Saturday, September 29, 2012

Course on Midwest Culture: Big Ten

Ohio State preseason open practice, 2012; Ohio

By Kenyon Gradert, Course on Midwest Culture series Editor

I was at a party filled with English PhD students and I was asking a Cajun girl about New Orleans. When she showed amusement at my curiosity, another student piped up. “Kenny is a regionalist!” 

Out of the closet. So I proceeded on to research, asking students from various parts of the country what they thought of the Midwest as a regional entity. Intelligent interlocutors pointed to history, to contemporary cultural analysis, to literature, to socio-economics. I turned to the only fellow Iowan in the room— who also happened to be one of the few who wasn’t a student—and asked him what he considered to be the Midwest. Matter-of-factly, he responded “The Big Ten.”

A damn good point. And one I in all my scholarly wisdom had never thought of.

The rise of collegial and professional sports as billion-dollar industries have likewise led to a rise in regionalist spectacle. Game days become liturgical and individuals spend hundreds on vestments to display allegiance. America has always loved sports and has always been regionally diverse. Now, though, it’s harder to pinpoint regional identity based on accent, food, or ethnicity; instead, we buy our jerseys and caps. 

On NPR’s “Morning Edition,” Frank Deford recently spoke of “Southern Pride and the Southeastern Conference:” 

But, of course, it's impossible to ignore the pride the South feels for its football. As no other section of the country remains so closely connected — "Save your Confederate money, boys!" — so does no other section of the country boast of a regional predominance in any sport. Just because the Yankees have won all these years, the Northeast has never said, "Hey, we got the best baseball up here." It's impossible not to sense that because the South usually brings up the rear in important things like health, education and income, it looks to college football to enhance its national standing. We're No. 1, well, in something else besides beauty pageants.

Deford continues:

I don't know when exactly the SEC took over America. I know this is hard to believe, but the epicenter of college football used to be in the Midwest. I'm so old, I can remember when Notre Dame actually mattered, and the real tough players were supposed to come from Western Pennsylvania and Ohio.

One can’t argue with the tremendous success—and dollar value—of the SEC in recent years. But I quote Deford not to proffer a competing Midwestern narrative of football supremacy (for that, I’ll give James Wright’s beautiful football poem “Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio”. Instead, I quote Deford simply to illustrate the incredible intertwining of sports and regional identity, both influencing each other within terribly market-driven forces.

I push a simple formula with my own conclusion: Sports are good. Regionalist identity is good.  Money isn’t bad. But money can turn sports from regionalist narratives rich with history of stadiums and heroes into the shallow spectacle of a game-day beer commercial. Kick back with some buds and some Buds® and don’t forget to carefully craft your self-image with NFL Network, Our Proud Sponsors, and jerseys, available online.

Again, cash isn’t bad. In fact, owners may find more money to be made precisely by acknowledging old regional identities rather than peddling shallow party image. Sports fans like a good time, but they are becoming more intelligent, more sophisticated, and more aware of history. History and the regional identities it shapes will continue to be a guiding factor in sports narrative. Do our new stadiums do justice to the old? Do our mascots make sense given our place? Do we preserve the stories of old heroes or simply peddle the merchandise of the new?

Friday, September 28, 2012

North Country: Betty and Lone Pine

The Lone Pine Family; The Al Hawkes Collection

By Alyce Ornella, North Country series Editor

In the twin cities of Lewiston-Auburn, Maine, a young girl named Rita listens to Patsy Montana records in the bedroom she shares with her sisters. Her parents are millworkers, among the hundreds of French Canadians who have come to the towns to work in the textile and shoe factories along the Androscoggin River. Rita herself was born in Quebec, but while growing up in Maine during the 1930s, she falls in love with the country and western barn dance shows she hears broadcast on local stations. The Katahdin Mountaineers are the most popular act in the state, merging regional Franco-American dance reels with the sounds of being streamed into the state via radio and records, from places to the south.  

Across the country, radio barn dance shows were gaining in popularity as transmitters began beaming local sounds beyond their immediate area. West Virginia’s WWVA, situated in the Ohio Valley surrounding Wheeling, had a greater reach up the East Coast than even Nashville’s Opry on WSM. By the 1940s, WWVA’s Wheeling Jamboree could be heard nightly through northern New England and into Atlantic Canada. Southern musicians made popular by the Wheeling Jamboree began travelling into New England to perform for fans, and Northern musicians saw WWVA as the next step to stardom.

