Monday, September 27, 2010

Almanac For Moderns: Autumn's Saturnalia

[More information on our Almanac For Moderns project and the work of Donald Culross Peattie can be found here.]

September Twenty-Fourth

I try each year to disbelieve what my senses tell me, and to look at the harvest moon in a cold and astronomical light. I know that it is a small cold sphere of rock, airless, jagged and without activity. But the harvest moon is not an astronomical fact. It is a knowing thing, lifting its ruddy face above the rim of the world. Even to the thoroughly civilized mind, where caution for the future is supposed to rule all impulse, the orange moon of autumn invites the senses to some saturnalia, yet no festival of merriment. The harvest moon has no innocence, like the slim quarter moon of a spring twilight, nor has it the silver penny brilliance of the moon that looks down upon the resorts of summertime. Wise, ripe, and portly, like an old Bacchus, it waxes night after night.

September Twenty-Fifth

Now is that opulent moment in the year, the harvest, a time of cream in old crocks in cool, newt-haunted spring-houses, of pears at the hour of perfection on old trees bent like women that, as the Bible says, bow down with child. In the field the grain stands, a harsh forest of golden straw nodding under the weight of the bearded spikes, and in that, it has been swept and all its fruitfulness carried off to fill the barns.

One will not see here, save in the steep tilted Blue Ridge farms, the man reaping by sickle in his solitary field, while his daughters bind the sheaves, nor the bouquet of wheat and pine boughs hung above the grange gable that is crammed to the doors. But we have our own sights and sounds at harvest time. There is the roar and the amber dust of the threshing machines, the laughter of the children riding home on the hayricks, the warfare of the crows and grackles in the painted woods, and the seething of juice in the apple presses. Then night falls and the workers sleep. The fields are stripped, and only the crickets chant in the midnight chill of the naked meadow. 

September Twenty-Sixth

Already the woods are filling up with grackles, gathering into bands. They storm like a black cloud through the groves and descend with a sound like the pattering of rain drops, as they alight with their little guttural exclamations in the boughs. They are not going very far--perhaps no more than south of the thirty-first parallel, but they make a much greater to-do about it than many bound for the tropics. Al this fussing and gabbling and preening, and starting only to scurry back, reminds me of the New England old maid who said she would rather be ready to go and not go, than go and not be ready. Such people never will go far, and the majority of them will never be ready. Only those who start without demanding that they shall be comfortable en route and able to maintain a well-preened appearance, will ever see Vineland rising from the wild brown foam.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Discovering Carolina Soul

The former Washington Sound on Buffalo Street in Shelby, NC; from Carolina Soul

Throughout the sixties and seventies, at least one hundred African-American-owned R&B/Soul record stores thrived in the Carolinas. These retail shops, with their close links to recording studios and local record labels, were on the front lines not only of new musical ideas, but of the civil rights struggle itself. Today, this music's story is being told in a compelling fashion on the Carolina Soul blog/archive, which has spent the last five years locating and documenting the wide array of R&B/Soul music created in North and South Carolina--much of which has never been re-issued since its original release as 45 rpm records.

If you peruse Carolina Soul's extensive discography the material object of the vinyl record begins to stand as a symbol for a kind of rural-urban linkages that revolutionized the last half-century's artforms and its push toward social justice.  This effort to rediscover these recordings, and to tell the stories of these musicians and their communities, is led by Jason Perlmutter (a chemist and local music collector) and Jon Kirby (an associate editor at Wax Poetics). Mr. Perlmutter, in partnership with folklorist Brendan Greaves, has begun the Paradise of Bachelors record label and is currently pressing their first release -- a retrospective of the music released on David Lee's various record labels entitled Said I Had A Vision.

