Monday, April 25, 2011

John Dee Holman

photograph by kinsley1

I recently discussed Blues Houseparty, a gathering of Piedmont blues musicians documented on film by Eleanor Ellis and available streaming on the web at Folkstreams. Since then, the film and the musicians have stayed on my mind; I've checked out some CDs from the library (Alan Lomax's Deep River of Song: Virginia and the Piedmont) and found Guitar Man, a wonderful LP with John Cephas and Phil Wiggins, at a local record store. Blues Houseparty leaves an impression and will send you out to learn more about the Piedmont blues--thanks again to the good people at Folkstreams for sharing it with us all. 

John Dee Holman brought a lot to the Houseparty--laughter, buck dancing, guitar-playing--and I'm happy to share more information on this man and his music. Though many of the folks featured in the documentary have passed away, Mr. Holman is still very much with us, and he is set to play as part of the Blues Warehouse concert series in Durham, North Carolina on July 22nd. 

This series is affiliated with the Music Maker Relief Foundation, an organization that "helps the true pioneers and forgotten heroes of Southern music gain recognition and meet their day to day needs" while also reaching out to "present these musical traditions to the world so American culture will flourish and be preserved for future generations." The Foundation also works to bring these musicians into contact with the next generation of Southern musicians, so that these traditions can continue to be rooted in the region.

Here's a selection from the Foundation's biography of Mr. Holman:
"I was born in 1929,” he says. “My father was Willy Holeman and my mother was born Annie Obie near Roxboro, North Carolina. Her daddy moved to Hillsborough and ran a flour mill. James Obie was my uncle; there are still Obies in Hillsborough. I lived on the Sam Latta place at first- he was the High Sheriff. There were three sisters and one brother. My parents are planted in the cemetery of Obie’s Chapel Church in Person County.”  “In about 1935 we moved to a 100 acre farm on Gray Road in Northern Orange County. We would walk four miles to the store at Timberlake to get us some candy. We could play on Saturday or Sunday. You know, fix a swing in a tree, swing in a tire and things like that. One time I took a fender off a Model T Ford, got on a bank, put water on the bank, and slid right down to the bottom!  I completed the fourth grade, then stopped; we weren’t compelled to attend then. I cut short my education because Daddy needed me to farm. I had to do what my Daddy said. I missed my education, but I’ve made a living so far.” 

When John Dee was 14 he bought a brand new Sears Silvertone guitar for $15. “I thought I had something!” he says. His uncle and cousin taught him a few chords. “I listened to 78’s like ‘Step It Up and Go’ by Blind Boy Fuller, the Grand Ole Opry, and heard others play at pig-picking parties. I was good for catching on. My guitar kept me company when I tended to tobacco in the barn so I wouldn’t go to sleep. You had to control the tobacco as it cured-you ran one heat to get the green out, then another to dry it out for cigarettes.”

He moved to Durham in 1954 in reaction to farming’s financial shortcomings. “The government took over the farming and gave you an allotment of how much you could raise. Before that we raised as much as we could handle. If you went over the allotment at harvest time, they’d make you cut it down. In 1954 I got $200 for my portion of tobacco for the whole year.”  “I went to the Liggett and Myers Tobacco Company for work. You could get a three-room ‘shotgun’ house for $6 a week. I also operated heavy equipment, like hauling dirt.”
Though Mr. Holman was a highly sought-after musician and dancer for private parties, he did not appear on the folk and blues festival scene until encouraged by folklorist Glen Hinson in 1989. Since then, Mr. Holman has traveled to all corners of the globe, played with virtually every blues luminary, and has received the NEA's National Heritage Fellowship, the organization's highest cultural award.

I'll include a series of videos below. The first selection is an interview with Mr. Holman conducted by David Holt for the Folkways series on North Carolina Public Television; the second pair of videos features a performance from the 2011 Black History Month celebrations at Central Piedmont Community College. 

John Dee Holeman Part 1 from Doug Short on Vimeo.

