Revealing new Fine Arts Museums trove of African American art


Published 10:43 am, Friday, June 9, 2017


It’s not often that an art museum can address a major gap in its collection with one bold move. So when the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco made a deal early this year to acquire 62 works by 22 contemporary African American artists, the museums decided to produce a full-scale exhibition with catalog in four months — a fraction of the normal lead time — to celebrate. The result, “Revelations: Art from the African American South,” opened last week at the de Young Museum; it will be on view through April 1.

That the resulting product is both a solid document and a fitting commemoration of the acquisition is particularly a credit to FAMSF’s curator of American Art, Timothy Anglin Burgard, who had already done substantial research.

An even greater challenge than the timeline, though, may have been the years bringing along the passionate and demanding art historian and collector William S. Arnett. It was Arnett who amassed the much larger group of works — more than 1,200 — that eventually became the Souls Grown Deep Foundation, from which the FAMSF collection is drawn.

The serendipitous arrival of a new director at FAMSF and a new president at the foundation, combined with the museum’s demonstrated interest, finally led to the 50-50 gift and purchase by the museum in February. A similar deal between the foundation and Atlanta’s High Museum was announced in April.

The show is an engaging look at a moment in American art that looks increasingly significant with every passing year, but that might have attracted little notice were it not for Arnett’s obsession. Among other coups, it was he who assembled in one place and popularized the extraordinary, highly praised abstract works of the quilters of Gee’s Bend, Ala., touring them in the early 2000s to major American museums.

A gallery in “Revelations” displays, but cannot fully contain, 10 exuberant Gee’s Bend examples. The old metaphor of abstract art as jazz would only begin to describe Jessie T. Pettway’s “Bars and String-Pieced Columns,” created in the 1950s. Add a tap-dance solo amid a swaying crowd on a long hot night. And throw in a breathless scat riff.

Every example here seems to simultaneously accept a dictate of order (a quilt does have to cover the bed and warm its inhabitants) and to invent a new graphic logic: less glib, more authentic, more dependable than the old rote geometries. Annie Mae Young’s “‘Bars’ Work-Clothes Quilt” is made of scraps of used clothing and traces of the knobbed joints of beloved ghosts.

All the sculpture in the exhibition is fashioned from found materials. Lonnie Holley is the conceptualist of the group. With a simple pairing of disused rocking chairs and part of an uprooted tree, “Him and Her Hold the Root” (1994) elegantly conjures thoughts of the entanglements of love and the depths of heritage, loss and death. “Mith” (1993) right-angles a fractured headstone of natural granite across a concrete plank, intersecting happenstance and purpose, sacred and profane, faith and doubt.

The best known artist in the show is Thornton Dial. I have always approached his large-scale works with the same caution I bring to the bombast of Anselm Kiefer. His “Lost Cows” (2000-01) doesn’t get much beyond the haunt factor of the desiccated cattle skeletons that are its primary materials. I much prefer the lightness, lyricism and invention of a drawing like “In the Roosevelt Time: Penned In” (2003), with its gray cotton picker dwarfed by green and blue-white plants.

Ronald Lockett is, to me, the surprise star of the exhibition, with painted reliefs that vary so in technique, one might at first think they were by different artists. Yet six substantial works presented together make a convincing case for a unified vision, set in some mid-place of existence. “Rebirth” (1987), a small and quiet work compared to the rest, depicts a lonely animal in a dark landscape, its back turned from a world of vibrant blue sky and green fields. In “Fever Within” (1995), a lacerated female figure in yellow levitates in a yellow field, neither dissolving nor emerging, but suspended between.

Art such as that in “Revelations” — works coaxed out of humble materials by makers without formal art training — occupies an unsteady place in the annals of visual expression. In the early 20th century, if it wasn’t ignored (or, just as likely, discarded as junk), some of it might have been blessed by the “American folk art” fad that swept museums and the popular press of the era. By the 1950s it would have been called “art brut”; in the 1980s, “outsider art.”

The Fine Arts Museums, appropriately, avoid such labels, which can have the effect of diminishing the work and, if inadvertently, demeaning the artists. The exhibition’s catalog and accompanying texts go to great lengths in describing the show, instead, as “a broad overview of a groundbreaking aspect of contemporary art practice” — “a recognizable cultural phenomenon … that also addressed universal aspects of the human condition.” Burgard’s catalog essay traces the history of African enslavement, segregation and the battle for civil rights, which he sees as intellectual and emotional sources, pausing only at the end to decry the work’s historical marginalization as “‘folk,’ ‘naive,’ or ‘outsider.’”

Of course, grouping the works together is its own form of categorization. The Fine Arts Museums attempt, with partial success, to address that problem by interposing other objects from the collection. Still to be answered is the question of what the museums plan to do about the vast unwritten story of artists of color throughout American history and geography.

In the long term, as FAMSF has acknowledged and as other museums are only beginning to admit, the answer will lie not in integrating part of an existing collection into a temporary exhibition of one group of artists from one area and era, but seeing the whole of art history through a wider lens.

Charles Desmarais is The San Francisco Chronicle’s art critic. Email: cdesmarais@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @Artguy1


Revelations: Art from the African American South: 9:30 a.m.-5:15 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays. Through April 1. $6-$15. De Young Museum, Golden Gate Park, 50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive, S.F. (415) 750-3600. http://deyoung.famsf.org

It’s Bela-Bela for Snaith in Rising Sun Gold Challenge

 Cape Town trainer Justin Snaith believes the Equus champion filly Bela-Bela will have “her best chance” of beating the boys at weight for age Grade 1 level in Saturday’s R1m, Grade 1 Rising Sun Gold Challenge (1600m) at Greyville.

The brilliant twice Grade 1-winning grey has taken on the boys before in last year’s Vodacom Durban July and this year’s Sun Met and was not at all disgraced, but Snaith is of the firm belief that a mile is her optimum trip. He said she had needed her last run in the Grade 1 SA fillies Sprint over 1200m at Scottsville, where “she found a little bit of trouble”.

He added, “She is very well, she is spot on, she has a definite shout.”

Bela-Bela is well drawn in barrier four and will be ridden by Anthony Delpech, who partnered her to a Grade 2 Daisy Fillies Guineas/Gr 1 Woolavington 2000 double last season.

Snaith concluded, “It is a rough race and I just hope she gets a clear run.”

Snaith also has Master Sabina in the race and this will be the dual Grade 1 Sansui Summer Cup winner’s first run for the yard. He said he was doing well, but it was on the short side and a pole position draw would not help as he did not have the necessary early pace to hold his position over this trip. Maser Sabina is likely to be running on, but Snaith concluded by saying it would be a valuable preparation outing for the July.

The Snaith yard have an important date in the R250,000, Grade 3 Cup Trial (1800m) as both Black Arthur and Elusive Silver will need big runs to earn their July berths.

Snaith believed Black Arthur was back to his best having suffered haemoconcentration problems before gelding. He was running on in the Drill Hall over 1400m in his first run as a gelding over too short a trip. Snaith said he was doing very well at home and everything had gone according to plan.

Snaith explained Elusive Silver’s disappointing run in the Grade 2 Betting World 1900 was not at all his race and was due to the rain which caused him to miss important work.

“He could only canter for eight days,” he said.

To heighten the problem the race had then been run in testing going.

“He got a double whammy,” he said.

Bela-Bela, picture Liesl King




Elusive Silver had previously been impressive when winning the Listed Sledgehammer over the Cup Trial course and distance. He showed a tremendous turn of foot in that race, which was his first outing since winning the Winter Derby ten months earlier. Snaith said he was in a better place now than he was going into the Sledgehammer.

He added, “He is a very nice horse. He will be good competition for Black Arthur at the weights and it will take a very good horse to beat our two.”

Richard Fourie has already been booked to ride Elusive Silva in the July, while Anthony Delpech “has always been a big fan of Black Arthur’s.” Delpech partnered Black Arthur to win last season’s Grade 2 Canon Guineas and they jump from a good draw of four in the nine horse field on Saturday. Elusive Silva has to jump from the extreme outside draw of nine.

Snaith runs Star Express in the Grade 2 Tibouchina over 1400 metres and said it would be a bit on the short side for her. He said she had pulled up “foot sore” in Johannesburg. However, her feet have now been sorted it out. He expected her to run well and finish in the money, despite it partly being a preparation outing for the R1m, Grade 1 Jonsson Workwear Garden Province Stakes (1600m) at Greyville on the Durban July programme, July 1st . Bernard Fayd’Herbe rides from a good draw of five.

Snaith mentioned Qing as a runner to look out for on the day. She runs in the Beach Beauty Pinnacle Stakes for fillies and mares over 1600m. He had been confident of a good run from her in her SA Champions Season pipe opener, but said she had been hit by a clod and could not see for a few days.

He was also bullish about Sergeant Hardy in the R150,000, Conubia/Phoenix Sun Durban Dash (1100m) on the All Weather, although did mention his eleven barrier position as being “a bit of a wide draw.” Snaith said the big Captain Al gelding had not liked Scottsville last time in the Tsogo Sun Sprint and also had a difficult task as a three-year-old off a 110 merit rating. He is now comfortably the best in at the weights in this three-year-old event and if he runs well will be aimed at the weight for age Gr 1 Mercury Sprint. Delpech rides him for the third time.

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Noose found in African American History Museum

NOOSE-FOUND2Noose found in African American History Museum

Exhibit

By Susan Johnes

A museum is an institution that tells the story of and how humanity has survived in its environment over the years. It is a place that houses things created by nature and by man. In our modern society, it houses the cultural background of the nation.

However, there are some negative interpretations of museums. People often see them as places where the unwanted objects or materials are deposited. Additionally, some regard them as places where objects associated with idolatry and fetish religions are kept.

The negative perceptions have continued to inhibit the development of museums in most countries. In Washington, D.C., a noose was found on the grounds of a Smithsonian museum for the second time in a week.

The noose was spotted on Wednesday when visitors walked into an exhibit at the National Museum of African American History and Culture and found it left in an exhibit on segregation.

According to St. Thomas, the gallery was closed quickly and remained restricted for about an hour, after two of the visitors who discovered the noose became extremely upset.

Surprisingly, it’s the second time in less than a week that another noose has been found around museum grounds. Just last week, a noose was hanging from a tree outside the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden.

In a statement about the Friday’s discovery, St. Thomas stated that he didn’t know how long it had been there, but he said it was apparently intended to be in the segregation exhibition.

The museum’s management in a statement condemned the act terming it as hatred and intolerance. It stated that the institution affirms and celebrates the American values of diversity.

St. Thomas reported that the museum had a strong security including metal detectors and bag screening. She observed that a small noose would not have set off any immediate alarms.

“We will not be intimidated,” Skorton wrote in his email. He added that they would tell the story of the nation and its entire people. Skorton further added that Cowardly acts like that would not prevent them from engaging in the vital work they do and will remain vigilant and become a stronger institution for all Americans.

Museums are places that ensure understanding and appreciation of various groups and cultures. They promote a better understanding of our collective heritage and foster self-reflection.

Further, Museums serve to help future generations comprehend their history and recognize the achievements of the early humankind.

Indeed, Museums are both necessary and relevant today. It is still a wonder why some people should consider destroying institutions with vital importance including conserving, protecting and displaying our past artifacts.

Museums are the only places that preserve our precious heritage which might otherwise be lost to time itself. Without museums, we would certainly miss the tangible links to our past.

 

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: Thelonious Monk – Les Liaisons Dangereuses 1960

: Thelonious Monk - Les Liaisons Dangereuses 1960 Few things are as infused with as much romance as are those thought lost. Take the entire myth of blues singer Robert Johnson. He produced 29 shellac sides in the late 1920s that had immeasurable influence on American folk music after and then he disappeared. He did exist, but exists now only as a phantom, a heat apparition rising from a dusty dirt road in some God-forsaken Third-World corner of these United States. Yet his visage beckons like Ahab from the back of the Great White Whale. How precious would be any one of the biographies, spoken of only sotto voce, be to read. That is the romance of Robert Johnson.

When considering the enigma and iconoclast that is Thelonious Sphere Monk, one element of romance lay in any previously unknown recorded material. While Monk has been well documented, any new previously unheard or unreleased performances are worthy of attention and consideration. The last unheard Monk commercially released was Thelonious Monk Quartet with John Coltrane at Carnegie Hall (Blue Note, 1957, released 2005), and it caused a big stir at the time.

Likewise is the present diamond unearthed in a most circuitous way. It is not that one could not already hear the music presented on the Resonance Records release Les Liaisons Dangereuses 1960; one could. The entire movie may be viewed here. Monk’s contributions to the film have never been available as a stand-alone movie soundtrack. That is, until now. And, in that, there is a truly American story, clothed in a French chansone.

After the ends of World Wars I and II, many noted African-American jazz musicians (as well as other prominent African American artists) moved to France to practice their trade. Attracted by the comparative lack of racism, enhanced employment and recording opportunities, and the superior French appreciation for jazz, artists including Dexter Gordon, Bud Powell, Kenny Clarke, and Don Byas, as well as Lucky Thompson, Johnny Griffin and Arthur Briggs made their homes there abroad for long periods.

In the late 1950s, a group of young French movie directors sought out these and other African-American jazz artists to score the soundtracks for their films. These included Roger Vadim’s Sait-On Jamais (1957) (We Never Know), renamed No Sun in Venice for which John Lewis wrote the score and his group, The Modern Jazz Quartet, performed. Marcel Carne’s Les Tricheurs (Young Sinners) (1958) featuring performances by Oscar Peterson, Dizzy Gillespie, and Coleman Hawkins. Benny Golson scored Edouard Molinaro’s 1959 Des Femmes Disparaissent (Women Disappear), performing the compositions with what may have been the best lineup of the The Jazz Messengers. And, perhaps the most famous jazz score to a film was that of Miles Davis who was picked to provide a score for Louis Malle’s Ascenseur Pour L’Echafaud (Elevator to the Gallows) (1959). The use of jazz as a soundtrack was both forward thinking and sensible, foreshadowing the use of popular music in film and television soundtracks thereafter. I can only hear this use of period of jazz music as sound track as an adult, imagining of how it must has sounded 60 years ago. I call it thrilling. The use of jazz in the mentioned films acts a thread passed through these works, uniting them with something quintessentially fresh, American, exciting, a not just a little decadent.

Coming off his success with Sait-On Jamais, director Roger Vadim remained interested in using jazz as a movie score. Introduced to Monk’s music by producer Marcel Romano, Vadim was immediately smitten and wanted Monk to provide a score for his new film Les Liaisons Dangereuses, based on the 18th-century epistolary novel written by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos. And this is where the story get interesting…and complicated.

The period surrounding Monk’s recording Les Liaisons Dangereuses 1960, July 27, 1959, in New York City’s Nola Penthouse Sound Studios was confounding in the respect that it is very well documented in the superb liner notes to the Resonance release by notable personalities Laurent Guenoun, Alain Tercinet, and Monk biographer Robin D.G. Kelley, while still remaining historically murky in that Monk sort of way that all reportage about the pianist seems to be. This soundtrack session is not even included in the Jazz Discography Project where no July recording dates are detailed between a June 4th date in New York City that would result in 5 By Monk By 5 (Riverside, 1959) and an October 20th date in San Francisco that would eventually become Thelonious: Alone In San Francisco (Riverside, 1959).

It was a challenging and demanding period for the pianist. Monk’s difficult circumstances began in October 1958 when he was arrested, and subsequently beaten by police, on a trumped-up drug charge, causing him to lose his cabaret card (an institutional racist ploy used to further marginalize black jazz musicians of the period) for the second time in the 1950s, the loss of which made it impossible for him to play in any New York City clubs. While a severe blow to Monk, at least emotionally, he did remain busy and in demand. The beginning of 1959 brought Monk a new rhythm section made up of bassist Sam Jones and drummer Art Taylor and had his manager Harry Colomby arranging a Town Hall concert featuring Monk’s music arranged for big band. Riverside Records committed to release the concert, performed and recorded February 28th, eventually doing so as The Thelonious Monk Orchestra at Town Hall.

Monk had exhausted himself preparing the charts for this concert, which, once performed, received poor reviews, killing the possibility for a planned tour with the big band intended as a necessary revenue stream for the composer. The sum of Monk’s arrest, his poorly received concert (which went on to become a recorded classic) and cancellation of this tour took its toll on the pianist, pushing him into a deep clinical depression, ultimately resulting in Monk’s commission to the Grafton State Hospital after an agitated run in with police while he was performing at Storyville in Boston.

It was this Thelonious Monk who arrived at the Nola Penthouse Sound Studios that summer 1959, to record his music for the movie. The musical supervisor for the film, Marcel Romano, who had previously planned to have Monk come to Paris to record the score, had to abruptly change his plans when discovering Monk’s travel restrictions due to his drug charge as well as Monk’s recent commitment for psychiatric care. Romano had a thin timeline, requiring him in Paris with the music by July 31st. Five days prior to the drop-dead date, Romano found an anxious and exhausted man, suspicious of contracts but needing the money. Monk had composed no original music for the movie, instead entering the studio with his new rhythm section of bassist Sam Jones and drummer Art Taylor supplemented with the dual tenor front of Charlie Rouse and Frenchman Barney Wilen, and recording new arrangements of some of his best-known compositions, including the closest thing to a theme the film had, Monk’s ballad “Crepuscule with Nellie.” Other well-documented Monk tunes included his bouncing “Rhythm-a-Ning,” the jaunty “Well, You Needn’t,” and Monk’s love letter to his greatest benefactor, the Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter (née Rothschild), “Pannonica.”

Monk’s music was not the only jazz used in the film. Pianist Duke Jordan composed music for the film performed by the Art Blakey Jazz Messengers with the Barney Wilen. While this music is not considered “the score,” it is incidental music with its proper place. Most specifically is the night club scene which features Jordan, Wilen, trumpeter Kenny Dorham, drummer Kenny Clarke and bassist Paul Rovère. Had Monk’s tour not been cancelled, his would have been the featured quartet in the movie. The Duke Jordan material has been in release the past 60 years on Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers’ Les Liaisons Dangereuses 1960 (Fontana). There is considerable contrast between the two sets of performances that provide the film with a certain artistic tension.

French critics were chilly when writing of the film’s score. As detailed in the excellent liner note by AlainTercinet, in one New Criticism spasm, French critic Jean-Louis Ginibre remarked in Jazz Magazine (1961), …”but you can’t talk about film music. On one hand there’s the film, on the other, music.” Taking this direction further and noting the lack of original material prepared by Monk, writer Henri Gathier noted in the movie issue of Premier Plan (1960), “the musicians do not seem to have been able to agree on the tone of the work as a film: they content themselves with playing the music that’s familiar to them and tunes already in their repertoire. It’s obvious that under these conditions, their performance remains too external, I’d even say indifferent to the film.” That is just a nice way of saying Monk emailed in his contribution, which might have been plausible had Monk biographer Kelley not mitigated the circumstances by pointing out that Monk’s reticence was due to a, “combination of caution and exhaustion. He was forty-one years old and had been cheated, underpaid, and exploited for much of his life…he was simply overcommitted, tired, and ill—not the best condition for writing new music.”

All of this said, Monk’s music, as performed, worked well in the film. Albeit, that judgement comes nearly 60 years after the debut of the film and, perhaps, by a film novice. The plot of Les Liaisons Dangereuses is one of gleeful amorality and decadence. Monk’s music provides an interesting foil to the film themes by cutting its hedonism with a certain innocence not unlike having a dry wine to temper a rich meal. This point is further sharpened with the inclusion of two pieces not part of Monk’s usual repertoire. The first was an improvised blues, “Six in One,” untitled at the time, that would eventually emerge as “Round Lights” on Thelonious: Alone In San Francisco. The second was the cheekily selected spiritual “We’ll Understand It Better By and By,” which Monk chosen for juxtaposition against selected scenes in the film. Regarding Ginibre’s postmodern statement regarding film music, Monk’s score stands equally deserving comment whether as the score or a stand-alone performance. I believe it foolish not to consider this music as part of a film, adding to the depth and richness of the medium. As a stand-alone performance, I will point out the performance of “Well, You Needn’t,” as one of Monk’s recorded best. This recording may be enjoyed whether experienced on the screen or the turntable.

Resonance Records has many important discoveries and releases to its credit, but Thelonious Monk -Les Liaisons Dangereuses 1960 is easily the greatest to date. I suspect the only way this release will be bettered is if the label uncovers and releases the apocryphal music of one Buddy Bolden.

Critic’s Note: Anno Domini 2017, marks my twentieth year writing for All About Jazz. The first recording I reviewed for the magazine was Art Pepper’s San Francisco Samba (Contemporary, 1997), published December 1, 1997. I am using this present review as part of a series noting my twentieth anniversary with the magazine and paying special tribute to my fellow writers at All About Jazz and Publisher Michael Ricci.

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Cup Trial at Greyville key for July hopefuls

The R250,000, Grade 3 Cup Trial (1800m) at Greyville on Saturday is a last gasp opportunity for Grade 1 Vodacom Durban July (2200m) field borderline horses to put up their hands for a berth in the field and this year’s race will be fascinating as six of the nine runners are July entries and they will all need big runs to book their places.

Black Arthur, picture Nkosi Hlophe




Rising Sun in unison with Gold Circle always put on an amazing race day and Greyville is the place to be on Saturday to watch the Cup Trial, the Grade 1 Rising Sun Gold Challenge and the Grade 2 Tibouchina Stakes.

The Justin Snaith-trained Black Arthur is the fourth favourite in the July at 10/1 with Betting World, yet is nowhere to be seen on the latest July log, which was released yesterday. He started 10/1 for last year’s July and finished a 2.75 length seventh, but was unlucky as he was hindered by a horse inside of him when making his run on the outside and could have got closer.

He subsequently had a haemoconcentration problem and can be forgiven his below par form in the Cape summer. Gelding has solved his issues and he was staying on in the Drill Halls Stakes over 1400m to finish just 2.75 lengths back under Anthony Delpech. He should come on a lot for the run and will relish the step up in trip. He has landed a good draw of four and Delpech, who partnered him to win last season’s Grade 2 Canon Guineas, stays aboard. He has to carry topweight, but it would be no surprise if he turns out to be better than his current 104 merit rating as he has always been highly regarded.

His stablemate Elusive Silva went up to near the top of the boards after his impressive win under Delpech in the Listed Sledgehammer over this course and distance. He is currently a July 13/1 shot, having run a bit of a flat race in the Betting World 1900, although the lack of pace did not suit him there and a gap did not open for him immediately at the top of the straight.

He is now in position 20 on the July log and needs a big run, but Delpech looks to have opted for Black Arthur. He could not have got a better replacement in Richard Fourie and off his 99 merit rating he gets 2.5kg from Black Arthur. He does have the widest draw of all to overcome and will likely have to rely on his magnificent turn of foot to earn a July berth.

Nebula is the Algoa Cup holder and won his Champions Season debut over 1600m on the Greyville poly hands and heels after moving up impressively. He looks to have come into his own and is drawn in pole.

The long-striding Royal Badge was running on in eyecatching style in that race and will relish the extra 200m in this race.

Master Switch has run below par in all three of his starts at Greyville as he has not settled well, but he now has a plum draw and if he finds cover and settles he has the ability to go close.

Champion trainer Sean Tarry has four in the top 20 on the log and will try and qualify the gallant filly Trophy Wife in this race. She has been one of the best of a magnificent crop of females and last time out was staying on well for a 1.9 length third in defence of her Grade 2 Gerald Rosenberg crown over 2000m at Turffontein . After a layoff she had three runs in about five weeks, so that was a tough ask and she might now be ready to give of her best.

Celtic Captain has been scratched from the July as it is probably a touch too far for him. He can be headstrong so is another one who needs cover, because if he settles he has a fine turn of foot and a sustained finish. His draw of six is thus a bit tricky but if he does find cover and settles this trip will be ideal and he will go close.

Go Direct, not a July entry, produced an amazing finish to win a Pinnacle event over this trip at Turffontein in April and he was caught wide in the Betting World 1900 before ending in a probably too handy position. He now has a plum draw and if held up off the pace could surprise.

The front-running Crowd Pleaser is the most interesting runner in the race as he won an Allowance Plate over this trip on the poly last time out and beat none other than Edict Of Nantes and Lady Of The World, who won the Gr 1 Daily News 2000 and Gr 1 Woolavington 2000 in their next respective starts.

The latter pair were likely preparing in that race but it was still a fine display and Crowd Please has won his last three starts at Greyville. Against him is his wide draw as he will have to make some use of to get to the front.

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Folk polymath Rhiannon Giddens honors the musical cultures of the oppressed

Rhiannon Giddens - JOHN PEETS

  • Rhiannon Giddens
  • John Peets

Rhiannon Giddens first gained international recognition in the late 2000s as a founding member of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, an acoustic combo dedicated to honoring the African-American string-band tradition. During the heyday of these bands in the early 20th century, they incorporated a wide range of influences, among them antebellum slave songs, acoustic blues, popular tunes, fiddle breakdowns, creole music, and Celtic reels—though most modern listeners simply characterize the banjo-and-violin melodies of string-band music as “hillbilly” or “country.”

Like their predecessors in the 20s and 30s, the Carolina Chocolate Drops cast a wide net: a typical set might touch on blues, folk, pop (and not just vintage pop—the group has included beatboxer Adam Matta), vaudeville-tinged musical storytelling, and folk dances that hybridized Anglo-European and African-American cultural tropes as effortlessly as the music did. Giddens’s supple, expressive voice (she’d studied opera at Oberlin) proved more than equal to the diverse challenges she set it, and her flamboyant showmanship upped the ante further. She often ended her portion of the show with a folk version of the 2001 Blu Cantrell R&B number “Hit ‘Em Up Style,” complete with body language and audience shout-outs borrowed from hip-hop.

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In 2006 the Chocolate Drops released their acclaimed debut, Dona Got a Ramblin’ Mind (Music Maker), but Giddens continued to record with other artists. In 2007 she appeared on Indian Summer by ethnomusicologist and singer Talitha MacKenzie, contributing vocals, banjo, fiddle, and traditional “flatfooting” dance-step rhythms; in 2009 she and mezzo-­soprano Cheryse McLeod Lewis formed the group Eleganza to release Because I Knew You, a set of songs drawn from classical music, the African-­American spiritual tradition, and American theater and film.

After the Chocolate Drops won a Grammy for the 2010 Nonesuch release Genuine Negro Jig (Best Traditional Folk Album), Giddens’s solo career blossomed. In 2013 she participated in a Manhattan concert organized to promote Inside Llewyn Davis, the Coen brothers film based loosely on the memoirs of folksinger Dave Van Ronk. Her renditions of “Water Boy” (where she invoked the spirit of African-American folksinger and activist Odetta) and two traditional Gaelic dance songs earned her a spontaneous standing ovation and widespread critical praise. She also recorded contributions to We Are Not for Sale: Songs of Protest (a 2013 compilation released by a collective calling itself the NC Music Love Army) and T-Bone Burnett’s 2014 Bob Dylan project Lost on the River: The New Basement Tapes.

Giddens’s solo releases under her own name—the EPs We Rise (2013) and Factory Girl (2015) and the albums Tomorrow Is My Turn (2015) and Freedom Highway (2017)—have solidified her status as a major creative force even as she remains difficult for marketers to categorize. African-American artists who don’t make R&B or hip-hop often get lumped into “blues,” especially if they play “folk” instruments, but Giddens’s output is too varied and extensive for that kind of racially coded knee-jerk label to stick.

Because Giddens has made a specialty of stylistic and cultural mashups, the words “postmodern” and “postracial” get thrown at her a lot. But hers remains the voice of a proud black woman celebrating her heritage—and her understanding of that heritage means she embraces and honors the entirety of “people’s culture,” both high and low, no matter its origin or background. Whether borrowed or original, her songs are fables of struggle and triumph, usually from the perspective of the oppressed—the kind of staunch-hearted anthems of solidarity that we need now more than ever.  v


Rhiannon Giddens performs on Sunday, June 11, at 6:20 PM at the Jay Pritzker Pavilion.

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Our ugly racism’s newest artifact: The noose left at the African American Museum

On Wednesday, as yellow buses disgorged flocks of school groups and multigenerational visitors pushed wheelchairs and strollers into the Smithsonian’s compelling National Museum of African American History and Culture, something entered the building with them:

Hatred.

Sometime in the afternoon, in the gallery on segregation, someone placed the vile instrument of our country’s history of lynching — a noose — inside the museum. It was the second time this week one was found on Smithsonian grounds. A noose was found hanging from a tree near the Hirshhorn Museum four days earlier.

But a noose inside the African American Museum was a disturbing reminder that our history of racial oppression and violence is far from over.

Mamie Till Mobley weeps at her son’s funeral on Sept. 6, 1955, in Chicago. The casket is now on display in the African American Museum. (Chicago Sun-Times via AP)

“The noose has long represented a deplorable act of cowardice and depravity — a symbol of extreme violence for African Americans,” Lonnie Bunch, the founding director of the museum, said in a statement. “Today’s incident is a painful reminder of the challenges that African Americans continue to face.

“This was a horrible act,” he said, “but a stark reminder of why our work is so important.”

And that’s especially true in Trump’s America, where strident white nationalism — a movement that wants to achieve a whites-only state — is on the rise. The Southern Poverty Law Center has recorded about 1,300 incidents since the 2016 election. They are happening almost every day, all over the country.

Three people have been stabbed to death in the past two weeks by alleged white supremacists — two men defending teenage girls on a train in Portland, Ore., and Richard W. Collins III, a Bowie State University student out with friends on the University of Maryland at College Park campus.

In Los Angeles on Wednesday, someone spray-painted racist graffiti outside the home of basketball star LeBron James as he prepared for the NBA Finals.

“No matter how much money you have, no matter how famous you are, no matter how many people admire you, being black in America is tough,” James told reporters. And he invoked the memory of Emmett Till’s mother, who forced the world to look at her lynched 14-year-old son. “The reason she had an open casket was that she wanted to show the world what her son went through as far as a hate crime and being black in America,” James said.

Till’s casket is on display at the African American Museum, where the noose was left the same day James’s house was vandalized.

Assuming the noose was left by a racist white person, it shouldn’t be too hard to find the culprit. Far too few white people go there.

When the museum opened in September amid the ugly rhetoric of the Trump presidential campaign, I begged my fellow white Americans to please go to the museum.

Because this place isn’t just black history. It’s America’s history.

And the searing, soaring five-story museum fills the gaps in our country’s complicated story that too many of us have forgotten, sanitized or simply never knew.

But white folks weren’t listening too well.

The Smithsonian doesn’t keep track of the races of the more than 1 million visitors who have flocked to the museum since it opened. But I could see it every time I passed the building and during my four trips inside. The vast majority of visitors are black.

The very crowd with the most to learn, the Americans wrestling hardest with the legacy of race in their country, seemed to be avoiding the place.

I went to the museum Wednesday to see whether my impression was correct.

And with each wave of visitors holding their timed-entry passes, except for the school groups, it was always the same. Black, black, black, black, white, white, black, black, black, black.

“I don’t want to get you in trouble, but you’re here every day,” I said to one security guard. “Would you say this is the demographic profile you see every day?”

“Yes. I’d say about 10 percent, 20 percent white,” the guard said.

Same answer from all of the other employees who were kind enough to talk to me.

Marcia Lawrence and her friend Mike Goulet were among the white visitors in the 10:30 a.m. wave. They came from Connecticut, and Lawrence’s daughter, a history teacher in Pennsylvania, got their passes ahead of time.

“We’re all together in this, we’re all one country, and we should learn about our country that way,” she said.

There were also plenty of white folks who were thwarted by the museum’s popularity.

“We’re here from Memphis, and we really want to go,” one white couple told me. “But we just didn’t get passes today.”

It’s still a hot ticket. And to get in, you’ve got to go online to get free, timed-entry passes or get lucky enough to score the walk-up passes released throughout the day.

Not surprisingly, black tourists are more purposeful about coming to the museum. They reserve the passes online, then build a trip around them.

The Morwoods, a white family visiting from San Diego, got lucky with walk-up passes on Wednesday.

When they left the museum before lunch Wednesday and blinked in the bright sun outside, they were trying to digest what they had just seen.

“It’s just, why isn’t this in all other museums?” Jenna Morwood, 43, asked. “I mean, when you see the impact, the rich history, and you see what was left out of all these other museums across the country, you wonder. And you realize how white-centric we are.”

She got it.

And so did the eighth-graders in watermelon-pink school shirts from De Kalb, Tex.

“What really got me was how many people didn’t survive the trip over,” said Maebry Petty, 13, shaking her head a bit. “Those slave ships.”

The millions brought in chains to the United States also stunned her dad, Ray Petty, 37, who’d never been to Washington and was now glad he’d chaperoned the trip.

One of the other teens in their group said that learning this history “was like learning about the Holocaust. We have to.”

We have to.

The waves of middle-schoolers gave me hope. They are learning far more about our nation’s truth than their parents and grandparents did.

But when that noose was found just a few hours later, I couldn’t believe it.

Someone walked inside the museum and ignored the power and meaning of the child-size shackles, the human bill of sale, Emmett Till’s casket and the gruesome photos of lynchings. A noose placed alongside these artifacts yanked us back into that past, reminding us that the most virulent strains of racism are still with us.

“We haven’t seen such mainstream support for hate in decades, not since the civil rights era 50 years ago,” Southern Poverty Law Center spokesman Ryan Lenz told Smithsonian magazine.

Police cordoned off the section where the noose was found and removed it as evidence.

When the investigation is over, they should bring it back. Leave it right where they found it. And the museum can put it in a glass case, with a marker noting: “Noose. Symbol of contemporary hatred and racism. 2017.”

This isn’t history yet.

Twitter: @petulad