Thursday, December 20, 2007

E-Readers: Ready for their Closeup?

I still remember with great clarity a conference panel some ten years ago on technology and pedagogy, in the course of which an all too smug colleague from another campus brandished his prized early-adopter electronic book at us and allowed as how those of us who still used WordPerfect and/or read actual- physical -codex books were almost hopelessly retrograde.The gadget he so lovingly waved at us was unwieldy, had a bad screen and, far more important, had no content on it that I could imagine myself caring about. (By the way, I continue to use WordPerfect.)

Still. I watched the development of the e-book from a safe distance, hoping all the while that the consumer electronics industry would one day pay attention to how people use their books. The situation was analogous to what I saw happening in the area of field recording. Throughout the era of tape, nearly all consumer electronics stores such as Good Guys and Circuit City stocked high end (but still affordable) portable tape recorders, the best and most popular being the Marantz deck and the Sony Walkman Pro. Either of these was capable of producing broadcast quality recordings in even the most challenging sound environments. But for some reason the industry paid no attention to this segment of the market during the long march to digital. Sure, profesisonals could get very pricey equipment from their specialist suppliers, but the rest of us were left staring dumbly at those racks of hideous "digital voice recorders" that all the stores display, most of which are really only good for recording a reminder to yourself to get bread on the way home from work. They are the digital equivalent of those once ubiquitous tape recorders with the row of big buttons and the pop-up cassette that produced sound just this side of unbearable. But finally, in the past two years, the industry has brought forward several really good flash memory recorders that make professional standard results available at prices the ordinary recordist can manage. The best of these are the Edirol R09 and the Zoom H2. Sony makes a great one as well, but theirs costs $2,000, so few of us will be using that device to record poetry readings.

Meanwhile, back in book world, little was happening. There were two major problems. (1) The electronic book industry for the most part did not make texts I cared about available. (2) The devices and their software sucked.

So it was with real interest that I read news reports of the advent of new readers based on electronic paper technology. I bought the Sony e-reader after reading several positive reviews and seeing one in a store. It was not known then that the Amazon Kindle would be available for Christmas this year. I now have both, and here's the lowdown.

There still isn't a lot of material I care about available, though there is much more than there had been. BUT, and this is what moved me to purchase these things, you can now place your own content on them. As someone who has been lugging manuscripts that I review for university presses around on airplanes, this alone makes these devices a godsend. I can now get that 900 page manuscript they want me to look at in electronic form and carry it in my briefcase or even in my coat pocket. And I can load the thing up with my own manuscripts, or any text that anybody can give me in a usable format.

Both devices are easy to set up and a delight to use. I'd give the edge to the Amazon Kindle, but here's my comparison:

The Sony e-reader doesn't have as many books in its on-line store, but is much easier to use with files you don't buy from Sony. As long as the file is in DOC, RTF or PDF format, you just drag the file into the Sony library software and drop it. That's it. Books you do buy from Sony download almost instantly and I have never once encountered any problems with the store or the software.

The downside (and this is one of the reasons I had never bought any earlier electronic books): while you can bookmark the text, you can't highlight or annotate it. I have been looking longingly at a similar device marketed in Europe that does permit highlighting and annotating, but that sucker costs $700 US, way too much for one of these things.

But that is also why I got so excited when I saw the list of features for the Amazon Kindle. You can highlight any text (and when you highlight it the selection is also automatically added to your "clippings" file, which means that you can pop it onto your computer and paste it into that essay you're writing as a quotation, or email it to someone you're having discussions with.) Some early-adopters have complained about the small keyboard that the Kindle has beneath its screen to enable all this note-making, but I haven't had any trouble with it at all. (There are also early complaints about the Kindle's button layout -- True enough, you will accidentally turn the page and curse it several times in your first day of use -- but once you get used to it, you probably will forget you ever had that problem.)

AND, the kindle has wireless technology. With your purchase, you're signed into a Sprint account that comes with no additional charges. This means that you can download books while sitting in the airport without having to pay for internet access. It also means that you can have subscriptions to participating papers and magazines delivered straight to your reader. This is a blessing beyond belief for people like me who have never been comfortable reading for long periods from my laptop. As someone who travels a great deal, and who lives part of the year in a town where I can't get any good newspaper delivered to my door on a daily basis, I would have bought the Kindle just for this feature. Every morning when I wake up, my New York Times and Washington Post are already waiting for me on my Kindle; at home, at the airport, in hotels. I've also subscribed to The Nation and the Atlantic, which can be had in this format for a pittance. It's true you don't get all the graphics of the hard copy (and I do miss the editorial cartoons), but that's a truly minor annoyance.

You can still put your own documents on the device, but you have to email them to yourself so that they can be converted to Kindle documents. And that's why I'll still be using my Sony e-reader quite a bit.

Both Sony and Amazon should provide better covers for these things. The one that comes with the Sony is awkward, but there's a much better one you can buy that I'm quite happpy with. The cover that comes with the kindle is cheap looking on the inside, but it turns out to hold the device far more securely than it looks like it will.

One odd thing Amazon's designers did was to put the power and wireless buttons on the back of the thing. This means that you have to take it out of its cover any time you need to turn it off. Most of us who have subscriptions will probably just leave it on all the time, but we still have to access these buttons when flying etc. I hope the next model will move these to the front or side. The Sony's power switch is conveniently located on the side.

There are two general drawbacks remaining with both devices, drawbacks I hope will be addressed soon. There is still, even at Amazon, not enough content beyond the usual run of best sellers. Amazon does get the edge here, as you can find work by Derrida and Wittgenstein, poetry by Ashbery, collections of literary criticism, etc. But then the pricing issue comes to the fore. You're in great shape if you want a copy of something like Tuesdays with Morrie or The DaVinci Code. Most books sell for just under ten bucks, or about what you'd pay in a normal used book store. The big issue for me is that many of the more specialized books, especially from university presses, cost a lot more. If I have to pay $29.95 and up for a book, I damn well want the physical object to shelve in my library. I suspect (heck, I know) the problem here is with the publishers, not with Amazon. Publishers will kill this potential revenue stream if they don't wake up. I would purchase MOST of my books of criticism, philosophy etc. in electronic format if the pricing was similar to that of commercial presses (roughly half price). Very few people will pay nearly the same price for the virtual book as they would pay for the hard copy book. If the publishers will give an inch on pricing, I think they will find an eager market waiting for them.

The other general drawback has to do with the amount of trust we have to place in the industry to use this technology. When I buy a book, I can read it forever no matter what happens to the publisher. When I buy the electronic book, I have to pray that the company will stay in business and will continue to support the software. Given recent history, that's not a very comforting proposition.

That's also a reason to hope that Amazon will get right and handle files the same way that Sony permits. There is no reason that a user should have to go through any conversion or emailing at all. The Kindle needs to allow users simply to drag and drop any file in common formats like DOC, RTF or PDF and stop this nonsense about conversion. If Amazon makes that change soon, then Sony will be foreced to play catch-up.

Bottom line: the Amazon Kindle's wireless feature makes it the hands down winner. It's a beautiful machine. I just finished reading DECONSTRUCTION AND PRAGMATISM on it and am eagerly awaiting the next issue of THE NATION.

I'll still use my SONY, primarily for carrying and reading texts not purchased from their store. But if Amazon would just make that one alteration, I'd be selling my Sony e-reader on ebay. Publishers and the content providing industry need to wake up to the realities of today's community of users. They cannot afford to make the same horrific mistakes the music industry has made. Make the texts easy to use and certain to remain readable no matter what, and most of us will happily increase our purchases. Someone who loves reading enough to buy one of these machines is already buying lots of books. A sensible approach to pricing and file management will lead to more purchases. I just bought Claire Colebrook's IRONY -- and there's the new NATION showing up now --

Thursday, December 13, 2007

MODERNISM STUDIES (and so can you!)

For years I've been wanting to attend the annual meeting of the Modernism Studies Association, but had always been prevented by schedule conflicts. This year, the claendar free at last, I headed for Long Beach and the convening of the Modernists. One highlight, of which I have no photos, was the gala reception on the Queen Mary, docked there at Long Beach and shown in suitably abstract form in the above illustration.

The panel I spoke on was organized by Michael Bibby to address questions of the racial formation of modernist studies. My own paper, titled "White Mischief," examined efforts by white scholars to recuperate the racism of major modernist poets. Grant Jenkins spoke from his work in progress on ethics and and innovative African American poets, with a careful study of Nathaniel Mackey and the ethical formation of modernism. Michael Bibby's own talk, "An Aristocracy of Culture: The Disciplinarity of Modernist Whiteness," was a long overdue anatomy of the field. We were ably chaired by Tenley Gwen, who I was meeting for the first time.

On the final morning of the conference, I took my turn chairing, on a session that musician/scholar Rob Wallace put together, "Journeys through Modernist Geography in Jazz, Poetry and Architecture," featuring papers by Robert Bennett, Derek Katz, Evan Willner and Rob Wallace.

The keynotes were a great success this year: one by Marjorie Perloff featuring her work and friendships with Brazil's major concrete poets, and another by Thadious Davis, who spoke on technologies of representing the black body in modernism, a talk that included rare footage filmed by Zora Neale Hurston as part of her anthropology field work.

Saturday, December 08, 2007


In recent months I've enjoyed an internet correspondence with Danish poet Niels Hav. Seeing my name on-line, Hav immediately spotted a kinship. (Meanwhile here in the states, I continue to be plagued by people who must think I'm a Swede or Norwegian who doesn't know how to spell his own name.) Hav recently made a brief reading tour in the U.S., which I was sad to miss. Reports indicate that he met with a warm reception when reading in New York. We've done what all poets do, exchange books. I'm sorry to report that none of my work has ever been translated into Danish, but there is a new selection of Hav's poetry in English, WE ARE HERE, available from Book Thug in Toronto. The poems were translated by Patrick Friesen and P.K. Brask. Hav notes, in thanking his translators, that "Danish is a small language spoken by only 5-6 million people." I suspect at least 4 million of those people are Nielsens.

Here, from WE ARE HERE, is "Epigram":

You can spend an entire life
in the company of words
not ever finding
the right one.

Just like a wretched fish
wrapped in Hungarian newspapers.
For one thing it is dead,
for another it doesn't understand

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Form as Managing Power - Jay Wright's THE GUIDE SIGNS

Here's cause for thanksgiving: the second book from poet Jay Wright in one year. Just months ago we had the lyric "equations" that comprise MUSIC'S MASK AND MEASURE, from the ever-resourceful Flood Editions. Now from LSU PRESS, the same publisher that brought out his COLLECTED POEMS, comes THE GUIDE SIGNS, perhaps Wright's most extensive exploration in form and a return to Wright's fascination with the concept of Nommo.

"What is the melopeia of density, norm

and structure of an intrinsic state? Call it form

managing power: di, nyama, continuity."

Friday, November 16, 2007


THE HEROIC REMNANT gathered together in the Saint Louis morning for a final round of papers and discussions. Authors from Charles Chesnutt to Gayle Jones, from Jean Toomer to Octavia Butler, all came in for detailed analysis and friendly contention. New discoveries for me included the Guy Endore novel of the Haitian revolution, BABOUK, which, according to William Scott, was known to C.L.R. James. I enjoyed a lunch conversation with poet/critic Tyronne Williams, before heading back to afternoon sessions of Ellison, Whitehead, postmodernism and new approaches to the canon. The symposium closed out with a visit from the actors of near-by Harris-Stowe University, a lively troupe given to historical re-enactment.

Then it was back to the airport, a final visit with Loretta Woodard, and back home to work.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007


DAYBREAK in Saint Louis and we all piled into vans for the quick trip from our former hospital hotel (at my age I still get the willies when I see that my hotel room used to be an intensive care unit) over to the University of Saint Louis main campus for another day of scholarship and fellowship. The morning began with concurrent sessions -- I was chairing a panel featuring Kathy Lou Schultz and Cynthia Davis on poets and the archive.

AT our lunch break, we took a moment to honor society members for their publications in the field and we heard the Lincoln University Vocal Ensemble. (That's Missouri's Lincoln, not Pennsylvania's.) Following an afternoon of intensive critique, speculation, textual illumination and all around elucidation, we reconvened for an evening of poetry and communion. Naomi Long Madgett performed a retrospective reading from her work, sharing an abundance of autobiographical detail in the process. Then Eugene Redmond read, joined at one point by members of the writing workshop he has worked with over the years. Redmond was also the recipient of the Society's Sterling Brown Award. I was asked to provide the introduction for Redmond's reading, and I reproduce that introduction below.

