Though the link above is certainly indicative of how outrageous some people can be (especially when they get in groups), I believe the prelude to the list is quintessentially American: A Medal of Honor recipient who took down three Nazi tanks all by himself faces fascism in his Virginia home, gets backing from Congress and the President, and wins his right to fly the American flag. I feel like there need to be memorials of such victories because, in any number of years from now, they might not seem so trite or trivial anymore.
Name me an artist who’s sold 80 million copies of their work so far. Prince, Van Halen, Eminem, you say? Well, sure. The Spice Girls? Around there, a little less though. Carlos Santana? Oh hell yeah, that guy can jam. But I’m actually talking about a writer, and one that probably hasn’t had his name thrown about in a while. Erskine Caldwell was an American Author who wrote about the socially and economically bereft in the South during and after the Depression. Tobacco Road was his first novel when it was released in 1932.
Tobacco Road depicts the Lester Family, a broken household consisting of a failed farmer, his silent wife, their rambunctious son, their harelipped but well filled-out daughter, and their fringe-living grandmother. It centers around father Jeeter’s primordial urge to break the soil and farm the land that has been his family’s for generations. Crippling circumstance leads to body and mind-numbing poverty for them all, and the brood resorts to baser instincts as they try to get by, stealing from a son-in-law one day and giving harelipped daughter Ellie May to him the next.
The style in which the book is written is one of my favorite things about it, next to the characterization. It’s pretty bare-bones, arid, heavy to the breath. Caldwell seems to know his subject very well, and though it’s in third person the narration uses the same diction and cadence as the characters. It’s off-putting at first reading about Ellie May siding her rump across the dirt towards Lov in an effort to seduce him, but if you stick with it the simplistic urges and base needs start to seem less and less weird and more and more distressing, desperate even. And the most horrible part of it is that they see no solution to their problem.
Instead of going to town to get the cotton-seed and guano, Jeeter just sits around waiting for an angel from God to come down and give them to him. He constantly comes up with reasons to delay getting things done, and yet they seem genuine to him and his family, they are more products of the horrible conditions and stifling history than personal strength. Make no mistake about it, these people are truly destitute; the government has forsaken them, their creditors have forsaken them, and even the land has forsaken them. My mom saw me reading the book and said to me that, while she didn’t know of the book or of Erskine Caldwell, she had heard the term ‘Tobacco Road’ spoken of before, and she knew it that if you were there, you were in trouble. The same sentiment is voiced in the foreward of the edition I have, printed by the University of Georgia Press and written by Lewis Nordan. In fact, he says “Yet when we spoke of the poorest, or the most hopeless, or even the morally reprehensible among us, we said, ‘They might as well be living on Tobacco Road.’ I had never heard the name of Erskine Caldwell, let alone read one of the books; yet these words, and the vision of the rural South, had made their way into the American mind.” ‘Being on Tobacco Road’ was another way of saying that you made poor people look advantaged.
An important aspect of the novel is its repetition. The characters repeat constantly—in their wants, in their goals, and in their actions. This repetition is noticeable, and important, because all of their wants and goals are short; things like food, a woman, some snuff. And each time the characters say something, it is as if it was the first time they uttered it; they have no recollection of past attempts or thoughts; “if we could just talk to Tom, he would send a few dollars our way for snuff and food, no matter that we haven’t talked to him in years”. It’s as if the moral capacity that is inherent in repetition is lost in the Lester Family, probably because their repetition is centered around basic desires, and the fulfillment of those desires keeps getting stymied.
I was disappointed a little by the end, or rather the last couple pages before the end. I think the end is a crushing realization that the phrase “it can’t get any worse than it already is”, is rooted squarely in fantasy, and the way it does that while assuming a cyclical shape is remarkable. But I do wish the couple pages before that were a little tighter, I wish the narrative focused and unfocused in a couple key places. I don’t want to get too specific, as it’ll ruin the impact the novel has, but the morning after the fire really didn’t strike me the way it could have.
Nevertheless, I’m glad I found this book; it provided a couple bridges from Flannery O’Connor, whose short stories I have been reading on and off all summer. They both grapple with the ideal of the “Romantic South”, though it seems O’Connor focuses more on social and cultural issues while Caldwell’s works have heavy economic and class concerns. Interestingly enough, I haven’t read (or seen) Gone With the Wind, what many consider to be the keystone to the whole ‘Reconstructed South/New South’ puzzle. It’s one I’ll be glad to work my brain over on.