Young Rita, now a professional singer in her own right under the stage name Betty Cody, began performing around Maine as a member of the Hal Lone Pine Show. Lone Pine  (born Harold Breau, near Bangor) and his newer brand of flashy, stage-show country quickly caught the attention of radio and live show audiences throughout the state and into the Maritimes. With Lewiston-born guitarist Ray Couture, the trio began penning songs that showed off Betty’s vocal range, Hal’s swagger, and Ray’s tense, evocative guitar. 


Playing on the biggest radio stations in Maine and the Maritimes, selling out shows, and touring the region didn’t satisfy the Lone Pine musicians for long. Betty and Hal, now married with small children, moved the band to Wheeling to become a part of the WWVA Jamboree. Strangely enough, by moving out of Maine and to a station with a 50,000 watt transmitter, they were able to increase their popularity back home because the Jamboree was one of the most popular nightly shows in Maine and eastern Canada. Their performances on WWVA also landed them an RCA recording contract and tour through the Southern states. For Betty, this newfound acclaim also brought her the attention of Nashville, the Opry, and manager Colonel Parker -- but that interest did not extend to Lone Pine or the rest of the band.  Nashville wanted Betty, without Lone Pine.


But Betty turned it all down. She had already returned her sons to Maine to live with family and she grew weary of life on the road. Relations with Hal were strained, as she became seen as the star of their duo, and he was known to occupy himself outside of their marriage with some frequency. Once their RCA and WWVA contracts ran out, Hal and Betty returned to Maine while Ray, their original guitarist, stayed on in Wheeling for another forty years.

Once again, the smallness of Maine crept in on Hal and Betty and after only a brief stay, they gathered up the children and moved the family to the country circuit of Canada. Teenage Lenny, through watching his parents on stage and early lessons given by Ray Couture, played guitar with a virtuosity beyond his age. He joined up, and tried to support his father’s efforts by playing lead, but grew tired of the limitations he found as a country musician. Enamoured by Winnipeg’s jazz scene, Lenny tried to improvise in his live performances, which enraged Hal. To Hal, a professional country musician put on the same show, the same way, with the same level of perfection every single time. Lenny was bored and he broke away.

With his relationship to his father torn, Lenny moved to Nashville and reconnected with Chet Atkins, who had worked with his parents on their RCA sessions years before. Through Chet’s advocacy and Lenny’s unusual gift, he pursued his interest in merging styles while becoming one of the most sought after session and solo musicians in 1960’s Nashville. Recording contracts and tours followed, which sometimes brought Lenny back to Maine -- where he could visit his brothers and mother, who had left Hal behind in Canada for good. Betty, like many Franco-American Mainers, returned to steady employment in Lewiston’s textile mills. She remarried. On weekends, she performed solo shows at a local ski resort. Without his family, Hal moved back to West Virginia to rejoin the Wheeling Jamboree, until he passed away unexpectedly in 1977.

Lenny had settled in Los Angeles by the early ‘80s, making a living as a musician and teacher while his reputation in jazz circles grew. Tragically, he was found dead in his swimming pool in 1984 -- his death ruled a homicide, unsolved to the present day.

Betty Cody still lives in her apartment above a shop in Lewiston, Maine. She has been known to perform at country fairs in the summer in recent years.

Hal and Betty; Library of Congress

Thursday, September 27, 2012

What's Up With Those Southern Beasts?

By Dudley Cocke, Artistic Director of Roadside Theater

Storytelling is a partnership between the person telling the story and the person receiving the story; each depends on the other. This exchange is not designed to be passive, unless the purpose is propaganda. “The purpose of art is to lay bare the questions hidden by the answers,” wrote James Baldwin. Likewise, isn’t such questioning an important part of the artist–audience exchange? And isn’t the measure of the energy of such exchange an indicator of a culture’s vibrancy?

A new film, Beasts of the Southern Wild, furnishes an occasion to test this assertion. Beasts is the latest film fantasy about the rural South. I think it’s a depressing film, so I’m wondering why millions of viewers and the critics find it so exhilarating. A.O. Scott’s review for The New York Times is typical, “a blast of sheer, improbable joy.” Philip Martin writing for The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette seems to suggest that anything less than total buy-in is unpatriotic: “Wild is ... a visual tone poem. To try to impose any orthodox sensibility, much less political correctness, on the film is close to blasphemy.” Obviously, the movie has struck a mass emotional chord; as one of a handful of naysayers, what’s my problem?

