Category Archives: Music

A Southern Girl Says Goodbye to New York

Alas, it is our last evening here before an early trip home to Georgia tomorrow. I didn’t blog as much as I wanted this trip–my students put me to shame (probably because they receive grades for their posts :)) There was so much more I wanted to reflect on: how the South might just reside up in Harlem; how Coney Island always restores my soul; how I seem to always reconnect with old friends in this city; how I think I may have learned how to interact with New Yorkers on my very last evening here; how this Southern girl (unlike hometown girl Carson McCullers) ain’t ever leaving her region, not even for the cultural capital of the world. I’m going to use this excuse for my lack of posts: we’ve just stayed so busy, which means more experiences and less time to write about them. Instead, I’ll offer you some photos and let you see through my eyes what this trip has meant to me…(after all, this isn’t only a literature trip but a photography and arts trip, too).

Carson McCullers' Home in Nyack, NY.

Carson McCullers’ Home in Nyack, NY.

Sometimes the worst aspects of the South show up everywhere.

Sometimes the worst aspects of the South show up everywhere.

And the best ones also show up (at Sylvia's in Harlem).

And the best ones also show up (at Sylvia’s in Harlem).

I've dreamed of seeing Minton's ever since I read Ralph Ellison's "The Golden Age Time Past," one of my favorite jazz essays of all time.

I’ve dreamed of seeing Minton’s ever since I read Ralph Ellison’s “The Golden Age Time Past,” one of my favorite jazz essays of all time.

These are the "stars" that matter to me.

These are the “stars” that matter to me.

Catch the group in the glass  as we step into the Apollo.

Catch the group in the glass as we step into the Apollo.

The South lives in Harlem.

The South lives in Harlem.

Coney Island get-away.

Coney Island get-away.

An accidental walk back across the Brooklyn Bridge let me catch a little AG reference.

An accidental walk back across the Brooklyn Bridge let me catch a little AG reference.

Minetta's,  a site in the Village where Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Dylan Thomas, and e.e. cummings frequented.

Minetta’s, a site in the Village where Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Dylan Thomas, and e.e. cummings frequented.

My job is so cool that I get to take students to a pub--the White Horse Tavern, Dylan Thomas's favorite watering hole.

My job is so cool that I get to take students to a pub–the White Horse Tavern, Dylan Thomas’s favorite watering hole.

The end of our literary tour...with the beginning of great American literature.

The end of our literary tour…with the beginning of great American literature.

The sweetest end to this trip: a gift from a student. This means the most of anything I've gained here.

The sweetest end to this trip: a gift from a student. This means the most of anything I’ve gained here.

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The Last Night

So there once was a man. He loved New York. He was leaving, and still had not seen each and every place he wanted. In fact, he did not even see half of what he wanted. There were so many places to go. There were so many places to visit. There will never be enough time.

He was there for an education, an education in which he loved very much. He loved his classmates and loved the environment of his classes. He stepped off of the plane with high expectation and will soon be leaving with those same expectation exceeded.

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He met so many amazing individuals and developed numerous relationships in which he wishes to continue.

On his last and final day, he simply did not complete his bucket list. New York City is just too big. The hustle and bustle of the city engulfed his personality and created a bond never to be broken.

Sometimes, you never seem to be able to follow your dreams. Sometimes your dreams are just out of reach. Sometimes, they are ripped out of your hands and thrown into a dumpster. And sometimes, you leave and watch them out the back of a packed van and wonder if you will ever see them again.

Just kidding.

On a serious note, New York is on point. We wanted to make it to one more “must go” place and chose grand central terminal because it was raining. When we got off the train, I heard this seriously intense amazing awesome on point beat. I was like, lame. I felt this way because I assumed this was an electronic beat with no effort involved. Instead, to my surprise, I walked up the stairs to see a dude beat boxing. I filmed an exclusive video. See below.

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Cultural Exports (or: A Tale of Two Cities, Part Two)

In case you don't recognize them, those are collard greens--that were offered cold on a salad bar.

In case you don’t recognize them, those are collard greens to the right–they were cold, an addition to the salad bar.

Remember I said that thing about missing home and seeing it everywhere? Maybe it’s that I look for it everywhere. Even before I got here, I started looking for it. While I’m from South Carolina and I currently live in Georgia, I spent seven formative years in South Louisiana getting my Ph.D. at LSU. Sure, I left there, but somehow I didn’t really leave there—LA is in my heart, especially New Orleans. Part of the reason for that is because I love the music so much. So, when I saw that Kermit Ruffins was playing at the Brooklyn Bowl on the first Saturday after my arrival, it was a no-brainer—I bought my ticket straight away.

But, as should be expected, I didn’t just go dance the night away and lose myself in the music. I reflected (ah, the life of an academic—unable to NOT reflect). And what I reflected on this time was the exportation of southern culture, which seems to be in line with the trip theme of “Southern writers in New York.” Some might argue that Kermit Ruffins is the essence of popular New Orleans music these days, and some—like me—might argue that New Orleans music is the essence of southern music. So, when I got to the Brooklyn Bowl and saw lines outside the door, I was heartened. When I talked to some folks outside who were jazzed (excuse the punny phrasing) to see Kermit play, I was moved that so many others appreciated the music from my “heart” city of New Orleans.

And then someone asked me if I’d tried the fried chicken at Brooklyn Bowl because they are known for their fried chicken.

I don’t know why that simple question set me off thinking, but it did. I wanted to answer that just about everybody I know fries up his/her own chicken with a special recipe and that there are probably 20 or more restaurants that serve the “best” fried chicken in the town where I live. I started to feel like I was in a place where fried chicken and traditional jazz were exotic. I started to think that maybe these folks were fetishizing the South, coming to Brooklyn to eat fried chicken and dance and sing along to “Marie” as if they were in New Orleans or some other Southern locale. Somehow, it also felt a little unfair that they only experienced the best aspects of the culture without understanding how the centuries of violence and oppression came to inform these aspects. When you live in the South, it is much harder to ignore that history and its reverberations. In some ways, I could connect this experience to the Kara Walker installation—there was a strangely discomforting distance between art and audience.

But maybe that’s just the way—art cannot create authenticity for us; it is, after all, artifice. Maybe I should be happy that people are just searching for a hip Southern experience, that they want to eat southern food and see Kermit Ruffins (because there are plenty of Southerners who don’t want to celebrate our rich culture). Still, I left a little disappointed because seeing Kermit in Brooklyn is not anything like seeing New Orleans music in New Orleans. The place is intrinsic to the culture—the music and everything else—and there’s a spirit that is not transportable. As Tom Piazza (a native New Yorker) writes in his memoir, Why New Orleans Matters, “New Orleanians are attached to tradition, which is fused to a sense of place, to the ground itself…” (104). Much of this “tradition” is also born from the horrifying and complicated history of the region. So, if you’re seeking New Orleans culture or Southern culture of any kind, it’s best to just go there and dance in place, listen for the reverb, and maybe even fry your own chicken.

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The Last Stop

This is not nearly all that is leftover from my trip. Some things cannot be counted.

When you’re trapped on a train for 30+ hours, you have plenty of time to think and reflect. When will my next hot shower be? Next hot meal? Will I ever see my dogs again? My friends and family? Who will panic first: me, one of my students, the four-year-old sitting five rows up? What did I forget? Who did I forget to buy a souvenir for? Did I lose any weight from all of that walking? Was this really the right time to quit smoking? (Turns out “no” on that last question, so don’t get too excited). But of course, as a writer, I was mostly thinking about what my last post would look like—how I would sum up this trip, how I would convey what I’ve learned and experienced overall.  And this is how it turned out—a return to an old lesson again.

I was nervous about this trip when we started talking about it last August, but by May, when everyone had paid his/her money and it was absolutely official, I was physically ill with anxiety. There was the planning: excruciating for someone as disorganized as I can be. There was the fact that I had never spent more than three days in New York City, and now I was going to have to navigate it…with 21 other people. 21 other people that I didn’t know that well: 19 students, 2 faculty members. It turns out that this is the lesson. It’s never about the place; it’s always about the people. No matter where you are, people have the potential to ruin your experience or to enhance it. I’m not talking about the helpful (and sometimes rude) strangers I encountered. I’m talking about our group—our family of 22.

I was also privileged to catch up with two old friends while I was on this trip, one that I hadn’t seen in months and one that I hadn’t seen in several years. Sitting on a rooftop in Williamsburg, I confessed to one of these friends that I didn’t feel very open anymore—that maybe this inability to be “open” was dragging down my self-esteem a good bit. She calmed my fears by telling me that this was common with folks our age—she’d heard plenty of people in their mid-thirties and forties express this sort of anxiety. I was still thinking about that conversation, along with the rest of the trip, as I struggled to survive the long road home. I sort of knew that, once I got back to Georgia, I was going to realize that I now feel more open. And that this wasn’t only because of three weeks spent immersed in the arts in New York City, but that this was actually mainly because of three weeks spent with an open and endearing group of people.

Let me tell you about them. On our second day there, one student expressed that her favorite thing about the city was that she didn’t feel like a minority there, that no one asked her “what are you?,” that she felt accepted and a part of something. On the third day, one faculty member laughed the entire time we had to pay INDIVIDUALLY for 22 Metrocards, which saved me from a near-panic attack and taught me not to worry so much about the details. Another student—of legal age—remarked that he had been to only one bar in his life before this trip and now he was out with his peers every night. My other colleague researched and led us on a lovely tour of Greenwich Village and the East Village, reciting poetry to us at nearly every stop (my favorite was a recital of the Ramones at the old CBGB’s). More than once at a museum, I overheard an art student explaining the significance of a painting to an English student. On my own, I conversed with art and English students about the importance of Jack Kerouac, the real “story” of hip hop, the experience of eating Ethiopian food and soup dumplings. We talked about music, about writing, about reading, about art and photography, about shoes and shopping, and sometimes just plain old life B.S. I did plenty of eavesdropping, and on their own, this group talked about relationships, their families, their goals and pursuits, their adaptability to what was around them. The students seemed to fall in love with the city—or at least certain aspects of it. They seemed to fall in love with each other, mostly metaphorically, and treated each other with respect. Then one of them literally fell in love with a New Yorker, and I wondered if he’d get on the train with us. And then two of the students didn’t. They didn’t get on the train. They found an apartment in two days. They stayed in New York City to pursue life dreams (or just some summer fun), very Carson-esque, even if they don’t realize it right now. All of this—ALL of it—comes with openness, an openness to the place and an openness with other people.

It occurs to me that, in 1940s Brooklyn, this is what the February House was all about. A grouping of artists that lived together, discussed life, became inspired and reflective because of these discussions. Sure, there was competitiveness, disorder, arguing, even some loneliness and some lostness, but as author Sherill Tippins sums up, each of them had been inspired either to create or did create some of the greatest work of their lives. And they formed lasting friendships, lasting memories. So, now, left to look at the trinkets brought back with me from the great city of New York, I am most moved to consider the people that lived with me for three weeks and inspired me to cultivate their openness. To lose the anxiety and just adapt. To live fully with curiousity. Thanks, y’all.

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Let Go Your Expectations

A blurry view from Battery Park on a clear-headed night.

In the class the other day, one of my students commented that she is learning a lot about herself on this trip. I find this to be true for me, too. (Who knew one could keep learning even at 35?:)) I also find myself re-learning old lessons that, by now,  I should have remembered and held fast to. For instance, letting go of expectations. Living in the moment. All that Zen jazz. And tonight it worked.

I’ve been attempting to see music in this city since I got here, and so far, it’s been an epic fail. As a music lover in a city full of opportunities for listening, this is unacceptable. There were two shows I came here very excited about: The Felice Brothers at the Brooklyn Bowl and the Alabama Shakes at Central Park. I enjoyed the 45 minutes of the Felice Brothers that I saw. But they came on at 11 p.m., I hadn’t had any coffee since 10 a.m., and I admit that I might just be too old for late shows. I tried again with the Alabama Shakes, but for a 3 p.m. show, I found myself waiting, alone, in the heat, for nearly 2 hours before the first band (of three) came on. I now admit that I might be too impatient for trendy shows. So, today, when a free Gabriel Kahane/Suzanne Vega concert (in conjunction with a Poet’s House reading) popped up, I was interested but skeptical. My expectations were low, in fact so low that I thought about not going at all. But because Kahane and Vega have both written musicals starring Carson, I felt that it was my duty.

Thank goodness I let my job lead me in all the right directions. The setting was beautiful—at Rockefeller Park in Battery Park, right on the water as the sun went down. I got there a bit late for Gabriel Kahane’s set, but I enjoyed every minute that I saw. I appreciated his comment to the crowd that he was sharing a stage with another musician who had written about Carson. There’s something unassuming and seemingly honest about Kahane and his music, and I left with quite a crush. Then, two young poets read from their work, which I found comforting, maybe because I hadn’t seen a reading in a month or two. Because we host so many readings at the McCullers Center, it feels like a regular part of life. I didn’t realize that I missed it until this evening.

But here’s what I wasn’t expecting, here’s what I came unprepared for: Suzanne Vega was amazing, and her cult of fans was enthused, happily drinking wine on the lawn, dancing with their kids. It was some sort of New York music miracle. She sang mostly older songs, but she also threw in two songs from the musical Carson McCullers Talks About Love. I had seen her preview this musical in Columbus for the Carson McCullers Conference held there two years ago, and I didn’t know quite what to think. Tonight, I absolutely fell in love with the songs. There was something transcendent about hearing her give the intro to “New York is My Destination”—hearing Suzanne Vega mention Columbus, Georgia—a place that I am connected to almost as intimately as Carson—to  a crowd at Battery Park, a crowd of which I was, at that moment, a part.

But it didn’t stop there: I was moved even beyond Carson and Columbus. After her nod to Carson, she sang “Left of Circle,” a sweet love song that brought back my childhood in the 1980s. “Left of Circle” is featured on the Pretty in Pink soundtrack, which remains one of my favorite movies of all time. She closed with her hits, including “Luka.” Surprisingly, this brought me back to my youth again, even though I was never a big Suzanne Vega fan. (But she was on the radio and MTV, and I was a radio/MTV kid.) All of Vega’s songs held some certain nostalgia for the crowd. Even the songs I didn’t know recalled a freer time—dare I say it, a time with no expectations. Finally, after staring at the lights across the river and leaning into the railing that separated the park from the Hudson, I started my trek back to real life, with Vega’s live rendition of  “Tom’s Diner” sounding in the background. I left not only with a renewed love for Suzanne Vega but also with a renewed remembrance to simply let things go and, as cliche as it may sound, be in the moment.

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A Tale of Two Tourist Cities

This one’s been brewing for a while, probably because I recently wrote about the New York/New Orleans jazz debates as portrayed in the HBO series, Treme. Then I also happened to read a short piece in the latest Oxford American about the differences in New York and New Orleans mentalities.

Jazz Capital of the World, but is it the Birthplace of Jazz?.

So it makes sense that, while at the Brooklyn Bowl the other night (which I was mentally comparing to the Rock n Bowl), I struck up a conversation with a man who had a tattoo of a fleur de lis with NOLA scrawled underneath. He wasn’t a New Orleanian—and neither am I—but, as he said, he visited there plenty throughout the year. Always for jazz fest, never for Mardi Gras. He told me that he had driven across the South to a music festival in Mobile, and he continued, in what I thought was a slightly smarmy tone, that he couldn’t believe all of the churches, whether they were ramshackle side-of-the-road snake-handling type places or big corporate to-dos. Needless to say, like any progressive southerner, I was annoyed: “We’re not all like that, you know.” (I almost wanted to say: “how do you know I’m not a snake-handler?”)

This conversation just fueled my musings on the NYC/NOLA divide. Both cities thrive on tourism (although New Orleans is much more dependent on the industry). Both cities boast a rich heritage of diverse peoples and arts communities, and both cities capitalize on the cultural arts—whether visual, literary, musical—for the purposes of tourism. In light of that, I’m interested in how these cities sell themselves at the face-to-face level. In New York, most guides and museum workers and even strangers on the street are pretty friendly to us tourists, but I’m not getting the “Where are you from?” or the “Honey/Baby/Darlings” that I’m used to in New Orleans. Sometimes I’ve even gotten looks of annoyance. Of course, in New Orleans, everyone is friendly and welcoming—until you turn your back. New Orleanians are protective of their culture and wary of outsiders in a way that I haven’t seen yet in New Yorkers. It’s my feeling that New Orleanians want folks to visit, even to see the “real” NOLA, but I’m never sure they’d be so accepting right away if you just stayed. I get the feeling New Yorkers might not even notice if you just stayed.

I intended to end this post with a declaration of my overwhelming preference for my “heart” city of NOLA, even if their welcoming attitudes can be a little put-on. That faux friendliness–those “Honey/Baby/Darlings”–instantly makes me feel like I am a part of New Orleans, like I could stay forever with my new friends. After years of graduate school in south Louisiana, I am always homesick for the culture, the food, the people there.  But, then again, who is to say that these two cities don’t have more in common than I thought, and who is to say I won’t feel the same way about NYC after only three weeks. (To be continued…)

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Piano in the Park

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I could read the tattoos on his hands as he played. If he didn’t have a piano in front of him playing, I wouldn’t have believed he was so amazing. Goes to show there’s not to judge a book by it’s ripped jeans and snarky New York disposition.

Talent is in every corner of this city. This particular man in Washington Square Park amazed me. It was obvious by his musical selection that he was classically trained , (or at least had an affinity for Bach and Mozart.) he could have easily played in an orchestral setting, but instead played in the park for change. Who knows, maybe he does both. He played a song by Yann Tierson, and I swooned. someone screamed for him to play Coldplay, and when he asked for other requests,

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