Kentucky Mountain media; Chip Kidd on matchmaking and superheroes; book, music, and film reviews
Kentucky Mountain Classics
From Arnold Toynbee to Deliverance, typical accounts of Appalachia have depicted its denizens as simply poor and backward. But those who truly know Appalachia tell a more complicated story: Poverty is indeed a recurring theme, but these works also highlight the humanity, tenacity, and bleak wit born from the harsh realities of the region. — Andrew Rosenblum
Close to Home: Old Time Music From Mike Seeger’s Collection 1952-1967 Various Smithsonian Folkways, 1997. Musician Mike Seeger (Pete is his brother) traveled through Appalachia in the ’50s and ’60s, recording singers, banjoists, guitarists, fiddlers, and autoharpists performing in the nimble, backwoods style known as old- timey. Seeger was inspired by his musicologist parents, who were drawn to “musically sophisticated (though not musically literate) people.Ó This 38-song anthology ranges from an up-tempo ramble by master fiddler Arthur Smith to an a cappella spiritual from the Stancer Quartet to the wry novelty tune “Three Nights Drunk.”
Harlan County U.S.A. Barbara Kopple. 103 minutes. First Run Features, 1976.This blow-by-blow documentary of the 1973-74 strike by hardscrabble Kentucky miners seeking to join the United Mine Workers of America won Kopple an Oscar in 1976. Her footage of strikers enduring police action, gunfire, and the eventual murder of a picketer is both sympathetic and compelling.
River of Earth By James Still. Lexington, Ky.: University Press of Kentucky, 1940. 245 pages. $15.95. In his classic 1940 novel, Still chronicles the travails of the Baldridges, a mountain family trying to stay one step ahead of the layoffs of a failing coal industry. The story unfolds from the perspective of the 7-year-old narrator, who dreams of escaping the mining life to become a horse doctor. Behind his family’s confidence that life will lead somewhere better lies the dull hum of desperation.
Appalachian Legacy By Shelby Lee Adams. Oxford, Miss.: University Press of Mississippi, 1998. 132 pages. $50.Adams’ photographs of residents of such eastern Kentucky towns as Kings Creek and Hooterville have been assailed by some critics, who say Adams perpetuates stereotypes of his subjects. But the Whitesburg, Ky., native doesn’t care — he’s simply making art out of the place where he grew up. His 87 black-and-white images treat farmers, single mothers, and ginseng gatherers with an intimate, unrelenting, but always affectionate eye.
Miners, Millhands, and Mountaineers: Industrialization of the Appalachian South, 1880-1930 By Ronald Eller. Knoxville, Tenn.: University of Tennessee Press, 1982. 272 pages. $15.95. In this definitive history, Eller traces the chronic poverty of the region to the rise of industrialization between 1880 and 1930. The incursion of timber and mining companies into resource-rich mountain country resulted in an economic boom, but little long-term development. Self-sustaining agrarian communities were transformed into populations of “submarginal” farmers and migrant industrial workers at the mercy of the price of coal.
The Ground Beneath Her Feet By Salman Rushdie. New York: Henry Holt, 1999. 575 pages. $26. At his best, Rushdie resembles a master musician. Varying tone, context, and emphasis, he plays with words, teasing out a multitude of meanings from a single arrangement of syllables, as with a raga or a riff. It’s hardly surprising, then, that Rushdie has finally written a book about music. The Ground Beneath Her Feet is the epic, mythically textured love story of a rock ‘n’ roll duo, Ormus Cama and Vina Apsara. Like a modern-day Orpheus, Ormus discovers Vina, his true love, only to lose her over and over again — first to America, then to infidelity, and finally to the earth that swallows her up.
The novel resonates with themes that have become quintessentially Rushdie: the encounter between East and West and the lives of those caught in the middle, and wrenching upheaval — in this case, an earthquake — and the destruction it brings in its wake. And of course there is Bombay, his beloved Bombay, the mythic space of childhood memory and adult yearning.
The bitingly sarcastic undertone that animated much of Rushdie’s earlier work has been replaced by a more ruminative voice, a tenderness that perhaps comes with age or suffering. And the corresponding shift of focus from the political to the social is a choice that many may regret but few will judge, given Rushdie’s personal history. — L.C.
King: A Street Story By John Berger. New York: Pantheon, 1999. 185 pages. $20. A sort of canine Ulysses, Berger’s latest novel tracks, in a believable stream of doggy consciousness, the course of a single day in the life of its eponymous narrator and his homeless companions. It is a story of longing, dense in its language, languid and dreamy in its execution. Present and past combine in short, discontinuous paragraphs. And through the disarming point of view of a narrator so different from ourselves, Berger makes the world of the homeless seem that much more familiar and immediate. — B.S.
