Three Things Thursday: Riding, Reading, and Teaching

The semester is winding down and I’m contemplating my summer blogging schedule. I’d like to keep it going at least four days a week, but perhaps ramping down my quick hits and varia posts on Friday? Or making them a “photography Phriday” post?

Just a thought.

For the final Thursday of the semester, here are three little things that are simmering around in my head. 

Thing the First

Over the last decade, I’ve rediscovered the joy of walking. Hardly a week goes by when I don’t walk at least 20-30 miles usually in 6 or 7 mile chunks and usually accompanied by the dogs. Because I’m a creature of habit, I tend to walk the same paths day after day and this has given me a chance to observe the subtle changes that take place both with the changing of seasons and  year after year.

This spring, I’ve started to ride my bike a bit more. I bought a gravel bike that’s a hybrid between a road bike and a mountain bike suited for light trail riding and, more importantly, sojourns on the gravel section-line roads that surround Grand Forks. This has allowed me to explore a bit more widely. At the same time, I’m finding that gravel riding takes a significant amount of concentration. The distribution of gravel on the section-line roads is uneven meaning gravel appears in pools and eddies, ridges and troughs which make it like riding in deep snow or sand. The road surfaces have washboard patches that give way to smooth, almost polished, hard-packed stretches which ride like pavement. 

What’s interesting about riding the gravel roads around my town is that they give me a greater appreciation for the local landscape much the same way as walking does, but the texture of the gravel roads always is vying for my attention with the landscape for my attention. I can’t really tell whether riding my bike, then, has expanded my view of my world or narrowed it to the smoothest paths between the ridges of gravel on the roads.

Thing the Second

Somewhere on the web, I was reminded that the Greek poet Nikos Gatsos died on May 12, 1992. It’s not a special anniversary of his death or anything (I guess next year we can recognize that it’s been 30 years). His most famous poem is Amorogos. I remember buying my copy of the Sally Purcell translation in Athens when I was working at the American School of Classical Studies at Athens. You can read a bit of an earlier translation by Kimon Friar here and there on the web.

The poem was written during the Nazi occupation of Greece and combines traditional Greek poetic forms with surrealist images. For Gatsos, Amorgos (an island, according to the story, Gatsos never even visited) becomes the object for his brilliant tracing of the pain and beauty of the complicated world in which he lived.

Thing the Third

It’s the start of the summer and I’m teaching an undergraduate Roman History class to two students. Traditionally, these summer courses are taught as independent reading and usually focus on three to five books and involve a series of reviews or reflection essays.

This summer, however, I was considering focusing on maybe one or two books. I’m curious about Ed Watts’ recent book on the fall of the Roman Republic, Mortal Republic: How Rome Fell into Tyranny (Basic Books 2018) and Walter Scheidel, Escape from Rome: The Failure of Empire and the Road to Prosperity (Princeton 2019). I’d like to add a third book to the list, but considering that Scheidel clocks in at over 700 pages and Mortal Republic at 350. That’s 1000 pages for students to read and digest, and probably enough for one semester.

That said, I’m open to a third book, if you have something in mind. These students have no background in ancient history or Roman History.

New Book Day: Backstories: The Kitchen Table Talk Cookbook

It’s new book day at The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota. And most people agree that New Book Day is the BEST DAY.

The book is Backstories: The Kitchen Table Talk Cookbook and it’s edited by my colleague Cynthia C. Prescott and Maureen S. Thompson. 

If you want to check the book out, you can download a copy here or purchase it in glorious paperback!

Yesterday, I enjoyed the wide ranging book release panel at the Rural Women’s Studies Association where an number of the authors discussed their contribution to the book and celebrated the hard work of the editors to make this impressive work possible. 

From my perspective as a publisher, this is the most mature book that I have produced so far in terms of design, workflow, and final product. The book is innovative in content and the design embraces that, without taking too many risks.

Below the fold is a blurb for the book and the press release. 

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Sharing recipes is a form of intimate conversation that nourishes body and soul, family and community. Backstories: The Kitchen Table Talk Cookbook integrates formal scholarship with informal reflections, analyses of recipe books with heirloom recipes, and text with images to emphasize the ways that economics, politics, and personal meaning come together to shape our changing relationships with food. By embracing elements of history, rural studies, and women’s studies, this volume offers a unique perspective by relating food history with social dynamics. It is sure to inspire eclectic dining and conversations.

Cynthia C. Prescott is Professor of History at the University of North Dakota and an occasional baker. Her research focuses on portrayals of rural women in cultural memory.

Maureen Sherrard Thompson is a Ph.D. candidate at Florida International University. Her dissertation focuses on business, environmental, and gender perspectives associated with the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century seed industry.


Here’s the press release:

For Immediate Release
May 10, 2021
The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota
Grand Forks, ND

From COVID to Comfort: New Book Explores the Role of Women and the Kitchen in Rural Life

As the COVID pandemic transformed our lives, one thing remained a constant. The kitchen continued to be the center of home life. In fact, social distancing, lockdowns, and other challenges associated with the pandemic made the kitchen even more important as cooking, eating, studying, and above all work, intersect around the kitchen table.

Backstories: The Kitchen Table Talk Cookbook edited by Cynthia C. Prescott and Maureen S. Thompson, concludes with perspectives on the pandemic and situates them amid the long history of cooking, food, and women’s work in the home. The book combines scholarly essays with reflections, recipes, and recollections that bring out the complex history and work around the kitchen table. With over 20 contributors and 60 selections, Backstories takes the reader from the East Coast’s Delmarva Peninsula to the American and Canadian Midwest, the Mexican-American border, to Hawaii and beyond and situate the kitchen across a range of cultural and historical contexts.

Cynthia C. Prescott, Professor of History at the University of North Dakota explained “Our goal was to bring together recipes, interdisciplinary scholarship, oral traditions, and personal memories to explore three centuries of rural foodways and women’s lives. Whether you are a foodie or a gender or food studies researcher, you will find much to savor in this unique volume.”

Maureen S. Thompson, a PhD candidate at Florida International University noted: “Backstories: The Kitchen Table Talk Cookbook is a captivating amalgamation of scholarly articles juxtaposed with heartwarming family memories associated with particular foods, and yes, plenty of recipes. Rural Women’s Studies Association members generously contributed scholarly articles paired with foodways, memories, and reminiscences to create, perhaps, the first academic cookbook.”

The volume was produced in conjunction with the Rural Women’s Studies Association triennial meeting which this year has the theme “Kitchen Table Talk to Global Forum.” Catharine Wilson, Co-Chair of the RWSA and Host of the 2021 Conference, remarks: “Backstories serve up a delicious “taste” of what the RWSA is about: they are international and capture farm and rural women’s/gender studies in historical perspective. Members savored reflecting on their foodways and collecting the recipes, a process that whetted their appetites for our 14th Triennial Conference … Bon appétit!”.

Like all books from The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota, it is available as a free download and as a low-cost paperback via William Caraher, director of The Digital Press, noted: “It was a pleasure to collaborate with the editors and contributors to produce something genuinely unique. That we can make this book available for free as a download and as an affordable paperback should ensure that it appears in as many kitchens and libraries as possible.”

Cooking in the Scholarly Kitchen

This morning I have the pleasure to attend the Rural Women’s Studies Association Triennial Meeting (via zoom, of course) to offer a few comments on a book that The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota will release tomorrow. The book is Backstories: The Kitchen Table Talk Cookbook and it’s edited by my colleague Cynthia C. Prescott and Maureen S. Thompson. 

If you want to check the book out, you can download a copy here or purchase it in glorious paperback!

I want to keep my remarks focused on the book this morning, but I’m super tempted to talk a bit about academic publishing as well. Backstories emphasizes the role that women play in rural foodways and in the family kitchen. Woman not only provided sustenance for their families and communities, but also communicated cultural and social values, shaped the domestic economy, and offered stability during a time of crisis. The kitchen and cooking took on an even more prominent role during the COVID pandemic when family meals, cooking experiments, and the use of the kitchen table itself as a multipurpose nerve center where family life, work, school, and, of course, eating come together. The book then reveals how contemporary situations shine light on the traditional roles of the kitchen in family life.

A more adventurous talk would fold the story of The Digital Press into the history of the kitchen and point out how publishing is often regarded as the kitchen of the academic process. In fact, one the best known academic publishing blogs is called The Scholarly Kitchen

In this context, it makes sense that publishing industry as a whole is largely operated by women (one recent figure that I saw was >70% of the publishing industry is women). Of course, this doesn’t mean that women are making decisions about who and what to publish. In fact, studies consistently show that men dominate editorial boards and there remains gender disparity in research. Moreover, women are paid less than their male colleagues in the publishing industry. Thus, the kitchen metaphor is more than just a way to describe the back of the house where research (which remains encoded as masculine activity in many contexts) is quietly turned into something consumable. The barrier, then, between research and publishing is not as simple as a kind of technical black box where two different skills abut one another. It is also a barrier that is mapped onto gender divides in academia as a broader industry.

Books like Backstories serve as nice reminders that the kitchen as both a real and metaphorical place remains a gendered space, but also reflects the centrality of women’s role in the process of producing the family, society and culture as well as academic knowledge making. Just as in recent home architecture, the kitchen has move to the center of the home and become public social space situated for both display, gathering, and the preparation of food, the publishing process, pried open by interest in open access and scholar-led publishing, has started what I imagine to be slow pivot toward the center of academic life. 

Music Monday: Chicago After Sun Ra

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been reading a good bit about Sun Ra. Much recent scholarship has emphasized his time in Chicago from the early 1950s to 1961 when he decamped to New York. This is partly because the University of Chicago houses the “Alton Abraham Collection of Sun Ra” which is a significant collection of material relating to Sun Ra’s time in Chicago. Recent work on the Chicago jazz scene during Sun Ra’s tenure have argued that by the early-1960s opportunities for Sun Ra and his Arkestra had become quite limited and this eventually drove him from Chicago. The concentration of clubs and venues in Bronzeville that made Chicago an important center for jazz (and other forms of Black music) in the post-war decades collapsed under the weight of urban renewal, suburbanization, and growing racial anxieties in the 1950s and 1960s. In fact, reading William Sites or Paul Youngquist, one might imagine that the jazz scene collapsed in Chicago after Sun Ra’s departure.

Of course, this is not the case (and I don’t think either author would really argue this), and over the past week, I’ve been listening to some Chicago based outfits in the decade after Sun Ra departed from the city. I don’t want to suggest that these groups are somehow carried on Sun Ra’s legacy or anything of the sort, but they do speak to continued vitality of the Chicago jazz scene in the 1960s.

The first album that I’ve been listening to is the Art Ensemble of Chicago’s Tutankhamun released in 1974, but recorded 5 years earlier. It’s really a masterpiece of free jazz that embodies the last 1960s AEC’s approach to music. As every reviewer has noted, it emphasizes tonality and sometimes skittish rhythms over conventional melody and harmony. Malachi Favors nonsense vocals in the first track establish the album as a sound experiment that gradually stretches and pushes at the potential of music to explore both new pasts and presents. 

The album cover itself combines the famous Head of Nefertem (aka Tutankhamun as Sun God) with an amazing futuristic font (which I think is Stop by Aldo Novarese). It’s hard to not to imagine this cover evoking Sun Ra or at least sharing in the same spirit of the past and future that shaped so much of his brand of Afrofuturism.

Here’s the first track via YouTubes.

Tutankhamun album

The second album that I’ve really enjoyed is more conventional and in some ways, more directly connected to Sun Ra’s time in Chicago. Philip Cohran’s first album with the Artistic Heritage Ensemble (1968 which is sometimes called On the Beach). Cohran played with the Arkestra from the late 1950s to their departure from Chicago and shared Sun Ra’s interest in large ensembles. He was a founding member of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians in 1965. The music likewise traces some of the paths set out by Sun Ra in Chicago and combines aspects of hard bop with free jazz and rhythm and blues to create a distinctive form of Chicago soul jazz. 

The album is fantastic with complex, steady rhythms punctuated by soaring (if not particularly adventurous) solo explorations. The album feels like something that should be played loudly with the windows open so it can dance across the summer breeze.

The album cover is fairly conventional, although the boldly printed symbol of the Artistic Heritage Ensemble connects it to an Afrocentric imagining of Black music.

Here’s the album via YouTubes.

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Finally, no review of the Chicago scene is complete without reference to Anthony Braxton’s 3 Compositions Of New Jazz (1968). It’s here that I completely lose the plot of what’s going on in the music. Radical improvisation, unconventional song titles, and a deep commitment to texture and tone in the music creates an album that is as much jazz as a distinctive sonic experience. At this point, the musical situation that produced Sun Ra appears indistinct to me, but the probing and experimental spirit of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians.

Here’s the album via YouTubes.

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To be clear, I’m not trying to suggest that Sun Ra somehow initiated the experimental music scene in Chicago (pace Lewis 2008), but that the same spirit of sound experimentation anchored in both the rich musical history of Chicago (jazz, blues, soul, et c.) and the challenges associated with Chicago’s Black community informed, in different ways, Sun Ra’s music and the jazz that exploded from Chicago in the mid to late 1960s.

The relationship of this music to developing forms of Black identity demonstrates the continued vitality of Chicago music scene and its ability to adapt to the pressures that undermined the conditions that made post-war Bronzeville a crucible for musicians like Sun Ra.      

Friday Varia and Quick Hits

Part of the fun of the “Northern Plains Lifestyle” is trying to get comfortable with the weather. A week or so ago, I would say that we’re headed toward summer, but now I feel like it’s still springtime in the Red River Valley. I suppose it doesn’t matter. I’ll take temperatures in the 50s and sunny days over wintertime. 

Yesterday was my last day of classes for this academic year and the calm before the final wave of grading. This means that I’ll start on my summer reading list in earnest, take care of a bit of backlog in emails, and do some Digital Press work. I should also have time for a spin on the ole push-bike and to enjoy the Fighting’ Phils at Atlanta, the Sixers continue to coast toward the end of their season, the F1 party is in Spain, and the NASCARlers are at the Lady in Black. The big show, of course, is Saturday night when Canelo Alvarez fights Billy Joe Saunders for the WBO Super Middle Weight Championship of the World. The rest of the card looks pretty boring, but any time Canelo fights, it’s a kind of must-see TV.

Hope your weekend will be as relaxed as mine and that you find something that intrigues you in my little list of quick hits and varia:


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Three Things That I’ve Learned This Year

As the academic year has come to a close, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that this has been a particularly odd and most challenging twelve months. The COVID pandemic has thrown my well-worn routines into chaos, forced me to redesign classes on the fly, made it impossible to continue my field work in Greece and Cyprus, and disrupted whatever thin boundary existed between work-life and home-life.

I’ve been thinking a bit about what I learned over the last year and figured that I’d offer three ill-formed thoughts here.

1) Field work, travel, and archaeology. For over 20 years, I had travelled to the Mediterranean to do field work. It was also a chance to build professional relationships, socialize, and, perhaps most importantly, think on site. The last two years, I haven’t been able to do this. 

It feels strange being disconnected from the Mediterranean. I certainly feel a sense of loss and a distance from our field areas especially as they appear more and more as datasets, GIS maps, and descriptions. At the same time, I find myself looking much more closely at the landscape closer to home. I’ve taken a few bike rides into the country and visited some rural churches. I’ve also looked more critically at the parks around me and as my legs get a bit stronger, I look forward to going for longer runs and walks (and rides) through the region and our community.

It got me thinking about how much a sense of place shapes my research and thinking. I’ve obviously read enough about a sense of place, placemaking, and the significance of being situated in a particular environment, but it was not until I found myself unable to go to Greece and Cyprus that I realized how much being THERE mattered in how I think. Conversely, being forced to engage my local space has made me much more interested in understanding my local landscape. I guess place matters. 

2. #FuckProductivity. I’ve really loved the #fuckproductivity hashtag that’s been appearing in my various social media feeds. I have no idea where it came from and who started it, but it definitely speaks to my own sense of aimlessness and exhaustion.

One thing that the COVID pandemic showed me is how much I relied upon things like travel for little breaks from my routine or rituals like leaving my laptop at work as a way to discourage me from getting RIGHT to work first thing in the morning. I have an amazing home office now that seems always to beckon.This has gotten me a bit worried about whether I work out of some misguided desire to maintain to achieve optimal productivity and this is some kind of internalization of capitalist work rhythms.

What I’ve discovered about myself is that I’m not particularly productive. In fact, I really don’t get much satisfaction from producing anything. What I enjoy is the process of reading, thinking, and writing. I know that I work too much, but I wonder whether what keeps me sane and happy is not so much the pressure to produce something, but the endless joy that the process brings? 

The COVID pandemic has made me realize how much breaks, like travel, changes of scenery, like going to Greece and Cyprus, and even the uneven rhythm of non-pandemic life makes the process of writing, reading, and thinking much more enjoyable and less exhausting. 

3. Teaching. I’ve been trying to be a more compassionate teacher of the last few years. This involves more than just trying to be more understanding toward my students and being more flexible in my teaching (and their learning) outcomes.

In particular, this year has encouraged me to listen more carefully to my students. I suppose that I never really realized how much many of them have struggled as they had to endure the uncertainty of the COVID pandemic, the isolation that came with “social” distancing (which is a term that actually describes the result of physical distancing), and the interpersonal (and intergenerational) challenges associated with increasing polarized political landscape. My students just feel down and distracted. 

To attempt to compensate for the challenging times our students are facing, I’ve had to rethinking assignments, move deadlines, relax my expectations, and work closer students to ensure that they were not sacrificing their own well-being to satisfy arbitrary (or even well-considered) “outcomes” for the course. If part of our goal as teachers is to impart life long habits of mind and love of learning, it seems to me a good idea to make sure that students don’t associate learning with arbitrary goals, deadlines, and anxieties especially during already anxious times.


I’m sure that I’ve learned other things this year and maybe as the dust settles a bit on the last 12 months, they’ll come to mind and I’ll share them here.

Book by its Cover: Backstories: A Kitchen Table Talk Cookbook

Just a short post today! 

Yesterday, I received galley proofs of Cynthia C. Prescott and Maureen S. Thompson’s Backstories: A Kitchen Table Talk Cookbook. It’s scheduled to appear early next week in conjunction with the Rural Women’s Studies Association meeting and The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota racing down to the wire to ensure that it’ll be ready to go!

I was exceptionally pleased with the cover design by Paul Forest and wanted to share it with everyone “in the paper”: 

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The back looks great too:

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I’m happy with how the text block looked as well. It’s the first time that I’ve designed a book at 7 x 10 and liked the ability to incorporate generous margins on the page.

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This book should be available for download in the next few days (for those of you who can’t wait to get a copy!), and for now, you can check out a preview of the book here

Terrace Tuesday is NOT a Thing (But It Should Be)

This weekend I read an article in the most recent issue of Antiquity titled “Agricultural terraces in the Mediterranean: medieval intensification revealed by OSL profiling and dating” by (takes a deep breath) Sam Turner, Tim Kinnaird, Günder Varinlioğlu, Tevfik Emre Şerifoğlu, Elif Koparal, Volkan Demirciler, Dimitris Athanasoulis, Knut Ødegård, Jim Crow, Mark Jackson, Jordi Bolòs, José Carlos Sánchez-Pardo, Francesco Carrer, David Sanderson, and Alex Turner. 

The article, as the title implies, uses optically stimulated luminescence to date terraces from across the Mediterranean. The date of terraces is a perennial problem in the archaeology of the Mediterranean countryside. Not only are terraces ubiquitous in many areas of the Mediterranean basin, but they present a series of intriguing archaeological challenges. For example, terraces often functioned for multiple generations, underwent repairs, and contributed to landscape that reflected a palimpsest of economic, social, and political relationships to rural agricultural production. Developing a system to date terrace walls successfully and at scale has become a bit of a white whale for archaeologists interested in the Mediterranean countryside with targeted excavations, complex GIS analyses, and ethnoarchaeological approaches offer limited, but at times valuable insights.

The project described by Turner et al. uses optically stimulated luminescence at scale to date terrace walls from sites across the Mediterranean. From what I understand, OSL allows one to date samples according to when they were last exposed to light. This appears to involve some kind of science. By taking a series of samples at various depths from behind terraces, Tuner et al.’s work was not only able to identify how the terrace was built, often by recognizing the reverse stratigraphy associated with a cut-and-fill approach to construction, but also, in many cases, date the terrace. Since the article is open access you can go and read it and appreciate the authors’ careful attention archaeological process in their evaluation of the the OSL dates for terrace walls. Note that they also provided the data that supported their arguments as a download, but oddly presented it in as an .xlsx file rather than as a more basic file format. 

The article is more than just methodology. The authors’ argue on the basis of the samples that the terraces that there were two major periods of terrace building and modification: the mid-12th century and the early-16th century. On Naxos, where some of the samples were taken, these periods did not necessarily coincided with known settlement in the same region. More significantly, the dates associated with the terrace walls do not seem to coincide with artifact scatters on the surface or more monumental features in the landscape. 

In other words, the construction of these terraces is not something that left a marked trace in the landscape. Of course, it is hardly surprising that the construction of terraces didn’t leave a material trace in the landscape, but one would have liked to see traces of increased activity associated with the terrace walls. At the same time, it’s interesting to think of terraces not as necessarily productive features in the landscape, but as aspirational features that reflected the hope for increased agricultural productivity. It may be that the factors that encouraged the investment in terraces at one point in the past did not mature according to plan or perhaps only supported episodic use. In other words, the scenarios that resulted from the increased investment in the landscape may not have left a clear material signature outside of the investment itself.

In this context, the ability to date a terrace or a terrace system consistently offers a window into a aspirational landscape that may or may not coincide with other material traces. This alone offers a distinctive perspective on rural life.      

Music Monday: Sun Ra in Chicago

This weekend, I read William Sites’s Sun Ra’s Chicago: Afrofuturism and the City (Chicago 2020) as part of my simmering Sun Ra project. I’m still a long way from being able to offer a reasonable, much less sophisticated, critique of a book like this, but it certainly gave me ideas. More than that, while many recent studies of Sun Ra have tended to emphasize his music, poetry, and often abstract view of the world (and universe), Sites anchored his reading of Sun Ra in the urban landscape of mid-century Chicago (and to some extent Birmingham) and traced its impact on his music and intellectual contributions. 

This approach to Sun Ra’s life and development provided me with a few useful insights as I continue to excavate around the links between Sun Ra’s distinctive Afrofuturism and Afrocentrism and Near Eastern archaeology. Here are three things that I learned:

1. Chicago Conversations. One aspect of life in Chicago (and, to a less extent, Birmingham) that Sites makes very clear is that the Black community in these urban areas fueled Ra’s eccentric analyses of the relationship between American Blacks, white society, and their history. Sites located Sun Ra and Alton Abraham’s Thmei Research broadsheets which represent some of the earliest known efforts of Sun Ra to sketch out his cosmology and world view, next to proselytizing of Elijah Muhammed’s Nation of Islam which also established its offices in Chicago. While the Nation of Islam developed into a major cultural force in the 1950s and 1960s attracting jazz musicians, athletes, intellectuals, activists, and a wide range of Black Americans to its tenets, Ra’s Thmei broadsheets revealed that his thinking shared certain themes—including Afrocentrist views of Black history, mysticism, personal asceticism, and allusions to celestial intervention.

Rather than assert that Thmei borrowed these ideas directly from the Nation of Islam (or any number of other Black organization that had a significant presence in Chicago), Sites argues that the public space of Washington Park provided a common ground for the circulation of ideas that contributed to new imaginings of Black identity. This was particularly significant in Chicago where the Bronzeville neighborhood with its nightlife, business, and residences modeled a city within a city where an independent Black community could exist alongside and perhaps even equal to white areas. While this view of Black urban life proved short lived, the confidence to articulate both new readings of the Black past and present in Chicago drew upon a similarly utopian imagining of Black spaces and time.  

2. Time and Sun Ra. Sites also demonstrates that Sun Ra’s music and his cosmology rely on distinctive views the the past, present and future. For example, Ra frequently combined pieces produced in different styles including cutting edge contemporary jazz and more traditional styles of jazz music drawing on swing, bob, and even folks and popular traditions. Like many artists he continued to draw upon both the turn of the century “American Song Book,” as well as more contemporary post-war songs and styles. This eclectic mix not only had its origins in the range of venues where Sun Ra and his bands play in Chicago with their distinctive clientele and expectations, but also also his efforts to construct Black identity at the intersection of Afrocentric views of an African past and the potential of a new Black future.

Ra’s thinking, however, isn’t simply a repackaging of a linear model of progress for a Black audience by situating their origins in Africa. Sun Ra combines past and present in his music and his fanciful relocation of Africa not as a continent which served as the font of Black culture, but as an idealized place that existed in the past but also future, celestial visions of Black identity. The recombination of past, present, and future (themes that appear in Ra’s poetry, his Thmei broadsheets, and his music) emerge even in his tendency to combine recordings from different sessions, sometimes separated by months or even years, on a single album and the tendency for his work to draw on different themes and styles. In short, Ra’s cosmology and music represented a challenge to the rhetoric of mid-century, post-war progress and reflected the limits of Black optimism as the Black economy, hopes for political autonomy, and music scene in Chicago encountered efforts at urban renewal and suburbanization that reinforced white authority in the urban sphere while curtaining Black opportunities.  

3. Mid-Century Spaces. The final aspect of Sites’s book that fired my imagination was the role of mid-century spaces in shaping a view of the space age. Sites makes clear that space race and the suburbs were not unrelated phenomenon.  Sun Ra’s (and other Black musicians from Dizzy Gillespie to Duke Ellington) aspirations for the space age paralleled their hopes that Blacks enjoy the promise (and prosperity) of the post-war suburbs.

While Ra’s music remained anchored in the urban imaginary of Chicago (at least until 1961 when he decamped for New York), space provided him with an alternative to the suburban dreams. In fact, Sites shows how Ra’s various songs featuring space itineraries reproduced similar itineraries anchored in songs about Chicago. By mapping the experience of living in Chicago with an imagined journey through the solar system, Ra divorces the space age from the aspirations for suburban life and reminds his listeners that urban spaces too continue to offer utopian potential. It may be that the challenge facing the urban Black community in their ability to access the full potential of utopian suburban life encouraged this remapping of space onto the faltering urban promise of the late 1950s. 

There is much more to Sites’s book than these three points, of course, but these ideas contribute directly to some of the things that I’m playing around with these days. More on Sun Ra and music in general on Mondays this summer!     

Friday Varia and Quick Hits

It’s feeling like spring here in North Dakotaland and the tans and browns of the long, dry, winter are giving way to just a bit of green. Temperatures should be in the 60s for the next week or so with occasional days in the 70s. My Orthodox friends should have a lovely Sunday to spend celebrating a socially-distant Easter.

It feels like baseball weather, and that makes it a good time for the Phils to enjoy a home series with the Mets. The Sixers continue to conserve and preserve down the stretch of the season and playing the Hawks and Spurs will make that a bit easier to do. The Cup guys are in Kansas for the annual Midwestern snoozefest, and the Formula 1 party is in Portugal for the second time in as many years. There’s a good bit of boxing this weekend with Andy Ruiz’s and Mick Conlan’s long awaited return to the ring, the seemingly ageless Dereck Chisora gives it a go against Joseph Parker, Dmity Bivol will batter some dude named Craig, and Sebastian “the Towering Inferno” Fundor is fighting in some WBC title eliminator. 

And now, for a word from our sponsor! Do check out the preview of Cynthia C. Prescott and Maureen S. Thompson’s Backstories: A Kitchen Table Talk Cookbook due out from the Digital Press at the University of North Dakota next month. Go here!

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Now back to our regularly scheduled quick hits and varia:

IMG 6126Don’t look too closely at his mouth. There’s nothing to see here.