Big Sound

I was thrilled to have an opportunity to combine my personal and professional interests in music, the history of technology, and exhibit development in one great project: Les Paul’s Big Sound Experience. Its run will soon come to an end, but its a project I’ll never forget. Les was talented, humble, innovative in the truest sense of the word. He was an entertainer and a teacher who prioritized helping others the way he had been helped. While I wish I had known him, through this project I feel like I do.

I was honored to work with people at the Les Paul Foundation who knew Les and the designers and developers at MRA to help bring this project to life with research, scripting, and concept development.

Selling the walls to fix the roof: Detroit’s bankruptcy and the DIA

Stories about selling works owned by the Detroit Institute of Arts in order to pay off the bankrupt city’s creditors have been so numerous over the last few months that there isn’t any point linking to one here. You’ve probably heard the tale of woe. Because some of the art was purchased with city funds, and the museum is controlled by the city, the artwork has been ruled fair game in Detroit’s bankruptcy. (So, it seems, are the quite modest pensions of city employees, many of whom receive no social security, and who did nothing to cause this bankruptcy. My comments are about the art, not about the wisdom or morality of various proposed solutions, but there is a lot of misinformation out there about just what is at stake for pensioners, so here’s a link on that topic.)

Museums generally adhere to a simple ethical standard: don’t sell the art to fix the roof. Instead of art, it could be classic cars, giraffes, daguerreotypes, or pot shards—but the principle is the same: if you sell the art to fix the roof, there is no need for a roof because there is no art to protect, no reason for people to visit, and no incentive for donors to give the museum anything else. Ever.

Bill Bynum & Co. at the DIA's Rivera Court, 2011. (c) Mike Halcala

Bill Bynum & Co. at the DIA’s Rivera Court, 2011.

Detroit’s creditors have indicated that they think the art is non-essential to city functions. (Interestingly, no one has mentioned the giraffes owned by the Detroit Zoo.) But at least one work defies that view—Diego Rivera’s “Detroit Industry” frescoes in the DIA’S great court. The Rivera court is the scene of popular weekly music events, part of the DIA’s “Friday Night Live!” which includes art workshops, gallery drawing, and guided tours. My band played there to a packed house in 2011, and it was the most memorable show I’ve played in 35 years of gigs.

These huge and wonderfully detailed murals are conceptually and physically part of Detroit: inspired by the huge Ford Rouge industrial complex, commissioned by Edsel Ford, and painted on wet plaster so they’re literally part of the DIA’s walls.

Any collector who bought it would have to move into the building to enjoy it (yes, technically they could be separated from the structure but you’d have to re-create the entire room to complete the work as it was). Forcing a rich collector to go to Detroit would be a fitting turn of fate—but why would anyone want to gaze daily on this heroic depiction of Detroit’s auto industry if he didn’t love and appreciate Detroit? And if the buyer loved Detroit so much, why would she want to bleed one of its cultural arteries?

Art appreciation

Art appreciation between sets.

Many works of art at the DIA—including “Detroit Industry”—were given to the people of Detroit as a source of inspiration, solace, hope, and pride—not as a monetary asset to hide away in a vault to be raided on a rainy day. There are several efforts underway to find a way out of this fix and leave the DIA intact. I hope one of them will succeed.

I doubt that that anyone making decisions for Detroit at this dark moment is listening—but just in case: please don’t sell the people’s art to fix Detroit’s roof. A city with no cultural assets is a poor city indeed.

At least they can’t sell the music.

A fist-bump with Henry Ford

A fist-bump with Henry Ford. (All photos (c) Michael Hacala)

Penmanship

Last Friday I played a gig with my friend Rollie Tussing, a wonderful guitar player (with or without slide), stomper, songwriter, and generally good guy. He also wears old hats well—not an easy feat in the 21st century.

Rollie said he’d bring a set list for me. Because we’d had only one rehearsal, I planned to make some notes on it. But when I saw the list, I changed my plan.

It could have been a set list from a Lead Belly jam session—carefully formed words in 19th-century style, with tall, perfectly pitched Ps and curlicue esses.

Photo by Peter Smith

Photo by Peter Smith

Rollie explained that he had always printed, and his handwriting was horrible. He wanted to do something about it so he could teach his kids good penmanship. Few schools teach cursive—let alone penmanship. So he got some fountain pens and some pens with nibs, found some 19th-century examples to follow, and spent about three years practicing. He tries to pen something every day.

My handwriting is horrible too, but I just use my old Cuisinart injury as an excuse.

That night, I rewrote the set list really big with a Sharpie. It wasn’t beautiful, but at least we could all read it without our old-people glasses. I gave Rollie’s original to our house-concert host, Johnny Williams, who said he’d frame it.

The other great thing about this happy discovery of Rollie’s hidden talent is that I’m currently working on furnishing an 1830s doctor’s office/apothecary in Honolulu. I think I found my label maker!

I’m looking forward to playing with Rollie again on May 5. Maybe this time I’ll get my own set list to frame (hint, hint!). I can hang it above my desk for inspiration.

ET and Me

My band played at Ernest Tubb’s Record Shop in Nashville recently. It’s part museum, part record store, part music venue, and all real. It’s one of those rare places that evokes the presence of the past with no pretense or self-consciousness. As we were setting up, our bass player needed to elevate his small amp. We started to hand him an old wooden soda box—the type that little bottles of Coke were once shipped in. The sound man stopped us. “That’s the box Loretta Lynn stood on when she sang here! She was so short the folks in the back couldn’t see her.”

If the place were a museum, that box would be an artifact in a case with a label. Here, the whole building and everything in it—the decor, the memorabilia, the staff, the shows, and the stories—is a living artifact.

It’s the continuity of purpose, I think, that keeps the record shop from being touristy. The stage is the same one Ernest Tubb played on when he opened the shop in 1947. The Midnite Jamboree radio show that he started is still broadcast every Saturday night at midnight, right after the Grand Ol’ Opry. Traveling bands and local legends play here often. People just crowd in off the street when the music starts, standing around the record (now CD) bins–no chairs, no drinks, no cover.

I wonder what will happen to the store if and when music recordings leave the physical realm for good. They sell shirts and books and trinkets too. But it wouldn’t be much of a record store without recordings.

As we were packing up and the store was shutting down, the sound man told us the place was once a Civil War era hospital. He said they’ve heard liquid splashing, as if from the second floor windows to the street below, when no one was upstairs. Footfalls on the old wooden floorboards. Sawing sounds.

I’m not sure about ghosts. But even a confirmed skeptic like me might be converted to a believer. Just before I left the stage, I swear I saw ET.

Judging Straightness

This summer I was asked to judge how straight people were. But it’s not what you think.

I was a judge in a plowing competition—plowing the old-fashioned way, with horses. A straight furrow is a point of pride with expert plowboys and plowgirls (or ploughboys and ploughgirls, for those who prefer the British variants).

It’s not that I have any particular skill in plowing, but the annual ALHFAM plowing competition was short a judge. (ALHFAM is the Association for Living History, Farm, and Agricultural Museums.) When the chief judge, Bob Powell of the Highland Folk Museum in Scotland, asked me to help out, he said it was because I won the novice class a few years ago, and the next year—by virtue of having participated one time—got bumped up to the expert, or “fine” plowing class and took third place.

I reminded him that it had been a low-turnout year.

Nonetheless, I agreed to judge mostly because I hoped to extract bribes in the form of cold liquids. After all, we were in Farmer’s Branch, Texas in the scorching summer of 2012.

Da Judge

Why did I wear boots on a 100 degree day? I’m not from Texas!

We had three judges: one looking for consistent depth, one assessing style, and this humble plowgirl judging straightness. Keeping the plow going straight isn’t straightforward, pun intended. Changes in the soil, such as impacted areas or patches of clay, can turn the point, as can obstacles such as rocks. And it’s a little like backing up a trailer or piloting a boat with an outboard motor—you turn the opposite the direction you want to move. With a plow it’s more of a lean than a turn, but the concept is similar.

One contestant wore a dress, perhaps in a misguided attempt to sway the style judge. But the rules committee declared that attire—including the presence or absence of manly footwear—was not to be evaluated. And yes, we’ve had people plow barefoot before.

The more experience competitors have, the less instruction they receive from the plowing coach. All contestants were ably assisted by Bonnie and Max, a pair of Percheron draft horses, and Ken Murray who handled the reins and talked to his team. True experts working with their own teams can handle both the plow and the reins, but thankfully Ken wasn’t part of the competition.

