Rethinking Appalachia

9780252080814Phil Jamison
Hoedowns, Reels and Frolics: Roots and branches of Southern Appalachian Dance
University of Illinois Press 

(For Sing Out! magazine)

Alex Ross wrote recently in the New Yorker that “when classical-music fans hear that a new Hollywood production has a scene set at the opera or the symphony, they reflexively prepare to cringe. Typically, such scenes give a klutzy picture of musical life and come loaded with corrosive clichés.”

It’s a statement that could far more easily be applied to folk and old-time music. It’s true that classical music in movies is rarely sympathetic to the art form – “alleged geniuses compose NFL highlights music” writes Ross.

In the folk world, however, schlock never creates any sympathies, misplaced or otherwise. The banjo in Deliverance will be remembered long after the movie is forgotten. People these days see a bumper sticker that says “paddle faster, I hear banjos” and wink, though it’s hard to imagine that all of them have really seen the movie. The joke is so evergreen that the punchline lives in the absence of its antecedent. As wonderful/fun as “A Mighty Wind” is, the joke that folk music fans enjoy is two-dimensional in the eyes of everyone else. None of the schlock creates any sense of reverence. Ever.

At the heart of the matter, though, is the division between rural and urban sensibilities that reinforces those kinds of stereotypes. Classical music, despite Ross’ concerns, is reflexively thought of as enriching, skilled, and worthwhile, much like medicine is. You might not like it, but it’s good for you, the popular thinking goes. Even those who might say they hate classical music tend to consider it as a high form of art – just as rocket science and Einstein connote genius, an appreciation of classical music connotes an appreciation of culture.

Old time music, when used in films at any rate, is used to connote the opposite, and when a filmmaker is feeling extra punchy, it’s coupled with its visual component: traditional dance. George Clooney did it in O Brother Where Art Thou. His character was an amiable dimwit, and the dancing and the fake beard confirmed it. There, and elsewhere in the world of corrosive clichés, I’d venture that traditional dance suffers more than anything. Al Jolson has a better reputation, and we’re reminded that he was a cantor more readily that we are the fact that he made a living of, well, singing in blackface.

For many, traditional dance appears repetitive, disorganized, and hopelessly unsophisticated. Sneering at traditional dance is a great way to you appear urban,  thoughtful and informed. After attending a dance in Asheville, NC, Frances Hodgson Burnett described what she saw as “furious and erratic reel-dancing” accompanied by a “fiddler at work sawing industriously at one tune.” Hodgson is the author of The Secret Garden, a book about displacement and healing. But when it came to dance, well, so much for having an open mind – she found in it something unforgivable. Thomas Ashe, in visiting the south in the early 19th century, had much the same response. “I entered the ball-room which was filled with persons at cards, drinking, smoking, dancing … the ‘music’ consisted of two banjies, played by [musicians] nearly in a state of nudity, and a [flute], through which a Chickesaw breathed with much occasional exertion and violent gesticulations.” He concludes, cuttingly, that “the dancing accorded with the harmony of these instruments.”

It doesn’t help that in the 20th century more people experienced parodies of traditional dance forms than the dances themselves, perhaps principally via cartoons of the 1930s where actual chickens dance the chicken reel, and Minnie Mouse kicked up her heals with Clarabelle Cow. “In contrast to the contemporary jazz music and popular swing dances of the time,” writes Phil Jamison in the preface to Hoedowns, Reels and Frolics: Roots and branches of Southern Appalachian Dance, “these rural dances were portrayed simply as old-fashioned, down-home entertainment for ordinary country folk (or animals).”

The thing is, they’re wrong about all of it, which is something that Jamieson deftly, and refreshingly, points out in his book. The approach to rural dance, truly, is about us. It’s about the prejudices that, even today, urban culture projects onto rural life. “Duck Dynasty,” “Farm Kings,” etc., are the contemporary equivalents of Ashe’s commentary, Hee Haw, and Deliverance. Urban audiences, then as now, love to look down on rural life, believing that it’s simple and easily understood.

Rightly, Jamison discusses all that at the front of the book, getting it out of way, as he is more interested in the art form itself than he is the perceptions of it. I say rightly, because it is interesting, more than I suspect anyone knows. Jamison demonstrates how the history of dance is the story of America: immigration, race, trade, culture, identity, fashion, social stratification, and innovation. The closer you look, the more fascinating it all becomes. There are some great tidbits in here – one reason that jigs in 6/8 time aren’t found in the Southern fiddle repertoire, unlike reels in 4/4, is because it’s a difficult time to play on the banjo – though it’s the progress of dance and music, and what it says about us as a culture today, that animates the book. Culture is never static, as much as we might think it is.

In the course of the book, we see that pretty much all the assumptions we might make about traditional dance are wrong, prime among them the idea that it is a vestige of an earlier time, caught in the amber of rural Appalachia. “[To] writers of the late nineteenth century, these rural dances no doubt appeared unfashionable and antiquated but in fact were only a few generations old … not pure survivals of an ancient Anglo-Celtic heritage, locked away in isolation, but a constantly evolving folk tradition.”

And, indeed, that’s just the beginning. This book is about dance, true, but it also provides an analogue for so many other things, reminding us, once again, that few forms of art – perhaps even classical music among them – are ever quite what they seem.

What we eat

Fear of Food: A History of Why We Worry about What We Eat by Harvey Levenstein Chicago Press, 2012

by Glen Herbert

Whenever we talk about food, whether it’s just that or a broader discussion of nutrition, we’re actually talking about a lot more than we think we are. Food is culture and identity. It’s also science and understanding. I’d argue that there isn’t a richer more varied topic of discussion you could possibly have, and, yes, I’d include religion and the causes of the first World War in this as well. Food touches us all. We put it into our bodies, it’s intimate and personal, and while we can make choices about what we eat, abstinence is not one of those choices. Whether we’re eating a 20-ounce steak, poi, or quinoa salad, it’s an expression of who we are, where we’ve come from, and where we intend to go…

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The Chrysalids at 60

(for Patriarch) Sixty years ago this year, John Wyndham published a post-apocalyptic thriller about, well, you know, kids with telepathy. Which sounds funny, because as much as that’s true, the book has resonated with readers ever since not because of the telepathy, or the apocalypse — in the book it’s called the tribulation — or for being a thriller. It resonated because it said something about us.

And we thought we knew what it was. In the 80s, our minds were on nuclear war, and the Chrysalids took a place on the shelf next to Neville Shute’s On the Beach and William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. Life after global war was, by all accounts, very bleak. On TV was The Day After. Sting had a hit with “If the Russians Love their Children Too.” Really bleak. Yet it’s hard to listen to that Sting song these days and see it for what we thought it was. Context has a lot to do with these things, apparently. ChrysalidsMS1

That’s also true for The Chrysalids. It’s about the world after nuclear war. But it’s also about the dangers of fundamentalism, and difference as enforced by belief. The book illustrated the great strength that comes from realizing that you’re not alone. David finds Uncle Axel, though he also finds the Chrysalids. The voices that he had been hearing in his head weren’t just voices, they are real. (That word, “Chrysalids,” doesn’t actually appear in the text of the book. The characters have no name for themselves as a group. Wyndham changed the title at the last minute, from “Time for a Change,” though it’s telling that he didn’t work that word into the text. In the context of the story, they are just people, after all; A common identity was precisely the thing the were reacting against.) He finds that there are lots and lots of people who share his way of thinking, and by the end of the book he learns that it’s a much larger, more varied world than they ever could have imagined. Which is the reason that, by the end of the book, he finds that there is a place for himself in the world, too.

“But life is change, that is how it differs from rocks. Change is its very nature.”

Of  course the one thing that the book wasn’t emblematic of then — nor is it something Wyndham could have fathomed — is how well it provides an analogue for the internet. In Wyndam’s day, people were people. You knew your neighbours, or you didn’t, and otherwise, there were a bunch of strangers out there. Not in your head, or in your iPhone. They were out there.

