Friday, March 30, 2012

Is Your Child A Farmer? Know The Warning Signs.

Image from the Face Your Farmer Facebook page

This image from Face Your Farmer caught my attention yesterday. It seems that many rural groups and the artists associated with them have been less willing to use d├ętournement, or its many web-based versions, in visual media campaigns. The term, "a negation of the value of the previous organization of expression," originated with with the Situationists and their leader Guy Debord in post-war France, though their techniques have become widespread -- now incorporated into political campaigns and advertising (the very things the Situationists critiqued) as well as thousands of internet memes. Indeed, the image above mirrors the framework from this arts ad campaign created by Team Detroit.

The Face Your Farmer project, and their Facebook community, have been generating an avalanche of such images - some of which are irreverent, as above, but others that are more pointed.

In conjunction with a number of media partners, Face Your Farmer follows "the journey of an organic farmer and a farm-shy tech enthusiast across 5 Canadian provinces and countless rural and urban communities." These two individuals, as the image above would suggest, present these  concerns in an approachable and, at times, lighthearted manner. Here's further information on their project:
‘Face Your Farmer’ connects people in cities to those in rural areas who are our Farmers. We strive to build communities without borders and remove the veil of mystery that separates people from farms.

In this age we face seemingly insurmountable problems with food security, food freedom and awareness around how food gets from farm to table. With a dwindling oil supply, local economies are becoming a necessity. We explore this new economic reality.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Rural Poetry Series: Paul Muldoon

Paul Muldoon was born in the countryside of Northern Ireland, between counties Armagh and Tyrone in Northern Ireland, in 1951. In his poem "Mixed Marriage," he alludes not only to the sectarian violence of the Troubles, but also to a state of cultural transition that would be familiar to many rural artists on either side of the Atlantic:
My father was a servant-boy.
When he left school at eight or nine
He took up billhook and loy
To win the ground he would never own.

My mother was the school-mistress,
The world of Castor and Pollux.
There were twins in her own class.
She could never tell which was which.

She had read one volume of Proust,
He knew the cure for farcy.
I flitted between a hole in the hedge
And a room in the Latin Quarter.
Muldoon himself has flitted between a number of categories. In the thirty years from the poems in Why Brownlee Left (1980) to Maggot (2010), this poet has made great art out of the chaos of modern life; his work confuses the lines between poetry and fiction (and our expectations of those genres) while also troubling easy cultural distinctions such as "Irish" or "American." Muldoon has lived in the United States since the late 1980's, and has served for many years as a professor at Princeton University and Chair of its Lewis Center for the Arts. For the last five years he has also served as Poetry Editor for the The New Yorker, guiding the most visible outlet for poetry published in America.

Despite this prestigious curriculum vitae, Muldoon remains a humble and open-minded figure on the literary landscape. In his more recent work, notably 2002's Moy Sand and Gravel, the poet has returned with new intensity to consider the history, culture, and language of his birthplace along the border. We see Muldoon demonstrate his gift for balancing this knowledge of the rural with his encyclopedic grasp of modern literature in this excellent interview piece for Wunderkammer Magazine:

Five Dialogues, Paul Muldoon from Wunderkammer Magazine on Vimeo.

The Moy that Muldoon returns to in his 2002 collection is one conscious of its place alongside many borders -- those between traditional and modern culture, the rural and the urban, and between a deep, almost archeological, past and a fluid present tense. In his poem "The Misfits," which places a viewing of that famous film written by Arthur Miller (with the last on-screen appearances by Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe) alongside his childhood duties on the farm, where he mines a row of potatoes, "what would surely seem / to any nine- or ten-year-old an inexhaustible seam."

This pun on visual representation and human creation finds succinct and powerful articulation in the title poem, "Moy Sand and Gravel." Paul Muldoon's website offers a reading of the poem here; please find the text below:
To come out of the Olympic Cinema and be taken aback
by how, in the time it took a dolly to travel
along its little track
to the point where two movies stars' heads
had come together smackety-smack
and their kiss filled the whole screen,

those two great towers directly across the road
at Moy Sand and Gravel
had already washed, at least once, what had flowed
or been dredged from the Blackwater's bed
and were washing it again, load by load,
as if washing might make it clean.