Mr. Lee, who currently resides in Mooresboro,  ran the Impel, Washington Sound and SCOP (Soul, Country, Opera, Pop) labels and often contributed his own songs to his musicians. Carolina Soul recently visited Mr. Lee, and, earlier in the year, the folks behind this project spent time talking with some of the artists who worked with him. Here we see the The Constellations, both then and now:


Here, from the Paradise of Bachelors' blog, is a description of the ground-breaking work done by The Constellations:
We spent an illuminating and pleasant afternoon in Mooresboro, North Carolina with the Lees; Harold Allen, Don Camp, William “Butch” Mitchell, and Benjamin and Bryan “Brownie” Guest of the Constellations. Hearing these gentlemen’s stories about unflagging brotherhood, camaraderie, and the timelessness of “love ballads”–in the face of physical threats, racist invective, and a Southern and national climate opposed to their very existence–was truly inspiring. The Constellations were the first mixed-race combo in the area, and they did it as mere kids, getting started in 1958 or 1959 as teenagers and only dissolving upon the departure of members to Vietnam in 1964 and 1965.

In that time, they recorded six energetic sides for David Lee, all of which belie their tender ages, plus two unreleased tracks–”Have You Seen My Baby?” and “I Want to Jerk”–which Mr. Lee sent to Benjamin Guest while he was serving in Vietnam. Those tapes may yet emerge for your delectation…
We can only hope to that some of this music makes its way on to Carolina Soul or onto a newly-pressed piece of vinyl via Paradise of Bachelors.

As a closing note, for those who would like to hear these gentlemen put these songs into a more eloquent context than I can provide, please refer to their interview with Frank Stasio on NPR's The State of Things.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Stories From The Hardest Year

photograph by The Hardest Year

Last week The Daily Yonder continued its analysis of the changing demograhics in rural America; in this latest report Roberto Gallardo and Bill Bishop have coauthored a piece that considers the recession's impact: 1.2 million jobs lost in rural America. With a few exceptions (where a small amount of growth occurred) the recession has left many rural communities that were already hurting for positive economic growth in a more desperate situation. 

While, especially in an election cycle, it's easy to read these numbers, to peruse the  Yonder's maps, and feel a sense of dismay, it's important to remember the creativity and resiliency of these same communities. One source that brings us back to this foundation is The Hardest Year, a 2009 cross-country journalism project undertaken by Julie Donofrio and John Sanders. Their search for stories and perspectives led them, in most cases, into rural America; the voices they document across these videos and articles are unforgettable. It's hard not be moved and inspired by what Ms. Donofrio and Mr. Sanders have chosen to share with us. 

Their piece on Donna Sue Groves and her barn quilts was included in last week's post on the subject, but there is a lot more to The Hardest Year. I'll include two videos below, although the full story is revealed through following the links to their site. 

Here's a piece on how many tobacco farmers across central Appalachia are taking the leap of faith by transitioning from the practices of their parents and grandparents into the world of organic farming. In conjunction with Appalachian Sustainable Development, a regional organic movement is emerging in the heart of what was once tobacco country:


In this second selection, we travel to Eskridge, Kansas to hear the story of Maisie Devore. Ms. Devore collected cans along a one-mile circuit of local road for thirty years so that she could raise enough money to build a pool for the town's children. 

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Following The Quilt Trail

photograph from the North Tennessee trail by Suzi Parron

Last week Noah Adams produced an excellent piece on NPR's All Things Considered that discussed Tennessee century farms -- both the history of these families and their uncertain future. Mr. Adams journey to these farms followed the North Tennessee Quilt Trail, one of many such trails throughout rural America. 

The barn quilt phenomenon began in Adams County, Ohio in 2001, when Donna Sue Groves set a painted plywood "quilt" on her barn in honor of her mother Maxine, an accomplished quilter. What followed was the Adams County Clothesline of Quilts, a 105 mile circuit that now includes dozens of barns. As Ms. Groves developed this trail--and a movement gathered around the artform--the practice blossomed into a force that both sustained the community and brought in lots of folks to wander the trail and engage in some agritourism. This has led to the formation of regional, and even national, communities of barn quilters; almost a decade later, one would be hard-pressed to drive through many rural counties without having your journey annotated by a few of these quilts. 

