Best of the Archives #11: Trio dans le Studio

THE ARCHIVAL ARTICLE:

TRIO DANS LE STUDIO: ANN MASON STOCKTON, CATHERINE GOTTHOFFER AND DOROTHY REMSEN ON THE HARP IN FILM (1999)

THE BACKGROUND STORY:

As I noted in the background story to my Kim Deal piece, the normal rubric for a musician interview in most print or online publications revolves around the writer asking a fairly short set of questions via phone of a trending artist who either has a new album out or is playing in town soon, then boiling those brief remarks down into a promotional piece. The writer recognizes that the artist will likely have already been asked the same questions many times already by other writers, meaning that their answers may be rote and ossified through repetition, thus limiting the unique value and depth of the articles that emerge from this type of mass-production process, especially given the fact that today’s hot commodity musician may be a passing fancy of little interest to future readers and listeners.

As I also noted in the Kim Deal piece, being an interesting musician does not necessarily correlate with an ability to say interesting things about anything interesting, so a lot of those going-through-the-motions interviews are dull to write and dull to read. It’s therefore a treat when a writer is given the opportunity to speak with artists of vast proven accomplishment, and those artists have insightful and interesting perspective about interesting things, and the writer is given the column space to do justice to the story. Today’s archival article is, for me, the finest personal example I have of such a fortuitous alignment of story elements.

I wrote the piece for The American Harp Journal, the long-running periodical of The American Harp Association. It is a group interview of three of the most prominent and beloved film studio harpists of the 20th Century: Ann Mason Stockton, Catherine Gotthoffer, and Dorothy Remsen. If you have a favorite big studio movie from about the 1940s to the 1990s, and you hear a harp in its score, the odds are high that one of them played it.

I chanced upon this writing opportunity after I had engaged Albany-based harpist Elizabeth Meriweather Huntley for an event in one of my other professional positions. She was a wonderful player, and I had multiple opportunities to appreciate and recommend her work during my time in Albany. As it turned out, Elizabeth was also the editor of The American Harp Journal, and as we chatted about things at some event or another, and my music critic work for the regional newsweekly came up in conversation, she told me I might be able to help her with a project.

Stockton, Gotthoffer and Remsen were getting on in years, and the Harp Society wanted to capture, preserve and share some of their history and memories while they were still able and available to share them. Music historian Russell Wapensky (a great authority on California music-making and Musicians’ Local 47, including some epic research and preservation efforts on the Wrecking Crew’s and Beach Boys’ myriad sessions) was attached to the project, and he conducted and filmed a three-hour interview with the three harpists, aided by Remsen’s husband.

I was then given copies of those raw interview tapes and assigned the task of transcribing them and compiling their contents into a readable standalone article. This wasn’t my normal working approach, at all, but it was a very enjoyable undertaking, and I found the three harpists to be delightful long-distance companions as I listened to their stories and studied their lives and work.

It was fascinating to gain insight and perspective into just what attracted prospective musicians to chose such an unwieldy and expensive instrument, and the group psychologies and tics of those who did so and then stuck with it for decades. It was also amazing to get some first-hand perspective about some great artists of the 20th Century before their greatness had been widely recognized. Ann Mason Stockton played on some of Frank Sinatra’s very first recordings, for example, and she knew he was special, even then.

All three of the harpists featured in the story have passed away since this article was published, so I do hope that it served its purpose as a valuable remembrance of them, and a useful long-term research resource for the American Harp Association. They were delightful subjects and great artists, and I’m glad to have been given the gift of sharing their stories.

Ann Mason Stockton (1916-2006)

Best of the Archives #10: A Lifetime of Good Eats

THE ARCHIVAL ARTICLE:

A LIFETIME OF GOOD EATS (2009)

THE BACKGROUND STORY:

There’s an old joke about a Southern man’s personal prospects that posits the greatest uncertainty about his health outcomes thusly: Will he have his first heart attack before he loses all of his teeth or not? I come from a long line of big Southern Men, and it was a valid question for a lot them, as dentures and cardiac arrests were certainly real life concerns for most of the old gents in my life, many of whom were indeed done in by clogged arteries and diabetes, before the cigarettes could get them.

I did learn from that, and I watch what I eat and I exercise regularly. I’ve also been blessed with tough teeth that I care for properly, even though (true confession time) I have probably only been to the dentist two or three times since college. On those rare occasions when I do go, the dentist invariably praises my oral hygiene and says everything’s fine. I’m told that different people have different bacterial cultures in their mouths, some that foment the growth of plaque, and some that foster decay and cavities. Neither one of them seems to care for my pie hole. I’ll take that as a blessing.

