food or made into other things.

Alex Haley’s father, Simon, was himself the son of former slaves. A “slave” (slave) is a human being who is owned by another human being. “Slavery” is the practice of owning slaves. Slavery is illegal in most countries, although at the time that Alex Haley’s grandparents were born, it was not illegal in the United States. As you know, the United States had a civil war in the middle of the nineteenth century which resulted in the end of slavery.

In the United States, the practice of slavery involved African Americans, or blacks. Simon Haley was the son of two former African-American slaves, which means of course that his son was the grandson of slaves. Alex Haley then grew up in a family that was very well educated. His father was more educated than most Americans during that period, white or black.

Like his father, Simon, Alex Haley went to college, but unlike his father, he didn’t continue. He dropped out. “To drop out” is a two-word phrasal verb meaning to leave school before you finish your studies. Haley instead joined the United States Coast Guard in 1939. The coast guard is the part of the American military that protects the waters around the United States on the Atlantic Ocean and the Pacific Ocean.

Haley was bored with life in the coast guard, and one of the things he did to entertain himself – to keep himself busy – was write love letters for friends, love letters to the girlfriends of his friends in the coast guard. He also began writing short stories, and he sent those stories to magazines and newspapers. Some of those stories were “published” – that is, the newspapers and magazines put them in their publications – and this gave Alex Haley the idea that he could become a professional writer.

After the end of World War II, in the mid 1940s, Alex Haley transferred to the coast guard’s journalism department. “Journalism” (journalism) is the activity of writing articles for newspapers and magazines, and nowadays we have what is called “broadcast journalism,” which refers to news reporting on the television or on the radio. Haley worked in the journalism department of the coast guard until 1959. When he left the coast guard, he was the chief journalist of the coast guard. That means he was the head of the entire journalism department or operation within the coast guard.

After leaving the coast guard, Haley became a freelance writer. A “freelance (freelance) writer” is a person who doesn’t work for one newspaper or one magazine; rather, he or she writes articles and sends them to different magazines and newspapers and gets paid by each newspaper or magazine that publishes his articles. Nowadays there are many people who work freelance – who work for themselves in a way, who hire themselves out to different companies or individuals who need work.

At first, Haley didn’t make very much money as a freelance writer. Eventually, he started writing for a magazine called Playboy. Playboy is sometimes referred to as a “men’s magazine.” It’s a magazine that’s mostly filled with photographs of women who don’t have very much, if any, clothing on. Well, Alex Haley wasn’t involved in that aspect of the magazine; rather, he wrote articles for the magazine.

In particular, he interviewed a lot of famous people during the early 1960s, especially famous African Americans, since Haley himself was also African American. He interviewed people such as Miles Davis, the great jazz player; Sammy Davis Jr., a singer and actor; and the political leaders Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. His interview with Malcolm X took place in 1963, after which he asked Malcolm X if he could help Malcolm X write a book about Malcolm’s life.

Now, normally when you write a book about your own life, it’s called an “autobiography,” but this was a case where Alex Haley helped Malcolm X write his autobiography. isnot unusual. A lot of famous people want to write the story of their lives, and so they get another writer, someone who’s a good writer, to help them. So, Alex Haley interviewed and talked to Malcolm X and wrote the story of Malcolm X’s life.

The book The Autobiography of Malcolm X: As Told to Alex Haley was published in 1965, just two years after Haley originally interviewed Malcolm X. Malcolm X died – he was assassinated, or killed – in 1965, the same year that his autobiography was published. The book became very popular in the United States, and it was seen as one of the most important books in the world of literature or writing about the African-American or black community. It made Alex Haley one of the most important African-American journalists of this period.

After the publication of The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Haley began to work on a new project, a project that would actually be the one that made him most famous in American journalism and literature of the twentieth century. Haley began to research the story of his own family; he began to research his genealogy. “Genealogy” (genealogy) is the study of a person’s family tree; that is, the people who came before you – your father, your grandfather and mother, your great-grandparents, your great-great-grandparents, and so on. Genealogy is the study of one’s ancestors.

When Alex Haley was growing up, he used to talk to his grandmother. Remember, his grandmother was born a slave. His grandmother told him stories about how his family came to the United States, how his ancestor had been captured in Africa and brought to the United States as a slave. “To capture” (capture) means to take someone against their will and either hold them, keep them, or move them to somewhere else. This, of course, is what happened to the slaves from Africa during the nineteenth century and previous centuries.

Alex Haley decided to travel or go to Africa and learned that his ancestor – the first member of the “Haley family,” we could call it – who had been captured and sold into slavery in Africa was named Kunta Kinte. Haley then learned who Kunta Kinte’s children had been and who their children had been, until he was able to follow the relatives down to his own parents and, of course, to himself. Alex Haley, being a writer, decided to take the story of Kunta Kinte and make it into a novel called Roots. The novel is actually about Kunta Kinte and his descendants.

