Monday, January 25, 2010

The Farmville Files

From an investigation in progress:

Exhibit A: "To Harvest Squash, Click Here," a introduction by Douglas Quenqua of The New York Times.

Exhibit B: The Official Facebook page. 15.5 million fans. Join now to gain access to the "24x24 Land Expansion."

Exhibit C: Farmville Freak, the self-proclaimed "#1 Fan Page."

Exhibit D: This piece from NPR's Weekend Edition. Here's an excerpt from Scott Simon's discussion with Dean Takahashi, a technology blogger:
Scott Simon: Something just occurs to me, this is dime-store psychology, but the number of people who are actually farming in this country is in decline and has been for some time. I wonder if farming has now become as fanciful as Space Invader games for millions of Americans.

Dean Takahashi: Yeah, its a fantasy. Its something they wish they could do but they can no longer do in a big crowded city. People just want to get back to something simpler. It almost reminds me of the organic movement - you know, they're very interested in where their foods come from these days. And in the same way, here you get to grow your own foods.
Exhibit E: This recent episode of Dr. Phil. Here's a segment of the transcript:
“I’m very concerned with my mom’s obsession with all of these Facebook games. She’s constantly on the computer, and she neglects all of her responsibilities,” says Teresa's daughter, Jennifer. “I just feel like she’s too busy for us, because Facebook has taken over who she is."

“Before I came here, I made sure that none of the crops were going to die,” she replies.

Dr. Phil takes a seat on the stage across from Teresa. “There aren’t really any crops,” he informs her. “That’s just a little image on a screen. They’re not going to die.”

“I know,” she answers.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Soul Food On The Southside

This piece from The New York Times offers another take on the urban-rural intersections Ian Halbert discussed with Baucus and Philemon below. Here, Dirk Johnson spends a Sunday afternoon at Marvin's Soul Food restaurant on Chicago's Southside and shares how the cuisine serves to connect the urban reality of these elderly patrons to their rural upbringing:
“We fellowship,” said Gloria Davis, a native of the Mississippi Delta, “and we remember the days.”
These women were part of one of the nation’s most important periods, the Great Migration, the mass trek of blacks going north for jobs and the hope of civil rights. It has been more than a half-century since the peak of migration to Chicago.
The numbers are dwindling among those who can recount the movement that changed the city and America. “We are coming to the end of a chapter,” said Howard Lindsey, a professor of black studies at DePaul University.
Elderly natives of the South like to come to Marvin’s at the corner of Cicero and Polk Street, where the ham hocks, turkey wings and black-eyed peas are some of the best you can find, and where the hospitable ways remind them of country childhoods.

26th Cowboy Poetry Gathering

This weekend The Western Folklife Center is hosting the 26th Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, Nevada. Each year, according to the WFC, the Gathering brings together "thousands of cowboys and cowgirls, poets and musicians, artisans and scholars, rural people and city folks."