But with the internet just as with the Chrysalids,  there aren’t just strangers out there, there are friends out there. And they’re not just out there, they are in what has become our collective consciousness: cyberspace. Just like the Chrysalids, we may not know their names, or where the live, or even their gender. They’re the people we play Words with Friends with. Or chat with. They are the people who show up writing about our favourite cheese, or who reviewed the last Norman Blake album. One of them is a guy who didn’t like a piece I wrote, and who for the last month or so has sent me, every few days, hundreds of new words of text telling me what a jerk the thinks I am. This despite the fact that he doesn’t know me, or I him. We don’t know where each of us lives, even our real names. We’ve never heard each others voices.

And, indeed, that’s where the Chrysalids might really have something to say to us. People look different, or speak different languages, or live vastly different experiences, but in our heads, were we to access their thoughts directly, we wouldn’t find the differences to be as important as the things we share. The voices, the people, would be part of us, and we’d first see them as friends, just as the Chrysalids do. Friendship, a shared humanity, would be the default position. How nice would that be? And, should we find ourselves in trouble in the Fringes, they’ll come all the way from Sealand to help us. Again, pretty nice, isn’t it?

In the 80s I thought that, metaphorically, I was like the Chrysalids. I knew there were kindred spirits out there, people who would get what I was saying and vice versa, it was just the finding them that was the problem. Indeed, today, we — all of us — truly are the Chrysalids. In the web, we as people have become dissociated from the Scrabble part of us, or the angry part of us, or our sexual selves. Parts of our personas argue with parts of other peoples personas, or play chess with parts of other people’s personas. They have names like Zyngawf_182. But, unlike the Chrysalids, we lack some basic insights, such as the need to be kind, or the understanding that nobody ever has an easy go of it. Which is too bad, actually. Because, instead of looking out for the kindred spirits, we become more like David’s father: we’re ever on the lookout for the mutants. And, just like David’s father, we seem to be spectacularly good at finding them everywhere we look.

Reading disability

(for CanChild Connect)

It’s discouraging to think that, since the Wizard of Oz was released as a feature film, the foremost image in North Americans’ minds of dwarfism has been the lollipop kids. Comical, childish, awkward, short—it wasn’t wrong to cast those roles as the filmmakers did, rather it’s regrettable that no alternate images of achondroplasia have since risen to the level of public consciousness. Even in recent decades—with movies like Time Bandits, Jason Anũna, or the show Life’s Too Short—popular culture hasn’t served to broaden a general understanding of stature and, more generally, physical disability.

When we think of knowledge translation we are thinking very specifically of knowledge within certain settings, that is, the research setting and in the clinical setting. At the same time, though, there are examples of knowledge being translated in a much broader arena–popular culture–in some delightful ways. A great example is the young readers’ book The Thing about Georgie by Lisa Graff. Georgie has achondroplasia, something that is met head on from the very first page. Sections of the book begin with an aside, asking the reader to reach their arm across the top of their head, or to rest their head on their knees, and it is noted that these are things that Georgie can’t to. “It doesn’t bother him not to be able to rest his head on his knees when he needs to do some thinking,” the narrator says. “But the thing is, he can’t.”

Those are asides, set apart and addressing very frankly the curiosity that a reader will naturally have about difference. The bulk of the book is about Georgie and his very typical struggles in grade school. Yes, he has trouble participating in some things, and that rankles, but he finds ways to participate and to have his voice heard. We see that, just as our experience of not being picked first for the baseball team, we all struggle with those things. Nobody’s perfect.

It’s a lovely book because it translates the experience of achondroplasia to kids who are unfamiliar with it while showing that physical difference is something that exists apart from who Georgie is as a person. His desires and frustrations are the same as ours, as is his intelligence, his thoughtfulness. He also isn’t any more funny or comical than anyone else. Graff’s story is a representation of life that is truer to the experience of those who actually live with disability. Georgie isn’t comical, or less intelligent, or less thoughtful, or perpetually childish. He’s just a kid. The story also isn’t saccharine or overly earnest—Georgie has his faults, too, and makes mistakes, and we see that he is as fallible as the rest of us as well.

