Broken Turtle Blog

Broken Turtle Blog

Monday, June 8, 2015

Delware's Pre-eminent Person of Letters

I have long held that Steven Leech is Delaware’s pre-eminent person of letters. He is a writer, critic, editor, archivist, journalist, promoter, disk jockey, and investigator of Delaware literary, musical, and visual arts, especially works outside the canonical metropole. This summer (2015), Leech will see a vindication, of sorts, of his life of letters on the periphery through his collaboration with the Delaware Art Museum in Dream Streets: Art in Wilmington 1970–1990, which will run June 27, 2015 through September 27, 2015. Leech edited the lit mag Dreamstreets almost from its founding in 1977 through issue #50 in 2006, and a commemorative Dreamstreets #51 is being published by the museum. Leech will be featured along with Dreamstreets alumni and new talent at a special Dreamstreets Downtown reading at the museum on July 18, 7-8 p.m. An early film by Leech, Having Come and Having Gone, is included in the exhibit.

Steven Leech’s scholarship uncoveres the critical edge of Delaware literature, from works that challenged Delaware’s slave economy to twentieth-century exposés of Chateau Country. Leech explains why he has chosen to take his stand outside the establishment but within Delaware boundaries in The Wedgehorn Manifesto: A Cultural Treatise from the Underground (2008):
It is because I see a cultural presence here that has been driven underground—so far underground that it often doesn’t recognize itself. It is a presence that is the true outgrowth, product and result of its own cultural past. It is a past that I can almost remember, but a huge social and political gash that spans the post world War II era has severed us, until only recently, from that which defines us as a cultural community.
In his Manifesto, Leech rescues Delaware’s artistic legacy from the Memory Hole. He traces the history of Delaware jazz, rock and roll, the African-American press, the counter cultural and alternative press, 19th and 20th century authors, cinema, and visual artists, not only the Brandywine Tradition of Schoonover and Wyeth, but what Leech identifies as the Christina Tradition: Edward Grant, Edward Loper, and William D. White, who was featured recently at the Biggs Museum in Dover, thanks in part to efforts by Steven Leech. In the Manifesto, Leech calls for artists to be caretakers of the community conscience. For a free pdf copy of Wedgehorn Manifesto, email your request to Soon to be release is a companion piece to the Manifesto, A City of Ghosts.

Leech carries on a family tradition. His father, Steven Leech senior, was a writer for FDR’s Works Progress Administration and published in the 1938 Delaware: A Guide to the First State. The work was reprinted by the Historical Society of Delaware in 2006, and Leech the son wrote the introduction.

Steven Leech is founder of Dreamstreets Press, Broken Turtle Books, Broken Turtle Booklist, and the Delaware Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He has also published numerous personal and whimsical imprints such as Screamweets, Creamtreats, Nemocolin Xpress, and Pinhead. In addition to editing Dreamstreets, Leech was editor of two African American Newspapers in Wilmington, The Delaware Spectator and The Delaware Valley Star, as well as Viewpoint, the public face of the University of Delaware Cosmopolitan Club. He was one of the founders in 1981 of 2nd Saturday Poets, now Delaware’s longest-running poetry venue. Recently Leech founded Dreamstreets Downtown, a reading currently held 3rd Saturdays at 3 p.m. at the Chris White Gallery in the middle of our struggling burg, Wilmington.

Leech is a leading radio personality. Folks in northern Delaware and three contiguous states know Leech through Even Steven’s Boptime, heard on WVUD 91.3-FM Saturday mornings from 6 to 10 p.m. Boptime features popular music, jazz, and show tunes in their cultural, historical, and political contexts. One of the show’s regular features is “Cliffords Corner,” where Larry Williams, Bob Fleming, and Maurice Simms join Leech to tell of personal encounters with luminaries like Betty Roché, Lem and Daisy Winchester, and Clifford Brown. Another feature is "Vietnam Rock," which Leech, a Vietnam veteran, uses as part tribute to the troops and part exposé of that dreadful conflict. Leech also produces Dreamstreets 26, a radio show on WVUD that has captured the voices Delaware poets and writers of the past half-century as well as readings from authors of the last 200 years. The show is currently broadcast Monday’s at 1 p.m. Leech even produced a video of this writer’s poem “String Quartet,” featuring the Delos String Quartet, for WHYY-TV12 in 1986.

