Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Ralph Ellison and Telling Stories of Invisibility

This month we marked the Ralph Ellison centennial, celebrating the author of Invisible Man, which won the National Book Award in 1953.
    Although he became famous as a writer, as a young man Ellison didn’t know that writing would be his path. Growing up in segregated Oklahoma City, he idolized Duke Ellington and planned to become a musician. Ellison studied music at Tuskegee, but before he graduated his family finances crunched and there was no longer enough to pay tuition. Instead he rode the rails north to New York City, where he met Richard Wright.
    When he was 23, Ellison had to rush to Ohio where his mother was dying. “I lost my mother the day after I arrived,” he wrote to Wright. “This is real, and the most final thing I’ve ever encountered.”
    By the spring of 1939, Ellison was back in the city with a job documenting life histories for the Federal Writers’ Project. As Soul of a People recounts, he approached people on the streets and asked them about their lives.
    Ellison was gaining a sense of African American history as he interviewed Harlem residents for the WPA folklore division. He talked with Pullman porters, unemployed truck drivers, musicians, and children. One day at the corner of 135th Street and Lenox, he met a gifted storyteller from South Carolina named Leo Gurley, who told a story about the only man in that town who could escape the oppression of Jim Crow – by becoming invisible.
    “He was one sucker who didn't give a damn about the crackers,” Gurley said of the man (“I done forgot his real name”) who used a spell to make himself invisible and take what he needed to survive.
    Other days, Ellison interviewed a drummer about his gigs and audiences, or an older man about why he came to New York. These stories formed a mosaic of a migration larger than anyone had previously imagined.
    Nationwide the life history interviews documented the lives of ordinary Americans and shared their voices in the public domain on a scale that had never been seen before.
    This spring marks the 75th anniversary of a group of those life histories gathered by the Writers’ Project. Titled These Are Our Lives, the book assembled stories gathered in the South from people who were black and white, poor and better off, rural and urban. The editor W.T. Couch presented the stories as “written from the standpoint of the individual.” There’s room to dispute that – WPA interviewers often started from a list of set questions, managed the writing, with the final text edited by Couch. Yet the effort marked a step toward people telling their own stories in their own words.
    On another channel – or another frequency – the voices of life history interviewees percolated through American literature and arts for decades, through talents like Ellison. Historian Jerrold Hirsch notes that the closing of Invisible Man echoes with Ellison’s awareness of that collaboration: “Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?"
    On May 15 we will celebrate life histories and These Are Our Lives with an event at the Library of Congress, where the WPA life history manuscripts are collected along with the archive of a counterpart today, StoryCorps. I look forward to that, bringing together those 1939 voices and the storytelling that they inspired. If you're near D.C., mark your calendar and come.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Harry Partch and the Music of the Rails


The Chromelodeon

Early in 1939 Harry Partch, the hobo son of missionaries, arrived in California and signed on to the California Writers’ Project for a second time.
    As a writer he had a distinctive style and an eye for detail, but even more, he had music. Partch the composer would become one of the most distinctive voices in modern music. At the time, the ancient Chinese poet Li Po inspired him to take a viola and adapt it to a new microtonal scale.
    Partch would go on to adapt and invent instruments like the Chromelodeon and the Boo II that still inspire performers today.
    For surviving, though, he turned to writing for the WPA. Two years before, he had worked on the Writers’ Project in California, editing and writing until he grew restless to move again. “Life is too precious to spend it with important people,” he said later in life. He found hoboes and the people he met on the road more open-minded.
The Boo II
The Boo II
    “The bums’ courage in remaining stoically humorous in the face of even the gravest misfortune was a value Partch treasured,” noted his biographer Bob Gilmore. The composer’s second stint with the WPA was more agreeable, it seemed. At least he stayed with it longer -- through the publication of the WPA Guide to California that spring and on through the end of the year. Then it was back on the rails, later immortalized in U.S. Highball.
    Not long ago my old English professor, J. Gill Holland, a polymath who has translated Li Po and other Chinese poets, was delighted to find this video of Partch’s musical adaptation, '17 Lyrics of Li Po.'
    Holland has published a short piece about his own use of Li Po’s quatrains in creative writing classes in the online journal Enter Text, where he notes that “class presentation of lovely poems like these is always full of amazement and delight, and the notion of a dialogue with past poets is true to Chinese literary tradition.”
    Just last month, that Li Po/Partch combination inspired songs in The Third Life of King Lear, performed in Brooklyn. The dialogues continue.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Hungry Heart

This winter brings Broadway and Hollywood versions of strong 1920s women up against hard choices in a hard world: Machinal on Broadway and The Immigrant, which sparked huge enthusiasm at Cannes. Anzia Yezierska lived those choices, growing up on the Lower East Side and making her way from Old World tradition to Hollywood modernity. My guest post on Ken Ackerman’s Viral History explores Yezierska’s experience in light of new productions. Thanks to Ken Ackerman for that opportunity.
    See also Part 2, about Yezierska's legacy for those who came after, including the late Grace Paley and Amy Bloom, author of Away and other wonderful books.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Inside Llewyn Davis and Finding Lightnin' Hopkins

Inside Llewyn Davis, the new Coen Brothers film, inhabits a richly evocative time. Just glimpsing the sidewalks of Greenwich Village in the trailer delivers a visual madeleine of New York in the early 1960s.
    The Coens infuse that setting with violence, romance and suspense. And while egos and aggression certainly tumbled in the folk music scene with idealism and pettiness, you rarely found such overt conflict all in a single story. Except maybe in the story of one folkie producer and the blues legend he found on a trip that took him far from the Village.
    Sam Charters was a young contributor to Folkways Records, the little record label that pioneered folk and blues recording with Woody Guthrie, Lead Belly and Pete Seeger. And Sam “Lightning” Hopkins was a Texas bluesman with roots stretching back to playing with Blind Lemon Jefferson. As Charters wrote later - and as he tells in the documentary I made with Andrea Kalin, Worlds of Sound: The Ballad of Folkways - he hunted the South for Hopkins, who had dropped out of public view. It was a search with its own layers of Coenesque indirection and reversal:
He had almost stopped playing in the late 1950s, and it was difficult to know where to find him. A cousin was working as a cook at a restaurant in New Orleans where I ate, and he told me to look for Lightning in Houston. At first all I could find was Lightning’s guitar. It was in a pawn shop on Dowling Street. The taxi drivers I asked, even Lightning’s sister and his landlady, were carefully vague when I asked where he was. But the word was passing, and the next morning a car pulled up beside mine at a red light, and a thin-faced man wearing dark glasses rolled down the window and called out, “You looking for me?” Lightning had found me.
The episode shows the unwitting hunger of the music subculture and its re-creation of Hopkins from one type of musician into another.
    First, Charters “got him a guitar and some gin and managed to convince him that I was serious about doing a session with him.” They recorded on January 16, 1959 in the small, dingy room that Hopkins rented. Charters insisted that Hopkins play an acoustic guitar, not the electric of his earlier recordings. Charters also paid up front, with no prospect for royalties.
    One of the songs they recorded that session was “See that My Grave is Kept Clean” – done by Blind Lemon 31 years before. (Decades later B.B. King recorded his own version, showing once again the power of the blues to conjure life in the midst of death or vice versa.)
    The Houston neighborhood where Charters recorded Hopkins held its own violent pall, of Jim Crow, which Hopkins did his best to ignore. But as an episode on page 95 in his biography, Mojo Hand: The Life and Music of Lightnin’ Hopkins, makes clear, he couldn’t always keep it out. Even after his career rose in the 1960s, a bartender at Zito’s Jungle Hut in Houston’s Third Ward denied him service for being black. Grover Lewis, a journalist who shadowed the musician, described it in the Village Voice:
When Hopkins approached the bar and ordered, the waiter answered tonelessly, “We all outta beer today, man.” Looking steadily at me, the barman mumbled, “I told you fellow, we ain’t got no beer today.”…. Stunned, Hopkins spun around and motioned curtly for me to follow, plunged back out into the sunlight. … he tried to dismiss the incident as a joke, but the more he talked about it, the angrier he became. The episode seemed to trigger some edginess in him, and in the moments that followed, he grew increasingly morose…
Folkways released the album Charters recorded later in 1959 around the time that the book The Country Blues came out. Lightnin’ Hopkins was finding himself repackaged for a new, whiter audience. Mojo Hand traces that transformation:
Before The Score label issued Lightnin’ Hopkins Strums the Blues in 1958, a compilation of previous releases from 1946 - 48. The jacket showed a white arm strumming. “Apparently, the decision-makers at Score Records thought revealing Hopkins to be an African American was not wise. The unsigned liner notes, just two paragraphs, barely hinted at his race and clearly positioned Hopkins as a true folkie… Like great folk artists such as Burl Ives, Lightnin’ improvised easily; the Score liner notes assert: ‘A chance sunlight – a glimpse of a railroad – the play of moon on the water, all turn his talent into a quick, fluent outpouring of feeling in wonderful accompaniment to his rich guitar. So long as folk music endures so long will Lightnin’ Hopkins be played.’
The labels were aiming at me. My first encounter with a Lightnin’ Hopkins record was as a white teenage suburbanite, and because his voice and his guitar playing appealed to my desire for music that was bracing but not forbidding, I bought his album.
    That included “Big Black Cadillac Blues,” a tale of seduction, betrayal and suspense that even has its own car chase, where the singer finally catches up to where his lover has stolen the prized machine of the title, but too late – she had already ruined it. “It wouldn’t run for me," he sighs, "and it wouldn’t run for you.” (This version includes the whole story intro.)
    The year after the Folkways record came out, Hopkins had a ticket for gigs out West and an invitation to New York City. Mojo Hand again:
After his stint along the West Coast, Hopkins headed to New York City … New York promoter Harold Leventhal … arranged for Hopkins to play Carnegie Hall on October 14, 1960, for a benefit for the folk music magazine Sing Out! The bill contained several important folk artists of the day, including the renowned Pete Seeger, the Clancy Brothers, Tommy Makem, Elizabeth Knight, Jerry Silverman, the Harvesters, and nineteen-year-old Joan Baez.
The New York Times gave much of its review of the concert to Hopkins, praising his “wit and flair and improvisatory skill.” He swapped verses with Pete Seeger and had taken, the Times reviewer noted, a long journey from Houston’s Third Ward to Carnegie Hall.
    Bob Dylan would make his own hometown-to-Manhattan venture a few months later, in January 1961. And of course he was repackaging himself.
    This fall Baez returned to the Carnegie Hall stage for an Inside Llewyn Davis concert, where Jack White sang a song that Lightnin’ Hopkins had recorded first.
    The folk music movement shrink-wrapped many musicians to reach a mainstream white audience. At the same time, for many American listeners it opened a window to cultural alternatives. “Folkways,” says Charters in Worlds of Sound, “presented an alternative that was life sustaining, life giving…. we were showing that there was an alternative. Not by simply attacking what was there but saying, ‘Hey what about this? We know this but why not that too?’”

