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First impressions are often so telling. Minutes from the airport I sensed the scale of the mountainous peaks and craggy cliffs. I saw houses surrounded by blazing bougainvillea and banana leaves leaving me little clues as to what to expect. The high-rise buildings are mercifully few and every perch is roosted upon right up into the hills where I spotted villages with terracotta roofs dotted amongst the patchwork of the terraced cultivation carved out of the mountainside.

I never knew that Madeira, the Azores, the Canary Islands, and Cape Verde are known collectively as Macaronesia. Madeira herself is sub-tropical and neither Mediterranean nor on the equator and actually twice as close to Africa as Europe. It’s been a port of call for fleets heading towards the South Atlantic, acting as a gateway from Europe to the New World. In the 15th century, it became a cosmopolitan center for foreigners comprising German, Flemish, and Italian communities as they chased the sugar trade.
More… “Peaks and Gardens”

Adam Jacot de Boinod worked on the first series of the television panel game QI. After leaving he began to investigate other languages, examining 280 dictionaries and 140 websites. This led to the creation of his first book of three in 2005, The Meaning of Tingo, featuring words that have no equivalent in the English language.

He is now a regular international travel writer and luxury hotel reviewer, having written for the Daily Mail, the Mail on Sunday, The Daily Telegraph, and numerous travel print and website publications.

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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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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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Baseball has been getting drilled a lot lately, as if the sport itself had too demonstrably celebrated a home run and now had to deal with a pitcher dealing out comeuppance in the form of some chin music.

The game is chastised for being too slow, for being out of stride with our most pacey digital age where even the two line text is thought too long. The NFL is what Americans want: big, brutal, and fast, words you’d never associate with our former national pastime. More… “Two-Seam Tunes”

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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For several decades many readers of modern American poetry have believed that Countee Cullen was a lesser poet than Langston Hughes. This judgment is rather sharply at odds with how the two poets stood relative to each other during the Harlem Renaissance. Large numbers of readers in that period — from the elite to the newly enlarging community of “common readers” in the African American population — admired both men. Hughes himself described his status as that of the “poet low rate,” punning on the unofficial title of “poet laureate” which he gladly ceded to Cullen. The joke at once mocked the notion of laurels, and yet demonstrated that such categories had their social and literary critical function. But despite all the distortions (more of which in a moment) involved in assessing laurels and their correct bestowal, we can learn something about African American poetry and its merits and context by rehearsing the difference as well as the affinities, elective and natural, between the two men. More… “The Poets Low Rate”

Charles Molesworth has published a number of books on modern literature. His most recent book is The Capitalist and the Critic: J.P. Morgan, Roger Fry and the Metropolitan Museum of Art (U. of Texas).

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On February 1, 2016, the anniversary of Langston Hughes’s 1902 birth, the poet achieved a 21st-century mark of distinction: his name trended on Twitter. Over at the music streaming service Spotify, 8,099 listeners in the past 30 days had played recordings of Hughes reciting his poetry. On YouTube, since being posted a little over a year ago, a reading Hughes did at UCLA shortly before his death had been played 12,226 times: amazing for an 85-minute, not-exactly-hi-fi, audio-only recording from 1967.

This shouldn’t be a surprise. As an African American icon Hughes is beloved, and as a writer Hughes has lodged his handful of poems permanently in the public mind. This has been true since 1921 when his first published poem, written when he was still a teenager, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” caused a sensation in black America. It remained true, as observed recently by W. Jason Miller, when Hughes’s poem from 1948, eventually known as “Dream Deferred,” was instrumental to the imagery and language of Martin Luther King’s 1967 “A Christmas Sermon on Peace.” And Hughes’s centrality was affirmed yet again in 2004 when presidential candidate John Kerry made use of the 1938 poem “Let America be America Again.” All of this is to note that, along with Whitman, Dickinson, and Frost, Hughes is arguably one of the few marquee names in American poetry.
More… “The Hughes Blues”

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

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In the Egyptian section of the Penn Museum stands a man. He is next to a 12-ton sphinx and is wearing a multicolored dreamcoat. His beret shimmers; a red cape hangs about his shoulders. “Planet Earth can’t even be sufficient without the rain, it doesn’t produce rain, you know,” he tells the camera. “Sunshine…it doesn’t produce the sun. The wind, it doesn’t produce the wind. All planet Earth produces is the dead bodies of humanity. That’s its only creation.” The man pauses and slides his hand across the sphinx. “Everything else comes from outer space. From unknown regions. Humanity’s life depends on the unknown. Knowledge is laughable when attributed to a human being.”

The birth of Herman Poole Blount on May 22, 1914 was, for him, the least significant of all his births. Blount begat Bhlount and Bhlount begat Ra and Herman begat Sonny and Sonny begat… More…

Jazz fans have never exactly wanted for live albums. If you’re a fan of the genre and have any kind of collection, it likely contains stacks of field recordings. There seems to be a maxim for rock ’n’ roll fans that every top act produces one legit live classic, but you could pick up a second job and still not make much headway into rounding up the full live catalogs of jazz heavy hitters such as Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, and Duke Ellington. These guys recorded everywhere and seemingly in every which way — at small clubs by running lines to equipment set up in the kitchen; on radio broadcasts at surf ’n; turf joints, festivals, and, in the case of Albert Ayler’s sending off tenor hero Coltrane, funerals. But what you don’t get a lot of is honest-to-goodness big band one-nighters in the middle of nowhere.

The… More…

 

Chet Atkins’ “Walk Don’t Run,” was recorded in 1957. It’s a groovy little number. A soft, jazzy drum beat rumbles along beneath a wide-ranging guitar melody backed nicely by a second guitar.

In 1960, a young group called The Ventures did a re-make of Chet’s song. It was the same song, but it wasn’t the same song at all. Musicians talk about creating a new sound or looking for that new sound. They often talk about that new sound in hushed tones, as if they’ve suddenly crossed over into the realm of the sacred. There’s lots of nodding and smiling. Knowing glances replace anything that could be put simply into language.

In 1960, a new sound came into being. There were others getting to the same place at the same time — Dick Dale, The Shadows, Link… More…