Lead Us Into Temptation: The Triumph of American Materialism By James B. Twitchell. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999. 336 pages. $24.95. The right to consume — and not simply things, but their meanings — is a human right held dearer than most. And it’s one that’s generating change on a global scale, both for better and for worse. In Lead Us Into Temptation — the final installment of his consumer-culture trilogy, following Carnival Culture and Adcult U.S.A. — Twitchell proposes that consumption is how “most Western young people cope in a world that science has pretty much bled of traditional religious meanings.” Citing cultural phenomena from “Seinfeld” and “The Price Is Right” to QVC and cool-hunting, he argues that consumerism is our only common language as Americans — the one thing that unites us across lines of race, class, and religion. Indeed, Twitchell draws numerous parallels between consumerism and Christianity, but these serve mostly as a tongue-in-cheek nod to the misplaced moralism we invoke every time we rationalize our will to purchase. — A.Z.
Active Radio: Pacifica’s Brash Experiment By Jeff Land. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999. 184 pages. $16.95 Few people have heard of, let alone actually listened to, Pacifica radio. But its history, legacy, and shortcomings are the penetrating stuff of Land’s new book.
Created 50 years ago by pacifist Lewis Hill to “contribute to a lasting understanding between nations and between the individuals of all nations, races, creeds, and colors,” Pacifica’s airwaves introduced America to Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” and broke Seymour Hersch’s My Lai massacre story.
Its off-the-air history is equally compelling: FBI threats to shut the station down for its radicalism, Hill’s 1957 suicide, and infighting over airtime and what was meant by “liberal,” “public service,” and “community oriented.”
Pacifica may have invented non-commercial subscriber radio — the business model for PBS and NPR — but half a century later it has only five outlets nationwide. This despite the fact that Active Radio’s larger theme rings ever more true: Except for Pacifica and the rare community station, radio — like television and the Internet to follow — has contributed little to “lasting understanding” and plenty to narrow interests of the monetary sort. — S.W.
Clear Blue Skies The Juggaknots. Fondle ‘Em Records, 1999.The Juggaknots are not something you’ll hear mixed at a party (the beats are too wonderfully slow), and the sentiments expressed are too dark for commercial airplay. But if you needed convincing that there’s hope for rap, the incisive, intelligent plotlines and thick, dark production of Clear Blue Skies should be enough to bring you into the fold.
On “Troubleman,” the group transforms a loop of John Coltrane’s “My Favorite Things” from a bright little waltz into a compelling four-four hook under verses about the fine line separating insanity from genius. On the title track, a white father and son argue about the propriety of dating a black woman, with a sad and hopeful guitar and rim-shot groove in the background. The Juggaknots have an extraordinary command of composition — the songs course through complex refrains and bridges without overcommitting to the scratch or the need to shout out every friend and family member. And the powerful lyrics remind us that rap can be more than an excuse to pose; it can tell one hell of a story. — J.W.
Mule Variations Tom Waits. Epitaph, 1999.Waits’ first new album in six years doesn’t sound new; it seems a relic of some mythic America where the air is thick with field hollers and drunken campfire songs. Voices and percussion creep in from the shadows, roosters crow, and guitars play in their own time with no concern for the melody. The lyrics — filled with soldiers, sailors, and dime stores — lean heavily on old blues forms.
The demented stomp of the opening track, “Big in Japan,” is fierce and muddled and funky all at once. But anyone getting too comfortable with its lo-fi aggression will be taken aback by the achingly tender shuffle of “Hold On.”
Listening to Mule Variations straight through, it sounds as though it’s set on random play. But out of the lurching back-and-forth, an internal rhythm of songs of exorcism and testimonial emerges. It’s hard to say which are more startling — the former for their spooky edge, or the latter for their unabashed beauty. — B.S.
Rehearsals for Departure Damien Jurado. SubPop, 1999.Jurado’s voice has all the awkward sincerity of a teenager confessing his love, and carries with it the intensely adolescent hesitancy of not knowing exactly what to say but desperately needing to say something. On this, the 25-year-old’s second album, intensity and sheer musical gift more than make up for less-than-earth-shattering lyrics. Jurado transfuses catchy pop riffs into simple, folkie arrangements, creating remarkably hummable songs that owe as much to the Beach Boys as to Nick Drake. The album’s power comes in part from its ability to mine familiar emotions for the sense of revelation that comes with experiencing them for the first time. — A.M.C.
Convergence Dave Douglas. Soul Note, 1999. By virtue of his eloquent, logical trumpet solos and his adventurous compositional forays, Douglas has emerged as one of the most accomplished members of New York’s thriving downtown jazz scene. And the shape-shifting pastiches of Convergence, the third of three albums recorded with his String Group (comprising trumpet, violin, cello, bass, and drums), seem less a way to lay strings on top of bebop than a means to probe conceptual boundaries in music.