"Neither of the boys understands what’s going on,"
The driver’s wife noted.
"Who does?" the young poet asked himself.

--Eugene Redmond 1968

This is truly how we will know and hear him, Eugene B. Redmond, the poet who wrote these lines, reflecting upon his experiences traveling to the funeral of brother poet Henry Dumas in 1968. But for many among us, this was not how we first knew him. Like others in this room, I first knew of Redmond as the author of Drumvoices: The Mission of Afro-American Poetry. I was a student when I came across that invaluable book, and it would not be an exaggeration to say that Eugene Redmond simply was my introductory course in the history of black American poetry.

A bit of context is required to make the full significance of that fact clear. I had, of course, been reading black poetry for as long as I’d been reading, and I attended an undergraduate institution, Federal City College, where courses in African American literature and even African American literary criticism were required of all English majors, which is to say that I was the product of an educational apparatus that assumed African American literature as central to any educated person’s core curriculum, rather than viewing it as some late supplement. But even at Federal City College, in those days there were no stand-alone courses in which students read only poetry. So while I was well-versed and well-read, I did not yet have a systematic knowledge of African American poetry’s broad history, nor was I likely to gain such knowledge at any then-available graduate program in English studies. (Yes, I am that old.)

But I also need to underscore the significance of the way that I first came across Drumvoices. I found the paperback edition sitting right there on the shelf in my local chain book store. It had been published as an affordable pocketbook by a mainstream commercial house, Doubleday. Those among us who write such things can only shake our heads in wonder at marvel. Wasn’t that a time? When you could buy a pocketbook of a major scholarly tome from a commercial publisher in a chain store. I had known of Phillis Wheatley; now I would know of Joseph Seamon Cotter. I had read Paul Laurence Dunbar, now I read of Alberry Whitman. The first book of poetry I ever bought with my own money had been The Dead Lecturer by LeRoi Jones; now I would learn of the Umbra poets. So fundamental was Redmond’s book to my enterprise that I was still turning to it decades later as I was writing my own critical histories. And I still send my students to it today, as it remains unsurpassed in its area.

Even when first reading Drumvoices, though, I knew this book had to have been written by a poet. Who else would care enough to devote so much of himself to such a project? Who else should care for poetry so assiduously, if not another poet. The book’s cover affirmed that Redmond was indeed a poet, but it took a bit of digging around in journals to find that poetry. That’s when I learned that the elegiac poet of those lines commemorating Henry Dumas was also the mischievous poet of the "Double Clutch Lover," of whom he wrote: "Her fury and her fire was in her cold-cold fame," a delicately metered line for an uncontrollable lady. Over the years I would come to know of such collections as The Eye in the Ceiling, In a Time of Rain and Desire and so many others. And then there was the day, rummaging about in a dusty Chicago music store, when I finally possessed myself of a copy of Redmond’s legendary seventies record album, Blood Links & Sacred Places, whose "live in the studio vibe," as one reviewer termed it, easily outlasts its cultural moment. Redmond was, and is, a poet possessed of an uncommon ear and an historical sweep. The ear leads him to note, as he does in that poem for Henry Dumas, that "New Yorkers talk differently than East St. Louisans," (though I hasten to note that it was the Washington, D.C. poet of the keyboards, Edward Kennedy Ellington, who brought us the "East Saint Louis Toodle-oo." It’s his dedication to history, and to the history of his friends, that leads Redmond to his care-taking of the literary estate and reputation of the incomparable Henry Dumas, and also leads Redmond, as all of his friends will attest, to compile a photographic record of, well, everything.

It is the historian and poet who will stand before us this evening, but Eugene B. Redmond is also a world class teacher, whose influence may still be felt in places as far-flung as Sacramento and Southern Illinois. In addition to the award he will receive tonight, Eugene Redmond has been honored by the NEA, the Pan-African Movement USA, the Pushcart Prize and the American Book Award. But in the end, as in the beginning, Eugene B. Redmond will always be known among us as our leading drum voice.

Saturday, November 10, 2007


This slide show covers the first day of the symposium sponsored in Saint Louis by the African American Literature and Culture Society. The symposium was held to observe the 40th anniversary of the AFRICAN AMERICAN REVIEW with a series of panels and events bringing into focus the current state of scholarship in African American literary studies. The AALCS President, Loretta Woodard, and the editor of AAR, Joycelyn Moody, worked closely with a large cast of organizers to make the symposium a success.

On this first day, I spoke on a panel aimed at offering a sketch of contemporary directions in scholarship. Howard Rambsy got us started with a trend analysis of current Black American poetry, I followed with a discussion of controversies in literary theory, and Billy Joe Harris discussed the work of three younger critics. Chairing our panel was poet/critic Kathy Lou Schultz, who spoke on another panel later in the weekend. We also heard a keynote address from Jerry Ward and closed a day of intense panels and conversations with a reception featuring local jazz musicians.

Among the many people featured in this first slide show you will spot Joe Weixlmann, former editor of AAR and current Provost of Saint Louis University, host of the symposium. Also featured is a rare photo of Jerry Ward dancing slow -- If you've ever been to a party with Jerry, you've seen his fast moves. He's even quicker as a critic -- Wilfred Samuels, founding President of the AALCS, was on hand and in full critic/partier mode.

The theme of the symposium was "Traditions and Revisions: New Directions in African American Literature and Scholarship." As you'll see in these photos and the pictures I'll be posting in the coming days, the weekend brought together the old (me!) and the new. One of the best features of the event was the opportunity it afforded me to hear the work of young, newer scholars.

Thursday, November 08, 2007


Should you happen to be in London in early February, please join us for this important C.L.R. James retrospective. For details, contact the London Socialist Historians Group here.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007


Recently arrived in the mailbox is this massive, and lavishly illustrated (my own favorites are the shots of Keith & Mendi Obadike, and of George Lewis in performance) book from the Center for Black Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. This volume, edited by Anna Everett and Amber J. Wallace, grows out of two amazing conferences hosted at the Santa Barbara campus, but this is no collection of "proceedings." Rather, the book is a carefully assembled and assiduously critical collection of essays on race and technology.
Contributors include Elisa Joy White, Raiford Gaines, Daphine Washington, Guy Berger and the aforementioned George Lewis (whose essay is a great thing to read while listening to his trombone playing), along with a critical introduction by Anna Everett.
The book comes with a remarkable DVD that offers highlights from the conference presentations. The DVD alone is a powerful resource that many of us will be citing from in conferences to come.
For information about the book, email the Center at: .

Tuesday, October 30, 2007


Audience members explaining Baltimore's unusual system for judging poetry performances.

Earlier this month I traveled to Baltimore to read in the i.e. series with poets and old friends Beth Joselow and Phyllis Rosenzweig. Beth has a new book from Chax Press, BEGIN AT ONCE. We hadn't seen each other for more than six years, so it was a delight to read on a program together.

The reading was held at THE CARRIAGE HOUSE, a building off an alley that has been converted into a performance space with a beautiful, wooden, elevated stage sporting a grand piano and a xylophone-looking device featuring bells in chromatic arrangement.

P. Inman, profiling ----

Tina Darragh was also there, seen here with Beth Joselow. She and Pete were to read in the same series another date. I was just thinking of her because I'd gotten the new release of THE COMPLETE MILES DAVIS ON THE CORNER SESSIONS -- a great package that made me go to my book shelf and pull down my copy of Tina's FROM ON THE CORNER TO OFF --

Phyllis --

Tom Mandel, piano in background!

For more photos, with a good view of the converted space and stage (and those shots I wasn't able to take of myself) click here.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007


Dawn broke with the strong scent of freshly cut pages in the air Saturday, so I headed off for the 9th annual Santa Barbara Book and Author Festival.

I'm not entirely sure what this guy's connection to Santa Barbara is, but there he was.

Al Young, California's current Poet Laureate, was also on hand. This was the first time we've seen each other since the American Literature Association in May of 2006.

I spent most of the time when I wasn't on stage out at the poets' table, visiting with local poet and activist Sojourner Kincaid Rolle, who has a new CD of her poetry, BLACK STREETS. Here she is with Catherine Daly, who was displaying her beautiful book PAPER CRAFT.

