Mussorgsky & Magic at St. Louis Cathedral, New Orleans

I was born in 1952 in Cincinnati, Ohio.  By 1966, I had never heard classical music.  But I knew all the rock songs and their lyrics.  Every Saturday, I rode my monster-sized bike (that I had taken a ballpeen hammer to for effect) the couple of miles to the Newmark Melody in Swifton Shopping Center to get the Top-40 list for WSAI AM radio.  As a buzzhead 14 year-old kid with coke bottle glasses, Top-40 music was what I knew, and I knew it well.

As a Freshman in high school, I gravitated to the margins, hanging with the poets, standing in the marble hallways after hours, beating weeds with the goateed dude from Cleveland, Jau Billera, who later offed himself, as a bunch of that Cleveland group seems to have done.  I was malleable putty in the hands of my teachers, Marionist Brothers steeped in the liberation theology end of things.  There were grape boycotts, silk-screening revolutionary slogans on t-shirts, and eating soup with nuns who wore plain dress in their five-story walk-up tenement apartments in Over-the-Rhine.

I had a small Zenith hi-fi record player.  The family had a big old box looking radio.  But I also had my 9-volt AM transistor radio the size of pack of cigarettes.  I fell asleep every night with that radio turned on, securely stashed under my pillow.  I first heard Simon and Garfunkel’s song 7 O’clock News that morphed from the singing of Silent Night to the newscast of the day.  I tried to adjust the dial, thinking something was wrong as the transition in the piece began to tell about the death of Lenny Bruce.  That was Magic.

But I had never heard classical music, nor did I know anyone who had until my Freshman year of high school. That year I took the required course in music appreciation taught by the band director Mr. Frank Dowd.  The class was raucous and I have no recollection of what went on except Mr. Dowd screaming for the class of some thirty or so testosterone soaked adolescents to shut-up.  Our response was exceptionally defiant and cool in our contempt for whatever he was trying to teach.

On a day like most any other during my Freshman year we got hauled down to gym for an assembly.  We were going to listen to the pianist from the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra play something.  The piano was set up on risers in the center of the basketball court of the gym flanked by rows of worn wooden chairs.  I sat about ten rows back, slightly to the left of the piano.  The piece he played was Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition.  The pianist gave an introduction suggesting that we imagine ourselves walking through an art museum and stopping at different paintings along the way.  I had never been to an art museum.

But, I had walked the streets of my blue collar industrial  hometown with my transistor radio in my ear, listening to the rhythm and sounds of the city.  I could walk down the Pike with all of the stores, imagining what was inside that I did not have money to buy.  I could study the store front windows of the Kresgee’s Five and Dime, Anna’s coffee shop, to the big box GM plant, stroll through Victory Park to the residential streets where I fantasized about the exciting lives behind the doors.

But on that day in 1966, the pianist played.  I was transfixed.  The promenade provided the transition between the settings.  The piece captured my brooding teenage depression, the feeling of liberation I had come to know with alcohol.  The piano spoke of frivolity to the abyss of crossing through the Great Gate of Kiev – all tied together by that promenade, the transition, the thread of the fabric, the Magic.

The piece ended.  The pianist stood and bowed, we all applauded.  I am certain I applauded, but mostly I was transformed.

After school that day I rode my bike to Marlboro Books and Music, a burgeoning head-shop that I thought was my best shot at finding the Magical piece of music on vinyl.  No luck.  The long-haired freak that ran the place instead sold me a three-record set of Daniel Barenboim doing a bunch of Beethoven’s sonatas, including Moonlight and Pathetique.

During my career as a university professor, generally at some point during the semester, it came up that I had a 0.7 GPA during my first try at college in the 70s, though I ended up with a PhD and a 4.0; Today, I do not know an adagio from an allegro, from a sonata or a Pissarro from a Cezanne, but I can pick out a Carroll Cloar at 50 paces; I have never read a Shakespeare play, but the best theater I ever saw was a production of Julius Caesar with an all woman cast; or that I have never read anything by Plato, but I might someday.  There is a bit of a risk in telling those truths.  The well-trained and privileged students steeped in the Western Arts often became dismissive of my ability to lead a graduate seminar.  I didn’t care.  What I considered more important was to validate the student in the class who came from a similar place as me to live into their passion.  Those who live at the top of the hill by circumstances alone will remain at the top.  But the students who start at the bottom must be sparked into the process of ascent, to hear their Mussorgsky . . .

. . . to start the process . . . which leads me to an experience of mine over a decade ago. This telling begins with an excerpt from my journal I wrote while sitting on a park bench around noontime in Jackson Square in New Orleans, the most Magical city on earth.  Here it is:

I rode some 60 + miles yesterday along the Longleaf Trace out of Hattiesburg.  This was to be a retreat, but it does not really feel to be so much of that.  I am not certain what it is I am supposed to think about.  I seem to be in an angst of sorts, on job and life.  Both are what I am driving toward, but neither is terribly right at this time, though both are where I need to be. 

What do these have in common from my high school times that I still remember:

  • “Ecstatic static” – from a Ferlinghetti poem.
  • “I only wanted to live in accord with the promptings that came from my true self – why was that so very difficult” – from Herman Hesse’s epigraph to Demian.
  • “I inhabited the wake of a long wave” – the line of poetry from W.S. Merwin.

A wave, static, true self, are all dynamic, things that cannot be grasped and held in the hand.  They cannot be quantified or measured by anything that is meaningful to me.  They are all process.  They are always changing, always in motion.

I am left with the understanding that I will be perpetually in process, in riding the wave.  I will always be in transition.  Is that sort of my lot in life?  And that if I get the understanding that life is not getting some place, and putting down stakes, but always toward something – not happiness, but meaning – then that process cannot be totally smooth or without anxiety or stress, or in ease.  

It seems there can be refuge, respites, but I need to continue to get out of self.  There is the listening to classical music or Ravel, that brings some tremendous solace.  How does Pictures at an Exhibition link the past with the present with the future.  Why was I so obsessed with that music so long ago and till today?  The process of going through the museum.  It is all process.  Perhaps that is why I find the contradiction with some life circumstances – they mess with the fun of the process, being so goal oriented, and me being so process oriented.  That is where some conflict can arise.   That the process in all forms is a good thing. To have enjoyed that process, and had meaning in that process.  That the idea of leaving the place better that you found it is good enough.  

At this point, Jackson Square was filling with folks for lunch time.  Distracting.  I decided to move my operation to the inside of St. Louis Cathedral to continue writing.  The church always has unoffensive canned Gregorian Chant playing.  I walked into the church and made my way toward a central pew – away from the tourists in the back and front.  I heard the strains of an organ . .  . familiar . . . what is it . . . oh man, it’s Pictures at an Exhibition . . . I had never heard that on an organ before!  Where was the canned Gregorian Chant?

One bit of wisdom I have gotten in life is that when the Gods speak, one needs to sit down, shut-up and listen – which is exactly what I did.

Review of A Lyle Saxon Reader – New Orleans stories

While roaming the French Quarter the other day I stopped in Beckham’s Bookshop (228 Decatur St) the premier used book store in New Orleans.  I came across a good copy of John Dos Passos U.S.A. Trilogy which would have been good for the day.  However, I also came across an unfamiliar title: A Lyle Saxon Reader: Lost Stories of the French Quarter and Buried Treasure edited by James Michal Warner.  I was surprised I had not seen a copy before as I have read most of the biographical material on Saxon.  The 2018 copyright explained why.

The book is divided into four parts.  First, is an introductory essay by the editor detailing Saxon’s life.  Warner focuses on the ambiguity Saxon created about his youth.  An included copy of Saxon’s birth certificate counters Saxon’s fictive claims of birth in Baton Rouge – he was actually born in Whatcom County, Washington.  Warner also explores Saxon’s mixing of fantasy and fact in his role as one of the early advocates for tourism in New Orleans.  The introduction provides a brief synopsis of the next three sections: short stories, History and Preservation articles, and character sketches, all written early in Saxon’s career between 1919 and 1923 and published in the Times Picayune newspaper.

The short story section contains eight pieces written by Saxon. I found this section the weakest part of the volume.  Edward’s notes that Saxon’s early short stories are not of the same quality as his later novels, including Children of Strangers, which I found to be patterned after Marie Stanley’s excellent novel Gulf Stream.  Regardless, this section of 50 pages often comes off as the overly contrived work of a novice story-teller.

The next section of the volume includes Saxon’s reports on the need for the architectural and cultural heritage preservation of the French Quarter.  Spurred by the French Opera House fire of 1919, the twenty-eight year old Saxon wrote passionately about the loss of this 70-year-old New Orleans icon.  The section also includes an article tracing the Ursuline nun’s 200-year legacy in New Orleans, based on Saxon’s review of the hand written 150-page history by Mother Mary Theresa.  In addition to stories on the Pontalba buildings that flank Jackson Square, this section includes one of Saxon’s early walking tours of the French Quarter, embellished and included in several of his later publications.  Presumably as well, Saxon here is doing what he does best – acting as a reporter.  Given the context of the articles in this section, one might assume that he does not drift too far into fantasy as he reports the events.

The final section of the volume, which takes up nearly half of the pages, is the strongest part of the book – Character Sketches.  Published in the Times Picayune as the series “Unusual Ways of Making a Living” the 25 sketches are as eclectic as they are entertaining in creating an image of New Orleans in the 1920s.  The range of employment includes street vendors, hotel workers, a cowgirl, artisans, office workers, fortune tellers, musicians and others.  The stories include the physically disabled, loners, folks eking out a living and just getting by.  I was surprised by the large number of European immigrants included in the sketches.  The picture painted is one that New Orleans tries to embrace today – a gumbo of flavors where everyone can find a place.

Over the years, I have found Saxon’s writings at times frustrating, but always entertaining. Frustrating because as head of the Works Progress Administration Federal Writers Project Saxon oversaw the production of the New Orleans City Guide and later Louisiana: A Guide to the State.  I would like to take these as accurate histories but also know of his inclination to create a New Orleans without blemish.  For example, in Gumbo YaYa, Saxon tells the fanciful tale of himself as a young child spending Mardi Gras Day in the company of Black employees of a Saxon relative.  The reader is led to believe they are getting an insight into a facet of New Orleans not typically explored.  As it turns out, Saxon was not there and conjured the story up later in life based on tales told over the years . . .

. . . which brings me to a personal conclusion on some of this.  When I was fresh out of graduate school, only weeks from successfully defending my doctoral dissertation, I was sipping sweet tea, sitting in the yard of my academic advisor in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi.  His brother-in-law was telling a story. As the telling went on, my academic training caught flaws, inconsistencies, and perhaps outright fabrications in the telling.  But my better half overcame my knee-jerk scholarly reaction to the fantasy in recognizing “But damn, that is a good story!”

Such is the case with this volume.  A Lyle Saxon Reader is well worth the read.


Museums and the Great Outdoors

Here is my confession – Even though I am an avid mountain biker and hiker, for the first two years I was Director at the C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa, I doubt I walked our 0.5 mile nature trail more than once every 3 or 4 months.  I was fixated on the upgrades needed to our  museum building’s programs and exhibits.  After my first year as Director, with the economic downturn in full swing, I was more obsessed with balancing ledgers than the great outdoors.

Over the past two years. I began paying more attention to the portion of our museum beyond the building walls – less from my initiative than that of others.  For example, in 2009, after several years of work by the Southwind Garden Club, the Chucalissa arboretum was officially certified.  For years the Club landscaped the front of our museum but now ventured to the wooded area beyond the manicured earthwork complex.  In 2009 as well, James Beard of the Friends of T.O. Fuller State Park linked our 0.5 mile nature trail with the 6.0 mile trail of the adjacent State Park.  A hike along the trail with James that summer opened my eyes to the fantastic resource the Museum shared with the State Park.  That year as well, Chris Cosby, then a Graduate Assistant from the University of Memphis, completed a floristic inventory identifying and creating a photographic database of the plants growing along our 0.5 mile trail system.  Last year for an internship in the University of Memphis Museum Studies Graduate Certificate Program, William DeVore refurbished our Sinti Herb Garden and created signage and an educational brochure for the space.

More recently, local herbalist Glinda Watts and Graduate Assistant Megan Keener initiated a sweetgrass bed and plans for a Traditional Medicinal Plant Sanctuary along the Chucalissa Nature Trail.  We have submitted grant requests to fund this project.  The long and short of all this is that through the initiative of others, I have come to better understand how the natural environment fits into our Mission Statement and also how visitors appreciate this very important part of our museum resource.

In a recent readership survey of our monthly e-newsletter Chucalissa Anoachi, nearly  60% of the respondents asked that we prioritize the programming in our natural environment.  That result was surprising to me at first . . . but I should have noted that besides anecdotal comments from visitors, our greatest Facebook feedback comes from posts about the herb garden and hiking trails.  As well, being out in the plaza and throwing darts with the atlatl is a favored activity of visitors, volunteers, and staff regardless of the summer heat.  We have also gotten very strong marks from our visitors with our recycling program.

As I noted in an earlier post, such programmatic changes for our museum should not be driven solely on a desire for increased attendance or responding to visitor requests.  If that were so, we would open exhibits containing human remains, something that holds a fascination for some visitors despite the ethical and legal implications.  Rather, incorporating the natural environment into our programs fits well into our mission statement.  Our lack of attention to these elements in the past reflects a missed opportunity.

In the same way that we now have a hands-on archaeology lab exhibit to give youth a tactile experience of prehistoric cultural materials, as participants in the Let’s Move Museums and Gardens initiative sponsored by the Institute of Museum and Library Services, we have opportunities to give youth a hands on experience in the cultural and natural environment outside our building doors.  And in the same way that we highlight the humanities of the traditional cultures inside our museum walls, we can take those expressions outside such as the trail poetry at the Audubon Zoo in New Orleans.

I am left with realizing that such changes are not a matter of following the latest fad or attendance/revenue generating concept but rather being vigilant for new and inspiring ways to live into our existing Mission Statement.

What parts of your museum or site can you incorporate into programs and exhibits to more completely live into your mission?

The House of Dance and Feathers

A fitting post for today is Ronald Lewis’s museum The House of Dance and Feathers in the Lower 9th Ward of New Orleans.  The museum focuses on the cultural traditions of the Mardi Gras Indians and Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs of New Orleans.  Besides that yesterday was Mardi Gras, the House of Dance and Feathers is particularly relevant to this blog because the institution in many ways represents the ultimate in public outreach or the public face of the museum experience.  I lived in New Orleans for a few years a couple of decades ago and always thought that the Zulu Krewe represented the essence of the African-American Mardi Gras experience.  Currently, there is an excellent exhibit on the Zulu Krewe in the Cabildo at Jackson Square in New Orleans.

The House of Dance and Feathers documents something entirely different.  As taken from their website “Since 2006, the museum has become an important gathering place for scholars, activists, students, neighbors, and volunteers to talk about the history and culture of the Lower Nine, and to discuss the rebuilding of New Orleans.  The museum has also hosted numerous meetings, workshops, and gatherings for people who are working to make things happen in New Orleans.  Visitors to the House of Dance and Feathers experience the power of self-representation and the value of cultural exchange.  Mr. Lewis is currently working with Rachel Breunlin and the Neighborhood Story Project to produce a museum catalogue. In his museum tours and public talks, Mr. Lewis speaks eloquently about the social significance of place, family, and cultural traditions in community-building, and he has been an outspoken advocate for a resident-led rebuilding of the Lower Ninth Ward.”

I first heard of the Museum in a presentation given by Helen Regis at the Society for Applied Anthropology Meetings last year in Santa Fe.  Regis is one of the editors of the very engaging volume The House of Dance and Feathers: A Museum by Ronald W. Lewis. The book is a fantastic story and documentation of the multi-faceted potential of the museum experience.

What other community museums tell these untold stories?