Thursday, December 20, 2012

Kenyon Gradert To Discuss Midwest Culture On NPR This Morning -- Join The Conversation!

Photograph by Robert Josiah Bingaman; via fly over art tumblr

This morning from 11 to noon Central Time, Kenyon Gradert will appear on the NPR program Saint Louis on the Air to discuss Midwest culture. Also joining host Don Marsh: Mike Draper of the extraordinary art/clothing store RAYGUN. He recently published The Midwest: God's Gift To Planet Earth. It's going to be lively and wide-ranging discussion.

If folks have questions for these guests, they can call (314) 382-TALK (8255) or send an email to

Kenny would love to hear the questions and comments of Art of the Rural readers -- those within the Midwest and beyond. As his Course on Midwest Culture pieces suggest, this region has a particular rural ethos, and a unique rural-urban connection, that will make for an illuminating conversation this morning.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Course on Midwest Culture: Midwest Realism in the Contemporary Novel

Selection from the cover of Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections

By Kenyon Gradert,  Course on Midwest Culture Editor

The consistently excellent N+1 recently published a wonderful piece by Nicholas Dames. In “The Theory Generation,” Dames paints the generational portrait examined by a string of some of today’s most popular American novelists, undergraduate English majors in the heyday of academic literary theory now attempting to engage its ambivalent legacy. About half of the novelists cited are New Yorkers; more are native or transplanted Midwesterners (often from scholarly families, interestingly).

Jeffrey Eugenides cites the influence of his hometown Detroit in his life and his writing, the setting for his award-winning Middlesex. Cal, the novel’s protagonist, attempts to come to terms with his family’s conflicted Greek-American identity in Detroit and eventually escapes to San Francisco to come to terms with his own intersex identity. The novel received praise for its lucid engagement of the American Dream, an idea that gained mythic stature with Midwestern Gilded Age figures like Henry Ford, John D. Rockefeller, and Andrew Carnegie and one whose decline is especially vivid in Midwestern rust belts like Detroit. Both haunted and inspired by his city, Eugenides commented in a BOMB interview with Jonathan Safran Foer "I think most of the major elements of American history are exemplified in Detroit, from the triumph of the automobile and the assembly line to the blight of racism, not to mention the music, Motown, the MC5, house, techno.”

St. Louis’ own Jonathan Franzen (with a more ambivalent relation to his hometown) semi-autobiographically tells of a suburban Midwestern family attempting to navigate changing times in his renowned The Corrections

A novelist not mentioned by the article who could fit the demographic of theory-heavy realists is David Foster Wallace. Though born in New York and a professor in California, Wallace grew up between Champaign and Urbana, Illinois as his father taught within the state’s flagship university.

Ben Lerner, born and raised in Topeka, Kansas, sets his Leaving the Atocha Station as a sort-of reverse of Eugenides’ abandonment of Detroit. The protagonist Adam, a slacker poet and escapee Midwesterner on fellowship in Madrid, “invents fictional alibis for others—such as the ‘fascism’ of his kind, liberal Midwestern father. ” Free in Madrid, he remains fixated on familial roots.

Lorrie Moore; photograph by Linda Nylind

Lorrie Moore wasn't born in the Midwest, but teaches here and sets her novels in the region. What’s more, Dames latches on to such a setting by using “Midwest” as a worthwhile description of the realist style that contrasts with the metropolitan university stylings of Theory:

Take, for instance, the protagonist of Lorrie Moore’s A Gate at the Stairs, a young woman named Tassie raised in rural Wisconsin, who describes the shock of her first term at her state university:

"Twice a week a young professor named Thad, dressed in jeans and a tie, stood before a lecture hall of sunned farm kids like me and spoke thrillingly of Henry James’s masturbation of the comma. I was riveted. I had never before seen a man wear jeans with a tie."

The deadpan Midwestern humor, so pointedly stark in its syntax, brilliantly evokes the moment of initiation into Theory.

With an American populace marked by quick and constant geographic flux from education and career-pursuits—well-exemplified by these novelists—it is remarkable that the Midwest still holds such adjectival power in first-rate literary criticism. This small coterie of realist, theory-drenched novelists may have transferred their geography to their style, osmosis-like. Others may argue Dames relies on hackneyed stereotypes of the “prosaic Midwest” when the region has sprouted its fair share of magical realism too.