Related Articles:
Rural Poetry Series: Patrick Kavanagh
Rural Poetry Series archives

Monday, March 26, 2012

The Affrilachian Artist Project

Remembering China Sparrow; Lynn Marshall-Linnemeier

We would like to start off this week with news of a effort that seeks to expand both cultural and artistic awareness: The Affrilachian Artist Project.  In addition to their mission, this project is also in the final stages of a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds to begin to film and document the work of some of the group's senior members. 

The Affrilachian Artist Project is seeking to establish "a sustainable community-building platform for artists of color from and inspired by the Appalachian region." As director Marie T. Cochran notes in the group's introduction, the term "Affrilachia" came about originally through the work of Frank X Walker, Nikky Finney and the vibrant Affrilachian Poets group that emerged in the early 1990's. Cochran originally presented work from the visual artists at the Affrilichian Poets' 20th anniversary celebration last year; during her time at that symposium, however, she realized that part of the larger narrative was missing:
Through an array of fragments, a pattern revealed itself. The Affrilachian Poets were the WORD, the Carolina Chocolate Drops were the SONG; yet sustained attention has not been given to the visual artists who create the OBJECTS and IMAGES of the people and the places evoked by similar life experiences. A third harvest should flourish in this fertile soil.

This harvest has already begun, first with an exhibit at the August Wilson Center for African American Culture entitled Affrilachia! Where I'm From, and, building upon that popular and critical interest, with an effort to begin filming, documenting, and sharing this work. These artists range in style from the environmentally-minded installations of DeWayne Barton to the mixed-media storytelling of Lynn Marshall-Linnemeier, from the socially-conscious assemblages of Kyle and Kelly Phelps to the dance between abstraction and representation in the paintings of Valeria Watson-Doost. There's much more work to explore on the project's artists page.

As Cochran mentions in on the project's Kickstarter page, The Affrilachian Artist Project adds to "recent efforts celebrating the history of Appalachia [that] reveal the fact that the region’s inhabitants are as diverse as its terrain." Organizations such as Appalshop and The Hillville have expanded our understanding of this landscape; below, Cochran offers the four misconceptions about Appalachia illuminated in Jeff Biggers' book The United States of Appalachia:
Biggers identifies four paradoxical images that have persisted about the region. The pristine Appalachia, though it is touted a vacationer’s playground according to slick promotional brochures, it is a battleground of fierce clashes between environmentalists and commercial interests over timber, coal and a number of natural resources; Anglo-Saxon Appalachia, once defined by Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary as mountain region of “white natives,” despite its role as a crossroads of indigenous cultures as well as vast immigrant and African American migrations for centuries; backwater Appalachia, a “strange land of peculiar people” caricatured in thousands of popular culture formats from comic books to feature films, though the region has produced some of the most important thinkers and creators in the nation (including African Americans like Carter G. Woodson who established the first official celebration of Black History, Booker T. Washington, Bessie Smith, Nina Simone, Bill Withers, Nikki Giovanni and Henry Louis Gates to name a few) and pitiful Appalachia, the poster region of rural poverty, regardless of the tremendous revenue generated by its mineral resources, timber and labor force in the mines, mills and factories, and today’s tourist industry.
The Affrilachian Artist Project promises to help replace these "paradoxical images" with paintings, collages, and sculptures that speak from authentic experience and artistic practice. Please find the video for the project's Kickstarter campaign, which enters its final week today:

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Changing A Food Desert, One Metro Stop At A Time

One of Farm to Family's Mobile Markets in Saint Louis

Despite its place amid some of the midwest's most fertile soil, Saint Louis is plagued by large food deserts - both a testament to suburban migration begun in the 1960's, but also to racially-motivated zoning and business models that survived in the city well past the Jim Crow era. [The BBC has recently discussed this history, in this excellent television report.]

The Sappington Farmers Market, a cooperative between Missouri small family farmers and rural entrepreneurs, has acted to help combat the scourge of urban food deserts by opening a series of Farm To Family mobile markets that will sell fresh produce and local goods at four bus/train stations. The Saint Louis Metro is allowing the markets to use the space free of charge, without asking for a share of the profits. STLToday offers further information, interviews, and photographs. 

What is so encouraging about this effort is its panoramic vision of local food's place in an urban locale; while Farm To Family also offers opportunities for weekly shares in a CSA program, and while they are connected with the successful Sappington Farmers Market, they are also branching out from the comfortable confines of the traditional local foods movement.

The farmers following this philosophy are an inspiration, and an example of thinking about "the whole horse," as Wendell Berry would write, in an essay of the same name:
We can say, without much fear of oversimplifying, that the aim of producers is to sell as much as possible and that the aim of consumers is to buy as much as possible.

But experience seems increasingly to be driving us out of the categories of producer and consumer and into the categories of citizen, family member, and community member, in all of which we have an inescapable interest in making things last.
Folks can follow these individuals' mission here; many thanks to City Farmer for leading us to this story.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Hiss Golden Messenger Takes To The Air

MC Taylor of Hiss Golden Messenger; Abigail Martin

As we catch up on news we were unable to cover over the last few weeks, we wanted to share this: Frank Stasio of NPR's The State of Things, in conversation with MC Taylor of Hiss Golden Messenger.

As we've written previously, HGM's Poor Moon was one of the most extraordinary records of 2011, and it's wonderful to hear Stasio and Taylor talk through so many of the ideas that inform the music: folklore, place, and family. Taylor also performs two tracks live in studio, "Call Him Daylight" and "Bad Debt," and concludes by offering a new song, "Busted Note."

In other exciting HGM news, Poor Moon will be available on CD courtesy of the excellent Tompkins Square label on April 17th -- with a new LP run offered by Paradise of Bachelors.

Hiss Golden Messenger "Poor Moon" - out April 17th by TompkinsSquare

Double Edge Theatre and The Grand Parade

photograph from The Grand Parade rehearsals; Double Edge Theatre

The Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater has just announced that Double Edge Theatre will offer the world premiere of The Grand Parade (of the Twentieth Century) February 6-10 in Washington, DC. Inspired by Marc Chagall's paintings,  this piece offers a narrative of the twentieth century that The Arena Stage has described as "an emotionally stunning journey through the 20th century with the use of aerial flight, puppetry and music."

As we've written previously, Double Edge is a one-of-a-kind theatre company that lives, trains, and farms in Ashfield, Massachusetts. Not only are they one of the most powerful examples of "laboratory theater" in this country, but they also focus on the idea of "living culture," consistently asking how themselves how they can engage with local communities. This documentary excerpt begins to tell the story. 

Here is more information from the Arena Stage's press release:
The Grand Parade is conceived and directed by Double Edge Theatre Founder and Artistic Director Stacy Klein and is created with Carlos Uriona, Matthew Glassman, Hayley Brown, Jeremy Louise Eaton, Adam Bright and Milena Dabova. The show is realized with a collaborative team of artists from the United States, Argentina and Russia and features original compositions by Alexander Bakshi of Russia.

The Grand Parade
creates a mythology of the American century and its Russian counterpart, from the story of Evelyn Nesbit in the 1900s to the fall of the Wall to the Supreme Court Gore v. Bush decision in 2000. This imaginative, kaleidoscopic mashup of the century echoes Chagall’s life, which spanned from 1887 to 1985, and summons the artist’s sensibilities and personal memories.

“Work on The Grand Parade has been a wild and revelatory experience, from learning that women are still facing the same century long struggle, and that lessons of war and economy have gone unheeded, to the amazement and sheer fun of peoples’ continued attempts to fly, to invent, and to laugh in spite of it all,” says Klein. “With Chagall as our muse, we have dared our way through the century’s chaos, trying to find our own thousand ways to fly.”
More coverage of The Grand Parade is forthcoming; until then, many gorgeous photographs from the rehearsals in Ashfield can be found on Double Edge's Facebook page, along with recent news of their upcoming training intensive and their critically-acclaimed summer spectacles on the farm.

Related Articles:

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Returning To The Art Of The Rural

Untitled, 1960; Ralph Eugene Meatyard

As folks may have noticed, over the last month The Art of the Rural conducted a retrospective of its first two years of articles and features. I appreciate everyone's patience, as we had to delay presenting new material during this period. This was particularly hard, because there was a great deal of art and ideas that we shared on our Rural Arts and Culture Feed but could not follow-up on in greater detail.

During this period I was progressing through an important phase of my dissertation work at Washington University in Saint Louis. The idea of a site like The Art of the Rural emerged at the start of my dissertation project - by looking, and not finding, adequate information and commentary on the rural arts. It's been a great joy to see how my time editing this site, and my engagement with so many readers and artists, had led me to re-think my critical work as well. 

Though writing a dissertation is often described as a solitary exercise, my experience has been quite different. The communities that have gathered here, at The Daily Yonder, The Rural Blog, and at a host of other arts groups and organizations, speak to a cultural imperative at work- a zeitgeist, as Brian Frink of Rural America Contemporary Artists would say. I'm hoping to share elements of my own critical work that can help to expand this conversation.

Thanks again to everyone who has contributed their time and enthusiasm to The Art of the Rural

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

David Lee, Carolina Soul & The Paradise of Bachelors Record Label

David Lee with the Washington Sound record shop sign, in front of his storage trailer;  

[Editor's Note: As I am facing numerous writing deadlines, this seems like a good time to give a retrospective glance to the first two years of Art of the Rural. Over these weeks I will feature a few new articles, but also many favorites from the archives. Thanks again to everyone who has read and contributed; what began as a labor of love has become a project far larger, and far more rewarding, than I ever could have anticipated - and I deeply appreciate the readership and participation of such a diverse audience. Starting March 19th, we will offer new articles and share some new projects related to our mission.

David Lee's Carolina Soul was originally published on August 2, 2011.]


Long-time readers might remember our piece from last year on the Carolina Soul site and the Paradise of Bachelors record label. POB's first release, Said I Had A Vision: Songs & Labels of David Lee 1960 - 1988 was one of our absolute favorite records from 2010--and the release has continued to get some wonderful press, so I'd like to start off the week by sharing some of this information. If we've hit the summer doldrums (August), this record is the best antidote I can imagine. Paradise of Bachelors is now offering a limited edition LP repressing; folks can find the digital download at iTunes or Amazon Music

Here's "You've Been Gone Too Long" by Ann Sexton. As the liner notes explain, "the tune must make any list of curious, 'Jody' genre songs, for its reference to the archetypal male opportunist who, according to Vietnam-era folklore, would latch onto women whose husbands or boyfriends were serving overseas." 

While we are currently in a golden age of reissues and unearthed music, with more and more coming out each week, what sets Said I Had a Vision apart is its combination of context (rural North Carolina, from the civil rights era to the Reagan era), the  quality of its songwriting, and the absolute exuberance of the performances. Many such records have these qualities in unequal parts, but Said I Had A Vision contains songs that exceed the normal obscurity-fetish that similar records often cultivate. After I play this record through, I generally feel like everyone I know needs to hear these songs.

