End-of-week recommendations from the editors of the Oxford American
A few years ago, while helping the writer John Jeremiah Sullivan investigate a story about the lives of two obscure female blues musicians, we had the honor to spend an evening in the golden-lit studio of 78-rpm record collector and preservationist Christopher C. King. OA readers will already be familiar with King, whose harrowing and murderous tales, “Occurrence at Deep Ellum” and “Little Graves in Georgia,” have appeared in our past two music issues. When we met King that night in 2014, he held court in his studio full of wonders (Blind Willie Johnson, Geeshie Wiley, and Willie Brown hold hallowed space on his shelves). He curated a listening session of breathtaking recordings from the earliest years of the medium—and the impression that it left on us is indescribable (at least for us; Amanda Petrusich writes brilliantly about what it’s like to listen to these old records in her book Do Not Sell At Any Price).
Among this ethereal and otherworldly exhibition of songs, King played a few primal and raw records, earthy but also alien-sounding. They were, he explained, from Greece. He had been collecting them on trips to Epirus (a wedge of mountainous land between Greece and Albania) for the last few years. The songs had the same, life-wrecking quality of most of King’s collection (“I just naturally, intensely, obsessively gravitate toward music that is emotionally unhinged,” he’s said). But they also seemed essential and human—music as a tool, music as survival. After years of digging abroad and in the States, King has produced a collection of this music—Why the Mountains Are Black: Primeval Greek Village Music: 1907 – 1960, out now on Third Man Records. The collection “moves from wild frenzy to hypnotic solemnity to undulating sensuality to meditative introspection,” King writes in his liner notes (possibly his finest). You can get the double LP (or CD), and listen to a part of it, here. And if you’re in Nashville this weekend, we recommend going to King’s release party at Third Man’s headquarters at 7:00 P.M. tomorrow, March 5.
Last week we learned some happy news: RaMell Ross, whose indelible image “Here” appeared on the cover of our Fall 2015 issue, has been named one of four finalists for the 2016 Aperture Portfolio Prize. The prestigious prize aims to “identify trends in contemporary photography and highlight artists whose work deserves greater recognition.” Ross has said his photography looks at his “insider-outsider relationship with the historic South and considers the iconic use of the African-American body.” On the New York Times’s Lens blog, he wrote: “I daydream about a postmodern South, of melanin liberation and a less profit-centered humanity.”
Once we discovered Ross’s beautiful series “South County, Alabama”—made when he moved from Washington to an Alabama town of 2,700 people—the question was not if we would feature his work in the magazine—it was which photograph would we choose? It was too hard to choose just one: aside from the Fall 2015 cover photo, we also printed “Column,” alongside Kevin Young’s poem “Pining,” in our Spring 2015 issue. We’re thrilled by the prospect of Aperture introducing Ross’s powerful work to an even larger audience of fans.
In poetry this week, we look ahead to the end of spring. Rita Dove—the youngest person to ever hold the Laureateship of the United States; first African American to gain the title; daughter of Ohio; Southerner by choice; the woman who gave us Thomas and Beulah, that great Great Migration verse novel on the nature of love for self and country; the woman who at thirty-four years young received the Pulitzer for that gift; the editor, contested and lauded, of the now essential omnibus Penguin Anthology of 20th Century American Poetry; the poet who has done so much to open our relationship to the multitudes contained in American poetry—Rita Dove will publish her long awaited Collected Poems with Norton on May 17th, pre-orders available as of this week. We recommend pairing with Claire Schwartz’s interview with Dove on VQR.
Last year, while we worked with Jonathan Blitzer to finalize his deep profile of Claudia Delfin for our Fall issue, talk often turned, as it will in late summer, to baseball. But Jon spoke not of Mets nor Cubs, Cards, Blue Jays, nor even Royals. He had become obsessed with teams from long ago, the Pittsburg Crawfords and Homestead Grays of the Negro Leagues, and from far away—the Ciudad Trujillo Dragons of 1930s Dominican Republic and their rivals the Santiago Eagles and the Estrellas de Oriente. His questions (rhetorical) bore the unmistakable scent of a writer on the case: Did you know that some of the most talented black athletes of their time were poached from the Negro Leagues by a foreign dictator in order to stack his team for a tournament he named after himself? No, we hadn’t realized that. Can you believe they made better money and enjoyed more civil freedoms working for a racist despot than they ever could in America, even though they were as good or better than most of their contemporaries in the Major Leagues? Holy cow, we thought. I’m going to the Dominican Republic. Go on, man!
The results of years of bilingual, transnational reporting (Blitzer’s modus operandi, as OA readers are familiar) have finally been published by The Atavist, just in time for spring training. His feature, “Satchel Paige and the Championship for the Reelection of the General,” is more panoramic and uncanny than he originally let on, peopled with a wild cast of baseball phenoms and mysterious musclemen, and of course the eponymous Paige, an eccentric pitcher from Alabama whose persona Blitzer reveals in a glancing stroke: “They all put up with his antics because he was the best there was, and he knew it.” The tale begins in a New Orleans boarding house, on a warm spring day in 1937, where from his room our hero hears his name uttered in a foreign tongue down in the lobby and makes a run for his green Packard convertible parked in the alley. . . .
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