The Mad Genius of Raymond Scott is clearly evident in this track, titled ‘Lightworks’. (Some of you may be saying “Hey, that’s a J Dilla song!”. In fact, J Dilla sampled both this song and ”Bendix: The Tomorrow People” [also by Scott] for his version of ‘Lightworks’.) Lightworks was a line of cosmetics that included blush, eye-liner, lipstick, and more. Scott took the jingle and, between 1960 and 1963, made multiple versions of the track. Scott strongly believed that the advent of electronic music was in radio and advertisements.
An Electronium, one of Scott’s many inventions.
My interest in Scott stems from my recent purchase of Manhattan Research Inc., a beautifully-composed 2 CD collection of Scott’s fantastic voyage into electronic music. The set is presented as a book, with the two CDs as bookends and a plethora of information in the middle. One hundred and forty-four pages of stuff, to be precise, and it is all fascinating, ranging from informative morsels on specific songs to retrospectives to interviews from people who worked with Scott. One of the more interesting of these is from Robert Moog, known in his own right as the inventor of the Moog Synthesizer. Scott himself was an inventor, and developed such instruments and machines as the clavivox, circle machine, bass-line generator, rhythm modulator, electronium, and more. He was a whiz with machines, and felt more at home with them than with with people. The tracks, therefore, range from friendly advertisements (“K2r”) to mechanical exercises (“The Bass-Line Generator) to early electronic (“In the Hall of the Mountain Queen”) bizarre musique concrete pieces (“IBM MT/St: The Paperwork Explosion”). They are all genius, and way ahead of their time for being from the 50s and 60s. Ahead of their time, but not strange; they provide an (initially, at least) alien soundtrack, one that sounds totally new because it is made without human effort. Everything else was turning machine, why not music? All in all, they fit quite nicely with the forward-thinking man of the 50s, with his reflective silver space suits and corner-less buildings and atomic ray particulizers. Where are those, anyway?
What intrigues me most, however, aren’t his amazing inventions or daring musique concrete pieces. What intrigues me most is the fact that Scott began his career as a big band bandleader, composer, and pianist. Though it’s clearly evident in the musicality of his electronic explorations, it is downright awesome how the man pursued his interests into an unpopular and unknown frontier, and came out teaching the whole world the possibilities, both amazing and frightening, of electronic music and human manipulation.
Music to fall asleep to (if that’s your sort of thing). I also suggest Nick Drake’s Pink Moon album (though try listening to it while you’re awake—it’s awesome). I would say anything by William Basinski, but his compositions are just too good, so try “Discreet Music” by Brian Eno. It’s pleasant, relaxing, doesn’t go much of anywhere, and is thirty minutes long. Perfect!
I think the link above is a fascinating, skin-cringingly effective way to teach history. The beeps as time goes by reenact a countdown, the different countries coming in sound like new challengers to a frightening game, and the lulls in between the manic crescendos of noise make one, if they didn’t know it before, question the successes and failures of the Atomic Age.
The link above is not of the experimental (and great!) flash game, but rather a blog with a simple idea: one photo, every day, from 1979-1997. The photos are all poloroids, and the greatest thing about them (for me) is that they provide a new way of telling a story. The pictures, individually interesting (if a bit unmoored) start to blend together, links form in the moments waiting for one image to fade and the next to load. They are of things you would expect photographs to be if you were told to take one every day: friends, family, accomplishments, little moments of beauty, frustrations. And though this particular story does have the bittersweet tinge of finality (the photographer, Jamie Livingston, had cancer, and in fact the day he died his friends took a final picture of him for the project), what resonates in my mind is his conviction. Everyone has created projects or assignments out of boredom, inspiration, necessity, or promise, but to actually stick with it, and stick with it for 18 years, is awe-inspiring. Jamie called the project “Photo of the Day”, and I believe this is the key to why this idea is so fully realized. To him, they weren’t just a photo, but a photo OF THE DAY, and in that he had to have the thought of them in his mind at all times. It’s so often that I get frustrated, or lazy, or distracted, and these (or so I thought) important assignments go undone. This project must have been his way out of that, his way to deal with all the other frustrations and tough decisions and time-warping distractions. It’s something simple, it’s something easy—take a photo, every day, and stretch them out over some patch of space. It seems like he grew to sleep with the camera by his nightstand because a lot of the photos retain a mellow, unscripted quality in their quietude. This isn’t something that on a day-by-day basis is revelatory, but it’s a unique kind of reflection and retrospection, and one that, though so easy and small a thing, is seemingly so hard. It takes the saying, “wake up and smell the roses”, but does anyone do that every day? And if they did, would it retain its beauty? I suppose that only by treating it as nothing, as normal, as everyday, can you let time pass by and see, closely now, that there really was something special going on.