Arts, equity, and the whitewashing of Riddle Fest

I learned something this week: There are no artists of color performing at the upcoming Riddle Festival, an annual event celebrating Lesley Riddle. What you need to know here is that Riddle was an African-American musician from Burnsville who greatly influenced the Carter Family. So think about that for a minute: The first family of country music has a black musician to thank.

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Lesley “Esley” Riddle, right, with guitarist Brownie McGhee.

This is not the only story where mountain, Appalachian, country, folk and roots music — much of which seems so of the domain of white folks — is actually closely tied to and even originating from the creative efforts of people of color. But because the white narrative has long been the dominant narrative, people of color tend to be diminished or overlooked or left out altogether. Or not invited to participate in a festival commemorating a person who looks like them and represents the history, hopes, talents, and ingenuity of their community.

I don’t think the organizers behind Riddle Fest intended any harm or slight, but I do think these kind of oversights pile up, one on top of the next, until we really can’t see past them anymore. Words like “appropriation” get bandied about — for good reason — but I see a greater harm. Yes, when white musicians record and profit from the songs of unrecognized musicians of color, it’s plagiarism and intellectual theft. If the original artist isn’t being uplifted and his or her family compensated for payment that the original artist never received, the crime is compounded. But there’s also a social implication: Not only are we white folks complicit in perpetuating white supremacy (I know: The term calls to mind Klan robes and skinheads in red boots — it actually means maintaining a narrative and system wherein the needs of white people are valued above, often at the cost of, the needs of all other groups), we are deteriorating the rich tapestry of our collective human story.

By writing some people out of that story, we lose track of their contributions, their talents, they unique points of view, their voices in the choir. We paint with fewer colors, sing with fewer notes, dance with a limited vocabulary. I could go on. But think of all the musicians we don’t know about because they were be written out of our collective history in order to maintain a prominent and dominant place for white artists. Think about this: Old-time music wasn’t only made by white folks. But can you name a black artist (other than members of the Carolina Chocolate Drops) in that genre? And aren’t you curious to know who those under-recognized artists are, what they sound like, what tunes of theirs could be shared right now?

So it’s important that Lesley Riddle was a black man, and it’s important that the black community is part of any celebration of him, and any carrying forward of his music. It also matters that while Riddle was key to the Carter musicians becoming The Carter Family, the Carters were early inductees to the Blue Ridge Music Hall of Fame, but Riddle has yet to receive that distinction. In fact, only one artist of color — Piedmont blues dynamo Etta Baker — has thus far been inducted into that organization in its nine-year tenure.

We need to collectively care about these disparities and not allow them to stand. There’s too much at stake. Too much art, and therefore humanity, is being lost to the revisionist history we have — even if unwittingly — agreed to.

 

My blood and stars and everything: Gregory Alan Isakov on writing

I recently interviewed singer-songwriter Gregory Alan Isakov for Mountain Xpress. He’s on tour for his new record, Gregory Alan Isakov with The Colorado Symphony. Read the full feature here. Greg is one of my favorite musicians because his songs tell stories of encapsulated worlds and moods. The poetry is fleet is graceful and surprising, the melodies are bittersweet and strangely reminiscent, like remembering a snippet of a dream that fades even as it’s called to mind.

The poignancy of his lyrics, and his process as a writer, seem applicable to all genres of writing, so I wanted to share some expanded quotes fro our talk that didn’t make into the article.

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Photo by Blue Caleel

Can you talk about the new project you’re working on?

Gregory Alan Isakov: I’m just sketching a record now. I made a few EPs over this winter and last summer. They were kind of a collection — there were three or four different EPs. They were kind of complete works, and then I began working on a full-length.

Time has always been my biggest ally with writing and recording, which is why it takes me so long to put out [new work]. It’s usually no less than three years between records. I think a lot of that is letting things settle. Coming back to the recording and [asking myself], “Does this make me feel something still?” and “Is this still working?”

Continue reading

Music + words

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The Low Counts onstage at Jack of the Wood

I recently told a new friend that if one doesn’t have children, one doesn’t have a way to mark the passing of time. (Only I didn’t say “one” because that would sound weird in casual conversation.) What I do have is a blog. Or various blogs. And it turns out that they mark not only the movement of years but my own waxing and waning interests and obsessions.

I used to write about music a lot. Like, all the time. I still love music, but my literary focus is more on, well, literature these days. And my music writing Tumblr page, NavyBlack, has languished over the past two years. But it’s kind of fun to look back at the shows I went to, the albums I listened to, the bands I thought about, the videos I watched, the singles I cheered for and the careers that have taken off since I was standing up-close-and-personal at intimate shows (Alabama Shakes, I’m looking at you).

I’m in the process of moving some of my favorite writing from NavyBlack to its own page on this website. You can find it here. Feel free to visit and browse.

The shape of the hole you leave

Earlier this week I wrote about the farewell show of stephaniesid, a local band I’ve loved for more than a decade. You can read the full story here. I’m very passionate about local art, though, and I wanted to share some of my feelings about the connection between the musicians and fans on the Asheville music scene. Here’s a bit of that:

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Photo by Michael Oppenheim Photography

To those who had been listening — remember stephaniesid classing up Bele Chere on the Battery Park stage? Launching Downtown After 5 during a warm spring rain? Workshopping an album’s worth of music during a monthlong residency at Isis Restaurant & Music Hall? — there was raw edge. The sound filled the auditorium, Tim Haney’s drum kit propelled each song forward, Chuck Lichtenberger’s piano was mostly lovely and occasionally wild. Vocalist Stephanie Morgan (who has always explored the capabilities of her voice, cajoled it like an untamed horse, with its danger and might equal to its grace and beauty) danced her way through each song, shaking the lyrics from out of her own being.

Because I can’t be objective — I love these musicians and want to cheer for them as much as I want to weep for them (read their personal blogs and Facebook posts if you want to know the story behind the band’s breakup) — I’ll say this: I wonder what shape hole the absence of stephaniesid will leave in the fabric of Asheville.

Not everyone will feel it. And no band is responsible for forever composing the soundtrack to the town that birthed it. Asheville is a launching pad for those who dare to dream and try and leap; those who leap must make that jump count. So Steph and Chuck and Tim are in mid-leap now. Those of us at Diana Wortham got to see them unfurl their wings and take to the air. I suspect everyone in the crowd felt the liftoff, our own hearts jarred and swayed in that break with gravity.

… Here’s the thing: We Asheville music fans have a special relationship with our bands. They’re our neighbors, our friends, our collaborators. We come to know them and we’re (knowingly or unknowingly) contributors to their sound. We move around, swimming in the same stream of inspiration. We share a language. We touch those who touch us. These songs aren’t just markers of a place in time, they actually tell us something about ourselves. So to love a band in Asheville really means something, because that love comes back to us. And to participate in that chain reaction, to feed art and be fed by it, is a miraculous thing.

Sometimes it snows in April

I can’t remember the exact reason my cousin Andy quit speaking to me — it was twenty-eight years ago — but it had to do with Prince. I vaguely remember the argument. We were in front of the lockers before band class and we disagreed about some finer point of the musician’s genius. We both liked Prince. It was 1987 and really, who didn’t. But Andy, who was a dedicated musician when I was on the verge of quitting band, liked Prince more.

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Prince came to me through my sister. She was nearly three years younger and usually I discovered music first, but she discovered Prince. She told me his real name was Prince Rogers Nelson. She learned everything she could about Minneapolis. She talked about going to college there. She bought the soundtrack to Under the Cherry Moon. My sister probably had other Prince albums, but that’s the one we listened to most together. Continue reading

Music is the muse

A review of Eleven Dialogues from jazz trio Up Jumped Three, originally published at mountainx.com.

a0080906060_10Those who know bassist Bryan White know he’s a dedicated runner and coffee drinker. So it’s fitting that Eleven Dialogues, the newest release from jazz trio Up Jumped Three, leads with the track “Espresso (Evening).” It opens with a moody run of strings. The double bass is a low grumble and yet its deep timbre is more purr than growl, its lithe skip and shuffle a complex poetry.

That rhythmic voice also serves as a platform for Tim Winter’s guitar and Frank Southecorvo’s saxophone. And while the instrumental compositions of those three seasoned players are an intricate dance of textures and perspectives, there’s also a smoothness of vibe — an underlying warmth and polish that allows the listener to relax into the groove before returning to the headier melodic conversation. That conversation is the centerpiece, though — hence the 11-track album’s name. Continue reading

Music. Writing. Live at The Mothlight by Tin Foil Hat

Music, for me, has long been a doorway into prose. The act of listening and then transcribing both the visceral experience and the internal visualization frees me. Words find their way. A wrong word is a sore thumb, new ways of describing melodies and sonic textures present themselves. The language appears, waiting to be snatched from the air. I like this latest piece, originally published in Mountain Xpress, because it’s creative writing masquerading as an album review.

Every narrative is a story, every setting possesses a landscape. Worlds shift and reveal themselves and open and vanish in a single shuddering breath.

• • •

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Jared Hooker of Tin Foil Hat

The eight tracks of Live at The Mothlight by Tin Foil Hat — the synth-pop project of Jared Hooker — are the sonic equivalent of a series of experimental short films. Immersive, thoughtful and surreal, they unfold along nonlinear story lines and weirdly danceable melodies.

Borrowing from dream-pop, lounge, disco and techno, Hooker’s album is as much a Frankenstein creation as a lush tapestry. But the beauty of one plays off an repulsiveness of the other, and no one song is completely the property of aesthetic appeal or nefariousness. The track “Meet Your Maker,” a burbling, twitchy dance number, changes mood when the lyrics come in. Suddenly the party gives way to a nightmare, though even as Hooker sings, “All I know is I don’t want to die alone,” his voice snaps and pops to match the brisk tempo and crisp beats.

But the eerie fantasy begins with the first notes of lead track “Still Floating.” Lounging and languid, the song builds on gossamer melodies and spacey warbles. Hooker’s vocal rises into a cool upper register. It’s not a perfect lyrical performance, but it’s daring. And the art of this collection is in its risk-taking — how far can music be pushed and still retain elements of entertainment and emotional relatability? Hooker finds that edge and continually prods its boundaries.

The progression of that artistic process plays out in “Whatever.” Hooker sings, “I risk my life for a pipe dream / I want to tell my story / They simply say ‘Whatever, / I think we’ve heard enough.’” The vocal delivery is theatrical, punchy, hinting at jazz hands and arabesques that make full use of the stage. The music, which depicts the isolation and strangeness of experimentation, wheezes and swells. There’s a guttural, scratchy bottom end jabbed by synthy high notes. There’s a tambourine, a snarl of static and a slack-key-like guitar that rises into earshot and then falls away again. Hyper-happy tones grow increasingly frantic and helium-shrill.

The album sails and pitches, its sonorous and smooth moments suddenly colliding with jagged edges, industrial cacophony and roiling monsters of the unfathomable deep. The anxiety-laced “Just Cause” is followed by the darker “Mr. Belmont.” Explosive low notes rumble under Hooker’s gliding falsetto. The track could almost be a James Bond soundtrack B-Side. It’s cinematic and science-fictiony, but the hero seems to be having a bad day — or at least an unfortunate case of vertigo.

“A Day at the Beach,” with its hand claps, snaps and sun-dappled trill, is a welcome interjection. Though also surreal, the song is less haunted, more at ease. This is likely a direction Hooker could easily move in — were he to settle for dulcet tones and placated listeners. There’s a nod to Dent May — to that beachy, kitschy, psychedelic-yet-sweet brand of swoon and sway. “Under the sea were there’s no light no air to breathe / I slowly realized our love can’t be,” Hooker sings. The nightmare is never too far away.

But that’s OK because, as much as the bad dream is uncomfortable, it’s also a source of continual inspiration. Hooker doesn’t shy away from plumbing the depths of each creepy image and disharmony at his disposal. Final track “Go to the Water,” is a rocker at its outset. “Just break those chains / their only in your mind. / Because we’re standing on the precipice of our last life,” Hooker sings. It’s not a warm and fuzzy thought, but it’s a fitting conclusion for this absorbing and imaginative theater of horrors. And wonders. There are plenty of wonders, but Live at The Mothlight would rather thrill, scare, haunt and taunt that be plainly, simply pretty.