Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Almanac For Moderns: A Charmed Circle

March Twenty-Sixth

Out of the stoa, two thousand years ago, strode a giant to lay hold on life and explain it. He went down to the "primordial slime" of the seashore to look for its origin. There is anywhere he would find it, he thought, where the salt water and the earth were met, and the mud quivered like a living thing, and from it emerged strange shapeless primitive beings, themselves scarce more than animate bits of ooze. To Aristotle, it seemed plain enough that out of the dead and the inanimate is made the living, and back to death are turned the bodies of all things that have lived, to be used over again. So nothing was wasted; all moved in a perpetual cycle. Out of vinegar, he felt certain, came vinegar eels, out of dung came blow-flies, out of decaying fruit bees were born, and out of the rain pool frogs spawned.

But the eye of even Aristotle was purblind in its nakedness. Of the spore and the sperm he never dreamed; he guessed nothing of bacteria. Now man can peer down through the microscope, up at the revealed stars. And behold, the lens has only multiplied the facts and deepened the mystery.

For now we know that spontaneous generation never takes place. Life comes only from life. Was not the ancient symbol for it a serpent with a tail in its mouth? Intuitive old fellows, those Aryan brothers of ours, wise in their superstitions, like old women. Life, we discover, is a closed, nay, a charmed circle. Wherever you pick it up, it has already begun; yet as soon as you try to follow it, it is already dying.

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

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The Campus Folk Scene, Then and Now

Yesterday The Southern Folklife Collection posted a Facebook link to a wonderful resource: the University of Illinois Campus Folksong Club Oral History Project. Here's folklorist Tracie Wilson's introduction to the Club's work:
The Campus Folksong Club was active on the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign campus from the early 1960s through the early 1970s. During its height in the 1960s, the CFC had over 500 members-making it an astonishingly large student organization and an important force in bringing culture from Illinois and beyond to the UI campus. Folk music scholar Neil Rosenberg describes the Campus Folksong Club as "one of the most vigorous of the many university folksong clubs during the sixties."

The CFC's activities were groundbreaking in that UI students documented and collected field recordings of local musicians in Illinois, a task, which at the time, was generally conducted by professional folklorists. The CFC also helped "to overcome town/gown tension by encouraging local singers to treasure their wares" (Green 1993: 61). According to traditional musician Lyle Mayfield from Greenville, Illinois, "we learned that we weren't hillbillies, we were folk musicians." The CFC was also unique in its commitment to a variety of traditional music ranging from gospel and blues to old-time Appalachian and Ozark music, as well as ethnic music from outside the United States. Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, the Stanley Brothers, Doc Watson, and the New Lost City Ramblers were among the best known musicians that the CFC brought to the UI campus.
There is a lot of great material to explore on the the site, including a number of interviews and research guides. It is amazing how the students active in the Club branched out to leave lasting marks in the fields of folklore, music and art. Dr. Archie Green, the club's advisor, wrote a series of seminal folklore articles and helped to found the American Folklife Center. One favorite musician of the Club, Glenn Ohrlin, is still a regular highlight of the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, Nevada. (see our search bar for previous coverage of the Gathering)

While there are too many other examples to mention in one short article, it's a statement on the life-altering effect of this Club that, after leaving campus and embarking on different careers, many are still traditional musicians and active participants in their local arts scenes. Long before college students started talking about a "DIY" aesthetic, these individuals were booking shows, conducting field recordings, releasing albums, and learning to play traditional music. 

...which leads us to considering how their children and grandchildren are carrying forward this tradition. Greater access to recording technology and media platforms has insured that any first-year college student could track down (legally or not) the recordings of Doc Watson or the Carter Family, and could follow that impulse to discover the groundbreaking reissue work being done by Dust-to-Digital, Mississippi Records, and Twos & Fews (and many others).

There is a great deal to be said about the different challenges and confluences raised by this generational juxtaposition--and I hope to talk to some folks more intimately connected to these issues over the next few months, and to share those discussions here. 

As a writer with a rural perspective, and also a love for many non-traditional art forms, I'm very intrigued by how current artists are interpreting the relationship between "traditional" and "modern" artistic expression, how they've come to see many traditional methods (as agrarians have been saying for decades) as a lens into our contemporary lives.

Sam Amidon is a musician who is considering all of these issues, and producing some stunning and profoundly moving work; he is the product of a Vermont folk-singing family and close friends with modern composer Nico Muhly and a host of other avant-garde musicians, some of whom run an outstanding record label called Bedroom Community. How does one play traditional music after the advent of punk rock, minimalism, electronic music, and the wide-open fields of information and reference on the internet? Although these influences could be blended together into some pretty distasteful stew, Mr. Amidon's music somehow seems both cognizant of these issues and, at the same time, unpretentious and directly honest. 

Here's are two videos. The first was filmed during Bedroom Community's "Whale Watching Tour," a joint series of concerts featuring many of these musicians on stage together. The second clip is a live performance by Mr. Amidon from the recently-concluded South by Southwest festival, at the Lawn Party sponsored by Other Music (an amazing NYC record store) and Dig For Fire (an amazing arts and storytelling collaborative group):

Sam Amidon - How come that Blood (live) from Bedroom Community on Vimeo.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Rocking The Rural Cradle, Rocking the Theatre

We're back today, and no better way to begin the week than with The Center for Rural Arts Development and Leadership Education

Dr. Scott Walters, a theater professor and director based out of UNC-Asheville, leads CRADLE in its mission of "'bringing the arts back home' to small and rural communities with populations under 20,000," and in "'[rebuilding] the front porch of America' (as Patrick Overton puts it) by strengthening pride of place through a rich expressive life available to everyone." While more of the program's comprehensive philosophy can be read here, it's worth pondering how long-overdue (and increasingly necessary) their three-part mission could be for our rural communities:
  1. Communication: through its website, CRADLE will collect, summarize, and distribute information important to rural arts organizations. In addition, because by definition arts organizations in small and rural communities tend to be geographically isolated, CRADLE will facilitate conversations through conferences, meetings, and on-line forums. It is our goal to be a source of inspiration.
  2. Support: CRADLE seeks to promote the creation and growth of arts organizations through fundraising and assistance with administrative tasks. A long-range goal is to provide health insurance and retirement benefits for the full-time staff connected with CRADLE-affiliated organizations.
  3. Education: the knowledge and skills necessary for creating healthy, engaged arts organizations in smaller communities usually go untaught in traditional theatre department. CRADLE, through the Theatre Arts Curriculum Transformation (TACT) project, will devise a curriculum that emphasizes those skills. Through a combination of partnerships with colleges and universities and on-line components, CRADLE will make this training available to those interested in becoming rural arts leaders. CRADLE will also provide ongoing workshops and other training for those running arts organizations.
Regardless of the angle through which we are engaging with the rural arts, the CRADLE project certainly offers a "source of inspiration," and an opportunity for us (as farmers, folklorists, musicians, writers, sustainability advocates, etc) to come together and to find ourselves connected to the much larger project of revitalizing our rural communities.

Another element of Dr. Walters' work that is worth spending some time considering is his writing on his Theatre Ideas blog. While, in the space of The Art of the Rural, it has been a challenge to locate and discuss the rural components of contemporary theatre, Dr. Walters is able to seamlessly connect the real-world issues facing rural America with the practical and aesthetic challenges of making great theatre in the twenty-first century. There are a lot of ideas and connections contained in those virtual pages, and I recommend that folks give it a look. 