Starting on the evening of Wednesday, January 28th, the WFC will offer a cybercast of the festivities. There is also a very interesting Gathering Blog that offers a behind-the-scenes look at how such a festival comes together. If that's not enough, there's an feast of podcasts from Ranch Rhymes: Cowboy Poetry and Music from the Western Folklife Center.  Here's Hal Canon, the Founding Director, describing the genesis of this particular gathering
Some people say the Cowboy Poetry Gathering was born in January 1985. Now called the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering, it was decreed thus by the U.S. Senate and all the crown heads of Europe. However, most people just call it "Elko." When it started, people described it as a parting of the sea, a gathering of tribes, a "Class A" drunk in a long series of various-classed drunks. Some journalists say it's the most honest and open-hearted festival in America. Ranchers say these few days contain the highest concentration of lies in any one place at any one time. Twenty years ago, Glamour Magazine said it was one of the best ten places in America for a woman to find a real catch. All of this makes a sensible person wonder.
Mr. Canon also explains that such gatherings have taken place in Elko for many decades preceding the week-long celebration he organizes. Yet, in an essay also attached to the above link, he recounts the initial impetus for this current incarnation, and the massive amount of individual and community energy that went into getting the Gathering off the ground. Their work looked to reclaim a segment of their regional culture:
When the idea for the Cowboy Poetry Gathering came up in the late 1970's the cowboy image was at a low point. Hollywood had pretty much stopped making cowboy movies. Nashville had dropped the western out of country and western. And all sorts of new meaning had been pumped into the word "cowboy."
Time spent wandering through the Gathering's store of online sources will surely stand as a testament to the success of this community's vision--and to a tradition of "cowboy" arts that are still very much alive. I'm particularly interested in the Gathering's efforts this year to connect western cowboy culture with its related strains in the American Southeast:
For the 26th National Cowboy Poetry Gathering the Western Folklife Center is pleased to present Seminole and “Cracker” cowboys from Florida and swamp cowboys from Louisiana. Cattle ranching is one of Florida's oldest and most important cultural and occupational activities, beginning when Spanish explorers introduced horses and cattle to the region in the 16th century. Louisiana’s cattle business has flourished since the mid-18th century. In their part of the country they say “anyone can herd cows on dry land!” Our guests will include poets, storytellers, cooks, Creole zydeco musicians, craftspeople and Seminole Indian cowboys. 
Among this list is Geno Delafose & French Rockin' Boogie, whose latest release has been nominated for a Best Zydeco or Cajun Music Grammy, as well as Nick Spitzer (see the post regarding Zydeco: Creole Music and Culture in Rural Lousiana from last week). Let's hope that some of these performances make their way online in the coming weeks. Until then, those of us who haven't been lucky enough to attend have a whole host of aural and visual treats to enjoy on the Western Folklife Center site.

Friday, January 22, 2010

An Organic Parable: Baucis and Philemon

By Ian Halbert

Ovid, in book VIII of the Metamorphoses, tells the story of Baucis and Philemon. In sum, Jupiter and Mercury come to earth in the guise of poor wayfarers in need of board and bread. At every turn, they are turned away by the inhabitants of the village. At the edge of town an elderly and impoverished couple (Baucis and Philemon) invite the wanderers into their home. They give them the best of what little they have. Of course, in the face of such piety and grace the gods reveal themselves and announce their intention to destroy the village for its sins. Their noble, elderly and poor hosts live on as priests at the gods’ temple and are granted their one wish: to die together at the same moment. In keeping with the theme, the two rustics are transfigured at the hour of their death into twin trees forever intertwined with one another. It is a beautiful and enduring story.

But what has this to do with “the rural”? As I teach this text every semester one passage remains with me, the meal Baucis and Philemon serve the god-guests:
ponitur hic bicolor sincerae baca Minervae
conditaque in liquida corna autumnalia faece 
intibaque et radix et lactis massa coacti
ovaque non acri leviter versata favilla,
omnia fictilibus (VIII.664-668)

On the table were placed some varieties of olives
and autumnal cherries preserved in reduced wine;
there were also endive, radishes and a lump of farmer’s cheese,
all served with slow poached eggs on humble earthenware plates.
And this is to say nothing of the bacon put on the hob some twenty lines earlier! This meal sounds delicious to me, and not dissimilar to the pricier fare I find at the better and trendier restaurants here in Boston and New York: preserved cherries! a selection of olives! a salad of endive and radish, with chevre and bacon! But for Ovid, the consummate urbanite and definition of urbanity, this meal was the height of rusticity, simplicity and poverty. In other words, to an educated, literate and wealthy Roman of the 1st century AD, this meal was poor fare at best – or rather the best of the poorest fare – and he likely read this passage with a smirk and smile at what the country rabble are reduced to eat.

Fascinating isn’t it? Over two millennia food not fit for gods or privileged Romans – peasants’ fare no less! – has become the meals we savor ... and save for. In fact, it seems we are going out of our way for simpler and simpler food, to the point of fetishizing it. 