When we got to the banquet where the awards were to be given, I found out that everyone got free cold beer, so all bribes were off. I introduced the ceremony with a little ditty I’d penned on the bus, sung to the tune of “The Star Spangled Banner.” Several ALHFAM members have asked for the lyrics. Why, I’m not sure. But here they are:

Oh say can you plow
When you do not know how?
While the judges hold court
And the horses are snorting?

The broad beam and bright share
Taken up on a dare,
While the road apples dropped
Were so bountifully steaming.

Yes the horse runs on grass!
No don’t look at his ass!
Keep your eyes on the dirt,
Best to not wear a skirt.

Oh say does that furrow
Look deep straight and true?
If it is, you win your class,
If it’s not, blame the ass!

One of the Canadian ALHFAM members asked me if it was disrespectful to appropriate the tune from our national anthem in this manner. I told him no, given that the tune started out as an English song celebrating wine, love, and poetry. Why can’t we celebrate beer, horses, and manure?

But in case some of you think I’m not sufficiently respecting America and/or plowing, here’s a poem written by Kentucky poet and author Jesse Stuart. It was published in 1934 in a collection of sonnets titled Man with a Bull Tongue Plow. He lived near where my mother grew up in eastern Kentucky, and near where my mom’s relatives (and my mom, when she was young) worked tobacco with mules for decades. Somewhere I have photos of one of my mom’s cousins in the tobacco with his mule team in 1977. If I can find them I’ll post them.

This is sonnet 10.

Hot summer days and we toil in the fields,
We hoe and plow tobacco, corn and cane,
We walk barefooted on mulch in the fields
Until the mulch is made mud by the rain,
When loose earth packs by rain we hoe again,
And when weeds grow we cut the weeds again.
Beneath the sun we watch the drifting skies,
We lift our hoes and look with sweat-dimmed eyes.
We watch the lazy drifting, drifting skies—
Tobacco leaves are pretty in the wind,
When all the weeds are cut around the stalks
And plows have cleaned the weeds well from the balks.
Tobacco plants are pretty in the wind—
Oh, prettier plants are harder now to find.
–Jesse Stuart

(Thanks to Derrick Birdsall for his photos, and for hosting a great conference.)

“A Thoroughfare of Freedom Beat Across the Wilderness”

This lyric from America the Beautiful came to mind today as I walked through the woods. The song was on my mind because a presidential candidate started quoting it recently in order to stir the Passions of the Patriotic Bosom. (Don’t worry, this isn’t a political screed.)

My route traversed a marshy area along Florida’s Shingle Creek, where Palmetto and wiregrass grow among wild grapevines, black gum and bald cypress. Today, the dark water creeps slowly under Kissimmee’s busy Vine Street–part of a network of wide asphalt boulevards that all seem to lead to Disneyworld. Few drivers ever see the creek, and the closest many tourists get is gazing at it from the bridge while walking to the Shingle Creek bus stop.

But not so long ago this creek was itself a thoroughfare on which commerce moved. A chain of rivers, lakes, and creeks allowed a person to travel from Orlando to Miami on water alone. Seminole indians, settlers, traders, hunters, tourists, farmers—all traveled Florida by water long before asphalt was invented. Although many paths and trails were indeed “beat across the wilderness” by wild hogs and scrub cattle, hopeful families and warring armies, the waterways were always there—at least until the great drainage projects of the late 19th century. But that’s another story.

The word “freedom” is politically charged these days with as much freight as the old steamers that used to ply Florida’s waterways once carried. You probably expect a screed about how horrible all the new Disney-driven development is, but that’s not my point.  As a culture, we’ve made choices about our thoroughfares of freedom, and I’m not going to judge them here. (I’m in Kissimmee, Florida to work with the Osceola County Historical Society on an outdoor museum project, so you can probably guess whether I prefer the wild kingdom or the Magic Kingdom™.)

Taking the long view, these new developments and roadways and tourist attractions are just new paths beat across the old wilderness. But the wilderness is still there under the Google-mapped grid. The rivers and creeks still flow from Orlando to Miami. You just don’t see them unless you get out of the car and look.

When I left the woods and walked back to my hotel,  I noticed how plants decorate the seams in abandoned parking lots and poked through every crack in every curb. Maybe they’re waiting us out, hoping we’ll forget to seal the cracks and repave the roads.

Until then, I want to encourage people to get off the thoroughfare and look at what’s left of the old wilderness. It’s closer than you think.