It should be no surprise, then, that the music press has embraced this record and the regional vision behind the Paradise of Bachelors label, which is co-curated by folklorists Jason Perlmutter and Brendan Greaves. I was excited to learn that Wax Poetics had featured Said I Had a Vision in a recent issue; here's Jon Kirby:
A man of faith, [David] Lee's output tended towards the spiritual. And although most benefit from Cleveland County's proximity to Charlotte's Arthur Smith and Reflection Studios, perhaps his most generous offering was recorded on location at Mice Creek Baptist Church, in nearby Gaffney, South Carolina. "On My Way Up" by the Relations Gospel Singers showcases the careening lead of Steve Allen, whose exorcism range leaves church-van tracks through a field of delicate piano and choral support, recalling the fly-on-the-wall intimacy of an Allan Lomax artifact. Much of Lee's color-blind songwriting was realized by the Constellations, a salt-and-pepper ensemble who, during Shelby's annual Art of Sound Festival last October, proved they could still do "The Frog," walking sticks in hand. "They were just like kids to us when they started," revealed wife Nelena of Lee's most allegiant act. "We was just like a big family, rolled up together." With the exception of "northern soul" curiosity Ann Sexton, most on Lee's short-but-sweet roster still reside in Cleveland County, like blue-eyed crooner Bill Allen from nearby Cherryville. "You probably drove past there!" exclaims Lee. "You should have hollered for Bill when you was coming through." 
Further write-ups on the resurgence of interest in Mr. Lee's work has appeared in Our State magazine and The Charlotte Observer. Earlier this year, Mr. Lee was awarded the Brown-Hudson award by the North Carolina Folklore Society, introduced by Mr. Perlmutter and Mr. Greaves. Afterwards, he gave a performance of "I Can't Believe You're Gone" and "I'll Never Get Over Losing You," the latter of which appears on Said I Had a Vision

Paradise of Bachelors will release an LP/download of new material emerging from the South this fall: Poor Moon by the much-loved and critically-acclaimed Hiss Golden Messenger. Also in the works is a release of new and remastered material by Willie French Lowery, a member of the Lumbee Tribe in North Carolina and who has worked previously with the psychedelic bands Plant & See and Lumbee. I'll include a sample of each artist below; you can also follow the latest Paradise of Bachelors news on their Facebook page.

Hiss Golden Messenger from Gianmarco Del Re on Vimeo.


[Discovering Carolina Soul was originally published on September 23, 2010]

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

What We Talk About When We Talk About The Rural

Cast-iron stove reclaimed by David Lundahl from a local farm;  the foundation for a new sculpture

[Editor's Note: As I am facing numerous writing deadlines, this seems like a good time to give a retrospective glance to the first two years of Art of the Rural. Over these weeks I will feature a few new articles, but also many favorites from the archives. Thanks again to everyone who has read and contributed; what began as a labor of love has become a project far larger, and far more rewarding, than I ever could have anticipated - and I deeply appreciate the readership and participation of such a diverse audience. Starting March 19th, we will offer new articles and share some new projects related to our mission.

What We Talk About When We Talk About The Rural was originally published on August 15, 2011.]


While working on an Art of the Rural project at New Light Studios in southern Wisconsin, the self-created arts environment of David Lundahl (who, despite physical and economic hardship, rebuilt a dilapidated dairy farm into a vibrant arts space) I had a moment to learn that some of my comments after the recent Talk of the Nation piece on rural America were printed in The Daily Yonder, and that TOTN's Blog of the Nation gave The Art of the Rural an enthusiastic mention. It's an honor on both fronts, and timely, as I spent a good part of the drive up to New Light Studios thinking about the TOTN piece and its reception. 

If folks haven't had a chance yet, I'd encourage a listen--and also a perusal of the TOTN comments section both there and on the Blog of the Nation follow-up.  Very quickly, the real concerns over the loss of rural posts offices were either swept off the table by some commenters ("These towns have no other buildings they can't meet in front of?") or subsumed into predictably digested political rhetoric ("If you want rural America to have stuff like P.Os., health clinics, and communications access, you'd better vote for a "big-government" Democrat."). 

Of course, this is the level of discourse on a number of internet forums and comments pages--a gruesome spectator sport all to itself. What's different here is that, in my opinion, the Talk of the Nation piece was not entirely successful in its communication of the diverse set of complexities enmeshed in contemporary rural life--and it almost entirely ignored the question of rural arts and culture, the very fabric that unites these communities. 

While NPR consistently provides some of best broadcast news and commentary to be found anywhere, and while (contrary to aforementioned political rhetoric) both my conservative and liberal friends seem to value its in-depth coverage (see the reports from the GOP straw poll in Iowa), I left the rural segment of Talk of the Nation discouraged on a basic level. Here's a portion of my reaction published in The Daily Yonder:
More than anything, I wish the NPR producers had the foresight to keep Dee Davis [President of the Center for Rural Strategies] on the line with Neal Conan for the whole segment, so that he could have helped contextualize the excellent perspectives of the guests.

