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All the world is sad and dreary

In a talk about her development as a poet, Louise Gluck relates the time when she, as a young girl, created a competition for the greatest poem ever based on what she had read so far. She chose Blake’s “Little Black Boy” and the song “Swanee River” as the finalists. Looking back on this (to me) unexpected choice, she said, “They are both totally alike, the same solitary voice raised in lament and grief.” I thought about these two poems and their connections to race, something Gluck doesn’t address, perhaps because it is so obvious. I was especially intrigued by her choice of “Swanee River,” both music and lyrics, because when I was the same age as she was, picking her own literary winners and losers, I was busily working my way through a book on my parents’ shelves, The Fireside Book of American Songs. Although I could play the melody on a recorder, I was mostly interested in the lyrics — favorites like “Bicycle Built for Two” and the songs of Stephen Foster, especially “Swanee River.” I was captivated by words like “creation” and “longing” and “plantation,” far too complicated and clearly beyond my comprehension:

Sadly I roam.

I’m still a-longin’ for the old plantation,

And for the old folks at home.

My fascination with this song has a complicated origin. When I was little, my mother used to drag me with her whenever she shopped for clothes at a small department store called Chatlins, in a small city outside Philadelphia. While she went to search or clothing, she always left me in the middle of a terrifying formation of headless white mannequins, all donning bras, and girdles. But just an aisle away there was a free-standing wooden display case, eye-level to my seven-year-old self. On its side, there was a button to press, which started a whirring sound and then a lever to pull, which opened a curtain to reveal a rural scene. (Cotton fields and barges, I’m guessing, though I don’t recall this part.) The ensuing show was free — no slot for a penny, nickel, or dime — and commenced strummed banjo music from a speaker the case. Then, a gangly, flapping marionette in blackface, the size of one of my sister’s Barbie dolls, shuffled and tapped, singing, “Way down upon the Swanee River . . . ”  More… “Swanee River”

Leonard Kress has published poetry and fiction in Missouri Review, Massachusetts Review, Iowa Review, American Poetry Review, and Harvard Review. His recent collections are The Orpheus Complexand Walk Like Bo DiddleyLiving in the Candy Store and Other Poems and his new verse translation of the Polish Romantic epic, Pan Tadeusz by Adam Mickiewicz were both published in 2018. Craniotomy will appear this summer. He teaches philosophy and religion at Owens Community College in Ohio.

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I see the shirt from afar, like the midway full of people parted just for my sightline. BLEED THE FREAK, it says in big, blocky, bright red letters. I’m not sure what it means, but it doesn’t feel right. Something about the violence of the phrase, the awkward but hypnotic syntax. The words worm their way into my brain like a song, bleed the freak, bleed the freak, bleed the freak.

I’m 16 years old, at the Puyallup Fair with my church youth group. It is 1994. It’s before the deep-fried fair food explosion — before deep-fried Twinkies, deep-fried Snickers, deep-fried Oreos, and before it occurred to food vendors at fairs large and small to experiment with dipping anything they can think of into batter and then deep-frying it. It’s before the Puyallup Fair becomes the Washington State Fair, before I grow up and move away from Washington, before going to state fairs becomes one of my favorite Midwest summer activities, and before I’ll care at all about seeing the animals, much less them becoming one of my favorite parts of a fair. Largely because seeing the animals — the horses, cattle, sheep, goats, pigs, chickens, roosters, and rabbits — is one of my wife’s favorite parts of a fair and one of the side effects of marriage is often your partner’s favorite things become your favorite things. There are, however, plenty of the deep-fried staples, between corndogs, elephant ears, and funnel cake — but also the Puyallup Fair staple, fresh scones with raspberry jelly. Then there was a fair’s worth of girls for a 16-year-old to ogle and teasingly push your friends into. And lastly, a selection of rides like the carousel, Classic Coaster, Kamikaze, Scrambler, and the small, two-person squirrel wheels in which my best friend Brad would spin and rock us back-and-forth so fast and jerky it would make me feel like I just might throw-up, though I’d never say that to Brad, not wanting to give him the ammunition to make fun of me nor the encouragement to keep doing it. More… “Name Your God”

Aaron Burch is the Founding Editor of the literary journal Hobart and the author of Backswing, a story collection, and Stephen King’s The Body, a nonfiction book about the novella that Stand By Me was based on. He’s currently working on a book of essays about music and growing up and religion and other stuff, THIS WAS ALL BEFORE THE INTERNET. He is on Twitter @Aaron__Burch.

