Sunday, March 29, 2015

Texas Dance Halls, Part Two

The last bitter, rainy, windy day passed. The sun came out more frequently. This would probably be a problem later on, but for the moment it looked good. What better way to celebrate than with the second half of Steve Dean's dance hall tour, this time of the eastern end of the trip?

This part of Texas is one I haven't spent much time in, although I have been to Schulenberg in the company of the present Count Studeman von der Schulenberg (better known to his friends as Fred) and would often break the journey back home from Louisiana at the now-vanished Bon Ton in La Grange for their superlative fried chicken.

This was also the part of Texas that Steve has documented in his only (so far) book, Historic Dance Halls of East Central Texas, available in Austin at your favorite independent book store (or that link). Just reading that book made me want to jump in the car and head out there, but I was more than happy to be a passenger with a bunch of other people, like last time, and just ride along.

As we did last time, we headed out from the Midway Food Park, where Steve books the entertainment, and headed east out of Austin. We had a full van this time, 13 of us, all history buffs or Texana fans, apparently, although the couple next to me were dance fans and seemed to have a project of dancing in as many Texas dance halls and honky-tonks as they could, and at the outset were already plotting to see if they'd be home in time to see the Bellamy Brothers in the evening. Our driver was Erik McCowan, who's still working on his documentary about dance halls, which should be a doozie once it's finished. Steve usefully defined the difference as being "A dance hall you go to to dance with your wife, but a honky-tonk you go to to dance with someone else's wife," as concise and useful a definition as I've heard. During the day, as we went from one dance hall to another, he'd also point out legendary honky-tonks, most of which were no longer operating, but emanated history and good-natured sleaze.

The main difference between what we'd see today, as opposed to what we saw last time, was that Czech-Tex was added to the mix. The Hill Country is pretty solidly populated with the descendants of German immigrants, and although when the immigration boom happened, there was only a subtle difference between German and Czech (go look up the Sudetenland, if you want), there being no Czechoslovakia at the time, these settlers, mostly from Moravia, part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, were different in that they were solidly Catholic (the Germans were Protestant and Catholic, depending on whether they were from the north or the south), and their foodways were subtly different.

Our first stop was Kovar, a fly-speck so small that nobody has ever included it in a census, a Czech-Moravian settlement with an active SPJST (Slavonic Benevolent Society of the State of Texas) chapter at one time. There's still not much in the way of Kovar, but the SPJST Hall, is still there, and in pretty good shape. When we arrived, it was preparing for someone's Golden Anniversary party, and truth to tell, it wasn't much.

It doesn't even have the SPJST seal on it, but at least it's still in use.

Our next stop was an early lunch in Smithville, which connoisseurs of barbeque will realize meant a stop at Zimmerhansel's. This relatively unsung barbeque joint is one of the best in the state, and if it were in Austin, would give healthy competition to Franklin's for crowds. But the servers are quick and efficient, and if you order right, you can get a very memorable meal.

The good stuff is hiding under those onions

Unfortunately, I ordered wrong. Or part-wrong. The sides were utterly undistinguished, including the beans, but the brisket (I asked for half fatty and half lean) was astounding. The sausage, much raved-about in the online reviews, was the coarse-ground, underseasoned type found in a lot of barbeque joints in this area, and was only mildly improved by dipping it in the vinegary sauce. What was good, although I was afraid my teeth wouldn't be able to handle it, was the pork ribs, which a fellow-diner shared with me and was the cliched falling-off-the-bone excellent. So next time -- and there will be a next time -- I'll order small quantities of meat (mixed brisket, ribs) with one side. I've known about this place forever, thanks to my pal George Carver, but never made it out; Smithville never seemed that attractive to me. Silly me.

Erik exits, happy.

Where the action is: Zimmerhanzel's' pit, powered by post oak.
Next stop was Plum, Texas, pop. 95, host of the annual Plum Sausage Festival in June. Steve swears by Plum's sausage, but it's only available at the festival. Hmmm.

Plum in full bloom.
It sure didn't hurt that the recent rains have encouraged a fine bloom of seasonal wildflowers, which will continue (barring a freeze, which in a state loaded with climate deniers, Nature might yet impose just to show them), and this display was very patriotic, consisting of bluebonnets, some little white flower, and bright red Indian paintbrush. I also spooked a cluster of small frogs while taking this shot; they were hanging out in a culvert with water in it and leaping into darkness when they sensed my presence.

Plum's hall, again, wasn't very spectacular, but the surroundings were so nice I wasn't about to complain. Unlike the rest of the halls on this tour, the original settlers here came from Tennessee, and so were presumably Anglo Protestants, but the place soon was full of Moravians, who built the hall next to Sts. Peter and Paul church.

From here, we went to LaGrange, whose large fairground just out of town sits on a magnificent bluff above the Colorado River, totally invisible from any fairground attractions. It also has the spanking new Texas Czech Heritage Center, an archive of historical papers and photos which is expanding to a museum village just behind it with various buildings of interest to Texas Czech history in the process of restoration. The Pavillion is used in several events on the grounds, although as a relatively recent hall (1927) I didn't find it too interesting.

It is, however, big.

After leaving LaGrange, it was down another back road to another break, this time at the Rohan Meadery in Nechanitz. I'm not a big fan of mead, and after one small taste of what promised to be one of their varieties not infused with sweet fruit syrup (although a pure honey mead was, inexplicably, not available), I noted a nose of decay and a bunch of cloudy flavors and walked out to await the rest of the party on the porch. There was a huge white dog who'd greeted us, some guinea fowl making noise off by an outbuilding, and a bunch of chickens, some with elaborate leg feathers. There was a much smaller one who was chased away from the water dish by a very aggressive black chicken, and after a while I managed to coax it onto my lap.

What I saw.

What I imagine the chicken saw. 
And, refreshed by their mead-tasting, my fellow voyagers filed out and we were on our way to Cat Spring, where the Landwirtschaftliche Verein (Agricultural Society) erected a round (actually octagonal) dance hall in the 19th century. Thanks to an unusual community cohesiveness, this society is still in existence, with over 200 members, and was setting up for an event when we showed up. It's been dramatically renovated without harming the exterior, and you can dance in air-conditioned splendor when they have music.

The Germans, being German, had rules, though:

Translated from the Deutsch-Tex: The wearing of hats, spurs, smoking and chewing are forbidden in this hall. 
Cat Spring was an important German community, the first German settlement a lot of immigrants encountered after getting off the boat at Indianola or Galveston and heading towards the Hill Country, so it prospered by selling them supplies and provisions.

The history (click to enlarge, of course)
Germans just seem to naturally form associations, and so down the road apiece we pulled into Millheim, where the local Harmonie Verein built a hall in 1874, and built a new one in 1938.

The two chairs in the picture had just held two voluble and entertaining gentlemen who filled us in on the history and were eager to invite us to the Father's Day bash, where two tons of meat (including mutton) are cooked in an odd concrete trench and served to members and visitors.

The trench, minus glowing coals, brisket, pork, and mutton.

The history
Among the things the two guys yakked about with us was how pathetic the folks down the road at Peters were, especially after we told them that was our next stop. Oh, Peters could hardly draw flies at their Mother's Day barbecue! Those poor people! Well, we'd see about that, but I'd already begun considering coming back to Millheim for Father's Day, and Erik and I made a tentative plan at the end of the day.

Peters turned out to be another octagonal hall, surrounded by large trees -- and the stumps of others, since a violent wind-storm in 2001 severed a bunch of large boughs, one of which went through the roof --  and it dated from the end of the 19th century, built by a Schussverein, or shooting club, like the one in Grapetown we'd seen on the Hill Country tour. The Verein no longer exists, but the association now administers the hall, which is popular for Mexican 15th birthday celebrations and weddings. And that Mother's Day barbecue.

The local paper was supposed to be there to meet us, but instead they asked the folks from the Verein to do the honors, and at one point we all sat on the lip of the stage and grinned for a photo. The things people will do for the media!

Schneider Hall, though, our next stop, was a raging success story, mostly due to Amber Burris, a descendent of the four Schneider brothers on whose land it sits. In 2009, her younger sister Adrienne decided she wanted a deluxe wedding reception and they started clearing out the old hall, which had not only been a venue for dances, but also a meeting place for the local Farmers League. In 1941, it was shut down and used to store cotton, and then hay, so the girls had their work cut out for them. But after the wedding, Amber went into high gear, engaging social media, the site's proximity to Houston, and a clever feeling for marketing Texana into a publicity campaign that assures that the place is booked up nearly every week into the beginning of the summer and starting up again in the fall. Current pride of place goes to the new building containing the bathrooms, which are the equal of some I've seen in fine restaurants.

Deceptively funky: Schneider Hall
Amber admitted to being a garage-sale addict, and two corners of the hall bear her out with a wonderfully improvised lighting system:

Mason jars, Ball jars, and tea lights: this whole array may have cost two dollars.

Our last stop was Schulenburg, where Steve had assisted in the renovation, opening, and managing of Sengelmann Hall, a two-story dancehall that's attempting to be a tourist magnet in a town whose motto, last time I was there, was "Halfway to Everywhere!" Presumably someone snapped to the hidden meaning of this phrase, because it's changed. I was looking forward to getting there, not only to see how it had changed since my last visit, but because their annual Sausage Fest was underway. We cleverly managed to miss it, though, and it was even hard to snap a photo of the hall because the sun was making a blazing exit from the sky.

Kinda hard to miss. 
A bunch of vintage tractors (and one vintage car) were parked across the street, but the cookers had long packed up, won their prizes, and hauled their sausage home. Something of a street party was happening in the block the sun was zapping, but I didn't bother to go check it out because, like a number of our other passengers, I was bone-tired by now: one of the problems with Steve's enthusiasm is to assume it on the part of everyone, and since this turned into a 12-hour tour, it was too long by several hours. Also, having Erik making his film stretched out our time at places where there were people to meet us, because he wanted to interview them. I stayed around for some of these interviews because I found them interesting (as I assume the film will be) but not everyone else did. And I believe the couple headed to the Bellamy Brothers must have missed the first set.

* * *

Although the Hill Country tour was more scenic (East Texas is pretty flat), both tours had me thinking similar thoughts, but talking to the folks at Millheim and Peters really put one issue in stark relief. These places were largely built by communities, and sectors of those communities who identified themselves by reference to national origin, activity, or occupation. Since travel between towns was done by horse, and 20 miles was an average day's horse ride, that's where towns were, but starting in the 1920s, the car shortened those distances (although the state of Texas took a while improving the roads). Nonetheless, the community feeling remained, often bolstered by a statewide association of associations (the SPJST being the most obvious) or simply common interest (now it was easier for the singing groups to visit and compete with each other). 

World War II put the German communities through a lot of stress, although their loyalty to America was hard to question, and indeed Texans rarely equated a German-American neighbor with Hitler, even if he did speak Deutsch-Tex. But when men came back from the war, they'd seen a lot of the outside world, even if they hadn't shipped overseas, and mass media began to break down the kind of solidarity these people had felt for each other. The next generations saw this solidarity erode even further, especially as the young people left for good-paying jobs in the oil fields and the cities -- far better-paying than a family farm could offer. Even those who stayed saw no reason to engage with their forebears' culture, and the current generation seems to have no interest in it at all. This may well change as they grow older, but as they grow older, so will the majority of the current members of the Vereins who maintain these halls. The men we talked to at Millheim and Peters admitted it was hard to interest the younger generation in paying the nominal fee to belong, and at Millheim, they said that the only time younger folk showed up was when the night crew for the barbeque (they start the fire about 10pm for an 11am start to the food), and when the cooking was over, they disappeared. (Another thing to note is outside interference: the health authorities raided the sausage-making at Plum one year, although there had been no complaints and certainly no illness or deaths from eating sausage made in the traditional way, and the association had to comply with the rules). 

Community is one of America's vanishing resources, at least partially because it's in the interest of the forces attempting to take control of the country to keep its people atomized and stupid, by cutting back education, putting them at each others' throats on political and racial issues, and numbing them with cretinous entertainment, particularly on television. So far they're doing a magnificent job, but I can't help but feel that by entering into the world that the activities generated by the structures we visited yesterday represent, a key towards a contemporary definition of healthy community -- even temporary community -- people might see an alternative. To me, this alternative is vital, essential for putting American society back on track before the oligarchs and plutocrats have it totally at their mercy. That's why getting married at one of these places is a more optimistic thing to me than just the cliche of two people setting off on the journey of life, blah blah blah. The people who attend the reception get a glimpse of what community can do. A drop in the bucket, perhaps, but with enough buckets, you can start putting out a fire. 

Sunday, March 22, 2015

SXSW 2015: In Which I Become a Cineaste

Many apologies for the silence here. At first I was daunted by the torrent of hate mail my last post occasioned from people I probably don't know -- many of them signed in under phony names or as the ever-popular Anonymous. Many, as well, either didn't read what I wrote or had a distorted understanding of it. Nonetheless, I intend a second part to it: I actually got distracted somewhere along the way while writing it and never included a couple of points I was going to make. 

But that won't happen today. The other reason I haven't posted of late is that almost every day I've been working at my book, which is tiring, detailed work that saps my desire to write any more after I'm finished. I'm making great progress and should have the first draft finished soon. After a short break, I will then do the hardest work: making it cohere and making sure nothing important is left out. Then, I hope on time, which is September, I'll hand it in and hope the publisher likes it. 

I haven't worked on the book in over a week, and I'm quite anxious to get back to work, but the reason I haven't written any more on it is that, as happens every year, SXSW has raised its head and I've had to deal with it and the visitors I only see once a year and the hell that downtown Austin turns into. But I think some of what I saw and did will be of interest, so since weather has cancelled the softball game, I'll stay home and write this post. I may not be back with part two of the On Returning piece for a few weeks or longer, but it's always a good idea to let people know you're alive. And since I am, in fact, alive, here we go. 

* * *

At first it was just a dull rumble on the horizon. Then a couple of 35-year-old bros from Vanderbilt University demolished a long-standing business, a piñata company on the East Side, with its stock still intact in the building, while the proprietors weren't there. The reason was to get the family off the property so the bros could rent it to a SXSW party, and after they'd not only demolished the property, but compared the ex-tenants to cockroaches, the community was in an uproar. I'd sure hate to be these guys (I'd like to think my mama raised me better, for one thing), but they made the dull rumble turn into a roar. (Latest update on the situation by Tony Cantú, who's been doing an exemplary job, is here). 

SXSWi is the big draw now, the Film and Music modules its satellites, but I found little to interest me in the panels, which, as usual, were divided up between Buy My Product, Buy My Book, Stuff You Don't Understand, You're Too Old, and Next Big Thing. Last year's Next Big Thing this year is near the mothball stage: I saw not one person wearing Google Glasses. This year's Next Big Thing is apparently Bitcoin, although I remain as sceptical about that as I can be. Of course, what do I know: they introduced Twitter at SXSWi some years back and I thought that was dumb, too. (I actually still do to some extent, although I've become @HistorianOfRock in view of the day when I'll start promoting my books). 

I figured that instead of going to one of the few journalism panels to get condescended to, I'd just skip them (they seemed to be about writing shorter to get noticed, Reddit, and I swear I saw one called "Advertising is Dead: Content IS Advertising" that chilled me) and head to the trade show, which was less exciting than ever before, filled with solutions to problems that don't exist and gadgets I don't seem to remember anyone needing: talking vegetables, anyone? (This was over in the Japanese area, where there were stuffed animals to get infants used to using devices and an app so you could add graffiti and animated animals to your videos). NASA had a nice exhibit about the Mars mission, and someone else had a semi trailer filled with a demonstration of the Internet of Things. Since I'd just read a story about the first refrigerator's e-mail system being hijacked to send spam, I think this is a wait-and-see situation. As well as a don't expect to see much yet one. 

SXSWi had some sideshows, and one was a series of panels at the Driskill Hotel about food. (The actual module was entitled Food and Experiential Dining. Yawn.) Most of the panels were about tech and food, and the dreaded Nathan Myrhvold was invoked, as well as social media et. al., but there was a nice session about food and heritage in which late-generation ethnic-heritage people (Jewish, Mexican, Palestinian) talked about keeping their ancestors' cuisines alive and relevant today. More like this and fewer about making money and this could be a viable draw. 

This year, I swore not to go see any live music. Skimming the list, I found only two acts I recognized out of the 3.8 million listed (figure approximate). One was the Gang of Four, which was actually the Gang of One Plus Three Employees, and the other the Zombies, who I was never crazy about but are apparently in fine fettle. Negotiating the din and drunken crowds held no appeal whatever, but I hit on an ingenious solution: movies. Here was a chance to see living and dead musicians, situations whose importance I already knew but could always learn more about, and maybe even something left-field that I knew nothing about. So at 3:15 on Friday the 13th, I settled into a seat at the Alamo Lamar and saw Julien Temple's latest film, The Ecstacy of Wilko Johnson

Photo: Katy Woods
I'd seen Temple's remarkable documentary on Wilko's band, Dr. Feelgood, Oil City Confidential, and was much taken with Wilko's candor about his role in destroying it. He seemed a very complex character, and I was shocked, shortly after I'd seen the film, to learn that he had fatal pancreatic cancer and only a short while to live. Temple, a brave man, got his permission to film him dying and interview him along the way. It's a harrowing film if you don't know how things turned out, and harrowing if you do. I won't spoil things: go see this if you can. You'll never forget it.

I felt great: I'd figured out a way to participate in SXSW without heading into the Gate of Hell that was downtown! Of course, once Music fired up, that would change, but meanwhile I'd turned into a moviegoer. Well, I'd done that earlier: several months ago, I bought a screen and hooked it up to my CD player (which was also a DVD/BluRay player) and amplifier and started a subscription to Netflix to catch up on the 50 or so years of movies I've missed. 

Monday, with a great deal of ambivalence, I went to my next screening, again a world premiere. The film is somewhat legendary: Leon Russell hired the late Les Blank to do a film on him and then suppressed the result for nearly 40 years. Les was a friend of mine when I lived in California, and I loved his movies. In fact, I bought the Criterion box of his documentaries shortly after I bought my screen, and am working my way through it with great pleasure, since there are several I've never seen. So on the one hand there was that. On the other hand, I've always detested Leon Russell's shallow, superficial music and by viewing this film, inexplicably titled A Poem is a Naked Person, I'd be putting up with 2 ½ hours of it. 

Don't trust that smile. Not that he smiles much in the film.

Someone relented after Les's death, so here we were, gathered in the Topfer Theater at Zach (which is what Zachary Scott Theater is now called), the Great Man (or what's left of him) in attendance along with various other VIPs including Les' son, Maureen Gosling, Les' long-time assistant, and no doubt others I didn't recognize. It's easy to see why one might not want to be exposed in the way this film exposes Russell: he appears offstage in it very infrequently, and much of the film is spent with his entourage, with Austin artist Jim Franklin painting the bottom of his swimming pool, and gazing at audiences at the shows while the incessant din of the band hammers on. Unusually for Blank, there is no food in this film, unless you count the scene where a snake, someone's pet, eats a baby chicken. In every one of his other films, Les features the preparation and consumption of food. Like music, he seems to say, this gets people together in one place to share an experience and in so doing binds them in that experience. Since Russell is part of the early '70s' "we create, you consume" music culture, a food scene would be out of place, perhaps. I can't recommend the film, but that's me. If you think you might like it, go see it. 

I was dubious about my next film, Love & Mercy, a biopic about Brian Wilson starring...John Cusack? Only a friend's urgent recommendation -- and the fact that the screening happened when I had nothing better to do -- got me back to the Alamo. 

Yes, John Cusack. No, he doesn't look like Brian.
Man, is this not what you're expecting, and man is it good. What it is, basically, is the story of Brian Wilson meeting his second wife, Melinda, and her struggle to get him from under the heel of Eugene Landy, the psychiatric charlatan who was supposedly treating his depression and creative block. It's also the story of how he got that way, necessitating the services of Paul Dano as young Brian growing away from his brothers (and his cousin, Mike Love) as he has them record first Pet Sounds and then Smile. Neither Dano nor Cusack looks much like Brian, but boy, do they inhabit him. The same could be said of Paul Giamatti as Landy, Jake Abel as Love, and Bill Camp as the Wilson's abusive and envious father Murry: this film has some bad bad guys, adept at causing extreme psychological damage. All of the music is authentic: ever wonder what all those isolated track cuts on the Pet Sounds and Smile box sets were good for? I have no idea what Melinda Wilson is like, but Elizabeth Banks does a great job with her role, too. This is set for general release in June, so mark your calendars. 

The last film I saw was one I really wanted to see: Danny Says, a documentary portrait of the inimitable Danny Fields. Who? you say. A behind the scenes guy in New York who's been there seemingly forever and who's always in the right place: I remember him taking the stairs two at a time to come up to our office at Crawdaddy! in 1967 to see what we were doing and, after wishing us well and leaving Paul Williams noted that even at Hit Parader (Danny's current employer at the time) there were the kind of people we were trying to reach. Of course, Danny probably also wanted to see how cute Paul was or wasn't. 

Credit: Danny Fields Archive. Danny's the one in the t-shirt. Duh.
The 28-year-old director, Brendan Toller, makes it look easy, and it's true that once you start Danny talking it's hard to get him to stop, but there's a lot of craft here that's pretty much invisible but makes the film work. Amazing archive footage is interspersed with contemporary interviews, and the whole arc, from law school (who knew?) through managing (and letting go of) the Ramones, is here. If names like the Stooges, the MC5, Patti Smith, Andy Warhol, the Velvet Underground and Nico, and the Ramones pop up in your pantheon, you need to see this. 

I managed to miss a documentary on Tower Records' rise and fall, one on British punkers the Damned, another on Mavis Staples, and one on local gospel phenoms the Jones Family, not to mention Joe Nick Patoski's Doug Sahm film, Sir Doug and the Genuine Texas Cosmic Groove, an early cut of which I saw a month or so ago and which I intend to catch at a San Antonio screening next month, but I'm pretty happy with this year's activity. I got far more out of it than the rather anemic Music panels I went to this year (although there were three scheduled for the same slot one day and the one I went to was a major disappointment), but I did manage to end SXSWeek feeling I'd made maximum positive use of my badge. 

And as for all those films I missed? I told you: I have Netflix now. I can catch up on not only some of this year's when they get pressed onto disc (I don't do streaming), but on some of the ones from years past. 

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