John Dee Holeman Part 2 from Doug Short on Vimeo.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Almanac For Moderns: The Impermanent Sea

April Fourteenth

The tadpoles in the quiet bay of the brook are now far past the stage of inky black little wrigglers attached by their two little sticky pads to any stick or leaf, merely breathing through their gills, and lashing with their hair-fine cilia. A dark brown skin--really gold spots mottling the black--now proclaims the leopard frogs they will become. Now the hunger of the open mouths insatiable; a tadpole, when not resting in sheer exhaustion, will not (and I suppose could not safely) cease for one moment to eat. They all scrape the slime from the sticks and stones; they nibble the water weeds; they are launched upon life with all its appetites and delights and perils.

And what perils! The water is now alive with treacherous, fiercely biting back-swimmers and their cousins the giant water bugs with ugly sucking mouths. The dragonfly nymphs emerge as if perfectly timed to live upon a banquet of frog larvae prepared for them, tigers of the ponds with legs that snatch, and jaws that devour. Fish, turtles, and water birds might all well die in early spring but for the monstrous fertility of the female leopard frog. She must spawn enough children to pay tribute to hundreds of merciless ogre overlords and still more, so that by good fortune June shall hear the marshes rattling with her children's hymns. 

So already the contest is begun, not, in reality the battle between death and life, but life locked naked with life, in a sort of terrible mating of substances, dissolving and fusing from one species into another, one instant palpitant batrachian jelly and the next the wry croak of a stilted shorebird. 

April Fifteenth

There is one spot in my neighborhood where I can literally wade into the very medium of life itself, and that is the marsh and pond. With a net--or with nothing better than my hands, if need be, I can scoop up the teeming stuff of it--the decaying twigs bearing fresh-water sponges, the shard of a crayfish that went to make a meal for a bittern, the strands of the first algae, a handful of mud out of which small nameless things come kicking and twisting. Here is the world of the fairy shrimp, of the thin tubifex worms poised for retreat into their mud chimneys, the caddis-fly larvae, like centaurs with their dragging cases hampering half their bodies, of the transparent Leptodora, the phantom snatcher of that netherworld. 

All about me rise the cries of the redwings, sweet gurgling watery whistles, and the angry peent, peent when I come too near their nesting places.  The waters lap the tiny shores of this impermanent sea; the ancient sunlight warms me, and dances on the ripples. The feel of life, the joy of it, the thrill and the warmth of it are in my bones, and the same sensations penetrate, I know, to the very bottom of the pond.

April Sixteenth

Upon the bottom of any pond in spring are pastured its tiny grazing animals, its pollywogs and snails, its microscopic flagellates, each one of which will produce a thousand descendants in a month, its rotifers of which each, seventy hours after hatching from the eggs, becomes itself a spawning factory. Just above them wait and prowl the small creatures of prey, the crayfish and the tigerish dragonfly nymphs, the nymphs of the mayflies, agile as minnows. Voracity awaits these too; they are destined to vanish down greater jaws and bills and gullets. Life in the casual pond, like life in the sea or the jungle, is like a pyramid with the multiplex and miniform for the broad base.

A bucketful of water may support ten thousand copepods; but a water snake may require a marsh to himself, as a whale needs league upon league of sea, or a bear the half of a mountainside. It is a question if there be any biologic advantage in mastering your environment when you need such a quantity of it to support you. Necessity presses just as sternly on the great beasts as on the small. The problem of population and food is the same, and the increased consciousness of the so-called higher forms is harshly compensated for by their increased capacity for suffering. True, it were pleasanter to eat than be eaten, but in the end even kings must come to dirt.

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

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Open Invitation To A Piedmont Blues Houseparty

a still from Blues Houseparty

We've mentioned Folkstreams many times before--it's an inexhaustible archive with a mission to stream, free of charge, obscure and out-of-print documentaries on all manner of folk subjects. Eleanor Ellis's 1996 film Blues Houseparty: Music, Dance and Stories by Masters of the Piedmont Blues is one of the finest gems in the Folkstreams collection; it's a uniquely comfortable and communal documentary experience.

While many like-minded films can feel overly-anthropological, or can force everyday activities to feel stilted in front of the documentarian's lens, Blues Houseparty comes off like an incredibly natural distillation of a weekend's worth of music, laughter, dancing and storytelling. In the midst of such a pleasurable experience, these musicians tell a complicated narrative of race relations in the South, and of the changing attitudes of their generation of African-Americans. In every sense, this is a vernacular experience. Highly recommended.

Here's an excerpt from legendary musicologist Dick Spottswood's review of Blues Houseparty, followed by the full documentary, courtesy of the good people at Folkstreams. Links are provided so folks can learn more about these musicians.
Producer Eleanor Ellis offers Piedmont blues fans a rare front-row seat to a private house party that is as down home and authentic as they come on this 57-minute DVD Blues Houseparty. Filmed in 1989 at the late John Jackson's home in Fairfax Station, Virginia, Blues Houseparty includes performances by Jackson and his son James, John Cephas and Phil Wiggins, Archie Edwards, Cora Jackson, Flora Molton and Larry Wise, John Dee Holeman, and Quentin "Fris" Holloway. Between songs, performers talk about the history of country breakdowns, demonstrate traditional dances and swap hilarious stories. The atmosphere is natural and relaxed. The audio and video quality are good. One small criticism: Performers could have been identified earlier in the film. But that's a small price to pay for admission to this rip-roarin' good time.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Hearing from the Next Generation in Rural Minnesota

I've received some emails about a link posted on The Rural Blog yesterday--and I'm excited to share this today. The MinnPost's series Rural Minnesota: A Generation at the Crossroads promises to be an extended and in-depth sequence of articles and online features that follow the state's rural youth as they think about college, careers, and whether they should stay within or leave behind their home communities. 

This project is guided by MinnPost editor Jeff Severns Guntzel, though he is clear in this introduction that the voice of these young people will be the communicating force:
Young people are rarely given the opportunity to narrate the rural experience. I was in the middle of a conversation with a small group of high-school students in the rural Minnesota city of Finlayson when I realized this. Maybe that's why everything they said seemed so fresh, even electric.

For weeks, I have been driving the roads that criss-cross the state like rivers. Up and down Highway 35, which starts in Duluth and ends at a stoplight in Laredo, Texas. Up and over on Highway 61, which needs no introduction. I've been on the tributaries, too — the roads that were unpaved until not that long ago and a few roads that still aren't paved. Many of the conversations so far have been in the north-central and northeast areas.

The young people who've carved out time in their busy schedules (I forget that the hustle begins at such an early age) have sat down for anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours to talk about their corners of rural Minnesota.
I will be writing more about this soon, but I really encourage our readers to head to the MinnPost and check out the articles, videos and interviews from the early stages of Mr.  Guntzel's project. As he says, there is something fresh and electric in their comments and perspectives; all of us would be wise to hear them out.

Monday, April 11, 2011

The Legend Of Cas Walker

This is the photograph that originally appeared in LIFE magazine.

I recently received an email and suggestion from Chuck Shuford, a writer and arts commentator for The Daily Yonder and a number of other publications. I think that many of our readers will be interested in this: the life and times and televised work of Cas Walker (1902-1998). Here's an excerpt from Mr. Shuford's correspondence:
My friend sent me a link to Cas Walker pontificating on his early morning TV program -- this was probably sometime in the 70's.   You need to know about Cas.  He owned a chain of grocery stores in E.TN, E. Ky, and SW Va.  He was also a politician, serving on the Knoxville City Council where he got in a fist fight at least once with a councilman holding a contrarian view.  He was elected Mayor of Knoxville and then very soon after, recalled.  He then ran for council again successfully until he retired in the early 70's. If god ever made an ornerier man, I've been hard to come by him.  As someone once said "If I ordered a car load of SOB's and they only sent Cas, I'd sign for it."  Dolly Parton and the Everly Brothers sang on his show as youngun's.   His home, which he lived in until his death, is about 3 blocks from our home.  Ironically, it is now owned by a lefty UT professor who recently wrote a book on Eugene V. Debs.
Writing in the Knoxville Metro Pulse, Betty Bean reveals how this "Hillbilly Collosus" also possessed an ability to manipulate media and technology:
Cas had served on City Council longer than I’d been alive, and had been among the first to grasp the power of television not only for selling stuff but for fighting off fluoridation, metro government, bad check writers, shoplifters, dog thieves, civic improvements of any sort, and police officers who hung around and drank coffee in establishments other than his own.

YouTube offers a small selection of Cas Walker Farm and Home Hour clips, including one of the Dolly Parton performances Mr. Shuford alludes to above. Is that Waylon Jennings playing on the right of the screen?

Cas Walker's life is impossible to summarize in just a few paragraphs, so please refer to this lively and surprising feature by Ms. Bean in the Metro Pulse. Mr. Walker's ascension to millionaire grocery magnate is marked by a rough, self-conscious transition from rural to urban life--and a hatred (an accurate word in this case) for "the silk-stocking crowd" who taunted him during his youth. While he had a combative sense of class, and an equally combative political sense, even those who opposed him in these regards were charmed and even awe-struck by the stubborn creativity Mr. Walker channeled into The Farm and Home Hour and his grocery store promotions.

Ms. Bean writes extensively of one of Mr. Walker's most legendary exploits, when he buried local character Digger O'Dell alive for multiple weeks, just to generate increased sales at this grocery stores:
"He [Digger O'Dell] said 'I will be buried, six feet underground, with a stovepipe running down to where I am so people can talk to me.' I [Cas Walker] said, 'What do you get for that kind of work?'"

He said "I get $100 a day.'

"I said 'I was thinking about offering you $25 a day, but I am going to offer you $50.' His wife was a Jewish woman and she was shaking her head yes so I knew I was going to start burying a man and I had never had that experience before.

"We dug our hole, and I got ready to bury him. Of course, I advertised that I was going to bury him at a certain time. You never seen a crowd like we had."

Digger had a telephone, and Walker remembers that he "talked with women all night. You have never experienced a ladies man such as this one was."

Walker put up a tent over Odell's grave to accommodate the crowd, which one night numbered 1,500 at 2 a.m.

But Digger wanted to be dug up before he had fulfilled his 30-day contract. Walker was having none of it, since daily receipts at the Chapman Highway store had increased from $3,500 to $8,000.

"I told him that was too much money to dig up," Walker said in a 1990 interview with the Knoxville Journal.

Digger started faking heart attacks and calling the newspapers and the health department to complain that Walker was denying him medical care.

Walker's solution was to dress two women who worked for him in "nurse suits" and station them above the grave, selling barbecued chicken sandwiches.
Knoxviews offers a brief write-up of these stunts (including the LIFE Magazine fist-fight)--make sure to read the comments section, as many local folks contributed their own memories of Cas Walker.

The Tennessee Archive of Moving Image and Sound also houses many of the historical Cas Walker commercials and Farm and Home Hour tapes. TAMIS deserves its own post here on the The Art of the Rural, and that will be forthcoming, but, until then here is one of the archival commercials:

The Museum of Appalachia also features John Rice Irwin remembering Mr. Walker and his love for Coon Hunting.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Can We Find Classical Music in Rural America?

photograph from Mr. Horowitz's program, featuring Kevin Deas; Janice Houck

I am classical music. --Abner Jay

After writing recently about Mr. Jay, I've been listening to his music almost non-stop. In the version of "Cocaine Blues" found on The True Story of Abner Jay, he offers this prelude:
Folk music is high class music--of course a lot of low class people singin' it. Matter of fact, most so-called folk singers don't even look like folk. Folk songs tell true stories, but terrible stories--'cause folk are terrible. Terrible songs make big songs. Why do you think kids like rock 'n' roll ? Because it's terrible. You think they're gonna listen to the Philadelphia Symphony, 101 Strings?
From a few angles, there's no arguing with him. If Germany has Bach and Beethoven, America has The Carter Family, Robert Johnson, and, of course, Abner Jay. But, also, many modern composers (Copland comes to mind first) have borrowed from folk music to make classical music "new." 

So where, I wonder, can we find the connections between rural America and classical music? What musicians and composers are engaging with rural issues and rural material? Where can we find healthy classical music programs and events in rural America? 

We might consider the work of Joseph Horowitz as a start. Mr. Horowitz is a writer, concert producer, and a former music critic for The New York Times. He is currently working with the New York Philharmonic and the Pittsburgh Symphony on what he calls "humanities-infused public programming."

Mr. Horowitz also writes for the fantastic Arts Journal constellation of blogs and arts news.  This February, as the discussions of the massive Congressional budget cuts began to emerge, Mr. Horowitz shared his experience with a program that might get lost in the efforts to drastically cut back arts funding. We can find here his reflections on a program considering the work of Dvorak and slave-songs he offered to elementary school students in "semi-rural" areas in eastern Pennsylvaia, but I will offer an excerpt below:
The featured soloist was Kevin Deas, an internationally prominent African-American bass-baritone who regularly appears with our major orchestras. Kevin is both an exceptional artist and an exceptional human being; he was eager to take part for a nominal fee.

The program began (without a word said) with Kevin, from the back of the gym, singing "Sinner, Don't Let This Harvest Past." He slowly paced forward, passing alongside hundreds of transfixed children seated on the floor. Subsequently, he sang "Deep River," "Goin' Home," and Stephen Foster's "Old Folks at Home" (in Dvorak's arrangement for baritone, orchestra, and chorus) with the student musicians. 

The hour-long program, which I hosted, also included discussion of Dvorak and his African-American assistant Harry Burleigh. Burleigh (like Foster, a Pennsylvania native) acquired "slave songs" from his blind grandfather. He sang them frequently for Dvorak. It was partly Dvorak who inspired Burleigh to turn them into concert songs which he famously sang (becoming a model for Marian Anderson and Paul Robeson). 

Kevin sang "Swing Low" and "Wade in the Water" in Burleigh's arrangements. He talked about the message of the spirituals. He shared his own experiences as a black concert artist. We also heard a recording of Burleigh himself singing "Go Down, Moses" in 1919.

An epiphany of sorts (for me) was moving from Kevin's loamy baritone in "Goin' Home" to the 60 earnest, piping voices assigned the second verse:

Morning star lights the way
Restless dream all done
Shadows gone, break of day
Real life just begun
I have included such a long excerpt because I imagine that many of us can sense how similar programs could be offered across the audiences and regions of rural America--not only to students, but to the larger community as well. 

If folks have any ideas, or any leads, please send us an email. We'd like to share more classical music, and more programs like the kind Mr. Horowitz brought to these lucky students in Pennsylvania.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Amy Stein's Domesticated Spaces

Fast Food; Amy Stein. All images reproduced here with the artist's consent.

Last fall we wrote about the work of a group of artists involved in a "rural avant-garde," as described by Chris Sauter in his excellent feature in Art Lies.  Within that portfolio, Amy Stein's work caught our eye. Her photographs offered an unflinching take on the interactions between rural domestic space and the surrounding wilds--and while there was a method behind her images, they found a way to be both poignant and defamiliarizing. 

We'd like to feature more of her work from the Domesticated series today; one can follow the link to a generous selection from her site, or trace back this link to place an order for the full book-length collection of photographs. Unlike some of the other artists of Mr. Sauter's "rural avant-garde," Ms. Stein is not a product of rural America; instead, she was raised in Washington, DC, and Karachi, Pakistan, and she currently lives and teaches in New York City. Much like the artist's well-traveled life, these photographs have been exhibited widely across the U.S. and Europe.  Ms. Stein was named one of the top fifteen emerging photographers by American Photo, and her photographs can be found in the permanent holdings of many of the finest private and public collections. 

Like Brian Rosa and Adam Ryder's Edge of Light series we discussed last month, Ms. Stein's urban perspective is far from romantic or pastoral. Instead, she is also concerned with the space between rural communities and the natural world outside its door. As the cities and suburbs spread outward, toward traditionally "rural" towns and landscapes, this space that Ms. Stein is documenting will become increasingly present, and increasingly complicated. 

Amy Stein also maintains a blog that features in-depth interviews with other artists, many of whom are working to investigate their native rural spaces--this material deserves a separate post, so please stay tuned.

Here is an excerpt from Ms. Stein's statement on the Domesticated project, followed by a brief selection from the series. Much more remains to be discovered on Amy Stein's site
My photographs serve as modern dioramas of our new natural history. Within these scenes I explore our paradoxical relationship with the "wild" and how our conflicting impulses continue to evolve and alter the behavior of both humans and animals. We at once seek connection with the mystery and freedom of the natural world, yet we continually strive to tame the wild around us and compulsively control the wild within our own nature. 