Richard C Longworth, Senior Fellow at The Chicago Council on Global Affairs and author of Caught in the Middle: America’s Heartland in the Age of Globalism (an excellent work featured on my bibliography) summarizes on his blog The Midwesterner: Blogging the Global Midwest:

In earlier days, much Midwestern literature was super-realistic: the work of Theodore Dreiser and James T. Farrell come to mind, not to mention the wonderful work of black Midwestern authors such as Richard Wright and Lorraine Hansberry. But later writing reveals an urge to the bizarre, a sort of magic realism absent from the epics of the South or the hard-boiled policiers of the West. Keillor uses this. So does the baseball writing of W.P. Kinsella, such as Shoeless Joe (the inspiration for Field of Dreams) and The Iowa Baseball Confederacy. It's no accident that Ray Bradbury's Midwestern youth led to so much his work.

Perhaps we’re witnessing a shift back to the region’s realist origins. Perhaps, more likely, the Midwest is blooming into a wide proliferation of literary style just as in other regions, where Ray Bradbury’s spaceships and Lief Enger’s miracles can exist alongside the different realisms of Franzen et al. Regardless of style, the Midwest still serves as ambivalent setting or temporary home for some of the nation’s finest writers. Not quite dead yet; perhaps alive and well.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Listening: Lambchop - "Nice Without Mercy"

Kurt Wagner of Lambchop standing with his Beautillion Militaire 2000 series of paintings

The tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut is so deep, so overwhelming, that for many of us it's been a moment of re-orientation and reflection, of counting blessings and extending a hand to help in what ever distant way we can. 

One of those forms of grief and support has been folks' sharing of music and art in various mediums. On Facebook, The Alan Lomax Archive and Association for Cultural Equity offered a stirring "Peace in the Valley" by Joe Savage and, last night, Saturday Night Live's cold opening began with the New York City Children's Chorus singing "Silent Night." Such moments remind us that, while in the midst of national mourning, something as seemingly-insignificant as a piece of art becomes the thing we need the most.

Below, I offer "Nice Without Mercy," a song from Lambchop's acclaimed Mr. M. While Kurt Wagner's lyrics within Mr. M often meditate on the loss of his friend Vic Chestnut, these songs, to my listening, are less about a particular context and more about a process of grief, redemption, and the unexpected beauty and compassion we find along the way:

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Notes From The Field: The Hayloft Gang and Early American Radio

The "Kentuckians" at a road show, 1936; The Hayloft Gang

By Jennifer Joy Jameson, Notes From the Field series Editor

If you’re hooked into some of the recent the films showing on PBS, you may have heard about or seen The Hayloft Gang: The Story of the National Barn Dance, a documentary produced and directed by Stephen Parry, which premiered on public broadcast television stations in the fall of 2011. Narrated by Garrison Keillor, the film highlights the rise of WLS Chicago’s National Barn Dance, one of the most popular and influential programs on early radio.

When I first heard about the film I was finishing graduate school, researching country music. I knew that it was airing on my local Kentucky Educational Television, and even that one of my professors, Michael Ann Williams, provided commentary in film, yet without television access I had no way to see the film. So, it came and went.

The cast of the National Barn Dance, 1937; The Hayloft Gang

Because of stories similar to my own, the producers of The Hayloft Gang have recently launched a crowd-source funding campaign with United States Artists, now through December 31st, in an effort to raise the funds for music rights and the clearance to allow the film’s distribution beyond PBS via digital downloads and DVD. With that funding, the documentary can be screened in schools and libraries, and be made accessible to the general public.

I believe The Hayloft Gang is worth watching and supporting because, to start, it challenges our common notion that Nashville and the American South are the origin point for country music—both traditional and popular. First broadcast in 1924, and spending its 36-year lifespan in the heart of Chicago, the National Barn Dance was truly a “national” event, as it preceded Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry by nearly two decades, and brought together mountain string bands, folk balladeers, polka trios, and cowboy singers from coast to coast. It also established the careers of a broad range of musicians—from the Appalachian ballads of Bradley Kincaid, to the Western sounds of Patsy Montana and Gene Autry, to the high-powered, Midwestern yodels of the Cackle Sisters.

The National Barn Dance was unique in that it offered something for both its rural and urban constituents. Farming families would tune in to the program to get a sense of the pulse of the nation. It also spoke to the thousands of migrants who moved from the farm to the city to find new work and new ways of life in an increasingly changing society. As one of the first radio programs to have a live audience, urbanites packed into Chicago’s Eighth Street Theater each week to relive the square dances of their agrarian past. With equal listenership in both the country and the city, it was precisely the advances of radio technology that helped sustain the musical traditions of the past, and revived it in dynamic ways for a diverse audience, including immigrants and other newcomers.

The Hayloft Gang includes rare film footage and home movies pulled from the archives of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, and UNC’s Southern Folklife Collection, among other respectable repositories. It also benefits from the historical and cultural context provided by some of country music’s most noted scholars, and—perhaps, most importantly—insights and anecdotes from a few of the former listeners and performers. One of the film’s best moments includes the memories and scrapbook photos of a former listener of the program named Helen Geels Loshe, a member of the Geels Family Band in Indiana. Helen recalls how, after seeing Patsy Montana in some of the National Barn Dance fan magazines, she tried to dress like Patsy by cutting up and painting her work boots to look like proper cowgirl boots. The personal narratives collected in the film reveal the depth of the radio show’s influence in a more profound way than any other possible measurement.

Director Stephen Parry articulates the necessity of this collaborative fundraiser:
Our goal has always been to bring The Hayloft Gang to audiences beyond public television. […] We’re grateful to have received some prestigious grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, ITVS and other donors, but with recent cutbacks in arts funding, this just hasn't been enough. Our production budget only covers the costs to license and clear the music rights for a limited PBS broadcast.
As in the crowd-funding tradition, supporters can receive some great rewards for their financial support. All donations made through USA Projects are tax deductible and eligible for matching funds. Read more about the film on The Hayloft Gang website.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Readings: Mary Oliver: "Cold Now"

selection from a photograph of the poet by Rachel Giese Brown

Cold now.
Close to the edge. Almost
unbearable. Clouds
bunch up and boil down
from the north of the white bear.
This tree-splitting morning
I dream of his fat tracks,
the lifesaving suet.

I think of summer with its luminous fruit,
blossoms rounding to berries, leaves,
handfuls of grain.

Maybe what cold is, is the time
we measure the love we have always had, secretly,
for our own bones, the hard knife-edged love
for the warm river of the I, beyond all else; maybe

that is what it means the beauty
of the blue shark cruising toward the tumbling seals.

In the season of snow,
in the immeasurable cold,
we grow cruel but honest; we keep
ourselves alive,
if we can, taking one after another
the necessary bodies of others, the many
crushed red flowers.

"Cold Now" appears in the Pulitzer Prize-winning collection American Primitive, first published by Back Bay Books in 1983. The poet was born in Maple Heights, Ohio and currently resides in Provincetown, Massachusetts. Further biography, context, and poems by Mary Oliver can be found at The Poetry Foundation.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Notes From The Field: “Work Hard, Play Hard, Pray Hard” and the Don Wahle Collection

By Jennifer Joy Jameson, Notes From The Field series Editor

The interesting part about any ethnographic study is putting the pieces together, stepping in and out of a culture or history that may or may not be your own in order to share it with others.

San Francisco's adventurous record label Tompkins Square recently assembled the three-disc set Work Hard, Play Hard, Pray Hard: Hard Time, Good Time & End Time Music, 1923-1936, arranged and annotated by Nathan Salsburg, Curator of the Alan Lomax Archive. There’s an interesting story of lost-and-found to this release. Salsburg writes in the liner notes:
One evening late in March 2010, my friend Joe called. He told me that his friend Chris had been on a dumpster job that day, helping clean out the house of a recently deceased hoarder. The hoarder had had some 78-rpm records, and Chris had brought a few home. Joe was there for dinner and he put him on the phone. “What kind of records?” I asked. “Old-timey stuff,” Chris said.
Just hours before everything at the Louisville home of the late Don Wahle was to be sent off to the landfills, Salsburg arrived to find boxes upon boxes of dirtied and molding 78s of both rare and popular country and hillbilly recordings collected by Wahle since the 1950s. Salsburg’s efforts to uncover these musical artifacts, working alongside the clean-up crew, became his own sort of archaeological dig as he found himself gathering and assembling clues of Wahle’s own aesthetics, interests, and desires.

In the liner notes, Salsburg admits his prior lamentations of a bygone era of record collecting, or “The Great Southern Record Canvass” as he calls it—something Mr. Wahle surely thought about, too. A longtime Louisvillian himself, Salsburg told me that the sheer serendipity of coming across Wahle’s fragile collection, in his own city no less, served as a reminder that golden eras are, in fact, fluid in time and space.

After the discovery, Salsburg and friends started the work of gathering Wahle’s history from whatever scribbled correspondences and musical want-lists were found. He and others looked for next-of-kin, but no one stepped forward. Salsburg states, “We don’t know what he did for a living, what he looked like, or virtually any other biographical details apart from his record collecting.” 

Wahle’s want-list, courtesy of Nathan Salsburg

But what’s more interesting is how the story of Don Wahle’s music collection leads to other narratives of life lived; through hard times, through good times, and through those very American ideas of end times.

While utilizing and acknowledging the curatorial model set forth by Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music (famously organized into “ballads,” “social music,” and “songs”), Salsburg and his contributors steer clear of the legacy of mystifying the American experience as gathered in song. Rather, the set’s conceptual framework is “inspired by the life-cycles of the predominantly rural Americans that made this music.” Salsburg starts the process of interpreting these multiple histories through his careful and researched annotation. Thoughtful essays in response to the music and to Wahle (but mostly to the music) written by Editor of The Old-Time Herald, Sarah Bryan, music journalist Amanda Petrusich, and Southern writer John Jeremiah Sullivan, continue that work. The essays and annotation strive not to speak for the music, but to wonder about it. For the “Play Hard” disc, Sarah Bryan asks:

What about Mr. Wahle? What was his kind of fun? He was a collector, so we can assume that something about the process of seeking and acquiring gave him pleasure. […] Maybe the jollity of these records was for Don Wahle something like the moonshine skits were for listeners during Prohibition: a way to acknowledge, if not quench, a thirst for something just out of reach.
The songs tell enough of a story on their own—like my favorite two-part tune from the “Work Hard” disc, “Flat Wheel Train Blues,” recorded in Georgia in 1930 by Red Gay and Jack Wellman. Parts 1 and 2 set the scene for everyday life on the locomotive yard. Fiddles move the steam engine forward, producing a sweet rhythm while the singer hums verbal work-song encouragements that allude to the honest memory of a railroad man.

We can only know so much about Don Wahle. We don’t know why he decided to collect cowboy and hillbilly records while everyone else was buying up the glamorous sounds of big band and hot jazz; or why he furiously circulated requests for certain records but didn’t seem to ensure their care and sustainability; or why it is that, even as a member of a robust and communicative culture of record collectors, we still have so many questions about Wahle. What we do know is that Wahle was part of a grand tradition of giving new life to old stories. John Jeremiah Sullivan, in his notes for “Pray Hard,” writes:

The old songs are so easily lost. […] If this gathering of them is all that remains of Don Wahle, let nobody say he lived for nothing.
Work Hard, Play Hard, Pray Hard: Hard Time, Good Time & End Time Music, 1923-1936 is available in three-disc sets on CD or LP from Tompkins Square or from your local independent record store. Thirty-five of the 42 sides are from Don Wahle’s collection (19 of which are un-reissued), and the remaining sides are from the collections of Joe Bussard, Frank Mare, and Christopher King. 

Folks can read more about salvaging the Wahle collection on Nathan Salsburg’s Root Hog or Die website. We also recommend perusing the Tompkins Square catalog. This label is bringing archival and contemporary music together in exciting ways; their book/cd set He is My Story: The Sanctified Soul of Arizona Dranes was recently nominated for a Grammy in the Best Historical Album category.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Making Connections: Community Radio In Appalachia

Making Connections reporter Sylvia Ryerson

By Rachel Beth Rudi, Digital Contributor

This week from the Rural Arts and Culture Map, we bring a story that's floated to us on the airwaves from atop Mayking Peak in Letcher County, Kentucky: a service of Appalshop, WMMT is a radio station broadcasting a wide range of music and news throughout communities in Central Appalachia. The writing of this piece, for instance, is being fueled by volunteer DJ Old Red's early bluegrass and country show, "First Generation Bluegrass." 

One WMMT program, Making Connections: Diversifying our Future shares with its listeners stories and commentary promoting a self-sufficient, multifaceted Appalachia. Making Connections has been posting PlacesStories updates since 2010, giving voice to regional agriculturalists, artists and policy workers and exemplifying just what a group can do with the digital mapping tool. From the "About Us" website:
While coal mining will play a role in the central Appalachian economy for many years to come, the industry continues to mechanize creating a dramatic drop in jobs – it currently represents less than 2% of employment. Analysts also project that recoverable coal reserves in the region could run out in 20 years.
Now is the time to develop a more diversified and sustainable regional economy that supports the current generation of coal miners while creating new jobs in new fields. We have no shortage of strengths to build upon, including our rich cultural traditions, unparalleled natural landscape and strong sense of family and community. To move forward we must honor our past while focusing on a future that provides healthy and productive lives for our children and grandchildren.
Making Connections' coverage frequently highlights Appalachia's especially high rates of residents without high-speed Internet; a recent audio story entitled "Like A Car Sittin' on Bricks – Broadband in Appalachia" was created by Sylvia Ryerson and Mimi Pickering to further examine the problem. Reads the description:
The Federal Communications Commission's Eighth Broadband Progress Report finds approx. 19 million Americans, mostly rural, lack access to high-speed Internet. In Central Appalachia the digital divide is stark: in West Virginia's McDowell and Mingo Counties, upwards of three-quarters of the population do not have access; in East Kentucky over 50% in Leslie and Breathitt Counties are without it. So why is it so hard to get a good connection in the mountains? What will this mean for the future of our communities? And what can we do to change this situation?
An essential part of the answer is that, as with many disputes over political policy, there is significant disagreement between the haves and have-nots in a thing's true worth or function. In this case, access to high-speed Internet is still largely regarded by those who have it as an earned luxury, our heavy reliance on it an addiction by which we're jokingly embarrassed. But as Ms. Ryerson points out, quality Internet service is a vital utility of everyday information dispersal, not a superfluous iPhone app, whether combed for a student's homework assignment or used to relay local safety concerns.

As artists who try to push against traditional, institutionalized limitations on accessibility, education, and diversity of art, and who place our critiques, our manifestoes, and our subversive work onto the Web, "Like A Car Sittin' on Bricks" hits home and keeps this important issue on the table. We highly encourage readers to listen to Ms. Ryerson's reporting (if you are able), and to then expand on this conversation in your own communities. Please also explore Making Connections' other PlaceStories installments, as many fine productions come from these folks.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Weekly Feed: Rural America Contemporary Art, Poor Kids, The Changing Face of America

Each week we share selections from our Rural Arts and Culture Feed on Facebook and Twitter. What are we missing? Please drop us a line, and we'll add your links and connections to the Feed.

By Rachel Beth Rudi, Digital Contributor

Setting a tone of thankfulness, we have this Wendell Berry interview with Diane Rehm via The Boiled Down Juice. "I think people don't take care of things they don't have affection for. And so affection, for me, begins all the arguments."

• Great news: the first issue of Rural America Contemporary Art is now online – art, fiction, essays, and the work of Norwood Creech, artist/painter/printmaker/photographer:

Beans, Corn, and Clouds by Caraway, Arkansas

Via Harry Smith's Old, Weird America: "The Carter Family recorded twice "Single Girl, Married Girl," the first time at their very first recording session in 1927 in Bristol, Tennessee, and the second time a few years later, in 1936, in New York City. It's striking to hear the differences between the two 

Poor Kids is an unflinching and revealing look at what poverty means to children. It broadcasted last week on FRONTLINE. Full documentary below:

Watch Poor Kids on PBS. See more from FRONTLINE.

Seminal art critic Dave Hickey decries the affluence and self-indulgence plaguing much modern art: 

"Art editors and cirtics – people like me – have become a courtier class. All we do is wander around the palace and advise very rich people. It's not worth my time."

Hickey says the art world has acquired the mentality of a tourist. "If I go to London, everyone wants to talk about Damien Hirst. I'm just not interested in him. Never have been. But I'm interested in Gary Huge and have written about him quite a few times."

If it's a matter of buying long and selling short, then the artists he would sell now include Jenny Holzer, Richard Prince and Maurizio Cattelan. "It's time to start shorting some of this shit," he added.

Some thoughts, via The Association of American Cultures (TAAC): "Culture at its best should be about the dialogue by which diverse strands of thought become relevant to diverse people, and that is a matter oc actively connecting art to the realities of people's diverse lives. Right now our cultural sector seems to be failing at that mission, to its own detriment."

MSNBC has reported tremendous news: "One of the nation's top coal companies, Patriot Coal, has just announced it will stop all of its mountaintop removal mining operations following a historic settlement with activists and environmental groups."

Sonya Kelliher Combs and her students, in collaboration with the Alaska Native Heritage Center, recently displayed these new multimedia works created at her recent master artist workshop at the Anchorage Museum at Rasmuson Center

From Toner's Bog to the Nobel Prize, Irish poet Seamus Heaney reading his ars poetica of agricultural practice, "Digging." Find more links to Heaney material at the Poetry Foundation & Poetry Magazine.