One of the stated aims of The Art of the Rural is to ask questions about what exactly "the rural" is, and how it intersects with "the urban." In the weeks and months ahead, I hope to post entries that explore how food (and food culture) intersects and connects these two terms.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Saying Goodbye to Oakdale, Illinois

The Daily Yonder and The Rural Blog are two sites I read each day; they both provide some of the most thorough, provocative and indispensable information and commentary on rural issues. The Daily Yonder today offers analysis on the senate election in Massachusetts (both the most heavily rural and heavily urban counties voted for Democrat Martha Coakley) as well as this fantastic reminiscence on the local history of Oakdale, Illinois--the fictional small-town home of As The World Turns. Here's a glimpse of writer Julianne Crouch walking down this soapstone memory lane:
Geographically, Oakdale started out in the corn fields somewhere in central Illinois. The town now has at least one hospital, a television station, three newspapers, a university, a fancy hotel (where characters unaccountably live for long stretches), a dive motel, and a police force. It has a convenient airport, with jets on stand-by if one needs a quickie divorce in “the Islands.” Like the town of Springfield, where the cartoon Simpsons live, it has whatever geographical features suit the story line. Oakdale is an easy drive to the mountains, New York City, and of course, Chicago. 

The show premiered in April 1956. When I first moved to Oakdale for one hour a day, Chicago was rarely mentioned. It might come up if someone sought an abortion or needed an organ transplant. But over the years, Chicago has become central to the lives of Oakdalians. Either Chicago’s suburbs are sprawling or Oakdale is snurching north. Oakdalians are Cubs fans but seem to have little interest in the Bulls or the Bears. They go to the Windy City for rock concerts or occasional shopping trips. They can get there and back in no time, unless they slide off the road and hit a tree or are kidnapped along the way. Hey, it happens.
While the essay reads as a sort of fabulist narrative of post-war rural America, the Daily Yonder's page also features a very thoughtful response:
Daily Yonder readers undoubtedly will be interested to learn that there is, in fact, a non-fictional Oakdale, Illinois, and it’s a lovely place.  It’s located in the southwestern part of the state – specifically in southwestern Washington County, about 55 miles southeast of St. Louis, Missouri (and about 30 miles northeast of my hometown of Chester, Illinois).  The population as of the 2000 census was 213.
Oakdale is home to one of only three congregations of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America in Illinois.  Its existence reflects the early-nineteenth-century migration of Scots-Irish Covenanters from Upcountry South Carolina to present-day southwestern Washington County and northeastern Randolph County, Illinois, largely because of their opposition to slavery.
 Read more from the Julianne Crouch's essay here.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

For the Weekend: From the Range to the Bayou

The Western Folklife Center offers a website well-worth visiting and revisting. Next weekend they host their 26th National Cowboy Poetry Gathering; while I'm looking forward to writing more about this event next week, I'd like to share something from one of the Center's other programs, Deep West Video--whose mission is "to tell first-hand stories from the rural West that are rooted in the values of life on the land:"
Since 2000, the Western Folklife Center has been working with people from throughout the rural west to produce short videos and slide shows about their lives on the land. Using the tools of digital communication, these home-made productions are simple yet elegant; they are not glossy and commercial, but from the heart.
Deep West's video site offers dozens of pieces that, when viewed together, weave a rich and varied narrative about life in the rural west. Here's one of my favorites: Susan Church's Kitchen on the Range. It's a interesting look into life on a cattle ranch, phrased as a submission to a Martha Stewart Magazine kitchen-remodeling contest. Scroll down this page to view Kitchen on the Range. 

After spending some time with Deep West Videos, try Zydeco: Creole Music and Culture in Rural Louisiana, a documentary produced by Nicholas R. Spitzer during his tenure as Louisiana State Folklorist. Also, as with every weekend, check out American Routes, his weekly public radio show that celebrates American music in all its diversity. The show cultivates the idea of "american music" in its widest sense, featuring "jazz, gospel and soul, old-time country and rockabilly, Cajun and zydeco, Tejano and Latin, roots rock and pop, avant-garde and classical."