Okay, all of that in order to get to this: if we were to put a book list on the CanChildwebsite, what do you feel would need to be included? Is there a book (or books) that you feel is important in how it represents or discusses disability, or which brings a different and important voice to the reader’s awareness? They can be kids books or books for adults, they can be fiction or non-fiction. (Movies are good too, actually, so send those as well.) Perhaps we’ll set up a number of themed/graded lists if we get enough responses to warrant it. Send ideas to glenherbert@sympatico.com or tweet them to @canchild_ca. If you could include a couple sentences as to why you feel it is an important book, or what you like about it, that would be great too.

Fearing food

Fear of Food: A History of Why We Worry about What We Eat by Harvey Levenstein Chicago Press, 2012

Whenever we talk about food, whether it’s just that or a broader discussion of nutrition, we’re actually talking about a lot more than we think we are. Food is culture and identity. It’s also science and understanding. I’d argue that there isn’t a richer more varied topic of discussion you could possibly have, and, yes, I’d include religion and the causes of the first World War in this as well. Food touches us all. We put it into our bodies, it’s intimate and personal, and while we can make choices about what we eat, abstinence is not one of those choices. Whether we’re eating a 20-ounce steak, poi, or quinoa salad, it’s an expression of who we are, where we’ve come from, and where we intend to go. And, no, I don’t think I’m overstating anything here.

So, one of the things that it is impossible for us to truly have about food is perspective. Which is why I think Harvey Levenstein’s book, Fear of Food, (Chicago Press, 2012) is so valuable. He tackles a lot in the book, though begins with a mention of koala bears, which provides a nice counterpoint. Koalas are pretty much the exact opposite of us: they only eat eucalyptus. Wouldn’t it be nice to never have to decide what’s for dinner, and to always eat just the perfect food for you. (Levenstein doesn’t mention this, but for koalas eucalyptus is also mildly narcotic, so, there’s that, too.)

It’s not the perfect book perhaps—it’s a university publication, and perhaps not entirely intended for the lay reader—and in a sense, the title sets too small a stage. It’s not just fear that Levenstein talks about, but also preference, culture, industry, and mothers. That is, all of those things that influence how we decide what to have for dinner.

Where the book is the most telling is in its discussion of the industrial influences on our diet. A great example is the origins of white bread. Now a euphemism for lame, in the early to mid the 20thcentury it was the focal point of a number of very aggressive marketing campaigns. The wheat producers campaigned for people to eat more wheat (the 20s marked a downturn from which they hoped to recover, and ultimately did). White flour has a longer shelf life, and therefore is good for industry. Mothers of the 40s and 50s were told that less refined wheat was harder to digest. Hmmm. Further, vitamin producers loved white bread, because it gave them the leverage they needed to shill their products. Vegetable and fruit boards loved white bread because it gave them leverage to gain attention while taking it away from the vitamin people—“get vitamins from their source.” And, here we are, all these years later, with white bread, though the angle these days isn’t modernity, but nostalgia. One of the Wonder Bread slogans is “an essential part of childhood.”

What Levenstein reminds us, as in that example, there is nothing obvious or simple about so many of the things we eat. Indeed, so many of the stories he tells can make you feel like a dupe whenever they aren’t making you see how others were so easily duped. Acidosis, a vanishingly rare disease in the population—only diabetics need to worry—was the cornerstone for lots of money making schemes. The idea was that eating foods in the wrong combinations could kill, and lots of radio shows turned that idea into revenue. More recently, it’s the Beverly Hills Diet. Likewise, Upton Sinclair’s exposure (well, kind of) of the meat packing industry seems quaint and flawed to us today, though the modern equivalents, including Eric Schlosser’s  Fast Food Nation don’t. We are, in all, very easily lead. I’m certain that, if it hasn’t happened already, the wheat belly diet will have the lasting power of the Beverly Hills diet and have the same reputation. We’ll chuckle, and move on to the next thing.

The thing is, we don’t have a good guide for the decisions that we make. A friend who is both a scientist as well as a highly-respected physician is vocal proponent of the wheat belly diet, though reading even the first few pages of William Davis’ book it’s mind boggling how anyone with a basis in science could be drawn in. The fact is, he’s looking for an easy answer, and in that is very suggestible. And, Levenstein reminds us that, when it comes to food, we all are.