The Daily

Posts Tagged ‘Americana’

No More Good Time in the World For Me

August 10, 2016 | by

The “unlove and unfreedom” in Johnnie B. Smith’s work songs.

All photos: Bruce Jackson.

All photos by Bruce Jackson,

Max Nelson is writing a series on prison literature.

During the thirteen years he spent jailed for murder on a Texas prison farm, Johnnie B. Smith sang work songs. In 1964, the ethnomusicologist Bruce Jackson met Smith during a trip through the state prison system to document the dwindling number of older, black prisoners who still knew the sorts of songs Smith led. He taped Smith’s renditions of a handful of standards: “Drop ’Em Down Together,” “Sure Make a Man Feel Bad,” “Poor Boy.” But Smith, Jackson soon learned, also sang songs of his own writing, stranger and more private than the ones he’d heard passed down.

These songs share a structure and melody, but they allow for a nearly limitless range of embellishments and improvisations. Their stanzas, for the most part, have four lines each—a single couplet sung in two variations. Their melody, which Smith adjusts verse by verse and song by song, is more difficult to describe. Its tempo accelerates and slows downs unexpectedly; its volume swells and falls; it changes gears rattlingly; it’s marked by disquieting pockets of silence. The shortest of these songs is over six minutes long; the longest, more than twenty-three. 

At the time Jackson conducted his fieldwork, Ramsey—where Smith was held—was one of fourteen prisons in the Texas Correctional System. It comprised a sprawling farm property produced by combining five former plantations. Inmates felled trees, picked cotton, and worked the fields; the resulting products were either used within the prison or sold to cover the cost of housing the prisoners themselves. (As late as the early 1960s, the work teams were entirely segregated.) Ramsey’s inmates were, in effect, funding their own imprisonment, and for many decades black prisoners did so under conditions not much different from those of chattel slavery. The “riders” and “captains” Smith addresses across his songs were horse-mounted bosses whose brutality toward the work crews was widely known and feared. Read More »

The Last Days of Foamhenge

July 26, 2016 | by

Hanover 2810-24

Photo: Brett Hanover.

If you’ve ever taken I-81 north through Virginia, you’ve passed the town of Natural Bridge, in Rockbridge County—home to a ninety-foot limestone arch that extends over a gorge, a geological anomaly probably formed by an ancient underground river. Natural Bridge is an anachronism from the Route 66 era of highway travel, a place where you can pay twenty dollars to look at a rock, eat a rock-themed lunch, and then buy a shot glass illustrated with a picture of that same rock. As any respectable tourist trap must, the town hosts a constellation of other attractions: a petting zoo, a dinosaur/Civil War theme park, and the Natural Bridge Wax Museum (now closed, and former home to a ghoulish Obama tribute). Best of all is the featherlight, faux prehistoric monument known as Foamhenge.

As its name suggests, Foamhenge is a one-to-one scale replica of Stonehenge, made of foam. It is identical to the original, save the flecked gray paint, the accompanying statue of a deadhead-ish Merlin, and the fact that it was erected several millennia later. For the past twelve years, the henge has been the most public of Natural Bridge’s draws, garnering a steady stream of visitors and enough press to be mentioned in the same breath as the area’s actual ancient rocks. Its creator, an artist named Mark Cline, calls it his “foam-nomenon”: the unlikely culmination of his career as a sculptor of roadside attractions. Read More »

Road Trip

June 15, 2016 | by

Greg Drasler’s exhibition “Road Trip” opens tonight at Betty Cuningham Gallery.

Reservations, 2014, oil on linen, 40" x 44".

 Read More »

Zines, Zines, Zines, and Other News

April 13, 2016 | by

From Dear Motorist, one of the zines newly acquired by the University of Kansas.

Memento Mori

March 10, 2016 | by

This painting and below: E. B. Roberts, Series of Salesman Samples for Memorials, 1929, enamel on board,  20" x 24". From a series of thirty-three paintings. Images courtesy Ricco/Maresca Gallery.

Trawling through eBay recently, I came across a folder of sample funeral cards from the early twentieth century. As near as I can tell, salesmen would roam from funeral home to funeral home peddling these to undertakers, who would in turn press them on bereaved families. They were standard thank-you notes, essentially—“The family of _________ will hold in grateful remembrance your Spiritual Bouquet and kind expression of sympathy”—but unattached to any death in particular, their messages were gauche, even funny. That they were framed in advertising copy didn’t help. Imagine: Someone you love dies, and before you can even pick out the announcement cards, you have to read sentences like “Genuine engraving achieves its inherent beauty from a correlation of width and depth which no other process possesses.” As a character in Terry Southern’s The Loved One says: “Death has become a middle-class business. There’s no future in it.” Read More »

Doughnut Holes

December 15, 2015 | by

Heed the creed.

As you ramble on through life, brother,
Whatever be your goal,
Keep your eye upon the doughnut,
And not upon the hole. 

This “Optimist’s Creed” could be read from the thirties through the seventies on every box of Mayflower Donuts, and on the walls of its stores. It was, says the New York Times, “the personal motto of the founder, Adolph Levitt.” But its true author has been lost to the mists of time: Levitt’s granddaughter told the Times that he’d seen the doggerel framed in a dime store and made it his personal credo. Presumably someone working at a greeting-card company tossed it off one day; we can only imagine said copywriter’s impotent rage when the Mayflower chain took off and the slogan appeared everywhere. Read More »