Catherine Daly organized the SERIOUS PLAY panel that I read on. Here she is with our fellow poets Yunte Huang and Michelle Detorie.

Professor Luis Leal was celebrating his 100th birthday that day. I hope I can spend my 100th birthday at a book fair. Leal has also endowed an annual book award. This year's winner was Alejandro Morales, author of THE RAG DOLL PLAGUES. It was heartening to see a long line of young students waiting to speak with him and to collect autographs on their copies of his novel.

This was also my first opportunity to hear a reading by Shirley Geok-Lin Lim, who I've known for years, and whose anthology THE FORBIDDEN STITCH I have often used in my courses.

Thursday, September 27, 2007


Two poetry readings coming up for any of you who might be on either coast!

Saturday, Sept. 29 -- SERIOUS PLAY
Featuring Catherine Daly, A.L. Nielsen, Yunte Huang, Michelle Detorie & Bruna Mori. Santa Barbara Museum of Art -- 2:15 PM

This reading is part of the Santa Barbara Book Festival. There will be other readings throughout the day.

Saturday, October 6 - Baltimore, MD
A poetry reading featuring A.L. Nielsen and Beth Joselow
8:00 PM
Carriage House
2225 Hargrove Street

Now playing: "05 Dr. Honouris Cousa" by Cannonball Adderley
via FoxyTunes

Sunday, September 23, 2007


The air is still filled with apologetics for the Scooter Libby commutation, and many defenders of the Bush administration continue to insist that there was no "underlying crime" in the Libby case.

Yes, these are all too often the same people who insisted loudly that Bill Clinton should be removed from office for perjury, what with his being, as they insisted on putting it, "the chief law enforcement officer" of our nation. Now, during the Bush administration it seems these same people have reverted to recognizing that the Attorney General is the top law enforcement officer in the land, hence the appellation "general," no? But Congress has already discovered how difficult it can be to get the top law enforcement officer of the United States to enforce the law.

Still, here's the kicker -- the reason Libby's defenders insist that no crime was committed is that, according to them, Valerie Plame was not covered by the law in question because she was not covert. Never mind the fact that the CIA administration has repeatedly offered their opinion that Plame's status was indeed classified. If you go back to Patrick Fitzgerald's news conference announcing the Libby indictment, you will see that he carefully went over the elements of the crime under the statute and found that Ms. Plame's identity as a CIA operative was encompassed by the protections of that law.

SO, how do we explain the fact that the Bush administration went before a judge and got a ruling that Valerie Plame is not permitted to divulge the dates of her employment by the agency in her forthcoming book because, as the Bush CIA argues in their court filings, "such information is classified and should not be made public."

"Ain't they got no shame?" Nikki Giovanni used to ask in a poem . . .

Now playing: "Evidence" by David Murray
via FoxyTunes

Saturday, September 15, 2007


One of the things that makes my peripatetic life bearable is the huge collection of music I carry with me on my travels. As much as I may dread the hours I have to spend cramping my legs in airline seating, I have a briefcase full of MP3s of every describable (and some indescribable) mode of music to ease the day and keep me going. Still, it was with some modicum of dread that I looked forward to flying back from Santa Barbara to State College, PA, for a round of meetings and chores.

Until, that is, I ran into Stevie Wonder in the Los Angeles airport. While wrestling my bags through the terminal, I found my path blocked by a large man having his photo taken with a smaller man. It was only as I was squeezing past them in the crowd that I realized I was squeezing past Stevie Wonder. At LAX, our usual procedure is to act as if we don't see celebrities (I have, for example, ignored Salma Hayek [well, sort of ignored her while still staring at her] under similar circumstances), but I had to say hello at least. So I did. Stevie is just a few months older than me, and has been, ever since he had a hit record and I didn't when we were both 12 years old, in some small way responsible for my feeling that I was already an underachiever and had to hurry up and produce something significant to make up for it. Mr. Morris, to use his given surname, found that thought amusing and graciously spent a few minutes talking with me about music. Turned out he was on his way north for a concert that evening in Saratoga. From what I hear on the recording of that concert I acquired a few days later, Stevie is still at the top of his form during his first tour in ten years.

Afterwards, while I was sitting in the terminal waiting for my flight, a young woman in a blue blouse and carrying a violin case came and sat beside me. She was shortly joined by two other women in blue blouses, also carrying violin cases. When yet another woman in blue appeared carrying a guitar case, I had to ask. Turns out this was an all-women Mariachi group on their way to Washington, D.C. We had a nice conversation about the San Jose Mariachi Festival which I used to attend, and which they were scheduled to play at this year. As we were boarding the plane, I learned that they were performing that night at the Smithsonian Institution. I told them I knew they'd find a welcoming audience in D.C.

This all made my own business seem just a bit on the banal side. But then I got to State College only to discover that Mavis Staples was scheduled to appear at the renovated State Theater the very next night. I got on the phone and, sure enough, there were still tickets available. (Most in State College that weekend were occupied with the upcoming Notre Dame game.) I was able to get an excellent seat (second row right), and was there in my place when Mavis, who I have been listening to since I was about 12 years old (notice a theme here?) took to the stage. Back in the day of my first listening, and not all that long after Stevie's first great hits, I bought a Staples Singers LP, took it home, and dropped the needle of our pitiful Silvertone stereo on the record. The first thing that I heard was the scorching "ARE YOU SURE?" I've been listening to that song (you can hear it again on the recently restored SOUL TO SOUL film and soundtrack) and to the voice of Mavis Staples ever since.

The concert began with DOWN IN MISSISSIPPI, a J.B. Lenoir tune that Mavis used to sing with her father. The Staples were from Chicago, not Mississippi, but it was in Chicago that they got to know J.B., and it was partly in tribute to their blues neighbors that this song became part of the repertoire. Then Staples moved through a series of the earlier staple masterpieces, including FREEDOM HIGHWAY and KEEP YOUR EYES ON THE PRIZE. There was also a sweet reprise of THE WEIGHT, which you can see the Staple Singers perform with The Band in the film THE LAST WALTZ. It was only as the show came to a close that Mavis launched into the two most recognizable hits from the period of the Staples Singers pop breakthrough, RESPECT YOURSELF and I'LL TAKE YOU THERE. By this point the small audience was on their feet and multiplying like loaves and fishes.

All through the night the band had been paying small tributes to Mavis's past with her family. The guitarist started out several songs with a note perfect impression of Pop Staples' signature tremolo guitar, and the male backup singer took Pops's singing parts with a pretty fair impression of Staples's voice as it had been in its prime. Even though Mavis has always been the lead voice of THE STAPLES SINGERS, and even though this tour was clearly her vehicle, there was never any doubt of the legacy she was keeping alive. Her sister Yvonne, as she pointed out, was on stage singing with her, keeping up a tradition of gospel and pop performance stretching over 57 years. For an encore, the ensemble reassembled to perform what Mavis announced was the first song Pops had ever taught his young family, WILL THE CIRCLE BE UNBROKEN? It wasn't hard to imagine Pops with his kids gathered in their Chicago living room almost six decades earlier, a smiling Mavis surprising them all with the strength of her child's voice, bringing them all home on a chorus of By and by, lord, by and by.

So, it wasn't such a bad journey after all. I walked out, thinking of my flight home, and humming: there's a better home a-waiting / in the sky, lord, in the sky.

Monday, September 03, 2007


Last Friday I had the great pleasure of being the guest on the KCSB radio program, The Friday Riff, hosted by Rob Wallace and Bryan Brown. Their program explores different aspects of jazz and improvisation each week. For our episode, which you can hear by clicking here (give it a minute to donwload!), we were revisiting the topic of jazz and poetry by auditioning a recording of the William Parker group with Amiri Baraka performing INSIDE SONGS OF CURTIS MAYFIELD. The particualr performance you will hear on this recording is from Rome radio, 2004, but the group has repeated the work at several venues over the years. Then, in closing, we played a recording of Amina Baraka's moving tribute to Charles Mingus.

This program includes excerpts from the Parker group's explorations of FREDDIE'S DEAD, THE MAKINGS OF YOU and WE THE PEOPLE WHO ARE DARKER THAN BLUE. Also included are Curtis Mayfield's own recording of WE THE PEOPLE WHO ARE DARKER THAN BLUE and a short comment by Mayfiled on his song writing.