Beasts of the Southern Wild is the story of six year old Hushpuppy. Deserted by her mother when she was a baby, Hushpuppy is being raised (jerked up is more like it) by her abusive, alcoholic father, Wink, who appears to think she is a boy, the fabled Man Child come as the Redeemer of the least among us. For her part, Hushpuppy tells us, “I can count on two hands the times when I’ve been lifted up,” and she means held in someone’s arms. (For a detailed analysis of the Hushpuppy character’s lineage in popular culture, see bell hooks’ commentary "No Love in the Wild".)

Beasts is in a line of popular movies about the rural South that includes Deliverance (1972) all the way back to D.W. Griffith’s silent The Harum-Scarum and the Mountain Idealist (1909). The music in Paramount’s candy-colored Li’l Abner (1959) was nominated for an Academy Award. The opening number: 

Soloists: It's a typical day

In Dogpatch, USA.

Where typical folks

Do things in a typical way.

First we rubs the sleep from our eyes, 

Gets our grub, and shoos 'way the flies.

We spend what's negotiable,

Then we gets sociable,

Sittin' around swappin' lies!

And then we drops by to collect unemployment pay!

All: Which leads us to say it's a typical day

In Dogpatch, USA!

Lonesome Polecat: Lonesome Polecat, Indian Brave!

Hairless Joe: Hairless Joe, me need’um a shave!

Both: We livin' an' sleepin' n' doin' housekeepin' in big subterranian cave!

While Kickapoo Joy Juice we make’um is heap "grade A!"

Skraggs: Take us boys what's known as the Skraggs,

Mammy said she had us as gags!

Can't git that depressin' an' homely unlessin' ya comes from a long line o' hags!

There ain't any widders or orphans we won't betray!

Moonbeam: Howdy boys, I'm Moonbeam McSwine, 

Sleepin' out with the pigs is my line.

The fellas admire me, 

But they don't squire me

Unless the weather is fine!

But I does alright when the wind blows the other way!

All: Which leads us to say it's a typical day, in Dogpatch, USA...It's a typical day

(echo: it's a typical day) in Dogpatch, USA! 
Where typical folks ( echo: typical folks)

Does things in a typical way!

Fast forward more than half a century and the cartoonish Dogpatch has morphed into the Bathtub, something more akin to a graphic novel and now located near the southern Louisiana levees. Like the characters in Dogpatch, po’ folk in the ‘tub have the “typical way,” drinking from dawn until they collapse – plus now they have the added headache of the approaching Apocalypse set off by global warming. Thirty years before the Beasts, Hank Jr laid down the survivalist anthem:

The preacher man says it’s the end of time

And the Mississippi River she’s a goin’ dry
The interest is up and the Stock Markets down
And you only get mugged
If you go down town
I live back in the woods, you see
A woman and the kids, and the dogs and me
I got a shotgun, a rifle, and a 4-wheel drive
And a country boy can survive
Country folks can survive

So who feels exhilarated by a film that appears to be a grab-bag fantasy about the end of time, poverty, and alcoholism? I hope rural Southerners, despite some affinity for the Book of Revelation, know too much about themselves to swallow the concoction. With more than 2.1 million Americans in prison, there’s no easy way for people who are part of communities with modest incomes to gloss the damage done by drug and alcohol addiction. Ask the school teachers here in Appalachia, and any one of them will tell you about the real-life fates of neglected and abused Hushpuppies.

Is the film, then, thrilling, “a blast of joy,” for penned-up, pent-up middle-class suburban and urban people ready to break free into a hedonistic wild? If this is the case, are rural people and their tourism bureaus prepared to fulfill this urban fantasy? In an era when pop culture and cosmopolitanism appear to be synonymous, what do rural people actually think about the way they are being portrayed in today’s mass media? Have the relentless stereotypes of popular culture finally hypnotized us all, rural and urban alike, erasing any sense of history and present reality so at any given moment we’re liable to turn into a caricature of ourselves? I realize these are heady questions when one could just relax -- hey dude, it’s just a movie. Meanwhile, tens of thousands are lining up to feel the beast, the hype is on, and I wonder what the fervor signifies.         
Dudley Cocke is the artistic director of Roadside Theater, the professional theater wing of the multi-media arts and humanities center, Appalshop, in Whitesburg, KY.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Weekly Feed: National Hispanic Heritage Month, Slovenian Bees, Bass Pro Shop, Johnny Cash, Heartwood in the Hills, Barbara Allen

By Rachel Beth Rudi

In celebration of National Hispanic Heritage Month, the Florida Folklife Program produced a podcast with audio tracks from the Florida Mexican American Music Survey. “The [survey] was document the musical traditions of Florida’s various Mexican-American communities: Apopka, South Dade County, Immokalee, the St. Johns River Basin, and Central Florida. ... Among the musical traditions were serenatas, conjunto, Quincea├▒ara ritual music, ranchera, Michoacana, mariachi, norteno, Tejano, and pop music.” The FFP is wonderfully active in promoting its archives to the public, and makes many materials available online at the Florida Memory site and Facebook page.