I had some blood sugar and cholesterol readings some years back that were marginally problematic. I adjusted the necessary lifestyle choices accordingly, and neither one’s much of a concern for me now. I know I don’t eat as much fruit as I should (it’s a grease group thing), but otherwise I’m pretty good about maintaining a high fiber, low fat, low carb diet, without much red meat in it. I don’t obsessively mind my calories, but I’m mindful of portion control, and I rarely indulge in any belt-busting all-you-can-eat buffet style behaviors either.

But, boy oh boy, is that all learned behavior of my adulthood, because I was brought up eating the polar opposite of that, in almost every way. Today’s archival article is a remembrance of those glorious, innocent days when buffets, fried foods, sweet tea, processed meats, and just about every other unhealthy thing imaginable featured heavily in my diet, and the diets of pretty much everybody around me, friends and family alike. It was all bad for us, sure, but it certainly tasted good, and I sure do remember those days fondly and wistfully — most especially my dad’s quixotic quest for the perfect chili dog, which found us buying unhealthy bags-worth of them in most every town we lived in or visited over the years. (Note well that what Southerners call “chili” on a hot dog has no resemblance to the Southwestern food of the same name; it was more of a greasy, chopped meat paste that it was bean-rich bowl food).

This article focuses a lot on diner-style restaurants, and I wrote it while still living in New York’s Capital Region, where those are a big part of the regional culture and cuisine. I tried to find an analogue of that experience when we moved to Des Moines, but never quite succeeded. Drake Diner on the campus of the same name has the chrome exterior and big menus, but it always felt more like a diner-themed college cafeteria than it did a real diner to me. In our current East Village neighborhood, there’s a new place called Clyde’s Fine Diner that advertises a gourmet-caliber diner experience, but that’s just an oxymoron, really. The food at Clyde’s is quite good, mind, and they even have Shrimp and Grits on the menu, but it’s foo-foo, and bears no resemblance to what real Carolina Shrimp and Grits looks and tastes like, while the restaurant interior is in the standard noisy Iowa box-style that I’ve written about, unhappily, here. Diner and hipster dining cultures just don’t align, no matter how hard folks might want them to. Bubba’s in Des Moines has also legitimately good and authentic Carolina-style food, but it’s more of a white linen restaurant than a diner, so that doesn’t count for me either.

While they don’t usually call them diners, once you get out into rural and small town Iowa, you can find a lot of family-owned, non-chain restaurants that are legitimately analogous to the feeding holes of my Southern childhood. While the menu highlights can be dramatically different, there’s fried foods aplenty, and you can easily create a true carbohydrate nightmare meal if you want to. If I had to pick the best of the bunch that I’ve experienced to date in Iowa, it would be Cronk’s Restaurant and Lounge in Denison, which has been around for over eight decades. It’s located on US-30, which is the modern-day remnant of the Lincoln Highway, America’s first transcontinental automobile roadway. Its hearty food, great prices, convenient location, quick and friendly service, and unassuming interior have likely made it the perfect pause point for millions and millions of travelers over the years, while the locals seemed to love it just as much when I was there.

It’s good to know that places like that still exist. I don’t want to eat like that everyday, but I’m glad I can when the spirit moves me to do so.

Central Lunch was still hanging in there when my sister and I visited Albemarle in 2011 — but the last time I was there a couple of years back, it seemed to have been finally shuttered, alas.

Best of the Archives #9: The King of Tests Strikes Out

THE ARCHIVAL ARTICLE:

THE KING OF TESTS STRIKES OUT (2002)

THE BACKGROUND STORY:

One of the personal out-takes from my Credidero writing project was an analysis of the types of writing I’ve done over the years, and how I might alter or adapt it in the years ahead. In the summary of that piece, I described my four major types of writing as follows:

Reactive: These would include reviews and related pieces; I saw, heard, read or did something, and here is how I react to it. Political pieces probably fall into this bucket too, as they are often written in response to governmental or social actions that generate a reaction requiring explanation.

Descriptive: I see these are being my experiential pieces, and I probably do this most often in travel articles and in my professional writing, where I am trying to tell readers something in ways that lets them see what I see, or understand what I understand, or value what I value.