This is telling: culturally speaking, as Americans, do we all assume we "know" the rural equally well? Do we admit that the "face" of rural America is changing, that there are many people in cities who identify as "rural," and that rural youth have a stake in these discussions?

Neal's language during the transitions spoke (alternately) to all the old assumptions about rural America: it's either a pastoral or a broke-down ghetto. The guests offered perspectives that challenged this, but I worry that the format of the segment and Neal's questions may, in the end, not have done the work of challenging his listeners--something NPR is generally adept at doing.
Writer and producer Mary Phillips-Sandy has added a much-needed critique of that use of language on her excellent A Lot of Consonants blog:
One of the things that stood out to me was the host’s use of the word ‘heartland’ as a synonym for ‘rural America.’ It’s a common idiom and a disingenuous one. Where is this heartland, exactly? Does the expression mean a geographic center or an emotional center? If the former, it fails to include all the parts of rural America that exist at the nation’s edges and farthest-flung points. If the latter it is patronizing, because it locates rural America in the realm of abstract sentiment, instead of on a map, right there, or right here.
An emotional center, in the realm of abstract sentiment: this eloquently gets at how Americans with little direct rural-experience can sometimes describe and qualify non-metropolitan life. If we think about this from a literary perspective, the use of "heartland" is simply an updated term for "Arcadia," that place of the literary pastoral invented by Theocritus--writing from the library in Alexandria, ca. 300 B.C. For this poet, it was a place of shaded groves of song and love, a landscape of man's communal experience with nature. 

In actuality, Arcadia was a rocky and barren region where very little grew. Two millennia later, we find that readers (and nations) need to have a pastoral myth, a place to invest the unalienable values of their people. And, updated in the modern age, they also need to view their Arcadia simultaneously as back-woods region where acts and sensibilities that would not be tolerated in urban centers can somehow be found permissible (consolidated schools, drastically insufficient health services, mountaintop removal, and so on).

Whether the author is Theocritus or a speech-writer for any of the forthcoming 2012 campaigns, this language ignores one basic and inseparable fact: the rural and the urban are intimately connected.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Abner Jay: The Last Southern Black Minstrel Show

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

[Editor's Note: As I am facing numerous writing deadlines, this seems like a good time to give a retrospective glance to the first two years of Art of the Rural. Over these weeks I will feature a few new articles, but also many favorites from the archives. Thanks again to everyone who has read and contributed; what began as a labor of love has become a project far larger, and far more rewarding, than I ever could have anticipated - and I deeply appreciate the readership and participation of such a diverse audience. Starting March 19th, we will offer new articles and share some new projects related to our mission.

Abner Jay: The Last Southern Black Minstrel Show was originally published on March 3, 2011.]
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.


selection from the cover of Mississippi Records' recent Abner Jay release

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? Why do you think I like cocaine?

Tomorrow we will write more extensively about Abner Jay (1921-1996), a multifaceted musician and artist--and the self-proclaimed "last great Southern black minstrel show." His music (and his life story) was complicated and unconventional, but also singularly brilliant. 

Here Chris Campion of the Guardian writes of Mr. Jay:
Rather than cocaine, he used to claim that the secret of his eternal youth and vitality was lying on his belly drinking water scooped out of the Suwannee River in his home state of Georgia. And at least two of his albums (privately-pressed and released on his label Brandie, named after his wife) feature a photograph of him doing just that, along with the tracklisting, which he customarily scrawled over it in marker pen.