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

District of Lit

The other week marked a rare event: the Library of Congress and the Folger Shakespeare Library – two of the country’s most venerable institutions – noted that our city has a lively, bubbling book scene.
    Organized by PEN/Faulkner, the event, called District of Literature, took place on the eve of the federal shutdown. After a reception at the Folger where small press authors chatted with notable officials of the word, I crossed the street to the Lutheran Church of the Reformation, and joined fellow Washington Writers’ Publishing House author Brandel France de Bravo in the audience. To my left in our pew, bestselling authors Elliott Holt and Danielle Evans huddled. And to our right, after her duties as emcee, Emma Snyder of PEN/Faulkner took a seat. A few rows ahead I saw Sunil Freeman of The Writer’s Center. Poets, fictionistas, authors of histories – all found a seat under this roof.
    The four readers that night laid out a rich banquet of life and death found in the city, from Elizabeth Alexander’s poetry – encompassing a girl’s early anxieties, Stokely Carmichael's public confab with A. Philip Randolph, and even the outsider vision of James Hampton’s Throne, from its garage near Seventh Street to its current home at the American Art Museum – to Edward P. Jones’ Hurston-esque story, ‘The Devil Swims Across the Anacostia River.’ And from E. Ethelbert Miller’s poems of life and everyday struggle on the streets to George Pelecanos’ tale of mortality in The Night Gardener, based loosely on the Freeway Phantom who terrorized Washington in the early 1970s.
    By the time we spread out into the night, with the Capitol’s lighted wedding cake just blocks away, I felt full from a shared feast.
    You find guideposts to many of these offerings in DC By the Book, a website connecting fiction to the city’s landscape created by the DC Public Library, which has always nurtured local writers and readers.
    And you can find your own place here, whether in fiction, poetry or nonfiction. One way to do that is with a Writer’s Center workshop - including mine this Saturday, Putting the Pieces Together: Researching and Writing Local History. Whatever you choose, I hope we get to read your stuff soon.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Researching and Writing Neighborhood Histories

Thanks to Sunil Freeman at The Writer's Center for featuring my post about writing neighborhood histories -- with examples involving Harlem (from Village Voice) and Meridian Hill (from the Washington Post Magazine) -- on First Person Plural, the Center's blog.
    Check out the workshops that start this fall!

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Two Hundred Years Ago this Month on Lake Erie...

Thanks to Bill Doughty for his glowing review of The War of 1812 and the Rise of the U.S. Navy on this blog here. Of course I agree the book is "gorgeous" -- but all credit goes to the book's designers, led by Carrie Hamilton. I also appreciate Doughty's timely focus on the book's rendering of the events leading up to the Battle of Lake Erie, two hundred years ago this month.
    Events this month on the Great Lakes make those chaotic times vivid and alive. Check the schedule here, and enjoy a simmering August.