I have had an action-packed Florida week of the American culture project, and am looking forward to sharing with you the many collaborations facilitated by our amazing partners, The Performers Academy, one of the most vibrant and energizing arts organizations I've come across. They connected me to filmmaker Chad Hendricks, who will make the video for the Florida week. I was immensely relieved to leave the documentation of the project to a consummate professional, and am very excited about sharing his film with you.
When his film is ready, I'll also write a more detailed summary of the ways we addressed the question "What is American culture?" in Florida. I did not offer the regular social media updates I did during the first four weeks due to my recovery (now almost complete) from a nasty head cold.
First, a big thank you to the Lilly Endowment, which has donated $7,500 towards our American culture project in order to underwrite the performance of music from Indiana during the state's bicentennial year. Please join Lilly by making a contribution towards the $50,000 budget of the project. Including that grant, we have raised about $15,000, or 30%, of our goal! The video available above and here on YouTube features two main visits which offered contrasting windows into contemporary American culture in Alabama, as well as numerous other interactions.
US Space and Rocket Center
The US Space and Rocket Center is the public information center for Marshall Space Flight Center, the Huntsville-based NASA facility that focuses on propulsion. The USSRC runs Space Camp, the world's premier opportunity for non-astronauts to experience one week of life as an astronaut, here on earth! I was thrilled to visit, and one of my more unusual experiences was facilitated by the USSRC's Pat Ammons, who helped me create this video in which I appear to play "Pulsar" by Augusta Read Thomas in outer space! I have long dreamed of being the first violinist in outer space; this video may be the closest I come. It also embodies the unique role that Alabama specifically and the US generally have played in humanity's exploration of outer space, while underscoring the cultural importance of our space program.
On my first day in Alabama, I wanted to visit Gip's Place, which is the last juke joint in Alabama, according to the New York Times. My phone navigated me to a fence barring the road up a steep hill, but I was able to coax my Ford Focus, Danny, through a narrow gap and onward up to Gip's Place, a collection of several building in a residential area of Bessemer, about 30 minutes outside Birmingham. I heard voices coming from one of the smaller buildings, which looked almost like a trailer. "Come in," someone said, without stopping to see who it was.
Mr. Henry Gipson, age 96, lay in a bed that took up half the trailer; four of his friends were watching TV with him. Tom, the only other white man in the room, told me that Mr. Gipson had been hosting these Saturday evening get-togethers since 1952.
What struck me immediately about "Mr. Gip" was not his age, or the length of time he has hosted these musical gatherings, but his extraordinary warmth, compassion, humility, and religious devotion. Talk of Jesus permeates all his conversation, but he has a strikingly original take on religion, infused with a master story teller's gift, and an authentic understanding of the true spirit of Christianity, often lost in an age when it gets used as a political prop so often by politicians and their supporters of both parties. He told a story about how after he was crucified, Jesus had to lose all the blood from his body before he was allowed to enter heaven. I didn't remember it from anything I've learned of the Bible, but then again, I'm not a practicing member of any religion.
Mr. Gip asked me to play violin. When I played some Bach on my outstanding new violin by Joseph Curtin, Mr. Gip couldn't believe I wasn't using an amplifier. He described for me how his friends made violins when he was growing up: from boxes, from charcoal, from whatever materials they were at hand. And suddenly I was ashamed, and aware of the opportunities I had, that others never did.
His instinct (honed over seven decades) for how to put on a good show remains as keen as ever: he suggested that my playing at the Saturday show remain a secret, musing over whether it would be better to invite me to the stage verbally or just with a look. One of his friends, a black woman nicknamed Bay, didn't say much most of the evening, but at the end said, "When you come Saturday, remember: there’s no blacks and whites here. Just people.”
Saturday was an extraordinary experience. I got to see first hand the tremendous love Mr. Gip inspires in his audience members, who come from all over the world for an authentic juke joint experience, and the musicians lucky enough to play at his venue. Last Saturday it was Revernd Tex and the Hotrod Revival, a stunningly virtuosic country-blues band. I was thrilled to jam with Mr. Gip during their break, and then with the band at the beginning of their second set.
Before the show, Mr. Gip was generous with hugs and laughter, and never said no to a tourist eager for a photo. He led a prayer before the concert, and invited me to the stage to play "Amazing Grace" and the national anthem.
"God bless you," he said at the conclusion of our video interview. "You are always welcome here." One gets the sense that every audience member and performer, thousands of them, have felt that way over the last 60-plus years.
Southside Cantina offers terrific, cheap Tex-Mex food in Huntsville. I visited in order to jam with the blues musician Microwave Dave, who uses modern looping technology to create a one-man blues band. It was a pleasure to make music with him.
Straight to Ale brewery began when Alabama recently changed the law to allow the brewing of craft beers. All their beers have a local connection, mostly to the space industry. The most clever name, in my view? Werner von Braun Ale.
Randolph School seems like an excellent education. When I introduced the composition "Pulsar" there, I was initially stunned to receive a perfect definition of a pulsar form a pint-size elementary school student. Then again, this is an aerospace town.
I enjoyed performing "Pulsar" on WLRH and speaking with Ginny Kennedy.
In Mississippi, my investigation of American culture included the blues, race relations, and food (including a pig ear sandwich). Check out the video above, or on YouTube here! And don't forget to add your own definition of American culture on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, or Vine with the hashtag #AmericanCultureIs.
At Jackson State University, a historically black university, I presented a recital and forum. Dr. Harlan Zackery and I played the Suite by William Grant Still (1895-1978); one of America's greatest composers, Still was a black man from Mississipi. I also played (and recorded) "Bleu" by George Walker (b. 1922), the first black composer to win the Pulitzer Prize. With the audience of students and a few guests, we considered what the difference between Still's and Walker's musical styles, as well as the difference between how their music has been received, tells us about race relations and about American culture. Finally, we shared our own views about American culture. One freshman student, an African American woman, told me she didn't know that there were black composers.
I enjoyed playing along with the hymns and the anthem for the Sunday service at Aldersgate Church, a welcoming congregation that meets in north Jackson. Dr. Zackery and I played the second movement of the Still Suite during the service. While at the church, I was very touched to make music with Bernard Holly, a bassist who graduated from Indiana University in 1957...I graduated in 2004! Mr. Holly played bass in the US Army Band in Europe in the 1950s. The above picture shows Mr. Holly and me: two IU grads!
B. B. King Museum, Indianola. Few museums I've been to do as good a job of wrapping the visitor up in the story. It seems incredible that a boy born in a shack in rural Mississippi ended up playing for presidents and the pope.
Classical musicians can learn a lot from BB King. When he was starting out, the blues was by no means the universally known and beloved genre it is today; according to the museum, he himself cited a 1967 concert in which he realized that the blues might have an audience beyond impoverished black people in the rural south. But from the beginning, he dedicated himself to being an ambassador for the blues, and did it with a single-mindedness we classical musicians—perennially concerned with how to reach out and engage new audiences—could learn a great deal from.
His mother died when he was young, but he never forgot her simple advice, "Always be kind," and he always was. He would stay after every single performance in the early years, talking with every fan.
Club Ebony, Indianola. I loved playing here. If the B. B. King Museum offers a profoundly affecting window into the life and times of one of the titans of American culture, his club just around the corner is also essential. The atmosphere is pure blues.
Koinonia Coffee House offers regular community forums on important topics, as well as concerts and art shows. The food and coffee are good too!
Big Apple Inn. To be honest, a pig ear sandwich is not my thing, but they are quite small, so get one just so you can say you tried it.
Martin's Fish House. This place I can recommend with more enthusiasm! Robert Martin's fried catfish is great, and one order will get you enough for two meals easily. The pictures on the wall pay homage to President Obama, civil rights leaders, and blues musicians.
Thank you to everyone at Jackson State University—Dr. Harlan Zackery (above with me), Dr. David Akombo, Dr. Loretta Galbreath—for their hospitality, collegiality, advice, and compassion. Dr. Bridget Edwards and Alec Valentine at the Eudora Welty House and Lee Harper, founder of Koinonia, helped out quite a bit. Pieter Teeuwissen, the board attorney for Hinds County gave a fascinating talk, and is an outstanding public servant. Frazier Riddell at Small Town Music introduced me to Canton. In Indianola, everyone at the B. B. King Museum and Club Ebony was so welcoming, and I'm particularly grateful to RoHarpo and the Bad Mules for letting me make music with them.
Tomorrow's lecture/recital/discussion here at Jackson State Universitywill be broadcast live on Periscope (@cih2005) at 12 p.m. CST. Please tune in, and if you don't already have Periscope, download the app and look for a broadcast from @cih2005 starting at 12 p.m. CST in Jackson, Mississippi! Join the conversation about what #AmericanCultureIs as part of our current project.
At the main performance at The Studio on Saturday, I performed with vocalist Stephanie Adlington, known as the “Siren of the South” and the creator of Jazzicana; guitarist Kent Burnside; bassist John Owen; pianist Matt Kirk; drummer Tom Larson; and violist Adam Hill. Astrophysicist Matthew Muterspaugh gave a detailed explanation of a pulsar, after which I performed “Pulsar” by Grammy-award winning classical composer Augusta Read Thomas. Check out the complete video of our version of Stephanie's sultry swing-tango jazzicana tune, "Pick Your Poison."
At Kimbro's Pickin' Parlor, I performed at the open mic on Tuesday and returned on Thursday for the bluegrass jam with the legendary Doc Hawthorne. I made a very popular Periscope broadcast at the open mic, introducing many online fans to the talented young songwriter Carson Hill.
I played a touch of Elvis for waiting tourists at Sun Studio, where the icon made his first records. The tour guides do such a great job, I felt a lump in my throat when they described the penniless Elvis making his first record on a $1 hardware-store guitar.
Visit with Jacqueline Smith
I had intended to visit the National Civil Rights Museum, which was built to include the Lorraine Motel where Dr. Martin Luther King was shot. However, the sight of long lines of selfie-snapping tourists and food carts hawking corndogs and funnel cakes upset me. I had already decided not to participate in what seemed like a disrespectful carnival when I saw Jacqueline Smith, who has spent the last 28 years protesting the commercialization of the Lorraine Motel. Some of the online profiles of her, such as this one in the Washington Post, describe some of her motivations, but not all. She objects to turning an assassination site into a mecca for smiling, cash-waving tourists, and feels that the millions of dollars spent on the museum could better honor Dr. King's vision by turning the Lorraine Motel into a shelter for the homeless. While I can see why the city of Memphis would want to honor Dr. King, Ms. Smith raises important questions about whether the current way they do so is best. She and I bonded over a shared love of classical music: she used to be an opera singer, and could rattle off the names of the arias she used to audition at the Met, but her voice carries farther as she braves the cold to show new generations of tourists that integrity and compassion may be a better memorial to Dr. King than elephant ears and selfie sticks.
Renowned guitarist Johnny Hiland showed me his famous chicken-pickin' guitar style.
Dr. Vedavyasa Biliyar, chairman of the Sri Ganesha temple, explained to me why and how the Hindu faith thrives, even in the middle of the Bible Belt.
Adrian Pollard gave me a tour of Ascend Productions, the new recording studio he just opened in Nashville, a city already full of studios. It was fascinating to learn how he plans to stick out from the pack: watch the video for more, and don't forget to watch until the end for a cameo by Adrian's assistant, Bob the Giant Stuffed Banana.
Food & Drink
At Central BBQ, the manager gave me a tour of the kitchens, explaining that the term "high on the hog" to refer to luxurious living originates—as does American barbecue itself—from the slavery-age practice of the white slave owners retaining the best parts for themselves, while forcing the slaves to use only the parts the slave owners considered worthless. However, the slaves slow-cooked the meat and added sauces, with the result, as the manager put it, that they ended up eating better than the whites in the Big House.
At Hattie B's hot chicken, start out by ordering the chicken with medium sauce, which is already pretty spicy. I enjoyed the signage (a no-smoking sign read "chickens don't smoke") and the eye-tingling spice.
In addition to the individuals mentioned above, I'd like to thank Matthew and Anel Muterspaugh for the advice and their incredibly generous and warm hospitality and friendship and Robert Elliott of Tennessee State University for introducing me to key people.
NASHVILLE—Music, food, literature, legend and faith: all those things—and more—make up the culture of an area. Each state takes the spotlight by turns in 2016 as a new program of the nonprofit Cultures in Harmony unfolds, taking founder William Harvey, a well-traveled concert violinist, on week-long stints to ask “What is American Culture?”
This week’s Tennessee portion of the project culminates with a participatory, collaborative musical event on Saturday, January 16, at 6:00 p.m. at The Studio, 3315 Charlotte Avenue,Nashville, TN 37209. Featuring prominent local musicians performing alone and in collaboration with Harvey, the event will be free of charge, although donations in support of the project will be accepted. Special guests include vocalist Stephanie Adlington, known as the “Siren of the South” and the creator of Jazzicana; guitarist Kent Burnside; bassist John Owen; pianist Matt Kirk; drummer Tom Larson; violist Adam Hill;and others. Among the works Harvey will perform alone is “Pulsar” by Grammy-award winning classical composer Augusta Read Thomas.
As the musicians generate new musical sparks, the audience will be invited to live-Tweet the performance with the hashtag #AmericanCultureIs and will also be encouraged to contribute their own answers in a video interview, in order to be part of a national conversation on the incredibly diverse nature of American culture.
In each state throughout the American Culture program, Harvey will perform, interview people about what American culture means to them, and conduct workshops fostering reflection on the topic. An Indiana native, Harvey has performed, taught and conducted in Europe, Asia, Africa and North and South America.
Throughout his year-long journey, Harvey will document the discussion on the project’s website and in social media. The outcome, he hopes, will be an ongoing dialogue about the diverse heritage and practices that spice up America’s cultural stew.
“I’m a musician,” says Harvey, “so my bias is to start with the arts to find out what makes people tick. But culture embraces everything from what we eat to how we speak, worship, play and view the world. 2016 is a yearlong dive into all of that, shared with each state’s citizens and with anyone who cares to participate online.
Grassroots participation: Antidote to election-year politics?
People are invited to share the American Culture project in any way they choose, including:
Setting up a discussion, performance or other event to probe the culture of their region and the U.S.
Taking part in a performance or interview.
Hosting William Harvey during his travels.
Supporting the project with a donation to offset expenses.
Join the discussion in social media with the hashtag #AmericanCultureIs.
“The Web connects us all now, just as the American spirit always has,” said Harvey. “I’ll be sharing each week through Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, Periscope, Instagram and Vine. But that’s only my take on American culture. Everyone is invited to share their own insights. I hope to see a national dialogue that helps us all appreciate what makes each of us different and what unites us as a people. Especially in an election year with its frantic, fractious politics, this can provide a sense of shared purpose.”
Harvey’s itinerary for January takes him to Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi and Alabama, the first stops on what is likely to be a journey of 20,000 miles.
What is American culture in Kentucky, and what do people here think of American culture?
In the first week of Cultures in Harmony's American culture project, we explored that question through:
Check out the video above, or on YouTube here! Among the folks I spoke with were a gun store owner; Nipsey Greene, the director of Smoked Apple Theatre Group; a grocery store clerk; Amirah Sankofa Kweli, a life coach and minister of information for the New Black Panther Party; and more!
An amazing performance put together by the rapper, percussionist, and educator 1200 on January 8 at Dreamland. I performed Bleu by George Walker, the first black composer to win the Pulitzer Prize. After my solo version of the national anthem, I played the Gershwin 2nd Prelude with pianist Ethan McCollum. Cellist Nick Finch and violist Jonathan Mueller joined me for "My Old Kentucky Home" and a couple Mark O'Connor tunes, after which vocalist Tyler Dippold, keyboardist Nick Burke, and violist Evan Vicic joined us and 1200 for four of 1200's original hip-hop numbers. The evening began with a set by Tyler, followed by an extraordinary set by the experimental vocalist Cher Von. Thank you to Teddy Abrams and the Louisville Orchestra (in which Nick Finch, Evan, and Jonathan play) for connecting me to 1200, and thanks to Do502 for their promotion!
A fun video testing whether cows really do like music
Food and Drink
Hot Brown, the legendary turkey, cheese, bacon, and tomato sandwich (topped with mornay sauce) at the historic Brown Hotel (built 1923). It's a must-eat for any visitor!
Derby Pie, full of chocolate and nuts
Laha's Red Castle in Hodgenville. Some of the best cheeseburgers you can find, and not too filling, so you may need at least two! Plus, you can't beat the prices. There's just nowhere with a $1.80 cheeseburger this good, anywhere. Who says chain restaurants are all there is to American fast food culture?
I made several live broadcasts on Periscope, so don't forget to follow CiH at @cih2005, which is also our handle on Twitter and Vine. You can check out more pictures at Instagram, and don't forget to add your answer to our Reddit thread.
I never made it to the Kentucky Derby or the headquarters of KFC, but Kentucky is more than these things, and folks in Kentucky have many contrasting ideas about what American culture is in 2016. In addition to the great people mentioned above, I'd like to thank Andrea Sanders for her hospitality, advice, and connections; Jimmy Boyd, for his hospitality at the farm; Jecorey Arthur, aka 1200, for his friendship, artistry, enthusiasm, and support; Joe Jarles of Everything Concealed Carry for warmly and kindly welcoming me to his store; and Mark James of The Gallery Is Open for arranging that visit.