Cabela "African Safari" Display; Minnesota Prairie Roots blog

Writing for The Atlantic Cities, Scott Reeder of the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity investigated the dynamics of mom-and-pop versus box stores in the hunting industry.  “A Bass Pro Shop opened in Bossier City in 2005,” writes Reeder, “after city officials promised to give the retailer $38 million to pay for the construction of the 106,000-square-foot store in this Red River community.” This particular David-and-Goliath struggle is set in rural regions:

Both Bass Pro Shops and its archrival, Cabela’s, sell hunting and fishing gear in cathedral-like stores featuring taxidermied wildlife, gigantic fresh-water aquarium exhibits and elaborate outdoor reproductions within the stores. The stores are billed as job generators by both companies when they are fishing for development dollars. But the firms’ economic benefits are minimal and costs to taxpayers are great.

An exhaustive investigation conducted by the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity found that the two competing firms together have received or are promised more than $2.2 billion from American taxpayers over the past 15 years.
Both firms have a history of targeting rural or smaller suburban communities and negotiating deals that involve extensive borrowing on the part of the municipality to build a store.
For example, state and local taxpayers borrowed $60 million to build a Cabela's store and its supporting infrastructure in Buda, Texas. For that amount, every household in the 7,600-person community could have purchased a new 2012 Lexus CT Hybrid.

The Buda City Council even agreed to take the town's name off its water tower and replace it with the word "Cabela's." But government largess didn’t end there. The Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission provided Guadalupe bass, the official state fish, for the store's massive aquarium at no charge to the retailer.
"Retail is not economic development. People don’t suddenly have more money to spend on hip waders because a new Bass Pro or Cabela’s comes to town," says Greg Leroy, executive director of Good Jobs First, a non-partisan economic development watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. "All that happens is that money spent at local mom and pop retailers shifts to these big box retailers. When government gives these big box stores tax dollars, they are effectively picking who the winners and losers are going to be."

The ballad "Barbara Allen" "has been sung in parlors and on front porches for hundreds of years...It has branched into countless forms." In this recent spotlight essay, the Southern Folklife Collection offered a trip through Charles Seeger's field recordings of this song's many variants across the United States and British Isles. Here is country singer Don Edwards singing a fairly standard rendition of the tune:’s Sarah Laskow covers one researcher’s examination of an ancient artistic process where art is not created for a viewer’s sake, but because it is an integral part of the architecture:

When Meredith Turk, a Fulbright scholar in Slovenia, talked to local beekeepers about their colonies, she found that their bees hadn’t been mysteriously dying off in the same way that American bees have been. Now, there’s probably a scientific explanation for this, but we’d like to believe that the gorgeous painted beehives that Slovenes provide for their colonies also have something to do with it.

Turk explains at Soiled and Seeded:

“Slovenians have painted their beehive panels for centuries, with the idea that bees have better orientation when panels are painted bright colors. When the paintings first appeared, the themes were drawn from Biblical imagery, held in high regard by a strongly Catholic population. After Slovenia’s entry into Yugoslavia, organized religion was banned and panel images depicted more cultural and landscape scenes rather than religious ones prior.”

Calhoun County, West Virginia is home to Heartwood in the Hills, a community arts school that has been “celebrating the artist in every person since 1982.” For thirty years the organization has provided a variety of dance, art, music, theater, and crafts classes to community members of all ages and backgrounds, and its success is a testament to the transformative power of art in any region. Heartwood’s mission statement should serve as a model for all arts schools, rural or otherwise:

Heartwood embodies the ideal that the arts belong to everyone and the artistic gifts in each person deserve nurturing. Heartwood’s mission is to ensure that everyone has access to Heartwood’s programs regardless of their ability to pay. Heartwood’s Board of Directors and faculty are dedicated to keeping class fees low, ranging from $3.00 to $5.00 per class. Full and partial scholarships are available to all students. The Board and faculty are committed to providing scholarships to any student based solely on need.

Exploring Heartwood’s website feels like leafing through a family scrapbook, with old and new, sometimes blurry, photographs capturing homemade performances. Schools and companies with this amount of outreach are not uncommon in urban areas, though increasingly unaffordable, but the presence of such organizations in rural communities nourishes homegrown creativity that is as vital as the local foods movement.