Coming of Age in Rural America, Without Health Care

I don't think any position I'm going to get out of college will come with health insurance. I don't know a single friend from college who has a job like that. A sick workforce only intensifies an already sick economy. It's hard to work when you can't afford eyeglasses for your astigmatism, dental work for your rotting teeth, or medicine for pneumonia. We're constantly being told we are the future of the country, but we're starting out a step behind.
As Congress continues to craft health care legislation, and the ideological arguments and talking points persist everywhere from the cable networks down to the local coffee shop, I think that we would be well-advised to hear this essay by Brittany Hunsaker recently broadcast on NPR.

The piece was produced by Ms. Hunsaker (in conjunction with Youth Radio) while she was interning at The Appalacian Media Institute, an organization in partnership with Appalshop that gives young people the opportunity "to use video cameras and audio equipment to document the unique traditions and complex issues of their mountain communities." The AMI site offers visitors a number of videos and audio pieces on a diverse range of subjects.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

A Minnesota Minute and Carl Gawboy

image by Carl Gawboy
The Blandin Foundation, an organization dedicated to supporting rural Minnesota, created a series of one-minute television spots last year to commemorate the state's 150th birthday and to celebrate its natural history. These pieces were produced in conjunction with The Bell Museum of Natural History and ran on local television stations during the prime-time viewing hours. The Minnesota Minute series was recently recognized with a regional Emmy Award.

These two organizations sponsor this site for the series, from which all 13 Minutes can be viewed and enjoyed. Below, Minnesota Minute features Carl Gawboy, a painter and a member of the Bois Fort Band of the Minnesota Ojibwe.

The excellent Minnesota Artists site offers both a slideshow and an interview with Mr. Gawboy. Here's interviewer Suzanne Szucs introducing the artist:
And then there’s Carl Gawboy. Son of a Finnish mother and Ojibwe father (his parents fell in love over books), Gawboy grew up the youngest of 8 children in Ely where his mother inherited a farm. Trilingual in his youth (English, Finnish, Ojibwe) Gawboy began to draw before he could walk and knew he wanted to be a professional artist when he was four. His upbringing was “rural and woodsy” although he went to a “modern” school where he studied “interesting” things. An epiphany came when harvesting rice – “it was as interesting as it gets and my most Indian of experiences.” He decided his work needed to use his own experiences to tell the stories of his heritage. His images would emphasize the everyday experiences of Indians, not dwell upon romantic notions of an idealized people.

“Everything that I paint I actually did or saw… sometimes what I’ll do is move it back in time. It’s something that I have a part in or would try to do it so that I would know what it was like. These things [like getting together a group of students to make a birch bark canoe] gave me insights that I don’t think other people got. My work shows the culture and landscape of the region.”
Minnesota Public Radio also offers in its Voices of Minnesota series a visit with Carl Gawboy and Helen Blue-Redner, the former chairwoman of the Upper Sioux Community.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Consuela Lee and the Snow Hill Institute