The photographs in this series are constructed based on real stories from local newspapers and oral histories of intentional and random interactions between humans and animals. The narratives are set in and around Matamoras, a small town in Northeast Pennsylvania that borders a state forest. 
 Watering Hole


New Homes 


Wednesday, April 6, 2011

The Last of the Pagan Babies

Robert Morgan Seated in Front of Altar; Guy Mendes. From Institute 193.

Today we'd like to share some information about a forthcoming film by writer and documentary filmmaker Jean Donohue that is set to expand the range of references that folks might have at hand when they consider southern, or rural, art. Ms. Donoghue's work has been broadcast on the BBC, The Learning and Discovery Channels and on a host of public television stations across the country. Ms. Donohue explains in her biographical statement for the Media Working Group (where she serves as President) that her films are concerned with "art, spirituality, the land, earth-centered consciousness and what it means to be human in relation to the natural world," and also with "women, gay culture and their relationship to society." 

Ms. Donohue's latest project, The Last of the Pagan Babies, stands at the nexus of all of these considerations and promises to share a facet of rural and southern life that's often left out of the picture. This "rich story of a rural Southern radical gay culture and underground" centers around a group of artists who found themselves part of a free-spirited and visionary arts movement in Lexington, Kentucky. Known as "The Pagan Babies," their numbers included Robert Morgan, Jimmy Gordon, Bradley Picklesimer, Henry Faulkner, Marion Broadus, and Sweet Evening Breeze

Ms. Donohue provides a further introduction on the film's Kickstarter page:
A collective, The Pagan Babies were outrageous artists, who spoke truth to power, and made radical decisions to bring their voice into public life through drag personas, art, photography, experimental film, and guerilla theatre. The characters in this documentary speak from that underground’s moral center claiming their right of expression, refusing to be invisible while giving voice to 150 years of underground life. They are still sources of deep inspiration for generations of refugees that make up Lexington’s underground.

These stories are inhabited by the famous and infamous, including Sue Mundy aka Jerome Clarke (1860s) who joined the Confederate General John Hunt Morgan’s famed Morgan's Raiders at age 17, becoming notorious as the woman marauder, Sue Mundy - - and the first in a lineage of radical transgender personalities. Next there’s Belle Breezing, madam and political powerhouse (1890s) after whom Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With Wind’s ‘Belle’ was modeled; Sweet Evening Breeze (1940s), a black intersex transvestite is fondly remembered for her evening strolls through downtown; international painter, blues singer and drag artist Henry Faulkner (1940s-1981) and his lifelong lover Tennessee ‘Tom’ Williams; and a mélange of outrageous underground icons such as Williams Burroughs, Divine (made famous by John Waters), Jamie Herlihy (author of Midnight Cowboy), Vincent Price, celebrity photographer Marie Cosindas, and Hollywood couple Rock Hudson and Gene Barry.
Lexington's North of Center recently featured a write-up of the film project and some insightful comments from Ms. Donohue's interview with Lucy Jones. Below we see the director articulate both the regional and national imperative behind this project. We'll be offering more updates on The Last of the Pagan Babies as the film nears its premiere.
Donohue’s goal in making the film is “to tell a unique story about Southern history and its intersection with gay culture and underground art. Having lived in Boston for several years, and Cincinnati for that matter, when I described what my own coming of age in Lexington was like they couldn’t believe it.  Some in the Northeast don’t believe there could be a rich counterculture of art, music, sexual camp, drag, and gay life.  So, in a way, my goal is to share the local underground mythos and…counter perceptions that gay culture didn’t exist in Kentucky or the South.”

The film strives not only to document the Pagan Babies and their influence on arts in Lexington, but to explore what came before them. Morgan cites Lexington’s legendary Sweet Evening Breeze as an example of the intergenerational links that have informed the town’s identity. Born in the late 1800s, “Miss Sweets” lived until 1983 and spent most of that time living openly as a cross dresser. “She was the transvestite mascot of Lexington in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s.” Morgan recalls sitting with an elderly Sweets at Brezing’s Bar watching a young first time punk band perform. “She was part of this odd, unusual continuum of sexual outlaws who made contact with the next generation.”