An Entirely Unnecessary Defense

According to my dear old Dad, if there is any justice or truth in the world, the phrase “…and one more thing” will be the inscription on my headstone after I shuffle off this mortal coil.

He’s not wrong.

Last week, I spent my Saturday picking at (and probably badly misconstruing the main intent of) a blog post that offered a “defense” of country music. Because I stew slowly when it comes to this sort of thing, I figured out sometime around 11pm last night that what really bugged me about it was not necessarily the kind of defense the author appeared to have offered, although that certainly did get my attention last week. No, what really bugged me was something for which the author of the post to which I responded has no responsibility whatsoever, an itch I’ve been trying to scratch in my own understanding of the philosophy of music for years: the occasionally uncritical acceptance of a set of value judgments encoded in the musicological and aesthetic distinctions drawn between art music, popular music, and folk/traditional/vernacular music.

After stewing about it for a week, I’m not at all sure that country music as such (as opposed to particular examples or performances of country music) needs defending at all, and (quite unoriginally, I’m sure) I take exception to the suggestion that European-rooted art music represents the aesthetic standard against which other musical forms ought to be measured. It might be more useful, if we’re going to talk about this stuff and take it seriously, to spend a bit more time on studying the work of playing music in different styles or genres, with attention particularly given to technique. I won’t pretend to come to a tidy conclusion here. This is just another look at examples and an attempt to make sense of them.

Nostalgia and Rebellion

Obviously, recent work in the philosophy of music has moved past Adorno’s tendency to sneer just a wee bit at the social mechanics embedded in popular musical forms, and there’s quite a lot of wonderful material out there that takes the aesthetics of popular music seriously  (get yourself up to speed here). There is, as far as I can tell, less written by philosophers about folk or traditional music as such; aesthetic discussions of these forms are often pretty easy to merge with the history of popular and/or art music, and for good reason.*  The otherwise excellent and useful Routledge Companion to Philosophy and Music doesn’t deal specifically with folk or traditional styles at all, in part because there seems little need to do so when the concept of “folk” or “traditional” music is itself so hopelessly fuzzy and so much easier to handle in the context of other styles that there’s not much reason to focus on it.

I think that the unfortunate side effect of running traditional or folk styles into the development of other forms, however, is that it a) misrepresents, at least to some degree, the actual development and maintenance of folk/trad forms as distinct from the pop and art practices whose history they inform, and b) tends to reinforce an unfortunate habit of thinking of folk or traditional performance and composition as “primitive” or “unrefined” precursors to more nuanced or sophisticated material rather than distinctive approaches to playing and composing in their own right. This is the sort of thinking that makes it seem entirely reasonable to treat more recent examples of folk/trad styles as either a kind of nostalgic preservation of fossilized musical norms or a rebellion against pop or art norms, rather than the ongoing development of a distinct approach to music.

This is the sort of puzzle I had hazily in mind when I used Hazel Dickens’ a capella recording of “Pretty Bird” from 1967 as an example in last week’s post, mostly in response to Dyck’s apparent interest in casting country music as a rebellion against art norms with regard to tone, quality, etc. A part of what I was thinking was that Dickens wasn’t being rough or unrefined as a form of identity affirmation, and she wasn’t singing in a kind of primitive precursor to  “good” (art)vocal form.  She wasn’t just hollering and running out of air due to bad technique or weak control (or setting herself up to do so for identity-reinforcing purposes). No, she was exemplifying appropriate technique and excellent control for the style in which she sang. She would sound wildly out of place performing at the opera if she were supposed to sing it as opera, almost to the point of parody, but it might be quite beautiful if one expects an aria covered in the “high lonesome” vein.**

To get at what I’m trying to figure out, let’s look at another example, this time with a lot more fiddling.

Interplay for Three Violins and Orchestra

In 2002 the Boston Pops commissioned a piece by contemporary American composer Chris Brubeck, meant to be a feature for three particular soloists: classical violinist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, Irish-American fiddler Eileen Ivers (of Riverdance fame), and jazz violinist Regina Carter. The performance was broadcast on PBS, and it’s a neat piece — it is recognizably Brubeck’s work, but it is elegantly arranged and composed to highlight the particularities and peculiarities of the soloists for which it is written. Brubeck himself learned, in the process of composing it, quite a bit about the relationships among classical, jazz, and Celtic trad styles and norms for the violin. It’s a little sampler of a master class in at least three different ways in which the same instrument can be played well.***