image by Bill Hackwell
Bruce Weber in the New York Times reported today on the passing of Consuela Lee, the jazz pianist and music professor who returned to her hometown of Snow Hill, Alabama in 1970's to revive the Snow Hill Institute, a ground-breaking school for rural African Americans created by her grandfather William J. Edwards. Here's Alexander Cockburn describing the Institute's inception in a 2001 article in the New York Press:
On the first day of 1889, a shy young black man called William James Edwards completed his three-day, 90-mile walk from Snow Hill to enlist in Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute. He walked with a limp, the souvenir of scrofula that had seen him only able to crawl as a boy, enduring without anesthetic Dr. Keyser’s periodic though ultimately successful assaults with a knife on the infected bone tissue on his heel and elbow.
Three years later the young man who’d never seen a kitchen knife and fork, and who’d slept all his life on the dirt floor of a one-room shack, graduated second in his class. He was confident and determined to return to Snow Hill and open an institute on the Booker T. Washington model. There were more than 400,000 black people in Alabama’s Black Belt in 1870, freed from slavery and mostly facing the new oppression of sharecropping, which seasoned nominal freedom with grinding toil and constant indebtedness, the lynch mob ready to chasten any impertinence with whip or noose.
Ahead of his time, Edwards reckoned one of the big problems of Southern agriculture was the destruction of the topsoil by greed and ignorance. "These waste places," he wrote in his 1918 memoir Twenty-Five Years in the Black Belt, "can be reclaimed and the gutted hills made to blossom, only by giving the Negro a common education, combined with religious, moral and industrial training and the opportunity to at least own his home, if not the land he cultivates. The Negro must be taught to believe that the farmer can become prosperous and independent; that he can own his home and educate his children in the country. If he can, and he can be taught these things, in less than ten years, every available farm in the rural South will be occupied."
Edwards started the Snow Hill Institute in the mid-1890s in a one-room cabin with one teacher, three students and 50 cents in capital. By 1918 the school boasted 24 buildings, between 300 and 400 students learning 14 trades and assets including 1940 acres of land valued at $125,000 and deeded to a board of trustees.
By the time Consuela Lee returned to Snow Hill in 1979, the Institute had been closed for six years.  Her grandfather's vision of educating a community of independent farmers had met with the realities both of the region and the agriculture industry: as Cockburn cites, the 68 percent of Alabamans engaging in farm-related work in 1900 had significantly decreased, landing at 2 percent by the final year of the same century. Her home-region of Alabama stood as one of the most poverty-stricken areas in the country.

Ms. Lee's new venture, the Springtree/Snowhill Institute, served as a performing arts school for local youth, with appearances by artists such as Max Roach, Odetta and Spike Lee (her nephew). Unfortunately, the Institute closed in 2003; Wikipedia reports that only eight of the original 24 buildings remain, though the University of Alabama's School of Architecture is involved in rebuilding portions of the campus. 

The Consuela Lee Foundation for Music Education offers a wealth of information on the Institute and Ms. Lee's life, as well as links to her piano recordings and the work of William J. Edwards. They are currently completing a documentary, Honoring Ms. Lee. Here's the preview:

Saturday, January 9, 2010

For the Weekend: Muddy and Willie

"Long Distance Call" also appears, in acoustic form, on his classic 1964 Record Folk Singer. I've recently found that Muddy Water's estate keeps up an informative website honoring this great bluesman from Rolling Fork, Mississippi. The "Mud's Kitchen" section offers this recipe for the legend's Salmon Croquettes:
- one can of salmon
- one cup of corn meal
- one cup of flour
- one egg
- one onion, diced
Mix all ingredients in a mixing bowl. Form into a round patty(s). Fry them in a frying pan until done. Season to taste.
While frying these patties up, check out the October 17, 1974, pilot episode of Austin City Limits featuring Willie Nelson. There's also a good deal of the recent performances available in their entirety on the ACL site.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Ted Kooser and the Wessels Living History Farm

The Wessels Living History Farm of York, Nebraska offers visitors the best of both worlds: a hands-on chance to view an operating farm in the Central Plains as well as the opportunity to then go home and learn a great deal more through their online resources. The Farm's site presents a decade-by-decade overview of agriculture in the twentieth-century (with Quicktime interviews) and also focuses on many of the cultural events surrounding life on the farm. There's a great deal of audio and visual presentations here, and, to the Farm's credit, much of this is geared towards educating younger generations about rural culture. This is a fantastic site with enough to read and watch to keep one busy through a long winter's afternoon.

The site also features a selection of poems by former Poet Laureate Ted Kooser. A Nebraska native, Kooser has received many accolades for his clear eye and revealing use of detail to evoke a place and a people that is at once local and universal. Aside from his collections of poetry, Kooser also published a well-received memoir about life in Southeastern Nebraska: Local Wonders.

Ted Kooser reads his poem "Tillage Marks," along with others, from his home in Nebraska's Bohemian Alps region here. Mr. Kooser also writes The American Life in Poetry column, which is offered each week, free of charge, to newspapers and online publications across the country.