A 2009 performance of “Min Nuit” by Heartwood in the Hills students, performed at Calhoun County High School:

Johnny Cash passed away nine years ago this September. To conclude this weekly feed, we leave you with a heavy insight of Mr. Cash’s, excerpted from The Winding Stream: The Carters, The Cashes, And The Course Of Country Music, a forthcoming documentary. Mr. Cash’s words resonated strongly with us, and the hope he has in young people, we feel, is reflected in so many of the stories The Art of the Rural works to report.

My biggest kick is being in a record shop and watching the young people pick up a Carter Family record or a box set, and stand there and read it – you know, read all the print that’s on it, because they want to know. They’re hungry for it. And they’re hungry for a culture, the culture that we have lost, that we have abused, that has been taken away from us, that we’ve outgrown. With our money and everything else, we’ve lost a great, great part of our culture – the simple things of life, the simple things that are basic and fundamental to well-being and happy living.

Monday, September 17, 2012

The Rural-Urban Reality of the Local Foods Movement

The Dumbo, Brooklyn neighborhood farmers' market; Dumbo NYC

This week begins with a another must-read piece on the Daily Yonder: "How Rural is our Local Food Policy?"

One of the elements of the rural-urban exchange which gives many of us great hope is the emergence of farmers' markets, CSAs, and the overall awakening to the importance of agriculture many urban and suburban folks have demonstrated. These cultural tendencies suggest, with the right kinds of dialogue, that this cultural moment could reveal the connectedness of urban and rural communities -- and even suggest a way through which folks in the cities and suburbs might find themselves invested in a sense of rural identity. 

While those aspirations are in themselves lofty long-term goals, they are undercut in the short-term by the realities of participation in the local foods movement. Trey Malone and Brian Whitacre's piece today in The Daily Yonder clarifies the reality of these rural-urban partnerships -- and suggests there is much work to be done on the federal and local level. 

This is a must-read, with some extraordinary maps that express data along the rural-urban continuum codes. Here is a very brief excerpt:

Notably, in counties with high levels of direct sales for human consumption (Figure 1) or community supported agriculture (CSA) (Figure 2), we find that these areas:
•    Are predominantly located in the most metropolitan counties (55% of high direct sales counties and 51% of high CSA counties are in codes 1-3
[the most urban counties]).
•    Have an average population density of between 469 and 994 people per square mile (compared with an average of 16 people per square mile in counties with codes 8-9
[the most rural counties]). 
•    Have median household income averages of over $50,000 (compared with an average of $38,600 in counties with codes 8-9).
•    Are usually located in coastal regions – far away from where average government payments are highest.  

We all know that we have many different "rural" Americas. While Malone and Whitacre's piece suggests points of opportunity of farmers, it also suggests that we have two different local foods movements -- one located within driving distance of a coastal city, and another placed in the regions of the country where the philosophies and immediate benefits of healthy, local food are desperately needed.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Fly Over Art And the Work of Chad Wys

Garage Sale Painting of Peasants with Color Bars, paint on found painting and frame; Chad Wys

For the last few weeks I have been deeply enjoying the work of fly over art, a gorgeous tumblr page that with each day brings a new contemporary artist working in that stretch of the continent between Ohio and Nebraska, Missouri and Minnesota. 

The site is also searchable by region, which can make some interesting interdisciplinary connections -- as we included Mark Brautigam's photography with yesterday's piece on the fiction of Jack Driscoll. Though the majority of the work on their page emerges from the larger urban areas within this region, rural work is represented; regardless, many of these midwestern cities are themselves populated by a rural diaspora, so the rural-urban binary yet again does not hold together.

Here's fly over art's mission statement:

fly over art features the work of artists who are either originally from or primarily based in the Midwestern United States.

We are always looking for new artists.  If you are interested in submitting your art please send 5-7 jpeg images of your work to and use “submission” as your subject.  Please also include a link to your website along with your birth city/state and/or primary location.  We can’t guarantee all submissions will be posted, but we do appreciate your involvement.

The image above, Garage Sale Painting of Peasants with Color Bars, takes on a new life in the context of fly over art's project. Chad Wys is an artist currently living in Normal, Illinois, and his work is striking: it's engaged in a number of aesthetic and critical ideas, but also has a sense of humor and (as can be rare in this kind of work) a sense of cultural perspective. It is always dangerous to impose ideas of place on a body of work, but, as with Daughn Gibson's music, there's a kind of clarity here, and a deeper critical turn, suggested by travel through a particular space -- that distance and horizontal sweep of Central Illinois. The artist's complication of pastoral forms seems to also comment on those qualities.

Please find below the opening paragraph to Chad Wys artist statement. The artist's tumblr page is available here, and a recent interview here:

I was born in Illinois in 1983 and I continue to live there today.  Despite always having had the urge to grab a crayon or a camera, I'm something of an apprehensive artist.  It has taken time for me to grow comfortable with sharing my work with others.  As my voice has grown stronger, with ideas and critiques, I have found the prospect of sharing experiences through art quite advantageous.  Incidentally, many of the conversations in my own work are about art itself.  What does art mean to me?  What purpose does it serve in my life and in the lives of other folks?  What are the "boundaries" of the art experience?  Are there any?

Monday, September 10, 2012

Discovering Christ in a Michigan Laundromat

from the On Wisconsin project; Mark Brautigam, as seen on fly over art

Please find below an excerpt from "That Story," by Jack Driscoll, a work that was awarded a Pushcart Prize this year after appearing in print in The Georgia Review. Polly Atwell's previous piece on Driscoll's fiction can be read here.

Wherever my mom finds these articles I haven’t a clue. All I know is that she clips them out and hands them to me to read. “Look, Fritzi, another miracle,” she says, the most recent having occurred somewhere outside San Francisco.
      For a good laugh I pass them along to Dieter and Brinks while we smoke in my dad’s Plymouth Fury, the odometer frozen at 172,605 miles. The car is up on blocks, transmission shot and the hubs painted purple. Rear risers but no tires, and snow up to both doors so we have to crawl inside, like it’s an igloo or a fort, and always with some half-wrapped notion of someday firing it alive and driving hellbent away from Bethlehem. Not the one in Pennsylvania, but a town so remote you can’t even locate its position on a USGS map.
       And therein resides both the irony and the farthest far-flung implausibility that somebody hereabouts discovers a visage of Christ in a lint screen at the local Laundromat, and that then, along with our name, we got ourselves a shrine and a destination to boot. “Imagine it,” my mom says, but a million pilgrims desperate to put a knee down in this nothing town suddenly adjacent to God and heaven confounds even the dreamer in me. And yet, as misguided as such an influx sounds, it’s what she’s apparently banking on. Which might explain why she’s hand-painting all those baby Jesus Christmas ornaments, preparing to make a fortune off the endless caravans of sinners soon to arrive here in the provinces. But she says, “Nope. Uh-uh.” They’re nothing more than another scheme designed to fill and quiet time. Besides, she says, each month at the diner she always manages to sell at least a few to the truckers to take home to their wives.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Walking the Fields, From Liberia to California

Sacramento Bee

High Country News has long been one of our favorite publications; they consistently think in new terms about the West, but also about urban-rural and rural-international connections. Such a perspective continues with "In Rural California, a Liberian Family Finds an Agricultural Refuge," by Laura Markham.  

Markham's article offers not only an inspiring story of how immigrant families are contributing to local agriculture, but also a much-needed look into how African-Americans helped to transform such practices in the state last century. We'll include an excerpt below:

On a historic 50-acre ranch in Northern California, Cynnomih Tarlesson and her nine children drop watermelon seeds into the ground. Behind them, her father, Roosevelt, uses a tractor to churn up the dirt for tomatoes, zucchini and eggplant -- along with some lesser-known crops, like the Tarlesson-named 'Billy Goat Pepper,' from the family's native West Africa.

When war erupted in her Liberian hometown in 1990, Cynnomih and her family fled their farm and lived for over two years in the bush, foraging for berries, shoots and small fish. After several years in a refugee camp in the Ivory Coast, Cynnomih, now 43, finally received permission to come to the U.S. as a refugee, along with 25 younger siblings and children (biological and adopted). They joined her father, Rev. Roosevelt Tarlesson, in Vacaville, Calif., where he had lived since the 1970s.

Vacaville was a peaceful escape from the harsh refugee-camp life in Ivory Coast -- plenty of food, friendly neighbors and teachers assisting their transition to U.S. life. Yet in this suburban environment, the family's job prospects were low and financial pressures high. They missed farming; they missed the land. So in 2007, the Tarlessons secured a loan to buy property in nearby Guinda, population 254. 'When refugees are brought to this country, they are put in cities, making minimum wage at factories. Why? They know how to farm. Let them farm!' says Rev. Tarlesson, who's pushing this idea with resettlement agencies at the national level.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Superman of Kansas and Krypton and Cleveland

By Kenyon Gradert, Course on Midwest Culture Series Editor
“Behind the high-flying legend lies a true-to-life saga every bit as compelling, one that begins not in the far reaches of outer space but in the middle of America’s heartland. During the depths of the Great Depression, Jerry Siegel was a shy, awkward teenager in Cleveland.”