Creative: The most obvious of the four categories, these would be my short stories, poems, lyrics, or whatever else just spins out of my head without direct anchor in the real world, until I make it so by writing about it.

Reflective: I see it as a type of writing that is personal, but is not necessarily anchored in any specific outside stimulus or activity. If I go back through the 1,200+ articles in my web archive, it’s unquestionably the least represented category of writing in my archive.

I see today’s Best of the Archives article as being one of a relatively small number of “Reflective” pieces that I’ve written and posted over the years. It’s a true story, with some some true personal lessons, and while it’s written to entertain, there’s no artifice in it, nor was it fictionalized, nor was it in response or reaction to any particular external stimulus. I know I wrote it as part of a Metroland group piece, but I do not remember exactly what the topic was. “The School Issue” maybe? I don’t know.

As flamboyantly out-there as my public persona has been over the years, here and elsewhere, I think I’ve actually been somewhat surprisingly private in terms of the truly meaningful and personal things that I’ve shared online or in print media. I do know that when I have shared them, they tend to be the more popular items on the website over a long period of time, so that should motivate me to write more of them. I think my reluctance to do so is anchored in the fact that so many of them involve(d) other people, and I don’t wish to violate their privacy or betray their trusts, so when I actually am inclined to share such tales, I almost always do so by framing them as fiction, in prose or poetry format.

Memoirs are big business, though, so maybe as I look to the future, this is where I should focus my writing attention. Food for thought.

A Navy Rule: “When in doubt, ‘Charlie’ out.”

Best of the Archives #8: Heart of Darkness, My Old Friend

THE ARCHIVAL ARTICLE:

HEART OF DARKNESS, MY OLD FRIEND (2009)

THE BACK STORY:

I suspect that for as long as recorded music has been widely available for retail sale, parents have been disapproving of their children’s listening choices. (That might have been the case in earlier history, too, though it would have been much harder for a kid to whip together a chamber ensemble to perform some Frans Liszt than it was to plop on a Little Richard record). Most of the time, this reaction represents benign “We just don’t get it” responses to generational change. Other times, though, it can be more problematic, especially when the artists who create it are unjustly accused of provoking dangerous, immoral or criminal behavior among its young listeners — and then the government gets involved.

I listen to a lot of fairly gnarly music as an adult, so if I had any fears about my own child’s listening habits, it was probably more a worry that she might either not appreciate music at all, or only appreciate shallow crap. I exposed her to the stuff I listen to as she was growing up, just because we pretty much have music playing around our house whenever we’re all awake, and I mostly let it go at that. (I was actually much more censorious about television, truth be told, in the early days of the “reality TV” era, when coarse, soul-sucking, exhibitionistic garbage filled an increasingly large sector of the broadcast spectrum; I am firmly convinced that actually watching someone get sexually assaulted, bullied, tortured, tormented or killed is a whole lot more psychically damaging to the mind of a youngster than listening to a song about it can ever be). As it turns out, my kid grew up to have fine musical tastes, and we still routinely swap recommendations and reviews. I award myself Five Parenting Gold Stars accordingly. Good job, Dad!

When all is said and done, I think tight parental control over children’s listening material is ultimately an exercise in futility, especially in the streaming era, since banning something is just as likely to motivate the kids to look for it elsewhere, and — more importantly — because parents actually have no real idea how their kids are going to hear things. Something ostensibly vulgar and vile may pass right over their heads. And then sometimes something that’s ostensibly suitable family listening may, in fact, push a whole bunch of unanticipated buttons in unforeseen ways.

Today’s archival article tells a story about that latter scenario, with tongue planted firmly in cheek. I’m sure I’d be a much more highly functioning adult half-a-century later if only my parents hadn’t exposed me to the mellifluous  sounds of one of America’s best-loved and most popular folk duos. The horror! The horror!

Wait . . .  where are you taking me, Paul and Artie . . .. Nooooooo . . .  NOOOOOO . . .  AUUUGGGGHHH!!!!

Best of the Archives #7: The Grease Group

THE ARCHIVAL ARTICLE:

THE GREASE GROUP (2009)

THE BACKGROUND STORY:

As I’ve written before in this archival series, I was a blogger before the term existed. In the early 2000s, as blogs became a hip and trendy media thing, I had quite a good following and credible traffic, back when the pickings on the web were not as diverse as they are now, and when Upstate Wasted/Ether were in their heyday. In late 2006, the local daily newspaper in Albany decided that they wanted to get into the game, and began recruiting established local bloggers to contribute to their commercial site. Since I was a known name in the market, I was approached and agreed to join their portal. No pay, of course, beyond “exposure,” but what the heck, I wasn’t paying myself to write at my own website either, so what could go wrong? A lot, as it turned out a few years later. It did not end well.