Thursday, January 7, 2010


Lance Ledbetter's record label Dust-To-Digital is one of the finest examples of how younger generations are continuing the mission of John Cohen, Alan Lomax and Harry Smith. Ledbetter, who was recently named by Utne Magazine as one of the "50 Visionaries Who Are Changing Your World," first released the lavish and meticulously-documented Goodbye, Babylon box set in 2004. The set was nominated for a Grammy (as with so many of his subsequent releases) and has continued to gather praise from artists as various as Bob Dylan, Brian Eno and Arcade Fire. The five discs of religious music contained in Goodbye, Babylon have their place alongside Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music as one of the finest documents of American music culture--rural or otherwise.

While I hope to feature and discuss many of these releases in greater detail soon, for now I will include below a short two-part piece that was featured on the This is Atlanta PBS Program. It's an inspiring overview of the record label and is guaranteed to send you to their site to sample this powerful music.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

The Madison County Project

I recently discovered the 2005 documentary The Madison County Project: Documenting the Sound on Folkstreams, an excellent and richly-exhaustive site that "streams" new independent documentaries as well as rare out-of-print films about folklife and rural culture. Here's a word from Folkstreams:
Madison County Project: Documenting the Sound examines the tradition of unaccompanied ballad singing in Madison County, North Carolina and how both documentary work and the power of family and community have influenced that tradition. The film focuses on John Cohen and Peter Gott's film and recording work in Madison County in the 1960s as well as the voices of today's ballad singers such as Sheila Kay Adams, Donna Ray Norton, Denise Norton O'Sullivan, and DeeDee Norton Buckner. The film is a joint project between two graduate students at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Part of the project is to create a more transparent form of documentary that invites participation from those featured in the film, advisors, and the general public.
While this short film tells a compelling story and captures both the gravity and joy of these ballads, it also discusses the rift Cohen and Gott experienced after these singers they had befriended found themselves on Folkways records and began to distrust the recording process. Though this film covers the history of the Madison County ballad singers, it also reveals how their descendants are discovering the economic (as well as the cultural) value of this tradition. It's a shining example of the role the arts can play in community sustainability.

The Madison County Project's official site is also well-worth visiting. Further videos and interviews are contained therein, as is an interactive time-line of the ballad tradition (from 1300 to 2009!) and biographies of the singers.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Appalshop and Mine War on Blackberry Creek

Appalshop is one of the most vital arts organizations in the country. For over 40 years it has served the central Appalachian region in a number of capacities; though its roots are in documentary filmmaking, Appalshop has expanded in subsequent decades to include WMMT Mountain Community Radio (streaming live), the internationally-respected Roadside Theater, the June Appal record label (featuring traditional mountain music and blues) and many other projects that I hope to feature in the future.

Appalshop's website offers a wealth of music, podcasts and video such as Mine War on Blackberry Creek, which is streaming for a limited time here. This 1986 documentary interviews members of the United Mine Workers of America and members of the community, as well as a young Don Blankenship--now the highly controversial CEO of Massey Coal. The site offers this introduction to the film:

Mine War on Blackberry Creek reports on the long and bitter United Mine Workers of America strike in 1984 against A.T. Massey, America's fourth largest coal company with corporate ties to apartheid South Africa. While strikebreakers work inside the mines and security men with guard dogs and cameras patrol the compound, miners on the picket lines detail the history of labor struggles in the region and their determination to hold out until victory.
A.T. Massey CEO Don Blankenship, listed on AlterNet in 2006 as one of "the 13 scariest Americans," addresses capitalism, social Darwinism, and the global economy, while Richard A. Trumka, Secretary-Treasurer and currently running for President of the AFL-CIO, expresses union values.

Mine War on Blackberry Creek is currently being digitally remastered for release in August.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Saving Texas Dance Halls, One Two-Step At A Time

From John Burnett's piece on NPR:

Dance halls throughout Central Texas have been dying off from decay and disuse. The best way to save them? 'Dance in them,' says Patrick Sparks, a structural engineer and president of Texas Dance Hall Preservation Inc.

'My view is that the dance halls are the most Texas thing there is,' Sparks says. 'You get a look back at 19th-century Texas and the European immigrants that came and formed such a strong part of our character.'

Here's a video from Texas Dance Hall Preservation: