Better Know a Neighborhood #1: Old Fourth Ward

March 24, 2010

The Congress for the New Urbanism conference will be held this year in Atlanta between May 19-22.   David Byrne is one of the featured speakers.  My friend Drew Kane volunteered for the conference to help them build out some content for their website and asked me to help produce some videos about Atlanta that might interest the CNU participants.  Drew’s idea was to produce video vignettes about a few intown Atlanta neighborhoods.   The segments would provide introductory information about the neighborhoods and their various development issues over the years.  The title of our series is a nod to the recurring segment on The Colbert Report.

We are producing four of these videos and will roll them out over the next six weeks or so.  Beyond these four, we’d love to get some funding to produce more videos about other Atlanta neighborhoods.  If you have any ideas about how to fund this longer range project, let me know.

The first segment in this series focuses on the Old Fourth Ward.  We interviewed O4W resident and Atlanta City Councilmember Kwanza Hall, and he discusses the neighborhood’s multicultural history, the O4W development efforts led by Coretta Scott King, and the vision for the community for the next fifty years.


Picture Man

March 3, 2010

Oraien Catledge took some amazing photographs of the residents of Cabbagetown in the 1980s and 90s.  Because of the use of black & white and the focus on working-class subjects, Catledge’s pictures have often been compared to the Depression-era images of Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange.  Unlike the FSA photographers, who often took their pictures and moved on, Catledge burrowed into a single place and culture over a long period of time, much like an ethnographer. Catledge was welcomed into the lives and homes of Cabbagetown residents, partly because he showed up there virtually every weekend for over twenty years but also because he routinely gave something back, namely pictures and lots of them.  There may be other examples of street photographers who have routinely given prints back to their subjects, but I don’t know any.

A retrospective of Catledge’s work will be published in August, and an exhibition at the Mississippi Museum of Art will begin in October.  I’ve been asked to produce a video loop for the museum exhibition, and this segment will be part of that larger piece.  To view the video in a larger size, click here.  Thanks to Constance Lewis for helping produce this segment.

VMC vs. The Radio Star

January 27, 2010

Back in December I posted a video I put together about Atlanta’s old Video Music Channel.  The interview subject in the segment is Tom Roche, who is now an editor at Crawford Post Production.  Tom asked whether he could take a crack at the video and add some more of the great old footage of the VMC.  Tom is a pro editor, so I was more than happy to let him work on it.  He crafted an amazing re-edit:  he added lots of new footage and titles and generally smoothed things out.  It now feels more like a documentary and less like an extended oral history.  It’s a great testament to the heady days  of the VMC.

To view the video in a larger size, click here.

“And This is Free” review

January 7, 2010

I wrote this review of the classic 1965 documentary film “And This is Free” for Stomp & Stammer about a year ago, but since S & S didn’t archive it online, I’ll re-publish it here.  Shanachie reissued “And This is Free” on DVD in 2008, and hopefully now more people will discover this remarkable film, which I believe is one of the landmark documentaries of the 1960s.  For this review, I did an interview with Gordon Quinn, who is the only member of the film crew who is still living.  Gordon provided some invaluable insights about “And This is Free”.  I’ve embedded a clip from the film that I found on YouTube:  a street performance by the Chicken Man, one of the many bizarre characters that used to grace the Maxwell Street market in Chicago.

My pick for the DVD reissue of 2008 is Shanachie’s deluxe edition of the great 1965 documentary And This is Free.  The film had been out-of-print for several years but had developed an underground reputation largely because of its amazing musical sequences, especially one in a back alley that features the great bluesman Robert Nighthawk.

Mike Shea directed And This is Free.  Shea had established himself as a successful freelance photographer in the 1950s, and his work was regularly featured in Life, Time, and Ebony.  By the early 1960s, though, Shea was ready to transition out of photography, in part because of the downturn of the major photo magazines like Life and Look.  It was at this time that Shea met Gordon Quinn, who was an undergraduate at The University of Chicago.  They were both impressed by the new kinds of documentary films that were being made in the early 60s with the portable, untethered 16mm cameras and audio equipment.  Quinn later remarked on seeing these spontaneous, observation-based films with Shea, “We saw them together, and [Mike] was like, ‘This is it.’  This is what he had been waiting for his whole life to be able to make these kind of films.”

In August 1964 Shea and Quinn began shooting what would eventually become And This is Free.  Their location was the Maxwell Street market, located on the west side of Chicago.  They shot only on Sundays, the only day the Maxwell Street market was in full swing.   After about four months, they had amassed over twenty hours of film footage and countless hours of audio recordings.

And This is Free is revered by blues aficionados because it features some of the only film footage of Robert Nighthawk.  In fact, Robert Nighthawk was one of the central reasons why And This is Free was made.

Born in 1909 in Helena, Arkansas, Nighthawk was one of the early practitioners of downhome acoustic blues (he made his first commercial recordings in 1937).  He migrated to Chicago after the war and, along with Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf and others, helped to establish the sound and style of urban electric blues.  Waters and Wolf became recording stars on the Chess label in the mid-1950s, but Nighthawk never managed to establish more than a small regional reputation in Chicago and in Mississippi.   His passion for making records was limited, and he didn’t have the alluring stage presence of the Chess Records stars.  As Waters, Wolf, and the other Chess standouts performed at the large clubs in Chicago, Nighthawk continued to play at small bars and on Maxwell Street on Sundays.

During some of Nighthawk’s Maxwell Street jam sessions in the early 60s, he was joined by the young, white guitar prodigy Michael Bloomfield.  Unlike Nighthawk, who lived the quintessential blues life of rambling and hard times, Bloomfield grew up in a well-off family on Chicago’s North Side.  As a young teenager, he began frequenting the blues clubs of Chicago’s South Side and was periodically invited to come onstage to sit in with his musical idols.  By the late 1950s and early 1960s, Bloomfield had become a fixture within the Chicago blues scene.  He managed a club, played in several different bands, and began to get steady session work.

It was during this time that Bloomfield met Mike Shea.  Shea was a serious jazz fan, and most jazz aficionados in the postwar era appreciated blues because it was viewed as one of the key ingredients in the development of jazz.  Bloomfield suggested that Shea film some of the blues performances on Maxwell Street, and, because Bloomfield knew almost all the blues musicians who played at the market, he offered to serve as a mediator between the film crew and the musicians.

Bloomfield played guitar alongside Nighthawk during the performances depicted in And This is Free, but Shea decided not to include Bloomfield in the frame when he filmed these scenes.  Gordon Quinn explains why Shea did this:  “Because [Bloomfield] was white, when we filmed down on Maxwell Street in some of those scenes on the back porch. . . [Shea] framed [Bloomfield] out of the picture.  [Shea] was very much into quote authenticity even though he was well aware that the traditional musicians had enormous respect for Bloomfield.”

In 1965, when And This is Free was quietly released, Bloomfield achieved major success as a member of The Paul Butterfield Blues Band and a member of Bob Dylan’s first electric band.

Blues isn’t the only kind of music featured in And This is Free.  The most stirring performance in the film is the rendition of the gospel tune “Power to Live Right” by Jim Brewer’s street corner band.  Brewer and his band are steady, but it’s Carrie Robinson who steals the show, alternating between screechy singing and ecstatic dancing.

The “Power to Live Right” performance embodies the style and spirit of observation-based documentary films of the early 1960s, a genre which has to come to be known as direct cinema.  Like the famous moment in the 1960 film Primary, in which cameraman Albert Maysles films John Kennedy as the candidate makes his way through a crowded hall, Shea puts the viewer in the middle of the “Power to Live Right”  street performance through the use of long, mobile takes.

In many respects, And This is Free adheres to the basic style and strategies of early direct cinema—all the action is observed and not staged, subjects generally don’t interact on screen with the camera and the filmmakers, and there is no voice-over narration—but the film diverges from early direct cinema in one critical way: the intricate editing by Howard Alk.

Like Shea, Alk was a generation older than Quinn.  In 1959 he was one of the founders of The Second City, Chicago’s legendary improvisational comedy troupe.  At some point in the 1950s, he was taught film editing by Johnny Link, who had been editing Hollywood films since 1930.  In 1959 Alk edited his first major film, The Cry of Jazz.  Centered around the contentious (and fictitious) debates about jazz and race among black and white members of a Chicago jazz society, The Cry of Jazz includes stunning footage of jazz performances, most notably of Sun Ra and his Arkestra.

Alk’s editing in And This is Free is imaginatively associative.  Sometimes the associations are merely repetitions of words that help ease the transitions between scenes, like when Alk cuts from the performance of “Power to Live Right” to a salesman demonstrating sparkplugs who tells the assembled crowd, “When you talk about power, watch this!”  In other scenes, the editing associations are more complex and ambiguous, like when Alk cuts together shots of merchants selling old machine parts over a performance of the old folk tune “John Henry,” subtly tweaking the song’s message about the triumph of machine over man

And This is Free was conceived as a broad portrait of the Maxwell Street market where music was to be just one (albeit highly significant) part, but, in the editing room, Howard Alk emphasized the musicality of every aspect of street culture.  Gordon Quinn explains:  “We considered calling it ‘The Music of Maxwell Street,’ but we didn’t think it would convey what we meant because we meant the kid who plays the box, we meant the pitchman, we meant the guy who’s selling the little sparkplugs that you put in your car.   That’s a kind of music too.  We thought of it in a broader sense that there were a lot of people who were doing different kinds of performances on the street and we weaved those different things together and that those performances had a rhythmic quality and sometimes other qualities that made them a kind of music.”  Alk emphasized the internal rhythms of each performance and then assembled all the performances into one continuous forty-seven minute street symphony.  (Howard Alk greatly influenced Gordon Quinn, who went on to co-found Kartemquin, the documentary collective responsible for Hoop Dreams, among other notable films.)

Mike Shea had high hopes for And This is Free.  He sank nearly all his money into the project and hoped that it would get him established as a documentary filmmaker.   Unfortunately, though, the film had very limited success and was seen by very few people.  The educational television station in Chicago at the time even refused to air it.  Part of the film’s failure can be attributed to Shea’s naiveté about the film industry but also because, in 1965, there was very little infrastructure for theatrical documentaries.  In a few short years, with the success of documentary filmmakers like Emile de Antonio, D.A. Pennebaker, and the Maysles Brothers, that would begin to change, but, in 1965, there wasn’t much of a market for theatrical documentaries, especially one that was only forty-seven minutes long.

Although it was widely neglected upon release, And This is Free slowly developed an underground reputation over the years, partly because countless music documentaries have used clips from the film, including Martin Scorsese’s blues series from 2003.  Perhaps now, with this new deluxe Shanachie edition, And This is Free will be recognized not just as one the best films about Chicago blues and gospel music but also as one of the landmark documentary films of the 1960s.

Rail Removal for Atlanta’s Beltline Project

January 1, 2010

Happy New Year!  2010 is an exciting year for Atlantans because it’s when the Beltline path will finally become a reality.  In the past month, Norfolk Southern crews have been removing old railroad lines along the Northeast corridor of the Beltline.  The rail removal will continue in the Southwest corridor in the coming months and then a temporary mulch path will established.  In another year or two, a permanent concrete path will be installed, connecting the forty-five neighborhoods along the Beltline.  In five or ten years, a two-way light rail line will complement the path.

In this segment, Beltline volunteer Angel Poventud discusses the rail removal, the Beltline vision, and why it matters so much to intown Atlantans.  If you’d like, the video can be viewed in a larger size here.

Still + Sound 1: Blind Willie McTell at the Robert Fulton Hotel

December 10, 2009

I’d like to begin a series where I pair a single photograph with an archival sound recording.  For this first one, I focus on a photograph of bluesman Blind Willie McTell that was taken by Ruby Lomax on November 5, 1940 in a room of the Robert Fulton Hotel (which was located at the corner of Luckie and Cone Streets in downtown Atlanta).  Ruby was the wife of John Lomax, who at the time was the Curator of the Archive of American Folk Song at the Library of Congress.   The Lomaxes travelled extensively throughout the South in the late 30s and early 40s, collecting extensive field recordings of vernacular music.  In this recording excerpt, John introduces McTell and then the musician delivers a monologue about the various forms of blues.  I particularly like how McTell describes the blues of the 1920s as developing an “alley lope.”  Michael Gray recently released an excellent book about McTell, and several pages of this book focus on the Lomaxes’ recording of McTell at the Robert Fulton Hotel in 1940.

A Short History of Atlanta’s Video Music Channel

December 5, 2009

The Video Music Channel was added to Atlanta’s cable system on July 4, 1982.  The VMC studio was located in the basement of the Center Stage Theater, which was exclusively a venue for plays back then.    The VMC operated on a shoestring budget and its production value was often raw, but its producers and VJ’s were clever music lovers who seized the opportunity and created some really amazing television.  The channel developed a loyal following—including me and my two brothers—but its weak ad revenue could hardly keep the station in the black.  When the VMC was offered the chance to shift to broadcast channel 69 in 1984, they happily agreed.  Despite gaining a broader potential audience and a more high-tech studio, the ratings for the VMC at channel 69 weren’t great and management began to phase out music video programming in 1985.

Tom Roche arrived at the VMC in 1983 and served as its Production Manager until 1985.  In this segment he shares some of his memories of working at the channel.  Big thanks to Tom for providing some great archival footage for this segment.

The World of Sid and Marty Krofft Oral History #1

November 24, 2009

Sid and Marty Krofft produced a number of popular kids television shows in the 60s and 70s, including H.R. Pufnstuf and Land of the Lost.  In 1976 they had the brilliant idea to build the world’s first entirely indoor amusement park and selected the Omni complex in Atlanta as the location.

The World of Sid and Marty Krofft was a total flop and closed in less than six months.  Part of the reason was that Atlanta’s population was shifting towards the suburbs and away from the decaying downtown, and, even though the World of Krofft was an impressive spectacle, many families didn’t want to make the trek into town to experience it.  Eleven years later Ted Turner bought the Omni complex and transformed it into the CNN Center.  Rumor has it that, even as late as a few years ago, CNN employees found Krofft costumes and drawings in the nooks and crannies of the building.

Not that many people currently living in Atlanta can boast that they actually visited The World of Sid and Marty Krofft, so I’ve decided to launch a completely unwieldy project:  I want to do oral histories with every single person who actually went.  I figure I’ll complete this project in 2042.

My first World of Sid and Marty Krofft oral history subject is Jamey Propst.  Jamey was a close friend of my dad and he’s also a fine actor.  He took his family to The World of Sid and Marty Krofft and, in this segment, shares his memories of this bizarre and shortlived place.

Cooper Sanchez art show at Oakland Cemetery

November 13, 2009

Cooper Sanchez held an art show in Oakland Cemetery on the evening of October 9th.  Cooper worked as a gardener at Oakland after the March ’08  tornado and planted new flowers and vines within the ruins of the cemetery’s old greenhouse.  He got permission to exhibit his paintings for one night within the greenhouse ruins.

Vintage Atlanta tv commercials #2: Video Music Channel

November 5, 2009

If you lived in Atlanta between 1982 and 1986 and were of a certain age, you undoubtedly remember the Video Music Channel.  The weird videos and wacky VJ’s on the VMC warped my impressionable adolescent mind.  Unlike the placelessness of MTV, the VMC was firmly rooted in Atlanta and all its musical happenings.

I recently interviewed Tom Roche, who was the Production Manager for the VMC, and I’ll share some of his comments in a subsequent post.  For now I’ll pass along a VMC commercial which promoted four of their special shows.