An internet search demonstrates how widespread this new artform has become, and how many local rural communities are seeing the wide array of benefits inherent to the art of barn quilting. Suzi Parron, a writer and high school English teacher, has partnered with Ms. Groves to tell the story of this movement in Barn Quilts and The American Quilt Trail, set for publication by Ohio University Press in 2011. Ms. Parron maintains an excellent blog documenting her book-writing process and her travels to barns across the country. 

Below is a video that tells another angle of the story behind these barn quilts. Here, the producers behind The Hardest Year visit Ms. Groves, who is now undergoing treatment for breast cancer. In the face of challenges so painfully common for many Americans in the last few years -- job loss, illness, mounting health care bills -- the community that Ms. Groves helped to create is now reaching to offer their support and friendship.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

James Magee and The Hill

photograph by Tom Jenkins, via Granta

"Everybody who has been [there] divides their lives into two parts: before and after they've seen The Hill."
      - Rick Brettell, co-author of James Magee: The Hill

Ninety miles east of El Paso,  deep in the West Texas desert, lies one of the most elaborate and, until recently, unsung American art installations -- The Hill, a site 25 years in the making and 15 years from completion. With Revelation: The Art of James Magee opening at the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas, an opportunity has emerged for the public to begin to encounter--from a comfortable, air-conditioned distance--what only a few people have experienced. It's also a chance to learn about the artist; here's an introduction from The Hill's official site:
For more than a quarter of a century, the American artist, James Magee, has been engaged in a massive, largely secret, almost solitary endeavor in the vast plains of West Texas. A Michigan-born, Ivy League-educated lawyer, Magee’s unusual trajectory through New York taxi driver and off-shore roughneck led him to make his home in El Paso, Texas, a border city made up of equal parts Mexico and the U.S., where, fittingly, he produces a vast body of work both under his own name and under the names of Annabel Livermore and Horace Mayfield, liminal identities in a liminal place. A painter, sculptor, poet, film and video maker, widely featured in museum and gallery exhibitions across the U.S. from the Yale University Art Gallery to the Santa Monica Art Museum, Magee here reveals himself to be an architect, engineer and builder as well.
While following the link above will offer perhaps the most detailed description available of The Hill, this provocative essay by Pamela Petro, published in Granta, attempts what seems to evade much of the reportage on Mr. Magee and The Hill--that is, it tries to use language to approximate an experience that defies description or summary. Here's Ms. Petro approaching the site:
Somewhere on the road ahead, Jim Magee is chatting through a translator with China’s Minister of Culture. Like me and the group of people I’ve been travelling with, the Minister wants to see Jim’s Hill.

No one who’s seen The Hill has been able to describe it to me without visceral discomfort. Actually, no one’s been able to describe it at all.

‘It’s, ah, well, um…Jim’s like an onion,’ were the words that came out of my friend Alan’s mouth when he picked me up at the El Paso airport last night. I wanted to hear about The Hill, but Alan could only touch on the layers of its creator. ‘You’ll see for yourself,’ he finally said.

Fair enough. So far I have only basic facts in a notebook: James R. Magee, a sixty-two-year-old Michigan transplant by way of New York, city and state, has since 1982 acquired 2000 acres in the desert outside of El Paso. On it he has created…what? I don’t know. Something that reduces articulate art historians to murmuring wonder. Something large and multifaceted and of the land, but not Land Art, in the sense of a particular environment manipulated to human design. A work capable of making adults weep and begetting terror in its viewers, even nightmares. From the awkward descriptions I’ve heard, The Hill seems insistent on resurrecting the word ‘awe’, allowing it to once again summon ‘solemn wonder tinged with latent fear'.
Here also is an interview segment with Mr. Magee from the Art & Seek program, which covers the arts and culture of North Texas. While this interview (beginning at 16:50) is not entirely satisfying, it (again) adds a layer of approximation to the experience of The Hill. 

While this piece comes out of a different sort of experience than many of the rural artists we've covered, and while it has a complicated relationship to rural place that may not be as intimate (in some ways) than modern artists we've discussed such as David Lundahl, James Magee may deserve to considered alongside those artists, musicians and writers for the ways in which local place has directly come to bear on how The Hill has been sculpted and articulated. If Mount Airy gave birth to a particular style of music, then, judging from Mr. Magee's reverence for these West Texas plains, there's something just as honest and site-specific about The Hill.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

The Alan Lomax Archive Channel

Lomax in the Carribean, 1962; via the Library of Congress

We're just coming back from a Labor Day holiday and wanted to share this new YouTube channel for The Alan Lomax Archive. We've written previously about The Association for Cultural Equity, the organization which continues the work of preserving Mr. Lomax's archive as well as forwarding, in the digital age, his belief in cultural equity as a basic human right. This YouTube channel is a perfect extension of those goals, representing footage shot during Mr. Lomax's American Patchwork project. (The edited episodes can be viewed on Folkstreams, just scroll to the bottom of the link.) Here's what we have too look forward to on the channel:
Represented are former levee and railroad workers, farm women, bluesmen, and young tall-tale rhymers from the Mississippi Delta; New Orleans jazz parades; Cajun cowboys; Sea Island game songs; Sacred Harp singing; clogging contests from Virginia; country gospel, Primitive Baptists, and coal miners from Kentucky and Tennessee; bootleggers, balladeers, tobacco workers, and a Georgia bluegrass festival. There is also footage of breakdancers in Philadelphia; Italian and Italian American folk musicians at the Giglio Festival in Brooklyn; Latino car clubs; Yaqui Indian dancers, and Norteno musicians from Arizona.
Here are three of our favorites, though artists we've previously spoken of, such as Nimrod Workman and Tommy Jarrell, are also included on the site. Enjoy:

Joe Savage -- Dangerous Blues (1978)

The 1982 Holly Springs Sacred Harp Convention - Hallelujah

Sheila Kay Barnhill Adams - Little Margaret (1982)

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Returning To Mount Airy, North Carolina

Photograph from the Tommy Jarrell Festival, via The Surry Arts Council

Today we would like to share more information on the music scene surrounding Mount Airy, North Carolina--the home of WPAQ and the "Merry-Go-Round" weekly radio show we mentioned last week. We would also like to thank The Rural Blog for  featuring our write-up; it's an honor to be part of the site's conversation, as our daily reading of The Rural Blog was one of the sparks of inspiration which led us to start The Art of the Rural.

One of the first places to begin exploring the musical abundance of the Mount Airy region would be The Surry Arts Council; based in Mount Airy, the Arts Council features a host of events from jazz, theater, and dance performances to The Tommy Jarrell Festival. Mr. Jarrell (1886-1985) was a legendary and widely-influential fiddler from the Mount Airy region, and the Festival in his honor is held each year on the weekend preceding his March 1st birthday. A fine biography can be found here, while Mr. Jarrell can also be seen in Alan Lomax's film Appalachian Journey. The  1991 film was produced in conjunction with The Association For Cultural Equity and is featured above on the excellent Folkstreams film archive.

Mr. Jarrell is also featured in the extraordinary films of Les Blank, an artist the New York Times aptly described as "a master of films about the American idiom." His film titles tell the story of his peripatetic documentary imagination: Dizzy Gillespie, Gap-Toothed Women, and Ziveli! Medicine For the Heart (a look at Serbian-American communities). Here's My Old Fiddle (1994),  a follow-up to this 1983 documentary on Tommy Jarrell Sprout Wings and Fly:

North Carolina Public Television's Folkways program, hosted by folk-musician and storyteller David Holt, recently produced this excellent half-hour piece on the musicians of Surry County, documenting the origins of the Surry County sound. There's some wonderful stories and anecdotes about Mr. Jarrell and his fellow musicians:

As if the videos above aren't enough to make you want to move to Mount Airy, there are also these clips courtesy of the Music Maker Relief Foundation, an organization with a mission to "help the true pioneers and forgotten heroes of Southern music gain recognition and meet their day to day needs" while presenting these musical traditions to larger audiences and working to preserve these artforms. Here's a music lesson with Mount Airy fiddler Benton Flippen, followed some video from his time at the 28th Annual Mount Airy Fiddler's Convention: