Thursday, October 22, 2009

Long Live The Highwaymen

Off-Season, Ken McAlpine's catalog (well, travelogue) of how towns along the east coast restore their natural order after tourist season concludes, revisits a fascinating piece of rural, racial and artistic history. Visiting Don George, a biologist and environmental planner for the U.S. Air Force, at his home in Sharpes, Florida, McAlpine observes:

"[t]he walls are covered with paintings. His closets are stacked with them, too. The paintings are oils. With the exceptions of a few imaginative twists, they all depict one of three basic scenes: waves breaking on a beach, a Florida swamp out of a which rises a stately mossy tree, or a riverbank. The scenes are idyllic: sunrises, empty beaches, frothing breakers, wind-whipped palms, and quiet swamps.

Sage collectors like Don are well versed in the work of the Highwaymen, a loose association of twenty-five black men and one woman who, in the late 1950's, painted images of a very real Florida dream, slung the still wet paintings into the backs of their cars, and traveled the Florida coast peddling the paintings to restaurants, offices, motels, and banks. Curtis Arnett, Al "Blood" Black, Mary Ann Carroll, Alfred Hair, Harold Newman, and Livingston "Castro" Roberts were not finicky artisans. They painted fast and sold hard to avoid picking oranges for two dollars a day. They painted on Upson board, a product familiar to roofers, and framed the paintings with crown molding, a product familiar to anyone who has ever looked up at a ceiling. They painted so fast, they may have forgotten what they were painting. Don has one Highwaymen painting that he aptly describes as the 'ocean breaking in a swamp scene.' "

Who knew? In the early 1990's, the Highwaymen were rediscovered by art enthusiast and collector Jim Fitch, who declared them folk artists. This predictably shot up the market value of the paintings and allowed the artists to continue working. Mary Ann Caroll is one. The lone woman in the group, Caroll, in a 1998 interview while taking stock of her oeuvre, nicely sums up the transcendence of art: "I always loved the dead trees and the density of the wood. It's just that I can't swim. So I paint." As a testament to both the longevity of interest in the paintings' and the speed at which the Highwaymen worked, there are an estimated 50,000 to 200,000 in circulation.

Check out this trailer to the 2008 PBS documentary, "The Highwaymen: Legends of the Road." Viewing session, anyone?

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Thursday, October 15, 2009

Here Come The Dutch

This week I took an audio tour of the New Amsterdam Trail, which spans from the southernmost tip of Battery Park to Wall Street in lower Manhattan, as part of a class. Put on by the New York Harbor Parks Conservancy, it's available as an mp3 -- just follow the above link -- and divided into ten tracks to allow for walking time between stops (thanks, guys.)

I've organized my reactions in a Q&A format below. It must be said that I am both interviewer and interviewee, which is handy.

Let me know if there's anything I missed, or begs further explanation.


Although the tour has a great deal to offer curious residents, tourists are the true audience. Some of the early narration holds a clue, casting New York as “a place where Lady Liberty stands as a beacon on her shores,” etc. No one talks this way about New York to New Yorkers.

To honor the arc of early NY history, especially the role of the Dutch; to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Henry Hudson’s landing in Manhattan; to drum up tourist business amid the “dynamism and renewal of downtown today.”

I wasn’t very familiar with the harbor or the financial district at all, which cut both ways. I backtracked once or twice because I was off the “grid,” but seeing Castle Clinton for the first time and picking out seals of Dutch trading companies on the façade of a modern building – pretty cool.

The narrator is never named – or, rather, he never announces himself. He might work for the National Park Service, or the New York Harbor Conservancy? Quite often he hands off the narration to historians, scientists and authors like Russell Shorto to provide insight and commentary.

Authorial in tone, like a '50's nighttime newscaster. To be fair, it was clear from the outset we would be hearing from experts. Even so, it didn’t seem like the experts were reading from scripts; the commentary sounded loose and conversational. Hearing an excerpt from Hudson’s journal, or other first-hand accounts, helped to ground the tour.