For my purpose here, it’s instructive to start with a look at the differences in technique among these three players. Both Salerno-Sonnenberg and Carter are classically trained; this results in a jazz tone and approach on Carter’s part that has more in common with the swinging sound of the conservatory-trained  Stéphane Grappelli than, say, an old blues fiddler like Henry Sims. Look at their posture, at their all-finger bow grips in the usual neighborhood relative to the frog, at the quite “correct” wrist positions for their left hands. Technique shapes tone, and their tone shows their training. Ivers, on the other hand, is very distinctively fiddling — she’s choked up on the bow with a two- or three-finger grip, sometimes with a flattened left wrist, utilizing a very tight, very fast vibrato with an often flat-angled left hand to generate what is effectively ornamentation rather than tonal warmth or depth.****  Consider, in order to flesh out how it works, Ivers playing music more plainly in her usual wheelhouse:

The technique that fiddlers like Ivers employ — bow choke for fast triples, easy and frequent transitions among drones, the “wiping” fast and flying hits on the fingerboard, the relative lack of vibrato for tone (and the tendency to tightness on vibrato when it happens) — isn’t just a matter of under-tutoring miraculously overcome by talent or idiosyncratic features of this woman’s playing (OK, the vibrato may be…). It’s done the way it is to facilitate the kinds of sounds that belong to the trad style she’s playing. Seeing how all three players handle both the fast and slow bits of Brubeck’s piece and hearing how their tones are actually different (in ways not simply reducible to, say, the build and setup of their instruments) suggests to me that there’s something interesting going on here. It makes it clear that Ivers’ playing isn’t somehow “defective” or “primitive” relative to Salerno-Sonnenberg’s or Carter’s. Indeed, Carter’s and Salerno-Sonnenberg’s sort of tone sounds bizarrely mannered and weirdly delayed or rounded by comparison when it’s used to play Ivers’  trad repertoire. This is the sort of thing the nice gentleman from Texas noticed in my singing and playing at the old-time country music festival (see last week’s post) — my tone was wrong. Not bad or incompetent or unpleasant, but not right, either.



* Those interested in how this stuff works should check out Michael Gelbart’s treatment of the relationship between art and folk musics and Benjamin Filene’s history of American roots music for a useful tour of the wild, contested territory of the “folk” and its historical relation to popular and art forms in European and American contexts. It’s also worthwhile to read musicologist Suzel Ana Reily’s roundtable contribution from the 2007 meeting of the British Forum for Ethnomusicology.

Also worth a look (while I’m make reading recommendations), in relation to the mess I made last week about country: Nadine Hubbs’ Rednecks, Queers, and Country Music (2014).

** See, for an example of a vernacular “cover” of operatic music in a different style from Dickens’, Aretha Franklin’s various performances of “Nessun Dorma” . It’s a difficult performance done by an experienced singer with an aging vocal instrument that nonetheless demonstrates expert control within the boundaries of the tone-formations native to her preferred vernacular style. She’s not just performing art music badly. To think so misses something important about what she’s actually doing and the nature of the style in which she performs.

*** I’m going to ignore Brubeck’s notions about what he calls “Flamenco,” which he apparently has in common with his three soloists. That’s a discussion for another time.

****  Not all contemporary fiddlers in Celtic trad, blues, or country/bluegrass styles do these things in the same way, and Ivers isn’t demonstrating one of the other distinctive fiddle holds that puts the instrument in the crook of the arm instead of under the chin to facilitate dance-calling or singing. Can she? Sure — check out the various hold changes she used when she had to move around on stage for Riverdance.


Posted in aesthetics, music, Philosophical Mess-making, traditional music, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

“…but it’s all right.”

As I read John Dyck’s “In Defense of Country Music” the other day, I found myself remembering a compliment, thinking of an amazing recording by an amazing woman, and struggling to disentangle the reasons why some of what Dyck said rang a bit odd to my ears. Welcome to the mess my reflections on the subject have made.

The Alien at the Fairgrounds

Old-Timeyness (8)

Back in 2011, a friend of mine was asked to play at the 36th Annual National Old-Time Country & Bluegrass Festival in Le Mars, IA. This is a BIG event, held at the county fairgrounds in Le Mars, and it brings together a truly marvelous collection of musicians of all ages. They perform, they jam, they listen, they sit in on each other’s sets and share the tricks of the trade, and (bless them) they welcome the occasional weirdo newcomer to the family. It’s a pretty impressive gathering of folk and traditional country music styles and idioms. I heard a great yodeler from Ireland while I was there, as well as some sweet harmonies, a family full of pre-pubescent fiddle prodigies, some dobriffic dobrofication, and a whole lot of serious pickin’ on all of the many stringed things one can pick. My friend Andy (an occasionally folky singer-songwriter with a prog rock history) was there to do a few small acoustic singer-songwritery sets, backed up by me on vox and violin and a local upright bass player named Joe. Of the three of us, Joe was the biggest immediate hit with all and sundry — he ended up being asked to join other folks in their sets. This was only to be expected — Joe is a terrific bass player in any style you please. I sort of blundered around, honestly — I play a lot of different instruments and sing in several styles, but I was trained on classical violin, and my small amount of vocal education was in the same territory. I was a fish flopping madly out of water there in Le Mars, and I knew it. Still, we tried to make some good music, and even though none of what we were doing really fit in with the rest of what was going on around us, I think we did fairly well.