A “descendant” (descendant) is a person’s child, grandchild, great-grandchild, great-great-great-great-great-grandchild, and so forth. Your descendents are the people who are your children and your children’s children, all the way down until I guess they all die out, which happens of course in some families. Because it was a novel, however, not all of the story that you read in Roots is true. Some of it is fictional. “Fictional” (fictional) comes from the word “fiction” and refers to things that are imagined, that are made up, that aren’t true.

The word “roots” is usually used to describe the part of a tree that is underneath the ground, that you don’t see. However, we use “roots” also to talk about our ancestors, the people who came before us. Someone might say, “I have Irish roots” or “I have German roots” or “I have Chinese roots.” Those statements refer to a person’s ancestors, the people who came before him. This is quite common in the United States, especially since we are a nation of immigrants.

Roots was a successful novel, but it became an even more successful television program. It was what we used to call a “miniseries.” A miniseries is a single story that is told in usually three, four, maybe five or six episodes, or parts. Typically, a miniseries is shown on consecutive days – that is, the first episode will be on Monday, the next one will be on Tuesday, the third one will be on Wednesday, and so forth.

Miniseries were very popular, especially in the 1970s and ’80s, on American television. Instead of showing one part of the story each week, they would show the entire story in a single week. The TV miniseries Roots first aired in January of 1977, when I was, let’s see, a freshman in high school – my first year of high school. I remember it very well. Everyone I know watched it every night. In fact, it was perhaps one of the most popular television series of that year. When I say it “aired” in 1977, I mean it was first shown on television.

It also had an interesting effect. It got people thinking about their own roots, and many people started to go out and do their own family tree – to research their own family’s genealogy. My father was very much interested in genealogy in the 1970s, although he started probably five or six years before the television show Roots made genealogy popular. He started researching our family tree back in 1972, ’73, something like that, and it was one of his lifelong hobbies – something he loved to do. But back to our story.

Alex Haley continued writing and speaking to audiences, but he never wrote another book as famous as Roots. It’s certainly the book – and, later, the TV series – he is remembered by. He died in February of 1992 in Seattle, Washington, at the age of 70. After his death, the United States Coast Guard named one of their ships after him. They also present an award every year for the best journalist in the coast guard in honor of Alex Haley.

Our second topic today is a television show that was very popular in the 1950s, ’60s, ’70s and ’80s. It was called American Bandstand. A “bandstand” (bandstand) is a place where musicians play. Usually it’s a place in a outdoor park that has a roof on it, and the members of the musical groups play on top of this or in this bandstand. It’s basically a stage in a park. American Bandstand, however, was a television program.

In 1952, there was a program in the city of Philadelphia (in Pennsylvania, on the eastern coast of the United States) called Bandstand. A few years later, in 1956, a young man by the name of Dick Clark started hosting the television show. He changed the name from Bandstand to American Bandstand. Now, Clark was new to television, as television was new to most people.

Clark worked hard to get the show shown nationally – not just in the city of Philadelphia, but all across the United States – and he was successful. In the following year, 1957, American Bandstand began to “air,” or to show, every day in the afternoon all across the United States. The show was usually on at about 3:30 in the afternoon. The reason that’s important is because school in the United States usually ends around 2:30, 3:00. So, by 3:30 the kids are back home and they can watch television, including American Bandstand – at least, they could back when it was still on the air.

American Bandstand featured, or promoted, the popular music at that time among teenagers, which was of course rock and roll. The show usually had teenagers on it who would dance to the music, and the way they danced influenced the way teenagers all across the United States danced. In fact, if you wanted to learn how to dance to rock and roll music, you could watch American Bandstand.

In addition to the dancing, there were other “segments,” or parts of the show. The most famous segment was called “Rate-a-Record.” In Rate-a-Record, the teenagers on the show would be asked to give their opinions of new songs. “To rate” (rate) means to give a score or grade to something. The teenagers would give the songs a grade anywhere between 35 and 98, depending on how much they liked or didn’t like the song. They also had a chance to give their opinions about the song.

Another segment on the show was called the “Spotlight Dance.” A “spotlight” (spotlight) is a strong, steady light that is usually pointed on one thing. We use spotlights in theaters – in plays, for example – when we want to light up just one character (or show the light on just one character, I should say). During another part of the show, Dick Clark would announce the 10 most popular songs of that week, what was called the “Top 10 Countdown.” “To count down” means to start at a high number and go to one or zero. So, “ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two, one” is a countdown.

Almost every famous singer and rock group appeared at one time or another on American Bandstand during its many years. I remember growing up and watching American Bandstand all the time. It was very popular among teenagers in the ’70s and ’80s. Some of the people who appeared on American Bandstand included Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry, Simon and Garfunkel, Pink Floyd, Stevie Wonder, Tina Turner, Aretha Franklin, the Beach Boys, Bon Jovi, Madonna – just about every major rock and roll artist of that era appeared on Dick Clark’s show.

The Jackson Five, starring a young Michael Jackson, made its first appearance on American television, as did a Minneapolis singer by the name of Prince. American Bandstand was aired live Mondays through Fridays from 1957 until 1963. In 1963, the show moved from Philadelphia to right here in Los Angeles and was shown once a week. We used to watch it on Saturday mornings, I think.

American Bandstand continued to be shown on television for 24 years, but in the 1980s, people began watching cable television and satellite television. The kids started watching music videos on TV channels such as MTV and VH1, and so it wasn’t necessary anymore to watch American Bandstand in order to hear your favorite music.

Dick Clark left the show in 1989, and when he did so, it was the longest-running show of its kind in television history. More importantly for Dick Clark, it made him a very rich man. He became a very successful Hollywood businessman, not only because of American Bandstand, but also because of other television shows which he either hosted or helped produce.

American Bandstand continues to make money even now. The entire collection or library of shows was purchased by another company in 2007 for $175 million dollars. Dick Clark himself passed away, he died, in 2012.

Now let’s answer some of the questions you have sent to us.

Our first question comes from Masahiro (Masahiro) in Japan. Masahiro wants to know the difference between “continuous” and “contiguous.” “Continuous” (continuous) is an adjective describing something that doesn’t stop, something that goes on without a break or interruption. You could have a “continuous noise” outside your house. Maybe somebody is building something, or someone was playing a radio and it doesn’t stop. It continues on and on. That would be “continuous noise.”

“Contiguous” (contiguous) is very different. “Contiguous” is an adjective referring to two things that are right next to each other, that are immediately next to each other, that touch each other. You could talk about two houses sitting on land or property that is contiguous – one right next to the other.

The most common use of the word “contiguous” is usually to refer to a part of the United States. We sometimes refer to the “contiguous United States.” That refers to the 48 states of the United State that are all one next to the other – or at least, every state is next to one other state. It doesn’t include the two American states that are not part of those 48 states: Alaska, which of course is up north between Canada and Russia, and the state of Hawaii, which is a set of islands in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Sometimes, we talk about the “contiguous United States.”

Another expression you might hear is “the lower 48.” “The lower 48” refers to the 48 states that are part of the contiguous United States. There is no legal difference among the states. It’s not as though Alaska and Hawaii are somehow different legally. It used to be, and maybe it still is, that it cost more money to send, say, a package to Alaska or to Hawaii because it took a lot longer to get there and was more expensive. I’m not sure if that’s still true. So, “continuous” and “contiguous” are quite different concepts.

Our second question comes from Hamed (Hamed) in Iran. The question has to do with two expressions, also unrelated to each other. The first one is “let (let) alone (alone).” Let me give you an example to try to explain what this expression means.

“My friend is not a very good leader. He couldn’t be the captain of a baseball team, let alone president of a company.” “Let alone” there means that the second option is even less likely, less possible, than the first one. We use this expression “let alone” when we are giving examples of two different things. The second thing that we give an example of is even less probable or less likely than the first thing.

So, if my friend is not a very good leader, if he couldn’t lead a baseball team, he certainly couldn’t lead a large organization like a company. The expression “let alone” is emphasizing that the second thing that you are mentioning – the second option or possibility – is even less likely than the first one. Let me give you another example. “He wasn’t able to give me $5, let alone the $100 he owed me.” If a person can’t give you $5, they certainly can’t give you $100 dollars. So, “let alone” again is used to emphasize the second option is very unlikely or even less likely than the first option.

The second expression here that Hamed wants to know about is “to kick (kick) the bucket (bucket).” “To kick the bucket” is an informal expression or idiom meaning to die, to no longer be living. “My neighbor kicked the bucket at the age of 85.” He died at the age of 85.

It’s very informal, usually used somewhat jokingly, and probably not something that you would want to say about someone that you love or about someone whom you don’t know very well. You certainly wouldn’t say that to a friend of yours about his grandmother. It’s used jokingly to refer to someone dying, but it’s not something that you would use in any sort of serious situation.

Finally, Marcos (Marcos) from Brazil wants to know the meaning of the expression “the birds and the bees.” Well, “birds” are a kind of animal that typically fly. “Bees” are insects that fly and are often associated with the making of honey, especially honeybees.

However, the expression “the birds and the bees” has nothing to do really with birds or bees. It’s an old expression that refers to the behaviors one would engage in in having a child – or more properly, in producing a child. In order to have children, you normally have to have sexual relations. The expression “the birds and the bees” is what we would call a “euphemism” (euphemism). A euphemism is when you use certain words to refer to something else because you don’t want to mention the other thing directly.

When you are trying to explain to a child, for example, where babies come from, why mommies have babies, you may not want to talk about the actual behaviors and actions related to sexual intercourse. So, you might use “birds and bees” as perhaps an analogy, an example – but that doesn’t mean the average parent uses those as examples.

The expression has come down to us to refer to talking about romance and sex with children or with adolescents, teenagers, in a way that helps them understand where babies come from. Some people may talk about “the birds and bees talk” that you have with your children. That would be a discussion about the process that leads to the birth of the baby. I’ll let you figure out the rest on your own.

From Los Angeles, California, I’m Jeff McQuillan. Thank you for listening. Come back and listen to us again right here on the English Café.

ESL Podcast’s English Café was written and produced by Dr. Jeff McQuillan and Dr. Lucy Tse. Copyright 2015 by the Center for Educational Development.

journalism – the activity or profession of writing for newspapers or magazines, or reporting for television or radio news

* Makko studied journalism in college because she wanted to become a reporter for a major national newspaper.

freelance – when one works for many different companies or employers on different assignments, being paid for each completed assignment

* Simone really enjoys working freelance since she is able to do the work she loves, but is also able to choose when she works and how much she works.

autobiography – a book that one writes about one’s own life

* Autobiographies are interesting because readers can learn what a person was thinking when he or she made certain important decisions.

genealogy – the study of a person’s ancestry or family relationships, finding out to whom one is related by blood

* When Klahan researched her genealogy, she was amazed to learn that her great-great-great-grandfather had been a Native American tribe leader.

to capture – to catch someone or something using force; to take by force

* The Schmidts called in a professional to capture and remove the poisonous snakes that lived in their garage.

slavery – the practice of buying and owning people as though they are property and forcing them to work and to obey

* Abraham Lincoln believed that slavery was wrong, because he thought people should not be treated as property.

descendant – a person’s children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and so on; one’s blood relatives in later generations

* Lelato was very happy that all of her living descendants were able to gather for her 105th birthday, including her great-great-granddaughter.

fictional – imaginary; not real

* The movie tells the story of a fictional town that is taken over by aliens and saved by a superhero.

to air – to show on television or play on the radio; to be broadcasted on television or radio

* The President’s speech aired at 9 p.m. on national television so that people all over the country could listen to his message.

segment – a part or piece of something; a section of something longer

* The most uncomfortable segment of the flight was when the person sitting in front of Ika put his seat all the way back and left her no legroom.

spotlight – a strong and steady light that shines directly on one thing instead of shining over a wide area

* When the speaker took the stage, the lights in the auditorium dimmed and a spotlight was shone on her so that everyone could see her.

to rate – to give something a score or grade

* The judges rated the ice skating performance a 9 out of 10 because the ice skater only made one small mistake.

continuous – continuing without stopping; happening or existing without a break or interruption

* When will lawmakers take a vote or will they simply make continuous speeches all day long?

contiguous – describing things that touch each other or are immediately next to each other

* Our family traveled across six contiguous states from Arkansas to North Carolina.

let alone – to say nothing of; not to mention, used to emphasize that another option or the opposite is very unlikely

* Her parents don’t even allow her to stay out past 10 p.m., let alone sleep overnight at her friend’s house.

to kick the bucket – to die; to no longer be living

* Before I kick the bucket, I want to travel to as many countries as I can in Africa and Asia.

the birds and the bees – an expression used to refer to behaviors within a romantic relationship, especially having sex

* Bo is 14 years old. Don’t you think it’s time to talk to him about the birds and the bees?

What Insiders Know
Soul Train

Television shows “featuring” (has as its main topic) music have been popular since nearly the start of television. In 1971, a “long-running” (shown or broadcasted for many years) popular music show called Soul Train made its “debut” (first appearance). It ran for 35 years, ending in 2006.

The show featured performances by popular musical “acts” (performers), especially those who played rhythm and blues, hip hop, and soul music. Soul Train was created by Don Cornelius, who “hosted” (was the main presenter, introducing guests) the show from 1971 to 1993.

Soul Train primarily focused on performances and musical acts. Popular singers and bands performed “live” (during the broadcast) on the show.

The show also had “recurring” (returning; happening each time) elements. A very popular part of the show was a “segment” (section of a show or broadcast) called the “Soul Train Line,” where all of the dancers formed two long lines, leaving a space in the middle for dancers to “strut” (walk in a showy way to show their personality or ability) and dance, one after another.

In 1987, the show began “awarding” (giving awards to people) the “Soul Train Music Awards,” which honored performances in rhythm and blues, hip hop, and similar “genres” (types) of music from the previous year. Later, in 1995, the “Soul Train Lady of Soul Awards” was “launched” (begun) to celebrate top achievements by female performers.