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Culture and Arts

Culture Watch

In this issue:

A century of music by women, give or take a few years, gets the proper Respect on a handsome boxed CD set. 

Millennial expectations and visions are nothing new in America. They have been an inspiration for folk artists since the 19th century, as can be seen in a small, pleasurable exhibit in New York City. 

In his memoirs, John Glenn comes across, once again, as  everybody's  small-town hero; Anne Sofie Von Otter makes the Christmas season glisten with a new album.


She Worked Hard for the Money

Respect: A Century of Women in Music 

       Thrushes and songbirds. That's show-biz slang for female singers. A tad cute, isn't it? But extend the metaphor a bit and it's possible to say that women singers do have the characteristics of some avian creatures:  the ferocity of hawks, the cleverness of  blue jays, the gentleness of doves and the soaring independence of eagles.  All of these qualities are in abundance on a sumptuous compendium of more than 110 numbers The title comes from Aretha Franklin's 1967 soul-shouted anthem, Respect,  and Rhino Records deserves its own  full yell-out-loud respect for assembling a cross-section of works by some of the women who have influenced the ever-shifting musical tastes of America during this  century.
   Because of licensing restrictions or personal choice, a few superstars are missing:  Madonna, Celine Dion, Whitney Houston and, more important, Joni Mitchell. Without them, can this be a true representation of women's popular music in the 20th century? Yes, resoundingly. An 80-page booklet outlining major trends and artists accompanies the five CDs in the burgundy-velvet boxed set, starting with a 1909 recording of the old croon-June-spoon standard By the Light of the Silvery Moon  and ending with Liz Phair's Polyester Bride. In between, come blues and folk, pop and protest, Broadway and country-western, doo-wop and hip-hop, swing and rock. 
       If there's a preponderance of the latter, it's important to remember that it was an era when women in large numbers were singing and playing songs they had written coming into their own as music's creators as well as interpreters, and demanding, yes, respect from the recording industry.  As Donna Summer sang, on a different subject, they worked hard for the money so you'd better treat them right. It was also a time when the range of voices was as wide as the free-wheeling repertory: Janis Joplin's rasp on Move Over (1971), Joan Baez' clear-as-spring-water soprano on Diamonds and Rust (1975), and Gladys Knight with the Pips breaking the speed limit and driving at top speed on I've Got to Use My Imagination (1973). 
      From the first years of the microphone, the industry has accommodated an abundance of styles, giving listeners from all backgrounds and regions the music they wanted to hear. In the Twenties, Ma Rainey told the truth about the blues, the Carter Family performed music of their Appalachian mountains and Helen Kane cooed about wanting to be loved by you, boop-boop-a-doop. The song is as mindlessly simplistic about love as Debbie Reynolds' Tammy, a hit almost 30 years later. Modern mores can be traced through the song lyrics. We'll be cuddling soon promised By the Light of the Silvery Moon, while in 1974 Dollie Parton vowed I Will Always Love You. (Dollie wrote the song; Whitney Houston later made it the megahit). Compare those simpler urges to Chrissie Hynde scalding words in 1980 urging "do it, do it on the pavement.'' Country music segued from Patsy Montana's 1935 exuberance about being a cowboy's sweetheart ("That's the life I love best'') to Kitty Wells' 1952 reminder that  it wasn't God who made honky tonk angels, and Loretta Lynn's praise in The Pill about the pleasures of Mama having sex but no more babies.
     Popular music is a good gauge of the times. Early women's rights echo in the prim admonishment of a 1916 oddity, She's Good Enough to Be Your Baby's Mother and She's Good Enough to Vote with You. Years later, Deborah Harry metamorphosed into punk goddess Blondie and flaunted her sexual freedom;  the Slits pushed it even farther but declared they were Typical Girls. The evils of racial hatred in the segregated South make Strange Fruit in Billie Holiday's chilling, hypnotic vision of a  lynching. The album's makers have inserted into each disc spoken sound bites from famous women to put the music in the context of its time.  It's unnecessary to have Billie Jean King tell us how she wanted to change tennis or to hear a personal word from Gloria Steinem, Amelia Earhart or Anita Hill. The music is enough. It tells us all we need to know.


The End Is Nigh, or Is It?

Millennial Dreams: Vision and Prophecy in American Folk Art 
Museum of American Folk Art, New York City

      Talk about hype! For the past weeks and months, the coming calendar change has been the topic of talk, and the conversation has reached full roar. Fear tempers celebration, and regrets overshadow optimism for the future. It seems to many that this is a most interesting time to be living, and it is, but it is not the first time. The millennium has been much on the mind of folk artists and craft people since the 19th century, and it is altogether fitting that the Manhattan Museum of American Folk Art has put together a small, thoroughly engaging exhibition on the subject. 
     The biblical Book of Revelation is a wellspring for people pre-occupied by millennial thoughts. Angels abound throughout the prophecy, delivering messages, appearing in unexpected guises and triumping over evil.  In this show, an unknown artist around the turn of the century painted on oilcloth a victorious St. Michael, feathered wings expanded,  holding a chain that binds his captive, the Devil. There is a vitality and energy in both combatants, as if the battle had just been concluded. 
     That the end was coming soon was a belief strongly held in the 19th century, and the Millerites were ready for it. They assembled in 1843 on the appointed day  but when it came and went, the group foundered. They were often joked about, but since the Heaven's Gate suicides, they don't seem quite so absurd. A large map on the wall of one gallery is a history of the world according to the Millerites, and it is sobering. Ancient Greeks, Medes and people of other ancient days and contemporary times are on display -- outlined with bold black lines--and The Apocalypse comes in a mighty conflagration. Not everything in the show is so violent. A 79-year-old woman living in upstate New York  in 1848 stitched her faith into a magnificent quilt. Lines as jagged as lightning bolts criss-cross a bright red field dotted with home inscriptions. "Love One Another,'' enjoins one, and "Heaven Is Our Home'' is the pious advice on another. Our "earthly Eden'' can be achieved, reads a third, by "little acts of kindness, little acts of love.'' 
      Utopian ideas flourished in America, and  across the continent communities popped up where people could live out their social and religious beliefs.  An 1880 workmanlike map of a Shaker community illustrates the layout, and it gives a charming view of an innocent and now nearly vanished era. Frame buildings--separate dwellings and workshops for men and women, a wood house, infirmary, barn and sheds--are enclosed by tidy fences. There are no human figures to be seen--they must all be inside working industriously--and the community seems to float serenely against pale background of green and blue. Shaker "gift drawings,'' pieces of religious text copied in meticulous handwriting  and illustrated with spiritual symbols are ephemera with the same purity and elegance of design as the furniture they made. The Trappist monk Thomas Merton wrote that "the peculiar grace of a Shaker chair is due to the fact that it was made by someone capable of believing that an angel might come and sit on it.'' Here, six Shaker chairs are suspended from the ceiling in ascending order as if flying straight to heaven. 
      Gerard Wertkin, director of the museum and this show's curator, writes that "the founders of the United States believed that America had been assigned a special role in the divine plan. Even secularists envisioned the fulfillment of millennial dreams in a place blessed by God and nature.''  Artists in the 19th century and in our own time as well took to heart a prophecy of Isaiah that the natural enemies among animals should be reconciled to one another and "a little child shall lead them.''  One of the best-known interpreters of the peaceable kingdom is Pennsylvanian Edward Hicks, and the exhibit has one of his several versions, dated 1846-48. A sturdy lion with wide-open eyes stands next to a placid ox, while a spotted leopard reclines, staring out at us in bemusement. Both are as amiable as plush toys.  Sheep are dotted around, and a wolf crosses its paws and kindly regards a little lamb. A child in Grecian costume hails us as he embraces an animal that looks like a gray tiger. In the background, settlers and native Americans greet one another amicably on a shore. The gladsome and harmonious accord got  a more somber treatment by Horace Pippin in 1945.  Behind the shepherd with his menagerie is a darkened line of trees. Within the brooding shadows are ghost-like figures that Pippin once described as memories from his days as a soldier serving in an all-black regiment in World War I and from living in the segregated South. 
     Folk artist have always worked with whatever came to hand. Sister Gertrude Morgan, an African-American who was born in 1900 in New Orleans and died in 1980, painted her panorama of Revelations on a windowshade. Rows of white-clad angels, most of them with red hair, look out at us, and her elaborate iconography with patches of tiny handwritten text and child-like renderings of St. John's fearsome beasts tell a story that is less about punishments, fire and brimstone than it is about heaven's bright joy. Howard Finster, a Baptist preacher from Georgia, puts found objects into fantastical assemblages as the spirit moves him. In Visions of Holy Crystal Cities Beyond (1985), he filled a Plexiglas box with miniature ornaments, plastic jewels and trinkets that might be found in a Crackerjack box; it's an eccentric alternative to reality here on earth. Like many Folk Artists, Sister Gertrude and Finster, both have seen more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of by the rest of us. 

And Consider This


John Glenn: A Memoir by John Glenn with Nick Taylor 
(Bantam; 422 pages)

   It's a Wonderful Life could be the subtitle of John Glenn's memoirs. George Bailey in the Capra classic wanted to leave home and travel the world. Glenn did both, exceeding Bailey's yearnings by flying combat in two wars and seeing the world not once but twice from the distance of space. But like the fictional Bailey, he never really left his hometown. With his childhood sweetheart Annie as his wife at his side, he has remained constant to the values and beliefs instilled in him by his family and by his Ohio small town. The modesty and plainspokenness in his memoir are admirable. So is the man. 


Home for Christmas/ Anne Sofie von Otter
(Uni/Deutsche Grammophon)

     Maybe it's something about living in a country where Christmas comes with snow and ice, but Sweden's Anne Sofie von Otter knows how to take the freeze off and put a warm glow into the season.  She's a rarity in this field: an opera singer who doesn't sound like it. The mezzo's selection of familiar and unfamiliar songs balances the popular and religious and treats both with equal artistry. Apologies to Bing Crosby, but it's been a long time since White Christmas sounded so fresh and new.


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