Jay was himself born near the source of one of the tributaries of the river in Irwin County, Georgia (in 1921). He started performing in medicine shows at the age of 5. In 1932 he moved on, to the Silas Green show, a travelling minstrel show and vaudeville revue that had also once employed Bessie Smith. Aged 14, he became a one-man band.
Enjoy these two selections from The True Story of Abner Jay, an earlier record re-released by Mississippi Records:

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Responding To The Kansas Arts Veto

Kansas Governor Brownback signing the 2012 state budget; John Hanna

[Editor's Note: As I am facing numerous writing deadlines, this seems like a good time to give a retrospective glance to the first two years of Art of the Rural. Over these weeks I will feature a few new articles, but also many favorites from the archives. Thanks again to everyone who has read and contributed; what began as a labor of love has become a project far larger, and far more rewarding, than I ever could have anticipated - and I deeply appreciate the readership and participation of such a diverse audience. Starting March 19th, we will offer new articles and share some new projects related to our mission.

Responding To The Kansas Arts Veto was originally published on June 21, 2011. To learn more about how national foundations only give 1% of their funds to rural America, please see our article here.]
As many of our readers have heard, Kansas Governor Sam Brownback used the power of his line-item veto to erase funding for the Kansas Arts Commission from the 2012 state budget, a move that effectively shut down the organization and fired its staff. By deleting this state-sponsored entity, Governor Brownback also shut the door on matching funds The National Endowment for the Arts would have granted to the Kansas Arts Commission. 

Today we'd like to offer some viewpoints and commentary on this issue and its devastating repercussions for rural communities. We'll begin with this recent NPR report by Elizabeth Blair, aired on Morning Edition last week. Ms. Blair's piece is an excellent introduction to this debate, and to the contrary opinions by some in the arts community that suggest private funding would be a more effective and more liberating avenue. Below is an excerpt:
Private dollars have been really good for the Topeka Civic Theatre and Academy where Shannon Reilly is artistic director. The company is celebrating its 75th year. "Through most of that history we've been funded solely through ticket revenue, donors and corporate support," Reilly says.
Reilly says for the most part, they have avoided government grants and that has worked to their advantage. "More and more I've seen that arts organizations ... receiving tax dollars were constantly under fire about their programming and what they were doing," Reilly explains. "I like being responsible to my donors and to the people who were investing in what were doing more than a larger tax base."
While this model is certainly attractive, only at the close of her piece does Ms. Blair allow for this harsh reality: private funding for the arts is likely to replace (or exceed) public funding only in urban areas. We can turn to this Kansas Citizens for the Arts press release for further analysis of the rural dimension to Governor Brownback's arts veto: 
“With a stroke of his pen, the governor cost the State of Kansas $1.2 million,” said Henry Schwaller, chairman of the Kansas Arts Commission. “On July 1, nearly 200 local arts organizations and artists will lose critical support for local arts programs, operational funding and professional development. Without this support, jobs in the arts are at risk, and artists and arts organizations will lose the important infrastructure that has been created largely because of the funding and expertise of the Kansas Arts Commission.
Kansas Arts Commission grants were crucial to many organizations, particularly those in rural areas. If an organization received funds from the Kansas Arts Commission, donors were more likely to contribute to that organization, which leveraged additional dollars for the organization and its community. Because few foundation or corporate donors provide money for operations, the Kansas Arts Commission’s main grant program, Operational Support, was an important way organizations covered general expenses such as rent, utilities and salaries. Many organizations, particularly those in rural or impoverished areas, will find it difficult to replace the lost state and federal funds and will either restrict or eliminate important community programs, cut staff or close their doors.
The horrible irony here is that Governor Brownback's veto will disproportionately affect the life of the rural communities from which he has drawn overwhelming political support. His gambit overlays a national "culture wars" argument on the local arts programming in towns far removed from urban centers.  As The Kansas City Star writes in a recent editorial, Governor Brownback is "hoping to make points with conservatives nationally," while ignoring the local and regional dynamics:
As was the case with Brownback’s misguided attack on public broadcasting, he’s applying a national conservative cause to his home state, without considering the damaging impact on rural areas. Public broadcasting provides one of the only sources of news and information in the sparsely populated western half of the state. Urban areas, the target of this notion, have other options and can replace public funding. The elimination of public arts funding, again, isn’t likely to hurt the Kansas City area as much as Lincoln County, Kan.
As rural developers know well, while technology makes it possible to create new business in the high plains, new business will consider quality of life as much, perhaps more, than tax advantages. Brownback has handed surrounding states an effective tool to beat Kansas communities looking to attract doctors and needed professionals.
In the space of this site, we've tried to document and also to complicate the notion of "the rural arts," but Governor Brownback's arts veto sets a giant and unmistakable corrective in the midst of this project. While we can turn to The Daily Yonder and The Rural Blog for their excellent and consistent coverage toward defining what's at stake in the organizing "rural" moniker, there's another dimension to the other half, the "arts" definition, that we at The Art of the Rural have been perhaps slow to cover--and it lurks beneath the articles excerpted above.