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I am not a religious man, by neither temperament nor upbringing, but I did, once, come close to experiencing the sort of transcendence of the self that the world’s great spiritual traditions speak to. In my case though, it was not in a church, a synagogue or a mosque, nor was it retracing the steps of ancient pilgrimage or flying through the stars on a proscribed substance. Rather, my encounter with the essential interconnectedness of our selves and the universe came on a nipping cold March evening on the far outskirts of Ottawa. In one of the cheaper corners of the then-Scotiabank Place, now-Canadian Tire Centre, along with the rest of that sold out stadium, I would be moved by a three hour a set of stories and experiences that spanned the highs and lows of humanity. From rollicking, juvenile triumph to sober, resigned reflection and back again, with some stops for muscular calls for social healing and jokey, upbeat romances along the way. It was the first and thus far only time I saw Bruce Springsteen, complete with as many surviving members of the E Street Band as he could marshal, in concert. More… ““Walk Like a Man””

Carter Vance is a writer and poet originally from Cobourg, Ontario, Canada currently resident in Ottawa, Ontario. His work has appeared in such publications as The VehicleContemporary Verse 2, and A Midwestern Review, amongst others. He is a 2018 Harrison Middleton University Ideas Fellow. His debut collection of poems, Songs About Girls, was published by Urban Farmhouse Press in 2017.

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If you ask me, there were quite a few cringe-worthy moments in the movie La La Land but one moment especially hit home. Early in the story, Emma Stone’s character, Mia, apprehensively confesses to Ryan Gosling’s idealistic jazz pianist that she “hates” jazz. It’s probably intended to show Mia’s relatability for the audience, but this viewer at least winced with recognition. The fact that Mia eventually discovers that she likes jazz after all is less about digging the music than about giving the viewer the Hollywood ending they want. She’s not alone in her defensiveness when it comes to America’s music — believe me, plenty of people tend to give us jazz fans the side-eye whenever the topic comes up.

The sad truth is that all too often jazz suffers the same kind of casual dismissal that hip-hop, country, and EDM used to get before they took over the mainstream. Granted, this might be something only a jazz lover would notice but since at least the ’70s, jazz has become something of a niche market, to put it mildly. In terms of yearly record sales, jazz usually sells as much as classical music does, one of the many things the two genres have in common. Far too often jazz comes off as dated or quaint; it’s your granddad’s make out music. Worse, there’s an implied snobbishness often projected onto loving jazz — it’s a little like explaining that you prefer to spend your Saturday nights translating Hegel or making artisanal cheese. More… “Giant Steps”

Matt Hanson lives in Boston and writes for The Arts Fuse,  Boston’s online independent arts and culture magazine.  His work has also appeared in The Baffler, The Millions, and 3 Quarks Daily, and other places.  He can usually be found in the nearest available used bookstore.

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In “I’m Dead (But I Don’t Know It),” Randy Newman takes some potshots at rock stars continuing to grind it out long past their prime. The joke, of course, is that the chief target of the satire is he himself. Although the cleverness and self-awareness of the song belie the indictment, “I’m Dead” invites the suspicion that in recent years each Newman album (to paraphrase the lyric) has tended to sound like the one before – just not as good. But Randy Newman peaked much later than many of his peers from the Woodstock Nation. Never having been a hippie, he could embrace middle age without embarrassment, and in 1988, at the age of 45, he brought out his best collection of songs ever, the rueful, sardonic, and teasingly autobiographical Land of Dreams. More… “Randy Newman’s Land of Dreams

Stephen Akey is the author of the memoirs College and Library. A collection of his essays, Culture Fever, was published in January.

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members of Blue Cheer
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Not all moments of musical awakening have to do with sublimity. The early days of 1968 found rock and pop music waking up with a kind of hangover from all of the psychedelic happenings of the year before, when seemingly everyone — even the badass Rolling Stones — went the shimmering kaleidoscopic route.

Something was due to jar everyone back to having their feet on the ground and their ears pressed against it for the movement that would play a role in defining the new year. Enter, then, Blue Cheer and its debut Vincebus Eruptum, the first heavy metal album in history. More… “Blue Cheer”

Colin Fleming’s fiction appears in Harper’s, Commentary, Virginia Quarterly Review, AGNI, and Boulevard, with other work running in The Atlantic, Salon, Rolling Stone, The New York Times, and JazzTimes. He is a regular guest on NPR’s Weekend Edition and Downtown with Rich Kimball, in addition to various radio programs and podcasts. His last book was The Anglerfish Comedy Troupe: Stories from the Abyss, and he has two books forthcoming in 2018: Buried on the Beaches: Cape Stories for Hooked Hearts and Driftwood Souls, and a volume examining the 1951 movie Scrooge as a horror film for the ages. Find him on the web at colinfleminglit.com.

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The punk music scene in Philadelphia is deeply rooted in the prominent hardcore clubs and bands that made the city their home in the 1980s, and it continues to thrive today. College radio stations, like Drexel University’s WKDU and the University of Pennsylvania’s WXPN, also played a crucial role in establishing the scene. While the genre frequently rages against the establishment in both content and performance, it was predominantly men who were on stage and behind the mic, giving voice to the anti-establishment message — at least in the beginning.

Or so the story of punk (particularly hardcore punk) goes. The reality is that Philadelphia’s punk scene has a much more complicated relationship with gender and with the representation of women in that scene. Looking at the broader landscape of punk today, it is not hard to see the legacy of early female punk bands, like the Slits or the more recent Riot Grrrl movement. Philadelphia is no exception to that, with many current bands that have significant female representation and have adopted overt third-wave feminist viewpoints. But this is not necessarily a new formation for Philly punk; the “institutions” of Philadelphia punk — show houses, basements, clubs, and radio stations — have been testing grounds for new and more progressive identity politics, which themselves have been reflections of broader social movements that account for feminist and queer perspectives, for decades.

More… “Philly Punk”

Kevin Egan is the director of the Center for Interdisciplinary Inquiry in the Pennoni Honors College at Drexel University.

Maren Larsen is the associate editor of The Smart Set. She is a digital journalism student, college radio DJ, and outdoor enthusiast.

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Since the winter of 1995, I have had an ongoing love affair. It has continued even to this day, nearly 21 years later. I have been engaged in this romance, if you will, during the course of several relationships and my marriage. I have always been open and honest about my love for Luciano and I will continue to maintain the open and honest attitude about him in any future relationships.

People change over time. Relationships change and evolve, or end. However, Luciano is the one constant in my life. While my thoughts and ideas about him have changed, I can say the changes are positive ones. That is, as I have matured, the way that I think of him has also matured. As I have spent the years watching him, drinking in every nuance of his movements as he speaks or walks across a room, I have moved beyond a mere infatuation. I have become enamored by him: his presence, his work and humanitarianism, and his care and compassion for others. More… “My Love Affair with Luciano”

Stephanie L. Haun holds an MFA in Creative Writing with an emphasis in Creative Nonfiction from Queens University of Charlotte.  When she isn’t teaching or scrambling to meet deadlines, Stephanie is a Perry Mason fanatic, an avid knitter, and a sometimes trombonist.

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This month marks the 40th anniversary of a month of shows by the Grateful Dead that are regarded with awe by their legions of fans. At the core is the night of May 8, 1977, when the band played Cornell University’s Barton Hall and delivered what has long been considered their greatest show. In 2011, the Library of Congress added the Cornell show to the National Recording Registry even though it hadn’t been officially released.

This being the Dead, all the May 1977 shows have been circulating in various unofficial ways for decades. There was even an official box set of some May 1977 shows. But, until now, the Cornell show itself had never seen an official release. A limited-edition box set was put out this month, including a recording of the show along with three others previously unreleased. What is revealed should surprise no one at this point: the Cornell show was nothing special. It was in fact a typical night for the band in this period: sounding no different from other shows, comprising a set list of songs that were the usual suspects from that tour. Yet, this is high praise, because in May 1977, no band was delivering anything like what the Dead were putting on stage. More… “The Rocking Dead”

Richard Abowitz is the editor of The Smart Set. Get in touch at rabowitz@drexel.edu.

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Growing up in suburban New Jersey during the 1960s, I always thought of Leonard Bernstein as a kind of distant cousin. All Jewish families who had emigrated from Eastern Europe had people evocative of Bernstein — charismatic, larger-than-life talents who seemed to skirt danger.

It’s not entirely clear whether Lenny, as his friends called him (though his grandmother had insisted on calling him Louis, his given name) was a child prodigy, only that he loved music from an early age and was branded a genius when he arrived at Harvard. His genius showed most dramatically in his energy and inventiveness — a restlessness that some saw as a tragic flaw. More… “My Cousin Lenny”

Paula Marantz Cohen is Dean of the Pennoni Honors College and a Distinguished Professor of English at Drexel University. She is the host of  The Drexel InterView, a unit of the Pennoni Honors College. The Drexel InterView features a half-hour conversation with a nationally known or emerging talent in the arts, culture, science, or business. She is author of five nonfiction books and six bestselling novels, including Jane Austen in Boca and Jane Austen in Scarsdale or Love, Death, and the SATs. Her essays and stories have appeared in The Yale ReviewThe American Scholar, The Times Literary Supplement, and other publications. Her latest novels are Suzanne Davis Gets a Life and her YA novel, Beatrice Bunson’s Guide to Romeo and Juliet.

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