Cold! I made the mistake of under dressing for a waterside tour in the early evening, in October. But the length of the tour, in terms of walking, didn’t feel very long, and walking through Battery Park and lower Manhattan was pleasant.

Mostly attentive. More so when there was a physical object anchoring the tour stop (a plaque, landmark, etc.), less so when there were long stretches of narration without a break. When my attention wandered, a sound effect – birds squawking, a shovel hitting dirt – always brought me back.

Well, belying the audio's cheerful tone, there were times when the issue of slaves and slavery (Peter Stuyvesant, ahem, or building the wall of Wall Street's namesake, AHEM) couldn't be sidestepped. And no matter how benevolent and morally sophisticated the Dutch were for their time, they brought slaves to Manhattan, and they treated their slaves like slaves. End rant.

It was noted that park rangers, who added narration, work in Federal Hall, the last stop on the tour. And maybe the writers and historians live in New York, but I didn’t feel like I was hearing from local voices, necessarily.

Both. The tour was historical, of course, but it took great pains to acknowledge the lasting Dutch influence on American government and language (Harlem, cookie, etc.)

Friends, especially tourist-friends with a strong interest in history. Resident-friends in need of a new lends through which to see the financial district and / or who possess an abiding love of the Dutch, might also enjoy the tour.

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Thursday, October 1, 2009

Placecasting with Jeff Jones, Pt. 2

We're back with the second and last installment of the Q&A Jeff Jones. He works as a public radio producer and blogs about place-based audio at Placecasting, lately reporting on 3-D renderings from National Parks on Google Earth. (Don't look at the digitized Mount Rushmore for too long. It may keep you up at night.)

In this installment, Jeff talks about how to launch your own audio projects, tools to embrace and pitfalls to avoid when putting a tour together, and bolsters the case for a visit to Ellis Island.

Enjoy! Comments always welcome.


OT: If I wanted to start Placecasting, how would I begin?

JJ: Boy, I wish this were easier. One irony of Web 2.0 is that it embraced video so fully that it mostly skipped over audio. Podcasting is still a relatively minor player in digital media. I work for a radio station, so I have audio equipment all around me, but good-quality audio recording gear isn't as ubiquitous (or affordable) as video cameras or digital cameras. Similarly, as far as I can tell, there's no easy and widely-accepted way to geotag audio files. But don't let technology stop you!

OT: What tools would I need?

JJ: At its most basic, all you need is four things: a place that other people can visit; an expert in some aspect of that place (this may be a professor, or your granddad, or it may be you!); a recording device (your cell phone voice recorder, or a video camera's microphone maybe); a blog.

Here's what you do:

1. Go to a place.
2. Start recording.
3. Describe what you see and have your expert explain what they know about it. I
f there is a story to tell about this place, by all means tell it.
4. Edit the audio so it is clean, at least at the beginning and the end.
5. Embed the audio (probably an .mp3 file) into your blog and spread the word about it.
6. Geotag your blog (most blogging programs these days include an easy way to add lattitude/longitude into your RSS feed for each post)

Just like that, you've created a basic placecast that people can download before they go to the place or stream while they're there. Then, go make placecasts for more locations in the same neighborhood and start weaving them together into a walking tour. You could even use Google Maps to create a printable map for listeners to take with them with the stops numbered according to the track of your tour.

OT: Any resources or communities, online or otherwise?

JJ: I'm seeking these out every chance I get. and Open Sound New Orleans both have great sound-mapping projects going on, though they're not storytelling in the same way I'm talking about. Audiophiles and radio producers have communities to talk about audio gear and recording techniques. There are a ton of tutorials for how to create podcasts. Museum and historic site interpreters discuss audio tours in their own forums, but I haven't found an active community for people just placecasting on their own. So if you find one, let me know!

OT: What are the elements of a successful audio tour?

JJ: Here are some of the qualities of a good placecast:

- takes advantage of location by directing the user's senses ("look at the building in the distance", "notice the patterns in the artwork", "turn around and notice how the forest changes")

- fits information into a larger narrative ("the story of the Minneapolis riverfront is the story of the power of wheat", "the uneven, rocky terrain around you is another reason this battle would claim so many lives")

- keeps explanations brief, but interesting (respect the user's time)

- puts numbers and statistics in perspective ("the river here is 1.5 miles across -- that's the widest at any point before the delta", "the clocktower is five stories tall, which made it the tallest building in town for nearly 80 years")

- is written for voice (just reading text from a brochure or guidebook into a microphone is hard to listen to because it's not written to be spoken -- and understood -- out loud)

- is narrated with energy and authenticity (no need to crack jokes or take on a phony persona ... let the story grab the audience)

- uses music and sound effects deliberately and sparingly (remember the listener is already there, so you may not need to set a mood with music)

- uses oral histories, either with real voices on tape or as read by actors

- gives clear, easy instructions for what to do next ("Now press pause and walk three blocks south. Stop for a crepe at one of the street vendors if you like. Then, when you see the cathedral on your left, go to the next track.")

- directs users to more information ("there is a visitor center in the first floor of the brown building across the plaza", "the tower's Web site features a time-lapse video of it's remarkable construction process", "english-speaking guides are often available for hire near the front of the cathedral -- but make sure they have an official badge")

OT: How important are production and storytelling?

JJ: Storytelling is the key to making memorable audio whether you are broadcasting, podcasting or placecasting. As a radio producer, I've edited a thousand one-on-one interviews ... leaving long rambling answers on the cutting room floor and highlighting moments of tension, surprise and delight that will make the interview memorable and enlightening. A successful audio tour takes advantage of the audio medium by embracing voice, story, pacing, music and even silence. It's easy to try to cram a lot of factoids and superlatives into an audio tour, but the best way to make information stick in the listener's brain is to make it part of a narrative they can connect with on a deeper level.

Production is therefore secondary to story. Crummy production (poor audio quality, inconsistent audio levels, bad editing, etc.) can distract listeners from the story they're hearing and negate a lot of good writing and storytelling. BUT, a super-slick, sound-intense work of audio art can also distract from the real-world experience you mean to enhance.

OT: Could you describe a great audio tour you've been on?

JJ: In 2000, I visited Ellis Island in New York Harbor. I knew as much about the place as anyone who's been through public school in this was the place European immigrants passed through sometime in the past before they became our ancestors. That's about it. At the entrance, there was the option to buy an audio tour narrated by Tom Brokaw. I honestly may not have chosen it but not for the reputation of that name. I'm so glad I did.

At the time, as I remember it, the huge entrance building on Ellis Island was intact, but barely furnished. Some rooms held exhibits, but mostly room after room was old and empty. Still, in room after room, the stories I heard on the audio tour filled the place with life. There were oral histories from former employees describing conditions in the infirmary, and from immigrants describing the entrance interview process, and from people who passed through as children describing their fear and excitement (I remember these voices more than anything Brokaw said, come to think of it.)

The audio tour mentioned facts and statistics, to be sure, but its goal was to make visitors FEEL that immigrant experience. I remember looking down at the huge entrance hall as the tour directed me to look at one part of the room and then another. It knew where I was and pointed out aspects of the place I never would have noticed on my own. I don't remember if there was music on the tour, though I imagine there was. What I know is I left feeling a connection to the place I never would have felt otherwise.


Jeff Jones is a producer for Minnesota Public Radio News in St. Paul. He blogs about audio tours and place-based media in his free time. He loves to travel and discover new places from small towns, to national parks to grand cityscapes all over the world. Jeff grew up near Chicago and graduated from Macalester College in St. Paul in 2001 with a degree in Urban Studies. He's also worked for The News Hour with Jim Lehrer on PBS and for Twin Cities Public Television.

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