Johns Hopkins Magazine -- June 1999
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JUNE 1999

H U M A N I T I E S    &    T H E   A R T S

On tour with Arlo... no end in sight... rescuing America's "orphan" films... art enthusiasts... tracking down folk tunes... a poetic look back...

Guthrie and Nardolillo: a collaboration built on gatecrashing
Concerto for folksinger

When John Nardolillo (Peabody '97) goes out on the road this year with Arlo Guthrie, he might have more tolerance for gatecrashers than most conductors. His collaboration with the legendary folksinger would not have happened had he not crashed a gate himself.

Nardolillo, who is founder, director, and conductor of the new Metropolitan Chamber Orchestra in Washington, D.C., and Guthrie will tour this summer with a show that combines American orchestral and folk music. On the bill will be compositions by Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein, followed by a 16-song performance by Guthrie, who will appear with the orchestra and play folk classics such as "City of New Orleans," "This Land is Your Land," and "Goodnight Irene."

A longtime fan of Guthrie's music, Nardolillo happened to be at New York's Lincoln Center on business when he noticed that a Guthrie concert was in progress in Alice Tully Hall. He waited until intermission, mingled with the crowd in the lobby, then slipped into the hall when they returned for the second set. He recalls, "I was sitting in the audience and this idea started coming over me--about how Arlo's music was one American music, and there was this other American music, Copland and Bernstein and Charles Ives, and it hit me that it would be great if you just sort of threw them in a pot together. So then I wanted to talk to Arlo. I was worked up about this idea."

That's when the 27-year-old Nardolillo crashed his second gate of the evening. He slipped past security to go backstage, and cornered Guthrie. "We got to talking and it went from there. I told him about my idea, which was like a concerto for folksinger, with orchestral settings of his music. Coincidentally, he had been to an orchestral concert that weekend and he was thinking orchestras, too."

Guthrie agreed to collaborate on a show. Nardolillo hired a fellow Peabody grad, James Burton '98, to orchestrate some of Guthrie's music. The resultant concert premiered in Bangor, Maine, in May 1998. "We didn't know if it would work," Nardolillo says. "Arlo's fans are purists, and we didn't know if they would buy it. Or even if we would buy it. But it turned out to be tremendously successful. The audience loved it." They later performed with the Atlanta Symphony, Oregon Symphony, and Boston Pops. This year's tour includes dates in North Carolina, Delaware, Utah, and San Francisco.

"He's a great musician," Nardolillo says of Guthrie. "He is an amazing blues-folk guitar player, and a great keyboard player. Even these jaded orchestral musicians were really impressed by his technical ability. And people can't help responding to his story-telling and sense of humor."

Pairing an orchestra with a folksinger produces some interesting moments, though. Says Nardolillo, "Some of the arrangements weren't set up as Arlo normally played the songs. He's a guy who plays a two-hour show from memory, so he's got his little routines and he can't just add a bar at, say, minute 37. He agreed to change some things, but then he'd forget and I'd be on the podium looking at the orchestra, mouthing the words One more bar! Or I remember at the first concert or two, Arlo kept turning around to me and saying, 'Now, how do we start this one?'"

Nardolillo looks forward to this year's tour: "When I say, 'It's gonna be Arlo Guthrie with an orchestra," I get back this look, as if to say, Are you joking? The whole thing from the start has been eyebrow raising. That's part of the fun." -- Dale Keiger

No end in sight

Every May, Writing Seminars professor Stephen Dixon hosts an end-of-the-school-year party for the department's graduate students and departing seniors. This year he had something to celebrate himself: the near-simultaneous publication of two new books.

In April, Coffee House Press issued a collection of Dixon's previously published short fiction titled Sleep. Not much later, Henry Holt published Dixon's latest work, 30 Pieces of a Novel. Keeping up with Dixon's output is a project for any reader; he has now published 20 novels and collections of short stories, garnering two nominations for the National Book Award.

30 Pieces of a NovelThe New York Times succinctly labeled "a jerk" in its review of Gould, turns his flawed life over and over in his mind throughout 30 Pieces, drawing the reader into a squirm-inducing but compelling intimacy that ends, 672 pages later, when Gould says, "Just stop it." --Dale Keiger

Among those to be preserved: The Coward (1915)
Photo courtesy Museum of Modern Art
Preserving America's film treasures

Eric Schwartz '79 first involved himself in film when he reported to Congress on artists' rights regarding the addition of color to old black-and-white movies. Now he's trying to stop the colors from fading.

Schwartz, a copyright attorney in Washington, D.C., is director of the National Film Preservation Foundation (NFPF). The foundation raises money to preserve archival, historical, documentary, and old feature films that are deteriorating day by day all over the country.

Federal legislation in 1992 funded the first-ever national study of film preservation. Says Schwartz, "The study found that 50 percent of the feature films made before 1951 were irretrievably lost. Eighty percent of the silent films--90 percent in the early silent era--were irretrievably lost. And this was only in the feature-film area."

The problem of so-called "orphan films" was particularly critical, he says. Orphan films include documentaries, avant-garde films, films made outside the studio system (especially by minority directors and writers, or women), newsreels, cartoons, shorts, and ethnographic material.

Most of the films made before 1950 were on an unstable nitrate base that inevitably decomposes. Says Schwartz, "Archivists used to call 'preserving a film' transferring it from that unstable nitrate base to what's called 'safety stock,' which is acetate." They discovered after several years, however, that the colors faded on acetate, too, and film not properly stored under temperature and humidity control would go through what's called "vinegar syndrome." Says Schwartz, "It deteriorates and smells vinegary when you open the can. This has been discovered on major feature films like the Star Wars series."

In setting up the NFPF, says Schwartz, "we proposed that we create a not-for-profit foundation, but do it with congressional authority so that we can get a regularized federal-dollar contribution."

This was in 1994, when Congress was looking to reduce, not add, to federal spending. Schwartz recalls, "The congressional people kept saying, 'Why should we give money to Hollywood?' And we said, 'But it's not Hollywood. We're talking about, for example, the oldest extant African American film collection, which currently is in non-air-conditioned buildings in the south of Texas. We've got Antarctica footage from something like 1920, in desperate need of preservation. Marian Anderson's performance on the Lincoln Memorial in 1939--we have the entire film shot. We have the first film shot in the territory of Alaska, and Groucho Marx's home movies. This is what orphan film is all about."

Two years later, Congress created the NFPF with a $250,000 federal matching funds grant that won't begin until October 1, 1999. At the outset, Schwartz's law office housed the foundation and its all-volunteer labor. Now the NFPF has raised about $2.5 million in private pledges and in-kind contributions, hired two full-time staffers, and opened an office in San Francisco.

It's also been granted $500,000 from the National Endowment for the Arts, for the "Treasures of American Film Archives" project, in which a dozen archives will preserve and exhibit archival footage as part of the national millennium celebration in 2000. Another $200,000 has come from the Pew Charitable Trusts.

Schwartz estimates that the NFPF will need $3 million per year to be fully viable. He notes a measure of irony in his working to stop, among other forms of deterioration, the fading of color film. He first got involved in preservation 10 years ago when directors tried to prevent producers and owners from colorizing black-and-white feature films.

Says Schwartz, "In 1992 we said, 'Let's get away from these rights issues and focus on physical preservation of material, because if there's no material there won't be rights to fight over.'" --DK

"Drapery Study #1"
By Elena Smith '99
Art enthusiasts

Let's face it, most undergrads who take classes through the Homewood Art Workshops won't wind up the next Georgia O'Keefe or Ansel Adams. But that doesn't bother director Craig Hankin '76, or the students who sign up in droves for two-credit courses in drawing, painting, cartooning, photography, and three-dimensional design. Launched 25 years ago by Eugene Leake, the Art Workshops have remained popular over the years; today's classes have long waiting lists. That situation should improve 18 months from now, when the program moves from Merryman Hall to the new student arts center. "We'll basically double our studio space," says Hankin. "It's something we've wanted for a long time." --Sue De Pasquale

Online folk music index is a hit

Did you know "Alabama Gals" and "Roundtown Gals" are really alternate titles for the popular song known by its refrain "Buffalo Gals, won't you come out tonight?" Or that the folk tune commonly called "Soldier's Joy" has also been titled "Cotton Eyed Joe"?

How about naming one of the many tunes written or performed by Virginian A.P. Carter and his extended family of folksingers, who warbled such favorites as "Bonnie Blue Eyes"?

The Folk Music Index, cyberhoused in the Eisenhower Library's online database, lists thousands of examples of the American genre of acoustic, traditional music passed down within families and communities. Mostly old LP recordings, and some CD reissues, they are cross-referenced to include 25,000 titles and 12,000 performers.

The web site is the Hopkins library's most popular (after the online lists of reserved articles assigned by university professors). Between October and December 1998 alone, there were 55,200 hits from online users. Some are multiple hits by the same users hitting 10 to 30 screens while cross-referencing titles or musicians.

The index was created by Jane Keefer, former Hopkins resource librarian in the sciences, and was born out of her own extensive collection of folk music. Keefer, a longtime musician and teacher specializing in banjo, guitar, fiddle, and dulcimer, first began cataloging her recordings in the mid-1980s; she kept all the data on 4 x 6 inch index cards. Then the World Wide Web hit, allowing communal access to the information. "The Web has that sort of idealism," Keefer says.

The audience that taps the free database, Keefer says, includes folk musicians studying the craft, fans or collectors looking for old recordings, students researching the folk genre, professional musicians who want their songs listed, and others.

"Folk music is community music," says Keefer, now a science and mathematics librarian at West Chester University in Pennsylvania. Keefer remains affliated with the MSE online database, which offers space for the index. "Since we no longer learn from parents, families, and friends, a body of recorded music can function as a resource to get in touch with traditional roots. As a folk musician, I really learned from records. I used to say I learned at my record player's knee."

Though the index does not yet offer audio clips of songs, users can research just where to find a scratchy old recording of the fiddle tune "Old Joe Clark." They can also look up sheet music for some tunes on the library's Lester S. Levy Collection of Sheet Music online. Says Keefer: "Many songs that we call folk songs were really published songs at the turn of the century." --Joanne P. Cavanaugh

A poetic look back

Live 85 years, as has Chester Wickwire, and you will see some things. The Hopkins chaplain emeritus can recall an upbringing in Colorado when the American West was not far removed from its frontier days. He's wrestled with polio and deep questions of faith. He's spent decades campaigning for human rights and fair treatment of African Americans, Native Americans, migrant laborers, and the oppressed and abused of Central America. Now, he's added something new to his life's list: published poet.

Longs Peak (Brickhouse Books, 1998) contains 39 poems by Wickwire that range far and wide geographically and in subject matter. He writes about polio in "The Ward" and "Swallows," the conflicts of faith in "The Road" and "The Canvas Tent," murder in El Salvador in "Let the Dead Bury the Dead," and his youth in Colorado in "Seventeen Rooms."

Says Wickwire, "I had been interested in poetry for some time, but never really got into it until these later years. Maybe I wasn't ready to do some kinds of things."

He sought guidance from poet Elizabeth Spires, enrolling in her class at Goucher College. "She helped me in so many ways to see what made a poem work," he says, "whether it was the iambic pentameter or the sounds or something else. She opened my eyes." Wickwire chuckles as he recalls joining a class of 19- and 20-year-old undergraduates. "They were aware that I was older than they were," he says, wryly. "They were very kind. None of this stuff came easy to me, but I worked hard at it."

Longs Peak is marked by frank writing and some blunt language. "That's something I probably couldn't have done earlier," says Wickwire. "I was reared as a fundamentalist, and it took me a long time to be liberated and talk about some of these things that you kept out of sight."

In the book's title poem, Wickwire wrote: "I've wasted too much time, too many causes,/too much small talk,/haven't stopped to think." Longs Peak is the activist finally taking the time to stop and think. "It's not that I regret that I was into a lot of causes, but I simply went ahead and did things without thinking a great deal about it. This is an attempt to look back at what I was, and where I came from." --DK