 Much like a comic book origin story, thus begins Larry Tye’s Superman: The High-Flying History of America’s Most Enduring Hero, released last June.  

I grew up on comics. When I met others like myself, the inevitable question was “Marvel or DC?” Expected to declare an allegiance, I placed my loyalty with Marvel, avowing that they do “more human stories.” Spiderman grew up in a place on a real map (Queens) and generally seemed like me.  Where was Gotham City? Aquaman from Atlantis? Wonder Woman was Amazonian? Why were the rest from space?

Superman seemed the height of this romanticism. He was a god with but a single weakness that seemed tacked-on so that writers could actually create stories (which, we all know, require weakness). To boot, the magnitude of superhuman power was grafted onto an utterly bland personality. He was a terrible combination of ├╝bermenschlich Everyman (Walt Whitman being a fantastic combination, for the record). At least Marvel’s equivalent, Captain America, came from New York City and fought in a war I’d heard of through grandparents. Even if Marvel writers risked the ridiculous by freezing Cap in ice, they revamped him through showing the moral and psychological tensions of dropping a robust member of The Greatest Generation into the 21st-century. Superman was from space and a fictional place blandly called “Metropolis.”

But he wasn’t just from space, which makes for the draw of Tye’s biography. Superman, the quintessentially red-blooded American, was created by two Jewish kids in Cleveland trying to fit in to a part of the country that too often considered itself quintessentially American. Ironically, in the process of trying to fit in, Siegel and Shuster stood two heads above all by creating a definitive American myth.

What’s more, Superman’s Jewish-Cleveland creators dropped their mythic creation from the starry heights of Krypton and into Kansas to be raised by humble farmers—not without significance. Superman would not be the same were he placed in Brooklyn like Cap. He’d be too earthly and less pure. As an Americanized Christ-figure, Superman could come from nothing short of a backwoods Nazareth, a pastoral landscape famed for supposedly producing the good, the representative, the plain, but also safely distant and ideal.

As stories have matured, writers increasingly paid attention to Superman’s earthly dwellings to ward off these potentially alienating mythic qualities. Smallville was perhaps the most popular renovation of the character, which materialized after series developers Gough and Millar pitched their "no tights, no flights" rule in the wake of a failed pitch for a Batman series.

The new film, Man of Steel (June 14, 2013), holds the promise of producer Christopher Nolan (of The Dark Knight franchise fame) and his trademark realist perspective on a story that is often too hard to make realistic. What can we expect? The recently released teaser-trailer focuses heavily on Superman’s rural origins (read, “cornfields”) but also frames a mythic struggle. In the American teaser, the montage features a voiceover of Superman’s earthly parent, farmer Jonathan Kent (Kevin Costner) telling his extraordinary son “you’re not just anyone.” The European trailer is identical, but with a voiceover from Superman’s celestial father, Kryptonian Jor-El (Russell Crowe) telling his son “you will give the people an ideal to strive towards. They will rise behind you. They will stumble. They will fall. In time, they will join you in the sun.”

By the teaser’s account, the film promises to be a balance between Superman’s mythic strengths and his earthly troubles, between Krypton and Kansas, between the ideal and the real. Although the teaser seems to emphasize Superman’s troubles fitting in to the Heartland, it also balances these human struggles with the mythic image of a god’s loneliness in sea, earth, and sky. The balancing act is a tricky one, but necessary for a figure both ideally mythic and near to our hearts.

• A final Midwest connection. Larry Tye also wrote an award-winning biography on Satchel Paige, a southerner who made his name as a wild pitcher for the famed Negroe-League Kansas City Monarchs and later, the Cleveland Indians and St. Louis Browns.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Mexican-American Gothic: Santiago Forero

Mexican-American Gothic; Santiago Forero

An image for our cultural and political moment, an image not of the past, but of America's future.

Larger, high resolution images of the work of photographer Santiago Forero can be found here.

The original painting by Grant Wood:

Related Articles:
Reconsidering Grant Wood's Revolt

Jack Driscoll: Place Forms Character

Editor's Note: Today we are pleased to welcome Polly Atwell as a contributor. Polly is a writer, critic, and author of Wild Girls, a novel forthcoming from Scribner this fall. For more information on her work, please see our contributors page.