I made myself a public nuisance trying to have my words removed from the newspaper’s commercial website after that meltdown, and to get the newspaper to admit that its business practices on this front were unfair and unprofessional. But I was working in a key management position at the University and Albany at the time, and the newspaper’s publisher happened to be the Board Chair of the University’s Foundation, so at some point I decided that the potential professional problems that the situation could cause for me were great enough that I had to let it all go. There are still loads of my articles on the newspaper’s website a decade later, against my wishes, and I am convinced that they remain there just out of spite.

Soon thereafter, I started a new group portal called Indie Albany that was committed to 100% commercial free content (I paid all of the hosting expenses myself), with a dozen or so participating writers maintaining full control of their intellectual property. Within a month of so of setting it up, one of my posts earned “Freshly Pressed” status on the WordPress portal, a huge traffic generator and bragging-rights status item at the time. Indie Albany was a good and successful project, and the WordPress recognition was a good validation of that fact.

My wife and I moved to Iowa the following year, so I slowly dismantled Indie Albany and established Indie Moines as a (solo) heir to that first portal. Within a year or so, though, I just consolidated everything from all of my various platforms back under my own named website, including the stuff that I had to aggressively extract from the newspaper. Today’s archival article is one of those ex-newspaper pieces, meaning that it probably also still resides back on that commercial site, but I am not going to go check on that.

My newspaper blog’s tagline was “Incongruity, Southernism, Feats of Strength, Art,” which was my weird way of describing the arcane assortment of things I liked to write about. (I guess it still applies here, and might be slightly more sensible than my current “Slow Molasses Drip Under A Tipped-Up Crescent Moon,” though that does eloquently capture the “Southernism” aspect of who I am and what I do). I’ve always been proud of my deep South Carolina roots,  even when South Carolina doesn’t behave in accordance with my personal beliefs much of the time, and I used my newspaper blog to provide tongue-in-cheek explanations to the folks of “Upper Yankonia” about the right (i.e. South Carolina) ways to do certain important things. I mean, who in their right mind tries to foo-foo up the grits?

This piece is a humorous one, but like most of my funny things, there’s a big kernel of personal truth buried within it. My family members might judge me to be a picky eater, but I’d deny that label. I’m a particular eater. There’s a difference. I like what I like, and I like it the way I like it. Which is the right way to eat it. Because it is. At the time when I wrote this article, I was actually responsible for the food service operation at the University at Albany, providing millions of meals each year to students and staff alike, so my staff members and I had lots and lots of conversations about food quality and nutrition, and there was always lots of teasing coming from my end about the healthy choices they promoted. I’d long had the “grease group” vs “water group” paradigm pretty well laid out in my mind, but I honed it to a nice bit of absurd folk logic during those many dining hall chats.

Here’s wishing you good eats throughout our social distancing time. Just keep your food groups properly sorted.

Nicely burnt + a cheese color that does not appear in nature + no tomato = A+ grilled cheese!

Best of the Archives #6: The Road to Anywhere

THE ARCHIVAL ARTICLE:

THE ROAD TO ANYWHERE (2003)

THE BACKGROUND STORY:

This was from the 2003 “Summer Issue” of Metroland. It was one of our periodic group pieces, when large chunks of the paper would be turned over to a single topic, and all of the writers (staff and freelance alike) would be given somewhat free reign to write something that fit within the theme. They were sort of the bottle episodes of the journalistic world: easy to produce, usually somewhat disposable, but occasionally some good and memorable things would emerge from them.

For me, that was the case with this one. The “Summer Issue” was usually intended to be frothy, light fare, and I started writing this piece that way, but it went in different directions as I started thinking about the story and how various pieces fit together. Since much of this particular archival article actually is “the background story” itself, I won’t say much more about it than that, except to note that this is one of the pieces that generates more direct contact with me from readers than any others on the site. Oh, and I’ll also note that it was one of the last pieces I ever wrote for Metroland, perhaps even the final one. So it really is a tale of transitions, with resonance.

Our Ford LTD Country Squire was named “Eloise.”