This would be the irreducible political element, voluntary or not, that always coheres around the reception of the rural arts. What we find here is an amalgamation of regional assumptions, as well as preconceived notions about the "place" of the arts; in many respects it's a remnant of the politically polarizing climate of post-9/11 America. To return to the dreaded red-state/blue-state mindset (as I intimately learned while living in Boston), a great deal of people from the larger urban and suburban centers of America implicitly view arts-making as a "blue state" activity, complete with its own ideologies and politics.

What the Kansas arts veto makes abundantly clear is that even some public leaders from the interior of this country--despite a wealth of evidence beneath their noses--have refused to challenge this cultural orthodoxy, despite how reductive and just plain-wrong it might be. This is not a Republican vs. Democrat or conservative vs. liberal argument, but a case of recognizing that the arts are vital to all communities, and that they can speak for a range of viewpoints and cultural histories beyond the boogey-men of Robert Maplethorpe nudes or Chris Ofili elephant dung paintings.

In turn, those of us making art and working to ensure its reception need to continue to stress its "site specific" nature, and we need to welcome work which challenges our own political and cultural orthodoxies. 

In closing, we will offer an excerpt from last weekend's Kansas City Star editorial by Joyce DiDonato, arguably the most acclaimed opera singer in contemporary classical music. Born in Prairie Village, Kansas, Ms. DiDonato has spoken up for her home state in interviews around the world, and in the press following her award of the illustrious Gramophone "Artist of the Year" in 201o. (Her broken-leg performance of The Barber of Seville has become the stuff of opera legend.) 

Here is an excerpt from Ms. Didonato's eloquent response to Governor Brownback's decision:
This is the Sunflower State that I have proudly boasted about across the world, fearlessly defending it even in the face of harsh quizzical looks from the most skeptical of folks (“You live where?”). It’s the state of my first piano recital and choir concert. The home field of my artistic curiosity and education. The homeland that taught me to freely dream big and without limitation; one where the arts were once alive, vibrant and supported.

I’ve welcomed the assumption of being an unsolicited but mightily proud artistic ambassador for Kansas to the great cities of the world. Now, for the first time, I feel shame. Eliminating a state arts commission is an ignorant, short-sighted, fearful and unspeakably damaging act to the spirit and soul of this great state.

I’m not a politician or historian. I’m a humble opera singer, a home-grown product of an agricultural state that used to value the arts, like all great societies and cultures of the past. But my anger rivals a good ol’ western Kansas Category 5 tornado’s destructive force when I begin to think of where I’d be without an education fueled by the arts that informed my way of thinking. Or without a community theater, choir or art exhibit that gave me true solace and an emergency exit from some of the great crises in my life. Or without that musical outlet that helped me understand myself and the mystery of life a little better.

Monday, March 5, 2012

The Legend of Cas Walker

 The Cas Walker Knoxville city council fist-fight; LIFE Magazine

[Editor's Note: As I am facing numerous writing deadlines, this seems like a good time to give a retrospective glance to the first two years of Art of the Rural. Over these weeks I will feature a few new articles, but also many favorites from the archives. Thanks again to everyone who has read and contributed; what began as a labor of love has become a project far larger, and far more rewarding, than I ever could have anticipated - and I deeply appreciate the readership and participation of such a diverse audience. Starting March 12th, we will offer new articles and share some new projects related to our mission.

The Legend of Cas Walker was originally published on April 11, 2011.]

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.