Month: February 2020

Saturday Soundtrack: Leyla McCalla

New York-born Haitian-American multi-instrumentalist Leyla McCalla is the fifth and final featured artist in our Black History Month tribute to musicians at the forefront of the work to reclaim the African American contributions to folk, old-time, country and roots music. I kicked off the series with my January tribute to Amythyst Kiah and then celebrated throughout February the music of Rhiannon Giddens, followed by Dom Flemons, Otis Taylor, and last week’s artist, Keb’ Mo’. McCalla grew up in the cultural mix of New York City but relocated to Accra, Ghana for two years while a teenager. She returned to the States to study cello performance and chamber music at NYU. Taking that knowledge—and “armed with Bach’s Cello Suites”—she left to play cello on the streets of the French Quarter in New Orleans. There she sang in French, Haitian Creole, and English, and played cello, tenor banjo and guitar. McCalla spent two years and gained greater fame as cellist of the Grammy award-winning African-American string band, the Carolina Chocolate Drops, alongside bandmates Giddens and Flemons. She …

Just say it

If I had just one piece of advice to give to colleagues, friends, and family, it would be pretty simple. Say “Thank you.” Say it early and often. Two recent conversations raised this in my consciousness. First, a senior professional and former colleague was assisting an emerging professional with a networking and outreach discussion. They met, and because she was impressed, the former colleague offered up additional assistance. While a verbal thank you may have been given at the end of lunch, there was no follow-up communication after the initial meeting to acknowledge the gift of time and offer of additional assistance. In a second instance, a friend mentioned that a member of her family found it difficult, if not impossible, to say thank you, even when she was the recipient of an extraordinary gift. These family members have had their differences through the years. But despite that, my friend expected an acknowledgement of minimal gratefulness. It never came. Connecting to say thank you is, from my perspective, extraordinarily important. Saying thank you, as my …

Tribalism and the Abandonment of Democracy

What do the Houston Astros have to do with the state of our democracy? Let’s see. Baseball—rightly or wrongly—has long been compared to life, or vice-versa. Washington sportswriter Thomas Boswell’s first book was a 1982 collection of essays entitled How Life Imitates the World Series.* In the essay that gave the book its title, Boswell makes the observation that the pressures in baseball differ from those of other sports. It is a pressure that ebbs and flows, day-by-day, over the length of a long season played out every day as opposed to the once a week or twice a week rhythm of the games in football, basketball, or hockey. Yet baseball pressures are heightened at key tipping points, such as during a pennant race, when one’s true character and strength comes through. Just like in real life. What’s more pressure-packed than a World Series? Or an impeachment trial? Recently, it struck me that Boswell’s premise was perfect when the subject—as it often does these days—turns to the future of our democracy. To see how baseball and life …

Saturday Soundtrack: Keb’ Mo’

Keb’ Mo’ has been playing traditional blues and roots music for more than three decades. So he seemed a natural to be included in our Black History Month tribute to musicians at the forefront of the work to reclaim the African American contributions to folk, old-time, country and roots music. I kicked off the series with my January tribute to Amythyst Kiah and then began it in earnest the last three weeks; first with a celebration of the music of Rhiannon Giddens, followed by Dom Flemons and then Otis Taylor. Kevin Roosevelt Moore (rechristened Keb’ Mo’ around 1994) has been at the work of reclaiming disappeared African American musical contributions for his entire career. His inaugural album included two Robert Johnson covers and he has a well-earned reputation for his mastery of multiple blues styles. But it is his ability to combine traditional approaches with a contemporary attitude, while working with a wide variety of artists, that generates such enthusiasm for his work. Keb’ Mo’ is more than just a highly skilled retro act. As Nashville …

Eleven Ways of Smelling a Tree

The February 10th newsletter of Chapter 16, a website celebrating Tennessee literature, was titled Paying Attention. Editor Maria Browning writes that, to her mind, February is “the most fickle month of the year in Tennessee,” with shifts between the stirrings of spring and days of snow (or, worse, ice). She continues, “Wardrobe challenges notwithstanding, this is a wonderful time to pay attention to the ever-dynamic natural world.” Her suggestion for some inspiration led me to read “Eleven Ways of Smelling a Tree” by Sewanee writer David George Haskell. As Browning notes, the piece at Emergence Magazine is a collaborative effort, with musician Katherine Lehman and art by Studio Airport. I’ve recommended Haskell’s The Forest Unseen in the past as a delightful book written by a scientist with the soul of a poet. “Eleven Ways of Smelling a Tree” has the same observational mix and magic. Haskell opens his piece with an ode to the American Basswood. Harlem, New York City Vintage: 1908 We crack the windows on summer’s first warm days. I taste diesel smoke, acid and oily. The fumes …

Saving the Past Has a Past

It is surprising that a field that has focused so much on the preservation of history has an unfortunate blind spot to its own history. Historic preservation is one of the longest-lasting examples of community development, land use reform, and public history in the United States. The stories of the past efforts of our fellow citizens to ensure that parts of our history are with us today and tomorrow are varied and fascinating. Yet many, both inside and outside preservation, tell themselves a simplistic and usually inaccurate story of how we came to value parts of our past in a country that too often only values the new and what’s over the horizon. The recently released second edition of Giving Preservation a History, edited by Randall Mason and Max Page, is a strong attempt to reverse our trend at historical amnesia in the preservation field. Through seven essays retained from the first edition, six new essays prepared for the 2020 book, and two concluding chapters to wrap both works together, the editors have endeavored to put forward …

Observations from…The City of the Future

Depending on your age and where you lived, your childhood construction toys of choice may have been Tinkertoys (my favorite); Meccano (if you or your grandparents were European); an Erector Set (I may still have the scar from falling off the top bunk onto one of our construction sites); or Legos (our children’s favorite). I started thinking about construction toys while standing on the top level of the Silver Spring transit center this afternoon, talking with an engineer, and looking down at the vast construction site that is now our front yard (of sorts). My mind wandered to, “These men and women on the site below may have started out on the family rug many years ago with the Erector Set.” Some of them may, in fact, be living their dream! For the past twenty years, we have lived in downtown Silver Spring. We cross a relatively narrow residential street and a small plaza set in the center of an office complex to get to the Metro station, which houses the Red Line. I use …

Saturday Soundtrack: Otis Taylor

Singer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist Otis Taylor is the next featured artist in our Black History Month tribute to musicians at the forefront of the work to reclaim the African American contributions to folk, old-time, country and roots music. I kicked off the series with my January tribute to Amythyst Kiah and then began it in earnest the last two weeks; first with a celebration of the music of Rhiannon Giddens, followed last week by Dom Flemons. Otis Taylor was born in Chicago but moved to Denver early in life with his family. Taylor’s parents were jazz music fans. “My dad worked for the railroad and knew a lot of jazz people,” notes Taylor, while his mother “had a penchant for Etta James and Pat Boone.” Their house in Colorado was near the Denver Folklore Center, where he bought his first instrument, a banjo. During a NPR Music Tiny Desk concert, Taylor tells how he broke a string on his mother’s ukulele and went to the Center to get it fixed. While there, he became entranced …

The Flip Side of Ignorance

We seem to be wallowing in a great deal of ignorance these days. In Margaret Renkl’s wonderful debut book Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss, she makes the comment that “It takes a lot of nerve” for someone like herself, who is “so ignorant of true wilderness” to put herself forward as a nature writer. But then she adds, “the flip side of ignorance is astonishment, and I am good at astonishment.” So many today seem content to settle in the midst of their ignorance and not face life with astonishment, awe, and a sense of wonder. As Renkl shows, that approach is their loss, but also, in many ways, ours as well. We are all connected, humans and non-human. Those who choose to abandon a sense of astonishment and wonder and settle in their ignorance continue to make decisions—often with very harmful consequences—that affect every other thing on this planet. “Every day the world is teaching me what I need to know to be in the world,” Renkl writes in another passage …

Saturday Soundtrack: Dom Flemons

Singer, multi-instrumentalist, and musical historian Dom Flemons is the next featured artist in our Black History Month tribute to musicians at the forefront of the work to reclaim the African American contributions to folk, old-time, country and roots music. I kicked off the series a little early with my January tribute to Amythyst Kiah and then began it in earnest last week with a celebration of Rhiannon Giddens. This week we’ll look at “The American Songster,” a name Flemons has earned with a repertoire that covers over 100 years of American folklore, ballads, and tunes. Along with Giddens and fiddle player Justin Robinson, Flemons was one of the co-founders of the influential African American string band the Carolina Chocolate Drops, playing with the group from 2005 until 2014 when he left to begin a solo career. He has performed at a wide variety of venues with a range of collaborators, including English folk legend Martin Simpson and Old Crow Medicine Show. (He has a cameo in the latter’s hilarious official video for their song Brushy …