‘Postcards from Irving’ Volume 2 Out Today

After a slight delay, the second issue of Postcards from Irving is now ready for printing and headed this week to a mailbox near you (ideally yours).

The masthead and table of contents are above. Ignore that zip code typo; it should read 48804, which it will on the actual zines. This volume is introducing a new format: a proper booklet style that still fits snugly in letter-sized envelopes. I hope you enjoy it!

There are a few visual pieces that I may crack and wind up sharing digitally. I posted the Iron River postcard in question (as well as a repeat-photo I took there in August 2021) on the Instagram page, so I’ll post it here too for resolution’s sake.

Enjoy this free preview, and if you haven’t already subscribed or donated to the cause, DO SO RIGHT HERE.

Iron River, MI (1939 Postcard vs. August 7, 2021)

Minstrelsy/Pop Culture Lecture Postscript

Thank you to the Honors students who came tonight for my special PDP lecture on how Minstrelsy/Blackface are Baked into American Popular Culture, several of whom braving the poorly-numbered hallways of the Dow Scienceplex for the first time. A special thank you to my colleague Ben Heumann, too, who came to check it out because, as he put it, “this is why we have a University” – exposing our brains to a diversity of research topics. Also, our conversation with students afterward inspired me to record a few thoughts before they disappeared. I figured that I would share them as a companion piece to the lecture, in case anybody is interested. If you are reading this and would like to see the recording, please reach out.

First of all, I thanked my colleague Bryan Whitledge from the Clarke Archive, who contributed some references to Minstrel shows at CMU in the 1920s and 1950s(!) that added a crucial local connection to the lecture, such as this image from the 1924 Chippewa yearbook:

Second, I referenced the Australian comedian Aamer Rahman in passing, but I should have given him a more explicit tribute in influencing critical ideas about hip-hop and white privilege when these posts circulated nine years ago. One thing I mentioned when posting a slide featuring Vanilla Ice, Elvis Presley, Iggy Azalea, Eminem, and Yung Gravy was that I wished I could have split the lecture up into two class periods to invite a deeper discussion. Rahman was hardly as diplomatic with his words about Iggy Azalea at the height of her “Fancy” chart success, and I’m grateful his thoughts are still easily accessible.

Third, one student commented that she appreciated that someone who teaches classes in Geography and Environmental Studies would deliver a lecture on such a differing topic. I was grateful for her saying that, but the deeper I plunge, the more I find in common between Minstrelsy/Popular Culture, environmental justice, gender studies, and other topics. When racist caricatures get “baked in” to pop culture, we run the risk of forgetting their context just because the ingredients aren’t distinct anymore. We fail to address the racist origins of (way more) American Popular Culture (than we want to admit) for similar reasons that we fail to address racist/classist reasons of why and where toxic waste is buried. A refusal to openly address feelings is a hallmark of toxic masculinity. I wish I had thought of this for my concluding statement, but will definitely include it whenever I present on this subject again.

Fourth, I told those in attendance that it originated as a unit in my Popular Culture class at Tennessee and I was eager to dust it off, but I didn’t say how I wound up preoccupied with the Minstrel show as an academic focus.

The preamble is that when I was in undergrad, at least one “blackface incident” happened every year somewhere in the campus community. The public response was typically a tepid “well that guy was dumb, but he’ll get his what-for and let’s move past it.” This was a decade before Justin Simien satirized the phenomenon in Dear White People (2014), and so many of my cohort had no idea about the history behind blackface and what specifically made it offensive. There’s also a much larger conversation about segregation, and how the neoliberal University reinforces it, somewhere in there.

In the mid-2010’s, once I began doing archival research into old/extinct theaters Ben Irving played, I noticed an increasing prevalence of these collar-pulling photos. The more I learned about Jewish entertainers like Al Jolson, Eddie Cantor, and George Burns (the latter of whom remained extremely relevant until his death in 1996 at age 100), the less I could avoid learning about minstrelsy. I would inevitably turn a page in some book about Eddie Cantor, and YIKES I DIDN’T NEED TO SEE THAT. Similarly, in a recent lecture about the film industry’s transition to sound, some students googled The Jazz Singer and recoiled at a variety of images of Jolson in blackface. To omit minstrelsy from the discussion about vaudeville, particularly from any focus on the rise of Jewish performers, would be irresponsible at best and ignorant at worst. To not confront that reality and ask difficult questions about how far we’ve come (or not) in discussing race would be similarly irresponsible of me as a teacher.

Finally, in updating my lecture for Thursday, I completely overlooked one highly contentious pop culture icon in embedded minstrelsy that landed in my lap courtesy of the riotous Nathan Rabin (who also happens to be Jewish) in his fantastic collection The Joy of Trash (self-published 2022):

As the millennium ended, [George] Lucas was still drawing inspirations from old movies, rather than an outside world that seemed to scare him. It’s not surprising, therefore, that his first film as a director in over two decades traffics extensively in antiquated racist stereotypes.

There is no such thing as benign racism. By its very nature, racism is malignant. But there are gradations of racism. There’s the harsh, brutal racism of Nazis, the KKK, and the Alt-Right. There’s also a softer version that angrily insists that a moderate amount of racism and bigotry is not only acceptable but necessary for society to function.

White people love soft racism because it replaces an honest, deeply challenging, and unflattering narrative of institutionalized anti-black racism with a dishonest, but more flattering, fantasy of endless Caucasian benevolence.

pp 166-167

To quote Trav S.D.’s blog disclaimer whenever his research unearths an image of a white actor in blackface: “Caucasians-in-Blackface is NEVER okay. It was bad then, and it’s bad now. We occasionally show images depicting the practice, or refer to it in our writing, because it is necessary to tell the story of American show business, which like the history of humanity, is a mix of good and bad.”

[To wit: someone, somewhere in the USA is probably lobbying some school board to prevent their kid from being taught about this because white people’s feelings or something.]

Upcoming Talk on How Minstrelsy/Blackface are Baked into American Pop Culture

For anybody in Central Michigan, I’ll be delivering a special lecture next week for the Honors Program Personal Development Project (PDP) series.

I’ll be bringing back one of my favorite lectures from my curriculum on the Geography of American Popular Culture. From the poster/site description:

Pop Culture in the United States, like American History at large, must address uncomfortable realities about its past (and present) to embrace what has made it remarkable. Early forms of American music, theater, and eventually film, radio, and television are inextricable from the minstrel show – generally speaking, mockery of African-Americans by white performers and audiences. However, as with anything in popular culture, the realities, appeals, and most influential performers exist within gray areas. As this lecture argues, much of the most persevering and influential American art – all the way from The Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup (1933) to Childish Gambino’s “This is America” (2018) – has happened as a reaction to minstrelsy rather than embrace of it.

See you next Thursday, October 20th, at 6pm in DOW Science Complex Room 102 (not Pearce 127, the original location as posted on the Honors site).

New Zine! ‘POSTCARDS FROM IRVING’ Coming in August

Why a Zine, and Why Now?

Without giving too much away, this isn’t about Ben Irving as much as it is about the worlds and times he inhabited, and I am still consistently amazed at the things I discover about them. For reasons both personal and professional about which I will go into more detail in Issue One, I’ve decided to self-publish the Ben Irving chronicles, and I’ve decided to do it (mostly) away from the internet.

Those of you who have been following this site for a while may be familiar with who Irving was. If not, feel free to take a look back through the archives so far. Postcards from Irving will take these rabbit holes of research on the man, his music career(s), and his travels and expand upon them with each issue. My plan is to publish and mail out Postcards from Irving quarterly – once per season – with occasional bonus issues or collaborations. I will try to announce/preview each new issue on this website, and still include occasional nuggets from the archives.

Will this Cost Anything?

The ‘Postcards from Irving’ zine/newsletter will be free indefinitely from the date of subscription for anybody US-based, and back issues will be available for $1 each. In order to help offset costs of printing and mailing down the line, I will also be accepting donations. A small donation will get you a shout-out in ‘Postcards from Irving’ and my undying gratitude.

If you are outside of the United States and would like to subscribe to Postcards from Irving please get in touch via the form below or on Instagram.

How to Subscribe

If you would like to have fun and keep it analog (aside from reading about it online here), then direct all correspondence to POSTCARDS FROM IRVING, P.O. BOX 1309, MT. PLEASANT, MI 48804. You are welcome to (1) send me a postcard or letter requesting to subscribe or (2) pay for back issues/donate to the project with well-concealed cash.

You can also subscribe right here, using this form:

How to Donate to the ‘Postcards from Irving’ Project

You can mail well-concealed cash or a check to P.O. Box 1309, Mt. Pleasant, MI 48804, or you can donate via PayPal using the button below (or this link, if you can’t see the button). Any small amount is appreciated and will go directly to cover any printing/mailing expenses.

Thank you. I can’t wait to see where this goes.

“Trinidad” (Ben Irving, original lyric sheet header, 1940s)

FROM THE ARCHIVES: Ben Irving Photos from Florida – A Gator and a Dolphin (and more on Marineland)

I scanned these photos with the impression that Irving took them both at Marineland, a marine life expo located on Highway A1A between St. Augustine and Daytona Beach. According to the manager behind Marineland’s social media accounts, the first photo (of a trainer with a gator) was not taken there, but the second photo, which features a dolphin jumping for a treat in a tank with spectators, absolutely was.

This certainly creates more questions about where Irving may have snapped a photo of a trainer with a Gator. I wonder if the St. Augustine area had any accessible “gator experiences” at the time. It may have been at Gatorland, which has been called such since 1954, but that was far down the road in Kissimmee.

Marineland, especially in the last two decades of Florida’s pre-Disney era, was a well-established attraction. The cover of the Marineland guide, which I’ve scanned into JPEG format and will share below, along with a few other highlights from the program, has become an enduring image of Florida’s pre-Mickey tourist trade.

Cover to a 50’s-era Guide to Marineland of Florida. Scanned by Sonic Geography.
Click to enlarge.

The guide’s opening salvo is particularly interesting, especially because it begins with a reference to Mohammed. The reference was hardly inaccurate (given the can-do attitude that permeated throughout Florida’s post-war attractions), but something tells me a program for a popular tourist destination on Florida’s space coast (ghost to ghost) would not open with a Mohammed anytime this century.

Click to enlarge the above pages and check out their sales pitch to visitors! Read about how new and exciting Oceanariums were at the time. I’ve also cropped and enlarged the “Gull’s-eye” view of the park, which appears to be facing south, looking at the Porpoise Stadium under the Marineland sign.

It’s still difficult to tell exactly which of the Oceanariums (Oceanaria? …It’s not a word I tend to use much in conversation or writing) Irving’s photo of the clever jumping dolphin was taken in. The Porpoise School tank at the foot of those blue bleachers would make sense, but according to the program, the Circular Oceanarium had dolphin shows as well.

Click to enlarge.

Ben Irving visits Marquette Michigan, August 1941

From what I can tell, Ben Irving took two road trips through Michigan’s Upper Peninsula: once in May of 1939, and once in August of 1941. In both cases, he drove through from Wisconsin and continued down to the Lower Peninsula, taking one of nine auto ferries across the Mackinac Strait (the Mighty Mac suspension bridge would not open until 1957).

He did not make it to Marquette, the largest town and cultural anchor of the U.P. (Joe Pera decided to set his TV show there, if there may be any doubts) until his second trip. Avoiding a stop in Marquette may seem odd today, but most towns up there that feel like hollowed-out blips on the map in 2021 were robust mining towns preceding World War II. After I visited the Keweenaw Peninsula, for example, it seemed blatantly obvious that mining is why Michigan Technological University is located way up there in Houghton. Also, the location isn’t really too far afield to other North-Country cities like Duluth and Green Bay; it just seems like a massive haul to any of the “trolls” (an endearing term for those folks who live in “under the Bridge” in Michigan’s lower peninsula, about 97% of the state’s population).

As various friends and colleagues had predicted, my partner and I thought Marquette was awesome. Northern cities, especially those as remote as Marquette, have a special charm to them. Locals tend to be good at making their own fun. Much of the city is contained within hills that bottle it on a descent into Lake Superior, where one finds the massive, lumbering ore dock situated down the street from a nice brewery that bears its name.

Downtown Marquette, MI (with the ore dock seen at left) taken from the penthouse of the Landmark Inn (SonicGeography.com).

The Landmark Inn (formerly The Hotel Northland)

Unlike other small Michigan cities, Marquette retained a majority of its beautiful early-20th century stone architecture, particularly along Front Street, leading up to the Landmark Inn, where Irving stayed in August 1941. At the time, it was barely over a decade old and called itself the Hotel Northland.

There are plenty of sources that claim the building is haunted, particularly the Lilac Room on the top floor, where a young librarian allegedly hanged herself in grief over her lover dying sailing on Lake Superior. There are also urban legends that tell of a jealous man who murdered his unfaithful girlfriend and buried her body in the hotel’s foundation sometime in the 1920s. In both cases, paranormal enthusiasts report hearing noises that suggest neither young woman ever truly left the hotel. Of course, the hotel’s spartan official history doesn’t mention any of this.

Though the Hotel Northland’s original era ended with its closure in 1982, the Landmark group refurbished the building in 1995. The results, as one might expect, are grandiose and expensive. Like most hotels who haven’t had a date with the wrecking ball, this one was fairly easy to re-photograph. I stood in front of the Peter White Public Library to get my photo, as the original photographer/painter did ninety years ago. Here is the result:


Harlow’s Wooden Man

My partner and I spent a good few minutes wandering around the corner of Spring Street and 5th Street, where I read in a few different, confusingly phrased accounts that Harlowe’s Wooden Man stands today. The landscape over which he towered 80+ years ago is almost completely overgrown today and encased in private property. At first, I felt the standard type of garden-variety indignity an Urban Geographer like myself would feel seeing any piece of bizarro history is fenced off from public enjoyment. Then, I realized that HWM probably owes his “life” to being neglected in some wealthy person’s back yard. Like countless others who walked down the fencing behind an Advance Auto Parts, I felt the temptation to jump the chain-link fence and get a cheeky selfie with the wooden giant. If he were on public property, the city of Marquette or some niche historical society would have to encase him in some type of panopticon to prevent a bunch of hooligans from climbing onto his withered old shoulders and toppling him into a pile of lumber.

The story behind this highly unusual (though I doubt unique) hidden attraction is unusual in itself. According to local lore, Amos Harlow (the postcard misspelled his name – probably an honest error by the publisher) was out for a walk in 1875 when he saw a cedar tree that resembled a person, so he decided to cut it down and bring it to a hill behind his home, where he added various embellishments, including a cane and fine hat. I don’t know if the cane and hat you see in the postcard image were Amos’ originals, but today the cane is long gone (a reflection of how uncool canes are now, for whatever reason), and his current hat resembles a cage of something that Uncle Sam might wear. Here are a couple of more detailed shots I could get from the other side of the fence nearby:

Today, the Marquette County History Museum names their quarterly journal after him, and it’s entirely possible that Amos Harlow’s descendants live in the house facing 4th Street on that property. It’s fun finding whichever photos of the wooden man taken over the years – the ones which have been digitized, anyway. One photographer who snapped an ironic image of HWM in the 70’s did so from behind the figure with permission from Harlow’s granddaughter, who he claimed lived in the house on the property. Notice, if you click on that link, that the wooden man didn’t have a cane in that picture, either. I would have to do a lot more investigative work to figure out when the old man lost it. Someone had better help him! He’s out in the middle of the woods (and on a hill!) without a cane!

It’s not perfect, but it’s the closest I could get to the original angle. ~1930’s (mailed in 1941) vs. 2021.

Thanks for reading, everyone. Have a great weekend.

Tyler’s Favorite Records (1982): Roxy Music – ‘Avalon’

If you enjoy reading about my favorite records and live in Central Michigan, then you can come hang out and hear me play my favorite records TONIGHT at the Larkin Beer Garden (next to the Dow Diamond in Midland). I’ll be spinning from 6 until 9 or so! [/PSA]

It would stand to reason that Milo Goes to College would be my top record of this year, considering what a watershed era it was for American punk music (and I have a Descendents tattoo), but instead, my favorite album released in 1982 was a largely maligned “comeback” record by an egomaniacal, dinner-jacket-wearing crooner. Granted, most of the maligning I’ve seen in online communities around Roxy Music’s masterpiece Avalon is done by what I can only assume are bitter Eno loyalists. I absolutely enjoy those early prog-fire albums the collective did in fancy space costumes – I’m technically in the middle of Michael Bracewell’s tome Remake/Remodel: Becoming Roxy Music as I write this. You just can’t heap praise on Avalon without dealing with the fact that “Virginia Plain” and “Editions of You” also exist in the same universe. In 1998, Rolling Stone saw fit to choose the Eno-free Siren (an entirely okay mid-70’s glam-pop album with maybe three or four great tracks) to stand above the rest of the band’s catalog on their “RS 200” list.

I should write, with utter transparency, that I haven’t reached Simon Morrison’s 33 1/3 book on Avalon yet in my reading queue (but I cannot wait to dive in). Because this is my website, I reserve the right to come back to this post and amend it accordingly if Morrison helps me discover that I’m completely full of it. But, there’s something refreshing about sitting down without the discursive baggage equivalent to at least three or four episodes of ‘Behind the Music’ on a record you love. Considering how much time I spend thinking and writing about music, it’s somewhat refreshing to just colo(u)r a record in verbal kindness because it’s wonderful and you love it.

That’s the hill I’m going to die on regarding Roxy Music’s 1982 album Avalon. It’s ten tracks, (partially instrumental) of thoughtful, temple-massaging, everything’s-gonna-be-alright slow jams which permanently established the 80’s iteration of Sophisiti-pop (later re-branded as the invented joke-genre Yacht-Rock) and retroactively established Bryan Ferry as the Godfather of New Wave. Perish the thought that a college radio colleague was about to apply that label to Morrissey ahead of Moz’ inevitably-cancelled Syracuse show back in 2004. I stopped him and said that Ferry deserves that title, if we insist on slapping it on somebody. So many of the “New Wave” tropes we took for granted pre-dated Duran Duran and MTV. Most of them even pre-dated Bryan Ferry, but I can’t think of one British musician of the post-Rock n’ Roll era who more encompassed so many of the New Romantic aesthetics.

Bryan Ferry in 1975 (Photo by Anwar Hussein for Rolling Stone / Creative Commons Usage)

It will undoubtedly strip me of cred to admit this, but the first time I remember hearing “More Than This,” Bill Murray was singing it in Lost in Translation. For those of you who haven’t seen Sofia Coppola’s elegant, insufferable romp through Tokyo, I would advise against it unless you enjoy watching privileged people being sad (Lost in Translation walked so Eat Pray Love could run). But, like a lot of mid-2000’s cinematic pablum whose apparent directive was to make young gen-xers (later renamed “millennials”) feel deep, it featured some quality tunes. From what I remember, the film brought Kevin Shields back from the dead, too, fourteen years after he dropped his own masterpiece Loveless (my 8th-favorite album of 1991). The most memorable moments of Lost in Translation all centered around music: Murray singing Roxy Music to express his disillusionment, a very young ScarJo crossing a bridge in a cab to Loveless highlight “Sometimes,” a stripper dancing to the teaches of Peaches (“Fuck the Pain Away”), and of course a pretentious ending slathered in “Just Like Honey.” The latter (putting a hip song over the credits just because you like it) felt like a device employed by countless student filmmakers in order to show off their musical taste (guilty), not something that Nic Cage’s cousin, born into Hollywood royalty, needed in order to wrap up her movie.

I’ll return to the topic at hand.

Some people ridicule that fantastic falconry cover, but I can’t imagine Avalon without it. As much as this was a departure from a lot of Roxy Music’s 70’s fare, the image fit into their singular fantasy world, drawing from the Arthurian legend and not using a sultry female model (or models) to get their point across. I would imagine that Morrisson’s book will address this, too, but I’m willing to wager that Ferry was seeking his own Avalon upon which to recover from the 70s, ultimately building a musical one. Either way, it’s appropriate, because Avalon is much more reflective and infinitely less horny than “classic” Roxy Music. Rather than playing like a raucous night out at some club, it feels like an ex-clubber approaching middle age, taking their coffee out onto the back patio and thinking about all of the mistakes they’ve made. It’s overwhelmingly tasteful music that still manages to be funky and doesn’t abuse saxophones like 98% of the coke-recovery (or coke-relapse) jams that followed in the decade. Andy Mackay deserves recognition on that feat alone.

I think I’m going to stop here. I did some light Googling in order to fact-check myself, and I wound up spending about twenty minutes reading up on Welsh mythology. Listen to Roxy Music’s Avalon. If you have a record player, buy it on vinyl. Get home from a particularly long day, put the needle at the beginning of Side 2, prepare a hot compress or grab a cold drink during “The Main Thing,” and make sure to lay down with either source of comfort by the time the mysterious, drifting into to “Take a Chance With Me” begins. It’s bliss.

For those of you interested in my Top 10 Albums of 1982:

  1. Roxy Music – ‘Avalon’
  2. Descendents – ‘Milo Goes to College’
  3. Angry Samoans – ‘Back from Samoa’
  4. Discharge – ‘Hear Nothing See Nothing Say Nothing’
  5. Bad Brains s/t
  6. Zero Boys – ‘Vicious Cycle’
  7. Orange Juice – ‘You Can’t Hide Your Love Forever’
  8. Youth Brigade – ‘Sound and Fury’
  9. Yazoo – ‘Upstairs at Eric’s’
  10. Cocksparrer – ‘Shock Troops’