Back to You Are Here Stories today for another short piece of my creative nonfiction writing. Thanks for checking it out! If you have comments, please consider leaving them there instead of (or in addition to) here. Many thanks.
The Winding Stream is a documentary about the contributions of the Carter Family (plus Johnny Cash) to music as we know it. I was deeply impressed, and learned a lot, and was reminded here and there of another excellent music-history documentary, Muscle Shoals.
The Carter Family began with the trio of A.P. Carter, his wife Sara, and Sara’s cousin Maybelle (also a Carter by marriage to A.P.’s brother), who began playing music together in the 1920’s. The scope of the story is astounding, how many of these Carters there were and are, how many songs they recorded – the original trio left 260 recordings behind as their legacy, if I remember correctly. A.P. was an early music ethnologist, who traveled throughout his region – the Appalachian mountains of Virginia – seeking out old songs, “mountain music” as they called it (there was no “country music” yet). He noted the lyrics and the tunes and took them home, where he and Sara and Maybelle arranged them, rebuilding them somewhat, and then recorded them for the Victor Talking Machine Company. Today it occurs to us to wonder about the ethical implications of all these songs ending up being Carter songs; but as the movie points out, back then there was no concept of music being “owned” by anyone in particular. And but for A.P.’s avid, even obsessed calling to save this old music (even at the cost of his family life), many of those songs would have been lost to history in the Appalachian hills.
The trio eventually became part of a radio empire in Mexico, just across the border from Del Rio, Texas: “border radio” sprang up to avoid U.S. regulations, and used a high-powered frequency to send their programs across the States. (Stranger than fiction: the founder of the Del Rio border radio station was a doctor famous for his goat gland transplant procedure that supposedly boosted men’s sexual function and who promoted female circumcision [to make women less frigid, he claimed].) This is how a young boy named Johnny Cash first heard the Carter Family singing their old-timey songs. The group by this time involved some of the next generation, including Maybelle’s three daughters who would eventually be the Carter Sisters; one of them was little June. As Johnny Cash grew in stature, he kept Mama Maybelle close: in footage from his late life, he calls her the biggest star he ever knew.
The story goes on from there. You’ve heard of Johnny’s daughter (June’s daughter-in-law), Roseanne Cash. Their only child together, John Carter Cash, appears in the movie with his wife, an avid student of the Carter Family history who inspired him to learn more about his own legacy. These contemporary Carters still play the old music. In fact, one of the impressive details is in how many Carters there have been, and how they all seem to have had that music running in their veins: it was just a part of their lives, it appears, and they all could play. For example, Janette Carter, A.P. and Sara’s daughter, appears throughout the documentary, recalling her parents and their career. Only late in the movie do we learn that A.P. asked her on his deathbed to continue the legacy – and so she opened a dance hall and picked up her guitar and played. All of these characters – so many Carters – are rich, colorful figures in a compelling history.
As with Muscle Shoals, this film inspired a purchase: we went out immediately and bought an album by the Carolina Chocolate Drops after discovering them onscreen. One of the points made throughout is that the Carters have influenced all the music we know today. Like the (better-known) Beatles, everything that came after had a note of Carter Family in it.
Not only an extraordinary story, The Winding Stream is a well-produced and visually pleasing documentary, rich with family, detail, and emotion. I will say that in the animation of old black-and-white photographs of the original trio performing their music, the moving, blinking eyes were entirely creepy. But this was a rare treat of a movie. I learned a lot, and the music was outstanding.
Thanks to Rose City Reader for hosting this meme. To participate, share the first line or two of the book you are currently reading and, if you feel so moved, let us know what your first impressions were based on that first line.
I am fairly certain that it was Hali Felt, author of the outstanding Soundings, that recommended this book. I’ve had it on my shelf for years, and am so glad now that I have finally gotten around to reading it.
Things That Are is already sort of blowing my mind, and feels right up my alley: fanciful, dreamy, but also very rooted in the real world; whimsically lovely writing. I’ve only just begun, so stay tuned for the review: we’ll see if it sticks. But for now, wow. It begins with a chapter called Donkey Derby:
Usually all we have to do when we go a-conquering is build a boat, find a benefactress, recruit a ribald crew, and wear radiant glinting helmets. With these four easy steps my kind has conquered far-away lands, and seas and moons and molecules.
And I have the impression she will mine all those fields, that is, far-away lands, seas, moons and molecules (and maybe some of the implications of going a-conquering, too). Let us hope.
Happily, after some disappointment with The Birds the other night, I moved directly into another Hitchcock film that pleased me far more. I found Rear Window entertaining, clever, funny, and visually pleasing. Jimmy Stewart and Grace Kelly don’t hurt, of course. But fundamentally, I think murder-mystery ages better than horror, and that is what Rear Window is: not horror, but a noir murder mystery, which is one of my favorite things.
James Stewart is L.B. Jefferies (“Jeff”), successful photographer of the adventurous sort, known for action shots, combat and the like. He is laid up with a broken leg, in a wheelchair, in his apartment, which suits him poorly, of course. Also irksome is his girlfriend and would-be fiancé, the lovely Lisa (Grace Kelly), a wealthy socialite he feels can’t possibly accept his life on the edge. Bored and bothered, he takes to spying on his neighbors out the window. The entire movie takes place from this perspective: we only ever see the inside of Jeff’s apartment, and the view he sees out its window, into a courtyard and the windows that also look upon it. There’s a middle-aged couple with a little dog; a female sculptor; a young ballerina who entertains many men; a slightly older, lonely woman; a composer struggling with his latest work; and a salesman who appears to be entirely tired of caring for his invalid wife. Jeff is visited by Lisa as well as a nurse, and a police detective friend he calls on for help when he thinks he’s witnessed a murder.
I loved the visuals: both James Stewart and Grace Kelly (particularly in tandem), and the vignette-style views of courtyard and other apartments, almost a shadowbox effect. I loved the survey of lives and loves provided by Jeff’s perspective. The lives he peeks into represent a range of experiences of life, different levels of contentment. I thought the suspense was well-done in a classic, thunder-and-lightning, guns-and-beautiful-ladies style. Even the puzzle itself – the whodunit – was engaging, if imperfect. The business with the flashbulbs struck me as quite ridiculous, but I laughed good-naturedly, because the overall effect of the story, the sets and the cast was so enjoyable. My fourth Hitchcock film is definitely my favorite. Fans of Agatha Christie will be pleased.
I made my first trip to Europe with my then-boyfriend, who had an art degree. We went to Brussels and therefore to the Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique. We spent 8 or 9 hours there, and I have felt an aversion to art museums ever since. (I will say that the Mauritshuis in den Haag is a nice, small art museum filled with classics, including Girl With a Pearl Earring, which is easy to get through fairly quickly and is worth the time.) Despite this aversion, on a recent visit back to Houston, I went with my mother and my “other parents” (old family friends) to a few art museums on a Friday afternoon.
We started with Intersections, by Anila Quayyum Agha, at the Rice University Art Gallery. The piece is a six-and-a-half-foot cube of laser-cut wooden cube, suspended, with a bright bulb inside, so that the pattern cut out of the cube is projected onto ceiling, floor and walls. That pattern is a complex tessellating geometric design, and a short and very worthwhile video explains that Anila Quayyum Agha was inspired by the Alhambra. As a Muslim woman in Pakistan, she was not allowed into mosques (men only) and had few experiences with their interiors, but was struck by the extraordinary beauty and creative power in the Alhambra (which she was permitted to enter as a tourist.) She also spoke of the construction of this beauty by Muslims, Christians and Jews working together, and called it a “gem” of both artistry and unity between peoples. This was the inspiration for Intersections, whose tessellations echo the tile designs at the Alhambra.
It is a work of light and shadow, geometry and projection. The images on the ceiling and floor (closer to the cube) are crisper than those on the walls (which are further away), so the effect is variable. The cube itself is a work of art (although watch out for that ~600-watt bulb within), and the shadow/light-show another layer of it. People entering the room participate, because the shadows are cast on them (us) too. It was striking and meditative, and free at the University. Good stuff.
Next, after lunch, we went to the Menil campus, and walked first over to the Byzantine Fresco Chapel to see The Infinity Machine, by Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller. This was an excellent counterpoint to Intersections: another room-sized installation playing with light and, in this case, reflection. Many mirrors are suspended on wires and rotate – around as one large constellation, and also in some cases individually. The room is very dark; a docent escorted us in with a flashlight to seat us on a bench until our eyes adjusted. A few lights lit the solar system of mirrors, and we suspect those lights dimmed and brightened or shut off completely or changed colors. It is hard to say, because the effect is disorienting. I had the odd feeling that different mirrors were present upon each rotation: clearly this is not the case, but the view was ever-changing and, I felt, never repeating. It was kind of intense. A soundtrack played, of NASA recordings of solar wind. Perhaps because we had just lunched at the Hobbit Cafe (always a treat), I said it sounded like the Eye of Sauron. I also thought of calling it “dark noise”: like white noise, but darker, spooky. At one point I thought Sauron was coming to get us on a train, with that characteristic clack-clack and growing whoosh. Where Intersections was light, crisp, patterned, and explicitly called for unity, The Infinity Machine was a little foreboding, even threatening – although I was very happy to experience it, and don’t mean that as a criticism. It was fascinating.
We finished with the Menil Collection building, about which I was most ambivalent, but there was a Dalí exhibit! I was enchanted by some of the artifacts in the Arctic Art collection, including a tiny statue of a bust (of a man?) with toddler on its shoulders; it was less than the height of one of my (cut-short) fingernails, and a fraction the width. I quickly browsed the “frottages and rubbings” exhibit. And then surrealism: lots of Victor Brauner and Max Ernest, several Joseph Cornell boxes (an exhibit of whose work first took me to the Menil, in high school), a few Picassos, and oh, Rene Magritte. I love him – although I didn’t feel he fit perfectly in this collection. His images are so crisp and hyper-real, even if they do float in the wrong places. Dalí’s Eggs on a Plate Without the Plate centered this exhibit, which was entitled “The Secret of the Hanging Egg.” But my favorite piece was The Hunted Sky by Yves Tanguy, which transfixed me. I wish I had a full-size print of that in my home to continue to consider, because I feel like I need more time. (You can look it up online but those images do no justice.)
Still, overall and by comparison, I moved through the Menil Collection quickly; I think the room-sized installations are more generally my speed than rooms filled with paintings. But this was a remarkable experience all around. I normally make it into an art museum every year or so, or less often, and generally at my mother’s side (I try to be good-natured about it, she doesn’t drag me). Today’s visit was at least as rewarding as any I can recall. If you find yourself in the neighborhood of either of these big installations, definitely check them out. Everything we saw was free, too (great job, Houston!), so take advantage!