Not only has Leech published many hundreds of incisive articles on politics, history, and the arts, but his fiction and poetry are as daring as anything by the predecessors he admires. Works such as Raw Suck, Untime, and 2000 Years are at times dark and painfully personal, sometimes humorous, and always prophetic. He floats his characters in and out of alternative universes, some hellish, some as life was supposed to be. His work is never lukewarm. As the Good Book says, the lukewarm the Lord spits from His mouth.

Steven Leech is the recipient of both Emerging and Established Artist fellowships from the Delaware Division of the Arts. Events associated with the exhibition at the Delaware Art Museum are available at the Museum’s Website.

Most of Steven Leech's literary works are listed on his Broken Turtle Booklist Page. There is also an archive of some of his works and old photos at Flying Snail.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Delaware Artist William D. White Retrospective at the Biggs is a “Must See”

I’ve written a fair amount about William D. White on this blog space and in other places. Now you can see for yourself the sizable collection of his art on display at the Biggs Museum of Art in Dover, Delaware. It’s all thanks to the heroic efforts of Nancy Carol Willis, who as a girl was fortunate to have known White. All during my own adolescence, growing up in Richardson Park, I had also heard about White from my father, who had known him during their years together working for the Works Progress Administration (WPA) in the late 1930s.

Nancy Carol Willis' Exhibition catalogue

I daresay that White was one of the most important artists working in Delaware in the 20th century. As far as I’m concerned, his stature ranks with that of Edward Loper as an artist of great vision. Yet, it may become apparent why William D. White’s work was nearly rubbed out of the legacy forged by Delaware artists. Part of the reason may have been caused by White’s own nature, which was as an unassuming gentle human being who never sought to direct attention onto himself. He lived his later life in poverty, almost as a hermit, for lack of a better term, in not much more than an adobe hut in the Penny Hill vicinity north of Wilmington.

Another reason his work fell into obscurity and his artistic legacy came fatally close to becoming forgotten was the nature of his artwork itself.

Even while providing large amounts of artwork to the corporate chemical giant Hercules Company during the late 1920s and early 1930s, he largely depicted the workingman and the ordinary people who could be our neighbors. It was his artwork from the later 1930s that his depictions of his subject matter took on a greater role as social commentary. Nancy Carol Willis, who compiled the catalogue that accompanies the Biggs’ exhibit, says it best:

“He invariably chose to depict laborers rather than foremen or managers. What stands out as highly unusual for the time was his honest and empathetic depiction of society’s marginalized members. European immigrants and African Americans rarely achieved prominence in such large paintings.”

William D. White was Delaware’s first, and maybe only, true Social Realist.

An untitled William D. White painting from my
own collection that's in the Biggs exhibit

Nancy Carol Willis’s catalogue is essential for gaining a complete story of William D. White’s life and artistic career. Inside are reproductions of works not available for the exhibit, along with photos of White’s parents and those of his youth.

Willis, herself a fine artist who is well acquainted with the history of 20th century American art, provides examples by other of White’s contemporaries to give context to White’s artistic endeavors. We see, in much the same manner Delaware artist Edward Loper kept pace with the development of American art and new trends in its expression, how White absorbed and learned from his peers and national contemporaries. Among Delaware’s 20th century artists, Loper and White sustained their careers as artists by understanding and learning from what was going on around them in the development of American art, from the Ashcan school to Social Realism, with that which came before and that which came in between. White even took some incursions into the realm of abstract art.

With some fortunate serendipity, when the Biggs Museum exhibit ends on June 21st, opening on June 27th, the Delaware Art Museum in Wilmington will present Dream Streets: Art in Wilmington 1970 – 1990. William D. White died in 1971, just as the art movement in Wilmington was getting under way. Much of the art produced in the Wilmington vicinity during this period has much in common with the socially conscious art of William D. White. Unavoidably, it’s easy to see how the life and work of William D. White flows nearly seamlessly into the endeavors of those who followed and launched artistic careers in the early 1970s. White’s artistic career ended in obscurity while those beginning to work in the 1970s began in obscurity, subjected to marginalization and living, often times, in poverty, yet remaining true to a vision that comprised something more progressive than the bucolic landscape and elitist sensibilities of The Brandywine Tradition that held sway over Delaware artists.

Finally, with these two back-to-back art exhibitions, we are getting a truer picture of the Wilmington art world. Beginning with artists like William D. White, Edward Loper, Edward Grant, Bayard Berndt, Jeannette Slocomb Edwards, Walter Pyle, Henrietta Hoopes and many others who painted during the period of the late 1930s, we begin to see how an earlier art community morphed into the one that blossomed on the heels of the vibrant counter-culture of the 1960s and into the 1970s. Among those earlier artists, William D. White, along with Edward Loper, embodies the greatest element of cohesion with the aspirations of a later generation of local artists.

Friday, November 28, 2014

George Lippard, Local Novelist and Another Friend of Edgar Allan Poe, and his Hidden Relevance for Today

The body of canonical American literature serves to enlighten us regarding that which lies behind or beneath our American history. It serves to bring to light those conditions, incidents or events from our past. Often those events or conditions deliver a work into the canon. A good example might be Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. On the other hand, works by American authors of extraordinary talent can enlighten us about the ground floor nature of our psyche that led to, or surrounded, those conditions from various periods in our history. Examples are evident in the works from authors of the post Civil War era to post World War years like Clemons, Melville, Cather, Wharton, Fitzgerald, and Hemingway, just to touch upon some of the literary giants of that era. There are many others who contributed, as well, to giving us a “feel” for a broad portion of our history –– if indeed we are knowledgeable about a history from which we continue to learn its lessons.

The great fatal flaw in American history is that we are a country built on twin pillars. One pillar is the legacy of slavery, and the other is the genocide of our Native Americans, which in large part led to those imperial designs that drove our “Manifest Destiny,” to be a country “from sea to shining sea.”
Of the antebellum era, three major canonical literary figures come to mind: Washington Irving, James Fenimore Cooper, and Edgar Allan Poe. With the exception of Fenimore Cooper, none gave much space or effort in addressing those issues associated with those twin pillars.

The politics embraced by Edgar Allan Poe are largely an enigma. His politics are not readily apparent or discernible from his fiction, non fiction, or poetry. On the one hand, Poe wrote many stories about ordinary people caught up in extraordinary situations. On the other hand, Poe, as a Southerner who grew up surrounded by slavery, did line up behind the racist writing of James Kirk Paulding. However, there is some reason to believe Poe’s attitudes were subject to revision. He certainly grappled with the issue in his only novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, and there is some sketchy evidence that he had a friend who was black, Armistead Gordon. Otherwise, Poe rarely dwelled on the matter, though he was intelligent and well traveled enough to be capable of critical thinking.

As I have suggested in my own fiction, Poe had been influenced, or given pause to reflect, by others, particularly by Delaware author and poet John Lofland, a staunch Abolitionist. In his travels between Virginia and New England, Poe was exposed to new views and perspectives on the subject.

In 1841 – 1842, Poe was editor and critic at Graham’s Magazine in Philadelphia. It was in Philadelphia during this time that Poe met George Lippard. Poe and Lippard were two authors who shared literary styles. Both wrote gothic tinged subject matter, combined with a uniquely American romanticism. These were stories about the underbelly of American life. However, Lippard wrote with a different purpose.

George Lippard
Lippard met Poe early in his career when he was working as a copy editor of the newspaper Spirit of the Times. Poe worked across the street at Graham’s Magazine. There is some evidence Poe influenced Lippard’s literary style. There are also some sketchy reports that Lippard rescued Poe from some dangerous situations in the streets of Philadelphia.

Recently the University of Pennsylvania published a new edition of Lippard’s long out of print novel The Killers. Originally published in 1850, the novel is set during the events leading up to a race riot in Philadelphia the previous year. The time frame is also during the same election cycle, ironically enough, when Poe was “cribbed” in Baltimore in an incident that eventually led to his death.

The plot of The Killers involves Philadelphia street gangs, one of the most vicious of which was “the Killers," located in the Moyamensing district of that city. Major characters are a set of half brothers, one brought up in abject poverty and the son of an absentee rich woman who has turned to a life of crime. The other brother has become the leader of “the Killers.” The father of the former son, whom he discovers only shortly before the incidents described in Lippard’s novel, is a manipulative banker who had made a fortune off the illegal slave trade. During the riot in which the white gang of “Killers” descends upon blacks in a nearby neighborhood, burning and pillaging it, rich banker Jacob D. Z. Hicks kidnaps Kate Watson, the common law sister of his long lost and abjectly poor son, in an attempt to drive her into a like of prostitution. Through a rather complex set of circumstances, a black man variously known as Black Andy, or “the Bulgine,” saves her from a burning building.

George Lippard was a strong anti-slavery advocate, and in The Killers he demonstrates the extent of the greed of those who sought to benefit from the illegal slave trade, along with other illegal activity stemming from it. One is reminded of similar implications suggested by today’s illegal drug trade as well as the gluttonous and unregulated arms trade, especially in terms of spawning other out of control illegal activity. As a result, corruption was rampant even among “respectable” politicians and businessmen.

Lippard, unlike Poe, was called a “reformer” in some circles, and a “muckraker” in others. He clearly saw the relationship between chattel slavery and wage slavery. In fact, near the end of his life he formed one of America’s earliest labor unions, The Brotherhood of the Union, which drew its inspiration from the principles of the revolutions that spread throughout Europe in 1848. One must wonder at how much Lippard’s attitudes rubbed off on Poe.

George Lippard was born April 10, 1822 in a place called Yellow Springs in Chester County, which directly borders New Castle County, Delaware. He died, probably from tuberculosis, on February 9, 1854. During his short life he wrote over a dozen novels. Of them was Blanche Of Brandywine, set during the Battle of the Brandywine during our Revolutionary War. His most noteworthy novel was The Quaker City: The Monks of Monk Hall, a Romance of Philadelphia Life, Mystery & Crime. In this novel, Lippard exposed widespread corruption in Philadelphia.

Throughout his works, Lippard displayed progressive thinking still relevant today. At one point in The Killers he declares that those elected to Pennsylvania state government “might go there as especial hirelings of Bank speculators, paid to enact laws that give wealth to one class, and poverty and drunkenness to another.”

The more things change, the more they remain the same.

One wonders how our history might have been shaped had Lippard’s literary works remained in print and given greater consideration by publishers and in the halls of academia. Certainly Lippard wrote within an important historical context, especially a local one.

We don’t often understand the genesis of some of America’s historical events. For example, T. S. Arthur’s 1854 novel Ten Days in a Barroom, and What I Saw There was as popular as Lippard’s novels and their contemporary novel by Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Arthur’s novel is often credited with bringing the issue of temperance into prominence, culminating decades later with Prohibition during the 1920s. Incidentally, T. S. Arthur was also one of Poe’s acquaintances, and is an author who is largely forgotten. Thus, we are also deprived of better realizing the tightly knit nature of the literary world during Poe’s time within the confines of a smaller United States than the one from “sea to shining sea” that we take for granted today.

Our current literary canon is inadequate. We could have a better understanding of who we are by giving a better understanding of where we’ve been. Every region of our country has authors and poets who have represented, portrayed, or depicted our past experiences. If an expanded national canon might be considered too unwieldy for academia, then might we begin to build one on a regional basis? Here, in the mid-Atlantic, in the birthplace of the United States, there are plenty of forgotten authors who could tell us more about ourselves from the perspective of our past history. George Lippard is another one of those.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Douglas Morea Featured in Dreamstreet Downtown and Broken Turtle Booklist

Written with an “epistolary pretence,” Letters to You, Douglas Morea's breakthrough collection of poems, address the memories, persons, events, places, and moral preoccupations of Morea’s life. Breakthroughs are thought to be the province of youth, yet Morea has developed a new language of poetry, more intimate, but no less daring than the verses of Keats.

Douglas Morea will be featured along with the poet Pharaoh at the Dreamstreets Downtown Reading 3 p.m. Saturday, November 15 at the Chris White Art Gallery, 701 Shipley Street, Wilmington, Delaware. Morea is also November's author of the month at Broken Turtle Booklist.

Douglas Morea was publishing poems in The New Yorker in the early 1970s when he was about the same age as Keats in his glory. Douglas and his then wife Kass left the literary limelight of New York for the moated enclave of Delaware in the late ‘70s. Douglas remained productive, releasing short run chapbooks, essays, and cartoons, and reading at local venues his longer poems, typed on sheets pasted end to end somewhat like a scroll. I have long proclaimed Douglas to be Delaware’s finest poet. Letters to You demonstrates, I believe, that Douglas Morea’s craft and power have grown since his youthful successes at The New Yorker.

Right before Letter to You was published, I had been speaking with Douglas about John Keats, who had been so clever and daring, before he died at 25. Douglas, who has a wide knowledge of science, said it was even common for folks in the sciences to peak in their youth. I thought of Einstein, who published his Special Theory of Relativity when he was 26.  So what’s new with Morea since his day in The New Yorker sun?

Morea’s growth can be measured by comparing “Having Children,” a brilliant poem he published in the September 16, 1974 New Yorker, with “Hey Canada Geese, How Come Your Babies Almost Never Get Run Over Anymore?” from Letters to You.

In his earlier treatment of procreation amid life’s vicissitudes, Morea’s dominant metaphor is a scene where “brazen summer/wilts weeds in a city lot.” Describing the struggle of the weeds to thrive amid “gobs of tar, old tires,” Morea demonstrates youthful pyrotechnics of imagery, sound figures, and word play:

These growths are pale pith,
sweet and rank, piped in green fibre;
leaves ladder up them:
footholds gouged in the face of sheer cliff-air.
Sun pounds down on raised fingers branching
upon the ledge of bloom;

With such precocious flair, he was good thenbut he’s even better now. In “Canada Geese,” he mutes the fireworks so we can hear a more intimate voice, one that tells a subtler tale. Noting how subsequent generations of geese have learned to protect their offspring from traffic, Morea, with defter music, work-play, and apostrophe, laments

While most of you arise by wise adults, seasoned on many seasons,
we get raised by raw near-children.
Humans mostly have but one shot parenting, then
we're shot.
Like you, we learn to keep them off the road, but often
not in time. Like yours, our wisdom grows, but ours grows only old,
and with us dies.

You can read the entirety of both poems at Letters to You Samples.

Some suppose that after his Theory of Relativity, Einstein’s production was restricted to thinking deep thoughts at Princeton until he died in 1955, although he published over 300 scientific papers.

Since his last piece for The New Yorker, Morea has published six other collections of poetry including How About Meet Me Where Nothing Has Ever Happened in the History of the World and Not Sterilized but You Won’t Die From It/The Even Newer Testament. An essayist and cartoonist, Morea wrote The Andrist: a Sexual Political Essay and Book of Crosses: A Thematic Cartoon Collection. His works have appeared in numerous literary magazines including Dreamstreets and The Mickle Street Review, which awarded him the Doris Kellogg Neale prize in 1984.

Like Keats, Morea achieved youthful fame. Like Einstein, his later works are famous to but a few. May the publication of Letters to You provide a second and wider fame for Delaware’s finest poet.

Morea was born in 1945 in Queens, New York City, and grew up primarily there, marrying and moving to Delaware in his late 20s, where he with their mother Kass raised two daughters to successful adulthood. He remains here now with his second wife, Karen.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Introducing The Delaware Rock and Roll Hall of Fame

Not as severely marginalized as the history of local literary artists, but perhaps better known than our jazz and visual artists, are our rock and roll, blues, and rhythm & blues artists from the past. In order to remember and preserve their contribution to our current cultural environment, a Delaware Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has been established.

Rock n’ roll fever caught on in the Wilmington area at a time when it caught on in the rest of the United States. Nationally, much of the new music was proliferated by a plethora of independent music labels, like Sun Records where Elvis got his start, Specialty which recorded Little Richard, and Chess which recorded Chuck Berry. According to local rock n’ roll record collector Michael Ace, in Wilmington at least two new labels were founded. One was ABS Records, which recorded a couple 45 rpm’s that are highly valued by collectors today. One of those was “Little Boy Bop” by Ralph Prescott, and “Miss Mary” by Bobby Lee. Another local independent label was Dandy, which a little later in the 50s recorded a couple of Buddy Holly cover tunes by Pat Patterson, who later went on to be a popular disc jockey on Wilmington radio station WAMS. Another local label, Ritchie, was founded in 1959 by Vinnie Rago. It’s earliest recording was with a band called Frankie and the C-Notes. Ritchie Records would have a number of close calls and near misses with national notoriety in the 1960s.

Only one recording artist from Delaware had a nationally charted hit in the 1950s, and that was Billy Graves with a tune called “The Shag (is Totally Cool).” It was a hit in early 1959 on the Monument label. Other than having once appeared on Jimmy Dean’s television show, Billy Graves’ whereabouts is unknown.

Wilmington teenage fans also contributed to rock n’ roll history. The new music’s first group dance, the Stroll, was invented in Wilmington by the kids who danced on local radio and television personality Mitch Thomas’s Saturday afternoon dance show on WVUE channel 12.

The Stroll was first danced to Bill Doggett’s “Honky Tonk.” Later Chuck Willis’ “C. C. Rider” provided the music. After the kids on American Bandstand started doing the Stroll on national television, the Diamonds had a big hit with the song, “The Stroll,” and Dick Clark did the right thing by publicly crediting the kids on Mitch Thomas’ dance show in Wilmington for coming up with the dance.

Another local connection to American Bandstand was Bob Clayton, then a student at P.S. duPont High School. Every day, right after classes, he’d hop in his car and high tail it to Philadelphia to dance with regular Justine Carrelli. The couple were a big hit with national fans, got write-ups in national teen magazines, and even had a national fan club. But when Bob & Justine recorded their own record in the late 50s, “Drive In Movie,” they got kicked off Bandstand. Except for some spins on local radio, the record failed and both eventually left to lead separate lives.

By the 1960s local rock n’ roll enthusiasts were building a little momentum, thanks largely to success from Vinnie Rago’s Ritchie label and its companion, Universal. Ritchie mainly accommodated the doo wop side of the rock n’ roll sub-genre, while Universal recorded flat-out rock n’ roll or rockabilly, like the Recorders’ “Rock Around the Rosie”, which was written by Rago. Another Universal recordings was “Office Girl” by Ronnie Worth, whose day job was as an accountant in Wilmington. Andy & the Gigolos recorded a song for a new dance called “The Bug” on Ritchie. Rago’s greatest success was with a doo wop group called Teddy and the Continentals, who had a national hit –– on the Bubbling Under chart –– with “Ev’rybody Pony,” which hit #101 in September 1961, but the flip side “Tick Tick Tock” is the side most aficionados prefer.

Teddy & the Continentals.
Teddy Henry on lower right.

Teddy Henry, the lead singer of the Continentals was a student at Conrad High School at the time, and recorded two more records with the Continentals, but by 1964 the Continentals broke up and he recorded a final solo record on Ritchie in 1965 as Teddy Continental. Like a number of other local recording artists to follow, his records are still valued by collectors and have garnered cult status in unlikely places.

Another near national success was a band called the Adapters with lead singer and songwriter Ed Sterling. In 1965 they recorded a tune on the Ritchie label, “Believe Me,” which charted high on the local WAMS list of hits. The Adapters achieved some national fame. According to local rock n’ roll historian Hangnail Phillips in the recent book, Histories of Newark, 1758 - 2008, the Adapters toured the east coast concert circuit with such known acts as Mitch Ryder & the Detroit Wheels, Gary Lewis & the Playboys, Freddie & the Dreamers and the Soul Survivors. Also, according to the same Hangnail Phillips article, another local band flirted with national notoriety. The band was the Fabulous Pharaohs and they got good enough to make a national appearance on the Pat Boone Show.
The Adaptors

Two other local record producers in Wilmington were Effers Bethea and James Chavis. Bethea's greatest success was the Dynamic Concepts, which was a combination of two previous local groups; the instrumental group, The Dynamics, with the vocal group, The Concepts. Their biggest hit was "The Funky Chicken." Bethea also produced a local label called Hip City. One of the groups that recorded on Hip City was the Overtones with their tune "The Gleam in Your Eye."

Lesser known was the Chavis label. Many of their recordings tended to be gospel tinged, but The Spidels had a popular recording with "Like A Bee."

As far as we know, none of these local record companies had local offices or studios. Early recordings were made at 20th Century Records or Virtue Recording in Philadelphia. Later on, many recordings, particularly those produced by Effers Bethea, were made at Ken Del Studios at 5th & Shipley Streets in Wilmington.
The Dynamic Concepts

A number of local recording artists who made a national name for themselves in the 1970s and beyond, actually learned their chops in the 1960s. One whose beginnings actually go back to the late 1950s was “Papa” Dee Allen. Papa Dee was originally a member of local jazz great Lem Winchester’s Modernists. After Winchester died prematurely in 1961, the Modernist tried to continue, but without their stellar front man they soon fell apart. Papa Dee continued for a while performing at Wilmington’s early 60s folk music clubs playing bongos and other assorted percussion instruments, but when that proved fruitless he gravitated to the west coast and joined the rock fusion band WAR. He remained with them and was the percussionist on all their recordings including the ones with ex-Animals singer Eric Burdon.A major local contribution to national rock history in the mid to late 1970s came from a number of youngsters who attended local high schools in the late 60s. One was Richard Meyers, who went to Sanford Academy, another was Tom Miller who attended McKean High School and a third was Billy Ficca who went to A.I. duPont. As Richard Hell, Tom Verlaine, they and Billy Ficca took off to New York City and became pioneers in the New York punk rock music scene. Performing at CBGBs in lower Manhattan with bands like the Ramones, Blondie and artists like Iggy Pop and Patti Smith, their band Television helped forged a new genre of American rock n’ roll music. Other punk bands with which the three would perform were the Neon Boys and the Voidoids. Richard Hell also appeared in motion pictures, most notably Desperately Seeking Susan, which stared Madonna.

The biggest success story for a local rock musician is George Thorogood. Thorogood attended Brandywine High School and began his career locally doing gigs at local night spots. For a while, in the mid 1970s he performed at a regular New Year’s Eve bash at Newark’s Deer Park Tavern. In 1978 he signed with Rounder Records, which produced his first hit album, Move It On Over in 1978, and in late 1979 MCA Records released an album of songs Thorogood recorded in 1974 entitled Better Than The Rest. In 1982 he recorded Bad To The Bone on EMI America vinyl. Super Stardom was next!

The Delaware Rock and Roll Hall of Fame website is only a beginning. New pages will continue to be added as new material is uncovered. It is our firm hope that, while the Hall exists in virtual space, it will make the leap into actual space; in a place where people can visit and experience first hand the music that was the soundtrack of our lives.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Robert Bohm’s India: Whatever’s right in front of you

What the Bird Tattoo Hides: Selections from the Vijaynagar Notebooks (1974-2012)
by Robert Bohm

    Artfully crafted and off the chain, Robert Bohm’s What the Bird Tattoo Hides (West End Press, 2014) is an exemplary achievement in poetry. Blending poetry with short histories and vignettes, Bohm explores his 45 years of partial residence in the village of Vijaynagar, India, his wife Suman’s family home.

  Robert Bohm will be featured alongside Kito Shani and Franetta McMillian in the Dreamstreets Downtown Poetry Reading at the Chris White Gallery, 8th & Shipley Streets, October 18, 2014 at 3 p.m.

   Bohm strives to avoid “succumbing to the traditional western search for the ‘real’ India,” as “[t]here is no ‘real’ India,” he asserts. “Just India. Whatever’s right in front of you” (“Whatever’s right in front of you” 79).  What Bohm puts in front of us are villagers, family members, rivers, temples, rainstorms, bus rides, suicide wells, miserable work, indigenous dancers, bougainvillea, vomit, birth, struggle, murder, outrages of caste, and parallels with the Viet Nam war, American racism, and the 21st-century banking collapse. Throughout, Bohm struggles against the gap between the white man’s gaze and true solidarity.

    That struggle took its most significant turn in 1967 when Robert Bohm met Suman Kirloskar while she was working at the U.S. Army 225th Station Hospital in Munich, Germany where he was stationed. From the outset, she disabused him of any notions that Indians were all Hindu philosophy. She was caustic, earthy, and just impetuous enough to marry Bohm six months later and then introduce him to Vijaynagar. She was his greatest interpreter and critic in India and was his chief political collaborator when I first met the two of them in Delaware back in the 80s. They were a formidable team, quick to fault local activists for liberal and white-skin myopia. Suman went to work for GM where she was elected to high union office as a reformer. In addition to his political work, Bob often shared his sometimes abrasive and trenchant poetry at 2nd Saturday Poets readings and in Dreamstreets magazine. I followed his poetry somewhat desultorily, I must confess. Now I know that all the while, Bohm has been doing what I admire most in art.

   Not that what’s in front of him backgrounds everything in favor of politics. In “Generations,” for example, Bohm uses evocative and even erotic images to recount how the Bhil indigenous women, whose forbearers had left forest dwelling,

                                    danced rowdily at night
in their colony
on Belgaum’s outskirts
While a long-unseen uncle tended

cremation fires up north in Varanasi and the moon
its face flush with lust
groaned while spying on the earth’s naked belly. (45)

   In other poems such evocative images draw Bohm to declarations of solidarity. “Mandovi River, Panaji” posits images whose subtext is memories of empire. The river subtly conveys these memories to Bohm:

Laving its banks, the river, penetrating soil, seeps
mind-like toward roots almost, but not quite,
too slender to find.
The water’s rhythm takes me to where they are. (14)

What the river passes by are the Basilica of Bom Jesus, where St. Xaviar’s dust is resting (an artifact of Portuguese rule), a “barge loaded with ore from Marpusa”s iron mines,” “plantation laborers [who] trudge to work at dawn,” and the memory of a woman whose eyelids the Portuguese cut off to force her to watch them dismember her son. Says Bohm, accepting the challenge of solidarity, “She’s the queen of sight. / I’m her legacy” (13).

     Bohm is quite aware of the violence inherent in a struggle against violence, but, in “Concentric moments,” he seems to wonder how far he can go:

From random flailings to more focused acts, I rise, transcending redemption.
Or do I?
Did I really volunteer to go beyond the outmoded maps? (73)

    We become attached to many of the personalities over the five decades reflected in this poignant volume and, like Bohm, feel closer to their struggles. The fourth section, “Comings & Goings,” contains several tributes to the passing of a few. “Meeda Mama Dead” is a lovely memorial to a Dalit (untouchable) basket weaver, his home, his family, and to his first wife, who leapt into a well:

he wove her disappearance
into each basket he made so when
you lugged fruits or vegetables in it

you always carried an additional weight:

her body sinking in water. (129)

A bauxite rock Bohm has taken from the area suggests that dead weight and what we accumulate in life:

                        As with the rock

We all are
the matter we are made of, this
aging flesh, this body

of evidence: pitted surfaces, traces
of old chemical reactions, one
crust built upon another, nothing, no matter

how much we might try, completely

left behind. (130)

    The title poem, “What the bird tattoo hides,” refers to tattoos worn at the eye’s outer edge by Bhil women (remember the dancers and the aroused moon?). Here the eroticism is made more ambivalent and the cheeky flirtatiousness a companion to taking justice into one’s own hands and to solidarity. The aging Bhil beauty Godkari

            slices open
a stolen jackfruit, seeking
truth’s taste.

The blade she uses is just rusted enough
to cut to the chase.

Although she doesn’t know you, she’ll give you a piece.
She always shares what she takes. (148)

    These poems reflect well-tuned antennae and expert craft. But they do more. They shatter the fetishism of the physical world as innate spirit that so many New Agers and tourists of India espouse; instead, they articulate the human social relations that give that world its spirit. In “Mumbai om shanti who the fuck wants to pray anyway” Bohm pulls the legs out from under the airy-eyed: “Carrying the history / of philosophy / in a burlap bag hanging / from his neck / a legless man / maneuvers along / the sidewalk on / a wooden tray / with wheels.” He continues offering a few more disagreeable delicacies and concludes with “This isn’t / a scene / seen best from / 2 sides / or even / from all sides but rather / one seen best / without any type / of eyes at all, being / as they are / always / in the way.” Eat Pray Love this ain’t.

    “Mother River,” the farewell poem, is a wonderful prayer that sums up Bohm’s quest to breach privilege and live in solidarity (Narmada=one of India’s five holy rivers; mai=mother):

Narmada Mai
teach us to undam water so we can learn how
to free the heart and drive out
those who make our bodies labor miserably
let your high tides guide us, give us what
rising waters have: the power to breach walls, then cities. (158)

Such a quest reminds me of Martin Buber’s injunction to see the “other” as a “thou,” not as an object of use, colored by privilege, but as a co-equal “I.”  But Bohm goes further. Once we see who and what’s really in front of us, we must act.