Fringe Festival Blog – Part 3

I finished the auditions two weeks ago?

Not only was it a busy time putting all the materials together for the audition and posting blasts all over the place and on the internet, it was also the busiest week of the year here at my day job. That of course was topped off with the opening of the alfresco dining at my part time job, thus leaving me with more shifts at the restaurant and less time to get my shit done.

I was ridiculously impressed with the turnout and there were several people who could not make it to the audition. Unfortunately I can’t use everybody. For one, I want to make sure people get a worthwhile salary, secondly, there are really good dancers that don’t necessary fit into the aesthetic I’m going for. I am biased towards the darker, uncanny girls with a kind of misunderstood personality, almost as if there is something really deep beyond the surface, more than they let on, and it all comes out in their dancing. One of the girls struck me quite hard and I knew that she was going to be my newest and most prolific muse, helping me produce a lot of material. I already have several ideas in mind thanks to her. I called her soon after the audition without delay and asked her to be a part of the show and she happily accepted.

It took me a while to choose the others because they all had very unique talents to offer both productions, the fringe show and the burlesque show I am doing for the GLBT festival. I have an official date for the latter, Thursday, June 10th. I have a 200 seat theater to fill so I’m looking forward to marketing the shit out of this shit.

I had a boy audition; that made me happy. I’ve seen him perform before, years ago, for the Koresh Youth Ensemble. He’s a great kid, about to graduate high school and go to UArts and there is no doubt in my mind he will be successful in the field.

I chose a couple more dancers than I had planned, and it is my hope that I’ll finally do one of those numbers where there are a lot of people on stage and all this madness is going on. I’m really looking forward to starting rehearsals, I am so inspired by the cast.

On a sad note, the venue where I have rehearsals and that I was going to use for the performance lost its lease so come May 30th, I will no longer be able to use that space. This infuriates me on so many levels. It was a huge part of my concept for this piece almost to the point where it was site-specific, but I have faith that I will find somewhere else. For me, location is extremely important and I want to make sure that the other factors I need to take into consideration match up to my needs for the performance. I’d rather not have it in a generic theater, fringe is all about cutting edge work done in obscure venues, but I am sure reality will set in and I will have to grin and bear it because I haven’t much choice right now. I know that the expense will at least double now, the studio was one of the most affordable in town and so conveniently located. I’m sure it’s just Mercury Retrograde playing tricks on me and I am very much up to the challenge.

I have added/cut down the list to 10 songs. I am also regurgitating some choreography that inspired the whole idea of “Man Bites Dog” in the first place. So far the new list is as follows:

Androgynous Mind – Sonic Youth
Shame & Fortune – Yeah Yeah Yeahs
Polly – Nirvana
Turn Me On – Nina Simone
He Hit Me – Grizzly Bear
House of Jealous Lovers – The Rapture
Oasis Hotel – Tracy Bonham
Declare Independence – Bjork
People Are Strange – The Doors
Nadia’s Theme – From “The Young & The Restless”

Fringe Festival Blog – Part 2

Captain’s Log, Stardate April 15th, 2010

On this day that Earthlings call “Tax Day” I am finding myself ever so nervous about my upcoming audition for the Fringe show. While I already have a pretty healthy roster of girls for the show (including an upcoming show for the GLBT festival that has not been finalized as of yet), I know that I will find something special in every girl that I audition. Although I have already received a handful of resumes submitted online and my blog is reaching 20-40 hits per day (thanks to some help from my friends promoting the audition), my worry stems around the fact that I am dubious that I will get any new male talent. I don’t need a male dancer of Alvin Ailey capability, just a dude to stand there, move around and every once in a while pick up a chick and flip her around. Of course it would be nice to have a strong male dancer (or three) but they are such a commodity and every choreographer knows this. Not to talk smack, but sometimes the boys are bigger divas than the girls because they understand their value and how sparse they are in the dance world. Most dance graduates are scooped up by dance companies who have the fiscal ability to keep them in their troupes, so as an independent producer of my work, I can only offer meager salaries.

I am still hopeful.

Last weekend I worked out some of the choreography with two of my dancers, Meagan, the vixen that beats her own drum; the unruly child who always manages to shine come showtime despite her disinterest in dancing full out in rehearsals. Tammy was my other girl, the sprightly one with the infectious laugh and bubbly personality that always lightens the mood and is very expressive about reassuring me when I get doubtful about my compositions. It felt good to hear “Oooh, I really like that” and “That’s cool” when coming up moves. I am happy that I finally started this project and it will be smooth sailing (creatively at least) now that I have something tangible to work with.

I started working on the song “Androgynous Mind” by Sonic Youth that will depict a homage to transsexuals and gays who have been the victim of hate crimes. I also came up with some movements for “Shame and Fortune” by Yeah Yeah Yeahs that will be a satire about Lady Gaga, Beyonce and some other pop diva star, I haven’t decided yet. I’m really looking forward to making the costumes for that number.

I have already changed some of the musical selections. Most of the playlist consists of rock and classical, but I think that some of the classical music won’t fit into the overall motif, so I might have to scratch one or two. Plus I realized that one of the songs I just choreographed in a show at The Painted Bride, so I might nix that altogether. The idea for “Man Bites Dog” happened last summer and I drew from a list of songs I keep on hand that have inspired me in one way or the other. Funny though, I did re-choreograph a song I used 4 years ago in that same Painted Bride show, but it was too appropriate for the piece not to.

I’ve added “He Hit Me” by Grizzly Bear, a newish alternative band that is indicative of my taste in music. I wanted to use the original by The Crystals even though the first version I ever heard was by Hole, my favorite band of all time. I chose Grizzly Bear because it has a very dark but effervescent sound to it and I think that the song being sung by a male creates an uncanny vibe that will add depth to the piece. It will be part 2 of a piece about domestic violence, the first part will entail a “house wife” having an affair with a man (or woman, I haven’t decided) and will be choreographed to Nina Simone’s “Turn Me On” and in the second part, the husband will find out about the adultery and physically assault the wife. It won’t be as violent as it sounds but the point will come across. I will leave the ending as a surprise, but lets just say that I will also be taking a stab at the American judicial system in this piece.

I can’t wait to start rehearsing. The juice is flowing, superfluously, and I think that this will be my tightest show yet. I am looking to give my audience a graphic, entertaining feast for the senses and I will be doing something new with how I use the venue that will entail a different kind of watching experience. It’s gonna be fierce.

Seeking Dancers/Actors

Auditions for Dancers/Actors

Saturday, April 17
1pm – 3pm
Susan Hess Dance Studio
2030 Samson Street
3rd Floor

Playwright/Choreographer is seeking new talent for two productions, Philly Fringe (http://www.livearts-fringe.org/) and the GLBT Arts Festival (http://www.traversetheater.org/festival2/index.htm). Seeking dancers with a background in modern dance and actors with some movement ability (for some roles). Fringe Festival production, “Man Bites Dog” is a contemporary ballet about sensationalism in the media, featuring music from Sonic Youth, Nina Simone, Erik Satie, and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. The GLBT piece will be a ballet about the history of burlesque in the United States.

Looking for a variety of dancers with a need for male talent. Both are paid positions, for the Fringe Festival, performance dates are as follows:

Saturday, Sept 11 – Evening Show
Sunday, Sept 12 – Matinee
Thursday, September 16 – Evening Show

Preview shows and special performances to be announced.

See here for more information about the piece.

GLBT show is still being developed. Roles are already cast for performers doing striptease. Dancers should feel comfortable dancing in provocative costumes but NO NUDITY IS REQUIRED. Please contact me directly for more information (devonelson@gmail.com).

Dancers:
Please wear all black and please bring jazz shoes. You will learn choreography from “Man Bites Dog”.

Actors:
Sides will be provided or come prepared with a monologue. If you would like to participate in the dance audition, please wear all black and bring comfortable shoes. If you are not dancing, please come to the audition at 2pm.

Dancers/Actors:
Please arrive on time. There will be a small amount of time for warm-ups. You can bring your headshot/resume with you or email it electronically beforehand.

Looking forward!

L. DeVaughn Nelson

Photo by Bill Herbert

Fringe Festival Blog – Part 1

“Man Bites Dog”

Choreographic Intent

Sensationalism in the media is a direct result of cultural evolution around the globe. All over The United States, technology bombards us with hidden messages through advertising, journalism, and entertainment, striking us with an overbearing sensory overload. What is unbelievable is news. Heroes and villains are created. Stories are embellished. Sex sells. Taboo condones judgmental behavior. All these trends make up the grand scheme of effective media in this country and its impact is indelible.

“Man Bites Dog” is a cultural sensation noted by New York Sun editor, John B. Bogart, in the early nineties in regards to uncanny events being hyped up in news reports to spawn larger audiences. Over the past decade, there have been several movements correlating to this phenomenon. Politics alone have apotheosized this philosophy, which is a trend that dates back as far as history goes with nobility and government officials being ridiculed, ostracized and worshipped in the press. Most recently, superstars have become larger than life, the exploits of their daily lives fodder for bubbly conversation. Mug shots adorn television sets, the internet and front pages of newspapers. Psycho chic has become the newest craze – the affectation of celebrity psychological breakdowns and rehab is now popular in the media as well.

“Man Bites Dog” is a choreographic work that will explore, satirize and even celebrate the ways in which popular culture relies on extraordinary stories to distract itself from the true horrors the world has to offer.

Current events will be examined with a few real news reports referenced for plot content. There will be a recurring theme with a chorus of dancers who will have headlights strapped to their heads to represent photojournalists. There will be an array of other props including (but not limited to) sunglasses, umbrellas, scarves, blindfolds, chairs, and leashes that will be incorporated into the choreography.

My dance composition technique stems from the inspiration of Erick Hawkins, Merce Cunningham, Matt Maddox, Alvin Ailey and Bob Fosse. Fluid, old school Modern Dance will be juxtaposed with contemporary technique, utilizing extensive isolations and lateral movements and stretches. Combined with natural movements and “club style” dancing, the works will be precise, relatable and innovative in their execution, revealing the pith of the story at hand. Elements of the choreography will include dog-like movements and animal motifs to depict the overall theme.

Musical Selections:

Metamorphosis
Daniel Bernard Roumain
7:24
Alternative Classical

Androgynous Mind
Sonic Youth
3:31
Alternative

3 Gymnopédies: Lent Et Douloureux
Erik Satie
3:38
Classical

Polly
Nirvana
2:57
Alternative

Violin Concerto No. 2 in B Minor Op. 7: III. Rondo (‘La campanella’)
Niccolò Paganini
6:59
Classical

Shame and Fortune
Yeah Yeah Yeahs
3:31
Rock

The House of Jealous Lovers
The Rapture
5:05
Rock

People Are Strange
The Doors
2:13
Rock

Turn Me On
Nina Simone
2:29
Blues

Instinct Blues
The White Stripes
4:16
Rock

*Excerpts will be used from most songs.

Technical Requirements:
1. Cast
8 – 10 Featured Dancers (At least 2 Male)
5 – 10 Additional Dancers (as needed/understudy)

2. Crew
Stage Manager
Lighting Director/Operator
2 Stage Grips
Audio/Visual Director/Operator
Hair/Wardrobe Assistant

3. Stage Settings
3 Wood Boxes (3’H x 3’W x 3’D)
3 Wood Panels (Rolling Flats with Mylar Backing)
3 Specials (Lighting) set up for CS, DSR and DSL
1 Strobe Light
1 Fog Machine (optional)

4. Props List
3 Dog Cone Collars
1 Dog Collar
1 Dog Leash
3 Gas Masks
8 Pair Sunglasses
5 Blindfolds
3 News Papers
5 Sets Head Lights
3 Umbrellas
3 Chairs

Why Hokum Arts???

So I wanted to write a little note about the name of my quasi, semi-legit arts organization.

A few years back when I was thriving off of Funemployment, I was getting my artistic life together and decided to form a nonprofit organization. After all of the meetings, research and workshops, I had most of the tools I needed to put it all together and some cash to start the endeavor. Having been an independent artist producing (read: paying for) my own work for so long, I thought that the 501 (C)(3) status would prove to be beneficiary to my pursuits, establishing me as a reputable artist who is eligible for funding to support my work.

After thinking it over about a million times, I was dubious about the whole nonprofit thing and how it would affect my career. Sure, as an independent I can be under the umbrella of nonprofits, writing grants utilizing their resources, but to be a nonprofit is a beast of an affair, with so many bells and whistles and hoops to jump through. Also, I hate math.

Part of the problem with being a nonprofit is that you have to have a mission statement that appeals to some sort of charitable organization. This is not to say that you have to be a charitable organization, but if you’re asking people for money, it needs to be for a good, wholesome cause. Well, I hate children, I have a sailor mouth, I make dances with half naked girls in them and I am anything but wholesome. Are you sure your foundation doesn’t want to support me?

It is still a possibility, but really, I think it would be best for me to focus my talents more in one or two genres rather than 5 or 6. After all I have been a choreographer, filmmaker, producer, dancer, actor, writer, fine artist and I forget what else. I am using choreography as a vehicle to gain experience and get my name out there in order to become a successful writer. Really though, I just want to be a rock star.

Every so often I think of starting a band, I just haven’t found the right folks yet. I have in my head this idea of aesthetics and those involved would have to mesh well and represent the ideal that I have. I have a lot of good ideas and I still write songs. I never really practice the guitar anymore, but I can play some mean riffs and I love distortion anyway. I think that every band needs some sort of gimmick to have a draw, and I don’t know of too many openly gay, black rock stars.

Music is certainly not my strongest point. Sure, I know that Every Good Boy Does Fine, but I can’t read music and my voice is fractured thanks to my penchant for bourbon and cigarettes (also, my signature scent). The thing is, some of my favorite rock stars aren’t really good singers and most of my inspiration comes from 90s alt-grunge rock, so it’s only appropriate. Courtney Love is my idol. That bitch can’t sing for shit, but she is an amazing performer and by far a wonderful writer. I have the stage presence and presentation skills to make it big, I think.

When I was in high school I was an athlete until I just had to succumb to the arts. I excelled at the sport I hated (track & field) having broke several records and I was poised to be an Olympian had I set my heart to it, but it just wasn’t in it. I loved soccer and tennis but I suck at both, even to this day. I wonder if my artistic life will play out the same way: what I’m good at won’t work for me and what I’m not as confident in, I will exceed. I know there’s no money in the arts unless you go big and I think big time rock star is something I wouldn’t mind having on my resume.

As far as Hokum Arts, it isn’t so much of a pipe dream anymore. I fantasize about it being my real job; I want to be a producer and choreographer and actually pay my artists that I work with. I know it can/will happen according to plan, but as everyone knows, I can get a little impatient when it comes to success and satisfaction due to my unruly ambition.

The name “Hokum Arts” came about when I was doing some Vaudeville research. I thought the word itself was a testament to how I approach the artistic process, always wanting to make an impact on the audience using a variety of devices in order to cajole a certain reaction and/or action. Also, the historical origins of the word are dear to me, as much of what African Americans did to the entertainment industry at the turn of the 20th century was much of the inspiration for dance and entertainment that still thrives today.

Here is an entry from my iMac dictionary including the wikipedia reference (don’t shoot me librarians!).

hokum |ˈhōkəm|
noun informal
nonsense : they dismissed such corporate homilies as boardroom hokum.
• trite, sentimental, or unrealistic situations and dialogue in a movie, play, or piece of writing : classic B-movie hokum.
ORIGIN early 20th cent.: of unknown origin.

Hokum is a particular song type of American blues music – a humorous song which uses extended analogies or euphemistic terms to make sexual innuendos. This trope goes back to early blues recordings, and is seen from time to time in modern American blues and blues-rock.

An example of hokum lyrics is this sample from “Meat Balls”, by Lil Johnson, recorded about 1937,

“Got out late last night, in the rain and sleet
Tryin’ to find a butcher that grind my meat
Yes I’m lookin’ for a butcher
He must be long and tall
If he want to grind my meat
‘Cause I’m wild about my meat balls.”

Technique

In a general sense, hokum was a style of comedic farce, spoken, sung and spoofed, while masked in both risqué innuendo and “tomfoolery”. It is one of the many legacies and techniques of 19th century blackface Minstrelsy. Like so many other elements of the Minstrel Show, stereotypes of racial, ethnic and sexual fools were the stock in trade of hokum. Hokum was stagecraft, gags and routines for embracing farce. It was so broad that there was no mistaking its ludicrousness. Hokum also encompassed dances like the cakewalk and the buzzard lope in skits that unfolded through spoken narrative and song. W.C. Handy, himself a veteran of a minstrel troupe, remarked that, “Our hokum hooked ’em,” meaning that the low comedy snared an audience that stuck around to hear the music. In the days before ragtime, jazz or even hillbilly music or the blues were clearly identified as specific genres, hokum was a component of “all around” performing, entertainment that seamlessly mixed monologues, dialogues, dances, music, and humor.
[edit] Minstrel show origins
Joel Walker Sweeney

The Minstrel Show began in Northern cities, primarily in New York’s Five Points section, in the 1830s. Minstrelsy was a mélange of Scottish and Irish folk music forms fused with African rhythms and dance. It is difficult to tease out those strands, considering the mixed motives of the showmen who presented the Minstrel Show, and the mixed audience who patronized it. It is said that T. D. Rice invented the ‘Buck and Wing’, as well as the ‘Jim Crow’, by imitating the stumbling of an old lame black man, and added numerous steps and shuffles, after watching an African American boy improvise a version of an Irish jig in a back alley. Soon, the confusion became so complete that almost any minstrel tune played upon the banjo became known as a jig, regardless of time signatures or lyric accompaniment. Banjo player Joe Ayers told old time musician and writer Bob Carlin that “the origins of playing Irish jigs on the banjo probably go back to minstrel banjoist Joel Walker Sweeney’s appearances in Dublin in 1844.” Genuine appreciation among White observers for music and dance so clearly (if not purely) African in origin existed then and now. Charles Dickens praised the intricacies of the “lively hero” (believed to be Master Juba) who he watched in a New York performance in 1842. Many songs that originated in Minstrelsy (such as “Camptown Races” and “Carry Me Back to Old Virginny”) are now considered American classics. While it was originally performed by Whites costumed in either fanciful “dandy” gear or pauper’s rags with their faces covered in burnt cork or blackface, the minstrels were joined in the 1850s by Black African American performers. The dancer, William Henry Lane (better known by his stage name Master Juba), and the fiddling dwarf Thomas Dilward were also “corking up” and performing alongside Whites in such touring ensembles as the Virginia Minstrels, the Ethiopian Serenaders, and Christy’s Minstrels. Minstrel troupes composed entirely by African Americans appeared in the same decade. After the American Civil War, traveling productions like Callender’s Georgia Minstrels would rival the White ensembles in fame, while falling short of them in earnings. The difficulties racism presented to any African American entrepreneurs during postwar Reconstruction made touring a dangerous and precarious livelihood.

Subversion and confrontation

Although mainly Northern in origin, many Minstrel Shows, Black or White, celebrated “Dixieland” and presented a loose concoction of “Negro Melodies” and “Plantation Songs” infused with slapstick, wordplay, skits, puns, dance, and stock characters. The hierarchies of the social order were satirized, but seldom challenged. While hokum mocked the propriety of “polite” society, the presumptions and pretensions of the parodists were simultaneous targets of the humor. “Darkies” dancing the cakewalk might mimic the elite cotillion dance styles of wealthy Southern whites, but their exaggerated high stepping exuberance was judged all the funnier for its ineptitude. Nonetheless, styles of song and dance that began as inversions of the social structure were adopted among the upper echelons of society, often without a trace of self consciousness.

Social insults were more overt. As the underclass being ridiculed shifted shapes, the racist lampoons and blackface burlesques sometimes gave way to other conflations, such as the stage Irishman Paddy, drunken and belligerent, a cruel caricature often in blackface himself. Political nativism and xenophobia encouraged similar mean-spirited responses to the perceived threats of the time. After 1848, when the first substantial influx of Chinese immigrants began seeking their fortunes in the California Gold Rush, “Chink” characters joined the minstrel walkaround. Hokum enjoyed the license to be outrageous, since the clowning was purportedly “all in fun”.

By the beginning of the twentieth century, the hierarchy of social mores that sanctioned stereotyping came increasingly under attack. W. E. B. Du Bois’s book the Souls of Black Folk linked the subjective self appraisal of African Americans to their struggle with pejorative stereotyping in his essays about “double consciousness”. This inner conflict was central to the African American experience, “this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity”. Anticipating social psychology, DuBois had identified a whole sphere of comparative attitudes that allowed for the reinterpretation of the black “mask”. While black minstrel performers were once seen as the degraded victims of a racist spectacle, subsequent commentators could now celebrate these culture bearers for creating a subversive space for the advancement of their art and aesthetic. African American minstrels, Karen Sotiropoulos observed, “did not just attempt to hook audiences with hokum; they subverted and manipulated stereotypes as they struggled to present black identity.” This critical perspective has the performers looking over the jeering crowd into the eyes of sympathetic conspirators, and giving them a wink to signal their mutual confidence.

Artistic dilemma

Race and sex were the pole stars of hokum, with booze and the law defining loose boundaries. Transgression was a given. How performers navigated through these waters varied from artist to artist. High and low culture had yet to converge as mainstream or popular culture. The convergence of performance styles, from different races that Minstrelsy and by extension hokum represented, helped to define a central, ongoing tension in American culture. The cycle of rejection, accommodation, appropriation and authentication was set in motion. The infantilized and grotesque enactments and racist and misogynistic content caused many better educated observers of the day to dismiss both the Minstrel Show and hokum as simply vulgar. Some of the white artists, whose contributions to minstrelsy are most valued today, struggled to rise above its cruder forms in their lifetimes. Stephen Foster composed for years in obscurity, while the minstrel troupe leader Edwin P. Christy claimed credit for his songs. By 1852, Foster still wanted the pride of authorship, but wrote to Christy,

“I had the intention of omitting my name on my Ethiopian songs, owing to the prejudice against them by some, which might injure my reputation as a writer of another style of music. But I find that by my efforts, I have done a great deal to build up a taste for the Ethiopian songs among refined people by making the words suitable to their taste, instead of the trashy and really offensive words which belong to some of that order.”

The same contradictions and ambiguities were endured by African-Americans like the composer James A. Bland, the actor Sam Lucas, and the bandleader James Reese Europe. The classically trained African-American composer Will Marion Cook, who toured throughout the United States and gave a command performance for King George V in England, struggled to raise his music to a public perception of distinction and merit, but was thwarted by marketing that distinguished author and music only by skin color.

Cook wrote what he called “real Negro melodies” and what he envisioned as “opera.” He sought to market the syncopated sounds emanating from black expressive culture, but his compositions would be sold as “coon songs” suitable for variety stages. Cook’s music fits most comfortably in the genre now known as “ragtime,” but at the turn of the century, critics used the terms “ragtime” and “coon song” interchangeably. Like minstrelsy, the “coon song craze” sold racist stereotypes to mass audiences. Not unlike African-American minstrel performers, black songwriters capitulated in varying degrees to white racist expectation to market their music.[1]

The use of dialect or faux African American (or even Irish) speech patterns also caused many minstrel compositions to be lumped into categories with interchangeable “coon song” connotations. “Wake Nicodemus,” published in 1864 by Henry Clay Work, in Chicago, could neatly fit into the modern definition of a “protest song”, and his later hits such as “Marching Through Georgia” identified his strong abolitionist convictions (his father was famous as a stalwart supporter of the “Underground Railroad”). Yet many of his songs were minstrel show staples. His compositions were widely performed by the Christy’s Minstrels in particular who appreciated compositions such as “Kingdom Coming”. This song was “full of bright, good sense and comical situations in its ‘darkey’ dialect”, as the publisher and songwriter George Frederick Root described it in his autobiography “The Story of A Musical Life”.

There is no glossing over the fact that most “coon songs” reveled in ridicule. The reception of “coon songs”, however, was by no means uniform. White performers embraced the “coon song craze” as it suited them. The North Carolina Piedmont pioneer Charlie Poole was an acrobatic jokester with a banjo beating out a “barbaric twang”, but he did not perform the “coon songs” he covered in black dialect or in blackface. Poole preferred to hone his own identity and style. While his comedy marked him as “hokum”, his music was drawn from the “hillbilly” polyglot of Tin Pan Alley, marches, blues, Appalachian Scots Irish old time fiddle tunes, two-steps, early vaudeville, Civil War chestnuts, event songs, murder ballads and the rest of the mix, with the minstrel tunes another important source.

Hokum in early blues

After the First World War, the fledgling record industry split hokum off from its Minstrel Show or vaudeville context to market it as a musical genre, ‘the hokum blues’. Early practitioners surfaced among the Memphis, Tennessee jug bands heard in Beale Street’s saloons and bordellos. The light-hearted and humorous jug bands like Will Shade’s Memphis Jug Band and Gus Cannon’s Jug Stompers played good time, upbeat music on assorted instruments, such as spoons, washboards, fiddles, triangles, harmonicas, and banjos, all anchored by bass notes blown into the mouth of an empty jug. Their blues was rife with popular influences of the time, and had none of the grit and plaintive “purity” of the nearby Delta blues. Cannon’s classic composition “Walk Right In”, originally recorded for Victor in 1930, resurfaced as a Number One hit 33 years later, when the Rooftop Singers recorded it during the Folk Revival in New York’s Greenwich Village, and a jug band boom ensued once more.

Hokum blues lyrics specifically poked fun at all manner of sexual practices, preferences, and eroticized domestic arrangements. Compositions such as “Banana In Your Fruit Basket”, written by Bo Carter of the Mississippi Sheiks, used thinly veiled allusions, which typically employed food and animals as metaphors in a lusty manner worthy of Chaucer. The hilariously sexy lyric content usually steered clear of subtlety. “Bo Carter was a master of the single entendre,” remarked the Piedmont blues guitar master “Bowling Green” John Cephas at Chip Schutte’s annual guitar camp. The bottleneck guitarist Tampa Red was accompanied by Thomas A. Dorsey (performing as “Barrelhouse Tom” or “Georgia Tom”) playing piano when the two recorded “It’s Tight Like That” for the Vocalion label in 1928. The song went over so well that the two bluesmen teamed up and became known as The Hokum Boys. Both previously performed in the band of the Mother of the Blues Ma Rainey, who had traveled the vaudeville circuits with the Rabbit Foot Minstrels as a girl, later taking Bessie Smith under her wing. The Hokum Boys recorded over 60 bawdy blues songs by 1932, most of them penned by Dorsey, who later picked up his Bible and became the founding father of black gospel. Dorsey characterized his hokum legacy as “deep moanin’, low-down blues, that’s all I could say!”

Hokum in early country music

While hokum surfaces in early blues music most frequently, there was some significant crossover culturally. When the Chattanooga based “brother duet” The Allen Brothers recorded a hit version of “Salty Dog Blues” refashioned as “Bow Wow Blues” in 1927 for Columbia’s 15,000 – numbered “Old Time” series, the label rushed out several new releases to capitalize on their success, but mistakenly issued these on the 14,000 series instead.

In fact, the Allen Brothers were so adept at performing white blues that in 1927, Columbia mistakenly released their “Laughin’ and Cryin’ Blues” in the “race” series instead of the “old-time” series. (Not seeing the humor in it, the Allens sued and promptly moved to the Victor label.) [2]

Early Black string bands like the Dallas String Band with Coley Jones recorded the tune “Hokum Blues” on December 8th, 1928 in Dallas, Texas, and featured mandolin instrumentation. They have been identified both as proto bluesmen and as an early Texas country band, and were likely selling to both Black and White audiences. Both Blind Lemon Jefferson and T-Bone Walker played in the Dallas String Band at various times. Milton Brown and his Musical Brownies, the seminal white Texas swing band, recorded a hokum tune with scat lyrics in the early 1930s, “Garbage Man Blues”, which was originally known by the title the jazz composer Luis Russell gave it, “The Call of the Freaks”. Bob Wills, who had performed in blackface as a young man, liberally used comic asides, whoops, and jive talk when directing his famous Texas Playboys. The Hoosier Hotshots, Bob Skyles and the Skyrockets, and other novelty song artists concentrated on the comedic aspects, but for many up and coming White country musicians like Emmet Miller, Clayton McMichen and Jimmie Rodgers, the ribald lyrics were beside the point. Hokum for these white rounders in the South and Southwest was synonymous with jazz, and the “hot” syncopations and blue notes were a naughty pleasure in themselves. The lap steel guitar player Cliff Carlisle, who was half of another “brother duet”, is credited with refining the Blue Yodel song style after Jimmie Rodgers became the first country music superstar by recording over a dozen blue yodels. Carlisle wrote and recorded many hokum tunes and gave them titles such as “Tom Cat Blues”, “Shanghai Rooster Yodel” and “That Nasty Swing”. He marketed himself as a “Hillbilly”, a “Cowboy”, a “Hawaiian” or a “Straight” bluesman (meaning presumably, “Black”) depending on whom he was playing for and where he played.

The radio “barn dances” of the 1920s and 1930s interspersed hokum in their variety show broadcasts. The first blackface comedians at the WSM Grand Old Opry were Lee Roy “Lasses” White and his partner, Lee Davis “Honey” Wilds, starring in the Friday night shows. White was a veteran of several minstrel troupes, including one organized by William George “Honeyboy” Evans, and another led by Al G. Field, who also employed Emmett Miller. By 1920, White was leading his own outfit, the All Star Minstrels. Lasses and Honey joined the Grand Old Opry cast in 1932. When Lasses moved on to Hollywood in 1936 to play the role of a silver screen cowboy sidekick, Honey Wilds stayed on in Nashville, corking up and playing blues on his ukulele with his new partner Jam-Up (first played by Tom Woods, and subsequently by Bunny Biggs). Wilds organized the first Grand Old Opry endorsed tent show in 1940. For the next decade, he ran the touring show, with Jam-Up and Honey as the headliners. Pulling a forty foot trailer behind a four door Pontiac, and followed by eight to ten trucks, Wilds took the tent show from town to town, hurrying back to Nashville on Saturdays to do his Opry radio appearances. Many country musicians, like Uncle Dave Macon, Bill Monroe, Eddy Arnold, Stringbean and Roy Acuff, toured with the Wilds’ tent shows from April through Labor Day. As Honey Wilds’ son David told No Depression magazine’s co-editor Grant Alden:

Music was a part of their act, but they were comedians. They would sing comedic songs, a la Homer and Jethro. They would add odd lyrics to existing songs, or write songs that were intended to be comedic. They were out there to come onstage, do five minutes of jokes, sing a song, do five minutes of jokes, sing another song and say, “Thank you, good night,” as their segment of the Grand Ole Opry. Almost every country band during that time had some guy who dressed funny, wore a goofy hat, and typically played slide guitar.[3]

Legacy

Although the sexual content of hokum is generally playful by modern standards, early recordings were marginalized for both sexual “suggestiveness” and “trashy” appeal, but still flourished in niche markets outside the mainstream. “Jim Crow” segregation was still the norm in much of the United States, and racial, ethnic and class bias was embedded in the popular entertainment of the time. Prurience was seen as more antisocial than prejudice. Record companies were more concerned about selling records than stigmatizing artists and minority audiences. Modern audiences might be offended by the packaged exploitation these stock caricatures offered, but in early 20th century America, it paid for performers to play the fool. Audiences were left on their own to interpret whether they themselves were sharing the joke or were the butts of it. While “race” musicians traded in “coon songs” crafted for commercial consumption by catering to White prejudice, “hillbilly” musicians were similarly marketed as “rubes” and “hayseeds”. Class distinctions bolstered these portrayals of gullible rural folk and witless southerners. Assimilation of African Americans and appropriation of their artistic and cultural creations were not yet equated by the emerging entertainment industry with racism and bigotry.
Josephine Baker, the French singer featured in the Broadway revue “Shuffle Along”, photographed by Carl Van Vechten, 1949.

The eventual success of African American musical productions on Broadway like Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle’s “Shuffle Along” in 1921, helped to usher in the Swing Jazz era. This was accompanied by a new sense of sophistication that eventually disdained hokum as backward, insipid, and perhaps most damningly, corny. Audiences began to change their perceptions of authentic “Negro” artistry. White comedians like Frank Tinney and singers like Eddie Cantor (nicknamed “Banjo Eyes”) continued to work successfully in blackface on Broadway. They even branched out into vaudeville-based sensations like the Ziegfeld Follies and the emerging film industry, but cross racial comedy became increasingly out of fashion, especially onstage. On the other hand, it is impossible to imagine that the success of comics such as Pigmeat Markham or Damon Wayans, or bandleaders like Cab Calloway or Louis Jordan does not owe some debt to hokum. White performers have thoroughly absorbed the lessons of hokum as well, with the “top banana” Harry Steppe, singers like Louis Prima and Leon Redbone or comedian Jeff Foxworthy being prime examples. Offstage it is by no means extinct either, or only practiced by members of one race parodying another race. The Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club, a New Orleans Mardi Gras krewe has marched on Fat Tuesday since 1900 dressed in raggedy clothes and grass skirts with their faces blackened. Zulu is now the largest predominantly African American organization marching in the annual Carnival celebration. While the Minstrel Show, burlesque, vaudeville, variety, and the medicine show have left the scene, hokum is still here.

Rural stereotypes continued to be fair game. Consider the phenomenal success of the syndicated television program “Hee Haw”, which was produced from 1969 until 1992. Writer Dale Cockrell has called this a minstrel show in “rube-face”. It featured country music stars, curvaceous comediennes, and banjo playing bumpkins whose pickin’ and grinnin’ picked on city slickers and grinned at the buxom All Jugs Band. The rapid fire one liners, Laugh-In rapid cross cutting, animations of barnyard animals, hayseed humor and continuous parade of country, bluegrass, and gospel performers appealed to an untapped demographic that was older and more rural than the young, urban “hip” audience broadcasters were routinely cultivating. It is still in syndication today, and is one of the most successful syndicated programs ever. Admirers of hokum warmed to its slyness and the seeming innocence that provided a context for simplistic shenanigans. In the rural south in particular, hokum held on. Cast members like Stringbean and Grandpa Jones were quite familiar with hokum (and blackface as well), and if bands named the “Clodhoppers” or the “Cut Ups” and other country cousins of this comedic form are fewer in number today, their presence is still a clue to the country and western, bluegrass, and string band tradition of mixing stage antics, broad parodies and sexual allusions with music.

I Wish My Cat Could Talk

Best Coast
w/ Reading Rainbow and Creepoid
Sat, April 3, 2010
The Barbary
951 Frankford Ave.
Philadelphia

Technology is a funny thing.

With the internet killing off the notion and profitability of album sales in the music industry, it is no wonder that bands are touring more despite the cost effectiveness of producing live shows. Getting your name out there is the easy part, getting people to pay for your music is now somewhat of an anomaly with most transactions taking place through illegal downloading.

Gone are the days of the record store and physical artifacts that hark a time where one would sit alone in their room and read the linear notes of an album and listen to every track from beginning to end. Now we pick and choose, maybe downloading one song or another and sometimes adding them to an online playlist that is accessible at any time, for free.

I heard about Best Coast through a DJ on blip.fm and my interest was immediately piqued. The sloppy, grungy, girly, waspy sound was all indicative of my tastes in music and I immediately “gave props” to the DJ who posted the song. After looking for more of their music I was enchanted by the new yet nostalgic sound, and I wanted more. After I listened to the second song, a little note popped up on the screen “Best Coast will be playing live at The Barbary. Buy Tickets Now…”. Yes please.

I am by far not a music connoisseur. I am picky about what I listen to although being a choreographer I will listen to almost anything. I always gravitate towards chick rock primarily due to the nature in which I judge music: lyrics, drummer, mood, harmony, respectively. Many times when I hear about a new band I will listen to one or two of their songs. Especially in Philly, since we have such a vibrant local music scene and culture, it is easy to go and see a cheap show in a great venue, so I reserve my judgment until I observe the band live. I got that giddy feeling when I first heard Best Coast. The first song I heard was “Up All Night”. The steady droning nature of the song is captivating, dark and bittersweet. “I wanna see you I wanna see you I wanna see you forever and ever and forever and ever forever…”. I was so there.

I was actually looking forward to catching an early show at The Barbary even though it was in Northern Liberties. The problem I have with traveling up there is that the Philadelphia public transit system is ass and if I want to get hammered, taking the subway is null after midnight. Sure, taking a cab has gotten easier with the influx of the Yuppie/Hipster population, but at times, even that is a chore. If only I believed in drunk driving.

I didn’t get too turned around in finding The Barbary, although it is off the beaten path as far as the rest of the No Libs establishments are concerned. When I arrived, the pungent breeze was blowing wafts of cigarette smoke towards me as Hipsters large and small were smoking and chatting in front of the sticker and flier scabbed entrance. I walked in and it felt like Philly- gritty, dingy, cool. The bar to the right looked abandoned and dark. The wide open space that curtained the room and was highlighted by a small stage that spoke of a venue perfect for dancing and partying. There was a disco ball too. The bearded doorman (who doesn’t have a beard anymore?) looked at my twenty dollar bill perplexed and distressed, letting me know that he didn’t have change and that the show was sold out. I gave him ten one dollar bills and walked over to the side, slipping past a wide variety of a relatively young crowd with a few old heads scattered hear and there, all toting beards of their own. No offense, but I couldn’t help but to notice how remarkably not fortunate looking everyone was and I was disappointed because live shows are the perfect events for optimal cruising. Plus, standing at 5’11”, I was the giant in the room, able to see over everyone’s head. I felt like I was in some warped, unreal place in time that rendered me better than everybody else. I digress. At least no one was wearing sweat pants.

Of the most import to mention here (regarding the space) was that there was a photo booth. I didn’t take advantage of it although as aforementioned, I was kind of feeling like a sexy, narcissistic rock star amongst the school of shabby chic youngins that were parading around the room. This post is going in another direction, let’s get back to the task at hand!

So as serendipitous as it was to stumble upon Best Coast, I was pleasantly surprised by one of the opening bands, a local XX/XY duo called Reading Rainbow. I checked out their page beforehand but didn’t listen to any of their tunes, wanting to keep my eardrum hymen intact to get the full on experience (shouldn’t every band be better live than in the studio?). I made it just in time to catch them, they had a cute look to them, two brunettes, one tall and lanky guy with glasses and a flannel inspired plaid shirt (no beard though) and a cute little librarian looking chick (also, no beard), touting a plaid shirt of the more feminine variety. They stood center stage, him playing the guitar and her playing a simple drum kit of a snare and floor tom. Naturally their style was reminiscent of the White Stripes aesthetic, but their sound was something different altogether.

One of my biggest pet peeves when I see a live show is not being able to hear the lyrics (remember, lyrics, drummer, mood, harmony, respectively?). Luckily, the mood and harmony of the band was killer. Rob (the guitarist) wailed away on some distorted power chords while Sara pounded away at some hardcore yet simple drum processions, creating a great little punky, spirited, head bopping sound. Much of their songs were made up of humming and la la la-ing, so it wasn’t so bad that I couldn’t understand a word they said (seriously, I couldn’t even make out the word “I” or “me”). They were a sexy band, so that helped, and their songs were relatively short. Another part of the serendipitous nature is how they came about, having lost their drummer a few weeks before a show and reinventing themselves, Sara teaching herself how to play the drums. Remind you of something? There is a juxtaposition (I hate that word) of hard and soft, complex and simple, no doubt a sincere reflection of the co-ed personality of the band. Highly recommend.

And then there was Best Coast.

It took them a ridiculously short amount of time to set up, being a new band they don’t come with all the bells and whistles and accoutrements that are indicative of a more seasoned band. The three piecers were ret-ta-go in a matter of moments and soon we were inundated with their lo-fi, West Coast sound. Led by Bethany Cosentino, a blond, cat loving, not-so-ordinary beach babe from L.A., the band has a two guitar attack with some pretty punk rock percussion that rounds out what could easily fall into pop music if not handled correctly. I heard every single one of the lyrics even after Bethany asked the dude working the board to turn up her guitar. Mostly all of the songs were about love and boys and how crazy the two can make one feel, so it was uber appreciated to hear something that made sense to me. What was nice though was that while the lyrics touched upon these timeless subjects, they seemed natural, as if she were having a conversation about them, refusing to subjugate the music into this wildly poetic and dreamy subspace that could read as pretentious and overbearing. She says, “I don’t think lyrics need to be deep– just write whatever comes out of you. You don’t need to find intense meaning in everything.” Lyrics like “I wish my cat could talk” and “I never want to get off this couch” speak to me in a different way, primarily in that I don’t have to think too hard about where she’s going with the words, they are in your face and poignant. They are satirical and hilarious. They are sad but true. The song “Boyfriend” was definitely a highlight for me and that was the song they started the show with.

I was impressed due to my inability to pigeonhole the work of the band into a genre or an inspired-by. While there are hints of surf rock, The Beatles, some riot grrl, they have their own way in their simplicity and rawness, something that you always hope a new band will hold on to after they’ve been around the block a few times. Again, their songs were relatively short and it was a blessing because the affect was much sharper and clearer and a lot more entertaining than a song that goes on and on and on. Just get to the point.

After the show I went up and said hello to Bethany and told her it was a great set. I told her the story of how I came across her band on the internet and that she might like to know that since promotion is a vital part of keeping a band going. She really appreciated my feedback and telling her about how I stumbled upon Best Coast. I know this band is going to develop a stronger following and I see some higher priced tickets in their future. $10 was a bargain if I ever saw one. It’s so nice to see a band destined for greatness in their developmental stages.

As a side note, it was really cool to see that they were selling their music on 7″ vinyl, a shout out to the days of falling in love with one or two songs and the necessity to go out and buy them immediately.

Rapid Cycling

I wanted to share my philosophy regarding the artistic process. It is not scientific by any means, but for me, these are the steps of conception to completion when creating a work of art.

1. The Eureka Phase
This is when the new idea presents itself in my head. Usually it is directly correlated to inspiration from a song, excursion, person or experience, but there are other methods including but not limited to: other works of art (any medium), memories, ethnographic research, mood. Usually during this phase, I am haunted by an idea that keeps augmenting more in my head through note taking and visualization exercises. Every new idea is the best idea I’ve ever had and therefore must be presented as soon as I produce the necessary resources or figure out how to obtain them.

2. The Development Phase
This is the phase where the idea comes to life and becomes a tangible element in the respective medium. Supplies are procured, talent is hired, songs are chosen, notes are written and then the whole idea changes and is reformed. Sometimes the idea is abandoned altogether and a new idea is spawned from the original, creating a crazy mutant offspring of what I thought was going to be perfection. This is also where things are severely reconsidered according to environmental factors such as appropriate material for a general audience, venue selection, marketing options, space constraints and concerns, etc. Development can also include presentation of said work, and then the work augments according to the reaction from the constituents and the artist.

3. The Doubt Phase
Usually the denouement occurs in the middle of the given medium, but in the actual process, the falling action doesn’t begin until after the work has been presented. This is when the artist tortures himself, rethinking the entire concept and revisiting the Eureka Phase over and over again. The artist ponders the initial idea and revisions the possibilities and convinces himself that the work presented wasn’t as perfect as it could have been. This phase lasts forever.

Right now I haven’t had the time to touch either one of my major projects in weeks. I have reconsidered my options for the LGBT show, thinking that maybe the content is a little too risque. The problem is, there is nothing more I want to do than to express myself utilizing my strengths which I believe (in choreography) involve my roots in musical comedy and burlesque styles. I find it to be what I excel at, and doggone it, people like it. I still haven’t solidified what it is I am going to do, and this worries me because the biggest struggle for me is rehearsing. I like to repeat repeat repeat and time is money.

I am also really struggling with the idea for my fringe show, but my doubt should dissipate once I find the talent I’m using. I have more faith and time for that project.