By Polly Atwell

Mention Jack Driscoll’s name to a fiction writer, and you’ll likely get nods of recognition and admiration.  Mention his name to someone who’s spent time in northern Michigan and you’ll get the same response, perhaps with even more enthusiasm.  Since his debut story collection, Wanting Only to Be Heard, was published in 1995, Driscoll has been recognized as the chronicler of that snowbound and still-remote country between Detroit and the Mackinac Bridge.  His stories and novels mine the rural landscape, producing characters that feel like people we know, whether or not we’ve ever been north of Chicago.  In his new collection, The World of a Few Minutes Ago, Driscoll’s flawless sense of prose rhythm, his well-trained eye for the perfect and often humorous detail, and his deep compassion for his characters make the stories a great pleasure for writers and non-writers alike.

Driscoll’s compassion and sense of humor extend into the real world, where they have benefited legions of students at the Interlochen Center for the Arts and the MFA program at Pacific University.  I was lucky enough to be one of those students, and recently I had the chance to talk to Jack about his work, his life as a writer and teacher, and what it means to tell stories of those small rural communities at the 38th Parallel.  An excerpt from our conversation is included below.

“I’ve lived now for thirty-seven years up here in the northern provinces, long enough to have witnessed a literal transformation of the place itself.  When I first arrived in 1975 there were, as I remember, no full stoplights, and so at best we had to slow down a bit for those blinking yellows, and the spaces between them mostly farmland and uninhabited coastline.  Somewhat barren but not as if ‘creation had stopped halfway through the third day,’ to pilfer from Whitney Groves.  Because of the region’s great beauty, and the town’s gentrification, our status as a destination—via the New York Times and elsewhere—has coordinated an entirely new look.  Coffee shops on every corner, and upscale restaurants, film and literary festivals, organic co-ops and farmers markets, and the population during the summer months increasing tenfold.  To varying degrees, cultural collision does occur, though those inherent hostilities are not so directly confronted in my stories.  The focus for me is always something else, by which I mean that tension created by what a place/community offers and what it can’t possibly provide.

“Here’s our standing joke: we have three seasons in northern Michigan—July, August, and winter, and in 2010 we endured an official 209 inches of snow.  Place forms character.  Or, as Ortega y Gasset says, ‘Tell me the place in which you live and I will tell you who you are.’  Up north this protracted winter season overlays and outlines a terrain as gorgeous as it is terrifying, empty, cut-off, unforgiving.  I’ve come to love such extremes, and how these conditions conspire to define behavior.  As the teenage narrator in ‘That Story’ says, ‘I’m eye-level with the snowdrifts that the wind has sculpted, the temperature single-digit at best, and it’s beyond me why I say what I say, but I do, inviting trouble of a magnitude that we don’t need and yet sometimes covet.’  Eliminate this frozen landscape and the story ceases to exist.  It’s the nature, I suppose, of a writer’s sensibility with a particular place, where the characters’ inwardness is informed by all that surrounds them in the actual physical world in which they operate.  Nothing comes more naturally—and less self-consciously—to me than setting my stories here, where I’ve now lived for thirty-seven years.  Not to mention the wildness of such a terrain, which I’ve always, from the time I was a little kid, craved, the woods and the waterways.  And why writers such as John Muir and Henry David Thoreau have been so important to me.”

This feature will continue in a second part, with a selection from "That Story" by Jack Driscoll.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Helen LaFrance: Painting From Memory

Church Picnic; Helen LaFrance

Think twice and see it once. Think you're right and know you're right before you do something. I like to have people see what I see, the way I see it. I try to see through a thing.

We begin this week with news of the extraordinary "memory paintings" of Helen LaFrance, a self-taught Kentucky artist who has spent a life painting, and, at the age of 93, is still producing vibrant work from a dayroom-studio in her nursing home. 

Here's Kathy Moses Shelton, author of Helen LaFrance: Folk Art Memories and Outsider Art of the South writing in Nashville Arts Magazine on the work of Mrs. LaFrance:

In 1995, I had the pleasure of being introduced to self-taught Southern artist Helen LaFrance. An accomplished painter, quilter, wood carver, and Biblical interpreter, Helen LaFrance also has an exceptional ability to connect with the viewer emotionally through the memories they share. She paints scenes of a time and place that many recall but others respond to as well. On canvas, she transcribes the values and traditions she grew up with, the concept of family and church, the strong work ethic that was her model. These paintings fall into a category of American folk art known as memory painting. And memories, as we all know, give meaning to our own lives and to the lives of others when we share them.

We are also including below this fine video by the Oxford American that first introduced us to the work of Helen LaFrance; below, please also find a video produced in conjunction with her Kentucky Governor's Award in the Arts.