Oral History Association Meeting This Week in Minneapolis

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For the first time in six years, this week I’ll be returning to the land of Prince, Mitch Hedberg, The ‘Mats, D4, Hüsker Dü, Extreme Noise, the North Stars Wild, the Juicy Lucy, and so much more. I couldn’t be more excited to be back in a place with (1) temperate weather and (2) stuff that’s actually open on Sundays. North-Country paradise!

This will be my first year attending the national meeting of the Oral History Association, and my first oral history conference in general. I look forward to all of the historians I may meet and the variety of valuable lessons I’ll get to learn in quantitative methods, digital archiving, and anything else in which OHA members specialize. For anyone interested, I’m presenting “Memories of Violence and Punk’s Challenge to Oral History” in a session called ‘Oral History at the Intersection of Place and Culture’ this Thursday at 2:15pm, Conrad B Room in the Hilton Minneapolis, right downtown. Program Link.

Otherwise, I’ll be all over the place per usual, hitting landmarks and buying records. If you’re in the Twin Cities, I would love to see you and catch up.

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A Note on ‘Sounds French’ by Jonathyne Briggs and Non-English Punk

Cultural forms, particularly popular music, offer a utopian possibility of unity through a shared cultural expression. The examples of [Johnny] Hallyday and the Fête [de la musique, every June 21st] mirror the dichotomy between the two. One could observe that the French rocker creates a unified audience for his music through a homogenization of sounds and styles and that the Fête stresses the diversity of musical cultures while combining cultures… The paradox between these positions is that music (and other forms of culture) can serve to promote singularity and plurality.

The above quote comes from page 7 of Jonathyne Briggs’ Sounds French: Globalization, Cultural Communities, and Pop Music, 1958 – 1980This book is one of the best synopses of any nation-state’s popular culture I’ve read, and is absolutely essential for anyone interested in learning about the development of pop music in France. It’s already been incredibly helpful in my understanding of the framing of punk music against France’s popular and sociopolitical culture as I work on going through my recordings and notes from this summer.

Of course, there are so many avenues through which to explore this. The companion site to Briggs’ book provide links to various songs he alludes to, such as “Rock and Roll Mops” by Henri Cording (Salvador) and his Original Rock n’ Roll Boys (1956), largely credited as the first proper French “rock n’ roll” single. As Briggs writes, Henri Salvador did not take rock n’ roll seriously, and made a novelty song aimed at capitalizing on what he thought was a trend (not completely unlike Bill Haley did with “Rock Around the Clock”), but the song did begin a (protracted) slippery slope of rock n’ roll legitimacy in the French language. The first thing I thought of while reading this was how Plastic Bertrand provided the same type of parodic cornerstone for French-language punk music with “Ça plane pour moi” (1977). Granted, Bertrand’s song was more tongue-in-cheek, but it remains one of the most recognizable French-language songs in the Anglo-Saxon world. Tell me I’m wrong.

While I have yet to publish anything on it (academically or on here), I will encourage a greater focus on non-Anglo-Saxon punk culture, because it would afford us a more nuanced understanding on the conditions that spread it, as well as (very importantly) challenge a long-held single-story that particular socio-political environments were necessary for it to grow. More to come.

R.A.S. show ends in violence as Neo-Nazis infiltrate the crowd, 1984. Photo courtesy of Philippe Roizes, all rights reserved.

One of the final R.A.S. shows ends in violence as Neo-Nazis infiltrate the crowd. Paris, 1984. (Photo courtesy of Philippe Roizes, all rights reserved)

Wanted: Fans of DC Punk and Hardcore in Paris

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For those of you who don’t know me (which is probably many of you), my name is Tyler Sonnichsen, and I’m spending this month in Paris, looking for anybody here or elsewhere in France who enjoys the underground music of Washington, DC (e.g. Minor Threat, Fugazi, Bad Brains, Scream, Rites of Spring, and many more).

I am working on a project about French perceptions of Washington, DC outside the topic of government, US history, and those things which formulate mainstream tourism. Specifically, I am interested in (as a friend/colleague referred to it) your impression of Washington, DC, both before and after anytime you have visited. I would like to speak with you about how your love of DC’s legendary punk scene has altered your imagination of the city.

Why are you in Paris?
When I first visited in 2010, I was living and working in DC. I attended a Kimmo performance at Le Pix during my incredibly brief stay in the city, and I was surprised by the clear influence that “the DC sound” had on their music. Additionally, I saw all sorts of signatures of DC hardcore around the room, including at least two Bad Brains t-shirts and a Thrashington, DC pin. I later found out they were from Brest, which made me interested in how profoundly French punk was influenced by those bands.

What do you mean “impression?”
I’m interested in not only the changing dynamics of place, but peoples’ perception of place. This is very important to several industries today, especially tourism, which I have also been studying. When I ask you about your thoughts on Washington, DC, there are no wrong answers. The images of the city and its music have made a major worldwide impact, and I’m interested in what they mean to you. It does not matter if you have ever been to DC. Actually, that may possibly be better.

Who are you looking for? 
If you live in France and love DC punk and hardcore, I want to talk to you. I am seeking a wide variety of voices: all races, all ages, all genders, all stories. Unfortunately, my French is not nearly as good as I would like it to be, so I would prefer if we could talk in English. However, if you are more comfortable speaking in French, then you are definitely welcome to.

So, if you or anybody you know would like to participate in the project, do not hesitate to call me (in France) at 06 18 33 88 60 or to email me at sonicgeography [at] gmail.com.

Thanks to/Merci a Phil Roizes.

Thanks to/Merci a Phil Roizes.

Maintenant, en français (via google translate en raison de contraintes de temps…désolé si il y a des incohérences).

Pour ceux d’entre vous qui ne me connaissent pas (ce qui est probablement beaucoup d’entre vous), mon nom est Tyler Sonnichsen, et je vais passer ce mois-ci à Paris, à la recherche de quelqu’un ici ou ailleurs en France qui jouit de la musique underground de Washington , DC (par exemple de Minor Threat, Fugazi, Bad Brains, Scream, Rites of Spring, et beaucoup plus).

Je travaille sur un projet sur les perceptions françaises de Washington, DC en dehors du sujet du gouvernement, de l’histoire américaine, et les choses qui formulent intégrer le tourisme. Plus précisément, je suis intéressé par (comme un ami / collègue a fait référence à elle) votre impression de Washington, DC, à la fois avant et après chaque fois que vous avez visité. Je voudrais vous parler de la façon dont votre amour de la légendaire scène punk de DC a modifié votre imagination de la ville.

Pourquoi êtes-vous à Paris?
Quand je suis allé la première fois en 2010, je vivais et travaillais à Washington DC. Je assisté à une représentation au Kimmo Le Pix pendant mon incroyablement bref séjour dans la ville, et je suis surpris par l’influence clair que “le son DC” a eu sur leur musique. En outre, je voyais toutes sortes de signatures de DC inconditionnel autour de la salle, y compris au moins deux cerveaux t-shirts Bad et une badge Thrashington, DC. Je découvris plus tard, ils étaient de Brest, qui m’a fait intéressé à sav
oir comment profondément le punk français a été influencé par ces bandes.

Que voulez-vous dire “impression?”
Je suis intéressé non seulement la dynamique changeante de place, mais la perception de la place de peuples. Ceci est très important pour plusieurs industries d’aujourd’hui, en particulier le tourisme, dont je suis également étudié. Quand je vous demande de vos pensées sur Washington, DC, il n’y a pas de mauvaises réponses. Les images de la ville et sa musique ont eu un impact majeur dans le monde entier, et je suis intéressé par ce qu’ils signifient pour vous. Il n’a pas d’importance si vous avez déjà été à DC. En fait, cela peut éventuellement être mieux.

Qui cherchez-vous?
Si vous vivez en France et aimez le punk et le hardcore DC, je veux vous parler. Je cherche une grande variété de voix: toutes les races, tout les âges, tous les sexes, toutes les histoires. Malheureusement, mon français est loin d’être aussi bon que je voudrais que ce soit, donc je préférerais si nous pouvions parler en anglais. Toutefois, si vous êtes plus à l’aise en français, alors vous êtes certainement le bienvenu à.

Donc, si vous ou quelqu’un que vous connaissez aimerait participer au projet, ne pas hésiter à me contacter (en France) au 06 18 33 88 60 ou contactez-moi au sonicgeography [at] gmail.com. 

Music Geography 101: The Jam – “Down in the Tube Station at Midnight”

I recently assigned the students in my Geography 101 course a writing project whereby they select a song with geographically-oriented content and report on all of that song’s inherent regionalisms. In the body of their assignment text, I include a list of suggested songs for anybody who may be interested in them or may have difficulty selecting a song on their own. The following is one of them.

I briefly considered using Suede’s beautiful album-and-show-capper “Saturday Night” here, but quickly withdrew it when I remembered I was packaging it with its video. Irresponsible of me, yes, but the video is a pretty wonderful tribute to the Tube, if you have a few minutes and want to feel nostalgia for British big city life. I needed a song that presented the intangible fears and fantasties that came with a modest subway ride. Time to rewind the clock before gentrification had made the world’s most expensive cities properly “safe:” the late 1970s.

One of punk’s greatest accomplishments was divorcing young British musicians from any obligation to sound or act American. The Beatles and Rolling Stones made careers (and to varying degrees, still do) by synthesizing American rock n’ roll standards. I would never deny that The Clash could have happened without The Ramones, but as the Thatcher era approached, a new generation of musicians found it possible to turn inward for cultural fuel. A petulent teenager named Paul Weller rejoiced in this zeitgeist. Weller didn’t seem too intent on satisfying audiences who weren’t directly in front of him (whether he suffered those who WERE was up for debate, too). The Jam resurrected the 60’s mod culture, and despite an avowed Motown influence, quickly developed into one of the most quintessentially ‘British’ bands of all time, whether or not that was their intent. Few of their photos didn’t feature a Union Jack or some other subversive type of English iconography.

Years before Jarvis Cocker perfected the kitchen-sink audio drama with Pulp (who technically began playing in 1978, only two years after the Jam did), Paul Weller was presenting unhappily-ending tales of quotidian Britishness. In one of my favorite songs of theirs, men working in a factory and a cornershop harbor secret grass-is-greener ambitions to be in the other’s place, though both of their times have passed. In “Down in the Tube Station at Midnight,” Weller articulates the all-too-present paranoia over street crime in that country, focused in the London Underground. The beauty of it is, you don’t need to be English, you don’t need to have been mugged in a train station, or even need to have a family to sympathize and strangely identify with this character. He doesn’t find a happy ending and we don’t get a resolution to the story. London doesn’t freely provide closure to those who expect it, so why should songs have about her have to?

Lyrics (from Google Play)

The distant echo –
of faraway voices boarding faraway trains
To take them home to
the ones that they love and who love them forever
The glazed, dirty steps – repeat my own and reflect my thoughts
Cold and uninviting, partially naked
Except for toffee wrapers and this morning’s papers
Mr. Jones got run down
Headlines of death and sorrow – they tell of tomorrow
Madmen on the rampage
And I’m down in the tube station at midnight

I fumble for change – and pull out the Queen
Smiling, beguiling
I put in the money and pull out a plum
Behind me
Whispers in the shadows – gruff blazing voices
Hating, waiting
“Hey boy” they shout “have you got any money?”
And I said “I’ve a little money and a take away curry,
I’m on my way home to my wife.
She’ll be lining up the cutlery,
You know she’s expecting me
Polishing the glasses and pulling out the cork”
And I’m down in the tube station at midnight

I first felt a fist, and then a kick
I could now smell their breath
They smelt of pubs and Wormwood Scrubs
And too many right wing meetings
My life swam around me
It took a look and drowned me in its own existence
The smell of brown leather
It blended in with the weather
It filled my eyes, ears, nose and mouth
It blocked all my senses
Couldn’t see, hear, speak any longer
And I’m down in the tube station at midnight
I said I was down in the tube station at midnight

The last thing that I saw
As I lay there on the floor
Was “Jesus Saves” painted by an atheist nutter
And a British Rail poster read “Have an Awayday – a cheap holiday –
Do it today!”
I glanced back on my life
And thought about my wife
‘Cause they took the keys – and she’ll think it’s me
And I’m down in the tube station at midnight
The wine will be flat and the curry’s gone cold
I’m down in the tube station at midnight
Don’t want to go down in a tube station at midnight

Musical Geography 101: Pavement (Stockton, CA)

I recently assigned the students in my Geography 101 course a writing project whereby they select a song with geographically-oriented content and report on all of that song’s inherent regionalisms. In the body of their assignment text, I include a list of suggested songs for anybody who may be interested in them or may have difficulty selecting a song on their own. The following is one of them.

The best band of the 90s (I wrote an essay about this for an old website, which I’m happy to share if you disagree… and I’d expect that you would) did originate in Stockton, California (by many metrics, one of the worst cities in the Western United States), but have had very little to say about it in their songs. Here, Stephen Malkmus’ lyrics jump around through countless overlooked and/or overrated sites in the Golden State, not stopping anywhere long enough to wax nostalgic about any of them. He ends the song screaming a memorable line about “Bakersfield trash.” Malkmus has always been one of rock’s most cryptic lyricists, but from what I imagine, this song either indicts the misallocation of the state’s resources, or it ridicules how most outsiders don’t even consider the state outside of the big three cities real. But I consistently failed poetry-interpretation in high school, because there is no right answer, I suppose.

While I’ve still got you reading this and in case you’re more interested in musical opinions then cultural geography, ‘Crooked Rain Crooked Rain’ is one of the greatest American rock records since the Minutemen’s ‘Double Nickels on the Dime.’ I’m just full of opinions today.

If you have access to Morgan Spurlock’s “Inside Man” series, do watch his episode where he moves to spend time on a citizen’s patrol in Stockton. It’s downright depressing, but it does draw some fascinating arrows between civic processes and hollowing and blighting of a mid-size city. Here’s a hint: do not blow money on a civic center if you’re only going to use it four times a year.

Regional Music (and) Geography 101

Now that it’s the summertime (academically, at least), I have a little bit of time to clean house and post some material that I’ve been gathering for the past few months. Thank you to those of you who’ve been following these postings for any longer than that. I wouldn’t have chosen geography if I wasn’t highly passionate about it outside of school in the first place, and this site gives me a chance to explain just why I am, in however many words. Occasionally (actually, surprisingly often, which I love) I get opportunities to dig into subjects like music, film, and the pale of popular culture to highlight geography’s relevance within the context of teaching it. Other than the fantastic ‘Back to the Future’ panel we had on Saturday, one of the highlights to this year’s AAG meeting was the first annual GeoSlam, an open-ended session where geographers of all stripes were invited and encouraged to share just what it was that drove them into the field. This came as a much-expected breath of fresh air in an environment that discourages us from injecting the subjective into our work. Until a certain point that our elders easily remember, the mere inclusion of an “I” would subject an article to rejection (this may still apply to some journals; thankfully, I couldn’t name them off the top of my head).

For my first two semesters teaching Geography 101, I assigned a paper about regionalism in music. My instructions are rather thorough; students are to select any song, from anywhere, that pick apart the geographic references inherent. What does the song teach us about that region? What about the songwriter influenced the regionalism in the song?Today, some argue that music is losing its sense of place. I argue that sense of place in music is more important than ever precisely because it’s perpetually easier for music to be placeless if it wants to be. I don’t begrudge bands for “Brooklynizing” (or, if we’re going to be blunt, watering down) their sound if they can still make a decent record.

This was hardly the first time music had been used to teach entry-level geography, and not even the first time a paper of this nature had been assigned (see Sarah Smiley and Chris Post’s excellent pedagogy article on “Using Popular Music to Teach the Geography of the United States and Canada” in Journal of Geography 113: 238–246). But I wanted to pose this question to students in Knoxville for a variety of reasons. Primarily, I wanted to give my students the opportunity to explore the geography of their own tastes through  a relatively open-ended, laid back assignment to counterpoint the excessive stress of the end of the semester. Geography can be everywhere, even in ostensibly mindless lyrics to your favorite song on the radio. The only restriction was (initially) no “Rocky Top” and no “Wagon Wheel.” I understand that these songs are overloaded with localisms pertinent to where we all sit, but I want students to step out of their comfort zone a bit. Also, the TA’s and I don’t want to have to read 100 papers about the same songs. I invited students to use other songs by Dolly Parton or the Oak Ridge Boys (whose name is a very literal regionalism in itself) if they would prefer. My mistake here, though, did not consider just how many students would turn in papers on Marc Cohen’s 1991 aural cardboard “Walking in Memphis.” That song did become a fun running joke among my staff and I, but I did add it to the ‘banned’ list for the spring semester, mainly because it’s a terrible song, but also because it misrepresents Memphis in all sorts of ways I need not go into here. A few other songs made their way onto multiple papers (e.g. “Copperhead Road” by Steve Earle, “Crazy Town” by Kenny Chesney, and various Alabama songs), but none quite offensive enough to warrant any restriction.

What I did do in the spring semester was provide a list of optional songs (several of which I’d be surprised if your typical college-age student today knew terribly well) that are packed with enough blatant regionalisms to become veritable rabbit-holes of material to pry open. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be posting a song every Monday, Wednesday and Friday with a bit of its geographic context. I’ll include in this series of posts the song I used in class to extract and demonstrate regionalisms: “Science Fiction” by Radon (the band I spoke about at GeoSlam) sometime in the following couple weeks.

Going Back to Mayo

The Mayo Water Tower, March 2010.

The Mayo Water Tower at sunset, March 2010.

Sometime in March of 2010,  I was involved with a wildlife filming expedition (of sorts) to Northwestern Florida when my group wound up riding through a small town called Mayo. Initially, we found the town’s name quirky enough and its water tower iconic-seeming-enough to earn a drive through the small central district. I wasn’t able to spend as much time getting to know Mayo as I would have liked. A lot of our filming happened elsewhere in the thinly-populated Lafayette County, which I somewhat ignorantly referred to as “the abyss between Tallahassee and Gainesville” to northern friends. Pragmatically, though, there is something almost ghostly about that area. Mayo’s population has hovered precariously around 1,000 for most of the 21st century, yet it’s still the county’s administrative seat. Our business there was filming some county council meetings, speaking with some regional citizens who had lost property during widespread wildfires that had ravaged Northern Florida earlier in the decade.

Students from American University interview a Lafayette County resident about his experiences with wildfire on his property while filmmaker Wolfgang Obst looks on.

Students from American University interview a Lafayette County resident about his experiences with wildfire on his property while filmmaker Wolfgang Obst looks on.

Before too long, I got bored with the proceedings and decided to wander outside to stretch my legs. It wasn’t my project; I was only there because I wanted to catch another glimpse of this quiet little town before wrapping our filming week and heading back to DC. My restlessness led me to a softball tournament happening in the fields outside of the high school, which quickly became a highlight of the entire trip. I have no idea when I would have time to write a paper about it, but there has to be some ground to the types of activities that provide the most “authentic” (dirty word, I know) experience of a place. I would place “softball tournament” right up there with “local dive bar performance” as the best barometer of what constitutes the quotidian in any locality. People are there in equal parts because they want to be and because they have some type of civic or familial duty to be.

Mayo, FL - March 2010

Mayo, FL – March 2010

The timbre of the crowd watching softball (including myself, I gladly paid the $4 entry fee) seemed to lean toward the former. The early-evening temperature was perfect and the Florida Panhandle accents abounded (keep in mind this was still a novelty to me at the time; I wouldn’t move to Tennessee for another three years yet). Needless to say, that tiny town in what felt like the middle of nowhere off the Suwanee River left a disproportionate impression on me. I left a couple days later to go see a music festival in St. Augustine, and I couldn’t get Mayo out of my head for some reason. I had a standing offer to return to Lafayette County that weekend for what our group’s regional liaison Sharon referred to as “the biggest redneck barbecue of the entire year,” but I couldn’t manage it. In fact, a few days later I flew back up to DC and resumed my life, wondering if I would ever have the chance to pass through Mayo again.

Main Street, Mayo, FL - March 2010

Main Street, Mayo, FL – March 2010

A few weeks ago, against some range of odds, it happened. My friend Sean and I were on a road trip between Tallahassee and Gainesville, and decided to take the rural route 27 rather than the markedly less scenic and only marginally faster freeway-to-freeway route. The only real advantage to doing that would have been a photo-op with that iconic Cafe Risque “We Bare All” billboard. We made the right choice in taking 27. One thing I had forgotten was that Mayo is almost exactly in between the two cities. There did not seem to be a clear majority of Seminoles or Gators gear on license plate frames or poorly-fitting t-shirts. The equilibrium felt (here’s that word again) ghost-like. In fact, the town felt largely the same, though it was a welcome relief seeing it in full daylight.

March 19, 2015. Pardon my misplaced enthusiasm.

March 19, 2015. Pardon my misplaced enthusiasm.

My friend and I stopped at Meme’s cafe (pronounced Mimi’s) right in the center of town for some lunch and to recharge. Meme’s is located in the space where Sonny C’s Barbecue Chicken stood five years ago (you can see the sign in the photo of Main Street above). We were distracted with a sign that read “ya’ll come back” to exiting customers; were the proprietors of this diner trying extra hard to seem Southern? It wouldn’t shock me to find out that Mayo has pockets of retirees or non-Natives who wanted a quieter, less expensive life than places like New York, Miami, or Atlanta could have offered. We also wandered into the one prominent supermarket in town (actually directly to the right of where I’m standing in that picture above) and discovered how heavily Latin-American the market was. It came as a surprise, considering how off-the-beaten-path the town seemed, despite exploding Mexican and other Central-American populations throughout the “New South.” Only approximately 16% of census respondents categorized themselves as Latino of any race as of 2000, though one could assume that’s risen substantially since then.

The porch of the Old Lafayette County Courthouse (1888), now a  Bed and Breakfast. The current Lafayette County Courthouse (built in 1908) can be seen off on the right side of the frame. March 19, 2015.

The porch of the Old Lafayette County Courthouse (1888), now a Bed and Breakfast. The current Lafayette County Courthouse (built in 1908) can be seen off on the right side of the frame. March 19, 2015.

It’s easy to get condescendingly wistful when you pass through places like Mayo. It has more warmth than a succession of one stoplight towns in Northwestern Texas, and it has more noteworthy architecture than plenty of towns twice its size. But, as I discovered this time around, Mayo didn’t really need my pity. Unlike so many tiny towns in the United States, it doesn’t appear to be much worse off than it was five years ago. Actually, if you look at that photo of downtown from March 2010 again, you may notice an abandoned pair of buildings – one red, one tan. This is what they looked like a few weeks ago:

Tumbleweed's Smokehouse, March 19, 2015

Tumbleweed’s Smokehouse, March 19, 2015

Nothing against Meme, but I wandered into the restaurant on the left out of curiosity before we left for Gainesville. The scent of roasting BBQ smacked me in the nose and I think I may actually have said “wow” right within earshot of the proprietor. It made sense, considering how the actual smokehouse sat right next door to the dining room; most of the time you see smokers sitting fairly far afield from where the customers actually eat it. Not a bad approach for the latest agents in the always-changing BBQ situation in Mayo. I wish we had chosen to eat there. There’s always a next time, though.

I know some of you may be getting sick of how much love I give Florida on this site, but it’s hard for me to resist. I know it’s inaccurate because I’ve spent a disproportionate amount of time there, but I feel like I’ve found more cool small towns in the Sunshine State than the other 49 combined. The lesson here is, no matter how you may feel about a state, you will very rarely regret taking that rural route if you have the time.

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