After our last set, in which we punted on some folk music and protest songs (Andy’s a big Pete Seeger fan), I received what I believe is probably my favorite compliment ever, as a musician. An older gentleman with a fine cowboy hat, a big belt buckle, and a sweet Texan drawl — followed by his lovely wife, whose hair certainly put her as close to God as it was reasonable for her to be — came up to me and said: “Well, it ain’t country…but it’s all right.”

Then he smiled kindly and ambled on his way.

Pretty Bird

That same year, old-time/bluegrass music legend, feminist, and labor activist Hazel Dickens passed away. You can see and hear her in John Sayles’ Matewan (1987), helping to tell the story of the Matewan coal strike in 1920. She was one of the first women to record a bluegrass album of her own in 1965, collaborating with Alice Foster on Who’s That Knocking:

Hazel Dickens had the perfect voice for the music she played and sang — the high lonesome sound characteristic of old-time country and mountain singing in Appalachia — and the life to properly inform it. Her music and her activism were deeply bound together because she sang about what she lived.

That high, lonesome sound is not a polished, rounded vocal tone. It seems flat and hard to ears unaccustomed to it; to those whose notion of what “good” singing sounds like is closer to the opera than the opry stage, it might even be grating or hard to listen to. Yet it is exactly the right tone for the music it produces.

Stripped bare of instrumentation, isolated and raw and open, her singing is revealed as a paradigmatic example of a distinctive musical style with its own rules and norms. She’s not unpolished or untaught or a poor singer — she’s doing exactly what the style demands, using all of the many tools at her disposal. Her ornaments and changes, her dynamics — it’s all deliberate. She doesn’t wobble weirdly out of tune. There are no accidental noises here caused by faulty breath support or weak technique (to be fair, she usually sang at 11, so this control wasn’t always as recognizable over a PA as it is in this recording). There is a different application of vocal technique here that fits the rules of her regional style just as it should. She’s not a poor singer making the best of her roughness — she’s a good singer of this kind of song.

Could “Pretty Bird” be sung in a different style? Sure. I’ve done it (not well, but I’ve done it). I’ve heard bluesier renditions, and country-but-not-so-high-and-lonesome takes that add instrumentation. It’s a good damn song, and a number of different voices and styles could make something beautiful of it. I am reminded of the nice recent Hi-Phi Nation discussion of covers, and it occurs to me that this is the sort of song that holds the door open for a wide range of distinctive interpretations and performances, any of which could be wonderful.

Just the same, there is something important about Hazel’s version, and about the kind of sound she made and the reasons why she made it that way, that I hesitate to leave in cover-land (I’ll spare you my nattering on music as a form of life…).

The Ringing in My Ears

When I read Dyck’s piece, there was one paragraph in particular that made me intensely uncomfortable, and it’s taken me a few days to figure out why:

These are not people with delicate taste. That’s the whole point! They’re unsophisticated. They’re straightforward. To borrow a term from Christine Korsgaard, country music appeals to people through their practical identities, in the ways that they see themselves and construct their lives. This is why so much country music is tragic. It portrays the mundane sorrows and struggles of working-class people. It reassures us that it’s okay to be dirty and sweaty and ugly.

I get what he’s trying to say, I think, and I don’t entirely disagree — there is, as any number of musicologists have pointed out, a notion of authenticity in various strains of country music that leans heavily on a grounding in the practical realities of rural and working-class life.* This music (any music, really) is deeply entangled with the identity of the community in which it lives and grows. Yet I think something is missing in at least one of the examples Dyck uses to make his case (the Brad Paisley tune), and this missing thing is a distinction worth taking seriously.  There is an important difference between the music born from the life of farmers and miners and the music that deploys that life as a sign of authenticity for consumers who don’t necessarily live there anymore. I’ve blogged very sloppily about this before — it’s a major feature of contemporary bro-country, which tends to be an assembly-line-produced mess of redneck identity signifiers masquerading as “authentic” country music. A pop-country performer like Brad Paisley (who is good at his job — don’t get me wrong!) bears little to no resemblance to someone like Ralph Stanley or Hazel Dickens. He and his usual co-writers produce songs about country as an identity. Hazel Dickens wrote and sang from it, and I think that makes a big difference — or should make a big difference — in how our aesthetic judgements handle these things.* Country music like hers isn’t bad music or unsophisticated music that uses its messiness to signify authenticity — it’s representative of a distinct body of styles with its own natural history and quality markers, which is exactly what constitutes its authenticity.

I also disagree with the notion that the creators, performers, and fans of some of this music lack delicacy of taste (although I suspect I may possibly be reading something into Dyck’s language here that he doesn’t intend). Arguably, I think it wouldn’t be too hard to make the case that they possess exactly the sort of delicacy of taste that Hume had in mind, although seeing why requires us to decouple the Humean approach to “delicacy” from our own commitment to the aesthetic norms and assumptions of European classical music of a certain few hundred years (not to mention a whole host of vaguely classist ideas about “sophistication” — and I’m NOT calling Dyck a classist! Don’t @ me, bro!).

When the kind gentleman from Texas spoke to me on the fairgrounds in Le Mars, he wasn’t just doing a bit of boundary-policing relative to his expectations of what belonged at an old-time country and bluegrass festival (although he was definitely doing that). He was a sophisticated listener well versed in the form, and he knew exactly what he was — and was not — hearing from me.

It wasn’t country, but it was all right.


* Related: I really like Jeanette Bicknell’s approach to the role(s) of authenticity in our understanding of song and the practice of singing. Of course, talking about what counts as “authentic” or “good” country music is a great way to start a fight with country music musicians and fans, who have been having this discussion about what country music is for a long time now. I think all the Humean critics of country, however, should safely and easily agree with me that bro-country, as a rule, is straight-up shite. ;)


Posted in aesthetics, music, Philosophical Mess-making, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Idea Time #1: Rhetorical Chicanery!

Today, I bring you Idea Time, a feature of sorts for this blog, in which I semi-seriously consider the various entrepreneurial and scholarly opportunities arising from random stuff in the world. Today’s not-too-terribly-original ideas: getting a little something from 419 scams and their ilk.

Are there better ways for me to be using my time? Yes. Am I currently doing any of those things? No. I am not.


Today, for the second time this week, I’ve received a version of this little scam email from “Wesley”, who addresses the subject line “Hey, Pretty” and just wants to get to know me:

Am Wesley from United States but currently in Syria for peace keeping mission. I want to get to know you  better, if I may be so bold. I consider myself an easy-going man, and I am currently looking for a relationship in which I feel loved. Please forgive my manners am not good when it comes to Internet because that is not really my field. Here in Syria we are not allowed to go out that makes it very bored for me so I just think I need a friend to talk to outside to keep me going………..

I would love to get to know the “real” you as a friend. Your likes, your dislikes, your interests……what makes you.

My favorite color is Blue. My favorite food is BACON, I could easily become a vegetarian if it wasn’t for bacon!!

I hope you can tell me more details about your job, relationship and your past………

Hoping to hear from you soon………


What I *love* about this silly thing is that whoever wrote it has clearly decided that the best way to make it perfectly clear that “Wesley” is from the US is to make sure the reader knows he absolutely *loves* bacon. That is, apparently, the most American thing ever, and therefore is included to lend the email a bit of much-needed verisimilitude.

Also: With all respect given to Wil Wheaton (who I don’t know personally, but who seems to be a good guy), I think this scam email right here may be the only instance in which it is not only appropriate but morally obligatory to respond to the sender with a hearty “Shut up, Wesley.”

Seriously. Shut up, Fake 419 Wesley. Just STFU.

I also received a version of the tragic tale of “Mrs. Sandor”  yesterday (variant spelling from header to message content: Sandol; variant form of address: Mrs. or Ms.):

Dear friend,

May the almighty God be with you as you read this mail.  Do not pity me for God is my strength even in my last days. I am Ms. Sandol Carlos, a widow to the Late Dr. Edmond Carlos, an English entrepreneur.  We own controlling shares in leading Multinational Companies in Europe. We are very wealthy, we have a lot of properties including Shares and houses. I am 75 years of age, Citizen of Great Britain but currently base in France. I am suffering from cancer of the Pelvic, my condition is very serious.

According to my doctor it is quite obvious that I may not survive the sickness. The story of my life is pathetic. I have never really cared for others but my family and our fortune until my late husband and my only daughter died in a ghastly car accident in September 2001. This event devastated me and changed the course of my life and I made up my mind to do the work of my creator by giving to the needy. I sold all my husband’s properties and shares which I inherited to enable me raise money to continue my mission. I raised the sum of 10.5 Million Euro which I deposited with Lloyds bank. Now that my sickness has gone to this stage, I am scared and I want the fund to be used for the work of God all over the world.

I have prayed to God to direct me to an honest person who will receive this fund and utilize it for things that will glorify the name of God. After my prayers, I decided to search the Internet site and I was divinely directed by God to your profile, I decided to contact you to receive the fund. This is on the condition that you will take only 20% of the funds for yourself while you will distribute the remaining 80% to charity organizations in your country.I cannot predict what will be my fate by the time the funds will be transferred into your account, but you should please ensure that the fund is used as I have described above.

Please I need your urgent reply so that i can direct you on how to go about it.

Most sincerely, Ms. Sandol Carlos


Leaving aside the hilarity arising from phrases like “cancer of the Pelvic” and the fascinating capitalization choices, one has to appreciate the highly efficient art of the thing. In three paragraphs, the scammer has presented a moving tale of redemption, one in which the intended mark can serve as an instrument of the very will of God. For the right mark, this is an elegant piece of persuasive fiction, pushing exactly the right combination of buttons to get results. There is clearly a template of sorts for this story (Wealthy Widow, Dying, Seeks Redemption Through Charity), requiring only the adjustment of some details to make it work for different contexts and audiences. My favorite, of course, is the one where the dying widow is trying to get the mark to help her to overcome the perfidious relatives who have poisoned her and murdered her daughter and/or husband, and are trying to find and control her son (who is the surviving heir to her fortune). The espionage flavor in that one is mighty tasty, I must say.

Idea Time!


I wonder if there’s a sort of manual out there for 419 scammers, or a writing class for them. Better still: This is an entrepreneurial opportunity! Surely someone has already thought of creating a Udemy class or some other money-making online tutorial for would-be email con artists — explaining the templates for versions of the con, workshopping details for customization, identifying cultural markers (BACON!) likely to lend that much-needed air of authenticity, that sort of thing. I’m half afraid to look for it, although I’m sure some resource of this kind must exist somewhere. Note that I’m not talking about attempts to scam the scammers or waste their time — that sort of thing is abundantly available and easy to find. I’m talking about the improvement of the tools for the trade — who provides such improvement, and how do they make money at it? [Note: I do not intend to pursue this opportunity myself, what with it being criminal and all.]


I’ve seen at least one nice example of someone (probably for a class) looking at the rhetoric of scam messages; there’s actually quite a lot of scholarly stuff written about the rhetoric of the 419 scam. What I’m interested in, though, is not rhetorical analysis. There is significantly less material floating around (so far as I can tell) about the aesthetic properties of frauds like this. What makes the stories in these emails (and the templates or models on which they are built) interesting as a body of literature, perhaps even as a distinct genre? There is material about narrative and genre in the 419 email, but it still seems to attend mostly to rhetorical rather than aesthetic properties. What would a “beautiful” example of such a message be like? What would make it beautiful?

Posted in Idea Time, Uncategorized | Tagged , , ,

ReFraktured Color

For those who have read my other posts on the subject, it will be unsurprising that I continue to be fascinated by the use of typefaces to preserve, promote, and communicate about linguistic or cultural conventions. In particular, I’m interested in the various ways in which the deployment of Fraktur typefaces has served social, political, and philosophical purposes relating to the continuity of cultural identity — I think it’s safe to say that the occurrence of the Antiqua-Fraktur Dispute alongside the blooming of romantic nationalism in 19th C. Europe is plainly not an accident.

While I think it is relatively easy to pick out the politics of Fraktur over time (and many have done so), today what interests me is a more mundane example of the conventions for using Fraktur vs. “Latin” typefaces in the years before the great dispute, particularly as compared to one of my two later samples,  W. H. Carruth’s preservation and presentation of Martin Luther’s work for students of German language and culture in the United States.

The example that interests me here is a relatively rare 18th C. text, Johann Ferdinand Ritter von Schönfeld’s 1794 printing of the Wiener Farbenkabinet.  There are, as I understand it, four extant copies of this book in collections in the United States (Yale, Princeton, the Smithsonian…) and a few other copies in European collections. You can explore the Smithsonian’s copy here, and if you’re feeling daring and helpful and you’ve got an eye for Fraktur, you can contribute to their ongoing project of transcribing its contents. It’s an amazing book in its own right — a comprehensive, multi-volume resource for the fabrication and use of dyes and pigments, including (to quote the Smithsonian transcription project’s description) “2,592 hand-colored natural dye specimens, along with details on how to apply them to silk, cotton, wool, leather, wood, bone, paper, and many other materials.”

For my purpose in this post, however, what turns out to be most interesting about the book is the entirely unremarkable, matter-of-fact way in which its typefaces are used to represent a print style convention the carries ideological weight later on: German in Fraktur, Latin in a Latin type/Antiqua. For example, consider this bit from p. 124:

Screenshot of one paragraph from the Wiener Farbenkabinet (1794), p. 124

Note the switch in typefaces — the bulk of the text is in Fraktur, but the Latin names for a North American species of Goldenrod are printed in a Latin type. This is just one of many examples of Latin terminology or plant species names set in a different typeface from the rest of the text.

As it’s done in the Wiener Farbenkabinet, typeface switching from Fraktur to Antiqua at first appears to work much the same as it does when Hebrew or Greek or Russian or Arabic (etc.) terms are printed in their indigenous scripts in texts otherwise entirely in English or another conventionally Roman-lettered language. This is a specific style choice on the part of a publisher — the Chicago Manual of Style, for example, offers its own conventions for representing “foreign”* names, terms, titles, and abbreviations, and other publication manuals provide similar guidelines. The printer has to decide how and whether to signify that a term is (or is not) translated — or, put in a way relevant to the discussion here, whether a term is to be Romanized or not, and if it is, whether or not to use some other indicator (such as italics) to mark the term as other.

One obvious advantage to setting a term usually printed in kanji or in Cyrillic (for example) in a Latin typeface using some system for the consistent assignment of Roman letters to a typographically translated or transliterated term is that it becomes phonetically (and to some degree conceptually) available to readers to whom the language in question would otherwise be inscrutable. The disadvantage, from the point of view of someone particularly interested in preserving meaning and/or something like “authenticity” by avoiding a misleading representation of the language, is that a term simply adapted (Romanized, translated, its origins unmarked) may not be a term correctly understood. Romanization and/or resetting in a Latin typeface as translation is potentially problematic, especially if (as in the case of Fraktur) the process itself is ideologically, culturally, and politically fraught. I leave consideration of the legacy of colonialism and cultural appropriation relative to the practice of Romanization as an exercise for the reader.

For a dedicated preserver of language and culture like W. H. Carruth, typeface choice in the context of a diplomatic reprint of Luther’s works was vitally important. Yet Carruth’s mission wasn’t just preservation, it was education — his book was specifically created to be a resource for English-speaking students of German language and culture. The shifts from Antiqua to Fraktur and back again (and from English-language introductory and explanatory material to Luther’s words in German) are meant to serve both goals. Carruth’s collection of Luther’s works becomes, in effect, a kind of textual and typographic museum exhibit, in which typeface marks the boundaries of the display by distinguishing the artifacts curated from the mechanisms of curation.

This is not the case, however, with a practical manual like the Wiener Farbenkabinet, which is aimed squarely at an audience including naturalists, educators, painters, and a wide variety of craftspeople. What’s being preserved here (if anything) is not language. It’s a set of practices — in craft, science, and art — in which there already exists a broadly familiar use of common Latin-language terms and names. This occurs in an 18th C. European context in which the language of scholarship and higher education is still Latin (even if the Bible is available in German). In the selection pictured above, the author has provided both the German name for the plant (canadischen Goldruthe, using the pre-Duden spelling from the original text) and two related Latin names for it (the broader Virga Aurea and the more specific species name, s. solidago Canadensis), in what appears to me to be a disambiguating move rather than an attempt to preserve a concept from risky translation or transliteration. Keeping to the convention that Latin is printed in an Antiqua typeface while German is printed in Fraktur, in this case, signifies something simply commonplace. It may also have the effect of lending a kind of scientific or intellectual shine to a practical craft text, designed to make it as attractive and useful to experimental chemists or naturalists as it would be to dye-makers practicing their craft. There doesn’t appear to be a cultural axe to grind in the type choices used in the Wiener Farbenkabinet — the publisher just does what the typographical conventions of the period require.

That it does not explicitly have a cultural axe to grind (as in the case of Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche’s reprinting of her brother’s work) and is not designed specifically for linguistic or cultural preservation (as in Carruth) does not, however, mean that the Wiener Farbenkabinet‘s language and typeface choices carry no cultural weight. It is only in the context of common and unremarkable conventional usage like what we see in this manual that moves like Förster-Nietzsche’s or Carruth’s operate as ideological and educational tools. The fight about culture, identity, and language embodied in the Antiqua-Fraktur dispute is a battle joined at the historical border between familiar, commonplace practice (shown in things like practical manuals for broad audiences) and the realm of the new in a world that travel, industry, and technology have shrunk and changed.



* Obviously, if we’re looking at the Chicago Manual of Style, we’re looking at conventions for printed text in English that may or may not apply well to other European languages. “Foreign,” in this case, is a word that appears to cover pretty much anything not English, with special subcategories for languages not primarily represented in Roman letters using Latin typefaces. In Japanese, the relevant analogue is probably the use of katakana to represent non-Japanese words phonetically. Other languages and type systems have their own accommodations for “foreign” words, typically meant to do the work of making those words pronounceable as well as readable to local speakers/readers.


Posted in Philosophical Mess-making, random stuff | Tagged , , , , , , , ,

The Visual Poetry of Roadside America

The late John Margolies (1940-2016) is perhaps best known as a photographer and chronicler of “vernacular commercial structures along main streets, byways, and highways throughout the United States in the twentieth century.” Put another way: if you’ve ever spent time looking at photos of miniature golf courses, weird motels, whimsical gas stations, and assorted wacky bar signs, you’ve almost certainly seen his photos. In addition to the massive archive of his work held by the Library of Congress (have a look at the online catalog), there’s also a site that catalogs his images, collected artifacts, exhibitions, and lectures, well worth a look. The Library of Congress is currently sharing images from the Margolies archive on Flickr, and it is amazing — if you’ve got time to go down the neon rabbit hole, you should definitely check it out. Giant shrimp with guns and cowboy hats! Random giant dogs! Scrap metal dinosaurs! Peach water towers! Oh, so many treasures!

Among the signs collected by Margolies and shared by the Library of Congress is this little gem:

No-Tel Motel sign, Route 172, Massillon, Ohio (LOC)

The No-Tel (sometimes spelled No-Tell) Motel is, of course, a fairly obvious and familiar trope, famed in song and in story. This is where folks go to do things they shouldn’t be doing (drugs, prostitutes, someone else’s spouse, the occasional murder). One does not expect an establishment with this name to have more than one star (although one would be wrong, if one counts ironic stars). One does not expect cleanliness, safety, or service. One does expect adherence to a certain minimal notion of privacy and access to a selection of — ehem — services and amenities of interest to those who do not intend to stay long on the premises. The most (in)famous joint currently in operation with the No-Tel name is in Tuscon, AZ, and is known for being exactly as awful as the trope suggests. Also: you can apparently get a Groupon for it, although one hesitates to suggest that you do so.

The sign in Margolies’ photo (taken in 1988), however, belongs to a different bearer of the proudly dodgy No-Tel name: the No-Tel Motel on Ohio Route 172 (the old Lincoln Highway) outside of Massillon, near Canton. According to newspaper advertisements from the 60s and 70s — around the time when the Lincoln Highway was reassigned to US 30, likely sounding the motel’s eventual death knell — the Massillon No-Tel had all of the expected features implied by its noble name, including round-the-clock operating hours, TV, air conditioning, and temperature-controlled waterbeds “with vibrators.” (See ads in The Massillon News (1977) and The Evening Independent (1976), for example). Its charm, as I’m sure you can imagine, was undeniable to its select clientele.

It’s not really surprising that Margolies only appears to have shot an image of the sign rather than the building — the building itself probably wasn’t that interesting. The sign, however, is an important part of the story of the Lincoln Highway, whose decaying legacy still remains visible in hundreds of oddball constructions marking the way across the landscape between one coast and another, the human condition spread out in its best and worst forms along now mostly-empty blacktop.

Curiously (and wonderfully), the Groupon page for the Tuscon No-Tel lists the website for a now-defunct literary zine specializing in erotic poetry (attached to an also now-defunct independent publishing operation) as the motel’s own site, probably due to a spelling error (the no-tel/no-tell thing). It’s a fun little find off the Information Superhighway — another old sign left standing, waiting to be discovered and then abandoned once again.

Posted in Library of Congress Flickr Stream MAGIC, photography, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , ,

When the Levee Breaks


The famous image of the great bailaora flamenco Antonita “La Singla” Contreras  as an adolescent (~12 years old)

Recently, I came across a wonderful reminder of past projects in the form of magic shared on Facebook: some television footage from 1965 or so of the magnificent flamenco dancer Antonia (also sometimes listed as Antonita) Singla Contreras, known to the lovers of her art as “La Singla.” [1]  She was a gitana (one of the Romani people of Spain, vitally important to the growth of flamenco in Andalusia) born in Barcelona in 1948. Her story is sometimes characterized as a sort of miracle — she was apparently afflicted with what doctors said was a case of meningitis as a baby, and neither heard nor spoke until she was about eight years old. While she did eventually recover much of her hearing and speech, it was in her dancing — in the tablao(dance spaces, cafes, cantinas) of Barcelona and Madrid — that she most powerfully communicated with her world. At least some of the older video footage of her dancing available online comes either from a series of performances she did on tour in Germany in the early 1960s or from a later tour (1968-ish) of France, the UK, and Austria. Take a moment to savor this German television performance, which also includes other flamenco greats like guitarist Paco de Lucia:

La Singla made her film debut in Los Tarantos (1963), which was the final film starring that other great bailaora of Barcelona, the amazing Carmen Amaya (1918-1963). I’ve written about Carmen Amaya before — she was, among other things, known as both an excellent exemplar of flamenco dance, rhythm, and song and an innovator in the practice of her art. Among her innovations was her frequent employment of a very masculine style of dance (wearing pants rather than the bata de cola [2], emphasizing more energetic footwork, etc.), which she mastered to awesome effect while still deploying the postures and beautiful hand work more common to women’s dancing. She brought the thunder, every time, in a fiercely controlled and absolutely irresistible storm of sound and movement.

If watching Carmen Amaya is like seeing a controlled storm in action, I think watching La Singla (who shared Amaya’s “pants dancing” style, as you can see in the video above) is perhaps more like what happens when the water is about to go over the dam. She, too, is fiercely controlled, but gives the impression of only barely holding back the violent energy that Amaya firmly masters and uses — it is as if even the dancing isn’t quite enough for what she wants to say, and is driven before it. Every now and then, hair flying around her, it’s as if there’s a monster about to get loose, and it is glorious.

It is also — and I think this is important for understanding flamenco in La Singla’s particular style and time period — absolutely necessary to see how perfectly all of that energy and ferocity and barely-restrained feeling sits within the music, contributing to the sound one hears. La Singla has (from my very limited non-expert understanding of the concept) brilliant compas (see the glossary in note 2 below). This makes it possible to take a moment to think about how much the bailaor or bailaora is necessarily a part of the music in flamenco — as much so as the singer or guitarist — rather than being accompanied by it. One excellent way to catch this is to listen to a performance without being able to see the dancer:

Listen to the work of hands and feet, in addition to voice and guitar, and remember that the very oldest flamenco forms were entirely vocal — cante jondo. Listen carefully to the bit starting around 2:02 and see if you can still keep the core beat in your head when all you hear are the dancer’s feet — because you know she feels it and keeps it. Listen to what happens when other hands and feet come back in around 3:01, building in complexity through variations and improvisations while still holding the compas of the song so that when the singer and guitars and other hands and feet start again around 5:35, the transition is seamless. Now go back to the video of La Singla dancing, earlier in this post, and watch the other people on stage with her, too. This is a musical ensemble piece, not a dance performed with accompaniment, and seeing it otherwise, I suspect,  is a serious misunderstanding.


  1. There’s not a whole lot written about her in English, and there’s relatively little of any depth that’s easy to find online in Spanish for an English speaker muddling through the search. I couldn’t find her in my editions of D.E. Pohren’s books on the subject, or much in Totten’s introductory survey, but there’s a mention of her in passing in Leblon’s Gypsies and Flamenco: The Emergence of the Art of Flamenco in Andalusia (2003), and a nod to her here and there on blogs and assorted web sites devoted to flamenco like this one and this one. I will not pretend to have done truly comprehensive research for this blog post, of course.
  2. Don’t know what that is? Here’s a glossary of flamenco terms. You’re welcome. :)


Posted in aesthetics, Dance, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

Pop quiz, hotshot

What are you doing New Year’s Eve?


My own answers include:

  • Facing the White Walkers at the end of my freakin’ driveway and then going back indoors — windchills are going to be in the neighborhood of -40 degrees or worse tonight, with regular temps around -17 degrees by midnight. Yay.
  • Drinking a gallon or so of yummy hot chocolate.
  • There may or may not be peppermint schnapps in some of that hot chocolate.
  • Don’t judge me.
  • Huddling together with three small dogs for warmth and hoping that my ancient furnace doesn’t choose tonight to shuffle off this mortal coil.
  • Getting bored and recording a terrible, mostly out of tune a capella version of Auld Lang Syne at some point, because Bored Now.
  • Swearing at great length and with considerable creative energy at the most recent version of Garage Band and whatever sub-par sale microphone I’m using, because I am too tightfisted to buy something better. Again. Still.
  • Sharing that recording online while not quite sober enough to make appropriate rational judgments about its aesthetic properties.
  • Drunk-texting my friends, family, and assorted acquaintances around midnight, assuming I bother to stay awake that long instead of snuggling into a warm bed and dreaming my way into the new year.


So — got plans?

Posted in random stuff, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments