Monthly Archives: May 2014

Have a Piece of Pie

One of my Guilty Pleasures is books that I classify as Anglophilia. The latest to join the heap is Regina Marler’s Bloomsbury Pie: The Making of the Bloomsbury Boom. It’s comfortable and interesting in a slightly voyeuristic way, and from time to time one encounters a passage that just needs to be passed along to others. Today’s case in point:

Perhaps because they threaten our private feelings for a cherished figure, attempts to explain the few veiled elements of Virginia Woolf’s character arouse frenzied opposition. Armed with Freud or Laing or Husserl or Lacan and the immense written record of Virginia Woolf’s life, numberless critics and biographers have tried their hand at the puzzle only to be judged, at best, plausible and sensitive or, at worst, hostile, fanciful, unreflective, biased, arrogant, self-serving, and violently appropriative. Even the official biographer was attacked for broaching the possibility of sexual molestation: those who came after were torn by jackals. Some observers, like Leon Edel, blamed Michael Holroyd for establishing a prurient interest in the Bloomsberries and setting the tone for subsequent journalism and scholarship. This overlooks not only the growing candor of the period, however, but the perennial appeal of other people’s private lives. “Let me confess,” wrote Quentin Bell, “horrible though it may be to do so, that I would rather read almost any frivolous and salacious journalism than almost any literary criticism.” (pp 167-168)

And so say we all.

time, space and The Americans

98 cent words are always a pleasure: one can hug oneself over the fine distinctions and definitional nuances they facilitate, or revel in arcana accessible only to the cognoscenti… but sometimes they may serve a constructive purpose by staking out underexplored semantic territory. Chronotope is one such term, handy in helping me clarify an ongoing struggle with images in time. Its origins are more or less in literature:

The concept of chronotope, from Mikhail Bakhtin, provides a useful tool … Chronotope is the coordination of a system of time and space, a form-giving ideology. Bakhtin uses the term to name the set of distinctive temporal and spatial features within a work, the phenomenal « feel » of the world produced by the work, which is, it should be emphasized, quite different from the world in which the work is produced. In the chronotope, “time, as it were, thickens, takes on flesh, becomes artistically visible; likewise, space becomes charged and responsive to the movements of time, plot, and history. The intersection of axes and fusion of indicators characterizes the artistic chronotope.” The chronotope determines, if it does not displace, the more familiar notion of genre… (K.Michael Hays)

‘Chronotope’ has found its way into film discourse, but is rarely used in writing about photography. One exception is a remarkable book of photographs of Afghanistan by Simon Norfolk, Chronotopia: Landscapes of the Destruction of Afghanistan.

I owe my awareness of the term ‘chronotope’ to my friend Ron Nigh, with whom I taught a couple of courses a decade ago (see here and here). About 30 years before that, we had limned related territory in a reading course with G. William Skinner in the general realm of anthropologies of time-and-space (we called it ‘4-space’ at the time), but Bakhtin was unknown to us then.

I want to appropriate (in a Dumptean sense) ‘chronotope’ to talk about the subjective experience of multifaceted time-and-space, a territory I seem to inhabit more and more with each passing year, a continuing tumble through the chronosynclastic infundibulum of now-and-then, here-and-there that passes for Reality.

And I’m caught in time myself, in multiple ways. I belong to a cohort that’s been marching toward oblivion since 1943, sharing experiences and outlooks (more or less) and seeing the Zeitgeist differently from adjacent cohorts (George WS Trow was one of the ablest chroniclers of the cohort). I pick and choose among incoming innovations (Facebook no, iPhone yes), and betimes must deal with the perceptions/capabilities of much younger individuals and cohorts. Occasionally I’ve been blindsided, most recently by the 9-second gif (Mike Johnston offers an interesting take on photographic aspects of the technological present …and don’t miss his followup post on the changing culture of photography).

I spend a lot of time exploring bits of the past, trying to construct coherent narratives for myself. Lately I’ve been revisiting photographic territories of the past, looking through books I’ve had on the shelves for years and buying new ones as I encounter titles that enlarge some aspect of my interests. Each book (for that matter, each photograph) has multiple coordinates in time and space. These include the basic publication metadata (where and when), the facts of when I encountered and purchased, the contexts (spatio-temporal, intellectual, relational) in which I read and re-read them, their place in the land- and timescapes of commentary and criticism. Thus, Steichen’s Family of Man came into my ken sometime in the mid-1950s, before I had even begun to think of myself as a photographer; re-entered my life in the early 1960s when I was self-consciously developing my own visual aesthetic; dropped in and out of nowness multiple times over the years as I revisited it in various contexts; and most recently I found it juxtaposed in contrast to Robert Frank’s The Americans.

…a look at the overall plan of the book [The Americans] reveals it to be more like a perverse parody of Edward Steichen’s 1955 catalogue for the exhibition, “The Family of Man.” It covers the same range of topics but from an altered viewpoint that reverses the implicit argument that the political system proceeds from the individual. And there are clear parallels — the introduction by Jack Kerouac, for example, which mocks Carl Sandburg’s introduction to The Family of Man… (Jno Cook)

And it’s really The Americans that I’m leading up to writing about. It seems to be widely agreed that Frank’s book, first published in the late 1950s (by Grove Press), was a watershed in [modern/American/documentary] photography. I can’t remember when or even if I encountered it as a book in the early 1960s, but I should have. I certainly knew a number of its images very well, but I wasn’t aware of the controversies the book unleashed, and until quite recently I didn’t reckon with its influence on my own perceptions of photography. A couple of years ago I almost bought Looking In: Robert Frank’s The Americans, and now it’s indefinitely backordered (gotta have it: 600 pages of analysis of the original, 50 years after its first publication –see


You can see many of the images from the book via Google images, but not of course in the carefully architected order in which Frank assembled them.

In one sense, Frank’s photographs are a record of a specific time (1955-56) and a sequence
of locations which he visited during a transit of the US, funded by a Guggenheim grant. Across half a century there has been a rainbow of responses to The Americans, beginning with plentiful umbrage at the presumption of a Swiss beatnik’s dark vision of the Beloved Land, but within a decade there was a dawning recognition that the book had in fact changed American photography, or anyway changed how American photographers saw their surroundings. Nathan Lyon’s Vision and Expression: An International Survey of Contemporary Photography (from the Eastman House show of 1969) makes no explicit reference to Robert Frank, but most of the photographs in the exhibit are almost unimaginable without Frank’s example.

Here’s John Szarkowski’s reminiscence of the initial response to The Americans:

It was something in the very bones of the photographs themselves – something about the look of the pictures that suggested that, whereas what was being described had to be described because it was there, it didn’t have to be described according to the rules and formulations that were thought of as being good photography… We all knew those things existed… but the way in which they were depicted made them seem more difficult to accept, more pessimistic. There was something approaching a sharp edge of bitterness in the look of the pictures. And of course what was eventually learned from that it was not necessarily the sensibility that gave the pictures their bitter taste, but rather the knowledge that the medium itself was much more plastic, and was open to a wider range of invention that we ever realized.

(Szarkowski, in Philip and Amy Brookman’s 1986 video Fire in the East: A Portrait of Robert Frank)

and see also Leaving Home, Coming Home: A Portrait of Robert Frank

James May’s Robert Frank’s “The American’s”: A Dawning of Self Loathing and Political Correctness (2010) and Jno Cook’s Robert Frank:Dissecting the American Image (1986) can be read as opposite arguments, but I’m tempted to see them as two sides of the same Chronotopic Coin, and thus to see The Americans as a text that encourages (hell, maybe even provokes) multiple and even divergent readings, especially over 25 years of cultural vicissitudes. Is The Americans a parody of Family of Man or is it not? I’m happy to answer “yes” (to both questions) and to trade those two perspectives back and forth, according to the time-and-space which I occupy as I read the two documents.

Cook’s 1986 essay is a profound take on Frank, worth reading even if one initially disagrees, and one might be persuaded to look again and then again again at the book, trying to see it with Cook’s eyes. I am mightily impressed by the sheer work Jno Cook has done in producing The Robert Frank Coloring Book and his 1982 Afterimage essay. Netflix has Philippe Seclier’s documentary American Journey: Revisiting Robert Frank’s The Americans (2009),
which has a short segment with Jno Cook, in which he shows pages from The Robert Frank Coloring Book. I quote at length from Cook 1986 because I’m still chewing on it:

…recognizable even in the 1950s as a tone of disapproving sadness which had never before been allowed in photojournalism… it took years to recognize that the book went far beyond diary and document, that in rejecting the mannered and predictable style of photojournalism of the period Frank produced a radical critique of photography itself. Radical, because it returned photography to the vernacular of vision: in The Americans the everyday is recognized as it is seen and this recognition makes the book amazingly undated even after twenty-five years. And a critique because any return to the vernacular implicates the established style of photography in a falsification of the real world. “You can photograph anything now,” Robert Frank said in 1961…

…a look at the overall plan of the book reveals it to be more like a perverse parody of Edward Steichen’s 1955 catalogue for the exhibition, “The Family of Man.” It covers the same range of topics but from an altered viewpoint that reverses the implicit argument that the political system proceeds from the individual. And there are clear parallels — the introduction by Jack Kerouac, for example, which mocks Carl Sandburg’s introduction to The Family of Man…

…The Americans became a prophetic symbol for the rethinking of America — something which would become a universal consciousness and critical awareness of a younger generation within ten years of its publication. Unified in intent — as an experience, as a disdainful gesture, as a critique of photography, and superimposed on a critique of America — the combined power of these images voiced that something was wrong, that changes had to be made. Often more felt than rationally understood, the message became a radical point of departure for the work among a generation of photographers

…What first struck me about The Americans was the refusal of any of the images to adhere to recognizable stereotypes. None of them had a look of familiarity about them. This was a genuine hindrance, for the readability of photographs is always a matter of recognition, of familiarity. What we see in each new photograph is what we recognize as having been seen before in all other photographs. But the images of The Americans were not familiar, and at the same time they were all too familiar. For most readers they presented a surrealists’s view on life: absurd, ambiguous, and inconclusive. In 1958, it was totally unexpected, and totally new. Frank, however was not pretending to art through ambiguity, as if subtlety might be suggested with vagueness, for the images of The Americans are anchored in a bedrock of specificity and careful intent. Each meant something, each was taken for a reason, and each was purposefully included in the book. Many of the reasons are as simple as the experience of things wholly American by a stranger from a foreign land; outside his ken, and overlooked by us, it was a new look at America seen through European eyes and taking Europe as the standard of judgment…

…Seen as a miniature exhibition the book presents the photographs as evidence in an argument about America, but an inconclusive argument, for nothing seems to be proven. The pervasive display of malaise, however is powerful and frightening just the same. The effect is totally different from the thematic illustrative use of photographs in Steichen’s book. Frank’s ability to build a series of single unrelated images to a crescendo of unnerving feelings is perhaps the most masterful aspect of the book…

…Spend enough time with the book and you will learn that there is nothing random about the order of the photographs — that each has been selected for a specific place in the series, that groups reiterate specific themes like carefully chosen words in a poem, and that each photograph is usually a direct response to its predecessor, at least to the point of maintaining visual links between subsequent photos, at times as many as four or five simultaneously. Look at the titles too, for as often as visual connections can be found there exist verbal relationships — in English, in French, in German. The specifics of the infrastructure of The Americans can get in the way: you get lost among the multiple cross references, the allusions to the work of others, pointed references to The Family of Man, punning irreverent art-historical allusions, and the just-plain-fun things the series of bottles, or stripes, or trees, or prints (fabric print, fine print, newsprint, photographic print — the “nothing- scape”). This Varronian monologue of the book — which mixes wit, black humour, and pathos in a series of rhymes, asides, contradictions, and seemingly irrelevant interludes — will intrigue and confound the minds of all but the most casual readers. The whole enterprise makes little sense unless you understand it as an element in an established mode of expression — established, that is, in literature and art, but unheard of in photography…

…In 1957 Frank voiced his disagreement with the proposition that photography was assumed to be understood by all, “even children.” It becomes obvious then that the hidden argument of The Americans is that photographs are in fact generally misread and misunderstood. Ample proof lies in the concordance of organized disharmony of the book, a fabric of intricate connections woven into a jubilant display of intellectualism which almost displaces the grim subject matter at the surface…

…The Americans uses a form completely different from the narrative, the illustrative, even from the diaristic and album type of photographic literature, and certainly from the “photo essay.”…

still to integrate:

George Cotkin’s The Photographer in the Beat-Hipster Idiom – Robert Frank’s The Americans (1985)

Tom Coles’s
‘Americans’: The Book That Changed Photography
(2009)

Eric Kim’s Robert Frank’s “The Americans”: Timeless Lessons Street Photographers Can Learn (2013)

and many more, via ASX Channel

Musical Heroes continued: Sandy Bull

I don’t remember where or exactly when, but sometime in 1964 the needle dropped on Side A of Sandy Bull’s Fantasias for Guitar and Banjo, the 21-minute “Blend”, and my musical world changed fundamentally and forever.

That profound lurch has happened a number of times (probably dozens), and I’m pleased to say it still visits from time to time. The phenomenon is an index of my immersion in music, and especially reflects my engagement with plucked strings. Generally it’s a matter of hearing some stylistic or technical nuance that is at the same time a mystery and a revelation: how do they do that dissolving into that’s what I want to do. I can grok the former without ever fully realizing the latter; the epiphany is almost enough, but often has driven my own musical experimentation.

If I could define a broader context for this very personal and idiosyncratic involvement, I would say that it is located in the Problem of Style and Innovation, and that I have a lifelong engagement with the outer fringes of styles and genres, where innovations are most likely to manifest themselves. To put it another way, the question of where {Sandy Bull} fits (substitute any innovator in the curly brackets) is often contentious for those most interested in the core values of a Style. Innovators seem often to be lone wolves, and sometimes they’re pretty lonely too, or at least more or less content to remain on the margins. My own pantheon of innovators includes misanthropes like John Fahey and Skip James, lost sheep like Sandy Bull, Nick Drake and Davey Graham, sheer originals like Rahsaan Roland Kirk and Reverend Gary Davis, and monomaniac virtuosos like Bill Monroe, Clarence White, Tony Rice, David Grisman, Andy Statman… The point is not to make exhaustive lists, but to explore where the unique outcroppings of genius come from, and how they link up with (influence/are influenced by) existing Styles. Each of those dozen-odd colossi needs his own discussion/analysis/exposition, and I may eventually get to that…

But back to Sandy Bull. It’s always handy to begin with Wikipedia’s summary; a 2001 memorial piece by Derk Richardson No Bull / Remembering the father of multicultural fusion, guitarist Sandy Bull and John Robinson’s 2012 article Sandy Bull: the Sixties folk pioneer who burnt out too soon provide useful background information. And ‘burnt out’ is part of the tale: I only saw him once live myself, in 1971, and on that occasion he struggled for about 20 minutes to tune an instrument before essentially giving up. The 1976 “Sandy Bull & the Rhythm Ace” is a live concert recording after he’d been in rehab: he’s playing brilliantly, but it’s easy to discern that he’s shy and very uncomfortable with an audience.

His reasons for continuing to play alone, when all or most of his contemporaries have found their superstar niche in a band of some kind, are very simple. “You know I love to play with other people at some time or another, because that feeling of sharing the music is something you don’t get anywhere else; but as far as concerts and gigs go, if I can make a living alone I prefer to spare myself all those ego trips that usually go down within a band.” (John Coleman article, 1970)

Sandy Bull had a 4-record contract with Vanguard, and such things often go awry as real life intrudes upon a performer’s career trajectory. The five cuts on 1963’s Fantasias were pretty much unprecedented and the very definition of ‘eclectic’: Side A’s Blend (see above) was a 20-minute modal exploration on an open-tuned guitar (BADGBB), in collaboration with Billy Higgins (Ornette Coleman’s drummer at the time). Side B had a banjo rendering of tunes from Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana:

an arrangement of William Byrd’s Non Nobis Domine, an excursion based in the Appalachian tune Little Maggie:

and a Gospel Tune using a Staples Family-style electric guitar:

YouTube has the whole 2nd and 3rd Vanguard records, and some of the 4th. By one reading, you can hear Sandy Bull’s deterioration; but by another (just as legit) reading, what you’re hearing in the 3rd and 4th is a collapsing 60s Zeitgeist, turning into the jarring social and cultural confusion of the early 1970s. Those who lived through it will probably know just what I mean…

The 2nd, Inventions (1964) really seems a continuation and evolution of Fantasias, a collection of bold experiments with various instruments (the oud was a rarity at the time, and Sandy Bull’s use of the instrument is very clearly influenced by Hamza el Din). [See a review of the 2009 CD reissue]:

Blend II


Gavotte No. 2 take 1:


Gavotte No. 2 take 2


Manha de Carnival:


Triple Ballade:


Memphis Tennessee:


The 3rd, E Pluribus Unum (1969) consisted of two side-long improvisations (before such ballsy excesses were common), probably most fully appreciated in an altered state of consciousness.

No Deposit No Return Blues:


Electric Blend:


The 1969 Live Improv for Oud is a gauge of what Sandy Bull sounded like outside of the studio setting:


Some of Demolition Derby (1972) is flat-out scary. The first 3 records had [to modern sensibilities, rather pretentious] liner notes by Nat Hentoff, but DD just lists the tracks by name, and the last cut is the 0:02 “Cheeseburger” (“…the name given by our ordnance boys for the largest non-nuclear bomb in Vietnam. One shot will clear a village the size of a football field.”) [ try if you really want to hear it]. The Wikipedia entry for the record is also worth a look, and it’s perhaps significant that only a few of the tracks are to be found on YouTube.

Gotta Be Juicy (Or It Ain’t Love):


Carnival Jump:


Sweet Baby Jumper:


For 15 years Sandy Bull released no new material, and seemed to be largely forgotten –but the same might be said for many acoustic musicians who came to prominence in the 1960s. He reappeared in the late 1980s with

Jukebox School of Music (1987), and Truth and Continuum for Guitar and Serious City


are evidence that he continued to evolve.

Of course there’s much more to the Saga, including his mother’s remarkable (even somewhat bizarre) career, and someday there may be a film or perhaps a biography to fill in more missing pieces. See Piero Scaruffi for another summary take.

‘Cept Old Bill

My collection of musics sprawls and continues to grow, and I’ve played around with all sorts of ideas for what to do with the riches, how to distribute them to audiences via radio shows I might do, books I might spawn, other media I might invade. Ten years ago, when I last started to assemble materials for an ethnomusicological farrago, YouTube didn’t exist; now practically anything you can imagine has a relevant video, so I’m thinking to combine that treasure trove with stuff I know (or, better yet, stuff I continue to be curious about).

The first project that occurred to me, in the form of a named collection, is a mandolin-centered compendium with the name ‘Cept Old Bill. I thought it would be interesting to begin with a tune written by Jethro Burns, which both honors and pokes a bit of fun at Bill Monroe, who is generally named as the Father of Bluegrass Music. The verses name a series of legendary mandolin players, basically saying for each “nobody does it better… ‘cept Old Bill”. So when I did a YouTube search for ‘Cept Old Bill one of the first results was this remarkable document. Not only do you see and hear Jethro Burns (who died in 1989), at the very end Bill Monroe himself puts in an appearance. :

There’s so much implied here, so many threads to follow. We might ask to see/hear each of the named mandolinists (YouTube is happy to comply), we might explore the Bluegrass genre (its origins, its evolution), we might wonder about the mandolins themselves. Each of these paths leads to further delights and questions, of course.

Let’s begin with Bill Monroe (1911-1996) himself. His Blue Grass Boys include many who are now famous in their own right, and serving as a Monroe sideman was a rite de passage for a couple of generations of banjo-, guitar-, and fiddle-players.

Steve Gebhardt’s 1993 film is a wonderful introduction to Bill’s world, though it emphasizes the mellow old dude rather than the famously irascible and demanding bandleader.

For some people, the lore of Bill Monroe’s 1923 Gibson F5 mandolin is as fascinating as the music itself, and nobody tells it better, ‘cept Old Bill: [sc_embed_player fileurl=”http://www.mandolinarchive.com/audio/73987/73987_monroe_mandolin_story.mp3″]
Pictures and stories abound.