Douglas’ approach is refreshingly earnest, and his improvisational range stretches from the emotional lament of “Tzotzil Maya” to the playful up-tempo fireworks of “Meeting at Infinity.” Convergence is dense and challenging fare, and it requires repeated listening to make sense of some of the shifts, but Douglas is the rare musician who rewards such close attention. — A.R.
The Farm: Angola, U.S.A. Liz Garbus and Jonathan Stack. 100 minutes. Seventh Arts Entertainment, 1999. Spanning more than 18,000 acres, the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola — the Farm, as it’s known both for hard agricultural labor its inmates perform and its former life as a plantation — is a world unto itself. Almost 90 percent of the men incarcerated their will die before being released.
Filmmakers Garbus and Stack gained a year of remarkably unfettered access to life inside Angola’s walls. And with two expert tour guides — Burt Cain, the prison’s longtime warden, and Wilbert Rideau, an inmate and award-winning journalist — they train their cameras on six inmates’ journeys through various stages of life and death.
From the fresh, scared personality of George, a convicted murderer who arrives to serve a life sentence, to Bishop, who has been pardoned and waits for the governor’s signature, the circle of life is drawn around the inmates at Angola. Bones, a lifer who succumbs to cancer about 20 years into his sentence, is juxtaposed with John, who at 33 is on death row. We watch as both men ponder the question of afterlife with painful honesty. — A.S.
Reviews by Lakshmi Chaudhry, Ana Marie Cox, Andrew Rosenblum, Benjamin Shaykin, Andrew Strickman, Jacob Ward, Speed Weed, and Andy Zeisler.
Chip Kidd: Cover Boy
You may not know Chip Kidd, but you’ve seen his work. Chances are if you bought a best-selling book in the past 10 years, you have a Chip Kidd original sitting on your bookshelf right now. But he didn’t write it – he just dressed it. From Naked to Miss America, Kidd has designed book jackets for both the best and the merely best-selling. Revered in graphic design circles for his uncanny ability to translate a book’s mood into an arresting image, Kidd has recently been bringing his trademark wit and style between the covers — three years ago, he published Batman Collected, a lavish look into the culture of Batman and Robin collectibles. And earlier this year he released Superman: The Complete History, an obsessive account of Superman Memorabilia. We asked Kidd about his own obsessions. — Ana Marie Cox
If you had to judge a book by its —
Please! Don’t say it! For the love of mercy. If I ever hear that phrase again, I won’t be responsible for my actions.
Sorry. Let’s start again. Say someone handed you a pile of paper with text on it and asked you to design something that would make people buy it.
I’d tell them to get lost.
But isn’t that your job?
No. I’m a matchmaker, not a pimp. I design jackets that are elaborate versions of name tags at singles parties. I introduce the prospective buyer to the text, and they either hit it off and go home together, or don’t. After the cover is opened, the book is on its own. I’ve just been lucky enough, on a regular basis, to attach my name and visual ideas to books that are worth reading.
So you don’t think someone buys a book just because they like the jacket?
Anyone who would is shallow beyond imagining — a person who should be keeping QVC lines busy for the rest of eternity.
What’s your current media intake?
A fifth a day, whether I need it or not. Oh. Sorry. Let’s see –I’m addicted to the New York Press. And comics-wise I read Garth Ennis’ Preacher each month, and I literally wait by my mailbox for every installment of [Your Ad Here illustrator] Chris Ware’s Acme Novelty Library.
Do you designers see media differently than we civilians do?
I thought Titanic was the biggest piece of shit I’d seen in a decade; Jim Carrey struck me as a vulgar, talentless clod back when he was on “In Living Color”; I was positive the rock group Suede was going to make it big in the United States — I’m not exactly Kreskin when it comes to recognizing what makes media work.
Can you recommend a book that would give people a better understanding of how design works in the world?
Imagine someone dumping a city’s worth of names and phone numbers in your lap and saying, “Here. Make sense of this.” Terrifying. But the designer of a phone book does that. And then there’s the Bible. You have to hand it to whoever said, “I know: Everything that Jesus says will be in red!” A simple, direct, graphic idea.
So what’s with the superhero thing?
The forms of the genre have always awakened something in me — the colors, the shapes, the oversimplification. I’m also a sucker for the false promises of comic books.
Your books have brought a “low” art form to a “high art” medium. Are you trying to dissolve the distinction?
The thing that cracks me up about art is that I don’t think anyone knows what it is. Myself included. I still can’t swallow that a Superman comic is not art, but a Warhol painting, lifted line for line from the same comic book, is. I think people need to be fooled — they need to believe in something they can’t understand.