The Studio 360 radio program also recently featured a discussion between Dr. Walters and host Kurt Andersen in response to NEA chair (and former Broadway producer) Rocco Landesman's contention that, in the world of contemporary drama, “demand is not going to increase, so it is time to think about decreasing supply." Dr. Walters presents a provocative take on the prospect of "artistic death panels," and offers the Stage North theatre in Washburn, Wisconsin, as an example of how rural and small-town theatres can survive--and even flourish--in this new economic landscape:
"All these organizations rely 50% on unearned income—I don't think that's sustainable."  Walters isn't against government funding per se, but he thinks there should be more grants for theaters outside the New York-Chicago-LA circuit.  "They don't need anymore fertilizer, we need it in South Dakota and Nebraska and other places where there is a lot of demand and not much supply."

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Out In The Field This Week

Robert Frost standing in a field in Oxford, England, 1957; LIFE magazine

This week I have a series of tasks that will keep me away from posting articles directly to The Art Of The Rural. I'll be back on Monday, March 28th; until then, please check our Facebook page for our daily rural arts links. 

Thanks! Hope everyone has a fine week.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Where Soldiers Come From

production still from Where Soldiers Come From

I spent nearly two years filming them as regular 19 and 20-year-olds before they became active duty soldiers serving in Afghanistan,” Courtney said of her two leading subjects. “I also spent a lot of time with their families, friends and girlfriends.  My goal was to get to know them as people rather than soldiers, and by knowing them and their families and (hometown) before they leave, we see how they all change over these four years.

This weekend the South by Southwest music and film festival once again descends on Austin, Texas. When events conclude on March 20th, a select number of new bands and new films will have been given the kind of media boost that can propel a relatively unknown work of art to "best-of" lists by year's end.  

Of the many worthy efforts, we're are giving particular interest to Where Soldiers Come From, a film directed by Heather Courtney.  The documentary tells both a compelling story of friendship and sacrifice, but also narrates on a subject too often left out of discussions of the wars in Iraq and Afganistan: the staggering number of rural Americans, as opposed to their suburban counterparts, who are risking their lives to serve their country.

Here's a selection from the film's official press release:
It wasn’t long after Dominic Fredianelli, a sensitive, artistic high school graduate in a remote town in northern Michigan, signed up for the National Guard that his buddies started following his lead. In exchange for just one weekend of training a month, they would earn a $20,000 signing bonus and much-needed college tuition support. Before he knew it, 10 friends were in the group. They knew there was a chance that they’d be sent to war sometime during their six-year stint, but, as Cole Smith, Dominic’s best friend said, “I wasn’t really doing anything; my buddies had already joined. . . . I figured, ‘Twenty Gs, one weekend a month, let’s do it!’”

Shooting in vérité style, Courtney focuses on three of the friends — Dominic, who takes art classes and paints large murals in the abandoned buildings that belonged to a once-thriving copper mining industry; Cole, the comedian in the group; and Matt Beaudoin (“Bodi”), who has a history of military service in his family and is proud to serve his country. They change from carefree teenagers who spend their days swimming in Lake Superior and drinking at bonfires to soldiers getting hit by homemade bombs in Afghanistan and combat veterans dealing with traumatic brain injury (TBI) and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
The four years Ms. Courtney spent with these young men in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and embedded with their units in Afghanistan will be broadcast later in the year as part of the high-acclaimed POV series on PBS. We are looking to cover this film in greater detail after the events of SXSW conclude, so please stay tuned. Until then, here is the official trailer for Where Soldiers Come From:

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Lorine Niedecker's Calendar Poems: February

If you circle
the habit of
your meaning
it's fact and
no harm

More information on Lorine Niedecker and The Rural Poetry Series can be found here.

Monday, March 7, 2011

The Border of Nowhere and Nowhere

from The Edge of Light: Wendover; Brian Rosa and Adam Ryder

I've recently had the chance to correspond with Josh Wallaert, the assistant editor of Places, "an interdisciplinary journal of contemporary architecture, landscape and urbanism." The publication began 28 years ago as a joint project of the Architecture faculty at MIT and UC-Berkeley, and, in 2009, shifted to an open access internet site. With an "emphasis on the public realm as physical place and social ideal," the editors have made their entire print archive available for download as pdfs; their site is a gorgeous and thought-provoking mixture of essays, contemporary arts coverage, and multimedia exhibits.

As our readers might expect, a publication concerned with urbanism will also find itself concerned with the city's connectedness to its rural periphery--and Places features a number of exhibits that consider the rural-urban dialogue. We'll be featuring many of these exhibits soon.

Mr. Wallaert first pointed me toward their recent essay and slideshow The Edge of Light: Wendover, a photographic collaboration between Brian Rosa and Adam Ryder. As artists-in-residence at The Center for Land Use Interpretation (see our coverage of Richard Saxton's work at the Center here), the photographers spent some time considering the landscapes of Wendover, Utah and West Wendover, Nevada. "This isolated but historically important pocket of the West," they tell us, "straddles the border of nowhere and nowhere;" during World War II it was the home of the most extensive bombing range in the United States and the site from which the Enola Gay departed for Hiroshima. When the war concluded, the military pulled its personnel and its economic resources out of the town, leaving it, in many senses of the word, abandoned. The community has, more recently, been transformed by the casinos built on the Nevada side of the border. It stands an amalgam that confuses our easy definitions of rural and urban space.

Mr. Rosa and Mr. Ryder's photographs also benefit from the unique landscape of the region, which surrounds the human environment and casts it in a defamiliarizing context:
The unique topography of the region, which lies at the foot of the Toana mountain range and the Leppy Hills, offers the opportunity for unexpectedly dynamic vistas. Trudging up to the promontories that loom over town, we had oblique views of the city, of the perfectly straight and flat stretch of Interstate 80 through the salt flats and of the monolithic communication arrays. From this vantage on a clear day, we found ourselves at one of the few points where the earth’s curvature can be seen on the horizon with the naked eye. At night, while the Utah side was nearly lightless, the casinos and hotels and parking lots on the Nevada side glowed bright as day, projecting a harsh screen of light on newly built tract housing, piles of concrete rubble from building demolitions and the mountains beyond.
These photographers sought to document "the interstitial, unoccupied spaces at the edges of the interstate, among the ruins of the military base, and between the nightlife zones and the casino workers’ tract housing." The results, which can be viewed in the slideshow on the Places site, is alternately harrowing and beautiful.

Brian Rosa is currently working on a PhD in human geography at The University of Manchester, while Adam Ryder is enrolled in the Photography, Video and Related Media program at the School of Visual Arts in New York City. They collaborate as the Site Unseen project, and offer some rich slideshows of work from their recent sojourn in Mexico City, as well as On The Grid, a provocative project that utlized GPS and digital mapping software to reconsider how landscape photography could represent Rhode Island's network of high-tension power lines.

Most of all, readers may be interested in Little America, a collection of photographs of "the everyday landscapes of roadside America." While Mr. Rosa and Mr. Ryder are urban artists, their insights into rural space and rural culture are well worth considering. This is not nostalgic "roadside America," but a series of photographs that, at least to my reading, demonstrate the variety of contemporary and historical narratives to be found outside of urban America.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Almanac For Moderns: The Unwritten Moment

March First

Now is that sweet unwritten moment when all things are possible, are just begun. The little tree has not quite leafed. The mate is not yet chosen. To the rambler in the woods all that he can find in heavy books will be of less worth than what he learns by sitting on a log and listening to the first quiver of sound from the marshes, or by prodding with a stick at the soil and turning out the sluggish beetles. It is good enough just to sit still and hold your palm out to the sunlight, like a leaf, and turn it over slowly, wondering: What is light? What is flesh? What is it to be alive?

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

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Abner Jay: The Last Southern Black Minstrel Show

Abner Jay, April 8, 1982, San Jose Flea Market; selection of a photo by Jon Sievert

In this post, and the previous post below, we're considering the life and music of Abner Jay--a figure whose art cuts across so many themes central to the American experience: race, class, regionalism, history, and place. Mississippi Records has just released Mr. Jay's final recordings, entitled Last Ole Minstrel Man.

I've heard from a number of folks in the two days since the previous post, readers who have been bowled over the emotion, creativity and cultural import of Mr. Jay's work. Today I'd like to share more information and links. Beyond that, the best thing to do is to sit down with his records, turn off the phone, and just listen.

Abner Jay was born in Fitzgerald, Georgia in 1921, into a family of sharecroppers. Though various internet sites tell the story slightly differently, Mr. Jay's grandfather--and perhaps his father--had been slaves. The legal terminology, however, is of less import than the realities of those early years of his life. Amoeba Records' blog offers a generous transcription (from the current release's liner notes) of Mr. Jay's own recollection of this time period:
"Abner was a slave sixty five years after the slaves were freed, because Abner grandpa and Pa love the slave life. Abner was hired out to white plantation owners when he was at the age of six. Abner worked as a slave side by side with his grandpa, a former slave. Abner could not and did not receive his pay until after he was twenty one years of age. Abner ate and slept in the barn with the mules. The White folk would hand his food out of the back door to him in a pan, mostly left overs and the food the white folk dogs wouldn't eat...

"Abner start singing on the public for the white plantation owner when he was eight. Abner start playing banjo at the age of ten, and became a one man band and bone player at the age of fourteen. Abner would play in the rich homes for the plantation owners when they wanted to entertain."
Mr. Jay later toured with minstrel and vaudeville shows, eventually striking out as a young man on his own--a one man band. Along the way he became friends with Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry, James Brown and, according to some sources, Elvis. He was also the agent and manager to the phenomenal gospel singer Sister Rosetta Tharpe. In the final decades of his life, Mr. Jay traveled from town to town in a mobile home that could convert into a performance stage

Again, Chris Campion so clearly articulates the many attributes of the sound that might surprise attendees of a local fair or flea market:
Jay finger-picked a bittersweet but heartfelt comic blues on a long-necked, six-string banjo that he said had been made in 1748. It had been passed down to him by his grandfather, Louis W Jay, born a slave and later to teach Abner many of the traditions he made it his mission to keep alive.

He was almost certainly the last living exponent of the 'bones' - a musical tradition that involved playing percussive rhythms using various cow and chicken bones that had been dried out and blanched in the sun. Jay claimed to have a repertoire of over 600 songs, which he sung in a bone-shaking basso profundo voice, the legacy of a battle with throat cancer that almost felled him in his twenties.
He would perform field songs, minstrel tunes and Pentecostal hymns interspersed with his own nuggets of homespun philosophy, off-colour yarns and side-splitting one-liners. 'What did Adam and Eve do in the Garden?' runs one. 'Eve wore a fig leaf... and Adam wore a damn hole in it.'

Jay's own compositions were decidedly secular in nature and found him musing on atypical themes such as depression, the Vietnam war and substance abuse. Titles include 'The Reason Why Young People Use Drugs' and 'The Backbone of America is a Mule and Cotton'. 'I crave cocaine,' he moaned during crowd favourite 'Cocaine Blues', exaggerating his diction for comic effect. 'But I can't find nothing here in Atlanta. Cos those hippies dun used it all up... I want sum'tin to pep me up!'
For more information,  The Down Home Radio Show features Eli Smith's interview with Eric Isaacson of Mississippi Records; the two discuss the label's release of The True Story of Abner Jay as well as the true story of the record label itself, which has become a faithful steward of many later Abner Jay re-issues.

Here's a rare gem: an excerpt from Mr. Jay's final performance at the 1993 Grassroots Festival in Trumansburg, New York. We see in this personal rendition of "St. James Infirmary Blues" what Mr. Isaacson means when he says that people called Abner Jay "the black Bob Dylan." Even more forcefully than Dylan, Abner Jay stood with one foot in a lost, folkloric America and the other in the ground of rock 'n' roll, radio, and television. The great achievement of his music is that these contradictions are fused together in ways that can be  both deeply-moving and profoundly unique.  

We learn that he passed away days later, on his way back home.