As for Bill Monroe’s music, ‘Rawhide’ is probably the tune most familiar from the Monroe repertoire:


but Monroe’s innovations with the mandolin are even more interesting once one gets beyond the sheer drive of Rawhide. It’s been argued that Bill Monroe is one of the main links between Blues and Country/Old Timey genres:

[as a teenager] Bill also played with Arnold Schultz, a black blues musician, who became another major influence on his future music. He was given the chance to play guitar in Schultz’s band, thus incorporating something new into his awareness: the blues. “[Arnold] was a real musician,” reminisced Monroe, “and I thought it was an honor to get to play with him. There’s no colored man could play the blues with him, nobody in the world could play blues with that man.” (from BillMonroe.com, and see Keith Lawrence for more detail).

An example of the Monroe treatment of Blues, and a touch of the High Lonesome Sound too:

Get Up John is my candidate for the Most Rousing:

The mandolin is tuned to a cross-note Open D chord: F#A DD AA AD (where GDAE is standard mandolin tuning).

So it’s important to see Bill Monroe as an innovator with the mandolin, in the context of Country string bands, the ensemble groups in Southern/Appalachian traditions. It would be interesting to explore pre-Monroe mandolin, which is generally more melodic/less inclined to driving rhythm, but that’s a whole other project.

It’s useful to think of musicians in generational terms: younger players start as fans and emulators of older and established players, go on to make innovations in technique and repertoire, and in turn are followed by still younger players. Bill Monroe remains as a Gold Standard… but the problem with being the Father is that the Children are never content merely to emulate: they are pretty much driven to differentiate themselves by innovation. Exactly that process has happened with bluegrass mandolin: great honor is (still) paid to Bill Monroe as the Founder, but nobody aspires just to play exactly as he did.

Still, Bluegrass is essentially a classical form, the rules pretty clear about what is and isn’t Bluegrass, and while Bill Monroe was alive he wasn’t hesitant to express his opinion if he considered that somebody was deviating from the model and wasn’t playing Bluegrass. That ain’t no part of nothin’, he’d say. Shain Shapiro’s Bluegrass: A Theoretical Study provides more context, via interviews with a number of the Inheritors of the Monroe tradition.

Each of the instruments in the Bluegrass band (including the vocal –that ‘High Lonesome Sound’) has its own fascinating history of evolution and innovation, and players who began as straight-ahead Bluegrass players in or near the Monroe tradition have by now built their own legacies –but that too is a whole other project.

Here’s the Bill Monroe lineup when it included Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs and Chubby Wise:

Here’s a version of ‘Cept Old Bill by Del McCoury and Sam Bush:

Sam Bush honors Jethro Burns

Mandolinists named in ‘Cept Old Bill: David Grisman, Sam Bush, John Duffy, Mark O’Connor, Mike Marshall, Norman Blake, Jesse McReynolds… each deserves an analytical page of his own, and there are a number of worthy Successors who would surely have been added if Jethro was still playing the tune: Frank Wakefield, Andy Statman, Tim O’Brien, Chris Thile, Sierra Hull, Sarah Jarosz…

Something of the wealth of possibilities (which I may reorganize and narrate more fully anon):

Mark O’Connor

Chris Thile

Chris Thile and Tim O’Brien play a Bill Monroe tune:

“The Greatest Improv Mandolin Solo Ever”: Chris Thile w. Mark O’Connor
at 1:40 Chris starts to improvise (through 4:15)

and here’s where it gets you in the band context, a long way from Monroe with Flatt and Scruggs:

Andy Statman

John Duffy

EMD with Grisman

DGQ 1980

EMD 2003 Quintet Reunion

EMD 1980s

DGQ 2006 first set

crosspicking demo

Jesse McReynolds

The basic organology of the mandolin turns out to be pretty complicated, and probably won’t fascinate all that many readers. The voice is exactly in the range of the violin: GDAE. Mandolin Café’s history covers the ground pretty well, but add Daniel Coolik’s piece, a page on A-model Gibson mandolins, mandolinluthier.com’s lovely photos, Graham McDonald’s Mandolin Project, and finally listen to Dixie Michelle: