“‘Getting Up Cows,’ that’s what it’s called, ‘Getting Up Cows,” William Adams said. “An old fella played that. He was a cracker-jack old fiddler, though, I don’t believe he could beat me….”
Mike Seeger hadn’t come to the neighborhood to record Adams initially, but now he wanted to hear any tune the Black fiddler could remember, even if he forgot it halfway through or couldn’t remember the name.
“I forget how that goes, though, I haven’t played that since a long time ago,” the 72 year-old Adams continued before he put the bow on the fiddle’s strings and hesitantly pulled the tune from deep in his memory. In the end, it sounded like he might have just last played it a week or a year ago, not some 20-odd years earlier.
This field recording wasn’t taken in some rural hamlet or deep holler, it was less than five miles from Seeger’s home in the well-to-do suburb of Chevy Chase outside Washington, D.C. And yet in 1953, when Seeger stepped into Adams’s neighborhood of KenGar, segregation left this community so separate from the white towns and neighborhoods surrounding it, a white person might drive by without even knowing it was there.
In an attempt to distract myself from devastating news about the federal mismanagement of the current covid-19 pandemic, I decided to make a linocut of a plague doctor. As if emerging from a nightmare as a cross between a crow and the grim reaper, the doctors wore long cloaks, a hood with a long beak, and eye protection. I searched for images to use for inspiration and a simple engraving print caught my eye. As I went to research more about the image, I realized it wasn’t just any plague doctor outfit, this was supposed to be an image of a real doctor, Ijsbrand van Diemerbroeck, who not only treated plague patients, but wrote a book of case studies in hopes of educating other doctors about symptoms and treatments.
My debut narrative nonfiction book Flowers in the Gutter is now available!
Flowers in the Gutter tells the true story of the Edelweiss Pirates, working-class teenagers who fought the Nazis by whatever means they could.
Fritz, Gertrud, and Jean were classic outsiders: their clothes were different, their music was rebellious, and they weren’t afraid to fight. But they were also Germans living under Hitler, and any nonconformity could get them arrested or worse. As children in 1933, they saw their world change. Their earliest memories were of the Nazi rise to power and of their parents fighting Brownshirts in the streets, being sent to prison, or just disappearing.
As Hitler’s grip tightened, these three found themselves trapped in a nation whose government contradicted everything they believed in. And by the time they were teenagers, the Nazis expected them to be part of the war machine. Fritz, Gertrud, and Jean and hundreds like them said no. They grew bolder, painting anti-Nazi graffiti, distributing anti-war leaflets, and helping those persecuted by the Nazis. Their actions were always dangerous. The Gestapo pursued and arrested hundreds of Edelweiss Pirates. In World War II’s desperate final year, some Pirates joined in sabotage and armed resistance, risking the Third Reich’s ultimate punishment. This is their story.
Pre-order your copy today or see upcoming book events!
I've been asked to be on a panel at SXSW - but we need community votes to make it to the event!
I've been asked to be on The Banjo Project: A Digital Museum's panel at South by Southwest (SXSW), along with curator Marc Fields and the amazing musicians Dom Flemons and Tony Trishka. However, we need community votes to make it to the next round of selection!
Click here to learn more about the project, register, and vote.
Although it didn't end up helping me with that research, Tucker's opinions about the abolition of slavery struck me. Here was a man, standing up in front of the Virginia legislature, calling out Thomas Jefferson specifically and calling the United States more or less a bunch of hypocrites.
I spent February at the James Ford Bell Library at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis on a William Reese Company Fellowship, looking at the papers of Captain John Gabriel Stedman and investigating the banjo's early history in Suriname and the Caribbean.
In September, I was invited to talk about my banjo research at the North Carolina Folk Festival. I was lucky enough to see many amazing artists, include Sona Jobarteh. She entered the main stage of the North Carolina Folk Festival to a massive crowd with a rock-star attitude: confident, ready to get the audience excited, and knowing exactly how talented she is. She picked up a kora, a 21-string plucked harp made from a gourd, and fastened it to a harness so she could stand and play. Backed by a band, she sang traditional songs and songs she had written, and got the audience to sing and clap along. Many people in the audience never heard her play before, and the performance was magical.
She Shreds magazine recently published a piece I wrote about Jonarteh, and how she is transforming traditional music from her native Gambia into something new. What only briefly made it into the piece, but what I found really fascinating, is the relationship between the kora and the context in which it is played.
"Every instrument has a role - music cannot be detached from its purpose," she told me. "The instrument cannot exist without the ceremony or the tradition it’s a part of," traditions like naming ceremonies, weddings, or hunts. "If we play the song out of context, it’s not really happening." This allows Jobarteh to play to kora, since she's doing it in a secular context and not a religious one. But in my research about the banjo as a religious object, these ideas underlined how connected a physical instrument is to religious ceremony in West African Griot traditions.
For newcomers to Baltimore or the neighborhood of Hampden, the lights on 34th Street feel like a tradition. And by now, they kind of are. I wrote an article for Shore Monthly about the "Spectacle on 34th Street," and found myself surprised that the street-wide decorations only started in 1991. But in the years since, the street has become Baltimore's place to be over the holidays.
Read the piece via Shore Monthly.
In 2017, while at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, Pete Ross and I made an amazing discovery. A diorama made in Suriname by a free man of Color named Gerrit Schouten looked stunningly like a watercolor from South Carolina painted by a white man named John Rose. When I went into the archives and learned more about the dance in the diorama, the Banya Prei, and then compared that against early accounts of the banjo, I was floored. What we saw in Suriname cropped up all over the Americas.
At the 2018 Banjo Gathering, Pete and I presented about the Banya discovery.
Come in, the stacks are open.
Away from prying eyes, damaging light, and pilfering hands, the most special collections are kept in closed stacks. You need an appointment to view the objects, letters, and books that open a door to the past.